March 06, 2014

In Which Our Self-Proclaimed Hero Explodes Himself (I)

[P]rior to creating The Intercept with Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, I did not research Omidyar’s political views or donations. That’s because his political views and donations are of no special interest to me – any more than I cared about the political views of the family that owns and funds Salon (about which I know literally nothing, despite having worked there for almost 6 years), or any more than I cared about the political views of those who control the Guardian Trust.

There’s a very simple reason for that: they have no effect whatsoever on my journalism or the journalism of The Intercept. That’s because we are guaranteed full editorial freedom and journalistic independence. The Omidyar Network’s political views or activities – or those of anyone else – have no effect whatsoever on what we report, how we report it, or what we say.


I know little about the specific Ukrainian group at issue here – do any of you touting this article know anything about them? – and I certainly don’t trust this writer to convey anything accurately. -- Glenn Greenwald, On the Meaning of Journalistic Independence (emphasis added)

Glenn Greenwald doesn't know a whole lot. -- Patrick Higgins, The Intercept's Interference: Notes on Media, Capitalism, and Imperialism

I. A Few of the Mysteries of Our Age

I imagine an historian 70 or 100 years hence attempting to convey the reality of investigative journalism in the early part of the 21st century. Assuming he is able to overcome the seemingly intractable problem of an almost complete lack of content for his project -- will there have been investigative journalism on a scale that would justify treatment in any form longer than a brief footnote, and will any such journalism have survived in a manner that would command the attention of a writer or reader? -- he will then collide with a mystifying dilemma. The historian considers the case of a very well-known journalist of that period (our period, for the gods have surely forsaken us). This journalist gobbles up media time and space in a manner that must leave seasoned publicists, who exhaust themselves on behalf of the most colorful of murderers, thieves, and makers of general mayhem, sick with envy. Yet, when the journalist confronts questions concerning his employer and sole funder, even questions that carry but the merest suggestion that perhaps this is a subject requiring analysis and, well, investigation, the journalist offers as explanation and defense his own ignorance coupled with a complete lack of curiosity.

In this instance, we are not concerned with the simple lack of information and a detached disinterest about a subject that fails to touch a person's life in any measurable manner. Here we must contend with one of the richest men in the entire world (number 162 on Forbes' latest list of the world's wealthiest billionaires), a man who, by virtue of his immense wealth and power, seeks to affect and alter his world in numerous ways. His enormous wealth and power mean that he can affect and alter that world. This man, Pierre Omidyar, is also Greenwald's benefactor. Despite these basic facts about Omidyar -- facts which would understandably make any individual (not even a journalist!) who is moderately interested in how and why the world operates as it does curious to know what exactly makes Omidyar tick, and why he pursues certain courses of action -- Greenwald chooses to bludgeon us with proudly proclaimed, comprehensive ignorance, and with a deeply dedicated lack of curiosity about subjects indisputably relevant to his work and financial well-being. Greenwald's impregnable hauteur is striking. It puts me in mind of an aristocrat who, when confronted by a lowly servant announcing that the revolution is at the door, regards the servant with sneering disdain, sniffs with disgust and announces: "I am not interested in the things ... which do not interest me." He may survive the revolution, but not if he must rely on his own efforts.

Our era thus offers a new model for investigative journalism. We are far too sophisticated and worldly to care about the likes of I.F. Stone. Our remarkably advanced grasp of the most complex matters impels us to embrace a very different kind of man. Stone must give way to Sergeant Schultz of Hogan's Heroes: "I see nothing! I know nothing!" I don't recall that Schultz was given a quarter of a billion dollars to start his own camp newsletter, but since I almost never watched the show, I may have missed that development. I'm sure he could have written a whopper of a column, in which he endlessly detailed all that nothingness. (After writing this passage, I discovered that we have progressed so far along this trajectory that Schultz has been selected to the I.F. Stone Hall of Fame. The gods have not only forsaken us: they laugh at us uproariously.)

Our future historian faces still one more mystery. How did it happen that, when Greenwald loudly launched his know-nothing defense -- a strategy which is, at a minimum, odd for a repeatedly self-proclaimed "fearless," "adversarial" journalist -- almost no one in his own time found this at all disconcerting or strange? The astronomer instructs us: "For pity's sake, planets, asteroids, solar systems, galaxies. I don't care about any of that." The priest intones: "All these questions about God and His will. I am not interested in such matters." And no one says a word, or even appears to be mildly perplexed.

What follows involves several interwoven themes. One of those themes is certainly money -- not money alone, but wealth, especially excessive, almost ungraspable wealth, allied with power and status. Perhaps we should have a theme song for this article. Try this one.

II. No One Needs a Goddamn Memo

In the concluding paragraph of his Paean to Blessed Ignorance, which Higgins accurately describes as a piece which "utterly runs on cluelessness," Greenwald repeats a claim he has made numerous times:
But what I do know is that I would never temper, limit, suppress or change my views for anyone’s benefit – as anyone I’ve worked with will be happy to tell you – and my views on such interference in other countries isn’t going to remotely change no matter the actual facts here. I also know that I’m free to express those views without the slightest fear. And I have zero doubt that that’s true of every other writer at The Intercept. That’s what journalistic independence means.
We might observe that it is distinctly peculiar when Our Hero finds it necessary to announce his Heroism and Unbreached and Unbreachable Integrity over and over again. I don't know about you, but when someone repeatedly tells me what a fantastically great guy he is, I tend to discount such declarations rather severely upon the second or third hearing, let alone after the tenth or twentieth. But let us pass on to the nub of the matter, what Greenwald tells us it all means.

For Greenwald, it all means that he has never and would never alter his genuinely-held views on any subject he writes about for anyone in the world. He drives the point home by adding that "anyone" he's ever "worked with" will confirm this -- which possibly implies, without explicitly claiming, that his former employers, for example (Salon and the Guardian), were not entirely pleased with what he wrote on at least a few occasions. Greenwald has also sometimes remarked that if an employer insisted that he change what he had written in a manner that was sufficiently objectionable to him, he would quit. Apparently, this has never happened: he's never quit under such adverse circumstances, but only to go on to what he thought was a better gig. In other words, if there have been any confrontations between Greenwald and an employer over what Greenwald wanted to publish, Greenwald was the victor. He stood up for The Truth, and he always will.

There is, of course, a different way of viewing his declarations of nobility. It is entirely possible that Greenwald has never wanted to publish a column or article that challenged or criticized an employer (or what an employer thought to be in its interests) in a manner that the employer considered serious enough to require a major battle, or perhaps a battle of any kind at all. It may be that the interests and views of Greenwald and his employers are aligned on the most important questions, and that any deviations on Greenwald's part are so comparatively minor in the employers' view that they merit no serious concern whatsoever.

Most of us have had encounters with dedicated adherents of an ideology, religion or political group, or even of a social clique. Think back to when you were in high school. Johnny and his close friends are very popular. They are good at athletics, and good, but not too good, at academics. They're good-looking too; Johnny is a knockout. You cannot become an integral member of their group unless you fulfill these requirements. The kids who do not don't bother to try to get into the group; everyone knows the qualifications. No one needs to be told those qualifications: you observe the group and its members and, assuming you possess a basically working mind, you know what they are. Johnny and his friends allow for a few exceptions: these are the kids who aren't especially good at athletics or academics, nor are they very attractive. But they are very good at something else Johnny wants: they run interference for Johnny with those kids who don't like Johnny and his group. For the most part, these naysayers mind their own business; they aren't looking for trouble. Still, Johnny periodically needs to remind everyone who's running the show. That's where the otherwise undesirable hangers-on come in. They are Johnny's enforcers.

Sometimes, Johnny will give explicit instructions as to how a student he particularly dislikes should be targeted. Usually, he doesn't need to. The hangers-on know what makes Johnny happy, just as all the members of Johnny's clique do, just as everyone does. All of them have watched Johnny for some time; they know what pleases him and what doesn't.

The identical dynamics are at work in adult groups and cliques, whether they be primarily political or social in nature (or some combination of both). It is a pathetic and pitiful commentary on the damaged psychologies of most adults, but it is the sad truth. (For a detailed discussion of the operations of what I term political tribes, see this.) All of us are overly familiar with the complete predictability of conservative and liberal commentators, as one example. Whatever the "hot" topic of the moment is, we know immediately what the views of both groups will be. Sometimes there are exceptions, but they are extraordinarily rare. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, an informed prediction will be correct. Political commentators don't need to be told what views to adopt; if they didn't have views acceptable to the group, they couldn't and wouldn't become part of it in the first place. Once in, they wouldn't remain in if they strayed too often. When they stray too far too frequently, the group will cease to pay attention to them and no one will view the malefactors as "serious" any longer. Those who stray too much will be rendered invisible.

Just as in high school, explicit instructions will occasionally be provided to group members. Recall the JournoList affair of several years ago. But that is rare. Of much more significance is the fact that such coordination is entirely unnecessary. If JournoList had never existed, would any of its members have written anything significantly different from what they wrote while it was extant? No, they would not. The work of the JournoList members both before and after they belonged to JournoList proves that beyond any doubt.

These dynamics are not a deeply-held secret. As I've described, all of us become familiar with them (often painfully so) by the time we are teenagers. Yet we all still have another kind of experience. We are attempting to discuss an issue with a person who identifies with a clearly defined group. We become more and more frustrated by the rote, predictable formulations and replies offered in response to our questions and criticisms. At a certain point, we might exclaim in frustration: "Oh, for God's sake, stop just repeating the party line. Think for yourself!" And the other person will say, as if this constitutes a devastating reply which entirely deflates his opponent: "This is actually what I think on my own. And sorry to disappoint you, but I never received the memo about this."

This is a remarkably stupid answer, but one we hear with shocking frequency. No one needs a memo, for the reasons I've explained. Everyone knows the group's requirements; if they didn't, they would never have become a member at all. In his tribute to the magnificence of unblemished ignorance, Greenwald states: "I have not spoken to Pierre or anyone at First Look – or, for that matter, anyone else in the world – about any of this, and am speaking only for myself here." ("Anyone else in the world"! The unending, indeed unbreached, grandiosity is astounding. At this point, I am surprised only by the fact that Greenwald limits his claim even in this manner; why not "anyone else" in the universe?) At various times, Greenwald (and Scahill, as I recall) have emphatically insisted that the very idea that Omidyar would tell them what to write (or not write) and they would follow his orders is ludicrously laughable. In all these instances, they're saying: "We never got the memo."

It's a remarkably stupid answer. I've criticized Omidyar for many reasons, but I would never accuse him of being stupid in this way, especially when it comes to his investments. The man is a multibillionaire, the 162nd richest man in the world. I do not believe that a man becomes and remains a multibillionaire by setting piles of his money on fire:
To believe that one of the leading oligarchs in the world is going to engage in a prolonged, public act of suicide by funding journalists who will call into question the basic structure of a system that permits him (and a few sanctified others) to accumulate this degree of wealth and power is to believe in the Tooth Fairy and that wishing will make it so. Individuals who devote their lives to acquiring vast wealth and power are not in the business of destroying themselves, or of aiding those whose work might challenge the foundations of their power.
Omidyar knew what he was buying when he hired Greenwald, Scahill, and the rest. He was buying a collection of journalists who would burnish his image of himself as a crusader for "privacy" and against government surveillance (although even that is very strictly limited in a manner most people appear not to grasp, as we shall see), as well as generally bolstering his PR campaign to portray himself as a "good" billionaire. He also bought one more thing: journalism that would never threaten his own interests in any way that need concern him.

The simple, incontrovertible fact is that Greenwald ultimately comes down squarely on the side of power and wealth. The further incontrovertible fact is that, despite what appear to be certain harsh denunciations of the crimes and misdeeds of the powerful, Greenwald tempers and undercuts those criticisms to an extent that renders them toothless and of no consequence. To know all this, Omidyar had only to look at the public record.

Next time, we will do the same. Maestro, play me off!