Friday, January 23, 2009

Greenwaldian grandiosity

Following up on yesterday's post about the countretemps between Glenn Greenwald and Megan McArdle, I found myself watching this April 2008 BloggingHeadsTV video of Greenwald and McArdle, fascinated by the utter unreality of Greenwald's arguments.

Go to the 30:58 mark, where he says:
If Time magazine, tomorrow, said to me, you know, "Hey, would love for you to come and write for our magazine, and we'll quadruple what you're being paid now, and we'll give you all kinds of promotional value, and get behind you that way." Unless they were willing to say to me, "You can come and write about anything you want, exactly the way you want to write about it," I would never ever do it. Why? Because I do want to do the kind of journalism that Time isn't doing, and I know that if I went and became a reporter or a pundit for Time, I would have to do the kind of things that they talk about, and not the kind of things that I talk about.

Wow. Is what Greenwald does really so important that he'd turn down a quadrupling of his income rather than to answer to the corporate suits at Time? Methinks not.

His hypothesis is completely detached from the reality of what goes on at Time -- or Newsweek or Vanity Fair or Rolling Stone. Assuming that they were in the market for someone like Greenwald, they would hire him to do something a lot like what he's already doing. "Send clips and resume": They see your stuff, they like your stuff, they make you an offer. They're not going to hire you on the basis of, "Hey, what you're doing is crap, but we'll hire you anyway, so long as you agree to do it our way."

On the other hand, if Greenwald were hired as a "pundit" -- by which he means, "columnist" -- then he'd be expected to file 750 words a week, and there would be some kind of expectation that he'd be writing for a general audience. And this is where his posture as the Gibraltar of journalistic integrity becomes ridiculous, because Greenwald never has written for a general audience and I'm not sure he could if he wanted to.

Greenwald is a niche writer, whose ouevre is the allegation of heinous misconduct by the Bush administration, by the U.S. military, by our intelligence agencies, and by Republicans in general. Well, OK, fine. Let the connoisseurs of such things debate the merits of his work. I claim no expertise, but will gladly stipulate that Greenwald is to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act what George Noory is to UFOs and the paranormal, which is to say he is the past master of his niche.

Which brings us back around to the original subject Greenwald and McArdle were arguing about in April. Greenwald asserted that the media were ignoring the John Yoo memo (which had been recently made public) because they were fixated on "mindless, stupid, vapid chatter" about . . . the Democratic presidential primary.

Full stop. Given that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were then in the midst of a titanic struggle likely to decide who the next president would be, it does not even remotely surprise me that Greenwald would find Nexis database searches clogged with references to "Obama+Wright," "Obama+bowling," et cetera. However "mindless" those stories might be, this was during the Pennsylvania primary. Obama had a bad photo-op at a bowling alley and the rantings of Jeremiah Wright had become a big issue.

A presidential election is always big news, and people want to read about it. The release of a seven-year-old Justice Department memo . . . eh, not so much. If it had occurred to some of the reporters on the campaign trail to ask Barack Obama about the Yoo memo, or if Obama himself (who is a Harvard Law grad, after all) had decided to make a major issue of it, well, there would have been a lot more Nexis hits for "Yoo+torture."

Why did neither Obama nor the political press corps want to talk about the Yoo memo during the Pennsylvania primary campaign? I could speculate, but the point is that it was up to Obama whether he did a bowling-alley photo-op or gave a press conference to denounce the Yoo memo, and he decided to go bowling. If Greenwald wants to question that decision, he can take it up with David Axelrod.

A presidential campaign is important, per se. The news-consuming public is not to be blamed for wanting to read about the campaign, and journalists are not to be condemned for covering the campaign, even if -- in the finite time and space available for news -- this means that other important events get less coverage than they would under normal circumstances. A general audience cannot be expected to react to a Justice Department memo the way that Greenwald does, for several reasons:

  • Almost none of them want to read through a 13,000-word legal document;
  • The issues raised by the memo are difficult to boil down into terms that non-specialists can understand; and
  • A lot of people (including many Pennsylvania Democrats) fully agree with Yoo that, when faced with the kind of threat revealed by 9/11, the president has, and ought to have, very broad powers to meet the threat.

Greenwald can no more understand that some Americans disagree with his view of presidential wartime authority than he can understand why the editors of Time magazine considered the Pennsylvania primary more important than the Yoo memo. As Greenwald wrote in April:

Needless to say, these serious and accomplished political journalists are only focusing on these stupid and trivial matters because this is what the Regular Folk care about. . . . Our nation's coddled, insulated journalist class reaches these conclusions about what Regular Folk think using the most self-referential, self-absorbed thought process imaginable.
Pot. Kettle. Black. Who's being "self-referential" and "self-absorbed" here? The constitutional lawyer who wants the news to dwell on his own speciality, or the editors and reporters who think that whatever Obama does during the Pennsylvania campaign -- even a photo-op at a bowling alley -- is important news?

Megan McArdle's reaction to Greenwald back in April was dead on-target:
Americans care more about [Obama] than John Yoo because, well, John Yoo isn't running for president. Indeed, if one in ten Americans had even heard of John Yoo, I would be shocked, because most people don't care about minor government functionaries, no matter how pivotal their role may be in screwing up the world. . . .
But voters can't do much about John Yoo now, other than choose a different type of president.
Right. So tough noogies for Greenwald who (self-referentially, you might say) was trying to promote his book in April, and obviously would have loved to be all over TV talking about the Yoo memo, but instead everybody wanted news about the Pennsylvania primary.
"More a partisan screed than a reasoned argument meant to persuade undecided readers, this repetitive text frequently devolves into personal attacks and vast generalizations."
-- Publisher's Weekly, reviewing Glenn Greenwald's book, Great American Hypocrites
You don't say! "Coddled" and "insulated" though they may be, most journalists understand that the money's where the action is. And being the George Noory of Guantanamo Bay ain't it.

1 comment:

  1. Doesn't Glenn Greenwald look like he'll grow up to be Lurch in THE ADDAMS FAMILY?