Bob Woodward and Monopoly Journalism

There’s an absurd debate going on about whether, by hiring Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras (who are the only journalists who have a full set of the documents Edward Snowden leaked), Pierre Omidyar has obtained a “monopoly” over NSA’s secrets. As to the substance of the debate: if Omidyar did set out to monopolize the NSA’s secrets, he’s a failure of a billionaire monopolist, given that since he and Greenwald first joined forces, a slew of other outlets have been publishing Omidyar’s monopoly with no apparent compensation to him.

Bad billionaire monopolist!

That said, I’m rather stunned that Bob Woodward — both his history as the previously quintessential “journalist” and his comments about the Snowden leaks specifically — has only received passing mention in this debate. Greenwald mentioned him to deflect claims that his practice with Snowden was any different from what Woodward has done across his career.

Or let’s take the revered-in-DC Bob Woodward, who has become America’s richest journalist by writing book after book over the last decade that has spilled many of America’s most sensitive secrets fed to him by top US government officials. In fact, his books are so filled withvital and sensitive secrets that Osama bin Laden personally recommended that they be read. Shall we accuse Woodward of selling US secrets to his publisher and profiteering off of them, and suggest he be prosecuted?

But what Woodward does is different, and he explicitly stated it would have been different if he were sitting on Snowden’s stash.

I would have said to [Snowden], let’s not reveal who you are. Let’s make you a protected source, and give me time with this data and let’s sort it out and present it in a coherent way. I think people are confused about whether it’s illegal, whether it’s bad, whether it’s bad policy.

That is, it’s not just that (as Dave Weinberger observes) there are many options besides Greenwald and Poitras these days.

Before the Web, the charge that Greenwald is monopolizing the information wouldn’t even have made sense because there wasn’t an alternative. Yes, he might have turned the entire cache over to The Guardian or the New York Times, but then would those newspapers look like monopolists? No, they’d look like journalists, like stewards. Now there are options. Snowden could have posted the cache openly on a Web site. He could have created a torrent so that they circulate forever. He could have given them to Wikileaks curate. He could have sent them to 100 newspapers simultaneously. He could have posted them in encrypted form and have given the key to the Dalai Lama or Jon Stewart. There are no end of options.

But Snowden didn’t. Snowden wanted the information curated, and redacted when appropriate. He trusted his hand-picked journalists more than any newspaper to figure out what “appropriate” means.

It’s that the notion of stewardship has changed — which, if Woodward is the model, previously meant a former intelligence operative would sit on the information for years, hiding both the information and the source, long enough for him to expose selected details through the actions of Important People, told in an omniscient voice.

Curiously, both Weinberger and Woodward talk of confusion not having this omniscient narrator causes.

That the charge that Glenn Greenwald is monopolizing or privatizing the Snowden information is even comprehensible to us is evidence of just how thoroughly the Web is changing our defaults and our concepts. Many of our core models are broken. We are confused.

Woodward believes he should have had the opportunity to tell us what to think about the dragnet. Greenwald’s critics suspect Omidyar plans to tell us what to think about it (or keep it secret).

But the sheer confusion suggests any monopoly has already been thwarted.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

19 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    Shorter Woodward: Working for a living is hard (I tried that once with Bernstein), which is why I prefer being the Village Stenographer. Why didn’t Snowden let me do that for him?

  2. Tom Allen says:

    Woodward got plenty of credit for reporting Deep Throat’s leaks, which he has since used for decades as a source of profit and influence, becoming ever more a part of the DC establishment.

    Greenwald is getting plenty of credit for reporting Snowden’s leaks. Now he’s beginning to use it as a source of profit and influence. But take heart — history never repeats itself.

  3. Del Fonik says:

    @Peterr: Don’t know about the “Stenographer” part. His — to my mind ‘best’, if such a standard can be said to apply to Woodward — book “Veil” has that multipage Bill Casey imagined deathbed confession scene. That’s creativity!

  4. SirFiddlepopDigglesIII says:

    Woodward may have reported on Deep Throat’s links by himself, but Mike Gravel entered 4100 pages of the Pentagon papers into the record under the speech and debate clause so everyone could report on them. Greenwald and Poitras could have shared more with other media outlets than the tiny crumbs they’ve given out so far, and I’m not sure any explanation for their behavior holds water other than “we wanted an exclusive more than we wanted to inform the public.”

    Snowden wanted the information curated, and redacted when appropriate. He trusted his hand-picked journalists more than any newspaper to figure out what “appropriate” means.

    Well, dude is a spy after all’s said and done. I can’t say I agree with him.

  5. lefty665 says:

    Omidyar is assembling a first class organization for accountability journalism. It also includes journalists like Dan Froomkin (here: http://www.fearlessmedia.org/ ).

    Woodward et. al. are ripped that there are actually journalists out there who are willing to research, report and call them as they see them. It is not mainstream, access uber alles stenography, or on the one hand, then on the other, some say the earth is round, others flat crap.

    No mention of Barton Gellman at the Wash Post. He’s had significant access to Snowden’s information. Is Woodward’s nose out of joint about that?

    I’ve been hoping to hear that Omidyar has recruited Marcy.

  6. Nigel says:

    @SirFiddlepopDigglesIII:
    and I’m not sure any explanation for their behavior holds water other than “we wanted an exclusive more than we wanted to inform the public.

    You might also consider the (more likely) explanation that they wanted to release the information in a manner designed to maximally embarrass the authorities – serial rebuttals of government spin, etc. – in this case a method I support wholeheartedly.
    Dumping the whole lot at once would have had much less impact.

  7. bloodypitchfork says:

    @Nigel:quote:” You might also consider the (more likely) explanation that they wanted to release the information in a manner designed to maximally embarrass the authorities – serial rebuttals of government spin, etc. – in this case a method I support wholeheartedly.”unquote

    If that is indeed the case, ditto. After seeing each USG response to each revelation, and then Glenns next release, I believe it is.

  8. bmaz says:

    @SirFiddlepopDigglesIII: Tiny crumbs is a complete misrepresentation. Tens of thousands of docs are in the possession of various news organizations, with a huge tranche that once was at the guardian, also now being at the NYT and Pro Publica. If you are going to take the bad cop approach, do try to at least get the facts right.

  9. C says:

    Not to put too fine a point on it but Woodward hasn’t been a threat to the power establishment for 30 years. He is not Sy Hersh. He is not Greenwald. He is the guy that they invite into the Bush White House to tell the story of how we went to Iraq and whose subsequent books manage to add interesting character but little substance to a story that should be full of it. He is also, at least according to some, a guy who managed to screw up a biography of John Belushi.

    It is hard hard I say! to imagine why Snowden wouldn’t turn to him first :)

  10. C says:

    I agree thanks @bmaz.

    One small point, I believe that the guardian also still has their stash. They were forced to melt the london-based hard drives that had once contained it, an act that even the government acknowledged was symbolic, but by then they had moved copies to their overseas operations.

  11. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Hiding the source might protect a senior serving DoJ operative, bent on continuing his career while remaining at Main Justice. It also conveniently keeps the story on the reporter. Greenwald, to his immense credit, has worked hard to focus the story on what his source revealed, not on the source or himself. That’s journalism, something that Mr. Woodward seems to have forgotten at about, oh, the mid-1970’s.

  12. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Perhaps Mr. Woodward is protecting his own monopoly under the guise of protesting, falsely, that someone else might have one. Projection is an elegant form of political attack, not reasoned journalism, one perfected by another Washington insider, Karl Rove.

  13. Del Fonik says:

    @lefty665: Would not shock anyone; certainly Greenwald, Scahill, Poitras, Froomkin et al know her work. Other worthy candidates: Rick Perlstein, Matt Taibbi, Nick Davies; and of course Digby at the helm of the editorial policy page.

  14. dogpaddle says:

    It is clear that despite being a paid government mouthpiece, Woodward is ignorant of the power of the NSA. He says:

    “I would have said to [Snowden], let’s not reveal who you are. Let’s make you a protected source, and give me time with this data and let’s sort it out and present it in a coherent way.”

    The reason Snowdon revealed himself was that he knew the NSA would figure out in short order who the leaker was through a metadata analysis. The only way he could keep himself safe was by shining a bright light on himself, making a quiet rendition impossible. Naturally Woodward, the government hack, would encourage leakers to remain unknown.

    As Greenwald has pointed out, the NSA revelations have put a huge damper on whistleblowing as anonymous leaks are impossible. Investigative journalism hangs by a thread.

  15. lefty665 says:

    @Del Fonik: That would be a good crew indeed. I’d add James Bamford to the roster.

    They’ve recruited Eric Bates from Rolling Stone, maybe Taibbi’s next.

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