Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

‘International Actors in Haiti Have Been Guarantors of the Status Quo’ - CounterSpin interview with Jake Johnston on Haiti

Janine Jackson interviewed CEPR’s Jake Johnston about Haiti for the November 1, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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New York Times (10/20/19)

Janine Jackson: The New York Times chose to headline an October 20 report, “‘There Is No Hope’: Crisis Pushes Haiti to Brink of Collapse.” The phrase was a partial quote from a source, a despairing young woman in one of Haiti’s most difficult areas. And the story’s photos didn’t lie: people stepping cautiously through streets full of uncollected garbage, newborns in necessity-deprived hospitals. Nor did the facts: at least 30 killed and hundreds hurt in protests, schools closed to millions of children, layoffs and those with jobs going unpaid, roadblocks, blackouts, hunger and stress in a country in severe crisis. Deeper in the piece was another quote from the young woman’s mother, who, in tears along with her daughter, told the paper: “It’s not only that we’re hungry for bread and water. We’re hungry for the development of Haiti.”

As a point of emphasis, the difference between “there is no hope” and “there is no hope under this system” is crucial. So we should think about how media coverage can hinder, rather than help, that kind of conversation.

We’re joined now by Jake Johnston, senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and lead author for CEPR’s Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch blog. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Jake Johnston.

Jake Johnston: Thanks for having me.

Jackson: Just to acknowledge, we can’t do justice to the history of Haiti here, but I think it’s fair to say, the more you know of it, the more sense you can make of what’s happening today. I wanted to just start with the question of the real scope or nature of these ongoing, and recently escalating, protests. It’s set up as President Moïse versus an opposition that wants him out. But you say that’s too narrow; it’s really bigger or deeper than that. What do you mean?

Jake Johnston: “What people are looking for is not just a change in leadership, not just to change from one politician to another, but real reforms that are going to fundamentally change the system of governance, and the economic system that has gone along with it.” (image: CGTN)

Johnston: There’s been this narrative, again, that you mentioned, that this is a fight between two political sides. And I think that is really taking a far too narrow view of this crisis, which is not just a month old, or two months old or a year old, but has been building for many years, maybe many decades, right? And this is really a systemic crisis. And I think what people are looking for is not just a change in leadership, not just to change from one politician to another, but real reforms that are going to fundamentally change the system of governance, and the economic system that has gone along with it. We’ve seen the failures of the democratic system, declining participation in elections for more than a decade, and an economic system that simply has produced inequality on a massive scale, and failed to address the needs that are so well pointed out in that New York Times article that you mentioned.

Jackson: Let’s do some history. We’ve complained countless times on this show about how elite US media can portray black and brown countries, and especially those deemed insufficiently pro-US, as “uncivilized” or “backward,” or, in fancier terms, “trapped for years in cycles of political and economic dysfunction.” When the role of outside actors like the US does come in, you need to look alive. So here’s this New York Times historical rendering. They say:

Haiti was once a strategic ally for the United States, which often played a crucial role here. During the Cold War, American governments supported—albeit at times grudgingly—the authoritarian governments of François Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, because of  their anti-Communist stance.

In 1994, the Clinton administration sent troops to restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power after his ouster as president, but 10 years later, intense pressure from the United States helped push Mr. Aristide out again.

Now we can’t unpack all of that, obviously. But given that that was the only bit of US/Haiti relations that that story included—and it’s more than some stories have included—what are some key things to know about, specifically, the US role in Haiti and about that history?

Johnston: It’s good to see at least some acknowledgement of the important role that the US plays in Haitian politics, right? I think you look back after the fall of Duvalier and the early movement towards democracy, and you had the overwhelming election in 1990 of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Focusing just on that coup that happened after that, just nine months into his term, and the fact that there were people on the CIA payroll who participated in the coup and participated in the bloody crackdown that followed, you can really see that as a transformative event that really put Haiti off the rails of democracy, and you’ve seen it further eroding over time.

And, again, you often look at the past when you’re talking about US policy. But I think what’s really important in today’s struggle, and what’s happening today, is taking a look at the more contemporary intervention of the US, and particularly in the 2010 election, where the US government alleged fraud on behalf of the government of René Préval and his chosen successor, and Hillary Clinton even came down to Haiti to force the government to overturn the results without any statistical analysis, and put Michel Martelly into the runoff election. And I think you can see the political fallout that has taken place in the now nearly 10 years since that intervention right there. And I think you’re seeing the collapse of that political system that really owes its power, and position in power, to the intervention of these foreign powers, including the United States.

Jackson: Well, it’s interesting, talking about today. We don’t need to get into how someone at the Times could bring themselves to type the words, “The Trump administration has urged respect for the democratic process.” But what we are seeing is calls from some folks within Haiti for involvement from the United States, and calls from a lot of folks for no involvement from the United States. If we’re talking about interventions from the outside world, other than reparations, what sort of involvement, if any, would the majority of Haitians even want from the US, or from the international community, at this point?

Johnston: Yeah, I think this is a key question. It looks like a bit of a paradox, right? I mean, how can you denounce intervention at the same time as, clearly, there’s an effort to sway international opinion in the current environment? And I think it actually makes quite a bit of sense. To think that that’s  straight-up hypocrisy assumes that the status quo is that the US is not playing a determinative role or a significant role in Haitian politics. I think it’s not so much further intervention that is needed, but rather taking their hands off of that system, reducing that intervention, to allow Haitians to actually create a path forward for change.

So often, international actors in Haiti have been the arbiters or the guarantors of the status quo. We’ve seen this concept of “stability” over and over again. I mean, there were 10,000 troops there in a “stability mission.” But what has the stability brought, and who is the stability for? This is stability for foreign investors, stability for the political and economic elite, stability for US politicians who don’t have to deal with the threat of migration or some crisis becoming a political issue for them. But it hasn’t been stability for the majority of the Haitian people. And I think that’s really the fundamental mis-analysis, if you will, of those international actors in Haiti, is that the stability that they’ve sought has only been of an unsustainable status quo. And I think that system is clearly collapsing right now.

Jackson: Let me just ask you one question about the “corruption” line, which is very prominent in the media coverage of Haiti today. When I read a gloss that says the government, the Moïse government, may have “misappropriated billions of dollars meant for social development projects,” I get an image of a benevolent and generous international community that graciously sent tons of social development money to Haiti, and that at that point corruption was introduced. And I’m not saying that there aren’t corrupt Haitian officials or elites, but the idea that we, the international community, gave and gave and gave a lot of assistance, but somehow when it got to Haiti, it got perverted…. What’s your reaction to that?

Johnston: That’s an excellent point. It’s a shame that it has to be said, but, of course, Haitians don’t have a monopoly on corruption. And if you look at the foreign aid system that we’ve set up and perpetuated, we, as the United States, the United Nations, as other international donors, etc., NGOs, this system that we’ve created is one that is inherently corrupt, in and of itself.

If you think about it, it’s really a system of legalized corruption, where, again, we’ve seen money go to expensive salaries, cars, lodging, security, back to head offices in Washington. When I was tracking money after the earthquake, what was so shocking was that I was in Washington, and yet most of the money was both allocated from Washington and ended up right back within the greater DC area.

And so you see this sort of corruption perpetuated on this international scale is often not thought of as corruption, because it’s the system we’ve created, and we’ve legalized, but in terms of wasting money, it’s probably a more efficient system at wasting money than what is traditionally thought of as corruption.

It is, obviously, interesting, the focus of these corruption allegations in Haiti today, focus on a subset of foreign aid coming from the PetroCaribe program. Now, this was very different than other foreign aid in that it actually went to the government, as opposed to traditional aid, which, overwhelmingly, about 99% of it, bypasses the government entirely. And that’s actually a really unique way to approach aid, and something I think the aid community more broadly has coalesced around as a positive development, that you need to involve the local authorities, and that is only through putting money into these local authorities, and building up these institutions and capacities locally, that the issues of corruption will eventually be addressed.

But I think it’s a lot safer for international officials, for international media, to focus on the corruption of the Haitian government, and not, obviously, the corruption of their own governments and their own institutions, which have contributed to this over the long period of time.

And if you take even a further step back, and you look at the system, again, this foreign aid system that we’ve created, it has eroded the power of the state, and the financial capacity of the state, over many, many decades, again, by just bypassing the Haitian state and the Haitian institutions. And the result of that is a weak state that is more susceptible to corruption. And so I think even to the extent that there is local corruption, you also have to look at the international role in establishing the systems that facilitate that corruption.

Jackson: We’ve been speaking with Jake Johnston, senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. You can find their work online at CEPR.net. Thank you, Jake Johnston, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Johnston: Oh, it’s a pleasure.

 

Nazi-Normalizing Barf Journalism: A Brief History

by Dorothee Benz

The New York Times‘ portrait (11/25/17) of what it called “the Nazi sympathizer next door.”

In the beginning was the profile of the Nazi next door, an inexplicable decision by the New York Times (11/25/17) to profile a right-wing extremist in the most sympathetic light possible. It was the most outrageous example of an outrageous genre of MSM—and particularly NYT—reporting: the never-ending effort to profile, study, explain, excuse and rationalize Trump voters. Without, of course, referring to them as racists. White men are always news that’s fit to print.

The article was met with howls of protest across Twitter, but among the many apt responses, Bess Kalb’s description (11/25/17) captured my heart and gave me the single most useful phrase of the Trump era: “Nazi-normalizing barf journalism.”

I don’t mean to sound intolerant or coarse, but fuck this Nazi and fuck the gentle, inquisitive tone of this Nazi normalizing barf journalism, and fuck the photographer for not just throwing the camera at this Nazi’s head and laughing. https://t.co/Pxfx2KU9AN

— Bess Kalb (@bessbell) November 25, 2017

Again and again during Trump’s presidency, corporate media have fallen over themselves to find acceptable ways to describe utterly unacceptable behavior, policies and decisions—none more so than the New York Times. In every era, the Times’ center of gravity has been the legitimation of power, and the Trump era is no different. The paper’s obvious disdain for Donald Trump is continually cloaked in rationalizing headlines and descriptions. It’s as if they can’t help themselves—the stability of US institutions is more important than their integrity, and so they must normalize what should never be normalized.

Just two examples:

  • “Trump’s Embrace of Racially Charged Past Puts Republicans in Crisis” (8/16/17): This headline refers to Trump’s “very fine people” defense of neo-Nazis at the Charlottesville white supremacist rally where James Fields drove a car into a crowd of protesters, killing one (Heather Heyer) and injuring dozens, many seriously. “Racially charged past” = Confederate monuments celebrating the defense of chattel slavery.
  • “Ocasio-Cortez Calls Migrant Detention Centers ‘Concentration Camps,’ Eliciting Backlash” (6/18/19): The headline suggests that the veracity of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s description is up for debate, when, in fact, it is simply accurate terminology. Indeed, the subsequent rise of #JewsAgainstICE underscored that truth with the particular credibility that Jewish people bring to conversations about ethnic cleansing. The Times chose to cover the moment as a “she said, she said” debate between liberal Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez and Republicans like Liz Cheney.
  • After a Green Bay rally (4/27/19) in which Trump called the media “sick people” and the officials he’s forced out of government “scum,” and accused Democrats of supporting infanticide (Vox, 4/29/19), the Times put out a tweet (4/28/19) saying that with the infanticide charge, “Trump revived an inaccurate refrain.”

You get the idea.

All of it is Nazi-normalizing barf journalism. In wrapping human rights abuses, lawbreaking, lies, corruption, cruelty, racism, misogyny and other abhorrent dimensions of the Trump administration in the familiar language and themes of Washington politics, the Times is actively helping stabilize the regime. We read these headlines and think “business as usual” rather than “this is intolerable, I must act.”

The New York Times chose to illustrate its story (10/13/19) about an ultra-violent pro-Trump video with this image….

In a recent example I find particularly troubling, the New York Times (10/13/19) reported on a video meme mashup, shown at a pro-Trump conference at one of Trump’s resorts in early October, showing Trump massacring members of the media and political opponents.

In an era where both hate crimes and domestic terrorism (including mass shootings) are rising at an alarming rate, the celebration of violence in the name of the Trump brand is a disturbing escalation in the normalization of political violence.

Trump has long invited his followers to violence. On the campaign trail, he promised to pay legal costs if his supporters beat up protesters, and advocated for torture “much stronger than waterboarding.” In September, he suggested that whistleblowers should be executed. He has pardoned war criminals and other human rights abusers (e.g., Michael Behenna, Joe Arpaio). Trump also admires and glorifies violent authoritarians, like Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Ergodan, Kim Jong-un and, of course, Vladimir Putin. All this in addition to the violence his policies are wreaking.

There is not a direct line between Trump referring to immigrants as vermin who will “infest our country” and the massacre of immigrants at an El Paso Walmart. Neither the antisemitic conspiracy theory that George Soros was funding migrant “caravans” from Central America, nor Trump’s lie about Middle Easterners infiltrating the caravans, is solely responsible for the murderous attack on a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh. Yet if these bigoted tropes did not cause massacres, surely they are part of the environment that has fueled them.

…rather than an image, say, of “Trump” shooting “Black Lives Matter” in the head.

Speaking of antisemitism, Trump’s “fake news” has always been one shade shy of Hitler’s “Lügenpresse” (“lying press”). White supremacists have long referred to the paper of record as the “Jew York Times.” Given Trump’s constant description of the media as “the enemy of the people,” the possibility is ever-present, in this age of mass shootings, that someone will walk into a newsroom and open fire. If I’m honest, it surprises me that this has happened only once since Trump took office.

None of this found its way into the Times’ coverage of the video. Instead, there are denials by lots of people, saying they neither saw nor knew about the video; and then this at the end:

Throughout his 2016 campaign and presidency, Mr. Trump has sought to demonize the news media, partly out of frustration about the coverage of his administration and partly because he likes to have an opponent to target.

This is Nazi-normalizing barf journalism. Poor Trump; he’s just frustrated by the bad press. Responding by labeling journalists liars and enemies of the people is just what most of us would do in the same situation. Plus, he likes having a foil. A reasonable strategy.

I want to know how Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman (the bylined reporters) know that these are Trump’s reasons for demonizing the fourth estate. It’s a pretty definitive sentence, assigning motivation without any source or documentation. (Unlike the following sentence, which has at least anonymous sources: “Mr. Trump has also sought to undermine confidence in the mainstream media, some of his advisers acknowledge privately, to make people doubt the accuracy of less favorable accounts of what goes on in his administration.”)

But more importantly, no, it is not OK for the president of the United States to baldly claim that documented reporting is “fake news”; that media are the enemy; and that journalists are bad people. It is, in fact, extremely dangerous. It undermines one of the most important checks on government power, and, as the video itself attests, it invites violence against journalists. The New York Times should say so.

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.

Johanna Bozuwa on Public Utilities, Jake Johnston on Haiti

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(photo: Wikimedia)

This week on CounterSpin: People are using words like “unlivable” to describe parts of California, where wildfires and power outages are driving new kinds of crisis and exacerbating existing ones. At the heart of it: climate disruption, of course, but also a private utility system that isn’t now and never has been incentivized to address it. As we record, young Californians are sitting in at Nancy Pelosi’s office, saying business as usual is over. Media should be looking forward, too, but will they? We’ll talk about the drive for a publicly owned, community-controlled energy system with Johanna Bozuwa, co-manager of the Climate & Energy Program at the Democracy Collaborative.

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(cc photo: FMSC)

Also on the show: Listen to this sentence from the New York Times: “Weeks of unrest around Haiti, coupled with rampant corruption and economic malaise, have led to soaring prices, a disintegration of public services and a galloping sense of insecurity and lawlessness.” Weeks of unrest have led to insecurity? Economic malaise causes prices to soar? “Coupled” is the best way to describe the relationship between the unrest and the corruption and/or malaise? This word salad is the kind of earnest carelessness you exhibit when you’re talking about some place unalterably foreign. Haiti, the upshot is, is just an unholy mess that might not even reward the effort to make sense of. It’s a useful dodge that lets the US off the hook for its past and present role in immiserating Haiti, which is indeed in severe crisis. We’ll hear from Jake Johnston of the Center for Economic Policy Research.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at the lack of coverage of the arrest of Max Blumenthal.

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Max Blumenthal Arrest Exposes Hypocrisy of Western Media and ‘Human Rights’ NGOs

by Joe Emersberger

Grayzone (10/28/19) reported that its editor, Max Blumenthal, had been arrested on “fabricated charge related to the siege of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, DC.”

Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal, a prominent journalistic critic of US policy toward Venezuela,  was arrested by DC police on Friday, October 25, in connection with a protest at the Venezuelan embassy, and held incommunicado. But if you rely on corporate media, or even leading “press freedom” groups, you haven’t heard about this troubling encroachment on freedom of the press.

Blumenthal is a bestselling author whose work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, CJR, The Nation and Salon. DC police arrested him at his home on a five-month-old arrest warrant, charging him with simple assault for his attempt to deliver food to the besieged Venezuelan embassy; he was held for two days, and for the first 36 hours was not allowed to speak with a lawyer. (In an interview with FAIR, Blumenthal noted that keeping arrestees—generally poor and African-American—from speaking with lawyers or family is par for the course in the DC criminal justice system.) As of this writing, there has been no mention of Blumenthal’s arrest in outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post and Reuters that constantly publish Venezuela-related content, or by the big “press freedom” NGOs.

When freelance US journalist Cody Weddle was detained in Venezuela for 12 hours, it made headlines in the New York Times (3/6/19), Washington Post (3/6/19),  Miami Herald (3/6/19), USA Today (3/6/19), Guardian (3/6/19), UK Telegraph (3/6/19),  NPR (3/10/19), ABC (3/9/19) and Reuters (3/7/19). That’s not exhaustive, but you get the picture.

In Weddle’s case, the human rights industry also responded immediately. Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch tweeted about Cody Weddle’s detention, as did Reporters without Borders (RSF). The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also put out a statement immediately (3/6/19). There has been nothing from them about Blumenthal.

The two-hour detention of Univision’s Jorge Ramos in Venezuela was likewise big news. In fact, RSF was outraged that Cody Weddle’s detention happened “barely a week” after the Ramos incident.

Nobody should have a problem with Weddle’s arrest or Ramos’ detention getting the widespread attention they did. (The content in the reports about Venezuela is a separate issue.) What should anger anybody who isn’t consumed with hypocrisy is the point Ben Norton, writing in Grayzone (10/28/19), made about Blumenthal’s arrest:

If this had happened to a journalist in Venezuela, every Western human rights NGO and news wire would be howling about Maduro’s authoritarianism. It will be revealing to see how these same elements react to a clear-cut case of political repression in their own backyard.

Blumenthal’s arrest is another example of the legal harassment of US government critics, including  WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and whistleblower Chelsea Manning–whose plights have similarly been neglected by Western media and NGOs that claim to support press freedom (FAIR.org, 11/3/18, 4/1/19).

Several months ago, activists invited by the Venezuela government stayed in the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, DC, for over a month until they were finally evicted by police on May 24. The presence of the activists delayed a takeover of the embassy by representatives of the Trump-appointed Venezuelan government-in-exile led by Juan Guaidó. The majority of the world’s governments do not recognize Guaidó; that was dramatically highlighted on October 17 when Venezuela’s was voted onto the UN Human Rights Council despite US “lobbying” (i.e., bribes and threats).

Nevertheless, Trump’s recognition of Guaidó in January 2019 was the excuse for intensifying economic sanctions that had already killed thousands of people by the end of 2018. (Incidentally, Jorge Ramos’ two-hour “detention” also received more Western media attention than the study showing the already-lethal impact of Trump’s sanctions—FAIR.org, 6/14/19).

Democracy Now! (10/30/19) was one of the few US outlets to report on Blumenthal’s arrest.

With the complicity of DC police, Guaidó supporters tried to block food from being delivered to the embassy during the standoff with the activists. At one point, 78-year-old Jesse Jackson Sr. had to scuffle with Guaidó supporters to deliver food. The DC police were clearly intent on doing as little as possible, even with an elderly, high-profile visitor trying to make a delivery.  Former Green Party candidate Ajamu Baraka (age 66) was forced to act as Jackson’s bodyguard, thanks to the aggression of Guaidó supporters and the inaction of DC police.

Norton reported:

Court documents indicate the false charge of simple assault stems from Blumenthal’s participation in a delivery of food and sanitary supplies to peace activists and journalists inside the Venezuelan embassy on May 8, 2019.

Others attempting to deliver food were hit with charges months ago. Activist Ben Rubenstein and Veterans for Peace president Gary Condon (age 72) were beaten by police during the standoff for trying to toss a cucumber to activists inside the embassy. In fact, the warrant against Blumenthal was months old, and apparently initially rejected. Blumenthal explained:

If the government had at least told me I had a warrant I could have voluntarily surrendered and appeared at my own arraignment…. Instead, the federal government essentially enlisted the DC police to SWAT me, ensuring that I would be subjected to an early morning raid and then languish in prison for days without even the ability to call an attorney.

The lack of coverage of his arrest “is totally consistent with media coverage of the siege of the Venezuelan embassy,” Blumenthal told FAIR. “The violence, racism, sexism of the Venezuelan opposition—none of it was reported in the mainstream US press.” Aside from alternative outlets like Democracy Now! (10/30/19) and the World Socialist Website (10/30/19), one had to turn to Russian state media to find coverage of Blumenthal’s arrest. A Sputnik article (10/30/19) about the case cited damaging exposés Grayzone has published about Guaidó inner circle, one of which recently led to the resignation of right-wing economist Ricardo Hausmann from Guaidó’s shadow administration.

Here’s an idea for media outlets and NGOs concerned about the appeal of Russian public relations efforts: start doing your jobs by holding your own authoritarian politicians and politicized police forces to account.

 

‘The Law Is Only Ever a Part of What Creates a Just and Free Society’ - CounterSpin interview with Dorothee Benz on LGBTQ rights

Janine Jackson interviewed writer/activist Dorothee Benz about LGBT rights for the October 25, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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MP3 Link

Medium (10/7/19)

Janine Jackson: In early October, the Supreme Court took up three related cases involving the rights of LGBTQ people, deemed “significant,” “blockbuster” or “momentous” in the press. Well, what you got from corporate media coverage was a pretty finely grained analysis of the legal stances involved, of divisions among the Supreme Court justices, and of the timing of the ruling in the electoral season. What you really didn’t get, with a few exceptions, was a sense of what events meant for human beings, of the context of the Court’s ruling, not in arguments, but in lives.

Our next guest explored these questions in a recent article on Medium called “Swiss Cheese Civil Rights.” Dorothee Benz is a writer and organizer, and she joins us now in studio. Welcome to CounterSpin, Dorothee Benz.

Dorothee Benz: It’s great to be here. It’s a lifelong dream.

JJ: Well, all right. Against the backdrop of the Supreme Court hearing these very, very important arguments, and then that against the backdrop of just the country we’re living in at the moment, you pose the question, “In this environment, is a giant step forward for LGBTQ+ civil rights really possible in 2020?” And your response is, “Yes and no.” So what are you getting at there?

DB: I think my main objective in this piece was to contextualize the Supreme Court case. So much of the analysis has been narrowly on what the legal argument is, whether the Civil Rights Act’s Title VII—which bans sex discrimination—applies to LGBTQ people, whether the justices are likely to agree with that, and all those kinds of things.

And those things are important, but they come in a context; they come in a context of an enormous assault on civil rights from the Trump administration and others, which in turn has fueled a rise in hate crimes and domestic terrorism, specifically white supremacist, domestic terrorism. They come in the context of this Orwellian idea of religious exemptions from civil rights laws that the right has been pursuing for decades.

So to put those things together, to put together what’s on the table narrowly, legally, but how does it connect to those larger trends in civil rights?  And, you know, I did say, “Yes and no.” The “no” is weightier, in my opinion, than the “yes.”

JJ: “Swiss Cheese Civil Rights” kind of says it; are those civil rights at all? And you kind of pose it as, even if I am supposedly protected at my job, what happens if I then don’t have healthcare? And I guess the point is, that’s not how our lives are lived.

And so, from my perspective as a media critic, but just from anyone’s perspective, if we’re really asking, “Are queer people protected?” we don’t need to wait until spring to start answering that question.

DB: No, absolutely. The queer people that they’re most thinking of here are the same people that they thought of in the marriage equality struggle, and by default, that’s white folks. By default, that’s people with middle-class jobs, and things like that.

But how are queer folks doing? How are their actual civil rights? Ask any trans woman of color who walks down the street every day, wondering if she’s going to be the next statistic.

But then, even more narrowly, like you alluded to this thing that I mentioned in the article, juxtaposing rights at work, and then a healthcare example, the religious exemption struggle has been—I think I already said this—has been the right’s premier strategy for undoing civil rights law for quite some time now.

And basically, they make the argument that they are being discriminated against if they can’t live their values, and their values are to discriminate against me, right? So it becomes this truly upside down world. And what they’ve done is, they’ve pushed that in judicial realms, they’ve pushed it in legislation, they’ve pushed it in policy. The Trump administration has embraced it wholeheartedly, and the courts have increasingly embraced it as well.

So you get things like the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling, you get things like foster care laws that allow taxpayer-funded agencies to turn away queer kids and queer families, and you get things like the so-called Denial of Care Rule that HHS, the Department of Health and Human Services, is about to implement, announced in May, that says any healthcare provider can refuse treatment to any person if, you know, it bothers their conscience.

So, yeah, so I could leave my job that I’m protected at, get hit by a truck and then be denied lifesaving care on the side of the road, and hence the phrase “Swiss Cheese Civil Rights.”

JJ: I feel also that corporate media often back quietly away from religious beliefs or religious exemptions, and it’s part of their “Our enemies are right, we are godless, East Coast heathen who don’t understand the Heartland.” You know, it’s part of the elite media worldview, the way that people of faith are exotica.

And also, they’re only ever right-wing. I mean, if you’re the Ploughshares Seven, and your beliefs lead you to oppose nuclear weapons, well, you, no joke, can’t get arrested in mainstream media. But religious exemption somehow doesn’t get critical examination, I don’t think, in the corporate media, and I think partly it has to do with just a fog that they put around the idea of religion, generally.

DB: No, that’s absolutely true. They adopt the rights language about religious liberty, and they sort of pose, “Is freedom of speech a more important right than your civil rights?” and stuff like that. But the whole thing is really quite preposterous, particularly for, I have to say, Christians. And I am a practicing Christian, as much as it pains me to say that in the current environment, so I know a little bit about this religion. And the idea that Jesus does not want me to bake a cake for a wedding, or Jesus would want me to turn away a trans person who needs healthcare—especially Jesus and healthcare; you know, Jesus is kind of famous for handing out free healthcare to all kinds of people, right? So I don’t know where that comes from, but it does a huge disservice, a huge disservice.

JJ: For some folks, concretely, on this issue, I think there is a sense that maybe we shouldn’t be looking to the Supreme Court. The upshot for many people is, “Let’s move it to Congress. We shouldn’t be looking to the Supreme Court, actually, for this at all.” What do you make of that?

DB: In terms of getting anything out of Congress, you know, two words: Mitch McConnell. So that’s not a short-term solution of any sort. I mean, ideally things should be protected by statute, things are protected by the Constitution, and judicial interpretation should be just. I mean, those are three big ifs.

It is true that the surface argument in these cases hones to a judicial philosophy called textualism that is the darling of the right. Notably, Justice Scalia was a big textualist, and both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are avowed textualists. And it’s very simple: It’s what is contained in the words and the structure of a statute and not, for instance, legislative intent. So the argument that LGBT people are covered under the “sex discrimination” bar on discrimination is very straightforward.

Will these Heritage Foundation–, Federalist Society–approved justices actually walk the talk and live their judicial philosophy, or will they cave in to the Christian right?  We’ll find out in the spring.

But in the meantime, to circle back to your question, the judiciary as a whole, right now, is a scary lot. Donald Trump is nominating, and the Senate is approving, nominees to the federal judiciary at a literally record pace. And I know it’s Halloween season, but they’re a scary bunch.

JJ: Let me just ask about media, finally. When I was, years ago, looking at media coverage of affirmative action, there were lots of stories that were like, “Affirmative Action: Pro or Con?” and they would have arguments on either side.

And then there was one series in the Seattle Times that stood out, and it was called “Equality on the Job–Are We There Yet?” It just shifted the prism so that it wasn’t about arguments: “Huh—do these people deserve rights or do they not?”

I want to be clear that media are overwhelmingly editorially supportive of LGBTQ rights. The editorials will say that, absolutely. But it’s not so much a matter of an urgent question: People are suffering, how do we get justice for people?

It’s kind of like, “Let’s shake up the Magic Eight Ball of the Supreme Court. What’s it going to decide? Human rights for you? Oops, no human rights for you.”

I’m not sure what I’m asking of media, but it’s something different than just saying, “Yeah, some people are for, some people are against.” What are your final thoughts, in terms of media, but also in terms of how we all should be thinking about these cases?

Dorothee Benz: “We need these rights protected in statute, we need them enforced by courts, we need them lived on the ground—and that’s a much tougher thing to achieve, unfortunately.” (photo: Mike DuBose, UMNS)

DB: Well, the law and judicial interpretation is only ever a part of what creates a just and free society, right? And that, I think, is part of what you’re getting at. The legal right to not be discriminated against because of your race, because of your sex, because of your sexual orientation or gender identity—those are huge, huge rights. And if the Supreme Court rolls back employment protections for LGBTQ people, that will be a huge setback. I mean, nothing is more essential than the right to be able to work, to go to work, to provide for your family; that affects people on a daily basis in a way, for instance, that marriage equality did not.

But you need look no further to your friends of color, to know that even if it’s protected in statute, doesn’t mean that it is lived in reality. So that is a piece of it.

So, yes, we need these rights protected in statute, we need them enforced by courts, we need them lived on the ground—and that’s a much tougher thing to achieve, unfortunately.

And I share your analysis of the media’s take, which, like much of the media’s take of anything that has to do with Washington, is a little bit of a sort of watching the circus, and measuring who’s ahead and who’s behind, and what the chances are, as opposed to, what this would mean for queer folks in real life.

JJ: Yeah, it’s kind of shadows on the cave wall. When they say, “It’s about culture wars,” I think, “Well, ‘culture wars,’ really?  Like, you think the fact that you see RuPaul on TV really means that we’re in a state of equality?” I think there’s a real danger of mistaking the shadow for the reality there.

DB: Absolutely.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Dorothee Benz, writer and organizer. You can find her piece “Swiss Cheese Civil Rights” on Medium.com. Dorothee Benz, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

DB: It’s great to be here.

 

In Ecuador, ‘Broken Windows Are Intolerable, but Broken People Are Fine’ - CounterSpin interview with Joe Emersberger on Ecuador protests

Janine Jackson interviewed FAIR contributor Joe Emersberger about the Ecuador protests for the October 25, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

 

NPR (10/14/19)

Janine Jackson: After 11 days of protest in Ecuador, in which a reported eight people died, more than 1,000 were injured and that many arrested, NPR explained to listeners what it’s all been about:

The IMF was recommending a careful and slow change in fuel subsidies which, along with tax reform and other measures, would generate savings that would “allow for an increase in social assistance spending over the course of the program.”

But after President Lenín Moreno said he was ending subsidies, diesel and gas prices rose and “riots broke out.” While it’s good that the violent protests have been calmed, it’s a shame, NPR listeners were to understand, that fossil fuel subsidies (“deeply unsustainable,” don’t you know) are, in Ecuador, “popular and politically hard to undo.”

Other countries just doing their own decision-making never seems to be on the table in elite media chin-stroking about how the US, via the IMF, might find the right carrot-and-stick combination for leaders that don’t do what they’re told. Our next guest interrogates that presumption in a new piece for FAIR.org.

Joe Emersberger is an engineer and a member of the UNIFOR trade union. Besides FAIR.org, his writing appears on teleSUR English, ZNet, the Canary and CounterPunch, among others. He joins us now by phone from Windsor, Ontario. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Joe Emersberger.

Joe Emersberger: Hi, thanks for having me on.

AP via LA Times (10/14/19)

JJ: In your new piece for FAIR.org, you cite, within this October 14 Associated Press piece, what I think of as a nugget of misrepresentation. It’s a presumptions-compacted-into-language sort of thing that, if you unpeel it, you can see a good portion of what’s leading, or what’s loaded, in ostensibly neutral reporting.

So AP says that Moreno served former President Rafael Correa as vice president before he became president, and “the two men went through a bitter split as Moreno pushed to curb public debt amassed on Correa’s watch.”

Ecuador’s debt is supposedly the hard fact here, driving the whole story. What should we know about the size of that debt, and how it was “amassed”?

JE: So, yeah, what happened was, in the AP piece, they throw a figure of $64 billion. And actually, when you go to the IMF’s website, you can see that for 2019, the debt is like $53 billion; that’s roughly 49 percent of GDP, which is actually very far from being high by any measure.

I listed a bunch of countries that, like Ecuador, cannot issue their own currency. Ecuador adopted the dollar in 2000, when its banking system imploded, basically. So the comparison there is very valuable—you can see that Ecuador is pretty much at the very low end compared to the countries in the Eurozone that are in a kind of similar situation.

So it does not have a high debt-to-GDP ratio. When Correa left office, it was actually lower than it is now under Moreno.

Joe Emersberger: “Moreno has made such a big deal about the size of the debt, but he’s actually increased it, because he’s given all kinds of tax giveaways to the richest people.”

Moreno has made such a big deal about the size of the debt, but he’s actually increased it, because he’s given all kinds of tax giveaways to the richest people, and revenue giveaways to multinationals, and he’s done other things, too, that prevent the government from being able to move money around internally to finance itself, so it doesn’t have to go to private sector lenders as much. He’s refused to use import tariffs—all sorts of things that have bled money, basically, for ideological reasons, and also just handouts to the rich. That’s what he’s trying to sustain, actually, and he’s trying to transfer that onto the backs of the poor. So that’s one thing.

And the other thing, there was a huge error in that AP article, they said Ecuador has a budget shortfall of $10 billion. And, again, the IMF website says it’s $37 million, so orders of magnitude smaller. And I looked at that and said, “Oh my gosh, that’s a lot to make up, to just invent.” And so I looked through IMF documents. It looks like what they did was they probably got a number for all the principal interest due this year on Ecuador’s bonds that foreigners buy; when you buy bonds, they eventually mature, and the government pays you interest and principal, right?

Governments do, all the time—unless they’re in a war or they’re being heavily sanctioned by the United States or something really drastic—what they do is they just issue new bonds to pay off the principal, and so that what’s really relevant is the interest payment, not the principal. That’s more likely what they did, and they put up this huge number, saying that Ecuador had a budget shortfall of $10 billion. So anyone who reads that would think, “Oh my God, they have a deficit that’s a third of their budget or something.” So it’s, yeah, totally misleading.

And there’s other things, too. For instance, you talked about the bitter split. Well, the bitter split happened after the election. Moreno ran as a staunch Correa loyalist, praised Correa to the sky during the election campaign. It was afterwards where he revealed his true colors, and he immediately turned against everything and everyone he had ever claimed to believe in. And it was really remarkable; you know, politicians are cynical, we don’t expect much sincerity from them. But this was really extreme, the way he just did his ideological about-face, and just looking to outlaw, literally outlaw, his former colleagues.

JJ: One of the first things that Moreno did was to see the importance of getting Ecuador’s private media under his wing right away. And then part of what that encouraged, as you write in the piece, were these rumors that former allies, that folks that Moreno had been working with as part of the Correa government, that now they’re spying on, destabilizing, that they’re behind the protests. And that seems to be a line that US media seem to be buying into.

JE: Yeah, the right-wing governments in the region, they issued a statement supporting him. Juan Guaidó—just recently, just today I believe, issued a statement saying that Maduro is to blame for the unrest in Chile, he also said he supported that line, that Maduro and Correa from Belgium….

Correa lives in Belgium with his wife, who’s from there, and he always said that when he left politics, that he’d be moving to Belgium with his wife, because she had lived so many years in Ecuador, so now he was going to return the favor and live in her country for several years.

Basically, because of that personal family situation, that’s the reason Correa’s not in jail right now, because Moreno’s running mate in the 2017 election, he’s actually in prison now, he’s been in prison within months of Moreno taking office. And the whole case against him is very flimsy, very sketchy, the procedural aspects, all sorts of dirty dealings that Moreno’s done with the judiciary. The entire Constitutional Court was fired in 2018 and replaced.

He made all sorts of maneuvers with the big media, and the big media is behind this all the way. And what he was able to do, and this is a flaw in Correa’s  approach, and I think it’s all the left governments, really. When you get a left-wing government, of course the private media hate you and they attack you. But then there’ll be left-wing presidents like Correa, what they do is they’ve expanded public media, and used that to balance them out.

But what happened with Moreno was, because he was president, he was able to quickly make changes to the public media, until they were basically all on the same page. You immediately, overnight, had this monoculture imposed on the media again. And I talked about that with Guillaume Long, actually, who was part of Correa’s government; that’s a huge problem that progressives have to think more deeply about what they can do if they reach power; they have to find ways to more sustainably try to democratize media.

It’s not easy. It’s not an easy thing to do. But it’s something you have to think very seriously about. Because you leave that system intact, where the private media is totally unrepresentative, you have these big media barons who don’t have any legitimate democratic right to have so much control over public debates, and that really wasn’t dealt with, that was kind of a, I don’t know, I guess you’d call it a “makeshift way” they approached it.

JJ: What we kind of hope for, sort of the most critical media in the US, would be things like this New York Times piece that has a single line, “Critics have accused the IMF of exacerbating economic hardships in countries like Ecuador through austerity measures imposed to reduce debts.” That kind of passes for criticism in US media presentation, and there’s still so much presumption.

JE: Yeah, we kind of get beaten down where we’re glad to see anything, even if it’s a passing reference. Yeah. It happens all the time; we’re happy to see anybody say anything critical, but we need to be so much more aggressive. But it’s just hard to get anything prominently published that really goes after the policies the way they should be.

Washington Post (10/23/19)

Well, I’ll give one example. For example: a lot of people are raving about this article Illhan Omar just wrote in the Washington Post. I mean, compared to stuff that’s written all the time, compared to guys like Bolton, who are just total maniacs, I can see why people welcomed her piece. But she talks about sanctions, and the use of sanctions; but sanctions are mass murder. That’s not just a policy tool that’s “counterproductive” or flawed or mistaken. I mean, people should be going to jail for that stuff. They’re killing people. And that’s just not expressible; that’s beyond the pale. Somebody writes something like what she just did, people are very grateful, very happy, and it’s understandable. But it’s not good enough.

JJ: I saw a reference in a piece by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, in which he referred to “violent austerity policies,” and I just thought, just finally, in terms of language, how rarely we hear austerity policies, that can be literally taking food from people’s mouths, and healthcare from them, how rarely they’re referred to as violent. Whereas breaking a shop window, that’s unrest that is meant to move us to action, right?

JE: Yeah. Exactly. Broken windows are just intolerable, but broken people are fine. Yeah, it’s a problem with language, and it seems like the pressures are always on progressives to tone down their language, whereas guys like Marco Rubio will go on Twitter and threaten that Maduro will end up being tortured and sodomized the way Gaddafi was. So they can just let fly with any, just any demented thing that they they want to say. And then, on the other hand, we get either silence or very inadequate so-called opposition, so that’s a problem. It’s a problem with what’s allowed in the media.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Joe Emersberger. His most recent piece, “Ecuador’s Austerity Measures, Repression Based on Lies AP Happily Spread” is up now on FAIR.org. Joe Emersberger, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

JE: All right. Thanks for having me on, Janine.

 

The Revolution Isn’t Being Televised - Media uninterested in protest movements around the world

by Alan MacLeod

It’s all kicking off everywhere in 2019. Haitians are revolting against a corrupt political system and their President Jovenel Moïse, who many see as a kleptocratic US puppet. In Ecuador, huge public manifestations managed to force President Lenín Moreno to backtrack on his IMF-backed neoliberal package that would have sharply cut government spending and increased transport prices (FAIR.org, 10/23/19).

Meanwhile, popular Chilean frustration at the conservative Piñera administration boiled over into massive protests that were immediately met with force. “We are at war,” announced President Sebastián Piñera, echoing the infamous catchphrase of former fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet. Piñera claimed that those responsible for violently resisting him were “going to pay for their deeds” as he ordered tanks through Santiago. (See FAIR.org, 10/23/19.)

Huge, ongoing anti-government demonstrations are also engulfing Lebanon, Catalonia and the United Kingdom.

PBS NewsHour (10/5/19)

Yet the actions that have by far received the most attention in corporate media are those in Hong Kong, where demonstrations erupted in response to a proposed extradition agreement with the Chinese central government that opponents felt would undermine civil liberties and Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status. A search for “Hong Kong protests” on October 25, 2019, elicits 282 responses in the last month in the New York Times, for example, compared to 20 for “Chile protests,” 43 for Ecuador and 16 for Haiti. The unequal coverage is even more pronounced on Fox News, where there were 70 results for Hong Kong over the same period and four, two and three for Chile, Ecuador and Haiti, respectively.

This disparity cannot be explained due to the protests’ size or significance, the number of casualties or the response from the authorities. Eighteen people have died during the ongoing protests in Haiti, 19 (and rising) in Chile, while in Ecuador, protesters themselves captured over 50 soldiers who had been sent in as Moreno effectively declared martial law. In contrast, no one has been killed in Hong Kong, nor has the army been called in, with Beijing expressing full confidence in local authorities to handle proceedings. The Chilean government announced it had arrested over 5,400 people in only a week of protests, a figure more than double the number arrested in months of Hong Kong demonstrations (Bloomberg, 10/4/19). Furthermore, social media have been awash with images and videos of the suppression of the protests worldwide.

One way of understanding why the media is fixated on Hong Kong and less interested in the others is to look at who is protesting, and why.

 

Worthy and Unworthy Victims

New York Times (8/14/19)

Over 30 years ago, in their book Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky developed their theory of worthy vs. unworthy victims to explain why corporate media cover certain stories and why others are dropped. They compared the media coverage of a single murdered priest in an enemy state (Communist Poland) to that of over 100 religious martyrs, including some US citizens, murdered in Central American client states over a period of two decades. They found that not only did the New York Times, Time, Newsweek and CBS News dedicate more coverage to the single priest’s assassination, the tone of coverage was markedly different: In covering the killing of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, media expressed indignation, demanding justice and condemning the barbarism of Communism. The killings of religious figures in Central America by pro-US government groups, on the other hand, were reported in a matter-of-fact manner, with little rhetorical outrage.

In other words, when official enemies can be presented as evil and allies as sympathetic victims, corporate media will be very interested in a story. In contrast, they will show far less enthusiasm for a story when the “wrong” people are the villains or the victims.

On Hong Kong, the New York Times published three editorials (6/10/19, 8/14/19, 10/1/19), each lauding the “democracy-minded people” fighting to limit “the repressive rule of the Chinese Communists,” condemning the Communist response as evidence of the backward, “brutal paternalism of that system,” in which China “equates greatness with power and dissent with treachery.” Hong Kong, on the other hand, thanks to the blessing of being a former British colony, had acquired “a Western political culture of democracy, human rights, free speech and independent thought.” (The Times has not elected to publish any editorials on the other protests.)

The Times also ridiculed the idea that “foreign forces” (i.e., the US government) could be influencing the protests, calling it a “shopworn canard” used by the Communist government. Yet the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has officially poured over $22 million into “identifying new avenues for democracy and political reform in Hong Kong” or China since 2014. The Times editorials did not mention this funding as possibly complicating their dismissal of foreign involvement in the Hong Kong protests as a “canard.”

Guardian (10/8/19)

However, media (e.g., Voice of America, 10/11/19; Miami Herald, 10/9/19; Reuters, 10/9/19) are taking seriously the accusation that the Ecuadorian protests are, in fact, masterminded abroad, by President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, with the Guardian (10/8/19) going so far to describe the Ecuadorians not as “democracy-minded people,” but “rioters”—a label not appearing in connection with Hong Kong, except as an accusation by Chinese officials (e.g., Time, 10/2/19; CNN, 10/22/19), are almost universally condemned in coverage as part of a “repressive” (e.g., Vox, 8/29/19; Guardian, 10/19/19) “dictatorship” (New York Times, 8/29/19).

In the cases of the less-covered protests, the “wrong” people are protesting and the “wrong” governments are doing the repressing. As the Washington Post (10/14/19) noted on Haiti,

One factor keeping Moïse in power is support from the United States. US officials have been limited in their public comments about the protests.

On Ecuador, the State Department has been more forthcoming, issuing a full endorsement of Moreno’s neoliberal austerity package:

The United States supports President Moreno and the Government of Ecuador’s efforts to institutionalize democratic practices and implement needed economic reforms…. We will continue to work in partnership with President Moreno in support of democracy, prosperity, and security.

In other words, don’t expect any angry editorials denouncing US client states like Haiti or Ecuador, or arguing that the Chilean government’s repression of its protest movement shows the moral bankruptcy of capitalism. Indeed, corporate media (e.g., Guardian, 10/8/19; CNN, 10/8/19; USA Today, 10/10/19) emphasized the violence of the Ecuadorian protestors while downplaying Hong Kong’s—the New York Times (6/30/19) even inventing the phrase “aggressive nonviolence” to describe the Hong Kong protesters’ actions, so eager was it to frame the demonstrations against China as unquestionably laudable.

Which protest movements interest corporate media has little to do with their righteousness or popularity, and much more to do with whom they are protesting against. If you’re fighting against corporate power or corruption in a US-client state, don’t expect many TV cameras to show up; that revolution is rarely televised.

Featured image: Protest march in Ecuador (photo: Voice of America, 10/11/19)

 

 

 

 

 

Fretting About Progressives’ ‘Electability,’ Establishment Dems Are Really Worried About Their Power in the Party

by Julie Hollar

With Joe Biden struggling as frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, a surging Elizabeth Warren has begun to emerge as the party establishment’s new bogeyman—and corporate media are ready and willing to transmit insiders’ panicked calls for new “moderate” entrants to the race.

On the same day earlier this week, the Washington Post and the New York Times ran twin articles: the Post’s “Anxiety Rises Among Democrats Worried About Party’s Prospects in 2020” (10/22/19) and the Times’ “Anxious Democratic Establishment Asks, ‘Is There Anybody Else?’” (10/22/19).

Washington Post (10/22/19)

The pieces interviewed a number of big donors and centrist party leaders, who fretted about their preferred candidate’s struggles and expressed hope for someone more corporate-friendly than Warren to enter the race and challenge her rise.

The Post laid out the dilemma for the party:

More seasoned leaders who have seen Democrats lose big have tended to prefer a safer, middle-road candidate more palatable to a wide range of voters. Those newer to the process are attracted to the vibrant and passionate candidates who can entice the base.

Of course, the paper didn’t interview those in the latter category, so the idea that a “middle-road candidate” is “safer” and “more palatable to a wide range of voters” goes unchallenged, despite the fact that the centrist strategy is often a failing one for Democrats (FAIR.org, 7/6/17).

But both papers uncritically repeated the establishment line that Warren is unelectable (a favorite accusation against Sanders in 2016—Extra!, 7–8/15). The Times wrote of “persistent questions about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s viability in the general election,” while the Post wrote that “party leaders and activists” worry that Warren and Sanders “are too liberal to win a general election.”

New York Times (10/22/19)

The Times quoted former Obama adviser David Axelrod:

With Trump looming, there is genuine concern that the horse many have bet on may be pulling up lame and the horse who has sprinted out front may not be able to win.

The thinking of powerful people in the Democratic Party is worth writing about. But it’s crucial not to just take their claims at face value. What articles reporting on Warren’s or Sanders’ “electability” need is some grounding in facts: Polls show both leftist candidates polling ahead of Trump nationally, as well as in key swing states like Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. As the last election proved, it’s dangerous to rely solely on polls, but combined with Sanders’ and Warren’s fundraising (which are handily beating Biden’s) there’s simply no evidence to substantiate claims of their unelectability—which ought to be decided by voters, not party leaders or corporate journalists.

What establishment Democrats are really worried about, of course, is their own power in the party, which is threatened by a surging left wing. Don’t look to their establishment media counterparts to report on that transparently.

‘There Are Noncoercive Solutions to Our Problems’ - CounterSpin interview with Alex Vitale on the role of policing

Janine Jackson interviewed Brooklyn College’s Alex Vitale about the role of policing for the October 27, 2017, episode of CounterSpin; a portion of that interview was reaired on the October 18, 2019, show. This is a lightly edited transcript of the rebroadcast.

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Atatiana Jefferson

Janine Jackson: Some people will seek fervently for the exceptions involved in the police murder of Atatiana Jefferson in her own home in Texas. Surely, this law enforcement killing of a blameless black person is explicably aberrational, and will lead somehow to systemic reform, including, we hear, de-escalation training for police. The undergirding of all such debate is that US law enforcement posing a danger to people of color is a mistake, a perversion of a naturally equitable and benevolent institution.

CounterSpin talked about that misunderstanding of the history and purposes of police two years ago this month with Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of the book The End of Policing. Here’s part of that conversation:

***

JJ: People are offended, I think morally, when you suggest that the inequity of the impact of policing is not a bug but a feature. I think we tend to think of it as an institution made in a lab: You know, we need protection from criminals, so let’s create “law enforcement.” I wonder if you would tell us a little bit of the actual history of US policing that shapes the role that we see it playing today.

Alex Vitale: Sure. There’s kind of a standard liberal narrative, academic narrative, historical narrative, about the police that begins with the London Metropolitan Police, formed in 1829. And the idea behind it, that’s propagated behind it, is that it was an improvement over the kind of semi-professional watch that was made up of volunteers and others pressed into service, that would walk around at night, on the one hand, and the use of the militia to put down riots and disorder on the other hand. And the feeling was that this would be a civilian force under the control of local authorities, and would engage in a kind of neutral enforcement of the law.

But the reality is that the model for the London Metropolitan Police actually is directly tied to the British occupation of Ireland. And the person who creates the London police, Robert Peel—Robert, Bob, the Bobbies—had been in charge of the British occupation of Ireland, and it was there that he begins to develop the idea of a civilian force that could be used to put down rural uprisings more efficiently than relying on the British army, which had been tied up in the Napoleonic Wars, was overstretched and highly indebted. So he creates the Irish Peace Preservation Force, which is located in local communities, which allows for better surveillance and preemptive action to put down social unrest.

Alex Vitale: “The origins of policing should be understood as intimately tied to three major forms of accumulation during the 19th century, and these are slavery, colonialism and the new industrial workforce.”

London, during this period, is awash in this newly industrializing working class that’s come from rural areas, and the job of the police was to micromanage the lives of this new industrial urban workforce in a way that tried to mold them into a reliable workforce. So there were all kinds of little minor nuisance laws that were enforced, as well as proscriptions on, you know, drunk and disorderly behavior, etc., that had the purpose of getting people to go home to their families, get up in the morning and go to work and be productive, and to try to stamp out lifestyles that weren’t tied to a standard industrial work life. At the same time, they put down riots, they put down labor movements, they attacked strikers, etc.

And we can see this in the US context as well, with the creation of forces to drive Native American populations out, to drive out Mexicans from what was becoming Texas at the time, to stamp out workers movements, to shoot miners in Pennsylvania, etc. And so the book basically argues that the origins of policing should be understood as intimately tied to three major forms of accumulation during the 19th century, and these are slavery, colonialism and the new industrial workforce.

JJ: So it’s always been a kind of social engineering, if you will. The definition of crime itself has been very much shaped by the social control impetus of the enterprise of policing.

AV: It was a new way of constructing state power that was more fine-tuned than relying on the army and the militia. It was able to produce legitimacy for the state in a way that the army was not; it relied on brute power. And so this was much more efficient for the state, and the state immediately began on this kind of mythmaking, of saying that, well, of course we understand the state is legitimate, because these are liberal democracies of some form, and therefore any expression of state power is legitimate. But all of that discourse completely hides slavery, completely hides the suppression of workers movements, and so the actual tasks of this seemingly legitimate state are in fact designed to reproduce race and class inequalities, and the police are just a softer touch in carrying out that mission.

JJ: You can certainly see a worldview at work that is fomented, I think, by media, in which you want police to have all of the weapons, and you want them to have freedom to do anything at all, because there are good and bad people in the world, and cops protect the good from the bad. When major percentages of people are going to prison for nonviolent drug offenses, for example, this idea that there are different sorts of people, bad criminals who do harm and good noncriminals, you have to challenge that.

AV: This is the problem with all this “thin blue line” and “war on cops” discourse that’s out there, is that it assumes that the world is divided up between good people and bad people, and that the only way to produce safety, to protect the good from the bad, is through coercive state power: the threat of arrest, the use of violence.

And, of course, when we look at middle-class, leafy suburban communities, they don’t need police to manage their social problems. They have mechanisms and resources to regulate those things themselves. And, of course, they’re beneficiaries, in large part, from the basic political and economic arrangements. And so no one feels like, oh, of course they need heavy-handed policing in those communities. It’s poor people who are perceived to be only responsive to this kind of coercive power.

Every chapter is filled with examples of alternatives that lay out a program that says there are noncoercive solutions to our problems, and the thing that’s preventing us from doing them is not an absence of money, it’s an excess of neoliberal, neoconservative austerity politics, that has labeled the poor as incapable of benefiting from any kind of positive, proactive interventions, and defines them as basically only capable of responding to threats and punishment. And in a way, this is, I think, a profoundly racist ideology. Even though it is embraced by many black and Latino politicians, it really treats their constituencies as less than fully human, and then subjects them to dehumanizing treatment by the police, jails, prisons, etc.

And so we can’t just tinker with the police response, to make it a little bit nicer, or to make the police department a little more diverse, because none of that gets at this core problem. We have to really, directly address the politics of the country, that’s largely bipartisan, that says that the only way we can solve problems is to criminalize them. Whether it’s homelessness, severe mental illness, discipline problems in schools, youth violence, etc., we’ve got to break this mindset that policing is the only tool that people can have.

***

JJ: That was Alex Vitale, professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, also author of The End of Policing, out from Verso. Alex Vitale, speaking with CounterSpin in October of 2017.

 

Dorothee Benz on LGBTQ Rights, Joe Emersberger on Ecuador Protests

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(cc photo: Ted Eytan)

This week on CounterSpin: The Supreme Court won’t rule until spring on the cases it recently took up, involving employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But that doesn’t mean we have to wait until then to assess the state of fairness for LGBTQ people in US society. Just as abortion can be out of reach even with Roe v. Wade in place, the gap between what the law says a person merits, and the harms and hardships they experience, can be cavernous. It doesn’t mean ignoring the legal front, just placing it within a more complex picture. We’ll talk about that with writer and organizer Dorothee Benz.

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(photo: Juan Diego Montenegro/AP, via Time)

Also on the show: You have to hand it to Time magazine. Its explainer on the recent anti-austerity protest in Ecuador boils it down to what it forthrightly labels “The One Thing to Say About It at a Dinner Party.” The answer—that the anti-democratic infliction of suffering on the poor to benefit the wealthy, through institutions like the IMF, is still gospel, but be aware: sometimes the peons don’t go for it—is the same as found in other elite media, just in fewer words. We’ll talk about coverage of Ecuador with Joe Emersberger, writer for a number of outlets, including FAIR.org.

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LGBTQ Issues Missing in Presidential Campaign Coverage

 

LGBTQ people—and trans people in particular—have been under attack since the day Donald Trump took office and removed all mentions of LGBTQ people from several federal websites. Trump reversed federal guidance for the protection of transgender students in schools, banned trans people from military service, and has worked to exclude LGBTQ people from a variety of nondiscrimination protections. (For a full list of his administration’s anti-LGBTQ actions, see here.) Trans women, especially black trans women, face what the American Medical Association recently called an “epidemic of violence” (6/10/19); the LGBTQ group Human Rights Campaign has tracked at least 21 reported murders of trans or gender nonconforming people so far this year, the vast majority of them black trans women.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard arguments in three cases that will determine whether employers can discriminate against their employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The decision could set a precedent for discrimination in areas like housing  and education, and some women’s rights groups are concerned that a ruling hollowing out the meaning of “sex discrimination” would harm straight, cisgender women as well (Vox, 10/8/19).

And yet, after four rounds of debates and more than 500 debate questions, moderators have asked only one question about LGBTQ issues to a Democratic presidential candidate, followed by one response opportunity given to another candidate. In the first debate, hosted by NBC (6/26/19), Chuck Todd asked Tulsi Gabbard:

One of the first things you did after launching your campaign was to issue an apology to the LGBT community about your past stances and statements on gay rights. After the Trump administration’s rollbacks of civil rights protections for many in that community, why should voters in that community or voters that care about this issue in general trust you now?

Cory Booker: “We do not talk enough about trans Americans.”

After Cory Booker interrupted to challenge her response about ending discrimination, Todd gave him 30 seconds to speak on the issue. Booker tried to shift the conversation deeper than “civil rights”:

Look, civil rights is someplace to begin, but in the African-American civil rights community, another place to focus on was to stop the lynching of African Americans. We do not talk enough about trans Americans, especially African-American trans Americans and the incredibly high rates of murder right now. We don’t talk enough about how many children, about 30% of LGBTQ kids, who do not go to school because of fear. It’s not enough just to be on the Equality Act. I’m an original co-sponsor. We need to have a president that will fight to protect LGBTQ Americans every single day from violence in America.

But NBC apparently disagreed with Booker’s assessment that not enough time was being given to LGBTQ issues (and his linking of LGBTQ issues and black issues), as Maddow segued immediately to what Amy Klobuchar has “done for black and Latino voters.” CNN, ABC and the New York Times seemed also to disagree: No questioner in the debates they sponsored has returned to the issue since then.

A few days after the Supreme Court arguments in the LGBTQ discrimination cases, CNN (10/10/19) broadcast a town hall on LGBTQ issues, co-sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign. Nine candidates attended—every candidate that qualified for the October debate, with the exceptions of Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders, who had canceled all events following his heart attack—and some good questions were asked.

But if the existence of the event demonstrated how far media have come on LGBTQ issues, it also demonstrated how far they still have to go. CNN‘s Chris Cuomo was roundly criticized for making a joke of preferred pronouns, and black and Latinx trans women protested at two points in the evening about their invisibility in the conversation.

It’s safe to say that no part of the LGBTQ community is more marginalized than black trans women, who face not only disproportionate violence but also disproportionate discrimination across all areas of their lives. Yet only one black trans woman was given the mic, towards the end of the nearly five-hour event (Out, 10/13/19). (Note that in a town hall, the candidates speak one at a time, so if a question is asked once, that means only one candidate addresses it.)

Another black trans woman criticized CNN on Twitter, saying they had initially invited her to ask a question but rescinded the offer at the last minute with no explanation (Out, 10/10/19).

In an online piece about the town hall, the Washington Post‘s Teo Armus  (10/11/19) wrote of the Cuomo pronoun debacle, “That’s perhaps another sign of how LGBTQ issues have entered the mainstream this election cycle in an unprecedented fashion.”

It’s not clear what “entered the mainstream” could possibly mean here; it certainly doesn’t mean that LGBTQ issues have gotten “mainstream” coverage. A deep dig into the Washington Post archives turns up only a small handful of print articles this election cycle that have focused on LGBTQ voters or issues, most appearing during Pride month in June. One was about Trump’s anti-LGBTQ actions (6/3/19); another was about violence against trans women and only made brief mention of the elections (6/17/19); a third interviewed LGBTQ voters at Iowa’s Pride Festival, where candidates had come courting (6/8/19).

A search for “LGBTQ” and “candidates” in the Nexis archive brings up 37 results at the Washington Post since June 1, most of which are brief mentions in articles about other things. (Replace “LGBTQ” with “transgender” and that falls to 21; replace it with “lesbian” and you’re down to 11.) Meanwhile, “immigration” and “candidates” nets 235, and “health care” and “candidates” turns up 326.

The Washington Post‘s Ruth Marcus (10/15/19) complained that Elizabeth Warren’s defense of marriage equality showed “an attitude of intolerance and disrespect toward people of faith.”

And, in fact, Armus’ piece that judged LGBTQ issues as so mainstream didn’t even make it into the print edition. The two pieces the paper did publish about the CNN town hall mentioned nothing about the issues covered, instead exclusively focusing on a single cutting quip by Elizabeth Warren about what she would say to a hypothetical voter who thought marriage should be “between one man and one woman.” (“I’m going to say, ‘Then just marry one woman—I’m cool with that. Assuming you can find one.'”)

The first, a front-page story by Annie Linskey (10/13/19), spent 1,353 words on a he said/she said debate over whether Warren demonstrated that she was “smart and snappy” or “elitist and condescending.” A later column, by Ruth Marcus (10/15/19), likewise expressed no concern about the pressing issues the candidates discussed regarding the discrimination and violence LGBTQ people face, instead worrying about “intolerance and disrespect toward people of faith,” and about balancing the rights of LGBTQ people to live without discrimination and the rights of those who “teach that homosexual conduct is immoral.”

Many of the candidates’ answers at the CNN town hall have demonstrated that they’re ready to have a serious conversation about pressing LGBTQ issues—and not just in the siloed environment of a town hall. Now it’s time for journalists to step up and cover these issues with the urgency they deserve, both at the debates and in their daily election coverage.

Featured image: CNN showed a split-second glimpse of trans protesters at its LGBTQ town hall (10/10/19) before cutting back to candidate Pete Buttigieg.

Russia Accusations a Distraction From Gabbard’s Actual Troubling Ties

 

When 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (Campaign HQ, 10/17/19) accused Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a long-shot Democratic primary candidate, of being a Russian-groomed foil, the media reverberations were sweeping. Coverage of the row prompted more coverage, with some takes defending Gabbard’s moral compass and others prolonging the obsession with the idea that Russia is interfering in American politics.

Lost in the noise is the reality that Gabbard’s most troubling attribute is her documented connection to the far-right Hindu nationalist, or Hindutva, movement known as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of India’s ruling BJP party.

There is no evidence that Gabbard, who rarely polls above 3%, is any kind of Russian agent, plucked by Moscow to sway the 2020 election toward the reelection of Donald Trump. But those silly accusations eventually mix into the media as they look to explain how an idiosyncratic candidate like Gabbard can gain the support not only of anti-war leftists who see her as a champion of nonintervention, but also of far-right white nationalists like David Duke and Richard Spencer.

NBC (8/2/19) presented Tulsi Gabbard as a possible catspaw of the “Russian propaganda machine.”

The New York Times (8/2/19) portrayed her as an idealistic crusader for peace, and then came out (10/12/19) framing her stances as part of, intentionally or not, a Moscow-led disinformation campaign. NBC (2/2/19) sounded the alarm about an “upcoming Russian campaign of support for Gabbard,” saying she had become a favorite of the “Russian propaganda machine.” In a profile in Rolling Stone (8/9/19), Matt Taibbi scoffed at Gabbard’s critics, summing her up as “simply opposed to bombing the crap out of, and occupying, foreign countries for no apparent positive strategic objective, beyond enriching contractors.”

Lost between these hit jobs and puff pieces is the RSS’s influence on Gabbard, despite the evidence that this is much more a part of her life than Russian intrigue. The best chronicle of her affiliation with the Indian right comes from the Indian publication Caravan (8/1/19). Religion News Service (1/27/19) had earlier outlined her connections to Hindu nationalist groups, and how these affected her votes and political positions. The Intercept (1/5/19) also covered the issue.

Anyone interested in Gabbard should read these articles in their entirety, but the key take away is this: The RSS draws much of its power from its followers in the Diaspora, and Gabbard has been crucial to revamping the image of the Hindu nationalist in the United States, and has in turn received crucial financial support from the Indian-American far right. (Gabbard, who is of Samoan and European descent, is a practicing Hindu.) Much of that RSS support has come from donations from Indian-Americans who are part of the movement’s US efforts—think of them as like US Zionists who aren’t just pro-Israel, but pro-Likud. “Gabbard’s donors have publicly applauded her for supporting Modi before he was elected, for speaking against the US decision to deny him a visa after 2002 and for working against congressional efforts to recognise human-rights violations in India,” the Caravan article states.

Gabbard seemed to blame the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots (India Abroad, 10/6/19).

She has even brought her Modi connection into the primary: As India Abroad (10/6/19) reported, she defended Modi’s role as chief executive of Gujarat during 2002 anti-Muslim riots, quoting one Indian minority rights advocate who accused Gabbard of engaging in the “‘most abominable form’ of victim-blaming.”

It has long been known that she has a close relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose government has launched a military assault on Kashmir and has stripped millions of Muslims of citizenship (Telegraph, 7/30/18); at a meeting between the congressmember and the prime minister in September 2014, she gave him her childhood copy of the Bhagavad Gita, the copy of the sacred text she had taken on her deployments to Iraq and which she had sworn her oath of office on. But what these articles outline is that Gabbard was pivotal in a global public relations effort on the part of the Hindutva movement to remake Modi from an outcast for his complicity in the Gujarat violence of 2002 to the legitimate statesman the West considers him today.

From various political angles, Gabbard has been painted almost like Democratic Party’s version of Ron Paul, a marginal force but one who is seen both on the left and the right as principled opponent to US-led war and intervention. This is why her RSS affiliation is so damning, since it very much validates a regime carrying a large-scale military occupation that many observers interpret as being rooted in anti-Muslim animus. This is hardly jumping aboard the peace train.

Caravan (8/1/19) presented one of the most in-depth accounts of Gabbard’s ties to the Indian far right.

Modi could have been a forgotten piece of the past. Instead, he’s hobnobbing with the global power elite while India’s Muslim minority shakes in the face of state terror. The Caravan article lays the case out at length, but in short: “The greatest diplomatic triumph for the American Sangh was rehabilitating Modi’s tainted reputation in the United States. Gabbard played a significant part in that project.”

As Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of the South Asian progressive community Equality Labs, told FAIR:

Gabbard’s connection to the RSS/BJP matters most urgently now because the Democrats have positioned themselves not just as the resistance against Trump, but also to white nationalism and all sorts of other populisms that are destabilizing democracy everywhere. She was one of the first Democrats to platform Modi, using her role as congressman to jettison bipartisan legislation that would have addressed the issue of Gujurat riots and religious freedom in India. At every step, her foreign policy interventions around India has been to gaslight Indian minorities who are in crisis because of the attacks of the Modi government. And that is not the act of a progressive.

Gabbard’s connections to the Hindu right are well-documented. She has shared the dais on many occasions with leaders and members of India’s right-wing political party, the BJP, the electoral front of the Sangh Parivar, a family of organizations affiliated with the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS); and has actively fundraised from its affiliated platforms in the United States, including the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) and the American branch of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP-A).

These are not innocuous faith-based organizations; they are supremacist groups whose Indian counterparts have been identified as “militant religious organizations” by the CIA. They use violence against religious and cultural minorities in their pursuit of a “Hindu nation.” By standing with these extremists, Gabbard stands against vulnerable minority communities in India.

And that record isn’t just important to what she’s done for the right-wing government of India; this history is central to understanding Gabbard’s expressions of anti-Islamic sentiment (Islam being seen as the prime obstacle to a Hindu-nationalist India), as well as the rest of her enigmatic political tenure, which includes voting to restrict refugees from Syria and Iraq, as well as joining Republicans in attacking then-President Barack Obama for not using the term “radical Islam.”

Allegations of Russian affiliation are conveniently apolitical, in the sense that they can deployed against the left, using long-outdated fears about Soviet competition and the idea that disloyalty to the US empire is orchestrated by a Communist cabal, as easily as against the right, seeing xenophobic nationalists around the world as part of a new international led by Vladimir Putin. Such a catch-all can be used by anyone against anyone, as Clinton did with Gabbard, and can create headlines and rile emotions with no expectation that the accuser will have to come up with a real argument about why the accused should be seen as repugnant.

But Gabbard’s RSS connections are far more real, with very earthly consequences. Her history of Islamophobia becomes more frightening when viewed through her support for a political movement that has supported anti-Muslim violence and discrimination in India. If she were to become president of the United States, how would she respond to the Indian military’s brutality in Kashmir?

It’s much harder for the media to focus on Gabbard’s very real connections to the Indian far right than on her more fanciful connection to Moscow,  because “RSS” simply doesn’t stir emotions the way “Russia” does in a population still seemingly influenced by decades of Cold War propaganda. Russia talk of any kind sparks discussion from all sides on social media, and can rally coverage in places like MSNBC, but the factions of Indian politics don’t carry the same weight in US media.

And digging too deep into Gabbard’s connection to Hindutva presents an ideological quandary for the press. The far-right government of India is most known for its ethnic politics, but it’s also responsible for neoliberal restructuring of the national economy. The latter isn’t so offensive to top editors.

And much like acknowledging the role of Israel’s influence in US politics can invite accusations of antisemitism, writers might fear being branded as anti-Indian or anti-Hindu—even if there are countless Hindus in India and worldwide who support secular democracy over Hindu nationalism—if they make much of a connection between Gabbard’s faith and her political ties.

Gabbard lags far behind the frontrunners in the primary, namely Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. She matters little in terms of the race for the White House. But she is young, ambitious and enjoys enthusiastic support from a small but loyal core of supporters. Thanks to her presence in the 2020 race, Gabbard may have a louder voice in the House of Representatives for years to come, and may seek higher office.

Clinton may have done Gabbard a favor by putting her into a news cycle despite her low polling, and the Russia buzz drowns out reporting on more pressing issues about her candidacy. The media would do well to spend less time speculating about her connections to Putin and more time examining her association with the Indian far right, and how that might be shaping her policy worldview.

 

Media Ignore Unmasking of Twitter Exec as British Psyops Officer - Government penetration and control over media of little interest to those who are subject to it

by Alan MacLeod

Middle East Eye (9/30/19)

A recent investigation from independent news outlet Middle East Eye (9/30/19) uncovered that a senior Twitter executive is, in fact, an officer in the British Army’s 77th Brigade, a unit dedicated to psychological operations (psyops), propaganda and online warfare. Gordon MacMillan, who joined the social media company in 2013, is its head of editorial for the Middle East and North Africa. While both Twitter and the British Army attempted to distance themselves from the implications of the report, it is unclear why MacMillan would have this role if not to manipulate and propagandize the public. (The British Ministry of Defense describes psyops as a way of getting “the enemy, or other target audience, to think and act in a way which will be to our advantage”—BBC, 6/20/08.)

For media so committed to covering news of foreign interference with US public opinion online (see FAIR.org, 8/24/16, 12/13/17, 7/27/18), the response was distinctly muted. The story did not appear at all in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, Fox News or virtually any other mainstream national outlet. In fact, the only corporate US outlet of any note covering the news that a person deciding what you see in your Twitter feed is a foreign psyops officer was Newsweek, which published a detailed analysis from Tareq Haddad (10/1/19). When asked by FAIR why he believed this was, Haddad agreed it was major news, but downplayed the idea of media malevolence, suggesting that because it was a small British outlet breaking news involving a British officer, US media may have overlooked it.

Yet the bombshell was also largely downplayed in the UK press as well, with only the Independent, (9/30/19), the London Times (10/2/19) and the Financial Times (9/30/19) producing reports on the news, bland and even-toned as they were. There was no other reporting of it in the national press, including in the BBC or the Guardian, the latter having already “gotten rid of everyone who seemed to cover the security services and military in an adversarial way,” according to one current employee.

Furthermore, the news was the focus of alarmed reports in alternative media (Moon of Alabama, 9/30/19; Consortium News, 10/2/19), as well as from foreign government-owned outlets that have been labeled propaganda mills, and have been demoted or deleted from social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Turkey’s TRT World (10/1/19), Venezuela’s TeleSur English (10/1/19), Iran’s Press TV (9/30/19), and Russia’s Sputnik (9/30/19) and RT (9/30/19) all immediately covered the scandal, suggesting the lack of Western coverage was a political rather than a journalistic choice.

 

Deep State and Fourth Estate

Newsweek (10/1/19)

Haddad also noted that “governments have a long history of trying to manipulate the media,” and are steadily moving into the realm of social media. Regular FAIR readers will already know this. Last year Facebook announced that, in its fight against “fake news,” it had started working with the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, two organizations involved in covertly assisting the overthrow of foreign governments through propaganda campaigns, among other methods (FAIR.org, 9/25/18). It also began partnering with the Atlantic Council (FAIR.org, 5/21/18), a NATO-funded think tank, whose board of directors is a who’s who of ex-CIA chiefs, army generals and Bush-era neocon politicians. That the likes of Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice and David Petraeus are deciding what Facebook’s 2.4 billion worldwide users see in their news feed is tantamount to state censorship on a global scale (FAIR.org, 8/22/18).

Facebook’s gigantic user base and its design make it an enormously influential media organization, one that can make or break politicians’ chances. Media (e.g., New York Times, 11/1/17; Buzzfeed News, 4/18/19; USA Today, 4/22/19) have consistently implied that a relatively small Russian ad campaign on the platform swung the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump. Less well known is that an American advertising team met with far-right party Alternative für Deutschland at Facebook headquarters in Berlin to devise a campaign of micro-targeting ads on the platform that led to a massive increase in their vote, the strongest fascist showing in Germany since the 1940s (FAIR.org, 6/19/19).

 

A Fact-Free Zone

Washington Post (10/10/19)

Facebook has rules against accepting advertisements containing “deceptive, false or misleading content.” Yet earlier this month, it announced it was rescinding these rules for political ads, allowing politicians who pay them to lie to its users. Referencing the long run-up to the 2020 election, where it is sure to cash in on both sides, a spokesperson justified the decision on the grounds of free speech: “We don’t believe that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates.” It did note, however, that it would continue to ban ads by non-politicians that “include claims debunked by third-party factcheckers, or, in certain circumstances, claims debunked by organizations with particular expertise.”

Yet factchecking organizations are not neutral arbiters of truth, but part of an increasingly elite class of people with their own biases and preconceptions. In practice, they have tended to espouse a “centrist” ideology—a word with its own problems (FAIR.org, 3/23/19)—and are hostile to anyone challenging the status quo from either right or left. Factcheckers have been carrying out something of a war against Bernie Sanders’ campaign, constantly rating the Vermont Senator’s statements as misleading or untrue without due reason.

Furthermore, the choice of who gets to decide what is true and what is false is an important one. Facebook has already partnered with conservative magazine the Weekly Standard, a publication that was crucial in pushing arguably the greatest fake news stories of the 21st century: those of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s links to 9/11 (Extra!, 9/09). “There is no debate about the facts” that “the Iraqi threat” to the US is “enormous” and that Saddam’s henchmen helped Osama Bin Laden, it wrote in 2002 (1/21/02). Yet Facebook picked this organization to help it gauge the veracity of viral stories across its platform.

 

Silencing Dissent Online

Guardian (1/31/19)

In September, Twitter suspended multiple accounts belonging to Cuban state media. And along with Facebook and YouTube, it also suspended hundreds of Chinese accounts it claimed were attempting to “sow political discord in Hong Kong” by “undermining the legitimacy” of the protest movement. These social media giants have already deleted thousands of Venezuelan, Russian and Iranian accounts and pages that were, in their own words, “in line with” those governments’ positions. The message is clear: Sharing opinions that do not fall in line with official US doctrine will not be tolerated online.

In contrast, Western politicians can continually flout Twitter’s terms of service with no consequences. Sen. Marco Rubio threatened Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro with torture and execution, sharing a video of Moammar Gadhafi being tortured and killed in a not-so-subtle message that broke multiple Twitter rules. Meanwhile, Donald Trump announced that we would “totally destroy” North Korea with “fire and fury,” and promised he would bring about the “official end” of Iran if it angered him again. Twitter has continually refused to delete tweets like that on the grounds that this would “hamper necessary discussion,” although it later saw fit to delete those from Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Decisions like these highlight how there is one rule for the powerful and quite another for the rest of us, and how the big social media platforms are increasingly acting like arms of Western governments, adopting their perspectives on what are and are not acceptable political viewpoints.

Whitewashing Neoliberal Repression in Chile and Ecuador

by Lucas Koerner

Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, people are rising up against right-wing, US-backed governments and their neoliberal austerity policies.

Currently in Chile, the government of billionaire Sebastian Piñera has deployed the army to crush nationwide demonstrations against inequality sparked by a subway fare hike.

In Ecuador, indigenous peoples, workers and students recently brought the country to a standstill during 11 days of protests against the gutting of fuel subsidies by President Lenin Moreno as part of an IMF austerity package.

One might expect these popular rebellions to receive unreservedly sympathetic coverage from international media that claim to be on the side of democracy and the common people. On the contrary, corporate journalists frequently describe these uprisings as dangerous alterations of “law and order,” laden with “violence,” “chaos” and “unrest.”

This portrait contrasts remarkably with coverage of anti-government protests in Venezuela, where generally the only violence highlighted is that allegedly perpetrated by the state. In the eyes of Western elite opinion, Venezuela’s middle-class opposition have long been leaders of a legitimate popular protest against an authoritarian, anti-American regime. Poor people rebelling against repressive US client states are considered an unacceptable deviation from this script.

Crackdown’ in Venezuela

For Bloomberg (5/18/17), it was the entire nation of Venezuela rising up against the government.

Corporate journalists have never been able to contain their enthusiasm for the right-wing Venezuelan opposition’s repeated coup attempts, which are regularly cast as a “pro-democracy” movement (FAIR.org, 5/10/19).

In 2017, Venezuela’s opposition led four months of violent, insurrectionary protests demanding early presidential elections, resulting in over 125 dead,  including protesters, government supporters and bystanders. It was the opposition’s fifth major effort to oust the government by force since 2002.

Despite the demonstrations featuring attacks on journalists, lynchings and assassinations of government supporters, they were depicted as a “uprising” against “authoritarianism” (New York  Times, 6/22/17), a “rebellion” in the face of “the government’s crackdown” (Bloomberg, 5/18/17) and a David-like movement of “young firebrands” facing down a sinister regime (Guardian, 5/25/17). Reporters frequently attributed the mounting death toll to state security forces (France 24, 7/21/17; Newsweek, 6/20/17; Washington Post, 6/3/17), while generally ignoring opposition political violence reported to be responsible for over 30 deaths.

The pattern was repeated in January, when deadly clashes broke out across the country  in the days before and after opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself “interim president” with the US’s encouragement. Corporate outlets described the events as a “violent crackdown” (Independent, 1/24/19), with security forces “spreading terror…to target critics” (Reuters, 2/3/19) and “soldiers and paramilitary gunmen…hunting opposition activists” (Miami Herald, 1/27/19). International journalists based their accounts largely on pro-opposition sources, suppressing inconvenient details that complicated their Manichean narrative, such as the fact that some 38% of protests were violent and at least 28% featured armed confrontations with authorities.

Unlike in Chile and Ecuador, corporate outlets have consistently vilified Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro—who won 6.2 million votes, or 31% of the electorate last year—as an “authoritarian” (FAIR.org, 4/11/19, 8/5/19) or a “dictator” (FAIR.org, 4/11/19), justifying the latest coup effort.

 

Chile ‘Riots’ 

The New York Times (10/19/19) reports that protests in Chile “devolve” into “violent unrest.”

In recent days, Chileans have taken to the streets in mass demonstrations against the Piñera administration, following a further increase in Santiago’s exorbitant subway fare.

Beginning as high school student–led protests, the movement has escalated into a full-scale rebellion against the savagely unequal neoliberal order, prompting the government to militarize the streets and impose a curfew for the first time since the Western-backed Pinochet dictatorship (1973–90).

Despite the largest protests since the return of democracy, the international corporate media have largely referred to them in pejorative terms such as “riots” (CNN, 10/19/19; CNBC, 10/21/19), “violent unrest” (New York Times, 10/19/19) and “chaos” (NPR, 10/19/19; Vice, 10/21/19), providing a moral casus belli for war against the people.

Revealingly, no major outlets have described the government’s brutal repression as a “crackdown,” nor called into question the legitimacy of Piñera, who was elected in 2017 with the backing of 26% of registered voters.

It’s true that international journalists are beginning to reference allegations of human rights violations reported by Chile’s National Human Rights Institute, including, as of October 23, 173 people shot and 18 dead, among them at least five presumably at the hands of authorities.

However, the victims of state violence in Chile have not received anywhere near the amount of attention international outlets have dedicated to protester deaths in Venezuela, where the dead have been movingly profiled (New York Times, 6/10/17; BBC, 5/14/17)—provided they were not lynched by the opposition.

In two emblematic cases, Manuel Rebolledo, 23, died on October 21 after being run over by a navy vehicle near Concepción, while Ecuadorian national Romario Veloz, 26, was shot dead the day before at a protest in La Serena. Neither men have been mentioned by name in Western press reports.

It would appear that the only worthy victims, in the eyes of US corporate journalists, are those that have propaganda value from the standpoint of Western foreign policy interests. Reporters spontaneously empathize with neoliberal technocrats like Piñera, even as they occasionally chide them for “excesses.”

“Mr. Piñera said that he is mindful of the broader grievances that fueled the unrest… But he seemed to have difficulty coming to grips with the real source of the population’s frustrations,” the New York Times (10/21/19) sympathetically observed, before going on to note that the president has declared “war” against his own people.

The paper of record suggested that Chileans might find the imposition of martial law “jarring,” given that “the military had killed and tortured thousands of people just decades ago in the name of restoring order.” But despite the article being headlined “What You Need to Know About the Unrest in Chile,” the Times did not find it relevant to mention anywhere that state security forces were currently maiming and killing demonstrators in the streets, and allegedly torturing detainees.

The dominant narrative fed to the public is that Piñera’s government has been “inept” in responding to the protests (Economist, 10/20/19; Reuters, 10/21/19; New York Times, 10/21/19), but never criminal or cruel.

No Western newspapers have published scathing op-eds calling Piñera a “dictator” and demanding their government take action to “restore democracy,” as they have done regularly in the case of Venezuela (FAIR.org, 4/11/19). Rather, they counsel the billionaire president to address “inequality,” barring any reference to what is increasingly coming to resemble state terror (New York Times, 10/22/19; Guardian, 10/23/19; Bloomberg, 10/23/19).

Corporate journalists continue  to whitewash Piñera, describing him as “center-right” (Guardian, 10/21/19; CNBC, 10/19/19; Reuters, 10/21/19) and concealing his personal ties to murderous dictator Augusto Pinochet and those of his top cabinet members.

Ecuador ‘Violence’ 

CNN (10/8/19) frames Ecuador’s government as the victim of “violent protests.”

Corporate journalists have shown only marginally more sympathy to Ecuador’s recent indigenous-led uprising against IMF-imposed austerity measures, frequently described in headlines as “violent protests” (CNN, 10/8/19; Guardian, 10/8/19; USA Today, 10/9/19; Financial Times, 10/8/19).

President Moreno has yet to be labeled by the international media as “authoritarian,” despite ordering soldiers to repress demonstrators in the streets, imposing a curfew, suspending basic civil liberties and arresting rival politicians.

Since betraying his campaign promise to continue his predecessor Rafael Correa’s left-wing policies. and embracing the oligarchy he ran against, Moreno has become the darling of Western elite opinion (FAIR.org, 2/4/18).

Like in Chile, corporate outlets have whitewashed Moreno’s vicious crackdown, which left seven dead, around a thousand arrested and a similar figure wounded. However, corporate outlets have been even more nefarious in obfuscating the origins of the crisis in Ecuador.

As Joe Emersberger has recently exposed for FAIR (10/23/19), Western journalists’ favorite lie is that Moreno “inherited a debt crisis that ballooned as his predecessor and one-time mentor, former President Rafael Correa, took out loans for a major dam, highways, schools, clinics and other projects” (New York Times, 10/8/19). In fact, the country’s debt-to-GDP level remains low, though it has increased slightly under Moreno, due not to public works but to his pro-elite policies.

Corporate outlets have for the most part admitted that Moreno has presented no evidence to back his ludicrous claims of Correa and Maduro supporters orchestrating the protests; nonetheless, they have, with few exceptions (DW, 10/14/19; Reuters, 10/12/19), shamefully ignored Moreno’s draconian persecution of Correaist politicians (including elected representatives), which he justifies on the basis of the very same conspiracy theory. This coverage contrasts sharply with the red carpet treatment regularly provided to Venezuela’s US-friendly opposition politicians, regardless of how many coups they perpetrate (Reuters, 4/30/19; LA Times, 4/30/19; Guardian, 2/6/19).

Western Media Gendarmerie 

It is not coincidental that Western journalists stand aghast at the violence of the excluded and exploited in Chile and Ecuador, while rationalizing that spearheaded by Washington-backed opposition elites in Venezuela.

This bias has nothing to do with any actual amount of looting or arson. Rather, it is the eruption of the racialized poor into polite bourgeois society’s technocratic body politic that is viscerally violent to local neocolonial elites and their Western professional-class backers.

Ecuador’s protests are the latest in a long line of anti-neoliberal uprisings, which brought down three presidents between 1997 and 2005.

The rebellion exploding in Chile is the largest in over a generation, evidencing the terminal legitimacy crisis of the “low-intensity democracy” crafted by Pinochet to maintain the neoliberal model imposed at gunpoint. The Chilean uprising has genuinely terrified elites, leading  the right-wing president to wage war on his own people. At stake is not just the stability of a key Western ally, but more crucially, neoliberalism’s ideological narrative that has upheld Chile as a “success story.”

Corporate journalists will most likely continue to muffle themselves vis-a-vis repressive US client states, in the same way that they systematically conceal the impact of Washington’s sanctions on Venezuela (FAIR.org, 6/26/19), which are estimated to have already killed 40,000 Venezuelans since 2017.

If the first casualty of war is truth, its self-anointed purveyors in the international media have much blood on their hands indeed.

Media Failed to Connect Climate Crisis and Utility Blackouts

 

FAIR has documented a variety of persistent systemic failures in corporate media coverage of climate change over the years. When corporate media aren’t busy denying the existence of a climate emergency, providing false “balance” by amplifying the perspectives of fringe climate deniers, or downplaying climate change’s contributions to natural disasters, they’re minimizing coverage of climate change and initiatives to combat it. Even their coverage of extreme weather phenomena—which have the most obvious connection to the ongoing climate crisis—fails to make the connection.

Most recently, corporate media refused to discuss climate change as a factor in this year’s major blackouts in California and New York, described by for-profit utilities as a response to wildfires and extreme heat waves.

This LA Times article (10/9/19) doesn’t explain why outages are “unprecedented” when California has always had winds.

This month, millions of California homes and businesses lost power after Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the largest for-profit utility in the US, shut off 738,000 customer accounts in a “public safety power shut-off” (PSPS), to prevent further wildfires like the Camp Fire breakout that devastated Paradise, California, last year. That wildfire, the worst in California’s history, killed at least 86 people and destroyed 19,000 homes and businesses across 150,000 acres—after PG&E delayed upgrading a century-old voltage line that sparked the conflagration (New York Times, 2/28/19). Yet corporate media didn’t seem to think climate change was an important factor to mention in their coverage of PG&E’s blackouts.

While California’s wildfires are a part of the area’s natural state, the size and intensity of the seasonal blazes have increased for decades under worsening climate change. The amount of land burned in the state has increased fivefold since the 1970s, with 15 of the 20 largest fires having occurred since 2000 (National Geographic, 10/10/19). The Con Edison blackouts in New York, allegedly from overstrained power grids, are also an inevitable result of the climate crisis, with air conditioner usage increasing the burden on electrical grids as greenhouse-driven heat waves produce record-breaking temperatures (New York Times, 2/6/19; Newsweek, 10/9/19).

It’s clear that the Wall Street Journal (10/10/19) is aware of the connection between climate change and the “deadly infernos” PG&E claims to be trying to prevent with the shutoff, though the only reference to climate change in the article is in a photo caption buried at the very end. The Journal’s “PG&E’s Big Blackout Is Only the Beginning” (10/12/19) described PG&E’s intentional blackout to millions of Californians as a “new reality,” without connecting this “new reality” to worsening climate change, even as it described the “crisis” involving “power lines and wind-whipped wildfires” across the globe in Australia. Another Journal (10/13/19) piece refused to name climate change as the factor that linked the “devastating wildfires that periodically sweep through Northern California” and the first-ever “weather-related shut-off of such size and duration.”

The Los Angeles Times (10/10/19) has occasionally made the connection between “killer wildfires” and climate change. But in other articles, it avoided making the link between the rising frequency and intensity of seasonal blazes to climate disruption—preferring more localized and isolated causes, like “utilities malfunctions,” or bringing on sources who claim that “95% of all wildfires are human-caused” (defined as “activities that could produce a spark,” like “mowing the lawn,” rather than anthropogenic climate change).

While CNN has also occasionally (e.g., 10/12/19) mentioned that “as the climate in the region changes,” so does the “intensity of California’s fires,” in other coverage of the PG&E blackouts (10/10/19, 10/11/19), CNN didn’t connect the “diablo winds” and “risky weather conditions” to the climate crisis.

Why California is facing increasingly devastating fire seasons is not one of the questions the New York Times (10/10/19) tried to answer.

The New York Times’ Thomas Fuller (10/10/19) didn’t seem to think California’s “fire problem” was worth connecting to the climate crisis, since he never mentioned it in his “personal reflections,” or in his updates for readers, while he was eating instant ramen noodles in his home office during the power outage. The Times’ energy reporter, Ivan Penn (10/10/19), also didn’t seem to think climate change factored as an explanation for the “strong winds and dry conditions” that have been “implicated in several major California wildfires started by utility equipment,” in another article that purported to answer questions about the PG&E outage.

The Times’ “Mothers Band Together to Save Breast Milk During California Power Outage” (10/10/19) also continued corporate media’s practice of producing “perseverance porn,” when it spun the dystopian story of mothers being forced to find “resourceful ways” to pump and preserve breast milk—like using car outlets and friends’ freezers—as an uplifting story of maternal ingenuity. FAIR has observed how “the lack of journalistic scrutiny examining the failings of society” in the constant stream of “inspiring” stories serve to “obscure and decontextualize the harsh reality of dog-eat-dog capitalism” (FAIR.org, 8/3/17, 7/21/19).

To be fair, some reports have provided excellent journalism that explains the PG&E blackouts in terms of the perverse rationales of dog-eat-dog capitalism. The New York Times (3/18/19) and the Wall Street Journal (7/10/19) reported on PG&E intentionally avoiding proper maintenance and upgrades of faulty equipment despite concerns raised by its own employees, prioritizing profits for shareholders over customers and public safety. The Intercept (10/11/19) and In These Times (10/10/19) covered how PG&E preferred to spend money on lobbyists and PR specialists, and filed for bankruptcy protection from legal liability to avoid paying out hundreds of lawsuits to victims from wildfires resulting from PG&E’s equipment, prioritized paying out stock dividends to shareholders and spending money earmarked for safety upgrades for its high-voltage transmission line on large raises and bonuses for executives instead.

A Vox piece by Umair Irfan (10/10/19) did draw a link between climate change and California’s electrical crisis.

Vox (10/10/19) articulated the rationale behind PG&E’s deliberate blackout quite well in its report on why it’s good business sense for investor-owned utilities to ravage the poor instead of upgrading decaying infrastructure:

However, part of the utility’s decision to conduct a PSPS also stems from policy decisions, explained Travis Kavulla, the former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. He explained that PG&E essentially sells a product, electricity, at a government-set price. “And when that price is not worth the wildfire risk associated with providing service, or when the price does not support the investment necessary to make the service safe, it makes complete sense that they would flip the ‘off’ switch to particular sets of consumers,” Kavulla wrote in an email….

But if the company takes on more aggressive maintenance and prevention work, those costs could end up being passed to their customers. The rising utility costs would again hurt the poorest the most.

But unless one carefully reads every single report by a given media outlet, one probably won’t receive an explanation for why what CNN calls “risky weather conditions” are occurring with greater frequency and intensity. Most journalists fail to consistently connect isolated weather events to a broader analysis of climate change driven by human activity.

This is emblematic of corporate media’s tendency to treat an existential threat as a far-off concern, with only an occasional connection to the weather, and not at the forefront of the news as a present reality (FAIR.org, 12/2/13). As FAIR’s Jim Naureckas has often pointed out, when one understands the conceptual distinction between climate and weather, the reason it’s easy (and correct) to attribute particular weather events to climate change is that “every weather event in the modern world is attributable to climate change” (FAIR.org, 7/2/12, 11/14/13).

High power usage explains the outages. reports the New York Times (7/22/19), and record-breaking heat explains the power usage. But what explains the record-breaking heat? The Times doesn’t say.

In July, investor-owned New York utility Con Edison had its own deliberate outage in Brooklyn—to prevent a wider blackout during a deadly heatwave—the weekend after a burning 13,000-volt cable cut off power to 73,000 customer accounts, in Manhattan. The New York Times never connected both major blackouts to the climate crisis; instead, the Times (7/21/19, 7/22/19) uncritically echoed Con Ed’s line about “record-high power demand” and the “load on the grid,” even as it reported on the burning cables and “sweltering heat wave” causing Con Ed’s customers to turn up their air conditioners.

The Times did this despite these blackouts being an obvious sign of the climate crisis, as July 2019 was the hottest month on record, following a continuous trend of record-breaking global temperatures. (The Times also left out that some of the areas where Con Ed was shutting off power, like Canarsie and Flatlands, were among Brooklyn’s most diverse and low-income neighborhoods—Grist, 7/23/19). Why are intense heat waves occurring more frequently, and why can’t the power grid handle increased power usage? One wouldn’t get answers to these questions from the Times, as increased strains on power grids are an inevitable result of climate inaction, and constant refusals to upgrade the US’s consistently terrible infrastructure due to decades of austerity-driven politics with considerable help from corporate media (FAIR.org, 10/27/17, 2/22/19, 7/29/19).

The blackouts in California and New York highlight the disparity in economic impact and the inability of market solutions to combat the climate crisis, as the majority of Americans struggling paycheck to paycheck can’t afford to buy the security of backup power in the form of private generators and solar panels. They highlight the need for a Green New Deal to prevent racist blackouts that ravage the poor for profits (In These Times, 8/22/19; FAIR.org, 9/6/19).

Just as the human contribution to climate change can magnify disasters, corporate media coverage often bolsters public confusion and ignorance about the causes of climate disruptions like these utility blackouts, and serves to hinder action that doesn’t depend on investors profiting off the current climate status quo (FAIR.org, 10/16/19). Despite what corporate media would have us believe, we really don’t need to choose between enduring deliberate blackouts from for-profit utilities or hazarding deadly fires and widespread power shortages.

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We know that our site has been packed with great content. Views on our website, shares on Facebook and retweets on Twitter have been hopping.  

Have you read our email posts, or visited our website? Have you listened to an episode or two of CounterSpin, read some of our transcripts? 

It’s been an amazing month—and we’ve gotten an amazing response so far to our latest—infrequent!—fundraising drive!

One more push should get us to our $10,000 goal!

50 people each giving $20, or 100 people giving $10—you do the math.

We want to keep paying our fantastic writers and producing our radio show, heard on some 150 stations across the continent—so come on—LET’S DO THIS.

We count on your support, and we so appreciate all those who have given already.

Many thanks, Janine, Deborah & Jim

 

P.S. By popular demand. For a donation of $35 or more, we’re keeping our fabulous thank-you gift: a T-shirt commemorating the 25th anniversary of Nirvana’s benefit concert for FAIR.  The reissued iconic T-shirt has the terrific “DISinformation” art by Robbie Conal on the front, and two classic concert rosters listed on the back.

 

 

SUPPORT FAIR: Pass Our Fall Fundraising Goal!

 

We know that our site has been packed with great content. Views on our website, shares on Facebook and retweets on Twitter have been hopping.  

Have you read our email posts, or visited our website? Have you listened to an episode or two of CounterSpin, read some of our transcripts? 

It’s been an amazing month—and we’ve gotten an amazing response so far to our latest—infrequent!—fundraising drive!

One more push should get us to our $10,000 goal!

50 people each giving $20, or 100 people giving $10—you do the math.

We want to keep paying our fantastic writers and producing our radio show, heard on some 150 stations across the continent—so come on—LET’S DO THIS.

We count on your support, and we so appreciate all those who have given already.

Many thanks, Janine, Deborah & Jim

 

P.S. By popular demand. For a donation of $35 or more, we’re keeping our fabulous thank-you gift: a T-shirt commemorating the 25th anniversary of Nirvana’s benefit concert for FAIR.  The reissued iconic T-shirt has the terrific “DISinformation” art by Robbie Conal on the front, and two classic concert rosters listed on the back.

 

 

Ecuador’s Austerity Measures, Repression Based on Lies AP Happily Spread

by Joe Emersberger

AP piece in the LA Times (10/14/19)

Bernie Sanders tweeted an Associated Press article in the LA Times (10/14/19) about Ecuador’s recent protests, in which eight protesters were killed in 11 days. “Economic elites keep pushing austerity worldwide, making life unbearable for working people,” Sanders declared. Unfortunately, that AP piece was itself a good example of how elites push for austerity.

Under the headline “Ecuador Deal Cancels Austerity Plan, Ends Indigenous Protest,” the article claimed that former President Rafael Correa—in office from January 15, 2007, until May 24, 2017—left Ecuador “deeply in debt.” AP’s Michael Weissenstein and Gonzalo Solano said Ecuador’s current president, Lenin Moreno, had agreed to work with indigenous leaders to “reduce Ecuador’s unsustainable budget deficits and public debt.”

In fact, Ecuador’s government does not have a high debt load. The table below shows the Ecuadorian government’s gross debt-to-GDP ratio compared to various other countries that (like Ecuador) cannot issue their own currency. (Ecuador adopted the dollar as its currency in 2000, after its entire financial sector collapsed after decades of imposing the right-wing economic policies that the IMF “recommends” to developing countries; the other countries in the table below are part of the Eurozone.)

Source: IMF

Note that Ecuador’s debt to GDP ratio has continued to increase under Moreno, because he has implemented the policies that Ecuador’s elite always liked—and which are the exact opposite of what he promised on the campaign trail in 2017. That said, Ecuador’s public debt is not high now, and was even less so when Correa left office.

Another AP report that was published by the New York Times (10/15/19) stated that Ecuador has a $64 billion public debt and a “budget shortfall” of $10 billion.  The IMF, which is hardly inclined to underestimate these figures, says the government’s gross debt will be $53 billion in 2019 and its budget deficit $37 million. (AP appears to have included in its “shortfall” estimate all the principal and interest due on Ecuador’s foreign bonds this year—which is not how governments calculate their budget deficits. Governments almost always “roll over” their bonds—pay off principal by issuing new bonds.)

Oil prices collapsed in the last quarter of 2014 and stayed low for years. That hurt Ecuador badly because about half its export earnings had been coming from oil. Ecuador was also hit by a massive earthquake in April 2016, the most destructive in decades. A significant rise in the value of the US dollar since mid-2014 also hurt Ecuador’s competitiveness, because Ecuador (unlike countries that have their own currency) cannot devalue to help the prices of its exports stay competitive. Those external shocks did cause an increase in public debt in Correa’s last two and a half years in office.

Source: IMF

But Correa did not impose austerity measures, nor did he run to the IMF (as Lenin Moreno has) for one of its infamous “structural adjustment” loans, where spending cuts, attacks on workers’ rights, central bank independence and privatization are all part of the “deal.”

FAIR.org (2/4/18)

By the time Correa left office, poverty was cut by about one-third, and extreme poverty by about one-half. The homicide rate was dramatically reduced. Vast and long overdue improvements had been made to Ecuador’s public infrastructure. Eight hydroelectric plants were built, and roads drastically improved throughout the country. That’s why Lenin Moreno was able to run his successful 2017 presidential campaign as a staunch Correa loyalist (FAIR.org, 2/4/18).

The AP deceptively stated that

Moreno served Correa as vice president before he became president, and the two men went through a bitter split as Moreno pushed to curb public debt amassed on Correa’s watch.

The AP here buries Moreno’s remarkable cynicism. The “bitter split” happened very shortly after the votes were counted in 2017. Within weeks of taking office, Moreno went completely over to the side of the rich and, what amounts to the same thing, the side of the private media barons who had always vilified Correa. Moreno quickly made changes to Ecuador’s public media to ensure that they followed suit. In a nationally televised interview in January 2018, both public and private media journalists reinforced Moreno’s attack lines against his former allies (Counterpunch, 1/21/18).

Armed with that media monoculture, Moreno attacked his former allies with wild allegations that the media spread uncritically. That was key to saddling his former allies with criminal charges and investigations. He has accused Correa of spying on him from Belgium (where Correa lives with his Belgian wife) through a hidden camera in Ecuador’s presidential palace, and alleged that Correa improved Ecuador’s roads in order to facilitate drug trafficking.

Moreno knows that no charge is too outlandish, provided it reinforces what the powerful and their media outlets want to hear. Moreno accused WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange of smearing feces on the walls of Ecuador’s embassy in London, where Assange had been granted asylum by the Correa government. One of Moreno’s ministers said she found it suspicious that journalists in Ecuador working for Russian state media covered the recent protests.

It’s important to note that oil prices (chart below) recovered significantly since Moreno took office on May 24, 2017. They have, on average, been about 25% higher under Moreno than they were in Correa’s last two years. Ecuador has not been hit by a major natural disaster since Moreno took office. So why has Moreno, who is supposedly deeply preoccupied with reducing the public debt, increased it instead?

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

He has done it by implementing policies the elite always wanted, for both ideological and self-serving reasons: giving tax cuts to the rich, giving away revenue to transnational oil and mining companies, making it illegal for the government to finance itself internally (therefore forcing it to turn to the private sector) and refusing to impose import tariffs. Incidentally, import tariffs were crucial to Ecuador avoiding austerity or a deep recession during Correa’s last two years in office.

The AP article said that:

Foreign Minister José Valencia told the Associated Press on Sunday that the Moreno administration believed Correa, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Colombia’s far-left FARC and ELN guerrillas are working to destabilize Ecuador. He offered no proof beyond the fact that a handful of Correa loyalists and some Venezuelan nationals had been detained during the protests.

The Moreno administration arrested Paola Pabon, the governor of Ecuador’s second-largest state, with virtually no English-language media attention. (cc photo: National Assembly of Ecuador)

Surely the fact that a government has arrested some of its political opponents should not be taken as any kind of “proof” of foreign subversion. Among the political arrestees referred to offhandedly by AP as “a handful of Correa loyalists” is Paola Pabón, the governor of of Pichincha, the second-most populous province in Ecuador. Yofre Poma, a member of the National Assembly, was also arrested, as was the former mayor of the canton of Duran, Alexandra Arce, along with Magdalena Robles, an online journalist who supports Correa.

Another sitting National Assembly member, Gabriela Rivandeneira, and former assembly member Virgilio Hernandez took refuge in the Mexican embassy after police broke into their houses.

Unlike President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Moreno is not confronting a US-backed opposition that briefly seized power in one military coup and then attempted five others (FAIR.org, 5/20/19). The Western media would be overflowing with outrage over Moreno’s abuses, long before these protests, if he had not tightly embraced Washington’s agenda.

Seven right-wing governments in Latin America immediately backed Moreno’s claim that Venezuela was behind the protests in Ecuador. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on October 11 that the US

supports President Moreno and the government of Ecuador’s efforts to institutionalize democratic practices and implement needed economic reforms.  We are aware and monitoring claims of external actor involvement in these demonstrations.

By “external actor involvement,” Pompeo didn’t mean the IMF, effectively an extension of the US Treasury Department in developing countries. Moreno is jailing elected political rivals and has authorized lethal tactics precisely to impose his deal with that external actor.

Messages to Associated Press can be sent to info@ap.org (or via Twitter @AP). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

Featured image: Ecuador protesters (photo: Voice of America)

‘This Is the Latest Chapter of a Long History of US Betrayal of Kurds’ - Khury Petersen-Smith on the Turkish Invasion of Syria

Janine Jackson interviewed IPS’s Khury Petersen-Smith about the Turkish invasion of Syria for the October 18, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: As we record on October 17, Turkey continues its offensive in northern Syria, a move seen as greenlighted by Donald Trump’s early October removal of some US troops from the area. Trump’s action, and his typically bizarre and contradictory response to subsequent events, account for much coverage.

At the same time, many Americans are learning for the first time about Rojava, the de facto autonomous Kurdish area and political project in northern Syria. It could be a chance to challenge received understanding of the US relationship with, not just the Kurds, but with Turkey, Syria, ISIS, indeed terrorism, and more—that is, if we could try and see people rather than maps, and look at events without elite media’s lens of implied imperialism.

Here to help us think differently about things is Khury Petersen-Smith, the Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Khury Petersen-Smith.

Khury Petersen-Smith: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

JJ: The corporate media movie might be called The Betrayal of the Kurds: Turkey sees Kurdish militants as terrorists, but they fought against ISIS in Syria alongside the US, and now we’ve abandoned them. That’s kind of the “humane” line in the media, within, of course, a context in which we’re all at war against and among one another; our enemies have enemies, but are they our friends? You know, follow that bouncing ball.

But the point is, the Kurds have helped us, and therefore we should not be hurting them. And people are being killed and driven from their homes. But can I ask you to address this popular framing of “loyalty to the Kurds,” which never seems to have been much of a guiding principle?

CNN (10/15/19)

 

KPS: Right, exactly. And I’ll say first, too, that the frame is, “Trump has betrayed the Kurds, and the US should not do so,” but the conclusion of the sentence—whether it’s said out loud or not—is, “and that’s why the US should maintain its forces precisely where they were, at the border of Syria and Turkey.” And that, actually, the mistake was departing from what the US was doing in Syria, and the US should return to that.

That’s the kind of new-found sympathy for the Kurds, which I think is new-found among certain politicians, who have been in positions where they themselves actually bear responsibility for the betrayal of the Kurds. Whatever they’re saying about the Kurds now, the conclusion is always that the US should actually maintain what it was doing in Syria—which is wrong.

As you say, though, the idea that the US has a loyalty to the Kurds, that Trump has betrayed—I mean, phrases trending on social media are “Trump betrayed the Kurds,” “this is Trump’s betrayal” and so on—when, in fact, while that may be true, this is really the latest chapter of what is a long and bloody and really atrocious history of US betrayal of Kurds throughout the region: Kurds in Syria, Kurds in Turkey, Kurds in Iraq.

JJ: If we could take just a minute and talk about Rojava: It’s not a military camp; it’s not Woodstock, you know? What should we know about it?

KPS: That’s a good question. And Rojava is the Kurdish name for this region of Syria where they have been besieged, really, by forces like ISIS. And so there has been a military struggle against ISIS, but there’s also, within the territory—which is in control of Kurdish militia and allies—there’s been an effort to really have some experimentation in human freedom. There have been efforts at trying to make a society that has gender equality, and other forms of equality as well. So this was an effort by progressive Kurdish forces to try to carve out a space where they could live with some freedom and try to experiment in a freer society.

And they were also, of course, fighting for their lives against ISIS. That’s really important. The problem with Trump’s decision is that “the Kurds fought so well for us”—as though the Kurds are like mercenaries or something, when, in fact, they were fighting for their lives. And they entered into an alliance with the United States, which was also fighting against ISIS. It’s worth noting that Kurdish forces have entered into all kinds of alliances in their fight for their lives. So this notion that the whole project of the Kurdish militias is loyalty to the United States, which Trump has betrayed, is really wrong, and it just doesn’t make any sense.

JJ: In following from what you’ve just said, the Kurds were really maybe the least surprised by the US pullout, such as it is—it’s certainly not from all of Syria, and it’s certainly not from all of the world, and we can come back to that—but the Kurds had already been in conversation with Russia and with the Syrian government. But then, “scary Russia fills void when benevolent US leaves” is, we know, a big elite media hobbyhorse, and it’s implied throughout that the United States must be, and should be, at the table deciding Syria’s future; that kind of undergirds the whole conversation.

KPS: Exactly, yeah; there’s a couple of things happening here. The first is, as you said, Kurdish folks and people who support Kurdish freedom—if you know anything about the history of the Kurds and the ways that they’ve been betrayed by various forces, and in particular, the United States, then, yeah—there’s something that is horrendous about this, but not terribly surprising.

There’s this phrase, a Kurdish phrase, that is, “We have no friends, except for the mountains.” And that speaks to the many, many betrayals over the years by various forces. So that’s on one hand, and then, as you said, the kind of establishment critics of Trump’s decision, people like Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell, people like Nikki Haley, people like Hillary Clinton, I’ll say, who presided over all kinds of policies that were damaging to Kurds: Their critique, their problem, is really that this gets in the way of the United States having a seat at the table in deciding the fate of Syria, and therefore the fate of the region.

And one of the tragedies of the past several years, since 2011, regarding Syria, is that not only have there been internal struggles among Syrians that have been really disastrous, but various forces, regional and international, have jumped in and tried to decide the direction of Syrian society.

And, unfortunately, it’s ordinary people in Syria, and particularly the most marginalized people, who have paid the price for that.

JJ: The limits of the US media conversation are so clear, as you’ve indicated: If you think that Trump did anything wrong in leaving Kurds in northern Syria exposed to Turkish attack, well, then, what you want is for him to undo it, and for troops to be replaced there. And then if you’re opposed to Trump, then your voice in the media is Lindsey “this will be worse than leaving Iraq” Graham. It almost goes without saying that elite media debates include no genuine peace advocates, no genuine anti-interventionists, and that really shows in terms of the limits of what we’re allowed to consider as options.

KPS: It’s really incredible. There are many people, it has to be said, who are upset about what’s happened over the past week, this catastrophic situation in which more than 130,000 people have fled this border region, in which many have been killed and many more have been wounded. There are many people who are outraged about that, precisely because of their sympathy with the Kurds, for many for humanitarian reasons.

But the loudest critics, the people who we hear in the media critiquing Trump, people who are current members of Congress or former ambassadors or secretaries of state, these people are concerned with US power. That’s actually their issue; they actually want a greater US presence in Syria, not a reduced or modified one.

And so it’s true: In the mainstream media, there has been no voice that has been saying, “Well, why don’t we actually look at the history of what has transpired?” It’s as though we can only talk about the past week and a half.

And it’s like, what has the US actually done in Syria? That’s part of the problem, too, actually, is that there’s this idea that there was this really fantastic fight against ISIS that was going so well, and now Trump is going to set it back.

And so, it’s true: We have to read between the lines, and, actually, they’re saying it explicitly too, “Well, now Russia has stepped in.” Really, they’re concerned about the bigger picture and which world power gets to control Syria.

But this idea that there was some great, pristine fight against ISIS that Trump is backing down from also needs to be really examined. A big part of the US war on ISIS, which involved Kurdish allies, was the siege of the city of Raqqa, which was primarily an air war carried out by the United States, that was catastrophic. And some good journalists have documented that there were mass civilian casualties in Raqqa. Amnesty International has documented the fact that, as happens when you bombard a city from the air, there was no attention paid to civilians and civilian casualties.

So this stuff isn’t being talked about in the media, what the US has actually been doing, just in the past couple of years in Syria, let alone the longer history that the US has had in the region, and the history of US betrayal of the Kurds.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, if we use a different lens, if we don’t act as though we’re playing a big game of Risk, and we see people over maps, then different things are salient. I’ve heard you talk, for instance, about refugees and the implications for refugees. What other people and ideas might be lifted up if we look at things in a different way?

Khury Petersen-Smith: “There are people in the region who are fighting for their freedom, and we should hear those voices and look to those voices.”

KPS: That’s a really important question. I think the main thing is you can look at the situation in Syria, and it’s really quite disheartening. Obviously, it’s been just a humanitarian catastrophe for years now, with millions of people displaced, many hundreds of thousands killed, and, unfortunately, we could go on in terms of the description of the horror.

But the other thing is that we’ve also seen really pretty inspiring struggles of progressive movements in the region, in Syria and elsewhere in the region. Of course, the context in which the Syrian civil war emerged, the broader context was what’s called the Arab Spring, right, this massive upsurge all across the Middle East and North Africa, where people were fighting for their freedom in various ways, in various groups of people. And that has experienced all kinds of violent setbacks, largely by forces that are armed and allied with the United States.

But despite that, there continue to be protests in places like Egypt, there continue to be protests in places like Iraq. And when I think of the best of what the Kurds have done in places like Rojava, and various other experiments in human freedom, actually, throughout Syria—Syria has had some of the most inspiring examples of places where, even for a brief time, people will rise up and take control of their regions or their towns, and try to build democracy. And it has been besieged. And yet we see, there’s something really incredible there, there’s a kind of desire and a capacity of people to figure out their own destiny without forces like the United States.

And so, I think that if that’s our orientation, then it helps us do what we need to do, which is, really, call for US demilitarization. The US should not have troops in Syria. Also the US should not be arming Turkey. If we’re upset about the slaughter of the Kurds that’s taking place, well, we should ask why the United States has been arming Turkey. Again, a question that’s not being asked in the mainstream media.

And I think that those kinds of positions are important as a matter of principle, but I think that they can feel more viable when we understand that there are people in the region who are fighting for their freedom, and we should hear those voices and look to those voices.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Khury Petersen-Smith, Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. You can find his recent piece, “Trump’s Betrayal of the Kurds Is Terrible, But the Answer Is Not Endless War,” along with other work, on the website IPS-DC.org. Khury Petersen-Smith, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

KPS: Thank you. Thank you for having me; so grateful to talk to you about these things.

Chinese Censorship of US Media: New Spin on an Old Tactic

by Justin Anderson

With China now the world’s largest economy, US media companies are increasingly looking at the country’s 1.4 billion consumers with dollar signs in their eyes. But access to this media market comes with one big rule: Don’t upset the Chinese government. This is most evident in the realm of blockbuster movies, where films that could run afoul of Chinese state censors are amended, rewritten or scrapped. But other media or media-dependent industries have come under the sway of the Chinese government and its massive market power.

Daryl Morey’s tweet (since deleted)

On October 6, Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets pro basketball team, tweeted: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” Morey was referring to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong against proposed changes to Hong Kong’s extradition laws, which would allow dissidents in the semi-autonomous island city to be tried in Mainland courts. Since their start in June, the protests have expanded to encompass the wider political relationship between Beijing and the city. While in theory Hong Kong maintains a degree of independence under the “one country, two systems” principle agreed to after Britain returned its former colony to China in 1997, in practice the ruling Chinese Communist Party exercises a great deal of control over Hong Kong’s governance.

Morey deleted his comment shortly after posting and apologized the following night, and the NBA swiftly disavowed his views, calling them “regrettable.” The league’s statement was buttressed by new Brooklyn Nets owner (and co-founder of the Chinese internet company Alibaba) Joseph Tsai, who penned a letter expressing support for Chinese sovereignty in Hong Kong, and saying there is genuine popular resentment in China toward outside forces who are seen as trying to split up the country.

There are immense sums of money at stake for the NBA in China, where basketball is the most popular sport. The league hosts preseason and minor league games in the country, has numerous players partnering with Chinese companies like Li-Ning and, most importantly, broadcasts games to almost 500 million people in China through its $1.5 billion deal with Chinese tech giant Tencent.

Despite the NBA trying to perform damage control, China still flexed its muscles; the Chinese Basketball Association suspended its relationship with the Rockets, while state television operator CCTV cancelled the broadcast of two NBA minor league games that were to be played in China.

A few days later, the Rockets shut down CNN reporter Christina Macfarlane, who asked players China-related questions in a post-game press conference, requiring that she ask “basketball questions only.” Disney, the owner of ESPN, also seemed content to toe the Chinese government line. On Sportscenter’s October 9 morning show, in advance of the Lakers/Nets preseason game in Shanghai, the network broadcast a graphic showing a map of China that included the maximum extent of its disputed territorial claims, including Taiwan, India’s Arunachal Pradesh and the so-called Nine-Dash Line encompassing the South China Sea.

Sportscenter (10/9/19)

Videogame player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai donning a gas mask in support of Hong Kong protesters.

The power of the Chinese banhammer has also extended into the realm of videogames. Acquiescing to Chinese pressure, videogame conglomerate Activision Blizzard suspended professional Hearthstone player Chung Ng Wai, who plays the fantasy card game under the name Blitzchung. Chung, a native of Hong Kong, showed support for the protests by repeating the slogan “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time,” and donning a gas mask (now banned in Hong Kong) in an official interview after a tournament win. Blizzard also declined to pay out Chung’s winnings from the tournament, and fired the interviewers.

A recent episode of South Park (10/2/19) found the show’s characters in a similar free-speech predicament. Stan and his friends start a rock band and attempt to get a biopic made, only to find that the movie studio producing their film bow to the whims of the Chinese government, who demand numerous script rewrites and removal of references to the Dalai Lama and homosexuality. As the biopic’s director tells Stan, “You gotta lower your ideals of freedom if you wanna suck on the warm teat of China.”

The Chinese government obviously didn’t take kindly to being made fun of by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The government quickly removed episodes, clips and mentions of the show from the Chinese internet. Parker and Stone responded on Twitter (10/7/19) with a mocking apology:

Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts. We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t look just like Winnie the Pooh at all. Tune into our 300th episode this Wednesday at 10! Long live the Great Communist Party of China! May this autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful! We good now China?

Even those who showed minimal support for South Park’s protest against Chinese incursions on media free speech have seen repercussions. Popular German DJ Zedd, after liking a tweet from South Park’s official Twitter account, was subsequently banned from performing his music in China.

 

China is not the only entity, or even foreign country, with the ability to influence or exercise veto power over what content major US media companies can produce. The ruling monarchy of Saudi Arabia has frequently used its oil wealth to influence portrayals of its regime. The Saudi government just recently paid Vice media to produce fluffy PR documentaries to play up the reforms of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Many other media outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal, CNN, NBC and the Washington Post (the former employer of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whom the Saudi government murdered), are regularly lobbied by Saudi foreign agents hoping to influence US press coverage of the country. The combination of the Saudi Arabia’s sizeable checkbook and the intimate economic and political relationship that the US maintains with the country surely plays a large part in shaping media coverage of the country (CounterSpin, 4/22/16).

Israel has also exercised influence over what media are OK for distribution in the US and the rest of the world. Last year, pressure from pro-Israel officials stopped the broadcast of an Al Jazeera–produced documentary The Lobby, which detailed the financial and political power of Israel’s advocates in DC political circles.

Israel has in the past barred major US news outlets like CNN from reporting on issues in the occupied territories of the West Bank. Likewise, large US-based tech platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have regularly censored Palestinian users on behalf of the Israeli government, which has threatened litigation against the companies if they didn’t comply.

Facebook in particular has an official policy of acquiescing to the demands of governments such as Indonesia, Pakistan and Myanmar when users run afoul of those governments’ own speech policies. Adherence to such rules can lead to violence and internal repression of people and groups that these governments disdain. For all the talk of media and tech platforms like Facebook being unaccountable transnational entities that are tough to govern, they seem to respect the prerogatives of many of the authoritarian countries in which they operate.

 

When you see real US military equipment being used in a Hollywood movie, as in Black Hawk Down, you can be sure that the script has been scrutinized to remove anything that makes the Pentagon look bad.

The US national security state, of course, has a long history of involvement and say over what content is acceptable in Hollywood, the videogame industry and the US news media.

The Department of Defense frequently grants film productions access to equipment, vehicles and locations. The huge price tag for military equipment like jet planes or high-tech weaponry—paid for by taxpayers—functions as an effective subsidy for the US film industry. Yet Pentagon involvement comes with the catch that movie scripts must pass muster with the DoD’s Hollywood liaison, who makes sure that the producers sign and adhere to the terms of the military’s Production Assistance Agreements. The CIA and NSA’s Hollywood liaisons oversee similar processes. At least 1,800 movies, documentaries and TV shows have been produced under the watchful eye of the US military, while others were abandoned due to lack of military support.

As with war films like Top Gun and American Sniper, the US military sees videogames as effective recruiting and training tools. Indeed, the military has long been heavily involved in the videogame industry, both releasing official videogames themselves and consulting on massively popular games such as Call of Duty.

Some see this military/entertainment complex as a good thing, at least when placed in the context of US soft-power competition with China. In a recent piece for the Atlantic (9/15/19; FAIR.org, 10/3/19), Boston College’s Martha Bayles argued that the US should ramp up cooperation between the military and media to compete globally with China, whose growing media influence helps them project power.

In addition to movies, TV and videogames, the US military also funds other entertainment entities, like the NFL, which uses the money for troop tributes and jet flyovers during pregame shows. Accordingly, the NFL has often taken a hard line against players who speak their mind on select political issues; the league essentially blackballed former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality, which many on the right misinterpreted as a hostile gesture towards the US military.

US news media are also far from immune from government influence. There is a long history of wartime censorship of correspondents embedded with troops—indeed, in World War I and II, there was literally a government agency called the Office of Censorship. Such press censorship continued through America’s later wars, including Vietnam, all the way through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where film crews and embedded reporters were directed by military personnel to report stories in ways that adhered to the military’s official line.

Other government branches have influenced press coverage. The censorship and blackballing of Communists and suspected Communists in Hollywood and broadcasting during the McCarthy era is well known. The CIA, through its Operation Mockingbird, also paid and intimidated both domestic and foreign reporters into writing stories that would support the agency and their aims.

 

The Chinese government’s ability to set the terms of free speech in the US media and entertainment sphere is surely alarming. The far-reaching censorship powers the Chinese state has over internet and other media both inside and outside the country is truly frightening. China might be a unique example in the history of media censorship and influence: Never before has a country deemed a US antagonist exercised such financial power over the media conversation.

However, fears of Chinese censorship might be overreported in comparison with the long history in the US of media censorship at the behest of the US military, government agencies and other foreign countries. Chinese influence over US media shouldn’t be ignored, but air must also be given to the myriad other ways in which other entities, like the US government, “friendly” foreign countries and large tech platforms, control and influence what counts as acceptable speech.

Featured image: the Rockets’ James Harden (cc photo: Keith Allison)

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