Re: Narco News and the ICNC

This is my reply to an open letter and response concerning the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico, which I attended as a student. It’s written in the same spirit as my open letter to Democracy Now!: we must continually evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of independent media in order to be effective.

Hi Al and friends,

Excellent reply. I thought the open letter and response would be linked from the Narco News homepage. Also, why isn’t it open to comments? Is anyone actually going to see it, just sitting there in the lab section of the site?

My reaction to the letter was the same as yours: would have considered signing had it not been for the last paragraph. Even then, the questions seem premised on a guilt-by-association mode of thought, so I don’t think I’d have signed. Maybe if they were worded differently.

But I respect the desire to ask questions of a think tank that is not very transparent, that emanated condescension and indifference at the school, that made a grave mistake in 2005 for which its President did not apologize. One of the positive things I can imagine coming out of this is for the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) to respond with some new, useful level of detail and coherence about who they are and what they do.

I’ve had friendly conversations with some of the TeleSur reporters you mentioned. I disagree with them strongly. They are convinced the ICNC is a malevolent organization, likely a front for the US government, and I haven’t seen the evidence for that yet. They can’t stomach having anything to do with the group. To me the ICNC appears more disorganized and clueless, when it comes to Latin America, than anything else.

People should judge us journalists principally on our body of work. The notion that merely going to a school in Mexico for ten days where the ICNC gave some presentations irreparably taints me, or casts lasting doubt on my journalistic independence is repulsive. It’s an insult to the intelligence of the school’s participants and grassroots organizations in various countries that have listened to the group’s spiel.

What you said about journalists’ willingness to be fired from their jobs is right-on. As I explained at the school, I’ve been approached by various corporate media since the earthquake in Haiti. I will use them to fund my work and reach wider audiences, with the expectation that I might choose to end the relationship or be fired at any moment because of their penchant for sensationalism, misinformation, and incompetence.

My integrity will never depend on a salary. I know that if I’m doing valuable work in today’s wired, increasingly diverse media economy, an audience will be there to support it. That’s why I came to Haiti, back when no one paid much attention to the place, full of hope and confidence.

One thing I agree with some critics on: it would have helped to invite and address all questions specifically about the ICNC’s role in the school in a prominent public form at the start – whether by blog post or in person. This was a brewing controversy already familiar to many involved with the school. I’m reminded of the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry’s 2004 run for US President, which his campaign ignored and thought other people would ignore. It was a mistake – even though the accusations had no basis in fact, they spread by various means and became a huge issue.

I wouldn’t have been distracted at times, wondering if a few long plenaries with Jim Lawson, Jack DuVall, et al. were a condition of the money, had it been crystal-clear that the ICNC’s participation in the school was strictly at your invitation from the beginning. And I have no doubts about that now.

I was hoping for more a little more hands-on journalism and civil resistance training from the school. The content of the ICNC’s lectures on non-violence didn’t strike me as groundbreaking (or manipulative) material. The dynamics of non-violent civil resistance are best understood in the midst of a movement, but an overview of its history and tactics can learned from books, films, and independent research.

The vital practice of authentic journalism cannot be learned this way. This is why the School for Authentic Journalism is so important, why it deserves the support of citizens and institutions the world over. I hope to return.

Those are my thoughts for today. I recorded audio of the multi-hour debate about the ICNC that took place on February 11 within the school. If anyone is interested in reviewing it, contact me by e-mail.

And now back to work. Hopefully no more aftershocks for a while!


2 thoughts on “Re: Narco News and the ICNC”

  1. As another participant in the school, I want to thank Ansel for sharing his thoughts. And for providing a forum in which we can comment.

    1) I have to say I’m a little torn by the objection to the last paragraph of the letter. Of course all of us involved reject the tendency of some people that seeks to sink journalists/people through ‘guilt-by-association’. It is an insult to all of us to think that we are compromised just by sharing a space with somebody and hearing them speak. But we do live in a world where people routinely show us that kind of disrespect. So I don’t think its out of line to clarify the separation between ourselves and any institution, not just the ICNC. I signed the letter in its entirety (while I might have written things a little differently myself, I take full responsibility for signing it) and would eagerly sign a similar paragraph distancing myself from every single institution on this planet world. I don’t find it a particularly controversial thing to do.

    2) I voted to expel the ICNC members from teh meeting in question. My values at that moment informed me that the organizers of the meeting wanted to create a space where they could freely discuss how they felt about the ICNC’s participation in the school, without the presence of the ICNC (who funded 50% of the school).
    However, I was pleased afterwards that I was on the losing side of that vote. I think that session was very illuminating, and one of the few where time and space was given to everyone to participate. That freedom resulted in some dynamite drop-ins that really set me to thinking. I won’t bore you with the details of what goes on in the inner annals of my brain, but my notes from the meeting include special mention to Oscar, Milena, Hugo, Al, Roddy and Ansel for particularly striking comments.

    3) I think Al did a good job in his letter of laying out how the people organizing the meeting made some errors in organizing it. I learned quite a bit by reflecting on his insights. However, I think he misrepresented them a little bit by focusing on their ‘strategic errors’ and their fear of being fired. I think there is another aspect here. I’ve never lived under a government that I felt a strong desire to defend from internal threats. I’ve also never been to Venezuela, so won’t comment on the Chavez gov’t. But unlike me, the people organizing that meeting clearly felt like the Chavez government is worth defending. So I am incapable of knowing what it must feel like to be in a room with someone who just admitted to providing help (however indirectly it might have been) to groups trying to overthrow that government. I’m not sure how I would respond, but I imagine I would be motivated to do something, something quick, something rash. Especially when the group in front of me (in this case ICNC) wasn’t exactly forthcoming about the details of their participation, nor very understanding of my concerns (I am referring to the first plenary where the information came up, I was much more satisfied with their detailed responses during the 6-hour marathon meeting).

    4) I know some people may not agree with me on this point. But I think it was worth losing a couple more plenaries in order to get the marathon meeting out of the way. Numerous reasons, not the least of which being that the information about the workshop in 2005 had cast such a cloud over the school, and without an open forum, whispers and rumors were threatening to replace open discussion as the primary form of communication on campus. The meeting brought everything into the open. A process that I hope can be continued. As such, I am looking forward to ICNC’s promised response to the open letter. In the spirit of Jack DuVall’s comment in the meeting that the meeting itself was a perfect example of why they chose to fund the school, due to its transparency and democratic nature. I agree (and will let you know Al when I stumble upon thousands of dollars to help fund the next one).



  2. Ansel,

    You may recognize my name from the correspondence you’ve had with George Salzman, whom I assisted in the preparation of his recent entries about Narco News, the School for Authentic Journalism and the ICNC.

    First off, I want to thank you for providing a forum to discuss these contentious issues, which is what I feel these issues need most.

    Evidenced in your article above (mirroring, in all probability, a general perspective at the school session this last February), there are many curiosities, accusations, defenses still being tossed around the internet about the “true nature” of the ICNC, including their possible links to the State, and potential influence they’ve had upon the content at the school. Allow me to offer another perspective here, not that of a journalist, nor a participant at the school, nor a member of any organization under scrutiny. I am merely conscious, well-meaning, and literate, interested in “authentic” activism, in fairness and honesty and empathy, and hope to contribute, in my own way, to make the world a better place for all.

    More specific to this issue, I have spent many months studying this issue almost exclusively, compiling hundreds of articles and documents, reading books in many subject areas, formulating hypotheses (both original and trite), allowing myself to investigate almost anything that seemed pertinent, allowing myself the time to do so.

    I have no bone to pick. I’m not here to slam anybody. Or to call anybody names.

    I just want the truth. Which is what I imagine you and you student-colleagues at the school want as well. I suspect, however, that many of your colleagues, yourself included, hope to come to some sort of fair and brief conclusion about the ICNC, then return back to your other duties and preoccupations as journalists, reporting upon issues indigenous to the region from where you came. Of course I can’t argue with that; I understand “busy.” What I hope to convince you of, however, is that this goal is impossible, especially in this case. “Fair” and “brief” will amount to recklessness, and I urge you to refrain from making reckless judgments of any kind. I suggest, instead, that you read into this issue, carefully, if you have the time. It is well worth your interest to do so, especially as it relates to your most recent attendance at the school, and the participation and support provided by the ICNC.

    To illustrate my point, allow me to draw attention to your article above. You wrote: “[The Tel Sur employees] are convinced the ICNC is a malevolent organization, likely a front for the US government, and I haven’t seen the evidence for that yet. They can’t stomach having anything to do with the group. To me the ICNC appears more disorganized and clueless, when it comes to Latin America, than anything else.”

    And yet you preface that statement by stating, “I disagree with [the Tel Sur employees] strongly.”

    You then hypothesize that the ICNC is probably “disorganized and clueless,” and yet you also suggest that this “not very transparent” organization made a “grave mistake” with their participation in the Boston workshop in 2005, for which [Jack DuVall] “did not apologize.”

    What is truly missing from this stated perspective is a more thorough understanding of the organization and its purpose. Is the “not very transparent” ICNC “disorganized and clueless”? Did the ICNC make a “grave mistake” by participating in the Boston workshop?

    There is plenty of literature on this subject, both pro and con, and I feel it would be to the benefit of all interested parties to familiarize themselves with this literature, to scrutinize it carefully, and to come to a more considered point-of-view.

    Among other things, to me this means to become intimate with the history and evolution of the US government-sponsored “democracy-promotion” network, and its overt tax-payer funded “clearinghouse” agencies, agencies like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). It means to gain greater intimacy with the underlying strategic programs governing these agencies, how and why they were created, and the structural design that has evolved to address the problems these agencies were created to solve.

    One should know that absolutely NOBODY is arguing whether the subversive “democracy-promotion” infrastructure does or does not exist. The point of contention is, instead, whether the ICNC is a component part of this infrastructure.

    Stephen Zunes, the chairman of the academic advising committee of the ICNC (and the most often-published online defender the the organization and their activities) states that these accusations against the ICNC (and the Albert Einstein Institute) are mere “bizaare conspiratorial fantasies.” He draws distinction between the “very real imperialist manifestations,” like the NED and its funding recipients (NDI, IRI, CIPE, Solidarity Center, etc.), on the one hand, and the organizations he represents and defends on the other. He points to undocumented conjecture and burden of proof. And yet his arguments fail to outline–even in general terms–how the democracy-promotion infrastructure was built to operate, and their structural relationships with participant NGOs and other privately-financed organizations, a facet which is absolutely fundamental to understanding the arguments brought forth by their detractors.

    My suggestion is to read both Zunes’ arguments (including those of other defenders, most of which are associated with the ICNC and their activities) and compare them with the likes of Michael Barker, Eva Golinger, Stephen Gowens, etc. Read these arguments closely and form a better informed opinion.

    You will undoubtedly come across the argument that Barker, et al, relies upon “guilt-by-association” “smear tactics,” with claims there is no substantive basis in fact. It will be for you to judge.

    Allow me to highlight only a few relevant FACTS.

    Consider the known history of Peter Ackerman, co-founder (and exclusive financier) of the ICNC. Discover that he, in fact, worked with Michael Milken for 15 years at Drexel Burnham Lambert, with a direct role in the “creative financing” projects of that firm; and consider that Milken was arrested, indicted on 99 counts of securities fraud, guilty of six counts, sentenced to ten years; and that the company, itself, was guilty of 6 separate counts; and that there was a successful $800 million civil suit brought against employees of the company (it is speculated Peter Ackerman contributed $80 million, second only to Michael Milken himself).

    Consider that, during this time, Peter Ackerman had a many-years-long professional relationship with Gene Sharp, beginning in the early-seventies when Ackerman was a doctorate student at the Fletcher School, Tufts University; a relationship that included Peter Ackerman providing generous financing of AEI activities from its inception in 1983; a relationship which included Peter (and his wife’s) long-time membership on the AEI board of directors. Consider that, in 2000, the Albert Einstein Institute provided strategic assistance to OTPOR, in Serbia, a project which was also heavily funded and supported by US state dept. and the democracy-promotion infrastructure, both public and private. Consider that, in 2000, Peter Ackerman financed the making of a documentary film in Serbia, called Bringing Down a Dictator, which has since been used as a tactical weapon in countries around the world. For example, in the run-up to the Georgian ballot-box “color coup” in 2003, Peter Ackerman’s film was apparently shown “around the clock” there on television. Consider that he has financed the making of a film about the Ukraine election coup, another location where the heavily-financed US state dept. and democracy-promotion infrastructure achieved (now temporary) success.

    Consider the known relationship between Peter Ackerman and the larger public-policy and foreign policy infrastructure. It is a fact that he sits upon numerous boards, including at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), where he has been longtime member. If you are unaware of their exclusive elitist membership, or their decades-long influence upon the nuances of hegemonic US policy in the evolving globalized world, I beg you to make yourself familiar. Like I indicated, he is a director there, serving with numerous ex-cabinet members, military and strategic planners, ambassadors, corporate directors, legal specialists, investment bankers, university presidents and ivy league department heads, publishers of internationally-recognized newspapers, magazines, and media outlets.

    And Peter Ackerman. Co-founder of the ICNC.

    Consider Peter Ackerman’s participation in numerous policy task forces. I bring special attention to the one in 2004, focused upon the US approach toward Iran. They published a report, which maps out in prophetic detail the policy nuances that seems to govern US/Iran relations today. This shouldn’t be strange to you, especially once you consider that the current US defense secretary, Robert Gates, was one of the co-chairs of that group, the other being Zbigniew Brzezinski.

    Read the report. It’s available for free online. Then ask yourself two things.

    One, what could Peter Ackerman contribute to a task force such as this, a member of a group of about 15 members? In other words, what special skills does a man like this possess; a man that is, according to his official “activist” resume, a “film producer,” an “author,” a “businessman,” a man with a passionate interest in “grass roots” struggle?

    Next, ask yourself, who gets invited to participate in a task force of this nature? Read the list of participants. Consider what might be their services rendered. Consider what might be their combined skill set. Consider what might be their underlying objectives.

    And understand that the aforementioned facts are thoroughly documented, either through interviews involving the historical personages concerned, or by reading relevant think tank documents, or by reading reputable news sources. I suggest finding and reading them, don’t take it from me who this guy is, or what his aims are. Read for yourself.

    Carefully scrutinize their contents.

    Maybe at some point, after spending quality time considering these topics, you’ll ask yourself (if you haven’t already) how this charge of “guilt-by-association” sits in your gut, in your instincts as journalists, activists, truth-seekers; and, your experience as human beings.

    Maybe you’ll ask (if you already haven’t) why those few people asking these questions (mixed with passion and politeness, I might add) have been viciously attacked, labeled, marginalized; and for what?

    While investigating the whereabouts of the missing horse Silver Blaze, inspector Sherlock Holmes said to his dear friend, Dr. Watson, “You see! The value of imagination is the one quality that Inspector Gregory lacks. We imagined what had happened, acted upon the supposition, and found ourselves justified.” I will add to his statement by reminding the reader that a keen investigative imagination is founded upon details: by scrutinizing physical evidence, by inquiring into known behavioral responses and participant testimonies, by understanding the difference between the “normal” and the “abnormal” circumstance, and how it applies to the problem at hand.

    ONLY the investigative imagination CHOOSES which details appear relevant, and which do not. Choice of relevance is the only path to truth.

    I wish each of you enormous success as you apply your own imaginative methods, and choose whatever details that are worthy of your consideration.

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