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Finally! Someone Defends IndyMedia!

by IndyJournalists Tuesday, Mar. 05, 2002 at 2:04 AM

Finally! Someone defends IndyMedia against the attacks by Alternet's Don Hazen. According to this report by journalist Al Giordano on NarcoNews.com, Hazen is in no position to throw stones: Hazen's been caught now in corrupt activity himself.



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

February 2002

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 ,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 ,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
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