Meet the billionaire Glenn Greenwald has been protecting all these years
Ever since the Glenn Greenwald Self-Cancellation Affair exploded on the scene a few days ago, people have been asking me: “Hey, man! What’s your beef with Greenwald? He does good work!”
Sure, he’s done good work recently. He does troll the Russiagaters good, I’ll give him that. And his reporting on Jair Bolsonaro and the right-wing “Operation Car Wash” conspiracy against former Brazilian president Lula has been impressive. But there’s something he’s done all throughout that time that eclipses it all — especially coming from a sanctimonious guy like Glenn.
I first started paying close attention to Glenn’s work when he came out of nowhere to attack reporting Mark Ames and I had been doing and I found out — and was surprised — that he was running interference for a Koch-funded union-busting operation. That’s a long story and involves smear campaigns and Glenn’s libertarian, pro-oligarch politics — politics that he wore much more openly back in the day. Maybe I’ll get into that some other time.
My main problem with Glenn is that he co-founded and ran The Intercept, a journalism-washing outfit set up to protect the reputation of one of the most rapacious and ambitious oligarchs to come out of Silicon Valley: Pierre Omidyar, a guy who’s made it his mission to bind the entire world in surveillance and debt. (See: Mark Ames’ “All the billionaire's men.”)
The Intercept was set up with a quarter billion of Pierre’s loot and it paid ridiculous amounts of money to progressive journalists. People got six figures — hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. You don’t see that kind of money in journalism these days. And the top tier talent didn’t even have to work that hard. Sometimes, like Jeremy Schaill, they barely had to work at all.
With the journalism industry in total collapse, it was every progressive journalist’s dream to get hired by The Intercept. Soon enough, Pierre outfit started snapping up people like Matt Taibbi, Lee Fang, and Ken Silverstein with promises of launching big journalistic initiatives with what seemed like unlimited funding.
Pierre’s surprising generousness — combined with the fact that he seemed to be on the Good Side, on the side of Edward Snowden and his NSA leaks — brought the man a huge amount of goodwill. It also bought him the best protection money can buy: silence and a total lack of scrutiny from American top investigative journalists.
And that protection magic still has not worn off.
Even now, while Silicon Valley’s leadership — from Zuck to Bezos — have been getting knocked about and criticized from every angle, Pierre has been able to skate by with no critical attention thrown his way, despite his involvement in funding far-right regime change ops, global surveillance projects, and the trail of impoverished bodies he’s left behind in the wake of his various colonial investment initiatives.
In short: The Intercept has been a monumental success for Pierre. It has effectively shielded him from scrutiny. And Glenn — and the cache of Snowden docs that he brought over with him — was instrumental to that success.
So whatever good work he might be doing, Glenn’s talk about journalistic ethics and integrity don’t mean much to me. He had no problem spending six years running cover for a rapacious tech oligarch. He kept his mouth shut like a good servant, and got paid millions for it.
Yet now, after being asked by his radicalized liberal colleagues to edit a screed about the Biden family’s obvious corruption, Glenn found his moral compass? He had no problem staying quiet and protecting his billionaire sponsor, but this…this was something Glenn simply could not abide! Them are real principles there!
“Thank you for your service, Glenn!”
Who is Pierre Omidyar?
He looks a bit like Goofy, founded eBay, and has multiple getaway locations around the world so he can hide out from famine and violent peasant mobs when the apocalypse comes. He’s also hands down the scariest and weirdest tech billionaire out there. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg? Hah, they don’t even come close. But most people know almost nothing about him and his radical vision for the world. And Glenn played a big role in helping this guy run under the radar.
To give you a picture of the guy Glenn’s been working for all these years, I’d like to reprint a story on Pierre Omidyar that Mark and I did for NSFWCORP way back in the day, just when The Intercept was getting off the ground.
We got viciously attacked by our media peers (the same ones now going after Glenn) for criticizing Glenn, The Intercept, and the “good billionaire” that suddenly emerged as the patron saint of progressive journalism in America. Glenn himself pretended like there was no story here and sleazily deployed his fanboy troll army to smear us.
A couple of notes:
Mark Ames has done by far the best — and pretty much the only — reporting on Pierre Omidyar and the corrupting effect he’s had on journalism in America. I tried to compile some of Mark’s work here, including these important stories:
Others have followed up on Mark’s reporting — but Pierre still gets almost no scrutiny. And he has Glenn to thank for that.
And as I mentioned earlier, I wrote a draft chapter on Pierre Omidyar and his plans for total neoliberal surveillance of the world for my book Surveillance Valley. But I ended up cutting it because it didn’t quite fit. I’ll try to clean it up and publish it later this month.
The Extraordinary Pierre Omidyar
Mark Ames and Yasha Levine • November 15, 2013
"We ought to be looking at business as a force for good." — Pierre Omidyar
"Like eBay, Omidyar Network harnesses the power of markets to enable people to tap their true potential." — Omidyar Network, Frequently Asked Questions
The world knows very little about the political motivations of Pierre Omidyar, the eBay billionaire who is founding (and funding) a quarter-billion-dollar journalism venture with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill. What we do know is this: Pierre Omidyar is a very special kind of technology billionaire.
We know this because America’s sharpest journalism critics have told us.
In a piece headlined "The Extraordinary Promise of the New Greenwald-Omidyar Venture", The Columbia Journalism Review gushed over the announcement of Omidyar's project. And just in case their point wasn’t clear, they added the amazing subhead, "Adversarial muckrakers + civic-minded billionaire = a whole new world."
Ah yes, the fabled "civic-minded billionaire"—you'll find him two doors down from the tooth fairy.
But seriously folks, CJR really, really wants you to know that Omidyar is a breed apart: nothing like the Randian Silicon Valley libertarian we've become used to seeing.
"...billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo. Billionaires tend to have a finger in every pie: powerful friends they don’t want annoyed and business interests they don’t want looked at.
"By hiring Greenwald & Co., Omidyar is making a clear statement that he’s the billionaire exception....It’s like Izzy Stone running into a civic-minded plastics billionaire determined to take I.F. Stone’s Weekly large back in the day."
Later, the CJR "UPDATED" the piece with this missing bit of "oops":
"(UPDATE: I should disclose that the Omidyar Network helps fund CJR, something I didn’t know until shortly after I published this post.)"
No biggie. Honest mistake. And anyway, plenty of others rushed to agree with CJR's assessment. Media critic Jack Shafer at Reuters described Omidyar’s politics and ideology as "close to being a clean slate," repeatedly praising the journalism venture’s and Omidyar’s "idealism." The "NewCo" venture with Greenwald "harkens back to the techno-idealism of the 1980s and 1990s, when the first impulse of computer scientists, programmers, and other techies was to change the world, not make more money," Shafer wrote, ending his piece:
"As welcome as Omidyar’s money is, his commitment to the investigative form and an open society is what I’m grateful for this afternoon. You can never uphold the correct verdict too often."
What all of these orgasmic accounts of Omidyar’s "idealism" have in common is a total absence of skepticism. America's smartest media minds simply assume that Omidyar is an "exceptional" billionaire, a "civic-minded billionaire" driven by "idealism" rather than by profits. The evidence for this view is Pierre Omidyar's massive nonprofit venture, Omidyar Network, which has distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to causes all across the world.
And yet what no one seems able to specify is exactly what ideology Omidyar Network promotes. What does Omidyar's "idealism" mean in practice, and is it really so different from the non-idealism of other, presumably bad, billionaires? It's almost as if journalists can't answer those questions because they haven't bothered asking them.
So let's go ahead and do that now.
Since its founding in 2004, Omidyar Network has committed nearly $300 million to a range of nonprofit and for-profit "charity" outfits. An examination of the ideas behind the Omidyar Network and of the investments it has made suggests that its founder is anything but a "different" sort of billionaire. Instead, what emerges is almost a caricature of neoliberal ideology, complete with the trail of destruction that ensues when that ideology is put into practice. The generous support of the Omidyar Network goes toward "fighting poverty" through micro-lending, reducing third-world illiteracy rates by privatizing education and protecting human rights by expanding property titles ("private property rights") into slums and villages across the developing world.
In short, Omidyar Network's philanthropy reveals Omidyar as a free-market zealot with an almost mystical faith in the power of "markets" to transform the world, end poverty, and improve lives—one micro-individual at a time.
All the neoliberal guru cant about solving the world’s poverty problems by unlocking the hidden "micro-entrepreneurial" spirit of every starving Third Worlder is put into practice by Omidyar Network's investments. Charity without profit motive is considered suspect at best, subject to the laws of unintended consequences; good can only come from markets unleashed, and that translates into an ideology inherently hostile to government, democracy, public politics, redistribution of land and wealth, and anything smacking of social welfare or social justice.
In literature published by Omidyar Network, the assumption is that technology is an end in itself, that it naturally creates beneficial progress, and that the world's problems can be solved most effectively with for-profit business solutions.
The most charitable thing one can say about Omidyar’s nonprofit network is that it reflects all the worst clichés of contemporary neoliberal faith. In reality, it’s much worse than that. In many regions, Omidyar Network investments have helped fund programs that create worsening conditions for the world’s underclass, widening inequalities, enhancing exploitation, pushing millions of people into crippling debt and supporting anti-poverty programs that, in some cases, resulted in mass-suicide by the rural poor.
Pierre Omidyar was one of the biggest early backers of the for-profit micro-lending industry. Through Omidyar Network, as well as personal gifts and investments, he has funnelled around $200 million into various micro-lending companies and projects over the past decade, with the goal of establishing an investment-grade microfinance sector that would be plugged into Wall Street and global finance. The neoliberal theory promised to unleash billions of new micro-entrepreneurs; the stark reality is that it saddled untold numbers with crushing debt and despair.
One of his first major investments into micro-lending came in 2005, when Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam gave Tufts University, their alma mater, $100 million to create the "Omidyar-Tufts Microfinance Fund," a managed for-profit fund dedicated to jump-starting the growth of the micro-finance industry. At the time, Tufts announced that Omidyar’s gift was the "largest private allocation of capital to microfinance by an individual or family."
With the Tufts fund, Omidyar wanted to go beyond mere charitable donations to specific micro-lending organizations that targeted the developing world’s poorest. At the same time, he wanted to create a whole new environment in which for-profit micro-lending companies could be self-sustaining and generate big enough profits to attract serious global investors.
This idea was at the core of Omidyar's vision of philanthropy: he believed that microfinance would eradicate poverty faster and better if it was run on a for-profit basis, and not like a charity.
"If you want to reach global scale -- and we're talking about hundreds of millions of people who need this -- you can't do it with philanthropy capital. There's not enough charity capital out there. By connecting with an institutional investor like a university, we would like to increase the level of professional investor involvement in this sector to try to stimulate more commercially viable investment products," Pierre Omidyar said in an interview at the time. "We ought to be looking at business as a force for good."
The idea behind micro-loans is very simple and seductive. It goes something like this: the only thing that prevents the hundreds of millions of people living in extreme poverty from achieving financial success is their lack of access to credit. Give them access to micro-loans—referred to in Silicon Valley as "seed capital"—and these would-be successful business-peasants and illiterate shantytown entrepreneurs would pluck themselves out of the muck by their own homemade sandal straps. Just think of it: hundreds of millions of peasants working as micro-individuals, taking out micro-loans, making micro-rational investments into their micro-businesses, dutifully paying their micro-loan payments on time and working in concert to harness the deregulated power of the markets to collectively lift society out of poverty. It's a grand neoliberal vision.
To that end, Omidyar has directed about a third of the Omidyar Network investment fund—or about $100 million—to support the micro-lending industry. The foundation calls this initiative "financial inclusion."
Shockingly, micro-loans aren't all that they've cracked up to be. After years of observation and multiplestudies, it turns out that the people benefiting most from micro-loans are the big global financial players: hedge funds, banks and the usual Wall Street hucksters. Meanwhile, the majority of the world’s micro-debtors are either no better off or have been sucked into a morass of crippling debt and even deeper poverty, which offers no escape but death.
Take SKS Microfinance, an Omidyar-backed Indian micro-lender whose predatory lending practices and aggressive collection tactics have caused a rash of suicides across India.
Omidyar funded SKS through Unitus, a microfinance private equity fund bankrolled by the Omidyar Network to the tune of at least $11.7 million. ON boosted SKS in its promotional materials as a micro-lender that's "serving the rural poor in India" and that exemplifies a company that's providing "people with the means to address their needs and improve their lives."
In 2010, SKS made headlines and stirred up bitter controversy about the role that profits should play in anti-poverty initiatives when the company went public with an IPO that generated about $358 million, giving SKS a market valuation of more than $1.6 billion. The IPO made millions for its wealthy investors, including the Omidyar-backed Unitus fund, which earned a cool $5 million profit from the SKS IPO, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal.
Some were bothered, but others saw it as proof that the power of the markets could be harnessed to succeed where traditional charity programs supposedly hadn’t. The New York Times reported:
"An Indian company with rich American backers is about to raise up to $350 million in a stock offering closely watched by philanthropists around the world, showing that big profits can be made from small helping-hand loans to poor cowherds and basket weavers."
Controversy or not, SKS embodied Omidyar's vision of philanthropy: it was a for-profit corporation that fought poverty while generating lucrative returns for its investors. Here would be proof-positive that the profit motive makes everyone a winner.
And then reality set in.
In 2012, it emerged that while the SKS IPO was making millions for its wealthy investors, hundreds of heavily indebted residents of India's Andhra Pradesh state were driven to despair and suicide by the company's cruel and aggressive debt-collection practices. The rash of suicides soared right at the peak of a large micro-lending bubble in Andhra Pradesh, in which many of the poor were taking out multiple micro-loans to cover previous loans that they could no longer pay. It was subprime lending fraud taken to the poorest regions of the world, stripping them of what little they had to live on. It got to the point where the Chief Minister of Andrah Pradesh publicly appealed to the state’s youth and young women not to commit suicide, telling them, "Your lives are valuable."
The AP conducted a stunning in-depth investigation of the SKS suicides, and their reporting needs to be quoted at length to understand just how evil this program is. The article begins:
"First they were stripped of their utensils, furniture, mobile phones, televisions, ration cards and heirloom gold jewelry. Then, some of them drank pesticide. One woman threw herself in a pond. Another jumped into a well with her children.
"Sometimes, the debt collectors watched nearby."