At Substack, one of an increasing number of independent news and opinion sites, lawyer and civil rights activist Glenn Greenwald looks at a disturbing trend in journalism today. The rise of the journalist as tattletale and censor, rather than investigative reporter:
A new and rapidly growing journalistic “beat” has arisen over the last several years that can best be described as an unholy mix of junior high hall-monitor tattling and Stasi-like citizen surveillance. It is half adolescent and half malevolent. Its primary objectives are control, censorship, and the destruction of reputations for fun and power. Though its epicenter is the largest corporate media outlets, it is the very antithesis of journalism.Glenn Greenwald, “The Journalistic Tattletale and Censorship Industry Suffers Several Well-Deserved Blows” at Substack
Whereas an investigative reporter succeeds by getting the story right, tattletales can succeed even if they get the story wrong. Censors can succeed even if their concerns are wholly misdirected — quite apart from whether censorship is a valid enterprise anyway.
Greenwald (pictured) cites recent instances:
➤ A star New York Times tech reporter, Taylor Lorenz, falsely accused tech entrepreneur Marc Andreessen of having used the slur world “retarded” in an online discussion of Reddit activities. In fact, a woman in the discussion room had used the word—it is a self-description on the part of some Redditors. Without offering any apology for failure to listen carefully, Lorenz lectured the world about insensitivity, then locked her Twitter account. She likely faces no consequences.
Update within the subsequent 24 hours: Taylor Lorenz has “fully walked back her claim” that Andreessen used a slur word. However, many consider her half-apology perfunctory, almost as though she has no sense of the moral implications of her careless, false accusation.
➤ Forty-five-year veteran New York Times science reporter Donald McNeill, on a field trip with high school students in Peru, used the n-word while discussing with a student whether it was fair that one of her classmates was punished for using it in a video. Greenwald: “McNeil used it not with malice or as a racist insult but to inquire about the facts of the video so he could answer the student’s question.” New York Times management was inclined to issue only a reprimand but dozens of Times journalists insisted on much more serious punishment, so he was fired.
Update within the subsequent 24 hours: Other journalists, not part of the Woke group, are rallying behind McNeill but he is still fired.
Greenwald cautions that these widely publicized examples are by no means isolated ones:
These examples of journalism being abused to demand censorship of spaces they cannot control are too numerous to comprehensively chronicle. And they are not confined to those three outlets. That far more robust censorship is urgently needed is now a virtual consensus in mainstream corporate journalism: it’s an animating cause for them.Glenn Greenwald, “The Journalistic Tattletale and Censorship Industry Suffers Several Well-Deserved Blows” at Substack
Indeed. One might also cite the recent, almost incomprehensibly vicious attack on Jordan Peterson, author the bestseller 12 Rules for Life, by Decca Aitkenhead of the Sunday Times of London. She interviewed Peterson and his daughter Mikhaila, who has seen her father through serious health problems over the past two years (her mother is recovering from a battle with cancer). Under the circumstances, the family would hardly seem appropriate subjects for a full-on assault. But that’s what happened.
Mikhaila Peterson released the unedited transcript for the world to see how grievous the misrepresentation has been. But not everyone is so lucky and Aitkenhead likely faces few consequences other than the approval of like-minded colleagues.
Then there was the 2019 misrepresentation by George Eaton at New Statesman of British philosopher and writer Roger Scruton (1944–2020) as a racist as the result of an interview. The misrepresentation led to his being unceremoniously dumped from a government committee.
Author and commentator Douglas Murray, suspecting that Sir Roger would not really have said those things, began a search and eventually came into possession of the tape and transcript. He notes, “What the tape showed beyond doubt is that George Eaton misled his readers to try to destroy the reputation of Britain’s foremost conservative thinker. Readers and listeners can listen to — and read — the interview themselves and find their favorite examples of Eaton’s dishonesty. ” He offers a few favorites of his own. (National Review, April 29, 2019)
Murray comments, “To say that this is the sort of thing that has degraded public discourse is to wildly understate things.”
Well, yes, but what’s behind it? Greenwald offers, regarding the new breed of journalists,
They have insufficient talent or skill, and even less desire, to take on real power centers: the military-industrial complex, the CIA and FBI, the clandestine security state, Wall Street, Silicon Valley monopolies, the corrupted and lying corporate media outlets they serve. So settling on this penny-ante, trivial bullshit — tattling, hall monitoring, speech policing: all in the most anti-intellectual, adolescent and primitive ways — is all they have. It’s all they are. It’s why they have fully earned the contempt and distrust in which the public holds them.Glenn Greenwald, “The Journalistic Tattletale and Censorship Industry Suffers Several Well-Deserved Blows” at Substack
How did we get here?
I’ve been in the news business fifty years. Here’s my view: The single biggest factor in all this is that traditional media are no longer a necessary institution.
In the 1970s, one needed a newspaper to find out the weather, the scores, and who had a bicycle for sale. Hit pieces sometimes appeared, of course. But generally speaking, the investigative journalist was, well, investigating, not plotting to take someone down just for the sake of it. There were plenty of bad landlords, corrupt officeholders, shoddy builders, etc., to focus on. It was difficult and sometimes dangerous work.
But we have specialty web sites and consumer groups for all that today. It’s all online.
Today, the newspapers (along with generic TV and radio) are echo chambers for opinion — for cultural reasons, that usually means progressive opinion. When an institution is no longer needed, its mission usually changes. The people attracted to it change too.
One suspects that Greenwald is right: The sort of people who would launch baseless attacks and refuse to apologize, destroy colleagues’ careers over misunderstood conversations, and ridicule or misrepresent old or sick men probably could not do an exhausting eight-month, on-the-ground investigation into corruption at the Municipal Housing Board. So, increasingly, they do what they can: Misrepresentation and speech policing.
One outcome of the increasing prevalence in media of the type of people Greenwald describes is a very great decline in the perceived value of freedom of speech and of the media. Twenty years ago, media people understood freedom of speech to mean, “I want the right to report, with evidence, that the mayor fixes drunk driving tickets for upper class twits.” Today, many in media understand it to mean “I want the right to spout hate against visible and sexual minorities.” Because that truly is all they do understand it to be. And they want a crackdown. Until then, they will act as police themselves.
Increasingly, the organizations many new journalists work for are owned by companies eyeing the Chinese market. That entails the need to get along with a totalitarian state. Perhaps it is best for them to get used to the mentality first. It is best for the rest of us to view their output with a skeptical eye and seek out smaller, alternative, independent sources of news.
You may also wish to read: Escaping the news filter bubble: Three simple tips. Spoiler: Reduce the amount of information big providers have about YOU. (Russ White)