Michael Kinsley and New York Times public editor at war: Neither side looks great!

Michael Kinsley's review of Glenn Greenwald's book was terrible. But that's not where the story ends

Topics: Glenn Greenwald, Michael Kinsley, New York Times, Books, No Place to Hide, Margaret Sullivan, Ad Hominem, Edward Snowden, Journalism, Media Criticism, Editor's Picks, ,

Michael Kinsley and New York Times public editor at war: Neither side looks great!Michael Kinsley, Glenn Greenwald (Credit: Reuters/Keith Bedford/Eduardo Munoz)

We have a full-fledged media spat over a book review on our hands. Calm yourselves, readers! Because neither side is coming out looking all that great.

The article in question is Michael Kinsley’s controversial review essay of journalist Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide, documenting his work on the Edward Snowden revelations. It was controversial because, well, Kinsley has radically conservative beliefs about the legality of publishing government secrets. He argues, with little nuance or consideration of specifics, that we need to consider “legal consequences” for those who publish secrets — that is, not just the leakers of secrets, but the news companies that publish them as the recipients of leaks.

In Kinsley review’s most infamous paragraph, he writes (emphasis ours):

The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can’t square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.

What is objectionable about Kinsley’s argument is that he’s proposing something very objectionable: that the government should have “final say” over whether a news outlet like The Guardian or The Washington Post (because let’s not forget that Barton Gellman also published government secrets leaked by Snowden in the Washington Post! Where does Kinsley stand on that?) can publish secrets it deems vital to the public interest. This is a purely anti-journalistic belief of journalist Michael Kinsley’s.



But, hey, people have terrible opinions all the time, and it’s not the end of the world for their views to see publication. Which is why New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan’s decision to weigh into the matter earlier this week seemed like a heavy-handed response.

Sullivan, the readers’ representative, makes some strong points in her column: why would the Times pick someone to review this book who has a well-known, and unlikely to change, distaste for Greenwald’s style of journalism or challenging authority in general? And did the editors even challenge Kinsley to further flesh out his arguments, or were they just content to let him troll?

But Sullivan, too, goes too far in her policing. She suggests the editors failed their professional duties by not removing “ad hominem language.” She refers specifically to where Greenwald is “described as a ‘self-righteous sourpuss.’” Let’s look at the relevant section of the review:

It’s a great yarn, which might be more entertaining if Greenwald himself didn’t come across as so unpleasant. Maybe he’s charming and generous in real life. But in “No Place to Hide,” Greenwald seems like a self-righteous sourpuss, convinced that every issue is “straightforward,” and if you don’t agree with him, you’re part of something he calls “the authorities,” who control everything for their own nefarious but never explained purposes.

Attacking this passage is pretty clearly a misread, or a misunderstanding of how “book reviews” work, by Sullivan. Kinsley is not describing Greenwald as a “self-righteous sourpuss.” He’s describing the tone of the writing and the writer — one of the major things book reviewers take into consideration when reviewing a book. Whether or not you agree with Kinsley that Greenwald does seem like a “self-righteous sourpuss” in the writing of his book, it’s not some sort of ethical violation for the Book Review to allow its reviewer to come away with that opinion. Glenn is a character, and that comes across strongly in his writing. Some people like it, some people don’t. Whatever. He’s a big boy, though, and I’m sure he can take it.

It probably would have been best for Sullivan to just leave this alone and let the rest of the world hash it out. There’s something chilling about editors being castigated by the public for not fulfilling their professional duties by publishing a controversial column. Let the reviewers review and if the final product isn’t as taut or not tonally consistent with fragile “high standards” of the New York Times, let it go. Even if Michael Kinsley seems terrible.

And oh, boy, is he ever terrible. Now he’s written a response to Sullivan, in which he claims that he never said all those awful things he’s being accused of:

In her scolding of me and The New York Times Book Review for a review critical of Glenn Greenwald’s “No Place to Hide,” Margaret Sullivan writes that I believe “that news organizations should simply defer to the government” on the issue of making secret documents public. I guess I wasn’t clear (though I don’t know how I could have been clearer). The government sometimes has legitimate reasons for needing secrecy but “will usually be overprotective” so the process of decision “should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay.” Does that sound like I’m saying that news organizations “should simply defer”?

What “process of decision” is he describing? “Whatever it turns out to be,” is all he’ll offer. Helpful. One channeled through the courts? Or which governmental agency is making the decisions here? What are the criteria? What the fuck is he talking about? Because it does sound like he’s saying “that news organizations should simply defer to the government” when, again, he writes:

It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government.

But we, the mighty public, can debate this (/heckle Kinsley). The public editor need not get involved and yell about word choice. Sheesh! To everyone!

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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