The Big Debate. Keller and Greenwald Face Off

November 6, 2013 • Ethics and Quality, Specialist Journalism • by

The debate was civil but the tone was sharp. When Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times, and Glenn Greenwald, the lawyer/blogger/journalist who broke the Snowden NSA story, recently engaged in a vigorous debate about the mission of journalism, they didn’t mince words and even pulled some hard punches. Greenwald assailed Keller and the traditional media for pretending to be objective when they in fact only conceal their biases and called on journalists to embrace a more adversarial stance. Keller defended the traditional role of journalists to set their opinions aside and act as disinterested arbiters of conflicting opinions.
Here are their arguments in a nutshell and an overview of how their clash of philosophies was received. The Guardian and the Huffington Post also provide some background for the debate.

Keller: “I believe that impartiality is a worthwhile aspiration in journalism, even if it is not perfectly achieved. I believe that in most cases it gets you closer to the truth, because it imposes a discipline of testing all assumptions, very much including your own. That discipline does not come naturally. I believe journalism that starts from a publicly declared predisposition is less likely to get to the truth, and less likely to be convincing to those who are not already convinced.”

Greenwald: “… all journalism is subjective and a form of activism even if an attempt is made to pretend that this isn’t so.”

“In essence, I see the value of journalism as resting in a twofold mission: informing the public of accurate and vital information, and its unique ability to provide a truly adversarial check on those in power.”

Most commentators praised the quality of the exchange and avoided taking sides. At the same time, they also agreed that Greenwald put Keller on the defensive. Politico’s Dylan Byers remarked that Keller had no rebuttal when Greenwald emphasized the need to rigorously fact-check government claims from an adversarial standpoint.

Andrew Sullivan doesn’t choose one over the other approach either. Instead he makes a plea to create room for both. Overall though, he finds that Greenwald has an advantage. “And that’s because his idea of journalism is inherently more honest – declaring your biases is always more transparent than concealing them.”

Mathew Ingram of argues that objectivity is an outdated concept and should be replaced by transparency.  “… disclosure about one’s viewpoint trumps the traditional attempt to pretend that a journalist or media outlet has no viewpoint.”

Keller and Greenwald are talking past each other, comments Chris Daley, author of “Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism” and professor at Boston University. “Each participant represents a different definition of journalism and cannot fathom the other’s values,” he writes.

If you’re interested in finding more intellectual fodder for both sides of the debate, check out an older, yet timely piece in the Columbia Journalism Review in which Brent Cunningham calls for “rethinking objectivity.” On the other side, ethicist Stephen Ward warns that “over-hyping” transparency “distorts the ethics of democracy and media.”

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