All the billionaire's men (Or: Shattered Glenn)
“It is one thing for a journalist to make a mistake; like everyone, they all do that at some point. But to expressly lie about your sources in order to make your assertions seem more substantial is as serious a journalistic breach as can be committed.”
—Glenn Greenwald (2006)
Silicon Valley billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s flagship publication, The Intercept, has suffered through a series of humiliating failures in its first two years, but the newest bombshell, which dropped yesterday, is an entirely different matter. The publication had its own digital Stephen Glass*.
Correspondent Juan Thompson was caught inventing entire stories, sources and quotes in his year-plus time with the publication, about half of its existence. The practice apparently continued under two different editors: John Cook and Betsy Reed.
It’s the sort of editorial failure that would destroy most fledgling publications. The New Republic is nearly a century old, and yet it never quite recovered from its Stephen Glass failure. Neither has the New York Times completely overcome its Jayson Blair scandal — in fact public editor Margaret Sullivan recently attributed some of the newspaper’s over-caution in pursuing stories like Snowden’s to lingering institutional damage from its 2003 Jayson Blair scandal.
To briefly recap: On Tuesday, February 2, Intercept editor-in-chief Betsy Reed published a “Note To Readers” acknowledging that one of their reporters, Juan Thompson, had fabricated stories, quotes, and sources, and displayed a “pattern of deception.”
Thompson was hired by then-editor John Cook in November 2014 — after which Cook moved back across the office corridor to Gawker Media, and was replaced by Reed, who let Thompson go last month after 14 months with the media outlet. Several of Thompson’s stories now appear either as retracted or corrected.
Intercept founding editor Glenn Greenwald has described what his own reporter has done as “as serious a journalistic breach as can be committed.” But he wasn’t actually taking about Thompson. He wrote those words back in 2006 about other media’s journalists. When it comes to his own journalist, Juan Thompson, however — Greenwald, like his boss Omidyar and his other colleagues, has said peep.
Despite promising that The Intercept would do everything differently and restore ethics and purpose to journalism, Greenwald kept silent over this worst of journalistic failures, and instead spent all day yesterday twitter-hectoring other tweeters over an issue far more important than owning up to the worst of all journalism failures in your own house — BernieBros!
Distracted with all-important social media gnats, this meant the entire Intercept Stephen Glass problem was dumped on editor-in-chief Reed’s shoulders, despite the fact that she didn’t hire the journalist in question.
By taking full responsibility and limiting The Intercept’s coverage of their journalistic malpractice to a single editor, it looks like a classic case of corporate crisis management, not media responsibility. Reed has been forced to walk the plank, while their Gawker allies across the office hallway — led by the man who originally hired Thompson, Gawker Media editor John Cook — went to work publicly gutting the disgraced African-American journalist.
If one were really cynical, one might consider the Intercept’s handling of their Stephen Glass problem as a perfect example of PR crisis management. No institutional reckoning, putting all blame on one editor’s shoulders while everyone else busies themselves distracting readers with other matters, and leaving the sleazy public gutting work to their Gawker allies. It was all just Betsy Reed’s fault, and she apologized, so let’s all just move on. As if we’re talking about a product recall — and not journalism.
Even without the cynicism, you might expect more from a muckraking publication like the Intercept than a quiet mea culpa.
You’d expect insight into how it happened, why it happened. When the Jayson Blair scandal rocked the New York Times, they devoted thousands of words, several reporters, researchers and editors to not just apologize as The Intercept’s editor has done, but to explain how and why it happened to their readers, as a way of trying to restore trust.
When USAToday discovered that its reporter Jack Kelley had invented stories, sources and quotes, that old media newspaper set up an internal investigative a team of reporters, editors and a three-person group of journalists from outside the newspaper to investigate not only the extent of Kelley’s journalism malpractice, but also how it happened in the USAToday editorial process. In response, USAToday published an initial investigation; a second, 10-part investigation plus report; and a publisher’s apology. The purpose, again, was not just public relations crisis management to contain the problem and protect the brand, but rather a serious attempt to restore trust—by letting readers into the editorial process, to see how it went wrong, and presumably how it would be fixed.
With the Intercept, we’re hearing no such thing. Not a peep from their publisher Omidyar; not a word from the Intercept’s founding editors Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill or Laura Poitras. Greenwald was too busy yesterday twitter-scolding about the Berniebro kerfuffle and retweeting the glorious National Magazine Award that Betsy Reed picked up the day before revealing their Stephen Glass problem; Poitras is too busy converting our leaked intelligence secrets into her personal Whitney Museum art property; and Scahill . . .
Well, let’s go back to the real heart of the problem, using Scahill’s own early description of how The Intercept would disrupt journalism and create a new paradise.
Note here the use of every corporate Silicon Valley cliche in the book, from disrupting hierarchies and horizontal structures to the demeaning Bay Area quasi-familiarity of “Pierre” in Scahill’s enchanted description:
“One of the reasons why we’re really excited about working with Pierre is that he said that he didn’t want to have a top-down model of editorial process where editors are telling reporters what to do. So we’re going to develop more of a horizontal model where editors are supporting the work of the journalists but that it’s going to be a journalism-driven website. . . . We’re not just trying to fill positions with people. We’re trying to bring people on board based on [a] proven track record of great journalism and trying to create a space for them where they can do that journalism without being hindered by bureaucratic institutions or processes.”
Hopefully by this point, we’ve all woken up from the pixie dust and we can all reasonably agree that Scahill was mouthing embarrassing Silicon Valley cant, planted in his mouth by Pierre himself.
Anyone who knows the history of this sort of corporate cant knows that it comes out of mid-20th century corporate management theory, when corporate “decentralization”/flattening hierarchies was The Big New Business Thing, implemented across corporate America as a way to get employees to work more, and work harder, by giving them the false sense that they were being empowered by mystical “decentralization” and “flattened hierarchies”. . . . when all that really happened was that corporate power was just disguising itself behind the smoke and mirrors of horizontalist rhetoric.
Somehow, though, “Pierre” was able to convince a fearless war leftist correspondent like Scahill to spout banal Silicon Valley corporatespeak. And somehow Pierre got Greenwald, whom Scahill says is “the conscience of America,” to parrot the same:
"We want to avoid this hierarchical, top-down structure where editors are bosses and obstacles to being published," Greenwald explains. "We are trying to make it much more collaborative. Our journalists have a variety of tools to make their writing better and one of them is the editor. We also want journalists to help to hire editors."
And when Matt Taibbi (my former partner at The eXile) first joined Team Omidyar in February 2014, he announced his move using a techie/Omidyar lexicon totally alien to anything I ever recall from Matt, full of futuristic-optimistic Bay Area cheerleader blather:
“It’s obvious that we’re entering a new phase in the history of journalism,” Mr. Taibbi said. “This is clearly the future, and this was an opportunity for me to be part of helping to found something and create something that might carry us into the next generation.”
If any other Silicon Valley tool talked this way about any other tech product marketed to consumers—say, Uber disrupting taxis, or AirBnB disrupting hotels, or a hundred other tech companies talking the same disruption/frictionless bullshit — east coast media elites would sneer as a knee-jerk reaction. And rightfully so.
But for some reason, when that same Silicon Valley corporate-tech cant is used in the service of selling Big Tech billionaire journalism, our media elites turn to butter. No one stopped to ask if they’d smelled a Silicon Valley rat.
This selling-what-they-want-to-hear is a common feature of literary fraud — whether that literary fraud is a crock of horseshit about a journalism disruption technology that will save us all... or a fraudulent article filed by an inexperienced reporter, a story tailored to fit into exactly what the audience wanted to see, so badly that they wouldn’t have any reason to double-check it...
And this is where the heart of the problem lies. Structurally, philosophically, ideologically, The Intercept and First Look Media are the vision of its billionaire publisher, and 100% owner, Pierre Omidyar. It’s Omidyar who speaks the language of disruption, horizontalism, and breaking down old hierarchies and frictions between reader and journalist. And it’s there that we would find some answers about what is structurally wrong with The Intercept’s editorial management, if The Intercept ever decided it should be held to the same standards of journalistic accountability that Greenwald and co scold everyone else to hold to.
Now The Intercept has on its hands the worst of all possible journalism malpractice problems. And its response, rather than an improvement on the bad old media, is a complete joke.
What’s clear after all the scandals and problems is that the Intercept acts as if it some kind of magic pixie left-teflon coating — Leftlon, if you will — because no media publication on earth has been so coddled by the left and by aspiring investigative journalists as The Intercept. No matter how many scandals, disappointments, lies and failures it suffers — the spectacular collapse of The Racket; revelations in New York magazine and Vanity Fair that “Pierre” and his hired eBay/PayPal corporate flaks control the entire structural pipeline, from The Intercept’s hiring and firing, to approving every journalist’s taxi and cocktail expenses; Pando’s scoops on Omidyar’s role co-funding Ukraine regime-change groups with USAID, helping spark a war with pro-Russian rebels that has left thousands dead, millions displaced, and altered America’s global military strategy; and the endless waves of personnel defections and corporate rebrandings — The Intercept keeps humming along, totally unaccountable while calling everyone else to account for their sins. No one seems to mind, especially not on the left side of the media, which normally minds everything — everything but Omidyar.
Actually, it’s not magic or Leftlon or anything mysterious — it’s the same old tried-and-true formula of publisher billions, combined with a completely shameless, conscience-free refusal to hold oneself to the same standards of accountability demanded of everyone else— it’s an old formula that’s protected American elites in their cushy positions since the days of powdered wigs, feathered pens, and slave cabins.
Now we’re in a situation where Omidyar’s pet media project has fenced off the largest cache of leaked American intelligence secrets ever, making fools of a lot of people who’d rather not go the next obvious step and question the rationale of keeping it in Omidyar’s safe. If we accept the fact that where there’s Stephen Glass smoke, there’s more serious editorial fire — then we go back to the question I first raised in Pando in November 2013 (for which Greenwald smeared me as a CIA agent, a mentally ill stalker, a child rapist, and other insanely vile attacks): How is the public interest being served by privatizing our property — our intelligence secrets — to a demonstrably incompetent tech billionaire? The secrets don’t “belong” to Omidyar, Greenwald, Poitras or Snowden—they are the property of The People, entrusted to Greenwald only as long as his judgment remains proven . . . and in his judgment, Greenwald sold his and Poitras monopoly on the complete cache of Snowden secrets to Omidyar’s multi-million dollar digital fencing operation.
Nearly two and a half years later, where are we at? According to Cryptome.org’s tally, Omidyar’s slow drip of Snowden leaks — 6,209 pages so far out of a total of anywhere between 58,000 and 250,000+ — means that at the current rate, it will take between 20 and 620 years to completely leak all of the secrets.
Which brings us back to the heart of the Juan Thompson/Stephen Glass problem at The Intercept, and it’s a very serious problem for all of us: Journalism can’t be saved by “civic-minded” tech billionaires, as Greenwald once promised Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. It can’t be saved by mystical mid-20th century managerial theories on horizontalism either. It can only be destroyed, and in the process of this destruction, only make a very few people fabulously wealthy, and everyone else standing around broke with their mouths open, falling in line in the hope they too may one day be picked to join the billionaire’s team, so long as they behave and show the proper respect.
Meantime, we have no idea how much deeper and how much worse The Intercept’s editorial problems are. The only thing we can say for sure now is that by Greenwald’s own written standards, he has demonstrated poor judgment in privatizing The People’s property — our NSA secrets, leaked by Snowden — in the hands of a wildly incompetent publishing concern, overseen by a totally unaccountable tech billionaire and his loyal corporate minions.
* The Stephen Glass scandal was first uncovered by then Forbes reporter, Adam Penenberg who later became editor of Pando. He wrote a comprehensive follow up to the story here.