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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Six questions journalists should ask Barack Obama when he visits (enter your country name)

President Obama will be visiting Sweden in early September. These are a list of questions I would hope journalists in Sweden (and elsewhere) would ask Obama when he comes. Hope…but I doubt they will. I also know that if asked, his answers would tell us nothing. But, they must be asked. Repeatedly. Apologies for the writing, but this was a quick post!

Six Questions Journalists Should ask Barack Obama When he Visits (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY NAME)

by Christian Christensen

1. Mr. President, one of your election promises in 2008 was to close Guantanamo. It is still open, housing inmates who have not been charged with a crime and denied the basic right of habeas corpus. A large number of those inmates have been on a lengthy hunger strike in protest at their inhumane treatment. Can you explain to the people of (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY) how this prison, which you have failed to close, stands in relation to US claims to be a country which respects human rights and the rule of law?

2. Mr. President, you will accept, I hope, that a fundamental element of a functioning democracy is the presence of vibrant, critical journalism. That journalism is often fueled by whistle-blowers who release information they feel shows illegal or unethical behavior. Given the aggressive prosecution of Bradley Manning, Barrett Brown and Edward Snowden in the US, as well as the Grand Jury investigation into WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, can you explain to the people of (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY) why the US is going to such lengths to stifle the work of journalists, as well as prosecute individuals who engage in an act that is fundamental to keeping an eye on those in power, namely whistle-blowing?

3. Mr. President, the US is ranked 5th globally in the number of executions behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and ahead of North Korea, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. The US is also the only country amongst nations with advanced economies to still have the death penalty. How can the US lecture other nations on human rights when it engages in an act so many countries consider barbaric?

4. Mr. President, citizens of (ENTER COUNTRY NAME) might be confused as to how the US can justify the killing of its own citizens via the use of drones without judicial oversight, as well as the well-documented killing of scores of innocent civilians globally via the use of the same technology. Could you explain to the people of (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY) how drones, like Guantanamo and the death penalty, square with a US commitment to the right of fair trials, basic human rights and the rule of law?

5. Mr. President, do you feel it is appropriate for a person to be held for 9 hours, without access to a lawyer, under counter-terrorism laws simply because he is the partner of a journalist who broke the NSA story? Was the US involved in any way with his detention? Should journalists throughout the world who report on US national security now be worried when they travel, in case they are questioned at the request of the US government at random international borders?

6. Mr. President, one of the hallmarks of the former Soviet Union and current authoritarian regimes is the use of widespread surveillance under the guise of protecting “national security.” Can you explain how secret, widespread surveillance of the US population, done in cooperation with private corporations, can be justified in a nation that proclaims to be “the freest in the world”? Should Americans not be able to send an email without fear of it being read by the government?

WikiLeaks and Anonymous as Responses to Status Quo Journalism

WikiLeaks and Anonymous as Responses to Status Quo Journalism 

Christian Christensen

Professor, Department of Media Studies, Stockholm University

(Note: The following is a shortened, updated version of the professorial installation speech I gave at Stockholm University in April 2013.)

The work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play). – Michel Foucault, “The Concern for Truth”

The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them. – Michel Foucault, “Human Nature: Justice Versus Power”

So, what does this have to do with journalism? A lot, I would argue. Many of the issues with which we (should) associate academia – freedom of speech, freedom of expression, critical thinking, keeping an eye on authority, education – are issues historically linked to journalism. Thus, just as it is important to ask to what extent we as academics have investigated, questioned and challenged the distribution and use of social, economic and military power in society, so, of course, should we ask the same of the news organizations described as ”watchdogs” and ”guardians.”

My point is that the mainstream press in countries such as Sweden, the United States and the United Kingdom, have (more often than not) failed to engage in critical investigations into, and analyses of, the accumulation and utilization of power. And, it is this failure that has created a vacuum filled, at least in part, by WikiLeaks and Anonymous. If we are looking for an obvious example of such a failure of critical analysis, one need only look to the attacks by a number of US journalists upon fellow journalist Glenn Greenwald – for a particularly devastating exchange, see Greenwald’s response to Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus – and source Edward Snowden following their revelations of domestic and international surveillance by the US government. In Sweden, the Swedish vetoing (together with the UK) of EU discussions with the US over those same NSA revelations has been met by relative silence in the Swedish media.

There is, however, a second premise to this post, and that is that in our discussion of groups such as WikiLeaks or Anonymous, emphasis is often placed squarely upon their use of technology, rather than the socio-political and cultural reasons behind their evolution. This techno-centrism, I would argue, deflects a measure of critique away from mainstream journalism, and ”explains” the rise of groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous as predominantly technological phenomena. In other words, they exist because the technology allows them to exist.

To get back to Foucault: his suggestion that we need to ”criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent” is vital; in particular, his choice of the word ”workings”, because it points to a central idea, namely the importance of process. Where contemporary journalism has failed, I would argue, is in the lack of exposure and lack of analysis of the mechanisms of power that Foucault discusses. These are mechanisms that are neither sexy nor exciting, and can be mind-numbing in terms of the minutiae of political, legal, diplomatic or technological details. These details are, however, the building blocks of real power: blocks mostly obscured from public view under a veneer of PR, spin, infotainment and ”event”-based news coverage. Over the past few years, and to varied levels of success and impact, groups such as Anonymous and WikiLeaks have peeled back this veneer, exposing activities that are both shocking and banal.

In his powerful testimony of July 10, 2013 at the Bradley Manning trial, Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler outlined precisely why he feels that WikiLeaks is not only a compliment to journalism, but part of journalism itself, “shining a light” on processes otherwise hidden from the general public (from the unofficial court transcript):

Q: Is WikiLeaks a member of the network Fourth Estate?

A (Benkler): Absolutely.

Q: Why do you believe that?

A (Benkler): It is — journalism is made up of many things. WikiLeaks doesn’t do interviews and pound the pavement. Again, when we say WikiLeaks, we’re really talking about before the severe degradation that followed the attack on the organization that we described just before. WikiLeaks was a solution to a very particular and critical component of the way in which investigative journalism, muck-raking confine instances of corruption. It’s — we don’t only live from Pentagon papers or Watergate or the NSA wire tapping scandals of 2005 and the more recent months. But it’s a clear, distinct component of what in the history of journalism we see as high points, where journalists are able to come in and say, here’s a system operating in a way that is obscure to the public and now we’re able to shine the light. That’s what WikiLeaks showed how to do for the network public sphere. WikiLeaks may fail in the future because of all these events, but the model of some form of decentralized leaking, that is secure technologically and allows for collaboration among different media in different countries, that’s going to survive and somebody else will build it. But WikiLeaks played that critical role of that particular critical component of what muck-raking and investigative journalism has always done.

While it would be a stretch to say that September 11, 2001 was the genesis date for groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, it would nevertheless be fair to suggest that the range of domestic (US) and geo-political events that followed those attacks 12 years ago had a profound effect upon global activism: from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the occupations of those two countries, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the Bush presidency, the London and Madrid bombings, the global War on Terror, The Patriot Act, to PRISM.  In all of these cases, from the attacks themselves to the passage of restrictive censorship and privacy legislation, an understanding of ”workings” and ”process” was (and remains) fundamental.

As the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, it became clear that citizens also had little understanding of the mechanisms of the politics of war or the US legal system. As hundreds of billions of dollars were spent by the Bush and Obama administrations on the war effort, media still focused on surges and attacks, not corrupt no-bid contracts offered to former business partners of Vice-President Dick Cheney. And, as the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay Prison have passed their 150th day of hunger striking, the limited amount of time spent by the media addressing the very legality of the prison, and the treatment of the prisoners, has become painfully apparent.

For both WikiLeaks and Anonymous, there is a commitment to expose corporate and state abuses of power, often by exposing the very mechanisms by which such power is exercised. The leak/hacking/publication of emails, internal documents and memos, military videos, diplomatic cables, bank accounts in the service of increased transparency, as well as the protesting surveillance or censorship, has caused concern for corporations and state institutions.

WikiLeaks and Anonymous are an expression, a crystallization of a dissatisfaction with the extent to which primarily commercial, but also public service, news organizations have willingly absorbed elite discourses in relation to socio-economic, legal and military issues. Stories which expose political or corporate misconduct should not to be seen as the antithesis to these discourses. Often, such instances are simply defined as ”the exceptions that prove the rule” while the greater meta-story of capitalism and western power remain unchallenged. For example, the rhetoric of Sweden as a neutral country with a primary interest in diplomacy hides, to a certain extent, the economic and political power held by large corporations in this country: corporations involved in business activities antithetical to both democratic development and peaceful resolutions of disputes.  The cloudy role of the Swedish government in protecting Ericsson’s interests in Syria, for example, while covered by Dagens Nyheter and Swedish Radio, received relatively little press coverage, given how it clashed with so much of the political discourse coming out of Stockholm regarding a commitment to freedom of speech and the rule of law.

Again, while stories on surveillance and weapons manufacture are broken, deeper analyses of how the stories relate to power remain, for the most part, unwritten.

But, this post is not about the ”death” of journalism, but rather a particular failure: the failure to address process and context. Yet, the work of both Anonymous and WikiLeaks should be seen as positive developments for journalism, as they introduce new elements into the informational and democratic landscape. Ultimately, what is challenged by WikiLeaks and Anonymous is not so much the mode of news and information production and distribution, but rather the relationship between mass media and those holding political-economic power.

WikiLeaks and Anonymous force us to rethink a number of core democratic relationships: the one between citizens and the state (impacted by providing access to sensitive intelligence previously hidden from view); the one between citizens and the media (impacted by exposure of the shortcomings of an uncritical commercial media system); and, the one between media and governments (impacted by challenging the mantle of “watchdog” proudly trumpeted by major mainstream news outlets). This is not to say that these relationships have altered dramatically, but rather that WikiLeaks and Anonymous, through an determination to challenge global hegemonies, have thrown down the gauntlet in front of those in power by laying bare (some of) the practices of authority hidden from public view.

As academics, such challenges are worthy of deeper examination, as they are at the heart of the democratic ideals both academia and journalism profess to uphold.

DN, WikiLeaks and Assange

I was recently interviewed via email and telephone for an article that came out in DN today regarding the 1st anniversary of Julian Assange’s asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. I was asked to reflect on this, as well as how things stand today for WikiLeaks and their relationship with the mainstream media. This email was followed with a 30-minute conversation with the journalist on the same topics. Unfortunately, the result of these two interactions was two short quotes in an article that essentially focused on why people might be leaking material elsewhere. The quotes from me in the piece are accurate, and I stand by them. However, I was under the impression that the article would be far more wide-ranging, and, as someone who has written about WikiLeaks, I feel that it is important to post the email I had written to the DN journalist on June 7 in response to the issues I outlined above, as it touches upon things that I think are vitally important. During the phone interview I was at pains to point out that the tension between WikiLeaks and the media was, in part, due to WikiLeaks beating journalists at their own game, and that the focus on the Assange personality was a media construction (something I have written about earlier).

So, here is what I wrote:

Hej:

First of all, I think it very important to note how the recent revelations about the Obama administration spying on US citizens (the “PRISM” case) relate to WikiLeaks. First, the information was obtained by The Guardian as a result of a whistleblower, and, second it shows the extent to which the US government are engaged in highly detailed surveillance. WikiLeaks is a whisteblowing organization and has critiqued US abuse of power. The PRISM case has, I feel, helped WikiLeaks by reminding people how important leaks can be to the functioning of a truly democratic society. This is the ultimate goal of WikiLeaks.

This brings us to the year Assange has spent in the embassy. What has happened, I feel, is that Assange the personality has overshadowed WikiLeaks the organization. This is a shame, given the importance of the material WikiLeaks has revealed. Clearly, after Assange sought asylum, things were not looking good for WikiLeaks: they were short on money, and the negative press was growing. But, with the (partial) lifting of the economic blockade, and the PRISM revelations in The Guardian, I feel that WikiLeaks might, perhaps, regain some of its former importance. It should be noted that even though WikiLeaks ended the formal relationship with major newspapers, these papers continue to use WikiLeaks material in their reporting. It has been an important resource.

As far as the documentary about WikiLeaks (We Steal Secrets) by Alex Gibney, I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment on the contents. But, what we can see from the reaction to the film is what I discussed above: that the personality of Assange has tended to overshadow WHAT WikiLeaks has done. This isn’t to say that a resolution of the Assange case in Sweden isn’t important (it is), but rather that WikiLeaks is more than just Assange.

mvh, Christian

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