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Glenn Greenwald, Pierre Omidyar and the Dangers of Billionaire Journalism

Glenn Greenwald and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar are starting a $250 million new media company promising to do 'adversarial journalism'. Will Greenwald apply the same scrutiny to his billionaire investor as he has the US government, and are the NSA leaks now being privatized for profit?
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Last week, Mark Ames wrote a blistering critique of Glenn Greenwald and what he called 'the privatization' of the NSA Leaks. Ames attacked Greenwald for partnering with eBay founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar to start a new, for profit media venture, accusing him of using the leaks for profit. "Greenwald and Poitras are now the only two people with full access to the complete cache of NSA files, which are said to number anywhere from 50,000 to as many as 200,000 files", wrote Ames. "That’s right: Snowden doesn’t have the files any more, the Guardian doesn’t have them, the Washington Post doesn’t have them… just Glenn and Laura at the for-profit journalism company created by the founder of eBay."

"Whistleblowing has traditionally served the public interest," continued Ames. "In this case, it is about to serve the interests of a billionaire starting a for-profit media business venture. This is truly unprecedented. Never before has such a vast trove of public secrets been sold wholesale to a single billionaire as the foundation of a for-profit company."

It's brutal stuff and well worth reading in full. And so too is Greenwald's lengthly response to Ames's attack, arguing that given almost all journalism is done for profit, the accusation is completely pointless. He writes:

The accusation that we sold, and Omidyar purchased, NSA secrets, and the related claim that he now has a "monopoly" on the NSA documents, is without question the single dumbest accusation I've heard since we began reporting on these documents. And that's saying something. So many obvious, glaring facts makes clear how absurd that is:

First, how is this different from virtually every other big journalistic story involving top secret matters? Did the Washington Post privatize and have a monopoly when Dana Priest learned and then informed the world in that paper about the CIA black sites? Did the New York Timeshave a "monopoly" on the Pentagon Papers once Daniel Ellsberg gave it to them? Did the Guardian have a "monopoly" on the NSA story before I left?

It's almost always the case that the journalists and media outlets that get information from a source are the ones who keep it, work on it, and report it. That's how the source wants it, which is why the source came to those journalists. Since when is this called "privatizing" material or having a "monopoly"?

Greenwald then describes how he and Poitras have dispersed the leaks, pointing out that they have been spread around multiple media outlets:

Since our new media venture was announced, Laura and I have both reported on and published these documents around the world. Laura has published multiple big NSA stories at der Spiegel and the New York Times, while I've done the same in Norway, Holland, and Canada. Moreover, we just published one of the biggest NSA stories yet - about the agency's exploitation of internet porn activities to destroy the reputation of "radicals" - at the Huffington Post. I'm also currently working with a separate large US media outlet on very big NSA/GCQH stories to be reported shortly.

The debate should be pored over by anyone interested in serious journalism as it presents a fascinating glimpse into the ongoing fracturing of the left into (broadly) two camps - the progressive movement and the libertarian left. The split is becoming increasingly vicious and is redefining what it means to be a 'liberal'. The left has traditionally organized around labor rights and the welfare state, but the emergence of the libertarian left is eroding that core and replacing it with a laser-like focus on civil liberties.

Regardless of where you stand in the political spectrum, it is, at least in my opinion, important work that Greenwald is doing. While it is often flawed, Greenwald has shone a light on a security state that is in dire need of oversight, and has brought attention to the victims of the US government's foreign policy crimes (like drone strikes). The NSA leaks revealed an unprecedented domestic spying program in scope and size, and his work highlighting the government's targeted assassination policy opened up a side to the US government that many Americans were not aware of.

That does not mean that Greenwald's methods and assertions are beyond reproach. His reporting on the NSA leaks was troubling to say the least, and Greenwald was caught making several highly questionable claims.

The Daily Banter's Bob Cesca spent a good deal of time evaluating the accuracy of what was published on the Guardian, and was highly critical of the way Greenwald handled them. Here's a major example of the type of misreporting Bob caught that spread across the web:

NSA analysts enjoy “direct access” to “tap” tech giant servers.

Our first, but not our last Glenn Greenwald claim. It feels like a million years ago when Greenwald posted his now infamous article about NSA’s PRISM database and how the agency somehow “taps” (Greenwald’s word in his headline) into proprietary servers belonging to Google, Microsoft, Facebook and so forth. Like the Rep. Lewis story, this one also adhered to the 24-Hour Rule. Almost immediately, other reporters began to question how “direct access” was possible. It turns out, NSA could, in fact, directly access drop-box style secure FTP servers where the tech giants would post requested data. Additionally, Snowden himself said that there were “policy protections” against literal “direct access.” Without “direct access,” the story disintegrated into, 1) something that, for the most part, had been previously revealed anyway, and 2) a less intriguing story about an NSA database, which, by the way, was constantly misunderstood to be a “program.”

This is an important criticisms of Greenwald's assertions, and one his legions of supporters routinely refuse to listen to. It does not massively detract from the overall pattern revealed by the leaks (that of large scale, legally dubious domestic spying operation), but it is important nevertheless given the important distinction between 'direct access' and the actual type of access the NSA has.

Greenwald has shown a very serious aversion to different narratives told about the NSA leaks and has gone out of his way to trash anyone who questions his version of events. It's not that Greenwald necessarily lies, it's that he doesn't disclose evidence that contradicts his own version of what happened. Take for example, his husband David Miranda's arrest in the UK. Greenwald wrote a piece on the Guardian accusing the British government of illegally detaining his 'non journalist' partner and refusing him a lawyer. Conveniently, Greenwald forgot to disclose that a) Miranda was carrying thousands of leaked, top secret documents for the Guardian (and was being paid to do so), and b) He was offered a lawyer but turned it down.

You may not agree with Britain's detainment of Miranda (and I didn't), but there can be no denying Greenwald's version of events was highly, highly misleading and contrary to very basic rules of ethical journalism.

Regardless of his journalistic transgressions, the NSA leaks and relentless focus on the security state has turned Greenwald into a hero for the anti-government, libertarian movement that now reaches across both sides of the political spectrum. While Greenwald has stated that he firmly believe in the welfare state, supports prosecuting Wall St, and frequently criticizes wealth inequality and corporate corruption, there is no doubt that his continued assaults on the Obama administration and the US government has fed the rabid libertarian movement and contributed to the massive paranoia sweeping America in the post-9/11 era.

It is also quite right for journalists to question Greenwald on his ties to the libertarian movement.  Greenwald has taken money from the Koch funded CATO institute (for work related to ending the drugs war), supported the Citizens United ruling (making the incredibly dubious parallel between illegal wiretapping and preventing corporations from  exercising 'freedom of speech') , and has now gone into business with a notorious libertarian billionaire.

Greenwald can claim he is impartial, but there is an awful lot at stake (ie. his livelihood) should he focus his journalistic efforts elsewhere.

Greenwald believes that media outlets that do not share his obsession with the security state and civil liberties are hacks and sellouts. He has attacked numerous outlets and individuals for questioning his reporting and not siding with him. In Greenwald's world, if you don't adhere to his strict world view of what is and isn't important, you are not a real journalist.

But here is the problem: Given Greenwald spends less and less time reporting on labor rights and economic issues, by his own logic (if you don't report on it, you must be for it), Greenwald is no longer a voice for the poor and the labor movement. He is now almost exclusively making a name for himself reporting on Edward Snowden and issues pertaining to civil liberties. The more he does it, the more he is rewarded, even getting a 'once in a lifetime opportunity' as he says, to start a multi million dollar project built around his particular interpretation of journalism.

Mark Ames and Paul Carr at Pando Daily have asked Greenwald to assure the public that he will go after his investor with the same rigor with which he attacks the government (they have pledged to continue to report on their own billionaire investor). Unsurprisingly, Greenwald has not responded, meaning his 'adversarial journalism' will remain adversarial as long as he's not pissing off the people who fund him.

As Matt Taibbi once wrote about real courage in journalism, "Courage is a willingness to face real risks—your neck, or at the very least, your job.....If journalists had courage, they would form unions and refuse to work for any company that made decisions about editorial content based on the bottom line, on profit."

So here's a challenge to Greenwald to prove his integrity: Do not publish the rest of Snowden's leaks on your own site, and hand them over to Wikileaks or other similar non-profit institutions. Then, go after the enormous damage your funder Pierre Omidyar has done through spreading insidious loan shark companies (or 'Micro Lenders') in the developing world as part of his efforts to unleash the healing hand of the market to as many corners of the globe as possible.

Or don't, and accept that you are just as corruptible, susceptible and human as the rest of us in this game.

The truth is that Greenwald is, and always has been incredibly comfortable around the enormously wealthy. He began his career as a corporate lawyer defending the likes of Goldman Sachs and other Wall St investment banks, has been a business owner, and has shopped himself around as a journalist to the highest bidder. Glenn Greenwald's journalism is mostly about Glenn Greenwald, and no one should think otherwise. While Glenn has argued his corner for the methods used to disperse the Edward Snowden leaks, remember, it's based on the premise that Glenn knows best. Now he has his own media company where his ego innate understanding of the ultimate truth, will go completely unchallenged.

At least that is, if he sticks to the script.

Oligarchs like Pierre Omidyar don't get into the journalism business due to their love of 'adversarial' reporting, particularly if they are chucking a quarter of a billion dollars at it. They do it for influence and a payoff somewhere down the line. Omidyar has thrived in an economy where the power of the state has been severely eroded. He made his billions through flexible labor markets, lack of regulation and a corrupt, corporatized government, and he would be incredibly foolish to fund a project that cut into that structure. Omidyar has bought himself possibly the biggest weapon he could have against the US government: the Edward Snowden leaks, and a journalist, who in his own words, has already made up his mind about them.

“I approach my journalism as a litigator,” Greenwald told the New York Times. “People say things, you assume they are lying, and dig for documents to prove it.”

Or in other words, the exact opposite of what a journalist is supposed to do.