Brian Whitaker writes: In the blue corner, Seymour Hersh, one of America’s most famous and highly paid investigative reporters. In the red corner, Eliot Higgins, who sits at home in an English provincial town trawling the internet and tweets and blogs about his findings under the screen name Brown Moses.
On Sunday, in a 5,000-word article for the London Review of Books, Hersh suggested Syrian rebels, rather than the regime, could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attacks near Damascus on August 21.
On Monday, Higgins responded on the Foreign Policy website, demolishing the core of Hersh’s argument in a mere 1,700 words.
While seeking to re-ignite the “whodunnit” debate about chemical weapons, Hersh’s article unwittingly revealed a lot about the changing nature of investigative journalism. Hersh is old-school. He operates in a world of hush-hush contacts – often-anonymous well-placed sources passing snippets of information around which he constructs an article that challenges received wisdom.
The Hersh style of journalism certainly has a place, but in the age of the internet it’s a diminishing one – as the web-based work of Higgins and others continually shows.
The main problem with Hersh’s article is that he seems to have spent so much time listening to his secretive sources, and perhaps became so enthralled with them, that he never got round to looking at a wealth of information about the chemical attacks which is freely available on the internet. The result was that his article posed a number of once-important questions which others had already answered. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: The WikiLeaks staffer and Snowden collaborator Sarah Harrison has criticised Pierre Omidyar, the eBay founder who is setting up a new journalism venture with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, for his involvement in the 2010 financial blockade against WikiLeaks.
In her first interview since leaving Moscow for Berlin last month, Harrison told German news weekly Stern: “How can you take something seriously when the person behind this platform went along with the financial boycott against WikiLeaks?”
Harrison was referring to the decision in December 2010 by PayPal, which is owned by eBay, to suspend WikiLeaks’ donation account and freeze its assets after pressure from the US government. The company’s boycott, combined with similar action taken by Visa and Mastercard, left WikiLeaks facing a funding crisis.
“His excuse is probably that there is nothing he could have done at the time,” Harrison continued. “Well, he is on the board of directors. He can’t shake off responsibility that easily. He didn’t even comment on it. He could have said something like: ‘we were forced to do this, but I am against it’.”
Harrison joined WikiLeaks from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and worked with the organisation on the Afghan war logs and leaked cables projects. She now works on the WikiLeaks legal defence team, although she has no legal qualifications, and was catapulted to fame when she accompanied Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, on his flight from Hong Kong to Russia in June 2013.
Referring to Omidyar’s plans to set up a new media organisation, in which the former Guardian writer Greenwald – who wrote a number of stories from the Snowden revelations – will play a central part, Harrison said: “If you set up a new media organisation which claims to do everything for press freedom, but you are part of a blockade against another media organisation, then that’s hard for us to take it seriously. But I hope that they stick to their promises”. [Continue reading...]
Janet Reitman writes: Early one morning last December, Glenn Greenwald opened his laptop, scanned through his e-mail, and made a decision that almost cost him the story of his life. A columnist and blogger with a large and devoted following, Greenwald receives hundreds of e-mails every day, many from readers who claim to have “great stuff.” Occasionally these claims turn out to be credible; most of the time they’re cranks. There are some that seem promising but also require serious vetting. This takes time, and Greenwald, who starts each morning deluged with messages, has almost none. “My inbox is the enemy,” he told me recently.
And so it was that on December 1st, 2012, Greenwald received a note from a person asking for his public encryption, or PGP, key so he could send him an e-mail securely. Greenwald didn’t have one, which he now acknowledges was fairly inexcusable given that he wrote almost daily about national-security issues, and had likely been on the government’s radar for some time over his vocal support of Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks. “I didn’t really know what PGP was,” he admits. “I had no idea how to install it or how to use it.” It seemed time-consuming and complicated, and Greenwald, who was working on a book about how the media control political discourse, while also writing his column for The Guardian, had more pressing things to do.
“It felt Anonymous-ish to me,” Greenwald says. “It was this cryptic ‘I and others have things you would be interested in. . . .’ He never sent me neon lights – it was much more ambiguous than that.”
So he ignored the note. Soon after, the source sent Greenwald a step-by-step tutorial on encryption. Then he sent him a video Greenwald describes as “Encryption for Journalists,” which “walked me through the process like I was a complete idiot.”
And yet, Greenwald still didn’t bother learning security protocols. [Continue reading...]
The Washington Post reports: Living in self-imposed exile in Russia, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden may be safely beyond the reach of Western powers. But dismayed by the continued airing of transatlantic intelligence, British authorities are taking full aim at a messenger shedding light on his secret files here — the small but mighty Guardian newspaper.
The pressures coming to bear on the Guardian, observers say, are testing the limits of press freedoms in one of the world’s most open societies. Although Britain is famously home to a fierce pack of news media outlets — including the tabloid hounds of old Fleet Street — it also has no enshrined constitutional right to free speech.
The Guardian, in fact, has slipped into the single largest crack in the free speech laws that are on the books here — the dissemination of state secrets protecting queen and country in the British homeland.
A feisty, London-based news outlet with a print circulation just shy of 200,000 — albeit with a far bigger footprint online with readers in the many millions — the Guardian, along with The Washington Post, was the first to publish reports based on classified data spirited out of the United States by Snowden. In the months since, the Guardian has continued to make officials here exceedingly nervous by exposing the joint operations of U.S. and British intelligence — particularly their cooperation in data collection and snooping programs involving British citizens and close allies on the European continent.
In response, the Guardian is being called to account by British authorities for jeopardizing national security. The Guardian’s top editor, Alan Rusbridger, is being forced to appear before a parliamentary committee Tuesday to explain the news outlet’s actions. The move comes after British officials ordered the destruction of hard drives at the Guardian’s London headquarters, even as top ministers have taken to the airwaves to denounce the newspaper. Scotland Yard has also suggested it may be investigating the paper for possible breaches of British law.
The government treatment of the Guardian is highlighting the very different way Britons tend to view free speech, a liberty that here is seen through the prism of the public good and privacy laws as much as the right to open expression.
Nevertheless, the actions against the paper have led to growing concern in Britain and beyond. Frank La Rue, the U.N. special rapporteur on free expression, has denounced the Guardian’s treatment as “unacceptable in a democratic society.” The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, a Paris-based trade association, will send a delegation of “concerned” publishers and editors from five continents to London in January on a “U.K. press freedom mission.” [Continue reading...]
Mark Ames writes: Who “owns” the NSA secrets leaked by Edward Snowden to reporters Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras?
Given that eBay founder Pierre Omidyar just invested a quarter of a billion dollars to personally hire Greenwald and Poitras for his new for-profit media venture, it’s a question worth asking.
It’s especially worth asking since it became clear that Greenwald and Poitras are now the only two people with full access to the complete cache of NSA files, which are said to number anywhere from 50,000 to as many as 200,000 files. That’s right: Snowden doesn’t have the files any more, the Guardian doesn’t have them, the Washington Post doesn’t have them… just Glenn and Laura at the for-profit journalism company created by the founder of eBay.
Edward Snowden has popularly been compared to major whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Jeffrey Wigand. However, there is an important difference in the Snowden files that has so far gone largely unnoticed. Whistleblowing has traditionally served the public interest. In this case, it is about to serve the interests of a billionaire starting a for-profit media business venture. This is truly unprecedented. Never before has such a vast trove of public secrets been sold wholesale to a single billionaire as the foundation of a for-profit company.
Think about other famous leakers: Daniel Ellsberg neither monetized nor monopolized the Pentagon Papers. Instead, he leaked them to well over a dozen different newspapers and media outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post, and to a handful of sitting senators — one of whom, Mike Gravel, read over 4,000 of the 7,000 pages into the Congressional record before collapsing from exhaustion. The Papers were published in book form by a small nonprofit run by the Unitarian Church, Beacon House Press.
Chelsea Manning, responsible for the largest mass leaks of government secrets ever, leaked everything to WikiLeaks, a nonprofit venture that has largely struggled to make ends meet in its seven years of existence. Julian Assange, for all of his flaws, cannot be accused of crudely enriching himself from his privileged access to Manning’s leaks; instead, he shared his entire trove with a number of established media outlets including the Guardian, New York Times, Le Monde and El Pais. Today, Chelsea Manning is serving a 35-year sentence in a military prison, while the Private Manning Support Network constantly struggles to raise funds from donations; Assange has spent the last year and a half inside Ecuador’s embassy in London, also struggling to raise funds to run the WikiLeaks operation.
A similar story emerges in the biggest private sector analogy — the tobacco industry leaks by whistleblowers Merrell Williams and Jeffrey Wigand. After suffering lawsuits, harassment and attempts to destroy their livelihoods, both eventually won awards as part of the massive multibillion dollar settlements — but the millions of confidential tobacco documents now belong to the public, maintained by a nonprofit, the American Legacy Project, whose purpose is to help scholars and reporters and scientists fight tobacco propaganda and power. Every year, over 400,000 Americans die from tobacco-related illnesses.
The point is this: In the most successful whistleblower cases, the public has sided with the selfless whistleblower against the power- or profit-driven entity whose secrets were leaked. The Snowden case represents a new twist to the heroic whistleblower story arc: After successfully convincing a large part of the public and the American Establishment that Snowden’s leaks serve a higher public interest, Greenwald promptly sold those secrets to a billionaire. [Continue reading...]
Glenn Greenwald writes: As many of you know, I’m leaving the Guardian in order to work with Pierre Omidyar, Laura Poitras, Jeremy Scahill and soon-to-be-identified others on building a new media organization. As I said when this
news was reported a couple of weeks ago, leaving the Guardian was not an easy choice, but this was a dream opportunity that was impossible to decline.
We do not yet have an exact launch date for the new outlet, but rest assured: I’m not going to disappear for months or anything like that. The new site will be up and running reasonably soon.
In the meantime, I’ll continue reporting in partnership with foreign media outlets (stories on mass NSA surveillance in France began last week in Le Monde, and stories on bulk surveillance of Spanish citizens and NSA’s cooperation with Spanish intelligence have appeared this week in Spain’s El Mundo), as well as in partnership with US outlets. As I did yesterday when responding to NSA claims about these stories, I’ll also periodically post on my personal blog – here – with an active comment section, as well as on our pre-launch temporary blog. Until launch of the new media outlet, the best way to learn of new stories, new posts, and other activity is my Twitter feed, @ggreenwald. My new email address and PGP key are here. [Continue reading...]
“If you want to be a reporter you must establish a relationship with an editor in which he will let you write – he must trust you and you must make sure you make no mistakes.”
It was good advice, though perhaps more a case of “do as I say” than “do as I do”. Even if you disagree with Fisk’s articles or find them turgid, there’s still entertainment to be had from spotting his mistakes.
On Wednesday, for instance, anyone who read beyond the first paragraph of his column in The Independent would have found him asserting that Saudi Arabia had refused to take its place among “non-voting members” of the UN Security Council. He described this as an unprecedented step – which indeed it was, though not quite in the way Fisk imagines: the Security Council doesn’t have “non-voting” members (unless they choose to abstain). Presumably he meant “non-permanent members”.
Perhaps that is excusable, since the UN is not Fisk’s speciality. But he does specialise in reporting about the Middle East, and so we find him in a column last year informing readers that Syria had a stockpile of nuclear weapons – or, to be more precise, quoting President Obama as saying that it had:
“And then Obama told us last week that ‘given the regime’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, we will continue to make it clear to Assad … that the world is watching’.”
Obama’s actual words were: “Given the regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons, we will continue … etc.”
Fisk is at his most comical when he gets on his high horse and immediately falls off. Writing with (justified) indignation about the killings in Baba Amr last year, he began:
“So it’s the ‘cleaning’ of Baba Amr now, is it? ‘Tingheef’ in Arabic. Did that anonymous Syrian government official really use that word to the AP yesterday?”
Well, no. Obviously a Syrian official wouldn’t use the word ‘tingheef’, since it doesn’t exist in Arabic.
Fisk likes to drop the occasional Arabic word into his articles – they add local flavour and possibly impress readers who are unfamiliar with the language. For those who are familiar with Arabic, on the other hand, it only draws attention to his carelessness. [Continue reading...]
Following news that Glenn Greenwald will be leaving the Guardian to help create a new news organization funded by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, Jay Rosen spoke to Omidyar to find out more:
In the spring of this year, Pierre Omidyar was one of the people approached by the Washington Post Company about buying the Post. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, wound up with the prize. But as a result of exploring that transaction, Omidyar started thinking seriously about investing in a news property. He began to ask himself what could be done with the same investment if he decided to build something from the ground up. #
As he was contemplating the Post purchase, he began to get more alarmed about the pressures coming down on journalists with the various leak investigations in Washington. PierreCB2Then the surveillance stories started appearing and the full scope of the threat to independent journalism became clear. His interest in launching a new kind of news organization — capable of sustaining investigative work and having an effect with it — intensified throughout the summer as news from the Snowden files continued to pour forth.
Attempts to meet with Greenwald to discuss these plans and to find out more about how he operates were unsuccessful until this month. When they finally were able to talk, Omidyar learned that Greenwald, his collaborator Laura Poitras, and The Nation magazine’s Jeremy Scahill had been planning to form their own journalism venture. Their ideas and Omidyar’s ideas tracked so well with each other that on October 5 they decided to “join forces” (his term.) This is the news that leaked yesterday. But there is more.
Omidyar believes that if independent, ferocious, investigative journalism isn’t brought to the attention of general audiences it can never have the effect that actually creates a check on power. Therefore the new entity — they have a name but they’re not releasing it, so I will just call it NewCo — will have to serve the interest of all kinds of news consumers. It cannot be a niche product. It will have to cover sports, business, entertainment, technology: everything that users demand.
At the core of Newco will be a different plan for how to build a large news organization. It resembles what I called in an earlier post “the personal franchise model” in news. You start with individual journalists who have their own reputations, deep subject matter expertise, clear points of view, an independent and outsider spirit, a dedicated online following, and their own way of working. The idea is to attract these people to NewCo, or find young journalists capable of working in this way, and then support them well. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: Glenn Greenwald, who has made headlines around the world with his reporting on U.S. electronic surveillance programs, is leaving the Guardian newspaper to join a new media venture funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, according to people familiar with the matter.
Greenwald, who is based in Brazil and was among the first to report information provided by one-time U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, wrote in a blog post on Tuesday that he was presented with a “once-in-a-career dream journalistic opportunity” that he could not pass up.
He did not reveal any specifics of the new media venture but said details would be announced soon. Greenwald did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Two sources familiar with the new venture said the financial backer was Omidyar. It was not immediately clear if he was the only backer or if there were other partners.
Omidyar could not immediately be reached for comment.
Omidyar, who is chairman of the board at eBay Inc but is not involved in day-to-day operations at the company, has numerous philanthropic, business and political interests, mainly through an investment entity called the Omidyar Network.
Forbes pegged the 46-year-old Omidyar’s net worth at $8.5 billion.
Among his ventures is Honolulu Civil Beat, a news website covering public affairs in Hawaii. Civil Beat aimed to create a new online journalism model with paid subscriptions and respectful comment threads, though it is unclear how successful it has been.
Omidyar, a French-born Iranian-American, also founded the Democracy Fund to support “social entrepreneurs working to ensure that our political system is responsive to the public,” according to its website.
Omidyar’s active Twitter account suggests he is very concerned about the government spying programs exposed by Greenwald and Snowden.
Margaret Sullivan, public editor for the New York Times, writes: Eric Schmitt remembers being surprised when, as a member of a Times newsroom committee on reporting practices, he was given information about what bothered readers of The Times most. It wasn’t political bias, or factual errors, or delivery problems.
“The No. 1 complaint, far and away, was anonymous sources,” Mr. Schmitt, a longtime and well-respected national security reporter in the Washington bureau, told me last week. “It goes to the heart of our credibility.”
The committee’s 2004 report followed two damaging episodes at The Times: the flawed reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war and the dishonesty of the rogue reporter Jayson Blair. That report reminded journalists to use anonymous sources sparingly. The current stylebook puts it this way: “Anonymity is a last resort.”
Mr. Schmitt and I talked last week because I had criticized an article that he co-wrote earlier this month, which not only relied heavily on anonymous government sources but also described them in the most general terms, including “a U.S. official.”
From that conversation, and others with Times journalists, and from the contact I have continually with readers, I see a disconnect — a major gap in understanding — between how journalists perceive the use of anonymous sources and how many readers perceive them.
For many journalists, they can be a necessity. And that necessity is increasing — especially for stories involving national security — now that the Obama administration’s crackdown on press leaks has made news sources warier of speaking on the record. (Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of The Washington Post, has written revealingly about this for the Committee to Project Journalists.)
“It’s almost impossible to get people who know anything to talk,” Bill Hamilton, who edits national security coverage for The Times, told me. Getting them to talk on the record is even harder. “So we’re caught in this dilemma.”
But for many readers, anonymous sources are a scourge, a detriment to the straightforward, believable journalism they demand. With a greater-than-ever desire for transparency in journalism, readers see this practice as “stenography” — the kind of unquestioning reporting that takes at face value what government officials say.
Whether journalism appears like stenography does not hinge on over-reliance on anonymous sources. It can just as easily come in the form of an on-the-record interview such as one with director of the NSA, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, published yesterday.
Reporters David E Sanger and Thom Shanker wrote: “He has given a number of speeches in recent weeks to counter a highly negative portrayal of the N.S.A.’s work, but the 90-minute interview was his most extensive personal statement on the issue to date.”
Given the paltry amount of information their report contains, one has to ask: what were they talking about for 90 minutes?
If journalists want to demonstrate that they are not operating like stenographers, then they need to start reporting on the process of reporting.
“The director of the National Security Agency, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, said in an interview that to prevent terrorist attacks he saw no effective alternative to the N.S.A.’s bulk collection of telephone and other electronic metadata from Americans.”
Did Sanger or Shanker challenge that assertion? Did they point out that by the NSA’s own admission there has only been one conviction that was based on the use of this data?
If during the course of a 90 minute interview, Alexander made few substantive statements, was it because he wasn’t being asked any tough questions or because he deflected or refused to answer such questions?
Transparency is not simply about sources revealing their identities; it’s also about journalists revealing how they work.
We get told: “General Alexander was by turns folksy and firm in the interview.” And how were the reporters? Chummy? Meek? Deferential?
In a July report on the NSA tightening its security procedures, Sanger’s primary source was Ashton B. Carter, the deputy secretary of defense. Sanger neglected to mention that Carter is “an old friend of many, many years”. Is Alexander another of Sanger’s old friends?
In response to an editorial in Britain’s Daily Mail, which described The Guardian as “The paper that helps Britain’s enemies,” The Guardian asked for comments from editors at the New York Times, Der Spiegel, Haaretz, Le Monde, El País, Slate, The Hindu, Clarin, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Washington Post, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, La Repubblica, Aftenposten, Dagens Nyheter, La Stampa, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Tagesspiegel, Gazeta Wyborcza, Politiken, Buzzfeed, ORF-TV, Der Standard, Fairfax Media, Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, the Conversation, and Crikey.
None share the Mail’s assessment.
The New York Times reports: A leaked video of senior Egyptian Army officers debating how to influence the news media during the months preceding the military takeover offers a rare glimpse of the anxiety within the institution at the prospect of civilian oversight.
In the leaked six-minute clip of a private meeting led by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi in the period before his July 3 ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, the officers express their dismay at public scrutiny of the army, unknown in Egypt until after the 2011 uprising. Calling even mildly disrespectful news coverage “dangerous” and abnormal, the officers call for a restoration of “red lines” that had protected the military for decades. And they urge General Sisi to pressure the roughly two dozen big media owners into “self-censorship.”
Mixing humor and cool confidence, General Sisi tells the officers that they must adjust to the new reality of public and parliamentary oversight, but he also counsels patience while he recruits allies in the news media.
“Building a statewide alliance takes a long time and effort,” he continues. “It takes a very long time until you possess an appropriate share of influence over the media.”
“The revolution has dismantled all the shackles that were present — not just for us, not just for the military, but for the entire state,” he says at another point. “The rules and the shackles were dismantled, and they are being rearranged.”
The officers’ winter uniforms and references to last December’s constitutional referendum suggest the meeting took place around that time. But the conversation foreshadowed the broad media crackdown that has played out since the military takeover. The new government has shut down Islamist television networks and the main newspaper supporting Mr. Morsi, and the police have arrested several journalists perceived as critical of the government or the military. And for whatever reason, privately owned newspapers and satellite networks now resound with cheers for the army and demonization of its Islamist opponents, just as the officers hoped.
The leak of the video, though, may raise different alarms. The clip was one of several snippets of the same meeting released Wednesday night and Thursday by RNN, an Islamist Web site, and in an interview, its acting director, Amr Farrag, said the material was obtained from “sources inside the military.” Military officials said Thursday that the army was starting an investigation.
Analysts said the video offered insights into motivations that might have helped propel the military’s takeover. “It betrays a real fear of what democratic discourse might look like and what that would mean for the military, in terms of what might be talked about and what might be exposed,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a researcher on Egypt at the Century Foundation in New York.
The officers’ thin skin about the loss of the military’s “red lines,” he argued, is symptomatic of a much deeper worry. “If the military can be talked about in these unprecedented ways, the concern is that it erodes the stature of the military in the public imagination, and then the role of the military as an institution is potentially under threat.” [Continue reading...]