(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his
By Jack Shafer
July 16 I would sooner engage you in a week-long
debate over which taxonomical subdivision the duck-billed
platypus belongs to then spend a moment arguing whether Glenn
Greenwald is a journalist or not, or whether an activist can be
a journalist, or whether a journalist can be an activist, or how
suspicious we should be of partisans in the newsroom.
It's not that those arguments aren't worthy of time, just
not mine. I'd rather judge a work of journalism directly than
run the author's mental drippings through a gas chromatograph to
detect whether his molecules hang left or right or cling to the
center. In other words, I care less about where a journalist is
coming from than to where his journalism takes me.
Greenwald's collaborations with source Edward Snowden, which
resulted in Page One scoops in the Guardian newspaper about the
U.S. National Security Agency, caused such a rip in the
time-space-journalism continuum that the question soon went from
whether Greenwald's lefty style of journalism could be trusted
to whether he belonged in a jail cell.
Last month, New York Times business journalist Andrew Ross
Sorkin called for the arrest of Greenwald (he later apologized)
and "Meet the Press" host David Gregory asked with a straight
face if he shouldn't "be charged with a crime." NBC's Chuck Todd
and the Washington Post's Walter Pincus and Paul Farhi also
asked if Greenwald hadn't shape-shifted himself to some
non-journalistic precinct with his work.
The reactions by Sorkin, Gregory, Todd, Pincus, Farhi, and
others betray (dare I say it? ) a sad devotion to the
corporatist ideal of what journalism can be and, (I don't have
any problem saying it) a painful lack of historical
understanding of American journalism. You don't have to be a
scholar or a historian to appreciate the hundreds of flavors our
journalism has come in over the centuries. Just fan the pages of
Christopher B. Daly's book "Covering America: A Narrative
History of a Nation's Journalism" for yourself. American
journalism began in earnest as a rebellion against the state,
and just about the only people asking if its practitioners
belonged in jail were those beholden to the British overlords.
Or consider the pamphleteers, most notably Tom Paine, whose
unsigned screed "Common Sense" 'shook the world', as Daly put
Untangling the Revolutionary War press from Revolutionary
War politics proves impossible, as James Rivington, publisher of
the pro-Crown New York Gazetteer understood implicitly.
Rivington left the city when the rebels swept in and returned
when the British drove them out, Daly wrote. A Philadelphia
publisher merely changed his newspaper's political stripes
depending on which army held sway.
Judith and William Serrin's anthology, "Muckraking: The
Journalism That Changed America", establishes the primacy of
partisan, activist journalism from the revolutionary period
through the modern era. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison
battled slavery in the 1830s with his newspaper, the Liberator.
Elijah Lovejoy performed similar service in the Alton Observer,
and in 1837 an Illinois mob attacked and killed him for his
anti-slavery journalism. Beginning in the 1840s, Frederick
Douglass used the press to fight for the freedom of his people,
later writing, "It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate
wrongs; I felt like denouncing them." Imagine the Sorkins,
Gregorys, Todds, Pincuses, and Farhis of those days telling
Douglass he was doing journalism wrong!
No politically contentious issue has ever escaped the eye
and the pen of partisan and activists journalists. Labor
journalist John Swinton used his press to campaign for working
people in 1884. Helen Hunt Jackson confronted the treatment of
American Indians in 1885. John Muir defended the Yosemite Valley
from the timber industry in 1890. Jacob Riis recorded tenement
poverty in "How the Other Half Lives" in 1890. And Ida B. Wells
exposed the South's causal lynching practices in 1892.
The muckrakers of the new century revealed Standard Oil's
bullying ways, political corruption in cities, the states, and
the U.S. Capitol; patent-medicine and insurance swindles;
unhealthful food; the sale of convicts to contractors; and more.
In later decades, the communist press (yes, the communist press)
alerted readers to the perils of silicosis and campaigned
against color-line in Major League Baseball. The photographs of
Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration in the late
1930s and Margaret Bourke-White for Life magazine in the 1930s
and 1940s provided a window on poverty.
From the end of World War II until the civil rights movement
began its ascension, the partisan and activist journalism faded
but didn't disappear, its practice crimped perhaps by the
so-called "Great Consensus" that had evolved, as Daly wrote in
"Covering America". Part of its demise can be attributed to
changing social attitudes. To write against segregation in the
1950s marked you in many corners as a disruptive partisan or
activist, not a journalist. By the time the civil rights
protests became a TV miniseries, to write in support of
segregation made you suspect. After the March on Washington in
1963, support of full citizenship for African-Americans was the
default mode for the mainstream press. In other words, the
once-radical became the norm, and after it did, those who
criticized American apartheid in the approved language were no
longer marginalized as activist or partisan journalists.
In the 1960s, the best opinionated, fact-based journalism
appeared in such books as Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring"
(1962), Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" (1963), Jessica
Mitford's "The American Way of Death" (1963), Michael
Harrington's "The Other America" (1963), and Ralph Nader's
"Unsafe at Any Speed" (1965).
The lefties at Ramparts magazine broke stories on Michigan
State University fronting for the CIA (1966), the use of napalm
in Vietnam (1966), and the CIA funding of the National Student
Association (1967). Later revelations in the early to mid-1970s
by the New York Times and the Washington Post (and others) about
the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and intelligence agency abuses
were, at their root, as partisan as any of the NSA
investigations Glenn Greenwald has contributed.
Remember, as Christopher B. Daly recently pointed out,
Daniel Ellsberg chose to leak the Pentagon Papers to New York
Times reporter Neil Sheehan because he (1) trusted Sheehan from
their years in Vietnam, and (2) had recently read a long
essay-review Sheenan had written for the paper's book section
titled "Should We Have War Crime Trials?" As Daly writes, "Three
months later, Sheehan wrote the first front-page article in the
series that became known as the Pentagon Papers."
I could continue my honor roll of partisan journalism
through the ages, Ms. magazine cultural critiques, muckraking by
the Village Voice and other alt-weeklies, Mark Dowie's piece in
Mother Jones on the exploding Ford Pinto (1977), the Progressive
magazine's H-bomb expose (1979), the overtly
techno-libertarianism of the Louis Rossetto-era Wired magazine,
and skipping to very fast-forward, Jeremy Scahill's book
"Blackwater" (2008), David Corn's "Romney tape" (2012), and
Radley Balko's new book about the SWATing of America, "Rise of
the Warrior Cop". But I think you get my drift.
My paean to activist and partisan journalism does not
include the output of the columnists and other hacks who arrange
their copy to please their Democratic or Republican Party
patrons. (You know who you are.)
Nor do I favor the partisan journalists who insult reader
intelligence by cherry-picking the evidence, debate-club style,
to win the day for their comrades. Read a few of the articles I
cite above and then ask yourself: Where would we be without our