A conformist media is no friend to freedom

November 2, 2020 by Jonathan S. Tobin - JNS.org
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He’s exactly the sort of person conservatives and some of Israel’s most ardent supporters despised. Yet today he’s being lionized by supporters of the most pro-Israel president in history and attacked by left-wingers who once idolized him.

Glenn Greenwald in Auckland, New Zealand, Sept. 15, 2014. Credit: Robert O’Neill via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps more than anyone else, Glenn Greenwald embodies the contradictions and the ironies that abound in politics and the press in 2020. As such, the sympathy or scorn that he is now generating for his refusal to play by the contemporary rules of a tribal media culture has broad implications not just for the future of journalism but for democracy.

Greenwald led the team at The Guardian that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for writing about the massive leak of U.S. intelligence information by Edward Snowden, a former U.S. National Security Agency contractor. Snowden had provided the material directly to Greenwald, who had already made a name for himself writing scathing critiques of the tactics used by the Bush administration’s war on Islamist terror, as well as for vitriolic attacks on Israel in its efforts to defend itself against Palestinian terrorists.

Born to Jewish parents in New York, Greenwald is the sort of polemicist that defended the use of anti-Semitic slurs like “Israel-firster” to denigrate Jews who support Israel as disloyal to the United States. That demonstrated his antipathy for the right of the one Jewish state on the planet to exist or to defend itself against Hamas terrorists whose actions he justified. But it was also rich since, as his aiding and abetting of Snowden indicated, he didn’t seem to have much loyalty to the United States in its struggles against foreign enemies like Al-Qaeda and Iran.

Nevertheless, Greenwald’s undeniably intrepid reporting on U.S. security issues, including his documenting the way Americans were being spied on by the agencies that were tasked with defending their freedoms, earned him a lot of respect among journalists as well as political liberals who shared his distrust of the intelligence establishment.

The prestige he won for his work enabled him to tap into the vast wealth of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to found The Intercept in 2014, an online publication that served as a personal platform for Greenwald, as well as to advance a left-wing agenda on American politics and the Middle East.

At The Intercept, Greenwald continued his gadfly routine on U.S. security, in addition to reporting on civil-liberty issues and corruption in Brazil, where he now lives with his husband, a left-wing member of the Brazilian Congress.

However, in recent years, Greenwald has started to wander off the reservation with respect to the left’s chief political goal: the ouster of President Donald Trump.

Greenwald is no Trump supporter. Indeed, he is an opponent of his policies, particularly his ardent support for Israel. Yet as an inveterate sceptic of the intelligence community, he has taken a dim view of the claim that Russian election interference determined the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, as well as what ultimately proved to be false charges about Trump colluding with the Russians. Greenwald has increasingly found himself out of favour with the very same people who anointed him as the saviour of journalism only a few years ago.

This reflects the way the current debate has scrambled some of our old assumptions about a never-ending battle between those labelling themselves liberals and conservatives. Nowadays, some people who used to call themselves conservatives are now so enraged at Trump that they have adopted liberal views on policy issues they once opposed in order to put themselves on the other side of the fence from Trump on everything. At the same time, a few people on the left like Greenwald, who is a fan of Sen. Bernie Sanders, are now chafing against the notion that journalists must not only take a side in the presidential race but are obligated to slant their reporting in such a way as to avoid all criticism of the candidate they want to win.

In this case, it means Greenwald, who is pretty much willing to believe anything horrible about Israel, views the notion that Russia is behind every development that doesn’t help the Democrats, with justified scepticism. While some believe that Greenwald’s attacks on U.S. security bordered on peddling conspiracy theories, he has enough experience in the field to understand that the politically inspired paranoia about Russia—in which anyone who digs up unflattering stories about former Vice President Joe Biden and his family’s shady international business dealings can be labelled a Russian operative without proof—is deeply troubling.

But when Greenwald wrote on the accusations about Hunter Biden’s trading on his father’s name to do business in the Ukraine and China, as well as on the outrageous censorship of reporting on that story by Facebook and especially Twitter, his own site shut him down. Rather than submit to that kind of censorship of his work, Greenwald has left his lucrative sinecure at The Intercept to strike out on his own.

Doing so has made him a villain to his former allies on the left, who regard any action that might indirectly help Trump, even if it was accurate reporting, to be a form of treason, and a hero to many of his old antagonists on the right.

We needn’t worry about Greenwald being condemned to starvation because of his refusal to compromise his journalistic integrity. But rather than inspiring schadenfreude, his journey from idol of the left to his current piñata status for liberals ought to trouble even those who still rightly resent his stands on about Israel.

Even those who once were angry about his willingness to challenge the intelligence establishment now understand that the same awesome power that can be used for good can also be dangerous when it is used against domestic political foes rather than terrorists.

The willingness of the left to shame and/or purge journalists who don’t conform to groupthink on the issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and left-wing anti-Semitism was highlighted earlier this year when Bari Weiss was bullied for her work and ultimately resigned from The New York Times. But the silencing and discrediting of those who won’t keep quiet for the sake of electing Biden and defeating Trump illustrate the same problem.

Though the nation is transfixed by the election campaign, the most important issues facing the country don’t revolve around which septuagenarian is going to be elected president. Rather, it’s how American freedom can be protected in an environment in which a lockstep mainstream media works hand in glove with even more powerful social-media oligarchs to promote conspiracy theories aimed at suppressing legitimate news stories and stifling public discourse.

In that struggle, it appears those who value liberty find themselves opposed by old allies and alongside some rather strange bedfellows. That juxtaposition doesn’t excuse Glenn Greenwald’s history of egregious attacks on Israel. But it requires recognition that a political culture that will use a conspiratorial mindset to justify suppression of one set of facts in order to obtain a desired political result can just as easily be employed to silence those who share our views.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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