Michael Kinsley Comes Out Against Journalism

With the release of Glenn Greenwald's new book about Edward Snowden, it is once again time to fire up the bizarre parade of media pundits condemning the practice of journalism. Up today: Michael Kinsley.

As a punditlectual, Kinsley has always straddled the line between surprising/ insightful and frustratingly haughty/ obnoxious. Reading him is not not a total waste of time at least 50% of the time, which puts him in the upper quartile of pundits nationwide. He is the man the New York Times chose to review Greenwald's book for the Sunday Book Review. He is not much of a Greenwald—or Snowden—fan. But this passage really leaps out:

The trouble is this: Greenwald says that Snowden told him to "use your journalistic judgment to only publish those documents that the public should see and that can be revealed without harm to any innocent people." Once again, this testimony proves the opposite of what Greenwald and Snowden seem to think. Snowden may be willing to trust Greenwald to make this judgment correctly — but are you? And even if you do trust Greenwald's judgment, which on the evidence might be unwise, how can we be sure the next leaker will be so scrupulous?

The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can't square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.

Let's be perfectly clear about what is happening here: Michael Kinsley, a man who has become wealthy by working in the field of journalism, asserts that "the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences." In other words, Michael Kinsley is coming out in opposition to journalism. Local sports scores? Fine. The weather? Fine. Fireman saves kitten? Fine, fine, fine with Michael Kinsley. But a story about government secrets—the sort of story that every institution of journalism tries to land every day? Not okay.

And why? Because Michael Kinsley does not believe that a free press should be allowed to do that. He believes that the decision to tell government secrets "must ultimately be made by the government."

The decision to report government secrets, says Michael Kinsley, must be made by the government that made these things secret in the first place. I do not even need to mock this position. This position speaks quite clearly for itself. Michael Kinsley fundamentally does not believe in the institution of a free press as a check on government power. Michael Kinsley should consider going into a field of work that does not trouble his conscience as much as the field of journalism does— perhaps PR man, or shoeshine boy, would be more to his liking.

"Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations." -George Orwell (or maybe someone else).

[Photo: Getty]