Glenn Greenwald has responded to Pando Daily’s story about the Omidyar Network and Ukraine with the force and speed we have come to expect. Good. Now I also wish he and his colleagues would turn around, ignore Pando, and create a statement of principles, a compact with the public. Greenwald begins that in his last paragraph of the Pando post:
But what I do know is that I would never temper, limit, suppress or change my views for anyone’s benefits – 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.
That is still reactive to Pando. I would like to see a positive statement of principles: What we stand for. What we guarantee you we will always do and never do. What we will disclose to you….
You could say that we already have journalistic principles, plenty of them, produced by no end of journalism practitioners, professors, and blatherers like me. Very true.
But as Greenwald and others reinvent journalism, it is good to rethink and reassert principles. It is a useful exercise for any journalistic organization: for a reimagined New York Times or a newly invented First Look or Pando or even Gawker. What do you stand for? What assurances to you give us, the public you serve, that we can and should trust you? What can we expect of you?
Greenwald’s principles would not match those of fusty old American journalistic institutions. Start with the obvious: He takes stands. He has a perspective. He measures his value by his impact. (And I endorse those principles.) That is his raison d’être. What is theirs?
Now Greenwald also says that the views and actions of his funder don’t matter because he promises he won’t let them matter (see: principles above) and besides, all rich people have views and entanglements and — to paraphrase a classic Woody Allen joke — we need the eggs. Well…..
There are limits. I pulled my last book, Public Parts, from Harper Collins because I was being critical of and did not want to be subject to the control of Rupert Murdoch. There are others I would not work for and some I am sure Greenwald would not work for (even if they would hire him). I worked for others I should have liked — like Time Inc. — but threatened to resign when I disapproved of what they did. I know my limits.
So there is another step needed here: We need to hear from the funders, the moguls, to give us first transparency and then assurances.
Now in Pierre Omidyar’s case, I pointed out yesterday as Greenwald did today that it took only .3 milliseconds in a Google search to find that the Omidyar Network had funded civil society groups in Ukraine; they sent out a press release about it in 2011. I’m not sure what Pando’s revelation was, except perhaps to make the connection with USAID, though that’s also discoverable. Given Omidyar’s and his network’s vast activities, it’s hard to say that they could create a single transparency document (like simple me). Instead, it is better that they operate under a principle of revealing their financial involvements and making them transparent to Google search.
But what we could have is assurances from both sides of a financial transaction: not only the journalists assure us of their independence, as Greenwald does, but also that the funders guarantee that independence. It would be good for Greenwald et al to write the statement of principles and for Omidyar to endorse it.
When I wrote a post about philanthropy’s relationship to news this week, I had a sixth guideline I should have left in: Charity brings strings. Journalists like to think that they can get manna from heaven to rescue them from the nasty commerce of marketing and advertising, of earning audience and revenue, of sustainability. But as the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger has pointed out, it was advertising that freed journalism from the control of political entities and gave them independence.
Now journalists are seeking patronage once more. They need to take those checks with eyes wide open and they need to have a conversation with the public about the implications for them and the journalism they serve to us.