Glenn Greenwald on Journalism and Values

Glenn Greenwald is a great journalist. Why? Because his view of journalism; that it’s firstly meant to act as a check to power, is a good one. Without journalists informing the public about what their elected officials are doing; there are closed doors and an environment which is conductive to abuse. The role of journalism as the fourth estate is that it tempers that power by making actions made in its name public and thus open to being held to account.

But it’s not just his view of journalism as a check on power which is good. He also understands, in line with the Metaphysics of Quality, that it’s impossible for anyone to hold an objective, value free viewpoint. As Pirsig writes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

“The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality. He has to care! This is an ability about which formal traditional scientific method has nothing to say. It’s long past time to take a closer look at this qualitative preselection of facts which has seemed so scrupulously ignored by those who make so much of these facts after they are ‘observed.'”

In fact, Glenn articulates that it’s this value free viewpoint that modern day journalists cling to as a defense whenever they saddle up next to those in power and stenographically transcribe what they say. They claim that they’re being ‘objective’ but really they’re just transcribing what the powerful wants us to hear rather than doing their job and looking out for those things which are valuable for the public to know regardless of what those in power say.

Along these lines, recently Greenwald had a fascinating exchange with the New York Times Bill Keller in which he summarised his view on modern journalism and the role of the NYT thus:

“My view of journalism absolutely requires both fairness and rigorous adherence to facts. But I think those values are promoted by being honest about one’s perspectives and subjective assumptions rather than donning a voice-of-god, view-from-nowhere tone that falsely implies that journalists reside above the normal viewpoints and faction-loyalties that plague the non-journalist and the dreaded “activist.”

Embedded in The New York Times’s institutional perspective and reporting methodologies are all sorts of quite debatable and subjective political and cultural assumptions about the world. And with some noble exceptions, The Times, by design or otherwise, has long served the interests of the same set of elite and powerful factions. Its reporting is no less “activist,” subjective or opinion-driven than the new media voices it sometimes condescendingly scorns.”

The discussion is centred around the new media venture of which Greenwald is starting with Pierre Omidyar. It should be interesting to see what form it takes. But I recommend the whole exchange as it’s a great intellectual discussion between a prominent modern day journalist in that of Keller and one of the more adversarial journalists of our times in Greenwald.