Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

Trump’s Twitter Ban May Be Justified, but That Doesn’t Mean Tech Giants’ Power Isn’t Scary

 

EU commissioner Thierry Breton (Politico, 1/10/21):  “Regardless of whether silencing a standing president was the right thing to do, should that decision be in the hands of a tech company with no democratic legitimacy or oversight?”

In the wake of the dramatic storming of the Capitol last week, a host of big media companies, including Facebook, Reddit, Pinterest, Twitch, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok, have all taken measures against Donald Trump. Making the most headlines, however, was the decision of the president’s favorite medium, Twitter (1/8/21), to permanently suspend him “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”

It’s difficult to argue that Trump did not repeatedly violate Twitter‘s rules against “threaten[ing] violence” and “glorification of violence,” justifying his ban. But we urgently need to rethink the power of these social media behemoths, because there are plenty of other examples where their enforcement of their rules has been arbitrary and non-transparent.

Whether one saw the assault on the halls of Congress as a coup attempt (e.g., Atlantic, 1/6/21; Buzzfeed News, 1/6/21; Guardian, 1/6/21), a “riot” (MSNBC, 1/10/21; Wall Street Journal, 1/12/21) or “protests” (Fox News, 1/7/21, 1/8/21), there is no doubt that Trump did incite the crowd to invade the seat of government. Instructing his followers to “fight like hell” to stop a “stolen election,” he insisted: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

The media reaction to the social media ban was varied. Writing in tech publication ZDNet (1/7/21), Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols supported the decision. “The right to free speech doesn’t give you the right to right to shout fraud in a fractured country,” he said. “Twitter should have suspended Trump’s account years ago,” wrote Sarah Manavis in the New Statesman (1/7/21):

For years the president has been allowed to tweet anything he wants, with deadly consequences…. The case for kicking one of its highest-profile users off the platform is self-evident.

Chris Stevenson (Independent, 1/11/21): The Trump ban involves “a moral obligation in not spreading words that could incite violence.”

Meanwhile, Chris Stevenson in the London Independent (1/11/21) argued that privately owned websites have every right to remove their services from users.

Jessica J. González, co-CEO of the media advocacy group Free Press (1/9/21) and co-founder of the anti-hate speech Change the Terms coalition, hailed the ban as a victory for media activism:

Twitter’s decision to permanently suspend Donald Trump is a victory for racial-justice advocates who have long condemned his continued abuse of the platform.

From the launch of his presidential campaign when he defamed Mexicans as rapists, criminals and drug dealers, to the desperate last gasps of his presidency as he has egged on white supremacists to commit violence and insurrection, Trump had used his Twitter account to incite violence, lie about the election outcome, encourage racists and spread conspiracy theories. He did not deserve a platform on Twitter, or on any other social or traditional media.

Others were not so heartened by the news. Writing in Politico (1/10/21), European Union official Thierry Breton worried:

The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on POTUS’s loudspeaker without any checks and balances is perplexing. It is not only confirmation of the power of these platforms, but it also displays deep weaknesses in the way our society is organized in the digital space.

Michelle Goldberg (New York Times, 1/11/21): “I find myself both agreeing with how technology giants have used their power in this case, and disturbed by just how awesome their power is.”

National leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador also characterized the move as a blow against free speech. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg (1/11/21) was in the middle, stating that tech giants were right to ban Trump, but worried about the “scary power” they were amassing.

Perhaps the most histrionic reaction came from Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted (1/9/21):

The world is laughing at America & Mao, Lenin, & Stalin are smiling. Big tech is able to censor the President? Free speech is dead & controlled by leftist overlords.

In reality, of course, actual, self-described leftist and Communist figures are routinely purged from the site. Twitter shut down virtually the entire Cuban state media apparatus in 2019, removed tens of thousands of accounts it claims were linked to the Chinese Communist Party, and has suspended Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s account multiple times without explanation. These moves failed to elicit handwringing condemnations and essays on the nature of free speech, however.

With the power that he wields as president, Trump is undoubtedly the most belligerent user in Twitter history, using the platform to threaten genocide against Iran and threaten North Korea with “total destruction” (presumably nuclear in nature). So blatant were his violations of the site’s anti-violence rules that it had to craft new “public-interest exemptions” to justify not kicking him off. Although they couched their decisions in the language of free speech, the president’s wild proclamations were always a huge money spinner; Twitter lost $3.4 billion in market value overnight after announcing the ban last week.

While Trump’s actions clearly breached the company’s terms of service by not only calling for but producing violence, the affair brings up bigger questions about private ownership of public forums and the massive power social media giants like Facebook and Twitter hold over the public sphere. Sixty-eight percent of American adults use Facebook and 25% use Twitter. Both platforms are huge gateways and distributors of news around the world. Facebook is by a long way the most widely used news source in the United States, and both platforms have user bases far larger than the collective circulation of all daily US newspapers. They also give ordinary people the opportunity to share information and build communities, making them immensely important parts of the modern public square.

Adam Johnson (FAIR.org, 5/21/18): “Readers should know who’s helping bankroll groups that get to define what the most influential media platform in the history of the world deems ‘fact and fiction.'”

A free press is the cornerstone of any open, democratic society. But like it or not, in just a few short years, massive online companies have far surpassed the reach of legacy media outlets, with news generally being broken on Twitter before anywhere else. Companies like Google and Facebook have become monopolies by design, squeezing out or buying up the competition. There are no practical alternatives of any size to these behemoths, raising questions of whether they should be in private ownership at all, given their importance to the public discourse.

Western governments already exercise considerable control over the content of social media, but for their own interests, not ours. In 2018, Facebook announced it would be working closely with the Atlantic Council to help it curate its news feeds and stamp out false information (FAIR.org, 5/21/18). The Atlantic Council is a NATO cutout organization funded by the State Department and allied foreign governments. Its board of directors includes high-ranking Bush-era officials like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, US military generals and no fewer than eight former CIA chiefs. When organizations such as these influence the most influential means of global communication, that is coming close to state censorship on a worldwide scale.

Meanwhile, in 2019, a senior Twitter executive was unmasked as an officer in the British Army’s psychological operations and online warfare division. Corporate media reacted with a collective yawn, the news covered by only one US outlet of any note (Newsweek, 10/1/19; see FAIR.org, 10/24/19)—a response that raises many troubling questions about the relationship between deep state and fourth estate. The journalist who covered the story resigned a few weeks later, citing stifling top-down censorship.

Branko Marcetic (Jacobin, 8/15/18): “Trusting a group of faceless, corporate bureaucrats to decide what is and isn’t legitimate news is a recipe for disaster for the left.”

Perhaps this helps explain why the online media giants’ primary targets of censorship have always been the domestic left and foreign enemies of Washington. Facebook has shut down pages belonging to a myriad of anti-establishment groups, such as Occupy London and the anti-fascist No Unite the Right, while suspending those of alternative media like TeleSUR English and Venezuelanalysis.

Last year it also announced that, since President Trump had designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization, all posts presenting recently slain General Qassem Soleimani in a positive light would be immediately deleted across its platforms (Instagram, WhatsApp, etc.). “We operate under US sanctions laws, including those related to the US government’s designation of the IRGC and its leadership,” a company spokesperson said. Taking into account that Soleimani had a more than 80% domestic approval rating, this meant that one pronouncement from Trump effectively barred Iranians from sharing their overwhelmingly popular opinion online with each other.

Facebook has also deliberately changed its algorithm in an attempt to throttle traffic to left-wing news sites. Last year, the Wall Street Journal (10/16/20) reported that Mark Zuckerberg personally approved changes that would hit “left-leaning” political news sites harder than previously planned. Meanwhile, conservative and far-right commentators dominate the site, despite their constant and well-documented violations of the terms of service.

Twitter has also purged hundreds of thousands of Russian, Chinese, Turkish and Venezuelan accounts, while constantly suspending antiwar voices and publications. Like with Facebook, left-wing independent news site Venezuelanalysis is a favorite target.

Private companies probably should not be hosting the largest online forums. However, if they do, there need to be transparent and enforced rules in place to deal with grave breaches of conduct. In this sense, it was a prudent decision from social media companies to suspend or ban the president, who has flagrantly disregarded those rules for years.

However, Silicon Valley corporations are far from neutral moral arbiters, and have a history of abusing their power. In 2018, it took barely 24 hours for big tech companies to shift their ire from conservative conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to the left (FAIR.org, 8/22/18), deleting and suspending accounts with little rhyme or reason. Don’t expect this to be the last highly controversial censorship decision they make.

Keri Leigh Merritt on the New Lost Cause, Elisabeth Rosenthal on Troubled Vaccine Rollout

 

CNN (1/7/21)

This week on CounterSpin: As media sift through the fallout of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, it’s important to see that the insurrectionists were not simply victims of a modern disinformation campaign, hoodwinked via social media into believing that Donald Trump got more votes in the election; they were also participating in a tradition “deeply rooted in the American experience,” as historian Eric Foner put it, that says that only some people’s votes should count—that Black political power, as exercised in Georgia, represents a threat to the “natural” societal dominance of white people, and that violence is appropriate to neutralize that threat and maintain that status quo. That resonance is why historians are shaking their heads as media talk about January 6 as “unprecedented”; while shocking and dispiriting, it has layers and layers of precedent that need to be learned and engaged, if we are ever to actually have the racial reckoning that corporate media are forever insisting we’ve already had.

Keri Leigh Merritt is an independent historian and filmmaker, author of the book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South. Her essay, co-authored with Rhae Lynn Barnes, “A Confederate Flag at the Capitol Summons America’s Demons,” appeared on CNN.com. We talk with her about this country’s past that is never dead, or indeed even past.

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Kaiser Health News (12/24/20)

Also on the show: You don’t have to choose between the assault on the electoral process by violent, disinformed white nationalists, and a disease that has killed more than 380,000 people in this country and left many it didn’t kill with lasting health problems—both are major crises. And just as many people could and did predict something like the attack on the Capitol, many could and did predict that the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine would be marred by the Trump administration being the Trump administration, and the hollowing out of public health infrastructure. We talk about the troubled vaccine rollout with Elisabeth Rosenthal, longtime journalist, now editor in chief of Kaiser Health News.

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ACTION ALERT: What Can ‘Now Be Told’ by NYT About Pentagon Papers Isn’t Actually True

 

The most important claim in the New York Times‘ revisionist history of the Pentagon Papers (1/7/21) is demonstrably false.

The day New York Times journalist Neil Sheehan died, the Times ran a story (1/7/21) with the headline, “Now It Can Be Told: How Neil Sheehan Got the Pentagon Papers.” It purports to be the true story of how the paper obtained the Defense Department’s classified history of the Vietnam War that had been secretly photocopied by former Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg. Here’s what Sheehan told reporter Janny Scott in 2015, on the condition that it could not be published until after Sheehan’s death:

Contrary to what is generally believed, Mr. Ellsberg never “gave” the papers to the Times, Mr. Sheehan emphatically said. Mr. Ellsberg told Mr. Sheehan that he could read them but not make copies. So Mr. Sheehan smuggled the papers out of the apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Mr. Ellsberg had stashed them; then he copied them illicitly, just as Mr. Ellsberg had done, and took them to the Times.

In Sheehan’s telling, Ellsberg is a fearful neurotic, so afraid of going to prison that he makes foolish mistakes that could lead to getting caught—and so Sheehan had to lie to his source and make his own copy, because he was determined that, as he put it, “this material is never again going in a government safe.”

When the papers are published and Ellsberg discovers the ruse, Sheehan has Ellsberg say, “So you stole it, like I did.” To which Sheehan supposedly replied:

No, Dan, I didn’t steal it….  And neither did you. Those papers are the property of the people of the United States. They paid for them with their national treasure and the blood of their sons, and they have a right to it.

As you can probably tell from that dialogue, Sheehan made himself very much the hero of the story, which is perhaps why he wanted it published only after he was no longer around to be contradicted. There was nothing stopping Scott, though, from calling Ellsberg, who is still quite alive, and asking him for his reaction to Sheehan’s account. She did not do so, but Daniel’s son Robert Ellsberg provided that missing piece in a response to the story on Twitter (1/10/21).

Robert points out that his father’s actions were not those of someone who feared prison; when he was arraigned, he asked reporters, “Would not you go to prison to help end this war?” Rather, Daniel Ellsberg was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to get out the secrets he was risking prison to expose.

The New York Times online story (1/7/21) on how the Pentagon Papers were published has a photograph of Times managing editor A.M. Rosenthal and other staffers reading the published document in the paper, and another photo (above) of Rosenthal congratulating Neil Sheehan and other staffers—but no image of Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who was actually responsible for bringing the Pentagon Papers to the public.

Daniel has explained—notably in his 2002 memoir Secrets—that he would have given a copy of the Pentagon Papers to Sheehan immediately if only Sheehan had told him that the Times was seriously interested in publishing them. Which was true, but for reasons that aren’t very clear in Sheehan’s account, the reporter was unwilling to tell Ellsberg that. (“He feared that Mr. Ellsberg’s reaction might inadvertently tip the government off,” is the explanation proffered.) As Robert notes, this meant that Daniel had to keep looking for another publisher—increasing and not decreasing the chances that the government might learn about and seize the copied papers.

What Daniel Ellsberg remembers telling Sheehan when he found out about the Times‘ secret copy is, “You did what I did”—not, “So you stole it, like I did.” As Robert writes, “My father never considered that he had stolen anything”—and didn’t need a reminder from Sheehan that the papers belonged to the American people.

Of course, it’s impossible to say which of two versions of a conversation that occurred between two people is correct—even if one version has the strong whiff of something that one person wishes they had said. But there is an important part of the Times story that is definitely false, and requires correction—because it’s contradicted later in the same story.

That’s when the story reads, “Contrary to what is generally believed, Mr. Ellsberg never ‘gave’ the papers to the Times.” In fact, Ellsberg did give the papers to Sheehan, as the story gets around to revealing 38 paragraphs later:

So he told Mr. Ellsberg that he now needed the documents, not just his notes…. This time, when Mr. Sheehan asked, Mr. Ellsberg consented…. He arranged for Mr. Sheehan to pick up a complete copy of the historical study stowed in an Ellsberg family apartment in Manhattan.

So the big revisionist revelation in the New York Times article turns out to be false. Rather, if you read to the end of this 2,800-word piece, you find that “what is generally believed”—is actually true.

ACTION ALERT:

Please tell the New York Times to set the historical record straight by correcting its story to note that Daniel Ellsberg did in fact give the Pentagon Papers to the Times.

CONTACT:

Letters: letters@nytimes.com
Readers Center: Feedback
Twitter: @NYTimes

Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your communication in the comments thread.

Featured image: Daniel Ellsberg

 

‘Being Neutral in the Face of a Fascist Threat Is Not an Acceptable Journalistic Value’

 

Janine Jackson interviewed political scientist Dorothee Benz on the January 6 insurrection for the January 8, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

(photo: Tess Owen/Vice)

Janine Jackson: People saw for themselves the boggling scenes: crowds of Trump supporters storming the halls of Congress, busting into offices, yelling for lawmakers to come out, trying—minimally—to disrupt the ceremonial electoral count declaring Joe Biden president.

But the story will be, is being, shaped by news media, in subtle and unsubtle ways. Will media not just denounce Wednesday’s incredible actions, but trace them to their societal and institutional roots? And then go on to act, to report and investigate and challenge and demand, as though they really understood those connections?

Confronted with such boundary breaking, in multiple senses, many people will want to hear that it was just a small fringe group of zealots, abetted by a few law enforcement bad apples, in service to an aberrational individual president, who’s anyway on his way out. Will corporate media sell the story that things got scary for a minute, but belief in the system is the way to safety?

Joining us now in media res—it’s just January 7—is political scientist Dorothee Benz.  A writer, organizer and strategist, she has many years of work in frontline struggles here in the US. She joins us by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Dorothee Benz.

Dorothee Benz: It’s great to be here.

JJ: My brain at first went to language, you know: Is “protester” the best label when the target is the democratic process?  Is “chaos” the most evocative description for a planned and predicted action with some measure of evident official sanction? Now I’m reading “unprepared”; everyone was “unprepared.”

But there are deeper questions about corporate media’s role here. Just to throw a dart: While they’ve recently begun to qualify it, elite media spent years referring matter of factly to “voter fraud,” despite its virtual nonexistence, because they simply had to suggest a Democratic equivalent to evidence of Republican voter suppression, lest they be accused of bias. So the idea that you can just declare fraud without evidence has been well-established by the press itself.

That’s one of the things I’m thinking of. What are some of the things that are coming to your mind as you look at this early-stages coverage?

New York Review of Books (11/10/16)

DB: The first thing that comes to my mind is Masha Gessen’s warning four years ago, after Trump was elected, when they said, “Believe the autocrat.” And in the intervening four-plus eternal years, as the left, and as Black Lives Matter activists and immigrant rights advocates, have raised the alarm over and over again about rising political violence, about the profoundly anti-democratic, racist policies of the administration, we have been called alarmists, we have been told it’s not that bad. We have been told, basically, to calm down.

And we could see this coming, as could anybody, actually, who’s been on social media for the last three or four weeks. This violent piece of insurrection was planned openly on unencrypted channels. I saw yesterday on Twitter, there was merch, there were people in T-shirts that said “Civil War January 6, 2021.” So “unprepared and surprised” is the last thing that anyone should have been, whether that’s the Capitol Police or the media covering this story.

JJ: Absolutely. Many people have noted—refused to deny, you could say—that everything would have been different yesterday, from beginning to end, including before yesterday, as you’re noting, if these people were Black, or were brown, or were disabled, really anything but what they were. I would add that that would extend beyond the day; had these been Black people, there would be real-world, lasting repercussions for all Black people, right? And if you complained, all anyone would need to say would be like, “1/6/21, man.” The point is, talking about how differently they would have been treated if they were Black, say, it’s not a rhetorical exercise; it’s not a game of “what if?” That contrast is really the story, right?

DB: It is. And it goes well beyond the obvious—I mean, so obvious that even some of the mainstream media has noted it—that Black Lives Matter activists would have been treated differently; that Native Americans, defending their land and their legal rights, who were waterhosed in subfreezing temperatures at Standing Rock, were treated differently; that activists who were just begging their senators not to kill them by eliminating their healthcare, were ripped out of wheelchairs and thrown in handcuffs. Yes, those are the obvious differences, as opposed to the kid glove treatment that the white nationalists got yesterday.

Dorothee Benz: “It’s not that they were unprepared, it’s that they were prepared for white nationalists, which to them is not a crisis in the same way that Black people demanding rights is.” (photo: Mike DuBose, UMNS)

But the deeper problem is really the entire white nationalist project that, as you alluded to in the introduction, this whole venture rests on. The fact that the police were so-called “unprepared”—I saw that word several times in the media coverage—it’s not that they were unprepared, it’s that they were prepared for white nationalists, which to them is not a crisis in the same way that Black people demanding rights is, or people insisting that public healthcare and national healthcare should be a thing.

The problem goes much deeper there. And it is both a problem of how we have governed, and a problem of how the police and the military have been central to white supremacy. Structurally, foundationally, ideologically, the function of the police has always been to defend the system as it exists, and the system is a white supremacist system. The ruling power started 500 years ago with settler colonizers; it went on to include genocide, slavery, strikebreaking in the more modern capitalist era. It has never included defending democracy. That is a central understanding of how the police work. They weren’t overwhelmed. They knew; they just didn’t think it was a problem.

JJ: I can’t keep playing that “imagine if” game, because I’m really thinking, every Black candidate forever would be side-eyed by the media: “So if you don’t win, are your people going to riot? We know that you all don’t really believe in democracy.” I don’t think media, as “Oh my gosh” as they are right now,  I don’t think they’re really taking on board the counterfactual that they’re sort of thinking about.

And then, more cynically, I think, in contrast, there won’t be the same kind of repercussions for people who, not just look like the insurrectionists from yesterday, but who think like them, except that maybe media might seek them out to say: “You’re the good Trump deadender; what makes you tick? Why didn’t you storm the Capitol?”

Twitter (1/7/21)

DB: Yeah, I saw a comment this morning from Ben Ehrenreich, who was talking about the media label of a “mob,” reaching for sort of a classist term, instead of calling them “‘fascists” or “neo-Nazi” or “racist” or “white supremacists”—and not calling them just “protesters,” because, rightly, they were trying to differentiate between, let’s say, Black Lives Matter or healthcare protesters—but not going for the term that’s really there.

JJ:  It is difficult to grapple with the language around here; we’re in kind of new territory. But what we do see is an unwillingness to use the terms “white nationalist,” to use “white supremacist” in connection with this kind of thing. And I think it is part of media’s desire to splinter people off, to say, “This really is a fringe,” and discourage the connections between these people and, in fact, the mainstream of the Republican Party, and of many US institutions.

DB: I think that that is absolutely right. There’s two things going on there, in that I would call it a soothing effort to make this not a bigger problem, right? The larger problem is not contextualizing it in white supremacy, the larger problem is not admitting that the entire American project is a white supremacist project.

You know, the media did point some fingers at Donald Trump yesterday, rightly, but they seem to exempt almost wholly the entire rest of the Republican Party. This morning, on the New York Times’ homepage, at least on the app, they had a bunch of quotes, and they were all from Republicans making them look really principled: [senators Lindsey] Graham, [Mitch] McConnell and [Kelly] Loeffler saying, well, this isn’t the right thing to do. As if these people hadn’t been feeding the same right-wing monster for the last four years, not to mention the last four weeks.

JJ: Right.

DB: So that’s one way in which the media is trying to create a respectable-looking set of Republicans in the middle of what is not…that.

The other is not talking about the larger shift here, which is the assault on democratic norms and the assault on democracy itself, which has moved from sort of a cloaked phase—you know, voter ID laws that we pretend are just about voter fraud, or that are somehow facially neutral or whatever; mass incarceration, which disenfranchises and creates second-class citizenship for millions and millions of people. Moving away from that cloaked phase to this really overt phase and testing what works, like, “Well, let’s throw some lawsuits at it, let’s try that. Let’s try to directly shake down some officials and threaten them. OK, let’s try that.”

In October, Rep. Mike Lee floated the term “rank democracy,” as if there is such a thing as too much democracy, like, “Don’t let the unwashed actually vote.” And that’s exactly what it is.

And that is actually both a point of continuity and discontinuity with the entire American project. It has never been a country that is a democracy, a true democracy, in the sense of a universal franchise, let alone economic and social democracy. But it has pretended for a long time that it is. And what the right is doing now is testing even that pretense, to see how they can proceed. And that is a genuine fascist threat.

JJ: And that’s the danger of portraying this as marginal or fringe or failed, right, portraying it as a “failed attempt,” because, as you and others have said, that failure doesn’t mean the end of it.

New York Times (1/4/21)

DB: Absolutely not. I mean, yes, I’ve seen a couple of headlines about like, “Well, Trump’s on his way out anyway.” And this morning, as I was listening to NPR, the reporter or the anchor said, “Well, what did [they] think they would accomplish?” You know, like they were talking about some kids on a playground. And it’s not that they failed at overturning the election; it’s that they succeeded in mainstreaming fascism and fascist tactics. That’s really the point. And I haven’t seen that anywhere in the mainstream media coverage.

Similarly, on NY1, or in a NY1 tweet I should say, to be exact, somebody was talking about how the property damage this morning was actually quite minimal. Yeah, it might be minimal, although when property damage happens at a Black Lives Matter protest, you would think it was a matter of national security. But I responded to that tweet by saying, “That’s beside the point. The assault isn’t on Capitol Hill property, it’s on democracy itself.” And that really has not been enough of the focus.

As a matter of fact, in a general kind of a way, this is a continuity from the entire Trump era, where media have gone out of their way to normalize fascist tactics and try to squeeze them, “square peg in a round hole” style, into the box of normal political imagery, where they describe something like—they had a headline yesterday, before all this went down, “With Objection to Election Results, Hawley Puts His Party in a Bind.” So they’ve turned this overt anti-democratic effort to overturn an election into an intra-party political quandary, thus normalizing what is not normal, or what should not be normal in an allegedly democratic society.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally: In a real way, corporate media’s deepest role here is as champions of the capitalist neoliberal system that creates the real grievances that are weaponized and combined with white supremacist ideology—doesn’t create the white supremacy, but it drives those grievances that then become so combustible.

And for the lesson, therefore, from yesterday to be, “Don’t push for real social change, because that’s fighting, and that leads to violence,” for the lesson to be, “Now, both sides: both people who bust into the Capitol and Black Lives Matter and AOC,” that balancing. “Let’s have civility, let’s have color blindness, let’s look forward and not back.” If media come out of the gate and that’s the message, I feel like that’s almost the most dangerous thing that could happen.

DB: It is the most dangerous thing that could happen. If you just shift the language a little bit, and you imagine them saying, “Antifascists really need to reach across the aisle and be in a spirit of bipartisanship with the fascists,” well, then you would get the problem.

And that is exactly the problem. Part of it is the media habit, the very bad habit, of pretend objectivity, that puts everything in a “he said, he said” frame, even when one set of claims is factually demonstrable and the other side is demonstrably untrue, and pretending that those things are equivalent. But also, just on the surface, pretending that being neutral in the face of a fascist threat is an acceptable journalistic value. It’s not.

JJ:  We’ve been speaking with writer, organizer and strategist Dorothee Benz. You can follow her on Twitter @DrBenz3. Dorothee Benz, thank you for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

DB: It’s my pleasure.

 

‘What Happened at the Capitol Could Not Happen Unless Police Allowed It to Happen’

 

Janine Jackson interviewed the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund’s Mara Verheyden-Hilliard on police responsibility for the January 6 insurrection for the January 8, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: We spoke with our next guest in January of 2017, in the wake of the mass arrest of protesters and journalists at Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the decision to bring felony riot charges against them. What accounts for how differently DC law enforcement behaved yesterday?

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard is an activist and attorney. She’s co-founder and executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard: Glad to be with you.

JJ: So I just have one big question, really, which is, “What the hell?” And why is the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, along with the Center for Protest Law and Litigation, calling for public investigations here?

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard: “There has to be exposure and accountability for every single officer, for every single command official, for everyone who was involved in allowing, facilitating, this white supremacist mob violence.” (image: WTTG)

MVH: I think what we witnessed yesterday, in addition to being an extraordinary event in US history and our lifetimes, is fully defining of what has been told to us over and over again is the neutral application of law enforcement, and law and order. Any of us who have ever demonstrated in Washington, DC, or been in Washington, DC, know full well the capacity of the police agencies here to shut down and repress completely peaceful protest. Our clients and we have been subject to kettling, to mass arrest, to projectile weapons, to being soaked in chemical weapons, to tear gas, and there’s been no hesitation to use this. The police have all the materiel, the riot gear, the personnel, the weapons, the tactics at their disposal.

So that can lead us only to the most obvious conclusion, which is, what happened yesterday at the nation’s capital could not happen unless the police allowed it to happen. And they did in fact allow it to happen.

So we are demanding an investigation, because there has to be exposure and accountability for every single officer, for every single command official, for everyone who was involved in allowing, facilitating, this white supremacist mob violence.

Our point here is not calling for police repression; our goal is not to increase police repression. What we need to do and must do here is expose the nature of police repression, and that is so evident here today. We know perfectly well that if there had been a peaceful demonstration that had come en masse to the Capitol and had tried to enter through the front doors, we would have seen a massacre, I mean, a massacre.

And here is a white supremacist group that had been publicly bragging that they were coming to Washington, DC, that they were trying to smuggle illegal weapons in here. And the idea that the Capitol Police were caught off guard, or were somehow outmaneuvered, is completely false. Over 20 years of litigation in the District of Columbia, in constitutional rights cases, we have seen, over and over again, the very sophisticated operation that exists here in planning for major events in the District, and for demonstrations and for rallies and for everything. And they have very effective and significant coordinated interagency communications, operation manuals, tabletop exercises, planning, mutual aid agreements.

It’s simply not possible, particularly in the post–9/11 world at the Capitol, that they lacked preparedness, or that they lacked knowledge for what was going to happen.

Janine Jackson: We’ve been speaking with Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. You can follow their work online at JusticeOnline.org. We will be following this investigation. Thank you so much, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, for joining us today on CounterSpin.

MVH: I’m glad to be with you.

 

Socialists Denounced as Foes and Tools of Real Estate Industry

 

City & State (10/10/19) describes DSA as “centered on the yuppies and hipsters who have typically grown up in the suburbs and more recently moved into these [urban] neighborhoods after college. “

When Jamaal Bowman of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri, candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, joined the congressional “Squad” (Independent, 11/4/20), it was more evidence that the small socialist voting bloc wasn’t simply left-wing, but racially diverse—with two new Black members joining two other African American representatives (one a Somali immigrant), a Puerto Rican and a Palestinian American.

Looking at socialist victories in New York state politics this year, we again see a crop of newly elected officials that represent a real rainbow coalition with a working-class message created to cut across racial boundaries (The Nation, 12/22/20). (Disclosure: This writer is a member of DSA in New York City.)

And yet, over and over again, corporate media repeat the accusation from establishment Democrats and conservatives that the ascendant socialist movement is made up of “gentrifiers.” Far from representing the toiling masses, the theme goes, today’s socialists are white, well-off interlopers, sipping their lattes while reading Karl Marx at the coffeeshop that pushed out the neighborhood bodega.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House Democratic Caucus chair, told the New York Times (12/23/20) that socialist politics were ascending “particularly in neighborhoods where Black and Latino residents are being gentrified out of existence,” and that the “socialist left is in part tied to gentrifying neighborhoods,” and thus marginal in citywide politics.

This is hardly the first time anti-socialist Democrats in New York have used the gentrifier label against electoral insurgents, and had the label unquestioned in the media. Politico (11/13/20) was one of many publications to repeat a claim by city lawmaker Laurie Cumbo that socialist challengers were agents of gentrification, having earlier written (8/8/19) that “political insiders say gentrification has played a role” in socialism’s electoral success, because it is “ushering in younger, white voters that skew more liberal than traditional homeowners.”

City and State (10/10/19), which covers local and state politics around the country, likewise used the gentrification claim against DSA, saying that blue-collar voters had “suspicion of the white people with canvas New Yorker magazine tote bags who arrived in the neighborhood five years ago and now seek to change its political leadership.”

Reason (12/2/11) invites the 99% to fight among themselves.

The claim that socialists and progressives represent elite culture and are untethered to the working-class has been long a common one in right-wing media. Recall, for example, a cartoon in the libertarian magazine Reason (12/2/11) that portrayed Occupy Wall Street demonstrators as well-off cosmopolitans who exploit non-workers.

Today, those media use that canard against the ascendant socialist left. City Journal (Fall/20), the flagship publication of the conservative Manhattan Institute, described DSA as “a party of young, well-to-do neighborhood newcomers, sometimes dubbed gentrifiers.” The “Trumpism without Trump” journal  American Affairs (Summer/20) dismissed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 congressional primary upset victory, saying without citation that it was fueled by a “few thousand Twitter-conscious gentrifiers who populate Astoria,” although the magazine provides no citation backing up this claim.

The centrist press, establishment Democrats and the right have different aims, but accusations of socialist gentrification bring them together. City Journal and American Affairs wage a cultural war, evoking a right-wing vision in which socialism exists only in universities, where the children of the elite are taught to hate America and Christianity, while Johnny Lunchbox in Anytown, USA, puts his faith in a marketplace that’s anchored in God and country.

For Jeffries, the Times, and City and State, meanwhile, fighting socialism is a complex defense of the role real estate titans play in mainstream Democratic politics. The real estate industry is one of the most powerful and influential business sectors in New York City; insiders joke that it is to the city as oil is to Texas. One of DSA’s most universal features, meanwhile, is its stance against landlords and rising rents.

The Real Deal (6/18/19), organ of the real-estate industry, sees DSA members not as gentrifiers but as rent-control advocates.

Zohran Mamdani was a “foreclosure prevention housing counselor” before his election to state assembly this year, according to his official biography. The Real Deal (6/18/19), the city’s main real estate journal, called Julia Salazar, a socialist state senator from Brooklyn, the “bane of the real estate industry” for her tenant advocacy, particularly her push to make it harder for many landlords to evict tenants (Gothamist, 2/11/20). “On every single issue, where gentrification plays a role, NYC DSA has been staunchly fighting against gentrification,” Salazar told FAIR in a phone interview.

Meanwhile, the New York Post (9/21/20) warned its readers that socialists aim to “‘cancel’ rent,” in order to force landlords to “give up their properties and ‘exit the market,’” allowing the state to “acquire the properties and convert them to public housing.” The paper, owned by the right-wing Murdoch family, worried that the rise of socialist lawmakers would undermine “the real estate industry’s already diminished clout in the Democrat-run state legislature.”

As Salazar said, the idea that DSA members are at the same time both tools and enemies of real estate interests is a “frustrating” and “confounding” contradiction, and it often stems from the fact that many DSA-backed candidates do represent gentrifying districts. Salazar’s north Brooklyn district, for instance, is synonymous with the post-hipster luxury housing boom. “They don’t understand correlation versus causation,” Salazar said of the media and political critics, adding, “In communities that have been experiencing gentrification, DSA is by no means driving the gentrification.”

But Salazar senses something far more cynical: an attempt by DSA’s opponents to inoculate working-class communities against socialism where DSA isn’t yet powerful, miseducating voters by smearing the organization before DSA can make political inroads in those places. “It’s advantageous” to the political establishment, she said, to advance a narrative in places like southeast Queens or East New York, working-class communities that don’t have much DSA presence, that says, “The socialists are gentrifiers and they’re your enemy.”

For Salazar, the gentrifier accusations against DSA from corporate media—and from political opponents who get uncritically quoted in the media—are just a part of politics, but she laments that the establishment political machine may use these remarks to get “Black and brown and working-class voters to vote against their interests,” resulting in “more gentrification and displacement and suffering for those communities.” She added, “That’s what bothers me, because elections do have consequences.”

Media Cry Wolf for Third Time on Afghan ‘Bounties’ 

 

CNN (12/31/20) reports that “news of China offering cash for attacks on US forces comes as China awaits whether Biden will embrace Trump’s more punitive policies towards the nation or move to reset relations between Washington and Beijing.”

First it was Russia (FAIR.org, 7/3/20). And then Iran. But now it is China that has supposedly been placing bounties on the heads of US soldiers in Afghanistan—according to information received by outlets like the New York Times (12/30/20), Axios (12/30/20) and CNN (12/31/20).

Outlets worldwide ran with the news, many treating it as highly credible:

  • “Trump Was Briefed That China Sought to Pay Non-State Actors to Attack US Forces in Afghanistan” (CNN, 12/31/20)
  • “China Accused of Offering Bounties to Afghan ‘Nonstate Actors’ to Kill US Troops” (Voice of America, 12/31/20)
  • “China Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Attack US Soldiers: Reports” (Deutsche Welt, 12/31/20)
  • “REVEALED: Trump Was Briefed on Intelligence Claiming China Put Bounties on US Soldiers in Afghanistan” (Daily Mail, 12/31/20)
  • “Trump Is Told ‘China Wanted to Pay Terrorists to Attack US Forces in Afghanistan’” (News.com.au, 1/1/21)
  • “Donald Trump: China Paid to Kill US troops in Afghanistan” (London Times, 1/1/21)
  • “Trump Administration Says It Has Intelligence That China Offered Bounties for US Troops in Afghanistan, Report Says” (Military.com, 1/1/21)

There were, however, some serious flaws with the story. Firstly, all three original reports relied heavily upon hearsay from anonymous spies—or “senior administration officials,” as CNN and Axios called them. This is problematic, as it is precisely the job of state intelligence agencies to deceive and mislead. In 2019, former CIA Director Mike Pompeo (and Trump’s secretary of State) boasted of his organization: “We lied. We cheated. We stole. We had entire training courses [on] it.” These officials are among the least credible sources, journalistically speaking, that a reporter is ever likely to encounter. That none of them were willing to attach their names to the claims should make reporters doubly skeptical. (Some outlets did hint at the sketchy nature of the allegations in their headlines; Axios called the intelligence “Unconfirmed,” Business Insider12/31/20—said it was “Unverified,” while the New York Times and Fox News1/1/21—went with “Uncorroborated.”)

Naming sources is strongly encouraged journalistic practice, except in very rare circumstances where a source’s life or liberty may be at stake. The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics instructs that “reporters should use every possible avenue to confirm and attribute information before relying on unnamed sources,” and that they should “always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity,” as too many “provide information only when it benefits them.” The New York Times agrees; its own guidelines on integrity strongly discourages the practice; “There is nothing more toxic to responsible journalism than an anonymous source,” wrote the paper’s public editor (5/30/04).

And yet, it continues to fail to practice what it preaches, particularly in foreign affairs and conflict reporting. A 2011 FAIR study (11/1/11) of the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post found that nearly one-quarter of the stories (and virtually all of them focusing on Afghanistan or Al Qaeda) included information from anonymous state officials.

Through the years, FAIR has been highly critical of the deference media show to unnamed state officials (FAIR.org, 6/25/14, 3/29/16, 4/26/17), a practice that regularly leads to them printing false information (FAIR.org, 6/30/17, 12/3/18). The Times article  (12/30/20) on the Chinese bounty claim concedes that “United States intelligence agencies collect enormous amounts of information, much of which turns out to be false or misleading”—an admission that begs the question why this news was deemed fit to print in the first place.

Axios (12/30/20) noted that “officials would not describe the source or sources of the intelligence or say when or over what period of time the activity occurred”—but a scoop is a scoop.

Axios, too, hedged its bets, informing readers that, “Officials would not describe the source or sources of the intelligence or say when or over what period of time the activity occurred,” admitting that they were “not able to visually inspect any reports detailing the intelligence,” and that all they had been provided was a verbal description from an official on the phone—an official who refused to give his name. Of the “five W’s” of journalism, this is what Axios presented us with:

  • Who is your source?: We don’t know; they refused to give their names,  despite the fact that there would be no repercussions for saying bad things about an official enemy.
  • What is being alleged and what evidence is there?: Vague assertions about Chinese meddling, but we have seen no evidence.
  • When did this take place?: No time period was given.
  • Where did it happen?: Somewhere in Afghanistan.
  • Why? We don’t know. Indeed, Axios noted that it seemed “incongruous” that China would do such a thing.

The timing of the bombshell was also questionable, coming amid increased American aggressiveness towards Beijing. Throughout 2020, the US has been sending warships to within a few dozen miles of major cities like Shanghai. Last month, it also flew nuclear bombers over Chinese ships close to China’s Hainan Island.

Are Russia, Iran and China, the three countries that Washington appears determined to push to the edge of war, really providing us with such useful casus belli? The Times in particular seemed to almost be salivating at the idea of conflict with a nuclear power:

If confirmed, and particularly if traced to political leaders in Beijing, such an action by China would constitute a grave provocation that might demand a response by President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. after he takes office in January.

But perhaps the most fantastic thing about this story is that intelligence officials have pulled this same stunt twice in the last six months, first crying wolf over Russia, then Iran, accusing them of doing exactly the same thing: paying off the Taliban to kill Americans. Both previous times, they made a big splash in the media, causing outrage (FAIR.org, 7/3/20), and a reversal of a decision to pull more US troops out of Afghanistan. In the case of Russia, media immediately began walking the story back (NBC News, 7/9/20), something which has also already started with Chinagate, too (Politico, 12/30/20).

“It is unclear whether the intelligence on China shows that any bounties were paid, or whether any attacks on American personnel were even attempted,” the New York Times acknowledged, another reason why the story should have been discarded from the get-go, rather than repeated across the media. Furthermore, if China is indeed paying Afghans to kill American servicemen, they are clearly not getting much for their money; US armed forces recorded only 11 fatalities throughout 2020, down from hundreds during the Obama-era surge, and the lowest yearly figure since the invasion.

If corporate media want a genuine Afghanistan scandal, they could have piggybacked on the Intercept’s excellent and substantiated recent report (12/18/20) on how the CIA has been funding, arming and training death squads inside the country, driving them to schools they had selected so they could massacre children as young as eight. Instead of covering this, however (a search for “Intercept+Afghanistan” elicits no relevant results in the New York Times, Washington Post, CBS News, Fox News, MSNBC, NBC News or ABC News), corporate media have chosen to go back to exactly the same shadowy figures who fed them dubious information on official enemies before, and who are themselves overseeing demonstrable crimes.

Featured image: Voice of America depiction of US troops in Afghanistan.

 

Leading Papers Talked Up Establishment’s Senate Candidates 

 

Democrats celebrated dual Georgia Senate race victories this week, which gives them, with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaker vote, a bare majority in the Senate.

But not all Democrats are created equal, and the one-vote margin makes the politics of each individual in that majority more consequential. In 2020, several states witnessed competitive Democratic Senate primary races in which a progressive candidate seriously challenged a candidate further to the right, offering a chance to bring to the Senate more supporters of people-friendly policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. In every case, the Democratic establishment (including super PACs like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senate Majority PAC) threw its considerable resources behind the non-progressive—and the nation’s most influential newspapers helped them tip the scales.

In an examination of New York Times and Washington Post coverage of five competitive Democratic Senate primaries, FAIR found that these papers gave significantly more overall coverage to establishment-backed candidates, and that their analyses echoed the assumptions of electability and experience that propelled those candidacies.

In recent election cycles, many candidates with progressive or social democratic platforms—most visibly, longstanding senator and two-time presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—have generated strong popular support, and many have been elected to state and national office against well-funded opposition. Despite the growing popularity of progressive policies within the party, the Democratic establishment has worked to marginalize this newly energized voting bloc.

To shed light on the role of the national media in these races, FAIR examined Times and Post coverage of five competitive Senate Democratic primaries: Kentucky, Colorado, North Carolina, Texas and Tennessee. We searched each paper’s online archive for stories mentioning at least one of the candidates in the three months leading up to the primary election day in each race.

We defined an “establishment-backed candidate” as one who received backing (monetary or otherwise) from figures associated with the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and organizations like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senate Majority PAC. Progressives were defined by their support for policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and backing from progressive groups or politicians like Indivisible, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez.

When papers ran more than one version of the same article, the longer version was included in our count.

Mentions were classified as “brief”—in which the candidate is simply named—or “substantive,” in which the candidate and their politics are at least minimally described.

By the Numbers

Seventy-four articles in the two papers mentioned at least one of the candidates. These pieces included 83 appearances by establishment-backed candidates, with 35 substantive mentions. Progressive candidates, meanwhile, made 55 appearances, 20 of which were substantive.

The papers gave the establishment-backed candidate more overall coverage than the progressive candidate in every race except Texas, where the two candidates received equal amounts, and Tennessee, where the candidates received no coverage.

Substantive coverage followed a similar pattern: The establishment-backed candidates received more in Kentucky, Colorado and North Carolina, though in Texas, the progressive Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez got two substantive mentions to the establishment-backed M.J. Hegar’s one. The skew was particularly pronounced in Colorado, where establishment-backed John Hickenlooper received over three times as many substantive mentions as progressive Andrew Romanoff.

Notably, the only one of the five races that the more progressive candidate won was Tennessee, where Marquita Bradshaw defeated James Mackler. It was also the only race that went unmentioned by the Times and the Post.

In Hickenlooper’s case, some of the extra coverage may be attributable to local celebrity, as he is a former Colorado governor and erstwhile 2020 presidential contender. Other establishment-backed candidates, like Kentucky’s Amy McGrath and Hegar in Texas, were more or less manufactured and boosted by the Democratic establishment looking for corporate-friendly candidates to compete in races.

Erasing Progressives

The imbalanced coverage meant that in many articles, reporters presented a race as if it were already over, or as if the progressive candidate was not a real contender. Twenty-eight of the 74 articles in the study named an establishment candidate but not their progressive opponent. The reverse only happened twice, including a Times article (6/18/20) on reparations for descendants of enslaved people that quoted Romanoff and Kentucky’s Charles Booker, but not their opponents—likely because Romanoff and Booker, unlike their opponents, favor such reparations.

New York Times (4/5/20)

Colorado’s Romanoff, in particular, fell victim to this trend, going missing in 15 of the 32 total articles that mention the race. (Hickenlooper was named in all but one of the 32.) Similarly, in Kentucky, Booker was omitted from 14 of the 38 articles. (McGrath was included in all but the previously mentioned article on reparations.)

In an article (4/5/20) about how Covid-19 is changing campaigning, the Times‘ Carl Hulse spent three paragraphs describing Hickenlooper’s campaign and named the Republican incumbent Cory Gardner twice, yet never mentioned Romanoff, nearly three months before the voters went to the polls.

Two months later, with the primary still underway, Hulse (6/8/20) wrote that Gardner was “likely to face John Hickenlooper, a well-liked former governor,” failing again to mention Romanoff and giving the impression that Hickenlooper’s victory was a foregone conclusion. Polls released at about the same time showed that Hickenlooper’s lead over Romanoff was sizable but shrinking.

Hulse finally named Romanoff in an article on June 27, presenting the tightening race as a “dark spot” for Democrats hoping to flip the Senate. Hulse wrote that “Democrats” had believed the race against Gardner “was essentially in the bag” until “Hickenlooper’s multiple travails and missteps.” Here, “Democrats” clearly means establishment Democrats, erasing the progressives who supported Romanoff and would see the close race as a bright spot.

At the Post, which also gave Hickenlooper more coverage than Romanoff, a piece (6/12/20) about Hickenlooper’s “ethics woes” noted that

Democratic campaign operatives said that regardless of the ethics scandal, they were confident Hickenlooper’s widespread name recognition and popularity among voters will ensure that he prevails over Romanoff in the primary, and ultimately, Gardner in the general election.

Of course, media coverage plays a significant role in name recognition and popularity.

The problem was not unique to coverage of the Colorado race. For instance, in a Times article (3/1/20) about the battle for the Senate (also by Hulse), the Texas race was characterized as being Hegar versus a “crowded field,” without naming those in that field with significant popular support—like Tzintzún Ramirez.

Electability

Even when the papers did pay more than passing attention to a challenger, they often still relied on the media gospel (Extra!, 9/92, 1–2/95, 6/04, 7–8/06, 1–2/07, 12/14; FAIR.org, 11/7/08, 3/16/10)  that Democrats have to run as centrists to win in a general election.

Washington Post (3/1/20)

A March 1 Post article, originally headlined “Echoes of Insurgency, Down Ballots and Across the Aisle,” which mentioned multiple races, both Democratic and Republican, wondered if voters from both parties would “eschew pragmatists and dealmakers for more ideologically driven candidates.” This framing, typical of the coverage, takes for granted that establishment-backed candidates are somehow not ideological, and that progressives cannot be pragmatic or make deals.

In a Times article (3/1/20) the day before on the battle for the Senate, Hulse wrote of the North Carolina primary that “a loss by Mr. Cunningham would be a setback for national Democrats who see him as the strongest challenger to [incumbent Republican senator] Mr. Tillis, a top target.” But the only polls available before the DSCC endorsed Cunningham showed Smith outpolling him (Politifact, 1/10/20); the Times made no mention of that inconvenient data, nor did it quote anyone who saw Smith as the stronger challenger to Tillis.

It’s worth highlighting that in the five races we studied, every establishment-backed candidate was white, while only one of the progressives (Romanoff) was. Erasing progressives in the media therefore meant erasing candidates of color. In a lengthy Post feature (2/23/20) on Tzintzún Ramirez, Jenna Johnson revealed the racial undertones of the contests (and the coverage):

Calls for more candidates who look and think like the party’s emerging base of young, nonwhite and more liberal voters are inevitably colliding with a desire to win seats and states that have long been held by Republicans but are seen as gettable if candidates appeal to more moderate—and often more white—voters.

It’s not clear why looking and thinking like the party’s “emerging base” results in “inevitably colliding” with winning Republican-held seats—particularly in the South, where people of color make up a very large potential voting bloc, but have long been marginalized. Non-Latino whites are a shrinking minority in Texas. Who sees those seats as “gettable” only by appealing to “moderate” white voters? By writing in the passive voice, Johnson presented centrist—and racist—dogma as a universal truth.

Really Good Résumés

New York Times (6/17/20)

The skewed electability framing extended to the ways the papers at times described the candidate’s characteristics and qualifications. One Times opinion piece by Gail Collins (6/17/20) went as far as to characterize Booker—who is Black and comes from a working-class background—as the “candidate of the Bernie Bros.”

Collins offered a one-line snapshot of each candidate: Booker as the “exciting newcomer who might be able to move the public left,” and McGrath as the “moderate with a really good résumé.” While some in the establishment might argue with the label “exciting” applied to Booker, it certainly reflected the public sentiment about him in Kentucky, where he surged in polls to tie or lead the much better-funded McGrath in the lead-up to the primary (Civiqs, 6/13–15/20). But it’s harder to justify the label “moderate” as applied to McGrath, who infamously told Morning Joe (MSNBC, 7/9/19) that she was running against Mitch McConnell because the senator was blocking Trump’s agenda.

As for that “really good” résumé, which the Post (6/20/20) also pointed to as having “impressed” national Democrats? The only thing on it that either piece mentioned was McGrath’s experience flying combat aircraft—not exactly an obvious prerequisite to representing constituents or governing. (Four of the five establishment-backed candidates touted military backgrounds.) Meanwhile, Booker, a state representative, was the only one of the two who had ever actually won an election and held office—which would seem like directly relevant experience.

In the end, McGrath lost her Senate race by over 20 percentage points, Hegar by 10 and Cunningham by just shy of 2. The only one of the four establishment-backed candidates who emerged victorious was Hickenlooper, who won by nearly 10 points over the highly unpopular Gardner. It’s impossible to say what those results would have looked like with the progressives nominated instead, though Bradshaw lost her race in Tennessee by 27 points. (It’s worth noting the race was always a particular longshot for Democrats, and that Bradshaw raised just over $1 million, in contrast to establishment-backed McGrath’s $88 million, Cunningham’s $46 million, Hickenlooper’s $39 million and Hegar’s $24 million—OpenSecrets.org.) In any case, the establishment candidates certainly didn’t make a strong case for their inherent “electability.”

‘To Tell Stories of Communities That Are Authentic, You Have to Have a Conversation’

 

Janine Jackson: Welcome to the Best of CounterSpin for 2020. I’m Janine Jackson.

As we start a new year, longtime listeners may know, we revisit a few of our weekly looks behind the headlines. We call it “the best of,” but it’s just a reflection of the sorts of conversations we hope offer some voice or context or information that you might not have heard elsewhere, or that might help you assess the news you are hearing. We’re thankful to all of the activists, researchers, reporters and advocates who appear on the show to help us understand the world and how we can change it.

You’re listening to the Best of CounterSpin for 2020.

***

Janine Jackson: Just in time for 2019’s holidays, the Trump administration proposed a rule change to make accessing Social Security Disability benefits harder. No justification was offered, but we were told billions of dollars would “somehow” be saved. Our talk in January with Alex Lawson of Social Security Works lifted two ideas that would prove thematic: that the cruelty is the point, and that Trump didn’t invent it.

Alex Lawson: “Greedy liars on Wall Street can’t stand how well Social Security works.”

Alex Lawson: We have incredibly stringent requirements on the disability benefits that are part of Social Security. What this would do is make people who have received the benefits—they’ve proven their eligibility—reprove themselves over and over and over again, sometimes as much as every six months. And this is an incredibly arduous process. So, that’s what they do; but the goal of it is actually to get people to give up. That’s exactly what happened when Ronald Reagan did this. And it led to tens of thousands of people dying.

And when they were kicked off their benefits, their benefits were ripped out of their hands—when that was looked at, around 60% of the people who had their benefits stolen from them were found to have wrongly had their benefits stolen from them, and were put back on. But in the meantime, you had tens of thousands of people die.

Now if you’re being really generous, you could say that Ronald Reagan didn’t know what was going to happen when he did this. But now? That’s why Mick Mulvaney is pushing Donald Trump to do it. Mick Mulvaney is a student of Ronald Reagan, and he’s the architect of this policy in the Trump White House.

This is part of a decades-long campaign to either steal, in so-called privatization, or to destroy the Social Security system, so that there’s no other alternative besides Wall Street. And that’s what it all comes down to: Greedy liars on Wall Street can’t stand how well Social Security works.

Less than one penny of every dollar that goes into the system pays for administering the entire thing. So 99 cents of every dollar paid in comes back in the form of benefits. A Wall Street hedge funder, private equity guy, looks at that and says, “I would tack on another 25–30% as my fee, so that I could buy a golden yacht,” or another golden yacht, or whatever they do with their money. They see the efficiency of Social Security, and they want to destroy it.

***

Janine Jackson: Public protest defined 2020, but not all protestors were treated the same—by police or the press. Chip Gibbons, policy director at Defending Rights & Dissent, talked about how the FBI justifies targeting peaceful groups, and uses informants to play the press and the public.

Chip Gibbons: “Being angry about social injustice you experience is somehow a pretext that one might then use to go and engage in crime.”

Chip Gibbons: We know from the files released via the Freedom of Information Act about the surveillance of Occupy Wall Street, the FBI acknowledged they were nonviolent. We know about the files released about School of the Americas Watch, which is a pacifist antiwar group that protests a notorious military training facility, where it has been training death squads and dictators in Latin America, that they were a peaceful group with peaceful intentions. They try to rationalize this by saying that, at an unknown point in the future, an unknown actor could infiltrate these groups and act violently, or, in the case of Occupy Wall Street, they said the group could be exploited by a lone offender. But what’s really insidious here is that they clearly think that certain types of speech, therefore, are somehow suspicious.

And you see this logic even more in play with the “Black Identity Extremism” intelligence assessment, which states that if African Americans are concerned about police racism and social injustice, they’re more likely to engage in lethal retaliatory violence against law enforcement, and that’s a threat the FBI has to counter in the present. And what that’s saying is that being angry about social injustice you experience is somehow a pretext that one might then use to go and engage in crime. It’s a predetermining factor in criminality.

And you see that again: One of the FBI field offices had a report on, because of anger at the horrible treatment of migrant children who are in concentration camps in this country, that you’re more likely to see anarchists engage in violence against the government. So this treatment that certain types of speech lead to crime, and therefore are inherently suspicious.

And it’s good that you pointed out agent provocateurs, because the FBI has always used confidential informants to spy on dissent. But since 9/11, and especially in the Muslim community, those confidential informants have increasingly acted as agents provocateurs, going to people who are not suspected of any crime—in one case, they met someone, a random person in a parking lot of a mosque—and then suggesting, and in many cases enticing them to agree to terror plots that exist only in the FBI’s minds. And then when they agree to partake in them, they’re then arrested, and the FBI does these big press releases, a big press conference saying, “Oh, we foiled terrorism, we foiled a terror plot.” And that further justifies more repression.

***

Janine Jackson: A US airstrike killing—among others—Iranian Gen. Qasem Soelimani was just one incident that, as Greg Shupak of the University of Guelph-Humber explained, downplayed the US’s day-to-day violence against Iran and played up US exceptionalism.

Gregory Shupak: “The United States and its partners are allowed to kill whomever they want, wherever they want, and no resistance to that is legitimate.”

Gregory Shupak: We’re seeing this in this perverse way now, where, because there’s seemingly at least a temporary halt being placed on the potential of a full-scale military war, this is presented as, “Oh, OK. Well, it’s only sanctions, right?” The media coverage presents sanctions as though they’re somehow an alternative to war, rather than a part of war, and very often sort of the first phase, or an earlier phase, in a full-scale armed destruction of a country.

One of the recurring tropes in the coverage—I’ve seen it in multiple New York Times editorials, the Washington Post has been publishing former US government officials, Leon Panetta, as well as others from the Bush and Reagan administrations—and running throughout all of this material is this assertion, which is the murder of Soleimani was justified because he, and/or Iran more generally, are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of troops.

Well, for a minute, we can bracket the fact that there’s pretty thin evidence about that. And Gareth Porter, who you mentioned, documents this quite well in a piece he did for Truthout in July, where he makes clear that he pressed US officials for evidence of this, or some sort of proof, and they simply admitted to him that they didn’t have any to provide.

But I want to point also to this assumption that killing American servicemembers in Iraq justifies carrying out assassinations of Iranian government leaders. This, I think, is one of the more central and deeper and troubling assumptions in imperialist media, that the United States and its partners are allowed to kill whomever they want, wherever they want, and no resistance to that is legitimate.

***

Janine Jackson: Carol Anderson, professor of African-American studies at Emory University, talked about the  hidden “bureaucratic violence” of voter ID laws, purges and poll closures—and the still more obscured, to the public, role of judges.

Carol Anderson: “These are judges who do not believe in civil rights. These are judges who do not believe in voting rights.”

Carol Anderson: One of the things that we’ve seen, for instance, is that the US Senate has been confirming these right-wing judges who cannot even get their mouths fixed to say that the Brown decision was appropriately decided. These are judges who do not believe in civil rights. These are judges who do not believe in voting rights. These are the judges who do not believe in environmental rights. These are the judges who do not believe in women’s rights.

And the Republicans in the Senate have been pushing these judges through, with no real vetting whatsoever. So several have gone through, more than ever before, that the American Bar Association has ruled as being unqualified.

And so we have unqualified federal judges with lifetime appointments on the bench. And so what happens then is, as these cases—civil society, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, they have been suing the states for these voter suppression laws, and how discriminatory they are. But as these cases go up, they’re hitting these judges, these judges who do not believe in voting rights.

And that is why this election of 2020 is so crucial. Because if we have a federal judiciary just loaded down with those who do not believe in basic civil rights, do not believe in the rights guaranteed in the Constitution. Whew….

JJ: Yeah.

CA: Then we are going to be back to where we were after Reconstruction, when that Supreme Court basically gutted the 14th and 15th Amendments, and skewered the 13th Amendment, that has badges of servitude. And it took about 100 years and a civil rights movement to undo the damage coming out of Reconstruction with that Supreme Court. And that’s where we are headed again, unless we stop it.

***

Janine Jackson: As coronavirus cases in the US surpassed 1 million in April, media were bravely noting that White House declarations of “a great success story” were “at variance with the facts.” The deeper lie—that we had to trade off lives for livelihoods—went largely unchallenged. We spoke with FAIR’s Jim Naureckas.

Jim Naureckas: “The decision to not have a serious national strategy to combat the coronavirus, that was a choice.”

Jim Naureckas: You do see a lot of coverage that assumes that the two choices are to sit in our homes and have people basically go bankrupt as they can’t work, or else to force them back into the workplace and have them take their chances with the coronavirus. And the idea that you could support people through this crisis, give people the resources they need, delay obligations like rent and debt repayment and so forth, that these things could be put off while we deal with the crisis—it’s not really being seriously considered as an option. The idea that the landlord must get paid seems to be a sacred cow that really can’t be trifled with. 

JJ: In June, we asked Jim about fears and facts in connection with the big stories of the day: protests and Covid-19.

JN: You do see a lot of people talking about how dangerous it is to protest, and how this is going to inevitably result in a spike in cases. And it really hasn’t; when you look at places like New York; like Minneapolis, Minnesota; the District of Columbia, where there have been a lot of protests, you have not seen a corresponding spike in infections. The places where you have seen big spikes are largely in the South and West, where places have declared it was time to resume normal business operations.

I really think that people underestimate the distinction between outdoor and indoor activities, and activities with masks and without masks; those really do make a huge difference in terms of the danger of spreading the disease.

And also the fact that the number of people involved in an activity makes a great deal of difference. If you’re talking about something that a few percent of the population is doing, it’s obviously going to have a much smaller impact on the trajectory of the infection than something that most of the population is doing.

But when you see people doing something that you don’t like, there’s a tendency to think, “Oh, well, that’s a thing that they shouldn’t be doing anyway. If there’s any risk at all, it’s too much risk.” And people really need to be thinking more probabilistically. Are you really increasing your chances of spreading the virus, compared to what you would be doing in your everyday life? And how many people are doing it?

The decision to not have a serious national strategy to combat the coronavirus, that was a choice. We decided that we were not going to do what it took to actually stop it, and instead, try to mitigate the spread of it, slow down the spread of it so it doesn’t overwhelm our healthcare system.

If you don’t stop the virus, it will eventually spread to virtually the entire population. People think that 70, 80% of people will get infected. The disease has something like a 0.5 to 1% fatality rate. When you do the math, you are talking about millions of people, in the United States alone, dying from the coronavirus. That is the implication of a strategy that does not try to stop the virus. And I think we’ve never had an actual conversation about whether a seven-figure death toll is something that we’re willing to accept or not.

***

Janine Jackson: CNN was still issuing headlines like “Protesters Face Off With the Forces of Order,” even as its own reporters were being teargassed and wrongfully arrested in demonstrations against the police murder of George Floyd. Why don’t such experiences bring reporters into closer solidarity with overpoliced communities? CounterSpin talked with Alicia Bell, organizing manager with the group Free Press.

Alicia Bell: “When we’re in conversation with people that we have relationships with, that we’ve established relationships with, there’s going to be so much more variety, so much more nuance.”

Alicia Bell: There’s often conversations about the future of journalism and the future of news. And when we think about journalism and news as an institution, and an infrastructure in our community, then what we know is that when our communities are stronger and our communities are more powerful, institutions and infrastructure within our communities are also stronger and more powerful. And the same thing goes for news and for journalism.

But in order for journalists to really be accurately and adequately informing community needs and information needs, and in order for them to tell the stories of communities in ways that are authentic and genuine—you have to have a conversation; and you’re going to have a deeper conversation, you’re going to have a deeper reporting, when you’re in relationship with someone.

And the same thing goes with any kind of relationship, right? If we walk up to someone randomly on the street, and want to ask them about some of the most intimate moments, most important political moments of their lives, we’re less likely to get really rich, deep conversation.

But when we’re in conversation with people that we have relationships with, that we’ve established relationships with, there’s going to be so much more variety, so much more nuance. And the way that we build those relationships, the way that we are encouraging journalists to build those relationships, is really the same way that you build and sustain any relationship. If somebody only comes into your house and eats food out of your refrigerator and doesn’t say hello, doesn’t ask how you’re doing, doesn’t give anything back, you’re rightfully going to be frustrated.

So if journalists are only coming into communities, especially communities of color, Black and brown communities, who have often been marginalized by newsrooms, and are only taking information and taking quotes from people, instead of asking how they’re doing, being present in different community spaces, then the relationship is not going to happen.

So right now, in this immediate moment, those are some of the ways that journalists can be building relationships. They can also be asking different people on the ground, from various community institutions, organizations, non-organizations: “What do you need? What questions do you have right now? What can we get answers to that you might not get answers to?” And do the work of answering those questions and providing that information.

And I think it’s worth thinking about some of the things that folks are protesting right now. When folks are protesting policing and police violence and state-sponsored violence, it’s really a protest of extraction, of “how have you extracted people and power from my community?”

And so for journalists, I think it’s important to not continue that same habit of extraction—because that extraction, that puts you in solidarity and an alignment with folks who are perpetuating state-sponsored violence with the same kind of tactic, just in a different shape and a different form—but instead to think of, “How can this be generative for this community? What kind of followup can there be? How can I collaborate with journalists and newsrooms that are on the ground all the time? What does that look like?” That starts to shift that extraction to being really relational.

***

Janine Jackson: As Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin crushed the life out of George Floyd, one of his colleagues said to those looking on, “Don’t do drugs, kids.” The police who killed Breonna Taylor claim her murder was “drug-related.” 2020 saw some police reform legislation in Congress. We talked with Maritza Perez of the Drug Policy Alliance about some key things missing.

Maritza Perez: “We just need to put an end to militarized policing.”

Maritza Perez: Something else that we think is missing from the bill is the fact that this bill attempts to reform the Department of Defense’s 1033 program. The 1033 program is a program that’s been around for approximately 30 years at this point. It allows the Department of Defense to transfer military-grade equipment to local and state police departments.

I think the public really became aware of this program around the time of the Michael Brown protests in Ferguson. I think people were really just astonished to see that local law enforcement had access to things like tanks, riot gear, the types of things that you think you would see in a war zone, not in a community or in a neighborhood.

But the reason that law enforcement has this is because over the years, this program has allowed billions—more than $7 billion worth of equipment—to get transferred to local and state departments.

This program is also notorious for being mismanaged. In fact, a couple of years ago, the Government Accountability Office conducted a report and review of the program. And they actually created a fake law enforcement agency, and were able to get military-grade equipment from the program, pretending to be this nonexistent law enforcement agency. So that just kind of paints a picture of how little-managed and how little oversight there is of this program, which is scary because, again, it’s military equipment going into the hands of police officers, and who knows who else.

The bill does include reform around the program, but we don’t think reform is enough. We think that the program needs to be abolished. One reason that law enforcement can make a case for getting this equipment is saying that they are conducting counter-narcotics investigations. The bill would take that piece out, but law enforcement would still be able to get the equipment through other ways, including saying that they are conducting counterterrorism investigations; that could be another way to get this equipment.

Our concern is that the equipment would still go to them, and it would still be used against people, and that’s what we don’t want. And I do want to point out that military equipment, and no-knock warrants, are super tied. I mentioned before that no-knock warrants are often used in conjunction with SWAT raids. The police will often use quick-knock, no-knock warrants during SWAT deployments, specifically during drug investigations, disproportionately against people of color in drug investigations. So we really think that reform won’t save the program; the program needs to be done away with. We just need to put an end to militarized policing.

And then lastly, what we think the bill fails to do is just really reimagine what public safety can look like. It’s still relying on federal funding to encourage police officers and law enforcement to do the right thing. It’s still saying, “Well, if you do these things, if you implement these policies, we won’t take away your funding.” But, ultimately, it’s still diverting resources to law enforcement. And, in fact, there are other areas within the bill that give law enforcement money to implement some of these rules. It’s not just being used as a stick, saying, “Well, we’ll take your money if you don’t do this.” It’s also like, “We’ll give you money so you can do X, Y and Z.”

And I think that Congress really needs to listen to people on the ground, who are saying now is the time where we need to divest from law enforcement and invest in our communities, invest in things that actually create public safety and create safe communities, things like quality education, things like jobs and living wages, things like safe and affordable housing, things like harm reduction.

If we’re talking about people who use drugs, I think a better investment would be in harm reduction services, and programs for people who really need them; that would save lives. That would reduce violence.

I think this bill really does fail to imagine what public safety could look like. That’s our biggest problem with it. They’re not listening to people on the ground. And we’re trying to just help Congress think through what people are actually asking. They’re not saying, “Fund police” right now. In fact, they’re saying the opposite. They’re saying, “Invest in our communities.” This bill doesn’t go far enough.

***

Janine Jackson: Finally, California ballot initiative, Proposition 22, saw Uber et al. spend more than $200 million in the effort to lock workers out of basic labor rights, and to sell the public on the idea that those workers don’t even want those silly rights anyway. Rey Fuentes of the Partnership for Working Families broke down that deception.

Rey Fuentes: “This Proposition 22 fight has actually energized organizing in a way that I’ve really never seen before.”

Rey Fuentes: Whenever each one of these companies started operating, they’ve decided that the workers were independent contractors, but under any conceivable state law test, these workers have been employees for the purposes of state law, which means they should be getting the things like basic minimum wage protections and overtime. And AB 5 just crystallized the conversation, and more important than anything else, AB 5 authorized public officials—like the attorney general, and city attorneys around California in large cities—to enforce these obligations.

The companies have designed a web of private arbitrations which prevent workers from going to court, and really fairly adjudicating what are the results of their employee classification, or what wages they’re owed. And so, because these companies have evaded enforcement in the past, the fact that AB 5 authorized public officials to enforce, and the fact that they started to bring lawsuits against these companies, is what created the urgency to pass Proposition 22, and to really spread so much misinformation about what the proposition actually contains.

I think one of the things that is important to recognize is that this force by the company, their efforts to pass a ballot initiative like this, has not defeated workers, and in fact, has done quite the opposite: We’ve seen the most explosive and energetic worker organizing on the ground that has ever been present in the gig community, in workers who are working for Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash, who now recognize very clearly what is at stake, and have started to very articulately cut through the company’s messaging. A lot of workers who had started working for these companies, when they were first founded, were earning a pretty good wage and sufficient earnings for themselves to maintain a living. But the companies flooded the market, they started cutting rates, and now workers understand very clearly that the companies were holding them, really, hostage on the job, and leaving them without many alternatives.

And so this Proposition 22 fight has actually energized organizing in a way that I’ve really never seen before. That’s what’s an exciting component about this, is that workers are more engaged, rather than less engaged. That’s one thing that is going to be absolutely critical in the fights ahead.

***

Janine Jackson: That was Rey Fuentes; before him you heard Maritza Perez, Alicia Bell, Jim Naureckas, Carol Anderson, Greg Shupak, Chip Gibbons and Alex Lawson. And that’s it for the Best of CounterSpin for 2020.

CounterSpin is produced by FAIR, the media watch group based in New York. You can learn more about us on our website, FAIR.org. Also the place to show support for the show, if you’re so inclined. If you hear CounterSpin thanks to listener-supported radio, please support your station.

The show is engineered by Alex Noyes. I’m Janine Jackson. As ever, thanks for listening to CounterSpin.

 

Billionaire-Owned Media Look Out for Neediest by Demanding They Get No More Money

 

A lot of extremely rich people seem to be against the idea of giving money to the rest of us. In recent weeks, as the US continues to flounder amidst a surging Covid-19 epidemic, a wide range of political figures, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump, have come out in support of a one-time $2,000 check to Americans who make less than $75,000.

Washington Post (12/29/20)

Chief among the doubters of the plan have been corporate media. A Washington Post editorial (12/29/20) denounced the project as a “bad idea” that would compound all the government’s errors from the previous nine months. As is tradition with the Post (FAIR.org, 3/8/16, 2/24/20, 4/6/20), the editorial board reserved its strongest denunciations for the independent senator from Vermont. “Especially wrongheaded in this regard is the progressive left, spearheaded by Sen. Bernie Sanders,” it wrote, scoffing at Sanders portrayal of “desperate Americans” in need of aid, because “huge amounts” would go to “perfectly comfortable families.”

They did acknowledge the need for something to be done, but advised that the money would be better spent on “longer extension of unemployment benefits, aid to state and local governments, and vaccines.” Of course, the choice on the table when the Post published its editorial was not whether to distribute money as stimulus checks or to target that money to unemployment benefits and to state and local governments, but to spend additional money on stimulus or not spend it at all. As Eric Levitz noted in New York (12/29/20):

Donald Trump is not about to force Republican senators to support federalizing unemployment insurance. It’s $2,000 checks for almost all, or inadequate aid to the poor.

Given that choice between stimulus or nothing, the Post picked nothing, concluding that the proposed relief would amount to simply “blowing nearly half a trillion taxpayer dollars.”

Apart from the matter of whether helping people keep the wolf from the door is “blowing” it,  how much is half a trillion dollars, really? The increase in wealth of the top 15 richest Americans in 2020 alone is enough to cover the entire cost of the $464 billion plan. US billionaires taken together have seen their wealth rise by almost $2 trillion in 2020, so they could fund the plan while still keeping three-quarters of their gains.

The Post’s owner (and world’s richest human) Jeff Bezos has increased his own wealth from $113 billion to $186 billion since the start of the pandemic, according to the Forbes billionaire list. While that 65% increase wouldn’t allow Bezos to pay for the stimulus by himself, he could personally mail a $300 check to every American adult and still be as rich as he was in March. He could even use his own Amazon delivery service to do it.

Don’t hold your breath for the Post to advocate for such a measure, however, as the newspaper has always assiduously protected its plutocratic owner from scrutiny (FAIR.org, 5/22/15, 7/28/17) and diligently promoted his interests to its readers (FAIR.org, 10/25/17, 3/14/18, 7/25/18).

The Post, by the way, is in favor of $2,000 checks—for some. Last week, it announced that all its employees would be given a special $2,021 bonus for their “exceptional service through the challenges of 2020.” Two grand for me, but not for thee.

Bloomberg (12/27/20)

Not to be outdone, Bloomberg (12/27/20) published a bitter attack on the idea from former Treasury secretary, World Bank chief economist, National Economic Council director and Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, who warned that a $2,000 check would be a “big mistake,” as it risked “overheating the economy.” Like the Post, Summers accepted that some kind of action was necessary, writing that “victims of Covid-19 disruption can and should receive generous targeted support, as should the poor,” but suggested that $2,000 was simply too much. “There is no good economic argument for the $2,000 checks,” he categorically concluded.

The economic argument for stimulus checks, actually, is that the economy is in need of stimulus—and as US employment is still down more than 6% from where it was in February, it’s a persuasive point. Stimulus does not have to go only to the neediest to stimulate; it simply has to go to people who are likely to use it. A $2,000 boost would also help state and local governments by increasing local spending and generating sales tax revenues.

And the widely touted (though politically unlikely) alternative of expanding unemployment benefits would, in fact, miss many of the neediest people who would be helped by a broader based stimulus. As the People’s Policy Project (12/17/20) has pointed out, many of those who are currently living in poverty and food insecurity—namely, the long-term unemployed, the elderly and disabled—are ineligible for unemployment benefits, meaning that shifting the stimulus funds to that program wouldn’t help them at all.

Furthermore, the checks are already means-tested, so the bogeyman of the multi-millionaire family throwing an extra $2,000 onto their already enormous pile is a false one.

Why anyone should take anything Summers says on the economy as gospel is unclear. While Chief Economist at the World Bank, his organization pushed devastating austerity measures on much of the developing world. Summers was also one of the masterminds behind the Clinton-era deregulation of the finance sector, policies which led to the collapse of the US economy in 2008. And as head of Harvard, he took reckless risks with its endowment, moves that reportedly lost the university $1.8 billion.

Bloomberg, of course, is owned and operated by Michael Bloomberg, the world’s 23rd richest individual, and a 2020 presidential candidate held up by corporate media as the antidote to both Sanders and Trump (FAIR.org, 2/14/20). Bloomberg was endorsed by influential New York Times columnists like Thomas Friedman (11/12/19) and Bret Stephens (11/8/19). Like Bezos, he has also seen his wealth rise during a time of global economic collapse.

The Times’ heavyweight columnists, unsurprisingly, also came out against giving money directly to Americans. “We need to invest in infrastructure,” Friedman complained on Twitter (12/30/20).

We need to buttress our cities that are running out of money. We need to invest in infrastructure. But a $2,000 untargeted giveaway, in many cases to people who don’t need the help, is crazy. Can we stop and think?

Economist/columnist Paul Krugman (Twitter, 12/29/20) expressed a similar sentiment, lamenting that such a “divisive” idea was “not great policy” (as “the economics aren’t very good”), but may be politically “necessary part of selling the deal” for any aid at all. Given that the public support the idea of sending the checks by a margin of 78% to 17%, it is clear that, in this instance, Krugman is using “divisive” in its Newspeak definition, meaning “controversial among the ultra-wealthy donor class.”

The $2,000 check is indeed far from a perfect plan to help ordinary Americans, yet if it is the only plan currently on the table, many in corporate media are inclined to leave it there. “How to pay for it” is the question they perennially ask when the prospect of helping ordinary people is raised. One very simple solution would be to tax a handful of their multi-billionaire owners. Don’t expect the press to be suggesting that any time soon, however; their role is to represent their owners’ interests, not challenge them.

 

 

Dorothee Benz on January 6 Insurrection, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard on Police Responsibility

Military Timesphoto of a gallows erected on Capitol Hill by pro-Trump militants. (photo: Sarah Sicard)

This week on CounterSpin: As we recorded on January 7, the Washington Post was calling for Donald Trump’s removal from office. To which one might respond: Ya think? Media who egged on Trump’s candidacy, trivialized his venality and normalized as extreme-but-within-range his and his party’s every anti-democratic outrage, are poorly placed to take principled umbrage when that juggernaut takes the course that everyone and their mother said it would. Headlines suggesting the insurrection at the Capitol was the Trump era’s “last gasp” suggest a continued refusal to acknowledge the multiple factors that drove and abetted it, that go well beyond Trump and are going nowhere with Trump’s deposal, today or in two weeks’ time.

Some say the deferential police treatment of rampaging white nationalists who brought their own gallows, as opposed to the abuse that routinely meets nonviolent Black and brown protestors, betrays a double standard; our guest says no, it reflects the single standard of white supremacy. We talk about coverage of the January 6 attack on the Capitol with political scientist Dorothee Benz.

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Washington Post image of police barricades at the Capitol. assaulting the Capitol.

And speaking of law enforcement: We’ll also hear briefly from activist/attorney Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. They’re demanding an investigation of federal and local police planning and response to yesterday’s events.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at media coverage of Julian Assange’s extradition denial and Trump’s Blackwater pardons.

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As Far Right Storms Capitol, Media Need to Look at Their Own Role in How We Got Here

 

Media seem to have finally found the line they won’t abide crossing. After both sides–ing the political situation for four years of Donald Trump, the storming of the Capitol by an armed rebellion incited by Trump himself has brought out swift and strong words.

Washington Post (1/6/21): “Those who sought to benefit from Mr. Trump’s mob-stoking rage…will always bear the stigma of having contributed to the day’s shameful events.”

“Trump Caused the Assault on the Capitol. He Must Be Removed,” declared the Washington Post editorial board (1/6/21). “Responsibility for this act of sedition lies squarely with the president, who has shown that his continued tenure in office poses a grave threat to US democracy,” they wrote. “He should be removed.” They continued:

The president is unfit to remain in office for the next 14 days. Every second he retains the vast powers of the presidency is a threat to public order and national security. Vice President Pence, who had to be whisked off the Senate floor for his own protection, should immediately gather the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment, declaring that Mr. Trump is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

The Post deplored GOP lawmakers like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley who continued to press their baseless attempt to overturn the election, and praised Mitch McConnell, who “to his lasting credit” did not join them, even if, as they noted, “almost all” GOP members “bear some blame for what occurred on Wednesday.” The Republicans, the paper wrote, have an “overriding responsibility to the nation: stopping Mr. Trump and restoring faith in democracy.”

It’s a surprisingly forceful position. At the same time, imagine if the paper—and the rest of the establishment media—had taken the GOP’s threat to democracy seriously before it reached the point of the president inciting an armed insurrection on Capitol Hill. Yesterday’s events were the logical outcome of years of the GOP and Trump casting aside institutional rules and norms one by one with increasing boldness, as the press corps described this increasingly authoritarian behavior as “us[ing] all of the levers of his power” (FAIR.org, 10/15/20), and years of giving Trump and his allies space to make their bogus claims of election fraud (FAIR.org, 9/15/20). The media’s long history of both sides–ing the issue of purported election fraud (Extra!, 11–12/08, 10/12; CounterSpin, 10/21/16) paved the way for Trump’s mythology that has seduced a breathtakingly—and dangerously—large proportion of the public.

New York Times (1/5/20): “More than 150 Republican lawmakers have signed on to reject the votes of tens of millions of Americans.”

Imagine if corporate media didn’t praise McConnell, Lindsey Graham or any other Republicans who propped up Trump’s dangerous lies for so long, for finally turning on him. Do they really believe we could have gotten to this point if McConnell and the rest of the party hadn’t gone along with Trump’s dangerously escalating lies–not just for the last several weeks, but for the last four years? If you keep your foot on the gas as the car speeds toward a cliff, but jump out a few seconds before you reach the edge, do you really deserve “lasting credit” for that?

The real test of corporate media will be not whether they are able to forcefully condemn a president’s seditious acts, but whether they go back to business as usual after Trump is gone, pretending that the GOP, a disturbing number of whose members in Congress still pushed to overturn the election after the armed insurrection, is a democratic party that can be counted on to restore faith in democracy.

The Times editorial board, while silent so far after the events of yesterday, did publish a fairly benign opinion the day before (“Trump Still Says He Won. What Happens Next?”—1/5/20), whose optimism clearly didn’t take seriously the extensive planning underway in broad daylight on right-wing websites: “The Republican effort to derail Congress’s electoral vote count on Wednesday will fail, and President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in at noon on January 20, as the Constitution commands.”

The Times could only muster the courage to say that “there is a strong argument” for impeachment (linking to an op-ed they published on January 4) without actually making that argument themselves; the piece concluded by praising Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for resisting Trump’s corrupt attempts at overturning the election results, and lamenting, “If only that weren’t extraordinary in the Republican Party today.”

What’s missing so far is a mea culpa from the media for its own role in normalizing the GOP’s long-term efforts to drag this country toward authoritarian rule—and their cynical enjoyment of the ratings bonanza provided by the enthralling spectacle of Trump’s assault on democracy (FAIR.org, 3/1/16). Instead, we have the editor of Columbia Journalism Review (11/4/20) castigating the press for spending too much time in the past four years on Trump’s “infinite faults,” and not enough trying to understand Trump supporters (FAIR.org, 11/16/20).

Kudos to the Washington Post for finally calling for a political reckoning. Now it’s time for you to call for a media reckoning.

Featured image: Washington Post photo of far-right militants tearing down police barricades on Capitol Hill.

‘We Structure the Market to Create Inequality’

 

Janine Jackson interviewed CEPR’s Dean Baker about trickle-down economics for the December 25, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

CBS (12/17/20)

Janine Jackson: A recent rash of headlines announced, à la CBS News, “Fifty Years of Tax Cuts for the Rich Failed to Trickle Down, Economic Study Says.” There is, in fact, a new paper, from folks from the London School of Economics and King’s College, showing that countries that cut taxes for the rich did not show notable increases in jobs or growth; what they showed was increases in the wealth of the wealthy.

Advocates of greater economic equality are meant to use such moments to advance the effort, but this case raises the question: Just how much are we supposed to pretend we didn’t already know? What does this faux naivete get us, exactly? It’s doubtful that this story about how trickle-down doesn’t work for its stated aims will be the last time we see the notion seriously entertained or assumed, so maybe what we need is a conversation about why it’s been entertained for so long.

We’re joined now by Dean Baker, co-founder and a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, where he writes the blog Beat the Press. He joins us by phone from Utah. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Dean Baker.

Dean Baker: Thanks a lot for having me on.

JJ: Research doesn’t have to be groundbreaking to be meaningful, certainly; it’s not as though you only need one study on any proposition. And, of course, I intend no disrespect to the researchers behind this study. I wonder if you, as an economist, would situate these findings, that tax cuts on the wealthy don’t trickle down in ways benefiting the working or middle class, in the body of economic understanding? How new is this?

Dean Baker: Well, I have to say it’s not particularly new at all. The central issue here is how much can we expect to boost investment. Because that is the story. I mean, people often wave their hands a lot, and say this and that, but the story, if I want to say that cutting taxes on the rich will boost economic growth, will help everyone, it really is through investment.

And this is a very heavily researched topic at this point, and there’s very, very little evidence that you could have any substantial—I’m not going to say zero, but any substantial—increase in investment with lower tax rates. All the evidence is just that companies are not very responsive to tax rates. Not to say that the companies involved, or their rich shareholders, don’t want more money; of course they do. But are they going to invest a lot because they get a lower tax rate? All the evidence says no. So one more study, in effect, giving us the same result? Well, that’s good, but it’s not at all news.

Atlantic (12/81)

JJ: Folks are tracing the trickle-down idea to Ronald Reagan. And didn’t Ronald Reagan’s own budget director, David Stockman, kind of famously renounce, or at least qualify, his own promotion of this idea?

DB: Yeah, David Stockman backed away from that. He had been budget director, and they put down what he acknowledged were just crazy numbers so that they could say, “Oh, we’re going to cut taxes, but we’ll still end up with more money because we’ll have so much additional growth.” And he acknowledged they put down bogus numbers; they had no basis for them, in other words. So this is back in ’82, ’83, I forget when he owned up to it, but in any case, it was quite some time ago.

And we continue to have this; of course, most recently with the Trump tax cut, back in 2017. They were saying, “Oh, we’re going to generate so much additional growth, that it actually ends up costing us nothing.” And, it was quite clear, I mean, even pre-pandemic, that was not happening, there was no noticeable uptick in growth. There was a little bit into 2018, as people spent the tax cut; not that they invested it, because you couldn’t find any increase in investment, but they did spend it, and that gave some very modest boost to growth. But we lost that by 2019. So we hear this again and again and again, and I’m sure we’ll keep hearing it.

JJ: Yeah. What confuses and galls, on one level, is that media report as though there is kind of a neutral body of economic knowledge floating out there somewhere, and informing our economic policy, when we understand that it’s contested terrain, not because people have such wildly different understandings of how things work, but because they have different goals of how they want things to work. And media suck the dynamism, the debate, out of economics, and make it sound like it’s…the weather.

DB: Yeah, it is really annoying, because they treat it like, “Oh, these are two competing arguments.”  And what they’ll often say—this is just bad reporting—they’ll often say, “Republicans believe….” In other words, that Trump wanted to have this tax cut because he thought it would lead to huge economic growth.

Now, I have no idea what’s in Trump’s head, and I’d probably rather not think about that, but the point is, they’re the ones who are attributing beliefs, and that’s just totally irresponsible. “They say…” Fine, they say things, they say all sorts of things that aren’t true. But don’t tell us that they believe it, because that gives it a level of credibility which it certainly doesn’t deserve.

And again, I have no idea what they believe; they may well believe it, I don’t know. But the fact is, when a reporter says that a politician believes X, they’re making it up, because they don’t know what the politician believes.

JJ: Yeah. And as a reporter, when a source lies to you, you’re meant to look askance at them the next time. When a theory coming from a sector, or from a think tank or group of them, turns out to be disproved, shouldn’t it affect your reliance on those theories from that sector going forward? And yet, I have to wonder what, if any, would be the lasting impact of this little intervention.

Bloomberg, in writing it up, essentially says, people are saying you can’t possibly tax the wealthy without hurting the economy. Well, this report shows that to be untrue, and Bloomberg says that that could add to the case for the wealthy to bear more of the cost of the coronavirus and the pandemic in that case. In other words, this information that seems to get right to the root of a particular argument, “Well, maybe it could add something to the way we think about thinking about that in the future.”

DB: Yeah, I think there’s some hope. I don’t want to be too much of an optimist, but there’s some hope that reporters will be a little, I will say, balanced when they report on this issue, and have the reporting reflect the actual evidence. And, again, I have no problem with them saying that McConnell or whatever conservative, and there could well be some Democrats in that boat, say, “Oh, we can’t raise taxes, because that’ll hurt the economy. You can’t raise taxes on the rich.” That’s fine, but just don’t report that as saying they believe that. And also point out: There’s a vast amount of evidence at this point showing that that’s not true. Just as, if they’re going to—and they’ve been reasonably good on this—when they report Trump saying that he won the election, generally, the news stories will point out there’s actually no evidence to support that.

JJ: Yeah, to me, it sort of feels like when you’re talking about something like inequality, and you have folks saying, “Well, you know, we couldn’t help it possibly by taking more from the rich,” and elite media pretend to scratch their heads over that. To me, that is just salting the wound, of things that we know we could do if our goal really was to alleviate poverty or to reduce inequality; to sort of present it as this denatured battle of ideologies, I think, is materially harmful, yeah?

DB: Yeah, and I’ll even go a step further, because a lot of my writing has been to point out that our policies have actually been to create inequality. In other words, we structure the market in ways that lead to inequality. And that view is almost completely absent from reporting, I mean, like, literally does not exist.

So the argument is, how much do we want policy, presumably tax and transfer policy, to counter the inequality created by the market? But you’ll almost never see the argument—which, again, I make in much of my writing, and I’m not the only one who makes it—that we structure the market to create inequality, and we could structure the market differently. So it’s not a question of interfering with the market; it’s a question of how we structure it. There is no way not to interfere with the market.

JJ: I was reminded just now of another piece of research from the Center for Public Integrity, that talked about how companies that got some nearly $2 billion in aid to save jobs then turned around and laid off nearly 100,000 workers anyway. But when we come around again to the question of whether we should give companies aid, we’re going to be babies newborn again, and, you know, “maybe this will work,”; we’re going to be ready to be surprised again.  And to say you suspect bad faith kind of takes you outside of the “grownup people economic debate,” in a way.

DB: Yeah, and what’s funny is it is asymmetric, so that no one doubts when a labor union, a union president, a spokesperson, gets out there and says, “Oh, we want X,” everyone understands that their saying “We want X,” is because they’re trying to help their members, it’s the autoworkers, it’s the steelworkers. They understand, I mean, not a surprise.

But when a corporation goes, “Oh, we want X, and it’s going to be good for the economy,” somehow the claim “It’s going to be good for the economy” is treated seriously, and that’s their real motivation. I mean, it could incidentally be good for the economy, but when the president of ExxonMobil says, “Oh, we have to help out the oil industry,” well, the president is saying that because that president wants to increase ExxonMobil’s profits, and if that ends up being good for the economy, well, that’s incidental; that’s not why the president of ExxonMobil is saying that.

JJ: Finally, I know you wrote recently about the opportunity lost by the United States’ choice not to cooperate internationally on a vaccine or treatments for the coronavirus. Folks are going to look back on what happened, but you’re saying it’s important to see what were decisions, what were choices. The same might be said, mightn’t it, for this country’s handling of the inevitable economic fallout from Covid-19? It isn’t hard to imagine different choices that could have been made in that regard as well. It’s not outlandish to think that we could have acted differently and be in a different situation economically now.

Dean Baker: “Just as we know that trickle-down, giving money to the rich, doesn’t help—we know long-term unemployment hurts. A lot of the people that are unemployed six, eight, ten months, they may never work again.” (image: BillMoyers.com)

DB: Yeah, it really is painful for me to see—well, it’s painful for me to see it; it’s more painful for the people experiencing it—but the hardship that people have suffered through this pandemic has been largely by choice. Now, obviously, we couldn’t keep everyone from getting the disease, couldn’t keep everyone from dying; we could have done much better in that respect.

But in terms of the economic hardship, OK, closing down restaurants, that’s kind of common sense, that’s a way you keep it from spreading. But the fact that the workers had to suffer, the fact that small business owners had to, in many cases, lose their business that they’d built up for years, that was an economic choice. And we did a reasonably good job in the first three months, with the CARES Act, of addressing that, we did have generous unemployment benefits; we had the Paycheck Protection Program which, far from perfect, but it basically did what you wanted something like that to do, and we could have expanded those, continued those.

Instead, those were allowed to end, and now we finally have come through with some additional aid, grossly inadequate, but it does somewhat address the problem. But nonetheless, we have millions of people out of work; many of them have been out of work since back in March when the shutdowns began, and many will likely be out of work for several months more, even in a best-case scenario.

And we know from a lot of research, long-term unemployment—just as we know that trickle-down, giving money to the rich, doesn’t help—we know long-term unemployment hurts. A lot of the people that are unemployed six, eight, ten months, they may never work again. Those that have families, it often is associated with divorce. Kids have problems in school, so that could affect them through their lifetime. So that aspect of the pandemic was a preventable disaster that we chose not to prevent.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. You can find their work, including Dean’s Beat the Press commentary online at CEPR.net. Dean Baker, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

 

DB: Thanks a lot for having me on, and happy holidays.

 

Study of 2020 Debates Finds New Topics but Familiar Framing

 

A FAIR analysis of the 2020 general election debates found stunning breaks from past practices combined with tried-and-true tropes of national US debates. One of the biggest changes was the coronavirus pandemic, which accounted for 18% of the total of 186 questions asked during two debates between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden (9/29/20, 10/22/20), and the single debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris (10/7/20). Continuing old patterns, the economy came in second, representing 16% of questions.

In notable changes, race and racism came in third, with 11%, and environment tied with governance in a close fourth, with 10% of questions each. (Just over a third of the environmental questions were about climate change.)

Non-policy issues (8%), international issues (8%), and healthcare (7%) were asked about less. Criminal justice (5%), immigration (4%), education (2%) and gender equality (1%) were only touched on. There was not a single question about LGBTQ issues or gun policy.

‘Violence in Our Cities’

If you’re familiar with FAIR’s debate studies during the last several presidential cycles, you might be surprised to see so many questions on race and environment. In the Democratic primary debates, the environment ranked sixth and race eighth, according to a FAIR analysis. Moderators only asked about racist “police violence” twice in the 2016 presidential debates, with no broader questions about racism (FAIR.org, 10/21/16). They asked no questions on race at all in 2012 (FAIR.org, 10/26/12) or 2008, according to transcripts—despite the fact that the two races involved the first African-American candidate running for president on a major party ticket. And according to meteorologist and climate correspondent Eric Holthaus, the 10 minutes spent on the environment in the first debate alone  doubled the time spent on the subject “in all 2,000 minutes of presidential debates since 1988.”

Fox News‘ Chris Wallace

What changed? A rising tide of tireless activism has played an important role. Fox News’ Chris Wallace originally announced he would not cover climate change in the first presidential debate, but changed his mind after a wave of protest that included a FAIR Action Alert, a RootsAction petition and a letter signed by 37 senators. And seven years after the birth of the Movement For Black Lives, the size and scope of the George Floyd protests over the summer made it difficult for debate moderators to avoid questions on racism this time around.

But while the numbers are significant, the questions themselves bring us to more familiar territory. Wallace combined his questions on racism with naked attacks on the George Floyd protests, which he framed as “violence in our cities.” He asked Biden if he would do “whatever it takes” to put down the anti-racist “riots” against police brutality in Portland, Oregon. He asked Trump if he would condemn “white supremacists and militia groups,” but immediately cast an implicit equivalence between those groups and antifascist “left-wing extremists.”

Only USA Today’s Susan Page, who moderated the vice presidential debate, introduced her line of questioning about racism with the phrase “racial justice.” For Wallace, it was “the issue of race” and “race issues,” just a beat away from the antiquated “race relations” used in the 2016 debates (FAIR.org, 10/21/16). NBC’s Kristen Welker, who moderated the second presidential debate, used “race in America.”

Wallace did ask Trump, “Do you believe that there is systemic racism in this country?” This marked the first time a moderator has used the term “systemic racism” in US presidential debate history, and only the second time a candidate has uttered it after Hillary Clinton used the phrase once in the September 2016 debate. While this is significant, the questions still put the existence of systemic racism in America up for debate.

Welker did not use the phrase “systemic racism,” but acknowledged its reality. In a question to both presidential candidates, she addressed “the talk” where Black parents “feel they have no choice but to prepare their children for the chance that they could be targeted, including by the police, for no reason other than the color of their skin.” Welker asked the two candidates, “Do you understand why these parents fear for their children?”

But in a pattern that would emerge across all three debates, Welker inexplicably allowed Trump to derail the conversation with the Murdoch-hyped story about Hunter Biden’s laptop. As Trump railed about corruption and repeated the contextless phrase, “They’re calling it the laptop from hell,” Welker fruitlessly interjected, “President Trump, I want to stay on the issue of race. We’re talking about the issue—” before being cut off again.

‘Would You Close Down the Oil Industry?’

USA Today‘s Susan Page

Trump and Pence used the same strategy to blunt conversation on the environment. There were only three environmental questions in the vice presidential debate. There might have been more, but when Page asked Pence if he thought climate change was an “existential threat,” Pence executed his ticket’s signature one-two step. “As I said, Susan, the climate is changing,” Pence said, continuing blithely: “We’ll follow the science. But, once again, Senator Harris is denying the fact that they’re going to raise taxes on every American.” And just like that, the candidates were talking about tax policy.

When asked if he believed in human-caused climate change, Trump responded with platitudes. “I want crystal clean water and air. I want beautiful clean air,” Trump said to Wallace, repeating an almost verbatim response to the same question from Welker. When pushed by Wallace, Trump demurred, “I think to an extent, yes,” he said, but then pivoted without transition, “I also think we have to do better management of our forest,” and that was the end of that. Trump then continued with a non sequitur about the cost of Biden’s plan and other economic concerns.

Not that moderators needed Trump’s help to guide the conversation on climate to a conversation on the economy. The moderators framed all of the environmental questions to Biden in terms of economic impact. Wallace told Biden the president says his environmental plan “would tank the economy and cost millions of jobs.” Then later, “What about the argument that President Trump basically says, that you have to balance environmental interests and economic interests?” Welker asked Biden, “Would you close down the oil industry?” And so on.

While Trump almost always managed to pivot the conversation to his preferred topics, Biden largely addressed the moderators’ questions. So although unprecedented time was paid to racism and environmental concerns, half of that time was defined by conservatively framed questions from moderators, and the other composed of whatever Trump and Pence wanted to talk about.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Most of the coronavirus questions revolved around grilling Trump on when vaccines would become available and questioning Biden about the efficacy of large-scale shutdowns in combating the virus.

Wallace quoted Trump saying two of his top scientists, Dr. Robert Redfield and Moncef Slaoui, were “confused and mistaken” that the vaccine would take until summer to distribute, and asked, “Are they both wrong?” Welker asked in the second debate: “You also said a vaccine will be coming within weeks. Is that a guarantee?” and “Is your timeline realistic?”

Wallace said to Biden, “You have been much more reluctant than President Trump about reopening the economy and schools,” and asked simply, “Why, sir?” Welker was more aggressive, asking:

What do you say to Americans who are fearful that the cost of shutdowns—the impact on the economy, the higher rates of hunger, depression, domestic and substance abuse — outweighs the risk of exposure to the virus?

And then, true to the form of national US debates, demanded a simple yes or no answer on whether Biden had ruled out more shutdowns.

Many of the remaining questions on the pandemic were vehicles for the candidates to answer with platitudes and stump speeches. Page asked Harris, “What would a Biden administration do in January and February that a Trump administration wouldn’t do?” Wallace asked both candidates, “Why should the American people trust you more than your opponent to deal with this public health crisis?” Welker asked both candidates to “please be specific,” but in the next breath asked a question practically hand-crafted to elicit nonspecific answers: “How would you lead the country during this next stage of the coronavirus crisis?”

Conservative Economic Framing

Almost all the economic questions posed to Biden and Harris used conservative language, while arguably no questions to Trump and Pence used a progressive equivalent.

Page asked Harris about the Biden campaign’s plans to raise taxes on the wealthy. “Some economists warn that [tax plan] could curb entrepreneurial ventures that fuel growth and create jobs,” she said. “Would raising taxes put the recovery at risk?”

In the first presidential debate, Wallace did not even bother to ask Biden a question about the same plan, simply stating, “The president is saying…that sounds like it’s going to cost a lot of money and hurt the economy.” In the final debate, Welker pointed to struggling “small businesses,” and asked Biden, “Do you think this is the right time to ask them to raise the minimum wage?”

Meanwhile, Trump and Pence were only asked one adversarial economic question each, and neither employed a counterposing progressive analysis. Page noted an “economic report” that contradicted the Trump administration’s optimistic recovery predictions, and asked Pence, “Should Americans be braced for an economic comeback that is going to take not months, but a year or more?” Wallace questioned the efficacy of Trump’s economic policy and pointed to better job growth under Obama, but declined to analyze why, simply asking, “You would continue your free market approach…correct?”—an odd characterization of Trump’s economic approach, which is notable for its reliance on tariffs, generous agricultural subsidies and massive Federal Reserve loan guarantees.

What Wasn’t Talked About?

NBC News‘ Kristen Welker

Despite surging billionaire wealth amid a raging pandemic and over 30 million Americans living below the poverty line, “inequality” was not mentioned once. The word “poverty” was only uttered three times, once in a question from Welker, and twice in Biden’s responses. “Poverty” was mentioned 20 times in the 2016 debates, although never by a moderator (FAIR.org, 10/21/16).

Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court was the subject of three questions in the presidential debates and two in the vice presidential debate. Wallace echoed right-wing talking points when he asked Biden, “Are you willing to tell the American people tonight whether you will support either ending the filibuster or packing the court?”

Biden attempted to talk about the implications to Roe v. Wade of Barrett’s nomination, but moderators did not ask a single question about how the nomination might affect that landmark court case in either presidential debate. Page acknowledged the impact of the nomination on abortion access in the United States, but did so by narrowly asking the two vice presidential candidates what they would like their home states to do if Roe were overturned—thus steering these candidates for national office away from giving the issue a national framework.

Those two questions on Roe v. Wade were the only questions about gender issues across all three general election debates this cycle. As a point of comparison, North Korea was asked about five times. During the democratic primaries, moderators asked a total for 39 questions on gender issues according to a FAIR analysis, ranging from representation, healthcare, workplace discrimination and sexism.

While healthcare was ranked by voters as the second-most important topic in the election (Pew, 8/13/20), it placed eighth in the number of questions asked across all three debates. Five of the 15 questions were about socialism, thanks to a Trumpian pivot in the second presidential debate.

When Welker asked both candidates how they would improve or replace Obamacare, Trump sidestepped the question by accusing Biden of supporting “socialized medicine.” Welker jumped on board, asking Biden to respond to concerns that his plan “takes the country one step closer to a healthcare system run entirely by the government.” With that, a conversation about Obamacare, the existing healthcare system that Biden’s actual healthcare proposals are based upon, turned into a conversation about “socialized medicine,” a pejorative term for a system in which the public not only pays for but runs healthcare facilities—going well beyond what Bernie Sanders, let alone Biden, is proposing. Biden took the occasion to disavow Medicare for All—which is a far cry from “a healthcare system run entirely by the government”—without deconstructing the conservative framing. Trump, meanwhile, was never forced to acknowledge the fact that he has no healthcare plan at all.

Candidates and moderators mentioned immigration 48 times in the 2016 general debates (FAIR.org, 10/21/16); this time around it was mentioned just seven times, according to transcripts. At first glance, this might be seen as a liability to Trump, whose 2016 strategy revolved around a promise to “build that wall” to keep out refugees from Latin America. But the lack of questions about immigration may have helped him to shift his message to the economy, allowing him to  make a play for the Latino vote.

 

‘He Is the King of Dirty Deals’

 

Janine Jackson interviewed Public Citizen’s Lisa Gilbert about lame duck Donald Trump for the December 25, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.


 

Public Citizen

Janine Jackson: Whatever he or his minions fantasize, Donald Trump will no longer be president on January 20. Whether the Trump administration tested US institutions and aspects of governance or revealed existing weaknesses, it’s clear that the tsunami of corruption and callousness has left wreckage.

As eager as we may be now to look ahead, or just away, the truth is Trump as a lame duck continues to wreak important havoc. We talked a couple of weeks ago about the zealous return to federal executions, unheard of for decades, but many other actions are less visible. Public Citizen is keeping their eyes on the administration’s last-minute maneuvers; they have a new web tool to track them.

We’re joined now by Lisa Gilbert, Public Citizen’s executive vice president and also founder of the Not Above the Law coalition. She joins us by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Lisa Gilbert.

Lisa Gilbert: Thanks so much for having me.

JJ: Well, some of it, as I say, we can see. The attempt to hobble the transition, for instance, initially barring staff from having any contact with Biden’s incoming team. That’s the type of thing that is, yes, graceless and norm-breaking, but also materially harmful. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what Public Citizen’s new web tool calls “Trump’s Lame Duck Tantrum.”

LG: That’s right. So we are looking across the board at the ways that we expect Trump to do dirty deals or try to pardon cronies or roll back regulations that are critical to public health and safety in these last critical weeks. We wanted this tool to come into effect at a moment where we think it’s critical that we not lose the thread of what Trump is able to do in this moment, and pay deep attention to it, in the hopes that we can either stop what he’s doing, or at least alert the Biden administration of these last-minute actions, so they can roll them back in turn.

JJ: Just to take one, that Trump was going to roll back regulations on corporations was clear. I spoke with Amit Narang from Public Citizen early in the administration, when Trump issued that goofy executive order that for any new rule, federal agencies had to repeal two existing rules. You know, it’s just the kind of ham-fisted…. I thought Public Citizen maybe even brought a suit around that. But that order fairly represents the corporate capture of the regulatory process under Trump, would you say?

LG: Absolutely. I mean, that order was so inane, the idea that you would promulgate one safety rule and arbitrarily remove two others that are not connected to it in any way, off the books. It just shows such a lack of regard for human life, and for health and safety, and a devotion to the idea that regulations are somehow by their very nature bad, or “red tape” or harmful. And we know that the opposite is true: All they are is the end stage of a law, when we actually get to protect people.

JJ: Right, right. What are some of the regulations in that sphere? What are some of the things that Trump is up to now that you think it’s worth keeping an eye on?

LG: Since we are at the end of an administration, we do usually see presidents try to accomplish their goals in a flurry of activity. And since one of Trump’s goals is to roll back health, safety, environmental and financial regulations, we are certainly seeing a flurry of those kinds of last-minute activities. So in our tracker, we take a look at some of the rules that have been rolled back since November 3, since the beginning of the lame duck.

So there are environmental rules, like approving coal ash in the environment; the EPA finalized a rule that outlines a process for approving existing unlined coal ash pits. They’ve, for example, removed the protected status of the gray wolf. Or allowing air polluters to avoid oversight; the EPA recently changed its interpretation of the Clean Air Act to benefit polluters. It’s just all of the same cloth, this idea that we better rush these rules out the door to hurt our environment.

That’s not the only area, but just a really tangible one that people clearly understand. Public protections are needed, and the Trump administration is walking us in the wrong direction.

JJ: There’s a section in this web tool—it’s a live database; people can add to it—called “Dirty Dealing,” and, you know, we think of favor trading, and it’s crummy, but as you’re saying on environmental things, it’s not just somebody getting richer, it’s actual material harm that might not be as easy to undo as we think. So some of the deals that Trump has made have had impacts that are beyond just thinking, “That’s not how business should be done.”

Lisa Gilbert: “He’s rushing through controversial hirings, filling commissions, changing the structure of the federal government to make it easier to move political appointees to become long-term career appointees.”

LG: That’s completely right. We look at a couple of different categories of so-called “dirty dealing.”  And, of course, there are many that we could have highlighted, but we looked in part at where his legal defense donations have been going. He’s raised hundreds of millions of dollars from his supporters for legal defense in his ill-thought quest to overturn the election results, but there’s a real question as to where that money is going to go. You know, is it intended to further either Trump or his family or his cronies’ political ambitions? Is it going to cover his campaign debts? We really don’t know, and it is very unsavory to see him raising money for something we know is a fool’s errand, but then using it for political ambitions. So we highlight that.

We look at how he’s thinking about rewarding allies as another sort of dirty deal. We think that it’s a little bit scary to think about how people are burrowing into the administration at this moment. He’s rushing through controversial hirings, filling commissions, changing the structure of the federal government to make it easier to move political appointees to become long-term career appointees, all with this idea of undercutting the Biden administration and leaving his loyalists behind him. We talk about punishing enemies, as well, in the dirty dealing space. So I think there are numerous categories—unfortunately, he is the king of dirty deals, but this tracker tries to take a slice of how he’s been spending his time on this front during the lame duck.

JJ: If I could just ask you a kind of process question, because I’m from the DC area, and my parents worked for the federal government, and I remember, it’s almost a joke, “The appointees come in…and then they go,” you know, and the career civil servants are like, “Yeah, here we still are, doing the work.” So when you say “burrowing” Trump folks within agencies, can you explain that a little bit, he’s actually changing rules to allow folks who are appointees to become career?

LG: Yes. So he passed an executive order, which we are also tracking, his lame duck executive orders, to create a new type of federal employee, a Schedule F federal employee. It has two problems: These federal employees are easier to fire and let go. So if he turns career employees into Schedule Fs, it means that they have less protection, so we’re worried about that. But also, there is flexibility to move people in and out, between political and career, within this new Schedule F determination. And so he has begun to do that, moving a set of politicals into these career posts, so that means they will stay. And it is definitely, as you say, unusual; politicals tend to come and go with the new administration.

JJ: Absolutely.

LG: And it’s a political direction. And that might not happen as much as it has in other transitions.

JJ: I find that actually deeply concerning—all of this is, certainly, but that’s a real structural change that I think, maybe if you’re not familiar with the culture, or just the way things work in DC, might not stand out to you, but it certainly is dramatic.

Well, we’ve mentioned that this is a database, a web tool. I think there’s a lot of information that reporters would find useful for starting stories, but also that just the general public might want to keep up on. How are you hoping that this tool will be used?

LG: Both of those ways. So our hope is that in this moment, where some of these actions by President Trump are not being taken notice of by reporters, by the general public, that they will find this tool and use it, and also help us by flagging things they’re seeing, so we can add it to the database. It’s pretty egregious, the level of activity that the Trump administration is undertaking in this moment, and we don’t want to miss anything. So I think the hope is that as Trump does things like move to politicize the civil service, under the noses of all of us, tools like this will help us stay on top of it and push back in the media.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen. Find their work online at Citizen.org. Lisa Gilbert, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin,

LG: Thank you.

 

Best of CounterSpin 2020

(photo: Daniel Arauz/Wikimedia)

As we start a new year, longtime CounterSpin listeners will know, we revisit a few of our weekly looks behind the headlines. We call it “the best of,” but it’s just a reflection of the sorts of conversations we hope have offered some voice or context or information that you might not have heard elsewhere, or that might help you assess the news you are hearing. We’re thankful to all of the activists, researchers, reporters and advocates who appear on the show to help us understand the world and how we can change it.

Lisa Gilbert on Lame Duck Trump, Dean Baker on Trickle-Down Economics

 

 

(image: Public Citizen)

This week on CounterSpin: Media critic Margaret Sullivan made a plea to journalists to turn off their fascination with Donald Trump when he leaves office. Acknowledging (as few do) that elite media profited off a monster they helped create, Sullivan asked outlets to just say no to setting up a Mar-a-Lago bureau, or entire beats dedicated to what Trump and his family members are up to. “And for God’s sake, stop writing about his unhinged tweets.” While we await the day that particular face and voice are no longer at the top of every newscast, it ain’t over til it’s over. And harms Trump does as a lame duck are harms nonetheless. Public Citizen is keeping an eye on these last minute maneuvers. We’ll hear from the group’s executive vice president, Lisa Gilbert.

David Stockman (photo: Atlantic)

Also on the show: Hang on to your hats: Research says cutting super rich people’s taxes doesn’t really help middle or lower-income people, but does make rich people richer! If your hat’s unmoved, it might be because you remember the architect of so-called “trickle-down” theory, Reagan budget director David Stockman, admitting as much to journalist Bill Grieder, rather famously one would’ve thought, 40 years ago. Dean Baker from the Center for Economic and Policy Research joins us to explain why some ghosts of economic theories past don’t seem to go away.

Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at false balance, stimulus advice and Time‘s person of the year.

‘That Loss of Privacy Is the Monopoly Price’

 

Janine Jackson interviewed EFF’s Mitch Stoltz about breaking up Google for the December 18, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript. 

Janine Jackson: There is such a thing as a company simply having too much power; even without evidence of malign intent, it just isn’t healthy.

That’s the basic thinking behind antitrust law in this country. And if the power is over something so critical as our ability to obtain and share information? Well, that’s the concern behind the push to break up Big Tech. And while it may seem quixotic, it’s at least a step away from the notion that the internet is such categorically new territory that it can’t–or shouldn’t–be regulated to serve the public interest.

Several corporations are in the spotlight, each with different issues of concern, but right now, an antitrust lawsuit against Google appears to be gaining ground that our guest says has the potential to be very important indeed.

Mitch Stoltz is a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He joins us now by phone from the Bay Area. Welcome to CounterSpin, Mitch Stoltz.

Mitch Stoltz: Thank you, happy to be here.

JJ: A quick bit of background first: This antitrust lawsuit is coming from the Justice Department and state attorney generals, based on their own investigations. In layperson’s terms, what is the complaint?

MS: The complaint is under something called Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, and that’s a law that says if you are a monopoly—that is, if you have power over the market for some good or service—then there are things you can’t do. You can’t use improper means to maintain that monopoly power, you can’t try to gain monopoly power in other markets, various other things.

But what this suit says is, they’re claiming that Google has monopoly power in internet search and in search advertising. So those are the two markets they’re talking about. And they’re claiming that Google has illegally maintained that monopoly power, particularly through the contracts that it makes with various other companies—so phone vendors and web browser makers, and various other companies that it does deals with—it often requires that those companies put Google Search in a prominent position, and not allow rival search engines to occupy such a prominent position.

JJ: From my point of view as a user, Google is free to me, so how would I be made aware, or aware at all, of any monopolistic power going on? How can a free service also be a monopoly?

MS: Well, “monopoly” just means they have the dominant position in the market, and the ability to set price or to set the level of quality. And so when you’re talking about a free service, often then what the courts will look at is: Can they stop innovating? Can they actually provide an inferior product that people will still use because there isn’t really an alternative?

JJ: I wanted to ask you about one thing that I know that EFF has thought about. We think about privacy a lot. I think if folks think about, “Who can see my searches, what I do on the internet?” I had a very smart friend say, “You know, I just assume everything I say online is observed.” And I think there’s this acceptance of a tradeoff: You just trade away your privacy and your civil liberties, and there’s no way to get what the internet would give you without doing that. And you’ve been thinking about different ways to think about privacy as a value. I wonder, could you talk a little about that?

MS: Sure. In the context of an antitrust suit, that loss of privacy is the monopoly price, essentially. If you’re talking about groceries or gasoline, if there’s a monopoly situation, you’ll be paying more than you would otherwise. But with Search, because it’s a free product, the issue is you’re not paying more in cash; you’re paying more in loss of privacy than, presumably, you would if there were competition.

And there is, by the way, there is competition; it just has not been really able to flourish, because of some of these exclusive contracts, or preferential contracts, that Google uses. For example, there’s a search engine called DuckDuckGo which does not track its users; they’re not based on the user’s browsing history, but only on the search that they’re making at that moment, and it doesn’t track them from search to search. And that exists, but it has a real hard time competing against Google because of—and this is according to the lawsuit—some of the conduct that Google does in a way to maintain its monopoly.

JJ:  We have to think about—and you note this as well—the power of the default. An alternative might be out there, but if when I turn on the screen, this is what comes up, well, then that’s going to be what I’m going to tend to use, and I may not even know that those alternatives are out there at all.

MS: That’s really central to this lawsuit. Many of the specific things that DoJ and the states are complaining about are the defaults that Google insists on, on things like the homescreen of a phone, even Apple phones, as far as the placement of Google Search.

JJ: Right. It’s kind of like if your waiter says, “Do you want Coke or Pepsi?” and, well, you should have somehow sensed that you could have asked for milk, but it’s going to be people’s tendency to choose from what is put in front of them.

A lot of folks express frustration about lawsuits against mega-companies, because often what comes out of it is a fine, and we know that these companies just factor fines into the cost of doing business. But this Google antitrust suit isn’t talking about damages. What is it asking for?

MS: It’s pretty broad. What it’s asking for is basically a court order to stop the illegal conduct. So at this point in a lawsuit, it’s pretty common not to specify what remedy you want in very specific terms, because it’s going to be connected to exactly what the court finds was the illegal conduct.

JJ: Right.

MS: They talk about “injunctive remedy,” which means an order not to do something, and they talk about “structural remedy,” which could mean a breakup of the company, but in Google‘s case, and in the case of this lawsuit, it’s not really clear what a breakup would look like. I mean, you could potentially separate Google Search from the Android operating system, or Google Search from Google web advertising, or something like that, but none of those really flow directly from the things that the governments are accusing Google of here.

So probably most likely what this is moving towards is an ongoing monitoring of Google’s conduct, and some rules about what they can and can’t do. In that sense, it’s very much like the government’s lawsuit against Microsoft, back in 1998, where they actually had pursued breaking up Microsoft into an applications company and an operating system company, and the trial judge actually ordered that to happen.

But then the court of appeals said, “We’re not going to break up the company, but we are going to put limits on its behavior.” A lot of folks think that it was those limits, and just being monitored by the enforcement authorities at that point, that caused Microsoft to shelve its plans to maybe squash some new and upcoming rivals–like Google, which was a brand new company at the time.

JJ: That’s very interesting.

MS: Yeah.

JJ: You make clear in your writings, and as you’re saying here, that this lawsuit doesn’t touch everything. Folks are going to say, “Wait, when I think about problems with Google, I think about, you know, the way they treat their workers, or algorithmic bias.” The story right now is the firing of Timnit Gebru, the AI researcher. You make clear that there’s plenty that this suit doesn’t touch, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not still a valuable effort; you think that it could still bring some things to light that could be useful?

MS: Absolutely. One of the trickiest parts of any antitrust suit is called defining the market. If Google really only competes with Bing and DuckDuckGo, then Google‘s pretty clearly a monopolist. But if you define the market more broadly, such that Google Search competes with the telephone book and Amazon’s product search and various travel search companies, suddenly it starts to look like less of a monopoly. And that’s often the really fundamental question in an antitrust case.

Just getting to that question, and having a court resolve that question, will really change the legal landscape for the tech world, because the information that gets brought to light, and the court’s conclusions, are things that can then get used down the line in other things, in private suits, in challenges to all those things, to their employment practices, to their various other company policies. Each one of these is a building block, is what I’m saying.

JJ: Right.

MS: Antitrust law is narrow. Antitrust is focused on the harms caused to consumers by a monopoly. It’s not necessarily a vehicle for things like employment concerns or environmental concerns, although those do get brought in sometimes.

JJ: Right. Well, it can do what it can do, and then it’s for others to take the information that is brought to light and use it in various ways.

Let me ask you, finally: CNN’s Brian Fung seemed to throw up his hands after one of the House Judiciary Committee Hearings that folks may have seen over the summer and into the fall. And he wrote:

The Big Tobacco moment isn’t coming; there will be no damning self-incrimination on camera that leads to a dramatic and wholesale reversal of fortunes for Big Tech. The reason is simple: Nobody can agree on what the problem is, let alone the solution. And the companies are so large, and touch so many aspects of our lives, that it has been nearly impossible for lawmakers to focus on a single issue for more than a few minutes at a time.

Now, I understand that frustration with the hearings, after watching [Tennessee’s Sen.] Marsha Blackburn use a congressional hearing to ask [Google CEO Sundar] Pichai, “Hey, did you fire that guy that said those mean things about me?” But Congress is one arena, the courts are another arena. We don’t have to choose just one place to make these arguments for transparency, for equity, in terms of the internet, do we? We’ve got multiple fronts here.

Mitch Stoltz: “They should be treated with skepticism; as much as we love their products, as much as we depend on them—and so many of us still do—it’s also healthy to cast a skeptical eye on them. And to recognize the problems that technology can’t solve.”

MS: We do. And I think the states are also going to be an increasingly important arena for this kind of oversight.

JJ: You know, when I tried to look up media coverage about the antitrust suit, I saw allusions to Google as “used to be cuddly, used to be scrappy, but then it lost its soul and grew up,” or whatever. News media tend to anthropomorphize businesses in a way that I don’t necessarily think is all that helpful. Maybe we need some better frames to talk about how we can improve these systems that don’t make it sound like, you know, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.

MS: I feel like the tech companies, they defied gravity for 10+ years there; they got an exemption from the public’s general hostility towards big business that sort of came crashing to Earth in the last three years. And ultimately, that’s healthy, because they should be treated with skepticism; as much as we love their products, as much as we depend on them—and so many of us still do—it’s also healthy to cast a skeptical eye on them. And to recognize the problems that technology can’t solve, the problems that are human problems that show up at Google, and Facebook and other places, just as they do in tobacco or oil or other industries that have been in the spotlight.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Mitch Stoltz. He’s a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation; you can find their work online at EFF.org. Mitch Stoltz, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MS: Thank you very much.

 

‘Freedom Is Blossoming’: After Dismembering a Journalist, Saudi Arabia Goes on a PR Spree

 

CNN (12/5/20) describes mass arrests ordered by Mohammed bin Salman as a way “to shake up the kingdom in a way his predecessors dared not.”

“Freedom is blossoming.” That is how, without a shred of irony, CNN International Diplomatic Editor Nic Robertson describes Saudi Arabia in his recent article (CNN, 12/5/20). Visiting the kingdom, he informs us, it has “changed beyond recognition” since his last stay. All around him, there was “a sense of lightness, a freedom to make choices.” And this is all thanks to one man: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “Now our lives as Saudis completely changed,” says one interviewee. “Actually from all the decisions taken by Mohammed bin Salman. All Saudis now is happy about all these changes.”

This might be news to many readers who know the country as among the most repressive and censorious in the world, one where millions of immigrants are kept in slave-like conditions, and as the leader of a military coalition turning Yemen into the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. According to the UN, over 24 million of Yemen’s 29 million people need humanitarian assistance. The Saudis target health and water infrastructure, carrying out one air raid on them every ten days on average for the last five years. But perhaps, if Robertson is correct, all this is in the past?

The article also presents bin Salman’s decision to round up and jail hundreds of his political rivals as arguably a good thing, an anti-corruption drive that “shak[ing] up the kingdom.” Yes, yes, the Crown Prince ordered the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Robertson notes, but, he claims, “The young seem OK with it.” He goes on to note: “When I first came to the kingdom in 2003, Riyadh had only two towers. Now there are dozens”—as if that mitigates the murder and dismemberment of a journalist. The article was promoted on Twitter with an image of a giant sculpture of the word “LOVE” with the O replaced by a heart.

Robertson’s relentlessly, embarrassingly optimistic article comes on the heels of another CNN Travel piece by Francesca Street (12/1/20) lauding the country’s “epic efforts” and the “stunning and ambitious project” it is pursuing. “Saudi Arabia is in the process of repositioning itself as a tourist destination to watch,” Street writes, and away from what she euphemistically calls its “concerning human rights history.” Yet the piece does not stop to mention the obvious fact that this article is part of this “repositioning.”

CNN is far from the only offender, however. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (a frequent target of FAIR’s criticism—e.g., FAIR.org, 2/21/09, 4/13/11, 6/29/17, 9/6/18, 7/13/20) was in raptures when he met bin Salman in 2017 (New York Times, 11/23/17), declaring Saudi Arabia to be going through its own Arab Spring, thanks to the country’s crown prince. “Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support” for the jailing of hundreds of bin Salman’s opponents, he tells readers. (For those wondering who the rich American columnist visiting a Saudi monarch spoke to, his article mentions an American-educated Saudi woman, a banker, an entrepreneur, an NGO worker and the Minister of Education—perhaps not an all-encompassing cross section of Saudi society.)

This glossy celebration of Saudi Arabia and its ruler was not paid for by the country, publisher American Media claims.

In fact, Saudi Arabia has been on a major propaganda offensive of late. In 2018, American Media Inc., owners of outlets such as Us Weekly, OK!, Men’s Journal and (until recently) the National Enquirer, put out a nearly 100-page magazine extolling the virtues of bin Salman and his vision for the country, printing 200,000 copies for distribution nationwide. Despite being a love-fest from cover to cover, the company insisted it received no Saudi help or money. The Saudi sovereign wealth fund did, however, invest $200 million in Penske Media, owner of many influential magazines like Variety and Rolling Stone, and has been making overtures to Hollywood and the entertainment industry as well.

Abroad, the Saudi state owns large portions of two of Great Britain’s largest newspapers, the Evening Standard and the Independent. It has also set up a Persian-language news organization, the Independent Persian, which shares the masthead and branding of the British outlet, but is in fact a propaganda operation aimed at Saudi regional rival Iran. (Saudis speak Arabic, while most Iranians speak Persian.) “It was pretty clear that the Independent’s editorial control would be nominal,” said one senior journalist who was approached to lead the operation, but refused because it was clear who would be calling the shots.

Riyadh has tried to control the narrative online as well, employing an army of Twitter bots pushing pro-Saudi talking points.

Bin Salman and his government received very bad publicity for the murder of Khashoggi, although other, even bloodier offenses, such as the Yemen onslaught, have been largely ignored by the corporate press (FAIR.org, 3/20/18, 7/23/18, 4/9/19). Since then, the crown prince has been on a media charm offensive, trying to present one of the most repressive states in the world as a progressive, emerging country. Media should not be helping him do that, either for cash or for free.

Featured image: Photo used to promote CNN‘s Saudi puff piece on Twitter (12/5/20).

‘Our Government Needs to Protect Workers, Not Corporations’

 

Janine Jackson interviewed Jessica Martinez about worker safety and Covid relief for the December 18, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript. 

 

Janine Jackson: “Coronavirus Relief Package Hits Snags Over Details,” ran a recent headline. One of those “details” was the health and safety of US workers, and their ability to protect them.

As we record on December 17, it looks as though Congress will pass a package without the “liability shield,” as it was termed, that Mitch McConnell wanted, to “protect” businesses from Covid-related lawsuits brought by their workers. While that outcome beats the alternative, it’s not cause for complacency.

The measure McConnell wanted in, derived from a bill introduced in July by the Senate leader’s aide-de-camp, John Cornyn of Texas, that would exempt employers from enforcing a range of laws and standards, under the pretext of shielding them from frivolous lawsuits related to the pandemic. The bill was called the “Safeguarding America’s Frontline Employees To Offer Work Opportunities Required to Kickstart the Economy Act,” or, yeah, SAFE TO WORK Act. You could call that chutzpah, but “grotesque” might be a better word.

With many years of experience in public health and worker rights, Jessica Martinez is co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. She joins us now by phone from Los Angeles. Welcome to CounterSpin, Jessica Martinez.

Jessica Martinez: Thank you so much, Janine, for inviting me.

JJ: The measure that Republican senators, led by McConnell, wanted in this package reflected S.4317, the bill introduced by John Cornyn, which said at the time that it was aimed at “discouraging insubstantial lawsuits relating to Covid-19.” But what the proposal does, or will do if they’re able to push it through at any point, is something very different than that, isn’t it?

JM: Yes, it is. The so-called “corporate liability shield,” in the falsely named SAFE TO WORK Act, is a terrible idea, and absolutely should not be in our Covid relief bill. It’s essentially a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for rich corporations, and it should not be in any legislation, ever.

If you or I do something negligent—let’s say we have a bonfire in our backyard, and it gets out of control and damages our neighbor’s house—we will be held accountable: Our neighbors could sue us, and of course we would be liable for the cost of damages to another person’s property. Why should a corporation be treated any differently? Our government needs to protect workers, not corporations.

JJ: So what made them think that somehow the pandemic gave them a special kind of rubric to push this through? What we heard was, “Golly, this is such a hard time for small businesses and for various companies, and the last thing they want to deal with is a rush of ‘insubstantial lawsuits,’” which of course, it didn’t explain what “insubstantial” might mean. But, in fact, it actually is very, very broad; if you look, as you and few others did, actually down into page 55 of this SAFE TO WORK Act, it shows that it’s actually much, much broader than a quick read might tell you, in terms of what it’s letting employers off the hook for.

Jessica Martinez: “American workers are sick and dying and broke from this pandemic. So why on Earth would you suspend the very laws that are supposed to protect us?”

JM: You’re right. This liability shield is worse than advertised. When we first heard about this “Get Out of Jail Free” card for rich corporations, the main feature was that companies cannot be sued over Covid-19 issues. But the language of the bill is much worse: It actually says there can be no federal enforcement of health and safety laws relating to Covid-19 issues. It also bans enforcement of other laws that protect workers, such as the Fair Labor Standards, age discrimination, civil rights.

And American workers are sick and dying and broke from this pandemic. So why on Earth would you suspend the very laws that are supposed to protect us? Workers in our state and local governance should not be held hostage.

As you know, this legislation is moving quickly in Congress, and there are a number of moving parts. Media reports indicate that Republicans may drop their demand for a liability shield if Democrats give up on funds to support state and local government.

Well, this crazy idea to let companies off the hook for endangering workers should never have been in any legislation in the first place. And why should cities and states be held hostage? Local governments have been devastated by the pandemic because they have lost billions in tax revenues. If the GOP refuses to provide aid, they’re defunding our schools, our hospitals, our transit systems—all services we desperately need during this pandemic.

JJ: It’s like basically saying labor law doesn’t matter under this circumstance. So as I saw one write-up say, “OK, so if your employer breaks the Occupational Safety and Health Act by not protecting you, well, now you can’t sue.”

JM: That’s right.

JJ: If the grocery store says, “We’re not going to pay you overtime,” you’re going to work extra hours because of the coronavirus, you can’t sue. It’s a number of things that you might be able to bring action on, and the pandemic is being used as cover to say you can’t do that.

JM: And, currently, we know that OSHA has failed to protect workers. You mentioned OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is tasked with protecting and enforcing worker health and safety rights in the workplace. This plan to cripple OSHA, just when workers need it the most, has to be placed in context. Up until now, the agency’s response to Covid-19 has been totally inadequate. OSHA has been AWOL.

The agency has medicine that could have been saved for workers’ lives, and they left it locked in the cabinet. By “medicine,” I’m not necessarily referring to a vaccine or treatment. I mean legal and regulatory authority.

JJ: Right.

JM: Authority to issue a temporary emergency standard, authority to conduct inspections, to issue fines, authority to publicize fines against companies, so other companies are encouraged to comply with the law.

Getting into the numbers, about 11,000 worker complaints to OSHA have been submitted regarding Covid-19, and as of last week, just 279 complaints were opened; that’s just 2.5%. Again, this legislation is worse, and could potentially completely destroy any protections for workers.

HuffPost (10/12/20)

JJ: And media often frame things as “workers versus employers,” but it’s obvious that undermining workers’ health is socially harmful; it’s not like anybody wins when people get sick at work and then bring it home to their community.

And to your point about OSHA, Dave Jamieson at Huffpost was talking about how ignoring worker complaints, not doing inspections at this time, it’s wrong anytime, but it’s also a missed opportunity, because worker complaints tend to coincide with spikes in deaths. And so the complaints, as Jamieson put it, are a “missed opportunity” to intervene that OSHA could have taken.

JM: That’s right. And we know that the virus has spread from workplace hotspots into our neighborhoods and communities. Why would we ever let companies off the hook for such irresponsible behavior?

Some companies have taken steps to reduce risk, with social distancing, PPE, good ventilation, rotating shifts and other measures. But this has also come about because workers have taken job actions, and have pressured employers into doing so.

But some have been simply irresponsible. They have ignored common sense, public and occupational health measures, and allowed the virus to rage out of control in workplaces. Workers have become sick and many have died, and, in fact, the impact itself has been most severe on Black, brown and Indigenous communities who, in reality, are working some of the most high-hazard, dangerous jobs in this country. So it is quite tragic, and, again, it’s terrible legislation.

LA Times (7/29/20)

JJ: And then you read a report that says—this was Roll Call, but it could be anywhere—saying that Republicans want a liability shield “if employers follow basic federal health safety guidelines.” And so I think it’s important to call out what counts as “compliance” in this vision. And the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik was maybe the only person I saw saying, “Companies only need to say that they’re ‘exploring options to comply with law,’” or that they looked into it, and it turned out they couldn’t comply with safety policies, and that turns out to be enough. So that’s the alternate.

JM: Right. And that’s coming from the LA Times, where there is, in California, a state plan, so essentially, protections are a little bit better than the federal standard. It’s really just OSHA, in particular, again, has failed us in all accounts; when inspections do happen, they’re weak and inadequate fines.

Smithfield, a meat processing plant in South Dakota, had one of the worst outbreaks in the US. More than 1,300 infections, four workers died. OSHA inspected and fined the company only $13,000. Just a few thousand dollars for the life of each worker. That’s just $10 per infection. This is a multi-billion-dollar company.

JJ: Yeah.

JM: So it is really just a slap on the wrist, and it just sends out the message that employers can do what they want and get away with it.

JJ: There’s things that you can debunk, and I was happy to see Eli Rosenberg at the Washington Post debunk the idea that there’s going to be this wave of unfair litigation. Well, there’s not a wave of litigation, period. In fact, businesses themselves are a much larger source of litigation than employees. And there’s a lot of harmful and debunkable myths like that.

But I feel like there’s a bigger lie about a necessary tradeoff, you know, that workers somehow have to choose between health and a paycheck, which, of course, is health, too. You know, this idea that this choice, “Oh it’s harmful, but it’s really necessary, because there’s nothing else we can do.” I feel like that’s kind of like the big picture lie that we’re dealing with.

JM: Right. And we’ve been doing this work, National COSH has been doing this work, for over 20 years. You know, we saw this coming. I mean, our work around ensuring that all workers have access to a healthy and safe workplace is deeply and intimately connected to other worker issues—whether it is a living wage, benefits, fairness—it’s all interconnected. And these workers that we’re now calling essential workers have always been essential workers for our country and our economy.

And the reality is that it’s terrible that we’ve been holding this relief package from workers for so long, a relief package that also does not even reach all workers that need the relief. We’re talking about a lot of workers who—whether they’re immigrant workers, who many work in these high-hazard industries and are considered essential—are not getting economic relief. If they potentially get infected, there is no guarantee of a return to work, let alone paid sick leave. It’s really tragic on all fronts and, again, our local COSH groups are doing everything that they can to advocate for workers to ensure that this bill does not pass.

We urge listeners, your listeners, to call their senators and representatives to tell them that the wealthy irresponsible corporations do not deserve a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. The reports are accurate that this terrible liability shield will not be in the final legislation, but bad ideas like this have a way of coming back again. We need to bury this idea once and for all, because workers are getting killed on the job, and we have to do all we can to prevent it–not make it easier for companies to get away with murder, essentially.

JJ:  We’ve been speaking with Jessica Martinez. She’s co-executive director of the  National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. We’re certainly going to be following this issue going forward, but right now, we’d like to thank you. They’re online at COSHnetwork.org. Thank you very much, Jessica Martinez, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

 

JM: Thank you again for extending this platform.

 

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