The unexpected Glenn Greenwald vs. Bill Keller back-and-forth in The New York Times yesterday was interesting itself—Andrew Sullivan called it one of the high points of debate in the digital era, no less—but as always, the reaction across the web was just as revealing.
Keller billed it as a profound discussion of “what journalism is becoming.” You should read it at length, though The Guardian has a good summary. But it does often revolve around the question of “objectivity” and hiding vs. revealing your biases—not exactly a new subject, but it’s given deeper life here.
So here are some of the early responses, although to this point it seems most of the key observers seem to be taking it all in before responding. Jay Rosen, for example, simply tweeted: “One of the more important texts to emerge in the debate over newsroom objectivity. Ever.” David Carr at the Times said: “Packs a walllop [sic], not one of those dreary future of news discussions.” Dan Kennedy wrote: “I didn’t expect conversation between @nytkeller and @ggreenwald to be this good. Read it.”
So I will add to what follows as the day goes on.
First from Andrew Sullivan who says we need both of those approaches:
I think Glenn has the advantage. And that’s because his idea of journalism is inherently more honest—declaring your biases is always more transparent than concealing them. That’s why, I think, the web has rewarded individual stars who report and write but make no bones about where they are coming from. In the end, they seem more reliable and accountable because of their biases than institutions pretending to be above it all. In the NYT, the hidden biases are pretty obvious: an embedded liberal mindset in choosing what to cover, and how; and a self-understanding as a responsible and deeply connected institution in an American system of governance. These things sometimes coexist easily—as a liberal paper covering the Obama administration, for example, with sympathetic toughness. And sometimes, they don’t—as a liberal paper covering the Bush administration, for example, and becoming implicit with its newspeak.
On the latter, Glenn’s strongest point is about the NYT’s decision not to call torture torture when reporting on the torture regime of Bush and Cheney. Keller still has no good answer here—except, quite obviously, his desire not to burn bridges with an administration and not become a lightning rod for right-wing press critics. Trying to appear objective, in other words, by appeasing both sides in a dispute, is not actually being objective or impartial. It’s enabling war crimes—which I think the New York Times did under Bill Keller’s leadership. No one ever hesitated to use the word torture to describe waterboarding in the past, and the NYT itself did so when other countries were guilty. So hiding your biases, and trying to appear objective, can mean the opposite of honest.
Marcy “Emptywheel” Wheeler found the debate valuable and sides with Greenwald, but pointed out:
Sadly, however, in his first response to Keller’s self-delusion of belonging to the journalistic tradition of “newspapers that put a premium on aggressive but impartial reporting that expect reporters and editors to keep their opinions to themselves,” Greenwald seemed to cede that such journalism constitutes, “concealing one’s subjective perspectives.” That permitted Keller to continue his self-delusion that his journalism—at both the level of reporter and that reporter’s larger institution—achieved that silence about opinions until they started fighting about the role of national allegiance and national security.
Dylan Byers, media critic at Politico:
Both journalists agree that “fairness and rigorous adherence to facts,” as Greenwald puts it, are prerequisites for sound journalism. But only Greenwald sees it as a journalist’s duty to rigorously fact-check government claims, whereas he says the Times adhers to a “‘here’s-what-both-sides-say-and-I-won’t-resolve-the-conflicts’ formulation.”
Keller does, however, make a convincing case when he says “the need for impartial journalism is greater than it has ever been, because we live now in a world of affinity-based media, where citizens can and do construct echo chambers of their own beliefs.”
Greg Mitchell discusses Glenn Greenwald’s departure from The Guardian and his new media venture.