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Thin Skin at The New York Times

Last week, The New York Times Book Review posted Michael Kinsley’s negative but smart and entertaining review [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] 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.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Thin Skin at The New York Times"

#1 Comment By Frank Stain On May 30, 2014 @ 8:10 am

In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are)

As this quote shows, Mr. Kinsley’s review most certainly does contain glaring errors of fact.

#2 Comment By Johann On May 30, 2014 @ 11:39 am

I think we’ve seen that government will classify things to hide government actions that they believe the majority of the population would disagree with, and to hide embarrassments. There is no legal authority to classify for these reasons. And we’ve seen where they can lawyer-shop to find yes lawyers in the proper positions to rubber stamp what they want to do as legal. So we have a legal system, but not a justice system.

Anyone can read the 4th amendment and understand what it says. We don’t need lawyers to tell us what it says and to justify its violation through some tortured justification process.

There are many truly justified classifications such as the classifications based on the Atomic Energy Act and other provisions which truly are national security concerns. Every classification should have a clearly documented justification traceable back to a well documented authority for the classification.

#3 Comment By Jones On May 30, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

“As this quote shows, Mr. Kinsley’s review most certainly does contain glaring errors of fact.”


Sorry, I know this comment doesn’t have much discursive value. But – HAAH!

#4 Comment By Christopher On May 30, 2014 @ 8:40 pm

So, okay, first of all, it actually is factually incorrect to say that

“No one is stopping people from criticizing the government… in any way.”

For example, look at all the credit card companies that stopped payments to wikileaks. Or, say, the British government detaining Greenwald’s partner. Look at their treatment of Chelsea Manning.

Now, of course this is quite tame compared to the tactics which would be employed by a repressive dictatorship, but it’s not nothing, and in certain cases there has been significant harm done to government critics.

So that is a factual error; people are, in fact, stopped from criticizing the government by the government.

Second, his argument about leaks isn’t thought-provoking, it’s dumb.

By definition, most of the people, the demos, don’t see or know about government secrets. We are not making democratic decisions about these policies; we are electing people who then appoint other people to make these decisions. And since we are electing people to these high positions based on a number of factors, we may very well vote for people who we actively distrust to make these decisions. Especially at the Presidential level, there is a lot of pressure to vote for the lesser of two evils.

I mean, if nothing else, his question about Greenwald, “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?” applies just as forcefully to government officials as it does to Greenwald.

I would argue it applies even more; The high personal cost of leaking to the public is likely to at least partially keep leakers honest, whereas people who overclassify are putting themselves at very little personal risk.

Also, if in practice most leaks are “good leaks” then doesn’t that already answer his question? In practice what Kinsley fears doesn’t actually seem to be an issue, by his own admission. So surely the burden is on him to explain what will change to make bad leaks more prevalent?

I’m sorry, it’s just a terrible argument.

#5 Comment By Charlieford On May 31, 2014 @ 9:01 am

Nicely done. Thanks.

#6 Comment By HeartRight On May 31, 2014 @ 8:02 pm

Christopher says:

Also, if in practice most leaks are “good leaks” then doesn’t that already answer his question?
That begs a question: what is a ‘good leak’?


But it’s a mug’s game to acquit oneself of doing harm by simply defining all of the harms one does as goods. If one calls democratic debate and sunshine the blowing of sensitive intelligence programs in which one’s country has invested enormous resources and on which it relies for all sorts of intelligence collection, the exposure is of course harmless. If one regards as a salutary exercise the exposure of one’s country’s offensive intelligence operations and capabilities to the intelligence services of adversary nations, then of course that exposure does no harm. And if one regards the many billions of dollars American industry has lost as merely a fair tax on its sins for having cooperated with NSA, then sure, no harm there either.

#7 Comment By Christopher On June 1, 2014 @ 10:13 pm

That begs a question: what is a ‘good leak’?

Yeah, it begs it of Kinsley, who made the claim that most leaks are good.

Anyway, about that link, it’s very hard for me to take seriously any argument that Snowden has damaged his credibility by refusing to martyr himself.

His argument is (partly) that the US justice system is highly biased against legitimate whistleblowers, so it’s pretty bizarre to say that if he was really serious he’d put himself at the mercy of that flawed system.

You could, of course, argue that the American justice system is supportive of whistleblowers and that Snowden’s assertions are wrong, but that would require arguing about facts rather than the much easier task of impugning Snowden’s character.

Also, wow, that’s the whole argument? Not to actually show harm Snowden has done, but to just declare that obviously the exposure of any government program is by definition harmful?

That’s insane. That argument means that literally every leak ever is bad. The exposure of the FBI’s COINTELPRO attempts to start a war between the Mob and the American Communist Party was the “the blowing of sensitive intelligence programs in which one’s country has invested enormous resources and on which it relies for all sorts of intelligence collection”.

Hell, at some point it even forestalls any questioning of government at all. Nobody begins a government program based on the theory that it’s going to be a waste of time or money. If something is justified because the government spends money on it and uses it, then how can we question anything the government does?

#8 Comment By Glaivester On June 2, 2014 @ 10:49 pm

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?

Obviously, not all dissent is crushed. But the right to complain that dissent is being crushed is a rather empty, substanceless dissent to have a right to.

To put things another way, it is not only considered a right, but a socially applauded thing to be against “political correctness.” And yet – Paula Deen still lost her TV show, Don Sterling still lost his team, and Trent Lott still lost his Majority Leadership.

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