Ethics Quote Of The Week: Michael Kinsley

“As the news media struggles to expose government secrets and the government struggles to keep them secret, there is no invisible hand to assure that the right balance is struck. So what do we do about leaks of government information? Lock up the perpetrators or give them the Pulitzer Prize? (The Pulitzer people chose the second option.) This is not a straightforward or easy question. But I can’t see how we can have a policy that authorizes newspapers and reporters to chase down and publish any national security leaks they can find. This isn’t Easter and these are not eggs.”

—-Pundit and former editor of Slate Michael Kinsley, reviewing the book by Edward Snowden co-conspirator Glenn Greenwald’s book, “No Place to Hide.”

This is the heroic image the press has of itself, as it protects useful criminals and traitors. Unfortunately, it's a self-serving fantasy.

This is the heroic image the press has of itself, as it protects useful criminals and traitors. Unfortunately, it’s a self-serving fantasy.

I lost much of my respect for Kinsley (full disclosure: we’re college classmates; he’s a celebrity journalist, I’m not) when he was shouting liberal talking points at Robert Novak every week on “Crossfire.” I knew Mike was more nuanced than that, and later he admitted as much in various essays: it was all for show. He later admitted that he sometimes endorsed books without reading them completely, and began writing these odd op-eds that appeared to mock the very position he seemed to be taking. Kinsley is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease*, and perhaps that’s a factor in his self-conscious sense of remove from his own writings, but the impression he has given for decades now is of a detached intellectual who looks down his nose at the very profession that feeds him, and who finds it amusing that the rubes still hang on his words, when he doesn’t give them much thought himself.

This quote from his review of Greenwald’s book (hmmm…did Kinsley actually read this one?) fits the bill. It is sloppy, but sufficiently specific to be unethical. He is essentially suggesting censorship of the press, which is an irresponsible position. The publishing of leaks should not be infringed. Chasing them down, however, is another matter. Current laws, if Democrats would leave them alone, are currently sufficient to discourage criminal acquisition of national security documents: just throw journalists who won’t reveal their criminal—that’s what they are you know, like Snowden—sources in jail until they crack, rot, or both, for obstructing justice When journalists actively aid and abet the theft of documents and data, like Greenwald did, before they are acquired and published, prosecute them too, along with their souces. Publishing such documents or using them for investigations are legitimate and First Amendment-protected activities, but nothing in the Constitution protects the leakers, traitors and thieves, or journalists who conspire to help them break the law—which is the stealing, not the publishing.

I have called what the press does with stolen material “information laundering.” That function, unfortunately, is too important to the role of the press in our democracy to regulate or constrain it, no matter how often it is abused. Still,  this should not make those who aren’t journalists immune from prosecution, or journalists who cross the line that divides reporting the news from making it.

* This is a correction; the original post said MS. I apologize for the error; I shouldn’t have relied on memory.


Sources: New York Times

Cartoon: Doyle, Baylor

14 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Michael Kinsley

  1. “The publishing of leaks should not be infringed.” Never? How about the rogue agents who cause the deaths of colleagues in the CIA and other armed forces personnel in harms way. Journalists like Snowden fall under the same category as rogue agents and other employees of the CIA who should not be able to flee the country and live in comfort in places like Putin’s Russia after releasing sensitive information. Let us not forget Kim Philby and his crew of traitors.

    • There’s a procedure in place to protect those kinds of leaks; also serious societal disapproval when such things have been published. But prior restraint gets out of hand—we have to have a professional, responsible journalistic establishment that knows the difference between what the public needs to know and what the bad guys can’t be allowed to know.

      Situations like the Plame train wreck, where an idiot, pompous columnist publishes an unintentional leak, compromises (sort of) a US agent, and sets off a hunt for the “leaker” that gets a US VP slimed and his aide thrown in Jail, all while the whole thing is played out like a major scandal to smear Bush—well, that’s disgusting, and I did a little jig when Novak died, the ass.

  2. My trouble is this: I agree with and like the review until he gets to this part

    “The trouble is this: Greenwald says that Snowden told him to “use your journalistic judgment to only publish those documents that the public should see and that can be revealed without harm to any innocent people.” Once again, this testimony proves the opposite of what Greenwald and Snowden seem to think. Snowden may be willing to trust Greenwald to make this judgment correctly — but are you?”

    my answer: “yes I am.”

    I disagree with Greenwald’s decisions on what to publish, but I am far more willing to entrust the power to exercise judgement to Greenwald than I am willing to entrust that power to government, even democratic government. A government paycheck has no magic power to make the recipients more wise and all knowing than people who do not work for the government and people who work for the government have no magic advantage over people who don’t work for the government in making correct decisions. Greenwald has little power outside the ability to publish information and when Greenwald makes a mistaken judgement the damage is limited, while when people in government make a mistaken judgement the potential for causing damage is immense.

    • The government paycheck is not what causes a government employee (or contractor) to be entrusted with sensitive information . . . it’s the background investigation and the resulting security clearance, and not everyone who applies gets one.

      Since I am such a person and have done work which required me to have access to classified information, I can tell you this: The need to keep it a secret is nearly always self-evident when you know it. Whistle-blowing does have its place, and is explicitly protected. It is against the law to attempt to keep illegal activities secret by marking them classified.

      I have nothing but contempt and hatred for those criminals who violate their agreements with the government in the guise of some perverse notion of patriotism. I made a promise to the President of the United States that I would keep some of his secrets, and disagreeing with the policies of any particular President is NOT license to break that promise.


  3. Assuring the “right” balance is struck is not a task I’d assign to either government or the press. But, if those are the only two choices I’d have to choose the press.

  4. But, in the absence of “a professional, responsible journalistic establishment that knows the difference between what the public needs to know and what the bad guys can’t be allowed to know,” how do we proceed? Prior restraint isn’t the answer, but neither is entrusting actual national security information to the likes of Geraldo Rivera or Glenn Greenwald.

  5. Not that it matters for your analysis but I believe Kinsley suffers from Parkinson’s, not multiple sclerosis. Just correcting the record.

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