On the Meaning of Journalistic Independence

This morning, I see that some people are quite abuzz about a new Pando article "revealing" that the foundation of Pierre Omidyar, the publisher of First Look Media which publishes <em>The Intercept</em>, gave several hundred thousand dollars to a Ukraininan "pro-democracy" organization opposed to the ruling regime. <!--more-->

This morning, I see that some people are quite abuzz about a new Pando article “revealing” that the foundation of Pierre Omidyar, the publisher of First Look Media which publishes The Intercept, gave several hundred thousand dollars to a Ukraininan “pro-democracy” organization opposed to the ruling regime. This, apparently, is some sort of scandal that must be immediately addressed not only by Omidyar, but also by every journalist who works at First Look. That several whole hours elapsed since the article was published on late Friday afternoon without my commenting is, for some, indicative of disturbing stonewalling.

I just learned of this article about 30 minutes ago, which is why I’m addressing it “only” now (I apologize for not continuously monitoring Twitter at all times, including the weekend). 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. To be honest, I barely know what it is that I’m supposed to boldly come forth and address, so I’ll do my best to make a few points about this specific article but also make some general points about journalistic independence that I do actually think are important:

(1) The Pando article adopts the tone of bold investigative journalism that intrepidly dug deep into secret materials and uncovered a “shocking” bombshell  (“Step out of the shadows…. Pierre Omidyar”). But as I just discovered with literally 5 minutes of Googling, the Omidyar Network’s support for the Ukrainian group in question, Centre UA, has long been publicly known: because the Omidyar Network announced the investment at the time in a press release and then explained it on its website. 

In a September 15, 2011 press release, the Omidyar Network “announced today its intent to grant up to $3M to six leading organizations focused on advancing government transparency and accountability” including “Centre UA (Ukraine)”. The Network then devoted an entire page of its website (entitled “New Citizen (Centre UA)”) to touting the investment and explaining its rationale and purpose (the group, claims the Network, “seeks to enable citizen participation in national and regional politics by amplifying the voices of Ukrainian citizens and promoting open and accountable government”).


I think it’s perfectly valid for journalists to investigate the financial dealings of corporations and billionaires who fund media outlets, whether it be those who fund or own Pando, First Look, MSNBC, Fox News, The Washington Post or any other. And it’s certainly reasonable to have concerns and objections about the funding of organizations that are devoted to regime change in other countries: I certainly have those myself. But the Omidyar Network doesn’t exactly seem ashamed of these donations, and they definitely don’t seem to be hiding them, given that they trumpeted them in their own press releases and web pages.

(2) 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. Wasn’t it just 72 hours ago that the widespread, mainstream view in the west (not one that I shared) was that there was a profound moral obligation to stand up and support the brave and noble Ukrainian opposition forces as they fight to be liberated from the brutal and repressive regime imposed on them by Vladimir Putin’s puppet? When did it suddenly become shameful in those same circles to support those very same opposition forces?

In fact, I’ve been accused more times than I can count – including by a former NSA employee and a Eurasia Foundation spokesman – of being a Putin shill for not supporting the Ukrainian opposition and not denouncing Russian involvement there (by which they mean I’ve not written anything on this topic). Now we seem to have the exact opposite premise: that the real evil is supporting the opposition in Ukraine and any journalist who works at First Look – including ones who are repeatedly called criminals by top U.S. officials for publishing top secret government documents; or who risk their lives to go around the world publicizing the devastation wrought by America’s Dirty Wars and its dirty and lawless private contractors; or who have led the journalistic attack on the banks that own and control the government – are now tools of neo-liberal, CIA-cooperating imperialism which seeks to undermine Putin by secretly engineering the Ukrainian revolution. To call all of that innuendo muddled and incoherent is to be generous.

(3) 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.

The author of the Pando article seems to understand this point quite well when it comes to excusing himself from working for a media outlet funded by national-security-state-supporting tech billionaires whose views he claims to find “repugnant”:

It is a problem we all have to contend with—PandoDaily’s 18-plus investors include a gaggle of Silicon Valley billionaires like Marc Andreessen (who serves on the board of eBay, chaired by Pierre Omidyar) and Peter Thiel (whose politics I’ve investigated [GG: before working for a media outlet he funded] and described as repugnant.)

So he acknowledges the truly repellent politics of those who fund the media outlet where he does his journalism: Andreessen, a Romney supporter, has become one of the NSA’s most devoted defenders, while the company owned by Paypal founder Thiel, Palantir Technologies, works extensively with the CIA and got caught scheming against journalists, WikiLeaks supporters and Chamber of Commerce critics. But he obviously believes those repellent views and activities do not reflect on him or his journalism. Indeed, any of you who are approvingly citing the Pando article are implicitly saying the same thing: namely, that media outlets funded by government-supporting tech moguls with repugnant histories can produce important journalism, including reporting on other tech moguls.

More generally, you’re endorsing the point that the political ideology of those who fund media outlets, no matter how much you dislike that ideology, does not mean that hard-hitting investigative journalism is precluded or that the journalism reflects the views of those who fund it. Anyone who thinks that The Intercept is or will be some sort of mouthpiece for U.S. foreign policy goals is invited to review the journalism we’ve produced in the 20 days we’ve existed.

Now, if you want to take the position that people should not work at organizations funded by oligarchs, or that journalism is inherently corrupted if funded by rich people with bad political views, then I hope you apply that consistently. Groups like the ACLU, Media Matters, the Center for Constitutional Rights and a whole slew of left-wing groups have been funded for years by billionaire George Soros and his foundations despite a long history of funding of and profiting from all sorts of capitalism projects anathema to the left, including Ukrainian pro-democracy groups (the same Pando writer previously claimed without evidence that the ACLU received a $20 million donation from the Koch Brothers). Or, as Kade Crockford of the ACLU of Massachusetts put it:


Are Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow responsible for all the bad acts of Comcast, which owns MSNBC, or is their journalism impugned by those bad acts? Was WikiLeaks infected with Vladimir Putin’s sins, as some argued, because Julian Assange’s show appeared on RT? Or go ahead and apply those questions to virtually every large media organization or advocacy group you like, which needs substantial funding, which in turn requires that they seek and obtain that funding from very rich people who undoubtedly have political views and activities you find repellent.

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.

But for me, the issue is not – and for a long time has not been – the political views of those who fund journalism. Journalists should be judged by the journalism they produce, not by those who fund the outlets where they do it. The real issue is whether they demand and obtain editorial freedom. We have. But ultimately, the only thing that matters is the journalism we or any other media outlets produce.

(4) Typical for this particular writer, the Pando article is filled with factual inaccuracies, including one extremely serious one:

Of the many problems that poses, none is more serious than the fact that Omidyar now has the only two people with exclusive access to the complete Snowden NSA cache, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. Somehow, the same billionaire who co-financed the “coup” in Ukraine with USAID, also has exclusive access to the NSA secrets—and very few in the independent media dare voice a skeptical word about it. [emphasis added]

Let’s leave to the side the laughable hyperbole that Omidyar is now the mastermind who has secretly engineered the Ukrainian uprising. Let’s also leave to the side a vital fact that people like this Pando writer steadfastly ignore: that there are numerous media entities in possession of tens of thousands of Snowden documents, including The Guardian, Bart Gellman/The Washington Post, The New York Times, and ProPublica, rendering absurd any conspiracy theories that Omidyar can control which documents are or are not published.

The real falsehood here is that Omidyar himself has any access, let alone “exclusive access”, to “the NSA secrets.” This is nothing short of a fabrication. The writer of this article just made that up.

The only Snowden documents Omidyar has ever seen are the ones that have been published as part of stories in media outlets around the world. He has no possession of those documents and no access to them. He has never sought or received access to those documents. He has played no role whatsoever in deciding which ones will be reported. He obviously plays no role in deciding which documents all those other news outlets will report. Other than generally conveying that there is much reporting left to be done on these documents – something I’ve publicly said many times – I don’t believe I’ve ever even had a single discussion with him about a single document in the archive.

We’ve continued to report on those documents with media outlets around the world – in the last month alone, I reported on numerous documents with NBC, while Laura did the same with The New York Times – and will continue to report on them at The Intercept with full editorial independence. But the claim that he has obtained possession of, or even access to, the archive (in full or in part) is an outright falsehood.  

Other inaccuracies pervade the article. Marcy Wheeler, whose comments were prominently featured, complained rather vehemently and at length that the article wildly misrepresented what she said.

(5) I have a long history of condemning U.S. government interference in the governance of other countries, and of the accompanying jingoistic moral narrative that this interference is intended to engender Freedom and Democracy rather than the promotion of U.S. interests. I have equal scorn for those who feign opposition to Russian interference in the sovereignty of other countries while continuing to support all sorts of U.S. interference of exactly that sort. I know little about the specific Ukrainian group at issue here – do any of you touting this article know anything about them? – and I certainly don’t trust this writer to convey anything accurately.

But what I do know is that I would never temper, limit, suppress or change my views for anyone’s benefit – as anyone I’ve worked with will be happy to tell you – and my views on such interference in other countries isn’t going to remotely change no matter the actual facts here. I also know that I’m free to express those views without the slightest fear. And I have zero doubt that that’s true of every other writer at The Intercept. That’s what journalistic independence means.

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