Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

Mark Trahant on Indigenous and the Election; Tea Party Revisionism

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This week on CounterSpin: An article in the New Republic about this month’s historic Native American Presidential Forum ends by citing OJ Semans from the organizing group Four Directions, who says the event was ultimately less about the candidates than about the 5 million Natives across the country, and the possibility of their seeing government as representing rather than oppressing them. We’ll talk about electoral issues in indigenous communities with Mark Trahant, moderator of that presidential forum and editor of Indian Country Today.

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(cc photo: Fibonacci Blue)

Also on the show: The saying that journalism is the first draft of history serves to underscore the harm of misremembering, as the New York Times did recently with a look back on the Tea Party that presented it as a sincere, homespun effort to “tame” federal deficits and “hold Washington accountable.” The paper has since tried to make up for its erasure of the racism at the Tea Party’s roots, but who’s buying? We’ll look at the facts about the Tea Party the Times would have us forget, with CounterSpin conversations with Sikivu Hutchinson, Jodi Jacobson and Rick Perlstein.

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Featured image: New Republic depiction of Native rights protest on the National Mall (photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty)

NYT Steers Dems Away From the Obvious Formula for Defeating Trump

by Jim Naureckas

Thomas Edsall’s demographic analysis is almost always misleading (FAIR.org, 2/10/15, 10/9/15, 6/5/16, 3/30/18, 7/24/19)—and his latest column for the New York Times (8/28/19) is no exception.

“We Aren’t Seeing White Support for Trump for What It Is,” the headline complains—with the subhead explaining, “A crucial part of his coalition is made up of better-off white people who did not graduate from college.”

If “crucial” means it explains why he won, the New York Times (8/28/19) has it backwards.

Why does this matter? Edsall’s column is largely a write-up of a paper by two political scientists, Herbert Kitschelt and Philipp Rehm, who note that better-off whites without college degrees “tend to endorse authoritarian noneconomic policies and tend to oppose progressive economic policies,” and are therefore “a constituency that is now decisively committed to the Republican Party.” (By “authoritarian policies,” the researchers are mainly talking about racism and xenophobia.) Low-income, low-education whites, by contrast, “tend to support progressive economic policies and tend to endorse authoritarian policies on the noneconomic dimension,” and are therefore “conflicted in their partisan allegiance.”

What’s at stake in presenting one of these constituencies as “crucial” is how you approach the task of defeating Trump: If he’s turning out his key supporters through race-baiting and immigrant-bashing, the argument goes, then Democrats need to take care not to be too outspoken on issues of race and immigration. And so Edsall confidently concludes:

The 2020 election will be fought over the current loss of certainty—the absolute lack of consensus—on the issue of “race.”… Democrats are convinced of the justness of the liberal, humanistic, enlightenment tradition of expanding rights for racial and ethnic minorities. Republicans, less so…. If Democrats want to give themselves the best shot of getting Trump out of the White House…they must make concerted efforts at pragmatic diplomacy and persuasion—and show a new level of empathy.

(This is an argument Edsall has made before—see “What’s a Non-Racist Way to Appeal to Working-Class Whites? NYT’s Edsall Can’t Think of Any,” FAIR.org, 3/30/18.)

But there’s an entirely different conclusion that one can draw from the 21st century political terrain—one that is better supported by the data presented in Edsall’s column. Take a close look at the graphic he presents depicting “the shifting voting patterns of whites”:

Bear in mind that these are not equal slices of the electorate: As Edsall notes, the low-income, low-education voters are about 40% of white voters; the high-income, low-education voters are 22%; the low-income, high-education group is 14%; and the high-income, high-education make up 26% of the white vote.

So the supposedly “crucial” better-off white non–college grads are about half as plentiful as their poorer counterparts—and they have been voting Republican fairly consistently since 1972, through good years for Republicans and bad. What was actually crucial to Trump’s 2016 success is that the larger group of poorer less-educated whites, which traditionally leans Democratic or splits its vote, went decisively Republican.

And while this group was susceptible to Trump’s racist appeals, equally important (according to Edsall’s political scientist sources) was his “repeated campaign promise to protect Medicare and Social Security.” The false impression that Trump was a moderate Republican on economic issues “removed cognitive dissonance and inhibitions” that might deter such voters from supporting an economic conservative, leaving them free to be swayed by Trump’s appeal to a white racial identity.

Where the votes are: sorting Trump and Clinton supporters by views on economic and social issues (New York, 6/18/17; see FAIR.org, 10/28/17).

If that’s the truly crucial group, then Democrats will not win the 2020 election by embracing, as Edsall seems to suggest, an agnosticism on the issue of race (or “the issue of ‘race,'” as he puts it), but rather by advancing a strongly progressive, redistributionist economic message. It’s political common sense that if the voters who are up for grabs are those who are socially conservative and economically progressive, then Democrats should emphasize left-wing economics and Republicans should stress right-wing social policies—while crucially reassuring their bases that they maintain their commitments to a progressive social agenda or a conservative economic program, respectively. (See FAIR.org, 6/20/17.)

But this common sense runs against the New York Times‘ historic role of guiding the Democratic Party away from positions that threaten the wealthy. This is why Adolph Ochs, great-great-grandfather of the current Times publisher, was bankrolled by bankers to buy the paper in 1896 (FAIR.org, 10/28/17), and it’s why the paper today has an editorial page editor who proudly declares, “The New York Times is in favor of capitalism” (FAIR.org, 3/1/18). Edsall, it seems, has the task of providing the intellectual arguments for why the Democrats should not adopt the progressive economic agenda that would benefit them electorally—a job that necessarily involves a great deal of doubletalk and hand-waving.

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

 

Corporate Media Take the Trump Line on Trade

The New York Times (8/10/19) takes a Trumpian approach to trade.

The New York Times (8/10/19) ran an article this month with a headline saying that the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders faced a major problem: “How to Be Tougher on Trade Than Trump.” Serious readers might have struggled with the idea of getting “tough on trade.” After all, trade is a tool, like a shovel.  How is it possible to get tough on a shovel?

While this headline may be especially egregious, it is characteristic of trade coverage that takes an almost entirely Trumpian view of the topic. Trump portrays the issue as one of some countries, most obviously China, benefiting at the expense of the United States. The media take a somewhat different tack on this country versus country story, but they nonetheless embrace the nonsense Trumpian logic.

For Trump, at least in his rhetoric, the trade deficit is the central measure of winners and losers. In the case of China, its huge trade surplus with the United States ($420 billion, or 2.1 percent of GDP in 2018) makes it Trumpian enemy No. 1. The trade deficit certainly is a problem for US workers, but this doesn’t mean that China is winning at the expense of the United States because of “stupid” trade negotiators, as Trump puts it.

The US trade deficit with China was not an accident. Both Republican and Democratic administrations signed trade deals that made it as easy as possible to manufacture goods in China and other countries, and then export them back to the United States.

In many cases, this meant that large US corporations, like General Electric and Boeing, outsourced parts of their operations to China to take advantage of low-cost labor there. In other cases, retailers like Walmart set up low-cost supply chains so that they could undercut their competitors in the US market.

General Electric, Boeing, Walmart and the rest did not lose from our trade deficit with China. In fact, the trade deficit was the result of their efforts to increase their profits. They have little reason to be unhappy with the trade deals negotiated over the last three decades.

Manufacturing employment (Source: CEPR, based on BLS data)

It is a different story for workers in the United States. As a result of the exploding trade deficit, we lost 3.4 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2007, 20 percent of the jobs in the sector. This is before the collapse of the housing bubble led to the Great Recession. We lost 40 percent of all unionized jobs in manufacturing.

It is also important to point out—contrary to what you generally read in the paper—the loss of manufacturing jobs in this seven-year period was not part of a longer downward trend. There had been only a modest decline in manufacturing employment over the prior three decades. The claim that we suddenly saw massive job loss in this sector due to automation, which just happened to coincide with the explosion of the trade deficit, is what economists refer to as “nonsense.”

This job loss not only reduced the pay of manufacturing workers, but as these displaced workers flooded into other sectors, it put downward pressure on the pay of less-educated workers more generally. This is a pretty awful story, but it is not a story of China tricking our stupid negotiators; it is a story of smart negotiators who served the people they worked for well.

For some reason the media always accept the Trumpian narrative that the large trade deficits the US runs with China and most of the rest of the world were the result of other countries outsmarting our negotiators, or at least an accidental result of past trade deals. They never say that large trade deficits were a predictable outcome of a trade policy designed to serve the wealthy.

There is a lot at stake in the myth that ordinary workers were hurt as just an accidental byproduct of globalization. The story is that it just happens to be the case that hundreds of millions of people in the developing world are willing to do the same work as our manufacturing workers for a lot less money.

Yeah, that’s a sad story, but there are also millions of smart ambitious people who are willing to do the same work as our doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professions for a lot less money than our professionals make. But our professionals, who are winners in the global economy, along with the big corporations, got their good fortune because they rigged the process, not because of anything inherent in the nature of globalization. (Yes, this is a major point in my [free] book Rigged: How the Rules of Globalization and the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer.)

The fact that trade is a story of winners and losers within countries rather than between countries is especially important now that our trade conflicts are entering a new phase, especially with China. While not generally endorsing Trump’s reality TV show tactics, most reporting has taken the position that “we” have genuine grounds for complaint with China.

Protecting Disney‘s copyrights benefits Disney—not most US workers.

The complaints don’t center on the undervaluation of China’s currency, which is a problem for manufacturing workers. Rather, the issue that takes center stage is the supposed theft by China of “our” intellectual property.

Although this sort of claim is routinely asserted, in fact the overwhelming majority of people in the United States have never had any intellectual property stolen by China. In reality, the complaint is that companies like Boeing, GE, Pfizer and Merck are upset about China not respecting their patent and copyright claims, and they want the rest of us to have a trade war to defend them.

While these companies would be hugely outnumbered if it were a question of putting goals in trade policy to a vote, they can count on strong support in the media on both the opinion pages and, more importantly, the news pages. The issue is entirely framed in their favor, and dissenting voices are as likely to be heard as in the People’s Republic of China.

Trade reporters will never even apply the same logic to the alleged theft of intellectual property that they always apply to the United States getting lower-cost imports from China. In the latter case, reporters and economists routinely give us the happy news that cheaper imports increase the purchasing power of people in the United States. This is supposed to be especially good for those at the bottom, who are now able to buy lower cost clothes, shoes and other items at Walmart.

Imagine we had some reporters and economists who valued consistency. China’s “theft” of the intellectual property of US corporations will mean that we have new products using artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies available to us at lower prices. The same will be true with prescription drugs, software and other sectors where the trade warriors claim that China is not fairly compensating our corporations.

This would hurt the US corporations that allegedly are having their intellectual property stolen. It would also likely mean fewer jobs and lower pay for the highly educated workers employed by these companies to produce intellectual property. But just as manufacturing workers were expected to make sacrifices for the greater good in the last decade, there is no reason that we shouldn’t expect sacrifices from this more privileged group of workers in the next decade.

Incredibly, the simple logic of the gains from trade story is altogether absent from news reporting and opinion pieces on the topic. Rather, we get a jingoistic rally-round-the-flag sort of discussion that would make Donald Trump proud.

It would be great if trade reporters could get a bit more serious and give some thought to winners and losers from trade policy, and not pretend that everyone in the United States is in the same boat. But that is probably asking too much from the media. Instead, we are likely to get more pieces pushing Democrats to get tough on shovels.

A version of this post originally appeared on CEPR’s blog Beat the Press (8/24/19).

Protectors of Mauna Kea Are Fighting Colonialism, Not Science

 

Thousands of Native Hawaiians and their supporters have been congregating since July 15 at the base of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano and mountain on the island of Hawaii. Known in Hawaiian as the kia’i, the protectors—a term the group prefers to “protesters”—seek to deter construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere. Business owners and state officials promise the telescope will provide jobs, educational opportunities and high-resolution astronomical imagery.

The protectors’ mobilization stems from a number of concerns about the vulnerability of the mountain to the effects of a new, 18-story telescope, as well as a fight for Indigenous self-determination in the face of colonialist control. Mauna Kea is an environmentally sensitive conservation district; it’s also sacred in Native Hawaiian traditions and religions, remaining one of the few bastions of Indigenous cultural preservation and sovereignty in the state.

The current demonstrations at Mauna Kea are the culmination of decades of state land mismanagement and broken promises over the mountain, dating back to 1968, when the state leased the mountain to the University of Hawaii. Since then, Mauna Kea has been prized by astronomers for its high altitude and lack of atmospheric pollution, leading to the construction of 21 telescopes within 13 observatories. The TMT would be the 22nd telescope; the Washington Post (7/18/19), Associated Press (7/16/19) and other outlets have erroneously tallied the telescopes at 13.

National media coverage of the protectors’ struggle accelerated around 2014 and 2015, when the kia’i first assembled at Mauna Kea in opposition to the TMT, preventing its construction. Yet this reporting fell woefully short.

“In 2014 and 2015,” corporate media outlets “were obsessed with this idea of science versus culture, as if our kupuna [elders] haven’t practiced applied science,” Kaniela Ing, a Mauna Kea protector and Hawaii Community Bail Fund manager, told FAIR. At that time, as Marisa Peryer recently noted for the Columbia Journalism Review (7/29/19), CNN (8/27/15) published an article headlined “Science and Religion Fight Over Hawaii’s Highest Point.”

A New York Times piece headlined “Seeking Stars, Finding Creationism” (10/20/14) called opposition to the Mauna Kea telescope a “turn back toward the dark ages.”

Other coverage was outright condescending. In 2014, the New York Times (10/20/14) called the protectors’ movement “creationism,” ridiculing activists’ claims that the telescope was a profit-seeking venture, omitting the TMT’s status as an LLC funded largely by multibillionaire Intel founder Gordon Moore’s philanthropic organization. The article dismissed the cooperation between Native Hawaiians and environmentalists as a “marriage of convenience,” condemning the protectors for “waging skirmishes against science.”

Peryer also cited a New York Times editorial (5/2/15) portraying the TMT as an innocent scapegoat caught in the middle of a battle dating back to the US’s 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom. The piece lamented that “coexistence may never satisfy the core group of protesters who have been demanding the total erasure of technology from Mauna Kea’s peak.”

Many kia’i agree that media outlets have been more careful in recent months to avoid such facile binaries. Still, protectors face the challenges of specious narratives.

One of these relates to portrayals of public support of the TMT. A 2018 poll from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser indicated that 77 percent of respondents, and 72 percent of Native Hawaiian respondents, supported the construction of the TMT. The poll was referenced in various local and national media outlets, in addition to the Star-Advertiser: Hawaii News Now (7/21/19; 7/22/19), Hawaii Public Radio (7/29/19), AP (3/26/18), HuffPost (10/31/18) and the New York Times (7/10/19).

It’s imperative, however, to consider whose opinion was sought. The Star-Advertiser surveyed a total of 800 registered voters, only 78 of whom were Native Hawaiian; notably, Native Hawaiians have historically been subjected to voter suppression. “There were all these internally invalid measures of how this poll could really have any weight,” Uahikea Maile, a Mauna Kea protector and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, told FAIR. “I’m fearful of the misrepresentation, because it’s obviously disproportionate to the reality of the situation.”

The Washington Post (7/17/19) adapted an AP story for its “KidsPost” feature by adding a more propagandistic headline.

Mischaracterization of the protectors took other forms. The Associated Press (7/16/19), for example, reported that protesters were “bullying” supporters of the telescope, a claim that the protest’s organizational structure and tactics directly contradict. The story was republished on NBC News (7/17/19) and in the Washington Post, under the headline “Native Hawaiians’ Protests Stop Researchers From Studying the Skies.”

The Associated Press (8/10/19) propagated a similar narrative in an article headlined “Amid Protest, Astronomers Lose Observation Time.” The story bemoaned astronomers’ reported loss of some 2,000 hours of viewing time at Mauna Kea’s existing telescopes in light of the protests. It also paraphrased astronomers’ statements that the resistance had denied them “regular, guaranteed access to their facilities, which puts their staff and equipment at risk.”

According to veteran Mauna Kea protector Kealoha Pisciotta, who was quoted in the Associated Press article, astronomers weren’t blocked by the kia’i; rather, their employers ordered them to descend the mountain. Astronomers “haven’t been blocked from the beginning. When they were allegedly blocked, it was really their own choice, because the observatories made their staffs stay down” amid the demonstrations, Pisciotta told FAIR. “They tried to argue that they were losing science because of us. How can you say it’s because of us? You’re the ones who ordered your people down. Not us.”

Pisciotta also noted that media coverage has muted the cultural and religious significance of Mauna Kea. “For a long time, the Associated Press [7/16/19, 7/18/19], everybody,” including USA Today (8/21/19), “kept using the words ‘some Hawaiians’” in reference to who holds the mountain sacred. “At one point, we said, ‘It’s not ‘some Hawaiians.’ We are the majority.’”

She added that Native Hawaiians’ right to ascend the mountain for “subsistence, cultural and religious purposes” is enshrined in the Hawaii State Constitution. Despite this, state government temporarily denied cultural practitioners access to the mountain in mid-July, later permitting them one vehicle to ascend the mountain per day (Big Island Video News, (8/9/19).

As the protests continue, outlets report that the kia’i and TMT supporters are at an impasse, and suggest that negotiations might allow the project to proceed on Mauna Kea (Hawaii News Now, 7/25/19; NBC News, 8/18/19; Honolulu Civil Beat, 7/31/19). “What is tragic,” the aforementioned 2015 New York Times editorial cried, “is the missed opportunity for shared understanding.”

While proposals to compromise might appear fair, protectors say, they dismiss the historical context in Hawaii of colonialism and the usurpation of Indigenous land that continues today. Thus, these suggestions elide the stark power asymmetry between historically disenfranchised and marginalized Native Hawaiians and the billion-dollar, state-backed TMT project.

“The point that that misses is there’s not anything to negotiate. Either the Mauna is sacred or it’s not. When you talk about these issues, how do you compromise that?” said Kenneth Lawson, a Mauna Kea protector and law professor at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.

“We have shared the mountain since 1968,” said Pisciotta. “It’s our temple, it’s our church, it’s our house of worship.”

At the heart of the Mauna Kea action is thus a challenge not only to a telescope, but to capital and the pursuit of unmitigated industrial growth at any cost. It’s no wonder, then, that when corporate-owned media are tasked with examining this movement, their limitations rear their heads.

“Is the advancement of a certain field of science worth the further disenfranchisement, the pain of a marginalized group?” asked the Bail Fund’s Ing. “I think that’s a valid question for the media, but [the media] scrapes the surface of what this is really about.”

 

‘It’s an Attempt to Impose a White Nationalist Vision of What America Is’ - CounterSpin interview with Sasha Abramsky on new attack on immigrants

Janine Jackson interviewed author Sasha Abramsky about Trump’s new attack on immigrants for the August 23, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: It’s long been obvious, to anyone with a passing acquaintance with white supremacy, that Donald Trump and his ilk’s stance on immigration was never any more about “legality” than it was about all immigrants.

In the face of such an unprincipled and frankly hateful administration, a focus on the law as a bastion against irrationality is perhaps understandable. But that shouldn’t distract us from the devastating effects that come from mere suggestions from those in power, legality notwithstanding. Look at the White House’s push to keep undocumented immigrant children from going to public school. They’ve dropped it for now, but who wonders but that some parents might be afraid to send their kid?

All the more with White House changes, more than suggested, to so-called “public charge” regulations that allow the state to deny visas or consider deportation for immigrants deemed likely to become reliant on government aid.

That people who are legally entitled to food, housing or health benefits will nevertheless lose access to them is a feature, not a bug, of these changes. Are media making that clear? And what about following through on the implications?

Our next guest has been tracking the issue. Sasha Abramsky writes regularly for The Nation as well as his own weekly column, TheAbramskyReport.com. He’s author of several books, most recently Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream, from Nation Books. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Sasha Abramsky.

SA: Thanks for having me on. It’s a pleasure.

JJ: We’re learning a lot from the Trump administration, at tremendous cost, about things we thought were laws, that turn out to be policies, or just convention. Would you give us some grounding, first of all, here: What are “public charge” regulations, on paper and then in practice?

Sasha Abramsky: “It gives tremendous discretion to people, basically, to discriminate, to discriminate knowing the government now has your back.”

SA: On paper, public charge regulations are this amorphous set of guidelines that go back to the late 19th century. And what they do is they give immigration officers some discretion to say, this person is a cash burden on the state. And therefore, we either aren’t going to let them into the country, we’re not going to give them a visa. Or, in very, very rare instances, we’re going to say you can’t stay in the country, that your application for permanent residency is denied, because you’re a cash charge.

And this has existed for over 120 years. It was kind of codified in the 1990s; there was congressional legislation, which basically reiterated the guidelines, and explained that being a public charge was about cash benefits.

So the Trump team came in, and they’ve been looking for all kinds of creative ways to crack down on immigration. And they started with the most low-hanging fruit by going after what they called “illegal immigrants” or “aliens,” people who came into the country or overstayed their visas without proper documentation.

And as the presidency has gone on, the attack has broadened. And so what they’re doing now is they’re saying, “If you or your family members use any benefits—not just cash benefits, but you become unemployed and need to file for food stamps, or temporary housing assistance, or you need to go onto Medicaid—that use of noncash benefits could render you deportable.”

And then the other part of that is, what they’re now saying to immigration officers overseas, “When you’re processing visas, if you think this person is likely to be poor, if you think this person is going to come to the country without enough cash to support themselves, and use things like food stamps, you can deny them a visa.” So it gives tremendous discretion to people, basically, to discriminate, to discriminate knowing the government now has your back, if you’re a bureaucrat and you choose to discriminate against poor people or nonwhite people or people from the Global South.

And this is an extraordinary change in immigration policy. What they’re basically doing is rewriting 50-plus years of immigration policy, which has prioritized family unification, which has prioritized a diversity of immigration from different parts of the world. And they’re saying, “No, we’re going to go back to the 1920s vision of quotas, the 1920s vision which prioritizes Northern European migration, white migration, English-speaking migrants and so on.” This is a huge change. It’s all wrapped up under the guise of a bureaucratic tweak.

JJ: If I can just take you back for one second, the previous interpretation of that public charge regulation, there were societal reasons for not trying to draw lines in this way, that had to do with public health, for instance.

SA: Yeah, I mean, look, you mentioned earlier about the administration floating these nebulous ideas about denying public schooling to children of undocumented immigrants. Even if you forget about the morality of that, who wants a society with an underclass of millions of children who lack even rudimentary education? It makes no sense.

And coming back to “public charge,” the same thing holds. Even if you forget about the morality of denying healthcare to families—and you shouldn’t forget the morality—but even if you think about it purely in terms of pragmatics, who wants millions of people afraid to get vaccinations? Who wants millions of people afraid to go to the doctor or to the hospital if they have a contagious disease?

And so, when you look at this, and you look at the responses, there were 266,000 public comments filed, almost all of them in opposition to this rule change. And large numbers of those comments came from doctors, they came from teachers, they came from nutritional specialists, they came from mental health experts—all of them saying that if you entirely remove the ability of immigrants to access things like food stamps, you’re going to create a public health catastrophe at the back end of this.

And I think that’s what this government is now playing with, in the interest of pushing these sort of red meat policies to its base, it’s doing things that are extraordinarily detrimental to the public good.

Vice (8/16/19)

JJ: I noticed one piece in Vice that pointed out that a rule that bars entry or considers deportation to those who might rely on government assistance is a big old “screw you” to people with disabilities. It used to be that immigrants using Medicaid were only deemed a public charge if it was for institutional long-term care; now they want to extend it to things like community living and in-home support.

And that Vice piece noted that to establish their precedent for this expansion of these rules, the Trump administration cited eugenics-era cases, where people were being denied entry for speech impediments, or for “poor appearance.” It really resonated with something that you wrote about creating a “caste of untouchables.”

SA: Look, they’re referencing eugenics-era cases, they’re referencing the Chinese Exclusion Act cases, they’re referencing the laws that were used to justify Japanese internment.

And they shouldn’t be seen in isolation. This is a web of policies—from public charge, to exclusion from public housing, to the attacks on people with Temporary Protected Status, to the attempts to lock out asylum-seekers and refugees, to this latest idea that they’re going to indefinitely detain in concentration camps families of immigrants—all of this is part of this notion of locking down America, and redefining who is American.

And there’s no way you can understand it without understanding it as a racial project. It’s a racial project, like apartheid South Africa, which is designed to narrow the definition of Americanness to a certain category of people who fit a racial and an economic profile that Donald J. Trump is comfortable with, or Stephen Miller is comfortable with, or Stephen Bannon is comfortable with.

And when we are trying to understand this, it makes no sense to parse it and say, “Well, let’s look at this piece of legislation, and think of it in isolation from everything else.” You have to look at this as a political project in its entirety.

And it’s a political project we haven’t seen in this country for more than half a century. It’s an attempt to impose a white nationalist vision of what America is, on the most diverse, most pluralistic society, certainly on Earth today, but arguably, in human history. It’s an insane political project.

NBC (8/15/19)

JJ: All of which is why I’m so dismayed to see, for example, I’m reading a piece from NBC, it’s by no means supportive of the White House, but it still includes the obligatory indulgence: “The Trump administration argues that expanding the meaning of ‘public charge’ helps ‘protect American taxpayers’ and ensures ‘that non-citizens in this country are self-sufficient,’” blah, blah, blah. I very much appreciate in your work the recognition that it’s just not appropriate to talk about this in a context of budgets. Cuccinelli has admitted they didn’t even try to estimate any supposed savings…

SA: It makes no sense, because all of the budget analyses that are being done by objective, impartial observers say that this will cost money, that you will end up with more expensive public health emergencies, you will end up with nutritional crises amongst low-income immigrants, and so on. All of this is about imposing an agenda and an ideology, rather than a pragmatic response to fiscal constraints.

And you can see this in the latest: Trump returned yesterday to an idea he’s been floating for the last four years, this idea of somehow using an executive order to override the 14th Amendment that guarantees birthright citizenship. And he said, it’s absolutely absurd that they can come in—and he uses this sort of horrible language, they, these immigrants can come in—and have a child and for 85 years, he said, that child will then be a financial burden on the state.

Now, this is completely absurd. The children of immigrants assimilate, the children of immigrants tend to get educated, they tend to start businesses, they tend to buy houses, they tend to do all the things that other Americans do. This notion that someone comes in and they will be a burden on America for 85 years, only makes sense to somebody who thinks that all nonwhite people are definitionally a burden on America.

And day in, day out, you hear this hateful rhetoric coming from the president, and then day in, day out, you have this attempt to rationalize it, and just sort of say, “Well, this is part of the normal political back and forth.” There’s nothing normal about this. Let’s be absolutely clear here: This is a supremacist agenda that has captured one of the two major political parties in the United States. It’s an extraordinary, existential threat to who we are as a country.

JJ: And so when you see media stories, and I’m looking through all this coverage, and I see, you know, “The Trump White House is doing this,” and then they’ll say, “Critics say these changes will have this impact,” or they’ll say, “In actual fact, immigrants don’t cost that much to taxpayers.” But it still is kind of a two-sided issue, and I don’t feel that journalists have made the transition to covering this appropriately. It still sounds kind of like, “Hey, you know, pro-death squads, anti-death squads.”

SA: I think that’s right, because there’s so much irrationalism coming out of the Trump administration, or so much—if it is rationalism, it’s of such a cruel, sadistic nature, that it makes it very hard for a cadre of journalists who have grown up thinking of this country as a functioning, viable, tolerant democracy—it makes it very hard for those journalists to know how to deal with this.

Equal Voice News (7/12/18)

JJ: Well, the changes in the public charge were forecast. You were writing about them last year. People—not just organizations, but cities and states—have been preparing to some extent for them. What do we see in terms of resistance or pushback to these changes in the public charge regulations?

SA: Yeah, there was no mystery to any of this. This has been telegraphed for well over a year, and people have been writing about it and strategizing about it and preparing lawsuits on it for over a year. So the first lawsuit was actually filed by Baltimore in 2018. And that lawsuit is still sitting there, waiting to move. But they got a whiff of what was happening, decided it was going to impact their immigrant populations and their local economies negatively, and they sued.

Since the actual rules themselves have been rolled out in the last couple of weeks, you’ve seen this rash of lawsuits. So you’ve got individual cities like San Francisco suing, you’ve got this huge coalition of 13 states that have sued, and then independently of that coalition, California sued, and then New York has sued. And then a whole bunch of immigrant rights groups, such as the National Immigration Law Center, have also filed suit. So there’s somewhere in the region of nine or ten lawsuits proceeding at this point.

And there’s probably a pretty good chance that at least one court, somewhere in the country, will issue an injunction saying, “Look, you can’t do this, because it’s going to result in irreparable harm to immigrants, to their families, to their communities, to local economies, and so on.” And this is where—not just on public charge, but on a whole rash of things, the ending of the Flores settlement yesterday, and the idea of detaining families definitely, the idea of kicking mixed-status families out of public housing and Section 8 housing, the idea of ending Temporary Protected Status, the idea of locking up asylum seekers south of the border—all of this is being litigated by the ACLU, by state attorney generals and so on. And so where the immediate fightback is, is in the courts.

Secondarily, there are these political fightbacks. So there’s a bill in the House, in Congress, that would defund implementation of public charge. Now that bill is not going to go anywhere, because even if it passes the House, it won’t pass the Senate, and even if it passes the Senate, Trump will veto it. But at the very least, what it does is, it puts down a political red line; it says, “Look, you can’t do this, if you do this, you’re gonna have a huge problem getting anything passed, anything done, in Congress.” So that’s the second tier.

But then the third tier, maybe the most important one, is mass resistance. That we’re now at a point where so much harm is being done to so many of our friends, our families, our neighbors, our communities, by this anti-immigrant-on-steroids agenda, the incredibly turbocharged nationalist agenda that is going to finish out the first Trump term, or hopefully the only Trump term–

the damage is now so immense that it’s on all of us, morally, to find ways to not cooperate with this. And it’s on anybody who works for these government agencies to not cooperate, because they’re now being asked to do things, in their official capacity, that will cause immense and permanent physical and psychological damage, in particular, to children. And it’s on everybody who’s being asked to implement this to have that conversation, with themselves and with their families and with their loved ones, as to whether or not they can, in good conscience, cooperate with laws that are clearly in violation of human rights norms. And I think that’s probably where we’re going to move towards over the coming months and years, is how do we, as a people, resist fundamentally unjust and immoral laws?

Vice (7/26/19)

JJ: I want to bring it back, just finally, on a much smaller note. In the midst of a depressing story online, I saw one of those links to another piece, and it was headlined, “People Make Quiznos a Hub for Migrants.” And the story was just that, how San Antonio had converted a fast food place into a kind of travel agency, community center and daycare combined, for migrants who are being dropped off there. And it was just a little thing, but it was there that I saw journalists doing something worthwhile, which was showing ordinary, imperfect people who were working in community on solutions to problems, instead of just some thought-deadening yakety-yak between elitist talking heads who were talking about how we can never solve these problems. There is room for reporters on the right side of this, I think.

SA: There is, and there’s also tremendous community activism going on on this. And what I was saying about resistance: I was in Arizona before the summer, reporting on these faith groups that were coming out en masse to help immigrant families who had been in these really awful ICE and CBP detention facilities for weeks on end. And the kids were coming out really ill, and they were malnourished, and they hadn’t had showers in weeks. And these community groups were coming out to feed them, to provide them temporary housing before they went over to their sponsor families. There were volunteer doctors. There were volunteer nurses. There were people cooking meals. There were students who’d come out to help arrange transport for these men, women and children, to get them to the sponsor city’s destination.

And all of that I found both inspiring, but also it gave me hope. It gave me hope that there are a tremendous number of people in this country who are looking at what’s happening and saying, “Not in our name,” that we’re not going to sit on the sidelines at this moment of moral truth, but we’re going to get involved, and we’re going to tell these stories, and we’re going to do what we can to keep America a pluralist, tolerant, open society.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Sasha Abramsky. He’s a regular writer for The Nation and author of numerous books, including Breadline USA, The American Way of Poverty and, most recently, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream. You can find out about his new weekly, subscription-based political column, The Abramsky Report, at  TheAbramskyReport.com. Sasha Abramsky, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

SA: Thank you.

 

GateHouse’s Takeover of Gannett: Bad News for Journalism and the Planet

USA Today‘s “Just the FAQs” video (8/20/19) on the Amazon fires—which promises to explain, “How does this affect our planet?”—manages to avoid ever using the words “climate” or “global warming.” (There is one reference to “carbon and greenhouse gases,” not further explained.)

by Janine Jackson

USA Today ran a piece (8/20/19) on the Amazon fires in which “anthropogenic climate change” were almost literally the last three words. Media watchers are wondering if that’s more likely to reflect the outlet’s priorities now that its owner, Gannett—the largest newspaper publisher in the country, as measured by total daily circulation—has merged with GateHouse Media, owned by Wes Edens’ New Fortress Investment Group, which also owns New Fortress Energy, which deals in natural gas.

The merger is terrible for the usual journalistic reasons: This sort of consolidation means fewer resources for reporting, usually fewer reporters, and less informed attention to local affairs. As for the fossil fuel connection, it’s maybe not so much what it means for USA Today as for the 666 other publications involved nationwide. Like in Florida, where as New Fortress, Edens owns a liquefied natural gas export terminal, with big eyes on Puerto Rico, and as GateHouse, he owns 31 publications, including four newly acquired Gannett papers.

As FAIR founder Jeff Cohen was quoted in a piece for the Real News Network (8/8/19):

With environmental struggles often localized and fought over issues like fracking and pipeline construction, it’s a grave situation when a gas and fracking investor like Edens is the ultimate owner of an ever-increasing number of local dailies and weeklies.

Featured image: USA Today Building, McLean, Virginia (cc photo: Shashi Bellamkonda)

WaPo Complicit in Corruption of DC Council’s Corporate ‘Concierge’

 

After years of hiding in plain sight, Jack Evans’ ethical problems are suddenly a story (WJLA, 3/5/19).

When the FBI came knocking on DC Councilmember Jack Evans’ door in June, it set off an earthquake in local politics and business.

Over his 28 years on the DC Council, Evans has served as “concierge” for the elite, steering gobs of public money to stadiums, arenas and luxury condos. Along the way, it wasn’t just developers and banks that profited; so did Evans.

Evidence of Evans’ corruption abounded for many years, just not in the pages of the influential Washington Post, which has long protected the councilmember. But with a growing federal investigation of Evans, the Post finally ended its silence; over the past months, the paper has consistently reported on Evans’ misconduct. Since then, Evans—until recently DC’s third-most powerful official—has been reprimanded, fined and stripped of his committee chair positions.

The Post frequently credits its own reporting for the quickening pace of events, which is fair, and underscores the paper’s complicity in keeping Evans in office all these years. Once the Post ended its silence, Evans’ career began to unravel.

But first it had to begin.

 

Mr. Evans Goes to Washington

Jack Evans grew up in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town, where his mom was a teacher and his dad a florist. After attending college and law school in his home state, Evans took a job at the Securities and Exchange Commission in DC in 1978.

The DC that Evans arrived in was 70 percent black and known as “Chocolate City.” (Today the city is less than half black.) Evans quickly enmeshed himself in local Democratic politics, even though it was an imperfect fit; a party leader said she “roared with laughter because he was so white. Like a Norwegian.”

Jack Evans running for City Council for the first time in 1991 (Washington Blade, 4/19/19)

But by the time the Ward 2 Council seat opened in 1991, Evans had established himself as an elected advisory neighborhood commissioner in Dupont Circle, and was looking to move up.

“We’re not going to accept money from large-scale developers who have dominated the political scene,” a 37-year-old Evans said as he campaigned for the seat he would barely win, but easily hold onto for the next 28 years.

Once on the Council, it wasn’t long before Evans was singing a different tune. “He started out as a resident [activist],” an Evans constituent told the Post in 1998 (8/26/98). “But he’s no longer that. He’s out in the big leagues, [playing] to the big interests that contribute the big money.”

Fueled by mayoral ambitions, Evans went after that big money. But no war chest was big enough to hide the fact that Evans was a white guy advocating for the rich, and his mayoral bids in 1998 and 2014 were flops.

While the top job in a progressive black city was out of his reach, Evans remained secure in his Council seat, representing Downtown and wealthy Georgetown. So secure that he could focus on earning money on the side.

 

First Hustle: Baker Hostetler

Even before his first mayoral run, Evans had turned himself into a walking conflict of interest by taking a second job at the lobbying firm Baker Hostetler, which paid him $50,000 a year for at least six years.

Despite earning full-time salaries (now $140,000 a year), DC councilmembers can hold outside employment. While the Post blessed this practice for pols like Evans with “discrete clients,” this moonlighting still raised ethical concerns. Evans acknowledged this himself:

Whenever rules allow public officials to earn outside income there will always be questions.… When legal or consulting services are provided, that is even more the case.

After his first failed mayoral bid, Evans grew his outside income—and his involvement in conflicted dealmaking.

 

Second Hustle: Central Benefits

In 1999, Evans became a vice president at Central Benefits Mutual Insurance Co., which was planning a rapid expansion and looking to raise capital by converting to a stock company. But state law in Ohio, where Central Benefits was based, made this conversion difficult. So the company, which was a client of Baker Hostetler, looked to incorporate in DC, where a 1996 law—which Evans supported—aided such conversions. After domiciling in DC, Central Benefits hired Evans, paying him around $500,000 over the course of a decade, even though his duties were “really not much,” Evans said.

The Post appears to have reported on this potential conflict of interest only once (11/21/11).

 

Third Hustle: Patton Boggs

Tommy Boggs (photo: Patton Boggs)

In 2001, Evans joined the lobbying powerhouse Patton Boggs, which paid him a second salary of $190,000 a year for nearly 14 years, for an estimated total of around $2.5 million. The firm was a good fit for Evans, as it wasn’t known for ethical purity.

When a magazine called the firm’s longtime leader Tommy Boggs “an icon of Washington’s mercenary culture,” Boggs (who passed away in 2014) proudly displayed the article in his office. “We pick our clients”—who included former Haitian dictator Baby Doc Duvalier—“by taking the first one who comes in the door,” said Boggs (Economist, 2/27/93).

Boggs’ father, Hale Boggs, was a Democratic congressman from Louisiana who rose to House majority leader before dying in a 1972 plane crash. His widow, Lindy Boggs, then served nine terms in her late husband’s seat. (Hale and Lindy’s daughter, Cokie Roberts, has for decades been a top political commentator for NPR and ABC News.)

Their son’s firm, which boasted of being the best at “anything where government is involved,” thrived on access. Under Tommy Boggs, the firm became a pioneer at exploiting the “revolving door” by hiring ex-officials to influence their former colleagues.

The hiring of Evans offered a new twist, as Patton Boggs placed on its payroll a sitting legislator; one who is “up on the government, the players and how deals get cut,” as the Post (2/28/14) would later write. Unsurprisingly, ethics questions arose.

In 2004, Evans voted to award a tax break to CareFirst without disclosing that the healthcare company was a client of his firm’s. Evans was listed as having personally lobbied Congress on CareFirst’s behalf, which Patton Boggs chalked up to “a simple mistake” in their filing, former Washington Times journalist Jim McElhatton (10/23/07) reported.

The Post never followed up on the story, but what if it had? “You do have to wonder,” said McElhatton, “what if the Post had gotten on the story a decade ago, would Jack have even thought of” engaging in further conflicted dealmaking down the road? “I don’t think so.”

In 2007, Evans sought to give away a library and firehouse in his ward to developer buddy Anthony Lanier. In exchange for developing these highly valuable Downtown parcels, Lanier’s EastBanc agreed to construct a new library and firehouse, and to build housing on top of them (market rate above the quiet library, affordable units and a squash club above the noisy fire department).

But public anger forced the Council to undo the sole-source deal, and it would take a full decade before Evans saw the project to completion. “If you’re persistent, you’ll either out-wait or out-live everybody and get the project done,” Evans said at the 2014 groundbreaking. Between 2016 and 2018, Lanier’s companies, EastBanc and Squash on Fire, paid Evans’ personal consulting firm $100,000. It’s unknown what services Evans provided in exchange for these payments.

The Washington Marriott Marquis (cc photo: Farragutful)

In 2009, Evans shepherded to completion a deal involving $272 million in public funding to assist Marriott in building a nearly 1,200-room hotel alongside the DC Convention Center. A major financing partner in the deal, investment giant ING, was a client of Patton Boggs at the time, yet Evans said “there was no conflict of interest.” Since ING’s agreement was with the developer, Evans claimed it “had nothing to do with the city.” But thanks to Evans, the city provided over a quarter billion in public goodies, benefiting all parties in the deal, including ING. The Post wrote about this only once, in a story that appeared online but never in print.

In 2010, Evans offered $25 million in public subsidies to Northrop Grumman if the defense contractor moved to DC. Evans then went farther, fanning the flames of a jurisdictional bidding war by saying, “Whatever someone else puts down, we’re going to match it and we’re going to beat it.” Evans didn’t disclose that Northrop Grumman was a client of the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group, which was in a “strategic alliance” with Patton Boggs and would soon be bought by the firm. Ultimately, Northrop Grumman ended up in northern Virginia, likely with a sweeter incentive package thanks to Evans. The Post, which has praised Evans for his work “both on the dais and behind the scenes,” hasn’t reported on this conflict of interest.

Also in 2010, Evans championed a sole-source disposition of seven acres of air rights over Downtown’s exposed I-395 underpass, to Property Group Partners and its named partners. The 2.2 million square foot, $1.3 billion development is still underway today. One of the partners in the project is the Jarvis Company, headed by Bill Jarvis, a lobbyist who was campaign chair for Evans’ 1998 mayoral bid. Jarvis, the nephew of former DC councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, has lobbied Evans in the past, and most recently was involved in a controversial $215 million sports gambling contract that Evans introduced and voted for in July. In 2016, Jarvis helped Evans set up his private consulting firm, serving as its registered agent and more.

In 2011, at EagleBank’s request, Evans sought to shift DC money out of big banks and into three regional banks, including EagleBank, where Patton Boggs partner Doug Boggs, son of Tommy Boggs, was on the board. “I had no idea he was on the board,” claimed Evans, who would go on to be paid $100,000 a year in 2016 and 2017 by EagleBank, which also provided Evans with mortgage loans on his Florida house.

Throughout his years at Patton Boggs, the Post kept Evans’ conflicted dealmaking mostly out of the paper. When it couldn’t, the coverage was fleeting, not sustained. During these years, the paper repeatedly endorsed Evans’ re-election to the Council, writing that “voters would be making a big mistake in not returning Mr. Evans to office” (9/3/08), since he was “an important leader on some of the thorniest issues facing the District” (10/23/08). Despite the fact that Evans had no opponent in the 2012 Democratic primary, the Post (3/17/12) endorsed him anyway, declaring:

His experience, more than two decades on the council, and sound judgment, particularly on fiscal matters, are needed on an increasingly dysfunctional council.

In January 2015, shortly after Patton Boggs was bought (becoming Squire Patton Boggs), the firm parted ways with Evans. This would prove to be a turning point for the councilmember.

 

In the Red

Even before losing his $190,000 second salary, Evans’ financial situation was precarious. In addition to having college-age triplets, Evans had a second home in Florida, and appears to have been spending $15,000 a year on club memberships alone. He was also in the process of divorcing his second wife, to whom he owed $850,000. (Evans’ first wife died of cancer in 2003.)

The $850,000 debt was from a 2011 loan from Evans’ wife to remodel their Georgetown home, which Evans owned. Their loan agreement gave her the first lien on Evans’ home, and prohibited him from taking out further loans against the house without first paying her back. Despite being required by law to disclose this to lenders, Evans appears not to have done so when securing additional loans against his home in 2012 and 2013.

Over 20-plus years, Evans leveraged his Georgetown home to secure “more than $6 million in various types of loans…most of which he has paid off along the way,” reported District Dig (5/8/19), an investigative website that has led the way in exposing Evans’ corruption. “What surfaces is a portrait of a man who has overseen the city’s finances for years, while losing a grip on his own.”

 

Fourth Hustle: Manatt

Washington City Paper (5/19/18) reporting on Jack Evans’ “shady arrangement” with lobbying firm Manatt Phelps.

Evans’ financial desperation appears to have led to recklessness. In October 2015, Evans created an ethical landmine for himself by taking a $60,000-a-year job at Manatt Phelps, a “firm that is home to top lobbyists who regularly sweat city officials,” noted City Paper (5/19/18).

Two weeks after joining Manatt, Evans was the first signatory on a Council letter calling on the DC Public Service Commission to approve nuclear giant Exelon’s $6.8 billion takeover of DC utility provider Pepco. Unbeknownst to commissioners—who had rejected the deal in August 2015, but would reverse course and approve it in March 2016 after receiving the Council letter—both Exelon and Pepco were clients of Manatt.

(I wrote about this conflict of interest three years ago at HuffPost. The Washington Post finally reported on it in March 2019, only days before federal authorities subpoenaed documents involving the deal.)

Before that, in June 2015, while he was in employment negotiations with Manatt, Evans cast the deciding vote to kill a study on the feasibility of a city-owned utility replacing Pepco, which Manatt furiously lobbied against.

And before that, in his January 2015 employment pitch to Manatt, sent from his chief of staff’s official email address, Evans listed Exelon as one of the “potential clients” he could bring to the firm. Within the year, Evans would join Manatt’s DC office, now led by a new managing partner: Doug Boggs.

After two years at Manatt, Evans quietly left the firm, with questions of conflicted dealmaking swirling around him. A Washington Business Journal headline (12/5/17) from this period read: “Council Member Pitches $2M Tax Break for Dupont Circle Hotel. And He Won’t Say Why.”

 

 

Final Hustle: A Firm of His Own

Next, Evans took his reckless dealmaking to another level.

Before leaving Manatt, Evans set up NSE Consulting, his own firm registered to his home address. In 2016, the year it was created, NSE started taking money directly from clients.

No longer shielded by a big firm, Evans was exposed as never before. But he seems to have focused only on the money, which was coming in faster now that he’d cut out the middleman.

Both 2016 and 2017 were banner years for Evans, who saw his annual outside income roar back to around $275,000. This resurgence—which helped push Evans’ total outside earnings while on the Council to around $4 million—came at great risk.

The same companies cutting five- and six-figure checks to Evans’ personal firm often had business before the Council or Metro—where Evans was chair until June, when the other shoe dropped.

 

Metro Investigates

The dam breaks (Washington Post, 6/17/19).

Although hampered by a lack of cooperation (the DC Council’s general counsel refused to provide all requested documents), and limited just to Evans’ conduct as a Metro board member, a six-week investigation by Metro offers a glimpse into how Evans wove his web of conflicted interests. (“Metro” is the common name for WMATA, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.)

One of those interests was Colonial Parking, which was paying Evans’ NSE Consulting $50,000 a year. In 2016 Colonial was eyeing a “potentially quite lucrative” contract to handle all of Metro’s parking, which generated almost $50 million in 2015 revenue, according to the Metro investigation. Standing in the way of the potential 50-year contract was the incumbent vendor, Laz Parking. So Colonial Parking turned to its secret weapon, the Metro chair it was quietly paying.

Using information fed to him by his friend Rusty Lindner, CEO of Colonial Parking’s parent company, Evans urged Metro’s inspector general to initiate three investigations of Laz for fraud and corruption. This was part “of a pattern of conduct by Evans designed to oust Laz as WMATA’s parking vendor” and benefit Colonial, the investigation found.

Colonial denies wrongdoing, as does Evans, who kept a straight face when telling his Council colleagues, “This was the kind of normal service I did and would do for anyone.”

The Post editorial page, meanwhile, lied to protect Evans. Regarding Colonial, the Post (6/20/19) wrote, “Mr. Evans’ client wasn’t doing business or seeking to do business with Metro.” But Metro’s summary of its investigation’s findings—released three days earlier, and reported on in the Post’s own news pages (6/17/19)—plainly stated the opposite:

By repeatedly and proactively taking action that would benefit Colonial and Lindner, at or during the same time that Mr. Evans was being paid $50,000 per year, Mr. Evans improperly used his position at WMATA for his own personal financial gain and/or for the private financial gain of his close friend Linder and Colonial.

In addition to Colonial, the Metro investigation flagged Evans’ undisclosed contracts with Digi Media, which is a sordid tale, as well as EagleBank, which was paying Evans $100,000 a year at the same time Metro was increasing its deposits at the bank from $4 million to around $24 million. (This echoes Evans’ 2011 push to shift taxpayer money into EagleBank, which was also his personal lender.)

Metro’s investigation was conducted by the law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel on behalf of Metro’s ethics committee. The resulting 20-page report was meant for internal purposes only, but the Post published it on June 20. Then all hell broke loose.

Within hours Evans announced his resignation from Metro’s board, where he’d served for the past 4½ years,  the last 3½ years as chair. Evans had already quietly agreed not to run for another term as Metro chair in exchange for the ethics committee closing its investigation of him—an arrangement he lied about. And in an effort to conceal the ethics committee’s finding of wrongdoing, Evans even threatened the jobs of Metro staffers.

The morning after the Post published the Metro report, FBI agents raided Evans’ home. Later that day, Councilmember Mary Cheh said in response to the Metro report, “This is straight-up corruption. I don’t know how else to view it.” Evans’ longtime ally, DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson, announced that the Council would launch its own investigation.

 

Not ‘Super Broad’

Phil Mendelson

The DC Council investigation, which is being conducted over the summer by the law firm O’Melveny & Myers, won’t be “super broad,” Mendelson explained at a June press conference.

The Council investigation will only review Evans’ conduct going back to January 1, 2014. If Mendelson was picking a date that gives him cover without exposing Evans to further scrutiny, this would be it.

Evans’ post–January 2014 misconduct is already the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, as well as the Metro report. If the Council never lifts a finger, this period will be investigated.

Meanwhile, Evans’ pre-2014 corruption continues to go unexamined, and Mendelson seems to want to keep it that way.

Mendelson is curtailing the investigation of his ally, but the public deserves to know who plied Evans with money, and whose bidding the councilman has been doing. As the Post wrote in a searing editorial, “Those who grease the palms of public officials have as much to answer for as the greasy-palmed officials themselves.”

Of course, the editorial wasn’t about Evans, but a black mayor 40 miles up the road in Baltimore. With Evans and his patrons—who carried out their corruption in the Post’s own backyard—the Post looked away, even as evidence of corruption abounded.

 

Mr. Gentrification

Until the Council stripped him of his role as chair in July, Jack Evans sat atop DC’s powerful finance and revenue committee for two decades, during which time DC pushed out more of its low-income residents than any major US city.

As finance chair, Evans could have used the powerful tools at his disposal to put the brakes on gentrification. Instead, he pushed cuts to social programs, while freeing up billions in tax dollars for luxury hotels, sports arenas, stadiums and the like.

“He was at the forefront of driving [these mega deals] to completion, often at the dismay of some sections of the city that did not want to see that kind of economic development,” said former DC Chamber of Commerce head Barbara Lang, who praised Evans for being the business community’s “lone champion” on the Council.

If Evans had been a true believer, willing to spread the gentrification gospel on a government salary alone, he could have gone on indefinitely, with the Post (9/3/08) praising how DC has “flourished under Mr. Evans’ able leadership.” But Evans was not content to serve the rich; he wanted to join their club, so he sold them his public office.

This wasn’t hard to see, except in the pages of the Post, which has been pushing African Americans out of DC for far longer than Evans.

 

The Federal City Council

In 1973, Congress granted DC the right to elect its mayor and Council and govern itself. This “may have been the last major victory of the civil rights movement,” Michael Fauntroy wrote in Home Rule or House Rule?. This increased democratization—called “home rule”—had the overwhelming support of DC’s black majority, but it set some whites on edge.

Testifying on behalf of a citizens group in nearly all-white upper Northwest DC, resident Alfred Trask told Congress in 1973:

We just don’t want to be governed by the majority in the District of Columbia. That’s about the size of it…. Full self-government for Washington would be tantamount to turning the town over to welfare recipients.

Also vigorously opposing home rule was the Federal City Council, a shadow government made up of DC’s white business elites. The group, which advanced its interests by working behind the scenes with the mostly white Congress, “had a vested interest in maintaining the political and governmental status quo in the District,” wrote Fauntroy. (To this day, DC doesn’t have full congressional representation.)

Southwest DC, targeted for demolition by the Federal City Council.

Post publisher Phil Graham first brought the Federal City Council together in 1954 to push for the “urban renewal” of Southwest DC, a poor, black area just blocks from the shiny Capitol. This led to Southwest being “obliterated” and its 23,000 residents “dumped unceremoniously across the Anacostia river,” the Economist (4/16/88) noted. Touring Southwest in 1959, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt asked, “What has happened to the people who once lived here?”

Many years later, at a celebration of the Federal City Council’s 50th anniversary, the group’s 2004 chair Terry Golden admitted, “This was basically a white man’s business organization.” Its membership reflected that: In 1975, for example, the group had two women, nine African Americans and 137 white men.

Today, the Federal City Council is less powerful and more diverse, but continues pushing for gentrification, albeit more subtly. And the Grahams are still involved: Phil’s son Don, who succeeded his mother Katharine Graham as Post publisher, is a trustee of the Federal City Council, and Don’s son-in-law, Tim O’Shaughnessy, is on the executive committee, along with top lobbyists, developers and businessmen, like Rusty Lindner.

(The Grahams sold the Post in 2013 to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for $250 million, but the paper still reflects its former owners. The biggest change under Bezos may be the financial stability he provides as the richest man alive, which has allowed the Post to add reporters.)

Even after DC’s first modern election for mayor and Council in 1974, the Federal City Council still “sometimes carried more clout on Capitol Hill than the District’s political leadership,” according to the Post (6/28/04). But as the elected Council found its footing, DC residents gained a greater say in public decision-making (except for the years 1995 to 2001, when Congress imposed a Control Board over DC’s elected officials).

This democratization made it increasingly difficult for the Federal City Council to push through its pet projects, which relied on public funding but often lacked public support, despite the Post’s efforts to rally residents to the cause. “The Post has provided consistent editorial support for the FCC’s projects, particularly its earlier ones,” the paper (8/28/94) stated in 1994.

When Jack Evans was elected to the DC Council in 1991—representing Downtown, the part of the city the Federal City Council cares about most—the group must have seen dollar signs dancing before its eyes; all the more so in 1999, when Evans became finance committee chair.

Evans pushed for public subsidies for the Convention Center, MCI Center (now Capital One Arena) and Nationals Park, among other projects. “But for me, this wouldn’t have gotten done,” is a favorite saying of Evans, who also joined the Federal City Council in supporting Exelon’s takeover of Pepco, and trying to lure Washington’s pro football team back to DC from suburban Maryland. (Evans privately called the latter “a done deal,” but it doesn’t look that way now that he’s in hot water.)

 

The Post vs. Black Voters 

The Post recently described Evans as “a kind of concierge for Washington’s business community.” What the Post didn’t mention was that in exchange for Evans’ service to the elite, the paper turned a blind eye to his corruption.

The Post did this even as it routinely attacked African-American officials over comparatively trivial transgressions.

Unlike Evans, these officials were supported by (and responsive to) DC’s black voters, who have long been in the way of gentrification due to their comparative lack of resources. The obscene US racial wealth gap almost looks benign compared to DC, where black families have 81 times less wealth than white families.

The Post’s response to this inequity has been to protect Evans, the councilman who worsens it, while attacking the black officials who address it. The Post targets these officials, and sometimes even runs them out of office, effectively nullifying election results the paper doesn’t like. Here are some examples.

In 2010, Marion Barry, the former DC mayor and then-councilmember, was stripped of his position as committee chair, as Evans would be nearly a decade later. But with Barry—whose politics stemmed from his civil rights work, even if he was hobbled by personal troubles—the Post led the charge. The discovery that Barry’s office paid his girlfriend $15,000 as a consultant was treated by the Post as the Second Coming of Watergate, only more lurid. Evans’ offenses make this look trite, yet it was Barry who the Post (2/25/10) called unfit for office.

(Washington City Paper—7/10/09—took things to another level, publishing a front-page photo of Barry and his girlfriend, along with a quote from her: “You Put Me Out in Denver ‘Cause I Wouldn’t Suck Your Dick.” City Paper proudly billed this as a “Collector’s Edition.” Many were appalled, but not the Post, which hired both the reporter who wrote the story, Mike DeBonis, and City Paper’s unapologetic editor, Erik Wemple.)

In 2012, Kwame Brown, who had strong black support, was forced out as Council chair despite not misusing his public office. He’s likely “wondering what looks good in orange,” the Post (6/7/12) excitedly wrote the day after Brown was charged with personal bank fraud and resigned.

Others were less ecstatic. “As a longtime police reporter, whenever I see the bank fraud charge leading the way for a federal investigation, what I know almost to a certainty is that… [prosecutors] came up empty everywhere else,” said David Simon, creator of the HBO series The Wire.

Brown’s personal bank fraud might pale in comparison to Evans’ personal banking woes, which District Dig exposed but the Post refuses to report on. The Post also hasn’t put Evans’ personal spending, including his second home and pricey club memberships, under the microscope, as it did Brown’s “love affair with expensive cars.”

The Washington Post front-pages a prosecutorial allegation (3/11/14) just days before the target was up for reelection.

In 2014, DC Mayor Vincent Gray was on his way to securing a second term when the US Attorney for DC accused but never charged him of wrongdoing. The allegation—which stemmed from an election four years earlier—came a week before early voting. Rather than condemn this electoral interference—as the Post would do when FBI director James Comey announced he was reopening an investigation into Hillary Clinton in the waning days of the 2016 election—the paper celebrated. Splashed atop the Post’s front page the next day (3/11/14) was a headline declaring Gray guilty.

This was the culmination of the Post’s years-long crusade against Gray, who had strong black support. Not only did the Post (3/7/14) demand his indictment (“Charges should be brought now—before DC voters head to the polls,” columnist Colbert King wrote), the paper wrongly predicted he was “almost certainly going to have to resign in disgrace,” and may be headed “to prison,” thereby discouraging Gray’s supporters from voting. Evans also ran for mayor that year, eliciting mostly praise from the Post, which did express concern…over “his reluctance to publicly criticize Gray.”

In 2018, Councilmember Trayon White Sr., who holds the late Marion Barry’s Council seat, made ill-informed comments about “the Rothschilds” controlling the climate. White quickly apologized and met with the progressive group Jews United for Justice, which said it would continue supporting him. But the Post wasn’t satisfied. The following two months the paper published 17 news stories, three columns, three videos and two editorials on White.

As a result of its digging, the Post uncovered a $500 donation White made from his constituent services fund to the Nation of Islam. The Nation does grassroots work in White’s ward, which has high rates of violence and poverty. But the Post focused its firepower on the antisemitic remarks of NoI leader Louis Farrakhan. Meanwhile, Evans has used his constituent services fund to buy over $340,000 in sporting tickets over the years (and a campaign ad in all but name), but this doesn’t receive sustained Post coverage like White’s donation.

 

Democracy Dies in Daylight

“It is not just Mr. Evans’s integrity that has been called into question,” says the major newspaper that allowed Evans’ conflict-of-interest problems to fester for the better part of three decades (Washington Post, 5/24/19).

As the Post targeted officials with strong black support, the paper protected Evans; and to a certain extent, it still does.

Even as the Post finally covers Evans’ corruption in its news pages, the editorial page continues to shield the councilman, primarily by writing about him infrequently.

When recent Post editorials do mention Evans, they use a sleight of hand. The editorials chastise both Evans and Metro, then quickly direct readers’ anger towards Metro, whose “arrogance is mind-boggling” and whose investigation of Evans amounted to an “incompetent” “clown show”; the latter editorial (6/20/19) also lied about the findings of the Metro report to protect Evans, as discussed above.

(Now that the business community’s favorite councilmember is no longer on the Metro board, the Post is calling on the DC Council to appoint someone not elected by voters — 8/19/19.)

In earlier editorials, the Post defended Evans by using another sleight of hand. These editorials said that while Evans “owes DC residents some answers,” it’s only to a narrow set of questions. And these are accompanied by reminders, like how Evans has “done a lot of good” and made “many contributions.”

The scale of the Jack Evans’ scandal is unlike anything the city has ever seen, and may only be the tip of the iceberg. For the rest of Evans’s extraordinary corruption to see the light of day—and the Post and Chairman Mendelson are just fine if it doesn’t—the Council will have to investigate beyond the past five years.

The Post’s over-the-top slogan informs readers that “Democracy dies in darkness.” But the paper’s treatment of Evans demonstrates that democracy can also be killed in broad daylight.

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. Feel free to leave a copy of your message in the comments thread of this post.

Featured image: Jack Evans (cc photo: David)

Sasha Abramsky on Trump’s New Attack on Immigrants

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This week on CounterSpin: The Trump administration planned massive ICE workplace raids for the first day of school that included no plans for children coming home to empty houses; they tried to find a way to block undocumented kids from going to public schools; they refuse to give flu vaccines to migrant children in custody, even after several deaths; and they’ve just announced a new rule dictating there be no limit on how long migrant families can be detained. When that same administration announces changes to “public charge” rules that link visas or deportation to an immigrant’s being deemed likely to possibly rely on government aid—what’s the point of relaying earnestly, as does the Washington Post, the Trump team’s claim that it’s “seeking to bring precision to an existing tenet of law that has lacked a clear definition,” or of typing the words, “The administration has portrayed the rule as a way to promote sufficiency and independence among immigrants,” as they did at The Hill? Orwell’s 1984 may be overquoted, but one to hold on to: “The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” So who, at this point, is served when corporate media consider Trump’s cruel attacks on immigrants in any context other than cruelty?

We’ll talk about changes to the “public charge” rules, and the multi-front fightback, with Sasha Abramsky, regular writer for The Nation and TheAbramskyReport.com, and author, most recently, of  Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look back at recent coverage of the Amazon fires, the Gannett/Gatehouse takeover and anonymous attacks on progressives.

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Reporting on Global Crises Like Amazon Fires, Media Need to Focus on Who’s Fighting Them

by Janine Jackson

Intercept (7/6/19)

More and more media are reporting on fires tearing through the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. There has been a marked increase in fires in Brazil concurrent with an increase in illegal—and climate-disrupting—deforestation, concurrent with President Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts to open the Amazon to mining and logging interests. Criticism of media is coming in, too—mostly for being late to cover fires that have been burning for three weeks in a uniquely critical place. But whenever they do it, corporate media addressing modern day crises like the Amazon fires will never do them anything approaching justice.

Not as long as they refuse to sustainedly challenge anti-democratic powers like Bolsonaro: When the guy who jokes about being called Captain Chainsaw was emboldening illegal land-grabbing in indigenous and protected territories, the New York Times (10/26/18) was busy worrying if he would “deliver” on his promise to cut social security. (“Markets [were] optimistic,” we were told.)

More important, given that failure, is the refusal to hand the mic to those who are fighting. Like the Apurinã chief who told the Intercept‘s Alexander Zaitchik (7/6/19) they had seen landgrabs before, but “with Bolsonaro, the invasions are worse and will continue to get worse…. Unless he is stopped, he’ll run over our rights and allow a giant invasion of the forest.” Or the signatories to the Bogota Declaration to the 14th UN Biodiversity Conference, who offered a plan  from 400 ethnic groups across the Amazon basin to form a “sacred corridor of life,” to share ancestral knowledge and showcase alternative modes of development and ways of living (Common Dreams, 11/21/18).

It doesn’t matter so much how many reports corporate media write; if the same people stay at the center of them, the story won’t change.

‘Pragmatic’: How Corporate Media Praise Dems Who Abandon Progressive Values

 

Pragmatic (adjective): solving problems in a sensible way that suits the conditions that really exist now, rather than obeying fixed theories, ideas or rules. 

Cambridge Dictionary

The battle for the Democratic presidential nomination is dominating the news cycle, and two of the three clear frontrunners in polls, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, draw their support from the resurgent left of the party. Sanders in particular describes himself as a democratic socialist and a threat to the establishment. The third favorite, Joe Biden, presents himself not as the representative of the conservative wing, but as a pragmatic, centrist reformer (FAIR.org, 7/17/19).

Across corporate media, the choice is being portrayed as between progressive idealism and a more credible pragmatism—not left vs. right, but left vs. realistic: “Should Democrats Be Going Big or Getting Real?” asked the Associated Press (7/31/19), while the LA Times (7/31/19) defined the choice as between those who “call for big, ambitious policies” and those with a “more centrist, pragmatic approach.”

AP (7/31/19) presents a question that is supposed to answer itself.

Pundits and analysts have expressed profound skepticism of the progressive platform, which includes universal healthcare, public funding of higher education, a “Green New Deal” to combat climate change and higher taxes on the wealthy. They urge voters to choose more moderate (i.e. pro-corporate) candidates, who, they claim, stand a far greater chance of unseating Donald Trump in 2020 (FAIR.org, 7/2/19).

Despite this, the left of the party has continued to gain momentum, with many voters drawn to the argument that bold progressive programs are not only a realistic response to the serious problems the nation faces, but also a solid strategy for winning elections by appealing to non-voters as well as the many swing voters who have conservative social views but lean left on economic policy (FAIR.org, 6/20/17).

From skepticism to hostility

Washington Post‘s David Von Drehle (8/2/19) writes that “reality is not going to bend to a new shape come 2021 just because a President Sanders shouts at it.”

In the face of increasing public rejection of their definition of “pragmatism,” corporate media have moved from skepticism to outright hostility. Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle (8/2/19) savaged Warren, claiming it is embarrassingly “self-evident” that her “idealistic” plans are way “out of the mainstream,” and instead America needs a healthy “dose of pragmatism” from someone like healthcare entrepreneur-turned politician John Delaney, who will stop this Medicare for All nonsense.

Similarly, a New York Times headline (7/30/19) asserted that “Ahead of Debates, Pennsylvania Democrats Want Candidates to Stress Pragmatism.” The story, by reporter Trip Gabriel, described supposed runaway grassroots “excitement” for Joe Biden, even among strong progressives, who “for pragmatism, would choose him.” It also presented Sanders’ support at virtually zero—based on “a straw poll at the Newtown [Pennsylvania] picnic”—suggesting that even Pete Buttigieg is seven times as popular.

This narrative of Sanders’ limited appeal was undercut by the Times itself (8/2/19) just three days later, when it produced an interactive map of the US, showing Sanders had far and away the most campaign donations across the US, including in the two counties the Times’ Gabriel visited for the article. Sanders’ edge in supporters was so overwhelming that the Times had to produce a second map, showing the top recipient of donations in every congressional district aside from the Vermont senator.

In the Washington Examiner (7/10/19), Maddie Solomon warned that the “left-wing elites’” charge towards socialism will alienate the vast “moderate” political center of America, so Democrats must be “pragmatic” to beat Trump and choose the “respected” candidate who is “high in the polls”: Joe Biden.

According to CNN‘s Jeff Zeleny (2/18/19), “Klobuchar is testing the balance between pragmatism and purity, while resisting the urge to pander to the party’s progressive wing.”

Meanwhile, in the Washington Monthly (7/30/19), David Burke pitched Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar as “most electable candidate,” as she is “grounded in reality” and favors “pragmatic legislation”—in other words, she “has been careful not to tack too far to the left.” CNN’s Jeff Zeleny (2/18/19) likewise lauded Klobuchar for her courageous pragmatism, which, according to his glowing portrait, means “resisting the urge to pander to the party’s progressive wing” by strongly opposing Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and free public college tuition.

When Democratic politicians respond to the will of their constituents by endorsing progressive policies, it’s often presented as “pandering,” or even “appeasement” (e.g., New York Times, 6/29/19; Associated Press, 5/23/19; Vanity Fair, 4/5/19)—a word most often used in connection to European collaboration with the genocidal regime of Adolf Hitler. In contrast, talk of “appeasing” so-called moderates or even big donors is extremely rare in the media, subtly highlighting whom they think Democrats should represent.

USA Today editorial page editor Bill Sternberg (7/29/19) warns Democrats not to “indulge the left,” channeling the wisdom of right-wing candidates like Delaney, who offers “real solutions, not impossible promises,” and “policies that make sense, that you can pay for and that you can get done.” Sternberg sums up the message of the “moderates”:

If the party keeps lurching to the left, rehashing old battles and alienating working-class voters, President Donald Trump will be putting his hand on the Bible again in January 2021.

 

How pragmatic are the pragmatists?

National Review‘s Rich Lowry (5/17/19) asks, “What if Donald Trump hasn’t driven Democrats insane, sending them into a spiral of self-defeating radicalism, but instead made them shockingly pragmatic?”

While the National Review (5/17/19) might tell us that the “common sense play” for the Democrats is to “nominate a non-socialist,” a “pragmatist” like Biden or someone with a “similarly relatively moderate profile” to appeal to Obama-to-Trump voters, voters are right to question the sacred logic that moving to the right is a winning tactic.

Thirty-two of 33 polls show Sanders defeating Trump in a general election, often in landslides, with Warren beating the current president in most projections too. Medicare for All is supported by the vast majority of Americans, including most Republican voters, while up to 60% of the country wants to see college tuition made free. Two-thirds of the population favor raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour. Large majorities of Republicans support Warren’s wealth tax proposals, and the public is behind a Green New Deal.

It could be argued that the progressive agenda would be a huge vote winner, not just from Trump voters, but also picking up non-voters. Turnout in US elections is consistently low compared to other developed countries, and in 2016 almost as many adults did not vote as chose the Democrats and Republicans combined. Non-voters are chiefly from lower-income backgrounds, and would be the primary beneficiaries of democratic socialist or progressive reforms. Thus a leftward turn could boost the Democratic base, and undermine Trump’s support from the white working class media are so keen on profiling (FAIR.org, 3/30/18, 11/13/18).

The consistent media advice that Democrats should “pragmatically” move to the right, and embrace what were mainstream Republican positions a few years ago, is something FAIR has tracked for decades. (See Extra!, 9/92, 1–2/95, 6/04, 7–8/06, 1–2/07; FAIR.org, 11/7/08, 3/16/10.) And when this advice does not work, history is retroactively re-written to fit it.

In 2006, the New York Times (3/12/06) claimed that the Democrats lost the 2000 election because Al Gore “unmoored himself” from Bill Clinton’s centrist politics to run as a “populist scourge of Big Oil and Big Healthcare,” and therefore “drastically underperformed.” Yet while he was running, media were presenting him as a thoroughly “pragmatic” politician (Economist, 8/10/00). Indeed, the Times itself reported that Gore’s “centrist agenda” (8/15/00) was so conservative that his support from the Democratic base was wilting (8/17/00, 9/9/00).

In reality, Bill Clinton moved his party to the right, as the media approvingly reported at the time. “The Democratic platform,” noted the Christian Science Monitor (7/17/92) “is not Mondale/Dukakis liberal, but Clinton moderate,” applauding the Clinton/Gore team’s pragmatic commitment to “cutting entitlement programs” and “compromising” with Republicans. Meanwhile, the New York Times (1/27/94) discussed how Clinton’s “pragmatic,” “centrist agenda” was distinctly conservative. But by 2008, the explanation as to why the Democrats collapsed in the 1994 midterms was due to its nonexistent radical and unpopular leftist platform (e.g., LA Times, 11/5/08; Wall Street Journal, 11/5/08; Washington Post, 11/5/08).

And going further back, both Mondale and Dukakis’ losing presidential bids pushed the Democrats to the right as well. In real time, the New York Times (5/8/88) had praised Dukakis’ “pragmatic, centrist approach.” When Mondale ran, similarly, the Times (7/22/84) depicted his 1984 campaign as “a shift from liberal positions of 1976 and 1980,” noting the only mention of “liberalism” in his platform was to denigrate it. But as FAIR’s Jim Naureckas (Extra!, 9/92) noted, “When the ‘pragmatists’ lose badly with their centrist approach, they are repainted after the fact as radicals, so the strategy of tilting to the right can be tried again and again.”

 

A moderate class war

And that is the trick; Democrats are pragmatic when they win and too left-wing when they lose. Corporate media, funded by the same sources that donate to “pragmatic” politicians, present a rightward shift not as a political decision to ignore working Americans in order to favor the wealthy, but as a sensible reaction based on facts, in contrast to their ideologically driven opponents.

Of course, pragmatists are every bit as ideologically motivated as progressives, communists or the most craven white nationalists. However, corporate media hide their pro-business positions behind a veneer of pragmatism, presenting their ideas as common sense: Millions of Americans should naturally vote against their own interests, because those who ask for more risk having everything taken away from them.

Judging by the polls, and multiple studies showing the public is sick of rampant inequality, the truly pragmatic thing to do this election cycle, the way to appeal to the actual political center, may be an all-out class war against Donald Trump. But don’t expect a media owned by millionaires and billionaires to be on board with this.

 

 

 

Corporate Media Filled With Nameless Voices Attacking Progressive Democrats

by Joshua Cho

The Democratic Party establishment wants you to know that they’re not afraid of primary challenges from the Justice Democrats—a progressive political action committee that runs progressive candidates who reject campaign funding from the ultra-rich and corporations. But when the establishment Democrats tell you they aren’t afraid, they often aren’t brave enough to let reporters quote them by name.

These anonymous sources are rarely as insulting as the one quoted by Fox NewsBrooke Singman: “No one is afraid of those [Justice Democrat] nerds. They don’t have the ability to primary anyone.” But as FAIR contributor Adam Johnson and Justice Democrats communications director Waleed Shahid observed, other anonymous sources are not very different in content, because corporate media are generally granting anonymity to sources in the Democratic establishment looking to run opposition talking points against progressive lawmakers and organizations.

For example, The Hill (7/11/19) carried an anonymous response to Saikat Chakrabarti, then Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, after he tweeted that centrists in the Blue Dog and New Democrat caucuses were “the new Southern Democrats” because they voted to fund Trump’s border concentration camps: “You can be someone who does not personally harbor ill will towards a race, but through your actions still enable a racist system,” Chakrabarti said. A Hill source identified as “a senior Democratic aide associated with the Blue Dog Coalition” retorted:

Let’s not forget the fact that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff called a group of members racist. This is a group of members led by an immigrant woman of color, and this group includes several other people of color, including two black men who actually experienced the segregated South.

Why grant anonymity to a partisan source making an inaccurate attack—unless giving cover for a non-returnable attack on a progressive political figure was the point?

An anonymous source in The Hill (7/12/19) charges that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a “puppet” of “elitist white liberals”—a conspiracy theory with troubling historical echoes.

Another anonymous source in The Hill (7/12/19) branded Ocasio-Cortez as “a puppet” of “elitist white liberals,” in a report on Justice Democrats’ plans to primary incumbent Democrats belonging to the Congressional Black Caucus:

She’s only a woman of color when it’s convenient. None of the things she’s fought for aligned with communities of color and her group is funded only by elitist white liberals; she’s a puppet.

The nameless aide went on to say, “It’s offensive that these elitist white liberals feel like they can undermine the foundation of our party.”

To be fair, The Hill also included an anonymous source from the Justice Democrats,  briefly denying these allegations as “absurd and more about protecting incumbency over democracy.”

The Hill didn’t offer any justification for including these statements without attribution. It also didn’t question the assertion that  “elitist white liberals” were the puppetmasters of Justice Democrats, an organization whose goals include getting “everyday, working people into Congress”—like former bartender Ocasio-Cortez, who does, in fact, regularly advocate for communities of color.

Libby Watson at Splinter News (7/12/19) articulated the problem with corporate media’s slanted use of anonymous sources by the establishment wing of the Democratic Party:

There is a big difference between political journalism that explains and contextualizes internal battles going on in the Democratic Party and Hill gossip pieces that make the media its battleground to wage those internal battles. When congressional aides give you a quote, they’re probably using you to advance their boss’ or their own interests. That’s what they’re paid to do, and it’s unavoidable. But sometimes there’s other value in printing what they’re saying; other times, like this one, it does nothing but advance their agenda.

Further demonstrating Watson’s point, The Hill (1/29/19) quoted a “Democratic lawmaker, who requested anonymity,” about their desire to see Ocasio-Cortez primaried out of her seat, because other politicians have been waiting their turn longer:

What I have recommended to the New York delegation is that you find her a primary opponent and make her a one-term congressperson…. You’ve got numerous council people and state legislators who’ve been waiting 20 years for that seat. I’m sure they can find numerous people who want that seat in that district.

The Daily News (7/12/19) gives a source anonymity to make the claim that unlike Ocasio-Cortez, CBC members “don’t have the financial ability to say, ‘I don’t want that money.’”

The New York Daily News (7/12/19) featured “a Democratic leadership source, who only spoke on condition of anonymity,” making the curious argument that it’s “elitist” to criticize black lawmakers from poor districts for accepting corporate campaign contributions:

“Justice Democrats in general are trust fund kids who are funding this with their parents’ money,” the source said, blasting the progressive group as “elitist” for criticizing black lawmakers from poor districts who take corporate donations. “It’s offensive for CBC members when these elites are looking down on them when they don’t have the financial ability to say, ‘I don’t want that money.’”

The nameless “leader” accused Justice Democrats and Ocasio-Cortez of “getting some of their own medicine”:

“They have attacked, attacked, attacked and attacked. For the first time, they were attacked back and now they claim to be the victim,” the source said…. “Ocasio-Cortez kind of operates like Trump. She’s hellbent on sowing discord and spreading chaos, but if you look at it, it always traces back to one person: her.”

Again, the paper offers no justification for concealing the identity of an official source making unsubstantiated personal attacks against an ideological rival.

Axios (7/14/19) took the unusual step of granting anonymity to a poll, revealing neither who conducted the survey nor who (selectively) revealed its findings—other than “top Democrats.” Writer Mike Allen wrote that the polling group’s name was withheld “because the group has to work with all parts of the party.”

The poll reported by Axios (7/14/19) was “exclusive”—because nobody besides Axios knew who conducted it.

The poll surveyed “likely general-election voters who are white and have two years or less of college education,” described as voters who “are needed by Democrats in swing House districts.” Asking about perceptions of Justice Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, it ostensibly found that their name recognition was much higher than their favorability ratings—and also that “capitalism” was viewed more favorably than “socialism” among these voters.

HuffPost reporter Ariel Edwards-Levy (7/15/19) pointed out that all sorts of critical information was missing from the account of this anonymous poll:

Readers have no way of knowing who commissioned the poll, who conducted it, how they identified the voters they surveyed, what methodology they used to interview them or what exactly respondents were asked. That makes it basically impossible to evaluate the survey in any meaningful way.

There are a few additional hazy details in the Axios story. The headline implies that its findings reflect “swing states,” but the article doesn’t make it clear whether the poll was conducted nationally or only in battleground states. And although the article provides exact percentages on how few of the voters polled viewed Ocasio-Cortez and Omar favorably, it doesn’t include numbers on how many viewed them outright unfavorably, rather than having no opinion.

The report did, however, feature an anonymous source—a “top Democrat who is involved in 2020 congressional races”—who provided negative spin on Ocasio-Cortez and the news media attention she receives: “If all voters hear about is AOC, it could put the [House] majority at risk…. She’s getting all the news and defining everyone else’s races.”

FAIR (Extra!, 11/11; FAIR.org, 3/29/16) has long found that corporate media routinely violate their own stated guidelines for their use of anonymity, which are generally supposed to bar reporters from concealing the names of sources making personal or partisan attacks. In coverage of the Democrats’ intra-party disputes, anonymity is constantly allowed to provide cover for such attacks—whose targets just happen to be the progressive politicians whom corporate journalists themselves frequently express disdain for (FAIR.org, 8/31/18, 1/23/19).

When the perspective of anonymous sources consistently leans in one direction, it’s an sure indication of news outlets’ political slant. In this case, it’s a bias in favor of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party, which is utilizing its coziness with corporate media to wage a covert war on the progressive wing.

‘Monsanto Has Worked Very Hard to Discredit Me and My Work’ - CounterSpin interview with Carey Gillam on Monsanto's attack on journalism

Janine Jackson interviewed US Right to Know’s Carey Gillam for the August 16, 2019, episode of CounterSpin, about being targeted by Monsanto. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: There’s an old saying but true, “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed. All else is advertising.” And while many a reporter would tell you they are telling the truth and letting the chips fall where they may, relatively few seem to really tread on toes powerful enough, forcibly enough, to generate a response.

Whitewash, by Carey Gillam

Our next guest is wearing that particular badge of honor at the moment. Carey Gillam is a veteran reporter, covering food and agriculture for Reuters for many years, and is now research director at the group US Right to Know. One thing Gillam thinks we have a right to know about is the impacts of pesticides made by Monsanto, which she explores in her book Whitewash: The Story of a Weedkiller, Cancer and the Corruption of Science; it’s out now from Island Press.

Who doesn’t want you to know what’s in that book, or take it seriously? Monsanto. And the agrochemical giant, now owned by Bayer, is willing to go to some lengths to try and prevent that. Carey Gillam joins us now by phone from Kansas. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Carey Gillam.

Carey Gillam: Thank you, thanks for having me.

JJ: I know that you don’t want this to be about you; you’re not Monsanto’s only target. They go after all kinds of critics or questioners: journalists, activists, Neil Young, you know. And there’s no mystery why they’re so aggressive about image management: People have lots of concerns about genetically modified organisms, another product of theirs, and they’re losing lawsuits about the carcinogenic effects of their weedkiller Roundup, which you have researched extensively. So I would first like to ask you just to tell us a little bit about the book Whitewash, and then about the nature of Monsanto’s backlash, which started, as I understand it, before the book was even published.

CG: Right. Yeah. I mean, the backlash started, well, more than a decade ago. As far as the book Whitewash, I started calling it The Book Monsanto Doesn’t Want You to Read. They filed a motion in court in one of the lawsuits, one of the big cancer lawsuits, before it went to trial, asking the judge to bar my book from being introduced as evidence.

And what we’ve seen recently is that they had in place a strategic plan, they involved a consulting company from Washington, DC, they had 20 different line items on a spreadsheet, all aimed at discrediting the book before it was released.

But the book is really—I’ve tried to make it very reader-friendly. It’s almost an academic exercise. It’s based on a lot of documents and a lot of data, and tracks the history of the rise of this chemical to become so pervasive in our environment that it’s found in our own bodies, that it’s found in our food and our water, and it’s in the soil and it’s affecting the environment and reducing biodiversity. It really has become, as I’ve said, very pervasive.

And so the book explores how that happened, how Monsanto manipulated and collaborated with regulators to affect public policy and reduce the regulatory restrictions that should have been placed on this chemical. And it involves a lot of farmers and real stories of real people. So, it did win the Rachel Carson Book Award, and I’m very proud of the book.

Monsanto—as we know now through a recent release of internal Monsanto documents—Monsanto really does not like the book, and really has worked very hard to try to discredit the book, and to discredit me and my work.

JJ: Let’s just underscore it: Monsanto hasn’t come forth with any factual errors included in the book, have they?

CG: No, and there are no factual errors  in the book, save for a typo in the very end. Got a letter wrong in a word, but that’s been corrected in a reprint. But, no, as I said, I was very careful in writing this book to have everything documented and to footnote everything in the book.

JJ: I just want to add, in terms of the backlash, you have your own spreadsheet, you are “Project Spruce” at Monsanto/Bayer, and they outlined a lot of things, including kind of harassing you online, including inserting bad reviews, including talking to your editors and trying to get you moved off the beat, and including trying to upstream negative search results on the book.

Your group isn’t called “Monsanto Critics United”; it’s “US Right to Know,” and the book is about science, but it’s really also about the manipulation of science and public opinion, and that seems to be the thing that they want to squelch.

CG: Right. And the harassment against me started while I was at Reuters, and continued after I left Reuters at the end of 2015, and has ramped up since I wrote the book. And, you know, it’s not unusual for a big company to be unhappy with reporters and stories that don’t follow company propaganda, and aren’t in line with the company’s talking points. That’s not unusual. But Monsanto’s pressure, and the extent of the pressure, is very unusual. But what is really egregious is the fact that the company doesn’t want to just stand up on its own and say, “We have a problem with Carey Gillam, and we have a problem with her book.” I mean, that’s fair, right? If that’s the way they feel, you know, bring it on.

What we know from the release of these internal Monsanto documents is that they are enlisting secret, third-party strategies to try to do things that come from them, but don’t look like they come from them, to try to discredit me. Because, of course, if Monsanto is the one laying out the criticism, you’re going to be maybe a little more skeptical of that. But if you hear it from a third-party academic, or somebody who looks like they’re a farmer or a dietitian or a scientist, you might think that that criticism is valid. And that’s their goal, and they lay that out, how they use the third-parties—ghostwritten blog posts, things like that, ghostwritten book reviews—how those things are really going to be effective.

JJ: And that, to me, is where media come in so forcibly; they really play into this phenomenon of third-party sources, by quoting in a story, for example, three supposedly different sources, without identifying financial relationships. And by that, they allow Monsanto, for example, to get a degree of distance. So it sounds as though their perspective is being echoed by farmers or by academics or by scientists, when, actually, it’s just people who are being paid to say the same thing. So I have to criticize journalists there, and an unwillingness to identify financial relationships of sources, or to interrogate them for amplifying—your colleague Gary Ruskin at US Right to Know calls it “creating a choir.” A company can’t do that without media’s buy-in, to some extent. And so my problem is with journalists as well.

CG: Well, I guess I don’t take quite as harsh a view. If you’re new, if you’re a young reporter, if you’re new to the beat, if you haven’t covered agriculture, you don’t really know the backstory and the players and the history. You’re not going to necessarily know that you need to deeply check out the affiliations of a professor at the University of Illinois, for instance; you’re not going to know that he secretly is getting funding and direction from Monsanto. Or the University of Florida, or the university UC Davis. And, again, this is all things that we’ve only learned because of public record requests, and Freedom of  Information, and discovery through court documents that have been turned over. You know, we wouldn’t know any of this. It’s designed so that the public won’t know any of this.

JJ: Right.

Carey Gillam: “It’s subterfuge. It’s a fraud upon the public, it’s an intended fraud upon the media, and it’s designed to control the narrative and control the news.”

CG:  And so that reporters won’t know. It’s subterfuge. It’s a fraud upon the public, it’s an intended fraud upon the media, and it’s designed to control the narrative and control the news.

JJ: Journalists are not encouraged to interrogate every source that they receive, and, also, some players are better positioned to pepper journalists throughout the day with ideas and stories, and other folks are not similarly situated, and just don’t have the same relationship to journalists. So a multibillion-dollar corporation is always going to have the leg up, in terms of controlling that narrative.

I have noticed that you’ve been doing media about the backlash from Monsanto against your book. And when you do that media, Monsanto doesn’t show up to debate you. They don’t have to; they send a piece of paper that says, you know, “We’re rubber, you’re glue,” and that’s kind of the end of it.

And I always have to notice that if an activist or a researcher said, “Well, I have some complaints about Monsanto and their pesticides, and I have concerns about their health effects. But I’m not going to talk about them, I’m just going to send you a written statement,” I’m not sure that journalists would engage that in quite the same way. And so I guess for listeners, I want them to know that the silence benefits the powerful corporations in this regard, doesn’t it?

CG: It certainly does, yeah. And this is what is so alarming, is that the company certainly doesn’t fight fair, and they have a lot of money and a lot of power. And they are wielding that power to try to control what the public knows about their products.

JJ: You’re certainly not stopping. In fact, you’re working on a new book, right? So this is not the end of the road for you, in terms of digging up what Monsanto might not want folks to know.

CG: Oh, definitely not. With these trials, Monsanto’s turned over roughly 15 million pages of internal records. And those have opened up an entire new world of revelations about our regulatory system, about corruption of science and scientific journals and scientific literature. There’s a lot more to say about this subject.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally: I called out reporting as part of the problem here, and I’m going to stand by that. But I also recognize reporting as part of the answer, you know? And I want to ask you, just finally, what do you hope other reporters will take from your story? What do you hope folks will get from the experience that you’re going through right now?

CG: Guess a couple different things. One, we’ve also seen through the documents how they cultivate reporters. They will offer exclusives and exclusive interviews, and, you know, “We can really make you look great and give you access to our high-level executive, if you’ll write this story the way we want you to write it.”

I know that looks great for your editor, you’ve got an exclusive with a big company, but you really have to think seriously about promoting propaganda; you have to always report both sides, you have to be sure you’re understanding the story behind the spin.

And if you’re a reporter and you’re just reporting a story out there, and you’re quoting somebody who seems, you know, really, really enthusiastic about a particular company or product, take the time to do a little bit of googling, to see if there’s a connection there that maybe you’re not aware of. At least try to make that effort, because that’s part of the playbook that we are seeing from these corporations, are these secret liaisons that are designed to manipulate the media, and we need to be aware of it and try to be on top of it if we can.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Carey Gillam. She’s research director at the group US Right to Know; they’re online at USRTK.org. Her book is called Whitewash: The Story of a Weedkiller, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, and it’s out now from Island Press. Carey Gillam, thanks for joining us again this week on CounterSpin.

CG: Thank you for having me.

On Gun Violence, ‘We Need the Federal Government to Take Bold Steps’ - CounterSpin interview with Ernest Coverson on guns & human rights

Janine Jackson interviewed Amnesty International USA’s Ernest Coverson about guns and human rights for the August 16, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript. 

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New York Times (8/9/19)

Janine Jackson: When Walmart responded to the early August mass murder by a white supremacist by announcing they’d stopped selling certain video games, and the National Rifle Association responded to that and a subsequent mass shooting by likening those seeking gun regulations to mass murderers, as likewise seeking to “take away our God-given rights”—well, it’s a hard thing to measure, but you almost felt you could hear vast numbers of Americans saying, “You have got to be kidding.”

Public conversation seems to have advanced to the point where it’s understood that the reason the United States has so many incidents of gun violence is because the United States has so many guns. The crisis is neither natural nor necessary, and not so much a matter of a lack of public appetite for regulation, as of a political system in which that public interest does not translate into policy or law. If the US gun nightmare is the result of choices, work like that of our next guest is aimed at helping us make the choices to escape it. Ernest Coverson is End Gun Violence campaign manager at Amnesty International USA. He joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Ernest Coverson

Ernest Coverson: Thank you, thank you.

JJ: Well, Amnesty recently issued a travel advisory for the United States, due to high levels of gun violence. It came days after the El Paso and Dayton mass murders, but it wasn’t just about them, and it wasn’t a merely symbolic gesture. What was the purpose of that advisory?

EC: Thank you again. I mean, the purpose of the advisory and the travel warning was to bring attention to the gun violence that has taken place here in the USA, and the lack of effort that our government, specifically Congress, has done to help eliminate or help to bring down, put laws in place that will help curb that violence in the US. And so Amnesty International USA decided to take a measure that will help to highlight that issue with this travel warning.

JJ: It’s not surprising to me that people are interested in, or concerned about, mass shootings, even if they are far from the most common gun violence in the US. I always think that’s a weird argument to have, when people say, “Well, yes, it’s terrible when a white supremacist feels inspired by the president to kill brown-skinned people. But what about Chicago?” You know, there’s this unsubtle subtext where somehow the real question is whether gun violence can be blamed on black people or on white people. And I wanted, therefore, to kind of get at the work that you do, which looks at things differently. What does it mean to think about gun violence with a human rights framework? How does that affect the conversation?

EC: It brings it to a different level. Because, right, as you say, the media many times highlight those mass shootings; those are the ones that get the splash for the news cycle. But, correct, the everyday shooting that takes place in a Chicago, or in a Detroit or St. Louis, etc., doesn’t get that.

And so, finding this as a human rights issue by Amnesty International, which is a human rights organization, takes it to a different level, and really humanizes that if we’re going to fight for human rights, the ultimate human right is the right to life. And these shootings, these killings, that are happening on a daily basis are eliminating that right. And so I think our value added to this conversation, of changing the narrative as a human rights issue, just elevates that conversation, that these are humans, despite what people want to think or say, what community they come from, they’re still human, and they have the right to life.

Amnesty International USA

JJ: And the report—your work, including Amnesty’s recent report, “In the Line of Fire: Human Rights and the US Gun Violence Crisis”—points out that gun violence disproportionately is affecting young people of color, and also women, who are victims of domestic violence. So you’re really talking about communities that are impacted and, as you’re saying, it’s day to day, it’s not a matter of flares of incidents, but it’s something that… the work has to happen within community to address the layers of impact, right?

EC: Correct. And you have organizations and groups in both of those communities that’ve been doing work on a daily basis, that’s impacting or making change that way. And I think one of the additional value-adds from Amnesty is showing the intersectionality of all of this, that we can’t continue to work in silos of doing this gun violence work, that urban areas’ gun violence, domestic violence, suicide rates from gun violence, all talked about in the report, all tie together, and you have to come together as one human community to really address these issues, and not let one take precedence over the other, but really look at them in totality.

JJ: One of the points that the advisory makes, which I think is maybe surprising to people, but the US actually has obligations under international human rights law that are relevant here, aren’t there?

EC: Yes, they are. As the world community, there are human rights law that govern, through the UDHR, and the United Nations and others, that these are the international human rights laws. And so the United States has been failing, to a certain extent, to hold up to what that standard is across the world.

JJ: And the failure, as I understand it, is at the federal level, maybe most importantly. Some states are trying to cobble together some regulations, but it’s really something that requires federal leadership.

EC: Correct. And because you see, as we have now the Universal Background Check legislation, that was passed by the House back in February, has been sitting in the Senate since then, S.42, not moving on that. There are states across the country that have been incrementally passing laws and passing ordinances that are doing things in a particular state, but we do need the federal government to take some of those same bold steps.

JJ: Media can be so scenario-focused that data can have a hard time really getting through. So if you talk about background checks, for example, it seems like someone always pops up to say, “Well, yeah, but what about this case I can imagine in which background checks would be insufficient?” And it’s kind of a funny way to go about it, to say we shouldn’t take these measures if by themselves they wouldn’t eliminate the possibility… So talk a little more, just about the reforms that you are calling for. And it’s not that any of them are magic; it’s that together, they can help improve this crisis. What are you calling for?

Ernest Coverson: “We can’t continue to work in silos of doing this gun violence work, that urban areas’ gun violence, domestic violence, suicide rates from gun violence, all talked about in the report, all tie together, and you have to come together as one human community to really address these issues.”

EC: Right, great point.  And all of these, correct, are not one magic event, but all of those together will do that.

So a case in point, we’re looking at getting the background check, enhancing background checks, S.42, which is the federal legislation that we’re looking at, that will help increase the background information that’s from states that may not be in federal databases, and so as  individuals, we want to just enhance that background check, and make sure that information is passed along.

We’re also looking at assault weapon ban legislation, so assault weapons, militarized weapons, should not be in the hands of just regular, common citizens, that those are particularly for military usage. And so we’re looking to get the assault weapons ban passed as well.

Then also we’re looking, and the president has kind of spoke about as well, around emergency restraining protective orders, or purple or red flag laws, which allow family members, concerned folks, that know if individuals have weapons but are not in a correct state of mind at the time, can alert authorities to say, “Hey, this individual is not in a right state of mind, but also has access to weapons.” We may want to do a quality check on that individual, just to make sure he or she doesn’t now go and do some of the things that happened in El Paso and in Dayton over the past couple of weekends ago. Those are some of the legislative changes that we’re looking to get taken up by the federal government.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally: We did see a large number of the Democratic presidential candidates attend an Everytown for Gun Safety event in Des Moines just recently. Do you see political—I said earlier, vast majorities of the US population are interested in gun regulation; it’s a matter of getting politicians to take it up—do you see hope on the political front?

EC: I do. I think that once we get folks to move out of a moment and really into a movement, that the political dynamics will change as well, and that we don’t let the news cycle dictate how we feel about getting these changes done and this legislation passed. But, yes, I am hopeful that we will make this happen.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Ernest Coverson, End Gun Violence campaign manager at Amnesty International USA. You can find their work, including the report, “In the Line of Fire: Human Rights and the US Gun Violence Crisis,” online at AmnestyUSA.org. Ernest Coverson, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

EC: Thank you again.

 

Media Blackout on Brazil’s Anti-Bolsonaro Protests - Why are New York Times and Guardian downplaying resistance to Brazil’s far-right president?

by Brian Mier

August 13 protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Belo Horizonte, one of 211 cities where demonstrations took place  (photo: Dowglas Silva).

Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets of 211 cities on August 13 to protest far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s austerity cuts and privatization plans for the public university system. It was the third in series of national education strikes, dubbed “the Education Tsunamis,” organized by national students unions together with teachers unions affiliated with the Central Ùnica de Trabalhadores (Unified Workers Central/CUT)—the second-largest labor union confederation in the Americas.

Organized from the bottom up by teachers, high school and university students, through thousands of democratic assemblies across the country, communication between activists in the different towns and cities insured that the August 13 street protests were staggered throughout the day to achieve maximum impact. Starting in smaller cities during the morning rush hour, with protests numbering in the low thousands, they increased in size as the day progressed, with crowds of 30,000–50,000 in larger cities like Recife, culminating during the evening rush hour in Brazil’s three largest cities, with an estimated crowd of 100,000 shutting down Avenida Paulista in the heart of São Paulo’s financial district.

There, instead of the usual honking cars, groups of teenagers danced and sang things like, “I want education, to be intelligent, because for stupid we already have our president.” Thousands of older people came out in solidarity with the teachers and students, and the atmosphere was one of hope against Bolsonaro’s sub-fascist project, and its attempt to purge the education system of critical thinking through a revival of the old Nazi trope of “Cultural Marxism.”

In short, it seemed like the perfect feel-good event for newspapers like the Guardian and the New York Times to share with their liberal readers. After all, after the US, Brazil is the most populous, largest in area and wealthiest nation in the Americas. After all, both newspapers have taken editorial positions against Bolsonaro, and regularly criticize his environmental and human rights abuses. After all, both papers have run numerous articles celebrating the spirit of the young protesters in Hong Kong and Venezuela in recent months, complete with inspiring quotes and photographs from the ground.

The Guardian‘s photograph (5/26/19) of a pro-Bolsonaro rally is photographed from below—concealing the small size of the crowd and giving the demonstrators a heroic pose.

Unfortunately, this didn’t turn out to be the case. The Guardian, which ran two articles about smaller pro-Bolsonaro protests in May, with photos of protesters shot from below to make them appear heroic, did not even mention it. The New York Times ran a 129-word stub from the AP that low-balled the number of cities where protests took place, and says they were smaller than the Education Tsunami protests in May (factually correct, but contextually misleading, since they were still huge).

The issue of under-reporting and ignoring protests by Brazil’s so-called “organized left”—the labor unions and popular social movements that make up the traditional support base for the Workers Party—is a historic problem. One of the main causes for this is that the organizations responsible for generating official crowd numbers in Brazil are its historically neofascist state military police forces.

Brazil’s military police, which run organized crime militias and death squads, sell weapons to the drug-trafficking gangs, and commit torture and summary executions at the rate of 5 per day in Rio de Janeiro alone, are responsible for providing crowd numbers. Brazil’s traditional media outlets, like Globo TV, which was created by the 1965–85 military dictatorship as a means of social control and are nearly as conservative, follow their lead. This explains why, for example, similar sized protests for and against the illegal impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in March, 2015, could be reported in the media, respectively, as 1 million and 9,000.

Everyone in the foreign correspondent community knows that the Brazilian military police are not impartial judges of crowd size. When Anglo newspapers do report on progressive protests in Brazil, however, they tend to play along with the game.

During the lead up to the 2018 presidential election, hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets in cities around the world in the #NotHim protests against Bolsonaro. In São Paulo City, an estimated 150,000 came out to Largo da Batata, and protests took place in some 30 other cities across the state, which is home to around 20% of Brazil’s total population. The São Paulo State Military Police decided to simply not release crowd numbers. Others states followed suit, and zero was added for each of them into the total estimate.

The foreign correspondents knew this—it was clearly explained in all the Brazilian papers. Nevertheless, the New York Times spoke of “crowds in the tens of thousands” and the Guardian called it “thousands.” These artificially deflated numbers gave the false impression that women’s resistance to Bolsonaro was weaker than it really was.

Photo of anti-Bolsonaro protest in Alagoas from the Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores em Educação website (8/13/19).

Underreporting of left protests is such an ongoing problem in the Brazilian media that for the last five years, activist/media collectives like Midia Ninja and Jornalistas Livres, which have millions of social media followers, have sent volunteers to all of the major protests around the country to film and photograph crowd sizes. Labor unions now do the same, and everyone shares the information online.

When, for example, the National Education Workers Confederation announced, as it did on August 14, that protests took place in 211 cities, anyone could easily go onto their site and see photos and video evidence from each city backing their claim. So why don’t gringo journalists ever question the official numbers? Even more importantly, why would they decide not to report on events like the August 13 Education Tsunami at all?

Is it just sloppy reporting? Freelance journalist pay has dropped significantly in the last ten years, and many correspondents don’t have a full grasp of Portuguese. Could it just be that they are too inexperienced to question what is reported in Brazil’s ideologically compromised commercial media? Could their pay be so low that they just paraphrase articles from Brazilian newspapers?

The problem is bigger than individual flaws with foreign correspondents. Like Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro represents what George Monbiot refers to as a “killer clown” (Guardian, 7/26/19). According to Monbiot, clowns like Bolsonaro provide distraction and deflection for elites. “While the kleptocrats fleece us,” he says, “we are urged to look elsewhere.”

While the commercial media distracts us with horror stories about Jair Bolsonaro the killer clown, their corporate advertisers are making billions from the deregulation of pesticides and mining, petroleum and pension fund privatization in Brazil. You have to ask yourself if these newspapers really want Bolsonaro to leave office. Could wanting him to stick around be why they prioritize feel-bad click bait about Bolsonaro’s clownish behavior over showing solidarity with the people fighting against his government?

Regardless of the motives, one thing is for sure: Downplaying and ignoring organized resistance supports Bolsonaro’s sub-fascist project for Brazil, and the US corporations that benefit from it.

Featured image: Protest in Belo Horizonte (photo: Dowglas Silva)

 

Ernest Coverson on Guns & Human Rights, Carey Gillam Under Attack From Monsanto

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This week on CounterSpin: The US undoubtedly needs better health care, including mental health care, and blithely violent cultural media is nothing to celebrate; but there is no actual mystery about the main reason behind the gun violence this country sees every day of the year—and that sometimes explodes into mass shootings, like those in El Paso and Dayton: It’s. the. guns. US law and policy undeniably reflects a greater value on the ability of some people to own weapons than on the ability of all people to be safe from gun violence. Vast majorities of Americans support serious regulation, but corporate media debate still seems to revolve around the supposed “rights” of the few, rather than the right of the many to live a life free from this scourge. We’ll talk about what it means to apply a human rights framework to gun violence with Ernest Coverson, End Gun Violence campaign manager at Amnesty International USA.

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(photo: USDA)

Also on the show: Monsanto didn’t find any factual errors in Carey Gillam’s book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, or in her reporting for Reuters about the agrochemical behemoth’s products or practices. But Gillam’s work highlights concerns about Monsanto’s popular weed killer Roundup and the corporation’s vigorous efforts to kill not just criticism of it, but any efforts to investigate its potential harms. Carey Gillam is now research director at the group US Right to Know. We talk to her about Monsanto’s work to undermine your right to know, and why we should see it as emblematic.

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‘Black Communities Are Already Living in a Tech Dystopia’ - CounterSpin interview with Ruha Benjamin on racism and technology

Janine Jackson interviewed Ruha Benjamin about racism and technology for the August 9, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Welcome to CounterSpin, your weekly look behind the headlines. I’m Janine Jackson.

SFGate (7/22/15)

This week on CounterSpin: Listeners may have heard about the electronic soap dispensers whose light sensors can’t detect black skin, Google and Flickr’s automatic image-labeling that—oops—tagged photos of black people with “ape” and “gorilla.” An Asian-American blogger wrote about her Nikon digital camera that kept asking, “Did someone blink?” And you can, I’m afraid, imagine what turns up in search engine results for “3 black teenagers” versus “3 white teenagers.”

Some examples of discriminatory design are obvious, which doesn’t mean the reasons behind them are easy to fix. And then there are other questions around technology and bias in policing, in housing, in banking, that require deeper questioning.

That questioning is the heart of a new book called Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. CounterSpin spoke with author Ruha Benjamin; she’s associate professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, and author, also, of the book People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier. Ruha Benjamin, today on CounterSpin. That’s coming up, but first we’ll take a very quick look at some recent, relevant press.

***

Stat (7/24/19)

Janine Jackson: Some 40 million people in this country use fitness trackers or smart watches that monitor their heartbeat; it’s a cultural phenomenon. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post reported earlier this year that employers are increasingly using such devices to monitor—or, you might say, surveil—workers’ exercise, in hopes of cutting healthcare costs.

But neither outlet has shown interest in findings reported late July on Stat, the tech and health issues website, that nearly all of the biggest makers of wearable heart trackers use a technology that is less reliable on dark skin.

There have been consumer complaints. And while the researchers and scientists Stat spoke with made clear that there isn’t a lot of research into the heart trackers themselves, the green light technology they use, and its relationship to melanin, is well-documented. So much so that more research and more public information from manufacturers, who generally do not disclose concerns about accuracy, would be needed to make a case that there isn’t a problem here.

Of course, there are serious implications, not just for those monitored employees—some of whom have insurance premiums and vacation days pegged to their use of these devices—but for the growing amount of research, including medical research, that uses this data.

But so far, the reporting by Ruth Hailu, an intern at Stat and a college student, has been picked up by tech sites, and that’s pretty much it. So big media will still tell you what color Fitbit you might buy, just not what color you might need to be to use it.

New York Times (5/7/19)

There are efforts to require companies to determine whether their algorithms discriminate, including a bill introduced to Congress this spring, called the Algorithmic Accountability Act. It would call on some companies, especially those whose decision systems have a high impact, to conduct impact assessments, pushing them to think more deeply about design.

But as an op-ed in the New York Times noted, the legislation relies for enforcement on the FTC—not famous for enforcing settlements, even with repeat violators. It lacks an avenue for public input—as in the Fitbit case, sometimes the first way we learn about these problems. And companies are notoriously cagey about proprietary information. But without mandated transparency, the legislation doesn’t guarantee that anything learned would actually be incorporated into policy discussions. A start, then, but far from enough.

We’re talking about code on the show today. And, in a way, news itself is a kind of code, a machinery or system seen as objective or neutral, that gains power from that perceived neutrality, that nevertheless reproduces and advances inequity. It works in many ways, one of which is trivializing or ignoring the way people of color are overlooked or an afterthought, including when it involves something as significant as our health.

You’re listening to CounterSpin, brought to you each week by the media watch group FAIR.

***

Janine Jackson: As a media critic in the 1990s, you could reliably expect every talk about the censorious effects of elite media’s corporate and state fealty to be met with the question, “But what about the internet?”

There was an earnest desire to see the power inequities reflected in corporate media—the racism, sexism, class and other biases—designed out of existence by some new delivery mechanism. You could say the same desires, denials, conflicts and questions are writ large in US society’s engagement with technology generally, even as we see robots and algorithms replicating the same problems and harms we have not conquered societally. There’s an insistence that technology is a kind of magic, that of itself can get us somewhere we can’t get on our own.

Wiley

A new book interrogates that belief and the effects of it. It’s called Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Author Ruha Benjamin is associate professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, and author, also, of People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier. She joins us now by phone from Los Angeles. Welcome to CounterSpin, Ruha Benjamin.

Ruha Benjamin: Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

JJ: I mentioned, at the very top of the show, things like electronic soap dispensers that couldn’t detect black skin, or a camera that thinks that Asian people are blinking. Your book cites the classic Allison Bland tweet about Google Maps telling her to turn on “Malcolm 10 Boulevard,” (though you talk about how that was seen, really, as an engineering victory, to get a computer to read a Roman numeral as a number). Some discriminatory design problems are easier to explain — or harder to deny, I guess — than others, like where you see this presumed neutrality of whiteness.

But part of the hurdle of engaging the questions that you engage in this book is that it involves understanding racism after (as before) technology as not having to do with intent, or with intentionality; you have to dig very deep to even start the conversation, don’t you?

RB: Absolutely. I think for many people, as much as we’re becoming accustomed to talk about and think about implicit bias, for many people, racism is still really about interpersonal interactions: It’s about racial slurs, it’s about hurt feelings. And so it’s hard to understand patterned behaviors, the institutional, the legal, the policy level forms of racism, that don’t rely on malicious intent. Of course, oftentimes, that is still in the mix for many things.

JJ: Right.

RB: But, you know, it’s really difficult for people to zoom the lens out, and think in a more patterned, systematic way. I think once we do, however, it becomes much easier to understand how technology is part of the pattern. It’s one of the mechanisms, in addition to laws, in addition to economic policies, in addition to, let’s say, redlining, housing-discrimination policies, to see that technology is one of the facets that we have to take into consideration. But, as you say, a very simplistic understanding of what racism is prevents that jump in many ways.

JJ: One of the things that I found frustrating when I cite that “What about the internet?” example, was the relief that I could hear in people’s voices, you know? “We don’t have to deal with all of that systemic unfairness you just talked about, because the internet is going to flatten it all out.”

RB: Absolutely. Absolutely.

JJ: And I have a lot of hope for the internet, but it was that sense of the inevitability that was dispiriting. But the power of technology is very seductive, in what we imagine it could be used for.

RB: It is. It is.

JJ: And I just wonder, where do you start folks when you’re trying to explain, for example, what you’re getting at with the term, “the new Jim Code”?  You’ve just moved toward it, the continuity there; where do you start folks out?

Ruha Benjamin: “We can’t take an ahistorical approach to technology’s role in sedimenting forms of inequity and hierarchy; we have to go through this history to understand the present.”

RB: As you say, there’s a real hunger for many people, especially those who benefit from the design of our current systems, to want to bypass and jump over the difficult work of actually wrestling with these histories and ongoing forms of deeply embedded discrimination, bias, racism, white supremacy, that infect all of our institutions.

And so to the extent that technology offers a really alluring fix, to jump over that, and not really get in the mud of our history, it becomes something that people jump to: “The internet is going to save us,” or “Some new app is going to save us.”

And so what the “new Jim Code” intends to invoke is this history of white supremacy, racism in this country. It’s to say that we cannot fully understand what many people call machine bias or algorithmic discrimination—which are still ‘softening’ terms when it comes to white supremacy—unless we actually go through the mud of this history.

So it’s basically saying we can’t take an ahistorical approach to technology’s role in sedimenting forms of inequity and hierarchy; we have to go through this history to understand the present.

JJ: Just talk about some of the instances; the book looks at different kind of shapes of this. Some are designs that are actively amplifying existing inequity, some are things that are just not noticing them, and thereby replicating them. What are some of the instances of this kind of algorithmic, machine or embedded bias that folks might not be aware of?

RB: So I’m talking to you from Los Angeles, which—I don’t live here now, but I grew up here, so I come back on a regular basis—and the way that I open up the book and the preface is just to go back to my childhood, growing up in South Central Los Angeles, which is and was a heavily policed part of the city, in which helicopters could be heard grumbling, rumbling overhead at all hours. Routinely police were pulling over my classmates and frisking them at the gates of the school.

And so this is what Michelle Alexander would say is one tentacle of the New Jim Crow, this mass incarceration, in which specific geographies in our country are targeted in terms of policing. Whereas where I studied for a couple years, in Westwood, all kinds of things are happening behind closed doors in these neighborhoods that never see the light of day.

JJ: Right.

RB: And so that is one mode of white supremacist institutional racism, in which police are targeting some areas and another. Now fast forward to the present, where people, companies, organizations, are employing all types of software systems to predict where crime will happen, in order to more empirically—we’re told—more neutrally, objectively, send police to go, right—predictive-policing type of programs.

But these software systems rely on historic data about where crimes happened in the past, in order to train the algorithms where to send police in the future. And so if, historically, the neighborhoods that I grew up in were the target of ongoing over-policing surveillance, then that’s the data that’s used to train the algorithms to send police today, under the cover of a more objective decision-making process.

And this is happening in almost every social arena. Policing is just one of the most egregious, but it’s happening in terms of education, which youth to label “high-risk,” for example; in hospitals, in terms of predicting health outcomes; in terms of which people to give home loans to or not, because of defaulting in the past. And so our history is literally being encoded into the present and future.

And the real danger that I try to highlight in the book is that it’s happening under the cover of a kind of veneer of objectivity, in which we’re less likely to question it, because it’s not coming from a racist judge sitting in front of you, or a racist teacher who’s doing something. They’re turning to a screen that’s producing some results, that says, “You are high risk,” or “You are low risk,” you know, and then they’re acting on that.

And so I really want us to become attuned to this intermediary that is not, in fact, objective in the way that we are being socialized to believe it is.

JJ: When you break it apart, it doesn’t seem that difficult to see the flaw in something like predictive policing. If police are deployed disproportionately to poor communities of color, then that’s where they make the most arrests.

So if you fill a database with that, and then you say, you know, “Alexa, where is the most crime, based on the number of arrests?” Well, it’s going to circle you right back to the data that you fed it, and it’s only predictive because you make it so. But people generally understand the idea of “garbage in, garbage out,” don’t they? What is it where there’s resistance to understanding that there’s a problem with this?

RB: That’s a great question. And as someone who spends all day teaching classes on this, part of the conceit of just being an educator is, if only people would just, you know, “Here’s the data,” and that will lead to certain conclusions. And what we know is that the numbers, the dots that we’re trying to connect, they actually don’t end up speaking for themselves in the way that we hoped, because people filter the story, or filter the data, through all types of interpretive lenses.

So here, I’m thinking about some colleagues up at Stanford who produced a series of studies, both in California and New York, in which they presented white Americans with data, racial disparities in the criminal justice system. And they showed them the much higher rates of imprisonment of black Americans, and then asked them whether they would be willing to support policies that would address that; in California, would they be able to support reforms of the three strikes law, and in New York, whether they would be willing to support changes to the stop and frisk policy.

And the researchers were quite surprised to find that the more data that individuals were exposed to, in terms of the disparities, they were less willing to support the reforms. And so at some point, between the data and the conclusion of the policy, people are filtering this information through all kinds of stories and interpretive lenses.

One of the most powerful is that, “Well, if there are more black people in prison, then they are more criminal. And they actually deserve to be there. And so why would I support reforms to laws that would actually endanger me?”

JJ: Right.

RB: And so we can take that to the realm of predictive policing. Many people will be hearing the same thoughts that we’re trying to connect, in terms of “garbage in, garbage out,” historic overpolicing, the faults of future predictive policing. And they’re not drawing the same conclusions as we are. That historic overpolicing was justified, in the minds of many, thereby the future predictions, we should definitely be acting on them, and actually incorporating them in many more locales, in order to safeguard their own neighborhoods and their own safety.

JJ: Yeah.

RB: So just looking to the flaws of the technology is not going to save us, and it’s not going to help us reach certain conclusions, if the political stories that we’re telling, the social stories that we’re telling, if they themselves are so infected by white supremacy, that it distorts the conclusions that people draw.

JJ: I would say it means people don’t even understand what you are saying when you say “disproportionate.” I think we have to explode that term for people, because they just don’t hear it in the way that it’s said.

Well, there’s every reason to focus on white supremacy. And it’s maybe easier to convince folks of that than it has been for a minute. But it’s also true, as you illustrate in the book, that in some ways, black people are canaries in the coal mine when it comes to this kind of technological, I don’t even know what you want to call it, malfeasance or harm. It goes beyond racism.

RB: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah. So there’s a way in which we can think about how the groups that are first experiencing harm or neglect in any kind of inequitable system, how we should be learning from that experience.

So in some ways, and the dot I try to connect, is that black communities are already living in the future of a tech dystopia when it comes to policing, or when it comes to all kinds of algorithms that are making life and death decisions.

JJ: Right.

RB: And yet, in part, because blackness and black people are already, in the collective imaginary, disposable, thereby those lessons are not being learned. And so we’re not actually seeing it coming, in many ways. And so I’m hoping that through engaging in more—not just conversations, but the kind of organizing that’s happening around tech justice in many locales, including here in LA, and throughout the country. I think that we have to turn more to some old school forms of political organizing, rather than look for tech fixes and tweaks around the edges to address the new Jim Code.

JJ: Well, that was going to be my next question. So much work is happening here: San Francisco and Oakland banning facial recognition technology, the Amazon and Google workers protesting their own bosses’ collaboration with ICE, and then groups like Center for Media Justice and Center on Privacy and Technology doing their thing.

Are people grabbing it by the right end, do you think? Is the pushback radical enough? What more needs to happen?

RB: I definitely think that there’s a strand of the organizing that is really thinking in terms of fundamental reorganization of our relationship—society’s relationship—with technology, with tech industries. And so there’s a lot of great things happening, some of which you mentioned, and we can think about, in addition to organizing, there’s a growing critical legal community that’s thinking about, “How do you litigate algorithms?”

JJ: Right.

RB: And so there’s a growing movement among legal scholars, as you said, there’s legislation being passed. And then there’s just really popular education examples that are happening. There’s a wonderful organization here in LA called Color Coded, that does a lot of community workshops, along with Stop LAPD Spying.

In every locale, whoever’s listening, I’m sure you could find a group or organization working to deal with this at a very fundamental level.

And so, towards the end of the book, I try to draw some simple contrasts to help us discern the difference between a tech fix‚ something that on the surface seems like it’s a solution, or thinking about addressing bias, versus a much more fundamental questioning of not just the technology, but the infrastructure and the society in which the technology is being deployed. Because if you have just a tech fix that is still operating and circulating within the same structure, then that means that the power hierarchies are not being challenged.

And so we look at these two different apps that are trying to deal with mass incarceration and imprisonment, there are some that are really just a filtering more investment into mass incarceration and the prison system, and some that are actually being used to get people out of cages and have a much more abolitionist approach to the process. And so I think we have to become much more discerning when we’re presented with a solution, to really look beyond the surface and think about the social infrastructure that solutions are being proposed in.

Duke University Press

JJ: Finally, you talk in the book about “reimagining the default settings” as a key idea, and I’m guessing that this is part of what is explored in the new collection that you’ve just edited, out from Duke University Press, called Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life. I wanted to ask you, finally, what’s “liberatory imagination”? Tell us a little bit about that.

RB: Absolutely. So, when we think about where the solutions lie, where the problems lie, we’re more or less trained to look to policy, to laws, even to organizing, and through that idea of liberatory imagination, I want to draw our attention to the way that, even before you materialize some technology, there’s an imagination that engenders that as an object. There are ideas, values, embedded in our material infrastructure. And as of now, there’s a very small slice of humanity whose imagination about the good life and a good world are being materialized.

And the vast majority of people, they are creating, they are imagining, but have far fewer outlets in which to materialize that. And so what I’m trying to invoke through the idea of liberatory imagination is the fact that we need creative solutions that, on one hand, look like artists and humanists getting involved. You know, many people hear a conversation about technology and they think, “Well, I’m not a tech person.” We’re trained to opt out; we’re socialized to think of some people as having the expertise to engage in this discussion and some don’t.

But the fact is, these things are impacting everyone, and that means everyone has the right and the prerogative to weigh in and to say, “We don’t want certain things.” We don’t just have to tweak the edges, we can actually have a kind of informed refusal.

And so liberatory imagination is about reclaiming the space, to say that we’re moving beyond critique. We can critique, and we need critique. But the counterpart of critique is that we want to be creative in terms of presenting alternatives to the techno status quo, and materialize the kind of world that will actually be liberatory, in which everyone can flourish and realize their potential.

And so I want us to make space for that, in addition to critique, and I point to a number of examples of people already doing that, and I’ll just maybe close with one. It’s a kind of parody project, going back to our conversation about predictive policing, in which a few people got together and said, “What if we turn this idea of predictive policing on its head, and had a white collar crime early warning system, and create heat maps of cities all across the country, and predict where crimes of capitalism are likely to occur. And you would have an app that when you go into a city, it would alert you, and then it would create an algorithm to predict the average face of a white collar criminal, and the designers of this used 6,000 profile photos from LinkedIn, CEO photos, so that the average face of a white collar criminal is white.

And it’s funny on one level, but it’s not, because we know that the same types of technologies are targeting darker-skinned people, black and Latinx communities. And so this is a way of using art to actually reflect on the reality that we’re creating right now, and think about where the harms are being monopolized and centered.

And so I guess the last thing I would say, in terms of the default settings: So many of the technologies that are being developed now are about predicting risk, whether it’s risk in who will be a risky person to loan money to, whether it’s risk in terms of criminal risk, all of the different domains of risk. And what changing the default settings would look like is, let’s shift away from thinking about risky individuals to how risk is produced by our institutions, by our policies, by our laws. And so let’s look at the production of risk, rather than the individuals, and if we’re going to predict anything, let’s look at how schools create risk, hospitals create risk, police create risk, rather than the individuals. And that’s flipping the switch on how the settings of our technologies are really burdening individuals, rather than actually holding institutions and organizations accountable.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Ruha Benjamin, associate professor of African-American studies at Princeton University. The book is Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. It’s out now from Polity Press. Ruha Benjamin, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

RB: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

 

 

Here’s the Evidence Corporate Media Say Is Missing of WaPo Bias Against Sanders

 

Bernie Sanders has taken to calling out corporate media for their anti-progressive bias, and their feathers have gotten quite ruffled.

In a campaign event Monday in New Hampshire, Sanders told the crowd:

We have pointed out over and over again that Amazon made $10 billion in profits last year. You know how much they paid in taxes? You got it, zero! Any wonder why the Washington Post is not one of my great supporters, I wonder why? New York Times not much better.

The next day, he returned to the same point:

And then I wonder why the Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn’t write particularly good articles about me. I don’t know why.

The Post‘s executive editor, Martin Baron, immediately retorted (CNN, 8/12/19) that Sanders was spouting a “conspiracy theory,” insisting that “Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence, as our reporters and editors can attest.”

Many others in corporate media were incensed as well. NPR‘s All Things Considered (8/13/19) accused Sanders of “echoing the president’s language,” and CNN (8/13/19) ran a segment that likewise accused him of using Trump’s “playbook”; CNN‘s Poppy Harlow warned ominously, “This seems like a dangerous line, continuous accusations against the media with no basis in fact or evidence provided.”

FAIR has been following this issue for quite some time, so we’re happy to offer the evidence CNN and the Post protest is lacking.

Fifteen of the 16 negative stories on the Bernie Sanders campaign that the Washington Post ran over a 16-hour period (FAIR.org, 3/8/16).

We could start with the 16 negative stories the Post ran in 16 hours (FAIR.org, 3/8/16), and follow that up with the four different Sanders-bashing pieces the paper put out in seven hours based on a single think tank study (FAIR.org, 5/11/16).

Or you could take the many occasions on which the Post‘s factchecking team performed impressive contortions to interpret Sander’s fact-based statements as meriting multiple “Pinocchios” (e.g., FAIR.org, 1/25/17, 3/20/17). In particular, we might observe the time the Post “factchecked” Sanders’ claim that the world’s six wealthiest people are worth as much as half the global population (FAIR.org, 10/3/17). It just so happens that one of those six multi-billionaires is Bezos, which would make an ethical journalist extra careful not to show favoritism.

Instead, after acknowledging that Sanders was, in fact, correct, the paper’s Nicole Lewis awarded him “three Pinocchios”—a rating that indicates “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.” This is because, the paper explained, even though the number comes from a reputable nonpartisan source, Oxfam, which got its data from Credit Suisse, “It’s hard to make heads or tails of what wealth actually means, with respect to people’s daily lives around the globe.”

Post factcheckers returned to defend their owner against the charge that he is extremely wealthy after Sanders pointed out in a Democratic debate (6/27/19) that “three people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America.” “The numbers add up,” the Post fact squad (6/28/19) acknowledged, but it’s “apples to oranges”:

People in the bottom half have essentially no wealth, as debts cancel out whatever assets they might have. So the comparison is not especially meaningful.

The Washington Post (1/27/16) began its rebuttal to Bernie Sanders’ “fiction-filled” campaign: “Here is a reality check: Wall Street has already undergone a round of reform.”

The Post editorial page makes no secret of its anti-Sanders position (FAIR.org, 1/28/16, 5/11/16), nor do some of its prominent opinion columnists, like Dana Milbank (FAIR.org, 2/11/16) and Fareed Zakaria (FAIR.org, 9/6/16).

But even in the occasional straight news reporting that manages to acknowledge Sanders’ success, the paper’s reporters still slip in digs at the candidate, such as a news report by Karen Tumulty charting Sanders’ primary victory in Iowa in 2016 that told readers that his showing indicated “Republicans are not the only voters looking for qualities beyond experience and electability.” (With eight years as Burlington mayor, 16 years in the House and a Senate tenure that began in 2007, Sanders has more political experience than most presidential candidates, whether in 2016 or 2020, and electability, rather obviously, ought to be determined by voters, not journalists—FAIR.org, 2/2/16.)

And sometimes the digs are clearly deliberate, as when a Post political correspondent essentially admitted to trolling the Sanders camp by intentionally choosing a “provocative” headline—”Bernie Sanders Keeps Saying His Average Donation Is $27, but His Own Numbers Contradict That”—over a piece that revealed the scandalous deception that the actual number was $27.89 (FAIR.org, 4/24/16).

There’s an underlying dismissal of Sanders as a serious candidate, in both the Post‘s editorializing and its nominally straight reporting, that results in pieces like the ones saying the large crowds Sanders drew to his 2016 campaign rallies “don’t matter much” (FAIR.org, 8/20/15), or the ones accusing him of lacking political “realism” (FAIR.org, 1/30/16). And there’s a clear antipathy at the paper to many of Sanders’ signature policy plans, like Medicare for All (FAIR.org, 3/20/19, 6/25/19).

In her CNN segment about Sanders’ critique, Harlow insisted to one of her guests, Britney Shepard of Yahoo News, “It’s important to note, the Washington Post has done really critical reporting of Amazon, too.” Shepard’s response:

Absolutely, and I really want to underscore something that Kristen said, something you said, too, Poppy, is that Bernie Sanders and his campaign have not really put forth any facts or evidence when they’re pressed about what the Washington Post is doing, and I do think that there’s a concern, and especially a concern as we’re gearing up in this primary, that Bernie Sanders is going to be compared to Donald Trump again and again and again and again.

Curiously, the same journalists so incensed about Sanders’ lack of evidence about the Post‘s bias failed to offer any of their own about the paper’s “critical reporting” of Amazon. They’d be hard-pressed to find any. In 2017 FAIR’s Adam Johnson reviewed a year’s coverage of Amazon in the Post, the Times and the Wall Street Journal, and found that across 190 stories, only 6% leaned negative, and none were investigative exposes (FAIR.org, 7/28/17).

Jeff Bezos’ ownership has no impact on the content of the Washington Post (3/2/17)—honest!

Nearly half (48%) of the Post‘s coverage was uncritical—meaning it didn’t even adopt the standard journalistic practice of seeking out critical or contrary third-party voices, instead reading like an Amazon press release. (My favorite: “An Exclusive Look at Jeff Bezos’ Plan to Set Up an Amazon-Like Delivery for ‘Future Human Settlement’ of the Moon,” with a picture looking up at a Bezos in shades gazing off proudly into the distance.)

But note the Post wasn’t alone in its fawning coverage. That’s why Sanders called out the Times as well, and why NPR, CNN and their ilk are so upset. It’s not a conspiracy theory, because Bezos doesn’t have to tell the Post how to report to get the kind of coverage he wants. It’s baked into a system in which journalists with a working-class perspective or critical of the corporate status quo get weeded out.

As Hill TV (and former MSNBC) journalist Krystal Ball (8/14/19) trenchantly responded to the media pushback against Sanders’ critique, reporters know which stories will endanger their access to the establishment sources  so valued by their employer, and which will earn them praise and access. Those inclined to pursue those establishment-friendly stories rise up in the ranks, while most of those with more critical perspectives eventually move on. So, no, they don’t need Bezos to tell them what to do—their worldview is neatly aligned with his already.

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. Feel free to leave a copy of your message in the comments thread below.

‘People Are Demanding Accountability for the Fossil Fuel Industry’ - CounterSpin interview with Sriram Madhusoodanan about climate justice

Janine Jackson interviewed Sriram Madhusoodanan about climate justice for the August 2, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Climate disruption presents a test for corporate news media: Will they act on the understanding that a conversation that doesn’t acknowledge that unprecedented measures need to be taken is an irresponsibly detached conversation? Will they vigorously expose the corporate actors, the fossil fuel companies and their executives, who continue to dissimulate and deny? Or will they go on giving those that profit from harm-causing industries pride of place in the conversation about how to mitigate that harm?

Corporate media’s response to some promising state-level developments in climate action is not itself very promising. Our next guest will explain work you might not know about, being done to push fossil fuel companies out of the way of climate justice solutions. Sriram Madhusoodanan is deputy campaigns director at the group Corporate Accountability; he joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Sriram Madhusoodanan.

Sriram Madhusoodanan: Thank you so much, Janine; glad to be here.

JJ: I was alluding to the Supreme Court decision earlier this year that cleared the way for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to pursue her investigation of Exxon Mobil—about what it knew about climate change and when it knew it, essentially. It was on the wires, AP and Reuters, but it didn’t get the kind of major attention you would hope.

But before you talk about that, the background for such an investigation, the need for it, is that the fossil fuel industry is just vigorous in doing whatever it takes to resist change. They’re really quite aggressive and proactive, you might say.

Sriram Madhusoodanan: “There are very real solutions to addressing the climate crisis, and they’re being deployed by people around the world.”

SM: Absolutely. I think this is the story we’ve seen play out over decades, really, when we now see the internal documents that have come to light, for example, showing that Exxon, as far back as the 1960s, really knew the extent to which climate change was going to be the path that we were on, the modern kind of climate disruption that we’re seeing, almost a climate disaster happening every week, I believe, according to a recent UN report.

So it is very telling that this is the path the fossil fuel industry has been on for so long, and when faced with a choice of doing the better thing, in terms of advancing a just transition, or choosing a path of climate denial and political manipulation, the industry quite simply chose to protect the billions and billions of dollars a year in its own profit.

JJ:  And this was part of that: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey was investigating Exxon Mobil. So, as part of their strategy, they sued her. And that’s the case that the Supreme Court refused to hear?

SM: That’s right, yes. So the Supreme Court really refused to hear Exxon’s bid for dismissal on the Massachusetts AG case. And just to back up for a second, Exxon has really fought tooth and nail against every move to hold it legally liable, countersuing up a storm, not just with the Massachusetts attorney general investigation, but a number of different instances. And this is quite simply a tactic of delay and intimidation, and an attempt to use their considerable resources to delay, distract and fundamentally to obstruct this process.

JJ: Healey said that she thought the Supreme Court ruling might put an end to what she called Exxon’s “scorched earth campaign” to block these kinds of investigations.

As you’re intimating, this ruling, it’s heartening, not only for Massachusetts, though; Massachusetts is not alone in this sort of investigation.

SM: Absolutely. This is a big win for other states, cities and communities who want to hold Exxon accountable. We have an ongoing investigation and lawsuit from Attorney General James, now, in New York state. And there are a number of cities that are taking the fossil fuel industry to court. And this decision really does clear the way for Healy’s investigation into what Exxon has known for over 50 years about climate change, and brings us one step closer to finding out exactly what they knew, and what they did to cover it up.

JJ: So it’s having some echo effect, in some sense. It was a state attorney general that brought the big lawsuit, or one of them, that became the biggest lawsuit against big tobacco, was it not?

SM: Yes, and there’s absolutely a number of parallels to the history we saw with attorney general investigations into the tobacco industry. One, for example, is that, as we saw with the tobacco AG investigations, part of the settlement in the US, particularly from Minnesota’s state attorney general, was to bring to light and release a trove of internal documents that really illustrated the true story of what the industry had been doing to cover up what it knew about the addictive nature of nicotine and cigarettes.

And similarly, we can see, really, to what extent Exxon and others hid from the public the causes and severity of the climate crisis. And I think, more importantly, when those tobacco documents were released, and the truth of what the industry did was revealed, it really ushered in a whole new era of accountability and legislation to hold the industry accountable.

And at the international level, at the UN, at the state and local level here in the US, people are similarly demanding accountability for the fossil fuel industry. And this is exactly the kinds of investigation and moves to hold the industry accountable and liable for its actions that we need in this moment.

JJ: Yeah, documents make things harder to deny, even if they’re things that seem like they’re going on in broad daylight anyway. Documentation is always important.

And fossil fuel companies are kind of a big PR operation; they do their own research, they offer these “market-based” solutions. And for corporate media, that’s enough cover — you know, “Oh, this didn’t come from BP, it came from the ‘Energy Futures Institute,’” or whatever horse hockey — to present that as a valid position in a debate: “Some people say, X, Y or Z.”

And I kind of wonder what it will take for extractive industry to be presented that way in the media, instead of this kind of credulity that we see. I feel like media have to take a turn, in the same way that it did with tobacco, in terms of the way it presents these corporate actors.

SM: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right there. Media have an incredibly important role to play in telling the story. And it shouldn’t be understated, we cannot talk about climate change enough. And it’s important that when we talk about it, we tell the story in the right way.

So to, one, foreground the fact that the industry has known about the severity of climate change for decades. I mentioned as far back as the 1960s, but a recent document came to light, within this initial trove of documents from Exxon, that showed that in the 1980s, they knew, and had predicted with a fair degree of accuracy, what the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere would be in 2019.

And that’s just astounding, to think that before I was born, for example, that Exxon had known exactly what it was doing if it kept on this path of extractive economy and of climate disruption. And so media have an absolutely critical role to play in foregrounding who was responsible, and that where we are today, in a moment of upheaval and climate disruption, was also a deliberate choice on the part of a number of incredibly powerful entities, corporations and CEOs at the helms of those entities as well.

JJ: Yeah, you can’t keep bringing these folks forward as credible actors, once you know that dissimulation has been part of their modus operandi, it seems to me. It should affect the way they’re treated as sources on the stories.

SM: Absolutely, absolutely. And then to take it one step further, to really address and to have a much more skeptical eye to the trade associations, which you mentioned earlier, that are driving their agenda, seemingly under the guise of being nonprofits or acting in the public interest, simply putting forth “innovative solutions,” when, in fact, they were set up for very intentional purposes by the industry to advance an industry-driven agenda, and to feed these false, market-based solutions that, at the end of the day, don’t do anything to actually shift the industry’s business model, which is fundamentally at odds with the direction we need to go as a collective species on this planet, if we’re going to weather the storm, so to say.

Truthout (7/10/19)

JJ: A recent piece by your Corporate Accountability colleague, Patti Lynn, that I saw on Truthout reminded us that

under today’s global power structures, the people who will be the most affected are the same ones who are currently experiencing the harshest effects of climate change.

No wonder then, that women, communities of color, communities in the global South, youth, low-income communities and Indigenous communities around the world have been developing just climate solutions that will address this crisis. What we need now is to move the fossil fuel industry and its backers out of the way so these solutions can be implemented.

There really isn’t a scientific, or even an environmental, response to climate disruption that is not a political response to current relationships of power, is there, really?

SM: You know, that’s absolutely right. And I think it’s a really critical point to bear, that there are very real solutions to addressing the climate crisis, and they’re being deployed by people around the world and in the US most impacted by this crisis today. Solutions like energy democracy, agroecological practices, ecological restoration to recover natural carbon sinks. And you imagine where we could be today in implementing these kinds of climate solutions if the industry had not for so long really stood in the way. It’s damning when you think about it from that perspective. But absolutely, what’s needed in this moment is for the industry to get out of the way, and for us to make sure that these real solutions that are already being deployed in communities around the world are given the center of focus and the scale that they need in order to really be the focus of a global response to this crisis.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Sriram Madhusoodanan, deputy campaigns director at the group Corporate Accountability. You can find their work online at CorporateAccountability.org. Sriram Madhusoodanan, thanks so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

SM: Thank you.

 

Jonathan Weisman’s Judgment Has Been Lapsing for a Long While Now

 

The New York Times announced yesterday (The Wrap, 8/13/19) that it had demoted deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman for “recent serious lapses in judgment.” These included a since-deleted tweet from last month that asserted that politicians of color don’t really count as coming from their regions:

Saying @RashidaTlaib (D-Detroit) and @IlhanMN (D-Minneapolis) are from the Midwest is like saying @RepLloydDoggett (D–Austin) is from Texas or @repjohnlewis (D-Atlanta) is from the Deep South. C’mon.

Roxane Gay owed Jonathan Weisman an “enormous apology,” according to Jonathan Weisman. (cc photo: Marla Aufmuth/TED)

This was followed by a bizarre controversy in which Weisman demanded an “enormous apology” from African-American writer Roxane Gay, who had criticized him for “telling a black woman she isn’t black.” Weisman had chided the progressive Justice Democrats for endorsing a challenger to “an African-American Democrat”; when the challenger, Morgan Harper, pointed out, “I am also black,” Weisman retorted: “@justicedems‘s endorsement included a photo.”

The Times announced that Weisman “will no longer be overseeing the team that covers Congress or be active on social media,” and these are good things. But I would take issue with the idea that his “lapses in judgment” are recent. At FAIR, we’ve been following Weisman’s career for quite some time, and “lapses of judgment” seem to be par for the course for him.

  • He called opponents of fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal “the political fringes,” “groups more on the fringe” and (in the words of anonymous officials) “a small fringe” (FAIR.org, 2/10/15). At the time, fast track was opposed by a majority of the House of Representatives.
  • He treated the poor and middle class as interchangeable terms, writing that “President Obama’s push for a new ‘middle-class economics’ [would] help make the politics of rich and poor a central issue,” and presenting Mitt Romney “vowing a campaign to ‘end the scourge of poverty’” as an example of the same phenomenon as “Mitch McConnell…encourag[ing] the Republican troops to refocus policy on the stagnant middle class” (FAIR.org, 1/23/15).
  • He bemoaned that in 2014, the right-wing Heritage Foundation was becoming “more of a political organization” by hiring staffers “known more for their advocacy journalism than their scholarship” (FAIR.org, 2/24/14). Heritage’s co-founder and first president, Paul Weyrich, used to write for the far-right John Birch Society; other “scholars” at the think tank have included eugenicist Roger Pearson and white supremacist Sam Francis (Extra!, 7–8/96).  
  • He described tax hikes for the rich as “politically sensitive,” even while claiming that “a majority of voters say the federal budget deficit should be tackled with a mix of spending cuts and tax increases on the rich”—and then substantiated that by citing polling that actually showed a majority wanted more spending and higher taxes on the rich (FAIR.org, 6/7/12).
  • He called the prospect of an 8 percent cut in US military spending, to roughly $699 billion, a “heavy blow” to “national security”—even though it would leave the United States spending more on war-fighting capacity than the next 11 nations combined (FAIR.org, 6/4/12).
  • He said that deep cuts in Social Security were something “cognoscenti” knew “both sides will have to eventually accept” (FAIR.org, 4/5/12). (His source to prove the smart set knew the austerity recommendations of the Simpson/Bowles commission would inevitably be implemented? Erskine Bowles.)  
  • He said Barack Obama’s problem was that he “cares too much about policy details” (FAIR.org, 8/16/09). 
  • He claimed that the band Fall Out Boy was as popular as Obama (FAIR.org, 10/22/08).

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.

Media Defend Biden by Attacking Dems for ‘Attacking’ Obama

by Julie Hollar

Coming out of the second round of Democratic debates, a curious storyline crystallized in the media: The candidates are attacking Obama, and that’s a sure-fire way to hand the election to Trump. It’s the latest flavor of “the Democrats are moving too far left” (FAIR.org, 7/2/19)—this time echoing both Trump himself and the right-wing Democratic candidates, including former Obama Vice President Joe Biden.

During the first debate, Rep. John Delaney pitched the story, claiming, “Most of the folks running for president want to build economic walls to free trade and beat up on President Obama.” Biden’s team was also quick to hype the story after his own appearance in the second debate. The Washington Post‘s Steven Stromberg (7/31/19) quoted one of his advisers immediately after the debate: “Many people on this stage spent more time attacking Obama than they did Trump. I think Democratic primary voters will make a judgment about this.”

The next day, Trump (Politico, 8/1/19) picked up the Biden spin, declaring:

The Democrats spent more time attacking Barack Obama than they did attacking me, practically. This morning, that’s all the fake news was talking about.

Indeed, it was hard to read coverage of the debates without tripping over pieces like, “Do Democrats Think They Can Win by Attacking Barack Obama?” (Washington Post, 7/31/19), “Worst Democratic Strategy Yet: Attack Obama’s Legacy” (New York Times, 8/2/19) or “‘Stay Away From Barack’: Dems Seethe Over Criticism of Obama” (Politico, 8/1/19). (Note that the “Dems” who are seething in these stories are almost exclusively Biden strategists, former Obama administration officials or strategists, and other party centrists.)

MSNBC hosts helped promote the storyline that criticisms of Biden were really attacks on Obama (Mediaite, 8/1/19).

It’s a curious storyline, if you actually watched the debates. For the record, Trump was mentioned 199 times across the two nights; Obama (or “Obamacare”) was mentioned 32 times (including eight name-drops by Biden). And the non-Biden Obama mentions were largely framed as praise—as when Julián Castro argued (7/31/19) that most of the job growth Trump takes credit for was “due to President Obama. Thank you, Barack Obama. Thank you, Barack Obama”—or as a prop for the candidates’ plans, as when Kamala Harris said that the “architect of the Obama Affordable Care Act” supported Harris’s healthcare plan.

On healthcare, while there were plenty of attacks on left-wing positions from CNN moderators, who peppered candidates with industry-friendly questions about “raising taxes on the middle class” to pay for Medicare for All, and “forcing” people to give up their private insurance, on neither night did candidates attack the ACA or Obama on healthcare. In fact, only a few candidates (besides Biden) mentioned the ACA; none of the mentions could be construed as direct attacks on it, with the possible exception of Beto O’Rourke’s claim (7/30/19) that his “Medicare for America” plan is a “better path” than either Medicare for All or “improv[ing] the Affordable Care Act at the margins.”

Immigration was probably the most-cited “Obama attack” issue—but it was CNN‘s Don Lemon who teed up the attack, asking Biden:

In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly 800,000 immigrants were deported, far more than during President Trump’s first two years. Would the higher deportation rates resume if you were president?

Many candidates talked about wanting decriminalization, and reducing deportations, but, again, none aimed their attacks at Obama—unless you take criticism of the healthcare system as criticism of Obama, as the Post seemed to when it cited Warren’s criticism that “we have tried the solution of Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance. And what have the private insurance companies done? They’ve sucked billions of dollars out of our health care system.”

Some did aim directly at Biden, including Castro and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. The Post pointed to Castro, who was Obama’s Housing secretary, quipping about the deportation policy of the administration in which he and Biden both served: “It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past, and one of us hasn’t.” The Times piece, by Timothy Egan, didn’t even bother citing evidence, instead just asserting that Obama was “now a target for cannibalistic candidates from the left.”

And both the Post and Politico cited Cory Booker criticizing Biden, after Biden attempted to distance himself from Obama’s deportation policy (answering Lemon’s question about whether he would resume Obama’s policy with an unequivocal “absolutely not”): “You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign,” said Booker. “You can’t do it when it’s convenient and dodge it when it’s not.”

Tellingly, no one cited Biden’s distancing from Obama policy—in this case, or when he said he would not re-enter the TPP under the same terms Obama did—as criticism of Obama.

Obama was and continues to be highly popular with the public (and especially Democrats), so it’s no surprise that Biden is largely pinning his campaign on his connection to the former president, and trying to discredit opponents whose plans might differ from any of Obama’s policies. By going along with Biden’s efforts to construe any attacks on himself, his record or proposals as attacks on Obama, media are helping to construct a trope that seeks to trap anyone to the left of Obama—and to the left of the media’s comfort zone—by effectively putting most criticism of Biden off limits.

 

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