In their phone call the next day, Poitras says, she was fired — and she says it was in retaliation for speaking to the media about the organization’s failure to protect a source who is now serving five years in prison for leaking confidential intelligence documents to one of First Look’s publications, the Intercept.
Poitras revealed her departure from First Look in an open letter on Thursday. The news came nearly seven years after she and several other prominent investigative journalists launched the company they hoped would provide tough-minded, independent and original reporting, with the help of generous funding from billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
In a statement early Thursday afternoon, First Look described Poitras’s parting from the company as a “natural” decision to not renew her contract after she “decided to step away from her role at the company to pursue her own projects.” The company denied that its decision was based on Poitras talking to the media.
Later Thursday, First Look issued another statement that Poitras had “not been active in any capacity with our company for more than two years. This is simply not a tenable situation for us or any company.” Poitras denied this, saying she had been active on several films in production when she was fired as well as making an online security guide for filmmakers.
Her departure means only one person from First Look’s founding team remains after years of turmoil and turnover at the organization, during which she says she was repeatedly “raising concerns internally about patterns of discrimination and retaliation.”
Poitras, a 2012 MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, came to prominence for her 2013 Pulitzer-winning work with Glenn Greenwald bringing to light the blockbuster disclosures of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Greenwald was also one of First Look’s co-founders; he quit in October with a fiery and meandering resignation letter objecting to what he called censorship of a column he had written about then-Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Now, Jeremy Scahill, a former Nation writer who is close to the Intercept’s editor in chief, Betsy Reed, is the only member of the founding team remaining at the organization.
The events leading up to Poitras’s departure are ironic given that First Look’s primary concerns at its outset were data privacy and source protections — areas in which the Intercept failed when it came to the case of Reality Winner, a young Air Force veteran and NSA intelligence specialist who in 2017 sent the publication a classified document about Russian hackers accessing U.S. voter registration databases. Even before the Intercept published the documents, federal investigators traced them back to Winner and arrested her.
First Look conducted two internal reviews of the matter, neither of which have been made public. But in a statement announcing the conclusion of the first review in 2017, Reed concluded that “our practices fell short of the standards to which we hold ourselves for minimizing the risks of source exposure when handling anonymously provided materials.”
According to an unsealed affidavit in the Winner case filed by an FBI agent, the investigation was sparked when Intercept journalists sought to verify the documents she sent and shared them with government officials and a federal contractor before publication.
Poitras, who also won an Academy Award for Snowden documentary “Citizenfour,” transitioned from the Intercept in 2016 to a sister organization within First Look, the Field of Vision production studio. But she was frustrated to see how the matter unfolded — in part because of the Intercept’s carelessness.
The story of Winner’s arrest upstaged the story of the NSA documents, robbing it of the chance to make the impact it should have, Poitras says. Winner was also left with no time to strategize with a lawyer before her speedy apprehension, she noted. While Winner’s less-than-cautious handling of the material might have led the NSA to her eventually, Poitras said in an interview that that should not absolve the Intercept of responsibility to handle the information carefully.
The Winner indictment in 2017 was the first criminal charge filed in a leak investigation during the Trump administration. In 2018 she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison. In December, a federal appeals court affirmed a lower-court ruling denying compassionate release for Winner, even though she had contracted covid-19.
Poitras also objected to how First Look’s internal reviews were conducted, saying they suffered from too much input and oversight from Reed, whom she argues should have kept a distance because of her involvement in the initial story based on the document Winner is accused of leaking.
Reed said that Poitras’s claim that there was no accountability at the Intercept is wrong, noting that “there were two separate reviews, which were comprehensive and conducted by lawyers with a duty to remain independent and impartial. They both concluded that the errors we made in our handling of the story reflected institutional weaknesses, for which I took responsibility as the editor in chief.”
No one involved with the story has been fired or demoted, though the Intercept said it instituted some new newsroom policies. The Intercept has covered Winner’s trial and imprisonment extensively, and First Look covered some of her legal fees.
In September, Poitras shared some of her frustrations with the New York Times, which published a lengthy story on the Intercept’s handling of the Winner matter. She told the Times that First Look engaged in “a cover-up and betrayal of core values,” and that the lack of accountability for the mistakes inside the organization “promoted a culture of impunity and puts future sources at risk.”
In a letter published Thursday on the website of her production company, Praxis Films, Poitras revealed for the first time that she was no longer with First Look and the circumstances that led to her departure.
“I was told my firing was effective immediately and without cause, my access to email was shut down, and that the company had no plans to communicate my abrupt termination to the public,” Poitras wrote in her letter.
She also elaborated on her concerns about the Intercept’s internal investigation, alleging that “the so-called ‘independent’ review” was done by the same lawyer who worked on the Winner story. David Bralow, the newsroom lawyer who said he conducted the second review, told The Washington Post that he joined the company after the Winner story was published and had nothing to do with its reporting or editing.
“CEO Michael Bloom and Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed have demonstrated repeatedly that they consider the whistleblowers and journalists who risk their lives on behalf of the organization as disposable. They demonstrated this by their lack of effort to protect Reality Winner,” Poitras wrote.
She also complained about a decision by Bloom and Reed to cut funding for an archive of Snowden’s NSA documents at the Intercept.
Snowden tweeted in support of Poitras late Thursday, praising the care she took in protecting his identity when she initially worked on his disclosures and noting that “a single mistake could have sent everyone involved to prison—or worse.”
8 p.m. This story has been updated with further comments from First Look and Poitras about her work at the company before she left and with a comment from Edward Snowden.