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Posted on Aug 24, 2013
Van Pelt1

By Scott Tucker

One of the doctrinal points of “professional journalism” is that any journalist who openly proclaims politics at odds with the state becomes, by definition, unprofessional. This only seems fathomlessly stupid, but it is not so. The profession of journalism is often a form of priestcraft, and the spectacles of state require devoted servants. In war and peace, the business of burning incense before the Golden Calf is serious business. And if human victims are required on pyramids of sacrifice, a mob of journalists is always ready to slip on priestly robes while reaching for the knives.

I was born in the mid-20th century, in that brief moment after a world war and before the labor unions gave up the ghost of a class conscious and unapologetic struggle against capitalism. If the jobs requiring both sweat and skill were being shipped offshore in any case, at least the union leaders could stay in the business of “negotiating” with the ruling class. I am a socialist, so my journalistic credentials might as well go into the shredding machine oiled and operated by journalists who pretend to have no political views of their own.

The whole point of the professional journalistic creed is to form a closed circle of gatekeepers. An outer circle of journalists thereby gains “access” to an inner circle of career politicians. Even that political club contains onion-like layers of class consciousness, measured quite precisely by millions and even billions of dollars. When the ruling class wants war, the majority of journalists vote for war. This is one reason why a Viennese Jew, Karl Kraus, once waged his own war against journalists, and took pains to write in the early 20th century: “How is the world ruled and led to war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe these lies when they see them in print.”

Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras are two dissenting journalists who did their job in breaking the bad news of this republic to readers and citizens. Even seasoned activists and organizers, well accustomed to jail cells and police spies, remained innocent of the true scale of state surveillance until Edward Snowden provided the evidence to Poitras and Greenwald. Snowden knew what to expect from the journalistic wolf packs, and he certainly kept the fate of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, in mind. So Snowden took care to flee the country, and then entrusted the evidence to two of the very few journalists worth his trust. A number of print and broadcast journalists lost no time trying to strip Poitras and Greenwald of their professional credentials.

In a remarkably fair and factual cover story published in The New York Times Magazine on Aug. 18, Peter Maass focused on the work of Poitras. As an inclusive term, journalism covers the work of both Poitras and Greenwald. Poitras is more specific and told Maass, “I am a documentary filmmaker.” Though Poitras has made five films, has won a Peabody Award and a MacArthur Award, and is now working on a state surveillance documentary centered on Snowden’s NSA revelations, she preferred to be on the margins of fame in order to do her work. For his part, Greenwald gladly gives credit to Poitras, and told Maass, “She’s been at the center of all this, and yet no one knows anything about her.”


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Her skill set, including her ease with cameras, computers and encryption, proved crucial in gaining the trust of Snowden and in breaking his story to the public. Though Snowden first approached Greenwald by email (while concealing his identity), the Guardian writer said he found encryption software “annoying and complicated.” So Snowden contacted Poitras, and she took encryption in stride.

As Poitras told Maass, the information Snowden claimed to have meant a reassessment of the risks of her work. And she had to assess a stranger sending her encrypted messages. “I called him out,” she told Maass. “I said you either have this information and you are taking huge risks or you are trying to entrap me and the people I know, or you’re crazy.” After Snowden, Poitras and Greenwald met together in Hong Kong, they further established bona fides and basic trust.

For Poitras, the consequences of her work have included more than 40 interrogations by law enforcement agents when she passes through airports. Poitras has now refined her methods of avoiding state surveillance to pursue her work. “Geolocation is the thing,” she told Maass. “I want to keep as much off the grid as I can. … Our lives will never be the same. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to live someplace and feel like I have my privacy. That might just be completely gone.”

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