Washington Post Puzzled by Strange New Category of Opinionated Journalist, Despite Employing Many of Them


In today's Washington Post Style section, media reporter Paul Farhi has an illogical and historically illiterate article with the appropriately odd headline of "On NSA disclosures, has Glenn Greenwald become something other than a reporter?" Here's how the piece begins:

Glenn Greenwald isn't your typical journalist. Actually, he's not your typical anything. A lawyer, columnist, reporter and constitutional liberties advocate, Greenwald blurs a number of lines in an age in which anyone can report the news.

But has Greenwald — one of two reporters who broke the story of the National Security Agency's classified Internet surveillance program — become something other than a journalist in the activist role he has taken in the wake of the NSA disclosures?

Skip over the pejorative-by-association stuff ("an age in which anyone can report the news") and focus on the bizarro construction—Glenn Greenwald isn't a typical journalist to begin with, and in the wake of his new NSA scoops, maybe, uh, Glenn Greenwald isn't a typical journalist? What?

Farhi then drills into a distinction without a difference:

Defining who is and who isn't a journalist isn't just an academic exercise when it comes to revealing matters of top-secret national security. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), the former chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, suggested earlier this month that Greenwald had stepped beyond typical journalistic boundaries and should be prosecuted for revealing state secrets. (King didn't make the same claim about Barton Gellman, the reporter who broke the story about the NSA's PRISM program in The Washington Post.)

Wait, did Peter King (a true congressional blowhard who does not get to define law in this case) really single out Greenwald while giving Gellman a hall pass? No he did not. In the link Farhi provides, King casts a net wide enough to include Gellman too. He just didn't utter the Post reporter's name:

"If they willingly knew that this was classified information, I think actions should be taken, especially something of this magnitude," King said. "I think, with something of this magnitude, there is an obligation — both moral, but also legal — against a reporter disclosing something which would so severely compromise national security."

King then responded directly to the question about punishing journalists: "The answer is yes, to your question."

What other evidence is there of Greenwald suddenly crossing some new line? Here it is in full: 

Greenwald has appeared frequently on TV to plead Snowden's case as a whistleblower — an advocacy role many mainstream journalists would be uncomfortable with 

While it's true that "many mainstream journalists would be uncomfortable" defending a whistleblower on TV—if for no other reason than that many mainstream journalists do not enjoy speaking on television—it does not require a deep archival search to note that one of mainstream journalism's most dogged audiovisual defenders of high-profile whistleblowers works at Farhi's own newspaper. This is how leaks to journalists work: The higher-profile the leak (and especially in Bob Woodward's case, the more anonymous said high-profile leaker is), the more that journalists of whatever ideological inclination will be incentivized to defend their source on television. 

After a quoting a Berkeley journalism school professor (who sees nothing wrong with Greenwald's recent work, but counsels skepticism toward ideological reporting), Fahri falls back on the old blurring-lines saw:

Still, the line between journalism — traditionally, the dispassionate reporting of facts — and outright involvement in the news seems blurrier than ever. Greenwald, for one, has left no doubt about where he stands.

The notion that journalism is traditionally equivalent to "the dispassionate reporting of facts" is particularly odd coming from a newspaper that profitably employs an entire mini-division headed up by Ezra Klein, an opinionated former volunteer for the Howard Dean campaign who once described himself as "an activist walking the halls of power." While Klein is a different writer than he was in his early 20s, his Wonkblog is—and rightly so—no mere "dispassionate reporting of facts."

Opinionated, line-blurring reporters have been breaking big news stories for as long as there have been outlets to print them. We know about a lot of JFK/LBJ/Nixon CIA/FBI skullduggery through the work of the leftist bomb-throwing magazine Ramparts. Why, we even have a word to describe this phenomenon, and it's more than a century old!

Yes, Greenwald is a different cat than your average newspaper reporter (and no, he is not above either criticism or unfriendly questioning, IMO). But aside perhaps from the Brazil address, he is not some exotic, unprecedented new category in American journalism. A media reporter from the Washington Post should understand that more than most.