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.
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.