Ken Silverstein resigns from Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media, blasts ‘dishonest’ leadership

Investigative reporter Ken Silverstein has resigned from First Look Media’s The Intercept after 14 months, saying he and others were hired “under what were essentially false pretenses [by being] told we would be given all the financial and other support we needed to do independent,inter important journalism, but instead found ourselves blocked at every step of the way by management’s incompetence and bad faith.”

He adds:

The most telling example, was what happened to [First Look Media site] Racket. I won’t repeat that whole story but I will say that after the company forced Matt Taibbi to resign — and they left him no choice — and then told the rest of the staff that perhaps we could all continue working on a version of Racket without Matt.

None of us really believed it and in the end it was clear First Look had no intention of proceeding with such a project, it just a game it played so Pierre Omidyar and other people in the corporate leadership would look like they seriously cared about the Racket staff when in fact they clearly didn’t.

Silverstein’s story about his time at the Omidyar-owned news site is set to “Friends Only” on Facebook, but the former Harper’s Washington editor gave me permission to share it with Romenesko readers. His posts begin after the jump./CONTINUES

From Ken Silverstein’s Facebook wall:

February 20 at 6:12pm
I quit my job and my kids are good with that and I am at the Wizards-Cavaliers game with my son and a friend. The seats are not great but I guess on balance the day is OK.

Ken Silverstein

Ken Silverstein

February 20 at 10:26pm
You know what’s cool about being a former employee of First Look/The Intercept? That Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Betsy Reed and Pierre Omidyar all believe in Free Speech and the First Amendment so they won’t mind my writing about my time working for and with them. Tentative title: “Welcome to the Slaughterhouse.”

February 20 at 11:39pm
I have to go to sleep soon but before I forget, you know what my favorite part of working for First Look was? Last year’s holiday party when two of our fiercely independent staffers “interviewed” Pierre Omidyar and asked him what he did in the morning. Since you are all hanging on the edge of your seats, he drinks tea and reads stuff, the NYT and other things and then The Intercept was about #5 (he claims). And for the record, I boycotted this embarrassing affair and sat in a conference room with two other people, one who no longer works there and one who may or may not. It’s hard to keep track. What a joke.

February 21 at 11:34am
Wow, it is amazing how good it feels not to work for The Intercept. And what feels even better is the incredible support I have received from friends and editors (some editors who are friends). I have lots of work lined up and the day could not be better. Also, just one last comment on First Look Media: The fact that that it hired so many talented people to create Racket and spent millions of dollars on it and in the end fired everyone and Racket never published a single story is probably the greatest squandering of money and example of criminal ineptitude in the history of modern journalism. Again, what a pathetic joke. Oh yeah, I was not originally hired to work at Racket and didn’t get fired, so I am not including myself in the group of “talented” people I mentioned above. Thanks again everyone.

February 22 at 10:24am
So this will be my last post about First Look. First, let me say I’ve had a great weekend enjoying by status as a former FL employee and hanging out with my son and talking to friends and otherwise having a fine time. Though it may appear otherwise, I am not blindly lashing out at FL. My prior posts reflect the anger and disillusionment I feel towards the company, and my anger and disillusionment is shared by many former employees. I am one of a many employees who was hired under what were essentially false pretenses; we were told we would be given all the financial and other support we needed to do independent, important journalism, but instead found ourselves blocked at every step of the way by management’s incompetence and bad faith….

February 22 at 12:05 p.m.
What’s also pretty cool is that it looks like I’ll be working on a story for Deadspin, which is just about my favorite publication. And I keep getting contacted by other places that want me to write for them. I mean, I already have enough work for most of the year but I’ll also need to find things to do in 2016 so this is great.

Silverstein posted in his comments section:

I started at FL on December 30, 2013 and was barely able to publish last year and even when I began publishing more often —starting only last December — it was a struggle every step of the way. The problems were partly due to mismanagement but even more, as I have suggested, to the dishonesty of the leadership and its willingness — even eagerness — to shamelessly lie to its own employees. The most telling example, was what happened to Racket. I won’t repeat that whole story but I will say that after the company forced Matt Taibbi to resign — and they left him no choice — and then told the rest of the staff that perhaps we could all continue working on a version of Racket without Matt. None of us really believed it and in the end it was clear FL had no intention of proceeding with such a project, it just a game it played so Pierre Omidyar and other people in the corporate leadership would look like they seriously cared about the Racket staff when in fact they clearly didn’t…

Then, when the company pulled the plug some months back, it fired the remaining staff and told them to clear out of the office immediately, that very day, to take their things and get out and FL would generously give them one month severance. I am pretty sure the Koch Brothers treat fired workers with greater respect. (I should note here that everyone but me was fired. I was transferred to The Intercept and still feel badly about accepting that position, at the time I worried that my daughter would not be able to continue at college and that in general the financial blow of resigning would be so impactful that I should keep working for FL. So I have my own guilt here, for not having the courage to do the right thing back then, which was to quit immediately.)

I was just told by a former Racket staff that it was three months severance so if everyone got that I apologize for the error. Either way, it was a pitiful amount given that Omidyar (estimated wealth: $8.2 billion) personally promised that he would treat everyone with dignity and that a number of employees took big risks to go to work for him, and got burned in the process.

But let me just say that while I admire them both, Matt is definitely more likable than Glenn. Glenn’s role at FL is troubling in some ways, especially standing by silently (as far as I can tell) and tolerating the terrible actions of corporate management. Glenn’s work is excellent but Matt would never put up with the bullshit from management that Glenn has.

I don’t want to implicate anyone in what I have done but I want to say that it was a privilege and pleasure to have worked with the great reporters and editors at Racket, even though we were never able to produce a single story. So thanks to Edith Zimmerman, who has become a great friend during the past month and a pillar of support, Alex Pareene, Matt Taibbi, Elle Reeve, Sam Roudman and Katia Bachko. Hopefully I haven’t forgotten anyone, I know there are just a couple of people I deliberately left off this list. In any case, I don’t regret any of the prior posts, I just wanted to explain why I put it all out there.

When we were all at Racket, we joked that we should have the courage to write whatever we wanted and not worry about whether FL liked what we did or whether we offended potential future employers. And at bottom, that is the true formula to produce fearless, independent journalism. You will never produce fearless, independent journalism if you live in fear of angering your media boss and pull your punches to please him/her, or to please your sources or even your friends. So I hope you all feel as good and free and liberated this Sunday as I do and enjoy the rest of your day. (And apologies for any typos, I don’t have a proofreader.)

* October 2014: Matt Taibbi leaves First Look Media (nymag.com)
* November 2014: John Cook quits First Look Media and returns to Gawker (huffingtonpost.com)


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