Keller vs Greenwald: Why Not Both?


Their exchange is one of the high moments of debate as journalism evolves in the digital era. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and read it. I come down in favor of both approaches, i.e. alleged “objectivity” or an attempt at impartiality in competition with a press more open about its own biases and point of view. I think readers deserve both. In Britain – though it is far from working perfectly – the biases of the papers make more sense because of the massive resources of the BBC aspiring to impartiality.

But on the basis of this exchange, I think Glenn has the advantage. And that’s because his idea of journalism is inherently more honest – declaring your biases is always more transparent than concealing them. That’s why, I think, the web has rewarded individual stars who report and write but make no bones about where they are coming from. In the end, they seem more reliable and accountable because of their biases than institutions pretending to be above it all. In the NYT, the hidden biases are pretty obvious: an embedded liberal mindset in choosing what to cover, and how; and a self-understanding as a responsible and deeply connected institution in an American system of governance. These things sometimes coexist easily – as a liberal paper covering the Obama administration, for example, with sympathetic toughness. And sometimes, they don’t – as a liberal paper covering the Bush administration, for example, and becoming implicit with its newspeak.

On the latter, Glenn’s strongest point is about the NYT’s decision not to call torture torture when reporting on the torture regime of Bush and Cheney.  Keller still has no good answer here – except, quite obviously, his desire not to burn bridges with an administration and not become a lightning rod for right-wing press critics. Trying to appear objective, in other words, by appeasing both sides in a dispute, is not actually being objective or impartial. It’s enabling war crimes – which I think the New York Times did under Bill Keller’s leadership. No one ever hesitated to use the word torture to describe waterboarding in the past, and the NYT itself did so when other countries were guilty. So hiding your biases, and trying to appear objective, can mean the opposite of honest. That’s why, up there, the Dish has a simple motto: biased and balanced. You know where I’m coming from; and you can also judge if we fairly provide counter-points and dissent. The Dish evolved toward the “biased and balanced” mindset out of a desire to get things right, after I had proven myself all-too able to get things wrong.

Of course, I’m not running (as of yet) original reporting. But reporting, to me, is about finding stuff out, and publishing it without fear, and being accountable for it.

That means publishing without fear of being called leftist by the right, or of being called fascist by the left; publishing without fear of unsettling and even enraging governments; without fear of upsetting, offending, or even boring, readers because some difficult truths need to be gotten out there; and without fear of being called unpatriotic, or biased. That requires enormous discipline, constant tough judgment calls, brass balls, and discriminating restraint. Withholding the truth – unless for fear of risking others’ lives – is something you only do in extraordinarily rare circumstances. So, to take an obvious example, reporting about Iran’s nuclear program without noting Israel’s nuclear and chemical weapons – a key piece of context the NYT routinely refuses to note – is not impartial. And bias is best concealed within an allegedly unbiased news outlet.

Equally, it means matching revelations from democratic societies with revelations from autocracies. A press that constantly make the US government unable to keep secrets reliably needs to put in a lot of effort to do the same with far less porous regimes. It means careful consideration of internal government documents before publishing; it means eschewing excess zeal in revealing secrets, in favor of measured and responsible explanation of the broader issues involved. That’s called balance.

We have yet to see what Glenn and his future colleagues will produce under much more strenuous institutional boundaries. But we need him. And with any luck, the competition will sharpen the NYT as well. There is a golden mean here – one which the NYT aspires to but often fails to achieve. It will only do better with Glenn nipping at their heels.

(Photo: The Guardian’s Brazil-based reporter Glenn Greenwald, who was among the first to reveal Washington’s vast electronic surveillance program, testifies before the investigative committee of the Brazilian Senate that examines charges of espionage by the United States in Brasilia on October 9, 2013. By Evaristo Sa, AFP/Getty Images.)