After journalist Mike Elk broke the story of how Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara misled, ripped off, and fired 3 staffers of the British socialist publication Tribune after he bought it for “a mid five-figure sum,” Sunkara put out a statement full of lies defending his actions:
“After a number of weeks trying to negotiate a more reasonable price (for a magazine that was bankrupt), we eventually made the decision that saving Tribune was worth the cost and agreed to pay.
“During this time Jacobin also undertook to repay former staff members who were owed money by Owen Oyston and had taken out a claim. In reality, with Oyston facing a £30 million court judgement, the prospect of this claim being paid by that channel was minimal. Jacobin volunteered — with no legal requirement — to pay the former staff 70% of what they claimed from Owen Oyston. We did this months before any deal was agreed, paying out a significant sum with no guarantee we would ever finalise the takeover.”
As one of the fired staffers noted, their back-wages claim against the Tribune‘s previous owner Owen Oysten had to be resolved before sale of the publication could proceed. Oysten was trying to get out of paying the workers and the prospect of selling the Tribune was an opportunity to shed this obligation. Sunkara offered the staffers 70% of their earnings not out of the goodness of his heart or as some act of charity but because he had no other way to make the transaction go forward. Mike Parker, Ian Hernon, and George Osgerby — all members of the National Union of Journalists — would likely have never agreed to losing their jobs in exchange for being paid only 70% of what they were owed.
To this Sunkara and Tribune have no answer–because there is none.
Perhaps the biggest lie in Sunkara’s statement is the claim that “Jacobin has no wealthy backers.” This is a rehash of Sunkara’s excuse for forcing Mike Parker, Ian Hernon, and George Osgerby to take a 30% haircut in their earnings because his “business plan” could not be massaged or “juggled” to pay their full salaries.
Jacobin does have wealthy backers. The Jewish Community Fund–which donated $20,000 to Jacobin in 2016–had $1.5 billion in assets and $461 million of revenue that year. The Richard Dreihaus Foundation with $57 million in assets donated as well, albeit a paltry sum of $200 in matching funds. The 1848 Foundation with just under $8 million in assets donated $2,000 that year as well.
The no-wealthy-backers claim is also contradicted by Jacobin‘s website which features a “high income” subscription rate and lifetime subscription price of $295. In addition Sunkara, told the Guardian newspaper that they received $100,000 in donations last year and it’s unlikely that purchases of $295 liftime subscriptions or donations amounting to $100,000 are coming from the 40% of American adults who struggle to pay for necessities like housing, utilities, food, or health care.
Then there is labor history professor and author Erik Loomis’ bombshell that “multiple insiders” associated with Jacobin told him that staff member Connor Kilpatrick‘s wealthy wife* funded the magazine which is why he continues to have a job there despite writing right-wing nonsense. Jacobin co-founder Micah Uetricht replied to Loomis saying “nobody regrets this,” a tacit confirmation of Loomis’ allegation.
As if lying about wealthy backers to get out of paying Tribune staffers their wages and giving someone a column to write reactionary drivel in exchange for money were not bad enough, former Jacobin writer David Mizner said he had never been paid at all for many of his pieces. Bhaskar Sunkara has not denied this despite being very active on Twitter responding in threads where users posted Elk’s exposé.
This isn’t just ordinary capitalism where the value of what workers produce is inherently greater than their compensation, this is outright theft, the kind of thing Donald Trump and his Trump Organization are infamous for.
Even if Jacobin did not have a $1 million yearly revenue stream and could legitimately and truthfully plead poverty, they still have no excuse not to pay Tribune staff given that Sunkara successfully raised $100,000 for his socialism movie through crowdfunding.
Why not crowdfund $100,000 to pay Mike Parker, Ian Hernon, and George Osgerby if money was the barrier to paying them their earnings? Or is this really just a case of rapacious greed by both Oysten and Sunkara?
The sordid picture of Bhaskar Sunkara, Jacobin, and Tribune that emerges from all this is familiar to anyone acquainted with Karl Marx’s Capital: capitalist engages in immoral (possibly illegal) business practices to extract maximum surplus from labor not to enrich themselves but reinvest those ill-gotten gains back into means of production so there can be another round of surplus-extraction. In this case, Jacobin‘s M-C-M’ circuit involved buying up distressed assets (the Tribune) and destroying the careers and livelihoods of veteran journalists who are approaching retirement age.
All in a day’s work for Bhaskar Sunkara, the Jeff Bezos of American socialism.
*Megan Erickson, not to be confused with Aaron’s Furniture heiress Meagan Day.
Post-Script 10/4/18: Fired Tribune staffers have independently corroborated the central charge — Sunkara lied.
Very interesting post! I wasn’t aware of any of this. It also provides a little insight into the deplorable condition of print publications generally, but left publications specifically.
I wish there were more radical periodicals, or periodicals that contextualize current events through a radical or anti-capitalist lens. At least there’s still the Monthly Review.
(As an aside, I appreciate the use of links. I feel I was able to get all the proper context from links within the article, rather than external searching. It may take a few seconds more for the author, but this is very helpful to the reader. I wish more authors would use the Internet in this way–integrating as much data as possible.)
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For the sake of comparison, In These Times has almost twice as many subscribers than Jacobin and they have been around for 30 or 40 years or so. Mainstream newspapers have fallen on hard times because ad revenues and print readerships have collapsed now that so many people are getting their news online, but niche publications catering to a more narrow audience have not faced the same steep drop-off in either readership or revenue.
The real problem Jacobin has is that a lot of people who subscribe don’t renew at the end of year one (like the other person commenting in this thread); maybe even a majority of subscribers fall into this category.
Glad you appreciate the hyperlinks — I strongly believe in providing sources so people can look at the evidence themselves and draw their own conclusions. 🙂
I am fond of Nathan Robinson’s Current Affairs. I recommend checking that out if you haven’t already.
Could you give some examples of bad Jacobin articles? I haven’t recalled them to be that bad, but I haven’t read any in a while and I only ever read a couple articles here and there.
Apparently this article on Brazil and the Workers’ Party is atrocious. I did a short take-down of this piece on Haiti. Up until late 2016 they published pro-Assad conspiracy theories. The stuff they write about Russian interference in the 2016 election is universally pretty bad.
Quite a lot to choose from.