Of Activists and journalists: What DxE taught a main stream journalist and what he can teach ag
Editor’s Note: This story is the second in a two-part series.
Saul Elbein is a journalist, raised in Texas and now based out of Washington, D.C. His articles about ISIS and Central American drug trade and Peruvian gold mining appear in publications like Mother Jones Magazine and National Geographic.
When DxE founder Wayne Hsiung pitched him a story about a loophole in California’s animal welfare law, he said he was sympathetic, though the calls for the total abolition of animal agriculture seemed overheated. In 2018, Elbein penned Calves in Confinement for The Intercept and soon after its release, the farm was the site of protests and arrests.
Hsiung then asked him to co-write an article about a North Carolina Smithfield contract farm manager who had been fired, arrested and tried for releasing piglets to a shelter.
“DxE saw this as an opportunity to talk about how factory agriculture hurts people involved in it and not just animals,” he said.
Elbein went to North Carolina and spent time with the farmer and Hsiung and said he left feeling like the farmer, albeit an individual who was fighting his own challenges in his personal life and exacerbated by the stand he had taken, was treated like a prop as part of a larger story. Elbein said DxE had several fundraisers that hinged on the story, but the farmer was eventually no longer supported by DxE. As Elbein grappled with the story, he said people began reaching out to him with allegations against Hsiung ranging from sexual harassment to mishandling of funds.
“The short version of it is I started to get from a lot of different quarters what seemed to be a fundraising, self-promoting NGO (non-governmental organization) which would be fine if that’s what they were or pretended to be, but it isn’t,” he said.
Ostensibly, DxE functions through the work of volunteers and focuses on “animal liberation” or open rescues, both things Elbein said those in agriculture and business would call theft. In reality, the volunteers, under contract, receive a salary of sorts that comes out of donations to DxE. The organization’s fundraising efforts have been successful, he said, with $2 million in the bank at the close of 2018.
One aspect that Elbein found disconcerting was the “rescued” animals were all surrendered to sanctuaries, leaving the cost of care on the shoulders of the sanctuary. At DxE’s request, Elbein’s fact checker contacted sanctuaries that DxE claimed to cooperate and partner with. He said three didn’t respond, though three did respond. Happy Hen, a California sanctuary that DxE directed about $100,000 to spoke positively about the group. The last two sanctuaries on the list didn’t receive funds or received funds less than $1,000.
The story eventually began to turn. Hsiung complicated the job of the fact checkers and even penned a blog, that was quickly removed, accusing Elbein of smearing animal rights activists and engaging in unethical journalism. The story — and the year of work Elbein invested into it — was eventually killed.
Speaking from the other side of his experience with DxE and Hsiung, Elbein said the members of DxE are largely well-meaning, committed individuals but they are, at the end of the day, activists convinced that their cause is righteous.
“When reality interferes with what they want to believe, they go with what they want to believe,” he said. “In their investigation with The Intercept, there were a lot of things Wayne told me that we just couldn’t confirm. He was just really sure that it was true or wanted it to be true or was convinced that it was true and it would have been really good for their narrative if it had been true and it might have been true but we couldn’t confirm it.”
For Elbein, it painted a picture of the difference between activists and journalists.
“They are fundamentally activists and what it means to be an activist is that the truth has to serve the story versus if you’re a journalist, the story has to serve the truth,” he said. “That’s about as simply as I can put it. Not without reason, they feel under attack and threatened by a much larger and more powerful political and legal infrastructure. As much as farmers are worried about this lawless group that’s going to show up on their property.”
From his perspective, as agriculture becomes more consolidated, it tends to be less transparent, contributing to the appearance of less human production methods, whether they exist or not. It is this space, he said, that allows DxE to have a constituency at all.
DxE, he said, is maybe not the best voice for the argument given the problems within the organization but he said he walked away from the article agreeing with little but still recognizing that their fundamental critique of the problems is basically right. While their “overheated rhetoric” may turn off many, Elbein said their assessment of agriculture’s problems attracts people like him, carnivores who have reservations about production methods.
For Elbein, the confinement he said is necessary to run an industrial system and is the major tripping point for him personally. For him and many Americans, he said those concerns go away with a somewhat more expensive cut of meat. He cited a recent study showing a large percentage of people who were in support of outlawing slaughterhouses, an indication he said shows Americans’ discomfort with what goes into making meat, is due in part to their increasing detachment from production agriculture.
“The ugliness in my $3 per pound chicken thighs is different that the ugliness in my $10 per pound chicken thighs but at some point it all comes back to, as DxE would say, killing an animal that doesn’t want to be killed,” he said.
Of DxE’s critiques of the meat industry, Elbein said the one that is the most salient is the treatment of animals and contract growers both like widgets or commodities, treatment he said is hard to defend. Ebein said Hsiung once told him that the organization is against the commoditization of life, a quote that Hsiung later denied but one that stuck with Elbein as one that resonated with him. Ultimately, what left a bitter taste for Elbein is DxE’s alleged treatment of people that did the same thing, coming to light in the form of allegations against Hsiung and the organization.
Elbein said he recognizes the cries from agriculture who are trying to meet the demand for efficiency, convenience, and low-priced food but are being criticized for being efficient. Living in D.C., Elbein said he purchases food from a CSA and his latest shipment was a meager 3 or 4 pounds for $50 of meat, a literal picture of the conundrum facing producers and consumers.
In terms of Project Counterglow, Elbein said the reality of what DxE might do is very little as their interest lies primarily in connecting the supply chain to the large operations.
“The underlying issue is if there is stuff that you as a farmer or you as an industry are worried about people seeing, that in itself points to a problem,” he said. “DxE has no angle if that’s not true.”
Elbein said relatively speaking, DxE is harmless.
In 2018 two DxE activists entered a California chicken house illegally. After the grower made the decision to destroy the birds out of concern for breached biosecurity, a judge ruled in favor of the grower, ordering the two activists to pay $331,991 to compensate the grower for losses. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 768-0024.