Monday, April 18, 2011

The VegNews Scandal

It's been a tough time to be an herbivore. If it's not celebrities renouncing their veganism due to predictably vague, pregnancy-induced ailments (such not having baked goods immediately available at their beck and call and, please, like she doesn't) and all the typical irritations we face while swimming against the omnivorous current, we now have this Big, Ugly Scandal that has ripped a flimsy bandage off a significant wound that had obviously been festering for some time. Of course I am referring to the fleshy, cheesy stock photos passed off as vegan recipe examples in our once-pristine publication, VegNews. For the sake of cutting to the chase, I will refer people to the original QuarryGirl exposé.

Italicized here is my Facebook note regarding the scandal, touched up a little because I can never leave anything alone.

As many of you know, I write on a freelance basis for VegNews. I have known Joe Connelly and Colleen Holland since they first published VegNews as a newspaper. Yes, it started out as a smudgy little newspaper. I will state from the beginning that I am not neutral: I like Joe and Colleen, I support their mission, and I have had nothing but great experiences writing for them. Not everyone loves the celebrity focus of the magazine, not everyone loves the editorial direction, but how can one publication be all things to all people?


I was shocked when I read that their photos came from stock photography of meat and animal products. I was disappointed. But I got over it. I wholeheartedly support honest debate and criticism. Given the circumstances of my background, I am not much for keeping up the appearance of unity at the expense of honesty. I have been an outspoken critic of PeTA's misogynist, mean-spirited tactics and I will continue to speak out. I am not encouraging people to just shut up and smile and I never would. It goes against my personal ethic and how I try to live my life. I strive for honesty.


It's the level of vitriol, the degree of viciousness, the total breakdown of civility and just plain goodwill I have observed in the aftermath of QuarryGirl's exposé that has been shocking to me. Given the rancor, one would think VegNews staff were shooting eagles, poisoning cows, kicking puppies and force-feeding Big Macs to bunnies while cackling with evil delight. Oh! And they're raking in the big bucks while deluding us (in between little kick-the-puppy breaks). People are up in arms, they're canceling subscriptions, they're furious.


How I see it is really quite simple. They screwed up. They need to take ownership of that. They need to apologize and correct their mistakes. We need to move on.


How does canceling subscriptions to a vegan publication when major, long established magazines are folding left and right make any sense? So we can get a subscription to the Vegetarian Journal and endlessly complain about the the bad photography, the boring articles? (I love the Vegetarian Journal, but you know that people would be complaining about it.) Or should we buy Vegetarian Times so we can be offended by the non-vegan recipes and insipidness? What good would causing financial harm to a vegan magazine do in the world, the world we claim we want to consume fewer animal products?


So VegNews doesn't work for you. It's not alternative enough, it's too rah-rah-rah, the recipes are junky, it's not substantive enough. Okay, here is a solution: create your own magazine. You don't like to write? Do what you do really well. Have it become a success. Have it become solvent. Have it look beautiful. Have it be professional. Have it always reflect your highest goals. Have it be something your next door neighbor or your sixteen-year-old cousin would both love. Or create an amazingly unique and artistic expression of your deepest convictions that no one understands except for a few people but they think it's incredible.


Go out and do that.


Stick your neck out and create something to help make the world a better place. Be prepared for people to really dislike what you're doing, though, the very people you consider your community and for them to tell you about it. As you become more successful, be prepared for people to imply that you're greedy, you're inauthentic, you're not edgy enough, you've lost your heart, you're a hack. I dare you to create knowing that this will happen. I dare myself. I would love to see someone else create a publication with the distribution and readership they have and run it with an unapologetically vegan focus for eleven years. I am not even being sarcastic: the more publications we have to reflect the diversity of our community, the better. It is easy to point fingers, vilify and condemn: it is a hell of a lot harder to take the initiative and create something.


VegNews screwed up. They shouldn't have done what they did and they deserve to be called on it. They need to sincerely apologize and fix it. This slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners, ad hominem attacking is totally repellent, though. It is also simplistic, unkind and unfair. Having a publication owned by hard-working vegans be dragged through the mud by the very community they helped to create makes me heartsick.


People make mistakes. People screw up. Could we stop the mob mentality and call off the pile-on? Could we encourage civil discourse instead? Could we work toward creative solutions?


Big picture, people. Big picture.

In the days between QuarryGirl's Big Reveal and as I am writing this right now, I have seen all manner of opinions on the VegNews scandal. I know that people are canceling subscriptions and calling companies that advertise in the magazine and asking them to stop, and I have also seen people come to their defense. I have seen a firestorm of rage that seems way out of proportion and I have seen a condescending attitude toward those who express genuine feelings of betrayal. As in keeping with both vegan culture and online communication, sharp lines have been drawn: you're either an ivory tower extremist or you are a wussy apologist. Nobody wants to be either - we want to be seen for who we are, with all of our honest self-expression and complexities - and it is an infuriating thing when we are reassigned a cardboard version of ourselves and told, "This is you." This is the nature, though, of the world of anonymous instant communication we live in: as soon as a thought enters your mind, you can type it out and hit the return key. No need for a cooling off period if what you really want is to blame and rage. Instant gratification.

It's no secret that we live in a world that is very inclined toward spewing inflammatory, take-no-prisoners accusations against one another. From sputtering politicians to cable news talking heads, screamed invective is meant to inflict damage as though that were the most natural thing for us, as though engaging in civil (but still passionate) discourse were a sign of our obvious weakness. We live in an era of broad stroke character assassinations with a "you're either with me or against me" mentality. It seems as if we have lost our ability to voice dissent without resorting to divisions and viciousness. This ability to speak, listen and debate without acting on the urge to cut one another apart is quickly becoming something like a vestigial limb: we once had it but it became useless to us and disappeared over time.

I understand and totally accept that people are upset about the situation. I am, too. Why the need to inflict more harm, though, instead of focusing on correcting the problems? Is this a transference thing? Have vegans been so hurt by society at large that we are acting out the emotional drama of abuse among ourselves, a form of horizontal aggression? What is behind the mob mentality, the scent of blood bringing out the single-minded shark in so many otherwise sensitive people? Why are we so damn angry with one another and what is it about the VegNews scandal that opened this Pandora's box of deep-seated hostility?

I can understand people feeling angry and betrayed by the publication, an oasis in a culture with values so removed from our own. Their use of stock photos made readers feel betrayed, and, frankly even more vulnerable to being treated like the punch line to every smug joke by society at large. People have worked hard to raise the profile of vegan cuisine and this could easily be used by those who already dismiss us as an admission that our food is, well, beige and icky. Of course we know it's not: the most vivid, diverse palette of colors, the most interesting shapes and textures are found in plant foods. The fear, though, is that those who have already written us off have now been given even ample ammunition by our own top publication. We are so exhausted from being mocked and derided, so on edge from feeling battered, so raw from having this way of living - something we adopted because of heartfelt convictions - treated like nothing more than a joke. We don't need this. We also don't like to be deceived by the businesses we support, that should go without saying. We don't want to look at what we think are seitan ribs only to be told, "Oops. Yeah, actually the bones have been airbrushed out." When we have worked as hard as we have to reach out to others with our food - the best outreach tool we often have - we don't need the implication that our food is lesser-than coming from our leading publication. This has almost certainly set us back, giving us more obvious and hidden barriers as we do our advocacy work.

I get that.

A second part of the hostility toward VegNews that the QuarryGirl exposé unleashed seems to be a rising tide of resentment against their editorial direction. Too many puff pieces, too much of a celebrity focus, too cheerleader-y! To those complaints, I am less sympathetic. VegNews has pulled off something really quite amazing if you think about it: they are a niche magazine that represents one percent of the population and they not only share shelf space in bookstores and grocery stores with Vogue, Bon Appetit and Rolling Stone, the magazine looks like it is perfectly at home there. This is an amazing accomplishment. I think sometimes we get an inflated sense of how many vegans there are because we have such a rich and dynamic (and outspoken) culture, but we are tiny. VegNews would never have a broad appeal for itself and our strange little subculture without more of a mainstream focus. Don't we want people to meet us half way? Don't we want to have a well-produced magazine that looks beautiful? VegNews has managed to make veganism accessible, attractive and SANE to those who might have thought otherwise. If we want veganism to remain an insular, exclusive club, that is one thing. If we want veganism to appeal to a broad base of people so they might consider the lifestyle to be within reach, that is something entirely different. That is what I want. I think that is what VegNews wants. I understand that direction is not appealing to everyone but what I don't understand is the intolerance, the unwillingness to see the vital role VegNews has played in expanding the vegan market and community, and this urge to throw the baby out with the bath water.

VegNews cannot be all things to all people: no one and no publication can be. We need our vegan-fueled literary magazines, our artisan "foodie" magazines, our culture magazines, our crafting magazines, and, yes, our cheerleader magazines. They are part of the landscape that we need as we build in-roads. VegNews is successful at what they set out to do, which is to make veganism appealing and demystified. It seems to me that our community is quite adept at shooting ourselves and one another in the feet. Why would are we so hell-bent on annihilation from within?  Being dismayed about VegNews and their food photography standards is one thing and it needs to be corrected. The hatefulness, the deep-seated anger directed at VegNews for being what they have always been and have never pretended not to be, though, is something else. I think we need to be honest with ourselves as to whether we want veganism to move beyond a little exclusive club or we want it to be something that expands its reach. I have no doubt what I want.

We have a creative and talented population of self-starters within the vegan movement. If you don’t like what you see, if you haven’t seen anything that reflects your personal approach or appeals to your aesthetic, then go out and create what you want to see. Legitimate criticism and holding one another accountable is productive, valuable and important. Finger-pointing and self-righteous rage are not. Honestly, this is not about unity: I don't care what the neighbors might think. It's about our need to take responsibility for our role in creating the world we want to see and stop blaming others if they are not who we want them to be.

16 comments:

Sara Stanton said...

I honestly think it would be easier to forgive VegNews if they actually issued an apology and not a stock response. They have not apologized for what they did and are still doing and they do not give credit for the photos they use. They are hiding behind excuses and that is unacceptable. They had an opportunity to do good here but instead they keep with their way of business and that is a slap in the face. I think it was disrespectful to publish non-vegan photos. I put my trust and money into a magazine that lied. We tell our children not to lie and to have integrity, how can we demand less from those who we give our money to. To just say, "if you don't like what you see start your own magazine", is you pointing your finger at those who are unhappy with VegNews and their shady business practice. I have had non-vegan acquaintances who have come up to me with the comments about the photos. The mainstream now believes that Vegan food only looks good if it's not Vegan. This whole situation is counterproductive to what it means to live Vegan. No, I am not Vegangelical or an extremist, I just believe in honesty and responsibility.

Marla said...

I agree that they screwed up with the "faux-pology," Sara, and they need to make things right, first by acknowledging that that response was not a good one, then a thoughtful apology, and then a plan to make things right. I said throughout this that I don't really have issues with people being upset about the photography but I *do* have a problem with people just hating on them for being the publication they are and have always been. People are conflating things. You know how if you have an argument with a friend, say, you don't like that they cancel plans a lot, it's not fair to confront your friend and say, "You always cancel plans. I also don't like that you mumble, you walk too fast and you borrowed my pan last week and you haven't given it back yet!" In other words, stick to the criticism instead of lumping a bunch of complaints together. I agree that they screwed up with the photography and the response. What I was referring to are people who are nitpicking because of content and I still say what I said: if you don't like it, consider creating something more to your liking. Of course let them know, too, the sort of content you want to see but accept them for what they are: a magazine created to mainstream veganism. You know that expression, every time you point a finger, there are three more pointing back at you? I take that pretty seriously. Definitely they need to be taken to task for the photography and their non-apology but that was not what I was referring to with finger pointing. Thanks for your feedback and thanks for all you do!

Of.Varied.Interests said...

I agree so wholeheartedly. At first I was outraged, but frankly think I got caught up in everyone's collective anger. It sucks, but in my world it isn't a huge deal. It would be horrible if our one magazine went under. Such a loss. And I'm one of the people who pretty much loves the fluff pieces, it saves me from having to buy Us weekly LOL! Say what you will, but I buy magazines for an escape. If I want a downer, I'll read "eating animals" or watch "earthlings". I think they really do a nice job balancing serious issues and frivolity.

Kelly said...

I was asked my opinion on this, an ex veg FB friend posted the story on her wall, and being the token vegan as was asked what I thought. TBH I was more dissapointed by the fact they weren't using pictures of the food in the recipie. I happen to think its importnat that when you follow a recipie, the food you get at the end should look like the food in the pic. But if the pic isn;t even of the same food who can that be the case? I would MUCH rather see amaturish food pics taken in someones kitchen than slick pick-your-stock-photo one. The fact they used meat stock pics rather than vegan ones is kind of secondary to that. I use plently of stock pics on my blog, but if I blog ab out some food and put a recipie up its my own trusty grainy photos you're looking at ;)

dirtyduck said...

the instant i heard about all of this, all i could think about was how betrayed and sick vegnews subscribers must feel. i did not subscribe, and would not unless they took a different stand. my husband isnt vegan and he got what everyone was so up in arms about. he asked, "isnt that their job? what else is the point of a vegan paper?" lol huh...

but the mob mentality, is never good, you are right about that.

have gone vegan said...

So well put. Thank you!

Emily said...

Thank you very much for this post. I think it helped put a lot of how I was feeling into perspective. Yes, it was very very wrong that VegNews isn't apologizing and No, I don't want to kill our only magazine, thank you. Some representation is way better than no representation.

Marla said...

You're funny, Of.Varied.Interests. I get my People magazine fix about once a month because my mom moved in with us. Sometimes I have to remind her to buy it because, um, she might find something interesting in it. Thanks for the breath of fresh air. :)

Marla said...

Hi, Kelly! It's interesting to me because I have had the experience before - not with VegNews, with other publications - where I have made something and it looks totally different. I just chalked it up to my own doofus skills. I do agree that people who are following a recipe should get an accurate representation of what the end product is, grainy photos or whatever. :) Thanks for your feedback!

Marla said...

Thanks, dirtyduck. VegNews has a new apology up that looks much more reasonable than the first and actually works toward a solution: a vegan stock photo bank! I am so relieved that they finally released this. http://vegnews.com/web/articles/page.do?pageId=3180&catId=8

Thanks for your feedback!

Marla said...

Thank you, have gone vegan!

Marla said...

Thank you, Emily. I couldn't agree more. In our outrage, we don't want to burn down the whole damn village.

Rhea Parsons said...

I couldn't have said it better myself...which is why I waited for you to say it :)

Yup, they screwed up. Now they have apologized. Now they need to live up to their promises and we need to move on.

I love that the magazine is mainstream. Sometimes I feel it could be even more so. When I first read it, I felt like I didn't fit the "type" of vegan they were portraying - not young, tattooed, not living in an urban setting or listening to certain music, etc. But I still bought the next issue and the next and the next...and will continue to do so.

Great article, Marla.

Renee said...

Well said! I have read the Veg News apology that just came out. I went through a range of emotions, mainly disappointment, when I first read the expose but realized that I needed to wait until the emotion subsided somewhat and hear what Veg News had to say.
I did not cancel my subscription immediately but considered not renewing when it came time to. I will be renewing for all the reasons you listed as well as the fact that we all make mistakes. Veg News apologized and is taking steps to make amends. That deserves support in and of itself.

Vanilla Rose said...

Re your "People" magazine fix. A family member, who was then working in social care, bought a copy of "Hello" magazine for one of my visits and was quite put out that I insisted on reading her back copies of "Community Care" instead! Much more interesting. Just the other week, her partner asked whether I was going to take the copy of "Hello" magazine found in their bathroom with me when I left. I had to break the news that, although I do buy some complete rubbish to read on rail journeys, it was not I who had brought "Hello" into the house.

Not being in the US, I feel a bit detached from the "VegNews" scandal. I cannot quite see why a magazine which has recipes cannot ask the person supplying the recipe to make the dish in question and then take a photo.

Vanilla Rose said...

It amazes me that this ever happened. Surely anyone submitting a vegan recipe will have tried the recipe at home at least once, and surely in this era of digital photography it is not hard to photograph one's own work.

Of course, I realise that this would look less than perfect by the standards of the industry, but so what? Could that not be a selling point, a refreshing change from the over-sanitised, glossy norm?

The novel "Dazzle" by Judith Krantz has a character who does food photography, and it is very amusing to read about the lengths they go to to make food look attractive. These also tend to render it utterly inedible.