Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

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

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(image: VOA)

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

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(photo: White House)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gregory Shupak: Thanks for having me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York Times (1/6/20)

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

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

JJ: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter (1/7/20)

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

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

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

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

GS: Thanks so much for having me.

23 Headlines Obscure Biden’s Lies About Cutting Social Security


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Western Left Media Helped Legitimate US Regime Change in Venezuela

by Lucas Koerner

In Jacobin (2/5/19)…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2019 Coup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2017 Insurrection 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncritical criticism 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

DeSmog Blog (1/3/20)

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

And you see how this is happening.

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

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

Brett Hartl: Thanks a lot for having me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JJ: Right.

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

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

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

BH: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BH: Thanks for having me.


Netflix, Iran and the Documentary as Geopolitical Weapon

by Brian Mier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Netflix‘s The Mechanism

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

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

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

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

Alberto Nisman in Nisman

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

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

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

Nisman‘s Jaime Stiuso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In  Variety (9/23/19), Webster says:

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

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

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

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

The US’s Inalienable Right to Violence


This Washington Post headline  (1/7/20) is probably true.

Even when critical of US actions, media commentary on recent US bombings and assassinations in the Middle East is premised on the assumption that the US has the right to use violence (or the threat of it) to assert its will, anytime, anywhere. Conversely, corporate media coverage suggests that any countermeasure—such as resistance to the US presence in Iraq—is inherently illegitimate, criminal and/or terroristic.

Iranian puppeteers

One step in this dance is depicting US military forces in Iraq as innocent bystanders under attack by sadistic Iranian puppetmasters. Media analysis of the US murder of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani consistently asserted that he was “an architect of international terrorism responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans” (New York Times, 1/3/20) or “a terrorist with the blood of hundreds of Americans on his hands” (Washington Post, 1/7/20). According to Leon Panetta (Washington Post, 1/7/20), a former Defense secretary and CIA director,

The death of Soleimani should not be mourned, given his responsibility for the killing of thousands of innocent people and hundreds of US military personnel over the years.

There is little evidence for this contention that Iran in general or Soleimani personally is responsible for killing hundreds of Americans. When the State Department claimed last April that Iran was responsible for the deaths of 608 American servicemembers in Iraq between 2003 and 2011, investigative journalist Gareth Porter (Truthout, 7/9/19) asked Navy Commander Sean Robertson for evidence, and Robertson “acknowledged that the Pentagon doesn’t have any study, documentation or data to provide journalists that would support such a figure.”

Porter showed that the US attribution of deaths in Iraq to Iran is an unsubstantiated government talking point from the Cheney era, one that was exposed at the time when Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno admitted that, though the US had attributed Iraqi resistance fighters’ weapons to Iran, US troops found many sites in Iraq at which such weapons were being manufactured.

Gareth Porter reported in Truthout (7/9/19) that “the myth that Tehran is responsible for killing over 600 US troops in the Iraq War is merely a new variant of a propaganda line that former Vice President Dick Cheney used to attempt to justify a war against Iran more than a decade ago.”

Scholar Stephen Zunes (Progressive, 1/7/20) similarly demonstrated the lack of evidence for the idea that Iran is behind the killing of US forces in Iraq. Zunes noted that the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, compiled by America’s 16 intelligence agencies, downplayed Iran’s role in Iraq’s violence at roughly the same time that the Bush administration was saying that Iran was culpable.

As Porter pointed out, there was a much simpler explanation for American deaths in the period: The US targeted Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Mahdi Army fought back, imposing more casualties on US troops.

That the pundits dusted off 13-year-old propaganda to rationalize killing Soleimani is a clear indication that they were desperately grasping for any imperialist apologia within reach. If the American public is led to believe that Soleimani killed hundreds of Americans, large swathes of it are likely to regard his assassination as justified, necessary, or at worst a feature of the tit-for-tat ugliness inherent to war.

The narrative also ideologically shores up the US war on Iran in the American popular consciousness by presenting Iranians as primordially violent savages out to spill the blood of Americans, notably those in the military who are in the Middle East, presumably doing nothing but minding their own business. Presenting Iran as the reason for attacks on US forces in Iraq also implies that Iraqis had little objection to the US invasion, legitimizing the US’s ongoing military presence in the country. The most obvious point about the deaths of US soldiers in Iraq is that they wouldn’t happen if US soldiers weren’t in Iraq.

When violence isn’t violence

Another media dance move is to condemn anti-imperial violence while naturalizing imperialist violence. An editorial in the New York Times (1/3/20) said that Soleimani

no doubt had a role in the campaign of provocations by Shiite militias against American forces in Iraq that recently led to the death of an American defense contractor and a retaliatory American airstrike against the militia responsible for the attack.

Having US troops in Iraq, a country in which the US is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, is not a “provocation,” in the Times’ perspective; opposition to their presence is the provocation.

The December 27 attack that killed the US contractor did not occur in a vacuum. In 2018, the US was suspected of bombing affiliates of Kataib Hezbollah, the group the US blames for killing the contractor. Israel is suspected of carrying out a string of deadly bombings of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, of which Kataib Hezbollah is a key component, between July and September, a scenario at which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted.

The US reportedly confirmed that Israel was behind at least one of the bombings, and said it supports Israel’s actions while denying direct participation. In any case, the US’s lavish military support for Israel means that the former is effectively a party to the latter’s bombing. Thus, the Kataib Hezbollah attack that killed the contractor can be seen as “retaliatory,” which complicates the notion that the subsequent US attack was as well.

Another Times editorial (1/4/20) describes Soleimani as “one of the region’s most powerful and, yes, blood-soaked military commanders.” At no point is Trump or any other US leader described as “blood-soaked” or anything comparable—here, or in any of the mainstream media coverage I can find—even as he and his predecessors are sopping with that of Afghans, Iraqis, Libyans and Syrians, to cite only a few recent cases. Evidently imperial violence is so righteous it leaves no trace behind.

Stephen Hadley, national security adviser in the George W Bush administration, wrote in the Washington Post (1/5/20):

What is clear is that one of the PMFs, Kataib Hezbollah, has been behind the escalating violence over the past several months as part of a campaign (assuredly with Iranian approval) to force out US troops. The campaign culminated in the December 31 attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad. (The head of Kataib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed with Soleimani.)

By expelling US forces, the Iraqi government would be falling into Kataib Hezbollah’s trap: rewarding the militia’s violent campaign, strengthening the Iranian-backed PMFs, weakening the Iraqi government and state sovereignty, and jeopardizing the fight against the Islamic State.

Kataib Hezbollah’s actions are called “violence” twice in these three sentences, with their apex apparently being “the December 31 attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad.” Remarkably, the author makes no mention of the December 29 US airstrikes on five sites in Iraq and Syria that the US says belong to Kataib Hezbollah, bombings that reportedly killed 25 and injured 55. Those, it would seem, do not constitute “violence.” Iraqis damaging the embassy of the country whose economic sanctions killed half a million Iraqi children is “violence,” but the US’s lethal air raids are not. And expelling foreign armies weakens state sovereignty!

“No one in Baghdad was fooled” by anti-US protests in Iraq, which were “almost certainly a Soleimani-staged operation to make it look as if Iraqis wanted America out,” declared Thomas Friedman (New York Times, 1/3/20). (In a 2016 poll, 93% of young Iraqis said that they perceived the US as an “enemy.”)

Thomas Friedman’s Times article (1/3/20) on Soleimani’s murder was bad even by Thomas Friedman standards. He dismissed the protests at the US embassy:

The whole “protest” against the United States Embassy compound in Baghdad last week was almost certainly a Soleimani-staged operation to make it look as if Iraqis wanted America out when in fact it was the other way around. The protesters were paid pro-Iranian militiamen. No one in Baghdad was fooled by this.

In a way, it’s what got Soleimani killed. He so wanted to cover his failures in Iraq he decided to start provoking the Americans there by shelling their forces, hoping they would overreact, kill Iraqis and turn them against the United States. Trump, rather than taking the bait, killed Soleimani instead.

That there were thousands of protesters at the US embassy and that the Iraqi security forces stood aside to allow them to demonstrate suggests that what happened at the embassy cannot be reduced to a hoax stage-managed and paid for by Iran. Furthermore, the US did kill Iraqis two days before the protests, and that’s what ignited them (to say nothing of the longer term record of the US devastating Iraq). Like Hadley, however, Friedman pretends that the US’s December 27 bombings didn’t happen.

In the imperial imagination, the US has the right to violently pursue its objectives wherever it wants, and any resistance is illegitimate.


Chip Gibbons on FBI vs. 1st Amendment

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Image: Defending Rights & Dissent

This week on CounterSpin: At a Sacramento rally in 2016, members of a white supremacist group called the Traditionalist Worker Party stabbed counter-protesters from the civil rights group By Any Means Necessary. The FBI responded by opening up a domestic terrorism investigation—into By Any Means Necessary. At first, the FBI misidentified the Traditionalist Worker Party as the Ku Klux Klan, and was going to investigate BAMN for conspiring to violate the rights of Klan members, in documents that described the Klan as consisting of people “that some perceived to be supportive of a white supremacist agenda.”

That’s not just an interesting historical fact; it should be a reality check for those who currently imagine that the FBI can serve as some sort of check on Trump era white supremacy, or protect those who organize in opposition.

The ability of citizens to speak out against injustice is a living, vital tool; interference in political expression by the state cuts democracy off at the root. But that interference isn’t just in the form of pepper spray and cordoned off “speech zones” at big events. And not only is it not new, understanding its history is key to seeing how it works and how to curtail it.

We talk with journalist and researcher Chip Gibbons, policy director at Defending Rights & Dissent and author of the new report Still Spying on Dissent: The Enduring Problem of FBI First Amendment Abuse.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at recent news, including the Iowa debate, CNN‘s union-busting and homelessness.

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The Big Loser in the Iowa Debate? CNN’s Reputation


The biggest loser from last night’s Democratic debate (1/14/20) was CNN’s journalistic credibility.

CNN debates have been marked by a tendency to pit one candidate against another, American Gladiators-style (FAIR.org, 8/2/19), so it’s no surprise that the cable network took its own journalistically dubious “scoop” (CNN, 1/13/20)—about Bernie Sanders allegedly telling Elizabeth Warren in 2018 that “he did not believe a woman could win” a race against Donald Trump—and used it as the basis of questions to both Sanders and Warren at its pre–Iowa caucus debate in Des Moines (presented jointly with the Des Moines Register).

CNN‘s questioning assumed that Elizabeth Warren was telling the truth and Bernie Sanders was lying about a conversation they had more than a year ago.

But it was less predictable that CNN would frame those questions in such a nakedly one-sided manner, with wording that presumed that the truth was  known about what was really said in a disputed, year-old private conversation. “Senator Sanders,” began CNN political correspondent Abby Phillip:

Senator Warren confirmed in a statement, that in 2018 you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?

Phillip obviously knew that Sanders had unequivocally stated that he had not said that. But by inserting the word “confirmed” into the preface, she put Sanders in the position of someone denying reality—despite the fact that his alleged remark would contradict his public position going back 30 years. And immediately after getting Sanders to reiterate his statement that he never told Warren that a woman couldn’t win the election, Philip turned to Warren and asked: “Sen. Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”—a question premised on the assumption that Sanders had just lied about what he had said.

CNN asked both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders if Sanders should explain how much his healthcare plan will cost.

CNN‘s healthcare questions were also nakedly one-sided. In the first debate the network hosted (7/30/19), Jake Tapper started off the night by asking Sanders whether “tak[ing] private health insurance away from more than 150 million Americans, in exchange for government-sponsored healthcare for everyone,” was “political suicide,” and went on to focus on the cost of Medicare for All (FAIR.org, 8/2/19). Last night, Phillip’s first question on healthcare likewise went to Sanders, revisiting that focus on cost:

Senator Sanders, you have consistently refused to say exactly how much your Medicare for All plan is going to cost. Don’t voters deserve to see the price tag before you send them a bill that could cost tens of trillions of dollars?

After Sanders explained that Medicare for All “will cost substantially less than the status quo”—under which healthcare is projected to cost $52 trillion over the next decade—Phillip turned to Biden. But instead of asking him to answer any criticisms of his own plan, she offered him the same Sanders-bashing frame:  “Vice President Biden, does Senator Sanders owe voters a price tag on his healthcare plan?”

While Phillip gave every other candidate a chance to weigh in, she didn’t give them substantive questions. She then returned to Sanders with another question about the cost of his plans:

Senator Sanders, your campaign proposals would double federal spending over the next decade, an unprecedented level of spending not seen since World War II. How would you keep your plans from bankrupting the country?

Wolf Blitzer tried to turn Ayatollah Khamenei into Bernie Sanders’ running mate.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer led off a series of foreign policy questions with a similarly loaded question for Sanders:

Sen. Sanders, in the wake of the Iran crisis, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei has again called for all US troops to be pulled out of the Middle East, something you’ve called for as well. Yet when American troops last left Iraq, ISIS emerged and spread terror across the Middle East and, indeed, around the world. How would you prevent that from happening again?

So Sanders was asked to defend his policy—identified as being the same as that of a hated official enemy—against the charge that it would “spread terror…around the world.” (Blitzer’s blaming ISIS on the withdrawal from Iraq evades the reality that there would never have been an ISIS were it not for the Iraq invasion.)

Rather than giving similarly poison-tipped questions to Sanders’ rivals, Blitzer went on for the most part to merely ask them to respond to what had already been said: “Vice President Biden?… Senator Klobuchar, what’s your response?… Mayor Buttigieg, you served in Afghanistan. Who’s right?” Politico’s Ryan Lizza (1/15/20) referred to this as Blitzer doing “an admirable job teasing out some of the subtle differences that have crystallized among Democrats in the post-Obama world.”

Elizabeth Warren was also painted as a bearer of fringe ideas that “will scare away swing voters.”

It’s important to remember that CNN’s blatant insertion of its own point of view into the presidential debate doesn’t  reflect a mere personal dislike of Sanders, but rather a consistent ideological orientation. Warren, despite being used as a blunt object with which to bash Sanders, was also given questions that likewise painted her as a champion of way-out ideas, as with this from Phillip:

 Why does it make sense for the government to manufacture drugs, especially when public trust in government is near historic lows?

Of course, it wouldn’t be elected officials making the drugs, but government agencies—and it’s the former and not the latter who are generally distrusted by the public (Pew, 9/6/19). The drug industry, meanwhile, is the least trusted of all major industrial sectors (Gallup, 9/3/19)—but why spoil the premise of a good “gotcha” question?

When Phillip asked a series of questions that were supposed to highlight the “unique challenges” each candidate faced in “prov[ing] to Democratic voters that you’re strong enough to take on Donald Trump,” Sanders was told that “more than two-thirds of voters say they are not enthusiastic about voting for a socialist,” while Warren was told that voters are worried her policies “will scare away swing voters you need to win this race in November.”

CNN to Amy Klobuchar: Please explain how the word you have chosen as your campaign brand will go over with voters.

Phillip’s question to centrist darling Amy Klobuchar, by contrast, was set up with the senator’s self-description as “a practical candidate who can get things done,” and the observation that she’s “dismissed some of the ideas that are offered in this primary as pipe dreams”; in other words, she’s taken the same position on issues like Medicare for All that’s been consistently advanced by media monitors. That led up to this aren’t-you-really-too-conscientious? softball: “How are you going to inspire Democratic voters with a message of pragmatism?”

Her question to Biden didn’t even rise to that level of challenge:

Vice President Biden, the eventual nominee will face President Trump, who has no problem mocking people, using insulting nicknames, slinging mud and telling lies. The debate against him will make tonight’s debate look like child’s play. Are you prepared for that?

The question to Buttigieg in this segment of the debate was the only one that brought up race in a debate that was notable as the first with an all-white cast of candidates, following the withdrawal of Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Julián Castro, and the exclusion of Andrew Yang for not meeting polling thresholds. Race wasn’t raised at all in the questions in the last debate CNN ran (10/15/19), in conjunction with the New York Times (FAIR.org, 10/17/19). In the lone reference to race in the Iowa questioning, people of color appeared merely as a desirable voting bloc: “You’ve had trouble earning the support of black voters…support that you’ll need in order to beat Donald Trump.”

The complacent worldview behind CNN’s questioning was summed up by Rolling Stone (1/15/20):

In an era of endless war abroad, painfully and often prohibitively expensive healthcare and education at home, and a climate crisis that threatens to make the planet inhospitable to its 7 billion human inhabitants, the challenges of change were treated as paramount or even insurmountable, while the costs of maintaining the status quo barely mentioned.

When Sanders tried to explain how NAFTA 2.0 failed to address the climate crisis, the moderator declared that off limits: “We’re going to get to climate change, but I’d like to stay on trade.”

That attitude was nowhere more on view than in the debate’s approach to the issue of climate. When Sanders was asked by Des Moines Register political correspondent Brianne Pfannenstiel why he opposes Trump’s renegotiated NAFTA treaty, despite its endorsement by the AFL-CIO—“Are you unwilling to compromise?”—he pointed out that

every major environmental organization has said no to this new trade agreement because it does not even have the phrase “climate change” in it. And given the fact that climate change is right now the greatest threat facing this planet, I will not vote for a trade agreement that does not incorporate very, very strong principles to significantly lower fossil fuel emissions in the world.

But Pfannenstiel would not stand for having the serious business of trade agreements mixed up with trivia about threats to the planet: “We’re going to get to climate change, but I’d like to stay on trade.”

Much later, when the topic did return to climate, suitably divorced from any other subject, it was with this inane question:

Mayor Buttigieg, you have talked about helping people move from areas at high risk of flooding. But what do you do about farms and factories that simply can’t be moved?

One really does get the impression that if CNN were holding a debate on the Titanic, the first question would literally be about rearranging the deck chairs.

ACTION ALERT: Messages to CNN can be sent here (or via Twitter @CNN). 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.


Shining a Spotlight on Anti-Homeless Reporters

by Josmar Trujillo

Breaking news from the New York Post (12/30/19): A man is “grabbing food from the trays and shoving it directly into his mouth, wet with drool and framed by a scraggly beard.”

With every new year, out come our usual resolutions: Let’s quit smoking, give up meat, or maybe we can lose those extra 15 pounds we always say we should. Alas, for some of us, it’s hard to change our ways. Case in point, the New York Post cannot and will not give up its obsessive, cruel and deranged fascination with shaming homeless people.

The Post going after homeless people is old news, yes, I know; the Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper’s disdain for the poor is well-documented. But the paper closed out 2019 with a master class in homeless shaming . Gothamist (1/2/20) gave an appropriately acerbic account of the story (New York Post, 12/30/19) of “a drooling and pungent homeless man” using a Whole Foods buffet:

We’re told that the bar has “No Sampling” signs, that the man has “visibly dirty mitts” and is “grabbing food from the trays and shoving it directly into his mouth, wet with drool and framed by a scraggly beard.” (The man’s beard is worth two mentions.)

Gothamist reminds us of the tabloid’s weeks-long crusade in 2016 about a homeless woman who had the audacity to push around multiple carts of her possessions. And there were also the multiple front-page stories in 2015 about a homeless man that the newspaper claimed was making $200 an hour by begging.

The Post seems to bask in the glory of their crusade. Their commitment to following around poor human beings suggests that the paper and its employees have taken a pledge to deliver sneering content to the imagined everyman reader who they think hates the homeless as much as they do. But they go beyond merely reporting: On New Year’s Day, the Post reported on a “shanty town” in Manhattan, where homeless people still lingered despite authorities having removed the pesky poor after a previous call from the paper.

Another New York Post scoop (7/10/15): Man lowering tone in Post editor’s neighborhood.

The Post‘s homeless-shaming in New York City—where homelessness is relatively high—even shapes coverage of other papers. After the tabloid chased around a homeless man waiting for him to pee (in the same neighborhood the Post’s then-editor Col Allan lived in) and putting it on their front cover (twice) a few years ago, the New York Times (7/15/15) followed suit by citing Post front pages, with its own in-depth pee story:

Evidence pools beneath rows of pay phones, between parked cars, outside bars where last call has come and gone. The culprits can be found in any neighborhood of New York City: the West Village or Williamsburg, Chelsea or Elmhurst.

The piece did note, citing the late NYPD stats maven Jack Maple, that “‘Wall Street analysts doing Jell-O shots’ on Madison Avenue” may be as prone to public urination as “‘a crew of robbers drinking malt liquor’ in East New York,” but endorses Maple’s contention that police should go after the latter rather than the former, because they’re the ones “relaxing after a long day of robbing.”

The Times went on to complain that arrests for public urination are not concentrated enough in poorer neighborhoods—or, in Times-speak, “neighborhoods historically subjected to the highest numbers of recorded police stops.” There was, of course, no mention of any relationship between public urination and poverty or homelessness.

The New York Times (7/15/15) follows up on the Post‘s journalistic lead.

As FAIR (Extra!, 3–4/90) noted almost 30 years ago, the Times has exhibited its own anti-homeless bias, a trait that seems to infect much of the press. As I wrote in 2015 (FAIR.org, 11/24/15) following a “quality of life” panel at the conservative Manhattan Institute, members of the media, opinion columnists and police leaders all seem to share the loathing—helping to make homeless-bashing in the media a national and international phenomenon.

While homelessness or begging aren’t crimes, media coverage is often shaded with a criminal insinuation, or connected to a sense of fear. Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi of Citations Needed (9/4/19, 9/11/19) explained this succinctly in a great two-part podcast last year:

As housing costs skyrocket and inequality grows, homelessness is reaching crisis levels in large metropolitan areas. In response, the media—namely local news stations—routinely treat the homeless like an invading species, a vermin to be at best contained, and at worst eradicated.

The result has been a slew of stories pathologizing those experiencing homelessness as uniquely dangerous. Panhandlers are viewed as con men out to screw over the working man, chased down by vigilantes with the help of outraged local news “standing up” to the poor.

So what to do? The New York Post, ironically, seems incapable of shame. They saw a significant amount of pushback on Twitter after the Whole Foods story. Many people expressed revulsion, not for the homeless people the paper harassed, but for the paper itself. Still, in spite of the criticism, they went on to publish the “shantytown” story.

CBS New York (1/8/20) inaccurately describes spitting as an “HIV attack.”

In a related development, alarmist media coverage led by the Post has aided law enforcement’s attempt to roll back reforms of New York’s archaic bail laws that have long been predicated on whether or not you could afford to buy your freedom. However, pushback on social media has provided a counterbalance of sorts.

CBS New York (1/8/20) was criticized for a horrible story (since reedited) about a judge’s release of someone supposedly carrying the HIV virus that allegedly spit into a police officer’s mouth. The story and tweets from the CBS New York official Twitter account described this as an “HIV ATTACK”—blatant fearmongering, given that HIV cannot be transmitted through saliva.

After considerable criticism after the story and tweets, the local CBS affiliate fired the reporter who posted the story, claiming it was published without being reviewed by editors—hard as it may be to believe that a reporter was able to publish a story and tweet from the affiliates account with no oversight. Was this a win for media critics and advocates?

Bashing outlets like the Post is unlikely to change or deter them. Protests against the tabloid have gone on for years. The paper has even withstood an organized boycott by Yemeni bodega owners (which could have severely affected their bottom line, as bodegas are a key distribution point for local papers). The company can probably endure twitter-storms and boycotts. The Post loses millions of dollars every year—how many millions is anybody’s guess—and serves more as a vehicle for Murdoch’s political agenda than as a source of revenue, so it’s relatively insulated from economic pressure.

However, criticism may have hit a nerve when it specifically targeted the reporters. (For the record, the Post’s homeless-in-Whole-Foods expose required the skills of three journalists: Kenneth Bachor, Elizabeth Rosner and Aaron Feis.)

Don’t get mad at someone who is just doing their job, which is mocking poor people (Twitter, 1/1/20).

As some of those reporters were railed against on social media, their peers and colleagues came valiantly to their defense. Buzzfeed‘s news director and editor-in-chief both weighed in to chastise people for shaming the shamers: “As a rule of thumb, please yell at editors rather than reporters on this website, it’s usually our fault,” tweeted editor Ben Smith.

Post editor Joe Tacopino chimed in to wag his finger at critics, fearing they could “unleash an angry mob” against reporters who were simply and courageously doing their jobs. Ah yes, the angry “fake news” mob. Maybe instead of tweeting, people will follow reporters and snap pictures of them all around the city. Too cruel?

While it’s certainly true that publishers, editors and owners are ultimately most responsible for anti-homeless media coverage, this doesn’t mean there isn’t enough blame left over for beat reporters and journalists willing to cut their teeth by punching down. After all, when journalists win awards for their reporting, they don’t send their editors to collect the prizes; shouldn’t they also accept the outrage that their articles provoke?

For years, FAIR has catalogued media shenanigans and bias, and part of that has been naming reporters and criticizing their work. Media critiques must name journalists who shame the homeless, or who perform police stenography (attributing all or most of the narrative of a story to law enforcement statements), and even hateful opinion writers like the New York TimesBret Stephens.

And yes, while there is a clear difference between a media apex predator like Stephens and a bottom-rung beat reporter, journalists cannot be absolved, any more than can ICE officers, on the excuse that they are simply following orders from up high.

Over the past few years, there has been considerable anguish about the death of local journalism. However, if people only strive to “save” it without acknowledging its pitfalls, that only serves to keep the profession insulated, with reporters and editors clamoring to defend only themselves. While concerted media criticism might be met with accusations of “bullying” the media, it really is more about tying reporters to what they write—in effect giving them the spotlight that they themselves like to shine on the most vulnerable among us.

ACTION ALERT: Messages to the New York Post can be sent to letters@nypost.com (or via Twitter: @NYPost). Remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your message in the comments for this post.


Facebook’s Soleimani Ban Flies in Face of First Amendment

by Ari Paul

Coda (1/10/20) appears to have been the first to break the story of Instagram’s Soleimani censorship, as part of the site’s focus on “authoritarian tech.”

Instagram, and its parent company Facebook, took down posts regarded as too sympathetic to Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated January 3 in a controversial US airstrike. The news website Coda (1/10/20) was credited with breaking the news, and Newsweek (1/10/20) also reported that

Iranian journalists have reported the censorship of their Instagram accounts. Posts about Soleimani have disappeared from Instagram, which is currently the only operational international social media site within Iran.

According to the Facebook corporation, as quoted by CNN (1/10/20), removal of such posts is required by US sanctions; the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, of which Soleimani was a commander, was designated as a terrorist organization by the US government in April:

As part of its compliance with US law, the Facebook spokesperson said the company removes accounts run by or on behalf of sanctioned people and organizations.

One might rightly ask: What constitutes a post supportive of the late military commander? According to the CNN report, merely posting a photo of the general could get the Facebook authorities to take a post down.

The International Federation of Journalists condemned the censorship:

The measures have gone even further, and some accounts of Iranian newspapers and news agencies have now been removed from the social media platform. This poses an immediate threat to freedom of information in Iran, as Instagram is the only international social media platform currently still operating in the country.

The Washington Times (1/11/20) reported:

Ali Rabiei, a spokesperson for the Iranian government, complained from his Twitter account on Monday this week about the disappearance of social media discussions about Soleimani, accusing Instagram of acting “undemocratic and unashamed.”

Much of the coverage has centered on the fact that Instagram is one of the few social media networks not widely restricted in Iran—thus, the blackout serves as a way of censoring information going into Iran. In fact, the US government news agency Voice of America (1/7/20) reported that the Iranian government was clamping down on social media posts too critical of Soleimani, and NBC News (8/21/19) reported on how Iranians used networks like Instagram to skirt government regulation. (The irony here is thick.)

Facebook says that in order to comply with US sanctions laws, it “removes posts that commend the actions of sanctioned parties” (CNN, 1/13/20).

But this news has also gotten journalists and press advocates worried about what this means for free speech and the First Amendment in the United States. On the one hand, as a private company, Facebook is free to make its own rules about acceptable content. Yet if the network is removing content because it believes it is required to do so by law, that is government censorship—and forbidden by the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of the press.

Shayana Kadidal, a senior managing attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told FAIR that while it was possible for the US government to restrict media companies from coordinating with sanctioned entities and providing “material support” to the IRGC, the US government cannot restrict Americans from engaging in what he called “independent advocacy.”

“Independent advocacy, as the law stands, can’t be banned,” he said. “For [Instagram] to remove every single post would mean it was pulling posts that are protected.”

The Washington Post (1/13/20) reported that free speech advocates were worried, with the director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation calling it “legally wrong.” Others concurred:

Eliza Campbell, associate director at the Cyber Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, [said] that the existing laws had failed to keep up with online speech, calling it a field of law “that hasn’t been written quite yet.”

“The terrorist designation system is an important tool, but it’s also a blunt instrument,” she said. “I think we’re walking down a dangerous path when we afford these platforms—which are private entities, have no oversight, and are not elected bodies—to essentially dictate policy, which is what’s happening right now.”

Emerson T. Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, [said] that Facebook and Instagram are taking “a very aggressive position and it may not be sustainable.” He said it could result in Facebook removing any speech of any Iranian mourning Soleimani’s death and could represent a “harsh new precedent.”

In the wake of the Soleimani assassination, the wrong joke can be career-ending (New York Times, 1/11/20).

Regardless of whether the government directed Facebook to take this action, the fact that a media company felt the need to do so is proof of a chilling effect on speech. Who, specifically, is to decide what is so unabashedly pro-Soleimani material that it violates US sanctions? Is an article that merely acknowledges that many Iranians mourned Soleimani and denounced his killing a violation? Is an anti-war editorial that doesn’t sufficiently assert Soleimani was “no angel” constitute such a crime? Could satirical material that facetiously supported the Tehran regime get censored? (The last item isn’t so hypothetical: A Babson College professor was fired for jokingly encouraging Iran to follow Trump’s lead by targeting US cultural sites.)

All of these questions, and all this ambiguity, should be enough evidence that this kind of censorship would be capricious and unfairly applied, and thus inappropriate in the face of free speech protections.

Free press advocates in the United States should think seriously in the coming days about how to respond. If sanctions can be invoked by a social media network to take down certain content, what is next? In order not to find out, we’ll need a concerted pushback to Facebook’s censorship from journalists and civil libertarians.

You can send a message to Facebook via Twitter: @Facebook (or @Instagram). Remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your message in the comments thread of this post.

CNN’s Sanders Hit Piece Doesn’t Pass the Smell Test

by Dave Lindorff

CNN (1/13/19) has an anonymously sourced hit piece out today on Bernie Sanders, claiming that at a meeting in Elizabeth Warren’s home on December 18, 2018, he told her “a woman can’t win” the presidency.

The article, by CNN correspondent MJ Lee, is so journalistically shoddy that someone reading only the first few paragraphs would end up believing that it is a fact that the current top-polling candidate for the February 3 Iowa Caucus actually said that. Never is Sanders’ “quote” prefaced with the term “allegedly.”

None of the four anonymous staffers/friends making the charge of Sanders sexism were actually witnesses who were apparently in the room that day. Two, according to Lee, spoke to Warren “shortly after” that meeting. The other two “sources” were described only as people who “knew about the meeting.”

CNN (1/13/19) on Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren: Let’s you and him fight.

Sanders issued a blistering denial to CNN, saying, “It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win.” He added:

It’s sad that, three weeks before the Iowa caucus and a year after that private conversation, staff who weren’t in the room are lying about what happened. What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could. Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016.

So far, Warren has not commented on the story, either to confirm or deny it.

The timing of this poorly sourced and poorly written story, appearing the day of a crucial candidates’ debate and days before the start of the actual primary season on a network that has been hostile to or dismissive of Sanders for years, is a journalistic outrage.

On its face, the claim allegedly made by Lee’s four anonymous sources makes no sense. Sanders is in fact on the record as far back as 1988, saying, “In my view, a woman could be elected president of the United States.” As Sanders points out in his debunking of CNN’s story, since then a woman has actually won the popular vote for the presidency;  Hillary Clinton, whom Sanders campaigned for, could have won the electoral college as well, if she hadn’t neglected campaigning in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

1988,@BernieSanders, backing Jackson:”The real issue is not whether you’re black or white, whether you’re a woman or a man *in my view, a woman could be elected POTUS* The real issue is are you on the side of workers & poor ppl, or are you on the side of big money &corporations?” pic.twitter.com/VHmfzvyJdy

— Every nimble plane is a policy failure. (@KindAndUnblind) January 13, 2020

Why were CNN’s sources allowed to makes such an explosive, far-fetched claim anonymously? Anonymity is most justifiably granted to protect sources from retaliation for revealing damaging information about their superiors; would Warren staffers (assuming they were the source) be fired for giving an accurate account of their candidate’s conversation? When corporate media withhold the names of sources to allow them to make attacks against rivals without political consequences, that is an abuse of anonymous sourcing.

Sanders is clearly alarming powerful elements of America’s ruling elite: corporate executives who fear what is now being considered a possible Sanders presidency, and Democratic Party leaders who fear a Sanders presidential nomination will cut the party off from the river of cash it and its favored candidates have been collecting for decades from major industrial sectors, from Wall Street to Hollywood to the arms industry and the healthcare industrial complex. Not to mention the corporate media that are backed by ads from all these sectors.

This hit piece has the feel of the kind of attack that Sanders supporter Norman Solomon (Common Dreams, 12/27/19) warned of once Sanders’ polling began taking off and he could no longer be simply ignored.

Messages to CNN can be sent here (or via Twitter @CNN). 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.


For Western Press, the Only Coup in Venezuela Is Against Guaidó 


The Washington Post (1/5/20) described Venezuelan lawmakers voting against someone other than Washington’s chosen candidate to head the assembly as “sedition within the opposition.”

The international corporate media have entered crisis mode following the replacement of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as head of the country’s National Assembly.

In headline after headline, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro “Takes Over” (NBC, 1/6/20), “Claims Control of” (New York Times, 1/5/20; CNBC, 1/6/20) or “Seizes” (Reuters, 1/5/20; NPR, 1/6/20) parliament, and “Ousts” Guaidó (Wall Street Journal, 1/5/20) in the process.

The Washington Post (1/5/20) takes this hysteria to another level, hyperbolically proclaiming that “Venezuela’s Last Democratic Institution Falls as Maduro Attempts De Facto Takeover of National Assembly.”

Such headlines obscure the elementary if inconvenient fact that Guaidó failed to secure the necessary votes from his own coalition’s deputies to continue as president of the legislature, leading him to convene a parallel, ad hoc session in the offices of the right-wing El Nacional newspaper.

Serving up state propaganda

Corporate journalists repeat unceasingly the US State Department talking point that the January 5 assembly election, which chose Luis Parra as the legislative body’s new president, was “phony” because Guaidó and his loyalists were barred from attending the session, rendering the vote void.

“Venezuela’s socialist government installed a new head of Congress on Sunday after armed troops blocked opposition legislators from entering parliament,” Reuters (1/5/20) misinformed readers.

As Venezuelanalysis (1/5/20) reported, this narrative was refuted by pro-Guaidó lawmaker William Davila, who, after strolling in to the legislature, told press that with few exceptions, virtually all deputies were permitted to take their seats. Other senior opposition lawmakers, including the outgoing first and second vice presidents of the body, were visibly present inside the parliament.

New York Times

Moreover, video evidence reveals that Guaidó was not himself “prevented,” as the New York Times (1/5/20) had it, from entering the legislature, but rather refused to do so except in the company of fellow lawmakers whose parliamentary immunity had been revoked for alleged criminal offenses. Likely knowing he did not have the votes to secure reelection, Guaidó appears to have declined to attend the session, going as far as to scale a fence in a publicity stunt widely reported by Western outlets that all but ignored the crucial facts behind the day’s events.

Corporate media followed up their lie that the pro-Guaidó opposition was banned from parliament with the dubious claim that the subsequent vote held in the offices of El Nacional was “official.” The Washington Post (1/5/20) matter-of-factly stated, “In a 100-to-0 tally — enough to put him over the top in a full session of the 167-seat chamber — those present reelected Guaidó as head of the legislature.” The reporters evidently neglected to inspect the actual vote tally, which contained glaring irregularities such as votes by legislators abroad fleeing criminal charges, as well as those cast by substitutes for deputies who had already voted for Parra. As even hard-right, Miami-based journalist Patricia Polea highlighted, Jose Regnault Hernandez, the substitute for newly sworn-in National Assembly Second Vice President Jose Gregorio Noriega, was allowed to vote for Guaidó despite Noriega having himself stood for election on a rival ticket earlier that afternoon.

It is also deeply ironic that Western outlets would rush to declare the legitimacy of an irregular vote held in the offices of a local newspaper, given the lengths they have gone to deny the existence of press freedom in Venezuela (FAIR.org, 5/20/19).

Why isn’t Guaidó in jail?

Procedural formalities aside, the real question, which corporate journalists will never ask, is why an opposition figure who arbitrarily declared himself “interim president” with the backing of hostile foreign powers, and who urged the military to rise up to install him in the presidential office, would be permitted to set foot outside a jail cell in Venezuela, let alone stand for reelection as head of parliament?

The answer would require admitting that this naked violation of sovereignty is only tolerated because of the constant threat of lawless imperial violence, which US corporate media enthusiastically cheerlead against other independent Global South states like Iran.

Instead, Western journalists continue to whitewash the US-sponsored coup–the sixth major attempt since 2002–impugning Maduro’s democratically elected government as “authoritarian” or a “dictatorship” (FAIR.org, 4/11/198/5/19), which is newspeak for “legitimate target for bombing and/or murderous sanctions.”

Throwing to the wind any semblance of neutrality, the New York Times (1/5/20) reported:

Venezuela’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro, moved on Sunday to consolidate his grip on power by taking control of the country’s last independent institution and sidelining the lawmaker who had staked a rival claim to the presidency.

“The political chaos comes at a time when Venezuela is facing economic collapse,” the paper of record added, bolstering the rationale for Maduro’s overthrow. “Hunger is widespread, and millions have fled the country.”  Like most corporate media (FAIR.org, 6/26/19), the Times reflexively avoided mention of US economic sanctions’ role in severely exacerbating the crisis and killing tens of thousands since 2017, writing off the illegal, inhumane measures as “sanctions on Mr. Maduro’s government.”

For the corporate press, it would appear that the only “coup” is that perpetrated by Maduro in insisting on serving out his elected mandate (Washington Post, 1/6/20; Wall Street Journal, 1/6/20; Forbes, 1/7/20).

Concealing corruption

In their elegies to the “last democratic institution in the authoritarian South American state” (Washington Post, 1/5/20), Western journalists rarely attribute Guaidó any significant blame for the perceived debacle.

Despite acknowledging Guaidó’s falling popularity, following his utter failure to oust Maduro, mainstream outlets have turned a blind eye to the opposition leader’s string of humiliating scandals. Guaidó has been linked to Colombian paramilitary drug lords, while his inner circle has been accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid funds, among other illicit acts.

The CBC (1/6/20) has never referred to Juan Guaido as a “would-be president.”

Tellingly, the only corruption allegations mentioned in the latest corporate coverage are those against Parra and his dissident opposition colleagues. Making little effort to conceal its bias, CBC (1/6/20) describes the new National Assembly president as “a previously unknown backbencher mired in accusations of bribe-taking,” whose “rambling comments” were challenged by journalists.

The double standard is striking, given that Western media have devoted strenuous efforts over the past year to anointing a “previously unknown backbencher” as president of Venezuela. The attacks on Parra comes amid threats of US sanctions against him and other opposition politicians who broke with Guaidó. The blatant imperial blackmail recalls similar US threats reportedly issued against opposition presidential candidate Henri Falcón, who defied the opposition’s 2018 electoral boycott that paved the way for the current coup efforts.

Corporate journalists’ discouragement over Guaidó’s failures (FAIR.org, 7/23/19) is becoming ever more pronounced (e.g., Reuters, 12/3/19; Washington Post, 12/17/19; New York Times, 1/6/20). But at the end of the day, they have simply invested too much in this smooth, technocratic figure to fundamentally fault him, let alone actually question the imperial regime-change machinery that produced him and his elite coterie.

Gregory Shupak on Iran Assassination, Brett Hartl on Biodiversity Loss

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NBC image of Iranians mourning Qassem Soleimani (photo: Atta Kenare/AFP)

Having assassinated a top Iranian official, the Trump White House blocked Iran’s Foreign minister from coming to the UN to talk about it; and sent Defense Secretary Mark Esper out with the playground-ready position that the US isn’t looking “to start a war with Iran, but we are prepared to finish one,” while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, fresh off lying that Trump hadn’t threatened Iranian cultural sites, huffed that “there’s been much made about this question of intelligence and imminence” when reporters dared to broach the matter of legal justification. The overt saber-rattling may be slowing now, but is that any thanks to media? Does it even mean an end to violence? We’ll talk about coverage of the Iran crisis with Gregory Shupak; he teaches media studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto, and is author of The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media, from OR Books.

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Kangaroo fleeing wildfire

Also on the show:  Along with 25 people, more than a billion mammals, birds and reptiles are now thought to have been killed by the wildfires in Australia, directly and from starvation, dehydration or habitat loss. And anyone not invested, financially or otherwise, in fossil fuels accepts that the scale of the nightmare is an effect of climate disruption. But even as it sinks in that severe disincentives are needed to take the glow off the dollar signs in some people’s eyes, the Trump White House is pulling out the stops, seeking to absolve federal agencies from even considering effects of climate disruption on projects like logging or pipelines. We’ll talk with Brett Hartl from the Council on Biological Diversity about the frontal assault on what’s called the Magna Carta of environmental protections.

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From Resistance to Assistance: Little Pushback to Trump’s Iran Assassination


Qassem Soleimani (cc photo: Sayyed Shahab Odin Vajedi)

After Donald Trump’s election, both the New York Times and Washington Post saw huge jumps in subscribers, all hoping that the outlets would hold the president to account. Both papers tapped into this sentiment: In February 2017, the Post adopted the motto “Democracy Dies in Darkness” on its masthead; Times ads have used the slogan, “The truth is more important now than ever.”

Trump has played his part, attacking media that bother him as “failing,” and reportedly telling all federal agencies in October to cancel their Times and Post subscriptions.

Yet when the president does indeed carry out dangerous, aggressive actions, such as the assassination of Iranian general and political leader Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on January 3, “resistance” turns to assistance from the corporate press. FAIR studied every editorial and opinion piece on Soleimani’s killing published by the two newspapers, from the attack until January 7 (around three dozen articles), and found their pushback to Trump’s actions to be distinctly limited.

‘Indisputably an enemy’

Some of the millions of people (BBC, 1/6/20) who turned out for the funeral of Qassem Soleimani, whom no one thought “was a great guy the world will miss” (New York Times, 1/7/20).

Opinion writers and editorial boards took great pains to emphasize the disgust and contempt they held for Soleimani, a “terrorist mastermind” (Washington Post, 1/6/20) “as evil as Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Bahdadi” (Washington Post, 1/3/20). As Gail Collins wrote in the New York Times (1/7/20), “There seems to be a wide range of opinions about Soleimani, none of which are that he was a great guy the world will miss.” The millions of people who attended his funeral may beg to differ; two-thirds of Iranians rated him “very favorably,” according to a 2018 University of Maryland poll.

Some people in Lebanon and Yemen who received his support against foreign aggression, and citizens of Iraq and Syria who no longer live under the ISIS caliphate he helped defeat, may also have a perspective on Soleimani that went largely unrepresented in leading US papers. As Noam Chomsky (Truthout, 1/7/20) remarked of Iraqi Kurds:

They have not forgotten that when the huge, heavily armed US-trained Iraqi army quickly collapsed, and the Kurdish capital of Erbil, then Baghdad and all of Iraq were about to fall in the hands of ISIS, it was Soleimani and the Iraqi Shia militias he organized that saved the country.

Don’t believe Iranian propaganda, says an employee of the US propaganda service (Washington Post, 1/6/20).

There was little deviation in the Times or Post from the idea that Soleimani was an “evil” (New York Times, 1/3/20, 1/7/20; Washington Post, 1/6/20), “blood-soaked” (New York Times, 1/4/20) “terrorist” (New York Times, 1/3/20) who “had it coming” (New York Times, 1/4/20), a monster comparable to Nazi Holocaust leaders (Washington Post, 1/6/20). For New York Times columnist Bret Stephens (1/3/20), certain Nazis were, in fact, too good to be compared to Soleimani: “To think of him as a worthy adversary — an Iranian Erwin Rommel — is wrong,” he wrote. Meanwhile, Thomas Friedman (New York Times, 1/3/20) labeled him “the dumbest man in Iran and the most overrated strategist in the Middle East.”

The chief reason for Soleimani’s nefariousness, the Times editorial board (1/3/20) explained, was that he was “indisputably an enemy of the American people…and an architect of international terrorism responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans.” The claim that Soleimani had killed hundreds of Americans was repeated, word for word, in many articles in the papers of record (e.g., New York Times, 1/7/20; Washington Post, 1/3/20, 1/3/20) as well as across the media (e.g., Boston Globe, 1/3/20; Fox News, 1/6/20; The Hill, 1/7/20).

These “hundreds of Americans” were US forces killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) during the Iraq War, supposedly made in Iran and planted by Iranian-backed Shia militias. As professor Stephen Zunes pointed out in the Progressive (1/7/20), the Pentagon provided no evidence that Iran made the IEDs, other than the far-fetched claim that they were too sophisticated to be made in Iraq—even though the US invasion had been justified by claims that Iraq had an incredibly threatening WMD program. The made-in-Iran claim, in turn, was the main basis for pinning responsibility for IED attacks on Shia militias—which were, in any case, sanctioned by the Iraqi government, making Baghdad more answerable for their actions than anyone in Tehran. Last year, Gareth Porter reported in Truthout, (7/9/19) that the claim that Iran was behind the deaths of US troops was part of Vice President Dick Cheney’s plan to build a case for yet another war.

Even if one is inclined, against all experience, to take US claims about an official enemy on faith, the language that Soleimani killed “hundreds of Americans” is a deliberately nebulous. American what—children? Civilians? Indeed not. The allegation is that he targeted US troops or “contractors”—i.e., mercenaries—stationed not at home, but in a region on the other side of the world that the US illegally attacked and has occupied for most of this century. “Soleimani provided effective military resistance to foreign occupying forces,” though, sounds very different from “killed hundreds of Americans.”

Minor quibbles about protocol

In a characteristic formulation, the Washington Post (1/3/20) argued that Soleimani was “an implacable enemy of the United States” responsible for “countless atrocities”—but complained that Trump “has yet to offer any explanation” of why his killing was “in America’s strategic interest.”

In the papers studied, the majority of articles carried a similar, cookie-cutter structure: agree that Soleimani was a bad guy and deserved to be killed, but worry about the consequences and criticize the president on technical grounds. The Times’ editorial board (1/3/20) wrote that “the real question” wasn’t whether Soleimani’s killing “was justified, but whether it was wise.” Meanwhile, the Post (1/3/20) made exactly the same point: “Yes, Soleimani Was an Enemy,” the editorial board declared. “That Doesn’t Mean Trump Made the Right Call.”

Criticism of the government’s actions was largely limited to worrying it might escalate tensions and spark a hot war—something for which US corporate media have been laying the groundwork for months (FAIR.org, 7/2/19) if not years (Extra!, 3/12). Complaints included that the US lacked a clear grand strategy (New York Times, 1/7/20), that it was a “rash and shortsighted” (Washington Post, 1/6/20), that there were “no more adults in the room” (New York Times, 1/6/20), that it would “bolster” the Iranian regime (New York Times, 1/6/20) or could “trigger a bigger conflict” (Washington Post, 1/3/20) that risks “ensnaring” the US in a wider encounter (Washington Post, 1/6/20). (In corporate media mythology, the United States is always an innocent party getting accidentally trapped into going to war, rather than actively pursuing it—FAIR.org, 6/22/17.)

The Times and Post offered some meager objections based on congressional technicalities. “Why didn’t the White House alert senior Democrats in Congress, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi?” asked the Times (1/3/20). The Post (1/6/20, 1/6/20) made similar criticisms, as if had Trump done so, there would be no legal issues with killing a foreign leader in another country.

There were some exceptions. Law scholar Karen Greenberg (New York Times, 1/6/20) wrote that the general’s killing was illegal and an “inevitable outcome of our dangerous ‘war on terror’ policy.” Iranian-American writer Azadeh Moaveni worried about the effect of war on Iran and noted that Soleimani was considered a “war hero” inside the Islamic Republic (New York Times, 1/6/20).

Opposition to war from the Times’ regular columnists was more about who was carrying it out. Michelle Goldberg (1/6/20), condemning Trump’s “unstable” actions, presented Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis as a moderating force, although she did note that, “To Iranians, after all, America is the aggressor.” Paul Krugman (1/6/20), meanwhile, acknowledged that Iranians would not accept Trump’s right to kill their leaders, but also claimed that before Trump, the US was “relatively trustworthy” and “clearly stood for global rule of law,” always behaving as “no more than first among equals.”

But across the spectrum of dozens of articles in America’s two most influential newspapers, there was little difference in outlook. Contempt for the commander in chief? Sure. But scrutiny of the state? Not so much. As Stephens reminded Times readers, “What shouldn’t be in doubt is the justice.”

Embarrassing predictions

America’s most overrated columnist was not impressed (New York Times, 1/3/20).

With all the confidence of White Star Line Executives in 1912 proclaiming HMS Titanic unsinkable, opinion columnists in our most influential media made a number of utterly terrible predictions or assertions that were immediately disproven.

The Times editorial board, echoing official claims, wrote that Soleimani likely “had come to Iraq in part to plot the next move against United States military personnel or civilians.” In reality, he had been invited to attend regional peace talks with Saudi Arabia by the Iraqi prime minister, who had personally asked Trump for permission for Soleimani to attend. Trump agreed, then used the opportunity to assassinate him.

Less than two days later, the Iraqi parliament voted overwhelmingly to expel all US forces from Iraq, which made Times top columnist Thomas Friedman’s assertion that protests against the US embassy in Baghdad were staged to “make it look as if Iraqis wanted America out when in fact it was the other way around” seem distinctly foolish.

Meanwhile, both the Post (1/3/20) and the Times (1/3/20) published articles confidently predicting that “the killing will have the effect of deterring further Iranian attacks on Americans, such as the rocket strike that killed a US contractor at an Iraqi base last week,” and that Iran “will prefer to tread lightly,” with the assassination “bring[ing] a sense of realism to the Islamic Republic’s thinking.” Needless to say, the dozens of Iranian rockets raining down on US bases in Iraq have proven these predictions woefully incorrect.

While corporate media like to present themselves as holding the current administration to account, in reality they offer little meaningful resistance to its foreign policy adventures. As with Trump’s efforts to overthrow the governments of Venezuela and Bolivia (see FAIR.org, 1/25/19, 11/15/19, 11/26/19), media are essentially lining up shoulder to shoulder with the president. When it comes to opposing or even questioning an aggressive foreign policy, the resistance is useless.


Steady Hand Joe - Turning Biden's support for Iraq War into foreign policy 'experience'


For pundits, what makes a politician strong on foreign policy? Apparently doing something for a long time matters more than honesty and good judgment—and it helps if the bad choices made are the same ones corporate media have cheered.

With Donald Trump’s recent assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, foreign policy has taken the spotlight in the presidential race. But despite Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s prominent role in leading the US into the disastrous Iraq War, and his recent stream of lies and equivocations about why he supported it and when he began to reverse his position, many pundits continue to uncritically paint Biden as “mature” or a “steady hand” on foreign policy.

It shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise: When Barack Obama tapped Biden as his running mate in 2008, pundits lauded the choice as “shoring up” Obama’s “weakness” on foreign policy. It was precisely because of Biden’s initial support for the Iraq War (which Obama had opposed) that media observers saw him as a serious foreign policy thinker, given that those same media observers likewise initially supported the war (FAIR.org, 8/27/08).

In recent days on the campaign trail, Biden has touted his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, while Bernie Sanders has hammered Biden on his Iraq vote. (Sanders voted against the war authorization.) On NBC‘s Meet the Press (1/5/20), Chuck Todd contrasted Biden and Sanders, wondering if

voters are going to look at this on the Democratic side of the aisle and say, “Steady hand, Joe Biden,” or, how about the guy who was always against the interventions here? I don’t think we know how Democratic voters are going to react.

Perhaps not—though more Democratic voters are troubled by Biden’s past support for the Iraq War than reassured by it. But by uncritically labeling Biden—who changed both his position on the Iraq War and his story about that position—as a “steady hand” on foreign policy, Todd certainly boosts the narrative Biden is hoping for.

That same sort of uncritical framing of experience as strength came out on the PBS NewsHour (1/6/20), where the New York Times‘ Lisa Lerer opined:

But I do think this could strengthen the hand of two men that have been leading the polls for a while, that have been rising in the limited data we have since the holidays, which is Joe Biden, who can run very strongly on his experience in foreign policy, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s really staked out ground as the liberal messenger, sort of the anti-interventionist face of the party.

Later in the show, when Judy Woodruff asked David Brooks and Mark Shields which candidates benefit from the escalation with Iran, both named Biden; Shields argued that Biden “offers stability and maturity and knowledge.”

On MSNBC (1/3/20), Steve Kornacki asked Mieke Eoyang of the centrist think tank Third Way:

Is there an advantage, perhaps, for Joe Biden, just given his depth of experience in the United States Senate and as vice president, compared to, say, Pete Buttigieg, who’s only been the mayor of South Bend, which hasn’t necessarily dealt with these many foreign policy issues?

Teed up nicely, Eoyang took the shot for Biden:

He’s actually been very thoughtful about how American national security policy can target people who are bad while not trying to get us dragged into full-on wars. I don’t think there are other candidates who have that kind of experience. And so if the American electorate is really concerned about the president’s reckless moves, and are looking for someone who’s a steadying, grown-up hand on foreign policy, that’s Joe Biden. That’s, frankly, why Barack Obama picked him as his vice president.

How Iraq—arguably the biggest foreign policy issue of his career—fits into Biden’s thoughtfulness about not getting us “dragged into full-on wars” is far from clear.

Then-Sen. Joe Biden speaking in favor of the resolution authorizing force against Iraq (CSPAN2, 10/10/02).

The problem with the media coverage of Biden on foreign policy isn’t limited to thoughtless boosting; since at least July, Biden has been trying to rewrite his Iraq War history, with only sporadic and halfhearted media pushback. In the July debate, Biden was asked about his October 2002 vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq; he responded with an outlandish claim: “From the moment ‘shock and awe’ started, from that moment, I was opposed to the effort, and I was outspoken as much as anyone at all in the Congress.”

It was an obvious falsehood; Biden continued to defend his vote until more than three years later (Meet the Press, 11/27/05), when he first called it a “mistake”—and even then, not because the war itself was wrong, but because “we went too soon. We went without sufficient force. And we went without a plan.” (At that point, support for the war had tanked to the point where people who believed the Iraq War wasn’t worth it outnumbered those who thought it was by 2-to-1.)

But the media silence was remarkable. In one of the few post-debate references to the Iraq discussion, the Washington Post‘s Anne Applebaum (8/4/19) complained that Iraq was old news:

The glancing references to the Middle East mostly involved posturing about the past—specifically about how the candidates did or didn’t support the Iraq War more than 16 years ago.

Biden upped the ante on his tall tales in interviews in early September (e.g., RealClearPolitics, 9/11/19; NPR, 9/3/19), and brought the even more brazen revision to the national stage in the September debate, claiming he only voted for the war authorization “to allow inspectors to go in to determine whether or not anything was being done with chemical weapons or nuclear weapons.”

That finally prompted a few media factchecks (e.g., Washington Post, 9/9/19; Slate, 9/4/19) that challenged Biden’s blatant fabrication (though the Post generously suggested that Biden “would be on more solid ground if he simply called himself a war critic.”) In fact, Iraq had announced in September 2002 its willingness to allow in inspectors without conditions—almost a month before Biden cast his vote. Inspections began in November, and the inspectors were not pulled out until March, when Bush announced he was about to launch his war.

But Biden was also never interested in letting inspectors do their work; when former chief UN inspector Scott Ritter testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1998 about his work—telling the committee that the US was undermining inspections—Biden scoffed:

I think you and I believe, and many of us believe here, as long as Saddam’s at the helm, there is no reasonable prospect you or any other inspector is ever going to be able to guarantee that we have rooted out, root and branch, the entirety of Saddam’s program relative to weapons of mass destruction. And you and I both know, and all of us here really know, and it’s a thing we have to face, that the only way, the only way we’re going to get rid of Saddam Hussein, is we’re going to end up having to start it alone.

It’s difficult, of course, for corporate media to scrutinize Biden too carefully on the inspectors issue—with a long record of garbling the inspection story (Extra! Update, 10/02), of letting politicians lie about inspections (FAIR.org, 12/2/08) and of hiding behind the inspectors to excuse their own role in leading the country into war (Extra! Update, 10/06).

The New York TimesSydney Ember and Katie Glueck (1/6/20) report that Bernie “Sanders’ dovish stances and his emphasis on domestic matters could…weaken his standing among Americans who are clamoring for an experienced hand in the international arena at a moment of global turmoil”—whereas Joe Biden is “perhaps at his most fluent and comfortable when discussing international affairs.”

The occasional media factchecks fail to substantially shift the coverage, as media outlets seem to view factchecking as relieving journalists of the obligation to routinely test the veracity of sources’ statements (Extra!, 11–12/04). To the New York Times (1/6/19), Biden’s changing stories don’t get in the way of their judgment that he “is perhaps at his most fluent and comfortable when discussing international affairs”; near the very end, the paper allowed that Biden’s “remarks about when his opposition to the [Iraq] war began” were found by CNN to “be misleading.”

In a piece headlined “Biden Touts His Foreign Policy Credentials, but Faces Doubts,” the Washington Post (1/6/20) only meekly challenged Biden’s claim to have opposed the Iraq War “from the very moment” it started, noting that “the record suggests he supported it initially.” The article went on to take at face value Biden’s recent claim about Bush promising Biden he only wanted to get authority to send in inspectors,  though labeling it an answer that “seemed to undercut his argument about how savvy he is on the international stage.”

The Post was not alone: the Associated Press (1/7/20) and LA Times (1/8/20) also repeated that recent Biden claim without challenge.

If journalists were consistently calling out Biden’s Iraq War lies—not to mention reminding viewers and readers that the war cost hundreds of thousands of human lives, aside from a financial cost in the trillions of dollars—their worn-out tropes about Biden’s foreign policy “steadiness” would be incredibly difficult to sustain.


Greasing the Gears of the Armageddon Engine - Reporting on ‘Wexit’ shows how not to cover extremist movements

by Frank Black

Remember how most reporters covered that Canadian Islamic separatist movement?

You know the one: It wanted to seize control of the entire provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, along with their oil fields, and create a republic with its own national borders, constitution, laws, and military. Its two main leaders accused Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government of promoting pedophilia and trying to eliminate the Muslim population of Canada; one was a “journalist” with few if any searchable publications, and the other was a former RCMP officer convicted of threatening his wife, and who ran a lobby group that posted billboards during the 2019 federal election accusing the federal government of stoking a civil war under the sway of “globalism,” which Haaretz (3/13/18) notes is a classic antisemitic dogwhistle favored by Steve Bannon. That’s the same federal election in which Trudeau took what the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation  (10/13/19) called the “unprecedented” campaign precaution of donning a bulletproof vest at one stop.

Of course you don’t remember that, because none of it ever happened. Obviously, if it had happened, every news outlet worth its ink and megabytes would have exhaustively reported on such a clear harbinger of violence and threat to national unity.

But…what if the separatists weren’t Muslims? What if they were Christian, Euro-Canadian settlers calling themselves “Wexit” (for “Western Exit”—because, given the clear success of Brexit, what rational person wouldn’t want to emulate it)?

Vice (10/30/19) exposed the racist conspiracy theories of the leading proponents of “Wexit.”

So how good is the reporting that Canadian media been doing on an actual national-unity threat led by paranoid, bigoted and even violent separatists? If you’re looking at Vice Media Canada, the answer is, “A good job.” Here’s how that outlet’s Steven Zhou (10/30/19) describes the situation:

Two main organizers behind #Wexit, the campaign calling for Canada’s prairie provinces to secede, have a prolific history of pushing far-right and anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.

Over the past year, Peter Downing, an ex-RCMP officer, and Patrick King, a self-styled journalist, have accused Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government of “normalizing pedophilia,” tolerating ISIS terrorists penetrating the country apparently disguised as refugees, and pursuing an immigration policy aimed to “depopulate the white, Anglo-Saxon race.”

The last reference is to the white supremacist fantasy of “white replacement,” also called “the great replacement” and “white extinction,” an obsession of the fascist marchers chanting “Jews will not replace us!” at the deadly 2017 Charlottesville rally. GQ (6/21/19) explored how the mass-murderer at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue “wrote online that he believed [the synagogue’s Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] were working to ‘bring invaders in that kill our people,’” and that the white supremacist who murdered more than 50 people at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand,

described immigration as “assault on the European people,” and wrote in a manifesto that, “This is ethnic replacement. This is cultural replacement. This is racial replacement. This is WHITE GENOCIDE.”

So how well have the rest of the media, particularly Canadian media, been reporting on an actual national unity threat led by peddlers of paranoid, sometimes violence-stoking nightmares such as “white replacement”?

On the whole, not well. The CBC’s Sarah Rieger (11/17/19), explaining that the Wexiteers are forming a provincial and federal party to run across Western Canada, wrote that Wexit leader Peter Downing ran for the federal Christian Heritage Party in 2015, but doesn’t note that article 25 the CHP’s current platform hysterically rails against the “threats” of halal meat and “Sharia Law,” which RightWingWatch.org (5/15/15) explores as yet another Islamophobic auto-repeat lie. But it’s not until the 16th paragraph she explains that the RCMP suspended Downing for threatening his wife, and the 17th paragraph before she reveals

the party has been accused of allowing conspiracy theories or other harmful rhetoric to circulate online. On social media, Downing has railed against “crybaby liberal reporters,” “communist creeps and bums in Eastern Canada” and “beta males.”

The CBC (11/17/19) allows a Wexit leader to frame the issue as “not about white supremacy” but about “Western Canadians stand up for their rights and aren’t going to be pushed around anymore.”

Rieger’s hyperlink is to her own earlier article (11/4/19), which doesn’t describe or quote that “harmful rhetoric,” but does note that Downing “is exploring legal options against those who have described the group as promoting white supremacist and anti-Muslim rhetoric” (despite the oft-professed love of “free speech” from the ultra-right). As Vice reminds us:

Downing insists that his movement is not racist. But a closer look at the comments made in the #Wexit Facebook groups and pages reveal racist, often violent discussions that mirror the same far-right views that Downing and King present—some comparing Muslims to termites and rapists.

If the Wexiteers were Islamic, xenophobic, would-be oil-seizing nation-splitters, and were led by a man with similar “credentials,” does anyone believe the CBC would have buried such information in the 16th and 17th paragraphs?

CBC’s failure on this file isn’t a first; as FAIR (1/10/19) has reported, “Weeks after a white supremacist murder an anti-racist protester in Charlottesville”—and about eight months after a Euro-Canadian terrorist murdered six people at a mosque in Quebec City—“the CBC (9/17/17) ran an essay denouncing ‘QTPOC supremacy’—the idea that queer, trans people of color “deserve to dominate society.” Ignoring and decontextualizing is bad enough, but spreading paranoia about marginalized people during the rise of murderous, networked, international fascism is profoundly irresponsible for a press that seeks to guarantee liberty by presenting reality.

Sometimes CBC does a far better job, as with Drew Anderson’s excellent analysis (11/16/19), whose first paragraph quotes Downing’s goal of “excising the ‘parasite of Eastern Canada,’” and by the fourth paragraph includes Downing saying, “Anybody who stands in the way of Western self-determination, Alberta self-determination, you’re our enemy and we’re going to run you over,” a line reminiscent of the 2017 murder-by-car of Heather Heyer at Charlottesville.

Anderson notes that a disturbing post-election Ipsos poll (11/5/19) of Albertans revealed 33% of respondents favored separatism, and explains the parallels with Louisiana Tea Partiers whose “collective psyche” contained

a story that was outside the realm of reason, one based on emotion and perception that formed an almost-unbreakable conviction in their worldview…. You can see it in the rise of anti-immigrant groups and those labeling Trudeau a traitor. That sort of fear and anxiety, when combined with politics, can be powerful. But that power, like the story which feeds it, does not necessarily trade in facts.

PressProgress (11/6/19) explored the actual politics of “the right-wing Alberta separatist group that has enjoyed extensive media coverage following last month’s federal election.”

Anderson’s piece aligns with an article by nonprofit news outlet PressProgress (11/6/19), which explains that the Christian Heritage Party, for whom Downing once ran, “advocates Canada should be governed according to Biblical Law.” (Islamic theocracy is doubleplusungood, but Christian theocracy is doubleplusgood.) Exploring what freedom warriors have in mind for women in their oily, prairie Gilead, Anderson writes that

Wexit Alberta’s platform also takes a peculiar interest in rewriting divorce laws. The group says it would “alleviate courtroom backlogs and prioritize serious criminal cases through deregulating divorce and matrimonial property disputes.” While it is unclear what “deregulating divorce” means, they elaborate that they want to remove “judicial prejudice against men in family court.”

PressProgress further explores Wexiteerian goals such as

“outlawing groups whose primary objective or effect is racial agitation, or social chaos.” In addition to cracking down on “racial agitation,” the new Republic of Alberta would also seemingly take aim at fly-in fly-out oil field workers from places like Newfoundland and the Maritimes. The platform suggests using the powers of government to maintain a “100% Alberta resident work-force.”

By asking Mount Royal University journalism professor Sean Holman for his analysis of the Wexitopians, Anderson gives readers an expert’s contextual, historical take:

We’re seeing, I think, a really troubling situation in Alberta, and we’re seeing it with [the United Conservative Party provincial] government, where those on the right in this province are actively creating in and out groups in society—people who are scapegoats, people who are enemies, and people who are part of society…. That is dangerous, and Wexit is part of that.

Unfortunately, such indispensable contextual analysis is absent in Andrew Kurjata’s CBC article (10/26/19), which discusses a “Northern British Columbia Wexit” and a Western “sense of anger at Trudeau’s re-election”; the piece names Downing, and provides links to an audio clip called “Conservative voter panel on Wexit, electoral reform, and how the party should win the next election,” and another called “A conversation with the leader of the BC Wexit movement.” But Kurjata is silent on all the previously cited disturbing elements, and offers no links to audio clips analyzing and naming the extremism for what it is. Nor does his piece place Wexit in the international context of Brexit, Trumpism and white nationalism.

“It’s only a matter of time before their goal becomes reality,” CTV (11/17/19) reports of Wexit party leaders—citing a Wexit party leader.

Does CBC’s main rival, the CTV network, do much better? Not in Alex Antoneshyn’s CTV News Edmonton article “‘We’ll See Who’s Laughing’: Wexit Movement Applies for Federal Party Status” (11/17/19), which uncritically quotes Downing saying, “It’s a not a left-wing versus right-wing thing. The reality is that confederation does not work for Western Canada,” and that he plans to seek the Wexit party’s leadership. That article provides no background on Downing at all, or any context about the extremism of his movement.

When asked about such journalistic sins of omission, Barbara Perry, professor in social sciences at the Ontario Institute of Technology and Canada’s leading authority on hate crimes, says:

I think there is a concerted, perhaps purposeful failure to acknowledge the linkages between the Wexit movement and the far right. While there was some recognition of that nexus for [Canada’s white nationalist Yellow Vest movement], there’s a blindness to the same trend with Wexit. I don’t know that I’ve seen any references at all in the stories I’ve been reading. That’s a dangerous gap, as it allows the right to go unchallenged.

Montreal journalist Nora Loreto, no stranger to the power of right-wing mobs (FAIR.org, 4/25/18), explains that the dangerous error most journalists make is treating the Wexiteers “as just another interest group,” and that journalists aren’t

reporting on what it actually takes to form a new country: some kind of demonstrated collective identity and culture that isn’t solely tied to a specific industry. If they’re oil industry boosters, they should be reported like that, and not like a legitimate movement for sovereignty from Canada. All the mainstream outlets are doing a terrible job with Wexit, but especially TV outlets, who actually go to their meetings and report on their crowds to make it look like they have momentum (even though far more people are engaged and active in other movements, like the anti-climate change movement in Edmonton, for example).

Loreto’s last point is well-taken; when Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg spoke at Alberta’s provincial legislature in Edmonton on October 18, as many as 5,000 Edmontonians marched along with her, whereas on the same day, anti-environmentalists mustered only a few dozen (one of who spent much of his time shouting “F— Greta!” at the top of his lungs not far from where I was standing).

Anti-fascist organizer Daryle Lamont Jenkins criticizes New York Times coverage (10/16/18) of the Proud Boys: “These people want to cause real harm to the rest of us, and in order for people to understand that, you just can’t rely on what they themselves say about that.”

Daryle Lamont Jenkins, the lead organizer and investigator at the US anti-fascist group One People’s Project and its media arm Idavox, warns reporters everywhere against underreporting:

The controversy around how the New York Times has covered Gavin McInnes and his Proud Boys stands out the most. It comes from what was seen by critics as a fluff piece written by Alan Feuer, who is writing a book about fighting between antifa and Proud Boys. I am not sure of his political leanings, they look to be center-left, but I don’t think that’s the issue. The issue is you can’t be reckless about this. These people want to cause real harm to the rest of us, and in order for people to understand that, you just can’t rely on what they themselves say about that.

So how can reporters do better? Jenkins says research is the key, because “the biggest problem that I have always had over decades is how all the information about the [extremist] group that they report is from the group, with [few or] no other sources.” He also notes that even diligent investigators may face an editorial buzzsaw, as with a reporter he knew who “actually quit a newspaper because, despite all the information about how dangerous [an extremist] group was, the editor killed the story for some reason.”

In the interests of public safety, Perry insists that media must expose the links between “camera-friendly” fronts and the extremist movements behind them, and must also critically discuss

what the consequences of those links are, especially in terms of legitimating the right’s platforms. Media must also deconstruct the narratives that the movement creates, not just report on them without question. It is this uncritical approach—disguised as “balanced journalism”—that must be challenged.

There’s an old journalistic proverb advocating skepticism: “If your mother says she loves you…check it out.” Since the Wexiteers are nowhere near as cuddly as anybody’s mother (except perhaps Grendel’s), it should be easy for reporters to question their claims, and yet few do. As Loreto explains:

Rather than assuming that these groups are grassroots and spontaneous organizations, we need to know: who is funding them, what connections do the leadership have with other known groups, and are they making money on this? If a journalist is unsure, there is a community of activists and writers who will be able to help answer these questions.

Ryan Thorpe of the Winnipeg Free Press (8/16/19) went undercover to infiltrate a neo-Nazi group in Manitoba.

So which other US and Canadian reporters are contextually reporting on the extremist movement? “It is very easy to say who is doing a good job with reporting, because they have definitely stood out,” says Jenkins. He also praises

Luke O’Brien and the work he has been doing at Huffington Post, Kim Kelly, who not only writes for Teen Vogue and the New Republic on the issue, but has even organized an anti-racist metal show in January, and scores of others who make reporting on fascism their beat. So much so, that they are targeted for physical harm (at least online) by terrorist groups like Atomwaffen.

“The Winnipeg Free Press and Ryan Thorpe have been doing good work, too,” says Loreto. “In Montreal, there [is] a group of journalists who have been consistently writing about the far right whose work has appeared in the Montreal Gazette and the Globe and Mail.” Not only have they “worked with anti-fascist organizers to help unmask and identify who is behind the worst of the far-right/fascist online world,” those reporters have also “exposed the fact that many of the global movement’s most important figures are Canadian.”

The imperative during our current crisis is clear. Reporters have a responsibility to help readers understand, not simply the disconnected facts of today, but how those facts are dramatically connected to powerful and sometimes dangerous forces at work last week, last year and last century. Failing to do is worse than refusing to pull the emergency break on the train hurtling towards disaster—it’s actually greasing the gears of the Armageddon engine.


‘The People With the Least Resources Are Now Shouldering the Greatest Burden’ - CounterSpin interview with Kevin Kumashiro on student debt

Janine Jackson interviewed educator Kevin Kumashiro about student debt forgiveness for the June 28, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: “Bernie Sanders’ Student Loan Debt Plan: Unworkable.”  “Sanders Student Loan Debt Forgiveness Plan Makes Little Sense.” “Canceling Student Loan Debt Doesn’t Make Problems Disappear.”

Gee, corporate media, tell us how you really feel.

While Big Media’s coverage has lots of room for arguments against proposals from presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and <others, for full or partial cancellation of US families’ trillion-plus dollars in undergraduate and graduate school debt, it’s remarkable that we’re even having a conversation about such a radical idea. And in some ways, howling, like one Fox pundit’s “Hey, Bernie, I’ve Got $500,000 in Student Loan Debt—but You Can Keep Your Government Handout” seems like a sign of fear—fear that when it comes to access to education, people are ready to think big.

Our next guest says if we’re thinking big, let’s think really big about the role of education—who gets it, and why—in US society. Kevin Kumashiro is former dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco, founder of Education Deans for Justice and Equity, and author of, most recently, Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture. He joins us now from California. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Kevin Kumashiro.

Kevin Kumashiro:  Janine, thanks so much for having me.

JJ: When you’re watching corporate media debate on an issue you care about, it’s hard to know whether to spend time combating the particular myths and misinformation in the conversation as it is, or to simply have a different conversation, with different premises and, frankly, participants.

If people are saying they oppose “government handouts,” for instance, you may feel a need to say, “Well, what about handouts to corporations?” But then you’re still stuck in this frame of seeing government as a separate force, apart from people, that’s giving things and taking them away, rather than a system that’s meant to be working to serve the common good.

Can we begin, though, with your overall take on the plans put forth by Sanders and Ilhan Omar, by Warren and Julián Castro, among others, as compared to the status quo?

And then what do you make of the arguments, those that we are hearing, against those plans?

Forbes (6/24/19)

KK: I think it’s really exciting that student debt relief is being elevated to the level that it is. It’s about time that we’re having this conversation. As you’ve mentioned, we know that there is over $1.6 trillion in student debt currently; that affects about 45 million people in this country. And this is a number, this is an amount, that has actually ballooned over the past couple of decades.

So one of the things that I think the proposals force us to think about is, what are our priorities right now, and how should that be reflected in our national budgets? Budgets reflect priorities, and if we were to fairly tax the rich and the corporations, and if we were to invest in education rather than in instruments of violence and repression, like prisons and war and so on, I think we would be able to create a budget that reflects that. This is absolutely affordable.

One of the things that I like to argue, however, is that as ambitious, as controversial, as some people think that these proposals are, I actually would say that they don’t quite go far enough, in the way that we’re talking about it still.

And what I mean by that is, right now, the debate seems to be, how do we make education more affordable?—as if education is a commodity, where those who have the wealth can afford to buy the best.

And what I would say is, “Yeah, we could engage in that debate, but maybe the bigger debate is, should education be seen and treated as a commodity in the first place?” Right?

Education, I think many of us would argue, is so fundamentally important, not only to individual wellness and livelihood and success, but also to the health and well-being of the community and the society, right? It strengthens democracy, it strengthens participation, social relations, global health. And so one of the things we should be thinking about is how education should be a fundamental human right for everyone. And what did it mean to invest in that? Where pre-K through college, you have the right to get the level of education that you need to be successful and happy in the world. And I think that’s where I would like to see the conversation going. And, hopefully, that’s a reframing that we are heading towards.

Washington Post (6/25/19)

JJ: Well, I have seen sympathetic portrayals of people trapped in student loan debt. USA Today, on June 26, had an article evoking how people can get caught up, and how they are left open to predations from scam debt-consolidation companies, for instance. And then on another tack of the issue, the Washington Post had a data-driven piece about the negative impacts on the overall economy of student loan debt, which is something that I know that you’ve thought about, and that noted that the $1.6 trillion in debt that US families are carrying has doubled since the mid-2000s, which you also just said, and which a lot of newspaper articles leave out.

I would also say that media are doing a pretty good job of leaving most of the moralizing to the op-eds—you know, things like “I Worked as a Janitor to Keep My Student Loans Low. Wiping Debt Punishes Students Like Me,” which was in USA Today.

But what I’m not getting is what you’re talking about, which is the idea that, in reality, this is a bigger question about the role of education in society. I wonder how you see us moving the conversation from this specific conversation about Warren, about Sanders, and those plans; how do we push it to that bigger dialogue that you’re looking for?

KK: Yeah, it’s a great question, because overlapping with the ballooning of student debt over the last two decades is something that’s fueled that ballooning, which is the disinvestment by the public sector in public education.

So higher education is a great example, where it’s hard to call public universities public universities, because such a small percentage of their budget actually comes from the public sector. So what we’ve seen in the past 20 years is a massive decline, in some cases half, maybe even more than half, lost—in terms of what the states used to be contributing to, for example, state-run universities.

And where does that shortfall now get taken up? Well, some of it gets taken up in fundraising. And some of it gets taken up in corporate sponsorships. But the vast majority of budget shortfalls gets taken up by tuition increases. So there’s a direct connection between disinvesting in public institutions—in other words, making them less public—and seeing the students take on the burden.

And when we talk about the difference between public and private education, I think it’s also important to think about who do these universities serve. Right? Public universities serve a far more racially diverse population, they have more first-generation students, more working-class students, more immigrant students; they’re actually serving the students most in need.

And I think for many public universities, that was the vision, right, is that they would actually be the universities for the people; they were a counter to the elite private universities.

Kevin Kumashiro

And so when we see public universities less able to serve their mission of reaching this much more diverse, underserved population, because we’re disinvesting in them, why are we not surprised, then, that the people with the least resources are now shouldering the greatest burden, in terms of trying to get education?

So, yeah, I think pushing the conversation, in terms of saying, “Well, what is the responsibility of society to educate its next generation? And how do we build up institutions where everyone can really benefit from that?”

And let me just say one more thing to even push the conversation a little further. One of the things that I like to argue is that we should not be debating, how do we give equal access to the institutions, to higher education, as it currently exists. That actually isn’t what we should be debating.

Because the reality is that higher education is not equitable right now. The current state of higher education is that it’s sort of like public schools—you have a handful of very elite institutions that serve the more elite population. And then you have a vast number of underfunded, under-resourced institutions that are serving the masses.

We don’t want to give equal access to that. What we actually want to do is level the playing field, by saying that the institutions themselves need to be more equitable.

So when I talk about reforming education, and thinking about the funding of education, I don’t argue that we simply need to equalize how individuals finance their education. I actually argue that we need to be thinking more equitably about the funding of the system, and how that then changes the hierarchy that currently exists between educational institutions. We need to be changing the system of education, not simply individual access.

USA Today (6/26/19)

JJ: And some of the opponents on this particular issue of debt forgiveness, they, I think, have a more comprehensive vision, because some of them are the same people who are also fighting affirmative action—in higher education, in particular; some of them are the same who are against the very idea of public education that you’re talking about.

And I feel like latent in a lot of debate is the idea that education is supposed to be unobtainable for many, because otherwise, it’s not as valuable as a stratifier, as a screen. And among other things, to pick up on that you just said, that’s not the historical vision of education in this country, is it? I mean, if you look back at the history, education had a democratizing impulse behind it.

KK: So that’s such a great reminder, is that the history of education in this country is a very complicated and contested one. And when we look throughout the last century and a half, for example, what we can see is that different groups have argued for competing purposes of education.They’ve put forth different arguments of what education should be about.

So what I like to argue is that, let’s start with kind of public schools, K–12, elementary, secondary schools. When we first created public schools in this country, we didn’t create them for everyone; we created them for only the most elite. And as we were forced to integrate more and more, we just came up with more and more ways to divide and sort them, such as through segregated schools, or tracked classrooms or labeling, discipline and disenfranchisement.

And so, when we think about the achievement gap, or this gap in performance among students, many people say that that’s a sign that schools are failing. I like those who make a slightly more provocative argument, that actually the achievement gap is a sign, in some ways, that schools are succeeding, that they were doing exactly what they were set up to do.

So one of the things that we need to be arguing is not that we simply need to tinker with the system because it’s not really working well. What we actually need to recognize is that the system was built on really problematic assumptions, ideologies and exclusions from its very beginning. And our job is not to wish them away; our job is actually to dive into that contradiction and that messiness, and to say, “Well, how do we work in institutions that maybe were never intended for us, but still make them into the liberatory, revolutionary, democratizing institutions that they have the potential for?” Right?

Alongside the history of sorting and stratifying, you have a equally long history of people arguing that schools can be a democratizing force, and have been very forceful and persuasive at changing policies and institutions to move us in that direction. Schools have always been the site of struggle.

And this is another moment when we need to dive in and say, “Yes, we need to struggle, and we need to put forward a much bolder vision than we’re currently pursuing.”

JJ: Just finally, to return to media: I think part of what resists the bigger and more comprehensive  thinking that you are encouraging—I mean, obviously, if you’re thinking about access to education, a natural question is, “Well, what jobs are there for people?” You know, assuming they we had access to education, it has to be a part of a bigger picture.

And part of how media resist that conversation is the way they atomize topics of coverage. So you’ll find this story over here about student debt forgiveness, but it won’t even talk about how people plan to fund that; it’s sort of separated, and so it becomes this idea in isolation.

And that, I think, inhibits not just public understanding of any given issue, but also our imagination, and our ability to believe in the possibilities of change.

KK:  Yeah, I love that way of putting it, because it reminds me that education, so often, is talked about with really narrow boundaries, the way we think about what education should be all about. Many people are fixated on the idea that it’s about job preparedness.

And, yeah, of course education is in some ways about preparing us for our future role in the economy. But I like to say that education is also about teaching us to think, and teaching us to question, and teaching us to build a better tomorrow and a better society.

In other words, education isn’t simply to help us succeed in the world as it is. Education is actually about helping us to imagine and create the world that doesn’t yet exist. And that can be most scary to precisely the people that you’re talking about, the corporate elite, the most powerful, the most dominant.

Why? Because they benefit the most from the system as it is, right? And so it’s not surprising that they’re going to be the most vocal and the most forceful and violent in attacking the proposals that can fundamentally transform schools.

But that’s exactly what we need to be doing. That’s exactly what we should be expecting. And I think, in many ways, that’s exactly what we’re seeing. So all the more reason we need to dive in with much more confidence, but also with much more complexity, as we push the envelope.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Kevin Kumashiro. His most recent book is Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture. You can follow his work at KevinKumashiro.com. Kevin Kumashiro, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

KK: Thanks again for having me.


‘This Is a Moment to Be Really Vigilant Against All Forms of Oppression’ - CounterSpin interview with Audrey Sasson on antisemitism

Janine Jackson interviewed Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s Audrey Sasson about antisemitism for the January 3, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Washington Post (12/29/19)

Janine Jackson: Reporting on a spate of violence in the New York area targeting Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, a rabbi’s home and a kosher supermarket, the Washington Post says, “The spike in bias incidents against Jewish communities has law enforcement and elected officials wrestling with what to do.” There don’t really seem to be that many tools in their bag, though; virtually all of them are variants on policing and more policing.

But not everyone believes that new foot patrols or surveillance towers or, as some would have it, calling in the National Guard, are the healthiest ways forward right now, or the most effective. It isn’t that it would be nice if we could build movements against political violence that bring people together, across and within community. Those movements exist, and we can lift them up and be part of them. Audrey Sasson is executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. She joins us by phone from here in town. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Audrey Sasson.

Audrey Sasson: Thank you so much for having me.

JJ: Fear is an undeniable, immediate motivator—whereas a better world sounds like a dream, if a lovely one. But when Jews for Racial and Economic Justice come out saying, “We take this violence seriously and we don’t believe that flooding neighborhoods with police is the best response,” you’re not saying, “Let’s deprioritize safety (for Jews) because it might come at a cost (to non-Jews)” but rather encouraging a different understanding of what “safety” means, isn’t that so?

Audrey Sasson: “We work toward the longer-term work of building solidarity across difference, and of trying to think about, ‘How do we address the root causes of the hate that’s coming to the surface today?’”

AS: We would never fault any victim and survivor of the heinous crimes that we’ve been seeing for wanting more protection. Like you said, that is absolutely not what we’re saying. Everyone does need to feel safe. And that is everyone. Jewish communities need to feel safe. Black and brown communities need to feel safe. Communities that are living at the intersection need to feel safe, so that includes black Jewish communities.

And we also believe that some of the reactions that we’ve been seeing from our elected officials, responding to what they’re hearing from some leaders in the Jewish community or from some other folks, is that, you know, they’re going to deploy the National Guard, or they’re going to, like you said, flood the streets with police. We believe it’s ultimately counterproductive, and it will cement divisions in our communities. It will only serve to continue to criminalize poverty and the experiences and lives of people of color, not to mention that it would also reinforce some ideas that people have about the alliance between the Jewish community and the state.

You know, if it was going to keep us safe, that would be one thing, but it also has the additional challenge of reinforcing certain stereotypes that are themselves dangerous. So it, I think, would lead to less safety, not more, ultimately. And we urge people, our focus is that we work toward the longer-term work of building solidarity across difference, and of trying to think about, “How do we address the root causes of the hate that’s coming to the surface today?”

JJ: The connections between antisemitism and racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia and, you know, misogyny too; we can see a nexus there. But there are distinctions around antisemitism, and the way it is deployed and has been deployed. I wonder if you could talk just a bit about the way that political hatred “shows up” against Jewish people in ways that are like, and not like, against other communities?

AS: I would love to, and this is something that we’ve been, at JFREJ, really refining the way we teach about this and talk about this. And understand, we’ve put a lot of resources into understanding this, because we believe that without understanding this, our movements will fail. And by our movements, I’m referring to movements for social and economic justice, and for racial justice across the board. That any sort of effort towards justice for all communities needs to understand all of the ways these different interlocking oppressions are working. We’re seeing it live, right now, in front of us, why it is that it’s so important.

There’s a shorthand that we sometimes use to explain the difference between antisemitism and other oppressions: Antisemitism is a tool of power that punches up.  When we say punch up, we mean that it positions Jews as powerful, and as the sort of hidden hand of control, controlling everyday people’s lives. So if everyday people’s lives are miserable, that’s because Jews have the power. We are portrayed as superior, almost, because we are portrayed as, you know, extra intelligent, because we are portrayed as somehow the sort of puppet masters at the top. That is punching up.

Of course, there’s also dehumanization that happens with antisemitism. We’re also portrayed as sort of not quite human, and that’s the sort of fuel that allows for other communities to target us, because we’re considered not quite human. But that is happening alongside a portrayal of us as super-intelligent and in control.

And then other oppressions—anti-black racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia—all of these punch down, and they punch down by deeming these communities and populations as inferior, as parasitic, as lazy, right, and all these stereotypes we hear. That punches down and antisemitism punches up, and together, you imagine a visual of those things working side-by-side. They are propping up racial capitalism. White supremacy and capitalism together function by, you know, capitalism exploits the labor of black and brown people, and then blames “the Jew” for the very real material conditions that are very difficult for communities that are struggling. And that obviously obfuscates the real source of people’s problems; that works for the system. If people are not quite clear about the reason for their struggles, then they might not organize efficiently or effectively against it.

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s Understanding Antisemitism

JJ: It’s kind of like, “Let’s you and him fight,” is what I think of. And I would flag JFREJ’s guide, called Understanding Antisemitism, to give folks the deeper grounding here, and some of the history here.  You know, it doesn’t happen so much anymore, but FAIR used to have people who called themselves leftists, who would come up and say, “OK, but media’s so bad because of the Jews, right?” You’d think, “I’ve just been talking about corporate capitalism and structural inequality and imperialism,” and then some people are like, “Yeah, it’s because of the Jews.”

So I guess I’d like to ask you what JFREJ and others are doing in response. I know that in the wake of this awful Hanukkah attack at the rabbi’s home, folks showed up in Grand Army Plaza, right? Folks felt what the thing was to do, and it was to come together.

AS: That’s what we have been doing for decades, and we will continue to do. And I want to say that, of course, our community is terrified in a lot of ways. We’re doing our best to hold it together and to continue to keep perspective and to hold each other close, while also being in relationship with other targeted communities.

So what JFREJ is doing is doing what we’ve always done, which is that we believe that you have to get to the root of the problem, we have to address austerity, and we have to address the white nationalism coming from the White House, so many of the forces that are creating the conditions for antisemitism to have risen to the surface.

But we are also in coalition with grassroots groups across the city that are made up of other targeted communities. We’ve been working with them for decades, we’re going to continue to work with them. And in this political moment, we’re working with them in a very particular way, through a formation that we’re calling “NYC Against Hate.” We’re looking to think about: What are preventive approaches to hate violence? How can we do cross trainings? JFREJ offers antisemitism trainings to all of our partners across the city, and also receive all of the trainings that they all offer, whether it’s concerning LGBTQ communities, Muslim communities, immigrant communities. Like, how can we all be building our shared analysis around all of these various oppressions?

And then also, how can we build up our ability to do upstander trainings and bystander trainings, and then how can we also increase our collective capacity for reporting at the community level on hate crimes, knowing that it’s very hard for certain communities to come forward when a hate crime has happened, and that community reporting is likely more effective than having to go to the police, right?

So there’s lots of tools that we have yet to really even implement, but if we tried to do them all by ourselves, then we would not be able to move forward. We have taken steps to come together to try to build out the infrastructure that would allow us to actually build towards that long-term vision that we have for a less punitive, more restorative approach to prevention, and then repair, around hate violence.

The fact that we are in those relationships already, we’ve been doing that work, explains why it was so quick and easy in some ways for us to mobilize immediately in the aftermath of Monsey. We had a beautiful public gathering at Grand Army Plaza to stand alongside the Chabad community. The Chabad, as in the ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn, was going to be lighting the menorah as they do every night of Hanukkah. We joined them in their celebration, we took our cues from them, as the most directly impacted in this moment, but we are all impacted. So knowing that they are most directly impacted, and we are all impacted, and we are all in this together, we joined the Chabad ritual together, we had a ritual together, and then our allies also showed up to be with us in celebration, in solidarity, in mourning, in rage, in despair, in defiance, and to play the role, to practice the role, of deescalation, as we try to come up with new tools to long-term replace our reliance on police.

JJ: Well, absolutely, and I’m not at all trying to put words in your mouth, but I know that from some folks, we’re hearing, “Well, if you’re critical of the State of Israel, that’s just a short hop to stabbing a rabbi with a machete.” And I suspect that real cross-community and coalitional work helps work against that kind of conflation.

AS: Absolutely. False claims of antisemitism are dangerous, and they’re certainly not helping to address the root issues here. That’s our work as a movement; that’s not just the work of the Jewish community to figure that out.

CounterSpin (11/6/18)

JJ: Absolutely. Just finally, when we spoke back in 2018, you underscored that, yeah, there are ties across communities that are under attack, and part of the attack is dividing us against one another. But we’re bound by more than danger; it’s more than our being against bad things. We have a shared positive vision, and I have to think that that brings new people in who aren’t trying to define themselves as oppressed, but who are trying to look forward in a positive, shared way. And I just want to say I know that that’s what a lot of what JFREJ is doing, and aimed at doing.

AS: That is right. We are for racial and economic justice, not just against anything. And we also notice, in this particular political moment, that this is the moment for us to be as bold and as explicit about what it is that we are for. We are seeing that austerity is breaking people, and we need to, in the face of this, to work with our with our movement partners across communities, to imagine a real democracy, right, a democracy where all of us can thrive, and all of us have what we need, and we’re not beholden to the Bezoses of the world.

This is a moment, I think, for all of us to be as bold as we can possibly be in the face of rising hate, and in the face of harder and harsher conditions for people on the ground, to be really vigilant against all forms of oppression, antifeminism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-black racism, and to put forth a totally irresistible vision for a world where we all can thrive and live alongside each other.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Audrey Sasson. She’s executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice; they’re online at JFREJ.org, and that’s where you can find their resource, Understanding Antisemitism. Audrey Sasson, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

AS: Thanks, Janine.


‘Say No to Stealing Our Social Security Benefits’ - CounterSpin interview with Alex Lawson on Social Security and disability

Janine Jackson interviewed Social Security Works’ Alex Lawson about Social Security and disability for the January 3, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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NBC (12/30/19)

Janine Jackson: Corporate media’s image of Social Security is, at times quite literally, a gray-haired couple stacking pennies and smiling. Silly in multiple ways, that image, along with much of the accompanying reporting, renders invisible the millions of Social Security recipients who have a disability, not all of whom are seniors.

Media marginalization of disabled people partly explains the near lack of coverage when, just in time for the holidays, the Trump administration proposed a rule change that would make accessing Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income benefits even harder than it already is. The agency offered no medical or scientific justification for the departure from past practice, but they did suggest that they will get billions of dollars from it—somehow.

Alex Lawson is the executive director of the group Social Security Works. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Alex Lawson.

Alex Lawson: Thanks for having me.

JJ: We know that there’s more at work here than this one rule change. It’s bad enough on its own, but it’s part of something bigger. First of all, though, what’s the nature of this change that is being pushed right now?

AL: Basically, it’s putting up bureaucratic hurdles in front of people who are already faced with proving their eligibility for their own earned benefits in an incredibly difficult system, which is the Disability Insurance portion of Social Security.

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

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

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

JJ: Yeah, I mean, stories say the changes “might possibly” lead to people losing benefits, or that “critics say” they would. And that time’s past, you know: The sun’s gonna rise in the east, and increasing barriers to benefits is not going to weed out people illegitimately taking benefits, but it will kick people off of the rolls who need them to live. We don’t need to talk about that as a maybe, possibly, questionably, might be a side effect, right?

AL: Exactly. And I think you can even go a little bit further—we’ve been putting in our demands, and I would encourage your listeners to as well—you mentioned that the administration says that this would “save” billions of dollars.

Well, the way you calculate billions of dollars is you know how many people’s benefits are going to be ripped out of their pockets. And we’re demanding: “How many people are going to lose their benefits, according to your projections, that will ‘save’ X billions of dollars?” They’re giving it in dollar figures, but behind those dollar figures are people. And we’re saying we want this administration to knowingly say that they are taking benefits away from hundreds of thousands of people.

Talk Poverty (12/19/19)

JJ: It seems relevant to note, as I learned from Talk Poverty, that thanks to a 2017 rule change, it’s already easier for Social Security to say that a person is medically improving and therefore no longer needs benefits, because now the agency can disregard evidence from the beneficiaries’ own doctors. They’ve been working on this for a while.

But I did want to say, there are plenty of problems with Social Security coverage in general, which I know you understand: It’s presented as pitting old people against young people; we’re told it’s about to go bankrupt…. But for those who aren’t living it themselves, or their family or their friends, there’s an additional fog around Social Security Disability.

And in that fog, I think, two big presumptions thrive: that somehow those benefits cost a lot to the country, or to “taxpayers.” And then also that it’s easy to qualify for those benefits, and therefore there’s a lot of fraud. I don’t want you to waste a lot of time on it, but can we put paid to those myths?

AL: Definitely. The first one is really important, because what they generally—“they” being the corporate media and the greedy liars on Wall Street, who are the ones who are always after our Social Security—they just can’t stand that they can’t get their greedy little hands on our Social Security. There is only one Social Security. It’s a suite of insurance products that we pay for during our working lives. We pay for it; no one gives us anything when it comes to Social Security. We pay for it, we see it coming out of our paycheck. It protects us against the loss of wages, a lot of people fully understand, when we retire; most people sort of visualize that portion when they think Social Security.

But the truth is, about a third of the benefits are actually, we are also insured—workers are insured, and their families—against the loss of wages due to a life-altering event, if a person becomes disabled and can no longer work, or, in the case of the death of a breadwinner of a family, for the surviving minor children. And those two portions of Social Security Insurance are just part of the whole thing. So you can’t say, “Oh, we’re just going after the disability portion”; that’s Social Security. They see it as the weakest part, they see it as the part that people don’t understand well enough to know that if we let Washington, DC, take our benefits away at all, it means they can take all our benefits away in the future. And let me be clear: That’s exactly what they want to do.

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

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

JJ: When you say “steal,” that’s not hyperbole, because, again, this is what we pay into. If you just read it as ideology—and sometimes media present it as though it’s just about your worldview—it makes it sound like, “Oh, people are saying, folks who have a lot should give to folks who don’t have.” That’s not what’s happening. This is, in fact, our money.

AL: This is our money. We earned it. And if we let our benefits be taken away, if we let them cut our benefits, if we let them alter the COLA, the Cost Of Living Adjustment, down, all of that is literally reaching into our pockets and stealing our money. Nobody is giving us anything when it comes to Social Security.

Tennessean (1/6/19)

JJ: I’ve seen some good reporting on it. The Nashville Tennessean did their own investigation of some of the doctors that are hired to review these disability claims, and they found them racing through the paperwork at what is called an “implausible” pace. In other words, they were reviewing them so fast that they couldn’t help but be wrongfully rejecting claims.

But continuing on media, and finally, I just saw a Philadelphia Inquirer story that talked about what we’re talking about, and then said, “Social Security officials declined to comment.” And, you know, they don’t have to comment. If no one pays attention, it’s going to go through without their comment. But doctors are commenting, recipients are commenting, advocates are commenting, and the public comment period has been extended from January 17 to January 31.

You’re talking about, in the Reagan Era, when pushback worked—public pushback is what’s going to work. So what do we need to know about that?

Alex Lawson: “The more we can drag it into the sunlight, the more we can force them to defend the fact that they’re proposing stealing our benefits, the less they’re going to want to do it.”

AL: That’s exactly right. We know exactly what happened in the Reagan Era is that it was because of people raising their voices that this was rejected. It was overruled unanimously by the Congress.

So what we want to do is stop it before it’s even implemented. And to do that, we want people to write in their comments in the public comment period on the rule, you can just go to SocialSecurityWorks.org, and there’s a link right there to take you directly to where you should go to put in your comment.

We also want everyone to contact their members of Congress. Also, we think the comment period should be extended, because something you said is absolutely true: They’re trying to do this in the dead of night, behind closed doors, so that no one knows what’s going on.

And the more we can drag it into the sunlight, the more we can force them to defend the fact that they’re proposing stealing our benefits, the less they’re going to want to do it. And we think that we can defeat them if we can extend the comment period, if we can flood the comments with real people’s voices saying “No,” and if we can get our members of Congress—and, again, this is both parties. Social Security is not a partisan issue.

JJ: Right.

AL: So whoever your members of Congress are, contact them, and tell them, “Say no to stealing our Social Security benefits.”

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Alex Lawson of Social Security Works. You can find their work on this latest attack, as well as a link for you to publicly comment on it, at SocialSecurityWorks.org. Alex Lawson, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

AL: Thanks for having me.