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Funding models, Glenn Greenwald, Omidyar, and tinfoil hats

On The Greenwald Question:

It is true that the "left" (for some definition of left that would include Greenwald's civil liberties work, even if under the aegis of strange bedfellows) has struggled with a funding model. If Corrente were 10 times its size (with concomitant increase in size for similar blogs) that would make, I'm convinced on no evidence at all, a big difference in the discourse.

Hitherto, a reader support model -- though reasonably free from conflict of interest, i.e. buying into the bullshit -- has enabled survival but not growth. I don't know why.

Another model is to become Kos or TPM or ThinkProgress, and to be funded by the Democratic nomenklatura. So here we have conflicts of interest. ("Who kidnapped Josh Marshall"?)

Another model is advertising, selling eyeballs (which, to be fair, Naked Capitalism does, in addition to reader support). At scale, and IMNSHO NC is not at scale, we have potential for a different sort of conflict.

And another model is finding a patron, which is what Hamsher did, CJR does (Soros, IIRC), and now Greenwald has done. A different sort of conflict. (Marx, we might remember, was funded by Engels, a Manchester factory owner.)

So what model do you use if you want to get a story out?

I find it hard to fault Greenwald on ethical grounds, especially if he got some up front "Fuck you" money from Omidyar. (I haven't been following the ins and outs, and it may be that Greenwald has disqualified himself on other grounds in his various defense of himself.) If Greenwald doesn't ruin his personal brand, he's free to walk away. For some definition of "free."

However, I'm not sure the funding model is the story. Let me now put on my tinfoil hat:

Call me foily, but if I were a really astute right wing billionaire who thought long term, and who wanted a lot more leverage over the government than I already had, I'd:

1) Get a technically astute and ideologically aligned mole into the NSA;

2) Have them steal a lot of extremely incriminating data;

3) Dole just enough out to the press to show what I had;

4) Keep the great bulk of it as a "fleet in being," as it were.

I've also considered the idea that Snowden was the tool of an NSA faction that didn't like the rampant illegality; that could combine with #1.

GG comes in at #3, and as an archivist/researcher in #4. He doesn't even have to know.

I know this reads rather like a real-life late William Gibson novel, with Omidyar in the role of Hubertus Bigend, and "the data" as the McGuffin, but real life these days resembles a Gibson novel, except more convoluted, darker, and with even nastier villains.

I had always had this way of thinking in the back of my mind, but this story really brought it to the forefront for me:

Officials Say U.S. May Never Know Extent of Snowden’s Leaks

That story reads very much like normalizing the situation to me.

So, Omidyar becomes a sort of data-driven sovereign, with informational nukes. Of course, that would imply that the tippy top global ruling class runs on blackmail, but then you knew that.


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affinis's picture
Submitted by affinis on

Submitted by lambert on

Better to get it out in the open.

It's susceptible to disproof, however, from the behavior of both Snowden, at least when he leaves Russia, and Greenwald, when we see what he does with that budget. If whatever they do substantially diminishes the value of the "fleet in being" then the theory is wrong. (Because the point of a nuke is to deter and not explode.)

affinis's picture
Submitted by affinis on

I'm actually not sure I agree with that "susceptible to disproof" claim. Assessing whether the value of such a "fleet in being" has been diminished requires an assessment of size and nature of the hypothesized "fleet in being" - an object that cannot be directly observed (i.e. one can only speculate about its size and nature; and this can involve weaving all kinds of claims that aren't based in anything solid - a flimsy tapestry subject to all kinds of manipulation and cognitive biases; as W.V.O. Quine noted with his "web of belief" analysis, one can always accomodate beliefs one really desires by rearranging other belief elements). Moreover, though one could imagine certain hypothetical events that would tend to provide strong evidence against the theory, failing to see clear signals of a diminished, speculated "fleet in being" does not imply that the theory is correct. E.g. Certain types of documents speculated to be in Snowden's trove might not be (e.g. see Emptywheel). Greenwald and Snowden might choose not to release many core documents if they believed releasing the documents in question could jeopardize people or cause legitimate security issues (I believe they've even said that they'll hew to such a criterion). Etc.
So, I don't think the claim is necessarily falsifiable. And to the degree it is falsifiable, one could always choose to ignore or reinterpret indications that it's false, given the muddiness of the territory. (P.S. e.g. If a bunch of documents that could be viewed as informational nukes was released, someone who supported the theory could, rather than taking it as evidence disproving the theory, very readily argue that it was a warning shot, demonstrating willingness to use the info, to enhance the bargaining position/power of the controller of the trove. The whole thing is a morass of the form characteristic of CTs).

Submitted by lambert on

is not the firepower of the fleet (necessarily unknown) but the damage inflicted on the target.

I think something sufficient to cause resignation or criminal charges would be enough. When you think about the Church Commission, what we have seen isn't exactly small beer, but there's clearly much worse.

affinis's picture
Submitted by affinis on

I'm not sure you fully grokked my point. Under your argument, the theory is disproved if something is released sufficient to cause resignation/criminal charges. If nothing is released sufficient to cause resignation/criminal charges, what does that imply? The supporter of this theory will take it as evidence that their theory is true. Does that really make sense? Is that the proper, most probable reason for the absence of such a disclosure? Sure that would be one hypothetical reason..... or perhaps such documents don't exist in the trove, or perhaps X, or perhaps Y, etc.

CTs tend to be self-sealing - in CTs, an absence of dramatic revelation is typically taken as further validating the CT, lending further support to the depth/power/tightness of the conspiracy. This theory fits that criterion perfectly.

And even if something is released that results in criminal charges, unless it essentially brings down most of the federal government, a supporter of the theory could claim that it was released as a show of willingness to detonate warheads, to enhance bargainng position with the remaining trove.

The theory has a falsifiability defect at its heart.

affinis's picture
Submitted by affinis on

I'm not saying the theory here meets all of the following....just that some of these points might be pertinant.
"...we cannot just dismiss all such theories out of hand, because real conspiracies do sometimes happen. Instead we should look for signs that indicate a conspiracy theory is likely to be untrue. The more that it manifests the following characteristics, the less probable that the theory is grounded in reality:

Proof of the conspiracy supposedly emerges from a pattern of “connecting the dots” between events that need not be causally connected. When no evidence supports these connections except the allegation of the conspiracy or when the evidence fits equally well to other causal connections—or to randomness—the conspiracy theory is likely to be false.
The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy would need nearly superhuman power to pull it off. People are usually not nearly so powerful as we think they are.
The conspiracy is complex, and its successful completion demands a large number of elements.
Similarly, the conspiracy involves large numbers of people who would all need to keep silent about their secrets. The more people involved, the less realistic it becomes.
The conspiracy encompasses a grand ambition for control over a nation, economy or political system. If it suggests world domination, the theory is even less likely to be true.
The conspiracy theory ratchets up from small events that might be true to much larger, much less probable events.
The conspiracy theory assigns portentous, sinister meanings to what are most likely innocuous, insignificant events.
The theory tends to commingle facts and speculations without distinguishing between the two and without assigning degrees of probability or of factuality.
The theorist is indiscriminately suspicious of all government agencies or private groups, which suggests an inability to nuance differences between true and false conspiracies.
The conspiracy theorist refuses to consider alternative explanations, rejecting all disconfirming evidence and blatantly seeking only confirmatory evidence to support what he or she has a priori determined to be the truth.

The fact that politicians sometimes lie or that corporations occasionally cheat does not mean that every event is the result of a tortuous conspiracy. Most of the time stuff just happens, and our brains connect the dots into meaningful patterns."

danps's picture
Submitted by danps on

Some of the stories have been basically made the point you make, with the additional allegation that the Snowden docs show collaboration between PayPal and the NSA. (Which would make Omidyar look bad.)

Also PayPal denying funding for WikiLeaks, which in the context of NewCo* might be characterized as anti-competitive behavior. And the basic question of propriety for a trove like Snowden's going from the umbrella of an established, well regarded news organization like The Guardian to the umbrella of a radical libertarian billionaire. One whose charitable activities have gone towards the neoliberal project, incidentally.

The questions emerging on those fronts have gotten a pretty striking response from Greenwald: precisely the kind of "everything is fine, trust me" attitude that he's made a living excoriating elsewhere. And also a pretty striking naivete about how power and influence work:

Nicely rebutted here:

He seems to have complete confidence in his own incorruptibility, and lashes out at anyone who suggests the kind of appearance of impropriety that might compromise lesser mortals applies to him.

There's a lot more going on in this particular funding model/business venture than getting a ton of money from a plutocrat.

* Am I the only one to notice the name is NewsCorp with three fewer letters?

tom allen's picture
Submitted by tom allen on

Whenever I read "NewCo" I think immediately of "New Coke". Which to me (and anyone else who endured the eighties) has the connotation of the same old mass-produced drink with an overhyped new taste.

I wonder if that's what's going on here. Omidyar's trying to update his eBay/PayPal NSA-compliant brand by adding a dash of Greenwald, Poitras, Scahill et al. Now he's an internet billionaire with reformist credentials!

Submitted by hipparchia on

And another model is finding a patron, which is what [...] CJR does (Soros, IIRC),

yes, and omidyar network too! (among others)

it remains to be seen whether omidyar's ill-gotten gazillions are spent on something truly for the public good (a la carnegie libraries) or whether he goes more for the koch brothers / cato institute model (operating in the background, and only allowing a narrow range of viewpoints/information).

Submitted by lambert on

.... splits go up to through to the ruling class, too. Maybe that's what's happening here.

Or it could be just a "power surge" by Silicon Valley. Or the two are the same...

Cujo359's picture
Submitted by Cujo359 on

We've certainly seen before that not all the big corporate "citizens" interests are aligned here. Telcos mostly seem to view the data collection as an annoyance or a business opportunity. Content providers, OTOH, see a threat to their businesses.

On that basis, I'd be surprised if there wasn't a split of some sort.

albrt's picture
Submitted by albrt on

"He seems to have complete confidence in his own incorruptibility, and lashes out at anyone who suggests the kind of appearance of impropriety that might compromise lesser mortals applies to him."

Now who does that remind me of? I can't quite put my finger on it....

Submitted by Hugh on

What is lacking is transparency. This is true of both Greenwald's deal with Omidyar but also the Snowden leaks. Transparency is more than announcing a deal. It is about laying out the details and supplying updates. What is the format? Where will it appear? Text, video? Daily reports on general news, or only special stories, or a mix of the two? Who's on the roster?

Re the Snowden leaks, the Omidyar deal has effectively disrupted them. Greenwald left the Guardian. So the primary gatekeeper of the leaks no longer has an established portal to publish them. Sure, some stories are still coming out, but Greenwald was the point person for the leaks and he appears largely out of the picture. This brings us around to the question of whether the leaks should be published direct to the web. Snowden exercised a lot of judgment in what he took. So this wouldn't be a raw unedited dump. At the same time, I can see where some files might contain a few extraneous but sensitive details that could be redacted, but the redaction process clearly needs more import to it than just trusting Greenwald and Poitras. And the line should always be when in doubt, publish. Again it is all about transparency. It was a great tactic to dribble out stories in the beginning to keep the focus on the NSA and the surveillance/police state. But that can only work for so long and the Omidyar deal seriously compromises that mission or has at least deflected it. So reviewing the files and turning them over to the public really have to be the primary concern now. And I'm not seeing it.

MsExPat's picture
Submitted by MsExPat on

That's my big question. Snowden trusted Greenwald and Poitras, but they have gone and made a major turn on him. A couple of questions:
1. Did Greenwald inform Snowden about his negotiations with Omidyar and ask Snowden if he was okay with his material being published by "NewCo"?
2. Does Sarah Harrison's comment about Omidyar's venture "not to be taken seriously" reflect Snowden's thinking, too? (arguably she has the closest insight to his current thoughts since they spent the last three months together)

Without some more information, it's hard not to see Greenwald's embrace of Omidyar's money as a betrayal of Snowden's trust. Once again, as you say, it's a transparency issue.

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

Omidyar would not need any such elaborate method to get data. If Snowden were that sort of person he would have sold it to Omidyar for a stack of cash and would still be in Hawaii living with this girlfriend. One of the lessons of this is that the NSA has no meaningful audits and no control over its data. There is no way to know how many people have taken stuff out of the NSA and sold it to assorted billionaires and other interested parties. How much would Goldman Sachs, et al pay for that sort of data? I am inclined to take this story at face value.

ek hornbeck's picture
Submitted by ek hornbeck on


jo6pac's picture
Submitted by jo6pac on

Just may be little Omidyar hasn't been invited to join the old elite clubs of

so off to start a new club of elite zanies that are young and understand tech to do what the others are doing in finishing off Main Streets around the world. Then of course make a little more money for himself because the elite can never have enough money so they can hire more serfs.

Rainbow Girl's picture
Submitted by Rainbow Girl on

I wish Pete could do a hostile take over of Micky Bloomberg's Terminal-Leasing and "News" businesses and then shut it down. Then I would like Pete to buy up all the land around Micky's Bermuda property and build really foul stuff on it, like high-rise micro-unit towers! Yeah! And maybe Pete could also pull off a coup to take Brookfield Properties away from Brookfield's Kings and Queens, including Diana Taylor, Micky's girlfriend and/or roommate and/or travel companion and/or beard.

I would buy popcorn for EVERYONE if that happened.

quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

The foily part works if you judge others by yourself, lambert. Not that I know you IRL, obviously, but it's pretty clear you're smart, able to consider complicated strategies, and capable of dealing with more than one thing at a time. It would take all those abilities for a Machiavellian billionaire to even conceive of the conspiracy.


If he or she had those abilities, they'd also be able to see past the end of their nose and so be progressive and inclusive and caring and all that other good stuff that goes with breadth of vision. In which case they wouldn't start the conspiracy.

This is really a longwinded way of saying never assume planning when stupidity is an adequate explanation. Tens of thousands of people all grubbing for money and promotions with the shortest possible sight is, I think, all you really need to explain the mess.

Cujo359's picture
Submitted by Cujo359 on

This is really a longwinded way of saying never assume planning when stupidity is an adequate explanation. Tens of thousands of people all grubbing for money and promotions with the shortest possible sight is, I think, all you really need to explain the mess.

Strictly speaking, even stupidity may not be required. Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, Chapter 3 explains how this sort of thing can work:

We have seen that living things are too improbable and too beautifully ‘designed’ to have come into existence by chance. How, then, did they come into existence? The answer, Darwin’s answer, is by gradual, step‐by‐step transformations from simple beginnings, from primordial entities sufficiently simple to have come into existence by chance. Each successive change in the gradual evolutionary process was simple enough, relative to its
predecessor, to have arisen by chance. But the whole sequence of cumulative steps constitutes anything but a chance process, when you consider the complexity of the final end‐product relative to the original starting point. The cumulative process is directed by nonrandom survival.

He goes on to describe a program he wrote for his Apple computer that unerringly creates the phrase "Methinks it is like a weasel" from random changes to a random alphabetical string of the right length.

The important point is that any time there are sufficient random occurrences of some nature, and there is a way that they can be selected as being more less like what is wanted, then eventually a string of "right" occurrence happens. Thus, neither stupidity nor conspiracy is required, only an environment that somehow chooses favorites from a group of possible solutions based on some criteria.

It's sad that more people don't get to study evolution in America, because its basic principles apply to so many other processes.