Glenn Greenwald (Vincent Yu/Associated Press)
Glenn Greenwald (Vincent Yu/Associated Press)

On Friday afternoon, Paul Carr, the investigations editor for PandoDaily, told his followers on Twitter that something was up:

This story, it turned out, involved First Look Media, the much-discussed new-media project headlined by former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald and bankrolled by eBay founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar. And given recent events involving one of Europe’s largest countries, the piece was topical: “Pierre Omidyar co-funded Ukraine revolution groups with US government, documents show.” Under the byline of Mark Ames, the piece cited hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the Omidyar Network to the pro-democracy cause in Ukraine stretching back  several years — to interests that had backing also from the United States.

After cycling through the documents, Ames comes up with an indictment of the whole operation:

What all this adds up to is a journalistic conflict-of-interest of the worst kind: Omidyar working hand-in-glove with US foreign policy agencies to interfere in foreign governments, co-financing regime change with well-known arms of the American empire — while at the same time hiring a growing team of soi-disant ”independent journalists” which vows to investigate the behavior of the US government at home and overseas, and boasts of its uniquely “adversarial” relationship towards these government institutions.

The PandoDaily story carried no response from First Look or from Omidyar. When the Erik Wemple Blog last night asked Carr how much time his organization had given the First Look people to comment, he responded, “A small number of hours.” The reason Carr and Ames didn’t give them longer is tactical. “Honestly, I was thinking, ‘I don’t trust Greenwald one bit.’ He would have a response up before we even post our thing,” says Carr.

Such skepticism toward First Look comes across in the Pando story. For one, the piece kind of softpedals the critical data point that the Omidyar Network long ago disclosed its donations to the Ukrainian cause. Sure, Pando links to the press release on the matter, but a casual reader could easily wade through the story on the belief that this is an utter scoop, especially considering that the headline credits “documents” for the information. Another sign of tilt comes from the allegation that Omidyar worked “hand-in-glove” with the U.S. government. When asked about this allegation, Carr responded, “We meant co-invest to mean they invested at the same time. We didn’t mean it in the sense that they invested in concert.”

Hard-edged stuff from PandoDaily regarding Greenwald & Co. has some precedent. Last November, Ames argued that the accession of Greenwald to Omidyar’s outfit had amounted to a stinky “privatization” of the documents that Greenwald had received via leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. “Never before has such a vast trove of public secrets been sold wholesale to a single billionaire as the foundation of a for-profit company,” wrote Ames.

And Carr has made prolific use of Twitter to taunt the Greenwaldians. That’s where he was right after Ames’s Ukraine piece hit on Friday afternoon, ripping First Look staffers who hadn’t spoken up about the Ukraine story:

 

 

 

The world would have to wait a Twitter eternity to get a response from Greenwald, who argued in a Saturday-morning post on the First Look magazine the Intercept that the PandoDaily story was meritless. He accused Pando of getting its facts wrong; of over-hyping its Ukraine piece; and of mangling its critique of journalistic independence. Some of those arguments resonated.

And others cratered. In countering Pando’s contentions about conflicts of interest due to the Omidyar Network’s pursuits, Greenwald advanced a claim that bears repeating:

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.

This approach, continues Greenwald, enables something of a monastic editorial independence. The activities of the Omidyar Network, he contends, “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.”

As Carr himself noted in a rebuttal to Greenwald, the claim of editorial independence is strange in light of a quote that Scahill, a First Look staffer, gave to the Daily Beast: Omidyar “strikes me as always sort of political, but I think that the NSA story and the expanding wars put politics for him into a much more prominent place in his existence. This is not a side project that he is doing. Pierre writes more on our internal messaging than anyone else.”

That Omidyar is engaged in the editorial products that he finances jibes with his experience with Civil Beat, the local-journalism site he founded and funded in Hawaii. There, Omidyar was known as a “very clever headline writer,” in the words of a former Civil Beat editor. As Carr tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “What makes First Look so unbelievably different is to have one person writing all the checks and personally hiring all the staffers. To try and claim that you still have independence after all of that is breathtaking. It’s as close to a lie without knowing what’s in Glenn Greenwald’s brain. How does he think he is independent?”

Given Omidyar’s interest in the news, Greenwald’s policy of self-blinding on the boss’s business interests feels more like a dodge than a last stand for journalistic ethics. When it comes to such matters, ignorance, whether planned and willful or accidental and unintentional, serves no one. Not Omidyar, not Greenwald and not the readers of First Look. Greenwald, Scahill and their colleagues at First Look are radical transparentists, and they shove that credential in the face of anyone who questions why they would publish official secrets. Consistent with such a worldview would be a statement simply stating all of Omidyar’s projects, interests and investments, regardless of whether they surfaced in long-ago press releases.

As a media reporter, the Erik Wemple Blog is duty-bound to whack Greenwald for this complaint in his Saturday morning post: “Can someone please succinctly explain why this is a scandal that needs to be addressed, particularly by First Look journalists? That’s a genuine request.” And here’s a genuine response:

  • It is nothing close to a scandal, but:
  • It is interesting and newsworthy.
  • It concerns a well-funded general-news enterprise about which there’s a lot of curiosity.
  • And it concerns a media outlet committed to ditching the way establishment enterprises do business. Establishment enterprises often don’t address stuff, so just respond and move on. Respond to Pando because Pando asked.

In his own response to the Pando piece, Greenwald, one of three editors of the Intercept, writes, “I have not spoken to Pierre or anyone at First Look – or, for that matter, anyone else in the world – about any of this, and am speaking only for myself here.” So the Erik Wemple Blog asked First Look for more of an official comment. We got a response asking for more “context.” First Look has embraced a non-hierarchical leadership structure, meaning that it could be challenging to find anyone who’ll speak for everyone there.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.