Journalist infighting is the most “Inside Baseball” thing I can conceive of talking about on this blog, but Mark Ames is the subject, and that’s always the signal for a good time.
His latest target is the new foreign policy analyst for The Intercept, Marcy Wheeler. In an article from Feb. 28, Ames writes that “Wheeler [...] speculated that the Ukraine revolution was likely a ‘coup’ engineered by ‘deep’ forces on behalf of ‘Pax Americana’,” followed by a quote from Wheeler’s Twitter feed. This quote spurred Ames to investigate who exactly might be involved in the coup. Surprisingly – or, well, maybe not – one of the primary investors turned out to be none other than the owner and bankroller in The Intercept and First Look Media, Pierre Omidyar.
The Omidyar Network Group gave nearly $200,000 to fascist opposition groups in Ukraine in 2012, a not-unsubstantial sum of money. What confused onlookers was Ames’ insistence that Wheeler – hired less than three weeks previous – comment on the revelations.
In the larger sense, this is a problem of 21st century American inequality, of life in a billionaire-dominated era. It is a problem we all have to contend with—PandoDaily’s 18-plus investors include a gaggle of Silicon Valley billionaires like Marc Andreessen (who serves on the board of eBay, chaired by Pierre Omidyar) and Peter Thiel (whose politics I’ve investigated, and described as repugnant.)
But what is more immediately alarming is what makes Omidyar different. Unlike other billionaires, Omidyar has garnered nothing but uncritical, fawning press coverage, particularly from those he has hired. By acquiring a “dream team” of what remains of independent media — Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Wheeler, my former partner Matt Taibbi — not to mention press “critics” like Jay Rosen — he buys both silence and fawning press.
Both are incredibly useful: Silence, an absence of journalistic curiosity about Omidyar’s activities overseas and at home, has been purchased for the price of whatever his current all-star indie cast currently costs him. As an added bonus, that same investment buys silence from exponentially larger numbers of desperately underpaid independent journalists hoping to someday be on his payroll, and the underfunded media watchdogs that survive on Omidyar Network grants.
It isn’t clear, however, that Ames is correct regarding the state of the independent media. He mentions Glenn Greenwald, who worked for two years at the Guardian before his current tenure at First Look; Jeremy Scahill, whose latest film was nominated for an Oscar; Matt Taibbi, whose work in Rolling Stone has elevated his status and visibility past “independent media” circles; and others as being examples of indy journalists.
He probably knows that not everyone who wishes to pursue a career as an “independent journalist” is looking at The Intercept with wide eyes and drooling, gaping mouths. What he seems to want to consistently ignore is that sometimes, career choices are not made with ideology in mind. I did not get a job at Walmart (briefly) because of my identification as an Anarcho-Syndicalist, for example; it stands to reason that Marcy Wheeler did not agree to her contract with First Look Media based on a fundamental agreement with the project bankroller’s ideology.
Greenwald responded to Ames in his column at The Intercept:
I think it’s perfectly valid for journalists to investigate the financial dealings of corporations and billionaires who fund media outlets, whether it be those who fund or own Pando, First Look, MSNBC, Fox News, The Washington Post or any other. And it’s certainly reasonable to have concerns and objections about the funding of organizations that are devoted to regime change in other countries: I certainly have those myself. But the Omidyar Network doesn’t exactly seem ashamed of these donations, and they definitely don’t seem to be hiding them, given that they trumpeted them in their own press releases and web pages.
Can someone please succinctly explain why this is a scandal that needs to be addressed, particularly by First Look journalists? That’s a genuine request. 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?
(3) Despite its being publicly disclosed, 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. That’s because his political views and donations are of no special interest to me – any more than I cared about the political views of the family that owns and funds Salon (about which I know literally nothing, despite having worked there for almost 6 years), or any more than I cared about the political views of those who control the Guardian Trust.
There’s a very simple reason for that: they have no effect whatsoever on my journalism or the journalism of The Intercept. That’s because we are guaranteed full editorial freedom and journalistic independence. The Omidyar Network’s political views or activities – or those of anyone else – have no effect whatsoever on what we report, how we report it, or what we say.
But for me, the issue is not – and for a long time has not been – the political views of those who fund journalism. Journalists should be judged by the journalism they produce, not by those who fund the outlets where they do it. The real issue is whether they demand and obtain editorial freedom. We have. But ultimately, the only thing that matters is the journalism we or any other media outlets produce.
Regardless of how you feel about Greenwald – and I’ve cooled down my own opinions on him as of late – the point he makes at the end of the passage above is crucial: we can quibble over who funds what, and what that means, until we’re blue in the face, but the only thing that matters is the content we produce. C4SS accepted a large Bitcoin apology/donation from a member of a no-longer-affiliated Students for a Stateless Society chapter after he engineered the temporary shutdown of our website. The money was a windfall, but we didn’t then owe it to the donator to change our editorial viewpoints to match his. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t link someone’s reporting, ideology or other personal and professional beliefs to who’s funding them just because you want to believe.
That just isn’t how anything works.