Adversarial Journalism in a Corporate World

by Michael Albert, Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald and Michael Albert discuss the difficulties of doing good journalism within the confines of mainstream media, secrecy and corporations and Greenwald's new media project - The Intercept. This interview is plublished in collaboration with ZNet.


Glenn, you have been asked over and over about journalism, with the questions often coming from folks eager to somehow discredit you as being too concerned or too involved, and therefore not reliable as a journalist. So I have a question for you about journalism - but coming at the issues from a very different direction. Imagine, if you will, that you are in a really desirable and worthy society. Within such a society, what do you think would be the role and features of effective and valuable journalism? How would it be financed, for example, and what aims and perhaps what new methods or prerogatives would it enjoy?

That is a good question. I tend not to spend a huge amount of time thinking about features of a good society, because we don’t actually live in one, unfortunately. But I do give a lot of thought to what the theory is of how things ought to be, because I think that if you can get people thinking about that theory of what ought to be, then it creates pressure to strive for those ends. So I think journalism at its most noble, provides a serious check on those who wield the greatest power. This is based on the idea that those who wield great power will abuse it if there aren’t serious external checks - not symbolic checks, but genuine ones. And in order to provide meaningful checks on those who wield great power, I think journalists need to view themselves as adversarial to and outside the sphere of power, and should want to be that way, and not have the goal of ultimately transferring some of the power to oneself but wanting to stay outside of power. I think that is the best personality type to produce journalism of the sort needed. 

As far as how it is financed, I think any model that ends up financing truly adversarial journalism that truly guarantees the independence of the journalist, by which I mean wherever the funding comes from, whether it is the state, or donations, some kind of fund, or even a private party doing it for altruistic reasons, that whoever provides the funding has no role whatsoever to play in interfering in or otherwise shaping the editorial judgements or choices of the journalism that is done, and I think that any model that adheres to that requirement is going to produce some good journalism.

Suppose someone works for a major newspaper and the structure of the institution limits and narrows the possible content. I am not talking about a boss, or funding source, who says do this or don’t do that, but a different situation. For example, suppose the newspaper is hugely sexist or racist. It elevates white men in diverse ways internally. I wonder if you would agree that the paper would then not be very good on questions of race and gender in society, because if it was very good on those questions it would create a dynamic that would challenge and disrupt itself, and that would not be welcome, or even permitted.

Yes, I agree with that…

So the question is, doesn’t that suggest the same thing is true about class? You couldn’t now establish a really good media project that would effectively address issues of race or gender, and now we could add class to that list, if it is internally structured so that the whole organization - the people in it who make the decisions and really everyone in it - have a defensive bias that excludes information and values. Is that something you would agree with?

Yes, in theory, I do agree with that, but let me just add only one proviso. I think that the way that journalism has evolved, it is possible for journalists to work with flawed institutions but shield themselves from the type of institutional pressures and constraints you mention. I use my own experience as an example, but there are lots of other people who could report similarly. When I worked at Salon and at the Guardian, there were owners, funders, etc. They all had their own interests. But I negotiated into my contract to be able to write whatever I wanted and to publish directly onto the internet without anyone even looking at what I write much less having the ability to edit or change it except in the most extreme circumstances. And I think that one of the things we are seeing is that there are now journalists who are able to use the resources of institutions and enjoy certain benefits of the institution like readers and traffic, yet very much keep those institutions at arm’s length so the dynamics that you described don’t end up limiting or interfering in the kind of journalism they do - and I guess it is up to the individual journalists to figure out ways to make that happen.

Did you ever have the experience at either Salon or the Guardian of writing a piece that was explicitly about institutions and journalism. So, for example, you might have written a piece that said taking advertising harms good journalism because it means the institution will want an audience that is well heeled, and will want the messages people to not interfere with their responding positively to ads. Such a piece might be so contrary to the whole institution that a person writing it would be ostracized. And that’s sort of what I am asking about - a case where the commitments of the institution are so overwhelming that they pretty much must be accepted by everyone associated, or at least not challenged?

I have written pieces criticizing the Guardian very directly on several occasions about core issues, including relations to wikileaks, a story about Chomsky that was snide and personalized, and definitely there were some who didn’t like it. And I agree that you do get a little ostracized but again, you have to not succumb to it and instead fight for independence. So you are right that there are real institutional pressures, but I think there are ways to insulate yourself from them so you can do the kind of journalism that you want without regard for what anyone, including those in your media outlet, think about it.

I agree it is possible to self insulate, to a point, but I think perhaps we also agree it is very difficult…

Yes, it is a challenge for sure.

But what I am asking is about the way large institutions narrow what is said which is often precisely by influencing what their journalists actually want to say, and can even think to say. It wasn’t necessary, for example, during the Vietnam War, for the N.Y. Times to coerce its journalists, because its journalists, whatever other talents and insights they had, had long since lost the capacity to even think about a U.S. invasion - it just wasn’t in their range of comprehension that the U.S. could be so in the wrong, so of course they wouldn’t write that way, but rather only about details, and thus wouldn’t have to be censored. Then the writers think they are holding off the owners to write the details they focus on, which sometimes jar others a bit, when in fact what would really matter has been completely extinguished.

I have in mind something similar, but, say, regarding writing about the hierarchies of modern workplaces, including media institutions, researching their hierarchies, finding their effects, etc. So, have you ever written a piece for the Guardian that reveals aspects of their structure, their decision making, their division of labor, their pay scales and internal culture, and shows the implications for the people involved and for journalism, and, if someone did that, what do you think would be the response? Has anyone at the Guardian ever written such a piece even about another corporation, for that matter, much less the Guardian itself? Can they even think those thoughts?

Again, a lot of this depends on one’s individual situation. Before coming to the Guardian I never wrote much about the internal decision-making processes of media outlets because the only work I had done with media outlets previously was at Salon, where I had total editorial independence and worked alone. The same was true at the Guardian, until I began reporting on the NSA documents. But I have zero doubt that - had I been so inclined and thought I had worthwhile things to say about it - I could have easily written about the internal processes of newspapers, including the Guardian, without being interfered with.

These kinds of biases are cultural and generalized, not absolute. The Guardian has published Noam Chomsky many times. So has Salon. The nature of theories of media bias isn’t that it’s impossible to ever inject certain ideas into them. That’s just not the case. Exceptions happen. But to the extent that you’re suggesting that most journalists would find it uncomfortable and even damaging to their career to write critically of their employers, of course that’s true. That’s true everywhere, not just in journalism.

There is another issue wrapped up in your recent choices, of secrecy and privacy. And again, there is this question, what place is there for secrecy, and for privacy, in a good society, as well as now?

I think the general rule is that people in public life, meaning people who are vested with public power, ought to be, except in the most extreme situations, transparent about what they are doing and not able to hide behind a wall of secrecy. And by the most extreme situations I mean if the government is criminally investigating individuals for a suspected crime, you don’t want that investigation to become public because it can smear the suspects. You would want the investigation conducted in secret until it is determined that a crime has actually been committed and someone is going to be charged. Or if the government has certain codes for certain dangerous weapons, you don’t want those codes public because that would mean that people could access the weapons and do destructive things. But other than in the most extreme cases, I think the rule ought to be that people in public life ought to have full transparency and conversely that those in private life, private citizens, ought to have complete privacy. The government should not be monitoring or scrutinizing anything that private individuals do except in the most extreme cases when there is probable cause to believe the person has committed a crime and of course there is a warrant. And that’s it.

You mention in this the state as the agent, but I wonder, as well, what about corporations?

You mean in terms of investigating or monitoring or scrutinizing them…

I suppose that is part of it, their being transparent, say, but I also had in mind their being the spy. You said the private individual should not be scrutinized by the government. Citizens should have privacy with respect to the state. But what about privacy with respect to corporations?

Corporations aren’t really private, because they are creations of the state and get enormous benefits from the state by virtue of having been created as an entity by the state. So I don’t consider corporations private actors, or private individuals, and therefore they don’t have the same rights to privacy. I am not saying that they are necessarily as public as officials, because, at least in theory, they don’t have all the same powers to kill people, or to take property, although increasingly corporations are becoming more powerful and even as powerful if not more powerful than the state, and I think the more powerful corporate actors get, the more they should be treated like the government when it comes to their having to be transparent and accountable.

Agreed, but, in addition, does the public have the right to expect privacy that isn’t trampled by corporations, just as they should have the right to expect privacy to not be trampled by government? You said the privacy of personal actors should be protected from government scrutiny, but what about being protected from corporate scrutiny?

I think it needs to be a byproduct of law. So we have the bill of rights and we need to have real legal limits on what corporations can do. In general, there is a more voluntary relationship, often, between individuals and the corporations with which they choose to interact, as opposed to the state where there is nothing voluntary concerning your calls or emails or whatever. But I think the extent to which corporations are now integrated into the surveillance state is extremely problematic so that we need legislation for reforming the surveillance state and to also seriously curb the ability of corporations to collect data about us and use it.

The voluntary relation idea is, I think, often overused. If I search for something on Google, I certainly didn’t agree to have the information stored for years, used to create a commercial or political profile, etc. But more, if they tell me the only way I can search is if I agree to those terms, that isn’t voluntary either, even if I agree. I assume you agree about that. Similarly, if a kid agrees to work on a corporate assembly line, to  be able to eat, it is certainly not voluntary association...

We do have some agency as internet users, and I hope and expect that one of the big effects o these last eight months of reporting will be to encourage people to think more about how to exercise that autonomy. There are alternatives to Google. Internet companies in Europe and elsewhere are now touting themselves as privacy-protecting alternatives: We don’t give your data to the NSA. Even when using Google, there are things you can do to protect your privacy. You can use anonymizers such as the TOR browsers. You can use encryption on your emails. You can use encrypted chat technology.

There’s no question that surveillance and information-storing by tech companies is a serious problem. But it’s also true that tools exist for individuals to make that much harder.

In light of your answers, do you feel that you have been true to the norms you say you favor in your relations with Edward Snowden and your handling of the information he has provided? Is there anything you might have done differently in hindsight?

For one thing, as a journalist and as a human being, the overarching framework for my choices is the agreement I made with Snowden about how the documents would be handled. In that light, I find it utterly unconscionable to the point where I don’t even take it seriously, when someone says to me I ought to violate that or ignore it or just act contrary to his wishes. And Snowden’s wishes for the documents were very clear, which was that we should not make them all public at the same time, or even all published in full - if he had wanted that, he could have dumped them himself. He didn’t need me or Poitras for that. He wanted the release of documents to follow a journalistic model with documents published one by one once they are vetted and could be put into a context and reported strategically to maximize the impact they would have and to minimize the ability of commentary to demonize him and detract from the story. He also wanted that legally, both for himself and for the people with whom he worked because it makes it much harder to make wild accusations. And he also was concerned that some of the information shouldn’t be published.

So my knowledge that my source, who risked his life for these documents, is extremely happy and satisfied with my keeping my word to him, more or less ends the debate for me. Within that context I am sympathetic to feelings we should go faster, we should publish more, and all I can say is we have tried to go as fast as we can given the constraints of media organizations we deal with and the need to understand these complex documents before publishing them. Given that we have had them and been working on them for only seven months and have created pretty much a huge earthquake around the world, I think the approach has been more or less vindicated. There are things I probably could have done in hindsight that would have perfected or improved the process, but I think the general approach has been effective.

I would have bet that the slow release was your idea for precisely the reason you gave - that instead of dumping it all and having most of it disappear without anyone really even noticing it, a slower and more careful release would garner more attention and effect - but you say that that was Snowden’s idea.

What happened when Laura Poitras and I and Snowden got to Hong Kong is we collaboratively crafted what we were going to do, so that we were all on the same page with it. But I would definitely credit Snowden with the strategy of wanting to do the document release as we have, mostly for strategic reasons. He is an incredibly brilliant strategist. He really is. And he also wanted to learn from past experiences and to improve on the choices of whistleblowers who were his heroes, to try to be more effective even than they were. And hopefully whoever comes after Snowden will look at what he did and try to improve again. But, yes, he was very much settled in the view that doing an incremental release would keep public interest high and reduce distractions from what he hoped would be the substance of debate.

There seems to be a feeling, and I don’t know if it comes from you all, or just from the broader media where it is certainly ubiquitous, that there is material that shouldn’t be released because it would jeopardize particular spies, or throw into doubt the continuation of certain spying programs. So suppose that you would like to release ten documents tomorrow, but it is obvious that if you do so people will claim, and indeed it may even be the case, that this particular set of ten documents would endanger some individual spy or cause a particular spying program to have to shut down. I wonder why in a case like that you wouldn’t simply tell the NSA, tell the government, look, we’re going to release x in seven days, and here is what x is, and it is your responsibility to protect anyone who may be endangered because their being allowed to continue spying doesn’t trump the right of the public to know what is going on. Does that make sense to you?

Yes, it makes total sense. I agree completely. There are certain documents that I don’t think should be published but I don’t find documents that might make it more difficult to carry on a certain spying program to be in that category. I don’t suppress or decide not to release documents on the ground that release might jeopardize the government’s ability to do what they have been doing. I agree with you completely that the public has a right to know. There may be case where we have been careful in deference to our source and other legal considerations, for example, about spying on some specific Al Qaeda groups, or in other cases where we have to consider the public interest. But I think the NSA will acknowledge that we have with our reporting put an end to a lot of their programs. Perhaps sometimes they exaggerate this, for their own reasons, but in some cases they are right, and I don’t lose any sleep over that. I think it is the right thing to do because my duty as a journalist is not to help the NSA continue their spying programs but to inform the public. I have never talked to the NSA or the U.S. government about these matters, but the editors of the institutions with which I work do contact the government ahead of time and say, heads up, this is what we are about to publish, and the government always tries to convince them not to, and in 99% of the cases - maybe more - we reject their arguments, but the exchange does give them time to protect the lives of anyone who might be endangered and we think that is a justified thing to do.

How do you think that your answers, your views and feelings about the above issues, will inform the new project you have embarked on? Do you think it will be able to live up to what you have been describing as a good way to function?

Yes, completely. In every media arrangement I have entered since I began writing eight years ago, my number one non-negotiable provision is always nobody can ever interfere with my journalistic agenda. No one can tell me what to write or not to write, or in any way influence what kind of journalism I do, or how I do it, and that was the very first thing that I said to Pierre Omidyar when we first talked about the possibility of working together. But he didn’t need to hear that, much, because he already knew that that was not only my view of the world but also Jeremy Scahill’s and Laura Poitras’, both of whom have reputations for being difficult to work with because of how vigilant they are about their independence, but also because what he wanted to create, what he came to us with, was his own idea of a newsroom which was not a place where people are telling writers what to do. He wants to create an environment that itself fosters independent journalism. He well knows that even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t be able to control or dictate what we do. Any such effort would be a project ending event. But we are convinced that is not what he wants to do.

You can never know for sure, but I would just say that if somebody set out to create a new news organization and wanted to control the journalists and the content, they wouldn’t begin with me, Poitras, and Scahill as people to build around. And as we have talked more, we have only become more convinced  that this can be a really unique institution that is large and that can empower the independent activity of journalists rather than interfere with it. We are obviously going to be dedicated to making sure that happens.

Do you think that will apply not only to the three of you, but to whoever else you have writing?

I do, because while we three have more leverage than an entry level journalist or a journalist who hasn’t quite built up the readership that we have, all the recruiting that we are doing is based on the promise of independence and not having your journalistic passion or motives snuffed out by anyone trying to control you. I think we are targeting people for whom independence is vital and I know we are selling the organization as something to work with based on that.

It is important to the three of us not only that our independence is safe guarded, but others as well, because we want that to be the ethos of the institution we are helping build. So, again, I can’t see the future, and I suppose anything is possible, but I am definitely persuaded that more than most, and I hope more than all institutions out there, we are going to provide an environment where people are free to act independently and without any kinds of commercial or other editorial restraints.

How far have you gotten? Do you have many employees, yet?

Well, we are very near to launching at least the part that Jeremy, Laura, and I are helping create. We have just under 20 full time journalists and editors already on board. And we will grow in a controlled way, but hopefully pretty rapidly, from there. And we are just going to be one part of the whole operation but at least we will very soon be able to point to our journalism as an actual answer to what we will be about.

I notice that you have hired people with backgrounds that are investigative but so far not really very radical. Will the staff include people who are aggressively anti capitalist, say, as but one example? Will the content all be investigative reports, or will there be commentary and opinion, as well?

I suppose that all depends on your definition of radical. There are a lot of people who that that people like Jeremy Scahill, Laura Poitrus, and Lilana Segura are quite radical. Jeremy and Laura have both been targeted by pretty continuous and severe harassment by the state. They and Liliana have done all sorts of important work on the devastation wrought by income inequality, capitalism, and the injustices they bring.

We have only existed publicly for about a week. We intend to grow a lot, including hiring lots more people. We deliberately launched before we were completely ready because we have to do reporting on this huge stache of documents we have, and so our focus in the beginning is on that. But we will not only grow but diversify in all ways. And we will definitely have lots of outside voices. I’ve already spoken with Professor Chomsky, among many others, about writing for us.

Michael Albert is founder of Z Net, Z Magazine and numerous other left media projects. He is the author most recently of Occupy Theory.

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First published: 17 February, 2014

Category: Media

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