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Troubled Times at The Intercept

On September 13, the New York Times ran a 2,900-word article on the biggest fuck-up in U.S. leftist media in a long time, perhaps ever.

The piece covered The Intercept’s fantastic and presumably unintentional sloppiness in handling the 2017 Reality Winner leak, the fallout from that sloppiness, and the unfortunate culture at The Intercept that seems to persist to this day, despite internal and at least quasi-external investigations into the monumental screw-up.

In 2017, at the age of 25, the unusually-named Reality Winner sent The Intercept a secret report on Russian cyberattacks on American voting software. Now, thanks in large part to The Intercept’s gross negligence, Winner, a former linguist at the National Security Agency (NSA), is serving a prison sentence of 63 months. On July 20, 2020, it was reported that Winner had contracted COVID-19 while behind bars.

But The Intercept wasn’t the only one to screw up. Winner herself helped. She copied the secret report on an NSA copier and sent that traceable copy to The Intercept. That’s when things went seriously wrong. The Intercept made a copy of that copy of the report and sent the new copy to the NSA media affairs office. The problem is that the new copy still bore markings that showed exactly where and when the original copy had been made. From there it was child’s play to track it back to Winner. She was a sitting duck.

This is a fantastic security breach for a news organization founded by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the two journalists who broke the gigantic 2013 Edward Snowden NSA leaks and were veterans of their own impressive security operation that brought them safely to Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room, where Snowden was hiding from the better part of the world’s security and intelligence apparatuses. That was the biggest national security story since Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 Pentagon Papers, which probably helped end the Vietnam War, and it earned Greenwald and Poitras Pulitzer Prizes and George Polk Awards.

The Intercept, which has won a boatload of journalism awards, was founded in 2014 with $250 million in funding from billionaire Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar. With that kind of journalistic pedigree, and enough money to buy an army of lawyers and national security experts, the Winner mistake is shocking.

But there’s more.

Glenn Greenwald has aggressively downplayed or dismissed altogether Russian interference in the 2016 election, even after Winner’s leaks. In an April 19, 2019 Democracy Now debate with longtime Trump biographer David Cay Johnston, Greenwald insisted the Mueller report on Russian interference confirmed Trump’s assertion that there was no collusion between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.

But according to businessinsider.com, fully 6-12 percent of the 448-page report was redacted. That’s fully 27-54 pages Greenwald has presumably never seen. How can Greenwald insist the report clears Russia and the Trump campaign when so much of the report is unknown?

What is worse, Greenwald essentially dismissed Johnston and anyone who believes in Russia-Trump collusion as naive, gullible, politically correct ideologues – essentially parroting the Trump line. Greenwald’s debate performance dripped of condescension, with no respect for Johnston’s outstanding decades-long Trump reporting and writing.

Where does such arrogance come from? The Times piece might offer some clues.

The Intercept was founded in 2013, and according to the Times, Greenwald made a tidy little $500,000 in 2015. That’s a lot of tacos. According to Don’t Quit Your Day Job (dqydj.com) that would in 2019 place Greenwald well within the 1%. And Greenwald’s 2015 take is more than 12 times the 2019 median U.S. income. But it’s more than that. Greenwald lives in Brazil, where the cost of living is much lower.

According to numbeo.com, consumer prices are 130% higher in the U.S. than in Brazil. That means Greenwald’s 2015 income of $500,000 has, in Brazil, the purchasing power of $1,150,000.

Not bad for a journalist.

The point is that arrogance is an occupational hazard in that stratosphere. Just as Greenwald portrayed collusion believers as naive in his 2019 David Cay Johnston debate, so too is it naive to think that income well within the realm of the 1% doesn’t color one’s perspective and invite the insidious creep of arrogance. One’s interests – or at least one’s economic interests – become, by definition, those of the 1%, which is starting to get close to those of the ruling class.

Large amounts of money almost invariably build walls that separate the wealthy from the teeming mass of humanity. Such walls almost always cloud one’s vision and make it difficult or impossible to practice journalism based and anchored in the real-world reality faced by the vast majority of people on this planet.

The Times piece indicates a persistent resistance to cultural change at The Intercept. But if The Intercept ever finds sufficient agreement to enact real change, it might want to start by reducing large salaries that divorce their recipients from the world that is exploding all around them.

I have received a lot of email on this.  To clarify, I’m not suggesting Glenn Greenwald has gone over to the other side or has cast his lot with the ruling class.  And I regret giving The Intercept salary advice.  But what I’m saying is that large amounts of money have a strong tendency to isolate people from the workaday life around them.  That’s all.  Perhaps I could have been clearer about that.  If so, my apologies.  But that is my opinion, and I stand by it.

Lawrence Reichard lives in Belfast, Maine, and can be reached at thedeftpen@gmail.com.

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