Cross posted from Pruning Shears

Pierre Omidyar

Is Omidyar a trustworthy founder of new journalistic efforts?

Tech billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s soon-to-be-launched journalistic venture has been greeted with an overwhelmingly positive response. In an era of shrinking budgets for news operations, the prospect of a benefactor flush with cash jumping in and starting an investigative outlet seems almost impossibly good news.

The reaction among those who write about the press for a living has ranged from palpable relief to gushing and unqualified praise. The prospect of joining some of this era’s most respected investigators like Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill along with paragons of journalistic rectitude like Jay Rosen is certainly enough to hope for good things.

Still, it probably isn’t a good idea to leap off the deep end over it. For one, the new outlet might not be a startling and original development as much as the latest nouveau riche status symbol. Keeping up with the Bezos’, as it were. In addition, it should give one pause to see exactly the kind of uncritical adulation heaped on it that Greenwald has feasted on when practiced by establishment media towards the powerful. And make no mistake about it, Omidyar is an extremely powerful individual.

Last Friday Mark Ames and Yasha Levine published a story at NSFWCORP about Omidyar’s nonprofit group, the Omidyar Network. (The article has been intermittently unlocked for nonsubscribers. If you do not subscribe you may hit a paywall.) This venture has focused in part on privatized microfinance initiatives, and its results there have been grotesque and obscene. One group it supported, SKS Microfinance, engaged in practices that would have had to improve by orders of magnitude to qualify as Dickensian:

In 2012, it emerged that while the SKS IPO was making millions for its wealthy investors,1 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.”2

Ames and Levine also cover the foundation’s funding of DonorsChoose in America and Bridge International abroad, both of which focus on privatizing (for profit, of course) public education. Then there’s the debt peddling to the impoverished in Peru. Simply put, Omidyar is a hard core radical libertarian, a triple distilled true believer in laissez-faire capitalism. And as an obvious corollary, someone hostile to government.

That is who the new journalistic hires are lending out their good names to. It surely is no coincidence that they are known for their antagonistic stances towards government: Greenwald for his intelligence reporting,3 Scahill for his unsparing critiques of US foreign policy, and so on. I won’t hold my breath looking for an Occupy Wall Street bureau, though.

I’ve long admired Greenwald, Rosen, Scahill and the other journalists being brought on, and by all indications they will be free to pursue issues they feel passionate about. That is a good thing, but a limited thing as well.

For as promising as the new outlet is, it may in the end serve a much less noble purpose. Someone with a relentlessly antagonistic stance towards government who starts a project that is relentlessly antagonistic towards government will not be broken hearted to see popular trust in government wane. Or as Ames and Levine put it: “In other words: look out Government, you’re about to be pummeled by a crusading, righteous billionaire! And corporate America? Ah, don’t worry.”

The principals may pledge to be on guard against any signs of hedging or self-censorship, but let’s not be naive about this: It will only be acceptable to challenge certain kinds of power over there. The employees will know who is signing their paychecks, and they will be no more immune to the imperceptible erosion of their standards over time than have been the servile members of the courtier press they have so often criticized.

NOTES

1.Omidyar Network had a major stake in a nonprofit named Unitus,

which holds a stake in SKS that will be worth millions after the I.P.O. The group’s board shocked the nonprofit community this month by saying that all of the organization’s 40-person staff would be laid off and that Unitus would no longer be involved in microfinance activities.

As Woody Allen once said, no matter how cynical you are, you can’t keep up.
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2.The story at the link does not contain Pradesh’s quote. I couldn’t find an original source for it, either. The article is brief and still worth looking at though. Ames and Levine also link to this longer article on SKS which is well worth a read too.
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3.The timing on funding an effort against the surveillance state seems curious too; this stuff has been going on for years. Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations seem to have attracted the attention of the right wing grift barkers. I don’t have a problem with strange bedfellows coalitions; I think sometimes it’s useful to temporarily partner with groups that one may think are doing the right thing for the wrong reason. This is particularly true on outsider vs. insider issues like financial crime or, well, domestic spying. But the ease and credulity with which many on the left seem willing to sign on to empty headed, Gadsen flag waving, lightly repurposed teabagger rallies is a bit disturbing.
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Photo by OnInnovation released under a Creative Commons No Derivatives license.