Sunday, November 02, 2014
Through a crack darkly: The Intercept, a billionaire, a controversy, many questions
by Larry Geller
A tweet from WikiLeaks caught my attention last night, and I followed the links it offered:
We’ll get to the substance of the links in a moment. The tweet itself condenses a lot into its fewer-than-140-characters. Who is this “Obama-linked billionaire?” Why, Pierre Omidyar, of course. Did he, in fact, bog down reporting on the Snowden leaks? That does not seem clear. Perhaps Assange knows more than he is saying, or perhaps not.
The tweet from Wikileaks editor Julian Assange carries a strong accusation. Certainly, Assange is an insider on all things Snowden, but the links don’t seem to support his assertion.
Pierre Omidyar and I have only one thing in common: we both signed up for Twitter early enough that we could get our first names, @Pierre and @Larry (which I don’t really use much). Otherwise, we live in two non-intersecting worlds.
Perhaps few people can identify with a billionaire, and few move in their circles. And so they become obvious targets. Pierre Omidyar has invested personal time in his journalism endeavors in addition to funding them. He appears to be a hands-on billionaire, if you can imagine that.
I enjoyed watching his struggles with the Python language as the Civil Beat website stumbled into existence, as someone who also “used to be” a crack programmer—these days I leave it to others, and perhaps he should have also. But actually I have that report only on hearsay. Civil Beat has proven itself to be a valuable asset on the Hawaii journalism scene. Civil Beat and The Intercept would not exist but for Omidyar’s vision. The website is now mostly fine.
On the outside of Civil Beat, on the outside of First Look and the Intercept, who knows what really goes on within those organizations? Who knows what goes on inside any private organization, for that matter?
Something almost unknown in reporting has taken place, something hard to evaluate—the insiders have chosen to air their own “dirty laundry.” Why?
Assange’s first link points to The Inside Story Of Matt Taibbi’s Departure From First Look Media (The Intercept, 10/30/2014). The story does not really detail the differences that resulted in Taibbi’s departure, but it does collaterally reveal contention between Omidyar, his management team, and the journalists at The Intercept. The differences are supposedly resolved. But why were they included in an article about Matt Taibbi? And did all that really impact the release of Snowden documents? The link is, however, interesting and somewhat curious.
It’s only a small crack that has been opened, so one can perceive only so much through it, and infer not much more.
Via First Look Media, Omidyar is doing something quite different from his experiment at Civil Beat in Honolulu. When First Look formed the Intercept and lured the Snowden reporters into the fold, I felt that there was some reason to be cautious, if not suspicious: one billionaire, a person who is allowed through that fence into the White House, appeared to have corraled the reporters in possession of the Snowden data trove who had been carefully metering its release via The Guardian and other newspapers.
Does Omidyar now have a “first look” at that data, and might his new organization possibly take control of it away from Greenwald, Poitas, et. al.? The US government probably doesn’t appreciate Jeremy Scahill very much, either (Scahill is a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, and Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, both published by Nation Books. Dirty Wars is also a movie. Jeremy Scahill has frequently appeared on Democracy Now).
Note that the “Inside story” article above is bylined Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Jeremy Scahill, and John Cook. They even posted their email addresses at the end of the article. Strange indeed. What are we supposed to make of the entire Intercept staff joining in an article asserting that everything is really ok with them now, though they hadn’t been asked? And then to encourage direct communication via posting their emails?
In June, Taibbi, Greenwald, Poitras, and Scahill wrote a joint letter to Omidyar outlining their principal grievances—the lack of clear budgets and repeated and arbitrary restrictions on hiring—and making clear that a failure to resolve them would jeopardize the feasibility of both projects.
That letter led to lengthy and often heated discussions. But they were productive: Most of The Intercept’s problems were eventually resolved. The magazine received a substantial budget, which Cook was free to use as he wished without consultation with First Look, and The Intercept resumed hiring a team of talented reporters, editors, and researchers. The site began producing stories more regularly, morale improved significantly as oversight from First Look diminished, and the team is free to do the reporting it wants to do without interference.
The article headline promises news about Taibbi’s departure but doesn’t provide much. Inside we instead find revelations about “heated discussions” related to how The Intercept (unrelated to Taibbi’s separate venture) functions at its very root. The Intercept exists at the whim of Pierre Omidyar, and nothing said by the authors guarantees what would happen should he be displeased in the future, or what his ownership of the venture implies for its continuity.
Julian Assange asserts that the Snowden revelations were entrained in this dispute, but the article linked from his tweet by itself doesn’t support that.
Assange’s second link is to his article WikiLeaks statement on the mass recording of Afghan telephone calls by the NSA (Wikileaks, 5/23/2014) which is on a different topic entirely. It reports that The Intercept (as well as the Washington Post) censored the name of a country—which Wikileaks identifies as Afghanistan—in a report at the request of the US government. The article makes no claim or implication that the decision to withhold the name of the country was influenced by Omidyar, though it names him as the publisher of The Intercept.
Pierre Omidyar has many facets and interests. He cannot be smeared as Assange appears to do. Getting to know him through his public activities would be a better approach. Omidyar has been the subject of criticism, but not so far with regard to his support of investigative journalism. Yet he is under attack, and at the same time Greenwald has chosen to reveal internal matters related to his management of The Intercept. Why?
Omidyar is well-known and respected in Hawaii as a philanthropist, though some are critical of his investments on Kauai, and others support them. You can Google to learn more. He is also owner, with Steve Case, of Maui Pineapple Co, which was featured in a Mother Jones account of human trafficking, Bound for America (Mother Jones, May/June 2010). Omidyar became an owner after the alleged events described by MJ took place, but currently, Maui Pineapple Company is contesting an EEOC suit that most other farms have chosen to settle. This is not to question the validity of Maui Pine’s position, since their labor was recruited from Global Horizons, also named in an EEOC action.
A flank attack against both Omidyar and Greenwald was mounted by OpEd News here and by Pando Daily here and here. The attacks relate to Omidyar’s alleged partial funding of USAID support to Ukrainian rebels. Those articles contain reaction and other links, I leave the exploration of this thread to the reader as homework. Whether these articles relate to Omidyar’s support of investigative journalism at all is unclear.
All this illustrates that there is more to the billionaire than appears on his Wikipedia page (and incidentally should be a lesson to those who rely on Wikipedia pages as a sole source). Studying Omidyar even briefly shows that he is much more than a micromanager who disputes taxi fares, he is also a macro-actor on a local and national scale. He is able and willing to make a difference, to make difficult things happen, and so far, to sustain his support indefinitely.
The Intercept article opens a narrow crack through which we get a perhaps sanitized version of an internal dispute. That’s still more info than other organizations typically spill except perhaps when a disgruntled former employee pens a tell-all article. It’s highly unusual.
At the same time, maybe there is a reason, not known at present, why the reporters chose to reveal their differences with their publisher. Also unknown is whether Greenwald and his colleagues have taken adequate steps to protect the sacred trove of Snowden data entrusted to them.
Not related but check this out: Ed Snowden Taught Me To Smuggle Secrets Past Incredible Danger. Now I Teach You (The Intercept, 10/28/2014)
Very much related (if you find the article to be too long, skip down to about half-way): The Pierre Omidyar Insurgency (New York, 11/3/2014)
The eBay founder was a mild-mannered Obama supporter looking for a way to spend his time and fortune. The Snowden leaks gave him a cause—and an enemy.
I agree Omidyar is an unusual actor, falling outside the normal, predictable categories. In addition to his meddling in Ukraine, which helped lead to an explosion of violence and regional instability, Pierre is meddling in Hawaii's elections through his semi-covert financing of public relation campaigns to push through two constitutional amendments on the ballot.
A lot of people are indignant about Dow Chemical, Monsanto, PRP and other corporate attempts to overwhelm our democratic process with a flood of money. But little attention has gone to Omidyar's attempt to buy influence with his money. And, despite the lofty pronouncements he often makes about "transparency," at least one of his groups has actively misled people as to the source of their funding.
Here is Pierre in the NY Mag interview:
"We’re really looking for new ways to bring more transparency and accountability to our government and to society as a whole.”
So why did Ulupono and its associates lie repeatedly about the so-called Local Food Coalition behind the Ag Bonds amendment? It was obvious there was Big Money financing their slick public relations campaign, so when online suspicions suggested they were being financed by the GMO companies, they said their funding came solely from the members of the coalition. It was only last Monday, when they filed their financial disclosure forms that it was revealed of the $505,250 raised by the LFC, 99% came from Pierre Omidyar, through his investment firm, Ulupono Initiatives. All three officers listed as officers of the “coalition” are employees of Ulupono. So this "coalition" is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Omidyar and his for-profit investment firm. An investment firm which is focused in three areas: agriculture, alternative energy and recycling. Fields which would stand to benefit should the constitutional amendment pass. Without the "transparency" he professes to support, how would voters be able to probe into Omidyar's potential conflicts of interest?
Being in the presence of great wealth tends to bend the thinking of regular folks, certainly including my own. Our hope that someone super-rich, like Pierre, might, if benevolent enough, be able to rescue us from our dilemma, help OUR side fight back against the evil concentration of wealth on the OTHER SIDE, maybe we should adopt an "Ends Justify the Means" attitude in evaluating Pierre's half-million dollar meddling in our election?
That appears to be the approach some people are taking.
Not only has his financial backing of the measure been deceptive, so too, has been the PR campaign his money has bought. We are being told the Ag Bonds Amendment (#2), will help "small," "local" farmers producing "food." But if you read the actual language, the beneficiaries are designated as "agricultural operations." There is no talk of "small" farmers as opposed to HUGE industrial ag operations. There is no requirement the companies be locally-owned rather than transnational corporations. And the benefits are aimed at ALL "agricultural operations," a much broader category than "food production." The most profitable agricultural operations in the state do NOT produce food, but produce GMO seed corn. This amendment is also being supported by bio-fuel advocates, who envision getting tax free bonds for planting bio-fuel crops.
The small, local farmers whose faces appear in the ads are those least likely to benefit from the issuance of these bonds, as their credit-rating is generally low, due to their inability to secure longterm leases on farmlands, which makes their business plans vulnerable to factors beyond their control.
The PR campaign is consciously dishonest. Pierre's model of social change, using a marketing firm to manipulate of public opinion, bears responsibility for that. You cannot finance a wholly-owned astro-turf operation and pretend it is a grassroots coalition.