It is one thing for a journalist to make a mistake; like everyone, they all do that at some point. But to expressly lie about your sources in order to make your assertions seem more substantial is as serious a journalistic breach as can be committed.
Silicon Valley billionaire Pierre Omidyars flagship publication, The Intercept, has suffered through a series of humiliating failures in its first two years, but the newest bombshell, which dropped yesterday, is an entirely different matter. The publication had its own digital Stephen Glass*.
Correspondent Juan Thompson was caught inventing entire stories, sources and quotes in his year-plus time with the publication, about half of its existence. The practice apparently continued under two different editors: John Cook and Betsy Reed.
Its the sort of editorial failure that would destroy most fledgling publications. The New Republic is nearly a century old, and yet it never quite recovered from its Stephen Glass failure. Neither has the New York Times completely overcome its Jayson Blair scandal in fact public editor Margaret Sullivanrecently attributedsome of the newspapers over-caution in pursuing stories like Snowdens to lingering institutional damage from its 2003 Jayson Blair scandal.
To briefly recap: On Tuesday, February 2, Intercept editor-in-chief Betsy Reed published aNote To Readersacknowledging that one of their reporters, Juan Thompson, had fabricated stories, quotes, and sources, and displayed a pattern of deception.
Thompson was hired by then-editorJohn Cookin November 2014 after which Cook moved backacross the office corridorto Gawker Media, and was replaced by Reed, who let Thompson go last month after 14 months with the media outlet. Several of Thompsons stories now appear either as retracted or corrected.
Intercept founding editor Glenn Greenwald has described what his own reporter has done as as serious a journalistic breach as can be committed. But he wasnt actually taking about Thompson. He wrote those words back in 2006 about other medias journalists. When it comes to his own journalist, Juan Thompson, however Greenwald, like his boss Omidyar and his other colleagues, has said peep.
Despite promising that The Intercept would do everything differently and restore ethics and purpose to journalism, Greenwald kept silent over this worst of journalistic failures, and instead spent all day yesterday twitter-hectoring other tweeters over an issue far more important than owning up to the worst of all journalism failures in your own house BernieBros!
Distracted with all-important social media gnats, this meant the entire Intercept Stephen Glass problem was dumped on editor-in-chief Reeds shoulders, despite the fact that she didnt hire the journalist in question.
By taking full responsibility and limiting The Intercepts coverage of their journalistic malpractice to a single editor, it looks like a classic case of corporate crisis management, not media responsibility. Reed has been forced to walk the plank, while their Gawker allies across the office hallway led by the man who originally hired Thompson, Gawker Media editor John Cook went to work publicly gutting the disgraced African-American journalist.
If one were really cynical, one might consider the Intercepts handling of their Stephen Glass problem as a perfect example of PR crisis management. No institutional reckoning, putting all blame on one editors shoulders while everyone else busies themselves distracting readers with other matters, and leaving the sleazy public gutting work to their Gawker allies.It was all just Betsy Reeds fault, and she apologized, so lets all just move on.As if were talking about a product recall and not journalism.
MThompsontalk about the most noble function of journalism & pretense of objectivity
Even without the cynicism, you might expect more from a muckraking publication like the Intercept than a quiet mea culpa.
Youd expect insight into how it happened, why it happened. When the Jayson Blair scandal rocked the New York Times, they devotedthousands of words, several reporters, researchers and editors to not just apologize as The Intercepts editor has done, but to explain how and why it happened to their readers, as a way of trying to restore trust.
When USAToday discovered that its reporter Jack Kelley had invented stories, sources and quotes, that old media newspaper set up an internal investigative a team of reporters, editors and a three-person group of journalists from outside the newspaper to investigate not only the extent of Kelleys journalism malpractice, but also how it happened in the USAToday editorial process. In response, USAToday published an initialinvestigation; a second,10-part investigationplus report; and apublishers apology. The purpose, again, was not just public relations crisis management to contain the problem and protect the brand, but rather a serious attempt to restore trustby letting readers into the editorial process, to see how it went wrong, and presumably how it would be fixed.
With the Intercept, were hearing no such thing. Not a peep from their publisher Omidyar; not a word from the Intercepts founding editors Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill or Laura Poitras. Greenwald was too busy yesterday twitter-scolding about theBerniebro kerfuffleand retweeting the glorious National Magazine Award that Betsy Reed picked up the day before revealing their Stephen Glass problem; Poitras is too busyconvertingour leaked intelligence secrets into; and Scahill . . .
Well, lets go back to the real heart of the problem, using Scahills own early description of how The Intercept would disrupt journalism and create a new paradise.
Note here the use of every corporate Silicon Valley cliche in the book, from disrupting hierarchies and horizontal structures to the demeaning Bay Area quasi-familiarity of Pierre in Scahillsenchanted description:
One of the reasons why were really excited about working with Pierre is that he said that he didnt want to have a top-down model of editorial process where editors are telling reporters what to do. So were going to develop more of a horizontal model where editors are supporting the work of the journalists but that its going to be a journalism-driven website. . . . Were not just trying to fill positions with people. Were trying to bring people on board based on [a] proven track record of great journalism and trying to create a space for them where they can do that journalism without being hindered by bureaucratic institutions or processes.
Hopefully by this point, weve all woken up from the pixie dust and we can all reasonably agree that Scahill was mouthing embarrassing Silicon Valley cant, planted in his mouth by Pierre himself.
Anyone who knows the history of this sort of corporate cant knows that it comes out of mid-20th century corporate management theory, when corporate decentralization/flattening hierarchies was The Big New Business Thing, implemented across corporate America as a way to get employees to work more, and work harder, by giving them the false sense that they were being empowered by mystical decentralization and flattened hierarchies. . . . when all that really happened was that corporate power was just disguising itself behind the smoke and mirrors of horizontalist rhetoric.
Somehow, though, Pierre was able to convince a fearless war leftist correspondent like Scahill to spout banal Silicon Valley corporatespeak. And somehow Pierre got Greenwald, whom Scahill says isthe conscience of America,to parrot thesame:
We want to avoid this hierarchical, top-down structure where editors are bosses and obstacles to being published, Greenwald explains. We are trying to make it much more collaborative. Our journalists have a variety of tools to make their writing better and one of them is the editor. We also want journalists to help to hire editors.
And when Matt Taibbi (my former partner at The eXile) first joined Team Omidyar in February 2014, heannouncedhis move using a techie/Omidyar lexicon totally alien to anything I ever recall from Matt, full of futuristic-optimistic Bay Area cheerleader blather:
Its obvious that were entering a new phase in the history of journalism, Mr. Taibbi said. This is clearly the future, and this was an opportunity for me to be part of helping to found something and create something that might carry us into the next generation.
If any other Silicon Valley tool talked this way about any other tech product marketed to consumerssay, Uber disrupting taxis, or AirBnB disrupting hotels, or a hundred other tech companies talking the same disruption/frictionless bullshit east coast media elites would sneer as a knee-jerk reaction. And rightfully so.
But for some reason, when that same Silicon Valley corporate-tech cant is used in the service of selling Big Tech billionaire journalism, our media elites turn to butter. No one stopped to ask if theyd smelled a Silicon Valley rat.
This selling-what-they-want-to-hear is a common feature of literary fraud whether that literary fraud is a crock of horseshit about a journalism disruption technology that will save us all… or afraudulent articlefiled by an inexperienced reporter, a story tailored to fit into exactly what the audience wanted to see, so badly that they wouldnt have any reason to double-check it…
And this is where the heart of the problem lies. Structurally, philosophically, ideologically, The Intercept and First Look Media are the vision of its billionaire publisher, and 100% owner, Pierre Omidyar. Its Omidyar who speaks the language of disruption, horizontalism, and breaking down old hierarchies and frictions between reader and journalist. And its there that we would find some answers about what is structurally wrong with The Intercepts editorial management, if The Intercept ever decided it should be held to the same standards of journalistic accountability that Greenwald and co scold everyone else to hold to.
Now The Intercept has on its hands the worst of all possible journalism malpractice problems. And its response, rather than an improvement on the bad old media, is a complete joke.
Whats clear after all the scandals and problems is that the Intercept acts as if it some kind of magic pixie left-teflon coating Leftlon, if you will because no media publication on earth has been so coddled by the left and by aspiring investigative journalists as The Intercept. No matter how many scandals, disappointments, lies and failures it suffers the spectacular collapse of The Racket; revelations inNew Yorkmagazine andVanity Fairthat Pierre and his hired eBay/PayPal corporate flaks control the entire structural pipeline, from The Intercepts hiring and firing, to approving every journalists taxi and cocktail expenses; Pandos scoops onOmidyars roleco-funding Ukraine regime-change groups with USAID, helping spark a war with pro-Russian rebels that has leftthousands dead, millions displaced, andaltered Americas global military strategy; and the endless waves of personnel defections and corporate rebrandings The Intercept keeps humming along, totally unaccountable while calling everyone else to account for their sins. No one seems to mind, especially not on the left side of the media, which normally minds everything everything but Omidyar.
Actually, its not magic or Leftlon or anything mysterious its the same old tried-and-true formula of publisher billions, combined with a completely shameless, conscience-free refusal to hold oneself to the same standards of accountability demanded of everyone else its an old formula thats protected American elites in their cushy positions since the days of powdered wigs, feathered pens, and slave cabins.
Now were in a situation where Omidyars pet media project has fenced off the largest cache of leaked American intelligence secrets ever, making fools of a lot of people whod rather not go the next obvious step and question the rationale of keeping it in Omidyars safe. If we accept the fact that where theres Stephen Glass smoke, theres more serious editorial fire then we go back to the question I first raised in Pando inNovember 2013(for which Greenwald smeared me as a CIA agent, a mentally ill stalker, a child rapist, and other insanely vile attacks): How is the public interest being served by privatizing our property our intelligence secrets to a demonstrably incompetent tech billionaire? The secrets dont belong to Omidyar, Greenwald, Poitras or Snowdenthey are the property of The People, entrusted to Greenwald only as long as his judgment remains proven . . . and in his judgment, Greenwald sold his and Poitras monopoly on the complete cache of Snowden secrets to Omidyars multi-million dollar digital fencing operation.
Nearly two and a half years later, where are we at? According s tally, Omidyars slow drip of Snowden leaks 6,209 pages so far out of a total of anywhere between 58,000 and 250,000+ means that at the current rate, it will take between 20 and 620 years to completely leak all of the secrets.
Which brings us back to the heart of the Juan Thompson/Stephen Glass problem at The Intercept, and its a very serious problem for all of us: Journalism cant be saved bycivic-mindedtech billionaires, as Greenwald oncepromisedDemocracy Nows Amy Goodman. It cant be saved by mystical mid-20th century managerial theories on horizontalism either. It can only be destroyed, and in the process of this destruction, only make a very few people fabulously wealthy, and everyone else standing around broke with their mouths open, falling in line in the hope they too may one day be picked to join the billionaires team, so long as they behave and show the proper respect.
Meantime, we have no idea how much deeper and how much worse The Intercepts editorial problems are. The only thing we can say for sure now is that by Greenwalds own written standards, he has demonstrated poor judgment in privatizing The Peoples property our NSA secrets, leaked by Snowden in the hands of a wildly incompetent publishing concern, overseen by a totally unaccountable tech billionaire and his loyal corporate minions.
*The Stephen Glass scandal was first uncovered by then Forbes reporter, Adam Penenberg who later became editor of Pando. He wrote a comprehensivefollow up to the storyhere.