Greenwald spends days holed up in the Hong Kong hotel, turning Snowden’s raw material into articles. The plan is to publish the documents in one powerful story after another, what Greenwald characterizes as “a journalistic version of shock and awe.” After the nerve-wracking negotiations between editors and lawyers are finalized, permission is given to publish. First up is the Verizon story: “NSA Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily.” The ensuing furor is colossal. The story is fast-tracked to the lead item on every news broadcast and touches off political debates; the major media outlets scramble to interview Greenwald.
The second article is cued up. It reveals that the world’s biggest internet companies secretly agreed to give the NSA access to their customers’ communications. The NSA comprehensively raided Facebook chats, Google searches, and Yahoo emails. In another plot twist, The Washington Post publishes its own version of this story first; The Guardian gets Greenwald’s piece up 10 minutes later. Unlike the Verizon story, this one has international ramifications, affecting billions of people.
A third and fourth article appear, and then on June 9 The Guardian posts a 12-minute video interview of Snowden that Greenwald and Poitras made during their stay in Hong Kong, and Snowden is unveiled to the world. The clock now ticks on Snowden’s freedom. His escape to a safe house has us again wondering whether this is fact or fiction. Greenwald closes this segment of the book with the advice given to him by a lawyer to forget any idea of flying out to do the New York talk-show circuit: “You’ve just enabled the biggest national security leak in US history.”
Greenwald is at his best when he gets out of the way and lets this fascinating story speak for itself. But of course, that’s not his style. Problems arise when he veers into a critique of journalism. Here and there we get sideswipe gripes that come across as sweeping generalizations: The New York Times will dance to the government’s tune by holding up or toning down inconvenient or downright damaging stories; The Washington Post is “the belly of the Beltway media beast, embodying all the worst attributes of US political media,” its editorial page is “one of the most vociferous and mindless cheerleaders for US militarism, secrecy, and surveillance.” In Greenwald’s last chapter, “The Fourth Estate,” his digs at corporate journalism are upped into full-scale broadsides:
From the United States’ founding, the best and most consequential journalism frequently involved crusading reporters, advocacy, and devotion to battling injustice. The opinion-less, color-less, soul-less template of corporate journalism has drained the practice of its most worthy attributes, rendering establishment media inconsequential: a threat to nobody powerful, exactly as intended.
Clearly, then, corporate journalists lack opinions and therefore bite. Greenwald reiterates his point over several pages in a variety of combinations. Objectivity in corporate journalism “means nothing more than reflecting the biases and serving the interests of entrenched Washington.” A page later: “The iconic reporter of the past was the definitive outsider. Many who entered the profession were inclined to oppose rather than serve power.” This has now changed, he insists. Those who succeed in corporate journalism “identify with institutional authority and are skilled at serving, not combating it.” And a page or two on: “Rich, famous, insider journalists do not want to subvert the status quo that so lavishly rewards them.”
Mystery man We learn more about Edward Snowden in Greenwald’s book, but he remains a one-dimensional character, hero or villain. (Barton Gellman / Getty)
Not only does Greenwald write off entire newsrooms and tar all establishment journalists with the same brush, he ends up sounding like a stuck record while doing so. (One wonders what he thinks of the Pulitzer Board awarding both The Guardian US and that “mindless cheerleader” The Washington Post the biggest prize in US journalism for their Snowden coverage.) In addition, a note of self-aggrandizement creeps into his argument: By Greenwald’s own logic, he is the equivalent of that “iconic reporter” of the past. His outsider status and steadfast refusal to toe the party line renders him an irritant to Washington’s centers of power. While there may be some truth in that, his other explanation for why he has attracted such hostility is far less convincing: “Part competitiveness and part payback for the years of professional criticism I had directed at US media stars, there was, I believe, also anger and even shame over the truth that adversarial journalism had exposed: reporting that angers the government reveals the real role of so many mainstream journalists, which is to amplify power.” Our iconic, crusading reporter’s reasoning is again marred by generalization (that “real” role) and for the first time suspicion (that tit-for-tat “payback”).