A camera shy, media related NGO headquartered in tiny Arcata, California, may not be living up to its “non-profit” status.
“I hate that word—peace.”
–Internews President and co-founder David Hoffman.
Internews is a non-profit NGO (non-governmental organization) based in the tiny, remote northern California coastal community of Arcata, its “world headquarters.” Their mission—to “foster independent media in emerging democracies, produce innovative television and radio programming and internet content, and use the media to reduce conflict within and between countries”—is made possible with a yearly budget of $20 million, money Internews has used to set up outposts in 46 countries around the world. But even a cursory examination of their website (and a brief glance at their books) paints a different, somewhat less altruistic picture.
Few would argue that, of all the products and services that the United States exports, a U.S. based entity aggressively promoting the advance of western-style media network building (TV, radio and internet) into politically hot areas of the world (the Mideast, South America, Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia) is, at the outset, a suspicious sounding phenomenon fraught with conflict of interest issues and the potential for abuse. The possibility that opportunists might commandeer such an organization to exploit foreign airwaves for propaganda purposes—not to mention vast profit—is, understandably, a very relevant concern.
So it makes sense to begin the Internews story on the money trail. The $20 million Internews annual budget is in part supplied by some of the most familiar names in philanthropy: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Kellogg Foundation, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and almost a hundred other agencies, funds, businesses, even foreign governments, all listed on the Internews donors page on their website [http://www.internews.org/]. Corporate funding includes a who’s who of western big media concerns like AOL/TimeWarner, GE, Microsoft, even Dow Jones and Company. Many of these corporations have, at one point or another, written one-time checks for various projects that may have been completed years ago. But these donors combined yield only about 20% of the total Internews budget. This “non-governmental organization” goes straight to the U. S. State Department for the other 80% (plus) of its working capitol.
Most of this State Department money is funneled through USAID (the United States Agency for International Development), a foreign “aid” agency infamous for its CIA ties. “The only thing developed by [USAID] was U.S. corporate control…” says David Ross, an Arcata writer and talk radio host: “AID worked hand in glove with the [CIA] to subvert national movements for democracy.” Under the aegis of USAID was the Department of Public Safety that “trained hundreds of thousands of military, police and paramilitary soldiers in over 17 countries in Latin America.” According to Penny Lernoux in her book “Cry of the People,” the USAID Public Safety Program “encouraged the use of torture and assassination by Latin American police and paramilitary organizations.”
“Many [USAID] field offices were infiltrated from top to bottom with CIA people” adds a former director of USAID, John Gilligan. George Soros has taken an interest in Internews as well. According to Covert Action Quarterly, Soros funded NGOs train legions of “influence agents” and sends them to targeted regions to “philosophically smooth the inroads for Western multinational corporations.”[my emphasis]
“Millions of dollars of AID money was used to subvert elections in Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile and recently in Yugoslavia…” adds Ross; chilling confirmation of what was told to me by a source who claims that “Internews has a virtual stranglehold on media in Afghanistan… if it wasn’t for [Internews] stations blasting out pro-Karzai election propaganda the man would [not have been able to] avoid a runoff against a stronger candidate.” This same source also made the following stunning statement: “…the head of Karzai’s Presidential office was paid his monthly salary directly by Internews,” a man who is now the Afghani ambassador to the U.S.
But Internews’ “non-profit” status is equally suspect. Listen to this from a 1995 Wired magazine article: “The IBS (Independant Broadcasting System), a prized project of Internews [Russia]…that’s linked 120 independent stations…[is] taking a 180 degree turn to make a profit…attracting heavyweight advertisers such as Coca-Cola, Johnson and Johnson, Revlon, Cadbury, Schweppes and Proctor and Gamble…this anomalous collection of idealists are exploiting every angle it can find to steer the course of TV in Russia.”
Internews trainers teaching Russians how to make TV ads has raised more eyebrows than mine. The same Wired article put it best; “…many might look at [Internews president and co-founder David] Hoffman’s history of absconding with U.S. public monies to infiltrate Russia’s airwaves and to establish mega-advertising nodes among millions of new consumers as suspicious and ethically complex.” More than one journalist has commented on Internews’ “secretive, incognito status,” hardly the demeanor you’d expect from a philanthropic outfit on such a noble mission—particularly one touting media ethics. In all the years that I lived in Arcata, I rarely heard a word about Internews. I’ve spent years on the web researching political and media related issues and have never stumbled upon a single word about Internews. Only a tiny fraction of the media professionals I’ve approached on the subject have heard of them either, an odd thing considering the fact that Internews is apparently a major player in the establishment of global media policy.
I asked Internews’ VP for communications about their claim that its president, David Hoffman, had “written widely” on issues involving “media and democracy, the internet and the importance of supporting pluralistic media around the world.” I asked because I’d found little evidence of this, and no wonder. Hoffman had, in fact, only written a handful of op-eds and one article appearing in, of all places, Foreign Affairs, the publication of the Council on Foreign Relations, the governments foreign policy think tank.
I also asked her about another claim made in Hoffman’s Internews bio—that he had “completed doctoral work in the Social and Intellectual History of the US at the University of Colorado.” But no. According to this official Internews spokeswoman, he hadn’t actually completed his doctorate after all. Repeated phone inquiries to the registrar’s office at UC confirmed that Hoffman had apparently been enrolled in the doctoral program but had in fact not completed his doctorate.
The Wired magazine article quoted above also included this; “Few former peaceniks carry the clout and budget Hoffman now commands, and probably even fewer would take up the government banner as avidly.”[my emphasis] And how many former peaceniks, anti-nukers and union organizers would boast of this: “I even [organized a union] at [the top secret] Lawrence Livermore National Labs. The first union of nuclear weapons scientists.”[my emphasis]
As strange as these words may sound coming from a peacenik anti-nuker, Hoffman also apparently believes that: “Conservatives are right on some things…I’ve become much more of a hawk.” Apparently his peacenik days are over. In response to questions about Internews’ dependence on government monies, he responds, “I don’t get much pressure.” Why would he? Hoffman’s and the State Department’s rhetoric seem one and the same. And when Andrew Meier, the journalist from Wired magazine flew to Arcata and first sat down with Internews’ enigmatic President, Hoffman apparently began the interview by saying “I hate that word—peace.”
“It seemed an odd opener” said Meier, author of “The Russian Media Revolution.” According to Meier, Hoffman was apparently referring to the media bigwigs from whom he solicits funding. They are the ones who really hate the word. But he didn’t say that they hate the word peace; he said that he hates the word peace. The best you can say about this offensive statement is that it was a shockingly careless and irresponsible thing for the president of an aid agency to blurt out in an interview, on the record. If it was meant as a joke, it was a bad one. It’s like the president of the NAACP stating publicly that he’s uncomfortable around black people.
Propaganda issues mount as we see the State Department’s history of decidedly pro-Israel conduct expressed in the rhetoric and behavior of this overwhelmingly government funded “NGO.” In addition to Hoffman’s predilection for scolding Arabs for inflammatory hate-speech, listen to this baffling statement included in another of Hoffman’s op-eds: “The State Department has been complicit in turning a blind eye to racist, anti-semitic propaganda that regularly flows over government run media in [Arabic] countries.” Does this sound right to you? When has the State Department ever turned a blind eye to Muslim effrontery? Typically it’s been Israel’s propaganda and bigotry that this government has turned a blind eye to while Muslim shortcomings rarely go uncensured. Hoffman’s rhetoric seems to violate the impartiality you’d expect to see in a man at the helm of a philanthropic group expounding “free and open” media abroad.
Covert operations not infrequently make use of shell organizations that effectively conceal shady, unscrupulous behavior. Often these store fronts are mysteriously dormant and quiet. Internews’ original “world headquarters” (a small, old house in downtown Arcata) was always shut up tight every time I walked by on my daily walks through town. The mini-blinds and windows (upstairs, downstairs, front, sides and rear) were always, without exception, completely drawn and shut, no one going in or out, ever. I walked by that house literally hundreds of times over the years, at all times of the day, and it was always the same—total lockdown, complete inactivity, every single time.
A covert operation masquerading as an aid agency might also showcase various accomplishments in order to legitimize its image; the “good work” they do is an essential ingredient in the deception. In this light, whatever accomplishments Internews can boast, they unfortunately exist side by side with a host of alarming revelations. If indeed Internews is serving as a Trojan Horse for various propagandists and multi-nationals bent on the “Americanization” of the planet, not to mention profits in the many hundreds of billions of dollars from programming and advertisements, would these “idealists” blink at the cost of, for example, broadcasting the trials of Rwandans accused of genocide or springing the occasional dissident from jail?
One of the most geopolitically strategic and resource laden regions in the world today is Central Asia. The Caspian Basin countries of Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan have long been acknowledged as objectives for American foreign policy—and Internews is, quite literally, obsessed with the “Stans.” Internews workers focus their attentions on four major activities in the areas they have targeted; training, production, media law and internet policy. In many regions they conduct perhaps one or two of these training exercises. But in the “Stans” (all profoundly Muslim states) they are unusually busy and work hard to accomplish all four objectives. [ http://www.Internews.org/about/ar2003/ar_2003_map.html%5D.
We also see the perennial ‘problem, reaction, solution’ shell-game at work in these regions. If a government reaches out to foreigners to offer help and the aid is honestly proffered, that may be one thing. But if a government aided and abetted the very illnesses that it’s offering to cure, that’s another thing altogether. For years, the U.S. was Saddam Hussein’s most ardent supporter, another in a long line of Washington-subsidized thugs installed by our “democracy” in coveted areas of the planet. But when Saddam’s usefulness had come to an end, we, under the rubric of “regime change,” bravely took him out and added Iraq to our portfolio. In Uzbekistan, the U.S. has supported the dictator, Islam Karimov [update], for years. Washington has contributed $500 million to the regime and has, despite their abysmal record on human rights (Karimov is infamous for actually boiling dissidents in oil), quietly removed Uzbekistan from the official list of countries that stifle freedom of religion. Of course, this State Department sponsored persecution sets the stage for the work of State Department sponsored Internews, an “NGO” that would like to have us believe is making better use of its Washington money than Uzbekistan’s junta!
“When any political system implodes, frequencies become available” says Evelyn Messinger, one of three co-founders of Internews, in The Nation Magazine. But with all the evidence we have of U.S. complicity in the looting and implosion of the Russian economy after the cold war, are we really to believe that State Department fueled, corporate sponsored, Soros mentored Internews is really riding to the rescue?
Nowhere is the Internews schizophrenia more neatly illustrated than in a Toronto Globe and Mail article entitled “The Dream Merchants.” This upbeat, jingoistic story leads a cheer for U.S. “aid” work in Central Asia and spouts points of view that exemplify the heavy handed encroachment of western culture in these regions. “We pick them up by the scruffs of the neck and show them how to do this stuff…We create them.” “Americans care about this whole democracy thing, far more than the Europeans or Canadians do.” “But today, it is the Americans who buzz importantly around this city [Baku, Azerbaijan]…and they struggle to…import American ideas and implant an American-style democracy in a long hostile land.” You may find this article’s tenor and blind support for anything American a little disturbing. Judge for yourself. You can find it posted on the Internews website (“Articles about Internews.”).
The odd thing is that Internews is only briefly mentioned in the piece , so mustn’t the Internews people have approved of its smug, racist tone, enough to include it on their website? Would you post an article on your website that so distorted your intentions and corroborated your worst critic’s most damning suspicions, just because the author mentioned you in passing—unless, of course, the article didn’t distort your intentions at all but, rather, expressed them all too well?
In 2003, Internews moved to upscale new offices next to the Post Office in rural, downtown Arcata. Once, during a brief visit, I couldn’t help but notice that, at a time when most social programs have their backs against the wall financially, Internews seems oddly well endowed. One of the few things I ever heard from anyone locally about Internews was from a friend who did some bookkeeping for them. He mentioned to me one day: “you know, they’re all republicans.” To whatever extent this may be true, they certainly do seem to have blossomed since the Bush administration took charge, a presidency that’s not exactly known for its magnanimous foreign policy and media openness. Given this administration’s “secretive, incognito” status and renowned attempts to control and manipulate the news media, Internews’ recent unthwarted ascension and overwhelming State Department funding become increasingly at issue.
The question begs itself: Why did Internews choose tiny, remote Arcata California for its “world headquarters”? (I once called their Washington D.C. offices with some questions, but they told me I had to call Arcata!) Well, besides the obvious point that a secretive organization might want to hide out, safely cloistered behind the “redwood curtain,” consider this: if one was to shine some light on this enigmatic outfit (as I attempted to do with my original article Internews: Friend or Foe, published in a small local weekly) how would one go about it? My story, followed two weeks later with an eloquent piece by David Ross (who echoed my concerns and elaborated on the history of USAID’s ties to the CIA), generated almost no feedback of any kind. Rural areas often have few if any influential newspapers or magazines.
But certainly setting up shop in a nationally recognized liberal oasis like Arcata, California—home of the anti-patriot act resolution, the recommendation to impeach the president and the recent “safe haven” measure for Iraqi war resistors—does much to enhance Internews’ radical, do-gooder facade and, of course, enhance its “cover.”
Internews may very well technically meet the requirements needed to legitimize its “non-profit” status, but what does that matter if they are in fact covertly operating as an agent for various billion dollar multi-nationals? Wouldn’t an activist outfit committed to media reform find no better place to focus his or her attentions than right here at home in the U.S., a culture that has raised news media manipulation to a high art? Certainly the overwhelming support this “NGO” receives from the State Department must confuse foreign trainees when Internews workers advise them about the necessity of working independently from governmental influence.
Do you remember Bush’s pre-Iraq invasion speech to the UN in which he warned us about the dangers of “outrageous conspiracy theories” in relation to 9/11? To many, it seemed like an odd, out-of-the-blue kind of remark. But listen to this from David Hoffman in a “Letter from the President [of Internews]:” “Terrorism and war feed on propaganda, conspiracy theories and messages of hate.” Terrorism and war feed on conspiracy theories? This is the first I’ve heard of this obscure phenomenon. This pre-emptive strike on those of us who are asking the pesky questions creates more doubt than it dispels and makes me want to keep these “free speechers” under the microscope all the more.
Certainly Internews requires continued scrutiny, not blind trust.
Copyright Darkprints, May 2005
Find the Toronto Globe and Mail’s “The Dream Merchants” and Andrew Meier’s “The Russian Media Revolution” (“Wired,” 1995) on the “Articles About Internews” page on the Internews website.
J. Baker is an independent journalist living in Seattle, Washington.