The Incomplete Story of Glenn Greenwald’s Resignation from The Intercept
The dust has settled on the contentious late-October resignation of famous/infamous journalist Glenn Greenwald from The Intercept. The Twitter beefs have played themselves out. The articles, whether laudatory or derogatory, have been written. His rounds have been made, mostly on independent media channels, where he discussed the details (kind of). And he’s got his writing back in blogosphere mode through the newsletter platform Substack, which now powers the reader-funded work of a fair number of journalists, both established and emerging.
A lot of creators, readers and viewers of independent media have clocked Greenwald’s resignation as something that’s been way too long in coming. Way too long. After all, it doesn’t take the deepest of research or insight to recognize that The Intercept reneged on its promise of being a home for “fearless adversarial journalism” within the first few years of its existence — or that, in contradiction of that reality, Greenwald’s own work for the publication remained characteristically sharp and full of personality, while pretty much ignoring or outright challenging partisan orthodoxies.
All of this leads one to ask, “how did he continue to put up with the disheartening commonness of the publication he went out of his way to create and, whether he accepts it or not, stake a good portion of his reputation on?” He’s never been one to pull rhetorical punches. Why did he hold his tongue for so long? Why did it take outright censorship of his work to finally move him to act? One of the reasons we don’t have genuine answers to these questions has to do with the relatively shallow way in which he was interviewed after he went public with his resignation. Most interviewers focused only on the particulars of how Greenwald was censored, which is in many ways the most obvious and least interesting aspect of his “take this job and shove it” decision.
I don’t mean to be a dick about this. I really don’t. I can imagine it was difficult for some in indy media to grill Greenwald, who represented anti-imperial dissidents so boldly during the GW Bush years, who put his ass on the line by working with Edward Snowden to out NSA illegal surveillance, who tore apart the partisan consensus of the Russiagate psy-op, and who exposed the corruption of the authoritarian Brazilian government, freeing former president Lula da Silva from prison in the process. Even the best of us might be shy to press someone we admire, whether we care to admit it or not. And it also needs to be said that, as refreshing as some of YouTube indy media has been these past four or five years, many of its best practitioners are simply not disciplined interviewers.
Of all the interviews I did watch with Greenwald in the midst of this Intercept drama, I thought Jimmy Dore came the closest in getting Greenwald to explore some of the root issues of why he had to finally quit. I think there’s a reason for this as well. Jimmy Dore is not a professional, or even pseudo-professional, journalist. In fact, he’s spent years hilariously scorning the imperial stenography that passes for professional journalism in the West. He’s a comedian in the acerbic Carlin/Hicks tradition. He’s informal. He doesn’t interview so much as he converses, with occasional joke-cracking, outbursts, diatribes and soliloquies. He has an uncanny way of loosening the tongues of even close-to-the-vest players like the Grayzone’s Aaron Mate. And so he did with Greenwald (to a degree).
You be the judge.
There are two little snippets from the interview where Jimmy had openings to strike closer to the root. He didn’t take them. I wonder, in fact, if he recognized them. But hell, it’s hard to grab every foothold in the moment on camera and I obviously don’t know how much research Jimmy and his team did before interviewing Greenwald (which would have prepared him to see to see those footholds more readily).
The first opening was when Greenwald mentioned somewhat dismissively that The Intercept’s funder, tech billionaire Pierre Omidyar, had no involvement in how The Intercept pursued its journalism — but then later alluded to protracted negotiations The Intercept’s founders conducted with the Omidyar organization to ensure their long-term independence. The second was an offhand comment Greenwald made about his deciding not to pursue an active role in the publication’s management, but to focus mostly on his own journalism.
These quick remarks not only point to some fundamental contradictions in the ability of The Intercept to pursue its stated mission of “fearless adversarial journalism”, but also reveal an unfortunately cavalier attitude on Greenwald’s part about what it takes to create an organizational ethos and keep it on track over time. These are foundational issues that need to be fully explored, not merely for some spiteful purpose of taking Glenn down a peg, but to reveal to viewers and journalists alike how precarious independence and integrity can be — especially within an empire run with a ceaseless and laser-like focus on narrative control — and how quickly they can be swiped away.
Keeping all of this in mind, I want to offer some lines of questioning that Jimmy (or any interviewer) could have taken to drag Glenn back to some root issues of why The Intercept has turned out to be such an underwhelming and even damaging — if you happen to be Daniel Hale, Terry Albury or Reality Winner — media outlet.
“Glenn, now that you mention Pierre Omidyar and First Look Media, which is the organization he created to fund The Intercept, could you tell me a bit about how the deal between he, you, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill came about?
You were really busy preparing the Snowden revelations for publication with The Guardian at the time, I imagine. Were the three of you looking to found a publication together, or did Omidyar come to you with the idea?”
Now I’ve never really heard Greenwald speak to this issue in detail. At the time he helped found The Intercept, he had reached a significant point in his career, having started as a mere blogger in the early to mid-2000s, getting a gig with Salon (which we should not forget was created by David Talbot, a journalist who has looked into more dark corners of the national security state than most), and ascending then to the left-oriented Guardian — before it was eviscerated and turned into the establishment imperial newspaper it is today. Needless to say, Greenwald was in a rather cush position at that point in time. Creating a new publication wasn’t something he needed to do, so it would be helpful if the story of The Intercept’s genesis were explained more fully.
Most importantly, though, this type of question is the first stepping stone to understanding how the high-profile founder of a purportedly journalist-centric, anti-security state publication was in a position to get censored at all — and by his own creation, no less!
So, regardless of how Glenn might have answered such a question, here’s a potential follow-up.
“Glenn, you’re savvy. You’ve seen through a lot of bullshit over the years and I’m sure you know that no one gets to be a billionaire in this world by being a super nice stand-up guy. So, when you got together with Omidyar on this idea of a publication to explore the Snowden leaks (the integrity of which I’m sure you wanted to protect) and investigate the security-surveillance state, how did you vet him to get a better look at his priorities and intentions? I mean, I’m sure you didn’t want to get bamboozled or screwed over by working with him, right?”
This is another stepping-stone question, because it’s geared toward getting Greenwald to explore the process he went through in creating The Intercept and the contours of its management. I’d be dumbfounded if he personally had any trust in Omidyar or his emissaries from the tech world at First Look Media, wouldn’t you?
Again, regardless of his answer, this would have given Jimmy (or any interviewer) the opportunity to remind Glenn of the investigations other journalists have done into the activities of Pierre Omidyar and his rather sprawling set of organizations and funding choices. The dude is up to his eyeballs in collaboration with the national security state and spent a ton of time at the White House during Obama’s presidency, so it would be nice if Glenn were to acknowledge that there’s a fairly obvious contradiction between say, trying to sink Wikileaks or helping the U.S. foment a fascist coup in The Ukraine (which Omidyar did) and creating a publication to expose the maneuvers of the national security-surveillance state.
Best bet in this regard would be to reference the investigative work done by Max Blumenthal and Alex Rubenstein at the Grayzone — and (sadly) not bring up the work Whitney Webb did on Omidyar and other tech oligarchs when she was at Mint Press News (even though much of that work is quite good). Greenwald has an ongoing spat with her and would likely shut down if she were mentioned.
Perhaps Greenwald would counter that many facts about Omidyar weren’t as readily available in 2013–14 when The Intercept was being configured (the Grayzone and Mint Press stuff was published in 2018-19), but nevertheless it would get him to discuss how careful he was about how much to trust Omidyar, or reveal some details about the extent to which he worked out a deal to protect The Intercept from potential billionaire oligarch interference and subversion. I mean, even if you simply look at the piece Greenwald wrote for The Intercept in 2014 about why Matt Taibbi bailed out of creating a political satire magazine with First Look, which was a welcome stab at transparency, intimations of control and interference from Omidyar’s minions seems rather evident. It stands to reason that Greenwald, Poitras and Scahill had to deal with similar issues when setting up and running The Intercept.
The main thing, though, is that this line of conversation gets us closer to what drove the censoring of Greenwald’s work — a censoring I suspect he anticipated before he even wrote his piece on Joe Biden’s rather run-of-the-mill and longstanding corruption. Because, you see, how is it that he could found a publication that, according to him, is free of influence from his funder, a pro imperial liberal, whose editor, a pro imperial liberal, has the power to prevent him publishing his piece criticizing a pro imperial liberal (okay, barely a liberal, given how neatly Biden would fit into the pre-evangelical Republican Party of the 80’s/90’s)?
The answer to this question has everything to do with Greenwald’s comment about not wanting to run a publication, but to focus on his own journalism. So, at this stage, the questions could come like this:
“Glenn, you mentioned it took some wrangling to set up the structure of The Intercept with Omidyar’s people at First Look Media. Where did you land in the end? Who ended up being responsible for what? Did you and your partners have control over hiring and firing? Budget? Job expectations for each journalist? I’m also curious who hired Betsy Reed in the first place. She’s not known as especially anti-national security state and neither is The Nation, where she came from. What gave her the power to hold back anything written by you, or anyone else, for that matter? I thought The Intercept was conceived as a publication where journalists had the control. What changed and how?
This, to me, is the crux of the matter. Anyone who’s worked in even the most well-intentioned organization understands how issues of money, power, ideology and human frailty can cause an enterprise to veer off-mission, and a lot more quickly than you might imagine. To stay genuinely on-mission takes “constant vigilance!”, as Mad-Eye Moody exclaims in the Harry Potter books. But with a key founder who didn’t seem to want to run his own organization — or at least bring in trusted consiglieres to help run it — well…power abhors a vacuum.
Like I said at the beginning of this piece, The Intercept underwhelmed awfully quickly (Greenwald’s work, and later perhaps Briahna Joy Gray’s, excepted). From the very first year of their existence, take a look back at The Intercept archive and what you’ll not find is virtually any exciting writer with an honest-to-God adversarial voice. It’s all pretty staid, antiseptic and traditional stuff. Even Jeremy Scahill, who did some very good pre-Intercept work on Blackwater and U.S. violent imperialism abroad, barely a year into The Intercept’s existence, published this rather boring, historically bereft, inconclusive piece about Yemen in the early days of its civil war (before Obama put his muscle behind the Saudis to devastate that country).
Without even getting into The Intercept’s mismanagement and yanking of the Snowden archives (an archive which, in all honesty, was far more incisively delved into by Elizabeth Lea Vos and Suzie Dawson in their #DecipherYou series than by The Intercept itself) or of their woeful ineptitude in burning anonymous sources and seeing them carted off to prison, what can be observed in the Greenwald resignation brouh-ha-ha is less an egregious tale of censorship and partisan-driven VBNMW Trump Derangement Syndrome, and more a story of how things can devolve when you fail to take up the mantle of leadership.
I’ve been reading and re-reading Glenn Greenwald’s work from his earliest days as a blogger. I’ve, in fact, cheered out loud at some of his boldest passages. Over the years, he’s been a writer of considerable verve, nonpartisan political insight and genuine courage. I will continue to read him with due attention. But hero worship is for children. Everyone fucks up. Whether intentionally or not, Glenn fucked up with The Intercept. What’s important now is that, privately at least, he reflects on all of this and determines to nail the organizational details with the next thing he does. Because there will be a next thing for a writer of his talent and notoriety. Of that I have no doubt.
As always, thanks for reading.