The Fairness Problem. Open Letter to Mr. Omidyar


My dear Mr. Pierre Omidyar,

I am writing to express my concern about the lack of fairness in  your news venture First Look Media. In the over seven months of its operation, FLS has been shrilly propagandistic rather than either informative, or thoughtful, or even, a good deal of the time, truthful.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “fairness” (sense 6) as “honesty;  impartiality, equitableness, justness; fair dealing.”  In journalism,  a number of authoritative statements on professional ethics all  stress the overriding necessity for fairness:

Society of Professional Journalists   Seek Truth and Report It Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

New York Times  The goal of The New York Times is to cover the news as impartially as possible — “without fear or favor,” in the words of Adolph Ochs, our patriarch — and to treat readers, news sources, advertisers and others fairly and openly, and to be seen to be doing so. 

Washington Post  Reporters and editors of The Post are committed to fairness. While arguments about objectivity are endless, the concept of fairness is something that editors and reporters can easily understand and pursue. …No story is fair if it omits facts of major importance or significance. Fairness includes completeness.

Up to now you have been known for your successful entrepreneurship, for your innovative computer programming, and for your philanthropy.  But with the establishment of First Look Media with its associated website Intercept, you have suddenly turned to the financing and organizing of something quite different, something, to tell the truth, that I find disreputable. I have previously shown, on this blog, how your site must be considered (why mince words ?) to be yellow-press,  radically anti-American, and anti-Semitic.  (Others, for example Gabriel Schoenfeld, have come to the same conclusion.) The problem is aggravated by the huge financial resources that you have deployed for this project.  You are clearly using your great wealth to tilt the public arena of discussion, preventing it from being the level playing field that the Founders intended.

Since I have discussed many of the details about your site before, I need not rehearse them here.  Let me just say that Intercept does not as much as pretend to balance or fairness, and most especially not when it  denounces and slanders  its perceived arch enemies, i.e.  the United States government and Israel.  You give loving latitude to any fact or factoid, proven or fabricated,  that will tend to show your chosen enemies in a bad light;  on the other hand, you radically exclude any factors that run counter your basic hatreds.

One example is typical of your methods.  According to your declared intentions, you were to reveal the contents of the Snowden materials to the public.  That would accord with your repeated calls for transparency in the public arena.  But what has happened so far, almost eight months after you began publication, is that only a very tiny proportion of the apparently thousands of Snowden  documents in your possession have been revealed by you.  For all the rest, the many thousands, there is opaqueness where you promised transparency.    Now every single document that you have so far released has tended to harm and embarrass your declared enemies, the United States and/or Israel.  Are there any documents among the tens of thousands that you have not found fit to release that put your enemies in a favorable light ?  Any that reveal humanitarian efforts, or any sort of good faith  on the part of these governments, either  at home or abroad ?    Is it really true, as your treatment of these materials suggests, that all available documentary evidence proves criminality, vile methods, and base motives at all levels of the US and Israeli governments ?  You pick and choose a dozen or so documents from among many thousands, without showing context, without any regard whatever for what traditional journalists would call fairness, or for what I would call truth.

When I was a young man, some sixty years ago now, I lived in the state of Wisconsin, whose junior US Senator at the time, Mr. Joseph McCarthy, also felt that fairness is something not needed in public life.  And I remember when he too tangled with the US Government, in this case the US Army, and had to be admonished by the Army’s attorney, Mr. Joseph Welch:

Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

Yours truly,

Werner Cohn