You could, if you liked, call journalist Glenn Greenwald a “muckraker”. When I sat down with him in Sydney last Sunday, I didn’t — largely because I was too full of questions about the future of journalism and the present of Trump. But I feel sure that the co-founder of The Intercept — in my view, one of the West’s most vital news publications — wouldn’t have minded at all. It’s an old-fashioned term and he is a powerfully old-fashioned journalist.
Crikey’s Guy Rundle wrote a shrewd piece last June about the dominant new-fashioned journalism; the sort of enterprise where stories are not offered to explain the current movement of the world, as once they were and still stubbornly are by Greenwald. What we have now are single-serve sensations and “nuanced” takes that so rarely place events within historical context. You read these things by people who no longer seem able to unite, say, politics and the economy. Or society and social services.
Greenwald is, it seems, clinically unable to divide the world. Over an hour, his old-fashioned conviction that complexes of power work together to produce broad social and political results appears consistently:
“A fascinating, and under-reported, part of the French election was that Melenchon almost made the run-off, and equally fascinating is that the centre-left Socialist party all but disappeared. And you see the same disappearance with the Blairites in the UK and the establishment wing of the Democratic Party in the US has lost its popular support.”
He continues in this panoramic mode, “If you don’t provide a genuine alternative to the right, the people have no reason to vote for you. Your own Labor Party, I think, is an example of this refusal to provide. So-called centre-left parties can no longer be just a lighter version of the right and expect electoral success. If your policies are geared chiefly to the benefit of capitalism, globalism and neoliberalism, then what will the base, experiencing economic hardship, do but abandon you?”
“And, we can’t see the rise of populist right and materially left politicians in Europe, to some extent in the US, as unconnected phenomena. They’re arising from the same economic conditions.”
When Greenwald offers historical and economic context — and it was quite a lot of fun to watch him do this on the context-averse 7.30 Report this week — it is not a matter of prescription. It’s one of pure description. He is one of a very few journalists committed to the attempt to explain — especially in this age full of centrist commentators saying there’s just no sense in saying “left and right” anymore — why the concepts of left and right are fast becoming more evident to a mass of voters. He’s a reporter.
But, while other reporters offer discrete accounts of single events, they no longer write the chapters of a grander narrative. It’s so often a case of “This One Story Will Change Your Life” and it’s so rarely a case of acknowledging the changes to twenty-first century life itself.
We can see this, for example, in the work of Chris Uhlmann, who explains Trump as nothing but a historical aberration unconnected to the past and then calls — as though this were not a reckless act — for the President to take a tougher stance on North Korea during the G20 summit. This is the new-fashioned-journalism: respond only to the last event, ignore even the most fatal foreign policy implications for the sake of short-term audience satisfaction.
The term “muckraker”, with us now for more than a century, has undergone two shifts since a US President first uttered it in 1906. Teddy Roosevelt didn’t really intend this description of journalism to be uncritical, but used it largely to discredit adversarial men like Upton Sinclair, whom he suspected of socialism and once called a “crackpot”. Still, Roosevelt, the first Commander-in-Chief to really tussle with the press, found occasional use for the muckraker, and used their published accounts of industrial corruption, even crackpot Sinclair’s, to justify reform.
Over the years, the word lost all the ambivalence intended by its inventor. By the time Woodward and Bernstein had brought down another president, the muckraker had become an American hero; a fearless and unscrupulous guardian of the people whose investigations kept liberal democracy in check. Watergate was a watershed moment which buoyed the confidence of the people that government corruption could be sought and efficiently destroyed.
Now, the word has changed again — and before you post-modern linguists come over all “don’t you understand that language is fluid, Helen?” Yes, I ruddy do. But, I also understand that our traditions of exposure are “fluid”, and not always for the better. That “muckraking” has now come to mean, not only in popular discussion but by dictionary definition, cheap entertainment is instructive.
Greenwald is rarely called cheap, but he is deemed by those who prefer the new-fashioned journalism naïve, a hypocrite or a liar. He is also often deemed a Russian “sympathiser”, and, the most interesting charge, a “conspiracy theorist”. Which is a pretty funny thing to call a guy who likely still holds the largest trove of NSA documents in his possession. What the NSA does is not a conspiracy theory but now, thanks to Greenwald and Snowden, conspiracy fact.
More than this, though, there is a gulf of difference between the serious journalistic attempt to explain, over a series of interconnected articles, the current Western political landscape and David Icke.
I listen as Greenwald, who tends to speak in paragraphs, gives a brief account of the 2016 US election.
“The Democratic response to the slogan Make America Great Again was to insist that American was already great. This was a great misstep. It reinforced the idea, the legitimate idea, that many people had that the Washington elite was indifferent to their suffering. But there is a realisation that ongoing policies on free trade and globalism, which resulted in labour being moved overseas, were very deliberately cultivated. Yet the people being harmed were being clearly told that they were expendable, irrelevant.”
That the NSA is watching us is now a widely known fact. Voters in the US 2016 election also knew as fact that a series of deals has resulted in their unemployment, underemployment or wage decline. Yet, the new-fashioned journalism overlooks such factors and so rarely offers explanation of Clinton’s defeat other than, “Well, people are stupid and believe conspiracy theories”.
Honestly, I could not guess at Greenwald’s personal politics. I can recognise the theoretical and professional framework on which he bases his journalism, but his personal views are a mystery. If I were forced to guess, I’d say that he retains, albeit critically, a strong American liberal impulse. He wants the US to act as the nation-state it proclaims to be.
Later that afternoon, I watch Greenwald speak. He is asked about meeting Snowden for the first time, and he recalls being curious about why this successful man, not yet 30, is prepared to risk his life to reveal conspiracy as fact. Snowden mentions the moment in which he saw James Clapper, former US director of national intelligence, testify before a Senate Select Committee. Clapper is asked “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” He first responds, “No, sir”. When asked again, he says: “Not wittingly.”
It was Snowden the patriot who found this answer unconscionable. Perhaps, it was Greenwald the patriot who found Snowden, not just his revelations, such a valuable source for understanding. It is entirely possible that this old-fashioned muckraker may have no wish at all to tear the system down. I suspect him of wishing to repair it by interrogating it so fearlessly as part of an ongoing, old-fashioned process.