Glenn Greenwald officially left The Intercept on Thursday, complaining of censorship and heavy-handed editing.
It was an eye-rolling moment for many at The Intercept. Multiple staffers at the outlet pointed out that, despite his objections to editing from above, Greenwald was ultimately one of the least-edited writers at the site. While the editing processes around his work varied—his lengthier, often-reported pieces tended to get editorial scrutiny, while his columns did not—Greenwald would often announce in internal company channels that he was planning to publish columns, causing copy editors to scramble at the last minute to, as one editor put it, “fix broken sentences and danglers and modifiers and word salad that he would generate.”
Top editors were somewhat uncomfortable with the leeway afforded to Greenwald, but his status as a co-founder of the place, along with predetermined contractual agreements, allowed him fairly broad discretion over his editorial work. Greenwald told The Daily Beast in a telephone interview that his contract allowed him to self-publish except in instances that may put the publication at legal risk, and instances where the subject matter involved original reporting that was of an “unusually complex nature.” While Reed believed that the piece met the second threshold, Greenwald did not.
Greenwald—who founded The Intercept in 2013 with fellow journalists Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, with funding from eBay chairman Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media—abruptly announced his exit in protest of what he claimed was “repression, censorship and ideological homogeneity” at the digital-media publication. He specifically claimed The Intercept silenced him and deep-sixed his column on Hunter Biden because the editors “vehemently” wanted Joe Biden to defeat President Donald Trump in the election.
The move set up a highly public back-and-forth between Greenwald, a writer who has never shied from a fight, and the leaders of the publication he helped establish with similarly pugnacious values in mind.
Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed wrote in a statement, which was reviewed in advance by several top editors, that Greenwald’s claims were “teeming with distortions and inaccuracies—all of them designed to make him appear as a victim, rather than a grown person throwing a tantrum.”
She added: “It is important to make clear that our goal in editing his work was to ensure that it would be accurate and fair,” she said. “While he accuses us of political bias, it was he who was attempting to recycle the dubious claims of a political campaign—the Trump campaign—and launder them as journalism.”
Greenwald published the draft in question along with the email exchange that precipitated his departure, in which editor Peter Maass explained at length what he saw as flaws in Greenwald’s piece, along with a suggestion to narrow his focus on media criticism of the Hunter Biden coverage rather than an examination of the information being laundered by right-wing operatives. On Wednesday morning, Greenwald accused Maass of censorship and it spiraled from there.
Reed told The Daily Beast that she and Greenwald initially discussed the column idea, and teamed up for the piece with Washington D.C. bureau chief Ryan Grim, who said on Twitter on Thursday that he and Greenwald decided to write separate pieces because of their diverging interests in the Hunter Biden saga.
“It was one thing to appear on the Murdoch-owned network; it was quite another to play hype man to its most toxic Trump cheerleader.”
Greenwald initially agreed with Reed to have his Hunter Biden column edited. He and Reed had discussions about the piece on the phone and via Slack, and the piece was filed to Maass, a veteran chronicler of global conflict who was the regular editor for Greenwald’s more in-depth reported pieces. Maass was taken aback when after seeming to at first simply disagree with edits, Greenwald later declared the piece was being censored and suppressed.
“Glenn’s response that evening was not surprising, but it was constructive,” Maass said of Greenwald’s initial email after receiving edits, which did not include any accusations of censorship. “He was engaged in the process. The note that he sent Wednesday morning—that was him blowing up the process. And that was really surprising given when he said Tuesday evening.”
In a series of email and telephone exchanges with The Daily Beast, Greenwald again claimed that the publication had decided to edit him because it was invested in tipping the scales in Biden’s favor. He further alleged that in his time working at The Intercept, he had never received any edits like the lengthy note Maass sent.
“People are free to believe that’s not a good way to work for them, but I would never work anywhere that did not guarantee that freedom,” Greenwald said of his editorial arrangement. “The Intercept did guarantee it, which is why their sudden eagerness to apply so much editorial scrutiny to this particular story in violation of both my contract and the way we’ve always worked —for the first time ever—made it so clear that the impulse was one of censorship.”
While Greenwald’s departure from the publication was seemingly sudden, discontent between the Pulitzer-winning writer and many colleagues at the publication he co-founded had been brewing for years, sources said.
For his part, Greenwald had increasingly differing views with writers at the publication about a number of issues, most notably the coverage of Russian interference in the 2016 election and its fallout. He told The Daily Beast that he was increasingly concerned that The Intercept was “publishing whatever anti-Trump agitprop pops up on Twitter,” saying that he expressed to Reed concerns about a recent story that Greenwald felt mischaracterized involuntary hysterectomies at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement center as well as a report about Trump ignoring intelligence suggesting that Russia had placed bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
But his unrelentingly combative and at-times demeaning comments on social media also rubbed some employees the wrong way. His tweets often wound up violating in the eyes of the Intercept’s editors the social-media guidelines set out by the publication, which encourages employees to “engage in robust, respectful discourse with each other and with members of the public,” but “encourages staff members to address disagreements directly with colleagues rather than airing them publicly, and welcomes a diversity of viewpoints in our newsroom.”
Intercept employees said Greenwald’s disregard for the policies rendered the guidelines nearly unenforceable, encouraging other staff to follow suit and flout them as well—creating a headache for newsroom leaders.
According to Reed, Greenwald privately claimed he made enormous efforts not to criticize other Intercept staffers. And many of his plentiful Twitter debates with colleagues did stay largely civil, even though Greenwald did not always take kindly to what he perceived as public criticism by his co-workers. (At one point, Greenwald blocked several staffers who followed an account poking fun at him. Greenwald said he did not remember blocking any staffers while they were at The Intercept, but acknowledged that he may not remember doing so, or had blocked them before they worked with him.) But Reed acknowledged that although Greenwald’s public disputes with staff were somewhat infrequent, when discussing edits or concerns about social-media practices with some staffers, “they would sort of be able to point to Glenn and that we had a total double standard and that he was able to do whatever he wanted.”
“I think we did make progress toward having a more healthy internal dialogue and debate about issues where people disagreed,” she said. “But it was definitely something where it was difficult to manage.”
Last year, for example, he irked Intercept colleagues after he publicly mocked an initiative by First Look’s diversity committee to include pronouns in Slack bios, and singled out a First Look staffer who identified as non-binary and had been critical of Greenwald on Twitter.
“I would literally, like, lose an eye before I complied with this,” he said of the initiative on the Girls Chat podcast. “I probably wouldn’t poke out both my eyes, so I didn’t want to use hyperbole, but I would rather be without one of my eyes than submit to this.”
For his part, Greenwald said no one at The Intercept ever raised concerns to him that he was violating the company’s social-media guidelines, which he said he wouldn’t have followed anyway because he disagreed with them.
“As for the Girls Chat: There was an employee of First Look Media, not at the Intercept, who criticized me on Twitter, and when I responded, I used the ‘he’ pronoun because that’s how this writer had always identified. Unbeknownst to me, they had announced a pronoun change only a couple months earlier, which I didn’t know, so the ‘mis-gendering’ was purely unintentional. I was particularly angry about it because I’ve long been the only openly gay journalist at the Intercept—over 7 years, not a single other one has been hired—and so the idea that I was oppressing someone who had just announced non-binary status 3 months earlier was offensive. It’s the Intercept which seems to have issues with openly gay journalists.”
Furthermore, Greenwald’s frequent Fox News appearances—especially on white nationalist-friendly Tucker Carlson’s primetime show—were a source of concern for newsroom leaders. Staff felt that Greenwald’s distaste for liberals, centrists, and mainstream media allowed him to become a useful stooge for the network, where his appearances frequently focused on bashing Democrats, former Obama intelligence officials, and Fox’s media rivals. It was one thing to appear on the Murdoch-owned network; it was quite another to play hype man to its most toxic Trump cheerleader.
Reed said she did not discourage his frequent appearances on Carlson’s show, but acknowledged that Greenwald’s Fox News regularity was “definitely a source of real tension and concern.”
“I take seriously the issues of freedom of expression,” Reed said. “I also know that had I ever told him not to appear on Tucker Carlson, that would be the one surefire way he could be booked for the next opportunity. In terms of navigating it, it was difficult. It also really exposes hypocrisy of his claim to be censored by the media when he has a regular slot appearing on one of the highest-rated shows on cable television.”
Greenwald told The Daily Beast that the only people he ever spoke to at The Intercept about appearing on Fox were two of his former outlet’s highest-profile reporters, Jeremy Scahill and Mehdi Hasan, both of whom argued against it. “I have no doubt that some people at the Intercept were upset that I was going on Fox, but I would no sooner allow anyone to dictate to me which shows I can go on than I would allow anyone to censor my opinions,” Greenwald said.
Greenwald admitted that Fox News airs plenty of “horrific, toxic, damaging, destructive, and bigoted” content. But he claimed there was value, nevertheless, in making appearances on the network. In addition to discussing issues that he was interested in—including criticism of the mainstream press, Democrats, and American intelligence officials—Greenwald said that he felt he has “brought Tucker along” on skepticism of the CIA, and has been able to use his Fox News platform to advocate for a pardon of Edward Snowden and to criticize Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.
He added: “I have criticized Fox, maybe not as much as other people would like, but part of the reason is I feel that right-wing media has done a much better job at reporting on the prime scandal of the Trump era, which is Russiagate.” Asked by The Daily Beast if he believed that Russiagate was a bigger scandal than the Trump administration’s serial mishandling of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, Greenwald clarified that he meant that coverage of Russian interference dominated the news cycle for much longer than COVID-19.
Greenwald‘s tensions with the newsroom were kept mostly within the organization—until his angry resignation letter went live. Many one-time colleagues began publicly criticizing his censorship claim as factually inaccurate, hypocritical, or overwrought.
“I’ll always be grateful to Glenn for bringing me on to launch The Intercept. It’s still a place where I can write freely on subjects I hold dear,” tweeted The Intercept’s criminal-justice reporter Liliana Segura. “But the one time I wrote a piece fiercely disagreeing w/ the work of a colleague, he asked me to pull my punches. The piece never ran.”
“Here are some examples of actual censorship,” tweeted Intercept investigative reporter Mara Hvistendahl, her caption including a link to the China Digital Times’ database of leaked official Chinese government directives demanding media censorship or favorable coverage.
Others like Intercept staffer Lee Fang backed Greenwald’s claim of censorship and took umbrage at Intercept staffers criticizing their colleague on his way out. “You can disagree with Glenn’s opinions or his decision to leave TI, that’s fine, but it gives you a sense of the unprofessional work culture at TI to see so many gloating about his exit,” Fang tweeted. “Even if you hate him, have some respect for what he’s done in his life.”
But others took a more cynical view of Greenwald’s exit. Some Intercept staffers pointed out that the censorship charge and subsequent resignation may have been the perfect publicity stunt for Greenwald, who acknowledged in his exit announcement that he’d already been in discussions about starting another media project. Indeed, it seemed his new venture was already popular—Substack declined to say how many subscribers Greenwald had garnered, but the site listed him as one of its top-ten paid newsletters, with “thousands of subscribers” at a rate of $5 per month.
Greenwald seemed aware of these charges, and couldn’t resist another opportunity to take a swipe at his former colleagues. In an interview with The Hill on Friday, he remarked that if he were motivated by money, he would’ve stayed at The Intercept, which paid him a generous salary, helped pay for his private security and legal costs, and paid his assistant.
“The Intercept is a place probably more so than anywhere else in media where you make an obscene amount of money, not just me, for doing very little if you want,” he said.
He added: “People there are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, they make very little. No one reads what they write, it doesn’t matter, they’re going to be there for life if they want. Same with me: I was making a huge salary, and on top of that huge salary I was making, the Intercept pays my assistant, it pays its huge team of very expensive lawyers in Brazil I have to have to fight off the criminal case that is still pending.”
In a subsequent conversation with The Daily Beast, Greenwald said that his Substack subscriptions amounted to between $300,000 and $400,000, figures that were “substantially less than just my salary” at the Intercept, which was around $500,000. Greenwald estimated that in addition to his salary, the Intercept covered about $300,000 in costs related to legal fees and protection.
While Greenwald—who has been based on Brazil for more than a decade—was perceived to be removed from the newsroom, he still scored some major journalistic victories in his final year at The Intercept. In 2019, he published a series based on a trove of secret documents about Brazilian government’s Operation Car Wash, exposing how the country’s anti-corruption prosecutors were tainted by political bias and collaborated secretly with a Brazilian judge who later got a prominent new position in Bolsonaro’s right-wing government.
Many staffers noted how Greenwald conspicuously omitted the Intercept’s Brazil operation from his broadside against his former publication. In a tweet on Thursday, Greenwald praised the operation, saying “None of this conflict has anything to do with @TheInterceptBr, whose journalism I continue to have the highest regard for and hope it remains supported.”
Still, multiple Intercept staffers acknowledged that there has occasionally been friction between the publication’s founder and other staff in the South American country. On one occasion, several Intercept sources recalled how Greenwald alarmed colleagues when he responded on Twitter to a report in a Brazilian newspaper that the outlet was finished reporting the Operation Car Wash story and promised to publish a story within a short deadline, sending staff working on the story into overdrive to meet the newly set expectations.
“Of course when you work on high-pressured and high-stake stories over many months, you’re going to have disagreements with colleagues about how to do the reporting—the same was true during the Snowden story,” he said. “But just as I left the Guardian with great regard and excellent relations with my colleagues with whom I reported, I continue to be very good friends with the senior editorial staff at The Intercept Brasil, in large part because of the bonds we formed doing that reporting.”
Ultimately, many staffers had mixed emotions about Greenwald’s tenure, and the legacy he left behind at The Intercept. They felt his public spats, his social media antagonism, and his Fox News appearances had in recent years unfortunately overshadowed the strong investigative work that he (and they) produced.
“Glenn has repeatedly shown his value in the world of journalism and political debate and rhetoric,” Maass said. “The Glenn Greenwald we’ve seen recently isn’t contributing something positive. I honestly hope he will.”