What’s Missing in Keller and Greenwald’s Future of Journalism

November 8, 2013

Tim Carmody writes about media, technology, business, and culture. Formerly senior writer at Wired and senior reporter/features writer at The Verge...

Last week, Bill Keller did a funny thing. The former executive editor and current Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, as authoritative and oracular as he is moderate and guarded, opened up a space for pointed, even frothy debate with a counterpart who on his face is as different from Keller as anyone with comparable stature in the news industry today. The title of the conversation—likely not chosen by either Keller or his interlocutor, but by the Times’ editors—was “Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of Journalism?”

Journalism insiders and students of media were fascinated. Here was a debate about the role of the journalist and the collision of traditional values with an emerging set of online practices that had been happening for more than a decade. Now, though, it was front-and-center, not between pundits but practitioners, in the hallowed pages of the New York Times.

The dialogue fascinates me, too. Increasingly, though, I’m more intrigued by what isn’t included in the debate between Keller and Greenwald than what is. Something at the margins here is being erased. Keller and Greenwald are making the easy comparisons, not the tough ones. So how did the two of them arrive here?

Glenn Greenwald was a full-time journalist at a major newspaper for a little over a year, after five years writing online at Salon. But in his short time at The Guardian, Greenwald was principally responsible for breaking one of the biggest news stories of the decade.

What’s more, Greenwald’s journalism was from beginning to end entwined with fierce public and private advocacy—against the US government and its surveillance programs, against attempts to prosecute or extradite his source Edward Snowden, and on behalf of himself and his partner, both of whom faced government threats and harassment as a result of their involvement in the Snowden/NSA story.

Like Keller and Greenwald, Murdoch and Denton’s names will be totems as much as they are real people. But they are Foster Kane’s heirs, and neither of them share any of the assumptions about the future of news that help Greenwald and Keller meet eye to eye. They take a much more comprehensive view of what readers want and what news organizations are for. And the things that both Keller and Greenwald would hold sacred are simply sacred cows to both Murdoch and Denton, who have built their careers and their empires assailing the news establishment by being willing to do what their counterparts would not.

If Greenwald was not the face of activist journalism before—and he was already one of the contenders—he certainly holds claim to the title now. In June, the New York Times was still quasi-derisively identifying Greenwald only as a “blogger”—not a reporter, nor a writer, journalist, or any other profession suggesting that he was a full peer of the employees of the Paper of Record, deserving of being named in a profile about him. NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in, as did media reporter David Carr, but what was done was done.

Now, carrying the full weight of the Snowden revelations and a $250 million investment from an internet billionaire, Greenwald has earned a seat at the table. “Is a blogger a journalist?” or “Are activists journalists?” is no longer the question. “Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News” is now the question.

But this is a question that can be posed now because for Keller, defining himself with respect to Greenwald is easy. The things they disagree on are obvious, because they actually agree on so much. Here is how I see it.

Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald believe, with marginal exceptions, in the same journalistic mission. The point of journalism is institutional accountability and public interest. They both think that national and international politics, war, and the economy are the most materially important subjects for journalism to cover. They both believe deeply that journalism is fundamentally both an ethical and a truth-finding enterprise. They both believe in the truth. They both believe in their readers’ ability to discern the truth, and that the reader has to go beyond the word of a journalist in order to discover what he or she believes.

For Keller, the role of a journalist is to be impartial, to present the facts as known, plus a full range of views and statements of the most relevant actors close to the facts. To the extent that is possible, a journalist keeps his or her personal views out of the process of reporting and presenting those facts and statements. A reporter does not and ought not sway the reader toward any political beliefs, but give him or her the information necessary to make that decision alone. The reporter presents facts, the reader decides the politics. It’s no accident that for years, Keller headed up foreign bureaus, notably in Moscow during the Cold War; he’s someone with a keen appreciation that political decisions and their ramifications are complex, and for years, were better left to elected and military officials above his pay grade.

For Greenwald, the role of a journalist is to tell the truth, to not only present the views of relevant parties but to try to answer the question of which, if any, is dissembling or lying. The quest to purge the journalist’s political and other beliefs is quixotic, impossible. Instead of impartiality, the journalist offers transparency: “This is what I believe, how my point of view shapes this story, and how I got here.” The reader then is empowered to take the reporter’s disclosed ideology into account in determining whether or not the reporter is himself or herself being entirely truthful. The reporter presents both facts and politics, and the reader decides whether or not to agree that the reporter has made his or her case. It’s no accident that for years, Greenwald was a litigator and constitutional lawyer. His reputation as a journalist was built through his excoriation of the Bush administration, beginning with their successful attempt to out CIA agent Valerie Plame in retaliation for her husband’s op-ed challenging the administration’s case for war in Iraq.

Keller’s and Greenwald’s positions are, roughly speaking, the two best-articulated positions that Serious People take toward the proper practice of Serious Journalism. Read any of a million discussions of objectivity and journalistic ethics, criticisms of the practices of online, television, or traditional newspaper journalism, and these positions will emerge over and over again. You don’t have to understand the pinnacle of Serious Journalism as serving the public interest through investigative/accountability reporting on the nation-state, but it helps. In fact, it is supremely handy to have these future-of-journalism ideal-types made manifest by such articulate spokespersons, even if they are far from unique in espousing these views.

And Keller’s and Greenwald’s agreements—their belief in facts, in the civic importance of reporting, and their faith in the reader’s ability to weigh multiple options and make his or her own decisions—are nontrivial. I always think of old newspaper barons like William Randolph Hearst, or better yet (because purer and more memorable) the fictional Charles Foster Kane. Journalism, even of the crusading, public-service, muckracking variety, can be used as a mechanism for power, adulation, and entertainment, three things Keller and Greenwald want no part of.

Kane’s turn-of-the-last-century journalism finds few explicit boosters in 21st-century debates. “If the headline is big enough, it MAKES the news big enough”; “People will think—” “What I TELL them to think.”

Attitudes like Kane’s can only be admitted as a foil, a bogeyman, a dragon slain in the last century by modern journalism’s commitment to process-based objectivity. Except, of course, Kane is still here.

If you want to know what Keller and Greenwald are really afraid of, if you want to know what the real future of news is, you have to look at the names that neither can bring themselves to say in their debate for fear of contamination. And if they won’t say them, I will.

Who would actually be Glenn Greenwald’s journalism polar opposite? He (or she, but in this case, it’s a he) would have to be at least as far on the right as Greenwald is on the left. He would have to be as complicit with state authority as Greenwald is in opposition to it. He would be as amoral as Greenwald is moralizing. He would have to be synonymous with corporate news media, and he would have to be willing to traffic in the trashiest kinds of entertainment to counterbalance Greenwald’s pure focus on law and politics.

He would have to be Rupert Murdoch.

Likewise, who is Bill Keller’s real opposite? Keller’s politics are murky but moderate, so his opposite’s would have to be wild and unclassifiable. He (or she, but in this case, again, it’s a he) would have a pure distilled creature of the new media and its pageview-chasing ethos that gives Keller so much pause. He would have to be devoted as a matter of principle to subverting all of the assumptions of mainstream newspaper journalism. He would be not just willing but eager to deal in gossip, to flout authority, to trade not just horses but real money with sources. But he would be just as formidable as Keller, and he would have to be able to make a claim to have broken real news, even if it was news of the sort Keller would be loathe to touch with a ten-foot pole.

He would have to be Gawker’s Nick Denton.

Murdoch, Denton, Gawker, and News Corp. appear nowhere in Keller and Greenwald’s debate about the future of journalism, nor do anything resembling their worldviews or those of their massively influential organizations.

But you can read Keller and Greenwald’s “debate” as a phantom fight where Keller is actually arguing with Denton and Greenwald with Murdoch. Or rather, Greenwald would like to show that Keller and his ilk are not so very far from Murdoch in their complicity with the security and surveillance state the NYT covers, and Keller would like to show that by eschewing impartiality and denigrating the institutions of traditional journalism, Greenwald is not nearly far enough from Denton and the blogosphere as he (Keller) would like.

Keller and Greenwald are complementary pairs, not contradictory ones. Greenwald’s true opposite is Murdoch, just as Keller’s is Denton.

Like Keller and Greenwald, Murdoch and Denton’s names will be totems as much as they are real people. But they are Kane’s heirs, and neither of them share any of the assumptions about the future of news that help Greenwald and Keller meet eye to eye. They take a much more comprehensive view of what readers want and what news organizations are for. And the things that both Keller and Greenwald would hold sacred are simply sacred cows to both Murdoch and Denton, who have built their careers and their empires assailing the news establishment by being willing to do what their counterparts would not.

Now, if you (like me) took way too many classes in linguistics, philosophy, and literary theory, you might recognize the picture. This is a semiotic square, sometimes called a Greimas Square, after the theorist who popularized it. Compare any two terms P and Q; immediately you also get a set of relationships between those two terms and their opposites. It’s like tic-tac-toe for semiologists.

The left side is corporate or traditional media; the right is online media. The top is “serious” journalism; the bottom is tabloid journalism. For Keller and Greenwald, journalism is a calling; for Murdoch and Denton, it is a business. And without the largesse of patrons committed to the same ideals of journalism, the New York Times and Greenwald’s untitled venture with Omidyar would be very paltry businesses indeed, while Denton’s and Murdoch’s flourish, grow, and evolve. The New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, and Pro Publica, and a few others, have found a space in which they can continue to exist. But it seems to me foolish to deny that for everyone else, the business models and journalistic practices mapped by Murdoch and Denton are proving to be much more robust, repeatable, and influential.

Now the fun part of a semiotic square is that you can try to fill it in with attempts to blend or resolve the pairings that are put together as opposites. What would it mean to be in the middle of the axis between Keller and Murdoch, or Greenwald and Denton. Instead of four logical possibilities, you get eight or more.

Now, you could almost certainly generate different names here, but these seem to me to be the most illustrative and relevant.

The blend of Keller’s traditional, patrician view of journalism and Murdoch’s partisan, capitalist worldview is the Wall Street Journal—the one newspaper The New York Times sees as a genuine peer, and can never ignore. Likewise, Keller may not approve of the Guardian’s fairly explicit liberal standpoint, but its standards of journalism in all other respects match those at the Times. Greenwald’s obsession with national politics and unearthing Washington’s dirty secrets goes hand-in-hand with Gawker’s unapologetic embrace of insider gossip at Politico. And if you imagine the evolution of Gawker from its roots as sugared popcorn for the New York intelligentsia into a New York Post-inflected, populist, tabloid clearinghouse willing to blend investigative journalism with pandering listicles, that next step is clearly Buzzfeed. (The Snowden leaks are the “scoop of the decade,” Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith recently said, but he wants the next one.) Buzzfeed is also the one online organization News Corp. has explicitly identified as the future of news in the News Corp. style. Buzzfeed is the site News Corp. most wishes was either under its umbrella or crushed beneath its boot.

At every moment—just thinking about national politics alone—all of these organizations are competing with each other. Whether it’s for stories, for readers, for advertisers, or for reporting talent, they all have to be constantly aware of each other. And each, because of its identity, is going to get stories that the others will not be able to. The New York Times weren’t the first to see a video of Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine, Gawker was. Edward Snowden, despite his idiosyncratic conservative politics, would never have come to Fox News with his NSA slides; he came to Glenn Greenwald. You would be hard pressed to find an organization with better sources inside banking than the Wall Street Journal, or inside both parties’ political campaigns and staffs than Politico. And while the Guardian’s latest revelation will usually dominate the day on Twitter, Buzzfeed’s stories will own Facebook.

Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald never actually answer the question posed by the Times headline: “Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of Journalism?” It doesn’t fit either of their assumptions about presenting multiple strong points of view and allowing the reader to decide whom to believe. So I will answer it. Greenwald and the journalists he surrounds himself with at this new news venture will be one future of journalism. Using one of the last century’s best two-dimensional, pen-and-paper critical tools, I have drawn a square that illustrates at least seven more. Each will have their say.

But we need to remember that we no longer live in a pencil-and-paper world. Ours is one of infinite dimensions and undecidable quantum states. We flutter across multiple nodes—not just P and Q, but also P and not P. There are infinite futures of journalism as well. But we begin with what we can represent. Here is a place to begin.

Diagrams by Ben Pieratt

Tim Carmody writes about media, technology, business, and culture. Formerly senior writer at Wired and senior reporter/features writer at The Verge. Follow him on Twitter at @tcarmody.