Pierre Omidyar is the eBay founder. The Omidyar Group represents the philanthropic, personal and professional interests of Pierre and his wife Pam. In their homepage, their stated intention is:
The Omidyars’ work and activities are wide-ranging, but united by a common set of values — a deeply rooted belief in humanity, the conviction that every person should be treated with respect and dignity, and a vision for positive change powered by the individual.
On 16 October, Omidyar announced that, having failed in acquiring the Washington Post, he started thinking about about “…what kind of social impact could be created if a similar investment was made in something entirely new, built from the ground up. Something that I would be personally and directly involved in outside of my other efforts as a philanthropist.” He added that it wasn’t yet know how or when it will be rolled out, or what it will look like. He also confirmed that partners in this enterprise included Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, who were already on a path to create an online space to support independent journalists. More recently, Jay Rosen also announced he will be working with the team, which for now is being called “NewCo”.
Out of the four, Greenwald is probably the best known. He is the former Guardian reporter who handled the Snowden files and is now by many accused of making profits out of it. But, who “owns” the NSA secrets leaked by Edward Snowden to reporters Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras? Given that Pierre Omidyar just invested a quarter of a billion dollars to personally hire Greenwald for his new for-profit media venture, it’s worth asking who owns the secrets shared by Snowden.
In his Blog, Mark Ames recently commented that “The Snowden case represents a new twist to the heroic whistleblower story arc: After successfully convincing a large part of the public and the American Establishment that Snowden’s leaks serve a higher public interest, Greenwald promptly sold those secrets to a billionaire.”
Indeed, while confirming his departure from The Guardian, Grenwald never mentioned that ‘selling’ or ‘sharing’ his files was part of the deal. This was nevertheless the easy conclusion drawn when it was known that Omidyar had invested 250 million dollars in the new media enterprise. The birth of the new news outlet is therefore surrounded by a grey shadow. Nobody knows how much this has to do with philantropy versus business. Starting with the profits to be made with the continuing disclosure of Snowden’s files.
In August, Greenwald admitted that he and Poitras were the only people with exclusive access to the entire cache. This creates a major ethical problem that is dominating the birth of NewCo. On 1 December, Greenwald publicly reacted to recent accusations with a strong counter-attack. Mentioning that Bart Gellman – of the Washington Post – also has thousands of top secret documents from Snowden, he questions why Jeff Bezos, who purchased the Washington Post for $250 million, is not accused of doing it to buy US secrets. Similarly, he wonders why nobody is accusing the New York Times of marketing motivations for not having published the entire files altogether. Here is how Greenwald explains his strategy:
The strategy Laura Poitras and I used to report these documents is clear: I reported on most of them under a freelance contract with the Guardian, and she has reported on most under similar contracts with the NYT, the Washington Post, the Guardian and especially der Spiegel. But we also have partnered with multiple media outlets around the world – in Germany, Brazil, Canada, France, India, Spain, Holland, Mexico, and Norway, with more shortly to come – to ensure that the documents are reported on in those places where the interest level is highest and are closest to those individuals whose privacy has been invaded.
In his very long rebut, Greenwald maintains that the birth of Newco has nothing to do with acquiring a “monopoly” over NSA documents, as they are building a large, general-interest, sustained news organization that has almost nothing to do with the NSA story.
That’s because the organization is being built from the start to support, sustain and encourage truly independent, adversarial journalism. It has the backing and is being built by someone whom I am absolutely convinced is dedicated to this model of independent, adversarial journalism. It has the real potential to enable innovative and fearless journalism.
Greenwald lately spoke with CNET’s Edward Moyer by phone from Brazil, where he’s living. He talked about press freedom; tech firms and privacy; totalitarianism and the banality of evil; and the struggle over the fate of the Internet. If you are interested in these subjects, it is worth reading the entire transcript.
As his new media venture is yet to take shape, there is still much mystery surrounding the project. It is known that it will center on investigative journalism supported by general news coverage. But will the business model be as altruistic? According to a post in the Online Publishers association, therein lies a critical question.
Let’s be optimistic and judge the product when it comes on line. Hoping that his founder really meant what he said when he spoke to the New York Times:
We want to do a better job bringing important investigative stories or deep human stories that tend to be overlooked to a broader audience and we can use technology to figure out how to do that.