Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and the Courtier Press

greenwald-noplaceGlenn Greenwald’s new book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State is a dramatic account of the NSA whistleblowing saga that made headlines around the world and profoundly changed the nature of the surveillance debate in this country.

It’s also a book about the press.

(Buy a copy from FAIR— and support our work.)

Indeed, one of the core lessons is that if he didn’t have independent journalists he trusted, the world still wouldn’t know who Edward Snowden is–and we’d have no idea about the rich trove of documents that document the NSA’s aggressive and at times illegal surveillance.

The book takes readers to the moment Snowden first reached out to Greenwald–an interaction that almost didn’t happen because Greenwald was technologically ill-equipped to even communicate with his NSA source.

Once they were able to connect, it was clear that Snowden sought out Greenwald because he felt he could trust him–and could not trust outlets like the New York Times, which he viewed as too beholden to government pressure.

It was obvious that Snowden could have published all the documents himself; but his preference was for the revelations to unfold journalistically, which he believed would give them maximum impact.  In planning the first round of stories, Greenwald writes:

Our idea was simple: to churn out one huge story after the next, every day, a journalistic version of shock and awe.

But things did not roll out so smoothly. The book recounts the dramatic struggles between Greenwald and the Guardian over publishing the first stories fast enough. The first two stories were ready: revelations about the NSA’s phone metadata phone program, and the explosive PRISM story about the NSA’s access to the servers of Internet giants like Google, Apple and Facebook.

But the Guardian did not publish the stories as quickly as Greenwald wanted. The paper’s legal team was weighing the ramifications of the bombshell reporting, and there were efforts to notify  government officials in advance of publication.  The  delays infuriated Greenwald, and he nearly resigned from the paper.

Guardian editor Janine Gibson spoke to an array of government officials before publication. They argued that the Guardian did not understand the documents they were reporting on, and that it all could be explained in due time.

But when she told them the paper was ready to publish its stories, things escalated:

They told her she was not a “serious journalist” and the Guardian was not a “serious newspaper” because of its refusal to give the government more time to argue in favor of suppressing the story.

“No normal journalistic outlet would publish this quickly without first meeting with us,” they said, clearly playing for time.

They’re probably right, I remember thinking. That’s the point. The rules in place allow the government to control and neuter the news-gathering process and eliminate the adversarial relationship between press and government.

Glenn Greenwald (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)

Glenn Greenwald (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)

Once the first two Snowden stories were published, Greenwald was conducting friendly interviews with almost every major media outlet one can imagine–“an unusual experience in my career as a political writer often at odds with the establishment press.” As he explains: “I had few allies in the traditional media. Most were people whose work I had attacked publicly, frequently and unsparingly.”

But that media mood was not going to last forever. The tone of much of the coverage shifted once Snowden went public as the source of the documents. “I knew that media hostility toward my reporting on Snowden’s disclosures was inevitable,” Greenwald writes. And sure enough, it came: NBC host David Gregory musing about whether Greenwald should be charged with a crime (FAIR Blog, 6/24/13), and the New York TimesAndrew Ross Sorkin saying that he “would almost arrest Glenn Greenwald.” There were also the waves of attacks on Snowden, who was maligned as a low-level high school dropout with narcissistic tendencies (Extra!, 8/13).

To Greenwald, these attacks revealed some fundamental truths about the state of mind of these elite pundits: “Radical dissent is evidence, even proof, of a severe personality disorder…. Obedience to authority is implicitly deemed the natural state.”

And the similar dismissal of Greenwald as an “activist” instead of a journalist also brought profound lessons about how journalists police their own profession: “Like all courtiers, they are eager to defend the system that vests them with their privileges and contemptuous of anyone who challenges that system.”

It’s obvious to anyone who’s read him that Greenwald has opinions. But using his political views to discredit his journalism by squawking about objectivity isn’t really about ethics:

The rule of objectivity is no rule at all but rather a means of promoting the interests of the dominant political class. Hence, “NSA surveillance is legal and necessary” or “the Iraq War is right” or “the United States should invade that country” are acceptable opinions for journalists to express…. Objectivity means nothing more than reflecting the biases and serving the interests of entrenched Washington.

Near the end of the book, Greenwald notes that many pundits predicted that the public would lose interest in the NSA revelations. But the outrage and interest in government surveillance show little signs of abating. Perhaps it’s just one more thing that the elite pundits are still getting wrong about the Snowden story.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.