The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald found himself at the center of a frenzy over domestic government surveillance after he broke a story Wednesday about the National Security Agency's top-secret court order to collect millions of telephone records from U.S.-based Verizon customers. On Thursday, Greenwald co-authored an even more dramatic report about an NSA program, dubbed Prism, that purportedly allows the government to access the servers of nine major U.S. Internet companies.
The New York Times -- which apparently had not obtained the secret court order or received the leaked Prism documents the Guardian and the Washington Post did -- published a profile of Greenwald on Thursday that referred to him as a “blogger” in the headline and repeatedly throughout the story. The choice of language did not go unnoticed: Shortly after the article appeared, Greenwald tweeted a link to the story with the commentary, “Once a blogger, always a blogger.”
Once a "blogger", always a blogger - I love the NYT nytimes.com/2013/06/07/bus…
â€” Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) June 7, 2013
There was a time when there was a much clearer distinction between a blogger and a reporter or a professional journalist. In the '90 and the early aughts, a blogger was more likely to be someone who published independently on their own site or through an open-source platform like WordPress or Blogspot, posting opinions or personal reflections that typically did not draw from any traditional reporting of so-called hard news.
But these days, many who call themselves bloggers are trained journalists who often lead the dialogue on their particular specialty -- like Greenwald, who, as the Times pointed out, has for years been “writing intensely, even obsessively, about government surveillance and the prosecution of journalists.” Outlets like Gawker and its associated properties are blogs by self-definition, and they regularly break news, though usually with a distinct slant. Further, most legacy newspapers host blogs at their online homes, and count their staff reporters among the contributors to those blogs.
So why did Greenwald and other journalists who questioned the Times' word choice on Twitter take issue with it? After all, he calls himself a blogger on his Twitter profile page. (Greenwald did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
It appears that some believe the Times used the word “blogger” in a subtle attempt to denigrate Greenwald, whose reporting for the Guardian scooped the Times on a story of enormous public interest and importance. The Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, weighed in on Twitter, indicating she was on the side of those who felt the description may have been used pejoratively.
â€” Margaret Sullivan (@Sulliview) June 7, 2013
Salon's Irin Carmon also questioned the Times' word choice:
â€” Irin Carmon (@irincarmon) June 7, 2013
Yet others, like Slate's Matt Yglesias and the Washington Post's Max Fisher, were more troubled by the perception that calling someone a blogger is somehow a put-down.
As a blogger, I don’t like the idea that calling @ggreenwald a “blogger” is disparaging. He’s a great blogosphere success story!
â€” Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) June 7, 2013
@tomtomorrow It seems to me like insisting there is some magical line between blogger and journalist not fair to those on the blogger side.
â€” Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) June 7, 2013
As Matt K. Lewis, who calls himself a blogger, wrote in a Daily Caller post, the distinction between blogger and journalist could have future implications beyond the semantic -- Greenwald the blogger may not be entitled to protection from federal shield laws the way Greenwald the reporter would.
“Presumably, journalists like Greenwald are exactly the types of people we should be protecting from prosecution,” Lewis wrote, “but interestingly, a federal shield law might leave him vulnerable on two counts: As an employee of a British newspaper, he could potentially be left out in the cold. And there’s also the question as to whether bloggers would receive the same protections as reporters.”
Indeed, the lede paragraph of the Times story points out that Greenwald's reporting could perhaps put him “in the cross hairs of federal prosecutors.” If Greenwald is indeed a blogger, and he is given the same protections of those labeled as reporters and journalists, does that mean that anyone who calls himself a blogger would qualify for the same? It is a decidedly gray area, and one that will likely remain murky. How do you change the meaning of a word that is many years older than its current incarnation? In 2011, a New York Times “Room for Debate” discussion asked the question, “Are all bloggers journalists?” A year and a half later, we are no closer to a clear answer.