First Look doubles down as First Amendment benefactor

October 23, 2015

When it launched 15 months ago, First Look Media’s Press Freedom Litigation Fund seemed partial to supporting high-profile, politically charged legal fights. After a lull, the fund announced grants this week for the Sacramento News & Review and Mother Jones, two news organizations caught up in more conventional First Amendment cases.

With the broad mission to help defray expenses in legal disputes that challenge free press in the public interest, the fund has received fewer than a dozen applications to date and given just five grants. It’s tough to parse insights from so few samples, but the two grants this week suggest a shift away from political causes and toward helping organizations that are financially outgunned by interests suing to suppress reporting. There are other players in that philanthropic space, but with proper publicity, the Litigation Fund should attract plenty of takers. It would then be a question of how often, and how deeply, Pierre Omidyar cares to reach into his purse. (Disclosure: Omidyar’s Democracy Fund supports CJR’s local news coverage.)*

First Look was created in 2013 with $250 million pledged by Omidyar, the founder of eBay. Its flagship publication, The Intercept, recruited Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that reported the Edward Snowden leaks. Its first legal aid grant went to David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, who was detained two years ago in London’s Heathrow airport while carrying encrypted files that contained classified British intelligence documents.

In July, the Litigation Fund joined a campaign supporting Chelsea Manning, the US Army intelligence analyst sentenced to 35 years in prison for giving WikiLeaks classified documents. To help finance Manning’s appeal, First Look matched $50,000 in public donations, as did the Freedom of the Press Foundation (whose board includes, among others, Greenwald, Poitras, Snowden, and Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, and which is itself a recipient of First Look money); in addition, Greenwald personally matched $10,000 in public donations. That fundraiser hit its goal in 24 hours.

Financing people like Manning and Miranda could be taken as unconventional political engagement for a news organization, especially since grant input comes from editorial leadership. (Litigation Fund grants are determined by a committee of Intercept Editor in Chief Betsy Reed, First Look President and General Manager Michael Bloom, Omidyar, and General Counsel Lynn Oberlander.) Then again, First Look Media is staunchly committed to defending disclosure of state secrets in the public interest, so choosing sides on that issue was settled from the start.

Another grant went to Sahara Reporters, a website that pools news information on African politics and relies heavily on leaked documents. First Look has given $25,000 so far to the site, which faces a defamation suit from a Nigerian senator. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Omidyar is also a key Sahara Reporters funder, having given the site $450,000 in 2011.) In addition to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, First Look has also given substantial donations to two other likeminded organizations.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Oberlander wouldn’t say if the fund operates with a specific endowment, or what sort of annual budget it has to draw from. After a “soft launch” in June 2014, that’s all still being worked out, she says. She maintains that attracting more applications is only a matter of getting the word out. In jurisdictions without protection for news outlets that are forced into exorbitant legal costs, or where insurance isn’t enough, outside financial support is widely welcomed.

This morning, the fund announced a grant of $74,999 to Mother Jones to help with $650,000 in outstanding bills from a defamation lawsuit. Mother Jones had the suit dismissed Oct. 6, when a judge rejected an Idaho billionaire’s claim that a 2012 article about his support for Mitt Romney’s super-PAC and his opposition to gay rights was libelous. The uneven dollar amount of the grant is meant as a symbolic reference to the suit’s requested damages—$1 short of the threshold to move from state to federal court. Mother Jones, a nonprofit, accumulated several million in legal fees, and launched a fundraising campaign to pay what insurance didn’t cover.

Moving forward, First Look’s Litigation Fund plans to write checks more in the range of a $15,000 grant announced on Monday for the Sacramento News & Review, an alt-weekly fighting to publish emails from the office of Mayor Kevin Johnson. Johnson, a former NBA star entrenched in several ethics disputes in recent years, sued the city attorney and News & Review in June to halt a public records request for access to the emails. In three and a half months of pre-trial work, the newspaper is up to $48,000 in legal expenses, according to co-editor Nick Miller.

“We don’t want this to become the status quo for journalists across the country,” he says. “I think that’s why First Look has decided to give us one of their grants.”

That case is expected to go to court in November. In one month of online fundraising, 170 donors have given the News & Review just over $30,000 (an average gift of about $175). The paper didn’t request a specific amount from First Look, but Miller says that the First Look grant was much needed.

“We’ll be fine now,” he says.

* An earlier version of this story failed to note that Omidyar is a CJR funder.

Danny Funt is a senior editor at The Week and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt