From Tom Paine to Glenn Greenwald, we need partisan journalism

July 16, 2013

I would sooner engage you in a week-long debate over which taxonomical subdivision the duck-billed platypus belongs to than spend a moment arguing whether Glenn Greenwald is a journalist or not, or whether an activist can be a journalist, or whether a journalist can be an activist, or how suspicious we should be of partisans in the newsroom.

It’s not that those arguments aren’t worthy of time — just not mine. I’d rather judge a work of journalism directly than run the author’s mental drippings through a gas chromatograph to detect whether his molecules hang left or right or cling to the center. In other words, I care less about where a journalist is coming from than to where his journalism takes me.

Greenwald’s collaborations with source Edward Snowden, which resulted in Page One scoops in the Guardian about the National Security Agency, caused such a rip in the time-space-journalism continuum that the question soon went from whether Greenwald’s lefty style of journalism could be trusted to whether he belonged in a jail cell. Last month, New York Times business journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin called for the arrest of Greenwald (he later apologized) and Meet the Press host David Gregory asked with a straight face if he shouldn’t “be charged with a crime.” NBC’s Chuck Todd and the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus and Paul Farhi also asked if Greenwald hadn’t shape-shifted himself to some non-journalistic precinct with his work.

The reactions by Sorkin, Gregory, Todd, Pincus, Farhi, and others betray — dare I say it? — a sad devotion to the corporatist ideal of what journalism can be and — I don’t have any problem saying it — a painful lack of historical understanding of American journalism. You don’t have to be a scholar or a historian to appreciate the hundreds of flavors our journalism has come in over the centuries; just fan the pages of Christopher B. Daly’s book Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism for yourself. American journalism began in earnest as a rebellion against the state, and just about the only people asking if its practitioners belonged in jail were those beholden to the British overlords. Or consider the pamphleteers, most notably Tom Paine, whose unsigned screed Common Sense “shook the world,” as Daly put it.

Untangling the Revolutionary War press from Revolutionary War politics proves impossible, as James Rivington, publisher of the pro-Crown New York Gazetteer understood implicitly. Rivington left the city when the rebels swept in and returned when the British drove them out, Daly wrote. A Philadelphia publisher merely changed his newspaper’s political stripes depending on which army held sway.

Judith and William Serrin’s anthology, Muckraking: The Journalism That Changed America, establishes the primacy of partisan, activist journalism from the revolutionary period through the modern era. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison battled slavery in the 1830s with his newspaper, the Liberator. Elijah Lovejoy performed similar service in the Alton Observer, and in 1837 an Illinois mob attacked and killed him for his anti-slavery journalism. Beginning in the 1840s, Frederick Douglass used the press to fight for the freedom of his people, later writing, “It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them.” Imagine the Sorkins, Gregorys, Todds, Pincuses, and Farhis of those days telling Douglass he was doing journalism wrong!

No politically contentious issue has ever escaped the eye and the pen of partisan and activist journalists. Labor journalist John Swinton used his press to campaign for working people in 1884; Helen Hunt Jackson confronted the treatment of American Indians in 1885; John Muir defended the Yosemite Valley from the timber industry in 1890; Jacob Riis recorded tenement poverty in How the Other Half Lives in 1890; and Ida B. Wells exposed the South’s casual lynching practices in 1892.

The muckrakers of the new century revealed Standard Oil’s bullying ways, political corruption in cities, the states, and the U.S. Capitol; patent-medicine and insurance swindles; unhealthful food; the sale of convicts to contractors; and more. In later decades, the communist press — yes, the communist press — alerted readers to the perils of silicosis and campaigned against color-line in Major League Baseball. The photographs of Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration in the late 1930s and Margaret Bourke-White for Life magazine in the 1930s and 1940s provided a window on poverty.

From the end of World War II until the civil rights movement began its ascension, the partisan and activist journalism faded but didn’t disappear, its practice crimped perhaps by the so-called “Great Consensus” that had evolved, as Daly wrote in Covering America. Part of its demise can be attributed to changing social attitudes. To write against segregation in the 1950s marked you in many corners as a disruptive partisan or activist, not a journalist; by the time the civil rights protests became a TV miniseries, to write in support of segregation made you suspect; after the March on Washington in 1963, support of full citizenship for African-Americans was the default mode for the mainstream press. In other words, the once-radical became the norm, and after it did, those who criticized American apartheid in the approved language were no longer marginalized as activist or partisan journalists.

In the 1960s, the best opinionated, fact-based journalism appeared in such books as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death (1963), Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1963), and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1965). The lefties at Ramparts magazine broke stories on Michigan State University fronting for the CIA (1966), the use of napalm in Vietnam (1966), and the CIA funding of the National Student Association (1967). Later revelations in the early to mid-1970s by the New York Times and the Washington Post (and others) about the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and intelligence agency abuses were, at their root, as partisan as any of the NSA investigations Glenn Greenwald has contributed. Remember, as Christopher B. Daly recently pointed out, Daniel Ellsberg chose to leak the Pentagon Papers to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan because he 1) trusted Sheehan from their years in Vietnam, and 2) had recently read a long essay-review Sheenan had written for the paper’s book section titled “Should We Have War Crime Trials?” As Daly writes, “Three months later, Sheehan wrote the first front-page article in the series that became known as the Pentagon Papers.”

I could continue my honor roll of partisan journalism through the ages, Ms. magazine cultural critiques, muckraking by the Village Voice and other alt-weeklies, Mark Dowie’s piece in Mother Jones on the exploding Ford Pinto (1977), the Progressive magazine’s H-bomb expose (1979), the overtly techno-libertarianism of the Louis Rossetto-era Wired magazine, and skipping to very fast-forward, Jeremy Scahill’s book Blackwater (2008), David Corn’s Romney tape (2012), and Radley Balko’s new book about the SWATing of America, Rise of the Warrior Cop. But I think you get my drift.

My paean to activist and partisan journalism does not include the output of the columnists and other hacks who arrange their copy to please their Democratic or Republican Party patrons. (You know who you are.) Nor do I favor the partisan journalists who insult reader intelligence by cherry-picking the evidence, debate-club style, to win the day for their comrades. Click and read a few of the articles I cite above and then ask yourself: Where would we be without our partisan journalists?

PHOTO: Glenn Greenwald, the blogger and journalist who broke the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance scandal, uses his laptop before an exclusive interview with Reuters in Rio de Janeiro July 9, 2013. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes


What terrific partisan pieces and partisan journos did I neglect to mention? An amen for I.F. Stone? H.L. Mencken? Jack Newfield? Wayne Barrett and Tom Robbins? John Sack? Westbrook Pegler? George Seldes? Send your nominations to My Twitter feed remains the voices of moderation and propriety. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Great article and a good reminder for everyone.

Posted by PXLated | Report as abusive

Not saying Greenwald isn’t doing a good service, much less than he isn’t a journalist, but reporting classified information about ongoing surveillance efforts to combat terrorism and gain geopolitical advantage seems less obviously defensible than speaking out against slavery, lynching, poverty, political corruption and destruction of natural resources.

To be clear – Greenwald’s work has in some respects helped prompt an important national conversation, but these historical comparisons seem like a reach.

Posted by OriginalS | Report as abusive

Interesting article – but is Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” a good example of the best “fact-based” journalism of the 1960s?

From Forbes:

“In 1992, San Jose State University entomologist J. Gordon Edwards, a long-time member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society and a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, offered a persuasive and comprehensive rebuttal of “Silent Spring.” As he explained in “The Lies of Rachel Carson,” a stunning, point by point refutation, “it simply dawned on me that that Rachel Carson was not interested in the truth about [pesticides] and that I was being duped along with millions of other Americans.” He demolished Carson’s arguments and assertions, calling attention to critical omissions, faulty assumptions, and outright fabrications.” 2012/09/05/rachel-carsons-deadly-fantasi es/

And recent studies in Great Britain have failed to find higher rates of cancer in commercial pesticide applicators: ide-workers-have-less-cancer-says

Posted by JasonStimpel | Report as abusive

I admire John Muir, but he operated a saw mill in Yosemite Valley and it was pretty hypocritical to be critical of the timber industry – not that unusual a trait for the list of “activist and partisan journalists”. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring has been repeatedly debunked, yet the environmental movement and other activist groups still quote it. ~85% of the US national media is left leaning, as in they actually vote Democrat (based on exit polls)- hardly representative of the rest of us. My observation is that a majority of journalists distort the facts to support their perspective of the world, i.e. pretty far left of center in most cases these days. The problem is even worse – pure hyperbolic manipulation to “make news”, rather than report the facts. I am afraid that objective and honest journalism was always rare, but is practically extinct now.

Posted by AuAgExpl | Report as abusive

Excellent piece. I expect it will be the last word on the subject for all but the angriest old white men.

Posted by 123commenter123 | Report as abusive

You have this today, just pick the paper or source of your choice and you can see how partisan it is slanted.

People know that Fox, CNN, the NY Times, BBC, Guardian, etc. all slant one way or the other and no longer pretend to be offering straight unbiased news – it comes down to how they hire and instruct their writers and editors.

Posted by Eric.Klein | Report as abusive

Freedom of the press belongs to those that own one.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Unlike Shafer, I do care where a journalist is coming from. It’s a good indication of which side of the truth he’s trying to make his journalism take me to.

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

First, Glenn Greenwald does not practice a “lefty style of journalism.” It’s not even a libertarian style of journalism. It’s a privileged anarchist style of journalism. It is also a self-righteously Machiavellian style of journalism that you see across all ideological spectrums. His belief that his pet issue is so vitally important regularly allows him to play loose with the facts, utilize absurd hyperboles, misquote and/or quote out of context, and attack anyone with the audacity to have a different opinion than him with a level of spite unbecoming of a journalist (or human being, for that matter).

And yes, I very much do care about those things. I welcome a conversation about the NSA’s domestic programs. And while people can blame the media for not focusing on the real issues, it is Greenwald and Snowden themselves who have turned this entire conversation into a spectacle. How much further along could we be in this conversation if Snowden had just come home and Greenwald had just shutup? But instead we have Snowden saying he fears for his life, with talks of a “dead man switch” and Greenwald saying he’s “the most dangerous man” to US interests in the history of the universe! And we have Greenwald saying the US is “destroying” asylum rights based on an ACLU report that says nothing of the sort. They are both reveling in the spotlight because, deep down, they don’t want a civil conversation on the issue. Polls show a majority of Americans do not agree with them, and the most “bombshell” claims continue to fail under scrutiny.

In the meantime, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ordered the release of its prior opinion ordering Yahoo to turn over data. The US government took no opinion in the matter, suggesting that President Obama is perhaps backing up his word about greater transparency in this area, just as he has backed up his word about reigning in drone strikes. Of course, I’m sure that won’t prevent privileged people like Greenwald from letting perfection be the enemy of good.

Posted by ATLGreg1 | Report as abusive

The war on terror is not won or over.

Manning, snowden, assange and all the alleged journalists who aid them have moved out of the very wide band of grey and into the black where the terrorist are.

This is a far greater treachery than the misguided scientists who shared with Soviet Russia that which helped quickly establish what has become AMD.

Manning, snowden, assange and all the alleged journalists who aid them have in fact supplied intelligence to, abetted and aided the enemy.

Manning and snowden both of their own free will took employment with the state military and intelligence agency’s with the knowledge said state was at war.

“Professional muck raker’s are an important and necessary element of a functioning democracy”

From my aunt an English veteran of wwII who flew to Russia in 1955 from England at the invitation and expense of the soviet union.

She told me in 1985 that the Russian system would fail and was not they way forward for any of us.

Anti establishment journalists are healthy and necessary on this one they are in fact aiding and abetting the enemy and should modify their positions accordingly or suffer the consequences that may fall upon those who aid the enemy in time’s of war..

Posted by nzl-kz7 | Report as abusive

I expected that your leading example of effective partisan journalism would be the story of how Edward R. Murrow brought down McCarthyism. When I read Greenwald, I always think of Murrow: “We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason…”

Posted by fung0 | Report as abusive

And then there’s Walter Duranty, Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter who systematically lied and covered up for Stalin’s purges and the great Ukrainian terror-famine because he was a Believer. It’s hard enough to get some truth as it is…

Posted by bop123 | Report as abusive


Which “party” is Greenwald flacking for?

Glenn Greenwald doesn’t make a pretense of offering a “view from nowhere” but describing his writing as “partisan” is misleading.

Pick a more accurate term.

Posted by Boondawgle | Report as abusive

To comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

When did most editorial departments get so comfortable?

Posted by tedcarroll | Report as abusive


Obviously your loyalty is to an ethereal concept of “States” rather than to humanity itself.

OK, so the USSR “failed” as you describe, although the reality is more the case that they simply went broke. Of course the global financial elite in those days would have been so reasonable to the Ruskies.

Your desperate attempt to pigeon hole opposition to US interference as originating from some wanting to resurrect the old communist juggernaut demonstrates how shallow your understanding of this opposition is. This issue has little to do with the left right dichotomy.

I expect you will willingly dispose of your US supremacist attitude when China calls in the US debt. The US banks bought some time with the GFC using the oldest trick in the book, ie: selling a grossly overvalued product, devaluing it and then buying it back at liquidation prices for resale.

This trick was used by a video game operator who sold located coin op video games. They were sold based on a certain earning potential. After the sale, his underlings pumped coins into the machines for a few months. When they stopped, the location owner would then evict the investor’s machines because they weren’t earning enough. The operator was forced to sell the machines at liquidation prices, given that there were way too many of the machines to relocate to other money earning locations. Then the location owner and machine seller would then start again with a new investor. I digress.

There has been a great deal of handwashing of responsibility, including the distortion of the simple fact that this was a simple US bank organised swindle on a massive scale. Many Americans blame Europe’s problems exclusively on bad governance. Certainly there is evidence of this, but there were beneficiaries of the GFC – US banks. Everyone else were shafted. It has been very damaging for Europeans who bought the US banks’ “safe as houses” line and invested government funds with them. Of course, it wasn’t just Europeans who lost out.

Coming back to your comment though, how does an outsider consider your emotive words such as terror and treachery? I am seeing you as treacherous because you want to keep the rest of the world in the dark about the extent of US surveillance on foreigners, let alone her citizens. A while ago, Americans would criticise communist nations for this behaviour. You don’t see it much now. Why were they your enemies again? Anyway, what you see today is pretty similar to the internal pressures within communist nations whose leaders responded in the same way you have. Aid the enemy? Times of war (not time’s)? You’ll make this last forever if you can unless genocide is your thing.

Funny that you don’t mention David Leigh who was responsible for leaking unredacted Wikileaks material. But hey, your grammar is all over the place, I guess I can’t expect much more than reflexive patriotism without any thought of accuracy and how this is viewed by the rest of the world.

Posted by Radguy | Report as abusive

These comments are disgusting. None of you believe in freedom of speech apparently. As if printing documents in a newspaper is anything like selling secrets directly to the enemy. You think terrorists don’t already know they are being spied upon? You proto-fascists make me sick, and are the definition of un-american.

Also you lament the “loss” of “objective” journalism, but that NEVER existed. Wake up, everybody has an angle, a perspective. Any journo telling you they are being “objective” is lying, either to you or themselves or both. Anybody who buys that nonsense is as ignorant as a child born yesterday.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

It depends on how one defines “journalism” by distinguishing reporting from editorializing.

Reporting requires communication of the facts as immediately understood while limiting the interpretation of those same facts. Editorializing is the interpretation and extrapolation of those facts to arrive at an opinion or conclusion. (e.g. Homeowner shoots burglar or White homeowner shoots Black burglar–thus injecting race into activity that is primarily race neutral.)

The issue today is that most journalists thoroughly confuse reporting with editorializing; per Lyndon Johnson “if you have lost Cronkite you have lost the country”.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

The journalism industry is a free market. Write whatever you want, whenever you want to. People will either read it or they won’t. A writer will either make money writing, or he won’t. Journalistic Darwinism is at the root of why Fox News has significantly higher viewership than others who insist on reporting on the world in their own way…but that’s perfectly ok…they seem to be purposefully choosing to make less money than Fox News. Multiple viewpoints are better than one. Vive la difference…

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

@ sarkozy I won’t address the validity of your opinion re Fox News and its viewership, but how would you explain the (lack of) viewership for MSNBC, or the fact that the Big 3 TV news services viewership is declining?

I don’t know if that could be categorized as Darwinism, but it does demonstrate that you have to meet the viewership needs in order to survive (see ala Rush and AmericaRadio.)

At least Fox has some liberals on their staff who deliver an alternative perspective. MSNBC does not even attempt to offer the alternative viewpoint (above the constant shouting and ridicule).

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Is it not possible to report facts without a slant in one direction or another?

Posted by tougar | Report as abusive

What bothers most people about Greenwald is not that he has a particular slant on a subject, its that he refuses to settle for bs and will, as need arises, call people/governments/organizations out on it. Of course, this bothers most journalists because its obvious from their work and what from many Americans have come to expect from them, that its not their job to figure out the truth but report without ‘bias’ what is fed to them.

Posted by ochun005 | Report as abusive

We need both “kinds” of journalism. But readers deserve to know exactly what kind they are reading in every single instance.

Posted by SFMH57 | Report as abusive


Most of the time I don’t think so. How you and I see something, like the Zimmerman verdict, is almost predetermined by our prior life experience.

If you’re black and daily deal with ever-present thoughtless violence you tend to want almost every act by a black “presumed innocent”. In the overall, you want less violence in the world; and, because there are so many (mostly illegal) guns in “the ‘hood” killing your friends and neighbors, you want stricter gun ownership and use laws.

If you’re white and watch the news, every night the great majority of robberies, carjackings, assaults, home invasions, copper theft, graffiti, either shows video of black or Hispanic “suspects”, you don’t see any disconnect whatsoever that there is a disproportionate number of these minorities in American prisons (and you WANT them there, and not out on your street).

If you’re selected for jury duty, no matter how hard you try, your life experiences are going to affect how you interpret “facts” presented and how you interpret the inevitable conflicts and ambiguities. We’re all susceptible to such “bias”.

COindependent contributes a thoughtful twist by attempting to distinguish reporting from editorializing. And TMC is 100% right (if not original)!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Ironically, the author of this piece hasn’t performed the least bit of journalistic research on his subject. Glenn Greenwald’s work has been debunked so many times, his serial killer style of confrontation become so tiresome, all one needs to do is perform a cursory search to find a history replete with outright lies, distortions, inane attacks and personal insults that should make real journalists weep.

In response to honest criticism, has anyone ever seen or heard of incredibly puerile responses such as this from the likes of Murrow, Moyers, or Barrett? Or, from the author himself, who clearly states that his “Twitter feed remains the voice of moderation and propriety.”? Does this sound like someone who’s moderate and shows courtesy to those with whom he disagrees?

“Obama progressives: the new warmongers – can never get enough of killing Muslims.” Glenn Greenwald, Twitter, 6/25/12

And speaking of propriety on Twitter, who can forget his amplification of an execrable joke about Obama raping a nun? Or when he compared an Obama supporter to a Nazi? It’s all there (and so much more), you just have to look it up.

Glenn Greenwald is simply another version of Glenn Beck. And the fact that the author hasn’t vetted his subject in the least, well, isn’t that what journalists are supposed to do when reporting?

Posted by RobH26 | Report as abusive

Shafer is quite right. In fact, all journalism is from a point of view. The idea some journalism is “just the facts” is nonsense. For there’s always a selection of facts. A writer doesn’t just list a lot of facts, but writes to make a point. When there’s no point evident, readers are disappointed and complain: “What’s the point?” Journalists who pretend they don’t have an angle are either not aware of what they’re doing or are hoping to make a case without the reader noticing they’re making one. Many in mainstream news seem liars to me: they’re engaged in propaganda but deny it–like David Gregory.

Posted by tomtomjunior | Report as abusive


Very well well said!

Posted by CandleForex | Report as abusive

Shafer should know better. Dowie’s piece on the Pinto was science fiction, akin to more recent, and thoroughly debunked, claims about unintended acceleration.

The Myth of the Ford Pinto Case ves/000023.php

Posted by smartnic | Report as abusive

The people who say Greenwald is ‘calling out bullshit’ are the ones who already agree with him, so they don’t see the problems in his work, and he and they are so partisan, they make the mistake of dismissing anyone who disagrees as ‘stooges’. It’s so boring.

Shafer is right that the current ideal model for journalism is a relatively recent one. And I am a big proponent of doing more to acknowledge subjectivities in reporting. BUT there is a big difference between neutrality (the current way) and objectivity, which is about taking a view but then showing HOW you got there, not just by verification but also by attempting to disprove your own ideas. This is not something Greenwald does.

There is also a big difference between a subjectivity that has been worked through, and the kind of sentimental sensationalism of the Hearst era, and of current day Fleet Street tabloids.

Posted by Ex-Reuters | Report as abusive

Excellent article, but addresses the wrong issue. The issue is that the mainstream media PRETENDS to be non biased and is no longer believable for that reason. Conservatives will no longer believe them without verifying their stories. We are in the process of building our own media to counteract the misreperesentations of the left wing.

Posted by ronwagn | Report as abusive

You forgot to mention Karl Marx who wrote many article for the Chicago Tribune back in the 1850’s. It was his only steady client.

Posted by dangood | Report as abusive

The notion of objective–what you might call corporate–journalism is actually a fairly recent phenomenon and coincides with the development of only three national TV news networks in the 1950s, overlayed with requirements of Equal Time law and then the Fairness Doctrine regulation (since abandoned).

Meanwhile, as multiple competing newspapers in cities faded into just one or two the remaining dailies morphed from having a political ideology to more or less trying to promote the who-what-where-when style of journalism, wanting to build the largest possible audience to see to advertisers.

Now, the ascendency of the Internet as a media platform has made point-of-view journalism palatable again as we have it within our means to see, listen to and read from a wide variety of sources–like this column. The downside is that for too many people the response is just to partake of those sources that reinforce their viewpoint and prejudices. Whether it’s Fox News or MSNBC or the Guardian, fewer consumers are troubling themselves to get a broader view. This I suspect has contributed to the polarization in Washington, as politicians cater to constituencies that see only the yin or only the yang and want their elected officials to follow what they therefore believe is the “true path.”

Posted by BenMC | Report as abusive