The norms of old-fashioned “objectivity” that dominated late-20th century journalism could sometimes get in the way of being bravely blunt or having a brutally honest fact-based argument. For example, reporters would sometimes shrink from writing certain things that were true and probative for fear of exposing their forbidden ideology. The old norms haven’t completely disappeared, but they are much weaker now and, on balance, I don’t miss them much.
Lawyer/journalist/author Glenn Greenwald, who writes mostly for The Intercept, is an example of someone who has done great work within the new freedom in which the boundaries between facts and arguments are sometimes blurrier, making it easier for a writer to say what he’s trying to say.
Greenwald was a key figure in the plot by Edward Snowden to leak secret government files that brought to light the extent of the federal government’s surveillance techniques into ordinary telephone traffic. The feds would like to put Snowden on trial for what he did but Snowden left the country and was given asylum in Russia where has lived for the past two years. Greenwald is in the camp that believes Snowden did something brave and useful.
Former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, who used to chair the House Intelligence Committee, said on “Face the Nation” that it was “no coincidence” that Snowden had ended up in the “loving arms” of the Russian intelligence service.
I wrote at the time that he’d better be able to back that up, but Rogers never did. (Rogers has since retired.)
I understand that to some Snowden is a traitor, to some a hero. The New York Times found him at least respectable and credible enough to publish last week an op-ed by Snowden in which he suggested that his leaks had done a lot of good, since the courts have recently struck down some the practices he exposed and “after a White House-appointed oversight board investigation found that this program had not stopped a single terrorist attack, even the president who once defended its propriety and criticized its disclosure has now ordered it terminated.”
‘The Traitor’s Triumph’
That was too much for Max Boot, a prominent neoconservative writer, who wrote for the righty Commentary magazine an attack on the Times for running the piece by Snowden, whom he called a “traitor.” In fact, Boot’s piece was headlined: “The Traitor’s Triumph.”
Boot said the Times’ decision was the equivalent of a newspaper during World War II running an op-ed by Tokyo Rose, or anyone publishing a piece “by Khalid Sheikh Muhammad criticizing America’s policies in the war on terror.”
I would call that over the top. Greenwald thought it was worse than that. He thought Boot’s piece was a lie.
In a harsh but well-reasoned rebuttal in The Intercept, Greenwald zeroed in on errors in Boot’s piece that Greenwald labeled “lies” right in the title of the piece, which was: “Did Max Boot and Commentary Magazine Lie About Edward Snowden? You Decide.”
In Boot’s article, Greenwald noted, Boot wrote that Snowden has taken refuge in Russia, a country that operates “a surveillance apparatus … which far exceeds in scope anything created by any Western country.” (Greenwald doesn’t dispute that.) But then Boot added:
“Of course Ed Snowden is not courageous enough, or stupid enough, to criticize the dictatorship that he has defected to. It’s much easier and safer to criticize the country he betrayed from behind the protection provided by the FSB’s thugs.”
Greenwald was unimpressed with Boot’s portrayal of Snowden as a coward, and in the course of rebutting the idea that Snowden was a coward, he went after Boot personally, thus:
It is literally the supreme act of projection for Max Boot to accuse anyone of lacking courage, as this particular think tank warmonger is the living, breathing personification of the unique strain of American neocon cowardice. Unlike Snowden — who sacrificed his liberty and unraveled his life in pursuit of his beliefs — the 45-year-old Boot has spent most of his adult life advocating for one war after the next, but always wanting to send his fellow citizens of his generation to die in them, while he hides in the comfort of Washington think tanks, never fighting them himself.
All of that is just garden-variety neocon cowardice, and it’s of course grotesque to watch someone like this call someone else a coward. But it’s so much worse if he lies when doing so. Did he do so here? You decide. From Snowden’s NYT op-ed today:
“Basic technical safeguards such as encryption — once considered esoteric and unnecessary — are now enabled by default in the products of pioneering companies like Apple, ensuring that even if your phone is stolen, your private life remains private. Such structural technological changes can ensure access to basic privacies beyond borders, insulating ordinary citizens from the arbitrary passage of anti-privacy laws, such as those now descending upon Russia.”
In case there is any chance the paragraph above might strike anyone as other than a criticism by Snowden of the “dictatorship he defected to,” exactly the act that Boot said Snowden lacked the courage to do, Greenwald notes that Time magazine (presumably a neutral party in this dispute) headlined its coverage of Snowden’s piece: “Edward Snowden Hits Out at Russia’s Privacy Laws.”
So Boot alleged that Snowden was too cowardly to criticize Russia in a piece he wrote that was based on a Snowden piece that criticized Russia.
Greenwald trots out other things Snowden has written and said that are critical of Russia. The argument goes on in the Twittersphere where, I admit, I do not venture.
So, to loop back, Greenwald trashes Boot pretty effectively. The stuff about Boot himself being a coward because he advocates for war but doesn’t enlist is a bit personal for my taste. And whether you call Boot a liar (which in my book requires knowingly telling a falsehood), you can decide for yourself. But on the main point, according to my lights, Greenwald has demonstrated that Boot’s piece contains a serious, slanderous falsehood. There is also at each stage of this brouhaha (or does one mean contretemps?) factual information coming through that, in all likelihood, couldn’t have come through the filters built into the old journalism of objectivity.