Michael Kinsley, Margaret Sullivan, Pamela Paul, and what editors are supposed to do

I want to talk about something Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times's Public Editor (a sort of ombudsman without any authority), wrote this week about the role of an editor of criticism:

[S]urely editing ought to point out gaping holes in an argument, remove ad hominem language and question unfair characterizations....

That is a very good basic description of what opinion editors ought to do. It's what I try to do when I'm reading something as an editor, and what I hope editors will do for me when I'm the writer. It's how you serve the readers, how you make a piece as strong as it can be—you read that first draft and ask the obvious questions, probe the weaknesses in the argument, and ask the writer for more when necessary.

To me that was the most interesting part of Sullivan's column criticizing the review by Michael Kinsley of Glenn Greenwald's book No Place to Hide in this week's NYT Book Review. I'm writing about it now because I think it has been overlooked in the back-and-forth about the review, and her response, and the responses to her response (and so forth).

Some background first: the book Kinsley is reviewing is Greenwald's chronicle of his role in the Edward Snowden affair. You remember Snowden, the government contractor who gathered classified documents relating to the NSA surveillance program and then released them, with the help of Greenwald and others, and is currently hiding out in Russia. (Perhaps you saw him being interviewed by Brian Williams on TV last night.) Very strong opinions have grown up around this matter—Snowden has ardent admirers, while others denounce him as a traitor. And Greenwald, a lawyer and a journalist, was a polarizing figure even before his connections with Snowden—he wrote long, outrage-fueled dispatches about the law and politics for Salon, which earned him enthusiastic followers but often rubbed others the wrong way (especially those he argued with).

I don't have very strong feelings on any side of this. When Greenwald wrote for Salon, I found his analysis intelligent and his perspective valuable, but also inconsistent and a little self-obsessed. On the more important matter of the Snowden case, well, we've already editorialized. So, I didn't turn to Kinsley's review hoping for either a celebration of Greenwald's heroics or a brutal takedown of his reasons for considering himself a hero. I was hoping in general for a carefully considered take on the whole affair. However, this is Michael Kinsley, master of comfortable contrarianism, that we're talking about, and that's what comes across in his review—a certain pride in how easy it is for him to rest his mind concerning what is, for others, a difficult issue. He is not only skeptical of those who refuse to trust authority but actively smug about it. Jay Rosen perfectly summed up the glibness of Kinsey's take in a tweet this morning: "He was trying to say: 'Look, this is all very simple: it's more complicated than Greenwald thinks.'" It was, fundamentally, a bad match of subject matter and author; "this is all very simple" is Kinsley's default posture, but even he couldn't pull it off as a response to this book.

The review upset a lot of people, many of whom have invested a lot of time and energy into thinking about the Snowden case and its implications. Their cries reached the desk of Sullivan, who dedicated her column to considering the review and ultimately agreeing that its shortcomings were serious and that the editors had not done their job.

Any number of people have weighed in by now on this brouhaha, including Greenwald, NYT Book Review editor Pamela Paul, and Kinsley (more on them later). It's unusual for me to find myself disagreeing with Jonathan Chait or A. O. Scott, to cite two more examples, but in this case I found their (very different) takes off the mark. And even the people I've read who agree with Sullivan are not talking about what most interests me, which is what she said about the job of an editor.

Sullivan updated her column when she got a response from Paul. I think it would have been better for Paul to let the work speak for itself, if she felt it was sufficient. Instead, she set up a strawman:

Some readers have suggested that the review should have been more heavily “edited,” by which they seem to suggest that we should have swayed Mr. Kinsley’s opinion to more closely approximate their own.

Maybe that's what some readers have suggested, but that's not what Sullivan said. Her definition of what an editor should do, and in this case evidently did not do, was very clear, and I'm interested to know whether Paul agrees with it.

"You can disagree with a reviewer, but you shouldn’t distrust the reviewer," says Paul. No, and that relationship of trust starts when you assign the book—you give it to Kinsley if and only if you trust that he will "read the book, digest its material and write a review based on his own judgment" (her words again). But you don't just publish whatever you get because opinions are sacrosanct. No editor does this, and they talk as though that's how it must work only when they've let something sloppy get past them. If a writer's opinion, as he expresses it in writing, is unclear or inconsistent, you tell him so. If he seems to be saying—as Kinsley seemed to say—that journalists should always wait for the government to grant them permission to publish the things they find out about its secrets, and you read it and say to yourself, "But Michael Kinsley can't possibly believe it's as simple as that," then you send it back to him saying, "Can you elaborate a little on what seems to be an unacknowledged tension in what you're saying here?" That's not the same as saying "change your opinion" or "make this review less negative," a distinction I have a hard time believing Paul does not recognize.

Then she moves on to this, which I admit made me giggle:

To take on but one specific criticism of the review: At no point did Mr. Kinsley call Mr. Greenwald a sourpuss. The actual text reads as follows: “Maybe he’s charming and generous in real life. But in ‘No Place to Hide,’ Greenwald seems like a self-righteous sourpuss, convinced that every issue is ‘straightforward,’ and if you don’t agree with him, you’re part of something he calls ‘the authorities,’ who control everything for their own nefarious but never explained purposes.”

It's the "at no point" that I really love. As though she's not sure where Sullivan got the idea that Kinsley called Greenwald a "sourpuss," but she could be referring to the part where he says he "seems like a self-righteous sourpuss."

To be fair, this (Paul's next sentence) is true enough:

For a reviewer to address how a writer comes across, particularly in a memoir or first-hand account, is entirely fair game for a book review, and by no means an ad hominem attack.

But Sullivan's protest about "sourpuss," while admittedly not her strongest point, is related to the context of Kinsley's overall approach. Let's go to the "actual text" again: "It’s a great yarn, which might be more entertaining if Greenwald himself didn’t come across as so unpleasant. Maybe he’s charming and generous in real life. But in 'No Place to Hide,' Greenwald seems like a self-righteous sourpuss...."

If Kinsley had carefully weighed the issues at play in this book and then turned, as a reviewer must, to the book itself and how the author's voice affects the experience of reading it, I don't think anyone would have objected. The problem with the "sourpuss" stuff is that it's the most substantive part of Kinsley's engagement with the book. He's using it to brush aside Greenwald so he won't have to take his ideas seriously. First he decides to evaluate the book primarily as an adventure story, and then he says it doesn't deliver because Greenwald is—sorry, "seems like" (but may not be!)—a "self-righteous sourpuss" who just wants to talk about his positions on boring old issues.

The review goes on that way, as a character study of Greenwald, who "quotes any person or publication taking his side in any argument." To what end? What are the arguments about? Does Kinsley agree with those people? Who knows; the point he wants to make is that Greenwald can't be right about the chilling effect of government surveillance: "If a majority of citizens now agree with Greenwald that dissent is being crushed in this country, and will say so openly to a stranger who rings their doorbell or their phone and says she’s a pollster, how can anyone say that dissent is being crushed?" Reading that gives me flashbacks to the shallow arrogance that passed for powerful argumentation in high-school debate tournaments. It's not a serious argument; it's a comeback.

When Kinsley finally gets around to responding to Greenwald's position, or what he says is Greenwald's position, about the relationship between the government and the press, he seems to be mostly stating the obvious. Leaks of classified information can be good, when what's being leaked is something bad. And, "the Snowden leaks were important—a legitimate scoop—and we might never have known about the N.S.A.'s lawbreaking if it hadn’t been for them." But—and this is the paragraph that has occasioned most of the post-publication arguing—

The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can’t square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.

It is "clear" to Kinsley that the government, and not journalists, should decide whether government secrets get released. Does that sound like a serious argument in response to this book? Especially considering he has just said that Snowden's leaks about the NSA were a "legitimate scoop"? What does "legitimate" mean there, if not that the journalists who shared that information with the public, despite the opposition of the government, were doing their job? Mr. Kinsley? "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." That's the end. So, Greenwald and other journalists should be prosecuted? Or should not be? Or, what we do with them should be an after-the-fact evaluation depending on what the leaks reveal (something something Easter eggs)? Taking Kinsley's arguments much more seriously than Kinsley took Greenwald's, Sullivan asks, "What if his views were taken to their logical conclusion?" An editor should have asked that question before this was published, instead of after.

The reason for criticizing Kinsley is not, as Chait suggests, that he did something so uncivil as sneer at another journalist. It's that all he did was sneer, and yawn, and make smirking asides in parentheses as is his wont—he struck a lot of attitudes, but he didn't address the best of Greenwald's argument, or even bother to make his own position consistent from one paragraph to the next. The NYTBR assigned the review to someone who couldn't be bothered to think very hard about the questions the book raised, and what they got was predictably fatuous. To say so doesn't mean you think they should have been easier on Greenwald. It means you think they, at best, missed an opportunity to take a serious matter seriously.

Still, this does explain a lot about the direction the NYTBR has gone in recently. Kinsley's was not the first review I finished thinking, Shouldn't an editor have sent this back with a few queries, for the sake of the reviewer's reputation alone? Joyce Carol Oates's weirdly peevish take on Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch, for example (my own review of that book is forthcoming [updated with link], which is why I read Oates's with interest).

The other reaction I had was to wonder where this Sullivan, so sensible about the importance of editors even for opinion writing, was when it came time to respond to the Bill Keller cancer-column controversy. Because if the Times book reviews deserve careful, critical editing, so too do the opinion columns. And yet she's awfully accepting of the idea that those opinions should be free from questioning, even basic put-yourself-in-the-readers'-shoes observations like "Your position doesn't really make sense."

As for Kinsley, he turned in more Kinsley glibness in response to Sullivan's criticisms—and he too should have had the sense to let his work stand for itself, if he wasn't prepared to acknowledge its shortcomings. Instead, what we got was, as Jamison Foser said, "Michael Kinsley, telling you as clearly as he can to stop taking him seriously," to wit: "Do I want to have sent Dan Ellsberg and Neil Sheehan to jail for leaking?... Like most people except Glenn Greenwald, I think the issue is complicated and I have other things to do." He's not a lazy thinker, he just has other things to do! 

The blogger known as Digby pointed out at the end of her take on the Kinsley-Greenwald affair that nobody has said much about an earlier NYT review of the same book, written by Michiko Kakutani and published May 12. "It's a very different review," she says. Yes, it is. For one thing, it will tell you a lot more about what's in the book and what led up to its publication. It seems intent on fairly characterizing everything about the book under review, and at the same time it is not shy about making negative judgments about Greenwald's arguments, accusing him of at least one "demonstrably false assertion" and many "gross generalizations." In short, it's serious. It seems to have been written and edited by people who wanted it to be so. Maybe Sullivan is wrong about "the Book Review’s high standards." But she shouldn't be.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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