Earth to Glenn Greenwald: If you write a book slamming the New York Times, it’s naive to expect favorable treatment in the New York Times Book Review. Been there, done that. Twice, as a matter of fact.
On the first go-around, the NYTBR reviewer — a Times alumnus — described mine as a “nasty” book for hinting that name-brand journalists don’t always deal off the top of the deck. No inaccuracies cited, only nastiness.
Next, the newspaper located the most appropriate reviewer for Joe Conason’s and my book “The Hunting of the President” in its own Washington bureau — the original source of the great Whitewater hoax our book deconstructed. That worthy accused us of partisan hackery on the authority of one of the few wildly inaccurate Whitewater stories the Times had itself actually corrected.
If you think we got a correction, however, you’d be mistaken.
So when Greenwald complains that his book “No Place to Hide” — which details his and Edward Snowden’s exciting adventures in Hong Kong before the Boy Hero flew off to Moscow — got savaged by NYTBR reviewer Michael Kinsley, it’s easy to feel sympathetic. It’s no fun getting trashed in the only book review that really matters.
Kinsley’s biting wit and withering cynicism can be hard to take. But for all that, the review wasn’t entirely negative. It never denied the importance of Greenwald and Snowden’s revelations about government snooping, nor did it question the author’s journalistic integrity.
“The Snowden leaks were important — a legitimate scoop,” he wrote, “and we might never have known about the NSA’s lawbreaking if it hadn’t been for them.”
True, Kinsley’s tone is far from worshipful. “His story is full of journalistic derring-do, mostly set in exotic Hong Kong,” he writes. “It’s a great yarn, which might be more entertaining if Greenwald himself didn’t come across as so unpleasant. Maybe he’s charming and generous in real life. But in ‘No Place to Hide,’ Greenwald seems like a self-righteous sourpuss.”
Alas, anybody who’s experienced Greenwald’s dogged ad hominem argumentative style can identify. I’m rarely mistaken myself, but I do try not to impute evil motives to everybody who disagrees with me.
However, contrary to the army of syntactically challenged Greenwald fans who turned his essay into an Internet cause celebre, Kinsley never said the man should be jailed. He wrote that being invited to explain why not on “Meet the Press” hardly constitutes evidence of government oppression.
Indeed, also contrary to the Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, Kinsley nowhere “expressed a belief that many journalists find appalling: that news organizations should simply defer to the government” in deciding what secrets to reveal. He wrote that “the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay.”
Call me old-fashioned, but I do think the newspaper’s public editor should be more capable of fair paraphrase — an important journalistic skill.
However, what Kinsley’s provocative essay did very effectively was to question how seriously the author (and Edward Snowden) had thought through the logic of their position that when it comes to government secrets, every man is his own director of National Security.
And the answer seems to be, not too seriously at all. But then my view is that the Greenwald-Snowden revelations about NSA “metadata” hoarding made for exciting headlines and a Pulitzer Prize but little or no practical difference to people’s actual lives.
So that when Greenwald writes that “by ordering illegal eavesdropping, the president had committed crimes and should be held accountable,” I’m inclined to ask if he knows the meaning of “eavesdropping.”
It doesn’t mean storing phone and Internet records in a giant database; it means listening in on conversations or searching people’s hard drives, and to date there’s no evidence of that being done without court-ordered search warrants. I’d add that if Americans feel politically intimidated, they’ve got awfully noisy ways of showing it — especially those jerks swaggering around with assault rifles daring the Feds to make something of it.
George Packer makes a related point in Prospect: “A friend from Iran who was jailed and tortured for having the wrong political beliefs, and who is now an American citizen, observed drily, ‘I prefer to be spied on by NSA.’”
So which of the two million-odd documents Edward Snowden swiped from the National Security Agency should end up in the newspaper, and who gets to decide? On that score, Kinsley’s otherwise crystal-clear argument gets foggy. His point is that in a fallen world, the government has legitimate secrets to protect: classic example, the date and location of the D-Day landings.
“In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government,” he writes.
Hence misunderstanding. Had he simply specified “congress and the courts,” there would have been a lot less hyperventilating.
Where’s an editor when you need one?
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Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President”. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.