In the United States, the question of who is (and isn’t) a journalist has always been hotly debated, but in the age of blogs and web-only news organizations the issue is more important than ever. For Yasha Levine, a founding editor of The Exiled, this isn’t rhetorical — and he has the mugshot to prove it (or he will, as soon as he gets around to asking for one).
Yasha and I recently spent an hour talking about the rise of Russian-style politics in this country, Occupy LA, the hazards of going against the media mainstream, and what The Exiled is doing about “journalistic malpractice.” The highlights are below. You can check out some of the site’s greatest hits here, and be sure to follow The Exiled on Twitter (@exiledonline).
How did The Exile go from being a newspaper in Moscow to being exclusively on the web, as The Exiled?
It was always on the web, The Exile (newspaper). Then in 2008 we were shut down by the government — there was an audit of the newspaper, the bureaucrats came in looking for extremist material. This was right after Medvedev was elected. That was an informal way to shut down a newspaper of our size, because we didn't have that much money and an audit scares away every source of revenue that you have. You know, it was an alt weekly, like you have in the states, where you depend on local advertising — bars, restaurants, things like that — for your revenue. So when you're essentially labeled an extremist organization, a potential enemy of the state, people get cold feet right away. At that point, we really had no choice but to go online. Not long after that, most of us editors left Russia and regrouped in America. We launched it on the web because we had no choice.
You described The Exiled as a small guerrilla operation. You’re writing about things that just aren’t touched by the large media organizations, and I’m wondering if it’s your compact size that makes you more flexible, that lets you take more risks. I'm thinking specifically about the astroturfing story.
The Koch Brothers, that whole meme. Breitbart was actually the only one that gave us credit for developing that story, for actually exposing the role of the Koch brothers in funding the Tea Party movement, and creating the "Koch brothers are evil" meme. Breitbart credited us with that, and very few other people did in the media.
"We came from a place where we're used to dealing with oligarchs who control everything and manipulate everything."
Why do you think you got that story, and not some major news organization?
One of the reasons we got that story is because Mark Ames [The Exiled co-founder] and I had just come from Russia. Russian politics, the mindset that you have to have to report on politics in Russia, is a little different than the mindset that journalists have here, where people view politics as a "party" thing, where the Democrats are good and the Republicans are bad, or Republicans are good and Democrats are evil Communists. In Russia, it's much more complex and nuanced. Everyone understands that there's always something deeper going on that's always out of view, and you have to try to figure it out.
We came from a place where we're used to dealing with oligarchs who control everything and manipulate everything... Putin's creation, the stable political system that he's ruled over all this time is a sort of "sovereign democracy," as they call it, which is like a managed democracy. You have an oligarchy, and you have this sort of benevolent dictator. All the political parties are an expression of that, none of them are really independent — they're all created and maintained by the hidden power structures. And in a way, that's what America is today.
After coming back to America, it was really a no-brainer. When we saw the Tea Party come from out of nowhere, there was something "off" about the launching of the campaign. You have Rick Santelli doing a speech on CNBC, and you instantly have the Drudge Report linking to it, and linking to these strange websites that really didn't have anything to them except for a clip of Santelli, and they’re saying "yeah, we're behind you, Santelli." The URLs were registered months in advance by a Republican operative, someone connected to the Republican party. You look at that like, "Whoa, there's something weird going on here," the way it just exploded on the scene. So, we had the Russian perspective coming into it, and it just popped out at us. It just stood out. It was very obvious. When we started connecting all the dots, it went right to Charles and David Koch.
Was there an advantage then, being your own boss, as it were, at The Exiled? You were able to just follow this thread that no one wanted to look into.
Actually, the story was first published by Playboy. It was Playboy's blog, basically. At the time they were trying to become more political and relevant, so that's where it was published. And that's one of the problems we ran into. The story went out Friday, and over the weekend a smear campaign formed against us, and on Monday the story was pulled with no explanation. It was taken down because of a coordinated smear campaign by politicians and journalists with some of the biggest publications in the U.S. They basically called us conspiracy theorists, they called us crazy, that we didn't know what we were talking about, as if we believed in aliens and UFOs and stuff like that.
It's pretty funny, looking back on it now. Everybody knows that the Koch brothers really are powerful — extremely powerful, even more powerful than most people imagine them to be. You just have to look at what happened in Wisconsin the other day.
So, you guys did the story, Playboy ran it on its blog, then immediately pulled it. What happened from there?
We had the story on The Exiled, but probably for the first year we weren't really credited. Most people who would report it, and eventually say the same things that we originally said, did not credit us. I think probably that's because the story was "discredited," that it was pulled by Playboy. People knew that we did it, but we were never really credited publicly for breaking the story. It was probably a year later, when we started to get recognition. For a while there, we were basically plagiarized. Our recognition was denied us. It was pretty brutal, you know? It was a harsh lesson, the reality of journalism back here in the USA.
One of the things I’ve always loved about The Exiled is that you look at the stories behind the news, and you call out journalists that are playing games. I guess this leads us to SHAME (Shame the Hacks who Abuse Media Ethics).
The SHAME media accountability project is the way that we want to deal with "journalistic malpractice." Ever since The Exiled crew started running a news organization here in America, we've been subject to all sorts of vicious smears because of our reporting. SHAME is an idea that formed over time, because readers have been asking for something like this.
"It was a harsh lesson, the reality of journalism back here in the USA."
It specifically deals with the new media technology, and how to deal with the internet; which, on the one hand it democratizes the sharing of information, but it also virtualizes it, and so you're never sure who the hell you're talking to. You're never meeting people face-to-face, there's really no one standing behind anything, you don't know who owns the domain name. It can be pretty obscure. So, how do you deal with the information landscape? How do you know who to trust, how do you know what things they did before? Things are not so easy to figure out. The information is out there, so much of it that it's hard — even for experts — to get through the noise, and figure out what the fuck is going on.
Why did you pick Malcolm Gladwell for the inaugural profile?
I started looking into his "big tobacco" connections probably a year ago, and as I learned more about him I decided that he might just be the most successful corporate propagandist, or the most successful third party advocate that is alive today. When you think about it, he is the premiere essayist for The New Yorker, one of the most successful publications in America. Gladwell is part of their brand, and he quite openly takes money from pharmaceutical companies, writes about pharmaceutical companies, defends pharmaceutical companies in the pages of The New Yorker, and doesn't disclose that he actually gets paid money by the pharmaceutical industry when he writes about it. And that's just one example.
How’s the reaction been so far?
It's been like this "slow motion explosion." You can see it move through Twitter, Reddit, various forums. The report was just reprinted byAlterNet, it's been reprinted by Naked Capitalism. It's making its way through the internet.
Everyone knows there's something wrong with Malcolm Gladwell, the way he structures his arguments, the way he always seems to reinforce the status quo, the way he always lets toxic corporate interests off the hook in some sneaky, clever way. So people seem relieved that their instincts are [proven] correct, and a lot of readers have expressed that: "there was always something there, and now I understand exactly what that is."
Photo credit: Public Intelligence
So, we need a picture of you for The Verge. I don't know if you have a headshot, or maybe a mugshot. I know you were just arrested.
I have to request that, actually. I don't know, man — I look pretty bad. But I actually need to get my hands on it.
You know, I just got a letter from the District Attorney. They're offering to drop the charges if I take a First Amendment education class, so I can learn how to exercise my rights properly.
That's really bizarre. Tell me what happened when you got arrested.
It was Occupy LA, when they raided the camp. I was there the night before the raid. I stayed there the whole night, because the LAPD pretended they were going to raid it. They didn't raid it, and they left at five in the morning, but they kept people there all night to tire them out, while the real raid was scheduled for the next night. They were trying to "thin out the crowd," you know.
So I went home, I took a nap, and I was writing a little blog post about it when I heard the police were staging at Dodgers Stadium, so I drove over there to report on it. And what I found out was that earlier in the day there was a meeting called by the LAPD, basically a meeting to get accredited and be part of the official press pool that would be allowed to report on the raid. You would have to be there to apply. This thing was only sent out to a select group of journalists, and they had half an hour or an hour to show up.
"I didn't think they had the right to say who was and who wasn't a journalist, so I stayed in the park. I was arrested and spent two nights in jail."
At the Occupy campsite, the police said, "You can't be here. This is an illegal assembly, you have to disperse or get arrested." I said I was a journalist, I'm not a protester, I have a right to be here. "No," they said, "you're not a journalist, you're not accredited. If you remain in the park, you will be arrested with the rest of the protesters." I didn't think they had the right to say who was and who wasn't a journalist, so I stayed in the park. I was arrested and spent two nights in jail. They were trying to limit media access and trying to contain the narrative.
When I got out of jail, I saw what the story was. The reporting from the accredited journalists who were there was, "the police were very professional in their handling of the raid, there were no injuries." You know, the LAPD shot people with beanbags, they stomped people. They controlled the message through pool journalists, who reported that it was all very peaceful, orderly. But in reality, people were chained together on a bus for seven hours. People had to piss their pants because they were sitting on a prison transport bus while the driver's getting Starbucks coffee and El Pollo Loco. There are some horror stories, but that wasn't reported by the press pool. In fact, the only reason it was reported at all was because I got out of jail and wrote it up. That was the only counter-narrative to the official narrative, the LAPD narrative.
Another journalist was stomped by half a dozen cops, a photojournalist. His face was all black and blue, and he had six felony counts against him — three counts of attacking a police officer, basically. They said he spit on them. And one of the writers from Family Guy was there with me in jail, he had dried blood stains on the face, where they slammed him against the ground.
So, you taking the First Amendment class?
Nope. I'd like to fight it. I think it'd be a fun thing to do. I would be able to test their power.