Media Matters

02.10.14

Welcome to Glenn Greenwald, Inc.?

The controversial columnist is the public face of a billionaire-backed new media play. And that could mean problems for a venture with ambitions way beyond the Snowden-verse.

Investigative reporter and columnist Glenn Greenwald was barely five minutes into his appearance Sunday on CNN’s Reliable Sources—an interview promoting the long-awaited online launch of First Look Media, eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s ambitious digital journalism startup—before he called the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee a liar.

“He’s not only lying—and he is lying—but he knows that he’s lying,” Greenwald said about Republican Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, who suggested last week that journalists who’ve disseminated classified documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden might be guilty of “fencing stolen material.”

“This is what Mike Rogers is notorious for in Washington,” Greenwald went on, “just making things up and smearing political opponents and journalists he doesn’t like.”

The retort was a familiar-sounding one for the 46-year-old Greenwald, a former trial lawyer who tends to treat policy disagreements as blood feuds and is never reluctant to question motives and fling rather personal insults. With documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and Oscar-nominated foreign policy muckraker Jeremy Scahill, among other colleagues, he will in the next day or so unveil a digital magazine devoted at first to heretofore unpublished documents from Snowden’s voluminous top-secret cache revealing “a host of new and disturbing revelations,” according to a blog post by Omidyar and First Look editorial strategist Eric Bates.

As of the weekend, the precise timing of the magazine’s launch was being kept under wraps—“we just say early next week,” Bates told me. Even its frequency, masthead and title were hush-hush, although wags in the journalism game are already calling it “The Snowden Weekly.” (Shortly before 1 a.m. Monday, the project went live, leading with a story about the NSA's unreliable use of electronic surveillance over human intelligence to target lethal drone strikes; the actual name of the new magazine is The Intercept.)

Bates, a former executive editor of Rolling Stone when Omidyar recruited him last November to help staff and structure a planned $250 million enterprise, stressed that the Greenwald/Poitras/Scahill project is merely the first in a series of digital magazines, each with a distinctive voice and visual style and covering the waterfront from politics to show business, that will be introduced in coming months.

The title, the timing, and the launch date of a new 'digital magazine' are all being kept under wraps. The star–not so much.

But since last fall the pugnacious Greenwald—constantly making television appearance by satellite from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he lives with his domestic partner, David Miranda—has seemed to be the camera-ready face of First Look Media. Bates, however, said that’s all wrong.

“I think the way the news of the founding of it got leaked led to that misperception, because every time you saw the initial headlines for months, it was a ‘Glenn Greenwald-led organization funded by Pierre Omidyar,’ as if Pierre was simply writing the checks,” Bates told me. “And I think we’ve done a better job of making it clear that’s just not the case… Our ambitions and aspirations are much broader.” Indeed, Bates described the $250 million being spent by the press-shy Omidyar—whose personal fortune  is estimated at $9 billion—as an “initial” investment.

But the question is: how much top-flight talent can they recruit if Greenwald remains the organization's apparent front man?

Greenwald and Scahill, especially, have positioned themselves as fearless warriors against “modern establishment journalism” as practiced by mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times and NBC News (on which Greenwald engaged in a memorable brawl over Snowden with Meet The Press host David Gregory).

 At last summer’s 2013 Socialism Conference in Chicago, Scahill spoke of “lapdog stenographers posing as journalists,” prompting cheers from the audience, and Greenwald inveighed against “the corruption of American journalism,”  “actors who play the role of journalists on TV,” and even former Times executive editor Bill Keller, who “defines good journalism by how much you please the people in power you’re covering.”

That would have come as news to Keller who in a December 2005 showdown at the Oval Office defied President Bush and his demand that the Times not publish an exposé  of the NSA’s warrantless electronic eavesdropping program targeting people inside the United States. The story—by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau—earned Keller the Bush White House sobriquet of “traitor” and was a worthy predecessor to Greenwald’s NSA/Snowden scoops last June in The Guardian, for which Greenwald and Poitras are on the short list for a prestigious George Polk Award.

Some mainstream journalists who would otherwise be logical recruits to work on national security issues with Greenwald & Co.—such as the Times’s Risen, who didn’t respond to my voicemail message, or The New Yorker’s Amy Davison and The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman, who declined to comment for this story—haven't signed on with First Look, at least not so far. Perhaps they're loath to identify themselves with a worldview that leaves so little room for nuance.

 “I think if people had those sorts of concerns,” Bates said, “then they probably wouldn’t work on the magazine that Glenn and Laura and Jeremy are launching.” Greenwald, meanwhile, argued on Reliable Sources that because of their reputations for protecting confidential sources and reporting aggressively “even if the government doesn’t like it... journalists know that about us and I think that some will be willing to work with us.”

Greenwald and Poitras—who have control over some, but not all of the Snowden cache—have also taken fire from the left for allegedly privatizing documents of great public interest in the service of potential corporate profits.

“Edward Snowden has popularly been compared to major whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Jeffrey Wigand,” wrote Pando Daily’s Mark Ames, citing the whistleblowers  at the center of the Pentagon Papers, Wikileaks and the unmasking of Big Tobacco. “However, there is an important difference in the Snowden files that has so far gone largely unnoticed. Whistleblowing has traditionally served the public interest. In this case, it is about to serve the interests of a billionaire starting a for-profit media business venture. This is truly unprecedented.” (That's also not quite right; First Look's journalism will be housed in a non-profit venture, while the technologies being built to operate the magazines will be done under a for-profit umbrella.)

Noting that such outlets as The Guardian, The Washington Post and The New York Times have also enjoyed access to parts of the Snowden collection, Bates said it was Snowden’s choice to first turn to Greenwald and Poitras because “he wanted to give them to someone he thought would do an aggressive and responsible job of looking into them… and Glenn and Laura have been working tirelessly to do exactly that. So there’s nothing different about that arrangement than the time-honored tradition of honoring the wishes of your source.”

Bates also defended Greenwald’s publication of NSA revelations with competing news outlets since his arrival at First Look—notably the Canadian Broadcasting Co. and, ironically, NBC News—explaining that Greenwald had urgent stories to break and, until now, no platform on which to share them.

Bates added: “Glenn has his way of approaching journalism. He’s very upfront and transparent, and people who follow his work do so because they really appreciate that and admire it…What’s interesting about this is there has been almost no responsible criticism of Glenn’s journalism as journalism. He’s gotten it right. He’s broken one of the biggest stories of our time under tremendous pressure. People might have issues with his politics and questions about whether they would have preferred that some of that information had been kept secret, or about the style in which people feel Glenn conducts himself, but the journalism has stood up. He’s not coming under criticism for that.”