A brief review of bad reporting
Cross posted from Pruning Shears.
Ever since Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s first story on NSA surveillance back in June there have been various attempts to discredit him. Most has been garden variety stuff, the kind of thing it’s usually better to ignore lest it get more oxygen. A post by BooMan earlier this week jumped out at me though, one point in particular.
In response to criticism from Charles Pierce, he writes “Glenn Greenwald can be filled with shit as far as [Pierce] is concerned so long as it keeps pumping out revelations from the Snowden files.” Now, being full of shit can mean being pompous, self-righteous, egotistical, or otherwise having too much self-regard. I could see that as a fair criticism of Greenwald, though I don’t agree with it.
But being full of shit can also mean being wrong, and that is what BooMan appears to mean as he makes an eye-popping comparison:
When I hear people argue that talking about Greenwald is a distraction from the real scandal, I feel like asking if talking about Judith Miller was a distraction from the real scandal. Shitty reporting is shitty reporting, and if you are going to tolerate it when it suits your purpose then you lose the right to complain about it when it doesn’t suit your purpose.
Since we may be on the verge of another war it could be helpful to look at just what made Miller’s prewar reporting so terrible. First of all, journalists are generally expected to be adversarial. If they don’t show a certain amount of skepticism – if they believe exactly what they are told – then papers might as well just republish press releases. Second, journalists should have an almost antagonistic stance towards those calling the shots. Yet Miller let Dick Cheney whisper in her ear, printed what he said unchallenged, and he promptly went on the Sunday shows citing the new York Times in support of his case for war.
Those two characteristics are important not because they conform to some ideal of crusading, muckraking journalism but because they help reporters keep from getting things wrong. And Miller was a shitty reporter because she got lots of really important things wrong. For instance, she reported on “a secret Iraqi camp where Islamic terrorists were trained and biological weapons produced. These accounts have never been independently verified.” See the link for more details of journalistic malfeasance, and see a follow up article (which notes of the first: “Five of the six articles called into question were written or co-written by Ms. Miller”) the next year for even more.
Catering to the powerful is a leading indicator of bad journalism. This is not to say reporters should reflexively assume high ranking officials are lying or never have a sympathetic tone towards them, but it does mean journalists should be vigilant about the possibility of being misled when dealing with them. Miller was not.
She was the primary source for (fictional) reporting on the provocations of a nation we were about to launch a war of aggression against, and she did so in a way that burnished the credibility of the very officials who were acting in such bad faith. That’s some really shitty reporting!
How does Greenwald stack up? On the “getting things wrong” front, BooMan links to one piece that claims Greenwald exaggerated. “Nothing to see here” is a rhetorical device, though, not proof of inaccuracy. He also links to a post that points out Greenwald initially claimed his partner was not able to consult a lawyer for his entire nine hours of detention, when it actually was eight. I don’t think that rises to the level of erroneously reporting on renovations to secret Iraqi nuclear weapons facilities.
BooMan also links to some previous non-NSA related blogfights that will continue for as long as there is an Internet. Nothing else on the surveillance programs though. On the “getting things wrong” scale Greenwald is a pygmy compared to Miller.
Moreover, if Greenwald was a Miller-scale shitty reporter, his reporting would not be getting corroborated. Yet other outlets are chiming in left and right with new details. There are additional reports by McClatchy (which mark those who believe it’s a “matter of policy that warrants are required” for spying as having truly special levels of credulity), AP, Spiegel, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times (now with less Miller!), the Washington Post, Reuters…the list goes on. Everyone is getting in on the act.
If it was just Greenwald out there, well, maybe some skepticism is in order. He could still be right then – journalists have often stood alone in the face of huge pushback and been vindicated – but at the moment every outlet with a Washington bureau is publishing new revelations. Even if we stipulate Greenwald is a shitty reporter, doesn’t the cascade of details elsewhere count for anything? Focusing on him suggests a greater interest in personality-driven soap operas than a candid examination of policy.
Photo from frederic.jacobs licensed under Creative Commons