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Laura Poitras’s documentary is as much about Glenn Greenwald as Edward Snowden

The Real Backstory of ‘Citizenfour’

by Ava Kofman

Jan 1, 2015 | Media

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At the New York premier of the documentary Citizenfour, Glenn Greenwald explained that the film presented an opportunity for audiences to make up their minds about the type of person Edward Snowden is. The captivating documentary by Pulitzer prize-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras is an account of Snowden setting in motion one of the most important stories of the decade, with an unprecedented release of classified documents detailing the government’s extensive, expansive, and illegal surveillance of millions of American citizens. (Snowden initially contacted Poitras using the pseudonym “Citizenfour.”)

But Poitras’s film is as much about Glenn Greenwald’s crusade to report on the National Security Agency documents given to him by Snowden as it is about Edward Snowden’s courage and selflessness.

From the start, Greenwald has pointed out that the public debate over the transgressions of the NSA has been “as much about journalism as it is about surveillance.” That the label of “journalist” itself became a contentious political question during the course of Greenwald’s reporting is a testament to his impact and a reminder of journalism’s powerful potential.

Perhaps no better evidence supports Greenwald’s view on the complacency of the media establishment than his own development into a media story simply for doing what most journalists are expected to do.

The initial reaction, following Greenwald’s first story in The Guardian on the NSA’s authorization to collect the metadata of Verizon’s customers, was widespread shock from both ends of the political spectrum. Yet as Greenwald recounts in his book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, the media’s coverage of his reporting quickly took a sharply hostile turn.

In Greenwald’s view, the establishment media arrived at its most stridently self-righteous moment when David Gregory of “Meet the Press” asked him: “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” Gregory’s assertion seemed to threaten the First Amendment protections accorded to investigative journalists working with classified sources. But to Gregory and to many of the mainstream media outlets playing catch-up with breaking news on the surveillance state, Greenwald was not a journalist.

Journalists at established media outlets suddenly seemed eager to question what journalism is, who should practice it, and what it should say. To The New York Times, Greenwald was a “blogger” caught at the center of a debate. For others, Gregory included, he was “an activist” flouting the norms that define what establishment journalists describe as their standards of objectivity. Jonathan Chait, of New York magazine, described Greenwald as a “wildly litigious” polemicist.

Coming from professionals who pride themselves on holding power accountable, these were strange responses to stories proving the director of the NSA had lied to Congress. What’s more, drumming up public support for prosecution of Greenwald, as some of his critics in the profession did, set a dangerous precedent not only for freelance journalists but for reporters at established venues like the Times—whose own investigative reporter James Risen is scheduled to appear in court this month to defend himself against a Justice Department subpoena of his sources.

This debate raised questions that put Greenwald’s freedom at risk. Journalists are accorded protections under the law that non-journalists are not. Should Greenwald fail to be classified as a journalist, the government’s case against him would be imminently possible. Greenwald published his story in an established media outlet, The Guardian, precisely to avoid this gray area, an ambiguity the Obama administration had attempted to exploit in its war on whistleblowers.

While Greenwald’s reporting is exceptional, his entry into citizen-journalism, and later capital-J journalism (if the distinction needs to be made), is proof of the internet’s transformative effects on public discourse in general and the profession of journalism in particular. A frequent commentator in conservative internet chat rooms prior to the advent of online journalism, Greenwald left his civil-rights law practice for full-time political writing in 2005 when he started a widely-read blog, which later transitioned into columns at Salon and The Guardian, and now the new investigative website, The Intercept.

Greenwald knows breaking news stories aren’t enough: a reporter has to get a reader or viewer to invest in the story. He has developed a writing style and strategy that counters what corporate news outlets promote as their professional standard of objectivity. He often infuses his rhetoric with an outrage that matches the outrageous nature of what is being revealed. In a Rolling Stone profile, he said: “You have to learn the game. I put on a suit. I speak in soundbites. I know what I’m talking about … If you’re an advocate and believe in political values, your obligation is to figure out how to maximize your impact.”

Perhaps no better evidence supports Greenwald’s view on the complacency of the media establishment than his own development into a media story simply for doing what most journalists are expected to do. His powerful reporting on the NSA’s lack of transparency, lack of oversight, and reckless disregard for civil liberties was at the least an act of journalism––if not something even more fearless, making those in power, for once, fearful that they might be held accountable.


Ava Kofman is a journalist and writer living in Brooklyn. Read more at @eyywa.

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