Opinion

Jack Shafer

Pierre Omidyar and the bottomless optimism of billionaire publishers

Jack Shafer
Oct 17, 2013 21:18 UTC

Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar – reckoned to be worth $8.5 billion — inspired tens of thousands of journalists to freshen their resumes this week when word of his plan to start his own mass media organization leaked out. With Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Laura Poitras announced as its first hires, the outlet will emphasize investigative journalism, but as Omidyar explained in a post, the site will serve all news.

Rattling his dumpster of cash, Omidyar will soon join other billionaires who made their money elsewhere and now peddle product at the newsstand, including Michael Bloomberg of Bloomberg News, Jeff Bezos of the Washington Post, Herb Sandler of ProPublica, Philip Anschutz of the Weekly Standard and the Washington Examiner, Mortimer Zuckerman of the Daily News and U.S. News and World Report, Richard Mellon Scaife of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, John Henry of the Boston Globe, the late Sidney Harman of Newsweek, and the late convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Washington Times. A whole junior varsity of sub-billionaire moneybags, including Wendy P. McCaw of the Santa Barbara News-Press, Jared Kushner of the New York Observer, Doug Manchester of U-T San Diego and Chris Hughes of the New Republic, have similarly bought their way into the news business to spread their influence or enrich democracy, depending on who is doing the telling.

Plutocrats the world over delight in owning media properties, and for good reason: Money can buy a lot, but unless you own a publication you’re just one of the world’s 1,426 billionaires – human cargo on a private jet, a delegator, an employer of lobbyists, another yakker in the opinion chorus. Moving to the head of the line requires the media club upgrade, which makes you and your publication a compulsory venue for campaigning candidates. Media properties are like musical instruments: when played just so, they compel your enemies to dance, as William Randolph Hearst of the San Francisco Examiner and New York Journal first demonstrated with his family’s money in the 1890s, and the super billionaire Koch brothers would have discovered had they purchased the Los Angeles Times.

A week ago, few outside the tech and business worlds knew who Omidyar was, and even inside some newsrooms his name would have likely drawn a blank. Today he’s a celebrity whose every utterance will be recorded, cataloged, analyzed, assessed, and yes, valued! Last week, he was just another billionaire who supported non-profit journalism (Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Review, and Honolulu Civil Beat, which he founded) and civil liberty organizations (Sunlight Foundation). Today, he’s a budding philosopher king.

A decade ago, I charted the life cycle of the “vanity press mogul,” the tycoons who dabble in the press with their excess millions: In the opening phases, the mogul opens the money throttle wide, hiring the best journalists and designers, and even voices the view that he’ll make money where his predecessors made none to little. Then comes the morning after and with it sobriety. Too much red ink is flowing, too many projects over-budget and late, too many gifted wunderkinds spending wildly. Not even billionaires enjoy losing money forever. Then comes the reality adjustment, the downsizing, the prospecting for partners or “synergies,” and often an exit from the media business, which attracts a fresh vanity mogul and restarts the cycle.

NSA and the Pandora’s box of surveillance

Jack Shafer
Jun 24, 2013 22:18 UTC

Let’s assume for a moment that National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander was telling the truth yesterday on ABC News’s This Week when he said that the NSA material leaked by Edward Snowden “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies.”

That would mean that the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and other friendly nations that depend on the NSA’s ability to suck electrons out of the ether, store them, sort them, and computer-analyze them for intelligence purposes, have suffered mightily. Unlike tornados, tsunamis, earthquakes or hurricanes — disasters that tend to inflict only temporary damage that can be repaired — Snowden’s leaks have visited upon the national security of the allies a blight that can’t be rolled back or ameliorated. It’s permanent. It’s everlasting. You know, it’s irreversible, as the general said.

According to Alexander, the Snowden breach ravages a program that has contributed to the “understanding and, in many cases, disruptions” of 50 terrorist plots, obviously implying that the unauthorized disclosures will hinder the future understandings and disruptions. While Snowden is the confessed thief of the data, he’s not the one who made the theft possible. Surely his superior, or his superior’s superior, or his superior’s superior’s superior, or somebody on the NSA organization chart designed a flawed system that was easily defeated by a junior contractor. Surely a large bag filled with heads will roll at the NSA for this grievous lapse, and Alexander will accept responsibility for his own shortcomings and step down from the NSA so the president can assign a more competent director.

Edward Snowden and the selective targeting of leaks

Jack Shafer
Jun 11, 2013 22:47 UTC

Edward Snowden’s expansive disclosures to the Guardian and the Washington Post about various National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs have only two corollaries in contemporary history—the classified cache Bradley Manning allegedly released to WikiLeaks a few years ago and Daniel Ellsberg’s dissemination of the voluminous Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other newspapers in 1971.

Leakers like Snowden, Manning and Ellsberg don’t merely risk being called narcissists, traitors or mental cases for having liberated state secrets for public scrutiny. They absolutely guarantee it. In the last two days, the New York Times’David Brooks, Politico’s Roger Simon, the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen and others have vilified Snowden for revealing the government’s aggressive spying on its own citizens, calling him self-indulgent, a loser and a narcissist.

Yet even as the insults pile up and the amateur psychoanalysis intensifies, keep in mind that Snowden’s leak has more in common with the standard Washington leak than should make the likes of Brooks, Simon and Cohen comfortable. Without defending Snowden for breaking his vow to safeguard secrets, he’s only done in the macro what the national security establishment does in the micro every day of the week to manage, manipulate and influence ongoing policy debates. Keeping the policy leak separate from the heretic leak is crucial to understanding how these stories play out in the press.

The spy who came in for your soul

Jack Shafer
Jun 8, 2013 03:13 UTC

Using EFTPOS (electronic funds transfer system at point of sale) in a store in Sidney, Dec. 11, 2012.  REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Leaks to the press, like hillside rain tugged seaward by gravity, gather momentum only if the flow is steadily replenished.

After a major leak to the Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald resulted in a scoop Wednesday about the National Security Agency’s harvesting of phone records, reporters instantly mined their back pages for leads and rang up their sources to amplify and extend his story, and went looking for leakers of their own. In other words, the press pack prayed for rain.

Why leaks are good for you

Jack Shafer
Jun 27, 2012 22:16 UTC

Every leak of classified information benefits somebody. With maybe one exception, I’d say that the recent sluice of leaks that has opened up and been reported in the press benefits you.

Let me explain. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan recently theorized that the press disclosures about U.S. cyberattacks against Iran and about American drone warfare were leaked by the White House to portray Barack Obama as a decisive wartime president to aid in his re-election. That an administration might leak national security information for political advantage is no fantasy: In 2006, the Los Angeles Times documented several examples of President George W. Bush’s administration leaking classified material to change public sentiment in his favor.

But Noonan’s reductionist thinking fails to explain last month’s messy leak in the underwear bomber plot. That particular leak blew a double agent’s cover, endangering the agent’s life and benefiting the White House in no way.

The spy who was undone by his email

Jack Shafer
Jan 27, 2012 23:43 UTC

Everybody has an email disaster story to share: Accidentally cc:ing to your colleagues X-rated correspondence with your lover; prematurely forwarding to your staff the bad news about impending layoffs; using the wrong list to send letters of acceptance to college applicants who have been rejected. But in the grand constellation of email goofs, who can beat the blunders of former CIA officer John Kiriakou? If the criminal complaint filed against him this week in U.S. District Court in Alexandria is accurate, he could spend 30 years in prison for his email transgressions.

Drawing on correspondence obtained via search warrants served on two email accounts associated with Kiriakou, the government has charged him with illegally giving up the identity of a covert officer, disclosing classified secrets and lying to the CIA.

The emails, from which the complaint quotes, are less a smoking gun pointing to wrongdoing than they are Kiriakou’s suicide note. How could a CIA officer who worked at the agency from 1990 to 2004 handling dicey, undercover overseas assignments, including the 2002 capture of Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah, have been so cavalier as to discuss the name of a covert officer with a journalist in email? Furthermore, how could the journalists — who go unnamed in the complaint — have been so reckless as to use an insecure medium to converse with a spook about classified material?

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