Tuesday, December 5, 2023

When Your Reporting Provokes a Calculated Smear Campaign, You’re Asking the Right Questions—Sarah Reith Responds

An illustration from an 1894 issue of Puck magazine using “fake news” as a means to discredit a reporter [From here]

Earlier today, we posted a complaint from Caryn Roth, Director of Operations at Unconditional Freedom which previously provided programs at the Mendocino County Jail about an article we posted on October 6. She told us, “Our programs have been canceled at the Jail and Juvenile Hall thanks to [Sarah Reith’s] salacious reporting, leaving the most vulnerable without access to programming and support.”

If you haven’t yet read the article Sarah Reith wrote or the complaint about the article by Caryn Roth, you can click on the appropriate linked text to be taken to each one.

Below is Sarah’s rebuttal to Ms. Roth’s complaint.

Caryn Roth claims that our reporting on the web of connections between a for-profit business that markets sex as spirituality and a non-profit that was offering services at the Mendocino County jail “leaves hundreds in the community without programs.” But Sheriff Matt Kendall told us that services at the jail continue. The gardener has been hired by the Mendocino Community College to continue teaching inmates through an accredited educational institution. High school graduation and college classes are still available.

Roth accuses us of conflating the work of OneTaste, which revolves around the practice of “orgasmic meditation,” or OM, with that of Unconditional Freedom, which distributes thousands of pounds of food to the needy and attempts to restore dignity to those who have been cast aside by society.

But we only pointed out the conflation that was already there. It is a fact that before we started asking questions about the connections, the website onetaste.us used a recognizable photograph of a Mendocino County jail inmate on its Unconditional Freedom page. The image, next to a caption declaring that Unconditional Freedom is “dedicated to programs that restore dignity to marginalized people and groups,” is just below a tab inviting visitors to check out the orgasmic meditation section of the website, where browsers can pick up expensive “OM training packages,” with the help of a certified coach.

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After we began asking questions, this photo of a Mendocino County inmate disappeared from the Unconditional Freedom page of the OneTaste.us website. Note the tabs to other pages of the website–Eros Sutras, the Monastery, Orgasmic Meditation, IOM Foundation [Institute of Orgasmic Meditation]

To us, it looks very much like this marginalized individual, and the good works being done on his behalf, were part of a strategy to market sexual services. When we asked Sheriff Matt Kendall what he thought about the inmate’s photo on the website, he said it was “concerning,” and added that “We are not going to advertise or be associated with things that I do not find to be good, wholesome, moral things.”

The conflation goes further: in the time we’ve been working on this story, we have dealt with three representatives from Unconditional Freedom and OneTaste, all of whom attempted to gaslight us and deflect from the issue: that their supposed educational, spiritual, character-building program is deeply tied to an organization that makes its money from sex that is marketed as spirituality.

The three representatives themselves show how interconnected the organizations are. The lawyer worked for Unconditional Freedom. The media consultant worked for OneTaste. And the “writer” works for a non-profit that has the same EIN as Unconditional Freedom and several other non-profits.

This takes some untangling. An EIN, or Employer Identification Number, is the nine-digit number the IRS assigns to a business or a non-profit to keep track of its federal tax reporting. Ms. Roth told us she runs operations for Unconditional Freedom and the Free Food program, formerly known as Love to Table. Her LinkedIn profile lists her as the Executive Director of Love to Table, which is one of several organizations that share an EIN with Unconditional Freedom. Another is Om Free, also known as the Onetaste Foundation. That’s a lot of names to pile onto one piece of tax identification information. Ms Roth is just the latest in a rotating cast of characters involved in organizations with similar missions, the same personnel, and plenty of money to hire people to be really, really, really mad at one reporter.

Ms. Roth’s editorial states that I repeated salacious allegations, “despite having no evidence at all that Unconditional Freedom had committed any wrongdoing.” We did not purport to have any such evidence. In fact, I cited two of our top law enforcement officials, assuring the public that Unconditional Freedom volunteers had done nothing untoward either at the jail or in Juvenile Hall. They even praised the quality of their work. Ms. Roth is creating a straw man, a rhetorical fallacy that is a crude, and common, variety of lying.

Ms. Roth accuses KZYX and me, of one-sided reporting, though we tried very hard to get Unconditional Freedom Executive Director Marcus Ratnathicam to talk to us. During the groundwork for a piece we were planning on restorative justice at the jail, one of our reporters emailed Ratnathicam a number of questions about the program. In addition to softball questions about how many jails and prisons use the program, how many volunteers, etc, she asked him one hard question: if he could please comment on his previous work with OneTaste, and the allegations in a 2018 Bloomberg article claiming that work conditions there were sexually, psychologically, and financially exploitive. On September 28, she wrote, “I strive to write a balanced story on what is happening in the jail. I would appreciate any input you wish to provide, or any comments you have on the Bloomberg article or your previous employment with OneTaste as your input could serve to ameliorate any nefarious suspension (sic) about UFP.”

Ratnathicam ignored this question and sent his responses to the others through his lawyer, Caren Callahan. Her response to the question, “How do you measure success?” was “Eudaimonia, or “living well”, “fulfilled”, combined with county / state tax dollars saved through using incarceration for human flourishing versus punishment. On a longer horizon we’ll study recidivism and health care costs.”

When I asked her to elaborate, Callahan did not know how much money the program had saved. There is no objective, post-release information about how, or whether, the program has improved the lives of anyone in this highly tracked population. Unconditional Freedom will study recidivism and health care costs “on a longer horizon,” but hasn’t done so in the almost two years it’s been in the jail? They seem to be measuring success by something they aren’t measuring. The “personal flourishing” is assessed solely by answers to subjective, self-reported questions about things like stress, anger, depression, forgiveness, and “limiting beliefs,” on questionnaires that inmates fill out before and after participating in the eight-week program, while they are still in jail.

Mr. Ratnathicam’s refusal to provide the most basic information about Unconditional Freedom is not the only instance where he was unprepared to answer a predictable question. If he had any respect for the well-known convention of reporters occasionally asking an awkward question, he would have known full well that someone was going to walk up to him one fine day and ask him to comment on the Bloomberg article.

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He demonstrated his disregard for the truth in an email to Kendall, after it was all over; after we had emailed our questions, offered to set up an interview, talked to his lawyer instead, and Kendall had severed ties with Unconditional Freedom. In an email to the sheriff, Ratnathicam specifically complained about the Bloomberg piece we had asked him to comment on, before falsely claiming that we had never asked him for a comment at all. On October 5, the day the radio piece aired, he wrote,“There is a wealth of factual evidence that controvert allegations in these and other media sources which to date KZYX Radio has neither requested comment on nor communicated to myself or anyone with the OneTaste organization that they will be reporting.”

Is lying to law enforcement part of what Ms. Roth identifies as “the highest standards of ethics and prudence?” Ms. Roth asserts that Unconditional Freedom leadership was committed to disclosing “the nature of its relationship to OneTaste.” But Mr. Ratnathicam refused to answer questions, and then hired a lawyer to insist that there is no legal connection between the two organizations, and that she had no idea if he or any of the other volunteers had ever had anything to do with OneTaste.

Screenshot of a page linked from Onetase.us that shows Unconditional Freedom, the non-profit which provided programs at the Mendocino County Jail, on the menu of selections with Orgasmic Meditation and the Institute of OM Foundation.

After I wrote my stories, the deep-pocketed organization hired a woman who told me her name was Bryn Freedman, and that she was an investigative reporter for ABC. She informed me that she is “very respected in the field.” She did not divulge that she was also a media consultant until I interrupted her litany of accomplishments and asked her outright if she was working for OneTaste. She said something about creating a beautiful video to restore the reputation of the much-maligned OneTaste, and that she would like to share it with me. Ms. Roth writes that there are “countless videos and other documentary evidence of the positive and constructive works of [Unconditional Freedom] in the community.” I don’t know exactly what the standards of documentary evidence are, but if you hired someone to make it for you, it is probably called something else–possibly propaganda.

If Bryn Freedman actually cared about her clients’ interests, she wouldn’t spend her time reciting her accomplishments to the smallest of small-time reporters. She would sit them down and tell them a few hard truths: When you besiege media outlets with rebuttals, complaints, and threats of legal action, you create the distinct impression that you are working very hard to hide something.

Don’t hire a lawyer, a celebrity reporter, and an unknown writer to successively browbeat, gaslight, and lie about a reporter and the news she reports.

Here’s what you do about that one hard question: answer the damn thing. Don’t lie. And don’t accuse other people of discrediting you, when you did it yourself.

Ms. Roth writes that “Unconditional Freedom and OneTaste share similar philosophical outlooks based on rehumanizing marginalized populations.” The onetaste.us website states that “Rehuman is an online education platform that showcases the work of like-minded brands dedicated to rehumanizing the world.” There is no evidence to suggest that the world needs to be rehumanized, or that it was ever dehumanized, or that either of these things is a problem.

This consortium demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of the basic principle that being human means being deeply flawed; that being hungry or homeless or jailed is not a departure from the human condition. Unconditional Freedom, with its ties to a company that markets sex as spirituality, is not in a position to restore anyone’s humanity — if that is even what “rehumanizing” is supposed to mean.

I don’t have any reason to believe that anything Caryn Roth writes is true. But if Unconditional Freedom, formerly known as the OneTaste Foundation and not to be confused with OneTaste, really is collapsing under the weight of one question, this much is undeniably true:

It was the right question.

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  1. Onetaste, the Institute of Orgasmic Meditation, and Unconditional Freedom share the same employees,(Mark Ratnathicam, Austin Ayer, for example), the same PO Box in Santa Rosa, and the same EIN number for the IRS. They are indisputably interlinked! Why deny this, Caryn Roth?

  2. OneTaste/Unconditional Freedom is using the exact same tactics as Scientology and Jim Jones. Denial, confusion, obfuscation, harassment. The treatment of women who sign up for OneTaste programs seems similar to those who got enmeshed in NXIUM.

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Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

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