Friday, September 06, 2013

The Problem of the Unreliable Narrator

We're watching you, Mr. Blue

And because, you know, the NSA story should NEVER be about Glenn Greenwald:

  • In July, Greenwald told Der Spiegel he and Laura Poitras had each received a complete archive from Snowden in Hong Kong, which totaled 9,000-10,000 documents.
  • Greenwald later told the Brazilian senate that he possessed up to 20,000 documents.
  • In its court statement over the temporary detention of David Miranda, the UK government said Miranda was carrying approximately 58,000 documents directly related to UK national security, which took up around 60 gigabytes of disk space.
  • In late August, the Independent pegged Snowden’s document count at 50,000.
  • In its recent story on NSA’s encryption-breaking activities, they said the Guardian shared with them “more than 50,000″ documents.
Which means Greenwald is an idiot, or a liar.  It also means we can't trust anything he says:

 If the source, and the journalists closest to him, are lying — constantly — why on earth should we trust them to report on their documents honestly? At this point, I have no faith that they will do so — and I think it is safe to assume that if they find evidence that the law is followed, or a document exonerating the President, they will refuse to publish it because it would weaken their argument.

As a journalist, that refusal to employ the truth in reporting, even if it cuts against your own biases, is deeply abhorrent. And I’m shocked it isn’t abhorrent to more of us.
In Poe's story "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator starts by asking us why we think he is mad.  It seldom occurs to the reader to wonder why a narrator would ask such a question of the reader, until we learn of the narrator's obsession with his landlord's bad eye.  By the end of the story we are convinced the madman has confessed to his hideous crime as he tells us in the story's climax:

I foamed --I raved --I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder --louder --louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled.
That last sentence is the loose thread that unravels the tapestry.  Is it likely?  Is it even credible?  And if it isn't, is anything this narrator tells us credible?  Is it possible, indeed, the entire crime itself is a fabrication, the fiction of a deranged mind?  We have only the narrator's word for it, for the entire story itself.  And as for the opening sentence, when he asks why we think him mad:  perhaps he isn't talking to the reading audience at all, but to a silent character in the story, someone interviewing the narrator in...well, perhaps a madhouse.

We have Glenn Greenwald's word for how many crimes have been committed by the NSA.  Evidence of those crimes has not yet been forthcoming, and most of what Greenwald has asserted has simply been wrong.  But maybe this story really isn't about the "beating of his hideous heart;" maybe it really is about the narrator.

A narrator who insists we not consider him mad.


  1. I have in my coat pocket a list of 57 crimes committed by the NSA...

  2. Prompted by you and some others, I've looked into Greenwald's past writings and he is as bad an excuse for a reporter as I've ever seen. He's Matt Drudge level in his inaccuracy and ideological slanting. He's not even good as an "opinion journalist" for those reasons. And he's really nothing like a liberal. His managing to make himself the center of a large cult following is pretty troubling.

    When I see things that have taken down far more credible journalists, even one as close to the corporate mainstream as Dan Rather, it's incredible to me that Greenwald has the position he does. I suspect it's a confluence between Brit-lefty and U.S. leftish irrational paranoia about the American government (there's rational parnoia too but this is way over that top) and corporate Republican desire to destroy Obama at any cost. It is surprising that it's The Guardian that has taken him in, considering his Republican-libertarian enthusiasms. I'm not that up on who has control over it during any particular time but I do think they will eventually regret going out on a limb for Greenwald to the extent they have.

  3. Booman isn't a fan, and I think does a good job pointing out Emperor Glenn's attire. His many, many TLDR updates aside, I do appreciate his quasi-journalism, if only to bust up the usual narrative. When truth and fact have a hard time getting their boots on, maybe a little prop to counter the agit-prop can have a modicum of value. If men were angels...