The long-term mission of the news blog The Intercept, launched in February 2014 by First Look Media—the recently developed news organization created and entirely funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to the tune of $250 million—is “to produce fearless, adversarial journalism across a wide range of issues.” However, the vital basis behind its creation really lies in its short-term mission, which is “to provide a platform to report on the documents previously provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.”
That’s because two of the website’s three founding editors—former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras—are the only two people that are known to possess the entire cache of what Snowden stole from the National Security Agency’s networks, estimated to be anywhere in the range of 58,000 to 1.7 million documents, and possibly more.
The third founding editor, war correspondent and Dirty Wars author Jeremy Scahill, is a fitting example of the types of professionals that First Look Media has actively pursued: independent-minded journalists with a history, be it perceived or real, of conducting adversarial, investigative reportage against the most powerful governmental and corporate bodies.
This, all under the direct financial backing of Omidyar, The Intercept’s publisher, whose personal fortune is worth $8.2 billion (according to the most recent Forbes estimate).
In a December interview with The Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman (with whom he additionally leaked selected documents to), Snowden said that he wanted to give society “a chance to determine if it should change itself,” and that all he wanted was “for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed.”
Such an opportunity was never actually afforded to the public directly, however. This noble task was instead entrusted to only a select group of journalists. According to Greenwald, Snowden “carefully selected which documents he thought should be disclosed and concealed, then gave them to a newspaper with a team of editors and journalists and repeatedly insisted that journalistic judgments be exercised about which of those documents should be published in the public interest and which should be withheld.”
It is his “agreement” with his “source” that has become something of a faux-journalistic maxim for Greenwald to vigilantly cite ad nauseam.
As he wrote in January via his personal blog:
Anyone who demands that we "release all documents" - or even release large numbers in bulk - is demanding that we violate our agreement with our source, disregard the framework we created when he gave us the documents, jeopardize his interests in multiple ways, and subject him to far greater legal (and other) dangers. I find that demand to be unconscionable, and we will never, ever violate our agreement with him no matter how many people want us to.
Current calculations made by Cryptome read as follows:
Rate of release over 6 months, 132.8 pages per month, equals 436 months to release 58,000, or 36.3 years. Thus the period of release has decreased in the past month from 42 years.
That means that, judging by the current release rate, it will be another 36 years before the full scope of the NSA’s massive surveillance apparatus is actually revealed to the public.
To help provide context to what appears to be a dubious conflation of journalistic ethics and legalities, I sought the opinion of civil rights attorney Stanley L. Cohen, whose penchant for defending activists spans some three decades, ranging anywhere from the IRA to Hamas.
“Every time a journalist raises these arguments about—‘Oh, I’ve got agreements’ and ‘I’ve cut deals’—it is a blow against all journalists,” says Cohen, “because ultimately what protects the journalist from government over-reaching is the journalist’s privilege.
“The intent behind the journalist’s privilege is not that a journalist is going to exercise discretion to decide what he or she thinks is in the public’s best interest, but is designed to facilitate the free-flow of information from a source to an intermediary who performs the function of keeping the public in the know, the loop; informed. It doesn’t contemplate this kind of unique vetting, self-censorship, and selection process that seems to give such strength to Mr. Greenwald.”
As established in Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. (1991), the Supreme Court previously affirmed that a promise to a source does create an enforceable agreement, with the Court ruling that the First Amendment does not bar a promissory estoppel suit against the press. Additionally, the journalist’s privilege asserts that reporters have a right to protect the identity of those to whom confidentiality was promised, including also the unpublished information provided by the source—though such a privilege is still far from being averse to legal challenge.
Greenwald, a lawyer-turned-blogger-turned-journalist, operates somewhere in the middle grounds of this legal hodgepodge.
“He’s positioned himself very nicely,” Cohen concedes. “Greenwald apparently tries to be all things to all people. The real problem is he’s not only done damage to the journalist’s privilege, he’s also violating legal privilege. He picks and chooses what is all too convenient at various crossroads.
“I think there’s also some very serious confusion floating around here, because I heard people talk about—‘Well, he’s a lawyer.’ Well, he may be a lawyer, but Snowden is not his client. Greenwald needs to decide who the fuck he is. If he’s a lawyer, let him start practicing law. If he’s an agent, let him start making movies and get on with his life. If he’s a journalist, he needs to stop deciding what is in the best interest of the public’s right to know.”
Cohen recently represented a hacktivist involved in the December 2010 Anonymous-affiliated “denial of service attack” conducted against PayPal, a wholly owned subsidiary of eBay, in response to the company’s decision to block donations to the Wikileaks website. 11 of the 14 defendants—who came to be known as the “PayPal 14”—accepted a plea deal this past December. In reference to Omidyar’s late call for leniency in the case, Cohen noted in a De-Manufacturing Consent interview with Guillermo Jimenez that “the notion that all of a sudden [Omidyar] woke up and became egalitarian because he really had concerns about people he had persecuted for two years is absolute bullshit.”
Legitimizing Billionaire Benefactors
In late February, Pando ran an article by Mark Ames revealing that Omidyar’s Omidyar Network had co-funded Ukraine revolution groups, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of several years into the same NGOs as the US government—which ultimately helped propel regime change in Ukraine.
As Pando’s Paul Carr noted: “Omidyar and First Look have made statement after statement about how they aim to be a thorn in the side of the US government, and yet in several cases Omidyar has co-invested with that same US government to shape foreign policy to suit his own worldview.”
Such a collaboration is incredibly significant (as is Carr’s more recent reportage on the high volume of White House visits that have been made by Omidyar and senior Omidyar Network officials since 2009) and further validates the prospect that compartmentalizing discourse and controlling dissent is First Look Media’s true modus operandi.
Interestingly enough, Greenwald’s lengthy, scoffing response to the Pando exposé, entitled “On the Meaning of Journalistic Independence,” proved almost more telling than the article itself.
Summoning strength through ignorance, he writes:
Despite its being publicly disclosed, I was not previously aware that the Omidyar Network donated to this Ukrainian group. That’s because, prior to creating The Intercept with Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, I did not research Omidyar’s political views or donations. That’s because his political views and donations are of no special interest to me – any more than I cared about the political views of the family that owns and funds Salon (about which I know literally nothing, despite having worked there for almost 6 years), or any more than I cared about the political views of those who control the Guardian Trust.
There’s a very simple reason for that: they have no effect whatsoever on my journalism or the journalism of The Intercept. That’s because we are guaranteed full editorial freedom and journalistic independence. The Omidyar Network’s political views or activities – or those of anyone else – have no effect whatsoever on what we report, how we report it, or what we say.
Newsroom pressures between those who produce and those who pay their salaries are obviously nothing new. “The pressure is applied subtly,” explain Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols in their book, The Death and Life of American Journalism. “Successful editors and reporters tend to internalize the necessary values so no pressure is necessary. At other times, the pressures can be explicit. The effect is that the news is altered, unbeknownst to the public, in a manner it would never had been had the newsroom been independent and freestanding.”
In an article that he wrote for Salon in August 2009 on General Electric’s editorial influence over NBC and MSNBC, Greenwald even echoes those very sentiments, noting that “corporate employees don’t need to be told what their bosses want. They know without being told.”
That same year, Greenwald was a recipient of the Ithaca College’s Park Center for Independent Media’s first annual Izzy Award for special achievement in independent media. In a quote attributed to that event, he states the following:
Media outlets controlled by large corporations and all of their conflicting interests not only have proven largely ineffective at serving as an adversarial check on the government, but worse, have become mindless amplifiers of government claims. Being outside that system is now virtually a prerequisite to genuinely [critical] reporting on the actions and statements of the government.
In his acceptance speech, further pontification over his valiant views on journalistic independence and the importance of remaining distant from the political power structure: “I think that’s absolutely vital to being a real journalist,” he states. “If anything, the independence of journalism means keeping a distance from, rather than blending into—becoming an appendage of the entities of political power structure, the financial elites, that you intend to cover.”
Fast-forward to 2014, and such idealism has evidently faded quickly from Greenwald’s point-of-view.
Take this blog excerpt from January, for example:
For me, "activism" is about effects and outcomes. Successful activism means successful outcomes, and that in turn takes resources. It's very easy to maintain a perception of purity by remaining resource-starved and thus unable to really challenge large institutions in a comprehensive and sustained way. I know there are some people on the left who are so suspicious of anyone who is called "billionaire" that they think you're fully and instantly guilty by virtue of any association with such a person.
That's fine: there's no arguing against that view, though I would hope they'd apply it consistently to everyone who takes funding from very rich people or who works with media outlets and organizations funded by rich people - including their friends and other journalists and groups they admire (or even themselves).
Though repetitive in rhetoric, it is relevant to note that this is the exact same line being drawn two months later in his Pando response:
That journalistic outlets fail to hold accountable large governmental and corporate entities is a common complaint. It’s one I share. It’s possible to do great journalism in discrete, isolated cases without much funding and by working alone, but it’s virtually impossible to do sustained, broad-scale investigative journalism aimed at large and powerful entities without such funding. As I’ve learned quite well over the last eight months, you need teams of journalists, and editors, and lawyers, and experts, and travel and technology budgets, and a whole slew of other tools that require serious funding. The same is true for large-scale activism.
That funding, by definition, is going to come from people rich enough to provide it. And such people are almost certainly going to have views and activities that you find objectionable. If you want to take the position that this should never be done, that’s fine: just be sure to apply it consistently to the media outlets and groups you really like.
Not only does Greenwald now openly advocate the fusing of journalism with the same corporate-capitalist powers that he once deplored, but he even appears to be making a concerted effort to link activism into the fray as well, thereby successfully commoditizing all forms of dissent into one big pre-packaged, for-profit bundle to the masses.
Notice too the Romney-esque “billionaires-are-people” motif being casually floated, along with the notion that those who abhor the influence of billionaire benefactors on both the press and activism on a general scale are really just succumbing to their own naive, unrealistic worldview and will therefore never be able to effect policy or produce change on any significant level.
* * * *
Thomas Jefferson called the free press “the only security of all,” describing the agitation that it produces as something that must be submitted to, “to keep the waters pure.”
No matter how unique or trying are the times, the raw autonomy of such a freedom should never be made available to alteration. Allowing even the smallest of amendments could easily imperil the very fabric of our democracy.
With every new step that Greenwald takes to justify his own actions, he consequently leads us that much deeper into the murky, authoritarian waters that our founding fathers feared the most.
Acceptance of the endless regurgitation of government secrets slowly served up by the teaspoon doesn’t appear to be the only concession being forced upon a public bedazzled by the spectacle.
We are being told, against all reason and better judgment, that Omidyar is somehow the two hundred and fifty million dollar exception to the rules, and that Greenwald and the select few journalists with access to the Snowden-NSA treasure-trove are thusly incorruptible and pure.
We are to ignore the blatant corporate-government collusion that plagues this entire affair and accept the defeatist standpoint that those afflicted with the disease of integrity will never be able to bring about any real, lasting change to society without the essential aid of “philanthropic” billionaires along the way.
Taking all of this into account, along with the slow crawl of NSA documents being promised to us as our eventual reward for our complete compliance to the corporate state, it is imperative that we ask ourselves: Do the ends really justify the means?
Mark Mondalek – BFP contributing author, is a writer and editor based in Detroit.