On the opinion pages of The New York Times on Sunday, columnist and former executive editor Bill Keller sought to defend his view of “objective” reporting against Glenn Greenwald’s “accountability journalism grounded in rigorous factual accuracy.”

The debate proceeds as an exchange of letters. Keller begins: “Dear Glenn, We come at journalism from different traditions. I’ve spent a life working at newspapers that put a premium on aggressive but impartial reporting, that expect reporters and editors to keep their opinions to themselves unless they relocate (as I have done) to the pages clearly identified as the home of opinion. You come from a more activist tradition — first as a lawyer, then as a blogger and columnist, and soon as part of a new, independent journalistic venture financed by the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Your writing proceeds from a clearly stated point of view.”

Keller concedes that the “pursuit of” what he calls “fairness” — but which according to Greenwald is better understood as a “reportorial ban on … making clear, declarative statements about the words and actions of political officials out of fear that one will be accused of bias” — is “a relatively new standard in American journalism.” Greenwald contends that the cost of this pursuit is “a glaring subservience to political power,” which in the case of The New York Times, led to “launder[ing] false official claims about Saddam’s W.M.D.’s and alliance with Al Qaeda on its front page under the guise of ‘news’ ” to help the U.S. government start the latest Iraq War; “routinely [giving] anonymity to U.S. officials to allow them to spread leader-glorifying mythologies or quite toxic smears of government critics without any accountability”; printing “incredibly incendiary accusations about American whistle-blowers without a shred of evidence”; and enabling “the American people to re-elect George Bush while knowing, but concealing, that he was eavesdropping on them in exactly the way the criminal law prohibited.”

There is a fundamental difference between Keller and Greenwald. Keller is a defender of journalism led by the interests of institutions. Greenwald on the other hand wants journalists respected for their dogged opposition to power leading the reporting of stories. “[E]ditors should be there to empower and enable strong, highly factual, aggressive adversarial journalism, not to serve as roadblocks to neuter or suppress the journalism,” he writes. (Exceptions to this view, he says, include instances where publishing would put innocent lives at risk.) The difference is fascinating because compared with the history of Greenwald’s reporting, the Times’ track record shows that large, bulky institutions operate in a complex web of interests that have mainly to do with their owners’ connections to political and financial elites (or the fact that their owners are among the elites), and which compromises Keller’s own view of the mission of journalism, to let “the evidence speak for itself.” Individual reporters unentrenched in those interests, as Greenwald has so far advocated, are professionally agile and free to follow evidence and abuses wherever they lead.

Everywhere in the exchange Keller admits that his institution has made mistakes. He signs off with a maddening act of condescension that is not a criticism of any particular thing Greenwald has done, but rather a platitude that functions to buoy Keller’s reputation as a sagely authority. “Self-criticism and correction,” he advises, “are no fun, but they are as healthy for journalism as independence and a reverence for the truth. Humility is as dear as passion. So my advice is: Learn to say, ‘We were wrong.’ “

Greenwald ends with a precise insight into the disposition of giant news institutions like The New York Times, which was quoted on Monday morning’s episode of “Democracy Now!” “Embedded in The New York Times’s institutional perspective and reporting methodologies are all sorts of quite debatable and subjective political and cultural assumptions about the world,” he writes. “And with some noble exceptions, The Times, by design or otherwise, has long served the interests of the same set of elite and powerful factions. Its reporting is no less ‘activist,’ subjective or opinion-driven than the new media voices it sometimes condescendingly scorns.”

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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