Times vs. Sullivan vs. Kinsley vs. Greenwald

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I did not authorize the publication of this opinion. Photo: Sergio Moraes/Reuters/Corbis

This weekend, Michael Kinsley wrote a scathing review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book, thus triggering a reply by Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, and a reply-to-the-reply by book review editor Pamela Paul, not to mention generalized outrage elsewhere. The episode has brought the Times’ congenital tendency toward self-flagellation and the news media’s congenital tendency toward self-aggrandizement into amusing convergence.

The review is a mocking character study of Greenwald and his preening lack of self-awareness. It is not as devastating as New Yorker writer George Packer’s longer review — which, oddly, does not appear in The New Yorker — but it is a rather deft skewering. One piece of Kinsley’s review attracted furious controversy:

Greenwald makes no serious effort to defend as a matter of law the leaking of official secrets to reporters. He merely asserts that “there are both formal and unwritten legal protections offered to journalists that are unavailable to anyone else. While it is considered generally legitimate for a journalist to publish government secrets, for example, that’s not the case for someone acting in any other capacity.”

Kinsley’s argument, which he has laid out in greater detail before, is that it makes no sense to regard journalists as a special category of American entitled to ferret out government secrets. There is no official bureau of journalists. Perhaps years ago it was possible to construct a distinction between “journalists” and “regular people.” Journalists disseminated their ideas via television, radio, or newspapers, and regular people had to settle for voicing their opinions at the local bar, or, if they were especially agitated, on a sandwich board. But social media has collapsed the distinction completely. Anybody can call themselves a journalist now. Therefore, allowing “journalists” to publish secret government documents means allowing anybody to do it.

It’s certainly true that Kinsley is more effective at poking a hole in Greenwald’s argument than in making the case for his own (obviously problematic) alternative. That would seem to be fair enough given that he’s writing a review of Greenwald’s book. Not to Sullivan, who sprung into action, using her public editor’s column to scold Kinsley. His review “expressed a belief that many journalists find appalling,” she wrote, aghast. Also, “there’s a lot about this piece that is unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards, the sneering tone about Mr. Greenwald, for example.” No sneering in the book review!

Paul writes back to Sullivan — in a rebuttal posted at the bottom of Sullivan’s item — to say, more or less, “let me explain to you what what a book review is”:

It seems there is a lot of confusion on the Internet, especially among those who do not work in the media but even — disturbingly — within the media, about the differences between an editorial and a book review, between what “The New York Times” says and what a reviewer for The New York Times Book Review says. …

For a reviewer to address how a writer comes across, particularly in a memoir or first-hand account, is entirely fair game for a book review, and by no means an ad hominem attack.

The notion that it’s wrong for the book review to print abhorrent reviews, let alone to poke fun at no less a hero than Glenn Greenwald, is an artifact of the culture of smugness that Kinsley is writing about here. If there’s one thing objective journalists are allowed — indeed, expected — to hold extremely strong opinions about, other than the importance of reducing the budget deficit, it’s the importance of journalists themselves. How dare a newspaper publish a review expressing skepticism about special rights for journalists?