Bad News 101: Why David Gregory was a very bad no good journalist on Sunday

I know. Lots of people are ranting about it. But I feel like this is one of those things that really needs to be spelled out, and the more of us there are spelling it out the better. Because we, as a society, don’t really spend a lot of time looking hard enough at our media. I do. Cuz I sit in a newsroom all day. But for those of you who don’t, here’s why David Gregory should have had you doing a double take if you saw his interview with Glenn Greenwald on Sunday.

It’s a tiny little exchange. But speaks volumes. Let’s break it down into 3 parts.

1) Gregory asks “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?”

You see that? He didn’t ask Greenwald how he felt about some other people characterizing his totally legitimate journalistic work as criminal behavior. Gregory himself characterizes it as criminal behavior. He didn’t ask, “How do you respond to these accusations that X, Y, and Z persons have made about you?” Instead, he front-loaded this question with the assumption that “you have aided and abetted Snowden.”  He is telling his audience that he, David Gregory, Legitimate Newsperson (as far as most Americans are concerned), is already taking it as fact that Greenwald has committed a crime.

He might as well have asked, “Since you’ve engaged in criminal behavior, don’t you think you should be charged with a crime?”  By the way, the framing of the question as a negative “shouldn’t you” instead of “should you” is a lovely extra rhetorical touch that loads the question a bit more, automatically putting the interviewee in a defensive position. It’s not, “Explain your situation as you see it and please respond to those criticizing you.” It’s, “Tell me why you shouldn’t be in prison.”

Imagine I go do an interview because, oh, I don’t know, I burnt a flag at a protest (not a crime, though lots of people think it should be). And let’s say the interviewer asks me “Karina, since you’ve participated in treason against your country, do you think you should be charged with a crime?” Most of us can see that’s not a journalistically legitimate question. It presents to the audience an implied “consensus” that what I did was participate in treason, and Gregory’s question should strike us as being just as egregious as my hypothetical.

2) Next, after Greenwald points out it’s “pretty extraordinary” that a journalist would ask this question, Gregory follows with a sort-of defense, which is really just a big insult/WTF?!? moment combined with a cop-out.

“The question of who’s a journalist may be up to a debate with regards to what you’re doing,” he begins, and lo,  before his sentence is even finished Gregory is telling Glenn Greenwald he may not even be journalist. Whaaaa?

Just to be clear, love him or hate him, there is NO question that Glenn Greenwald is a journalist. There are no reasonable criteria that could be set for defining a journalist that would not include Glenn Greenwald. None.  So just chuck that “question” out the window.

Gregory’s grammar is also a dead-giveaway that this is a bad question, like,  a textbook Bad Journalism Question.  Gregory says, “the question may be up for debate.” But by whom?  There’s a reason this kind of  passive construction  is a classic no-no in news writing. Who is debating this? Who is making the argument that Greenwald is not a journalist? (And people do make that argument, but that should be addressed, not assumed).

This is as bad as the cliched “some people say” cop-out. If “some people” are saying it, show us who those people are, let us hear them say it. Otherwise, I don’t believe it’s anything but the questioner’s own opinion which they’re trying to work into the “narrative” of the story.

Also, on a side note, there is no official, government (or industry) approved criteria or definition at this point in time, in the United States, that determines who is a journalist. Because that would mean a state-sanctioned press, and that would be a very very bad thing indeed if the government got to decide who is a journalist. Basically, as it stands now, the person writing, blogging, filming, publishing online, etc… decides who is a journalist. And that’s a good thing. It’s a messy thing, but a good thing, because once you create an Official Journalists Club, guess who’s gonna get left out? Yeah, the people the officials don’t like; the people whose voices most need to be heard.

3) Gregory then finished out that sentence with “of course anybody who’s watching this understands I was asking a question, that question has been raised by lawmakers, as well. I’m not embracing anything.”

Again, we’ve got the passive, “Some people say” cop-out. It’s a little less vague – here we’re talking about “lawmakers” – but he still can’t be bothered to reference real people and real accusations.  And of course, he wasn’t just “asking a question”, he was prefacing a question with a biased assumption, which “anybody who’s watching this” could easily absorb as some sort of established fact.

Oh, that liberal media bias strikes again.

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