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Laura Poitras Details Her Removal From the Company She Co-Founded: ‘It Was Retaliatory’

The Oscar-winning director of "Citizenfour" explained why she believes The Intercept lacks accountability, and why she decided to speak out now.

Die amerikanische Regisseurin Laura Poitras spricht am 30.10.2014 auf einer Pressekonferenz in Leipzig (Sachsen). Poitras hat den Snowden-Film "Citizenfour" gedreht, der am 06.11.2014 in den deutschen Kinos startet und bereits am 27.10.2014 bei der DOK Leipzig seine Deutschlandpremiere feierte. Photo by: Peter Endig/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Laura Poitras

Peter Endig/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Ever since she brought Edward Snowden’s story to the masses with the Oscar-winning “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras has built a career out of chasing the truth, even at the expense of her own safety. Last fall, it may have come at the expense of her job. In an open letter published Thursday, the documentary filmmaker said she was fired from First Look Media, the nonprofit investigative journalism entity that owns Field of Vision, the documentary production company where she did much of her work.

Poitras said the company terminated her contract in November after she criticized the company’s publication, The Intercept, for its handling of whistleblower Reality Winner in a story published in 2018. Winner is an NSA specialist who shared classified documents about U.S. cybersecurity efforts to meddle in Russian elections. She was arrested by federal investigators before the story was published and is currently serving a five-year prison sentence, which Poitras attributed to The Intercept’s inability to protect its source. Last September, Poitras told the New York Times media reporter Ben Smith that The Intercept was engaged in a coverup of its mistakes, calling the decision “a betrayal of core values.”

In a statement to IndieWire, First Look disputed Poitras’ characterization of its decision. “We did not renew Laura Poitras’ independent contractor agreement because despite our financial arrangement, she has not been active in any capacity with our company for more than two years,” a rep said. “This is simply not a tenable situation for us or any company. For this and only this reason, her contract was not renewed in 2021.”   

Poitras co-founded First Look with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill in 2013, but in 2019, she stepped back from her leadership position at the company to devote more time to her own directing efforts. In a phone interview on Thursday, she elaborated on her decision to speak out about the company’s actions and why she remains proud of the work she produced there. She also addressed the incoming administration and the recent departure from First Look by Greenwald, who resigned last fall. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

According to your statement, you were fired back in November. Why speak out publicly now?

It happened right after Thanksgiving and I was in the middle of drafting an op-ed for the New York Times about the Espionage Act and Julian Assange. I was planning to publish it in December, so I felt this would have been distracting as these communities are crisscrossed. I just didn’t want to have two public statements out there. What I wanted to say about Julian Assange was really important and I didn’t want to take any attention off that. So I started writing my statement and then I made the decision not to release before the holidays. And then … well, you know. The beginning of the year has had other news with higher priorities.

Did you try to connect with any of your colleagues at The Intercept over the last few months?

No, that was what was so shocking. The CFO called to say they were terminating my contract, effective immediately, that they were shutting down my email. I asked them why and they said they were moving away from their co-founders’ mission. I asked if that meant Jeremy [Scahill] was also being fired and they said no. I said that it seemed very retaliatory in response to my speaking out to the New York Times. Not surprisingly, that’s not something they agreed for me to do.

They said they weren’t going to make a public statement, and now I’m getting texts from people who work at The Intercept and learned about it on Twitter. This is not how you terminate somebody. It was not a natural transition, it was clearly a firing, and I absolutely believe it was retaliatory. I’ve raised other complaints inside the organization over the years about patterns of retaliatory and discriminatory behavior. The way it was done speaks for itself. They didn’t communicate it to their staff, which I think shows a real profound lack of leadership, but they’ve had a profound lack of leadership for a long time.

What was most infuriating to you about the fallout of the Reality Winner story?

The handling of Reality Winner’s original reporting had so many gross errors in it, and there was never any public accounting for it. Usually, when an organization goes through such a gut-wrenching moment, you have to deal with it. It’s never been dealt with internally or to the public, which does a disservice to its readers. Reality Winner is still in prison. The Intercept is very quick to note that she might’ve made mistakes that exposed her, but they don’t acknowledge that their failings very likely contributed to the length of her sentence. That doesn’t mean I support the government’s targeting of whistleblowers. I obviously find that reprehensible. But when you literally give the government evidence and get this extreme sentence, it’s not just a mistake that maybe caused some reputational harm. A young woman was arrested before the story was even published by The Intercept.

How have your own experiences as a documentary filmmaker informed your opinion on this?

When we interviewed Edward Snowden, we had about a week where we were publishing stories before his name was public. Those days are precious in terms of telling the public the information that somebody risks their live to expose, and also to give the whistleblower a chance to talk to a lawyer. If I had made the same mistakes that The Intercept made with Edward Snowden, he would’ve been arrested and that would’ve been the first story. Think about how different his life would’ve been if I’d made those kinds of errors.

What was most egregious to you about the way this story was handled?

There were so many errors. They assigned it to a three-month contractor who now works for the NYPD. They gave it to a journalist who had another source who’d been imprisoned. They printed microdots that said when the document had been published. This was not just one mistake. It was a multitude. When we built the organization, we had an amazing security team. They didn’t even consult them. Those people would’ve said that the document from Reality Winner had metadata, which The Intercept published. Doing national security reporting is not an on-the-job thing you learn. You have to have a security team, and you need to know what you don’t know, and ask for the help that you need. It’s super personal for me because obviously I’ve been in those situations and went to extreme lengths to protect Edward Snowden where I had no legal department or security team to back me up. The Intercept had all of that and they never tapped it. For me, it’s such a betrayal on so many levels.

Reality Winner, charged with leaking U.S. secrets to a news outlet, walks into the Federal Courthouse in Augusta, Ga., Tuesday, June 26, 2018. Winner previously pleaded not guilty and has been in custody since her arrest.

Let’s back up for a second. The Intercept made some big mistakes and you worked there. A lot of companies aren’t so sympathetic when their employees criticize them in public. So what surprised you about this reaction?

As journalists, we have an obligation to protect sources. Internally, I made these same arguments and didn’t believe that the organization was capable of accountability. I certainly hoped that they would do an independent review. It would have been an appropriate response to my speaking out. I had tried what I could internally.

What would you like to see happen as a result of going public now?

I went public because I felt there needed to be accountability. But what I’d really like to see is Reality Winner get pardoned and released from prison. That’s coming from the government, which should never target whistleblowers, and I’ve been targeted myself.

The Intercept claimed that there was an independent review. I think they should correct the record and apologize to their viewers. It was a mischaracterization. All of the reviewing that has happened was done internally. A lot of the people who worked on the story led to the failures were involved, particularly [editor-in-chief] Betsy Reed. She had a behind-the-scenes role in this investigation into herself. For me, it’s so basic that that shouldn’t happen — particularly at a news organization, when you’re dealing with someone’s freedom. The stakes could not be higher.

You’re the second high-profile person to leave the company over the past 12 months after Glenn Greenwald resigned last fall over The Intercept’s decision to kill his story about Hunter Biden. What did you make of Greenwald’s decision and how would you say it relates to your own?

There’s an obvious difference in that I was fired and he resigned. I was actually really disturbed by Betsy Reed’s statement when he resigned, which attacked his journalism. That’s really dangerous because Glenn is facing very real and dangerous security threats in Brazil. It’s one thing to say we disagree, but to attack a journalist who’s actually at extreme risk by going after his journalism? That’s just not acceptable. She was literally paying for bodyguards and lawyers the week before she questioned his journalism. That’s the disposability attitude that I find really objectionable.

“Citizenfour”

Your own work tends to appeal to people with a liberal view of the world. Greenwald seems to have migrated away from that, at least on the surface, when it comes to U.S. politics. It’s been hard to see him showing up on Fox News or fueling arguments that could’ve helped the Trump campaign last year.

I’m not on social media, so I am not following him on a day-to-day basis. There are things I see that I definitely don’t agree with Glenn’s position on. But this is a brave journalist who’s done important reporting, and not just the Snowden reporting, but in terms of his work on the corruption of Brazil. I think it’s unfortunate that some of his positions and maybe his aggressive style on Twitter has … I don’t support many of those positions. However, the reporting he’s done in Brazil has literally led to death threats and threats of prosecution. That is all alive today. If I’m going to say something on this, I’m going to say that I support his journalism. I think it’s vital and has had enormous impact. But I personally would not go on Fox News.

Do you still see some potential for the journalists at The Intercept to do good work?

There are great people doing work there. Ryan Grim’s political work is so important. Obviously, I still care about Field of Vision and there are so many films I worked on that I care deeply about. But I really question the leadership and it’s not just because of how they handled me. Many people have experienced the retaliatory culture. The departure of Anna Holmes was really a sad situation for First Look Media. She was probably the most talented person on the digital side, really a visionary, and she resigned when they terminated her staff. That’s just tragic, when you lose these people whose vision is exactly what you need to build an organization. She was never looped into the business side of the organization despite her experience. [Feature film senior vice president] Annie Marter’s departure was really awful and hurt the film side of the organization. I spoke on behalf of both of them when this happened. On the one hand, there’s great work done there and will continue to be done there. But I made the decision to go publicly because of the seriousness of the Reality Winner situation. This has real impact on somebody who’s in prison and felt I needed to speak.

Big-picture time. I would assume that we are heading in the right direction when an administration that uses terms like “fake news” and “enemy of the people” to inflame its base goes away. But you made “Citizenfour” during the Obama Administration. Just how much do you think the situation in this country will improve for investigative journalism?

I’m a passionate believer in the independent documentary film community. When I was hired by First Look Media and described Field of Vision, I said that I wanted to get resources to the filmmakers who are doing vital reporting. I’m very confident that will continue in the documentary community and some of that will be supported by Field of Vision. There’s a lot to be concerned about in terms of the incoming administration. The Obama administration, in which Biden was vice president, targeted more whistleblowers than previous presidents combined. I hope there’s a change in terms of how Biden’s justice department uses the Espionage Act. I hope they stop abusing it. I do think that Donald Trump is dangerous and there are things you can see are unprecedented, but there is also a continuum in his policies. I hope the Biden administration changes course on many of them.

In your statement, you linked to your IMDb page that showed 69 titles that you supported at Field of Vision. How will keep that momentum going now?

I’m so proud of the Field of Vision films. Not only because there were so many but because they had artistic integrity and reached broad audiences. Five of the films we commissioned or helped support were nominated for Academy Awards: “American Factory,” “Strong Island,” and “Hale County,” “Night at the Garden,” and “In the Absence.” These are cinema. I’m incredibly proud to have contributed to that. I’m working on my own films right now. It’s stuff I can’t really go into but I have a few projects now.

How do you feel about working without Field of Vision behind you?

I’ve had my own production company for 15 years. I’ll miss things like having legal support and fact checkers. These were the things that were so beautiful about founding a news organization that most documentary filmmakers don’t have. But whatever. I’ll be fine.

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