On the importance of keeping investors out of the newsroom, and not treating your readers like fools


greenwald-a-different-approachYesterday afternoon, Pando published a report by Mark Ames showing that eBay founder Pierre Omidyar invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in Ukrainian opposition groups involved in the overthrow of the country’s government. Even more interesting, given Omidyar is now publisher of “The Intercept,” a blog which vows to expose American government wrongdoing, is the revelation that his co-investor in the groups was… the US government.

This morning, Omidyar Group staffer Glenn Greenwald spent almost three thousand words meticulously not responding to the piece. In a blog post titled “On the Meaning of Journalistic Independence“, Greenwald explains…

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:

Of course, the hubristic “On” in the title should have warned readers that what followed would be, at best, undergraduate-level rhetoric. And sure enough, Greenwald tries to pull the old “this is old news, let’s move on” trick beloved of politicians and anyone who binge-watched “Scandal”…

“[A]s I just discovered with 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.“

Greenwald is correct on that point. In 2011, Omidyar Network did disclose its investment in the (then) little known “Centre UA.” In fact, Greenwald could have saved himself those five minutes of Googling: Ames’ piece contained a link to that same announcement. The link came a few paragraphs below the part where Ames said explicitly that some of our information came from “financial disclosures,” and a few paragraphs above the part where we embedded pages of documents not published by Omidyar Networks, showing Omidyar’s co-investors to be the US government.

As Greenwald says, those disclosures and other documents were first published three years ago, long before Omidyar launched his “adversarial” news site, long before the Ukrainian revolution and long before Intercept staffer Marcy Wheeler voiced her suspicions as to who was really behind the events in Kiev. We took the view that those few readers who might have stumbled across the disclosures in the past were unlikely to remember them in the context of recent events.

That view turned out to be correct. You only have to see the storm of Tweets from prominent journalists expressing shock at Ames’ report…. or read Greenwald’s own words:

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.

Well good, now you are aware, Glenn. Journalism accomplished.

The remainder of Greenwald’s rebuttal is his usual mix of bluster and self-contradiction. Having said he has no opinion of his boss’ co-investments with the US government, he then spends hundreds of words defending them…

“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?

Of course, at no point in his piece did Ames argue that Omidyar should not be allowed to invest in foreign opposition groups, nor did the piece say Omidyar should he feel ashamed for supporting the Ukrainian revolution. They’re his billions and he may do with them as he pleases.

The point of the piece — aside from to convey facts to our readers — is that Omidyar and First Look have made statement after statement about how they aim to be a thorn in the side of the US government, and yet in several cases Omidyar has co-invested with that same US government in order to shape foreign policy to suit his own worldview. (A wag might point out that it’s far easier to put a thorn in someone’s side if you’re sitting next to him at an investment meeting.)

Whether Greenwald likes it or not, this is an important story and one we will continue to report.

There is, however, one aspect of Greenwald’s post that demands a firm rebuttal, and that’s his continuing attempt to shrug off Pierre Omidyar’s $ 250m investment in First Look as if it’s business as usual for a media organization. After all, says Greenwald, Pando has billionaire investors too. He cites in particular Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen as examples of how “our” billionaires are worse  than “his” billionaires, ignoring (or perhaps unaware of, given his proud ignorance of his employer’s business dealings) the fact that Thiel is a founder of PayPal, now owned by eBay, and Andressen sits on eBay’s board.

It’s here that Greenwald’s post is so disingenuous that it starts to take on the appearance of a deliberate lie.

Neither Andreessen (who previously invested one million dollars in Pando, but did not participate in either of our last two funding rounds) nor Thiel (who didn’t invest his own money, but rather invested a total of $ 300k through Founders Fund) has a seat on Pando’s board, or any involvement whatsoever in the running of the company. Neither Andreessen nor Thiel, nor any other investor, owns more than 10% of Pando. Most importantly, they, and all of Pando’s venture capitalist investors, are kept just as far away from the editorial team as is anyone reading this article.

Greenwald is entirely correct when he says that most media companies have received money from rich people — but the key is to treat their capital as simply that — capital — and to ensure that no investor is ever in a position to influence what appears in print or online.

A recent example of this distinction, of course, is the scandal — unearthed by Pando’s David Sirota — involving billionaire John Arnold’s donation to PBS for a series called “Pension Peril.” A rich person donating to PBS isn’t news — what made it a scandal was when Sirota revealed that, despite  Arnold being a long-time pensions activist, his donation had specifically been solicited for the making of “Pension Peril.” Worse, he was the series’ sole backer.

Which brings us to Omidyar’s involvement in First Look, and why it’s important that journalists be vigilant in reporting his other financial interests. To suggest Omidyar is just a passive investor in Greenwald, Scahill, Wheeler et al is as ridiculous as claiming Jesus was just a passive backer of the disciples (“Nah, you’ve got it all wrong. He just gave us the bread and wine, it’s up to us what we do with it.”)

Pierre Omidyar is not the dumb money behind First Look, he is the company’s founder and publisher. It was Omidyar who called Glenn Greenwald and personally hired him to head The Intercept, just as it was Omidyar himself who takes credit for having hired Matt Taibi away from Rolling Stone.

Even after making those key hires, Omidyar did not recuse himself from the day to day editorial operations. Here is First Look staffer Jeremy Scahill speaking to the Daily Beast:

[Omidyar] strikes me as always sort of political, but I think that the NSA story and the expanding wars put politics for him into a much more prominent place in his existence. This is not a side project that he is doing. Pierre writes more on our internal messaging than anyone else. And he is not micromanaging. This guy has a vision. And his vision is to confront what he sees as an assault on the privacy of Americans.

Pierre writes more on our internal messaging than anyone else. This guy has a vision.

With those two remarks, Scahill obliterates Greenwald’s claims of independence from his boss, publisher and sole quarter billion dollar backer.

There is no universe, current or imagined, in which Peter Thiel or Marc Andreessen or any other venture capitalist would be allowed within a billion miles of Pando’s internal messaging system. And there is no planet within that universe on which Thiel, Andreessen or any of our dozen or so venture backers would be given any privileged line to our reporters (if they have something to say they can send us a letter to the editor, like everyone else). I would hope all of the other “billionaire backed” media organizations Greenwald cites in his post would say the same.

Pierre Omidyar, First Look’s sole backer, has a vision. A vision he spends his day sharing with First Look’s reporters via their interval messaging. By Scahill’s own admission, Omidyar’s voice is heard more frequently than any editorial staffer at the company. And yet, by Greenwald’s admission, he has spend precisely no time investigating the business deals or conflicts of interest which might shape that vision, or might lead Omidyar to try to influence the reporting by the staff whose paychecks he alone signs.

If that’s how Omidyar believes the business of media should be transacted, that’s his choice. And if Greenwald is convinced that he remains entirely incorruptible, despite the constant muzak of his master’s voice playing in the newsroom, that’s fine too. But it’s not how most media companies do things, and it’s not how we do things at Pando. By claiming otherwise, Greenwald is treating his readers as fools.

No amount of Twitter smears or online bluster or cries of “old news!” will stop us reporting the facts about Pierre Omidyar and First Look, or examining what they mean for the future of journalism.

Should Glenn Greenwald ever find himself curious as to what his boss is up to, he can rest assured the answers will always be found right here on Pando.