The Institutional Subjectivity of the White Affluent US Nation

In a really worthy read, Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald debate the future of journalism.

Sadly, however, in his first response to Keller’s self-delusion of belonging to the journalistic tradition of “newspapers that put a premium on aggressive but impartial reporting[] that expect reporters and editors to keep their opinions to themselves,” Greenwald seemed to cede that such journalism constitutes, “concealing one’s subjective perspectives.” That permitted Keller to continue his self-delusion that his journalism — at both the level of reporter and that reporter’s larger institution — achieved that silence about opinions until they started fighting about the role of national allegiance and national security.

That argument developed this way.

Greenwald: Former Bush D.O.J. lawyer Jack Goldsmith in 2011 praised what he called “the patriotism of the American press,” meaning their allegiance to protecting the interests and policies of the U.S. government. That may (or may not) be a noble thing to do, but it most definitely is not objective: it is quite subjective and classically “activist.”


Keller: If Jack Goldsmith, the former Bush administration lawyer, had praised the American press for, in your words, “their allegiance to protecting the interests and policies of the U.S. government” then I would strongly disagree with him. We have published many stories that challenged the policies and professed interests of the government. But that’s not quite what Goldsmith says. He says that The Times and other major news outlets give serious consideration to arguments that publishing something will endanger national security — that is, might get someone killed.

For what it’s worth, I think Keller is clinging to the first thing Goldsmith said,

Glenn Greenwald complained that “the NYT knew about Davis’ work for the CIA (and Blackwater) but concealed it because the U.S. Government told it to” (my emphasis).  That is inaccurate.  The government asked the Times not to publish, as it often does, and the Times agreed to the request, which it sometimes does.  The final decision rested with the Times, which listens to the government’s claims about national security harm and risk to individual lives, and then makes its own decision.   The Timesdoes not, in my opinion, always exercise this discretion wisely.

And ignoring what Goldsmith went on to say,

I interviewed a dozen or so senior American national security journalists to get a sense of when and why they do or don’t publish national security secrets.  They gave me different answers, but they all agreed that they tried to avoid publishing information that harms U.S. national security with no corresponding public benefit. Some of them expressly ascribed this attitude to “patriotism” or “jingoism” or to being American citizens or working for American publications.   This sense of attachment to country is what leads the American press to worry about the implications for U.S. national security of publication, to seek the government’s input, to weigh these implications in the balance, and sometimes to self-censor.  (This is a natural and prudent attitude in a nation with the fewest legal restrictions in the world on the publication of national security secrets, but one abhorred by critics like Greewald.)  The Guardian, al Jazeera, and Wikileaks, by contrast, worry much less, if at all, about U.S. national security interests.

That is, Goldsmith noted both that at an institutional level US news outlets entertained the requests of the government, and that at a reportorial level, individuals prioritized US “national security.”

And from there, Keller repeatedly ignored or dismissed the efforts Greenwald, in his Edward Snowden reporting, or WikiLeaks, in its Cablegate publications, made to protect lives of individuals.

It’s not until Greenwald’s response where he gets to the crux of the issue.

As for taking into account dangers posed to innocent life before publishing: nobody disputes that journalists should do this. But I don’t give added weight to the lives of innocent Americans as compared to the lives of innocent non-Americans, nor would I feel any special fealty to the U.S. government as opposed to other governments when deciding what to publish. When Goldsmith praised the “patriotism” of the American media, he meant that U.S. media outlets give special allegiance to the views and interests of the U.S. government.

The key word here is “interests.” The cases Goldsmith cites are primarily, if not exclusively, about protecting US interests, which he and Keller translate into US “national security,” perhaps to give it the gravity of dead (American) bodies.

Now, I’m not the person to raise this, because I’m far too close to Greenwald’s position, both as someone who questions the need to defer to US interests masquerading as national security, and as a privileged white person (though he’s gay and I’m female).

But I think two things are missing from this debate. One — which Goldsmith gets close to when he says self-censorship is a “natural and prudent attitude in a nation with the fewest legal restrictions in the world on the publication of national security secrets” — pertains to whether US interests are a less worse option than the interests of those who will capitalize on the US not being able to manage its press.

To explain what I mean, consider the worst case scenario for American interests of the disclosures of the extent of US spying around the world. NSA apologists say, correctly, that everyone who has the resources to, spies; NSA apologists almost never admit that US has technical advantages (partly, but not exclusively, its role astride the international telecom backbone) that make its spying much easier and therefore “boundless” (to borrow NSA’s own description of its dragnet). And that spying advantage is one key ingredient in the exercise of US global hegemony. Secrecy about it is another key ingredient to US hegemony.

In other words, though they may not admit it (some do), NSA apologists are criticizing disclosures that may well weaken America’s already eroding hegemonic position in the world. When they point out (correctly) that Russia has a worse human rights and civil liberties record than America, they’re suggesting that the disclosures may actually bring out more authoritarianism, not less. They may be right, they may be wrong (that’s why we live history, to see how such questions work out!), but I do believe some of the apologists are legitimately worried about this.

Another variant of this — that is not necessarily at all apologist — are technical observations that by undermining US dominance of the Internet’s governance, these disclosures may actually lead to more nationalist authoritarian control of the Toobz. Again, it is possible that Edward Snowden’s efforts to undermine the dragnet may actually strengthen it.

But underlying this question — and indeed, underlying the strong response to these disclosures in countries around the world — is the question of the value of US hegemony. In addition to all the financial and strategic reasons why Europe allowed us to provide their security for the last half century, there’s the reality that for decades US hegemony brought prosperity to Europe. The same is assuredly not true for much of the rest of the world, which is why the BRICS, for example, are pushing back from another perspective (though globalization has benefitted, if for short and volatile periods, some of these countries as well).

Still, the question raised on both sides of that equation is whether, in the wake of the twin Iraq and Wall Street debacles, US hegemony is a net win anymore for the rest of the world.

Surely for the Bill Keller’s of the world, it is. Surely for most of NYT’s subscribers (and more importantly, advertisers), it is.

But if US hegemony is no longer (if it ever was) the least worst solution to global order, then what comes next and how do we get there and how does increased disclosure of the US dragnet come in?

That’s something I think those of us in the disclosure camp need to think about.

Then there’s the parochial side of it as well. As noted above, Goldsmith showed how US papers both at least considered government concerns about US interests posing as national security, and US reporters considered how their reporting served US interests posing as national security.

But I am also uncomfortably aware that this conversation is transpiring between a group of privileged white people. Which brings me to my second issue, the institutional definition of US interests (masquerading as national security and “seriousness,” among other things) by elite papers. That is, the other thing going on is the cult of “objectivity” (largely taught at schools and in internships that are much more accessible to the affluent) has also expanded at the same time as the interests of communities of color and the working class increasingly disappeared from the papers. Bill Keller claims his and other “objective” papers have exposed “the malfeasance of the financial industry.” While I suppose he might be thinking of Gretchen Morgenson and Steven Greenhouse and ignoring Andrew Ross Sorkin, ultimately there are a slew of economic questions — questions that are at the core of the common good that should define “US interests” — that, even for Greenhouse, remain largely unmentioned at the NYT. That is, one of the big problems with the subjectivity that is claimed as objectivity at the NYT is that of a position of elite observation that barely hints at how far institutional “US interest” has been divorced from the interests of many struggling Americans.

And while I can point that out, I’m not the voice of color, of the working class, that needs to reclaim that issue.

That is, while I agree with Greenwald that the objectivity of the NYT is an institutional subject position rather than real objectivity, I also hope that (just) Glenn Greenwald (or I) is not taken as the future of journalism. Because if all we do is replace institutional “US interest” subjectivity posing as objectivity for the voice of white privileged subjectivity, we’re still only addressing a fraction of the stories not being told.

19 replies
  1. DWBartoo says:

    Yes, what does come “next”? And how do (or should) we get “there”?

    What do we imagine that “there” really should “look” or “feel” like?

    Remember, EW, you have, very reasonably I consider, speculated about a neo-feudal future, a future very few of us, here, I hope, see as either desirable OR necessary.

    What are your visions for a better world where hegemonic forces do NOT control the resources necessary to life NOR the free minds of human beings?

    Frankly, I think it rather difficult to imagine beyond the cultural constraints which ALL of us, everywhere, both suffer under and embrace, yet I cannot imagine that any of us may honestly seek to look to the future without recognizing these limitations and daring, however much we might, to move boldly and courageously beyond them.

    A superb analysis, btw, of the Keller – Greenwald “debate” of a very specific part of the “future”.


  2. grayslady says:

    I don’t think that being white, or gay, or female, or whatever prohibits you from writing empathetically on behalf of others. Glenn has written numerous times on behalf of muslims and other individuals or groups that he believes are being unfairly oppressed. The NY Times, however, always strikes me as the paper of the white 1%; and it isn’t just because of how their articles are written. Even their “soft” stories just seem so out-of-touch. Think of their real estate columns, such as: “What $600,000 gets you.” How many people in this country have $600,000 to spend on a home? An elitist attitude permeates the entire publication. It’s simply left-wing elitist rather than right-wing elitist (like the Wall Street Journal).

    Beyond that, I think journalism requires a lot more specialists than the typical newspaper currently provides. For instance, there’s not a single journalist at a traditional newspaper that can touch Krebs or Schneier on internet security issues. Your weedy, academic, in-depth articles aren’t found anywhere else–either on the web or in traditional media. IMHO, for today’s educated reader, there is no longer one newspaper of record, but rather numerous sources of information. As for television, it has long been so trite in its news coverage that I’m amazed anyone even watches tv anymore.

  3. lefty665 says:

    I would argue that race is a sub set of class, and that class is the issue. Race, gender and orientation pose individual barriers, but class transcends all. We have to get far enough up Maslow’s needs hierarchy to have the luxury of observing and writing about it.

  4. JTMinIA says:

    I understand why you are raising the question of privilege, but don’t understand why you are talking about “privileged white people.” Other than increasing the odds of a person being privileged, how does being white have anything to do with anything under discussion here? Yes, those who are connected to a society in a way that provides them with most of the benefits (i.e., the privileged) have more to lose or gain when said society rises or falls. But, again, once you have established whether a person is connected to the society, what more does race add to the story?

  5. Brindle says:

    Important to remember that the U.S. wars since WWII have all been against non-whites: Koreans, Vietnamese, Iraqis, Afghanis, not to mention those subjected to drone attacks.

  6. Yastreblyansky says:

    I’m not the voice of color either, nor certainly the voice of Bill Keller either, thank God, but I’ve been paying enough attention to the former to have a feeling that the issue cuts a couple of different ways. First, right or wrong, many people of color believe that attacks on President Obama on civil liberties issues are attacks on him as a black man, pursued by white privileged persons to undermine not just him personally but what he represents. This feeling is reinforced when we see civil liberties activists emphasizing the possibility that the NSA might be collecting electronic message metadata on US citizens (applying mainly to privlileged whites) over the reality of oppression of Muslims and young black men by the FBI and municipal police. Especially when activists refuse to believe that the administration is even attempting to improve over the disastrous Bush administration in its handling of these matters (case in point: the Guardian story last week on the 2006 NSA memo mentioned Obama’s name 23 times, Bush’s only once).

    Then, whatever you might want to say about US hegemony over other states, liberals, including most people of color, are anxious to see a government powerful against corporate interests, and believe that the current administration, however inadequately, tries to go there–more than any other in 60-odd years, anyhow. The lineup of libertarians (often racially insensitive, to put it mildly) against the administration is disquieting.

    From that perspective, it’s not hard to notice something that is not as yet part of the people-of-color discourse: that there is a class of extremely white and privileged and frequently libertarian people who would benefit from the dissolution of the NSA collection: international tax cheats, money launderers, weapons traffickers. My attention was called to this by Glenn Greenwald, in fact, in a tweet referencing a Wall Street Journal story on the effort to create a digital Cayman Islands, or NSA-free zone for people who can afford to keep their communications private.

    If the NSA happened to be doing its work well (I realize that’s a stretch of the imagination, but most bureaucracies have some quiet toilers who know what they’re doing), it would certainly not be snooping on Jesselyn Radack but on the money trail, for which the metadata collection could be a really valuable tool. Or not on Bundeskanzlerin Merkel but on the thugs and thieves who run the Russian government. The Obama administration seems like a pretty weak reed to be leaning on in the face of these forces, but there are plenty of non-right-wing reasons for not wanting to make it weaker.

  7. emptywheel says:

    @JTMinIA: Fair question.

    Two reasons that come to mind are 1) race really still is used as an institutional means of both economically and literally disenfranchising people, such that even for affluent people of color, some of that still carries over. 2) when talking about US interests, it is a lot easier for people of color within the US to be targeted as outsiders than people of white European dissent because of a kind of legal profiling going on. That is, because we’re at war against Muslims and at drug war against Latin American drug cartels (however accurate or not those descriptions really are), it is a lot easier to treat Muslims and Latinos of any class as anti-American.

  8. JTMinIA says:

    @emptywheel: OK, but I would set an order (or priority, in stats-parlance) to these variables and don’t let them come in more than once. What you wrote matches what I said about race being a major cause or predictor of privilege, so let’s set race aside and just talk about privilege. If people start asking “what determines privilege?” then you can tell them about race, sex, accent, and which New England boarding school they went to, but until the question comes up, just talk about privilege.

    I’m suggesting this for at least three reasons. First, if you don’t want to get bogged down in an argument about the sources of privilege in the US, dodge the issue by only talking about privilege, itself. Second, it’s a bad habit to talk about two variables that have a directional dependence as being two separate things, because they aren’t. In fact, until you can show that the earlier variable (in this case, race) has an effect that doesn’t operate through the later variable (privilege), you should not talk about earlier at all when the later is being included. Third, to the extent that you can keep the total number of hot-button terms to a minimum, you’re more likely to “reach” people who will not enjoy hearing what you’re saying.

    Oddly enough, I’m someone who gets wound up as soon as I see the word “privilege” – but I’m unfazed by “race” – even though many people say “privilege” when they really mean “race” (to avoid seeming racist). There are a bunch of folks who are active in the atheist community, for example, that love to throw “privilege” at people who look like me, in an attempt to stop people who look like me from speaking. They piss me off no end. Not only do they rarely know enough about me to know whether I really am privileged, but if you have a problem with my being white with a penis, please just come out and say that; deal with your own racism and sexism, rather than ruin a perfectly useful construct like “privilege.”

    /stomp…stomp…stomp off soapbox

  9. Mud says:

    I think one place to get to is to get the privileged to self-identify in a more limiting way, to highlight the voices lacking in any specific piece. “This piece by Tuck Chawd, rich white male insider living by the Hill with a new book out.” There are times you really do want to know what that guy thinks, but certainly not JUST that guy.

    A real journalistic institution should have a broad range of writers and editors on staff with a variety of backgrounds, viewpoints and experiences who not only write their own pieces, but review one anothers’ as well, and share bylines to reduce omissions of relevant viewpoints, especially on the biggest stories. People following journalists they identify with can use that model to find material relevant to and representing their interests while also knowing (as evidenced by the other names / reputations in the byline) that many different interests were included / considered as well. It’s expensive as a model, I suppose — especially in terms of the kind of collaborative effort it’d require behind the scenes — but it’d be worth paying for.

    Honestly, the Times *should* be like that. Tragic that it’s not.

  10. der says:

    – “The key word here is ‘interests.’ The cases Goldsmith cites are primarily, if not exclusively, about protecting US interests, which he and Keller translate into US ‘national security,’ perhaps to give it the gravity of dead (American) bodies.”

    Not just US interests it’s one of who elites see as making up the US and to those their interests. Chomsky gives a clue:

    – “The public must be put in its place,” so that the “responsible men” may “live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd,” “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” whose “function” is to be “interested spectators of action,” not participants, lending their weight periodically to one or another member of the leadership class (elections), then returning to their private concerns (Walter Lippmann). The great mass of the population, “ignorant and mentally deficient,” must be kept in their place for the common good, fed with “necessary illusion” and “emotionally potent oversimplifications” (Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Reinhold Niebuhr).
    (Year 501)

    What of that “trampling”? Here I turn to Chris Hedges and his many statements that for more than a decade the Pentagon has been preparing for the coming climate catastrophe (regardless their own christian leanings and Inhofe’s Revelation views). “They know what’s coming.”

    The public may be baffled and confused by history but the elites are not. Keller and the upper classes may be seeing themselves as the Knights Templar of intellectualism but with a narrow view of what their future may look like without the working class ditch digger and hunter-gatherer. In the words of one essayist -They will not be the last to starve. As the planet heats the wheat fields and fruit orchards turn into deserts. There is no imagining of any futuristic Hunger Games days to evoke a possibility that serves to excuse the elites inaction, it will be just a sad suffering of collapse on the side of the road. We are literally all in it together, rich and poor, young and old, intelligent and stupid. Here in Keller’s Land of the Free the gap that separated the dreamer from the realist has closed quicker than the mind of a congressman, from 64% just 15 years ago to less than 9% today:

    Science knows, their experts have been warning us for decades to what will happen if we kept following “business as usual”. Ivan Macfadyen contributes (10/21/13):

    – “In 2003, I caught a fish every day,” he told Guardian Australia. “Ten years later to the day, sailing almost exactly the same course, I caught nothing. It started to strike me the closer we got to Japan that the ocean was dead.

    “Normally when you are sailing a yacht, there are one or two pods of dolphins playing by the boat, or sharks, or turtles or whales. There are usually birds feeding by the boat. But there was none of that. I’ve been sailing for 35 years and it’s only when these things aren’t there that you notice them.”

    The sad irony is the interested spectators, the 99%, know more than given credit even with the drips and drops of truth the elites let slip onto the pages of Keller’s great New York Times, the 1% though are the ones gripped by a fear so suffocating to them they are unable to lead or find solutions to save the species and leave a livable earth. Bush was right we’ll all be dead, selfishly he didn’t mention he would be long dead before his children and grandchildren. Leaders need to lead. Knowing where Merkel keeps her doomsday cache won’t cut it. It’s not waiting to notice when things are not there, then it will be too late.

  11. joanneleon says:

    I agree that “interests” are at the root of the problem. I think one reason why many of us are so wary is because we don’t believe that the people making the decisions represent our interests.

    If you asked someone in power what kinds of things measure our interest, it would probably be some of the things that the media obsesses about, GDP and the Dow, for example. Neither of those things measure the best interests of the common man and it has never been more obvious than now.

    I think it’s scary too, the issue of someone maintaining some kind of global order and as much as I think the current powers that be are doing a horrific job, not representing me, what happens when the US loses its grip? But what I’m also watching is a persistent and successful march toward a neoliberal/neocon vision for the world. And yes, the surveillance is helping that march right along. I think that there are going to be great risks in trying to bring about real change. But we’re heading for big change no matter what. Climate change alone is going to bring about big changes. Sometimes I wonder if the elite’s anticipation of the impact of climate change is the thing that is causing the urgency toward the police state, the surveillance state, the domination of the resources. It’s hard to explain why people with so much power and so much information and so many resources to analyze and evaluate and plan have not been addressing it in a big way over the past 20 years, unless they have been addressing it, but in a way that is deliberately kept from the populace.

    And then there is the Zbigniew statements from many years ago about a rush to get certain things done and establish a single superpower during the opportunistic period of time after the USSR. The things he prescribed did not come to pass, or so it seems, so the march toward a multi-superpower world is coming, though it didn’t happen quite as quickly as anticipated.

  12. Chetnolian says:

    What a very thoughtful thread this is. But when you say, Emptywheel “there’s the reality that for decades US hegemony brought prosperity to Europe” there is a need to ask first whether that is objectively the case and whether if so it was ever anything other than incidentally altruistic of the US. The answer to the first question is, I think “only up to a point”. It is fair to ask how much effort the US put into, for instance, securing the prosperity of most of the population of Spain, given that to do so would have meant upsetting a solid, if squalid, ally i Franco. And if I were a Frenchman I would be livid at the very idea.

    And that prosperity, even were it the result of American benevolence, certainly was not the primary reason for the acceptance of the US defence umbrella. That was simple fear. A fear created as much by the US as the USSR, each of which got itself into a position of mutually assured paranoia about the other. And it was a quite illusory protection, had push come to shove. There is a generation in Britain to whom the words “Four minute warning”, have resonance they can’t have in contemporary Americans. In case the meaning of the phrase is not clear, that was the time the Russian nukes would take to get to us.

  13. Nigel says:

    You do at least have the 1st Amendment.

    Whereas in the UK…
    David Cameron makes veiled threat to media over NSA and GCHQ leaks
    Prime minister alludes to courts and D notices and singles out the Guardian over coverage of Edward Snowden saga
    28 October 2013 9:10pm
    Thank you for your contributions. Comments on this article will be closed shortly for legal reasons…

  14. Phil Perspective says:

    @grayslady: It’s simply left-wing elitist rather than right-wing elitist (like the Wall Street Journal).

    The NYT is right-wing elitist. If the NYT was really left-wing, they would have come out in support of BdB in the primary. Don’t let the presence of Krugman on the op-ed page fool you.

  15. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    The major issue with news media is consolidation of ownership and the impact this has on impartial reporting.

    I find it interesting that Bill and Glenn can have an entire debate and not touch on this crucial element.

    When in future journalists’ post a disclaimer, “I as a journalist was unable to express my true views due to conflicts these would have created with the owner”, then I will know I am seeing some honest journalism, and a first step to rectifying the problem.

    Let’s hope Pierre doesn’t crush his new dream team when they decide to expose eBay for its dirty secrets, and they must exist. Will we hear about them, or like all media owners will Pierre corrupt his team by demanding subservience to his enterprise?

    Perhaps to prove the point Glenn’s team’s first article could be focused on eBay and expose its ??? Off-shore accounts? Tax dodges? Monopolistic controls? Dirty Secrets!

    When we see this we will know a new form of journalism has arrived.

    Until then, we may conclude Pierre is just another Rupert Murdoch, corrupting the one entity, true independent journalism, capable of shining disinfecting light on even broader corruption.

    Thank you EW for your unwavering commitment to independent reporting.

  16. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    @joanneleon: I agree with much that you have written and have myself wondered if denial of global warming, while exhibiting a paranoid response to any protest or dissent, and escalating the militarization of domestic police, is in fact preparation for it. As recently as 15,000 years ago a 2 mile thick ice sheet covered much of the northern hemisphere down to the US-Canada border. When global warming tips into global cooling how will government’s manage this level of catastrophe? DHS has the ammunition in stock to take one course of action. Will the rich build themselves a sanctuary? Can they hope to wall off the starving masses?

    But I really want to highlight your comment “that the people making decisions do not represent our interests.”

    It has been a long long time since I have seen any leader say she supports the right to “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in any meaningful way. In fact the entire aim of governments now seem antithetical to this most fundamental concept.

    I have often said I want nothing more than a tent on a beach, though that is a simplification, it is I suspect, not a unique desire nor is this simplicity a new concept. See HD Thoreau’s, “Waldon Pond”, 1854.

    We live in interesting times. Our debates may with a single tick of the clock be irrelevant to the future we face.

  17. C says:

    @Phil Perspective: Personally I would say they are more neoliberal. Friedman’s lunacy aside they do always come out in favor of Wall Street, act interested in privatization, and are never terribly concerned with the costs of “Free Trade.” Ultimately the Grey Lady is as much Wall St. as the Journal.

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