Why we shouldn't give Omidyar and First Look the benefit of the doubt

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on December 20, 2013

From The News Desk

As I've written before, coordinating Pando's coverage of Pierre Omidyar and Glenn Greenwald's new journalism venture has been a real trip. The smears from Greenwald's supporters I'm slowly coming to terms with, likewise the vitriol and even the accusations that Pando is secretly controlled by the CIA.

One thing that I still can't understand, though, is why apparently intelligent people -- including some fellow journalists, for Christ's sake -- have demanded that we hold off asking questions about "NewCo" until it has launched.

Why can't we just wait until they actually start publishing… give the guy the benefit of the doubt? Why are we questioning whether NewCo will be a for-profit business? Why demand to know if its reporters are being required to sign non-disclosure agreements? Hell, what business is it of ours that Omidyar has invested in a shady microloans company or two?

The questions are frustrating for two reasons. First, it's clear that many of those begging for amnesty on behalf of Omidyar are doing so because they're kinda hoping he might offer them a job. They know they should probably be asking the same questions but… well… these are uncertain times for journalists and, well, the kids have got to eat and private school isn't cheap.

Second, can it really be true that my esteemed colleagues at other publications don't understand why pre-launch is precisely the time we should be asking the toughest questions?

That point was driven home yesterday when Jay Rosen, one of the Omidyar's first hires, published a press release issued by Omidyar Network.

The release was interesting, not so much for what it said about "First Look Media" but for what it didn't say.

What it did say was that First Look will be a curious hybrid beast: a for-profit technology company supporting a not-for-profit journalism business. As well as being the sole backer of First Look, Omidyar himself will act as publisher of the journalism business. Its journalists will, however, retain full editorial independence. At least some staff (including Rosen) have been asked to sign NDAs, but only concerning "trade secrets," whatever that means.

What it didn't say was... pretty much anything else.

Earlier this month, Jason Calacanis suggested that the reason Omidyar wasn't answering questions about the structure of his venture is that he hadn't yet figured out those answers. Since then I've heard from numerous sources that many of the basic questions around editorial independence, financial structure and Omidyar's own role at NewCo First Look were still up for debate.

In a blog post at Pressthink, Rosen confirmed what those sources had told us: "As we figure out what the pieces of the company will be," he said, "we are announcing them." Responding to a question from a commenter, he added: "If I could tell you more, I would but it simply hasn’t been decided yet." Finally, Rosen confirmed that he hadn't been able to answer questions about his own contract, because he'd only received the final document this week.

And that -- that -- is why we should be asking questions about First Look right now, and why it's such a dereliction of duty that most reporters are taking a "wait and see" position.

As Mark Ames explained, Pierre Omidyar's new venture now effectively controls the largest cache of American national security secrets ever leaked. The only two people with access to that entire cache -- Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras -- now work for a man whose response to reports of mass suicides caused by one of his investments was to delete that investment from his website and pretend it never happened. A man who has said publicly that he might consider handing over sources to law enforcement. A man who made his fortune founding a company that now boasts of handing user data to the government "on a silver platter."

Right now, the clay that will soon harden into First Look Media is still wet. There is still every chance that the final product will be, as Greenwald assures us, a bold, fearless, wonderful journalistic paradise: a place where sources are safe, reporters are independent and Snowden's Secrets (™) will be published even if they contain any embarrassing revelations about eBay or Paypal.

But there is also a chance that it will be none of those things: that Omidyar's public statements on sources, his track record of selective transparency and eBay's friendliness with the government will foreshadow business as usual for this new billionaire-owned media giant.

The more of First Look's rule book that is written in the public spotlight, and the more questions Omidyar, Greenwald, Rosen et al are forced to consider before launch, the more likely the end result will be more of the former and less of the latter.

Photo credit: Matty Gibbon (Creative Commons)