Issue 36 Feature Culture

Betsy Reed

The editor putting big business and government under the microscope by Maxwell Williams

March 15, 2016
Part 13 of 26 See all ›

Issue 36: The 2016 GOOD 100

Meet the remarkable individuals tackling pressing global issues today

In a bustling restaurant overlooking Union Square, Betsy Reed looks up cautiously. She’s just been asked if much of her job as editor-in-chief at The Intercept is to get the strong personalities—over two dozen world-class journalists including founding editors Laura Poitras, Jeremy Scahill, and Glenn Greenwald—to work together to produce a cohesive product. She pauses as if to say, You don’t know the half of it.

“That’s right,” she finally says, diplomatically and with a wry smile. “Not everybody always sees eye to eye on everything. The larger challenge is that we’re trying to create—and I hate to use this word—a brand. It’s important to the impact of our journalism. Even if you have a cacophony of voices, there needs to be some kind of unity, too. And I think that we’re achieving that. People who know The Intercept get that, yes, there are a lot of strong voices, but there are certain commonalities, and a really strong sense of mission.”

Under Reed’s guidance, The Intercept’s objective is to function as a last bastion of the fourth estate. There are, of course, other publications dedicated to investigating the people and organizations in places of power, but no one is holding their feet to the fire in any manner resembling The Intercept’s brand of sharp-bladed scrupulousness. The two-year-old website gives governmental and private-sector figures fits, not least of whom is the president of the United States. This past October, The Drone Papers series, based on a trove of secret military slides received from a whistleblower, scrutinized the Obama administration’s “policy [of] assassination,” the myriad mistakes made during drone strikes, and the tremendous secrecy shielding them. The leaked documents are damning to an administration that was elected with promises of ending wars.

Reed points out that when her team approaches the White House (or a comparable institution) with such a story, it oftentimes won’t comment—in the case of The Drone Papers, because the documents were classified. But once The Intercept publishes it, mainstream media like NPR, Newsweek, The Guardian, and The New York Times are obliged to pick up the story, like with The Drone Papers. Public opinion shifts, and the story becomes something the administration can’t ignore. “The White House actually held a meeting a couple weeks after The Drone Papers came out about the drone program and transparency, and they were pledging to make things more transparent,” says Reed. “I haven’t seen any evidence that they’re actually doing that, but they made those noises. They invited a number of civil liberties groups there. So...” She trails off, frowning. The irony of fighting for transparency is that it’s often difficult to know if changes are being made.

“The idea is that by creating more transparency—not just in government, but in private sectors—there could be more accountability,” Reed explains. “I think that our belief is that a certain amount of transparency will bring a positive social impact. It’s not like we start with, ‘We want to embarrass Republicans.’ I’m not disparaging that goal, but that’s not what we’re trying to do.”

Reed came to edit this style of adversarial journalism after years of working with investigative journalists—including Scahill—as executive editor of the liberal weekly The Nation. While there, she also edited Scahill’s award-winning book Blackwater and The New York Times bestselling Dirty Wars, exposing the private military industry and the Obama administration’s drone usage, respectively. But Reed found that The Nation’s 150 years of progressive politics could amount to a lot of preaching to the choir. In her past year as editor-in-chief of The Intercept—housed under eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar’s nonprofit, First Look Media—she’s noticed that the website isn’t beholden to The Nation’s left-leaning political identity. “People in government know at this point who we are,” says Reed. “The broader public doesn’t always. People will look at the story itself and won’t be predisposed to judge our agenda”—Reed mimes air quotes around the word— “based on who we are.”

The idea is that by creating more transparency—not just in government, but in private sectors—that there could be more accountability.

For Reed, the endgame is to give the common person a fighting chance against information-hoarding big businesses and snooping administrations. “One way to think about what we’re doing is: We’re just trying to shift,” says Reed. “We’re in this situation where we have these governments and corporations who have this penetrating gaze on all of us, and they’re gathering all this information, and they’re allowed privacy and secrecy. So the point is to turn it around, and apply some transparency to them in the interest of shifting that balance and actually allowing for privacy [for individuals].”

Some of the stories the site covers come from anonymous sources—pre-Intercept, Greenwald and Poitras were the initial contacts for Edward Snowden’s leaks about governmental spying—through a process that Reed refers to as “rigorous digital hygiene.” This involves a team of technologists working with the SecureDrop program, a sort of WikiLeaks-for-journalists that uses the anonymity-maintaining Tor software. It’s essential, as the Obama administration thwarts whistleblowers at every turn—if you leak classified information at this point, you either disappear, find some sort of asylum like Snowden, or you face the Espionage Act like Chelsea Manning, currently serving 35 years for leaking 700,000 documents to WikiLeaks. “I do think that there’s something extraordinary about them in that, in a classic way, they’re standing up, they’re speaking truth to power, and they are making an enormous personal risk in order to stand up for their principles,” says Reed. “They’re often suffering some real consequences from it. I do think there’s something heroic about that.”

Though peeking into institutional and individual evils can be very serious (and generally depressing), Reed concedes that the level of mystery on which The Intercept operates makes the work invigorating. “I have to say that the adrenaline that comes from working on a really good story, it’s addictive,” she says. “You go through this intense process of reporting on something, it’s very exciting, it’s great when it comes out, and then you go through a little bit of postpartum depression afterwards.”

And while Reed lauds the bravery of their sources, a similar, though more unsung, heroism can be found in the team at The Intercept. Without the journalists like the ones Reed oversees, the fourth estate would mean little nowadays. What passes for an investigation in the soundbite age can hardly be called that—usually it’s hand-fed by a source with a bone to pick. Writers often walk hand-in-hand with government or big corporations, wagging their tails as they regurgitate “scoops” as they’re told—to be too oppositional would put them at risk of losing their inside track. It seems the press is in cahoots with the very government it’s supposed to be checking. But not The Intercept. Which, of course, can lead to the administration keeping an eye on their work, perhaps the greatest compliment a publication can receive. “I can’t say for sure how much they’re looking at what we’re doing,” says Reed, “because they don’t give us a lot of official responses, but we hear it through the grapevine. We heard recently that they hate us, but they read us.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the position Reed held at The Nation. She was executive editor.

Photos by Rebekah Campbell 

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Betsy Reed The editor putting big business and government under the microscope