Brand Greenwald, Billionaires and Journalism

As one would expect, the announcement of a deal between the billionaire founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (and, it seems, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill) has been met with considerable buzz. As reporters say when they don’t have all of the facts, however, “the situation remains fluid”: meaning that details of how the future news organization will be structured, and the roles of the various key actors, are not yet known. For those interested in the media industry (and the broader socio-political impact of that industry) the joint venture raises a number of interesting, fundamental questions:

1. What does all of this mean for The Guardian? OK, this was an obvious one to start with…but there are many layers to Greenwald’s decision to leave the newspaper he joined just over a year ago. Greenwald’s hiring solidified the Guardian’s cred with left-leaners in the United States (an important demographic for the paper), as well as illustrating a willingness to take on board someone given the pejorative “activist/blogger” label(s) (please, please note my use of quotation marks there). The benefits were almost automatic…staggeringly so, as Greenwald brought in the monster PRISM/NSA stories and hoards of readers via Edward Snowden. Now, the most visible US face of the Guardian has jumped ship, and has taken with him the most visible story of the past decade. That might lose them a chunk of the US market who, driven crazy by the McJournalism provided by supposedly “liberal” news organizations like CNN, turned to the Guardian for solace. No matter how you spin it, Greenwald must feel that he will get more freedom, exposure, resources, power, fame and/or money with Omidyar. If it is primarily the first three Greenwald is worried about, then that’s not good PR for the Guardian. What is clear is that Greenwald is now very much his own brand.

2. Has Greenwald used as-yet-unreleased NSA/Snowden data/story as leverage to get a much better deal? Who knows, but it is hard to imagine this deal without the Snowden material. That raises some further thorny questions, particularly about whether or not the speed of the release of the Snowden data has been managed in order to maximize value, and the ethics of such a practice. A suggestion, by the way, which drives Greenwald crazy.

3. Devil’s Advocate, Part 1: Should we be worried about billionaires funding journalists in this way? Well, when the medicine paid for by the Gates Foundation gets administered to sick children, is it less effective because it came off the backs of Microsoft workers? (Calm down. I said I’m playing Devil’s Advocate.) Critical media thinkers of the political economic persuasion are posed with a conundrum when it comes to the Omidyar deal: a realization that while it takes resources to go up against massive media conglomerates, the only people with that kind of money are, you know, other Capitalists (or states…but let’s put that aside). Now we have a Capitalist who appears to be willing to fund the kind of critical, investigative journalism so sorely lacking in the United States. The guy made a fortune, it wasn’t through arms dealing, and now he wants to take a big chunk of that change and do something proactive. How many people like this with billions to play with are there? Let’s pretend for a second that the deal was discredited to the extent that it actually fell through. Then what? Donald Trump would step in?

4. Devil’s Advocate, Part 2: Should we be worried about billionaires funding journalists in this way? No, don’t worry, it’s fine. So long as you don’t mind a miniscule handful of the rich and powerful cherry-picking the kind of investigative reporting they like, funding it to the hilt with maximum exposure, while many other worthy stories will never be afforded the same patronage because they can’t be “monetized” or don’t have cred. Omidyar has made it clear that he is not fan of surveillance of the type exposed by Snowden. OK, who is? (Except maybe this guy and the Daily Mail.) Is he as keen, however, to promote investigative journalism into questionable corporate activities, such as the now illegal practice of “spinning” in which he was accused of engaging while at eBay? In other words, with single benefactors who give massive amounts of money, it is reasonable to ask if reporters are free to investigate anything, including stories that might the financial interests of a big bankroller.

5. Who spent their $250 million pocket-change more wisely? Jeff Bezos or Pierre Omidyar? Ask Jay Rosen. (AS OF NOVEMBER 17, 2013, THIS SUGGESTION IS ALL THE MORE APT.)

Christian Christensen, Stockholm University

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