On Snowden, The Guardian, the Public Attitudes toward Journalism

Image of electric plug and utility bill

The seemingly overnight morphing from investigative journalist to partisan P.R. practitioner may be the underlying journalism ‘back story’ behind the headline-grabbing National Security Agency ‘leak’ … or, as some prefer, ‘whistle blowing.’

Best anyone can tell, the headline-demanding story of the release of National Security Agency materials by consultant Edward Snowden has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with climate change.

And that’s a good thing. Thank goodness for small favors.

Essay and Opinion

Which is what makes it all worth commenting on.

Along with the 24/7 international publicity — fame and infamy — given the alleged wrongdoing by the former Booz Allen Hamilton employee, one other name increasingly familiar to those in the climate change arena stood in the spotlight, or at least on the fringes. This was the name not of an individual, but rather of an institution … The Guardian newspaper. And of its erstwhile reporter-seemingly-now-PR-flack Glenn Greenwald.

Greenwald’s convenient “scoop” on the NSA security leak had made him an overnight star, with more than a few admirers in the journalism community notwithstanding their possibly conflicting attitudes toward the alleged leaker. Greenwald clearly appeared to be enjoying his sudden fame or, again, infamy.

Over the course of just a week, however, Greenwald appeared to have morphed from enterprising, even investigative, journalist … to public relations man, perhaps even advance man of sorts for the accused (but clearly not convicted) Snowden.

By Saturday morning, June 22, Greenwald in an early morning CNN news interview clearly appeared to have become not the detached and impartial observer and reporter, but rather a principal participant in, even architect of, the news story he was reporting. Far from the journalistic observer and story-teller, Greenwald came across as advising and counseling the accused, and bluntly scolding the U.S. for its real, perceived, and alleged wrongdoings.

So what’s the climate connection here? Only this: A colleague recently asked, prior to the whole Snowden/NSA fiasco, “Why is it always The Guardian?” Prompted by the increasingly visible and often admirable news and editorial coverage and commentary on climate change matters, the colleague noted, fairly, both the quantity and the quality of the British paper’s climate coverage. And that in the midst of shrinking coverage by many or most U.S. news outlets. Much of that coverage is bylined by its Washington, D.C.-based reporter Suzanne Goldenberg. (She likely wears the “warmist” label given her by climate contrarians as a badge of honor.)

The Goldenberg and Greenwald coverage are, best to emphasize, unrelated … other than that they both are published by The Guardian.

So, what’s the issue here? The question is whether the American public will come to see Greenwald’s increasingly unjournalistic Snowden coverage, commentary, and personal involvement as typical of reporting and reporters overall. If so, public attitudes toward the media and of journalists — never high — could only suffer further.

Aha, one might inject. It’s clearly an example of the differences between traditional journalistic American news protocols compared with the far more personal and more opinionated coverage representative of many news outlets in western Europe and in the U.K.

Maybe American news audiences will make that distinction. But maybe — and in particular as some in the U.S. news media continue to interview and treat Greenwald as a “news reporter” and not as a veritable public relations practitioner — they won’t.

It’s stunning to note that within just one week — and entirely separate from ones attitudes on the alleged “leak” or “whistle blowing” alleged by the U.S. and admitted to by Snowden — the lead reporter in the whole affair had morphed from journalist to publicist. It’s interesting to note here too that the secondary media organization initially “favored” by the Snowden leaks — that is, The Washington Post — followed no such similar trajectory.

Support it or deplore the data dump involving Snowden (by his own admission), the NSA, the Obama administration, and far more, it increasingly appears the whole experience will redound to the continuing discredit of the news media at a time when few might have thought their standing could shrink much further.

It could well end up a sad day for Snowden and his family; for the nation’s security efforts; for legitimate privacy and “right to know” interests; for the Guardian and its standing as a reputable news organization; and for public attitudes toward media conduct generally.

It’s that last matter that might be most painful to those looking at the whole dismal swamp through a journalism prism.

In the end, it’s not the initial reporting by the Guardian’s Greenwald that galls from the perspective — however anachronistic it might seem — of traditional American journalism values. Instead, it’s the subsequent, deliberate and seemingly gleeful self-promoting insertion of the reporter himself as a central figure in the whole tawdry drama.

Sometimes, good things happen when a reporter’s ego and self-importance come to exceed his journalistic principles. But that’s seldom the case, and unlikely the outcome here. Among the many important democratic principles and institutions at risk in all this is, let’s not forget, the media and its still-important role in a democracy.

It’s true that it’s no longer our grandparents’ or even our parents’ journalism we get nowadays.

The question is, just whose is it? And who would even want it at this point?

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On Snowden, The Guardian, the Public Attitudes toward Journalism

  1. Fred Powledge says:

    You do understand, don’t you, Mr. Ward, that Greenwald is a columnist, not a reporter?

    • Bud Ward says:

      Fred: Thanks for your comment, a worthwhile one. But perhaps a distinction without difference beyond the newsroom or journalism class and, almost certainly, among most readers.
      A problem is that some in the media, while interviewing Greenwald on air, have identified him as a reporter, and not always or solely as a columnist or journalist. He has not, in those interviews, clarified that point. In fact, in the initial June 5 story http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/06/nsa-phone-records-verizon-court-order in which he broke the NSA leak, he did so in a news story and not in a column…and the paper in that piece even referred to “additional reporting” accompanying his own. That was not a column, but a news story.
      Interviewed June 22 on a CNN early-morning news program, he was introduced as “a journalist who broke” the story… despite crawls identifying him as a columnist. The story carried the headline “Journalist Glenn Greenwald….” and introduced him by saying “he’s a journalist.” Journalist? Yes for sure. But it’s not clear here either that he is a columnist and not a news reporter (which, again, was the case with his initial scoop.)
      Now, columnists are of course journalists, but journalists are not necessarily columnists, and in referring to “the stories” he has been working on regarding the NSA/Snowden situation, Greenwald too did not refer to opinion columns…but to “stories.” As in news stories.
      There are other examples too where the media — with and without a tacit acceptance by Greenwald — have blurred the line between columnist and reporter, as with media critic Howard Kurtz’s “Leakers Seek Out Advocacy Journalists” headline http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/12/opinion/kurtz-snowden-greenwald/index.html?iref=allsearch
      Do these important but journalistic nuances between news reporters and columnists — so vital to those in the field, and rightly so — register with the broad public? I doubt it. If they indeed do in some cases, is the significance of those differences, however vital to journalists themselves, apparent to the public generally? I’ll wager not on that one.
      Again, this columnist, in his initial reporting on the leak clearly wrote a news story and not a column, and it was nowhere identified as being a column. Through subsequent actions by some media interviewers and by him, the distinction between what is expected of a reporter vs. what is acceptable by a columnist is missing. (Though I suggest here that making oneself such an integral part of the story is not usually in the job description of columnists, let alone news reporters.)
      All that said…Your comment and point are legitimate, and in hindsight I should have explained that reporter/columnist angle in the initial posting, along with some of the sites mentioned here. And then explained why, if, and how it’s relevant to public attitudes toward the media.
      It might indeed be a distinction without difference for non-journalists and the American public at large, but your comment provides the opportunity to further evaluate it through a journalism prism. Thanks.

  2. Marlin R. Turby says:

    I am not a scientist anymore than I am a journalist. I have, however taken to the task of becoming a communicator on climate change. My credentials are no more than a passion for writing, a moderate understanding of climate change and a driving commitment for a sustainable future.

    Sometime during the early 1990′s, I recall hearing a special news report. In that report, climate scientists warned that the planet may warm 5 or so degrees Fahrenheit in the coming century. This was attributable to the burning of fossil fuels, the release and accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere and finally this was to be the greatest environmental challenge facing humanity.

    Not understanding any of this, I quickly dismissed it, seriously 5 degrees, so what ? They kept repeating this over and over.Then it dawned on me that perhaps I was a victim of my own ignorance. Obviously there was something going and I decided to shunt the media and inquire into the science. Libraries are priceless for this type of thing.

    I think it is safe to mention that many of us out here in the masses do not grasp the urgency in addressing a seemingly mild warming, until that is, an individual begins to understand and appreciate the world climate systems and just how energy constitutes a single degree of planetary warming;

    Climate is a very complex subject. Personally I am fascinated with the earth sciences with a particular taste for the atmosphere. Anyone can educate themselves, it is no heroic act. Yet life keeps us busy and so for the most part we rely upon the media to inform us. Who has time to read books on climate anyway?

    The telling of current events is a business and controversy sells. Climate change can not be explained in catchy sound bites so typical these days. The scientific method, essential to understanding the world we inhabit is illusive to most.

    Scientists traditionally stay out of the spotlights and policy. A few have chosen to speak publicly on science and the media. One was the late climatologist Stephen Schneider, who was an excellent communicator and spoke frequently, on what he referred to as, Mediaology.

    A prime example may viewed at realclimate.org, go to the list of scientists and under Schneider you will find “Steve in Action”. He reveals the dilemma scientists face in conveying important information that citizens should have, when it is filtered through the highly competitive, business model prone media outlets.

    At Michael Mann’s Penn State homepage there is a similar panel discussion on this, “How Government and Industry Hide Research and How to Fight Back”.

    A social crisis is at the doorstep. We have a decade or so to peak at carbon usage. ( That’s assuming climate sensitivity has no hidden surprises in store for us). The infrastructure is embedded with inefficiency’s and largely dependent upon fossil fuels. The contrarian army is a well oiled machine working around the clock. Science is difficult to convey to the general public. The public needs to be properly informed so the government may reflect it. The media isn’t what it used to be.

    It comes as no surprise that people are withdrawn and climate change is back page news.

    Unfortunately a dismissive attitude towards a hard news story such as climate change leaves a population easy prey for the contrarian misinformation campaigns. It blends in seamlessly with the conspiracy theories running amuck these days.

    On issues such as Snowden it’s a blur trying to figure out what to think, so many interpretations.

    Climate communication is an art in its’ own right. It must be articulated in language such that, for those who express disdain and/or ambivalence for climate science, may be encouraged to develop a listening for it. That is no simple task given the time constraints and the general mood.

    We need a conversation that enrolls enough people to bring about the political will to address climate change.

    I am surprised at the small number of comments posted at this site. It would be nice to see some journalists, editors and columnists eager to understand climate science.

    Where is everyone at?

  3. Marlin R. Turby says:

    Missing word–previous comment–4th paragraph–”just how MUCH energy constitutes…