Journalism Ethics: David Gregory’s Impudent Question

potandkettleHere’s a revolutionary suggestion: Maybe one should only be accorded the special rights of a journalist if one abides by principles of journalistic ethics.

Yesterday on his CBS Sunday Morning program “Meet the Press,” host David Gregory incited the ire of right, left and center by daring to ask Glenn Greenwald, the pugnacious left-leaning libertarian blogger and advocate who first published the NSA leaks from Edward Snowden, this question:

GREGORY: Final question for you…. To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?

Greenwald’s answer, essentially, was “How dare you?”…

GREENWALD: I think it’s pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies. The assumption in your question, David, is completely without evidence, the idea that I’ve aided and abetted him in any way. The scandal that arose in Washington before our stories began was about the fact that the Obama administration is trying to criminalize investigative journalism by going through the e-mails and phone records of AP reporters, accusing a Fox News journalist of the theory that you just embraced, being a co-conspirator in felonies, for working with sources. If you want to embrace that theory, it means that every investigative journalist in the United States who works with their sources, who receives classified information, is a criminal. And it’s precisely those theories and precisely that climate that has become so menacing in the United States. It’s why The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer said, “Investigative reporting has come to a standstill,” her word, as a result of the theories that you just referenced.

The hypocrisy has been flying ever since.

Let’s see: Greenwald, a polemicist who embodies the journalist’s ideal of fairness and objectivity like I embody the ideal of modesty, attacked Gregory for asking a question that many, if not most, of his viewers were thinking themselves, treating it as an accusation. While this response certainly embodies the theory that the best defense is an offense, Greenwald mischaracterized the question and also ducked it. Gregory wasn’t musing “about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies”—as many have already pointed out, that would have won Gregory some kind of award for hypocrisy (or amnesia), as he was the one who blatantly violated a District of Columbia gun statute on the air, and claimed immunity from prosecution based on his status as a broadcast journalist. If Greenwald is, as he claims to be, a journalist, he ought to understand the basics of the profession, one of which is that a journalist frequently asks questions that he or she knows the answer to, so that readers or viewers can be enlightened. As an unobjective, agenda-driven activist, Greenwald apparently can’t conceive of this, or if he can, intentionally and unfairly misrepresented Gregory’s question and intent for his own purposes, and to the detriment of viewer understanding.

Greenwald’s whole retort is a masterpiece of obfuscation by bluster. Of course he aided and abetted Snowden: what else should we call it? Snowden sought to publicize classified information that was illegal to reveal, and Greenwald, via the Guardian, accommodated him. That’s aiding and abetting: the question is whether he can and should be prosecuted along with Snowden. Journalists who publish material that their sources are bound by law, regulation, contract or duty of confidentiality not to reveal are always aiding and abetting illegal or unethical acts; they just can’t be prosecuted for it under the First Amendment. Greenwald’s indignation is nonsensical. Did Julian Assange “aid and abet” Bradley Manning? Sure he did.

The more interesting question is whether Julian Assange is a journalist within the protection of the First Amendment. I don’t think he is, but if he isn’t, then Glenn Greenwald has to explain why he is when Assange is not. Is a blog the only ticket one requires to be admitted into the brotherhood of journalists? I don’t consider myself a journalist. If Snowden had launched a blog called “NSA Alarms” and published his own leaks, would that have provided him First Amendment protection from prosecution? Why not? There has to be something more to being a journalist than the ability to master WordPress…or is there?

Lawyer (and blogger…I wonder if he regards himself as a journalist?) Stewart Baker criticized both Greenwald and the Guardian for withholding details of the NSA’s procedural protections regarding U.S. citizen phone records, theorizing that they did so to make NSA’s activities seem more sinister and sweeping than they were. Baker wrote…

“The minimization documents provide context and make the naked order less troubling. So why did the Greenwald/Guardian team withhold documents that would provide important context for two full weeks as the controversy built? This makes no sense if you’re practicing journalism. But it makes all the sense in the world if you’re practicing advocacy, trying to hurt the side you hate by feeding a misimpression until the misimpression is self-sustaining.   It also makes sense if you’re practicing Breitbart-style advocacy, in which your first story is carefully limited and material is held back in the hopes that you’ll be able to do followup stories, disclosing a second or third round of data that contradicts your enemy’s effort to explain away the first story.  (Indeed, rather unpersuasively, the Guardian tries to frame its release as a rebuttal to US statements.) At this point, Greenwald and the Guardian are emerging as a story that’s at least as interesting as NSA. If I’m right about their motives, Greenwald and the Guardian are treating NSA — or the United States government — as the enemy they hope to harm, and they’ve abandoned ordinary journalistic standards in an effort to do their adversary as much harm as possible.  (Indeed, looking back, it’s pretty clear that the “PRISM” slides seemed scandalous largely because the original FISA court order predisposed us to read them too broadly.  And, of course, I can’t help wondering what other documents Greenwald and the Guardian are suppressing to advance their preferred narrative.)

“In short, Greenwald and the Guardian are engaged in something closer to a lobbying campaign than to  journalism.”

The Guardian is a newspaper with an online presence: for better or worse, it is practicing journalism by definition. It is unethical journalism by the formal standards of journalistic ethics, but unethical advocacy is the rule rather than the exception today in U.S. journalism, with Gregory as a prime example. It is ironic that when he actually asks the kind of probing question that reporters are supposed to ask, he is getting criticized for it, not just by Greenwald, but by other journalists. Gregory answered Greenwald by saying this:

GREGORY: Well, the question of who’s a journalist may be up to a debate with regards to what you’re doing. And of course anybody who’s watching this understands I was asking a question; that question has been raised by lawmakers, as well. I’m not embracing anything. But obviously, I take your point.

Here is my point: Greenwald may not be a journalist, but Gregory and most of his colleagues in the mainstream media don’t act like journalists much more than Greenwald does. He, and they, are blatant advocates for gun control global warming, affirmative action, gay marriage, illegal immigration, isolationism, Palestinian sovereignty, social welfare, green energy, the Obama administration and the Democratic Party, and a host of other partisan and ideological positions, and advances those interests by his choice of stories, questions, presentation of facts and choice of questions. The line between his advocacy and an unapologetic ideologue like Glenn Greenwald is as thin as filament—why should Gregory have First Amendment protection against prosecution and Greenwald not? Or, looking at it another way, if Gregory doesn’t act like a journalist and embody the ethics of journalism, by should he be regarded as one and protected as one?

The explosion of the web and blogosphere demand a definition of journalist, and as of this moment, we have none. We have journalists who behave as advocates to the detriment of journalism, and advocates who wrap themselves in the mantle of journalism, a mantle that may not exist any more. David Gregory asked a legitimate, probing, important question. Unfortunately, we need that question to be asked by an ethical journalist, and it is doubtful whether we can define that, much less identify one.


Spark: CBS

Pointer: Althouse

Sources: Washington Post, Skating on Stilts

Graphic: Flickriver

14 thoughts on “Journalism Ethics: David Gregory’s Impudent Question

  1. Trying to redefine who deserves protection and or prosecution is getting very dicey, regardless of whether someone is classically employed as a journalist.

    Ethics for people on MSNBC and Fox has taken a deep back seat to their entertainmentability.

    • PBS shows 70’s TV variety shows, concerts of old men singing songs like “You’re 16, you’re beautiful, and you’re mine,” and dumb British sitcoms. It is no exception.

          • I have liked watching sitcoms from Britain, America, Australia and New Zealand, and there’s many more I have not liked. Does Canada do sitcoms, I haven’t seen any?

            But I agree, using taxes to pay for foreign programs is stupid.

            And I prefer cricket over baseball.

            • Both sports require a measure of knowledge and dedication to be appreciated. I’ve never seen a cricket match, so I have no basis for comparison. I think one has to see at least 5 baseball games in a short time span, ideally with the same team or teams, to begin to appreciate its unique qualities.

              I’ve watched or listened to well over 3000 games, and yesterday I saw a play I’ve never seen before. Happens all the time…

              • You mean the no-look, quarterback hike-throw from 1B in foul territory to P covering the bag to make the out? That is my favorite 3-1 of all time. I’m jealous because I wish I had made that play as either P or 1B – in 1965.

  2. Interesting question – but is any new definition required? The First A protects journalists and the press but it does so under the larger concept of “free speech.” This blog is (and should be) protected from government interference although you are an opinion blogger, not a journalist. And don’t all stories involve strong opinions, including which stories to write about in the first place? I find this story fascinating, but the coverage is too heavy. I’d like to see more pieces from the media on Syria and how about Brazil? I think any analysis should be on a case by case basis – similar to when actions by defense attorneys cross the line into aiding and abetting.

    • Sure, and this case shows the exact spot at which Freedom of the Press goes beyond Freedom of Speech. Journalists can publish confidential and legally prohibited material, like Grand Jury testimony, that you or I would be prosecuted for publicizing. A definition is paramount.

      • What on earth would the definition be? Doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. — that’s easy, because there are exams to take and licensing boards involved. A journalist can be anything from a wide-eyed college kid who does free lance reporting (but no publications yet) to a weather guy to a pulitizer prize winner for covering the Iraq war. If you changed the name of this blog, you could arguably be considered a journalist. You often cite source material in your pieces — even if people sometimes disagre with you re analysis.

      • I don’t know anything about this, but could we prosecuted for publishing confidential material if we just stumbled across it or obtained it from a third party? Perhaps we could get disbarred, but freedom of speech might cover the publication, right?

  3. What’s going on here? Isn’t the Attorney General bound by the same laws to tell the truth as the rest of us are? Doesn’t the First Amendment protect from criminal prosecution and government harassment those who ask questions in pursuit of the truth?

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