Greenwald on journalistic tattle-tale culture

February 8, 2021 • 1:30 pm

Glenn Greenwald is a mixed bag, and though I generally agree with what he has to say, I’m not a fan of his angry and often self-aggrandizing tone. That tone is on display in his new Substack column, but it’s a good column and well worth reading. (Substack is now the go-to place for disaffected journalists; Greenwald went there when he parted ways with The Intercept.) I don’t think I’ll subscribe, but I did get a note to look at today’s piece, which you can read for free by clicking on the screenshot below. And you should, while considering whether you want to ante up $50 per year. (This seems to be the standard fee for our comrades at Substack.)

Greenwald takes out after those “journalists” who spend their time monitoring others, often in online chatrooms, to call them out for using ideologically impure language or for other political transgressions. He recounts the Donald McNeil “n-word” firing from the New York Times that we discussed the other day, and has a few other choice tidbits of journalistic malfeasance. But first, his general take:

I’ve written before about one particularly toxic strain of this authoritarian “reporting.” Teams of journalists at three of the most influential corporate media outlets — CNN’s “media reporters” (Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy), NBC’s “disinformation space unit” (Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny), and the tech reporters of The New York Times (Mike Isaac, Kevin Roose, Sheera Frenkel) — devote the bulk of their “journalism” to searching for online spaces where they believe speech and conduct rules are being violated, flagging them, and then pleading that punitive action be taken (banning, censorship, content regulation, after-school detention). These hall-monitor reporters are a major factor explaining why tech monopolies, which (for reasons of self-interest and ideology) never wanted the responsibility to censor, now do so with abandon and seemingly arbitrary blunt force: they are shamed by the world’s loudest media companies when they do not.

Just as the NSA is obsessed with ensuring there be no place on earth where humans can communicate free of their spying eyes and ears, these journalistic hall monitors cannot abide the idea that there can be any place on the internet where people are free to speak in ways they do not approve. Like some creepy informant for a state security apparatus, they spend their days trolling the depths of chat rooms and 4Chan bulletin boards and sub-Reddit threads and private communications apps to find anyone — influential or obscure — who is saying something they believe should be forbidden, and then use the corporate megaphones they did not build and could not have built but have been handed in order to silence and destroy anyone who dissents from the orthodoxies of their corporate managers or challenges their information hegemony.

He particularly dislikes the New York Times‘s tech reporters, and tells a pretty disturbing story about how one of them, Taylor Lorenz, went onto a new private chat site called “The Clubhouse”, reported that Silicon Valley entrepreneur Marc Andressen had said the “r-word” (“retarded”, rapidly approaching the n-word in offensiveness), and then broadcast it on Twitter, at the same time showing photos of the other discussion participants and calling them out for “not saying anything”. Have a gander at this grade-school bit of tattling:

Remember, this is a star tech reporter for the New York Times. But the worst part is that Lorenz lied: Andressen had not said the word—somebody else did, and it was in reference to a discussion of a GameStop group on reddit who call themselves the “retard revolution”.  Besides the lying and the doxxing, there’s clearly a difference between using “retard” as an insult (especially towards someone who is mentally deficient), and describing a group that calls themselves that. It’s the same difference in kind between McNeil’s use of the n-word when repeating what a student had told him, and its use as a real racial slur. For some reason the New York Times staff don’t seem to grasp differences of intent. Actually, as I mentioned in the McNeil piece, they really do, but don’t give a rat’s patootie what the intent is: what matters is only how the word makes someone feel that determines whether its user should be damned. And when another participant called Lorenz out for her lying and distortion, she didn’t apologize, but just emphasized feelings. More immature behavior:

Then Lorenz closed her Twitter account, as if, Greenwald notes, she were the victim. In fact, Lorenz had, after being blocked from the “Clubhouse” private group, obtained a fake account and mocked Andersson for blocking her:

It is unbelievable that reporters, especially for the Paper of Record, can behave in such a petty and childish way. They have no right to insinuate themselves into private groups to eavesdrop, much less to act as hall monitors and go squealing to the general public if someone isn’t ideologically pure. Greenwald calls them out properly, though his assertion of personal purity in covering the Right Stories still irks me from time to time:

To declare any discussion of that term off-limits — as Lorenz tried to do — is deeply anti-intellectual. To pretend that there is no difference in the use of that term by the Redditors and its discussion in Clubhouse on the one hand, and its malicious deployment as an insult to the cognitively disabled on the other, is dishonest in the extreme. To publicly tattle on adults who utter the term without any minimal attempt to understand or convey context and intent is malicious, disgusting and sociopathic.

But this is now the prevailing ethos in corporate journalism. They have insufficient talent or skill, and even less desire, to take on real power centers: the military-industrial complex, the CIA and FBI, the clandestine security state, Wall Street, Silicon Valley monopolies, the corrupted and lying corporate media outlets they serve. So settling on this penny-ante, trivial bullshit — tattling, hall monitoring, speech policing: all in the most anti-intellectual, adolescent and primitive ways — is all they have. It’s all they are. It’s why they have fully earned the contempt and distrust in which the public holds them.

Amen!

There are more reports by Greenwald, but I’l just give one regarding the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) staff lawyer Chase Strangio, a transgender man who fights for transgender rights. We’ve met Strangio twice (here and here), once defending Connecticut’s law stipulating that surgically and medically untreated biological males who identify as women should be able to compete in women’s sports.  In the other post, I showed how he demanded for actual censorship of Abigail Shrier’s new book Irreversible Damagewhich calls for great care in allowing very young women (young teenagers and below) to undergo medical treatment for transitioning to the male gender.

Lately the ACLU has taken up transgender rights in a big way. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course: transgender people’s rights should be defended. But I do object to the ACLU’s claim that transgender women are women in every respect, regardless of medical treatment, so long as they claim to identify as women. Sports and issues like prison choice and rape counseling are the stumbling blocks here.  And I do object to Strangio, in his tweet below, characterizing Shrier, along with J. K. Rowling, as “closely aligned with white supremacists in power and rhetoric.” That is defamation, a slur, and a lie.  If the ACLU were the New York Times, they would fire Strangio for a scurrilous and misleading tweet like the following. Oh, wait—no they wouldn’t!

Greenwald’s take:

The overarching rule of liberal media circles and liberal politics is that you are free to accuse anyone who deviates from liberal orthodoxy of any kind of bigotry that casually crosses your mind — just smear them as a racist, misogynist, homophobe, transphobe, etc. without the slightest need for evidence — and it will be regarded as completely acceptable. That is the rubric under which the most famous lawyer of the ACLU, an organization once devoted to rigid precepts of due process, decided on Saturday to brand two of his ideological opponents as “closely aligned with white supremacists.” Fresh off being named by Time Magazine as one of the planet’s 100 most influential human beings — this is someone with a great deal of power and influence — trans activist and ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio decided to spew this extremely grave accusation about J.K. Rowling and Abigail Shrier, both of whom oppose the inclusion of trans girls in female sports. . . .

As I’ve written before, I’m not in agreement with those who advocate this absolute ban. I’m open to a scientific consensus that develops hormonal and other medicinal protocols for how trans girls and women can fairly compete with CIS women in sporting competitions. But that does not entitle you — especially as an ACLU lawyer — to just go around casually branding people as “closely aligned to white supremacists” who have never remotely demonstrated any such affinity, just because you feel like it, because you crave the power to destroy your adversaries, or are too slothful to engage their actual views.

But this is absolutely acceptable behavior in mainstream and liberal circles.

This is absolutely true. In fact, the New York Times staff acts as a single cudgel against people like James Bennet and Donald McNeil, demanding blood as if they were spectators at a Roman gladiator battle.

At the end of his piece Greenwald gets a little defensive, clearly hurt by people who called him a misogynist after he recently attacked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for rejecting Ted Cruz’s offer to work with her on the GameStop affair. Greenwald objected to AOC’s claim to Cruz that “you almost had me murdered.” Greenwald considered that hyperbolic, and it was. But though he’s defended AOC many times, this one critique was too much for her woke supporters, who branded Greenwald as a “misogynist”. In this piece he spends too much space defending himself and recounting his past support of AOC, when he really should have ignored the slurs completely. If Greenwald has one fault that mars his journalism, it’s that his skin is too thin, and it shows in his work.

Beyond that, it’s a good piece and deserves to be read, for it presages the decline of respectable journalism in America.

31 thoughts on “Greenwald on journalistic tattle-tale culture

  1. I have a hard time paying any serious attention to the woke anymore. Everything I hear from them reminds me of Dennis in “The Holy Grail” yelling, “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”

  2. Just a scant few years ago I would have been the last person to defend Glenn Greenwald. I came around through repeated exposure from my daughter. Greenwald is old-school ACLU and certainly not thin-skinned although you might draw that conclusion if you were not intimate with his journalism. Greenwald is highly principled and sticks to his guns. His regular skewering of left-wing insanity (in spite of being a leftist) invites all sorts of abuse, yet he soldiers on and I must say, quite admirably. His posts on free expression often remind me of Jerry.

    1. Perhaps. But I will never forget/forgive his completely dishonest attacks on Sam Harris in particular, and on “shrill atheists” in general.

      1. Nor will I on his gratuitous attacks on Israel. It has been an enlightening exercise to find so much common ground with someone I formally abhorred.

      2. Greenwald went a little over the top, but Harris wrote some nonsense that deserved being dismantled: “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it. And, again, I wouldn’t put someone who looks like me entirely outside the bull’s-eye (after all, what would Adam Gadahn look like if he cleaned himself up?) But there are people who do not stand a chance of being jihadists, and TSA screeners can know this at a glance.” https://samharris.org/in-defense-of-profiling/

        And Greenwald’s work on the Edward Snowden revelations was very worthwhile.

        1. If I remember correctly, Harris was simply opposed to the idea that TSA screeners testing someone based on their Middle Eastern looks was racist and, therefore, wrong. Since the major threat was coming from that part of the world, Harris thought that was ridiculous, as do I.

          1. Whether it’s intentionally racist or not, it is racist. When you have a set of okay to decent proxies for risk (e.g. criminal background, travel patterns, purchase patterns, suspicious behavior), and you have a set of very bad proxies (e.g. skin color, religion), then when someone prefers to use the bad proxies, that’s a pretty good indication of bias. When the bad proxy is skin color or race, then that’s a racial bias. I.e. racism. Keep in mind also that even just adding in the visual race proxy to the good proxies, not taking any of them out, still makes the risk assessment worse; you’ll get many more false positives than if you just didn’t use it. So even the suggestion “well okay then, let’s keep and use the proxies you say are good, and just add this as another factor” is a bad plan.

            1. You’re implying that the screener ignores those other proxies for risk which isn’t reasonable and that no one is suggesting. Using someone’s appearance is obviously racist but in a situation where racism is called for. No one is suggesting that the screeners adopt an attitude where anyone who looks Middle Eastern is automatically guilty. Again, Harris was advocating screeners use the visual race proxy, as you call it, not use it exclusively. His opponents were advocating not using it at all. The bottom line is that effective real-world TSA screening involves a certain amount of prejudice.

              1. No, I’m not implying that the screener is ignoring the other factors. Read my last couple of sentences again. I’m saying a screener that uses the good factors and ignores race, will do a better risk assessment than the screeners that use the good factors plus race.

              2. I believe this is exactly what Harris disagrees with. You are basically saying that ME ethnicity negatively correlates with terrorism. This makes no sense if we understand the threat to be from the ME AND have instances of actual terrorism using planes most (or all) of which were perpetrated by people from the ME. Assuming we understand each other now, there’s no need to take this further.

            2. Keep in mind also that even just adding in the visual race proxy to the good proxies, not taking any of them out, still makes the risk assessment worse; you’ll get many more false positives than if you just didn’t use it.

              Nonsense.

              If most terrorists are Muslims then adding “is a Muslim” as one criterion will improve your chances of randomly finding a terrorist. If there are a million Muslims and ten of them are terrorists and a million atheists and one of them is a terrorist, with no profiling, you have an 11/2,000,000 chance of finding a terrorist at random. If you concentrate only on the Muslims, it’s 20/2,000,000 – nearly double.

              Of course, it does mean you will miss the one atheist terrorist and it would be foolish to assume that the Muslim terrorists wouldn’t try to take advantage by pretending to be atheists.

              1. Jeremy: Terrorists explicitly tell their followers that it is religiously permitted to shave their beard, wear western clothes, etc. when going on missions. So if your screener is using “looks like a muslim” then they’re pulling from the wrong group and lowering their chance of finding a terrorist.

                Paul:

                You are basically saying that ME ethnicity negatively correlates with terrorism.

                No, to use Jeremy’s example, I’m saying if you use your other factors to narrow down the group to where the chances are 10 in 1,000,000 of there being a terrorist, and you add to that the group ‘ME ethnicity’ where the chances are 10 in 2,000,000, even though 10 in 2,000,000 may be a much higher ratio than the ratio in the total overall population, you have decreased your chance of finding a terrorist. This, of course, assumes your security can detect “middle eastern ethnicity” perfectly. The fact that they don’t makes choosing on ethnicity even worse.

        2. It’s one thing to disagree and argue against bad logic. It’s something else to systematically mischaracterize your opponent and lie about his positions. Greenwald did the latter, not just a little over the top. IMO

    2. Greenwald exhibited the very things he is now critical of. His Greenwalding of Sam Harris where he cherry picked an except of one of Sam’s books to claim that Sam was advocating a nuclear first strike against Iran while ignoring the very next line in that book which made it perfectly clear that Sam was doing no such thing is yellow journalism at its worst. Greenwald has never retracted that dishonest calumny and has repeated it endlessly as have the rest of the woke cult.

  3. I have just received my copy of Quillette’s excellent book “Panics and Persecutions: 20 Tales of Excommunication in the Digital Age”, and begun reading it. The book is worth it just for the thoughtful introductory chapter by the Quillette editorial staff. Here is something to think about: although it is a British publication, a majority of the 20 tales come from the American side of the Atlantic.

    I took to ignoring Glenn Greenwald after his campaign of defamation against Sam Harris by dishonest quotation of bits, omitting context, from “The End of Faith”. However, his point about the juvenile behavior of the reporters in question is persuasive: hall-monitor tattle-tales as a form of displacement activity, to make up for their failure to work at significant investigative reporting about real centers of power.

  4. I agree totally. Greenwald is right here but way too thin-skinned generally. Everything he writes seems to come from the middle of a personal battle rather than suitable journalistic detachment. Anyone he slams as being some kind of “bad actor”, I would take with a grain of salt. Take his mention of CNN’s Brian Stelter, for example. Stelter specializes in meta coverage of mainstream media. He always seems pretty reasonable though his observations are often trite. I wonder what he did to Greenwald to make his list.

    1. I have never seen Greenwald capitulate to the mob nor his readers…not once. That’s not thin-skinned.

      1. That’s not what “thin-skinned” means. Greenwald takes personal offense at what others say but that doesn’t mean he gives in to their demands or takes their side. He lashes out at their perceived insults. He’s hyper-sensitive, not pliant.

        1. We both agree on the definition of thin-skinned. Someone hypersensitive is not apt to upset a good chunk of their loyal readership by digging their heels in on an issue they strongly believe in. By ‘defending’ himself, Greenwald is effectively dismantling his opponents arguments and bolstering his accusations of hypocrisy and poor reasoning (a lawyerish strategy).

  5. I suspect the one way to reduce the incidence of this petty behaviour (with not so petty results in real life, sometimes) is to not pay subscriptions to the failing organisations. Perhaps don’t use social media if you can avoid it. There is also a new Twitter app that apparently blocks over 800 NYT journalists, although I don’t know who sponsors this.

    If people don’t support confected outrage by journalists then eventually the organisations that employ them will decline into irrelevance.

    1. All IMO, but…

      The bad news is there’s probably no way to get rid of this; seeking out celebrity tweets and posts that might be construed as racist is IMO the 2020’s version of the 1970s-80s trying to take a topless shot of a (female) celebrity. It’s the “it” titillation of the times.

      The good news is, if I’m right about that, it’s a fad. So it will largely go away (although maybe not completely) on it’s own…when the public finds it boring and moves on to the next “it” shock.

  6. [Reporters] have no right to insinuate themselves into private groups to eavesdrop

    Well, I think the whole ‘watchdog’ function of the media requires them to do things like that. The ethical failing here isn’t going undercover, it’s going undercover for such a pithy and irrelevant purpose – i.e. to embarrass a person, rather than reveal corruption or something similarly important. They’re muckrakers, basically – only the shock they’re selling is resentment or indignation, rather than titillation or sexual innuendo.

    I do object to the ACLU’s claim that transgender women are women in every respect, regardless of medical treatment, so long as they claim to identify as women.

    Colon cancer and breast cancer would like to have a word with you, ACLU. Maybe it’s time again to trot out the old Feynman saw:

    “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled”.

    1. Hey, I mean, since the war in Yemen has completely ended, Covid-19 is being addressed with perfect fairness and rationality, de facto slavery is no longer happening to migrant workers, and global warming has been stopped, it’s not like there are any actual physical injuries by human beings against each other to report. Might as well go through verbal statements with a fine toothed comb instead.

  7. I am not quite sure why, but I find the term “CIS” a little bit offensive. Maybe because it is often used by those bigoted agains straight white males. And since the woke now agree that hurting someone’s feelings is as bad as violence, I think they need to stop using that term.

  8. I think Greenwald was unfair to Darcy and Brian Stetler when he wrote:

    “Teams of journalists at three of the most influential corporate media outlets — CNN’s “media reporters” (Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy), NBC’s “disinformation space unit” (Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny), and the tech reporters of The New York Times (Mike Isaac, Kevin Roose, Sheera Frenkel) — devote the bulk of their “journalism” to searching for online spaces where they believe speech and conduct rules are being violated, flagging them, and then pleading that punitive action be taken (banning, censorship, content regulation, after-school detention).”

    I get Stetler and Darcy’s CNN Reliable Sources daily newsletter. Greenwald simply mischaracterized what the bulk of their journalism addresses. Greenwald may be interesting, but I don’t think he’s trustworthy.

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