“The Fox News of Burning Man” [Update]

“Burners.Me is the Fox News/National Enquirer of the Playa!”, cry the haters.

Is that really so bad? Both of these are successful, professional media organizations. The National Enquirer has been going for almost a century, and was financed by San Francisco media baron William Randolph Hearst as the testing ground for his new ideas. The Pulitzer Prize Board considers it a legitimate news source. Fox News is the #1 cable news channel in the US, a position it has held for 145 consecutive months. Fox has nearly 5 million followers on Twitter, and is primarily owned by its founder, the world’s most successful publisher, Rupert Murdoch. It broadcasts from Rockefeller Center to 100 million households in the US, and is considered “most trusted” by more people than any other news network.

faux-news-posterThose who doubt us think it must be a terrible insult, to compare this free blog written by someone whose day job and education is in business, not journalism, to these professional for-profit media organizations with thousands of employees. What would the haters prefer Burners.Me was like? CNN? The Wall Street Journal? Vanity Fair? Playboy? The late, lamented San Francisco Bay Guardian? Or burningman.org, who openly admit they have no requirement to be 100% accurate?

Whenever I come across someone saying “Burners.Me is full of misinformation, there’s no truth there”, I ask them to provide an example. Which they never can. If everything here was lies, then it should be easy to show some examples. If this site was only 99% true, would it really be fair to describe it as “full of misinformation”? In that hypothetical case, 1% means there would be 14 posts of lies here. And yet so far, nobody has been able to demonstrate one example of deliberate misinformation.

Is everything BMOrg ever says true? Absolutely not! As well as stating that themselves, we’ve proved it here multiple times. Is everything Burners.Me ever says true? Yes, to the best of my knowledge at the time I write it. Why would I want to lie, in a free gift to the Burner community? What is in that for me? I get enough haters just from telling uncomfortable truths. Why would I want to give the trolls more ammunition to use against me? I don’t understand how people think that spreading lies would somehow benefit me. Or why the trolls seem to think it’s fine for BMOrg and their Directors to lie, spin, and employ a Minister of Propaganda.

One of the more controversial claims I’ve made here is that Burning Man charges site fees for professional film shoots at the event, such as $150,000 to Vogue.

bm french vogue 2010

I’ve chosen this example to drill into, because one of the “social” media haters over the weekend tried to use it as proof that Burners.Me lacks integrity. I will show you where the claim came from, and why I believed it; how I’ve updated my readers as new information came in; and how semantics are used by BMOrg’s spin machine to mask underlying issues behind their carefully-chosen words.

Here’s what the original front page story about the Spark movie by Scribe in the SF Bay Guardian said:

When I asked Brown about whether he paid the LLC for access and the right to use footage they filmed on the playa — something I know it has demanded of other film and photo projects — Brown paused for almost a full minute before admitting he did.

“We saw it as location fees. We’re making an investment, they’re making an investment,” he said, refusing to provide details of the agreement. “The arrangement we had with Burning Man is similar to the arrangements anyone else has had out there.”

Goodell said the LLC’s standard agreement calls for all filmmakers to either pay a set site fee or a percentage of the profits. “It’s standard in all of the agreements to pay a site fee,” Goodell said, noting that the LLC recently charged Vogue Magazine $150,000 to do a photo shoot during the event.

We covered this at the time in The Spark of Controversy.

About this time last year, someone with high-level BMOrg connections told me at a social event that the Guardian got it wrong. So the very next day I published an update to the story, entitled Not So Vogue? and said:

According to our source, that story is not accurate. In fact, Vogue offered them this much money, and BMOrg turned it down. Or perhaps, BMOrg named their price, and Vogue turned them down. Anyway, the exchange of $150,000 for a photo shoot for Vogue, apparently never happened.

The source did not want to go on record with this , but gave me permission to publish. Read into that what you will. If this is true, then it’s surprising that BMOrg didn’t try to set the record straight with an official statement.

They also never asked the Guardian to print a retraction.

At the time, I did not name my source because he asked me not to. I can identify him now because sadly, Paladin, who was close to BMOrg because he was Danger Ranger’s attorney, died of a heart attack before this year’s burn. I only met him the one time, he seemed like a good guy, and someone in a position to know what he was talking about.

As it turns out, Paladin was not correct when he told me that Vogue offered them that much money but BMOrg turned them down. I was correct in my speculation that BMOrg named their price and Vogue thought it was too high and declined.

Anyway, after learning that Marian may have been misquoted by Scribe, I emailed her directly, and asked her what really happened. She didn’t get back to me, which gave me the impression that Scribe’s quote was accurate. I published the Not So Vogue post, sharing with our readers that some doubt had been raised about the story. I continued to use the site fees as an example of ways in which commodification has been occurring on the Playa.

Just over 2 months after I published this update and asked for her version of events, Maid Marian sent a message via the Contact form of this web page:

Steve Jones quoted me out of context, and it’s picked up here as if it’s true:


We NEVER ever took any money from Vogue to do a shoot. There has yet to be a shoot at Burning Man with our permission. What I said was that we always say no, and sometimes they come back and ask again…and that we sometimes use a high fee to just dissuade them from further conversation if they insist on being pushy. $150,000 site fee is absurd. And, if anyone said they’d do it, we’d just laugh. It’s like a dumb game with some of these companies, so we play along sometimes to just see how far they’d go.

When we say NO we mean no, and so many of them say: “pretty please”, or “why not”, or “for how much”….i mean really.

There seems to be a Vogue photo shoot in the 2010 November (or 2011?) French Vogue magazine that looks like Burning Man. If it is, we didn’t approve of it, and have scratched our heads internally about it since it was spotted several years ago.

Unfortunately, she sent this response long after I’d emailed her asking for clarification. Because she sent it through the site’s Contact page, rather than replying to my email, it slipped through the cracks when I was traveling and I didn’t see it for a couple more months. I thought she never got back to me; she probably thought I was ignoring her response. When I did see it, I decided to accept her explanation, and stopped mentioning $150,000 Vogue photoshoots in my commentary.

At the end of the day, does it really matter that Vogue didn’t hand over a check – that BMOrg was simply quoting them a six figure price? Charging site fees is Commodification, it’s as simple as that. Did Fest300 have to pay site fees, to film their commercial at Burning Man? Did AirBnB pay them, for their Black Rock City advertisement?

Search AirBnB for Burning Man, this ad is still displayed

Search AirBnB for Burning Man, this ad is still displayed

I can see how casually easy it has been for BMOrg management to use this claim as their shining example against Burners.Me. “Hey Marian, did we get paid $150,000 by Vogue?” “Absolutely not!” “Well Burners.Me is claiming we did, they must be lying, it must be a disinformation site”. 

The problem with that theory is, it wasn’t me who came up with the $150,000 site fee for Vogue. It was the SF Bay Guardian. And Marian Goodell doesn’t deny that she said that. I was just quoting someone else’s information, and providing a link to my source. If SFBG got it wrong, then why didn’t BMOrg demand a retraction – or correct us publicly in the comments to our story? Why didn’t their CEO just reply to my email?

tribesbmI formed an opinion based on a front page feature story from a newspaper, from pretty much the most trusted source I could get about Burning Man. Scribe is not just a professional journalist, he was the editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian before its recent closure, and he’s also the author of an impeccably researched book, The Tribes of Burning Man. He based his 5-page long article on hours of recorded interviews with Larry and Marian. If that is not a good enough source for me to quote, then what is?

Some might say “well you should have fact checked it” – but I did do that. When Paladin raised doubts to me, the next morning I contacted Burning Man’s CEO directly. And she didn’t get back to me for months.

Yesterday I contacted Scribe and shared Marian’s version of events with him. He replied:

I believe the context of that quote was in discussing the site fee that the film crew paid Burning Man to shoot there, specifically because I was raising questions about its appropriateness and conflicts of interest. She raised the Vogue thing to say that such site fees are routine and no big deal, which is sort of the opposite of what she’s now trying to say. She never asked for a correction on that point, and I know that she did read the article and was unhappy with my criticism of the film and deceptions in the transition to nonprofit status. I have no idea whether Vogue ever paid them anything, that was simply an anecdote that Marian volunteered and not something that was a strong focus of my story. 

Marian says they were just being ironic, playing a “dumb game”, laughing at the chumps who presumably thought they were having a professional discussion. Scribe’s memory of the conversation is different. Meanwhile, commercial news agencies are selling Burning Man photos, Google are running ads over YouTube videos filmed at the Playa, movies like Spark are paying site fees. Dumb game or not, this is part of BMOrg’s business model. And is it now the Burning Man Project getting paid for image licensing and movie royalties? Or is it Decommodification, LLC? This information has not been made transparent to Burners.

Even with the updated information that we finally got from the CEO – that BMOrg quoted a price, but Vogue didn’t want to pay that much – is it really Burners.Me that’s the bad guy here? What about BMOrg, proposing it in the first place? Isn’t this pure commodification: selling the art that gets created as a gift by Burners, to a magazine for profit? If an artist spends hours making an art car or costume that gets featured in Vogue, do they get a cut of these site fees? No, they don’t. Why should the detail that Vogue didn’t end up paying, completely over-ride the main point: that BMOrg is asking magazines to pay 6-figure sums as site fees for their productions? Isn’t this just another revenue stream, another nail in the coffin of a free-from-commercial-transactions Playa?

I don’t have all the answers, I’m not an insider, and those who are aren’t allowed to speak to me.

If we publish something that turns out to be inaccurate, I update the story. I spend hours doing research and fact-checking, and always provide links to the sources of my information. If I can’t verify something, I tell you that it’s unconfirmed; if it’s rumor or speculation, I highlight that. Just because something is a rumor, doesn’t mean it’s untrue – as we showed with this year’s Circus theme, and the VIP Donation tickets which BMOrg have now admitted to.

Yes, this site is opinionated, but that’s the whole point of blogging: commentary. I comment on what people are saying about Burner culture on the Internet. Someone writes an article somewhere, and I quote the part of it that relates to my point and give you my take on it. Then I invite readers to also comment, providing their own take. I always identify the source with links so that you can read the original stories in their entirety and make your own mind up. I treat my readers like intelligent adults, rather than dispensing propaganda and using the kind of trickery and slippery language we’re used to seeing from politicians.

Sometimes Burners.Me might get things wrong, or not get the full picture. Sometimes, as was the case of the fire-spinner flare-up at SF Decom, there will be conflicting versions of a story. In that case I try to present the different viewpoints, as well as my opinion. This is a blog, not the Bible; if new information comes to light, we update our readers. That’s why you frequently see [Updates] to the stories here. The comments are open, and anyone is encouraged to share facts, evidence, and their own opinions.

BMOrg can come here at any time, and correct anything they don’t agree with. Sadly, when they have commented here before, it’s generally been to criticize and launch ad hominem and straw man attacks, instead of to answer our questions.

haters gonna hate unicorn[Update 12/11/14 8:13am]

Lemur has commented that this very post is an example of misinformation.

lemur misinformation

this is an example of misinformation.

you’re referring to this as if it was their policy for anything published on their website, when you know that their response to your request to have information removed was explicitly about their COMMENT POLICY.

i believe the direct quote was “nothing in this post violates our comment policy. A comment not being 100% factually accurate is not grounds for removal”

you know this, I know this..

this is why its misinformation.

If BMOrg does have a policy requiring everything they publish to be 100% accurate, where is it?

This post might be an example of interpreting the facts I have to form an opinion: but that is the whole freaking point of the post! If you’re going to condemn it, please at least read the whole thing.

Let me provide some further examples behind why I made that statement:

Burning Man’s founder, Director of the Burning Man Project, and owner/Director of Decommodification LLC, the private company that owns all the assets of the business, Danger Ranger, publicly doxed me and published maliciously false statements as well as personal information. When I corrected him, both publicly and privately, he chose to completely ignore the facts. He didn’t change a thing he’d said, didn’t remove them. Instead, he took to burningman.org and the Regionals list to repeat them again, even though at this point he now new without a shadow of any doubt that they were lies.

Then the tag team of BMOrg’s Minister of Propaganda and director of Communications, who were responding to the many comments on their blog post which the community had waited 3 months for, said this when I raised an objection again to their Director spreading both personal and false information about me:

Screenshot 2014-12-05 19.38.09

This seems like an open admission to me. The context is important here. The context is not simply them being asked about their comment policy, the context is me asking them to remove false and personal information being posted at burningman.org by one of their Directors.

It’s also worth noting that none of us can post links on their blog, now called “Voices of Burning Man”. Any post with a link goes to the censors, who don’t seem to approve them if the link in any way supports a negative opinion about BMOrg. Many Burners have encountered their comment vanishing there, simply because they tried to back it up with a reference. BMOrg provide a field “web site” in the comments, if you put “burners.me” in that your post gets automatically censored. Yet somehow “Mortician” was able to post a link to Danger Ranger’s Facebook post that had been reproduced on eplaya.burningman.org.  They also had no problem letting “The Man” post a link to a negative tabloid story about me, in which I was the victim of a frivolous lawsuit and the Murdoch organization’s global hacking scandal.

The comment policy actually says:

we expect commenters to identify themselves in their posts, and conduct themselves as they would as guests at a party, where spirited conversation is welcome, but unruly and rude behavior is not…Anonymous comments are not permitted here. Our contributors will identify themselves when we write Burning Blog; in turn, we want to know who you are and that there’s a real person behind the words you post. We’ve seen what can happen in spaces that make it easy for “hit and run” comments: things can go completely septic, fast.

And yet, rude, anonymous and septic comments against Burners.Me and myself personally get to stay. No problem there.

There is more to BMOrg’s desire to not be 100% factually accurate than just their comment policy.

First of all, there is nothing in the Bylaws of the Burning Man Project, their Mission and Values statement, or anywhere else about truth and honesty. If there is any document from Burning Man that states that they DO have to be honest and/or factually accurate in what they say, I’d love to see it; it should be easy for them to produce it.

Let me give you a few examples of the public falsehoods they’ve spread.

1. On November 25 Minister of Propaganda Will Chase came here to comment on our post Donation Tickets: Here to Stay and said:

“Actually, charitable donation tickets are tickets that Burning Man donates to charities for their fundraising raffles”

On December 3, burningman.org said:

“The Donation Ticket Program sold tickets between May and July. No tickets were sold through this channel after August 1. Tickets were sold for face value plus a $250 tax-deductible donation to Burning Man Project. “


“We have eliminated the Burning Man Project Donation Ticket Program”

2. We leaked that they were selling tickets above face value to VIPs, and giving a small amount of the money to their charity non-profit. On October 10 on the Theme Camp Organizers Facebook group, I asked Rosie Lila, a BMOrg employee who we understand is their dedicated Commodification Camp liaison,

How did these Commodification Camps get so many tickets, Rosie?

to which she replied:

I don’t have specific information on the tickets distribution at this time.

I pointed her to Steven Young, who works for Burning Man and sent the email that we’d leaked.

Then readers leaked us screenshots, which we published on October 30. At this point they were still trying to ignore the issue. Despite my assistance to help the left hand figure out what the right hand had been up to, on Nov 11 they were still pleading ignorance at burningman.org:

How did turnkey camps get all their tickets?

Do turnkey camps get preferential treatment

?Were people buying blocks of tickets through the Burning Man Project donation ticket program in the days before the event?

….The importance of these questions requires collaboration and input from a wide variety of people including staff, theme camp leaders, artists, Regional Network leaders, turnkey camp producers, and participants. We are still gathering information and identifying the most effective solutions.

Eventually, they “came clean” and admitted to what they had done. However, they still said:

No tickets were sold through this channel after August 1

Proof that BMOrg continued to sell tickets to the “sold out” event after August 1, and after the OMG sale ended, comes from this statement from Danger Ranger’s Facebook page that I captured before it was shut down for TOS violations:

On the 21st of August, 2014, the first Burning Man ticket was sold for Bitcoin in a face-value equivalency transaction as an experiment in on-line reputational trust between individuals. Now all we need is a ‘Pay in BTC’ button added to the ticket purchase section of the Burning Man website.


3. BMOrg published a page, not linked to anywhere else on their site, saying “We pay $4,522,952 a year to the BLM”. This was picked up and repeated by the Reno Gazette Journal and other publications as a statement of fact, despite their 2013 Afterburn report saying the $4.5 million line item was for “BLM and other usage”. I contacted the BLM directly, and their manager responsible for Burning Man confirmed that BMOrg only paid them $3.45 million. We exposed this here, and questioned whether “Other usage” included a payment to Decommodification, LLC or the other private companies owned by the directors. BMOrg have never corrected or explained their misinformation.

4. Earlier this year, BMOrg crowed to the media “we have completed our transition to a non-profit”, as if it was now a fait accompli. Larry Harvey said “the truth is we’ve surrendered all rights of ownership”. It was left to us to prove that no, they hadn’t. What they had done was to create a secretive company called Decommodification LLC, owned by the 6 founders, and transfer the core assets of the business into that. Larry Harvey then revealed:

My fellow founders and I are the sole members of this entity whose chief property is the name “Burning Man”. This too will be transferred to the non-profit in three years time, unless the partners elect “not” to do so

I could go on, because there are many more examples, but I think I’ve made my point. There is a consistent pattern of misinformation from this organization. There is no policy requiring them to be truthful – if there is, let’s see it. Meanwhile, if someone can show us we’re wrong, we correct it. I try very hard to be truthful, and provide links to the source of all my claims. This update alone took me an hour and a half because of the need to do that.

As for Lemur, this is far from an unbiased person. This troll went so far as to create a dedicated hate site about me last weekend, chronicling my “meltdown” over being doxed in the DangerGate scandal, which used the phrase “in this author’s opinion” 13 41 times:

lemur apologizes