Blog Postmortem: learning from the billionaire journalism model

At least Matt Taibbi is writing again. He’s back with Rolling Stone, where he published ‘The $9 Billion Witness,’ an excellent account of Alayne Fleishman, the whistleblower JPMorgan Chase and the DOJ tried to silence:

This past year she watched as Holder’s Justice Department struck a series of historic settlement deals with Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America. The root bargain in these deals was cash for secrecy. The banks paid big fines, without trials or even judges – only secret negotiations that typically ended with the public shown nothing but vague, quasi-official papers called “statements of facts,” which were conveniently devoid of anything like actual facts.

And now, with Holder about to leave office and his Justice Department reportedly wrapping up its final settlements, the state is effectively putting the finishing touches on what will amount to a sweeping, industrywide effort to bury the facts of a whole generation of Wall Street corruption. “I could be sued into bankruptcy,” she says. “I could lose my license to practice law. I could lose everything. But if we don’t start speaking up, then this really is all we’re going to get: the biggest financial cover-up in history.”

Good stuff. It’s Taibbi’s first publicly available journalism since February. But it’s in Rolling Stone because Taibbi parted ways with First Look after ruffling president Pierre Omidyar’s feathers, before publishing a single word for the Racket, the magazine he was supposed to launch under the First Look Media umbrella this fall. Today, Omidyar announced that he’s scrapping the project altogether, and firing everyone Taibbi had culled for the magazine. Beyond being the billionaire behind eBay and former Paypal board member, which in my view makes him megalomaniacal on its own, Omidyar also micromanages comically:

The lack of autonomous budgets, for instance, meant that in many cases Omidyar was personally signing off on—and occasionally objecting to—employee expense reports for taxi rides and office supplies. Both Cook, The Intercept‘s editor-in-chief, and Taibbi chafed at what they regarded as onerous intrusions into their hiring authority.

Taibbi and First Look disagreed over the functionality of the website, the timing of its launch, which designers and programmers they would use,  Racket‘s organizational chart—even, at one point, over office seating assignments.

Hopefully someone will leak Omidyar’s disputed seating chart while he’s busy reviewing Staples receipts. Not hard to see why Intercept editor John Cook is jumping ship too.

Tarzie, blogger-turned-heretic for “lefties in the back row” who has been calling all of this from day one (meaning while everyone else was dismissing criticism of billionaire journalism with “it’s too early to judge”), has picked out the highlights (lowlights) from the New York mag Omidyar profile. (My favorite: “Omidyar’s organization operates a little like WikiLeaks, except it is staffed by well-salaried journalists and backed by Silicon Valley money.”)

As Chris Floyd says, “You lie down with dogs, Matt, you get up with fleas. What the hell else did you think would happen?” What did Taibbi think would happen, working for the guy who sat on the board of PayPal as it froze the account of WikiLeaks, an act of clear censorship and government-corporate collusion, that no respectable journalist, or lefty, and certainly no lefty journalist, should condone by association. Those who point to Omidyar’s extremely belated request for “leniency” for the PayPal 14 should call on the 123rd richest man in the world to pay the activists’ measly $80,000 restitution (that total was before last month’s sentencing, so it’s now even lower). They should also note that Omidyar’s handwringing upholds the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act’s logic, which gives corporations a dangerous, disproportionate weapon to use against activists, whom Omidyar says are the ones who wield “excessive impact” online.

Umfuld is a Tumblr blogger covering the Intercept and PandoDaily, a news site founded by Sarah Lacy that covers Silicon Valley. He contrasts Taibbi’s split with Pando’s firing of David Sirota, a liberal journalist from whom the Intercept quotes heavily in its latest piece on Wall Street:

To compare Carr laying off David Sirota with Omidyar firing Matt Taibbi there are some important differences:
– Omidyar never let Taibbi publish a word even though he clearly paid good money for the story critical of predatory lending to be produced.
– Carr laid off Sirota after publishing / editing several of his pension articles, one of which has brought threats of a huge lawsuit from Chris Christie, or something.
– Carr laid off Sirota during a substantial decline in readership.
– Omidyar fired Taibbi despite his clearly being the best chance for The Racket to have a major impact when launched.
– Sirota is / was under no non-disclosure agreement with Pando.
– Taibbi is clearly forbidden to discuss his firing by Omidyar.

You get the idea. Hopefully.

Pando also saw some problems coming, noting differences in Omidyar’s and Taibbi’s outlooks for the magazine this summer. In February 2014, according to the New York Times, Taibbi intended to “start his own publication focusing on financial and political corruption.” Just a few months later, Omidyar published a blog post on First Look’s progress, looking forward to working with “the talented Matt Taibbi to plan and launch this fall a new digital magazine with a satirical approach to American politics and culture.” One wonders if Taibbi got bold enough to suggest Omidyar — whose own philanthropy is incredibly shady — should be up for coverage. Who knows? As Umfuld notes and as many suspect, it appears Taibbi is under a non-disclosure agreement, and so we may never get more than the Intercept’s official account, which paints Omidyar as a controller and the writers as iconoclasts just trying to get things done.

We should largely ignore this narrative of personalities, because — besides the fact that it’s an official account and Taibbi isn’t given a voice — it obscures the structural lessons journalists and media critics should be learning.

What has happened under Omidyar’s reign? Tarzie, on top of this more than anyone, has the latest on Greenwald’s slow-motion leaking of Snowden’s documents (I’m more interested in them than he is — interested, for instance, that we have more confirmation that the Country X the Intercept redacted is in fact Afghanistan, though the original country and not the corroboration came from the cache), which has shifted from him not being allowed to give anyone else documents to now vetting even freelance journalists to view the full set and don’t you ask why.

Only recently, I’ve been covering some of the Intercept’s other writers and their framing, as have others before me, like Arthur Silber, Kevin Dooley, Patrick Higgins, Chris Floyd, and others.

On the larger lessons: one thing to note is that money doesn’t buy journalism. Omidyar hired many of the left’s favorite, and some of the US’s most popular, journalists, and paid many of them to simply not write. For months, Matt Taibbi, Liliana Segura, and the rest of the First Look staff were publishing at much lower rates than before, if at all. Of course, preparation takes time, but Taibbi’s first piece was already written by the time he was canned, and it’s unclear what was keeping the Intercept’s production down.

But money does buy influence, social circles, and conformity. Holding out a $250 million enterprise, with most lefty journalists in America freelancing to pay rent, Omidyar and his top hires felt comfortable that anyone who might want a job would refrain from criticizing this obviously dubious deal. Timothy Shorrock said the NYMag Omidyar profile should’ve been called “left-wing journalists close their eyes to money & hypocrisy.” Protesting that it’s still too early to make that call, Arun Gupta said what he seems to think is a defense: “I know for fact many scores of well-known left journos tried to get a job there.” Only when the Intercept appeared finished with a round of hires did some ease up enough to point out some flaws, but too few of those were structural.

As Tarzie said – again, from day one:

No doubt Greenwald is shrewdly negotiating for full editorial autonomy from Mr. .00001%, so, as Arthur Silber remarked: ‘look for all the stories about the corrupt, vicious ruling class by January at the latest.’

For Greenwald or his colleagues to claim “editorial autonomy” is to deflect the criticism. Sure, Omidyar isn’t over their shoulder (though he does write “more on [their] internal messaging than anyone else”), but as Greenwald himself put it in 2007:

I think it’s relevant who owns any journalistic outlet. The reason for that is obvious. The reason is people who work for companies know who signs their paychecks and know the work they do ought to be pleasing to the people who sign their paychecks.

Furthermore, will Omidyar – himself a very active political, philanthropic, and economic player, having funded members of India’s Modi government and Ukraine’s parliament – be subject to the Intercept’s fearless, adversarial journalism? Nope.

Which way forward for the Intercept? One of their newest hires, Sharon Weinberger, will serve as national security editor. A former defense analyst for SPC, a research, electronics and computer software company working for the US DoD, Weinberger could be seen partnering with ex-DoD & Booz Allen VP Dov Zakheim, giving weaponry advice to the US military, and fear-mongering about Iran’s nuclear weapons as recently as 2009 in the New York Post:

It underscored the US’s greatest fears — a nuclear Iran isn’t just about the Middle East, it’s about all the countries that Iran could supply with arms and technology.

What’s so fearless and adversarial about that? At this rate, the Racket‘s folding is good news. Taibbi is better off without Omidyar, as are the rest of us.

Back to Tarzie, back to the bigger picture:

The hoarding of wealth, like the hoarding of state secrets, is really not such a bad thing when it can be parlayed into more wealth and slightly better journalism, and if you think otherwise you must be jealous.

That’s the implication we’ll take away, unless we remove our money blinders.

It’s not like we don’t have valuable cultural critics and systems of analysis at the ready — it’s more a matter of whether and where to apply them. As Tarzie wrote to Noam Chomsky about the Propaganda Model, which he and Edward Herman set forth in Manufacturing Consent:

It is my sincere belief that The Propaganda Model applies all the way out to the margins of American discourse, and that it is as useful for analyzing a Democracy Now broadcast or an issue of Jacobin as it is to understanding the Fox News Network.

As he notes, five filters operate on news media:

  1. Ownership of the medium
  2. Medium’s funding sources
  3. Sourcing
  4. Flak
  5. Fear ideology

Tarzie analyzes how these filters operate on a Democracy Now! broadcast, and then discusses Chomsky’s representation of Aaron Swartz’s case.

It seems eminently reasonable to apply the Propaganda Model to every news outlet, particularly one run by a micromanaging billionaire who’s investing in right-wing governments in India and the Ukraine and who oversaw and could’ve done more to stop an unprecedented act of corporate censorship on behalf of the state against WikiLeaks at its time of perhaps greatest need. The lesson to be learned from First Look is that Omidyar’s move was, consciously or not, one to curtail the margins of acceptable discourse, and that applying the Propaganda Model with scrutiny is an attempt to expand those margins, or at least to understand where they are, and how they work, and for whom.

Chomsky’s flaw is that he assumes the Model only applies to corporate media, that independent and nonprofit media are above reproach. There is no clean money, which is less a blanket condemnation than a categorical understanding of the compromises and competing interests involved in the news media industry. I’ll preempt accusations of purity with the free admission that no media organization is perfect. Yes, many news outlets are owned by billionaires. But when one of them brands itself as iconoclastic and editorially autonomous, we should take a closer look to see whether that’s true, or even possible. The far left rightly laughs at MSNBC for essentially playing the Democrats’ counterpart to Fox News, justifying President Obama’s every move, turning into an anti-Republican machine come election time, and mocking the idea of anything outside the two-party system. Those paying closer attention notice that MSNBC would never take its owner, Comcast, to journalistic task. Hardly hard-hitting news. But the same left hesitates to criticize what it sees as one of their own.

There is a growing consensus, at least on the left, that objective journalism is a myth. Every news outlet is subjective, at the very least by the stories they choose to cover and those they ignore. Speaking generally, it’s time we took this a step further and understand that total autonomy can only exist in a vacuum. It’s far more valuable to investigate the conflicts, money, and interests that will always be at play, and keep asking questions to ensure as much independence as possible.

Blog Postmortem: learning from the billionaire journalism model

Syria: intervention update

The New York Times reports on what US bombs have done to regular civilians in Syria since airstrikes began this summer:

many people are angry at the Americans. Food and fuel prices in Raqqa have soared, power blackouts have prevailed, and order is now threatened by a vacuum of any authority.

For all their violence and intolerance toward disbelievers, the fighters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, at least functioned as a government, providing basic services and some semblance of stability.

“People don’t want some outside power to attack,” Khalid Farhan, a Raqqa resident, said during a recent trip to Turkey.

Syrian civilians now see not that ISIS was a noble organization but that by contrast, American airstrikes have left them completely destabilized. Continue reading “Syria: intervention update”

Syria: intervention update

Libyan lessons learned

“What Happened to the Humanitarians Who Wanted to Save Libyans With Bombs and Drones?” asks The Intercept.

I’m writing mostly to answer this question because it isn’t explicitly said in the article: what happened to advocates of the western war on Libya was that they were rewarded with further inclusion in media circles as members of the serious establishment who believe that the US has humanitarian intentions, bombs can save lives, and war can bring peace. The co-author of the piece, in fact, is one of them. Continue reading “Libyan lessons learned”

Libyan lessons learned

The war on drugs is doing just fine

Ryan Devereaux writes ‘Surprise: U.S. Drug War in Afghanistan Not Going Well.’ He details a new report from the U.S. Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, claiming that “despite spending over $7 billion to combat opium poppy cultivation and to develop the Afghan government’s counternarcotics capacity, opium poppy cultivation levels in Afghanistan hit an all-time high in 2013.” These so-called “failures” have been “consistently documented for years.”

One reason that poppy levels have been growing for so long is that U.S. Marines have actively protected their cultivation. According to Geraldo Rivera’s framing, Marines “tolerate cultivation” of opium in Afghanistan as recently as 2010 for “security reasons,” because if it was destroyed, the population would turn against the U.S. Continue reading “The war on drugs is doing just fine”

The war on drugs is doing just fine

Obama knew he was destabilizing Syria, and he did it anyway

In the Intercept, Dan Froomkin writes that ‘Obama Knew Arming Rebels [in Syria] Was Useless, But Did it Anyway.’ His argument is based on a “New York Times story about how President Obama asked the CIA a while back whether arming rebel forces – pretty much the agency’s signature strategy — had ever worked in the past.” It’s important to note that “worked” here, though never spelled out, essentially means “toppled the side that wasn’t U.S.-compliant in favor of one that’d bow to us in return for arming opposition forces.”

Froomkin largely chalks up Obama’s decision to “political pressure,” linking to this Fox News post, ‘Republicans urge Obama to enforce Syria ‘red line,’ oppose deploying troops.’ Even when the Democratic president arms the rebels, it’s the Republicans’ fault. By perpetuating the liberal trope that Democrats are peaceful in principle but spineless in the face of gridlock, Froomkin lets them off the hook and plays into their own political finger-pointing. Democrats couldn’t have justified it better themselves. Continue reading “Obama knew he was destabilizing Syria, and he did it anyway”

Obama knew he was destabilizing Syria, and he did it anyway