Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

Press Worries About a Fracking Ban’s ‘Risk’ to Democrats—Not Fracking’s Threat to Planet

 

In last week’s vice presidential debate between Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence, Harris reiterated Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s rejection of a fracking ban, despite her earlier call for one when she was a presidential candidate (CBS News, 10/7/20):

“I will repeat, and the American people know, that Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact,” Harris said.

Harris emphasized that Biden “believes” in science; claimed that he “understands that the West Coast of our country is burning” and “sees what is happening on the Gulf states, which are being battered by storms”; and that he has “seen and talked with the farmers in Iowa, whose entire crops have been destroyed because of floods.”

One can —only wonder whether Biden or Harris truly “believe” in science when they pretend a fracking ban and a host of other strong climate measures are not urgent necessities required immediately. In 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced that carbon pollution needed to be cut by 45% by 2030 in order to keep the planet below the critical 1.5°C warming threshold to prevent irreversible planetary devastation (Guardian, 10/8/18). As time goes on, more reports inform us that pollution and the climate crisis are actually even worse than we thought (e.g., Vox, 8/12/20; New York Times, 10/23/19, 12/4/19).

Yet whenever there are discussions about enacting a national fracking ban, corporate media seem to prioritize the supposed short-term potential “risks” to Democrats’ electoral prospects, or potential economic downturns, over the long-term prospects for human civilization’s survival.

The New York Times (1/27/20) quoted absurd claims that a fracking ban would mean “hundreds of thousands” of Pennsylvanians would be “unemployed overnight.” In reality, about 26,000 people work in all of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas sector (Pittsburgh City Paper, 9/4/20).

When there was discussion of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s bill for a nationwide fracking ban earlier this year, the New York Times’ “In Crucial Pennsylvania, Democrats Worry a Fracking Ban Could Sink Them” (1/27/20) cited a few state Democratic politicians claiming that any presidential candidate who supports a national fracking ban would risk losing Pennsylvania in the general election. The Times trivialized the issue by reducing it to a “political bet,” with the highest stakes being the mere loss of a Democratic presidency, as opposed to dooming humanity to climate apartheid (FAIR.org, 7/30/19) and ultimately losing human life as we know it to natural disasters (FAIR.org, 6/11/19, 9/5/19, 1/3/20, 9/18/20). The Times’ Lisa Friedman and Shane Goldmacher wrote:

A pledge to ban all hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, could jeopardize any presidential candidate’s chances of winning this most critical of battleground states — and thus the presidency itself…  In some ways, the fracking ban is indicative of the entire political bet undergirding the candidacies of Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren that the 2020 campaign will not be won by appeals to the narrow interests of traditional swing voters but through the mass mobilization of an energized electorate.

NPR (2/11/20) cited without rebuttal claims from the US Chamber of Commerce that a fracking ban would eliminate 17% of all US jobs.

NPR’s “Proposals to Ban Fracking Could Hurt Democrats in Key States” (2/11/20) likewise made dubious pronouncements on the opinions of swing-state voters the focal point of the story, as opposed to what actions are required to resolve the climate crisis:

Climate change is a top issue in the Democratic presidential primaries and some candidates have taken relatively aggressive policy stands, including vows to ban hydraulic fracturing. But some Democrats worry that could push moderate voters in key swing states to reelect President Trump next November… In a swing state like Pennsylvania, a major gas producer, fracking and energy are key issues. Even a small segment of voters swayed one way or another could change the election.

After the primaries, it’s clear that corporate media believe it’s their duty to function as Biden’s de facto campaign manager by explaining to voters what Biden’s position on a fracking ban actually is, as well as advising Biden to reject a fracking ban because, they claim, that would be an electoral disaster. Soon after the debate, Quartz (10/8/20) explained that Biden and Harris don’t support a fracking ban, because it “tempts political suicide in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio where fossil fuels still rule.” Why an electoral disaster ought to be prioritized over civilizational disaster is never explained.

The LA Times (9/23/20) stressed the need for Biden to appease “voters whose economic well-being depends on extracting natural gas,” while acknowledging more than halfway through the story that “statewide, voters are evenly split on a fracking ban.”

The Los Angeles Times’ headline “Joe Biden’s Pennsylvania Hurdle: Voters Who Fear a California-Style Energy Plan” (9/23/20) presented swing voters as an obstacle to Biden’s electoral ambitions, as opposed to presenting Biden as an obstacle to stronger environmental protection and meaningful climate action for the country. The LA Times described Biden’s opposition to a fracking ban as a “nuanced position,” and characterized Biden’s climate plans as “robust,” despite his opposition to climate action on the scale of a Green New Deal. Instead of advising Biden to go after younger voters who care more about climate action, the LA Times advised Biden to go after swing voters who don’t care as much:

Television commentary about the presidential race may focus on the future of the Supreme Court and other national questions, but in the states that will actually decide the election, local issues often matter more. In this corner of America, that means fracking. Voters whose economic well-being depends on extracting natural gas are extremely skeptical of any politician who would inhibit it.…  The key for Biden, party strategists believe, is to maintain a carefully balanced approach, even if that frustrates activists on both sides.

However, as journalist David Sirota (Daily Poster, 10/8/20) pointed out, this flimsy basis for rejecting a fracking ban isn’t even true:

There’s just one problem with that storyline: It isn’t substantiated by empirical data. Indeed, the idea that a fracking ban is political poison in Pennsylvania is a fantastical tale fabricated by a national press corps that refuses to let public opinion data get in the way of fossil fuel propaganda and a manufactured narrative.

A January poll of Pennsylvania voters, from Franklin and Marshall University, found that more voters (49%) believe that the environmental risks of fracking outweigh the economic benefits than the reverse (38%), and that more registered voters support a fracking ban (48%) than oppose it (39%). A local CBS report (1/30/20) noted Franklin and Marshall University’s findings in its headline, showing that “Pennsylvanians Favor Statewide Ban on Fracking.” A later CBS/YouGov poll in August found 52% of Pennsylvania voters supporting a fracking ban. A slight majority in support of a fracking ban does not make it a political ace, but neither is it “political suicide.”

Environmental activist Bill McKibben (New Yorker, 10/9/19) pointed out that US claims to have reduced carbon emissions during the past 20 years have mainly been accomplished by replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas-fired power plants. While burning gas produces less carbon dioxide than coal, carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas. The second most important contributor is methane, which can warm the planet more than 80 times as much as the same amount of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Fracking,” more formally known as “hydraulic fracturing,” is a method of extracting natural gas (as well as oil) from the ground with a horizontal drilling process that pumps water, sand and chemicals into the ground to fracture rocks that release fossil fuels. And in the process of fracking, lots of methane leaks out at every stage. The US strategy of reducing carbon emissions without reducing the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted is a form of literal gaslighting that encourages other countries to do the same.

The New York Times (11/8/19, 12/16/19) has published a series of excellent investigative reports that used infrared video gear and satellite measurements to capture the invisible methane emissions at “super emitter” fracking sites, where large-scale methane leaks are responsible for a disproportionately high share of methane emissions. The Times (6/21/18, 2/19/20) has also reported on findings showing that the US oil and gas industry is responsible for a much larger proportion of methane emissions than the US government previously thought, with oil and gas production in general being more responsible for soaring methane levels than natural sources, like the ocean bed and mud volcanoes.

For example, a 2017 study of the Barnett Shale Basin in Texas found that super emitters made up 1% of sites, but were responsible for nearly half of all methane emissions, while Robert Howarth, an earth system scientist at Cornell University, estimated that North American gas production is responsible for a third of the global increase in methane emissions in the past decade. So when US media outlets issue doomsday warnings of mass unemployment from a fracking ban (e.g., CNN, 2/7/20; The Hill, 2/27/20), or pedantic factchecks (e.g., USA Today, 6/19/20; AP, 7/31/20) criticizing Trump for falsely accusing Biden of supporting a fracking ban—when he merely supports banning new oil and gas permits on federal land (which reportedly accounts for less than 10% of US oil and gas production)–it comes across as lethally obtuse.

FAIR (10/16/19) has pointed out how corporate media cheerleading of the “Shale Revolution” helped lead the US to become the world’s largest oil and gas producer during the Obama years; when they bemoaned the loss of fossil fuel emissions during the Covid pandemic (FAIR.org, 4/29/20), corporate journalists seemed more concerned with the profits of advertisers than with the survival of human civilization. Running excuses for presidential candidates in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry is only more evidence of the same.

Environmental and labor activists, economists and scientists have for years discussed the need for a full employment program based on green jobs to serve as a just transition for workers who would be displaced by a fracking ban; there is no reason for a fracking ban to be “political suicide” unless corporate journalists are determined to equate that with the death of the fossil fuel industry.

 

‘All 50 States Bar Private, Unauthorized Paramilitary Activity’

 

Janine Jackson interviewed Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection’s Mary McCord about unlawful militias for the October 9, 2020, episode of CounterSpin–recorded before news was in about an alleged attempt by private paramilitaries to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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LA Times depiction (10/10/20) of members of the Michigan Home Guard, an unauthorized paramilitary group, demonstrating outside the Michigan statehouse. (photo: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP)

Janine Jackson: A major worry, in an electoral season that has enough of them, is the prospect of people in military garb, and armed with lethal weapons, showing up at polling stations, marching around and, minimally, staring menacingly at people. Some of those would be part of self-declared “militias,” a term we’ve heard thrown around, but news reporting on militia intervention in the election, for example, reads a bit like that of an oncoming storm cloud: It’s not good, but what are you going to do?

The thing is, there are laws, and we can have a public conversation around the fact that people in camo with guns are showing up at social justice protests and threatening people, claiming they have a constitutional right to do so.

Addressing a concern starts with understanding it, and that’s what our guest does. Mary McCord is legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, and a visiting law professor at Georgetown University. She joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Mary McCord.

Mary McCord: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

JJ: Let’s start, I guess, with some definition. What defines a militia, and what makes a militia unlawful?

MMC: Right. Well, it’s a good question, because oftentimes these unauthorized armed groups of individuals will point to the Constitution’s use of the word “militia” as their authority to exist. But “militia,” as used in both federal and state law, simply refers to all able-bodied residents between certain ages—it’s usually like 17 to 45, or some states, 17 to 55—who are available to be called forth by the government in defense of the state. So in the case of the US Constitution, Congress has that authority to call them forth through statutory enactments, and then they would report up to the president, and in the states, it’s the governor who has the authority to call them forth.

But there is no authority under federal or state law for groups of armed individuals to sort of self-activate as a militia and undertake what are typically law enforcement functions, or even functions of actual state-sponsored militias. So the only lawful militia is the militia that’s been called forth by the state; for example, the state National Guards, those are what the Constitution refers to as the state militias. Those are official military organizations that report up through the governor, or the governor’s deputized person. So there’s no authority for this sort of self-deployment.

JJ: I wonder if we could talk a little bit about DC v. Heller, because the Second Amendment is this kind of zombie idea; it’s this idea that just won’t let go, the invocation of it. And even news media present it as kind of, “Well, some people interpret the Second Amendment as giving them the right to organize and do this,” but the law actually did speak on this, yeah?

MMC: Yes. In fact, the Supreme Court has been very clear about this. There’s a lot of gray area in the Second Amendment; this is not one of those gray areas.

So I’ll get to Heller in a minute, but Heller actually reiterated an opinion that the Supreme Court issued in 1886. In that case, it actually upheld a state statute, which exists on the books of 29 states even to this day, a state statute that bars bodies of men from associating together as a military unit, or parading or drilling with firearms in public. Now, mind you, this dates to post–Civil War, that’s when these statutes were passed, and you can imagine the last thing that states wanted to have to reckon with were rogue militias that might threaten their own authority.

So in that case in 1886, the Supreme Court thought it without question that states must be able to ban paramilitary organizations in order to preserve peace and good order. 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court decided, for the first time, that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms for individual self-defense, and it actually pointedly contrasted that right with things that are not protected, and it restated its decision from 1886 that the Second Amendment does not prevent states from prohibiting paramilitary organizations; and, in fact, all states do.

JJ: And we’re gonna get to that, to that state-by-state guide that I know that ICAP has just put out. But the law is just words on a page until it’s activated, and the group that you work with, the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University, activated the law in the wake of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, in which, listeners will know, James Fields drove his car into people who showed up to oppose this tiki torch, Nazi-evoking march, and Heather Heyer was killed, and many were injured. What did you see in that that suggested a response that you could use with existing legal and policy tools, and what came out of that?

Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (9/20)

MMC: Yeah, that’s where this sort of strange niche expertise has developed in anti-militia law; that’s really where it first started. So in the immediate aftermath of that really horrendous event, a lot of commentators were a little bit shrugging and saying, “Well, what can be done? There’s a First Amendment right to engage in free speech and assembly, and there’s a Second Amendment right to bear firearms, and Virginia is an open-carry state.” And it was kind of like, “Wow, what can be done?”

But as lawyers, and particularly those—I’d spent most of my career at the Department of Justice, until early 2017—myself and my colleagues, we thought, “Well, the First Amendment does not protect violence, and it doesn’t protect incitement to imminent violence. And the Second Amendment, thanks to the decision in Heller, we know protects an individual right to bear arms for self-defense, but it doesn’t allow groups to organize together as private armies.”

And so that’s what led us to the state anti–paramilitary activity laws in Virginia, which is where the “Unite the Right” rally took place, and that’s what also eventually led us to learn that all 50 states include provisions, either in their state constitutions or in state statutes, that bar private, unauthorized paramilitary activity. And so we relied on those—in Virginia, it’s a constitutional provision as well as a criminal statute, and also an additional criminal statute that bars individuals from falsely assuming the functions of law enforcement, as we see some of these militias do—so we relied on all of those laws to seek a court order to prohibit these groups from returning in the future and engaging in that kind of armed, coordinated use of force, or projection of the ability to use force.

We weren’t seeking damages for injuries in the past; there’s other lawsuits doing this. This was purely forward-looking relief. And we represented the city of Charlottesville, and local businesses and local residential associations who were concerned that the white nationalists were going to return with their heavy militarization, and cause similar violence in the future.

The 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia (cc photo: Tony Crider)

And that case was successful; we won on all of our theories against a motion to dismiss the case, and then after that, actually, it resolved before trial, because every one of the 23 different individuals and organizations who were defendants ended up agreeing, by consent decree, to court orders that would prohibit them, permanently, from returning to Charlottesville as part of units of two or more people, acting in concert, with weapons, during any rally protest, demonstration or march.

And so that work is what caused us to do, then, ultimately a 50-state catalogue of the laws that prohibit private paramilitary activity; that’s what’s led us to actually partner up with the district attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in another, similar case against an unlawful militia there.

And it’s what led us to do the 50 fact sheets that we’ve recently published, a separate one for every state, to help people know what to do if they see groups of armed individuals around polling places. And that’s not just so that voters will know, that that can be intimidating, and that it’s illegal, but it’s also so election officials will know, and so local law enforcement will know, and state elected officials will know, and state attorney generals and secretaries of state — because there’s been such a mythology about the Second Amendment, that so many people actually believe it protects this activity, and it does not. So part of this was just to make sure to get that word out there to correct the record: This is not constitutionally protected.

JJ: And I’ll just add, in looking through your recent writings, I see the phrase “sit idly by” recur as an indication that that’s not what we need to do; we don’t need to just let this happen; there are things that folks can actively do to push back against the encroachment of these unlawful militias in our communities, yeah?

Mary McCord: “It’s not to anyone’s benefit to intimidate voters. It’s not to anyone’s benefit to have armed, non-publicly accountable individuals, private armies, on the streets.”

MMC: That’s right. In fact, that phrase is from the circuit court’s opinion in our Charlottesville case, that the state and the city should not have to sit idly by and allow this to happen. And in fact, since we put out these fact sheets in the last week, we’ve had engagement with state and local officials at multiple different levels from multiple different states, and some are starting to make strong statements.

The district attorney in Philadelphia, for example, held a press conference just recently with election officials, as well as state and local elected officials, and he invited me to be part of that as well, to explain to the voters that they intend to take voter intimidation laws seriously, and the anti-militia laws seriously, and they will be enforced, so that every voter in Philadelphia can feel safe in going to the election, that the district attorney’s office and other election officials are monitoring for this, and won’t allow it to happen.

And our hope is that more officials will make similarly strong statements. It should be a completely nonpartisan issue, because it’s not to anyone’s benefit to intimidate voters. It’s not to anyone’s benefit to have armed, non-publicly accountable individuals, private armies, on the streets. And so, again, we put this out there, informational, in a nonpartisan way, in the hope to just be able to give people a chance to prepare for things that could be coming, but that we hope will not be.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with law professor Mary McCord, legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University. Mary McCord, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MMC: Thank you.

 

Lisa Graves on the Story Behind Amy Coney Barrett

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Amy Coney Barrett (photo: Tom Williams/Roll Call)

This week on CounterSpin: Despite the symbolism of her White House launch party being a superspreader event, the story of Amy Coney Barrett, the conservative judge currently looking like being foisted on the Supreme Court, actually begins a while back. Understanding how we got to this place—where a person who uses the term “sexual preference” may have a hand in interpreting laws governing all of our lives—requires looking behind the curtain of the “partisan tug of war” narrative corporate media present every day, to see how a powerful minority in this country manages to use public institutions to do unpopular things. We’ll get the story behind Amy Coney Barrett from Lisa Graves, editor-in-chief and executive director at True North Research.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at Susan Page’s moderation excuses, NBC‘s reward to Trump for pulling out of the debates, and media yawning at revelations that the child separation policy was deliberate.

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‘Persecuting Assange Is a Real Blow to Reporting and Human Rights Advocacy’

 

Janine Jackson interviewed Defending Rights & Dissent’s Chip Gibbons about Julian Assange’s extradition hearing for the October 9, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Shadowproof (9/29/20)

Janine Jackson: If it were not for a tiny handful of journalists—ShadowProof’s Kevin Gosztola preeminent among them—Americans might be utterly unaware that a London magistrate, for the last month, has been considering nothing less than whether journalists have a right to publish information the US government doesn’t want them to. Not whether outlets can leak classified information, but whether they can publish that information on, as in the case of Wikileaks, US war crimes and torture and assorted malfeasance to do with, for instance, the war on Afghanistan, which just entered its 19th year, with zero US corporate media interest.

Assange’s case, the unprecedented use of the Espionage Act to go after a journalist, has dire implications for all reporters. But this country’s elite press corps have evidently decided they can simply whistle past it, perhaps hoping that if and when the state comes after them, they’ll make a more sympathetic victim.

Joining us now to discuss the case is Chip Gibbons. He’s policy director at Defending Rights & Dissent. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to countersign, Chip Gibbons.

Chip Gibbons: Always a pleasure to be on CounterSpin.

JJ: I wondered, first, given the absence of US news media attention, if you could tell us just what’s happening? I mean, it’s a hearing for Julian Assange’s extradition, but in the very informative webinar that Defending Rights & Dissent did last night with Kevin Gosztola of ShadowProof, who’s pretty much single-handedly reporting on this, he called it a “trial.” So it feels like things are shifting around, just in terms of what this means, and so, if it’s not too crazy a question: What’s going on?

CG: Sure. So the US has indicted Julian Assange with 17 counts under the Espionage Act, as well as a count under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Assange is not a US person; he’s an Australian national. He was inside the Ecuadorian embassy for a number of years, as Ecuador had granted him asylum, and the UK had refused to basically recognize that and let him leave the country, so he was de facto imprisoned inside the embassy. And after the indictment the US issued, the new government of Ecuador—which is much less sympathetic to Assange than the previous Correa government—let the US come in the embassy and seize him.

And the US is seeking Assange’s extradition to the US from the UK. I guess it’s, probably, technically a hearing, but Kevin’s point was that it’s more like what we would think of as a trial, in that there’s different witnesses, there’s expert testimony, there’s different legal arguments at stake.

The defense, the witness portion of it, has closed; it ended last week. And there’s going to be closing arguments submitted in writing, and then the judge will render a decision, and that decision will be appealable by either side. So regardless of the outcome, we can expect appeals. So it does very closely mirror what we would think of more like a trial than a hearing in the US court context.

It’s important to really understand what’s at stake with Assange’s extradition. He is the first person ever indicted by the US government under the Espionage Act for publishing truthful information.

The US government has considered indicting journalists before: They considered indicting Seymour Hersh, a very famous investigative reporter. They considered indicting James Bamford, because he had the audacity to try to write a book on the National Security Agency. But they’ve never done that.

And Obama’s administration looked at the idea of indicting Assange and said, “No, this would violate the First Amendment, and it would open the door to all kinds of other bad things.” But the Trump administration clearly doesn’t have those qualms.

And it’s worth pointing out that Assange’s indictment follows an unprecedented period, initiated by the Obama administration, of indicting whistleblowers or journalists’ sources under the Espionage Act. So we’ve seen Chelsea Manning indicted, we’ve seen Edward Snowden indicted under the Espionage Act, but to indict the journalists, though, is a real new step, and not for the best.

JJ: And that’s what I wanted to just to underscore, or ask you to: We do have rules around journalists being provided materials that might be hacked, or that might be illegally obtained, or that might be leaked. Journalists have a right—I mean, through this murkiness—journalists have a right to publish information, even if that information is illegally obtained. Is that not true?

Chip Gibbons: “Julian Assange is accused of publishing information about war crimes, about human rights abuses and about abuses of power, that have been tremendously important, not just for the public’s right to know, but also have made a real difference in advocacy around those issues.”

CG: That’s what the Supreme Court has said in the past; that is the precedent, and I believe that is what prevented the Obama administration from moving against Assange. It is very interesting to see how this plays out in a US court in the current environment. If whoever—Trump or  Biden, whoever is president, when this finally comes to the US—actually pursues this, and they actually are allowing the persecution of journalists, that’s going to be a really dark, dark assault on free expression rights.

And it’s worth remembering—and Julian Assange is clearly very reviled in the corporate media and the political establishment right now—but the information he leaked came from Chelsea Manning, it dealt with US war crimes; and he worked with the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, Al Jazeera, to publish this information. So if he can go to jail for publishing this, why can’t the New York Times? And is that a door anyone wants to open? There is a big press freedom angle here.

I also want to talk about the facts, though: What did Julian Assange publish, and why did it matter? One of the witnesses that took the stand in his defense was Clive Stafford Smith, who’s one of the founders of Reprieve UK; he’s represented men detained at Guantánamo Bay and victims of US drone strikes, and he discussed how the information published by WikiLeaks, given by whistleblower Chelsea Manning, has aided their work, including getting a court ruling in Pakistan, saying that US drone strikes were illegal and constituted a war crime. And other people who have done advocacy or journalism around Guantánamo testified about how Wikileaks published the Guantánamo Bay files, which showed how the US government was holding people it didn’t suspect of any crimes.

Julian Assange is accused of publishing information about war crimes, about human rights abuses and about abuses of power, that have been tremendously important, not just for the public’s right to know, but also have made a real difference in advocacy around those issues. People were able to go and get justice for victims of rendition, or able to go and get court rulings in other countries about US drone strikes, because of this information being in the public domain. So attacking Assange, persecuting Assange, disappearing him into a supermax prison, this is a real blow to reporting and human rights advocacy.

And Assange isn’t even a US national, he’s an Australian citizen; he didn’t publish this information in this country. So, basically, the US is saying that if you exist anywhere in the world, and you’re a journalist, and you do what I would call journalism—exposing the crimes of the powerful; I know, a lot of journalists in this country don’t do that—but they can come and charge you with espionage, put you in solitary confinement, put you in a supermax prison?

We miss how high the stakes are in this country on this issue, but it’s not lost on the rest of the world. Look at who are Julian Assange’s supporters: He has on his defense team Baltasar Garzón, who’s the very famous Spanish ex-judge who indicted Pinochet; his main attorney, Jennifer Robinson, is a famed human rights attorney who, in addition to representing Assange, has used information released by WikiLeaks in her other human rights cases.

His international supporters include:

  • Jeremy Corbyn, the member of the British Parliament;
  • Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece;
  • Lula, the former president of Brazil, who himself was a political prisoner;
  • Rafael Correa, the former president of Ecuador, who granted him asylum and has now had to leave the country as a victim of lawfare, continues to support him—you oftentimes see in the media, he “wore out his welcome with Ecuador”; that’s not true, the Ecuadorian government officials who granted him asylum still support him;
  • Jean-luc Mélenchon, the French left-wing insurgent candidate.

So if you look around the world, high-profile left-wing politicians, including current and former heads of state and internationally renowned human rights activists, support Assange, and that’s because they understand this is about exposing war crimes, this is about exposing human rights abuses. And I wish more people in the US would realize that’s what’s going on here.

New York Times (1/26/20)

JJ: Right. And, finally, the journalists who are holding their nose right now on covering it aren’t offering to give back the awards that they won based on reporting relying on WikiLeaks revelations. And James Risen had an op-ed in the New York Times a while back, in which he was talking about Glenn Greenwald, but also about Julian Assange, and he said that he thought that governments—he was talking about Bolsonaro in Brazil, as well as Donald Trump—that they’re trying out these anti-press measures and, he said, they “seem to have decided to experiment with such draconian anti-press tactics by trying them out first on aggressive and disagreeable figures.”

And what struck me about that is that I feel like that’s where the public comes in, frankly, because it’s really for us to decide, are we going to say, “Well, I don’t like Julian Assange, so I’m not going to care about this case”? It’s up to us to say we can separate principle from person if we need to, that we can see what’s at stake and that we won’t allow, in other words, media, which, in this case, there’s an explicit tactic of demonizing a person, so that you can be encouraged to think “Well, this has nothing to do with me, and Assange, if something bad happens to him, that doesn’t have anything to do with me.” And unfortunately, media are helping us make that disassociation from the person and the principle here.

CG: Yeah, the US media has done a really fantastic job of demonizing Julian Assange, which is not to say, there can never be any legitimate criticisms or differences of opinion with him. I know a lot of people, including many of his longtime supporters, were very displeased with some of the stuff he did or said during the 2016 election. But at the end of the day, that doesn’t give the US government the right to disappear and torture someone for the crime of exposing its own actual crimes.

Whether or not you agree with everything he’s ever said or done—and there’s no one on this planet who I agree with everything they’ve ever said and done, not even myself, for that matter, right?—he took real risk to bring truth. I believe he said something like, “If wars can be started based on lies, then peace can be brought based on truth.” That’s the motto he’s operating under, and we need people like Julian Assange, and WikiLeaks, to pursue the truth, to shine light on these abuses of power.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Chip Gibbons, policy director at Defending Rights & Dissent. They’re online at RightsAndDissent.org. Chip Gibbons, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

 

CG: Thank you for having me again.

 

Democracy Dies in the Light

 

The Trump presidency has overturned many norms of democracy, but one of his most dangerous moves is the weaponization of the powers of government against his political opponents. He’s never shied away from talk of it—as the ubiquitous chants of “Lock her up” at his 2016 rallies made clear—but as the 2020 election nears, Trump’s tolerance for democratic checks on his power has eroded dramatically, and he has openly  pressured his cabinet members to use the levers of state power to target his opponents and aid his re-election.

While the occasional news analysis or op-ed correctly labeled this “authoritarian” behavior, bringing out historians and other experts to warn that such moves are “unprecedented” and “an abuse of power” (e.g., New York Times, 10/10/20, Boston Globe, 10/15/20), these takes were largely overshadowed by bizarrely blasé front-page reports framing the story as a spat between Trump and his cabinet.

AP (10/8/20) talks about Trump “aggressively trying to use all of the levers of his power to gain ground in an election that has been moving away from him”—as though pushing the Justice Department to indict his political opponents were merely an electoral strategy, like door-to-door canvassing or lawn signs.

“Trump, Barr at Odds Over Slow Pace of Durham Investigation,” announced an October 8 Associated Press headline. At the Washington Post (10/8/20), the take was similar: “Down in the Polls and Yearning for an October Surprise, Trump Lashes at His Most Loyal Allies.” A Times headline at least gave a nod to the part played in this story by Trump’s actual opponents, but still put the Trump-versus-his-cabinet story center stage (10/8/20): “Trump Lashes Out at His Cabinet With Calls to Indict Political Rivals.”

These pieces offered readers little understanding of the gravity of the problem, with the Times simply noting that Trump “went further” than his usual talk of prosecuting opponents, and the AP blandly explaining that

the tensions between Trump and the attorney general over the fate of the probe underscore the extent to which the president is aggressively trying to use all of the levers of his power to gain ground in an election that has been moving away from him.

The next day, the Times (10/9/20) reframed the matter slightly after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acquiesced to Trump’s demands to release emails gathered in a security investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, noting in its story’s subhead:

The secretary of State said he would make Hillary Clinton’s emails public, handing the president a weapon to attack his political foes as the attorney general resisted his overtures to prosecute them.

But the seriousness of Pompeo’s actions was left almost entirely unexplained. At the very end of the piece, the reporters mention the Hatch Act in the context of Trump’s use of White House grounds for campaign purposes:

The president joked about the agitation he had caused among his critics about how he may have violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while on the job, by using the White House grounds for political purposes. He said he thought he would do it more.

He pitched the idea of staging events and concerts on the South Lawn every week up through Election Day. He appeared to be half-kidding, but half-intrigued by the idea, aides said.

And this is how the article ended.

The New York Times headline (10/9/20) frames the conflict as between Trump and his cabinet members—not between Trump and democracy.

The idea of a sitting government using taxpayer dollars for campaign purposes is considered highly undemocratic, and so we have many laws and institutions in place to prohibit it—including the Hatch Act. As ProPublica/WNYC reported in August (8/12/20), Trump officials had already been cited 13 times for Hatch Act violations by federal investigators with the Office of Special Counsel, with many more investigations underway.

Kellyanne Conway alone was responsible for so many Hatch Act violations that an OSC report (6/13/19) labeled them “egregious, notorious and ongoing,” and went so far as to formally ask Trump to remove her from federal service, declaring that her “actions erode the principal foundation of our democratic system—the rule of law.”

New York Times leadership has repeatedly stated (e.g., Guardian, 11/18/19) that they think the best way to cover Trump is simply to report what he says and does and let readers judge those words and actions. Their idea of hard-hitting reporting is found in passages such as this one, from the October 9 piece:

Neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Pompeo explained why they would release the emails now, in the final weeks of a hotly contested presidential campaign, given that they could have done so at any point in the past four years. Nor did they explain why they would seek to prove that Mrs. Clinton was too casual with emails containing classified information by releasing emails containing classified information.

At the Washington Post, Trump’s election prompted a new motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” which suggests the same philosophy—that merely exposing anti-democratic actions to the light of publicity will neutralize their threat.

The problem is that the media continue to operate as if a normal democratic election is being held in this country, when it clearly is not (FAIR.org, 9/15/20). The president has repeatedly made baseless allegations of voter fraud, urged his followers to intimidate voters at the polls, and overruled FDA vaccine safety guidelines in an attempt to push out a Covid vaccine before the election, against the advice of scientific experts. He is ramming through a Supreme Court nomination while multiple members of the Senate are infectious with Covid to secure a pro-Trump Court majority that might be his only hope of  staying in power. And now he is pressuring his cabinet members to use levers of state power to influence the election.

Reporting on that pressure as little more than an internecine squabble, and leaving it to readers to piece together the critical context and implications—or burying them on page 20, like the Times analysis, or leaving them to the op-ed page, relegating the value of democracy to a matter of opinion—is not enough. Democracy certainly seems capable of dying in the light, too.

No, China Didn’t ‘Stall’ Critical Covid Information at Outbreak’s Start

 

 

FAIR (6/21/20) has criticized various conspiracy theories propagated by corporate media alleging a coverup of crucial information regarding the Covid-19 pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Chinese government, as well as the notion (FAIR.org, 4/17/20, 10/6/20) that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid, emerged from a Chinese lab. Now that some time has passed since the beginning of the outbreak, it’s worth revisiting the less-conspiratorial corporate media narrative that the Chinese government maliciously or incompetently delayed the release of critical information early on, thereby causing many unnecessary deaths.

Associated Press (6/3/20) claimed China “sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week,” and that “Chinese government labs only released the genome after another lab published it ahead of authorities on a virologist website on January 11.” In fact, a Chinese researcher uploaded the genome to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information on January 5 (Time, 8/24/20).

While many other news outlets (e.g., New York Times, 2/7/20; Vox, 2/10/20) have accused the Chinese government of covering up the severity of the pandemic in its initial stages and delaying the release of crucial information, the Associated Press has been promoting this narrative with particular intensity. Its report, “China Delayed Releasing Coronavirus Info, Frustrating WHO” (6/3/20), claimed that World Health Organization “officials were lauding China in public because they wanted to coax more information out of the government,” based on unreleased private recordings of WHO officials complaining that China wasn’t “sharing enough data” in internal meetings. Amid various conspiracy theories peddled by US media of the WHO colluding with China to conceal Covid-19’s severity, AP alleged that its findings support the narrative of an agency “stuck in the middle that was urgently trying to solicit more data despite limited authority.”

A separate AP report on June 3 report alleged “significant delays by China in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak that compromised the WHO’s understanding of how the disease was spreading.” China, the news service claimed, “sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded the information,” which “stalled the recognition of its spread to other countries, along with the global development of tests, drugs and vaccines.”

AP reported that the first complete genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 was published by Chinese virologist Zhang Yongzhen’s team to the public database virological.org on January 11, six days after they completed the task on January 5; the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s (WIV) Shi Zhengli had finished sequencing the genome on January 2, according to a notice on the WIV’s website. But AP’s reporting presented Chinese stalling as an incontrovertible fact rather than a debatable opinion, burying the views of scientists who disagreed with that assessment in the 73rd and 74th paragraphs:

Some scientists say the wait was not unreasonable considering the difficulties in sequencing unknown pathogens, given accuracy is as important as speed. They point to the SARS outbreak in 2003 when some Chinese scientists initially—and wrongly—believed the source of the epidemic was chlamydia.

“The pressure is intense in an outbreak to make sure you’re right,” said Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealthAlliance in New York. “It’s actually worse to go out to go to the public with a story that’s wrong because the public completely lose confidence in the public health response.”

Time (8/24/20): “Crises beget scapegoats, and the coronavirus is no different.”

AP’s narrative was later debunked by an exclusive interview Zhang gave to Time magazine (8/24/20). He revealed that he had uploaded the completed genomic sequence on January 5 (the same day his team finished) to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), which is corroborated by the submission date listed on the open access US government Genbank.

AP seemed to downplay whether Chinese officials had any reasonable public health concerns for not taking stricter measures sooner, and to suggest that waiting for more evidence or confirmation was mere stalling (e.g., “China stalled for at least two weeks more…”). The wire service implied that the Chinese government messed up “sharing the information with the world,” citing an earlier report by Caixin Global (2/29/20), a Chinese corporate media outlet, that made it seem like the Chinese government was trying to conceal the novel coronavirus when it first reported on a confidential “gag order” by the National Health Commission.

The order commanded private genomics companies to destroy or transfer “Wuhan pneumonia samples” to “approved testing facilities” on January 3. Time also cited the gag order, and the repeatedly debunked myth of silenced “whistleblower doctors,” as evidence that the “stakes of doing what is right over what one is told are rendered far higher in authoritarian systems like China’s,” even as Zhang denied Western media reports of his lab suffering prolonged closure during the pandemic.

Completely omitted by Time and Caixin’s reports is the fact that under Chinese law, private genomics companies aren’t authorized to handle highly contagious pathogens, which is a standard public safety measure (South China Morning Post, 5/15/20; Wall Street Journal, 5/16/20); many governments, including the US, have regulations that require labs with lower biosafety ratings to destroy or transfer samples of dangerous pathogens.

Caixin’s report also omitted that the Chinese government had notified the WHO and the US CDC on January 3 about their discovery of a potentially new coronavirus—the same day the “gag order” was issued—even as it noted that the WHO received information from China about a mysterious pneumonia outbreak on December 31. These are very strange things to do if the Chinese government really were trying to “throttle” and conceal news of the outbreak. It’s unclear whether the WIV was really ordered to destroy samples of the virus, as Caixin initially reported by citing an anonymous virologist; Zhengli denied ever receiving orders to destroy samples after the outbreak.

AP’s report also framed Chinese officials initially setting strict criteria for confirming new cases of Covid-19 as having “censored doctors who warned of suspicious cases,” when few new cases were reported between January 5 and January 16 (AP, 1/28/20), even as it mentioned later that Chinese officials and health professionals lacked a “full understanding of how widely the virus was spreading and who was at risk.” The article noted that Chinese officials were debating whether Covid-19 had limited or sustained human-to-human transmission before renowned epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan confirmed there was sustained human-to-human transmission on January 20; China ordered the quarantine of Wuhan only days later, on January 23.

Debate wasn’t unreasonable at the beginning of the outbreak—when it was unclear how infectious or deadly Covid-19 was—as the first known death didn’t occur until January 9, in a 61-year-old man with comorbidities. It wasn’t until January 26 that the Chinese National Health Commission announced that researchers believed the incubation period for SARS-CoV-2—the time it takes for an infected person to develop symptoms—could range from one to 14 days, during which asymptomatic carriers could still infect others, unlike the SARS virus in the 2003 outbreak (BBC, 1/26/20). Other international outbreaks, like bird flu viruses and MERS, turned out to have limited human-to-human transmission, with scattered human-to-human transmission primarily triggered by animal-to-human transmission (Stat, 1/21/20).

CNN‘s Bianco Nobilo (2/21/20) interviewing Laurie Garrett. CNN reported calls to treat China’s numbers  skeptically, “given the government’s track record of suppressing information about this epidemic.”

Nor is it unreasonable to revise the criteria to count new Covid-19 cases upon getting new information and improved testing capacity in real time. By late February, CNN (2/21/20) reported that China had already revised its methodology of counting new cases three times in order to broaden their case definition to include more cases, not fewer, but while plenty of other countries were doing the same thing, only China’s revisions were singled out and framed as a “cover-up.”

China taking the time to discuss and confirm whether there was sustained human-to-human transmission was also condemned by the AP in an earlier report, “China Didn’t Warn Public of Likely Pandemic for Six Key Days” (4/15/20), which also accused the Chinese government of concealing the virus from the Chinese public during the critical time period of January 14 to January 20:

That delay from January 14 to January 20 was neither the first mistake made by Chinese officials at all levels in confronting the outbreak, nor the longest lag, as governments around the world have dragged their feet for weeks and even months in addressing the virus.

But the delay by the first country to face the new coronavirus came at a critical time—the beginning of the outbreak. China’s attempt to walk a line between alerting the public and avoiding panic set the stage for a pandemic that has infected more than 2 million people and taken more than 133,000 lives.

This story was based on blatant and easily disprovable falsehoods. Chinese state media warned the public of a “new type of coronavirus” multiple times before this supposed “critical time,” as Beijing-based journalist Ian Goodrum pointed out on Twitter (4/15/20).

As I also pointed out earlier (FAIR.org, 3/6/20), soon after Dr. Zhang Jixian was the first doctor to report the novel coronavirus to health authorities on December 27, 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission made announcements on December 30 and December 31. This is why various foreign news outlets (e.g., Reuters, 12/31/19; Japan Times, 12/31/19; Medical Xpress, 12/31/19) picked up on China’s announcement and were able to report on this supposedly “secret” information in real time. The health commission’s media statements were also picked up by other institutions, like the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (12/31/19), Hong Kong’s government (12/31/19), the World Health Organization’s Country Office in China (12/31/19) and the US-based International Society for Infectious Diseases (12/30/19).

AP’s own reporting (1/15/20) also disproves the notion that the Chinese government wasn’t warning the public, as both Chinese and WHO officials urged the public not to rule out the possibility of sustained human-to-human transmission during this time period, and were already keeping patients isolated, since that’s a standard precaution for novel pathogens (Guardian, 4/9/20).

AP’s January 15 report was published before official announcements on SARS-CoV-2’s incubation period and capacity for asymptomatic transmission, and noted that the reason Chinese officials claimed the risk of sustained human-to-human transmission remained low was that “there remains no definitive evidence of human-to-human transmission,” as it appeared at the time that “hundreds of people” have “been in close contact with infected individuals” without themselves being infected. However, omitting the crucial distinction between limited and sustained human-to-human transmission may have given the misleading impression that Chinese officials were denying that any human-to-human transmission was occurring at all (Scientific American, 1/24/20).

AP (4/15/20) criticized China for a “public silence” on the coronavirus that ended January 20—though a January 15 AP piece led with Chinese officials warning that “the possibility that a new virus in central China could spread between humans cannot be ruled out.”

AP’s April 15 report also admitted that China had a real dilemma. If China had announced early on that there was sustained human-to-human transmission without waiting for evidence to confirm their claim and got it right, many lives would have been saved. On the other hand, AP noted that if health officials “raise the alarm prematurely,” it would “damage their credibility” and “cripple their ability to mobilize the public.” Yet AP’s coverage throughout the pandemic has consistently framed following scientific procedure by taking the time to confirm new information as needless “delays” or deliberate “stalling.”

Could China have done better and acted faster? While the Chinese government admitted that their response had “shortcomings and deficiencies,” it’s a nebulous question, because one can always conceive retrospectively of numerous ways pandemic responses could have been improved. There are no definitive guidelines for how soon a government should release critical information like a novel pathogen’s genomic sequence, or whether it’s capable of sustained human-to-human transmission, because every pandemic situation differs widely. The most insightful ways to assess a country’s pandemic response is to compare it with their responses to previous pandemics, and to compare their current response with other countries’ approaches in the real world, instead of playing with simulations (FAIR.org, 3/17/20), or comparing China’s response with some abstract ideal where everything was handled perfectly.

Even the above condemnatory reports cited numerous health professionals pointing out that China’s approach is more accurately described as “appropriate verification.” To “actually have the whole genome sequence by early January was outstanding compared to outbreaks of the past,” Time (8/24/20) acknowledged, while admitting that there was “some historical basis for skepticism” about the severity of the novel pathogen. The WHO was condemned, for example, for being hasty and overdramatic for declaring the 2009 swine flu outbreak a pandemic when the virology didn’t warrant it (Science, 1/14/10).

AP’s April report (4/15/20) was based on a study that claimed that cases could have been reduced by up to two-thirds if the Chinese government had taken stricter public health measures a week earlier. However, the report omitted that the study was trying to assess the effectiveness of various “non-pharmaceutical interventions” (NPIs), instead of trying to criticize China. It concluded that China’s NPIs “appear to be effectively containing the Covid-19 outbreak,” and estimated that Covid-19 cases would “likely have shown a 67-fold increase” without China’s NPIs. But presenting the study’s actual findings accurately would ruin the basis for AP’s hit piece. Independent and prestigious medical journals like Science (5/8/20), Nature (5/4/20) and the Lancet (3/7/20, 7/25/20) also hailed China’s response and credited it for saving lives by preventing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cases (CGTN, 5/10/20).

Outlets like the Washington Post (1/27/20) condemned China’s effective measures to halt the Covid-19 outbreak as “authoritarianism.”

China’s early, unprecedented and large-scale quarantine of Wuhan was the biggest signal it could’ve sent to the rest of the world that it was containing a serious problem; it was widely dismissed and condemned as “authoritarian” by US media at the time. “China’s Coronavirus Lockdown — Brought to You by Authoritarianism,” a Washington Post headline (1/27/20) declared.  The Atlantic (1/24/20) called the Chinese response “a radical experiment in authoritarian medicine,” suggesting that “part of the fear and panic in the current case seems less due to the virus than to the response”;  Slate (1/24/20) asserted, “Violating People’s Rights Is Not the Way to Address the Coronavirus.”

US media could revisit those dismissals, to explore whether earlier information from China would have made any difference, as countries like the US didn’t act on the information it already had from China, and squandered precious preparation time by lying to the public, censoring, covering up cases and preventing adequate supplies from reaching medical professionals.

It is easy for US media to dutifully follow US government directives to propagate the myth of Chinese “coverups” and “delays” by retroactively projecting current knowledge of Covid-19 onto China during the initial phase of the outbreak (MintPress News, 5/18/20; Foreign Policy, 7/30/20). However, the more difficult questions of why the US’s pandemic response has been exceptionally bad, as a result of its capitalist system prioritizing profits over people (FAIR.org, 4/1/20, 4/15/20, 5/1/20), and US imperialism preventing cooperation with China and the rest of the world (FAIR.org, 7/28/20), would be more worthwhile.

Kathleen Kearney Naureckas (1936–2020)

 

Today would be the 84th birthday of my mother, Kathleen Kearney Naureckas, who died at her apartment in Oak Park, Illinois, on September 30, 2020. In accordance with the journalistic maxim she taught me, “News is something that happens to or near an editor,” allow me to tell you a little bit about her.

Kathleen Kearney as a toddler in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania.

She was born in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, a little town in the Alleghenies surrounded by coal mines and coke ovens. Her father had worked briefly in the mines, but by the time she came along, on October 12, 1936, he was a rather prosperous beer distributor. The fifth of seven children, Kathleen grew up a voracious reader, raised on Journeys Through Bookland, a ten-volume set that took children from nursery rhymes and Aesop’s Fables all the way through to Shakespeare and Dickens. She fondly remembered daily trips in the summer to the local library. Her mother—like her father, the child of Irish immigrants—saw with a bit of alarm what kind of child she was turning out to be, and asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up—”besides a writer.” Eventually, she later wrote, she “learned that journalism was one way to make a living as a writer,” and declared that to be her ambition.

She was the editor of her high school paper, the co-editor of the yearbook, and spent a summer interning in a newsroom through Northwestern University’s Cherub program. After that, Northwestern, in Evanston, Illinois, was the only college she wanted to go to—graduating in 1958 with a degree in magazine writing from the Medill School of Journalism. Her dream was to edit a magazine in New York City, like the New Yorker or Life, both of which she devoured weekly.

She took the first step on that ladder as an editorial assistant at the Chicago-based trade magazine, Rock Products (and its sister publication, Concrete Products—both  owned by the Canadian Maclean-Hunter Publishing group, founders of Maclean’s and the Financial Post). Then she married my father, Edward Naureckas, a mechanical engineer (and part-time farmer) from Libertyville, Illinois. As was the program in those days, she stepped out of the workforce to have four children—Karen, Ted, Jim and Barbara. This kept her occupied through the entirety of the 1960s, a decade she would later claim to have missed completely.

In 1970, though, Dad quit his engineering job just as the US’s victory in the race to the Moon resulted in a glut of engineers on the market. The unanticipated unemployment led to family belt-tightening—and prompted Mom to resume her journalistic career after an 11-year pause.

Kathleen Naureckas at the Libertyville Herald.

She took a part-time job as a reporter for Paddock Circle Newspapers, which was launching a chain of weeklies in Lake County, including the Libertyville Herald. Her first assignment was covering school board meetings in Wauconda, Illinois, a nearby village of 5,000. In a year, she was a full-time reporter; by 1977, she was the paper’s managing editor. At a time when journalism was even more male-dominated than it is today, it was a striking achievement.

That was probably her favorite stop in her career, but the Herald was, if not exactly a small pond, not a very well-compensated one—something that must have been on her mind as her children started approaching their college years. She took a job with the Chicago Tribune, the more prestigious of the big city papers in our area, dropping several rungs to start as a copy editor; “nevertheless, I increased my salary by one-third,” she noted when she retired from the Tribune more than 20 years later.

She had a variety of jobs at the Trib, working as picture desk supervisor, graphics editor, makeup editor (overseeing the physical printing of the paper), assistant news editor, editor of Friday (the weekend entertainment section), Page One editor and finally editor of the Evening Update.

My mother sometimes thought her talents were not fully utilized at the Tribune, but they do seem to have been recognized. Her colleague Phil Vettel left a memory on my Facebook page:

Kathleen was a tough and brilliant editor, and one of the shrewdest minds in the newsroom.

Years ago, the Trib would invite the occasional lowly reporter to spend a week at the 4 p.m. meeting, in which all the top editors would hash out which stories would be on tomorrow’s front page. Everybody would vote on which 3–5 stories should go on the page. An intimidating prospect.

But one editor who had gone through the process told me, “Just pick whichever stories Naureckas chooses, and you’ll be fine.” And that’s exactly what I did.

Kathleen Naureckas at the Chicago Tribune.

I can vouch for her editing skills, because she’s the person who taught me to edit. Well, first she taught me to read, using the daily phonics comic strip that used to appear in the Chicago Tribune. It’s one of my favorite early memories, to which I credit my own lifelong love of reading. She would edit my school papers, showing me what an editor’s squiggles meant and why you shouldn’t use five words when three will do. And she offered me valuable journalistic advice, like “If your mother tells you she loves you—check it out.”

I used to think I got my skills from her, and my ideas from elsewhere in the family—like from her sister Adele, the family socialist, who twice ran for Congress on the Peace & Freedom Party line. I somehow grew up with more or less my Aunt Adele’s politics—if not those of my paternal grandfather, who is said to have been a teenage gunrunner for the 1905 revolution in Lithuania—though I didn’t know I had this heritage of radicalism before I became radicalized myself, the child of what seemed to me at the time as fairly standard-issue Democrats.

Looking back now, though, I think the hidden conduit for my rebellious nature—at least that portion I inherited from my Hibernian ancestors—was my mother. Reading over the collection of writings that she compiled for her children, I see that she was writing about NOW consciousness-raising sessions and sexism in children’s readers—serious subjects for the suburbs in the ’70s.

She also wrote an account of George McGovern’s brief stint as a minister in Mundelein, Illinois, next door to Libertyville, at the beginning of his career; my grade-school support for McGovern, which I picked up from her and my father via osmosis, unlike approximately 97% of my third-grade class, is what taught me that I should stick to my opinions, no matter how unpopular, trusting that history would vindicate me sooner or later.

I am sure that I didn’t know until well into my career as a left-wing media critic that my mother wrote a denunciation of Joe McCarthy for her high school graduation. After criticizing US imperialism in the Philippines and America Firsters, she wrote:

It becomes apparent that a lot of foolish and sometimes wicked things have been done in the name of Americanism…. In 1954 it is being used to justify what is known as McCarthyism; and the same old ingredients are cropping up again. There is the same appeal to prejudice, to fear and to patriotism. Why is it that those who attempt to destroy the core of our democracy insist upon doing it in the name of patriotism?

This was strong stuff for rural Pennsylvania in the 1950s, and my understanding is that when school officials realized the content of her speech, she was disinvited to give it—though its title (“Americanism, Real and Counterfeit”) appears in the graduation program.

(It stings that she’s not around to factcheck this piece with me.)

(Finishing Line Press, 2012)

After she retired, in 1999, she finally got her chance to truly become a writer—and nothing besides. She published a collection of poetry, For the Duration, in 2012; a second volume, Winter Ecology, is scheduled to come out posthumously. Poet Maurya Simon wrote that Kathleen’s poems captured “the small and large triumphs of a spirit that has endured great losses with dignity and compassion.” Loss is a frequent theme in these poems—as her youngest child, Barbara, died at the age of 14, a grief that my mother grappled with for the rest of her life.  In a poem called “Memento Mori,” about the discovery of her great-great-great-grandfather’s gravestone in County Cavan, Ireland, she writes:

I always thought I was my story’s hero,

but what if my chapter’s not the end but just the middle,

as it will seem when my descendants stand

on different ground two hundred years from now

to trace the weathered letters of my name?

Now that my mother’s chapter has come to its end, I know she was her story’s hero—and she is my hero as well. I hope I am worthy to carry on the tale.

 

‘There Is a Different Set of Rules for Someone Like Donald Trump’

 

Janine Jackson interviewed the  Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s Steve Wamhoff about Donald Trump and taxes for the October 2, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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MP3 Link

Detroit Free Press (9/29/20)

Janine Jackson: “Donald Trump’s Tax Returns Have Many Wondering What They’re Doing Wrong,” ran one cheeky headline, based on long-awaited reporting from the New York Times. The implication is that tax avoidance, if you can get away with it, is clever, and presumably you can still use the other side of your mouth to complain about public resources being underfunded.

Corporate media don’t really believe that people are completely confuzzled about why they can’t get away with the same financial shenanigans as the rich and powerful. So where’s thenews you can (actually) use angle? As infuriating as it is to hear that while living a very wealthy lifestyle, Donald Trump paid just $750 in federal income tax in 2016 and 2017, and none at all in ten of the previous 15 years, or that he wrote off $70,000 for his hair, well, as infuriating as that is, if media leave the story at Trump being “sketchy,” we will have learned—and, more importantly, changed—nothing at all.

What questions and avenues of inquiry could make more lasting, forward-looking use of this latest illustration of a sort of open secret of a system that provides one set of rules for the wealthy and another for the hoi polloi, and that allows for the draining of public coffers in the face of increasing public need?

Steve Wamhoff is director of federal tax policy at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Steve Wamhoff.

Steve Wamhoff:  Thank you.

JJ: I wonder if you could perhaps start by suggesting in general terms: How much of this is lamentable but legal—and we can talk about what to do about that—and how much of it is stuff that, if you weren’t the president, you might actually be in some kind of trouble for? Or do we even know?

SW: That’s a good question. And it’s impossible to know for sure exactly what’s happening. But it’s clear that one of two things is going on: Either what Trump is doing is allowed by the law, and the law is really screwed up and needs to be changed, or Trump is breaking the law, and that shows that our enforcement of the law is deeply problematic. And that’s a result of Congress defunding the IRS, gutting tax enforcement, and making it impossible for tax enforcement to keep up with people like Donald Trump.

So one of those things is happening; quite possibly, both of those things are happening. You know, Donald Trump is using a lot of tax breaks, and he’s using a lot of special breaks and loopholes to avoid taxes. That is a thing that wealthy businesspeople often do. But Donald Trump nonetheless is in a league of his own. He really is extremely aggressive, he really pushes the tax avoidance tactics to the very limit, and quite possibly beyond the limit, of what the law allows.

JJ: Let me just draw you out a bit on that. Folks are getting a little hung up on “He lost money, so that means he’s a failure, and not the success that he says he is.” But the use of losses to avoid tax is evidently his thing, and not his alone. I wonder if you could give us a little bit of a primer on how that works, on paper and then in reality,

SW: Right. So let’s be clear about one thing: Donald Trump is a terrible businessperson. He does have a lot of real losses. That’s just true, right? But at the same time, Donald Trump is also a very wealthy person. He clearly has a lot of income. You know, when you see someone who lives like a billionaire for decades, and still gets away with not paying taxes in most years, you know that there’s a problem with the system, right? Even if it is the case that he has a lot of ridiculous business investments that are complete failures. And he does have a lot of losses.

Now, it is the case that our tax rules have to have some kind of rule that recognizes when a businessperson has a loss. I mean, the income tax is a tax on income. So if your business has losses, and is not generating income, then we’re not going to tax you on business income. So there are some sort of rules we have to have in place to recognize that people can deduct losses.

But those rules sometimes are overly generous to businesspeople who can manipulate the system. And there are some particular types of rules that are particularly generous to certain types of business investors.

So, for example, the big real estate investors have some special rules that make it easier for them to use losses more quickly and more easily than other types of business investors. And we know that’s a thing he’s used in the past. In the ’90s, he had enormous losses from some of his real estate ventures. The stuff that he’s doing now may be a little bit different; now he’s involved in all these licensing schemes, where he slaps his name on steaks or something.

JJ: Right.

SW: He’s in a lot of different lines of business. But nonetheless, it’s true that what we see is a person who is clearly wealthy, has income; he has all kinds of income from licensing schemes and from The Apprentice and whatnot, but he’s able to manipulate these rules and manipulate the losses from his other businesses to wipe out any tax liability that he would normally have.

ITEP (8/18/20)

JJ: And the real estate piece of that is a particular piece, and I know you just wrote about the 2017 tax bill, with regard to using that “losses to offset gains” thing, and there was a chance, there was an opportunity to address that, and it was missed?

SW: Yeah, so there are all sorts of special breaks and loopholes for different types of investors, including real estate investors, that Republicans who were drafting the 2017 tax law decided not to touch. I mean, they could have used the opportunity to do a true tax reform, they could have made the tax system a lot simpler, they could have removed all kinds of loopholes and special breaks, but they did not do that. The law overall was a big giveaway to wealthy individuals and corporations.

There were a few provisions in there that did raise some revenue by limiting some of the shenanigans that wealthy people can do to avoid taxes, and there were some limits on how losses could be used. Those limits, however, were suspended recently, in March, when Congress passed the CARES Act to respond to Covid-19 and the recession.

The CARES Act, as it was negotiated, at some point, there are some provisions inserted into that law that waived these limits on losses. When you talk to people, it’s not exactly clear whose idea that was;  was it someone in the White House who said, “Hey, let’s put the thing in the bill that no one’s paying attention to that will remove these limits on losses?” It’s unclear exactly.

JJ: Yeah.

SW: But it does appear to be something that could help someone like Donald Trump, who wants to use his losses to offset his other income, so that he can tell the IRS that he doesn’t have any income, and he shouldn’t pay taxes.

JJ: I mean, we don’t have to choose between the problem being Trump, or the problem being the system he exploits; we could go for both of those, you know.

SW: Yeah, I think both.

JJ: Let me just ask you, concretely, are there loopholes that we—“we” being Congress—could close right now, could close tomorrow?

SW: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot.

JJ: It’s not like everything’s so murky, and we don’t really know where people are causing problems. There are things that folks could see that could be changed.

SW: Yeah, yeah. So I can give you an example, right. In 1995, Trump reported a loss of over $900 million. Afterwards, he was able to use that for many years to offset any income that he had from other sources, and he could tell the IRS he had no income and avoid paying taxes. So Trump, in 1995, reported this more than $900 million of losses. It’s very unlikely that Trump actually invested $900 million of his own income, right?

He had losses on investments that he made with other people’s money. And there’s a general rule in the tax code that you’re not going to be able to deduct the losses unless you actually put your own money into an investment. But there’s a special exception for that when it’s real estate, and Trump was able to exploit that. And that’s the sort of thing where you look at that and say, “Well, why should we provide a special break for these big real estate investors, like the Trumps and the Kushners?” That’s effectively providing a subsidy through the tax code for someone, and of all the things we could subsidize, why would we subsidize that? It doesn’t make any sense.

JJ: Right.

SW: And that’s an example of something that we could repeal.

JJ: Let me bring you back to something you touched on earlier, in terms of systemic issues. You know, Willie Sutton said he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is.”  And I understand that the top 1% are responsible for the vast majority of unpaid taxes. But the IRS audits the super-rich less than they do working class or low-income people because, and I’ll just paraphrase their position, “It’s really hard, you guys!”

If we don’t allow enforcement, if we don’t fund enforcement, then all this talk about rules is almost just deflection.

SW: Exactly. There’s two parts of this: You have to have rules that work. And then you have to enforce the rules. And this is just really, it’s mind-boggling, frankly, that Republicans in Congress have decided that, as part of their, I guess what you’d call “antigovernment ethos”…

JJ: Right.

SW: …they decided to cut funding for the IRS. Now, you can argue a lot about cutting different types of government spending, but cutting the IRS is particularly bizarre, because it means you get much less revenue to pay for the rest of the government, right? So the Congressional Budget Office recently put out a report about this, saying that if we just spent another $40 billion on IRS tax enforcement, that would actually end up raising another $103 billion that we would get by increasing our enforcement. So by not doing it, it’s like Congress is walking away from more than $60 billion by not providing that funding, right? And that was an example that the Congressional Budget Office gave.

And their report goes into the fact that, from 2010 through 2018, Congress cut the IRS budget 20%, basically, and that resulted in a staff reduction of 22%. And that resulted in a reduction of the tax enforcement staff by 30%. I mean, why would you cut the people who are collecting the revenue? It doesn’t make any sense. We’re not saving money by cutting the IRS, we’re losing a lot of money, but that’s what’s happening.

And over the years, one thing that’s happened is the rate of audits has fallen for people at all income groups, but it’s fallen more rapidly for the high-income folks. It just doesn’t make sense. Like you said, if you’re going to go where the money is, you would look at the wealthiest people, but that’s not what we’re doing, because the wealthiest people are, in fact, they are complicated; when you’re someone like Donald Trump, you can do so many complicated schemes that you can use to avoid taxes; it does require having very capable IRS enforcement staff on hand to be able to do that stuff.

But instead, what we see is a shift in IRS enforcement to do what’s easier. What’s easier? Well, that’s going after the low-income people who claim the earned income tax credit. And the earned income tax credit has so many complicated rules around it that a lot of people just accidentally make a mistake, and they can get caught up by the IRS on that. And that’s what the IRS seems to be shifting towards, focusing on that.

It seems completely unfair, completely nonsensical; these IRS budgets, they’re not saving us money, they’re losing money, right? So none of it makes any sense.

But one of the real-world consequences of that is, someone like Donald Trump is probably getting by with things that he should not get by with. And we know for a fact that, for example, there’s this dispute over this enormous tax refund of more than $70 million that the IRS is still looking at, and has been since 2011. Why that is taking so long, who knows, but it could very well have something to do with the fact that the IRS is just deeply underfunded right now and understaffed.

JJ: And you have to look at—while you look at what they don’t do—you have to look at what does happen, because it’s not just that, yeah, “shrinking the government” means, of course, shrinking its ability to collect taxes, but also, billionaires aren’t just exploiting these loopholes; they have the political power to also create them. So it’s not just laxity.

Steve Wamhoff: “You can’t say that Donald Trump is just doing whatever the law allows; Donald Trump was part of why this is in the law.”

SW: Right. And Donald Trump is not a passive bystander when these tax rules are created. We have recordings of him testifying before Congress, defending tax shelters, and saying that you should put tax shelters back in the tax code. Donald Trump was all about that back in the ’90s. And he and the rest of the real estate industry were successful in getting Congress to put some tax shelters back into the tax code. So you can’t say that Donald Trump is just doing whatever the law allows; Donald Trump was part of why this is in the law.

JJ: Right. Reporters are following up on the question of who owns Trump’s debt, this $420 million in personal liability debt, and that is important to know, to put it mildly. But it just reminds me of the vastly different role that debt plays in different lives. In Donald Trump’s case, as we’ve been saying, it didn’t seem to prevent him from virtually anything, whereas we know that lives are derailed, and people are politically cowed, frankly, are silenced, because they have debt, and debt is presented as a moral failing that should prevent you from moving forward in life. And I guess I just really want to say, what we think of as fiscal policy is so much more than fiscal policy, both for the country and also for individuals; it has myriad implications for people’s lives.

SW: Yeah, it’s sort of like there are two sets of rules, one for really wealthy people like Donald Trump, and one for the rest of us. And that comes to the tax rules, but I guess it also includes the way we think about debt in almost moral terms; there is sort of a different set of rules for someone like Donald Trump.

JJ: He’s being clever, but you didn’t pay off your student loan, so how should you expect to advance in life? It’s very frustrating.

And I guess, finally, it takes me back to the stories we tell about it, and that has a lot to do with media, with media and taxes. There’s a personal side around April 15, like it gets kind of personal and individual, and then the rest of the time, tax cuts and other things are political stories, or Beltway stories, and the connection, the direct connection to folks’ lives, becomes less visible.

And I just wonder, finally, on this story, which is a huge story, and it’s just getting started, that’s just the first installment of the Times reporting, but are there things you would be hoping that media would do, or not do, to kind of make this story and these questions legible for people, so that we can be more prepared to push for change?

SW: I do want to say, the New York Times has done a great job with this. And it’s actually incredible.

JJ: Long-awaited, and Trump didn’t want it to happen; we know that.

SW: Right. I think this is a story that we can tell a lot about the Trump administration. We do have some norms and traditions in this country, and we don’t want to just allow Trump to just destroy those, right? And we do have this norm now of presidents releasing their tax returns and presidential candidates releasing their tax returns. And I think we should continue to expect that. I don’t think Trump’s refusal to release a tax return should be considered the new norm. I think that that kind of transparency is really important.

And I think that people will demand it, too. I mean, given what we’ve learned, like we’ve had, after decades and decades of presidents and presidential candidates releasing their tax return, one guy refused to do so, and it became very apparent why he refused to do so, as soon as these revelations came out. So my hope is that we’ll kind of get back to that norm immediately after he’s gone. And we’ll stick with it.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Steve Wamhoff, director of federal tax policy at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, you can find their work online itep.org. Steve Wamhoff, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

SW: Thank you.

 

Socialism’s Increasing Popularity Doesn’t Bring Media Out of McCarthy Era

 

Socialism is more popular among people of color, younger people, people with more education and people with less money (Pew, 6/25/19).

Ever since the Great Recession in 2008, and accelerating with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run, there has been a resurgence of popularity and interest in socialism in the US, and an increasing skepticism of capitalism. A 2019 Pew poll (6/25/19) reported that 42% of respondents had a favorable view of socialism, with particular sympathy shown among people who are Black (65%), Latino (52%), have family incomes below $30,000 (50%) or are between the ages of 18-29 (50%). In a 2019 Gallup survey (12/18/19), 38% saw socialism positively—more than the 34% who identify as conservatives (Gallup, 7/27/20). Gallup (11/25/19) noted that Millennials were especially attracted to socialism, with slightly more viewing socialism positively than capitalism.

Democrats across the country view socialism more positively than capitalism, with a large majority willing to vote for a socialist as president. Despite questions of what the term “socialism” means to Americans, this growing interest has provoked articles decrying the “problem” that socialism doesn’t freak out Democratic voters the way it does other Americans (Slate, 2/24/20). The Columbia Journalism Review (5/8/18) noticed that while “the radical left in the US has felt invigorated in recent years,” it still hasn’t “earned left-wing voices column inches in most mainstream outlets,” with coverage limited to being “about those voices, rather than by them.”

Looking at the representation of socialism among the hundreds of pundits in corporate media, one can be forgiven for almost thinking socialist pundits don’t exist.

The New York Times opinion writer Elizabeth Bruenig appears to be the only pundit employed by corporate media who both explicitly identifies as a “socialist” and makes arguments for some form of socialism in the US (Washington Post, 3/6/18).

Laurence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s Last Word, identifies as a “practical European socialist,” and argues that “we’re all socialists now,” because even Bill O’Reilly is in favor of “socialist programs” like Social Security and Medicare. The MSNBC host claims to “embrace” the label in order to “counterbalance” the excessive influence of McCarthyism in the US (LA Times, 3/16/13), but it’s difficult to discern a distinctly socialist perspective in his commentary.

Straightforward advocacy of socialism is something you very rarely see in corporate media (Washington Post, 3/6/18).

The Hill’s Krystal Ball (2/17/19), cohost of the show Rising, criticized Trump’s remarks claiming that “America will never be a socialist country” for presenting the false dichotomy of “smash-and-grab capitalism” or “what’s happening in Venezuela.” The class-conscious commentator described Sanders and other democratic socialists like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as “messengers for a compelling message with an actual vision.” Although she seems not to explicitly embrace the “socialist” label like Bruenig or O’Donnell, it may be fair to describe her as a democratic socialist pundit, because she often speaks favorably of the ideology, and provides a friendly platform to socialists on her show.

It appears corporate media give some degree of space for pundits to call for replacing capitalism with a new system, so long as they don’t identify themselves or that new system as “socialist.” Times columnist Michelle Alexander hasn’t explicitly identified as a socialist, but has argued (6/8/20) that “transforming our economic systems” is necessary to achieve “racial justice” and a “secure and thriving democracy,” while approvingly citing figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Albert Einstein, Hellen Keller and Paul Robeson, all of whom argued that the US “must move toward some form of socialism.” The Post’s Katrina Vanden Heuvel also hasn’t called herself a socialist, but has argued (12/10/19) that “capitalism is broken,” and that we need a “new system to better serve the common good,” without describing this new system as “socialism.”

Although CNN’s Van Jones was involved in the early 1990s with Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM), a defunct Maoist Bay Area group, since 2000 or so, he’s identified with the “green capitalist” movement instead (Green America, Fall/2007).

“Socialism” itself is a very contested term, and many self-described socialists may not consider some or all of these pundits to be genuine socialists. Conservatism is also a broad range of ideologies, not all of which are consistent with each other, which also has self-identified conservatives who denounce others as unworthy or inconsistent with the label (New York Times, 1/14/15; The Hill, 12/16/19). Conservative audiences are not expected to approve of all pundits who identify as conservatives, or who speak favorably of conservatism. Likewise, while some socialists may be unsatisfied with these figures, it is still significant that there are pundits who embrace being labeled a “socialist” and explicitly call for alternatives to capitalism within the US.

Venezuelan opposition figure Juan Guaidó has remarked that “socialist” figures like Ocasio-Cortez would be considered social democrats in his own country (New Yorker, 6/10/20). The Times’ Paul Krugman (2/13/20) is no socialist, but he has criticized Bernie Sanders for presenting himself as a “socialist,” rather than a “social democrat,” making himself “an easy target for right-wing smears.”

It’s more common to see criticism of capitalism (New York Times, 12/4/17)—but still not very common.

One can find criticisms of capitalism in corporate media, but that is ideologically consistent with liberals or progressives who call for government intervention to deal with market failures. Columnists like the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg (12/4/17), who noted that “capitalism looks like the god that failed” to young people because of the “increasingly oligarchic nature of our economy,” and the Times’ Nicholas Kristof (5/23/20), who condemned “dog-eat-dog capitalism for struggling workers and socialism for the rich,” are critics of capitalism in corporate media who aren’t necessarily calling for socialism.

Other pundits have normalized socialism by claiming it already exists in a limited form, because they conflate all government spending on social programs with socialism—not advocating for socialism so much as claiming that it already exists in the US. Thus the Times’ Roger Cohen (3/8/19) and the Post’s Catherine Rampell (3/21/19) argue that “Europe” demonstrates how “socialism and the free market are compatible,” and dismiss the capitalist/socialist dichotomy as not being a “meaningful binary,” because “all modern countries have elements of capitalism and socialism.” These pundits make arguments similar to O’Donnell’s, defending a socialism that’s hard to distinguish from liberalism, though without identifying with the label as O’Donnell does.

A few other commentators have praised socialism and defended figures who identify as socialists. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes defended Bernie Sanders from McCarthyite criticisms, and praised the Democratic Socialists of America. MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle has made remarks on-air that appear to defend democratic socialism, in addition to explaining why it is a more desirable alternative to communism (NBC News, 2/27/20). The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson has written several columns urging Democrats to embrace the party’s more progressive base (7/2/18, 7/1/19), and described “democratic socialism” as something that is “perfectly appropriate” for Ocasio-Cortez’s district, in addition to endorsing (1/15/15) Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for “economic equality”—which King suggested could be called “democratic socialism” (In These Times, 1/15/18).

Like Hayes and Ruhle, Times’ columnists like Jamelle Bouie and Farhad Manjoo have published numerous columns that appear to praise socialism or policies associated with socialists, but that appears to be the farthest they can go, as neither of them have ever embraced the label (New York Times, 2/6/19, 2/14/19, 10/22/19, 3/11/20).


“Open advocacy of socialism is now a normal part of our political discourse,” writes the Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne (2/10/19)—but it’s still not a normal part of our media conversation.

When socialism or socialists are discussed favorably, or at least not adversely, it’s often in opposition to revolutionary socialist ideologies like Marxism-Leninism (the official ideology of around 20% of the world’s population, and of the US’s greatest geopolitical rival). Democratic socialism is often contrasted with socialist states of the Global South, whether Communist countries like China or Vietnam, or multi-party systems like Venezuela or Nicaragua, which are frequently presented by even the left-most pundits as justifiable targets of imperialism. Instead, wealthy, predominantly white Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Norway are often upheld as the preferable socialist ideal (New York Times, 4/27/19).

Although the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. (2/10/19) argued that Trump and the Republican Party’s attempts to tar all Democrats as “socialist” and antithetical to “American values” will fail because “open advocacy of socialism is now a normal part of our political discourse,” it’s quite clear that McCarthyism is still constricting political discourse in the US. While socialism is being discussed more often, there’s a huge disparity between its acceptance among the US population and the representation of socialists among pundits at the biggest news outlets in the country. There are almost no pundits employed in corporate media who feel comfortable openly identifying as a socialist and calling for socialism as an alternative to capitalism.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that corporate media outlets owned by oligarchs and the investor class are hostile to socialism, but when socialist pundits are virtually nonexistent at these agenda-setting outlets, despite 76% of Democrats being willing to vote for a socialist, it’s clear that these institutions are intended to propagandize the US population into accepting the status quo. Even when politicians and policies often described as “socialist” are presented in a positive light, the fact that these journalists are uncomfortable embracing the label is evidence that McCarthyism still exercises a formidable restraint on the US political imagination and discourse.

Featured image: Democratic Socialists of America members at Occupy Wall Street, 2011 (cc photo: David Shankbone).

VP Encounter Shows You Can’t Have a Real Debate When One Party Refuses to Follow Rules

 

Wednesday’s vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris may have lacked the bullying and blustering by Trump that characterized the first presidential debate (FAIR.org, 10/2/20), but it still managed to reinforce the overall problem with the 2020 debates: You can’t have a real debate if one party refuses to follow the rules.

Sure, Pence’s interruptions didn’t come close to matching his boss’s the week before—though he did repeatedly talk over moderator Susan Page’s meek attempts to keep him to his allotted time—but Pence managed to avoid answering nearly every question asked of him, and USA Today‘s Page did virtually nothing to steer him back on topic.

As FAIR founder Jeff Cohen (Facebook, 10/7/20) pointed out, most of the evening felt less like a debate than alternating stump speeches. It’s a problem rooted in the running of the debates, under the sponsorship of the bipartisan (not, as Page called it, “nonpartisan”) Commission on Presidential Debates, which grabbed control over the debates from the League of Women Voters back in the late ’80s (FAIR.org, 8/29/00). Under the CPD, the parties, not an independent organization with the public’s interest at heart, make the rules and vet the moderators.

 

Photos of the White House superspreader event show Mike Pence sitting directly in front of Sen. Mike Lee, who later tested positive (CNN, 10/3/20).

In fact, if the debates were run by a truly independent organization, it’s hard to imagine this week’s debate would have even taken place in person. Given CDC guidelines that asymptomatic individuals with negative Covid tests should isolate for 14 days if they have been within six feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes—a category into which Pence almost certainly falls, given the widespread nature of the White House outbreak—the CPD had no business approving the in-person debate to go forward.

Some in the press, meanwhile, unhelpfully framed the question of debate safety as merely a “he said, she said” issue (PressWatchers, 10/7/20). “Pence, Harris Teams at Odds Over Plexiglass at Debate,” read a Washington Post headline (10/6/20); to the New York Times (10/6/20), “the complaint [about plexiglass dividers] from Mr. Pence’s staff—which was quickly brushed aside by Ms. Harris’s team—was another salvo in the fraught negotiations over the debate.”

Trump’s tantrum in response to the CPD’s recent move to take the second presidential debate virtual reveals the partisan pressures that render impossible debates that are both safe and edifying.

As I wrote last week (FAIR.org, 10/2/20), when you’ve got one side whose strategy derives from reality TV and depends primarily upon falsehoods, personal attacks and breaking all the rules, no amount of rule-changing will solve the problem. And so, I repeat: The only reasonable thing for journalists to do at this point is to not just call for an end to these debates, but to call for an end to the Trump presidency.

Mary McCord on Unlawful Militias, Chip Gibbons on Assange Extradition

 

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(photo: SPLC)

This week on CounterSpin: In a conversation recorded just before we got word of the arrest of six members of the Michigan militia group calling itself the “Wolverine Watchmen” for conspiring to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, as part of a broader agenda of violent government overthrow, we talked with Mary McCord, a law professor at Georgetown University and legal director at the school’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection—and an expert on unlawful militias that manage to be part of the political landscape while somehow escaping rigorous media scrutiny.

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Julian Assange

Also on the show, and also escaping scrutiny: In a London courtroom, WikiLeaks‘ Julian Assange, an Australian citizen, has been facing extradition to the US by request of US prosecutors, who want to try him under the Espionage Act and put him in prison, and likely solitary confinement, for life. Elite US news media have awards on their shelves for reporting based on WikiLeaks‘ revelations of war crimes and other malfeasance by the US government. But that has not translated to defense of Assange, or even interest in his case—despite its unprecedented nature, and the implications it holds for all journalists who seek to reveal things the state would prefer hidden. We’ll talk about that with Chip Gibbons, policy director at Defending Rights and Dissent.

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Teachers Left Out of School Reopening Discussion—Even on the Left

 

 

A Jacobin interview (9/19/20) with epidemiologists called for “an age-targeted strategy” towards Covid-19, including “keeping schools open for our children.”

A recent interview in Jacobin (9/19/20) with two scientists put forth a rather controversial case against government interventions to stop the spread of Covid-19. In the interview, Harvard medical professor Martin Kulldorff asserted, “Children and young adults have minimal risk, and there is no scientific or public health rationale to close daycare centers, schools or colleges,” while Harvard biologist Katherine Yih said, “I don’t think it’s wise or warranted to keep society locked down until vaccines become available.”

The article caused quite a bit of chatter among the magazine’s readers. One issue that stood out in the piece for many unionists is the knock against school closures. Said Kulldorff:

Good education is not only important for academic achievement and financial well-being; it is also critical for the mental and physical health of children and into their subsequent adulthood. Kids have minimal risk from this virus, and it is sad that we are sacrificing our children instead of properly protecting the elderly and other high-risk groups.

While FAIR (9/25/20) has already addressed the question of the risk faced by children, it’s also perplexing that a socialist magazine would skip over the worker-led movements that have brought us these closings, delays and remote learning during this pandemic. This is the latest iteration of something this writer has noted (FAIR.org, 5/28/20): Coverage of the issue of reopening schools downplays the risk faced by teachers and other adult staffers, and far too often ignores education unions as sources.

At the K–12 level, most notably, the Chicago Teachers Union threatened to strike in response to what it viewed was an unsafe reopening plan, forcing the city to go full remote. Los Angeles schools went to full remote, with the administration working closely with the teachers union. In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers threatened to strike, and then pulled back after the city announced a delay in reopening;however, teachers around the city continue to organize with what they see are unsafe conditions. And it should be pointed out that such struggles to push for full-remote schooling until health concerns can be met come not just from teachers;  in New York City, the UFT (and the principals’ union) was supported by the union of cafeteria workers.

New York City school workers have reason to be worried: This spring, at least 74 Department of Education workers died from Covid-19.

Then there is higher education. Reopening has been problematic, to be sure, as the University of North Carolina was forced to end in-person education after an outbreak. At the University of Michigan, a coalition of graduate student workers, dining workers and other campus workers have mobilized for safety around reopening. Faculty there say the administration has not been open around specifics of reopening, where there rumors that donation money influenced the decision to go in-person this fall.

Benjamin Balthaser, an associate professor of English at Indiana University at South Bend, said in an email:

Universities, with their quarantine dorms, their testing regimes, their glossy brochures on hand-washing, have totally failed, with many campuses now closed or on lock-down after massive Covid spikes. This proves the lie at the center of the interview: that somehow populations can be separated, that management is an effective strategy and that workers will not bear the brunt. Already over 60 university workers have died, just this summer, and tens of thousands have been sickened, many with lingering and chronic conditions after they are “well.”  If this is a pro-worker policy, I would hate to see what being against them would look like.

Nobody is happy about closing campuses and schools. Schools workers are pushing for full remote learning until school buildings are safe, but far too often there is the insinuation that these workers are doing this at the expense of students and parents. This is a false conflict, often created by anti-union propaganda. A great many teachers are also parents who would like to see their children in school, and juggle the complexity of remote learning while also managing their families at home.

More than that, the unsafe reopening of schools could spread the virus beyond the school buildings themselves. In cities, teachers and schools workers often ride public transportation to and from work. And there is research showing children can spread the virus to adults. In this sense, union concern of school reopening isn’t just about the union’s membership, but the public at large.

Epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves (Twitter9/21/20) called the Jacobin interview “Malthusian drivel” and “practically Trumpian.”

Other critics have taken the interview to task on the scientific argument about reopening the economy. Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves called the argument “Trumpian” and “Malthusian” in a series of posts on Twitter (9/21/20), and pointed out that while Sweden didn’t lockdown its economy, many other countries did lockdown and had much better results with Covid-19. And it should go without saying that just because Sweden enacts a policy doesn’t mean it would roll in the United States with the same results. Sweden is a social democracy where the government could manage response to the crisis. One can’t say this about the United States.

Jacobin’s interview pointed to real injustice, which is that while many white-collar workers have the option to work remotely, many blue-collar workers are forced to be exposed to the virus. But the jump to the solution that all workers should be exposed to the same risk is perplexing, and insinuates that the blame for this inequality is on “professional class” workers like teachers, who have been able to stay home, while blue-collar workers have often remained on the front-lines, or, if not, lost their wages over lost work. This is pitting the working class against itself, due to a crisis that capitalist government can simply not offer workers fairness in response to the economic crisis caused by Covid-19. Teachers are workers, and schools and campuses are worksites for dining workers, bus drivers, maintenance workers, janitors and clerical workers, all of whom imperiled by unsafe schools reopening.

It is depressingly common for education unions to be treated unfairly in the corporate US press. Suffice it to say, Jacobin should strive to do better than that low standard.

Featured image: Creative Commons photo by Phil Roeder

‘Independent Media Is About Introducing People to Each Other’

 

Janine Jackson interviewed Laura Flanders about independent journalism for the September 25, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: It doesn’t matter how many channels you have; if you sift through them, you will find lamentably little journalism that isn’t mainly stale frameworks and rhetoric turning round on itself. News is press releases from the powerful; analysis is white men espousing variants on the status quo. At a historical moment demanding bold change, corporate news media serve as blinders, returning us again and again to the trodden path.

That insularity, that top-downism, is not a quality of journalism itself, of course, but only as it’s overwhelmingly practiced in the media we mainly see. Seek out new media, and you may also find a new way of doing journalism: different sources, different stories, different ideas and, most fundamentally, a different relationship to power and to change. It’s almost enough to make you want to get out of bed in the morning.

That’s what we’re going to talk about now with journalist Laura Flanders. Longtime listeners will know Laura as the original host and producer of CounterSpin; we co-hosted for many years. She now hosts the Laura Flanders Show, which, as of very recently, has expanded its reach, and will be airing on PBS stations from Arizona to Vermont. She joins us now by phone from Sullivan County, New York. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Laura Flanders.

Laura Flanders: Oh, thank you, Janine. Yes, get out of bed in the morning, we can do this!

JJ: We need all the help we can to do it, though. And that includes new visions. So let’s start right there. I mean, the Laura Flanders Show itself is not new, but it is coming to a new audience, for which we say congratulations. How do you talk about the vision for the show? What is it that you set out to do each week?

Laura Flanders: “The reality that we live in today is not immutable. It is the product of choices, of power dynamics, of motivations of certain sectors over others, a set of priorities that we can shift. And not just in some abstract, pie-in-the-sky, theoretical thinking, but actually right here, right now.”

LF: We say it’s “the TV and radio program where the people who say it can’t be done take a backseat to the people who are doing it”—from Jim Hightower, with his permission, I might say. And I think that about sums it up. We are, some people say, “the solutions of tomorrow, today.” Basically, what we’re saying is, the reality that we live in today is not immutable. It is the product of choices, of power dynamics, of motivations of certain sectors over others, a set of priorities that we can shift. And not just in some abstract, pie-in-the-sky, theoretical thinking, but actually right here, right now.

We try as much as possible to talk about and to report on examples of shifting power in the worlds of arts, politics and economics. So whether that’s land trusts or worker-owned co-ops, or community wealth-building in cities like Preston in the UK, or even right here in Sullivan County, it’s really trying to say, look, there may be experts in your neighborhood that you can team up with and make a real difference.

Not to say we don’t need government power, too; we do. I sometimes say we can do bottom-up change about as far as our bottom, and then we need help from government. But we try to hit that sweet spot of inspiring people to make change, and also to realize what more change needs to be made.

JJ: We literally have pundits arguing about whether something is possible that is actually happening somewhere else, and it can be so frustrating, which is why I love, “where the people who say it can’t be done take a backseat to the people who are doing it.” But it’s not just a what, of course; it’s a who. Media don’t just tell us what to think, they tell us who’s worth listening to, who’s an expert, and “regular” people are generally not considered experts, including on their own lives. They may get to say “I’m poor,” or “We want police to stop harming our community,” but they aren’t usually asked for more than a soundbite on their ideas about how to change things. They don’t lead the piece. And that’s something else that’s different, is who; who are the voices in the show?

LF: Well, you know, I learnt so much of what I do and how I think from you all, and our time at FAIR together. And I think even back then, we used to say, look, the corporate media is about directing public eyeballs and ears to corporations, to advertisers. And our independent media is about introducing people to each other. Our democracy, and the way we cover it, tends to cast our glance always upwards, like, “Who’s at the top of the ticket? Where are the powerful, and what are they doing?” As opposed to laterally, towards one another: “How do we together make change? And where are some examples of exactly that?” So that is exactly what we try to do on this show, is to give people some sense of how change happens, what goes into the pudding, and what people can do to change that.

I think my entire job, Janine, frankly, is introducing people to each other. That’s what we try to do on the show.

JJ: Well, just a look at the guestlist for the show on Covid in a rural community: You’ve got an assemblywoman, a labor organizer, a cheeseworker and her daughter, a public health director, a school lunch manager, musicians. I mean, beyond the new content that they bring, it says something to put these people on the same plane as one another, as it were, instead of what we usually see, which is: “Power” means the expert, who’s in-studio; and those outside of power, well, they’re the colorful background or the soundbite or the B-roll.

Laura Flanders Show (10/4/20)

LF: That’s a great example. I love this “Covid in the Country” episode. You know, I’m a journalist, as you are, and when Covid hit, and my partner got Covid, we moved out of the city. We settled down in this little country cabin I’ve had for 30 years, but never thought of living in full time. And after about a month, I was like, “Oh, OK, now what? What’s happening right around here?”

And that was when I reached out to a friend of mine, who works in community radio at WJFF here at Jeffersonville, it used to be hydro-powered community radio, in the Southwest Catskills. And she knew lots of folks, had some idea what was going on, we teamed up together. I figured out I could do reporting with an iPhone on a very long selfie stick and a face mask.

And we went out to talk to people about what the heck was going on. Because I looked around and realized, even though the national news, the network news, every night was bringing me the news from Washington and New York mostly, a little bit of LA occasionally, what we were hearing was that rural America wasn’t really feeling this pandemic; it was an urban thing.

Laura Flanders coping with the pandemic by interviewing via selfie stick (photo: Sullivan County Democrat/Sabrina Artel).

Not true! This little tiny county—which is just 100 miles out of New York, but it’s the sixth most rural congressional district in the country—the incidence rate, the number of cases per head of population, was actually higher than Manhattan! So we were all trying to figure out why that was. And when you looked at the geographic distribution of Covid-positivity, it concentrated in the towns that had the largest Latinx population, the populations that were working in poultry plants, of meat packers and dairies, and you name it.

So it was there that we focused and, sure enough, as soon as we started doing that, we found people at the Rural & Migrant Ministry, who were working their hearts off to get masks to workers and information to workers, and along with the information about health, the information about signing onto the Census. A really invaluable kind of organizing that paid off quickly—the rates started coming down — and really educated the people who lived here about how they, just like the big cities, were dependent on a very precarious, underpaid pool of fairly exploited labor, many of them undocumented, many of them female.  I think it was a wake-up call for the people of Sullivan County.

But there’s one other little bit of the story, Janine, that you would like, which is that as I did this work, I discovered, as if I didn’t know it before, just how important local media can be. It was the local radio station that was reporting these local town hall meetings that were being recorded on Facebook Live by a little guy in the town hall, who was holding up his iPhone to the health commissioner as she spoke every week. It was local newspapers—in this case, the River Reporter, the Sullivan County Democrat—who were reporting on what was happening. If people here had relied on the news from New York City, they would never have known what was going on, and they wouldn’t have known what to do to look after one another.

And then the final little coda for the story is, when we talk about an “ecosystem”: We put together this episode and we send out a press release to the local press, and who should respond, saying she wants to write about the episode, but a woman, Isabel Braverman, who had interned for me when we started the show years ago; she worked with Jeff Cohen at the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College! And I just thought, OK, there you have it. There’s our ecosystem in a nutshell: Independent media makers, independent media outlets, print and radio and TV, coming together to create some echo effect for an important story that was being missed by how many thousands of well-paid media outlets that are just 100 miles away.

JJ: Another thing that sets the show apart, that you touched on earlier, is its international scope. You know, we are one world, but corporate media hide that fact like it’s their job, and their world looks kind of like the board in a game of Risk.

But on your show, it’s not like, “Ooh, field trip to Europe.” It’s just that if you’re going to tell a story on worker cooperatives, well, that could be a story from upstate New York, or it could be a story from Spain. You’re just choosing to ignore some kinds of map lines. And does that, too, come from a particular approach to journalism?

Laura Flanders Show (9/11/20)

LF: Well, the Spain story arose from the fact that I thought, “Hmm, where could we tell this story?” You know, one thing we often do in the US commercial media, in the corporate media, is divide our economic stories from our political stories. So you have the economy over here, and if you have some human interest, cutesy story about a co-op, it’s on page B-39, but the political story is some other page, and the two never meet. And activism often splits itself in that way, too, that you have people working on the economy, and people working on politics.

And I was thinking about the coming election of 2020 and thinking, hmm, a lot of our progressive  folks are going to be focusing on the electoral, but what about this economic development story that we need to maintain a drumbeat on? Because the economy doesn’t go away and, gosh, it certainly hasn’t gone away as an issue this year.

Where could we look at the relationship of cooperative economics and solidarity economics as a way of resisting dictatorship, authoritarian government, far-right autocracy, you know? I didn’t think it was, let’s say, inappropriate or irrelevant to look at that question as we approach 2020.

And so Spain was the obvious example, because it was there that the world’s largest worker-owned co-ops grew up as a way for the occupied region of the Basque Country to survive under Europe’s longest dictatorship, the Franco dictatorship that followed the Spanish Civil War. So they were a great model of how solidarity economics and cooperation helped communities survive, that leadership in Madrid, in the capital city, had no interest in employing and giving healthcare to and caring for — any of it. It seems strangely relevant, Janine, to our experience here in the US, and I was really lucky to be able to do that story with the help of the Democracy Collaborative in Washington, and the Beneficial State Bank, who helped me go on a delegation.

JJ: I guess what I want to underscore is, just as on the story about Covid in a rural county, you could have told the story with some politicians, local politicians albeit, and an epidemiologist, and put some farm workers in the background; and you could have, on the worker cooperative story, said, “Oh, yeah, that’s a very interesting story, but that’s Spain, why would I tell that to a US audience?” It seems to me that you’re overwriting some of the rules of “traditional” or corporate journalism when you do things like that, when you elevate sources that aren’t generally elevated, and when you compare internationally, as though that were a relevant thing to do.

LF: Yeah, well, it goes back to that “introducing people to each other” thing. I mean, you’re completely right, I think we are given news from abroad with a very clear emphasis on “this is foreign, no relevance to you,” when, in fact, so many of these stories are examples of places and people not unlike ourselves, doing things that we could well do likewise, if we just got to hear about them.

We have another episode coming up from Preston, in the UK, one of the deindustrialized cities of the Industrial Revolution textile world, that, after many years of trying to tempt big corporations to come and give them a few jobs in exchange for paying no taxes for a long time, and then shuttling profits far away to, in this case, London, or corporate headquarters elsewhere, a local government said, “Enough of that. What if we kept our resources, such as they are, right here and used our government money, our city money, to invest in local businesses, local contractors, procure locally? And, sure, we may not be the wealthiest people in the world, but we can support ourselves and support one another, if we’re not busily trying to tempt Walmart in.” And that’s exactly what they did. And, again, a model that is relevant, is interesting, they speak English. I mean, this does not have to be a foreign story.

And I also think, when you talk about “who gets to be an expert,” it is always true, or almost always true: Poor people, women of color, women, people of color, immigrants, people who don’t speak English—in the US corporate media, they only ever get to be, like, the color, what you used to say at FAIR about being “wildlife footage” with your fist in the air. Women especially, I think, we get to have experiences—“Oh, my uterus hurts,” you know—but we don’t get to have expertise: “Well, I actually am a gynecologist with expertise; I know what I’m talking about.” Or, better than that: “I’m a Supreme Court justice.” You know what I mean? It’s different, who gets to be an expert. And I think that’s one of the fundamental things we try to shift on our program.

JJ: I’ve asked you this before: What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and solutions journalism? By which I don’t mean carrying water for the latest Bill Gates scheme, but just what we’re talking about: forward-looking journalism that takes human rights and justice as actual imperatives, as opposed to value-neutral things that some people disagree about.

Now, to some people, that might just sound like journalism. But somehow it has a reputation as being soft or uncritical, or else not objective, too advocatory or something. Why can’t we say “solutions journalism” without making people giggle, somehow?

LF: It’s an experiment, I will say. You’ve said this many times on this program—and huge props to you for maintaining CounterSpin; it’s one of my go-to podcasts every week— you regularly point out that we don’t have a free market of choice in our media, when it comes to what show would we prefer to watch, because there often isn’t anybody in the D-E-F-G section of the choice spectrum.

This is an experiment, our program. We are also told: People like drama, they like the cat fight, they like partisan politics; we’re offering none of that. Will people watch? Well, we’ll find out.

I think there’s never been a better climate for programming that’s forward-looking, not altogether partisan, really about alternative models. I mean, we’ve just lived through, we are living through, the greatest economic depression in our lifetime. We’ve got 30% to 40% of all the jobs that have been lost since Covid unlikely to return. We have one in four restaurants that are closed now probably going to stay closed, and 14 million kids in food-insecure households, which is three times as many as we had in 2008.

We’re facing a crisis; we’re on a precipice: Are we about to rebuild our economy as just Amazonland, with massive amounts of hedge fund capital and vulture capital swooping in and buying up bankrupt and hard-up small businesses? Or are we going to find models, maybe even in other countries, of investing locally, preserving our some kind of semblance of democracy at the local level, at the economic level, and then begin a conversation about how we could reprioritize people versus profits in our society? If we can’t find an audience for programming that talks about that, in this moment, I’ll hang up my spurs.

You know, I probably won’t; I’d keep trying. But this is the moment to give this particular exercise a try. Is it “solutions”? I’m not sure. I think it’s smart thinking; I think we’re putting the public back into public affairs. We’re not serving up solutions, necessarily, but we are serving up ways to think about what new questions we need to raise, and to remind ourselves that we’re constantly making choices that bring us to where we are now. And I think it was Einstein that said we can’t get ourselves out of the crisis with the same kind of thinking that got us into it. We’re on the same page; I love what you do, Janine. And we’ll just keep at it. I think that one thing that can be said about our generation is, we don’t stop. And I refuse to stop.

So now we are going from being on satellite television, Free Speech TV and Link TV, to being on public television stations all across the country, and on YouTube, so people can still find us on YouTube, and we have a podcast and a radio show playing on many of the same stations that carry CounterSpin.

But if you want to see the premiere every week, you go to the PBS World Channel, and we premiere every Sunday, 11:30 a.m. Send a message that you appreciate this programming; we are going to need you to, and if your station’s not so far playing our show—and you can find out from the little tracker on our website—ask them to. We need you. We don’t have the well-paid PR and promotions outfit that, I don’t know, Wall Street Week has.

JJ: You say this launch on PBS is, at this point, an experiment, but it didn’t just happen. There was a lot of work there. Are there particular barriers to getting that broader platform that independent projects face?

LF: It is almost insurmountable, Janine, and if it hadn’t been for a lot of philanthropic support to make this leap, we would never have done it. You know the dirty little secret of public television is that—apart from a handful of programs, and I mean fewer than a handful, basically two thumbs’ worth—all of the content that you see on your local public television station, you’ve not only paid for through your taxes, but also probably through philanthropy, because it’s independently produced, independently funded and independently distributed at a cost to the maker, which is to say a little outfit like mine.

So it’s not an ecosystem that is easy to penetrate, but it is one that I think needs fresh content. And if we’re going to keep our public television system at all, in any shape at all, we need to watch it, we need to support it, we need to bring it some fresh programming.

And maybe PBS World, which is also streaming online, could be some sort of future lifeboat for the system. It’s getting a younger audience, more diverse audience; but they have no money for publicity.

So, we’ve talked about this before, there needs to be way more public investment, which is to say government investment, in a noncommercial public television system. That would make it a whole lot easier for people like me to get on. But in the meantime, we do it by hook or by crook, and with a whole lot of contributions. We get nothing back, not a penny, not one.

JJ: All right, then. We’ve been speaking with Laura Flanders. You can learn more about the Laura Flanders Show, including whether you can watch it on your local PBS station, on the site LauraFlanders.org. Congratulations again, Laura, and thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

LF: Thank you, Janine, and thanks for being there all the way.

 

Evidence-Free ‘Lab Leak’ Speculation Boosts Trump’s Xenophobic Approach to Coronavirus

 

Even while downplaying speculation about a labratory origin for the novel coronavirus as “conspiracy theories,” NBC (8/10/20) fueled such rumors by describing the Wuhan lab as “central to the search for the coronavirus’ origin.”

Ever since the outbreak of Covid-19 was first detected in Wuhan, China has been the target of relentless hostile and racist media coverage, depicting the country as a uniquely nefarious source of disease (FAIR.org, 3/24/20, 5/7/20).

NBC News (8/10/20) was the first foreign news organization to visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which it described as having “become the focus of intense speculation and conspiracy theories” about whether the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes Covid-19 “leaked from the facility.” While NBC noted that there is “no credible proof to back up claims that the coronavirus was either manufactured at or accidentally leaked from the lab,” the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin (Twitter, 8/10/20) suggested that NBC was “toeing the [Chinese Communist] Party line,” criticism that was amplified by Fox News (8/10/20), which later (8/11/20) cited US officials claiming that “the virus likely originated in the lab.”

While the notion that the novel coronavirus was intentionally or unintentionally leaked from a Wuhan lab has been taken less seriously by corporate media than other criticisms of China’s Covid response (possibly because US officials want to avoid attracting attention to the US’s own biowarfare programs), it has nevertheless been mainstreamed. Ever since Republican Sen. Tom Cotton went on Fox News (2/16/20, 2/18/20) to boost speculation that had been circulating in conservative media and fringe Facebook posts for weeks prior, noting the proximity between the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan and Wuhan’s “biosafety level four super laboratory,” and decrying “China’s duplicity and dishonesty,” evidence-free speculation about a lab origin has been a media undercurrent that buoys up President Donald Trump’s xenophobic references to the “China virus.”

Washington Post‘s David Ignatius (4/14/20): “Scientists don’t rule out…an accidental lab release of bat coronavirus.”

The lab leak theory started gaining an aura of respectability with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius’ “How Did Covid-19 Begin? Its Initial Origin Story Is Shaky” (4/2/20). He argued for the plausibility of a lab accident, writing that “scientists don’t rule out that an accident at a research laboratory in Wuhan” might have “spread a deadly bat virus that had been collected for scientific study.” Ignatius cited Dr. Richard Ebright, a biosecurity expert at Rutgers University who has been a go-to source for several other reports after he spoke publicly about supposed unsafe operating practices at the WIV.

Rogin, Ignatius’ Post colleague, followed up with a piece (4/14/20) about a previously unreleased State Department cable from 2018 that cited “scientists at the WIV laboratory” saying that “the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” and asking for additional help from US researchers. Rogin managed to quote Xiao Qiang—a National Endowment for Democracy–funded regime change activist and “research scientist” at Berkeley’s “School of Information”—as well as an otherwise unidentified “US official,” but no actual virologists or epidemiologists.

Rogin also depicted Shi Zhengli—the head of the WIV project studying bat coronaviruses—as a reckless scientist taking “unnecessary risks” by linking to an article (Nature, 11/12/15) about experiments that were mostly conducted in the US; the only experiment described in the paper the article critiques (Nature Medicine, 11/9/15) that was actually conducted in Wuhan involved pseudoviruses, which are partial copies of viruses that lack their virulent potential or the ability to reproduce. The Nature article questioned the wisdom of “gain-of-function” (GOF) research in general, not Shi or the WIV’s competence as Rogin implied, as neither of them are mentioned in the article. The safety protocols at the WIV are not only practiced by scientists all over the world, but were also shaped by WIV scientists due to their excellence (NPR, 4/23/20).

Grayzone journalists Max Blumenthal and Ajit Singh (4/20/20) pointed out that Rogin’s column depended on State Department cables that undermined his insinuations throughout the article: US officials emphasized the value of the Wuhan lab’s research to predict and prevent coronavirus outbreaks, rather than safety concerns. Still, Rogin’s column was promoted on Twitter by liberal commentators like MSNBC’s Chris Hayes (4/14/20) and New York‘s Yashar Ali (4/14/20).

One of Donald Trump’s favorite media figures, Fox News‘ Tucker Carlson (9/17/20), pushed the lab leak theory hard.

More recently, there was further media buzz over Fox News host Tucker Carlson (9/17/20) defending the credibility of Dr. Yan Li Meng, a discredited defector who makes inflated claims to have worked at the “top coronavirus lab in the world.” She asserted that the Communist Party of China “intentionally” released the coronavirus, and that “the scientific world” is keeping silent because it “works together” with the Chinese government (Forbes, 9/17/20). She co-authored a non-peer-reviewed “study” which made a number of dubious, irrelevant, or false claims published by the Rule of Law Society and the Rule of Law Foundation, which are New York City-based groups Steve Bannon and wanted Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui helped found (National Geographic, 9/18/20).

There are, broadly speaking, two types of lab leak theories: One holds that the virus was created in a lab, the other that the virus evolved naturally in the wild before being collected by a lab. The former theory has an advantage as a scientific hypothesis because it’s falsifiable, meaning that it’s possible to imagine evidence that would prove or disprove it; unfortunately for its proponents, it’s widely viewed by scientists as having been falsified.

Most reports acknowledge the strong scientific consensus around Covid-19 likely originating naturally in wildlife, most likely bats. In February, the Lancet (2/19/20) published an open letter by 27 health researchers from eight countries defending the integrity of Chinese officials and health professionals combating the disease, and strongly condemned “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.” The open letter also stated that scientific findings to date “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens.”

One widely cited study, published in the scientific journal Nature (3/17/20) and written by a team of American, Australian and British researchers, stated that they “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” and that their “analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” The authors of the Nature study reached this conclusion because  SARS-CoV-2’s adaptations from the original SARS-CoV virus, the pathogen that causes SARS, are too effective for humans to have engineered.

Coronaviruses get their name from the spikes covering the virion’s surface, resembling the sun’s corona. However, the spikes that cover the SARS-CoV-2 virion’s surface bind to the same functional host cell receptor in humans (ACE2) 10 times more tightly than does SARS-CoV. SARS-CoV-2’s second notable adaptation is the acquisition of a polybasic cleavage site (a part of the spike that has to be cleaved before the spike can latch onto a human cell), and SARS-CoV-2’s cleavage sites are made of amino acids that attract furin enzymes, which are essential for infecting lung cells.

Bob Garry (Vice, 3/20/20), an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the Tulane University School of Medicine, and coauthor of the Nature study, explained that no computer programs scientists use to model the interactions between the virus’s spikes and ACE2 receptors could predict that SARS-CoV-2 would bind very well, let alone 10 times better—which is evidence in favor of the alterations being selected by natural selection rather than human engineering.

Furthermore, the virus’s genetic makeup isn’t a mishmash of known viruses, which would likely be the case if it were truly human-made, which is why the Nature study’s authors concluded that the “genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone.”

Following Rogin’s article, Fox News’ Bret Beier published another op-ed, “Sources Believe Coronavirus Outbreak Originated in Wuhan Lab as Part of China’s Efforts to Compete With US” (4/15/20). Beier claimed that “there is increasing confidence that the Covid-19 outbreak likely originated in a Wuhan laboratory,” coming from “classified and open-source documents” he acknowledged he hadn’t read, relying instead on the accuracy and integrity of anonymous sources.

CNN (5/3/20) amplified Mike Pompeo’s evidence-free claims of “enormous evidence” for a lab origin.

Corporate media then gave a wide platform to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (ABC News, 5/3/20; CNN, 5/3/20; New York Times, 5/3/20), who has a long record of dishonesty, to promote the lab leak theory. He claimed there is “enormous evidence” the virus originated in a Chinese lab before walking back those pronouncements. Of course, if the US government really did have “enormous evidence” of a lab leak, one can simply ask why it hasn’t already presented a smoking gun.

Other proponents of the lab leak origin claim that the Nature study doesn’t prove what it purports to, because it discounts the possibility of the virus being collected in the wild and studied before somehow being released from a lab. However, this scenario is largely a circular and unfalsifiable argument—because a virus that came from the wild through a lab looks exactly like one that began infecting humans in the wild.

It’s true that there is a troubling history of accidental lab leaks of potential pandemic pathogens. And some of the professionals who authored the Lancet’s open letter and the Nature study have connections to the US government and the bioweapons industry, as much viral research in the US is funded by the Pentagon’s biological arms race (Salon, 4/24/20).

In fact, one compelling reason to think that Covid-19 is not an intentionally leaked bioweapon is that there are plenty of other pathogens that are much more deadly. For example, the Ebola and Marburg viruses have case fatality rates ranging from 24% to 90%, and while we don’t know the true death rate for Covid-19—because it varies widely in different regions—it is much lower than that across the board. If Covid-19 is the result of an intentionally released bioweapon, it would make a lot more sense to select a deadlier pathogen than SARS-CoV-2.

It also doesn’t make any sense for the Chinese government to intentionally release a novel pathogen like SARS-CoV-2 onto its own population in the hopes that it would do even worse damage to its geopolitical rivals. This is simply a fantastical scenario that doesn’t merit further discussion.

US researchers who have worked at the WIV have attested to the safety standards and quality of research there, denied that the WIV is a bioweapons research lab, and explained that the Chinese government issuing new biosafety directives isn’t a sign of concealing a lab breach, but standard practice when dealing with a novel pathogen (Health Feedback, 3/2/20).

Scientific American (6/1/20) profiled the epidemiological achievements of virologist Shi Zhengli, depicted as a villain in other media.

The WIV’s Shi Zhengli, disparaged by Rogin as reckless, is an accomplished virologist whose pioneering research is responsible for giving a headstart in understanding SARS-CoV-2; she attested that none of the bat coronaviruses previously studied at her lab match the new virus’s genetic sequence (Scientific American, 6/1/20). And there’s no reason to think that the WIV was the source of SARS-CoV-2 just because it was already researching bat coronaviruses. Even a virus studied there called RaTG13, which shares 96% of its genome with the new virus, already has huge differences in evolutionary terms, as Vox (4/29/20) noted:

“The level of genome sequence divergence between SARS-CoV-2 and RaTG13 is equivalent to an average of 50 years (and at least 20 years) of evolutionary change,” said Edward Holmes, a professor at the University of Sydney who has published six academic papers this year on the genome and origin of SARS-CoV-2, in a statement. “Hence, SARS-CoV-2 was not derived from RaTG13.”

The WIV lab is a joint collaboration between China and France, and has been certified by officials in both countries, as well as by the International Organization for Standardization. The French government, which has the most knowledge of and experience with the WIV, has stated there is

no factual evidence corroborating the information recently circulating in the United States press that establishes a link between the origins of Covid-19 and the work of the P4 laboratory of Wuhan, China.

Perhaps the strongest argument to be made in favor of the idea of a lab leak derives from reports of the WIV performing animal passage and GOF research (Independent Science News, 6/2/20; Newsweek, 4/27/20). These are experiments designed to create pathogens with pandemic potential by passing a virus through animals (rather than cell culture) to induce faster mutation, or deliberately creating new viruses by cutting and pasting known viruses or via in vitro mutation to prepare for future pandemics.

Numerous labs perform this kind of risky research. The argument that the virus came out of the WIV in particular depends heavily on the city of Wuhan being the site of the original outbreak, because as an urban area like Wuhan is on its face an unlikely place for animal-to-human transmission to have occurred, and the proximity of the WIV and its animal passage experiments, proponents say, is a suspicious coincidence.

But Wuhan has not been proven to be the original location of the global Covid-19 outbreak.  That it was the first city to detect an outbreak of Covid-19 does not necessarily mean it originated there.

Many pandemics have disputed origins. The 1918 influenza pandemic was called the “Spanish Flu” because neutral Spain had less censorship than European countries fighting in World War I, and so journalists there were free to write about an outbreak that was emerging across the continent. While the origins of the pandemic are still murky, very few believe the pandemic actually originated in Spain (Conversation, 3/17/20).

French doctors have discovered a case of Covid-19 dated back to December 2019 in someone in who has never traveled to China, and Spanish virologists found traces of SARS-CoV-2 in Barcelona wastewater collected in March 2019—nine months before the virus was detected in China (though these reports don’t necessarily prove that SARS-CoV-2 originated in Europe). Shi Zhengli believes that the crossover from bats to humans occurred outside of Hubei Province (where Wuhan is located), as years of bat virus surveillance there haven’t turned up any bat coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV-2.

In an exclusive interview with Science Magazine (7/24/20), Shi revealed that over the past 15 years, the Wuhan lab has only isolated and grown in culture three bat coronaviruses related to any that infect humans, and these are related to SARS-CoV, not SARS-CoV-2. The other 2,000+ bat coronaviruses the lab detected (including RaTG13) are merely genetic sequences, and incapable of replicating themselves without being cultured in host cells. This would explain why her lab first learned about the virus when receiving patient samples on December 30, 2019, after the virus was first reported by Dr. Zhang Jixian at Hubei Provincial Hospital on December 27 (FAIR.org, 6/21/20). Shi’s full explanations can be read here.

In the end, the lab leak theory depends on the idea of the virus leaping from animals to humans being improbable–which it is not (Vox, 4/23/20). Due to humans altering three-quarters of terrestrial environments and two-thirds of marine environments, and thereby increasing the nature and frequency of human contact with wildlife, two-thirds of emerging infectious diseases in humans—and almost all recent epidemics like Ebola, MERS, HIV, Zika and H1N1—came from animals, with 70% of those originating in wildlife (LA Times, 4/2/20). This is one reason scientists have been urging climate action and stopping deforestation as ways to prevent new pandemics from emerging (Scientific American, 5/1/18, 6/1/20).

Lab leak proponents primarily depend on making negative arguments that urge us not to discount the possibility of a leak, but not every possibility is probable. Even if it is exceedingly difficult to prove a negative, there’s little reason to entertain a lab origin theory when no actual evidence is presented that the virus originated at any particular lab. Speculation about possibilities does not constitute persuasive evidence that Covid-19 is the result of a lab leak in Wuhan, or anywhere else. While journalists should continue to report on the dangers of bioweapons research and demand more transparency, they should also exercise caution when reporting on coronavirus origin theories that play into New Cold War propaganda against China (FAIR.org, 5/15/20).

Featured image: NBC News depiction (8/10/20) of workers at the Wuhan lab (Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images).

First Debate Calls for More than Cutting Off Mics

After the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the predominant U.S. media response to the debate was, like the global public response, one of horror: “An epic moment of national shame” (Politico, 9/30/20); “The Worst Presidential Debate Ever” (Poynter, 9/30/20); “A shitshow” (CNN, 9/29/20). 

But while many were willing to pin the blame where it belonged—on Trump, who interrupted, name-called, lied, and refused to follow any rules of debate or decorum—some of the nation’s most prominent outlets clung desperately to the same absurd even-handedness that has gotten us into this shitshow in the first place. 

“Trump, Biden Clash in Contentious First Debate: The two candidates constantly spoke over each other in exchanges more notable for rancor than policy nuance,” ran the September 30 Wall Street Journal headline. (Or, in their print edition: “Trump, Biden Trade Insults In Debate Full of Crosstalk.”)

Which candidate was responsible for more than three quarters of the interruptions? Don’t look to the Wall Street Journal for answers.

Or take the New York Times‘ front page analysis (9/30/20):

The first presidential debate between President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. unraveled into an ugly melee Tuesday, as Mr. Trump hectored and interrupted Mr. Biden nearly every time he spoke and the former vice president denounced the president as a “clown” and told him to “shut up.”

In a chaotic, 90-minute back-and-forth, the two major party nominees expressed a level of acrid contempt for each other unheard-of in modern American politics.

“Trump, Biden, Hurl Insults That Obscure Substance in Testy First Debate,” announced the Dallas Morning News (9/30/20). “Donald Trump and Joe Biden spent the night throwing haymakers at each other during the most caustic, and at times, disgraceful debate in modern history,” the article began. “Did it change any minds? That’s hard to say with all the noise. Trump said that Biden wasn’t a smart person, while Biden called the president a liar. It went that way most of the night.”

Moderator (if we can call him that) Chris Wallace of Fox News surprised everyone by including unannounced questions about climate change after activist demands (e.g., FAIR.org, 9/22/20)—the first time the topic has been broached in the last three presidential election cycles. But overall, when he was able to get a word in edgewise, Wallace largely stuck to the familiar debate script (FAIR.org, 8/2/19, 2/29/20), framing many questions in such a way as to reinforce right-wing assumptions. 

For instance, on the question of protests over systemic racism and police violence, Wallace demanded of Biden: “Have you ever called the Democratic Mayor of Portland or the Democratic Governor of Oregon and said, “Hey, you got to stop this, bring in the National Guard, do whatever it takes, but you’d stop the days and months of violence in Portland.”

On the economy, Wallace managed to frame a question with about as rosy an image of the economy possible given the current circumstances: “The economy is, I think it’s fair to say, recovering faster than expected from the shutdown. The unemployment rate fell to 8.4% last month. The Federal Reserve says the hit to growth, which is going to be there, is not going to be nearly as big as they had expected. President Trump, you say we are in a V-shaped recovery. Vice President Biden, you say it’s more of a K-shape. What difference does that mean to the American people in terms of the economy?”

Economic experts nearly unanimously say a V-shaped recovery—a sharp rise back from a steep decline—is impossible (Newsweek, 9/30/20), and the country is in fact experiencing a K-shaped one in which only the wealthy recover (Salon, 9/9/20); by framing it as a matter of opinion, then, Wallace handed Trump a gift that he scarcely deserved.

Before the debate, Wallace claimed his goal was to be “invisible”—a misguided goal if there ever was one, when confronting a candidate like Trump who offers far more lies than facts. Afterwards, he told a Times reporter (9/30/20): “I guess I didn’t realize — and there was no way you could, hindsight being 20/20 — that this was going to be the president’s strategy, not just for the beginning of the debate but the entire debate.”

Moderator Chris Wallace told the Times, “I guess I didn’t realize — and there was no way you could, hindsight being 20/20 — that this was going to be the president’s strategy.” Reality TV experts beg to differ.

It’s true, it’s easy to criticize after the fact—and it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for anyone tasked with corralling Trump, particularly with few real tools to do so—but Trump’s strategy was not, in fact, impossible to predict. As reality show producer Mark Cronin wrote in Columbia Journalism Review the day before the debate (9/28/20), “the past four years have been a constant reinforcement of the idea that no matter what outrageous thing he says about or directly to someone, Trump will pay a small price compared with those he has disparaged.” (Note the passive construction whereby no blame is directly laid; but of course, journalists who fail to speak truth to power have failed us miserably these last four years.)

Cronin correctly predicted that Trump would use tried-and-true reality show conflict techniques in the debate—from “deny everything, admit nothing, and make counteraccusations” to “extreme personal attacks,” and culminating with “breaking all the agreed-upon debate rules.” 

To Cronin, “the televised debates are reality television, whether we want to admit it or not. And to pretend otherwise is to allow Trump to carry the day virtually unopposed.” The only solution he offered was to encourage Biden to challenge Trump right back, making personal attacks that get under his skin and make him look bad. Which, coming from a reality TV producer, is probably to be expected.

Many pundits have suggested that the Commission on Presidential Debates allow moderators to cut the candidates’ microphones, and the CPD has already announced they’ll be making changes to the format to address the situation (CBS, 10/1/20). But mic-cutting is no solution given a media obsessed with the appearance of even-handedness. By two different counts, Trump was responsible for more than three-quarters of the interruptions (Washington Post, 9/30/20; Slate, 9/30/20). A committed corporate journalist would cringe at the idea of cutting off one candidate three times as much as the other, no matter the facts of the case, but cutting them off equally would clearly be absurd. 

The problem is not one that can be solved by new rules, because debates—from high school debate club to presidential debates—are predicated on certain assumptions: that each person has a right to be heard, that competing positions are put forth, that claims must be supported by logic and facts, and that debaters are not entitled to their own facts. When one candidate refuses to acknowledge or play by these rules, no amount of tweaking by the CPD will change the outcome. 

And when you have a candidate—who also happens to be the sitting president—who will not respect the rules of debate, who deliberately casts doubt on the legitimacy of the election, and who issues directives to white supremacist groups from a national stage, the only reasonable thing for journalists to do is to not just call for an end to the debates, but to call for an end to the Trump presidency. 

As media critic Eric Boehlert has pointed out repeatedly (e.g., Press Run, 5/15/20), editorial boards across the country—including USA Today and the Philadelphia Inquirer—eagerly called for Bill Clinton’s resignation in the late ’90s over his extramarital affair. Today, as Trump openly threatens our very democracy, where is the equivalent outrage? 

The Washington Post took a strong stand…for letting the moderator cut off the microphones (9/30/20). To the New York Times editorial board (10/1/20), we simply must plod along, and we certainly mustn’t cancel the debates: Biden—and Americans—should “show up” for all of the remaining debates, the paper says, because “Donald Trump is their president. They need to face him, and the reckoning that he has brought on the Republic.” One might ask what the Times imagines we’ve been doing all this time if not “facing” the president and what’s he brought on the republic—or if they imagine telling us to sit down and watch the nightmare unfold as our democratic duty represents the exhaustion of their own.

 

Steve Wamhoff on Trump’s Taxes

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This week on CounterSpin:  Taxes, particularly income taxes, have a special role in US media parlance: Vitally important but endlessly, and instrumentally, fungible.  “Taxpayer dollars” are sacrosanct; we need to think very hard, every time it comes up, about how best to dedicate them: Do food stamps or public education make the cut?  But then, who contributes to this oh-so-important resource? Because at the same time, corporate media suggest the “Tax Man” is a villain, who pretty much steals your “hard-earned dollars”—so, wink wink, smart people avoid paying taxes as much as possible. 

The between-the-lines upshot seems to be: The country runs on taxation, but if you have a lot to give, well then, you’ve earned the right to opt out. This weird, incoherent presentation is reaching some sort of flameout with the New York Times‘ much-anticipated and fought-for reporting on Donald Trump’s tax returns—and the political and pundit scramble to define or interpret them—in ways that (it’s seeming like) might indict Trump, without calling into deep question the enabling system around him that media’s corporate owners and sponsors, protestations aside, endorse. It makes things a bit harder to parse for regular folks. But not impossible. We’ll talk about takeaways from Trump’s taxes with Steve Wamhoff, director of federal tax policy at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at the first presidential debate.

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Featured image: President Donald Trump in 2017 as photographed by political photographer Michael Vadon.

‘Investment in Fossil Fuels Yields Much Less Returns Than the Green Sector’

Janine Jackson interviewed journalist Antonia Juhasz about the end of oil for the September 18, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Dow Jones dropped ExxonMobil from its blue chip stock market index, a spot it had occupied since 1928. Major banks are talking, anyway, about divesting from oil and gas; hundreds of US institutions, including colleges, have done so. And, of course, hundreds of millions of people globally have spoken out, marched and agitated against a fossil fuel industry that is despoiling ecosystems, driving climate disruption, distorting international relations, and wreaking havoc on the lives and communities of mostly poor, mostly people of color around the world.

A convergence of factors, plus Covid, suggest we are seeing the irreversible decline of the oil industry, and its stranglehold. But how do we manage that? And, what comes next? Our guest says that has a lot to do with us.

Investigative journalist and author Antonia Juhasz has been writing about oil for years now. Her most recent book is Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill. She joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Antonia Juhasz.

Antonia Juhasz: Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be back with you.

Sierra (8/24/20)

JJ: I’d like to talk about these companion pieces you’ve just written, “The End of Oil Is Near” and “Bailout.” They appeared in the magazine Sierra. Would you talk, first, about the convergence of factors that spelled the end of the oil industry before coronavirus? And then, what’s been the impact of the pandemic on that movement?

AJ: Yeah, I think those problems can really be boiled down to an industry that’s been producing a product that people and the world have been trying to get away from, and succeeded in getting away from. And the reason why people have been trying so hard to get away from it is manifold, but it amounts to the contribution of oil and fossil fuels to the climate crisis, and the experience of people who live where oil operations take place, whether that’s exploration or drilling or transport or consumption or dumping. The voices of those people have been increasingly listened to and elevated and responded to, because of the problems that they have faced, the host of problems they face, from public health to the environment to politics to economics.

And their voices are being listened to more and more, which has helped spur movements for alternatives, accessible and affordable alternatives; a shift demanding a politics that doesn’t continue to subsidize the oil industry to the detriment of those alternatives, and doesn’t favor those companies over companies that provide alternatives to fossil fuels. So a weakening of the political power, and a response to that shift: a desire to move away from oil being reflected in policy changes that are moving that needle further away.

All of that has resulted in a decline in the growth of demand for oil, which really started to accelerate in 2015. So a weakening of demand, a weakening of price for oil, and then—in response to that weakening demand and the weakening price the producers could get for their product–to try and make the same amount of money, they kept producing more and more and more.

And the US was really at the forefront of this problem, just producing more and more and more, reaching record levels. In the last year of the Obama administration, the US was producing less oil than the year before. And then, under the Trump administration, we just reached record highs of production. That was also happening globally.

So we had, starting in 2018 in particular, just this glut of oil, way too much product, not enough demand for it, a low price in return for it, but the producers kept making more and more and more and more. So you’ve got too much product, not enough money to be made off of it, not enough demand for it, and that also meant that the economic returns to these companies were failing. So their profits were collapsing, investors were starting to look elsewhere, banks were starting to look elsewhere. And the interest in the companies was waning, and the ability to make money off of them, and their ability to make money, was waning.

And this all built up to the perfect visual encapsulation of this: Before the coronavirus hit, the oil industry was already facing a glut. Then when the virus hit, and people started responding to stay-at-home orders and they were staying at home, and they weren’t driving and they weren’t flying, and products weren’t moving as much, so trucks weren’t moving as much to move products around, but the companies and the countries kept producing oil. And then we have these armadas of oil tankers floating around the ocean in harbors. So people who live in California saw them, people who live on coasts around the world, just saw this buildup of tankers in harbors in the ocean, and that was oil being stored at sea, because there was just too much of it and nowhere to put it.

And a lot of those tankers are still floating around right now, on this hope that the oil company has that someday its oil will be worth more tomorrow than it is today, so they’re sticking it at sea to wait for that moment. But if I’m right—and Moody’s, for example, has predicted that 2019 was the height of oil demand ever, that we’re never going to demand as much oil as we did that year; BP has also predicted the same thing—then that oil isn’t going to see a brighter tomorrow and, instead, what needs to happen is they just need to stop producing so much of a product that we really don’t want.

JJ: I very much like the way you put people and protest at the center of change, rather than saying, “Oh, well, the profits are shrinking, the market spoke,” or something like that, putting that first. Everything we understand about environmental and human health points to “keep it in the ground.” And yet we’re forced to watch this daylight nightmare of companies pushing to drill for every last drop, causing all kinds of harms. It reminds me of the expression, “Who’s going to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

But the industry, as you explain, is doing that, and can do that, because of government policy, including Covid policy. So folks may have suspected it was happening, but you spell out some ways that the Trump White House is propping up the oil industry right now. What should we know about that?

AJ: So first of all, the activism and the market forces are intimately related; they are operating as a response to one another. So the activism is changing the market forces, and the market forces are responding to the activism. So activists are targeting banks, they’re targeting investment funds like BlackRock, and they’re saying, “We don’t want you investing in fossil fuels anymore.” And the banks and the investment funds and investors are responding. So trillions of dollars of investments have been moved out of the fossil fuel sector in a direct response to activism pushing those changes. There’s definitely still holdouts, particularly banks and investment funds, but there’s a response that is happening; these forces are working in tandem, and should be understood as not independent of one another.

JJ: Right. Right.

Antonia Juhasz: “The actions of the public to push public policy are really the determining factor on what’s going to happen with the industry.”

AJ: So we’re basically very much at this moment where the actions of the public to push public policy are really the determining factor on what’s going to happen with the industry. Right now, the International Monetary Fund has estimated that the global fossil fuel industry is subsidized to the tune of some $5 trillion a year. So this is an industry that is very much propped up by government policy. And government policy right now really can be the deciding factor on if fossil fuels, and oil in particular, continue to be propped up. And the Trump administration has definitely come in to try to do that, really, with their Republican allies in Congress, because the Democrats have definitely pushed back against these plans, but so far, they’re moving forward.

The Trump administration first said, “We’re going to bail out the fossil fuel industry.” And Democrats said, “No, that’s not going to happen.” So what we ended up with was three somewhat stealth measures to do that.

The first is that a very large number of oil companies have been supported by the CARES Act, through the Paycheck Protection Program. And this research organization, Documented, did research for me for my Sierra magazine articles, and Documented found that some 7,000 oil and gas companies have received as much as $7 billion in Paycheck Protection Program money, and that’s gone to what I would consider rather large oil companies.

And it’s also contributed to the overall bias of the Paycheck Protection Program towards white male businesses that we’ve seen, because the oil industry is globally, by and large, run by white men. And in the United States, full-time employees of oil companies also tend to be white men. So when we looked at the companies that stated their ownership, the oil and gas companies were definitely disproportionately white male–owned as well.

So that’s a lot of money. And then the Republicans really snuck in a tax loophole into the CARES Act, which the Democrats have been trying to close. And through that tax loophole, at least 50 publicly traded oil and gas companies have taken at least $3 billion. And I’m really emphasizing the “at least,” because no one has collected this information.

JJ: Right.

AJ: What Jesse Coleman, the researcher at Documented, did was literally just look up the Securities and Exchange Commission information that is published by publicly traded companies, that’s required–it’s basically their tax information–and just looked up oil and gas companies to see which ones publicly stated that they took this tax loophole. But, of course, that only includes the companies he was able to look up, and it doesn’t include any privately held companies, because they don’t have to release this information, though there are a lot of privately held oil and gas companies in the United States. A lot of fracking companies are really just owned by hedge funds that are just trying to make money, are not oil and gas companies, they’re really just hedge funds, and they don’t have to share this information. So 50 companies made at least $3 billion that way.

But the biggest pool of money is coming out of these changes that happened through the Federal Reserve, under lobbying by the Trump administration. And it’s unknown how many hundreds of billions of dollars this could end up being. But the Federal Reserve implemented several new programs. And I would just preface this by saying: The Federal Reserve needed to take action; we need to save the economy from Covid. But these actions included new mechanisms that are overweighted in fossil fuels, so more weighted in fossil fuels than their counterparts in the regular market.

And essentially, for the first time ever, you and I, the American taxpayer, through the Federal Reserve, now own the debts of some of the largest oil and gas companies in the world—Exxon, Chevron, Energy Transfer Partners (the pipeline company behind Dakota Access Pipeline)—you name it, we now own their debt. So we’re backing up these companies. And the Federal Reserve is essentially sending a message to the market that the fossil fuel industry will be supported. So that ExxonMobil, the day after these programs were announced by the Fed, went out and sold nearly $10 billion in the debt market. So being propped up to the tune of nearly $10 billion.

So this is all just this sort of mass subsidization through the Fed, that is overweighted in fossil fuels, and that’s deeply problematic. So those are the mechanisms that the federal government is trying to put into place to prop up this industry.

JJ: And, to be clear, propping up or bailing out the companies has not translated to the retention, necessarily, of jobs in the industry.

AJ: No, because we’re seeing the same companies laying off thousands of workers. Estimates of oil industry job loss are reaching about 100,000 in the United States alone. I do think that some workers have been furloughed, certainly, by having these companies supported.

But what a lot of people I’ve spoken to would rather see, for example, is you’ve got a lot of furloughed workers that are getting support through the Paycheck Protection Program. That’s great. We want to see workers protected. Let’s use this time that they’re at home to provide them with training for the transition. Let’s do online training for solar installation, for jobs in the green economy, and use this as a time and opportunity for just transition, rather than to prop up companies that would otherwise be going away, because they’re producing a product that we don’t want anymore. And let’s shift to supporting industries for the green future and the green economy. And that’s not happening. So there’s a massive disproportionate support in the Paycheck Protection Program for fossil fuel companies versus renewable green energy companies.

JJ: Finally, we were talking with you in 2006 about how you weren’t allowed to say the US invasion and war on Iraq had anything to do with oil; that was déclassé, you know, that wasn’t being a serious student of foreign policy. You said at the time that you thought the public is smart enough to understand trade policy, to understand the role of oil in war, for example. I would venture to say you think the public is smart enough to see the economic and the human value in a just transition to a healthier economy, and to discern which policies take us closer or further from that goal, and not to fall for the old “jobs versus environment” lie. I wonder what you think reporters might be doing more or less of, to help with that?

AJ: I think that is a myth that let’s hope it goes away sometime really soon, because there’s been so many great economic studies that have looked at, basically, “What have been the best economic recovery programs since the 2008 crash? And what’s provided the best long-term and immediate economic support for economies trying to rebuild after this type of crisis?” And green recovery programs have always done better, essentially, since 2008.

And economists point to several things. One is the oil industry has been moving away from workers for years now. They’ve been increasingly automating their activities, and trying to gain “efficiencies” by having less workers. Workers are expensive, they get hurt, they organize, they demand things like pay and healthcare. So strange! And it’s much better to work with machines, and the industry has been increasingly automating.

And there have been some really great economic studies that have shown that more investment dollars into the fossil fuel industry yields less, much less, returns for jobs than does investments in the green sector, where these are jobs that are being done by people, in solar installation and wind, in efficiency for homes and buildings, new things that we need, like better pipelines to move cleaner, safer water in the United States. You know, a pipeline worker is agnostic as to what’s flowing through their pipeline, so they don’t need it to be oil and gas; it could, very happily for them, be water—and we need a lot of rebuilding for water in this country.

Wiley (2011)

So, basically, there’s a greater jobs return, and a greater safety return, on moving to the green economy. It’s a job winner, to move it to a green economy, and a job loser to double down on fossil fuels. In addition to the fact that the industry is moving away from human employment, they’re also just trying to get leaner and meaner as they lose money. As they lose returns, they need to try and make more money by spending less. And so they’re also just working with less, not only automating, but just trying to do everything with fewer operations.

And there are companies that are just going to fall by the wayside, regardless of how much money we spend to try and prop up the executives and the owners, which is where a lot of the money is going. They’re still going to go bankrupt, they’re still going to go away, because there just isn’t enough demand for their products. So we’re throwing good money after bad, essentially.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with journalist and author Antonia Juhasz. Her most recent book is Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill, out from John Wiley & Sons. You can find the articles “The End of Oil Is Near” and “Bailout” on her website, AntoniaJuhasz.net. Antonia Juhasz, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

AJ: Thanks so much for having me.

 

Israel Isn’t Signing ‘Peace’ Deals

 

CNN (9/15/20), like other outlets, described the formation of an alliance against Iran as a “peace accord.”

Corporate media outlets such as Forbes (9/11/20), Bloomberg (9/15/20), CNN (9/15/20) and the Washington Post (9/16/20) have described recent accords that normalize Israeli relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain as “peace” deals. This is a misleading label to apply to agreements that help cement a belligerent military alliance against Iran, and allow violence against Palestinians, Libyans and Yemenis to continue.

MSNBC aired a segment (MSNBC Live9/11/20) headlined “Trump Announces Peace Deal Between Bahrain and Israel,” during which Washington Post White House bureau chief Philip Rucker referred to the agreement as a “peace accord.” Later, Rucker implied that the term also applied to the Israeli/UAE pact, and claimed that it was a move in the direction of peace across West Asia, saying that “these are rather incremental steps…. This is not an end, of course, to fighting in the Middle East or [the arrival of] peace across the region.”

Yet an article in Foreign Policy (9/14/20)—its use of the phrase “Israel’s Peace Deals” in its headline notwithstanding—points out that Israel’s agreements with the UAE and Bahrain

have also made [President Donald] Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy of economic asphyxiation against Tehran more effective and painful than his predecessor’s sanctions campaign. Increased Arab collaboration with Israel and the United States has helped the latter obstruct clandestine financial channels and escape valves traditionally used by Iranian authorities and institutions to evade US sanctions.

For MSNBC, and for the Post’s Rucker, “peace” means stifling Iran’s economy more effectively. In this regard, it’s not just that the deals aren’t “steps” towards peace; it’s that they are steps toward ratcheting up the grave human suffering that sanctions have inflicted on Iran, including seriously hindering the Iranian population’s access to medical necessities during a pandemic (FAIR.org, 4/8/20).

To the Wall Street Journal editorial board (9/15/20), the UAE and Bahrain making “peace” deals with Israeli is a “win-win” and its “most obvious benefit, besides strategic cooperation against Iran’s regional mayhem, is economic.” What “Iran’s regional mayhem” is remains a mystery—it’s a safe bet that it has something to do with being an obstacle to US designs—but it’s remarkable that the “win-win” scenario of this “peace” entails the US government pushing to sell “cutting-edge weapons to the Emirates, including F-35 fighter jets and Reaper drones,” a package that “also includes EA-18G Growler jets — electronic warfare planes.”

The Trump administration “do[es] not dispute that after years of American refusals to sell F-35s to the Emiratis, the change in position is linked to the diplomatic initiative,” reported the New York Times (9/15/20). Apart from the possibility of using these warplanes to menace Iranians, these weapons can also be deployed in the catastrophic war on Yemen, where the UAE is a major player, and in the devastating proxy war in Libya (In These Times, 8/18/20), where the UAE has also unleashed its jets (New York Times, 9/15/20). Facilitating a military build-up is a most curious exercise in “peace.”

Bahrain is also a party to the US/Saudi aggression against Yemen, which means that, like the UAE, it could be rewarded for formalizing relations with Israel by being allowed to buy more US weapons that it can use against Yemenis.

The New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman (9/15/20) compared the White House’s Jared Kushner to a divorce lawyer who discovered that “Mrs. Israel was having an affair with Mr. Emirates, who was fleeing an abusive relationship with Ms. Iran.”

These “peace” agreements are “an honest triumph,” in the eyes of New York Times columnist Bret Stephens (9/14/20), and “the right thing,” according to his op-ed page colleague Thomas Friedman (9/15/20).

However, days after Israel and the UAE agreed to establish full diplomatic relations, the heads of both countries’ spy agencies met to discuss cooperation on “security” (Al Jazeera, 8/18/20). In the language of countries with egregious human rights records like Israel and the UAE, “security” is a euphemism for violent repression. The Israeli/UAE friendship predates the recent accords, but any deepening of their “security” cooperation is unlikely to be good news for Palestinians, Yemenis or Iranians, or for those who live in countries where Iran has alliances, such as Syria and Lebanon. Nor, for that matter, is it likely to benefit people living under the UAE’s dictatorial monarchy. (Less than 12% of the UAE’s residents are considered citizens, with the rest treated as expatriate workers, regardless of whether they were born in the country or not.)

Strengthening Israeli/UAE “security” cooperation could be bad news for Libyans, too, in that Israel is on the same side of the war in that country as the UAE, a conflict that continues because of intervention by these and other outside powers (In These Times8/18/20).

Nor is this increased “security” coordination likely to be good news for Palestinians, Yemenis or Iranians, or those who live in countries where Iran has alliances, such as Syria or Lebanon. Nor, for that matter, is it likely to benefit people living under the UAE’s dictatorial monarchy. (Less than 12% of the UAE’s residents are considered citizens, with the rest treated as expatriate workers, regardless of whether they were born in the country or not.)

In the same vein, the Israel/Bahrain pact may help Bahrain’s reactionary monarchy entrench its power domestically and “crush any resistance to authoritarianism or efforts towards freedom and democracy” for the Bahraini population (Al Jazeera, 9/13/20). 

The Times’ Stephens contended that the Emirati and Bahraini deals with Israel

may be good news for ordinary Palestinians…. It isn’t crazy to think that peace might come from the outside in: from an Arab world that encircles Israel with recognition and partnership rather than enmity, and which thereby shores up Israel’s security while moderating Palestinian behavior. If that’s right — and if states like Oman, Morocco, Kuwait, Sudan and especially Saudi Arabia follow suit — then this summer’s peace deals might finally create the conditions of viable Palestinian statehood.

The accords cannot plausibly be connected to a peaceful resolution to the Palestine/Israel conflict (and certainly not to a just one).  The agreements do nothing to inhibit Israel’s violent dispossession of Palestinians, whom Stephens regards as children in need of having their “behavior” “moderat[ed]” by their colonizers and the colonizers’ cohorts.

As part of the deal with the UAE, Israel said it would temporarily suspend its plan to formally annex 30% of the West Bank, but made no promise to halt its illegal stealing of Palestinian land through settlement construction. Nor do the normalization deals involve Israel “moderating” its “behavior” by agreeing to stop bombing Gaza, to lift the merciless siege depriving Gaza’s inhabitants of fuel and medical essentials, to cease torturing Palestinians, to end police terror of Palestinian citizens of Israel, or to permit the return of the refugees Israel has ethnically cleansed and is keeping out through force of arms.

Stephens fails to offer any convincing reason that “peace might come” to Israel/Palestine from a deal that fails to address these types of Israeli violence, which are far and away the most deadly and most widespread forms of violence in the conflict. Instead, the UAE and Bahrain are openly blessing Israeli brutality and creating the possibility of it getting even worse by taking out of the equation a tool that could have helped restrain Israel, namely the costs of being boycotted by other states.

Contrary to corporate media assertions, these US-managed agreements between three of its vassal states have little to do with “peace” and everything to do with enabling the smooth execution of despotism, war and a ruthless colonial enterprise.

Featured image: The Washington Post‘s Philip Rucker discussing the Israel/Bahrain “peace deal” on MSNBC (9/11/20).

Julian Assange: Press Shows Little Interest in Media ‘Trial of Century’ 

 

Labeled the media “trial of the century,” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition hearing is currently taking place in London—although you might not have heard if you’re relying solely on corporate media for news. If extradited, Assange faces 175 years in a Colorado supermax prison, often described as a “black site” on US soil.

The United States government is asking Britain to send the Australian publisher to the US to face charges under the 1917 Espionage Act.  He is accused of aiding and encouraging Chelsea Manning to hack a US government computer in order to publish hundreds of thousands of documents detailing American war crimes, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. The extradition, widely viewed as politically motivated, has profound consequences for journalists worldwide, as the ruling could effectively criminalize the possession of leaked documents, which are an indispensable part of investigative reporting.

WikiLeaks has entered into partnership with five high-profile outlets around the world: the New York Times, Guardian (UK), Le Monde (France), Der Spiegel (Germany) and El País (Spain). Yet those publications have provided relatively little coverage of the hearing.

Since the hearing began on September 7, the Times, for instance, has published only two bland news articles (9/7/20, 9/16/20)—one of them purely about the technical difficulties in the courtroom—along with a short rehosted AP video (9/7/20). There have been no editorials and no commentary on what the case means for journalism. The Times also appears to be distancing itself from Assange, with neither article noting that it was one of WikiLeaks’ five major partners in leaking information that became known as the CableGate scandal.

Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman (9/9/20) turned a reader’s question about “liv[ing] in a time of so much insecurity” into a bizarre rant against Julian Assange and his partner, Stella Moris.

The Guardian, whose headquarters are less than two miles from the Old Bailey courthouse where Assange’s hearing is being held, fared slightly better in terms of quantity, publishing eight articles since September 7. However, perhaps the most notable content came from columnist Hadley Freedman (9/9/20).

When asked in an advice article: “We live in a time of so much insecurity. But is there anything we can expect from this increasingly ominous-looking winter with any certainty?” she went on a bizarre tangential rant ridiculing the idea that Assange’s trial could possibly be “politicized,” also crassly brushing off the idea that his young children would never see their father again, and never answering anything like the question she was asked. Holding people to account “for a mess they could have avoided,” she notes, “is not ‘weaponizing’ anything — it is just asking them to do their jobs properly.” She also claimed that believing Assange’s trial was politicized was as ridiculous as thinking antisemitism claims were cynically weaponized against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, which, she meant to suggest, was a preposterous idea. This was not an off-the-cuff remark transcribed and published, but a written piece that somehow made it past at least one editor.

Like the Times, the Guardian appeared to be hoping to let people forget the fact it built its worldwide brand off its partnership with WikiLeaks; it was only mentioned in a forthright op-ed by former Brazilian president Lula da Silva (9/21/20), an outlier piece.

The Guardian should be taking a particularly keen role in the affair, seeing that two of its journalists are alleged by WikiLeaks to have recklessly and knowingly disclosed the password to an encrypted file containing a quarter-million unredacted WikiLeaks documents, allowing anyone—including every security agency in the world—to see an unredacted iteration of the leak. In 2018, the Guardian also falsely reported that Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort had conducted a meeting with Assange and unnamed “Russians” at the Ecuadorian embassy (FAIR.org, 12/3/18). And, as former employee Jonathan Cook noted, the newspaper is continually being cited by the prosecution inside the courtroom.

 

Der Speigel’s headline (9/7/20) reads: “Maximum Sentence: 175 Years in Prison.”

There were only two articles in the English or French versions of Le Monde (9/7/20, 9/18/20) and only one in either of Der Spiegel’s English or German websites (9/7/20), although the German paper did at least acknowledge its own partnership with Assange. There was no coverage of the hearings in El País, in English or Spanish, though there was a piece (9/10/20) about the US government thwarting a Spanish investigation into the CIA spying on Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in London—accompanied by a photo of a protester against his extradition.

The rest of corporate media showed as little interest in covering a defining moment in press freedom. There was nothing at all from CNN. CBS’s two articles (9/7/20, 9/22/20) were copied and pasted from news agencies AP and AFP, respectively. Meanwhile, the entire sum of MSNBC’s coverage amounted to one unclear sentence in a mini news roundup article (9/18/20).

Virtually every relevant human rights and press freedom organization is sounding the alarm about the incendiary precedent this case sets for the media. The Columbia Journalism Review (4/18/19), Human Rights Watch and the Electronic Frontier Foundation note that the government includes in its indictment regular journalistic procedures, such as protecting sources’ names and using encrypted files—meaning that this “hacking” charge could easily be extended to other journalists. Trevor Timm, founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, told the court this week that if the US prosecutes Assange, every journalist who has possessed a secret file can be criminalized. Thus, it essentially gives a carte blanche to those in power to prosecute whomever they want, whenever they want, even foreigners living halfway around the world.

The United Nations has condemned his persecution, with Amnesty International describing the case as a “full-scale assault on the right to freedom of expression.” Virtually every story of national significance includes secret or leaked material; they could all be in jeopardy under this new prosecutorial theory.

President Donald Trump has continually fanned the flames, demonizing the media as the “enemy of the people.” Already 26% of the country (including 43% of Republicans) believe the president should have the power to shut down outlets engaging in “bad behavior.” A successful Assange prosecution could be the legal spark for future anti-journalistic actions.

Yet the case has been met with indifference from the corporate press. Even as their house is burning down, media are insisting it is just the Northern Lights.

Featured image: Photo of protester at Julian Assange’s extradition hearing that appeared in El País (9/10/20).

A Quick (Corrected) Calculation on Child Covid Deaths

 


 
Jacobin (9/19/20) platforms two epidemiologists who argue that “exposures [to coronavirus] in young, healthy people contribute to the herd immunity that will ultimately benefit all”—without spelling out the massive death toll such a policy implies.

I posted an angry piece on Wednesday (9/23/20) about an interview that was published by Jacobin (9/19/20)—and then immediately took it down, because it was based on a misreading of a chart from the Centers for Disease Control.

While I’m sorry I didn’t catch the mistake before publishing (and grateful to the reader who pointed out my error), I’m glad to be wrong, because my error was thinking that children are considerably more vulnerable to the coronavirus than they actually are.

Looking at the correct numbers provided by the CDC on Covid-19 cases and deaths, one can calculate the percentage of reported cases for each age group that result in death. For the 0–4 years group,  there have been 89,224 reported cases and 34 deaths, for a 0.04% fatality rate. For ages 5–17, it’s 332,192 cases and 58 deaths, or 0.02% fatality. For 18–29, it’s 1,171,828 and 766 deaths, which is 0.07%.

By way of comparison, the CDC reports a case fatality rate for measles of 0.2%, and for chicken pox, for children 1–14, of about 0.01%.

The line in the Jacobin interview I took issue with was Harvard epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff saying, “Children and young adults have minimal risk, and there is no scientific or public health rationale to close daycare centers, schools or colleges.” While my rebuttal to this claim was based on exaggerated numbers, the question remains: Does a disease that kills two, four or seven young patients in 10,000 qualify as a “minimal risk”? Would epidemiologists say that a new strain of chicken pox that was twice as lethal or more, depending on the age group, and for which we had no immunity to or vaccine for, provided “no scientific or public health rationale” for closing schools?

When Kulldorff assures Jacobin that there is “a more than thousand-fold difference in mortality risk by age,” the interview links to a study by Kulldorff (published on LinkedIn, 4/10/20) that finds extremely low risks of death for children and young adults. But he achieves this through sleight of hand, combining a low risk of infection when exposed with a low risk of death when infected. The policy Kulldorff seems to be advocating, however, is to not try to prevent infection in most children—because, as his colleague Katherine Yih says, “exposures [to the coronavirus] in young, healthy people contribute to the herd immunity that will ultimately benefit all.” So the fact that it may take more exposures to infect a young person than an older person is irrelevant to the question of how risky the policies proposed by Kulldorff and Yih would be.

As FAIR (3/17/20, 5/27/20) has argued before, people who promote the idea of accepting Covid infection in pursuit of herd immunity rarely acknowledge the high death toll that such a policy necessarily entails. There are about 20 million children under the age of five in the United States, according to the Census; if no steps are taken to prevent them from being infected with the coronavirus, a fatality rate of 0.04% implies a worst-case scenario of 8,000 deaths among them.

There are an estimated 62 million children between the ages of 5–19; applying the 0.02% death rate for reported cases among 5-17-year-olds suggests a possible death toll of 12,000 were they all allowed to be infected. For the 45 million between the ages of 20–29, the 0.07% fatality rate for reported cases among 18-29-year-olds indicates a worst case of 32,000 deaths.

If the US truly tried to pursue a herd immunity strategy, the actual number of deaths among children and young adults would almost certainly be less than these numbers; herd immunity would in fact kick in at some point before every child was infected. And there are no doubt cases of Covid in children and young adults that are not reported to medical authorities, so the true case fatality rates are likely not as high as the figures used in these calculations. But how much lower they might be is based on guesses about when herd immunity would be reached, and how many Covid cases there are that we don’t know about.

It’s safe to say, when almost a hundred children have died when less than 1% of the youth population has reportedly been infected, that a policy that deliberately allows a majority of children to be infected will cause a scale of deaths among children that few parents would consider a “minimal risk.”

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