Reflecting on Joe Biden’s now notorious picnic, Glenn Greenwald takes a characteristically severe line against journalists who fraternise with the enemy.
[A]ll of this just helpfully reveals what our nation’s leading “journalists” really are: desperate worshipers of political power who are far more eager to be part of it and to serve it than to act as adversarial checks against it — and who, in fact, are Royal Court Spokespeople regardless of which monarch is ruling. That’s why they’re invited into the heart of Versailles to frolic with the King’s most trusted aides: it’s their reward for loyal service as Court courtiers. Just marvel at the self-abasing joy in which Ed Henry wallows by virtue of getting to play water sports with Emanuel and the Bidens.
Marc Ambinder, who went to the party, responds. (His commenters seem mostly unpersuaded.)
Greenwald has a point. Ed Henry’s schoolgirl tweets as Rahm Emanuel chased him round the garden made me wince. Dignity of the profession aside, though, the rules of engagement Greenwald seems to advocate would make a lot of good journalism impossible.
The problem is where to draw the line. With an internet connection, much useful reporting and commentary can be done from your desk, using public material: no commingling required. But to uncover private information, you need sources. Socialising at events like Biden’s is an opportunity to develop some.
When somebody gives you private information, there is always a danger you will be misled (because your source has an agenda). Or you might be compromised by a sense of obligation or a desire to keep the channel open so you can go back for more. Socialising with sources, off-the-record interviews, on-the-record interviews, privileged access to press briefings all create this tension to some degree. To meet Greenwald’s standard of rigour, you would never put yourself in this position.
Getting too friendly with government officials is a particular danger — as any good journalist is aware. But the issue also comes up with non-government sources. They too have agendas. The same risks of obligation, dependence, and distorted judgment arise. The difference between a good journalist and a bad one is not whether you expose yourself to that danger but whether you are aware of it and check yourself for bias. Journalists should be sceptics. So should readers. They must decide for themselves whether a writer is thinking independently, ventilating prejudices, or channelling somebody else’s talking-points. I get a better sense of that from reading the copy than from knowing whether the writer attended a party.
Greenwald demands scepticism toward those in power — which any good journalist must have — but then confuses this with implacable hostility. They are not the same. The job of a reporter is to question, understand, and inform. You need a vigorous scepticism to do this. But unreasoning hostility is as inimical to understanding as blind deference.
By the way, it is strange to my mind that Greenwald regards bigotry as easier to tolerate in a journalist than a willingness to socialise with the VP and his staff. Helen Thomas may have some unpopular ideas about Jews, he reckons, but at least she never deviated from heckling the man. No cozying up to power for her. No taking of cupcakes from the ruling elite. (Well, almost none: see photo 14.) Still, I can’t help thinking, give me a journalist who is not a bigot.