by Ben Cohen
In 2013 when the movie ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ came out, Glenn Greenwald wrote a predictably pedantic and scathing review about its complicity with the pro Obama/pro CIA/pro neo imperialist/deep state. A reader cheekily left a comment on the piece asking the Guardian that they should provide a ‘Spoiler Alert’.
“Please Guardian,” they wrote. “Some of us haven’t seen the film. This is the Titantic 3D fiasco all over again.” Greenwald fired back:
Substance of Greenwald’s piece aside, the exchange was highly revealing on a number of levels. Firstly, his single minded focus on whatever it is he is outraged by appears to render him completely incapable of recognizing emotion/intent in another human being. Secondly, he has close to zero sense of humor, and thirdly, his lack of self awareness is so profound it is a miracle he has survived to adulthood.
It is this incredible lack of self awareness that has made Greenwald’s journalism so irritating to anyone not in college or on the radical left. His monotonous, didactic prose can only be tolerated by the true believers — acolytes who hang on his every word and view the world through his binary perspective. There are no gray areas in Greenwald’s world, just good (him), and bad (centrist Democrats). His journalism is predicated on him knowing the answer before he sets out to write anything, then going about proving it at all costs. This past weekend, New York Magazine ran an in depth profile of Greenwald that focused on his strident belief that there is nothing to the Russiagate/collusion investigation. It was a subtly brutal piece of journalism that exposed Greenwald’s ineptitude as a journalist and painted him as a painfully unaware zealot who sees nothing other than what he wants to. Simon van Zuylen-Wood spent several days with Greenwald at his home in Rio De Janeiro and paints a nuanced portrait of the renegade firebrand. Greenwald is funny in person, says Zuylen-Wood, and — shock horror — self aware of his role in the American media system.
Apparently these traits do not extend to his actual journalism, which Zuylen-Wood dismantles at the end of his piece after conveying Greenwald’s perspective on Russiagate and the left’s war on Trump.
Greenwald took to twitter after the piece was published and offered his take:
Though I disagree with some of the opinions @svzwood inserts in this profile, it’s largely a fair & illuminating discussion of the skepticism on Trump/Russia I share with many, as well as the post-2016 shifts in political coalitions: more significant than generally acknowledged https://t.co/CKh0UMk54u
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) January 21, 2018
True to form, Greenwald took from the piece exactly what he wanted to: his own opinion and little else. Greenwald was only concerned that that Zuylen-Wood quoted him correctly, as if his words were so sacred that they transcend all other arguments by virtue of him uttering them. But if you actually read the piece, Greenwald’s world view is carefully deconstructed and laid bare for what it is: a partisan, myopic ideology that defies the basic tenants of good journalism. Writes Zuylen-Wood:
To listen to intelligence veterans, there is also a defensive aspect to Greenwald’s collusion skepticism. “You really cannot dismiss as part of his motivation the way in which this new story is undermining the very things that he made his reputation on,” says cybersecurity expert Stewart Baker, a former NSA general counsel. “Which is: embracing WikiLeaks and Snowden and a hostility to the idea that there are national-security threats the U.S. has to respond to.”
Journalistically, the problem with this dynamic is there’s virtually no revelation in the Russia story that could get Greenwald to change his mind. Which means that while Scahill and other Intercept colleagues tend to evaluate each new revelation at face value, Greenwald focuses disproportionately on debunked or overblown Russia stories. Ever the lawyer, he curates evidence that suits his argument. More than a year ago, the Washington Post published an erroneous story alleging that Russia had hacked into a U.S. electrical grid in Vermont. Greenwald continues to bring this up. To him, it’s not just a random piece of bad reporting but a crucial exhibit in a case he’s building.
Which makes his lack of interest in a report the Intercept itself produced all the more curious.
Zuylen-Wood is referring to the NSA leaked story The Intercept published showing that Russia had tried to infiltrate voter-registration systems just days before the 2016 election. It was, as Zuylen-Wood describes, “the first credible claims that, more than trying to influence American voters, Russia may have been directly targeting election technology.”
Again, Greenwald seems un fussed by any of this and spent much of the time on Twitter highlighting portions of the piece that quote himself:
These passages in particular pretty accurately convey my approach to this story in a way that inherently distorting social media venues, or even truncated TV interviews, can’t: pic.twitter.com/kFCg2lFcTZ
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) January 21, 2018
It probably doesn’t matter to Greenwald in the end how many new details emerge about Russia. The big truth — that American society is in dire need of reform and Russia is not to blame for that — can never be dislodged by the little truths.
Of course this has nothing to do with the style of journalism Greenwald claims to practice — working backwards from a conclusion you have already reached is quite literally the opposite of what a good journalist is supposed to do. Yet onwards Greenwald marches, ignoring mountains of evidence that don’t support his worldview and smearing those who are doing serious reporting on potentially one of the biggest scandals in American history. His treatment of former friend Rachel Maddow is shocking to say the least.
“I used to be really good friends with Rachel Maddow,” Greenwald told Zuylen-Wood. “And I’ve seen her devolution from this really interesting, really smart, independent thinker into this utterly scripted, intellectually dishonest, partisan hack.”
Coming from a man who appears regularly on Alt-Right cheerleader Tucker Carlson’s show, this is more than a little rich. Maddow has been doing excellent and necessary work on the Russiagate scandal — work that is clearly unnerving the president. Yet Greenwald views this (without a shred of evidence) as partisan hackery. Why? Because it does not conform to his preconceived notion that Russia cannot have hacked the election or colluded with Trump because the Democrats are to blame for everything. Greenwald says persistently that he is open to the idea that Russia hacked the election and there was high level collusion between the Kremlin and the White House, but he needs more evidence for him to stop going on Fox News to fuel Alt-Right conspiracy theorists.
Greenwald has always reveled in his anti-establishment credentials and has made a career out of thumbing his nose at the US government. This is all very amusing to millennials and far right leftists with wealthy (white) parents, but not so much for everyone else who relies on the government to keep public schools running, drinking water clean and preventing terrorist attacks. While Greenwald is swanning around in his luxury mansion in Rio and sending his kids to private tennis lessons, the Trump administration is busily gutting public education, laying waste to the environment and doing the bidding of Vladimir Putin. There are real world consequences to the destruction of US democracy, and while Greenwald is busy cackling about responsible media outlets and politicians desperate to hold the Trump administration to account before it is too late, the rest of us are quite rightly appalled. Truth is not important to Greenwald — being a contrarian is and it makes his journalism about as useful as Sean Hannity’s.
Like the media outlet he built with his billionaire libertarian backer Pierre Omidyar, Greenwald and his brand of ideological journalism is fast becoming irrelevant. While he has important things to say on a number of issues, it is made completely redundant by his petty disagreeableness and bleak sermonizing. If you are mining Fox News for new fans, then you really have lost the plot.