Glenn Greenwald thinks something weird and dangerous happens to the American media during a presidential election.
“Things get way more polarized than they typically are. And way more tribalistic. Everything gets interpreted through this lens of, ‘Which side are you helping, and which side are you on?’” says Greenwald, a co-founder of the investigative news site the Intercept who is best known for breaking Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency, in an interview.
Greenwald’s fear of a polarized press bubbled to the surface earlier this month during a bitter debate about the correct amount of scrutiny owed to the Clinton Foundation. After a handful of mainstream news outlets devoted huge amounts of time and resources to covering the foundation, a slew of liberal writers reacted in disgust. To them, the barrage of negative press about Clinton and the foundation wasn’t just misleading — it was actively dangerous, wrongly implying that Clinton’s potential conflicts of interest were remotely as worthy of our attention as Donald Trump’s endless parade of horribles. (The New York Times’s Paul Krugman articulated this perspective in a widely shared column titled “Hillary Clinton Gets Gored.”)
Greenwald is not a fan of Donald Trump. But he is a dogged critic of Hillary Clinton, a more than occasional defender of Trump from charges that he’s a Russian cat’s paw, and deeply skeptical of the liberal conventional wisdom that the mainstream press has done too little to put Trump under a microscope. He and his colleagues at the Intercept are sufficiently relentless in these stances that to many liberals who used to cheer his excoriations of the Bush administration, he may even look like he’s rooting for Trump. At the end of the day, after all, if you’re hurting Clinton, aren’t you helping Trump?
Greenwald rejects the whole framework of the question. In an interview on Friday, Greenwald and I talked about the Clinton Foundation, the Intercept’s place in 2016 campaign coverage, and why Greenwald thinks the media shouldn’t let its fear of Trump temper the firepower it trains on Clinton.
A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
Greenwald on the “tribalistic” nature of 2016 campaign coverage
Jeff Stein: I wanted to start by asking about your pinned Tweet, which says, “Criticism of Hillary Clinton does not equate to support for Donald Trump.”
Is it really necessary to spend next 6 months pointing out that "criticism of Clinton" ≠ "support for Trump"? Just get a different tactic.— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) April 29, 2016
Obviously it’s true in a literal sense that one thing isn’t the other. But I want to understand why you feel it’s important to point out for those who think Clinton is better than Trump to continue to criticize her where they disagree.
Glenn Greenwald: That tweet comes from prior experience writing about politics in the general election, and in the four to six months leading into the election, things get way more polarized than they typically are. And way more tribalistic. Everything gets interpreted through this lens of, “Which side are you helping, and which side are you on?”
Even when there’s an election, there’s things going on in the world that the US government is doing that affect huge numbers of people. So it’s really important to critique the leaders of either party — or the views of the candidate toward those ongoing policies — without feeling like you have to suppress those criticisms because expressing them might help or hurt one party or the other.
JS: I want to bore a little bit into your understanding of the specific why of your criticism of the “cheerleader role” for pundits and journalists.
Is it, to you, the abstract idea that journalism is about being adversarial and challenging authority? Or is it about achieving better outcomes and achieving a better world, and adversarial journalism is the best means to that end?
GG: I think it’s both. I think adversarial journalism is important because it produces better outcomes. I don’t think it’s an art or some sort of Platonic ideal worth preserving or defending for its own sake. Adversarial journalism is critical for making democracy healthier and checking people who wield great power in ways that are constructive.
In a democracy, people have different roles to play regardless of outcomes. If Congress passes a terrible law that hurts a lot of people but it’s not running afoul of any constitutional guarantees, nobody should want the judiciary to come in and invalidate the law on the grounds that it’s a bad law. That’s a violation of the role the judiciary is supposed to play to have a balanced, healthy society.
In the short term, the mentality in making that law invalidated might help people or prevent harm. In the long term or even the mid-term, it’s going to make society much unhealthier, because now you have the judiciary running afoul of democratic principles by overriding laws even though they adhere to the Constitution.
To me, it’s more about the roles of politics. If you play a role in the campaign — you’re a Hillary Clinton campaign spokesperson or work for Media Matters — fine, spend all day defending a candidate, because that’s your role. When I was a lawyer, my job was to advocate for people who did the wrong things or who I didn’t think were telling the ultimate truth — because that was the role I was supposed to play.
But when you’re a journalist, I think your role ought to be to be adversarial to people who wield the greatest power and to say the things you think are true — even if it hurts the candidate you like or helps the one you dislike. Because that’s how society stays balanced.
Should journalists devote equal time to one Clinton scandal and 40 egregious Trump scandals?
JS: Taking that a step forward, do you think it’s important for journalists to be adversarial and challenge authority essentially regardless of the real-world consequences?
Is pointing out something to be adversarial more important than doing something that could affect the lives of millions of people? The reason I ask, and I assume it’s obvious, is that there are a lot of people who think that relentlessly, disproportionately negative Clinton coverage may help risk a Trump presidency.
GG: To me, I think the answer depends on how one understands your question.
A lot of times, you can invent examples that are just so extreme that they even cloud or obscure the debate rather than help it. So during the torture debate, everyone who wants to justify torture sits down and plays games with their imagination and looks to TV shows — “Okay, it’s a ticking time bomb with radioactive material in three hours and will kill 100 million people unless you torture someone. And do you do it?”
That’s a hard question to answer. You can’t answer that blithely. But the important thing is that scenario is never the case in the real world.
So to address your question: Let’s assume there’s a reporter at the New York Times who uncovers some terrible but largely unknown but very incriminating behavior on the part of Hillary Clinton that shows something unethical — something for which she could be indicted or even arrested, which would in turn produce a high likelihood that Trump would get elected.
Would we want that journalist to take it upon him or herself to say, “My job as a journalist is to reveal things that I find that ought to be public, but not till after the election”? To say, “This clearly qualifies, but in this case — because this has a high risk of helping Trump win — I’m going to conceal and suppress it”?
I don’t feel comfortable vesting journalists with that judgment, any more than I’d feel comfortable with doctors making [similar] decisions. Say, if Donald Trump has a heart attack, and he’s leading in the polls and he’ll win, and the doctor could say, “I could do everything possible to save his life, or I can just do a little less and maybe he’ll die and he won’t be president.” I wouldn’t want doctors making those kinds of decisions that way, and I don’t want journalists making those kinds of decisions either.
JS: I think that’s a bit of a straw man argument. The debate isn’t really whether we want to not uncover or keep concealed something about Clinton.
It’s if we have evidence of 40 Trump scandals, and evidence of one Clinton scandal that may not be as bad as those 40, do both candidates deserve equal coverage and equal time? Should the press devote equal resources and time to both campaigns just because, even if Trump has 39 more scandals?
GG: I did a podcast yesterday with Brian Beutler at the New Republic, and this was the question on which we spent the bulk of our time, because he was in essence making that exact argument.
Brian was saying what you just said — that the key was proportionality, and that editors and journalists make decisions all the time about where resources have to go based on what’s most newsworthy. And that in the context of Trump’s terrible qualities, whatever sins were committed or questions raised by the Clinton Foundation or the email episode pale in comparison and shouldn’t be featured or have resources devoted to them.
And I just reject pretty vehemently the premise of the question, which is that paying attention to Hillary Clinton’s most significant question marks somehow undercuts the journalistic attention that has been paid to all of Trump’s question marks.
I can pretty much point to every single aspect of Donald Trump’s personal, political, and financial life — it’s been dissected by great length and with great skill by the investigative reporting teams of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and Washington Post.
What explains media tribalism during an election cycle? And is it really a bad thing?
JS: If you’re a pundit who believes the Democrats are on the cusp of potentially winning back the House and passing all sorts of legislation to really help millions of lives, wouldn't the right thing be to use your reporting to explain why the Democratic Party is better?
GG: No, I think the right thing to do would be to go to work for the Democratic Party. Or become a spokesperson for that candidate. That's what I'm saying about roles.
There are people who want to advance the interests of the United States government — so they go to a school, get degrees in political science or diplomacy, with the goal of working for the State Department or the Pentagon. And that, to me, is an alignment between their objective and the role they're choosing to play.
If you decide to become a journalist — and there's a bit of ambiguity between using the word pundit versus journalist — but in the context of the discussion we're having, we're talking about pundits opining on what journalists ought to do. I don't think it's a proper or appropriate overriding motive for those who consider themselves journalists or who work in journalism to work for propagandizing for one of those parties because they think one of those parties will do better things if they win. They should go find something else to do.
JS: But what if your reporting and your research logically leads you to that conclusion? And you're in a position to inform people on what your conclusions are about the world? Isn't that part of the reportorial process — to discover truths and disseminate them?
GG: Totally. But that's an important distinction. For example, I worked on surveillance for a long time before I worked on the Snowden documents.
I came to the conclusion that surveillance is a serious threat, that it posed all sorts of dangers to individual liberties, and that it was unjustifiable by the state. So when I was doing the reporting on the surveillance program I was making clear that those were my views, because I had reached those conclusions and thought I had been justified in that, because I believed certain facts led to a conclusion.
But what I would not have been justified in doing is, if I had documents that conflicted with that view or made it less likely to be surveillance reform, for me to suppress it or conceal it or present it in a way designed to distort it. Because if I had done that, I would have been working not as a journalist but for a privacy group.
JS: And that's where I think questions of intentionality get so important, because I don't think anyone is sitting around saying, "I'm going to do something that will make the Clinton Foundation look less bad."
They've done reporting that has led them to a conclusion about Clinton and Trump, and by extension they shade in new information with that filter, which was often formed by their work as journalists.
GG: This is an important question I've always been fascinated by. Obviously, we are divided as a country, as most countries are along partisan lines. So if there's some political debate that has obvious partisan division — abortion, levels of taxation — it makes total sense that Democrats line up on one side and Republicans on the other, because that's the nature of the debate.
But when it comes to seeking massive amount of money from the very people who are most interested in the decisions you make as a public official? That doesn't have any obvious ideological component.
JS: Yes, and it's been the Democratic Party's position — well, at least until very recently — that that was bad.
GG: Exactly. The only ideological component to that is that Democrats have long said that thing was troublesome or leads to corruption. So when you have a largely non-ideological question, like, "Is there wrongdoing in the email scandal?" or, "Is there wrongdoing with the Clinton Foundation?” and all of a sudden all these people who are Democrats just so happen always to line up on the side of the debate that most helps the Democrats win, even without an ideological component — that's when I start thinking the motives are really suspect.
That's when things become troublesome — when there's no intellectual honesty, and you can't say, "Even though I think this hurts the candidate, I actually do think there's something wrong about the behavior here."
The Intercept’s role in 2016 campaign coverage
JS: I'm a reader of the Intercept, and I think you can expect a degree of consistency across media outlets now. Is that something you wrestle with — the ability to be intellectually honest among what is, frankly, the Intercept’s overwhelmingly critical Clinton coverage?
Is there room for — and I want to stress that I'm not accusing anyone at the Intercept of being intellectually dishonest — but is there room for coverage outside of that framework? The same influence that leads people on the pro-Clinton pundit side to conclude she didn't do anything wrong on the left of the debate — do you fear there are similar factors and influences at work at the Intercept?
GG: I haven't conducted a poll or anything, but my guess would be that 95, 98 percent of people at the Intercept in any capacity would prefer Hillary Clinton win instead of Donald Trump. So when we're doing criticism of Hillary Clinton and reporting adversarially on her, are we only doing this because we're pro-Trump? I know it's not that.
What was an issue was during the Democratic primary when I think a lot of the people at the Intercept were more favorably inclined to Bernie Sanders. And it was important to me not to whitewash Bernie Sanders but to be consistent and intellectually honest in pointing out where the things Bernie Sanders has advocated and espouses are inconsistent with things we've said we believe in the past. And I think we did a decent job of doing that.
But I don't think we're immune. Human beings are very subjective, and very biased, and very self-centered in how we view the world. We're not computers. We can't separate our human subjectivity from the ways we're understanding the world or thinking about it. So I think all you can do is be vigilant in making sure you're doing the best possible job you can to eliminate those kinds of deceits — or self-deceit — from your thought process.
JS: I'm curious about the degree to which your personal history has informed you and led you to a place you're seeing the debate over Clinton and Trump in a different way.
What does the mainstream punditry in American journalism miss — and what experience of yours led you to a place that makes you see it so differently?
GG: I think in the context of this election, I am very wary of when there starts to become this unquestioning conventional wisdom reinforced by all kinds of societal incentives — whether they be careerist, reputational, or just social dynamics — that put lots of pressure on people to embrace a certain view, all in unity with one another without there being lots of pushback and questioning of it.
Part of that came from seeing what happened in the post-9/11 climate. Part of that comes from growing up gay and having to confront a corrupted consensus on what that meant and how it impacted me.
Maybe it's just a personality trait, but I think as a journalist it’s my role to constantly push back against unity of thought. In this election, there's a really unique dynamic that's unhealthy — even if it's justified — where you have almost no members of the elite class engaged in any dissent. There's almost no prominent journalists or people at think tanks or professors who are supporting Donald Trump the way you have an elite split in most elections.
That's in part because they become stigmatized if they do, and in part because they're genuinely horrified of the things he would do and the things he represents.
So you can sit on Twitter all day, and — unless it's Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter — you’re going to have this incredible homogeneity of opinion. And it builds on itself, and it becomes more sanctimonious and convicted of its own righteousness, and it kind of leads to places that I think are unhealthy, even if the cause is justified.
One of the roles I want to perform — that I think is necessary — is to just push back against that, asking questions of it, and finding ways that consensus is poorly thought through or wrong.