Last week, The New York Times Book Review posted Michael Kinsley’s negative but smart and entertaining review of Glenn Greenwald’s Snowden book, No Place to Hide. The review has apparently thrown readers into a tizzy—enough for The Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, to apologize for the review on Tuesday:
Book reviews are opinion pieces and — thanks to the principles of the First Amendment — Mr. Kinsley is certainly entitled to freely air his views. But there’s a lot about this piece that is unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards, the sneering tone about Mr. Greenwald, for example; he is called a “go-between” instead of a journalist and is described as a “self-righteous sourpuss.” (I’ve never met Mr. Greenwald, though I’ve written about his work, as Mr. Kinsley notes.)
But worse, Mr. Kinsley’s central argument ignores important tenets of American governance. There clearly is a special role for the press in America’s democracy; the Founders explicitly intended the press to be a crucial check on the power of the federal government, and the United States courts have consistently backed up that role. It’s wrong to deny that role, and editors should not have allowed such a denial to stand. Mr. Kinsley’s argument is particularly strange to see advanced in the paper that heroically published the Pentagon Papers, and many of the Snowden revelations as well. What if his views were taken to their logical conclusion? Picture Daniel Ellsberg and perhaps the Times reporter Neil Sheehan in jail; and think of all that Americans would still be in the dark about — from the C.I.A.’s black sites to the abuses of the Vietnam War to the conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the widespread spying on ordinary Americans.
Yes, as Ms. Paul rightly noted to me, it’s true that a book review is not an editorial, and the two shouldn’t be confused. And she told me that she doesn’t believe that editing should ever change a reviewer’s point of view. But surely editing ought to point out gaping holes in an argument, remove ad hominem language and question unfair characterizations; that didn’t happen here.
A Times review ought to be a fair, accurate and well-argued consideration of the merits of a book. Mr. Kinsley’s piece didn’t meet that bar.
I’ve read the review, and agree with it or not, it is not “sneering,” it is not “inaccurate,” and it does not have “gaping holes” in its argument. The paragraph that readers complained about the most was one about the sticky problem of who decides what national secrets can be released to the public:
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.
Here’s the context of that paragraph:
Throughout “No Place to Hide,” Greenwald quotes any person or publication taking his side in any argument. If an article or editorial in The Washington Post or The New York Times (which he says “takes direction from the U.S. government about what it should and shouldn’t publish”) endorses his view on some issue, he is sure to cite it as evidence that he is right. If Margaret Sullivan, the public editor (ombudsman, or reader representative) of The Times, agrees with him on some controversy, he is in heaven. He cites at length the results of a poll showing that more people are coming around to his notion that the government’s response to terrorism after 9/11 is more dangerous than the threat it is designed to meet.
Greenwald doesn’t seem to realize that every piece of evidence he musters demonstrating that people agree with him undermines his own argument that “the authorities” brook no dissent. No one is stopping people from criticizing the government or supporting Greenwald in any way. Nobody is preventing the nation’s leading newspaper from publishing a regular column in its own pages dissenting from company or government orthodoxy. If a majority of citizens now agree with Greenwald that dissent is being crushed in this country, and will say so openly to a stranger who rings their doorbell or their phone and says she’s a pollster, how can anyone say that dissent is being crushed? What kind of poor excuse for an authoritarian society are we building in which a Glenn Greenwald, proud enemy of conformity and government oppression, can freely promote this book in all media and sell thousands of copies at airport bookstores surrounded by Homeland Security officers?
Through all the bombast, Greenwald makes no serious effort to defend as a matter of law the leaking of official secrets to reporters. He merely asserts that “there are both formal and unwritten legal protections offered to journalists that are unavailable to anyone else. While it is considered generally legitimate for a journalist to publish government secrets, for example, that’s not the case for someone acting in any other capacity.”
* * *
The Snowden leaks were important — a legitimate scoop — and we might never have known about the N.S.A.’s lawbreaking if it hadn’t been for them. Most leaks from large bureaucracies are “good” leaks: no danger to national security, no harm to innocent people, information the public ought to have.
The trouble is this: Greenwald says that Snowden told him to “use your journalistic judgment to only publish those documents that the public should see and that can be revealed without harm to any innocent people.” Once again, this testimony proves the opposite of what Greenwald and Snowden seem to think. Snowden may be willing to trust Greenwald to make this judgment correctly — but are you? And even if you do trust Greenwald’s judgment, which on the evidence might be unwise, how can we be sure the next leaker will be so scrupulous?
If this enough for the public editor to publicly scold review editor, Pamela Paul, and apologize to The Times’s readers, The Times has thinner skin than the class of 2014.
Adam Kirsch, commenting on the review and subsequent fiasco at The New Republic, writes that Kinsley did not make any errors of fact, so Sullivan’s “correction” makes no sense: “[H]e expresses an opinion that the freedom of the press is not unlimited, that it must eventually yield to a democratic government, which after all has the legitimacy conferred by a hundred million voters. This is not an error, it is an argument, and the response to it cannot be a correction, but only another better argument, if there is one to be made.”
And instead of trying to quash Kinsley’s review in the guise of the newspaper’s supposedly ”high standards,” The Times should thank Pamela Paul for featuring this debate in its pages:
What we have here, in other words, is an example of the very thing everyone complains is usually missing in public life: a substantive debate about important issues. It’s impossible to read Kinsley on Greenwald, and then Greenwald on Kinsley on Greenwald, without acknowledging that both of them have made serious and thought-provoking points. Kinsley is surely correct that the press cannot have unlimited freedom to publish any government secret. What would we say about a journalist who published American battle plans, or the location of nuclear weapons silos, or the identity of undercover agents? Just as Kinsley said, someone has to decide where to draw the curtain of secrecy, without worrying that any individual with an Internet connection can poke holes in it. Yet Greenwald is also convincing when he writes that, were we to leave such decisions entirely up to the government, we would be left in the dark about all kinds of wrongdoing that could not survive public exposure. Here is a genuine conflict of values, and the side one takes depends on one’s view of the dangers of anarchy versus the dangers of tyranny.
If there is one undeniable winner in this affair, it is The New York Times Book Review (to which, full disclosure, I am a regular contributor). Its editor, Pamela Paul, made a match of reviewer and subject that resulted not just in a witty and engaging review, but in a serious intellectual discussion, one that has taken fire beyond the pages of the Book Review itself and brought public attention to a significant issue. That’s just what book reviewing is supposed to do.
It is bizarre, then, that the Times’s own public editor, Margaret Sullivan, weighed in on Kinsley’s review as if it were some kind of journalistic malfeasance.
Not just bizarre, dumb.