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December 1, 2013

High-contrast transparency – How Glenn Greenwald could look like a monopolist

Glenn Greenwald mounts a mighty and effective defense against the charge leveled by Mark Ames at that Greenwald and Laura Poitras are “monopolizing” and “privatizing” the 50,000-200,000 NSA documents entrusted to them by Edward Snowden.

Unlike Greenwald, I do think “it’s a question worth asking,” as Ames puts it — rather weasily, since his post attempt really is about supplying an answer. It’s worth asking because of the new news venture funded by Pierre Omidyar that has hired Greenwald and Poitras. Greenwald argues (among other things) that the deal has nothing to do with profiting from their access to the Snowden papers; in fact, he says, by the time the venture gets off the ground, there may not be any NSA secrets left to reveal. But one can imagine a situation in which a newspaper hires a journalist with unique access to some highly newsworthy information in order to acquire and control that information. In this case, we have contrary evidence: Greenwald and Poitras have demonstrated their courage and commitment.

Greenwald’s defense overall is, first, that he and Poitras (Bart Gellman plays a lesser role in the article) have not attempted to monopolize the papers so far. On the contrary, they’ve been generous and conscientious in spreading the the revelations to papers around the world. Second, getting paid for doing this is how journalism works.

To be fair, Ames’ criticism isn’t simply that Greenwald is making money, but that Omidyar can’t be trusted. I disagree, albeit without pretending to have any particular insight into Omidyar’s (or anyone’s) soul. (I generally have appreciated Omidyar’s work, but so what?) We do have reason to trust Greenwald, however. It’s inconceivable to me that Greenwald would let the new venture sit on NSA revelations for bad reasons.

But I personally am most interested in why these accusations have traction at all.

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. We might disagree with his choice of method or of journalists, but we can understand it. The cache needs editing, contextualization, and redaction so that we understand it, and so that the legitimate secrets of states are preserved. (Are there legitimate state secrets? Let me explain: Yes.) Therefore, it needs stewardship.

No so incidentally, the fact that we understand without a hiccup why Snowden entrusted individual journalists with the information, rather than giving it to even the most prestigious of newspapers, is another convincing sign of the collapse of our institutions.

It’s only because we have so many other options that entrusting the cache to journalists committed to stewarding it into the public sphere could ever be called “monopolizing” it. The word shouldn’t make any sense to us in this environment, yet it is having enough traction that Greenwald reluctantly wrote a long post defending himself. Given that the three recipients of the Snowden cache have been publishing it in newspapers all over the world makes them much less “monopolists” than traditional reporters are. Greenwald only needed to defend himself from this ridiculous charge because we now have a medium that can do what was never before possible: immediately and directly publish sets of information of any size. And we have a culture (in which I happily and proudly associate) that says openness is the default. But defaults were made to be broken. That’s why they’re defaults and not laws of nature or morality.

Likewise, when Ames’ criticizes Greenwald for profiting from these secrets because he gets paid as a journalist (which is separate from the criticism that working for Omidyar endangers the info — a charge I find non-credible), the charge makes even the slightest sense only because of the Web’s culture of Free, which, again I am greatly enthusiastic about. As an institution of democracy, one might hope that newspapers would be as free as books in the public library — which is to say, the costs are hidden from the user — but it’s obvious what the problems are with government-funded news media. So, journalists get paid by the companies that hire them, and this by itself could only ever look like a criticism in an environment where Free is the default. We now have that environment, even if enabling journalism is one of the places where Free just doesn’t do the entire job.

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. These charges are further proof, as if we needed it.