In October,Glenn Greenwald announced he is joining a new journalistic venture backed by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar,who has promised to invest $250 million and throw out all the old rules. The concluding part of his discussion with Bill Keller,this time on his new venture,follows:
Pierre Omidyar,your new employer,thinks he has seen the future of journalism,and it looks like you. In an NPR interview,Omidyar said that trust in institutions is going down and now audiences want to connect with personalities. So he is building a constellation of stars,passion-fuelled soloists,crusading investigators. I know you dont speak for Omidyar,but I have some questions about how you see this new world.
First,it has become a cliché of our business/ profession/ craft that journalists are supposed to build themselves as individual brands. But journalism especially the hardest stuff,like investigative journalism benefits immensely from institutional support,including a technical staff that knows how to make the most of a database,editors and fact-checkers who fortify the stories,graphic designers who help make complicated subjects comprehensible and,not least,lawyers who are steeped in freedom-of-information and First Amendment law. In the Snowden coverage,you worked within the institutional structure of The Guardian and,for a little while,The Times. So whats so different about the new venture? Is it just a journalistic institution by another name?
Second,in an interview with my old friend David Cay Johnston you said coverage of governments and other big institutions is about to be radically changed because of the pervasiveness of digital content. Governments and businesses depend on vast troves of information. All it takes,you said,is access and a troubled conscience to create an Edward Snowden or a Bradley Manning. But it seems to me it takes one other thing: a willingness to risk everything. Manning is serving a 35-year prison sentence for the WikiLeaks disclosures,and Snowden faces a life in exile. The same digital tools that make it easy to leak also make it hard to avoid getting caught. Thats one reason,I think,the overwhelming preponderance of investigative reporting still comes for reporters who cultivate trusted sources over months or years,not from insiders who suddenly decide to entrust someone theyve never met with a thumb drive full of secrets. Do you really think Snowden and Manning represent the future of investigative journalism?
And,third,will Pierre Omidyars New Thing be a political monoculture,or do you expect there will be right-wing Glenn Greenwalds on board? Back to you.
We absolutely believe that strong,experienced editors are vital to good journalism,and intend to have plenty of those. Editors are needed to ensure the highest level of factual accuracy,to verify key claims,and to help journalists make choices that avoid harm to innocents. But they are not needed to impose obsolete stylistic rules,or to snuff out the unique voice and passion of the journalists,or to bar any sort of declarative statements when high-level officials prevaricate,or to mandate government-requested euphemisms in lieu of factually clear terms,or to vest official statements or official demands for suppression with superior status. In sum,editors should be there to empower and enable strong,highly factual,aggressive adversarial journalism,not to serve as roadblocks to neuter or suppress the journalism.
We intend to treat claims from the most powerful factions with scepticism,not reverence. Official assertions are our starting point to investigate,not the gospel around which we build our narratives.
With regard to sources,I really dont understand the distinction you think youre drawing between Snowden and more traditional sources. Snowden came to journalists who work with newspapers that are among the most respected in the world. We didnt just have thumb drives dumped in our laps: we worked for quite a long time to build a relationship of trust and to develop a framework to enable us to report these materials. How is that any different from Daniel Ellsbergs decision to take the Pentagon Papers to The Times in the early 1970s?
All that said,you raise an interesting and important point about the dangers posed to sources. But it isnt just people like Manning and Snowden who face prosecution and long prison terms. American whistleblowers who went to more traditional media outlets also face serious felony charges from an administration which,as your papers former general counsel,James Goodale,has said,has been more vindictive in attacking the newsgathering process than any since Richard Nixon.
The climate of fear that has been deliberately cultivated means that,as The New Yorkers Jane Mayer put it,the newsgathering process has come to a standstill. Ubiquitous surveillance obviously compounds this problem greatly,since the collection of all metadata makes it almost impossible for a source and journalist to communicate without the governments knowledge.
So yes: along with new privacy-enhancing technologies,I do think that brave,innovative whistleblowers like Manning and Snowden are crucial to opening up some of this darkness and providing some sunlight. It shouldnt take extreme courage and a willingness to go to prison for decades or even life to blow the whistle on bad government acts done in secret. But it does. Reclaiming basic press freedoms in the US is
an important impetus for our new venture.
As for whether our new venture will be ideologically homogenised: the answer is definitely not. We welcome and want anyone devoted to true adversarial journalism regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum,and have already been speaking with conservative journalists like that: real conservatives,not the East Coast rendition of conservatives such as David Brooks. Our driving ideology is accountability journalism grounded in rigorous factual accuracy.