“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