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The one question a journalist should never ask

David Gregory betrays his real sympathies when he asks Glenn Greenwald why he shouldn't go to jail for his act of journalism on the NSA scandal -- with the powerful elites.

There was an appalling moment  in the annals of U.S. journalism history earlier today -- in the often noble profession that nonetheless managed to give the world Judith Miller and Jayson Blair in addition to "aiding and abetting" the war in Iraq. In the wake of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's flight from Hong Kong, NBC's iconic "Meet the Press" -- now manned by the not-so-iconic David Gregory -- placed an urgent call to the lawyer-turned-blogger/journalist who broke the Snowden story, Glenn Greenwald..

Although I (and many others) have written favorably of Snowden's actions -- exposing the extent that the U.S. government spies on its own citizens, something that President Obama and other top officials didn't want you to know -- that does not mean Greenwald deserves a free pass. The other night, for example, MSNBC's Chris Hayes asked Greenwald some tough and totally legitimate questions about whether Snowden, the whistleblower, should or should not be charged with a crime. But in this country , no working journalist has asked the ridiculous question of whether a colleague, in exercising his or her 1st Amendment rights to report on the government's activity, is committing a crime.

No one before today:

"Meet the Press" host David Gregory asked columnist Glenn Greenwald why he shouldn't be charged with a crime for working with NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

Greenwald was on to discuss his source's Sunday morning flight from Hong Kong to Moscow. (It is unclear where Snowden will ultimately land, though reports have suggested he is headed to Venezuela.) At the tail end of the conversation, Gregory suddenly asked Greenwald why the government shouldn't be going after him.

"To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn't you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?" he asked.

Greenwald replied that it was "pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies," and that there was no evidence to back up Gregory's claim that he had "aided" Snowden.

Greenwald was right -- Gregory's question was extraordinary. Has he already forgotten the widespread outrage over the U.S. Justice Department's sweeping overreach in investigating journalists at Fox News and at the Associated Press, where top executives say the government's monitoring of AP phone lines has had a chilling effect on sources coming forward with information about what the Obama administration is up to? Does he really think under the 1st Amendment that there's any validity to the government monitoring, let alone criminalizing, the news-gathering process?

Note that I headlined this post, "The one question a journalist should never ask." That cuts two different ways. I  wouldn't object to Gregory asking the question of a colleague in a rhetorical sense, as in, "Explain to the people out there why journalism is a protected activity, even if the whistleblower involved risks being charged with a crime." I don't believe that was Gregory's intention, however. But if you believe that the very essence of doing your job well is somehow a crime...well, you simply are not a real, serious journalist. That may sound harsh but there's no other way to put it.

Indeed, I feel like the last week has really put the very essence of what journalism is under the microscope. On one hand, so many of us are deeply mourning the sudden loss of Michael Hastings, the journalist -- and I mean that in very sense of the word -- who worked for Buzzfeed and previously for Rolling Stone and who died in a one-car accident at the age of 33. Hastings was completely fearless -- not just because he reported from Iraq and Afghanistan but because of the unrelentingly tough questions he asked and the stories that resulted, including one that took down a top general. Hastings cared 0 percent about losing access to, or offending, the powerful and 100 percent about the truth.

Contrast that with David Gregory and his ilk of overpaid, overfed Beltway big-shots. They live in a bubble where access to the powerful isn't everything, it's the only thing. They regularly dine with and socialize with the folks that they "cover," went to the same elite universities with their sources and now send their kids to the same exclusive private schools. It's a good life...and no one wants to rock the boat. This is not a blanket condemnation -- it is actually possible to do real journalism in Washington, D.C., and some do. But the comforting-the-comfortable kind like Gregory rule the day. They are court couriers, relaying whispered information and placing an abiding trust in the all-powerful whisperers. There really needs to be a word in the English language that describes what they do. I know it is not "journalism."