Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

‘We Need to Do Everything We Can on All Fronts’ - CounterSpin interview with Dorothee Benz on impeachment protests

Janine Jackson interviewed organizer Dorothee Benz about impeachment protests for the December 20, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Many people didn’t wait for the House to act. More than 750 historians signed an open letter declaring that, “If Trump’s misconduct does not rise to the level of impeachment, then virtually nothing does.” And hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, backed by dozens of organizations, here in New York City and around the country, calling for Trump’s impeachment and removal from office. Our next guest was one of them. Dorothee Benz is a writer and organizer; she joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Dorothee Benz.

Dorothee Benz: Great to be here.

JJ: I know it’s a big question, but why were you out in the street last night?

DB: There’s several levels of answer to that. First and most importantly, because it’s important. We need to do everything we can on all fronts. That means protesting in the streets, that means burning up the Capitol Hill phone lines. That means efforts like the letter that you mentioned from law professors. Everything needs to happen.

Dorothee Benz: “If this flies, not only do we no longer have a rule of law in this country, but we are well on our way to a slide into authoritarianism.”

Trump is a menace to this country; to, particularly, people who are not white, male Christians; and a menace to the planet. And as you said, if this stuff isn’t impeachable, then nothing is. He’s racked up so many violations of law and the Constitution, that if this flies, not only do we no longer have a rule of law in this country, but we are well on our way to a slide into authoritarianism. So it’s very, very important that he be impeached and removed. And I know that’s not a likely scenario, but that makes it even more important for us to be in the streets.

And I want to just pause and say that Trump is certainly not the only problem that we have. And in some ways, he’s the embodiment of many problems that we’ve had for centuries. But without getting rid of him, all the other problems are that much harder to solve. So that’s the first reason.

The second reason is because Congress, both houses of Congress…. How to say this nicely? They’re clearly not up to the job. They have made it clear for three years that they’re not going to do what needs to be done without being massively pressured by the people. The Republicans, obviously, are a wholly owned subsidiary of Trump, Inc. at this point, but the Democratic Party…. You know, your mother says if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything…but damn! Three years in, they still haven’t understood that it’s not business as usual. Right? They’ve had to be pushed every step of the way to show any real resistance to the extent that they have.

And I think about things like the battle against Trumpcare, the battle to save the Affordable Care Act and what that took: the millions and millions of people that called, the hundreds of thousands that came to DC and protested, the thousands that got arrested. And that was a defensive victory, but a hell of a victory.

And that is the kind of model, I think, that those of us who were out in the freezing cold rain in New York and in 600 cities across the country last night, have in mind; it’s going to take that kind of effort, but we have to make it.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally: You’ve always been an organizer. But for many people, going out in the street feels dangerous, it feels transgressive. But we really have to absorb our right to these sorts of actions, don’t we?

DB: Yeah, no, that’s absolutely true. I mean, rights that are just on a piece of paper are just a piece of paper; you have to actually enforce them, you have to defend them. And especially when your elected representatives are a little…meek, let’s say, it really is up to all of us to defend our rights. That’s what makes a democracy. It’s not the once-every-four-years to a voting booth–if you’re not gerrymandered into it not mattering in your district, and if you’re not voter-suppressed out of the roll–that’s not what makes democracy; that is an important part of it, but what makes a democracy is that we’re in the streets defending our rights, that we’re on the phones defending our rights, that we’re doing everything; we’re participating in our society and in our government at every level.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with writer and organizer Dorothee Benz. You can read her work on Medium.com. Dorothee Benz, thanks so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

DB: It’s great to be here.

 

‘No Jury Ever Announces a Not Guilty Verdict Before the Trial’ - CounterSpin interview with Marjorie Cohn on Trump's impeachment

Janine Jackson interviewed legal scholar Marjorie Cohn about the impeachment of Donald Trump for the December 20, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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New York Times (12/13/19)

Janine Jackson: The House of Representatives has impeached Donald Trump, only the third president in history. If some observers have their way, it would be more than Trump losing his job; media critics are over stories like the recent New York Times front-pager on what it called “different impeachment realities,” that used the phrase “both sides” four times, and they’re calling for a shake-up in leadership at the paper.

It’s more than a media critique. Reporting that suggests that impeachment is all about who you listen to is a profound disservice to people whose country is in crisis, who deserve a press corps invested in separating fact from fantasy and advancing democratic principles, especially in the face of efforts to vitiate them.

We’re joined now by Marjorie Cohn, professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and editor of, and contributor to, the book Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral and Geopolitical Issues, which is out from Olive Branch Press in a recently updated edition. She joins us now by phone from San Diego. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Marjorie Cohn.

Marjorie Cohn: Thanks so much for having me, Janine.

JJ: A straightforward kind of legal scholar question: It’s true that the law and the Constitution can be interpreted, but what has come through from a lot of the coverage is that legally, whether Trump has done anything impeachable is up for debate. Is that true?

MC: Well, the Constitution gives the House of Representatives the sole power of impeachment, and that means that it’s up to the House of Representatives to define what is impeachable conduct.

So Trump was impeached yesterday for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Abuse of power was also one of the articles alleged against both Nixon and Clinton, and it goes to the very heart of what the Founders feared, which was that a president would harm the national interest by pursuing his own personal interests. And that is why abuse of power is one of the articles of impeachment, and it was supported by overwhelming evidence.

The Democrats discussed the evidence throughout all of these hearings, including the hearing yesterday; the Republicans focused more on process, didn’t really meet the substantive issues. They argued that impeachment requires the commission of a crime. It’s well-settled that it does not. And the Senate Judiciary Committee transmitted a 683-page report to the House of Representatives explaining why abuse of power is a classic impeachable offense, and they drew upon the debates during the Constitutional Convention; things that have been written since, including the Federalist Papers; and the practice of impeachment itself.

The Republicans also distorted the facts, falsely asserted that Ukraine did not know Trump was withholding the military aid. They said that Ukraine got the aid and the head-of-state meeting without publicly announcing the launch of Trump’s desired investigations. In fact, Trump released the aid only after he got caught, and there still has not been a head-of-state meeting.

And another thing that they talked about was that the courts should decide whether or not Trump has the power to basically immunize all executive branch witnesses who are called to testify, and deny the production of any documents. And they would like to slow it down; they think that it was speeded up too much.

JJ: What about that “absolute immunity” that we hear references to? I mean, there are matters of fact, where even though it might be hard to dig them up, you can find them, like the sequence of events involving Ukraine. But then there’s reference to these legal precepts that people might feel they’re not sure really what the reality of that is. So Trump keeps talking about “absolute immunity,” like it’s a cloak of invisibility or something. What is the grounding there, or is there grounding?

MC: Interestingly, when Mitch McConnell came on TV this morning—actually, he was in the Senate, and it was televised–to explain his position and the Senate’s position—he said that Trump was impeached partly for asserting executive privilege and denying these witnesses and documents.

And in fact, that’s patently false. Trump has never asserted executive privilege; he asserted instead, as you say, this “absolute immunity.”

Now, “absolute immunity” does not appear in any Constitution or statute or case law. It is a creation of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, and, in fact, no court has ever upheld it. It is wending its way through the courts, and the most recent court to deal with that issue says no, the executive does not have “absolute immunity,” and that federal district court judge said that, you know, the president is not a king.

The reason that the Founders put three co-equal branches of government into the Constitution was to check and balance each other. The House of Representatives, the congressional, the legislative branch, has the sole power of impeachment.

Marjorie Cohn: “If the executive branch, the president, has the right to determine whether or not any witnesses can be called, or any documents produced, then that strikes at the very heart of separation of powers.”

Now if the executive branch, the president, has the right to determine whether or not any witnesses can be called, or any documents produced, then that strikes at the very heart of separation of powers.

Now this is an issue, Janine, that is becoming very interesting as the case moves into the Senate for trial, because there’s an assumption that once the House of Representatives votes for impeachment, impeaches the president—that’s like an indictment—then the case is automatically transmitted to the Senate for trial.

But Mitch McConnell has made no bones about the fact that he thinks there’s going to be a preordained acquittal, he’s prejudged the case. And he says, I’m not impartial, I have no intention of being impartial, even though the senators sit as jurors in the trial in the Senate, and take an oath to be impartial.

So Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, has said, “Well, we would like to call some witnesses.” The House of Representatives sends what are called “managers” to the Senate trial to prosecute the case; they’re like prosecutors. And he has proposed four witnesses—and they’re all executive branch witnesses, they’re Trump appointees—to testify during the Senate trial, and that includes Mick Mulvaney, acting chief of staff; former national security advisor John Bolton; White House aide Rob Blair; and, from the Office of Management and Budget, Michael Duffey. And also, Schumer has said that we are going to need production of documents for the House managers to prosecute the case in a fair way.

McConnell has basically pooh-poohed that, and McConnell would like a streamlined proceeding, just a rubber-stamp “Not Guilty.” Trump, on the other hand, wants a big show. He thinks that making a big case on television would be in his favor. So they are partially at odds there.

But McConnell has made very clear that he is coordinating every single aspect of the trial with the White House.  Now, I’ve been a criminal defense attorney for many years. And no jury ever coordinates the trial with the defendant ahead of time, asking the defendant what kind of procedure he or she wants. And no jury ever announces a not guilty verdict before the trial; it certainly would have helped a number of my clients, but it just doesn’t happen.

So McConnell kind of put his foot in his mouth when he announced that “total coordination with the White House,” and announced his refusal to be an impartial juror. So Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor, has been advocating a proceeding, and he’s been advocating it by Twitter and then most recently in an op-ed in the Washington Post, of basically withholding the transmission of the articles of impeachment to the Senate until there is a guarantee that there will be a fair trial in the Senate.

And Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, had a news conference this morning, and all she would say about it is, “When we see the process in the Senate, then we will know how many managers to send and who the managers will be.” And so basically what she has done, relying on Laurence Tribe’s advice, is to shift the burden to McConnell to explain the process; it really kind of puts him in a bind.

And meanwhile, the House of Representatives has indicated that it will continue to investigate; there could be more evidence developed. But what they’re concerned with is a fair trial. And so, whereas it looked like a done deal—that the articles are going to go to the Senate, the Senate will acquit Donald Trump—the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi and the leadership, now have leverage by not providing the articles to the Senate to get going with the trial, unless and until they guarantee that there’s going to be a fair trial, or at least explain it.

Now, Chuck Schumer proposed these four witnesses to McConnell in a lengthy proposal, and also said, “Well, we’re not going to extend the trial, each witness would only occupy four hours; and this would be the first impeachment trial where there were no witnesses and where the House was prevented from fairly presenting their case.”

So now the ball is in McConnell’s court, and whereas it takes two-thirds of the senators to make a decision about acquittal in the Senate, it only takes 51 to decide procedural matters, such as the rules of the Senate. And it’s possible that the House could be recessing today. One of the things that Schumer proposed was a trial beginning on the 7th of January, which is the date they are supposed to come back. But it’s really fascinating now, because it’s not proceeding the way everyone thought it would, the Senate acting like a rubber stamp for Donald Trump. So stay tuned.

JJ: Yeah, and we also need reporters, I think, to elucidate what the problem will be. In other words, to make clear that the Senate’s hearings are meant to serve as a trial, and to make clear, then, what exactly McConnell messed up by stating outright, “There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position.” I think it does need to be clear what a breach of order that is.

I just want to say one thing about the context: We know the Trump strategy, it’s not a mystery. It’s for them to say, “We’re victims. Democrats will do anything to get rid of Trump,” adding up to, “This can’t be a legitimate process, because they don’t like me,” which isn’t a logical conclusion, but it’s not really meant to be. It’s a message to his base to interpret impeachment as an effort to “overturn the election,” and, therefore, an attack on them.

Media can note that that’s a strategy, but I worry if they aren’t kind of playing into it by allowing that to obscure what are fairly clear legal proceedings, and constitutional or congressional proceedings that have to happen.

MC: Yes, that’s a good point. One of the things that the Republicans continue to harp on, and McConnell talked about it this morning, was that as soon as Donald Trump was elected, and even before he was elected, Democrats were talking about impeachment. And there have been resolutions, impeachment resolutions, introduced into the House before, and there have been as many as 95 congressmembers who have voted for impeachment in the past, for trivial things, McConnell was intimating.

But, in fact, the response to that, and what I would like to see in the media, is that Nancy Pelosi and the overwhelming majority of the House of Representatives opposed impeachment until the whistleblower came forward, and the telephone call on July 25, between Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky. came to light. And when that happened, then it became clear to everyone, including Nancy Pelosi, who had resisted impeachment for these past three years, that in fact this was impeachable conduct, and they had a constitutional responsibility to pursue it.

So I think that that needs to be pointed out, and the Republicans are going to continue to say, “This is overturning an election.” The logical extension of that argument is that there can never be an impeachment of a president who has been elected.

And yet the Founders put impeachment into the Constitution six times; the word “impeachment” appears six times in the Constitution. They were very, very worried about another King George, about the president becoming a king-like monarch, and that’s why they gave Congress the power of impeachment. So I think that if we were to see more of these counterarguments, or to round it out and balance the arguments that the Republicans are making, the coverage would be much more accurate.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Marjorie Cohn. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral and Geopolitical Issues, out in a recently updated edition from Olive Branch Press. Thank you so much, Marjorie Cohn, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MC: Thank you, Janine.

 

Best of CounterSpin 2019

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Every week, CounterSpin looks behind the headlines of the corporate media whose presentation of the world does so much to shape it, even though they are less a window than a reflection of the priorities of owners, advertisers and power players. We try to bring you voices you might not hear elsewhere: activists, researchers, reporters and teachers, who can illuminate what big media are getting wrong—or missing entirely—why it matters, and what we can do about it.

At year’s end, we revisit a few of the conversations it’s been our pleasure to bring you. We can only include a few, but you can find them all on FAIR.org.

Featured Interviews:

WaPo’s Afghan Papers Propagate Colonial Narrative of Noble Intentions Gone Awry

by Joshua Cho

Washington Post (12/9/19)

In an earlier article (FAIR.org, 12/18/19) regarding the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers (12/9/19), I discussed how the Post’s exposé also exposed the Post as one of the primary vehicles US officials use to spread their lies, and why it’s impossible for corporate media outlets like the Post to raise more substantive questions about the deceptive nature of US foreign policy.

But those aren’t the only significant takeaways. The Afghanistan Papers should also be considered an excellent case study of contemporary colonial propaganda, and yet another example of corporate media criticizing US wars without opposing US imperialism.

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s famous analysis of media coverage of the Vietnam War, in Manufacturing Consent, found that questions of the invasion’s “tactics and costs”—to the US—dominated the debate, because the media absorbed the framework of government propaganda regarding the “necessity” of military intervention, the “righteousness of the American cause” and the US’s “nobility of intent.” Decades later, Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model of corporate media is still a useful tool in understanding the Post’s Afghanistan Papers.

The Post advanced the centuries-old colonial narrative of the empire’s good intentions gone awry when it argued that the US “inadvertently built a corrupt, dysfunctional Afghan government,” and that this illustrated that “even some of the most well-intentioned projects could boomerang.” In fact, the Post dedicated a whole section of the Afghanistan Papers to propagating this standard colonial narrative, called “Stranded Without a Strategy,” which argued at length:

US and allied officials admitted they veered off in directions that had little to do with Al Qaeda or 9/11. By expanding the original mission, they said they adopted fatally flawed warfighting strategies based on misguided assumptions about a country they did not understand….

Diplomats and military commanders acknowledged they struggled to answer simple questions: Who is the enemy? Whom can we count on as allies? How will we know when we have won?

Their strategies differed, but Bush and Obama both committed early blunders that they never recovered from, according to the interviews.

Washington Post (12/11/19)

The Post is so eager to push this colonial narrative of noble incompetence that a later report (12/11/19) on “key takeaways” from the Afghanistan Papers claimed that US officials “failed to align policy solutions with the challenges they confronted,” having “strategic drift” in place of “coherent US policy for Afghanistan.” As noted earlier, one method of discerning whether US officials are being dishonest, not incompetent, is to check whether the pretexts for invading and occupying another country are constantly changing.

But the imperial utility of a cost/benefit or tactical “critique” of US wars is the implication that immoral and illegal invasions like the Afghanistan War are justifiable if the US can achieve its goals, and it enables future invasions, provided US wars are better fought next time. It’s an intentionally nebulous criterion, since there are always tactical and cost/benefit questions to be raised for any military endeavor, which is why this kind of critique can enable perpetual interventions in the service of US imperialism. Indeed, the Post actually admits this when it mentioned that the Afghanistan inspector general’s secretive “Lessons Learned” project was

meant to diagnose policy failures in Afghanistan so the United States would not repeat the mistakes the next time it invaded a country or tried to rebuild a shattered one.

Furthermore, at several times the Post parroted statements from US officials claiming that some of the “lessons learned” about their “strategic failures” were that the US should have killed more people in Pakistan and threatened to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely—without any pushback.

The Post parroted claims that “Obama’s strategy” of imposing “strict deadlines” and promising to “bring home all troops by the end of his presidency” was “destined to fail,” because the Taliban could just “wait him out.” Why was Obama’s broken promise an “artificial” date for “ending the war before it was over”? If the US truly prioritized preserving taxpayer dollars and the lives of US troops and Afghans, the open secret is that the US could simply end the Afghanistan War any time it wanted to, by announcing an unconditional, unilateral withdrawal without negotiating with the Taliban.

Washington Post (12/9/19)

In another “Lessons Learned” interview cited in the Afghanistan Papers (12/9/19), regarding the “strategic challenge” of Pakistan supporting the Taliban and sheltering their leaders despite receiving billions of dollars a year to “fight terrorism,” the Post uncritically cited a US official’s bloodthirsty support for indefinite occupation and killing Taliban members anywhere in Pakistan:

In his December 2016 Lessons Learned interview, Crocker said the only way to force Pakistan to change would be for Trump to keep US troops in Afghanistan indefinitely and give them the green light to hunt the Taliban on Pakistani territory.

“It would allow him to say, ‘You worry about our reliability, you worry about our withdrawal from Afghanistan, I’m here to tell you that I’m going to keep troops there as long as I feel we need them, there is no calendar.’

“ ‘That’s the good news. The bad news for you is we’re going to kill Taliban leaders wherever we find them: Baluchistan, Punjab, downtown Islamabad. We’re going to go find them, so maybe you want to do a strategic recalculation.’ ”

While pushing this colonial narrative, the Post actually tried to make the absurd case that some of the US’s strategic failures stemmed from being too generous to Afghans, and lying to the American public about not wanting to do “nation-building,” asserting that “nation-building is exactly what the United States has tried to do in war-battered Afghanistan—on a colossal scale.”

Americans praising their own generosity is a hallmark feature of American colonialism—which extended to framing atrocities like slavery, the displacement of Native Americans and the extermination of Vietnamese people as “generous”—and the Post continues this long tradition by parroting US officials who believed that “Congress and the White House made matters worse by drenching the destitute country with far more money than it could possibly absorb.” Apparently the problem is not that the US intentionally funnels money to enrich US investors and prop up puppet governments subservient to the US, but that the US engages in thoughtless charity:

The scale of the corruption was the unintended result of swamping the war zone with far more aid and defense contracts than impoverished Afghanistan could absorb. There was so much excess, financed by American taxpayers, that opportunities for bribery and fraud became almost limitless, according to the interviews.

Washington Post (12/9/19)

The Post (12/9/19) claimed that “no nation needed more building than Afghanistan” following “continuous warfare since 1979,” when it was invaded by the Soviet Union. The Post cited frustrated statements from officials working for USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) complaining that the US was wasting too much money on nation-building for primitive people in a largely non-market society who “bartered for items” instead of using currency, and lacked the education and “technical expertise” necessary to maintain “huge infrastructure projects,” with officials claiming “We were bringing 21st-century stuff to a society living in a different time period.”

Left unmentioned were US efforts in 1979 to sabotage an indigenous Afghan Communist movement, that was making strides toward ostensible US goals like the education of girls, eradicating opium production and expanding access to healthcare, by “knowingly increasing the probability” of luring “the Russians” into their own “Vietnam War.” (Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski later defended this ruthless strategy: “That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it?”)

Nor was there any mention of USAID and the NED being corrupt propaganda arms of the US State Department to subvert leftist governments, often serving as a pipeline of taxpayer dollars into investors’ pockets under the guise of promoting “development” and “democracy.” Some US officials even argued that the rampant fraud and waste from American “aid” contractors were so parasitic that it would be better to funnel contracts to corrupt Afghans, who “would probably take 20% for their personal use or for their extended families and friends,” than “‘a bunch of expensive American experts’ who would waste 80 to 90% of the funds on overhead and profit.”

And despite the Post’s attempts to portray the US as “inadvertently” building a “corrupt, dysfunctional Afghan government that remains dependent on US military power for its survival,” it’s hard to see how other candid statements about the US military and agencies like the CIA “giving cash” to “purchase loyalty” from Afghan government officials, religious leaders and warlords viewed by many Afghans as “cruel despots,” don’t contradict that assertion. In fact, Herman and Chomsky’s study The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism found that corruption is a primary feature of US client states—like the corrupt Afghan government—with US aid and a favorable foreign investment climate being negatively related to the condition of human rights in these countries. Hence the numerous reports of Afghanistan being “open for business.”

Tellingly, US officials in the Afghanistan Papers remarked that while the US actively replaced officials seeking to combat corruption, or knowingly “looked away and let the thievery become more entrenched than ever,” and retained support for US-installed CIA assets like Hamid Karzai who committed mass voter fraud, US officials had a “dogmatic adherence to free-market principles.” This is supposed to explain why, despite their “good intentions,” they consciously imposed economic policies that enriched foreign investors and increased poverty, instead of policies that would help Afghanistan, because US officials considered them “incompatible with capitalism.” This is consistent with Michael Parenti’s study of US foreign policy (The Sword and the Dollar) finding that US commitments to “democracy” and “anti-corruption” are dispensable and easily abandoned (indicating insincerity), while commitments to opening countries like Afghanistan to foreign investment and free-market capitalism are uncompromisable.

But does the US have good intentions? Then what explains the Bush administration’s ultimatum to the Taliban on behalf of building a pipeline with the Unocal corporation to “accept our offer of a carpet of gold or we bury you under a carpet of bombs,” informing the Pakistani and Indian governments at least five weeks prior to the 9/11 attacks that  it would attack Afghanistan “before the end of October”? Why install a former Unocal consultant like Karzai as Afghanistan’s new president after the invasion? What explains the refusal to put Afghanistan on the State Department’s list of states sponsoring terrorism—despite knowing the Taliban were sheltering bin Laden—other than the fact that it would prevent US oil and construction companies from entering into an agreement with Kabul to construct pipelines to Central Asian oil and gas fields?

The immediate construction of US military bases and the resulting private businesses servicing them generated massive corporate profits for the military/industrial complex, and served as guardians for US corporations extracting mineral wealth—indications of a planned long-term occupation and a launching pad for attacks within and beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Explicit statements from the Bush doctrine—which continued to guide the Obama and Trump administrations’ national security strategy—explained that “real freedom” means free trade, the “moral principle” that “if others make something that you value, you should be able to buy it.” These are the serious, logically consistent explanations for the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

The Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers and trove of documents are worth reading through, but it’s also a contradictory mess containing many distortions and lies by omission. The scandal of the Afghanistan War is not that the US entered into and prolonged an “unwinnable” war; the scandal is that the US empire’s invasion of Afghanistan is a war crime in violation of international law, and has inflicted imperial violence on the Afghan people, and it would remain a scandal even if the US accomplished all of its ostensible goals. Even as the Post’s scoop exposes US officials as liars—and highlights the danger of credulously accepting their ideological framework—because they rely so heavily on those officials’ narratives, the Afghanistan Papers still manage to propagate the old colonial narrative of the empire’s good intentions thwarted by backwards foreigners.

There’s No Place Like the ‘Center’ for the Holidays

by Julianne Tveten

The Washington Post (11/25/19) presents the holiday dinner table as ” a minefield — just waiting to be detonated by political opinions.”

As the holidays approach, corporate media issue a spirited message to readers: Pipe down about politics. Major outlets repeatedly warn that family gatherings are potential hotbeds of political contention, and readers must be strategic with discordant relatives in order to prevent heated debate.

In November, the Washington Post’s “Have Different Politics From Your Family? Here’s How to Survive the Holidays” (11/25/19) offered strategies on how to “avoid detonating the room” with opinions. Last year, the New York Times (11/20/18) instructed readers on “surviving” Thanksgiving, with tips including “don’t mention President Trump” and “find the cutest thing in the room and home in.” The year before, PBS NewsHour (11/22/17) even produced a printable placemat with prescriptions for “civil” holiday conduct, with advice on questions like “how to end a conversation that gets heated or politically charged,” and “should we be having these conversations at all?”

Holiday civility guides might seem innocuous; after all, they ostensibly seek to foster relationships, encouraging people to enjoy food and play with babies in the process. Yet in so doing, they dismiss and stigmatize political dissent.

“Just watch how Judy [Woodruff] asks questions on the NewsHour every night, and do it that way.” (PBS NewsHour, 11/22/17)

NPR (11/28/19), for example, told listeners to proceed with “empathy,” discouraging political discussions because “no policy is going to change because of your argument about politics over Thanksgiving.”  PBS’s paternalistic placemat (11/22/17), meanwhile, includes a quote from New York Times columnist David Brooks that, ultimately, “politics is not that important.” NBC News (11/29/17) bluntly insisted, “Don’t talk about politics.”

These claims offer a glimpse into corporate media’s technocratic, right-skewing political conceptions. Preaching “politics isn’t that important,” for example, is a luxury only the most protected classes can afford—it’s not an option for those facing threats of deportation or SNAP cuts. In a particularly on-the-nose piece, the New York Times (11/26/19) designed a chatbot to coach readers on conversations with an imagined cantankerous uncle of a different political inclination from their own. Users can choose between “liberal” or “conservative”—which, judging by the article, are the only political alignments that exist among families in the US.

These appeals to “civility” evoke a common trope in corporate media. Outlets, including those mentioned above, routinely chastise anyone who would dare to condemn powerful figures without politely asking permission to do so. Several analysts have expounded (Citations Needed Podcast, 6/13/18; FAIR.org, 6/27/18, 10/31/18) upon this topic in recent years, observing how the media castigates those who defy elites—critics of the late wealth-hoarding warmonger John McCain, restaurant workers who refused to serve Trump’s former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders—for their perceived boorishness. It’s no wonder, then, that holiday gatherings are used as yet another opportunity to stifle discourse that might challenge the political establishment.

Vox (11/26/19) urges progressives to frame their arguments in terms of “in-group loyalty, moral purity and respect for authority.”

Still, in the interest of appearing objective, holiday civility entreaties often include some sort of scientific citation. On November 27, Barack Obama tweeted, “Before arguing with friends or family around the Thanksgiving table, take a look at the science behind arguing better.” Obama posted a link to a corresponding Vox article (11/26/19) that provided psychological “techniques” for political discussion, including finding an argument that “resonates” with someone of another political tendency, and making one’s ideological opponents “feel like they’ve been heard.” This, the story argued, would lead interlocutors to find their “common humanity.”

The article treated “liberals” and “conservatives” as opponents of equal moral validity, even including a tip on how conservatives could convince liberals to support an increase in military spending. (Say something like: “Through the military, the disadvantaged can achieve equal standing and overcome the challenges of poverty and inequality.”) The day after the article was published, Vox (11/27/19) ran an interview with psychology professor Joshua Grubbs admonishing readers not to engage in “moral grandstanding.” The piece touted centrists as model arguers: “People that are more toward the middle grandstand less so,” said Grubbs.

In its aforementioned holiday “survival” guide, the Washington Post (11/25/19) claimed that “science has determined that both incivility and kindness are contagious.” The article linked to another Post story (6/26/18) calling “rudeness” “as contagious as the common cold” and lamenting the fact that protesters would dare to “heckle” former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen at a Washington, DC, restaurant. The protesters, of course, weren’t “heckling” Nielsen; they were confronting her about deportation and family separation at the US/Mexico border. Still, the story implied they were infected by a general climate of incivility, and not acting out of outrage at the brutality—the unkindness, in Washington Post–speak—of US immigration policy. But the “kindness” corporate media are most concerned about is the kind deserved by the powerful.

For all this talk of empathizing with one’s conversational counterpart, corporate media never mentions one approach that might actually work: establishing a shared distrust of elites. A 2014 survey found that 82% of people felt the country’s wealthiest people wielded too much political influence, and 69% felt “working people” had too little (Associated Press, 7/13/17). But this runs counter to the establishment-boosting agenda of corporate media, which consistently encourages progressives not to find common ground on economic issues (FAIR.org, 6/20/17).

This shows no signs of changing. Just in time for the December holidays, Facebook developed a chatbot to control how its employees discuss issues like privacy and content moderation with their relatives. The New York Times’ coverage (12/2/19) could have decried the company’s attempts to convert its employees into 24-hour PR representatives during their holiday vacations. Instead, the Times toed the pro-business line, praising the bot for providing “answers to difficult questions” and for being “practical with personal technology advice.”

 

Corporate Media Find All the Wrong Lessons for US Left in Corbyn’s Defeat

by Alan MacLeod

Conservative leader Boris Johnson swept to power in the UK’s December 12 elections, winning 365 of a possible 650 seats. Labour’s socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn announced his resignation, after a bitterly disappointing night for his party.

Across the spectrum, corporate media all came to the same conclusion regarding the election: Corbyn’s loss spells the end for the US left and a “crushing defeat” (New York, 12/13/19) of the discredited policies of socialism. The press was filled with variations on the same reflexive warning to the Democrats: Don’t go left.

Indeed, CNN published three near-identical articles with that message in one 24-hour span  (12/12/19, 12/13/19, 12/13/19). The first, written even as polling stations were still open, suggested that “the Democratic Party may see a cautionary tale for the US 2020 presidential race,” as Corbyn “promised revolutionary change, a fundamental overhaul of society, heavy new taxes on the rich and a far bigger role for the state in the economy. Sound familiar?” It claimed he “took his party way to the left, leaving the more moderate ground where many voters feel most comfortable.” Going on to attack Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders specifically, it suggested that proposing a “state-run healthcare system” like Britain’s is a “vote killer,” and that Corbyn’s imminent loss implies Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg would be a better candidate.

Only a few hours later, John Avalon claimed (CNN, 12/13/19) the election was a “fierce repudiation” of leftist politics, presenting a “cautionary tale about the perils of polarization and the predictable dangers of embracing a far-left leader” who would nationalize key industries. CNN editor-at-large Chris Cillizza (12/13/19) offered exactly the same opinion, claiming Johnson’s victory should “make 2020 Democrats nervous,” insinuating that embracing progressive politics and Medicare for All was political suicide, and recommending a more “moderate” or “pragmatic” candidate than Warren or Sanders.

The chorus did not stop at CNN, however. In fact, surveying just 24 hours of headlines is enough to understand the message corporate media appears so keen for you to hear:

  • “Corbyn’s UK Defeat Was Bad News for Sanders, Warren and America’s Left” (NBC News, 12/13/19),
  • “Labour’s Crushing Loss in Britain Adds to ‘Too Far Left?’ Debate in US” (New York Times, 12/13/19),
  • “The Real Warning in Labour’s Crushing Defeat” (The Week, 12/13/19; Yahoo! News, 12/13/19),
  • “Boris Johnson’s Win Should Send a Message to AOC, Warren and Sanders” (Fox News, 12/13/19),
  • “Jeremy Corbyn’s Disastrous Loss Should Be a Warning to US Leftists” (Washington Examiner, 12/13/19)
  • “Democrats Pick Over Labour Loss in UK as Biden Warns of Moving ‘So Far’ Left” (Guardian, 12/13/19)
  • “In British Election, Lessons for American Liberals: Jeremy Corbyn Was Loved by the Left, and He Just Got Trounced” (Newser, 12/13/19),
  • “Blowback From UK Election Burns Warren, Sanders: Centrists Warn Corbyn Defeat Highlights the Dangers of a Progressive Nominee” (Politico, 12/13/19),
  • “Corbyn’s Loss Is a Warning to Sanders, Warren and the Squad About the Limited Appeal of Socialism” (Hot Air, 12/13/19),
  • “Corbyn’s Bloodbath Defeat in UK Election Sends ‘Catastrophic Warning’ to 2020 Dems” (Fox News, 12/13/19).

There are a number of serious flaws with the reasoning, however. Few of these articles note that the UK’s version of Medicare for All, the National Health Service (NHS), is exceptionally popular, and the number one source of national pride for Britons. The NHS is so beloved that more people would countenance privatizing the army before the hospitals. Yet CNN still suggests that Corbyn’s support for the nationalized service contributed to his defeat. Furthermore, Labour’s leader and its overwhelmingly popular manifesto were virtually the same as in 2017, when Corbyn led the party to its best election result since World War II.

 

 

 

The only substantial difference between now and 2017 (unacknowledged in reporting) was that, at the demand of the “moderate” wing of his party, Corbyn had endorsed a second referendum on leaving the European Union without taking a position on the question, attempting to straddle the Brexit issue in a way that alienated both Remain and Leave voters. Just like the Democrats in 2016, a move to the center proved fatal.

Furthermore, none of the articles mentioned that there was another party who adopted precisely this “centrist,” “moderate,” “pragmatic”—or any other media code word (FAIR.org, 3/23/19, 8/21/19) meaning “corporate-approved”—position, and they fared poorly as a result. Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, presented herself exactly as such, and suffered the ignominy of losing her seat to a 27-year-old rookie challenger from the Scottish National Party.

Nevertheless, there are certainly lessons that American progressives could learn from Labour’s loss:

1. Get ready for a coordinated media smear campaign.

British media managed to turn Corbyn, an elderly, vegetarian, anti-war pacifist, into a figure of hate, presenting him as a terrorist sympathizer, a Communist spy and a national security threat. One academic study of media coverage included an entire section entitled “Delegitimization through Ridicule, Scorn and Personal Attacks,” finding that 75% of articles misrepresented Corbyn or his views. And a report from Loughborough University found a relentless and overwhelming anti-Labour and pro-Conservative message across the British media in the election run up. Progressives who intend to challenge power can expect similar coordinated attacks from power’s mouthpieces.

2. The antisemitism smears are coming.

Jeremy Corbyn faced a torrent of trumped-up antisemitism charges (Mail, 7/29/19).

Media managed to convince much of the British public that the lifelong anti-racism activist is a secret Jew-hater. British historian Mark Curtis noted there had been 1,450 articles in national newspapers linking Corbyn to antisemitism in the past three months alone. The reason for the allegations, as the Washington Post noted in a since-deleted tweet, was “because of [his] strong statements on Palestinian rights.”

The barrage succeeded. When media researchers asked the public what percentage of Labour members faced official complaints over antisemitism, the average guess was 34%. The actual answer is 0.1%. When questioned why they were off by such a massive factor, respondents replied that they chose a number that seemed commensurate with the media coverage.

This tactic will be far more difficult to stick on somebody so stereotypically Jewish as Sanders. Yet media, seeing how effective it was in discrediting a progressive in the UK, have already begun attempting to smear those around him (e.g., Spectator, 12/5/19; Commentary, 12/13/19).

Of particular note is a Washington Examiner article (12/13/19) claiming Sanders’ campaign is “the most antisemitic in decades.” Its author, Tiana Lowe, calls infamous fascist troll Milo Yiannopoulos “awesome” and regularly boasts of her pride in her Nazi collaborator grandfather, whose organization participated in the Holocaust that killed Sanders’ close relatives. Nevertheless, the attacks, if not the substance of the allegations, must be taken seriously.

3. Solidarity with developing countries will not be tolerated.

Corbyn, like Sanders, immediately condemned the US-backed coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia, an action that drew the ire of an outraged pro-coup media (London Independent, 11/11/19; Daily Express, 11/11/19), who accused him of putting “Marxist solidarity ahead of democracy” (London Times, 11/12/19). Both men have been denounced for their connections, imaginary or otherwise, to Venezuela (FAIR.org, 3/5/19). Sanders’ history of solidarity with Nicaragua in the 1980s will be presented as support for a dictatorship. The left will have to have a response.

4. Building a movement to reach elderly voters will be crucial.

Chart: Lord Ashcroft Polling (12/13/19) (AB–DE represent socioeconomic classes–from managerial to unskilled labor.)

The Labour movement has managed to build an impressive network of alternative and social media countering the corporate press, reaching millions of young people, who voted 3 to 1 in favor of Corbyn. However, there was little concerted effort to reach elderly voters, who still largely rely on traditional media for news, information and opinion. This contributed to only 18% of those over 65 voting Labour, and the retired vote proved to be the backbone of the Tory victory. A similar phenomenon is happening in the US, where Sanders is the runaway favorite among the under-50s, but polls at just 5% among elderly voters, despite his commitment to the kind of social safety net programs they depend upon. Connecting with Boomers and Generation X, who use the Internet and social media for news far less than younger Americans, will require a specially geared effort.

5. Don’t unquestioningly accept advice from centrists.

Chart: Lord Ashcroft Polling (12/13/19)

Under enormous pressure from the “centrist” wing of his party and the media, Corbyn took a “on the one hand/on the other hand” approach to Brexit, the  dominant issue of the campaign. Rather than arguing that leaving the European Union was a necessary response to undemocratic, austerity-loving Eurocrats—or, contrariwise, that Brexit must be opposed as a xenophobic scapegoating of immigrants, the British equivalent of “build the wall”—Labour was induced to split the difference, promising to renegotiate a break with the EU and then asking voters once again whether they wanted to leave or not, while Corbyn professed neutrality on the question. Following the media’s insistent advice that the safe path is always somewhere in the middle, the position called to mind the line attributed to Groucho Marx: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”

Virtually every seat Labour lost was a “Leave” constituency, suggesting that Corbyn was hurt by Labour’s attempts to “moderate.” Turnout also declined from 2017 to 2019, and there are indications that the decline was greater in constituencies with more young voters—by far the most pro-Labour demographic group. All of the centrist defectors from the Conservatives and Labour lost their seats, as did the pro-EU, stop-Brexit-at-any-cost Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson—illustrating that the media center and the public center are not always the same.

***

While there certainly are many things that progressives can learn from Labour’s defeat, the herd of independent minds in the corporate press can see only one lesson, the same one they have been sending the left for decades (see Extra!, 9/92, 1–2/95, 6/04, 7–8/06, 1–2/07; FAIR.org, 11/7/08, 3/16/10, 8/21/19), suggesting the advice may not be entirely in good faith.

 

PBS Decides What Debate Watchers Need Is More Talk From Pundits

by Julie Hollar

Debates are framed by the questions the journalists who moderate them ask, and, as FAIR has shown, those questions have built-in biases. Some issues are covered more than others, some policies are subject to harsher questioning, some ideological assumptions are more likely than others to inform the questions. But at the very least, debates are one of the few opportunities most voters outside of the early voting states have to hear directly from the candidates without being filtered by journalist spin. Until now.

In the sixth Democratic primary debate (12/19/19), hosted by PBS and Politico, PBS doubled down on an unusual debate move: punditry during the breaks. It debuted the format in the last election cycle with a single punditry interlude in the middle of the debate it hosted with Facebook in February 2016. Now PBS—joined by Politico—is giving viewers not just a pre-debate and post-debate pundit roundtable, but three short commentary breaks at intervals during the debate .

The panel, chaired by the NewsHour‘s Lisa Desjardins, featured NewsHour reporter Stephanie Sy, NewsHour regular Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, and Politico‘s Ryan Lizza and Laura Barrón-López.

In the first commentary break, Desjardins marveled, “We hit the two big topics right off the top, the impeachment…and the economy…. But what difference did we hear?”

What viewers heard from the panel was Walter channeling Buttigieg in perhaps the most flattering light possible, characterizing his ideas as “really progressive,” but, as opposed to a candidate like Warren, not “measuring our boldness just in how much tax we are putting on Americans, how big the programs are gonna be, that’s just gonna come back and hurt the Democratic nominee.” Walter was followed by Sy, who accused Warren of not directly answering the economy question directed at her—which was, “How do you answer top economists who say taxes of this magnitude would stifle growth and investment?” Desjardins agreed: “Right, she’s the policy queen, so she has to also have some details.”

Of course, viewers may have noticed that Warren did answer the question; she said those economists were wrong, and—rather than explain the methodological problem, explained the logic:

You leave two cents with the billionaires, they’re not eating more pizzas, they’re not buying more cars. We can increase productivity in this country. And we can start building this economy from the ground up…. An economy that works, not for Wall Street, but that works for Main Street.

The dispute here is over a recent analysis released by the Penn Wharton Budget Model, widely covered in corporate media, that claimed Warren’s wealth tax would slow economic growth from 1.5 percent to 1.3 percent over a decade. But, as critics have pointed out, the model absurdly assumes Warren would use the wealth tax to pay down the deficit, instead of funneling it into healthcare, paying off student debt, and public infrastructure, among other things that would presumably increase productivity and thus economic growth. (One might also point out that “top economists” also drew up Warren’s wealth tax plan—and that the economists cited by Judy Woodruff are bankrolled by a raft of current and former CEOs.)

The panel was not entirely critical of the left, as Barrón-López pushed back in the second round of punditry on the idea—raised again by Desjardins—that Warren doesn’t answer the questions. But the centrists garnered the vast majority of the praise. Barron-Lopez followed her defense of Warren by noting that the foreign policy discussion gave Biden “an opportunity to show some of his strengths.” Lizza highlighted that Klobuchar was “ticking up in Iowa” (where she’s ticked up to fifth place in the polling averages); Sy later commented that Buttigieg and Klobuchar felt “fresh” on climate change, and that Biden was “able to play to some of his strengths” on China and on “cooperation” in Washington.

Remarkably absent from the first two rounds? Any analysis of Sanders’ performance, let alone the kind of praise the centrists came in for. There were literally two brief mentions of the candidate polling in second place, neither of which were followed up on: that Sanders objected to the premise of a climate question, and that there was a confrontation between Sanders and Biden. Desjardins asked panelists about the confrontation (without mentioning what it was about) in tandem with a question about a confrontation between Klobuchar and Buttigieg. The two Politico panelists responded, both exclusively taking on the battle between the fourth- and seventh-ranked candidates, rather than the one between the first and second.

Desjardins referenced the spin room twice during these panels, telling viewers they would be entering it soon. Unfortunately for viewers, the reality was that they were already trapped inside of it.

Messages to PBS can be sent to Viewermail@newshour.org (or via Twitter: @NewsHour). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

 

‘Responsibility for This Crisis Belongs on the Corporations That Have Created It.’ - CounterSpin interview with Sharon Lerner on plastics recycling

Janine Jackson interviewed the Intercept’s Sharon Lerner about plastic recycling for the December 13, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Those of a certain age will remember a TV spot in which a Native American man—the actor was Italian-American, it turns out, but never mind—surveys a roadside full of discarded bottles and bags, and a single tear rolls down his cheek. Memorable and impressive, the spot did a couple of things: It located the responsibility for pollution at the level of the individual—the litterbug—and it suggested that the big problem with these plastic bags and bottles was their improper disposal, and not their production.

But what we saw as a Public Service Announcement, and a fairly lofty one at that, was, in reality, more like an ad, intended to sell the public on a particular viewpoint, specifically to deflect growing contemporary concerns.

The production of plastics has exploded since then, tons of it in the ocean and inside sea creatures, as well as inside us. And industry deflections about the environmental and health effects of plastics production and destruction continue apace—including, it seems, the idea of plastic recycling. Our next guest has been reporting this difficult set of issues. Sharon Lerner covers health and the environment for the Intercept, and is a reporting fellow at Type Investigations. She joins us now by phone from here in town. Welcome to CounterSpin, Sharon Lerner.

Sharon Lerner: Thanks for having me. Hello.

JJ: I have to start with the “Crying Indian,” not just because I’m a child of the ’70s, but I didn’t realize how emblematic it was of what’s been a continued strategy of plastic industries around the question of waste. I wonder if you could tell us a bit about the backstory on that ad, and the context in which it appeared?

SL: So that ad ran in 1971, and it was put out by Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council. Keep America Beautiful is the group we think of as sort of a do-gooder group. Their mission, what they talk about, is keeping our public spaces clean and free of litter. But it turns out that the group itself was begun by the beverage industry, several soda companies, National Soft Drink Association, and it came at a time when there was the beginning of an awareness of the plastic pollution crisis on the part of the public. And it should be noted that the big plastics producers and users were actually aware of the fact that plastic was already accumulating in the ocean, and was quite an ecological hazard.

CIEL (12/5/17)

So that growing awareness helped spawn some protests in 1970 on the first Earth Day, and the folks who were concerned about growing waste—it wasn’t quite so much plastic at that time, it was mostly cans that were being used—but the whole idea of using disposable packaging, that you could have one drink of soda and then just throw out the thing that it came in, was really new. And already activists were becoming aware that, Wow, this crisis is going to affect us deeply. And they had a protest on the Coca-Cola company, and staged “ecology treks,” they called it, when they went to Coca-Cola’s headquarters with these non-returnable bottles, some of which were plastic, I think, and some, again, cans.

So here’s this sort of growing awareness of this problem, and in 1971, that comes out and really flips the whole frame, right. So what they do with that ad, and others before and after that really hit the same note, is they really squarely put the blame of waste on individuals, as opposed to the companies who produce the waste and profit from the products, and, not coincidentally, the same companies that are funding Keep America Beautiful, and funding the ads that are doing the shaming.

JJ:  Yeah, it’s interesting, because, first of all, it shows that there’s been an awareness of the problem of plastic waste since there’s been plastics; it’s not something that snuck up on the industry—which I found kind of interesting. And then the idea that this ad, that I think many people thought of as, Golly, here’s the industry proactively engaging one of the downsides, potentially, of what they do, and the idea that it was in fact a very targeted intervention, was news, to me at least.

SL: But beyond that, I would say that most people had no idea that it was coming from industry at all.

JJ: Right.

SL: That message gives you this sense that, Oh, we’re just concerned citizens who really care about stopping trash. Well, in fact, it was coming from the companies that made that trash, and nobody had any idea, there was no reason to suspect, that it came from them at all. It very effectively makes people upset about the fact that we are littering and destroying our Earth. But what it does is leave the viewer thinking, I feel terrible about my role in that.

What it doesn’t do—and what was going on in the background, at the same time, the beverage industry was actively fighting these proposals: one, to ban the production of single-use containers back then, but also bottle bills, which was basically this effort to put some of the responsibility for recycling the containers back on to the companies that make them. And, generally speaking, these companies don’t want that responsibility, both because of the expense of it and because of the hassle of it.

So very consistently, over the decades, they have fought these bottle bills, and very successfully. And  right around this 1971 ad, the lobbyists for the industry had effectively swatted down national legislation, or a proposal that would have banned, again, disposable containers, and would have put forward a bottle bill on a federal level.

JJ: Yeah, I almost skip over the fact that, of course, it was “Keep America Beautiful,” which no one was thinking of, really, as a front group, or thinking about front groups, at all, for industries. We saw it as just kind of consumers and concerned citizens, taking up the effort.

Well, we think of recycling as local, in some ways, I feel like that’s the association, when in fact it’s a big business which is of course international. And some of the realities that you and others have reported on, about the business of recycling, which is being presented to us as the answer—but the realities of the business of plastics recycling are heartbreaking, like the Indonesian islands where Coca-Cola has pushed their products, and they now are littering the ground. And then villagers burn that waste, literally poisoning themselves and the food chain, right?

SL: Right. Yeah, and another very upsetting point here is that in many cases, especially when you’re talking about Coca-Cola in these remote islands, it is sometimes Coke itself, but it’s also sometimes bottled water. And many places don’t have potable water, and thus are literally forced to survive on this bottled water, which, in many cases, we’re talking about bottles that they very successfully get to these remote places, but then don’t successfully remove from these places. And then there’s also a lot of really good reporting on the fact that these companies actually drain aquifers, and then sell what ought to be a very public human resource back to people in plastic bottles, at expense, and sometimes expense that they can’t afford.

Intercept (7/20/19)

JJ: It’s very dystopian, and I wanted to say, there’s no hyperbole here: You wrote, “Plastic waste is now widely understood to be a cause of species extinction, ecological devastation and human health problems.” And given that it’s virtually all from oil and natural gas and coal, it also contributes to climate change, and it’s in that context that we’re talking about industry PR to convince people that recycling is sufficient.

SL: I agree.

JJ: One of many things that I found upsetting in your piece from July was the way that the plastics industry is “gearing up for,” as you put it, “the fight of its life.” And, in fact, you were at an association conference in which the keynote came from an expert in actual warfare. What is that telling us?

SL: Yes, I thought that was an interesting choice. No one explicitly explained why they made this choice. I mean, this was someone who had been the captain of a boat that was under attack. And he told the details of this brutal attack, about the USS Cole, and then talked about, basically, his success despite the adversity that he faced. He talked about, in the end, piloting his ship away, with the national anthem blaring, and going on to victory—basically a “hard-fought victory” is the way he described it.

And I think that the plastic industry very much does feel under assault right now. Really, there’s a growing awareness of how immense and terrible this problem is we’re all facing. And as you just laid out, it’s a health problem, it’s an environmental problem, it’s a racial justice problem at this point, because of the way it’s distributed throughout the country and the world.

So I think what they are saying is, We’re not going to just be cowed by this, and in fact, we’re going to continue to grow. And that is very much the expectation, when you look at the production figures, the anticipated production and sales of plastic, which have already been skyrocketing over the past few years, as single-use containers become more and more prevalent.

And I think what’s going to happen more and more is partly because of the very, very inexpensive availability of natural gas that is turned into ethylene and polyethylene; you’re really just going to have this increase in production, because they can. So they’re going to be showered with stories like mine that are pointing out what they’re doing, but, in the end, because they can make this very inexpensive product, and make so much money off it, there is the anticipation that they’re going to not just keep doing it, but keep growing really quickly.

JJ: They’re battening down the hatches to take on negative comments that come their way, and in this, they’ll be served by murkiness or vagueness. And I wondered if I could just ask a point of information: Much of the plastic waste that we read about, in landfills and in oceans, it is recyclable, right? We shouldn’t be confused by this difference between stuff that is nominally recyclable, and what’s actually happening to it.

SL: Right. To go back to the point we were making before that, here is this battle. Well, the battle is being fought partly through legislation and lobbying and political contributions, but also very much through this PR we’ve been talking about. And it’s still the same double-edged strategy that we were seeing in the early 1970s, where you’re aggressively fighting to protect your profits and industry, while at the same time putting out of this greenwashing—really, it’s a great word for it—this spin on how you’re a caring company.

And this has been really amped up recently. If you look at all the big companies now, the plastic producers are making these pledges, and as you said, they’re coming out with, We have recyclable cups. And Starbucks was one, you know, No. 3 polluter, plastic polluter, in the country, I believe. And they came out with this huge, huge, patting-themselves-on-the-back launch of their “recyclable cup,” which is made from a form of plastic which is not actually recycled in much of the country. And what it did was it got rid of straws, which we all recognize is a very big problem, and replaced it with a lid that I guess you’re going to use without a straw. But it really doesn’t matter if it’s shaped like a straw or if it’s shaped like a lid; if it ends up in the ocean or landfill or being burned, it’s the same thing.

Sharon Lerner: “The vast majority of the more than 8 billion metric tons of plastic ever produced, about 80% has ended up in landfills, or scattered around the world.”

So the vast majority of all this plastic we’re talking about is recyclable. All the stuff that ends up in the oceans and being burned in landfills, is theoretically capable of, it could be repurposed into other products. But, in fact, that’s not really what we’re seeing. And so the vast majority of the more than 8 billion metric tons of plastic ever produced, about 80% has ended up in landfills, or scattered around the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s theoretically recyclable if it doesn’t actually end up getting recycled.

JJ: Your reporting also described some basic informational voids about not, for example, tracking or studying the additives that go into some recycled plastics. We’ve got children’s toys being sourced from recycled electronics that, hey, have heavy metals in them. And so there’s a whole lot of stuff that could be reported and revealed in that regard.

But I also want to say, if our real goal is to decrease plastic waste, and the harms of plastic waste, we do have some information about what works in that direction, don’t we?

SL:  I’m sure you’ve heard of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, the sort of pyramid of ways to address this. And, unfortunately, “reduce” and “reuse” have sort of ended up getting shifted out of the conversation, and we end up talking all about recycling and not about the other things.

I think very much if we want to address the problem, we really, really have to address it at the level of production. And I also think that we need to incorporate the cost of collection and recycling into the price of production and the price of purchase. Which is to say, at this point, the responsibility for dealing with the problems caused by this are on the public, right, and not on the companies that produce, and profit in extreme rates, from plastic production; and we need to make that shift. That’s, I think, at the heart of what we need to do.

And, of course, we don’t need the vast majority of what we make now. About half of everything that’s produced right now is single-use plastic; things like clamshells to go over, like, a cupcake or a baked good or even, you know, they go around potatoes, and, you know, bananas, it’s ridiculous the amount of stuff that we don’t need that is being produced because it is profiting someone somewhere, and not the public.

JJ: I just wanted to ask you, finally, about media. The Guardian has a series, the “United States of Plastic,” and it has some pieces like “US Produces Far More Waste and Recycles Far Less of It Than Other Developed Countries,” which was interesting. But there’s a serious admixture of pieces like “How You’re Recycling Plastic Wrong, From Coffee Cups to Toothpaste”: Toothpaste tubes need special treatment.” “Those little arrows? They don’t mean anything.”

I always hear a kind of implied, “ya dummy,” after these sort of things: Refuse to get a lid on your coffee cup. And I know that it falls under “news you can use,” but I just feel like every media invocation to buy a bamboo toothbrush needs to come with some sort of reality check. I wonder what you think the role of the press is or can be here? What sort of reporting would you like to see more or less of?

SL: Certainly my own inbox is deluged with, “Here is the product that you need to solve the problem,” and I don’t think, really, a product is going to do it. I mean, in terms of coverage, it’s really tricky with recycling, because recycling, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Recycling is a good thing, right, when it works. And the recycling, for instance, of aluminum cans has been very successful. Recycling of glass has been successful.

The problem is that recycling of plastic, this message has been so abused by companies that were basically trying to hide under this cover, that it becomes really complicated. I feel like that’s part of why my piece was too long, is because it is so very complicated. So I don’t think it’s wrong to encourage people to recycle; what I do think it’s wrong to miss the larger picture here, which is that the vast responsibility for this crisis belongs on the corporations that have created it.

And it is very hard to be a human being in our society right now, to eat and participate in the economy in any way, without being involved in plastic. You can try, and I certainly am trying myself, but it’s a struggle that can’t be solved by us, ultimately—us being the public, and not the producers of this stuff.

JJ: So I guess for journalists, it’s not one story; it’s a bunch of different stories.

SL: Absolutely.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with reporter Sharon Lerner. You can find her work, including this critical piece, “Waste Only: How the Plastics Industry Is Fighting to Keep Polluting the World,” online at TheIntercept.com. Sharon Lerner, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

SL: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

JJ: And that’s it for CounterSpin for this week. CounterSpin is produced by FAIR, the national media watch group based in New York. The show is engineered by Erica Rosato. I’m Janine Jackson. Thanks for listening to CounterSpin.

 

Marjorie Cohn, Dorothee Benz on Impeachment

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(cc photo: Master Steve Rapport)

The House of Representatives impeached Donald Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Impeachment is a big deal; if it doesn’t feel that way, it may be because the Trump administration has been such a blunt instrument that it’s hard to feel it can be contained or constrained by any deliberative procedure—and it also may be because corporate media have failed big time, presenting a critical story about asymmetrical power as a kinda boring, “both sides,” depends-who-you-believe Beltway story. And then claiming it’s the public that’s not interested.

We’ll talk with Marjorie Cohn, professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral and Geopolitical Issues.

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And many people aren’t simply looking to Congress—hundreds of thousands took the street in advance of the House vote, demanding Trump’s impeachment and removal. Their anger will continue no matter what happens in the Senate. We talked about the people’s work with writer and organizer Dorothee Benz.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at recent press, including the undercoverage of the National Defense Authorization Act, and corporate media criticism of Democratic “purity tests.”

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PBS Taps Journalist With Anti-Sanders Bias to Help Moderate Debate

 

Tonight’s Democratic presidential debate will be sponsored by Politico and PBS, simulcast by CNN, and moderated by Politico chief political correspondent Tim Alberta, along with PBS NewsHour’s anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff, senior national correspondent Amna Nawaz and White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor.

Politico and CNN have demonstrated time and time again their systemic and institutional anti-Sanders bias. Who can forget Politico’s piece (5/24/19) showing Sanders standing next to a tree with dollars for leaves, or CNN (3/15/16; FAIR.org, 3/16/16) cutting away from a Sanders speech to show an empty podium with the chyron “Standing By for Trump to Speak”?

Current Affairs‘ Nathan Robinson (12/3/19) pointed out a strange omission in a NewsHour campaign report.

But as an individual, PBS’s Alcindor has a long and documented history of hostile, unfair coverage of Sanders. Earlier this month, in fact,  NewsHour and Alcindor were criticized for their rather stunning omission of Sanders from a campaign story (12/2/19) that mentioned and showed images of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Sestak and Steve Bullock. Somehow there was no time or space for Sanders, who has generally been the No. 2 candidate, behind Biden, in polls of Democratic primary voters. The panel Alcindor hosted following the report mentioned Biden, Buttigieg, Warren and Michael Bloomberg, but, again, not Sanders.

This is far from an isolated incident; Alcindor has repeatedly used her articles, tweets and media appearances to portray Sanders in an unflattering light. She has used innuendo to suggest Sanders is too old to run for president or, shockingly, was partly responsible for a mass shooting. She has asked loaded questions to suggest that Sanders’ refusal to drop out of the race was sexist, perpetuated the evidence-free “Bernie Bro” narrative, presented Sanders’ supporters as “idol” worshipers and sanitized antisemitic tropes used against Sanders.

It should be noted from the outset that Alcindor is an experienced, accomplished and award-winning journalist, who did exceptional reporting on Trayvon Martin and the Ferguson protests at USA Today before being hired by the New York Times in 2015. (She left the Times for PBS NewsHour in 2018.) This stellar overall record makes her heavily slanted Sanders reporting all the more jarring.

New York Times‘ Yamiche Alcindor (6/14/17) seemed to blame Bernie Sanders for the “rage buried in some corners of the progressive left.”

In June 2017, in Alexandria, Virginia, a lone gunman shot and injured five members of  the Republican congressional baseball team, including Rep. Steve Scalise. The shooter—James T. Hodgkinson, who was killed by police in a shootout—turned out to be one of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers for Bernie Sanders. Alcindor used this to link the shooting to Sanders and his supporters in general, in an article that claimed, in headline and body,  that the “Attack Tests Movement Sanders Founded” (6/14/17).

FAIR responded with an Action Alert: “With Sleazy Innuendo, NYT Lays Virginia Attack at Bernie Sanders’ Feet” (6/15/17), and encouraged its readers to contact the New York Times and “ask for more responsible coverage of the Virginia shooting incident.” Media critic and FAIR contributor Adam Johnson explained:

New York Times reporter Yamiche Alcindor (6/14/17) started with a false premise and patched together a dodgy piece of innuendo and guilt-by-association in order to place the blame for a shooting in Virginia on “the most ardent supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders.” We learned…that the shooter, James T. Hodgkinson…had been a Sanders campaign volunteer, and that his social media featured pictures of the Vermont senator and his brand of progressive, anti-Republican language. This was enough for Alcindor to build a piece based on the premise that Sanders’ “movement” had been somehow responsible for the attacks, and was thus “tested” by them.

Johnson was not exaggerating when he called out the “innuendo” in the article, which suggested that violence was the natural result of the dangerous messages Sanders’ supporters get from “their idol”:

The most ardent supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders have long been outspoken about their anger toward Republicans — and in some cases toward Democrats. Their idol, the senator from Vermont, has called President Trump a “demagogue” and said recently that he was “perhaps the worst and most dangerous president in the history of our country.”

Now, in Mr. Sanders’ world, his fans have something concrete to grapple with: James T. Hodgkinson, a former volunteer for Mr. Sanders’s presidential campaign, is suspected of opening fire on Republican lawmakers practicing baseball in Alexandria, Va.

That shooting on Wednesday… may prove to be an unexpected test for a movement born out of Mr. Sanders’ left-wing, populist politics and a moment for liberals to figure out how to balance anger at Mr. Trump with inciting violence.

Alcindor also suggests that Sanders’ rhetoric is as hate-mongering and “dangerous” as Trump’s. Never mind that Sanders practices and preaches a philosophy of nonviolence, while Trump regularly engages in dehumanizing language, praised a member of Congress who attacked a reporter, and had his name invoked in at least nine physical attacks. What mattered for Alcindor was that “some of Mr. Sanders’s supporters had earned a belligerent reputation for their criticism of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party and others who they believed disagreed with their ideas.”

To support her point, Alcindor even quotes Michael Savage, an Islamophobic, homophobic, Trump-supporting shock jock, whom she sanitized as “a radio host” “on the political right”: “I warned America the Dems constant drumbeat of hatred would lead to violence!” And she quotes Bill Mitchell, whom the Weekly Standard (10/18/16) has called Trump’s “unofficial Twitter mascot”: “The Left in this country is ushering in a new #CultureOfViolence where violent hate is the new normal.”

Alcindor’s concern about politicians inspiring violence in their adherents appears to be highly selective. She never wrote a piece, for instance, about how Hillary Clinton’s campaign was “tested” by the actions of actor Wendell Pierce, a Clinton supporter who was charged with battery after assaulting a female Sanders supporter in Atlanta. Nor did she write a piece on an incident in which a straight white male Clinton donor hit a young woman of color with his hand and cane.

The outcry over Alcindor’s article was not limited to the Bernie camp alone. Many Clinton supporters, and even veterans of the Clinton campaign themselves, have pushed back on Alcindor’s comments. Brian Fallon, Clinton’s national press secretary in 2016, replied to Alcindor’s article by tweeting: “A hideous act was carried out by someone who backed Sanders. That doesn’t mean Sanders incites/condones violence.”

The sentiment was retweeted by Jennifer Palmieri, director of communications for the Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign.

Alcindor also employed a variation of the“some say”/“people say” dodge—so popular with Fox News—asking Sanders during a press conference in June 2016: “What do you say to women who say that you staying in the race is sexist because you’re standing in the way of what could be the first female president?” Sanders responded:

Is that a serious question?… Your question implies that any woman…who is running for president is by definition the best candidate…. Is your point that it is sexist for any man to oppose her?

Alcindor followed up, “My point is that if she has more delegates than you tomorrow…that if you stay in the race, is it sexist?” At which point Sanders replied, “I don’t think it is sexist.”

One can forgive Sanders for questioning whether Alcindor’s question was serious. Presumably she would not have asked Clinton if she was being antisemitic by standing in the way of what could be the first Jewish president—though antisemitism, not just misogyny, was a factor in the 2016 race. Even accepting Alcindor’s arbitrary “more delegates” threshold, was Clinton racist in 2008 because she didn’t drop out immediately and endorse Barack Obama? There are several reasons a candidate would stay in a primary race, even after victory is mathematically impossible—including, notably, an interest in shaping the platform at their party convention. To suggest that not dropping out of the race was “sexist” diminishes the real fight against sexism.

But Alcindor stood by her question, tweeting, “Some women think @BernieSanders will be standing in way of history tomorrow if HRC wins and he doesn’t concede. He got testy when I asked; Oh well.”

Talking Points Memo (6/6/16) reported on the exchange with a headline that parroted Alcindor’s framing:

And the Washington Post (6/7/16) wrote, “Sanders himself got into a testy exchange with a female Times reporter,” even suggesting that Sanders’ sexism was responsible for his response to Alcindor:

We can’t assume that Alcindor’s gender was a factor here. It’s possible that Sanders is simply sick and tired of questions — from anyone — that suggest he is stubbornly clinging to a shot at the nomination that doesn’t really exist.

The Washington Post (6/7/16) accompanied its headline about “Bernie Bros…Harassing Female Reporters” with a photo of a female non-reporter being confronted by non-“Bernie Bros.”

To make things worse, the Post article ran under the headline “The Bernie Bros Are Out in Full Force Harassing Female Reporters.” It was accompanied by a photo of a woman with egg dripping from her hair. A female reporter being harassed by Bernie Bros, as the headline suggests? No, it turned out to be a Trump supporter who was egged after giving the finger and reportedly making anti-Mexican remarks to a crowd of largely Latino Trump protesters, who had no particular connection to the Sanders campaign. Several days later, after the article and photo had been widely circulated, the Post replaced the image and added an editor’s note:

An image that originally accompanied this post on The Fix‘s main page and appeared in a video in the post depicted a woman being egged. Given the headline and context of this post, the photo could have been misconstrued as a reporter, which it was not. It was of a Trump supporter at a rally last week in California. The photo has been changed.

It’s hard to see how the photo could have been anything but misconstrued.

A few days after asking the senator from Vermont if his failure to drop out of the race was sexist, Alcindor tweeted that Sanders shouted “shun the nonbelievers,”  “stay in the race” and “Bernie or bust” at a rally she was covering. To be fair, Alcindor did delete the tweet and issued a correction—hours after it had been pointed out that Sanders had not said any of these things:

CORRECTION: @BernieSanders SUPPORTERS shouted “Shun the nonbelievers,” “Stay in the race,” and “Bernie or bust,” at rally. Tweeting late.

It’s very plausible that a reporter could accidentally omit the word “supporters” from a tweet. But it’s noteworthy that Alcindor made the same mistake on another occasion, tweeting, “Rosario Dawson mentions @HillaryClinton ‘s name and @BernieSanders boo loudly.” She never corrected or deleted that tweet.

Alcindor’s New York Times article (6/9/16) likewise claimed that “many” at the rally shouted the same slogans cited in her tweet. Several attendees  responded that they didn’t hear these chants. (Indeed, it seems unlikely that many people would chant the awkward phrase “shun the nonbelievers.”)

Alcindor wrote several other articles that presented anti-Sanders opinion as fact: “Inquiry Into Bernie Sanders’ Wife May Tarnish His Liberal Luster,” read one headline (7/15/17). “ Is Bernie Sanders, 75, Too Old for 2020? His Fiercest Fans Say No,” read another (6/13/17), which insinuated that only Sanders’ most zealous supporters, and not his normal ones, were OK with his age.

Alcindor co-wrote a news analysis (New York Times, 6/8/16) criticizing Sanders for a “speech of striking stubbornness” in which he “basked, bragged and vowed to fight on.”

One particularly negative article (6/8/16)—admittedly, a “news analysis” and not a reported piece—revealed Alcindor’s disdain for the senator. The article, headlined, “Hillary Clinton Made History, but Bernie Sanders Stubbornly Ignored It,” claimed that

despite the crushing California results that rolled in for him on Tuesday night, despite the insurmountable delegate math and the growing pleas that he end his quest for the White House, Sen. Bernie Sanders took to the stage in Santa Monica and basked, bragged and vowed to fight on.

In a speech of striking stubbornness, he ignored the history-making achievement of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, who became the first woman in American history to clinch the presidential nomination of a major political party.

The piece continued:

The raw math is brutal and indisputable….This would be the time, under normal circumstances, for a primary rival to acknowledge insurmountable odds, pay tribute to a prevailing opponent and begin the work of stitching together a divided political party…. That was the conciliatory message that a vanquished Mrs. Clinton delivered eight years ago to the day, on June 7, 2008, four days after Barack Obama had sealed his party’s nomination — a contest that was mathematically closer than the one with Mr. Sanders now…. Party unity, it seems, is the farthest thing from his mind at the moment.

Alcindor and her co-writer, Michael Barbaro, somehow forgot that before dropping out, Clinton said she did not “buy the party unity stuff,” and, in fact, justified staying in the race because Obama could be shot, warning, “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.” The New York Times (5/24/08), in fact, reported that these offensive comments “stir[red] uproar.” Yet eight years later, the 2008 Clinton campaign was recalled only as “conciliatory” and an exemplar of party unity.

Alcindor’s digs at Sanders ranged to the pettiest. She tweeted out a menu from Sanders’ chartered flight to the Vatican in April 2016, apparently to suggest that the rich fare offered made Sanders a hypocrite. It became enough of a narrative that Snopes weighed in on it, clarifying that “the menu was not any different from Delta’s commercial and charter flight offerings for Spring 2016.”

More accurately, the “community activist” was shouting at Bernie Sanders about “Zionist Jews” (Twitter, 4/9/16).

While Alcindor went out of her way to portray Sanders’ supporters unfavorably, she seemed to sanitize a Sanders critic who lobbed antisemitic tropes at the senator. In April 2016, while covering Sanders speaking at the Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, Alcindor tweeted a video of a man she identified as “John Prince, a community activist,” who “interrupted @BernieSanders to shout about gentrification.”

Alcindor left out some important context: As Real Clear Politics (4/10/16) and several other outlets reported, the man had been shouting questions at Sanders based on antisemitic stereotypes:

The Zionist Jews — and I don’t mean to offend anybody — they run the Federal Reserve, they run Wall Street, they run every campaign…. What is your affiliation to your Jewish community?

Her video captured only the tail end of the exchange, meaning that the “community activist” had already asked Sanders about the “Zionist Jews.”

If Alcindor’s first tweet ignored the antisemitic content of the rant, her followup tweet (accompanied by a more audible video) presented them without comment: “More of protester John Prince saying he wants to know about @BernieSanders’ ties to Jewish real estate owners,” she wrote, as Prince said:

The giant Zionist Jews… they’re buying real estate, and they’re selling it ten times the value. What is Bernie’s affiliation? Everything he says goes against Wall Street, the big banks and the federal reserves. Those are his family.

Alcindor’s uncritical framing of the protestor’s demands was condemned by several people on Twitter, Jews and non-Jews alike, including supporters of Hillary Clinton, one of whom tweeted, “#ImWithHer but I don’t want to give credence to these types of attacks.”

To be fair, Alcindor did refer to antisemitism in the article she wrote on the Apollo event, describing the “protester” as “interrupting the Vermont senator with antisemitic remarks.”  And Twitter is different from journalism. But at the very least, a New York Times journalist should be expected to clarify.

The kind of debate moderation we’re not looking for (Twitter, 6/27/19).

One can hope that as a moderator Alcindor will treat Sanders with the fairness that all candidates deserve, but the prospects are dim. After the June Democratic debate, Alcindor approvingly tweeted an exchange between Sanders and moderator Rachel Maddow. After Maddow asked Sanders about his gun record, the senator responded, “No, that’s a mischaracterization of my thinking.” Maddow replied, “It’s a quote of you.”

As former Rhodes scholar Maddow no doubt understands, quoting someone and mischaracterizing them are not mutually exclusive. Sanders was not claiming that Maddow misquoted him, but rather that she took the quote out of context, which she did, by only citing part of it. Even PolitiFact (7/3/19) deemed Sanders’ assertion of mischaracterization to be “mostly true.” Unfortunately, but predictably, most corporate media reported on Maddow’s retort as a gotcha moment.

Alcindor, tweeting the exchange, wrote, “Journalism at work, folks.” Let’s hope this form of “journalism” doesn’t dominate tonight’s debate.

We’ll be updating this piece after the debate. If you’re watching tonight’s debate and notice any examples of bias, let us know on Twitter by tagging @kthalps and @FAIRmediawatch.

To Corporate Media, an Exercise Bike Ad Is More Newsworthy Than 3/4 of a Trillion for the Pentagon

 

What little coverage there was of the National Defense Authorization Act tended to stress the family-friendly aspect of a bill mainly intended to increase the ability of the United States to make war (USA Today, 12/12/19).

What is more newsworthy—a decision to give the Pentagon three-quarters of a trillion dollars, or an ad for an exercise bike? If you picked the Pentagon spending, you may not have a future in corporate media.

The House of Representatives voted on December 11 to pass the National Defense Authorization Act, which is the spending bill that outlines the annual budget for the US military. The NDAA, which authorizes $738 billion in Pentagon spending, launched Trump’s Space Force as a separate branch of the military, included $1 billion more in funds for the F-35 fighter jet, and failed to halt the Trump administration’s use of military funds to expand the southern border wall. Along with setting the budget, the NDAA also forbids the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea; a progressive provision that would have restricted US military support for Saudi Arabia’s genocidal war on Yemen was removed. The NDAA passed the House with overwhelming support from both parties, with only 48 dissenting voices, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, voting nay.

You would be forgiven for not knowing about any of this, however, because the establishment media showed little interest in covering the NDAA. FAIR searched for coverage of the NDAA in ten of the most influential news outlets: the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, USA Today, NPR, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN and Fox News. During a five-day period (12/8–13/19) in the week that the NDAA vote took place, it received paltry coverage in these outlets, with a total of just 27 articles mentioning it. Only the Washington Post covered the NDAA to a significant degree, publishing 10 different articles about the subject during the five-day period. The other outlets published at most two or three articles about the NDAA.

Corporate media provided a forum for debate about advertising imagery (CBS, 12/4/19)—while failing to host a debate over the $738 billion military spending bill.

To gauge just how newsworthy the media found the military bill, FAIR compared the volume of coverage to another story that broke around the same time: the Peloton exercise bike’s embarrassing ad campaign. The ad’s sexism and elitism were roundly mocked on social media, and corporate media found this worth covering. From December 4–8, the Peloton ad was mentioned 57 times total across the ten outlets studied, more than twice as often as the NDAA was brought up over a comparable period. Fox holds the record for the greatest disparity in coverage: There are 12 different articles or videos discussing Peloton on its website, compared to only a single article (12/11/19) covering the NDAA bill. Only the Washington Post covered the NDAA more than Peloton (10 articles versus 5), while every other outlet gave an ad for an exercise bike more coverage than a multi-billion-dollar grant to the military industrial complex.

Even when media did choose to cover the NDAA, the majority of these outlets chose to focus not on the scale of the military budget approved by the House (a $22 billion increase from last year’s NDAA) or on any of the more problematic aspects of the bill, but on the main victory that was negotiated by Democrats: new provisions for paid family leave for federal workers (NBC, 12/10/19; CNN, 12/11/19; ABC, 12/11/19; Fox, 12/11/19; New York Times, 12/11/19; Washington Post, 12/11/19; USA Today, 12/12/19; NPR, 12/13/19). The pro-family element seemed to be the most newsworthy aspect of funding the largest war machine on the planet—just not as newsworthy as an exercise bike.

Afghan Papers Inadvertently Document WaPo’s Role in Spreading Official Lies

by Joshua Cho

To get the secret history of the media’s role in the Afghan War, you have to compare the Washington Post‘s Afghanistan Papers (12/9/19) with what the Post was telling its readers in real time.

The Washington Post’s publication of the “Afghanistan Papers” (12/9/19) unveiled over 2,000 pages of unpublished notes of interviews with US officials involved in the Afghanistan War, from a project led by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to investigate waste and fraud. Hailed by some as the “Pentagon Papers of Our Generation” after the Post won access to those documents under the Freedom of Information Act in a three-year legal battle, the Post’s exposé found that

senior US officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

The paper published direct remarks on the war by US officials who assumed that “their remarks would not be made public”:

“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to US military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”

While more explicit admissions of deception on the part of US officials involved in wars are always appreciated, one question rarely discussed among the reports and opinion pieces praising the “Afghanistan Papers” is what this scoop says about the Washington Post.

If the Post is now publishing material demonstrating that US officials have been “following the same talking points for 18 years,” emphasizing how they are “making progress,” “especially” when the war is “going badly,” shouldn’t the paper acknowledge that it has been cheerleading this same line for all of those 18 years? Doesn’t it have a responsibility to examine how it served as a primary vehicle for those officials to spread these same “talking points” to spin the coverage in the desired fashion?

FAIR has been tracking the Post’s coverage of the Afghanistan War from the very beginning, when the paper—along with the rest of corporate media—was actively following the Bush administration’s “guidance” on how to cover the war. In 2001, a FAIR survey (11/2/01) of the Post’s op-ed pages for three weeks following the September 11 attacks found that

columns calling for or assuming a military response to the attacks were given a great deal of space, while opinions urging diplomatic and international law approaches as an alternative to military action were nearly nonexistent.

Eight years later, FAIR (3/1/09) found that the Post’s cheerleading coverage didn’t change much from 2001, as 7 out of 9 Post op-eds and 4 out of 5 editorials supported some kind of military escalation from the day Barack Obama was elected president (11/4/08) through March 1, 2009, as the US was debating a “surge” of additional troops in Afghanistan later that year.

Another study (Extra!, 11/1/09) of the first ten months of the Post’s opinion columns that same year found that

pro-war columns outnumbered antiwar columns by more than 10 to 1: Of 67 Post columns on US military policy in Afghanistan, 61 supported a continued war, while just six expressed antiwar views. Of the pro-war columns, 31 were for escalation and 30 for an alternative strategy.

The Post offered this lopsided coverage even though there were several polls at the time showing a majority of the US public opposed the war, because they believed that the Afghan War was “not worth fighting.”

The Washington Post (8/19/19) has consistently amplified the talking points the Post‘s Afghanistan Papers exposes as lies.

The Post also has a history of facilitating official spin for the war. When WikiLeaks posted tens of thousands of classified intelligence documents related to the Afghanistan War, FAIR (7/30/10) found that the Post either dismissed them as not being as important as the Pentagon Papers (7/27/10), or absurdly spun the leaks as good news for the US war effort (7/27/10) because the “release could compel President Obama to explain more forcefully the war’s importance,” and because they “bolstered Obama’s decision in December to pour more troops and money into a war effort that had not received sufficient attention or resources from the Bush administration.”

The Post also buried attempts by whistleblowers and other journalists who were working to expose official lies and war crimes in Afghanistan. When US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning was sentenced to serve 35 years in prison for sharing intelligence documents that first exposed what the “Afghanistan Papers” are now corroborating, the Post, along with other corporate outlets, largely neglected Manning’s legal trials and punishment (FAIR.org, 12/4/12, 6/18/14, 1/18/17, 4/1/19). The New York Times, to its credit, did give Manning space for an op-ed (6/14/19) to explain why she risked her freedom to expose matters that the US military recorded but left unreported, including hundreds of US military attacks on Afghan civilians. The Post, for its part, found room to publish frequent op-eds by the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon (e.g., 11/16/09, 6/26/10, 6/3/11, 2/10/13, 7/12/13) spouting the same optimistic US official talking points that the Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” has now exposed as lies (FAIR.org, 1/3/14).

In fact, one major reason why the Afghanistan Papers are unnecessary to discern deceit from US officials is that—as Michael Parenti pointed out in The Face of Imperialism—when US officials constantly provide new and different justifications for invasions, it’s a sign that they’re being dishonest, not incompetent.

The Washington Post (12/9/19) declared that the US “adopted fatally flawed warfighting strategies based on misguided assumptions about a country they did not understand.”

The Post (12/9/19) admits this when it mentions that the US “largely accomplished what it set out to do,” with Al Qaeda and Taliban officials “dead, captured or in hiding,” yet “veered off in directions that had little to do with Al Qaeda or 9/11.” This is consistent with FAIR’s finding (Extra!, 7/11) that corporate media largely ignored the question of whether to end the Afghanistan War after the ostensible goal of the invasion—to capture or kill the leader of the group that carried out the September 11 attack—was accomplished in the death of Osama bin Laden.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Post’s Afghanistan Papers have inadvertently exposed the Post as a subservient accomplice in disseminating US official lies; corporate media rely on official sources for free content and “scoops” to subsidize their journalism, which often spreads dishonest but convenient talking points by these same sources to retain “access” to this information, trustworthy or not (Extra!, 5/02; New York Times, 4/20/08; FAIR.org, 12/12/19).

Political cartoonist and journalist Ted Rall pointed out, in an account (Common Dreams, 12/11/19) of being marginalized by corporate outlets like the Post:

“The Afghanistan Papers” is a bright, shining lie by omission. Yes, our military and civilian leaders lied to us about Afghanistan. But they could never have spread their murderous BS—thousands of US soldiers and tens of thousands of Afghans killed, trillions of dollars wasted—without media organizations like the Washington Post, which served as unquestioning government stenographers.

Press outlets like the Post and New York Times weren’t merely idiots used to disseminate pro-war propaganda. They actively censored people who knew we never should have gone into Afghanistan and tried to tell American voters the truth.

It’s this mutually beneficial relationship between the need for corporate media outlets like the Post for “access” to US official sources, and US officials who need corporate media outlets to propagate their preferred spin on US foreign policy to manipulate public opinion, that explains what the Afghanistan Papers expose as the Post’s own role in deceiving the US public. It’s why the Post’s coverage and editorial board can argue that the Trump administration shouldn’t “abandon the country in haste” (even though it’s been 18 years), and rally around the US’s “forever war” in Afghanistan (FAIR.org, 1/31/19, 9/11/19), even as the paper investigates the official lies the continuing occupation depends on.

Of course, this is also the reason why it’s systemically impossible for corporate outlets like the Post to take the opportunity to raise more substantive and provocative questions about whether deceit is a constant and essential aspect of US foreign policy, and not merely confined to isolated military invasions of “quagmire” countries like Vietnam and Afghanistan, despite the Afghanistan Papers providing a perfect opportunity to do so. To say nothing of challenging a worldview that invokes “winnable” wars, in which predictions of increasing numbers of (enemy) human deaths are best described as “rosy.”

There’s quite a long history of US media assisting officials in fabricating moral pretexts for invasion—from fictional accounts of North Vietnamese attacks on American destroyer ships in the Gulf of Tonkin (FAIR.org, 8/5/17), to conflating very different Islamic groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda, or claims that formerly US-backed dictator Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs and the intent to use them against the US (CounterPunch, 6/11/14; FAIR.org, 3/19/07).

Or, possibly, you’ve been paying too much attention to the Washington Post (12/12/19).

Observers note that the Afghanistan Papers “only confirm what we already know” (Daily Beast, 12/14/19), or that “the shocking thing about the Post stories…is how unshocking they are” (Atlantic, 12/9/19); even the Washington Post (12/12/19) reminds us that only people who “haven’t been paying attention” to the Afghan War are “surprised” by what’s found in the Afghanistan Papers.

Perhaps instead of pursuing FOIA requests to confirm the obvious, the Post could just interrogate its own contradictory coverage of the Afghan War and stop functioning as credulous mouthpieces for the US government. But to do that would also require confronting the lie that this entire so-called “War on Terror” has any moral credibility, when the US is a leading terrorist state that consciously pursues imperial policies that inflame hatred against the US to serve corporate interests (FAIR.org, 3/13/19, 11/22/19).

Absent that, an exercise like the Afghanistan Papers come off more as a “please consider” note to the Pulitzer judges than as an earnest effort to use the spotlight of journalistic investigation to speak truth to power and halt the ongoing, generation-long destruction of a foreign nation.

Reuters Shields OAS Over False Claims That Sparked Bolivia Coup

by Joe Emersberger

Reuters (12/4/19) highlights the findings of the Organization of American States—while omitting the criticism of those findings.

Organization of American States (OAS) election monitors  published a “final report” on December 4—22 days later than promised—on Bolivia’s October 20 presidential election, won by President Evo Morales. The tardy release of the final report contrasted sharply with the way the OAS rushed to impugn the election the day after it took place.

Only three days after the election, the OAS published a preliminary report that reiterated its negative assessment. On November 10, it then issued a press release saying the election should be annulled. In these statements, the OAS claimed that the change in Morales’ lead in the last 16% of the vote count was “drastic,” “inexplicable” and “hard to explain.”

By November 11, mutinous generals and police (combined with armed opposition vigilantes) had driven Morales into exile in Mexico. He and his vice president barely escaped with their lives. Morales’ house was ransacked. Since then, the security forces that refused to protect the democratically elected government have killed some 32 people to prop up the coup-installed dictatorship.

When the final OAS report on the election was belatedly released on December 4, a Reuters article (12/4/19) about it ran with the headline “Bolivia Election Rigging in Favor of Morales Was ‘Overwhelming’: OAS Final Report.” The only critic of the OAS report mentioned in the article was Morales himself.

But the OAS had come under heavy fire from US-based economists and statisticians ever since it began impugning the election on October 21. It’s impossible to learn that fact in 114 Reuters articles about Bolivia since the October 20 election. None even mentions the extensive technical criticism the OAS has received. The criticism should have received much more than a discrete mention in an article or two, but in over 100 articles, the London-based wire service didn’t even provide that. On December 12, I sent an email to several Reuters journalists and editors who have produced articles on Bolivia since October 20. I asked why that criticism has been completely ignored. None have replied.

On October 23, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) issued a press release asking that the OAS retract its comments about the election. On November 8, the think tank published a paper rebutting the OAS. Mark Weisbrot, co-founder of CEPR, followed up with an op-ed in MarketWatch (11/19/19) that said the OAS “lied at least three times: in the first press release, the preliminary report and the preliminary audit.”

On November 25, four members of the US Congress asked the OAS to respond to very specific questions raised by CEPR. On December 2, the Guardian published a letter signed by 98 economists and statisticians asking the OAS to “to retract its misleading statements about the election, which have contributed to the political conflict and served as one of the most-used ‘justifications’ for the military coup.” Did Reuters really miss all of this?

Not ‘hard to explain’

The graph below substantiates much of CEPR’s case against the OAS. It also exposes common deceptions in Reuters reporting.

Chart: CEPR (11/19)

The light blue dots are a plot of Evo Morales’ lead over his nearest rival against the percentage of the vote counted by the unofficial “quick count.” The dark blue dots do the same for Morales’ political party (MAS) in legislative elections. Following OAS recommendations, Bolivia has a “quick count” (TREP) that keeps the public updated, and a slower, legally binding count (the computo). The legally binding count was never interrupted. The TREP stopped being published at 84% of the count, but the electoral authorities never committed to publishing it past the 80% mark.

Morales’ lead increased steadily as votes from the more pro-MAS areas came in. When the TREP was stopped at 84%, his lead was 7.9 points. By the time all the votes were counted, the official tally had him just over 10 points ahead. The 10-point margin was crucial because to avoid a second round, Morales needed at least 40% of the vote and a 10-point lead over his nearest rival. Morales received 47% of the vote, which was in line with what pre-election polls predicted.

The two-point lead increase in the last 16% of the vote count was not “drastic”: It was consistent with a gradual increase in his lead throughout the election. It was also not “hard to explain”; CEPR’s precinct-level analysis of where the final votes were coming from showed it was quite predictable.

Parroting the OAS line, Reuters articles were deceptive. One article (11/6/19) stated the vote was “marred by a near 24-hour halt in the count, which, when resumed, showed a sharp and unexplained shift in Morales’ favor.” Others (11/4/19, 11/6/19, 11/6/19, 11/8/19, 11/8/19, 11/10/19) used very similar language describing a “halt” or “pause” to “the count”—thereby obscuring that there were two counts, and that the legally binding one was never halted.

“How Did Bolivia End Up in Democratic Crisis?” (Reuters, 11/10/19): Could it have something to do with influential news outlets uncritically spreading dubious charges?

Another deception in many articles was neglecting to tell readers that Morales already had a 7.9 point lead when the quick count was stopped. For example, one Reuters article (11/10/19) ran with the headline “How Did Bolivia End Up in Democratic Crisis?” It vaguely stated that the election seemed to be “heading to a second round” but after an (imaginary) “pause in the count,” Morales had a “10-point-plus lead.”

Notice how it’s left to the reader to imagine by how much Morales’ lead increased after the quick count was stopped. And Reuters also conveyed nothing about the trend. See the graph above. Morales did not have a constant 7.9 point lead for much of the election that suddenly jumped at the end. Nor was his lead declining when the quick count was stopped. The lead had been steadily increasing through almost the entire vote count.

The trend in the last 16% of the count was also extremely similar to what took place in a 2016 referendum on term limits that Morales narrowly lost—an election result viewed as sacrosanct by Morales’ opponents. In that election, there was also about a 2-point increase in the share of the vote for Morales in the last 16% of the vote.

Ducking debate

The Mexican government had agreed to let Jake Johnston of CEPR respond to the OAS final report at the permanent council meeting on December 12. The OAS refused to allow it. Johnston would have presented CEPR’s preliminary response to the 100-page final report. Reuters has thus far said nothing about the OAS ducking its main critics. Of course, to do that, Reuters would have to break its silence on the entire debate.

Among other things, CEPR observed that the OAS final report doubled down on its false claim of a “drastic” and “inexplicable” change in Morales’ lead; that the report focused on a “hidden server” and other “vulnerabilities” in the electoral system, but “conceals or fails to provide information” showing that those vulnerabilities impacted the results; that 226 tally sheets the report  claimed prove “deliberate manipulation” overwhelmingly point to a “well-known phenomenon: In rural areas and smaller voting centers, it is not uncommon for one person to fill in the tally sheet, and then have the individuals each sign it.” The OAS final report also shifted to claiming that manipulation occurred in the last 5% of the count, but Morales received a smaller share of the votes cast in the last 5% of the count compared to the previous 5%. Additionally, CEPR argued, his share of the vote in the last 5% was also “entirely predictable based on the prior trends seen in the geographic areas from where these final votes came.”

Incidentally, David Rosnick, also with CEPR, very recently refuted a separate statistical analysis that apologists for the coup have been citing—mainly on social media, since in outlets like Reuters, there is no debate to be followed at all.

OAS’s unmentionables

The bureaucracy of the OAS is based in Washington and is about 60% funded by the US government. In 114 articles, Reuters never mentioned this either. If the OAS were based in Caracas and 60% funded by Venezuela, do you think that would have been mentioned a few times? OAS “monitoring” of elections in Haiti in 2000, and again in 2011, was used to help Washington disgracefully overrule Haitian voters. The current OAS general secretary, Luis Almagro, recently blamed Cuba and cash-strapped Venezuela for huge protests against neoliberal policies in US-allied states: Colombia, Chile and Ecuador.

Morales, a close ally of Venezuela and Cuba, was gambling when he agreed to let the OAS monitor the election—especially given that the member states of the OAS have shifted towards right-wing, pro-US governments, giving much less of a counterweight to Washington’s influence within the OAS bureaucracy than in previous years. But not allowing OAS monitors would also have been dangerous, providing a different pretext for Washington and compliant outlets like Reuters to impugn the election. That could easily have resulted in the US imposing crippling economic sanctions—whose impact Reuters could also be relied on to bury (FAIR, 6/14/19).

It’s far more likely that Bolivia’s election was clean, and that the OAS audit was dirty, than the other way around. Unprincipled journalism from one of the world’s major news agencies has hidden that from a lot of people.

 

‘It’s Not Just About Sanders and Warren, It’s About the Issues They Represent’ - CounterSpin interview with Julie Hollar about Election 2020

Janine Jackson interviewed FAIR’s Julie Hollar about the 2020 election for the December 6, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Presidential election coverage is of course well underway, and is bringing us some of the tropes and troubles we’re accustomed to—a focus on horserace and “winnowing the field,” to the detriment of deeper attention to substantial concerns, and a general mismatch between the issues the public says they care about and those that news media choose to spotlight.

But the stakes of the 2020 election are incredibly high, with a sitting president who is a toxic hazard, and a Democratic primary that includes candidates talking about things that are traditionally taboo for corporate elites, including in the press. FAIR is following election coverage closely. Joining us now to talk about what we’re seeing so far is FAIR senior analyst for Election 2020, Julie Hollar. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Julie Hollar.

Julie Hollar Thanks, Janine, it’s great to be here.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris debating on CNN (7/31/19).

JJ: We hope that reporting will tell us about candidates’ policy proposals, and about their public record, in an ongoing way, and that reporters will be asking candidates substantive questions all the time. But the debates are really what many people see as the real chance to see candidates side by side, and to hear them answering questions in real time, and maybe disagreeing or contrasting their ideas with one another. So it matters a lot what ground gets covered in these debates and, on the other hand, what gets left out. What’s been your observation about the debates so far, about their scope and I guess their quality, the Democratic debates?

JH: I think, to no one’s real surprise, they’ve been pretty superficial, sometimes quite sensationalistic. I think CNN probably gives us the best example of that, with their WWF-style introductions, and the way they were setting up questions to really try to get the candidates to attack each other.

You do see a little bit of variety across debates, because you have different outlets hosting them, but you see a really heavy emphasis across all of them on healthcare and economy questions. We’ve been tracking the questions asked, and so we have tallies of all of these. And healthcare and economy have accounted for almost 40% of questions across all of the debates, which is really—you know, healthcare and economy are very important topics to people.

JJ: Right.

JH: But that is a tremendous amount of questions about two subjects.

So there’s sort of a second tier of international foreign policy questions and immigration questions, which, combined with non-policy questions—which are the useless questions that are asked, like, you know, “Ellen DeGeneres is friends with George W. Bush, who’s an unusual friend that you might have?”—that the outlets always seem to need to ask. That second tier accounts for about another quarter of questions.

And then your last quarter is the environment, race, guns, women—the sort of Democratic Party questions that tend to see a very small section, if any section, of questions posed in any given debate.

So there are a lot of issues that people are really concerned about right now. And there also are a lot of candidates right now. And so you have an inherent tension in these debates between giving viewers a real chance to get to know all of the candidates, and giving them a fair shake—candidates who don’t necessarily already have the name recognition of a Joe Biden—but then also really giving people the opportunity to understand what they really stand for, and going deep on some of these issues. That’s going to be impossible to do, when you have 20 people and you have lots and lots of issues.

We started these debates in June, you know; the first primaries are in January. So lots of time to do this, and I think the really obvious answer to the problem of “lots of people, lots of issues,” is to narrow down the issues that you talk about in a debate. And there are a lot of activists who’ve been calling for single-issue debates. And it’s a really obvious answer to this problem, but it’s one that the DNC has so far refused to entertain.

Guardian (8/22/19)

JJ:  When folks say, a single-issue debate, where you can really go deep and get very thorough, or more thorough, one of the first things that comes to mind is climate change. You can’t really overestimate the importance of that set of issues, it’s not just one issue, and the urgency of it—we’ve got the latest reports talking about “widespread catastrophic effects.” It’s obvious that we’re already late on action on this, and that’s going to be something that the next president is going to have to engage. But we haven’t really seen, and when we look at those debates, as much as people are talking about it, it hasn’t really come up that much in the debates, has it?

JH:  No, it’s been 7% of all questions so far. So this is the one issue that got the most attention, in terms of activism, for a single-issue debate. And the DNC chair, Tom Perez, he refused. He said it wasn’t necessary. He said he had “the utmost confidence” that would be discussed “early and often” in the debates.

We actually just, I think it was last week, took a look at that, and it’s not been early, it’s not been often. So 7% of questions—only one of the seven nights did it come in the first hour, that was at the 59-minute mark. So it’s really not being taken seriously in the debates. It’s passed over pretty quickly. When we count questions in our study, we’re counting not just the substantive, original questions that are asked of candidates, but also the followup, “And what do you have to say about that, Senator So-and-So?” kinds of questions.

JJ:  Right, that also counts as a question, and you still get just 7%.

FAIR.org (11/27/19)

JH: So when we’re talking about 7% of questions, OK, I think there’s been 47 questions [on climate change]. Well, really only 20 of those have been the substantive questions that are given a 60-second-or-more response time. When you get the follow-up question, the followup prompt, you’re given 30 to 45 seconds. Bernie Sanders, so far—Sanders is at the moment, of the candidates who are still in the race, he has the most ambitious and detailed climate plan, I would say, of the candidates at the moment, and he’s gotten five follow-up questions. He’s not gotten a single substantive question that he’s been given 60 seconds or more to answer. So this is not a way for people to understand the differences between the candidates’ plans here.

JJ: Some folks might think, “Well, but they had that climate town hall,” and they’ve had town halls and meetings on women, and certain other issues, but it’s not the same, really it doesn’t fill the same function.

JH: No. And those were great, actually. There were a lot of audience questions, which were fantastic; the journalists’ questions, some of those were unsurprisingly lackluster. But a lot of the audience questions were very probing.

The problem is, in a town hall, each candidate is given the opportunity to speak; they have the floor, by themselves, for however long, 20 minutes, whatever it is. It’s not an actual debate; they’re not confronting each other, so their plans are not really juxtaposed. And so it’s a different kind of perspective. And it’s a different kind of view that you get of these topics.

And also, their viewership is much, much lower. So yes, there are people who are really interested in climate, who are given this climate town hall, they get to watch it, they get to learn more about it. But a lot of people don’t have time to tune into a five-hour town hall to get these 20-minute chunks from each candidate. They want to see the candidates debate the questions amongst themselves, they want to see the differences highlighted; that’s the way that you really can make a better decision, an informed decision, about this. The debates get a much, much higher viewership than the town halls.

So, yes, town halls are important, and they’re great to do. They should be informing the kinds of questions that the debates are then asking. They’re not doing that; the debates have acted as if the town halls didn’t happen, except that they’re asking even fewer questions about climate now that the town halls have happened.

But, again, this points to the need for this single-issue—well, let’s have a two-issue debate, why not a climate and economy debate? Why not have a healthcare and women debate? We can do two things at once. The town halls are helpful, but not enough.

FAIR.org (8/15/19)

JJ: It’s almost like they use it almost like an excuse, that that was vented, those issues were covered somewhere else.

You mentioned Bernie Sanders. It’s almost a joke, if it wasn’t our democratic process at stake, how much support Sanders has among the public, but for corporate media, of all stripes, the distaste for him is palpable, and sometimes it has really amounted to journalistic malpractice, really. I’m not just imagining that, right?

JH: Back in the summer, Sanders called out the media for this. Actually, his campaign has been doing it for a while now. In some of the campaign stops, he was saying, You know, I criticize Amazon all the time for not paying taxes. I wonder why the Post doesn’t write good articles about me. The New York Times, they don’t write good articles about me either, you know? I wonder why.

And the media pushback on this was remarkable. They were so offended: How could Sanders suggest that the Post is not writing good articles because Jeff Bezos is telling them not to? And they’re comparing him to Trump, saying, Oh, it’s just like Trump, talking about fake news. Very dangerous to do this. So we put together a compilation of all of the instances we had covered—which is certainly not exhaustive—of this media malpractice against Sanders. It’s very clear.

JJ:  Sometimes they’ll have a chart, and his number will be higher, and they’ll just put his name lower; it’s kind of bizarre.

JH: Yeah, sometimes you’re just scratching your head: How can they get away with this? But Sanders wants fundamental change in the structure of power in this country. And the corporate media outlets don’t. The structure of power in this country is working quite well for them.

Julie Hollar: “Sanders wants fundamental change in the structure of power in this country. And the corporate media outlets don’t. The structure of power in this country is working quite well for them.”

The Times executive editor Dean Baquet recently told the Guardian that he had to “warn junior staff and readers against pushing to embrace left-wing candidates, like Sanders or Warren.” I thought it was such a telling comment. You notice that senior staff aren’t mentioned there, because, by the time you’re a senior staffer, you’ve already learned you don’t do this; you’re getting pushback when you start writing more positive stories about a Sanders or a Warren. Get a lot of pushback, you’re going to leave, or you’re going to learn a way to get the praise, you’re  going to learn the way to get the promotion. The fact that he can say that publicly and not think twice about it…

JJ: Yeah.

JH: …it’s very evident where this is coming from.

JJ:  It’s interesting that he specifically says he warned them against embracing a Sanders or a Warren; he didn’t warn them against anybody else. It’s a particular set of ideas that he’s talking about, and not just people, it seems.

JH: Right. “We can’t be seen as political. We don’t want people to see us as political. So we can’t embrace Warren or Sanders.” Because if you embrace Biden, you’re not seen as political.

JJ: Right, somehow.

If you combine media’s distaste for Sanders, and then the lack of urgency in the attention to climate change, you put those together, and you get this New York Times piece that I know that you and Jim Naureckas wrote about, where they were basically saying, Sanders—it was almost like he was “pandering” with his climate change plan, or that it wasn’t serious. What was going on with that piece?

New York Times (11/14/19)

JH: Right. The headline was something like “Experts Aren’t Impressed With Sanders Climate Plan.” It “Thrilled Supporters, but Experts Aren’t Impressed.” Yeah. Which is really a head-scratcher, because I think if there’s one thing that climate experts can all agree on, it’s that we need to take urgent action now. Right? That is the scientific consensus.

The article interviewed several experts—these were people like, you know, energy experts, a lot of them were academic, university-affiliated, energy, climate, some were business—but really, most of them did say positive things about Sanders plan, in terms of the scale, the ambition; some, it was unalloyed praise.

There were a couple who had criticisms of things like, in his plan, he wants to phase out nuclear energy, doesn’t propose a carbon tax. So there are specific aspects, the more technical aspects of his proposals, that climate experts disagree on, which makes sense; this is a complicated issue, and there are going to be a lot of people with a lot of different ideas about the best way to go about it.

But it’s so narrow and shortsighted to look at this, to frame an article like this, in terms of the details of the approach, instead of, you know, we’re talking about who’s gonna lead the country for a very critical four years in terms of climate, because, as all the experts are telling us, we have to act, well, yesterday, right?

But particularly when the next president comes in, we’re talking about, we either have a presumed Republican candidate who is an active climate denier, who’s rolling back environmental regulations, or we have to choose between Democratic candidates who have proposals that are on various scales. Are any of these at the scale that’s necessary? Sanders, again, has one of the most ambitious plans; I think a much more useful article would have put this into the context that it needs to be in.

Sure, there are experts who are going to disagree. But what’s the overall consensus about whose plan is going to get us where we need to be? Or whose plan envisions the scale of the work that needs to be undertaken? I think if that’s the kind of framing that you have, those are the questions that you’re going to these experts with, you’re going to get different kinds of answers. And you certainly wouldn’t get a headline like, “Experts Aren’t Impressed.”

JJ: Yeah.

JH: I can’t, you know, what would the headline be for something about Trump? It’s just hard to imagine.

JJ: The piece—actually, I just pulled it up—it actually compared, it had rhetoric comparing it to Trump’s border wall, right, Sanders’ climate plan?

JH: Right. Because Sanders expects—what was it? He expects the fossil fuel industry to help fund the climate plan. I suppose, and I’m trying to get inside the reporter’s head, the idea is, Well, that’s ridiculous, because the fossil fuel industry will never pay for this, just like it’s ridiculous that Mexico would pay for a border wall. When they’re really entirely different things. Mexico’s a sovereign country; of course, it’s not going to pay for a wall that we want to build.

JJ: Yeah.

JH: The fossil fuel industry, we’re talking about companies that have to pay taxes here, there’s litigation that can happen, and this is a very real thing. Why can’t we do it?

JJ: Exactly.

JH: Because they’re powerful?

JJ: Right.

JH: You know, it’s really ridiculous.

JJ:  And it shows the limits, really, of the debate, of the conversation, and when you go beyond the pale.

FAIR.org (11/14/19)

I just wanted to ask you, finally, and sort of continuing that theme, you wrote recently about this kind of—we see them all the time, but it just seemed like the “worried” articles are more worried than we’re used to. It really seems like media showing their hand; they’re saying, “Ooh, Sanders is popular, Warren is popular. We don’t really want that.” And yet they’re saying people don’t really want that. There’s a strange, you know, move to the right, I guess it’s the typical…

JH: Right. Well, journalists can’t express their opinions, right, in a straight news article, but they can call on sources to express opinions. So they call on all of their centrist sources. They have their Rolodex of Democratic establishment sources. So you have these articles full of, sometimes they’re named, current or former officials, who are very clearly the centrist wing of the party; sometimes they’re Democratic strategists, or advisors, or donors, you know, anonymous. But they’ll compose a story that is 90 to 100% these sources, who talk about things like electability, and things like what the people want. And it’s framed in these articles as being about the Democratic Party, they’re worried in the Democratic Party, that the party has uncertainty—which basically just erases the fact that, well, actually there is another wing of this party that doesn’t have the same worries, and is actually quite excited about some of these candidates. But by eliminating those sources from your story, you’ve painted a picture of a unified, centrist Democratic Party that then can offer all of these tropes about electability, that as a straight journalist, you can’t really write about yourself, you can’t say that. But your sources sure can.

JJ: Right. And it’s so strange, because it feels so disconnected from reality. They’re talking about things like Medicare for All, things like free college education, as being undoable or unpractical, but these are popular ideas. So who are they really speaking for?

FAIR.org (10/2/19)

JH: Right, and—if we have time—the one last thing that I would want to get in here is the real push against Medicare for All; I think it’s starting to be really effective. There’s just so much, it’s such a concerted, coordinated effort from the healthcare industry, that is being aided and abetted by corporate journalists, that you never see positive coverage of Medicare for All. It’s always talking about how unpopular it is, when, in fact, Medicare for All is something that a lot of people don’t understand all that well.

JJ: Right, right.

JH: And it can be framed in lots of different ways. And if you frame it in certain ways, like, “It’s going to raise your taxes,” then people are less in favor of it. If you frame it in other ways, like, “It’s going to lower your overall costs,” then people favor it.

JJ: Right.

JH: And most of the polling that was done, all summer into the fall, showed people being very much in favor of Medicare for All. But journalists sort of cherry-pick some of these questions that were framed in the more negative way, and talk about how it’s unpopular. And in the debates, the questions about healthcare were always framed in this way of, “Well, what about how expensive it’s going to be?” Warren was questioned repeatedly about, “Are you going to raise taxes on the middle class? Are you going to raise taxes on the middle class?”

And after months and months of this, you do start to see the polling, the popular support for Medicare for All, slipping a bit, which is unsurprising with this kind of coverage.

Within election coverage, it’s not just about Sanders and it’s not Warren, it’s also about the issues that they represent, and the issues that are getting the negative coverage that Sanders and Warren also can get.

JJ: Absolutely. Well, we will end it there. We’ve been speaking with FAIR senior analyst Julie Hollar. Thanks, Julie Hollar. You can find her work on the election on FAIR.org. Thanks a lot, Julie.

JH: Thanks, Janine.

 

For WaPo’s Centrist Sources, Progressive Politics Are ‘Purity Tests’

 

The Washington Post‘s function as a bullhorn for centrist Democrats continues full force this week, with an article (12/11/19) headlined, “As Democrats Trade Barbs on Business Ties, Some Worry Purity Tests Are Going Too Far” (or, in the print edition, “Democrats’ Purity Tests Over Business Ties Could Backfire: Some Observers Worry That Voters Will Perceive a War on Prosperity”). It’s a greatest-hits of an election piece, rounding up a posse of centrist sources to accuse progressive candidates of imposing “purity tests,” and argue that a leftist turn by Democrats will hurt the party.

The Washington Post (12/11/19) says “many Democrats…fret that an increasingly aggressive tone could ultimately hurt the party, potentially creating litmus tests and exposing candidates to Republican accusations of a war on prosperity.”

The article focuses on the Pete Buttigieg/Elizabeth Warren clash over transparency and ties to corporate America. This “growing battle” is “worrying some in the party that an escalating series of purity tests could turn off voters and convey an exaggerated disdain for business,” Sean Sullivan and Matt Viser report.

As usual, “some in the party” is corporate media code for “centrist Democrats.” Aside from the current candidates and their spokespeople, the piece seeks out almost exclusively the right wing of the party to judge the import and fallout from this scrutiny over corporate coziness. Sources include a fundraiser for Buttigieg and Biden, another Buttigieg backer, two Booker supporters who won House seats in swing New Jersey districts last year, former candidate Tim Ryan (who told the Post, “You can’t be hostile to business, to free enterprise”), and centrist former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Former Chicago mayor and Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, the epitome of move-to-the-right-Democratism, was prominently featured.

They balance this barrage with one “liberal Democrat,” a strategist who has donated to Warren.

But it’s not just the centrist sources that do the spinning. Sullivan and Viser themselves report that “Buttigieg was being targeted by protesters labeling him ‘Wall Street Pete,’ though the bulk of his career has been in the military and city government.” Well, then, those protesters must be loony lefties! Except that Buttigieg has raked in more Wall Street money than any other Democratic candidate.

(The Post might also have mentioned the incident that went viral earlier in the week in which a young voter asked Buttigieg, “I wanted to ask if you think that taking big money out of politics includes not taking money off of billionaires and closed-door fundraisers.” Buttigieg’s curt reply: “No.”)

The piece uses the term “purity test” three times (four counting the headline), which—as FAIR (4/17/19) has pointed out—corporate media use exclusively to chastise the left for supporting progressive policies.

The New York Times (12/11/19) is alarmed as “more Americans become disillusioned with the capitalist system that has made upward mobility a pillar of the country’s identity.”

The problem, according to “many,” is that “the party needs to do a better job of outlining an economic agenda that can break through at a moment when the labor market is strong.” But for too many voters, the labor market doesn’t feel so “strong” (FAIR.org, 11/19/19)—and for them, the Post’s notion of a “war on prosperity” must seem rather ironic.

Sanders and Warren are perhaps the only ones outlining a breakthrough economic agenda—with Medicare for All, a wealth tax and a $15 minimum wage, among other ideas—but that’s not the agenda the Post and their “many” friends are looking for.

Instead, you’ll find the centrist answer in this week’s New York Times opinion section (12/11/19), where Henry Paulson and Erskine Bowles bash those leftist plans and explain that we “can get America to love capitalism again” by “aggressively invest[ing] in our human capital,” “expanding the earned-income tax credit” and “restoring the sanity of our fiscal position” by cutting Social Security. Can’t you just hear the crowds chanting those words now?

Messages can be sent to the Washington Post at letters@washpost.com, or via Twitter @washingtonpost. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your message in the comments thread of this post.

Getting Away With Murder: ‘Clash’ as Media Euphemism for ‘Massacre’

 

Who killed whom? “Clash” helps journalists avoid answering that question (PBS NewsHour, 11/16/19).

After deposing Evo Morales in a US-backed coup November 11, Bolivia’s military selected Jeanine Añez as president. Añez immediately signed a decree pre-exonerating security forces of all crimes during their “re-establishment of order,” understood by all sides as a license to kill. Those same forces have now conducted massacres of Morales supporters near the cities of Cochabamba and La Paz.

Corporate media have been laundering and obscuring the reality of the situation by referring to these events as “clashes.” “Morales Supporters Clash With Police in Bolivia,” a CNN headline (11/15/19) informs us—painting a very different picture than “Police Massacre Morales Supporters.” The Associated Press’s headline (Fox News, 11/16/19) was “Bolivia’s Political Crisis Sparks Dangerous Clashes, 8 Killed,” over a story that acknowledged that security forces opened fire on protesters. Another AP report (PBS NewsHour, 11/16/19) that could reasonably have been called “Bolivian Forces Slaughter Civilians” (as the story makes clear) was, in fact, headlined “Bolivia’s Crisis Turns Deadly Again as Five Killed in Clash.”

A few days later, the Guardian (11/22/19) presented police attacking a memorial march for those killed as a mere altercation: “Bolivia Funeral Procession Turns Violent,” ran its headline, telling us that “marchers clashed with police” during the service. Who was at fault when death squads were let loose on the mourners? Who knows! And thus, an armed police attack so brutal grieving pallbearers had to abandon the coffins in the street is turned into a nebulous violent act, with no clear perpetrator or victim.

The Guardian (11/22/19) reports that a “funeral procession turns violent” as “marchers clash with police.”

“Clash” is an oft-used and highly convenient word for corporate media when they have to report on violence, but, for whatever reason, do not want to assign responsibility to any party for initiating it. This could sometimes be because they are treading carefully, unsure of the full context, but, as FAIR has noted before (e.g., Extra!, 1/17; FAIR.org, 4/2/18), the term is chronically employed to obscure who instigated the violence, launder power asymmetry, and give the impression of two equally culpable sides. As Adam Johnson wrote (FAIR.org, 4/9/18), “‘Clash’ is a reporter’s best friend when they want to describe violence without offending anyone in power.”

Across the board, corporate media have endorsed the military takeover in Bolivia (FAIR.org, 11/11/19, 11/15/19) and called for a similar action in Venezuela (FAIR.org, 11/26/19), constantly obfuscating reality by using the word “clash” when “massacre,” “repression” or “slaughter” would have been more accurate. Dozens of outlets, including the Washington Post (11/15/19), Yahoo! News (11/15/19), the New York Post (11/17/19), Time (11/14/19), ABC News (11/16/19), Voice of America (11/16/19), Business Insider (11/19/19) and a host of local media have followed this trend. This tendency is not explained simply because virtually no outlets have correspondents in Bolivia, and are therefore just repeating what newswires like Associated Press or Agence France-Presse carry, as alternative media like Democracy Now! (11/18/19) and Common Dreams (11/22/19) framed events as a “massacre” rather than a “clash,” and with far fewer resources, too.

A word for all occasions

Phrases like “Demonstrators clashed with riot police” (Wall Street Journal, 10/21/19) give protesters the active role and present police as passive participants.

Meanwhile, in Chile, US-backed right-wing billionaire president Sebastian Piñera has literally declared war on the millions protesting his rule, sending tanks through the capital of Santiago and declaring martial law. As a result, 26 people have been killed and over 26,000 arrested.

Here again, media launder and obscure violence from those it approves of by describing the events as “clashes” (e.g., Wall Street Journal, 10/21/19; AP, 10/22/19; Voice of America, 10/22/19) that have “led to” all those deaths (CNN, 10/23/19).

And when Israeli forces killed 52 Palestinians and wounded 2,400 on one day alone (with no casualties on their side) during the 2018 Great March of Return, media across the spectrum absurdly sanitized a war crime as a “clash” in their headlines (e.g., CNN, 5/14/18; Washington Post, 5/14/18; Fox News, 5/14/18; CBS News, 5/15/18).

Even when reporting on Israel’s assassination of a journalist (one who was clearly identified as such, as the article notes), CNN (4/7/18) still described the event as a “clash.” The journalist’s abdomen apparently clashed with an Israeli Defense Forces sniper’s bullet. On the killings during the Great March of Return, the IDF stated, “Nothing was carried out uncontrolled; everything was accurate and measured and we know where every bullet landed.” Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Times (3/30/19) still decided to describe whether the slain newsmaker was a “Journalist or Terrorist” as a question “Still Unresolved” in its headline.

As a comparison, Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock killed and injured a similar number of people in 2017. But there were no reports headlined “Dozens Die in Clash Between Partygoers and Gunman” in major media outlets, as this refusal to apportion guilt would be considered obscene beyond measure. Yet when official allies carry out similar violence, it is laundered through the passive voice and the use of neutral words.

Domestic ‘clashes’

CNN‘s headline (11/21/16) blames not police but “clashes” for turning violent.

It is not just in foreign affairs that the technique is used. During the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, state violence against demonstrators was consistently passed off as a “clash” between purported equals (e.g., New York Times, 11/1/16; CNN, 11/21/16; PBS NewsHour, 11/21/16). The Guardian’s headline (11/21/16) on the situation read, “Hundreds Clash With Police Over Dakota Access Pipeline,” with the subhead going on to note: “Protesters opposing the controversial pipeline reported being hit with teargas, rubber bullets and percussion grenades during the standoff.” Oh no! Somebody better arrest those violent bullets and grenades!

Likewise, FAIR (8/17/17) noted  that numerous outlets chose to refer to the premeditated attack by a white nationalist plowing his car into a crowd of protestors in Charlottesville as a “clash.” And further back, a CBS News segment (11/18/11) clearly showing baton-wielding police cracking heads at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York City was presented as a “clash” by the network.

Discerning media consumers should immediately be wary when they hear the word “clash.” All too often, it is used as a method of downplaying or sterilizing violence that media essentially approve of, similar to the way media use the passive voice to describe police killings—“man dies from bullet in officer-involved shooting,” etc. (FAIR.org, 1/30/18). It has the effect of removing all agency or guilt from parties involved, in a way that certainly would not be afforded to official enemies carrying out similar actions, where words like “crackdown,” “suppression” or “onslaught” would be used.

Words matter, and how issues are presented to us has an enormous effect on public opinion and in shaping society. In a very real sense, by muddying the waters, media are literally helping the powerful getting away with murder.

 

 

 

Sharon Lerner on Plastic Recycling

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(cc photo: Matthewdikmans)

This week on CounterSpin: In case you missed it: November 15 was America Recycles Day, in which, Newsweek explained, “thousands of communities participate by promoting environmental citizenship and taking action to increase and improve recycling.”  If your skepticism were piqued by the day’s enthusiastic promotion by Trump EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler and Trump himself, perhaps you’d be assuaged by the fact that the group behind America Recycles Day is the veteran nonprofit Keep America Beautiful. Until you realize, that is, that that group is backed by beverage and packaging companies like Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Altria (formerly Phillip Morris), all eager to persuade the public that recycling is an adequate response to the devastating environmental impact of plastic waste, of which they are fixing to create a great deal more.

Plastics producers like Coke and Nestlé are huge media sponsors, and no-holds-barred reporting about their behind-the-scenes efforts isn’t exactly thick on the ground, but it needs to be. We talk this week to one reporter keeping an eye on these things: Sharon Lerner, health and environment reporter at the Intercept and a reporting fellow at Type Investigations—about plastic recycling, and what it does and doesn’t have to do with you.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look back at recent coverage of charter schools and the election.

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For Corporate Media, Voters Are Obstacle to Buttigieg’s Centrist Rise

by Joshua Cho

After polling averages showed him as a frontrunner in the Iowa and New Hampshire Democratic nomination contests, journalists predicted South Bend, Indiana, mayor, presidential candidate and “media darling” Pete Buttigieg would be in the hot seat at last month’s MSNBC/Washington Post debate in Atlanta.

Politico (11/19/19) predicted a “glare of additional scrutiny” for Pete Buttigieg that did not materialize in the subsequent debate.

“‘Everyone’s Going to Come for Pete’: Buttigieg Faces Debate Spotlight,” declared Politico (11/19/19), claiming the candidate’s “fast rise in recent early-state polls has come with new scrutiny and made him a big target.” Besides the “surge” that made him “a serious threat to the top Democratic presidential candidates” (and thus “makes the debate a serious threat for him”), there had just been what Politico described as a “dust-up”: Buttigieg, whose support among African Americans nationally was, as recently as August, roughly 0% (and who had quite possibly leaked a memo putting that down to black people’s homophobia), had been promoting his “Douglass Plan for Black America” in materials that deceptively implied the endorsement of hundreds of black South Carolinians. All three of the prominent leaders named at the top of one press release (Intercept, 11/15/19) said they were misrepresented.

But despite having a black moderator, and being in a majority-black city, the MSNBC/Washington Post debate only directed a single vaguely worded question about “Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s outreach to African-American voters” to Kamala Harris, with Buttigieg never being directly asked about the Intercept’s report that his campaign fabricated endorsements from prominent black leaders in South Carolina.

The alleged “Buttigieg boom” may now be crumbling under the candidate’s stubborn opacity around his funders and great swaths of his career, as well as the entry into the field of fellow smug centrist Michael Bloomberg. Such as it was, the phenomenon was based largely on two small, white states early in the primary process; Buttigieg showed few signs of breaking out of 4th place—either nationally, or in the larger and more diverse states, like California, that are more representative of the Democratic electorate.

But corporate media have a practice of outsizing the attractiveness and viability of  centrist candidates, including shielding them from critical examination (FAIR.org, 7/3/19).

Politico (4/17/19) lists among the reasons corporate media love Buttigieg “he’s figured out how to package progressive ideas as moderate”—but more accurately it’s the other way around.

Before suggesting his early wins might put him in their crosshairs, Politico‘s Jack Shafer (4/17/19) had explained media’s coddling of Buttigieg’s candidacy by relating it to the favorable treatment of corporate media’s “previous political shooting star,” former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke. “Why the Media Dumped Beto for Mayor Pete” offered a self-conscious list of press-attracting qualities: “plays a decent piano,” “once gave a TEDx talk,” “an old person’s idea of what a young person should be like.” The press corps’

transition to Buttigieg has been seamless, finding in him another candidate who speaks complete sentences, who likes the camera almost as much as it likes him, who subscribes to the usual Democratic articles of faith and scans like a lost episode of The West Wing….

Finally, whenever national political reporters look at the ambitious, conspicuously educated, ticket-punching, aggressively tame candidate Buttigieg, they can’t help but see themselves. Think of their coverage as modest self-assessments.

Savvy enough. However, as FAIR (Extra!, 10/89) has long documented, and as Politico founding editor John Harris (11/7/19) recently admitted, the

pervasive force shaping coverage of Washington and elections is what might be thought of as centrist bias, flowing from reporters and sources alike.

In other words, when Politico admits that national political reporters “see themselves” when they look at Buttigieg—who has, e.g., flip-flopped to attack Medicare for All because it would remove “choice,” and more importantly would hurt the profits of the for-profit healthcare industry that is increasingly bankrolling his campaign—we should keep in mind that this identification includes, along with his piano-playing, his status quo, top-down corporate politics on issues from austerity to foreign policy, and his ability to sell this anti-change paradigm while sounding like a visionary.

The emphasis on Buttigieg’s persona at the expense of his policies (to the extent he has actually proposed any) is hardly unique to Politico’s report.  It dovetails neatly with the  denatured horserace coverage corporate media love so much, that often portrays a lack of voter support as an obstacle to their preferred centrists’ ascent, rather than evidence of a problem with the centrists for not supporting a progressive political agenda representative of most voters. And then, to the extent these media outlets focus on issues, they often reverse reality by describing politicians who do support popular progressive policies as “divisive,” “unelectable” or “unrealistic” (FAIR.org, 7/2/19, 7/30/19, 10/25/19).

Los Angeles Times (11/10/19): “As other presidential candidates promise free healthcare, college debt relief and sweeping new taxes on the ultra-rich, Pete Buttigieg is drawing large crowds with a different angle.”

The Los Angeles Times (11/10/19) reassured readers that, with “many Democrats growing anxious that an uncompromising progressive at the top of the ticket could push swing states into President Trump’s hands,” Buttigieg is talking “moderation and reconciliation.”

A report on the “37-year-old wonderboy” by CNN’s Chris Cillizza (11/12/19) focused vapidly on whether Buttigieg can “sustain his momentum,” and what “could possibly rain on the Pete parade,” while offering no analysis of what policies Buttigieg actually supports.

Time’s profile, “Mayor Pete’s Unlikely, Untested, Unprecedented Presidential Campaign” (5/2/19), openly admitted that Buttigieg’s campaign “is more about who he is” and “what he represents” than “what he’ll do if he’s president,” given that “unlike many of his opponents, he hasn’t posted any detailed policy proposals on his website.” Time noted that “winning voters of color may be difficult,” supposedly because Buttigieg is a “white guy” running against “black senators,” and other white guys like Joe Biden who have “long-standing relationships in black communities”—not because his mayoral record and presidential campaign suggest that he doesn’t value people of color or what they want.

Politico (11/19/19) presented Buttigieg’s “failure to gain traction” with black people as primarily a potential weapon for his opponents, who might “link” it to his electability. Bloomberg’s report, “Pete Buttigieg Embraces Top-Tier Status With New Message of Unity” (11/5/19), similarly described “his lack of support among black voters” as “a significant hurdle for Buttigieg”—framing voters’ lack of interest as an obstacle to a politicians’ ambitions, rather than as an expression of democratic preference.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal (11/11/19) declared that the “hottest Democratic presidential candidate right now is Pete Buttigieg,” and suggested that because people believe mayors can’t hide “from either problems or their own decisions,” that relatively small-arena experience could “be more political asset than liability.” The New York Times’ “Pete Buttigieg Tests 230 Years of History: Why Can’t a Mayor Be President?” (11/18/19) echoed the Journal by daringly speculating that the “vagueness” of being a mayor of a “less well-known” place like South Bend “may be an asset” in overcoming the fact that Americans have “never elected a sitting mayor to the presidency.”

USA Today’s “Rising Star? Seven Hurdles Facing Democrat Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 Presidential Campaign” (4/14/19) listed among these “Running as a White Male,” as if belonging to the same demographic group as 33 out of 35 previous nominees was a particular hardship. Not considered such a “hurdle”: his lack of support for a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college or taxing the wealthy, despite all these policies being popular with voters, particularly Democratic ones (In These Times, 11/15/19).

USA Today (11/18/19) claimed that Buttigieg was “winning over voters” with his “message of unity and pragmatism.”

USA Today’s later front-page article, “Buttigieg Has Voters Seeing and Believing” (11/18/19), labored to disengage the personal and political in Buttigieg’s sexual orientation. “It’s that combination of attributes—moderate, high-achieving and a person of faith—that makes Buttigieg far more than a one-note candidate,” the story states, countering a claim made by no one in particular. Sources claim both that Buttigieg’s candidacy is a “game changer” for LGBTQ Americans and that he’s “not running as a gay candidate”—echoing the way pundits back in 2007 marveled that Barack Obama was black, but “has never positioned himself as the black candidate” (Extra!, 3–4/07).

“Buttigieg has stood out,” the paper tells us, “not for being gay but for winning over voters with his intelligence, message of unity and pragmatism.” The proffered examples are his call for “Medicare for all who want it,” his opposition to free college and his view of the Green New Deal as a “set of goals” for addressing climate change, but “not as a way to overhaul the economy.”

Compare and contrast coverage of Buttigieg with the constant reports of a besieged Sanders campaign teetering on the brink of collapse, that is “struggling” despite continually being among the top three candidates in national polling, breaking records for individual donations and having the largest crowd sizes at rallies. FAIR (5/25/16) found that one of corporate media’s more cynical talking points in the 2016 election cycle was that Sanders hadn’t been properly “vetted” with proper scrutiny and criticism, despite plenty of contrary evidence. Corporate media concern trolled about his “electability,” even though polls at the time consistently showed that Sanders had a higher chance of beating Donald Trump in a general election (FAIR.org, 11/11/16). Notice that while corporate media speculation about liabilities with Buttigieg’s candidacy have almost nothing to do with his milquetoast platform, their objections to Bernie Sanders’ candidacy have very much to do with his “too far left” progressive agenda.

One can hardly imagine how corporate media would’ve treated Bernie Sanders if he had been caught fabricating major black endorsements following reports of struggling with black voters. If he had been caught flip-flopping on issues like Medicare for All while taking money from billionaires (Fortune, 10/24/19; Common Dreams, 11/22/19), on the other hand, corporate media might even praise Sanders for being “pragmatic” just like Buttigieg. Such outlets, after all, don’t care as much about winning elections as they do about blocking the threat of a progressive political movement (FAIR.org, 4/16/19, 8/21/19).

ABC’s Epstein Story Didn’t Kill Itself

New York (10/28/02) hyped Jeffrey Epstein as a “relentless brain” with a “keen eye for the ladies.”

Multimillionaire predator Jeffrey Epstein died in suspicious circumstances at a Manhattan correctional facility on August 10. The wealthy and powerful New York financier, a convicted sex offender, stands accused by dozens of women and girls of trafficking, rape and sexual abuse. He was an enormously influential and well-connected man who counted as friends billionaire business owners, Hollywood stars, British royals, and even top media figures like Katie Couric and Charlie Rose—with some of his associates falling under suspicion of condoning or even participating in a pedophile ring.

“I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy,” said fellow tycoon Donald Trump (New York, 10/28/02), adding: “It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” Former President Bill Clinton was also close with Epstein.

Epstein’s crimes shocked the public, and his arrest, trial and mysterious death were major stories for much of 2019. But last month, leaked footage emerged showing that corporate media knew much about these crimes years previously. Discussing one of his accusers, ABC News anchor Amy Robach was caught on camera lambasting executives at her network for killing her investigations into the sex offender because of Epstein’s connections. The clip was originally leaked to infamous right-wing troll James O’Keefe, who has a long history of producing bogus stories (FAIR.org, 4/1/10, 3/14/11, 12/12/15, 10/21/16), but ABC employees, including Robach herself, have confirmed its authenticity. In the video, Robach complains:

Amy Robach: “I’ve had the [Epstein] story for three years.”

I’ve had the story for three years. I’ve had this interview with [Epstein complainant] Virginia Roberts. We would not put it on the air. First of all I was told, “Who is Jeffrey Epstein? No one knows who that is. This is a stupid story.” Then the palace found out that we had her whole allegations about Prince Andrew, and threatened us in a million different ways. We were so afraid we wouldn’t be able to interview Kate and Will that it also quashed the story. And then Alan Dershowitz was also implicated in it because of the planes.

“The planes” is a reference to the celebrity attorney’s frequent trips on Epstein’s infamous private jet, which he used for trafficking. A visibly exasperated Robach continued, revealing the level of detail of her investigation:

She told me everything, she had pictures, everything. She was in hiding for 12 years. We convinced her to come out. We convinced her to talk to us. It was unbelievable what we had; Clinton, we had everything. I tried for three years to get it on to no avail, and now it’s all coming out and it’s like these new revelations, and I freaking had all of it!… What we had was unreal.

Robach’s comments about being pressured into killing the story by powerful people ABC relied upon are a perfect example of the perils of access journalism. In their influential book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky identified “sourcing” and “flak” as two of the five key filters that dictate what makes the news and what does not.

By sourcing, Herman and Chomsky are referring to corporate media’s reliance on powerful official sources (like politicians, celebrities and corporations) to essentially subsidize them by providing them with free content, such as interviews, soundbites, statistics and pictures. Journalists are therefore caught up in a symbiotic relationship with the powerful, where elite sources grant “scoops” in exchange for preferential treatment. The royal family, Robach claims, successfully used the influence it had, quashing the story by threatening to cut off access.

It is also particularly easy for the powerful to generate flak—negative responses to media content. Flak can take the form of boycotts, angry phone calls, lawsuits, smear campaigns and more. One particularly alarming form of “flak” was the 2018 US mail bombing attempt, where a Trump supporter sent a bomb to CNN headquarters in response to its negative coverage of the president.

Robach brought up Dershowitz, a famously litigious lawyer, as a reason for her silencing. But ABC could reasonably expect great resistance from many of those connected to Epstein, one more example of how stories scrutinizing the powerful are discouraged in the modern media landscape.

ABC News would later claim that they never nixed the story, stating that at the time of Robach’s comments,

not all of our reporting met our standards to air, but we have never stopped investigating the story.  Ever since we’ve had a team on this investigation and substantial resources dedicated to it. That work has led to a two-hour documentary and six-part podcast that will air in the new year.

Former producer Ashley Bianco (MK, 11/8/19), who denies sharing the Robach tape with anyone outside ABC News.

After the video went viral, CBS News fired its producer Ashley Bianco after ABC contacted them, asserting (possibly incorrectly) that she had leaked the tape during her time working on Robach’s show. Top executives at ABC are reportedly “freaking out” over the anonymous employee’s identity, spending far more energy and resources trying to find the leaker than in investigating why it enabled a serial sexual predator to continue offending.

Perhaps even more worryingly, corporate media rivals have largely not touched the story. Neither Robach’s revelation nor Bianco’s termination have been reported on by MSNBC, CNN, CBS or the New York Times, nearly a month after the video first leaked. Thus the story of a major media outlet covering up the crimes of a monster, with the only person to face any sanction being the alleged whistleblower,  whom two outlets combined to punish, appears not to qualify as a newsworthy event to much of the press.

Indeed, Epstein’s team managed to convince many supposedly reputable outlets, including the Huffington Post (11/17/17), Forbes (10/2/13) and the National Review (7/10/13) to publish puff pieces about him (New York Times, 7/21/19). (Epstein pled guilty to charges connected to sexual abuse of minors in 2008.) Forbes  described him as “one of the largest backers of cutting-edge science around the world,” making no mention of his criminal past. The stated writer was paid $600 by a PR firm to attach his name to the pre-fab article and run it on the site, perhaps the most blatantly unethical sponsorship practice there could be.

ABC’s decision to spike the Epstein exposé in order not to embarrass or implicate his powerful associates, thereby effectively enabling his crimes, is a perfect example of the danger of access journalism. Robach predicted, “There will come a day where we will realize Jeffrey Epstein was the most prolific pedophile this country has ever known.” Thanks to our corporate media system, that day was delayed by at least three years.

You can send messages to ABC News here (or via Twitter: @ABC). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your message in the comments thread.

Papers Owned by Oligarchs Unsurprisingly Oppose a Wealth Tax

 

When wealth-tax advocates like senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are two of the top three contenders for winning the 2020 Democratic primaries, you can bet that the US ruling class is terrified by the possibility of being slightly less rich (FAIR.org, 4/16/19). Notably, US oligarch Jeff Bezos (who owns the Washington Post) asked fellow oligarch Michael Bloomberg (and owner of Bloomberg News) to consider running for president, which Bloomberg decided to do a month after Sanders declared that billionaires shouldn’t exist, and a week after Warren proposed expanding her wealth tax (Washington Post, 11/9/19).

FAIR took a look at news coverage and editorials about the wealth tax from Bezos’ Washington Post, and Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, to see if these oligarch-owned newspapers would defend their billionaire owners’ material class interests (FAIR.org, 9/16/19).

The Washington Post (6/30/19) warns that “it’s all too likely that a wealth tax would bring in less revenue than advocates anticipate, in part because millionaires can afford the best accountants and lawyers.”

To the Post’s credit, although some reporters (e.g., 5/22/19) have tried to peddle austerity fears of “new entitlement programs” funded by the wealth tax resulting in “ballooning costs that plunge the government deeper into debt,” its coverage (1/24/19, 9/24/19, 10/16/19) generally did a good job explaining what the wealth tax proposals are, included statements from both supporters and opponents, as well as situating these within the context of historic inequality.

The Post’s editorials, however—which are supposed to represent the paper’s official stance) told a different story.  “A Wealth Tax Isn’t the Best Way to Tax the Rich” (6/30/19) offered a whole host a reasons why a wealth tax (despite being a “bold and spectacular proposal”) isn’t “the optimal means of raising taxes on those who can afford to pay more.” The Post argued that a wealth tax would face a “likely constitutional challenge,” “implementation problems” like how to consistently appraise diverse assets ranging from “land to rare art,” or would “bring in less revenue than advocates anticipate.” The Post also argued that a wealth tax would “not distinguish” between “socially productive wealth” gained from “enterprise and innovation,” and wealth gained through “inheritance or rent-seeking,” which is not “socially productive.”

Contrary to reports that argue that a majority of the world’s richest people are “self-made” (an extremely dubious and arguably false concept), a 2017 study by Thomas Pikkety and his economist colleagues found that around 60% of all private wealth in the US is inherited. Another notable economist, Joseph Stiglitz, has declared that the magnitude of rent-seeking (manipulating public policy to benefit the rich at the expense of everyone else) is “clearly enormous,” though hard to quantify. Neither does the Post grapple with economists like Dean Baker, who notes that patents and copyrights are arbitrary rent-seeking rackets for billionaires like Bill Gates, or Mariana Mazzucato, who pointed out that the public sector is far more consequential for technological innovation than “enterprising” capitalists. (The US military developed almost all the technology found in the iPhone, Mazzucato points out).

Instead, the Post advocates for measures it claims are “clearly constitutional” and “readily administrable by the existing Internal Revenue Service”: They urge the next president to reverse provisions of the 2017 Trump tax law that gave “favorable treatment to large estates,” to “reduce” (not eliminate) the “favorable treatment of capital gains,” and to “eliminate the huge break for profits on the sale of stock by people who inherit it from rich benefactors.”

The Post (11/16/19) insists that the United States is not “becoming an oligarchy”—citing, oddly enough, the fact that billionaires fund both major parties and that three billionaires are running for president.

A later Post editorial “Progressives Are Right to Worry About Income Inequality. But Punitive Policy Isn’t the Answer” (11/16/19) took absurdity to a new level by echoing right-wing talking points that a wealth tax amounts to punishing success. The Post echoed the familiar “horseshoe theory” caricature of “totalitarians of the right and left” who want to “confiscate companies, houses and farms,” and argued that “private property” and “private wealth” are “integral to any free society,” as if that had any relevance to proposals from wealth-tax advocates: Neither Sanders nor Warren has ever proposed abolishing “private wealth,” much less “private property,” but the point is to  paint them both as dangerous radicals.

Even though the Post acknowledges that much of the inequality and enrichment of the ultra-wealthy “derives from financial manipulation and other rent-seeking activity,” and that the Post is sustained and owned by wealthy capitalists like Bezos, are we supposed to believe that ownership of the paper has nothing to do with their belief that “every billionaire is not a policy failure,” and that counterarguments against a wealth tax from billionaires aren’t self-interested or unreasonable? Is the Post’s dismissal of claims about the US being an “oligarchy,” or their claim that private wealth being “off-limits” from taxation is “integral to any free society,” mere coincidence?

Compared to the Post, the Wall Street Journal was much less subtle in its opposition. While some of the Journal’s guides to Sanders and Warren’s proposals were mostly credible (8/27/19, 9/24/19, 10/21/19), other reports betray the Journal’s pro-oligarch outlook.

The Wall Street Journal (3/6/19) cites the fact wealthy Danes became much wealthier after Denmark repealed its wealth task as a persuasive argument against a wealth tax.

The Journal’s “The Trouble With Taxing Wealth” (3/6/19) and “What Fewer Billionaires Could Mean for the Rest of US” (11/20/19) implied that the existence of billionaires and a successful economy often go “hand in hand,” and characterizes less potent tax reforms that don’t touch the oligarchs’ wealth as “better” or “more effective,” because a wealth tax “may not be an efficient response,” despite being “an immensely appealing, nearly surgical strike at its most glaring manifestation.”

The Journal’s later report, “Democratic Candidates’ Wealth Tax Plans Would Shake Up Billionaire Philanthropy” (11/16/19), portrayed a wealth tax as disruptive and harmful to charitable causes, preventing the mega rich from exercising their noblesse oblige:

The wealth taxes proposed by top Democratic presidential candidates might spark a short-term boom in billionaires’ donations to charity, as they accelerate gifts to avoid years of taxes eroding their fortunes.

Facing an annual tax that eats into returns and shrinks wealth, billionaires would have an incentive to move money out of their control—and out of the wealth-tax base. Otherwise, every year would see more of their money sent to the government for public projects and less to charities of their choosing….

Either tax would mark a major expansion in US taxes on the country’s wealthiest citizens, a possibility especially important to a philanthropic sector that has become more top-heavy and increasingly reliant on donations from the rich.

Why has the philanthropic sector become more “top-heavy” and “increasingly reliant on donations from the rich”? Could historic inequality and stagnant wages obscured by reports of a “strong economy” be a reason (FAIR.org, 11/19/19)?

Of course, the fact that rich people give less to charitable causes than the poor as a percentage of their income (and “philanthrocapitalism” really being corporate hypocrisy) didn’t stop the Journal from asserting that “higher taxes reduce how much money people have available to give to charity.” The rich also give more to selfish “causes” like the corruption of higher education and political donations to finance campaigns in the American system of legalized bribery, as well as self-dealing foundations and nonprofits—rather than food and shelter meeting the poor’s most immediate needs—and then use these “donations” to exploit tax deductions on “charitable giving” designed mostly for them. The Journal seemed to hint at this when it described how a wealth tax would “create incentives” for “aggressive tax avoidance using nonprofits” and encourage “political donations.”

A later Journal headline, “Elizabeth Warren’s Tax Plan Would Bring Rates Over 100% for Some” (11/15/19), was a flat-out distortion: The report calculates a hypothetical wealth tax and income tax, then adds them together, comparing the total to the imaginary taxpayer’s income: “a combined tax rate of 158%”!  Of course, the wealth tax is not a tax on income, but a tax on wealth, so expressing it as a proportion of income is nonsensical. It’s true that a wealth tax may reduce the net worth of some of the ultra-rich; the Journal is no doubt aware that this is exactly the point, since the wealth tax’s goal is to combat inequality by redistributing wealth—but it pretends that this is an unintended consequence in order to manufacture sympathy for the very few who are rich enough to qualify for the tax. (An estimated 75,000 households with at least $50 million in assets would be subject to a wealth tax under Warren’s proposal, compared to Sanders’ proposal affecting an estimated 180,000 households with at least $32 million in assets.)

Curiously, the Journal (6/26/19) does not suggest that billionaires who support higher military spending–like its owner, Rupert Murdoch–simply fund the Pentagon themselves.

With coverage like this, it’s no surprise that the Journal’s editorial board (6/26/19) published an obtuse “open letter” mocking “patriotic billionaires” who support a wealth tax, implying that they’re hypocrites for not voluntarily “writing checks” to the government instead of “waiting for legislation.” Another editorial (11/4/19) argued that the wealth tax “stays alive in the socialist mind because it is the ultimate populist envy tax,” peddling the perception of the greedy poor and the virtuous rich. It characterized a wealth tax as a proven failure in Europe, and an immoral “confiscatory” tax on the wealthy’s assets that would cause “economic damage.”

As noted in the Post and the Journal’s news coverage, one of the strongest arguments for a wealth tax is that investments usually appreciate at a higher and faster rate than wage growth, so taxing income alone is not enough to reduce economic inequality. This is obvious and consistent with most people’s lived experience following decades of stagnant wages coexisting with exploding stock markets, resulting in the top 1%’s net worth (who usually gain income from investments) increasing by $21 trillion, and the bottom 50%’s net worth (who usually gain income from work) decreasing by $900 billion from 1989 to 2018 (People’s Policy Project, 6/14/19; Extra!, 7/02). Unlike workers, who have taxes deducted automatically from every paycheck, wealth accumulation and capital gains from investments by the wealthy are taxed at lower rates than earned income (when not evaded), and taxes on those assets are essentially voluntary, because they aren’t taxed unless they’re “realized” through sales.

While there may be questions regarding the constitutionality of a wealth tax—based on constitutional provisions meant to uphold slavery—legal scholars have offered several arguments defending the proposals’ constitutional legitimacy. It’s true that judges, particularly those appointed by politicians backed by the wealthy, might put barriers in the way of a wealth tax—because extreme concentrations of wealth also translate into political power. This is no less the case when oligarchs like Bezos and Murdoch can buy media outlets to influence public opinion by attacking proposals to tax their owners’ wealth.

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