(AP/Bennet Group) Pierre Omidyar.
(AP/Bennet Group) Pierre Omidyar.

Last Friday, news site PandoDaily alleged a conflict of interest at First Look Media, the general-interest news site bankrolled by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and starring Glenn Greenwald. Donations by the Omidyar Network to pro-democracy groups also supported by the United States government, argued the piece, added up to 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…”

Noting that the story didn’t include a response from the Omidyar Network or First Look Media, the Erik Wemple Blog asked Paul Carr, PandoDaily’s investigations editor, how much time they’d allowed for comment. “A small number of hours,” responded Carr.

Last night, Gina Lindblad, a spokesperson for First Look, e-mailed the Erik Wemple Blog to say that the request for comment from PandoDaily didn’t come through till 12:22 p.m. Pacific time on Friday. The story was posted at 12:31 p.m. that day. Apparently relying on those numbers, Pierre Omidyar himself hit Twitter today to blast at the protocol:

 

When asked last night about the discrepancies, Carr brushed them aside. “[T]hey didn’t reply after the post went up, or at all since,” wrote Carr via e-mail. On a previous story, says Carr, the site gave the Omidyar folks five hours of notice, with no result.

 

Omidyar is the publisher of First Look, and he has just laid down a standard that could sting his own people. How often will Greenwald & Co. enroll the National Security Agency or the CIA in the early stages of its reporting, as opposed to wrapping up a story and asking for comment just before publishing? We shall see.

Meanwhile, Greenwald yesterday sent the Erik Wemple Blog responses to our questions regarding the PandoDaily story and the back-and-forth that it kicked off. Here’s the Q & A, unedited:

EWB: Why not just come out and disclose all of Omidyar’s investments and interests, just for the sake of transparency, even if some of them have previously been the subject of press releases?

Greenwald: I don’t have any objection to that transparency standard, provided that it’s consistently applied to everyone who owns, funds, or substantially influences big media outlets. Have you, for instance, posed this demand to Jeff Bezos?

In the case of this specific investment of the Omidyar Network, they sent out a press release trumpeting it, and then put up a web page about it describing it, along with their other investments. I’m not sure how much more transparency can be given.

I have no objection to greater demands for transparency; as I said in what I wrote, the financial dealings of moguls who own, control or fund media outlets is fair game (I think the same is true for the multi-millionaire hosts on network and cable news who influence news content: shouldn’t all their investments be publicly disclosed too?).

But what I find irrational is this apparent belief that there’s something unusual or unique about how First Look Media is funded. The reality is that virtually every large media outlet in the U.S. is funded and controlled by a tiny group of very rich people, and whatever transparency standards are being imposed on First Look should be applied equally to everyone.

EWB: Omidyar has been known to have a healthy engagement in editorial products that he’s bankrolled. Nothing scandalous there, but doesn’t it invalidate your policy of not knowing what his investments/interests are?

Greenwald: He has zero role or influence in my journalism or the editorial product of the Intercept. If he tried to dictate or control what anyone wrote, that would be a major problem and then your hypothetical might be relevant. But he hasn’t, and I don’t know of anyone at the Intercept who would tolerate such efforts. One of the things that we believe makes what we’re building unique is that it’s centrally based on the principle of journalistic independence: other than the demands of factual accuracy, nothing should constrain a journalist’s ability to write what she wants and how she wants, least of all the publisher.

Pierre is adamant that he wants to support independent journalists and exert no editorial control of any kind over what they write. Everything I’ve seen has been consistent with that. The most compelling proof of his authenticity is that he has thus far hired exactly those journalists who have proven themselves the most unwilling to accept any sort of control – from Jeremy Scahill to Laura Poitras to Matt Taibbi and plenty of others. Pierre is well aware of the fact that none of them would tolerate for even a second having anyone tell them what they are or are not permitted to write about.

EWB: Strikes me that the Pando story, while not a bombshell, certainly contained interesting information that a lot of people didn’t know about before. So then why make a fuss about responding to it?

Greenwald: I love the Catch-22 that gets set up here. Had I ignored the Pando post – which I easily could have done, and most media people would have done – I’d be criticized for being insular, unresponsive, and unaccountable.
But then I answer it – comprehensively and instantly – and I’m told that I’m making “a fuss about responding to it”.

Should I have pretended to find the innuendo in the post more credible than I actually did? Should I have indulged the hilarious suggestion that we are now going to be tools of U.S. foreign policy and imperialism by virtue of this 2011 investment? These Pando writers are the same people who were claiming a short time ago that First Look would tolerate only attacks on the government but not large corporate power – at the very same time that we were negotiating with Matt “vampire squid” Taibbi and had already hired a bevvy of journalists with a long history of investigating and denouncing corporate power, including myself.

I don’t take those Pando writers seriously at all. I found the innuendo they spewed to be baseless and reckless. But I still answered it.

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