Ethics Quote Of The Week: Glenn Greenwald

“Every journalist has an agenda. We’re on MSNBC now where close to 24 hours a day the agenda of President Obama and the Democratic Party are promoted, defended, glorified. The agenda of the Republican Party is undermined. That doesn’t mean that the people who appear on MSNBC aren’t journalists. They are.”

—-Libertarian blogger, pundit and activist Glenn Greenwald, defending himself in an MSNBC interview against allegations that he has become a “spokesman” for fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden.


Remember, this is an ethics quote, not necessarily one that expresses an ethical point of view. With that caveat, I find it fascinating in many respects:
  • Greenwald is technically correct: journalists who use  their position to distort the news, express their biases and serve as advocates rather than objective critics, as most of the journalists do on MSNBC (and the way many too many journalists do elsewhere) are still journalists. They are unethical and unprofessional journalists.
  • “Every journalist has an agenda,” may be literally true, but not every journalist has a political agenda, and no ethical journalist can or should. Ethical journalists have the agenda that the various journalism ethics codes they supposedly were taught to follow in journalism school dictate that they should have, to “further the ends of public enlightenment  by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues”…to be “honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information,”  to “treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect” (such as, to take an off-the wall hypothetical, not broadcasting one’s opinion that someone should shit in Sarah Palin’s mouth), and to “be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.”
  • Is Greenwald a journalist, or an advocate? True, he may have a better argument that he is a journalist than most of MSNBC’s crew. Later, in the same statement partially quoted above, he said,
“My viewpoint is very clear, I don’t hide it. It’s that I think what Edward Snowden did is very admirable and heroic. But at the same time the ultimate test of a journalist is is what you publish accurate and reliable. And I think with regard to every story that we published over the last six months, there hasn’t been a single correction made to any of them. Very few have been called into question. And I think that’s the ultimate question when it comes to is this journalism.”
True, Greenwald is explicit about his agenda, and his reporting on what he has chosen to report on has been largely accurate. But he does not frame his reporting objectively, nor have his methods always comported with journalistic ethics standards. Should we trust Greenwald to dig for information that undermines Snowden’s credibility? Could we trust him to report such information, clearly and with appropriate visibility and priority? I wouldn’t, because, as he says, he has an agenda, and thus his reporting serves that agenda, rather than the journalist’s ethical agenda of presenting objective, unfiltered versions of the facts the public needs to know. That makes him an advocate, not a journalist. I think he is closer to James O’Keefe, another ideological advocate, and also no journalist.
  • That he is an advocate, in fact, was Greenwald’s point, though he made it using a misleading term. He correctly pointed out that he has, in essence a client, Snowden, just as MSNBC regards Obama, his administration, the Democratic Party, and progressive policies their clients. The clients of real journalists are the public, and the truth.
  • Greenwald’s rejoinder attacking MSNBC in response to a question about him was unethical. MSNBC’s conduct is irrelevant to what Greenwald is doing, and, ironically, he was attempting to deflect a legitimate reporter’s question by suggesting that it was hypocritical for an MSNBC reporter to ask it. Essentially, he was saying, “How dare you suggest what I do is wrong when your colleagues do it regularly? And besides, it’s not wrong for either of us to do it.” This is like answering a question by punching the questioner in the groin, and then saying that you didn’t mean it.
  • The MSNBC reporter, Kristen Wilker, reacted amusingly to Greenwald’s attack, sputtering, “Not everyone on MSNBC does that 24 hours a day!” Good one, Kristen! Yes, there may be an hour here and there during that day when Obama is isn’t being defended, and no MSNBC talking head or reporter is actually on the air 24 hours a day. But anyone familiar with MSNBC knows exactly what Greenwald was saying, and your weak defense pretty much shows that you know, like we know, that he is right.
  • Rationalizations really do rule America. In the Huffington Post comment thread on this story, a substantial number of commenters really thought they were delivering zingers by writing, “Oh yeah? Well, Fox News is biased too!”

[ A related note: Washington Post media blogger Eric Wemple recently did an admirable job auditing MSNBC’s news coverage here.]


Facts: Huffington Post

Graphic: Electronic Media and Politics

55 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Glenn Greenwald

  1. Is The Economist ethical?

    They have an agenda and pour it all over news stories. The EU’s system of agricultural subsidies was regularly called “the lunatic Common Agricultural Policy”. There were many other examples.

    They also seem to report both sides and I’ve seen very, very few errors of fact.

    Was the Our Town Democrat, back in the day, unethical? Assume for the sake of argument that they reported honestly.

    When there’s only one newspaper in a town, both commercial pressures and the social good require it to be neutral, if that’s even possible for humans. Similarly when there were only three TV networks, not all of which were within reception range of people outside cities.

    In today’s world where anyone with an Internet connection can report news, do we need objectivity, or just honesty?

    What we need is of course a different question from what’s ethical. If journalists sign on to a pledge of objectivity, if they represent themselves as objective, they have an obligation they can’t ethically shirk.

  2. Any journalist that defends someone like Edward Snowden who has done grave damage to U.S. Intelligence capabilities and labels him as admirable and heroic makes him more accurately described as an advocate and an irresponsible one. Why the Brits allow him to deliver an alternative Christmas message, I just don’t understand. 😦

    • In Passing. The Alternative Christmas Message: As a Brit, the UK government would ban it if they could but, thank goodness, they can’t suppress a right to free speech. And our TV stations misuse the privelege to get audience numbers up, on the basis of controversy (what else?).
      Why anyone in the world listens to him, I don’t know
      We Brits have the most intrusive CCTV regime I’ve ever heard of so consistency is not a feature of this move. 🙂 Sorry.

  3. If you read between the lines, the implications of Greenwald’s statement are even scarier than what he professes openly. He not only defends slanted reporting under the guise of straight news, but considers it an ethical means of forwarding the agenda of falseness in the pursuit of political goals… goals that are contrary to the founding principles of this nation. In other words- sedition.

  4. Frankly, I’m getting tired of everyone hashing this issue over and over again, since it has been part of our culture for well over a century. Since the first coining of the term “yellow journalism,” Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, e.g., newspapers have unabashedly presented news according to (1) their political ideologies; and (2) what will sell. Muckraker novelists abounded then, and so today we have Michael Moore.

    We had some “glory days” of radio/TV journalism with the likes of Lowell Thomas and Edward R. Murrow, but those were unique and long gone.
    The peak of “gotcha” journalism with Watergate and the Washington Post had thousands of journalism students wanting to be a Woodward or Bernstein, and this attitude hasn’t changed..

    But admit it, we have NEVER had — in print or electronic media — anything remotely resembling “fair and balanced” journalism. Okay. The problem we have now is exponentially increased sources of news, and readers/watchers are lazy slobs, IQ80s, or ideologues who don’t want to find any kind of “truth,” only what supports their generally unsupported opinions. (And I know some.) It takes time, effort, and analytic ability to check out all the “takes” on the news, do some research, and decide what is the closest to the truth: time people either don’t have or want to devote to it, and are willing for a bunch of lying politicians and journalists to guide the country — the country which belongs to them and which should be guided by the general populace. Too bad. The occasional, lonely voice of reason is drowned out by all the others, Our “general populace” is less and less involved: let others take care of it, complain if you don’t like it, applaud if you do like it. Great basis for our democratic republic.

    Clearly, most people are more interested in ships caught in Antarctic ice and the birth of twin pandas than the real issues we face. Those are easy, and fun! Other news requires thought (what IS that anyway?). We are going into a black hole here. At least the Mayans were apparently wrong, since the world didn’t come to an end in 2012. On the other hand, maybe it was just a typo… since it feels like our society/nation/ideals did begin to die even before 2012…

  5. Ethics evolve; Jack says so. Mores evolve too; I’ll state that as a self-evident truth.

    Like a scientist (I am chuckling), I will pose the thesis that mores evolve largely because of, and to some extent consistent with (if out-of-phase with), evolution of ethics.

    We are living in times in which it is easy to recognize that concepts fundamental to the character of societies are being re-defined; the re-definitions are driven by various forces. Among the concepts which have been or are being re-defined, at least as observed by living persons older than, say, persons in two younger generations: Life; Personhood; Privacy; Autonomy; Tradition; Justice; Trustworthiness; Decency; Bigotry; Holiness (or Righteousness); Dignity; Marriage; Civic Duty; Group Entitlement, and tolerable powers of office-holders and agents of government.

    Acceptance of the re-definitions tracks to some degree with the evolution of mores and ethics, such as whom is trusted by and trustworthy to who, on which matters, and why. It may be impossible to distinguish cause from effect in matters of evolving definitions, mores and ethics; as I ponder that, I am guessing that is why I chuckled when I wrote “Like a scientist…” earlier. But, it seems clear that life in currently industrialized societies has changed and continues changing in significant ways as the “ruling generation” changes, and that the reasons for the changing do include, in some manner, changes in people’s behavior on a mass scale due to evolution of ethics, mores and definitions across the generations.

    So I believe it is fair to at least suspect that journalism, and journalistic ethics, are also evolving. Perhaps today’s teachings in schools of journalism are teaching journalists of today and the future to do what earlier generations would have been taught explicitly not to do. Perhaps today it is UNethical to engage in journalism while NOT taking a position, or serving an ideology, or pursuing a specific and desired impact on society BEYOND “just the facts” or “truth.”

    Based on Glenn Greenwald’s forthright admission, I am compelled to adjust my own presumptions about everything I read (and write). It really is a new kind of capitalism, where the capital is the mass behavior which results from the writer’s craft, which reflects the consequences of masses of “communication-receivers” having their thought and emotions influenced according to the writer’s objective. Truth? Irrelevant. Facts? Useful only if and when needed to induce the desired response. Criticism? Only “good” or “evil” according to how, in some “end state” (after “capitalizing” on it), it inhibits or enables the intended control.

    With Greenwald journalism, the implications are enormous, and the possibilities even greater: new definitions, new mores, new ethics – to the point where war, peace, freedom, slavery, ignorance, strength etc. are all within the “journalist’s” power to define and control. It’s Orwellian, to be sure, but it’s a brave new world order!

  6. Considering the state of every television outlet OTHER than Fox News, America NEEDS Fox News to be “biased too.” One overtly right-wing news channel doesn’t even begin to balance things out.

  7. I’m all for sedition. Glad you published ANYTHING regarding Glenn Greenwald. Now waiting for your take on Edward Snowden, ALEC, Monsanto, the banksters, income inequality (thanks to Occupy this has become a widely discussed issue, even the Pope weighed in), the Federal Reserve… etc.

    I realize I’m far outnumbered here.
    “We’re surrounded. That simplifies the problem!”

    • Now waiting for your take on Edward Snowden

      A liar and a thief that turned traitor. He took mountains of governmental secrets that had nothing to do with domestic spying, and then instead of going to lawmakers as he should have (I know of at least three who would have had congressional hearings the next day), he ran to countries that are openly antagonistic to the US. He should be in prison and left to rot.


      What about them? A group that drafts legislation? You know that there are several similar groups on the left, right? Lemme guess – you don’t like them because they draft legislation you don’t like. Am I close?


      Evil, evil Monsanto… How dare they come up with ways to grow enough food to feed us. What monsters

      the banksters

      The people who didn’t break any laws, and in fact were only reacting rationally to incentives the government put in place?

      income inequality (thanks to Occupy this has become a widely discussed issue, even the Pope weighed in)

      First, Occupy is a collection of some of the dumbest people on the planet whose complaint was that the world was not giving them the living they deserved. Second, income inequality will always exist. There will always be rich, and there will always be poor. Demonizing the rich, punishing their success, won’t change that. The only way to change it is to take – by force – from the successful.

      And that requires absolute and complete totalitarianism.

      And I will die fighting before I let that happen.

      • Which is what I meant when I mentioned the Constitution to her, AMS. When you are aligned with those who seek the Constitution’s destruction, your petty “issues” carry little weight.

      • I’m impressed, ablativmeatshld. Two postings saying the exact same drivel. Let me rebut, if I may.

        Edward Snowden – Please offer proof that he’s a liar. Thief, yes. Liar? Prove it.

        ALEC – “Through the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, global corporations and state politicians vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights. These so-called “model bills” reach into almost every area of American life and often directly benefit huge corporations.
        In ALEC’s own words, corporations have “a VOICE and a VOTE” on specific changes to the law that are then proposed in your state. DO YOU? Numerous resources to help us expose ALEC are provided below. We have also created links to detailed discussions of key issues, which are available on the left.”

        But, of course, you likely agree with ALEC’s right to exist. A I wouldn’t disagree with you. I just don’t like ALEC’s toadying to corporations at the detriment of ordinary citizens.

        Monsanto – Mr. ablativmeatshld, it would be totally unfair of me to debate you on this topic. If you don’t know by now, then, likely, you will never know. However, I offer you this. I first learned of the baseness that is Monsanto while watching The Corporation. Here’s the part that pretty well lays it out (and this is 10 myears old!) –

        the banksters – “didn’t break any laws” – maybe that’s because the laws were skewed in their favor? Hell, the laws are always skewed in the favor of the rich and powerful. If you don’t get that, well, there ain’t much I can add.

        income inequality (thanks to Occupy this has become a widely discussed issue, even the Pope weighed in) – Appreciate it. I being an Occupier in it’s heyday, I take no offense at your offensiveness. Yes, income inequality will always exist (Jesus told us that, didn’t he?) But, the overarching inequality we see today in America (and many other countries) is, again, the result of an unequal playing field. Fuck! I pay more in taxes than some major corporations. That’s what I call an unequal playing field.

        You said… The only way to change it is to take – by force – from the successful.

        And that requires absolute and complete totalitarianism.

        And I will die fighting before I let that happen.

        And I say, I intend to be on the front line once the people wake the fuck up. And if I see you on the battlefield, I will first offer you a rose, and if you throw it back at me, I will proceed to kick your ass. :p

          • What is the concern with this ALEC entity? Lobbyist groups exist and really always have. They can speak, but so can many groups of all persuasions. How is this group more “evil” than any other? And what evil has Monsanto done, other than being a large company that has bred even better strains of grain or other foodstuffs that are better resistant to climate, pests or disease? And what, in God’s Name, makes the Occupy freakos somehow morally superior to ALEC, Monsanto or just about anyone else?? Contrary to the opinions of some, Monsanto doesn’t create worthless parasites on the face of humanity. OWS just attracts the naturally occurring ones and leads them to spread their foulness around in public.

          • I’m going to bed now, wherein I shall commune in the spirit of good fellowship with the hardboiled cracked egg they call “ablativmeatshld.” Tomorrow I shall gird my loins, guard my lions, eat my GMO Wheaties, and, finally, don my non-flammable Superman underwear, all in pursuit of truth, justice, and the American way. In the meantime, ablativmeatshld, gaze on this and wonder at the being you are about to engage in oral hygiene.

        • Well, by his own admission Snowden sought the position he used to steal the documents.

          And I’m rather certain there are documents you sign upon employment to the effect of “I won’t steal this shit and give it to foreign powers”.

          Yes, as a matter of fact I do have a voice and a vote in legislation that is going to be voted on. As do you. It is called “writing and calling your elected representatives”.

          Unions do far more than ALEC, in as far as they also give far, far more to campaigns.

          How nice, you managed to cite things against Monsanto that make Alex Jones look rational. I didn’t think that was possible.

          The laws were crafted so that incentives existed to act as they did. It was inevitable, and the bubble it caused was created intentionally. The economic crash was the result of governmental interference. That people want more interference just proves that we need an IQ test before voting.

          You may pay more in taxes, but you dont spend billions on R&D on things like green energy. Those monsters…

          As I assure you, if you see me on the field, you won’t get close enough to toss a rose.

          Just saying’.

                  • When I said the games are rigged, I wasn’t spouting hot air.

                    By Matt Taibbi
                    April 25, 2013 1:00 PM ET
                    Conspiracy theorists of the world, believers in the hidden hands of the Rothschilds and the Masons and the Illuminati, we skeptics owe you an apology. You were right. The players may be a little different, but your basic premise is correct: The world is a rigged game. We found this out in recent months, when a series of related corruption stories spilled out of the financial sector, suggesting the world’s largest banks may be fixing the prices of, well, just about everything.

                    You may have heard of the Libor scandal, in which at least three – and perhaps as many as 16 – of the name-brand too-big-to-fail banks have been manipulating global interest rates, in the process messing around with the prices of upward of $500 trillion (that’s trillion, with a “t”) worth of financial instruments. When that sprawling con burst into public view last year, it was easily the biggest financial scandal in history – MIT professor Andrew Lo even said it “dwarfs by orders of magnitude any financial scam in the history of markets.”
                    Oh, you say everything the banks did was legal?

                    NEW YORK — A federal judge will soon decide how much Bank of America should pay for some of Countrywide Financial Corp.’s sins in the lead-up to the financial crisis.
                    Federal prosecutors want BofA to pay $864 million after the bank’s stinging defeat in a major civil fraud trial in October. A jury found BofA liable in a case centered on a Countrywide program called “The Hustle,” which churned out risky home loans before selling them to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
                    The NSA and “metadata”… the government claims there’s nothing to see here so move right along… but –

                    – Researchers show why the NSA’s phone metadata is far from anonymous
                    “Since the first of many leaked documents showed that the NSA has been gathering phone records en masse as part of its anti-terrorism program, there’s been an ongoing fight over just what these records reveal. To supporters, the metadata collection is a limited system that’s rarely queried and doesn’t contain enough information to be considered an invasive search: the NSA has said it doesn’t collect either the content of calls or the names attached to phone numbers. As many technology and legal experts on the other side say, though, metadata matters, and a Stanford Security Lab project demonstrates that removing names from a database doesn’t effectively mean much.”
                    Occupy? It ain’t over till it’s over.
                    “The movement must consciously undergo a transformation from spontaneous protest, operating in a short-term crisis, to a long-term popular struggle to achieve positive social change. It needs to win over . . . an increasingly larger majority of the populace and involve many of them in the process of opposition and change. . . The majority stage is a long process of eroding the social, political, and economic supports that enable the powerholders to continue their policies. It is a slow process of social transformation that creates a new social and political consensus, reversing those of normal times.”
                    The future of journalism…
                    “2013 was the year of Edward Snowden. The former NSA contractor, voted the Guardian’s person of the year (after Chelsea Manning the year before), unleashed a vital global debate on the extent of mass surveillance in the modern age. “Among the casualties”, writes one reporter, “is the assumption that some of the nation’s most carefully guarded secrets will stay secret.”

                    This is a uniformly positive development, despite the bleating from countless intelligence insiders, media commentators, the vast bulk of the US Washington elite and a media class that has largely forgotten how to operate without being on the official drip feed. The general public does not accept patronising claims by NSA backers that its tools are used to protect us from terrorism.

                    A mature debate about post 9/11 spying is essential, something that’s almost impossible to offer when politicians who should know better – I’m looking at you, Australian minister for communications Malcolm Turnbull – slam journalists for doing their job.
                    Last but not least, Monsanto and the Amazing Revolving Door!

                    About that rat study…Ratted out: Scientific journal bows to Monsanto over anti-GMO study

                    Oh, those poor farmers, the commies! How dare they?!

                    “Farmers across the country want to stand up to Monsanto once and for all, and, last week, a brief was filed to the U.S. Supreme Court that would reinstate 73 cases of organic and conventional farmers, seed companies, and public advocacy groups that “seek protection for America’s farmers from Monsanto’s frivolous patent infringement lawsuits, and their promiscuous genetically engineered pollen while also seeking to invalidate the patents on 23 of Monsanto’s GMO crops.”

                    • No rebuttal from ablativmeatshld (could he still be reading the above response?) so I hereby declare myself winner by a TKO. Where’s my belt?

                    • That’s what I call a well reasoned argument! In fact, if Jack hasn’t already selected his comment of the day/week/month I’d nominate yours, my friend. Congrats!

                    • I did?!!! Thanks, Jack! (Howard Rheingold used to tell me when I was in training to help host Electric Minds that what worked best with people in an online community was when you opened your soul and let it out.)

    • There used to be a sharp distinction between news and entertainment in the UK, as in the old joke “Two reporters to see you, m’lud, and a gentleman from The Times”.

  8. Journalism is a profession – part of any profession is its code of ethics. Codes of ethics do evolve, but they are there to distinguish between ethical and unethical behavior – a litmus test if you will. Not sure Greenwald’s comments would pass the test.

  9. Pingback: Open Journalism and Putting Writers On Camera (Oh My!) | SoshiTech

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