Michael Kinsley, and other things that are incompatible with the term “liberal”

I’m always a little surprised to read about something Michael Kinsley wrote, in a “oh, yeah, that guy” kind of way. When I was a kid I remember Kinsley as being the archetype of the public liberal, especially since he was on Crossfire (I was a weird kid, OK?), but I couldn’t tell you the last time I thought, “hey, I wonder what Michael Kinsley has to say about this?”

Anyway, I gather Kinsley is still calling himself a “liberal” these days, but he’s got some funny ways of showing it. Take his review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, in which Kinsley seems less interested in reviewing the book than in unburdening himself of all his latent anger at Greenwald. Kinsley simply doesn’t care for this so-called “journalism” that reveals government secrets even without getting permission from the government, you see, and he rejects the idea that the journalist can be trusted not to let his or her reporting cross the line into irresponsibility. He also sounds like he’d be all in favor of locking Greenwald (or someone else in his situation) in prison on the crime of reporting a story without government permission. This piece by Eric Wemple and this one by Ted Rall do a pretty nice job of taking Kinsley’s fundamentally anti-journalist, illiberal position (an odd place for a supposed-liberal supposed-journalist to position himself) apart. Greenwald has written a response as well, if you’re so inclined. All I want to comment on is the final paragraph, in the context of Kinsley’s self-professed “liberalism”:

As the news media struggles to expose government secrets and the government struggles to keep them secret, there is no invisible hand to assure that the right balance is struck. So what do we do about leaks of government information? Lock up the perpetrators or give them the Pulitzer Prize? (The Pulitzer people chose the second option.) This is not a straightforward or easy question.

It’s not? Journalists get to report on stuff whether the government likes it or not, and we don’t put them in prison for it. We expect the journalist to use his or her judgment about what and how much to report, especially when sensitive national security issues are in play (and reasonable people can make up their own minds about Greenwald’s judgment), but unless they’re actually committing espionage then they don’t go to the slammer. For Pete’s sake, Geraldo Rivera went on TV and reported on American troop movements and positions in the middle of a shooting war and the worst he got was expelled from a place where he was at constant risk of being killed. If it’s not an easy question, I don’t see it being a particularly hard one, either.

But I can’t see how we can have a policy that authorizes newspapers and reporters to chase down and publish any national security leaks they can find. This isn’t Easter and these are not eggs.

I wonder if Kinsley, who’s never impressed me as a deeply reflective thinker, has considered this point from the other direction. Can we have a policy that gives the government final approval on which news stories are allowed to be reported and which are forbidden? Who gets to decide what information falls under Kinsley’s “national security” protection? The government? This isn’t Turkmenistan. I mean, is it? Would Kinsley prefer that it were?

Not that Turkmenistan isn’t a wonderful place, mind you (still waiting for that check, guys).

Bottom line: you can’t call yourself a “liberal” and then advocate the imprisonment of journalists who report news that hasn’t been approved by the government.


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