Greenwald vs. Keller. Who is right?

A thought-provoking debate about the role of the journalist and the future of news. 

You don’t have to do it right away, but when we get to the week where we talk about encoding, I’d like you all to weigh in. I’ll remind you then. 



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18 thoughts on “Greenwald vs. Keller. Who is right?

  1. Amelia Ables says:

    After reading Keller and Greenwald’s back-and-forth, I couldn’t decide which one I agreed with the most. Not wanting to write something that lacks opinion, which Greenwald declares is “cowardly and unhelpful,” I went back and re-read, this time jotting down portions from each letter that I agree with. In the end, I believe that Greenwald had more agreeable points than Keller.

    While I do like Keller’s analogy that journalists should be like judges, who put aside prejudices in order to follow the law, I have to agree with Greenwald that self-neutralizing journalism is “ineffectual and boring” and that it lacks “passion, vitality and soul.” Keller does say that opinions should be suspended so that the evidence can speak for itself, thus giving readers what they need to know to decide for themselves. While I think this is important, I more so agree with Greenwald’s opinion that, while accuracy and reliability matter, honestly disclosing one’s opinion rather than hiding it makes for more trustworthy journalism. Not knowing the opinion of a reporter doesn’t give the reader an opportunity to take the reporter’s opinion into account. Keller disputes this by saying that impartiality gets you closer to the truth. But because it is human nature to have opinions, how do reporters keep at least some of them from creeping in? As Greenwald says, all journalism is subjective and a form of activism even we make attempts to pretend it isn’t.

    The main point Greenwald made that encouraged me to side with him is the idea that “no journalism – objective or opinionated – has real evidence unless it is grounded in facts, evidence and verifiable data.” This agrees with Keller that following facts are essential, but adds in that opinionated reporters are still able to uphold that standard.

    Keller claims that it is too easy for us to feel informed if we never encounter information that goes against our prejudices. This goes back to Greenwald’s belief that the values of fairness and rigorous adherence to facts are promoted by being honest about our perspectives. People that side with Keller may wonder how we can report fairly if we include our opinion, but letting the readers know our stance puts everything on the table. The readers will trust what we write and will not feel that we are hiding something or manipulating them into thinking a certain way. Not only does including opinion make for a more interesting read, but anyone who is able to form an opinion (all humans) will still be able to draw their own conclusions about the subject matter.

  2. All it all it was a very interesting discussion, with some very lightly veiled tension between the two. I am still on the fence as to whether a news organization sponsored by a single, financial backer can be unbiased in the way that Greenwald believes it will. The institution of journalism as it stands now though is extremely flawed and in need of an evolution, maybe this will be it. I do think that, as Keller states, “suspending their opinions and letting the evidence speak for itself,” is a strong form of delivering the message. However, how much interest and debate is sparked by that form of journalism compared to responses towards institutions that state their beliefs and opinions? Keller thinks that by stating opinions and beliefs will cause viewers to look at “reporting with justified suspicion.” I agree with that statement, as we discussed in class, people are much more likely to listen or read news that follows their prescribed beliefs. I also agree with Greenwald that the current news institutions are already very heavily loaded with stereotypes of political persuasion therefore they are only attracting attention of viewers who share those leanings.
    My opinion is that news is broken. Too much of the information we receive has bee filtered and muffled, leading the reader to get the ‘kiddy’ version of the news. Maybe this new “future of journalism” project is precisely what is needed to help jump-start a democratic news media. Omidyar stated that, “trust in institutions is going down.” Which it has, many people, myself included, don’t like to watch or read mass media outlet news any longer because we are tired of thinking that we are being lied to. Greenwald’s belief in journalism as “informing the public of accurate and vital information, and its unique ability to provide a truly adversarial check on those in power,” sounds like what the institution of journalism what intended to be: the government watchdog. A news source that values true investigation into big business and politicians who have corrupted the system for so long. And though this is probably just an idealistic view of what it will actually become, I would stand behind that news source. One that is not focused on nationalistic importance of information, rather the importance of the audience to be a truly necessary account of what is being done in the world and what people think of it.

  3. Rachel Wilhite says:

    Greenwald. Keller. Greenwald. Keller. Greenwald…

    Am I a bad journo if I ride the fence on this one? I lean towards Team Greenwald but wish to proceed with caution. Yes, there needs to be more government transparency. Yes, the news industry should be able to act as the Fourth Branch, watchdogs, whistleblowers, and what-have-you. Yes, traditional news outlets have their own agendas to promote. That being said, who’s going to make Greenwald’s journalism transparent? Who acts as their checks and balances? Not to be overwrought with cynicism, I do not believe it will be the public.

    At one point, Keller argues that the word “terrorist” doesn’t have to be used since the picture had been painted vibrantly enough. Citizens would be able to interpret facts for themselves, he says. Really? We don’t give the public too much credit in our classroom, so why are they receiving it from a Times writer? Greenwald counters that the word “terrorist” was omitted because it was accusatory of the U.S. and was readily used when describing incidences committed by other governments. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…unless the Times is framing both stories to align with their agenda.

    This week’s readings teach us that journalists have the power to set our expectations of authority figures, but what if journalists used that power to set expectations for ourselves? How would the industry even go about this without offending, well pretty much everyone? Does anyone actually think that today’s society takes current “objective” journalism’s facts and sorts out the rest for themselves? Evidence points to the contrary. News is consumed in snacks and attention spans are forever waning. Maybe Greenwald’s bold answer is what we need to wake up.

    • Carrie Brown says:

      Definitely not a bad journalist for being on the fence. There are a number of very difficult issues here, and the tension between how we should view the responsibilities and role of the audience/public are as old as the Lippmann/Dewey debates we discussed in class.

  4. The Keller/Greenwald back-and-forth seems like a continuation of a discussion that has been happening in this country for quite sometime. Both commenters offer views on journalism that have histories of being applied in the US. On Keller’s side we have people like Woodward, Bernstein, Cronkite and many more. The muckrakers, H.L. Mencken, some of the new journalists of the 60s/70s, Michael Hastings, and even Bill Simmons (who has changed the way people write about sports in the 21st century) have demonstrated the ideals Greenwald speaks of. Not to mention countless numbers of citizen journalists.

    What Keller and Greenwald are talking about is not a new debate brought on by the Iraq/Afghanistan, Wikileaks, N.S.A domestic spying, or anything else. These are the topics of the day with which each view of journalism is trying to deal with. As far as who is right, I really do not know. Both commenters make valid arguments, and both arguments have strengths and weaknesses. I know it is sort of a coop out, but I feel the fact that journalists are still having this discussion matters more than who is right. Neither person is correct or incorrect. Continuing this debate allows for these different journalistic ideals to be adapted and carried into a world where new media outlets are changing the way information is disseminated.

    In general, I tend to agree with Greenwald (although he could have been a little more tactful in this conversation), but the journalistic venture he is embarking on does raise questions. Keller addresses these well in the back-and-forth. Also, Lauren pointed to this problem out when she talked about being on the fence about the endeavor having a lone finical backer. I agree with Greenwald the most where he talks about not hiding an opinion, interpretation, or journalistic voice. Unfortunately I think that we are in a situation where people in this country need a voice to go along with the facts. The problem with this is the voice is becoming more and more slanted (MSNBC, Fox News, Infowars, the Drudge Report, etc). I think a hybrid of Keller and Greenwald’s ideas of how journalists should report can bring us away from the state we are currently in.

    • Carrie Brown says:

      Good point, Zach – this is definitely not a new issue, and I think you are right that continuing to talk about it and to have the debate in public probably serves us well. There aren’t any easy answers so maybe it’s only thru ongoing dialogue that we can really advance understanding.

  5. Bret Weaver says:

    Wow. That kind of made my head hurt. We’ve been taught for so long that the media is to craft armor out of impartiality, but does anyone really believe in that armor’s effectiveness anymore?

    Finding impartiality in the news gathering process or the institutions that disseminate said news is a chore in itself, and largely without reward, in my experience.

    I think the crux of the argument can be found in this exchange.

    Greenwald – “The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers.”

    Keller – “I don’t think of it as reporters pretending they have no opinions. I think of it as reporters, as an occupational discipline, suspending their opinions and letting the evidence speak for itself…

    The thing is, once you have publicly declared your “subjective assumptions and political values,” it’s human nature to want to defend them, and it becomes tempting to omit or minimize facts, or frame the argument, in ways that support your declared viewpoint. And some readers, knowing that you write from the left or right, will view your reporting with justified suspicion.”

    To which Greenwald responds, “Why would reporters who hide their opinions be less tempted by human nature to manipulate their reporting than those who are honest about their opinions? If anything, hiding one’s views gives a reporter more latitude to manipulate their reporting because the reader is unaware of those hidden views and thus unable to take them into account.”

    This is a tact I don’t think I’ve ever rightfully considered before. In many national news sources bias is easy to spot, whether its flagrantly declared or hidden beneath a modicum of neutrality.

    I don’t know if we’re supposed to declare agreement with one side or another here, but I cannot. I’ll need a while to chew on this. I apologize if that is unsatisfactory.

    • Carrie Brown says:

      Good, Bret. No, you don’t have to come down firmly on one side or the other. I think you’ve highlighted an important exchange here.

  6. Barry says:

    Keller vs. Greenwald:

    I’ve reconsidered how to respond to this debate more than a few times. It’s a classic one. It deserves consideration. And I would allege that it wars within the heart of any number of contemporary journalists. Both Keller and Greenwald made fairly hefty and eloquent cases for their arguments. But truthfully and quite in opposition to my initial reaction, I don’t believe either contender is a clear winner.

    As to that initial reaction of mine, it’s probably easy to guess based on my contributions to class that I heavily lean toward Keller’s perspectives. Whether it’s a function of my age and generation or whether I’m just stubborn, I can’t be sure. But when it comes to incumbent reportorial objectivity and straight-forward, facts-only, idyllic reporting at its base, I feel that is what proper journalism is and that is how proper journalistic writing should be conducted. I am cognizant that true objectivity, as repeatedly highlighted in the debate at hand, might be virtually impossible. Reporters and editors are human, so inevitably that unadulterated objectivity is something of an mere aspiration. But I feel that removing the human from news reporting is a goal toward which journalists should strive.

    Greenwald is not incorrect when he contends that a true attempt at objectivity on a reporter’s behalf might suggest to politicians or corporate entities that said reporter will, in that process, “amplify (politician/corporate) falsehoods without challenge.” The savvy politician or corporate mogul can easily figure out how to manipulate in that scenario, although that is almost to suggest that reporters are naïve and not aware of the motives of some of their sources.

    I also support Greenwald’s contention as to the base of what journalism actually is. At once, it should be the function of informing the public with accurate and vital information. And as he also contends, it should be a process of providing a check on those in power.

    But where Greenwald’s momentum evades me is what I perceive as the complete opposite pendulum swing as compared to Keller’s views—celebrated and encouraged allowance of a journalist’s attitudes and opinions to become a part of the story. That type of ‘reporting’ has an audience. Editorial pages and so-called ‘news magazine’ television shows would not exist otherwise. I support these outlets and I subscribe to them. I believe their existence is a necessary part of the equation, with all due respect to the First Amendment and to a hungry public’s desire for information in a variety of frames.

    But when considering the type of journalism that exists at the very core of the profession, I must believe that Keller’s contentions must be more correct. And he is further correct in insisting that impartial journalism emanating from respected and acknowledged main stream news outlets is even more necessary in today’s society. When every man on the street has become a journalist in 2013, there must remain a backbone of purists who will intend toward fair, balanced, factual and non-objective reports on the news that is not fully accessible to the general public. That public deserves to know. And that knowledge must be conveyed without bias or improper balance.

    And now I can put that old soap-box away one more time.

    • Carrie Brown says:

      Hi Barry, Good thoughts, this is complicated. Hopefully what we discussed in class last night gave a possible insight into a sort of “third way” of thinking about this.

  7. Glen Greenwald is totally correct here. There is no doubt in my mind that the role of the journalist needs to take on his views. This idea that people have opinions, why act like they don’t or that people can honestly be totally objective is just crazy to me. People are people; they can’t help but bring who they are to the table in all aspects of their lives. I think that content that is produced with opinion is great as long as people have the common sense to know that the opinion exists within the content. Keller tries to make a point about people checking their opinions at the door as a professional journalist, but who really wants to get information from someone else that can do it for them. Not me, that sounds like the stagnant source ever. That content wouldn’t hold my attention at all. I think the same can be said for the rest of the people living in this “now generation.” With so much content you better strike a chord and be relevant to me or it’s on to the next.

    It is time to change it up more for sure. The old staple media outlets have been at this too long, and in doing so have a memory. With that memory comes negative instances that preventive them doing a good job of being a watchdog of the government. Whether it was the media outlets getting burned by the framing of the story, producing content they shouldn’t have, or possibly even just being wrong. All these things do affect the production of content especially in criticism of the government. We have to start fresh and new. There needs to be renovation in the journalism industry that lets the old ways fall by the way side.

  8. Senwhaa says:

    The topic of objectivity in journalism has been a constant argument since its emergence. Should journalists just observe and quote or put their opinions out there? Reading the back and forth conversation between Greenwald and Keller pulled me in different directions, but I think Greenwald has won me over with his argument.

    Objectivity and impartiality are important factors to have in the journalism world. It presents readers with facts and let them decipher for themselves how they feel about it. I just think that it will never be 100% impartial because no one person can NOT have an opinion on something.

    I am leaning towards a bit Greenwald because I do think journalists should put their opinions out there. Everyone has an opinion on something and by making your opinions transparent, it gives the reader a better sense of trust about the journalist while also making him look more honest. As Greenwald said to Keller, “Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms. What is the value in pretending otherwise?” The reader might know the journalist’s stance, but that doesn’t mean that the reader has to side with the journalist. The reader has his own opinions and can draw their own conclusions from whatever the journalist is saying regardless of the judgments presented. With his quote –“Our driving ideology is accountability journalism grounded in rigorous factual accuracy” —I feel Greenwald describes his new journalistic venture perfectly.

  9. Toni Zoblotsky says:

    Both are good; but Greenwald is onto something a little more “revolutionary” I think. It sounds like the new entity will be bright and shiny like Fox News, but unlike Fox News, be more credible across a broad spectrum because it will be “grounded in facts, evidence, and verifiable data.” What Fox News did well was make commentary sound like fact around topics that the average Joe was passionate about. What Greenwald wants to do is talk facts and then add commentary and color around it. I say: fine by me. You can always dispute opinions, but facts are much harder to do. In this country, we are free to do both!

    If “news is consumed in snacks” these days (thank you Rachel) and I think that it is; there is no longer an attention span to sort through both sides, cross check with other news outlets for similarities & differences, have engaging conversation on the subject with peers so you evaluate alternate points of view to form your personal opinion, infer context around difficult concepts and words, etc. Like Sweet Brown says: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” We need healthy, digestible news snacks–hopefully this is where Greenwald is headed.

    • Carrie Brown says:

      I like how you describe it as “revolutionary.” Personally, I tend to think that even if you disagree with Greenwald, new models, new ways of doing things are good, because we are in a period in journalism in which we need to take some risks and try some new things.

      I think you have a really good point about readers’ time and ability to sort through a variety of opinions. There are our ideals, and then there is the reality.

  10. I’m an advocate for compromise and collaboration, so as I read the exchange between these two journalists, I kept thinking to myself, “both have great ideas and viewpoints—why not unite them?”

    Easier said than done, obviously, as Keller writes to Greenwald: “you seem to reserve your sharpest scorn for moderation, for compromise.”

    I am with Lauren in her skepticism of a single financial backer’s ability to allow for “free reign” in regards to the news organization’s content. I question that business model in any instance, not solely with news organizations. Much is on the line when you only have one entity funding your operation.

    I appreciated Greenwald’s take on corporate and political officials’ reliance on objective reporters who they know will transcribe exactly what they say:

    “reporting is reduced to ‘X says Y’ rather than ‘X says Y and that’s false.'”

    Which of these is objective? Is knowingly or ignorantly rebroadcasting someone’s untrue statements objective? They may not be outright lies—I’ve seen quotes in articles that were either untrue or were taken out of context.

    I believe the reader is a big player in this debate. Every person is different, and every person wants something different out of the news they seek out. Personally, when reading a news story, I don’t much care for someone’s opinion. After reading the story, I want to form my own opinion, not the writer’s. I love reading op-eds…after I know the story.

    In the end, I’m like several of you—I’m on the fence. I don’t think there’s a magic bullet here. And nothing is black and white. I think as we move forward in a rapidly changing industry, we will have to learn to accept (maybe embrace) change and adapt. Those who don’t likely won’t find much success in the years to come.

    • Carrie Brown says:

      Many of you are making good points about the single financial backer. Keep in mind, though, that publicly traded companies also have to face influences on their journalism, and if you are publicly traded, the financial pressures to continue to increase profits over time is intense in ways that can influence content. Having a single financial backer who has deep pockets and less of a need for huge profits MIGHT actually increase independence in some ways.

  11. Glenn Greenwald v Keller – Who is the Future of News?

    The New York Times’ opinion section published a written exchange between Glenn Greenwald and Bill Keller in which each argued their case for what type of reporting will constitute the so-called future of journalism.

    Keller made the case that journalist’s must set aside their opinions in pursuit of the bare facts and let readers’ draw their own conclusions from the presented evidence.

    This is not a new argument, as far as I am concerned. In fact, it feels a little used and trite. There are cases to be made for both reporters’ arguments but I feel that neither Greenwald nor Keller are exclusively correct or are representing themselves honestly.

    An argument in defense of Greenwald’s “reveal your biases” side would point out that thanks to social media, today’s reporters’ biases are already known and increasingly difficult to hide. On Twitter, people are encouraged to express their true opinion and their followers reward them with replies, faves, and retweets – the new currency of journalism. As a journalist, having a large reach and share of voice is important and that hasn’t changed as the world has moved towards a more interactive and “out there” media based existence. You are no longer just a reporter for XYZ paper or television network – you, as a journalist, are your own brand.

    Some choose to attempt to remain objective by slapping a “these views do not represent the views of XYZ paper” on to the end of every Tweet their personal account sends to the micro-blogosphere but somehow, their followers pay no attention. For the most part, the knowledge of “which side of the aisle” does a journalist stand, has become public. This assertion plays into the fact that there is only two sides on which one may stand and in my opinion – they could stand on the left side, the right side, in the middle, at the back, in the front, or on the damn pew. And this positioning could potentially change from article to article. But that does not tie up the argument Greenwald and Keller are having, nor does it make the public comfortable because it doesn’t allow them to place people and/or journalists into their respective “conservative” and “liberal” boxes, and tie them neatly with a bow.

    We as consumers of news and as journalists should seek out both the Greenwald and Keller approaches. There is a difference in reporting the facts of history and reporting your opinion of the facts. Both serve important roles in news gathering and in public debate. However, there is a news and there is analysis. A strong voice is of great service to the public as long as it doesn’t become distracting to the facts.

    In my opinion, a future of news in which reporters were all of the Glenn Greenwald mindset might be revitalizing, but may not fundamentally be helpful to the public at large. The media today is already cluttered with opinions and declared biases such as those on blogs and Twitter and from major media outlets such as Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and hundreds of others, that those without a libertarian mindset, may not even be aware exist. Today, in fact, the greatest challenge is to find someone solely reporting the facts and letting them speak for themselves.

    I am tired of turning every news channel and opening the pages of every newspaper that I pick up, to be told another slanted story. This is not because I unable to decipher the facts from the analysis, but because I am becoming more and more aware that the majority of Americans, cannot.

    The traditional journalistic values such as accuracy and fairness should still be the most important tools in the belt of a journalist. Today those tools seem to be nonexistent, as well. As Columnist Michael Powell states, “I think that objectivity is a farce — something that makes no intellectual sense whatsoever.” Powell said. “Fairness, however, is something that I take very, very, very seriously.”

    Today, fairness and impartiality is lacking in our news but this could stem from the fact that complete impartiality and objectivity does not exist in human nature. For a human to be one hundred per cent unbiased when reporting, they would have to be covering the “this topic means nothing to me” beat – and even then, after spending months investigating “insert unimportant topic here” the journalist will begin to form an opinion. Thus, there news reports will begin to reflect that bias.

    To answer the question “Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of Journalism?” is complicated and has garnered much debate.

    Simply put, the answer points to yes.


    Not because his viewpoint necessarily should be, but because human nature is winning this fight and after hundreds of rounds, objectivity is going to fall – that is, if the almighty dollar does not take its life first.

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