30 November 2020 — FAIR
Less than a week before voters across the US headed to the polls in the 2020 presidential election, famed journalist Glenn Greenwald made a stunning announcement: He was leaving the Intercept, the outlet he helped found in 2013, and striking off on his own at the newsletter website Substack.
In a lengthy post at Substack (10/29/20) explaining his departure, Greenwald wrote that Intercept editors were censoring his work—specifically an article, later published at Substack (10/29/20), that reflected poorly on Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden:
The final, precipitating cause is that the Intercept’s editors, in violation of my contractual right of editorial freedom, censored an article I wrote this week, refusing to publish it unless I remove all sections critical of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, the candidate vehemently supported by all New York–based Intercept editors involved in this effort at suppression.
The news set off a firestorm. Greenwald, long a controversial figure in the news industry for his vehement critiques of establishment figures in politics and the media, was alternately celebrated and attacked for his decision.
The drama was fueled by the harsh words exchanged between Greenwald and the Intercept. Hours after Greenwald’s article was posted, Intercept editor-in-chief Betsy Reed (10/29/20) responded, calling the narrative “teeming with distortions and inaccuracies” and casting doubt on his true motivations for leaving:
We have the greatest respect for the journalist Glenn Greenwald used to be, and we remain proud of much of the work we did with him over the past six years. It is Glenn who has strayed from his original journalistic roots, not the Intercept.
Tensions had existed at the Intercept for some time between the newsroom operation and the outlet’s outspoken co-founder, according to reporting from New York magazine (10/30/20). And the unique structure of Greenwald’s contract discouraged attempts to steer the direction of his coverage.
Over the following month, many of Greenwald’s critics have suggested that his complaints were overblown, designed to maximize subscriptions at Substack. For the Intercept‘s detractors, the story is different: A once-proud independent outlet has succumbed to the pressures of reporting on politics in the era of President Donald Trump and given the Democrats too much leeway, to the point of pushing out the site’s co-founder and arguably most famous writer in order to stay on the good side of establishment liberals.
FAIR spoke to Greenwald and the Intercept‘s editor-in-chief Reed and deputy editor Roger Hodge about the public dispute that flared up in the wake of the writer’s departure. Both sides held that the other’s actions were to blame for the situation, and appear to have irreconcilable visions of the role of editors in the journalistic process.
In the interest of disclosure, the writer of this article regularly writes for the Intercept on a freelance basis. Greenwald spoke at FAIR’s 25th anniversary fundraiser in 2011.
Groundwork for termination?
One of the central claims in Greenwald’s resignation article and subsequent interviews is that Intercept editors were trying to censor his article on Biden—”The Real Scandal: US Media Uses Falsehoods to Defend Joe Biden From Hunter’s Emails”—by stripping it of large sections editors felt implied Biden was directly involved in the Burisma scandal, and other elements that were critical of the now-president-elect.
Narrowing the focus of the piece to the media, as was asked, was an unusual but not unprecedented request. Greenwald told FAIR that the only pieces he wrote that were edited fell into what he described as a “very narrow category” of reporting, and that he was expected to request an editor if needed. As a unique voice at the outlet with more autonomy than other writers, Greenwald was not given assignments or coverage requirements.
According to Greenwald’s contract with the Intercept‘s parent company First Look Media, portions of which were reviewed by FAIR, the writer was given “the freedom to pursue the journalistic endeavors he finds meaningful”:
His editorial voice will be his own, subject to Sections 4 and 5 below [relating to standard ethical practices and legal protections], he may, if he elects to do so, directly post unedited entries directly to a blog designated for such purpose by mutual agreement.
In comments to FAIR, Hodge said that Greenwald’s contract led to a resistance to editing, which was a driving factor in the famed journalist leaving the outlet he helped found. “Glenn has been pretty clear in his public statements and in his postings on Substack,” said Hodge. “He considers editing censorship.”
“That’s just a basic misunderstanding of the role of editors in journalism,” Hodge added.
As the back and forth over the article between Greenwald and senior editor Peter Maass reached an impasse, Reed emailed the writer to urge him not to publish his article elsewhere, as that might be “detrimental” to the Intercept. It was a message read by Greenwald as a threat, but Reed told FAIR that her intention had been to keep the story at the Intercept. “I think my email was clear,” said Reed:
I meant that since we had been working on the story together, it would be unfortunate for him to bail out of the editing process and publish it somewhere else. I did not intend my message to be read as barring that, but expressing my strong preference that the story be edited and published at the Intercept.
While Reed’s language did not carry any overt threat of barring publication, Greenwald claims that the email was sent to deliver him a message about what might happen if he published elsewhere. According to Greenwald, wording in his contract opened the door for termination if he acted in ways seen as “detrimental” to the publication.
“The word ‘detrimental’ was clearly a lawyer-crafted sentence designed to prepare or lay the groundwork for invoking termination,” said Greenwald.
A portion of the contract reviewed by FAIR stipulates that Greenwald
will not, without the prior written authorization of FLM, perform professional services as a journalist, author or commentator, whether paid or unpaid, whether directly or through Enzuli [Greenwald’s LLC for his journalistic work in the US], for any news organization whose services compete with the services offered by FLM.
Greenwald will be free to publish books, do media interviews and appearances, give speeches and participate in public discussions, provided that he consults with FLM in advance of undertaking any such activities with a view toward ensuring that such activities reflect well on Greenwald as a representative of FLM.
Reed, in comment to FAIR, denied she was referring to those restrictions in her email to Greenwald. “That is false,” said Reed. “No lawyer had any role in my use of the word ‘detrimental’ in the email. I was unaware it would have any meaning related to Glenn’s contract.”
She added that the publication’s attorney subsequently “told me the word is not in the contract.” The word did not appear in the portions of the contract reviewed by FAIR.
“As a matter of fact, the contract did give me the right to decline to approve the publication of Glenn’s work in a competitive outlet,” added Reed, “but I had no intention of exercising that right.”
Greenwald’s unique contract came with an expectation of noninterference stemming from the requirement his opinion pieces were not to be touched. That expectation crashed against editorial concerns over the Biden story, and Greenwald’s insistence on focusing a large part of his piece on accusations around Biden’s involvement in the Burisma scandal, which Maass told Greenwald in an email were not sufficiently grounded in the facts.
“The reality is that never happened before in seven years,” said Greenwald.
That’s why I knew I was dealing with censorship, it was only happening because they were petrified that people would accuse them of having something to help Trump get elected.
While Hodge conceded that Greenwald’s articles always have a measure of opinion in them, he said that there was a distinction between reported pieces and opinion articles. “The Intercept’s approach to journalism is to have a very strong point of view,” said Hodge:
We don’t traffic in the “he said, she said,” one side then the other, putatively objective style of journalism. We don’t really buy the fiction of objectivity. And there’s always a strong point of view in our articles. And so the fact that Glenn is mixing opinion with reporting was not unusual. But this was a reported piece and subject to editing.
Reed told FAIR that because of the structure of his contract, Greenwald was able to have his opinion pieces free from edits, reflecting what Reed described as a “firmly held position by him which long predated his tenure at the Intercept“—referring to his time at the Guardian and Salon.
“In general, his pieces were edited if they were anything other than straight opinion—i.e., if they contained original reporting, sensitive material or required any complex journalistic judgment calls,” said Reed, adding, “All pieces by other writers at the Intercept, including opinion pieces, are edited.”
According to Hodge, charges that the Intercept‘s editorial team is overly amenable to Biden don’t pass muster. Rather, he said, the news organization’s mission to produce adversarial journalism means targeting the party in power—at this moment, the GOP and the Trump administration:
We’ve been covering their abuses of power—their attack on democracy, their voter suppression, and the whole litany of abuses that this government has carried out, their assaults on civil society and journalism in particular. So I make no apologies for being tough on the government and on the Trump administration.
Hodge added that he saw Greenwald as doing everything but endorsing Trump in the run up to the election, by “running offense” for the president and “attempting to intervene in this election by mainstreaming a far-right conspiracy theory,” a reference to allegations that the Bidens were using the former vice president’s name to engage in corrupt business dealings overseas.
The realities of the election, Greenwald said, mean that when reporters follow up on a story reflecting negatively on one candidate, they are helping the other. But he argued that such a perspective on the act of reporting was flawed.
“Obviously, if you report on a candidate during an election year, you are going to actually help the other candidate,” he said. “That’s true in every single case. I don’t understand the critique at all.”
Ultimately, Hodge said, Greenwald was unwilling to work with editors to make the piece publishable. This led to a crisis in the newsroom where the outlet’s most famous writer, also a co-founder of the site, ran up against the desire of editors to walk back central claims in the piece—what they saw as undue weight given to vague suggestions of business dealings with China and corrupt influence peddling in the Ukraine—because of questions about their reliability, and what the outlet had already reported about the topic.
“He was insisting on making unsupported claims about the significance of the Biden emails,” said Hodge. “And that’s just not good journalism itself; it’s not responsible.”
New York Post (10/14/20)
Reed sounded the same note of skepticism over the documents central to Greenwald’s piece that Hodge did, and said the sketchy origin of the emails and the reasons they were released was part of why the Intercept was unsure about promoting them:
It appears the New York Post did not do much to verify the emails, and the fact that other news organizations were not given access to the hard drive, to me, explains some of their reluctance to report on its contents.
However, Reed added, that’s not to say that there is evidence the emails are fraudulent. And she conceded the content tracked with what’s known of Hunter Biden:
I agreed with Glenn that it was entirely legitimate to ask the Biden campaign to comment on their authenticity and their contents. We had reported on some of the Hunter Biden emails in another piece, with context about their murky provenance, so I didn’t object in principle to doing that. Given the highly politicized and unusual way these materials came to light, we just felt that context should be provided in the story, and that care should be taken to ensure that we did not read anything into the emails that wasn’t there.
Maass also expressed hesitancy to Greenwald over the origin of the emails, and what he saw as the writer’s disinclination to cite reporting that cast doubt on the claims being made by the scandal’s boosters.
Greenwald told FAIR that he agrees that reporters and journalists should not swallow the spin on the information from Trump allies. “My article did not endorse Rudy Giuliani’s theories,” Greenwald said.
Indeed, Greenwald did provide the basic context for the origins of the documents in his article published on Substack:
The initial documents, claimed the New York Post, were obtained when the laptops containing them were left at a Delaware repair shop with water damage and never picked up, allowing the owner to access its contents and then turn them over to both the FBI and a lawyer for Trump advisor Rudy Giuliani.
To Greenwald, the Biden emails’ provenance had no bearing on whether or not to report on them. Rather, Greenwald said, the standard should be whether they were authentic. Comparing the situation to the Panama Papers and WikiLeaks, Greenwald said that where the information came from and how it was being used was not a determining factor in how journalists should approach the documents.
“The question of provenance or whatever, that may be a different story and an interesting story,” said Greenwald. “But in my view that doesn’t in any way impede whether they should be reported on.”
Featured image: Glenn Greenwald (Creative Commons photo by Gustavo Oliveira)