Glenn Greenwald: Our First Amendment Barometer

Glenn Greenwald is the intrepid journalist that was contacted by Edward Snowden last summer to disclose the fact that the NSA is accessing large swaths of data- from within the US and without- by harvesting massive amounts of information shared by civilians via electronic communication. Since first revealing this controversial information, which he ascertained from a multitude of classified documents stolen by Snowden while he was a contractor working inside of the NSA, Greenwald has remained outside the US, where he lives with his husband in Rio de janeiro, Brazil. They have lived in Rio for a number of years, primarily because the Brazilian government recognizes their marriage, but Greenwald used to visit the US regularly to do TV appearances and speaking engagements. As a result of his aforementioned revelations, most of which came while he was a journalist for the US division of The Guardian, he has been reluctant to travel internationally because he believes that the US government would seize the opportunity to arrest him for what they allege are illegal exposures of covert practices that are central to thwarting terrorism.

This week, Greenwald said that he would be looking to travel to the US in the near future to see members of his family, but also because he believes in the constitutional protection afforded to journalists in the First Amendment. He believes that a journalist should speak truth to power, and that a government with a First Amendment should not act belligerently towards those who seek to edify the electorate. Greenwald told Salon’s Brian Beutler,

“My parents are getting older, my nieces [live in the United States] — none of that is something I’m going to go home for now…. I had a foundation that wanted to sponsor and pay for and market aggressively a six-city speaking tour to talk about the NSA story and the revelations. I would have completely loved to have done it… on the assurance that nothing would happen. And because we couldn’t get it from the U.S. government, I had to cancel…I take more seriously the Constitution’s guarantee of a free press in the First Amendment,” he said at the time. “So I have every intention of entering the U.S. as soon as my schedule permits and there’s a reason to do so.” Today he remains defiant — “I’m going to go back to the U.S. for many reasons, but just the fucking principle is enough…. On principle I’m going to force the issue.”

It’s important that we do not overlook the fact that Glenn Greenwald, who is a US citizen, and more importantly, a journalist that has not been convicted of a crime, has to seek assurances from his own government that he will not be arrested if he travels to see his family. And what’s even more significant is that his government is unwilling to give him any such guarantee.

It’s no secret the way the power structure works in this country. The journalists who gain access to the sphere of influence are those who behave most obsequiously. They are the men and women who succumb to the enticing narcotic of power, the effect of which is achieved by eschewing peripheral connections and gaining entrance to the capital. They manage this, not by a desire to create an informed citizenry, but by a willingness to be a subservient stenographer, conveying the message of the government without the slightest adversarial inflection. Journalists that are connected to powerful government officials land exclusive nationally televised interviews, and get invited to dinners hosted by Washington’s elite, therefore the inclination to create friction is quite literally one that does not pay.

This is why Greenwald will not receive assurances that he won’t be detained if he travels to the US. He represents everything that the establishment media is not: a merciless glutton for truth, with an acerbic pen (and tongue) that is as nonpartisan as it is dedicated to upholding the ideal of a free press. Greenwald comes from the Noam Chomskyian school of thought, which is that the basic function of the media is to act as a check and balance to one’s government. He strives to elucidate the subtle yet tireless efforts by the government to obscure the true intentions and actions of entities like the NSA, because he understands that powerful people, unfettered to institutional or public oversight, will act recklessly in the name of power preservation, all while proclaiming that their intent is altruistic. That is unless there is a sovereign estate that can expose this desired omnipotence.  

The struggle today is that the world has become increasingly oligarchical. Corporations infect governments more and more transparently, and the press has become less independent as a result. The need to satisfy advertisers, which generates revenue for the corporations that own most major media outlets, has become more imperative than discerning what’s real. The information we now receive has been manipulated and diluted to the point where what we often encounter is at best a reaffirmation of established beliefs, but quite often strays into the arenas of misinformation, propaganda, and outright fiction. The age of sensationalist media, where entire networks have been constructed to deliver partisan ideology, has erected additional partitions to understanding. The goal is to distract, and to create distrust in the “other” camp. There is no perceived benefit to an informed viewership.

The Obama Administration has nourished this misguided media environment, by seeking to prosecute more journalists and whistleblowers than all other administrations combined. They have artfully devised a double standard for leaking, by aggressively threatening journalists and whistleblowers who reveal information damaging to the administration’s credibility, while making allowances for leaks that do the opposite. There have been a myriad of high level government officials that have leaked favorable information for the administration, without the slightest rebuke. There isn’t anything novel in this tactic of course, all administrations do this. But this level of equivocation, where dissident journalists are punished and persecuted, is an egregious affront to the democratic ideals of free speech and a free press.

This is what makes Glenn Greenwald essential in today’s political climate. This is why it is so important to mark what happens if he does attempt to enter the country. What he disclosed, thanks to Edward Snowden’s conscientious actions, is information that the public deserves to know. The degree to which these secretive programs obstruct future terrorist attacks remains crepuscular, but the debate for what kind of country we want to live in, and how these programs align with a constitutional republic, is one that we can only engage in if we know about them. Thanks to journalists like Greenwald this debate has been facilitated. And yet, because these disclosures reflect negatively on Obama’s Administration, Greenwald is being vaguely threatened for doing his due diligence.

Greenwald articulates an incommodious truth: that government everywhere is inherently opaque, and that it is the function of journalists to illuminate that dusky assembly. When a government threatens to punish one of its citizens and journalists for acting in the public good, it’s an ominous sign for the health of liberty. So rarely does one person act as the barometer for the state of something like the First Amendment. Glenn Greenwald is that person right now, and we should all be paying attention.

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