Joly MacFie on Mon, 21 Oct 2013 02:51:34 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Why Glenn Greenwald's new media venture is a big deal

Why Glenn Greenwald?s new media venture is a big deal


Oct 17 2013


Glenn Greenwald, who has published many of the most important scoops from
the Edward Snowden leaks, is leaving The Guardian and setting up a new
media venture with long-time journalist Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill
from The Nation. The venture is being funded by eBay founder Pierre
Omidyar, who has suggested that he?s prepared to invest more than $250
million in the new venture.

This is big news for journalism. It?s also big news for people interested
in the relationship between information technology and politics. Martha
Finnemore and I drafted a paper a couple of years ago about how
Wikileaks-type organizations were changing the relationship between
knowledge, politics  and hypocrisy. Our ideas about hypocrisy led to an
article on the true consequences of the Snowden leaks, which is coming out
in the next issue of Foreign Affairs. Our ideas about knowledge and
politics maybe tell us something about the consequences of the new venture
(but bear with me ? our argument is a little complicated).

Fundamentally, we think that much of the commentary about Wikileaks and
Snowden?s revelations are wrong. Most people think that Wikileaks, Snowden
etc. are politically important because they reveal secret information that
was hitherto unknown. Many of Wikileaks? defenders, including, initially,
Julian Assange himself, thought that the organization would change politics
and bring down corrupt regimes by revealing information that the government
wanted to hide. The critics of Snowden and Wikileaks actually agree ? they
argue that they have hurt America (and perhaps the world) by revealing
information that should have stayed secret.

Neither are right. Neither Wikileaks or Snowden has revealed any truly
surprising anddamaging information. European and South American governments
already knew that the U.S. was spying on them. China was certainly aware
that U.S.  agencies were trying to hack into its systems. On the other
hand, Assange?s initial hope that he could change the world through
publishing damaging information turned out to be completely unfounded.
Wikileaks had a very frustrating time trying to get anyone except bloggers
to pay attention to their early revelations. No one seemed to care.

The reason why is important. There?s too much information out there for
most people to pay attention to, let alone figure out whether they believe
it or not. Hence, most people rely on other institutions such as media
organizations to tell them which information is worth caring about. Not
only do people not pay much attention to information until it gets the
stamp of approval from some authoritative institution, but this information
is transformed, because everybody knows that everybody else is paying
attention to it. It stops being mere information, and becomes knowledge ?
generally accepted facts that people use to build their understanding of
what everybody knows about politics.

Established newspapers like the New York Times, The Washington Post and the
Financial Times play a crucial sociological role in deciding which
information is important and trustworthy, and which is not. When one of
these newspapers publishes information, it is legitimated as knowledge ?
which people are not only more likely to take seriously themselves, but may
have to take seriously, because they know that other people are taking it
seriously. European Union governments knew perfectly well that the U.S. had
been tapping communications in their building (and if you read specialist
sources, you knew about this, too). However, these governments found it
more politically convenient to ignore U.S. spying than to make a big fuss.
When this information became knowledge ? when it was published and treated
as authoritative by major newspapers ? it became impossible to ignore any

Assange and Wikileaks figured out some version of this early on. This is
why they started working together with major newspapers such as the
Guardian and New York Times ? because this was the only way that they could
get people to systematically pay attention to the information they had
uncovered, and to turn that information into knowledge that everyone
accepted. Unsurprisingly, however, this relationship turned out to be very
difficult. Newspapers ? even the most pioneering ones ? have political
relationships with governments, which make them nervous about publishing
(and hence validating) certain kinds of information. This also helps
explain the awkwardness that many journalists express toward Greenwald.
While they recognize that he has uncovered many valuable scoops, they don?t
see him as bounded by the same rules as they are.

On the one hand, people like Assange, Greenwald and Snowden need newspapers
or similar media outlets. Without some such outlet, they are voices in the
wilderness. On the other hand, exactly because newspapers play a crucial
political role in validating knowledge, they have complicated relationships
with governments and politicians. This leads them to actions which people
like Assange and Greenwald are likely to see as compromises with power.


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