Open Letter

January 14, 2021

On Monday, November 30, 2020, I was fired from First Look Media, an organization I co-founded. My termination came two months after I spoke to the press about The Intercept’s failure to protect whistleblower Reality Winner and the cover-up and lack of accountability that followed, and after years of raising concerns internally about patterns of discrimination and retaliation. 

I was told my firing was effective immediately and without cause, my access to email was shut down, and that the company had no plans to communicate my abrupt termination to the public.

First Look Media and The Intercept were founded upon Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing and the investigative journalism that Glenn Greenwald and I all risked our lives to bring to the public, exposing the National Security Agency’s illegal global mass surveillance programs.

First Look Media’s decision to fire me after I raised concerns about source protection and accountability – rather than to demote or seek the resignation of anyone responsible for the journalistic malpractice, cover-up, and retaliation – speaks to the priorities of The Intercept’s Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed and First Look Media’s CEO Michael Bloom.

Journalists make mistakes, sometimes with serious consequences. What is alarming about this case is the multitude of mistakes, the egregious disregard for source protection, and the mishandling of an internal review that ended with a cover-up. It goes without saying that no one should participate in an investigation into themselves, yet this is what happened at The Intercept. Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed, who oversaw the reporting on Winner’s NSA leak, took an active behind-the-scenes role in the investigation, assigned staff who reported directly to her to gather facts, and, when the facts pointed to editorial failures, Reed removed the staff person from the investigation.

The Intercept’s claim that an independent investigation was conducted is false. The so-called “independent” review was done by the same lawyer who worked on the NSA/Winner story. The Intercept should correct the record and apologize to its readers.

CEO Michael Bloom and Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed have demonstrated repeatedly that they consider the whistleblowers and journalists who risk their lives on behalf of the organization as disposable. They demonstrated this by their lack of effort to protect Reality Winner. And again when they didn’t bother to inform Edward Snowden of their decision to defund the NSA archive. And now by firing me on a day’s notice from an organization built upon my work and reputation without even informing the staff or the public of their decision.  

First Look Media will issue a statement saying that they did not terminate me in retaliation, that the organization is moving away from its co-founders’ mission (even though this mission still appears on tax filings and fundraising emails), that The Intercept is “under attack”, that Reality Winner is to blame for the evidence The Intercept handed to the government, that my contract “wrapped up” though it has no end date, and that I never really contributed much of value anyway.

I will share a few things I’m proud of: co-founding The Intercept, First Look Media, and Field of Vision; supporting filmmakers with uncompromising artistic and political vision who reach wide audiences and recognition (including 5 Academy Award nominations); fighting for non-extractive contracts in which filmmakers maintain copyright of their creative work; working alongside many extraordinary journalists and filmmakers; and speaking out when a pattern of impunity and retaliation puts sources at risk.

Because of The Intercept’s negligence – including their failure to consult with their own security experts – Reality Winner was arrested before the story was even published, denying her the crucial window of time for the focus to be on the information she risked her personal freedom to reveal to the public. Reality Winner is still imprisoned as I write this letter. 

The government’s prosecution of Winner and her extreme prison sentence are unconscionable. As I argued last month, the Espionage Act is being abused by the government to selectively prosecute sources and whistleblowers, and to intimidate journalists and news organizations seeking to publish information that the government wants to suppress. The Biden administration should pardon Reality Winner on their first day in office. But this does not excuse journalists and news organizations from doing their job to protect sources.

The tragedy here is that First Look Media and The Intercept had all the financial resources and digital security expertise to do this right, and yet they failed to apply their basic founding principles of source protection and accountability to themselves. Instead of conducting an honest, independent and transparent assessment with meaningful consequences, First Look Media fired me for speaking out, exposing the gulf between the organization’s purported values and its practice. 

– Laura Poitras
Co-Founder, The Intercept, First Look Media, Field of Vision