Dissent Of The Day

A reader writes:

Sorry, but not sure you should be calling out Margaret Sullivan’s reading comprehension. You wrote:

But Kinsley is also pretty emphatic about what the press should do: “the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay.” How can anyone read that review and conclude as Sullivan does that…

“What the press should do?” Are you kidding me? You should really re-read that whole paragraph by Kinsley. It says this (italics mine):

The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can’t square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.

Kinsley is clearly, and I mean CLEARLY saying that the government should have final say over publication of government secrets, NOT the press as you interpret.

I don’t know if it’s your friendship with him that led to your misinterpretation (or you agree with the point), but whatever the case, this is an insane, depraved argument for any journalist to make, and the fact that other journalists (e.g. Alter, Rauch) are cheering Kinsley is disgusting. Governments have a vested interest in covering up embarrassing information, and have an objective record of lawbreaking, dishonesty, corruption, and various other forms of unethical behaviour. Kinsley and his supporters know this, and they know governments would have covered up all kinds of important leaked information over the years had it been up to them.

If you want to understand what is really behind this review, you just need to ask yourself (or Kinsley) why he’s expressing this view about journalism now. Unless I missed something, I don’t recall ever seeing any self-respecting journalist support the notion that the government should have final say over publication of government secrets. So, why now? You don’t think it has anything to do with hating Greenwald and all these other outsiders masquerading as journalists (their view, not mine) who aren’t part of their cherished insider clique, and who have the temerity to constantly criticize the media establishment?

Some things are actually quite straightforward. Journalists are supposed to be the gatecrashers, but in some cases, they’re most concerned about their own little gated community. That Kinsley piece is just another way of saying, if an opinionated activist asshole like Greenwald gets to publish important stuff like this, fuck it all. I’d rather let government make the decision than that guy. Because “that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.”

Ms. Sullivan didn’t put it that way in her piece, but she knows what’s going on here and it’s a shame you don’t.

I’ll cop to misreading a complicated sentence. It seems clear – and is reiterated in Kinsley’s riposte today – that, yes, it’s the government that should be releasing secrets with minimal delay, not the press. Apologies. But I would differ from my reader on several points.

The assertion that Mike’s position is born out of some sort of jealousy for or resentment of new bloggers like Glenn couldn’t be more wrong about Mike. I’ve never known a respected DC journalist with as little esteem for the Village, or with a more generous record of supporting new and young and outsider talent. Mike’s position is based on a simple point: yes, the press has a vital role in unearthing government secrets, but the press should not have the final say on whether such unearthing carries legal consequences or not. What is or is not a government secret relies ultimately on the law – which is rightly determined by our elected representatives, not by any blogger, however well-intentioned. That’s the essence of democracy. Money quote from Mike:

I specifically say, and even dwell on the point, that Mr. Greenwald is as entitled as anyone else to call himself a journalist and have all the same rights as Bob Woodward. When Sullivan says, “there clearly is a special role for the press in America’s democracy…and the United States courts have consistently backed up that role,”–and when she offers those vague cliches as serious analysis, she is talking through her hat. The Supreme Court has repeatedly turned down opportunities to create a “journalist’s privilege.” Sullivan may not like this. Heck, I don’t especially like it. But it’s a fact. The First Amendment protects the right to speak. The right not to speak (eg, to protect a source) is more problematic.

So I’m sorry but it isn’t straightforward. Now I should add that in this particular instance, I am closer to Glenn (also a friend) than to Mike. The way the US government has behaved since 9/11 – its outrageous and criminal secret activity – seems to me to tilt the question in favor of the whistle-blower and the journalist, and some legal leniency – certainly for the journalist. But in all times there is a balance between these two contradictory democratic necessities – government secrecy and transparency – and at some point, the rule of law is the rule of law. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than all the alternatives.

Right now, for example, what the public knows and does not know about the NSA is determined by Glenn Greenwald. He has in his possession vast troves of information that he is keeping secret, until he decides it will becomes public. He is picking and choosing what to divulge and doing so over an extended period of time. In that sense, he is close to being an alternative government, but without any internal checks and balances, and with no recourse for the public through the democratic system. What Mike is insisting is that this too is a genuine problem from the point of view of the public interest. Who gets to decide what the public knows? Right now, it’s Glenn. And I bet his security system for his data is extremely strong. He doesn’t want any leaks either, does he?

So quis custodiet ipsos custodes? It’s complicated – much more so than the Savanorolas of transparency would have you believe.