Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

On the Intercept, Conflicts of Interest, and Journalistic Independence

David Dayen of the Intercept published a piece today criticizing the New York Times for failing to indicate in their coverage of new Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi that Khosrowshahi is on the Times’ board of directors:

As long as Khosrowshahi stays in place, questions will inevitably be raised about the paper’s deeper enterprise reporting into Uber’s business practices. The Times has generally done a credible job in covering Uber. It has broken unflattering news, such as venture capital firm Benchmark suing Kalanick and the use of a secret program called “Greyball” to deceive legal authorities who banned the service in certain locations. It has reported on a woman in India who was raped by an Uber driver and the company’s efforts to cover it up. A large interactive spread on Uber’s “psychological tricks” to boost ridership ran in April.

But none of those pieces were published while Uber had a presence on the Times Company’s board. And it will be difficult to gauge the organization’s transparency going forward without being privy to internal deliberations among the editorial staff.

The independence of journalistic organizations and the extent to which their funding and governance impacts their coverage has long been a pet favourite topic of media critics. It’s not unwarranted — management at the Las Vegas Review-Journal were accused of manipulating articles related to the paper’s sale to Sheldon Adelson, and Buzzfeed spiked stories concerning certain advertisers.

But this is a bit of a funny story coming from the Intercept, given what co-founding editor Glenn Greenwald wrote three years ago concerning an apparent scandal:

This morning, I see that some people are quite abuzz about a new Pando article “revealing” that the foundation of Pierre Omidyar, the publisher of First Look Media which publishes The Intercept, gave several hundred thousand dollars to a Ukraininan “pro-democracy” organization opposed to the ruling regime. This, apparently, is some sort of scandal that must be immediately addressed not only by Omidyar, but also by every journalist who works at First Look. That several whole hours elapsed since the article was published on late Friday afternoon without my commenting is, for some, indicative of disturbing stonewalling.

Greenwald’s defences against Pando’s report — which implies a lack of editorial independence for the Intercept owing to Omidyar’s foundation’s donations1 — amounts to the following:

  • This isn’t a real scandal.

  • This isn’t a problem because Omidyar’s donations were publicized. By that same criteria, Khosrowshahi’s new job also isn’t a problem because the Times’ board of directors is public knowledge and Uber made a public announcement.

  • This isn’t a problem because the Intercept is journalistically independent from Omidyar’s personal beliefs and politics. By that same criteria, this isn’t a problem for the Times because their editorial staff is independent from their directors’ beliefs and politics.

    Greenwald is only too happy to share links to stories that prove the Intercept’s independence. Similarly, Dayen’s article about the appointment of Uber’s new CEO — as quoted above — links to several articles that show the Times’ indifference to how Uber or Khosrowshahi might feel about their coverage. Mike Isaac’s coverage of Khosrowshahi’s new job is highly critical of Uber. The Times’ board of directors also include former executives from Pandora, Verizon, Facebook, and other companies the Times has reported on, with seemingly no effect on their journalistic integrity.

Greenwald:

That funding [for quality journalism], by definition, is going to come from people rich enough to provide it. And such people are almost certainly going to have views and activities that you find objectionable. If you want to take the position that this should never be done, that’s fine: just be sure to apply it consistently to the media outlets and groups you really like.

Good point: consistency is important. For example, while Dayen knocks the Times for failing to indicate in their article that Khosrowshahi is a board member, prior articles on the Intercept that mention eBay — including one written by Dayen himself — do not state that funder Pierre Omidyar’s fortune comes primarily from eBay, which he founded.

Greenwald:

Journalists should be judged by the journalism they produce, not by those who fund the outlets where they do it. The real issue is whether they demand and obtain editorial freedom. We have. But ultimately, the only thing that matters is the journalism we or any other media outlets produce.

I couldn’t agree more, which is why I find Dayen’s article so baffling in its suspicion of the Times ability to maintain the quality of its coverage without executive meddling. Dayen even mentions that there’s “no indication the Times suppresses stories because of its board relationships”.

Media criticism is important. But generating a false controversy or creating an environment of mistrust is not the same thing, and — I think — muddies the message Dayen was trying to get across: when there may be even the impression of a conflict of interest, point it out. That goes for the Times; it also goes for the Intercept.


  1. Mark Ames, Pando:

    What all this adds up to is a journalistic conflict-of-interest of the worst kind: Omidyar working hand-in-glove with US foreign policy agencies to interfere in foreign governments, co-financing regime change with well-known arms of the American empire — while at the same time hiring a growing team of soi-disant “independent journalists” which vows to investigate the behavior of the US government at home and overseas, and boasts of its uniquely “adversarial” relationship towards these government institutions.

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