Journalists on the Left have always had problems with institutions. I’m not referring here to these scribes’ honorable muckraking pedigrees, or their principled distrust of the national security state and the corporate boardroom. Rather, they have trouble building and sustaining viable media institutions of their own in the broader marketplace of ideas.
Hence, for example, the well documented struggles of cable producers at MSNBC, dating back to the second Bush administration, to build a robust answer to Fox News’ successful monopoly on right-wing news talk. MSNBC was turning out sluggish coverage and suffering declining ratings even before the debacle of the 2014 midterms showed how faintly any progressive message was getting through to the public.
And Air America — the kindred bid to launch a progressive brand in the heavily right-wing medium of talk radio — went bankrupt in 2010, just as an enormous financial crisis and a Democratic sweep of Congress and the White House should have made left-leaning political journalism more relevant than ever.
It’s hard, however, to top the recent travails of First Look Media, the fervidly hyped web publishing empire funded by Silicon Valley billionaire Pierre Omidyar, as a case study in how not to launch a progressive media enterprise.
A potential suitor to purchase the Washington Post, Omidyar instead decided to spend $250 million to launch his own ring of websites and aggressively sought top reporting, blogging and editing talent, all of it decidedly left of center. Chief among his early recruits were Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the team that had collaborated with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to reveal the true extent of the surveillance state’s spread. Omidyar also brought on former Rolling Stone investigative reporter Matt Taibbi, who has sharply chronicled the corrupt nexus between Wall Street and the American political establishment, to run his own property under the First Look brand — a site called Racket devoted to muckraking and mischievous satire.
But before Taibbi’s project got off the ground, he left Omidyar’s start-up this October amid hotly debated (and shakily verified) charges and countercharges, ranging from a purported ideological muzzling campaign mounted by Omidyar to allegations that Taibbi may have been charged with sex discrimination in the Racket workplace. Today, First Look’s managers announced that they would no longer pursue Racket without Taibbi and all of the employees he had brought on would be let go.
However, for all the feverish speculation surrounding First Look‘s troubles, the most obvious culprit is hiding in plain sight: the reliance on truckloads of money from Silicon Valley.
There’s a reason that the term “burn rate” was coined to describe the brief half-lives of tech start-ups — these frenetically overmanaged operations function more as monuments to the hubris of the innovation economy than as proven models of productivity. Compounding this, the First Look fiasco clearly shows that a tech industry conditioned for so long to scorn the outmoded folkways of “print culture” and “legacy media” (as the argot of Silicon Valley has it) is largely clueless about supervising the basic work of journalism.
In a revealing account of Taibbi’s departure, a team of First Look journalists candidly noted that the start-up was hobbled at the outset by a “highly structured Silicon Valley corporate environment” riddled with “management-speak” and “a confounding array of rules, structures and systems imposed by Omidyar and other First Look managers.”
As any veteran of the terminally self-infatuated tech world can testify, a start-up ethos usually means a very long string of conference calls and navel-gazing managerial monologues. And a number of First Lookers told me that the media side of things endured a sustained bout of neglect as management talk metastasized.
At First Look, “strategy meetings are always more important than actually producing things,” says one of the journalists still hoping to weather the storm at the company. These confabs tend to perpetuate themselves in all bureaucratic work environments, but at an ostensible journalistic endeavor — which is, after all, tasked with nimbly breaking news and moving just as quickly on to the next big story — they can become lethally counterproductive. Another source at the company says the disconnect goes much deeper than a simple aversion to productive activity. Company managers “are afraid of us, they don’t like us, they gravitate toward the people who can engage in their weird management-speak.”
Omidyar himself exerted heavy-breathing oversight of everything from the rollout schedules and social-media strategies of First Look sites to individual reporters’ travel expense statements. Taibbi and John Cook, his counterpart at First Look’s daily site The Intercept, “chafed at what they regarded as onerous intrusions into their hiring authority,” the First Look team noted. Cook later made his displeasure all too clear by leaving First Look in November and returning to his former home of Gawker Media (though in a post for First Look and several tweets, Cook said that working at First Look “was incredibly satisfying professionally”).
Indeed, in the company’s barely year-long existence, several editorial leaders have fallen in and out of favor with Omidyar, each trying his best to carry out the founder’s gnomic dictates. The newest bearer of Omidyar’s good graces is John Temple, who ran an early journalism start-up for him in Hawaii.
On conference calls, staffers would “bet among ourselves how soon it would be until Pierre described himself as a ‘technologist,’ “ another First Look employee reports. “It was always less than three minutes.”
But “the thing is, Pierre became a billionaire in 1997-98,” the same employee says. “He’s ensconced in a Web 1.0 bubble. He hasn’t heard any of the stuff we’ve been discussing all that time. … So he’ll look up at us at a meeting and say something like ‘Hey, have you guys heard of Vice Media?’ “
The odd thing about the First Look management team, though, is that they aren’t really all that tech-savvy, sources say.
One employee recounts a glitch that was extremely damaging for worker morale, which happened on “on our horrible [intranet] thing Asana, which is named after a yoga pose, that we all have to use because Pierre declared that email is over. It’s a Facebook wall, basically, and they posted all our salaries on it for three hours. So we all know how much everyone makes.” Not surprisingly, some of the most lavishly rewarded managers on the list were also some of the least revered company officials.
With the realities of company power laid so embarrassingly bare, the company’s seemingly incurable addiction to meeting-speak took on an increasingly hollow ring, sources say. “For all their talk about ‘iterating,’ ‘blue sky,’ and the rest, they’re not interested in any of the difficult stuff of leadership. They’re into the most petty, shitty transactional issues — like Kevin Spacey in a Glengarry Glen Ross way,” an employee says.
When this conflict-averse crew of managers does pick a fight, the stakes are unbelievably low, sources say. “We get dumb, lengthy fights over whether or not we need phones. In Silicon Valley, workers use their cell phones to perform all work that necessitates phone use, so why can’t we?” one First Looker reports. (Anyone with the faintest acquaintance with the actual work of journalism knows that landlines are far and away the best means of reliably recording interviews with sources, even in our miraculous digital age.)
And once more, the source reports, the contrast with the company’s actually existing journalistic needs was terrifyingly vivid: “We start barreling toward launch without the company having actually hired anyone to do visual and graphic work besides our one poor photo editor with no illustration experience.”
Even on the rare occasion when the company’s leaders try to break form, the quotient of off-putting self-dramatization is so high, employees say, that the overtures are empty.
“At one of these ‘all hands’ gatherings we had — these company-wide meetings where the five skulls who run the place talk at us, [one senior figure] gets up at the end and says, ‘Is there anyone who’s not a white man who would like to talk?’ ” This employee — one of the handful of non-dude company hires — describes her quite rational stunned silence: “I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t want to now—you’ve pretty much taken that space, haven’t you?’ ”
To put things mildly, these are not the kinds of practices and institutional routines that make for fearless independent journalism. Editors and reporters can’t gleefully target the corporate titans of the American scene, as Taibbi and Cook were charged to do, with one of them perched over their shoulders, insisting on voguish patterns of telephone usage and cross-tabulating what they’ve spent on taxis and meals with sources.
Taibbi’s first big exposé reported during his First Look tenure bears eloquent testimony to this point. He scored a blockbuster interview with JP Morgan Chase whistleblower Alayne Fleischmann, whose potential to give damning testimony against the bank in federal court was being used by the Justice Department in settlement negotiations.
But First Look’s procedural inanity left Racket in limbo for months and, eventually short-circuited Taibbi’s future at the company. (He placed the story at Rolling Stone.)
The more the Omidyar saga unspools, the less surprising it all looks. Decades into the information age, the culture of Silicon Valley and the traditions of investigative reporting still make for an awkward fit. The tech industry’s obsessions with digital gadgetry and vacuous innovation-speak are notoriously resistant to basic journalistic values such as skeptical inquiry. One need only witness the geyser of hosannahs that attends a new iPhone release (no matter how buggy it turns out to be), or the insular witlessness of your average TED talk to realize that the tech industry prefers its media coverage without critical thinking or independent judgment.
And the core tensions involved in the clash of these two cultures are by no means confined to First Look: After an executive of the ballyhooed ride-sharing start-up Uber oafishly indicated that he wouldn’t mind initiating private surveillance campaigns against critical reporters, a former colleague of his just as oafishly took to the Huffington Post to declare the whole thing an overblown non-issue. The problem, she explained, was that the offending reporter who’d dared to question Uber’s leadership class, BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, had regrettably elected to “change the tenor of an otherwise enjoyable dinner.” One could almost hear the contemptuous sniff of an aggrieved Hapsburg monarch.
It’s clear, against this harshly polarized cultural backdrop, that the recent spate of dramatic exits from First Look was a long time coming — just as it seems like that there will be more to come. The First Look team is sadly coming to realize that the company’s work environment is far more likely to conjure the final reel of The Caine Mutiny than All the President’s Men.
“Eventually First Look Media will just be Pierre’s Second Life avatar wandering around an open-space office plan,” one employee says. For all the evident data-hewing genius of figures such as Omidyar, the wizards at the helm of First Look have evidently overlooked one of the earliest credos of the personal computing revolution: Garbage in, garbage out.
A condensed version of this story ran in the January issue of In These Times.