Glenn Greenwald, Unwound by Success

When showered with praise for too long, one can become oblivious to their own faults.

Glenn Greenwald speaking at the Young Americans for Liberty’s Civil Liberties tour at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. Courtesy of Flickr by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

There was a time when Glenn Greenwald’s name would command respect, but it seems as though those days are but a distant memory. Once renowned for bringing Edward Snowden’s intelligence disclosures to light, Greenwald’s current feats hold little of their erstwhile splendor–the coveted journalist is often sighted on social media picking fights with media figures over the pettiest of concerns, bolstered by an army of yesmen ready to overlook his every misstep. What remains in the wake of his unceremonious departure from the Intercept is but a man consumed by bitterness, not yet willing to consider the discourse has long moved on from his accomplishments of yesteryears.

Greenwald’s record is rife with examples of ill-considered hostility against fellow colleagues, but none is perhaps more flagrant than his reproach of now-former senior editor at the NYT Lauren Wolfe, who broke with media’s tradition of political impartiality when she expressed having “chills” over Joe Biden’s landing at Joint Base Andrews to attend his inauguration on Wednesday. To put matters in perspective, Greenwald had previously voiced disappointment at the NYT’s decision to let go of James Bennet, infamously responsible for giving the go-ahead on Senator Tom Cotton’s plea for the National Guard to tame the fury of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests–the reasons why vary, but they all stemmed from a rather nondescript disdain of “cancel culture”, the merits of which are highly-disputable. He similarly applauded Bari Weiss’ decision to leave the Times on account of the young guard being unable to stomach her intellectual daringness, later foreshadowing his break from his long-time collaborators at the Intercept–you’d expect Greenwald to step in and wonder why the NYT censored one of its employees for simply expressing their political beliefs… but that’s not what happened.

What might underlie Greenwald’s inconsistency in this instance isn’t an instinctive disdain of mainstream media, or even an extension of his long-established criticism of the liberal left–it’s simply a penchant for contrarianism he’s shown himself to have quite a poor handle on. It’s important to recall Greenwald’s transition back to the blogging sphere after his tenure at the Intercept was over, because it puts into sharp focus why his raging tirades against supposed journalistic malpractice holds little substance.

As she bid farewell to her colleague of five years and change, editor-in-chief of the Intercept Betsy Reed revealed that what Greenwald had been protesting is their inability to rebroadcast claims of the Trump campaign on the Hunter Biden saga, which she correctly called out as being “dubious” at best. Having seemingly so little regard for the truth then, Greenwald decided a better road ahead would be to assert independence, a thesis that quickly bore out as his blogging venture proved far more lucrative, owing to the boons of Substack’s subscription model. What he perhaps failed to consider, is even removed from the shackles of a proper editorial, audiences are still powerful guides of tone and content.

The following Greenwald has come to accrue from his long years of dissidence is one that’s often blinded by their hatred of all that mounts anything close to a political consensus, dubbing all opposition to it as sainthood and all adherence to it as cardinal sin. This isn’t too dissimilar from Jimmy Dore’s repeated attacks on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her supposed betrayal of the working class, even though she spent the inauguration on a picket line with food and manufacturing workers in the Bronx demanding better pay–there’s a cynicism that runs particularly deep in political observers of that caliber, and when audiences respond positively to that, the financial incentive to provide them with more fodder for outrage does not relent.

“Bombast and ego have always been at the heart of Greenwald’s writing,” writes Jacob Silverman for the New Republic. “But like many star journalists left to marinate in their own juices for too long, he’s become an asshole who equates being edited with the targeted suppression of his righteous beliefs.” Though Greenwald may have free reign to say whatever he wants on his blog, his words have lost the filter that focuses their purpose, and his legend now seems more the result of luck rather than merit, the latter being what media likes to think constitutes its allure.

Though countless obituaries have been written about Greenwald’s fall from grace, none struck quite as deep a chord as Will Solomon’s did for CounterPunch. “At this point, Greenwald seems to have almost no ideology besides reflexive contrarianism,” he writes. “Greenwald and others in his niche (like Matt Taibbi, who has taken a similar turn) might counter that they serve as reliable, and perhaps anti-partisan, media critics, in reaction to a hegemonic, neoliberal media elite. This may be partially true, but the justification appears increasingly irrelevant as they come to identify — admittingly or not — with one side of the partisan divide. This is to say nothing of the fact that their insistence to the contrary ultimately lends cover to the far right, who are able to launder their media through the ‘contrarian’ niche.”

What this lays bare more than anything else is Greenwald’s lack of a proper political conviction, at least insofar as it is not that which the majority does not adhere to. This makes gleaning any rhyme or reason from his media critique damn-near impossible, were it not already the case for his lack of any proper diagnosis of the media’s present woes. Greenwald correctly calls out the overzealousness with which some editors clip the wings of a passionate writer only aching to fly–what he however failed to consider, is an instance in which an editor can only stare mouth agape at a writer’s own delusions of grandeur.

If reprinting the Trump campaign’s questionable claims was the hill Greenwald decided his legacy gig would die on, exercising a double-standard on the subjects of his criticism with the explicit purpose of currying favor from the reactionary New Right is equally deserving of scold. Hubris may have made what Greenwald is today, but it is as much to owe for why his era of unanimous praise is finally coming to a close.