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NSA fallout: A CNN pundit’s war on Glenn Greenwald

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Aug. 6, 2013: Glenn Greenwald testifies before a Brazilian Congressional committee on the NSA's surveillance programs, in Brasilia.Reuters

CNN's Jeffrey Toobin is a former prosecutor and very smart guy whose judgment is really clouded when it comes to Glenn Greenwald. 

So clouded, in fact, that he has no problem with the fact that British authorities on Sunday detained Greenwald's partner at Heathrow, interrogated him for nine hours and threatened him with jail. 

In fact, Toobin likened David Miranda to a "drug mule" because he was bringing Greenwald documents as part of the Guardian columnist's pursuit of NSA leaks. 

"I don't want to be unkind, but he was a mule," Toobin told Anderson Cooper. "He was given something, he didn't know what it was, from one person to pass to another at the other end of an airport. Our prisons are full of drug mules." It was left to Cooper to point out that the British agents knew who Miranda was and that "he wasn't connected to some terrorist group." 

Time for a little perspective. 

Greenwald is a crusader on national security issues, to be sure, but he is also a journalist. A lot of people don't like the guy, but his reporting on the documents he obtained from Ed Snowden was a worldwide bombshell and its accuracy has not been seriously challenged. 

Toobin's relentless criticism of Greenwald-and now the man he lives with in Brazil-seems to treat both of them as potential criminals. And here, in my view, he has a blind spot. Journalists obtain classified documents all the time. It may be illegal to leak secret stuff, but do we really want to put reporters in jeopardy for obtaining it? 

What's more, the British agents seized from Miranda a laptop, cell phone, hard drive, memory sticks, a smart watch and a games console (that last one undoubtedly being a grave threat to national security). Why isn't Toobin outraged about that? He noted dismissively that Miranda wasn't "sent to the gulag." 

Miranda and Greenwald have now filed a lawsuit about the detention. Miranda is not a journalist, but he was acting in a journalistic capacity in this instance, and the Guardian paid for his trip. 

Greenwald, in his Guardian column, was apoplectic: 

"This is obviously a rather profound escalation of their attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism. It's bad enough to prosecute and imprison sources. It's worse still to imprison journalists who report the truth. But to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic. Even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they felt threatened by." Greenwald's vow to make Britain pay a price was a bit over the top, but one can understand how aggrieved he must feel. 

Toobin and Greenwald clashed in a CNN debate three weeks ago over the conviction of Bradley Manning, with Toobin saying the Army private deserved to be behind bars and Greenwald calling it "bizarre" that anyone who "call[s] themselves a journalist ... would call for the prosecution and imprisonment for decades of a source like Bradley Manning." I tend to side with Toobin in that Manning knowingly broke the law; he got 35 years yesterday. 

I don't feel the need to criticize Toobin for a 1991 incident when he worked for the Iran-contra special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, and then wrote a book about the experience. It was, after all, a long time ago. But since it's all over the web, I'll just quote from Walsh's book: 

"Toobin and his publisher surprised us with a preemptive suit to enjoin me from interfering with the publication or punishing Toobin for having stolen hundreds of documents, some of them classified, and for exposing privileged information and material related to the grand jury proceedings." 

Jeff Toobin is a good-natured and unusually savvy legal commentator who occasionally appeared on my show at CNN. I just don't understand why he has mounted this campaign against Greenwald. 

Is The Web Going ... Positive? 

It's hardly a news flash that the web can be a snarky, cynical, mean-spirited place where people routinely get pummeled. 

But there is a ray of hope for those who are weary of the negativity. 

Time reports that many folks are sharing upbeat stories, driven in part by a desire to create a more upbeat image of themselves. For instance, the most popular post ever on Buzzfeed -- closing in on 14 million visits -- is a photo series called "21 pictures that will restore your Faith in humanity." 

Eli Pariser, cofounder of Upworthy, is quoted as saying: "You don't want to be that guy at the party who's crazy and angry and ranting in the corner - it's the same for Twitter or Facebook. Part of what we're trying to do with Upworthy is give people the tools to express a conscientious, thoughtful and positive identity in social media." 

There's even academic research! An MIT study found that an "up" vote on a story increased the chances that someone else would comment by 32 percent, while a down vote had no effect. 

So here's the distinction: Negative stories do just fine. They draw traffic and attention. But social media are no longer some add-on strategy for media sites, with little Twitter and Facebook buttons added as an afterthought. It is the driving force behind sites like Buzzfeed, which draws an astonishing 60 million unique monthly visitors. And the emerging indications are that people like sharing positive stuff. 

Could this turn the web into a kind of ongoing festival where fewer people want to spoil the party by throwing stink bombs? I wouldn't go that far. At the risk of sounding, well, negative, this may turn out to be something of a blip. But it's definitely worth watching. 

Bloomberg Hires an Ombudsman 

It's too bad that some big news organizations agree to hire an internal critic only after getting enmeshed in scandal. 

That was the situation at the New York Times, which created the public editor's job in 2003 after the humiliation of the Jayson Blair fabrications.
Now Bloomberg News has joined the club after the disclosure that its journalists had improper access to information of the company's corporate clients. Bloomberg plans to appoint an "Independent Senior Editor" who will "serve as an independent avenue of appeal for issues and complaints around news coverage." There will also be a standards editor , a task force and tighter restrictions on which data reporters can access. 

A review by veteran journalist Clark Hoyt also criticized the tone of some stories, such as "JPMorgan's Swaps Occupying Cassino Prove Curse Like World War II," which invoked the Nazi occupation of the Italian town of Cassino. 

Kudos to Bloomberg for ordering up a real investigation and taking these steps, however overdue. It's too bad the Washington Post, a pioneer in the field, has gone in the other direction by abolishing the ombudsman's job. 

Arianna vs. Anonymity 

Good for Arianna Huffington: She's ending the practice of anonymous comments. 

As GigaOm quotes her as saying: "Trolls are just getting more and more aggressive and uglier and I just came from London where there are rape and death threats. I feel that freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they say and not hiding behind anonymity." 

Comments are great, but I've long felt that letting people spew from behind a curtain of anonymity adds to the toxic and sleazy nature of some of these online debates. There's a reason that newspapers require letters to the editor to be signed. Let people say whatever they want, short of libel and obscenity -- but with their names attached.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.