Swans Commentary » swans.com April 19, 2010  



Mother Jones And The Defence Of Liberal Elites


by Michael Barker





(Swans - April 19, 2010)   Intellectual freedom is regularly debased by financial dependency, and unfortunately many progressive organizations receive the majority of their funding from capitalist elites. Mother Jones presents the perfect illustration of a left-leaning magazine that acts as a mask for the soft power of liberal elites and their not-for-profit corporations, as liberal philanthropists from the ruling elites provide over 56 percent of the magazine's total annual revenue. This, however, does not prevent the magazine itself from suggesting that it engages in "smart, fearless journalism" that is "not funded by or beholden to corporations." With regard to their professed "value system" they add:

Principally we're about good journalism, following a story no matter where it takes us. We are interested in protecting the little guy and uncovering injustice. We also believe in good storytelling and coverage that surprises. We have no interest in preaching to a choir.

Thus if one were to simplify the situation and argue that there were two dominant facets to corporate power, it is evident that Mother Jones' journalism displays their ability to attack conservative-driven injustice but defend the guys and girls of the liberal elite. So while they are not beholden to for-profit corporations and do not write to please corporate advertisers, they nevertheless still preach to a choir that sings and worships within a liberal church, built for and by capitalists. For example, if we look at Mother Jones' coverage of one of the organizational mainstays of the US government's foreign policy-making establishment, the National Endowment for Democracy, we can see ample evidence of their inability to follow a story no matter where it might take them -- especially when it takes them to liberal elites.

Writing in Mother Jones in 2003, George Packer suggested that the National Endowment for Democracy simply "gives money to democratic groups in undemocratic places" (the unspoken assumption being that the U.S. is democratic). He then continues that as a result of such benevolence the endowment "has been accused by both the left and the right of meddling in other countries' affairs." But here he parts way with critical commentators, by suggesting that "meddling on behalf of democracy is exactly what we need, and the endowment should play a much larger role in the war on terrorism."

Just over one year later Packer was defending the endowment again, this time in respect to their work in Iraq. Here Packer observed that in late 2003 President Bush gave a "fine speech" at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), "sketching a keenly idealistic vision of the future of the Middle East." Ironically, Packer seems to have taken Bush's democratic bullshit at face value, and with no evident historical comprehension of the US government's democracy-manipulation strategies merely bemoaned the fact that "at the same time, the administration was letting grants for Iraq programs at the National Democratic Institute -- a subagency of the NED -- dwindle to close to zero." The problem for Packer is not capitalist interference per se, just that conservative grantees are being prioritized over liberals. No wonder then that Edward Herman considers Packer to be a key player in the "Liberal Struggle to Support Imperialism," and Herman begins his critique, that was published in 2005, like so:

In his edited volume The Fight Is For Democracy (Perennial, 2003), George Packer and his liberal colleagues argued that Bush went too far with his international policies that were "a prescription for empire" (Michael Tomasky). But Packer and company did not renounce empire; instead they urged the Democrats to put the "fight for democracy" abroad as the core of their foreign policy, which would involve steady interventionism abroad, but with an allegedly noble end, and hopefully would prevent the rightwing from effectively labeling the Democrats as peaceniks and incapable of defending our "national security. (1)

At the end of 2004, Mother Jones published their next "exposé" of the NED, when Joshua Kurlantzick examined their activities in Haiti. Kurlantzick described how the January rebellion against Bertrand Aristide's government -- whom he writes had apparently "alienated many Haitians with his increasing demagoguery and use of violence against the opposition" -- had been backed by the International Republican Institute (a core grantee of the NED). Obsessing about Republican interference in Haiti, Kurlantzick shares the same concerns as the US Embassy in Haiti, which he says was upset about the International Republican Institute's (IRI) actions because they "were undermining the official U.S. policy of working with all sides in Haiti." For example, Kurlantzick draws attention to several other (good?) democracy-promotion groups that are financed by the NED like the AFL-CIO's international wing, and the National Democratic Institute; noting in the latter's case that their work in Haiti has been "lauded for its grassroots efforts," which have meant it has "worked with members of Aristide's party as well as opposition parties."

Articles like Kurlantzick's serve an important function for the "democracy-promoting" community, as they deflect attention away from the anti-democratic ambitions of the NED and their cohorts, whatever their political persuasions may be (all of which are neoliberal). Thus with no critical commentary Kurlantzick, who goes on to provide a similar critique of the NED's activities in Venezuela, says that in this case "a sharply worded e-mail" from Carl Gershman, the president of the NED, Gershman wrote to their core grantee noting that: "By welcoming [the coup] -- indeed, without any apparent reservations -- you unnecessarily interjected IRI into the sensitive internal politics of Venezuela." Kurlantzick is unaware of the fact that all of the NED's foreign interventions are intended to manipulate the "sensitive internal politics" of other countries to promote US geostrategic interests. (For a response to Kurlantzick's ill-informed propaganda piece, see here.)

In May 2005, Tom Engelhardt brought a breath of fresh air to Mother Jones' reporting on democracy-manipulating elites in his discussion of the ongoing hostility between the US government and Venezuela. The NED's interference in Venezuela has of course been examined in the mainstream media, and Engelhardt cites a Newsday report to critique the NED's aid to a civil society group that supported the coup against President Chávez in 2002. Engelhardt even goes so far as to suggest that: "Given the history of the United States in Latin America, when a coup occurs in a situation like this, it should really be assumed that the U.S. government was involved in plotting it, not just 'tacitly supporting' it." However, despite acknowledging the anti-democratic activities of the NED in Venezuela -- albeit by using the words of other journalists -- Engelhardt does not expand upon the limited critiques contained in the Newsday article. (2)

By November 2005, sometime after the wake of Ukraine's "Orange Revolution," Mother Jones yet again rallied to the defense of US democracy manipulators by celebrating the success of the media outlet Ukrayinska Pravda, which was "one of the most popular news outlets in Ukraine." Although the Mother Jones article was concerned with the manner by which Yushchenko had turned on this media outlet that had "help[ed] to prompt the revote that ushered Yushchenko into the presidency," highlighting the fact that "Ukrayinska Pravda itself was seeded with grants from several U.S. sources, including the National Endowment for Democracy," it consequently downplays any problems associated with this influence. (Thus the article noted: "In the heady postelection days, some outside observers -- many American liberals among them -- complained that the Orange Revolution was suspect because the reformists had received an estimated $60 million, during two years, in so-called pro-democracy financing from the United States...") (3)

Given the outstanding service that Mother Jones has provided to US elites by shielding the NED from any form of meaningful inquiry, it is fitting that just last month Nicholas Schmidle would pen an article that provided another whitewash for the democracy-manipulating community. The puff piece in question was based on an interview with Serbian activist --- and former Otpor founder -- Srdja Popovic, who "with five revolutions already under his belt" (from Ukraine to Lebanon) had "just helped overthrow the government" of the Maldives by "guid[ing] the local opposition -- now the ruling party of this tiny nation in the Indian Ocean -- in the ways of peaceful revolt." Revolutionary aid, Schmidle reveals, is regularly provided to foreign activists via Popovic's group, the Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), which Popovic says is "100 percent independent from any government." However, as I and others have demonstrated at length elsewhere, regardless of their funding sources, groups like CANVAS certainly appear to be fulfilling an integral role in facilitating "the new modalities of intervention under the rubric of 'democracy promotion.'" Such work has already demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that related organizations like the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) -- a group whose founder and primary funder is the controversial Peter Ackerman -- are a part of the US foreign policy elites' global, well-established democracy-manipulating network. Thus it is fitting that Schmidle cites one of Popovic's colleagues, Professor Stephen Zunes (and the chair of the ICNC's academic advisory board), to defend CANVAS's activities from misinformed writers -- myself included -- who "see conspiracies even where there aren't conspiracies, particularly regarding pro-democracy struggles against regimes the U.S. happens to oppose." (Two other ICNC advisors who are affiliated with CANVAS are John Gould and Kurt Schock.)

There is, however, no conspiracy, just an unwillingness on the part of otherwise critical commentators to recognize that the left-leaning aspects of the democracy-manipulating establishment are just as problematic as those led by Republicans. Indeed, there is a simple reason why Popovic is successful, and this has a lot to do with his willingness to work with capitalist elites to undertake revolutionary work. For instance, in September 2009, Popovic, while acting as the president of the Serbian-based free-market outfit the Ecotopia Fund, launched the "Green Serbia" news service with the support of the US Embassy in Belgrade. (4)

Contrary to statements suggesting otherwise there is plenty of evidence that CANVAS maintains close working relations with the lucrative democracy-manipulating elites. In fact, Borzou Daragahi, writing for The Los Angeles Times (in 2008) revealed that CANVAS "is funded in part by the International Republican Institute, and [the] Washington-based Freedom House, which receives most of its funding from the U.S. government." (5) (Incidentally, ICNC founder, Peter Ackerman, is the former chair of Freedom House.)

Two years ago, Democratization Policy Council associate Amado Mendoza Jr. was listed as "a trainer-in-training" for CANVAS. Although the Democratization Policy Council now appears to have closed down its operations, it counted amongst their ranks many individuals who have worked and continue to work with "democratic" organizations like the arguably misnamed US Institute of Peace, and "humanitarian" groups whose work is intimately connected to democracy-manipulator extraordinaire, George Soros. On top of such connections, other particularly notable former associates of the Democratization Policy Council include Dragan Popovic (who was the program director at the NED-funded Humanitarian Law Center, one of Serbia's leading human rights nongovernmental organizations), and Iryna Chupryna (a former activist with PORA -- Ukraine's equivalent of Otpor -- where she "systematized and supervised PORA's external contacts"). (6)

As this brief article has demonstrated, there is no doubt that writers for Mother Jones are unable to publish articles -- in this magazine anyway -- that are critical of liberal elites associated with the National Endowment for Democracy. This inability to focus effective criticism on liberal capitalist elites renders the magazine's ambition to produce "socially conscious journalism" that takes "on corporate as well as political power" unfulfilled. This tragic situation is unlikely to change any time soon, because a glance at Mother Jones' board of directors reveals a bevy of liberal elites (like Democracy Alliance cofounder, Rob McKay), and their cohorts whose lives have been devoted to working to reform capitalism, often with the aid of liberal foundations. (7) Mother Jones is a vehicle for promoting low-intensity democracy, or polyarchy, and it is certainly not a delivery system for the type of radical journalism that is going to bring revolutionary change home to the United States. For this the public will require publications that are not beholden to capitalism, and if such media outlets are to ever break free of the influence of elite liberal philanthropists, they are going to need broad public support. Capitalists will never fund their demise, but we can.


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About the Author

Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008 and 2009 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com.   (back)


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1.  Edward Herman, "George Packer and the Liberal Struggle to Support Imperialism," Z Magazine, January 2005.  (back)

2.  In an article that Tom Engelhardt published a month earlier, he notes: "Just in the last year, we've seen 'the Rose Revolution' in Georgia, 'the Orange Revolution' in Ukraine, and now 'the Tulip Revolution' in Kyrgyzstan, all heavily financed and backed by groups funded by or connected to the U.S. government and/or the Bush administration." He then provided a quote from Pepe Escobar that was highly critical of the NED and the broader democracy-manipulating establishment. Tom Engelhardt, "Drugs, Bases, and Jails," Znet, April 5, 2005.  (back)

3.  George Packer, "America's Age of Empire: The Liberal Challenge," Mother Jones, January/February 2003; George Packer, "The No-Exit Strategy," Mother Jones, March/April 2004; Joshua Kurlantzick, "The Coup Connection," Mother Jones, November/December 2004 (response by Anthony Fenton); Tom Engelhardt, "Losing the American 'Near Abroad'," Mother Jones, May 2005; Sara Catania, "Hellraiser: Olena Prytula," Mother Jones, November 2005; Nicholas Schmidle, "Fantasy Island: Democracy Edition," Mother Jones, March/April 2010.  (back)

4.  The chair of the Ecotopia Fund is Nikola Zivanovic, an international banker and private equity expert who sits alongside Popovic on the advisory board of International Comunications Partners -- an affiliated-company of the US company JSMR-Inc. Other elite associates on the board of International Communications Partners include a former general manager of Oil Industry of Serbia, and a former member of the Serbian Chamber of Commerce who is presently a general director of Interkomerc, one of the oldest Serbian foreign-trade companies.  (back)

5.  Borzou Daragahi, "Georgian Unrolls the 'Velvet' Revolution," Los Angeles Times, September 3, 2008.  (back)

6.  The revolutionary activism of the "key leader" of PORA, Vladyslav Kaskiv, was rewarded in 2005 when the White House hailed her as a "Champion of Freedom." Other White House champions of freedom in 2005 whose background is of special relevance to this article are Sonja Licht (who during the late 1990s served as the president of George Soros's Fund for an Open Society Yugoslavia, and whom presently serves alongside Stephen Zunes on the editorial advisory board of the academic journal, Peace Review), and former Otpor leader, Ivan Marovic. For detailed criticisms of Marovic's role in promoting nonviolence in the service of imperialism, see "A Force More Powerful: Promoting 'Democracy' through Civil Disobedience"; and "Promoting Polyarchy in Serbia."  (back)

7.  By way of another example, the chair of Mother Jones' board of directors, Phil Straus, serves on the board of the elitist World Security Institute and their affiliated Center for Defense Information. Here it is worth noting that the executive director of a second affiliate group of the World Security Institute (the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting), was recently invited to speak at a workshop organized by the NED's Center for International Media Assistance.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 19, 2010