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Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is a journalist, media critic and founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College

June 26th, 2013 9:19 PM

Snowden Coverage: If U.S. Mass Media Were State-Controlled, Would They Look Any Different?

The Edward Snowden leaks have revealed a U.S. corporate media system at war with independent journalism. Many of the same outlets -- especially TV news -- that missed the Wall Street meltdown and cheer-led the Iraq invasion have come to resemble state-controlled media outlets in their near-total identification with the government as it pursues the now 30-year-old whistleblower.

While an independent journalism system would be dissecting the impacts of NSA surveillance on privacy rights, and separating fact from fiction, U.S. news networks have obsessed on questions like: How much damage has Snowden caused? How can he be brought to justice?

Unfazed by polls showing that half of the American rabble -- I mean, public -- believe Snowden did a good thing by leaking documentation of NSA spying, TV news panels have usually excluded anyone who speaks for these millions of Americans. Although TV hosts and most panelists are not government officials, some have a penchant for speaking of the government with the pronoun "We."

After Snowden made it out of Hong Kong to Russia, New York Times journalist and CNBC talking head Andrew Ross Sorkin expressed his frustration: "We've screwed this up, to even let him get to Russia." By "we," he meant the U.S. government.

Last time I checked, Sorkin was working for the Times and CNBC, not the CIA or FBI.

When a huge swath of the country is on the side of the guy-on-the-run and not the government, it's much easier to see that there's nothing "objective" or "neutral" about journalists who so closely identify with the spy agencies or Justice Department or White House.

The standard exclusion of dissenting views -- panels often span from hawk ("he's a traitor who needs to be jailed") to dove ("he may have been well-intentioned but he needs to be jailed") -- offers yet another reason why young people, more libertarian in their views, have turned away from these outlets. Virtually no one speaks for them. While a TIME poll found 53 percent of respondents saying Snowden did "a good thing," that was the sentiment of 70 percent of those age 18 to 34.

I teach college journalism classes about independent media. New developments like WikiLeaks and independent bloggers like Glenn Greenwald may scare the wits out of establishment media, but they sure don't scare young people or journalism students.

As media employees at elite outlets have grown cozier with their government and corporate sources (Sorkin is famously close with Wall Street CEOs), they exhibit an almost instinctual antipathy toward those adversarial journalists who challenge powerful elites day after day.

Look at the reactions of some top mainstream journalists to Greenwald, who built up a big readership as a solo blogger before moving his blog to Salon and then the Guardian, where he broke the Snowden/NSA stories. I know several journalism professors who view Greenwald as one of the world's best journalists. He's known as accurate, thorough, well-documented and ethical.

It was Sorkin, the New York Times guy, who declared on CNBC that maybe Greenwald should be arrested: "I told you this in the green room - I would arrest him [Snowden] and now I'd almost arrest Glenn Greenwald, who's the journalist who seems to be out there, almost, he wants to help him get to Ecuador."

If it's strange for a journalist to suggest another journalist's arrest, it was almost as strange when Sorkin wrote in a Times column that he went down to check out the Occupy Wall Street encampment "after getting a call from the chief executive of a major bank." Sorkin concluded: "As I wandered around the park, it was clear to me that most bankers probably don't have to worry about being in imminent personal danger. This didn't seem like a brutal group -- at least not yet."

Another mainstream media star is NBC's David Gregory (seen literally dancing with White House source Karl Rove in 2007). Since he interviewed Greenwald on Sunday's "Meet the Press," there's been scrutiny of Gregory's factually-misleading question: "To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn't you be charged with a crime?" And of Greenwald's response: "I think it's pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies."

But I'm just as bothered by Gregory's retort -- "Well, the question of who's a journalist may be up to a debate with regards to what you're doing" -- and the ensuing discussion in mainstream outlets questioning Greenwald's bona fides as a journalist.

A Washington Post article ("On NSA disclosures, has Glenn Greenwald become something other than a reporter?") questioned the blogger's credentials as a journalist because he's also an advocate: "Greenwald has appeared frequently on TV to plead Snowden's case as a whistleblower -- an advocacy role many mainstream journalists would be uncomfortable with."

The Post article spoke of "the line between journalism -- traditionally, the dispassionate reporting of facts -- and outright involvement in the news seems blurrier than ever." Libertarian journalist Matt Welch critiqued the article as "historically illiterate."

The truth is that many of the greatest journalists in our country's history -- from Ida B. Wells to I.F. Stone -- were accurate reporters of fact, but hardly dispassionate. And mainstream outlets have always had hybrid reporter/columnists offering both fact and advocacy; one of the most famous, David Broder, graced the pages of the Washington Post for years, including its front page.

Broder was a reporter, columnist and TV talking head -- yet no one questioned whether Broder was a genuine journalist. That's because, unlike Greenwald, the reporting and opinions of a David Broder were militantly pro-establishment, pro-bipartisan consensus.

And Broder's not alone as a hybrid reporter/columnist in the mainstream. Let's not forget the delightful pundit who wanted to "almost arrest" Greenwald. His official Times bio states: "Andrew Ross Sorkin is a columnist, chief mergers and acquisitions reporter, and editor of Dealbook for The New York Times."

The reason Glenn Greenwald's credentials as a journalist are being questioned by some mainstreamers is not that he blurs the line between journalist and advocate. It's because of the anti-establishment content of his journalism and advocacy.

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