Review: The Intercept
The Intercept is a well-funded online news source, part of Pierre Omidyar’s post-eBay adventures. Led by editor-in-chief Betsy Reed, it is co-edited by Glenn Greenwald (who, with Laura Poitras, broke the story about NSA mass surveillance driven by Edward Snowden’s leaks) and Jeremy Scahill (Dirty Wars).
Given Greenwald’s and Scahill’s experience, it is perhaps unsurprising that national security, the intelligence apparatus, and foreign policy are key focus areas for The Intercept, which it tackles with investigative reporting, analysis and commentary. One of its biggest stories was the release of the Drone Papers, which debunked the myth of precision that is associated with drone warfare.
Beyond that, it covers a range of subjects that fit the broad mandate of its staff to “bring transparency and accountability to powerful governmental and corporate institutions.” It provided extensive coverage of the 2016 US presidential election, and it has reported in-depth on criminal justice issues and immigration.
In addition to the English language version that focuses on the United States, there is also a Brazil edition in Portuguese. Greenwald is based in Brazil, and the decision to launch a Brazil edition isn’t part of some strategic master-plan, but came organically out of his reporting.
A typical feature story. While many stories are focused on national security, intelligence, and foreign policy, The Intercept covers an assortment of subjects, including in-depth criminal justice investigations like this one.
Organization, Executive Compensation
The Intercept is part of First Look Media, a nonprofit organization founded by billionaire philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, who made a public commitment of $250M to the organization in 2013. Through its 2015 tax returns, First Look Media disclosed $34.6M in total revenue and an allocation of $9.1M of expenses specifically to The Intercept.
The Intercept editor Elizabeth Reed received $300K in total compensation in 2015, which is in the mid-range of similarly well-funded nonprofits. In any event, since The Intercept has so far not asked for donations from the public, executive compensation is a secondary concern.
First Look Media has had its share of growing pains. In 2014, a project to be headed by Matt Taibbi fell apart with his noisy departure; in 2015, staff reporter Ken Silverstein had a very public falling-out with the organization, alleging managerial incompetence; in 2016, writer Juan Thompson was fired for making things up, and in 2017, Thompson was arrested for bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers.
In fairness to the organization, it has consistently and, as far as I can tell, truthfully reported about these internal issues (though an independent ombudsman role might give such reports greater credibility). In contrast, First Look Media does not provide much conventional nonprofit transparency: no Annual Reports or other disclosures beyond the legally required ones; no publicly evident attempt to measure or report its impact. Its approach to accountability is journalistic, not organizational.
The Intercept’s pursuit of what it terms “adversarial journalism” leads it frequently to go after stories other publications are less comfortable with. For example, it recently published an in-depth report from Yemen about a US anti-terror raid which killed up to 25 civilians including nine children under the age of 13. In contrast, most US media tend to focus on US losses in military confrontations.
During the 2016 US presidential campaign, The Intercept writers echoed many pundits by predicting that Hillary Clinton would likely win the election. “Get Ready to Ignore Donald Trump” wrote Zaid Jilani, while Robert Mackey maintained a live blog called “The Trumpdown” with the subtitle “Our Long, National Nightmare Is (Probably) Almost Over” (the subtitle has since been changed to “The Decline of Western Civilization: The Bannon Years”).
The Intercept pursued adversarial stories about both frontrunners (Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton), while many media gradually transitioned into largely getting behind one of the two candidates (newspapers which endorsed a candidate supported Clinton by a 19:1 ratio). Many observers argued that the greater number and severity of scandals associated with Trump (and the greater threat he represented to the country) deserved greater attention than a politician with fairly ordinary flaws like Hillary Clinton.
Greenwald defended his approach in an interview:
“I just reject pretty vehemently the premise of the question, which is that paying attention to Hillary Clinton’s most significant question marks somehow undercuts the journalistic attention that has been paid to all of Trump’s question marks. I can pretty much point to every single aspect of Donald Trump’s personal, political, and financial life — it’s been dissected by great length and with great skill by the investigative reporting teams of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and Washington Post.”
The Intercept and Wikileaks
Whatever one thinks of the reasoning, there is little doubt that The Intercept’s coverage was heavily influenced by the strategic timing of Wikileaks releases about the Clinton campaign. The Intercept reported about the leaks without hesitation, generally staying away from conspiracy theories and focusing more on Hillary Clinton’s paid Goldman Sachs speeches or the US relationship with Saudi Arabia. In contrast, it largely ignored or downplayed claims of Russian involvement in the hacks which made these disclosures possible.
Unlike other publications like VICE and Ars Technica, it didn’t report about the in-depth public investigations by SecureWorks which showed that the phishing attacks that targeted the Democrats also targeted Russian journalists and other targets of interest to Russian intelligence, and that the attacks could be linked to a group that has been identified with Russian intelligence before. Only after the election, it published a comprehensive summary of the available evidence, calling it “not enough”.
While skepticism about far-reaching claims and theories regarding Russia/Trump collusion was and is certainly appropriate (and The Intercept rightly called out the Washington Post for credulously promoting an amateurish blacklist of “pro-Russian” news sources), the publication may have undermined its own case by overdoing it.
In contrast, The Intercept rarely reported critically about Wikileaks itself. Even when Wikileaks fed the most bizarre conspiracy theories, it was left to the Washington Post to debunk them. Many other falsehoods or mischaracterizations sourced to Wikileaks received little attention from journalists while spreading like wildfire.
Given their combined expertise dealing with sensitive materials, here was an opportunity for Intercept reporters to help readers interested in the leaks by separating nonsense from reality, and to call out Wikileaks’ active participation in the fake news pipeline. It was an opportunity The Intercept did not take.
Greenwald’s “adversarial journalism” appears to translate to an almost singular focus on a narrow set of powerful players, driven by a default set of assumptions about where abuses of power originate.
Content Example: “Agonies of Exile”
The Intercept regularly publishes photojournalism features. Agonies of Exile is one such feature which focuses on deported mothers of children who can stay in the US under the DACA policy, one of the few immigration reforms Barack Obama was able to implement.
The intro is succinct (a bit overly so), and the photographs are moving. While it is a good piece of photojournalism, one look at the comments should quickly destroy any hopes that such storytelling alone will change hearts and minds. But it may help.
Content Example: “The FBI’s Secret Rules”
This series of articles is based on a set of internal FBI documents obtained by The Intercept which detail rules and regulations for FBI operations and investigations. Each article in the series focuses on specific practices, e.g., the payment of informants, and is supported by annotated source documents.
One has to be pretty interested in law enforcement practices to digest the whole lot, much of which quickly devolves into subtle arguments about whether specific loopholes in the rules allow for abuse or not. For example, the article “Hidden Loopholes Allow FBI Agents to Infiltrate Political and Religious Groups” reveals an FBI that is genuinely struggling to strike the right balance between civil liberties and security.
That is not to say the investigation isn’t important – it is, and it’s precisely through this type of public accountability that rules are improved and abuse is constrained. But judging by the single digit number of comments on most of these stories, it’s clear that there’s considerable room for improvement in how the material is organized and presented.
This begins with the landing page itself, which is honestly a bit of a mess. It attempts to use the FBI manuals as a way to section the series, which is neither engaging (who is drawn in by the words “Confidential Human Source Policy Guide”?) nor immediately apparent. As you move your mouse across the page, huge background images from each story strobe into view in a frustrating and disorienting manner.
The landing page of the investigation is a bit of a mess, especially once you start trying to navigate it.
The individual stories range from mundane to significant. The stories about how the FBI works with informants reveal a troubling set of incentives ranging from huge payments – some coming out of seized assets – to deportation threats, and efforts to conceal the reality of what’s going on. This is an example of a story that, with more focused attention, might have been developed into an engaging feature.
In general, fewer stories (there’s a total of eleven) and a more focused approach might have served the topic better. Alternatively, highlighting the major stories of an investigation (as ProPublica does with all its larger series) would make the content easier to navigate and reveal the editors’ own sense of the relative importance of each story.
In spite of these criticisms, the stories tackle an important set of subjects, are diligently researched, well-sourced, and offer multiple perspectives where appropriate, including from the FBI itself.
The Intercept has a minimalist design that puts stories and photographs front and center. I wouldn’t exactly call it beautiful (unless monospace terminal aesthetic is your thing) but it is distinct without getting in the way, at least when it comes to individual stories. The site’s top-level story sectioning is essentially useless, providing categories such as “Top Stories”, "Unofficial Sources, “Glenn Greenwald” and “Recently”.
The site employs a navigational paradigm where the web address changes when scrolling down, as different stories (from the main feed or one of the sections) are loaded. This makes it easy to accidentally lose one’s place, though I’ll grant that it aids random, low-effort exploration of the site’s content.
There’s a comment section below each story. It is powered by an odd homegrown commenting system that appears to have received minimal technical attention. It neither requires nor permits any form of authentication to verify one’s identity. Because The Intercept attracts a fair number of cranks, the signal-to-noise ratio is mediocre at best, though comments appear relatively free of spam and abuse.
(Update December 2017: The Intercept switched its discussion system to Coral Talk, bringing with it major changes to functionality and moderation, including a requirement to create a user account. We’ll update this review once the new system has been in use for a while.)
Content is under conventional copyright, with an email address for case-by-case re-use permissions. First Look Media also has a small GitHub presence that is not prominently advertised and mostly used for internal tools.
The Intercept describes our world through a darkened lens. In its editorials, it seeks to frequently assure its readers that the cynical, suspicious view of the world is the only rational one to take. The 2016 election showed the limits of this approach, when the publication’s contrarianism regarding increasingly evident meddling by bad actors – including, most likely, Russian intelligence – through leaks and disinformation was covered by The Intercept in ways that were often less informative than the reporting of mainstream sources.
It is understandable, then, why the site provokes strong reactions, but regardless of these limitations, its in-depth journalistic investigations often shed light on subjects that others ignore, which makes them undeniably valuable. It is obvious that Intercept reporters are given the time, freedom and resources to pursue these challenging stories. As the “FBI manuals” example shows, while The Intercept does not always succeed in making complex topics engaging, it’s clear that the team strives to be thorough and ethical in its reporting.
No other nonprofit journalism source we’ve reviewed is as strongly identified with a single personality – in this case, Glenn Greenwald. The Intercept has not yet developed an institutional voice, style or journalistic approach beyond Greenwald’s, and it feels very much like an extension of his beliefs and values. This, combined with its funding model, may put The Intercept on shaky ground when it comes to its long term future.
In spite of the criticisms above, I give The Intercept high marks for the overall quality and value of its journalism. I subtract a point for the lack of organization-level transparency, and for sometimes going off the contrarian deep end in ways that serve neither truth nor justice. We need The Intercept, but we also need it to be better. 4 out of 5 stars.
(March 2017: Rewritten to provide more detail & color, and to be consistent with our review criteria.)