Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

‘There’s a Shocking Lack of Accountability for Sheriffs’ - CounterSpin interview with Brenda Choresi Carter on the power of sheriffs

Janine Jackson interviewed the Reflective Democracy Campaign’s Brenda Choresi Carter about the power of sheriffs for the July 10, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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CNN (12/15/11)

Janine Jackson: Joe Arpaio is running for sheriff again in Arizona’s Maricopa County. Infamous for reinstituting chain gangs, running an outdoor tent city jail he himself described as a concentration camp, and putting people in solitary confinement if they didn’t understand instructions in English, Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt for refusing to comply with a court order to stop profiling Latinx people.

They might now want to forget it, but Arpaio was a media darling; CNN and NPR both introduced him with his preferred tag of “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” And he was pardoned by Donald Trump.

But if Arpaio upsets you, a new report shows that concerns are due about the role of sheriff itself. How much do you know about their power and accountability? If we’re going to engage law enforcement reform seriously, sheriffs have to be part of that conversation.

The report, Confronting the Demographics of Power: America’s Sheriffs, comes from the Reflective Democracy Campaign, and we’re joined now by Brenda Choresi Carter, who directs that project. She joins us by phone from Connecticut. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Brenda Choresi Carter.

Brenda Choresi Carter: Thank you for having me.

JJ: Before we think about who sheriffs are, tell us a little about the particular role that sheriffs play that is structurally, if you will, concerning, and inviting of abuse.

Reflective Democracy Campaign (6/20)

BCC: Yes, sheriffs are, I would argue, possibly the most troubling elected office in America. And that’s really saying something. They are an extremely unique position. So they’re elected in 46 states. Many of us don’t know that we elect our sheriffs, but most states do elect sheriffs. There are 3,000 elected sheriffs nationwide. And then, of course, they have many deputies who work for them.

And what makes them singularly troubling is, I would say, a combination of three things:

There’s a really shocking lack of accountability for sheriffs. The way that the elected office of sheriff is constructed and defined in most states really shields them from any kind of meaningful oversight. They are extremely independent, and, for the most part, really answer to no one except the people who elect them.

Unlike with police officers and police departments, for instance, where they’re part of city and municipal governments; they at least have to nominally participate in things like getting their budgets approved and answering to city councils and, increasingly, answering to civilian oversight commissions or other kinds of accountability measures. There’s almost nothing like that in place for sheriffs.

The second thing, that combines with that to make sheriffs really troubling, is what we found in our study, which is what we describe as apartheid-level demographics: Sheriffs are 97% men and 92% white men. So when you combine the incredible concentration of power and lack of accountability, with the concentration of that power in the hands of one demographic group, that makes for a very combustible and dangerous situation.

And the third thread that I would weave into the troubling nature of sheriffs is, in fact, their very history. The contemporary origins of the role of sheriffs can be found in the violent control of Black people in the aftermath of slavery, the leasing of prison laborers for profit, and in the resistance to civil rights. That doesn’t mean every single sheriff in the country has participated in those things. But for the most part—particularly in the South, where sheriffs tend to be particularly prevalent and powerful—the role was really rooted in those very violent and racist practices.

Political Research Associates (6/10/19)

JJ: And I think we want to add, on top of that, a kind of mystique about sheriffs that media, I think, abet, which is the idea that—and structurally, they are different than other law enforcement—but the idea that they can be renegade, that they can be almost lawless, and that that’s somehow for the good.

I think Joe Arpaio is a good example of that. But I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the Constitutional Sheriffs thing, which is an example of—you imagine that these folks are under the rubric of civil laws. And yet there’s a real renegade mentality, among a substantial group of them, that really takes the sheriff thing to the next level. Can you talk a little about that?

BCC: That’s right, and I think your highlighting the media representations of sheriffs is right on, in terms of its relationship to this idea of sheriffs as kind of renegades, or somehow above the law, but simultaneously being the law. And the so-called “Constitutional Sheriffs” movement is a far-right movement that has been around for decades, and basically encourages its members and its participants, who are sheriffs elected to enforce the laws, to actually exercise their own discretion in how and whether they enforce those laws.

So there is a significant group of sheriffs around the country who refuse to enforce gun control measures, for instance. More recently, there are a group of sheriffs around the country who are refusing to enforce public health measures, like stay-at-home requirements and those kinds of things, that have been put in place by governments because of the Covid pandemic. And their argument is that they are actually the ultimate law enforcement authority in their jurisdiction, and they can choose to enforce these laws or not to, as they see fit.

JJ: It’s kind of amazing and surprising, and, again, I think that lots of folks will think that it’s some kind of “out West thing” that doesn’t relate to them. And so it does seem important to bring it back to—sheriffs, in many places, they’re doing law enforcement on the street, but they also manage jails, right? The role is not like anything that you might think of a general cop on the beat doing. It extends over various purviews. And the fact that, for example, a lot of what they handle is domestic violence cases, where it matters very much that they are men, where that’s impactful. So while we’re not trying to say, “Change the demographics of law enforcement, and you’ll change everything about law enforcement,” it is meaningful day-to-day that these are overwhelmingly white men, who are not representative of the communities that they’re policing. It’s impactful, yeah?

Brenda Choresi Carter: “When you combine the incredible concentration of power and lack of accountability, with the concentration of that power in the hands of one demographic group, that makes for a very combustible and dangerous situation.”

BCC: That’s right. And I think when we see this kind of combination of extreme lack of accountability in power, and extremely skewed demographics, right, where women and people of color are virtually absent from these roles, it really raises questions about whether the role itself is legitimate.

So, absolutely, I think one avenue to change is to push for more reflective sheriffs, right, people who actually reflect our communities, who are women and people of color in proportion to the population. And there have been exciting and very promising sheriff’s elections in recent years, where women and people of color have run for these offices on reform platforms, and have instituted all kinds of much needed reforms, and that’s very promising. At the same time, the history, the demographics, and the power and lack of accountability of these roles really raise questions about whether it is in itself a legitimate position.

There are paths to real change here that do run through communities and voters, but, as you noted, the majority of sheriffs run for election unopposed. So this is not a robust, competitive playing field. Sheriffs are elected at the county level, so many of us don’t pay attention, or very much attention, to elections at that level. They also, like many local elections, tend to really be determined in the primary, if there is one, because of the way the population breaks down in terms of partisan leaning. So there are all kinds of reasons why these elections tend to not be particularly, like I said, robust, or have a lot of competition or citizen engagement. But there’s no reason that they need to stay that way.

JJ: And part of changing things is a media spotlight, right? I mean, it’s part of just calling attention to the particular role that sheriffs play and asking questions about it.

BCC: Yes, and I think the long overdue reckoning that law enforcement generally is facing in America right now gives us a real opportunity to deal with sheriffs. As we all know, there are conversations about law enforcement in this country that are happening in a totally new way. And the possibilities for change are probably greater than they ever have been. I think what’s important is that we understand that when we say “law enforcement,” or we say “police,” we understand that that’s a pretty broad category that includes this incredibly important role of sheriffs, and that we don’t forget that this isn’t just about municipal police forces, although that’s, of course, incredibly important. But for large parts of the country, sheriffs are the chief law enforcement officer. In the absence of a municipal police force, the sheriff sort of runs the law enforcement system. So we would be missing an incredibly important piece of the deeply flawed, and now under scrutiny, law enforcement system in this country if we didn’t understand that sheriffs were an incredibly important part of it.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign. You can find their report, Confronting the Demographics of Power: America’s Sheriffs, on their website, WhoLeads.us. Brenda Choresi Carter, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

BCC: My pleasure. Thank you.

 

Diane Yentel on Eviction Crisis, Lisa Graves on USPS Under Attack

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National Low Income Housing Coalition

This week on CounterSpin: One expert, Emily Benfer, put it this way:  About 10 million people, over a period of years, were displaced from their homes following the foreclosure crisis in 2008. We’re looking at 20 to 28 million people facing eviction between now and September. People have to fight their evictions “virtually,” since housing courts are closed—and if you don’t have that fast internet, or don’t get on that Zoom call properly—that’s “failure to appear,” and you lose. The impact of eviction, meanwhile, can be devastating. Making folks homeless in a pandemic is just a flashpoint of this country’s affordable housing crisis—and a reminder that, as a new report begins: “Housing is healthcare.” The report, called Out of Reach 2020: The High Cost of Housing, comes from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. We talk with Coalition president Diane Yentel.

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(photo: John H. White/EPA)

Also on the show: An election + a public health crisis = voting by mail, which requires not just a functioning postal service, but a well-functioning one. A pandemic in which more people need critical medicines and supplies mailed to them calls for the same. But just as more is being asked of the US Postal Service, decades-old efforts to cut the legs out from under it are gathering force once again—and they’re being amplified and abetted by Trump’s new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy. Listeners may know about Trump’s obsession with making the USPS raise prices; seems he mainly he wants costs to go up for his official enemy, Amazon‘s Jeff Bezos, but he’s OK with the public, for whom the Postal Service is the most popular federal agency—the only one named in the Constitution—suffering the consequences. What—and who—is driving the push to privatize the post office—and how have they had managed to shift the conversation? That’s the topic of a new brief from Lisa Graves. She’s executive director at True North Research, director also of the Koch Docs project—which might be a bit of a tip-off.

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For US Corporate Media, Not Intervening in Chinese Politics Is Journalistically Suspect

 

While reporting that a US government project was working to “help people in Hong Kong evade surveillance by the Chinese government,” Time (6/26/20) nevertheless treats such backing as a Chinese allegation: “The Chinese government has frequently claimed that ‘foreign forces’ are behind the protests.”

Time (6/26/20) reported last month that Michael Pack, the ultraconservative Trump-appointed CEO of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), froze funding related to the anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong. According to the magazine, the agency—which oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and other US government–funded media—halted some $2 million worth of contracts for projects whose stated purpose was to protect the digital privacy of demonstrators. These included a “cybersecurity incident response team” to analyze “Chinese surveillance techniques,” as well as a “rapid response fund” for protesters deemed to be monitored by the Chinese government.

A major Western publication’s confirmation that the US government was directly sponsoring the Hong Kong protests would seem to be a pivotal development. This both corroborates the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s claims of external intervention in the protests (Xinhua, 5/23/20) and sheds light on US media’s glowing portrayals of the protests (FAIR.org, 10/26/19, 12/6/19). Yet the issue, according to US media, isn’t that a government body intended to fund these demonstrations in the first place; it’s that Pack prevented it from doing so.

USAGM’s funding was channeled through a little-known offshoot called the Open Technology Fund (OTF). Arguably best-known for funding encrypted messaging apps like Signal and web browsers like Tor, OTF originated as a pilot program within Radio Free Asia in 2012 and was classified in 2019 as an “independent nonprofit” USAGM grantee. Under USAGM’s authority, OTF planned to furnish demonstrators with technology to “evade surveillance by the Chinese government,” according to Time.

After the publication of the Time article, a number of news sources lamented the funding freeze, along with a series of high-profile USAGM firings under Pack’s command, asserting that OTF’s continued financing of the Hong Kong protests was the USAGM’s journalistic imperative.

Slate (6/26/20) describes the US government–funded Open Technology Fund as “helping everybody everywhere who dares to speak truth to power.”

A recent Slate piece (6/26/20) headlined “Free the Open Technology Fund” criticized Pack from the right, cautioning that OTF’s “work must be allowed to continue. To do otherwise will be a gift to the Chinese Communist Party and autocrats around the world.” Reuters (7/2/20), meanwhile, fretted:

Digital rights activists and researchers now worry that the turmoil at the OTF could threaten people living in authoritarian countries who rely on the organization to help them navigate censorship and evade surveillance.

Here, “authoritarian countries” appears to signify Iran and China, which have become prime targets of warmongering US media. (See FAIR.org, 7/2/19, 5/15/20.)

Media’s displeasure was compounded by Pack’s reported plan for the software itself. According to Slate, Pack may have sought to replace the OTF’s open-source privacy technology with a closed-source alternative designed by members of the far-right Chinese opposition group Falun Gong. Unlike open-source software, closed-source software can’t be examined or audited by independent researchers, rendering an application potentially less secure.

The story’s author, Rebecca MacKinnon—the director of a US State Department–funded program within the think tank New America—justifiably bemoaned the prospect of using a Falun Gong–associated tool. But, rather than offering a moral critique of the US for its international meddling, MacKinnon focused on Pack’s inefficacy in subverting the Chinese government:

Funding Falun Gong tools would be a good way to reward political loyalty: Since 2016 the Falun Gong–affiliated Epoch Times has become an enthusiastic member of Trump’s social media cheerleading squad. But if the objective is actually to undermine the Chinese Communist Party, firing OTF’s top leadership with the intent to change the organization’s funding scope and strategy makes little sense. To anybody with knowledge of OTF’s programs and community, it is clear that a radical overhaul of OTF’s funding strategy would be a win for the CCP.

The OTF budgeted “around $2 million…to train Hong Kong residents in fighting Chinese cyberattacks,” the New York Times (7/4/20) reported.

The New York Times (7/4/20) offered a similar, if more muted, defense of the OTF. Describing the organization’s work as “incubating new technology that promotes human rights and open societies,” the Times cited pro-US “internet freedom” experts to warn of the failures of closed-source technology as a tool of US intervention. These included MacKinnon, the founder of an OTF-funded cybersecurity nonprofit called Kandoo, and the executive director of the OTF-funded Tor Project, which the Times called a “nonprofit digital privacy group.” Nowhere was the US’s involvement in the protests, or in Hong Kong/Mainland China relations more broadly, questioned.

Additionally, conceptions of “open societies,” “internet freedom” and “digital privacy” are far from neutral in US media framings of Hong Kong and Beijing. Building the case for US intervention, media have lambasted China’s alleged surveillance of Hong Kong protesters for months—however speculative those accusations are. Last year, the Atlantic (8/30/19), CNN (9/9/19) and Business Insider (8/26/19), among other publications, reported that Hong Kong protesters were toppling “smart lampposts” in order to circumvent suspected facial recognition. No outlets could offer proof that the lampposts were spying on protesters: The Atlantic conceded that the lampposts’ facial-recognition capabilities had “not been proved or debunked,” while CNN reported that there was “no evidence that the government’s new lamp posts are a cover for increased surveillance.” Official reports, moreover, indicated that the lampposts were solely meant to collect data on air quality, traffic and weather.

Demonstrators in the US, conversely, face unequivocal, expansive surveillance from police and governments. Instances abound of law enforcement monitoring protesters of police violence. The stakes are high: Police have injured and killed numerous people during protests, laying bare the dire need for protection from digital tracking. Of the deaths reported during the Hong Kong protests, none have been credibly attributed to police.

To the OTF’s credit, antiracist activists in the US have adopted Signal as a privacy tool. But while US media champions institutional support for the Hong Kong protests, it neglects to do the same for those in the US. If, per the above US media, USAGM is obliged to support the right to “free expression” for Hong Kong demonstrators, who haven’t faced fatal state violence, why isn’t the same true for US demonstrators, who have? If it’s part of a news outlet’s job to aid dissenters, through privacy protection or other means, why aren’t NPR, CNN and the like providing cybersecurity and “rapid response funds” for antiracist protesters domestically?

Discrepancies like these further discredit media’s characterization of USAGM as a bastion of journalistic merit. Earlier this year, corporate media expressed fears that Pack would compromise the USAGM’s “quality journalism and editorial independence”—fears that ignore the agency’s adherence to the US state line. Informing their current international coverage, Voice of America and the Radio Free media properties have a decades-long history of targeting socialist and Communist countries on behalf of the US; USAGM has previously crowed about its anti-Communist interceptions in China and the Soviet Union. (See FAIR.org, 5/21/20.)

According to multiple reports, USAGM reinstated OTF’s funding after the publication of the Time article. Had the funding suspension remained, the New York Times hypothesized, it “would have dealt a potential blow to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.” Tellingly, a number of Republican policymakers would agree: On July 1, hawkish reactionaries Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham cosigned a letter that threatened to “review” USAGM funding and chastised Pack for weakening the agency’s ability to produce “credible journalism” and “cultivate a free and open world.”

It might seem odd that US corporate media, with the vehement support of conservative lawmakers, would equate the USAGM’s success in intervening in the politics of Hong Kong with journalistic integrity. After all, isn’t traditional Western journalism supposed to uphold the virtues of neutrality, impartiality and a refusal to uncritically accept government directives? For the New York Times and its ilk, the answer is apparently no—at least not when it comes to the US foreign policy consensus.

Corporate Media Give Trump Powers He Doesn’t Actually Possess

 

For many of us, the purpose of journalism is to hold power accountable by criticizing its abuses and informing the public of the truth. Indeed, many corporate journalists and social media companies criticize state media of Official EnemiesTM as inherently untrustworthy, subordinate government mouthpieces. Yet corporate media outlets provide cover for US authoritarianism when they publish reports that suggest President Donald Trump possesses executive powers he doesn’t actually have.

A few weeks ago, corporate media published numerous reports of Trump signing an executive order that would supposedly, by reinforcing already-existing law, punish anyone who damages or attempts to damage federal monuments or statues with up to 10 years of imprisonment, as he declared on Twitter:

I have authorized the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue or other such Federal property in the U.S. with up to 10 years in prison, per the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act, or such other laws that may be pertinent…..

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 23, 2020

CBS (6/27/20) inflated Trump’s powers when it reported that he signed an order “protecting monuments, memorials and statues.”

CBS (6/27/20) reported that Trump’s order

instructs federal law enforcement to prosecute people who damage federal monuments, and threatens to withhold federal funding from state and local governments that fail to protect their own public monuments and statues.

NBC (6/26/20) also characterized Trump’s order as protecting monuments and statues generally, citing the Veterans’ Memorials Preservation and Recognition Act of 2003:

The order would “reinforce” existing federal law, which criminalizes the destruction of federal monuments. For instance, the Veterans’ Memorials Preservation and Recognition Act of 2003 imposes a fine and up to 10 years in prison on anyone who vandalizes a monument.

That is not, in fact, what the Veterans’ Memorials law does. The legislation itself is quite brief, raising questions about whether journalists actually read it before writing about what it does:

Whoever, in a circumstance described in subsection (b), willfully injures or destroys, or attempts to injure or destroy, any structure, plaque, statue, or other monument on public property commemorating the service of any person or persons in the armed forces of the United States shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.

While USA Today‘s headline (6/26/20) correctly specifies “federal monuments and statues,” the article wrongly implies that the order covers “statues and other historical monuments” in general.

As the name suggests, the law applies only to veterans’ memorials, not to monuments and statues in general. Even though USA Today (6/26/20) reported that the Veterans Memorial Preservation Act “makes it a crime to destroy or attempt to destroy a plaque, monument or statue ‘commemorating the service’ of anyone who served in the armed forces,” the paper still somehow managed to wrongly summarize that Trump’s order “will provide long prison sentences to people who tear down or vandalize statues and other historical monuments.”

USA Today also failed to specify that the 2003 law protects memorials that commemorate service in the United States armed forces, meaning statues of Confederate generals, memorialized for fighting against the US military, are not covered.

As Business Insider (6/23/20) pointed out, the law “would not apply to many of the statues currently being targeted by protesters,” despite there being regulations that prohibit people from trespassing and committing vandalism on federal grounds. Federal law does protect federal property; non-federal statues are only covered by the Veterans Memorial Preservation Act if they are veterans’ memorials.

In addition to the Confederates, the law would also not apply to the destruction of statues and monuments dedicated to figures like Francis Scott Key and Christopher Columbus, because they were not US veterans. Nor would it apply to some statues and monuments of figures who have served in the US military, like Andrew Jackson, if those memorials are not specifically commemorating their military service. So it is false for USA Today to make blanket claims like:

Anyone who vandalizes or destroys a monument, memorial or statue already can be sentenced to prison for up to 10 years under federal law.

Reports from outlets like CNN (6/26/20) and Vox (6/27/20) commit the same errors above when they fail to point out that statues dedicated to Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee and Williams Carter Wickham aren’t protected by federal law.

Fox News (6/30/20) didn’t point out that the “Monuments and Statues Act” cited by Trump doesn’t actually exist.

Most egregiously, corporate media frequently didn’t point out (Fox, 6/30/20; Daily News, 6/30/20; Newsweek, 6/30/20) that when Trump referred to the “Monuments and Statues Act” on Twitter, he was referring to a law that doesn’t exist—there’s no law by that name. Although it’s hard to say what’s going on in Trump’s head, it seems likely that he was referring to his own executive order as the “Monuments and Statues Act”—which, if true, would be a gross usurpation of legislative authority, treating executive fiat as though it were law.

Factcheckers at ABC (6/24/20) and the Associated Press (6/29/20) both noted that the president is not a judge with the legal authority to impose sentences, and that Trump’s statements on Twitter are “redundant and irrelevant,” because they don’t change what federal law enforcement can and will do. With some exceptions, judges are usually the only party legally authorized to determine sentences for crimes, and if they decide to deliver a sentence that is less than ten years of imprisonment—or to forgo imprisonment altogether—that is their prerogative, not the president’s. Trump’s executive order is essentially a reminder that prosecutors could seek the maximum sentence of 10 years of imprisonment, but there is no requirement for judges to deliver the maximum punishment in every case.

The statue story was not the only instance when many in corporate media give their audiences the false impression that Trump has executive powers he doesn’t actually have. Earlier this year, a flurry of reports claimed that Trump’s executive order on April 28 (two days after Tyson warned of a potential “meat shortage”) compelled meat-processing plants to stay open under the Defense Production Act (DPA), despite many of their employees testing positive for Covid-19. Although there’s little evidence so far that the coronavirus is foodborne, coronavirus hotspots in the US have been linked to meat-processing plants, where workers operate in unsafe conditions even during normal times, but are even more dangerous during a pandemic (Conversation, 5/6/20). More than 90% of US meat plant workers infected with Covid-19 have been people of color (Bloomberg Law, 7/7/20).

Contrary to AP (4/28/20), Trump didn’t actually order meatpacking plants to do anything.

The Associated Press’s report (4/28/20) claimed that

President Donald Trump took executive action Tuesday to order meat processing plants to stay open amid concerns over growing coronavirus cases and the impact on the nation’s food supply.

The order uses the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure to try to prevent a shortage of chicken, pork and other meat on supermarket shelves.

The AP relied on an anonymous official, who claimed that the Trump administration was trying to “prevent a situation” where the availability of meat to supermarkets could be reduced as much as 80%, and that the Department of Labor was working to “provide enhanced safety guidance for meatpacking workers.”

CNN (5/1/20) claimed that Trump’s order granted Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue “the power to invoke the Defense Production Act and force companies to keep their plants humming.” ABC (4/28/20) also asserted that the order was “compelling the nation’s meatpacking plants, many of which have closed because of Covid-19 outbreaks among workers, to stay open as part of ‘critical infrastructure’ in the United States.”

But should the Trump administration’s word be taken at face value? Legal scholar Daniel Hemel (Washington Post, 5/4/20) pointed out that Trump’s executive order “does not actually order meat-processing plants to reopen. Indeed, it does not order the meat-processing plants to do anything.” Hemel explained that the order asserts that meat and poultry are “critical and strategic materials” under Section 101(b) of the DPA, and delegates the presidents’ DPA authority to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, as well as prioritizing federal contracts over “performance of any other contracts or orders.” However, the order itself does not compel any action, and even if Perdue were to order plants to reopen under the authority of the DPA, it would neither shield the plants from liability for Covid-19 exposure, nor require workers to return to work.

Daniel Hemel (Washington Post, 5/4/20) offered a valuable corrective to media inflation of Trump’s powers.

Comedian Hasan Minhaj’s show Patriot Act (6/1/20) criticized cable news coverage for falsely reporting on the content of Trump’s executive order—a situation that, again,  suggests journalists either hadn’t read or had misunderstood it, despite its brevity. Minhaj pointed out that while the Trump administration ostensibly claimed to have invoked the DPA to remove a potential “bottleneck” in meat supply, in news conferences on the day he signed it, Trump repeatedly emphasized shielding meat suppliers from liability for their workers.

The view that Trump’s executive order was designed to give meat suppliers’ cover to stay open at the expense of their workers’ health—rather than any concern over a “bottleneck” in meat production—seems to be borne out by a Smithfield plant in Nebraska getting away with forcing workers to return to the plant on April 28, after it had closed on April 27 for health concerns (NBC, 5/6/20). It’s also hard to take the Trump administration’s feigned concerns for worker safety seriously when his administration is relaxing OSHA standards, and with Republican governors blocking unemployment insurance for workers refusing to risk their lives (Payday Report, 4/30/20).

Hemel also pointed out that Trump’s executive order doesn’t shield corporations like Tyson and Smithfield from lawsuits arising from Covid-19 exposures either, and made the astute observation that bad media coverage can actually turn a “paper-thin proclamation with limited legal effect” into a “death warrant”:

The president’s assertions of legal authority, like his off-the-cuff medical advice, often have little basis in reality. But our responses to the president’s statements do matter, because we can transform his imaginations into facts on the ground. If employees return to work at meat-processing plants because of the president’s order, then for all practical purposes, he does have the power that he asserts, even though no statute gives him that power, and the order drafted by his lawyers doesn’t compel anyone in a factory to do anything.

Far from serving to hold power accountable in the US, such credulous coverage functions more to legitimize abuses of power. Especially when many of these same outlets are acknowledging Trump’s authoritarian dispositions, it’s crucial that media report on Trump’s executive orders accurately—and not grant Trump powers that he doesn’t actually possess.

Media Conceal—or Celebrate—Depriving Syrians of Food and Medicine

 

Late last month, the latest round of United States sanctions, known as the Caesar Act, took effect against Syria, a country already in a dire situation after nine years of war and sanctions. Covid-19 and an economic crisis in Lebanon, a financial lifeline for Syrian civilians that the US has largely severed (CBS, 6/18/20), have exacerbated Syria’s plight.

US media coverage has endorsed, downplayed or ignored the harm the sanctions will inflict on Syria’s civilian population, and the misery years of previous sanctions have already inflicted.

The New York Times (6/15/20) reports that “strict American economic sanctions…are likely to make matters worse” in Syria—not mentioning that Syria has been under escalating US sanctions since 1979.

An article in the New York Times (6/15/20) noted that Syria has “an acute economic crisis” and that the Caesar Act is “likely to make matters worse,” but it gives no indication that already-existing sanctions are part of that economic crisis. Reporter Ben Hubbard writes as though sanctions harming Syrians were a hypothetical possibility. For example, the article said that “last week the Syrian pound fell to 3,500 to the dollar on the black market,” and that “prices for imported staples such as sugar, coffee, flour and rice have doubled or tripled,” without connecting these problems to the economic war against the country.

Yet, as far back as 2012, the Danish Institute for International Studies, commissioned by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, compiled a report that examined the effects of sanctions in place up to that point. It found that they “come at a significant socioeconomic cost to the Syrian population”:

Complying and over-complying with the sanctions, international financial institutions have been highly reluctant to service Syrian nationals. This has indiscriminately presented all citizens and private businesses with bank accounts and credit cards with difficulties in performing international transactions, including transfers of remittances from abroad and external trade. As a result, private sector import and export of all types of products has been negatively affected….

As such, the sanctions have contributed to the substantial inflation that the Syrian economy is experiencing. Furthermore, by having a negative impact on the general economic activity and reducing the international confidence in the Syrian economy, the sanctions have indirectly contributed to the increasing unemployment rates, decreasing salary levels and thus the fall in purchasing power. The significant decline in purchasing power has, for example, eroded access to food across the country, though food commodities are available outside areas directly affected by the violence. Thus, through second-order effects, the sanctions add to the socioeconomic costs of the conflict and are likely to exacerbate pre-existing socioeconomic difficulties, particularly affecting the lower social strata of the population.

Therefore, while the Caesar Act is “likely to make matters worse,” years of having sanctions in place is an important factor behind the “acute economic crisis” to which the Times points.

The Wall Street Journal (6/17/20) reports as if sanctions are targeted at those who are least likely to go hungry in their wake.

The Wall Street Journal (6/17/20) ran the absurd headline, “US Hits Assad Family With ‘Caesar Act’ Sanctions,” as if the sanctions aim at one family rather than at decimating the country’s economy. However, the wording of the legislation—which was folded into the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020—makes clear that it is intended to have far-reaching effects. It says that the US president will impose sanctions on a “foreign person” if they undertake actions that include knowingly

sell[ing] or provid[ing] significant goods, services, technology, information or other support that significantly facilitates the maintenance or expansion of the Government of Syria’s domestic production of natural gas, petroleum or petroleum products.

Targeting Syria’s oil and gas industries amounts to targeting the Syrian population; at the peak of pre-war production, oil generated about a quarter of government revenues (New Yorker, 10/30/19)—revenues that pay for health, education, pensions, water, electricity, and food and fuel subsidies, as even a State Department-funded outlet documents (Syria Direct, 3/18/20).

The Journal wrote that the Caesar Act “marked the first action under new powers meant to punish the regime’s supporters.” Even if one were to accept the untenable premise that the US has the right to punish “the regime’s supporters” in countries of its choosing, the act punishes the Syrian population as a whole. The act says that the US president will impose sanctions on a “foreign person” if they “knowingly, directly or indirectly, provid[e] significant construction or engineering services to the Government of Syria.” It goes on to explain that part of its “strategy” is to “deter foreign persons from entering into contracts related to reconstruction in the areas” under control of the Syrian government or its supporters from Russia and Iran, which is the vast majority of Syria. It’s hard to read these clauses as anything other than attempts to ensure that this devastated country isn’t rebuilt, and that Syrians have to live amid ruin irrespective of whether they are “the regime’s supporters.”

Washington Post (6/23/20) applauds the fact that in Syria, the “prospects of…reconstructing the economy have suffered a severe setback.”

The Washington Post (6/23/20) published an editorial on the Caesar Act with a loaded headline of its own: “Syria’s Brutal Dictatorship Suffers a Severe Setback.” How could anyone not support a policy that deals a “severe setback” to such a government? It doesn’t trouble the paper that this blow is being dealt by instituting more of the sanctions that have made it nearly impossible to import medical instruments and other medical supplies, and that have led to shortages of medicine.

The Post’s editorial board endorses the Caesar Act, not despite its collective punishment of Syria but because of it, writing that the Syrian government’s prospects of

reconstructing the economy have suffered a severe setback…. For that, some credit is due to Congress, which mandated the new economic sanctions in last year’s defense bill.

Applauding US lawmakers for trying to prevent the Syrian government from “reconstructing” the disastrous economic situation in the country is akin to applauding them for seeking to maximize the pain felt by Syrians, since everyone who lives in Syria—and many Syrians who live outside of it—is necessarily affected by the country’s economy.

The paper noted that “the mere prospect of [the Caesar Act] already helped crash the Syrian currency,” as “the squeeze on average Syrians has led to renewed unrest in towns such as Daraa.” The Post could have added that “the squeeze on average Syrians” has also led to Syrian children with cancer being unable to obtain necessary medicines (Reuters, 3/15/17).

Foreign Policy (6/17/20) pretended a law that “threatens to sanction any foreign company that contracts with the regime to participate in reconstruction efforts” will not hurt citizens of the devastated country.

Foreign Policy (6/17/20) ran an equally enthusiastic endorsement of blockading the largely destroyed country. Authors David Adesnik and Toby Dershowitz, both of the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, contended that humanitarian provisions for Syria from the US and Europe belie the claim that the sanctions are cruel.

The argument that humanitarian provisions outweigh the burden that sanctions place on the Syrian masses is difficult to defend given that major humanitarian organizations operating in Syria have identified the sanctions as a cause of the country’s pain. For example, in 2013, Médecins Sans Frontières reported:

Before this conflict, Syria had a well-functioning health system. The country has trained health workers, medical expertise and a pharmaceutical industry. But today resources are depleted. Health networks are breaking down because of supply problems and drug shortages resulting from the collapse of the pharmaceutical industry, or indirectly from international sanctions imposed on Syria.

Similarly, in April 2020, the Red Crescent said that the sanctions were combining with the effects of war and a regional economic downturn to “generat[e] further hardship for many vulnerable Syrians.”

Adesnik and Dershowitz’s argument has already aged poorly. A mere ten days after their article was published, and after the Caesar Act went into effect, the Red Crescent reported:

The Covid-19 pandemic and recent harsher economic sanctions have exacerbated humanitarian needs, making the situation more untenable than ever before, for civilians with no stake to the conflict.

The corporate media discussed here, however, would rather keep US citizens in the dark about such injustices—when, that is, these outlets aren’t actually calling for “saving” Syrians by denying them food and medicine.

Featured image: Azaz, Syria, during the Syrian Civil War (image: Voice of America)

Friedman at 50 Friedman Units: What Did We Do to Deserve This?

 

In a recent dispatch on coronavirus, three-time Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman complains that he is “stunned by the criticism that anyone talking about saving lives and jobs in the same breath is an unfeeling capitalist.” Given that Friedman has long opposed job security as an impediment to progress, innovation and national competitiveness—even lambasting the US Congress in 2004 for being “out to lunch—or, worse, obsessed with trying to keep Susie Smith’s job at the local pillow factory that is moving to the Caribbean” (how’s that for unfeeling capitalism?)—it’s not clear why he’s suddenly concerned with saving US jobs in the middle of a pandemic.

As for Friedman’s own highly remunerated job (as of 2009, his speaking fee alone was no less than $75,000), this year marks the 25th anniversary of his service as foreign affairs columnist at the Times, where he has held various posts since 1981. To put it another way, Friedman has been writing a column on international relations for more than 50 Friedman Units—to use the metric coined by blogger Atrios (5/21/06) in honor of the pundit’s penchant for declaring that “the next six months” were always the critical ones in Iraq (FAIR.org, 5/16/06).

Thomas Friedman (New York Times, 11/9/01): “s America the Titanic and Pakistan the iceberg we’re about to hit…? Or is Pakistan the Titanic…and Afghanistan the iceberg we’re about to hit? Who knows?”

Unlike Susie Smith, Friedman’s livelihood has never been in jeopardy, despite his myriad professional defects. These range from rhetorical incoherence and continuous self-contradiction (e.g., Iraq was “the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the US has ever launched,” even as Friedman self-defined as “a liberal on every issue other than this war”) to his tendency to imbue utterly frivolous jet-setting experiences with global political significance (e.g., that time on an Emirates Air flight from Dubai when the Pakistani passenger sporting a jacket imprinted with the word “Titanic” spontaneously evolved into a sign that Pakistan was the Titanic, or possibly the iceberg). (In the same article, Friedman cautioned that an American victory in Afghanistan was possible only if the US recognized that “Dorothy, this ain’t Kansas.”)

Then, of course, there’s the fact that he is certifiably wrong on a regular basis. (“There is never going to be any European monetary union,” he wrote on October 4, 1995, a little more than three years before the launch of the euro. “Forget it. Buy German marks. They’re all you’ll ever need.”) And yet, thanks to his relentless service as a mouthpiece for US empire and capital, he’s permitted to continue churning out his pseudo-thoughts week after week—even if, as he inexplicably joked in his 2005 ode to corporate globalization The World Is Flat, “some of my readers wish my column could be shipped off to North Korea.”

On the occasion of the silver anniversary of Friedman’s foreign affairs column, then, let’s recall some of his greatest hits from over the years, starting with the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention. The seeds of this theory were sown, Friedman explains in his 1999 ode to corporate globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, as he “Quarter-Poundered [his] way around the world” for the Times, arriving somewhere along the way at this stunning insight: “No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.”

The Israeli and Lebanese McDonald’s establishments were brought up as alleged evidence of the theory’s soundness—never mind the state of war that has existed between Israel and Lebanon since 1948, or that, at the time he was writing, Israel was in its 21st year of military occupation of southern Lebanon.

The concept of the Quarter Pounder as key to world peace became even more difficult to defend when, shortly after the publication of The Lexus, 19 McDonald’s countries belonging to NATO went to war against Yugoslavia, which also hosted the fast food chain. In the end, fortunately, it was nothing that couldn’t be resolved with a minor update, and subsequent editions of the book explained that the “Serbian people” ultimately capitulated because “they wanted to stand in line for burgers, much more than they wanted to stand in line for Kosovo.”

“Twelve days of surgical bombing was never going to turn Serbia around,” wrote Friedman (New York Times, 4/6/99). “Let’s see what 12 weeks of less than surgical bombing does. Give war a chance.”

Friedman, meanwhile, catapulted himself onto the frontlines of the NATO war, encouraging Times readers to “give war a chance,” and advocating for a “sustained,” “unreasonable” and “less than surgical bombing” of Serbia—in other words, war crimes. From his columnist’s platform-cum-imaginary fighter jet cockpit, he fired haughty threats at the Serbs: “Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too.” In typical Friedmanian fashion, though, he couldn’t keep his narrative straight, and alternately argued that Kosovar refugee evictions began both before and after NATO bombed.

This quasi-orgasmic reaction to indiscriminate military destruction is hardly an isolated incident in Friedman’s track record. In May 2003, two-and-a-half months into the war on Iraq, he appeared on Charlie Rose’s television talk show to announce that he had now understood the real reason for the conflict he had spent the duration of recent history championing: a “terrorism bubble” had emerged in “that part of the world,” which necessitated

American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society; you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna let it grow? Well. Suck. On. This.”

The “real reason” the United States invaded Iraq, Friedman (New York Times, 6/4/03) wrote, was “because we could, and because he deserved it and because he was right in the heart of that [Arab-Muslim] world.”

It was never explained how the collective oral rape of Iraq was going to rectify a “terrorism bubble,” when Iraq produced exactly zero of the 9/11 hijackers and Friedman’s beloved Kingdom of Saudi Arabia produced 15. And, of course, the “bubble fantasy” was merely one of an ever-changing list of reasons for the war, which was variously said to be about oil, not about oil, just “because we could,” simultaneously a neoconservative project and radically liberal, and a noble democratizing effort that was hands down the “most important task worth doing and worth debating”—although Friedman himself could hardly be bothered to maintain the democratic façade, as with his 2006 suggestion for dealing with elected Iraqi leaders:

We should lock them in a room and not let them out until they either produce a national unity government, so Americans will want to stay in Iraq, or fail to produce that government, which would signal that it’s time to warm up the bus.

Indeed, the Iraq endeavor provided Friedman with countless opportunities to douse the pages of the newspaper of record with journalistic atrocities and his own cringe-inducing brand of Orientalist, imperial hubris—like when he declared in 2012, nine years into the de facto obliteration of the country, that America had performed the much-needed role there of “well-armed external midwife.” But plenty of other nations and peoples have been on the receiving end of lethal Friedmanian obstetrics, as well.

There’s Afghanistan, the “special needs baby” that the US decided to adopt, where—shortly after the launch of the war on terror in 2001—Friedman was appalled by “all the nonsense written in the press—particularly the European and Arab media—about the concern for ‘civilian casualties.’” Without offering the slightest hint as to how he had arrived at his own conclusions, Friedman insisted: “It turns out many of those Afghan ‘civilians’ were praying for another dose of B-52s to liberate them from the Taliban, casualties or not.” One can imagine the reaction if a non-English-speaking Afghan journalist were to interpret the pre-death prayers of, say, people in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Thanks in part to the handy dehumanizing component of Friedman’s Orientalist playbook, Arab and Muslim civilian collateral damage is rarely deemed to be of particular concern (except when Arabs and Muslims kill other Arabs and Muslims, in which case the events can be utilized to underscore the allegedly unique savagery of “that part of the world”).

Friedman (New York Times, 3/31/02) declared have lost sight of the basic truth civilization is built on: the sacredness of every human life”—even as he urged Israel to “deliver a military blow that clearly shows terror will not pay.”

In March 2002, for example, Friedman offered the following opinion on the subject of Israeli/Palestinian relations: “Israel needs to deliver a military blow that clearly shows terror will not pay.” Three days later, the Israeli military undertook a major massacre in the Jenin refugee camp in the Palestinian West Bank. As veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk notes in his book The Great War for Civilization: “The Israelis certainly followed Friedman’s advice.”

Friedman has furthered the Israeli cause in innumerable ways over the decades, not least by promoting the idea that the Palestinians are “gripped by a collective madness.” In 2001, he wagered that the “only solution may be for Israel and the US to invite NATO to occupy the West Bank and Gaza and set up a NATO-run Palestinian state”—before self-defining two years later as “a long and cranky opponent of NATO expansion.” During Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 22-day assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008-09 that killed some 1,400 Palestinians—the vast majority of them civilians—Friedman surfaced with another train wreck of a passage:

The fighting, death and destruction in Gaza is painful to watch.

But it’s all too familiar. It’s the latest version of the longest-running play in the modern Middle East, which, if I were to give it a title, would be called: “Who owns this hotel? Can the Jews have a room? And shouldn’t we blow up the bar and replace it with a mosque?”

In light of the usurpation by Israel of the bulk of former Palestinian land, it seems the issue of whether or not the Jews can have a room had already been definitively answered. Friedman’s theatrical mouthful furthermore failed to address the fact that the blame for the “fighting, death and destruction” lay entirely with Israel, rather than the wannabe bar blower-uppers, who were not the ones to blow up the ceasefire agreement then in effect.

A week later, Friedman was back with the conviction that Israel’s goal in Gaza must be the “education of Hamas”—based on what Friedman had determined to have been the Israeli military’s successful “education of Hezbollah” in Lebanon in July-August 2006, which entailed the slaughter of approximately 1,200 people, again primarily civilians. Contending that Israel’s Lebanese strategy was “not pretty, but it was logical,” Friedman summarized:

Israel basically said that…the only long-term source of deterrence was to exact enough pain on the civilians—the families and employers of the militants—to restrain Hezbollah in the future.

Leaving aside the question of what the hell a militant employer is, it is categorically obscene to invoke the murder of 1,200 people as a positive example. Nor should prominent New York Times columnists be permitted to unilaterally dispense with the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibiting collective punishment and the targeting of civilians in wartime. Additionally, the Times itself reported “mushrooming public support for Hezbollah” in Lebanon during the war, which rather thoroughly invalidates the whole “deterrence” argument.

Other Middle Eastern landscapes have also inspired destructive “educational” missions in Friedman. Following a visit to Yemen in 2010—during which he chewed qat (the “mildly hallucinogenic leaf drug that Yemeni men stuff in their cheek after work”)—he devised a “new rule of thumb” that stated:

For every Predator missile we fire at an Al Qaeda target here, we should help Yemen build 50 new modern schools that teach science and math and critical thinking—to boys and girls.

According to Friedman’s hallucinations, “if we stick to something close to that ratio of targeted killings to targeted kindergartens, we have a chance to prevent Yemen from becoming an Al Qaeda breeding ground.” A more surefire formula would probably have entailed simply refraining from conducting “targeted killings” that often kill civilians.

Additional barbarism took place the next year, when Friedman produced his ludicrous list of “not-so-obvious forces” behind the Arab uprisings, which included Israel, Barack Obama, Google Earth and the Beijing Olympics. In her impeccable response at the time, British-Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr suggested some other underappreciated factors, such as the 2008 Cheese-Rolling Competition near Gloucester, England.

To be sure, it’s not only military punishment that excites our warrior-columnist; he also gets off on economic brutality. And what do you know: They go hand in hand, as Friedman himself alluded to in an uncharacteristically lucid passage in The Lexus and the Olive Tree:

Indeed, McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the US Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. And these fighting forces and institutions are paid for by American taxpayer dollars.

To Friedman (New York Times, 6/24/05), the lack of unanimous support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement meant that “we are all Frenchmen now.”

In Friedman’s view, American corporate prosperity is a sign that things are good on Planet Earth, even if certain cantankerous global populations refuse to adopt the required enthusiasm—see, inter alia, his 2005 scolding of French President Chirac: “Yo, Jacques, what world do you think you’re livin’ in, pal? Get with the program! It’s called Anglo-American capitalism, mon ami.”

Although claiming in The World Is Flat that globalization is fundamentally good for poor people—and that “when I see large numbers of people escaping poverty in places like India, China or Ireland, well, yes, I get a little emotional”—Friedman is also known for producing such soundbites as: “You win the presidency by connecting with the American people’s gut insecurities and aspirations. You win with a concept. The concept I’d argue for is ‘neoliberalism.’” Seeing as neoliberal capitalism is predicated on vast inequality and the subjugation of the masses, Friedman might rethink his “emotions.” That line about the “unfeeling capitalist” would probably suffice.

It was in India, incidentally, where the CEO of Infosys Technologies Limited in Bangalore unwittingly set the world-is-flat wheels in motion in Friedman’s brain. In the ensuing monstrosity of a book, Friedman devoted much space to exulting over the perks of existence as an Indian call center employee—such as the ability to procure a credit card with which to purchase American goods—and entering into a fit of ecstasy over the unbelievably cool instructions he received at Bangalore’s KGA Golf Club: “Aim at either Microsoft or IBM.” After some 546 pages of unchecked metaphorical disaster, in which Friedman labored in vain to deliver his flat world from the realm of transparent nonsense, he produced the caveat:

Being flat is good but full of pressure, being unflat is awful and full of pain, but being half flat has its own special anxiety. As exciting and as visible as the flat Indian high-tech sector is, have no illusions: It accounts for 0.2% of employment in India.

Foreign Policy (12/6/10): Friedman “reinforced a doubling down on damaging economic and political actions in a small and vulnerable country that is now suffering deep pain.”

Ireland, meanwhile, is the site of another Friedmanian fiasco. In a 2005 article titled “Follow the Leapin’ Leprechaun,” Friedman asserted:

It is obvious to me that the Irish/British model is the way of the future, and the only question is when Germany and France will face reality: Either they become Ireland or they become museums. That is their real choice over the next few years—it’s either the leprechaun way or the Louvre.

One of the key “reforms” implemented by the leprechauns, Friedman told us, “was to make it easier to fire people” without making corporations like Dell fork over years of severance pay. But, he insisted, “the easier it is to fire people, the more willing companies are to hire people”—which sounds fine and dandy until, for example, Dell closed its manufacturing center in Limerick, laid off nearly 2,000 employees, and moved major operations to Poland.

Sean Kay, a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University, remarked at Foreign Policy (12/6/10) that Friedman might have averted his premature jubilation at how Ireland had supposedly become the “richest country in the European Union after Luxembourg” had he pursued a more comprehensive investigation than simply emailing with Michael Dell about Ireland’s “industrial and tax policy which is consistently very supportive of business.” Kay suggested that, because Friedman “promulgated a theory of globalization that reinforced a doubling down on damaging economic and political actions in a small and vulnerable country that is now suffering deep pain,” he owed both his readers and the people of Ireland an apology. One guess whether or not that happened.

Friedman (New York Times, 5/8/10) insisted that “baby boomers will have to accept deep cuts to their benefits and pensions today so their kids can have jobs.”

At the end of the day, after all, Friedman is staunchly in favor of “deep pain”—as long as it’s being diverted onto the lower echelons of society. In 2010, he warned that “we are entering an era where to be a leader will mean, on balance, to take things away from people,” and lauded the slashing of pensions in Atlanta. In a bewildering dispatch that same year, he promoted “Root Canal Politics” as the proper response to the global financial recession and the excesses of the baby boomer generation—said to be the offspring of “the Tooth Fairy,” who was guilty of “bogus accounting and… deluding us” on the economic front. But because it now happened that “that Tooth Fairy, she be dead,” elderly patrons of the British public transportation system and other lowly humans who played no role in causing the recession needed to pay the price:

Under Greek law, anyone in certain “hazardous” jobs could retire with full pension at 50 for women and 55 for men…. In Britain, everyone over 60 gets an annual allowance to pay heating bills and can ride any local bus for free. That’s really sweet—if you can afford it.

As for the actual culprits in the whole mess, financial speculators were presented as “lords of discipline, the Electronic Herd of bond traders”—also known as “Mr. Bond Market of Wall Street and the City of London,” who, coincidentally, was the “one surviving sibling” of the Tooth Fairy, and who would “now look after her offspring alone,” i.e., oversee the draconian austerity measures that had to be unleashed against everyone except Friedman and his socioeconomic ilk. A root canal of an article, indeed.

And the pain never ends. There’s the time Friedman raved about the “Victoria’s Secret garment factory in Sri Lanka that, in terms of conditions, I would let my own daughters work in”—this in a 1999 column about how there was nothing “more ridiculous in the news today than the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle.”

There’s the time he boasted of having blindly pushed a trade deal destined to wreak havoc on Central American livelihoods: “I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade initiative. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.” (Had he learned two more words, he might have known that “CA” stands for Central America, not Caribbean.)

And there’s the time he explored the causes of poverty in Africa by going on safari in Botswana—which was some years after he advised George W. Bush to call on US schools to raise money to donate solar-powered light bulbs with American flag decals on them to African villages, “so when those kids grew up they would remember who lit up their nights.” Not to mention the time he mused:

With all due respect to 1960s revolutionary ideology, the wretched of the earth want to go to Disney World, not to the barricades—if they’re given half a chance. If not, they will eat their rain forest, whatever it might be.

There’s also Mexico, where Friedman descended in 2010 to report that, although “about 40%” of Mexicans lived below the poverty line 16 years into NAFTA, “Wal-Mart de Mexico is expected to open 300 new stores in Mexico this year,” and NAFTA was still the answer. The sole person consulted for the article, it seems, was Luis de la Calle, former trade and NAFTA minister at the Mexican embassy in DC—a background Friedman did not deem worthy of inclusion in his article.

He did, however, find space to cite de la Calle’s study of the top 50 Mexican baby names in 2008: “The most popular for girls, he said, included ‘Elizabeth, Evelyn, Abigail, Karen, Marilyn and Jaqueline, and for boys Alexander, Jonathan, Kevin, Christian and Bryan.’ Not only Juans.” It is hard to think of any more compelling and nonracist evidence of the positive effects of free trade.

High oil prices are bad, Friedman (New York Times, 5/5/06) wrote, because they allowed Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez to tell America to “take a hike.”

No review of Friedman’s greatest hits would be complete without his “First Law of Petropolitics,” which I prefer to refer to by its convenient acronym. The FLOP, to which Friedman gave birth in 2006, “posits the following: The price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions in petro-ist states.” In his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, marketed as an environmental wakeup call, Friedman described how he went about converting the napkin on which the FLOP was initially conceived into a series of graphs:

On one axis, I plotted the average global price of crude oil going back to 1979, and along the other axis I plotted the pace of expanding or contracting freedoms, both economic and political—as measured by the Freedom House “Freedom in the World” report and the Fraser Institute’s “Economic Freedom of the World Report”—for Russia, Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria.

And voilà! As Friedman suspected, the price of oil was inversely related to the pace of freedom.

Almost as charming as the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, this “law” holds just as little water. For one thing, “freedom” is a pretty sweeping word to use when, for example, the graph on Iran plotted crude oil prices against “Freedom to Trade Internationally,” which in this case obviously has more to do with US sanctions than with anything else.

The Nigeria graph plotted oil prices against “Legal System and Property Rights,” which was already sufficiently unrepresentative of general “freedom” before Friedman decided to use the 1993 privatization of a Nigerian oil field as one of contemporary history’s major freedom points. Add to this the fact that 1993 was precisely the year that Freedom House downgraded Nigeria’s Freedom Status from “Partly Free” to “Not Free,” and Friedman’s continued employment becomes ever more confounding.

Thomas Friedman’s house (Wonkette, 2/19/10)

In the very least, the FLOP provided journalist Matt Taibbi with fodder for his own graphs, such as “SIZE OF VALERIE BERTINELLI’S ASS, 1985–2008, VS. HAPPINESS.” These occur in the course of Taibbi’s takedown (New York Press, 2/17/15) of Hot, Flat and Crowded, in which he drew attention to the irony of a

resident of a positively obscene 114,000-square foot suburban Maryland mega-monstro-mansion and husband to the heir of one of the largest shopping-mall chains in the world… reinventing himself as an oracle of anti-consumerist conservationism.

Where, Taibbi asked, “does a man who needs his own offshore drilling platform just to keep the east wing of his house heated get the balls to write a book chiding America for driving energy inefficient automobiles?”

Another good question is how a born-again environmentalist manages to promote the US armed forces to the vanguard of the green revolution—owing to the existence of, inter alia, “aviation biofuel made from pressed mustard seeds”—when the Pentagon is the top polluter on the planet.

If there’s one thing Thomas Friedman is an expert on, it’s being overrated (New York Times, 1/3/20).

In 2010, an Israeli television anchor told Friedman that, on account of the evolution away from print media, he was an “endangered species,” and proceeded to wonder: “Ten years from now, will an institution like Thomas Friedman be possible?” Alas, it’s now 2020, and we have the unfortunate answer to that question. Apparently apologists for empire and capital are not so easily made extinct.

In his inaugural dispatch of the new year, Friedman (1/3/20) weighed in on the illegal US assassination-by-drone strike of Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Despite supposedly hating Donald Trump, Friedman opined:

One day they may name a street after President Trump in Tehran. Why? Because Trump just ordered the assassination of possibly the dumbest man in Iran and the most overrated strategist in the Middle East.

Speaking of dumb and overrated, here’s hoping we’re not in for another 25 years. The next 50 Friedman Units will be decisive.

 

NYT Acknowledges Need for Economic Change—Without Crediting Those Who Would Bring It

 

A New York Times editorial (6/24/20) notes, “The annual economic output of the United States has almost tripled, but, with the help of policymakers from both political parties, the wealthy hoarded the fruits.”

Online readers of the New York Times might have been forgiven if, when they got to the editorial section on June 24, they thought they had accidentally jumped to the website of Socialist Action, or at least The Nation. In a 2,600-word editorial headlined: “Opinion: The Jobs We Need,” the editorial board laid out a powerful case that “over the past four decades, American workers have suffered a devastating loss of economic power, manifested in their wages, benefits and working conditions.”

The board members noted that over that same timeframe, the annual economic output of the United States had tripled, but, “with the help of policymakers from both political parties, the wealthy hoarded the fruits.”

“The Jobs We Need” is the third “chapter” in a series titled “The America We Need,” which, together with accompanying op-ed pieces, looks at the way confronting the Covid pandemic crisis could offer an opportunity to move the US away from its neoliberal/neoconservative experiment to a more collectivist and humane kind of society.

It moves well beyond opinion, though. In excruciating detail, it lays out the facts (many of them reported over the years in the Times by its own journalists, like now-retired labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, whose work is, curiously, not acknowledged or linked in the article). It shows that workers who used to earn union wages high enough to make them members of the middle-class were now earning half as much in constant dollars — barely sufficient to keep a family above the poverty line.

“Picture the nation as a pirate crew,” the editors write:

In recent decades, the owners of the ship have gradually claimed a larger share of booty at the expense of the crew. The annual sum that has shifted from workers to owners now tops $1 trillion.

Franklin Roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt noted in 1936 that “economic royalists” were complaining that his New Deal was attempting to “overthrow the institutions of America,” when “what they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.” Citing FDR, the editorial board wrote:

Now as then, the nation’s economic problems are rooted in political problems. And now as then, the revival of broad prosperity—and the stability of American democracy—require the imposition of limits on the political influence of the wealthy. It requires the government to serve the interests of the governed.

The editorial went on to recount the impact of the infamous (but, at least in corporate media, rarely mentioned) 1971 Powell Memo, sent by then–corporate lawyer Lewis Powell to the US Chamber of Commerce. That memo darkly warned that the US “free enterprise system” was “under threat,” and that it was urgent for business to “fight.” This call to arms by Powell, who was named to the Supreme Court a year later by President Richard Nixon, led to the creation of the Heritage Foundation by Joseph Coors, the Times editors wrote, and inspired the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) to begin a controversial campaign of “educating” federal jurists on the wonders of deregulation and unfettered capitalism.

Calling Powell and the leaders of America’s largest corporations working through NAM “counterrevolutionaries,” the editorialists write that they “embraced a radical view of the role of corporations,” adhering to the philosophy of free-market advocate Milton Friedman, a Nobel laureate economist who argued that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”

The Times editorial recounted the weakening and destruction of the labor movement, as corporations spent huge sums lobbying Congress, pushing the message that the decline in the fortunes of US workers was the tough-but-fair result of market forces: “People will get paid on how valuable they are to the enterprise.”

New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet published an op-ed (6/3/20) calling for the military to be used against protesters–without reading it.

The critique of neoliberal economics here was blunt, and not what Times readers have been used to seeing on its editorial pages. Certainly not during the tenure of editorial page editor James Bennet, who served in that role from 2016 through June 7, when he was unceremoniously dumped by the publisher. His sacking followed the publication of a “needlessly harsh” op-ed by right-wing Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, headlined “Send in the Troops” (6/3/20), which called for military action against anti-police protests going on in cities across the nation (FAIR.org, 6/19/20).

Could the collectively written “The Jobs We Need” editorial, published just over two weeks after Bennett’s departure, be an indication of a sea change in the paper’s editorial slant? The Times wouldn’t grant FAIR an interview to inquire about that. But it’s worth noting that Bennet hadn’t hidden his ideological bias against progressive, much less socialist, ideas. In a discussion with Times staffers upset with a perceived rightward tilt to the paper’s opinion pieces under Bennet—an off-the-record discussion that was secretly taped, leaked to and published in Huffington Post (2/27/18) a few months later—Bennett said:

I think we are pro-capitalism. The New York Times is in favor of capitalism because it has been the greatest engine of, it’s been the greatest anti-poverty program and engine of progress that we’ve seen.

Certainly the current Times editorial board authors of this particular editorial make it clear that they aren’t on board with that rather controversial and Friedmanesque assertion of Bennet’s.

By way of solutions, the editorial board calls for a $15/hour minimum wage “with regular adjustments for inflation.” They say workers should be able to join unions “without fear of reprisals.” They call, too, for the government “to restrain the power of corporations,” including banning the use of corporate profits for share buy-backs. They also call for an end to employer-based health insurance (presumably to be replaced by a government-run insurance program), so that workers are no longer deterred from changing jobs for better pay (or from going on strike to win union recognition or a better union contract).

What is striking here is that everything being argued in this editorial was in the platform espoused during the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns of 2016 and 2020. Yet there is no mention of Vermont’s junior senator or his campaign platform in this surprisingly radical proposal on the Times editorial page. Nor is there any mea culpa for the many times that the paper sought to ignore, dismiss or trash Sanders in covering both of those primary races.

The New York Times (2/15/16) used to call the idea that government could guarantee healthcare to all citizens a “fairy tale”–citing economists connected to the corporate wing of the Democratic Party.

Back in the 2016 campaign, for example, Sanders was the target of a hit piece in the New York Times by Jackie Calmes, headlined “Left-Leaning Economists Question Cost of Bernie Sanders’s Plans” (2/15/16). Calmes quoted four economists trashing Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal, claiming its costs would be too great, while ignoring the fact that the costs of the current system based upon private health insurance are vastly greater. None of the article’s economists, two of whom worked for Barack Obama and two for Bill Clinton, were actually leftists. (See FAIR’s piece by Doug Henwood criticizing this article—2/17/16.) During the current year’s Democratic primary, the Times continued its one-sided criticism of single-payer healthcare (FAIR.org, 4/15/20), even while conceding it might be a good idea during a pandemic.

Joe Biden, who has throughout this campaign year argued against Medicare for All, while assuring workers that he knows the value of their “hard-won” employer-sponsored health insurance plans (even as 16 million of them were being laid off and losing them), was also not mentioned in the Times’ “Jobs We Need” piece.

A Times media relations person, Ari Isaacman Bevacqua, denied FAIR’s request for an interview with senior opinion editor Kevin Delaney, editor of the three-part “The America We Need” package, but provided a statement:  “‘The America We Need’ purposely avoids focusing on politicians and instead focuses on zooming out and examining solutions.” This, however, begs the question of how corporate media like the Times have for years, including this year, both through their news coverage and opinion pieces, limited and skewed the options available to US voters for addressing the very real problems raised in this unusually candid series of editorials.

A long-time Times journalist observed that the paper has “moved considerably to the left over the past five years,” beginning in 2015 (9/4/15), when the paper first editorialized in favor of a phased move toward a $15/hour minimum wage. But, he added:

I was surprised at how muscular the editorial you cite was! Everyone sees how ridiculous income inequality is, and how corporations are far too powerful, and how Republicans are in the pocket of corporate America, and how government too often overlooks the concerns of typical Americans and workers — and the editorial reflected that.

John Hess: “News is what the public doesn’t know.”

My old friend and neighbor, the late, great John Hess, spent his whole journalistic career at the Times, until retiring at the end of a long and bitter strike at the paper, and moving into freelance work. John, I’m sure, would have been pleased with his old employer’s belated editorial support for higher pay, better labor laws that encourage and protect union organizing and membership, some kind of government insurance program that doesn’t chain workers to their jobs, as well as for ending corporate money in the political system.

But always a cynic, he would probably reserve judgment about how that will affect the paper’s news coverage of these issues going forward. “Remember,” he used to say with a twinkle in his eye, “news is what the public does not know.”

‘Hate Speech and Disinformation Flow on Facebook’ - CounterSpin interview with Jessica González on Facebook's promotion of hate

Janine Jackson interviewed Free Press’s Jessica González about Facebook promoting hate for the July 3, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Washington Post (6/28/20)

Janine Jackson: Civil rights and social justice groups have been grappling for years with ways to address hateful speech, harassment and disinformation on Facebook. The issue is on the front burner again, as major companies like Unilever and Starbucks are pausing their ads—the platform’s source of revenue—as part of a coordinated effort to get Facebook to change policies that allow politicians and others to make false and incendiary claims.

A Facebook security engineer quit in disgust when the platform refused to take down a post from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro that said, “Indians are undoubtedly changing. They are increasingly becoming human beings just like us.” That would seem to be a clear violation of internal guidelines against “dehumanizing speech,” but as revealed in a recent Washington Post exposé, the engineer was told that it didn’t qualify as racism, and “may have even been a positive reference to integration.”

That sort of casuistry has marked Facebook’s actions, and activists have heard enough. The group Free Press has been one of those working for change; we’re joined now by Free Press co-CEO Jessica González. She joins us by phone from Los Angeles. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Jessica González.

Jessica González: Hi, Janine. Thanks for having me.

Stop Hate for Profit

JJ: It’s worth stating at the outset that Free Press, like FAIR, opposes censorship, believes in the free flow of ideas and in debate. That doesn’t require acceptance of the promotion of dangerous medical misinformation, Holocaust denial or instigations to violence against people protesting police brutality. We have to grapple with the tremendous influence of social media somehow. So that said, tell us about the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, which companies from Adidas to Williams-Sonoma are taking part in. What are the problems that the campaign is looking to address?

JG: You’re right, Janine; Free Press stands for a free press. And we imagine a free press that frees people from oppression. We imagine a free press that holds the powerful accountable. So unlike calls for government to censor speech, the Stop Hate for Profit campaign is seeking for advertisers to vote with their feet. It’s seeking to hold up the really vast amount of hate, bigotry and disinformation that is happening on Facebook’s platform.

Facebook has known about this problem. Our organizations have been in dialogue with Facebook for some time. We’ve been calling on them to institute a comprehensive change, to keep people safe on the platform, because we understand that when hate speech and disinformation flow on Facebook, that it puts people’s lives at risk in real life, and that it also makes it harder for people from historically oppressed groups to speak out, when we speak out and face an onslaught of hate and harassment.

So what the campaign is calling for is for all major advertisers on a global scale to drop their advertising on Facebook for the month of July. And we’re now up to over 700 advertisers that have agreed to drop from Facebook, including Honda, Ford, Unilever, Coke and other major brands that have essentially called on Facebook to meet our requests. And the interesting thing here is that the companies came along really easily, because it’s not good for their brands to be associated with the types of hate and disinformation that are running rampant on the platform.

JJ: It isn’t that Facebook just allows extremist or toxic content. There’s something, isn’t there, in the business model that encourages polarization?

JG: You’re absolutely right. Ninety-nine percent of Facebook‘s business model is advertising. And we are the product on Facebook: Facebook is selling access to us, consumers, individuals that use the platform. That’s what they’re selling to their advertisers.

So how do they make the most money? By keeping us, their product, on the platform as much as possible. And we know that hate, harassment and wild disinformation are the types of content that garner high attention and high engagement, and keep us on the platform, even when we don’t agree with those things and we’re, in fact, fighting back against hate and disinformation, it’s still generating time on the platform, engagement on the platform, and that is how they make their money.

So, yes, this is built right into their business model. And until now, nobody’s really been talking about that. Or we’ve been talking about it, but it hasn’t received the widespread attention that it’s receiving in this moment.

Wall Street Journal (5/26/00)

JJ: The Wall Street Journal, some may listeners may know, reported an internal Facebook report that executives got in 2018, that found that the company was well aware that its recommendation engine stoked divisiveness and polarization. But they ignored those findings, because they thought any changes would disproportionately affect conservatives, which is just, I think, mind blowing. So this is not a problem that they don’t know about. And the Journal also cites a separate report in 2016, that said that 64% of people who joined an extremist group on Facebook only did so because the company’s algorithm recommended it to them. So this is, as you’re saying, it’s not passive.

JG: Right. It’s absolutely not. This is intentional. They’ve known these things. This reminds me of how the tobacco industry hid information about the damaging health effects of cigarettes, back in the day. This is Facebook hiding information about the toxic effects of their own platform. And it’s really shameful, frankly, that it’s taken this much to get the attention on to what Facebook has been up to.

JJ: It’s not passive, but it’s also not equal opportunity. It tends to go in one direction, right?

JG: No, and this whole conservative bias red herring that gets thrown out there as a reason for not to do anything ought to be really offensive to conservatives. Last time I checked, they haven’t said that conservatism and antiracism are opposites. I think this is a nonpartisan issue, or at least it should be. We all have an interest, regardless of political party, race, religion and whatnot, to end racism in our society, and to use this red herring as a reason not to is really immoral.

Forbes (7/2/20)

JJ: It seems relevant that a group of Black workers at Facebook just filed a class action with the EEOC, alleging that Facebook discriminates against Black workers and applicants in hiring, evaluations, promotions and pay. Black people are just 3.8% of Facebook‘s workforce; 1.5% of tech workers, and that hasn’t increased, even as the company’s gone from 9,000 workers to nearly 45,000. One wonders how that company culture has bearing on their decision-making about when is something racist.

JG: Oh, absolutely. And I’m not surprised at all that workers are facing discrimination inside of Facebook, because the product itself is discriminatory. There’s discriminatory algorithms at play, and there’s a business model that is essentially hate profiteering. So this isn’t much different than things I’ve thought about in the past with hate radio, for instance, some of these really hateful pundits that are often on iHeartRadio, that you hear a lot of complaints about hate and harassment within. This is a pervasive cultural issue at companies that trade in hate.

JJ: This June 28 Washington Post piece charts how Facebook shifted its policies to accommodate Trump. The engineer who quit in disgust, David Thiel, is quoted saying, “The value of being in favor with people in power outweighs almost every other concern for Facebook.” For Trump, that’s meant that everything he says is newsworthy just because he said it, no matter how false or racist or inflammatory, and that carveout for politicians is galling to people, but it’s not, of course, the only problem. But that does seem to be a serious thing, to simply say that because someone’s a politician, they can say whatever they want.

JG: Right. This really speaks to the question of, “What are we talking about when we talk about a free press?” When I think of a free press, I think of the Fourth Estate, one that holds the powerful accountable. And he’s done just the opposite. There’s a set of content moderation rules that users have to follow, that the president doesn’t, [or] other powerful leaders. That’s an incredibly big problem. The free press is supposed to hold power accountable; it’s not supposed to give them a free ride.

And, frankly, it shows an appalling lack of awareness about the moment we’re in, the cultural moment we’re in, where we are reckoning with racism across the government, in our society, in our businesses, and in our own organizations and minds. All of us need to be thinking about anti-blackness in particular. And it shows that he’s really not thinking about that, or if he is, he’s made a calculated decision to put profit over morals.

JJ: Let’s talk about some of the recommendations or next steps that the campaign has put forward. What would you like to see happen? What are some of the elements?

JG: We have a number of recommendations that are on our website, StopHateForProfit.org, but I’ll highlight a few of them. Facebook needs a permanent civil rights infrastructure and accountability system inside the company. They need to comply with regular third-party audits that track how they are doing in complying with the civil rights infrastructure that needs to be built, and they need to overhaul their content moderation system.

The Change the Terms Coalition, which is a coalition of over 55 civil rights and racial justice organizations, has put forth a comprehensive set of model policies aimed at Facebook and other social media companies. And we’re asking them to ban hateful activities, to ban white supremacists, and to significantly invest in enforcement, in transparency about their content moderation process, in rights of appeal, so that people of color and religious minorities and others who are protesting racism and hate are not the ones that get taken down, but, in fact, it’s actually the hate and proliferation of racism and recruitment into white supremacist groups that gets taken down. We’re calling for Facebook to ban all state actor bot and troll campaigns that trade in hateful activities.

And so we have a larger set of policy recommendations on StopHateForProfit.org, including a call for Facebook to develop a hotline, so that its users who are experiencing hate and harassment have somewhere to call, to take care of when they’re experiencing hate, much like you might call your internet service provider or your water company if you are having a problem there.

So those are some of the policy changes that we’re calling for from Facebook.

JJ: At the end of this Washington Post piece, we see Mark Zuckerberg saying Facebook is going to start labeling problematic newsworthy content. I read somewhere they’re talking about commissioning research on polarization. Does this look like genuine engagement with the problems that you’re talking about to you? And I wonder,  you’ve been working with them for so long, do you think that they have evolved? Or has your way of engaging with them changed over time? And how real, how seriously do you think they’re taking this right now?

JG: I think this is more chipping away at the edges and failing to do comprehensive reform. So if they think they’re done, they’re sorely mistaken. And while I think it’s a step in the right direction, we’re super tired of steps in the right direction. I don’t know whether or not this is sincere; I think not. I think it’s a response to all the bad PR that they’re experiencing and all the dissent they’re feeling, even inside the company. And while there are some things that I’m interested in tracking–for instance, they’ve claimed that they are going to ban hateful activities aimed at people based on immigration status. They’ve claimed they’re not going to allow hate in ads, they claim they’re going to apply the rules towards politicians. I frankly don’t believe them, because they’ve made a lot of promises over the years and failed to enforce them.

JJ: What, finally, comes next? What if they do the same kind of hand-waving that they’ve done in the past and nothing really changes? Where do we go from there?

Jessica Gonzalez: “There’s a real question over whether Facebook is just too damn powerful, and whether we need further regulatory and legislative interventions to hold this company accountable to the people.”

JG: That’s a really good question. Right now, we are continuing to organize to move this campaign to the global level. So we will continue to levy advertiser pressure. And, listen, there’s a real question over whether Facebook is just too damn powerful, and whether we need further regulatory and legislative interventions to hold this company accountable to the people. And those are not off the table as far as Free Press is concerned. We’ve already called, at Free Press, for an ad tax on Facebook, taxing 2% of their profit, and reinvesting that money back into quality local and Independent news production, to support reporters who are going to have to do the hard work of putting Facebook‘s hate in context, and correcting the record on the disinformation that runs rampant on their sites.

We’ve also called for robust reform in the privacy realm, and we have a piece of model legislation that we are recommending the US Congress adopt, to make sure that Facebook is not violating our privacy rights, our civil rights, and that the power about the kind and the ways that Facebook collects data about us, and then monetizes our data, is in the control of us, the people, and that we have more transparency about what they’re collecting, and that we have a private right of action when Facebook is violating our rights.

So I think, at a minimum, those need to be seriously considered now, and I think there’s probably further interventions that need to happen in Congress. If Facebook refuses to comply with these demands, and perhaps even if they do comply, this really shines a light on just how powerful they are.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Jessica González, co-CEO of the group Free Press. They’re online at FreePress.net, and you can learn more about this campaign at StopHateForProfit.org. Jessica González, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

JG: Thank you for having me, Janine.

 

Corporate Media Team With Trump to Disparage Public Health Experts

 

To the New York Times‘ Michael Powell (7/6/20), what’s interesting about public health experts’ recommendations about protests and Covid is not whether they were accurate, but what he saw as the experts’ “conflicted feelings.”

Public health experts, unaccustomed to the spotlight, have really taken a beating lately. As they tirelessly work to unravel the mysteries of the Covid pandemic (and are increasingly burning out), the president of our country has constantly attacked and undermined them—and, lately, so have corporate media.

In a July 6 report, the New York Times seemed bizarrely eager to cast doubt on those experts’ intentions. “Are Protests Dangerous? What Experts Say May Depend on Who’s Protesting What,” read the headline over Michael Powell‘s report. The subhead continued the framing of the experts as hypocrites:

Public health experts decried the anti-lockdown protests as dangerous gatherings in a pandemic. Health experts seem less comfortable doing so now that the marches are against racism.

Many readers wouldn’t be terribly surprised at the story, since it’s a curiously late addition to the small flurry of coverage around a letter circulated more than a month ago, signed by more than 1,200 public health experts, that supported the wave of anti-racist protests that erupted around the country after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The letter—which the Times notably did not link to, though it did link to two negative media responses to it—began by recognizing that many public health experts had condemned the white armed protesters who took over the Michigan State Capitol building, who were “protesting stay-home orders and calls for widespread public masking to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”

After explaining that “white supremacy is a public health issue that predates and contributes to Covid-19,” they wrote that while they support staying at home, social distancing and public masking, they

do not condemn [anti-racism] gatherings as risky for Covid-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.

The letter carefully distinguished this from the protests against stay-at-home orders, which “not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives.” It continued by offering guidance for protesters and allies to minimize transmission risk at protests, like wearing masks, maintaining distance where possible, staying home when sick and providing hand sanitizer to protesters.

It seems pretty clear: Black people and other people of color are disproportionately hospitalized and dying of the disease, not as a result of some biological difference but because of the ways that systemic racism has put them at greater risk. Therefore, racism is a vital public health issue—both in general, as people of color suffer worse overall health outcomes than white people, and specifically concerning Covid-19.

So it’s clearly not a question of “who” is protesting, as the Times‘ headline suggests. It does matter very much “what” is being protested. In the case of the anti-lockdown protesters, the entire goal was to make government officials flout public health experts’ recommendations for infection control. Obviously, those actions couldn’t be supported from a public health perspective—not to mention that, given their agenda, most protesters were not wearing masks or keeping distance.

It’s worth noting, too, that experts’ understanding of the novel coronavirus’ transmission has played a role in shifting recommendations. Early on, less was understood about transmission, which is why full lockdowns were encouraged: If people aren’t near each other, they can’t pass the virus to each other, whatever its preferred mode of transmission.

As more research has emerged showing that outdoor activities are far less dangerous, and that masks seem to make a big difference in preventing transmission, experts can make finer-grained recommendations about which activities are higher and lower risk. Since anti-racism protesters were largely compliant with mask wearing, moving around rather than staying in one place, and in many cases attempting to keep distance from others, many experts judged that their outdoor activities were relatively low risk, particularly when weighed against the potential benefits from any outcomes that worked to dismantle systemic racism.

(Note that public health experts are not a monolith—they are individuals with individual perspectives and judgments—and not infallible. The public health experts at the WHO, in the most obvious example of both of these points, clung to their recommendation against universal mask wearing until well after the pandemic was underway—CNN, 3/30/20—and likewise refused to acknowledge mounting evidence pointing to airborne transmission until just this week, under pressure from hundreds of other health experts around the world—Reuters, 7/7/20.)

But like many who came before him (FAIR.org, 6/10/20), the Times‘ Powell was eager to skim over all these nuances, erasing the public health distinctions between the two kinds of protests. He played up the political distinctions to paint epidemiologists and other health experts as hypocritical, feeding the media narrative that they were “politicizing science.”

At the time of the letter, other outlets similarly cried foul. “Suddenly, Public Health Officials Say Social Justice Matters More Than Social Distance,” huffed Politico (6/4/20). “The Protesters Deserve the Truth About the Coronavirus; Public Health Experts Should Strive to Provide a Neutral Accounting of Risk,” scolded the Atlantic (6/4/20). The right wing, which has been attacking public health experts since the beginning of the pandemic, went predictably nuts; Jonah Goldberg (Dispatch, 6/5/20) went so far as to accuse epidemiologists of “treason.”

Some on the left, too, offered up false arguments to condemn the public health experts who supported the anti-racist protests, arguing that if they counseled everyone to stay at home in the face of the pandemic, at extreme economic and psychological cost, they certainly couldn’t say it’s okay for some to now go out and protest. In a widely-cited essay in the Guardian (6/8/20), Thomas Chatterton Williams (who later spearheaded a letter at Harper’s decrying so-called cancel culture and the “vogue for public shaming” on the left) leaned on ideas of political correctness gone amok to argue that “two weeks ago we shamed people for being in the street; today we shame them for not being in the street.” Public health experts, he wrote, are “politicizing science” and “have hemorrhaged credibility and authority.”

According to the Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald (6/11/20), “People who left their homes for any reason other than officially approved ‘essential’ functions were—no matter how careful they were—publicly shamed if not fined and arrested.”

Glenn Greenwald in the Intercept (6/11/20) was similarly outraged, calling the letter’s distinction between the two kinds of protests

plainly political judgments, not scientific ones, and the shoddy, glaring conflation of them is nothing less than a manipulation, an abuse, of public health credentials. For scientists to purport to dictate which citizens can and cannot safely choose to leave their house — based not on health judgments but on their political ideology — is repressive, and certain to erode the credibility of their profession. Yet this is exactly what they are doing: explicitly and shamelessly.

Again, it’s not about “which citizens” can leave their house, it’s about the purpose of the leaving: Why would public health experts not condemn efforts to pressure governments to rescind public health measures? And it expressly is about health judgments—both about the relatively low risks of sporadic, masked outdoor protests versus the high risks of people going about their normal business, and about the health judgment that protests against racism could improve health outcomes for people of color, during and beyond Covid-19.

Moreover, Greenwald, like Williams, the Atlantic‘s Conor Friesendorf and others, seems convinced that public health ought to be somehow objective, scientific and neutral, not political. But public health can’t avoid being political. Managing the health of an entire population is done through policy decisions, many of which people will disagree about. Gun control, smoking, obesity—so many of our major public health issues are highly politicized. If we want public health experts to tell us how to maximize our health, we can’t at the same time insist that they only tell us about certain narrow kinds of health outcomes, or health outcomes for certain kinds of people.

Williams and Greenwald appeared less concerned about hypocrisy concerning different kinds of protests and mostly upset about—as Greenwald put it—the apparently sudden deviation from the previous “dictate” from public health experts “that we could not go outside for any reason.” Greenwald wrote:

One of two things is true; either 1) these protests will lead to a significant spike in coronavirus infections and deaths, in which case public health experts should reconcile that outcome with how they could have encouraged and endorsed them; or 2) it will not lead to such a spike, in which case it will appear that the months of extreme, draconian lockdowns—which caused great suffering and deprivation around the world—were excessive, misguided and unwarranted.

First of all, stay-at-home orders were not intended to keep people locked up inside; since the beginning of the pandemic, health experts have been recommending that people continue to get outdoor exercise while maintaining social distance (NPR, 4/1/20).

Perhaps more importantly, the economic hardship caused by lockdowns does not happen in an apolitical bubble; as public health experts Julia Marcus and Gregg Gonsalves pointed out in the Atlantic (6/11/20), they and many other such experts have long been pushing for massive economic assistance to help forestall such fallout, as has been done quite successfully in many other countries. In other words, lockdowns do not have to lead to the kind of suffering and deprivation being experienced right now in this country, and no public health expert is advocating that.

There’s now been more than enough time to judge the impact of the protests on infections—and, despite nefarious police tactics that raised risks of transmission (like kettling, using tear gas, and not letting arrested protesters wear masks while they were held for long periods in police custody), there is no evidence that the protests spurred outbreaks; no increases in infection rates in places that saw some of the biggest protests, like Minneapolis, New York City and Washington, DC, and in fact an increase in social distancing in places where protests took place, which presumably helped drive down transmission (NEBR, 6/20). On the other hand, in several US states that have relaxed their “draconian” lockdowns in a manner at odds with public health experts’ recommendations, infections are beginning to escalate exponentially.

So, in fact, neither of Greenwald’s two things are true: Public health experts did not recklessly abet a spike in protest-related infections, nor have their recommendations for lockdowns in the face of increasing transmission been proven unfounded.

Which brings us back to the Times article, which came a full month after the letter was first published, and well after the outcome was clear. Perhaps to justify the existence of his article, Powell left open a wide berth for alternate interpretations of the data: “There is as of yet no firm evidence that protests against police violence led to noticeable spikes in infection rates.” But of course, it’s not just no “firm” evidence—Powell offered no evidence, period. So why run this story, framed in this way, now? With nothing new to contribute, the article serves only to further erode trust in the very people we have to rely on to get us out of the disaster we’re currently in.

 

Avoid This Kind of Coverage Like the Plague

 

An isolated case of bubonic plague in Inner Mongolia isn’t likely to cause problems elsewhere in China, let alone in the rest of the world—but the New York Times (7/6/20) thought you should know about it anyway.

“Bubonic Plague Found in a Herder in Inner Mongolia, China Says,” read the New York Times headline (7/6/20). “A city put control measures in place after one confirmed case of the disease, which caused the Black Death in the Middle Ages,” the subhead elaborated. The story’s lead described the case as “a reminder of how even as the world battles a pandemic caused by a novel virus, old threats remain.”

In the article’s last paragraph, Times Hong Kong correspondent Austin Ramzy acknowledged that cases of the plague are not so novel:

Plague cases are found in limited numbers across much of the world. In the United States, about seven cases, usually the bubonic form, are reported on average each year, most often in rural areas of Western states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

The Times was not the only Western outlet to see the Inner Mongolian plague case as a story. Bloomberg (7/5/20) seems to have kicked off the coverage, in a story originally headlined “Does Bubonic Plague Still Exist? China Confirms Case.” The Bloomberg report noted:

While the ailment is treatable, unlike the novel pathogen which has caused the ongoing pandemic, Chinese health authorities are wary of any infectious disease spreading after a hard-fought containment of the coronavirus outbreak.

The BBC (7/6/20) had the headline “China Bubonic Plague: Inner Mongolia Takes Precautions After Case,” but the story reassured: “The bubonic plague was once the world’s most feared disease, but can now be easily treated…. It’s unlikely any cases will lead to an epidemic.”

Newsweek‘s story, “What Is Bubonic Plague? China’s Inner Mongolia Reports ‘Black Death’ Case” (7/6/20), reminded readers:

The Yersinia pestis bacteria was the cause of the Black Death—widely considered to be the deadliest pandemic in human history, which killed anywhere between 75 and 200 million people across Europe, Asia and North Africa in the 14th century.

“While cases of are rare today, outbreaks do still occur—although modern treatments have significantly reduced the mortality of the disease,” Newsweek went on to say.

Bloomberg (7/5/20) seems to have been the first Western outlet to sound the false alarm.

USA Today (7/8/20) had a “factcheck” that reported, “The World Health Organization considers the threat of a bubonic plague outbreak minimal”—but not before telling readers in the lead that “diseases will thrive in whatever vector they’re given.”

New York Post (7/6/20) went the “news you can use” route, with “What Is Bubonic Plague and How Is It Treated?”

Here’s a more useful question: Why is this story news?

As the various articles do a better or worse job of explaining, bubonic plague is a disease that’s been around for centuries; some people get it every year, in the United States as well as in China, but it’s easily controllable with antibiotics. There’s essentially zero chance that a case found in Inner Mongolia will spark an epidemic that will reach Beijing, let alone the other side of the world.

So why does this medical misfortune, one of hundreds of cases of plague that will occur worldwide this year, deserve a story in major news outlets? A microbiologist quoted in another BBC piece (7/6/20) provides a clue: “Although this might appear alarming, being another major infectious disease emerging from the East, it appears to be a single suspected case which can be readily treated.”

“Another major infectious disease emerging from the East”—well, that sounds like a story, doesn’t it, in the sense of fitting in with longstanding, emotionally resonant preconceptions? And not just anywhere in the East; there were a handful of cases that appeared earlier this year in Mongolia, but they didn’t get coverage of their own, because Mongolia doesn’t play the role that China does in the corporate media imagination of powerful, sinister rival (FAIR.org, 5/7/20, 5/15/206/21/20).

In other words, bubonic plague in Inner Mongolia is more newsworthy than the same disease in New Mexico because it plays into racist stereotypes. Media commentators rightly scorn Donald Trump talking about the “Chinese virus” and the “kung flu“—but this kind of medical cherrypicking is just as pernicious.

Featured image: BBC image (7/6/20) of a medieval plague mask, used to illustrate a story about a disease that no longer causes mass death.

Brenda Choresi Carter on the Power of Sheriffs, Gordon Mosser on Medicare for All & Covid-19

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Sheriff Robert Snaza, Lewis County, Washington (photo: @ThePhotoJay/Daily Chronicle, via Washington Post)

This week on CounterSpin: Just hours after Washington state’s Democratic governor, Jay Inslee, issued a statewide mandate for people to wear masks in public to discourage the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, a Republican county sheriff told a crowd gathered in a church parking lot, “Don’t be a sheep.” Sheriffs are particularly powerful, but  generally overlooked in coverage about substantive changes to law enforcement, and even romanticized in a public conversation that imagines them on horseback, somewhat renegade, maybe taking law “into their own hands,” for, you know, the good of the people. There’s not a lot of data on who sheriffs are or what they do. A new study suggests that a conversation that excludes them from talk of police abolition and/or reform would be missing a critical element. We’ll talk about that void-filling data with Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, the group behind a new study called Confronting the Demographics of Power: America’s Sheriffs.

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(cc photo: National Nurses United)

Also on the show: When you picture a country responding to a pandemic, do you think about states fighting one another for life-saving equipment, or a drug researched on the public dime being put on the market for more than $3,000 per treatment? No. But when the topic is recipes for change, media show their lack of interest in actual people’s actual lives and deaths, in favor of political shadows on the cave wall—as when the New York Times runs an op-ed by a political analyst opining that Joe Biden “projects moderation and decency, an image burnished by his rejection of proposals regularly debated in the Democratic primary like Medicare for All and decriminalizing the border.” So it’s not just decent, but a hallmark of decency, to deny life-altering care to people who can’t afford it, to cut off people’s healthcare if they lose their jobs (through no fault of their own) and to price drugs out of the reach of regular people. That sort of drive-by dismissal is one of our problems with media. We got a second opinion from MD Gordon Mosser, senior fellow in the Division of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, who’s written recently on Medicare for All in the time of Covid.

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NYT Acknowledges Coup in Bolivia—While Shirking Blame for Its Supporting Role

 

by Camila Escalante with Brian Mier

If the New York Times (6/7/20) has had second thoughts about its coverage of the 2019 Bolivian election and subsequent coup, it hasn’t shared them with its readers.

The New York Times (6/7/20) declared that an Organization of American States (OAS) report alleging fraud in the 2019 Bolivian presidential elections—which was used as justification for a bloody, authoritarian coup d’etat in November 2019—was fundamentally flawed.

The Times reported the findings of a new study by independent researchers; the Times brags of contributing to it by sharing data it “obtained from Bolivian electoral authorities,” though this data has been publicly available since before the 2019 coup.

The article never uses the word “coup”—it says that President Evo Morales was “push[ed]…from power with military support”—but it does acknowledge that “seven months after Mr. Morales’s downfall, Bolivia has no elected government and no official election date”:

A staunchly right-wing caretaker government, led by Jeanine Añez…has not yet fulfilled its mandate to oversee swift new elections. The new government has persecuted the former president’s supporters, stifled dissent and worked to cement its hold on power.

“Thank God for the New York Times for letting us know,” must think at least some casual readers, who trust the paper’s regular criticism of rising authoritarianism within the US—perhaps adding, “Well, I guess it’s too late to do anything about Bolivia now.”

The fact is, the Times has been patting itself on the back for acknowledging authoritarianism in neofascist regimes that it helped normalize in Latin America for at least 50 years. The only surprise to readers who are aware of this ugly truth is that this time it took so long.

It only took the Times 15 days and the arrest of 20,000 leftists, for example, to counter nine articles supportive of the April 1, 1964, Brazilian military coup (Social Science Journal, 1/97) with a warning (4/16/64) that “Brazil now has an authoritarian military government. ” As was the case with Brazil in 1964, recognizing that Bolivia has now succumbed to authoritarianism may help the New York Times’ image with progressive readers, but it doesn’t do anything for the oppressed citizens of the countries involved.

While the coup was unfolding, and when Northern solidarity for Bolivia’s Movement for Socialism government (MAS in Spanish) might have helped avert disaster, the New York Times was whistling a different tune. The day after Morales’ re-election (10/21/19), it portrayed the paramilitary putschists who were carrying out violent threats against elected officials and their families as victims of repressive police actions perpetrated by the socialist government. “Opponents of Mr. Morales angrily charged ‘fraud, fraud!’” read the post-election article:

Heavily armed police officers were deployed to the streets, where they clashed with demonstrators on Monday night, according to television news reports.

One day after Morales was removed from power, the Times (11/11/19) engaged in victim-blaming, with a news analysis headlined ‘This Will Be Forever’: How the Ambitions of Evo Morales Contributed to His Fall.” The first Indigenous president in Latin American history was not being deposed illegally, after winning a fair election, by groups of armed paramilitary thugs, amid threats of murder and rape to his family members, the Times implied; rather, he was being brought down due to his own character faults as a Machiavellian back-stabber.

Camila Escalante reporting for MintPress News (11/21/19) from El Alto, Bolivia.

I arrived in Bolivia on November 13, 2019, shortly after Jeanine Añez’ unconstitutional swearing in as unelected, interim president, on a cartoonishly oversized Bible. I was there as a reporter for MintPress News and teleSUR, and two of the active sites I reported from were in the most militantly MAS-dense areas: In Sacaba, where the coup regime’s first massacre took place on November 15, and in El Alto, where the Senkata massacre took place on November 19.

The third, and most extensively covered, resistance to the coup was in the heart of the city of La Paz, where daily protests were staged. Beyond these major conflict areas, there were large mobilizations in Norte Potosí, the rural provinces of the department of La Paz, Zona Sud of Cochabamba, Yapacani and San Julian. The vast majorities within all rural areas across the country were also in deep resistance to the coup.

The November coup represented the ousting of a government deeply embedded in the country’s Indigenous campesino and worker movements, by internal colonial-imperialist actors, led in large part by Bolivia’s fascist and neoliberal opposition sectors, most notably Luis Fernando Camacho and Carlos Mesa, who received ample support from the US government and the far-right Bolsonaro administration of Brazil. The Indigenous and social movement bases resisting the coup were deeply distrusting of Bolivian media, which they immediately deemed as having played a key role in it.

Those same groups that were hostile towards major Bolivian news networks and journalists lined up to be heard by myself and those who accompanied me, once they recognized my teleSUR press credentials. One woman attending a cabildo (mass meeting) of the Fejuves (neighborhood organizations) of El Alto detailed how her workplace, Bolivia TV, had been attacked by right-wing mobs as the coup authorities got rid of those deemed sympathizers of the constitutional government, replacing them by force almost immediately.

Indigenous Bolivian communities were at the very forefront of the protests and resistance actions against the coup, namely the blocking of key highways and roads, as in the case of Norte Potosí, the blocking of the YPFB gas plant in Senkata, and 24-hour camps blocking the entry to the Chapare province. La Paz was militarized, making it impossible to get near Plaza Murillo, the site of the Presidential Palace and the Congress. I witnessed daily violent repression by security forces against those who gathered in protest near the perimeter of the Plaza, including unions and groups such as the Bartolina Sisa Confederation, a nationwide organization of Indigenous and campesina women, and the highly organized neighborhood associations of El Alto.

One might think this kind of grassroots, pro-democracy mobilization coordinated by working-class people against an authoritarian takeover would be the type of thing the New York Times would applaud. After all, it ran over 100 articles championing Hong Kong’s protesters in the last six months of 2019 alone.

Anatoly Kurmanaev, the author of this New York Times piece (12/5/19) that ignored real-time critiques of the OAS’s complaints about the Bolivian election, was a co-author of the piece (6/7/20) acknowledging that some have “second thoughts” about the OAS attacks on Evo Morales.

As resistance grew on the streets of Bolivia, however, the New York Times only continued the  rationalization of the unconstitutional, authoritarian taking of power, using the now-discredited OAS report to do so.

“Election Fraud Aided Evo Morales, International Panel Concludes,” read a December 5 article—one of several the paper ran discrediting the democratic electoral process. Like the others, it failed to challenge dubious claims by the right-wing coalition in charge of the OAS—which received $68 million, or 44% of its budget, from the Trump administration in 2017—that Evo Morales was elected via “lies, manipulation and forgery to ensure his victory.”

A newspaper that prides itself on showing the full picture could have cited the debunking of the OAS study conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), an organization with two Nobel Laureate economists on its board, whose co-director Mark Weisbrot has written over 20 op-ed pieces for the New York Times. Even before the coup, CEPR (11/8/19) published an analysis of the Bolivian vote that concluded, “Neither the OAS mission nor any other party has demonstrated that there were widespread or systematic irregularities in the elections of October 20, 2019.”

The fatal flaws in the report the OAS used to subvert a member government, long obvious, are now undeniable even to the New York Times. But the paper still hasn’t acknowledged, let alone apologized for, the credulous reporting that gave it a leading role in bringing down an elected president and the violence that followed.

Note: This story was reported and written by Camila Escalante, with additional writing by Brian Mier.

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

 

US News Falsely Reports That North Korea Threatened to Nuke US

 

In order to eliminate the nuclear threats from the US, the DPRK government has made all possible efforts, either through dialogue or in resort to the international law, but all ended in a vain effort…. The only option left was to counter nuke with nuke.

Does this statement made by the North Korean government sound like a threat to launch a nuclear strike on the US?

When one reads this brief snippet taken from a 5,500 word report carefully, it’s obvious that this is not a threat to launch a nuclear strike, but an explanation of the rationale behind North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

It’s hard to interpret “counter[ing] nuke with nuke” as a declaration of an intent to launch a nuclear strike, considering that the US hasn’t nuked North Korea yet—and because the country would not be around to launch such a response if the US had followed through on previous threats to nuke North Korea. The use of the past tense informs us that this is not an announcement of a future action, but of an action already taken by North Korea. Since we’re all still here, this means that North Korea has not decided to nuke us.

US News (6/26/20) willfully misunderstands a North Korean statement in the most alarmist way possible.

Yet, US News & World Report (6/26/20) presents this statement as a threat to launch an imminent nuclear strike on the US, running an alarmist report under the headline:

North Korea Threatens US: Nuclear Attack ‘the Only Option Left’

In case it isn’t clear that US News & World Report is misinforming readers with a ridiculous interpretation, the very next sentences in North Korea’s report should clarify that countering “nuke with nuke” means obtaining a nuclear deterrent:

In the long run, the US compelled us to possess nuke[s].

This brought to an end the nuclear imbalance in Northeast Asia, where only the DPRK has been left without nukes while all other countries have been equipped with nuclear weapons or nuclear umbrella.

Unlike the US, North Korea committed to a no-first-use pledge on May 7, 2016 (CounterPunch, 5/16/20). Had US News & World Report‘s Paul Shinkman included this crucial tidbit of North Korea promising to use nuclear weapons only for defensive purposes in its article, the added context would have made it especially clear that North Korea was not threatening a nuclear attack, and would have done a great deal to calm unnecessary fears and avoid unnecessary tensions.

There have been other instances where characterizing North Korea’s statements as a “threat” were more justifiable, but even in those reports, adding more context would have been helpful in deciphering the intent behind North Korea’s ambiguous and bellicose statements.

CNBC (3/7/16) originally used the headline “North Korea Threatens to Reduce US ‘to Ashes,'” but that might have been too absurd to effectively scare readers.

For example, a few months before North Korea announced its no-first-use pledge, outlets like CNN (3/6/16), CNBC (3/7/16) and the New York Times (3/6/16) reported on a statement from the North Korean government containing exaggerated threats like launching an “all-out offensive,” an “indiscriminate nuclear strike,” as well as a “preemptive nuclear strike of justice,” and it being capable of reducing “all bases of provocation” to “seas in flames and ashes in a moment.”

These reports did add helpful qualifiers like North Korea seeing the annual joint war games held by the US and South Korea being a “precursor to invading its territory,” and North Korea’s inflated rhetoric being “typical around the time of annual military exercises,” as well as it being “unclear how close the country has come to acquiring the technologies required to build an intercontinental missile” capable of striking the US at the time. However, a more nuanced analysis of North Korea’s statement and situation at the time would have given stronger indications that North Korea’s statements were less of a spontaneous and imminent threat than these selective quotations imply.

For instance, the title of North Korea’s statement was “DPRK National Defense Commission Warns of Military Counteraction for Preemptive Attack,” which gives a strong hint that the statement is better understood as being a threat of retaliation against a nuclear first-strike by the US. The statement also references the “extremely adventurous OPLAN 5015,” which is a US Operations Plan for destroying North Korea through assassinations, attacking North Korea’s nuclear facilities and a preemptive nuclear strike, which lends further credence to the view that North Korea’s statement was an attempt to match the US’s rhetoric, rather than being a genuine (and incomprehensible) threat (National Interest, 3/11/17). The Peterson Institute for International Economics (3/6/16) also noted that the statement contained a “carefully calibrated statement that any such action would ultimately be defensive.”

Following the two points cited by corporate media suggesting that North Korea was considering preemptive action, the next point pivots back to a defensive posture:

If the enemies dare kick off even the slightest military action while vociferating about “beheading operation” aimed to remove the supreme headquarters of the DPRK and “bring down its social system,” its army and people will not miss the opportunity but realize the greatest desire of the Korean nation through a sacred war of justice for reunification.

The conditional statement above is a threat to retaliate against potential US and South Korean military efforts to enact regime change, not an unprompted threat to launch a preemptive nuclear strike. This complicates the one-sided caricature of North Koreans as bloodthirsty savages or mindless aliens acting out of irrational impulses to destroy the US.

This caricature also reverses reality, because unlike North Korea, the US has explicitly made it a strategy to project itself as an “irrational and vindictive” nuclear power with some “potentially ‘out of control’” elements in a 1995 STRATCOM report entitled The Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence.

US military and government officials who have dealt with North Korea noted that their leaders aren’t “crazy,” and that their foreign policy has consistently retained a tit-for-tat strategy for decades. If anything, North Korean diplomats have expressed bewilderment over the appearance of the US political establishment refusing to ask why North Koreans would ever launch nuclear weapons first, when North Koreans are as fully aware as anyone else that that would result in their country’s demise:

It would be suicidal to attack the USA first and especially with nuclear weapons. We understand that it would be the last day of our country.

Ultimately, whatever inflammatory rhetoric North Korean officials may or may not use in the face of perceived attacks on the country, journalists ought to reject racist notions from the Korean War of “the Oriental” thinking of “death as the beginning of life,” and regarding their own individual lives as “cheap,” and remind their audiences that North Korean government officials are no more suicidal than any other country’s leaders.

Featured image: Cartoon featured by US News & World Report (6/26/20), by Dana Summers of the Tribune Content Agency, depicting North Korea launching a nuclear attack on the US.

In ‘Russian Bounty’ Story, Evidence-Free Claims From Nameless Spies Became Fact Overnight

 

The New York Times (6/26/20) front-paged what “intelligence says”—while offering very little explanation of why they say they believe it, or why we should believe them.

Based upon a bombshell New York Times report (6/26/20), virtually the entire media landscape has been engulfed in the allegations that Russia is paying Taliban fighters bounties to kill US soldiers.

The Washington Post (6/27/20) and the Wall Street Journal (6/27/20) soon published similar stories, based on the same intelligence officials who refused to give their names, and did not appear to share any data or documents with the news organizations. “The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have confirmed our reporting,” tweeted the Times article’s lead author, Charlie Savage. The Post’s John Hudson seemed to back him up: “We have confirmed the New York Times scoop: A Russian military spy unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan,” he responded.

Yet these statements were categorically untrue. The Times stressed how unsure they were about the allegations, using qualifying language throughout, such as “it was not clear” and “greater uncertainty.” And Hudson’s own article uses the phrase “if confirmed” in relation to the bounty claims, explicitly conceding they are not confirmed.

Despite the fact that the anonymous accusations were far from proven, and that both the Post and Journal included categorical denials from all those involved, including the White House, the Taliban and Moscow, much of corporate media treated the story as an established fact from the outset. “This is jaw-dropping,” fumed MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (6/26/20) about the “sickening” news. She throws in an “if this Times report is correct” before going on to treat is as “confirmed” information:

You know from this reporting in the New York Times, which has since been confirmed by the Wall Street Journal, that not only does the president know that Russia was paying for American soldiers’ deaths, paying rewards for Americans dead…his response to that is nothing except a friendly call.

CNN (6/26/20) ran the headline “Russia Offered Bounties to Afghan Militants to Kill US Troops,” while the Guardian (6/27/20) went with a British variant, “Russia Offered Bounty to Kill UK Soldiers”—in both cases presenting the allegations as facts.

‘Officials Said’

This would be troublesome enough, but there are a number of reasons to be skeptical of the veracity of the claims. Firstly, the Times, Post and Journal’s reports are all based on fundamentally untrustworthy actors who refuse to go on the record. Here is a list of all the sources mentioned in the Times report:

  • “According to officials briefed on the matter”
  • “Officials said”
  • “Officials said”
  • “Officials said”
  • “Said Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary for President Vladimir V. Putin”
  • “Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, denied”
  • “The officials spoke”
  • “Russian government officials have dismissed such claims”
  • “Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of American forces in Afghanistan at the time, said”
  • “Officials were said to be confident”
  • “Some officials have theorized”
  • “Officials have also suggested”
  • “The officials briefed on the matter said”
  • “Western intelligence officials say”
  • “American intelligence officials say”
  • “American officials say”
  • “Officials briefed on its operations say”

It is standard journalistic practice to name and check sources. The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics insists that “reporters should use every possible avenue to confirm and attribute information before relying on unnamed sources,” and that we must “always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity,” because too many “provide information only when it benefits them.”

Without a name to go with the source, there are no consequences for sources (or journalists, for that matter) lying and spreading malicious rumors. Using an anonymous source is implicitly asking readers to trust a reporter’s judgment and credibility. The practice is less important with minor details in a story (e.g. “a city nurse said three people had been injured”), but grows exponentially more vital when the source is the basis for the article, and when there are massive consequences in publishing the story. That is why it should be reserved for whistleblowers or others facing serious harm if caught. The Times’ own guidelines on integrity strongly discourages the practice; “There is nothing more toxic to responsible journalism than an anonymous source,” wrote the paper’s public editor (New York Times, 5/30/04).

Allowing unnamed officials to set the agenda in news is something FAIR has constantly criticized (6/25/14, 3/29/16, 4/26/17), and regularly leads to outlets being burned (FAIR.org, 6/30/17, 12/3/18). Therefore, they should be used only when a reporter is completely confident in their veracity. Considering who the sources were for the Russian bounty scandal (intelligence officials), the story, as it was published, should never have left the drawing board. As we wrote recently (FAIR.org, 2/28/20):

It is the job of the covert security services to lie and manipulate. They are among the least trustworthy groups in the world, journalistically speaking, as part of their profession involves planting fake information. The only group less deserving of blind faith than spies would be anonymous spies.

Janine Jackson (Extra!, 11/11) noted that journalists’ anonymity agreement with official sources “works out swell for powerful people who’d prefer to avoid accountability for what they say, and terribly for citizens for whom that accountability is crucial.”

Unfortunately, reliance on such sources is near ubiquitous at the Times and the Post. In 2011, FAIR (1/11/11) found that virtually every article on Afghanistan appearing in the two outlets over the course of a week featured material from anonymous official US sources.

The information on the Russian bounties appears to have been both minimal and vague, with officials refusing to show any corroborating evidence or the documents they claimed to have, and were unable to link the accusations to any concrete, real-world events. Perhaps more solid information will be provided at a later date, but the fact that what has been presented so far has turned into a major story is bizarre in itself.

The first response of any credible journalist to receiving this tip, given to them by spooks who refused to put their names to it—and who freely admitted, as the Times report notes, that the information was derived from “interrogated” Afghan fighters, in a country were Human Rights Watch (4/17/19) says torture of detainees is “disturbingly high”—should have been to throw the story into the trash bin, at least until the officials agreed to go on the record. That the authors of the Times article share five Pulitzer Prizes between them suggests that this might not have simply been comically irresponsible and shoddy journalism, however, but something more intentional.

Endless War

As the three articles pointed out, the accusations come at a time when the Trump administration is negotiating with the Taliban and has committed to removing all troops from the country by next year (a move that is now being blocked by the House Armed Services Committee because of the bounty scandal). Crucial nuclear weapons limitations treaties are also expiring, with Moscow showing a keen interest in renewing them. But many officials argue the US should start a new atomic arms race, “spending” Russia into “oblivion.”

It’s bad news when the publication that tracks how close we are to the end of the world (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1/23/20) switches its gauge from minutes to seconds.

Partially in response to the increased tensions between the two nations, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently moved its famous Doomsday Clock up to 100 seconds to midnight, signalling that they believe the world is closer than it has ever been to Armageddon, even than during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This background should have been a red flag from the outset. It is rare that poor journalism threatens the fate of the planet, but increasing hostility between two nuclear-armed foes might be doing just that.

If the Taliban is indeed being paid to kill American servicemen and women, they are not doing a particularly good job of it. US losses in Afghanistan have slowed greatly, from dozens dying every month during President Obama’s surge to only 22 in the past year. Over 1,700 died under Obama, compared to just a few dozen under Trump.

To anyone concerned about protecting the lives of US troops, the logical answer would be to remove them from Afghanistan, as both Obama and Trump have promised. Yet very few of the countless reports questioned either the wisdom or the legitimacy of the 19-year US occupation of the country.

If the story is true, Russia would be mirroring semi-official US policy with regard to their own troops. In 2016, former acting CIA Director Michael Morell appeared on the Charlie Rose Show (8/8/16), and said it was his job to “make the Russians pay a price” for their role in the Middle East. When Rose asked if that meant killing Russians, he replied: “Yes. Covertly. You don’t tell the world about it. You don’t stand up at the Pentagon and say, ‘We did this.’ But you make sure they know it in Moscow.” Going further back, the US channeled vast amounts of money to the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s “to make sure Afghans could do everything possible to kill Russians, as painfully as possible,” in the words of influential Rep. Charlie Wilson.

The Plot Thickens?

Following up on the story, the New York Times published two further viral articles, claiming that Trump had been made aware of the Kremlin plot as early as February (6/29/20) and that Russia had sent large financial transfers to a Taliban-linked account (6/30/20). Yet both these stories suffered from the same deficiencies as the first one, depending on anonymous official sources making relatively unspecific claims while offering no evidence. Indeed, the unnamed “analysts” were only willing to say that the cash transfers were “most likely” part of the bounty scandal the Times had broken four days earlier. Yet the effect was to bolster the veracity of what had come before in many people’s minds.

One source for Business Insider (7/1/20) says ” it was well-known that groups in need of money could work with Russians,” another says “there were many affiliated groups that have maintained ties with Russia,” and the third is someone whose name Business Insider doesn’t know that it communicated with only through Facebook.

Meanwhile, Business Insider (7/1/20) ran a story “confirming” the unfolding bounty scandal, claiming that they had spoken to three Taliban sources who told them Russia and Iran offered them payments. As with the Times, however, the sources were unwilling to put their names to the accusations. Perhaps more comically, Business Insider admitted that it did not even know the name of one of the “Taliban commanders” it cited, communicating to him only via Facebook. If this is how credulous Business Insider is, I know a Nigerian prince who is eager to talk to them about an urgent business proposal.

Independent journalist Caitlin Johnstone (Medium, 6/28/20) suggested that corporate media could not be this obtuse, and that the affair suggested active collaboration between deep state and fourth estate, writing:

All parties involved in spreading this malignant psyop are absolutely vile, but a special disdain should be reserved for the media class who have been entrusted by the public with the essential task of creating an informed populace and holding power to account.

Media like the New York Times and Washington Post pour scorn on Trump administration officials daily, yet appear to display complete reverence to the national security state, treating three-letter agencies’ every utterance as gospel. In the wake of a number of high-profile police lies during the George Floyd protests, the Washington Post (6/30/20) reported that newsrooms across the country are reflecting on their relationship with law enforcement and will no longer accept “police said” as fact. Perhaps they should do the same with intelligence officials.

In the Name of Anti-Trumpism, Media Elevate a Lying Warmonger

 

John Bolton with his White House memoir (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)

Opposing the current president is a worthy goal for anyone who wants a better world. But if that opposition is based on TV ratings and ad sales, then it is just as morally bankrupt as the president himself.

John Bolton’s new book, The Room Where It Happened, has earned him enormous amounts of free publicity for antagonizing the president. In their zeal to once again expose Trump as an all-around bad man, corporate media have elevated someone who should be condemned by a civilized society.

Bolton’s entire professional history should be enough to make him persona non grata in any respectable circles—from his work on the Buckley v. Vallejo case that legalized mega-spending on election campaigns (Intercept, 6/18/20), to his efforts in the Reagan administration to dismantle regulations on advertising baby formula in the Global South (USA Today, 4/24/05).

Bolton is most known for his hyper-militaristic foreign policy. During the George W. Bush years, he was one of the loudest cheerleaders for the murderous US invasion of Iraq, a war that has been responsible for as many as 3 million deaths (AlterNet, 3/15/18). He threatened international officials who got in his way, telling one, “We know where your kids live.” In order to sell the war to the public, he told outright lies to the public. Bolton has said that he has never regretted his support for the war.

After he joined the current administration as National Security advisor in 2018, Bolton spearheaded some of the Trump White House’s most aggressive foreign policies. In the spring of 2018, he encouraged a massive strike to “eliminate Syria’s air force” in response to alleged Syrian chemical weapon use (Vox, 4/16/18). He was also a driving force behind Trump’s withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) weapons treaty (Washington Post, 10/19/18).

Bolton was at the head of a massive campaign to delegitimize the government of Venezuela, part of the years-long American project of destroying Venezuela’s political stability through economic and public relations warfare (Time, 1/30/19). Washington’s economic sanctions killed an estimated 40,000 people in the country in 2017–18 alone (Independent, 4/26/19; CEPR, 4/19).

The New York Times (3/26/15) promoted Bolton’s call for an unprovoked attack on Iran to eliminate its nonexistent nuclear weapons program.

Bolton has also long been at the forefront of the neoconservative call for war with Iran. He has accepted tens of thousands of dollars from a group of Iranian exiles known as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), dedicated to overthrowing the current government; the group was officially designated by the US as a terrorist group from 1997 to 2012, due to a long record of bombing and assassination campaigns (Politico, 12/13/16). Eight months before joining the Trump administration, Bolton told the group that regime change in Iran should be the US’s stated policy, and that “before 2019, we will celebrate here in Tehran.”

In 2015, the New York Times (3/26/15) published Bolton’s opinion piece, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” In addition to failing to disclose Bolton’s ties with the MEK, the piece contained multiple factual errors (Intercept, 4/4/15). According to Jon Schwartz of the Intercept, the Times initially linked one of Bolton’s key claims to a source that contradicted the claim, only fixing it after Schwartz pointed it out.

Despite this long history of lying, and advocating a violent and aggressive foreign policy, Bolton’s latest project has been attacking the Trump administration for its gross incompetence and corruption. Media allowed Bolton to frame himself as a whistleblower trying to stop the lawlessness of an out-of-control Trump administration.

For the New York Times (6/21/20), Bolton’s main importance seemed to be his pertinence to the 2020 election.

Bolton’s central importance to corporate media is illustrated by a New York Times headline: “Trump Poses ‘Danger for the Republic’ if Re-Elected, John Bolton Charges” (6/21/20). Bolton’s usefulness as a club to bash Trump renders all of his past deeds beyond mention.

The Times (6/18/20) provided a summary of the main takeaways from Bolton’s book. One of the most prominent was that Bolton professes to substantiate key accusations from the House impeachment of Trump. This is not a surprising revelation; Bolton’s opposition to the administration’s efforts to force Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden was a major topic of discussion during the impeachment hearings. (For what it’s worth, Bolton also argues that impeachment was a political stunt rather than a serious inquiry, offering this as an explanation for why he didn’t testify about it at the time.) The rest of the book’s revelations center around the familiar narrative of Trumpian disregard for established norms and rules.

There has been debate about Bolton’s decision not to testify at the impeachment trial without a subpoena. According to CNN (6/17/20), Bolton “betrayed his country” by neglecting to blow the whistle on Trump and Ukraine earlier. Of course, there was no mention of Bolton’s history of leading (or trying to lead) the US into deadly wars.

These past several days, substantive policy issues were mostly drowned out by political gossip and pointing out the most obvious of Trump’s flaws. But on the few topics that Bolton has discussed, he feels that Trump hasn’t been hawkish enough.

In 2019, when Trump decided to call off a strike that could have killed 150 Iranians, Bolton felt this aversion to war was “the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any president do” (despite the fact that a war with Iran could make Iraq look like a cakewalk). On Trump’s ongoing coup attempt in Venezuela, Bolton believed that Trump wasn’t sufficiently undermining the current elected Venezuelan government.

Last week Bolton had some of his highest visibility ever, with interviews all across the media. ABC News (6/21/20) had a much-hyped special, while USA Today (6/26/20) offered a similar interview. Several political cartoons have depicted Bolton as a significant challenge to Trump’s administration.

Stephen Colbert (Late Show, 6/23/20) laughing with John Bolton.

Late-night television personalities touted Bolton’s book. Bolton even appeared on CBS’s Late Show (6/23/20) with Stephen Colbert; the two ended up sharing laughs, much like Colbert had earlier rehabilitated Trump press secretary Sean Spicer (FAIR.org, 9/19/17). Mother Jones (6/24/20) called this interview “The Interview John Bolton Really Deserves,” because Colbert took the bold step of calling him “naive” for believing that Trump would follow the rules.

Bolton’s main contribution to the national discourse is exemplified by what he said to George Stephanopolos on ABC‘s Good Morning America (6/22/20):

[Trump’s] policymaking is so incoherent, so unfocused, so unstructured, so wrapped around his own personal political fortunes, that mistakes are being made that will have grave consequences for the national security of the United States.

Giving Bolton a platform to express his disdain for Trump also allows him to turn a realistic critique of Trump foreign policy on its head: Rather than being too violent and militaristic, the problem is that Trump is “incoherent” and “unfocused” in his violence and militarism.

Bolton also made appearances on the two main Sunday talk shows. Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press (6/28/20) asked Bolton whether or not Trump “is afraid to make Putin mad, because maybe Putin did help him win the election and he doesn’t want to make him mad for 2020?”

Bolton’s name is reaching peak levels of interest, according to Google Trends, and his book even made it to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers list. The book follows in a long line of anti-Trump insider White House accounts; Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Bod Woodward’s Fear and Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged each hit the top of the New York Times Bestsellers list.

In our pop culture world, Bolton, like many prominent public policymakers, is most importantly a celebrity. Sure, he may have had a troubled past, but that is a distant backstory to this current season. Regardless of his past disregard for human life, he is a new man, and has ridden the media wave into the halls of the anti-Trump #resistance.

Bolton’s ideas are dangerous to America and the rest of the world. Was rehabilitating the public image of a warmonger and elevating his voice really worth telling us, for the thousandth time, that Donald Trump runs the White House like a selfish child?

 

Jessica Gonzalez on Facebook Promoting Hate

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MP3 Link

 

Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg (photo: White House)

This week on CounterSpin: A recent Washington Post report tracks how Facebook has accommodated Donald Trump, allowing him to post false, incendiary and racist comments that would get another person sanctioned. Facebook, the paper reports, “has constrained its efforts against false and misleading news, adopted a policy explicitly allowing politicians to lie, and even altered its news feed algorithm to neutralize claims that it was biased against conservative publishers,” according to former and current employees and company documents.

It’s an incredibly important issue at a platform one-and-a-half billion people use, and that is, for many, replacing actual news outlets as a source of information. Activists have complained for years, but a current campaign is getting some traction. It’s called Stop Hate for Profit, and it’s the work of a coalition of groups, one of which is Free Press. We’ll hear about what organizers want to change with Free Press co-CEO Jessica Gonzalez.

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MP3 Link

Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at media looking abroad rather than at home for the roots of Trump’s authoritarianism, and also at journalists beginning to realize that you can’t always trust the police.

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What Media Aren’t Telling You About Reopening Risks

 

Since this article was published in the Tampa Bay Times (5/28/20), the average daily number of new Covid-19 cases in Florida has risen nearly tenfold.

In the second half of June, the story of the United States’ coronavirus pandemic began to shift dramatically, as a massive surge in new infections took hold, particularly across states in the South and West that had previously been spared the worst of the outbreak. Media reports abruptly switched gears from declaring that reopening was proceeding with few ill effects (Reuters, 5/17/20; Tampa Bay Times, 5/28/20) to expressing alarm that health officials’ warnings against lifting social distancing restrictions too soon had been proven right—a cognitive dissonance perhaps most dramatically depicted in Oregon Public Broadcasting’s headline, “Oregon’s COVID-19 Spike Surprises, Despite Predictions of Rising Caseloads” (6/10/20).

Increasingly, the big story has been the litany of state moves to halt or roll back reopenings: A typical roundup in the New York Times (6/26/20) included closing bars in Texas and Florida, a full stay-at-home order in California’s Imperial County, and putting beaches off-limits in Miami-Dade County for the July 4th weekend.

“This is a very dangerous time,” declared Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, where new cases began rising on June 15, just over a month after the state allowed stores and businesses to reopen. “I think what is happening in Texas and Florida and several other states should be a warning to everyone.”

But a warning of what? While the question of how quickly to reopen will affect potentially millions of lives, equally important is asking what science can tell us about how to reopen. Health experts point to many lessons we can learn from the pandemic experience, both in the US and elsewhere, that can help inform which activities are safest (and most necessary) to resume—a discussion that is more useful than the media’s inclination toward simple debates about whether reopening is good or bad (LA Times, 5/14/20; New York Times, 5/20/20)

Among the most important conclusions:

1. Types of reopenings matter

While the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 at first seemed like an all-powerful threat that could be carried by everything from cardboard boxes to cats, public health officials have long since determined that infection is overwhelmingly via person-to-person encounters. This means that reducing face-to-face interaction time—or ensuring that it’s at least conducted while wearing masks, or in outdoor or well-ventilated spaces—is key to reducing risk, as spelled out in a diagram by University of Massachusetts/Dartmouth infectious disease researcher and blogger Erin Bromage:

Infectious disease experts have attempted to reduce this equation to simple mnemonics that will be easy to remember; Tulane University epidemiologist Susan Hassig has cited “the three D’s: diversity, distance and duration” (Business Insider, 6/8/20), while Ohio State’s William Miller created the rhyme “time, space, people, place” (NPR, 6/23/20). These were featured in the increasingly common articles attempting to rank which activities were riskiest, including some that assigned weirdly specific point scales to behaviors for anyone wondering whether they should go bowling or for a pontoon boat ride (MLive, 6/2/20).

A mass outbreak in a South Korean call center showed how easily the coronavirus can spread in an office environment; workspaces of infected employees are marked in blue (Business Insider, 4/28/20).

But most of those articles entirely ignored one of the most widespread reopening activities: going back to work in shared office spaces. Infectious disease experts say that offices can be the perfect petri dishes for viral spread, involving gatherings of a large number of people, indoors, for a long time, with recirculated air. As one study (Business Insider, 4/28/20) of a coronavirus outbreak at a Seoul call center showed, the virus can quickly spread across an entire floor, especially in a modern open-plan office. In fact, the call center was doubly prone to viral spread, because its workers were all talking constantly, which previous studies have found to spread respiratory droplets just as effectively as coughing (Better Humans, 4/20/20)—a warning that was heavily noted in media’s coverage of the risks of chanting protestors (Washington Post, 5/31/20; Politico, 6/8/20), but notably missing from articles on the reopening of workplaces.

“They’re pretty high-risk spaces,” Boston University School of Public Health epidemiologist Eleanor Murray tells FAIR. “What we would like to see with offices, if people have to be there for the function of the office to work, is to keep the minimum number of people in at any given time.” (She also urges consideration of the risk to office cleaning workers, who are seldom included in back-to-work safety debates.)

This is especially key, adds Tulane’s Hassig, in office environments where co-workers are breathing the same air. Workers can safely unmask if they’re in a private office where they can shut their door, she tells FAIR; however, “if you’re in an open office space with little four-foot cubicle walls, everybody needs to be wearing masks all the time.”

Yet most states have limited themselves to following CDC guidelines for reopening offices, which mandate wearing masks only when within six feet of a co-worker. But as Bromage (5/6/20) has pointed out, “Social distancing rules are really to protect you with brief exposures or outdoor exposures.”

In fact, former Arizona Department of Health Services director Will Humble told Newsweek (6/9/20) that one reason his state became the nation’s leader in new infections per capita was that local officials did not go beyond CDC mandates to impose “performance criteria such as required business mitigation measures, contact tracing capacity or mask-wearing.” Hassig worries that the CDC’s guidance may have been “far less prescriptive than they would like it to be from the scientific perspective,” noting that “we’ve got plenty of evidence that distance is not enough if you’re in a shared space with lots of people.”

All of this would have been good for US workers returning to their jobs to know, but very little of it has made it into media coverage of reopenings, whether before or after the recent virus spikes. And the rare exceptions often left much to be desired: When CBS News (5/28/20) devoted time to investigating the dangers of reopening offices, it was solely in terms of whether plumbing systems left stagnant during closures could lead to the spread of Legionnaires’ disease.

2. Let science, not political power, guide health decisions

Because it takes at least two to three weeks for case numbers to noticeably rise in response to a change in social distancing rules, Hassig says, states should start slowly, and wait to see if numbers rise before moving on to the next stage of reopening. “If your reopening timetable is preset, that’s somewhat of a folly,” she says. Ideally, she says, after each change in policy, states should “wait at least three weeks to make a decision before you move on, which would mean that probably you’re really looking at a month in each phase. And that is not what Texas did.”

Do you need to know whether independent health experts think this is a good idea? Apparently not (Austin American Statesman, 5/1/20)

It’s also not how the Texas media presented reopening plans to the public. The Austin American Statesman (4/27/20, 5/1/20) dutifully listed types of businesses that would resume operations under Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening order, but never cited any independent health officials on the risks each activity would entail. When the Dallas Morning News (4/30/20) ran answers to reader questions about the reopening, the only potential negative consequence it mentioned was whether Texans who refused to return to work could still get unemployment benefits. And the Houston Chronicle (4/30/20) declared, “No more stay-home. Just stay safe”—though the only “safety” measures it mentioned were those still being recommended by Abbott, such as wearing masks in public and limiting the size of gatherings. 

The New York Times (5/1/20), meanwhile, chose to both-sides the issue with a story headlined “A Texas-Size Reopening Has Many Wondering: Too Much or Not Enough?”

In doing so, the media largely followed the lead of elected officials, who in many cases let concern over profit-and-loss statements take precedence over whether the data indicated it was safe to resume business as usual. In Ohio, state officials went so far as to allow guidelines to be written by the businesses seeking to reopen themselves (Columbus Dispatch, 6/29/20), something health experts suspect helped lead to a tripling of daily new cases in the state between June 14 and June 25.

3. Learn from places that have done better

Some hard-hit European countries have had much more success with reopening than the United States, as a comparison of per capita average daily new cases shows (orange: Italy; green: Spain; red: Germany; blue: France; purple: US). (Chart: 91-VIDOC)

The Covid curves in many European and Asian nations that were hit the earliest and took the first and strongest action have remained low, despite reopenings in those nations: Italy, for example, once the world epicenter of the virus, currently has under three new cases per day per million residents, according to Johns Hopkins data—about half the infection rate for the least-hard-hit US state, Vermont.

Those nations, however, took very different approaches to reopening than the US. First off, they waited until case rates were much lower before reopening: When Italy first reopened restaurants on May 18, its daily new-case rate, averaged over the previous week, was 14.4 per million residents; when Florida did so on May 4, its average daily rate was 31.7 per million. “Where you start in terms of your case burden will probably wind up being one of the best predictors of how well your reopening went,” says Hassig.

In addition, the measures the European nations took to get cases down that low were much stricter than those ever implemented in the US—something that was largely overlooked in rundowns of nations imposing and lifting lockdowns (New York Times, 6/10/20; CNBC, 6/25/20). “What we were doing in the US compared to what Europe was doing in terms of lockdown are completely different things,” says Murray:

I have friends in France, and you had to have a permit that said what time you were allowed to go to the grocery store. So even the places in the US that did a gradual opening were already starting from a much more open place than places in Europe.

US residents can also learn from areas of their own country that have done comparatively well under reopenings. Hassig notes that New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish have provided an unintentional controlled experiment—albeit “a sample of one”—in the efficacy of wearing masks: “The mayor of New Orleans made masking mandatory in indoor spaces, which empowered businesses to put up signs like ‘No mask, no shoes, no shirt, no service.’”

The city, which had been an early Covid hotspot, also established a hotline to report violators, kept casinos closed longer, and kept tighter restrictions on such things as church gatherings—with the result, says Hassig, that Orleans Parish currently has less than half the new-case rate of the similarly sized Jefferson Parish. (On Monday, Jefferson Parish announced its own mandatory mask order—New Orleans Advocate, 6/29/20.)

4. Every reopening is a tradeoff

Even before most US states had shut down, Siva Vaidhyanathan (Guardian, 3/26/20) was warning that pitting health against the economy was a false choice.

When media outlets posit the decision facing states as balancing the economic needs with public-health needs, it not only ignores that an out-of-control pandemic would be an economic catastrophe (Guardian, 3/26/20), but overlooks another important point: In reopening, governments have a limited amount of risk they can safely spread around without losing control of an outbreak. As a result, reopening decisions don’t just impact public health and the economy now—they also could end up undermining your ability to reopen other things down the road.

“It’s not ‘open’ or ‘shut’—there’s a whole spectrum in between,” says Murray. “We need to be thinking about what are the high-priority things that we need to reopen from a functioning point of view, and not an enjoyment point of view.”

If the goal is to prevent the kind of explosive surge in Covid cases that many states saw in March and April—and which are now being repeated in new hotspots in June and July—that means picking and choosing carefully, not just which activities are the safest, but which are the most urgent for a functioning society—which, it bears emphasizing, is not the same thing as what’s best for businesses’ bottom lines.

“We need to be getting dentists’ offices open and getting childcare open and getting elective medical treatment open; bars are not as important,” advises Murray. “It may be that we have to give up on some of those things to allow the risks that some of these other activities take.”

That’s a discussion that will require informed public debate on the conditions of reopening, from what should stay closed to whether to require masks. It’s a debate that will be much easier if the media spends less time on who is “winning” or “losing” in the struggle to reopen, and more on why people are getting infected—and how they could not be.

‘Face Recognition Risks Chilling Our Ability to Participate in Free Speech’ - CounterSpin interview with Clare Garvie on facial recognition rules

Janine Jackson interviewed the Center on Privacy and Technology’s Clare Garvie about facial recognition rules for the June 26, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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MP3 Link

Center on Privacy & Technology (5/16/19)

Janine Jackson: Robert Williams, an African-American man in Detroit, was falsely arrested when an algorithm declared his face a match with security footage of a watch store robbery. Boston City Council voted this week to ban the city’s use of facial recognition technology, part of an effort to move resources from law enforcement to community, but also out of concern about dangerous mistakes like that in Williams’ case, along with questions about what the technology means for privacy and free speech. As more and more people go out in the streets and protest, what should we know about this powerful tool, and the rules—or lack thereof—governing its use?

Clare Garvie is a senior associate with the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, lead author of a series of reports on facial recognition, including last year’s America Under Watch: Face Surveillance in the United States. She joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Clare Garvie.

Clare Garvie: Thank you so much for having me on.

Center on Privacy & Technology (10/18/16)

JJ: I would like to ask, first, for a sense of the prevalence of face recognition technology, and who is affected. People might imagine that it’s a tool, like fingerprinting, that police sometimes use to catch criminals. But then I read in the Center’s earlier report, evocatively titled The Perpetual Line-Up, that one in two American adults is in a law enforcement face recognition network. How can that be? What does that mean?

CG: That’s right. Face recognition use by police in the United States is very, very common. Over half of all American adults are in a database that’s used for criminal investigations, thanks to getting a driver’s license. Robert Williams was not identified through a former mugshot; he was identified through his driver’s license, which most of us have. In addition, we estimate conservatively that over a quarter of all 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country have access to use face recognition. The most concerning feature is that there are few if any rules governing how this technology can or, more importantly, cannot be used.

JJ: When you say Williams was identified through a driver’s license—we think of someone going through mugshots, a crime has been committed and you go through mugshots to see if you can find someone. But this is really, I mean, we really all are in a line-up, potentially, all the time, if police are using databases of things like driver’s licenses to match with.

CG: That’s right. Generally speaking, if you haven’t committed a crime or had interaction with law enforcement, you’re not in a fingerprint database that’s searched on a routine basis in criminal investigations. You’re certainly not in a DNA database that’s searched for criminal investigations. And yet, thanks to the development of face recognition technology, and the prevalence of face photographs on file in government databases, chances are better than not, you are in a face recognition database that is searched by the FBI or your state or local police, or accessible to them for investigations of any number of types of crimes.

JJ: And to say that the technology and its use are not perfect–I mean, law enforcement can search for matches based on a pencil drawing, or based on a picture of a celebrity, or a photoshopped picture. I found that very interesting. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about so-called “probe” photos. It’s very odd.

CG: So face recognition, very simply, is the ability of law enforcement, or whoever else has a system, to take a photo or a sketch or something else, depicting an unknown individual, and compare it against the database of known individuals–typically mug shots, but also driver’s licenses.

In many jurisdictions, we have found that those probe photos are not limited to photographs. They mostly are–and those are from social media, those are from cell phone photos or videos, those can be from surveillance cameras. But in some jurisdictions, those are also forensic sketches, artists’ renderings of what a witness describes a person looking like, or forensic sculpture created by a lab. Or, in the instance of the NYPD in at least two cases, officers used what they call celebrity lookalikes—somebody, a celebrity who they thought the suspect looked like, to search for the identity of the suspect.

This will fail. Biometrics are unique to an individual. You can’t substitute someone else’s biometrics for your own; that just goes against the rules of biometrics. You also can’t put in a sketch of a biometric. A sketch of a fingerprint sounds ridiculous. You can’t put a sketch of face in and expect to get a reliable result. And yet, despite this, companies themselves, who are selling this tool, do advocate, in some instances, for the use of this type of probe photo of sketches. They say that that is a permissible use of their technology, despite the fact that it will overwhelmingly fail.

JJ: And the technology being especially bad for black people. That’s not just anecdote; there’s something very real there as well.

CG: Right. Studies of face recognition accuracy continue to show that the technology performs differently depending on what you look like, depending on your race, sex and age, with many algorithms having a particularly tough time with darker skin tones. Pair that with the fact that face recognition will be disproportionately deployed on communities of color. And if it’s running on mugshot databases, face recognition systems will disproportionately be running on databases of, particularly, young black men.

In San Diego, for example, a study of how the city used license plate readers and face recognition found that the city deployed those tools up to two and a half times more on communities of color than the population of San Diego, showing that these tools are focused on precisely the people that they will probably perform the least accurately on.

JJ: The power is obvious of this tool, and the potential for misuse, so what about accountability? You started to say, how would you describe the stateat the federal or local level, or wherever—the state of laws or regulations or guidelines around the use of face recognition?

CG: The laws have not kept up with the deployment of face recognition. As it stands now, a handful of jurisdictions have passed bans on the use of the technology, most recently yesterday in Boston; that was following San Francisco, Oakland, and a couple of other jurisdictions in California and Massachusetts.

But for the vast majority of the country, there are no laws that comprehensively regulate how this technology can and cannot be used. And, as a consequence, it’s up to police departments to make those determinations, often with a complete absence of transparency or input from the communities that they are policing.

JJ: Finally, let’s talk about the story of the day. We’ve read about the FBI combing through the social media of protesters, and charging them under the Anti-Riot Act. The FBI also flying a Cessna Citation, a highly advanced spy plane, with infrared thermal imaging, flying that over Black Lives Matters protests. Where does this surveillance technology intersect with the right to protest? What are the conflicts that you see there?

Clare Garvie: “It’s particularly critical, in a moment where we are protesting police brutality and over-surveillance and the over-militarization of police, to take into account how advanced technologies like face recognition play into historical injustices and over-surveilling of communities of color.”

CG: Face recognition risks chilling our ability to participate in free speech, free assembly and protest. Police departments themselves acknowledge that; back in 2011, there was a Privacy Impact Assessment, written by a bunch of various law enforcement agencies, that said face recognition, particularly used on driver’s license photos, has the ability to chill speech, cause people to alter their behavior in public, leading to self-censorship and inhibition, basically preventing people from participating, or exercising their First Amendment rights.

Face recognition is a tool of biometric surveillance. And if it’s used on protests, it will chill people’s right to participate in that type of behavior. It’s particularly critical, in a moment where we are protesting police brutality and over-surveillance and the over-militarization of police, to take into account how advanced technologies like face recognition play into historical injustices and over-surveilling of communities of color. Face recognition and other advanced technologies must be part of the discussion around scaling back where law enforcement agencies are systems of oppression and of marginalization.

JJ: How can we protect ourselves and one another? We do want to keep going out in the street, but what, maybe, should we be mindful of?

CG: We should be mindful that any photograph or video taken at a protest and published, put online, can be used to identify the people who are caught on camera. So I urge anyone taking photos and videos to keep taking those photos and videos, but train the photos on police, train the videos, train your cameras on the police. To the extent possible blur faces, especially if you think you’re in a jurisdiction that will use face recognition to identify and then go after protesters. Help us keep the anonymity of these protesters, in a world where face recognition does make any photograph into a potential identification tool. It’s really important for all of us to be aware of that.

Now, it shouldn’t be this way. We should have rules that protect us. We don’t, at the moment, so we have to be proactive in protecting the identities of the people that show up on the other side of our camera.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Clare Garvie, senior associate with the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law. You can find them online at lawgeorgetown.edu. Clara Garvie, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

CG: Thank you for having me on.

 

Photographers Grapple With ‘Informed Consent’ in Uprising

A new Photo Bill of Rights, inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic and the current uprising against police brutality, has caused fissures in the American photojournalism community and raised an important question about “informed consent” in photographing protesters.

The bill of rights is a lengthy, multifaceted, non–legally binding document that seeks to address gender and race bias within the image-taking industry, setting up policy guidelines to address issues of pay, safety, accountability and documenting abuse in the world of lens-based media workers (photographers, videographers, visual editors, etc.).

Photo by Kang-Chun Cheng at a computer recycling project in Kenya.

“The current system in place puts photographers at a disadvantage in the context of terms of service, payment and benefits, just to name a few,” said Kang-Chun Cheng, a Nairobi-based photographer who signed the statement:

I’ve had far too many instances of publications [and] editors trying to take advantage of me by not paying kill fees, disrespecting my time or simply not paying in full [or] paying in time.

But the bill’s language about how photographers should use “informed consent,” especially in the context of the current protests against police brutality, has caused a stir among journalists:

If and when applicable requires a full understanding of where and how that media may appear, as well as the potential consequences of publication. Stay tuned for a full chapter in “Beyond the Bill” that will detail more issues surrounding minimizing harm.

SAMPLE DIALOGUE: MINIMIZING HARM Applies to fast-paced situations like protests, in situations that are rapidly evolving, or situations unbalanced in power for the source like an immigration case or a criminal proceeding

DURING: Hi my name is [LENS-BASED WORKER], I’m an independent photographer working for [X] . Do you feel safe with me making your photo at this time? Listen for a confident yes or leave. Here is my business card with my information. Contact me if you have questions later or if you’d like to follow up. This may be published on my social channels and there is a possibility that a publication licenses it after the fact.

AFTER: Hi my name is [LENS-BASED WORKER], I’m an independent photographer working for [X] + I made your photograph earlier while you were [X]. I’m a [type of lens-based worker] and my imagery typically appears [on my page or on a publication]. Do you feel comfortable with me documenting you today? Here’s my card—you can always opt out and I will honor that.

Photograph by Noah Berger of an undercover cop in Oakland.

Hundreds of independent photographers and “lens workers” signed onto the bill, as did several notable photographic institutions, such as Magnum Foundation, Photoshelter and the National Press Photographers Association.

At the latter organization, this has caused tensions. Photojournalist Noah Berger, who left the NPPA because it signed onto the bill of rights, said in a phone interview that it has long been understood that photographing people gathered in a public space for a protest has always been fair game, and that the language of the statement only furthers the right-wing smear that journalists are “fake news,” or an opposition movement.

“It says we’re standing with the protest,” he said of the NPPA signing the bill of rights. “It’s a very political position.”

The concern for consent come from reports that police can use photography to make arrests. For example, the Philadelphia Inquirer (6/17/20) reported that federal authorities used Instagram photos to start a social media investigation to find and arrest a protester who had allegedly set a police car on fire in Philadelphia. Stories like this have spread worry that press and social media photos of protesters (even wearing masks) could aid law enforcement.

After this image by photographer Richard Grant went viral, the police officer’s boss wanted the father arrested for child endangerment (Long Beach Post, 6/23/20).

Even photographs first thought to aid protesters could be turned against them. For example, the Long Beach Post (6/23/20) reported that the viral photo of a police officer pointing a weapon at a child on an adult’s shoulders has been turned against the adult protester; the police want the protester to be charged with child endangerment.

“Informed consent” is meant to mitigate this problem, but it runs contrary to how mainstream photographers normally operate. It’s not always practical to stop in the middle of a tense situation and chat with a demonstrator. In crisis journalism, photographers are often making split-second decisions, and are also working to protect themselves.

If it is not feasible to get consent from everyone pictured, if media can’t full show the faces and bodies in the streets against the police, how else are people to know how historic, enormous and urgent these protests are? Isn’t it in the protesters’ interest to visually show their “people power”?

Photograph by Zach Roberts of a protester confronting the pro-fascist march in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Zach Roberts, a photojournalist and co-host of the Around the Lens podcast, told FAIR in an email:

The language about informed consent in the Photo Bill of Rights toolkit is a really great starting point of a conversation that photojournalists need to have amongst themselves. We need to start realizing that the subjects of our photos, the ones we make money off of using their imagery for journalism, are potentially put at risk by the photos that we take.

I know many photojournalists will argue that they’re in public and thus can have their photo taken; I wouldn’t argue against that. But that said, we live in a world where activists, the people I primarily take photos of, are at great risk from police, and often from groups that want to stop those people from expressing their right to free speech. I cover far-right extremism quite often in my work, and I know through my research that photos, often from photojournalists, are used by the far right to find out who are the activists confronting them. When they do find it out, they often go to their homes, assault them or worse.

Whether or not the language in the toolkit is something we use every single time, it is, again, something that photographers who haven’t been working in this field for too long can look to for guidance on what to ask and what to say to people. Personally, I wouldn’t necessarily give people the long-term out of opting out of having their photo used, as once I publish my photos it’s out of my hands for the most part, and it’s difficult to explain that to people.

Berger is right that mainstream journalism isn’t a partisan project, and the profession frowns upon letting subjects of a story dictate how they are to be covered. But one governing philosophy of journalism is that reporters are charged with comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, and, above all, giving a voice to the voiceless.

Photojournalists—in war, in uprisings, in civil conflict—are not expected to take sides, but they should be expected to recognize the power dynamics between parties. The sortie dropping bombs in an urban area and the civilian fleeing the carnage are not two equal sides in a conflict. A big-city police department has endless finances to craft narratives to its liking, while the protester on the street does not; journalists should be cognizant of that glaring power imbalance, and should apply standards to those parties with that imbalance in mind.

There’s not an easy answer about what to do. But the language the Bill of Rights uses highlights that we are operating in different times, where photojournalists’ work can be used by instruments of government power to suppress dissent. The conversation should continue.

Featured image: The US attorney in Philadelphia used this and other photographs to indict a protester for allegedly setting fire to a police car.

‘The Decision to Not Combat the Coronavirus Was a Choice’ - CounterSpin interview with Jim Naureckas on Covid-19 resurgence

Janine Jackson interviewed FAIR’s Jim Naureckas about the Covid-19 resurgence for the June 26, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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MP3 Link

AP (6/24/20)

Janine Jackson: AP reports hospitalizations and case loads from the novel coronavirus rising to new highs in several US states. In some places, new cases more than doubled. Only the truly selective listener can avoid accepting that this country’s abject mismanagement and failure of leadership continue to lead to thousands and thousands of avoidable deaths and illnesses. But the US is still pushing to “reopen,” because the people most likely to be harmed have less political clout than those who can more comfortably avoid hazards.

It’s a kind of nightmare playing out in broad daylight, but have corporate media given up on doing more than charting it? How else could they meaningfully intervene?

For an update on the pandemic and media’s coverage of it, we’re joined now in studio by FAIR’s editor Jim Naureckas. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Jim Naureckas.

Jim Naureckas: Thanks for having me back on.

JJ: I think if you just landed from space and skimmed the news media, you’d see places in the country described as in various “phases” of “reopening.” And you would think that, though there might be disagreement about it, the US had essentially weathered the worst, and was moving cautiously toward recovery.

For those who can’t bring themselves to look at the latest information, or who are frankly confused by it, where is the US right now in terms of beating back the pandemic, compared to other places in the world?

91-DIVOC (6/25/20)

JN: It is very striking when you look at the course of the coronavirus in the United States, and you compare it to what’s going on, particularly, in other wealthy countries that have the same kind of resources that the United States has. The contrast between the countries that have brought the spread of coronavirus virtually to a halt and the United States, which, after a slight drop from the worst spread in April, down to a kind of plateau of maybe two-thirds of what we were seeing, is now headed sharply back up, and we will soon—barring some reversal of fortune—be passing up the heights that we reached before, be on uncharted territory of levels of this pandemic.

JJ: It’s just incredible when you see just the images of the trajectory, the line in the US going up and up compared to other countries. It’s frankly heartbreaking and infuriating.

JN: It really does call into question the whole model of US media, which is based on this idea that everyone should be able to read a newspaper and think, “Well, that’s pretty much the way I see the world.” And when you have a political party, that is in power, taking the position that a deadly danger is not really so dangerous, and in fact will fade away without us doing anything about it, to produce news that will allow people with that worldview to say, “Well, yeah, this is speaking for me, this is covering the world as I see it,” to try to mesh that kind of denial into a realistic view of a serious, deadly problem facing the nation—it inevitably produces just confusion, and a completely incomprehensible picture of what’s going on; that is the basis for people saying, “I think that we’ve got this pretty much under control now, and are ready to go about business more or less as usual.” The kind of spike that we’re seeing is the direct consequence of that kind of approach.

FAIR.org (6/24/20)

JJ: When you were here last month, you were taking issue with New York Times reporting on Sweden, as having had apparent success without anything so extreme as a lockdown. Their “experience would seem to argue for less caution, not more,” said that Times piece by Thomas Erdbrink and Christina Anderson. What’s the latest there?

JN: We have looked at Sweden a couple times at FAIR, because it has been offered as this sort of alternative approach to the coronavirus—that, really, you don’t have to take it so seriously, and can let it run its course, and eventually you’ll be immune, you’ll have herd immunity.

This was never borne out by the numbers. When people were saying, “Look how well Sweden has done,” Sweden had not done well at all. I believe when we wrote the first piece on it, it had the tenth-highest per capita death toll in the world, and compared to its neighbors was just looking terrible.

And now, the latest piece that we saw in the New York Times was about how the other Scandinavian countries—Norway, Denmark, Finland—are not letting people from Sweden into their country. And it’s because those countries have basically halted coronavirus, and are now able to resume life more or less as usual, while being careful to look for the stray outbreaks. Whereas Sweden, it’s still running rampant.

And the same writer, Thomas Erdbrink from the New York Times, was writing now about Sweden being shut out of the other countries. And he really made it sound like this had a lot to do with the resentment that other Scandinavian countries feel towards the success of Sweden. And he cited IKEA and Volvo and ABBA as reasons why they are so jealous. And they took seriously this idea that it’s not the fact that, in the case of Finland, they have 1/100th of the amount of new infections as Sweden; I think the closest is Denmark, which has one-twelfth of the infections of Sweden.

And the idea that you would, after you’ve painstakingly driven out this disease, at considerable cost, that you would let people from a country that has really not taken the disease seriously at all, just wander into your country and start new outbreaks, is kind of crazy. But for the New York Times, the reporter, who had been touting Sweden as a model, seemed unwilling to acknowledge just how crazy it would be to let a country that had followed this model wander around your country without restriction.

JJ: Yeah, surely it must just be that ABBA resentment that is driving that conflict. Well, that earlier Times piece described Swedes as “laugh[ing] and bask[ing] in freedoms considered normal in most parts of the world not long ago.” And it’s obvious that some politicians and pundits here think that laughing and basking in freedom is the cure for whatever ails, but it seems like the EU restrictions that we’ve just seen on travel from the United States, that’s gotta throw some kind of cold water on this magical thinking, doesn’t it?

Jim Naureckas: “While we have been acting like we’ve done a good enough job on the coronavirus, and now can get back to what we were doing before, other countries have really taken seriously the fact that they have this deadly pandemic going on.”

JN: Our relationship to the European Union is very much like the relationship of Sweden to the other Scandinavian countries. While we have been acting like we’ve done a good enough job on the coronavirus, and now can get back to what we were doing before, other countries have really taken seriously the fact that they have this deadly pandemic going on, and have brought the spread down to—I don’t think any European country has eliminated it, but they have very much brought new cases down to a trickle. Europe is talking about letting international travel resume, and they’re making lists of the countries that can and can’t send their people to the European Union, and, according to the New York Times, it looks like the United States is definitely going to be on the do not visit list, which, again, it would be nonsensical to have put the effort into controlling this virus, and then let people from a place that has not made a real effort to control it into your country, because a substantial number of people in United States are carrying this virus, and would spread it to their European destinations.

JJ: The pandemic and anti–police violence protests are obviously the megastories of the day, and they do intersect. It’s kind of been kind of a thing going around that we’ve been hearing about; what do you think we should know about the notion of marches and demonstrations as potential virus spreaders?

JN: You do see a lot of people talking about how dangerous it is to protest, and how this is going to inevitably result in a spike in cases. And it really hasn’t; when you look at places like New York; like Minneapolis, Minnesota; the District of Columbia, where there have been a lot of protests, you have not seen a corresponding spike in infections. The places where you have seen big spikes are largely in the South and West, where places have declared it was time to resume normal business operations.

I really think that people underestimate the distinction between outdoor and indoor activities, and activities with masks and without masks; those really do make a huge difference in terms of the danger of spreading the disease.

And also the fact that the number of people involved in an activity makes a great deal of difference. If you’re talking about something that a few percent of the population is doing, it’s obviously going to have a much smaller impact on the trajectory of the infection than something that most of the population is doing.

But when you see people doing something that you don’t like, there’s a tendency to think, “Oh, well, that’s a thing that they shouldn’t be doing anyway. If there’s any risk at all, it’s too much risk.” And people really need to be thinking more probabilistically. Are you really increasing your chances of spreading the virus, compared to what you would be doing in your everyday life? And how many people are doing it?

Which is why I think the most dangerous thing that people can be doing is going back to work, because it’s generally done indoors. Most places, it’s done without masks. And it’s something that you do eight hours a day, five days a week, and it has the potential to really create a huge spike in cases of Covid if we stop working remotely and start congregating in offices again.

There was an interesting study that came out, talking about the economic impact of the coronavirus, and noting that the people who are hardest hit by this are poor people, whose jobs very seldom allow them to work from home, and particularly poor people who work in rich neighborhoods, because the rich people are able to isolate, are taking this disease seriously, and not going out to the places they would have been going out to. And so the much poorer people who work in those places are economically very badly hit.

New York Times (6/25/20)

JJ: Finally, I incline toward the skeptical, but I balked at the New York Times interactive feature that they had up on June 25; not the content of the feature itself, but the headline, “How the Virus Won.” There’s certainly been a tragedy of missed opportunities, but it can’t be that there’s nothing we can do now, or that media could do now?

JN: There is this assumption that, as Ned Flanders’ parents said, “We’ve tried nothing, and we’re all out of ideas.” The decision to not have a serious national strategy to combat the coronavirus, that was a choice. We decided that we were not going to do what it took to actually stop it, and instead, try to mitigate the spread of it, slow down the spread of it so it doesn’t overwhelm our healthcare system.

If you don’t stop the virus, it will eventually spread to virtually the entire population. People think that 70, 80% of people will get infected. The disease has something like a 0.5 to 1% fatality rate. When you do the math, you are talking about millions of people, in the United States alone, dying from the coronavirus. That is the implication of a strategy that does not try to stop the virus. And I think we’ve never had an actual conversation about whether a seven-figure death toll is something that we’re willing to accept or not.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Jim Naureckas, he’s the editor at FAIR.org. Jim Naureckas, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

JN: Thanks for having me on.

 

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