Ken Silverstein joined First Look Media because it promised the freedom to pursue "fearless journalism." But after a mere 14 months at eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s upstart outlet, Silverstein quit his post dramatically last week, saying he was hired “under false pretenses.”
"At First Look, we were never able to be fearless," writes Silverstein, a former senior investigative reporter at First Look, in a a new piece for Politico Magazine. "We couldn’t do anything, because we spent so much time in pointless meetings and being slowed down, when we wrote anything, by a lack of support from management and the dire shortage of editors to actually oversee and work with the writers."
At its outset, the media company outlined plans to introduce multiple digital publications run by some of the biggest names in the industry. In February 2014, the organization launched its first online magazine, The Intercept, co-founded by journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill. The Intercept billed itself as a source of “aggressive and independent adversarial journalism" on issues of national security, government spying and political corruption." First Look also hired Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi in early 2014 to run Racket, a satirical digital magazine.
Silverstein, who previously worked for Harper’s and The Los Angeles Times, was hired by First Look in December 2013 to join Taibbi at Racket. When Taibbi left, all the remaining Racket staffers were fired except for Silverstein, who joined The Intercept for a brief period before quitting.
Silverstein described a work environment at First Look that was "anything but functional," with a flawed editing system and “epic managerial incompetence.” Amid the slew of firings, hirings, promotions and demotions and with little guidance or support from management, Silverstein said employees felt "lost."
What I observed was that the Omidyar-led management could not complete the simplest tasks—approving budgets or hires—without months of internal debate and apparent anguish. The Intercept didn’t even begin publishing until last February. (We weren’t supposed to call it “Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept” because a lot of other people worked there, including me for a bit, but everyone knew Glenn was the anchor of the project.) After a pause ordered by editor in chief John Cook to address its internal dysfunction, the site relaunched in July with a good, complicated story about how the NSA and the FBI had been monitoring a few Muslim-Americans in the United States. Yet I saw how difficult the story was to birth for its chief editor, John Cook, and he didn’t end up lasting long—before quitting and returning to Gawker.
Silverstein called the demise of Taibbi's Racket the "end of my journalism dream." It was like watching Omidyar’s team "kill their second baby," he writes -- the company invested substantial money and resources only to fire Racket's entire staff two days before Thanksgiving.
"The fact that First Look hired so many talented people to create Racket, spent more than a million dollars on it, and in the end fired everyone before Racket ever published a single story must stand as one of the greatest squanderings of money and leadership ineptitude in modern journalism," he wrote.
Soon after Silverstein joined The Intercept. Betsy Reed took over as editor-in-chief following John Cook's departure. But things hardly improved, Silverstein said.
The "continued endless and needless delays" made it seemingly impossible to get anything published, he wrote. At a place that was supposed to become a driving force in new journalism, "little content ever made it onto the website."
Silverstein's final decision to leave came two weeks ago, after the company delayed the publication of yet another one of this stories. He quit that day, but not before First Look asked him to return his company laptop.
"What I love is that a company that opposes NSA spying apparently wants a 'disgruntled' former employee’s laptop so they can see what’s on it," he said.