Do some critics of U.S. government policies that may encroach on civil liberties give anti-American foreign states a pass on far worse abuses?
The latest subject of such a controversy is Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has worked with whistle-blower Edward Snowden to disclose the National Security Agency's surveillance of personal communication records. Given that Snowden received asylum in Russia, Greenwald has been accused by his detractors of colluding with a regime notorious for its police-state tactics -- especially since, two years ago, he defended the Kremlin-run TV channel RT (Russia Today) after it gave a show to his ally, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Unfortunately, Greenwald's most recent defense of Vladimir Putin's propaganda network does little to counter the charge of double standards.
In a March 4 article in his online magazine, The Intercept, Greenwald jeered at "American media elites" that "love to mock Russian media, especially the government-funded English-language outlet RT, as being sources of shameless pro-Putin propaganda, where free expression is strictly barred." He then noted that Abby Martin, an American RT host, concluded her March 3 show by condemning Russian intervention in Ukraine. This is more dissent, Greenwald asserted, than could be found from any U.S. TV host before or at the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
There is no question that, in the post-Sept. 11 patriotic fervor in 2002 and 2003, U.S. television gave short shrift to criticism of the war. Phil Donahue's MSNBC show was canceled in February 2003 partly because network executives worried that his anti-war views would create an image problem. (The lack of dissenting voices was not as complete as Greenwald suggests: He ignores Oprah Winfrey's series of anti-war programs on NBC.)
In any case, holding up Martin's comment on RT as a rebuke to the U.S. media conformity is absurd. For one, a 60-second statement is not the same as consistent anti-war commentary. More important, RT is a Kremlin-controlled channel for foreign consumption, with virtually no audience in Russia. And it quickly used Martin's challenge to brag about its openness to dissent.
This, of course, stands in contrast to the state of the media inside Russia, where television has been under government control since the early 2000s. The country's last independent TV news station, the cable channel Dozhd (Rain), is facing a government-orchestrated campaign to kill it. In January, Dozhd ran a World War II-related online poll some saw as unpatriotic. Despite an apology from Dozhd, the Russian parliament passed a resolution condemning the channel and launched a probe into its allegedly illegal deals with cable providers -- which promptly began dropping Dozhd from their lineups. On this, Greenwald has remained silent.
Meanwhile, RT anchor Liz Wahl quit on the air Wednesday, saying the channel was a Putin propaganda tool. Greenwald's response was to tweet a piece by blogger Jay Pinho trashing columnist James Kirchick, who published a complimentary interview with Wahl, as a U.S. government propagandist because he had worked for Radio Liberty-Radio Free Europe. Pinho approvingly quoted RT chief editor Margarita Simonyan, who rhetorically asked whether any American news network would "report a story in a way that goes against the U.S. national interest." Yet Greenwald's own reports on the NSA received ample coverage on U.S. television.
No one says Greenwald must give equal time to criticizing Russia's repressive actions. Whitewashing them is another matter altogether.