An Interview With Glenn Greenwald

by Katjusa Cisar

Salon writer Glenn Greenwald got rock star treatment at the National Conference for Media Reform, held this past weekend in Boston, where he took part in a standing-room-only panel discussion of WikiLeaks with Emily Bell of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Greg Mitchell of The Nation, Australian journalist Christopher Warren and Micah Sifry of Personal Democracy Forum.

Cheers of “Hear, hear!” rippled through the crowd after Greenwald argued that “what WikiLeaks is doing is what journalism is all about.” He’s written extensively about Julian Assange’s network and particularly about accused document-leaker Bradley Manning.

He spoke with me after the session about media transformation, WikiLeaks, what drives him to blog and the siren’s call of The Drudge Report.

An acquaintance in Madison, Wisconsin, recently tweeted — in the context of the coverage of protests there — that mainstream media doesn’t exist anymore. There’s only corporate media, local media and social media. Your thoughts?

Yeah, “mainstream media” is never really a term I’ve used. Even though it’s such a commonly used term, I’ve never found it particularly helpful or accurate because I don’t think the corporate media has ever been mainstream. The word “mainstream” connotes some sort of representation of the average person’s views, and I don’t think that the media outlets owned by the largest corporations are representative of the mainstream. I prefer the term establishment media, because I think they speak for the political establishment. I think clearly they’re most influential in shaping how mainstream America thinks. So in that sense, if you want to use the word “mainstream,” it fits there. But even their influence is waning and eroding in lots of different ways as a result of these competing entities that aren’t owned by corporations. So, even in that regard, it’s becoming less applicable.

So how is that all shaking out, then?

Well, it’s just so, so much easier now than it was even five years ago and certainly ten years ago to create media outlets and reach large numbers of people. You don’t need big buildings. You don’t need to pay for printing and delivery. The Internet enables all of that to be done very cost-free. As people have come to distrust large media outlets, they’re starting to turn to alternatives, like local media, Internet and blogs and even social media, where people can just communicate directly with the citizens without the mediation of large corporations. That has just absolutely changed the way political discourse takes place and it has turned a lot of people away from large media outlets

In Great American Hypocrites, you wrote that The Drudge Report directs media focus and referred to Karl Rove as the “North Star” for journalists. Who or what is serving in that role now?

Well, I think at the time that I said that, the Republicans were still in power, and I think what establishment journalists revere more than anything else is political power. For eight years, it was perceived that Karl Rove was the sort of engineer of political power, and therefore he was the one to whom they listened most intently. Now that Republicans have sort of been discredited, and there’s Democrats who are running Washington, I think they sort of listen more to Democratic political consultants. But absolutely, the stranglehold on political discourse that The Drudge Report used to exercise and that these media institutions that followed his framing used to exert has absolutely been undermined. They still occupy that role in terms of Beltway discourse — you know, it’s still the case that congressional staffers and editors and segment producers click on The Drudge Report every eight seconds, it’s almost like some kind of compulsive tick they have just from habit — but there are so many other sources they look to as well in order to shape what stories they report.

What sources in particular have supplanted it?

The Internet has just democratized political discourse, and has vastly expanded not just the number but the type of voices that are heard. I can pretty much guarantee that every single newspaper editor, assignment editor and television news producer reads political blogs regularly, people who are just independent bloggers who five years would not have been paid any attention. They just look to a much greater diversity of sources now. They trust a lot more sources than they used to, and no longer feel that they have to march in lockstep behind one or two.

Last year, you wrote on Salon that the word “terrorist,” through manipulation in the government and media, has become meaningless. What other words are shaping media or reality now?

If you even look at what’s happening in Libya right now, the position of the Obama administration is that the reason that the President is permitted to order troops to participate in what’s happening in Libya is because it’s not really a war, even though we have fighter jets dropping bombs on buildings and blowing them up and AC-130 aircrafts shooting machine gunfire, huge amounts of machine gun ammunition, at troops on the ground. I mean, to me, it seems like if you send your fighter jets and aircraft and military to another country to attack that country’s military, by every meaningful definition, that’s a war. Yet, you can’t really find it being described as a war. It’s an “intervention,” or “a military action.” This kind of manipulative, Orwellian tactic of using language to dictate outcome is really common. “Terrorism” has never had any fixed meaning. It’s from the start been a term that’s been used to basically de-legitimize the violence of one’s enemies and legitimize one’s own violence. It’s amazing how prominent that term plays in our political discourse and yet how impoverished of meaning it is.

One significant example The New York Times did, in terms of manipulating language: for six years, they had an editorial policy that the word “torture” was prohibited to describe Bush Administration interrogation practices, even though all aspects of international law and prior United States government pronouncements and every relevant piece of evidence had proclaimed at least some of those tactics to be torture. The New York Times refused to use the term because the Bush Administration objected and said it wasn’t accurate. So, it’s not just government officials but newspapers that play a significant role in how that language is manipulated as well.

What good does a conference like this do?

I think it does a lot of good. I think sometimes there’s this assumption that everyone here is like-minded, and therefore it’s choir-preaching. I don’t really think that is true. I think you’ll find there are lots of different views about lots of different things. But even if that were true, that everyone here already thinks alike, there are lots of benefits of convening with people who are devoted to the same causes as you.

In the media and political world, there are great amounts of division. So, it’s no secret that conservatives exist in their own world and progressives exist in their own world, and there’s very little overlap. So, I don’t think one of the purposes of this conference is to persuade Fox News and conservatives that they’re acting in misguided ways. I hope nobody has that intention, because it won’t be fulfilled.

But for example, in all the media criticism that I just heard on that panel that I did, nobody mentioned Fox News. It’s just a given that they’re a rightwing propaganda outlet, and that’s what they want to be and are going to continue to be. I think the conversation tends to be more about allegedly mainstream sources or neutral sources like the New York Times. And there I think the conversation can have an impact because, although Fox News doesn’t pay attention to what goes on here, The New York Times does.

In what ways do you consider WikiLeaks to be journalism?

Publishing secret material that reveals what government sources and government factions and corporate factions are doing is inherently journalistic. You know, it’s a different kind of journalism. I don’t think it much matters what label you put on it. I don’t really care if it’s considered journalism or not. I’m more interested in if it’s a good or a bad thing. Whatever it is that they’re doing I think is extremely valuable and should be encouraged and supported — whether it’s journalism or whistle-blowing or secret-spilling or transparency-generating, you know. I don’t care that much about the label. Julian Assange is calling himself the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks because there are legal protections available to journalists in lots of countries that aren’t available to non-journalists, so it could have implications in that regard. But I’m not WikiLeaks’ lawyer, so I’m not that interested in that question.

What’s your daily reading regimen?

I usually just start off, like, every day without any idea of what I’m going to write about, and so I spend between three and six hours just reading as much as possible. I don’t really have a pattern. I start off with a few large newspapers but then I always end up at different blogs and different places until I find what I want to write about for the day. I mean, it’s not totally random. I read the Guardian, I read the BBC. I read The New York Times and Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Every day, there’s a set of blogs I read. But that’s five percent of what I end up reading. The rest of it is pretty random. But not random in a sense that I just pull them out of a hat, but I just end up at different places by following different threads of discussion.

Do you ever worry about getting into a rut, or do something to get out of a rut when you recognize it?

You know, usually, my bigger problem is that there are more things that I want to write about than I have time to write. If I’m not passionate about what I’m writing about, then I just don’t write about it. There have probably have been times when some of my readers have felt like, “OK, I think you’re covered this too much.” I do what I do because it’s a labor of love. There’s a lot of passion behind it. If anything, I just feel an anxiety about not being able to pay as much attention to the things that need attention.

Anxiety seems to be a side effect of being online.

Yeah, exactly. I always tell people who want to start blogs, it’s a great way to have an outlet. I don’t think I’d be able to pay attention to political issues if I didn’t have the outlet of my blog, like if I just had to keep all that anger and frustration inside and read about lies and have no means of addressing them and exposing them. It’s a healthy way, ultimately, to expunge these negative emotions.

Katjusa Cisar lives in Atlanta (but not for long) and plans to claim her cat Clyde on her taxes as an office assistant.

In photo: Glenn Greenwald speaks at the WikiLeaks panel at the National Conference for Media Reform while moderator Amy Goodman listens at right.