Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

Support the Tropes

 

In an earlier piece (FAIR.org, 3/3/21), we explored some country case study examples of how the press helps to manufacture consent for regime change and other US actions abroad among left-leaning audiences, a traditionally conflict-skeptical group.

Some level of buy-in, or at least a hesitancy to resist, among the United States’ more left-leaning half is necessary to ensure that US interventions are carried out with a minimum of domestic opposition. To this end, corporate media invoke the language of human rights and humanitarianism to convince those to the left of center to accept, if not support, US actions abroad—a treatment of sorts for the country’s 50-year-long Vietnam syndrome.

What follows are some of the common tropes used by establishment outlets to convince skeptical leftists that this time, things might be different, selling  a progressive intervention everyone can get behind.

Think of the women! 

The vast majority of the world was against the US attack on Afghanistan that followed the 9/11 attacks in 2001. However, the idea had overwhelming support from the US public, including from Democrats. In fact, when Gallup (Brookings, 1/9/20) asked about the occupation in 2019, there was slightly more support for maintaining troops there among Democrats than Republicans—38% vs. 34%—and slightly less support for withdrawing troops (21% vs. 23%).

Media coverage can partially explain this phenomenon, convincing some and at the least providing cover for those in power. This was not a war of aggression, they insisted. They were not simply there to capture Osama bin Laden (whom the Taliban actually offered to hand over); this was a fight to bring freedom to the oppressed women of the country. As First Lady Laura Bush said:

We respect our mothers, our sisters and daughters. Fighting brutality against women and children is not the expression of a specific culture; it is the acceptance of our common humanity—a commitment shared by people of goodwill on every continent…. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.

Wars are not fought to liberate women (FAIR.org, 7/26/17), and bombing people is never a feminist activity (FAIR.org, 6/28/20). But the New York Times was among the chief architects in constructing the belief in a phantom feminist war. Within weeks of the invasion (12/2/01), it reported on the “joyful return” of women to college campuses, profiling one student who

strode up the steps tentatively at first, her body covered from face to foot by blue cotton. As she neared the door, she flipped the cloth back over her head, revealing round cheeks, dark ringlets of hair and the searching brown eyes of a student.

The over-the-top symbolism was hard to miss: This was a country changed, and all thanks to the invasion.

Time magazine also played heavily on this angle. Six weeks after the invasion (11/26/01), it told readers that “the greatest pageant of mass liberation since the fight for suffrage” was occurring, as “female faces, shy and bright, emerged from the dark cellars,” casting off their veils and symbolically stomping on them. If the implication was not clear enough, it directly told readers “the sight of jubilation was a holiday gift, a reminder of reasons the war was worth fighting beyond those of basic self-defense.”

“How much better will their lives be now?” Time (12/3/01) asked. Not much better, as it turned out.

A few days later, Time‘s cover (12/3/01) featured a portrait of a blonde, light-skinned Afghan woman, with the words, “Lifting the Veil. The shocking story of how the Taliban brutalized the women of Afghanistan. How much better will their lives be now?”

This was representative of a much wider phenomenon. A study by Carol Stabile and Deepa Kumar published in Media, Culture & Society (9/1/05) found that, in 1999, there were 29 US newspaper articles and 37 broadcast TV reports about women’s rights in Afghanistan. Between 2000 and September 11, 2001, those figures were 15 and 33, respectively. However, in the 16 weeks between September 12 and January 1, 2002, Americans were inundated with stories on the subject, with 93 newspaper articles and 628 TV reports on the subject. Once the real objectives of the war were secure, those figures fell off a cliff.

Antiwar messages were largely absent from corporate news coverage. Indeed, as FAIR founder Jeff Cohen noted in his book Cable News Confidential, CNN executives instructed their staff to constantly counter any images of civilian casualties with pro-war messages, even if “it may start sounding rote.” This sort of coverage helped to push 75% of Democratic voters into supporting the ground war.

As reality set in, it became increasingly difficult to pretend women’s rights in Afghanistan were seriously improving. Women still face the same problems as they did before. As a female Afghan member of parliament told Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies (CounterSpin, 2/17/21), women in Afghanistan have three principal enemies:

One is the Taliban. Two is this group of warlords, disguised as a government, that the US supports. And the third is the US occupation…. If you in the West could get the US occupation out, we’d only have two.

However, Time managed to find a way to tug on the heartstrings of left-leaning audiences to support continued occupation. Featuring a shocking image of an 18-year-old local woman who had her ear and nose cut off, a 2010 cover story (8/9/10) asked readers to wonder “what happens if we leave Afghanistan,” the clear implication being the US must stay to prevent further brutality—despite the fact that the woman’s mutilation occurred after eight years of US occupation (Extra!, 10/10).

Vox (3/4/21) asserted that the US occupation of Afghanistan has meant “better rights for women and children” without offering evidence that that is the case.

The trick is still being used to this day. In March, Vox (3/4/21) credulously reported that Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Mark Milley made an emotional plea to Biden that he must stay in Afghanistan, otherwise women’s rights “will go back to the Stone Age.” It’s so good to know the upper echelons of the military industrial complex are filled with such passionate feminists.

In reality, nearly 20 years of occupation has only led to a situation where zero percent of Afghans considered themselves to be “thriving” while 85% are “suffering,” according to a Gallup poll. Only one in three girls goes to school, let alone university.

And all of this ignores the fact that the US supported radical Islamist groups and their takeover of the country in the first place, a move that drastically reduced women’s rights. Pre-Taliban, half of university students were women, as were 40% of the country’s doctors, 70% of its teachers and 30% of its civil servants—reflecting the reforms of the Soviet-backed government that the US dedicated massive resources to destroying.

Today, in half of the country’s provinces, fewer than 20% of teachers are female (and in many, fewer than 10% are). Only 37% of adolescent girls can read (compared to 66% of boys). Meanwhile, being a female gynecologist is now considered “one of the most dangerous jobs in the world” (New Statesman, 9/24/14). So much for a new golden age.

The “think of the women” trope is far from unique to Afghanistan. In fact, 19th century British imperial propagandists used the plight of Hindu women in India and Muslim women in Egypt as a pretext to invade and conquer those countries. The tactic’s longevity is perhaps testament to its effectiveness.

He’s attacking his own people!

One of the many justifications used to engineer public consent for the disastrous Iraq War was that Saddam Hussein was a monster who was a danger to his own country. ‘There’s no question that the leader of Iraq is an evil man. After all, he gassed his own people. And we know he’s been working on weapons of mass destruction,” President George W. Bush frequently said, with the media parroting his every word.

In the run up to the Iraq War, the New York Times suddenly became extremely concerned with Hussein’s crimes against civilians. Foreign correspondent John F. Burns (1/26/03), for example, compared him to Stalin and denounced him for plunging Iraq into a “bloodbath of medieval proportions.” The cornerstone of Burns’ pro-regime change argument was, ironically, the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. How did that one work out?

The evidence McClatchy (2/21/11) offered that Gadhafi had been charged with “genocide” was a single interview on Al Jazeera.

At the same time NATO was deciding to intervene in Libya to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, corporate media were filled with passionate denunciations of his regime, most telling readers that he had attacked “his own people” (e.g., McClatchy, 2/21/11; Washington Post, 3/11/11; New York Times, 3/15/11).

The Washington Post (4/1/11), approving of the intervention, reported that “a massacre of civilians, amounting to crimes against humanity,” would likely have transpired absent NATO’s intercession. It compared the supposed imminent slaughter to the Holocaust, implying that the United States’ actions “followed reflection in the international community about the failures to prevent genocide in the 1990s.” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (3/21/11) also praised the attack as “the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention,” claiming its “humanitarian purpose” was plain for all to see.

The phrase “killing his own people” (or “gassing” them) became commonplace in media accounts of enemy wrongdoings, as it directly fed into the new Responsibility to Protect doctrine, a legal framework that allowed military intervention in other countries under humanitarian auspices. In practice, however, it was generally invoked to overthrow adversarial states. Data from Google Trends shows only minor interest in Libyan human rights until early 2011, reaching a massive spike in March (the date of the NATO intervention) before quickly dropping down to negligible levels and staying there ever since. A majority of Democratic voters supported the intervention, almost on a par with Republicans.

The fact that talk of human rights in Libya has reduced to a trickle suggests either that the situation has drastically improved there, or that there were ulterior motives for all this human rights talk in the first place. It is clearly not the former (FAIR.org, 11/28/17). That media lost interest in the human rights situation  just after a successful military intervention strongly suggests their newfound passion was not genuine, and was a tool to sell war all along.

As with Libya, peak discussion of human rights in Syria coincided with the US bombing of the country in April 2017. It stayed high throughout the early period of the civil war, although it has petered out in recent years, as a victory by the government of Bashar al-Assad becomes ever more certain. To corporate media, Assad is a dictator who is “gassing his own people” (e.g., Vox, 4/4/17; Bloomberg, 12/4/18; New York Times, 6/25/18; Economist 6/18/20) and so, the implication is, something must be done—that something likely involving military jets. (In a 2019 survey, far more Democrats opposed withdrawing US troops from Syria than Republicans: 66% vs. 23%—Brookings, 1/9/20.)

A prime liberal interventionist argument can be found in the Huffington Post (8/26/13), where lawyer Josh Scheinert argued that “Syria’s civilians have paid the highest price” for Obama’s hesitancy, and demanded that “that…must change.” Scheinert wrote that he wanted to “believe that as a global community, when it came to the worst atrocities, not just the really bad ones, we might have moved on from our dark history of failures.” By failures, he did not mean active US participation or leadership in coups, wars and genocides in Latin America and Southeast Asia (to name but a few), but the times when the US military did not intervene.

The Guardian‘s Natalie Nougayrède (3/1/19) presented the arrest of Bashar al-Assad as a matter of legal spadework rather than military invasion.

Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrède (3/1/19) made a similar argument, maintaining that “Assad Can Still Be Brought to Justice—and Europe’s Role Is Crucial.” “Massive human rights violations must not be left unpunished,” she argued, claiming his arrest would “act as a deterrent against further slaughter.” Of course, the only realistic way to arrest Assad, as she surely understood, would be to send an invasion force into the country to overthrow the government and kidnap him. Thus, she effectively managed to couch what would be an all-out military assault on the scale of Iraq as a narrow legal response aimed at preventing human rights violations.

Sometimes atrocities will simply be made up out of whole cloth, such as Gadhafi’s Viagra-fueled rape squads, Saddam’s soldiers killing babies in incubators, or the “Gay Girl in Damascus” hoax. President Lyndon Johnson used the imaginary “open aggression on the high seas” known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident to convince Congress to authorize the Vietnam War (FAIR.org, 8/5/17).

Going further back, incidents like the USS Maine explosion—the impetus for US intervention in the Cuban war of independence—and British World War I propaganda about Germans bayoneting babies, crucifying prisoners and cutting the heads of children helped whip a skeptical, pacifist public into a bloodthirsty fervor.

We have to save democracy!

This trope has been used extensively against Venezuela, as the Washington Post illustrates. The paper’s editorial board has published editorial after editorial demanding a coup (or more) in order to supposedly save democracy.

Rather than “stand[ing] by as Venezuela veers toward civil war,” the Washington Post (6/30/17) appears to want the US to actively intervene to make civil war more likely.

The Post (6/30/17) strongly supported a wave of opposition violence in 2017 that killed at least 163 people, including an incident where an opposition leader stole a military helicopter and used it to bomb the Supreme Court and Interior Ministry. The Post strongly (and falsely) implied that it was an inside job by the Maduro “regime,” who were resorting to increasingly “far-fetched” and “brutal” repression of demonstrations that have the “support of the vast majority of Venezuelans.”

In fact, this “vast majority” turned out to be less than 3% of the country, as a poll taken that week by an opposition-linked firm showed. Eighty-five percent opposed the movement’s tactics, with 56% against any form of opposition action whatsoever, even if it were entirely peaceful. This continued a long trend of media invisibilizing the majority of Venezuelans, with only those agreeing with Washington’s ambitions worthy of being labeled “the Venezuelan people” (FAIR.org, 1/31/19).

The same editorial made a number of inflammatory predictions that if the US did not act, Maduro would “eliminate the opposition-controlled National Assembly” and “convert Venezuela into a regime modeled after Cuba’s.” None of this has proven to be true. The Post appeared bewildered by the lack of appetite for a US coup from Venezuela’s neighbors, explaining this by telling readers that they had been “bribed by Caracas with discounted oil.”

One month later, the Post’s editorial board (7/27/17) was still informing us that the violent US-backed coup attempt was actually a peaceful demonstration supported by the “vast majority of its own people,” and that “Venezuela’s lawless regime” was itself the one conducting a coup against democracy. We must act now was the message, as Maduro was about to “abolish” the National Assembly and “cancel future elections”— again, none of which actually happened.

“The response of the United States and other democracies [to Venezuela] has been consistently inadequate,” the board lamented. Given that the US was doing everything short of active military intervention in the country, the implication of what should be done was clear.

In case that was not obvious enough, however, the Post (11/15/17) also ran a column headlined “The Odds of a Military Coup in Venezuela Are Going Up. But Coups Can Sometimes Lead to Democracy.” The piece claimed that Maduro had “cracked down on dissidents by force and run roughshod over the country’s democratic institutions.” The military, it noted, will “play a key role in determining whether a country will move to real democracy.”

“Ortega first ruled Nicaragua for 11 years after the 1979 revolution, until his ouster in the country’s first genuinely democratic election,” wrote the Washington Post (8/12/16)—ignoring the 1984 elections, because to the Post, elections are only democratic if they US-favored candidate wins.

The Washington Post (8/12/16) has also claimed that action against Nicaragua was necessary to save democracy. Leftist President Daniel Ortega, the board told readers, has been “astonishingly contemptuous of democratic norms,” including overseeing “a bogus repeal of constitutional term limits, electoral fraud, intimidation of the opposition and control of major media.” How can the United States, which the Post claimed “spent so much money and political capital to promote democracy in Nicaragua during the 1980s,” sit by and offer “nothing but mild verbal opposition?”

The level of contempt displayed here for basic historical truth is staggering. In reality, the US government in the 1980s trained, armed and funded far-right death squads that wrought havoc in Nicaragua and the rest of the region, killing hundreds of thousands in genocides the area will never recover from. Quite apart from its architects being found guilty in US courts, the Reagan administration was tried and convicted by the International Court of Justice on 15 counts centering on the illegal use of force. It is these actions, presumably, that the Post described to  readers as “promoting democracy,” thereby using a mythical past to convince left-leaning audiences that further “democracy promotion” is necessary today.

The US has for years been supporting a domestic protest movement aimed at toppling Ortega. However, it has failed to get very far, primarily due to his widespread public support and the opposition’s own unpopularity.

Corporate media chided the United States, but generally only for not doing enough to ensure a change in government. “What America Must Do to Help Nicaragua Restore Democracy,” ran the Hill’s headline (1/30/20). The article advised that the US must “diversify its strategy and increase sanctions on regime insiders complicit in carrying out human rights abuses.” “Two years After Nicaragua’s Mass Uprising Started, Why Is Daniel Ortega Still in Power?” grumbled a Washington Post headline (1/5/20), disappointed that democracy had not been restored yet.

Unfortunately, even much of the US left media has aligned with the corporate press in condemning progressive Latin American administrations, thereby greasing the skids for US-supported attempts at regime change (FAIR.org, 10/12/19, 1/22/20).

Who gets to talk on human rights

Sourcing is a key component of journalism; who the sources are will shape the tone and the argument of anything a news organization produces (Extra!, 1–2/06). However, there are myriad potentially suitable individuals or organizations to go to, and journalists themselves are largely in control of who they select. Media can therefore effectively decide which arguments get heard and which do not, simply by going to the people who reflect the views they wish to push.

At the beginning of the Iraq invasion, corporate media was saturated with pro-war voices, while dissent was largely squelched. A FAIR study (5/1/03) of TV news in early 2003 found that 64% of all sources favored an attack, while only one in ten voiced any opposition to the idea. As a result, viewers were effectively blitzed by voices arguing for an intervention.

Moving to the present, a search for pro-peace think tanks such as the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for Economic and Policy Research elicits 86 and 53 results, respectively, in the New York Times over the past five years, going back to the beginning of 2016. Hawkish organizations are referenced far more frequently; the Center for American Progress, whose executive director Neera Tanden has called for “oil-rich countries” to pay the US for the privilege of being bombed (FAIR.org, 3/3/21), has featured in 432 Times articles since 2016, while conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation appears in 529 over the same period, suggesting that what we saw during the Iraq invasion is the rule rather than the exception.

If well-paid US columnists start becoming preoccupied with human rights in your country, it is a pretty good sign that you are about to get bombed. It is also remarkable how quickly those same pundits will lose their acute interest in human rights in a nation after a US intervention. Therefore, the next time you hear freedom, human rights and democracy in another country being endlessly discussed, be on your guard for ulterior motives; these cold-blooded media figures may just be crying crocodile tears in the service of empire.

‘We Really Can’t Take Anything These Companies Say at Face Value’

 

Janine Jackson interviewed Public Citizen’s Jane Chung about Big Tech lobbying for the April 2, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Public Citizen (3/24/21)

Janine Jackson: A new report from Public Citizen on Big Tech’s political influence opens with some illustrative quotes, including one from former Trump official Mick Mulvaney, about his time as a House representative for South Carolina: “We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.” It’s nice to have it put so boldly, I suppose, but that is our understanding of how things often, regrettably, work.

So what does it mean that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google—all wildly profitable enterprises that are being challenged on multiple fronts, from internal practices to societal impact—are showering money on Congress at startling levels? What are they looking to buy? Are they getting it? And how would we know?

The report is called Big Tech, Big Cash: Washington’s New Power Players, and we’re joined now by its author, Public Citizen’s Big Tech accountability advocate, Jane Chung. She joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome to CounterSpin, Jane Chung.

Jane Chung: Thanks for having me.

JJ: As I say, although it stinks, no one is really shocked to know that money changes hands in DC, that industry and lawmakers rub shoulders at parties and then—huh!—here’s favorable legislation. They might be surprised at the sheer scale of the outlays you document, and their increase. Give us a sense of the scale of the lobbying, campaign-contributing effort of these Big Tech corporations.

JC: Sure. Some comparisons I make in the report, I think, help illustrate the scale. When I was just coming into my political awareness, I’ll say, I learned that Big Oil and Big Tobacco, for much of the ’90s and the early 2000s, got their way in legislation and regulation in Washington because they were pouring money into lobbying and campaign contributions.

What I found throughout my research phase of this report is that Facebook and Amazon—which are now the two largest individual corporate spenders on lobbying in Washington—they now spend about twice as much as the companies Philip Morris and ExxonMobil. So that just gives you a sense of who today’s big players are, as compared to yesterday’s, when we know that Big Oil and Big Tobacco were really the biggest forces in Washington.

JJ: This is an update to a 2019 report, so you can also see the increase, right, in the spending from those actors?

JC: Yep, exactly. And it’s not surprising; as you mentioned earlier in your introduction, there’s a lot of regulatory and legislative challenge that is coming to the Big Tech companies. We’ve seen it last Congress, we’ll see more this Congress, and if I had it my way, hopefully, it leads to some real action and change as well.

JJ: Each of the players, of course, has their own set of issues and problems. Amazon workers, listeners know, are struggling to unionize right now, after years of complaints about workplace conditions. They have got a friend in DC, who’s not new in town, and who reflects another thing that the report spotlights, which is the revolving door. That plays a role with these tech companies as well, doesn’t it?

JC: It plays a huge role. And to give you a little bit of a sense of what happens behind closed doors: I call myself an advocate; really, I’m also a lobbyist, but we like to think of ourselves as lobbyists for the people.

JJ: Right.

Jane Chung: “We really can’t understate the importance of relationships in Washington, and specifically how much the revolving door benefits corporate interests.”

JC: And corporations have their own lobbyists.

And so much of our job is calling and messaging staff members on the Hill, to try and get meetings, to tell them about the issues that are important to us, and to try and move them toward what we think is the best solution.

When it comes down to it, and you have an email in your inbox or you have a missed call, and it’s your buddy from 10 years ago when you worked together on the Hill, you’re much more likely to pick up than someone whose phone number you don’t recognize. And so we really can’t understate the importance of relationships in Washington, and specifically how much the revolving door benefits corporate interests.

JJ: It seems important to say: Lobbying is not inherently bad, and receiving money isn’t prima facie evidence of co-optation or corruption, necessarily, on the part of an official.

In comments you made to the New Statesman, you were saying that sometimes the reason behind lobbying is self-evident, but at other times, it’s not clear. And part of what you’re trying to do is not just say, “hey, this money went from here to there—voilà!,” but try to figure out what is the interest that a company might have in particular legislation.

And something you said, that I thought was very interesting, is that sometimes, a company could be lobbying for an issue that seems counterintuitive to its business interests, but there’s other reasons that they’re doing that. Can you just talk a little bit about that?

New Statesman (2/15/21)

JC: Sure. You mentioned earlier, many of your listeners probably know, that Amazon is facing a lot of scrutiny for its labor practices, as workers in Alabama are counting up votes this week to establish a union for the first time, it would be for the first time in Amazon‘s corporate history.

Amazon has spent a lot of money, lobbying and advertising about raising the federal minimum wage to $15. They’ve bought out full-page spreads in the New York Times, they’ve bought out every newsletter that any Washington politico subscribes to, and even in the lobbying filings, as I was going through them, they list a $15 minimum wage as an issue that they’re lobbying for.

You might think, “Well, that’s objectively a good thing.” And given Amazon‘s history of not exactly treating their warehouse workers well, this seems like they may have turned a new leaf. Why would they want to pay their workers more? Why would they do something that seems so counterintuitive to an employer’s interest?

And the reason in this case is because they want to overshadow all of the abuses that are happening in the workplace with this great PR slogan about how they were ahead of the curve on raising their minimum wage to $15. When the reality is, when they raised their warehouse workers’ wages to $15, there were plenty of reports online around how this actually didn’t raise the real wages for a lot of workers, and they cut back a lot of benefits and incentives at the same time, so the workers weren’t experiencing, actually, any better material conditions as a result.

Other reports online say that warehouse workers, typically, made much more than minimum wage, and so Amazon is putting downward pressure on the industry-wide wages for that type of work.

So we really can’t take anything these companies say at face value. Another great recent example is, a few of the companies—including Facebook and Google and Amazon—created a new group in Washington, called the “Chamber of Progress,” where they’re touting progressive slogans, and interests like “democracy reform” and “income equality”; all the while, we know that this is really just a front group for advancing corporate interests in Washington. And so I think it’s a sleight of hand that we have to pay attention to as we look at these companies.

JJ: “Chamber of Progress” makes me want to puke, I’m just going to say that right now.

JC: Exactly.

Former Obama press secretary and current Amazon vice president Jay Carney

JJ: When we’re talking about Amazon‘s new friend in DC, that’s a guy named Jay Carney. And I just wanted to point out that his official title appears to be “senior vice president for policy and press,” which I find very interesting, as a way of thinking about image management as part of what is going on here.

Well, one of the reasons that you and others track lobbying outlays and campaign contributions, even though that’s not the only kind of influence peddling that’s going on, but it’s one of the pieces of information that you can get. And we should note that you’re working with data from the Center for Responsive Politics; they’re online at OpenSecrets.org.

But other things happen that we just can’t get a spotlight on, that we can’t measure, right? So you’re not trying to say this is this is the whole of it, yeah? This is just a piece of it.

JC: Sure, yeah, that’s exactly right. The spending that I cover in this report is just a slice—and we don’t know how big of a slice that is—of the full pie of spending that not only Big Tech, but corporate interests at large, are spending in Washington.

So just to give you a few examples: This report covers federal lobbying and campaign contributions. It does not cover state-level lobbying and campaign contributions, as well as local, which are much more difficult to quantify and track, because there are different standards on a state-by-state or locality basis. This doesn’t track super PACs and other intermediaries; we know that a lot of corporations will essentially launder money through a bunch of different names and organizations and super PACs and (c)(3)s and (c)(4)s to obscure the source of the funding, and contribute to elections and candidates in that way.

And then a whole new frontier that we’ve recently discovered is advertisements, funding research, funding academics. We’ve seen recently that David Brooks, of the New York Times op-ed column, was publishing all sorts of great things about Facebook while not revealing that Facebook is one of the sources of funding for his new projects.

JJ: Right.

JC: So these are all ways that Big Tech takes its tentacles into the Washington machine, and are very, very, very difficult for us to track.

JJ: Let me just ask, finally: I started out by saying, “no one’s shocked,” but just because we’re jaded doesn’t mean we accept, in a society with democratic aspirations, shall we say, that it’s just “money in, policy out.”

Briefly, unfortunately, what do you think about in terms of change? In terms of the problems that this report outlines, what are the big things that could change, and should change, that would ameliorate, anyway, the problems you outline?

JC: One of the things we call for at the end of this report is for all of these tech companies—and we’ve made this call for corporate America at large—to shut down their PACs, to end all super PAC contributions. And that’s a small fix that the companies can do themselves.

But in terms of the government, we really need the federal government to come in and make a stance, and pass things like HR.1 or S.1, the For the People Act, which has a lot of reforms in it to reduce the influence of corporate money in politics and increase transparency. These are the sort of changes we need to see, to ensure that the democracy that we all participate in is reflective of what the people want and need, rather than what Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple want and need.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Jane Chung, Big Tech accountability advocate for Public Citizen. Find the report, Big Tech, Big Cash, on the site citizen.org. Jane Chung, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

JC: Thank you.

 

 

 

Chip Gibbons on Drone Whistleblower Daniel Hale

 

Daniel Hale

This week on CounterSpin: The idea that you don’t “shoot the messenger” dates back, evidently, to Sophocles. It echoes today as a man named Daniel Hale stands convicted nominally of breaking a law aimed at spies sneaking intel to foreign enemies, but actually with revealing things the US government didn’t want known about its drone warfare programs—the ones elite media have often presented as precise in separating “bad guys” from “innocents,” and so superior to other methods of (what we are to understand is) “counterterrorism.”

Big media have shown little interest in the case. We’ll get a backgrounder from researcher and journalist Chip Gibbons, policy director of the group Defending Rights & Dissent.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look back at press coverage of Georgia’s voter suppression law.

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Western Media Incite Anti-Asian Racism When They Join in Cold War Against China

 

Over the past few weeks, the subject of anti-Asian racism has received an unusual degree of Western media attention, ever since a video showing the January 28 killing of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai immigrant in San Francisco, was widely shared on social media. Coverage intensified when gunman Robert Aaron Long targeted three Asian-owned spas on March 6, killing six Asian women among eight victims in Atlanta, Georgia. Local and national media centered the gunman’s professed motive of a “sex addiction” and police statements disputing whether the crime was racially motivated, even though gendered racism is still a factor when racist incidents don’t meet the narrow and arbitrary requirements of what constitutes a hate crime (FAIR.org, 3/26/21).

While this has given more exposure to the longstanding history of racism towards Asian people in the West, as well as the various ways Asians are often gaslit by having their racial oppression trivialized, Western news outlets have also deceptively omitted the centrality of media-promoted Sinophobia to this latest spike in hate crimes toward anyone perceived to be Chinese.

Western media reports throughout the pandemic have presented the most obvious explanations behind the spike in anti-Asian violence, settling on the Trump administration’s repeated use of the phrase “Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu,” even after being informed that such rhetoric fuels the risk of hate crimes and discrimination against Asian people.

USA Today (2/11/21) acknowledges that Covid messaging can encourage hate crimes, but doesn’t examine corporate media’s participation in the new cold war against China.

Time (3/20/20) pointed out that Trump was “part of a long history of associating diseases with foreign countries.” USA Today (2/11/21) reported that “racist rhetoric about the coronavirus pandemic may be fueling a rise in hate incidents.” The Los Angeles Times (3/5/21), reporting on a study that found anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 major cities had risen 149% last year—while total hate crimes against all minority groups had dropped 7%—declared that “the rise is almost certainly related to the pandemic.”

But the Trump administration wasn’t the only actor associating Covid-19 with China. Asian writers (Salon, 2/7/20; CNN, 3/28/20) have pointed out the racist logic often employed by the scientific community and Western media in naming an epidemic: If a virus is believed to have originated from and is circulating in Western countries, either refer to it by a generic numerical designation (e.g. H1N1), or reference the animal believed to be responsible for the zoonotic spillover (e.g., Mad Cow Disease, Swine Flu). If the virus is first detected in a country that the West has stereotyped, then the epidemic will be named after the region it’s believed to have originated from (e.g., Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, West Nile Virus).

The World Health Organization (WHO), breaking with this tradition in 2015, officially named the novel coronavirus that started the pandemic “Covid-19” on February 11, 2020, to avoid stigmatizing Chinese people, even though the virus was informally referred to as the “Wuhan Coronavirus” in Western media reports both before (e.g., New York Times, 1/21/20; CNN, 2/4/20; US News & World Report, 1/24/20), and after the WHO’s official designation (e.g., Fox, 12/29/20; BBC, 8/18/20). Indeed, towards the beginning of the pandemic, US media outlets saw fit to publish loaded headlines in op-eds like “A Communist Coronavirus” (Wall Street Journal, 1/29/20), “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” (Wall Street Journal, 2/3/20) and “Coronavirus Spreads, and the World Pays for China’s Dictatorship” (New York Times, 1/29/20).

Scapegoating China

Despite WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus’s calls to avoid politicizing the virus and “pointing fingers,” because it would hinder international cooperation crucial to combating the pandemic, Western media have also echoed the Republican Party’s strategy of blaming China to avoid accountability for the US’s disastrous handling of the pandemic.

“If China had a different government, the world could have been spared this terrible pandemic,” claims Paul D. Miller (Foreign Policy, 3/25/20). Like one of the Western governments that allowed a thousand times more Covid cases per capita than the Chinese government?

Foreign Policy ran an op-ed, “Yes, Blame China for the Virus” (3/25/20), dismissing calls to avoid politicizing the virus as “nonsense” because the Chinese government’s “missteps are directly responsible for its global transmission and uncontrolled spread.” The Atlantic ran another op-ed, “China Is Avoiding Blame by Trolling the World” (3/19/20), stating that the “evidence of China’s deliberate cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is a matter of public record,” and that the Chinese “regime imperiled not only its own country and its own citizens but also the more than 100 nations now facing their own potentially devastating outbreaks.”

Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen wrote “The Election Is Over. Can We Finally Blame China for the Pandemic?” (12/8/20) arguing that those who tried to avoid blaming China were merely attempting to suppress an inconvenient truth for political gain:

If the regime had taken action as soon as human-to-human transmission was detected, it might have prevented a worldwide pandemic. Instead, Chinese officials deliberately covered up the outbreak, punished doctors who tried to warn the public, intentionally lied to the world about the danger the virus posed, and proactively impeded the US and international response. It is the Chinese regime’s lies and incompetence that are responsible for the most devastating and costly pandemic in American history.

Western media also ran op-eds demanding China pay “reparations” to other nations, asserting that China was not only to blame for the pandemic, but deserved to be punished: Newsweek (5/1/20) published an op-ed by far-right British politician Nigel Farage, which described the “liberal democracies of the West” as being “increasingly pitched against that clever, ruthless opponent called China,” and questioned whether “Western governments really have the collective nerve to ensure” China pays reparations to them. The Spectator (12/5/20) talked about “the need of the citizens of the world to be given reparations by China for what it did to us all this year.”

Marc Thiessen (Washington Post, 12/8/20) blames China for not doing enough in December 2019 to stop a pandemic that killed its first identified victim on January 9, 2021.

In “China Should Be Held Legally Liable for the Pandemic Damage It Has Done,” the Washington Post‘s Thiessen (4/9/20) declared, “Somebody has to pay for this unprecedented damage. That somebody should be the government of China.” He accused Beijing of “intentionally lying to the world about the danger of the virus, and proactively impeding a global response that might have prevented a worldwide contagion.”

The inevitable result of Western media actively assisting the Trump administration’s attempts to blame China for the world’s pandemic woes is to give rationalizations to those carrying out anti-Asian violence out of the racist belief that all Asians, wherever they are, are collectively guilty and worthy of punishment for perceived wrongdoings of the Chinese government. But pointing fingers at China doesn’t just inflame anti-Asian racism; it’s also factually inaccurate.

Western media narratives of a supposed Chinese “coverup” primarily hinge on the myth of the Chinese government punishing “whistleblower doctors” like Dr. Li Wenliang, and other falsehoods, such as the Chinese government denying that there was any human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 before January 20, 2020, or needlessly delaying the release of the SARS-CoV-2 genome (FAIR.org, 10/14/20, 1/20/21; CGTN, 4/23/20, 8/22/20).

What nearly all Western media reports criticizing China for not acting faster than it already did omit is that a joint mission report from WHO and China described the Chinese response as probably the most “ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history.” They also omit that earlier action and information probably would have made little difference, since countries like the US didn’t act on the information it already had when the Chinese government initiated the unprecedented lockdown on Wuhan on January 23, 2020, which was widely dismissed and condemned by US media outlets at the time for being “authoritarian” (e.g., Washington Post, 1/27/20; Atlantic, 1/24/20; Slate 1/24/20).

In actuality, the Chinese government and people went to extraordinary efforts to contain Covid-19, buying the rest of the world time to prepare for the pandemic (which countries like the US squandered).

Foreigners and Chinese people living in China were motivated to produce the independent documentary Blaming Wuhan after seeing the blatant falsehoods and misrepresentations in Western media about what was happening on the ground in China, so that people could see and hear for themselves what Chinese life was really like. The documentary contains numerous testimonies showing that Chinese media’s unified science-based reporting to contain panic and prevent infection—along with the Chinese people’s expressed trust and respect for their government—led to widespread compliance with government directives, as opposed to complying out of fear. The documentary also attributes China’s success in containing the pandemic to greater cultural consideration for the collective good, as well as the government devoting significant resources to contain the virus.

Their testimonies are corroborated by visitors to China such as Dr. Bruce Aylward, an experienced Canadian medical expert who led a team visiting China for WHO (New York Times, 3/4/20):

Journalists also say, “Well, they’re only acting out of fear of the government,” as if it’s some evil fire-breathing regime that eats babies. I talked to lots of people outside the system—in hotels, on trains, in the streets at night.

They’re mobilized, like in a war, and it’s fear of the virus that was driving them. They really saw themselves as on the front lines of protecting the rest of China. And the world.

Promoting Sinophobia

The New York Post (1/23/20) reported on a video showing a woman eating a bat “at an undisclosed restaurant in the Wuhan province”—which turned out actually to be in Palau, an island nation 2,700 miles from China.

Despite this, Western media have promoted centuries-old racist stereotypes of Chinese people as exceptionally uncivilized and filthy. Western media reports like the New York Post’s “Revolting Video Shows Woman Devouring Bat Amid Coronavirus Outbreak” (1/23/20) reported on a “gag-inducing clip” featuring an “unidentified woman at an undisclosed restaurant in the Wuhan province clutching what appears to be a fruit bat with chopsticks while nibbling its wing like chicken.” The Daily Mirror’s “Coronavirus: Woman Eats Whole Bat in Disturbing Footage After Outbreak Linked to Soup” (1/24/20) described the video as a Chinese woman “eating a bat in a plush restaurant, despite fears the new deadly coronavirus could have been spread by a soup made from the mammal,” with bat soup being “a delicacy in the country and a popular dish in Wuhan, where the virus originated.”

In fact, the widely circulated video was first shared by Chinese social media users condemning the act, and was later revealed to be the host of an online travel show eating in the Micronesian nation of Palau in 2016. But when Western media operate within an Orientalist framework that depicts all Asian people as a barbaric monolith, factchecking crucial details like time and location don’t matter when they can spread clickbait articles by playing into racist stereotypes instead.

Before the origin theory of Covid-19 emerging from Wuhan “wet markets” was abandoned, I also criticized (FAIR.org, 5/7/20) how early Western media coverage falsely conflated what were called “wet markets” with wildlife markets, even though the vast majority of wet markets don’t keep or sell wildlife.

An op-ed in USA Today (4/8/20) from a former Shanghai-based journalist described how the “strangest animals for human consumption” to his “Western eyes” were “turtles, snakes and frogs,” before condemning Chinese “cultural traditions of medicine, animal husbandry and culinary tastes” for being a “unique incubator of terrible diseases.” Georgetown professor Bradley Blakeman wrote a patronizing op-ed (The Hill, 4/1/20) arguing that “China’s domestic demand and customs for exotic and live food are a direct threat to the health, safety and welfare of the world.”

Business Insider’s “Both the New Coronavirus and SARS Outbreaks Likely Started in Chinese ‘Wet Markets.’ Historic Photos Show What the Markets Looked Like” (2/6/20) maximized shock value and outrage by using photos that are up to 16 years old across China, along with images from Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, which undermined the epidemiological need to be specific about what animal species the Huanan Market in Wuhan actually contained, and in what frequency. There are significant regional variations in cuisine in a country populated by over 1.3 billion people, and a more contextual approach would have informed audiences that wildlife actually isn’t commonly eaten in China—the practice being largely restricted to the southeast region and some towns—with one poll finding nearly 97% of Chinese people disapproving of the practice.

One can also find sources critical of the unsanitary eating habits of Americans, as well as them eating exotic meat like turtles, snakes, frogs, squirrels and camels, yet it still wouldn’t be fair to criticize all Americans for the peculiar eating habits of a few.

Reinforcing implicit bias

Western media have also made Asian people the face of the coronavirus from the very beginning of the pandemic, giving excuses for people who already held latent racist and xenophobic attitudes towards Asians to act on them under superficially plausible pretexts. Several reports have criticized Western media practices of lazily and insensitively using stock photos of Chinatown and Asian people wearing masks, even when the people getting infected and dying from the coronavirus weren’t Asian, or in Asian countries. Western media have also used photos of Asians wearing masks, even when the racial background of people testing positive for coronavirus haven’t been released in those reports, reinforcing implicit biases against Asians.

Gothamist (1/31/20) illustrated an article about the absence of coronavirus in New York with a photo of Flushing, a largely Chinese-American neighborhood in Queens.

The most notable instance of this practice was when outlets like the New York Post and New York Times used images of East Asian people in Queens wearing masks on a story about New York City’s first confirmed Covid-19 case being in Manhattan, after contracting the virus in Iran. This particular story is especially ironic, because it was later revealed that New York City was the primary source of infection across the US, with most New York cases being traced back to Europe, not Asia.

The story of Covid-19 itself is especially ironic, as observers, including Indi Samarajiva in Sri Lanka, have pointed out that Western incompetence in containing the pandemic, and hoarding of vaccines, have been responsible for infecting and harming the rest of the world. Samarajiva (Medium, 5/4/20), along with FAIR (6/6/20), has criticized Western media coverage for praising and highlighting the Global North’s efforts in combating the pandemic, while downplaying the superior pandemic achievements of Asian nations in the Global South like China, Vietnam and the Indian state of Kerala.

Yet white people have not been blamed or associated with the coronavirus the way Asians have in racialized Western media coverage. This is despite some white people leading anti-lockdown, anti-mask and anti-vaccine protests, along with the European Union and the US having more than 58 million total confirmed cases as of April 7, 2021, with China barely surpassing 100,000 total confirmed cases—even though China has around double their combined population—according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data project.

US imperialism & anti-Asian racism

Several Asian observers have already made the connection between US imperialism and expansionism in Asia, accompanied by bipartisan aggressive and fearmongering rhetoric about China, leading to racist stereotypes, anti-Asian violence and state persecution of Asian people (Nation, 3/19/21; Washington Post, 3/19/21). Dehumanizing portrayals of Asian people have been necessary to prepare Westerners to rationalize massacring millions of Asian people in the West’s historical legacy of invasion and colonization, as well as to justify paranoid and blanket state persecution of Asian people living in the West, often with many false accusations, and little evidence of alleged Chinese infiltration and espionage (e.g., USA Today, 8/23/20; Newsweek, 10/26/20; Foreign Policy, 9/28/20).

Looking at the alarmism in Western media coverage throughout the years, one can easily get the impression that China is a hostile and expansionist power seeking to dominate the world, as the US has done since World War II:

  • Axios (7/9/20): “China’s Extraterritorial Threat”
  • Foreign Policy (10/12/19): “Can American Values Survive in a Chinese World?”
  • Economist (10/4/18): “China Has Designs on Europe. Here Is How Europe Should Respond”
  • The Week (3/29/18): “The Looming Threat of Chinese Imperialism”
  • Washington Post (3/12/21): “China’s Rise Is Exactly the Kind of Threat NATO Exists to Stop”
  • The Hill (1/21/21): “Xi Jinping’s China and Hitler’s Germany: Growing Parallels”

China has repeatedly declared its explicit desire for a “multipolar” world and “win/win cooperation,” with “no ambition to seek hegemony, much less to replace the United States,” which it contrasts with a US preference for “unilateralism” and “zero-sum games” (People’s Daily, 9/10/20). As with most nations, China’s past and current foreign policy has unscrupulous aspects, but Chinese state media have also criticized the non sequitur that aspiring to become a more powerful nation necessarily means desiring world domination, citing the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence codified in China’s constitution (People’s Daily, 5/21/15). While government declarations of principles shouldn’t always be taken at face value, these are recognizably different arguments from Chinese media than the ones commonly found in US media propagandizing the desirability and necessity of US supremacy (FAIR.org, 12/11/20).

And despite Western media’s dehumanizing and incoherent portrayals of Chinese people being a monolith of brainwashed robots supportive of their government, while simultaneously being cognizant people with agency being governed against their will, one can find a wide diversity of opinion on China and the US’s place in the world there:

The debate around whether Chinese officials can be trusted generally ignores the question of whether US officials can be trusted not to start a war, or fearmonger about an ascendant China to retain US hegemony. A Defense News analysis (2/17/21) argued that “lawmakers, Pentagon leaders and defense industry–funded think tanks have been ramping up ‘great power competition’ rhetoric for years as a ploy to justify greater military spending,” and that China’s military investments are clearly “meant to keep invaders at a safe distance rather than project its own military power forward,” with the Chinese military advantages evaporating “beyond its shores.”

In Defense News (2/17/21), Dan Grazier notes, “When spending levels threaten to dip, discussion of a new national security threat ramps up to coax defense spending safely upward.”

Even establishment commentator Fareed Zakaria (Washington Post, 3/18/21), generally noted for his celebration of US power, mocked the threat inflation surrounding China, citing the US having 20 times as many nuclear warheads as China, the US having over 800 military bases around the world (many surrounding China) compared to China having as many as three, and China spending roughly only one-third as much annually on its military as the US (FAIR.org, 10/1/19).

And while the Western-centric question of whether China is a threat to us is a convenient distraction from the more pertinent question of whether the US is a threat to China, the Union of Concerned Scientists (5/7/20), for example, has pointed out that China has had an unconditional no-first-use pledge ever since it first developed a nuclear deterrent in 1964, whereas the US maintains the right to target China with a nuclear first strike. China is not planning to build a hostile missile network, or deploy Chinese soldiers near Western borders, as the US is doing to China (Nikkei Asia, 3/5/21, 7/5/20). Despite being more powerful than ever, China has never invaded another country in over 40 years, whereas at least 800,000 people have been directly killed in the US’s ongoing post-9/11 wars.

As a Korean American, it’s not hard to see the parallels between today’s Sinophobic hysteria over China’s rise with historic white supremacist fears of nonwhite people seeking retribution, or inevitably becoming just as bad as their oppressors: from white slaveowners fearing revenge from newly freed slaves, to Western media paranoia about Black South Africans slaughtering white South Africans and Palestinians killing Jewish people upon ending apartheid (FAIR.org, 2/1/19). When one is aware that Western media spread the exact same Yellow Peril propaganda of deceptive and ruthless Chinese ambitions for global domination even while Western imperialist powers were dominating China during its Century of Humiliation—and before the Chinese Revolution brought the Communist Party of China to power—current speculations over China’s alleged desire for hegemony seem more like projections and an unfalsifiable thesis, rather than evidence-based fear.

Racist critiques 

While Western media like to self-present as “objective,” “impartial” and ideologically normative, FAIR has repeatedly criticized their bias in favor of white supremacy and the political and business establishment. And when we recall that US foreign policy has been designed by white supremacists, along with US newsrooms remaining predominantly white, it’s fair to question whether race is still a factor behind US foreign policy and Western media’s vilification of both the Chinese people and the Chinese government, especially when US journalists have held more hostile views towards China than the general public (Columbia Journalism Review, 11/5/18; Newsweek, 5/2/19). With US public opinion of China plummeting to all-time-lows as a result of the US’s expanded information warfare against China, it’s no surprise that Asian people are suffering from racist violence (Mintpress News, 5/18/20, 3/1/21).

It’s not inherently racist to criticize the Chinese government, but it is racist to insist on criticisms based on dubious evidence and outright falsehoods, or to prioritize hypocritical critiques of China when the West has committed more egregious atrocities than the worst Western media allegations against China (CounterPunch, 1/4/13; Mintpress News, 12/16/20). It’s racist to assume China is inherently dishonest, has nefarious motives behind all its actions, and presumed guilty of alleged wrongdoings without investigating the accuracy of Western media claims, or without critically considering non-Western views of China (e.g., Hankyoreh, 6/21/20; Medium, 10/26/20; South China Morning Post, 10/21/20). Yellow Peril and Red Scare propaganda has serious consequences for the Asian diaspora, as anti-Asian racism is spiking in Western countries as an inevitable result of Western imperialism (Time, 3/8/21).

Just as official condemnations of Islamophobia didn’t spare anyone perceived to be Muslim from state persecution and racist violence in the wake of the US’s post-9/11 wars, Asian people will continue to be targeted, despite disingenuous condemnations of anti-Asian racism, as long as the new Cold War against China continues. When many Westerners can’t even distinguish between hating the Chinese government and the Asian diaspora, it’s hard to believe familiar claims of only hating the Chinese government and not the Chinese people.

Featured image: Bloomberg illustration (5/21/20) of Chinese Covid policy.

‘It’s in the Interest of Everyone in the US to Vaccinate the World as Quickly as Possible’

 

Janine Jackson interviewed Public Citizen’s Peter Maybarduk about global vaccination for the April 2, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: The availability of Covid vaccines at corner drugstores, here in New York City and elsewhere, reports that nursing homes in the US are seeing steep declines in new Covid cases after being prioritized for vaccines, and maybe just the arrival of spring, have many folks hopeful that we’re nearing the end of the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. But, as ever, we have to ask, who’s “we,”exactly?

UN Secretary General António Guterres was among those complaining in February that 10 countries have monopolized 75% of the world’s Covid-19 vaccines; meanwhile, people in more than 130 countries were yet to receive a single dose.

For many people, the pandemic was undeniable evidence of what is always true: that we are interdependent, physically as well as societally; that while problems can be global, protections are not; and that when profit making and public health collide, you need to pick a side.

What stands in the way of our using that awareness to shape global access to vaccines? Joining us now by phone is Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Peter Maybarduk.

Peter Maybarduk: Great to be with you.

Public Citizen (12/8/20)

JJ: Let’s talk about what’s possible, and compare it with what’s happening. You produced research showing how the US could basically get everyone on the planet vaccinated with targeted investment. And, obviously, doing that now is better than any time other than now. It wasn’t a moral appeal, though that’s entirely appropriate; it was a plan of how this could actually happen, right?

PM: Absolutely. So we think an investment of $25 billion would be sufficient to produce 8 billion doses of mRNA Covid vaccine in a little more than a year’s time, which is timely to shorten the pandemic, because many people in low- and middle-income countries are potentially going to be waiting until 2024 for a vaccine. And it’s actually not entirely clear that we’re on track to vaccinate everyone in the world, ever, as opposed to just run into a long-term problem of boosters with endemic Covid.

So we think that there is a need to inject ambition, and set up new production lines with a small capital investment–we think about $2 billion to do that–and for the Biden administration to call on drug makers and other world leaders, and say: We can do this. We can actually produce more than we currently have planned to produce, if we share vaccine recipes, if we pool the available facilities, if we put what really is a very modest amount of money in, compared to the economic cost of the pandemic.

JJ: Yeah, $25 billion—I’ll just note: the 2020 military budget was $721 billion. And then, we’re talking about something that would pay for itself. And we’re not talking about charity, you know?

Let me just draw you out: What are the global dynamics, or relationships, in play? We have wealthy countries sitting on vaccines, or the recipe for vaccines? And then, that “wealthy versus less wealthy countries” is also interlaced with a tension between private profit and public health. What’s going on there?

Peter Maybarduk: “If we don’t ramp up manufacturing quickly, with some new investments and some high-level political leadership now, a million more people will die.”

PM: It’s true that wealthy countries are sitting both on doses and on recipes. Donations are going to become a very big issue in the United States shortly, because we’re actually, amazingly, going to have a surplus of vaccines in the United States at some point over the summer, and there will be a discussion of what to do with those excess doses.

And we think they should be equitably allocated to people in low- and middle-income countries in the COVAX initiative. However, it’s very important to note that that, on its own, will not be anywhere near enough to meet the scale of global need. And if we don’t ramp up manufacturing quickly, with some new investments and some high-level political leadership now, a million more people will die than would otherwise be the case, and trillions of dollars will be lost. So it’s critically important.

One of the greatest public health/private profit tensions in this story is the value of “vaccine recipes” and vaccine technology. A company like Moderna isn’t thinking only about the value of its mRNA vaccine—which is actually an NIH, a publicly developed vaccine, in partnership with Moderna, paid for by taxpayers over many years already. But they’re thinking about the value of future products: They’re thinking that their recipes and their techniques, their production techniques, the specifics of their platform technologies—that’s the long-term value plan for the company, and so they don’t want to share with the world, openly, how that is done.

But there are solutions to that, including paying the companies appropriate compensation for disclosure of that technology, essentially buying out the know-how. We can afford, at this moment in time, collectively, to pay some appropriate amount to companies and investors that are truly making innovation happen. But what we can’t afford is commercial secrecy, fragmenting of a supply ecosystem, limiting how far we can scale up vaccine access—and that’s what’s happening today.

Intercept (3/18/21)

JJ: I would refer folks to Lee Fang’s reporting for the Intercept, where he has Pfizer CFO Frank D’Amelio saying, “As this shifts from pandemic to endemic, we think there’s an opportunity here for us,” and the Johnson & Johnson executive VP Joseph Wolk is telling investors that they’ll “reevaluate the vaccine for ‘pricing that’s much more in line with a commercial opportunity’ when the pandemic is over.” It’s important to note that they think they’re in charge of saying when the pandemic is over.

When we talked last, I think, we were talking about Donald Trump; he’s a sociopath, straight-up saying, “to heck with COVAX; us for us!” That’s not the tone or the message, certainly, in the new White House, but do you think that in terms of actions, that Biden might still be thinking too small, too domestic?

PM: So far, that’s a concern. Let me put it a little differently: We do think we need to see some signs of greater ambition from the White House. To be clear, I think we, and a great many people, are very grateful to see the turnaround from the White House in dealing with the pandemic in the United States, and grateful to see the renewed support for multilateralism, and recognizing that the world is in this together.

JJ: Absolutely.

PM: But we need a lot more ambition and upfront investment on the global problem now, recognizing the unique capabilities of the United States government to organize production for the world, and to set standards for other world leaders, and for drug companies, and say here’s how we’re going to get this done. If the US government doesn’t step into that role, we’re just going to lose a lot of lives needlessly, because there isn’t another player to fill that void.

And right now, there’s production happening, but we are letting the companies dictate far too much of it. And there isn’t a pooling of resources, or scale, to make up the difference in those billions of doses that are needed to vaccinate everyone.

JJ: Let me just pull you back to the science of it. I think sometimes—and this comes through in the media—it’s as though we can make this a political issue, we can enforce a political template onto what is not, inherently, political. If we wait too long to get vaccines to people, then isn’t it true that those vaccines might no longer be effective if the virus mutates? So it’s not just immoral; it’s not just uneconomic; it’s also kind of stupid to wait too long, and to enforce a kind of unequal immunity on the globe?

PM: We definitely think it’s in the interest of everyone living in the United States to vaccinate the world as quickly as possible, and take some of the wind out of the sails of the variants of the mutations. If the world is not going to do a good job of getting the pandemic under control, then we’ll have a worse problem of variant spreading; it’ll be something that we all have to worry about quite a bit more in the future.

Notably, it’s also going to be harder to restart the global economy. We’ve got global supply chains; we’re going to have parts of the world shut down, communities devastated for the foreseeable future, unless we get it under control. So an investment now, in order to protect the future, seems quite sound to us.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Peter Maybarduk, director of the Global Access to Medicines Program at Public Citizen, online at Citizen.org. Peter Maybarduk, thanks once again for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

PM: So good to be with you.

 

Media Manage to Both-Sides Georgia GOP’s Suppressing Democracy

 

Georgia’s new voting law—one of the first in a crowded field of breathtakingly brazen state voting bills the GOP is pushing across the country—has made national headlines. As voting rights reporter Ari Berman (CounterSpin, 3/16/21) has explained, these bills are essentially “an effort to overturn the election by other means.” But despite Republicans’ obvious—often explicitly stated—goal of rigging future elections more successfully than they have in the past, many of those national media outlets can’t give up their commitment to both-sidesing the story, giving cover to the anti-democratic campaign.

The New York Times (3/25/21) highlights claims from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp that the point of the voter suppression bill is “to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

In its initial report on Georgia’s new voter suppression law, the New York TimesNick Corasaniti (3/25/21) explained that Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp highlighted his history of

fighting for stronger voter identification laws, which Democrats have denounced as having an outsize impact on communities of color. Mr. Kemp said that protests against the bill were pure politics.

Who’s to say which side readers should believe? Don’t ask the Times. Corasaniti seemed incapable of sorting out truth from fiction, noting later that opponents of the bill called “for a boycott of major corporations in Georgia that they said had remained silent on the voting push, including Coca-Cola.” It’s not hard for a reporter to verify that claim; it’s their job, in fact.

The piece offered this context for understanding the GOP’s motivation:

Seeking to appease a conservative base that remains incensed about the results of the 2020 election, Republicans have already passed a similar law in Iowa, and are moving forward with efforts to restrict voting in states including Arizona, Florida and Texas.

It’s a neat little trick to shift blame—the party is simply being responsive to its constituents! Never mind that it was the party that drilled the lie of the stolen election into the heads of their base. As Vox‘s Zack Beauchamp (4/6/21) points out, laws like Georgia’s aren’t just premised on the lie of election fraud; they serve to ratify that lie.

In a later analysis, the New York Times‘ Nate Cohn (4/3/21) downplayed the impact of Georgia’s law on voting rights, arguing that both sides “misunderstand” the effect that making it harder to vote has on turnout. As voting rights expert Charlotte Hill quickly pointed out, Cohn’s argument is on very shaky ground for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it misses the disparate impact such restrictions can have on different groups—like minority or youth voters, who disproportionately vote Democratic.

Voting rights expert Charlotte Hill (Twitter, 4/3/21) notes that the New York Times‘ Nate Cohn (4/3/21) “focuses on the reforms least likely to benefit the voters who need the most help.”

To Cohn, those outraged over laws aimed at suppressing and manipulating the vote are as much to blame as the suppressors themselves for the lack of “bipartisan compromise” on such laws:

The perception that voting laws have existential stakes for democracy or the political viability of the two parties has made bipartisan compromise extremely difficult. The virtue of bipartisanship is often and understandably dismissed as naïve, but voting laws are a rare case where bipartisanship has value of its own. Democracy, after all, depends on the consent of the loser.

One might add that democracy depends on the right and ability of people to vote. The whole impetus for these bills, of course, is the lack of consent of the losers; telling the only party willing to play by the rules of democracy that it needs to “compromise” with the authoritarian party is a great way to further erode democracy, which makes that media mantra not just wrong but dangerous.

Even where reporters called it straight, Times headline writers still couldn’t always bring themselves to do so. In an analysis  (3/25/21) in which reporters wrote without equivocation that “the new barriers will have an outsize impact on Black voters, who make up roughly one-third of the state’s population and vote overwhelmingly Democratic,” the paper went with the sub-headline:

The state’s new Republican-crafted law is set to restrict voting access in ways that Democrats and voting rights groups say will have an outsize impact on Black voters.

ABC News (3/25/21): “Democrats say the law amounts to voter suppression; Republicans say it will restore trust in the election system.”

Some headlines were even worse, giving no indication of the import of the law. ABCNews.com (3/25/21), for instance, ran with this headline: “Kemp Signs Sweeping Elections Bill Passed by Georgia Legislature. Here’s What’s In It,” followed by the equally uninformative subhead: “The nearly 100-page bill overhauls multiple areas of election law in the state.”

In that piece, the issue was explained with perfect false balance:

Democrats and voting rights advocates have blasted the bill as a voter-suppression tactic and legislative “power grab” in response to former President Donald Trump and GOP allies peddling false conspiracy theories about a stolen, fraud-filled election for months. But Republicans contend the bill increases accessibility and is meant to streamline elections, provide uniformity and address a lack of confidence in Georgia’s elections “on all sides of the political spectrum,” a notion Democrats dispute.

Similarly, CBSNews.com (3/26/21) reported: “Conservative groups hailed the legislation’s passage, while liberals voiced their concern. ”

NPR (3/25/21) manages to report on a bill aimed at making it more difficult for African Americans to vote without ever mentioning race.

Remarkably, in an over 1,000-word article describing what the headline termed an “election overhaul,” NPR (3/25/21) failed to bring up who will be impacted by the changes or how—let alone whether provisions that primarily target minority and low-income voters are legal. Reporter Stephen Fowler managed to cover one of the most egregious efforts to disenfranchise Black voters in recent history without using the words “Black” or “minority”—and using the word “rights” only to note that some previously-planned restrictions were removed because of opposition from “voting rights groups,” among others.

Indeed, while much of the coverage of Georgia’s law has quoted opponents comparing it to Jim Crow laws that ensured white supremacy after Reconstruction, very little of it made any reference to the Voting Rights Act (or white supremacy, for that matter). Though the Roberts Court gutted critical parts of the VRA in its Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013, the provision prohibiting discriminatory voting laws (Section 2) still stands. The current Court, now tilted even further to the right, is expected to rule on Section 2 shortly.

It’s a key point that has paved the way for the current GOP push—as well as the Democrats’ push for a new federal voting rights act—but only two of the above articles even mentioned it. One, Cohn’s piece, referenced it only to tout an unpublished grad student paper arguing that Shelby v. Holder didn’t reduce Black turnout.

And so, rather than making this a story about racist, anti-democratic attempts by the Republican party to disenfranchise Black and other minority voters as part of its ugly turn toward a white nationalist authoritarianism, too many journalists normalize those efforts with bloodless “he said, she said” accounts of “election overhauls.”

With Nicaragua, Scary Covid Projections Are More Newsworthy Than Hopeful Results

 

One year ago, as both the Trump administration in the US and the Johnson government in the UK responded fitfully to the growing pandemic, the international media were looking for whipping boys: other countries whose response to the virus was even worse.

There were some cases of obvious neglect—Brazil was and is a prime example (FAIR.org, 4/12/20). But the press also turned on Nicaragua, repeating allegations from local opposition groups that the Sandinista government was in denial about the dangers, and that the country was poised on the edge of disaster.

When, as the death toll in other countries grew alarmingly, Nicaragua “flattened the curve” of virus cases more quickly than its neighbors, its apparent success was ignored. Despite the importance of identifying how poorer countries can contain the virus effectively, measures used by Nicaragua remain uninvestigated by the international media. Why did this come about?

The Guardian (4/8/20) cited what it described as “wild speculation” and a “conspiratorial article” about President Daniel Ortega’s lack of public appearances.

The media’s feeding frenzy on the Sandinista government began with the BBC. Last April, BBC World (4/4/20) claimed that President Daniel Ortega’s government had taken “no measures at all” in the face of the virus threat. It invented a media trope: Ortega’s “long absence” from public view. (He’d not appeared in person or on TV for three weeks, something not at all unusual.)

Two days later, the New York Times (4/6/20) was asking, “Where Is Daniel Ortega?,” adding that his government had been “widely criticized for its cavalier approach,” and that the public “is deeply dubious about government claims.” The Guardian (4/8/20) joined the chorus that same week, claiming that Ortega was “nowhere to be seen,” adding four days later that the “authoritarian” Ortega was one of four world leaders in denial about the virus. According to the Washington Post (4/13/20), Ortega had “vanished,” leaving a government operating a “laissez-faire approach” to the pandemic.

Not only the headlines but the substance of the stories had many similarities. A government quote (often from Vice President Rosario Murillo) was parenthesized by statements from opposition groups, or by what appeared to be independent medical bodies, such as the Committee of Multidisciplinary Scientists and the Citizens’ Observatory for Covid-19, both of which were openly supported by the opposition.

Juan Sebastián Chamorro, an opposition leader with the same excellent connections to the international media as other Chamorro family members, is the “go to” opposition voice, while frequently quoted sources are Chamorro-owned newspaper La Prensa and opposition-supporting news website Confidencial, run by Carlos F. Chamorro. (Both of these outlets and the website 100% Noticias, also strongly critical of the government, have received regular financial support from the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, which has benefited from $4.6 million in USAID funding in the past three years.)

The international media even use reporters with close ties to the opposition. For example, the Guardian describes the Managua-based writer of its Covid-19 stories, Wilfredo Miranda, as “freelance,” but at the time he was writing regularly for Confidencial. The Guardian has a track record of using opposition-aligned journalists: In 2018, along with the Washington Post and BBC, it ran stories by Carl David Goette-Luciak, who was shown by Max Blumenthal (Canary, 9/28/18) to be working with anti-Sandinista groups. (Blumenthal’s report led to open conflict between the Canary website and the Guardian.)

Similarly, the BBC’s report on April 4 was from Dora Luz Romero, head of digital information at right-wing La Prensa, and the first quote in her story was from that newspaper’s editor-in-chief. The Managua correspondent for the New York Times, Alfonso Flores Bermúdez, makes his political sympathies clear in his Twitter feed (for example, referring to those found guilty of armed attacks in the 2018 coup attempt as political prisoners).

The pandemic confirmed trends which have been growing anyway: that it is convenient and cheaper to use local journalists, even if they are uncommitted to balanced reporting, and to give voice to opposition figures who are readily available with quotable comments, often in fluent English. In part this is because government officials are reluctant to engage with the media—a stance which can be criticized, but is a response to the derisive way their comments are treated (coverage of Ortega’s “disappearance” providing some prime examples).

In Covid denial?

The New York Times (5/31/20) reported that “the signs are everywhere that the coronavirus is raging across Nicaragua.”

There were two main threads to the adverse media coverage in mid-2020. The first was that the Nicaraguan government was in denial about the pandemic, and either unprepared or unwilling to take the necessary steps to combat it. An article I wrote for COHA (5/30/20) last year responded to these criticisms: While the Nicaraguan government rejected the use of lockdowns as impractical in a country where most people survive on what they earn each day, and few can work without leaving home, in other respects its response to the pandemic was ahead of other countries.

Nicaragua announced its strategy much earlier (in late January, when most Western countries were still dismissing the likelihood of a pandemic); it prepared wards in 18 hospitals to receive Covid patients, and reserved one hospital solely for this purpose; it put health checks in place at points of entry to the country with mandatory quarantines, and it began a program to combat misinformation being purveyed via social media (several rounds of house-to-house visits, a free phone line, streetside clinics and more).

The measures were taken in consultation with experts in Asian countries already dealing with the crisis, such as Taiwan and South Korea, with which Nicaragua has strong links. Yet even when the government published a “white paper” (5/25/20) setting out its strategy in detail (in English as well as Spanish), it was ignored or discounted as inadequate by international media. The Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia (5/27/20), for example, dismissed it as promoting “herd immunity” when this term did not appear in the document.

If reporters had done some elementary research, they might have discovered that the plans had substance: More than one-fifth of Nicaraguan government spending goes to the public health service; it has built 19 new hospitals in 13 years, and has six more under construction. Nicaragua now has more hospital beds (1.8 per 1,000 population) than richer countries such as Mexico (1.5) and Colombia (1.7).

The second thread of criticism was that, as a result of government neglect, Covid-19 would run rampant. A huge caseload was forecast, clandestine burials were taking place, and ill-prepared health services were on the point of collapse. The BBC’s second report (5/4/20) on Nicaragua, also by Dora Luz Romero, included a prediction by a local NGO called FUNIDES that by June, there would be at least 120,000 virus cases and 650 deaths. (FUNIDES receives US government money from the National Endowment for Democracy.)

The New York Times (5/31/20) called Nicaragua “a place of midnight burials,” without noting the opposition’s practice of creating fake news items with which to confuse people. For example, Nicaraguan residents (like me) could follow pickup trucks loaded with coffins as they made meandering journeys through city streets, in blatant attempts to create panic.

The medical journal the Lancet (4/6/20) carried a report in April from 13 doctors, none based in Nicaragua, claiming that “the fragile public health infrastructure could collapse.” This was regularly cited by the general media, ignoring a response in the same journal (4/30/20) from this writer that rebutted the arguments.

Pessimists off the mark

Were the pessimists correct? No, they were widely off the mark. It is just one year since Nicaragua’s first official Covid-19 case, identified on March 18, 2020. Since then, official figures report 6,629 cases in total, whereas the unofficial Citizens’ Observatory reports double this number, 13,278. The higher figure is based on “suspected” (not tested) cases, and according to the observatory website includes “rumors” as one source of information. But even the higher figure is dramatically lower than those for adjoining countries, as this chart shows.

Covid-19 Cases and Deaths per Million in Mexico and Central America
Source: Author calculations based on data from MINSA Nicaragua and Citizens’ Observatory for Covid-19 (3/29/21).

If deaths are counted rather than numbers of cases, Nicaragua’s official figure (26 per million inhabitants) is similarly low. The observatory’s figure for “suspicious” deaths is considerably higher (450 per million), but this includes reported pneumonia cases. In the event that these are all actually Covid cases, this would still be less than half the current Latin American average of 1,174, by official tallies. (It should be kept in mind that in most countries, the official count of Covid deaths is considerably less than the overall increase in mortality during the pandemic; if there are more deaths associated with Covid in Nicaragua than are officially tabulated, that would make the country the norm rather than the exception.)

But the statistics are not the real story. The untold and more significant one in terms of learning from the pandemic is that Nicaragua’s peak of cases and deaths was very short. Essentially it lasted for two months, from mid-May until mid-July. Half the official total cases in the past year occurred in these two months, and since then the daily total has been consistently low. (On no occasion since July has the observatory’s unofficial figure of “suspicious” cases exceeded 100 daily.)

The trend could be confirmed by talking to people working in the health service, as I did on various occasions. In late June, an epidemiologist monitoring the situation nationally told me that hospitals were reporting that the peak had passed. In July, I checked with a local hospital that was dealing with virus cases: Its intensive care unit still had Covid patients, two on ventilators, but wasn’t full. In August, the same hospital recognized the efforts of all the staff—doctors and nurses, porters and cleaners—in a moving ceremony to mark the end of the crisis, attended by many of the patients who had recovered, and who expressed their thanks for the attention they had received.

This achievement in turning the pandemic into what was, effectively, a short, sharp shock, came despite Nicaragua having no lockdowns. Adjoining countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica had strict lockdowns, yet had many more cases. In Costa Rica, there was a prolonged peak from September until January, an experience directly opposite to Nicaragua’s. Honduras continues to have a high incidence of the virus, with hospitals at the point of collapse even in 2021.

All the neighboring countries used the pandemic to become more authoritarian, provoking demonstrations often violently repressed by the police; Nicaragua’s measures were all advisory, not compulsory. Nevertheless, it was Nicaragua which was listed by the New York Times (7/29/20) as one of five Latin American countries where democracy “declined” during the pandemic.

What led to Nicaragua’s relative success during a period when the pandemic was rampant in neighboring countries? At this stage, no scientific study appears to have been undertaken, so any observations are speculative. One factor seems to be the relative absence of viral transmission by travelers from abroad, since (after the violent coup attempt in 2018) there were few tourists in early 2020 to bring the virus into the country. Health checks at border crossings were introduced and, together with quarantining of new arrivals, appear to have been very effective.

House-to-house visits by “health brigades,” approaching 5 million in number, served to raise awareness and combat fake news. Nicaragua’s 37,000 health personnel were all trained in handling Covid-19 at an early stage, and have long experience of controlling other viral epidemics. However, the true factors behind Nicaragua’s “flattening of the curve” of Covid cases after a short peak clearly warrant much fuller investigation.

Unrecognized success

In September, I wrote in Popular Resistance (9/22/20) that

it can only be a matter of time before Nicaragua’s effective response to the pandemic is recognized by the corporate media, especially as it is in such contrast to the experience of most other Latin American countries, and of course that of the US and the UK.

Six months later, there is still no sign of this happening. At the beginning of this year, the Wall Street Journal (1/1/21) listed eight countries which handled Covid well; Time (2/25/20) ran a piece listing 11 countries with the “best global responses” to Covid. Neither included Nicaragua.

The Washington Post (8/8/20) attacked “Ortega’s bizarre and dangerous response to Covid-19,” citing an unofficial tally of 2,537 deaths. Almost eight months later, the same tally stands at 3,014 deaths—suggesting that Nicaragua did in fact succeed at limiting the Covid toll.

The Guardian ran an article (12/29/20) mentioning several low-income countries from which the US and UK could learn, omitting Nicaragua. When I pointed this out in a letter published on December 31, the newspaper immediately published a reply under the headline “Nicaragua’s Covid Story Far From Truth”—noting that the opposition has its own  numbers for Nicaraguan Covid cases, but not mentioning that even those numbers are far lower than those of Nicaragua’s neighbors.

What is apparent is that Nicaragua’s unconventional approach has been derided but, when it turned out to be successful, has been ignored. The Covid-19 Observatory at the University of Miami, which monitors anti-virus measures in Latin America, has a public policy adoption index which monitors measures taken to reduce social contact (stay-at-home requirements, school closures, etc.): Nicaragua has the lowest score. But as the Guardian (9/19/20) pointed out in September, much of Latin America was subject to prolonged lockdowns, inducing severe poverty, yet produced five of the top ten countries globally for incidence of the virus. (See FAIR.org, 7/30/20.) As the exception, Nicaragua’s experience should have stood out, not least because it received so much initial media attention for eschewing lockdowns and keeping schools open.

Instead, the international media continued to pour scorn. Even as the pandemic subsided in Nicaragua, the Washington Post (8/8/20) was calling the government’s response “bizarre and dangerous.” The Financial Times (10/4/20) reported Nicaragua’s Covid statistics in October, but gave the impression that the numbers of cases were exceptionally high, part of “a worsening economic and social crisis.” As recently as this February, the Guardian (2/19/21) criticized Nicaragua’s “stumbling response to the coronavirus pandemic” in a cynical and misleading report characterizing the country’s efforts to monitor the use of its air space for satellites and other near-space activities as a grandiose “space agency.”

The picture that emerges is one where there was considerably more coverage of dire predictions than of the surprisingly mild outcome as the pandemic ran its course. Covid-19 was a convenient issue on which the Sandinista government, regularly criticized by the international media, could be attacked again.

Journalists, who should be more skeptical of negative reports from local opposition media and NGOs whose political alignment is well-known, simply repeated them as reliable indications of a disaster waiting to happen. Their apocalyptic warnings strengthened the media’s narrative that the Sandinista government is failing its people. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that politically useful guesses were found to be more newsworthy than politically inconvenient reality.

 

Peter Maybarduk on Global Vaccination, Jane Chung on Big Tech Lobbying

 

(image: NIAID)

This week on CounterSpin: Between two and a half and three million people have died from Covid-19. That’s just what is reported. And we know the toll is so much greater, beyond even the more than 128 million people who have been infected by the virus, many with long-lasting and poorly understood repercussions.

That’s why a year after the WHO declared coronavirus a pandemic, protests demanding global access to vaccines were held around the world. At this point, media could ask how the global economy can recover if only parts of the globe are vaccinated…. But what if they went deeper and wondered: If we don’t learn from this pandemic that none of us can be healthy unless all of us are healthy, how many chances will we get? We’ll talk about global vaccination and what’s in the way of it with Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program.

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Also on the show: There are more congressional hearings for Big Tech companies coming up—about their role in spreading misinformation about Covid along with, you know, racism and violent insurrection and stuff. We’ll see the congressional debate, assuming there is one, play out in the press. What we won’t necessarily see is how Big Tech companies are furiously working—by which I mean spending—behind the scenes to tilt things in their favor. We’ll talk about that part with Jane Chung, Big Tech accountability advocate at Public Citizen and author of a new report on the subject.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at past coverage of police murder trials.

‘Someone Was Out There Deliberately Manufacturing Evidence’

 

The March 26, 2021, episode of CounterSpin included an archival interview that Steve Rendall conducted with journalist Robert Dreyfuss about Iraq War intelligence, originally aired February 27, 2004. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Human rights and antiwar advocates used the 18th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq to call for reparations to that country, for not only that eight-year invasion and occupation—in which US forces and contractors committed all manner of atrocities, including massacres, rapes and torture—but for some 30 years now of assault, including toxic weaponry that has devastated Iraq’s economy, infrastructure, and the health and well-being of its people.

US media seem to have a “not our problem” approach toward Iraq today, in part because they count on the US public to take their word that everyone at the time thought the invasion was justified because Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction posed an imminent threat to the United States. That intelligence turned out to be wrong, sad to say, but you can’t blame anyone for that.

And, have you heard? George W. Bush is a big softy, who likes to paint.

In February of 2004, CounterSpin spoke with investigative journalist Robert Dreyfus about that pre-war intelligence on Iraq. Dreyfus co-authored an article called “The Lie Factory” for MotherJones. Here’s Robert Dreyfus, talking with CounterSpin’s Steve Rendall in early 2004.

***

Steve Rendall: Robert, when David Kay announced that he didn’t think they’d find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he was adamant that the administration was misled by the CIA, and that intelligence was not shaped or distorted by the Bush administration. Much of the media discussion followed that same line, but your article suggests that there’s a lot more to the story. Tell us a little bit about what you found.

Robert Dreyfuss: “The idea that they were invading Iraq based on faulty intelligence has it exactly backwards. They had already decided they wanted to invade Iraq. So the intelligence was then used to justify a pre-existing policy.”

Robert Dreyfuss: I think the most important thing is that while the CIA probably did not get very much right about Iraq, they were at least convinced, most of the intelligence agencies, that there was a lot of doubt, that there were a lot of things they didn’t know. The doubts got completely erased in the policymaking circles, and in particular the Pentagon—which set up its own little sort of rump intelligence unit, called the Office of Special Plans, under Douglas Feith at the Pentagon bureaucracy—not only was responsible for deleting these doubts, but they had some value added, too.

They added in their own spin and their own intelligence, part of which came from Iraqi exiles, part of which came from their own staff, which was doing its own intelligence. And they created talking papers that ended up wildly exaggerating the threat that Iraq allegedly posed to both the United States and to its neighbors, and that information went directly to Vice President Cheney’s office and to the White House, and it led the administration in the direction of going to war, because that was a war they already wanted.

In other words, the idea that they were invading Iraq based on faulty intelligence has it exactly backwards. They had already decided they wanted to invade Iraq. So the intelligence was then used to justify a pre-existing policy.

And so for Bush to argue, or anyone else to argue, that the administration went to war based on faulty intelligence is just plain silly. They would have gone to war in any case, but they were afraid to make the argument that Saddam Hussein is a bad guy and therefore, for reasons of national strategy, for reasons of oil, for reasons of Middle East policy and protecting Israel, for all of these reasons, we’re going to invade Iraq. That probably wouldn’t have sold, either to the American public or to Congress, so instead they picked on this “Iraq is a threat” argument.

Mother Jones (1–2/04)

SR: So, Robert Dreyfuss, can I assume that the “lie factory” referred to in the title of your piece refers to this internal Pentagon Office of Special Plans?

RD: Yeah. It started right after 9/11; within a month of 9/11, they set this unit up. It wasn’t called the Office of Special Plans then; it had a different name. It went from being something like two or three people, and it expanded, and brought in contractors and consultants, and eventually took the name Office of Special Plans, which incorporated this intelligence unit. That’s what became, basically, the war planning office at the Pentagon.

SR: And from what you report, they pushed out analysts that weren’t going along with the program to some degree.

RD: They really purged anybody who wasn’t part of the zealous team of missionaries that believed in the war. These people were forced into retirement, they were transferred to other offices; some of them just quit in disgust. And they brought in people, ironically, who were not intelligence experts, people who were ideologues, but who were not particularly skilled at either intelligence collection or analysis.

So what they did is they took these piles and piles of information, with thousands of little data bits, and they picked out the ones that supported the case for going to war, and they discarded all the rest.

And any intelligence conclusion is based on evaluating all of the information, a lot of which is going to be contradictory. Some of it’s based on forged documents, on lies, on misinformation, on just plain old honest human mistakes. So all of that information isn’t going to agree, and the job of an intelligence analyst or a professional is to look at it all and say, “Here’s my conclusion, and here’s the reasons why my conclusion isn’t 100%, so I give this a certain percent validity.”

Well, this office didn’t do that at all; they just basically said, “We’re gung ho for war, and Iraq is an enormous threat to American national security.” And all of the junk that we heard about unmanned aerial vehicles striking the United States, and Iraq building its nuclear program and importing WMD-related materials, all of that was a crock.

Washington Post (2/15/04)

SR: Robert Dreyfuss, at this point, it seems that some very good reporting has come out of mainstream media, particularly from the Washington Post. But some critics suggest the Post hasn’t pushed its reporting to the front page often enough. Even Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler wrote recently, “Make sure you read Page A17, or wherever the next piece of the puzzle appears.” What do you think of the priority the media has given to this story so far?

RD: I think it has gotten somewhat lost for two reasons. One is it got lost because the aftermath of the war was so catastrophically bad, with an insurgency and a complete mess and a seemingly completely bumbling US administration over there, that that’s become the main story.

And then, second, it’s sort of obvious that Bush and Cheney were saying “WMD” for months and months and months, and we got over there and they weren’t there. So what else can you say except, “Well, we didn’t find them, and they were wrong?” So I think they sort of lost the handle on how to investigate the wrongdoing.

I think the core of the problem is the media is unwilling to look at the government and say that there’s conscious malfeasance happening. They much prefer to say this was a mistake, or this was just, you know, incompetence or conflict of interest, or all kinds of other things that are more, I guess, easier to swallow, than to say that someone was out there deliberately manufacturing evidence.

I mean, one of the most obvious cases is, no one has really investigated who forged those uranium documents. There’s no argument that those documents were deliberately forged by someone. It wasn’t a mistake. And finding out what we know about who forged them—and I believe that somebody in the intelligence system here knows—is something that reporters ought to be just leaping into, and I don’t see that too many people are even asking the question.

And there are other questions like that that I think have just been ignored, and in part because reporters follow the official investigations, and now there have been several efforts by the Republicans in Congress to intimidate investigations and say, “Well, there’s nothing there.” The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee has pretty much said that point blank. So I think to the extent that the official investigations are turning into coverups, then I think the media is finding it difficult to get these more explosive charges onto the front page.

***

Janine Jackson: That was Robert Dreyfuss speaking with CounterSpin’s Steve Rendall in February of 2004. The article “The Lie Factory,” by Dreyfuss and Jason Vest, can still be found on MotherJones.com.

‘Where There Are More Guns, There Are More Gun Deaths’

 

Janine Jackson interviewed Guns Down America’s Igor Volsky about ending gun violence for the March 26, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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New Press (2019)

Janine Jackson: Other countries have misogyny and racism, untreated mental illness and bar fights and robberies. What they don’t have are weeks like that just passed, in which Americans, reeling from the murders of eight people in Atlanta, woke up to news of 10 people killed in Boulder.

It’s the guns. The difference is the guns.

More and more people in this country seem ready right now to think big about responses to violent law enforcement, inadequate healthcare and onerous student debt. Can we also shift the conversation and the political terrain on gun control?

Here to help us think about that is Igor Volsky, executive director of Guns Down America, and author of the book Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future With Fewer Guns. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Igor Volsky.

Igor Volsky: Thank you so much for having me

JJ: When we hear about horrible things like the killing in Atlanta, in Boulder, in all of the places that we could name, there’s a tendency—journalistic, and maybe just human—to seek more information, more details: What were the circumstances? The motivations? Who is this individual?

Somewhere along the way, one gets the sense that the problem of gun violence is too complicated to address. Whatever measure is being suggested “wouldn’t have prevented Atlanta,” and that’s somehow not a reason that it’s not enough, but a reason to abandon the whole project.  I’m wondering, first of all, does pushing past that hopelessness call for a different way of thinking, new goals, or maybe just clarity about what our goals are?

IV: You’re absolutely right. There’s really this sense, oftentimes in the press, that this problem is just too hard, that we already have 400 million guns in circulation, and there’s nothing we can do about it, that we somehow have to pay the price of 100 people dying every day from gun violence because we have a Second Amendment.

And the reality is that none of that is true, that we know exactly what needs to be done in order to save lives. And we know that because states across America have strengthened their gun laws, have invested in communities that are suffering from cyclical everyday gun violence, and have seen significant reductions in their gun suicide rates and in their gun homicide rates.

So these models of democracy, or these “laboratories” of democracy, as Republicans in particular often like to point to, really serve as an example of what we need to do on the national level, in order to have a standard that fits the entire country. And secondly, we just need to look overseas at some of our great allies, who have dramatically reduced gun violence by doing three basic things: by, No.1, ensuring that gun manufacturers and gun dealers are actually regulated, and can’t produce incredibly powerful weapons for the civilian market. Those countries raise the standard of gun ownership by requiring gun owners to register their firearm, to get a license to have a firearm in the first place. And they’ve also addressed the root causes of gun violence: things like employment opportunities, housing security, healthcare. So we have the blueprint; we just need to follow it.

JJ: You will hear that “Assault weapon bans don’t help, because most murders happened with handguns,” or “Background checks don’t help, because there’s a lot of resales,” and, “Well, it’s a lot of suicides.”

But if you spell it out to the goal being fewer guns, if you make that the goal, well then that addresses all of those things. And it sounds like what you’re saying has worked in other places: It has a goal of just there being fewer guns out there.

IG: Yeah, the reason why the United States has a death rate that’s about 25% higher than our other peer nations is exactly what you just identified: We have way too many guns, and they are way too easy to get. And until our media and our leaders can have the courage, the political courage, to recognize that reality, and to begin communicating about it to the American people, it’s going to be a challenge to meet the goal of saving lives.

And I have to say: We now have a president in the White House who has done this work before; who—when he was running for the presidency—released one of the boldest gun-violence prevention programs of any presidential candidate; who promised us that his experience in Washington, DC, gave him the skills to work with Democrats and Republicans to get big things done. And so he has a heavy responsibility to follow through on those promises, to address the nation fully about this crisis, and then to work through Congress, diligently and aggressively, to get tighter gun laws across the finish line.

JJ: Let me just bring you back to media for a second. When media tend to move from incident coverage to policy coverage, then reporting on gun control gets often into this kind of static frame, where you hear from opponents and proponents of a particular measure; they both get quoted, sometimes they get quoted in equal amounts.  But there’s this kind of backdrop, which is that in this country any restrictions on individual gun ownership face an uphill battle, because it’s enshrined in the law, because the lobby is all-powerful and because this country just loves its guns. These are presented as blanket impediments to change. But how true is that? Is that really an accurate, current depiction of the lay of the land?

Igor Volsky: “Regurgitating claims that the Second Amendment somehow impedes us from doing anything about this problem is a real hindrance, I think, to the kind of conversations we have publicly about this issue.”

IV: Yeah, this false balance that you’re identifying is that you often see in media stories this effort to perpetuate, really, what is a myth about the NRA’s great power and abilities. And this notion of just regurgitating claims that the Second Amendment somehow impedes us from doing anything about this problem is a real hindrance, I think, to the kind of conversations we have publicly about this issue, to the kind of conversations we have with our friends and families, particularly some of them [who] are gun owners, or more politicized gun owners. And the truth of the matter is, the kind of coverage we need on this issue, the kind of press we need on this issue, is one that reflects the science, and the real history.

The overwhelming science in the gun violence space tells us one simple truth: Where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths. And that’s really it. That’s the reality that you have to start from.

So any kind of argument about, “If you have gun restrictions, you’re disarming the good guys,” or, “If you have gun restrictions, that means it will only harm the good guys, because the bad guys will never follow it”—that kind of argument, that the NRA has so successfully gotten the press to parrot for decades, is a real hindrance.

And so I think we hopefully, hopefully, have reached a point where gun violence is so ubiquitous, and support for actually doing something is so widespread, that we will hopefully see less of this effort to just pretend that “Well, nothing at all is possible,” right?

And just a second on the Second Amendment: The history of this is very intriguing to me, because for decades and decades and decades, really up to about 1972, it was hard to find anybody in the press, or within even the gun community, who argued that the Second Amendment is somehow an impediment to gun regulation.

That argument is actually quite new, and it was developed through NRA-funded researchers and NRA-funded lawyers. They birthed this idea that the Second Amendment somehow prevents us from doing what we know we need to do. And oftentimes the media just parrot that invented notion, without actually recognizing that it is certainly not what the Founding Fathers intended, but also doesn’t reflect the reality of how most courts—the Supreme Court to some degree, but also courts across the country—have ruled repeatedly that the amendment allows for pretty significant regulation. And so my hope here is that we can have a different kind of conversation about this issue.

Extra! (9–10/96)

JJ: That was one of the points that scholar Howard Friel made in an important piece for Extra!, for FAIR’s magazine, back in 1996: that media seem to feel they’re charting some middle ground when they say, “They could allow for some restrictions on gun ownership,” and the other point is, “No, there should be no restrictions whatsoever.” And they kind of chart a middle course. Friel’s point is they’re ignoring all of that legislative, judiciary history that you just mentioned, which actually says, “No, there’s no conflict between the Second Amendment and some measures of gun control.”

Let me ask you, finally, I know that at Guns Down, you know that legislation isn’t all there is; you see it as a multifront battle to get us to a safer place with fewer guns. You talked about things that Biden could do. Is there particular legislation afoot that you see moving things forward? What, in general, do you see as roles for the public here? Where can we get involved in making change on this?–

IV: We’re constantly in this cycle of—a gun event happens; usually it’s a mass shooting that grabs headlines. We all talk about, “Oh, things need to be done,” right? We get a lot of press coverage, some of it good, some of it not, about that event. And then we all take a breath and we move on, usually in a matter of days, sometimes, really, in a matter of hours. And the question is, how do we break that cycle?

And I think there are roles for the general public, and there are roles for leadership, right? I think the president needs to actually lead. The kind of enthusiasm and vigor and hard work that he and his administration put into passing the recovery plan, they need to apply to getting background checks across the finish line, they need to apply to getting an assault weapons ban across the finish line. They’ve shown what they can do when they’re motivated and dedicated. And they need to do that.

And to make sure that happens, all of us across the country have to keep the pressure on, have to communicate in any way we can, whether it be on social media, or making calls, or organizing friends and neighbors to do larger pushes, to ensure that the president hears from us. Politicians who’ve been talking about this issue for years, who support reform but haven’t actually pushed hard enough to follow it through, they need to hear from us. And then, of course, we need to also push those lawmakers who aren’t there on the issue yet.

But what I always think is, to first identify what is the path to actually getting something done; to me, that’s getting rid of the filibuster in the Senate, and passing through the reforms I mentioned, with a simple majority vote. And to move the individuals, to target your advocacy at lawmakers and officials who actually have an incentive to listen to what you’re saying, and to make progress. (And I suspect that many of the congressional members on the Republican side don’t have any incentive to compromise on anything, no matter how popular it is in their home states or districts.) So I would ask folks to be targeted in how they do this work.

But I am confident that if all of this aligns, that if we have a president who is committed to acting as he promised, and a public that is cheering him on and pushing him on, we will finally get to a place where we begin to make some serious progress on saving lives in this country.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Igor Volsky, of the group Guns Down America. The book is Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future With Fewer Guns, out from the New Press. Thank you so much, Igor Volsky, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

IV: Thank you.

 

Need a Quote From an Official Enemy Denouncing Democracy? Do Like the New York Times and Make It Up

 

The New York Times (3/29/21) produces a new installment in its ongoing project of demonizing China (FAIR.org, 1/29/21): “As President Biden predicts a struggle between democracies and their opponents, Beijing is eager to champion the other side.”

You know you’re in for a hard sell when the New York Times (3/29/21) publishes an article under the headline “An Alliance of Autocracies? China Wants to Lead a New World Order.”

And Times Beijing bureau chief Steven Lee Myers doesn’t disappoint. He asserts:

China hopes to position itself as the main challenger to an international order, led by the United States, that is generally guided by principles of democracy, respect for human rights and adherence to rule of law.

“Generally” is doing a lot of work in that sentence. I don’t think I have to spend too much time reminding you that the United States is a massive supporter of coups and undemocratic governments; has an ongoing history of torture, detention without trial and extrajudicial killing; and asserts the right to invade and coerce countries in defiance of international law. But it’s what Myers does with this deceptive summary of US policy that I find most striking; he immediately follows with:

Such a system “does not represent the will of the international community,” China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, told Russia’s, Sergey V. Lavrov, when they met in the southern Chinese city of Guilin.

Wang, like the New York Times, defines the US-led international order as one based in democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and says that doesn’t represent “the will of the international community”? That doesn’t seem likely. When you search for the part of the quote that’s actually in quotation marks, you find this release (3/26/21) from the Chinese government:

Wang Yi said, the so-called “rules-based international order” by a few countries is not clear in its meaning, as it reflects the rules of a few countries and does not represent the will of the international community.

So what Wang actually said China was challenging is the “rules-based international order”—which he suggested doesn’t deserve its name, since only a handful of countries get to make the rules. He didn’t mention democracy or human rights in the statement; as for the rule of law, he said, “We should uphold the universally recognized international law.”

It’s an article of faith in US establishment media that they represent an independent watchdog press, whereas China’s news outlets propagandize the official positions of the state. Articles like this one make you wonder what they’re talking about.

ACTION ALERT: You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com (Twitter: @NYTimes). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your communication in the comments thread.

 

The Judicial Right Is Coming After Freedom of the Press

 

Then–President Donald Trump’s call to widen libel laws to make it easier to sue media outlets for defamation was, at the time, seen as one of his many political theatrical stunts, throwing red meat to his voting base (New York Times, 1/10/18). Following his lead, his supporters had long referred to the press as “fake news,” sometimes using the Nazi expression lügenpresse, meaning “lying press” (Time, 10/25/16).

Corporate media covered it, but dismissed the threat. The Los Angeles Times (9/8/18) said we shouldn’t worry, because “changing our libel laws is easier said than done,” and CNBC (1/10/18) reassured that “experts say there is very little Trump could actually change about how libel laws work.”

Slate (3/19/21): “Silberman has seemingly adopted the approach to judging taken by many Donald Trump appointees who treat opinions as opportunities to air their grievances about liberals.”

But a dissenting opinion from the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (Slate, 3/19/21) has breathed new legal life into the prospect of making it easier for political and corporate leaders to use defamation suits to stifle the press. The human rights group Global Witness had been sued by two Liberian officials it had accused of taking bribes from Exxon, but the court threw out the case, citing the landmark Supreme Court decision New York Times v. Sullivan, which held in 1964 that plaintiffs who are public figures must prove “actual malice” to win a libel suit.

Justice Laurence Silberman’s dissent, however, is a sight to behold. He pontificates about an out-of-control liberal press and the anti-conservative bias of social media—standard Republican talking points—before ultimately declaring that Sullivan, which he insinuates is Communist-inspired (“a constitutional Brezhnev doctrine”), must be overturned.

It’s easy to dismiss as someone using the winter of his judicial perch as the next best thing to a Fox News show, but Silberman is not a nobody. A Reagan appointee and Federalist Society member, Silberman has been accused of taking part of Ronald Reagan’s “October Surprise” (Chicago Tribune, 8/18/89), an attempt to interfere in Iranian hostage negotiations to prevent President Jimmy Carter’s re-election, and is infamous for overturning the conviction of Oliver North (New York Times, 7/21/90). He reportedly heaped on the attack against Anita Hill. He took up the Confederate Lost Cause last summer when he, as Slate reported, sent an email to colleagues “accusing Sen. Elizabeth Warren of seeking ‘the desecration of Confederate graves,’” in response to her call for renaming “military bases that are named after Confederate officers.” When a loyal soldato for the judicial right speaks, we should listen.

The idea of revisiting this precedent has been kicking around conservative circles for a while. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the godfather of modern conservative legal philosophy, told the National Press Club (C-SPAN, 4/17/14; National Press Club, 4/21/14) that “the framers would have been appalled with the notion that they could be libeled with impunity,” and that the justices who issued the ruling “were revising the Constitution.” Justice Clarence Thomas suggested in 2019 that the decision and subsequent decisions based on it “were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law,” prompting the libertarian Reason (2/19/19) to say “it’s true that reconsidering New York Times v. Sullivan could lead to opening up our libel laws,” but that it “doesn’t follow that it’s a bad and wrong thing to do.”

Justice Clarence Thomas has indicated that he’s ready to overturn a case seen as the foundation of modern First Amendment law (New York Times, 2/19/19).

Legal scholar Richard Epstein has been critical of the decision since the 1980s, and told the podcast We the People (10/11/18), “The difficulty with the actual malice standard is it traces too much on what the defendants thought,” underemphasizing the “harm to the plaintiff’s reputation, which in many of these cases can be quite devastating.” He added that the actual malice requirement “was a radical departure from all pre-existing cases on the subject, and to my mind a mistake.” Epstein told FAIR that the decision lets the press off the hook: “Sullivan lets false statements go unredressed no matter how much they do,” he said, adding that a media outlet’s “reputation should take a hit when they mislead their readers.”

The actual malice standard is meant to protect speech, and especially speech from the common person used against those with power. Without this protection, political and business leaders, with their bottomless legal war chests, can simply use the threat of litigation to throw a chilling shroud over journalists and political activists. On the 50th anniversary of the decision, a New York Times editorial (3/8/14) called the decision “the clearest and most forceful defense of press freedom in American history,” because it “rejected virtually any attempt to squelch criticism of public officials—even if false — as antithetical to ‘the central meaning of the First Amendment.’”

Chad Bowman, the attorney for Global Witness in this DC circuit case, told FAIR that “New York Times v. Sullivan provides important ‘breathing space’ for lively discussion and debate on issues of public concern,” and thus “is essential to a democracy.” He added that we should

remember that the speech-protective legal standard is not limited to reporters at certain news organizations or members of a particular political party, but applies to all speakers.

That last part is key: Silberman was attacking the perceived partisanship of the press, but free speech protections are meant to apply across the political spectrum; if they’re denied to one faction, they’re effectively denied to everyone. And the First Amendment isn’t just for journalists. Widening the application of defamation for powerful public figures will make it harder for the corporate press to cover state and corporate power, but will make it far more daunting for average people, who lack legal departments and libel insurance, to take part in public debate.

More than that, perceived partisan imbalance in the media isn’t a reason to restrict free speech rights for everyone. Silberman thinks the press is too liberal. Readers of FAIR.org would more likely say the US press is too deferential to corporate and government power, but the answer to fixing that isn’t more legal restrictions on those media outlets, but the creation of more independent media.

And Silberman brings up the idea that social media networks have a bias in terms of controlling what kind of media can be taken down or approved. People of all political stripes do see a problem with the power these few ubiquitous companies have (FAIR.org, 1/15/21), but the answer, again, isn’t to have the government dictate how these private entities regulate speech. If you want a social media network that doesn’t reflect private interests, then you need one that is owned by the public, like the US Postal Service.

Pew (1/13/21) noted that Trump appointed nearly as many appeals court judges in one term as Obama did in two.

With key right-wing jurists now on record calling for the overturning of this landmark ruling for freedom of the press, that the courts should undo this cornerstone of free speech, it’s worth considering the right’s grip on the federal bench. Pew Research (1/13/21) notes that “Trump appointed 54 federal appellate judges in four years, one short of the 55 Obama appointed in twice as much time,” and that “more than a quarter of currently active federal judges are now Trump appointees.” It’s not a stretch to assume that this army of judicial ideologues, put in power by an administration whose goal was to use the federal judiciary to curb democratic liberalism, are familiar with Epstein, Silberman, Thomas and Scalia’s arguments regarding New York Times v. Sullivan.

Obviously, First Amendment advocates need to be ready to defend against litigation aimed at empowering corporate and government honchos who want to quash their critics in the press. But there needs to be offensive action, too, and there’s perhaps a way to unite the left-wing FAIR.org reader and the right-wing Silberman apprentice.

We might agree, for different reasons, that mass media fall short in serving its public purpose, and that social media networks are too powerful.  But we could, theoretically, agree that the solution is the encouragement of more speech, through policies that allow for more community radio projects, funding for more local media and, in the case of social media, breaking up their monopoly status.

The struggle to preserve free speech cannot just be a defense of a precedent from the Civil Rights Era. There must be a 21st century manifesto for more media and more speech.

Atlanta Murders Reporting Relied on Law Enforcement Narratives

 

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s print front page (3/17/21) emphasized the sexualized descriptor “massage parlors.”

Gunman Rob Aaron Long opened fire in three Asian-owned spas in the Atlanta, Georgia area on March 16, 2021, killing Yong Ae Yue, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Delaina Ashley Yuan, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng and Paul Andre Michels.* Six of the eight victims were Asian women.

At local and national levels, the initial media response focused primarily on the gunman’s story and police statements. Reports linked the targeted businesses to sex work with insubstantial documentation, but struggled to identify if and how race and gender motivated the gunman.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s report (3/17/21) began with a large photo of the gunman, citing several statements from him without questioning the reliability of his narrative. The shooter claimed that the targeted businesses were the types he frequented and “a temptation he wanted to eliminate,” without explaining what that meant or how it could possibly justify eight murders. Most of the article described the police investigation.

The Journal-Constitution also printed Cherokee Sheriff Captain Jay Baker’s news conference statement describing the shooter as “pretty much fed up and had been, kind of, at the end of his rope. And yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did” without questioning that statement, though his comments have since been deleted from the article following public backlash.

Screenshot from Atlanta Journal-Constitution (3/17/21; via Wayback Machine)

 

Screenshot from same Atlanta Journal-Constitution story (3/23/21)

The New York Times (3/18/21) reports on the murder suspect’s “sex addiction.”

ABC News (3/17/21) begins with the shooter’s statement to police that he “has a sex addiction,” includes interviews with multiple police departments and refers to his sex addiction multiple times. Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said the shooter may have “frequented these places in the past,” without explaining what “these places” are or presenting evidence for why he thought the targeted businesses were “these places.” The article mentions the shooter targeting “some kind of porn industry,” without explaining what that has to do with the targeted spas. Though the report discusses fear of violence among Asian Americans, the only Atlanta-area community member interviewed was a neighboring business owner who is not Asian-American.

The BBC’s report (3/18/21) said officials could not confirm if the attacks were racially motivated, and stated the shooter’s claim of having a “sex addiction.” The first section of the report is “What did police say?” The Daily Beast’s full profile of the gunman (3/17/21) included an interview with an anonymous source who described him as “very innocent seeming and…big into religion,” and included interviews with his youth pastor, and several police statements. CNN (3/18/21) interviewed his grandmother and dedicated an entire section to the shooter being “distraught” and “tortured” by his “sex addiction,” and “emotional” due to family strife.

Though coverage universally noted the race of the victims and anti-Asian racism, reports presented the shooter’s claim that “the crimes were not racially motivated” multiple times without questioning the reliability of this claim, or providing the context that race and gender can still be contributing factors even if that isn’t explicitly conscious in the mind of the perpetrator.

Overall, English-language corporate media parroted the law enforcement narrative while omitting an eyewitness account that would have countered it. Korea Times Atlanta (3/18/21), a local Korean-language newspaper, published a Gold Spa employee’s report that the gunman’s racial motivation was clearly expressed (translated from Korean):

Gold Spa Employee A contacted four nearby Korean-owned businesses to warn them and stated that the perpetrator stated that he will “kill all the Asians” before shooting.

Most media outlets—AP (3/17/21) was a notable exception—did not investigate the definition or validity of “sex addiction.” It is not recognized as a mental health disorder, nor are there any known correlations between sex addiction and violence.

At the time of the reporting, the primary evidence that linked any of the businesses to sex work was an online site identifying and reviewing erotic massage parlors and the gunman’s “sex addiction” claim, though none of the businesses had criminal records or were under investigation. Reports like USA Today’s (3/17/21) presented these insubstantial associations as evidence without verifying the reliability of this website, or the men who anonymously post on it.

The New York Times (3/19/21) has since reported sex work-related arrests at Gold Spa between 2011 and 2014. However, these were arrests of individuals and not an indictment of the business itself. The end of the report mentions “it is unclear who owned the spa at the time of the arrests” 7-10 years ago, but the sensationalist headline, and the earlier focus on the murders and shooter’s “sex addiction,” nevertheless impute criminality. The concluding paragraph also connects the spa to human trafficking without presenting evidence:

Several of the reports show that the women who were arrested had listed the spa as both their work and home addresses. Human trafficking advocates have said that women who work at illicit Asian massage spas are often coerced into performing sexual work, and live in a state of essential indentured servitude.

Even after the swift public censure of the initial  media response, investigative reporting focused on trying to connect the targeted businesses with sex work and trafficking, rather than following up on the Korean-language lead related to the racial motivation of the shooter, or seeking out Asian-American witnesses in the community.

Overreliance on police sources

Racist T-shirt promoted by Cherokee County sheriff’s department spokesperson Jay Baker.

The overreliance of media on police reports and statements to report on crimes (FAIR.org, 10/10/18, 7/11/16) too often makes crime reporting a mouthpiece for law enforcement who are demonstrably biased.

Rich Phelps identified a Facebook post in which Captain Jay Baker posted his purchases of shirts that say “COVID 19/Imported Virus From CHY-NA.” The next day, the Daily Beast (3/18/21) identified that Baker bought these shirts from a former Cherokee County deputy.

One major facet of anti-Asian racism is the association of Asians with infectious disease. Chinese immigrants have long been medical scapegoats in the West, blamed for various 19th century epidemics. Sinophobic and racist COVID-19 reporting is a continuation of centuries of this scapegoating.

The New York Times ran months of racist, Sinophobic, inaccurate reports on COVID-19, many of which FAIR critiqued. These include a piece (1/28/20) citing bats sold in “wet markets” as the source of the virus, a claim that has since been debunked by scientists; an op-ed (2/20/20) that referenced Confucius and pushed the racist trope that torturing and eating wild animals is an integral part of Chinese culture; and an article (3/18/20) that called China the “authoritarian incubator of a pandemic,” supporting White House efforts to deflect blame away from its own poor handling of the outbreak. This perception of Chinese people as a contaminant is reflected in the biohazard symbol imagery of Baker’s shirt.

Baker’s racism shouldn’t be surprising, given the long, documented history of police racism in the US. Many police departments in the US dismiss sex worker murders and rapes, labeling them as NHI, or “no human involved.” It is a racist, sexist and classist term used to describe crimes against victims not worth investigating. Transgender, undocumented migrants, and women of color are especially at risk of sex work-related police suspicion and police violence.

The connection of Asian women to sex work, particularly sex trafficking, has a long history as a tool for race-based immigration exclusion of Asians in America. Since the 1860s, exploitative and orientalist journalism paired the morality of slavery abolition with the language of infectious disease to racialize Asian women as both complicit sex slaves and temptresses who would infect and corrupt white, Christian America with their “moral racial pollution” of illicit sexuality. This enabled public support for morality- and conduct-based legislation, like California’s Anti-Prostitution Act of 1870, to target Asian women and prevent Asian immigrants from forming families and establishing communities in the US.

Eventually, these racist popular beliefs enabled the passage of the Page Act of 1875, the first federal law regulating immigration, which was used to bar immigration of Chinese women and set the legal precedent for later race-based immigration exclusion, like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which ended the import of all Chinese labor; and eventually to the Barred Zone Act of 1917, which expanded the immigration ban to include a variety of East Asian, Southeast Asian, South Asian and Polynesian nations. They were perpetuated by decades of US imperialism and militarism, and today, the trope of Asian women as trafficked sex workers is used to police and deport immigrants.

The assumption that all Asian spa workers are sex workers, combined with existing police bias that sex workers “are no longer considered a part of the human race,” also contributed to the police dismissal of the murder victims. In the context of NHI, the implication is that it is fine to kill these particular people because they’re not really considered people.

Reports that framed the victims positively disassociated them from sex work, reinforcing the belief that sex work is shameful (USA Today, 3/18/21Yahoo!, 3/19/21). Yahoo!’s report characterized one victim as “very invested in becoming an American,” which reinforces the perception that Asians are perpetual foreigners. These women are deserving of sympathy and respect regardless of their work or desire to assimilate.

Defaulting to law enforcement narratives is especially harmful when it involves reporting on crimes that may meet the requirements qualifying for a hate crime charge. Hate crime legislation is a legal designation that varies state by state, with what protected classes are covered and what the criminal penalties involve. Three states have no hate crime laws at all.

The strict legal and evidentiary requirements to charge an offense as a hate crime should not be conflated with whether a perpetrator had racist or other bigoted intent, or if they acted based on implicit biases. But this conflation is exactly what has happened with crime reporting relying on law enforcement, and has perpetuated a pattern of reporting that downplays racial motivation in a crime until law enforcement makes an explicit legal determination.

Beginning to center victims’ stories

CJR (3/23/21): “Korean-language local media outlets including Atlanta K, the Korea Times Atlanta and Korea Daily were uniquely positioned to cover the shooting.”

Reports such as those in USA Today (3/18/21), Yahoo! News (3/19/21) and the Daily Beast (3/19/21) are beginning to center the victims’ families and stories, but to date, the authors have not seen any reports in English-language media outlets interviewing the Gold Spa employee eyewitness, anyone from the four businesses he contacted, nor anyone from the Korea Times Atlanta who have information directly related to the case.

Columbia Journalism Review (3/23/21) interviewed Sang Yeon Lee, President of Atlanta K, another Korean-language news outlet in Atlanta. He noted that the public may never know their stories due to the initial media stigmatization:

Survivors, who have long lived under the radar—fearful of losing their livelihoods and immigration statuses—feel discouraged from talking publicly. “Unless they have immense courage, it’s improbable for these women to want to put themselves out there,” Lee says.

Media that  relied on law enforcement sources perpetuated police biases and downplayed the racial motivation of the Atlanta murders. This then led to further omission and silencing of the vulnerable Korean frontline workers of the Atlanta community, even as media spotlights anti-Asian racism in America more generally nationwide.

Moreover, the Asian American Journalists Association released a statement (3/18/21) about Asian journalists being sidelined in reporting on these events:

Since the shootings, we have heard some deeply concerning problems in newsrooms across the country, including in Atlanta.

“Are you sure your bias won’t show if you cover the Atlanta shootings?”

“You might be too emotionally invested to cover this story.”

Empowering the journalists who have the cultural competency and language skills needed to cover Asian communities would have led to richer reporting and a fuller narrative of what happened on March 16. Journalists with the expertise to understand the context of racialized misogyny would be better equipped to avoid normalizing the racism and sexism that reduced Asian women to sexuality as a form of dehumanization. Instead, reporters spoke with more police departments than Asian witnesses, and we are left with the statement of the shooter who had just confessed to murder: “The crimes were not racially motivated.”

* In the press release disclosing the victims’ identities, the medical examiner’s office mistakenly abbreviated the second syllable of the Korean women’s names as though they were middle names, rather than part of their first names. News outlets initially passed on this misnaming.

 

Igor Volsky on Ending Gun Violence, Robert Dreyfuss on Iraq War

 

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Washington Post (9/9/19)

 

This week on CounterSpin: If you look, you can find reminders that the Second Amendment was forged, distressingly, with the aim of preserving “slave patrol” militias in the South. And that courts consistently interpreted it as meaning a “collective” right of the states; only after a concerted, well-heeled effort was it read as ensuring an “individual” right to ownership of all kinds of guns—which means that when media lazily point to “Second Amendment rights,” they’re tacitly endorsing a particular interpretation. That the history around gun policy is a living history is important, because when US news media move from reporting terrible incidents to hosting debate on policy responses, they can slide into an enervating picture of this country’s unparalleled gun violence as lamentable, but legal, so what are you gonna do? They may as well reprint the Onion headline from years ago: “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”

On this as on a number of issues, many are simply fed up with the idea that change is too hard. Will media conversation shift to keep up with them? We’ll talk with Igor Volsky, executive director of Guns Down America, and author of Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future With Fewer Guns.

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(CNN/Media Education Foundation)

Also on the show: We’ve just marked the 18th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and US corporate media could not care less. Iraqis still suffer from decades of war, sanctions, displacement and disease, but so far out of US of media’s range has the country fallen that, when Biden bombed Syria on February 25, it was reported as “Biden’s First Military Action,” even though the US carried out an airstrike in Iraq just days into office. Part of the reason media are comfortable putting the Iraq War in the rear view is that they’re comfortable in the story they’ve settled on, that it was all a tragic mistake. But lies don’t become truth on repetition. We’ll hear a bit of an early 2004 conversation with journalist Robert Dreyfuss just to remind us of that.

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For Sunday Shows, Border Is ‘Political Crisis,’ Not Humanitarian Emergency

 

Increasing numbers of migrants are attempting to cross the US/Mexico border, and unaccompanied children and teenagers are exceeding the capacities of government-run detention facilities. The right has declared a crisis, and national corporate media have largely followed suit.

Department of Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas appeared on five of the six Sunday Beltway talk shows this week, and faced questions straight from the GOP playbook. There are many serious questions to be raised about President Joe Biden’s border and immigration policies, but rather than focus on root causes and highlight the humanitarian crisis—which includes the crisis of not recognizing the right of asylum—Sunday show hosts generally preferred to focus on “messaging” and gin up political controversy.

While in reality, the Biden administration is continuing a Trump-era policy of expelling almost all refugees (LA  Times, 3/19/21), Sunday shows focused on the allegation that the US border is too welcoming.

The vast majority of refugees are being expelled from the United States without due process or access to asylum under Title 42, a Trump-era policy that justifies such expulsions based on a public health emergency—in this case, the Covid-19 pandemic—but which experts and several judges have called both illegal and inhumane. As a result, in the past year, fewer than 1% of migrants have been able to seek protection (LA Times, 3/19/21).

Biden has quietly continued Trump’s Title 42 policy for all migrants except unaccompanied youth. That means Border Patrol is simply expelling most of the migrants it encounters, rather than processing them; despite the alarmist rhetoric, the US is not actually facing a capacity issue at the border—except with children (WOLA, 3/17/21). Facilities for those minors—many of which had been shut down by Trump—have become overcrowded as they await processing. It is a humanitarian emergency that the administration claims to be working to resolve, but is currently not allowing press access to the facilities for the media to be able to see conditions and what, if any, progress is being made.

Seeking true answers and solutions rather than ratings would mean highlighting the humanitarian emergency, but also excavating the underlying drivers of increased migration attempts rather than simply trying to turn them into a political football. Poverty and violence in the so-called Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where the bulk of migrants at the border originate—has been exacerbated by the pandemic and recent hurricanes (intensified by climate change), but also deeply impacted by US foreign policy.

Current poverty and violence in Central America can’t be understood without recognizing the role of the US in fueling bloody civil wars and aiding repressive regimes in the region for decades. Even after the wars ended, for the past 20 years, instead of focusing on root causes of poverty and violence, the US has attempted to stop migration flows to its southern border primarily through criminalization and militarization; this only escalated during the Trump years (The Nation, 2/16/21; NACLA, 3/7/21). This strategy has done little to stop migration—in fact, by training, funding and arming repressive Central American governments, the US has succeeded in adding to pressures on people to flee, and making the journey itself far more perilous.

Chuck Todd (Meet the Press, 3/21/21) introducing a segment on Joe Biden’s border policies.

But as Mayorkas made the rounds on the Sunday shows, the hosts stuck to a script based on GOP talking points that emphasized whether the administration’s messaging was driving a border crisis.

NBC‘s Chuck Todd introduced the issue on Meet the Press (3/21/21):

It’s fair to call the deteriorating situation at the US/Mexican border a crisis, even if the Biden administration refuses to use that word. But it’s more than that: It’s a political crisis for the new president, with no easy way out.

On ABC‘s This Week (3/21/21), Martha Raddatz similarly introduced the story by focusing on the GOP-generated political controversy, framing it as “an emerging crisis for the Biden presidency.”

NBC‘s Todd pointed out:

So far, Americans largely approve of Mr. Biden’s young presidency, and he wants to focus on vaccinations, Covid relief, infrastructure, voting rights, racial inequities and renewing America’s image at home and abroad. But he can’t control the news cycle…. Events and politics have a way of applying their own pressure points, and right now, that pressure is pointed directly at our southern border.

It’s true, Biden doesn’t control the news cycle: News outlets do. And defining the border situation as a “political crisis” is their way of adopting right-wing talking points that aim at denting Biden’s high approval ratings, rather than at addressing a humanitarian emergency.

Todd launched his questioning of Mayorkas with a focus on the idea that the administration’s policy “sends a message” that the border is open:

Are you concerned that a market efficiency has been created where folks have decided, “Look, my kid’s got a shot at getting in the United States if I don’t go with them?”

He repeated some form of that question two more times. In one instance, while insisting that “I understand on humanitarian grounds,” Todd demanded, “How can you say the border is closed if there is this—what some would look at as a loophole?”

Note that the “loophole” Todd is referring to is the policy of not expelling unaccompanied children at the border without due process. Remember that taking those children to US detention facilities in no way guarantees their successful immigration; many are forced to represent themselves in asylum hearings and, unsurprisingly, fail and are scheduled for deportation—returning them to situations that often include trafficking and abuse.

Minutes later, Todd pivoted to press Mayorkas from the other direction, asking why Title 42 “is still in place.” While it’s an appropriate question to ask, it makes one wonder whether Todd actually “understands” the humanitarian grounds when he questions the humanitarian “loophole” three times more than the greater inhumane policy.

The “surge of migrants” ABC‘s Martha Raddatz (This Week, 3/21/21) asked Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas about is similar to the seasonal pattern of border apprehensions seen in previous years (Washington Post, 3/25/21).

Like Todd, ABC‘s Raddatz (3/21/21) focused her segment on the administration’s messaging. After airing a reported segment that included soundbites from a migrant who claimed “Biden promised that we can cross with minors,” an Arizona sheriff who accused the administration of sending “the message is that this border is open for business and you can come across,” and Raddatz’s assessment that Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey “feels the same,” Raddatz launched her interview of Mayorkas by telling him that the administration’s “messages have been mixed at best.”

CNN‘s Dana Bash, on State of the Union (3/21/21), vaguely alluded to “worsening conditions in Central America” and, to her credit, started with conditions in the border control facilities holding children. But when Bash turned her focus to “the cause of this surge at the border,” the only cause she asked Mayorkas about was the administration’s “messaging” that makes families think “the border will be open for them.”

Todd and Raddatz asked no questions about underlying causes of migration and how the administration is addressing them. Todd did note that Biden

has asked Mexican President López Obrador to do more to solve the problem. On Friday, Mexico announced a crackdown on its border with Guatemala, after the United States announced it will share 2.5 million vaccine doses with Mexico.

But he offered no analysis of that fact, or whether a “crackdown” on the Guatemalan border might be good or bad.

All the shows FAIR looked at did ask about press access. That’s important, but what good can we expect press access to do if the press insists on turning humanitarian issues into partisan politics?

American Prospect (3/22/21): “CNN was warned that the clip appeared to be a fabrication before it aired, but the network decided to run it anyway.”

Indeed, corporate media seem eager for ratings-boosting controversy and crisis. In fact, CNN this week was accused of airing a staged migrant border crossing, even after being alerted to the fact that it was “likely fabricated.” As the American Prospect reports (3/22/21):

A similar clip that appears to show the same or a similar trafficking incident from another angle was shared across right-wing media and even linked to on the social media accounts of members of Congress. This clip went viral among immigration opponents, and is helping to fuel the story of an out-of-control border.

The people coming to the border are real people, most of them going through a harrowing and dangerous journey to escape even more harrowing situations. They—and US viewers—deserve a more serious approach to border coverage that examines the real causes and real solutions.

Featured image: Meet the Press opening montage (3/21/21) included Rep. Louie Gohmert talking about the “Biden border crisis.”

‘City Officials Improved the Climate-Readiness of the Code; Industry Groups Pushed Back’

 

 

Janine Jackson interviewed HuffPost‘s Alexander Kaufman about future-proofing building codes for the March 19, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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HuffPost (3/4/21)

Janine Jackson: You might think of pipelines, factories or coal mines as the main arenas of the fight over climate policy, but there’s another battlefield that’s rarely in the spotlight: buildings. Buildings account for 40% of all energy consumed in the US, and about the same proportion of greenhouse gases produced. Cities, and the broader society, have an interest in rules for building houses, offices, etc. that are not just energy efficient, but also adaptive to climate disruption. And many cities are doing that: setting a goal of net-zero buildings, some of them banning natural gas in new construction, or requiring the capacity to accommodate fully electric appliances and electric-vehicle charging.

Critically, local governments have been increasingly participating in the process determining building codes themselves. It’s that participation that has recently become a contest within the bigger contest between communities and industries, about how seriously to address climate change. It is, as our next guest says, “a quiet but extremely consequential fight.”

Here to fill us in is Alexander Kaufman. He covers climate change, energy and environmental policy as a senior reporter at HuffPost, and he’s co-founder of, and now advisor to, the nonprofit environmental news collaborative Floodlight. He joins us now from Queens. Welcome to CounterSpin, Alexander Kaufman.

Alexander Kaufman: Thank you so much for having me.

JJ: When there are catastrophic weather events, you sometimes read about building codes, but they’re rarely talked about as policymaking, even though they’re so important. I would like you to tell the story of what just happened earlier this month. But let’s back up and start with what, or who, is the International Code Council, and what’s their jurisdiction, if you will?

Guardian (10/9/20)

AK: So the International Code Council—to crib a line that the Guardian used in describing it once, which I really liked—is much like “the World Series”: something that does, in fact, have somewhat of an international footprint, but primarily pertains to the United States. It is a nonprofit consortium of industry groups and local governments that come together to set the model codes for different buildings, that are then enshrined as the baseline in many state laws, and city or municipal laws.

Basically, some building codes are set on the state level, some are set on the city level. But few cities have the wherewithal and the capacity to design their own building codes from the bottom up, and you also want some consistency for the industry as it manufactures different pieces of equipment and material for buildings. So this serves as that baseline that most states and cities use.

JJ: So, as I sort of tipped, cities like Minneapolis were making moves on their own to enshrine energy efficiency into their construction codes, and, along the way, local governments realized they could participate more in the process. What happened?

AK: Yeah, so every three years, there is a vote on what is known as a “model energy code,” the International Energy Conservation Code. And this is a broad set of requirements and mandates around how thick insulation needs to be in certain zones, and what kind of windows are best to preserve energy within the building. And every year, there was a relatively low turnout of government voters, who would have the final say on what made it into that model code. It was a pretty wonky topic; few governments were fully aware of their ability to participate.

And what happened is that in 2018, two things converged: Both there was this growing frustration with the fact that the last two rounds of codes had made really meager improvements on energy efficiency overall, about 1% each time, and there was the UN’s IPCC report, which really laid bare just how little time was left to dramatically slash planet-heating emissions and keep climate change within a relatively safe range.

And, as a result, you had groups like the US Conference of Mayors, and other campaign organizations that try to push a lot of sustainability policies through cities, organize their members, which include virtually every city over 30,000 residents in the US, to get together and register eligible city officials to vote in the process that took place in late 2019, which would set the codes that are set to come into effect for 2021.

And it was a huge success; they had record voter turnout. They had hundreds of new government officials voting in the process, and overwhelmingly voting for more aggressive measures to increase energy efficiency. Some of the improvements going up from that 1% improvement the last time around, went as high as 14% for some residential buildings. Likewise, they approved new measures that would essentially bring this entire national building code in line with what many cities across the country are already doing to prepare for a low-carbon future, requiring the circuitry for electric appliances, or electric vehicle chargers, be included automatically in buildings, because it’s much more expensive to add those things after the fact.

What ended up happening, once the votes were tallied and it became clear that these city officials had successfully improved on the climate-readiness of the code, industry groups pushed back. And those industry groups include the National Association of Home Builders, one of the largest trade groups in the country, representing developers and construction companies, and the American Gas Association, which represents gas utilities, which has a lot at stake in the potential transition away from gas heating and cooking.

They rallied, and first questioned the eligibility of the voters to cast ballots in this election at all. And when it became clear that the voters who did vote were totally eligible under the ICC’s rules, they decided instead that they wanted to stem this from ever happening again, and proposed that, instead, this code, the energy code, is put through a separate process, known as a “standards” process, whereby there is no government vote at the end. It’s done entirely through these kind of bureaucratic channels, where there’s no risk that government voters are going to buck what the industry is comfortable with. And this is ultimately what they succeeded in making happen.

Longview, Wash., Daily News (2/18/21)

JJ: Many readers, first of all, will have heard nothing at all about this behind-the-scenes part, and the ICC. But they may have seen something like, you know, I saw a story in a Washington state paper that’s called the Daily News: “Industry experts say updated building codes to add $20,000 to price of new Washington home…. Homebuyers could see thousands of dollars added on to new home costs by revised state building codes.” This is from February of this year.

It’s not so surprising to see a kind of standard industry argument that the problem here is just cost to homeowners; it just costs more to make homes energy efficient. You have to look at that, obviously, in a different way, don’t you? You have to reframe what costs mean. I mean, the homeowner is going to pay the cost of energy inefficiency, or of having their roof blow off….

Alexander Kaufman: “This is essentially bringing a national standard in line with secular trends in the industry that ultimately save the homeowners money, when they don’t have to adapt a home that wasn’t built to these new technological standards.”

AK: This, I think, gets at a really important point that the Department of Energy—which made clear that it opposed this change at the ICC, although it has limited power to do much about it, because the ICC’s codes are enshrined in state laws, not usually federal law, and so there’s only so much that in a federalized system the Biden administration can do, beyond the bully pulpit—but the Department of Energy’s own analysis of past years of improved model energy codes found dramatic cost savings for homeowners on their energy bills.

Likewise, a lot of architects, and other groups that opposed this change, will tell you that, “Look, if you think it’s expensive to add these things into new homes in advance of selling them, they are even more expensive to do after the home is sold, and a buyer needs to update the circuitry in their homes to accommodate technology that is pretty clearly in the pipeline right now.” We are seeing the transition to electric vehicles, and to electric appliances, happening at a faster and faster rate every month, so that’s another concern.

Another thing to point out here is that the majority of homes, new homes being built right now, are in fact being built to have electric appliances. So this is essentially bringing a national standard in line with secular trends in the industry that ultimately save the homeowners money, when they don’t have to adapt a home that wasn’t built to these new technological standards. And that is going to save them money, because they aren’t going to be spending it on their electricity bill, something that I think people are probably particularly sensitive to right now, at a time when we are seeing rates of utility shutoffs for low-income homeowners increasing, now that the pandemic restrictions on doing so have ended, and when we’ve seen some of the really awful cases that took place in Texas amid the cold snap last month. So I think that can be a difficult argument to square, when you consider how narrow it is, about the cost to new homes.

Likewise, something that people would often point to is that while it’s a little bit more difficult to quantify the individual savings of one building to the avoided costs of climate disaster on a global scale, we are seeing billion-dollar climate-fueled disasters mounting every single year in this country, and it is only projected to get worse. So something like this, which is able to lower emissions on a very large scale, was considered by a lot of advocates to be a really vital tool for achieving those goals, and making those cuts in a way that was democratic and desirable for people. And that right is no longer in the hands of those policymakers.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Alexander Kaufman. You can find his work on building codes and climate change, along with other subjects, at HuffPost.com. Alexander Kaufman, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

AK: It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

 

‘The Digital Divide Is a Choice, and It Can Be Ended’

 

 

Janine Jackson interviewed EFF’s Ernesto Falcon about Internet for All for the March 19, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Michael Powell

 

Janine Jackson: In 2001, then–FCC chair Michael Powell responded to a question about the “digital divide,” the term used to describe people of color, poor and rural communities’ relative lack of technological access: “You know, I think there’s a Mercedes divide. I’d like to have one. I can’t afford one.”

For those who had problems with this statement, beyond its obvious falseness, Powell complained that he was taken out of context. He wasn’t. He led up to the quip by saying that the phrase “digital divide” is

dangerous in the sense that it suggests that the minute a new and innovative technology is introduced in the market, there is a divide unless it is equitably distributed among every part of society. And that is just an unreal understanding of an American capitalistic system.

And he followed it with:

I’m not meaning to be completely flip about this. I think it’s an important social issue. But it shouldn’t be used to justify the notion of, essentially, the socialization of deployment of the infrastructure.

The idea that access to useful computer communication technology is a market luxury, to which the poor ought not aspire, rather than a basic requirement for participation in the economy, was offensive in 2001; also ahistorical, as it conveniently ignores that the internet was developed by the government in the first place.

But if that was clear then, it should be crystalline 20 years later, as we see working from home and remote learning pose tremendous challenges for those who have and can afford high-speed internet in their home. What about those people, those communities, who can’t? Are they just off the page?

There’s legislation aimed at recognizing that broadband access is as basic as water or electricity, but you might not have heard about the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act from major news media.

We’re joined now by Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He joins us now by phone from the Bay Area. Welcome to CounterSpin, Ernesto Falcon.

Ernesto Falcon: Thank you for having me.

JJ: So when I looked up AAIA, Google said “Are you sure you don’t mean Asia and broadband?” It’s not just media not covering a kind of wonky or tech issue. We have been reading stories about kids who have to go to fast food parking lots to do their homework. I mean, media are talking about the problem, so I guess I don’t quite get the relative lack of attention to an attempted response.

But tell us about the AAIA, introduced by James Clyburn and Amy Klobuchar. What would it do? And why do you think it’s needed?

EF: I think sometimes when we talk about the digital divide, we tend to think it’s like a game of perpetual catch-up, and we’ll never get there. And I think, to your quote, in 2001, that’s kind of the understanding of the infrastructure and the technology at that time. You fast-forward to today, it is pretty clear there is one unifying medium, one type of infrastructure that is unifying all the technologies—so that if you build out this one infrastructure, you will have access to the whole range of 21st century technologies for decades—and that’s fiber optic.

The AAIA, the Accessible, Affordable Internet Act, essentially creates a federal program at the size and scale of our electrification effort from the ’20s and ’30s, where we simply just said, “It’s just unconscionable to have anyone not connected to the electrical grid.” It says it’s unconscionable to have someone not connected to 21st century infrastructure, and spends the requisite dollar amount—it’s around $90+ billion, which is what you would need for a nationwide solution for all corners of the country, with almost no exception.

And if you build fiber optics, you enable things like high-speed wireless; you enable things like the SpaceX’s Starlink, the orbit satellites; you enable gigabit internet connections at homes and businesses—all of those things come through the exact same infrastructure. And it’s just important for the policy in this space—where we’re deciding how to spend infrastructure dollars, like we build the roads and whatnot—to basically go head forth in that.

EFF (1/11/21)

And that kind of actually puts America in a place where we’re on the same pace with Europe and China, both areas of the world that have adopted, essentially, a fiber standard for their infrastructure, and are pushing it to all people—China being way ahead of everyone at this point. And if we don’t play catch-up now—so that in five years, it’ll be a wash, and we’ll be caught up, essentially—we will see some pretty massive differences about internet access globally, as well as here at home, where your high-income users have cheap, fast internet, areas where you have free, fast internet, and your low-income rural will have really expensive, old wires, that are delivering really slow speeds at really high prices.

JJ: Yeah, you have written and described that as “digital redlining,” which seems apt.

I think, as we think of looking forward, though, we keep stumbling over this thing, at least US corporate news media do, keep presenting this conflict… I would describe, lazily, the standard corporate media frame as, “There’s social justice that some of us might want, but that’s versus the rigors of market capitalism, which, push come to shove, we all really agree are best.” And this gets thrown up again and again. And so, not for nothing, but there’s not—and I don’t even want to concede it—but there’s not a conflict with profit-making here, necessarily, is there, when we talk about fiber?

Ernesto Falcon: “There has to be a public-sector version of access in lots of parts of this country, particularly rural markets, simply because you cannot build this infrastructure with purely a for-profit mindset.”

EF: No, not at all, for I would say more than two-thirds of the country. You could do it commercially, in a commercially feasible way, so long as the financing is made available to build, and there’s players that are willing to build. And I think there’s actually lots of local businesses that are willing to take on that challenge.

But what the Accessible, Affordable Internet Act does is it embraces all the models. And the model that this country desperately needs to really bolster is the public model of broadband, meaning local cooperatives, school districts, local governments. There has to be a public-sector version of access in lots of parts of this country, particularly rural markets, simply because you cannot build this infrastructure with purely a for-profit mindset. You have to look at it as, “What is the thing that would develop our local economy?” It benefits lots of other for-profit entities, right? All the local businesses, agriculture, retail, you name it.

But the government has to start looking at this like the roads, and allowing commerce to flow over those roads. And if we don’t build the roads, right, the internet infrastructure road, if you will, you actually stifle private-sector activity. And so there’s a real partnership to be had between government and people of all walks of life. And it really is the public model of broadband that is underutilized in this country.

But this bill, not only does it make the money available to make that a possibility in lots of places, but it also, what the word is, preempts states that have banned local governments from building their own infrastructure. All those states that have done that did that at the behest of the cable lobby, who basically argued, “Oh, if you let the public sector invest in this infrastructure, it’ll drive out private investment.”

And that’s an absurd argument, because we’re in 2021 now. If the private sector has not invested today, at this point, they’re never coming. So it’s just a dynamic where I think when they made those arguments 15 years ago, you could believe it, because these new networks were just starting; you had Google building fiber networks, all sorts of activity, starting around 2005. But we’re in 2021. If they haven’t built out that 21st century infrastructure, and at most it takes maybe five years to get to where you want to go, they’re not coming. And it’s time to really start embracing local models to solve our own problems.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally: It sounds as though it’s very much a question of who’s at the table as decisions are made. Is there change to be fought for there? Because I hear these ideas, but if no one’s in the room except industry when things are being decided, then that’s part of the problem. So where do you see changes being made, maybe to the decision making process here, that could be helpful?

EF: So I think as a first matter, we need a federal program, right? And we need states to have their own programs that bolster public models, along with local-private. I mean, local-private is very different than your big national players. Your AT&T, Comcast and Verizons of the world really do neglect these communities, versus someone who lives in the township themselves; they are more willing to work with people to figure out how to get everyone connected; they’re just motivated to, simply because they live among you.

I think the first step for people is to make sure they contact their congressperson and their senator, to tell them to support James Clyburn’s Accessible, Affordable Internet Act, because we have to get that out through the Congress.

And the danger here is, we are talking about a program that will connect everyone to a 21st century infrastructure; who’s going to be the opposition? It’s going to be the companies who have built the 20th century infrastructure, right, the slow, expensive stuff, by today’s standards, who absolutely do not want to be replaced; they will do everything they can to prevent progress here. And we have to just keep every legislator in line and in support of a forward-thinking infrastructure plan, because there’s lots of ways you could spend money that don’t make progress. And I suspect the industry, primarily led by the cable industry, will do everything they can to curtail, or hinder, or inhibit real progress in the space.

The digital divide is a choice, and it can be ended with concrete forward-thinking programs of this size and focus and scale. But that’s up to us, through channeling through our representation, our representatives, to hear people’s voice.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. You can find their work online at EFF.org. Ernesto Falcon, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

EF: Thank you for having me.

 

To Western Media, Prosecuting Bolivian Coup Leaders Is Worse Than Leading a Coup

 

The Guardian (3/17/21) pretends not to understand the difference between overthrowing a government and arresting someone for overthrowing a government.

One can imagine an editor of the London-based Guardian (3/17/21) shaking her head sadly as she typed the headline: “Cycle of Retribution Takes Bolivia’s Ex-President From Palace to Prison Cell.”  The subhead told readers, “Jeanine Áñez’s government once sought to jail the country’s former leader Evo Morales for terrorism and sedition—now she faces the same charges.”

The Guardian article by Tom Phillips wants us to lament an alleged incapacity of Bolivian governments to stop persecuting opponents once they take office. We are told that Áñez’s government did it, and that now the government of President Luis Arce (elected in a landslide win on October 18, 2020) is also doing it.

The article’s premise is a lie, and the liberal Guardian has hardly been the only outlet spreading it, with help from Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), whom Philips quoted. A team effort between Western media and NGOs like HRW often reinforces the views of the US government (FAIR.org, 8/23/18, 8/31/18, 5/31/2o, 11/3/18).

Áñez was a US-backed dictator installed after a military coup sent democratically elected President Evo Morales fleeing Bolivia for his life on November 10, 2019.  Once in power, Áñez immediately promised security forces legal immunity as they massacred dozens of protesters. She is now charged with terrorism (in addition to sedition and criminal conspiracy) over her attempt to keep power by terrorizing the public. Her arrest is good news to people who support democracy and human rights.

But now, as when the coup took place in 2019, the most obvious conclusions are evaded when they are incompatible with US foreign policy (FAIR.org, 11/11/19). It should surprise nobody that US officials have made statements depicting her arrest as political persecution.

Fighting to spring an ex-dictator

In downgrading the coup that installed Áñez to a mere allegation made against Áñez, Reuters (3/13/21), the Financial Times (3/13/21), the Washington Post (3/13/21), CNN (3/15/21) and Canada’s National Post (3/13/21) have all run articles quoting HRW’s Vivanco criticizing her arrest. CNN quoted him:

The arrest warrants against Añez and her ministers do not contain any evidence that they have committed the crime of “terrorism.” For this reason, they generate well-founded doubts that it is a process based on political motives.

The Washington Post article, whose headline alleged a “crackdown on opposition,” used a shorter version of the same quote from Vivanco.

While all the articles described the coup as an allegation, CNN stands out for getting the most ridiculous with its denialism:

Then-head of the Bolivian Armed Forces, Cmdr. Williams Kaliman, asked Morales to step down to restore stability and peace; Morales acquiesced on November 10 “for the good of Bolivia.”

But political allies maintain he was removed from power as part of a coup orchestrated by conservatives, including Áñez.

Did Kaliman need to be filmed putting a gun directly to Morales’ head for CNN to admit it was a coup?

Adding to the disinformation loop from his own platform on Twitter, Vivanco spread an Americas Quarterly op-ed  by Raul Peñaranda (3/16/21) that denounced the arrest of Áñez. Peñaranda once said that Bolivia’s democracy was “saved” the day Morales was overthrown, and his recent op-ed depicts the November 2019 coup as a legal transfer of power.

In 2019, the military publicly “urged” Morales to resign, as both the military and police made clear they would not protect him from violent right-wing protesters, some of whom ransacked his house.  Áñez, a right-wing senator whose party received only 4% of the national vote in the 2019 legislative elections, had the presidential sash placed on her by military men, while lawmakers from Evo Morales’ party (Movimineto al Socialismo, or MAS), the majority in the legislature, were absent: some in hiding, others refusing to attend without guarantees of their safety and their families’.

Ignoring all that, the Guardian article by Tom Philips refers to “claims the former senator [Áñez] was involved in plotting the right-wing coup that Bolivia’s current government claims brought her to power.” (My emphasis.) Editors are usually big fans of concision. The highlighted words should have been deleted. An added benefit would have been accuracy.

Of course, it’s easier to deny that Áñez was involved in plotting the coup that put her in power (hardly a stretch) if you do not even accept that a coup took place. Reuters placed scare quotes around the word “coup” in headlines about Áñez’s arrest: “Bolivian Ex-President Áñez Begins Four-Month Detention Over ‘Coup’ Allegations” (3/16/21); “ Bolivian Ex-President Áñez Begins Jail Term as Rights Groups Slam ‘Coup’ Probe” (3/14/21).

Reuters (3/14/21) and CNN (3/15/21) also uncritically reported the thoroughly debunked pretext for the coup. CNN reported, “Though an international audit would later find the results the 2019 election could not be validated because of ‘serious irregularities,’ [Morales] declared himself the winner, prompting massive protests around the country.” (The “international audit” is the OAS’s widely debunked report.) Reuters simply stated that the Organization of America States (OAS) “was an official monitor of the 2019 election and had found it fraudulent.”

Cycle of dishonesty

The “lawless course” that the Washington Post (3/18/21) is referring to is prosecuting the people who overthrew the elected Bolivian government and killed people who protested the coup.

The coup was incited by transparently dishonest claims repeatedly made by OAS monitors about the presidential election won by Morales on October 20, 2019. Three days after the election, they claimed there was a “drastic,” “inexplicable” and “hard to explain” increase in Morales’ lead in the vote count (FAIR.org, 12/17/19).

The Washington, DC–based Center for Economic and Policy Research immediately pointed out that this was utter nonsense. But in the crucial months following Morales’ ouster, outlets like Reuters constantly shielded the OAS from devastating criticism. Eventually, expert criticism of the OAS continually mounted and disrupted the media silence. Details from the election results in 2020, in which Evo Morales’ party triumphed by an even greater margin than in 2019, further exposed OAS dishonesty.

Like Reuters, the widely quoted Jose Miguel Vivanco of HRW spread fraud claims when it mattered most in 2019. The day after the election won by Morales, Vivanco  tweeted in Spanish that “everything indicates that [Evo Morales]  intends to steal the election.” As late as December 2019, HRW executive director Ken Roth was also promoting OAS claims without the slightest trace of scepticism. Months into the murderous illegitimate rule of Áñez, Vivanco explicitly referred to Bolivia as a “democracy.” He did so in a Spanish-language interview with BrujulaDigital  (5/15/20), an outlet edited by Raul Peñaranda, the coup supporter whose Americas Quarterly op-ed Vivanco recently promoted on Twitter. Meanwhile, on Twitter, Vivanco constantly refers to the governments of President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, and President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua–two democratically elected presidents the US government wants overthrown–as “dictaduras” (dictatorships).

The New York Times editorial board openly supported the coup that ousted Morales in 2019:

The forced ouster of an elected leader is by definition a setback to democracy, and so a moment of risk. But when a leader resorts to brazenly abusing the power and institutions put in his care by the electorate, as President Evo Morales did in Bolivia, it is he who sheds his legitimacy, and forcing him out often becomes the only remaining option. That is what the Bolivians have done, and what remains is to hope that Mr. Morales goes peacefully into exile in Mexico and to help Bolivia restore its wounded democracy.

So predictably enough, a Times article (3/12/21) about the recent Áñez arrest referred vaguely to the utterly debunked OAS fraud claims (“a contested vote count”) and took the same kind of dishonest stance as HRW and other Western media by equating  a US-backed dictatorship to a democratically elected government whose ouster the US supported: “Both Mr. Morales and Ms. Añez used the judiciary to go after their critics.”

The Washington Post editorial board (3/18/21) came out with a wild defense of  Añez, headlined: “The Bolivian Government Is on a Lawless Course. Its Democracy Must Be Preserved.” Most ominously, the editorial said, “The Biden administration should lead a regional effort to preserve democratic stability in this long-suffering country, lest crisis turn into catastrophe.” Informed people may laugh at this for a few seconds–until they remember that Bolivia’s people could eventually face lethal US sanctions for daring to hold murderers to account. Left unchallenged, that’s the catastrophe that propaganda like this could bring about.

Brutal dictators supported by Washington have no reason to doubt that establishment journalists and big NGOs will try very hard to keep them out of jail. Removing the threat of US -backed coups from the world will involve a constant struggle against Western media and the sources they present to us as reliable.

 

Austerity-Addicted Media Scaremonger Over Infrastructure ‘Spending Spree’

 

The Washington Post (3/11/21) suggests that $2 trillion in tax hikes (to “offset the cost of some or all” of the infrastructure bill) would “hardly qualify as austerity.”

As soon as Democrats took over Washington with big plans for reviving the economy, corporate media started sounding the alarm about government spending (FAIR.org, 1/25/21). With the party’s infrastructure bill—which could come in around $2 trillion over four years—now pending, the media deficit hawks are on high alert, tossing around big, scary numbers to throw cold water on the bill.

It’s hardly surprising to find deficit hawkery from the Washington Post editorial board (3/11/21), which urged Democrats to “offset some or all of the cost [of the infrastructure bill], through higher revenues, reduced spending on lower-priority items or a mix of the two.” But proposals for government spending on long-overdue infrastructure investment are also spurring “straight” news reporting full of largely unfounded assumptions and concerns.

On ABC‘s This Week (3/14/21), host George Stephanopoulos framed his first question about the infrastructure bill to House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi with bold certainty: “That’s going to require new taxes. Can you keep Democrats united behind a proposal like that and attract any Republican support?” When Pelosi avoided the question of taxes, Stephanopoulos pressed further: “But it is going to take new taxes, right?”

Journalists seem desperate to make this the big question. There’s nothing inherently wrong with asking corporations or the rich to help pay for infrastructure investments, given that they benefit greatly from those investments. But given that even so-called moderate Republicans have openly laughed at the prospect of supporting an infrastructure bill funded even partially by rolling back the Trump tax cuts, pushing Democrats to build taxes into the bill means an opportunity for more headlines about Democrats abandoning the bipartisanship media revere above all else (FAIR.org, 1/22/21).

The Hill (3/16/21) told readers that “one of the biggest questions—whether Democrats go it alone or ultimately make it bipartisan—will be how to pay for it.” The piece stated this as an incontrovertible fact, which makes the immediately following quote from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)—that some in the party believe that with “interest rates being so low, their interest is not paying for infrastructure”—seem like fantasy.

Politico (3/11/21) devoted an article to conservative Democrats worried that the cost of infrastructure spending will be “put on our children’s credit card.”

Politico (3/11/21) gave away its take with the loaded headline: “Democratic Centrists Balk at More Red Ink After Covid Spending Spree,” accompanied by the subhead: “Some in the President’s Party Are Ready for an Infrastructure Plan That’s at Least Partly Paid For.” Reporters Sarah Ferris and Burgess Everett tsked-tsked that both Democrats and Republicans “have shrugged off oceans of red ink over the past year,” and noted that some “Democratic centrists…[are] arguing there has to be some limit to Congress’s deficit spending.” (Note: No politician is proposing limitless spending.) Later, they rephrased the idea of Congress’s irresponsibility slightly to hammer the point home: “Some moderate Democrats say it’s time for Congress to recover some semblance of fiscal pragmatism.”

Politico uncritically quoted several Democrat deficit hawks spouting guilt-inducing platitudes, like Angus King (I.–Maine): “It’s got to be paid for. It’s just a question of who pays. Are we going to pay or our kids going to pay?”

This kind of framing—”pragmatism,” moderation, avoiding “oceans of red ink” and not just passing the buck on to our kids—gives readers the overwhelming sense that anyone at odds with such ideas can scarcely be trusted with control over our federal budget.

The piece did eventually quote two such Democrats, who alluded to economic arguments that deficit spending isn’t actually a problem, but Politico didn’t bother to talk to economists themselves for any kind of expert take on whether deficit spending for an infrastructure bill should be a concern.

If they had, they would have had to write a different kind of article. First of all, infrastructure spending is an investment; the government puts money into upgrading public resources—everything from roads to green energy to broadband to education—which in turn increase productivity and the tax base. That means more money back in government coffers. As economist Noah Smith writes in Bloomberg (3/15/21):

Private companies borrow to fund big investments all the time; to demand that the government pay for the transition to green energy entirely out of tax revenues would be like insisting that companies pay for major capital projects out of current revenues. In other words, it makes no sense.

Media fret about the size of the national debt even though interest rates over the past few years are the lowest they’ve been in US history (New York Life/Visual Capitalist).

What’s more, as economist Dean Baker (Beat the Press, 1/13/21) notes, interest rates hit extraordinary lows with the pandemic, as the Fed dropped short-term rates to zero in an effort to prop up the economy. They’ve gone up slightly in anticipation of the impact of the stimulus bill, but they remain well below the rates in the US for decades before the Great Recession. This means borrowing is incredibly cheap.

More borrowing will raise interest rates a bit more—still below any level that should cause much inflation or much alarm, Baker explains. But it will make the stock market bubble more likely to deflate. The incredibly low interest rates have driven investors into the stock market as the only place to make money (which explains how the stock market could go up in the midst of a shutdown). So as interest rates rise, money will flow back out. Guess who that will mostly impact? The wealthy, which includes top media personalities like George Stephanopoulos: The top 10% in this country account for 84% of equity holdings (New York Times, 1/26/21).

As for that debt we’re saddling our children with? Journalists offered descriptions of the national debt that made it sound like a giant ticking time bomb. For instance, the Wall Street Journal (3/14/21), in an article titled “White House Weighs How to Pay for Long-Term Economic Program,” pointed to

a nearly $4.5 trillion increase in federal debt held by the public, to $21.9 trillion as of March 1. At roughly the size of the nation’s entire economic output, the debt is the highest  since the aftermath of World War II.

Fortune (3/16/21) actually nodded briefly to experts like Baker who aren’t overly alarmed by deficit spending—but promptly dismissed them:

For all the talk about how budget deficits may not matter, the fact remains that even before Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law last week, the federal deficit was on track to hit $2.3 trillion in the 2021 fiscal year—more than 10% of the US’s total gross domestic product, and the second-highest debt-to-GDP ratio since World War II.

And the Post‘s editorial pointed to “exponential growth” of the national debt as the justification for its admonishment to either go small or raise taxes. (The debt-to-GDP ratio rose 30 percentage points as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the worst disaster in US history; before that, the ratio had remained virtually flat since 2012.)

As Baker points out, all those big numbers tell us nothing about the actual burden of the debt—which, in fact, is a pretty small, unthreatening number:

Last year, we paid $338 billion in interest; this year we are projected to pay $290 billion. Measured as a share of GDP, last year our interest payments came to around 1.6%; this year’s payments are projected at 1.4%. By comparison, in the early and mid-1990s (a very prosperous decade), our interest burden was over 3.0% of GDP.

Such sober accounting would make borrowing for infrastructure investments seem quite pragmatic and responsible—so those voices are largely ignored by reporters addicted to austerity.

Ernesto Falcon on Internet for All, Alexander Kaufman on Future-Proofed Housing Codes

This week on CounterSpin: Reporters covering the pandemic can’t help but note the impact of the digital divide: How do you work from home, or do remote learning, or even register for a vaccine, without not just available, but affordable high-speed internet? Yet a major congressional effort to end that divide is, so far, generating little interest from big media. It’s almost as if the corporate press accepted the existence of information haves and have-nots, because that’s how goods get divided in this country—even if it doesn’t make technological, economic or humanitarian sense. We’ll hear about the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act (AAIA) from Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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Also on the show: As with the country’s communication networks, there’s an obvious social win, and cost efficiency, in adapting buildings to climate realities—making them not just energy efficient (right now, they generate about 40% of greenhouse gases), but “future-proofed” against predictable and predicted weather events. Many cities think so, and they were working on building codes to reflect that—until industry groups, including home builders and the American Gas Association, said not so fast. We’ll get this very important but still under the radar story from Alexander Kaufman, who’s been on it. He covers climate change, energy and environmental policy as a senior reporter at HuffPost.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at press coverage of the Atlanta hate-crime shootings.

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