Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

Distorting Facts to Blame the Left for Antisemitism

 

“Do yourself a favor and read this thread,” tweeted scheduled RNC speaker Mary Ann Mendoza—which included the claim that ”‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ is not a fabrication. And it certainly is not anti-Semetic [sic] to point out this fact” (CNN, 8/25/20).

The Republican National Convention had to pull a scheduled speaker from its Tuesday night lineup when it was discovered that anti-immigrant advocate Mary Ann Mendoza had peddled antisemitic conspiracy theories on Twitter that very same day, including a link to the hoary Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This is par for the right-wing course; antisemitic incidents in the United States hit their highest peak in the last four decades in 2019, according to the Associated Press (5/12/20), and a great deal of it has been tied to the racial extremism coming from the Trump administration and its defenders. But a few media outlets want to pin this as much or more on “the left,” based on a lot of distortion and dishonest engagement.

A recent iteration comes from one of Jewish media’s main voices, the Forward (7/30/20), where Yale law student Emily Shire complains that progressives pull their punches when antisemitism comes from the left.

Her op-ed spends most of its time worrying about antisemitism from athletes and celebrities, like rapper Ice Cube, and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. But while Ice Cube’s contributions to hip-hop are legendary, his influence on the US political left is almost nonexistent. That’s noteworthy because Public Enemy, whose lyrics are much more associated with the left, actually did have a member who said antisemitic things, and was promptly removed from the group (New York Times, 8/11/89).

The association of Farrakhan with the left is a giveaway: Just because he is Black and talks about poverty doesn’t make him a leftist. As the late contrarian journalist Christopher Hitchens, then a columnist at the Nation, said on C-SPAN (3/1/93) upon the release of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X biopic, the NoI’s obsession with small businesses, sobriety and sexual traditionalism makes it, if anything, a poster child for the Reaganite right. As political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. wrote in Class Notes, the NoI’s

racial militancy often rests atop basically conventional, if not conservative, aspirations: for example, the desire to penetrate—or create Black-controlled alternatives to—the “glass ceiling” barring access to the upper reaches of corporate wealth and power. Radical rhetoric is attractive when it speaks to their frustrations as members of a minority, as long as it does not conflict with their hopes for corporate success.

Take any essay about the current Black-led uprisings around the country from left publications; a lot of groups and names come up, but the Nation of Islam and Farrakhan  are pretty much absent.

This kind of bad-faith rhetoric (jumping from a rapper and a well-known demagogue to the entire political left) is part of a trend in US media that tries to divorce the rise of antisemitism from the rise of far-right leaders like Donald Trump (or Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, or France’s Marine Le Pen). The narrative these pieces insinuate goes: Yes, much of the violent antisemitism we see in the world today comes from the far-right, but anti-Israel sentiment on the left is another head of the same beast—and one that seems more interesting to talk about, for whatever reasons.

The New York Times (11/14/19) illustrates an op-ed about “progressive antisemitism” with a photo of “anti-Israel demonstrators.”

George Washington University undergraduate Blake Flayton wrote in the New York Times (11/14/19) about the hostility Zionists face on campus, conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism, as is old hat, and even Times columnist Michelle Goldberg (10/7/18) has debunked this equation. But Flayton offers something more when he complains that a group on his campus had described Zionism “as a ‘transnational project,’ an antisemitic trope that characterizes the desire for a Jewish state as a bid for global domination by the Jewish people.”

This is just gaslighting. Zionism is by definition the idea of relocating Diasporic Jews to Israel, and thus inherently “transnational.” This idea has sustained numerous international groups dedicated to strengthening ties between Jews in the Diaspora with Israel, not just so that they might support the Jewish state, but in hopes that some might move there.

In the Washington Post (8/13/19), columnist Marc Thiessen also sounded the alarm about rising “left antisemitism”―again, mostly going over old territory about how Israel gets unfairly singled out for criticism by the left, supposedly an indication of latent antisemitism — although this argument has been called out as “whataboutism” in places like Middle East Monitor (8/30/16) . But he goes beyond suggesting that advocacy of Palestinian rights is motivated by Jew hatred, lumping the left in with actual fascism—quoting Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum director Piotr Cywiński saying, “Do not forget that the Nazi Party in Germany was a party of workers.” “We are many times thinking about the Nazis as far right,” Cywiński adds, but the party spoke “to the left, using some leftist language.”

In superficial internet debates, pointing out that the National Socialist Workers Party had the words “socialist” and “workers” in it is a common trope, but we should expect more serious analysis on an important opinion page. The main tendency Cywiński is alluding to is a Nazi faction called the Strasserists, named for two brothers who promoted a supposedly pro-worker version of fascism, calling for empowering Aryan workers against what they saw as Jewish-dominated capitalism. But this flank was purged out of the party by 1934, when Gregor Strasser was murdered in the Night of the Long Knives, allowing Adolf Hitler to monopolize Nazism almost completely.

The Washington Post (8/13/19) represents “the rise of antisemitism on the left” with a photo of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.

And much as Trump caters to white working-class voters with false promises of bringing back manufacturing jobs—while ripping up union rights and attacking socialists—so too did the Nazis trumpet the supremacy of its nation’s pure and Aryan workers while crushing trade unions, and waging literal war against Communists and socialists, tying the Jewish threat to Bolshevism.

Interestingly, the Washington Post (2/4/20) later published a piece denouncing the very kind of rhetorical trick Thiessen used, with historian Ronald Granieri calling the attempt to tie left-leaning parties to Nazism “nothing less than historical and political sophistry that attempts to turn effect into cause and victim into victimizer.”

There are more examples of strained efforts to link the left to antisemitism. Jill Filipovic at CNN (7/29/20) balanced overt antisemitism from the Republicans with, again, reference to Ice Cube and Farrakhan. David Hirsh, an academic who campaigns against academic boycotts of Israel, wrote a book about how anti-Zionism in progressive spaces masks antisemitism, although his critics like the Electronic Intifada (3/5/13) have described his perspectives as “misrepresentation.”

The bitter irony here is that this weaponization of Jewishness and exaggeration of antisemitism on the left is, as FAIR (1/28/20, 12/21/19) has pointed out, a frequent tool the press has used against Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, the latter of whom is a Jewish socialist who has had to endure antisemitic attacks from the right and center. And many left outlets, like The Nation, Progressive and In These Times, do, in fact, frequently confront antisemitism.

The New York Post (8/24/20) accused the Biden campaign of “privately pandering” to “anti-Israel activists” after an aide apologized for the “pain” caused by the campaign’s denunciation of Muslim American activist Linda Sarsour.

Media attempts to label the left as antisemitic have caused headaches for the Democrats as well. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, calling himself a “vehement opponent of antisemitism,” attempted to distance himself from Muslim activist Linda Sarsour for her outspoken criticism of Israel (New York Post, 8/19/20). But Biden needs Arab and Muslim votes in order to win states like Michigan, so his participation in this narrative forced him into damage-control mode, apologizing to Muslim Democrats for speaking out against Sarsour (New York Post, 8/24/20). There’s a familiar theme in this thread, because much of the accusation of antisemitism against Sarsour, a key organizer of the Women’s March, rests on her unwillingness to denounce Farrakhan (Atlantic, 3/8/18).

There is nothing wrong with diving deep into antisemitism’s ability to creep across the political spectrum, or even into anti-Israel circles–for example, when a KKK leader like David Duke complains about “Zionists,” we can safely assume he’s using it as a code word for “Jews.” The New Yorker (1/3/20) took a relatively more nuanced approach to identifying antisemitism as hard to pin as left or right. And when there are legitimate cases of antisemitic activism on the left, there are usually voices on the left that raise the issue (Guardian, 8/26/15). Writer April Rosenblum published a pamphlet on the topic.

But as FAIR (11/6/18) has covered in the past, journalists have often, in the face of antisemitic violence from the right (like the Tree of Life massacre), looked to exaggerate instances of liberals or leftists saying unsavory things as a way to provide a kind of partisan balance. This is as unfair as it is insensitive to the victims of right-wing terror: A closed-borders zealot shooting up a synagogue is just not in the same category as college students being too loud about suffering in Gaza.

Pieces like these are ideologically driven, which is fine, but they feel the need to distort facts to get the conclusion they want. They use red herrings like Farrakhan to somehow represent the ascendant left, engage in dubious history and demand that certain aspects of a prominent political movement simply can’t be uttered. This is as offensive to Jews as it is to journalism.

Featured image: The Forward‘s collage (7/30/20) of “left” antisemites: Former Philadelphia NAACP head Rodney Muhammad, rapper Ice Cube, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and pop singer Madonna.

 

Hiding the Impact of US Sanctions on Lebanon

 

Like most stories on the Lebanese economic crisis, this Vox piece (8/5/20) never mentions the word “sanctions.”

The disastrous August 4 explosion of an ammonium nitrate shipment in Beirut brought Lebanon’s political and economic turmoil to the fore in US media, with reports that it’s likely “the blast will make the spiraling economic situation worse” (Vox, 8/5/20). That Lebanon is enduring a major financial crisis was made clear; that US sanctions regimes have contributed to the problem was obscured in the coverage. However, America’s economic strangulation of Iran and Syria is harming Lebanon, as are similar policies directed against the Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Both a political party and a militia, Hezbollah has long been detested by the US foreign policy establishment, which blames Hezbollah for the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, an attack that forced the Reagan administration to cut short its intervention in the country. That Hezbollah partners with Iran; that it compelled one of America’s regional proxies, Israel, to end its 18-year occupation of Lebanon; and that it successfully fended off Israel’s merciless 2006 assault on Lebanon’s civilian population, makes Hezbollah even less popular in Washington.

The US’s Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015 expanded economic sanctions on the group and its TV channel, Al-Manar, to keep the party from accessing banks and to undermine its financial operations. The move “add[ed] pressure to Lebanon’s already struggling banking sector, further burdening the country’s economy,” wrote the US-based Mideastern news site Al-Monitor (1/14/16). The law followed “many other decisions designed to tighten the noose around Hezbollah’s neck and block it from the global banking system.”

In August 2019, the US placed sanctions on Lebanon’s Jammal Trust Bank (JTB), which the Trump administration said supported Hezbollah. In Lebanon, JTB “is known for microfinance products targeting marginalized communities, who are disproportionately Shia” (Financial Times, 8/30/19). This was not the first time US sanctions compelled one of Lebanon’s banks to shut down: The same happened in 2011 when the US claimed that the Lebanese Canadian Bank, one of the five most important banks in Lebanon (The National, 6/27/20), had ties to Hezbollah.

Last October, the Trump administration intensified sanctions on Hezbollah “and institutions linked to it to unprecedented levels,” targeting elected members of Lebanon’s parliament and warning that the sanctions “could soon expand to [Hezbollah’s] allies, further deepening [Lebanon’s] economic crisis” (AP, 10/4/19).

It’s not only US sanctions against Hezbollah that harm Lebanon, but also the US’s economic wars against Iran and Syria. US government sanctions on Iran have curtailed Tehran’s ability to give money to Hezbollah, which uses it not only for military purposes but also for “the once ample spending programs that underpinned the group’s support among Lebanon’s historically impoverished Shiite community” (Washington Post, 5/18/19). Because of the sanctions on Iran, these programs “have been slashed, including the supply of free medicines and even groceries to fighters, employees and their families.”

A 2017 report from BLOMINVEST, the research branch of a major Lebanese bank, noted:

Because of the sanctions on Syria, Lebanon could not benefit from the capital and business outflows out of Syria after the eruption of the Syrian war in 2011. Starting that year, businessmen began to flee Syria with all the cash and wealth they could bring in order to establish their businesses elsewhere. Unfortunately, US sanctions came in March of 2011 and another batch was added in August, and therefore Lebanese banks were reluctant to accept any transfer or deposit from Syrian nationals.

Al-Monitor (7/8/20) reports that “Tripoli residents already suffering shortages under Lebanon’s system-wide collapse are bracing for the ramifications of the Caesar Act.”

The US’s Caesar Act sanctions against Syria, which recently came into effect, are designed to keep Syria from re-building, and are already helping worsen the humanitarian situation in the country (FAIR.org, 7/14/20). The Caesar Act also is “likely to have a significant impact [on Lebanon] due to [Lebanon’s] historically close economic relationship with Syria,” Al-Monitor (7/8/20) reported. The act’s effects are expected to be especially acute in Tripoli—where “shortages are already wreaking havoc on the city’s impoverished and crisis-hit residents”—which has long sought to “become a regional logistics and economic hub and to act as a gateway for investment in Syria’s post-war reconstruction.”

Lebanese and Syrian people also engage in large amounts of informal trade, and the Caesar Act will almost certainly increase the volume goods moved in this fashion as official trade becomes harder to conduct, which isn’t ideal, (Al-Jazeera, 6/19/20) reported:

Since those goods are subsidised—i.e., purchased by the Lebanese government with foreign currency and sold at a discount to the Lebanese people—an increase in smuggling will further deplete Lebanon’s already squeezed US dollar supply…. The rush on US dollars saw the value of both the Syrian and Lebanese currencies plunge sharply on parallel and black markets in recent weeks.

That happened before implementation of the Caesar Act, which “could bleed Lebanon for years to come.”

However, a consumer of US media could be forgiven for not knowing about Washington’s role in Lebanon’s economic difficulties, given the scarcity of news articles describing direct and less direct but substantive sanction effects. According to searches run with the media aggregator Factiva, the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal collectively published 202 articles between the August 4 Beirut explosion and August 21  that contained the words “Lebanon” and variations on the word “economic” or “financial.” Zero of these noted that sanctions are part of the economic trials that Lebanon is facing.

When the sanctions are mentioned, it was in misleading ways. Consider, for example, this sentence in the Post (8/12/20): “Washington has placed sanctions on Hezbollah and designated it a terrorist group.” Nothing in this formulation connects the sanctions to Lebanon’s economic problems, despite the obvious evidence they have contributed to them.

The Wall Street Journal (8/12/20) unselfconsciously uses a torture metaphor when it reports that some in the Trump administration “want to see the White House turn the screws in Lebanon.”

A Journal (8/12/20) report on how the US intends to use sanctions to “shape” Lebanon’s next government, so as to “ensur[e] that Hezbollah doesn’t retain its hold on government decisions,” noted that US sanctions on the party are already in place, and also mentions that Lebanon has a “failing economy.” Yet, like the Post article, this Journal piece failed to link the existing sanctions and Lebanon’s economic hardships, though it does point out that the US plans to take advantage of Lebanon’s suffering, writing that “the US sees the political atmosphere as a unique opportunity for the sanctions to prod Lebanon.”

In another story in the Journal (8/13/20), the sole use of the word “sanctions” is in the phrase, “the US is considering the use of sanctions against some Lebanese leaders.” That misleadingly makes it sound like sanctions are a theoretical possibility rather than a policy that, as shown above, has been in place and having deleterious effects for years—and that they can be surgically directed to impact only leaders and not ordinary citizens.

While corporate media coverage acquits the US of wrongdoing in Lebanon’s economic calamity, it also uses the August 4 explosion as an occasion to beat up on Hezbollah, providing ideological legitimation for Washington’s efforts to interfere in Lebanon’s affairs, through such tactics as the very sanctions US media are concealing.

Bloomberg’s Hussein Ibish (8/5/20) assured readers that “most Lebanese will assume the ammonium nitrate belonged to [Hezbollah], for use in Syria and against Israel.” He declined to share how he divined the future thoughts of “most Lebanese,” but, as the late Boston University professor Augustus Richard Norton’s research indicates, Hezbollah is “embedded in the social, political and economic fabric [of Lebanon], and supported by large numbers of people who are not to be dismissed as fanatic and brainwashed.” In May 2018, Lebanon’s most recent election, Hezbollah, along with groups and individuals aligned with it, won at least 70 of 128 seats in the nation’s parliament (Reuters, 5/22/18). Thus it’s far from clear that “most Lebanese” will take the exclusively negative view of Hezbollah that Ibish’s article does.

Another Bloomberg (8/5/20) piece, this one by Bobby Ghosh, discussed international aid going to Lebanon, saying that “there is a danger that aid money will be diverted from its intended purpose—whether to line the pockets of Lebanon’s famously venal politicians, or worse, furnish the coffers of Hezbollah, which acts as Iran’s catspaw across the region.” Hezbollah, like every major political force in Lebanon, has been a target of some of the large protests roiling the country, but Ghosh’s claim that aid going to Hezbollah is “worse” than it being stolen seems absurd when one considers that even the  New York Times (8/14/20) acknowledges that the group “built a vast network of social services, including hospitals, schools and youth programs.”

Characterizing the group as “Iran’s catspaw” is reductive. Amal Saad, a Lebanese academic who has published extensive peer-reviewed scholarship on Hezbollah, finds that the group “has in fact a vast degree of autonomy from Iran,” and that the proxy model is “over-simplistic in that it reduces a complex, multidimensional relationship that is bound by ideational and normative factors to a materially driven, transactional relationship.” Instead, she concludes:

The cultural and historical ties with Iran, shared religio-political ideology and strategic culture, and the power modalities that Hezbollah contributes as a regional subpower, signal an organic and interdependent relationship between ideological comrades and brothers-in-arms.

Hezbollah and its allies won 70 out of 128 seats in the latest Lebanese elections. But they lost the crucial Washington Post opinion page vote (8/11/20).

The Washington Post (8/11/20) published an article by Firas Maksad, headlined “Reforming Lebanon Must Start by Putting Hezbollah in Its Place,” that depicted the group as a “two-headed monster—a powerful militia . . . that combined the roles of legitimate political party with a ruling mafia feeding off the state.” Maksad made clear whose interests he had at heart, writing that

under US and French auspices, a new Lebanon can be born in accordance with its people’s aspirations. Together, Washington and Paris have great leverage, particularly given Lebanon’s dire need for long-term financial assistance.

The US and France, he suggests, should take advantage of Lebanon’s grim economic situation to bring the country under their “auspices.” That can only happen if the “two-headed monster” is, in Maksad’s profoundly imperialistic language, “put…in its place.”

Evidently it is of no concern to Maksad that there might be Lebanese reluctance to see their country back under French management, considering that France carved up the borders of Syria and Lebanon and spent more than two decades controlling the countries.

Nor is the Georgetown professor concerned with those Lebanese who may not be enthusiastic about placing the country under US tutelage, in view of America enabling multiple Israeli invasions of Lebanon—as well as Israel’s 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. In its most recent mass aggression, in 2006, Israel killed at least 1,100 Lebanese people, the vast majority of them civilians, and injured over 4,000 while displacing an estimated 1 million, with the US rushing to provide Israel the means to do so while the slaughter was taking place.

Some Lebanese may also object to US “auspices” based on Washington’s contribution in recent years to their country’s economic suffering. But Maksad can count on his audience not having heard about that campaign from US media.

US Media Can’t Think How to Fight Fires Without $1-an-Hour Prison Labor

 

Insider

As a historic set of wildfires sweeps across California, sparked by lightning and stoked by record heat and drought resulting from climate change (Mercury News, 8/19/20; Scientific American, 4/3/20), many news outlets have drawn readers’ attention to an additional problem the state faces in fighting the fires: shortages of the prison labor that it normally relies on for firefighting crews.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — known as Cal Fire — “has roughly half as many inmate fire crews than it originally had to work during the most dangerous part of wildfire season,” thanks to prison quarantines and Covid-related early-release programs, reported CNBC (8/21/20), and “rotating out firefighters isn’t an easy option because there’s already a significant shortage of workers available.” Insider (8/20/20) wrote that “the coronavirus pandemic is creating a shortage of inmate fire crews to battle the wildfires,” noting that California has “relied on incarcerated firefighters as its primary ‘hand crews’ since the 1940s.” The New York Times (8/22/20) declared that losing inmate labor “has been the difference between having the manpower to save homes from wildfires — or not,” and that “hiring firefighters to replace them, especially given the difficult work involved, would challenge a state already strapped for cash.”

It’s a gripping story, certainly, of a state unable to respond sufficiently to one disaster because of steps taken to ward off another. But the coverage all danced around a key problem with framing this as a labor shortage: There are plenty of workers available in a state with 2.5 million people currently unemployed — no doubt including many of the fire-trained inmate workers who were released early by Gov. Gavin Newsom in order to free them from the threat of getting sick in California’s Covid-ravaged prisons. The main difference: Unlike prison laborers, regular citizens have to be paid more than pittance wages.

In California, inmates at state prisons are allowed to apply to work at “conservation camps” for a base rate of $5.12 per day, plus an additional $1 an hour when out fighting fires. As the Sacramento Bee (7/4/20) reports, most are assigned to hand crews that typically perform “the critically important and dangerous job of using chainsaws and hand tools to cut firelines around properties and neighborhoods during wildfires.”

Inmate fire crews have been the norm in California since the 1940s (LA Times, 8/19/20), part of a long history of local governments using prison labor to perform vital public services. Pacific Standard (8/22/18) recounted the practice’s origins:

When Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1865, ending slavery, it left open a loophole: Involuntary servitude could continue as “punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This effectively legalized slavery among imprisoned populations, allowing former slaveholders in the South to implement a convict lease system, contracting prisoners out to private firms. Even abolitionists were willing to sign on, due to their reliance on prison labor. African-American inmates were “leased—literally, contracted out—to businessmen, planters, and corporations in one of the harshest and most exploitative labor systems known in American history,” writes Matthew Mancini in his book One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South.

Convict leasing was formally outlawed in 1941, but the principle of using inmate labor to save money continues to this day. The estimated cost savings to the state of California from inmate firefighting alone is as much as $100 million a year (Democracy Now!, 11/19/18).

And using workers who are paid only dollars a day drives down wages for the non-incarcerated as well. Factory owners have complained they can’t compete for government contracts against UNICOR (Vox, 9/7/15), the government-owned company that employs inmates for “everything from manufacturing extension cords to operating dairy farms to recycling electronics” (Wired, 5/19/20). 

The only quote the New York Times (8/22/20) uses from a critic of the inmate firefighting program is a  union leader who suggests that prisoners are too scary to be used to fight fires.

While California wildfire coverage gave a nod toward the “debate” around such practices, it generally limited any discussion to a side note before getting on to the main question of Won’t anyone think of the fires? The New York Times (8/22/20), for instance, reported that the inmate labor shortage has “highlighted the state’s dependence on prisoners in its firefighting force,” which “to critics,” it said, is “a cheap and exploitative salve.”

But most of the Times story focused on the experiences of inmate firefighters (“We took special pride in being able to actually save people’s homes”) and the value they provide, quoting a former corrections office at a fire camp as saying, “How do you justify releasing all these inmates in prime fire season with all these fires going on?” A spokesperson for Cal Fire followed, declaring inmate fire crews to be “absolutely imperative to our ability to create hand line and do arduous work on our fires.” No prison labor advocates were cited, with the only “critic” a single firefighter union leader who complained that the state has been illegally expanding the inmate work program.

Rasheed Lockheart (featured on the Snap Judgment podcast—7/22/20)

One expert critic they might have consulted is Rasheed Lockheart, a formerly incarcerated California resident who for the last two years before his release from San Quentin Prison worked for the San Quentin Fire Department as a lead engineer on a fire engine, and as the lead on an ambulance crew. Lockheart, who is a member of Re:Store Justice, an incarceration reform group founded at San Quentin, says using inmates to fight fires isn’t the problem — it’s not paying them a decent wage to do so.

“I don’t want to abolish the fire camps,” says Lockheart. But, he says, if prisoners are putting their lives on the line alongside fellow firefighters, “we should get equal pay, we shouldn’t be making a dollar an hour — I mean, there’s jobs inside the prison that get paid more than they get paid to be out there risking their lives.”

And when push came to shove, California was willing to pay to hire firefighters. A Cal Fire spokesperson tells FAIR that the department has recently hired more than 800 seasonal workers, nearly making up for the roughly 1,000 inmates who are missing from the normal complement. But while this might seem to present an easy solution — just hire back the recently released inmates who are already trained in firefighting — Lockheart explains that there’s another obstacle that makes this unlikely.

“I’m a city firefighter — my experience is mostly with municipal firefighting,” says Lockheart:

The problem with that is, in order to do that, you must have EMT certifications. But with a felony on our records, we can’t get EMT certifications. And with the wildland firefighting crews, with certain felonies, a lot of departments won’t take guys on. There are ways to get in, but it’s hard and it’s a long road.

Trained firefighters being good enough to work for nearly nothing, but ineligible to get real jobs, would seem to represent an even bigger irony — and a more important story — than California having to spend a few million dollars extra to fight two crises at once. But covering the wildfire story that way would require seeing it through the eyes of inmates, not of a government whose main concern is the inconvenience of having to pay people when you’re used to getting their work almost for free. That’s an argument we’ve heard before, of course — but one would have hoped it wouldn’t still be guiding news coverage nearly 200 years later. 

 

 

 

 

When It Comes to the Truth of Opinion Columns, It’s Reader Beware

 

It is quite normal for newspapers to run columns in their editorial pages written by people who don’t share the same editorial perspective of the publication’s editors. It’s why they call them “op-ed pages”—for “opposite the editorial page.”

But normally, there is at least the assumption, among professional journalists and readers alike, that the opinion pieces are held to some basic standard of factual accuracy. One would not expect to see an article on the opinion page of a mainstream newspaper, for example, declaring that vaccines are a conspiracy to depopulate Africa, or that women or Black people are genetically less intelligent than men or whites.

But when it comes to political columns, sometimes there seem to be different standards applied to right-wing and left-wing writers.

Washington Post‘s Marc Thiessen (8/18/20): “The narrative that Trump is manipulating the post office to steal the election is the new Russiagate — a conspiracy theory designed to delegitimize Trump’s victory if he wins.”

Take an opinion piece published last week in the Washington Post (8/18/20) by Marc A. Thiessen, a former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who writes a syndicated column twice weekly for the Post.

Headlined “Democrats’ Postal Conspiracy Is the Biggest Made-Up Controversy Since Russiagate,” Thiessen’s column declares that Democrats, by accusing President Trump of a “campaign to sabotage the election by manipulating the Postal Service to disenfranchise voters,” are engaging in “the biggest made-up controversy since Democrats accused Trump of conspiring with Vladimir Putin to steal the 2016 election.”

Putting aside the fact that, days later, the Republican-run Senate Intelligence Committee basically endorsed the Russia allegation, let’s parse his assertion that post office manipulation is a “made-up controversy.”

It is Trump, as the Post itself ably reported as early as August 12, who said that he wouldn’t approve any stimulus plan that included increased funding for the US Postal Service, after which he pointed out gloatingly that without those funds, the USPS would not be able to deliver mail-in ballots. The stimulus bill, Trump said, would enable “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

But it gets worse. Thiessen went on to say that Democrats are falsely claiming that the new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who has given $2 million to Trump and the GOP since 2016, was appointed by Trump. In truth, Thiessen says, “He was appointed not by Trump but by the unanimous vote of the bipartisan Postal Service board of governors.”

That might sound fair enough to a casual reader. But a quick check of the USPS website, which a Washington Post factchecker could have easily made in minutes, shows that the six sitting members of that board of governors were all picked by Trump. They did indeed all vote unanimously, as Thiessen reported in his column, to confirm Trump’s nominee for the postmaster general position, but they could hardly be called a bipartisan body.

The source for the “conspiracy theory” that Trump was blocking funding to the post office to prevent mail-in voting was…Donald Trump (Washington Post, 8/12/20).

Actually, Trump curiously allowed the USPS to have no members on its board of governors for much of his first year as president, and by this point, with only five more months left in a four-year term, he has only filled six of the nine available seats. That’s significant, since under the USPS’s rules of operation, it takes the vote of seven governors to remove a postmaster general.

These are all significant facts that give the lie to Thiessen’s assertions in his column.

As Thiessen’s column was being edited (to the extent that it was edited), three of the Post’s reporters—Tony Romm, Lisa Rein and Jacob Bogage—were working on a piece to run the following day, August 19, under the headline “Democrats, Election Watchdogs See ‘Glaring Hole’ in Postal Service Pledge to Roll Back Recent Changes” (8/19/20).

In that straight news article, the reporters report that cutbacks ordered by Postmaster General DeJoy eliminating overtime, removing blue mail drop boxes and removing sorting machines from mail sorting centers “have carried immediate, vast consequences, slowing down mail processing and delivery nationwide.” They add:

The delays have raised the specter of major headaches entering the 2020 election, as millions of Americans opt for mail-in ballots over their local polling places at a time when the deadly coronavirus is sweeping the country.

Thiessen’s column also ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer (8/20/20), under the headline “Democrats’ Postal Conspiracy Another Made-Up Controversy,” As an occasional opinion writer for the Inquirer myself, I note that my work there has always led to calls from a factchecker or editor at the paper. It would appear that no such effort is made with Thiessen, either at the Inquirer or at the Post, where he actually works.

Is that because the Inquirer just trusts the syndicator of the column to do the factchecking? Or is there simply a pass given to regular columnists, as opposed to outside contributors? It’s hard to say, because the Inquirer editors of the opinion and editorial page have not responded to multiple calls, messages and emails sent to the addresses listed on the paper’s website asking for an explanation.

The Washington Post also ignored calls and emails from FAIR seeking answers about its factual standards for columnists.

The issue of columns and truthfulness has become an issue of late, with the New York Times recently letting go editorial page editor James Bennet for not checking out an incendiary column he ran from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) (FAIR.org, 7/11/20).

Perhaps papers like the Post and Inquirer, which run columns that are fact-challenged, should include a box warning readers that the articles they are reading may not be reliable, much like the warnings on cigarette packages.

ACTION ALERT: Messages can be sent to the Washington Post at letters@washpost.com, or via Twitter @PostOpinions. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

 

 

Media Praise Biden’s ‘Centrist Coalition’ for Steering Clear of ‘Progressive Demands’

 

“Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others.”

That’s the line that an alien imposter who comes to America to run for president on The Simpsons (10/27/96) came up with after realizing any firm position on reproductive rights would draw some opposition, but a lukewarm compromise coupled with a sentimental devotion to the flag would get people cheering. Corporate media seem to be having a reaction similar to the cartoon alien as they opine on the nomination of former Vice President Joe Biden as the Democratic presidential candidate, with Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate.

The Daily Beast‘s Jack Schwartz (3/18/20) touts “Normal Joe” as an alternative to both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

The Daily Beast (3/18/20) heralded Biden’s liberal “patriotism” as an antidote to “uber-nationalist” Trump and “uber-internationalist” Sen. Bernie Sanders. At the Washington Post (8/21/20), columnist Michael Gerson praised Biden for trying to “build a centrist coalition in favor of political sanity.” Also at the Post (8/16/20), Jennifer Rubin hailed the Biden/Harris ticket’s centrism because it has “deprived Trump of the ‘socialist’ target Republicans yearned to confront”—as though Trump’s attacks were wedded to reality and facts.

The Los Angeles Times (8/12/20) shared that optimism, with political reporter Janet Hook reporting that the Biden/Harris ticket has “a center-left brand that steers clear of the most far-reaching progressive demands,” which “has complicated the Trump White House’s efforts to portray the ticket as ‘dangerous radicals’”:

Harris, like Biden…has rebuffed some demands of the party’s rising progressive wing. That’s a profile that could help Biden appeal to moderate swing voters he needs to win in states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

(As an example of how clear of progressivism the Biden team intends to steer, see Biden’s transition director’s promise of economic austerity if elected, telling the Wall Street Journal8/19/20—“We’re going to be limited.”)

Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos (Twitter, 8/20/20) cheered that the Democrats were “now objectively the party of faith, family values and national defense,” while the Intercept’s Lee Fang (Twitter, 8/20/20) praised “Biden’s plainspoken patriotism” (along with a supposed “embrace of popular social democratic reform”).

Prominent Republicans spoke repeatedly at the Democratic National Convention, signaling that Biden was firmly committed to the political center; some of his GOP backers wrote a piece for Foreign Policy (8/20/20) declaring that “Biden has far more in common with the other Republican presidents we worked for than Trump does.”

Four years ago,

This might all sound familiar. Vox’s Zach Beauchamp (7/27/16) heralded Biden’s  speech in support of Hillary Clinton at the DNC four years ago under the headline, “Joe Biden’s DNC Speech Made Patriotism Liberal Again.” “For once, the liberals are the ones casting themselves as the ‘real Americans,’” Beauchamp wrote, outlining the often-mocked “American is already great” response to Trump’s “Make America great again.” Such a response not only didn’t work, it allowed Trump to set the terms of the discussion.

And there have long been calls by various liberal writers for a kind of liberal patriotism as the answer to right-wing nationalism, pivoting away from multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism (Politico, 9/5/18; CNN, 7/2/17).

At first glance, this is a victory lap for the corporate press and the Democratic establishment against the party’s left flank. For all the work of Sanders and the left-wing “Squad” in Congress, the Overton Window has barely budged at the presidential level. As Newsweek (8/4/20) pointed out, Biden is going against 87% of his  party’s members by opposing Medicare for All.

Branko Marcetic, author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, told FAIR:

By and large, most of the unity task force recommendations were things Biden already supported in his primary platform, such as abolishing private prisons, or much, if not all, of the immigration policy in the platform. It seems like they successfully resisted getting too many other Sanders planks into the platform: They reportedly whittled down a demand for a federal jobs guarantee to a mention of New Deal-style jobs programs in the task force recommendations, and then even that didn’t make it into the platform. And Medicare for All and a host of planks introduced by Palestinian activists were famously defeated.

Coverage of Biden’s patriotism tends to center on non-issues: Saying someone loves their country doesn’t outline a real policy proposal, or provide a plan to improve conditions for the average voter. Vague gestures toward loving American greatness can sound nice in a speech, but are substance-free, and media that focus on such overtures are moving the conversation away from real issues.

Perhaps the worst iteration of this issue-free theme came from Vox (8/21/20), with its convention takeaway that “Joe Biden likes you if you’re a Democrat or a Republican….  He likes you even if you don’t like him.” How do we know this about Biden, who regularly insulted skeptical voters and told them to vote for someone else on the primary trail? Because he said so at the convention, and that’s good enough for Vox.

Part of that discoursal discontent is the fault of the Democratic Party’s confused convention rhetoric, which can steer the media narrative. Marcetic, again:

The Democrats’ incoherent strategy was best displayed on the first night [of the convention]. First you had John Kasich telling conservative voters Biden wouldn’t actually turn left, as he’s been hinting he would the past few months; then the night ended with Michelle Obama admonishing voters to feel the same enthusiasm for Biden as they did about Obama in 2008 and 2012, and to get ready to stand in line for hours and hours in November. A similar dynamic played out the other three nights.

And there’s no mystery about what the issues are to the hoi polloi. Before the pandemic, Gallup (1/13/20) said “healthcare, national security, gun policy, education and the economy” polled as major issues for presidential voters, while Pew Research (8/13/20) showed that more recently the economy, healthcare and the Covid-19 crisis dominate voters’ minds. Unemployment, the stress of school reopening plans and fears of new coronavirus spikes are the issues facing the people.

Media must concentrate on describing how candidates are going to tackle these issues. And if the candidates don’t want to talk about issues, and instead wax about generalities, media have to redirect the discussion back to the genuine calamities facing the nation.

Featured image: Kang (right) and Kodos running for president on The Simpsons (10/27/96).

American Deceptionalism

 

Book Review

Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie—and Why Trump Is Worse

by Eric Alterman

Basic Books, 2020

George Washington: Turns out I can tell a lie.

It is perhaps telling that the first known presidential lie in our nation’s history occurred just one year into the office’s history—and revolved around a deceptive campaign to square the new nation’s lofty founding principles with its ugly accommodation of chattel slavery.

Recently sworn-in President George Washington faced a dilemma in 1790 after the US capital was moved from New York City to Philadelphia, because Pennsylvania state law decreed that all enslaved persons would be automatically freed after residing in the state for six straight months. Rather than accept his new home’s gradual abolitionism, our first Founding Father undertook a particularly craven scheme to circumvent the rule, by periodically shipping his enslaved servants back and forth to Virginia to reset their residency clock, and thus avoid having to manumit a single one of them.

It amounted to a cruel, 18th-century equivalent of a modern-day—and dare we say, Trumpian—tax-avoidance scam. And Washington all but admitted as much in a blunt letter to his plantation manager: “I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may deceive both them and the Public.”

With that, a long and tragically counterproductive American political tradition was born.

That’s clearly the takeaway from Eric Alterman’s latest book, Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie—and Why Trump Is Worse (Basic Books), which offers up that anecdote as but the first in a punishingly long and maddening list of White House lies and distortions. The book culminates, naturally, with an entire section devoted to the unprecedented disregard for facts and truth shown by the 45th president.

(Basic Books, 2020)

Alterman’s latest book serves as an expanded and updated version of his 2004 look at the same subject, When Presidents Lie. In that book, the Nation columnist and Brooklyn College journalism professor examined several landmark moments of presidential deception in the 20th century, from Franklin Roosevelt misrepresenting his concessions at the Yalta conference, to Lyndon Johnson effectively concocting the Gulf of Tonkin incident to justify expanding the Vietnam War, to the infamously chimerical weapons of mass destruction used by George W. Bush as a false pretext for the invasion of Iraq.

Lying in State reprises some of his previous work’s themes—foremost of which is that presidential lies are almost guaranteed to backfire spectacularly—but also digs deeper into the broader causes of the phenomenon. True to his media critic roots, Alterman also weaves in how the country’s corporate media often act as willing enablers to incessant White House attempts to deceive the polity. In fact, Alterman not only directly implicates a complaisant press in presidential deception, but illustrates how “both sides,” false equivalence–fetishizing journalism set the conditions for the inevitable arrival of someone like Trump to the highest elected office in the land.

Alterman briefly zeroes in on the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, at the end of the book, as an exemplar of the timid and defensive crouch adopted by so many mainstream editorial mastheads. On multiple occasions in the era of Trump, Baquet has defended his newspaper’s stubborn refusal to use the words “lie” or “lying” when covering this president’s onslaught of willful disinformation, except in the most extremely egregious cases (New York Times, 6/25/18) . In an online discussion with readers, Baquet explained his journalistic worldview:

Most politicians obfuscate or exaggerate at times. But I wouldn’t use the word “lie” in a news story in cases like that. I don’t think we should use that word every day in the New York Times.

This goes beyond normalizing lies to a kind of learned helplessness about them, and it’s tantamount to unilateral surrender when faced with a president who shows no compunction about lying on a daily, hourly or even minute-by-minute basis. (One notable exception to Baquet’s dare-not-call-them-lies rule came right after the 2016 election, when Trump repeatedly claimed to have been cheated out of a popular vote majority by illegal voting—New York Times, 1/23/17—which foreshadowed Trump’s ongoing propaganda campaign that the 2020 version will be rife with electoral fraud as well.) Ironically, this insistence on eliding or excusing lies whenever possible, and employing tortured euphemisms instead, is now de rigueur among the very reporters and editors who are exposed to Trump’s lies the most—among them, the Times’ own White House correspondent.

But before Lying in State begins its deeply researched, historical review of presidential lying (and journalistic fecklessness) through the decades, it establishes an instructive, if cheeky, taxonomy of lying, borrowing from the work of some well-known philosophers. The first among this dubious group is Thomas Carson’s “bald-faced lies,” statements that both the liar and his or her intended audience implicitly understand to be untrue: think Trump’s transparently phony, “Mexico will pay for the border wall” applause line. Another subspecies: Harry Frankfurt’s not-so-subtly named “bullshit,” which defines anything that is obviously unprovable or displays an utter disregard for reality, such as Trump’s absurd, much-evidence-to-the-contrary boast that he is “the least racist person in the world,” or his nonsense assertion that the noise from windmills causes cancer.

The final two examples come from Jürgen Habermas, who highlights the sins of misinformation and disinformation, the latter differing from the former by its clear intent to deceive. Compare Trump’s weeks-long touting of hydroxychloroquine as a potential “game changer” for treating Covid-19, which Trump quite likely might actually believe, versus his more recent, knowingly baseless claim that mail-in voting is rife with fraud and yet is somehow functionally different than absentee voting, which he simultaneously deems perfectly acceptable.

The Washington Post (7/13/20) has compiled a list of 20,000 false or misleading claims” by Donald Trump.

As those easily provided examples suggest, the current president really is sui generis when it comes to the breadth and depth of his presidential lies—having now made more than 20,000 “false or misleading claims” since his inauguration, according to the Washington Post’s factchecker (7/13/20). Trump’s tsunami of lies, often in service of covering up his thoroughly corrupt conduct, doubtless represents a unique threat to the American democracy—as the book’s subtitle warns. Yet the most valuable lesson from Lying in State comes from connecting Trump’s rampant trampling of the truth to the same patterns and motives as his many prevaricating predecessors.

This corrosive through-line predates both the presidency and the nation itself, and traces back to the arrival of the first slave ship to our shores in 1619, as Alterman explains:

The racist assumptions underlying the ideology of white supremacy have remained, for the most part, just below the surface of American political life. Yet these beliefs have profoundly contradicted Americans’ understanding of themselves and their professed belief that “all men are created equal.” Rather than confront this contradiction, American presidents have felt it necessary to elide it with lies.

As the reader proceeds through the book’s damning history, this disconnect rides alongside, haunting our nation’s presidential decisions time and again. For the first 100 years, it is the Constitution’s “original sin” of slavery, and its racist companion, a relentlessly expanisionist Manifest Destiny, that are the primary drivers of the biggest lies coming from the White House. To preserve both of these policies, presidents from Thomas Jefferson to William McKinley routinely chose to deceive the public about their true intentions—and their consequences—while subjugating and killing untold numbers of peoples in forced migrations, and conducting wars of conquest across the continent and then further overseas.

After the turn of the 20th century, these two motivations to lie metastasized into protecting both the Jim Crow laws that were the systemically racist progeny of slavery, and the enormous fig leaf of “national security” necessitated by a now openly zealous imperialism. Ironically, though President Woodrow Wilson was instrumental in this pivot, Alterman doesn’t spot any specific examples of Wilson personally lying to the American public. (The same cannot be said for his wife, however, who, in a shockingly bold deception, covered up a massive stroke that completely incapacitated Wilson, while she effectively ran the country and most likely forged his signature on Prohibition legislation.)

The USS Maddox, which Lyndon Johnson lied about being attacked by North Vietname in the Gulf of Tonkin. (photo: US Navy)

With World War II and the sprawling national security apparatus that followed it in the Cold War era, presidential lies jumped by orders of magnitude. Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran/Contra: All of these major historical events were accompanied by, if not actually founded upon, a raft of official lies of commission and omission. And for every well-known example, the book dredges up just as many sordid White House lies about more obscure US foreign policy abuses, in places like Guatemala, El Salvador, Iran, Angola and Chile.

All of this past was prologue, then, to bring us to the White House doorstep of the 45th president. When Donald Trump re-appears in the book, after a grim 250 pages of presidential deceit, his willingness to distort reality to advance his racism, xenophobia, corruption, militarism and gross personal misconduct seems less of a shock to the political system and more like a natural evolution. Trump, in other words, is the toxic by-product of 400 years of corrosive American self-deception, helped along by a sclerotic press corps that meekly absorbs lies rather than challenges them.

Our already frail democracy, beset by what the book’s final chapter rightly sums up as “System Overload,” faces a momentous turning point in 2020. And we can’t say we haven’t been warned. Yale history professor Timothy Snyder, in a Vox discussion (5/22/17) of his powerfully prescient 2017 book, On Tyranny, limned how a relentless assault on the truth creates a slippery slope that can threaten the very foundations of a nation and the freedom of its people:

The way it works is that you first just lie a lot. You fill up the public space with things that aren’t true, as Trump has obviously done. Next you say, “It’s not me who lies; it’s the crooked journalists. They’re the ones who spread the fake news.” Then the third step, if this works, is that everybody shrugs their shoulders and says, “Well, we don’t really know who to trust; therefore, we’ll trust whoever we feel like trusting.” In that situation… authoritarianism wins.

But even if the country expels Trump from the White House this November, the dangerous precedents he has set and the distortion field of dishonesty he has created may well remain. It will not be enough to simply return to “normal”; the boundaries of where official deception can travel have now been pushed too far for that, Alterman notes.

Like the virus that is currently ravaging our republic, Trump is not something that we must aspire to merely survive. Not if our democracy is to be truly restored to health. Instead, both the American people and the press will have to confront some hard, uncomfortable truths about our past and the lies we have told ourselves. Only then will we have begun to inoculate ourselves against the next president’s lies.

Featured image: An audioanimatronic Donald Trump with previous presidents at Disney’s Hall of Presidents.

Media Show Little Interest in Israeli Bombing of Gaza

 

AFP (CBS, 8/13/20) describes attacks on Gaza as “the latest retaliation against fire bombs suspended from balloons that have been released from the Palestinian territory.”

Israel is bombing Palestine again, although you likely wouldn’t guess that from watching TV news. For the eleventh straight night, Israeli Defense Force warplanes have been bombing the densely populated Gaza Strip. Israel’s bombs have caused considerable damage, forcing the shutdown of the area’s only power plant.

But US corporate media, focused on the coronavirus and election coverage, have shown little interest in the renewed violence in the Middle East. Searching for “Gaza” on the websites of NBC News, CNN, MSNBC and PBS elicits no relevant results. Nor has Fox News addressed the bombings, although it did find time (8/18/20) to cover the archaeological discovery of an old soap factory in Israel’s Negev Desert.

Other major news networks were not much better. In a wide ranging interview with Trump advisor Jared Kushner, CBS’s Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan (8/16/20) did mention that “there were hostilities overnight in Gaza. There were Israeli airstrikes. Palestinian militants fired off rockets,” in a question about the US’s role in the Middle East, but did not return to it.

CBS (8/13/20) also reprinted an AFP newswire story headlined “Israel Responds to Fire Balloons From Gaza Strip With Fighter Jet Strikes,” which began by stating (emphasis added):

Israel attacked targets of Islamist group Hamas in Gaza and halted fuel supplies to the enclave Thursday in the latest retaliation against fire bombs suspended from balloons that have been released from the Palestinian territory.

The story clearly presents the bombing as a reactive Israeli counter-effort—not an attack on Palestine, but a response against Hamas, which it describes not as a political party but as an “Islamist group.” Hamas, it insists, was the target, despite later noting that a UN-run school was also hit. AFP did not comment on the lack of symmetry between homemade explosives tied to balloons and F-35 jets.

ABC News, meanwhile, relied on another news agency for all of its (limited) coverage (two pieces), reprinting (8/16/20) an Associated Press article that similarly presented the cutting off of Gaza’s electricity supply as a “response” to aggression from the “Palestinian militants” of Hamas.

AP (Washington Post, 8/16/20) reported that “Israeli aircraft bombed several sites belonging to the militant Hamas group in the Gaza Strip”—though in the Post the article was accompanied by a photo of a boy with his destroyed home.

A second AP story, headlined “Israel Strikes Gaza Targets After Arson Balloons Launched,” was picked up not just by ABC (8/16/20) but by influential outlets like the New York Times (8/15/20), Washington Post (8/16/20) and Guardian (8/16/20). The piece is at pains to present Israeli actions as directed purely against Hamas, and as a response, not an aggressive action, allowing Israeli military spokespersons to drive the narrative. Indeed, much of the report reads like an IDF press release.

A leaked 2009 publication from the Israel Project, an Israeli/American group that advises Israel advocates on what language to use when discussing the Palestine conflict, stresses that they should “clearly differentiate between the Palestinian people and Hamas.” “If it sounds like you are attacking the Palestinian people (even though they elected Hamas) rather than their leadership, you will lose public support,” they counsel. Media, it seems, are doing their job for them, in much the same way they reflexively present US actions against Iran as a “response” or a “counter” to the threat from Tehran (FAIR.org, 6/6/19).

In their seminal books on media coverage of the conflict, Bad News From Israel and More Bad News From Israel, Greg Philo and Mike Berry wrote that TV news followed a “consistent pattern,” which misleadingly presented the events as “Palestinian action and Israeli response and retaliation,” their focus group sessions showing that the presentation had a “significant effect” on how the public remembered events and apportioned blame, effectively legitimizing Israeli actions. Sixteen years after their first study was published, corporate media appear to be following exactly the same playbook.

The US press sampled here have produced barely any original coverage of the 11-day (and counting) bombing campaign of the area commonly described as the world’s largest open-air prison. This is in contrast to foreign channels such as Al-Jazeera and RT, or alternative media like Democracy Now!, all of whom have followed the events in more depth, and often with fewer resources. When corporate media have covered it, they have followed tried and tested conventions that reproduce an Israeli-friendly narrative.

Media coverage of Israel/Palestine is a topic FAIR has criticized for decades (e.g., Extra!, 1/91; Extra! Update, 2/05; FAIR.org, 8/6/14, 3/29/19). The reporting on the latest round of attacks on Gaza follows the patterns we have often remarked on: downplaying Palestinian suffering and viewing the conflict from an Israeli state perspective.

Karlin Itchoak on Wildlife Refuge Drilling, Steven Rosenfeld on How to Vote

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(cc photo: Dusty Vaughn)

This week on CounterSpin: No serious observers disagree that climate disruption, left unchecked, will mean disaster for human beings, among other species. Yet somehow, when it comes to actions that will either bring that annihilation closer or stave it off, corporate media get very specific and procedural, rather than putting things in a more urgent, more meaningful context. Hence the conversation around opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. It’s being reported as a Trumpian bad idea; is that enough? We’ll hear from Karlin Itchoak, Alaska state director at the Wilderness Society.

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Also on the show: People who think “politics” means pulling a lever every four years are wrong. Voting is a far from perfect connection of people to power. But, put crudely, if it didn’t matter at all, why would some people try so hard to keep other people—those who have less power and voice in every other way—from doing it? On the assumption that voting does matter, and that voting in November 2020 matters a lot, we’ll talk about how to do it and make sure it counts with Steven Rosenfeld, editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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At Washington Post, Defunding Police Is a Step Too Radical

 

If Americans resist the idea of defunding police, they’re following the lead of outlets like the Washington Post (7/21/20).

Since the May 25 murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, calls across the US  to defund police departments—shifting resources from law enforcement to social services—have grown louder. In June, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio shifted $1 billion from the NYPD—at least on paper (Gothamist, 6/29/20)—and Minneapolis city council members vowed to dismantle the police department and build a new model of public safety (though the city’s charter commission kept an initiative to eliminate a requirement to maintain a minimum number of police officers off the November ballot—Washington Post, 8/5/20).

Conversations around the issue of defunding or even abolishing police have grown more complex in activist circles. However, the Washington Post’s coverage of the issue has paternalistically painted police defunding only as a radical utopian fantasy that would hurt Black communities.

In the past few months, the Post’s coverage of the “defund the police” debate has mindlessly echoed the same conservative scare tactics right-wing media have been amplifying: Black neighborhoods need more policing, not less, because Black-on-Black crime is rampant.

A July Washington Post/ABC news poll (7/21/20) found that while 69% of respondents believe Black people and people of color face discrimination in the criminal justice system, 55% of Americans oppose moving funds from police departments to social services—and 43% say they oppose it strongly.

However, with the Post’s prominence as a leading publication for political coverage, it’s no wonder Americans are resistant to the idea of defunding: The news they’re reading is telling them to resist it.

The Washington Post (7/10/20) reports that Southeast DC’s “relationship with law enforcement is more complicated and nuanced than the slogans shouted in front of the White House.”

An article headlined “On a DC Street Beset by Gun Violence, Calls to Fix Policing, Not Defund It” (7/10/20) begins with the visceral description of children marching against the death of Davon McNeal, an 11-year-old boy who was shot and killed at a 4th of July cookout in DC. The piece goes on to describe a majority Black neighborhood infested by crime:

A grandmother afraid to leave her apartment after a gunman ran by her seconds after Davon fell mortally wounded; a young boy forbidden from taking out the trash because it’s too dangerous; a mother who piled her family’s belongings in boxes, rushing to escape.

The piece shares quotes from locals justifiably upset by the violence that gripped the area, and makes clear that Blackness is not a monolith. But instead of highlighting a discussion and offering credible arguments on both sides, the Post exploits a community’s pain to deflect from the conversation about police violence.

While community members throughout the article express their anger that activists are not paying more attention to crime within Black neighborhoods, the Post fails to flank their statements with facts that debunk the “Black-on-Black crime” myth.

In reality, any person is more likely to be killed by someone in their own community than they are an outsider. Because the US is still very much segregated, a Black murder victim is about as likely to have been killed by another Black person as a white murder victim is to have a white killer—though, oddly enough, this statistic prompts no media hand-wringing about why whites don’t speak out more about “white-on-white crime.”

Yet one population does kill Black people more than it does any other: Black individuals are more than 2.5 times more likely than white people to be killed at the hands of police.

Instead of facilitating a constructive debate and introducing arguments from both the pro- and anti-defunding sides, the Post takes one community’s tragedy and weaponizes it to discredit Black people who are calling to defund the police. Those mourning the death of an innocent child killed by a fellow community member are painted as the “good Black people,” and those calling to defund the police are the angry, illogical radicals.

Another article, “DC Activists and Lawmakers Confront Challenges of ‘Defund Police’ Movement” (7/25/20) discusses the DC City Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety unanimously approving a plan to reduce the city’s $533 million police budget. Again, the Post mentions the reality of violent crime in the area without delving into the nuance of how systemic racism fuels crime in under-resourced areas, or the fact that more police does not equal less crime, research the Post itself (6/7/20) reported on the month before. The piece simply volleys the quotes and differing opinions of politicians and activists without contextualizing the arguments with facts beyond spitting back crime rate statistics.

The Washington Post (7/27/20) quotes a mayor encouraging cities to think about “how they can do things differently, but definitely not ‘defunding.’ ”

The July 27 “African-American Mayors Lay Out Plan for Police Reform Without ‘Defunding’” coverage (7/27/20) harks back to the same rhetoric used in the article about 11-year-old Davon McNeal: The fact that some Black people oppose defunding is offered as proof that defunding is unrealistic. The article makes clear that the nation’s Black mayors are outraged by the murder of George Floyd and countless others—but defunding the police is a step too far:

In interviews, the leaders of the African-American mayors’ group said they want to build on the momentum of the police reform movement ignited by the death of George Floyd—and they do not favor “defunding the police.”

The African-American Mayors Association’s proposed Peace Pact, mentioned in the article, recommends steps like revising police training,  banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and providing transparency to communities. Although some of these proposals are constructive policy changes, the Post fails to present any challenge to the idea that in themselves they constitute an effective solution to police violence.

In fact, the Peace Pact’s ideas are not new. There have been efforts toward increased transparency and improved police policies in the past, yet police violence in the US continues to disproportionately affect Black communities. There is no mention of the fact that despite chokeholds being illegal in the NYPD, for instance, Daniel Pantaleo still killed Eric Garner in 2014 and got away with no charges.

Nor is there acknowledgement that releasing dashcam and bodycam footage does not always lead to justice. Last year, Hamilton County, Tennessee, set up a hotline for residents to report police misconduct after dashcam footage showed deputies Daniel Wilkey and Bobby Brewer beating and conducting invasive searches on a Black resident as he was handcuffed face down on the road. Sheriff Jim Hammond, who had repeatedly defended these deputies and denied that they conducted the body cavity search, is still in his position, despite calls for him to resign.

The “defund the police” debate is nuanced. There are not yet any definitive examples of police defunding success (despite misinformation about Camden, New Jersey, being a model). But radical imagination is a powerful tool in justice work; “We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable,” author Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote. Instead of offering a critical analysis of this product of radical imagination, the Washington Post’s reporting instead upholds the status quo.

ACTION ALERT: Messages can be sent to the Washington Post at letters@washpost.com, or via Twitter @washingtonpost. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

 

Defining Steve Bannon Downward

This is how the New York Times (8/20/20) first reported the news that Steve Bannon has been indicted for fraud—describing him as “President Trump’s former campaign aide”:

 

Bannon was not just a “campaign aide”—he was the CEO of the Trump campaign. The Times reported his appointment in August 2017 (8/17/16) under the headline, “Donald Trump Appoints Media Firebrand to Run Campaign.”

But perhaps more importantly, Bannon’s role didn’t end after Trump’s election; he was named the White House’s chief strategist, a role he held for the first seven months of the administration.

The effort to legitimize power, in this case by pretending a leading white supremacist was less central to the regime than he was, is relentless at the Times. It’s pretty much the “paper of record’s” North Star.

The Times (8/20/20) updated its story within minutes, with a new description of Bannon…which tells me they knew damned well that calling Bannon merely a former campaign aide (not even a campaign staffer, a mere “aide”) was inexcusable. But even in the corrected blurb, Bannon is just a “former adviser.” Let me repeat, he was the effing chief strategist of the White House.

The corruption, malfeasance, fascist and racist and misogynist intent, and sheer greed of this regime is staggering. If only the New York Times spent less time trying to soothe us into thinking it was normal, we’d have the revolt we need for this moment.

 

Featured image: New York Times (8/20/20) depiction of Steve Bannon.

 

Polls Favor Biden: Is It Different This Time?

 

It’s starting to build: Media are buzzing that the Democratic Party’s likely nominee for president, Joe Biden, has a polling edge against President Donald Trump. And a big one at that.

The Hill (8/12/20) said Biden is leading in some key battleground states. Politico (8/11/20) shows Biden with a 10-point national lead. Real Clear Politics is constantly updating its aggregation of polls, but as of now shows an overwhelming advantage for Biden. The Wisconsin State-Journal (8/10/20) reported that Biden is polling well in the all-important battleground state. And CNN (8/16/20) said that Biden went into the convention with a “historically strong” polling position.

Should headlines like these (CNN, 8/16/20) make Democrats uneasy?

And why shouldn’t we believe that the odds are against Trump? USA Today (8/9/20) reported that unemployment is still at historic highs. The Covid-19 pandemic still rages in the United States, not only killing more than a thousand people a day, but hobbling the economy and turning going back to school into a death-defying act. Team Trump is looking to curb mail-in voting (Politico, 8/8/20) and even floating the idea of postponing the election (NBC, 7/30/20), both indications of desperation.

But, of course, 2016 taught us a lot about polls: Even though many polls showed that Hillary Clinton was ahead, things were closer than they often appeared, with some  media giving the impression that Clinton had won before it was over. Poll expert Sam Wang was so confident that Clinton would win that he promised to eat a bug on TV if he was wrong, which he did (CNN, 11/12/16). The New York Times (10/18/16) gave Clinton a whopping 91% chance of winning. Polling groups like Pew Research (11/9/16) embarked on self-reflection about how their predictions in 2016 could have been more accurate.

Today’s polling almost comes with the understanding that media need to be more careful in interpreting these numbers. So we all need to ask, “Is it different this time?”

Wayne Steger, a professor of political science at DePaul University, told FAIR: “Biden’s lead in national and battleground states is bigger than Clinton’s was in 2016 at this time, so he has more cushion to absorb variations due to voter turnout.”

“Trump and Clinton both had historic negative ratings,” he added. “This year, that is only true of Trump. That means Trump has a much higher hill to climb in 2020 than in 2016.” Steger noted that pollsters are taking more into account than last time: “Education is something that more pollsters seem to be using in their weighting of sample respondents, so polls should be even more accurate with respect to the vote.”

Historian Allan Lichtman’s model (New York Times, 8/5/20) predicts a Biden victory—though it takes some squinting.

Also in Biden’s favor is the Lichtman test (New York Times, 8/5/20). Allan Lichtman, a historian at American University, has predicted all but one presidential outcome since 1980 — he got Trump right, however, and also rightly predicted he’d be impeached (NPR, 5/12/19)—with a set of 13 questions that are divorced from polling numbers, but instead reflect on historical voting outcomes related to the incumbent party’s successes and failures.

But even Lichtman’s clairvoyance is fragile. For one, his prediction in the Times only gives Biden a slight advantage. More than that, he deducted two points from Trump on the ground that he is not charismatic, based on the idea that his antics only appeal to a small segment of the public, and that he has not had any major foreign policy successes. Trump’s entire persona is based on his stage presence — whether one likes him or not, it’s impossible to deny that he draws eyeballs.

And Trump could point to his pulling out of the Iran deal and revising NAFTA as evidence that he is both a tough actor and a pragmatic negotiator. As John Yoo co-wrote in a pro-Trump op-ed in the New York Post (8/10/20):

The Trump Doctrine is about renewing American sovereignty…. Protecting that sovereignty has led Team Trump to withdraw from multilateral agreements that limit US freedom of action, including economic action, such as the Paris climate accords, or that place it at a disadvantage to competitors such as China and Russia, such as the outmoded Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Every voter won’t see these as good things—some will consider them disasters, and redouble their support for Biden—but the Trump campaign can certainly portray them as international milestones. In addition, Trump can use his decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem to prop up his image as the most pro-Israel candidate (The Hill, 2/26/19). The main point is that the Lichtman test is based on some subjective interpretation.

Politico (6/17/20) reports that polling today still suffers from some of the same problems that misread the tea leaves four years ago. Nate Silver (538, 8/12/20), whose website is one of the top outlets for poll coverage, said that it’s simply too early to count Trump out of the race, despite what polling data say. (Historically, polls are much more accurate two months before the election than they are three months out—New York Times, 5/25/16.)

These big numbers could potentially backfire on Biden, creating a sense of security that all is sealed. A “we got this in the bag” attitude could keep the Biden ticket from putting in the hard work it takes to unseat an incumbent president. It might also keep the anti-Trump voter from donating to the campaign, going to swing states and knocking on doors, all the things that need to happen to win an election.

And as Jamelle Bouie wrote at the New York Times (8/4/20), Trump still has the potential to eke out an Electoral College victory, even if Biden wins the popular vote.

All of this is to say that Biden’s lead in the polls shouldn’t be treated as a foregone conclusion. Not that polling should be ignored, but this is a time for media to focus less on fluctuations in polling data and more on the reasons why citizens should cast their votes.

Featured image: Real Clear Politicschart of national polling averages. (The blue line is Joe Biden, the red line is Donald Trump.)

Not All Criticism of Kamala Harris Is Created Equal

 

After the twists and turns of a drawn-out process, on Tuesday, August 11, 2020, the Biden campaign chose Kamala Harris to be his vice presidential running mate, which will make her the first Black woman and South Asian–American person to appear on a major political party’s presidential ticket.

Writing in The Nation (8/12/20), Joan Walsh described the jubilation expressed by friends, colleagues and writers. Amelia Ashley-Ward, the publisher of San Francisco’s Sun-Reporter, a Black community paper, told the New York Times (8/12/20) she was so happy she was crying.

Sexist, Racist Slurs

It was immediately clear that misogyny and racism would be part of the Trump campaign’s response to the Kamala Harris pick (CNN, 8/13/20).

Donald Trump wasted no time, however, employing his loathsome rhetoric. He wheeled out his favorite anti-woman slur, repeating four times that Harris was “nasty,”  escalating to “extraordinarily nasty” as he scorned her questioning of now-sitting Supreme Court Justice Brent Kavanaugh.

Even before Harris was named, Politico (8/11/20) noted, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson (8/3/20) relaunched the “misogynistic tropes of likability from the 2016 campaign,” saying even Democratic primary voters “found her repulsive,” before adding, “pretty much no one who knows Kamala Harris likes her.”

By Wednesday, Trump’s son Eric who serves as the executive vice president for the Trump campaign, liked a tweet that read: “Raise your hand if you think Harris was a whorendous pick. May have misspelled.” Though the tweet was soon deleted, the Trump campaign declined a request for comment from CNN (8/13/20). Right-wing talk host Rush Limbaugh (8/14/20) gave Misogyny 2020 its pithiest slogan yet with “Joe and the Ho.”

As Republicans and their operatives groped for the right slur against Harris, they failed to detect the irony in their charge, first, that Obama was too African, and now that Harris is not African enough. Former George W. Bush aide Ari Fleischer claimed Harris is “just not that historically exciting to African Americans.” Republican promoter Nick Adams took to Twitter (8/11/20) to question whether Harris herself could be considered African American, since her father is Jamaican and her mother is Indian.

“Republicans have shifted from trying to determine who is authentically American to determining who is authentically Black,” Washington Post columnist Michele Norris (8/13/20) wrote. But the “nickname” Trump settled on for Harris—“Phony Kamala”—insinuates that she fails to meet his definition of “American” as well.

Newsweek (8/12/20) launched the citizenship question in a particularly despicable article implying that based on her parents’ immigrant backgrounds, Harris might well not qualify to be vice president—and might not be a US citizen at all. (See FAIR.org. 8/13/20.) Though the magazine issued an “apology” of sorts, it denied the piece qualified as birtherism. “We entirely failed to anticipate the ways in which the essay would be interpreted, distorted and weaponized,” the editors wrote in an added note on the original piece—as though there’s a non-hateful way to propose that the children of immigrants be stripped of citizenship.

Corporate media pushed back against Trump’s misogynist rhetoric. The New York Times (8/12/20) detailed how Trump and his allies launched racist and sexist attacks against Harris. The Washington Post (8/12/20) exposed GOP racist tropes, and the disrespect shown by refusing to pronounce her name correctly on Fox News.

A Self-Described ‘Cop’

NBC (8/11/20) lumped critiques of Harris’ criminal justice record in with “sexist and racist attacks.”

Yet emerging as a corporate media frame is a sloppy, mystifying confusion that refuses to distinguish the racist and sexist slurs against Harris from an authentic discussion of the trajectory of her political positions, and what they might mean for her as a serving vice president and a potential future leader of the Democratic Party. Within this frame, criticisms from the left and the right are treated as equally offensive.

This was evident early on in an opinion piece penned by Anthea Butler for NBC News (8/11/20), which asserted that after the announcement of Harris on the ticket,

the attacks and criticisms began flying across the web from conservatives and liberals alike. She’s “extraordinarily nasty.” She’s “a cop.” She’s too conservative—or she’s too liberal. She changes her mind constantly.

Criticizing the word “cop” when applied to Kamala Harris makes little sense. In fact, the word comes from Harris herself. Harris served as San Francisco district attorney from 2004 to 2011, and as California attorney general from 2011 to 2017. Amid the fanfare of winning the position of California attorney general, speaking behind a podium with a victorious smile on her face, Kamala accepted her new position by saying, “And I now stand before you as the Top Cop in the biggest state in the country.” To illustrate the sloppy nature of this frame that all criticism is equal, Harris is shown calling herself a “cop” on a video segment sandwiched into Butler’s piece.

The NBC video story offers highlights of Harris’ career, starting in 1990 when she became a deputy prosecutor in Alameda County. She explains, “I decided to become a prosecutor because I feel a very strong sense of responsibility to protect those who are vulnerable.” Yet in 2004, after winning the election to become San Francisco’s district attorney, she raised the city’s conviction rate, and was charged with being overly punitive, particularly in communities of color. The NBC video shows her saying:

It’s a myth that commutes of color don’t want law enforcement, we do. What we don’t want is racial profiling. What we don’t want is excessive force. What we don’t want is to have our civil liberties and civil rights be stripped.

Included on the NBC video is a more recent event, and it is notable that Harris switched “law enforcement” to “public safety” in her speech, and added, “What we don’t want is chokeholds or mass incarceration.”

The Washington Examiner (1/21/19) scolds the left for calling Harris a “cop”—a label she has applied to herself.

The Nation’s Walsh (8/12/20) also noted she had been called a “cop”—“sadly, and somewhat unfairly”—and attributed it to the right as well as the left. For the right, she linked to a T-shirt offered by the right-wing Federalist website. For the left, she pointed to a critique of the left published in the conservative Washington Examiner (1/21/19) last year, headlined “The Left Decides Kamala Harris Is a Cop—but She’s Running Anyway.” Writer Tiana Lowe stated, “Harris fits the intersectional bill of the left to a T: half-Black, half-Indian, a woman, and as an added bonus, fairly young and attractive.” She went on to say:

Harris’ past of passivity on the death penalty and “hard on crime” approach has already spent years under careful examination by the hardcore Bernie base, but the lazier agents of the left have remained largely ignorant of her policing.

Barely able to conceal their contempt, the author derides the ignorant left and confirms, “The socialist wing of the party has already decided Harris is a cop.”

NBC’s Butler’s link on “a cop” yields a Forbes article (8/11/20) that at least examines progressive responses to Harris’ nomination, citing her spotty record on criminal justice issues.

Changes Her Mind?

Reuters (8/11/20) reported that Harris’ “work of late has impressed some past doubters who say she did not do enough to investigate police shootings and too often sided with prosecutors in wrongful conviction cases in the past.”

The charge of “changes her mind” is recognizable as a criticism often leveled at women, seeding doubt about their trustworthiness, as the New York Times (8/12/20) pointed out was done by Tucker Carlson on Fox News (8/11/20) when he asserted that there are “time-share salesmen you could trust more.” But rather than citing a sexist slur, Butler links to a legitimate Reuters discussion (8/11/20) about Harris opening her presidential campaign as a progressive supporter of Medicare for All, then backing off to position herself closer to the center. The piece mostly attributes Harris’ campaign problems to the strategic errors of a candidate seeking to find a consistent persona (and concluding that she has now succeeded)

Authentic political discussions recognize that politicians who alter their positions may sometimes be indicating an ability to listen to the public and respond accordingly. Reuters’ article is thoughtful, assessing how Harris has changed her policies and actions recently, bringing them more into alignment with her stated goals and rhetoric. Though in the past she presented herself as a criminal justice reformer, for example, as a prosecutor, she took no action in key police abuse cases, and defended a troubled prison system. “But her work of late has impressed some past doubters who say she did not do enough to investigate police shootings,” Reuters’ James Oliphant wrote.

Some activists aren’t so forgiving. In an op-ed in Out (2/5/19), Chase Strangio said, “I’m not ready to trust Kamal Harris on LGBTQ+ issues,” noting that Harris supported increased criminalization of sex work, locked trans women in men’s prisons, and argued in court that trans people should not have access to medically necessary care in prison, calling it “frivolous.”

In 2017, Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic (8/10/17) penned a detailed and insightful analysis of Harris’ criminal justice record in California:

Harris has emulated the Obama approach, delivering a combination of some notable progressive victories and pleasant rhetoric and a steadfast avoidance of structural change — paired, in some cases, with far-from-progressive policies.

Jacobin points to Harris’ actions in the Daniel Larsen case as a particularly grim travesty of justice. After years in prison for carrying a concealed weapon, a judge finally reversed Larsen’s conviction, yet Harris, even as a vocal opponent of mass incarceration, appealed the judge’s decision on a technicality.

The limits of Harris’s approach are likewise evident in her actions on police shootings. She did back a bill that required reports on officer-involved shootings to be posted publicly online, and mandated bias training and that justice department agents wear body cameras. But as district attorney, she refused to hand over the names of police officers with histories of misconduct whose testimony had led to convictions. As attorney general, she also opposed instituting police body cameras statewide, and stood against a bill requiring her office to investigate fatal police shootings.

Writing for Consortium News (7/9/19; reposted 8/13/20), human rights attorney Marjorie Cohn also offered insights into Harris as a prosecutor in an article headlined “Kamala Harris’ Distinguished Career of Serving Injustice.” Although Harris describes herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” Cohn argues that her record is anything but progressive:

Through her apologia for egregious prosecutorial misconduct, her refusal to allow DNA testing for a probably innocent death row inmate, her opposition to legislation requiring the attorney general’s office to independently investigate police shootings and more, she has made a significant contribution to the sordid history of injustice she decries.

It Will Take a Movement

Whether Kamala Harris would be a better vice president than Mike Pence is not the interesting question (CNN, 8/12/20).

It is hardly a worthwhile question to ask if Harris will be a better VP than Mike Pence, or if she will prove to be a formidable force in the electoral process. Two days after announcing Harris as the VP pick, the Biden campaign had raked in $50 million on the strength of the choice. On October 17, when the vice presidential debate will be televised nationally, there is little doubt, given her verbal acuity and past debate performances, that Harris will, dare I say, mop the floor with Pence.

Possibly the most significant task Kamala Harris seems uniquely able to take on is  pulling media momentum away from the deadly xenophobia that has defined US discourse and policies under the purveyor of hate who currently occupies the White House. Telling her story will insert and champion women of color in mainstream narratives, and has the potential to shatter the white supremacist narrative that Trump has openly promoted, and that continues to undergird so much of the enthocentrism used to define America itself, including in media discourse. Harris has shown her tough debating skills, honed as a litigator, and she has the potential to tear Trump, his backers and enablers to shreds.

In the days after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, Harris joined protesters in the streets of Washington, and on Capitol Hill, she and Sen. Cory Booker (D.-NJ) drove Democratic efforts to battle police abuses, pushing back against an alternative Republican police reform measure that Harris blasted as “lip service.”

After that, the attorney for Floyd’s family, Ben Crump, published an opinion article (CNN, 8/1/20) supporting her candidacy, calling her a “change agent.” Reuters (8/11/20) interviewed Lara Bazelon, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, a former Harris critic. Bazelon now recognizes that Harris has made an “important shift” on criminal justice. She now hopes Harris will become a leading adviser to Biden on the issue.

“She got a good, hard shove to the left. I really hope she seizes that moment and resists the urge to drift toward safety and the center,” Bazelon said.

Aimee Allison of She the People, an organization advancing women of color in politics, told the Nation’s Walsh (8/12/20), “Generations of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Muslim, Asian American and Pacific Islander women have fought to get us to this moment.” Allison believes that the activism of women of color

showed that our organizing could generate high women-of-color voter turnout…. We can lead the charge in the states against voter suppression. It’s a reimagining of American politics.

A joint statement from the Progressive Democrats of America and RootsAction said Harris “failed for years to hold police accountable for gross misconduct in California,” with the groups adding, “We will fight every day to hold Vice President Harris to the higher ideals she often espouses.”

Hopefully, with a movement behind her—and in front of her—Kamala Harris may find the courage to fight for her stated convictions.

 

NYT Urges Biden to Shun His Party’s ‘Left-Leaning Brand’

 

As the Democratic National Convention kicks off, election season is finally heating up again—which means it’s time for corporate media to get back to flogging their “move to the center” horse when covering Democrats.

This week’s edition comes from New York Times reporter Reid J. Epstein, in an article headlined, “How Biden Could Learn From Conor Lamb’s Victory in Trump Country” (8/16/20). Lamb won his long-shot House race in a 2018 special election, in a district in southwestern Pennsylvania that went for Trump in 2016 by around 20 points.

The New York Times (8/16/20) urges Joe Biden to follow the path of Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb by “seeking to distance himself from his party’s left-leaning brand.”

So, according to the Times, how exactly could Biden learn from Lamb? Epstein explains:

Mr. Lamb’s victory showed Democrats how to prevail in Republican territory during the Trump era: focus on kitchen-table issues; inspire defections from college-educated suburban voters — especially women — who had been core Republican voters for decades; and offer conservative-leaning voters a sober, reassuring alternative to a chaotic president.

It’s a rather vague assessment. What “kitchen-table” positions ought one to take? How did Lamb inspire suburban defections? What does “sober and reassuring” look like, or mean?

Lamb himself offers another vague and confusing articulation of strategy:

“There are a lot of people who voted for me in 2018, not so much for reasons of policy or party, but just reasons of change,” Mr. Lamb said from atop a picnic table during an outdoor interview this past week in a park near his home in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb. “People were unsatisfied with how things were going, and I promised that I would do my job differently than the guy you had before me. And I think that’s what Vice President Biden is basically doing.”

What is change for people “unsatisfied with how things are going” if not policy change? In fact, Epstein seems to say as much just two paragraphs later, writing that after Lamb’s election, many Democrats in 2018 midterm races found “the answer to defeating Trump-aligned candidates” in copying his game plan:

[They] focused narrowly on policies affecting voters’ lives, like protecting provisions in the Affordable Care Act and casting Republicans as a party pandering to corporations and the very rich, attacking the 2017 tax cut that Republican Party leaders had intended to use as the tent pole achievement for their midterm campaigns.

But such policies affecting voters’ lives clearly don’t extend to those that actually improve their lives, as opposed to just clawing back to where things were pre-Trump—which was the place that got us to Trump. One thing Epstein is never vague about is that Lamb sought “to distance himself from his party’s left-leaning brand,” allowing only Biden to stump for him, despite many offers from national Democrats.

After quoting Lamb on the importance of focusing on jobs, Epstein offers perhaps the article’s clearest assessment of what Biden ought to do:

When Mr. Biden’s presidential campaign began, he ran on a platform that was far less flashy than his top rivals, progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. He wasn’t for a single-payer healthcare system or adding extra Supreme Court justices or funding an array of new federal programs with a wealth tax on millionaires.

Instead Mr. Biden’s platform looked a lot like what Mr. Lamb ran on in 2018: protecting Social Security, Medicare and healthcare while opposing tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. And even though he’s adopted an array of more liberal-leaning positions since becoming the presumptive nominee, Mr. Biden is still viewed as a politician most concerned with working-class Americans.

“Even though” he’s taken liberal positions, he’s still viewed as “concerned with working-class Americans.” If you’re puzzling over how Medicare for All and a wealth tax don’t show concern for the working class, it becomes clear in the next paragraph:

“People say the same thing about Conor and Joe,’’ said Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat whose district abuts Mr. Lamb’s. “Here in western PA, someone will say he’s a regular guy. That was a Trump plus-20 district, and he won it because he stuck to the things the people in Western Pennsylvania really care about, and because people thought he was an average guy. He’s a regular guy. He’s one of them, and Joe’s one of them.”

In other words, being concerned with working-class Americans, to the New York Times and corporate Democrats, means portraying yourself as “an average guy,” not offering policies that will actually help the working class. (See “Joe Biden, Aesthetic Populist,” Extra!, 4/13.)

Throughout the primary, Sanders—one of the lead ambassadors of the party’s left-leaning brand, with his “flashy” Medicare for All plan and other programs to help working people—consistently polled better than Biden among working-class voters. In a recent survey (Morning Consult/Politico, 3/27–29/20), people making less than $50,000 a year had the highest support for Medicare for All (58% support, 27% oppose); those making between $50,000 and $100,000 came in second, still with a wide margin of support (53% to 40%).

Epstein closes with this quote from Lamb:

Although everyone knows he’s a Democrat, he really understands western Pennsylvania…. I couldn’t think of anybody on a national stage that kind of speaks the language of western Pennsylvania better than him. And I think he helped us draw attention to the fact that I was kind of a Democrat of the old school, and someone that people can trust to fight for them.

It brings us full-circle back to the “average guy” strategy. It’s not entirely clear which Democratic Party “old school” Lamb is referring to, but it sounds suspiciously like the one that willingly placated racist Southern Democrats for years, the one that’s not keen on the rise of outspoken, progressive women of color like The Squad, or candidates like Bernie Sanders—politicians who actually “fight for” pro–working class policies.

The upshot, according to the Times, is that Lamb won by running to the center, offering vague promises of maintaining the status quo on healthcare, Social Security and Medicare, and talking about jobs—and so this is all Biden should do, too.

Covering Conor Lamb’s race in 2018, when Joe Biden spoke on his behalf, the New York Times (3/11/18) acknowledged that his campaign was boosted by “the anti-Trump fervor of progressive voters” in the Pittsburgh suburbs.

The Times (and Lamb) presented a somewhat different picture of his campaign in 2018. Epstein’s colleague Trip Gabriel (3/11/18) wrote just before the election that if Lamb won, unions would be the deciding factor, having “gone all in” for Lamb. Lamb’s opponent supported right-to-work legislation and refused to fill out the AFL-CIO’s candidate questionnaire. Gabriel notably didn’t spell out Lamb’s appeals to the unions, though he did name “his moderate views on social issues like guns” and his insistence that “he is not running against Trump” as explanatory factors in Lamb’s rise. Gabriel also acknowledged at the end of the article that strong anti-Trump fervor among “progressive voters” in the Pittsburgh suburbs were “one reason” Lamb seemed “poised to exceed expectations.”

Those suburban voters are an important missing piece of Epstein’s puzzle, since they aren’t seeking out candidates who are “not running against Trump.” And other reports (HuffPost, 3/13/18; The Nation, 3/15/18) noted Lamb’s heavy courting of unions, which he featured prominently on his website and in stump speeches, and which included support for many concrete union priorities, such as an infrastructure bill and funding for coal miners’ pensions.

In other words, it wasn’t just change they were voting for, it was specific support for their unions’ demands—something Biden certainly doesn’t have a strong history of. (See, for instance, trade deals; for more, see Guardian, 5/2/19; Extra!, 4/13.) But that lesson wasn’t one Epstein seemed interested in, content to let Biden pass with his insipid speech to “blue-collar union workers”:

I don’t know all of you personally, but I know you…. I know this state. I know this region. I know what it’s made up of. I know the values that underpin all of what you believe in — family, community, again, not leaving anybody behind.

Attentive readers might also have noticed a word glaringly absent from Epstein’s article: white. 94% of voters in Lamb’s race were white, which means that the working class observers of Lamb’s race are referring to is a white working class—hardly representative of the working class as a whole in this country, which is more than 40% people of color (and nearly half female).

As FAIR  (11/13/18) has pointed out before, this erasure of people of color and women from the working class is rampant in corporate media, and it conveniently serves to frame the answer to winning over the “working class” as moving rightward, rather than the more obvious and straightforward strategy of addressing the economic needs of this entire diverse class—through policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, and support for childcare and public education, as well as supporting unionization and workers’ pensions.

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

Reuters (Unsurprisingly) Looks Away as Ecuador Tries to Outlaw Opposition Parties

 

When Venezuela threatened to make parties that boycotted local elections re-register, Reuters (12/20/17) thought that was important news. Ecuador actually suspending opposition parties wasn’t as newsworthy.

Reuters routinely buries information that would badly damage the reputation of US allies in the Americas. Whether those allies are bureaucrats from the Organization of American States and the dictatorship they helped install in Bolivia (FAIR.org, 12/17/19), violent protesters in Nicaragua (FAIR.org, 8/23/18) or Venezuelan politicians who support lethal US sanctions on their own country (FAIR.org, 6/14/19),  the London-based news service can be counted on to cover for them.

In the case of Ecuador, a servile US ally since President Lenín Moreno took office in 2017, Reuters has ignored efforts to prevent Moreno’s strongest opponents from participating in the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for 2021.

On Reuters’ website, I found 26 articles in English about Ecuador from June 19 through August 16. None of them are about the Moreno government openly trying to prevent four political parties from running in the 2021 elections. Ecuador’s auditor general, Pablo Celi, demanded on June 19 that the parties be banned, and, a few days later, called for electoral authorities to be fined and fired if they disobeyed him.

Back in 2017, the same day Venezuela’s electoral authorities announced that parties that boycotted municipal elections would have to re-register to participate in the presidential election, Reuters (12/20/17) immediately ran an article with the headline “Venezuela May Ban Main Opposition Parties From Presidential Vote.” Days earlier, another Reuters article (12/11/17) had the headline “US Condemns Threat to Ban Venezuela Opposition From Elections.”

Quite a lot to ‘miss’

Celi is strongly implicated in acts of corruption that have recently come to light, and has a dubious legal claim to having his job at all. However, he has been pivotal to Moreno’s criminalization of political opponents, and that’s kept him on the job and on the attack (CounterPunch, 7/1/20). Electoral authorities resisted Celi’s bullying for weeks, but caved on July 19. The four parties were suspended.

The key party Moreno has targeted for elimination is Fuerza Compromiso Social (FCS)—the party supporters of former President Rafael Correa joined in order to be able to participate in the 2019 regional elections. (Correa and Moreno belonged to the same left wing party for ten years, Alianza PAIS; Moreno moved the party completely to the right after he was elected president in 2017. See FAIR.org, 2/4/18.)

A judge overturned the suspensions on August 2. The electoral authorities’ effort to reverse the judge’s ruling failed on August 14. But the electoral authorities had already made another decision that will subject FCS and the other three parties to a special “review” that could still block them from participating in 2021. The “review” is supposed to be completed by mid-September.

Moreno’s cabinet secretary, Juan Sebastián Roldán, said in a TV interview (MAXTV Online, 8/7/20) that Correa is part of a “gang” that “must not be feared.” He added menacingly that it’s a “big risk being a Correaist candidate, because the justice system will have its eyes on those who have not yet fled or been convicted.” This is not an idle threat that Roldán made: Numerous Correa allies (including elected officials) have been jailed or driven into exile by Moreno.

Moreno’s great betrayal

Because Ecuador is a US ally, Reuters (4/7/20) treats the government bringing criminal charges against a political opponent with none of the skepticism it would apply to a similar move by an Official Enemy.

Correa was first elected in 2006 and left office in May 2017. Moreno had been vice president for the first six years of Correa’s time in office, and his special envoy to the UN for the remaining four. Understandably enough, voters in 2017 believed Moreno was sincere when he praised Correa lavishly throughout his campaign, saying Correa’s “citizens revolution” had been “legendary.”

Within weeks of taking office, it was obvious Moreno had done a complete ideological about-face and implemented the platform of his right-wing opponent, a banker named Guillermo Lasso. A threat to prosecute Correaists was part of Lasso’s platform, and Moreno followed through on it ruthlessly.

Moreno’s running mate, Jorge Glas, who immediately opposed Moreno’s right turn, was quickly imprisoned for “illicit association,” based on flimsy evidence and judicial chicanery (CounterPunch, 12/21/18). Moreno has tried to pursue Correa in Belgium using two ridiculous cases. Correa, whose wife is Belgian,  had always said he would live there after leaving office.  Interpol, on human rights grounds, has rejected two different requests by Ecuador to arrest Correa.

Moreno similarly followed through on Lasso’s promises to illegally eject Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and to shift economic policy to the right, based on the lie that Ecuador’s public spending and debt had been unsustainably high under Correa (FAIR.org, 10/23/19). Fulfilling yet another campaign promise by Lasso (to restore “institutional independence”), Moreno stacked the judiciary and numerous other control authorities to the satisfaction of Ecuador’s traditional powerbrokers (CounterPunch, 10/12/18). All of this pleased Ecuador’s private media, and Western media generally (FAIR.org, 2/4/18, 11/3/18).

In April, a Reuters article by Alexandra Valencia (4/7/20) covered for Moreno’s extreme cynicism by deceptively stating that Correa “initially backed [Moreno] in 2017.” That’s like saying that Jesus and Judas had once been friendly acquaintances.

Reality asserts itself

Overwhelming local and international media support aside, Moreno’s economic policies hurt the population, and the regional election results of March 2019 showed that “Correaists” remained the most serious electoral threat to Moreno and his right-wing allies. That’s remarkable, considering that Correa’s supporters have not even been allowed to register their own political party—hence their decision to participate by joining FCS. They could only participate in 48% of the states and 22% of mayoral elections (CounterPunch, 10/25/19).

Moreno’s government took another hit in October 2019, when protests broke out against harsh austerity measures it tried to impose. To salvage their credibility, some anti-Correa collaborators of Moreno’s from the supposed “left” were forced to confront him (CounterPunch, 10/25/19).

All of that was before the Covid-19 pandemic struck Ecuador. The government’s response was so incompetent that (based on excess deaths per capita) it’s among the worst in the world. To make matters worse for Ecuador’s right, the gruesome outbreak began in Guayaquil, a port city that’s been governed by the same right-wing party (PSC) since 1992—a fact that explains some weird attempts to put a positive spin on the city’s catastrophe. An NBC News headline (8/7/20) said: “Guayaquil, Ecuador, Once Had Bodies on the Street Because of Coronavirus. Now It’s Helping Others.”

I should note that a Huffington Post article (8/5/20) by Travis Waldron and Nick Robins-Early did make a quick mention of Moreno’s attempt to ban Correaists from the 2021 elections—albeit very deep into a lengthy article whose emphasis was largely on demonizing Venezuela’s government. Journalist Phil Gunson, who has been whitewashing the US-backed opposition in Venezuela for decades, was quoted extensively.

Alliance makes a world of difference

Moreno is not struggling to contain a violent opposition backed by a superpower, as Nicolás Maduro is in Venezuela. On the contrary, Moreno is trying to prevent voters from punishing Ecuador’s very pro-US right-wing parties, whose platform he adopted.

Correaists aren’t asking the US to strangle Ecuador’s economy or invade the country, nor are they asking the bloodsoaked Elliott Abrams to bribe and coerce Ecuador’s military to perpetrate a coup. They just want to participate in the upcoming elections. Unfortunately, Reuters’ priorities are clearly US priorities—which means covering for US allies at the expense of journalistic integrity.

Featured image: Reuters depiction (10/17/19) of Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno (photo: Henry Romero).

ACTION ALERT: You can send a message to Reuters here (or via Twitter: @Reuters). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

 

 

Liz OuYang on Census Sabotage

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This week on CounterSpin: Sure, the United States has been conducting the census for some two centuries, but Donald Trump and his cronies have a new idea of how to do it, that involves—no points for guessing—screwing it up entirely in service to a racist, nativist project; using methods that are, yes, unconstitutional, but can still have impact anyway; leaving everyone who knows anything about the census or statistics or democracy shaking their damn heads. We’ll talk about the White House’s transparent campaign to sabotage the census with civil rights attorney Liz OuYang.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at a study of commentary on the Black Lives Matter protests.

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ACTION ALERT: Newsweek Should Disavow Racist Insinuation That Kamala Harris Is Not a Citizen

 

Less than 24 hours after Kamala Harris became the first person of color to be chosen as a vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket, Newsweek ran an op-ed (8/13/20) insinuating that she was not a citizen and therefore ineligible to run.

The piece, by former Clarence Thomas law clerk John Eastman, disregarded almost two centuries of Supreme Court jurisprudence to pretend that there is an actual debate over the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” which appears in the 14th Amendment passage that grants automatic citizenship to people born here:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

Newsweek (8/12/20) gives a platform to a fringe legal theory that holds Kamala Harris is not actually a US citizen because her parents were immigrants.

Long before the 14th Amendment was passed in 1868, however, the Supreme Court made it clear that children born to residents of the United States were citizens. In Inglis v. Trustees of Sailor’s Snug Harbor, an 1830 case, the Court declared:

Nothing is better settled at the common law than the doctrine that the children even of aliens born in a country while the parents are resident there under the protection of the government and owing a temporary allegiance thereto are subjects by birth.

Generations later, in the 1898 ruling United States v. Wong Kim Ark, the Supreme Court spelled out its understanding of what the 14th Amendment means for citizenship, listing all the categories of people who were not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the US:

The Fourteenth Amendment affirms the ancient and fundamental rule of citizenship by birth within the territory, in the allegiance and under the protection of the country, including all children here born of resident aliens, with the exceptions or qualifications (as old as the rule itself) of children of foreign sovereigns or their ministers, or born on foreign public ships, or of enemies within and during a hostile occupation of part of our territory, and with the single additional exception of children of members of the Indian tribes owing direct allegiance to their several tribes.

(Indigenous Americans were recognized as citizens by Congress in 1924, removing one of the very few exceptions to the birthright citizenship rule.)

Most of a century later, in Plyler v. Doe (1983) the Court reaffirmed that “jurisdiction” is to be understood in “predominantly geographic sense.” The ruling held that “no plausible distinction with respect to 14th Amendment ‘jurisdiction’ can be drawn between resident aliens whose entry into the United States was lawful, and resident aliens whose entry was unlawful.”

In 2018, when President Donald Trump threatened to issue an executive order that he claimed would strip US citizenship from the children of unauthorized immigrants, the Congressional Research Service (11/1/18) summed up the legal situation:

At least since the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1898 case United States v. Wong Kim Ark, the prevailing view has been that all persons born in the United States are constitutionally guaranteed citizenship at birth unless their parents are foreign diplomats, members of occupying foreign forces, or members of Indian tribes…. Because none of these exceptions permits the denial of birthright citizenship based on the alienage of parents who are not diplomats, the case is most often interpreted as barring the federal government from accomplishing such denial through any means other than a constitutional amendment.

Contrary to Newsweek‘s editors’ note (8/13/20). the column it ran is entirely in the spirit of racist birtherism.

Are there lawyers who believe that the Supreme Court could and should overturn the 122-year-old precedent of Wong Kim Ark and find some new ground for declaring certain US residents not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States? Yes, and they are generally regarded as fringe theorists, motivated by a desire to denaturalize millions of US citizens, overwhelmingly people of color, who are every day recognized as full-fledged Americans for purposes of paying taxes, serving on juries, registering to vote—and running for office. That Newsweek chooses to give a platform to this xenophobic legal quackery is dismaying.

Newsweek‘s global editor in chief Nancy Cooper and opinion editor Josh Hammer published an editors’ note (8/13/20) hours after Eastman’s op-ed appeared, saying that “some of our readers have reacted strongly to the op-ed we published by Dr. John Eastman, assuming it to be an attempt to ignite a racist conspiracy theory around Kamala Harris’ candidacy.” The editors assert:

His essay has no connection whatsoever to so-called “birther-ism,” the racist 2008 conspiracy theory aimed at delegitimizing then-candidate Barack Obama by claiming, baselessly, that he was born not in Hawaii but in Kenya. We share our readers’ revulsion at those vile lies.

Eastman’s column, they claim, “is not an attempt to deny facts or to make false claims. No one is questioning Harris’ place of birth or the legitimacy of an obviously valid birth certificate.” But it is an effort, based on the most far-fetched legal speculation, to assert that Harris is literally not an American because her parents were immigrants. It is the exact same impulse that prompted hatemongers like Donald Trump to question Barack Obama’s right to run for office, motivated by the identical racist ugliness.

ACTION ALERT: Please contact Newsweek‘s editors and demand that they retract the op-ed insinuating that Kamala Harris (like millions of other Americans) is not a US citizen.

CONTACT: You can contact Newsweek here or via Twitter@Newsweek.

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

 

 

 

‘There’s Been Very Little Attention, Despite a Great Deal of Advocacy, to Our Incarcerated Residents’ - CounterSpin interview with Nicole Porter on Covid and decarceration

 

Janine Jackson interviewed the Sentencing Project’s Nicole Porter on Covid and decarceration for the August 7, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: It’s hard to think of a worse place to be in a pandemic than a prison—crowded, unsanitary, inadequate healthcare. And, indeed, Covid-19 is spreading in US jails, prisons and immigration detention centers. Research by the Marshall Project reports at least 78,000 confirmed cases and 766 deaths among detainees through July 28, numbers that are certainly low. At one Ohio prison. virtually every inmate tested positive.

With the recognition that a prison sentence should not be allowed to become a death sentence, numerous advocates have been calling for, and some states undertaking, decarceral efforts, including releasing those who are medically vulnerable and reducing low-level arrests.

The treatment of incarcerated people in the face of a pandemic only highlights the ongoing problems with the prison system, including its racial bias. It also provides an opening to talk about decarceration more broadly—even when there isn’t a life-threatening virus afoot—and what needs to happen to allow it to work for individuals and communities. Those questions, asked deeply enough, might change the conversation about why so many people are going to prison in the first place.

Joining us now to talk about Covid and decarceration is Nicole Porter. She’s director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project. She joins us now by phone from Houston. Welcome to CounterSpin, Nicole Porter.

Nicole Porter: Thank you for having me.

JJ: As I said, some states are taking action, decarceral steps in the face of Covid-19. What has that looked like? And is it sufficient, do you think?

NP: No, it’s not sufficient. Some states have taken action, and some states are doing more than other states, but in reality, no state is doing what they should be doing.

So, most recently, New Jersey lawmakers adopted legislation that has the potentiality to release up to 3,000 incarcerated prisoners in New Jersey. Those would be people within 10 months of release, who have certain sentences.

In other states, governors have taken action to release people who were expected to be released anyway during 2020, that includes gubernatorial actions in California, Illinois and New York. Much of that has moved up release dates for people who were within a few months of their already-planned release. And while it is a good step to move those people out of prison sooner, so that social distancing could be followed within prisons, it’s still not enough.

What the United States has done, even collectively, pales in comparison to what other countries have done—even more autocratic countries, like Iran and Turkey, that have also released people who should never have been in prison to begin with, but their releases number tens of thousands of individuals.

JJ: Wow. I think, also, of all those people who are in jail before they’ve even had a trial.

NP: There have also been significant reductions in the jail population as well. And much of the decarceration impact has happened at the jail level, by changing practices that could be adopted even when we’re not going through a global pandemic.

So in order to reduce jail populations, practitioners in many counties around the country decided not to admit residents for certain infractions. So they stopped arresting and booking into local county jail, residents on traffic violations and other minor offenses. Those are practices that could be implemented even when we’re not going through a public health crisis. And the same, too, at the state level within prisons; much of the reduction in state prison populations is not because of active efforts to decarcerate, or move people out, but to reduce admissions into prisons.

And there’s a range of reasons why that’s happened over the last couple of months since the pandemic started. One is that courts have stopped or delayed proceedings, but with the goal of quarantine and social distancing within courts, which can be congregate settings. Another is that state prison systems refuse to admit newly sentenced prisoners from local lockup. Even conservative states like Florida and Oklahoma had those policies in place in the midst of the quarantine period. But that also influenced factors at the local level, because newly sentenced prisoners were still confined, and those changes required local officials, from sheriffs to district attorneys, to make changes around their local jail population.

So there’s a range of different reasons why prison and jail populations have decreased during the pandemic. But it’s still not enough; it’s still nowhere near what needs to be happening.

JJ: What about at the federal level? Have incarcerated people been considered at all in these big pieces of Covid legislation that we’ve seen coming down?

NP: Not enough; there has been some decrease at the federal level. Some federal prisoners have been moved to home confinement. Federal prisoners who are medically vulnerable, who are elderly, have been released from prisons and allowed to continue their sentence under home confinement; there has been an ongoing effort to call attention to the incarcerated population in the CARES Act and other stimulus packages that have made their way through Congress. But there’s been very little attention to that, despite a great deal of advocacy and attempt to call attention to our incarcerated residents.

One outcome that’s been helpful in the midst of this pandemic is the easing of telephone and email fees that prisoners are generally required to pay in order to stay in contact with their family and loved ones. So during the pandemic, those fees have been waived.

So that’s good, but it’s still not enough, because there are people currently incarcerated who are at risk of contracting Covid, and if they do get the coronavirus, they could potentially have a fatal outcome from it. So this country needs to be doing a lot more to reduce the number of people in confinement, so that social distancing can be practiced for those left behind, and others can be moved to the community where they can better practice social distancing in the free world.

JJ: On the one hand, letting people out of prison is automatically frightening or sounds wrong to some people. But on the other hand, there’s something different in the wind; an increased recognition that the US carceral system isn’t just racist, isn’t just unfair, but that it doesn’t contribute to public safety in the way that people have been told. So “Abolish ICE” and “Defund Police” aren’t jokes anymore. People are open to new visions.

So I would like to ask you to talk just a little bit, if you would, about what it would take, what needs to be built, to make decarceration work? It’s not just ”letting people out,” and nothing more.

Nicole Porter: “Sentencing in the United States is way too extreme and has racist roots, and there should be an intentional effort to revisit them and recalibrate them.”

NP: It should be about letting people out, because the system is way too extreme. There’s a man down in Louisiana whose life prison term was upheld for stealing hedge clippers, because he had four prior convictions, and he was convicted under that state’s habitual offender law. That man should not be in prison today. And letting him [out]—and other people convicted under that state’s habitual offender law, for minor property offenses— should happen today, without any requirement that those people have to go through additional hoops to prove that they aren’t a threat to public safety; they shouldn’t have been in prison for as long as they have been.

There’s another man in Mississippi, whose prison term was upheld earlier this year, before the pandemic even hit, because he had a cellphone while he was booked into jail, which means that the police officers who put him into jail failed at doing their job, because they did not properly search him. And that man was sentenced to 12 years in the state lockup, and that prison term was also upheld by the state supreme court. That man should not be in prison.

And all prisoners in Mississippi with minor property offenses, whose prison terms were too extreme, should be released, without question and without any additional hurdles that they have to go through, because those are racist laws that are extreme, and unduly burden and disappear Black residents from community life and from their families, because of who lawmakers imagine to be convicted of those laws, and the fact that they don’t care about those individuals’ lives, their futures or their presents.

That said, in order to lean into the conservative gaze that has to be explored for credible reforms to be adopted at the state and at the federal level, there are a range of considerations that advocates and lawmakers can be working on.

One is that the sentencing in the United States is way too extreme and has racist roots, and there should be an intentional effort to revisit them and recalibrate them. There’s a practice we encourage at the Sentencing Project called racial impact statements, which look at the racial disparity of sentencing laws and their impact on prison systems. Lawmakers could adopt those policies within states; in states where they are already the law, states like New Jersey and Oregon, lawmakers could expand what racial impact statements consider, and could go through a deliberate process where they look at how the current sentencing practices result in racially disparate outcomes in state prison populations, and intentionally go back to repair the harm. One would be recalibrating property offenses that can disappear people away for the rest of their lives, like in Louisiana or, for more than a decade, like in Mississippi, and there are many states, if not all states, have similar extreme outcomes for property offenses, ranging from robbery to burglary.

JJ: I certainly don’t mean to be leaning into the conservative gaze; I really only mean to say that I think folks are due something when they come out of prison, beyond letting them out, which is the first thing and the ultimate thing.

NP: I think folks are due something, and I think communities are due something. So that could be a part of a reparations agenda and a racial justice agenda.

There’s a concept that has never been fully implemented, called justice reinvestment, which was pioneered in the early 2000s. And the theory is that every year, millions of dollars are extracted from high-incarceration communities by disappearing residents and, with them, resources: their potential labor and contribution to their communities, as well as public monies that are spent on their incarceration, rather than on investments in those high-incarceration communities — quality housing, equitable funding of public education and the funding of other public support and social services, to communities that have been divested from over the last 30 to 40 years following civil rights, when many white folks decided they didn’t want to live next to Black people.

So there’s a lot that people are owed, and there’s a lot that communities are owed. And decarceration, and reprioritizing and shifting resources back into those communities through an intentional effort, through reparatory justice and through some redress of the significant harm that entire communities have undergone during the era of mass incarceration, would be one step to address what people are owed.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the SentencingProject. They’re online at SentencingProject.org. Nicole Porter, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

NP:  You’re welcome.

‘It’s Not Who Has the Most Deaths; It’s Who’s Doing What to Prevent the Spread’ - CounterSpin interview with Neil deMause on reopening reporting

Janine Jackson interviewed journalist and FAIR.org contributor Neil deMause about reopening reporting for the August 7, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Listeners will have heard of Donald Trump’s recent interview on the coronavirus in which, holding a colored bar graph, he told Axios’ Jonathan Swan that, “If you look at death, right here, the United States is lowest in numerous categories, lower than the world.” In reality, of course, the US has some 4.8 million confirmed cases of coronavirus, and 150,000 deaths and rising. Trump said, “It’s under control as much as you can control it.” In reality, other countries that have reacted differently have had greater success in containing the virus.

The interview provided vivid, if unnecessary, evidence of Trump’s angry ignorance and soullessness. But what’s lost when the conversation stays framed around him, when media see their job as triangulating between Trump and the truth? There’s a lot at stake—for journalism, but preeminently for the lives and health of the people of this country.

Here to bring us an update on coronavirus coverage is Neil deMause. He’s a freelance journalist, a frequent contributor to FAIR.org and author. His most recent book is The Brooklyn Wars. He joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Neil deMause.

Neil deMause: Hey, good to be here,  Janine.

FAIR.org (8/3/20)

JJ: Let’s start with your latest piece for FAIR.org: You’re talking about Melbourne, Australia, which just declared a “state of disaster.” But the piece is, on another level, about the United States, and about US reporting. What are you trying to convey there?

NdM: Yeah, so there was a fair amount of attention in the US and worldwide to the fact that Melbourne, which is the second-largest city in Australia, had declared a state of disaster, because the virus had come surging back at a level that they hadn’t seen since the spring. And it has reestablished lockdown—only one person in the household can leave the house to go shopping—very strict measures.

But as I started looking into it more, I realized that Melbourne—even at the high rate of infection that they’re seeing now—is still doing much better than the vast majority of the United States. If Victoria, the state in Australia that Melbourne is in, were a US state, it would be about in the top third, in terms of containing the virus. And this is obviously a problem.

And it’s always difficult for the US media to really pay much attention to anything that doesn’t affect the US. But when it does pay attention to another country, and the only lesson it takes is, ”Man, sure is tough to be Australian,” and not, “Oh my goodness, Australia is doing all this with even a moderate level of infection,” and, meanwhile, states like Florida, that have multiple times the infection rate, are doing very little, and you can go out and eat at restaurants in many parts of the state—that’s the wrong lesson we should be taking.

JJ: In terms of comparison or context, we are seeing a focus on different states within the United States. Some of it looks like schadenfreude, you know, states that said, ”We don’t need no stinking quarantine,” and then saw cases spike. But you think that there might be a distraction or a misdirection in just holding states up against other states, too simplistically?

91-DIVOC

NdM: Yeah, I think one of the problems is it becomes this matter of scoring the standings, right? “Florida’s in the lead! No, now California is in the lead!” That’s really not what it’s about. I mean, go back three, four months, and it was New York and New Jersey that were in the lead. And that’s how a pandemic spreads, right? It hits here, it hits there.

And it’s not so much about who has the most deaths or even who had the most deaths last week; it’s about who’s doing what to try and prevent the spread and contain the spread, and what’s most effective.

And I feel like that’s what we’re really missing in a lot of the coverage. There’s an occasional article here or there that will say, “What’s really effective? What can we do to reopen school safely, is going back into offices something we should be doing, is opening restaurants something we should be doing?”

But that gets lost in the noise of “Who has the highest death rate?,” you know, “What is this governor or that governor saying today?” Which is obviously much easier to report, but it’s much less informative for people who are having to live through this.

JJ: And I think that we can acknowledge that this is uncharted territory; there are a lot of unknowns here. But I think it’s fair to demand media address it as such, with appropriate disclaimers and acknowledging different degrees of certainty, and not, as you’re kind of hinting at, just run it through the story machine, as if they already knew how things would turn out, and they can do their standard approach of quoting politicians and comparing states in a kind of horserace way.

But it always, in a way, comes back to who gets to speak, and who do journalists listen to to shape their stories? What are your thoughts about the sourcing in Covid stories?

NdM: Obviously, I will freely acknowledge, as a journalist, this is a hard story to cover, right? The facts are changing constantly. It’s something that nobody knew anything about until a few months ago. It’s not something that you can use your storehouse of past stories to go back and say, “Oh, OK, well, this is just another step in the story we’ve been telling for a long time.”

However, there is one way to make this a lot easier, which is to go to the experts who do know about this,  right? And there are epidemiologists and infectious disease experts who have been studying, if not Covid, how epidemics go, and how vaccines work, and how social distancing works, and have been studying this for years and decades. And we’re seeing a little bit of that, but way, way, way too little.

FAIR.org (7/22/20)

A perfect example was that story back in early July that spread like wildfire, about how vaccines might not be effective, because it looks like after you get Covid, your antibodies drop off quickly, right?  This all started with a story, I think, in the San Francisco Chronicle, that was based mostly on one researcher who was not an infectious disease expert; he’s a molecular biologist who was involved in trying to promote the idea that we should be studying treatments, rather than vaccines, because vaccines may or may not work. Which is a legitimate viewpoint, but it obviously means that he’s someone who’s going to be more inclined to say, “We have to pay attention to, well, could vaccines fail?”

JJ:  Right.

NdM: And the rest of the epidemiology world, as FAIR reported, was not thinking this way, and since then, in the last few weeks, it’s come out as, “Actually, antibody rates come down, but it still looks like they stay at a  high enough level, and your immune system is primed to create more,” —to where vaccines—there’s no guarantees—but we should be able to expect them to work as well for Covid as for anything else.

So again, so many of these stories—What’s safe to reopen? What we should be doing? Do masks work?—are something that you can easily get some information by just calling around and saying to the experts, “What do we know? What don’t we know? And what can we tell the public?”

And that’s the sort of thing that journalists are, again, doing occasionally, but not nearly enough, and need to be explaining in a way that gets to all the nuances, and explains, again, what we should be doing, what we don’t know if we should be doing, and what we still need to study. It’s not the kind of thing that modern journalism really is expert in, because it’s much easier, again, to just go and find one expert saying, “Yeah, sure is really bad.” And then, you know, that’s your headline. But that’s not what the American public, and that’s not what American policymakers, need at this point.

JJ: Can I just ask you, finally, it seems like a lot of stories seem to have an unspoken assumption that,
“Well, since we’re not going to stop the virus, what’s the best way to do X, Y or Z?” There’s almost a giving up on the idea of true containment, and we seem to be talking about mitigation. Is that really where we should be? Is not the lesson that you have to control the virus in order to restart the economy, and go back to schools and all these other things? Some of the reporting I find very confusing, because it seems to start with the idea that that’s just not possible.

Neil deMause: “If you do want to reopen schools, far more important than paying attention to how much hand sanitizer there is on hand, is make sure there isn’t a lot of virus out there that people can be catching.” (photo: David Dyte)

NdM: Yeah. And one of the things that epidemiologists are saying very clearly is, If you do want to reopen schools, far more important than paying attention to how much hand sanitizer there is on hand, is make sure there isn’t a lot of virus out there that people can be catching, right? That’s how it’s worked in other countries, in Europe and Asia, where they have started reopening schools. It’s much safer to do it if the virus isn’t running wild out in the community.

That is a lesson that seems to be really, really hard for everybody to understand, is that, when you’re talking about containment, when you’re talking about trying to get the viral levels down, it’s not even just about saving people from getting sick or dying right now. It’s about getting us back to a point where we can keep the virus at a very low level, so that you can start to do some things and reopen the economy and reopen schools, and maybe reopen offices and other indoor things (even though indoors is very dangerous), because you’ve created the context for that. And that’s something, again, that I wish that the US media were looking more to other countries, and trying to see what’s worked there; what can work here. But we’re still not quite up to that point.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with journalist Neil deMause. You can follow his writing at deMause.net. Thank you so much, Neil deMause, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

NdM: Always a pleasure.

 

Activist Voices Missing From Corporate Coverage of Uprisings

 

Since the brutal police murder of George Floyd, protesters for racial justice have mobilized across the country, attracting a frenzy of media commentary. To gauge who got to take part in this discussion, FAIR looked at whose voices were featured in some of the most prominent and influential outlets.

We counted the columnists in the Washington Post and New York Times editorial sections, as well as the people interviewed on network Sunday morning political talk shows, including ABC’s This Week, CBS’s Face the Nation, CNN’s State of the Union, Fox News Sunday and NBC’s Meet the Press.

We found that establishment media overwhelmingly turned to columnists, pundits and government officials for interpretation of the uprisings—rather than to the activists facing tear gas on the frontlines. As a result, the protesters were denied the chance to present their demands in their own words, and the voices of those most impacted by police brutality went unheard.

Activists’ op-ed absence

Nowhere is media’s unwillingness to provide protesters with a platform more evident than in the opinion columns of the New York Times and the Washington Post, which were dominated by vague calls for justice and reform from neoliberal elites.

In the three weeks after George Floyd’s murder (5/25/20–6/16/20), the Post published 89 op-eds discussing race, policing and the uprisings at length. Some of the articles were penned by more than one person, resulting in 97 authors altogether. Out of these 97 authors, 61% were columnists for the Post and 39% were outside writers.

Current or former government officials made up 34% of the Post’s outside writers. Academics were another 30%, and 18% were freelance journalists.

16% of the Post’s guest writers worked in the criminal justice system, including Benjamin Crump, the civil rights attorney for the Floyd family, and Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore. (See FAIR.org, 7/21/20.) Guest columnists also included a former federal prosecutor, a public defender, a former police officer and a former deputy chief of police (the latter two co-authoring a piece).

The remaining outside writer featured by the Post was Hafsa Islam, whose father owns the Minneapolis restaurant Gandhi Mahal, which caught fire during the protests.

In the same three weeks, the New York Times published 83 op-eds discussing George Floyd and the protests, featuring a total of 87 writers. Out of these, 56% were Times columnists and 44% were outside sources.

The Times’ outside sources included 37% academics, 24% freelancers and 18% current or former government officials. 5% of the outside sources were people who worked in the criminal justice system (prosecutor Marilyn Mosby again, and former chief of police Brandon Del Pozo), while another 5% were activists (prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba and Thenjiwe McHarris, a strategist for the Movement for Black Lives)

The remaining 11% included two medical sources, one member of the clergy and Melody Cooper, sister of Christian Cooper, the birdwatcher who was subjected to a racist swatting attempt in Central Park.

Across both papers, in a total of 172 op-eds, only two organizers were afforded a platform—meaning that just 1% of the columns in the wake of these society-altering protests were written by the people who instigated the protests.

This column (Washington Post, 6/10/20) was one of the few about the protests written by someone who participated in the protests.

The Post (6/10/20) did publish a piece by Braxton Winston, a member of the Charlotte, N.C., city council, about the author’s experience with tear gas at a protest. Though we counted him as a government official, this was one of the few times a participant in racial justice protests was given a chance to speak for himself.

Even as the Post churned out numerous articles (6/1/20, 6/5/20, 6/11/20) comparing today’s domestic upheaval with that of the 1960s, veterans from past movements for racial justice—such as the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Red Power movement or the Chicano movement—were not given space to share wisdom gained from their years of organizing against white supremacy.

As a result of this exclusion, none of the op-eds published in the Times or the Post explored the idea of boycotts, strikes, direct action campaigns or any other disruptive tactics protesters might use to leverage their power during this unprecedented moment.

The op-ed sections of the Times and the Post were lacking not only in historical insight from organizers, but also in global insight. The police murder of George Floyd sparked uprisings against racism, police brutality and state violence around the world, prompting countries to grapple with their colonial pasts and with ongoing inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic. But despite outpourings of solidarity from protesters across Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, the Times and the Post presented exclusively US perspectives.

Missing first-hand experience

Activists weren’t the only ones who were overlooked by the Opinion sections of the nation’s two leading papers.

In the three weeks after George Floyd’s murder, neither the Times nor the Post featured any op-eds written by the people who have suffered most directly at the hands of America’s racist law enforcement: those who have experienced police brutality, or people who have had loved ones murdered by police. Nor did they elevate the viewpoints of any people who are incarcerated, even though many incarcerated writers have been sharing their experiences publicly for years.

Though many op-eds called for a nebulous “reimagining of police,” neither Opinion section highlighted community leaders who have for decades offered proven alternative to policing. Audiences were not given the chance to hear from former gang members who now combat gun violence through street outreach, or aboriginal Night Patrols in Australia, who mediate conflicts while also reducing Indigenous interactions with the criminal justice system.

Instead, we heard from the usual cast of powerful incumbents, who seized the opportunity to boast about their accomplishments on a national stage.  The Post published op-eds by Muriel E. Bowser, Val Demings, Condoleezza Rice, David Axelrod and a consortium of Democratic House managers in the impeachment trial of President Trump. Government officials featured by the Times included Stacey Abrams, Susan E. Rice, Tom Cotton, Gretchen Whitmer and Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Despite the fact that activists have condemned many of these officials for their contestable records on race and policing, these op-eds were presented by media without context or criticism. As investigative journalist Justine Barron previously wrote for FAIR  (6/21/20), these op-eds “give local leaders a chance to raise their national profiles without facing scrutiny.”

Media’s reliance on government bureaucrats to shape public opinion also has the effect, as Julie Hollar (FAIR.org, 6/11/20) wrote, of “placing limits of the acceptable and the possible”—resulting in coverage that “acknowledges the drive to defund the police, but seeks to blunt its radical edge.”

Even as thousands of protesters across the country flooded the streets calling for the defunding of police, editorial teams overwhelmingly gave these demands the cold shoulder.

Out of 84 op-eds published by the Times in those three weeks, only three (5/30/20, 6/10/20, 6/12/20) explored defunding police as a viable step forward. Likewise, out of 89 Post op-eds discussing racism and police brutality at length, only three (6/7/20, 6/9/20, 6/9/20) pointed to defunding the police as a positive solution.

Protesters sidelined on Sunday morning

Corporate media’s unwillingness to provide protesters with a platform was also evident in network Sunday morning political talk shows. For the two weeks after the police murder of George Floyd (5/31/20–6/7/20), FAIR analyzed every episode of ABC’s This Week, CBS’s Face the Nation, CNN’s State of the Union, Fox News Sunday, and NBC’s Meet the Press.

Out of the 54 one-on-one and roundtable guests on all networks, 63% were current or former government officials. The next most frequent guests were journalists, at 24%.

Out of the 35 interviews with government officials, 12 appearances (35%) were made by current or former members of the US national security apparatus (FAIR.org, 6/26/20).

ABC‘s Martha Raddatz (This Week, 6/7/20) interviews acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

Three of these guests—acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and Attorney General William Barr—denied the irrefutable fact that there is systemic racism in law enforcement. On all three of these occasions, these false claims went virtually unchallenged by journalists, who posed the question as though it were a matter of opinion.

One former government official interviewed on Fox News Sunday was Andy Skoogman, the current executive director at the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association (5/31/20). On Skoogman’s LinkedIn page, he describes himself as a “strategic communications specialist” who helps organizations “simplify their complicated issues” and “manag[e] a crisis”—in other words, he works in PR as a paid spokesperson for police.

Only 12% of the guests were not journalists or affiliated with the government. Academics were featured twice across all networks, making up 4% of the interviews. This included an interview with Dr. Cornel West on Fox News Sunday (5/31/20) and an interview with Lonnie Bunch III, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, on NBC’s Meet the Press (6/7/20).

People representing public interest groups made up 4% of the coverage, including María Teresa Kumar, president of Voto Latino, who appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press (5/31/20) and Patrick Gaspard, president of Open Society Foundations, interviewed on ABC’s This Week (5/31/20) The remaining two guests were Floyd family attorney Benjamin Crump, who appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation (5/31/20), and Alicia Garza, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, who appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press (6/7/20). Across all networks, Garza was the only person affiliated with Black Lives Matter who was given time to speak.

Framing the protests

The problem lies not only in which guests are afforded a platform, but also in the framing of the coverage and the questions that were asked. Throughout all the coverage, there was heavy focus on whether the protests were violent or nonviolent, rather than on the demands of the protesters. Protests that targeted property were rarely referred to in neutral terms—a subtle way of limiting the range of acceptable opinion.

An instance of this occurred on ABC’s This Week (6/7/20), when journalist Martha Raddatz referred to “inexcusable criminal looting,” as if it should go without saying that such behavior must be condemned and punished. Though many organizers and academics have argued that looting is a justifiable form of protest in an empire built on the looting of Black and Indigenous people, this perspective was left out of the conversation.

Most networks also denounced the Trump administration’s violent suppression of protesters. But the government officials responsible for deploying tear gas, tanks and secret police were given ample airtime on network news to defend their use of these methods, while protesters who supported destroying property were not.

Though a significant amount of media’s coverage fixated on the possibility of “outside agitators,” “antifa”and the “radical left” hijacking the uprisings, these shows made no effort to investigate these claims by actually interviewing the people protesting on the streets about what brought them there. Instead, protesters’ voices were reduced to 10-second soundbites—mostly chants—in the news packages at the introduction of each broadcast.

Face the Nation (5/31/20) interviews Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery about what protesters are saying—rather than asking protesters what they have to say.

This disconnect from the social organizing on the ground was made especially evident when CBS’s Margaret Brennan (5/31/20) asked Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, who has spent much of his career reporting on police violence and ensuing protests, about what activists were saying—rather than providing space for activists to speak for themselves:

Brennan: I know you have been on the phone and speaking with some of the activists who are in the streets and cities around the country. What are they telling you?

Lowery:  You know, we’re in this moment right now where all of us are asking… how do we stop what’s happening in the streets?… And what the activists are saying is, you all haven’t been listening to us.

Media miss the message

The George Floyd protests are far from the only time corporate media has sidelined the voices of the people in favor of uplifting elites. Past FAIR studies have revealed that media consistently neglect to consult those most impacted by the policies being discussed—whether marginalizing immigrant voices in debates on family separation, or ignoring school workers in coverage about schools reopening.

The gulf between media and the public was laid bare during the recent uprisings in Atlanta, where protesters mounted a CNN sign, raised a Black Lives Matter flag and broke down the doors of CNN’s headquarters, where a standoff with police ensued.

For the duration of this incident, CNN’s team remained behind police lines—a questionable decision, considering that the police have posed a far greater threat to journalists during the uprisings than protesters.

CNN‘s Nick Valencia (5/29/20) attempts to interview a protester being led away by police.

To his credit, CNN reporter Nick Valencia (5/29/20) did attempt to interview a demonstrator who was being hauled away by the police—but, moments after, he stated:

This is where we go to work everyday, journalists who are trying to tell the truth, trying to deliver information…. These demonstrators have decided to come here today to take out their frustration and their anger not just on the police, but, it seems, on our CNN Center as well.

Valencia can be forgiven for not analyzing the motivations of the crowd while the confrontation was unfolding. But even after the incident, media failed to explore why CNN might be the target of such opposition, portraying it as an act of senseless vandalism and rage, rather than a purposeful condemnation of CNN, corporate elites or media coverage of the uprisings.

In most coverage of that night, the fact that the CNN Center also hosts a precinct of the Atlanta police department went unmentioned, and protesters’ “Fuck CNN” chants went unaddressed.

Later that night, as rapper Killer Mike delivered an impassioned plea for calm at a press conference alongside the mayor of Atlanta, he added:

I love CNN…but I’d like to say to CNN right now: Karma’s a mother. Stop feeding fear and anger every day. Stop making people feel so fearful. Give them hope.

But as independent journalist Habib Battah pointed out in a piece for Jacobin (7/19/20), this criticism was cut out of CNN’s website and edited out of rebroadcasts.

No ‘open mic revolution’

In the Jacobin piece—headlined “Why Haven’t We Heard From Racial Justice Protesters in Their Own Words?”—Battah recounts a 2019 revolt in Lebanon. During these uprisings, Lebanese news channels amplified the voices of thousands of ordinary citizens with virtually no censorship, a phenomenon that he dubbed “an open mic revolution.” The result, he wrote, was that:

Lebanese audiences heard a wide range of testimonies from people otherwise kept off television screens. Workers, students, teachers and mothers gave their own tearful accounts of injustice and everyday corruption. There were poetic, witty and downright crude insults and chants leveled at the country’s politicians and political parties. Names were named. Expletives went uncensored. Sitting in front of your television at home, it felt like you were right there in the square.

Moments like this in US media are uncommon, Battah points out—and when protesters’ demands are amplified, it is often because they fought for it themselves. Such was the case when activist Kendrick Sampson physically placed himself between an ABC reporter and a police commander being interviewed on the street, providing a counter narrative to police propaganda for nearly ten minutes.

Oluwatoyin Salau (YouTube, 6/15/20): “My Blackness is not for your fucking consumption.”

Reading Battah’s account of ordinary people’s anguished cries for justice, we could not help but think of Oluwatoyin Salau, a 19-year-old Black Lives Matter activist from Tallahassee who made headlines after a local man sexually assaulted and murdered her.

Much of the coverage surrounding Salau’s murder included a video of her during the uprisings. The footage offers a rare glimpse of what an “open mic revolution” might look like in America; in it, Salau stands in front of the Tallahassee Police Department and looks directly at the camera, her voice hoarse with grief as she expresses something that no columnist or pundit can:

Wherever the fuck I go, I am profiled. Look at my fucking hair—look at my skin, bruh. I can’t take this shit off. So guess what. Imma die by it. Imma die by my fucking skin. You cannot take my Blackness away from me. My Blackness is not for your fucking consumption.

Salau’s testimony is raw and striking—but it’s safe to say that if not for her murder, the footage would not have been aired at all. Most of the time, media do not afford Black Lives Matter protesters the opportunity to express their pain and their vision for two whole minutes, without commentary or interruption.

 

On Right-Wing Violence in Texas, Media’s Silence Sends Message

 

Hank Gilbert, the Democratic challenger to Rep. Louie Gohmert in Texas’ 1st congressional district, held a rally in Tyler, Texas, on July 26 against federal law enforcement agencies’ recent intervention in Portland, Oregon. But armed participants of a “Back the Blue” counter-protest crashed the event, beating and robbing attendees in the park. The attack injured a number of rally attendees, including Gilbert’s campaign manager Ryan Miller, resulting in at least two police reports being filed so far.

Supporters of Donald Trump menacing attendees at a rally for Louie Gohmert’s political opponent (YouTube, 7/29/20).

Videos (KETK, 7/26/20; Tyler Morning Telegraph, 7/26/20; YouTube, 7/29/20) from the scene show the majority of counter-protesters wearing Trump attire, with many also carrying American, Confederate and “Thin Blue Line” flags. In images posted to Facebook by Gilbert, one counter-protestor’s “white pride” tattoo is clearly visible. Many can be seen toting military-style rifles. Counter-protestors consistently expressed pro-Gohmert sentiments, at times drowning out Gilbert’s attempts to speak with chants of “Louie.”

But you wouldn’t know any of this from following major media outlets. Since the attack, we could find no major national newspaper or TV outlet coverage of it at all.

Beyond a handful of local stories, the only media attention we found came from two liberal-leaning news sites (Salon, 7/27/20; Talking Points Memo, 7/27/20) and nine sentences at the end of an Associated Press article (7/27/20) on a similar attack two-and-a-half hours west in Weatherford, Texas.

The city of Tyler has made national news twice recently. NPR’s “In East Texas, Death of George Floyd Brings Activism to a Region of Rare Protest” (6/13/20) exposed the country to Tyler’s current political happenings and the long history of white supremacist violence there. The piece described an activist named Blue speaking at a Black Lives Matter event, wearing a bulletproof vest that extended to her knees while addressing threats on her life.

Only weeks later, a protest by student-athlete Trude Lamb against the name of her school, Tyler’s Robert E. Lee High, was featured on CNN (6/24/20). Both articles show that events in Tyler, a small East Texas city, are the results of national events, and also have implications for the rest of the country.

Screengrab from video shot by the Tyler Morning Telegraph (Facebook, 7/26/20).

Likewise, armed supporters of a far-right politician holding Confederate flags and attacking people in broad daylight in front of police, in a place like East Texas with a history of white supremacist violence, is an important event with national implications about the growing boldness and militancy of the far right. It is a critical example of the white supremacist violence that has skyrocketed in response to the George Floyd uprisings.

Major media’s silence is also striking in light of Gohmert’s infamy across the country for a number of incidents which include, in the last year alone, being one of the four (out of 414) votes against an anti-lynching bill, outing an impeachment whistleblower on the House floor, drafting a resolution to ban the Democratic Party for its “loathsome and bigoted past,” and, most recently, testing positive for Covid-19 after refusing to wear a mask.

Gohmert supporters’ July 26 armed attack of his opponent’s rally came just three days after Gohmert’s July 23 resolution to ban Democrats, and three days prior to his July 29 Covid-19 diagnosis.

In addition to the lack of national coverage, much of the local coverage of the attack portrayed the events as a “clash” (Dallas News, 7/27/20) or “brawl” (KETK, 7/27), as opposed to the targeted political violence that it was.

Terms like “says” (Houston Chronicle, 7/27/20) and “claims” (CBS19, 6/29/20; KLTV, 6/26/20) are also used to make events that are recorded in readily accessible and verifiable videos seem disputed, murky or complicated.

The Tyler Morning Telegraph (7/27/20) reported that supporters of candidate Hank Gilbert like the one at left “felt they were attacked.”

This was typified by a lead from a piece in the Tyler Morning Telegraph (7/27/20) which read, “A small group of people…felt they were attacked Sunday by a large crowd with Trump signs and shirts.” The reporter who wrote the article was there live-streaming the event as the attack happened (Facebook, 7/26/20—see 16:00); he should be able to confirm whether or not Gilbert’s supporters were attacked. (The header image for the article provides an additional clue, showing one of those supporters being choked by a man in a Trump hat.)

Gohmert himself deploys these same tactics. In a statement to the Morning Telegraph (7/30/20), he says of the attack and the videos, “It is difficult to tell, from what I understand today, who started what.”

Whether this obfuscation comes from Gohmert or reporters, it has the same effect: It creates and deploys a narrative of “both sides” to justify the political violence of one side, and it ignores facts and uses neutered language to cloud who actually perpetrated the violence.

The end result of national media’s neglect and local media’s muddling is the erasure of right-wing political violence, sending a message to would-be future attackers that there will be no consequences for their actions.

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