How Yellow Journalism Screws the Left

How Yellow Journalism Screws the Left

(Or: "Exposed: Hapless Yes Men Played for Fools by Sneaky Serbian Stooge")


Carl Gibson and Steve Horn’s misleading and poorly researched story—about the links between Srdja Popovic, cofounder of Otpor! and CANVAS, and a crappy corporate spy outfit named Stratfor—does no one any good.

Stratfor is evil, and Jeremy Hammond went to jail exposing them. Some of Popovic's choices—from talking to Stratfor in the first place, to working with activists in Venezuela to unseat a democratically-elected leader—can legitimately be called into question.

But yellow journalism, like conspiracy theorizing, does a disservice to those with such concerns. By making unfounded allegations about Popovic's involvement with Stratfor, by claiming without justification that he shared activists' info before gaining their consent, and by puzzlingly giving far disproportionate weight to the idiotic assertions of Stratfor operatives, Gibson and Horn's story not only unjustly trashes one of our most effective and inspiring activists, but caters to perhaps the worst tendency of the Left: taking refuge in shallow paranoia and conspiracy theories rather than asking the really hard questions—and doing the really hard work.

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The title of Gibson and Horn's story begins in typical breathless yellow-journalism fashion: “Exposed.” Actually, not: an article in Waging Nonviolence had already thoughtfully and clearly addressed the Popovic-Stratfor connection more than a week before. In fact, that article could easily serve as a post-dated retort to Gibson and Horn’s piece, as it addresses most of their “points.”

The story in brief:

A 1990s-era friend of Popovic’s named Marko Papic went to work for Stratfor, which pretends to be a media outfit but actually specializes in selling the lowest-grade, laziest intelligence imaginable to corporations stupid enough to pay for it. (Here is our own rather breathless release about Stratfor's "spying" on us.)

Thanks to Papic, Stratfor invited Popovic to come give a talk at their offices in Austin, Texas. They covered his travel costs and gave him a $500 honorarium, which is what he typically charges those who can pay. (He doesn't charge activist groups or established media outlets.)

Popovic, perhaps mistaking Stratfor for actual analysts, continued to correspond with the Stratfor people, and, when they asked, gave them information on how popular movements work—which the Stratfor people didn’t take, perhaps not surprisingly given the radical nature of those ideas.

Popovic also put activists in touch with Stratfor—always, Popovic says, with the consent of the activists.

"Some people speak as if activists are a rare and fragile species living under glass jars," Popovic says. "But the activists I know did not become the world's top activists by living in jars.

"In the case of the Egyptian revolution—which the U.S. did not support—I did put the April 6 people in touch with Stratfor. Stratfor was approximately the tenth organization I put them in touch with. Six months before that, in exactly the same manner, I had put them in touch with Al Jazeera, resulting in 'Seeds of Change,' one of the most important pieces about the revolution.

"Should I have been concerned with what Stratfor is? Probably. But I'm sure the people in Egypt were spied upon by much more serious organizations—just as I was under Milosevic."

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Popovic's interactions with Stratfor seem pretty obviously innocuous on a casual perusal of the Stratfor emails released last month by Wikileaks. But the theory that Gibson and Horn prefer to relate, against all evidence, is a much more exciting and perhaps more emotionally satisfying one. In their version, Popovic is employed by Stratfor to help US interests, and to help Stratfor spy on activists on behalf of corporations and governments; also, he is funded by Goldman Sachs and is as powerful as a battle cruiser. They achieve these conclusions mainly through a seemingly purposeful sloppiness.

For example, when Gibson and Horn add the Yes Men to the list of entities that Popovic helped Stratfor to spy on, they do it through a kind of juxtaposition that seems to be their stock in trade. After reeling out a laundry list of countries, including Egypt, whose activists Popovic supposedly compromised, the authors recount how Gibson and I met Popovic back in April 2011 and "gave Popovic information about both groups’ plans for the coming year and news later came out that Stratfor closely monitored the Yes Men’s activities."

There is obviously no connection between our meeting with Popovic and Stratfor’s spying on the Yes Men (which was very far indeed from “close monitoring”). As Gibson and Horn know very well, Stratfor had already “spied” on us for quite a long time—several years before Gibson and I met with Popovic that day in 2011. Their purposeful juxtaposition, however, leaves an entirely different impression.

Gibson and Horn also seem to give total credence to anything that Stratfor staffers say, no matter how silly. They quote Papic saying that CANVAS “basically go around the world trying to topple dictators and autocratic governments (ones that U.S. does not like ;)”—a phrase which manages to be patently false on several counts; CANVAS have in fact worked with activists from at least some 40 or 50 countries, many with movements that do not at all line up with US interests. Gibson and Horn also quote Papic ludicrously saying that CANVAS “just go and set up shop in a country and try to bring the government down. When used properly, more powerful than an aircraft carrier battle group.” A ridiculous statement, but by quoting it uncritically, the authors seem to be saying that Stratfor employs CANVAS to do just that.

When Gibson and Horn assert that Popovic is funded by a Goldman Sachs executive, how do they know? The speculation of Stratfor staffers.

Why do Gibson and Horn systematically take Stratfor's word over that of Popovic (whom they interviewed but hardly quoted), and quote Stratfor's emails as fact, even though at many points the Stratfor analysts acknowledge their conclusions are speculative or that they don't have hard evidence? Any other time, activists would critique and try to debunk Stratfor—yet Gibson and Horn choose to take them at their word, however obviously unreliable that word may be.

At one point Gibson and Horn state that Popovic penned for Stratfor a report on how to unseat Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, even though Popovic told them explicitly in an interview that he drafted the report with Venezuelan activists, for activists, and with the knowledge from the outset that it would be made public and available for anyone to read, including governments or Stratfor. One can disagree with the very idea of working to unseat a democratically elected leader like Chavez, but the broad misrepresentations of Gibson and Horn's article do nothing to further this—or any other—discussion.

* * *

Gibson interviewed me twice by phone for his article and I also wrote him extensively by email about how they were barking up the wrong tree—but nothing I said appeared in the article. Popovic told me he also wrote a six-page response to Gibson's interview questions, including much that challenged the article's narrative, but the authors chose to exclude him as well, except for a one-off quote at the end that they quickly dismiss.

Was this shoddily-researched, nearly logic-free article custom-made to be divisive and sow discord, in the style of COINTELPRO, the FBI's '60s-era program aimed at discrediting and disrupting domestic political organizations? Or do Gibson and Horn just want to make a name for themselves at the expense of the truth and the reputation of a well-respected activist?

Perhaps. But there's another factor in all this, that could make it even more damaging: the predilection for conspiracy theorizing that besets a lazy segment of the Left.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Wikileaks released a number of leaked texts mentioning 9/11. Julian Assange told me he expected the 9/11 truthers to go nuts and examine it all with a fine-toothed comb, and that he was quite disappointed when they didn’t. As Assange has written, “I’m constantly annoyed that people are distracted by false conspiracies such as 9/11, when all around we provide evidence of real conspiracies, for war or mass financial fraud.” (Such statements have earned Wikileaks the status of CIA plot in the nuttosphere.)

The problem is, like yellow journalists, 9/11 "truthers" aren’t actually interested in the truth; rather, they need the WTC towers to have been knocked down by our government. They need the Bush administration to have been, against every last shred of formal and informal evidence, incredibly competent, and to have planned 9/11 and then miraculously kept the evidence so hidden that no experts of any stature at all would ever support it.

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As Assange notes, if you actually want to fight a conspiracy, there’s a whole smorgasbord to choose from. There’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a highly secretive and expansive free trade agreement that few people know about. There’s a Russian-Dutch partnership to exploit the Arctic. There’s ongoing COINTELPRO-style police surveillance of activists. There’s the Republican conspiracy to scuttle Obamacare. And the biggest one of all: the oil companies' conspiracy to make sure their value doesn't disappear.

The real powers arrayed against us are much, much more frightening than Stratfor. But it's easier to spin crackpot ideas, or to "expose" supposed plots between activists and corporate-spy charlatans, than to organize against the TPP, oil companies, or those trying to destroy Obamacare. Conspiracy theorizing not only offers an evil father to those who need one, it offers a much higher chance of personal glory if you should happen to be right—or even if not. (Gibson and Horn's article has already been widely reprinted, and they're even starting to appear on television.)

Real conspiracies are daunting, hard to deal with, and offer few opportunities for journalists to make a name for themselves. Gibson and Horn can do better. Let's stop looking for fake conspiracies amongst our activist allies, and get back to taking on the real conspiracy—global capitalism—that's destroying the planet.