Comment on this article |
Email this article |
Alternet's Hazen Caught in Ethics Problems
by Clear the Air
02 Mar 2002
Narco News has published internal documents from the "alternative" news agency Alternet that reveal serious ethical violations and rip offs of writers by its director Donald Hazen. Former Boston Phoenix political reporter Al Giordano has posed 10 questions to Alternet.
March 1, 2002
A Narco News White Paper
Ethics Problems at Alternet
"Alternative" Media Can Be Corrupted, Too
By Al Giordano
"He (Bob McChesney) suggests that I was flailing around with tin cup in hand. This kind of thinking is very destructive and makes me apoplectic."
-- Don Hazen, Alternet
News organizations have a special duty to abide by basic ethical practices. That is just as true, perhaps moreso, for those of us who claim an "alternative" status.
That's why Narco News and I have, from our first day of publication, publicly disclosed any and all relationships, financial or otherwise, that could create even the appearance of conflict of interest. That information appears on our links page and is been regularly updated when necessary.
Alternet, an "alternative" news organization, which according to statements by its own director has received an estimated million dollars for editorial product, has been less forthcoming. Some of Alternet's ethical lapses have entangled Narco News, and so we feel duty bound to clear the air.
This is not a critique of the many good writers whose work has been syndicated by Alternet. Au contraire. Alternet has systematically abused its writers. Today, we publish this information in defense of writers, readers and other publications that, like ours, have been swept up in events regarding Alternet without our knowledge and beyond our control.
For more than a decade, I have been one of Alternet's syndicated writers. My work in the Boston Phoenix and, in years prior, the Valley Advocate, has occasionally been resold through Alternet to other periodicals. But the Alternet medium has begun to contaminate the message and tars anyone associated with the same corrupted brush.
Today I explain for our readers why Narco News and I will no longer allow Alternet to republish our work.
I have never been enthusiastic about Alternet's charging of a usurious 50 percent fee for the articles it resells. But until now, Alternet has been the only game in town. It has had near monopoly status as a syndication agency for a particular niche of "alternative" news. But, as with other monopolies, Alternet has grown fat in abusing its position in a manner that now causes more harm than good.
That monopoly status is about to end with the launch of a competing alternative news syndication service, also based in San Francisco, titled Pulp Syndicate, which will charge 33 percent of the writer's fee instead of the outrageous 50 percent taken by Alternet. Pulp Syndicate plans to launch later this Spring, but Narco News has obtained the URL for Pulp's draft web page as it prepares its inauguration, which, of course, we share with our readers. Additionally, here is the prototype page revealing the real meat for writers, explaining details about how Pulp will syndicate.
Neither Narco News nor I have any relationship, business or otherwise, with Pulp Syndicate or its management. We are spectators to its project, kind readers, just like you. Today we report on Alternet's ethical problems, in part to encourage the new Pulp Syndicate group to scrupulously avoid the errors that have destroyed the credibility of the Alternet project.
We hope that this long overdue competition between "alternative syndication" groups will be healthy for all media, but particularly the genre known as the alternative press.
The competition could also be healthy for the board of directors of Alternet's parent company, the Independent Media Institute. It could force them to finally come clean and correct the ethics problems at Alternet, and restore ethical practice to a runaway shop.
The most serious Alternet ethics problems involve its director, Don Hazen. In that sense, the main problem that Alternet has is a "Hazen problem." With its monopoly status about to end, the pressure is getting to Alternet's Hazen. Last month, he engaged in what we see as Hazen's money-driven attack on a media watchdog group: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, FAIR. In the past, Hazen has similarly attacked other nonprofit institutions that compete with Alternet for donations: Project Censored and even against IndyMedia, which, in our view, is to date the pinnacle model of citizen participation in the media.
These organizations are unable to fully defend themselves because of that competition for funds. They would risk looking as petty as Hazen and Alternet if they did so.
Narco News, however, does not compete in any way with Alternet, and certainly not for funds. We are not presently engaged in any fundraising campaigns (Narco News doesn't even have a bank account). We have recently won the Drug War on Trial case in the New York Supreme Court - that established First Amendment protection for all Internet journalists - and so we're not soliciting money for our defense fund, either. Thus, we are able to speak, cleanly and responsibly, about the problem that Alternet is causing for the alternative media and the causes it claims to support.
The Alternet Papers
Narco News has obtained internal documents authored by Alternet director Don Hazen and other Alternet staff members that reveal serious violations of the most basic ethical standards for journalists.
Those violations include:
-- The collection of what Alternet calls "bounty" fees for each story it sells on drug policy issues.
-- Alternet's refusal, when asked, to disclose the nature of those reprint fees.
-- Alternet's hiding the existence of those "bounty" fees from the writers of those articles, when Alternet claims to pay the writers 50 percent of all reprint fees.
-- Alternet's consequent non-payment of funds that, according to its own website, rightfully belong to the writers.
-- Alternet's blacklisting of writers (similar to the NY Times blacklist banning work by leaders of the National Writers Union), including when Hazen fantasizes, inaccurately, that a writer has been the source of information leading to a legitimate labor complaint by another writer.
-- Alternet's cavalier theft, on two occasions, of stories from our own publication, and Alternet's dishonesty in having later claimed that it did not offer one of those stories for sale, when, in fact, it did.
-- Alternet's request to staff members that they use false identities to post "positive reviews" of an Alternet product that is for sale on Amazon.com
By violating these ethical standards, Alternet has abused the trust of readers, writers, funders, client newspapers and the public at large.
In doing so, Alternet is giving a bad name to "alternative journalism" and the causes it claims to support.
In other words, it is time for the alternative journalism community to clean house. As always, we favor sunlight as the best disinfectant.
At Narco News, we have frequently written about ethical problems by news organizations. Inauthentic journalists from Associated Press to the New York Times whose unethical actions were first reported here are no longer working in the jobs they once held. It is important that the press reports about the press. To do so is the only check and balance that the public has in its search to know the truth about power relationships of media in our society.
There may be those who say that we should look the other way from Alternet's unethical practices; that we should first raise the issue "in the family" of alternative journalists. Last fall, we did bring some of these issues to the attention of Alternet. The response by Alternet's director, Hazen, was less than serious. Alternet stonewalled, failed to answer questions that any competent journalist must answer to meet the standard of full disclosure, and made statements that - as we document today - were knowingly false and dishonest. This is not role model behavior for any business venture. For journalists, it is unconscionable, and casts doubt upon the integrity of the entire operation.
In any case, Alternet should be the last institution to complain about criticism of its actions, given director Don Hazen's serial attacks on other alternative press organizations. Alternet/IMI's board of directors - whose membership is not disclosed on its website - have known of "the Hazen problem" for years. Alternet should not cry now.
"Bounty Hunting" as Journalism
Narco News has obtained an internal memo authored last year by Alternet staffer Michael Kreidler that reveals "bounty" hunting by Alternet, for matching funds on stories related to drug policy. In other words, Alternet set up an arrangement with a donor in which, for every story on drug policy issues sold, Alternet would receive a "bounty" payment from that donor.
Remember that Alternet claims to give 50 percent of the proceeds on any story to the writer of the article or column. Alternet has not done so with a great many stories for which it received these "bounty" payments.
The unethical behavior, in this case, is that Alternet did not disclose this arrangement. This constitutes a serious corruption of the journalistic process.
First, the readers had a right to know that Alternet's "Drug Reporter" program was a mechanism for Alternet to receive specific funds targeted on a "per story" basis.
Second, the client newspapers not only had a right to know this: They had a duty to disclose it. On an entire series of articles by different authors, Alternet compromised the ethics of its subscribing newspapers. It denied them the knowledge they needed to make their own full disclosure. This is an example of how Alternet tangles other parties in its web of deceit.
It is no crime that foundations and donors sometimes fund a particular story. Indeed, that practice should be encouraged. However, the practice, when it happens, must be disclosed. The ethical violation occurs if that funding is not disclosed to the readers, the writer, and/or the publishing newspaper.
Serious news organizations always disclose the funding for a specific story. This is an inviolable rule for journalism. (For example, when I wrote Zapatistas on the March for The Nation magazine on April 9, 2001, the article was accompanied by a text that disclosed: "This article is part of the Haywood Burns Community Activist Journalism series, sponsored by the New World Foundation and the Nation Institute.")
Third, there is another sector in this chain of abuse that has suffered even worse: The writers.
Many citizens and activists may not know the indignities that freelance journalists must endure, beyond the low pay they receive for their work. In the caste system of journalism, we freelancers have scar tissue upon scar tissue. (This is not to suggest that staff writers for newspapers and magazines don't also suffer indignities. I've been there, too. But nothing compares, in the media industry, to the abuse that freelance writers endure.)
Thus, since Alternet traffics in the issue of "human rights" with its "Human Rights USA" program, what about the human rights of labor? What of Alternet's working class, the writers who produce its product? (Is Alternet's "Human Rights USA" page another fundraising-driven operation? How would we know? Alternet doesn't disclose its backroom financial deals. But given the reality of its dishonest "drug reporter" program, it is fair to ask whether the same kind of arrangements lurk beyond its other "issue specific" programs.)
According to the memo authored by Alternet staff member Michael Kreidler last year, a donor who supported its "drug reporter" program "gave $25,000 sometime in early May/late April." Alternet's Kreidler wrote, "and the only 'bounty' that I'm aware of came in recently, and was for $1,400."
Kreidler wrote: "I see 2 thank you notes saved electronically, plus countless other packet of clippings, memos, etc. that Don has us whip together in advance of his meetings" with the donor.
"Getting an exact figure for this is nearly impossible," Kreidler lamented in his memo. "I don't know what he has/hasn't received. Generally, each package contains the most current Drug Reporter stories spotted, some color screen shots of the Drug Reporter page, and a bit of general info about Alternet…"
(Obviously, I am not dragging the donor's name into this story, an individual citizen who probably had the best intentions and committed no ethical violation at all. I will keep this report focused on the actual wrongdoing in a way that, to the best of my ability, doesn't harm innocent parties.)
Alternet staff member Emi Kane sent a memo to Kreidler, asking about the donor: "Has he agreed to the new 'bounties' set by Don?"
Kreidler replied: "As far as I know, yes. I've only seen one check myself resulting from this agreement, and it was last week."
Kane asked Kreidler, in a written memo, "basically - what is up with this guy, what is the status of AlterNet's relationship with him?"
Kriedler replied: "Don (Hazen) meets with him practically every time he's in DC… Alternet's relationship with him is Don's relationship with him… Now you know, and knowing is half the battle."
According to an October 22, 2001 memo by Alternet director Don Hazen, the following writers' works were submitted to the donor for "bounty" payments: Jim Hightower, Maia Szalavitz, Rich Lowry, Martin A. Lee, Carla Spartos, Dean Kuipers, Marc Schanz and Nicholas Eyle. Alternet sought specific "bounty" payments of up to $150 per story, depending on what "class" of story was involved.
Because Alternet did not disclose whether it in fact received these "bounty" fees, the writers, until today, have had no idea if Alternet owes them their fifty-percent share of those fees.
Alternet's own web page explaining its syndication policies states: "Half of each reprint fee goes directly to the writer or the originating publication."
By any reasonable standard, these "bounty" payments constitute additional reprint fees received by Alternet for stories on drug policy. The writers have been ripped off.
Alternet Dollars for Dummies
In October 2001, Narco News edited and published a three-part series by Catherine Austin Fitts, titled Narco Dollars for Dummies.
Imagine our surprise to have discovered that Alternet stole that story and offered it for sale to its client newspapers.
Alternet lifted the story without seeking nor obtaining permission from either Ms. Fitts or Narco News.
On October 29th, I wrote a memo to Don Hazen of Alternet informing him of the facts:
"You should have known better, Don. You know that Narco News accepts no advertising, charges no payment from readers, and offers no commercial service at all. Our policy is that if truly non-commercial websites - such as, say, indymedia.org or non-commercial email lists - wish to republish our stories and commentaries, Narco News has no problem with that. But your organization, Alternet, although it has a stated 'alternative' mission, is a *commercial* syndication service, and does not fall into that category."
By October 2001, Hazen was hardly an unknown quantity to me. I first met him in 1984, in Nicaragua, when Abbie Hoffman hired me as a tour guide for a group of North Americans visiting that country, and Hazen was one of the 60 tourists on the tour. In the 1990s, I would infrequently bump into Hazen at alternative media conventions. He was never my cup of tea, but neither did I have any conflicts with him. When I learned in October 2001 that Fitts' story had been stolen by Alternet, I added a half-dozen colleagues, plus our legal counsel and the author, to the CC list on my email to Hazen, to make the correspondence transparent.
And I stated in that October 29th email to Hazen:
"In addition, I am deeply concerned with reports we've received that Alternet receives specific contributions *per story* that Alternet publishes regarding the war on drugs, from at least one philanthropist, and that, in my understanding, this has not been disclosed to the authors of these stories. Nor has, to my knowledge, the normal Alternet percentage of 50% of those monies that should go to the authors from that source has been shared with the authors of drug-war stories syndicated by Alternet. It was certainly never disclosed to Ms. Fitts or Narco News. I ask for clarification of how this matching-grant-type service works for Alternet…."
I further requested that 100-percent of any such funds go to the author, Ms. Fitts.
"It is sometimes said that the 'alternative' press is the biggest abuser of freelance journalists and authors," I wrote to Hazen on that day. "Unfortunately, Alternet has provided us with another example of this shameful adage and the behavior of Alternet, in this case, harms the reputation of the entire alternative press."
Hazen's reply, which he titled "response to false allegations," claimed that Alternet had published the Narco News story due to a "mistake, by a young person."
And Hazen wrote: "Your allegation that we are in the business of exploiting and abusing journalists is libelous."
And Hazen claimed: "This story has not been offered for syndication and will produce no revenue."
Hazen's claim, that the stolen article had not been offered for syndication, turned out to be a lie.
I asked a source in one of his client newspapers to check on this claim. The newspaper editor checked the part of Alternet's online syndication pages that can exclusively be accessed by the client newspapers. The editor reported back to me that, in fact, the Fitts story had been offered for sale, and even had a price attached to it (which varied according to the size of the newspaper purchasing the article.)
Thus, in his claim that the "story has not been offered for syndication," Hazen lied. His claim that I had made "false allegations" and "libelous" statements went beyond dishonest. They were downright sleazy.
With that dishonesty, Hazen committed yet another violation of ethics: He failed to respond honestly to a writer's request "for clarification" on the issues stated above.
Recently, I discovered that the theft of Catherine Austin Fitts' series had not been an isolated incident. On September 19, 2001, Alternet had stolen a Narco News story by Kim Alphandary, about the war on terrorism and "Plan Colombia." As of today, it is still on Alternet's website.
Alternet had sent me an email, last September, requesting permission to reprint the story. That permission was never granted. Our policy is that writers own their stories, so I forwarded the letter to Alphandary.
"I responded to them by asking about the terms," says Alphandary, "and never heard from them again. Only recently did I discover that they had published it."
Hazen still has not responded to my October request for clarification on how the "bounty" fees deal worked, an explanation that he owes to every writer whose work appears on Alternet, and every client newspaper.
Instead of meeting his ethical obligation to disclose the facts, Hazen went on the counter-attack.
Hazen vs. Press Freedom
At the time of Hazen's dishonest email last October, Narco News and I were still being sued by the National Bank of Mexico in the New York Supreme Court, for reports that have subsequently been vindicated by the court in what all now view as a landmark decision for press freedom on the Internet.
The last time I had seen Hazen was in June at a drug policy convention in Albuquerque, where Hazen truly was "flailing around with tin cup in hand." I had been invited to the convention to deliver a presentation on the drug war in Latin America. On the first day of the conference, I had successfully avoided Hazen, and he had successfully avoided me. But on the second day, something very revealing occurred.
At a luncheon featuring a speech by the governor of New Mexico, I was seated at a table with some friends, one of them a philanthropist who supports small human rights projects in Latin America, who has supported my own work as a journalist. The support of that philanthropist's foundation has always been disclosed on our links page. Suddenly, and predictably, Hazen was heading toward my table, putting on an embarrassing show as if to give the impression that he was my dearest friend in the world (what is it about these guys like Hazen and former White House press secretary Bob Weiner who think it convenient to be seen as pals of mine?) It was clear that this act of theater was aimed not at me, but at the philanthropist at the table.
Fortunately, every seat at the table was already filled. Hazen kneeled down behind the philanthropist's chair and asked me how my lawsuit was going. He made a loud point of claiming that "we want to do something in support of your defense," and I politely suggested that he could send me an email. Of course, he never did anything, nor did I ever ask him for any help. The story of the narco-lawsuit was very well reported already by scores of authentic journalists. And Hazen and I both knew that he never intended to do anything in support of this press freedom case. It was just chatter, with the hidden agenda of wooing a friend of mine who happens to be a philanthropist. I was embarrassed for him and for me.
Fast-forward to October, and Hazen, for the first time, opened his mouth about our legal battle. As a result of my emailed inquiry seeking clarification of his undisclosed secret funding deal, Hazen, the self-proclaimed promoter of alternative media, was now using the Banamex lawsuit as a rhetorical point against me. He wrote, "You would think that after being sued, you might be more thoughtful about making inaccurate attacks on your colleagues and allies, who have been supportive of your work." His knowingly false use of the word "libelous" in his counter-attack speaks volumes about Hazen's weakness of character and unreliability as a self-proclaimed "ally." When trying to keep his unethical activity secret, he was capable even of siding with Banamex.
I responded to Hazen's obfuscating email, saying:
"You still have not answered the question about whether Alternet's syndication service does indeed receive 'per-story' additional funding for drug-war stories that it sells to periodicals, and the question about whether writers share in those proceeds, or even know about them…. As a writer who reports on the drug war and has had stories syndicated by Alternet in the past, I think I deserve a more honest answer to that question. I will state it again: Does Alternet receive additional funding on a 'per story' basis beyind what it is paid by the periodical that purchases the story? And if it does, what are the details of that arrangement? And what percentage, if any, goes to the author? Do the writers have a right to full answers to those questions or not? Don't evade them with bombast. Just provide whole answers!"
Only because Narco News has obtained the aforementioned internal communications by Hazen and Alternet staff members, do the readers, writers and client newspapers now have access to the truth.
Hazen and Alternet, four months later, have still not responded publicly to those questions.
Their once-private memos, though, tell the truth that Hazen sought to hide.
The Alternet Blacklist
Almost a month after that email exchange, I went to Boston to deliver a lecture at Boston University. I visited my journalistic alma mater, the Boston Phoenix, and signed a new freelance contract. The generic contract had language protecting the newspaper from any disputes that might arise from Alternet's resale of articles in the Phoenix. I explained to the management that I would like the Phoenix to amend my contract so that my work would no longer be resold to Alternet in the future. I no longer wanted to compromise my own credibility by allowing Alternet to syndicate my work. This would mean less income for me, but principle comes first in authentic journalism. The folks at the Phoenix, always responsive to my concerns as a writer, obliged me and we changed the wording of the contract.
Little did I know that I had already been placed on Alternet's blacklist of writers whose work Alternet has banned.
Narco News has obtained a "confidential" memo authored by Alternet director Don Hazen on October 31, 2001 - two days after I wrote Hazen seeking full disclosure on these important matters of journalism.
The Halloween Blacklist memo, authored by Hazen, was titled "confidential."
"Giordano," Hazen instructed his staff, is "a propagandist in the grand tradition of (San Francisco Bay Guardian publisher Bruce) Brugmann… we never know when someone is jealous, is being fed bad information and wants to lash out and as in this case is fundamentally paranoid but nevertheless brilliant and feels no constraints."
And Hazen delivered a new order to his staff, to "stay far away from Narco Watch (sic) - no links, no syndication, nada. If questions, let me know. DH."
An irony here is that the only "bad information" that I had been fed turned out to have come from Hazen himself, when he denied having offered the stolen Narco News story for sale. Rather than answer my request for "a clarification," Hazen placed me on the blacklist.
Since I had decided not to allow my work to by syndicated by Alternet anyway, the blacklist has no personal impact one way or another. It's the existence of a blacklist - and its infantile kill-the-messenger mentality - that should concern all writers, readers and client newspapers who do business with Alternet.
Narco News has also learned that Giordano is not alone on that blacklist.
A January 18, 2002 memo authored by Hazen to an Alternet staff member - obtained by Narco News - reveals that Hazen is very quick to place writers on Alternet's blacklist even in cases where the writer's alleged offense merely springs from Hazen's fantasy world.
Mother Jones magazine had published an excellent article about the failures of the war on drugs.
When Hazen saw that Alternet was about to syndicate that article, he freaked out, instructing his staff: "Absolutely DO NOT use (the Mother Jones writer's) article - very bad vibes he was the source for Al Girodano attacks." (Sic.)
Note that I have not dragged that writer's name through Alternet's mud here by repeating Hazen's falsehood about him. That writer was definitely not the source of any information in my emails to Alternet. I swear that under the penalties and pains of perjury, not for Hazen's benefit, but for the writer, who without evidence has been scapegoated and blacklisted based on nothing more than the troubles and traumas that lurk in Hazen's brain. (Note, kind reader, my use of the legal language of a sworn affidavit. If Hazen wishes to persist in his dishonest and false claims of "libel" against him, I suggest that he sue me, or stand naked in his deceit. The truth, now as always, will be our sword.) It's not the quality of one's work that apparently determines whether Alternet syndicates it, but, rather, the degree of undignified ring kissing by a writer toward Don Hazen. This is not serious journalistic practice on the part of Alternet.
"Paranoia" is one of Hazen's favorite accusations against anyone who raises legitimate questions about his unethical activity. One of the documents obtained above shows him using that word to describe me. He also recently accused respected media critic Bob McChesney of "paranoia" in a similar situation where the facts did not back up Hazen's characterization. The act of blacklisting a writer based on Hazen's - now documented - paranoid fantasies ought to cause grave concern among members of the Alternet/IMI board of directors about the mental stability of their agent. Innocent writers are now being blacklisted based on Hazen's stunted imagination. In the end, the readers and client newspapers are harmed, too, for they are denied the opportunity to read the good works of the Mother Jones writer - and how many other writers?
Alter-Fraud and Book Sales
A February 2002 memo from Alternet staff member Judy Hong to other Alternet employees, obtained by Narco News, provides a scintillating glimpse into the ethics of the corporate culture at Alternet.
The memo reveals that Alternet has encouraged its staff to use false identities in posting positive "book reviews" for one of its products on the Amazon.com website.
The Alternet staff member wrote to all Alternet staff: "Our After 9/11 book is on the Amazon.com web site. We've already sold 4 books through them… If you get a chance, please go to the site and write a review for the book. Please sign a 'pen name,' ie, one not associated with AlterNet. Also, Amazon asks for your city and state. Maybe you could mix it up a bit, so that we look like we are all over the place."
A memo like this one does a disservice to the good writers whose work was featured in that Alternet product. It implies that Alternet doesn't have faith that real readers will give the book of essays positive reviews on its own merits. It also places Alternet staff members in a difficult position, in that to comply with the request they must jeopardize their own credibility as journalists by engaging in a kind of fraud. A news organization with a staff has a responsibility to breed ethical journalists. If there are young journalists starting their careers at Alternet, I shudder to think what they are being taught about how to succeed in a troubled industry.
This memo, encouraging fraud, resonates with the emerging view of how business is conducted at the Alternet news organization, where the obsession with money and sales consistently triumphs over the most important journalistic principles… like honesty.
Millions For Middlemen
In his October email to Narco News, Alternet's Hazen boasted, "Over the past ten years or more, we have provided free lance journalists with well over one million dollars in payments."
Kind readers, do the math: Alternet collects a usurious 50 percent of the fees for the stories it sells. If it has paid "over one million dollars" to writers, it therefore has collected an equal amount for itself.
Add to that million dollars the foundation grants that Alternet receives. We, the public, don't have access to the details of Alternet's financing. The issue of Alternet's secrecy in its financing has long been the subject of controversy in the circles of alternative media. The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), which once sponsored and subsidized Alternet, disassociated itself from Alternet in in part based on these ethics concerns. The San Francisco Bay Guardian - and this explains Hazen's uneasiness with its publisher Bruce Brugmann - has reported on its attempts, as a former Alternet subscriber and a member of AAN, to gain answers to the same kinds of questions that we have posed about the relation of money to editorial content at Alternet.
(There is a pattern to Hazen's attacks on Brugmann, FAIR, Project Censored and others that concerns me as an investigative journalist: Hazen's naked hostility to investigative journalism -- something that Hazen himself does not produce, but, rather, selectively reproduces. Take Brugmann, for example, a veteran investigative reporter who is now a publisher, and recently vindicated on his 30-year journalistic crusade to expose the electric power monopoly of PG&E in California, for which he has recently been recognized by Columbia Journalism Review and Salon.com, among others.)
Add to the million dollars and the unknown dollar quantities of foundation grants the undisclosed "bounty" fees for Alternet's drug policy stories, and our questions about whether other "issue programs" by Alternet on themes from Human Rights to the Environment may similarly involve undisclosed funding mechanisms.
Alternet, although it is, technically speaking, a non-profit organization, deals in reproductive capitalism. Unfortunately, "non-profit" status does not cure the corruption of finance in too many ventures, nor make it a "non-commercial" operation. Commercialism rules the day at Alternet. The majority of its product is not produced by Alternet, but, rather, reproduced from the work of other publications and writers. In sum, Alternet's main role in the industry is that of Middleman. It has collected, by Hazen's own admission, more than a million dollars simply by placing itself between writers and publications. There is nothing inherently wrong with that - Alternet began with a mission that many of us supported. It is how Alternet has abused its Middleman status that has spoiled the project and now causes more harm than good.
From our perspective at Narco News, Alternet should have accomplished more - much more - with its millionaire budget over the past decade. We prefer our own "small is beautiful" model, and we don't just talk about it: We live it. Hazen, if past is prologue, may respond to this report in a non-responsive manner, merely boasting alleged statistics of Alternet's "success." We simply note that our tiny operation of two journalists, two laptops and a web page has proved more productive than the entire million-dollar bureaucracy of Alternet by Hazen's own oft-boasted yardsticks of "hit counts" and original stories produced. If he wishes to play dueling stats, we're ready. We've earned the right, through our low-budget accomplishments, to question the bureaucratic inefficiency of Alternet.
Bureaucracy, of the Alternet model, is extrinsic to successful Authentic Journalism on the Internet. The story of "the dot.com boom-and-bust" is a story of the failings of bureaucracy. (That maxim, clearly, applies to .orgs, too.) Not only are big budgets unnecessary. The Alternet story shows that big budgets can become inefficient drainage pipes for the overall resources of social movements, and lead to Alternet-style abuses with many harmful and counter-productive results for all.
We will now apply our unconstrained eye to Hazen's recent attack against Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the media watchdog organization known as FAIR.
Pot, Kettle, Hazen
On January 31, 2002, Don Hazen wrote a column, published by Alternet, purportedly about the 15th anniversary celebration, in New York, by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). It was a garbled, poorly written screed that attacked the media watchdog group FAIR as, in his view, "out of touch with the times."
Like much of what Hazen writes, both under his own name and under the pseudonym of "Masher," the column was pointless, boring, and, well… out of touch with the times. There should be a support group for people like Hazen, where they can go and get the attention they seek but don't have the talent nor passion to obtain in a meritocracy.
Occasionally, Hazen's personal frustration boils over. He has this big bureaucracy, Alternet, with access to more than 100 client newspapers and magazines, but he can't seem to crack through the datasphere in any meaningful way, at least not with any original work of his own. The most attention Hazen has gotten in recent years, he has found, has been when he attacks competing organizations. He's done it to Project Censored and to Indymedia, and now he's done it to FAIR.
I write this out of a sense of personal duty to my trade of authentic journalism. It is interesting to note that more than one week has passed since the Colombian government declared all-out war on the rebels on February 20, in what even the major dailies acknowledge is the next big US military campaign. Major news stories have exploded regarding the US-imposed Plan Colombia, in each of Alternet's "issue areas" of "drug reporter," human rights, the environment and the so-called war on terrorism.
But during these nine days that shook everyone in the world except Alternet, what has Hazen's tired bureaucracy done to "be in step" with the biggest story of the immediate times?
Narco News, with our tiny little operation, has in this same short time period, published the following stories: Drug War Goes Boom in Colombia; and also DynCorp Charged With Terrorism (Part I); and also The Ballad of Ramón Arellano Félix. In this same week, we translated the communiqué of the Colombian rebels and also the Call to Action of the International Solidarity Gathering for Peace in Colombia into English (we'll be covering it from Mexico City beginning on Monday), and; we jousted with a former White House press secretary who acts a lot like… Don Hazen. Today and tomorrow, we continue in our mission to break the information blockade from Latin America, and we do it on a Third World budget.
Alternet has already missed the first week's deadline for its weekly newspapers on the very kind of story that Alternet claims to champion. So who is, to borrow Hazen's phrase, "out of step with the times?"
Whereas Alternet went AWOL on the Drug War on Trial case and so many other of the big battles that have made Narco News indisputably "in step" with the times, we feel a responsibility to point out that two of our biggest recent victories would not have been possible without the hardworking and effective aid and participation by FAIR.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting - alone among institutions - took the lead role in promoting our October 2000 report about corruption at the Associated Press bureau in Bolivia. It was precisely the phone calls from FAIR's Steve Rendall that forced AP to dismiss its bureau chief of 18 years. And it was FAIR - not Narco News - that alerted Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz of the story. In this case, Narco News got credit for a huge victory that is equally shared by FAIR. So we find Hazen's claim that FAIR is "out of touch with the times" to be nonsensical. Alternet was AWOL and FAIR was fantastic.
The biggest battle we've lived in the history of Narco News - our victory in the Drug War on Trial case against Hazen's apparent narco-heroes at Banamex - would also not have been possible without FAIR. When we were sued by the billionaires, Alternet was not the only "alternative media" organization that went to hide under the nearest rock. Many self-proclaimed "press freedom" organizations did nothing. FAIR jumped into our defense early and often, sent out alerts to 15,000 activists, contacted reporters who later wrote about our case and featured us on its Counterspin radio show that appears on 70 stations nationwide. FAIR broke the ice in a way that allowed other organizations to feel more comfortable supporting our defense. Alternet was cowardly. FAIR was fearless.
If I were a foundation sincerely concerned with funding effective national projects to free the media, I would forget Alternet and give the grant to FAIR. Of course, that is why Hazen felt the need to attack FAIR. He can't compete with them on the merits. And let's not pussy-foot around the reality: alternative media organizations do compete for a very small niche of foundation funds.
Prominent media critic Robert McChesney wrote of Hazen's attack piece on FAIR:
"I assume Don Hazen was in a grumpy mood the day he wrote this piece. Maybe he was looking at a pile of bills or some grant fell through. Maybe some hotshot at a big foundation told him to take a hike, and then mentioned how much she liked to read Extra! Perhaps he is bothered that FAIR and Chomsky are held in such high regard -- generating huge crowds, like the one at the event he wrote about -- while he toils in relative obscurity. I have no idea."
Hazen, again on Alternet's website, responded to McChesney sheepishly, as indicated by his recommendation that readers "please feel free to move on and read something else."
"I expected a spirited debate," Hazen said, revealing his attention-seeking motives for the attack on FAIR. ."But I'm taken aback by McChesney's vitriol and personal attack… Apparently even nice guys like McChesney can get caught up in paranoid fantasies."
When it comes to the corruption of that which claims to be "alternative" journalism, we don't claim to be "nice guys" at Narco News. We live a daily battle to reclaim authentic journalism before it becomes extinct. Our form of journalism is like one of those rare rainforest plants under DynCorp's helicopters in the Amazon. We have no diplomatic words for false poseurs who traffic in "alternative" but don't demonstrate it with their actions.
Hazen, in his response to McChesney, made a strange but revealing admission when he said, "The economy of scarcity in terms of media funding really makes people crazy."
Well, crazy is fine. But unethical is unethical.
10 Questions for Alternet/IMI
Alternet should clean its own house before deigning to critique others. Hazen's modus operandi suggests he will, in place of standing tall and facing the music, instead conduct a witchhunt to try and plug the leaks. (Good luck to him in that.) Regardless, Alternet still owes answers to the following questions. We offer Alternet and Hazen, as we offer all the subjects of our reports, uncensored opportunity to respond. We suggest that Alternet answer, one by one, these inquiries:
1. What is the nature of the "drug reporter" deal for "bounty" fees?
2. Why has it not been disclosed to the writers, readers and client newspapers?
3. When will the writers be paid their 50% of this reprint fee?
4. Isn't the other 50% charged by Alternet for story placement unreasonably high?
5. Are there any other "bounty" fees paid on other issue areas?
6. Why does Alternet maintain a blacklist against certain writers?
7. Who else is on the Alternet blacklist, and why?
8. Does Alternet's board endorse Hazen's dishonesty in response to Narco News' legitimate questions last October about the theft of our articles?
9. Why does Alternet urge its staff members to engage in fraudulent sales techniques for Alternet products?
10. In sum, when and how will the Alternet/IMI board of directors regain control over the reckless and harmful activities of Don Hazen?
And a bonus question:
11. Who are these undisclosed members of IMI's board of directors, and what are their email addresses?
Until these questions are answered to our satisfaction, Narco News and I will continue to boycott Alternet. We will not be associated with unethical journalism. Period.
We wish Pulp Syndicate - the new syndication service - good luck in its launch next month. We point our readers and writers toward its draft website, it's draft explanation page, and offer the email address of its director Ron Curran at roncurran (at) earthlink.net
Of course, if the new service ever behaves like Alternet has, we'll question it too, as labor -- in this case, the writing class -- has the right to question management. But we hope competition will be a good thing for all involved. We very much hope that the landscape will improve.
From somewhere in a country called América,
The Narco News Bulletin
narconews (at) hotmail.com