Glenn Greenwald: 'Journalists Are Authoritarians'

What went wrong at the outlet he co-founded, what's wrong with the ACLU, and what might go wrong in the Biden administration


Few journalists are more relentlessly iconoclastic than Glenn Greenwald, who shared a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Edward Snowden revelations.

Though unapologetically progressive, the 53-year-old former lawyer never shrinks from fighting with the left. A week before the 2020 election, he quit The Intercept, the online news organization he co-founded in 2014, because, by his account, it refused to run a story unless he "remove[d] all sections critical of" Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Denouncing what he called "the pathologies, illiberalism, and repressive mentality" that led him to be what he characterized as  "censored" by his own media outlet, Greenwald railed that "these are the viruses that have contaminated virtually every mainstream center-left political organization, academic institution, and newsroom."

Like a growing number of refugees from more-traditional news organizations, Greenwald took his talents to Substack, a platform that lets independent content creators earn revenue directly from their audiences. He wasted no time lobbing grenades, posting stories and videos with titles like "No Matter the Liberal Metric Chosen, the Bush/Cheney Administration Was Far Worse Than Trump" and "The Three Greatest Dangers of Biden/Harris: Militarism, Corporatism and Censorship, All Fueled by Indifference."

Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Greenwald via Zoom in November. The reporter appeared from his home in Brazil, where he lives with his husband, two children, and numerous dogs. Among other topics, they discussed what Greenwald sees as a generational fight playing out in newsrooms and what he fears from Biden's presidency.

Let's start with you leaving The Intercept, this amazing publication that you helped start only a few years ago. What happened?

Well, some of you may recall that when I created The Intercept with Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, it was at the height of the Snowden story back in 2013. I was at The Guardian at the time. And I had received a lot of support institutionally and editorially from The Guardian. But I began noticing, as I worked with other media outlets to report that story, a lot of internal obstacles that they thought were quite difficult to overcome in terms of doing the reporting not just with that story but that, in general, I thought needed to be done.

Because Laura and I had a lot of visibility with that story, and Jeremy had done a lot of high visibility reporting of his own, including having produced a film about [then–President Barack] Obama's war on terror called Dirty Wars that had received an Oscar nomination, we had a lot of leverage to create a new media outlet. We obviously didn't do that, given that we all had very good platforms at the time to replicate what was already being done.

We only left the places we were at, which were very secure, because we thought we could do something different in journalism. One of the principal visions we had was that the model for how journalism is often conducted inside corporate media outlets—which is this hierarchical top-down structure, where editors impose not necessarily an ideology as much as a tone. So they flatten out the vibrancy and personality and voice in journalism….It was making it not just ineffective but actually quite boring.

The idea was, it's going to be a journalism-led media outlet, where editors are there to help you when you need it, to kick the tires on stories, to make sure that things are factually sound. But they're not the bosses. They're not the people you have to overcome who decide whether you can be heard or not. And I had written into my contract, just like I did at The Guardian and Salon, that except in very rare cases where there is very complex original reporting, like in the Snowden story and the Brazil reporting we did last year, that I would just publish directly to the internet with no editorial intervention.

That was the model we were building, that I thought I was building. I never thought it had anything to do with ideological dogma, and certainly never fealty to any political party. I was a vehement Obama critic at the time, and before that was a vehement critic of George Bush and Dick Cheney. We called ourselves adversarial, because we were going to be adversarial to political power, not subservient to it.

I felt as though we had gotten off course for a few years now by becoming more and more linked with the Democratic Party. Particularly in the age of Trump, where we had become not so much a journalistic outlet but more an activist outlet, designed not to report the truth no matter who it aggrandizes or angers but serving the interests of the Democratic Party. And more so, undermining the interest of Donald Trump, which ultimately became the same thing.

It all culminated in them essentially telling me that I couldn't publish my own story…at a news outlet that was built on my name….It was a huge irony. And being stifled in saying what I wanted to say, obviously, was something I could never accept, and my readers wouldn't want me to. So I left.

You've written that the Bush-Cheney administration was far worse than the Trump administration. You've also argued that in various ways the Obama administration was worse.

I started writing about politics because I thought the media was so dormant and complacent about these radical assaults on civil liberties under Bush and Cheney taking place during the war on terror. And then under Obama, they went to sleep even further. They got hypnotized into thinking that he was a noble and benevolent leader.

I'll give you just one example, which is press freedom. Under Obama, as I'm sure you know, the Espionage Act of 1917—one of the most pernicious laws we have on our books; it was enacted under Woodrow Wilson, and it was designed to criminalize dissent from U.S. participation in World War I—was invoked against whistleblowers and sources, like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and a dozen others, more under Obama than every other prior president combined. It ended up being three times more prosecutions under the Espionage Act for our sources as journalists than all previous presidents, including Nixon or Eisenhower or whoever you want to pick. And the press said almost nothing.

Trump gets in, and The Washington Post changes its motto to "Democracy Dies in Darkness," essentially saying press freedom is under assault. [White House reporter] Jim Acosta writes a bestseller with some pompous, self-glorifying title, like Danger: Reporting in the Era of Trump. What the fuck ever happened to Jim Acosta that constitutes an assault on press freedom? The worst thing Trump ever did to any of them was to say mean things about them in tweets. Those aren't assaults on press freedom. I was threatened by the Obama administration with prison when I was doing the Snowden reporting. I was criminally indicted by the [Jair] Bolsonaro government at the beginning of [2020] for the reporting I did in Brazil. Those are attacks on press freedom. Saying Jim Acosta is an idiot, and tweeting something insulting about Wolf Blitzer, isn't.

So you go through those metrics. George Bush and Dick Cheney started new wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama started new wars in Libya and Yemen. What new wars did Donald Trump start? He escalated bombing campaigns, which he inherited, in a pretty grotesque way. But he didn't start any new wars.

When you look at things like the destruction of Iraq or the implementation of a torture regime—what has Donald Trump done that even remotely compares in terms of moral evil to any of that? Nothing. And yet we're supposed to treat George Bush and Barack Obama like morally upstanding statesmen and Donald Trump like the literal reincarnation of Hitler.

Did you vote for Donald Trump in the last election?

I didn't vote. It's ironic: That's the one old journalism trope that I agree with, which is that if you vote, you psychologically become too connected to a politician. I prefer to just keep my distance.

After leaving The Intercept you migrated to Substack, a service that allows creators to put up whatever content they want and then to charge money for it. You charge $50 a year or $5 a month for what you produce there. A lot of other people are doing the same thing: Andrew Sullivan, Matt Taibbi, Matt Yglesias. Is this the future? Is it scalable?

I think it's grounds for being optimistic, in the sense that it isn't just people like me….It's letting new voices be discovered too. Substack says, "We're not approving or disapproving the content that goes out on our platform. We're just providing a service that allows people to come and monetize their journalism or their writing." In that sense, it is good.

But…whatever independent entity arises that gives journalists freedom and begins to compete with corporate media outlets, they turn their guns on it. People don't realize this. The main reason Facebook and Google and Twitter so actively censor now isn't because they wanted to. They don't want to. They never wanted to. They wanted to tell that story that Substack is telling—that AT&T tells, right?—which is, "Look, we're just a neutral platform. We don't pick and choose who gets to speak."

Nobody expects if Milo Yiannopoulos calls Alex Jones on AT&T and does a conference call that AT&T intervenes and cuts off their service, because people accept that AT&T is a content-neutral service. That's what Facebook and Twitter wanted to be. They had to stop doing that. They had to start censoring…because journalists at CNN and NBC and The New York Times demanded they do so. Turning on their huge megaphones and saying, "Look at the extremists and the hatefulness these platforms are giving voice to." And they're going to do the same thing to Substack and Patreon. It's just a question of time.

You sketch out an economically driven reason for the homogenization of journalism. It's partly that people at CNN and The New York Times want to get rid of anything that's going to get more eyeballs than they do. But some of the work that you've done recently has been in starkly ideological terms. Can you talk a little bit about what's going on at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and how that reflects or refracts larger ideological questions, particularly on the left?

In one sense, what's happening at the ACLU is the same thing happening on every college campus, practically; in corporate workplaces; and also in newsrooms. It largely breaks down on generational lines. Not completely, of course, but largely.

This younger millennial set—who are now not that young anymore; they're in their mid-30s or older and starting to assume managerial authority within these institutions—grew up believing that free speech is not an absolute value, and that it needs to give way in all kinds of instances where more important political agenda items and more important political values are in conflict with it, as they understand it. By which they mean: Ideas and arguments that may endanger marginalized people by making them uncomfortable, or that might lead to the implementation of harmful policies by convincing people to support them, are not ideas that should be heard. They're ideas that should be suppressed in the name of these greater political values.

So this conflict that is in the ACLU, in one sense, is a common one. The problem is the ACLU is a singular organization….They really were the only game in town when it came to defending an absolutist framework of free speech. They didn't give a shit what other values were at play.

These Jewish lawyers in the 1970s represented the actual Nazis who were wearing swastika armbands and their right to march down the streets of Skokie, Illinois, where a large population of Holocaust survivors were. That's how radical they were. And not just free speech but also due process. The idea that you cannot, no matter how odious a person's crime is that they're accused of, assume their guilt without giving them full due process.

I know a lot of people at the ACLU. I've worked with the ACLU for years. I have a lot of friends there who are lawyers. And they are now being riven by the same conflicts. Part of it is financial—after Trump, a huge number of liberals who thought the ACLU was just a liberal organization gave millions and millions of dollars, not in the name of civil liberties but in the name of stopping Trump, which sometimes converged and sometimes didn't. So they started becoming an overtly political organization.

What do you think drives that generational shift? Part of it probably is just that every generation rebels or pushes away from the older generation. But it does seem that younger people do not see the idea of free speech as an absolute right. How did that happen?

I have to say, when some pundits, like [New York magazine's] Jonathan Chait, were obsessed with these college campus controversies, I really didn't pay much attention. Because I just thought: I had a lot of views in college, and I grew out of them. I wasn't interested in chiding 21-year-old sophomores at Oberlin. I didn't think that was a very important power center to go and denounce and confront the way Jonathan and others were doing obsessively.

They turned out to be right in the sense that [the students] didn't grow out of it. They brought it with them to their workplaces. And as I said, these millennials aren't 20 anymore. They're 35 and 40, and they still haven't grown out of it.

When you learn in childhood that if you have something unpleasant, you run to mommy and daddy, who protect you from it….And then you go off to college, and you have deans in your dorms and administrators who, if you hear something in class that upsets you, they don't tell you to argue against it. They coddle you and tell you that you have a right to be safe from those things. And then you get to your workplace, and you hear a colleague saying things that upset you because you think they're terrible or destructive or harmful or wrong. Instead of engaging them, writing about them, the way journalists used to do…they run to human resources. They turn it into an H.R. complaint.

And I think the best book that I've read is one that I'm sure is known to a lot of your audience, which is The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt [and Greg Lukianoff]. In fact, it explained it so well that it actually changed not just how I viewed these issues as a journalist who writes about free speech but also even as a parent. If [your kids] have something that's upsetting them, your instinct is to go protect them. I realized, no, sometimes you have to just let them experience the unpleasant thing and learn those skills about how to navigate it.

In preparing for this, I came across an old CNN appearance of you arguing with Jeffrey Toobin about the release of the documents that Chelsea Manning gave to WikiLeaks. You were arguing that this was a good thing. It was beneficial for citizens to know what was going on. Toobin was saying, as a journalist, that we should not have access to these sorts of documents, because the government said they were secret. Do you expect to see that dynamic with the news media going forward?

One of the things that really bothers and disturbs me the most is that, as we were talking about earlier, the intention of Facebook and Google and Twitter, and Silicon Valley in general, from the beginning was not to censor. They began to censor because journalists demanded they do so, in part because journalists are authoritarians who believe that the modes of information [should be] regulated by them and by others. That's just unfortunately the modern-day mentality of the journalist. It used to be an anti-authoritarian mentality. Now they work for big corporations and become authoritarians.

But also, they don't believe in the right of citizens to confront power centers. They think that reporting means somebody in power, like in the CIA or the FBI, gives you information and tells you to go repeat it to the public. And then you go and do that. And they think that's reporting. But if somebody's outside of the scope of power—like some low-level Army private, like Chelsea Manning, who doesn't occupy an important position in Washington, or Edward Snowden—does the same thing, not with the intention of propagandizing but with the intention of illuminating, they view that as criminal.

Journalists view the dissemination of information about what powerful people are doing in the dark not as their principal function and purpose—which is what it ought to be if we had a healthy media—but as something to be denounced and condemned.

(Leo Correa/A.P.)

What do you think the future holds for whistleblowers under Biden and [Vice President–elect Kamala] Harris?

The irony is, we were talking earlier about how media figures have petulantly whined about trivial acts on the part of Trump, like tweeting mean things about Wolf Blitzer and Chuck Todd. And the reality is that the only thing the Trump administration really has done that's genuinely menacing to press freedom is the prosecution and attempted extradition of Julian Assange, for publishing not information in connection with the 2016 election but the 2010 Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and diplomatic cables that exposed war crimes and other acts of barbarism and savagery on the part of the U.S. and allied governments. The theory that's being used to prosecute Assange is one that would criminalize almost any journalist. In fact, the theory used by the Bolsonaro government [in Brazil] to try and indict me earlier this year was very similar to that theory. I think they thought, "Well, if the U.S. government is doing this to Assange, we can do this to him." And it will be used against other journalists as well.

I think that Trump remembers several things. He remembers that Julian Assange published information about Hillary Clinton that helped him win. He realizes that Edward Snowden risked his liberty and has been in exile for seven years now, because he exposed the abusive nature of spying powers of the [National Security Agency] and the CIA and the FBI that were used against the Trump campaign and then the Trump administration. And [he knows] that the people who want Julian Assange and Edward Snowden punished, John Brennan and James Clapper and Susan Rice and Mike Hayden, are the same people who have worked clandestinely, and I think corruptly, to undermine the Trump campaign and then the Trump administration, using and abusing the powers of the state to do so.

The reason they want Julian Assange to die in prison, and the reason they want Edward Snowden to have to live out the rest of his life in Russia, or be in prison as well, is obviously not because they regard them as ongoing threats but because they want to create a climate where people who discover illegal acts on the part of powerful people inside the government, who want to expose those acts the way Snowden or Manning—who was tortured—or Assange have done, think to themselves, "Wait, if I do that I'm going to have my life destroyed the way these people did."

The people who prosecuted Snowden was the Obama administration. The people who tortured and prosecuted Chelsea Manning was Obama. Even though he added a humanitarian gesture after seven years and let her go by commuting her sentence. They chose not to prosecute Assange even though they wanted to, but that was before the 2016 election. They now hate him even more, and so I'm sure they're going to continue that prosecution as well.

So I'm very worried about what a Biden-Harris administration is going to do when it comes to leakers and whistleblowers and sources, except for the ones who are leaking to their approved journalists for reasons that are designed to advance their interests.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a podcast version, subscribe to The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie.