Sometimes in this blog we blast folks who do good work, because when it comes to what we scrutinize here — Jews, Israel — even the best thinkers tend to go a little nuts (and that’s not just another blog post, it’s a treatise).
A case in point is Glenn Greenwald, whose important obsession with torture and eavesdropping has helped keep concerns over these matters from disappearing into a comfortable "Bush-is-gone" apathy. I’ve said in the past that I think his understanding of Israel and those who defend it is blinkered, but that does not mean his furious doggedness should be discounted. He wants to make you uncomfortable, and that’s a good thing.
I skimmed over this front page New York Times piece appearing Saturday morning about a truce between MSNBC and Fox News Network, and nodded approvingly: The feud that executives were extinguishing, between Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, was, I thought, tedious, silly and contributed to the degrading of real news.
Greenwald had a different take (two, actually), and his arguments have won me over: However uncivil their feud, it involved real reporting and analysis: Olbermann, in dealing with O’Reilly’s inflammatory rhetoric, and O’Reilly, in exposing the Iran dealings of MSNBC’s parent company, General Electric.
So here’s the thing: I overlooked this feud, although it contained an element that’s relevant to my reporting: How General Electric has bypassed sanctions on Iran’s energy sector and on exporting dual use technology through the sleazy cover of foreign subsidiaries. (Here’s GE’s response, which does not explain why its trade lasted as late as 2005 or why it took three years from that year to devolve.
As one of Greenwald’s correspondents put it:
Olbermann was holding O’Reilly’s feet to the fire about his repeated falsehoods and embarrassing positions. In turn, O’Reilly was giving the public accurate and disturbing information about General Electric, including extensive technology dealings with Iran. In my personal opinion, this was one of the rare useful pieces of information O’Reilly ever presented to his audience, and Olbermann was there to show how lousy the rest of O’Reilly’s information was. Though it was in the context of a bitter feud, the two men were actually engaging in real journalism, at least in this case.
Corporate ownership of media is never disinterested, even at the expense of traditional capitalist considerations; The feud was driving up ratings. It was ended not because of the market, but because of thin skins at Fox and — more disturbingly — GE’s recoiling from scrutiny.
There is a place for an objective media. There is a place for civil discourse. There is also a place for knock-down, partisan debate. Olbermann and O’Reilly probably know that the more controversial the story, the greater scrutiny it will attract; this is what, I imagine, led them to practice real journalism when it came to their feud.
Interestingly, this comes in the wake of a beating Greenwald took in a New York Times Review of Books article about blogs; the author, Michael Massing, wonders whether strident advocacy is not, ultimately, alienating and self-defeating.
The answer is made clear by the Olbermann-O’Reilly feud and its censorship: The absence of passionate and partisan expression is much more self-defeating than its manifestation.