Snowden, Greenwald, and the NY Times’s “High Standards”

28th May 2014

Margaret Sullivan, public editor of theNew York Times, believes that the paper’s Book Review made an error in assigning Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide to Michael Kinsley. No Place to Hide is Greenwald’s account of how he helped to expose the revelations of fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, first in the pages of theGuardian, where Greenwald briefly worked as a blogger, and then through the auspices of First Look Media, an online news organization that he launched last October alongside documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and radical journalist Jeremy Scahill. (I wrote about this trio last year.) Kinsley, needless to say, did not like the book.

That’s his right, Sullivan acknowledges, but she nonetheless found his review to be “unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards.” Why? First is its “sneering tone about Mr. Greenwald,” a fantastically oblivious criticism given Greenwald’s trademark contemptuous writing style. Next, Sullivan accuses Kinsley of repudiating the “special role for the press in America’s democracy.” This is a complete mischaracterization of Kinsley, who merely argued that “newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences.” Snowden and Greenwald have arrogated to themselves that final say; Kinsley believes, quite reasonably, that these two men should not be the final arbiters of America’s national-security secrets.

Sullivan believes that Book Review editor Pamela Paul made a mistake in not thoroughly scrubbing the review of such heresies. “It’s wrong to deny that role,” she writes, of Kinsley’s supposed trashing of the First Amendment, “and editors should not have allowed such a denial to stand.” Having failed to adopt the Greenwaldian view of state secrets (a view apparently shared by Sullivan), Kinsley thus had no right to express his disapproval in the august pages of the Times.

In light of Sullivan’s concern for how the Times chooses writers to cover particular subjects, I wonder what she has to say about another matter in this regard. Last August, the New York Times Magazine assigned Peter Maass to write a profile of Poitras, whose fervently critical films about the Iraq War attracted the attention of Snowden, who reached out to her when he was contemplating how to publish the NSA information he had stolen. Poitras, Maass wrote sympathetically, had become “the target of serious – and apparently false – accusations,” namely, that she had foreknowledge of a deadly ambush carried out on American troops in the town of Adhamiya in 2004 by Iraqi insurgents, an ambush that she filmed. Ever since that incident, Poitras has been questioned dozens of times by Homeland Security officials upon re-entering the United States, a tribulation that Maass writes about with uncritical sympathy.

The case, however, is not as clear-cut as Maass portrayed. “It seems that she had pre-knowledge that our convoy, or our patrol, was going to get hit,” Brandon Ditto, the leader of the platoon that was ambushed, told John McCormack of the Weekly Standard last year. Skepticism of Poitras was also voiced by John R. Bruning, author of a 2006 book that detailed the ambush. “To be exactly positioned to capture a vehicular ambush in the middle of Baghdad is either a huge fluke or you have foreknowledge that that was coming,” he said. To Maass, however, Poitras is a dissident hero, harassed by the jack-booted thugs of a government out to silence her.

Fast-forward six months. Maass is rewarded for his obsequiousness with a job as senior writer at none other than First Look Media. This is somewhat akin to therevolving door that thrusts mainstream, supposedly “straight” news reporters (16 at last count) into the Obama administration. When someone who has devoted their career to reporting abandons that line of work to join the very people he used to write about, it is entirely fair to question the quality and objectivity of their previous work. Why, after all, would Barack Obama choose a Jay Carney as his spokesman (as opposed to some career Democratic Party flack) unless he had found his reporting to be eminently favorable? In light of the Maass episode, which, to my knowledge, no media ethicist has yet to comment upon, one might think that an editor at the Times magazine (or, failing that, the Times’s public editor), would question whether the magazine has buyer’s remorse for assigning a piece about a highly controversial figure to a man whose writing about said figure was so credulous that she later awarded him a job.

Last year, when Poitras learned that the Guardian had assigned veteran news reporter Ewen MacAskill to accompany her and Greenwald to Hong Kong, where Snowden was hiding, she became angry and suspicious. “Who has vetted him?” she demanded of Greenwald. In the contest for most sycophantic coverage of the Snowdenista crew, Peter Maass passed with flying colors.

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