Hey, listen up, I have a business opportunity for you. How would you like a free trip to Australia and $10,000? I know you’re a little strapped right now, and I think this could really help you out. I mean c’mon, it’s me, your pal Jacques Rockhard! I know it sounds sketchy, but I promise it’s as easy as pie. We’ll fly you and a friend down to Vegas, you can hang out there for a while, and then you’re gonna meet up with a buddy of mine. He’ll toss you a suitcase that doesn’t have cocaine in it I promise. It belongs to another friend of mine down under, and they’ll be really glad to have it back. Once they get it, enjoy yourself bro! It’s Australia, find yourself some beach babes, hunt a snake, become intimately familiar with the criminal justice system, and just go crazy! Whaddya say? Sound like a deal?
No? Okay, fair enough. But what if I manipulated you and threatened you a bit and it was all “in the name of journalism?” Because this is a real story. In 2015, four young Canadians and one young American (played by you) were arrested entering Australia on drug trafficking charges. Their handler (played by me) was a man named Yaroslav Pastukov, a Ukrainian-Canadian former music news editor for Vice Media’s “Noisey,” known as Slava P.
Slava’s arrest in 2019 was international news. It was a juicy story, filled to the brim with hubris and mild tragedy, while peeking into the world of exciting movie-quality organized crime. There is no question about whether or not he did it. Slava pleaded guilty to the charge of conspiracy to import cocaine, and was sentenced to nine years in prison, but he wants everyone to know he did it for the story.
Between his arrest in January and his sentencing in December, Slava had been vocal about his opinion on the severity of his crime. He gave a feature-worthy interview for The Ringer and was the subject of a six-part Canadaland podcast. In both, he explains that he feels this was a victimless crime, and he points a lot of indirect fingers at his former employer’s corporate culture.
If you’re familiar with Vice Media and its rise to success, this logic (If you forget about the five young people who lost years of their lives to an Australian prison) kind of tracks. This whole thing sounds exactly like an old Vice story. And, if you listen to what Slava has to say, that’s because that’s what this was supposed to be.
In 2015, Vice Media was expanding. What had started out as three bros in Montreal in the 90s, publishing whatever they wanted ‘because fuck you,’ had turned into a multinational media empire. The white supremacist founder had left, they had acquired a fashion magazine, they hadn’t yet been accused of fostering a culture of sexual harassment, and they had been receiving an influx of multi-million dollar investments from companies like Disney and Rogers. They were on top of the world.
Slava wanted a piece of that. He was watching coworkers land big hosting gigs as Vice expanded their reach, producing new TV shows specials and documentaries. He began to worry he would be left in the dust. A wakeup call to this effect came when a close coworker of Slava’s, Ben Makuch, landed a source inside fucking ISIS and subsequently his own TV show.
On the Canadaland podcast, Slava describes himself and Makuch lamenting the end of the great gonzo VICE specials of old -- buying guns in Liberia, chasing after hallucinogens in South America, flipping the bird to North Korean officials -- self-described assholes doing whatever they wanted in the name of journalism.
Makuch refused to go on the record about this, but I can picture it perfectly. I’ll admit it was specials like these that inspired my application to journalism school and my father's subsequent disappointment. But apparently it also led to our boy’s arrest.
I want to be clear about this: Slava’s actions cost five kids years of their lives. His smuggling operation was not a victimless crime, despite what he’s been telling everyone. But he also didn’t come up with it himself. The Crown could only prosecute up to him and his coconspirator Ali Taki Lalji, but when Slava tells the story, the idea came from on high: cartel representatives whom Slava (I swear to God) calls Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
And if you hear his old coworkers talk about him, they’ll tell you there’s no way this guy figured out how to smuggle coke on his own. Justin Ling, a reporter for Vice at the time told Canadaland: “He was just a -- how do I put this more correctly -- a bit of an idiot?” And there’s no way he was ‘only doing it for the story’ either. He’s said so: “I wasn’t immediately thinking of the Vice story angle.” He told Canadaland that honestly? It sounded like easy money.
But I do believe there was an instinct. A tug in a vague journalistic direction, a twinge in the crotch of democracy. Anyway, he’s an idiot but let’s look at the context that surrounds Slava’s poorly conceived criminal organization.
The journalism industry is dying. The internet took it out behind the shed and then gross shit happened -- advertisers won’t pay to show their products next to controversial subject matter and investors won’t pay for a company that produces a product advertisers won’t pay for. And in case you haven’t noticed, producing controversial subject matter is pretty much the whole point of having a news organization.
There have been collapses in the past -- Gawker and Mashable and SourceFed and Gizmodo -- but Vice was a survivor. Slava watched it all fall around him, colleagues and competitors suddenly out of jobs. He, like anyone, was worried he could be next. Not to mention payroll at Vice was distributed in coolness more than in legal tender. And that’s if you were lucky enough to be on salary.
Slava was partying with the cool kids at night and writing about what he remembered in the morning, all while making less than a waiter at the local Boston Pizza. This lifestyle reflects the attitude media management has toward its organizations: ‘Investors won’t pay us? Just don’t pay our reporters. If they complain, it’s not like there aren’t a thousand other millennials who can work Twitter or WordPress.’
Which, to be fair, is probably true. But that’s how you get shit like “20 Slightly Incorrect Names for Food.” Plenty of news organizations, whether digital or legacy, place strict quotas on their employees, requiring a minimum number of tweets or posts or articles a day.
The fact is, nobody wants to read legacy media, and nobody wants to pay for new media. The National Post article on this exact story was so boring it derailed me so hard I had to actually do cocaine to finish this.
We need to stop behaving like a journalist is anyone with a smartphone, internet access and a birth certificate dated after 1985. It’s hard to be one, as is pointed out by my dad every time I talk about getting high on the internet.
Slava wasn’t in the position to be chasing an international drug trafficking story. A Google search would have told him that Australia is the second most expensive place to buy cocaine on the planet after fucking Kuwait. They have some of the strictest border control on the planet. It wasn’t an easy score like he told these kids, and he should have known that.
But frankly, the fact that this guy thought that fucking up his own life and the lives of others was the best way to get ahead in the journalism industry is messed up. I’m just worried that things are so bad, I would’ve done the same thing in his position.