One problem is that independent journalism is run by people more concerned about looking independent than being independent.
A friend on Facebook sent me a link to this Politico magazine article about working with Glen Greenwald on the Intercept and other projects of First Look Media: “Where Journalism Goes to Die.” It is written by Ken Silverstein, who no longer works for the company.
In the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, Pierre Omidyar, who had founded eBay, had recruited Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill to launch the first of what he hoped would be several online magazines focused around various subjects. First Look’s debut project was to be The Intercept, pitched as a place “to hold the most powerful governmental and corporate factions accountable.”
Back when I was hired, First Look and The Intercept were just getting started. It seemed like it was going to be a fantastic opportunity for journalists. I was told that I could basically create my own job and write investigative stories about anything I wanted. I knew at the time little about Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire who founded and funded First Look, but he wasn’t a big part of my decision-making.
Thus begins a fascinating account of the problems and frustrations of trying to work with the company. Perhaps the main problem was that this company was really a billionaire’s toy. I read through the entire article, clicking the links to read all three virtual pages. I found it easy because it was fascinating. But on the last page I was surprised to read one of the main reasons why Silverstein had to leave the company.
In my final months, I helped edit and write a few stories for The Intercept with Natasha Vargas-Cooper about the wildly popular podcast Serial. Natasha landed two key interviews with figures in the murder case and she wrote a series of stories that I helped edit and shared a co-byline on two of them. The stories challenged, directly and indirectly, the narrative laid out in the unexpected podcast hit by the makers of This American Life. The podcast’s narrative followed the investigation and prosecution of Baltimore teen Adnan Syed, who was convicted and is serving a life sentence for the murder by strangulation of a teenage girl (and who dumped her body in a park in Baltimore). Serial’s thesis was straightforward: Syed did not get a fair trial.
Our stories, though, showed the opposite—documenting the work of the prosecutor and the star witness. Given the viral success of the show, our follow-up stories were a huge success—possibly the biggest thing The Intercept has ever published.
So, amid all the killed stories (mentioned by Silverstein) that never brought hits or revenue to the Intercept, Natasha Vargas-Cooper landed a major scoop. A podcast, and a story from This American Life had taken up “the cause” of a teen murderer of Islamic ethnicity. This brought in a great many readers.
So were the bosses of the company happy? No, they were not. The articles were
hugely controversial inside our organization. Why wouldn’t a huge editorial success be celebrated inside The Intercept? Because we were siding with The Man.
Now I believe the American justice system is badly flawed and often racist, but in this instance, I firmly believe, the system worked. I believe Adnan Syed murdered Hae Min Lee and was rightly prosecuted for it.
But I came to realize that the system working correctly—and the right people going to jail—isn’t a good narrative to tell at The Intercept.
Publishing the Serial stories was a huge headache: There were constant delays and frustrations getting them out, even after it became clear they were drawing huge traffic. Our internal critics believed that Natasha and I had taken the side of the prosecutors—and hence the state. That support was unacceptable at a publication that claimed it was entirely independent and would be relentlessly adversarial towards The Man. That held true even in this case, when The Man successfully prosecuted a killer and sent him to jail.
Some colleagues, like Jeremy Scahill, were upset after the first installment of Natasha’s interviews with Jay, the state’s flawed-but-convincing key witness, and our co-bylined two-part interview with the lead prosecutor, Kevin Urick, both of whom had refused to speak to Sarah Koenig for her Serial podcast. Jeremy even threatened to quit over the second installment, according to two of my colleagues who witnessed what they described as his “temper tantrum” in the New York office. He told them he couldn’t believe that we’d so uncritically accepted the state’s view of the murder—even though our stories were backed up by our own research, our unique reporting and our reading of court documents. One day at the office, frustrated, Natasha wrote “Team Adnan” on a sign on Jeremy’s office door.
The internal objections delayed the second installment of our interview with Urick by a full week. And even though both Glenn and Jeremy aren’t technically editors, they reviewed the second article in advance of publication. I asked them by email to cease and told them it was inappropriate for them to review our work—we answered only to our editors, not to them. Meanwhile, as the delay mounted day by day, Natasha and I (and the prosecutor, Urick, whose exemplary work we defended) were hung out to dry—our story only partially told—as social media falsely but relentlessly attacked it on the dumbest grounds.
Natasha left The Intercept within weeks of the Serial chronicles. I wouldn’t be much longer. The Serial saga was just a sign of things to come.
So there you have it. Whatever other problems The Intercept might have had, it was also too politically correct. Even a fellow believer that “the American justice system is badly flawed and often racist,” could not be allowed to do real journalism (or at least he had to fight for it).
When you read “independent journalism,” typically, you are reading journalism that wants to appear independent according to an ideological checklist.
But you are not reading independent journalism.