La Dolce Vita

A few thoughts from Steven Rockford
JUNE 24, 2013 8:30AM

When is a journalist not a journalist?

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Is Glenn Greenwald a journalist? 


There has been much written and said in the past 24 hours about the exchange between David Gregory and Glenn Greenwald on Meet the Press yesterday.  Many people have had an emotional reaction to David’s question to Glenn; “Why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?  Glenn responded later in a tweet; “Who needs the government to try to criminalize journalism when you have David Gregory to do it.”   

Some pundits were outraged, posting headlines like this:

David Gregory 

But was Gregory’s question really “ridiculous?” 

David led into his question by saying; “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime? 

In this case, he wasn’t necessarily directing his question to a fellow journalist.  He was directing his question to a person who some feel ventured past the role of a journalist and into the role of a person who provided support to someone who has allegedly committed a crime.  Greenwald admitted that he has had several contacts with Edward Snowden.  Many people wonder if those contacts may have gone beyond being journalistic interviews.  For Gregory to ask him about that seems to be a legitimate journalistic question. 

Gregory didn’t say that Greenwald aided and abetted Snowden.  He said; “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden.”  That “extent” could range from nothing to a major level of support.  And, based on Greenwald’s actions to date, it is fair to say that his degree of complicity could fall anywhere in that range. 

Hence, why wouldn’t the public want to know the answer to Gregory’s question?  Moreover, why shouldn’t a journalist feel free to pose that question under these circumstances? 

Glenn should have answered, “I did not in any way aid and abet Mr. Snowden.  I was acting in my capacity as a journalist conducting an interview.”  But he did not say that.  By challenging Gregory as “a fellow journalist,” he has only increased the public’s concerns as to how far he may have stepped outside the boundary of journalism in his relationship with Snowden. 

Which brings me back to my opening question: “When is a journalist not a journalist?” 

People who have the title of “journalist” are journalists when they conduct interviews and gather information for public reporting.  They exit the role of journalism when they assume a supportive role in a crime that has allegedly been committed. 

Perhaps it would have been better if David Gregory had worded his question in a different way.  He could have been less direct by using the third person in his questioning.  He could have said:  

To the extent that a journalist went beyond reporting and aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, would you, Mr. Greenwald, think that that person should be charged with a crime? 

This line of questioning would have been less threatening to Greenwald.

Regardless, it appears to many people that Glenn Greenwald may have gone outside of his role as a journalist to help support Edward Snowden in his quest to escape prosecution.  There hasn’t been any positive evidence to support this allegation, but there has been enough circumstantial evidence to allow journalists to ask the question.



Update 6/24/13: - Biting the hand that feeds him

Michael Calderone, at Huffington Post, posted a summary of a phone interview with Glenn Greenwald today.  In the interview Glenn blames everyone else for his inability to directly answer a journalistic question posed by David Gregory.  Greenwald presented a paranoiac reference to the “D.C. – New York media axis” who, he implies, are out to get him. 

Glenn has been relishing his time in the national media spotlight lately.  After today’s performance, however, that spotlight has greatly dimmed.

Don’t expect to see Glenn’s face again on network TV any time soon.

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I’m not debating the issue as to whether the “desemination (sic) of classified information” should be a crime. I’m just stating that David Gregory’s question was a fair journalistic question, based on the current published articles about Greenwald and Snowden.

I’ll let you be the judge as to whether the main stream media should be indicted for “aiding and abetting.”
If the extant can be zero, then that open ended question can be asked of anyone, even you. Obviously, his little word game backfired on him.
Yes, it wasn’t a good idea for Glenn to go on Meet the Press. He should have continued fielding soft ball questions from Howard Kurtz.
The first time David Gregory grows a spine is when he's questioning Glenn Greenwald? That's pretty funny.
The important point here is that by calling oneself a journalist, that does not allow a person to legally say or do anything. There have been many instances where “journalists” have crossed the line of protection under the First Amendment of our Constitution.

Take for example the Valerie Plame story ten years ago. Robert Novak was the journalist who broke the story about Plame’s work with the CIA. Novak refused to divulge the source of his story (who later was identified as Karl Rove), claiming his journalistic rights under the First Amendment. But was Novak really acting in a journalistic capacity when he listened to Rove, or was he actually a witness to a crime?

As John Dean said at the time, naming a CIA operative is a “deadly serious crime.” In other words, Karl Rove’s act of telling Robert Novak the name of an active CIA operative, Valerie Plame, was a crime. And by receiving that information from Rove, Novak became a witness to a crime, which should have negated his “journalistic” right to protect this source. In this instance, Robert Novak was not a journalist reporting on criminal activity, but rather a witness to the crime that was being committed by Karl Rove.
Who should decide what the criteria is for being a legitimate journalists. I have no doubt that there are a lot of quacks conducting journalism and people should be wary of them but generally speaking even though I have some objections about Glen Greenwald he isn't one of them. But even if he was what would happen if so-called establishment journalists that don't cover many issues were allowed to discredit those that do by denying them the qualifications of a journalist.

Few if any of the commercial journalists do an adequate job covering the news so I'm not going to rush to give them a monopoly or unfair advantage.

Actually Glen Greenwald might qualify as a commercial journalist; the Guardian sells ads for revenue to conduct business. But he is doing far better than David Gregory, although he should have discussed ECHELON more when talking about "Prism."
The problem, Steven, is that Gregory asked Greenwald an insulting question that impugned his motives in a manner that had a McCarthyite ring to it. There is no reason in the world to assume that Greenwald aided and abetted the act of acquiring the data. As a journalist, and certainly Greenwald is a journalist, it is his job to assist in the dissemination of newsworthy material subject to the legal boundaries imposed by the Guardian. Clearly, the model here is the Pentagon Papers. What I want to know is why is it appropriate to lead with the whole "To the extent that..." gambit. It's a fig leaf for a cheap gotcha question that is so typical of the source. I do question Gregory's legitimacy here. While I agree that you provided an excellent answer for Greenwald, another appropriate answer would have been, "What a cheap shot, David. I'm not going to answer that. Are your ratings really that low?"

To your point, Kathryn, about Woodward and Bernstein; there never was any indication that either of them provided Deep Throat with advice on how to escape prosecution. However, enough circumstantial evidence has been published to assume that Greenwald may have provided this support to Snowden in this regard. Glenn could say that he was providing this information (if he did do this) as a retained attorney, but he would have to come up with a bona fide document to support attorney-client privileges.

Glenn Greenwald implied that he was acting as a journalist in this case. Enough issues have arisen to justify a journalistic questioning of his actions.

That’s all I’m saying.


I’m certainly not trying to say that David Gregory is a better journalist. In fact, I’ve often felt that his shtick is more sensational reporting. But I do feel that he was not out of line to ask that question of Glenn Greenwald.


As you said, “the problem is that Gregory asked Greenwald an insulting question.” I agree. However, do you agree that the third-person question noted in my post would have been less insulting, but still qualify as a justifiable journalistic question?
Steven, thanks for the post/discussion here on Glenn. In my mind he's a journalist and one could add that he has a trustworthy reputation since Snowden would not have risked contacting someone who was just the opposite.

Also, I think that's a great point you have presented here that Gregory could have asked his question in the third person manner.
Yes, journalism is indeed a word game. Often a reporter can say the same thing using different wording and receive significantly different results.
[r] glad you are addressing this, Steven, but I consider Greenwald a real journalist and I consider David Gregory with his Meet the Press propaganda machine for the administration a "Stepford" journalist. His question to Greenwald was typical of his earnest, administration-pleasing style. Russert was a toadie for the administration but David Gregory is far worse. I stopped watching Meet the Press. It was too propagandizing about war and the tiny and limited and narcissistic anti-citizen view of the establishment. The tiny little social gated community of the DC elite including the Pentagon. Gregory with only softball questions to those who pimp him out. As for his question and his attitude to Greenwald, it certainly shows his lack of empathy with us victims of the NSA and the real role of journalism, or what it used to be. Greenwald is awesome in how intrepid he calls out and has called out for a long time the amorality of our government and backed it up with details and legal savvy. The aggression to the bill of rights of our government should be the focus, and not authoritarian following blindered attention by too many especially journalists who have become stenographers for power not real watchdogs for the national community to the "naughtiness" of questioning authority even when said authority is CRIMINAL and committing HIGH CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. best, libby
Amen Lib,

"The aggression to the bill of rights of our government should be the focus."
If I had to pick between Gregory and Greenwald when choosing a journalist, I definitely wouldn't pick Gregory. Last time I saw him on TV he was doing that pony dance with the Korean rapper on the Today Show. Not my idea of a journalist. Gregory's always been a little too cozy with the White House to be objective--his kids go to Sidwell Friends along with all the other movers and shakers in DC. He's not about to risk dirty looks on the soccer field.
Unfortunately, risking “dirty looks on the soccer field” is what’s keeping the Beltway Media from doing real reporting these days.

Personally, I find more informative reading in the foreign press. The US network media removed themselves from objective journalism long ago.
I used to read Greenwald a lot when he first appeared on Salon. He didn't take any prisoners and still doesn't. I came to conclude he's more interested in notoriety than he is the truth. Now that he has it, and it's possible his exposure will put in jeopardy his speaking engagements, et al. let's see what happens next..
I too began reading Greenwald several years ago. I often commented on his Salon blog as well as his earlier Unclaimed Territory blog. He was very instrumental in getting the public’s attention during the first FISA go-around.

Glenn has a very large intellect. Unfortunately, he has an even larger ego, which tends to get in the way when he’s faced with well-spoken and well-documented opposing views.
about as appealing a personality as a dead crayfish, i'd add. u wonder why all that posturing is necessary, but then i never found a national platform, and i'm not pretty either
This is a great question. I was thinking the same thing about Snowden himself a few days ago. I think this incident represents the critical mass which nihilism seeks. When is an oath not an oath? When is a law not a law? When is a border not a border? (Moscow airport) When is a spy not a spy? When is a thief not a thief? When is conscience conscience? When is an agreement not an agreement?

If the Snowden debacle is taken to its fullest extent, no law, standard or property agreement is safe. Any individual can arbitrarily renegotiate. No structure of any kind can survive. Even if Snowden were right on every single thing that he did and every justification, you still can't act unilaterally and expect civilization to survive. When is civilization not civilization? When there is no agreement or compromise.
It is frightening to think about, but it may be true that “this incident represents the critical mass which nihilism seeks.” The problem is that, as Robert Oppenheimer once found out, when we reach critical mass, things go boom.

Let’s hope that this one just fizzles out.

Thanks for your insightful comment.
Steven, since you asked, no, I would not accept the question as you posed it: "To the extent that a journalist went beyond reporting and aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, would you, Mr. Greenwald, think that that person should be charged with a crime?"

Several issues here: if you added "aided and abetted Snowden in evading arrest" it would seem clearer, but it's not.

The bar is low on "aiding and abetting." It can mean in the eyes of some law enforcement officials and grand juries simply not sharing what one knows about a fugitive, but the reality is that journalists talk to fugitives all the time.

It is the premise of the question that is offensive and is rarely asked of anyone considered to be a "real" journalist, NSA operatives excepted. They would certainly be in accord with Gregory's line of questioning.

So what if Greenwald has an ego and is an advocacy journalist. Does anyone thing Matt Taibbi is not a journalist?
"Perhaps it would have been better if David Gregory had worded his question in a different way."

No shit?

Hey, Steven, when, exactly, did you stop beating your wife?

We seem to have veered off topic. The point of my post is to say that there was nothing wrong with Gregory asking that question. It makes no difference if you or I (or anyone else) “like” the question; or if we “like” or “dislike” Gregory or Greenwald; or if we “respect” or “disrespect” either one of these individuals - either as a journalist, activist or as a person.

Based on the circumstances noted in my post, I feel that David Gregory (a journalist) was perfectly within his rights (and not out of line) to ask Glenn Greenwald (a journalist and/or activist) the question that he asked him.

You apparently feel differently. Let’s just agree to disagree on this one.