Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

GateHouse’s Takeover of Gannett: Bad News for Journalism and the Planet

USA Today‘s “Just the FAQs” video (8/20/19) on the Amazon fires—which promises to explain, “How does this affect our planet?”—manages to avoid ever using the words “climate” or “global warming.” (There is one reference to “carbon and greenhouse gases,” not further explained.)

by Janine Jackson

USA Today ran a piece (8/20/19) on the Amazon fires in which “anthropogenic climate change” were almost literally the last three words. Media watchers are wondering if that’s more likely to reflect the outlet’s priorities now that its owner, Gannett—the largest newspaper publisher in the country, as measured by total daily circulation—has merged with GateHouse Media, owned by Wes Edens’ New Fortress Investment Group, which also owns New Fortress Energy, which deals in natural gas.

The merger is terrible for the usual journalistic reasons: This sort of consolidation means fewer resources for reporting, usually fewer reporters, and less informed attention to local affairs. As for the fossil fuel connection, it’s maybe not so much what it means for USA Today as for the 666 other publications involved nationwide. Like in Florida, where as New Fortress, Edens owns a liquefied natural gas export terminal, with big eyes on Puerto Rico, and as GateHouse, he owns 31 publications, including four newly acquired Gannett papers.

As FAIR founder Jeff Cohen was quoted in a piece for the Real News Network (8/8/19):

With environmental struggles often localized and fought over issues like fracking and pipeline construction, it’s a grave situation when a gas and fracking investor like Edens is the ultimate owner of an ever-increasing number of local dailies and weeklies.

Featured image: USA Today Building, McLean, Virginia (cc photo: Shashi Bellamkonda)

WaPo Complicit in Corruption of DC Council’s Corporate ‘Concierge’

 

After years of hiding in plain sight, Jack Evans’ ethical problems are suddenly a story (WJLA, 3/5/19).

When the FBI came knocking on DC Councilmember Jack Evans’ door in June, it set off an earthquake in local politics and business.

Over his 28 years on the DC Council, Evans has served as “concierge” for the elite, steering gobs of public money to stadiums, arenas and luxury condos. Along the way, it wasn’t just developers and banks that profited; so did Evans.

Evidence of Evans’ corruption abounded for many years, just not in the pages of the influential Washington Post, which has long protected the councilmember. But with a growing federal investigation of Evans, the Post finally ended its silence; over the past months, the paper has consistently reported on Evans’ misconduct. Since then, Evans—until recently DC’s third-most powerful official—has been reprimanded, fined and stripped of his committee chair positions.

The Post frequently credits its own reporting for the quickening pace of events, which is fair, and underscores the paper’s complicity in keeping Evans in office all these years. Once the Post ended its silence, Evans’ career began to unravel.

But first it had to begin.

 

Mr. Evans Goes to Washington

Jack Evans grew up in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town, where his mom was a teacher and his dad a florist. After attending college and law school in his home state, Evans took a job at the Securities and Exchange Commission in DC in 1978.

The DC that Evans arrived in was 70 percent black and known as “Chocolate City.” (Today the city is less than half black.) Evans quickly enmeshed himself in local Democratic politics, even though it was an imperfect fit; a party leader said she “roared with laughter because he was so white. Like a Norwegian.”

Jack Evans running for City Council for the first time in 1991 (Washington Blade, 4/19/19)

But by the time the Ward 2 Council seat opened in 1991, Evans had established himself as an elected advisory neighborhood commissioner in Dupont Circle, and was looking to move up.

“We’re not going to accept money from large-scale developers who have dominated the political scene,” a 37-year-old Evans said as he campaigned for the seat he would barely win, but easily hold onto for the next 28 years.

Once on the Council, it wasn’t long before Evans was singing a different tune. “He started out as a resident [activist],” an Evans constituent told the Post in 1998 (8/26/98). “But he’s no longer that. He’s out in the big leagues, [playing] to the big interests that contribute the big money.”

Fueled by mayoral ambitions, Evans went after that big money. But no war chest was big enough to hide the fact that Evans was a white guy advocating for the rich, and his mayoral bids in 1998 and 2014 were flops.

While the top job in a progressive black city was out of his reach, Evans remained secure in his Council seat, representing Downtown and wealthy Georgetown. So secure that he could focus on earning money on the side.

 

First Hustle: Baker Hostetler

Even before his first mayoral run, Evans had turned himself into a walking conflict of interest by taking a second job at the lobbying firm Baker Hostetler, which paid him $50,000 a year for at least six years.

Despite earning full-time salaries (now $140,000 a year), DC councilmembers can hold outside employment. While the Post blessed this practice for pols like Evans with “discrete clients,” this moonlighting still raised ethical concerns. Evans acknowledged this himself:

Whenever rules allow public officials to earn outside income there will always be questions.… When legal or consulting services are provided, that is even more the case.

After his first failed mayoral bid, Evans grew his outside income—and his involvement in conflicted dealmaking.

 

Second Hustle: Central Benefits

In 1999, Evans became a vice president at Central Benefits Mutual Insurance Co., which was planning a rapid expansion and looking to raise capital by converting to a stock company. But state law in Ohio, where Central Benefits was based, made this conversion difficult. So the company, which was a client of Baker Hostetler, looked to incorporate in DC, where a 1996 law—which Evans supported—aided such conversions. After domiciling in DC, Central Benefits hired Evans, paying him around $500,000 over the course of a decade, even though his duties were “really not much,” Evans said.

The Post appears to have reported on this potential conflict of interest only once (11/21/11).

 

Third Hustle: Patton Boggs

Tommy Boggs (photo: Patton Boggs)

In 2001, Evans joined the lobbying powerhouse Patton Boggs, which paid him a second salary of $190,000 a year for nearly 14 years, for an estimated total of around $2.5 million. The firm was a good fit for Evans, as it wasn’t known for ethical purity.

When a magazine called the firm’s longtime leader Tommy Boggs “an icon of Washington’s mercenary culture,” Boggs (who passed away in 2014) proudly displayed the article in his office. “We pick our clients”—who included former Haitian dictator Baby Doc Duvalier—“by taking the first one who comes in the door,” said Boggs (Economist, 2/27/93).

Boggs’ father, Hale Boggs, was a Democratic congressman from Louisiana who rose to House majority leader before dying in a 1972 plane crash. His widow, Lindy Boggs, then served nine terms in her late husband’s seat. (Hale and Lindy’s daughter, Cokie Roberts, has for decades been a top political commentator for NPR and ABC News.)

Their son’s firm, which boasted of being the best at “anything where government is involved,” thrived on access. Under Tommy Boggs, the firm became a pioneer at exploiting the “revolving door” by hiring ex-officials to influence their former colleagues.

The hiring of Evans offered a new twist, as Patton Boggs placed on its payroll a sitting legislator; one who is “up on the government, the players and how deals get cut,” as the Post (2/28/14) would later write. Unsurprisingly, ethics questions arose.

In 2004, Evans voted to award a tax break to CareFirst without disclosing that the healthcare company was a client of his firm’s. Evans was listed as having personally lobbied Congress on CareFirst’s behalf, which Patton Boggs chalked up to “a simple mistake” in their filing, former Washington Times journalist Jim McElhatton (10/23/07) reported.

The Post never followed up on the story, but what if it had? “You do have to wonder,” said McElhatton, “what if the Post had gotten on the story a decade ago, would Jack have even thought of” engaging in further conflicted dealmaking down the road? “I don’t think so.”

In 2007, Evans sought to give away a library and firehouse in his ward to developer buddy Anthony Lanier. In exchange for developing these highly valuable Downtown parcels, Lanier’s EastBanc agreed to construct a new library and firehouse, and to build housing on top of them (market rate above the quiet library, affordable units and a squash club above the noisy fire department).

But public anger forced the Council to undo the sole-source deal, and it would take a full decade before Evans saw the project to completion. “If you’re persistent, you’ll either out-wait or out-live everybody and get the project done,” Evans said at the 2014 groundbreaking. Between 2016 and 2018, Lanier’s companies, EastBanc and Squash on Fire, paid Evans’ personal consulting firm $100,000. It’s unknown what services Evans provided in exchange for these payments.

The Washington Marriott Marquis (cc photo: Farragutful)

In 2009, Evans shepherded to completion a deal involving $272 million in public funding to assist Marriott in building a nearly 1,200-room hotel alongside the DC Convention Center. A major financing partner in the deal, investment giant ING, was a client of Patton Boggs at the time, yet Evans said “there was no conflict of interest.” Since ING’s agreement was with the developer, Evans claimed it “had nothing to do with the city.” But thanks to Evans, the city provided over a quarter billion in public goodies, benefiting all parties in the deal, including ING. The Post wrote about this only once, in a story that appeared online but never in print.

In 2010, Evans offered $25 million in public subsidies to Northrop Grumman if the defense contractor moved to DC. Evans then went farther, fanning the flames of a jurisdictional bidding war by saying, “Whatever someone else puts down, we’re going to match it and we’re going to beat it.” Evans didn’t disclose that Northrop Grumman was a client of the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group, which was in a “strategic alliance” with Patton Boggs and would soon be bought by the firm. Ultimately, Northrop Grumman ended up in northern Virginia, likely with a sweeter incentive package thanks to Evans. The Post, which has praised Evans for his work “both on the dais and behind the scenes,” hasn’t reported on this conflict of interest.

Also in 2010, Evans championed a sole-source disposition of seven acres of air rights over Downtown’s exposed I-395 underpass, to Property Group Partners and its named partners. The 2.2 million square foot, $1.3 billion development is still underway today. One of the partners in the project is the Jarvis Company, headed by Bill Jarvis, a lobbyist who was campaign chair for Evans’ 1998 mayoral bid. Jarvis, the nephew of former DC councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, has lobbied Evans in the past, and most recently was involved in a controversial $215 million sports gambling contract that Evans introduced and voted for in July. In 2016, Jarvis helped Evans set up his private consulting firm, serving as its registered agent and more.

In 2011, at EagleBank’s request, Evans sought to shift DC money out of big banks and into three regional banks, including EagleBank, where Patton Boggs partner Doug Boggs, son of Tommy Boggs, was on the board. “I had no idea he was on the board,” claimed Evans, who would go on to be paid $100,000 a year in 2016 and 2017 by EagleBank, which also provided Evans with mortgage loans on his Florida house.

Throughout his years at Patton Boggs, the Post kept Evans’ conflicted dealmaking mostly out of the paper. When it couldn’t, the coverage was fleeting, not sustained. During these years, the paper repeatedly endorsed Evans’ re-election to the Council, writing that “voters would be making a big mistake in not returning Mr. Evans to office” (9/3/08), since he was “an important leader on some of the thorniest issues facing the District” (10/23/08). Despite the fact that Evans had no opponent in the 2012 Democratic primary, the Post (3/17/12) endorsed him anyway, declaring:

His experience, more than two decades on the council, and sound judgment, particularly on fiscal matters, are needed on an increasingly dysfunctional council.

In January 2015, shortly after Patton Boggs was bought (becoming Squire Patton Boggs), the firm parted ways with Evans. This would prove to be a turning point for the councilmember.

 

In the Red

Even before losing his $190,000 second salary, Evans’ financial situation was precarious. In addition to having college-age triplets, Evans had a second home in Florida, and appears to have been spending $15,000 a year on club memberships alone. He was also in the process of divorcing his second wife, to whom he owed $850,000. (Evans’ first wife died of cancer in 2003.)

The $850,000 debt was from a 2011 loan from Evans’ wife to remodel their Georgetown home, which Evans owned. Their loan agreement gave her the first lien on Evans’ home, and prohibited him from taking out further loans against the house without first paying her back. Despite being required by law to disclose this to lenders, Evans appears not to have done so when securing additional loans against his home in 2012 and 2013.

Over 20-plus years, Evans leveraged his Georgetown home to secure “more than $6 million in various types of loans…most of which he has paid off along the way,” reported District Dig (5/8/19), an investigative website that has led the way in exposing Evans’ corruption. “What surfaces is a portrait of a man who has overseen the city’s finances for years, while losing a grip on his own.”

 

Fourth Hustle: Manatt

Washington City Paper (5/19/18) reporting on Jack Evans’ “shady arrangement” with lobbying firm Manatt Phelps.

Evans’ financial desperation appears to have led to recklessness. In October 2015, Evans created an ethical landmine for himself by taking a $60,000-a-year job at Manatt Phelps, a “firm that is home to top lobbyists who regularly sweat city officials,” noted City Paper (5/19/18).

Two weeks after joining Manatt, Evans was the first signatory on a Council letter calling on the DC Public Service Commission to approve nuclear giant Exelon’s $6.8 billion takeover of DC utility provider Pepco. Unbeknownst to commissioners—who had rejected the deal in August 2015, but would reverse course and approve it in March 2016 after receiving the Council letter—both Exelon and Pepco were clients of Manatt.

(I wrote about this conflict of interest three years ago at HuffPost. The Washington Post finally reported on it in March 2019, only days before federal authorities subpoenaed documents involving the deal.)

Before that, in June 2015, while he was in employment negotiations with Manatt, Evans cast the deciding vote to kill a study on the feasibility of a city-owned utility replacing Pepco, which Manatt furiously lobbied against.

And before that, in his January 2015 employment pitch to Manatt, sent from his chief of staff’s official email address, Evans listed Exelon as one of the “potential clients” he could bring to the firm. Within the year, Evans would join Manatt’s DC office, now led by a new managing partner: Doug Boggs.

After two years at Manatt, Evans quietly left the firm, with questions of conflicted dealmaking swirling around him. A Washington Business Journal headline (12/5/17) from this period read: “Council Member Pitches $2M Tax Break for Dupont Circle Hotel. And He Won’t Say Why.”

 

 

Final Hustle: A Firm of His Own

Next, Evans took his reckless dealmaking to another level.

Before leaving Manatt, Evans set up NSE Consulting, his own firm registered to his home address. In 2016, the year it was created, NSE started taking money directly from clients.

No longer shielded by a big firm, Evans was exposed as never before. But he seems to have focused only on the money, which was coming in faster now that he’d cut out the middleman.

Both 2016 and 2017 were banner years for Evans, who saw his annual outside income roar back to around $275,000. This resurgence—which helped push Evans’ total outside earnings while on the Council to around $4 million—came at great risk.

The same companies cutting five- and six-figure checks to Evans’ personal firm often had business before the Council or Metro—where Evans was chair until June, when the other shoe dropped.

 

Metro Investigates

The dam breaks (Washington Post, 6/17/19).

Although hampered by a lack of cooperation (the DC Council’s general counsel refused to provide all requested documents), and limited just to Evans’ conduct as a Metro board member, a six-week investigation by Metro offers a glimpse into how Evans wove his web of conflicted interests. (“Metro” is the common name for WMATA, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.)

One of those interests was Colonial Parking, which was paying Evans’ NSE Consulting $50,000 a year. In 2016 Colonial was eyeing a “potentially quite lucrative” contract to handle all of Metro’s parking, which generated almost $50 million in 2015 revenue, according to the Metro investigation. Standing in the way of the potential 50-year contract was the incumbent vendor, Laz Parking. So Colonial Parking turned to its secret weapon, the Metro chair it was quietly paying.

Using information fed to him by his friend Rusty Lindner, CEO of Colonial Parking’s parent company, Evans urged Metro’s inspector general to initiate three investigations of Laz for fraud and corruption. This was part “of a pattern of conduct by Evans designed to oust Laz as WMATA’s parking vendor” and benefit Colonial, the investigation found.

Colonial denies wrongdoing, as does Evans, who kept a straight face when telling his Council colleagues, “This was the kind of normal service I did and would do for anyone.”

The Post editorial page, meanwhile, lied to protect Evans. Regarding Colonial, the Post (6/20/19) wrote, “Mr. Evans’ client wasn’t doing business or seeking to do business with Metro.” But Metro’s summary of its investigation’s findings—released three days earlier, and reported on in the Post’s own news pages (6/17/19)—plainly stated the opposite:

By repeatedly and proactively taking action that would benefit Colonial and Lindner, at or during the same time that Mr. Evans was being paid $50,000 per year, Mr. Evans improperly used his position at WMATA for his own personal financial gain and/or for the private financial gain of his close friend Linder and Colonial.

In addition to Colonial, the Metro investigation flagged Evans’ undisclosed contracts with Digi Media, which is a sordid tale, as well as EagleBank, which was paying Evans $100,000 a year at the same time Metro was increasing its deposits at the bank from $4 million to around $24 million. (This echoes Evans’ 2011 push to shift taxpayer money into EagleBank, which was also his personal lender.)

Metro’s investigation was conducted by the law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel on behalf of Metro’s ethics committee. The resulting 20-page report was meant for internal purposes only, but the Post published it on June 20. Then all hell broke loose.

Within hours Evans announced his resignation from Metro’s board, where he’d served for the past 4½ years,  the last 3½ years as chair. Evans had already quietly agreed not to run for another term as Metro chair in exchange for the ethics committee closing its investigation of him—an arrangement he lied about. And in an effort to conceal the ethics committee’s finding of wrongdoing, Evans even threatened the jobs of Metro staffers.

The morning after the Post published the Metro report, FBI agents raided Evans’ home. Later that day, Councilmember Mary Cheh said in response to the Metro report, “This is straight-up corruption. I don’t know how else to view it.” Evans’ longtime ally, DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson, announced that the Council would launch its own investigation.

 

Not ‘Super Broad’

Phil Mendelson

The DC Council investigation, which is being conducted over the summer by the law firm O’Melveny & Myers, won’t be “super broad,” Mendelson explained at a June press conference.

The Council investigation will only review Evans’ conduct going back to January 1, 2014. If Mendelson was picking a date that gives him cover without exposing Evans to further scrutiny, this would be it.

Evans’ post–January 2014 misconduct is already the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, as well as the Metro report. If the Council never lifts a finger, this period will be investigated.

Meanwhile, Evans’ pre-2014 corruption continues to go unexamined, and Mendelson seems to want to keep it that way.

Mendelson is curtailing the investigation of his ally, but the public deserves to know who plied Evans with money, and whose bidding the councilman has been doing. As the Post wrote in a searing editorial, “Those who grease the palms of public officials have as much to answer for as the greasy-palmed officials themselves.”

Of course, the editorial wasn’t about Evans, but a black mayor 40 miles up the road in Baltimore. With Evans and his patrons—who carried out their corruption in the Post’s own backyard—the Post looked away, even as evidence of corruption abounded.

 

Mr. Gentrification

Until the Council stripped him of his role as chair in July, Jack Evans sat atop DC’s powerful finance and revenue committee for two decades, during which time DC pushed out more of its low-income residents than any major US city.

As finance chair, Evans could have used the powerful tools at his disposal to put the brakes on gentrification. Instead, he pushed cuts to social programs, while freeing up billions in tax dollars for luxury hotels, sports arenas, stadiums and the like.

“He was at the forefront of driving [these mega deals] to completion, often at the dismay of some sections of the city that did not want to see that kind of economic development,” said former DC Chamber of Commerce head Barbara Lang, who praised Evans for being the business community’s “lone champion” on the Council.

If Evans had been a true believer, willing to spread the gentrification gospel on a government salary alone, he could have gone on indefinitely, with the Post (9/3/08) praising how DC has “flourished under Mr. Evans’ able leadership.” But Evans was not content to serve the rich; he wanted to join their club, so he sold them his public office.

This wasn’t hard to see, except in the pages of the Post, which has been pushing African Americans out of DC for far longer than Evans.

 

The Federal City Council

In 1973, Congress granted DC the right to elect its mayor and Council and govern itself. This “may have been the last major victory of the civil rights movement,” Michael Fauntroy wrote in Home Rule or House Rule?. This increased democratization—called “home rule”—had the overwhelming support of DC’s black majority, but it set some whites on edge.

Testifying on behalf of a citizens group in nearly all-white upper Northwest DC, resident Alfred Trask told Congress in 1973:

We just don’t want to be governed by the majority in the District of Columbia. That’s about the size of it…. Full self-government for Washington would be tantamount to turning the town over to welfare recipients.

Also vigorously opposing home rule was the Federal City Council, a shadow government made up of DC’s white business elites. The group, which advanced its interests by working behind the scenes with the mostly white Congress, “had a vested interest in maintaining the political and governmental status quo in the District,” wrote Fauntroy. (To this day, DC doesn’t have full congressional representation.)

Southwest DC, targeted for demolition by the Federal City Council.

Post publisher Phil Graham first brought the Federal City Council together in 1954 to push for the “urban renewal” of Southwest DC, a poor, black area just blocks from the shiny Capitol. This led to Southwest being “obliterated” and its 23,000 residents “dumped unceremoniously across the Anacostia river,” the Economist (4/16/88) noted. Touring Southwest in 1959, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt asked, “What has happened to the people who once lived here?”

Many years later, at a celebration of the Federal City Council’s 50th anniversary, the group’s 2004 chair Terry Golden admitted, “This was basically a white man’s business organization.” Its membership reflected that: In 1975, for example, the group had two women, nine African Americans and 137 white men.

Today, the Federal City Council is less powerful and more diverse, but continues pushing for gentrification, albeit more subtly. And the Grahams are still involved: Phil’s son Don, who succeeded his mother Katharine Graham as Post publisher, is a trustee of the Federal City Council, and Don’s son-in-law, Tim O’Shaughnessy, is on the executive committee, along with top lobbyists, developers and businessmen, like Rusty Lindner.

(The Grahams sold the Post in 2013 to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for $250 million, but the paper still reflects its former owners. The biggest change under Bezos may be the financial stability he provides as the richest man alive, which has allowed the Post to add reporters.)

Even after DC’s first modern election for mayor and Council in 1974, the Federal City Council still “sometimes carried more clout on Capitol Hill than the District’s political leadership,” according to the Post (6/28/04). But as the elected Council found its footing, DC residents gained a greater say in public decision-making (except for the years 1995 to 2001, when Congress imposed a Control Board over DC’s elected officials).

This democratization made it increasingly difficult for the Federal City Council to push through its pet projects, which relied on public funding but often lacked public support, despite the Post’s efforts to rally residents to the cause. “The Post has provided consistent editorial support for the FCC’s projects, particularly its earlier ones,” the paper (8/28/94) stated in 1994.

When Jack Evans was elected to the DC Council in 1991—representing Downtown, the part of the city the Federal City Council cares about most—the group must have seen dollar signs dancing before its eyes; all the more so in 1999, when Evans became finance committee chair.

Evans pushed for public subsidies for the Convention Center, MCI Center (now Capital One Arena) and Nationals Park, among other projects. “But for me, this wouldn’t have gotten done,” is a favorite saying of Evans, who also joined the Federal City Council in supporting Exelon’s takeover of Pepco, and trying to lure Washington’s pro football team back to DC from suburban Maryland. (Evans privately called the latter “a done deal,” but it doesn’t look that way now that he’s in hot water.)

 

The Post vs. Black Voters 

The Post recently described Evans as “a kind of concierge for Washington’s business community.” What the Post didn’t mention was that in exchange for Evans’ service to the elite, the paper turned a blind eye to his corruption.

The Post did this even as it routinely attacked African-American officials over comparatively trivial transgressions.

Unlike Evans, these officials were supported by (and responsive to) DC’s black voters, who have long been in the way of gentrification due to their comparative lack of resources. The obscene US racial wealth gap almost looks benign compared to DC, where black families have 81 times less wealth than white families.

The Post’s response to this inequity has been to protect Evans, the councilman who worsens it, while attacking the black officials who address it. The Post targets these officials, and sometimes even runs them out of office, effectively nullifying election results the paper doesn’t like. Here are some examples.

In 2010, Marion Barry, the former DC mayor and then-councilmember, was stripped of his position as committee chair, as Evans would be nearly a decade later. But with Barry—whose politics stemmed from his civil rights work, even if he was hobbled by personal troubles—the Post led the charge. The discovery that Barry’s office paid his girlfriend $15,000 as a consultant was treated by the Post as the Second Coming of Watergate, only more lurid. Evans’ offenses make this look trite, yet it was Barry who the Post (2/25/10) called unfit for office.

(Washington City Paper—7/10/09—took things to another level, publishing a front-page photo of Barry and his girlfriend, along with a quote from her: “You Put Me Out in Denver ‘Cause I Wouldn’t Suck Your Dick.” City Paper proudly billed this as a “Collector’s Edition.” Many were appalled, but not the Post, which hired both the reporter who wrote the story, Mike DeBonis, and City Paper’s unapologetic editor, Erik Wemple.)

In 2012, Kwame Brown, who had strong black support, was forced out as Council chair despite not misusing his public office. He’s likely “wondering what looks good in orange,” the Post (6/7/12) excitedly wrote the day after Brown was charged with personal bank fraud and resigned.

Others were less ecstatic. “As a longtime police reporter, whenever I see the bank fraud charge leading the way for a federal investigation, what I know almost to a certainty is that… [prosecutors] came up empty everywhere else,” said David Simon, creator of the HBO series The Wire.

Brown’s personal bank fraud might pale in comparison to Evans’ personal banking woes, which District Dig exposed but the Post refuses to report on. The Post also hasn’t put Evans’ personal spending, including his second home and pricey club memberships, under the microscope, as it did Brown’s “love affair with expensive cars.”

The Washington Post front-pages a prosecutorial allegation (3/11/14) just days before the target was up for reelection.

In 2014, DC Mayor Vincent Gray was on his way to securing a second term when the US Attorney for DC accused but never charged him of wrongdoing. The allegation—which stemmed from an election four years earlier—came a week before early voting. Rather than condemn this electoral interference—as the Post would do when FBI director James Comey announced he was reopening an investigation into Hillary Clinton in the waning days of the 2016 election—the paper celebrated. Splashed atop the Post’s front page the next day (3/11/14) was a headline declaring Gray guilty.

This was the culmination of the Post’s years-long crusade against Gray, who had strong black support. Not only did the Post (3/7/14) demand his indictment (“Charges should be brought now—before DC voters head to the polls,” columnist Colbert King wrote), the paper wrongly predicted he was “almost certainly going to have to resign in disgrace,” and may be headed “to prison,” thereby discouraging Gray’s supporters from voting. Evans also ran for mayor that year, eliciting mostly praise from the Post, which did express concern…over “his reluctance to publicly criticize Gray.”

In 2018, Councilmember Trayon White Sr., who holds the late Marion Barry’s Council seat, made ill-informed comments about “the Rothschilds” controlling the climate. White quickly apologized and met with the progressive group Jews United for Justice, which said it would continue supporting him. But the Post wasn’t satisfied. The following two months the paper published 17 news stories, three columns, three videos and two editorials on White.

As a result of its digging, the Post uncovered a $500 donation White made from his constituent services fund to the Nation of Islam. The Nation does grassroots work in White’s ward, which has high rates of violence and poverty. But the Post focused its firepower on the antisemitic remarks of NoI leader Louis Farrakhan. Meanwhile, Evans has used his constituent services fund to buy over $340,000 in sporting tickets over the years (and a campaign ad in all but name), but this doesn’t receive sustained Post coverage like White’s donation.

 

Democracy Dies in Daylight

“It is not just Mr. Evans’s integrity that has been called into question,” says the major newspaper that allowed Evans’ conflict-of-interest problems to fester for the better part of three decades (Washington Post, 5/24/19).

As the Post targeted officials with strong black support, the paper protected Evans; and to a certain extent, it still does.

Even as the Post finally covers Evans’ corruption in its news pages, the editorial page continues to shield the councilman, primarily by writing about him infrequently.

When recent Post editorials do mention Evans, they use a sleight of hand. The editorials chastise both Evans and Metro, then quickly direct readers’ anger towards Metro, whose “arrogance is mind-boggling” and whose investigation of Evans amounted to an “incompetent” “clown show”; the latter editorial (6/20/19) also lied about the findings of the Metro report to protect Evans, as discussed above.

(Now that the business community’s favorite councilmember is no longer on the Metro board, the Post is calling on the DC Council to appoint someone not elected by voters — 8/19/19.)

In earlier editorials, the Post defended Evans by using another sleight of hand. These editorials said that while Evans “owes DC residents some answers,” it’s only to a narrow set of questions. And these are accompanied by reminders, like how Evans has “done a lot of good” and made “many contributions.”

The scale of the Jack Evans’ scandal is unlike anything the city has ever seen, and may only be the tip of the iceberg. For the rest of Evans’s extraordinary corruption to see the light of day—and the Post and Chairman Mendelson are just fine if it doesn’t—the Council will have to investigate beyond the past five years.

The Post’s over-the-top slogan informs readers that “Democracy dies in darkness.” But the paper’s treatment of Evans demonstrates that democracy can also be killed in broad daylight.

Messages can be sent to the Washington Post at letters@washpost.com, or via Twitter @washingtonpost. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your message in the comments thread of this post.

Featured image: Jack Evans (cc photo: David)

Sasha Abramsky on Trump’s New Attack on Immigrants

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This week on CounterSpin: The Trump administration planned massive ICE workplace raids for the first day of school that included no plans for children coming home to empty houses; they tried to find a way to block undocumented kids from going to public schools; they refuse to give flu vaccines to migrant children in custody, even after several deaths; and they’ve just announced a new rule dictating there be no limit on how long migrant families can be detained. When that same administration announces changes to “public charge” rules that link visas or deportation to an immigrant’s being deemed likely to possibly rely on government aid—what’s the point of relaying earnestly, as does the Washington Post, the Trump team’s claim that it’s “seeking to bring precision to an existing tenet of law that has lacked a clear definition,” or of typing the words, “The administration has portrayed the rule as a way to promote sufficiency and independence among immigrants,” as they did at The Hill? Orwell’s 1984 may be overquoted, but one to hold on to: “The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” So who, at this point, is served when corporate media consider Trump’s cruel attacks on immigrants in any context other than cruelty?

We’ll talk about changes to the “public charge” rules, and the multi-front fightback, with Sasha Abramsky, regular writer for The Nation and TheAbramskyReport.com, and author, most recently, of  Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look back at recent coverage of the Amazon fires, the Gannett/Gatehouse takeover and anonymous attacks on progressives.

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Reporting on Global Crises Like Amazon Fires, Media Need to Focus on Who’s Fighting Them

by Janine Jackson

Intercept (7/6/19)

More and more media are reporting on fires tearing through the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. There has been a marked increase in fires in Brazil concurrent with an increase in illegal—and climate-disrupting—deforestation, concurrent with President Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts to open the Amazon to mining and logging interests. Criticism of media is coming in, too—mostly for being late to cover fires that have been burning for three weeks in a uniquely critical place. But whenever they do it, corporate media addressing modern day crises like the Amazon fires will never do them anything approaching justice.

Not as long as they refuse to sustainedly challenge anti-democratic powers like Bolsonaro: When the guy who jokes about being called Captain Chainsaw was emboldening illegal land-grabbing in indigenous and protected territories, the New York Times (10/26/18) was busy worrying if he would “deliver” on his promise to cut social security. (“Markets [were] optimistic,” we were told.)

More important, given that failure, is the refusal to hand the mic to those who are fighting. Like the Apurinã chief who told the Intercept‘s Alexander Zaitchik (7/6/19) they had seen landgrabs before, but “with Bolsonaro, the invasions are worse and will continue to get worse…. Unless he is stopped, he’ll run over our rights and allow a giant invasion of the forest.” Or the signatories to the Bogota Declaration to the 14th UN Biodiversity Conference, who offered a plan  from 400 ethnic groups across the Amazon basin to form a “sacred corridor of life,” to share ancestral knowledge and showcase alternative modes of development and ways of living (Common Dreams, 11/21/18).

It doesn’t matter so much how many reports corporate media write; if the same people stay at the center of them, the story won’t change.

‘Pragmatic’: How Corporate Media Praise Dems Who Abandon Progressive Values

 

Pragmatic (adjective): solving problems in a sensible way that suits the conditions that really exist now, rather than obeying fixed theories, ideas or rules. 

Cambridge Dictionary

The battle for the Democratic presidential nomination is dominating the news cycle, and two of the three clear frontrunners in polls, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, draw their support from the resurgent left of the party. Sanders in particular describes himself as a democratic socialist and a threat to the establishment. The third favorite, Joe Biden, presents himself not as the representative of the conservative wing, but as a pragmatic, centrist reformer (FAIR.org, 7/17/19).

Across corporate media, the choice is being portrayed as between progressive idealism and a more credible pragmatism—not left vs. right, but left vs. realistic: “Should Democrats Be Going Big or Getting Real?” asked the Associated Press (7/31/19), while the LA Times (7/31/19) defined the choice as between those who “call for big, ambitious policies” and those with a “more centrist, pragmatic approach.”

AP (7/31/19) presents a question that is supposed to answer itself.

Pundits and analysts have expressed profound skepticism of the progressive platform, which includes universal healthcare, public funding of higher education, a “Green New Deal” to combat climate change and higher taxes on the wealthy. They urge voters to choose more moderate (i.e. pro-corporate) candidates, who, they claim, stand a far greater chance of unseating Donald Trump in 2020 (FAIR.org, 7/2/19).

Despite this, the left of the party has continued to gain momentum, with many voters drawn to the argument that bold progressive programs are not only a realistic response to the serious problems the nation faces, but also a solid strategy for winning elections by appealing to non-voters as well as the many swing voters who have conservative social views but lean left on economic policy (FAIR.org, 6/20/17).

From skepticism to hostility

Washington Post‘s David Von Drehle (8/2/19) writes that “reality is not going to bend to a new shape come 2021 just because a President Sanders shouts at it.”

In the face of increasing public rejection of their definition of “pragmatism,” corporate media have moved from skepticism to outright hostility. Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle (8/2/19) savaged Warren, claiming it is embarrassingly “self-evident” that her “idealistic” plans are way “out of the mainstream,” and instead America needs a healthy “dose of pragmatism” from someone like healthcare entrepreneur-turned politician John Delaney, who will stop this Medicare for All nonsense.

Similarly, a New York Times headline (7/30/19) asserted that “Ahead of Debates, Pennsylvania Democrats Want Candidates to Stress Pragmatism.” The story, by reporter Trip Gabriel, described supposed runaway grassroots “excitement” for Joe Biden, even among strong progressives, who “for pragmatism, would choose him.” It also presented Sanders’ support at virtually zero—based on “a straw poll at the Newtown [Pennsylvania] picnic”—suggesting that even Pete Buttigieg is seven times as popular.

This narrative of Sanders’ limited appeal was undercut by the Times itself (8/2/19) just three days later, when it produced an interactive map of the US, showing Sanders had far and away the most campaign donations across the US, including in the two counties the Times’ Gabriel visited for the article. Sanders’ edge in supporters was so overwhelming that the Times had to produce a second map, showing the top recipient of donations in every congressional district aside from the Vermont senator.

In the Washington Examiner (7/10/19), Maddie Solomon warned that the “left-wing elites’” charge towards socialism will alienate the vast “moderate” political center of America, so Democrats must be “pragmatic” to beat Trump and choose the “respected” candidate who is “high in the polls”: Joe Biden.

According to CNN‘s Jeff Zeleny (2/18/19), “Klobuchar is testing the balance between pragmatism and purity, while resisting the urge to pander to the party’s progressive wing.”

Meanwhile, in the Washington Monthly (7/30/19), David Burke pitched Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar as “most electable candidate,” as she is “grounded in reality” and favors “pragmatic legislation”—in other words, she “has been careful not to tack too far to the left.” CNN’s Jeff Zeleny (2/18/19) likewise lauded Klobuchar for her courageous pragmatism, which, according to his glowing portrait, means “resisting the urge to pander to the party’s progressive wing” by strongly opposing Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and free public college tuition.

When Democratic politicians respond to the will of their constituents by endorsing progressive policies, it’s often presented as “pandering,” or even “appeasement” (e.g., New York Times, 6/29/19; Associated Press, 5/23/19; Vanity Fair, 4/5/19)—a word most often used in connection to European collaboration with the genocidal regime of Adolf Hitler. In contrast, talk of “appeasing” so-called moderates or even big donors is extremely rare in the media, subtly highlighting whom they think Democrats should represent.

USA Today editorial page editor Bill Sternberg (7/29/19) warns Democrats not to “indulge the left,” channeling the wisdom of right-wing candidates like Delaney, who offers “real solutions, not impossible promises,” and “policies that make sense, that you can pay for and that you can get done.” Sternberg sums up the message of the “moderates”:

If the party keeps lurching to the left, rehashing old battles and alienating working-class voters, President Donald Trump will be putting his hand on the Bible again in January 2021.

 

How pragmatic are the pragmatists?

National Review‘s Rich Lowry (5/17/19) asks, “What if Donald Trump hasn’t driven Democrats insane, sending them into a spiral of self-defeating radicalism, but instead made them shockingly pragmatic?”

While the National Review (5/17/19) might tell us that the “common sense play” for the Democrats is to “nominate a non-socialist,” a “pragmatist” like Biden or someone with a “similarly relatively moderate profile” to appeal to Obama-to-Trump voters, voters are right to question the sacred logic that moving to the right is a winning tactic.

Thirty-two of 33 polls show Sanders defeating Trump in a general election, often in landslides, with Warren beating the current president in most projections too. Medicare for All is supported by the vast majority of Americans, including most Republican voters, while up to 60% of the country wants to see college tuition made free. Two-thirds of the population favor raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour. Large majorities of Republicans support Warren’s wealth tax proposals, and the public is behind a Green New Deal.

It could be argued that the progressive agenda would be a huge vote winner, not just from Trump voters, but also picking up non-voters. Turnout in US elections is consistently low compared to other developed countries, and in 2016 almost as many adults did not vote as chose the Democrats and Republicans combined. Non-voters are chiefly from lower-income backgrounds, and would be the primary beneficiaries of democratic socialist or progressive reforms. Thus a leftward turn could boost the Democratic base, and undermine Trump’s support from the white working class media are so keen on profiling (FAIR.org, 3/30/18, 11/13/18).

The consistent media advice that Democrats should “pragmatically” move to the right, and embrace what were mainstream Republican positions a few years ago, is something FAIR has tracked for decades. (See Extra!, 9/92, 1–2/95, 6/04, 7–8/06, 1–2/07; FAIR.org, 11/7/08, 3/16/10.) And when this advice does not work, history is retroactively re-written to fit it.

In 2006, the New York Times (3/12/06) claimed that the Democrats lost the 2000 election because Al Gore “unmoored himself” from Bill Clinton’s centrist politics to run as a “populist scourge of Big Oil and Big Healthcare,” and therefore “drastically underperformed.” Yet while he was running, media were presenting him as a thoroughly “pragmatic” politician (Economist, 8/10/00). Indeed, the Times itself reported that Gore’s “centrist agenda” (8/15/00) was so conservative that his support from the Democratic base was wilting (8/17/00, 9/9/00).

In reality, Bill Clinton moved his party to the right, as the media approvingly reported at the time. “The Democratic platform,” noted the Christian Science Monitor (7/17/92) “is not Mondale/Dukakis liberal, but Clinton moderate,” applauding the Clinton/Gore team’s pragmatic commitment to “cutting entitlement programs” and “compromising” with Republicans. Meanwhile, the New York Times (1/27/94) discussed how Clinton’s “pragmatic,” “centrist agenda” was distinctly conservative. But by 2008, the explanation as to why the Democrats collapsed in the 1994 midterms was due to its nonexistent radical and unpopular leftist platform (e.g., LA Times, 11/5/08; Wall Street Journal, 11/5/08; Washington Post, 11/5/08).

And going further back, both Mondale and Dukakis’ losing presidential bids pushed the Democrats to the right as well. In real time, the New York Times (5/8/88) had praised Dukakis’ “pragmatic, centrist approach.” When Mondale ran, similarly, the Times (7/22/84) depicted his 1984 campaign as “a shift from liberal positions of 1976 and 1980,” noting the only mention of “liberalism” in his platform was to denigrate it. But as FAIR’s Jim Naureckas (Extra!, 9/92) noted, “When the ‘pragmatists’ lose badly with their centrist approach, they are repainted after the fact as radicals, so the strategy of tilting to the right can be tried again and again.”

 

A moderate class war

And that is the trick; Democrats are pragmatic when they win and too left-wing when they lose. Corporate media, funded by the same sources that donate to “pragmatic” politicians, present a rightward shift not as a political decision to ignore working Americans in order to favor the wealthy, but as a sensible reaction based on facts, in contrast to their ideologically driven opponents.

Of course, pragmatists are every bit as ideologically motivated as progressives, communists or the most craven white nationalists. However, corporate media hide their pro-business positions behind a veneer of pragmatism, presenting their ideas as common sense: Millions of Americans should naturally vote against their own interests, because those who ask for more risk having everything taken away from them.

Judging by the polls, and multiple studies showing the public is sick of rampant inequality, the truly pragmatic thing to do this election cycle, the way to appeal to the actual political center, may be an all-out class war against Donald Trump. But don’t expect a media owned by millionaires and billionaires to be on board with this.

 

 

 

Corporate Media Filled With Nameless Voices Attacking Progressive Democrats

by Joshua Cho

The Democratic Party establishment wants you to know that they’re not afraid of primary challenges from the Justice Democrats—a progressive political action committee that runs progressive candidates who reject campaign funding from the ultra-rich and corporations. But when the establishment Democrats tell you they aren’t afraid, they often aren’t brave enough to let reporters quote them by name.

These anonymous sources are rarely as insulting as the one quoted by Fox NewsBrooke Singman: “No one is afraid of those [Justice Democrat] nerds. They don’t have the ability to primary anyone.” But as FAIR contributor Adam Johnson and Justice Democrats communications director Waleed Shahid observed, other anonymous sources are not very different in content, because corporate media are generally granting anonymity to sources in the Democratic establishment looking to run opposition talking points against progressive lawmakers and organizations.

For example, The Hill (7/11/19) carried an anonymous response to Saikat Chakrabarti, then Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, after he tweeted that centrists in the Blue Dog and New Democrat caucuses were “the new Southern Democrats” because they voted to fund Trump’s border concentration camps: “You can be someone who does not personally harbor ill will towards a race, but through your actions still enable a racist system,” Chakrabarti said. A Hill source identified as “a senior Democratic aide associated with the Blue Dog Coalition” retorted:

Let’s not forget the fact that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff called a group of members racist. This is a group of members led by an immigrant woman of color, and this group includes several other people of color, including two black men who actually experienced the segregated South.

Why grant anonymity to a partisan source making an inaccurate attack—unless giving cover for a non-returnable attack on a progressive political figure was the point?

An anonymous source in The Hill (7/12/19) charges that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a “puppet” of “elitist white liberals”—a conspiracy theory with troubling historical echoes.

Another anonymous source in The Hill (7/12/19) branded Ocasio-Cortez as “a puppet” of “elitist white liberals,” in a report on Justice Democrats’ plans to primary incumbent Democrats belonging to the Congressional Black Caucus:

She’s only a woman of color when it’s convenient. None of the things she’s fought for aligned with communities of color and her group is funded only by elitist white liberals; she’s a puppet.

The nameless aide went on to say, “It’s offensive that these elitist white liberals feel like they can undermine the foundation of our party.”

To be fair, The Hill also included an anonymous source from the Justice Democrats,  briefly denying these allegations as “absurd and more about protecting incumbency over democracy.”

The Hill didn’t offer any justification for including these statements without attribution. It also didn’t question the assertion that  “elitist white liberals” were the puppetmasters of Justice Democrats, an organization whose goals include getting “everyday, working people into Congress”—like former bartender Ocasio-Cortez, who does, in fact, regularly advocate for communities of color.

Libby Watson at Splinter News (7/12/19) articulated the problem with corporate media’s slanted use of anonymous sources by the establishment wing of the Democratic Party:

There is a big difference between political journalism that explains and contextualizes internal battles going on in the Democratic Party and Hill gossip pieces that make the media its battleground to wage those internal battles. When congressional aides give you a quote, they’re probably using you to advance their boss’ or their own interests. That’s what they’re paid to do, and it’s unavoidable. But sometimes there’s other value in printing what they’re saying; other times, like this one, it does nothing but advance their agenda.

Further demonstrating Watson’s point, The Hill (1/29/19) quoted a “Democratic lawmaker, who requested anonymity,” about their desire to see Ocasio-Cortez primaried out of her seat, because other politicians have been waiting their turn longer:

What I have recommended to the New York delegation is that you find her a primary opponent and make her a one-term congressperson…. You’ve got numerous council people and state legislators who’ve been waiting 20 years for that seat. I’m sure they can find numerous people who want that seat in that district.

The Daily News (7/12/19) gives a source anonymity to make the claim that unlike Ocasio-Cortez, CBC members “don’t have the financial ability to say, ‘I don’t want that money.’”

The New York Daily News (7/12/19) featured “a Democratic leadership source, who only spoke on condition of anonymity,” making the curious argument that it’s “elitist” to criticize black lawmakers from poor districts for accepting corporate campaign contributions:

“Justice Democrats in general are trust fund kids who are funding this with their parents’ money,” the source said, blasting the progressive group as “elitist” for criticizing black lawmakers from poor districts who take corporate donations. “It’s offensive for CBC members when these elites are looking down on them when they don’t have the financial ability to say, ‘I don’t want that money.’”

The nameless “leader” accused Justice Democrats and Ocasio-Cortez of “getting some of their own medicine”:

“They have attacked, attacked, attacked and attacked. For the first time, they were attacked back and now they claim to be the victim,” the source said…. “Ocasio-Cortez kind of operates like Trump. She’s hellbent on sowing discord and spreading chaos, but if you look at it, it always traces back to one person: her.”

Again, the paper offers no justification for concealing the identity of an official source making unsubstantiated personal attacks against an ideological rival.

Axios (7/14/19) took the unusual step of granting anonymity to a poll, revealing neither who conducted the survey nor who (selectively) revealed its findings—other than “top Democrats.” Writer Mike Allen wrote that the polling group’s name was withheld “because the group has to work with all parts of the party.”

The poll reported by Axios (7/14/19) was “exclusive”—because nobody besides Axios knew who conducted it.

The poll surveyed “likely general-election voters who are white and have two years or less of college education,” described as voters who “are needed by Democrats in swing House districts.” Asking about perceptions of Justice Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, it ostensibly found that their name recognition was much higher than their favorability ratings—and also that “capitalism” was viewed more favorably than “socialism” among these voters.

HuffPost reporter Ariel Edwards-Levy (7/15/19) pointed out that all sorts of critical information was missing from the account of this anonymous poll:

Readers have no way of knowing who commissioned the poll, who conducted it, how they identified the voters they surveyed, what methodology they used to interview them or what exactly respondents were asked. That makes it basically impossible to evaluate the survey in any meaningful way.

There are a few additional hazy details in the Axios story. The headline implies that its findings reflect “swing states,” but the article doesn’t make it clear whether the poll was conducted nationally or only in battleground states. And although the article provides exact percentages on how few of the voters polled viewed Ocasio-Cortez and Omar favorably, it doesn’t include numbers on how many viewed them outright unfavorably, rather than having no opinion.

The report did, however, feature an anonymous source—a “top Democrat who is involved in 2020 congressional races”—who provided negative spin on Ocasio-Cortez and the news media attention she receives: “If all voters hear about is AOC, it could put the [House] majority at risk…. She’s getting all the news and defining everyone else’s races.”

FAIR (Extra!, 11/11; FAIR.org, 3/29/16) has long found that corporate media routinely violate their own stated guidelines for their use of anonymity, which are generally supposed to bar reporters from concealing the names of sources making personal or partisan attacks. In coverage of the Democrats’ intra-party disputes, anonymity is constantly allowed to provide cover for such attacks—whose targets just happen to be the progressive politicians whom corporate journalists themselves frequently express disdain for (FAIR.org, 8/31/18, 1/23/19).

When the perspective of anonymous sources consistently leans in one direction, it’s an sure indication of news outlets’ political slant. In this case, it’s a bias in favor of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party, which is utilizing its coziness with corporate media to wage a covert war on the progressive wing.

‘Monsanto Has Worked Very Hard to Discredit Me and My Work’ - CounterSpin interview with Carey Gillam on Monsanto's attack on journalism

Janine Jackson interviewed US Right to Know’s Carey Gillam for the August 16, 2019, episode of CounterSpin, about being targeted by Monsanto. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: There’s an old saying but true, “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed. All else is advertising.” And while many a reporter would tell you they are telling the truth and letting the chips fall where they may, relatively few seem to really tread on toes powerful enough, forcibly enough, to generate a response.

Whitewash, by Carey Gillam

Our next guest is wearing that particular badge of honor at the moment. Carey Gillam is a veteran reporter, covering food and agriculture for Reuters for many years, and is now research director at the group US Right to Know. One thing Gillam thinks we have a right to know about is the impacts of pesticides made by Monsanto, which she explores in her book Whitewash: The Story of a Weedkiller, Cancer and the Corruption of Science; it’s out now from Island Press.

Who doesn’t want you to know what’s in that book, or take it seriously? Monsanto. And the agrochemical giant, now owned by Bayer, is willing to go to some lengths to try and prevent that. Carey Gillam joins us now by phone from Kansas. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Carey Gillam.

Carey Gillam: Thank you, thanks for having me.

JJ: I know that you don’t want this to be about you; you’re not Monsanto’s only target. They go after all kinds of critics or questioners: journalists, activists, Neil Young, you know. And there’s no mystery why they’re so aggressive about image management: People have lots of concerns about genetically modified organisms, another product of theirs, and they’re losing lawsuits about the carcinogenic effects of their weedkiller Roundup, which you have researched extensively. So I would first like to ask you just to tell us a little bit about the book Whitewash, and then about the nature of Monsanto’s backlash, which started, as I understand it, before the book was even published.

CG: Right. Yeah. I mean, the backlash started, well, more than a decade ago. As far as the book Whitewash, I started calling it The Book Monsanto Doesn’t Want You to Read. They filed a motion in court in one of the lawsuits, one of the big cancer lawsuits, before it went to trial, asking the judge to bar my book from being introduced as evidence.

And what we’ve seen recently is that they had in place a strategic plan, they involved a consulting company from Washington, DC, they had 20 different line items on a spreadsheet, all aimed at discrediting the book before it was released.

But the book is really—I’ve tried to make it very reader-friendly. It’s almost an academic exercise. It’s based on a lot of documents and a lot of data, and tracks the history of the rise of this chemical to become so pervasive in our environment that it’s found in our own bodies, that it’s found in our food and our water, and it’s in the soil and it’s affecting the environment and reducing biodiversity. It really has become, as I’ve said, very pervasive.

And so the book explores how that happened, how Monsanto manipulated and collaborated with regulators to affect public policy and reduce the regulatory restrictions that should have been placed on this chemical. And it involves a lot of farmers and real stories of real people. So, it did win the Rachel Carson Book Award, and I’m very proud of the book.

Monsanto—as we know now through a recent release of internal Monsanto documents—Monsanto really does not like the book, and really has worked very hard to try to discredit the book, and to discredit me and my work.

JJ: Let’s just underscore it: Monsanto hasn’t come forth with any factual errors included in the book, have they?

CG: No, and there are no factual errors  in the book, save for a typo in the very end. Got a letter wrong in a word, but that’s been corrected in a reprint. But, no, as I said, I was very careful in writing this book to have everything documented and to footnote everything in the book.

JJ: I just want to add, in terms of the backlash, you have your own spreadsheet, you are “Project Spruce” at Monsanto/Bayer, and they outlined a lot of things, including kind of harassing you online, including inserting bad reviews, including talking to your editors and trying to get you moved off the beat, and including trying to upstream negative search results on the book.

Your group isn’t called “Monsanto Critics United”; it’s “US Right to Know,” and the book is about science, but it’s really also about the manipulation of science and public opinion, and that seems to be the thing that they want to squelch.

CG: Right. And the harassment against me started while I was at Reuters, and continued after I left Reuters at the end of 2015, and has ramped up since I wrote the book. And, you know, it’s not unusual for a big company to be unhappy with reporters and stories that don’t follow company propaganda, and aren’t in line with the company’s talking points. That’s not unusual. But Monsanto’s pressure, and the extent of the pressure, is very unusual. But what is really egregious is the fact that the company doesn’t want to just stand up on its own and say, “We have a problem with Carey Gillam, and we have a problem with her book.” I mean, that’s fair, right? If that’s the way they feel, you know, bring it on.

What we know from the release of these internal Monsanto documents is that they are enlisting secret, third-party strategies to try to do things that come from them, but don’t look like they come from them, to try to discredit me. Because, of course, if Monsanto is the one laying out the criticism, you’re going to be maybe a little more skeptical of that. But if you hear it from a third-party academic, or somebody who looks like they’re a farmer or a dietitian or a scientist, you might think that that criticism is valid. And that’s their goal, and they lay that out, how they use the third-parties—ghostwritten blog posts, things like that, ghostwritten book reviews—how those things are really going to be effective.

JJ: And that, to me, is where media come in so forcibly; they really play into this phenomenon of third-party sources, by quoting in a story, for example, three supposedly different sources, without identifying financial relationships. And by that, they allow Monsanto, for example, to get a degree of distance. So it sounds as though their perspective is being echoed by farmers or by academics or by scientists, when, actually, it’s just people who are being paid to say the same thing. So I have to criticize journalists there, and an unwillingness to identify financial relationships of sources, or to interrogate them for amplifying—your colleague Gary Ruskin at US Right to Know calls it “creating a choir.” A company can’t do that without media’s buy-in, to some extent. And so my problem is with journalists as well.

CG: Well, I guess I don’t take quite as harsh a view. If you’re new, if you’re a young reporter, if you’re new to the beat, if you haven’t covered agriculture, you don’t really know the backstory and the players and the history. You’re not going to necessarily know that you need to deeply check out the affiliations of a professor at the University of Illinois, for instance; you’re not going to know that he secretly is getting funding and direction from Monsanto. Or the University of Florida, or the university UC Davis. And, again, this is all things that we’ve only learned because of public record requests, and Freedom of  Information, and discovery through court documents that have been turned over. You know, we wouldn’t know any of this. It’s designed so that the public won’t know any of this.

JJ: Right.

Carey Gillam: “It’s subterfuge. It’s a fraud upon the public, it’s an intended fraud upon the media, and it’s designed to control the narrative and control the news.”

CG:  And so that reporters won’t know. It’s subterfuge. It’s a fraud upon the public, it’s an intended fraud upon the media, and it’s designed to control the narrative and control the news.

JJ: Journalists are not encouraged to interrogate every source that they receive, and, also, some players are better positioned to pepper journalists throughout the day with ideas and stories, and other folks are not similarly situated, and just don’t have the same relationship to journalists. So a multibillion-dollar corporation is always going to have the leg up, in terms of controlling that narrative.

I have noticed that you’ve been doing media about the backlash from Monsanto against your book. And when you do that media, Monsanto doesn’t show up to debate you. They don’t have to; they send a piece of paper that says, you know, “We’re rubber, you’re glue,” and that’s kind of the end of it.

And I always have to notice that if an activist or a researcher said, “Well, I have some complaints about Monsanto and their pesticides, and I have concerns about their health effects. But I’m not going to talk about them, I’m just going to send you a written statement,” I’m not sure that journalists would engage that in quite the same way. And so I guess for listeners, I want them to know that the silence benefits the powerful corporations in this regard, doesn’t it?

CG: It certainly does, yeah. And this is what is so alarming, is that the company certainly doesn’t fight fair, and they have a lot of money and a lot of power. And they are wielding that power to try to control what the public knows about their products.

JJ: You’re certainly not stopping. In fact, you’re working on a new book, right? So this is not the end of the road for you, in terms of digging up what Monsanto might not want folks to know.

CG: Oh, definitely not. With these trials, Monsanto’s turned over roughly 15 million pages of internal records. And those have opened up an entire new world of revelations about our regulatory system, about corruption of science and scientific journals and scientific literature. There’s a lot more to say about this subject.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally: I called out reporting as part of the problem here, and I’m going to stand by that. But I also recognize reporting as part of the answer, you know? And I want to ask you, just finally, what do you hope other reporters will take from your story? What do you hope folks will get from the experience that you’re going through right now?

CG: Guess a couple different things. One, we’ve also seen through the documents how they cultivate reporters. They will offer exclusives and exclusive interviews, and, you know, “We can really make you look great and give you access to our high-level executive, if you’ll write this story the way we want you to write it.”

I know that looks great for your editor, you’ve got an exclusive with a big company, but you really have to think seriously about promoting propaganda; you have to always report both sides, you have to be sure you’re understanding the story behind the spin.

And if you’re a reporter and you’re just reporting a story out there, and you’re quoting somebody who seems, you know, really, really enthusiastic about a particular company or product, take the time to do a little bit of googling, to see if there’s a connection there that maybe you’re not aware of. At least try to make that effort, because that’s part of the playbook that we are seeing from these corporations, are these secret liaisons that are designed to manipulate the media, and we need to be aware of it and try to be on top of it if we can.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Carey Gillam. She’s research director at the group US Right to Know; they’re online at USRTK.org. Her book is called Whitewash: The Story of a Weedkiller, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, and it’s out now from Island Press. Carey Gillam, thanks for joining us again this week on CounterSpin.

CG: Thank you for having me.

On Gun Violence, ‘We Need the Federal Government to Take Bold Steps’ - CounterSpin interview with Ernest Coverson on guns & human rights

Janine Jackson interviewed Amnesty International USA’s Ernest Coverson about guns and human rights for the August 16, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript. 

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New York Times (8/9/19)

Janine Jackson: When Walmart responded to the early August mass murder by a white supremacist by announcing they’d stopped selling certain video games, and the National Rifle Association responded to that and a subsequent mass shooting by likening those seeking gun regulations to mass murderers, as likewise seeking to “take away our God-given rights”—well, it’s a hard thing to measure, but you almost felt you could hear vast numbers of Americans saying, “You have got to be kidding.”

Public conversation seems to have advanced to the point where it’s understood that the reason the United States has so many incidents of gun violence is because the United States has so many guns. The crisis is neither natural nor necessary, and not so much a matter of a lack of public appetite for regulation, as of a political system in which that public interest does not translate into policy or law. If the US gun nightmare is the result of choices, work like that of our next guest is aimed at helping us make the choices to escape it. Ernest Coverson is End Gun Violence campaign manager at Amnesty International USA. He joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Ernest Coverson

Ernest Coverson: Thank you, thank you.

JJ: Well, Amnesty recently issued a travel advisory for the United States, due to high levels of gun violence. It came days after the El Paso and Dayton mass murders, but it wasn’t just about them, and it wasn’t a merely symbolic gesture. What was the purpose of that advisory?

EC: Thank you again. I mean, the purpose of the advisory and the travel warning was to bring attention to the gun violence that has taken place here in the USA, and the lack of effort that our government, specifically Congress, has done to help eliminate or help to bring down, put laws in place that will help curb that violence in the US. And so Amnesty International USA decided to take a measure that will help to highlight that issue with this travel warning.

JJ: It’s not surprising to me that people are interested in, or concerned about, mass shootings, even if they are far from the most common gun violence in the US. I always think that’s a weird argument to have, when people say, “Well, yes, it’s terrible when a white supremacist feels inspired by the president to kill brown-skinned people. But what about Chicago?” You know, there’s this unsubtle subtext where somehow the real question is whether gun violence can be blamed on black people or on white people. And I wanted, therefore, to kind of get at the work that you do, which looks at things differently. What does it mean to think about gun violence with a human rights framework? How does that affect the conversation?

EC: It brings it to a different level. Because, right, as you say, the media many times highlight those mass shootings; those are the ones that get the splash for the news cycle. But, correct, the everyday shooting that takes place in a Chicago, or in a Detroit or St. Louis, etc., doesn’t get that.

And so, finding this as a human rights issue by Amnesty International, which is a human rights organization, takes it to a different level, and really humanizes that if we’re going to fight for human rights, the ultimate human right is the right to life. And these shootings, these killings, that are happening on a daily basis are eliminating that right. And so I think our value added to this conversation, of changing the narrative as a human rights issue, just elevates that conversation, that these are humans, despite what people want to think or say, what community they come from, they’re still human, and they have the right to life.

Amnesty International USA

JJ: And the report—your work, including Amnesty’s recent report, “In the Line of Fire: Human Rights and the US Gun Violence Crisis”—points out that gun violence disproportionately is affecting young people of color, and also women, who are victims of domestic violence. So you’re really talking about communities that are impacted and, as you’re saying, it’s day to day, it’s not a matter of flares of incidents, but it’s something that… the work has to happen within community to address the layers of impact, right?

EC: Correct. And you have organizations and groups in both of those communities that’ve been doing work on a daily basis, that’s impacting or making change that way. And I think one of the additional value-adds from Amnesty is showing the intersectionality of all of this, that we can’t continue to work in silos of doing this gun violence work, that urban areas’ gun violence, domestic violence, suicide rates from gun violence, all talked about in the report, all tie together, and you have to come together as one human community to really address these issues, and not let one take precedence over the other, but really look at them in totality.

JJ: One of the points that the advisory makes, which I think is maybe surprising to people, but the US actually has obligations under international human rights law that are relevant here, aren’t there?

EC: Yes, they are. As the world community, there are human rights law that govern, through the UDHR, and the United Nations and others, that these are the international human rights laws. And so the United States has been failing, to a certain extent, to hold up to what that standard is across the world.

JJ: And the failure, as I understand it, is at the federal level, maybe most importantly. Some states are trying to cobble together some regulations, but it’s really something that requires federal leadership.

EC: Correct. And because you see, as we have now the Universal Background Check legislation, that was passed by the House back in February, has been sitting in the Senate since then, S.42, not moving on that. There are states across the country that have been incrementally passing laws and passing ordinances that are doing things in a particular state, but we do need the federal government to take some of those same bold steps.

JJ: Media can be so scenario-focused that data can have a hard time really getting through. So if you talk about background checks, for example, it seems like someone always pops up to say, “Well, yeah, but what about this case I can imagine in which background checks would be insufficient?” And it’s kind of a funny way to go about it, to say we shouldn’t take these measures if by themselves they wouldn’t eliminate the possibility… So talk a little more, just about the reforms that you are calling for. And it’s not that any of them are magic; it’s that together, they can help improve this crisis. What are you calling for?

Ernest Coverson: “We can’t continue to work in silos of doing this gun violence work, that urban areas’ gun violence, domestic violence, suicide rates from gun violence, all talked about in the report, all tie together, and you have to come together as one human community to really address these issues.”

EC: Right, great point.  And all of these, correct, are not one magic event, but all of those together will do that.

So a case in point, we’re looking at getting the background check, enhancing background checks, S.42, which is the federal legislation that we’re looking at, that will help increase the background information that’s from states that may not be in federal databases, and so as  individuals, we want to just enhance that background check, and make sure that information is passed along.

We’re also looking at assault weapon ban legislation, so assault weapons, militarized weapons, should not be in the hands of just regular, common citizens, that those are particularly for military usage. And so we’re looking to get the assault weapons ban passed as well.

Then also we’re looking, and the president has kind of spoke about as well, around emergency restraining protective orders, or purple or red flag laws, which allow family members, concerned folks, that know if individuals have weapons but are not in a correct state of mind at the time, can alert authorities to say, “Hey, this individual is not in a right state of mind, but also has access to weapons.” We may want to do a quality check on that individual, just to make sure he or she doesn’t now go and do some of the things that happened in El Paso and in Dayton over the past couple of weekends ago. Those are some of the legislative changes that we’re looking to get taken up by the federal government.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally: We did see a large number of the Democratic presidential candidates attend an Everytown for Gun Safety event in Des Moines just recently. Do you see political—I said earlier, vast majorities of the US population are interested in gun regulation; it’s a matter of getting politicians to take it up—do you see hope on the political front?

EC: I do. I think that once we get folks to move out of a moment and really into a movement, that the political dynamics will change as well, and that we don’t let the news cycle dictate how we feel about getting these changes done and this legislation passed. But, yes, I am hopeful that we will make this happen.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Ernest Coverson, End Gun Violence campaign manager at Amnesty International USA. You can find their work, including the report, “In the Line of Fire: Human Rights and the US Gun Violence Crisis,” online at AmnestyUSA.org. Ernest Coverson, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

EC: Thank you again.

 

Media Blackout on Brazil’s Anti-Bolsonaro Protests - Why are New York Times and Guardian downplaying resistance to Brazil’s far-right president?

by Brian Mier

August 13 protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Belo Horizonte, one of 211 cities where demonstrations took place  (photo: Dowglas Silva).

Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets of 211 cities on August 13 to protest far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s austerity cuts and privatization plans for the public university system. It was the third in series of national education strikes, dubbed “the Education Tsunamis,” organized by national students unions together with teachers unions affiliated with the Central Ùnica de Trabalhadores (Unified Workers Central/CUT)—the second-largest labor union confederation in the Americas.

Organized from the bottom up by teachers, high school and university students, through thousands of democratic assemblies across the country, communication between activists in the different towns and cities insured that the August 13 street protests were staggered throughout the day to achieve maximum impact. Starting in smaller cities during the morning rush hour, with protests numbering in the low thousands, they increased in size as the day progressed, with crowds of 30,000–50,000 in larger cities like Recife, culminating during the evening rush hour in Brazil’s three largest cities, with an estimated crowd of 100,000 shutting down Avenida Paulista in the heart of São Paulo’s financial district.

There, instead of the usual honking cars, groups of teenagers danced and sang things like, “I want education, to be intelligent, because for stupid we already have our president.” Thousands of older people came out in solidarity with the teachers and students, and the atmosphere was one of hope against Bolsonaro’s sub-fascist project, and its attempt to purge the education system of critical thinking through a revival of the old Nazi trope of “Cultural Marxism.”

In short, it seemed like the perfect feel-good event for newspapers like the Guardian and the New York Times to share with their liberal readers. After all, after the US, Brazil is the most populous, largest in area and wealthiest nation in the Americas. After all, both newspapers have taken editorial positions against Bolsonaro, and regularly criticize his environmental and human rights abuses. After all, both papers have run numerous articles celebrating the spirit of the young protesters in Hong Kong and Venezuela in recent months, complete with inspiring quotes and photographs from the ground.

The Guardian‘s photograph (5/26/19) of a pro-Bolsonaro rally is photographed from below—concealing the small size of the crowd and giving the demonstrators a heroic pose.

Unfortunately, this didn’t turn out to be the case. The Guardian, which ran two articles about smaller pro-Bolsonaro protests in May, with photos of protesters shot from below to make them appear heroic, did not even mention it. The New York Times ran a 129-word stub from the AP that low-balled the number of cities where protests took place, and says they were smaller than the Education Tsunami protests in May (factually correct, but contextually misleading, since they were still huge).

The issue of under-reporting and ignoring protests by Brazil’s so-called “organized left”—the labor unions and popular social movements that make up the traditional support base for the Workers Party—is a historic problem. One of the main causes for this is that the organizations responsible for generating official crowd numbers in Brazil are its historically neofascist state military police forces.

Brazil’s military police, which run organized crime militias and death squads, sell weapons to the drug-trafficking gangs, and commit torture and summary executions at the rate of 5 per day in Rio de Janeiro alone, are responsible for providing crowd numbers. Brazil’s traditional media outlets, like Globo TV, which was created by the 1965–85 military dictatorship as a means of social control and are nearly as conservative, follow their lead. This explains why, for example, similar sized protests for and against the illegal impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in March, 2015, could be reported in the media, respectively, as 1 million and 9,000.

Everyone in the foreign correspondent community knows that the Brazilian military police are not impartial judges of crowd size. When Anglo newspapers do report on progressive protests in Brazil, however, they tend to play along with the game.

During the lead up to the 2018 presidential election, hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets in cities around the world in the #NotHim protests against Bolsonaro. In São Paulo City, an estimated 150,000 came out to Largo da Batata, and protests took place in some 30 other cities across the state, which is home to around 20% of Brazil’s total population. The São Paulo State Military Police decided to simply not release crowd numbers. Others states followed suit, and zero was added for each of them into the total estimate.

The foreign correspondents knew this—it was clearly explained in all the Brazilian papers. Nevertheless, the New York Times spoke of “crowds in the tens of thousands” and the Guardian called it “thousands.” These artificially deflated numbers gave the false impression that women’s resistance to Bolsonaro was weaker than it really was.

Photo of anti-Bolsonaro protest in Alagoas from the Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores em Educação website (8/13/19).

Underreporting of left protests is such an ongoing problem in the Brazilian media that for the last five years, activist/media collectives like Midia Ninja and Jornalistas Livres, which have millions of social media followers, have sent volunteers to all of the major protests around the country to film and photograph crowd sizes. Labor unions now do the same, and everyone shares the information online.

When, for example, the National Education Workers Confederation announced, as it did on August 14, that protests took place in 211 cities, anyone could easily go onto their site and see photos and video evidence from each city backing their claim. So why don’t gringo journalists ever question the official numbers? Even more importantly, why would they decide not to report on events like the August 13 Education Tsunami at all?

Is it just sloppy reporting? Freelance journalist pay has dropped significantly in the last ten years, and many correspondents don’t have a full grasp of Portuguese. Could it just be that they are too inexperienced to question what is reported in Brazil’s ideologically compromised commercial media? Could their pay be so low that they just paraphrase articles from Brazilian newspapers?

The problem is bigger than individual flaws with foreign correspondents. Like Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro represents what George Monbiot refers to as a “killer clown” (Guardian, 7/26/19). According to Monbiot, clowns like Bolsonaro provide distraction and deflection for elites. “While the kleptocrats fleece us,” he says, “we are urged to look elsewhere.”

While the commercial media distracts us with horror stories about Jair Bolsonaro the killer clown, their corporate advertisers are making billions from the deregulation of pesticides and mining, petroleum and pension fund privatization in Brazil. You have to ask yourself if these newspapers really want Bolsonaro to leave office. Could wanting him to stick around be why they prioritize feel-bad click bait about Bolsonaro’s clownish behavior over showing solidarity with the people fighting against his government?

Regardless of the motives, one thing is for sure: Downplaying and ignoring organized resistance supports Bolsonaro’s sub-fascist project for Brazil, and the US corporations that benefit from it.

Featured image: Protest in Belo Horizonte (photo: Dowglas Silva)

 

Ernest Coverson on Guns & Human Rights, Carey Gillam Under Attack From Monsanto

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This week on CounterSpin: The US undoubtedly needs better health care, including mental health care, and blithely violent cultural media is nothing to celebrate; but there is no actual mystery about the main reason behind the gun violence this country sees every day of the year—and that sometimes explodes into mass shootings, like those in El Paso and Dayton: It’s. the. guns. US law and policy undeniably reflects a greater value on the ability of some people to own weapons than on the ability of all people to be safe from gun violence. Vast majorities of Americans support serious regulation, but corporate media debate still seems to revolve around the supposed “rights” of the few, rather than the right of the many to live a life free from this scourge. We’ll talk about what it means to apply a human rights framework to gun violence with Ernest Coverson, End Gun Violence campaign manager at Amnesty International USA.

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(photo: USDA)

Also on the show: Monsanto didn’t find any factual errors in Carey Gillam’s book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, or in her reporting for Reuters about the agrochemical behemoth’s products or practices. But Gillam’s work highlights concerns about Monsanto’s popular weed killer Roundup and the corporation’s vigorous efforts to kill not just criticism of it, but any efforts to investigate its potential harms. Carey Gillam is now research director at the group US Right to Know. We talk to her about Monsanto’s work to undermine your right to know, and why we should see it as emblematic.

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‘Black Communities Are Already Living in a Tech Dystopia’ - CounterSpin interview with Ruha Benjamin on racism and technology

Janine Jackson interviewed Ruha Benjamin about racism and technology for the August 9, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Welcome to CounterSpin, your weekly look behind the headlines. I’m Janine Jackson.

SFGate (7/22/15)

This week on CounterSpin: Listeners may have heard about the electronic soap dispensers whose light sensors can’t detect black skin, Google and Flickr’s automatic image-labeling that—oops—tagged photos of black people with “ape” and “gorilla.” An Asian-American blogger wrote about her Nikon digital camera that kept asking, “Did someone blink?” And you can, I’m afraid, imagine what turns up in search engine results for “3 black teenagers” versus “3 white teenagers.”

Some examples of discriminatory design are obvious, which doesn’t mean the reasons behind them are easy to fix. And then there are other questions around technology and bias in policing, in housing, in banking, that require deeper questioning.

That questioning is the heart of a new book called Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. CounterSpin spoke with author Ruha Benjamin; she’s associate professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, and author, also, of the book People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier. Ruha Benjamin, today on CounterSpin. That’s coming up, but first we’ll take a very quick look at some recent, relevant press.

***

Stat (7/24/19)

Janine Jackson: Some 40 million people in this country use fitness trackers or smart watches that monitor their heartbeat; it’s a cultural phenomenon. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post reported earlier this year that employers are increasingly using such devices to monitor—or, you might say, surveil—workers’ exercise, in hopes of cutting healthcare costs.

But neither outlet has shown interest in findings reported late July on Stat, the tech and health issues website, that nearly all of the biggest makers of wearable heart trackers use a technology that is less reliable on dark skin.

There have been consumer complaints. And while the researchers and scientists Stat spoke with made clear that there isn’t a lot of research into the heart trackers themselves, the green light technology they use, and its relationship to melanin, is well-documented. So much so that more research and more public information from manufacturers, who generally do not disclose concerns about accuracy, would be needed to make a case that there isn’t a problem here.

Of course, there are serious implications, not just for those monitored employees—some of whom have insurance premiums and vacation days pegged to their use of these devices—but for the growing amount of research, including medical research, that uses this data.

But so far, the reporting by Ruth Hailu, an intern at Stat and a college student, has been picked up by tech sites, and that’s pretty much it. So big media will still tell you what color Fitbit you might buy, just not what color you might need to be to use it.

New York Times (5/7/19)

There are efforts to require companies to determine whether their algorithms discriminate, including a bill introduced to Congress this spring, called the Algorithmic Accountability Act. It would call on some companies, especially those whose decision systems have a high impact, to conduct impact assessments, pushing them to think more deeply about design.

But as an op-ed in the New York Times noted, the legislation relies for enforcement on the FTC—not famous for enforcing settlements, even with repeat violators. It lacks an avenue for public input—as in the Fitbit case, sometimes the first way we learn about these problems. And companies are notoriously cagey about proprietary information. But without mandated transparency, the legislation doesn’t guarantee that anything learned would actually be incorporated into policy discussions. A start, then, but far from enough.

We’re talking about code on the show today. And, in a way, news itself is a kind of code, a machinery or system seen as objective or neutral, that gains power from that perceived neutrality, that nevertheless reproduces and advances inequity. It works in many ways, one of which is trivializing or ignoring the way people of color are overlooked or an afterthought, including when it involves something as significant as our health.

You’re listening to CounterSpin, brought to you each week by the media watch group FAIR.

***

Janine Jackson: As a media critic in the 1990s, you could reliably expect every talk about the censorious effects of elite media’s corporate and state fealty to be met with the question, “But what about the internet?”

There was an earnest desire to see the power inequities reflected in corporate media—the racism, sexism, class and other biases—designed out of existence by some new delivery mechanism. You could say the same desires, denials, conflicts and questions are writ large in US society’s engagement with technology generally, even as we see robots and algorithms replicating the same problems and harms we have not conquered societally. There’s an insistence that technology is a kind of magic, that of itself can get us somewhere we can’t get on our own.

Wiley

A new book interrogates that belief and the effects of it. It’s called Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Author Ruha Benjamin is associate professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, and author, also, of People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier. She joins us now by phone from Los Angeles. Welcome to CounterSpin, Ruha Benjamin.

Ruha Benjamin: Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

JJ: I mentioned, at the very top of the show, things like electronic soap dispensers that couldn’t detect black skin, or a camera that thinks that Asian people are blinking. Your book cites the classic Allison Bland tweet about Google Maps telling her to turn on “Malcolm 10 Boulevard,” (though you talk about how that was seen, really, as an engineering victory, to get a computer to read a Roman numeral as a number). Some discriminatory design problems are easier to explain — or harder to deny, I guess — than others, like where you see this presumed neutrality of whiteness.

But part of the hurdle of engaging the questions that you engage in this book is that it involves understanding racism after (as before) technology as not having to do with intent, or with intentionality; you have to dig very deep to even start the conversation, don’t you?

RB: Absolutely. I think for many people, as much as we’re becoming accustomed to talk about and think about implicit bias, for many people, racism is still really about interpersonal interactions: It’s about racial slurs, it’s about hurt feelings. And so it’s hard to understand patterned behaviors, the institutional, the legal, the policy level forms of racism, that don’t rely on malicious intent. Of course, oftentimes, that is still in the mix for many things.

JJ: Right.

RB: But, you know, it’s really difficult for people to zoom the lens out, and think in a more patterned, systematic way. I think once we do, however, it becomes much easier to understand how technology is part of the pattern. It’s one of the mechanisms, in addition to laws, in addition to economic policies, in addition to, let’s say, redlining, housing-discrimination policies, to see that technology is one of the facets that we have to take into consideration. But, as you say, a very simplistic understanding of what racism is prevents that jump in many ways.

JJ: One of the things that I found frustrating when I cite that “What about the internet?” example, was the relief that I could hear in people’s voices, you know? “We don’t have to deal with all of that systemic unfairness you just talked about, because the internet is going to flatten it all out.”

RB: Absolutely. Absolutely.

JJ: And I have a lot of hope for the internet, but it was that sense of the inevitability that was dispiriting. But the power of technology is very seductive, in what we imagine it could be used for.

RB: It is. It is.

JJ: And I just wonder, where do you start folks when you’re trying to explain, for example, what you’re getting at with the term, “the new Jim Code”?  You’ve just moved toward it, the continuity there; where do you start folks out?

Ruha Benjamin: “We can’t take an ahistorical approach to technology’s role in sedimenting forms of inequity and hierarchy; we have to go through this history to understand the present.”

RB: As you say, there’s a real hunger for many people, especially those who benefit from the design of our current systems, to want to bypass and jump over the difficult work of actually wrestling with these histories and ongoing forms of deeply embedded discrimination, bias, racism, white supremacy, that infect all of our institutions.

And so to the extent that technology offers a really alluring fix, to jump over that, and not really get in the mud of our history, it becomes something that people jump to: “The internet is going to save us,” or “Some new app is going to save us.”

And so what the “new Jim Code” intends to invoke is this history of white supremacy, racism in this country. It’s to say that we cannot fully understand what many people call machine bias or algorithmic discrimination—which are still ‘softening’ terms when it comes to white supremacy—unless we actually go through the mud of this history.

So it’s basically saying we can’t take an ahistorical approach to technology’s role in sedimenting forms of inequity and hierarchy; we have to go through this history to understand the present.

JJ: Just talk about some of the instances; the book looks at different kind of shapes of this. Some are designs that are actively amplifying existing inequity, some are things that are just not noticing them, and thereby replicating them. What are some of the instances of this kind of algorithmic, machine or embedded bias that folks might not be aware of?

RB: So I’m talking to you from Los Angeles, which—I don’t live here now, but I grew up here, so I come back on a regular basis—and the way that I open up the book and the preface is just to go back to my childhood, growing up in South Central Los Angeles, which is and was a heavily policed part of the city, in which helicopters could be heard grumbling, rumbling overhead at all hours. Routinely police were pulling over my classmates and frisking them at the gates of the school.

And so this is what Michelle Alexander would say is one tentacle of the New Jim Crow, this mass incarceration, in which specific geographies in our country are targeted in terms of policing. Whereas where I studied for a couple years, in Westwood, all kinds of things are happening behind closed doors in these neighborhoods that never see the light of day.

JJ: Right.

RB: And so that is one mode of white supremacist institutional racism, in which police are targeting some areas and another. Now fast forward to the present, where people, companies, organizations, are employing all types of software systems to predict where crime will happen, in order to more empirically—we’re told—more neutrally, objectively, send police to go, right—predictive-policing type of programs.

But these software systems rely on historic data about where crimes happened in the past, in order to train the algorithms where to send police in the future. And so if, historically, the neighborhoods that I grew up in were the target of ongoing over-policing surveillance, then that’s the data that’s used to train the algorithms to send police today, under the cover of a more objective decision-making process.

And this is happening in almost every social arena. Policing is just one of the most egregious, but it’s happening in terms of education, which youth to label “high-risk,” for example; in hospitals, in terms of predicting health outcomes; in terms of which people to give home loans to or not, because of defaulting in the past. And so our history is literally being encoded into the present and future.

And the real danger that I try to highlight in the book is that it’s happening under the cover of a kind of veneer of objectivity, in which we’re less likely to question it, because it’s not coming from a racist judge sitting in front of you, or a racist teacher who’s doing something. They’re turning to a screen that’s producing some results, that says, “You are high risk,” or “You are low risk,” you know, and then they’re acting on that.

And so I really want us to become attuned to this intermediary that is not, in fact, objective in the way that we are being socialized to believe it is.

JJ: When you break it apart, it doesn’t seem that difficult to see the flaw in something like predictive policing. If police are deployed disproportionately to poor communities of color, then that’s where they make the most arrests.

So if you fill a database with that, and then you say, you know, “Alexa, where is the most crime, based on the number of arrests?” Well, it’s going to circle you right back to the data that you fed it, and it’s only predictive because you make it so. But people generally understand the idea of “garbage in, garbage out,” don’t they? What is it where there’s resistance to understanding that there’s a problem with this?

RB: That’s a great question. And as someone who spends all day teaching classes on this, part of the conceit of just being an educator is, if only people would just, you know, “Here’s the data,” and that will lead to certain conclusions. And what we know is that the numbers, the dots that we’re trying to connect, they actually don’t end up speaking for themselves in the way that we hoped, because people filter the story, or filter the data, through all types of interpretive lenses.

So here, I’m thinking about some colleagues up at Stanford who produced a series of studies, both in California and New York, in which they presented white Americans with data, racial disparities in the criminal justice system. And they showed them the much higher rates of imprisonment of black Americans, and then asked them whether they would be willing to support policies that would address that; in California, would they be able to support reforms of the three strikes law, and in New York, whether they would be willing to support changes to the stop and frisk policy.

And the researchers were quite surprised to find that the more data that individuals were exposed to, in terms of the disparities, they were less willing to support the reforms. And so at some point, between the data and the conclusion of the policy, people are filtering this information through all kinds of stories and interpretive lenses.

One of the most powerful is that, “Well, if there are more black people in prison, then they are more criminal. And they actually deserve to be there. And so why would I support reforms to laws that would actually endanger me?”

JJ: Right.

RB: And so we can take that to the realm of predictive policing. Many people will be hearing the same thoughts that we’re trying to connect, in terms of “garbage in, garbage out,” historic overpolicing, the faults of future predictive policing. And they’re not drawing the same conclusions as we are. That historic overpolicing was justified, in the minds of many, thereby the future predictions, we should definitely be acting on them, and actually incorporating them in many more locales, in order to safeguard their own neighborhoods and their own safety.

JJ: Yeah.

RB: So just looking to the flaws of the technology is not going to save us, and it’s not going to help us reach certain conclusions, if the political stories that we’re telling, the social stories that we’re telling, if they themselves are so infected by white supremacy, that it distorts the conclusions that people draw.

JJ: I would say it means people don’t even understand what you are saying when you say “disproportionate.” I think we have to explode that term for people, because they just don’t hear it in the way that it’s said.

Well, there’s every reason to focus on white supremacy. And it’s maybe easier to convince folks of that than it has been for a minute. But it’s also true, as you illustrate in the book, that in some ways, black people are canaries in the coal mine when it comes to this kind of technological, I don’t even know what you want to call it, malfeasance or harm. It goes beyond racism.

RB: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah. So there’s a way in which we can think about how the groups that are first experiencing harm or neglect in any kind of inequitable system, how we should be learning from that experience.

So in some ways, and the dot I try to connect, is that black communities are already living in the future of a tech dystopia when it comes to policing, or when it comes to all kinds of algorithms that are making life and death decisions.

JJ: Right.

RB: And yet, in part, because blackness and black people are already, in the collective imaginary, disposable, thereby those lessons are not being learned. And so we’re not actually seeing it coming, in many ways. And so I’m hoping that through engaging in more—not just conversations, but the kind of organizing that’s happening around tech justice in many locales, including here in LA, and throughout the country. I think that we have to turn more to some old school forms of political organizing, rather than look for tech fixes and tweaks around the edges to address the new Jim Code.

JJ: Well, that was going to be my next question. So much work is happening here: San Francisco and Oakland banning facial recognition technology, the Amazon and Google workers protesting their own bosses’ collaboration with ICE, and then groups like Center for Media Justice and Center on Privacy and Technology doing their thing.

Are people grabbing it by the right end, do you think? Is the pushback radical enough? What more needs to happen?

RB: I definitely think that there’s a strand of the organizing that is really thinking in terms of fundamental reorganization of our relationship—society’s relationship—with technology, with tech industries. And so there’s a lot of great things happening, some of which you mentioned, and we can think about, in addition to organizing, there’s a growing critical legal community that’s thinking about, “How do you litigate algorithms?”

JJ: Right.

RB: And so there’s a growing movement among legal scholars, as you said, there’s legislation being passed. And then there’s just really popular education examples that are happening. There’s a wonderful organization here in LA called Color Coded, that does a lot of community workshops, along with Stop LAPD Spying.

In every locale, whoever’s listening, I’m sure you could find a group or organization working to deal with this at a very fundamental level.

And so, towards the end of the book, I try to draw some simple contrasts to help us discern the difference between a tech fix‚ something that on the surface seems like it’s a solution, or thinking about addressing bias, versus a much more fundamental questioning of not just the technology, but the infrastructure and the society in which the technology is being deployed. Because if you have just a tech fix that is still operating and circulating within the same structure, then that means that the power hierarchies are not being challenged.

And so we look at these two different apps that are trying to deal with mass incarceration and imprisonment, there are some that are really just a filtering more investment into mass incarceration and the prison system, and some that are actually being used to get people out of cages and have a much more abolitionist approach to the process. And so I think we have to become much more discerning when we’re presented with a solution, to really look beyond the surface and think about the social infrastructure that solutions are being proposed in.

Duke University Press

JJ: Finally, you talk in the book about “reimagining the default settings” as a key idea, and I’m guessing that this is part of what is explored in the new collection that you’ve just edited, out from Duke University Press, called Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life. I wanted to ask you, finally, what’s “liberatory imagination”? Tell us a little bit about that.

RB: Absolutely. So, when we think about where the solutions lie, where the problems lie, we’re more or less trained to look to policy, to laws, even to organizing, and through that idea of liberatory imagination, I want to draw our attention to the way that, even before you materialize some technology, there’s an imagination that engenders that as an object. There are ideas, values, embedded in our material infrastructure. And as of now, there’s a very small slice of humanity whose imagination about the good life and a good world are being materialized.

And the vast majority of people, they are creating, they are imagining, but have far fewer outlets in which to materialize that. And so what I’m trying to invoke through the idea of liberatory imagination is the fact that we need creative solutions that, on one hand, look like artists and humanists getting involved. You know, many people hear a conversation about technology and they think, “Well, I’m not a tech person.” We’re trained to opt out; we’re socialized to think of some people as having the expertise to engage in this discussion and some don’t.

But the fact is, these things are impacting everyone, and that means everyone has the right and the prerogative to weigh in and to say, “We don’t want certain things.” We don’t just have to tweak the edges, we can actually have a kind of informed refusal.

And so liberatory imagination is about reclaiming the space, to say that we’re moving beyond critique. We can critique, and we need critique. But the counterpart of critique is that we want to be creative in terms of presenting alternatives to the techno status quo, and materialize the kind of world that will actually be liberatory, in which everyone can flourish and realize their potential.

And so I want us to make space for that, in addition to critique, and I point to a number of examples of people already doing that, and I’ll just maybe close with one. It’s a kind of parody project, going back to our conversation about predictive policing, in which a few people got together and said, “What if we turn this idea of predictive policing on its head, and had a white collar crime early warning system, and create heat maps of cities all across the country, and predict where crimes of capitalism are likely to occur. And you would have an app that when you go into a city, it would alert you, and then it would create an algorithm to predict the average face of a white collar criminal, and the designers of this used 6,000 profile photos from LinkedIn, CEO photos, so that the average face of a white collar criminal is white.

And it’s funny on one level, but it’s not, because we know that the same types of technologies are targeting darker-skinned people, black and Latinx communities. And so this is a way of using art to actually reflect on the reality that we’re creating right now, and think about where the harms are being monopolized and centered.

And so I guess the last thing I would say, in terms of the default settings: So many of the technologies that are being developed now are about predicting risk, whether it’s risk in who will be a risky person to loan money to, whether it’s risk in terms of criminal risk, all of the different domains of risk. And what changing the default settings would look like is, let’s shift away from thinking about risky individuals to how risk is produced by our institutions, by our policies, by our laws. And so let’s look at the production of risk, rather than the individuals, and if we’re going to predict anything, let’s look at how schools create risk, hospitals create risk, police create risk, rather than the individuals. And that’s flipping the switch on how the settings of our technologies are really burdening individuals, rather than actually holding institutions and organizations accountable.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Ruha Benjamin, associate professor of African-American studies at Princeton University. The book is Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. It’s out now from Polity Press. Ruha Benjamin, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

RB: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

 

 

Here’s the Evidence Corporate Media Say Is Missing of WaPo Bias Against Sanders

 

Bernie Sanders has taken to calling out corporate media for their anti-progressive bias, and their feathers have gotten quite ruffled.

In a campaign event Monday in New Hampshire, Sanders told the crowd:

We have pointed out over and over again that Amazon made $10 billion in profits last year. You know how much they paid in taxes? You got it, zero! Any wonder why the Washington Post is not one of my great supporters, I wonder why? New York Times not much better.

The next day, he returned to the same point:

And then I wonder why the Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn’t write particularly good articles about me. I don’t know why.

The Post‘s executive editor, Martin Baron, immediately retorted (CNN, 8/12/19) that Sanders was spouting a “conspiracy theory,” insisting that “Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence, as our reporters and editors can attest.”

Many others in corporate media were incensed as well. NPR‘s All Things Considered (8/13/19) accused Sanders of “echoing the president’s language,” and CNN (8/13/19) ran a segment that likewise accused him of using Trump’s “playbook”; CNN‘s Poppy Harlow warned ominously, “This seems like a dangerous line, continuous accusations against the media with no basis in fact or evidence provided.”

FAIR has been following this issue for quite some time, so we’re happy to offer the evidence CNN and the Post protest is lacking.

Fifteen of the 16 negative stories on the Bernie Sanders campaign that the Washington Post ran over a 16-hour period (FAIR.org, 3/8/16).

We could start with the 16 negative stories the Post ran in 16 hours (FAIR.org, 3/8/16), and follow that up with the four different Sanders-bashing pieces the paper put out in seven hours based on a single think tank study (FAIR.org, 5/11/16).

Or you could take the many occasions on which the Post‘s factchecking team performed impressive contortions to interpret Sander’s fact-based statements as meriting multiple “Pinocchios” (e.g., FAIR.org, 1/25/17, 3/20/17). In particular, we might observe the time the Post “factchecked” Sanders’ claim that the world’s six wealthiest people are worth as much as half the global population (FAIR.org, 10/3/17). It just so happens that one of those six multi-billionaires is Bezos, which would make an ethical journalist extra careful not to show favoritism.

Instead, after acknowledging that Sanders was, in fact, correct, the paper’s Nicole Lewis awarded him “three Pinocchios”—a rating that indicates “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.” This is because, the paper explained, even though the number comes from a reputable nonpartisan source, Oxfam, which got its data from Credit Suisse, “It’s hard to make heads or tails of what wealth actually means, with respect to people’s daily lives around the globe.”

Post factcheckers returned to defend their owner against the charge that he is extremely wealthy after Sanders pointed out in a Democratic debate (6/27/19) that “three people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America.” “The numbers add up,” the Post fact squad (6/28/19) acknowledged, but it’s “apples to oranges”:

People in the bottom half have essentially no wealth, as debts cancel out whatever assets they might have. So the comparison is not especially meaningful.

The Washington Post (1/27/16) began its rebuttal to Bernie Sanders’ “fiction-filled” campaign: “Here is a reality check: Wall Street has already undergone a round of reform.”

The Post editorial page makes no secret of its anti-Sanders position (FAIR.org, 1/28/16, 5/11/16), nor do some of its prominent opinion columnists, like Dana Milbank (FAIR.org, 2/11/16) and Fareed Zakaria (FAIR.org, 9/6/16).

But even in the occasional straight news reporting that manages to acknowledge Sanders’ success, the paper’s reporters still slip in digs at the candidate, such as a news report by Karen Tumulty charting Sanders’ primary victory in Iowa in 2016 that told readers that his showing indicated “Republicans are not the only voters looking for qualities beyond experience and electability.” (With eight years as Burlington mayor, 16 years in the House and a Senate tenure that began in 2007, Sanders has more political experience than most presidential candidates, whether in 2016 or 2020, and electability, rather obviously, ought to be determined by voters, not journalists—FAIR.org, 2/2/16.)

And sometimes the digs are clearly deliberate, as when a Post political correspondent essentially admitted to trolling the Sanders camp by intentionally choosing a “provocative” headline—”Bernie Sanders Keeps Saying His Average Donation Is $27, but His Own Numbers Contradict That”—over a piece that revealed the scandalous deception that the actual number was $27.89 (FAIR.org, 4/24/16).

There’s an underlying dismissal of Sanders as a serious candidate, in both the Post‘s editorializing and its nominally straight reporting, that results in pieces like the ones saying the large crowds Sanders drew to his 2016 campaign rallies “don’t matter much” (FAIR.org, 8/20/15), or the ones accusing him of lacking political “realism” (FAIR.org, 1/30/16). And there’s a clear antipathy at the paper to many of Sanders’ signature policy plans, like Medicare for All (FAIR.org, 3/20/19, 6/25/19).

In her CNN segment about Sanders’ critique, Harlow insisted to one of her guests, Britney Shepard of Yahoo News, “It’s important to note, the Washington Post has done really critical reporting of Amazon, too.” Shepard’s response:

Absolutely, and I really want to underscore something that Kristen said, something you said, too, Poppy, is that Bernie Sanders and his campaign have not really put forth any facts or evidence when they’re pressed about what the Washington Post is doing, and I do think that there’s a concern, and especially a concern as we’re gearing up in this primary, that Bernie Sanders is going to be compared to Donald Trump again and again and again and again.

Curiously, the same journalists so incensed about Sanders’ lack of evidence about the Post‘s bias failed to offer any of their own about the paper’s “critical reporting” of Amazon. They’d be hard-pressed to find any. In 2017 FAIR’s Adam Johnson reviewed a year’s coverage of Amazon in the Post, the Times and the Wall Street Journal, and found that across 190 stories, only 6% leaned negative, and none were investigative exposes (FAIR.org, 7/28/17).

Jeff Bezos’ ownership has no impact on the content of the Washington Post (3/2/17)—honest!

Nearly half (48%) of the Post‘s coverage was uncritical—meaning it didn’t even adopt the standard journalistic practice of seeking out critical or contrary third-party voices, instead reading like an Amazon press release. (My favorite: “An Exclusive Look at Jeff Bezos’ Plan to Set Up an Amazon-Like Delivery for ‘Future Human Settlement’ of the Moon,” with a picture looking up at a Bezos in shades gazing off proudly into the distance.)

But note the Post wasn’t alone in its fawning coverage. That’s why Sanders called out the Times as well, and why NPR, CNN and their ilk are so upset. It’s not a conspiracy theory, because Bezos doesn’t have to tell the Post how to report to get the kind of coverage he wants. It’s baked into a system in which journalists with a working-class perspective or critical of the corporate status quo get weeded out.

As Hill TV (and former MSNBC) journalist Krystal Ball (8/14/19) trenchantly responded to the media pushback against Sanders’ critique, reporters know which stories will endanger their access to the establishment sources  so valued by their employer, and which will earn them praise and access. Those inclined to pursue those establishment-friendly stories rise up in the ranks, while most of those with more critical perspectives eventually move on. So, no, they don’t need Bezos to tell them what to do—their worldview is neatly aligned with his already.

Messages can be sent to the Washington Post at letters@washpost.com, or via Twitter @washingtonpost. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your message in the comments thread below.

‘People Are Demanding Accountability for the Fossil Fuel Industry’ - CounterSpin interview with Sriram Madhusoodanan about climate justice

Janine Jackson interviewed Sriram Madhusoodanan about climate justice for the August 2, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Climate disruption presents a test for corporate news media: Will they act on the understanding that a conversation that doesn’t acknowledge that unprecedented measures need to be taken is an irresponsibly detached conversation? Will they vigorously expose the corporate actors, the fossil fuel companies and their executives, who continue to dissimulate and deny? Or will they go on giving those that profit from harm-causing industries pride of place in the conversation about how to mitigate that harm?

Corporate media’s response to some promising state-level developments in climate action is not itself very promising. Our next guest will explain work you might not know about, being done to push fossil fuel companies out of the way of climate justice solutions. Sriram Madhusoodanan is deputy campaigns director at the group Corporate Accountability; he joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Sriram Madhusoodanan.

Sriram Madhusoodanan: Thank you so much, Janine; glad to be here.

JJ: I was alluding to the Supreme Court decision earlier this year that cleared the way for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to pursue her investigation of Exxon Mobil—about what it knew about climate change and when it knew it, essentially. It was on the wires, AP and Reuters, but it didn’t get the kind of major attention you would hope.

But before you talk about that, the background for such an investigation, the need for it, is that the fossil fuel industry is just vigorous in doing whatever it takes to resist change. They’re really quite aggressive and proactive, you might say.

Sriram Madhusoodanan: “There are very real solutions to addressing the climate crisis, and they’re being deployed by people around the world.”

SM: Absolutely. I think this is the story we’ve seen play out over decades, really, when we now see the internal documents that have come to light, for example, showing that Exxon, as far back as the 1960s, really knew the extent to which climate change was going to be the path that we were on, the modern kind of climate disruption that we’re seeing, almost a climate disaster happening every week, I believe, according to a recent UN report.

So it is very telling that this is the path the fossil fuel industry has been on for so long, and when faced with a choice of doing the better thing, in terms of advancing a just transition, or choosing a path of climate denial and political manipulation, the industry quite simply chose to protect the billions and billions of dollars a year in its own profit.

JJ:  And this was part of that: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey was investigating Exxon Mobil. So, as part of their strategy, they sued her. And that’s the case that the Supreme Court refused to hear?

SM: That’s right, yes. So the Supreme Court really refused to hear Exxon’s bid for dismissal on the Massachusetts AG case. And just to back up for a second, Exxon has really fought tooth and nail against every move to hold it legally liable, countersuing up a storm, not just with the Massachusetts attorney general investigation, but a number of different instances. And this is quite simply a tactic of delay and intimidation, and an attempt to use their considerable resources to delay, distract and fundamentally to obstruct this process.

JJ: Healey said that she thought the Supreme Court ruling might put an end to what she called Exxon’s “scorched earth campaign” to block these kinds of investigations.

As you’re intimating, this ruling, it’s heartening, not only for Massachusetts, though; Massachusetts is not alone in this sort of investigation.

SM: Absolutely. This is a big win for other states, cities and communities who want to hold Exxon accountable. We have an ongoing investigation and lawsuit from Attorney General James, now, in New York state. And there are a number of cities that are taking the fossil fuel industry to court. And this decision really does clear the way for Healy’s investigation into what Exxon has known for over 50 years about climate change, and brings us one step closer to finding out exactly what they knew, and what they did to cover it up.

JJ: So it’s having some echo effect, in some sense. It was a state attorney general that brought the big lawsuit, or one of them, that became the biggest lawsuit against big tobacco, was it not?

SM: Yes, and there’s absolutely a number of parallels to the history we saw with attorney general investigations into the tobacco industry. One, for example, is that, as we saw with the tobacco AG investigations, part of the settlement in the US, particularly from Minnesota’s state attorney general, was to bring to light and release a trove of internal documents that really illustrated the true story of what the industry had been doing to cover up what it knew about the addictive nature of nicotine and cigarettes.

And similarly, we can see, really, to what extent Exxon and others hid from the public the causes and severity of the climate crisis. And I think, more importantly, when those tobacco documents were released, and the truth of what the industry did was revealed, it really ushered in a whole new era of accountability and legislation to hold the industry accountable.

And at the international level, at the UN, at the state and local level here in the US, people are similarly demanding accountability for the fossil fuel industry. And this is exactly the kinds of investigation and moves to hold the industry accountable and liable for its actions that we need in this moment.

JJ: Yeah, documents make things harder to deny, even if they’re things that seem like they’re going on in broad daylight anyway. Documentation is always important.

And fossil fuel companies are kind of a big PR operation; they do their own research, they offer these “market-based” solutions. And for corporate media, that’s enough cover — you know, “Oh, this didn’t come from BP, it came from the ‘Energy Futures Institute,’” or whatever horse hockey — to present that as a valid position in a debate: “Some people say, X, Y or Z.”

And I kind of wonder what it will take for extractive industry to be presented that way in the media, instead of this kind of credulity that we see. I feel like media have to take a turn, in the same way that it did with tobacco, in terms of the way it presents these corporate actors.

SM: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right there. Media have an incredibly important role to play in telling the story. And it shouldn’t be understated, we cannot talk about climate change enough. And it’s important that when we talk about it, we tell the story in the right way.

So to, one, foreground the fact that the industry has known about the severity of climate change for decades. I mentioned as far back as the 1960s, but a recent document came to light, within this initial trove of documents from Exxon, that showed that in the 1980s, they knew, and had predicted with a fair degree of accuracy, what the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere would be in 2019.

And that’s just astounding, to think that before I was born, for example, that Exxon had known exactly what it was doing if it kept on this path of extractive economy and of climate disruption. And so media have an absolutely critical role to play in foregrounding who was responsible, and that where we are today, in a moment of upheaval and climate disruption, was also a deliberate choice on the part of a number of incredibly powerful entities, corporations and CEOs at the helms of those entities as well.

JJ: Yeah, you can’t keep bringing these folks forward as credible actors, once you know that dissimulation has been part of their modus operandi, it seems to me. It should affect the way they’re treated as sources on the stories.

SM: Absolutely, absolutely. And then to take it one step further, to really address and to have a much more skeptical eye to the trade associations, which you mentioned earlier, that are driving their agenda, seemingly under the guise of being nonprofits or acting in the public interest, simply putting forth “innovative solutions,” when, in fact, they were set up for very intentional purposes by the industry to advance an industry-driven agenda, and to feed these false, market-based solutions that, at the end of the day, don’t do anything to actually shift the industry’s business model, which is fundamentally at odds with the direction we need to go as a collective species on this planet, if we’re going to weather the storm, so to say.

Truthout (7/10/19)

JJ: A recent piece by your Corporate Accountability colleague, Patti Lynn, that I saw on Truthout reminded us that

under today’s global power structures, the people who will be the most affected are the same ones who are currently experiencing the harshest effects of climate change.

No wonder then, that women, communities of color, communities in the global South, youth, low-income communities and Indigenous communities around the world have been developing just climate solutions that will address this crisis. What we need now is to move the fossil fuel industry and its backers out of the way so these solutions can be implemented.

There really isn’t a scientific, or even an environmental, response to climate disruption that is not a political response to current relationships of power, is there, really?

SM: You know, that’s absolutely right. And I think it’s a really critical point to bear, that there are very real solutions to addressing the climate crisis, and they’re being deployed by people around the world and in the US most impacted by this crisis today. Solutions like energy democracy, agroecological practices, ecological restoration to recover natural carbon sinks. And you imagine where we could be today in implementing these kinds of climate solutions if the industry had not for so long really stood in the way. It’s damning when you think about it from that perspective. But absolutely, what’s needed in this moment is for the industry to get out of the way, and for us to make sure that these real solutions that are already being deployed in communities around the world are given the center of focus and the scale that they need in order to really be the focus of a global response to this crisis.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Sriram Madhusoodanan, deputy campaigns director at the group Corporate Accountability. You can find their work online at CorporateAccountability.org. Sriram Madhusoodanan, thanks so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

SM: Thank you.

 

Jonathan Weisman’s Judgment Has Been Lapsing for a Long While Now

 

The New York Times announced yesterday (The Wrap, 8/13/19) that it had demoted deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman for “recent serious lapses in judgment.” These included a since-deleted tweet from last month that asserted that politicians of color don’t really count as coming from their regions:

Saying @RashidaTlaib (D-Detroit) and @IlhanMN (D-Minneapolis) are from the Midwest is like saying @RepLloydDoggett (D–Austin) is from Texas or @repjohnlewis (D-Atlanta) is from the Deep South. C’mon.

Roxane Gay owed Jonathan Weisman an “enormous apology,” according to Jonathan Weisman. (cc photo: Marla Aufmuth/TED)

This was followed by a bizarre controversy in which Weisman demanded an “enormous apology” from African-American writer Roxane Gay, who had criticized him for “telling a black woman she isn’t black.” Weisman had chided the progressive Justice Democrats for endorsing a challenger to “an African-American Democrat”; when the challenger, Morgan Harper, pointed out, “I am also black,” Weisman retorted: “@justicedems‘s endorsement included a photo.”

The Times announced that Weisman “will no longer be overseeing the team that covers Congress or be active on social media,” and these are good things. But I would take issue with the idea that his “lapses in judgment” are recent. At FAIR, we’ve been following Weisman’s career for quite some time, and “lapses of judgment” seem to be par for the course for him.

  • He called opponents of fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal “the political fringes,” “groups more on the fringe” and (in the words of anonymous officials) “a small fringe” (FAIR.org, 2/10/15). At the time, fast track was opposed by a majority of the House of Representatives.
  • He treated the poor and middle class as interchangeable terms, writing that “President Obama’s push for a new ‘middle-class economics’ [would] help make the politics of rich and poor a central issue,” and presenting Mitt Romney “vowing a campaign to ‘end the scourge of poverty’” as an example of the same phenomenon as “Mitch McConnell…encourag[ing] the Republican troops to refocus policy on the stagnant middle class” (FAIR.org, 1/23/15).
  • He bemoaned that in 2014, the right-wing Heritage Foundation was becoming “more of a political organization” by hiring staffers “known more for their advocacy journalism than their scholarship” (FAIR.org, 2/24/14). Heritage’s co-founder and first president, Paul Weyrich, used to write for the far-right John Birch Society; other “scholars” at the think tank have included eugenicist Roger Pearson and white supremacist Sam Francis (Extra!, 7–8/96).  
  • He described tax hikes for the rich as “politically sensitive,” even while claiming that “a majority of voters say the federal budget deficit should be tackled with a mix of spending cuts and tax increases on the rich”—and then substantiated that by citing polling that actually showed a majority wanted more spending and higher taxes on the rich (FAIR.org, 6/7/12).
  • He called the prospect of an 8 percent cut in US military spending, to roughly $699 billion, a “heavy blow” to “national security”—even though it would leave the United States spending more on war-fighting capacity than the next 11 nations combined (FAIR.org, 6/4/12).
  • He said that deep cuts in Social Security were something “cognoscenti” knew “both sides will have to eventually accept” (FAIR.org, 4/5/12). (His source to prove the smart set knew the austerity recommendations of the Simpson/Bowles commission would inevitably be implemented? Erskine Bowles.)  
  • He said Barack Obama’s problem was that he “cares too much about policy details” (FAIR.org, 8/16/09). 
  • He claimed that the band Fall Out Boy was as popular as Obama (FAIR.org, 10/22/08).

You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com (Twitter:@NYTimes). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

Media Defend Biden by Attacking Dems for ‘Attacking’ Obama

by Julie Hollar

Coming out of the second round of Democratic debates, a curious storyline crystallized in the media: The candidates are attacking Obama, and that’s a sure-fire way to hand the election to Trump. It’s the latest flavor of “the Democrats are moving too far left” (FAIR.org, 7/2/19)—this time echoing both Trump himself and the right-wing Democratic candidates, including former Obama Vice President Joe Biden.

During the first debate, Rep. John Delaney pitched the story, claiming, “Most of the folks running for president want to build economic walls to free trade and beat up on President Obama.” Biden’s team was also quick to hype the story after his own appearance in the second debate. The Washington Post‘s Steven Stromberg (7/31/19) quoted one of his advisers immediately after the debate: “Many people on this stage spent more time attacking Obama than they did Trump. I think Democratic primary voters will make a judgment about this.”

The next day, Trump (Politico, 8/1/19) picked up the Biden spin, declaring:

The Democrats spent more time attacking Barack Obama than they did attacking me, practically. This morning, that’s all the fake news was talking about.

Indeed, it was hard to read coverage of the debates without tripping over pieces like, “Do Democrats Think They Can Win by Attacking Barack Obama?” (Washington Post, 7/31/19), “Worst Democratic Strategy Yet: Attack Obama’s Legacy” (New York Times, 8/2/19) or “‘Stay Away From Barack’: Dems Seethe Over Criticism of Obama” (Politico, 8/1/19). (Note that the “Dems” who are seething in these stories are almost exclusively Biden strategists, former Obama administration officials or strategists, and other party centrists.)

MSNBC hosts helped promote the storyline that criticisms of Biden were really attacks on Obama (Mediaite, 8/1/19).

It’s a curious storyline, if you actually watched the debates. For the record, Trump was mentioned 199 times across the two nights; Obama (or “Obamacare”) was mentioned 32 times (including eight name-drops by Biden). And the non-Biden Obama mentions were largely framed as praise—as when Julián Castro argued (7/31/19) that most of the job growth Trump takes credit for was “due to President Obama. Thank you, Barack Obama. Thank you, Barack Obama”—or as a prop for the candidates’ plans, as when Kamala Harris said that the “architect of the Obama Affordable Care Act” supported Harris’s healthcare plan.

On healthcare, while there were plenty of attacks on left-wing positions from CNN moderators, who peppered candidates with industry-friendly questions about “raising taxes on the middle class” to pay for Medicare for All, and “forcing” people to give up their private insurance, on neither night did candidates attack the ACA or Obama on healthcare. In fact, only a few candidates (besides Biden) mentioned the ACA; none of the mentions could be construed as direct attacks on it, with the possible exception of Beto O’Rourke’s claim (7/30/19) that his “Medicare for America” plan is a “better path” than either Medicare for All or “improv[ing] the Affordable Care Act at the margins.”

Immigration was probably the most-cited “Obama attack” issue—but it was CNN‘s Don Lemon who teed up the attack, asking Biden:

In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly 800,000 immigrants were deported, far more than during President Trump’s first two years. Would the higher deportation rates resume if you were president?

Many candidates talked about wanting decriminalization, and reducing deportations, but, again, none aimed their attacks at Obama—unless you take criticism of the healthcare system as criticism of Obama, as the Post seemed to when it cited Warren’s criticism that “we have tried the solution of Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance. And what have the private insurance companies done? They’ve sucked billions of dollars out of our health care system.”

Some did aim directly at Biden, including Castro and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. The Post pointed to Castro, who was Obama’s Housing secretary, quipping about the deportation policy of the administration in which he and Biden both served: “It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past, and one of us hasn’t.” The Times piece, by Timothy Egan, didn’t even bother citing evidence, instead just asserting that Obama was “now a target for cannibalistic candidates from the left.”

And both the Post and Politico cited Cory Booker criticizing Biden, after Biden attempted to distance himself from Obama’s deportation policy (answering Lemon’s question about whether he would resume Obama’s policy with an unequivocal “absolutely not”): “You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign,” said Booker. “You can’t do it when it’s convenient and dodge it when it’s not.”

Tellingly, no one cited Biden’s distancing from Obama policy—in this case, or when he said he would not re-enter the TPP under the same terms Obama did—as criticism of Obama.

Obama was and continues to be highly popular with the public (and especially Democrats), so it’s no surprise that Biden is largely pinning his campaign on his connection to the former president, and trying to discredit opponents whose plans might differ from any of Obama’s policies. By going along with Biden’s efforts to construe any attacks on himself, his record or proposals as attacks on Obama, media are helping to construct a trope that seeks to trap anyone to the left of Obama—and to the left of the media’s comfort zone—by effectively putting most criticism of Biden off limits.

 

The NYT’s Pro-War Arguments Against War With Iran

by Gregory Shupak 

Once you’re debating who ought to start a war, you’ve abandoned the anti-war argument (New York Times, 6/20/19).

The New York Times has published five editorials since the beginning of May that are ostensibly critical of a possible military war between the United States and Iran. As anti-war arguments, however, they are woefully lacking—vilifying Iran without subjecting the US to comparable scrutiny, and hiding US aggression towards Iran.

The editorials regurgitate the same anti-Iran demonology pro-war voices offer to try to justify an attack on the country. In one case (5/4/19), readers are told that

there is no doubt that the Revolutionary Guards is a malign actor. Founded in 1979, it was the revolution’s protector. In time, the corps became a tool of violence and military adventurism as Iran expanded its regional influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria.

The same editorial implies that Iran has a nuclear weapons program about which Americans should be concerned, writing:

The administration has fiercely debated imposing sanctions on European, Chinese and Russian entities working with Iran to convert facilities capable of pursuing nuclear-weapons related activities to more peaceful, energy-oriented projects. On Friday, the State Department announced that while work at three key facilities will be allowed to continue for 90 days, the administration will reconsider the decision at the end of that period. Some other nuclear-related activities will be prohibited.

Saying that Iran has “facilities capable of pursuing nuclear-weapons related activities,” which should be “convert[ed]” so that they can work on “more peaceful, energy-oriented projects,” strongly implies that Iran has a nuclear weapons program or is close to having one, as does an editorial (7/19/19) that claims Iran has “nuclear ambitions.” There is no basis for this insinuation: Iran has no nuclear weapons program, hasn’t been close to having one since at least 2003, and perhaps never has. (See FAIR.org, 10/17/17.)

The New York Times (5/4/19) depicts Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as “a tool of violence and military adventurism…in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria”—notably, all countries that the US has either directly attacked or funded military operations in.

The series of editorials in this series, furthermore, describe Iran as doing (presumably nefarious) “work on missile systems” (7/19/19), and as “a despotic Middle East regime” (6/20/19) that provides “support for regional terrorist organizations” (7/19/19).

No US institution or practice is sweepingly condemned in a comparable fashion. Carrying out an invasion of Iraq, as the US military did, and causing as many as a million deaths is not considered the conduct of a “malign actor” or “a tool of violence and military adventurism”; nor is keeping children in cages or having the world’s largest prison population evidence of a “despotic…regime.” Whatever the Times’ definition of “support for regional terrorist organizations” is, it evidently does not include backing racist groups in Libya, laying waste to Syrian cities or flooding the country with weapons that helped ISIS, or carrying out massacres in Afghanistan, or underwriting brutality in Yemen and Palestine.

In this respect, the Times’ apparent anti-war editorials bolster the case for war against Iran: If Iran is a “despotic . . . regime” that provides “support for regional terrorist organizations” and has a military outfit that is “no doubt . . . a malign actor” and a “tool of violence and military adventurism,” readers can be forgiven for failing to rush out and organize a peace movement. And if the United States is or has none of these things—or, in the case of a nuclear weapons program and “work on missile systems,” is presumably allowed to have them—they may be confused about why the US shouldn’t bomb or invade Iran, or overthrow its government, or some combination of these.

The editorials also muddy responsibility for the crisis, presenting what is happening as roughly equally the fault of the United States and Iran. The first editorial (5/4/19) argued that the “Trump administration is playing a dangerous game in Iran, risking a serious miscalculation by either side.” The problem isn’t so much the risk of “a serious miscalculation by either side” as it is deliberate US calculations to inflict misery on Iranians in an effort to force Iran to submit to US orders. US sanctions are severely harming Iranians, causing food shortages, undermining the healthcare system, preventing flood relief from getting to Iranians, setting off a collapse in economic growth and driving the country into a deep recession while helping to push up inflation; all of this information was publicly available before any of these editorials were published. Iran, of course, has done nothing comparable to US society.

A New York Times headline (6/14/19) presents the US and Iran as equally responsible for a “collision course.”

The title of the next in the series was “Iran and the US Are on a Collision Course” (6/14/19), and it said that “hard-liners on both sides have little interest in any diplomatic off-ramp.” In the weeks leading up to this article’s publication, the US sent B-52 bombers, drones, Patriot anti-missile batteries, reconnaissance aircraft, and air and missile “defense” systems to Iran’s doorstep—alongside 1,500 troops, on top of the 60–80,000 fighters the US admits to having in the area, to say nothing of the thousands more US forces in the region’s seas. If the two countries are on a “collision course,” it’s because the US is driving its vehicle directly into Iran’s.

Similar, the subsequent editorial (6/20/19) contended that,

with opposing military forces in such proximity, with accusations and munitions flying and with the White House facing a trust deficit, the danger of open conflict increases by the day.

What this elides is where these forces are in proximity and why: They are close to each other in Iran’s immediate vicinity, where Iranian military equipment and personnel are naturally located, and where US weapons, spy equipment, soldiers, sailors and pilots have provocatively been sent. This is the reason that “conflict increases by the day”; at last check, Iran does not have any weapons, or land, sea or air forces off the US coast.

In the Times’ fourth editorial on the subject (6/21/19), the authors wrote that the

risks of conflict are now growing sharply. Even if the two governments are not ready for diplomacy, at the very least such a connection could help ensure that the many military assets arrayed around one of the world’s most vital shipping lanes don’t ignite a war.

Wars don’t spontaneously combust, nor do the “risks of conflict . . . [grow] sharply” on their own. These dangers have come about because “the many military assets arrayed around one of the world’s most vital shipping lanes” include those of Iran, which are in the vicinity because that’s where Iranians have the audacity to live, and those of the US, which include more than 50 military bases surrounding Iran, more than 7,000 miles from American shores. Iran has a grand total of zero bases encircling the United States.

These editorials make it sound as if the US and Iran have been brought to the edge of war by immutable physical laws, rather than by conscious decisions the US ruling class has made. Framing the issue this way hides US government responsibility for the increased possibility of war. Occluding which party is at fault for a war or the possibility thereof makes it harder for the public to identity who needs to be mobilized against. This problem is particularly acute when it is the US paper of record obscuring the ways Washington is increasing tensions with Iran, and bringing the countries closer to a devastating war.

You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com (Twitter:@NYTOpinion). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

Ruha Benjamin on Race After Technology

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This week on CounterSpin: Listeners may have heard about the electronic soap dispensers whose light sensors can’t detect black skin, Google and Flickr‘s automatic image-labeling that—oops— tagged photos of black people with “ape” and “gorilla.” An Asian-American blogger wrote about her Nikon digital camera that kept asking, “Did someone blink?” And you can, I’m afraid, imagine what turns up in search engine results for “3 black teenagers” vs. “3 white teenagers.”  Some examples of discriminatory design are obvious—which doesn’t mean the reasons behind them are easy to fix. And then there are other questions around technology and bias—in policing, in housing, in banking—that require deeper questioning. That questioning is the heart of a new book, called Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. CounterSpin spoke with author Ruha Benjamin; she’s associate professor of African-American studies at Princeton University and author, also, of People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at recent coverage of racist heart trackers.

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‘Museums Like the Whitney Are Accountable to the Communities They Claim to Serve’ - CounterSpin interview with Amin Husain on Whitney Museum protest

Janine Jackson’s interview with Amin Husain about the Whitney Museum protest, originally part of the May 10, 2019, episode of CounterSpin, was reaired on the August 2, 2019, show. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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New York Times (7/25/19)

Janine Jackson: Warren Kanders resigned from his position as vice chair of the board of the Whitney Museum July 25, saying he didn’t want to “play a role, however inadvertent, in [the museum’s] demise.”

The advertent role that Kanders played was to fund his philanthropy with profits from Safariland, a company that makes tear gas canisters used against protesters around the world, and Sierra Bullets, that sells ammunition used against Palestinian civilians in Gaza; activists, artists and other humans objected.

Kanders’ resignation doesn’t mean the end of the work of groups like Decolonize This Place, who organized around Kanders, as well as a planned event at New York’s Museum of Natural History involving fascist Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

As long as cultural institutions are important sites of public conversation, but the public doesn’t have much to say on who gets to lead that conversation or the stories they tell, activists will be asking us to talk about what that means, and what it would mean to change it. That’s what we talked about a few months ago with Decolonize This Place core organizer Amin Husain.

***

Janine Jackson: Welcome to CounterSpin, Amin Husain.

Amin Husain: Thanks for having me.

JJ: Let me ask you, first, a sort of big question. The theater, museums, art galleries—they’re seen in the United States as noblesse oblige, rich people giving back for the public betterment. Is part of the difficulty of demanding some kind of accountability, or even transparency, the way that these institutions are structured from the get-go, and who they see themselves as accountable to?

AH: Yeah, we’ve been looking at these cultural institutions for a while. And they’re not supported publicly in any material way. So then they rely on “One Percenters” (if we can just use that language loosely). And I think within that, they end up not hospitable to communities that they claim to serve. But yet they peddle the idea of, “Oh, this is a community space, everyone’s welcome. You are part of the public, the public is who we cater to.”

But, in fact, there’s a whole other economy going on, in which the people with a lot of money, giving money to these cultural institutions, are really determining what aesthetics is, what culture is, what’s worth showing, who does it cater to. And it ends up excluding most of the people, if we’re going to talk about New York, in the city.

Focusing on the American Museum of Natural History (because each museum has a specificity), we call it a “Hall of White Supremacy.” If you’ve visited the American Museum of Natural History, that gets a lot of public funding, you realize that, oh, there’s a Hall for African People and there’s a Hall for African Mammals, and there’s a Hall for Asian People and there’s a Hall for Asian Mammals. But there’s no Hall for European People. There’s no Hall for White People. And these are the kind of things that, you know, you see these cultural institutions talking about education, but then what they are doing is perpetuating white supremacy in the children that go to visit.

These are some of the things that we’re calling attention to, but we’re not naive to what’s going on. In a way, museums have always been conceived of as colonial structures. They’re a reflection of the society we live in. And, at the same time, we know that they can be something different. And if they’re not going to be something different, then they’re no longer going to get a pass on pretending to be something good, but in actually advancing bad.

JJ: Yeah. We find that’s the same with news media, who are, as we remind regularly, profit-driven businesses that are public in their impact, but not in their decision-making. Museums, as you’re saying, are a site for a bigger project that involves telling ourselves about ourselves, and who gets to tell that story.

Well, we’ll come back, certainly, to that broader idea. But I do want to ask about Decolonize This Place’s increasingly visible work around Warren Kanders and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Who is Kanders, and what’s at stake there?

Husain Amin: “What we’ve tried to say, both as artists and as people living in the city, to the Whitney, is that, ‘No, Kanders can’t be on a board of the Whitney Museum that claims to be a progressive institution, that claims to serve a public interest.’”

AH: So yeah, thanks for the question. Warren Kanders is a person who is the owner of Safariland Group. The Safariland Group owns many subsidiaries that create, as they call them, “less lethal” solutions. Really, what they produce, and the way this came to our attention is, they produced the tear gas that was used in Egypt, that was used in Bahrain, that was used in Turkey, that’s been used in Ferguson against protesters, that was used in Baltimore. They also supply vests and holsters to the NYPD. They provide, through subsidiaries, ballistic bullets that are lethal, that are used in Palestine.

And so when that came to our attention, it was surprising. What was surprising is the degree by which a person like Warren Kanders could be a vice president of the Whitney Museum Board of Trustees. That was a little bit shocking, considering that the Whitney puts on shows around protests, around defining what American contemporary art looks like. And to the broader public, I think, the world looks at what the Whitney Museum puts up.

And so for us, what we’ve tried to say, both as artists and as people living in the city, to the Whitney, is that, “No, Kanders can’t be on a board of the Whitney Museum that claims to be a progressive institution, that claims to serve a public interest.”

We understand that there are many Warren Kanders. You know, the DeVos family is on the board of trustees, you have the Crown family on the board of trustees. But what we’re saying is that Kanders is a prime example of what’s wrong with our cultural institutions, and that the Whitney is being held accountable.

And what happens when you hold an institution like the Whitney accountable is that it sends a signal out in the world to other cultural institutions, but also to the people, to the communities that are being harmed by it, that we stand in solidarity with them, that we understand that we do have power, that we’re not powerless, and that museums and institutions like the Whitney, they either are accountable to the communities they claim to serve, or they’re going to be protested in a way that impacts their branding.

JJ: Right. We have such a confused view of wealth and of rich people, I think, in this country, that you can see someone who makes their money off misery—there’s no other way to put it—and yet, we will say, well, but if they use that money and create a space where inner-city kids get to look at a Van Gogh, does maybe that all sort of balance out?

And in addition to the idea about the ideas—the cultural reproduction of colonialism, and of ideas of white supremacy—it’s really that these institutions, in some sense, act as money-launderers.

AH: Thank you for saying that. They do act as money-laundering businesses.

But I think people are naive about the art world in general. I think that we as artists and as broader communities care about art, and understand that it has a deep value. But I think that the people with wealth, this wealth is finding a home in something called “the art system.” Look at a Jeff Koons’ piece: The Rabbit costs approximately $70 million; this artist has a rabbit that costs $70 million. Why does anything cost $70 million?

It’s a question that we have to really contend with. And I think the answer isn’t simply because it’s art, and a brilliant person made it. It’s actually deeper than that. It houses this wealth that’s stolen, and then it gets traded between people who own wealth, and then you get tax breaks, or a tax write-off, off of your tax ledger.

JJ: Right.

AH: And I think that this is what’s happening with these institutions. These institutions make rich people look better in the way that they’re doing kind of philanthropy, but it’s not really philanthropy. And then at the same time, they’re getting all these write-offs, and hiding their money. And then their money comes out in art objects. And these art objects are somehow worth $70 million or $20 million or $10 million.

JJ: Right. Well, I want to just go back and say, we heard that the American Museum of Natural History staff, many of them, were gobsmacked, and I know that Whitney staffers, too, many of them are with you in this fight. I mean, the staff inside these institutions are part of the fight, too, right?

AH: Absolutely. I think this is what’s been really important about both the American Museum of Natural History and the Whitney Museum. And shout out to all the staff that have organized.

And I think people forget that the organizing around the Whitney Museum happened with the staff, front-end and back-end, of the museum. Over 100 staff members signed a letter asking for the removal of Kanders, for some principles of transparency around where the funding…and some ethical guidelines. Some money you should say “no” to. That’s a minimum basis for a different kind of conversation.

I think what we’ve done with our actions, going to the Whitney every week, and the eighth week is coming up, is to speak to the staff, to go in advance, to talk to them, to share food with them. We’ve explained we understand the inconvenience that protest creates. We know that they are employed. We know we live in a society in which people have to pay bills, and working at the museum is one of the things by which you pay bills. We understand that institutions are complex. What we’re targeting is the leadership of the Whitney Museum, and we’re making sure, to the degree possible, to not make the lives of the employees difficult.

JJ: I wanted to ask one question about media. A Decolonize This Place press release last year quoted Whitney director Adam Weinberg, in his praise of the museum as “a safe space for unsafe ideas.” And it reminded me of one news article I saw that lumped the Whitney campaign for the removal of Kanders, lumped it in with other scandals at museums, including, you know, sexually explicit art, and Britain cleaning the Elgin Marbles—not taking them, but cleaning them.

And it sort of felt like, oh, museums are “lightning rods,” they get it from “all sides,” and aren’t they very brave to allow people to disagree, you know?

I’ve seen some heartening media coverage, but I’ve also seen some containing media coverage. And I wonder what you would hope that journalists looking at your work would take away from it, and what you would hope they would not?

AH: Yeah, thank you for that question. I think, as I mentioned, the stakes are high at the Whitney. This isn’t about museums being a lightning rod. This is about the injustices and domination and oppression that exist in our society, that materially impact our lives in this city, right, being materialized in a place like the Whitney.

What that allows for us, then, is not to speak of isms like capitalism, or state violence, in a very abstract sense, but to understand how it works—how are we complicit, how are museums not-neutral in that fight?

People forget that when Trump was elected, the Whitney Museum patted itself on the back when it called for J20, right? J20 was all of the so-called political artists gathering together and speaking out against fascism. Where are they today?

So you can put up a show that brings a lot of people in a comfortable space to speak out against fascism, but when you have Warren Kanders a vice president of the Board of Trustees at the Whitney, everyone falls silent.

These are the kind of conversations that we want to have. We don’t presume to know, I don’t presume to know, the answers. I just know that that’s wrong. And it’s also why we held the town hall.

What we imagine is that outlets other than art outlets will cover this. We’ve seen some headway around this in terms of Gothamist, we’re on the radio show with you—this is great—I think Democracy Now! did a little segment.

But the sad thing about media is that they only cover the drama.So when we’re protesting and also gathering and being in spaces doing things, that may not be newsworthy. But when we lit sage in the museum in December, the New York Post covered it, the Daily News covered it.

And I think there’s something about this kind of coverage that is somewhat superficial, that follows a particular formula, when in fact the people that are doing this work are from movements, are organizers and artists and educators and young people, student organizers, and elders, and people from communities as far out as East New York…. I mean, this Friday, we’re taking over subway cars from East New York all the way to the Whitney. Because what’s happening at the Whitney isn’t just about a museum, it’s about sites of specificity, of how oppression and domination gets exercised against us. And it’s a way for us to reclaim, hold accountable and change the nature of the conversation.

And we hope that more media outlets will begin to see that there’s a deeper story here than simply a protest. In a way, a protest doesn’t do service to the kind of thinking that’s going on right now. What does it mean to reclaim the city, if not to reclaim our institutions?

JJ: That was Amin Husain, core organizer with Decolonize This Place, speaking with CounterSpin this past May. You can find the group’s statement on Warren Kanders’ resignation on their site, DecolonizeThisPlace.org.

 

Can’t Afford a Vacation? Get Another Credit Card!  - News about Americans’ dire financial straits turns into a credit card commercial

by Alan MacLeod

Summertime is well and truly here, and for many of us, that means sunny vacations. Disneyland? Florida? A European adventure?

But for tens of millions of Americans, there will be none, because they cannot afford one. A new and widely reported poll from financial services company BankRate.com found that over one in four people are forgoing a vacation, primarily because they cannot pay for it.

The average expected cost of a vacation, for those planning one, was $1,979. But, as a well-publicized survey found, the large majority of millennials (and a majority of Americans overall) are living paycheck-to-paycheck and could not even afford a $1,000 emergency, let alone a $2,000 luxury.

CNBC‘s report (4/25/19) on many Americans being unable to afford a vacation appears under the heading “Spend.”

Commenting on BankRate’s poll, CNBC (4/25/19) provided its audience with “expert” financial advice on how to better afford a vacation, ranging from the bland “watch what you spend” or “have a staycation” to the insultingly obvious “make more money”: Simply “add income streams,” CNBC suggests. That way, writer Megan Leonhardt notes, we could earn between $1,000 and $10,000 extra per month that we could use to invest. How easy—if only the majority of Americans had thought of that!

The recommendations go full galaxy-brained in a section entitled “how the right credit card could help,” where Ted Rossman—an employee of BankRate, whose business model relies on signups to credit cards—explains, “There’s still time to turn a sign-up bonus and ongoing spending rewards into a free or discounted trip.”

This is dubious advice; Americans already owe more than $1 trillion in credit card debt, and the average new credit card interest rate is over 19%. To be fair, CNBC’s article does come with a disclaimer that you should not spend beyond your means: “Don’t use a credit card to pay for a trip and plan to pay it off later,” it warns, sensibly enough, even though it’s just told you that “picking the right card is key” to affording a trip.

Fox News’ story (4/29/19) on the same subject was even more enthusiastic about using credit cards to pay for your vacation, naming specific cards Rossman recommends, which he says offer “lucrative ongoing rewards.” Thus a story that began by detailing the financial woes of the poor seemed to turn into an extended credit card commercial.

Covering the same survey, Forbes (4/25/19) even provided hyperlinks to the credit card webpages where you can sign up for them, without any disclaimer at all about overspending. This feature also appeared, largely word-for-word, in many local news outlets (e.g. WTOP Washington DC, 4/25/19; Billings Gazette, 4/27/19; Great Falls Tribune, 6/19/19).

This is a common phenomenon in modern media. Competition from online advertising has led to a financial crisis for the press. Total US newspaper advertising revenue dropped from $49.3 billion in 2006 to an estimated $14.3 billion in 2018, with little to no growth in circulation revenue. As a consequence, newsroom employees have halved over the same time period, but journalists are expected to produce more content than ever, and with fewer resources. Into the vacuum has stepped the public relations industry, to the point where there are now six PR agents for every journalist.

Under greater time pressure than ever, media resort to rewriting or copying and pasting press releases, then branding them as news. At the same time, advertorials—paid advertisements presented as news—are becoming an increasingly common way for media to increase their income.

Advertorials work. The general public has great difficulty distinguishing between paid for content and traditional news. A Reader’s Digest study found news consumers were 500 times more likely to read an advertorial than a traditional advertisement, and that advertorials generated 81 per cent more sales than standard commercials. Were the BankRate stories advertorials, or simply media lazily repeating PR? CNBC responded with a comment that suggested it was an organic story, while Fox did not reply.

Either way, Americans are in perilous financial straits, and millions are trapped in debt. Media should not be handing out highly questionable recommendations for the sake of extra content. There could be expensive consequences for those who take advice from cheap news.

Wired’s Gee-Whiz High-Tech Militarism

by Julianne Tveten

A deluge of major Western publications stated last month that the US destroyed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman (e.g., New York Times, 7/18/19; NPR, 7/19/19; NBC News, 7/18/19). Citing unproven reports from Donald Trump and the US Department of Defense, the outlets stated that the drone came within 1,000 yards of a US Navy warship, after ignoring “multiple calls to stand down.”

Iran denied the accusations, providing a time-stamped video meant to demonstrate that the drone remained airborne “before and even after the time Americans claim” (BBC, 7/19/19). The US, meanwhile, provided a dubious series of photos, with no indication of when they were taken or their relationship to each other.

A Wired article (7/22/19) celebrates “the first-ever ‘kill’ by a US directed-energy weapon.”

Most of the aforementioned media noted Iran’s denial. Wired’s take, however—entitled “The Marines’ New Drone-Killer Aces Its First Real World Test” (7/22/19)—ignored Iran’s response entirely. Instead, Wired accepted the US’s warmongering narrative fully, even cheerleading the military for its engineering prowess.

The article’s cause for celebration: The US Marines took down a drone for the first time by blasting radio signals to interrupt communications between the drone and its base, rather than using more conventional weapons such as guns or lasers. The article wasn’t concerned with the geopolitical or moral context of a potential act of US aggression against Iran. Rather, as Wired made explicit, its focus was the technological tour de force of downing the drone:

But the significance lies less in heightened tensions in the region than it does in the weapon of choice. The strike marks the first reported successful use of the Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System, an energy weapon that blasts not artillery or lasers but radio signals.

After listing the technical merits—and, to a far lesser extent, shortcomings—of the energy weapon, the article proceeded to call the use of this weapon “fun.” 

Wired has a history of portraying US military operations as dazzling, do-good technological marvels. Days before championing the Marines’ energy weapon, the outlet published a ringing endorsement of the Air Force’s new rescue helicopter (7/19/19), which doubled as an advertorial for both the Air Force and aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin. Not unlike a car commercial, the article detailed the vehicle’s bells and whistles: Twice the fuel capacity! Extra range! New surveillance cameras! Weapon mounts! The idea that some of the countries targeted might seek to develop defenses to these devastating attacks was described as the “challenge” of “rapid evolution of opposition to the American military.”

A new fighter-jet ejection system garnered equally glowing coverage (8/31/18), promising to make “rocketing out of a B-2 bomber surprisingly safe.” A five-pound Lockheed Martin “hit-to-kill” missile, which Wired (5/5/18) playfully termed a “pocket rocket,” received the same PR sheen for its size. Lockheed (11/28/17) was similarly lavished with praise for supplying the US Army and Air Force with “sci-fi” laser weapons, described as a “toy” that “lets you waltz into enemy territory, do your job while zapping missiles out of the sky, and cruise home.” Noting that that “job” involves dropping high explosives on human beings is left unmentioned, lest all the fun be taken out of it.

Wired (7/2/19) compares a military development lab to the “storied garages where Apple and Hewlett-Packard began.”

Last summer, Wired (7/2/18) told the story of how the Army was “building a dream team of tech-savvy soldiers,” replete with a cast of noble, innovative characters. Matt, an anonymized computer scientist and Army captain, developed “hacks” to save money and time on drone-disabling technology, evoking what the story termed the “romance” of early Silicon Valley garage startups. Meanwhile, a group of plucky Army tech officials sought to render the Army more “nurturing” for talent like Matt. The result: Matt assembled the ballyhooed dream team, “like a scene out of Ocean’s Eleven,” where they’d work alongside former Facebook and Dropbox staffers now under the employ of the armed forces.  

An earlier piece examining the “future of war” (6/13/17) fawned over the prospect of videogame-inspired combat. Its premise: Wouldn’t it be cool if the Pentagon supplied soldiers of the future with algorithm-generated maps, notifications and color-coding systems? Its source—Will Roper, a Defense Department employee whose job was to “study where war is headed, and to develop the technological tools that help the United States win there”—threw the magazine’s political allegiances into sharp relief.

While the story acknowledged matters of morality, it offered little more than throwaway comments secondary to the wonder of fusing combat training with videogames. The Army could send machines into combat, Wired noted, but, it asked, “does any country want to delegate the decision to kill someone to a machine?” The article further conceded that “Call of Duty for real” may, to some, be “horrifying” (though “patriotic” to others). These could have been opportunities to include a dissenting voice that might elaborate on the inhumanity of a combat game come to life, or acknowledge the cruelty of using people to kill people. Neither concern was anywhere to be found.

It’s one thing to detail the technical properties of machinery, and quite another to try to leverage those properties into public support for US belligerence. In Wired’s propagandistic imagination, military weapons resemble otherworldly creations, high-tech spectacles, the stuff of science fiction. Within that framing, there’s no need to consider the people around the world for whom those weapons are all too real.

You can send a message to Wired at mail@wired.com, or via Twitter: @Wired. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your message in the comments thread of this post.

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