Glenn Greenwald vs. the NYT’s Bill Keller on objectivity and the future of journalism

Is objectivity in journalism a false idol, one that leads media outlets like the New York Times into error rather than truth? Or is it the only protection against a future of partisan media yelling at each other and preaching to the converted? Those were the stakes that emerged in a conversation on Saturday between Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald and New York Times columnist and former executive editor Bill Keller.

The debate took place in the pages of the Times, in the spot normally occupied by Keller’s column, under the heading “Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News?” (a headline that sparked a critical response from journalism professor Jay Rosen, who called it clickbait). As Keller noted in his preamble, one of the most compelling questions about the future of journalism — apart from how it will pay for itself — is whether “objective” journalism is an outdated concept.

Many new-media theorists and observers (including me) argue that transparency is the new objectivity, as David Weinberger of Harvard’s Berkman Center put it in an excellent essay some time ago — in other words, that disclosure about one’s viewpoint trumps the traditional attempt to pretend that a journalist or media outlet has no viewpoint. As Weinberger noted, objectivity is a trust mechanism that you focus on when your media platform doesn’t support hyperlinks.

Keller: Objective journalism is more credible

Bill Keller, NYT

Keller opened the debate by saying that the new form of journalism Greenwald represents is opinionated and activist-oriented, but that this is not always the best way to produce good journalism — and compared objectivity to the impartiality that is demanded of judges:

Keller: “Journalists in this tradition have plenty of opinions, but by setting them aside to follow the facts — as a judge in court is supposed to set aside prejudices to follow the law and the evidence — they can often produce results that are more substantial and more credible.”

The obvious implication was that Greenwald’s style of advocacy journalism is less substantial and less credible. But the Guardian writer — who is leaving to join a new venture funded by billionaire Pierre Omidyar — wasn’t about to let that accusation go, saying the objectivity model “has also produced lots of atrocious journalism and some toxic habits that are weakening the profession,” such as accepting what official sources say without challenging it.

Greenwald also said that a rigid devotion to the principle of objectivity produces a “here’s what both sides say” formula — something Jay Rosen has called “the view from nowhere,” which arguably fails to give readers a meaningful understanding of what is happening with issues like torture. Greenwald argued that disclosure of one’s viewpoint is a far better approach:

Greenwald: “The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers.”

Greenwald: Disclosures provide transparency

glenn greenwald

As an example, the Guardian writer said he only found out after the Gulf War that New York Times foreign correspondent John Burns was favorably disposed towards the U.S. invasion, and would have liked to have known about his position when he was reading Burns’ coverage of it, instead of finding out after the fact. Keller, however, argued that the discipline of impartiality was important in order to prevent distortion of the news:

Keller: “Once you have publicly declared your ‘subjective assumptions and political values,’ it’s human nature to want to defend them, and it becomes tempting to omit or minimize facts, or frame the argument, in ways that support your declared viewpoint.”

Greenwald countered that reporters who “hide their opinions” would be far more likely to manipulate their reporting and not be discovered by readers. And he noted that — despite Keller’s criticism of entities like WikiLeaks and their agenda-driven activity — the New York Times has been guilty of far worse behavior:

Greenwald: “It wasn’t WikiLeaks that laundered false official claims about Saddam’s WMD’s and alliance with Al Qaeda on its front page under the guise of ‘news’ to help start a heinous war. It isn’t WikiLeaks that routinely gives anonymity to U.S. officials to allow them to spread leader-glorifying mythologies or quite toxic smears of government critics without any accountability.”

Are advocacy and fairness mutually exclusive?


Keller stuck to his defense of impartiality, which he said was a “worthwhile aspiration, even if it is not perfectly achieved.” And in what appeared to be the core of his argument against Greenwald-style journalism, the former NYT executive editor argued that journalism which comes from a position of advocacy is inherently less useful:

Keller: ‘I believe that in most cases [impartiality] 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.”

In a nutshell, Keller seemed to be arguing that activist or agenda-driven journalism is by definition lopsided and unfair, and results in a future where partisan platforms like Fox News are talking in “echo chambers” to those who already agree with their beliefs. Greenwald, however, said that journalism from a specific perspective and fairness or accuracy are not mutually exclusive:

Greenwald: “My view of journalism absolutely requires both fairness and rigorous adherence to facts. But I think those values are promoted by being honest about one’s perspectives and subjective assumptions rather than donning a voice-of-god, view-from-nowhere tone that falsely implies that journalists reside above the normal viewpoints and faction-loyalties that plague the non-journalist and the dreaded ‘activist.'”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Xavier Gallego Morell