NSA Leak: Is Greenwald a journalist or activist? (Does it matter?)

By Christopher B. Daly

In his NYTimes column today, David Carr raises a somewhat misleading question about Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story about the illegal, secret NSA spying on innocent Americans. Carr poses the question: is Greenwald a journalist or an activist?

I think that’s the wrong question, for several reasons.

First, as a historian of journalism, I start with looking at the history of American journalism. For more than a century, back in the early days of newspapers in Colonial America and during the first few decades of the early national period, there was no such thing as “objectivity” in the newspaper business, and there were no full-time reporters.

Thomas Paine (Library of Congress)

Thomas Paine (Library of Congress)

That is, the entire industry was based on content created by people with an ax to grind. Often, they were political activists (like Sam Adams or Tom Paine) or surrogates for office-holders (like James Callender).

The idea that a journalist should be defined as a full-time, professional fact-gatherer who has no political allegiances is not only unrealistic, but it is already a historical artifact. If that definition of a journalist ever made sense, it was during a period (the mid and late 20th century) that is now over. Today, the term “journalist” embraces all sorts of folks with different business models, different priorities, and different media. So be it.

Glenn Greenwald is actually a case in point for this new media landscape. He is not just a reporter. He is a lawyer-litigator, an author, a columnist, a blogger, and an advocate. He is also gay and living in a DOMA-induced exile in Brazil. In all he does, he appears to have strong convictions (or biases, if you prefer). He makes no bones about his allegiances. In a sense, he is the compleat modern journalist — global, multi-platform, high-impact.

I don’t agree with him on everything, but I value what he does. And I appreciate knowing where he’s coming from — unlike some journalists who actually have an agenda but deny it.


1 Comment

Filed under history, journalism history, media, Uncategorized

One response to “NSA Leak: Is Greenwald a journalist or activist? (Does it matter?)

  1. David

    Is there any sign that Greenwald has joined the hundreds of thousands of Brazilians in the street protesting the rampant corruption of the Brazilian government? Did the supposed DOMA exile join the 1 million Brazilians who protested discrimination against gays in Brazil on June 3? Or used his platform to further either cause? If not, the question is not journalist vs. activist but perhaps sycophantic hypocrite vs. cowardly hypocrite.

    Although you raise an excellent point about the barely hidden agendas of so many journalists, the distinction between journalist and activist is crucial because of the special legal and other privileges given to journalists. If Karl Rove is sued for libel, he cannot conceal his sources the way Roger Ailes or Maureen Dowd can. If a journalist has evidence of a crime, courts think twice (at least) before enforcing subpoenas. If a journalist secretly taped Planned Parenthood personnel for an expose, the media coverage would be much less scathing. If I want to attend the Bulger trial, a crime scene or a protest, I stand in line while journalists have special access.


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