Greenwald v. Keller: What They Missed and Why It Matters


In short, neither Keller’s nor Greenwald’s approach is the only consideration on the road to journalistic salvation. That being so, how should journalists go about spreading the truth to the citizenry in a way that does not alienate the very citizenry that journalism is intended to serve?


by Matthew L. Schafer

Bill Keller of New York Times fame and Glenn Greenwald of NSA Leaks fame recently faced off in the Times.  Others have summarized the exchange, so I will not do the same to any great extent.  Frankly, you should skip the summaries and read the actual exchange.

To understand my point here though, you will need to know the broad outlines of their back-and-forth, which can be succinctly summarized.  Keller believes, unsurprisingly, that journalists as part of their craft should objectively (or, if you prefer, impartially) report the news by not taking sides.

Greenwald, even more unsurprisingly, believes exactly the opposite.  He rebuffs Keller’s suggestion that the Times is impartial, alleging instead that it is nationalistic.  To Greenwald, the Times is no different than he is at the base level except to the extent that the Times took sides with the United States, instead of, like Greenwald, taking sides with the “truth.”

Both Keller and Greenwald argue that their brand of journalism is, ironically, “objectively” better than the other’s.  Keller thinks that his version is better because it gives the reader a chance to decide whether, for example, waterboarding is torture without feeding the reader that loaded word at the outset.  (Greenwald would just call it torture.)


Absent from Keller and Greenwald’s conversation, however, is any evidence that either approach actually helps readers. Isn’t that what we’re after at the end of the day? A more informed electorate? A citizenry that not only speaks truth to power but knows what it is they are speaking of in the first place?


Greenwald thinks his version better because it less impotent.  It does not present information in the he-said she-said manner that we have all become so accustom to.  Instead, it tests officials’ claims of truth in the fires of activism journalist, declaring at the end of the day whether those claims survived the forge or not.

Absent from Keller and Greenwald’s conversation, however, is any evidence that either approach actually helps readers.  Isn’t that what we’re after at the end of the day?  A more informed electorate?  A citizenry that not only speaks truth to power but knows what it is they are speaking of in the first place?  That is, what is truth and how should journalism trade in it?

In cases where journalists go after the truth and tell the reader that X is wrong but Y is right, there is little proof that the public is inclined to believe the journalist’s judgment as to the “ultimate truth.”  We know from media studies, for example, that when readers are provided with information that is contrary to their views, they actually claw their erroneous beliefs closer to them.  They hold on stronger and don’t let go.

We also know from media studies that readers are less likely to believe a news outlet that is foreign to them.  They are less likely to believe a news outlet that is adverse to them.  And, at the end of the day, what they do know is not that substantial and is mostly wrong.

Some of these may favor Keller’s approach (objectivity, for example, may be beneficial where the reader is unfamiliar with the source) and some may favor Greenwald’s (for example, his approach might be beneficial where someone agrees with him, but not otherwise.)


What Greenwald and Keller were really debating was what size of stick journalism should carry. They forgot though that it’s not only about the size of the stick but also who’s swinging, how sure they are in their own strength and ability, and whether they are aiming at the right target.


In short, neither Keller’s nor Greenwald’s approach is the only consideration on the road to journalistic salvation.  That being so, how should journalists go about spreading the truth to the citizenry in a way that does not alienate the very citizenry that journalism is intended to serve?

Of course, some stories will be easier to cover than others – some are more susceptible of being proven true or false.  For example, it is no doubt easier to prove that the NSA was, in fact, stealing information regarding French telephone calls than it is to prove that one domestic policy choice is necessarily better than the other.  Indeed, the NSA leaks are easily verified, which imbues credibility in the information itself.  (Greenwald has the documents after all, and they often accompany such stories as primary sources for the companion articles.)

But journalism does not equate only to publishing stories about leaked information, and leaked information is not always the information that the citizenry needs the most or that is most beneficial to the citizenry.  There are state house stories about budgets, Supreme Court stories about the extent of a woman’s right to choice, and international stories about whether certain treaties are in the nation’s best interests.

Greenwald’s view on journalism doesn’t graft as easily onto these types of stories as it does to stories about NSA leaks.  Indeed, in this context, the mantra of being critical to the government is rather less useful.  In fact, it provides almost no road signs for a journalist to follow if presented with a situation where reasonable people come to different conclusions based on the same available information.

It certainly provides absolutely no road signs for how a journalist can best interpret civic information for the public.  For example, even Greenwald’s activist/watchdog approach to journalism in the context of the NSA leaks, does not help us get at the deeper (and more important) civic question of whether, as a policy, we should be doing all that spying we know we are doing.

The point is that it is journalism’s job to keep an eye on the government – journalism a la Glenn Greenwald.  But that is just one part of journalism’s job.  On a broader level, journalism is a curator – and it is becoming more so every day.  As Brian Stelter pointed out several years ago but not too long ago to be obsolete:

The ‘news’ that is not fit to print gets through to people anyway these days, through 24-hour cable gasbags, partisan talk radio hosts and chain e-mails, blogs and Web sites . . . What readers need now . . . are honest referees who can help ordinary readers sort out fact from fiction.

Stelter is right, we need “honest referees.”  But what do we mean by that phrase?  That is what Keller and Greenwald should have been debating.  They were so focused on what type of journalism is the “better” type of journalism – activist journalism or activist-lite journalism, that they forgot the more interesting and important question: How can journalists be better stewards of the public’s trust?

I don’t have the answer, but whatever the answer is, certainly does not lie within the four corners of the now facile debate about objective journalism versus activist journalism.

Instead, each polemic will demand its own unique approach.  Some claims may not be readily provable as either true or false.  In such a circumstance the best journalism can do is debunk or debase those views that are surely outlandish, elevate those that wash the best with what we know at the time, and suggest to the reader that the “real” answer remains elusive.

On the other hand, some claims will be provable.  In those instances, I think both Keller and Greenwald would agree that reporters should debunk false claims.  It seems that they are unlikely to agree, however, as to how acerbic those debunkings should be.  And, really, there is probably merit to both opinions.

In both cases though, whether journalists are hotly antagonistic to the government seems to be the least important question.  Indeed, it is only important if journalists become so impotent that there is no watchdog press at all anymore.  We’re not quite there yet – contrary to what many would argue.

In short, the real debate about journalism isn’t whether journalists should be objective or opinionated; patriotic or insubordinate; apologetic or antagonistic.  Instead, the real debate is how journalists, recognizing the context of any given situation, can clearly and accurate deal in “truth” in such a way that all types of readers can walk away more knowledgeable about their world.

What Greenwald and Keller were really debating was what size of stick journalism should carry.  They forgot though that it’s not only about the size of the stick but also who’s swinging, how sure they are in their own strength and ability, and whether they are aiming at the right target.

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About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
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One Response to Greenwald v. Keller: What They Missed and Why It Matters

  1. Pingback: The Keller-Greenwald exchange: What is there to question? | Argument in journalism

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