The (misguided) passion of Glenn Greenwald

May 14, 2014


It’s not that journalists have thin skins — it’s that they have no skins.

This adage gets trotted out once a month or more in better newsrooms to provide context for the overreaction of a reporter or editor who has found himself on the receiving end of criticism for something they’ve published. This week, some journalists who have been critical of Glenn Greenwald are seeking skin grafts for their skin grafts after reading his denunciation of them in the final chapter of his new book about the Snowden files, No Place to Hide.

I would ordinarily write something like — “Greenwald settles scores with the New York Daily News, David Gregory of NBC News, Alan Dershowitz, CNN, Reuters reporters, the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus, Leslie Kaufman, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Jill Abramson, and Michael Schmidt of the New York Times, and others in the press corps for criticizing him, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange” — except Greenwald isn’t a score-settler. Once you earn a place in his scope, there you will stay, even after he runs out of ammunition.

Which would be never. Whether the venue be the Web, TV, or Twitter, Greenwald is the sort of fighter who goes on punching after the bell has rung, after the last round has been fought, and continues once the ring has been packed up. If split open by a speeding Mack truck and left bleeding at the side of the Interstate, Greenwald would still be observed shouting at passing traffic, “Ya didn’t hurt me! Come back and get what you deserve, you diesel pig!”

I could be mistaken, but I must be one of the few journalists writing in the vicinity of Greenwald’s interests who have never tasted the orange of his flame, an oversight I hope to correct with this column. It’s gotta be my turn for abuse, if only because in No Place to Hide he quotes favorably from something praiseful I wrote about him for Reuters last summer.

For all its fury, Greenwald’s bellicosity becomes harmless if read through a filter. He’s the underdog, so he has to bark louder. He’s a loner (by design, it seems), so he has to be his own posse. He’s a David (by choice, it seems) against Goliaths. He graduated from law school, which teaches the art of making your offense your defense.

greenwald888The downside of perpetually savaging your enemies comes when you make so much noise you can’t hear their sensible arguments. I’m fine with Greenwald skinning a few journalists, if only because everybody in our business needs an aggressive defoliation now and again. But Greenwald — who with Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman, have aided liberty with their exposes of government surveillance — gets tangled up in his own rancor when he dismisses as supplicants the national security beat reporters who consult with government officials before publishing.

The source of “establishment media hostility” for Snowden, Assange, and Greenwald, Greenwald writes almost categorically, is their acceptance of “the rule of dutiful spokespeople for political officials, especially where national security is concerned.” He continues, saying that the establishment media is “contemptuous of those who challenge or undermine Washington’s centers of power.”

As evidence, Greenwald points to the New York Times decision in 2004 to delay by more than a year the publication of its domestic spying story, and of a Los Angeles Times call to spike — under Dean Baquet, the new executive editor of the New York Times — an AT&T-NSA story. Also steaming his endless buffet is the idea that journalists talk to national security officials before they publish secrets. Greenwald’s schema also doesn’t square with the Washington Post‘s aggressive pursuit of the Snowden story. No paper is more representative of the establishment and Washington power than the Post, and yet it has published on and on about the NSA files.

He’s right that some reporters tend to get too close to their sources (no matter what the beat, I might add) and fall into orbital capture. But national security reporters haven’t been sitting on their hands as Greenwald implies, a point that Michiko Kakutani and David Cole make in their reviews of No Place to Hide this week in the New York Times and Washington Post. It wasn’t a bend-over press that published stories about Abu Ghraib, rendition, torture, black sites, and drones. And while he can carp about the delay, the New York Times ultimately defied the Bush administration to publish the NSA surveillance story and followed it with the controversial Swift financial surveillance investigation.

Greenwald seems to want to damn national security reporters for talking to national security officials about national security issues, thinking that it compromises them somehow or prevents them from publishing empire-shaking scoops. But talking to the government isn’t the same thing as taking orders from it. National security reporters can write more insightful and more accurate stories by discussing the leaks they obtain. They can also avoid publishing stories that are detrimental to my immediate safety, your immediate safety, the immediate safety of Glenn Greenwald’s life as well as the lives of U.S. troops. The cartoon Greenwald paints of a weakling press taking orders from the government clashes with the well-documented accounts of how contentious and brutal the reporting and publishing process can get.

Remember, not even Glenn Greenwald has dumped his entire stash of NSA files into the public domain. He’s in his Fortress of Solitude right now, turning them over in his hands and making mental notes. Like anybody who takes the mound, Greenwald wants to decide when to hurl his fastballs. Is anybody calling Greenwald a pliant hack for his style of deliberative journalism?

I’ve put myself on record as being a fan of Greenwald’s adversarial reporting, but that doesn’t mean I approve of every story and editorial choice he’s made. I’m also a fan of the more conventional and cautious brand of journalism, which frequently needs a kick in the ass from outsiders like Greenwald. Who says you can’t be a critic of both.


Note to Glenn: Reach for the oxyacetylene if you decide to torch me, okay? Send fireworks to My Twitter feed burns all night. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTOS: Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist who first published the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, testifies before a Brazilian Congressional committee on NSA’s surveillance programs, in Brasilia August 6, 2013. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Glenn Greenwald, is surrounded by journalists while he arrives to the George Polk Awards in New York, April 11, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz 


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

Your Greenwald, Jack, sounds just like me! As you’ll see when you get a cc of mine regarding the deceased Roger Straus, Senior and his evil doings. x mr

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive

For just a moment I thought you were going to write about how Mr. Greenwald’s passion for truth and freedom was ‘misguided’…

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

“As evidence, Greenwald points to the New York Times decision in 2004 to delay by more than a year the publication of its domestic spying story..”

Last night’s Frontline account of those events seems to indicate Keller abided the White House’s wishes and declined to publish the story until one of their journalists was set to scoop the story in a book he intended to publish.

This may be a fine point but, without the prompting of the book publishing..

When was the NY Times set to run that story ??

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

All Greenwald cares about, is doing as much harm to the government as he can… deserved or not. He couldn’t care less who he potentially hurts in the process. He’s a reckless, anarchist nut, who tries to rationalize his obsession, by calling himself a reporter. Him and Snowden should be cell mates. They could spend the rest of their pathetic lives, blissfully talking about how terrible America supposedly is.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Jack Shafter attacks Greenwald for attacking other journalist. Begs to be counterattacked.

Troll, troll, your boat, gently down the web.. merrily, merrily, Shafter is but a troll.

But good article otherwise!

Posted by Bill_Owen | Report as abusive

Biteatorials like this will look really good on Shafter’s CV next time he tries to get some face time with the overlords. Excellent job Jackie!

Posted by Bill_Owen | Report as abusive

I have no idea why my post shows up four times. i did not intend to spam the comments.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Like all fanatics and zealots Greenwald is possessed by one central idea which renders him blind to other people’s reasonable arguments. If you accept what he says as the truth, then HE is the hero of the entire story, admitting that he has ruthlessly exploited Snowden’s genuine concerns for his own purposes. No doubt Greenwald is far too egoistic to notice this, but his own book throws a rather nasty light on ita author.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

Greenwald is a traitor and should be treated as such. Snowden too.

Posted by PrincessHaven | Report as abusive

At least two thirds of this article consists of a reporter’s ad hominem attack, with cute little picturesque flourishes, against another reporter’s alleged ad hominem attacks. That doesn’t mean anything to ordinary readers. All we can do is read Greenwald’s book and judge for ourselves.

GG may go a little too far in his indignation, but he does have a point. It is important to remember that the Abu Ghraib story, and some of the others, were broken by marginal reporters like Sy Hersh; not the established Washington press corps. Once broken, the latter could hardly avoid going with the story; the fact that it did so does not prove that it is not overly deferential when officials invoke national security.

In contrast, the warrantless wire tap story was one NYT decided not to break. Bill Keller made the decision to sit on it during an election year; it broke the next year (as Frontline says) only because James Risen described it in his book. Is sitting on a story in which voters have a key interest during an election year really a responsible position?

We also remember how NYT treated WMD issue in Iraq; and how the WaPo editorial page is still very hawkish and almost neo-con in orientation. It took the obscure Knight-Ridder group, since taken over by McClatchy, to tell us there might be something wrong in the Bush Administration’s case. Shouldn’t a free press be bold enough to do the digging which might be able to prevent a capricious, completely unnecessary war?

It is true that talking to officials about national security issues is not inherently corrupt, but it is a hazardous proceeding; as recent events abundantly show. Good reporters have to assume that officials will try to keep secret anything embarrassing to them, even if well known to the enemy, and will stretch the “national security” rationale just as far as they can.

The best papers seem to want to have things both ways. They like to take credit for breaking the veil thrown up by the national security state and the culture of over-classification. But when push comes to shove, they are part of a common Washington-centered community (symbolized by the Correspondents’ Dinner). They publish plenty of embarrassing leaks, but also “leaks” made by officials to manipulate public opinion. They show undue deference at key points, when revelations could actually change the course of policy.

Greenwald and the others, living under threat of prosecution, may be a little intemperate and melodramatic at times. But they are doing us a service. The accountability system set up to address the old abuses of the national security state (FISA court, congressional oversight etc.) is just not working. We rely on the press to tell us what needs fixing. If it takes an unusually shrill and obnoxious critic to badger them into doing that, so be it.

Posted by tizneh | Report as abusive

Perhaps Mr. Shafer would be happiest in Russia, where they have compliant journalists (like NYT’s Keller) who parrot the government line and must always get Vladi’s permission to run with a piece. What seems to bother Shafer the Hack the most about Greenwald is that he actually pursues real journalism.

Posted by WhipperSnapper | Report as abusive

Greenwald and others such as Chris Hedges are actually very correct in their assessment of the so called news organizations. Their problem is that they don’t know the solutions. They see the reality but are simply barking dogs themselves. However, a dog barking in your yard is a good warning system some times. Of course the solution is education, but that’s a big task in this nation of the poisoned and perverted. TV doesn’t do it, our schools don’t do it and certainly there are no “NEWS paper” doing it. To admit the truth would be to end the scams that make the wealthy wealthy.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Fearless journalist Jack Schafer deleted two of my comments. I was critical of him, but not abusive.

I note that comments calling for the lifelong encaging of Glenn Greenwald are just fine though.


Posted by Bill_Owen | Report as abusive

If Greenwald is obsessive/aggressive it’s damn well needed at a time when journalists are conveniently manipulated by the government for their own nefarious purposes. Investigative reporting is an anachronism as today’s hacks are mostly content to simply regurgitate what officials tell them. Since the 9-11 false flag op Americans have been lied into wars and left to watch as their civil liberties have been systematically stripped away. We need more Glenn Greenwalds and Edward Snowdens to shine a light on the plethora of government abuse and corruption. Sad to say, the mainstream media is the government’s houseboy. TV and print are locked up tight. We can still find some truth on the internet, but the government is doing its best to shut that down too; i.e. ending net neutrality. If and when that happens we’re really f*cked.

Posted by Yvo_Kerwar | Report as abusive

In my view, Snowden case perfectly epitomizes an old adage, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”… if there truly were the latter.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Without Greenwald, Snowden, Risen, etc. we wouldn’t have any proof that Bush, Hayden, Alexander, and yes, Obama have been lying to us for years. I’ll take the egotism of Greenwald over the hypocritical mendacity of Hayden any day.

The NSA has been spying on U.S. citizens wholesale since 2001, and Bush looked directly into the news cameras and said they weren’t.

Ever since The Gulf of Tonkin incident, the press has too readily accepted the platitudes and evasions of every administration when it came to questions of national security and the abuses of the military, NSA, and the CIA.

Thank your Snowden, Greenwald, Gellman and Poitras.

Posted by Andvari | Report as abusive

The Losers:
Ed Snowden, Julian Assange, and Glenn Greenwald


Successful Leaders:
Andrew Ross Sorkin, Alan Dershowitz, Walter Pincus, and David Gregory

Well, that was easy.

Posted by 111Dave111 | Report as abusive

Thank you, Dissident Snowden.
Thank you, Guardian and Washington Post.

Glenn Greenwald was the perfect choice. Nothing changes that.

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

Nice hit piece of one of the few Western journalists who hasn’t sold his or her soul.

Posted by ToshiroMifune | Report as abusive

I’m waiting to see if the NSA files will result in actual prosecution of criminal behavior, for example of those involved in MKUltra torture and slave and drug trafficking, that began many decades back, and has not been properly covered by the media. It is up to the survivors to write books… but who believes them? We need more Snowden material that can help cleanse America. I’m sickened that my tax dollars have gone and continue to go to black op programs. This has to stop. Journalists can help if they live up to their mission and ethics.

Posted by gwenkraft | Report as abusive

If you reject your natural born gender you will probably project negativity toward everything. Looking objectively at gay culture will substantiate this argument. Does this mean that everything he writes is hogwash? No, but to trash everything is a theme that runs through all gay culture and always has.

Posted by lysergic | Report as abusive

This certainly is an “opinion” piece. The first half is virtually content-free, and the second half is, as others have pointed out, full of misdirection and half-truths.

Really, Mr. Shafer, the fact that Glen Greenwald is irritating as hell does not diminish the fact that his work is actual journalism, which stands in stark contrast to the mealy-mouthed, sycophantic, in-crowd navel-gazing that we’ve come to expect from Beltway “Village” news reportage. (Do not even get me started on the pundits and opinion writers.) In the last two decades or more, the great journalism in the US has come from outsiders like Matt Taibbi, Greenwald, and a few others, through outlets like Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. The formerly great old newspapers are are hidebound and mired in pandering sensationalism, and TV is even worse.

Your piece says more about your insider point-of-view than it does about Greenwald. Yes, honey, I know, GG is kind of a jerk. Ask me if I care.

Posted by psanity | Report as abusive


It’s scarcely a surprise you’d complement the NY Times for finally publishing James Risen’s domestic spying story, and downplaying the fact it was a year late. What you didn’t tell your readers is that the NYT didn’t publish it willingly; it published it kicking and screaming.

As Risen said this week on Frontline, and has been widely reported elsewhere, the “courageous” ‘Paper of Record’ only put it out after what Riesen called a “game of chicken” in which Riesen was going to publish the NYT-suppressed story anyway, in a book.

To avoid humiliation, the NYT finally gave the public the important story about Bush’s domestic spying, after sitting on the story for a year and denying the public info that might have hurt Bush’s reelection chances.

So yeah, Jack, I’m sure you done your editors proud: you’re the perfect pseudojourno to sneer and screech at the peccadillos of one of the few journalists not engaged in full time lickspittling.

Posted by GLAguilar | Report as abusive

This is like reading a Rona Barrett takedown of Laurence Olivier.

Posted by smartnic | Report as abusive

You will not read a Shafer column which mentions how avidly Reuters removes comments that are critical of its reporting, or targets it considers sacred.

Posted by smartnic | Report as abusive

You know Jack, “I care less about where a journalist is coming from than where his journalism takes me.” But that’s just me…wait, no it’s not, that’s you. (From Tom Paine to Glenn Greenwald We Need Partisan Journalism”, Jack Shafer, Reuters July 16, 2013) Applying your standard from 2013, Greenwald contributions can be fairly characterized as history making. Greenwald was sought out by Snowden because of his reputation for independence and tenacity. I have read articles by Greenwald that were critical of individual journalists and publications, but his criticism always seemed to be well grounded in an analysis of the role and performance of media, not personality based attacks. So I would regard Greenwald’s journalism as taking his readers to a better informed, critical discussion of matters of real relevance. I have also been an admirer of your contributions, however, not in this case. I do not know or care what the people who write the news think about their colleagues social skills or skin sensitivity. This article is a waste of your talent and a distraction from what news should be. I see no evidence that Greenwald has devolved from a modern day Tom Paine to Spanky from Our Gang in the last 11 months, and the nastiness of your attack doesn’t help to make that case, but at the end of the day…who cares?

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

[…] But that stood out as an exception to the widespread denunciations of Greenwald and Snowden (see here, here and here for […]

Posted by Orwell’s Dystopian Future Is Almost Here: A Conversation With Glenn Greenwald | MAAS | Report as abusive