Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

US Campaign Against Cuba’s Medical Brigades Targets Healthcare, Not ‘Forced Labor’

 

For decades, Cuba has sent tens of thousands of its medical professionals abroad to work in countries where natural disasters or poverty have left people without healthcare.  In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the catastrophic US response to it, the absurdity of a propaganda war against Cuban medical missions has become more obvious than ever. But you can’t rely on corporate media to explain why.

An article cited by Sen. Marco Rubio in support of punishing Cuba was debunked at the time by FAIR (3/26/19).

On May 7, 2019, US Sen. Marco Rubio wrote a letter that urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to increase pressure on governments benefiting from what he alleged was the “forced labor” of Cuban doctors. Rubio’s letter even claimed that the practice constitutes “human trafficking” by Cuba. Two months later, Pompeo took to Twitter announcing new sanctions on Cuban officials involved with its medical missions.

One piece of supposed evidence Rubio presented in the letter was a New York Times article (3/17/19) from last year by Nicholas Casey, which was completely dismantled by Lucas Koerner and Ricardo Vaz on FAIR.org (3/26/19). Casey’s article bizarrely depicted Cuban doctors in Venezuela as agents of the Cuban government who coerce voters and even perpetrate electoral fraud.

Last month, Michael Kozak, assistant US secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, reiterated Rubio’s attack lines on the Cuban missions. He scolded governments who accept Cuba’s medical help by saying, “Crises don’t justify trafficking medical professionals, who need protection now more than ever.”

Spreading allegations that don’t stand up to minimal scrutiny is the opposite of caring about the working conditions of the doctors. But the sources US journalists usually rely on—the right-wing media in Venezuela, for example—have been doing that for many years.

From inciting violence to demanding liberation

Twitter (4/15/13)

In 2013, as 18 medical centers in Venezuela were set ablaze by supporters of the US-backed opposition, one prominent opposition journalist, Nelson Bocaranda, spread an allegation  to about a million Twitter followers (4/15/13) that Cuban doctors were hiding away voting materials inside medical centers.

Journalist Eirik Vold moved to Venezuela in 2002, and initially lived in a wealthy part of Caracas, where everyone seemed to consume vehemently anti-government private media. He wrote in his book Hugo Chavez: The Bolivarian Revolution Up Close (p. 148; see also Venezuelanalysis, 4/7/17):

The first time I heard about the Cuban doctors, for example, was in an El Universal article that described the scandal of a child who died from alleged malpractice at the hands of a Cuban doctor.

But in the US, as the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in increased demand for Cuban doctors around the world, the emphasis appears to have shifted from vilifying them to casting them as victims of exploitation.

Belén Fernandez has already addressed for FAIR (4/14/20) some of the wilder claims about Cuba’s medical brigades that have appeared in the US media. Examples include the frenzied output of the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady (3/22/20), and her editors who denounced Cuba’s supposed “slave trade in doctors”; and the Panam Post (3/30/20), which claimed Cuba has a “shortage of hospital staff” because of its medical brigades. As Fernandez noted, the latter claim was so outlandish that even Reuters (3/22/20) debunked it, noting that even subtracting doctors serving abroad, Cuba still has “one of the highest” number of doctors per capita in the world.  “It’s hard to avoid them” in Cuba, wrote British journalist Ed Augustin (Nation, 5/22/20), who has been based in Havana for the past seven years.

How does Cuba pay for it?

In fact, according to the UNICEF figures, Cuba has since 2000 consistently maintained a lower child mortality rate than the US. Since 2009, it has also maintained a lower infant mortality rate than Canada. That’s an astounding achievement for a country under a ruthless US embargo for 60 years.

Belly of the Beast‘s “Cuba’s Door-to-Door Doctors” (4/17/20)

Independent US-based journalist Reed Lindsay and his team at Belly of the Beast have begun to produce documentary videos on Cuba. One short video succinctly captures Cuba’s proactive approach to healthcare that, combined with an ample supply of doctors, helps explain Cuba’s success.

Sometimes US corporate media produce articles that subject the claims made about Cuba’s medical brigades to some scrutiny, albeit very inadequately. One example is a Washington Post article (4/10/20) by Anthony Faiola and Kimberley Brown, which quoted Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch (HRW):

What these doctors are doing is heroic. But how the Cuban [government] treats them is disgraceful, taking credit for their good deeds while pocketing most of their earnings, denying them basic freedoms of speech and movement, and keeping them and their families back in Cuba in a situation of perpetual duress.

Vivanco’s (and HRW’s) pro-imperial bias is something I’ve written about before for FAIR ( 8/31/18). In a recent Spanish-language interview (BrujulaDigital, 5/15/20) Vivanco referred to the US-backed dictatorship in Bolivia, installed in a military coup incited by a dishonest OAS electoral audit (FAIR.org, 3/5/20), as a “democracy.”

So it’s very unsurprising that Vivanco would accuse Cuba, a state the US treats as an enemy, of simply “pocketing” the hard currency it receives for sending doctors abroad, rather than investing, as it must, in the system that trains its medical professionals. Nobody made this obvious point in the Post article by Faiola and Brown. The article describes the medical brigades as “a major source of income,” but neither the reporters nor anyone they quoted noted that hard currency is required to sustain them—and Cuba’s healthcare system in general. Getting hard currency is especially important for Cuba, because US sanctions greatly increase the costs of importing medicines, medical supplies and technology.

That’s quite an omission, when you consider how reflexively the question “how are you going to pay for it?” is thrown at US politicians like Bernie Sanders who advocate Medicare for All (FAIR.org, 2/29/20) and free college (both of which Cuba has). If that’s considered a crucial question in the most powerful country in the world, why not in Cuba, a small island subjected to a brutal US embargo? (By the way, that embargo has been overwhelmingly denounced by the UN General Assembly in 28 consecutive resolutions.)

Could socialism be a motivating factor?

John Kirk (cc photo: Karla Renic)

I contacted John Kirk of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, who has researched Cuba’s foreign policy and its medical brigades for many years. He provided a credible analysis of why so many Cuban doctors choose to serve abroad.

Kirk lived with Cuban medical professionals as they worked in El Salvador and Guatemala. Over a 12-year period, he interviewed 270 Cuban doctors, nurses and technicians who had spent at least two years working abroad. One of Kirk’s books about Cuba is Healthcare Without Borders: Understanding Cuban Medical Internationalism (published by University Press of Florida).

Speaking by telephone, Kirk provided some figures for Cubans who had worked in Brazil:

They went because they earned $1,000 per month, as opposed to $70 back in Havana. Yes, the Cuban government took 75 percent, $3,000 on top of the $1,000 that they earned. “How do you feel about that?” I asked [the doctors]. The general response was, “It would be nice to earn more money, but bear in mind that our regular salary, insignificant though it may be, is still being paid to our families back home. So what we are earning here is on top of the regular salaries. The money that goes into the Cuban government’s pot subsidizes the healthcare system for the entire population.”

In fact, even the one Cuban doctor the Washington Post (4/10/20) quoted (a defector, of course) said he volunteered to go on missions to make much more money than he could in Cuba.

Kirk said that nobody he interviewed claimed they were pressured to serve abroad; the monetary incentives alone make that very easy to believe. He added that many, for personal reasons, had turned down opportunities to go on second or third missions without repercussions.

Professional development is another incentive that Kirk mentioned—the opportunity to gain experience treating patients with conditions they would seldom (if ever) see in Cuba. He told me that when Ebola struck West Africa, the Cuban government had thousands more volunteers willing to go than it accepted.

Kirk described other incentives as well:

Another reason they went is because it is the kind of thing that everybody is doing—a kind of rite of passage. It’s like backpacking in Europe in the 1960s for North Americans: Everyone was doing it. At one point, 25 percent of Cuba’s doctors were working abroad. Everybody knew somebody who was abroad, or was about to go abroad. It’s also important to bear in mind the social ethos, if you like, the ethic of Cuban society. Kids from preschool are conditioned, socialized, whatever word you want to use, to think of themselves as part of a collective.

Another way to put it is that a socialist ideology can motivate people to help others. In Western media, socialist ideology is generally invoked only if it can be linked to repression or inefficiency, not a healthcare system in the Global South that in various ways outperforms those of many rich countries.

But Cuba is a dictatorship!

If anyone dares to point to any of Cuba’s achievements, the objection is inevitably raised that Cuba is a dictatorship. Cuba has indeed resorted to one-party rule to prevent itself from being destroyed by the US—which, by the way, has killed tens of thousands of Venezuelans through economic sanctions since 2017, imposed in an effort to oust Venezuela’s democratically elected government.

In defiance of US threats, Iranian tankers began to arrive in Venezuela on May 23, bringing desperately needed gasoline. Iran has formally complained to the UN about US threats against the tankers.

Democracy does not protect a foreign government from US military or economic attack—mainly because US’s own democracy is severely stunted by its corporate media. They constrain every public debate, including those about Cuba’s medical brigades or anything related to Cuba.

Newsweek Fails to Note That White House Reopening Guidelines Make Absolutely No Sense

 

Newsweek (5/27/20)

Newsweek (5/27/20) had a piece with the headline:

Illinois Is Only State to Meet All Federal Criteria for Reopening, Will Move to Phase 3 on Friday

What was missing from the piece? Any indication that this doesn’t make a damned bit of sense.

“Data from ProPublica shows that Illinois has hit the five main guidelines issued by the White House in order to safely reopen businesses and relax social-distancing protocols,” Newsweek‘s Jeffery Martin reports. He gives the reader no clue that Illinois has one of the worst outbreaks of Covid-19 in the nation—full stop.

With 1,984 new confirmed cases a day (as of May 27, averaged over seven days), it is behind only California in the number of new infections. On a per capita basis, it’s second only to the District of Columbia. It’s adding cases at 20 times the rate that it was when it decided that the virus was spreading so fast it had to shut down its economy.

(And no, Illinois’ outbreak doesn’t look bad just because the state tests a lot: New Mexico, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Louisiana are all testing at a higher rate and finding fewer cases per capita.)

The state now has the third-highest daily death toll, losing (on a seven-day average) 80 people a day; only New York and New Jersey lose more. (Per capita, Illinois’ rate of Covid-19 death is the seventh worst in the nation.)

Honestly, does this look like the one state in the country that is ready to safely reopen?

Chart: 91-VIDOC

Meanwhile, Newsweek reports that “Alabama, Alaska and West Virginia have only attained passing grades in one out of the five criteria.” As it happens, Alabama and West Virginia are doing a terrible job controlling their coronavirus outbreaks, with daily new cases soaring over the past week. But Alaska continues to be one of the few states or territories that can claim to have actually contained the spread of the virus, with an average of only 1.4 new cases found per day, and no new deaths since May 6. Here’s Alaska’s outbreak compared to Illinois’ on a per capita basis:

Chart: 91-DIVOC

Just so you’re clear: According to the White House, the blue line represents the state that has met the requirements that indicate it is ready to safely reopen—and the yellow line is the state that still has a long way to go.

What this means is that the White House guidelines have absolutely no bearing on whether a state is actually ready to reopen. Illinois met them, Newsweek reports, because:

For two consecutive weeks, Illinois has shown a decrease in positive results per 100,000 people tested. Overall positive test results have also dropped. More than 100,000 individuals per day have received coronavirus tests. Illinois has also had more than 30 percent of ICU beds available while visits to hospitals for flu-like illnesses has decreased.

So if you go from an extremely high rate of coronavirus infection to a merely very high rate, you are making progress and are therefore ready to reopen. You’re giving a lot of tests, which means you are ready to reopen. And you’ve got some empty hospital beds, which is good, because if you rely on criteria like these to tell you that you’re ready to reopen, you’re likely to put a lot more people in the hospital.

These criteria don’t tell you whether you’ve successfully contained the virus; you can virtually stop transmission, as Alaska and a handful of other states have, and still flunk them. That’s because containing the virus is not the plan, and seems to have never been the plan. Instead, the strategy is to allow the virus to spread throughout the population, hopefully at a rate that will keep the healthcare system from completely collapsing.

But the prime objective is to force workers back into the workforce as quickly as possible, regardless of the toll in lives: As Bloomberg (5/19/20) reported on why more stimulus money is not forthcoming, “Republicans are concerned that providing more assistance to states and individuals would slow movement by governors to lift business restrictions.” If carried out, this program would inevitably mean that the 100,000 who have so far been killed by Covid-19 (by the official count) will be a small fraction of the total lives lost.

It’s critically important that media provide accurate reporting on what our governments are choosing to do, and what price we are likely to pay for their choices. Instead, Newsweek is giving us the latest fashion reports on the emperor’s new clothes.

Messages to Newsweek can be sent here (or via Twitter@Newsweek). 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.

Children Risking Their Lives. How Cute! - Coronavirus crisis provides a surfeit of horrific ‘uplifting’ news

 

If you really want to understand the ideology corporate media are constantly selling us, it’s often best not to look at how they cover serious news, but what they depict as light-hearted human interest stories. There’s always a stream of them from local and national outlets, designed to pique interest and serve as a balance to the often heavier headline content. Stories along the lines of  “Homeless Man Wins Lottery” or “Local Sisters Accepted to Harvard AND Yale” abound, often appearing at the ends of news broadcasts.

FAIR (8/3/17, 3/25/19, 7/21/19) has already catalogued how corporate media are so out of touch that much of what they present as heartwarming human interest pieces are actually unintentionally horrifying revelations of the deep dysfunctions in US society—tales of late-capitalist dystopia repackaged as feel-good stories. During an epochal catastrophe such as this one, where bodies are piling up outside morgues and tens of millions have lost their jobs, corporate media’s neoliberal understanding of what is uplifting stretches credulity to the breaking point.

CNN (4/30/20) reported on a teacher who used half his stimulus check to pay for utilities for the families of three students, which “should cover their bills for a little more than two months.”

A case in point is CNN’s account (4/30/20) of an Alabama school teacher paying his desperate students’ utility bills with his stimulus money. This was presented as a heartening story; indeed, one radio show introduced it with the title “Good News.” But is it? Certainly the teacher’s actions are admirable. But the context within which they occurred sounds more like the death rattle of a terminally ill society.

Why do children even have these bills? Would they have had their water and electricity cut off during a pandemic if not for the actions of a public school teacher, himself hardly likely to be a font of wealth? Couldn’t the US do what other countries have done, and suspend bills during the crisis? CNN asked none of these questions (nor any others), implicitly normalizing the situation, suggesting these details are unimportant or unremarkable.

The kids are all right

Children taking on the responsibilities of adults is a common theme of questionable feel-good stories, and during the coronavirus pandemic it is no different. CNN (4/5/20), for example, shared the story of Cavanaugh Bell, a Maryland boy who used his $600 life savings to buy and deliver groceries for his grandmother and other at-risk members of the community. But it did not ask whether government could be funding this, or simply doing it themselves, rather than leaving it to a seven-year-old child.

ABC (4/3/20) reported that people around the world found that the story of a seven-year-old going out into a pandemic to gather critical medical supplies “brought a smile to their faces during this difficult time.”

Likewise, the story of Zohaib Begg, a seven-year-old Virginian who began collecting personal protective gear (like gloves and shower caps) from hotels to donate them to equipment-starved local hospitals delighted media (e.g., Patch, 3/27/20; ABC News, 4/3/20), along with former President Barack Obama, who shared his story on Twitter (3/30/20).

Why were hospitals already critically short of supplies by March 27? Why weren’t authorities buying them en masse online, where they are still freely available to this day? And is “inspirational” really the word to describe a child with an immuno-compromised sister stepping in to perform the most basic functions of the government? Media did not ask, preferring to paper over the rapidly widening cracks in society with bland feel-good rhetoric where it was scarcely appropriate.

Judging from the comments to Obama’s post, readers saw the story as less uplifting and more a shocking indictment of the state of the country. Some of the most prominent replies included: “Maybe a previous administration should have built a system where seven-year-olds didn’t have to fill the gaps left by the government,” “That is not inspiring” and “How can you look at a child having to supply hospitals with needed equipment and not realize we live in a failed state?”

At a time of intense uncertainty, there is an understandable need for messages of hope. Unfortunately, much of the media is unable to provide it, chiefly because they are stuck in a neoliberal conception of how the world should run, seeing things like healthcare, food and housing not as inalienable rights (enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights), but merely as commodities to be bought and sold in the marketplace, as if they were iPhones or perfume. Thus, starving grandparents and kids without electricity or water are not outrages, but unfortunate facts of life that can be overcome by an application of grit.

While the actions of those profiled are indeed heroic, only the truest of believers in the free market can find their perseverance inspiring without being troubled by the awful context around them. As the neoliberal order rapidly decays before our eyes, the contradictions become clearer, and many of the “uplifting” human interest pieces corporate media share only serve to highlight the inhuman logic the system promotes.

Alex Vitale, Chase Madar and Shahid Buttar on Racist Policing

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New York Times (5/26/20)

This week on CounterSpin: The May 26 New York Times reports that authorities are looking into “the arrest of a black man who died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee.” Police murder yet another black person in broad daylight, and the Times can’t bring itself to use active verbs. George Floyd was killed by a police officer who remained on the force despite a record of violence and complaints, his murder was covered up as a “medical incident” by the police department, and when people protested the killing, police tear-gassed and shot at them with rubber bullets. Now law enforcement will investigate law enforcement.

Seeing all this, again, more people are coming to consider that racist policing cannot be “reformed” with an occasional lawsuit and some implicit-bias classes. CounterSpin has had unfortunate occasion to discuss the issue many times. We talked about the history of policing with professor and author Alex Vitale. We hear some of that conversation this week.

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Many hold out hope for justice from the courts for police crimes. We talked about the problems with that path with civil rights attorney and author Chase Madar. We revisit that as well.

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And: Without the bystander video, we’d only have the police version of George Floyd’s death. We wouldn’t know he said he couldn’t breathe, that multiple people pleaded with the cops to stop what they were doing. The New York Times calls that “video raising questions about the police narrative”; actually, it’s communities desperate to be believed when they say law enforcement doesn’t value their lives, using one of the few tools left to them. We talked about supporting these critical witnesses with Shahid Buttar, then-director of grassroots advocacy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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Coverage of School Reopening Needs to Include School Workers

 

New York Times (3/10/20): “Singapore, which has been heralded for its response to Covid-19, decided that closing schools would do more harm than good.” A month and a half later, Singapore had the highest rate of new Covid-19 cases in the world.

When Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, wrote in the New York Times (3/10/20) that K–12 school closures might be unnecessary in the fight against Covid-19, because children rarely get sick from exposure, there was a curious omission. Shouldn’t a scholar of public health, writing about schools for the nation’s leading newspaper, be fully aware that schools are also populated with adults—from teachers to administrators, food workers to therapists? Many of them are in the 45–64 age group that is dying from the coronavirus at a rate about equal to their proportion of the population. Alas, the editors missed this problem.

Versions of this type of oversight have emerged in recent coverage of the debate over whether schools should look to reopen in the summer and fall. The debate has heated up now that President Donald Trump said on Twitter (5/24/20) that schools should reopen. At Fox News (5/25/20), pundit Steve Hilton thundered that schools must reopen, and called general distancing measures meant to stop the spread of the virus  “over-prescriptive regulation” that “is typical of the infantilizing mindset of our technocratic ruling elite.”

Many outlets are failing to reach out to unions representing the workers who will have to incur risks by entering physical school spaces if reopening happens too hastily.

For example, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones (5/23/20) relied on a few medical studies—he admits that “none of this is conclusive proof”—to question whether school closures have any meaningful effect on stopping the spread of Covid-19. His piece includes no input from organizations that represent schools’ personnel, or any mention of the risk to adult school workers.

A Washington Post op-ed (5/11/20) cites a study that school closures “prevent only about 2% to 4% of total deaths,” which it calls “a relatively small impact.” In the US context, that would mean an additional 2,000–4,000 deaths so far.

Economist Emily Oster of Brown University wrote in the Washington Post (5/11/20) that schools could have a path to reopening, and, unlike the earlier Times piece, acknowledged that schools involve adult workers who could be open to infection. Still, there was no apparent input from the workers themselves who would be put at risk.

Even Chalkbeat (5/21/20), in its coverage of the possibility of New York schools reopening, didn’t touch the union or worker angle, despite being a source for education news.

The Chicago Sun-Times (5/8/20) did cover the Chicago Teachers Union response to the mayor’s desire to reopen schools. Of course, that uncovered the bitter truth that the union was not consulted by the mayor in her announcement to look for a path to reopening.

The Wall Street Journal (5/25/20) offered comparatively fuller overage, citing the American Federation of Teachers as well as administrators, teachers and parents.

The New Yorker (5/24/20) also mentioned the concerns of New York City’s teachers’ union, but it added a telling caveat: “In making reopening decisions, politicians and school officials need to listen to all parties involved. That includes teachers but also families.”

This framing is a false dichotomy that perpetuates the right-wing myth that public-sector unions are organizations competing against parents, rather than worker agents bargaining with city and state government bosses. It’s a mistake to insinuate that teachers and school workers aren’t invested in their schools’ futures like parents are. Not to mention that this dichotomy leaves out the fact that many educational unionists are themselves public-school parents.

Fox News‘ Steve Hilton (5/25/20) says “the media misinformation machine is fear-mongering about a new mystery disease that affects children”—referring to multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a Covid-linked illness that has put hundreds of children in hospitals.

School workers have been one of the hardest hit sectors in the pandemic. New York City’s WABC (5/11/20) reported that at least 74 Board of Education employees have died of Covid-19, and New York City’s United Federation of Teachers has an obituaries page that soberly illustrates how devastating the pandemic has been for educators, putting them alongside New York City transit workers as an occupation that has seen far too much death.

The union angle in this debate is important, because teachers and other workers have the most knowledge about whether school districts have the proper equipment and know-how to prepare for reopening, and can also speak about the hazards and concerns of prolonged remote-learning. A good union keeps an eye on worker safety and health, which in schools often means the safety of students as well.

And re-opened schools don’t just mean the schools themselves could be centers of transmission. Especially in urban areas like hard-hit New York City, thousands of workers would be riding subways and buses, potentially accelerating the spread.

In both the press and in government, many teachers in Covid-19 hotspots don’t feel heard. As Jia Lee, an outspoken UFT activist and New York City special education teacher, told FAIR:

No one, and I mean no one, is asking us how things are going, and what we think is needed to support our students, let alone getting input on what it’ll take to reopen the schools.

School closures have created some of the most trying ordeals for families in this pandemic. Parents are trying to work from home while overseeing remote assignments for their children, which can be frustrating, both technologically and existentially: Can video lessons really recreate the socialization school provides for young children? And teachers are dealing with the same frustrations at the other end of those video sessions, often having to balance their work life with their own parenting and homeschooling.

And schools, in an age of eroding public services for the poor, do serve as an important institution for children in poverty: School is often where these children get meals and medical attention.

The eagerness to reopen schools is understandable, but given the intensity of this crisis, the decision must come after comprehensive review of all factors, which includes the voices of the workers who will be taking on the most risk. And the coverage of that process must include those voices, too.

‘The War on Public Schools Continues, Only Now It’s Considered Reinvention’ - CounterSpin interview with Diane Ravitch on pandemic school privatization

Janine Jackson interviewed the Network for Public Education’s Diane Ravitch about pandemic school privatization for the May 22, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Syracuse Post-Standard (5/5/20)

Janine Jackson: Just as parents around the country, trying to help their kids navigate remote learning, are feeling their respect for teachers deepened by orders of magnitude, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggests that maybe the pandemic shows that the whole ‘teacher in a classroom’ thing is passé. Specifically, Cuomo said:

The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class and you do that all across the city, all across the state. All these buildings, all these physical classrooms—why, with all the technology you have?

That technology can do what teachers do, that a laptop—if the kid has one—on the kitchen table can replace attending school with other students—it’s like the funhouse mirror version of the lesson many are taking from the crisis.

To whom does such a vision appeal? If participation in Cuomo’s scheme to “Reimagine Education” is any indication, it’s not educators. But will that be enough to stop it?

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University and co-founder and president of the Network for Public Education. She’s author of numerous books, most recently Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, out now from Knopf. She joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Diane Ravitch.

Diane Ravitch: Thank you, wonderful to be with you.

JJ: Well, Cuomo’s office backpedaled a bit. An aide tweeted, “Teachers are heroes & nothing could ever replace in-person learning.” Meanwhile, they added Eric Schmidt, the [former] head of Google, to the team, whose lead player is Bill Gates. The people now pushing to “Reimagine Education” in the midst of the pandemic, these are the same people—and reflect the worldview—that, for some 20 years now, has been calling itself education reform. And media, too, call people like Bill Gates “reformers.” You have a different name. Tell us about that.

DR: In my book, Slaying Goliath, I refer to Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, and all these tech titans, and Wall Street and on and on, as disruptors. They have lots of ideas about how to reinvent and reimagine American education. It always involves privatization. It always attacks public control, and democratic control, of schools. And it very frequently involves technology, because what they’re interested in is cutting the cost of education, and the most expensive aspect of public education is teachers.

And also, from a different point of view, the most important part of education is teachers, because I think that we’ve learned during this pandemic that sitting in front of a screen is not the same as being in a classroom with a human being.

So Cuomo has presented New York, and also the nation, with a real dilemma, which is: Are we prepared to make this emergency remote learning into a permanent thing, and maybe give it a happier name? They call it “personalized learning.” But if there’s anything that’s impersonal, it’s sitting in front of a computer for your lessons.

JJ: Yeah.

This reform that, as you note, was always about privatization and, folks will know, standardized tests, teaching to tests, evaluating teachers and schools based on those tests. It was also, or has been, marketed as being in particular good for poor kids, and for black and brown kids, and saving them from what we’re always told were “failing schools.”

But you can see something appealing about standardization. It seems to say, “Well, you can’t keep this black kid out, or you can’t keep this poor kid out, because a 95 on the test is a 95 on the test.” But it doesn’t work that way. It hasn’t worked that way.

DR: No, it hasn’t worked. It’s actually been a tremendous failure. The effort to standardize people always fails, because we’re all very different. We all have different things we’re interested in, different abilities to be cultivated, different passions, and a good teacher knows how to bring out the best in all kids. A machine is simply a machine.

And I don’t think if you look back over the past decade, where these so-called reformers have been promoting standardized testing and using tests for everything, to evaluate teachers, having Common Core Standards where everybody in the country is allegedly learning the same thing at the same minute, we haven’t seen any change whatsoever, if we look at test scores. The scores have been flat on the only measures we have that are outside the manipulation of politicians. And that is, we have a national test called the NAEP, National Assessment of Educational Progress. The scores on the NAEP, since we’ve had Common Core and since we’ve been trying to standardize everybody and everything, have been completely flat. So we’ve managed to standardize flatness and mediocrity, and it’s been a disaster.

We’ve also seen, and I think this may be one of the most troubling aspects of this era, a dramatic decline in the number of people wanting to become teachers. The enrollments in teacher education programs, whether they’re graduate programs or professional programs, even undergraduate programs, have simply collapsed. And many institutions have lost a third to 40% or even more of their prospective students. And this is because we’ve been through an era of saying that education can be standardized and turned into a mechanical thing, and that teachers are test proctors rather than teachers.

Teachers want to see the faces of the children. They want to see that they’re having an impact, they want to be able to encourage children face to face. They want to speak to those kids who need extra help, and give them that extra help. And, unfortunately, computers can’t do that.

I think that if there’s one thing we’ve learned from this pandemic, it’s that parents really don’t want to be teachers; they want to have professionals doing that. And they’ll be very happy to see real schools open again.

I think that Cuomo’s comment that buildings are irrelevant is ridiculous, and the day he decides not to have a governor’s office, and to do his governor’s work from a computer at home, then he can begin to talk about getting rid of schools.

But no parent wants to hear that because, frankly, parents have jobs, they want to be able to work, they want to be able to go to their workplace, and everybody is not going to be sheltering in place for the rest of their lives.

So we’re living through what hopefully is a temporary situation; the sooner it ends, the better off we will all be. And when it does end, I hope that we’ve learned about the value of real teachers who are professionally prepared.

Washington Post (5/6/20)

JJ: The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss noted that Cuomo’s remarks drew “rebuke from teachers and others who have lived through Gates-funded education reforms.” And I like that language, because it’s not just a vision thing, and it’s not just opinion; as you’ve just stated, even though, as with so-called Common Core Standards, Gates paid for the creation of the thing, he paid for the implementation and he paid for its evaluation, these interventions still failed by their own criteria.

DR: You know, this is the great irony of Bill Gates. He’s got more money than almost anyone in the world. I think Jeff Bezos has more money than he does now. But he’s a guy who’s worth well more than $100 billion. He can do whatever he wants to do, and there are no consequences, and there’s no accountability for his failures.

And he’s—from what I gather, I’m not in the public health field—I hear that he’s done good things in public health. He has done horrible things in education. Everything he has undertaken in education has been intrusive. It’s been a failure. It has discouraged teachers. It’s actually hurt the kids that he intends to help. It’s done nothing to improve the lot of very poor kids. And it has advanced the narrative of privatization.

You have to understand that for 20 years and more, really since 1983, when Reagan was president, there has been this narrative that our public schools are failing, and something dramatic needs to happen, throw something at the wall.

I frequently ask people, “If our public schools are failing, how did we get to be the most powerful nation in the world?” But the war on the public schools continues, only now it’s considered reinvention; it’s called reform, but there’s nothing reform about it, it’s simply disruption.

JJ: It’s interesting: Gates acknowledges that his experiments didn’t go as he thought. He sort of shrugs and moves on, which he’s in a position to do. It’s teachers and students, of course, who are the ones in the wreckage, which, as you’ve noted, involves whipsawing government policy, overturning curricula, money being redirected from other things. These experiments from billionaires have costs that they leave behind.

DR: There are many billionaires, they’re not as rich as he is, but they’ve done tremendous damage. I have a chapter in my most recent book in which I simply list the billionaires and the major corporations that have funded these attacks on public education.

And we all know Betsy DeVos is the mistress of destruction. And she is, right now, using money that was appropriated to save public schools that are in tremendous trouble. And she’s urging states to split the money with private schools. Well, no one ever authorized public funding of private schools using the coronavirus relief funds, but that’s what she’s promoting.

But she’s only one of literally scores of billionaires, and you can find them in almost every state, who decided—even though they have no knowledge or expertise in education—that education should be privatized, because in private hands, somehow it will be better. And we now have a wealth of experience and research and studies that show that privately managed schools, and voucher schools in particular, are worse than public schools.

JJ: I learned on your blog, DianeRavitch.net, that Betsy DeVos spoke admiringly of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous comments about how people blame society for things, but there’s no such thing as society, just “individual men and women and families.” A secretary of Education, someone in charge of public education, who says “there’s no such thing” as society. That’s just very Trump administration, I guess.

DR: Yes. And what’s ironic is right now, during a time of national and international crisis, there’s, I think, a fairly broad understanding: We’re all in this together, and we need leadership, we need society. We each alone, with our families, cannot develop a vaccine. We cannot fund the research that’s necessary to end this pandemic. We need a functioning government that actually believes in science, and that is willing to take the lead in telling people how they must act in order to protect themselves. So for our own health, safety and survival, we need society.

So when Margaret Thatcher and then Betsy DeVos says there’s no such thing as society, they’re speaking as people who live on little islands. I don’t know Margaret Thatcher’s reason, but Betsy DeVos, being a billionaire, can retreat from all of this, and protect herself from any interaction with the rest of the world. The rest of us can’t. We need the world, we need society.

JJ: You say something dramatic needs to happen. I think folks may remember: In 2010, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan called Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” “That education system was a disaster,” he said, “and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say we have to do better.”

Newsweek at the time told its readers:

Since Katrina, New Orleans has made more educational progress than any other city, largely because the public school system was wiped out. Using nonunion charter schools, New Orleans has been able to measure teacher performance in ways that the teachers’ unions have long and bitterly resisted.

It’s hard not to hear those shock doctrine echoes of Katrina in the coronavirus pandemic. It’s just too appealing an opportunity, it seems, to step in when folks are reeling, as we are. But you think the disruptors are on their last gasp?

DR: What I wrote, and I believe, is that the public supports public schools overwhelmingly, that even where there are multiple charters and it’s easy to leave public schools, most kids are still in public schools. In states where there are vouchers that are freely available, very few kids are taking them. And you have legislators, like in Ohio and in Florida and in Arizona, pushing vouchers, pushing charters.

And what my organization that works for public education has discovered through doing research is the charters are very unstable. They are not transparent about either their academics or their finances. And they open and close with great regularity. There are some states now that have more charters closing than there are charters opening.

And Congress has given Betsy DeVos a fund of $440 million every year to open new charter schools, and she favors the big corporate chains. So this means that a chain with 200 charters can come into a neighborhood, open a charter school and drive the public school out of business. And it’s not doing it because it’s offering better education. It’s doing it because it’s separating out the kids it wants from the kids that it doesn’t want, and that’s not the role of public education.

Charters are not public schools, vouchers are not public schools. They should not be publicly funded. Public money should go to public schools that have elected school boards, or that have oversight and accountability to the public, which neither charters nor vouchers do.

The claim for vouchers from DeVos is, “Well, why can’t poor kids choose? Because, after all, rich kids choose.”  Well, rich kids are choosing because their parents are paying $30- or $40- or $50,000 to go to an elite private school. Poor kids are getting a voucher worth $5- or $6,000, and going to very poor, mostly religious schools, where teachers are usually not certified and the quality of education is very poor.

So I think what frightens me is that if these people get their way—and we have a very conservative Supreme Court that’s on the cusp of ruling that states are not allowed to deny funding to religious schools—we will see this country go backwards educationally, because having a strong public school system is a pillar of democracy. A public school system that’s open to all kids, that doesn’t push out kids because they can’t speak English, that doesn’t exclude the kids because they have disabilities, and that has a full program, and doesn’t indoctrinate kids into a religious point of view: This is what made America great, and because of the people like DeVos and Trump, and the Bill Gateses and other billionaires in the world who are funding all this privatization stuff, we can see our country go backwards. And that’s what’s frightening.

JJ: Finally, it’s galling to see the Gates Foundation issuing a response to complaints about this New York initiative, saying, “We believe that teachers have an important perspective that needs to be heard,” as though that were a gracious concession. But then, media and others still hanging on to this notion that riches equal expertise, and pretending that we don’t know what actually works. If I see another report about, “Hey, there was a study that said kids do better in smaller-sized classes”—we know this. It’s just about who they listen to. What would you like to see more of, or less of, in terms of education reporting?

Diane Ravitch: “”I would like to see them expose this hoax that somehow, promoting privatization benefits the neediest children, when, in fact, privatization hurts the neediest children.”

DR: The scary thing about the pandemic is that every school system in the country is going to be faced with dramatic budget cuts. And what I would like to see reporters focused on is the funding, and the funding should be, not following the child—I mean, this is what Betsy DeVos wants, and what all the right-wingers want, is to see the funding diverted to wherever the child goes. If they go to religious schools, the money goes there. If they homeschool, the money goes there. This is public money; this is our taxpayer dollars—and it should go to public institutions.

I would like to see reporters understand that children learn best when they have human teachers and when they have interaction with their peers.

And I would like to see them follow the money. Who is funding the charter movement? I know who’s funding it, read my book: It’s mainly the Walton Foundation, which hates unions, and which is responsible for one out of every four charter schools in the country. I would like to see them follow the money to the extent of saying, “What really matters is that kids have small enough classes”—and the research on small class size is overwhelming—and I would like to see them expose this hoax that somehow, promoting privatization benefits the neediest children, when, in fact, privatization hurts the neediest children.

And they need to look at the research, the research on increased segregation and the defunding of the schools where the poorest kids attend. This has now grown overwhelming.

And when Betsy DeVos publicly urges the states to split the money between low-income public schools and high-income private schools, this is sick, and it should be reported as a disgrace. And so many disgraceful things are happening in education, and the reporters need to be all over it.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Diane Ravitch; she blogs at DianeRavitch.net. The latest book is Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools. It’s out now from Knopf. Thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin, Diane Ravitch.

 

DR: Thank you so much. It’s been a great pleasure.

 

Media Smeared Ahmaud Arbery After His Lynching

 

While it took two and a half months for the authorities to finally make arrests in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, corporate media were much quicker to follow the time-honored practice of besmirching victims of racist violence (FAIR.org, 3/22/17).

First they kill your body. Then they kill your reputation. When white supremacy is the foundation of the US’s media, political, legal and corporate system, victims of racist violence are often killed twice in this way.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation on May 7 arrested former cop Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, for the murder of Arbery, an unarmed 25-year old African American out for a jog—only after a widely circulated video of the lynching became too difficult to ignore. The man who filmed the shooting, William Bryan Jr., 50, was arrested on May 21 on charges of felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment after Arbery’s family and civil rights activists pressed that Bryan wasn’t a mere witness, but an active participant in the murder.

But it only took a few weeks for corporate media to dig up and publish irrelevant dirt on Arbery.

Media outlets sometimes offer the excuse that they have to investigate victims’ pasts to fill up column inches, because the identities of police officers who perpetrate racist violence are often concealed. But in this case, the video and police reports made it very clear who the shooters were: On February 23, Travis and Gregory McMichael pursued and shot Arbery for the apparent “crime” of running while black, ostensibly because they assumed, based on the color of his skin, that he was behind a series of break-ins more than seven weeks before.

The New York Times headline (4/26/20) has “two weapons, a chase, a killing”—and no killers. In the subhead, Ahmaud Arbery “ended up dead”—and the people who shot him to death are described as “pursuers.”

The New York Times report (4/26/20), with the vague headline “Two Weapons, a Chase, a Killing and No Charges,” cited activists and family members pointing out that even if Arbery had committed a property crime, that still wouldn’t have justified lethal violence. But the Times nevertheless saw fit to include:

But others contend that Mr. Arbery was up to no good. On the day of the shooting, and apparently moments before the chase, a neighbor in Satilla Shores called 911, telling the dispatcher that a black man in a white T-shirt was inside a house that was under construction and only partially closed in.

“And he’s running right now,” the man told the dispatcher. “There he goes right now!”

In his letter to the police, Mr. Barnhill, the prosecutor, noted that Mr. Arbery had a criminal past. Court records show that Mr. Arbery was convicted of shoplifting and of violating probation in 2018. Five years earlier, according to the Brunswick News, he was indicted on charges that he took a handgun to a high school basketball game.

George Barnhill, the prosecutor cited by the Times, has a history of aggressively prosecuting cases that intimidate people of color from voting, and denying motions for people of color requesting a new trial due to flawed forensic evidence (Guardian, 5/17/20). Before recusing himself from the Arbery case, he argued that it was “perfectly legal” for the McMichaels to pursue and confront Arbery with weapons—already judging Arbery to be a “criminal suspect” who had “initiated the fight”—because the McMichaels’ ostensibly armed themselves and pursued Arbery with the intent to “stop and hold” him “until law enforcement arrived.”

Barnhill defended the McMichaels by citing a statute allowing for a citizen’s arrest, though that statute only applies to someone when a “offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.” Arbery hadn’t committed any offense, in the McMichaels’s presence or otherwise, and they had no “immediate knowledge” other than the color of Arbery’s skin (New York Times, 5/6/20). And Gregory McMichael had his law enforcement certificate suspended for repeatedly failing to complete required training, losing his legal power of arrest (Washington Post, 5/14/20).

The Guardian‘s “exclusive” (5/18/20) revealed that a murder victim had been questioned three years earlier about why he “was sitting alone in his car in a park.”

Nevertheless, the Guardian (5/18/20) published a video from 2017 showing police attempting to tase Arbery after an officer felt “threatened” by Arbery questioning why the officer was bothering him. (The article reported that the cop “suspected Arbery of using marijuana,” noting he “was in a park known for drug activity.”) Because of his death, the Guardian obviously wasn’t able to get Arbery’s perspective on the confrontation, but the paper still included racist passages from the officer’s report that depicted Arbery as a black male possessing animalistic strength and uncontrollable aggression:

Kanago claimed he began to feel threatened by Arbery, later writing in his report that “veins were popping from [Arbery’s] chest, which made me feel that he was becoming enraged and may turn physically violent towards me.”

Following that, the New York Post (5/19/20) published another video from 2017, in which Arbery and his friends were stopped in the parking lot of a Walmart. Arbery was accused of shoplifting a TV, and was arrested while trying to show the officer a receipt, depriving him of a chance to prove his innocence.

As these irrelevant details of Arbery’s past had been publicly available since they were reported by the Times in April, the Guardian and Post making the effort to search for and publish videos showing the police harassing, arresting and trying to tase Arbery served mainly to posthumously humiliate and criminalize him. These reports implicitly attempt to justify his death, further examples of the senseless demand that victims of racist violence lead unblemished lives before they can be deemed worthy of mourning.

These videos made a splash in other outlets, serving to reinforce the racist stereotype of black criminality:

  • Fox News (5/21/20): “Video Surfaces of Ahmaud Arbery Being Arrested on Suspicion of Shoplifting in 2017”
  • Associated Press (5/19/20): “2017 Video Shows Georgia Officer Tried to Stun Ahmaud Arbery”
  • Daily Mail (5/20/20): “Newly-Released Bodycam Footage Shows Ahmaud Arbery Getting Arrested in 2017 for Trying to Steal a 65-Inch TV From a Walmart — Which Led to Five Years of Probation”
  • Wall Street Journal (5/19/20): “New Video Shows Police Tried to Tase Ahmaud Arbery in 2017”

Of course, even if it turns out to be the case that Arbery had smoked marijuana or had shoplifted prior to the filmed confrontations—in other words, if his shoplifting conviction were not the result of a racist legal system designed to force plea bargains from even innocent suspects—what would any of this have to do with the current situation? Even if Arbery had actually committed the weeks-old burglary the McMichaels suspected him of, a landmark 1985 Supreme Court case regarding the killing of Edward Garner determined that you can’t shoot a burglar simply for running away (Daily News, 5/11/20), so there are no justifications for Arbery’s killing regardless.

Ahmaud Arbery’s past had nothing to do with why the McMichaels killed him, and these reports deflect attention away from the perpetrators of racist violence to the past of their victims instead. These videos are likely to be barred at the McMichaels’ trial as irrelevant and prejudicial to jurors’ perception of Arbery; and news media have no greater justification for digging them up and publishing them.

US Media Failed to Factcheck Sweden’s Herd Immunity Hoax

 

CNN (5/21/20) quoted Sweden’s chief epidemiologist as saying a 7.3% infection rate in Stockholm was a “little lower” than expected, “but not remarkably lower, maybe one or a couple of percent.” Thirteen paragraphs later, it noted that he claimed in April (BBC, 4/26/20) that Stockholm’s infection rate was “somewhere between 15 and 20% of the population.” 

Last week, a piece of news put another dent in the Swedish government’s claims that it’s been able to get Covid-19 under control without stay-at-home orders.

Swedish officials had previously said that their capital city of Stockholm could be approaching “herd immunity,” where so many people had contracted and survived the virus that their natural resistance could make the coronavirus begin to disappear on its own (CNBC, 4/22/20). But testing in Stockholm found that, in fact, only 7.3% of residents had SARS-COV-2 antibodies (Guardian, 5/21/20; CNN, 5/21/20). Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell called the figure “a bit lower than we’d thought.”

That wasn’t the only curiously low number in the media coverage of the latest findings, though. The Guardian noted that the Swedish government “had previously said it expected about 25% [of Stockholm residents] to have been infected by 1 May.” But even that level of infection wouldn’t have been nearly enough to approach any significant herd immunity—while the exact threshold varies depending on precisely how contagious a virus turns out to be, best estimates for the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 run from 70% to 82%. (It’s estimated that the coronavirus infected 69% of the population of the Italian province of Bergamo by early May, despite a belated lockdown.) So even before the latest test results, the Swedish government’s claim of nearing herd immunity turns out to have been a fraud.

The per capita death rate from Covid-19 was dramatically higher in Sweden, compared to its Scandinavian neighbors. (Chart: 91-DIVOC)

None of this, alarmingly, stopped the international press from initially touting Sweden’s claims that herd immunity was a potentially promising way to avoid widespread lockdowns.

CNBC (4/22/20) reported that in Sweden, “life has generally carried on as before, just at a quieter pace”—except for the 4,000 people who died, of course.

CNBC (4/22/20) called the nation’s approach “controversial,” but quoted Tegnell uncritically as saying 20% of Stockholm’s population “is already immune to the virus” and “in a few weeks’ time we might reach herd immunity.” NPR (4/26/20) cited Swedish ambassador to the U.S. Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter as providing similar figures, except Olofsdotter floated 30% as the number already immune. USA Today (4/28/20) then ran a long interview with Tegnell in which he guesstimated 25% exposure in Stockholm, with herd immunity arriving “within a matter of weeks”—a policy it noted scientists in Sweden and abroad had termed “dangerous,” but which “is broadly supported by most Swedes.”

None of these outlets questioned Swedish officials on their claims, or sought out comment from infectious disease experts. (Tegnell himself is an epidemiologist; his predecessor, Annika Linde, told the Observer5/24/20—that she now believed that Sweden should have shut down more completely and earlier to reduce the spread of Covid-19.) In the USA Today report, Tegnell cited a study of hospital workers in Stockholm that found 27% were coronavirus positive, then asserted without attribution that this should be seen as representative of the general population, because “most of those are immune from transmission in society, not the workplace,” even though healthcare workers have been testing positive at far higher rates than average residents in multiple nations (Associated Press, 4/14/20). And no reporters stopped to wonder how on earth Stockholm’s infection rates could double or triple in a matter of weeks without a massive death toll—even at the low-end estimate infection fatality rate of 0.56% based on a study in Italy, an additional 40% of Stockholm’s population becoming infected would result in more than 2,000 added deaths in that city alone, which would move Sweden from the sixth-highest to the third-highest per capita death toll in the world.

This is especially important as “herd immunity” has become a popular stalking horse among certain right-wingers seeking to argue that infecting broad swathes of the population is the best way to return the world — and the world economy — to normal. The Federalist (3/25/20) ran an article advocating for “chickenpox parties” to infect as many young, healthy people as possible, so those who recover could “move freely, work anywhere and be freed from social distancing,” an edit that the article’s author, an Oregon dermatologist and internist, ended up disowning, while Twitter briefly suspended the Federalist‘s account for “misinformation” until its tweet about the article was removed (Willamette Week, 3/26/20).

Boris Johnson’s British government briefly insisted that it could achieve herd immunity by slowing the onset of infections without stopping them, before swiftly backing off that plan in favor of stay-at-home orders (Atlantic, 3/16/20). And when Rush Limbaugh (4/10/20) declared approvingly that “I believe herd immunity has occurred in California,” and that “in parts of this country, we could reopen,” two Johns Hopkins epidemiologists issued a response noting that herd immunity will not be achieved in 2020 “barring a public health catastrophe.”

AP photo of an anti-quarantine protest in Minnesota—which has been like Sweden, in the sense that it has one of the highest per capita rates of coronavirus infection in the country.

Still, the herd immunity argument continues to spread. Republican US Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida recently cited herd immunity as a reason he saw no need to wear a mask in public (CNN, 5/15/20); and a widely disseminated AP photo pictured a protester against Minnesota’s stay-at-home policy holding a sign reading “Be Like Sweden” (San Jose Mercury News, 4/18/20), something that was doubtless inspired by articles in the conservative press advocating letting people contract the virus in order to force the pandemic to burn out (National Review, 4/6/20).

The argument by herd-immunity advocates is that the virus can safely be allowed to spread in the non-high-risk population, while only the elderly or those with preexisting conditions are isolated. (They tend to downplay such details as the fact that just one risk factor for Covid deaths, hypertension, affects nearly half of all US adults.) The National Review argued, for example, that “the current COVID-19 death rate in Sweden (40 deaths per million of population) is substantially lower than the Swedish death rate in a normal flu season.”

The explanation, it turns out, is less herd immunity than a limited spread of the virus into the Swedish population: Assuming a 0.56% fatality rate, Sweden’s 4,029 total Covid-19 deaths as of May 26 would suggest that about 7% of the Swedish population has been infected, right in line with the latest antibody survey.

If one major city can lay claim to having gotten the closest to herd immunity, it’s New York City, with nearly one in five residents testing positive for antibodies by the end of April, and more than two in five in some low-income neighborhoods with high numbers of service workers and families living in close quarters. But that still isn’t anywhere near even the minimum herd immunity level of 70%; at a 0.56% fatality rate, New York City would need to suffer an additional 23,500 deaths—more than twice as many as it has already endured—before the virus would begin to burn out on its own. (If the New York City fatality rate is more like 1.2%—as the highest estimates of Covid-19 deaths in the city, plus a 20% infection rate, would imply—then at minimum, herd immunity would require 50,000 new deaths.)

NPR (5/25/20); NPR‘s earlier headline (4/26/20) was “Swedish Ambassador Says Stockholm Expected to Reach ‘Herd Immunity’ in May.”

Meanwhile, even if Sweden’s bogus herd immunity success weren’t inspiring would-be copycats, it would still be yet another sign of the worrying media trend of citing government officials on anti-Covid-19 measures without checking that their statements make any scientific sense. Much of pandemic coverage has already relied heavily on the statements of elected officials without sufficient factchecking (FAIR.org3/12/20), whether those misstatements came from Donald Trump or New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (FAIR, 5/9/20); it’s significant that NPR (5/25/20) finally corrected its initial rosy reporting on Sweden and herd immunity only when Tegnell himself admitted that the numbers weren’t working out.

If media outlets are going to help chart a course out of this pandemic, they need to start investigating whether government claims make sense at the time they’re made, not just after elected officials walk them back. If they can’t do that job, we could be in for a very long haul.

 

 

Media Take a Pass on Pentagon’s Systematic Undercount of Civilian Deaths

 

The Intercept (5/8/20) was the only outlet FAIR found that gave serious coverage to the Pentagon report on civilian deaths.

The Pentagon released  in early May its congressionally mandated annual report on the number of civilians the US military has killed. The report concluded that the military was responsible for 132 civilian deaths in all theaters of war, including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Somalia.

Multiple NGOs have published evidence indicating that the real numbers are several times what the Pentagon admitted to. In Afghanistan, for instance, the Pentagon report found that the US was responsible for 108 civilian deaths; a United Nations report (2/22/20) on civilian casualties in Afghanistan found 559 deaths had been caused by “international forces” in the country. As the New York Times (5/7/20) pointed out, the United States is the only foreign country in Afghanistan with soldiers and aircraft that actually conduct offensive operations. This means the Pentagon could be undercounting civilian deaths in Afghanistan by a factor of five.

In Syria and Iraq, the US military said it had killed 22 civilians during its operations against ISIS. Airwars, an organization that tracks civilian harm from military air power, found the US responsible for up to 72 deaths in Iraq and Syria. Here, the Pentagon’s numbers could be off by more than a factor of three.

As Murtaza Hussain, writing for the Intercept (5/8/20)—the only outlet that covered this story with any seriousness—points out, “All this raises the question of who exactly the military has been killing over nearly two decades of war.”

In the days following the release of the report—when the story would be most newsworthy—US media were largely silent on the matter. The Washington Post, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, LA Times and Boston Globe all neglected to report on or publish editorials regarding the report, according to searches on these papers’ websites. A review of three days’ worth of transcripts from CNN and MSNBC, and searching the sites of ABC, NBC and CBS, shows that none of these TV outlets thought that US responsibility for civilian deaths was worth a brief pause in Covid-19 coverage.

Neither the New York Times‘ headline or subhead (5/7/20) gave any indication that the Pentagon’s numbers were challenged by independent sources.

Among major US print and TV outlets, the New York Times (5/7/20) published the only story we could find on the subject, consisting of just 538 words. Though the headline, “US Military Killed 132 Civilians in Wars Last Year, Pentagon Says,” took the military’s numbers at face value, the piece largely consists of dissenting opinions, including the United Nations, Amnesty International and Airwars. For example, Daphne Eviatar, head of the Security With Human Rights program at Amnesty International, told the New York Times that the Pentagon needed to develop “reliable means for investigating and reporting on who it has killed and injured” during lethal operations.

Unfortunately, the paper failed to treat the serious discrepancies in the numbers as anything important. Why, for example, does the headline feature the Pentagon’s dubious line, rather than call attention to the stark differences from independent numbers? And why did no opinion columnists have anything to say about it?

Yahoo! News (5/7/20) also reported on the story, carrying an AFP story that cited NGO dissenters, but decided it was best consigned to the Sports section.

Perhaps the constant stream of death from our military has made media figures and politicians jaded;  the subhead of the New York Times piece noted that “the tally has changed little since the previous year’s report.” As the country approaches two decades of endless war, however, it is more necessary than ever for the public to have a full accounting of the human costs. The media institutions set the agenda for the national conversation, but none of them seem to think that the number of civilian lives claimed in America’s forever wars is a priority, or that the public should give those deaths much thought.

Featured image: The Intercept‘s depiction of the aftermath of a US airstrike in Bagouz, Syria. (photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Image)

In Pandemic, Sunday Shows Centered Official Voices, Sidelined Independent Health Experts

 

In April, as crucial political decisions were being made about how to deal with the rapidly escalating coronavirus outbreak, there was a dire need for journalists to clarify the scientific and medical aspects of the pandemic, and to dispel rampant misinformation (much of it coming directly from the president). They were also needed to provide space for a vigorous debate over who, exactly, would receive economic assistance, and how much.

But on the networks’ Sunday morning political talkshows, which play an important role in setting agendas for national political debate, the voices asked to participate were overwhelmingly the usual narrow cast of Beltway actors, with independent public health experts playing a marginal role, and public interest voices almost entirely sidelined.

FAIR analyzed every episode of ABC‘s This Week, CBS‘s Face the Nation, CNN‘s State of the Union, Fox News Sunday, and NBC‘s Meet the Press in the month of April. Of 121 one-on-one and roundtable guests across the networks, 62% were current or former government officials. Journalists were the next most frequent guests, at 18%. There were an equal number of academic and corporate guests (7% each). (The president of the Chamber of Commerce and representatives of the Federal Reserve were coded as corporate.) Only 2% of guests were from outside the US, and another 2% represented public interest groups.

While the Sunday shows have always leaned heavily on politicians, other public officials, and their surrogates, this skew is more pronounced than FAIR has found in the past: In a 2012 study  (4/1/12) analyzing eight months of Sunday shows during the Republican presidential primary, for example, US government sources accounted for 47% of appearances.

White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx on CBS‘s Face the Nation (4/19/20).

Twenty-six of the 121 guests (21%) were public health experts. The majority of these (12%) were current or former government appointees—such as Trump’s coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx and former Trump FDA chief Scott Gottlieb—which means only 10% of all Sunday guests were independent public health experts. These were not evenly distributed; CBS and NBC both topped the list with 14% independent public health experts each, while CNN had none at all.

As we’ve shown before (e.g., Extra!, 9–10/01), the Sunday shows have historically served as corporate-sponsored government echo chambers offering a narrow range of acceptable opinion. Public interest leaders and activists are almost never invited, which means issues and angles critical to the public are ignored or only glancingly addressed. At a time when the perspectives of independent public health experts, as well as public advocates, would have been invaluable for informing political decisionmaking about public health and economic relief measures, this pattern was little changed.

For instance, we found not a single mention of the cancel rent movement or the widespread struggles people are facing to pay for housing, or of the labor strikes against Amazon to protest unsafe conditions. Meanwhile, voices like the CEO of Bank of America, two Federal Reserve Bank presidents, and billionaire businessmen Bill Gates, Barry Diller and Mark Cuban were featured.

CNN‘s Jake Tapper (4/12/20) interviewing New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

There was a single brief mention of many people’s lack of access to running water, when New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (CNN, 4/12/20) noted the impact of poverty on the Covid pandemic and her state’s Native American communities; no Native Americans or advocates of communities experiencing water shutoffs appeared as guests throughout the study period.

Racial disparities in testing, infection rates and deaths were touched on in a few interviews (as in the Lujan Grisham interview), and ABC ran a reported segment on those disparities by Martha Raddatz (4/12/20) that featured a local Baltimore delegate, the mother of a young Covid-19 victim and a public health expert. (Reported segments, not featured on all Sunday shows, were excluded from the study, because they typically offer short soundbites rather than in-depth discussions.) But no guests from groups representing communities of color were invited on the shows to speak.

During the entire month, only two public interest sources were featured, both as part of an ABC roundtable discussion (4/5/20) about Covid-19 in prisons: Homer Venters, head of Community Oriented Correctional Health Services, and criminal justice activist Topeka Sam. (In an apparent attempt at “balance”—since advocates for the protection of human rights must obviously be balanced by those seeking to violate them—ABC also brought on Republican Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, Trump’s Massachusetts campaign chair who notoriously offered to send inmates to help build Trump’s border wall, and suggested that elected officials in sanctuary cities should be arrested: Boston, 12/5/19.)

One of the few non-US guests on a Sunday morning show in April was Jordan’s Abdullah (Face the Nation, 4/19/20).

Meanwhile, in the midst of a global pandemic, which requires global coordination and in which international voices have much to contribute, it’s noteworthy that the Sunday shows only included three non-domestic guests: Italy’s prime minister (NBC, 4/5/20), the king of Jordan (CBS, 4/19/20) and a special envoy to WHO (NBC, 4/12/20). ABC, CNN and Fox had no international guests.

Republicans dominated the guest lists, with 41 elected officials or political appointees to 34 Democrats. Remarkably, Fox News Sunday was the closest to “balance,” with six Democrats to seven Republicans, while CBS was the most skewed, with three Democrats and eight Republicans. CNN was an outlier, featuring 11 Democrats and six Republicans. While some might expect that the dominance of Republicans would be expected, given that the administration is Republican, FAIR and others have shown that Republicans historically dominate on the Sunday shows regardless of which party is in power (FAIR.org, 4/1/12).

As in previous studies, men far outnumbered women in April, 70% to 30%. NBC had the highest percentage of women (34%), while CBS had the lowest (24%).

Featured image: Chuck Todd interviewing Mike Pence on Meet the Press (4/19/20)

Diane Ravitch on Pandemic School Privatization

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(Screenshot: Fox 5, 5/5/20)

This week on CounterSpin: One teacher described it as a “gut punch” hearing New York Governor (and current media crush) Andrew Cuomo talk about “re-imagining” education in the wake of the pandemic,  without what he called the “old model” emphasis on teachers and classrooms. Cuomo announced an initiative with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—who’ve been behind decades of education interventions in this country—all of which have failed to deliver on their promises, but have drained funds from public schools and undermined public school teachers.

One Gates project that activists fought off was a cloud-based system called  “inBloom” that collected millions of students’ detailed personal information—a massive intrusion Cuomo called “necessary.” Maybe that could spur some questions, particularly now that Cuomo’s added Google head Eric Schmidt to the Re-Imagining team? 

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University and author of, most recently, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools. We talk with her about the latest scheme for rich folks to decide what’s best for schools their children don’t attend.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look back at press coverage of China and the oil industry in the time of Covid-19.

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Trump’s Pick Could Move VOA Further Right—but It’s Never Been an Independent Outlet

 

Michael Pack, Trump’s nominee to head the US Agency for Global Media

If the Trump administration has its way, the US State Department–funded news organization Voice of America may pivot further right. Senate Republicans today moved closer to installing reactionary media executive Michael Pack as head of the US Agency for Global Media, which governs Voice of America and other US state-run media. The decision follows Trump’s recent rebuke of the outlet for being inadequately nationalistic.

That Pack, a candidate since 2017, is the Trump administration’s choice comes as no surprise, given his ideological and professional record. Pack has spearheaded a number of documentaries with decidedly rightward bents for PBS, from an indictment of political correctness to a celebration of conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Moreover, his résumé features the right-wing Claremont Institute and its quarterly Claremont Review of Books, as well as filmmaking collaborations with white nationalist Steve Bannon via Pack’s company Manifold Productions.

The specter of a Trump-led state-run media landscape has been haunting leading press outlets, spurring them to rush to VOA’s defense. Washington Post columnist Colbert King (4/18/20), for example, described Trump’s actions as “McCarthyism” and a “war on the VOA.” A New York Times news report (4/10/20) called VOA “a source of information especially in countries where democracy and freedom of the press are under attack”, and published (5/8/20) quotes from VOA director Amanda Bennett that insisted the publication was independent from state doctrine. (Bennett was appointed in March 2016, prior to Trump’s election.) Meanwhile, VOA (5/7/20) itself presented Trump’s broadsides as proof that “US-funded news doesn’t mean US-approved.”

Major media have thus reached a consensus: Despite their official funding, VOA and its parent agency are neutral, even noble entities—unless Trump is involved.

It is, of course, entirely fair for the corporate press to air concerns about a Breitbart-style conception of Washington-run visual and print media. But for the New York Times and its media cohorts to imply that VOA or any other organizations under the US Agency for Global Media umbrella are virtuous and independent is categorically dishonest.

While VOA is labeled as “balanced” and “objective” in its charter, this doesn’t change the fact that it’s still under state control. VOA was founded during World War II to, in its own words, “communicate America’s views abroad,” and was transferred to the US State Department in 1945. Its congressional support grew with the dawn of the Cold War and the Korean War; on its PR website, VOA vaunts its role in “pro-democracy” movements in China and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. For decades, then, VOA has enjoyed the best of both worlds for a Western media organization: operating at the government’s behest while masquerading as an exemplar of the free press.

A VOA report (4/16/20) accuses Official Enemies of forming an “axis of disinformation”—and, as you would expect, makes no mention of misinformation coming from the US government.

VOA’s legacy of conformity to the official state line while crowing about its own credibility has only continued. In the infancy of post–2016 election animus toward Russia, former VOA White House correspondent Dan Robinson wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review (3/30/17) that “taxpayers…expect VOA to be a key player in countering terrorist and Russian disinformation.” In 2019, VOA’s parent agency collaborated with a coterie of regime-change pushers—the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, Atlantic Council, InterAmerican Dialogue, and the National Endowment for Democracy—in a two-day training session on “responsible journalism” and “countering disinformation” in Latin American news coverage. These warnings of “disinformation” from Official Enemies persisted into the Covid-19 pandemic, as VOA (4/16/20) echoed unverified State Department accusations against Iran, China and Russia. (See FAIR.org, 4/9/20.)

This context is essential to understanding the limitations of any integrity VOA is reported to have, both in previous years and now. The Trump administration has renewed its calls for Pack’s confirmation, both generally to shift VOA’s already US-boosting tone rightward, and specifically to counter the outlet’s coverage of China during Covid-19. An official White House newsletter (4/10/20) berated VOA for “promoting foreign propaganda”—that is, citing statistics on the virus from Beijing, and tweeting a video about the end of the lockdown in China’s Wuhan province.

Prominent media have responded that VOA is, indeed, adversarial to China, an apparent linchpin of its editorial autonomy. VOA released a statement in April boasting that it had “thoroughly debunked much of the information coming from the Chinese government and government-controlled media,” backing this claim with links to over a dozen related articles; the New York Times (4/10/20) lent this hearty support. The Washington Post editorial board (4/10/20) chimed in as well, with the headline “No, Mr. Trump, VOA Is Not Chinese Propaganda. Now Don’t Turn It Into US Propaganda.” That the metric of VOA’s own independence is its very adherence to US state orthodoxy—in this case, decrying China—is, to say the least, sharply ironic.

How baldly right-wing VOA’s leadership becomes has yet to be seen; after today’s vote, amid an investigation over unlawful use of funds, the decision moves to the Senate floor. But no matter how impartial VOA’s staff members fancy themselves, to quote the aforementioned Dan Robinson (CJR, 3/30/17), “the fact remains that every two weeks they accept government paychecks”—and are supervised by a political appointee answerable to the president. Whether VOA more resembles the Washington Post or Fox News, it’ll ultimately stick to the State Department script.

Featured image: New York Times depiction (4/10/20) of Voice of America‘s studio (photo: Jason Andrew).

Morningside Case Shows Media Learned Few Lessons From Exonerated Five

 

Many Americans now recognize the racism at multiple junctures of the criminal punishment system. Especially now, as our leaders refuse to release the disproportionately black and brown incarcerated people from prisons and jails, despite their being sites of serious COVID-19 outbreaks across the country.  But even before the pandemic, some media have played a significant role in that recognition.

Jharrel Jerome and Asante Blackk portraying the falsely accused Korey Wise and Kevin Richardson in Netflix’s When They See Us.

Take director Ava Duvernay’s 2019 drama series When They See Us, a moving depiction of the 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which five black and brown boys were intimidated by police into false confessions of raping and beating a young white woman nearly to death. The show quickly became Netflix’s most-watched series, and pushed more frequent usage of the “Exonerated Five” to refer to the five men who were absolved of the crime in 2002, after enduring 5–12 years in prison. (Previously, they had been dubbed the “Central Park Five.”)

But as FAIR (6/7/19) noted last year, there was an “absence of reflection” in media over their own role in real time in fabricating a racist moral panic, in New York City and beyond, around “wilding,” an ill-defined dog whistle used to propagate the criminal stereotype of black and Latinx men and boys. This lack of self-examination is evident in the widespread coverage of the December 2019 murder of Barnard College freshman Tessa Majors in Morningside Park, which separates Columbia University and East Harlem.

Tabloids and other outlets were quick to draw parallels between the Central Park jogger case and Majors’ murder in the NYC park, for which one 13- and two 14-year-olds are being charged. Majors, who some early reports said was on a jog at the time, was a young white woman, and all the accused are African Americans.

What’s more, the 13-year-old was aggressively interrogated without an attorney present, by a detective who had been sued multiple times—including for breaking into a man’s home without a warrant and falsely arresting him. Internal NYPD disciplinary findings also suggest that he beat a woman in custody so severely that she needed hospitalization—a history on the force that the New York Daily News (2/25/20) ineptly described as “checkered.”

But media consistently ignored the striking similarities between their own coverage of the cases. Consider the tactics employed in each case to drum up panic and dehumanize the children who haven’t even been convicted yet.

In 1989, tabloids used racially coded and sensationalist language like “uncivilized,” “vicious” and “wolf pack” to describe the Exonerated Five. Newsday (5/5/89) published an opinion piece by prominent conservative (and African-American) economist Thomas Sowell, headlined “Society Lets Barbarians Off.” Sowell decried the “flood of sociological excuses for barbaric acts,” and a “growing tolerance of uncivilized behavior” in the face of a “re-barbarization” process in American society.

For the Majors case, outlets picked up the torch by calling the accused teens “predator[s]” (New York Post, 2/15/20) or “bandits” (Daily News, 2/15/20). One New York Post (2/2/20) report depicts one of the boys with animalistic strength:

Detectives have theorized that that desperate bid for survival enraged the mugger, who stabbed Majors multiple times — and with such ferocity that feathers flew from the lining of her winter coat.

The message of the Daily News‘ front page (12/27/19) was that the release of a 14-year-old boy delayed “justice.”

As they did in 1989, the Post and Daily News published pre-trial photos of the two 14-year-olds numerous times, one in a media-favorite perp walk, and the other, even before charges were brought, to support the NYPD’s “manhunt in Harlem” (New York Post, 12/26/19)—language that evokes newspapers’ shameful role in catching fugitives from slavery. One Daily News (12/27/19) front-page headline dramatized the narrative when one teen was brought in for questioning: “LONG WAIT FOR JUSTICE.”

The despicable practice of publishing pre-trial photos (of children no less), as Adam Johnson has explained for FAIR (1/23/19),

leads to summary public shaming, firings, diminished social status—all before a trial has even taken place. In the age of SEO, it’s a form of extrajudicial punishment that largely harms the poor and people of color.

Though potentially less socially damaging than the photos, tabloids published each of the teen’s full names and where they live.  Curiously, the Times named the 14-year-olds, but not the 13-year-old, “because he is not being charged as an adult” as the other two are. Apparently the paper of record believes that unconvicted teenage children are more deserving of public vilification if the state hopes to subject them to the violence of an adult prison (rather than an often similarly violent juvenile detention center).

And the vilification isn’t limited to the accused. A further parallel to coverage of the Central Park jogger case is media’s invasive and ostracizing examination of their families. The Post (12/29/19) thought it newsworthy to publish a story entitled, “Mom of Suspected Tessa Majors Killer Has Old Stabbing on Her Rap Sheet,” beginning her loathsome humiliation for a 13-year-old incident with “Like mother, like son?” under a headshot obtained from Facebook. One can’t help but see the old racist and misogynist trope of blaming black mothers for their children’s (alleged) criminality.

The New York Post (12/14/19) reports on teenagers in Harlem’s Morningside Park: “They travel in packs.”

Media rightfully placed the incident in historical context—but told the wrong narrative. Majors’ murder prompted several outlets to note an increase in crime in and around Morningside Park. The New York Times’ story “A Park Shed Its Reputation. Then Came the Tessa Majors Murder” (12/14/19) found that the incident “has shattered [a prior] sense of safety and jolted [Morningside Heights and Harlem], recalling a time decades ago, when the city had more than 1,000 homicides a year.” The Post’s “Spiraling Morningside Park Crime Stats Show a Neighborhood Gripped by Violence” (12/14/19) reports:

The park was the most dangerous in the city for muggings in the first nine months of 2019, logging 11 robberies in that period, according to NYPD statistics.

By comparison, there were 10 reported muggings in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and nine in Claremont Park in the Bronx in that same period.

Reports of violent crime and sex crimes spiked 82 percent in Morningside Park and on its perimeter in the past year ending December 8, according to the NYPD.

While crime appears to have risen in and around the park, aside from a few buried reminders, such fear-mongering ignores that present crime rates are a small fraction of what they were in their height in New York in the ’80s and ’90s, the period media repeatedly reference, and they don’t necessarily suggest an upward trend.  But naturally, a promising, young white woman’s murder is cause for media alarm, warranting mention even in a separate alarmist report about rising crime in Central Park (New York Post, 1/13/20).

One 1989 Daily News article about the Central Park case described the “collide” between the “crack-littered” world of Harlem and that “of a young Ivy League investment banker from Upper Saint Clair Pa. and the upper East Side.” Similarly today, we read of the division of a declining park with “roving bands of violent youths” (New York Post, 12/14/19) “considered off limits” (Daily News, 12/14/19) to prestigious Columbia and Barnard students.

If there are “two Harlems,” as The Nation (5/19/20) observed, aren’t they already divided?

Instead of sensationalizing a relatively rare tragedy and acting as police stenographers, perhaps media should spend more time magnifying why such incidents happen. Especially when neighboring Columbia University has a consistent past and present history of anti-black violence in Harlem, which includes Morningside Park, a place journalists are quick to remark—in not-so-subtle dog whistles—was “once strewn with crack vials” (New York Times, 12/14/19).

Though less extreme than in 1989, such descriptions of the park, “which slopes downward toward Harlem…demarcated by an imposing rocky wall,” evoke a wilderness occupied by dangerous predators from a predominantly African-American Harlem.  More helpful would be better upward-looking reports on the university at the top of the hill that has explicit connections to American slavery, and a more recent violent history that spans a Jim Crow–era cross-burning, segregation in 1968, and the present invasion of West Harlem for a  $6.3 billion expanded campus. As Columbia University’s Black Students’ Organization wrote in the Columbia Daily Spectator (1/27/20):

In order to help create a community that is truly safe for all students and all people, Columbia must recognize the want of better safety for the Harlem community and Black students on campus. It must also acknowledge its own violence and make a commitment to redressing the harm that it has caused to the historically Black community in which it resides.

The Nation’s Joan Walsh wrote a piece (5/19/20) headlined “A Murder that Threatened to Divide the Two Harlems”—though one might argue the two Harlems are already divided, seeing as there are two of them: the gentrified and the gentrifying. While Walsh grapples with her own position as a white gentrifier in Harlem, she downplays Columbia’s fundamental role in its gentrification. She rightfully mentions the devastating impact of white flight in the 1960s, but oddly, there is no further structural analysis of how and why Harlem is gentrifying—and how such factors might influence punitive responses to threats to white capital, like the NYPD’s subsequent “occupation” of the neighborhood, as Walsh accurately describes it.

New York (3/16/20) presented an image of Morningside Park that looked like the cover of a pulp novel.

Taxonimized under the tag “CRIME,” New York magazine (3/16/20) published a nearly 8,000-word piece on the murder, subtitled, “Every generation, a crime tells a new story about New York. The murder of Tessa Majors is ours.” To be fair, the article addresses some harms caused by the Columbia-driven gentrification of Harlem, the police invasions of the area and general racial tensions.

But its arc relies on dramatizing the incident: Emotional, narrative-driven retellings obscure that many of the facts are not confirmed by legal conviction; descriptions of the “overgrown,” poorly lit Morningside Park verge on dog whistles; the featured image depicting the park’s stairs, which, “in its absence, travelers would have to scale a cliff,” looks like it came straight off the cover of a pulp novel; and the author includes a quote by Columbia undergrad and Quillette columnist Coleman Hughes that belittles peoples’ legitimate fears of a racist, armed police presence in Harlem—and racially profiling, abusive security officers on Barnard’s campus—as a “dismissive attitude about proactive safety.” To top it off, the article touches on the impact of distributing one teen suspect’s headshot, but then proceeds to publish perp walk photos of the two 14-year-olds.

Media’s cartoonish crime reporting contributes to prejudiced fears and overt racism, like the violently anti-black robocalls sent to Barnard faculty and staff in response to Majors’ murder from the white supremacist group Road to Power. Or the increased presence in and around the park of police and the Guardian Angels, a volunteer vigilante organization founded by known racist Curtis Sliwa, who Liza Featherstone (Jacobin, 12/31/19) explains “played a sinister role in fanning the flames of white racism in the ’80s and has even admitted to fabricating accounts of his own kidnapping.” One New York Post report (12/21/19) lionized the group’s crime-fighting, which included putting up fliers with the same pre-trial photo of the “violent” 14-year-old “on the loose” published by media.

Though there was much praise in corporate media for When They See Us, when outlets were given a chance to show they’ve learned something these past 30 years on how to not stoke racist fears, how to not damage the lives of the uncharged and unconvicted, or how to look at blatant inequality and other forces at play in crime, they blew it. And now, the three boys wait in a Brooklyn jail—sitting ducks in the epicenter of the deadliest pandemic in a century—for unforeseeable trials. Yet, as is common after such initial pre-trial censures, we don’t hear a peep from media. But what’s to be expected of outlets that so often crave clicks over justice?

‘Efforts to Make Voting More Difficult Are Magnified in a Pandemic’ - CounterSpin interview with Ari Berman on voter suppression and the coronavirus

Janine Jackson interviewed Ari Berman about voter suppression and the coronavirus for the May 15, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: It was called “one of the most brazen acts of voter suppression in modern history.” With an unsigned opinion, believed to come from Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court voted 5–4 that it was OK for Wisconsin to disqualify ballots postmarked and received after their primary election day—even though thousands of voters didn’t even get those ballots until after election day, due to the sheer overwhelm of requests for absentee ballots resulting from the pandemic. Coming literally on the night before the election, the ruling overturned a lower court’s decision to extend the absentee ballot deadline, and forced people to risk their health in order to exercise their right to vote.

Common Dreams (4/7/20)

Flawed in letter and spirit, the Supreme Court’s decision is just part of the setback to the democratic project reflected in Wisconsin,  and we need to understand the story: Who did what and how? Because without intervention, it’s on track to be repeated.

Ari Berman covers voting rights as a senior reporter at Mother Jones. He’s the author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Ari Berman.

Ari Berman: Hey, thanks for having me, Janine.

JJ: In trying to understand what happened with April’s primary in Wisconsin, you have written that you need to start the clock earlier than, say, Governor Evers’ push to postpone the election in the face of Covid-19, and the Republican-dominated state supreme court’s reinstatement of it. Could you talk us through some of the roots, what you called a “vicious cycle,” the roots of this outrageous series of events?

AB: Yeah, I think you have to go back to when Republicans took over Wisconsin after the 2010 election, controlling the state for the first time in 50 years. And they did a series of things to try to weaken Democratic power, and to try to skew political representation.

Wisconsin assembly districts becoming more gerrymandered (graphic: The Nation, 10/2/17)

One of the things they did was they passed these really horrible gerrymandered maps that made it possible for Republicans to win no matter what happened. So in 2018, Republicans in Wisconsin only got 46% of the vote, but they got 64% of seats in the state legislature. So they have a majority now, even if people don’t like them. And it was a Republican legislature, remember, that refused to postpone the election in Wisconsin, and also refused to mail ballots to every voter. And so really, the reason why Republicans are so dug in in that state is because of the gerrymandered maps they’ve passed.

Now, they’ve also done other stuff, like pass an array of voter suppression laws, such as a voter ID law, such as cutbacks to early voting, changes to voter registration, that have also made it easier for Republicans to win elections, including to win a majority on the state supreme court, which, of course, was the court that said that Tony Evers, the governor, couldn’t delay the election.

JJ: So when you say “vicious cycle,” they’ve kind of made themselves bulletproof, in the sense that the courts then support the ruling, support the politicians, and it goes round and round, and it’s hard to intervene in that.

AB: It’s not a foolproof system, in the sense that a lot of people thought the Republican, or the conservative, candidate for the state supreme court, Daniel Kelly, was going to win the election. He didn’t win the election. So it shows that when Democrats are mobilized enough, they can still win elections in Wisconsin, but there’s a whole series of barriers they have to try to surmount.

And in the case of gerrymandering, it’s incredibly difficult, because Democrats actually are winning more votes than Republicans in Wisconsin, but it’s not translating into a political majority. And so I think, in a situation where elections are so razor-thin, particularly in that state, the Republicans have a built-in advantage. Before the election even begins, they are essentially ahead, because of all the structural impediments they have put into the political process, through control of the legislature and through control of the courts.

New York Times (5/10/20)

JJ: It was seen as a silver lining that Daniel Kelly, the conservative state supreme court justice, the protection of whose position was seen as a prime motivator for the Wisconsin GOP, that he wasn’t successful, that he was unseated by Jill Karofsky. But then I see this story in the New York Times about how Democrats are “publicly bragging” about that victory, and hoping that “liberal activists…can replicate” that “game plan”—of digital campaigning, essentially, as necessitated by the virus. It made this scramble to protect the vote in a crisis seem like purely partisan gamesmanship.

And I know it’s important to say what party is doing what, but can nothing come from the point of view of democracy itself? It seems to me there’s plenty to chew on in Wisconsin without saying the only people critical of it are Democrats.

AB: Exactly. I think that it was good that Kelly lost, not because he was a conservative, but because the Republicans had made such an effort to suppress the vote, that his election was symbolic of broader attacks on democracy, and thus his defeat could be interpreted as a defeat, not for Republicans, or a victory not for Democrats, but a victory for democracy itself. And that a lot of people were able to vote, in spite of the barriers that were set up, that people either waited on very long lines and very hazardous conditions to vote in person, or they were able to vote by absentee ballot, at a time when the absentee ballot system was totally overwhelmed.

But I don’t know how transferable what happened in Wisconsin was. You have to remember, there was a Democratic presidential primary that day, and there was no corresponding Republican presidential primary. So a lot of people were just voting because they wanted to vote for Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden, and they just happened to click on the state supreme court race.

So I’m not sure in a different environment that you can really say, “Well, Wisconsin voted Democrat, therefore vote-by-mail, for example, helps Democrats more than Republicans.” I think that we don’t know that. The data we have on vote-by-mail, for example, shows that both parties use it pretty much equally. It’s sort of ironic, President Trump is saying that vote-by-mail gives Democrats these huge advantages, when there’s virtually no advantage for either party when it comes to voting by mail. In fact, it may even benefit Republicans, because their constituencies tend to do it more than Democrats do.

JJ: Yeah, it’s interesting that it would be assumed that expanding the franchise would be a negative for Republicans.

Well, the Times had also a very informative piece on Wisconsin and the Supreme Court’s ruling, calling out the errors in the ruling itself. But I tripped over this bit where it referred to Brett Kavanaugh’s presumed support for “laws that make voting harder, regardless of their effects on traditionally disenfranchised groups like African-American and Hispanic people.” I think media pull punches sometimes with regard to the white supremacist aspect of this voter suppression effort. It’s not a mere byproduct of some lofty philosophy about the sanctity of the franchise.

Ari Berman: “The Wisconsin opinion seemed to signal that Republicans can do whatever they want to make voting more difficult, even in a pandemic, and the Supreme Court’s going to say, ‘That’s OK.'” (cc photo: Shawn)

AB: I think voter suppression has been motivated by white supremacy. Historically, certainly, that’s been the case. And I think it’s also the case today that the interests of the Republican Party and the interest of white America go hand in hand right now. And so you have seen consistently, over and over and over again, the Republican Party and the conservative majority in the Supreme Court intervene in ways that make voting more difficult for people of color, and they’re not doing it because it happens to have that effect. They’re doing it because they know it’s going to have that effect.

So to me, the really scary proposition here is that basically, the Wisconsin opinion seemed to signal that Republicans can do whatever they want to make voting more difficult, even in a pandemic, and the Supreme Court’s going to say, “That’s OK.”  The minimum would be that you say to people, “There’s so much chaos in this election, it probably shouldn’t have even occurred in the first place. If we’re going to have it, we’ve got to give people more time to be able to vote.” You would think that would just be the bare minimum that they would allow.

The fact that the court said no to that makes it really scary, because there’s going to have to be a lot of contingency plans in November. There’s going to have to be a lot of modifications to voting in November, to make it so that everyone can vote. And if we don’t make the process easier, if we keep the same kind of ridiculous rules they had in Wisconsin, it’s going to make it very difficult for a lot of people to vote, if this pandemic is still going in November, which by all accounts it will be, in some form or another.

JJ:  Well, yeah, I mean, it seems like the pandemic was already going to affect the election. States need to be on top of voting by mail. A lot of polling places are shutting down, that would affect access. A lot of poll workers are elderly people. People’s addresses might be changing because they’re laid off. There was plenty to contend with due to Covid-19 before you even get to the suppression that it seems like it’s providing cover for.

AB:  Exactly. Like, if states did nothing, voting would be difficult right now, because in a pandemic, the safest way to vote is from your home. And most states are not equipped to have people vote from home. Only five states do universal vote-by-mail. So in every other state, it’s more difficult.

Now, some states have more voting by mail. A lot of the Western states do, either universal voting by mail or near-universal voting by mail. But on the East Coast, in the Midwest and the South, the majority of votes are still cast in person. So that means they are asking a lot of people, including election officials, to use a method that is not really used for that purpose. Vote-by-mail is really supposed to be used for people who can’t get to the polls on election day, for one reason or another.

And that means we are seeing a growth in vote-by-mail. In 2018, about a quarter of Americans voted by mail; that still means 75% of the country didn’t vote by mail. We would expect, even in the best of times, there would be hiccups, with so many people trying a new system, let alone the fact that there’s going to be all these efforts now to make it harder to vote by mail, which is going to put all these impediments in front of voters that probably haven’t even voted this way before.

FAIR.org (5/4/20)

JJ: And then, of course, we have to add, as being of a piece with this, the assault on the US Postal Service, although as Julie Hollar wrote for FAIR.org, media aren’t so much connecting those dots; they’re talking about the White House attack on USPS and they’re talking about the election, but they’re not necessarily saying, “You know, this is going to be right at the crux of this set of problems here.”

AB: Yeah, I don’t know why you wouldn’t connect it. I mean, it seems pretty obvious to me: If you’re going to vote by mail, the post office is going to deliver those ballots.

JJ: Right.

AB: So it seems like a huge coincidence if suddenly Donald Trump would be attacking the post office, in the midst of an election where people are going to be using vote-by-mail in unprecedented numbers. So no matter why the president’s doing this, if you believe it, that he’s just mad at Amazon or whatever, even if you take that at face value, the net effect of attacking the post office, of putting partisan people in there, of denying them funding, is it’s going to make it harder for them to be able to carry out this responsibility to make sure ballots are delivered and then sent back to people.

And the post office is going to need a lot more resources, a lot more staff; it’s going to be very difficult for them, too. They are also operating under extraordinary circumstances right now. They also have people that are getting sick, and they’re putting their lives at risk to deliver mail for us, and an election in which 50%, 60%, 70% of the people vote by mail would be tough for the post office in the best of times, let alone at a time when President Trump seems to be declaring war on them.

Politico (5/7/20)

JJ: Politico reported recently that the GOP has an at least $20 million war chest set aside for lawsuits over voting from home. What is the status of efforts to protect November’s process? Do we have legislative moves, at least being lined up in defense of protecting the vote in November?

AB: There’s been a ton of lawsuits about all the obscure rules over mail voting. Like, do you need a witness signature on your ballot? Do you need to upload a copy of your ID with your mail ballot? Does your ballot need to be postmarked by Election Day? Does it need to be received by Election Day? There are so many rules for mail balloting people don’t even know about, that could lead to your ballot being thrown out without having any idea that your votes weren’t counted. So there’s litigation on all of these fronts in a bunch of different states, which I think is a positive development, depending on the outcome of that.

There’s also a lot of state efforts to expand vote-by-mail. And, actually, a fair number of Republican secretaries of State have been making it easier to expand vote-by-mail, probably because they understand, unlike Donald Trump, that a lot of Republicans also use vote-by-mail; they probably don’t want their voters to be disenfranchised.

The Congress has allocated $400 million for vote-by-mail and other election assistance, which I think pretty much everyone believes is totally insufficient. There’s a new bill out from House Democrats, the HEROES Act, that would give the states $3.6 billion for vote-by-mail, which would be a big step up, and also includes a number of other reforms that are important, like early voting and online election day registration, because there’s still going to be a lot of people that are going to vote in person, and the best way for people to vote in person would be to give them more time so they can social distance at the polls, while also making it easier to vote-by-mail, so that postage is paid, so that it’s easy to get an absentee ballot, all of these things.

And I think we’re probably heading for a really big fight between House Democrats and the Senate and the White House over the vote-by-mail provisions in whatever the next recovery package is. I personally think Democrats should have fought a lot harder to put some of this stuff in the first recovery package, when they had the political leverage.

JJ: And this is something clearly where time is of the essence. We need to be amping up to get these processes in place now, we can’t suddenly throw it together in October.

AB: No, especially with voting by mail, because it’s not just like opening a polling place. Voting by mail takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of time for people to request ballots. It takes a lot of time to get ballots. You can’t just show up to vote by mail at 5 p.m. on Election Day, right? Like you could show up and vote in person on Election Day. So states really need to start doing all of this stuff now.

And if you talk to state election officials, there’s so much equipment they need that they don’t have, there’s so many more people they need to do this kind of thing. They need to train everyone in how to count ballots, how to send out ballots.

Otherwise, the system just gets totally overwhelmed, like in Wisconsin, where election officials were having to work 100 hours a week; people were not getting ballots they requested; people were totally confused about what the rules were to have their absentee ballots counted, whether they needed a witness signature, which they did on their ballots; whether they need to upload a copy of their ID with their ballots, which they did; all of these crazy rules.

And so in that case, the data we have from Wisconsin would show that in a much higher turnout election, across 50 states, there’s going to be a whole lot of problems, unless we do a bunch of things right now to make the system run smoother.

JJ: It’s clearly not too soon for people, just as individuals, to be sorting out if and exactly how they’ll be able to vote, to be looking into whatever the rules are in their locality to make sure that that can happen.

Well, we’re talking about the impact of the virus. But we know that this voter suppression predates all of that. We’re also still hearing, aren’t we, about purges of the rolls—another reason to check in and make sure that you are still listed. Are there other voting rights things that maybe are going under the radar, that you’d like to call attention to?

AB: I think we’ve talked about a bunch of them already. But I think it’s just worth noting that there are already all these efforts before Covid to try to make voting more difficult, whether it was requiring IDs to vote or trying to keep people off the voting rolls, or limiting the number of polling places.

All of those things are being magnified in a pandemic. And so I think it’s really important to pay a lot of attention to the whole debate over vote-by-mail, because that’s going to be a key way people vote in November. I also hope we don’t glorify vote-by-mail, because there are some unintended consequences of that.

And then I hope that people just stay focused on all of these other fights that are going to remain really critical, in that if you don’t have an ID now, it’s going to be a lot harder to get one when the DMV’s not open. If you’re not on the voting rolls right now, it’s going to be a lot harder to re-register, when there aren’t big registration drives. And so I think the big picture is important, but I think all the minutiae, all the little things, the technical details that we tend to ignore, could also have a really big impact in this election during a pandemic.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, I’ve heard some things kind of bubbling up that, given the confusion, given what looks like chaos, at least this far out, around the possibilities of voting, that we may have concerns about the legitimacy of whatever happens in the election, that there will be just enough murkiness that folks will be able to call the results into question, and that’s not going to be helpful.

AB: No, it’s not going to be helpful. And I think, also, given the likelihood of major litigation in one or more key swing states, about the rules governing mail balloting, I think it’s very possible you could have not just one, but two, three, four, half a dozen Bush v. Gore scenarios if the election is close.

(Picador, 2016)

And so I don’t want to be too alarmist in May about this. But just like the virus is scary, the prospect of holding an election in a virus is also very scary. And there are a lot of possibilities that may have seemed remote, or even possibly hysterical, that are really quite possible in this day and age.

JJ: All the more reason for sober and clear-eyed reporting, to at least keep us focused on what’s happening, to at least keep us paying attention.

AB: Absolutely, no, for sure. And I think if anything good has come from this Wisconsin thing, it’s that a lot of people are paying attention to what’s happening to the democratic process now in a way that they may not have been before.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Ari Berman, senior reporter at Mother Jones. They’re online at MotherJones.com. The book is Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Ari Berman, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

AB: Thanks so much, Janine.

 

Grading the States’ Coronavirus Control

I recently wrote a Twitter thread (5/12/20) about another New York Times graphic feature that was a good idea, strangely executed.

The good idea, which appears on the Times‘ “Coronavirus in the US” page, is to sort states in terms of how well they’re controlling the coronavirus outbreak, using graphs of the daily count of new cases in each state. This seems like a good choice of metric and a useful thing to keep track of, especially given how fragmented the US response has been.

As for the strange execution—well, in the category of “where new cases are increasing,” the Times (as of May 16) includes both Virginia…

 

 

 

…and Louisiana:

 

 

 

Under “where new cases are mostly the same,” the Times  includes both Arizona…

 

 

 

…and Montana:

 

 

 

And labeled as “where new cases are decreasing” are both New Hampshire…

 

 

 

…and Vermont:

 

 

 

So in every category, the Times lumps together states that are doing an outstanding job controlling new Covid-19 cases, and other states that show little or no sign of bringing the outbreak under control. Often it’s hard to discern why the Times puts a state in one category rather than another, but the bigger problem is conceptual: If you place a state that is down just slightly from a peak in a more favorable category than one that has brought new cases down to zero, because in the former cases are “decreasing” while in the latter they’re “mostly the same,” then you aren’t helping to hold state governments responsible; you’re actually obscuring which officials have implemented an effective anti-coronavirus strategy.

To demonstrate what seems to me a more useful approach to sorting states’ coronavirus records, I’ve made charts of each state (and selected territories) and graded them according to where they are between a peak of infection and bringing new cases down to zero, and whether the direction of the number of daily new cases is up, down or more or less plateaued.

I’ve used the site 91-DIVOC to make the charts; I used daily new cases averaged over seven days to reduce noise. The charts are laid out in a linear rather than a logarithmic scale, to make changes more apparent; they are scaled to the state’s own peak.

A couple of caveats: These grades do not take into account how high each state’s peak was, either in absolute or per capita terms; factoring that in would certainly change the rankings of some states. And there is some subjectivity involved in sorting this way; any two people might come up with slightly different classifications. I’m confident, though, that this ordering gives a more coherent picture than the New York Times does of which states are having more or less success at stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus.

A

These states and territories have been largely successful at controlling the coronavirus—bringing new cases from their peak down to zero, or close to it. They each have natural advantages: Either relatively low population density or some degree of geographic isolation. But other places with similar advantages did not do nearly so well.

Alaska

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hawaii

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guam

 

 

 

 

 

 

Montana

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vermont

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virgin Islands

 

 

 

 

 

 

B

The states in this group have brought new cases most of the way down from their peak, but have not yet brought them to zero. Both these states had particularly bad outbreaks.

New Jersey

 

 

 

 

 

 

New York

 

 

 

 

 

 

B-

These states have similarly brought new cases well down from their peak, but seem to have plateaued short of bringing them down to zero.

Idaho

 

 

 

 

 

 

Louisiana

 

 

 

 

 

Michigan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

C

These states are about halfway between their peaks and zero, and their numbers are headed downwards.

Colorado

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kansas

 

 

 

 

 

 

Massachusetts

 

 

 

 

 

 

Missouri

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nebraska

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pennsylvania

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rhode Island

 

 

 

 

 

 

C-

These states are also about midway between peak and elimination, but have stopped making downward progress.

Connecticut

 

 

 

 

 

 

Florida

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nevada

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ohio

 

 

 

 

 

 

West Virginia

 

 

 

 

 

 

Washington State

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wyoming

 

 

 

 

 

 

D+

Close to their peak, cases in these states (and one territory) are just beginning to head down.

District of Columbia

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iowa

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indiana

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maryland

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maine

 

 

 

 

 

Minnesota

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mississippi

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Mexico

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Hampshire

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oregon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Puerto Rico

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wisconsin

 

 

 

 

 

D

This group of states has seen their new cases decline considerably from their peak, but they are now heading back up.

Arkansas

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kentucky

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tennessee

 

 

 

 

 

 

D-

The number of new cases in these states has plateaued near their peak.

Alabama

 

 

 

 

 

 

Delaware

 

 

 

 

 

 

Georgia

 

 

 

 

 

 

Illinois

 

 

 

 

 

 

North Dakota

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oklahoma

 

 

 

 

 

 

South Carolina

 

 

 

 

 

 

Utah

 

 

 

 

 

 

F

These states have shown little sign of controlling their coronavirus outbreaks, with new cases continuing to rise. Unfortunately, they include the most populous and second-most populous states in the union.

Arizona

 

 

 

 

 

 

California

 

 

 

 

 

 

North Carolina

 

 

 

 

 

 

Texas

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virginia

 

 

 

 

 

 

I want to reiterate that these grades reflect only the trajectory of each state’s outbreak, and not the absolute magnitude of their peaks. It does matter that on California’s worst day so far, it had 70 new cases per million, and on New York’s worst day it had 588 per million. But in terms of guiding the national coronavirus outbreak to a successful conclusion—one that does not involve the virus spreading disastrously through the entire population—the direction of each state’s infection rate is critical. We need to learn from the states that have managed to control the coronavirus, and see what lessons can be applied where it is still out of control.

Missing the Context of De Blasio’s ‘Jewish Community’ Tweet

 

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tweet (4/28/20) to “the Jewish community.”

Time for a Yiddish lesson: Shanda, meaning a shame or disgrace; a scandal.

Right-wing voices throughout the media thought they found one with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tweet (4/28/20) about a Hasidic funeral that violated Covid-19 social-distancing rules. But their shoddy coverage was the real shanda.

The background is this: Some Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, members of a strictly Orthodox religious movement, went forward with a public funeral for a rabbi that ended up not observing proper social-distancing rules. The mayor tweeted a defense of police actions that broke up the event, aiming it at “the Jewish community,” rather than just the specific sect who caused the trouble. It was terribly worded, and, out of context, it could be construed as insensitive to all Jews.

For the New York Times‘ Bari Weiss (5/1/20), New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted against lack of social distancing at a Hasidic funeral because he was “hankering for a scapegoat.”

The media went wild. Bari Weiss of the New York Times (5/1/20) called his comments inexcusable, and linked them to his supposed far-leftism. The Israeli newspaper Jerusalem Post (4/29/20) covered the anger in response to the tweet. Two writers at the Wall Street Journal (4/30/20) summed up the mayor’s tweet as “by definition antisemitic.” John Podhoretz in the New York Post (4/29/20) called it a “new low” for the mayor.

These themes flared up in the conservative media, too. In one particularly sanctimonious piece, Kathryn Jean Lopez at the National Review (4/29/20) said the tweet forced her to recall her visit to Auschwitz. Breitbart ran several articles on the matter.

Let’s be clear: de Blasio’s tweet was boneheaded. And Jews were right to be worried. In a time of anti-government conspiracies, and when Asian Americans are already subjected to racist attacks because of the coronavirus’ Chinese origins, any blame aimed at “the Jewish community” for the crisis could further rile up tensions. The backlash de Blasio got from Jewish advocates wasn’t unwarranted, but there’s no evidence that this was a part of some abiding antipathy City Hall has toward New York City’s Jewish population.

De Blasio is from Brooklyn, formerly representing Park Slope in the City Council. Because Hasidic and other hard-core religious Jewish constituencies tend to vote in blocs, winning the favor of prominent rabbis and other community leaders is appealing for any New York City politician who eyes citywide office, and is especially critical for politicians from Brooklyn. (Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Borough Park are home to large religious Jewish communities.)

De Blasio’s dealings with Hasidic communities, thus, stem from political motivations that have helped secure him two terms at City Hall. If anything, de Blasio has been too cozy with these leaders, including on issues of public health, rather than dismissive or offensive. And his record shows this.

New York Post‘s John Podhoretz (4/29/20): “You decided to seek your jollies by attacking Jews.”

The New York Post (5/9/20) just recently uncovered that the mayor

was personally involved in a deal with Orthodox Jewish leaders to delay a long-awaited report on shoddy yeshivas in exchange for an extension of mayoral control of city schools.

The New York Times (4/15/19) had already documented last year how critics saw politics behind de Blasio’s slow response to a measles outbreak among Hasidic Jews. The paper’s editorial board  (12/25/19) also criticized de Blasio’s mishandling of the yeshiva issue, saying at the time that city investigators “couldn’t determine whether Mayor de Blasio had personally authorized the delay,” but “concluded that the administration had interfered with the Education Department’s investigation into the yeshivas.”

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (5/4/20), outlining de Blasio’s long connection to religious Jewish communities, reported:

While campaigning for mayor in 2013, de Blasio said he would look into easing regulations around metzitzah b’peh, a circumcision practice in which blood is sucked from a baby boy’s genitals that was linked to several cases of herpes in the newborns. The Bloomberg administration had required parents to sign a consent form notifying them of the risks involved in the practice, but de Blasio viewed that as onerous. The move earned him an endorsement from a faction of the Satmar Hasidic community.

And Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, hardly a left-wing organization, noted in the New York Daily News (5/4/20) that while de Blasio could have had better messaging in his response to Hasidic Jews, there was some important context here:

While a few in the Orthodox Jewish community continue to flaunt social distancing orders — even Israeli Defense Forces have had to crack down on Orthodox gatherings — the order to stay at home and practice social distancing applies to all, no exceptions. De Blasio should have known it is better to broaden his appeals to New Yorkers than lump all Jews together. Anyone violating the social distancing edict should be called to account.

National Review‘s Kathryn Jean Lopez (4/29/20): “When I saw the mayor of New York’s tweet last night, all I could think about was my one visit to Auschwitz a few years ago.”

For right-wing voices in the press, de Blasio’s institution of universal pre-K, his relatively progressive campaign for mayor in 2013 and his support for Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid make him a high-level symbol of the Democrats’ progressive flank. In this case, right-wing agitators in corporate media used de Blasio’s poorly worded tweet to advance the theory that, alongside the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter and constant antisemitic hate from the Trumpian right, a liberal like de Blasio was similarly an enemy of the Jews. It was a ham-handed move to link liberalism with antisemitism. In the process, these journalists revealed that they knew little about the political relationships religious Jewish communities in New York City have with city government, which is city beat reporting 101.

But explaining the real political context would get in the way of drawing a false equivalency between an awkward tweet and the weaponized antisemitism of the far right.

 

Corporate Media Setting Stage for New Cold War With China

 

Corporate media are laying the ideological groundwork for a new cold war with China, presenting the nation as a hostile power that needs to be kept in check.

Mitt Romney (Washington Post4/23/20) says “Covid-19 has exposed China’s dishonesty for all to see.”

The Washington Post (4/23/20) ran an article by Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, the second sentence of which said, “The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed that, to a great degree, our very health is in Chinese hands; from medicines to masks, we are at Beijing’s mercy.” America, in this conception, is under Chinese domination, a tyranny that’s evidently imposed not only by the Chinese government, but by Chinese people generally.

Details like the US having more than 21 times as many nuclear warheads as China, or the fact that it’s the US dollar and not the Chinese yuan that underpins the global financial system, do not enter into consideration. Instead, because the US imports a great many goods made in China, Romney urged readers to understand China as Americans’ oppressors, who implicitly must be resisted.

Romney warned his audience that China has a “grand strategy for economic, military and geopolitical domination” and thus “The West” must “respon[d]” with “a unified strategy among free nations to counter China’s trade predation and its corruption of our mutual security.”

He said China is conducting an “alarming military build-up.” Sure, the available evidence indicates that the US spends almost three times what China does on its war apparatus, but “Americans should not take comfort in our disproportionately large military budget,” Romney cautioned, because, supposedly, “China’s annual procurement of military hardware is nearly identical to ours,” though few know about this “outside classified settings.”

Then he revealed China’s supposed threat to America’s “security”: “Because our military has missions around the world, this means that in the Pacific, where China concentrates its firepower, it will have military superiority.” In other words, China is a danger because it “concentrates its firepower” in the ocean nearest to it, while the US’s divine right to empire requires that its military saturate the globe.

The senator argued that “action should be applied in national security sectors” such as phone technology and medicine, and that “the free nations must collectively agree that we will buy these products only from other free nations” as part of a plan to “protect…our security.”

The idea that China is a threat to Americans’ security is baseless: China hasn’t threatened to attack America, while the US has a massive military presence in the Asia/Pacific region. The Pentagon, with bipartisan support, wants to engorge that menace with a $20 billion budget increase, and with offensive weaponry such as land-based Tomahawk cruise missiles that had been banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty until the US abrogated the deal. China, meanwhile, has no military installations anywhere close to the United States.

Romney repeatedly called on “free nations,” a grouping in which he included the US, to take on China. In doing so, he cast the potential conflict as a civilizational battle between freedom and dictatorship—that the US has the highest prison population per capita on Earth does not trouble the senator’s framework.

Romney also referred to China or its economic practices as a “predator,” “predatory,” or “predation” eight times, making the US and its allies the supposed prey. “Today,” Romney wrote, “Beijing’s weapon of choice is economic: The tip of its spear is global industrial predation.” China is “a predator, unbound by the rules followed by its competitors,” so “when the immediate health crisis has passed, the United States should convene like-minded nations to develop a common strategy aimed at dissuading China from pursuing its predatory path.” Romney is propagating a timeworn worldview in which deceitful, barbaric Orientals take advantage of innocent, rule-abiding Americans whose businesses never break laws or do anything that could be viewed as predatory.

George Will (Washington Post, 4/29/20) claims that “more than any particular policy outcome, Americans want a sense that their nation…can adopt a robust realism regarding the Leninist party-state that is its principal adversary.”

The Washington Post’s George Will (4/29/20) likewise said that it’s necessary to “stand up to China,” advocating that the US adopt “a policy of national strength” toward the country. This is the language of war, suggesting that China presents a danger to the US that has to be met with American might.

Will encouraged presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to “practice what he preaches about bipartisanship by associating himself” with far-right Republican Sen. Tom Cotton’s “measured but insistent support for an investigation into the possible role of a Wuhan, China, research laboratory in the coronavirus outbreak.” By endorsing the racist, warmongering senator’s proposed inquiry, Will is mainstreaming an extremely dubious conspiracy theory (Grayzone, 4/20/20) alleging that Covid-19 is a Chinese biological weapon unleashed, perhaps unintentionally, from a research lab in Wuhan.

Will also seemed to endorse Cotton’s

question[ing] of the visas for people from China to pursue postgraduate studies here in advanced science and technology fields: If Chinese students want to study “Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America. They don’t need to learn quantum computing and artificial intelligence from America.”

At the very least, Will amplified and declined to question the notion that Chinese students doing graduate scientific research in America should be viewed with suspicion, implicitly because they might be engaged in piracy or espionage on behalf of the Chinese government, though no evidence is offered for this accusation. It’s a perspective that imagines that the wealthiest, most populous country on Earth might somehow be kept away from advanced technology—though in the long run, the US has more to gain from Chinese research than the other way around (CounterSpin, 5/24/19).

Canada’s Financial Post (5/4/20) went a step further, saying that “China Must Be Brought to Heel,” animalizing language that hearkens back to when Western powers actually did dominate China, and treated the nation to such delights as the Opium Wars (London Review of Books, 11/3/11).

Fox News (5/4/20): “People everywhere will demand that Beijing pay a price for the enormous loss of life and the incalculable damage done to economies around the globe.”

A Fox News article (5/4/20) went full fire and brimstone, calling for the US “to avenge [the] deaths of hundreds of thousands” that have been caused by Covid-19. Another Fox article (5/4/20) said it’s necessary to “hold China accountable” for the harm the coronavirus has caused, applauding Missouri’s lawsuit against the country without noting one minor detail: US courts have no jurisdiction to sue China (Reuters, 4/21/20). Another notable barrier to US media revenge fantasies is that the US and China have the world’s largest bilateral trade relationship, something that the US is hardly in a position to break away from, with China’s economy mostly up and running and the US’s largely offline.

Similarly, the Boston Herald’s Joe Battenfeld (4/14/20) contended that “Trump[’s] Move to Hold China [and the] World Health Organization Accountable [Was] Long Overdue,” a reference to Trump suspending funding to the UN’s main infectious disease-fighting body. WHO gets 15% of its budget from the US; Battenfeld himself acknowledges that withdrawing this “could [incapacitate] the agency’s healthcare initiatives”; in other words, undermining global health during a worldwide pandemic is a good way to teach China a lesson.

The author also endorsed the US “impos[ing] sanctions on China for its role in the spread of the coronavirus,” the type of economic warfare the US is waging against several countries, causing untold death and misery (Jacobin, 3/26/20). Given the fact that China’s largely Covid-free economy is likely to be in far stronger shape than the US’s for the foreseeable future, however, it’s doubtful that Washington will be in any position to impose sanctions on Beijing.

Further problems abound with the idea that the Chinese bad guys have to be punished for Covid-19 by the American good guys. As historian Vijay Prashad (People’s Dispatch, 4/23/20) demonstrated, the narrative of a Chinese-WHO coronavirus cover-up is itself profoundly flawed. And it’s hard to see how China is to blame for the US’s dismal response to the pandemic, which has been characterized by moves like the rejection of a coronavirus test approved by the WHO in January in favor of a test developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that wasn’t dispatched until February, and some of which didn’t work properly once they were (Washington Post, 4/18/20).

Corporate media distortions and bombast are priming the American public to see China as a treacherous villain that has to be forcefully confronted, perhaps with violence. Presenting China—and Chinese people—as a threat to the United States and its people is that much more reckless at a moment when there is an “alarming surge in anti-Asian racism related to Covid-19” (NBC, 4/16/20). But such considerations don’t trouble those who are in the business of ginning up the hatred necessary for a new cold war.

 

Foreign Policy Sees ‘Repression’ in Vietnam’s Fight Against Coronavirus - In the US, government may surveill you, but at least it doesn't protect your health

 

Foreign Policy (5/12/20) illustrates a story on “repression” in Vietnam with a photo of a “propaganda poster” encouraging people to wear masks.

A recent piece in Foreign Policy (5/12/20) is headed with a photograph of a placard that features an image of a nurse demonstrating the importance of wearing a face mask as both personal and interpersonal protection against the coronavirus. But reader beware: It’s not public education, it’s a “propaganda poster”—because it’s not from New Jersey, but was “seen on a wall in Hanoi.”

The message of the piece, headlined “Vietnam’s Coronavirus Success Is Built on Repression,” is exactly that subtle, and apparently you’re not meant to look too carefully at the reasoning. Vietnam, authors Bill Hayton and Tro Ly Ngheo tell readers, is a country where…wait for it…the state “knows your mobile phone number.”

Yes, they’re receiving praise for limiting infections from Covid-19, reporting zero deaths so far, but the praise isn’t warranted, because “the disease control mechanisms that have been effective are the same mechanisms that facilitate and protect the country’s one-party rule.”

OK, so what are the elements of this horror? First, it’s explained, Vietnam has “neighborhood wardens and public security officers who keep constant watch over city blocks.” Sounds scary. Would those be anything like the police officers in Kentucky who shot Breonna Taylor to death while storming her home, on a no-knock warrant for a man who’d already been arrested 10 miles away? Or the ones who beat a man and sat on his head in New York City, while enforcing social-distancing protocols? I guess not.

In Vietnam, “The structures that control epidemics are the same ones that control public expressions of dissent.” Good thing we don’t have any of that dissent-controlling here, right? Although the mayor of New York City did just declare public protest illegal, and cops did just arrest writer Jill Nelson for writing “Trump = Plague” in chalk on an abandoned building.

But in Vietnam, you can “barricade government critics inside their houses to prevent them meeting journalists.” That would be nothing like Steven Donziger, under house arrest in New York since prosecuting an environmental case against Chevron in Ecuador, the company having stated explicitly that its long-term strategy was to “demonize” him.

In Vietnam, though, “The enforcers can be quite sure that their behavior is not going to be challenged by an independent judiciary, because the Communist Party decides what the law is.” That sounds bad; should we get a weigh-in from US Attorney General Bill Barr, who just got through saying that it didn’t matter that the Justice Department dropped charges against former national security advisor Michael Flynn (who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in 2017), because “history is written by the winners”?

And while other countries have used phone-tracking and surveillance to trace infected people, Foreign Policy explains, Vietnam is different and blameworthy, because they’re able to do so “without the need to submit to legal or parliamentary oversight.” Worlds away, we are to understand, from the US—except that the US Senate just now voted down an amendment to the Patriot Act that would have protected Americans’ internet browsing and search history data from secret and warrantless surveillance by law enforcement.

The piece is clearly trying to say: Don’t envy another country’s pandemic response, because it comes at too high a cost. That might be food for thought, except that Foreign Policy doesn’t seem to want you to bother thinking very much at all.

ACTION ALERT: You can send a message to the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy at jonathan.tepperman@foreignpolicy.com  (or via Twitter: @ForeignPolicy). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your message in comments.

Ari Berman on Voter Suppression and Coronavirus

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This week on CounterSpin: From targeted “voter ID” laws to purging people from the rolls to fighting vote by mail, Republicans are making ever-bolder attempts to suppress voting—expanding the franchise doesn’t work in their favor, Donald Trump unabashedly stated recently. It’s a patently anti-democratic project by definition, but corporate media’s business-as-usual, partisan framing reduces a struggle over a fundament of societal participation to jockeying between elephants and donkeys. It’s a failure of the greatest magnitude, and no amount of ponderous, prize-winning books written in the aftermath will substitute for tough reporting done now to protect the integrity of the vote going into one of the most monumental presidential elections in the country’s history. We’ll talk about that with Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, and a senior reporter on the voting rights beat at Mother Jones.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at recent coverage of unemployment numbers, and coronavirus in Vietnam.

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Featured image: Poll worker wearing protective gear during the Wisconsin primary (cc photo: Wisconsin Center for Investigative Reporting).

 

US Jobless Rate Broke Depression-Era Record—but Most Media Missed It

 

The New York Times (5/9/20) featured a chart of job losses that stretched all the way down the front page.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ eagerly awaited Friday morning Official Unemployment Rate report for April—what editors generally call the BLS’s “headline” rate of unemployment —was definitely headline-worthy. This was especially evident in the next day’s New York Times (5/9/20), which ran a bar chart of historic unemployment going back to 1946 across the top of the front page, and then a long red bar down the right-hand column of the entire page showing job losses for April.

It was a dramatic illustration of how the bottom had fallen out of the job market, with 20.5 million new jobless workers bringing the unemployment rate to 14.7% — the highest that number has been since the end of the 1930s.

But the blaring headlines should actually have been considerably worse (perhaps with that red bar running off the bottom of the Times front page).

Ignored by nearly all US news organizations, at least initially, was an explanation made by the BLS at the end of its press release on the April layoffs, explaining that the official U-3 unemployment rate, which is supposed to measure jobless people actively looking for work, was actually incorrect. In a boxed 572-word addendum appended to its press release (and referenced in a note at the top of the release) was the following explanation:

There was also a large increase in the number of workers who were classified as employed but absent from work. As was the case in March, special instructions sent to the household survey interviewers called for all employed persons absent from work due to coronavirus-related business closures to be classified as unemployed on temporary layoff. However, it is apparent that not all such workers were so classified.

If the workers who were recorded as employed but absent from work due to “other reasons” (over and above the number absent for other reasons in a typical April) had been classified as unemployed on temporary layoff, the overall unemployment rate would have been almost 5 percentage points higher than reported (on a not-seasonally adjusted basis). However, according to usual practice, the data from the household survey are accepted as recorded. To maintain data integrity, no ad hoc actions are taken to reclassify survey responses.

There’s a lot of gobbledygook in there, but the upshot is that if reporters and news editors had read the note, they should have reported the BLS “headline” unemployment rate as 19.7%, not 14.7%. As the BLS wrote in its note, if the error in classifying some laid off workers in the survey had been corrected the rate would have been the higher figure. 

That correction puts the real U-3 number in the range of unemployment rates that were being reported  during the mid-1930s, in the depths of the Great Depression.

The significance of this poor reporting was that the stock market—that supposedly great gauge of economic sentiment—popped up (NASDAQ by 1.58%, S&P by 1.68% and Dow by 1.91%) on the news that the unemployment jump was significantly lower than the 16% that many analysts had been predicting.  In reality, though, the corrected rate of 19.7% blasted way past that prediction, and if accurately reported would have caused the markets to tank before the weekend instead of rising, if past history were repeated.

The initial news reports about the BLS’s 8:30 am news release were almost universally wrong in their headlines, and most didn’t bother reporting on the BLS’s note with its 5% correction.

For CNBC (5/8/20), a “key point” was that “economists had been expecting…the unemployment rate to surge to 16%.”

The headline of Friday’s CNBC article (5/8/20) read: “A Record 20.5 Million Jobs Were Lost in April as Unemployment Rate Jumps to 14.7%.” Filed at 8:30 am and updated at 11:27 am, CNBC went with the disavowed “official” number.  Reporter Jeff Cox, in his revised article, at least added the BLS comment that some people were erroneously not included as being unemployed, but like most reporters covering this story, he appears to have confused that problem with the routine way that the BLS underreports unemployment:

A more encompassing measure that includes those not looking for work as well as those holding part-time jobs for economic reasons also hit an all-time high of 22.8%. That reading may be a more accurate picture of the current jobs situation as millions of workers are being paid to stay home and thus not willing or able to look for new jobs.

The problem is that Cox is referring to a different BLS unemployment statistic figure: the so-called U-6 rate, which includes “discouraged” workers and people working part-time who want full-time employment. Since investors know all about that rate (which is also reported by the BLS every month), and know how it is always significantly higher than the U-3 rate, it is automatically discounted by them.

In fact, if both the error cited by the BLS itself and the U-6 additions to the tally of unemployed were combined, and added to the 14.7% official U-3 unemployment rate for April, the unemployment rate as of April 16 would have been 27.8%, which would be higher than the record Great Depression unemployment rate of 24.9%, notched in 1933.

CNN (5/8/20), in its main report on the BLS Friday morning announcement,  stuck with the 14.7% unemployment figure, and didn’t mention the correction in the box following the bureau’s release. (A subsequent CNN feature—5/8/20—did illustrate how the unemployment rate would be even higher if involuntary part-timers and people who want jobs but are no longer looking for work were included.)

The New York Times (5/8/20) ran with the BLS “official” unemployment rate in its headline (and in its dramatic chart), saying, “The jobs numbers were the catastrophe everybody was expecting.” The article that followed then referred to the 14.7% figure.

Well down into the story, the paper stated, “What’s more, because of issues with the way workers are classified, the actual unemployment employment rate might have been more close to 20%.”  This was a fudge. The article should have reported that the BLS explained that there had been an error in how millions of workers had been classified and that, if corrected, that rate would have been, not might have been, “close to 20%.”

The Wall Street Journal (5/8/20) headlined the 14.7% figure, but noted that if sent-home workers had been appropriately counted as being temporarily laid off, the unemployment rate would have been “almost 5 percentage points higher.”

The Wall Street Journal (5/8/20), which typically does more accurate reporting on unemployment figures, also went with the official 14.7% BLS number in its headline:  “April Unemployment Rate Rose to a Record 14.7%.” This article, like others, initially ignored the crucial correction.

In a later revision, the paper did add that the BLS survey “showed a large number of workers who said they were ‘employed but absent from work,’” and wrote that “many of those should have been counted as a temporary layoff, which would have caused the unemployment rate to be almost 5 percentage points higher.” But the revised version failed to note that the BLS itself admitted it was a mistake left uncorrected in deference to its tradition of not altering gathered data once collected. Left unsaid was why the Journal didn’t report the number correctly as 19.7%.

Yahoo! News (5/8/20) stood out for getting the story right. While the article carried the same kind of misleading headline—“April Jobs Report: US Employers Cut a Record 20.5 Million Payrolls, Unemployment Rate Jumps to 14.7%”—reporter Emily McCormick helpfully included a line saying, “The jobless rate would have been nearly 5 percentage points higher, if workers were classified differently during the survey data collection, the BLS added in a note.”  After that, she included the full explanation from the actual BLS addendum to its press release.

It’s hard to understand why reporters and editors would have missed an opportunity for a banner headline saying that the unemployment rate in this stunning pandemic recession had already leapt to or perhaps beyond a Great Depression level. Perhaps in today’s era of newsroom cutbacks, and with a race to get the story out first when a government agency embargoes information until a sudden 8:30 am release, these Washington reporters for the most part didn’t take the time to read the BLS’s box explaining the error that it had deliberately not corrected.

Oh well: Since the April BLS report was through April 16, and missed the 7 million more workers laid off in the second two weeks of the month, plus a likely equal amount who’ll be sacked in the first two weeks of May, they’ll get another chance for that screaming headline.

 

 

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