Few journalists are more relentlessly icono-clastic than Glenn Greenwald, who shared a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Edward Snowden revelations.
Though unapologetically progressive, the 53-year-old former lawyer never shrinks from fighting with the left. A week before the 2020 election, he quit The Intercept, the online news organization he cofounded in 2014, because, by his account, it refused to run a story unless he “remove[d] all sections critical of” Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Denouncing what he called “the pathologies, illiberalism, and repressive mentality” that led him to be what he characterized as “censored” by his own media outlet, Greenwald railed that “these are the viruses that have contaminated virtually every mainstream center-left political organization, academic institution, and newsroom.”
Like a growing number of refugees from more-traditional news organizations, Greenwald took his talents to Substack, a platform that lets independent content creators earn revenue directly from their audiences. He wasted no time lobbing grenades, posting stories and videos with titles like “No Matter the Liberal Metric Chosen, the Bush/Cheney Administration Was Far Worse Than Trump” and “The Three Greatest Dangers of Biden/Harris: Militarism, Corporatism and Censorship, All Fueled by Indifference.”
Reason’s Nick Gillespie spoke with Greenwald via Zoom in November. The reporter appeared from his home in Brazil, where he lives with his husband, two children, and numerous dogs. Among other topics, they discussed what Greenwald sees as a generational fight playing out in newsrooms and what he fears from Biden’s presidency.
Let’s start with you leaving The Intercept, this amazing publication that you helped start only a few years ago. What happened?
Well, some of you may recall that when I created The Intercept with Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, it was at the height of the Snowden story back in 2013. I was at The Guardian at the time. And I had received a lot of support institutionally and editorially from The Guardian. But I began noticing, as I worked with other media outlets to report that story, a lot of internal obstacles that they thought were quite difficult to overcome in terms of doing the reporting not just with that story but that, in general, I thought needed to be done.
Because Laura and I had a lot of visibility with that story, and Jeremy had done a lot of high visibility reporting of his own, including having produced a film about [then–President Barack] Obama’s war on terror called Dirty Wars that had received an Oscar nomination, we had a lot of leverage to create a new media outlet. We obviously didn’t do that, given that we all had very good platforms at the time to replicate what was already being done.
We only left the places we were at, which were very secure, because we thought we could do something different in journalism. One of the principal visions we had was that the model for how journalism is often conducted inside corporate media outlets—which is this hierarchical top-down structure, where editors impose not necessarily an ideology as much as a tone. So they flatten out the vibrancy and personality and voice in journalism....It was making it not just ineffective but actually quite boring.
The idea was, it’s going to be a journalism-led media outlet, where editors are there to help you when you need it, to kick the tires on stories, to make sure that things are factually sound. But they’re not the bosses. They’re not the people you have to overcome who decide whether you can be heard or not. And I had written into my contract, just like I did at The Guardian and Salon, that except in very rare cases where there is very complex original reporting, like in the Snowden story and the Brazil reporting we did last year, that I would just publish directly to the internet with no editorial intervention.
That was the model we were building, that I thought I was building. I never thought it had anything to do with ideological dogma, and certainly never fealty to any political party. I was a vehement Obama critic at the time, and before that was a vehement critic of George Bush and Dick Cheney. We called ourselves adversarial, because we were going to be adversarial to political power, not subservient to it.
I felt as though we had gotten off-course for a few years now by becoming more and more linked with the Democratic Party. Particularly in the age of Trump, where we had become not so much a journalistic outlet but more an activist outlet, designed not to report the truth no matter who it aggrandizes or angers but serving the interests of the Democratic Party. And more so, undermining the interest of Donald Trump, which ultimately became the same thing.
It all culminated in them essentially telling me that I couldn’t publish my own story...at a news outlet that was built on my name....It was a huge irony. And being stifled in saying what I wanted to say, obviously, was something I could never accept, and my readers wouldn’t want me to. So I left.
You’ve written that the Bush-Cheney administration was far worse than the Trump administration. You’ve also argued that in various ways the Obama administration was worse.
I started writing about politics because I thought the media was so dormant and complacent about these radical assaults on civil liberties under Bush and Cheney taking place during the war on terror. And then under Obama, they went to sleep even further. They got hypnotized into thinking that he was a noble and benevolent leader.
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