Meet Pierre Omidyar

10.18.13

Pierre Omidyar, Investigative Journalism’s New Patron Saint

The Iranian-American founder of eBay plans to sink millions into a new investigative media project with journalist Glenn Greenwald. Friends and employees tell Lloyd Grove his big move into media is driven by his passion for American democracy.

More than anything else, eBay founder Pierre Morad Omidyar—who is ready to plow as much as $250 million of his nearly $9 billion fortune into an as-yet-undefined journalism venture—has impressed colleagues and acquaintances with his refreshingly modest personal style.

“He’s a very normal person,” says New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who interviewed the press-shy Iranian-American about his plans to join forces with lawyer-turned-investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald, the impresario of the Edward Snowden revelations in Britain’s The Guardian, to create a major media enterprise from the ground up.

“He’s very respectful of the people who work with him, no matter what their status, and he’s willing to help staffers with technical issues,” says former Washington Post managing editor John Temple, a Knight Foundation senior fellow at Stanford University, who spent two and a half years as editor of the Omidyar-published Honolulu Civil Beat, an investigative news site focused on public policy and government accountability. Temple recalls that once, when his Skype connection was on the fritz, Omidyar, a childhood computer nerd, happily rolled up his sleeves. “It wasn’t working,” Temple says, “and Pierre fixed the Skype call.”

Former Daily Beast contributor Eric Pape, currently deputy editor of the Hawaiian site, calls his boss “a very thoughtful, contemplative, very human person,” adding that before he decided to move from Paris to Honolulu five months ago, he had to assure himself that Omidyar “wasn’t a megalomaniac or an asshole.” After an hour’s conversation, Pape says, “he reminded me of my older brother—which is a huge compliment.”

At 46,  Omidyar is—along with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the new owner of The Washington Post—an Internet marketing mastermind poised to exert a massive impact on the future of the struggling news business. Indeed, after Washington Post Co. chief executive Donald Graham made the painful decision to sell the storied but money-losing newspaper, which had been under his family’s control for eight decades, Omidyar was among the moguls he approached to consider buying it.

“I explored purchasing The Washington Post over the summer,” he wrote in a Wednesday blog post. “That process got me thinking about what kind of social impact could be created if a similar investment was made in something entirely new, built from the ground up. Something that I would be personally and directly involved in outside of my other efforts as a philanthropist.”

“Bezos is like a trickster. He’s like a very calculating, secretive genius. Omidyar is much less self-conscious and more open.”

Omidyar added that his joint venture with Greenwald, a fellow Twitter enthusiast he didn’t meet face to face until two weeks ago, dovetails with his “interest in supporting independent journalists in a way that leverages their work to the greatest extent possible, all in support of the public interest. And, I want to find ways to convert mainstream readers into engaged citizens. I think there’s more that can be done in this space, and I’m eager to explore the possibilities.” Like Greenwald’s, Omidyar’s Twitter feed reflects a deep alarm over the National Security Agency’s unchecked collection and storage of personal data belonging to innocent citizens of the United States and other countries.

Technology journalist and entrepreneur David Kirkpatrick, whose Techonomy Media Inc. organizes tech industry conferences, calls Omidyar “a reticent, private, but deeply passionate person when it comes to his ideas and his opinions about how technology is changing the world and politics and media. … He believes very much in the empowerment of the individual and he’s eager to see the Internet used as a tool for reinforcing that empowerment and acting upon it. And he really does care about fairness in all its dimensions.”

Kirkpatrick notes that Omidyar, the only child of high-achieving Iranian exiles—a physician-father and a linguist-mother who moved to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area from Paris, where he was born, when he was six years old—views his good fortune as an obligation. As Omidyar told Forbes magazine in a rare sit-down with a reporter in 2012, “We sort of skipped the ‘regular rich’ and we went straight to ‘ridiculous rich’ … I had the notion that, OK, so now we have all of this wealth, we could buy not only one expensive car, we could buy all of them. As soon as you realize that you could buy all of them, then none of them are particularly interesting or satisfying.”

Kirkpatrick, who usually runs into Pierre and his wife and fellow philanthropist Pamela in New York during the Clinton Global Initiative at their annual September cocktail party—“hundreds of the most earnest do-gooders that the world can offer up”—adds: “He doesn’t  take himself too seriously. He genuinely views this extraordinary windfall he received  from eBay as a gift he has to bear responsibility for, and not just act like a rich guy. He’s not into conspicuous consumption. He has a nice house in Hawaii, and probably a few others, but he’s not the kind of guy who’s going to be sailing around on a 350-foot yacht.”

It’s heartening to many reporters and editors that Bezos and Omidyar have decided to pour major bucks into high-quality journalistic enterprises. But despite their surface similarities as Internet moguls who invented new marketplaces in which to transact commerce—Amazon as an all-purpose retail giant, eBay as a virtual auction house connecting sellers and buyers and taking a commission for the service—Bezos and Omidyar are entirely different animals. For one thing, the 49-year-old Bezos, whose estimated fortune is about three times Omidyar’s, had never demonstrated a commitment to journalism until his purchase of the Post.

Omidyar’s  extensive philanthropic and investment activities are consistent with his avowed goals of solving public policy problems through innovation, citizen engagement, personal empowerment and holding politicians accountable. He’s had skin in the news game at least since he launched Civil Beat in 2010. And while Bezos, as Amazon’s CEO, is fully engaged with running his business empire, Omidyar is eBay’s chairman—meaning he has zero day-to-day duties.

What’s more, while Bezos’s pattern of political contributions fit the profile of a flinty-eyed pragmatist —he has largely donated to Republican and Democratic office-holders with regulatory and legislative jurisdiction over his business interests—Omidyar, by contrast, has opened his checkbook mostly to the Democratic Party. (Never mind that eBay’s longtime chief executive, who is as responsible as anyone for the explosive growth in Omidyar’s bank account since the late 1990s, was former Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman.)

Kirkpatrick offers yet another key distinction: “Bezos is like a trickster. He’s like a very calculating, secretive genius. Omidyar is much less self-conscious and more open. When you talk to him in person, he’s very approachable and unpretentious and friendly.”

All of which raises a skeptical journalist’s question: Isn’t this guy too good to be true?  John Temple, for one, insists Omidyar is the real deal. As the son of two people who left a country riven by political oppression and religious fanaticism, “he really believes in the American Constitution and wants to see it upheld and the promise of America fulfilled. He is an immigrant and, like many of us in journalism, part of his motivation is he cares about the quality of our community and our country and thinks that journalism has a role in setting the tone. And he’s passionate about that.”