Saul Elbein, Business Insider, And The Smearing Of Animal Rights Activists
How money and drugs corrupted the story of a pig farmer who was prosecuted for saving his pigs.
UPDATE: This post is being made again on the DxE blog, after it was taken down by Medium in the wake of legal threats by Saul Elbein.
UPDATE 2: Elbein and Business Insider have denied my request to speak to them about their story, and Elbein took to Twitter to say that a racist attack against me -- in which I was sent to the ER to have my face stitched back together by someone who had previously called me an ugly chink -- was merely a “redneck in high school.” Elbein blocked me after I took issue with his characterization and strangely began tweeting out his support for various Asian writers. Elbein and Business Insider have also refused my request to speak with them, which is highly unusual given that they are writing a story about, well, me.
In the world of online media, it’s hard to know what to trust. Business Insider is one such example. Despite its serious-sounding name, the publication has a long history of inaccurate and inflammatory reporting, used to drive traffic (and advertising dollars) to its site. One story used fake images, taken from a neo-Nazi website, to smear Travyon Martin, an unarmed black youth whose killing launched the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And the site has used sexualized images to draw readers to its stories. As The New Yorker put it, the site’s top post is often “a business story accompanied by an unrelated photograph of an attractive woman, usually with some cleavage showing.”
I know Business Insider’s methods from personal experience. In a year-long relationship with a reporter named Saul Elbein, I witnessed unethical conduct -- drug use with sources, proposed payments to and from sources, a strange focus on tawdry storylines -- that violated multiple rules of journalistic ethics. I am writing about my experience to warn future sources of Elbein and Business Insider but also to make a larger point: Modern journalism has been corrupted by money. Truth, journalistic ethics, and common decency are all being lost in the pursuit of profit. And we have to fix that problem, or all our other efforts to make the world a better place may fail.
(I sent a previous draft of this article to Elbein and Business Insider. Elbein responded with an intimidating comment: “My lawyer and I are discussing next steps.” I am publishing it nonetheless.)
Saul Elbein, Business Insider, and DxE
The relationship with Elbein and Business Insider began with a legitimate story: the prosecution of a pig farmer for saving his pigs.
In early 2019, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), an animal rights network I co-founded, discovered that an employee at a Smithfield farm in North Carolina, Bradley Johnson, was being charged for giving piglets to a sanctuary. The piglets at issue were deemed unfit for slaughter, and would have ended up thrown away in a landfill. For allowing these piglets to go to sanctuary -- with the apparent permission of his manager -- Smithfield claimed that Johnson had “stolen” the pigs and pressured the District Attorney to charge him with felony larceny. In this regard, Johnson’s case was similar to my own; I have been prosecuted for removing dying piglets from a Smithfield factory farm in Utah.
Local activists who heard about Johnson’s case put DxE in touch with him. We provided him legal support and reached out to a few journalists we thought might be interested. Elbein was one of them; he said he could write a story for a friend at a publication called Business Insider. When we invited Johnson to visit us in the Bay Area, both to share his story and drum up support for his case, Elbein came along to report. The trip drew out crowds of supporters, but Johnson struggled immensely. His fiancee was leaving him for another employee at the farm, and he was spiraling into self-destructive behavior, including drug and alcohol use. He crashed a volunteer’s car, and disappeared repeatedly, oftentimes driving off with someone else’s vehicle. DxE’s leadership decided to give him all funds we raised for legal and economic support in his case -- close to $20,000 -- then distance ourselves. (I was the only vote in favor of continuing an active relationship.)
This posed a serious obstacle for Elbein, as Johnson’s work with animal rights activists was central to his story. He wanted to write about the relationship between two defendants working together to face off against Smithfield. He had spent days following us and dozens of hours interviewing me and other activists for the story. But with that relationship fraying, Elbein was losing his source and story. Johnson was refusing to speak to him.I had already noticed some questionable behavior and judgment on Elbein’s part. Notably, Elbein was fond of using drugs and alcohol with his source, Johnson. (Such behavior is forbidden under the “ethical journalism” standards of publications such as The New York Times.) There were times when Johnson clearly did not want to talk, yet Elbein would actively encourage Johnson to use mind-altering substances on the grounds that it would make him feel better -- and also talk. I found this behavior troubling, but I saw it at the time as a minor indiscretion. (In this regard, I was probably naive; shortly after his Bay Area trip, Johnson was arrested in North Carolina on a felony drug charge when he was found with cocaine near a school.)
But when Elbein pulled me aside on one of the last days, saying angrily that Johnson was not giving him what he needed for his story, I began to see a different side to Elbein’s reporting. Johnson was a man who was emotionally crumbling, threatening to hurt himself and imperil his legal future. Yet Elbein was concerned mostly about getting his story, using whatever means necessary, and not with the human and ethical consequences of his reporting techniques.
A Story for Money
Elbein continued to write his story, however, and would check in with me every few weeks. But he was not getting what he needed from Johnson: interviews, documents, and facts.
So he wrote to me again, in October of 2019, and what he proposed shocked me. He (and Business Insider) would pay Johnson for his story.
Let’s be clear about this. Payments of this sort are ethically fraught, and credible publications do not use them. This is why tabloids like the National Enquirer -- which do pay their sources -- have stories about things like Bigfoot or Angeline Jolie’s lizard babies. You can get people to say anything for the right price. The Society of Professional Journalists states that such behavior “undermines journalistic independence and integrity and threatens the accuracy of the information that is purchased.” The Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU states, “as a cornerstone of American press ethics, it is not acceptable to pay for interviews.”
When I subsequently called Elbein, I expressed my ethical concern about the payments. (“I don’t think we can put Business Insider in that position,” I told him.) He grumbled that he needed to find a way to get Johnson to talk. He asked why we hadn’t paid him more, and I explained that our fundraising team had already worked tirelessly to raise nearly $20,000 (and sent him more than that in support funds) and that the team had made a decision that we couldn’t work any longer to raise more. But I also said I would personally support Brad, both emotionally and financially, if I could. Elbein acknowledged this in subsequent conversations with a more apologetic tone.
However, over the next few weeks, Elbein repeatedly pressured me to pay Johnson or otherwise provide him financial support. The pressure was highly inappropriate for a journalist to be imparting on a “source” and expanded to other activists at DxE -- all of whom felt deeply uncomfortable about these interactions. (“It was just kind of shady,” one told me.) And while it was often framed as “giving Bradley support,” Elbein himself doubted whether the money was being used for its designated purposes.
I subsequently did support Johnson, personally, though DxE had cut off all organizational ties with him. Among other things, I worked to find him an attorney after he had burned through four. I stayed up on multiple late night calls in an effort to pull him away from self-destructive behaviors. And at Johnson’s request, I purchased Christmas gifts for him to give to his son, including a Sony Playstation and new winter clothing. (My full correspondence with Johnson is here. I’ve redacted Johnson’s comments because he refused to give me permission to share them.)
While I didn’t do this for Saul Elbein’s story -- I did it because I felt empathy for Johnson’s situation -- this did get Johnson talking to Elbein again. On November 29, Elbein wrote to me that “(Johnson’s) back in the game as far as we're concerned. Whatever you said to him seemed to help. Thanks for that.”
A Sudden Turn
One week after this happy note from Elbein, however, something changed. WIRED Magazine and the Ezra Klein Show, in rapid succession, published articles about DxE’s work on Dec 5 and Dec 6, respectively. The stories discussed many of the themes that Elbein was hoping to write about -- notably, the Smithfield trials. I had only a few days’ foreknowledge of these reports, and it did not occur to me to notify Elbein. His story had been delayed for nearly a year, and we had not promised an exclusive.
Elbein sent me a congratulatory note. But then I received a troubling phone call from a trusted source.She told me there was someone from Business Insider who was “digging up dirt on DxE” -- specifically, false allegations that we were “dumping animals at sanctuaries” and mis-using funds.
This was troubling. Elbein knew that I (and Johnson) were facing very serious charges for rescuing animals. Allegations that we “dumped” them could undermine my legal defense. Could he have really turned on us so quickly?
I sent Elbein a message, expressing confusion.
Saul denied that he was “digging up dirt,” and I came away from the conversation thinking that there must have been some sort of mix-up. Perhaps another journalist had contacted the sanctuaries.
But I talked to my source, who confirmed to me that they had reviewed the email and identified Saul Elbein as the reporter. She wrote, “It is Saul… it sounds like he’s making the rounds at sanctuaries.” I called Elbein, and we discussed what had happened. He first evaded the question, but after pressing him with specific evidence, he finally admitted that he had been deceptive. This was a serious violation of trust and of journalistic standards. The Washington Post, for example, states in its policies and standards, “We do not fool or mislead sources… Our reporting should be honorable; we should be prepared to explain publicly anything we do to get a story.”
Elbein indicated that he was upset that the WIRED story had beat him to publication, and that he had nothing to write about. He needed a new story to sell. He had seen a comment on the WIRED facebook page by an individual named Jon Spear who was complaining about misconduct at DxE, including “dumping animals” at sanctuaries, and decided to follow up on it.
I explained to him that the individual at issue, Jon Spear, had a long history of harassment of DxE members, leading him to be blocked on social media by virtually all women in leadership of the organization. I also explained that Spear worked with a sanctuary that we had cut ties with due to credible allegations of methamphetamine use, intentional abuse of animals, and misappropriation of funds. But Elbein indicated that he did not believe me about Jon, and asked for written proof. It turns out there was such written proof, and one of the women -- Priya Sawhney -- decided to post her story openly, including evidence of Spear’s misconduct. Elbein never followed up with her to test the credibility of his source.
Separately, I began to hear from more sanctuary operators who had been contacted or mentioned by Elbein. One told me that she had gushed about her experience with DxE -- but that Elbein had never replied. Another had not been contacted at all, despite being involved in more DxE work than any other sanctuary. Both sanctuaries, needless to say, had wonderful experiences with DxE.
While Elbein refused to engage these credible and positive sources about DxE, however, he continued to follow a salacious trail set by Spear. This trail led him to a YouTuber named Leif E. Greenz, who has worked with Spear for many months to discredit DxE. Leif is someone I met 13 years ago, and before I was part of a serious organization or knew much of anything about grassroots organizing. She was the lead singer of a punk band, and an animal rights activist, when I knew her. She had a kind and welcoming family, who allowed me to stay in their home at times when I was estranged from my own. (My family was furious that I had left a PhD program and was surviving partly by collecting food from dumpsters.) In 2008, I developed feelings for her. But there was a significant age gap. While Greenz was 17, the age of consent, those feelings were inappropriate, which I noted in emails to Greenz and her mother. Those emails are here; after sending them, I never spoke to Greenz about these feelings again.
I am apologetic for Greenz’s experience. But I never “groomed her,” as Elbein’s story apparently alleges. And much of what Greenz has subsequently said about me is directly quoted from Activist Facts, a website set up by the meat industry to falsely smear animal rights activists. The founder of the site, Richard Berman, has been described by 60 Minutes as “the booze and food industries' weapon of mass destruction.” Berman’s group spent $122,379 on a campaign that was filled with fabricated allegations of racism against animal rights activists, as reported in The Intercept. None of this, sadly, has deterred Elbein and Business Insider from relying on Greenz and Spear as sources.
I don’t, however, seek to place all the blame on Elbein. He is a freelance journalist, most of whom are paid by the word. It’s a brutal profession that has been made even more brutal by corporate consolidation of the media. I know this firsthand. I worked at CNN many years ago, when corporate media was at the brink of a total takeover. Money was driving all decisions, and when ethics comes into conflict with money, ethics loses. The profit-driven nature of corporate media has driven unethical behavior; Elbein is thus both a perpetrator and victim of this system.But while we have compassion for the individual, let’s not mince words. Saul Elbein’s behavior is indicative of a darker trend in American media. The pursuit of profit now overwhelms the pursuit of truth. And all the journalistic safeguards that used to be in place -- don’t engage in personally problematic behavior with your sources; don’t pay your sources, or ask for payment from them; and don’t lie -- are being thrown out the window. I’ve found myself openly asking: Is Berman funding Saul Elbein? Is Big Meat paying Business Insider (directly or through advertising contracts)? These are questions that we may never know the answer to; Business Insider refused to comment when I sent them an earlier version of this blog. But they are questions we must start asking today. That is a sad thing for journalism. A media system fueled by profit and attention, rather than truth, is not one that will bring much pride to its stakeholders. But it’s an even bigger problem for those of us who depend on the media to create social change. The activist life is not a financially profitable one, and activist organizations will never have the money to match our corporate adversaries. If the media’s narratives are shaped by money, they’ll never be shaped by ordinary people -- even if our stories are important and true.
And the true victim, then, won’t just be the integrity of journalism; it will be our ability to create positive social change.