Establishment Media Shut Down Secret Chat Room Coordinating Facebook ‘Whistleblower’ Document Releases After Breitbart News Inquiries

"Whistleblower"Frances Haugen dishes on Facebook
Jim Watson/Getty

Several establishment media outlets coordinated the release of document disclosures in a giant and secret, now-defunct online chat group, hidden from the public, a series of recent reports reveals. The group shut down abruptly on Tuesday afternoon after a series of unanswered inquiries from Breitbart News were sent to known members throughout the establishment media, including at least two New York Times reporters, a senior editor at the Atlantic, an NBC News reporter, and several others.

The online chat, through an application called Slack that facilitates group chats and is used by many different newsrooms and other companies nationwide, helped establishment media outlets coordinate the release of their stories on documents provided to them by so-called Facebook “whistleblower” Frances Haugen. Slack is generally used internally for easier communication in remote companies, but special features do allow Slack users to set up groups with members from a selection of different companies. That appears to be what happened here, as representatives from each of the above named companies and others all joined a specially created Slack group to coordinate their stories for maximum impact.

It is unclear who created the group, and its full membership list is as of now unknown. But two different press reports—one from an outlet called The Information, and the other a reported column from the New York Times’s Ben Smith—publicly revealed the existence of the group and the nature of its purpose, as well as some members. Most known members  did not respond to Breitbart News requests for interviews, which were sent earlier on Tuesday, but after the first round of inquiries went out asking for information about the Slack group and whether its members in the interest of transparency would support the public release of its full contents, a third report—this one from tech blog Gizmodo—revealed that the group would be shutting down permanently. Smith himself has not replied to a detailed interview and comment request about his column, but in it he downplays these revelations.

The Information, the first outlet to reveal the secretive chat’s existence, was according to its and Smith’s subsequent report, barred from membership in the group despite efforts to join.

The excuse from Andrew Couts, Gizmodo’s executive editor, for the shutting down of the Slack group is because now “access” to the documents its members coordinated release of in it “is being expanded beyond the original group of publications.”

It is unclear if the group is formally disbanded already or just intends to eventually. It is also unclear if a digital record of the group members’ coordination still exists or not. No known members have not replied when asked if they support, in the interest of transparency which they all purport to believe in, the full public release of the entirety of the coordination efforts in the Slack group.

The mere fact these media figures were coordinating across multiple publications and presumably with Haugen or her representatives is an explosive revelation. The last time such a revelation was made on this scale—a listserv called JournoList back during the early days of the Obama administration—it rocked the media to its core and cost several media figures their jobs. Multiple media outlets coordinating the timing and content of impactful news stories is generally considered a sin in terms of journalistic ethics. News organizations do regularly agree to embargoes, where they to prepare themselves and gain access to information ahead of its public release agree with sources not to release it until a certain time. But coordinating at this level media-wide—and having a secret nonpublic chat group to do it in—is a whole another level.

It is unclear what terms the member publications agreed to to gain access to the group—and therefore access to the documents—including whether or not any non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) were signed. Several of the group members Breitbart News reached out to were asked if they signed formal NDAs, or made any other such agreements in writing or verbally as to the content or timing of the publication of their reports on this material—none of them answered.

What’s more, Haugen is now being formally represented by former deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton—who worked for years in former President Barack Obama’s White House. Burton confirmed to the Times’s Smith that while he originally was a volunteer, he is now being paid by tech billionaire Pierre Omidyar—who is funding the effort from Haugen. Burton has not responded to Breitbart News’s request for an interview, or a detailed set of questions including whether or not he was a member of this coordination Slack group or not—and whether or not he has secured any formal or informal NDA-like agreements with any of the Slack group members or others in media regarding the content and timing of the publication of their reports. One political consultant who has been in contact with several of the media figures involved in the coordinated effort told Breitbart News that there likely are such agreements in place, and it is unclear if they are formal NDAs or more informal written or verbal agreements.

Burton has also not answered when asked whether Omidyar himself is a member of this secret now-defunct Slack group, and when asked how much Omidyar is paying him.

Even so, Smith’s Times column says that “Haugen and her advisers have created a new kind of journalistic network” and even admits concerns among the group saying it “has stirred mixed feelings among the journalists involved.” But nobody has explicitly said if Burton, Haugen, or anyone else connected to them or on Omidyar’s payroll was a member of this Slack group. Burton has not answered that question either.

According to the two reports from prior to the shuttering of the group, media organizations known to have representation in the secretive Slack chat group include: The New York Times, NBC News, The Atlantic, Associated Press, CNN, USA Today, and Fox. None of them, except the Associated Press which only answered some questions, responded to Breitbart News requests for interviews or information on this.

Individuals who are identified as members of the group at these various publications include Brandy Zadrozny at NBC News, Ryan Mac and Mike Isaac at the New York Times, Alex Heath at The Verge, Casey Newton of the Platformer newsletter and Adrienne LaFrance at the Atlantic. None of them responded to requests for interviews from Breitbart News.

LaFrance, the executive editor of the Atlantic, was so involved according to Smith that she even named the Slack group. From Smith’s column:

In the last two weeks they have gathered on the messaging app Slack to coordinate their plans — and the name of their Slack group, chosen by Adrienne LaFrance, the executive editor of The Atlantic, suggests their ambivalence: “Apparently We’re a Consortium Now.”

The Associated Press’s head of investigations Brian Carovillano is quoted in Smith’s New York Times column as praising the group. “It’s remarkable to see these news organizations, large and small, set aside some of their competitive impulses and work together to report out a story that is unquestionably in the public interest,” Carovillano told Smith.

The Associated Press’s global director of media relations and corporate communications, Lauren Easton, confirmed to Breitbart News that Carovillano was the outlet’s representative to the consortium. She also said the only conditions placed on the publication for being a member were about embargoes of the information. “The only condition the journalists agreed to was to jointly decide on a self-imposed embargo,” Easton said.

Easton also provided a quote from Carovillano to Breitbart News–almost identical to the one provided to the Times‘s Smith–detailing the nature of the relationship between the organizations. “We have cooperated on logistics of accessing the documents, but not on reporting or writing. Every outlet has the freedom to pursue whatever story it wants,” Carovillano said. “Nonetheless, it’s remarkable to see these news organizations, large and small, set aside some of their competitive impulses and work together to work on something that is unquestionably in the public interest.”

Easton has not answered whether others from the AP were in the Slack group, and whether the AP supports the public release of the contents of the Slack group in the interest of transparency. She has also not agreed to provide Carovillano an interview on the matter, sticking instead to the canned pre-written statement.

Some members, like Heath from The Verge, expressed unease in the Slack group with how it was operating. “This is the weirdest thing I have ever been part of, reporting-wise,” Heath wrote in it, according to Smith’s Times report.

He is not the only person familiar with the contents of the Slack group who has expressed concern about it all. One, person who is not a member but has seen several of the messages and is familiar with what was discussed in the group, told Breitbart News that he is considering taking the contents of it all public. “We all know that the news is made in a way that is not reflective of reality, but this special project took it to a whole new level of dishonesty,” this person told Breitbart News, while requesting anonymity to protect their relationships across media.

Zadrozny is another who apparently, according to Smith’s report in the Times, expressed unease with the group’s functionality. After a Times reporter said the Old Gray Lady was going to jump the gun on everyone and publish something sooner than the coordinated date—claiming the newspaper had the documents independently—Zadrozny reportedly bashed the Times and the coordinated effort. In her message to the Slack group, she also said she believes this is now a “media story” not just a Big Tech story.

“My editor says if the nytimes doesn’t have to abide by the rules then we are out. I’m really sorry. This sucks. And now it’s a media story,” Zadrozny said.

Individually, while the New York Times staffers identified by their colleague Smith as members of the group—Isaac and Mac—did not reply to interview requests or detailed questions, Mac did take to his Twitter feed after he received the Breitbart News inquiry to insist he believes in the public release of all the Facebook documents and claimed he had no role in coordinating the release strategy. “I have no involvement in the release of the docs and only receive them at-will as they’re being released (and more come out every day),” Mac said in a three-tweet thread. “And yea, it probably looks like gatekeeping, but lol I can assure it’s just more a bunch of people running from fire to fire.”

Mac has not answered whether he supports the public release of the entire contents of the Slack group in which these media outlet representatives including himself were allegedly coordinating the document dumps.

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