Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

Witness to a Farce - Watching impeachment through the lens of the New York Times

 

Watching the actions of the Trump administration through the lens of the New York Times’ coverage has been by turns dumbfounding, disheartening and infuriating. While the white nationalists running our government have rolled out one attack after another on civil rights, civil liberties, the independence of the judiciary, procedural democracy, human rights laws and planetary survival, the “paper of record” has offered a soothing translation of these threats into the familiar language of Beltway politics—an anesthetizing stew of “he said, she said” false equivalences that juxtaposes claims and lies by Trump and Trumpsters with statements by others, often statements of fact, with no indication of the veracity of either side; an intense dedication to avoiding referring to anything as racist; and a general, unspoken pretense that Trump is just another president, which for the Times means extending to him its ever-reliable commitment to legitimating and stabilizing power. Never mind how dangerous this regime might be to the rest of us.

It’s as though the Times signed up to be part of the emperor’s entourage, reassuring itself and everyone around it that there is indeed a fine garment or government there, when in reality there is nothing but naked self-dealing, greed, deceit, unchecked bigotry and vulgar self-aggrandizement.

Teen Vogue‘s warning (12/10/16) went unheeded by the New York Times.

Lauren Duca’s famous clarion call in Teen Vogue (12/10/16) to resist Trump’s gaslighting is as on-point today as it was in December 2016. But in the interim, the dogged determination by corporate media, with the New York Times leading the pack, to normalize all that should never be normalized has taken its toll.

In January 2017, thousands of people across the country flocked to airports to protest Trump’s Muslim ban when it was first decreed by executive order. But after three years of media headlines euphemistically referring to it as a “travel ban,” and the Supreme Court’s 2018 blessing of this fig leaf of respectability, the news last week that the Muslim ban was being expanded to six additional countries did not result in a similar outpouring of protest.

Outrage fatigue is perhaps inevitable, given the relentless pace of the outrages, but the function of journalism should not be to reassure us that everything really is OK when it simply is not.

Yet this is precisely what the Times’ coverage of the impeachment process has consistently done. Throughout, it has underplayed the danger to democracy, both of Trump’s obstruction of the process and the brazen resolve by Republicans to absolve him no matter what. How the paper covered the Senate’s refusal to allow witnesses in the trial is a case in point.

The administration’s efforts to keep evidence out of the impeachment proceedings ran the gamut, from defying subpoenas to smearing witnesses, in a successful effort to create the perfect circular argument: Because no eyewitnesses were allowed to testify, there was no corroboration of the charges, and hence the charges had not been sufficiently proven.

The New York Times (1/30/20) presented the exclusion of witnesses from the trial of the president as a “he said, she said” story.

But while everybody inside and outside of Washington knows that the GOP fought to keep witnesses out of both the House and Senate proceedings precisely because they could corroborate the existing evidence, the Times (1/30/20) ran an entire piece headlined “Why Block Impeachment Witnesses? Republicans Have Many Reasons” without ever stating as much. The supposed reasons ranged from “Witnesses were the House’s job” to “House prosecutors claim they already have an ironclad case.” The article’s straight-faced recitation of such GOP “arguments” and Democratic “counterarguments” about the battle in the Senate insulted its readers’ intelligence.

The last argument regurgitated by the Times asserted, “House prosecutors have produced no new information crying out for corroboration by witnesses,” an argument worthy of Leo Rosten’s classic definition of chutzpah: “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.” Yet the Times described this as “an argument that thoroughly irritates Democrats,” as though that were somehow an unexpected response, and qualified the White House’s stonewalling as mere opinion on the Democrats’ part.

The article (1/31/20) reporting Friday night’s vote to refuse to consider witnesses did no better. The closest it came to stating the obvious reason for the stonewalling was in a comment on the Republicans’ strategy: “Senate Republicans made a wager…that it was better to withstand the short-term criticisms rather than to allow the proceeding to stretch on and risking damaging revelations.” (Emphasis added.)

The New York Times (2/2/20) pivots to the “not that big a deal” phase of normalization.

The witness battle lost, the Times (2/2/20) moved on unbothered to cover the GOP’s next move with equal credulity. “Republicans’ Emerging Defense: Trump’s Actions Were Bad, but Not Impeachable,” Sunday’s headline announced, and the accompanying article quoted multiple senators who basically all said, “Yeah, he did it, but it’s not that big a deal.”

No mention that Sen. Bob Portman, quoted here as considering Trump’s actions “inappropriate” but not “ris[ing] to the level of removing a duly-elected president from office,” had 20 years earlier considered a presidential blowjob as rising to that level. The word “hypocrisy” is nowhere to be found in this article.

The Republican shift to the “not such a big deal” defense was utterly predictable, especially in light of the Democrats’ failure to use the impeachment process to lay out the full scope of Trump’s crimes, from sexual assault to human rights abuses to self-dealing to obstruction of justice to the constant lying. It is clear now, as many of us predicted, that the Democrats’ decision to pursue a narrow prosecution was a huge political miscalculation that fundamentally failed to grasp the terms on which the Republicans are operating.

The corruption of the GOP in all this is, in fact, staggering. Hypocrisy only begins to describe their actions, and their willingness to go along with whatever Trump does so long as he continues to enable various right-wing agendas—from tax cuts for the rich, to extremist judicial appointments set to overturn LGBTQ rights and abortion rights, to mass detention of immigrants—represents the real constitutional crisis we are in. If Congress did its job in checking presidential power, this all would have been over years ago.

So now we are on the verge of the legislative branch’s blessing of the executive’s lawlessness, and all the New York Times (1/31/20) is willing to do is keep score of how each “side” is using the moment to their advantage:

His expected acquittal is also likely to leave the president emboldened. He will argue that Democrats, unelected bureaucrats and the mainstream news media have targeted him because of their disdain for his supporters, and that his fight for political survival is theirs as well. Democrats, too, planned to capitalize on the impeachment fight by urging voters to punish Republicans for refusing to demand a more thorough trial and for sticking with Mr. Trump despite evidence of his misdeeds.

And instead of seeing the “not a big deal” defense of Republicans as a green light to further executive abuses, and a signal that Trump is indeed above the law, the Times (2/2/20) seems to think that its repeated reminder that some Republicans were willing to criticize Trump even as they prepared to acquit him was reassuring:

The Republicans’ argument also stands starkly at odds with what Mr. Trump—who has deemed a phone call he had with Ukraine’s president “perfect” and has resisted any suggestion that he acted improperly — has demanded from his defenders.

If this is what counts as a congressional check on the presidency these days, then we’re screwed.

The New York Times (2/1/20) sticks to the neutral voice while contemplating Trump using “his power in ways that presidents since Richard M. Nixon considered out of line.”

The closest the Times (2/1/20) has come to acknowledging the growing threat of authoritarianism was, I’m sure, unintentional. The opening of a news analysis by White House correspondent Peter Baker, headlined “While Stained in History, Trump Will Emerge From Trial Triumphant and Unshackled,” borrows from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “‘When you strike at a king,’ Emerson famously said, ‘you must kill him.’ Mr. Trump’s foes struck at him but did not take him down.”

We don’t live in a monarchy. We live in a constitutional system that envisions checks on executive power that make regicide obsolete. But this analogy is more apt than the Times is willing to admit. Throughout this piece, and in the other pieces discussed here, the paper talks about an “emboldened” Trump. It notes:

He has already used his power in ways that presidents since Richard M. Nixon considered out of line, like firing an FBI director who was investigating him and browbeating the Justice Department to investigate his political foes.

Yet nowhere in this piece is there a hint of alarm at what this might mean for the US, and especially for the people who have been in Trump’s crosshairs throughout his presidency. It refers obliquely to his goal of “further restricting immigration,” for instance, but there is no concern anywhere about the possibility of escalating human rights abuses that this would entail. After all, the pre-emboldened Trump already brought us family separations, kids in cages, the asylum ban and “remain in Mexico.”

The final vote to acquit Trump is set for Wednesday, February 5. But once the witness fight was over, the New York Times was ready to move on. Saturday’s “Unshackled” piece was followed by a fluff piece on Sunday  (2/2/20), headlined “Impeachment All but Behind Him, Trump Celebrates and Keeps Focus on Bloomberg.” In it, the Times reports on the president’s victory lap at Mar-a-Lago and on Sean Hannity’s show right before the Superbowl, with generous coverage of his tweets thrown in.

An assessment of the damage of this impeachment process—the expansion of executive power, the impunity with which the administration obstructed the investigation, the complicity of the legislature in greenlighting presidential lawlessness—will have to be done elsewhere. The New York Times was content to cover it as a Washington drama and no more; its impeachment landing page even lists a “cast of characters.”

But this isn’t Shakespeare, though it is a farce.

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.

Featured image: New York Times graphic of impeached presidents.

‘This Is an Apartheid Proposal and It’s a Nonstarter’ - CounterSpin interview with Omar Baddar on Israel/Palestine 'peace deal'

Janine Jackson interviewed the Arab American Institute’s Omar Baddar about the Trump/Kushner “peace deal” for Israel/Palestine for the January 31, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Washington Post (1/29/20)

Janine Jackson: The lead in the New York Times’ January 28 report was “President Trump on Tuesday unveiled his long-awaited Middle East peace plan with a flourish, releasing a proposal that would give Israel most of what it has sought over decades of conflict while offering the Palestinians the possibility of a state with limited sovereignty.”

There are a number of problems in that sentence, one of them being the paper’s uncritical use of the phrase “peace plan.” But it’s true to US corporate media form in presenting the Israel/Palestine conflict as two comparably situated parties fighting one another, and in legitimizing the US role as broker. Statements like, “Still, the plan does far more for Israel than it does for the Palestinians,” besides understating things by orders of magnitude, do nothing to reflect the fundamental asymmetry of power.

The Washington Post threw in the trope of emotion-driven brown people, with the headline, “Israel Rushes to Capitalize on Peace Plan as Palestinians Express Anger.” It’s not wrong that Palestinians—along with advocates of human rights and international law—are angry at the proposal, but they have reasons as well as feelings.

Here to help us see what’s going on is Omar Baddar, deputy director of the Arab American Institute.  He joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Omar Baddar.

OB: Thank you very much for having me.

JJ: Let’s get right to it. What is most important to know about this “deal of the century”?

OB: I think the most important thing to know is that it is not a “peace deal” at all. It’s not only a misnomer to call it a “peace deal”; really, it’s flat-out Orwellian, because the proposal does not lead to peace for sure, and it’s not going to be a deal, because the Palestinians will never sign it.

It is effectively a proposal to confine Palestinians to tiny areas of land that are completely under the control of the Israeli military, so you basically do not have anything offered to the Palestinians that comes even close to the kind of freedom and independence that Israelis enjoy. And the only people who would support a proposal like this are people who genuinely see Palestinians as an inferior people who are not deserving of the same rights and freedoms that the rest of us are entitled to.

To basically put it in other terms, I think this is an apartheid proposal, and it’s going to be a nonstarter for obvious reasons. And I think the fact that everybody goes on calling it a “peace deal” is normalizing, to some extent, something that is really grotesque and monstrous.

JJ: Apparently the plan says that issues of territory were worked out “in the spirit of” UN Security Council Resolution 242. What should we know about the land issues here?

OB: Resolution 242 basically says that Israel is obligated to withdraw fully from the occupied Palestinian territory; that is, all the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Keep in mind that this only makes up 22% of the entire land; it’s basically, Israel under Resolution 242 gets to keep 78% of the land. And the problem is that under this proposal, this gigantic Palestinian compromise, basically the 1967 borders, which is what Resolution 242 is based on, gives the Palestinians very little land. And they accepted that as a division.

And the Trump administration and, frankly, even previous American administrations, start with that division of land as the starting point, rather than the end point, which is part of the problem, is that there’s always this talk about whether Palestinians are compromising enough, and all of that. But simply Israel’s abiding by international law gives Palestinians only 22% of the land, and that’s a massive Palestinian compromise that people should be embracing.

So the idea that then carving that 22% into much smaller areas, and giving Israel complete—you know, in the case of the West Bank, it’s supposed to be bordering Jordan on one side; under the Trump proposal, the entire Jordan Valley, the eastern part of the West Bank, ends up falling under Israeli control. So Palestinians end up being surrounded by Israel from the north, south, east and west; by no stretch of the imagination can this be described as a state. And there’s clearly a pretty significant deviation from UN Resolution 242 and international law, as made clear by the UN, which basically came out against this deal, and said that it’s not based on international law.

JJ: I was disturbed by the New York Times saying the plan offers Palestinians “a state with limited sovereignty.” Besides the noblesse oblige in that “offers,” what does it even mean to say “a state with limited sovereignty”? Just to underscore: The Palestinians would not control their borders, their air, their water. The lands are not contiguous. I’m just not sure why the word “state” is in that sentence at all.

OB: Yeah, it’s a really infantilizing and somewhat racist conception of Palestinians, that if you give them a plot of land to put a flag on and call it a “state,” that therefore it’s a state. You know, there was a statement made by a spokesperson for Benjamin Netanyahu back in the ’90s, David Bar-Illan, who basically said that Netanyahu’s idea has always been to give Palestinians very tiny pieces of land that are completely encircled by Israel. And then, he said, they can call it a “state” if they want, or they can call it “fried chicken,” I don’t care. Those were his words.

And that effectively is what current American policy is under this administration. Everybody’s going along with this idea of this plot of land being a make-believe state, and treating it like it’s real. And it really is journalistic negligence, to be living in an environment where, instead of calling these things out, people go along with a terminology that is handed out by this administration.  I really think that Orwell is rolling in his grave, looking at all of this.

JJ: Well, a state it would not be, but there are things that it sounds like, and those things are bantustans, aren’t they? I mean, the South Africa analogy is not inappropriate.

Omar Baddar: “We are looking at a situation where the two-state solution may no longer be possible, and it may be time for a struggle for equal rights between Palestinians and Israelis in the entire land from the river to the sea.” (photo: AAI)

OB: No, it is more apt than ever. Frankly, it has been a very systematic move in that direction.

The reality on the ground is already apartheid. It is a separate system of laws and rights that are handed out to Israelis and to Palestinians. In the occupied territories, Israeli settlers, who are there illegally on Palestinian land, get to move freely, get to use roads that Palestinians don’t get to use. They serve under a completely different judicial system, under the full Israeli system, whereas Palestinians serve under Israeli military jurisdiction, where there are all kinds of draconian punitive measures against minor crimes.

And the point was this whole occupation, the apartheid system that exists under occupation, was supposed to be temporary, and we’re supposed to be working in a direction away from that. That has always been the official justification, is that the occupation exists for military necessity, and we just need to work out the details for peace to come about and end it.

And now, this entire sham of the peace process has been exposed: that it has been a systematic effort by Israel, using the rhetoric of a peace process, to make this apartheid more permanent, to create facts on the ground that make it unchangeable. We are looking at a situation where the two-state solution may no longer be possible, and it may be time for a struggle for equal rights between Palestinians and Israelis in the entire land from the river to the sea.

JJ: The New York Times also said that this plan would not require Israel “to uproot any of the settlements in the West Bank that have provoked Palestinian outrage and alienated much of the world.” And that Netanyahu’s declaration that he’s pushing for unilateral annexation of the Jordan River Valley and all Jewish settlements in the West Bank—that’s what the Washington Post calls the “rush to capitalize on” the deal—that that is “a move that is sure to further inflame the Palestinians.” International law doesn’t seem to have much of a role. These things, we’re told, just make Palestinians mad.

OB: Yep. As if Palestinian emotions are the only objection to any of this happening, as opposed to the fact that land theft is just the basics of international law—the primary reason it exists is to prevent aggression and land theft and countries invading other countries and taking them over. And the fact that this is unfolding, and the only concern, as you mentioned, is what Palestinians feel about it, that really is preposterous.

We have the entire international order at stake in this case. If we allow, if we create a norm by which countries can just take over other countries… And to the objections of American administrations, successive ones, you know, it goes back to Obama and Bush and Clinton: They were all critical of Israeli policy, of expanding settlements; they all kept asking Israel to stop. If the message is, “well, if you just ignore us and build anyway, we’re just gonna have to accept the reality,” then this is really encouragement for everybody around the world that wants to take over any piece of territory, that “might makes right,” and just go ahead and do your thing. And, eventually, we’ll just have to accept the reality that you’ve created.

This is really fundamentally breaking down the entire international order, and the basis that we have for international law, and the way that we want to organize ourselves as a human civilization on the planet.

Mondoweiss (1/29/20)

JJ: People are often surprised that Israeli media can be more critical of Israel than US media. James North at Mondoweiss cites a piece from Haaretz that says:

The only part of the Trump plan that will assuredly be implemented is the annexation bit. All other parts of the plan will be contingent on Palestinian acceptance of a plan that, as previously written in Haaretz, was written with the clear intention of getting the Palestinians to reject it.

What’s going to happen?

OB: I think that nothing positive could happen under the Trump administration. But we are beginning to see cracks in the way American media coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is really changing. It’s obviously still very bad. But it is also substantially better than it used to be 10 and 15 and 20 years ago. So we are seeing some progress.

Some people who are running for the Democratic nomination for president, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are talking about potentially applying conditions on military aid to Israel to get Israel to change its behavior. Which is precisely what has been needed and what has been missing, is that you’ve had successive administrations object to Israeli policy, but never really willing to back that rhetoric, those positions, with action.

At the end of the day, US military aid to Israel continued rising, diplomatic support of the United Nations just went on, basically unstopped. And without accountability, you really can’t get anywhere. And the fact that we have now presidential candidates on the Democratic side—we’ll find out whether it’s just rhetoric for the election, or whether it’s actually going to be action—but the fact that we have people talking about accountability for Israel, and no longer writing a blank check of military aid to Israel, as a means of pushing them to behave within the bounds of international law and respect Palestinian civil rights—is potentially a promising sign. So I think between that, the potential of a change in administration, as well as the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign at a grassroots level, hopefully we can see some pressure beginning to mount on Israel to actually change its apartheid policies towards Palestinians.

JJ: Is there anything for US citizens to do with regard to this particular plan?

OB: I think American citizens should be writing to their members of Congress, trying to make sure that our government raises its voice, our representatives raise their voice, and become vocal in opposition to this deal. We should not allow any level of normalization of this proposal.

And I think the more our members of Congress hear from Americans about the fact that we object to this preposterous and one-sided effort by the US to impose apartheid on the Palestinians, and the more presidential candidates are challenged about their positions on this issue, I think the better. It’s absolutely critical for us not to slide down a road where this kind of policy becomes gradually normalized. So I really think it’s important for people to actually reach out to their representatives, to write letters to the editor and op-eds in their local newspapers, making sure that this does not reflect our values, and it’s not what we stand for.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Omar Baddar, deputy director of the Arab American Institute; you can find their work online at AAIUSA.org. Omar Baddar, thank you for joining us today on CounterSpin.

OB: Thank you very much for having me.

 

News Flash: Billionaires Don’t Like Socialism

by Alan MacLeod

Big news, everyone! Billionaires don’t like socialism.

In response to a rising progressive tide in the United States, a new genre of stories has emerged in corporate media: rich guys warning against taxing them, or really changing anything about the system at all. Just as the press are keen for you to know that Medicare for All is a very bad idea (FAIR.org, 4/29/19), they are equally anxious to make sure that the voices of beleaguered, unheard plutocrats are given as much of a boost as possible.

Is the opinion of the CEO of the world’s fifth-largest oil company that Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “have a completely unrealistic idea of the complexity of the global energy system” (CNBC, 1/22/20) really “breaking news”?

A case in point is CNBC’s recent article (1/22/20) headlined, “BP’s CEO Chides AOC and Bernie Sanders for Their ‘Completely Unrealistic’ Green New Deal Ideas.” Reporter Jessica Bursztynsky begins:

Outgoing BP chief Bob Dudley on Wednesday criticized sweeping climate proposals from Sen. Bernie Sanders, a top-tier 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a champion of the far left. “They have a completely unrealistic idea of the complexity of the global energy system,” Dudley told CNBC’s Squawk Box from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

To sum up the story, a CNBC journalist went to Davos (where the cheapest hotel room last year was $1,000 per night) to get ideas about socialism and the environment from the CEO of BP, one of the 100 corporations responsible for over 70% of the world’s emissions. At no point did Bursztynsky warn the audience or even allude to the enormous conflict of interest the oil multi-millionaire might have in discussing solutions to the climate crisis. Instead, his views are presented as a straight and important news story.

In contrast, the first sentence primes the reader against AOC and Sanders by presenting them as “far left” – in other words, as some sort of out-there crazies, even though their ideas are supported by the majority of the American people (FAIR.org, 1/23/19). It allows Dudley to claim that there is a distinct “lack of realism” from his critics (emphasis added):

“There’s just a lot of people, very well-meaning people, who want to believe that there is a simple solution,” Dudley said at the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition & Conference.

Jeez, I wonder what oil CEOs at an energy forum in a Mideastern monarchy think about renewable energy? Good thing CNBC is on the case.

If you don’t understand what socialism is, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase will fill you in (CNBC, 1/22/20).

Not content with hearing only one CEO’s opinion, on the same day CNBC (1/22/20) published another Davos interview, called “JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon Takes on Socialism, Says It Will Lead to an ‘Eroding Society,’” where Dimon told readers that “socialism has failed everywhere it’s been tried” and claimed that millennials don’t understand what it really is. A billionaire investment banker doesn’t like socialism!? Stop the presses!

CNBC is a particularly frequent culprit of publishing non-news such as this. Last year it ran an article (6/20/19) titled “Bernie Sanders ‘Doesn’t Have a Clue,’” featuring supposed wisdom from multibillionaire Goldman Sachs alum Leon Cooperman, who stated bluntly: “We have the best economy in the world. Capitalism works,” and that Sanders’ “far-left” agenda is “counterproductive.” “I’m not in favor of raising taxes. Taxes are high enough,” Cooperman predictably said.

Neither article mentioned JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs’ role in the 2008 global financial crash, the up to $29 trillion bailout their industry received, and how these corporations need capitalism to continue regardless of whether it “works” or not. Instead, these tycoons’ bland statements are treated as important facts from experts. Media present their position as CEOs of oligarchic corporations as making their opinions inherently noteworthy. That might be true on some issues, but on questions like this, their invested positions actually make them less credible.

Yet CNBC (4/16/19) not only allowed United Healthcare CEO David Wichmann to claim that Medicare for All would “destabilize the nation’s health system,” leading to a crisis and a “severe impact on the economy,” without a word of scrutiny, it also bolstered his credibility, telling readers that he “rarely discusses politics,” implying that this was a highly reliable expert opinion, and certainly not scaremongering from a giant for-profit organization making billions annually off the sick.

It is already debatable if plutocrats’ entirely predictable pronouncements on economic issues are even news at all, given their obvious incentives. And there is also the question as to whether CNBC should be using its considerable resources to give a megaphone to some of the most powerful people in the world, letting them define and set the agenda of public debate. But to constantly feature these people without even mentioning the massive and glaring personal and economic conflict of interests they hold in pushing these ideas is tantamount to journalistic malpractice.

“Big companies are an easy target for candidates looking for convenient villains for the economic distress felt by many of our citizens,” declared Verizon‘s CEO in a blog post that was reported as news by many media outlets owned by big companies (CBS News, 4/13/16).

This practice is hardly limited to just CNBC. For example, a number of prominent outlets, including NBC News (4/13/16), the Wall Street Journal (4/13/16), Business Insider (4/13/16), USA Today (4/14/16), CBS News (4/13/16),  Politico (4/13/16) and Fortune (4/13/16), covered a Verizon CEO’s LinkedIn blog post (4/13/16) that claimed Sanders held “uninformed” and “contemptible” views on the economy. “But when rhetoric becomes disconnected from reality, we’ve crossed a dangerous line,” Verizon’s Lowell McAdam wrote, insinuating that the rich were “targets” in potential danger.

In many of the write-ups, Sanders came across as a dishonest rabble-rouser readying the pitchforks, rather than a popular political leader critiquing the greed and power of the extremely wealthy. Is a LinkedIn blog post really newsworthy enough to garner so many national headlines? Evidently, if it says the right thing, then the answer is “yes.”

The fight for a $15 minimum wage has also, predictably, been attacked by restaurant owners who are among the stingiest when it comes to wages. Fox Business (6/6/19) repeated former CKE Restaurants CEO Andy Puzder’s claims that “Bernie Sanders’ proposals will kill economic growth” and lead to a reduction in wages for those he claims to represent. Surely it would have been more honest to at least mention that the ex-boss of the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurant franchises might have a conflict of interest on the matter?

And surely when Ken Langone described Sanders as “the Antichrist”—a particularly ugly epithet to hurl at a Jewish politician—the Wall Street Journal (5/10/18) should have at least pointed out that the multibillionaire founder of Home Depot and major Republican donor might be a biased commentator. And it certainly was not obliged to present a man whose net worth has increased by nearly 60% in five years as some kind of ultra-philanthropist, a modern-day Francis of Assisi.

Bank of America’s CEO spells out what used to be an unspoken rule in US politics and media (Yahoo! Finance, 1/24/20).

Yahoo! Finance (1/24/20) offered its own entry in the musings-from-Davos genre, interviewing Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, who told editor-in-chief Andy Serwer: “One of the things we’re trying to get everybody to understand, is you can be capitalist and make progress for society. But don’t challenge capitalism.” Yahoo!’s write-up did mention that Moynihan had been paid $26.5 million in 2018, and that he “has faced scrutiny over politicized issues like executive pay.”

By reporting what multimillionaire and billionaire CEOs say about efforts to change a system they so clearly have a huge stake in staying the same, without highlighting, or even mentioning, their conflict of interest, corporate media are doing their audiences a disservice—effectively propagandizing them into supporting a model their owners and advertisers benefit from. If media are to perform their role as the fourth estate properly, they should really be scrutinizing power, not uncritically amplifying it.

Featured image: CNBC interview (6/20/19) with billionaire investor Leon Cooperman.

Ending Palestinian Statehood as ‘Path’ to Palestinian Statehood

by Joshua Cho

Detail of Trump’s “conceptual map” for Israel/Palestine.

Media coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict over the years has typically portrayed Palestinians as obstinate and imperious negotiating partners who insist on unreasonable preconditions before reaching an agreement (e.g., US News, 6/20/12; Wall Street Journal, 4/28/13; Jerusalem Post, 7/18/17). When Israel’s preconditions are reported, the precondition that the peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians should be mediated by the US is often omitted.

That the US has never been an honest or impartial broker for resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict has always been obvious, with the Trump administration’s actions only making the US’s bias towards Israel more blatant (Foreign Policy, 9/13/18). However with the release of the Trump administration’s so-called “peace plan” that had no Palestinian involvement—which has been more accurately described as a “hate plan” based on ethnic supremacy and an endorsement of Israel’s settler-colonial project—US media still misleadingly present the US as an honest broker, and presume that the US and Israel have the right to impose ridiculous preconditions before Palestinians are worthy of their own self-determination.

Some major components of this lopsided “peace plan” include trying to legalize illegality by establishing Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided” capital and denying Palestinians their “right to return” to their homes lost in the 1967 Six-Day War and other conflicts, as well as recognizing the Jordan Valley, along with the majority of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine, as official Israeli territory. Other demands made by the US and Israel include a renunciation of “violence” and the disarming and disbanding of Hamas, despite UN recognition that people have a right to pursue self-determination, including through armed resistance against foreign occupying and colonial powers.

Israel’s ambassador to the UN calls for a “national suicide” that will “transform” the Palestinian people (New York Times, 6/24/19).

Last year, the New York Times exposed the true purpose behind this “peace plan” when it published an op-ed by Israel’s ambassador to the UN, headlined “What’s Wrong With Palestinian Surrender?” In the piece, Danny Danon argued that “national suicide” on the part of the Palestinians is “precisely what is needed for peace,” because “surrender is the recognition that in a contest, staying the course will prove costlier than submission.” This declaration by an Israeli diplomat should have cued reporters that a “peace plan” crafted by the Trump administration in conjunction with Israel would be aimed at ending the possibility of Palestinian statehood rather than advancing its possibility.

Yet the Times’ report (1/28/20) on the “peace plan” claimed that the proposal would “give Israel most of what it has sought over decades of conflict while offering the Palestinians the possibility of a state with limited sovereignty.” What exactly is a state with “limited sovereignty,” and who would they be sharing “sovereignty” with? It’s hard to see how this characterization is anything but another euphemism for legitimizing continued Israeli rule over Palestinians without recognizing their democratic rights—in other words, apartheid.

The Times went on to present Trump’s actions as just another part of the US’s longstanding good-faith efforts to broker a peace deal when it described the plan as

the latest of numerous American efforts to settle the seemingly intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But it was a sharp turn in the American approach, dropping decades of support for only modest adjustments to Israeli borders drawn in 1967 and discarding the longtime goal of granting the Palestinians a wholly autonomous state.

Why is the Israel/Palestine conflict “seemingly intractable”? Could it be that the US is not actually a neutral partner to these negotiations, as the Times continually refuses to understand (FAIR.org, 5/16/18)? The Times insisted on this obtuse characterization of the Trump administration’s proposal, despite reporting how Israel would be the one determining whether Palestinians are fit to govern themselves:

Still, the plan does far more for Israel than it does for the Palestinians, whose proposed state would not have a standing military and would be required to meet other benchmarks overseen by the Israelis, including a renunciation of violence and the disbandment of militant groups like Hamas, which is based in Gaza…. Under the plan, those Palestinians would find themselves virtually encircled by an expanded Israel and living within convoluted borders reminiscent of a gerrymandered congressional district.

NBC News’ “Trump Mideast Peace Plan Expands Israeli Territory, Offers Path to Palestinian Statehood” (1/28/20) offered little pushback to Trump’s claims that his “long-promised Middle East peace plan that, if implemented, would create a conditional path to statehood for Palestinians while recognizing Israeli sovereignty over a significant portion of the West Bank,” despite mentioning that the plan

raised questions about how much sovereignty a Palestinian state would have under the plan. The proposal envisions it as being surrounded by Israeli territory and not sharing a border with a neighboring Arab country, since Israel would get control of the Jordan Valley, the region that lies on the eastern portion of the West Bank bordering Jordan.

Headlines like Politico‘s (1/28/20) went along with Trump’s Orwellian redefinition of “statehood.”

Similarly, Politico’s “Trump Unveils Long-Shot Middle East Peace Plan With Path to Palestinian Statehood” (1/28/20) felt no embarrassment calling the plan a “blueprint for Middle East Peace,” while echoing Trump’s claim that brokering peace for Israel/Palestine is a “feat that has evaded nearly a dozen of his predecessors.” Politico did not question Trump’s claims that his “peace plan” is a “realistic two-state solution” when “the conditions for statehood are met,” evading substantive critiques for complaints about a process that failed to gather “input from the Palestinians.”

The Wall Street Journal (1/28/20) also presented Trump’s plan to legitimize Israel’s apartheid state as a “peace plan,” while wondering if the Palestinians would ever come to the negotiating table, because “accepting this initiative may represent their last hope to salvage a state of their own,” as if there are no alternatives to an apartheid state and a faux “two-state solution” (FAIR.org, 6/1/18). The Journal claimed that Trump’s plan is special because

for half a century, American presidents have tried to find a path to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Donald Trump on Tuesday became the 10th president in that long line of futility by unveiling his plan for doing the seemingly impossible.

Yet Trump’s plan isn’t simply more of the same. In fact, it represents a significantly different approach to the uphill climb of seeking peace. Plenty of experts think those differences will make the climb harder—though, as Trump aides point out, more conventional approaches haven’t worked, undermining the argument for simply trying more of the same.

Trump’s plan is a “two-state” solution (Wall Street Journal, 1/28/20) only if you believe that a “state” does not need to be sovereign.

Another Journal report, “Trump’s Mideast Peace Plan Charts Two-State Course for Israelis, Palestinians” (1/28/20), mentioned that the plan would “marshal $50 billion in economic investment over 10 years,” to “double the Palestinian gross domestic product, slash Palestinian unemployment rates now at almost 18% in the West Bank and 52% in Gaza, and cut the Palestinian poverty rate in half,” while omitting the illegal occupation’s role in strangling the economy and how business operating in the settlements contribute to and profit from land confiscations and labor violations. That might be why the UN found that the Palestinian economy would be twice as large if it weren’t for the occupation. Nor did the Journal explain how the US has used cuts to international programs to punish Palestinians for not accepting lopsided terms of Israel/Palestine negotiations, ever since the Palestinian economy became dependent on international support following the Oslo Accords (Middle East Eye, 6/22/19).

Strikingly absent in these reports is discussion of international law or the legality of Israeli settlements. Including these would indicate that the US and Israel have no right to dictate terms to Palestinians, while Palestinians have a UN-backed right to return. International relations scholar Stephen Zunes (Truthout, 1/29/20) has pointed out how the Trump administration’s annexation plan constitutes several flagrant violations of international law.

Many of these reports make mention of Israel’s only seeming concession, a “four-year freeze” on construction of new Israeli settlements, without mentioning that this “freeze” would only apply to areas where there are no settlements, and areas where Israel has no immediate plans to annex—meaning that Israel isn’t making any concessions. Some observers have pointed out the mapped proposal resembles apartheid South Africa’s bantustans, and Native American reservations, more than an independent state, while others have pointed out how the proposal is basically a giant real estate deal where Palestinians would be selling their sovereignty to Israel, and is better described as “terms of surrender” for Palestine rather than a “peace plan.” But such observations are rare in corporate media opinion venues, and even more rarely are allowed to impact news coverage of the plan.

A proposal that legitimates annexation of Palestinian territory (including the crucial Jordan Valley, Palestinians’ “food basket”), a lack of contiguous territorial borders, and the denial of any means for Palestinians to defend themselves against Israel’s disproportionate violence and occupation, seems more like a proposal to end Palestinian statehood than advance it. Yet there are no boundaries the US and Israel can cross before US media will reject calling the proposal a “peace plan,” or condemn Israel’s practices as an apartheid state, because a “peace plan,” in media discourse, is simply whatever the US is proposing at any given time, while Israel is perpetually nearing apartheid, but never quite getting there (FAIR.org, 4/26/19, 9/30/19).

Featured image: NBC News image (1/28/20) of Donald Trump presenting “peace plan” with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Media on Climate Crisis: Don’t Organize, Mourn

by Neil deMause

Time‘s naming Greta Thunberg as Person of the Year (12/23–30/19) was a symbol of rising media interest in the threat posted by climate change.

The year 2019 was, by all accounts, the year of climate awareness. To an unprecedented degree, in the three decades since scientists first warned of the imminent dangers of rising carbon emissions and the resulting global warming, we were transfixed by record-setting heat waves, wildfires in California and Australia, and, of course, Greta Thunberg’s sailboat visit to the US, capped off by her selection as Time‘s Person of the Year (12/23–30/19).

Yet the newfound attention to climate came with a strange disjunction: Being aware of this massive threat to humanity hasn’t translated into much concerted action to stop it. As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in the New Yorker (1/13/20):

If in the past year (or the past decade) the world began to understand how dangerous climate change is, it certainly didn’t act like it. In the past ten years, more CO2 was emitted than in all of human history up to the election of JFK.

That same disconnect—recognizing the reality of climate change, but not who’s responsible or what could be done about it—is reflected in today’s media coverage of climate. Ten years ago, according to data compiled by the Media and Climate Change Observatory (an international academic consortium hosted at the University of Colorado Boulder), fewer than 300 stories a month mentioning “climate change” or “global warming” appeared in five major US newspapers; by 2019, that figure was well over 500 per month, peaking at a record 797 stories during Thunberg’s US visit in September.

An examination of what’s actually being written about climate, though, reveals a more complicated picture. Using MeCCO’s methodology, FAIR compiled every article mentioning “climate change” or “global warming” that appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal in August 2017, when only 277 articles ran, and August 2019, by which time the number had soared to 751. (These months were picked to ensure that results weren’t skewed by time of year—climate coverage, like the storms and fires that often set it off, waxes and wanes seasonally—and also to precede the rush of coverage that accompanied Thunberg’s visit.)

And while it turns out that the US media have indeed ramped up their coverage of the climate crisis, they continue to give short shrift to what are arguably the most important factors for determining our future: what specific human practices are responsible for the changing climate, why carbon emissions continue to rise, and what we can and should be doing about it.

2017: Fires and Floods, But Few Solutions

“Theory and computer modeling suggest an increase in storm intensity in a warmer world,” the New York Times (8/25/17) acknowledges.

If at the start of the last decade, it was still hard for US media to openly acknowledge that climate change was a proven phenomenon responsible for extreme weather (Extra!, 8/11), that had changed dramatically by 2017. That August alone, articles appeared tying climate change to heat waves in Seattle (New York Times, 8/1/17), Texas (New York Times, 8/3/17) and Guam (New York Times, 8/11/17); fires in Montana (Washington Post, 8/13/17); Hurricane Harvey’s devastation of Houston (New York Times, 8/25/17, 8/28/17USA Today, 8/29/17); the threat of catastrophic flooding in Peru (Washington Post, 8/7/17); and falling grape harvests in Italy (New York Times, 8/22/17), none of which would have been a given even a few years earlier.

August 2017 also saw substantial coverage of the Trump administration’s attempts to deny the reality of the climate crisis and roll back efforts to address it, including abandoning the Paris climate accord (New York Times, 8/4/17), relaxing Obama-era fuel-efficiency standards for cars (Washington Post, 8/11/17) and restrictions on building in flood zones (Washington Post, 8/15/17), and approving new mining leases on federal lands for what Trump called “beautiful, clean coal” (New York Times, 8/3/17, 8/6/17).

But as for discussion of the causes—and potential solutions—to all this climate mayhem, those articles were fewer and farther between:

  • A Los Angeles Times article (8/14/17) on faltering plans for South Carolina and Georgia to build new nuclear power plants noted that they faced competition from increased natural gas production, “driven by developments in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques.” Left out was any mention of the massive lobbying efforts by the fossil fuel industry (Guardian, 4/20/11)—and by US government officials, including Hillary Clinton (Mother Jones, 9/14)—that helped make fracking more cost-effective than non-fossil fuel energy sources.
  • A Washington Post article (8/4/17) on some European nations’ push to phase out gas-powered vehicles in coming decades warned of US automakers “missing out on business opportunities on the global market”—but didn’t so much as mention what impact the continued reliance on gasoline could have on Earth’s climate. (Switching even one in six cars to electric power by 2050 would save an estimated 10.8 gigatons of carbon—enough to reduce warming by about one-thirtieth of a degree—though the impact would vary widely depending on what energy source was used to charge the vehicles.)

    A Washington Post editorial (8/8/17) taking Donald Trump to task for being in denial on climate change doesn’t mention “fossil fuel,” “coal,” “oil” or “natural gas.”

  • A Los Angeles Times editorial (8/8/17) on a leaked federal climate change report contrasted the need for “a rapid pivot away from burning fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy” with Trump’s pro-coal policies, but didn’t say anything more about what would be necessary to keep global temperature rise below 2° Celsius, as the Paris agreement requires. The Washington Post (8/8/17), meanwhile, didn’t even mention fossil fuels, instead focusing on “carbon efficiency”—an industry-spawned term for reducing the amount of carbon produced per dollar of gross domestic product—and the hope that “green technology [would become] significantly cheaper, making it easier to decarbonize than in the past.”
  • The New York Times ran a very brief article (7/27/17, but not in print until 8/11/17) on cutting your carbon footprint by flying less (and flying coach, which uses less fossil fuels because you take up less space)—though it also recommended flying airlines that use biofuels, even though studies had shown that unless made from recycled products like timber and used cooking oil, biofuels can have an even higher carbon footprint than conventional fossil fuels (Guardian, 7/13/17).
  • A New York Times article (8/4/17) on a heat wave striking Seattle offhandedly mentioned that “air-conditioning has contributed to the intensive energy demand that worsens climate change that, well, forces us to rely on air-conditioning”—but without discussing any possible ways to eliminate this feedback loop. The Times also failed to mention the issue of air-conditioner disposal, which, thanks to most existing units being cooled by chemicals with more than 1,000 times the warming power of carbon dioxide, is ranked by one climate group as the No. 1 issue for reducing temperature rise in coming years.

A rare examination of potential ways to reduce carbon emissions on a national scale came when the New York Times (8/17/17) focused on legislation proposed by two Democratic US senators to levy a $49 per metric ton carbon tax (and use the resulting revenues to reduce the top corporate income tax rate, presumably in a bid for Republican support). Even then, though, the Times mostly focused on the bill’s chances in Congress (“a long shot”) and political opposition; the only sources quoted in it, other than the bill’s sponsors, were an oil company lobbyist, anti-tax lobbyist and popular Times source Grover Norquist, two White House officials, a Republican US senator opposed to a carbon tax, and a conservative think tank president who nonetheless supports a carbon tax. Nowhere did the article mention what impact the bill would have on the actual climate—though it did note how much it would be expected to increase gas prices.

2019: Costs of Decarbonizing, But Not of Inaction

Two years later, the number of climate-related stories had soared. Much of this can be credited to the New York Times‘ decision to launch a climate newsletter in November 2017, much of which has ended up being repurposed by the Times on the web and in print.

“You can still be a globe-trotter, but…minimize your travel risk,” the Washington Post (8/2/19) reassures.

By this point, linking climate change with real-world events was no longer controversial, and in fact had developed into a standard reporting formula. The warming Earth was now held responsible for creating the hottest July on record (New York Times, 8/5/19; Washington Post, 8/6/19) and leading to increased heat-related deaths across the Southwest (New York Times, 8/26/19), causing fires in Siberia (New York Times, 8/1/19) and heat waves in Greenland (New York Times, 8/2/19), turning beach houses (New York Times, 8/2/19) and homes in fire-prone areas (New York Times, 8/20/19) into riskier investments, melting frozen wolf heads in Siberia (New York Times, 8/4/19), clogging New Jersey’s largest lake with toxic bacteria (New York Times, 8/5/19) and keeping it from being able to host ice boat races (Washington Post, 8/13/19), threatening the world’s food (New York Times, 8/8/19) and water supplies (New York Times, 8/6/19), forcing tourists to rearrange travel plans to avoid storms (Washington Post, 8/2/19), making hurricanes stronger and wetter (New York Times, 8/8/19), melting Iceland’s ice (New York Times, 8/9/19), fueling insurgencies in West Africa (New York Times, 8/20/19), endangering sea snakes (New York Times, 8/19/19) and pushing endangered right whales into shipping lanes (Washington Post, 8/1/19), threatening to make Joshua trees extinct in Joshua Tree National Park (LA Times, 8/11/19), forcing Portugal to turn to underbrush-eating goats to fight forest fires (New York Times, 8/17/19) and flooding Jakarta to the point where the Indonesian government has proposed building a new capital city elsewhere (New York Times, 8/26/19)—though it was absolved for the early arrival of Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte (New York Times, 8/13/19).

A new element, meanwhile, came via coverage of the presidential election campaign, which often touched on climate issues, though not always in the most illuminating ways. The New York Times (8/1/19) referred to several Democratic candidates at the July debates having espoused “liberal policies [on] combating climate change”—an odd way to describe attempts to save the planet, especially when the next day the same paper reported on how younger Republicans also consider climate change to be a pressing issue (8/2/19). And, as usual, the media’s focus remained squarely on what the climate issue could do for candidates’ campaigns, not on what candidates could do for the climate: Even a New York Times feature (8/8/19) on the Sunrise Movement’s dedication to pressing for stronger environmental action by Democrats never mentioned what policies activists were seeking, aside from a brief mention of a Green New Deal, a catch-all term that means different things to different candidates (NBC News, 8/23/19).

And as two years before, discussion of the causes and possible solutions to the climate crisis remained a tiny share of newspaper coverage. A major New York Times story (8/15/19) investigated the Adani Group, an Indian fossil-fuel industry giant, for its lobbying for increased coal extraction in Australia, but didn’t mention similar efforts by the fossil fuel industry in the US. (The death of David Koch on August 23 did prompt brief notes on his anti-climate action lobbying in the New York Times, LA Times and Washington Post, though the Post undercut this somewhat by summing up Koch’s actions merely as having “a profound effect on American politics while making him an uncommonly polarizing figure.”) The only major-newspaper story in August 2019 to substantially cover lobbyist attempts to obstruct action on climate change in the US was one in the Los Angeles Times (8/11/19) on accusations that the California gas utility SoCal Gas had used ratepayer dollars to lobby against natural gas use—and it covered it solely as a local story.

Most of the advice to readers on reducing their own personal carbon footprints focused overseas as well. Copenhagen residents were reported to be biking more (LA Times, 8/8/19), while Swedes were cutting down on air travel in a phenomenon dubbed flygskam, or “flight shame” (Washington Post, 8/2/19). (An August 24 op-ed in the Times by travel writer Seth Kugel did note the possibility of Americans cutting down on air travel, but cautioned against “self-flagellation,” and opined that taking airplanes was probably fine so long as our trip “maximizes your connection with the place you’re visiting,” while repeating the canard about biofuels from two years prior.)

The Wall Street Journal (8/8/19) dismissed switching to a plant-based diet as “virtue signaling.”

One means of reducing carbon emissions that did receive widespread attention was switching from a meat-based diet to a plant-based one, thanks to the release of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (New York Times, 8/9/19; USA Today, 8/8/19; LA Times, 8/8/19) that advised both better land management practices and cutting back on red-meat consumption—which is highest in the US and Australia—to produce more food with less carbon. (The Wall Street Journal8/8/19—responded with an op-ed by noted climate-change denier Bjørn Lomborg decrying the recommendations as “virtue signaling.”)

By contrast, that same month BBC News (8/29/19) ran an article on how forestalling climate change will require consuming less, recycling more, traveling more infrequently, and eating less red meat, all encouraged by new taxes to “reward people with low-carbon lifestyles”—though BBC journalists had the advantage of being able to quote a government official, top governmental environmental scientist Ian Boyd, saying these things. (As always in coverage of climate and so many other things, it’s not news until somebody in power says it is.)

It’s not that it’s hard to find explanations of which climate strategies would provide the greatest hope for staving off disaster. Project Drawdown, a site that grades potential solutions by their impact, ranks better management of refrigerants, switching to wind and solar power, and changes in diet and food waste as among the most immediately effective measures. (Electric vehicles, a popular focus for those arguing that technology will save the day, rank a disappointing 26th, in part because they have a large carbon cost to manufacture and won’t help if they’re charged with fossil-fuel-generated electricity; biofuels only made it to 34th, though Drawdown does include them as a possible stopgap measure until more truly renewable energy sources can be brought online.)

The Exponential Roadmap, a study by 22 Swedish scholars, rates switching to solar power, increasing recycling of materials, retrofitting buildings to be more energy-efficient, increasing use of electric vehicles and mass transit, switching to a plant-based diet and reducing deforestation among the most important actions to forestall the climate apocalypse.

None of these methods, climate experts warn, will be possible on a large scale solely by individual action; electric cars, as just one example, are still seen as too expensive and having too few charging stations, two items that are unlikely to be solved without a dramatic shift in government policies. So while that may spare readers from any unnecessary “self-flagellation,” the important corollary is that preventing climate catastrophe will require both individual consumer action and governmental action—as well as addressing the political reasons why governments have been so slow to act.

The media’s shift toward acknowledging the reality of climate change is welcome, if three decades too late, given that the IPCC has been sounding essentially the same alarm about a warming planet since 1988 (Guardian, 3/30/14). But the public presentation of the climate crisis remains carefully constrained to focus on the horrors awaiting us, not on what can be done to ward off the worst, or who stands in the way of doing so. When climate coverage leaves that out, it amounts to mourning the Earth without trying to save it.

 

Omar Baddar on Israel/Palestine ‘Peace’ Plan, Rainey Reitman on Greenwald Persecution

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Detail from Kushner “conceptual map.”

This week on CounterSpin: It is strange to think that you could create a plan to shape the relationship between two entities, in consultation with one but not the other, and then not just declare it, yourself, a “win-win,” but also say to the unconsulted party, “You better take it, or else.”  Yet that is what’s unfolding with Donald Trump’s plan for Israel/Palestine, which some corporate media are describing as a “peace” plan, even as a chorus of voices, including Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, say the plan would put Palestinians in a “permanent state of apartheid.” We’ll talk about Trump’s—or Jared Kushner’s—proposal for Israel/Palestine with Omar Baddar, deputy director of the Arab American Institute.

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Glenn Greenwald (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)

Also on the show: Edward Snowden wrote recently, “The most essential journalism of every era is precisely that which a government attempts to silence.” He ought to know. Snowden was talking about Brazilian prosecutors charging journalist Glenn Greenwald with “cybercrime,” stemming from explosive revelations he reported about corruption in the process that sent former president and presidential candidate Lula da Silva to prison, clearing the path for neofascist Jair Bolsonaro to take the presidency. What is cybercrime, and what should we know about its use against this journalist—and potentially, against any journalist? We’ll talk about that with Rainey Reitman, chief program officer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and co-founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

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‘This Is About Making a Very Large Number of Indians Second-Class Citizens’ - CounterSpin interview with Vijay Prashad about Indian demonstrations

Janine Jackson interviewed Globetrotter’s Vijay Prashad about demonstrations in India for the January 24, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: US elite media aren’t in the habit of highlighting protest in formally friendly countries, but hundreds of millions of people in the street throughout India should be hard to ignore. The peaceful protests have been met with brutality; at least 27 people have been killed. What is behind the unrest?

Historian and journalist Vijay Prashad is chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute; chief editor of LeftWord Books; and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. His most recent book is Red Star Over the Third World. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Vijay Prashad.

Vijay Prashad: Great to be with you.

New York Times (12/9/19)

JJ: Maybe we could start with what’s being described as the flashpoint, the Citizenship Amendment Act. CNN International used that quintessential media technique, saying protesters “oppose a new citizenship law that they say discriminates against Muslims.” And the New York Times described the law as “contentious.” What does the CAA seem to do? And what is the context? How does it fit with the project, if you will, of Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

VP: This Citizenship Amendment Act is essentially the last straw, particularly for young people, peasants, workers and so on. The tolerance is gone now. I am having a hard time saying this, because I want to emphasize that this protest is extraordinarily disobedient. People just have no faith in the government any longer. And this bill itself, if you look at it by itself, it shouldn’t have tipped the scales, but it was literally the last straw.

The bill itself is quite clear. It’s about refugees, people who are facing religious intolerance in South Asia. Now, India is a signatory to various international treaties. And if only India ratified those treaties, there would be no need for this kind of bill.

But this bill is not about refugees. It’s doing something else. What the bill actually says is that religious minorities in the region are welcome into India. So Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and so on can come into India. It explicitly doesn’t say that Muslims from the neighborhood can come into India, even persecuted people like the Rohingyas in Burma, or the Hazaras in Afghanistan, or the Ahmadis in Pakistan, they cannot come in. And so it doesn’t actually say that Indian Muslims are second-class citizens; it says that everybody but a Muslim has the right to come into India if they are religiously persecuted.

This really annoyed a lot of people, because it takes India down the road of saying that Muslims are not integral to the Indian fabric. And I just want to say that it’s a totally impractical policy to say that Indian Muslims are not part of India; there are 200 million Indian Muslims. If Indian Muslims had their own country, it would be the eighth largest country in the world. It’s the same population as Nigeria. There’s no way to put 200 million people into a concentration camp. There is no way to deport 200 million people. This is entirely about fear-mongering, about making a very large number of Indians feel that they are second-class citizens.

And I think this is what tipped the scale and sent people into very disobedient protest—protests that totally disrespect this government, laughing at the government, making jokes at the government, having no sense that this government is real, as it were.

JJ: And the protests have been diverse, they brought together ranges of people and across sectors. Isn’t that true? It’s almost everyone—I think you said somewhere—everyone but the BJP, almost, is out in the street.

VP: Yes, quite right. Initially, of course, these were protests led by students, I should say, because students have been fighting against the rise of fees in public universities. They’ve been fighting against unreasonable kinds of programs being set up inside colleges, for instance, the study of the supernatural and ghosts, the study of the healing powers of cow urine and so on. This has really bothered students, and they’ve been out on the streets for the last year, fighting really almost a lonely action against the government.

So students began the protest, but the student protests brought millions, hundreds of millions of people, onto the street. I was in a protest in Calcutta. There must have been 50,000 people there, students in the lead, but then there were intellectuals, there were peasants, there were workers and so on.

All this culminated in attacks by the government on several public universities where students were demonstrating against the Citizenship Amendment Act. These attacks were so vicious that they brought even more people onto the street. You know, governments calculate repression in such a way that they feel if they can repress protest, it scares people, they don’t come to the streets.

But I want to emphasize this disobedience aspect. Despite the crackdown, despite the repression, more and more people have been coming on the street, poets have been writing new poetry, and on January 8, over 200 million Indians went on a general strike. This was a strike that had been planned previously by the trade unions, by the peasant organizations and so on. But they wrapped their own struggle into the struggle against the Citizenship Amendment Act. And you had probably the world’s largest strike in history. Last year, there were 180 million workers and peasants on strike. This year, it’s about 200 million. It was an extraordinary, extraordinary event across India.

JJ: Now, do you think that Modi and the BJP are taken aback or surprised by the scale and the vitality of the protest, particularly as they are, as you say, so disobedient, so dangerous?

Vijay Prashad: “What level of state violence is going to be seen as tolerable? Because these protests are not going anywhere.”

VP: I think they have miscalculated, and I think they don’t know what the exit is. One of the things, the features, of the far right, particularly the Indian far right, is that when they came to power this time—that is, in this cycle, in 2014 onwards—when they came to power, they thought, “Our time has come. We’re going to push the whole of our agenda. We’re not going to modulate our agenda. We’re not going to compromise. We’re going to go all the way. We’re going to push for a full capitalist agenda”—because they are the only party completely committed to the so-called IMF reform slate, including labor market reforms, which is basically eviscerating trade unions and so on. That was one plank of their agenda.

The second plank of their agenda was the social toxicity, which includes a very firm anti-Muslim agenda. And they just decided, “No compromise. We are in power. Our time has come. We’re going for it.”

And I think this pushback has surprised them. They’ve miscalculated. But because of the sense that, “We’ve got to go all the way on our agenda,” they’re not going to back down. You know, they have a mandate. They control Parliament. They don’t feel like they need to apologize to anybody.

Now the real question is, how much repression, how much state violence are they willing to put against the protesters, and how much will the world, in a way, or even Indians, tolerate? What level of state violence is going to be seen as tolerable? Because these protests are not going anywhere, people are blocking streets. In a part of Delhi known as Shaheen Bagh, there are entire families sitting on a major roadway. They’ve blocked it for several weeks now. So what will be the level of violence that the government is going to use against the protesters? And what will India tolerate before there is just a mass insurrection against the government?

JJ: Finally, of course, information plays a role here. I’ve read Modi, in the press, basically saying his critics are just trying to rerun the election, you know, they’re just mad that he’s so popular. That has a certain resonance for Americans. And then he just tells lies, just tells big lies, like someone else we could name as well. But there’s a role for media, and telling the story of what’s happening in India. What would you like journalists to do, or not do, in that regard?

VP: You know, journalists have been bludgeoned by the idea that there are two sides to a story. And I think this is an enormously unproductive way to approach reality. There are not two sides to a story; you have to, in fact, understand the story for its complexity, and then see what story you want to tell. There are no two sides to a story when one side is openly lying. And I think that’s a challenge, not only for journalists in India, certainly a challenge for journalists in India, but it’s a challenge for journalists who are reporting any of the far-right governments.

Because here, you’re faced with a situation where you’re supposed to report what Modi is saying, as if it’s got credibility. But as I said, the rebellion is totally disobedient. It doesn’t see Mr. Modi and his Home Minister Amitabh Shah as credible people.

And some of the atmosphere of this disobedience has not been adequately reported. In other words, people are reporting this story as if it’s about the Citizenship Amendment Act. It has nothing to do with Citizenship Amendment Act. It has everything to do with the fact that hundreds of millions of people in India feel that the direction that the Modi government is going in is utterly against the principles of the Indian constitution.

And that’s what this is about. It’s about a defense of a kind of India, not the particularities of the Citizenship Amendment Act. So when reporters get caught up in minutiae, they miss the bigger picture. And I think the bigger picture, in this particular case, is the only thing to focus on.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Vijay Prashad. His latest book is Red Star Over the Third World. Vijay Prashad, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

VP:  Thanks a lot.

 

Corporate Media Are the Real ‘Sanders Attack Machine’

 

As the Iowa caucuses approach, corporate media are beginning to panic.

“Running Bernie Sanders Against Trump Would Be an Act of Insanity,” insisted  Jonathan Chait in New York magazine (1/28/20). The New York Times‘ Paul Krugman (1/20/20)—among many others (FAIR.org, 1/24/20)—revived the 2016 media trend of tarring Sanders as “Trumpian.”

Electability advice from the pundit who wrote “Why Liberals Should Support a Trump Republican Nomination” (New York, 2/5/16).

The Never Trumper holdouts—an increasingly endangered species—are as scared as the establishment Democrats. “Bernie Can’t Win,” David “Axis of Evil” Frum wrote pleadingly in the Atlantic (1/27/20). “Bernie Sanders’s Trump-Like Campaign Is a Disaster for Democrats,” cried the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin (1/27/20). “Anyone But Trump? Not So Fast,” counseled the New York Times‘ Bret Stephens (1/24/20).

The Wall Street–funded Democratic think tank Third Way has also pulled out all the stops against Sanders’ rise—with media’s help. The group put out “A Warning” to Iowa Democrats (1/28/20), advising them that,

because of media negligence and the strategic calculation of his rivals, you have not seen much real exploration of the politically toxic background and ideas of the current polling leader in Iowa and a national co-frontrunner.

The memo proceeded to offer a lengthy list of ways Trump would attack Sanders—an easy list for them to compose, since some of them, such as that he’ll be called a socialist and that Medicare for All is unpopular, are ones the Third Way itself has used to attack Sanders.

The media have been happy to offer a platform for this message. The Washington Post recently gave Third Way an op-ed column (1/15/20) to make its case that “Bernie Sanders’s agenda makes him the definition of unelectable.” USA Today (1/29/20) likewise gave Third Way leaders space to charge, “Democrats Court Doom by Backing Bernie Sanders. His Ideas Are Toxic Outside Blue America.” And the group has been popping up in the latest round of centrist-source articles (among other usual suspects, like Rahm Emanuel and James Carville), in which establishment sources make unsubstantiated claims that reporters pass on without comment.

One of these ideas is that Sanders has flown under the radar, evading attacks or scrutiny from both his opponents and the media. “It’s past time for other Democrats to come off the sidelines and for the media to start doing its job to vet a serious contender for the nomination,” Third Way’s Matt Bennett told NBCNews.com (1/25/20) in an article headlined, “‘Oh My God, Sanders Can Win’: Democrats Grapple With Bernie Surge in Iowa.” In Politico (1/27/20), he ratcheted up the rhetoric: “[The media] let him get away with murder. They let him bluster past hard questions.”

Democrats are alarmed that too many Democrats want Bernie Sanders to be the nominee, NBC (1/25/20) reported.

Not all media observers agreed. In a bizarre “do they have an editor” moment, the Washington Post (1/26/20) published two news articles making opposite observations: “Bernie Sanders Faces Barrage of Attacks From Rivals as Polls Point to Surge in Early-Voting States” and “Rivals Aren’t Throwing a Lot of Roadblocks in Front of Sanders.” The former, by Chelsea Janes and Sean Sullivan, pointed to recent interviews and campaign messaging coming from Sanders’ opponents that target him. The latter, by David Weigel, reported on some of the same evidence, but came to the opposite conclusion, because some of the attacks were made in venues without a broad reach (a South Carolina newspaper, a campaign email) and some were ineffective. (Many “voters were unmoved” by Biden and Klobuchar’s attacks on Sanders as “upending the Obama legacy.”)

The Weigel piece argued that

All of Sanders’s rivals spend time, sometimes after a worried voter asks for it, explaining how they will pay for their plans without busting the budget. Sanders does not get these questions and spent months at town halls where he asked voters to describe their crises — health-care bills, student debt — so he could explain why only an unfair economy would even allow the problems to exist.

To set the record straight: Sanders has gotten a great deal of media scrutiny and pushback, as FAIR noted back in 2016 (5/25/16) and David Sessions (New Republic, 1/28/20) has usefully updated. Sessions wrote:

The notion that Sanders is sailing toward primary victories with nary a soul bothering to pose a question about his record or electability is a relic of the 2016 Democratic primary, when Hillary Clinton and her supporters grew frustrated with his durable presence in the race and pundits puzzled over the fact that Sanders polled better against Donald Trump. The common explanation settled on was that Sanders’s popularity was a mirage resting on his lack of scrutiny. But it’s hard to square that conventional wisdom with the written record—a compendium of “vetting” so varied and substantial that it raises the question as to whether the people who need vetting the most are those who continue to call for it long after their needs have been met.

Another line of attack is the revival of the “Bernie Bro” as a means to discredit the Sanders campaign. A central trope of the 2016 campaign, based on anecdotal evidence and repeated endlessly by Clinton supporters and journalists, the idea that Sanders supporters are predominantly white, male and viciously offensive on social media lingers on—despite its utter lack of basis in reality.

As all journalists and most of the rest of the world know, the internet is awash in vile rhetoric coming from all directions, not just from a small subset of Sanders supporters. As Glenn Greenwald put it (Intercept, 1/31/16):

There are literally no polarizing views one can advocate online — including criticizing Democratic Party leaders such as Clinton or Barack Obama — that will not subject one to a torrent of intense anger and vile abuse…. Pretending that abusive or misogynistic behavior is unique to Sanders supporters is a blatant, manipulative scam.

In fact, a March 2016 study found that, among voters, Sanders supporters were perceived as much less “aggressive and/or threatening online” (16%) than were Clinton supporters (30%), who in turn were perceived as much less so than Trump supporters (57%).

The New York Times ( 1/27/20) suggests that Sanders is responsible for his followers “venom” because he says things like, “I don’t go to the Hamptons to raise money from billionaires.” 

And yet the media persist with the trope. In the New York Times ( 1/27/20), this came as a lengthy front-page article headlined:

Bernie Sanders and His Internet Army: At the Start of His 2020 Bid, the Vermont Senator Told His Supporters That He Condemned Bullying. Is It His Problem if Many Don’t Seem to Listen? 

In the Daily Beast (1/22/20), the headline was “Bernie Bros Are Loud, Proud, and  Toxic to Sanders’ Campaign.” And the headline of an NBCNews.com (1/19/20) column announced,Trump’s MAGA Supporters and Twitter Bernie Bros Have This Ugly Tactic in Common: Bernie Twitter Operates Under the Self-Righteous Guise of Being the True Progressives of the Internet. But Their Harassing Tactics Are Anything but Progressive.”

These pieces continue the trend of cherry-picking evidence and moving seamlessly between accusations of death threats and examples that hardly qualify as abuse (The closing piece of evidence in the New York Times: “Some of you millionaires need to realize that many of us actually *need* Bernie Sanders to win the presidency,” one account replied. “We can’t just ‘chill.’”).

In the Times piece, reporters Matt Flegenheimer, Rebecca R. Ruiz and Nellie Bowles regurgitated the completely unsubstantiated claim of chair-throwing at the 2016 Nevada convention (rated “false” by Snopes, but eagerly repeated across the media) and combined it with “a torrent of menacing messages” to the state party chair to justify associating Sanders’ campaign with violence: “In person, serious violence has been avoided, it seems, though there have been occasional low-grade clashes.”

Meanwhile, rivals are given the opportunity to cast blame on Sanders, again with no evidence. For instance, a strategist for both Obama and Clinton is quoted saying that Sanders “had empowered aides and surrogates who ‘have a tendency to aggressively amplify things that a campaign would normally shut down amongst supporters.’”

No evidence is supplied, unless you count the example given later in the article in which prominent Sanders supporter Shaun King tweeted that the Warren campaign “leaked this attack against Bernie to the press for political gain,” and that Warren staffers had told him that Warren “routinely embellishes stories.” The outcome, according to the Times? The Sanders campaign manager told King to stop; “but by then, much of the Sanders-aligned internet was about to begin tweeting snakes at Ms. Warren and her supporters en masse.”

In other words, the campaign did not empower King; they shut him down. But notice how King’s tweets are nonetheless held responsible for “the Sanders-aligned internet” that was “about to begin” tweeting snakes—and then Sanders’ campaign is apparently held responsible by association.

Hillary Clinton jumped into the fray with guns blazing in the Hollywood Reporter (1/21/20). When asked if she would endorse and campaign for Sanders if he got the nomination, her response was evasive but decidedly antagonistic:

I’m not going to go there yet. We’re still in a very vigorous primary season. I will say, however, that it’s not only him, it’s the culture around him. It’s his leadership team. It’s his prominent supporters. It’s his online Bernie Bros and their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women…. I don’t think we want to go down that road again where you campaign by insult and attack and maybe you try to get some distance from it, but you either don’t know what your campaign and supporters are doing, or you’re just giving them a wink and you want them to go after Kamala [Harris] or after Elizabeth [Warren]. I think that that’s a pattern that people should take into account when they make their decisions.

The Post‘s Rubin (1/21/20) drew on this quote and other excerpts from Clinton’s Hollywood Reporter interview to paint Sanders as having an “Attack Machine” centered on a “thinly veiled misogyny” that is now supposedly “com[ing] back to haunt him.”

The real Sanders attack machine isn’t the mythical machine run by Sanders to take down his opponents; it’s run by the establishment Democrats and their media counterparts to take down Sanders.

SIDEBAR:

‘Menacing’ Sanders ‘Tightens Grip’ by ‘Threatening to Seize Control’

 

New York Times (1/27/20)

The New York Times, in a piece headlined “In Iowa, the ‘Not Sanders’ Democrats Find Voters Torn” (1/27/20), described Sanders’ rise in alarming terms:

Mr. Sanders is threatening to seize control in the early states, taking narrow but clear polling leads in Iowa and New Hampshire and increasingly menacing Mr. Biden’s advantage in national polls.

“The liberal Bernie Sanders tightens his grip in Iowa,” the piece’s subhead warned, using imagery more often used to convey the movement of hostile military forces than to report a politician’s favorable polling results.

—J.H.

The New York Times Endorsement Has Often Been a Boost for the Unendorsed

 

The New York Times’ recent endorsement (1/19/20) of both Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar for the Democratic presidential nomination seems to have stirred up as much anger as when Time (12/25/06) selected “you” as its person of the year in 2006. CNN (1/20/20) mocked the Times’ “utterly confusing” decision as inconsequential. Others claimed it “reeked of ignorant pomposity” (the Federalist, 1/22/20) or that it “fails us all” (Nation, 1/21/20). Meanwhile, the Atlantic’s David Frum (Twitter, 1/20/20) said the board should “Quit mumbling and worrying about upsetting readers and forthrightly SAY, ‘Anybody but Bernie [Sanders].’”

New York Times (1/19/20): The Choice(s)

After condemning Trump for his “white nativism,” the Times’ editorial board directly compared him to Sanders—“we see little advantage to exchanging one over-promising, divisive figure in Washington for another”—while also dismissing the other nationwide frontrunner, Joe Biden, as being too old. Perhaps unfortunately, given her discredited claims of Native American identity, it called Warren a “gifted storyteller,” and praised her for watering down her Medicare for All plan. It described Klobuchar, for her part, as “the very definition of Midwestern charisma,” and confusingly asserted that she represents “the best chance to enact many progressive plans”—most of which corporate media have commended her for opposing (FAIR.org, 7/17/19).

However, for those who support any of the other Democratic candidates, there is good news; the Times has a distinctly poor record of picking winning candidates, often making tragically comical predictions and assertions in its endorsements.

In 2016, for instance, it confidently told its readers (1/31/16), “John Kasich is the only plausible choice for Republicans” in the primaries, brushing off Donald Trump’s bid and dismissing his proposals to deport Mexican or bar Muslim immigrants, or increase tariffs on Chinese goods, as “applause lines” that he “invents…as he goes along.”

Eight months later, the editorial board (9/25/16) endorsed Hillary Clinton in the general election, even though she might “appear, on the surface, not to offer change from an establishment that seems indifferent and a political system that seems broken.” Calling her a “determined leader intent on creating opportunity for struggling Americans” and making the US a “force for good in an often brutal world,” the paper said she would “need to find common ground with a destabilized Republican Party,” praising her “unusual capacity to reach across the aisle.” It offered no advice on how she might reach those Democratic voters who saw her as part of an indifferent establishment, whose failure to turn out cost her an Electoral College victory.

The Times (1/25/08) also “strongly endorsed” the “inspiring” Clinton over Barack Obama in 2008, calling her a “both uniting and leading” figure who was highly skilled at “winning over skeptical voters and then delivered on her promises.” How did that turn out?

New York Times endorsements over the years.

In 2000, the editorial board picked losers in both the primaries and the general, endorsing John McCain for the Republican nomination (3/5/00) and Al Gore for president (10/29/00). It chose Gore despite suggesting that George W. Bush would be “the most moderate Republican nominee in a generation,” and praised him for his commitment to fair play during the campaign, an ironic statement given the Republicans’ shenanigans in Florida just one week later.

One could argue that the Times’ presidential pick was not a loser, since Gore did not actually lose the election. But in the midst of the judicial process that would award the presidency to Bush by fiat, the editorial board made the highly perishable observation that “American courts have been vindicated as a place of shelter and protection for fairness and democratic values.” And after the Supreme Court halted the recount, the Times was quick to reassure: “Our national history bears the comforting lesson that the American people’s confidence in the rule of law and the stability of their institutions will not be damaged in the long run.”

By the 2004 election, the New York Times editorial board (10/17/04) had realized that Bush was no moderate, but had “turned government over to the radical  right.” It therefore “enthusiastically” supported losing candidate John Kerry, although it criticized his campaign for being more about opposition to Bush than support for Kerry—before issuing an endorsement that attacked the incumbent while largely failing to make a positive case for its chosen candidate.

The Times has historically favored Democrats over Republicans, even during periods of GOP dominance. It endorsed Walter Mondale in 1984 (10/28/84) and Michael Dukakis in 1988 (10/30/88), praising their “pragmatic” centrist agendas, before later deciding that the reason they lost was that they were too left-wing (FAIR.org, 8/21/19).

The New York Times is often described as the paper of record, perhaps the most influential newspaper in the world. However, its ability to persuade the wider public of the qualities of certain candidates running for office may be overstated. Its decision to back two candidates—one of whom has lost nearly half her support since October, and another whose polling average has never risen above 4%—will likely not be a kiss of death to others running. If history is any judge, the New York Times endorsement is a mixed blessing, at best.

 

‘The Continuation of This Neocolonial System Is Not Being Dismantled’ - CounterSpin interview with Manuel Pérez-Rocha on NAFTA 2.0

Janine Jackson interviewed Manuel Pérez-Rocha about NAFTA 2.0 for the January 24, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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NPR (1/16/20)

Janine Jackson: In keeping with their time-tested support for things bipartisan, corporate media saluted the passage through Congress of the US/Mexico/Canada trade deal. The New York Times called it a “big economic win” for Donald Trump, who NPR says “can say he has fulfilled his pledge to get tough on trade and eliminate ‘bad deals’ made by his predecessors.” NPR ends by noting that the agreement some call NAFTA 2.0 includes provisions on things like the ozone layer and fisheries, “but that hasn’t been enough to satisfy environmental groups,” who say it encourages pollution and doesn’t address the climate crisis.

Those critical of original-recipe NAFTA were likewise consigned to the last, “but some people” paragraphs of news stories, and described as “opposing trade,” rather than promoting a vision of it that places people and the environment above corporate profits. USMCA, as it’s known, is on Trump’s virtual desk as we speak, on January 23.

Here to suggest some questions we could be asking about it is Manuel Pérez-Rocha. He’s an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and an associate of the Transnational Institute. He joins us now by phone from Maryland. Welcome to CounterSpin, Manuel Pérez-Rocha.

Manuel Pérez-Rocha: Thank you so much for having me, Janine.

Inequality.org (1/16/20)

JJ: In your recent article for Inequality.org, also on IPS’s site and Truthout, you say that USMCA—which was supported by the AFL-CIO and lots of Democratsis better in some ways than NAFTA, but “remains a handout to large corporations,” in particular around the area of investor rights. I hope listeners will remember the outrage that NAFTA sanctioned: allowing corporations to sue governments if a regulation about air quality, for instance, cuts into their profits or reduces the value of their investments. It’s called investor/state dispute settlement, or ISDS. So what would change under this deal, with regard to investor rights and that whole ISDS thing?

MPR: What the USMCA creates is three distinct investment protection regimes in North America. One is a regime between the United States and Canada, in which ISDS no longer exists. That is definitely a positive step. Many substantive investment protections, though, will remain, but they will need to be handled in national courts or local courts or through state-to-state mechanisms, rather than through international, supranational tribunals, like with NAFTA. And then there is a system for Mexico and the United States, in which ISDS persists, and this is a very strong step backwards, because it really makes what I would say is a neocolonial distinction: Rich countries amongst themselves are using less and less ISDS, but it is very notable that it is being imposed towards the Global South country, which is Mexico, and in particular it is very concerning for ecological reasons, but I will touch on that later.

The third other relation is between Canada and Mexico. It is not under the USMCA, but ISDS persists under the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which Mexico and Canada are members. (The United States is not; Trump pulled out the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.) And this is very concerning also, because of the great destruction of the Mexican environment by Canadian mining companies. So, all in all, Mexico remains under ISDS, whether under the USMCA or the TPP, and it’s very concerning, particularly for environmental reasons.

JJ: I want to draw you out on this point that I found really interesting and disturbing. You note that developed countries are increasingly pulling out of ISDS among themselves, but not with regard to the Global South. In one way, when we talk about this stuff,  we seem to be talking about a kind of supra-sovereignty of corporations, free-floating capital vs. governments. But then, within that, there’s still this “North vs. South” or “developed vs. developing” dynamic going on, right? I mean, no Mexican company has ever won a case versus the US or a European country.

MPR: Yeah, the vast majority of cases are European or United States companies suing countries of the Global South. There are very few cases of companies of the Global South suing countries in the North, because there’s not such capacity and such power to hire expensive lawyers and so on. This is really concerning, that the continuation of this neocolonial system is not being dismantled, and only countries in the North are starting to get rid of ISDS amongst themselves. The European Union, for example, is starting to cancel all its internal bilateral investment treaties among their countries. Also, countries like New Zealand and Australia managed to not get investor protection with a free trade agreement with the European Union, under the argument that they have robust local courts and robust legal systems. But the case that I would like to make is that the countries in the North should help countries in the South to strengthen their internal legal systems, instead of just bypassing them with ISDS.

Institute for Policy Studies (4/19)

JJ: The example of mining in Mexico really illustrates what this can look like, and I know your report Extraction Casino explores this. Mining companies file suits against Latin American countries because, you know, why not? They might not win, but they have the time and the money to just roll the dice on it. But the people at the sharp end are communities that are trying to protect their land, are trying to protect their health; the deck is really stacked here.

MPR: Yeah, exactly. In the report Extraction Casino, we examined 38 cases of mining companies, mostly from Canada or the US, that have been filing dozens of multi-million dollar claims against Latin American countries. The World Bank’s International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, or ICSID, this is where most of the suits come. This is really an assault against the self-determination of countries when they try to enact responsible environmental policies, or other kinds of policies in the public interest.

And Mexico,  just last year, received two huge cases of two US mining companies under NAFTA, one is called Vulcan and the other one’s called Odyssey, for the total amount of $4 billion, I didn’t say million, I said billion dollars. That’s a huge amount that many countries just cannot be subject to, particularly poorer countries, like countries in Central America, where I’ve worked a lot, and other countries in Africa, for example, or Pakistan, that also received a $4 billion demand.

Manuel Pérez-Rocha: “This is really an assault against the self-determination of countries when they try to enact responsible environmental policies, or other kinds of policies in the public interest.”

And this is really provoking, more than anything, what is called regulatory chill; it’s withdrawing or constricting the capacity of governments to enact responsible environmental policies that, above all, help to mitigate the climate crisis that we’re living globally.

JJ: We can’t fight climate disruption without reducing the value of somebody’s investment, period. And it’s bizarre to make environmental laws that corporations can then just dodge by outsourcing. It’s as if we’re living in different worlds, where the climate effects or the pollution here don’t affect anybody else. Of course it’s not true.

But it seems as though the left has been a bit on the back foot in terms of trade and globalization. And I wanted to ask you what a progressive vision of trade policy looks like. How is it different from what we see now?

MPR: The problem is that free trade agreements, including the new NAFTA, they’re all about expanding more international trade, and pushing more for increasing the supply chains. And this is what is really exceeding the planet’s ecological limits. We think that a reformed international trading system must be, above all, tolerant of different ideas about how our economies and societies should be organized, and not only under this principle of “more trade, more growth is better.”

So we have lots of proposals. We also have a paper called Beyond NAFTA 2.0, in which, among many other things, we propose a new trade treaty framework that supports core progressive policy priorities, such as universal healthcare, strong public services, robust environmental protection and resolute action on climate change. There is no mention about climate change or the climate crisis in the new NAFTA. This is clearly the same pattern of expanding trade, expanding investment and expanding the depletion of the environment in different countries.

JJ: Finally, my biggest problem with media, I think, has been the way they’ve played kind of a bait-and-switch. When NAFTA was coming through, the New York Times [7/21/92] said it would bring “jobs, wealth and economic activity throughout the continent.” The Washington Post [5/11/93] said “opposition to the agreement is rooted in dark forebodings almost comically out of proportion to any possible results.”

Well then, when NAFTA did not result in “jobs, wealth and economic activity throughout the continent,” these media promoters just turned and said, “Oh, but it’s not as bad as critics said it would be,” you know; they just kind of left their promises behind.

And I think trade deals in general are kind of preapproved by the media. You’re either a smart person who understands it, or you’re a Luddite with a special interest who’s trapped in the past. I wonder what you would like to see journalists do more of, or maybe less of, in reporting, not just on the new NAFTA, but on trade deals in general?

MPR: What they should do in general is make the connections between the climate crisis that we live in, but also the refugee crisis from countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and what free trade agreements have done in those countries.

Nobody talks about CAFTA anymore,  the Central America Free Trade Agreement. But that agreement has only worked for elite of those countries. And it has not given all the jobs that they promised it would do.

So there are economic disruptions all over the world created by free trade agreements, and also neoliberal policies and structural adjustment policies enacted by the World Bank and the IMF. There’s little connection between the migration crisis, the rampant poverty in so many countries and violence and economics, no?  I think this is something that we don’t see in the mainstream media very much.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Manuel Pérez-Rocha of the Institute for Policy Studies. You can find the work we’ve been discussing online at IPS-DC.org. Manuel Pérez-Rocha, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MPR: Thank you. Thank you, Janine.

 

‘This Type of Surveillance Threatens Us All’ - CounterSpin interview with Chip Gibbons on FBI vs. 1st Amendment

Janine Jackson interviewed Defending Rights & Dissent’s Chip Gibbons about the FBI vs. the First Amendment for the January 17, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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MP3 Link

Still Spying on Dissent

Janine Jackson: We invoke protest a lot in this country, but many people are confused about the right to political expression: They don’t want to get on the wrong side of the law while arguing for righteousness; that’s not a familiar or comfortable spot for many people.

Some are honestly confused about which side the law is on. They haven’t accepted that their belief in the value of human life might make them a criminal, if the life in question is a child whose parents seek asylum, or an Iranian whose country is—this week—on the hot list of enemies of the state. That’s a hard thing to get your head around. Mainly, people think the law will uphold our rights, despite our knowledge that sometimes the state is the one stepping on them.

Our next guest examines just how state actors intervene in and undermine what should be protected political activity and speech. Chip Gibbons is a journalist and a researcher. He’s policy director at Defending Rights & Dissent, and author of the recent report Still Spying on Dissent: The Enduring Problem of FBI First Amendment Abuse. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Chip Gibbons.

Chip Gibbons: Always a pleasure to be on CounterSpin, one of my favorite programs.

JJ: Well, thank you.

You make clear that this report is not about Donald Trump per se, because these are issues that long predate him. But one of the more perverse developments, I would say, of the Trump moment is liberals—understandably eager for there to be some commensurate power to counter that of the White House—seeming to endorse the FBI as that force. So the report is completely relevant to the present moment, as history generally is.

But let’s just start briefly with what you looked at. What was the material for this project?

CG: Sure. So the material is all information that was already in the public domain. But what we went through and did was we looked at known incidences of FBI surveillance, monitoring or tracking of political protest since the year 2010, for the last decade. And what we found is that over that decade, the FBI has repeatedly used its counterterrorism authorities to spy on and monitor environmental groups, antiwar groups, labor groups—so basically, civil society activity for justice. And when you look at the incidences together, what you realize is that they’re not isolated incidents.

If you ever see media coverage of an FBI political spying scandal, it will be like, “FBI Spies on Environmental Protesters in Houston,” but it won’t say, “And just last week, the FBI was knocking on the homes of Palestine solidarity activists in Berkeley.” When you put these things together, what you see is how systemic the problem is.

And after we did that, we went a step further and looked at the history of political surveillance in the United States, to make the case that the trends that we see in the last 10 years, which continue to this day, are part of a larger history of political surveillance in the United States, as carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

JJ: And let’s be clear, the FBI themselves have acknowledged that they’re not talking about groups that have been engaged in known violence. They explicitly say, some of the people they’re surveilling are nonviolent, are peaceful organizations.

FBI report (9/15/11)

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

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

And you see that again with one of the FBI field offices had a report on, because of anger at the horrible treatment of migrant children who are in concentration camps in this country, that you’re more likely to see anarchists engage in violence against the government. So this treatment that certain types of speech lead to crime, and therefore are inherently suspicious. And you also see the government just, quite frankly, conflating speech itself with criminality or with terrorism.

JJ: I have to say, media play a role here, lifting up every foiled terror plot as justification for anything at all, because, you know, “Look, we foiled a plot,”  even if the plot was the work of an FBI agent provocateur ginning up some confused man in a chat room. Whatever civil liberties or rights you want to hold up, I feel media play into countering that with, “But wait, this unknowable number of deaths has been prevented,” so this whole idea of preemptively preventing violence is incredibly insidious.

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

Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, there are multiple iterations of it through multiple executive orders, but in the second executive order, to try to overcome the legal challenges to it, he cited a rationale for it, and he named two “terror plots” carried out by refugees. In both of those cases, the plots were the work of an FBI agent provocateur; in one of the cases, the judge found the plot to be an example of imperfect entrapment. So here you have the FBI manufacturing fake terror plots, and then going around using that to claim there’s a larger threat from terrorism than there actually is, and then that being used to justify more state repression.

JJ: Lyndon Johnson called the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, “like Granny’s night shirt, it covers everything.” And I think that getting folks to accept the idea of a “War on Terror,” getting reporters to take that phrase out of quotation marks and suggest that it’s a solid, identifiable thing, that’s a real “Granny’s nightshirt” of a victory for some, including the FBI. I mean, the idea of just saying “terrorism” is allowed to justify a great deal.

CG: It is, and it unfortunately, in some cases, it predates, with the FBI, 9/11.  They certainly accelerated the abuses after 9/11. But in the 1980s, they were using the “threat of international terrorism” to investigate opponents of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy, and specifically the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. And as part of this massive foreign counterintelligence investigation against a domestic group engaged in domestic political activity, once again protesting horrible injustices, they came up with a list of organizations who were in support of CISPES’s goals, and included the Maryknoll nuns on it. So they’ve long used the threat of terrorism or subversion or whatever to spy on dissent, and 9/11 and the existence of a “War on Terror” has only given them more legitimacy for delegitimizing dissent.

JJ: I said at the outset that some folks haven’t accepted that their desire to speak out for their beliefs can get them labeled criminal. Of course, some of us were born with that label; our “opposition” is stamped in our ethnicity or our gender presentation or our neighborhood. And something has changed, that 2008 decision about assessments, things have shifted, so that simply belonging to a certain community—on paper—is allowed to make you suspicious, yeah?

CG: Sure. So in 2008, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, George W. Bush’s lame duck attorney general, literally weeks before Obama comes into office, he puts out new attorney general guidelines. And what are the attorney general guidelines? The FBI was created as the Bureau of Investigation in 1908, without Congress’s approval. So to this day, they have no congressional or legislative charter, outlining who they can investigate, what techniques they can use, and why they can investigate someone. They’re not only a law enforcement agency, but they’re also an intelligence and national security agency.

So law enforcement, in theory, is supposed to be about investigating people for crimes and then prosecuting them. I think your listeners know that’s not really what law enforcement does. It’s more about social control.

But intelligence, on the other hand, doesn’t have any such mandate, so it’s much more broad. And they’ve always used that to spy on dissent. But in the Church Committee in the ’70s, a lot of this starts to come out, and people are outraged, and as a result, they don’t impose a legislative charter on the FBI; instead, they agree to this compromise where the attorney general creates guidelines for the FBI. And because these guidelines are created by the attorney general, any attorney general can change them.

And in 2008, like I said, Michael Mukasey issues new guidelines that are unprecedented in the scope of authority they give the FBI. They let the FBI carry out what’s called “assessments,” which are investigations that do not require a factual predicate to believe the individual is involved in crime, or threatens national security, merely a “authorized law enforcement purpose.” So for the first time since the Church Committee, the FBI has the authority to investigate people not suspected of any wrongdoing whatsoever.

JJ: The report also includes some recommendations and some thoughts about going forward. You’ve said the guidelines around them are murky, a lot of folks don’t understand who’s in charge of the FBI. Courts don’t call what they do “entrapment,” straight out, very often, just like we know law enforcement can lie to suspects, straight up lie to them. But the response is not to give, somehow, the FBI more power.

Chip Gibbons: “In the last decade alone, they’ve spied on Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Abolish ICE movements, Palestinian solidarity movements, environmental movements. Obviously, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.”

CG: No, I think what we need to do is, we need to actually have a legislative charter that defines what the FBI’s powers are, and they need to be limited to investigating only violations of the federal criminal code. And we need to have serious protections for the First Amendment, so that the FBI cannot initiate or conduct investigations involving the exercise of free speech unless there are specific and articulable facts that actually indicate that the subject of the investigation is engaging in a criminal act. I think that would be a huge one. I think limits on the use of informants, to not allow them—absent, once again, suspicion of crime—so there’s not the sort of dragnet informants you see, where you send a confidential informant into the Muslim community, where there’s no suspicion of any wrongdoing, and then you try to entrap people, or what should be called entrapment. You know, barring the informants from acting as agents provocateurs would be helpful.

And I think Congress needs to actually engage in its oversight role—I know that’s a shocking idea—and actually investigate what the FBI is doing, because we know from information in the public domain, that in the last decade alone, they’ve spied on Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Abolish ICE movements, Palestinian solidarity movements, environmental movements. Obviously, that’s only the tip of the iceberg, because we don’t have access to all of the information which Congress could get, and they could ask the question: Why are these investigations been initiated? What other similar investigations have taken place? What is the scope of this political surveillance?

JJ: We should be able to argue that this infiltration and surveillance of protected activity is wrong, without having to tack on the note that, “Oh, and also, it actually doesn’t make you safer.”

CG:  Absolutely.

JJ: And yet, the context is that we do need to make that clear to folks.

CG: Yeah, it’s unfortunate, but the more time the FBI spends investigating people who are engaged in nonviolent, political protected speech, the less time they spend investigating actual threats. If you actually believe the FBI is a tool to counter actual threats—which I suspect many of your listeners may not, but if someone did believe that—why would you then be OK with them being allowed to investigate people without any evidence of a crime, because that means they’re just out there doing futile or wasteful investigations, and diverting resources away from their stated purpose into this sort of political policing instead?

JJ: And then let’s just bring it back, because I am trying to say to folks, “You know, maybe you don’t think you’re a black identity extremist. But if you go through a checkpoint and you have some Assata Shakur in your backpack, hey….” There’s kind of an essentialism undergirding this, that there’s good people and bad people, and if people are bad, it doesn’t matter what you do to them. And I just would encourage folks to think, “This could be you. This can be you. This may be you right now.”

CG: Yeah, I think that’s important to remember that this type of surveillance threatens us all if we are engaged in political activity, and the FBI should not be allowed to investigate political activity, should not be allowed to investigate people who they have no factual predicate to suspect of wrongdoing. It’s insidious.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Chip Gibbons, policy director at Defending Rights & Dissent. They, and this report, are online at RightsAndDissent.org. You can find Chip Gibbons’ piece, “Never Trust the FBI,” at Jacobinmag.com. Chip Gibbons, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

CG: Thank you for having me.

 

It’s Media—Not Bernie Sanders—That Have an Antisemitism Problem

 

Have you heard the news? Democratic presidential frontrunner Bernie Sanders is antisemitic. Yes, yes, he’s Jewish, and has a long history of anti-racist activism—but that doesn’t matter.

So goes the story in several prominent media outlets, who accuse him of leading “the most antisemitic [campaign] in decades” (Washington Examiner, 12/13/19). While unable to point to Sanders’ own actions or words, the national press has associated him with hatred of Jews by attacking those around him. Throughout 2019, for example, Sanders supporter Rep. Ilhan Omar was constantly labeled antisemitic across the media for comments she made about the undue influence of the US/Israeli lobbying group AIPAC on American politics (e.g., New York Times, 3/7/19; Wall Street Journal, 7/12/19; Washington Post, 8/20/19).

The National Review (12/17/19) charges that Bernie Sanders, like Jeremy Corbyn, has “rationalized reinvigorated leftist antagonism toward Jews.”

Fox News (1/9/20) claimed Sanders would be “the most anti-Israel” president ever, conflating criticism of Israel and/or the Netanyahu administration with antisemitism:

It’s disgraceful that instead of taking a stand, instead of taking this opportunity to change people’s minds about the dangers of antisemitism, Sanders enables and endorses the anti-Zionist rhetoric of his base.

The National Review (12/17/19) claimed that the “ugly characteristics” of Bernie’s campaign, “already normalizing anti-Jewish antagonism,” were “appalling.” Commentary (12/13/19) agreed, claiming Sanders was “tolerating” the antisemitic “indulgences” of his followers. At times, conservative outlets seemed to be trying to replicate the success that the British press had had in tarring Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as an antisemite—a smear that certainly contributed to his decisive 2019 loss (FAIR.org, 12/21/19).

Antisemitism is certainly on the rise in the United States; the number of incidents recorded by the Anti-Defamation League is approaching an all-time high. In October 2018 an anti-immigrant gunman attacked the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11. In April during Passover, a white nationalist opened fire at the Poway Synagogue near San Diego. And last month, an assailant stabbed five people celebrating Hanukkah in Monsey, New York. Much of the worst violence has been perpetrated by the far-right, who, in 2017, led a well-publicized rally in Charlottesville, Virginia chanting, “Jews will not replace us”—and afterwards President Donald Trump described the marchers as “very fine people.”

Trump has frequently evoked antisemitic tropes like the accusation of dual loyalty, telling American Jews that Netanyahu was “your prime minister” and Israel “your country,” and describing Jews who vote Democrat as “disloyal” to the US and Israel.

Trump, who once insisted that he only wanted “short guys wearing yarmulkes” to count his cash, has repeatedly invoked the stereotype that Jews are interested only in money. In 2015, he told a group of Jewish Republicans (Real Clear Politics, 12/3/15), “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money…. You want to control your own politicians.” To go along with the slur of Jews as puppetmasters, Trump threw in the stereotype of Jews as obsessive bargainers:

Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t renegotiate deals? Probably 99% of you. Probably more than any room I’ve ever spoken in…. I’m a negotiator, like you folks.

Last month (CNN, 12/9/19), Trump told a largely Jewish audience at the Israeli American Council National Summit that they were “brutal killers, not nice people at all”—because “a lot of you are in the real estate business.” But, he added, “you have to vote for me, you have no choice,” he said, because “you’re not going to vote for the wealth tax”—implying that Jews care only about their own wealth: “You’re going to be my biggest supporters because you’d be out of business in about 15 minutes if they get it.”

Support the Tropes

The New Yorker (10/5/15) depicts Bernie Sanders as a “populist prophet.”

While media express concern about the use of antisemitic tropes by the left, they seem oblivious that their own discussions of the Sanders campaign might evoke them. One analogy that appears frequently in Sanders profiles is associating the Vermont senator with the Old Testament, what Christians call the Jewish holy scriptures. The Washington Post (8/29/19) claimed that Sanders is “content to thunder against evildoers like an Old Testament prophet,” while the New York Times (8/2/19) described him as “wild-eyed, scowling and angry as an Old Testament prophet on the downside of the prediction racket.” The Detroit News (7/30/19) wrote that Sanders “presents as an Old Testament prophet of doom, a zealot shouting at the immovable mountain.”

For some reason, this particular metaphor comes to the minds of a great number of journalists covering Sanders: e.g., Washington Post, 9/24/19; Newsday, 9/17/19; London Independent, 1/24/16; New Yorker, 10/5/15; Bulwark, 1/8/20). The New Yorker (10/19/19) wrote that Bernie’s tone is “equal parts old Brooklyn grandpa and Old Testament preacher,” managing to squeeze two stereotypes into one sentence.

Corporate media have also made some highly questionable graphic choices while discussing Sanders. Numerous cartoonists have chosen to make a hooked nose—prominent in anti-Jewish stereotypes, not so prominent on Sanders’ actual face—a hallmark of their caricatures of the candidate.

A number of outlets have featured images that bear a distinct resemblance to the “happy merchant” meme, a common alt-right image condemned by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League as a hate symbol and described by Buzzfeed News (2/5/15) as “the Internet’s favorite antisemitic image.”

On the news that his campaign had brought in over $34 million in the fourth quarter of 2019, the Huffington Post (1/2/20) and a number of NPR affiliates decided to illustrate their stories with an image of Sanders rubbing his hands together and smiling. In case you think the symbolism was accidental, the Washington Post (1/2/20) covered the same story about a Jew amassing a great fortune with a different image of Sanders rubbing his hands in happy merchant style, changing it only after a public outcry.

HuffPost (1/2/20) chose an image to illustrate Bernie Sanders’ fundraising success that bears a disturbing resemblance to a famous antisemitic caricature.

The practice is not limited to Sanders, however. On the story of freshman New York congressmember and Sanders supporter Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez revealing distant Jewish ancestry at a Hanukkah event, both USA Today (12/11/18) and Fox News (12/12/18) used an image of her clasping her hands together in a manner similar to Sanders.

Reporting on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Jewish heritage, USA Today (12/11/18) also chose an image that visually echoed crude stereotypes.

Ocasio-Cortez has called out the media on antisemitic portrayals before. She took Politico (5/24/19) to task on Twitter (5/25/19) for photoshopping money trees onto a picture of Sanders. The article it illustrated was headlined “The Secret of Bernie’s Millions,” Politico introducing it with the words: “Sanders might still be cheap, but he’s sure not poor.” Hey! Why is my dog suddenly barking?!

A media so sensitive to antisemitism that they could see the word “bedbug” as an anti-Jewish trope (as the New York Times’ Bret Stephens did) cannot claim ignorance at all the antisemitic dog whistles it is blowing with regard to Sanders.

Tiana Lowe, the right-wing journalist (Washington Examiner, 12/13/19) who launched the campaign to call Bernie Sanders “antisemetic,” called Milo Yiannopoulos “awesome,” despite his neo-Nazi trolling.

The corporate press has also played its part in normalizing far-right ideology, giving glossy portrayals of prominent American fascists (FAIR.org, 11/23/16, 11/1/19). Indeed, the writer of the Washington Examiner article quoted at the beginning of this article, worrying that Sanders is bringing with him an era of antisemitism, is herself a friend of far-right antisemitic troll Milo Yiannopoulos, whom she calls “awesome,” and regularly boasts of her pride in her Nazi-collaborator grandfather, whose organization participated in the Holocaust that killed Sanders’ close relatives.

Media motives appear less to do with genuine concern over anti-Jewish sentiment and more about weaponizing smears against a progressive campaign taking on the power of the wealthy—and multi-confessional—elites that own and control the corporate press. If media wish to seriously discuss the very real rise of antisemitism, they should probably start by taking a look at themselves.

Featured image: Caricatures of Bernie Sanders in the Washington Examiner (7/13/18), San Jose Mercury News (5/24/16) and Augusta Chronicle (4/19/19).

Insurance Lobby Talking Points Don’t Come With Warning Labels

 

Ever since The Intercept (11/20/18) found several planning documents by the Partnership for America’s Healthcare Future (PAHCF), a benign-sounding corporate alliance formed to prevent any kind of reform and prop up the dysfunctional US healthcare system’s profits, corporate media have been reporting on the PAHCF’s efforts to defend the US’s for-profit healthcare system (The Hill, 6/28/19).

The lobbying group declares that its aim is to “change the conversation around Medicare for All” in order to “minimize the potential for this option in healthcare from becoming part of a national political party’s platform in 2020.” According to media reports, one healthcare executive reassured employees in a company meeting that the healthcare industry has “done a lot more than you would think” to sabotage any move in the direction of universal healthcare (Washington Post, 4/12/19). The PAHCF’s massive coalition of lobbyists representing virtually every part of the for-profit healthcare industry are united not only in opposition to a single-payer system like Medicare for All, but also to “every single Democratic proposal that would significantly expand the government’s role in healthcare.”

But the healthcare industry’s efforts to block all meaningful change in our medical system would not be nearly so successful were corporate media not working in tandem to spread these same lobbyist talking points.

The Intercept expose (11/20/18) revealed how the campaign against Medicare for All builds on previous campaigns to “disqualify government-run healthcare as a politically viable solution.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the healthcare industry has spent over $2 billion on lobbying across the past four years, more than any other industry. PAHCF has been recorded to have bought around half of all political advertising in the early-voting state of Iowa in the summer of 2019, and their million-dollar attack ads were broadcast throughout the 2020 Democratic presidential debates. PAHCF is also engaged in an astroturf campaign that doesn’t disclose that several “voices throughout the nation” parroting the insurance lobby’s talking points—presented as ordinary Americans who fear universal healthcare—have ties to lobbying firms and health insurance corporations (Splinter, 3/19/19).

What are some of these talking points? According to the New York Times’ “Healthcare and Insurance Industries Mobilize to Kill ‘Medicare for All’” (2/23/19):

The lobbyists’ message is simple: The Affordable Care Act is working reasonably well and should be improved, not repealed by Republicans or replaced by Democrats with a big new public program. More than 155 million Americans have employer-sponsored health coverage. They like it, by and large, and should be allowed to keep it….

In a daily fusillade of digital advertising, videos and Twitter posts, the coalition, the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, says that Medicare for All will require tax increases and give politicians and bureaucrats control of medical decisions now made by doctors and patients—arguments that echo those made to stop Medicare in the 1960s, Mrs. Clinton’s health plan in 1993 and the Affordable Care Act a decade ago.

Politico’s “The Army Built to Fight Medicare for All” (11/25/19) reported that the PAHCF’s “core conviction” is that “things aren’t actually that bad,” and explained why the industry group opposes any reform (even a deeply flawed public option) to expand the public sector’s healthcare coverage:

The industry still views single payer as the doomsday scenario. But by early 2019, it’d become far from the only worrying possibility, as prominent Democrats floated all manner of routes to universal healthcare. The problem: Each achieved their goal in roughly the same way—by having the federal government annex broad swaths of the private insurance market, either by creating a competing public option or expanding the existing Medicaid or Medicare programs deeper into the private sector’s territory.

Those plans might sound more palatable to the ordinary American, but to Partnership members it still meant fewer customers, lower pay rates and a new, unnecessary regime of profit-pressuring regulations. So as each 2020 presidential contender rolls out their own signature take on an overhaul, the response from the Partnership has been loud and unflinching: No.

“The politicians may call it Medicare for All, Medicare buy-in, or the public option,” reads an ad run by the Partnership during September’s Democratic presidential debate. “But they mean the same thing.”

If this all sounds familiar, that’s because these are the same talking points echoed by corporatist Democrats, and amplified by corporate media, that FAIR has critiqued throughout this election cycle (FAIR.org, 4/29/19, 6/25/19, 7/1/19, 10/2/19).

“Voter support may not withstand warnings of tax increases or changes to employer-sponsored insurance,” the New York Times (10/19/18) warns.

When corporate media aren’t busy featuring negative op-eds from politicians that PAHCF’s undisclosed lobbyists helped write, one can find regular columns featured in The Hill (1/31/19) and the New York Times (10/19/18) telling us not to get “too excited about Medicare for All” because it’s a “terrible” idea championed by “young Bolsheviks” that would make Trump look like a “sure winner in 2020.” There are no shortage of op-eds in the Washington Post (2/19/19, 2/22/19, 10/25/19, 1/7/20) echoing the “government-run healthcare” canard, telling us that we don’t need to go “full Canada” because Medicare for All is a “pipe dream” and a bunch of “pointless quibbling.”

Politico (9/23/19) made the disingenuous and incoherent argument that pitting a public option that leaves the wasteful and parasitic health insurance industry intact against Medicare for All is a “false choice,” and a “fear tactic sowed by defenders of corporate greed meant to divide us,” while simultaneously arguing that “preserving the option for employers and unions to continue to innovate in healthcare is critically important.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times dutifully followed PAHCF guidelines by attacking both a public option and Medicare for All. The Times’ “How a Medicare Buy-In or Public Option Could Threaten Obamacare” (7/29/19) argued that a public option “may well threaten the ACA in unexpected ways.” After noting how the “ACA is a solidly profitable business for insurers,” in spite of “stock drops” over “investor concerns over Medicare for All proposals,” the Times raised fears that a

buy-in shift in insurance coverage could profoundly unsettle the nation’s private health sector, which makes up almost a fifth of the United States economy. Depending on who is allowed to sign up for the plan, it could also rock the employer-based system that now covers some 160 million Americans.

The New York Times (3/23/19) declares that there’s “no precedent” for the government eliminating an major economic sector—which would seem to overlook both Abolition and Prohibition.

The Times’ “Medicare for All Would Abolish Private Insurance. ‘There’s No Precedent in American History’” (3/23/19) argued for the status quo, which leaves tens of thousands of people dying every year from a lack of insurance, with an estimated 530,000 families suffering medical bankruptcies every year, with relentless and unsustainable drives to raise premiums and deductibles to maximize profits and lower for-profit insurers’ “medical loss ratio” (the figure given to investors to inform them of how much money they lost to medical claims). Before concluding with a statement from Mark Bertolini—a former CEO of insurance company Aetna—informing us that “it’s not that simple” to “shut down all the private insurance companies,” the Times warned readers that

doing away with an entire industry would also be profoundly disruptive. The private health insurance business employs at least a half a million people, covers about 250 million Americans, and generates roughly a trillion dollars in revenues. Its companies’ stocks are a staple of the mutual funds that make up millions of Americans’ retirement savings.

Such a change would shake the entire healthcare system, which makes up a fifth of the United States economy, as hospitals, doctors, nursing homes and pharmaceutical companies would have to adapt to a new set of rules. Most Americans would have a new insurer — the federal government — and many would find the health insurance stocks in their retirement portfolios much less valuable.

Corporate media have also boosted centrist presidential candidates taking the most money from the healthcare industry (FAIR.org, 4/28/19, 7/3/19, 9/9/19, 12/12/19). Joe Biden is a reliable mouthpiece for the PAHCF’s opposition to Medicare for All by constantly lying about the proposal, even shamelessly using dead family members to attack it. A company linked to Biden’s campaign has also been caught testing messages “designed to undercut support among Democrats for Medicare for All,” finding that Democrats are “most swayed by” arguments that the “program would impose a heavy cost on taxpayers and threaten Medicare for senior citizens.” Pete Buttigieg famously flip-flopped on the issue after accepting the legal bribes often euphemized as “campaign contributions.”

The talking point of consumer “choice,” Wendell Potter (New York Times, 1/14/20) notes, “makes the idea of changing the current system sound scary and limiting. The problem? It’s a PR concoction.”

That corporate media is pushing PAHCF’s pernicious talking points should not be surprising; former insurance executive turned whistleblower Wendell Potter confessed in his book Deadly Spin how PR executives like himself “cultivate contacts and relationships among journalists and other media gatekeepers” to manipulate coverage and public opinion to quash reforms. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Potter pointed out that one of the major themes of healthcare coverage is essentially an insurance industry hoax:

We were told by our opinion research firms and messaging consultants that when we promoted the purported benefits of the status quo that we should talk about the concept of “choice”: It polled well in focus groups of average Americans….

But those of us who held senior positions for the big insurers knew that one of the huge vulnerabilities of the system is its lack of choice. In the current system, Americans cannot, in fact, pick their own doctors, specialists or hospitals — at least, not without incurring huge “out of network” bills.

When a staunchly consistent Medicare for All advocate like Bernie Sanders has an increasingly serious shot at winning the Democratic Party’s nomination for the 2020 election cycle, it’s especially important to push back against the overwhelming propaganda onslaught from the gargantuan healthcare industry.

Corporate Media Equate Sanders to Trump—Because for Them, Sanders Is the Bigger Threat

by Julie Hollar

As Bernie Sanders emerged as a threat to Hillary Clinton’s presidential nomination in 2016, media began liberally tossing around articles equating Sanders and Donald Trump (FAIR.org, 4/15/16, 12/9/16). These typically acknowledged that the comparison seemed far-fetched, but pointed in their defense to some version of a “remarkable amount of policy convergence” (Atlantic, 1/6/16)—which included shared positions like opposition to trade agreements, protecting Social Security, opposing big money in politics, and opposing foreign military intervention—or to the two candidates’ reliance on “angry white men” for their base of support.

No journalist in their right mind would attempt an argument about a policy convergence between Sanders and Trump today, given Trump’s reversal on virtually every one of those original populist stances. And as for those “angry white men,” polls have shown that Sanders’ supporters are more female and less white than those of any other Democratic candidate—and much more so than Trump supporters. If they were an absurd stretch in 2016, then, efforts to make a Sanders/Trump equivalence today are even more desperate and disingenuous.

And yet they are experiencing a renaissance, as Sanders creeps toward the top of the Democratic primary polls in early-voting states.

Dana Milbank (Washington Post, 4/2/19) wrote that “support for Sanders shows that the angry, unbending politics of Trumpism are bigger than Trump.”

The trope received its earliest notable rehabilitation in April, when Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank (4/2/19) announced “Bernie Sanders’s emergence as the Donald Trump of the left.” Both have “a flair for demagoguery,” Milbank declared. He accused Sanders of sporting “the angry, unbending politics of Trumpism” and filling his speeches with “Trumpian flourishes”:

Sanders himself remains untouchable, in a Trumpian way. Claims of mistreatment by male staffers from women who worked on his 2016 campaign? Yawn. His resistance to releasing his tax returns? Whatever. The idea that Democrats need a unifying figure to lure disaffected Trump voters in key states? Never mind.

Sanders isn’t Trump in the race-baiting, lender-cheating, fact-avoiding, porn-actress-paying, Putin-loving sense. But their styles are similar: shouting and unsmiling, anti-establishment and anti-media, absolutely convinced of their own correctness, attacking boogeymen (the “1 percent” and CEOs in Sanders’s case, instead of immigrants and minorities), offering impractical promises with vague details, lacking nuance and nostalgic for the past.

CNN (4/3/19) had Milbank on to discuss the column, where he called the candidates’ “blame” tactics “the same idea. ‘Those people’ are responsible for your problems. This is really powerful stuff.” A longtime Clinton aide piggybacked off Milbank’s column, telling the Washington Post (4/15/19) that Sanders’ “tone in general is too Trumplike. It’s based on anger.”

That Sanders apologized for the mistreatment and took active steps to change his 2020 campaign? Yawn. That he released 10 years of tax returns less than two weeks after Milbank’s column was published (and approximately three months before Biden did)? Whatever. The idea that Democrats need a mobilizing force rather than an uninspiring defender of the status quo to drive voter turnout in swing states? Never mind.

Milbank quietly tries to erase the gaping difference between Sanders’ and Trump’s anti-establishment (or “anti-media”) stances, or between Trump’s racist and xenophobic attacks on marginalized groups and Sanders’ structural attacks on neoliberal institutions. In Milbank’s world—a world many of his colleagues appear to inhabit as well—CEOs and billionaires bear as little responsibility for “your problems” (which might include inequality, wage stagnation, underemployment, unaffordable healthcare and education, and climate change) as do “immigrants and minorities.”

The only sense in which Sanders and Trump are alike (beyond extremely superficial similarities sometimes pointed to, like their unruly hair or New York accent) is that they appeal to very real undercurrents of discontent in this country—but they do so in very different ways, to very different effect. Trump is perhaps the epitome of a demagogue; he lies and plays on prejudices, scapegoating marginalized groups, enriching himself and undermining the country’s political system. Sanders critiques the institutions that drive inequality and calls for a revitalization of democracy, in which ordinary people’s needs come before corporate interests. Both are presented as equally objectionable by corporate journalists, who repeatedly counsel a retreat to the safety of the “center” (FAIR.org, 7/2/19)—a place that they are unwilling to recognize has helped produce that discontent.

Those journalists revived the Trump/Sanders equivalence over the summer at the point when Sanders dared suggest that the Washington Post and New York Times are not “great supporters” of his, and that this could have something to do with his repeatedly calling out Amazon for paying no taxes. NPR (All Things Considered, 8/13/19) accused Sanders of “echoing the president’s language,” while on CNN (8/13/19), USA Today‘s Kirsten Powers accused him of using Trump’s “playbook” and CNN’s Poppy Harlow warned ominously, “This seems like a really dangerous line, continued accusations against the media with no basis in fact or evidence provided.” In a Boston Herald column (8/18/19) declaring it was “Time for Bernie to Bow Out With Dignity,” Froma Harrop wrote: “The parallels between Trump and Sanders blaming liberal news sources for their setbacks are pretty glaring.”

Except, of course, that they’re not. As we pointed out at the time (FAIR.org, 8/15/19), there is in fact plenty of evidence of media’s bias against Sanders, and their embarrassingly uncritical coverage of Amazon. Sanders’ critique is far from a conspiracy theory or anti-journalist smear, as many suggested—it’s a critique of the influence of corporate ownership and sponsorship on big media outlets, where journalists with Sanders-like perspectives are almost invariably weeded out early in their careers.

Recently, though, the tarring of Sanders as Trumpian has amped up.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (1/20/20) lashed out at Sanders for a supposed “flat-out lie” about Joe Biden’s record on Social Security cuts. Sanders’ “smear” interprets a video of Biden agreeing with Paul Ryan on Social Security cuts as serious rather than as sarcastic, as Biden later claimed it to be. Regardless of how you interpret that moment, it is followed by Biden saying that Social Security “still needs adjustments”—politician-speak for cuts. Even if you take Biden at his word on the sarcasm, that comment—and his decades-long record in the Senate—make it clear that the Sanders campaign’s case against Biden on Social Security is sound (FAIR.org, 1/22/20). But for Krugman:

This is bad; it is, indeed, almost Trumpian. The last thing we need is another president who demonizes and lies about anyone who disagrees with him, and can’t admit ever being wrong.

Sanders is “worse than Trump” (Miami Herald, 1/15/20) because he doesn’t believe the projections of the US International Trade Commission—which economist Dean Baker said “made a conscious decision to go against standard practice in the economics profession” to make NAFTA 2.0 look good (Beat the Press, 4/25/19).

The Miami Herald‘s Andres Oppenheimer took it a step further (1/15/20), writing: “Sanders’ trade isolationism and Trump’s anti-immigration ravings are two sides of the same coin—cheap populism. On the trade side, Sanders is worse than Trump.” To Oppenheimer, Sanders’ “assertion that large numbers of US jobs would be lost” through the USMCA are “as misleading as Trump’s absurd claims that most undocumented immigrants from Mexico are criminals and rapists.”

Sometimes the analogy is slightly more subtle, as in the New York Times editorial board’s explanation (1/19/19) of why it rejected Sanders in its Democratic primary endorsement: “We see little advantage to exchanging one over-promising, divisive figure in Washington for another.”

In the board’s interview with Sanders (1/13/20), board member Nick Fox questioned Sanders about his suggestion that he would be “organizer in chief,” achieving his agenda by mobilizing a movement: “I’m wondering how you flying around the country in 2021 rallying the people would be different than what Donald Trump has been doing.”

While more serious observers recognize a difference between Sanders’ plan to stump for his agenda, which follows historical tradition, and Trump’s penchant for hollow ego-stroking rallies (which does not), the Times paints Trump and Sanders as interchangeable demagogues.

Hillary Clinton has jumped into the fray, in her recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter (1/21/19) in which she accused “the Bernie campaign” of “having gone after Elizabeth [Warren] with a very personal attack on her.” It’s a remarkably disingenuous way to characterize the situation, in which Warren was quoted (CNN, 1/13/20) accusing Sanders of dismissing the possibility of a woman defeating Trump, to which Sanders responded with a forceful denial. But Clinton used that framing to make a new Trump parallel, this one based on treatment of women (and, perhaps, opponents):

I just think people need to pay attention because we want, hopefully, to elect a president who’s going to try to bring us together, and not either turn a blind eye, or actually reward the kind of insulting, attacking, demeaning, degrading behavior that we’ve seen from this current administration.

The Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin (1/21/19) cited that interview in a column about Sanders’ “attack machine,” in which Rubin charged Sanders with “present[ing] himself as an honest, pure idealist while playing Trumpian politics.” Her evidence, beyond Clinton’s characterizations of Sanders and of “the culture around him,” consisted of an op-ed (Guardian, 1/20/20) by a Sanders supporter that called Biden “corrupt” (which Rubin acknowledged Sanders apologized for) and “yet another blowup over Sanders’ honesty, his attempt to insinuate that Biden favored Social Security cuts.”

Journalists from outlets like the Post, Times and CNN know that the great majority of their readers and viewers harbor strong feelings of antipathy and fear toward Trump, so tarring Sanders with the same brush as Trump on any grounds is a tactic clearly intended to discredit Sanders among the anti-Trump public.

The real trouble is that most in the establishment media—and the centrist political elite like Clinton, Barack Obama and their allies—fear left populism more than they do right populism. For them, replacing Trump with Sanders would not end the nightmare begun with Trump’s inauguration, it would simply begin a new and more frightening chapter of it. If under Trump, our democratic and social institutions are endangered by authoritarianism, xenophobia and racism, at least our economic ones are protected, so that Wall Street can continue its upward march, corporate profits can continue unabated, and journalists can marvel at the robust economy.

Sanders, on the other hand, seeks to shore up those democratic and social institutions by reining in the corporate ones. For our country’s most influential media outlets, which have thrived under the Trump administration, it’s clear which one is the greater threat.

Featured image: Visual comparisons of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump from ABC News, Fortune, ABC News, CNN, Deadline, New York Times, The Wrap, CNN and Washington Post (left to right, top to bottom).

 

Vijay Prashad on India Demonstrations, Manuel Perez-Rocha on NAFTA 2.0

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(image: VOA)

This week on CounterSpin: Millions of Indians—maybe a quarter of a billion—have taken to the streets in recent weeks. The far-right Modi government’s discriminatory ideas around citizenship have been a trigger for the massive demonstrations, but our guest explains that is not the whole story. Historian and journalist Vijay Prashad is chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

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(photo: White House)

Also on the show: A lowlight of the recent Democratic debate was when Bernie Sanders was explaining his opposition on environmental grounds to the new US/Mexico/Canada trade deal and the moderator interrupted with, “We’re going to get to climate change, but I’d like to stay on trade”—as if the two weren’t inextricably linked. The deal some call NAFTA 2.0 doesn’t just ignore climate disruption; it will boost fossil fuel polluters in Mexico, and worsen inequities in the hemisphere. So says Manuel Perez-Rocha, associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. We’ll talk with him about that.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look back at recent press about Joe Biden and Social Security.

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‘This Is Already a Hot War the US Is Prosecuting Against Iran’  - CounterSpin interview with Gregory Shupak about

Janine Jackson interviewed media scholar Gregory Shupak about the Soleimani assassination for the January 10, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript. 

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Janine Jackson: Tens of thousands of Americans have been in the streets, protesting not only the Trump administration’s rogue state behavior in the assassination in Iraq of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, but also the danger in which the escalation put civilians, in Iraq and Iran—and the US, where police have already been promised more military-grade equipment. Protesting not only the flimsy, shifting premises and imperialist presumption offered now by Trump and Pompeo and Esper, but also the backdrop of the ongoing violence of US sanctions on Iran, leading to shortfalls in food and medicine; sanctions now being threatened against Iraqis as well. US citizens are saying no to war with Iran for multiple reasons; what role is media coverage playing?

Joining us now to talk about that is Gregory Shupak; he teaches media studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto, and is author of The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media from OR Books. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Greg Shupak.

Gregory Shupak: Thanks for having me.

JJ: A lot of politicians’ statements, media conversations and actual on the street conversations, begin with, “Look, I’m glad Soleimani’s dead. He wasn’t a good guy, but…” followed by an objection that is procedural or about blowback or consequences. Those objections may be valid, but there’s a world of assumptions in that tossed-off disclaimer at the beginning, and it frames the discussion. Whatever you think of its actions, the US’s “right to act” in Iraq, Iran, the whole region, is a silent guest at every media party, isn’t it?

GS: It’s really one of the fundamental assumptions underlying coverage of these recent developments, but also US imperial ventures for the longer term, this notion that America and its allies have the right to act forcefully, which really means violently, whenever and wherever they want. And, in fact, that’s rarely even conceived of as violence. Only when there’s some sort of countermeasure undertaken by people who are living outside of the empire’s grasp, only those measures are conceived of as violence, only those uses of force have their legitimacy called into question.

JJ: So far, the White House seems to be sticking to the line that Soleimani was caught red-handed, actively plotting a “big action” that would have killed US forces, even though Democrats and some Republicans say the evidence is utterly unconvincing, there really isn’t evidence, and when they’re asked for it, they kind of say, you know, “Look over there.”

But pulling back from Democrats, even, and their current outrage, you couldn’t really call this an accidental escalation. The US has been, not just threatening Iran for years, but actually hurting them with this policy of maximum pressure. We should know some more context when we think about events of the past week.

GS: Yeah, for sure. As you rightly noted in your intro, the sanctions are killing people, they’re causing cancer patients to die from not being able to access medicine, they’re interfering with the food supply in Iran. When there was devastating natural disaster in Iran in April, the Red Crescent criticized the sanctions for impeding their ability to get aid to victims. This is already, in many respects, a hot war that the United States is prosecuting against Iran.

Apart from whether or not we see this spectacular violence of a bombing campaign—which we do, we’ve seen plenty of those as well: The Soleimani one, as well as the attacks on the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units, got a lot of headlines, because it was such a brazen assault on one of the most powerful people in Iran. But these periodic bombings of Iranian-allied forces in Iraq and Syria have been going on for quite some time as well.

So you have this war that barely registers here that has taken place, with sanctions even predating Trump, long predating Trump, in fact; during even the Obama era nuclear accord, there was still sanctions on Iran. So these have very devastating and deadly consequences.

And I think that the other factor that we have to mention, as far as understanding the context here, is the military bases, which there are, I think, 54 US military bases on Iran’s doorstep. That is a very, very loud and clear threat to Iran, that it’s surrounded by the most powerful military on Earth. So any Iranian actions have to be seen with a view towards that, with a view towards the fact that they have not only many guns to their head, but also many powerful bombs at their head, and, of course, the overarching threat also is that the United States is a hostile nuclear power, not just a hostile power. So all these years the United States has been saying “all options are on the table” with regard to Iran, well, that, by definition, includes the use of nuclear weapons.

New York Times (1/6/20)

JJ: I saw a New York Times op-ed headed, “The Choice That’s Coming: An Iran With the Bomb, or Bombing Iran.” And I found that so chilling, you know, “we obviously have to kill them, rather than permit them to have”—and Gareth Porter, of course, has a whole book about the false narrative around Iran trying to get nuclear weapons. It’s been shown again and again that they don’t have a nuclear weapons program. But if you say, “There’s no evidence they’re trying to build these weapons,” it’s like you have to concede that they shouldn’t be allowed to do what other countries can do, in the region in particular. It’s such a weird argument. But mainly, I felt so sad for corporate media’s power to limit our perceived possibilities, and to limit them so miserably.

GS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, ideally, the world would be nuclear weapons-free.

JJ: Exactly.

GS: Given that that’s not the case, it’s really, I think, pretty hard to justify the present nuclear status quo, where we have a handful of nuclear powers that have selected for themselves the power to determine who else is allowed to have nuclear weapons and who isn’t.

JJ: Yeah. Continuing with media, I did wonder, where are we seeing Iranians in the conversation? I saw a Guardian op-ed by an Iranian-American organizer and city councilwoman, Mitra Jalali, saying that her family, and families like hers, feel “sick and terrified,” in the same way as they did after September 11, 2001. And she said, “We need you to see through imperial narratives.” For her community, it’s important that people get around this “official enemy” stuff that media put forward, because it really impacts their day-to-day lives.

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

So we saw sanctions, as is well-known by your listeners, I’m sure, totally obliterate Iraqi society in the ‘90s. And apart from the 500,000 children that that killed, it also really softened Iraq up to make it a very easy target for invasion. And there’s a similar dynamic going on with regard to Libya.

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

Gregory Shupak: “This, I think, is one of the more central and deeper and troubling assumptions in imperialist media, that the United States and its partners are allowed to kill whomever they want, wherever they want, and no resistance to that is legitimate.”

Well, for a minute, we can bracket the fact that there’s pretty thin evidence about that. And Gareth Porter, who you mentioned, documents this quite well in a piece he did for Truthout in July, where he makes clear that he pressed US officials for evidence of this, or some sort of proof, and they simply admitted to him that they didn’t have any to provide. So that’s really kind of a propaganda claim about Iranians being “responsible for hundreds of dead troops,” and it dates back, Gareth Porter documents—and Stephen Zunes documented it also, in the Progressive—to the peak of fighting, following the 2003 invasion, when, essentially, Cheney and others from his office started circulating this claim.

But I want to point also to this assumption that, well, OK, killing American servicemembers in Iraq justifies carrying out assassinations of  Iranian government leaders. Even if Iran were behind that, I want to say that it troubles me, why does this coverage not say, “Why does the US think that it has the right to invade and destroy other countries”—killing, depending on which estimate you look at, 500,000 to a million, following the 2003 invasion? What is it that allows these media propagandists, and people in the US state and its allied states, to believe that they have the right to invade and ruin countries, and not be subject to any kind of retaliation or counter-violence?

The depth of imperial ideology is on display here, this presumption that we, the Empire, have the right to engage in a full-scale military invasion and years-long occupation, and any act that’s done to resist that is illegitimate, it is criminal violence, it is terrorism. But any violence carried out in pursuit of the invasion and occupation, that’s just fine. That’s allowed. That’s just sort of the natural order of things. So this, I think, is one of the more central and deeper and troubling assumptions in imperialist media, that the United States and its partners are allowed to kill whomever they want, wherever they want, and no resistance to that is legitimate.

Twitter (1/7/20)

JJ: Let me end, finally, with resistance. There’s a Marjane Satrapi quote going around about how the difference between US citizens and their government, and Iranians and theirs, is much greater than the difference between the citizens of the two countries. And that accounts for why more people are in the street, calling for actual diplomacy, calling for the US to actually get out—period—than on elite talking-head shows. But the protests that we’ve seen are big, and they’re across difference, and they have a class awareness that money going for weapons isn’t going to schools and so on. And we didn’t even mention all the former generals on TV, who are currently invested in defense contractors, who are on TV saying, “Yeah, you know, war does seem like a smart idea.”

But it just seems to me that folks are seeing through imperial narratives, and that’s part of why the demonstrations against escalation, but also sanctions on Iran, on Iraq, are so complex and are so vital and are so interesting. I guess my question is just, are the media who self-define as “resistance,” are they really up to the job of reporting what real resistance looks like?

GS: Yeah, certainly not the mainstream corporate media. They’ll be interested in presenting opposition to this war, or other wars carried out under Trump, to the extent that they can represent this as a challenge to Trump’s incompetence, or personal corruption, and so forth. They’re not interested in questioning the imperial system, and, in fact, they’re deeply invested in it. So I think that, as is the case in so many other matters, we need to do what we can to promote independent ideas and information, so that there’s  some sort of countervailing force to give people access to different perspectives and different facts than they get in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or Washington Post.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Gregory Shupak of the University of Guelph-Humber. His book is The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel, and the Media. It’s out from OR Books. Thanks for joining us, Greg Shupak, this week on CounterSpin.

GS: Thanks so much for having me.

23 Headlines Obscure Biden’s Lies About Cutting Social Security

 

Here’s something many Americans would be very interested to know: Is a leading candidate in the Democratic primary a liar? And since a strong majority of Americans have consistently opposed cuts to Social Security, the country’s most successful anti-poverty program, Democratic voters in particular might be interested to know if a President Joe Biden would try to cut Social Security.

Former Vice President Biden has supported cuts to Social Security for 40 years, and is on the record for saying things like:

When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well. I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans’ benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the government. And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice, I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time.

When Biden was running for president in 2007, he declared his willingness to oppose the US public when he boasted that he would ignore his advisers’ advice not to “touch that third rail,” and even released a plan to cut Social Security under the guise of raising the retirement age.

Joe Biden (Brookings Institution, 4/18): “Now, we need to do something about Social Security and Medicare. That’s the only way you can find room to pay for it…. So we need a pro-growth, progressive tax code that…raises enough revenue to make sure that the Social Security and Medicare can stay, it still needs adjustments, but can stay.”

So when Bernie Sanders’ campaign released a video of Joe Biden’s statements reiterating his desire to cut Social Security, a program that benefited 64 million Americans in 2019, and is the major source of income for most elderly Americans, shouldn’t media headlines reflect this? And if many of these outlets openly acknowledge that Biden’s claim that the video was “doctored” isn’t true, don’t they have a journalistic obligation not to launder the Biden campaign’s false talking points?

Headlines typically draw in readers or viewers by including the most relevant and interesting information. When only 40% of the US public read past the headlines, that means a good majority of readers have their worldviews shaped by the short bits of stories editors choose to highlight.

Yet the headlines from 23 different media outlets covering Sanders’ critique of Biden’s Social Security record obscured crucial facts by making no mention of surely pertinent information. These headlines primarily misled readers in three ways.

The first type features the unhelpful horserace journalism FAIR has consistently criticized, where the most pertinent information is not that a leading presidential candidate supports cutting a popular and successful social program, but about which campaign strategies candidates are employing in the presidential primaries:

  • Washington Post (1/19/20): “Bernie Sanders Hits Joe Biden on Social Security as the Presidential Contest Grows More Heated”
  • CNN (1/19/20): “Sanders Attacks Biden’s Record on Social Security as Primary Race Heats Up Ahead of Iowa”
  • Reuters (1/19/20): “Presidential Hopeful Sanders Renews Attack on Rival Biden’s Social Security Record”
  • HuffPost (1/18/20): “The Bernie Sanders Attack Joe Biden Can’t Ignore”
  • Miami Herald (1/19/20): “Biden Rips Sanders Campaign for Social Security Attacks”

Headlines like the Washington Post’s “Bernie Sanders Hits Joe Biden on Social Security as the Presidential Contest Grows More Heated” and CNN’s “Sanders Attacks Biden’s Record on Social Security as Primary Race Heats Up Ahead of Iowa” do not explain what Biden’s record on Social Security is, nor what Sanders’ critique of that record is.

The second variety of headlines displays corporate media’s tendency towards false balance, treating political opponents as necessarily having equal legitimacy in a political conflict.

  • New York Times (1/18/20): “Biden and Sanders Clash Over Social Security”
  • Wall Street Journal (1/18/20): “Biden and Sanders Fight Over Social Security”
  • Fox News (1/18/20): “Biden, Sanders Trade Fire Over Social Security”
  • Washington Examiner (1/18/20): “’A Flat Lie’: Biden and Bernie Sanders Fight Over Social Security”

Headlines like the New York Times’ “Biden and Sanders Clash Over Social Security” and the Wall Street Journal’s “Biden and Sanders Fight Over Social Security” not only fail to explain why Sanders and Biden are in a dispute over Social Security, but also give no clue to their audiences about who has the facts on their side.

If the Times’ lead paragraph mentions that Biden “accused Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign of distorting his record on Social Security, claiming without evidence that Mr. Sanders’s team was promoting a ‘doctored’ video, a loaded word in an era of disinformation,” why not mention the fact that Biden offered no evidence in the headline? The Journal’s treatment of Biden’s claim was even worse than the Times’, treating statements from the Biden and Sanders campaign as a “he said she said” story by presenting the Biden campaign’s accusatory statements and the Sanders campaign’s rebuttals with no indication of whether one side had greater evidence.

The third and most common variety of headline is the worst because it reverses reality:

  • USA Today (1/18/20): “Joe Biden Accuses Bernie Sanders’ Campaign of Misrepresenting His Social Security Record by Sharing ‘Doctored Video’”
  • NBC News (1/18/20): “Biden Demands Apology From Sanders Over ‘Doctored’ Video on Social Security”
  • The Hill (1/18/20): “Biden Alleges Sanders Campaign ‘Doctored Video’ to Attack Him on Social Security Record”
  • Des Moines Register (1/18/20): “Joe Biden Says Bernie Sanders’ Campaign ‘Doctored Video’ to Misrepresent Social Security Record; Sanders Campaign Flatly Denies”
  • MSNBC (1/19/20): “Biden Demanding Apology from Sanders Campaign for What He’s Calling ‘Doctored’ Video”
  • Business Insider (1/18/20): “Joe Biden Accused Bernie Sanders of Releasing a ‘Doctored Video’ to Attack Him on Social Security Cuts”
  • Inquisitr (1/18/20): “Joe Biden Accuses Bernie Sanders Campaign of Spreading ‘Doctored’ Video of Him Proposing Social Security Cuts”
  • Politico (1/18/20): “Biden Charges Sanders Camp ‘Doctored Video’ to Attack Him”
  • The Week (1/19/20): “Biden Demands Apology From Sanders Over ‘Doctored’ Video
  • CBS News (1/18/20): “Biden Accuses Sanders Campaign of Sharing ‘Doctored’ Video of Him Attacking Social Security”
  • Bloomberg News (1/18/20): “Biden Says Video Released by Sanders Campaign Is ‘a Lie’”
  • Daily Beast (1/18/20): “Biden and Sanders Spar Over Claim of ‘Doctored’ Video”
  • Guardian (1/19/20): Biden Calls for Sanders to Disown ‘Doctored’ Video on Social Security”
  • Daily Mail (1/18/20): “Dems at War: Joe Biden Accuses Bernie Sanders’ Campaign of Releasing a ‘DOCTORED’ Video of Him Discussing Cuts to Social Security”

Headlines like Politico’s “Biden Charges Sanders Camp ‘Doctored Video’ to Attack Him” and CBS’s “Biden Accuses Sanders Campaign of Sharing ‘Doctored’ Video of Him Attacking Social Security” make it seem as if Sanders is the one lying by creating a fabricated video. This is especially journalistic malpractice when these very outlets mention that the “video in question” of Biden’s 2018 remarks to the Brookings Institution think tank “was not doctored by Sanders,” and state that “despite Biden’s repeated use of the words ‘doctored’ and ‘fake,’ the video is neither of those things.”

Many of these articles uncritically cite Politifact’s obtuse attempt (1/9/20) to critique the Sanders campaign’s video, which declared that Sanders’ statement in a campaign newsletter that “in 2018, Biden lauded Paul Ryan for proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare” was false because Biden’s statements were taken out of context. Politifact highlighted Biden’s statements that “Social Security and Medicare can stay,” but failed to highlight his very next words, saying of Social Security/Medicare, “It still needs adjustments.”

What are those “adjustments”? FAIR (2/4/15, 6/25/19) has noted that euphemisms like “solution” and “adjustments” are frequently used to describe what are more accurately called cuts to Social Security. As Ryan Grim noted on Twitter (1/9/20),”‘Adjustment,’ in Washington, is a euphemism for ‘cuts.’ That’s just a basic fact of congressional lingo that can’t be disputed.” Particularly when Biden says of the retirement programs, “It still needs adjustment, but can stay,” it’s hard to see how you can read it other than as a call to “save” the programs by cutting them.

Ryan Grim (Intercept, 1/13/20): “When the program is popular, ‘adjustment’ is a Washington euphemism for cuts.”

Grim’s factcheck in the Intercept (1/13/20) of Politifact’s factcheck is far more competent, because it doesn’t confine itself solely to Biden’s remarks in a single speech, but rather situates those remarks within Biden’s 40-year history of advocating cuts to Social Security, and also decodes common centrist euphemisms for cutting Social Security. If Biden is now claiming that he opposes cuts to Social Security, it is certainly important to note that this would be a reversal of his long-held position (and how it undermines Biden’s credibility).

It’s important for media outlets to question the credibility of presidential candidates, especially with contenders like Biden, who has a history of serial lying on the campaign trail about his ideology, downplaying his support for the Iraq War or making ridiculous statements like “I have the most progressive record” of anyone running for the presidency, or misrepresenting his opponents’ Medicare for All proposals by claiming that Medicare for All proponents are trying to “scrap Obamacare” and create a “hiatus” in coverage for up to three years.

Of course, corporate media have long supported cuts to Social Security (FAIR.org, 7/21/10, 4/16/13, 6/18/18; Extra!, 5/99, 1/05), and have promoted Biden’s neoliberal ideology by disingenuously lauding centrist candidates like him as “pragmatic” (FAIR.org, 4/17/19, 4/28/19, 7/17/19, 9/9/19, 10/19/19, 10/25/19). So perhaps one shouldn’t expect these outlets to run headlines like “Joe Biden Falsely Claims that Bernie Sanders Is Spreading a ‘Doctored Video’” or “Joe Biden Is Doctoring His Record of Supporting Cuts to Social Security.”

How Western Left Media Helped Legitimate US Regime Change in Venezuela

by Lucas Koerner

In Jacobin (2/5/19)…

It’s been a year since Juan Guaidó began his US-anointed mandate as “interim president” of Venezuela.

Following the opposition leader’s failure to secure reelection as National Assembly president this month, Washington and its corporate media stenographers have hysterically decried a “coup” (FAIR.org, 1/10/20) against the coup leader, moving absurdly to recognize a new parallel parliament that he can still be in charge of.

However, the January 23 anniversary of Guaidó’s farcical self-proclamation has a darker legacy largely ignored by the corporate media: the almost unprecedented US decision to recognize a leader with no effective state control has unleashed a level of economic warfare unseen outside of Cuba, Iran or North Korea.

The recognition was a not-so-subtle signal to transnational economic actors to terminate their business with Caracas, and was followed by a crippling oil embargo, later upgraded to a blanket ban on all dealings with Venezuela’s state. Last year alone, illegal US sanctions are estimated to have destroyed one quarter of Venezuela’s economy, which had already shrunk by half since 2013, in part due to longstanding US economic siege.

Why is it that Trump is able to get away with what is effectively a policy of mass murder in Venezuela, similar to simultaneous US economic warfare against Iran?

The Western media has certainly played a crucial role in delegitimizing the democratically elected Maduro government (e.g. FAIR.org, 5/20/19, 5/23/18, 5/16/18), while systematically concealing the deadly impact of sanctions (FAIR.org, 6/26/19, 6/14/19).

However, despite nominally opposing Washington’s Venezuela policy and its corporate media gendarmerie, global North progressive media have, like during the recent coup in Bolivia (FAIR.org, 12/10/19), tended to repeat imperial ideological tropes, casting the Maduro government as authoritarian, corrupt and/or guilty of much worse human rights violations than the US and its allies.

While invariably couched in the language of “left” analysis, this coverage weakens domestic opposition to the US and other Western states’ murderous onslaught on the Venezuelan people.

The 2019 Coup

Western progressive outlets have a peculiar habit of rolling out their “critiques” of leftist or otherwise independent governments in the global South right at the moment when these states are under imperial assault, echoing the corporate media’s unanimous regime-change chorus (FAIR.org, 4/30/19).

In the days and weeks following the January 23, 2019, start of the US-backed opposition’s sixth coup effort of the past 20 years, Northern leftist publications posted a number of articles featuring scathing attacks on the Maduro administration.

…and in NACLA (2/5/19), the “left” position is that “Maduro was not democratically elected”—mainly because people who had tried to overthrow the government were not allowed to run for president.

NACLA (2/5/19) and Jacobin (2/5/19) led the charge, simultaneously publishing a piece by sociologist Gabriel Hetland denying that Maduro was democratically elected and accusing him of “increasing authoritarianism.” On top of numerous factually problematic attacks on the Venezuelan government, Hetland went as far as to outline hypothetical conditions that “potentially warranted” foreign intervention—namely a “humanitarian catastrophe”—but declining to say that they apply to Venezuela, despite the existence of what he termed a “humanitarian crisis.” The Trump administration repeatedly cites “humanitarian catastrophe” as a justification for its coup and illegal sanctions, a charge that has been echoed by corporate media and the Western human rights industrial complex.

Also in NACLA (2/13/19), Rebeca Hanson and Francisco Sanchez professed their agnosticism regarding whether Guaidó’s US-backed self-proclamation constituted a coup, stating that “depending on how the constitution is interpreted, one of the two men has a rightful claim to assume executive power.”

They went on to anecdotally note a “general sentiment in many popular sectors…that neither [the government nor opposition] ‘side’ can be trusted,” conveniently ignoring the fact that around 31% of the Venezuelan electorate voted to reelect Maduro in May 2018 and a similar percent of the population told Pew they trusted the government a few months later. A smaller percentage of the electorate routinely wins elections in the US.  That is, around 6 million people—overwhelmingly from Venezuela’s working-class and poor sectors—still support Maduro.

Despite the authors’ pretension of ethnographic “nuance,” the mask drops when they editorially decry Maduro’s “cronyism, corruption and exploitation”—claims they make no effort to factually justify. They also falsely accuse state security forces of having “killed 21,752 people” in 2016, when the very report they link to places the figure at 4,667, which is still quite high but must be properly contextualized (Venezuelanalysis.com, 7/12/19).

Vanessa Baird hit on similar themes a few days prior in the New Internationalist (1/24/19), lampooning Maduro as “hardly a model leader or democrat.” Indeed, the author appeared to be unaware that Maduro was ever elected at all, stating that his “lamentable rule…started when Hugo Chavez died in 2013.”

A month later, as the US prepared to force “humanitarian aid” into Venezuela and fears of war loomed large, Baird (New Internationalist, 2/12/19) mused about “the desirability of Maduro stepping down.” She then produced a laundry list of misrepresentations about Maduro, which appeared to have been partly lifted, albeit with even less nuance, from Hetland’s article for NACLA (2/5/19) and Jacobin (2/5/19). “Technically, Maduro was the winner of the May 2018 elections—but only after banning leading opposition parties and candidates from running,” she claims:

This—along with cancelling a recall referendum in 2016, dissolving the opposition-led National Assembly in 2017, and “stealing” the October 2017 governor elections—has seriously dented his democratic credentials.

In this last assertion, she goes well beyond what even anti-Maduro analysts like Francisco Rodriguez and Dorothy Kronick have claimed.

The Nation (3/13/19) for a “negotiated resolution” in Venezuela—i.e., regime change.

Following the devastating March blackouts, The Nation (3/13/19) likewise posted a piece by Hetland, lambasting Maduro as “corrupt and increasingly repressive” and claiming that his “authoritarian” government “bears primary responsibility for the country’s dire situation,” though conceding that “US sanctions and violence by the US-supported opposition have contributed to Venezuelans’ suffering.”

The article contained wild factual inaccuracies, including the claim that Caracas residents were collecting water from the extremely polluted Guaire River, as well as misleading death statistics from the blackouts. Hetland also cites pro-opposition pollster Datanalisis to assert that an “estimated 15% of the population” supports Chavismo, a dramatic underestimation refuted by the fact that Maduro won 6.2 million votes in 2018—or 31% of the total electorate—which is firmly in line with Chavista turnout levels since 2013.  Datanalisis also badly overestimated what opposition turnout would be in both the 2017 regional elections and the 2018 presidential elections, undermining its credibility.

Around the same time, NACLA (3/26/19) published an article with the claim that

Maduro’s record includes suffocating democratic institutions and procedures, colossal economic mismanagement, vast corruption, repression, human rights violations and a humanitarian crisis.

The author, Dimitris Pantoulas, offers no evidence to support his accusations and, more incredibly, makes no mention of illegal US sanctions, which have severely exacerbated Venezuela’s crisis, blocking political and economic solutions. Pantoulas goes on to blame the US-led coup on democratically re-elected Maduro, whose “resistance to democratic solutions made his opponents…concentrate their efforts on ousting him by any means necessary.”

Just one day after the failed US-backed April 30 military putsch, Dissent (5/1/19) published an article with the sensational claim that “Venezuela today is simply not a democracy.” The author, Jared Abbott, fired off a series of deceptive claims, including repeating US propaganda that illegal sanctions “were supposed to target” only government officials, rather than intentionally destroy what was left of Venezuela’s economy. Not content to delegitimize the 2018 elections with the canard that an opposition victory “was close to impossible,” Abbott recited US State Department talking points impugning “past elections under Chavismo” as “hardly models of fairness” on the grounds of unequal access to state resources, ignoring the US government’s massive support for the opposition over the course of its six coup attempts since 2002. The author also rehashes Hetland’s dubious Dananalisis-sourced claims about Maduro’s support, lamenting the “insidious pathologies” and “authoritarianism” of a global South political movement under murderous imperial siege.

A few weeks later, Jacobin (5/23/19) published another article by Hetland. The university professor backpedaled on some of his previous claims, but nevertheless made a point of excoriating “government repression of peaceful protest and dissent amid a broader turn away from political democracy and towards authoritarian rule.” Hetland appeared to be entirely unaware that the opposition attempted a coup d’etat scarcely three weeks before, and that top opposition figures were permitted to lead sizeable anti-government street rallies literally the day after.

Likewise writing in Jacobin (9/30/19), just weeks after the Trump administration escalated its sanctions regime to a sweeping embargo, Michael Brooks and Ben Burgis rightly blamed imperial violence for blocking the sovereign development of global South countries like Venezuela. But the authors also felt compelled to echo Washington in “acknowledg[ing] the reality of the Venezuelan government’s authoritarianism.” They went on to state that

the premise that [presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders’] brand of democratic socialism would involve anything like the kind of repressive crackdowns that have happened recently in Venezuela is absurd.

It’s hard to know whether to judge such an incredible statement as condescendingly Eurocentric or just plain naive, given that a Sanders administration would likely face some kind of establishment coup effort if it tried to implement its radical agenda, and its legitimate attempts to defend itself would inevitably be deemed “repressive” by elites.

The 2017 Insurrection 

This pattern of progressive “critiques” of Chavismo and the Maduro government just at the moment when the country is under heightened imperial onslaught is not new.

From April through late July 2017, Venezuela’s right-wing opposition launched a violent street insurrection aimed at ousting the president, similar to the leadup to Bolivia’s November 2019 coup d’etat. Over 125 people were killed, including protesters, bystanders and government supporters.

NACLA (4/28/17) faults both its own government for trying to overthrow Venezuela’s, but also blames Venezuela’s government for the way it responds to attempts to overthrow it.

NACLA (4/28/17) and Jacobin (republished 5/14/17) fired the opening shots on that occasion as well, posting yet another article by Hetland declaring that “opposition violence and the government’s increasing authoritarianism are both to blame” for the bloodshed. As in his more recent NACLA (2/5/19)/Jacobin (2/5/19) piece, the academic cited a laundry list of “authoritarian” abuses riddled with factual errors and outright misrepresentations. Hetland urged leftists to “reject any and all calls for imperialist interventions,” yet declined to acknowledge his own government’s illegal sanctions targeting Venezuela, which, according to economist Mark Weisbrot (The New York Times, 6/30/16), “helped convince major financial institutions not to make otherwise low-risk loans, collateralized by gold, to the Venezuelan government.”

As the deadly anti-government protests continued to escalate, Jacobin (5/19/17) went after Caracas-based Latin American television network teleSUR. The author, Patrick Iber, quoted several academics describing the state channel as “a totally useless source of information” and a “lapdog” for the government. Readers may find it painfully obvious that teleSUR, like every other state outlet on the planet, has an editorial line largely shaped by its state’s geopolitical interests. Nevertheless, Iber and his editors decided to prejudicially exceptionalize teleSUR in this regard, while amazingly ignoring the fact that Venezuela was under assault by their own imperial state at that very moment.

With the danger of civil war looming larger and larger, Jacobin (7/8/17) went on to publish a particularly unhinged “think” piece by Mike Gonzalez, which went as far as to suggest that a helicopter terrorist attack against government installations perpetrated by a rogue police officer was a false flag operation. The article was so scandalous that the editors allowed the publication of a contrasting perspective by George Ciccariello-Maher (Jacobin, 7/29/19) debunking Gonzalez’s falsehoods.

The deck was, however, already stacked in favor of those voices assailing the Venezuelan government as “authoritarian” or “anti-democratic,” which one might resonably conclude to be the editorial line of the magazine. It would appear that dissent from this orthodoxy is the exception, not the rule, for Jacobin’s editors, who have all but refused to publish contrarian opinions, including this author’s critiques of Gabriel Hetland (Venezuelanalysis.com, 5/19/17; Mint Press News, 2/25/19) submitted to the leftist journal.

This editorial line also appears to be well-entrenched at Dissent and the New Internationalist, which have both declined to provide their readers with dissenting viewpoints.

It’s worth noting that NACLA has displayed more balance in its Venezuela coverage, publishing a broader spectrum of perspectives on both the Maduro government and the position of the international left (e.g., 5/11/17, 7/21/17, 7/26/17, 10/4/17, 5/18/18, 5/25/18). In 2019, the journal likewise published alternative viewpoints critiquing US regime change and the right-wing Venezuelan opposition (2/8/19, 5/23/19; 5/31/19, 8/14/19), though none addressed the controversial issue of international left solidarity with the Maduro government. Nevertheless, the number of articles repeating US imperial discourse portraying the Venezuelan government as “authoritarian,” “corrupt,” “repressive” or otherwise illegitimate (e.g., 2/5/19, 2/13/19, 3/26/19) notably increased relative to 2017.  For its part, The Nation has been more consistent in publishing a more expansive range of perspectives on Venezuela (e.g., 5/1/17, 5/26/17, 1/25/19, 5/2/19).

Uncritical criticism 

As I explained in my previous article on Bolivia (FAIR.org, 12/10/19), the purpose is not to censor leftist debate on Venezuela and the Bolivarian process. The problem is that the progressive media overage we have reviewed above largely amounts to what Lenin termed “uncritical criticism.”

Despite rightly repudiating US sanctions and threats of military intervention, Western leftist critics accept the very imperial ideological premises justifying the murderous onslaught.

By employing the thoroughly Orientalist discourse of “authoritarianism” and “human rights,” these critics wittingly or unwittingly delegitimize a government which is arguably more legitimate than any number of regional governments that face no credible external threat at all.

Angel Prado: “We take a firm position supporting our government as long as it maintains an unwavering stance against imperialism.” (photo: Saber y Poder)

In critiquing the Maduro administration, Northern leftists would be wise to heed the words of real revolutionaries on the ground in Venezuela, such as El Maizal Socialist Commune spokesperson Angel Prado, who told this author:

We have indeed been very critical of some policies of our government. Honestly we don’t support some of the pacts made with reformist sectors, with certain economic sectors. But we take a firm position supporting our government as long as it maintains an unwavering stance against imperialism….

We are working very hard in our popular movement—the political base for this process—and one day we are going to have enough strength not only to combat US imperialism, but also those [internal] sectors that have been unfortunately harming our process, enriching themselves in a context of war….

But above all, we as a people have preserved our unity, despite the difficult situation of the last six years, and we have refused to allow US imperialism to put its boots here. I think it’s a very important victory on the part of the Venezuelan people, and the world should know it.

With total clarity, Prado identifies the national confrontation with US imperialism as primary, while recognizing that final victory depends on defeating bureaucratic elites intent on using the crisis to entrench their class power.

If revolutionaries like the El Maizal communards are unequivocal in backing their government against imperialism—despite being on the receiving end of state repression—then Western progressives ought to show similar integrity in uncompromisingly opposing their own states’ rapacious violence abroad.

 

‘The Driving Force Is to Help Polluters Get Their Permits Faster’ - CounterSpin interview with Brett Hartl on NEPA

Janine Jackson interviewed the Center for Biological Diversity’s Brett Hartl on the National Environmental Policy Act for the January 10, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: You see the horrifying pictures of Australia’s red skies, of the charred bodies of animals—more than a billion, we’re now told—killed in the bush fires, along with at least 25 people. And you think, “How is this happening?” And then you hear officials promising defiantly to keep burning coal, and you think, “How is this happening?”

DeSmog Blog (1/3/20)

Then you read a story like one recently in DeSmog Blog, about how Rick Perry, newly resigned as Trump’s Energy Secretary, has just rejoined the board at Energy Transfer, the pipeline company behind Dakota Access, now seeking to double the flow through that system, and how Energy Transfer just got a $30 million fine for a 2018 explosion in its Revolution Pipeline in Pennsylvania, along with the lifting of the permit bar that blocked it from future pipeline projects.

And you see how this is happening.

Even as we see the reality and know the science, the revolving doors and interlocking boards, and public agencies that are decimated and demoralized, make possible unthinkable power grabs like one currently taking aim at the right of communities to weigh in on our climate future.

Joining us to talk about this undercover maneuver is Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. He joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Brett Hartl.

Brett Hartl: Thanks a lot for having me.

JJ: Well, fill folks in. What does the National Environmental Policy Act do, and what would these changes that have been proposed by the Trump administration mean?

BH: Sure. So the National Environmental Policy Act, which everybody calls NEPA for short, is the first law of the modern environmental movement. It was passed in 1970. It just had its 50th anniversary a week ago. So it came before the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and all the others. And what it does is it requires the federal government, every agency, to make sure that they consider the consequences, the environmental consequences, of their upcoming, proposed activities: whether it’s building a coal mine, logging a forest, drilling for oil and gas, but even things like, you know, building a new highway, relatively noncontroversial items that might actually have unintended consequences.

It also requires the federal government to consider the voices of the people in the process of making a decision, by soliciting public comment, by providing the public with critical information about what might happen if something were to proceed or not. So it’s a very democratic law that’s designed to give everybody a voice in big-picture government decision-making. And for 50 years, we’ve had this law on the books; we’ve had regulations that set the rules of the game for how this process plays out.

Now, for the first time, we’re seeing with the Trump administration a very partisan attack, basically taking a sledgehammer to these key regulations that will make this entire environmental review very much a paperwork exercise, cursory, no real discussions of the real-world impacts, and also limit the public’s information about upcoming actions, limit the ability to comment by putting in these arbitrary deadlines for completion. And the driving force in all of this is to help special interests and polluters get their permits faster, whether they want to drill for oil and gas, or dig coal out of the ground, or other really destructive activities. That’s what’s motivating these changes, because they don’t help the public, they don’t help the environment; this is just the latest gift to the swamp.

JJ: And these changes tip their hand, if they didn’t already, by saying explicitly that you don’t need to consider impacts, or potential impacts, from climate disruption, isn’t that so? Or do they just mean that?

BH: Yeah, its the latter. So what they’ve done is, in the regulations up ‘til now, there is a requirement to consider what they call “cumulative impacts.” And that sort of encapsulates climate, because, obviously, no one thing, like you said, destroys the climate. But if you drill 10,000 new wells, or you mine a billion new tons of coal, those cumulative impacts—the greenhouse gas emissions—that’s what drives climate change. That’s what drives these crazy fires in Australia; it’s not just one project, it’s all of them together.

And, basically, what they’re saying is, from this day forward, you don’t have to consider what happens if you build another fossil fuel, coal-fired power plant, or log a forest, or drill another 10,000 oil wells in the West. So it’s somewhat indirect, it’s a little bit wonky, but the upshot is that climate will just be ignored, as if climate change is not happening, when it comes to environmental reviews moving forward.

JJ: And of course, that’s huge. I mean, if you pretend that there aren’t any costs associated with it, then your profit is going to look better, deals are going to look better, if you can ‘pretend away’ certain kinds of impacts. You almost want to laugh at it, but this is going to have—if it’s passed, and we’ll talk about that, if it goes through—could have devastating impacts.

BH: Yeah. And I’ll say, too, that cumulative impacts is not just climate. I mean, climate is very important.

JJ: Right.

BH: But cumulative impacts, the way I describe it, that is the actual assessment of the real world in all of its complexities and nuances and feedback loops and unintended consequences and tipping points. It’s the reason that water pollution gets worse the farther downstream you go; it’s because one particular instance of water pollution is bad, but when they accumulate, that’s what makes people sick.

You know, air pollution is worse as it gets more and more; in terms of breathing, the people that suffer are the ones that are feeling these cumulative impacts. Wildlife populations feel cumulative impacts. If you are doing more and more seismic exploration offshore, it’s that cumulative noise in the ocean that harms whales.

JJ: You could say it’s “penny wise, pound foolish,” but the deeper question is really, who will pay?

BH: Exactly.

Brett Hartl: “The upshot is that climate will just be ignored, as if climate change is not happening, when it comes to environmental reviews moving forward.”

JJ: Some media accounts are dutifully reporting the government’s assertion that these changes are about efficiencies–you know, regulations hold up projects. We talked about this a couple of years ago with regard to efforts to ”improve” the Endangered Species Act. We’re not being cynical, are we, to say that the problem is not that, in this case, NEPA didn’t work, but that it does work?

BH: Trump and his cronies love to highlight the anecdotes of the projects that take forever. And, yeah, every once in a while there’s one or two outlier projects that take a very, very long time. The reason is usually they’re really, really stupid projects, that also probably have huge funding issues. And they stall out because there’s no money to do them, or there’s not enough staff to process them, because Republicans have been so effective at strangling the government in terms of funding, so that staff are just overwhelmed all the time. Most projects get done in a pretty reasonable amount of time.

Going slow to allow people to provide inputs and thoughts about what might happen is worth thinking about for a year or two or three. Because if you force these arbitrary deadlines, you basically don’t allow for the possibility that something unexpected might happen. And that’s how you really get things like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, or another pipeline spilling or breaching. Catastrophes happen. And if you don’t think through the possible consequences at the front end, someone’s going to suffer.

So I think it’s always better to make the right decision, take time, and make sure you’ve thought it through. The only ones that really benefit from this notion of expediting it is, you know, the industry people. The people that have to live with this on the ground, suffer. And we see it time and time again, you know; you see it in low-income communities and communities of color. They bear the brunt of it, as does the environment and wildlife.

So yeah, every once in a while, a project goes a really, really long time. But most of the time, NEPA works pretty darn well.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. You can find their work on this and other issues online at biologicaldiversity.org. Bret Hartl, thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

BH: Thanks for having me.

 

Netflix, Iran and the Documentary as Geopolitical Weapon

by Brian Mier

Netflix‘s Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy

Like The Mechanism before it, Netflix’s new series Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy is an entertainment product that advances US interests through character assassination of a popular left-wing Latin American leader.

“Try saying this,” the director said:  “‘In the ’80s, Rio de Janeiro was a land of the haves and the have nots. I was a have not.’” In 2016, I was working as a fixer on an episode of a Netflix documentary crime series, and the main character was not cooperating with the script.

He was Afro-Brazilian, but he was not the stereotype they had imagined while preparing the story in England. He had never lived in a favela, was educated in elite private schools, and was an Army special forces captain before entering a life of crime. “In the ’80s,” he said, “Rio de Janeiro was a land of the haves and the have nots. I was a have.”

To the production team’s credit, after half an hour of trying to get him to say he was a “have not,” they changed the story to better fit what really happened. But this episode illustrates an important point that most casual viewers are unaware of: Nearly all documentaries are highly manipulated.

As I learned on the set of various TV documentaries, if an important character refuses to give an interview, their importance to the “narrative thread” of the documentary is minimized, and the script is adjusted accordingly. Characters are prone to get more airtime and scripts are likewise adjusted if they have expressive facial features, good eyebrow control and appear pretty, handsome or humorous on camera. All of this makes sense if the end product is entertainment, but what happens when the program involves real people in positions of power?

Furthermore, if documentarians regularly manipulate narratives and script dialogue for entertainment purposes, wouldn’t it be reasonable to think  that they may also do this to advance the geopolitical interests of the companies that hire them? The Capital Group, for example, is the largest investor in both Netflix and Shell, a corporation that has made  billions of dollars through petroleum privatizations by right-wing governments in South America. Could it be that it and the other big mutual funds that invest in both Netflix and the oil industry, such as Blackrock, use their power to influence content in a manner similar to how governments influence the TV and film industry in accord with their geopolitical interests?

Netflix‘s The Mechanism

During Brazil’s 2018 election year, Netflix launched a dramatic series called The Mechanism, which portrayed a thinly disguised character based on former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—who in real life was leading all polls for a return to the presidency, with double the popularity of his nearest rival, the neofascist Jair Bolsonaro—as a criminal mastermind behind a multi-billion dollar corruption scheme. This led to a boycott drive in Brazil, international media attention, an apology by director José Padilha, and probably influenced Netflix’s purchase of transmission rights to The Process, an Oscar-nominated documentary about the 2016 Brazilian parliamentary coup that was less biased against Lula’s center-left PT party.

On January 1, four days before the US assassinated Iranian General Soleimani, Netflix launched a six-part documentary series called Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy, about the death of conservative prosecutor Alberto Nisman. He was found dead in his bathroom five days after accusing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and four of her aides of treason, in connection to an alleged cover up of Iranian involvement in the 1994 AMIA Jewish cultural center bombings that killed 85 people.

The documentary makes it clear that the treason charges are frivolous. Treason can only take place, according to Argentinian law, during a time of war. Nisman accused Kirchner and her aides of covering up for Iran in exchange for a bilateral agreement between the two nations which was never ratified. Finally, as the documentary painstakingly shows, despite 20 years of joint investigations between the police, intelligence services, the FBI and the US Department of Justice, nobody has ever been able to provide any material evidence linking Iran to the bombing (FAIR.org, 11/3/15).

But this is what series director Justin Webster refers to as “cinematic non-fiction,” and the facts do not seem  as important as the tone and the mood. It spends a lot more time with the Prosecutor and the Spy characters than it does with former President Kirchner, who averages about one minute of airtime per episode.

Alberto Nisman in Nisman

Nisman, coming to life through old footage and stories from friends and family, gets the lion’s share of attention. The week before his death, he appears nervous about having to defend his treason accusations in front of Congress, initially saying he will only appear to members of the sympathetic and conservative Republican Proposal party, and if there are no reporters. When he is told it will be a public hearing, he asks his friend, Congressmember Laura Alonso, to postpone it for a week.

The night before the hearing, his body is found in his bathroom, in what is initially ruled a suicide. As sad music plays in the background, Alonso talks about the dark mood that was sweeping over the country and her worries about her friend.

We are not told that Alonso is former Argentine director of Transparency International, the ostensibly “anti-corruption” NGO which is funded by the US and British governments, Exxon Mobil and Shell (Guardian, 5/22/08). We are not told that Alonso was the most vocal public critic of Kirchner’s nationalization of the petroleum industry, or that she directly benefited from the charges filed against Kirchner, assuming the position of Anti-Corruption Minister in the Mauricio Macri government. In the doc, she is just a concerned friend.

Nisman‘s Jaime Stiuso

According to Webster, the other two main characters in the series, the Spy and the President, are “Shakespearean.” The Spy is Antonio “Jaime” Stiuso, a 42-year veteran of Argentina’s State Intelligence Secretariat (SIDE) with close ties to the CIA and the Mossad. He was in the agency during the Argentine military junta’s Dirty War, when it participated in the notorious “disappearances”  of leftists, 30,000 of whom were machine-gunned down, or drugged and pushed out of airplanes into the South Atlantic. He was corrupt and dangerous but, like the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, apparently too powerful to fire, until Cristina Kirchner did it in December 2014, one month before his partner Alberto Nisman filed treason charges against her.

In terms of entertainment value, Stiuso is a fantastic character, and he gets more airtime than any other living person in the documentary. With a boyish gleam in his eye and a quick, mysterious grin, he is the type of subject documentary-makers dream about, and is already showing himself to be a favorite of the critics—“charming and evasive,” according to Variety (9/23/19).

Despite appearing in the title, President Cristina Kirchner is not seen much in Nisman.

The third main character, President Kirchner,  in office from 2007–15, is a center-left politician who rejected Washington consensus economic policies in favor of Keynesian developmentalism, and reached out to Washington bete noires like Fidel Castro, Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez. She  set an example for leaders around the world by strengthening labor unions, initiating large minimum wage hikes and by renationalizing strategic companies that had been privatized during the disastrous IMF-imposed structural adjustment period of the 1990s, including the train system, the water system, the Aerolinas airline company and the YPF oil company. Her government was marked by high growth rates and innovative redistributive policies that reduced inequality. Consequently, she became extremely popular with the poor and working class.

After Nisman died, Alonso’s right-wing Republican Proposal party capitalized on the frivolous treason charges against Kirchner, spread conspiracy theories about his death and catapulted party leader Mauricio Macri to the presidency. Praised by Barack Obama and English-language corporate media, Macri used presidential decrees to immediately gut the public health and education systems, lay off tens of thousands of public sector workers, reestablish a relationship with the IMF and implement privatization.

As had happened during the IMF structural-adjustment period, poverty skyrocketed and widespread hunger led to food riots. As Macri’s popularity plummeted, fellow Nisman character Alberto Fernandez won the presidential election by 7 percentage points, with Cristina Kirchner as his VP; they took office on December 10, 2019. You would have no idea that any of this had happened by watching Nisman.

Cristina Kirchner is one of the most fascinating political characters of the 21st century, but all we see of her in Nisman are short speech fragments and soundbites, peppered with unflattering photos and ominous background music.

During her 50 seconds of airtime in episode 5, for example, she says, “This isn’t an issue that started here in Argentina, it is a political, judicial and communications matrix that extends throughout the entire region.” Kirchner is talking about “lawfare,” the weaponized use of legal tactics to destroy political enemies. This has indeed been applied to left and center-left politicians across Latin America, often with the support of the US Department of Justice, as happened to her friend and former Brazilian President Lula, who was arrested on frivolous charges with no material evidence in order to bar him from the 2018 presidential elections.

The frivolous treason accusation against her, also apparently prepared in partnership with the US DOJ, is another clear example of lawfare. Taking a small fragment of a speech on this subject out of context, however, makes her look like a paranoid conspiracy theorist. This is ironic to see in a six-part documentary that is entirely built upon two conspiracy theories which, as is shown in the series itself, do not have any material evidence to back them up.

Audiences “may well come to a conclusion, one open to interpretation, though it not for me to say,” director Justin Webster told Variety (9/23/19).

This is not to say that the documentary is totally one-sided. Throughout, there are moments in which members of Kirchner’s party and journalists—all men—defend her. Importantly, however, Webster chose not to let her defend herself, despite the widespread availability of archival footage in which she does so eloquently.

In  Variety (9/23/19), Webster says:

The rules with fiction and non-fiction are completely different in a sense of the relationship with the truth. A good non-fiction story is showing you “this much is true,” uncovering the details, the evidence…. It’s not like there is one version of the truth and another version of the truth, there is only one truth.

The problem is, a television director is not a judge or a prosecutor, and normally has little knowledge of the law. The proper venue for deciding whether the president of a foreign nation is guilty is a court of law, not a television channel controlled by corporate investors who have a vested interest in privatizations in the nation presided over by that president. In a court of law, defendants have the right to to defend themselves, normally through a final argument. In a documentary, the director can arbitrarily decide to limit someone they’re accusing of a crime to one minute of airtime per episode.

Given the long history of US-backed right-wing coups in Latin America, most recently in Argentina’s neighbor Bolivia, given the rising tensions between the US and Iran, and given the fact that neocon Foundation for Defense of Democracies vice president Toby Dershowitz, who appears in the documentary, began associating Fernandez and Kirchner with Iranian terrorists as soon as they took office last month, it would be reasonable to suspect that the US and its integral state allies in the corporate media are going to use this nonexistent Iran story from 1994 as justification for a coup attempt in Argentina in the near future.

Nisman is beautifully filmed and entertaining, and director Justin Webster does a good job uncovering the relationship between the FBI, CIA and Argentinian intelligence services. But the bottom line is that he casts suspicion on Cristina Kirchner even though he knows that there is no proof against her.

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