Greenwald and the limits of billionaire journalism

The Intercept can deal a major blow to the ideological apparatus of the security state — but how far can it go in attacking the privileges of the 1%?

by Jerome Roos via

A total budget of $250 million to support adversarial journalism. An editorially independent sub-division that aims to report aggressively on corporate and governmental intrusions into people’s personal lives. A non-profit structure that will ensure some degree of autonomy from the market and allow for a focus on high-quality, socially-relevant reporting. And three of the world’s most critical and prolific activist-journalists on national security issues. That’s the tally so far for The Intercept, the new media platform launched — on a humble and somewhat anticlimactic note — by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill on Monday.

Greenwald and Poitras gained worldwide notoriety last year after taking responsibility for the momentous release of Edward Snowden’s NSA files, revealing the Orwellian underbelly of the US security apparatus and detailing the epic scale on which the NSA and its partners are listening in on unsuspecting citizens around the world. They are now joined by award-winning investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, who is the national security correspondent for The Nation. Together the three will take charge of the first in a series of digital magazines to be published by First Look Media, the new venture launched by multi-billionaire Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar.

The Intercept opened yesterday with a major 4.000 word story on the NSA’s secret involvement in the US government’s assassination program in Central Asia and the Middle East, which reveals that “the National Security Agency is using complex analysis of electronic surveillance, rather than human intelligence, as the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes — an unreliable tactic that results in the deaths of innocent or unidentified people.” The new digital magazine also published a set of aerial photos of the US security complex by photographer Trevor Paglen, who has made an artistic and journalistic career out of “watching the watcher”.

Some serious questions remain, however, as to the politics behind The Intercept. The editors state that their long-term “mission is to provide aggressive and independent adversarial journalism across a wide range of issues, from secrecy, criminal and civil justice abuses and civil liberties violations to media conducts, societal inequality and all forms of financial and political corruption.” While this definitely sounds like a very exciting development for the left, The Intercept’s editorial line remains somewhat vague and nondescript from an ideological point of view. Greenwald himself has been embraced and assailed by all sides of the political spectrum, both revered and reviled as either a “radical leftist” or a “right-wing libertarian.” He has spoken at the Socialism Conference and written for the CATO Institute. Where do his allegiances really lie?

Probably somewhere in between. Greenwald himself vehemently denies that he’s a right-wing libertarian, and his writings attest to this fact. Like his new employer Pierre Omidyan, Greenwald appears to be well to the left of President Obama and the Democratic caucus on civil rights, displaying a left-libertarian inclination that — at some level — resonates with the “small-a anarchist” politics of Occupy Wall Street. But, in legal and economic terms, there is also a clear liberal overhang here that continues to speak in reverent terms about constitutionality (Greenwald is, after all, a constitutional lawyer) and that identifies reporting on corruption as a major priority; rather than, say, developing a systematic critique of the political-economic and legal structures that incentivize and reward such criminal behavior to begin with. It’s worth noting in this respect that Pierre Omidyan has a long history of promoting free market solutions to social problems.

So, while The Intercept has the power to deal a major blow to the ideological apparatus of the security state, it should be clear that a model relying solely on the good intentions of a multi-billionaire philanthropist can never be truly democratic — nor is it likely to ever seriously challenge the system of class privilege that sustains its funder’s wealth. What we need today is a much deeper political-economic critique that explicitly connects the rise of the security state to the panicked attempts by the 1% to defend their wealth and privilege in the face of mounting social discontent in an increasingly globalized world. Would Pierre Omidyar — or even Glenn Greenwald himself, for that matter — really be comfortable with such a line of analysis?

The Intercept deserves the left’s reserved support for its commitment to aggressive reporting on human rights violations and the out-of-control security apparatus. But to truly shine democratic light into the Orwellian darkness, and to provide an alternative political vision that could begin to disassemble the corporate state of control, it will need to develop a serious critique of the capitalist system that spawned it.