Glenn Greenwald spends the last third of his excellent new book, “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State”, exposing the mentality and function of pseudo-journalists like David Gregory, who are in fact better understood as courtiers to power. So it was kind of Michael Kinsley to offer himself up today as living proof of Greenwald’s arguments.
In a New York Times book review, Kinsley says:
“The question is who decides [what to publish]. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government.”
Pause for a moment to let that sink in. How can the government have ultimate decision-making power consistent with the First Amendment with regard to the publication of leaks? As Kinsley himself goes on to say, “You can’t square this circle.” Indeed. Unless you believe the government should be able to impose prior restraint on the publication of anything it deems secret. Unless you want to argue that the Constitution should be amended accordingly. Unless you believe the government should have been able to prevent the publication of, say, the Pentagon Papers (it certainly tried).
By the way, that “in a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are)” is worth pausing to consider. Not just for the pretentious use of pace, which I admit is amusing, but more for the childlike notion that America is a democracy and there’s nothing more to be said about it. It’s almost like Kinsley has never heard of gerrymandering, or doesn’t understand that when voters are no longer choosing their politicians and politicians are now choosing their voters, democracy isn’t what’s at work. It’s almost like he’s never heard of former IMF Chief Economist Simon Johnson’s argument that modern America is best understood as an oligarchy (pro tip for Kinsley: oligarchies and democracies are not the same thing). It’s almost like he’s never even heard of Noam Chomsky (more on whom below — for now, suffice to say that Chomsky is great at explaining people like Kinsley, who are simultaneously sophisticated about irrelevancies and simple-minded about fundamentals).
Anyway, never fear, “No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay.”
“Whatever it turns out to be”? Kinsley has already explained the “decision must ultimately be made by the government.” By comparison, does it really matter what specific mechanism the government then decides on? This is a lot like conceding that the government should have the power to execute American citizens without any recognizable due process, then confining the argument merely to mechanics (Terror Tuesdays, anyone? Due Process just means there is a process that you do?). In both cases, the government’s arguments and those of its media flunkies are indistinguishable.
(Again, see Chomsky below on the propagandistic technique of narrowing the range of acceptable debate, and then permitting vigorous discussion only within that narrow range.)
And here’s a bit of the current reality of what Kinsley breezily refers to as a government “usually overprotective of its secrets.” Secrecy metastasis would be a far better way of describing what’s going on in America, where the government knows more and more about the citizenry and the citizenry knows less and less about the government (otherwise known as “Kinsleyan Democracy”).
By the way, if we were to implement the Kinsleyan notion that the government be vested with ultimate decision-making authority with regard to the publication of any information the government itself has stamped secret, what do you think would be the impact on secrecy metastasis? Do you think there would be less secrecy? Or even more secrecy abuse?
Ah, forget I said it. Silly question. It’s not like the government has any history at all of using secrecy to cover up incompetence, corruption, and criminality.
Kinsley is a guy who’s spent his adult life as a journalist — or at least pretending to be one — and it’s as though he has no notion at all of George Orwell’s pithy definition: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” Now, if Kinsley wants to cede his journalistic autonomy to the government (I think Matt Taibbi would have said “journalistic balls,” but there is only one Taibbi. I’m halfway through his new book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, another study of Kinsleyan Democracy, and it is awesome), that’s fine. Kinsley pretty clearly prefers the role of servile government flack to that of independent journalist. But would it really be healthy for the republic if all people calling themselves journalists were in fact doing government PR work? Surely we have enough of that already?
There are so many other unintentional instances of Kinsley’s status as an exemplar of regulatory capture, of his own person functioning as elegant proof of Greenwald’s arguments. He calls Greenwald “the go-between for Edward Snowden and the newspapers that reported on Snowden’s collection of classified documents.” I’m guessing he settled on “go-between” because James Clapper had already used “accomplice”?
Also, did you know that Greenwald a “self-righteous sourpuss” (my God, who still uses this word)? Or maybe you didn’t care? I get so tired of these astonishingly shallow critiques. How much you might want to disguise your disgust with the Kinsleys of the world is primarily a tactical question, and different people will arrive at different conclusions. But if you’re not disgusted, if you’re not in fact outraged, by the government criminality and journalistic complicity Greenwald chronicles in No Place to Hide, then at best you’re not paying attention. Criticizing the demeanor of someone uninterested in concealing his disgust reveals a warped set of priorities and a pernicious set of allegiances.
As for substance, for all his flamboyant displays of largely irrelevant erudition (Henry James, Michael Frayn, Herbert Marcuse… bingo! And this guy calls Assange a narcissist?), Kinsley comes across most fundamentally as… a simpleton:
“Greenwald doesn’t seem to realize that every piece of evidence he musters demonstrating that people agree with him undermines his own argument that ‘the authorities’ brook no dissent. No one is stopping people from criticizing the government or supporting Greenwald in any way. Nobody is preventing the nation’s leading newspaper from publishing a regular column in its own pages dissenting from company or government orthodoxy. If a majority of citizens now agree with Greenwald that dissent is being crushed in this country, and will say so openly to a stranger who rings their doorbell or their phone and says she’s a pollster, how can anyone say that dissent is being crushed? What kind of poor excuse for an authoritarian society are we building in which a Glenn Greenwald, proud enemy of conformity and government oppression, can freely promote this book in all media and sell thousands of copies at airport bookstores surrounded by Homeland Security officers?”
There are several problems with this bit of self-indulgence.
First, Greenwald never argues that the authorities (and why the scare quotes? Kinsley’s the one who wants the government to be able to enforce total secrecy. If that’s not “the authorities,” what is?), “brook no dissent.” This is just a straw man, the kind of fake argument people trot out when they can’t respond to the real one, or when the voices in their heads get so loud they can no longer hear the actual conversation. Greenwald never argues that there is no dissent in America or that the First Amendment Kinsley is so keen to abridge is doing nothing to protect free speech. His argument is more akin to what Noam Chomsky has said about propaganda:
“One of the ways you control what people think is by creating the illusion that there’s a debate going on, but making sure that that debate stays within very narrow margins. Namely, you have to make sure that both sides in the debate accept certain assumptions, and those assumptions turn out to be the propaganda system. As long as everyone accepts the propaganda system, then you can have a debate.”
Chomsky also had this to say. See if you can recognize Kinsley in here:
“Propaganda very often works better for the educated than it does for the uneducated. This is true on many issues. There are a lot of reasons for this, one being that the educated receive more of the propaganda because they read more. Another thing is that they are the agents of propaganda. After all, their job is that of commissars; they’re supposed to be the agents of the propaganda system so they believe it. It’s very hard to say something unless you believe it. Other reasons are that, by and large, they are just part of the privileged elite so they share their interests and perceptions.”
And here’s how Kinsley misinterprets the section on David Gregory’s infamous Meet the Press “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden… why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” question:
“But Greenwald does not deny that he has ‘aided and abetted Snowden.’ So this particular question was not baseless. Furthermore, it was a question, not an assertion — a perfectly reasonable question that many people were asking, and Gregory was giving Greenwald a chance to answer it: If the leaker can go to prison, why should the leakee be exempt?”
As Greenwald notes in the book, Gregory’s “perfectly reasonable question” was in fact a rare textbook instance of “When did you stop beating your wife?” Someone with Kinsley’s ostentatious learning ought to know that such a loaded question is by design impossible to answer. It can only be responded to via an attack on the question’s false premises, which is what Greenwald did in that interview and then again in the book. Kinsley ignores all this and tries to argue instead that, “A-ha, Greenwald does not deny beating his wife, you see: Which is as asinine as it is dishonest.
“Greenwald’s determination to misinterpret the evidence can be comic. He writes about attending a bat mitzvah ceremony where the rabbi told the young woman that ‘you are never alone’ because God is always watching over you. ‘The rabbi’s point was clear,’ Greenwald amplifies. ‘If you can never evade the watchful eyes of a supreme authority, there is no choice but to follow the dictates that authority imposes.” I don’t think that was the rabbi’s point.”
I’m sure it wasn’t — it was merely the rabbi’s unavoidable implication. Similarly, though it may be that the de facto end of the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press, and the advent of a new system of prior restraint, might not have been Kinsley’s point, it’s certainly his unavoidable implication. You’d think a guy who tosses around references to James and Frayn and Marcuse and all that would understand the difference. That he doesn’t isn’t comic at all. It’s sad.
“As the news media struggles to expose government secrets and the government struggles to keep them secret, there is no invisible hand to assure that the right balance is struck.”
Well, there kind of is, though it takes an actual journalist to describe it. Here’s Washington Post go-between — sorry, reporter — Barton Gellman explaining how he handles classified information in reporting on war and weapons. If you follow only one link in this post, make it this one — it’s that thoughtful, thought-provoking, and nuanced. I doubt Kinsley could understand it, but most people will find it illuminating.
“So what do we do about leaks of government information? Lock up the perpetrators or give them the Pulitzer Prize? (The Pulitzer people chose the second option.)”
Yes, clearly these are the only two options. I know I’m being hard on Kinsley, but… is he dishonest? Or is he really this simple-minded?
“This is not a straightforward or easy question.”
Pause for a moment to gaze in wonder at a guy who self-identifies as a journalist… and who just said that whether to lock up a journalist for publishing something the government wanted kept secret is not a straightforward or easy question.
“But I can’t see how we can have a policy that authorizes newspapers and reporters to chase down and publish any national security leaks they can find.”
It’s technically correct to say we can’t have such a policy — anymore than we can have a policy that the people’s right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; or a policy that the people will be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures; or a policy that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. Because these things are not “policies.” They are constitutional guarantees — explicit carve-outs from the broad powers we the people have otherwise granted the government. What we really can’t have — literally can’t, because of the Bill of Rights — are policies against those things. Like the policies Kinsley advocates.
Kinsley claims that, “Especially in the age of blogs, it is impossible to distinguish between a professional journalist and anyone else who wants to publish his or her thoughts.”
Really? I think a good working test of whether someone is a journalist, professional or otherwise, is whether he or she agrees with Kinsley. Because if you believe the government should have ultimate decision-making authority over what leaks to publish, you might be many things. But a real journalist isn’t one of them.
Reposted from Freedom of the Press Foundation
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