Saturday, February 15, 2014

Just a Friendly Reminder on What 'The Intercept' Was Touted To Be

On February 14, 2014, five days after Pierre Omidyar's Flagship Online Magazine, Glenn Greenwald's "The Intercept" went live in the dead of night, the Financial Times published an interview with Greenwald in its "Life & Arts" section entitled "Lunch with FT: Glenn Greenwald" -- which presents an extended description of being in Rio de Janeiro,  the heat, the restaurant, the menu, the food, and the interviewee before actually interviewing him on the topic of the Snowden Leaks and the New Media Venture, First Look.

Part of what made the piece interesting was its emphasis on the locale, the history of this restaurant in the lives of Greenwald and spouse David Miranda, the menu, the food,  the oppressiveness of the heat and humidity, the details of the bill, and so on. While some people might object to such personal, even private, detail in a story about portentous matters of state, in fact, it struck me as one of the first times Greenwald has been featured in a news article which doesn't obsess on those portentous matters -- at least not initially -- and instead presents a human interest story about... having lunch with a celebrity. Gosh! Who'd a thunk it, right?

Of course, Greenwald has become the media celebrity of the moment, far eclipsing what he objectifies as  "the source," ie: Edward Snowden, who is apparently ensconced in a luxury suite of rooms somewhere in the Moscow area. Actually, the public has never known more than a tidbit or two of Snowden and his whereabouts. Apart from rare interviews that have taken place in or near Moscow, there is no independent confirmation that he is even in Moscow -- let alone that he was ever marooned in the Sheremetyevo Airport for weeks.

This lack of evidence and confirmation or even visualization of Snowden, his history, or his whereabouts contrasts starkly with Greenwald's nearly continuous interviews for print, radio and television, interviews conducted by the many, many journalists who have traveled to Rio where they have met and interviewed him (and his dogs) at his home or as in this case, at lunch at a fine restaurant in the Ipanema district, Bar do Beto, where, according to Greenwald, he and Miranda once came regularly for meals and to hang out. As they no longer live in the area, however, they don't often return and have only begun coming back recently. (I was once told where in Rio Greenwald and Miranda -- and the dogs -- now live, but I have since forgotten. All I recall is that it was in a western district bordering a favela on one side and the jungle on the other.)

As reported, the meal included an appetizer of squid rings and prawns for two, (R$93.80), a serving of bread, and some soft drinks, which, together with the cover and service charge, came to a total of R$171.58, or about £43 in real money, or $72 or so American, not an inexpensive lunch to be sure, but probably typical for lunch in Ipanema -- on the FT expense account no doubt.

I go through all these details and side stories because that's basically how the FT writer, Geoff Dyer, approached the story. It is, after all, in the "Life & Arts" section, not the hard news section. So, we can all meander for a while and fan ourselves as we vicariously settle in, enjoy the ambiance and develop our narrative. Why it's almost like a Tennessee Williams play, isn't it?

Greenwald, according to Mr. Dyer, is quite charming in person -- as opposed to his aggressive and combative persona on the teevee and the internet.  His laughter can even become a "giggle," says Dyer, who quotes Greenwald speaking candidly about his often abrasive public persona, “People are sometimes not sure what to expect,” he says. “They think they are going to meet this total asshole and get screamed at.”

Yes, well... actually everyone I know who has met him says pretty much the same thing about him: he's nothing like his reputation for bullying and aggression might suggest. He's actually kind of... erm, sweet. Cough.

Which only goes to show, perhaps, that what the world sees of Greenwald on the television, in print, and on the internet (particularly his infamous Twitter wars with journalists and random critics) probably shouldn't be taken at face value. On the other hand, the extreme dichotomy between his constantly raging public persona -- that "total asshole" of which he speaks -- and his behavior in person as a rather charming gentleman might give one pause and perhaps might make one think there is something a bit off about him. We all understand "playing a role," but in Greenwald's case, is there something more going on? ("I'm just asking questions...")

In fact, during the time I was part of his commentariat at UT and later at Salon, I witnessed his sometimes appallingly abusive, hostile and aggressive behavior toward regular commenters and casual visitors alike, often on no pretext at all. He'd just go off on them, viciously. I came to believe these displays of extreme cruelty and viciousness were fundamentally part of his make up. He could no more prevent himself from attacking others in that way than a Pavlovian conditioned dog can keep from salivating at the sound of a bell or a wife-beater can keep from beating his spouse... as it happened, I came to see this behavior as toxic and poisonous, and I withdrew from his commentariat four or five years ago.  I look at what we see of him on teevee and internet these days as very much the "real Greenwald" -- or rather, as one of the personalities of the "real Greenwald."

As lunch continued, Mr. Dyer asks Greenwald about "The Intercept," and among his responses,  one stood out -- especially given what has been posted at "The Intercept" to date:

Greenwald said that "The Intercept" will be publishing daily news stories (it does not), that he, Greenwald, will write a column every day as well as reporting stories (he does neither), and there will be guest op-ed writers, something that has not occurred, as all material so far posted to "The Intercept" is written by staff or -- in the case of the night-time pictures of NatSec parking lots -- is a guest photo-essay. (I would have quoted from the FT article, but their lawyers say I can't quote more than 30 words, which is bullshit, and I refuse to play these games with the FT legal department.)

Greewald also claims that "The Intercept" will be "like a news outlet." But it isn't. It's very much like an extremely slow-moving group blog, with very widely spaced posts, all of which, so far, consist of rehashes of previously reported news, or in one case, Greenwald's usual and previously aired polemics against James Clapper and President Obama. There has been no "news" in the "breaking" or investigative sense at all. The closest to an investigative report is Jeremy Scahill's lead article (also bylined Greenwald) on the use of NSA signals intelligence to target drones and night raids in Afghanistan and elsewhere, based principally on the testimony of two former drone pilots, but this, too,  is "old news" in the sense that A) it is NSA's job to provide signals intelligence to the military and its other clients -- ahem; and B) the use of cellphone metadata and geolocation information to target strikes against so-called "militants" and others has been well known and widely reported extensively for many, many years. Except for some scraps of testimony and some strangely disembodied and unidentified clips from "documents", there is nothing at all new in the lead article for "The Intercept."

The stark contrast between what Greenwald claims "The Intercept" will be and what it is and has been so far, strikes me as somewhat similar to the contradiction between Greenwald's aggressive and bullying public persona in print and other media and his relatively low-key and charming behavior in person. But there is also the contrast between the phantom-like Edward Snowden and the peripatetically in your face Greenwald, or the contrast between the shy and retiring billionaire Pierre Omidyar and the blustering, ever-furious Greenwald... There are so very many contradictions and contrasts, aren't there?

What "The Intercept" eventually will be is anybody's guess, but what it is is nothing at all like what  has been touted for the last several months, nor is it even remotely like the online publication Greenwald recently described for Geoff Dyer at the Financial Times.

But I'm sure it's serving its purpose... I go to Rio... 

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