Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

Ahmad Abuznaid on Israel/Palestine Apartheid, James Love on Bill Gates & Vaccine Politics


New York Times (4/27/21)


This week on CounterSpin: “Rights Group Hits Israel With Explosive Charge: Apartheid.” You don’t need to be a linguist to think there’s something leading about the New York Times choice of headline for a report from a human rights organization detailing how Israel’s daily, grinding suppression of Palestinian people’s rights actually constitutes a crime. But where elite media present a frozen he said/she said, never-the-twain-shall-meet debate, more and more people see a different way forward. We get an update from Ahmad Abuznaid, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

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Bill Gates (cc photo: ILRI)


Also on the show: Corporate media will have you believing there’s just no reasonable answer to your simple questions about how we can have a world where people are dying from a pandemic, at the same time as vaccines exist. How we navigate that has to do with media’s elevation of “experts” like Bill Gates, who—divorce distractions aside—raise serious questions about why we allow billionaires to set policy on something as important as public health. We talk about that with James Love, who thinks a lot about this as director of Knowledge Ecology International.

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In Media Framing, Trans Kids Are Problems to Be Solved—Not People With Rights


As states continue to pass laws that dehumanize and endanger transgender kids, the country’s most influential newspapers have not met the challenge of covering the issue. Across the country, 36 states have introduced or passed 127 bills that discriminate against trans kids, including barring trans kids from playing on the sports team that corresponds with their gender, and criminalizing or impeding providing gender-affirming healthcare for them.

The right-wing movement behind these bills has tried to frame the story as a political debate over science and protecting the vulnerable—in the case of the sports bills, the vulnerable cisgender girls who would supposedly be harmed by competing with and against transgender girls; in the case of the bills prohibiting gender-affirming healthcare, the vulnerable trans children who might make the “wrong” decisions about their bodies.

The emphasis in this Washington Post profile (3/16/21) was on Chloe Clark and not on the lawmakers who deny her right to exist.

Instead of centering trans voices in coverage of these bills that target them, journalists at the New York Times and Washington Post have tended to cover the story as primarily one of political debate, with real-life impacts sequestered into human interest stories in which the political news is secondary, or relegated to a paragraph or two buried under piles of politicians, scientists and transphobes debating whether trans people should be denied basic rights.

For instance, the Washington Post  ran a front-page feature (3/16/21) that profiled a transgender teen who “had spoken out on her own behalf, even as conservative legislators in Missouri waged a fight to criminalize treatments for trans kids like her.” Despite the headline’s framing (“A Transgender Girl Struggles to Find Her Voice as Lawmakers Attack Her Right to Exist”), the piece was primarily a human interest piece—a sensitive, empathetic profile that  included only a few brief references to the anti-trans campaign and its impact on her life.

Meanwhile, the Post‘s most in-depth and prominent article centered on the anti-trans campaign came in its sports section (4/15/21), under the headline, “The Fight for the Future of Transgender Athletes.” Who gets to set the framework for that fight in the article? Not the people at its center. Reporter Will Hobson writes that “the issue of transgender athletes has become the most vexing, emotionally charged debate in global sports.”

A Washington Post sports feature (4/15/21) explored what advocates called a “science-based compromise between two extremes: right-wing politicians seeking wholesale bans of transgender athletes and transgender activists who argue for full inclusion.”

Look at how Hobson defines “the issue of transgender athletes”: not as an issue confronting transgender athletes, who are under attack in more than half of the states in this country, but one posed by them. Hobson implies that what’s most important in this story is that it’s “vexing,” not to trans people, but to those who are forced to deal with their existence. Under that definition of the problem—the same one used by the right-wing activists doing the attacking, and based primarily on interviews with cisgender “experts”—Hobson’s piece concludes that there simply may be no fair solution.

“It may prove impossible for schools and sports organizations to craft policies that are both fair to all female athletes and fully inclusive of transgender girls and women,” he writes. In other words, inclusion of trans girls may be fundamentally unfair to cis girls.

In effect, this cedes the framework to the right, setting the issue up as a debate, rather than a story about trans people’s (and, more specifically, trans kids’) right to bodily autonomy and self-determination.

It’s an approach to coverage entirely in line with that concerning another battle over bodily autonomy in this country: abortion. (Not coincidentally, right-wing legislators have also introduced an unprecedented number of state-level abortion restrictions this year.) As Janine Jackson (FAIR.org, 1/29/16) has argued, reproductive rights are typically presented as political controversies or pawns in the “culture war,” rather than as issues of women’s health, tilting the playing field from the outset in favor of the right. In both cases, those not targeted by the policies—men in the case of reproductive rights, and in the case of trans rights, cisgender people—get most of the quotes and most of the bylines.

For trans people, the outnumbering tends to be even worse. While there are countless outstanding trans journalists, very few have been hired by major news outlets, where their perspectives and access to the trans community would go a long way to providing more fair coverage. And trans sources continue to be outnumbered by cisgender sources in nearly every story about trans issues, too often reserved for adding “color” to a story rather than treated as experts. As the Trans Journalist Association advises:

When reporting a story about trans issues, trans people should be interviewed and quoted as experts, not just subjects. Trans people are the experts on trans lives and experiences.

Of 17 sources quoted in Hobson’s Post piece, three were identified as current or former transgender athletes. One was not interviewed, only briefly quoted. At least three cisgender former athletes were also quoted, plus a dizzying array of experts: endocrinologists, a cultural anthropologist, lawyers and a psychiatrist.

The New York Times (8/18/20) referred to inclusion of trans girls in athletics as “decid[ing]to split high school athletes by gender identity.”

The New York Times ran a remarkably similar story (8/18/20) highlighting the supposed intractability of the sports issue under the headline, “Who Should Compete in Women’s Sports? There Are ‘Two Almost Irreconcilable Positions.’” It’s telling that the source quoted in the headline—cisgender geneticist Eric Vilain—was previously published on the Times op-ed page (6/18/12) on the issue of gender testing for sports, and began his argument by claiming that we live “in times of extreme political correctness infiltrating almost every societal topic.”

Vilain, once an ally to intersex activists, has also been sharply criticized by both intersex and transgender advocates for his influential stances on genital surgery for intersex babies (acceptable in some circumstances) and testosterone limits for women competing in the Olympics (he helped set them). Why does this scientist with a chip on his shoulder about political correctness, and views hostile to those of the trans and intersex community, get to frame the subject of how trans kids get to participate in sports?

Just like the Post, the Times found the question of trans participation “vexing,” presenting trans people as objects rather than subjects in the matter. Fifteen sources were quoted; four were trans athletes, but none appeared to have actually been interviewed by the Times. (The paper reprinted public statements or quotes from other news outlets.)

Further down in the lengthy piece, a section header was given over to another cisgender scientist playing he said/she said: “‘One group prioritizes inclusion. Another group says we want fairness and safety.’” Though “safety” was mentioned four times in the article as some sort of reason to bar participation, nowhere did it explain how trans kids pose any safety threat to other kids. In fact, the central safety issue in the context of trans kids in sports is the danger to trans kids as a result of being stigmatized, harassed and excluded—which the article failed to mention.

If you dig deeper to discern what exactly the vexing problem is that transgender athletes supposedly pose to others, it appears that many are worried that, because testosterone can confer some physiological advantages on individuals in terms of things like height and muscle mass, it therefore creates an unfair advantage to those with more of it.

But, just like sex, testosterone is not binary; everyone’s body produces testosterone, and while most men produce far more than women, some women produce more testosterone than some men. Rather than accept this human variety just as we accept that all top athletes are exceptional in some—often genetic—way, some world sports organizations have insisted that female athletes whose bodies happen to produce high levels of testosterone medically lower their testosterone levels, regardless of whether it is medically indicated (Wired, 5/11/19).

If “transgender girls are at the center of America’s culture wars,” they’re not at the center of this Washington Post piece (1/29/21); only one trans girl is quoted, in the article’s very last paragraph.

An earlier prominent Post piece (1/29/21)—”Transgender Girls Are at the Center of America’s Culture Wars, Yet Again”—similarly failed to put those girls at the center of its reporting. The piece featured 11 sources, only one of which was identified as a trans athlete. She was the very last source in the article. More Republican politicians were given space to opine than trans people, giving a platform for transphobic and sexist comments, such as this quote from Tennessee state Rep. Bruce Griffey, whose stake in this matter is that his cisgender daughter plays high school golf: “What if one of the boys is not doing well, so he pretends to be transgender to win?” Or South Dakota Rep. Fred Deutsch: “This is not a hate bill. It’s about biology. It’s science. You can’t change your sex.”

The Post‘s reporting isn’t always quite so cringeworthy. A more recent piece (4/24/21) about the Arkansas law banning gender-affirming healthcare for transgender children focused on the families with trans kids impacted by the law, giving them more space than supporters of the bill—though still, no trans people themselves were quoted.

The only front-page New York Times article (3/29/21) this year about the current trans bill battle, “Why Transgender Girls Are Suddenly the GOP’s Culture-War Focus,” was similar. The subhead re-emphasized the headline’s framing of the issue as “a culture clash”—a craven choice of terms for what is in fact a targeted political attack on the humanity of a group that currently makes up 1–2% of the population. The piece quoted or paraphrased seven individuals or groups; none were trans athletes, and only one—ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio—was identified as transgender, period.

The paper has only covered this year’s legislative campaign four times in print. Notably, two of the pieces have been interviews: one with transgender Virginia state representative Danica Roem (4/17/21), and the other with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (4/8/21), who signed into law bills barring trans girls from playing girls’ sports and allowing doctors to refuse to treat trans patients, then vetoed a bill that would prohibit gender-affirming healthcare for trans kids. (That veto was later overridden by the GOP-dominated legislature, enacting the country’s most extreme anti-trans law so far.)

Though they carried different bylines, it’s hard not to see the two interviews as an editorial attempt at balance—in which a trans lawmaker is balanced by a slightly-less-horrifically-transphobic-than-his-colleagues lawmaker. Trans kids—and the rest of the papers’ readers—deserve much better.


‘Hedge Fund Managers Bleed Companies of Their Capabilities’


Janine Jackson interviewed the Institute for New Economic Thinking’s  Lynn Parramore about hedge funds vs. the Green New Deal for the April 30, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Institute for New Economic Thinking (3/4/21)

Janine Jackson: A new Green New Deal was announced last week, though you might not have noticed based on media coverage. Corporate media coverage of climate change is disorienting, in that journalists acknowledge that it’s happening, it’s life-endingly important; but then when it comes to what to do about this not imminent but already-happening crisis, we go back inside the Beltway again. And Senator So-and-So says, “Any change to our energy systems will kill your job and force you to eat only lettuce.” And that opinion needs “respectful space.”

What if media turned the corner and acknowledged that anyone serious about averting the most devastating impacts accepts that major societal changes have to be made, now; that those who are harmed will need help, and those who continue to harm will need to be shown off the stage? Then we can have necessary conversations about our possible livable future, including naming the actors and the processes that stand between us and the changes we need to make.

One critical piece of that conversation would include realities recently explored by our next guest. Lynn Parramore is senior research analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, and author of the piece, and maybe I’m tipping her hand here, “Meet the ‘New Koch Brothers’–the Hedge Fund Activists Wrecking America’s Green New Deal.” She joins us now by phone from here in town. Welcome to CounterSpin, Lynn Parramore.

Lynn Parramore: Thank you so much for having me.

JJ:  When we think about converting the economy to reflect the realities of climate disruption, we think, “The government should,” and we think, “US companies could.”

LP: Yes.

JJ: So my question is: Who and what stands in the way of what government should, and companies could, do?

LP: Yes, well, there is a group of Wall Street financiers, they are typically called “activist shareholders,” which kind of sounds like maybe it’s a good thing–activism is good, right? But these guys are actually the descendants of the corporate raiders that we used to hear about in the 1980s, who would go in and buy a company, strip it down, fire all the workers and head out with a bunch of cash.

These hedge fund managers of today, and we’re talking about guys like Carl Icahn, they are billionaires many, many times over, very, very powerful men (and I say men, because they seem to be always men). They are able to buy shares of a company, like Apple, say, and then they can start telling the company what to do. They buy the shares, and then they line up proxy votes, and then they might start pressuring the CEO through letters, or maybe on social media, or in other public forums. And they’ll spend millions of dollars putting pressure on the CEOs and executives of a company to do what will enrich the shareholder in the short term.

So what that usually means is something called a “stock buyback.” Now, what is a stock buyback? That’s when a company buys outstanding shares of its own stock, thereby reducing the number of shares, which makes each share worth more money.

JJ: Right.

Lynn Parramore: “The money that the company spent on buying those outstanding shares in the stock buyback could have been used to develop new products, it could have been used for innovation, it could have been used to maintain and attract talent.”

LP: So the hedge fund managers like that. It gives them a quick return: They buy the shares, they force the CEO to do stock buybacks, or they pressure the CEO. And now their shares are worth more and they can dump them, head out of town with a quick bundle of cash, and leave the company to deal with the repercussions.

Now, what are the repercussions for the company? Well, the money that the company spent on buying those outstanding shares in the stock buyback could have been used to develop new products, it could have been used for innovation, it could have been used to maintain and attract talent. All the kinds of things that you want happening in the case of a company that might be able to work with the government on a Green New Deal.

You know, the government can’t just snap its fingers and make electric cars, or semiconductor chips, or all of those products and technologies that are needed to create a sustainable future. It needs big companies with the know-how, the capital investments, to get these things done.

Let me just give you one example: Intel is a company that makes semiconductor chips. You need these for all kinds of computer systems. You would need them to upgrade any electric grid. They’re found in almost everything: your phone, your car, whatever. Not many companies have the capital investment capability to make semiconductor chips. Intel is the one American company that does. The leaders in this industry, actually, are in China, mostly in Taiwan. But the US has Intel.

Any Green New Deal is going to involve semiconductor chips. But Intel, instead of investing in its manufacturing, it has been pressured by a hedge fund manager to use its resources to jack up the stock price, and, actually, it’s been pressured to get rid of its manufacturing arm, and just be a designer of chips, in which case the United States wouldn’t have any company that made semiconductor chips.

So you can see how these hedge fund managers, in the interest of making a quick short-term profit, really bleed companies of their capabilities and their resources, so that they can’t be leaders in technology.

And guess who doesn’t have this problem? China does not have this problem. Its companies don’t do stock buybacks. So Chinese companies are free to use their resources to invest in research and development, pay the talent, create manufacturing plants, do all the things that we wish our companies were doing if they weren’t caught up in these Wall Street games.

JJ: Let me just confirm: All of this is legal; none of this is breaking the law, but it’s still something that…. It’s still not transparent, exactly, you would say. There’s skullduggery, and yet it’s perfectly legal.

LP: Well, it used to be unlawful. Prior to 1982, stock buybacks were considered stock manipulation, and they were not legal.


JJ: But the Reagan administration came in, which was very friendly to Wall Street, and the law was changed.

Now, there are a lot of people—including economist William Lazonick, who has worked on this issue extensively—who think that stock buybacks should be made illegal once again. I happen to agree with that.

And there are more and more people in the political sphere who are beginning to understand this problem. Tammy Baldwin is a very good example. And Biden himself has a pretty good understanding of stock buybacks and the damage they cause. And he, for example, I think would be open to banning companies from doing this kind of Wall Street casino game playing, if they enjoy government contracts in any kind of big Green New Deal project or infrastructure project.

So that’s a start: banning companies from doing it as long as they are partnering with the government, and getting taxpayer money to partner with the government on these projects; that would be a very, very helpful thing.

And, eventually, it would be nice to just ban them altogether, because these stock buybacks really do nothing except pump up the price of stock shares temporarily. It’s really an illusion. A company’s stock price isn’t going up because suddenly it’s making better products or it has some wonderful vision for the future. It’s just a temporary boost that enriches wealthy executives and these hedge fund managers who, again, are already wealthy enough, and they really don’t need another superyacht.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Lynn Parramore, senior research analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Thank you so much, Lynn Parramore, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

LP: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.






‘We Need to Mobilize People Who Don’t Want to Pay Tucker Carlson’s Salary’


Janine Jackson interviewed Free Press’s Tim Karr about defunding Fox News racism for the April 30, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Daily Beast (4/26/21)

Janine Jackson: What hasn’t Tucker Carlson done lately? Earlier this month, the primetime Fox News host touted the white supremacist “great replacement theory.” Democrats, he cried to viewers, are “trying to replace the current electorate” with “new people, more obedient voters from the Third World”: “Every time they import a new voter, I become disenfranchised as a current voter; I have less political power because they are importing a brand new electorate.”

More recently, Carlson encouraged his acolytes:

Your response when you see children wearing masks as they play should be no different from your response to seeing someone beat a kid in Walmart: Call the police immediately. Contact Child Protective Services. Keep calling until someone arrives. What you’re looking at is child abuse, and you are morally obligated to attempt to prevent it.

OK, you, a non-Fox watcher, say: Tucker Carlson is a dangerous humanoid, and I wish he didn’t have a platform for millions of people open to that particular strain of weaponized ignorance. But enough people or sponsors must want it on the air, or it wouldn’t be there.

Well, here to help us see what’s amiss with that idea, and how we could disrupt it, is Tim Karr. He’s senior director of strategy and communications at Free Press, and he wrote the recent piece, “Tucker Carlson’s Racism: Paid For by You.” He joins us now by phone from New Jersey. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Tim Karr.

Tim Karr: Hi, Janine, how are you?

JJ: I’m all right, but boy, you know….

As media critics, we know it’s important to expose the structure, the workings of media, because it’s somewhat hidden, and because so much is predicated on it, you know. “If it didn’t have an audience, it wouldn’t be on your TV, because media is a market, after all”: We know that that is a pervasive, but misleading, idea. When it comes to Tucker Carlson, it’s not that he doesn’t have fans, but what complicates the notion that he’s on my TV because somehow I want him there?

Free Press (4/28/21)

TK: You, like me, might remember the good old days of over-the-air broadcast television, when we got our news and information for free. Unfortunately, at the time, in my childhood, it was only like four or five local television stations. But we’ve now transitioned to this cable era, where we can buy packages that provide us with hundreds of stations. And the economics of that is somewhat complicated, because I think people who don’t watch the Tucker Carlson show don’t realize that, regardless, they’re still paying for Tucker Carlson’s salary.

And what I mean to say by that is that when we purchase a cable package from our provider—whether we have a satellite service; or a cable service, like Comcast; or a fiber service, like Fios by Verizon—we pay a lump sum for a large package of channels. And that money gets distributed to those channels via what’s called carriage fees.

And for Fox News and Fox Television, that is the bulk of their income; last year, they made about $1.6 billion from carriage fees. These are negotiated deals with their cable carriers that we all pay as part of our monthly bill, those of us who are still on cable and satellite pay-TV services, which is the bulk of American viewers. And so it’s a lot of money that we’re paying, an average about $1.72 a month per person that goes to Fox News, even if we don’t like that.

So when I say Tucker Carlson’s racism is paid for by all of us, that’s in fact true. And a lot of people don’t really think about that; they don’t think about the implications of carriage fees, and how—unless we change that system—we’re all complicit in some way in supporting this sort of racism.

Extra! (5/12)

JJ: I think folks would like to know, on hearing that, how can we stop it? And it’s not a new idea to try to stop it. I mean, we’ve been back and forth on this for a while. FAIR’s Peter Hart wrote about  responses to this in 2010, and he was reminding folks that when NewsCorp launched in 1996, they couldn’t charge for Fox News, they had to pay their way onto cable. It was only as they got more political influence, more audience, that they were able to charge—and then triple—these carriage fees that you’re talking about.

And I just want to throw in there one thing that Peter wrote about: Then he was saying, “Why do we have to pay Sean Hannity’s salary?”

TK: Right.

JJ: Same conversation, just a different person. But he noted then–Fox head Rupert Murdoch’s boast that he could name his price with cable operators: “Cancel us, you might get your house burnt down”; that was how Rupert Murdoch described his negotiating strategy.

So all of that just to say, this is not a brand new battlefield. But what are the ideas we’re looking at now to undo this thing where we’re paying for shows that we not only don’t want, but that we really, really don’t want?

TK: There are a couple of ways to address this. And some of the things that people have heard about are these advertiser boycotts that have happened in the past, whenever Tucker Carlson says something inflammatory. There are a lot of good organizations, like Sleeping Giants and others, who’ve mobilized advertiser boycotts, and that has harmed them a little bit. But again, it’s only a smaller piece of the larger pie of income.

So if you really want to look at the problem of carriage fees, and address that, there’s a few things you can do: No. 1, we need to embolden these cable carriers—the cable companies like Comcast and Verizon and AT&T and Spectrum—to be a little more bold, to be a little more forthright in their negotiations with Fox News. If, indeed, the majority of their customers don’t watch Fox News, which is true, why do they feel obligated to pay such high carriage fees? So there is a public pressure campaign that can be very effective.

Another thing that can be done is to promote or advocate for à la carte, which is a cable subscription that allows each viewer to handpick the channels that they want to watch. There is a package of what are called “must-carry channels” that include local television stations; the PEG stations that might cover, say, the local city council hearings; and some public broadcasting stations—but in addition to that, consumers should just be able to handpick, like you would pick from a dim sum menu, perhaps, the stations that you want, and then pay accordingly. There have been a lot of legal hurdles that have been put in place for that  à la carte option.

And another thing that people are doing increasingly is called “cutting the cord.” Cutting the cord means that you take pay-TV services out of your triple play, the package that you buy from a company like Comcast, and you get all of your television “over the top,” via your high-speed internet connection. You then have the opportunity to subscribe to services like Hulu or Netflix, and reassemble your own television experience. There’s still only a small percentage of Americans who’ve chosen the over-the-top, cutting-the-cord option.

So it’s kind of complicated. There are a lot of things that can be done. What we really need to do is mobilize people and educate people who don’t want to pay Tucker Carlson’s salary that there are things that they can do.

JJ: One of the things that you point out in the piece is that, when folks are talking about this, it might be presented as, “Why would you intervene with this radical strategy?” It’s actually…the à la carte idea is something that happens already in other spheres, like stock trading, right?

Tim Karr: “Policies that have been put in place…take choice out of the hands of consumers—whether it’s choice for an internet connection, whether it’s a choice for the type of cable stations that you subscribe to—and they put them in the hands of these large companies.”

TK: That’s right. If you choose mutual funds, you can choose funds that are socially responsible, that, for example, don’t invest in energy extraction companies. Those are all choices that consumers make. And so it’s a little bit backwards. As you know as someone who’s followed media policy for quite some time, a lot of the policies that have been put in place seem really backward; they take choice out of the hands of consumers—whether it’s choice for an internet connection, whether it’s a choice for the type of cable stations that you subscribe to—and they put them in the hands of these large companies, who have far too much control over the ways that we connect and communicate.

So this has been a lifelong effort for me. And the work that we do at Free Press is to try to put the public back into these policy conversations, to make sure that we have control over our media experience.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, when we were talking about  à la carte back in 2010, 2012, one of the things that was part of the conversation was that if you’re in a system where you pick what channels you want—despite what you’re talking about, the must-carry that might include local government and PEG channels—that that might sideline, or make invisible, some smaller or niche channels that might only get out there as part of a package.

TK: Yes.

JJ: And I’m wondering, have we thought about new ways to address that part?

TK: That’s a real concern, because there are a lot of niche stations that cover immigrant communities, that cater to other audiences that rely upon “the bundle” in order to reach, potentially reach, a large audience. And so there are ways that you can manage that, too. There are these ideas about “skinny bundles,” where you actually create these kinds of packages that have a lot of public interest and diverse options in them. But when it comes to the premium stations, and some of the controversial stations like Fox News, they leave that up to the viewer.

One of the things that I’ve advocated for is a hate-free bundle: a bundle where people can pay a fairly standard subscription rate, minus the money that would go to Fox Television, for Fox News, for Fox Business News, for all of the Fox channels; minus the money that might go to One America News Network, or Newsmax, or any of the stations that have been spreading disinformation about the elections, about the Covid response, and fanning the flames of racism.

So that’s potentially something that could happen. We need to gain some momentum in the organizing side to pressure cable companies to do that. I think that getting Congress and the FCC involved could also help persuade them to give these options to consumers.

JJ: And we also are in, finally, an era where it is different than 10, 12 years ago, and I think media consumers are a little more accustomed to proactively seeking out sources that they might not see, and talking to one another about what might be interesting, and sharing in social media around big news outlets. That’s how podcasts get out there.

So I think public education, I just would say, would also be a big way of directing folks’ attention to programming that they might miss if it can’t get [to be] part of one of these bundling things.

TK: And I think, longer term, we also just need to have a reckoning with how we ended up with the media system that we have, where these commercial media outlets—in this case, it’s cable companies colluding with Fox News Channel to push white supremacist content.

I mean, there’s a long history of media being used to victimize impacted communities, Black and brown communities, and we need to reckon with that as well, and to see that a lot of the controversy around carriage fees is rooted in a history of discrimination.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Tim Karr from Free Press; they’re online at Free Press.net. Thank you so much, Tim Karr, for speaking with us this week on CounterSpin.

TK: My pleasure.


If Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Case Is a ‘Non-Issue,’ Why Have Media Gone to Such Lengths to Silence Him?


WHYY (4/24/21)

Philadelphia public broadcaster WHYY (4/24/21) was one of the few outlets to report on an April 24 rally seeking the release from prison of Mumia Abu-Jamal. The story included important information on Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life sentence for the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.

It noted that the case has “drawn scrutiny” over claims of police, prosecutorial and judicial bias and misconduct. It cited new evidence released as part of the appeal process, including a note from a key prosecution witness asking the prosecuting attorney for money—the sort of evidence that Johanna Fernandez, a history professor and part of Abu-Jamal’s legal team, notes has in other instances led to a defendant either being set free or getting an immediate new trial.

Along with Fernandez, the piece includes the voices of Abu-Jamal’s brother, Keith Cook, and MOVE member Pam Africa, as well as people who traveled from around the country to call attention to Abu-Jamal’s case, his current state of health—he has number of debilitating conditions, and has just had heart surgery—and to put his story in a context of political prisoners here and around the world.

I confess I was still irked by WHYY using its lead paragraph to frame the story like this:

The case has pitted Abu-Jamal’s supporters, including a long list of national and international celebrities who say he was framed, against police and their supporters, who resent the attention given to a man convicted of murdering a fellow officer.

It bugs me, because those were the themes decades ago when Abu-Jamal was first convicted and sentenced to death (Voices With Vision, 4/27/21). That he was a “cause celebre”—and therefore, wink wink, something something about liberal Hollywood, no need to pay attention—and that the upset of anyone concerned about his deeply flawed trial or his inappropriate sentencing was merely theatrical, because, after all, he was “convicted,” wasn’t he?

Open to lies

Elite media at the time were open to straight-up lies: A 1995 Washington Post story (5/18/95) led with a macabre account from Faulkner’s widow, Maureen Faulkner, about how when her husband’s bloody shirt was held up in court, Abu-Jamal turned around and smiled at her. Except attorney Leonard Weinglass and the court record show that Abu-Jamal wasn’t in court when the shirt was displayed (Extra! Update, 8/95).

ABC‘s 20/20 (7/11/99) returned to the Mumia Abu-Jamal story with a breathless report of an improbable jailhouse confession (FAIR.org, 8/11/99).

ABC‘s investigative news show 20/20 (12/9/98) employed a number of techniques for their big 1998 piece—stating prosecution claims as fact, even when they were disputed by some of the prosecution’s own witnesses or the forensic record; stressing how a defense witness admitted being intoxicated, while omitting that prosecution witnesses said the same (Extra! Update, 2/99).

At one point, actor and activist Ed Asner is quoted saying, “No ballistic tests were done, which is pretty stupid”—but then host Sam Donaldson’s voiceover cuts him off: “But ballistics test were done,” he says, referring to tests that suggested that the bullet that killed Faulkner might have been the same caliber as Abu-Jamal’s gun. But he didn’t note that tests had not been done to determine whether that gun had fired the bullet, or whether it had been fired at all, or if there were gunpowder residues on Abu-Jamal’s hands.

Producers from People’s Video Network told FAIR at the time (Extra! Update, 2/99) that ABC not only used clips they’d recorded from Abu-Jamal without permission, but they added layers of echo, making him sound, they said, “like a cave-dwelling animal.”

No one was too surprised when it was revealed that in a letter asking permission from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to interview Abu-Jamal (a request that was denied), 20/20 pointed out that “we are currently working in conjunction with Maureen Faulkner and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police” (Extra! Update, 2/99).

The main story has been no story

After that, the main story has been non-coverage.

For instance, in 2006, when Abu-Jamal won the right to appeal on three grounds—including a jury purged of Black people, the prosecutor lowering jurors’ sense of responsibility by saying their decision “would not be final,” and the fact that judge Albert Sabo was all kinds of biased—the Philadelphia Daily News told reporter Dave Lindorff that it was a “non-issue” (Extra!, 3–4/06)—although when a judge overturned the death sentence in 2001, the paper (12/19/01) found time to editorialize: “Let Mumia Rot in Darkness.”

The late great media critic Ed Herman (Extra!, 9–10/00) reported how the Philadelphia Inquirer wouldn’t cover rallies and tribunals in support of Abu-Jamal, calling them “stunts,” but when the Fraternal Order of Police bought a full-page ad in the New York Times, that merited a story.

In 2000, when Amnesty International declared that the original trial was “deeply flawed,” the Inky (2/18/00) made it the fifth “news brief” on page 2B.

But if Mumia Abu Jamal’s case is a non-issue that only celebrities care about, why the active silencing?

NPR‘s Scott Simon (8/19/99) “skillfully provided a brief for the prosecution under the pretense of covering both sides” (Extra!, 11–12/95).

In 1994, NPR cancelled plans for a series of commentaries from Abu-Jamal—who is, after all, a journalist, a former head of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists—after Senator Bob Dole threatened their funding. They said it was because it was a “highly polarized and political controversy”—which they proceeded to say nothing about for the following year (Extra!, 11–12/95).

When Democracy Now! prepared to air commentaries, station KRTI, out of Philadelphia’s Temple University, cancelled the show and all of Pacifica news (Extra! Update, 4/97), with a station VP explaining: “What’s good enough for NPR is good enough for me.”

And when a Vermont college aired a taped commencement address from Abu-Jamal, it led Philadelphia lawmakers to throw together something called the Revictimization Relief Act, allowing crime victims  or prosecutors to sue inmates whose behavior behind bars “creates mental anguish” for the victims. Clearly unconstitutional, violating both free speech and due process rights, it was dubbed the Silencing Act by many, who noted that it didn’t just curtail prisoners’ right to speak, but journalists’ and all of our rights to hear them (FAIR.org, 10/22/14).

Media’s response was a shrug: The New York Times ran an AP piece (10/21/14) with the headline “Pennsylvania: Gov Signs Law to Help Protect Crime Victims.”

Elite media would have us believe they are engaged in a serious reckoning with the racism of the US criminal justice system, that they care about over-incarceration and prison conditions. And keeping people behind bars just because powerful people want them there, and not due to the merits of their case? Well, that’s what Other Countries do.

If only there were a case, 40 years’ worth of case, that would allow them to explore those ideals—if not to do justice by Mumia Abu-Jamal (they can’t return what’s been taken from him), then to do some semblance of justice by their own claims of concern.

It’s Aggression When ‘They’ Do It, but Defense When ‘We’ Do Worse


Aggression, in international politics, is commonly defined as the use of armed force against another sovereign state, not justified by self-defense or international authority. Any state being described as aggressive in foreign or international reporting, therefore, is almost by definition in the wrong.

It’s a word that seems easy to apply to the United States, which launched 81 foreign interventions between 1946 and 2000 alone. In the 21st century, the United States has attacked, invaded or occupied the sovereign states of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Despite the US record, Western corporate media overwhelmingly reserve the word “aggression” for official enemy nations—whether or not it’s warranted. In contrast, US behavior is almost never categorized as aggressive, thereby giving readers a misleading picture of the world.

The Hill (10/3/19)

Perhaps the most notable internationally aggressive act in recent memory was the Trump administration’s assassination of Iranian general and political leader Qassem Soleimani last year. Yet in its long and detailed report on the event, the Washington Post (1/4/20) managed to present Iran as the aggressor. The US was merely “choos[ing] this moment to explore an operation against the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, after tolerating Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf for months,” in the Post’s words.

It also gave space to senior US officials to falsely claim Soleimani was aiming to carry out an “imminent” attack on hundreds of Americans. In fact, he was in Iraq for peace talks designed to bring an end to war between states in the region. The Iraqi prime minister revealed that he had invited Soleimani personally, and had asked for and received Washington’s blessing to host him. Trump instead used that information to kill him.

For months, media had been awash with stories, based on US officials’ proclamations, that Iranian aggression was just around the corner (e.g., Yahoo! News1/2/20; Reuters, 4/12/19; New York Times, 11/23/19; Washington Post, 6/22/19). The Hill (10/3/19) gave a retired general space to demand that we must “defend ourselves” by carrying out a “serious response” against Iran, who is “test[ing] our resolve with aggressive actions.”

New York Times (11/12/20)

Russia is another country constantly portrayed as aggressive. The New York Times (11/12/20) described a US fishing boat’s mix up with the Russian navy off the coast of Kamchatka as typical Russian aggression, complete with the headline, “Are We Getting Invaded?” The Military Times (6/26/20) worried that any reduction in US troops in Germany could “embolden Russian aggression.” And a headline from the Hill (11/14/19) claimed that “Putin’s Aggression Exposes Russia’s Decline.” In the same sentence that publicized a report advocating that NATO expand to take on China directly, the Wall Street Journal (12/1/20) warned of “Russian aggression.” Suffice to say, tooling up for an intercontinental war against another nuclear power was not framed as Western warmongering.

Other enemy states, such as China (New York Times, 10/6/20; CNBC, 8/3/20; Forbes, 3/26/21), North Korea (Atlantic, 11/23/10; CNN, 8/9/17; Associated Press, 3/8/21) and Venezuela (Wall Street Journal, 11/18/05; Fox News, 3/10/14; Daily Express, 9/30/19) are also routinely accused of or denounced for “aggression.”

Corporate media even present the Taliban’s actions in their own country against Western occupation troops as “aggression” (Guardian 7/26/06; CBS News, 11/27/13; Reuters, 3/26/21). The New York Times (11/24/20) recently worried about the Taliban’s “aggression on the battlefield,” while presenting the US—a country that invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and still has not left—as supposedly committed to the “peace process.”

Even as the US has been flying squadrons of nuclear bombers from North Dakota to Iran and back, each time in effect simulating dropping atomic bombs on the country, media have framed this as a “defensive move” (Politico, 12/30/20) meant to stop “Iranian aggression” (Defense One, 1/27/20) by “deter[ring] Iran from attacking American troops in the region” (New York Times, 12/30/20).

Forbes (3/26/21)

In February, President Joe Biden ordered an airstrike on a Syrian village against what the White House claimed were Iran-backed forces. The Department of Defense absurdly insisted that the attack was meant to “deescalate” the situation, a claim that was lamentably uncritically repeated in corporate media, with Politico (2/25/21) writing that “the strike was defensive in nature” and a response to previous attacks on US troops in Iraq. Needless to say, it did not question the legitimacy of American troops being stationed across the Middle East.

That the US, by definition, is always acting defensively and never aggressively is close to an iron law of journalism. The US attack on Southeast Asia is arguably the worst international crime since the end of World War II, causing some 3.8 million Vietnamese deaths alone. Yet in their seminal study of the media, Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (Extra!, 12/87) were unable to find a single mention of a US “attack” on Vietnam. Instead, the war was commonly framed as the “defense” of South Vietnam from the Communist North.

Even decades later, US actions in Vietnam are still often described as a “defense” (e.g., Wall Street Journal, 4/29/05; Christian Science Monitor, 1/22/07; Politico, 10/10/15; Foreign Policy, 9/27/17). In a 2018 autopsy of the conflict headlined “What Went Wrong in Vietnam,” New Yorker staff writer Louis Menand (2/26/18) wrote that “our policy was to enable South Vietnam to defend itself” as the US “tried to prevent Vietnam from becoming a Communist state.” “Millions died in that struggle,” he adds, as if the perpetrators of the violence were unknown.

It was a similar story with the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, which was presented as a defense against “Soviet and Cuban aggression in the Western hemisphere” (San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/26/83).

US News (4/26/21)

There have only been three uses of the phrases “American aggression” or “US aggression” in the New York Times over the past year. All came in the mouths of Chinese officials, and in stories focusing on supposedly aggressive Chinese actions. For example, at the end of a long article warning about how China is “pressing its territorial claims aggressively” from the Himalayas to the South China Sea, in paragraph 28 the Times (6/26/20) noted that Beijing’s priority is “confronting what it considers American aggression in China’s neighborhood.” Meanwhile, two articles (10/5/20, 10/23/20) mention that Chinese disinformation calls the Korean War the “war to resist American aggression and aid Korea”. But these were written off as “visceral” and “pugnacious” “propaganda” by the Times.

Likewise, when the phrase “American aggression” appears at all in other leading publications, it is largely only in scare quotes or in the mouths of groups long demonized in corporate media, such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen (Washington Post, 2/5/21), the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad (Associated Press, 2/26/21) or Saddam Hussein’s generals (CNN, 3/3/03).

The concept of US belligerence is simply not being discussed seriously in the corporate press, leading to the conclusion that the word “aggression” in newspeak means little more than “actions we don’t like carried out by enemy states.”


Tim Karr on Paying for Fox News Racism, Lynn Parramore on Hedge Funds vs. Green New Deal



Fox News‘ Tucker Carlson

This week on CounterSpin: Fox News is a flagship of right-wing disinformation, racism and hatred, and Tucker Carlson is its figurehead. Carlson spews harmful nonsense like it’s his job, which it is, and he gets some $10 million a year from it—but did you know that, if you have cable, you’re paying into that income? We’ll talk about how that works with Tim Karr, senior director of strategy and communications at the group Free Press.

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(image: Institute for New Economic Thinking)

And speaking of pollution: Polluting companies tell us every day how they’re invested in the future; we’ve heard corporations en masse say, “Profits, what? We’re all about the people now!” There’s a certain amount of people-who-make-the-problem-pretending-they’re-the-solution that we can  see through, but there’s still plenty going on behind the scenes. We’ll talk with Lynn Parramore, senior research analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, about how hedge funds get in the way of the big changes all kinds of companies need to make to fight climate disruption.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at press coverage of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

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‘Laws Targeted at Trans Youth Are Stigmatizing, Are Harmful’



Janine Jackson interviewed the Williams Institute’s Christy Mallory about anti–trans youth bills for the April 23, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Washington Post (4/7/21)

Janine Jackson: Arkansas recently became what media ominously call the “first” state to ban gender-affirming healthcare for transgender kids—state legislators overriding Governor Asa Hutchinson’s veto to do so. Hutchinson, Paul Waldman noted in the Washington Post, is “no hero of compassion and equality”; he had just signed a bill to prevent transgender girls in the state from playing school sports consistent with their identities.

Both of those measures are part of a spate of anti-trans legislative campaigns around the country, efforts that can have devastating impacts—whether or not they can be easily identified as Republican efforts to scare change-averse folks into voting, and, in fact, whether or not they ever become law.

Here to talk about what’s happening is Christy Mallory, Renberg senior scholar and legal director at the Williams Institute, based at UCLA. She joins us now by phone from Los Angeles. Welcome to CounterSpin, Christy Mallory.

Christy Mallory: Thank you so much for having me.

JJ: Listeners may have heard something about bans on trans girls and women from doing school or club sports with same-gender peers, in part because that was covered in sports sections. The ban on getting trans kids gender-affirming healthcare could be said to be even more fundamental, but really, they’re part and parcel; they’re part of the same campaign. Would you tell us about the scope and the aspects of this wave of legislative targeting of transgender people?

CM: Yeah, we really are seeing a wave of these anti-trans bills. It’s exactly how you’ve just characterized it. And, really, for the most part, these bills target and single out transgender youth specifically. We’re talking about trans kids and their participation in school, in sports, in getting medical care.

This is a little bit of a change from what we saw a few years ago. I don’t know if people remember what happened in North Carolina with the now-infamous HB2 there, the law that tried to limit restroom access for transgender people. That bill was focused on access in buildings more broadly, government buildings, so that would have applied to adults as well as youth. But now we’re seeing these bills that specifically target youth. And, like you said, they come in a variety of forms. The strategy has morphed into one where there are these different approaches being taken.

You described the athlete bans, but these other gender-affirming care bills, they limit access to gender-affirming healthcare, medical care, for transgender youth specifically. We’re seeing a lot of these proliferating throughout the country, just like the athlete bans. In total, there’s been over 100 anti-trans bills introduced in state legislatures this year.

JJ: There’s a bill in North Carolina that’s going to require that any teacher or public school official immediately notify in writing each of the minor’s parents, guardians or custodians, if a minor exhibits gender nonconformity—that’s North Carolina. We have a bill that requires parents give written consent for teachers to discuss gender identity. And another bill that says that any time you talk about gender identity in the classroom, you have to also include “the potential harm and adverse outcomes of social and medical gender interventions.”

This is a lot of things that are all aiming at the same thing, and the same thing seems to be dehumanization. People can be confused about what these laws say they’re saying; there’s not a lot of confusion about what the impacts of these laws would be.

CM: Yes, I think that’s a great point. The impacts of these laws, again targeted at trans youth, are stigmatizing; they’re harmful. I just want to point out here what a lot of our research done at Williams Institute, and research done by other scholars, has shown: that, of course, we can see that these bans—and we’ve studied this—can harm trans youth when they pass.

That is, if a gender-affirming care bill passes, meaning a trans kid can no longer get access even to care that they’ve already been getting—they have to stop care, or won’t be able to get needed care in the future—that has a devastating impact on those kids who can’t get what’s been provided as treatment and medical care. So that’s one aspect of this.

Or kids participating in sports, and then are told they can’t be on their sports teams with their friends, with these teammates that they’ve built a relationship with, coaches they build a relationship with.

But there’s also some harm that comes even when the bills don’t pass. Like you mentioned, a few of these are passing. We see, though, many also die or are vetoed, have other consequences. But the point is, even the campaigns, the messaging around these bills, the hostility that state legislators, these elected government officials, display as they hear the bills against trans youth—that is all incredibly stigmatizing as well. And even those activities, even when the bill doesn’t pass, can really take a toll on the mental health of these kids and their families.

AAP News (3/9/21)

JJ: The American Academy of Pediatrics, along with all kinds of medical organizations and school counselors, they’re out there saying that these anti-trans bills—all of them, but especially the ones opposing gender-affirming healthcare, which involves hormone blockers and different things that young folks might be doing, particularly, when they are reaching puberty—these doctors are saying that these bills are going to hurt kids.

They’re saying it because they know the difference between science and myth, but I think they’re also saying it because they understand the difference between human beings and arguments. We’re talking about human beings here. And sometimes media coverage, and sometimes the way policymakers talk about it, makes it sound as though it’s theoretical.

CM: Yeah, that’s right. We’re seeing the professional medical associations, doctors, come forward and say, “This care is right, based on science, based on research, based on treatments that have been used for a long time now.” And that really also gets into what was the reason for the veto in Arkansas, too, was this reluctance to have the legislature interfere with medical decision making between a provider and their patient.

JJ: A lot of this legislation is at the state level, right? So I’m just wondering, in terms of response, is there a place for the federal government here? What do you think about that aspect of where the response can happen?

CM: We’re in a really interesting moment with the federal government. As listeners may know, last year the Supreme Court issued a decision in a case called Bostock v. Clayton County, and in that decision, the court was interpreting Title VII, which is the federal employment nondiscrimination law. And that law prohibits discrimination based on sex; it doesn’t explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation, but it does prohibit discrimination based on sex.

So what the court was deciding there was to determine whether that law, as written, also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as forms of sex discrimination. So this was an argument that had been percolating in the lower courts for a number of years, and many lower courts, including federal courts of appeals, had said, “Yes, laws that prohibit discrimination based on sex also include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” And the Supreme Court last year agreed with that outcome.

So what does this mean? This means that Title VII, the federal civil rights law that prohibits employment discrimination, now prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as well. That decision was specific to Title VII, but we see a lot of other laws that are structured just like Title VII, and Title IX is one of these laws.

Title IX, as I’m sure people know, prohibits discrimination based on sex in schools. So right now, we’re in a place where courts are increasingly beginning to interpret that law to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. That had already started before the Bostock Title VII decision, but is now even picking up more steam because courts, when they interpret Title IX, frequently look to Title VII case law.

Christy Mallory: “We have a situation where federal law is prohibiting these types of discrimination, but state law is mandating these types of discrimination.”

So we’re expecting this to continue. We’re expecting courts to continue to say, “Yes, Title IX prohibits discrimination against transgender students.” And they will increasingly find this, and laws that discriminate against trans students in schools—particularly these athlete bans—will likely fall.

We’re also seeing a shift in the administration’s approach to these issues. The Trump administration had taken the position that Title IX does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Biden administration has now reversed that position and says, “Yes, Title IX does prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, so protects trans students.”

We recently saw guidance to this effect come out of the Department of Justice, and we’re expecting more rules and regulations on this issue. So now we have a situation where federal law is prohibiting these types of discrimination, but state law is mandating these types of discrimination, so there’s also this tension there.

JJ: Yes.

CM: We also saw this come up in Idaho, when they passed their athlete ban last year, and it was challenged very quickly in court, and then was enjoined by a federal judge there in the state. Again, this is another issue, there’s tension: These laws, especially these athlete bans, are likely invalid under federal law. So we expect more court cases to come up. These court cases are expensive to defend. I mean, this is taxpayer money; this is time of state governments, administrative agencies, that are already spread very thin. And so I think that’s something else the states have to keep in mind: Is this worth fighting, given the climate and legal landscape?

JJ: I just want to bring you, finally, to media, because I think the fact that the battlefield is legal affects the way that media interpret these stories, and the way they convey this information to the public.

New York Times (3/29/21)

And I want to say, I think it’s meaningful that media are talking about, for example, the rights of “transgender girls,” they’re using that term; because, after all, the premise of much of the legislation is that there’s no such thing as a transgender girl, there’s just a kid who is sick or confused or something. So media are making a certain kind of statement by using proper language. I don’t see reporting giving a great deal of credence to anti-science, anti-medical, anti-trans arguments.

However, because as a news event, it’s a story about partisan lawmaking, it’s still getting framed as a “debate” or as a “culture clash.” So media are still treating the idea of “trans people’s humanity is debatable” as debatable, if you know what I’m saying.

And I kind of want to see what’s around the next corner, where journalists just treat trans people as human beings, and treat any legislative efforts to say something else as what they are. But part of the concern, again, is that if efforts lose in court, that media will present it as somehow meaningful, rather than a need to fight more.

CM: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. Of course the media play a huge role here, because the media obviously just reach so many more people than a decision coming out of a court, or even a vote on a bill by a state legislature; that stuff alone isn’t getting spread out without the amplification by the media. I think it’s really important that the media treat these issues with respect, even when reporting factually on the outcome of a case, or what happens with a bill.

That involves, like you said before, really keeping in mind that these are people, these are kids; ensuring, for example, that the correct names are being used; ensuring that the correct pronouns are being used; ensuring that there’s not information that would compromise children’s privacy getting out into the public sphere. In many cases, these kids don’t ask to be in the spotlight; they are just thrust there, because they’re part of these national debates that do get a lot of media attention and public attention.

So I think those are just important things to keep in mind as the reporting goes forward and as we see more attention to these bills, both from the public and from state government lawmakers, federal government lawmakers, and everybody else.

And I think one thing to add to that, too, is just the importance of providing context for this in the reporting. You know, many people don’t know that it’s not, right now, against the law in most states to discriminate against transgender people in public accommodations, for example, and other areas of life. So having that background context is also really important.

And that’s the legal landscape in many of these states that are advancing these anti-trans bills. So they’re coming in states that already don’t have supportive laws for trans people. And I think that’s important to remember, is just the entire legal landscape and how it affects trans people in particular.

And the one last point I want to make, too—which ties back to my earlier point about just how stigmatizing campaigns can be for people, and how they in themselves can take a toll on mental health—is when the media report on these bills, that’s getting to the families who are affected by these issues. And ensuring that they’re respected and treated as people can help reduce that stigmatization and the harmful effects of hearing all of this anti-trans language, hearing people that are government leaders say bad things about them. So I think the media do play a role here, and there’s a way to do it very respectfully and ensure protections for trans kids without compromising the media goals and respecting the facts.

JJ: Absolutely. We’ve been speaking with Christy Mallory, she’s legal director at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. Thank you so much, Christy Mallory, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

CM: Yes, of course. Thank you so much.









‘It’s Important Americans Don’t Take for Granted They Can Exercise Their First Amendment Rights’

Janine Jackson interviewed the International Center for Not-for-Profit-Law’s Elly Page about anti-protest legislation for the April 23, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Brookings Institution (7/8/20)

Janine Jackson: The guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin case did not leave things as settled as some would like to hope. But one thing was made clear: the power of protest. There is simply no way the prosecution of a police officer for the on-duty killing of a Black man would have gone so far without millions upon millions of people, around this country and the world, going out into the street. Some reckon protests over George Floyd’s murder were the largest in this country’s history, and the most diverse—and that’s why some are eager to shut that down.

Listeners may know about Florida’s HB1, what Gov. Ron DeSantis claims is a law to crack down on “agitators.” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of state and federal efforts to prevent US citizens from doing what we all know we will only be doing more and more of: coming together publicly, using our numbers to fight for societal change.

Elly Page is senior legal advisor at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law and founder of ICNL’s US Protest Law Tracker, which is just what it sounds like. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Elly Page.

Elly Page: Thanks, Janine.

JJ: Let’s leap right in. The tracker launched in 2016, I’m guessing for reasons, and I’m guessing also that the reasons have only increased since then. What are the sorts of things that you are seeing that concern you?

EP: Yeah, so thanks. We have been, as you say, tracking these anti-protest laws and bills for over four years now. And, really, what we’ve seen since this last summer is a distinct escalation from prior years. We’ve seen over 90 bills introduced in 35 states, since last summer and the killing of George Floyd, that would restrict or chill the right to peacefully assemble and protest. It’s an unprecedented number, both in terms of the number of bills that have been introduced and the extreme lengths they go to to repress protests and discourage people from turning out.

JJ: Let’s talk a little bit about more of that. The degree they go to, it’s partly the way they define “riot,” the way they define “violence,” but it’s also like the extension of what is going to be a crime. Talk a little bit more about that.

Elly Page: “These bills…use vague, sweeping language to define new criminal offenses, or redefine existing ones, related to conduct that may occur during a protest.”

EP: Absolutely, yeah. A common thread throughout these bills is that they use vague, sweeping language to define new criminal offenses, or redefine existing ones, related to conduct that may occur during a protest.

So we’ve seen bills targeting “taunting” police in Ohio and Kentucky. The new law in Florida that contains this new criminal offense around mob intimidation, which is sweepingly defined—you only need three people who are trying to get another person to do something, or to have a particular viewpoint, which sounds a lot like any kind of protest, where you’re trying to convince someone to do or think differently. Broad prohibitions on inciting or encouraging or aiding unlawful assemblies; obviously those cast a wide net.

And in many cases, these new bills and laws are relying on states’ existing definitions of “rioting,” which, in almost all states, are already very broadly defined in ways that can capture a completely peaceful protest. In many cases, you only need a small number of people, whereas most of us conceive of a “riot” as kind of a large group. In most instances, you don’t actually have to cause any damage or injure anyone for it to be a riot; you only need to pose a threat or a danger of something, property being damaged or someone being injured. This is one of the many ways that these sweeping definitions can cover, again, completely peaceful, nonviolent protest activity.

JJ: The problem that I think a lot of folks could see is the broad sweep of it. And yet at the same time—it’s not a “but,” it’s an “and”—and at the same time, we see that they’re actually specifically targeted. Florida’s law is about Black Lives Matter; it’s not about January 6, you know? We know that there are particular targets, and we shouldn’t pretend we don’t know.

EP: Right. And that’s something that we’ve seen, time and time again in this tracking project, that lawmakers are really introducing these anti-protest initiatives in the aftermath of distinct protest movements. And it’s often clear from the text of the bills themselves, as well as from what lawmakers say, what they’re targeting. And that’s true of, certainly, this wave of legislation.

International Center for Non-Profit Law

I mean, you have bill after bill clearly targeting protests that take place in the streets, over 40 bills that would increase the penalty for protests that block traffic. You have, I think, 15 or so that include provisions that create new protections for drivers who hit protesters with their cars. You have provisions that target protests where there’s even nominal damage, like graffiti or even chalking, of public property, including monuments.

So all these anti-protest provisions are often accompanied by provisions that would penalize local governments that try to decrease the budget for their police departments, sort of anti- defund the police provisions. It’s easy to say that the target of these bills is pretty clear.

JJ: I know that another aspect that you look at is the methods, just the gear, the incentivization to use that gear, the militarization, you know. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that, which of course has a direct impact on all the things we’re talking about.

EP: Yeah, absolutely. I think, as Americans saw last summer, it’s not just about the law, it’s very much about the way the law is enforced. And we saw very clearly last summer, the way many of our police departments have been militarized, have access to military-grade weaponry, and how that has been used, oftentimes overly aggressively, in response to protesters.

And we certainly have seen legislative attempts going in the opposite direction, that would try to make it harder, that would try to stop that pipeline of military-grade equipment. Yes, that’s right.

JJ: I think folks are careful around the language of “reform,” you know? I think a lot of folks are ready for a conversation about what “public safety” really means, and really a bigger vision.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t material change that could happen that could be meaningful, that could maybe keep somebody alive. And I’m wondering what you see, legislatively, as a response to the problems you track. Statewide, federalwide, what do you see as pushback on this wave of legislation?

St. Louis Post-Dispatch photo of police in Ferguson firing tear gas (photo: David Carson).

EP: Fortunately, we have seen initiatives, most often at the municipal level, that are trying to better protect protesters in some instances. So we’ve seen lots of proposals to restrict  the use of so-called “less lethal weapons,” such as tear gas, projectiles, rubber bullets, these kinds of things. We have seen attempts, both at the local and federal level, again, addressing this issue of local police departments’ access to military-grade weapons. There was a lot of concern last summer about the deployment of federal agents to respond to local protests.

And so there are initiatives ongoing at the federal level to address that as well, and restrict the ability of federal agents to intervene in certain circumstances in a protest that’s completely local.

JJ: I know that your work also involves an international focus, and I think it’s interesting that, for a lot of US citizens, the idea is that the United States, you know, “We have so much freedom we export it. We model it around the world. We’re the shining city on the hill.”

Americans don’t often see themselves as existing in an international context. But in terms of free speech, or civil liberties, what would someone with a global perspective on this set of issues say to that, in 2021, in terms of the US seeing itself as a model of free expression?

EP: Yeah, I think it’s really important that Americans don’t take these freedoms for granted, and don’t take for granted that they can freely exercise their First Amendment rights and protest. Working internationally, we’ve seen how using restrictive laws to suppress protests is really a favorite tactic of governments that are trying to minimize and repress dissent around the world. So whether that’s in Russia, or in Egypt, or in Hong Kong, when governments are looking to disrupt or suppress opposition movements, banning or restricting protests is one of the first tools they reach for.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Elly Page, legal advisor at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. You can find them and the US Protest Law Tracker online at ICNL.org. Elly Page, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

EP: Great, thank you for having me.



‘Some of Our Most Profitable Companies Are Not Contributing to Our Basic Needs’


Janine Jackson interviewed Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s Amy Hanauer about corporate tax avoidance for the April 16, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.


ITEP (4/2/21)

Janine Jackson: You probably aren’t surprised to learn that Zoom made a lot of money this past year, though the fact that their profits rose more than 4,000% is remarkable. It seems like textbook capitalism: The company sold a better mousetrap, or at least a more popular one.

What, though, do we do with the fact that on its $660 million take, Zoom paid zero in federal taxes? What textbook is that from?

They aren’t alone, of course; at least 55 of the country’s largest corporations paid no federal income taxes, according to new research. They’ve figured out a game, but it’s us that are getting played—not just as individuals, who have to pay our own taxes, but as a country that is constantly claiming that we can’t afford various social goods, while handing billions of dollars back to companies whose profits are, after all, ultimately built on individuals and on social goods.

Joining us now to talk about that problem is Amy Hanauer. She’s executive director at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, as well as Citizens for Tax Justice. She joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Amy Hanauer.

Amy Hanauer: Thank you so much, Janine. It’s great to be here.

JJ: “Them that’s got shall get” is an old story, but it’s still wrong, and galling. These companies are making money hand over fist. So what’s going on? What are they doing to get out of paying federal taxes?

Amy Hanauer: “we have a corporate tax code that is just riddled with loopholes that enable companies like this to get away with avoiding taxes.”

AH: Yeah; thank you so much for that question. You’re right. My organization, Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, found that 55 of the largest Fortune 500 and S&P 500 corporations paid zero in taxes despite being profitable in 2020. And, together, those 55 companies had $40.5 billion in income. If you looked at our statutory tax rate of 21%, you would think that they would have paid $8.5 billion, but instead they actually got $3.5 billion in rebates.

And your question is, how? Well, we have a corporate tax code that is just riddled with loopholes that enable companies like this to get away with avoiding taxes, in ways that really leave regular people responsible for a larger share of our tax payments, and leave us unable to pay for the things that our communities need.

JJ: Well, that’s the question. It sounds like unfairness; it is unfairness. But is it illegal?

AH: That’s a great question. And should you blame their accountants and their lawyers, or should you blame Congress? And I think the responsibility lies clearly with the lawmakers who have created a tax code that enables this kind of avoidance.

So we have a handful of tax loopholes that companies can use. One is, we have an unequal tax rate between profits earned overseas and profits earned here domestically. If that were made the same, a lot of this tax avoidance could be stopped in its tracks.

We have ways of compensating executives with stock options that enable companies to tell their stockholders that they’re highly profitable and earning one thing, but then allow them to tell the IRS that they are far less profitable and earning less, and reduce what they pay in taxes as a result.

So there are just a whole bunch of these kinds of loopholes. And I think it rests clearly with Congress and the president to close these loopholes and get a more rational tax system in place.

JJ: I wanted to just say, ITEP’s findings on corporate tax avoidance are based on available data, because the secrecy is rather the point, and that’s part of the problem also, right?

AH: That’s right. And, of course, you at FAIR have looked at this kind of issue for a long time. But we could have more transparency. We could require, particularly for those overseas earnings, we could do a lot more to say that these corporations have to divulge more to the American public.

And I think a related issue is that we could just do a lot more to empower the Internal Revenue Service to be able to enforce the tax code, because they are underfunded, and every dollar that the IRS gets results in much more than a dollar in returns to the American people. So we could be more transparent, and we could do a better job of enforcing even the laws that we have, as well as fixing these laws.

JJ: Let me ask you a question about history. I know that ITEP has been measuring this for decades. So it didn’t start with Trump, right? And also, there have been efforts to fix it, these loopholes, and how has that fared? Can you tell us a little bit about the history on this?

AH: The fact is that this has been a problem for a long time, under administrations of both parties, and it also got a lot worse with the Trump tax regime. So of the 55 corporations that paid nothing, there are another 26—a 26-corporation subset of those—that have actually paid no taxes if you take all three years of the Trump tax regime combined. And the reason is that the Trump tax law lowered the tax rate, it failed to close loopholes, and it actually made the problem of overseas tax avoidance worse in a way that they said they were going to make it better. So it has been a problem under both parties, but it certainly got worse with the Trump tax law. And I think that’s where we see some potential promise for reform going forward.

JJ: Let’s talk about that. Are there things concretely that could be done now? And we understand that sometimes, you know, one measure, and then another measure, and then another—it doesn’t have to necessarily be a sweeping thing. But are there things that could be done right now?

AH: Absolutely. As I mentioned, we think we ought to equalize the tax rate between profits earned offshore and profits earned domestically. There’s no reason why a corporation should be able to move jobs overseas, or move equipment overseas, and then pay a lower tax rate.

There’s another challenge with depreciation, where corporations are able to write off a lot of the costs of their equipment, and they’re able to write it off very quickly—and that’s another thing that the Trump tax law made worse. We think we ought to be able to depreciate equipment at the rate that it actually wears out, and that that’s a much more rational way of doing things.

And then, as I mentioned, we could end the tax break for stock options that enables corporations to say they earn one thing to their shareholders and say something different to the American government.

So there are all of these fixes out there. And I think, actually, the Biden administration is taking quite a few of these on, in ways that are pretty encouraging, and that would be kind of a generational shift, Janine, that would be different from anything that I think we’ve seen in a long time of looking at these issues.

JJ: Is there anything you would call on reporters to maybe dig into more deeply, or to jettison as frameworks? Or is there anything you would like to shift in terms of media’s way of addressing this set of issues?

AH: Yeah, absolutely. The Biden plan raises the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%; that will make a difference. And I know there’s negotiations with some members of Congress, and of the Senate, that may change that.

He also raises the offshore tax rate. He doesn’t equalize it, which is what my researchers recommend; but he does raise it about halfway back up. So the offshore tax rate will be 21% and the overall tax rate will be 28%.

And the other really great thing that I think the Biden plan does is it just simply imposes a minimum tax, so that if your accountants and attorneys are able to identify a bunch of loopholes, you still, as a corporation, would pay a minimum tax of 15% on your book profits. So we think that would make a big, big difference. And we definitely think it’s a ripe area for reporters to explore, because one of the challenges with our tax code is that most people don’t understand it very well, including many members of Congress.

So it’s exciting that the Biden administration wants to take this on. I think that they really get that just looking around, looking at the problems that we’ve had in the United States over the past year, and then recognizing that some of our very most profitable corporations are not contributing to our basic needs—that just doesn’t add up, doesn’t seem right.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Amy Hanauer from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and Citizens for Tax Justice. You can find them online at ITEP.org and CTJ.org. Amy Hanauer, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

AH: Janine, it was great to talk to you.

‘The System for Building Wealth Is Designed for White Wealth’


Janine Jackson interviewed Emory University’s Dorothy A. Brown about racist tax policy for the April 16, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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(Crown, 2021)

Janine Jackson: The centuries-old expression about nothing being certain except death and taxes reflects a general belief that these things are universal, and come to us all despite apparent differences. It’s not true, of course, and being a critical thinker today means reckoning with supposedly neutral systems whose disparate impacts on different people are not accidental. We like to think of law as something that exists somewhere, and we just find it and apply it, when, in reality, law is something created and forged for purpose, and sometimes you can still see the fingerprints.

In the United States today, the median white family—not average, but median: half above, half below—has a net worth (that’s a weird term that means wealth or assets minus debts or liabilities) eight times that of the median Black family. That’s the same gap as 40 years ago, despite gains that Black people have made in income and education and all of the things that you do to accrue wealth.

So what’s going on, and what does it have to do with our system of taxation? Dorothy A. Brown is Asa Griggs Candler professor of law at Emory University School of Law, and author of the new book The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans—and How We Can Fix It; it’s out last month from Crown. She joins us now by phone from Atlanta. Welcome to CounterSpin, Dorothy Brown.

Dorothy A. Brown: Thanks so much for having me.

JJ: Let’s first say, Black people are underpaid, and are shuttled into work sectors that are underpaid. But your focus is not employment income—how much money comes in—but tax policy, which is completely related, but it’s not the same, right?

DAB: That’s right. So, how much income we have helps inform how much we owe in taxes. But what my research showed is when Black and white Americans engage in the same activity—whether it’s work, whether it’s owning a home, whether it’s getting married, whether it’s paying for college—tax policies subsidize the way white Americans engage in the activity, while disadvantaging the way Black Americans engage in the activity.

JJ: So let’s just get into that a little more: What are some of the ways that that works, that that happens?

DAB: We can start with what you talked about, with jobs. So we know that there’s occupational segregation, right? Some jobs are disproportionately filled by white Americans, and other jobs are disproportionately filled by Black Americans.

But there are tax subsidies associated with jobs. Think employer-provided retirement accounts: Any money that the employer puts in a retirement account, any money you put in a retirement account, is not taxed today, even though it’s wage income. It will be taxed later, when you retire and withdraw the amount. And presumably, in 20, 30, 40 years, when you retire, you won’t be working, and the amount of income taxes you pay on that retirement amount will be less.

JJ: Right.

DAB: Right? If you were to take the money today, add it to your other wage income, you’d be paying higher taxes. So it’s a big tax break.

Well, what we know are jobs that are disproportionately held by white Americans are more likely to come with retirement benefits. But even when a Black American is fortunate enough to get such a job, we are less likely to participate and contribute to that benefit, and if we are able to participate in that retirement account, we’re more likely to withdraw an amount early that’s subject to a tax penalty.

So how does this happen? Research shows Black college graduates are more likely to send money to their parents or grandparents to help them pay for necessities, whereas white college graduates are more likely to receive money from their parents and grandparents that can help them with a down payment for a home, pay for K-12 private school for their children. So that even if, miraculously, we were to find a white American and a Black American making the same amount—we know that doesn’t happen, right, because of wage discrimination in the labor market…

JJ: Right.

DAB: …but even if we find that, the Black worker, because their parents and grandparents suffered under Jim Crow, is going to be more likely to have less after-tax dollars, because they’re going to send some money home.

JJ: You know, Jeremie Greer from the Corporation for Enterprise Development, told me, “Income helps you get by, but wealth helps you get ahead,” and allows you to think about the future. And it’s so critical. And if you don’t have to think of it that way, well then, you don’t think of it that way.

DAB: That’s right, that’s right.

JJ: Ok so, “That’s just the law,” is what we would hear. And yet, we see corporations write tax law favorable to themselves. We see Congress carve out exceptions or offer rebates for specific individual companies, like, it looks like sausages being made. And yet we’re somehow disinclined to think that that corruption and cronyism might include systemic racism.

Dorothy A. Brown: “The notion that you have to have a law say, ‘We discriminate against Black people,’ before we can find the law actually discriminates against Black people, defies logic and history.”

DAB: Absolutely. And part of the problem is the IRS doesn’t collect or publish statistics based on race. So people can walk around saying, “Tax law is colorblind,” because when you go to the IRS statistics, it has nothing up there dealing with race.

In fact, I’ve been writing in this area for a couple of decades, and the typical white tax law professor ignores what I say, or pushes back or marginalizes what I say, because their response is, “There’s nothing in the code about race, there’s nothing in tax law about race,” which ignores the disparate impact based on race.

We’ve seen this in Georgia, with voting rights. There’s nothing in the Republican-passed legislation, that’s going to make it harder for Black people to vote, that says, “Black people, we want it to be harder for you to vote.”

JJ: Right.

DAB: But we all know that’s going to be the impact, and that that was the intent behind the law. So the notion that you have to have a law say, “We discriminate against Black people,” before we can find the law actually discriminates against Black people, defies logic and history.

JJ: And everyone—“everyone,” I use the term loosely—but people agree that Black people are behind, are disadvantaged, whatever their explanation for that is. But then when it comes time to intervene, to allow—not help, but allow—to stop preventing Black people getting ahead, it becomes a whole different conversation, that’s about the intervention and its unfairness. And I just wanted to ask you: Why have previous policy responses failed to adequately address the wealth gap? And then, what sort of responses could?

DAB: So we have a lot of research on the wealth gap, and we have proposals for how to address it, but part of the problem is, you have the left and the right seeing different causes of it. And I have quarrels with both. The left sees this mainly as a function of historical discrimination that is brought into the 21st century; the right sees it as bad behavior on the part of Black Americans, right?

JJ: Mmm-mm.

DAB: So the left gets it wrong in this instance: Yes, it was historical discrimination, but the reason why wealth doesn’t work the same way for white Americans as Black Americans today is because of choices white people make.

So let’s take homeownership: Most white homeowners live in neighborhoods with very few Black Americans. That’s how they like it. That’s what the research shows. So progressive whites who live in neighborhoods with virtually no Black neighbors are part of why homeownership builds more wealth for white Americans than Black Americans, because Black Americans typically live in racially diverse or all-Black neighborhoods, and the homes are not valued as greatly as the exact same home in an all-white neighborhood.

JJ: Mmm-mm.

DAB: Why? Because white prospective homebuyers don’t want to live in those neighborhoods, so they’re not valued as high. So that’s not historical discrimination; that’s 21st century today discrimination by white homeowners.

JJ: Right.

DAB: On the other side, we have the right that says, “Well, Black people just need to act more like white people.” We need to get married; we need to buy homes. I’ve already told you why buying a home isn’t the ticket to wealth for Black Americans the way it is white Americans.

But getting married: My research shows that when white people get married, they’re more likely to get a tax cut. How? Because the tax law favors married couples with one single wage earner—one person who works in the paid labor market, the other person who works at home—that couple gets a tax cut. Couples like my parents (my mother was a nurse, my father was a plumber), they made roughly equal amounts: They don’t get a tax cut—and for decades, they paid higher taxes.

So you have conservatives saying, “Black people, you just need to get married.” And my research shows, well, when we do, we don’t get a tax cut.

So part of the road to a solution is really understanding the problem. And one of the key pieces that I make in my book is the system of America for building wealth is designed for white wealth. It’s designed for how white Americans engage in their activities, whether it’s marriage or buying a home, in a way that Black Americans simply cannot replicate. And until we come to terms with our racist wealth-building system, no solution is going to fix it.

JJ: Let me ask you, finally, you’ve been working on this for a while, and you’ve seen the interest in the topic, or even the belief that it is a topic, shift.

DAB: [laughing] Yes.

Businessweek (3/10/21)

JJ: After George Floyd’s murder, you say in this Bloomberg Businessweek piece from March, “Suddenly people wanted to talk about race and tax.” I don’t want you to burn any bridges with reporters, but I am curious, when you talk to media, where do you have to start? Do you find people disbelieving? Are they ready to see that this is real? And it doesn’t have to be media, but just the general public—do you feel like the moment is right to push this forward?

DAB: I do, and I will say this: Post–George Floyd, the reporters who have called me have been terrific, and have been in a listening mode; they have not been in an argumentative mode. Pre–George Floyd, white reporters that I’ve talked to, that I’ve tried to talk to about race, have been very dismissive. And they’re different people; those people did not come back to me post–George Floyd, right? The people who came to me were all new white reporters who I hadn’t talked to before, who actually saw the moment and wanted to get better informed. So that’s kind of heartening, to be honest with you. I haven’t had the pushback.

And I will say, over the years, the audiences that gave me the most comfort were the general public audiences. They were hungry for what I had to say, and curious, and were listening and attentive. It would be white academics who didn’t want to hear anything I had to say. So the general public has always been an encouragement for me in doing this work.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Dorothy A. Brown, Asa Griggs Candler professor of law at Emory University School of Law. The book is The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans—and How We Can Fix It; it’s out now from Crown. Thank you so much, Dorothy Brown, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

DAB: Thanks for having me.

Elly Page on Anti-Protest Bills, Christy Mallory on Targeting Trans Youth


This week on CounterSpin: It’s not hard to see—indeed, it’s hard not to see—how the initial Minneapolis police department account of George Floyd’s death,  “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction,” would have been the last word were it not for intervening factors: One was the witnessing of teenager Darnella Frazier—whose historical act deserves a serious responsive effort to protect and respect citizen reporters, and to fight racist policing—more so than pats on the head like that from the Washington Post‘s Margaret Sullivan about her “pure…motivations” and “moral core.”

And another being the unprecedented multi-racial protests Floyd’s murder kicked off. If the verdict is testament to the power of protest, so too are the vigorous efforts to squelch that power. We’ll talk about that with Elly Page, legal advisor at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law and founder of their US Protest Law Tracker.

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Also on the show: After the Supreme Court ruled last summer that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status, the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin wrote, “While we might be slow in getting there and are diverted time and again, Americans can eventually be prevailed upon to come down on the side of fairness, equality, inclusion and simple human decency.” The notion that civil rights just expand naturally without struggle—and that justice delayed is, you know, fine—isn’t serving trans kids as right-wing legislators target them at the state level. We’ll hear from Christy Mallory, legal director at the Williams Institute, based at UCLA School of Law.

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Sunday Shows Hit Snooze on Climate Alarm


In a year dominated by coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, one might expect other topics to fall lower on the media’s priority list. But the climate crisis has not lessened in intensity; on the contrary, the urgency of addressing it increases each year. (Not to mention that climate change is an important driver of increased disease outbreaks like the current pandemic.) News media must be capable of covering two emergencies at the same time.

Their failure to do so reached shocking levels last year. ABC‘s This Week, CBS‘s Face the Nation and NBC‘s Meet the Press didn’t ask a single question that mentioned the climate crisis, climate change or the Green New Deal until more than two-thirds of the way through the year (9/13/20), when wildfires—which, due to climate change, are becoming more frequent and more intense—devastated the West Coast.

CNN‘s State of the Union did little better, asking one tangential question earlier in the year (2/2/20) to Republican Iowa Sen. Jodi Ernst about why she believed the Green New Deal and Medicare for All were socialism but farm subsidies were not. Its coverage of extreme weather beat the other networks by two weeks when it reported on Hurricane Laura in Louisiana (8/30/20).

CBS‘s Margaret Brennan (Face the Nation, 9/13/20) challenged the scientific link between climate change and wildfires by citing an op-ed (Washington Post, 9/12/20) representing the views of a far-right timber lobbying group.

Face the Nation asked only two questions referencing the climate crisis the entire year. In the first, CBS host Margaret Brennan (9/13/20) challenged Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s statement that the wildfires were “a wake-up call for all of us that we have got to do everything in our power to tackle climate change.” Brennan responded:

Governor, I understand that’s your conviction. But I know four former Oregon lawmakers have written an op-ed in the Washington Post, though, saying you can’t blame climate change. Instead, it’s a failure of your state government to prepare, and that warnings were ignored regarding mismanagement of Oregon’s forests. What is your response to that?

Brennan presented climate disruption’s role in wildfires as a mere “conviction” of her guest–not because there was scientific evidence that questioned the connection, but on the basis of an op-ed (Washington Post, 9/12/20) written by a former Republican state representative (not four of them) who’s now associated with a pro-logging group funded by corporate timber interests and linked to far-right militias (Mother Jones, 3/6/20).

In the other question, Brennan (11/8/20) asked West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin if Joe Biden’s “energy message”—which featured a vow to transition away from oil and gas—hurt him in the election.

NBC asked three questions, ABC and Fox News asked four, and CNN asked 13 in their Sunday morning shows. The five shows combined aired a total of only 18 segments in which any questions were asked that referenced the climate crisis. There were 26 questions asked, to 18 guests.

The Sunday shows historically skew overwhelmingly toward official sources—politicians, party operatives and other current or former government officials—who typically account for half or more (FAIR.org, 4/1/12, 5/22/20) of all guests, with journalists making up most of the rest. In 2020, questions about climate skewed even more toward partisan guests, who accounted for all but two of the sources, and received 24 of the 26 questions. (The other two, both on Fox News Sunday, were an actor and a conservative pundit.)

Last April, when there was a crucial role for news outlets to play in clarifying the medical and scientific aspects of the Covid crisis, as well as offering space for vigorous debate over solutions, FAIR (5/22/20) criticized the Sunday shows for sidelining independent public health experts, who comprised only 10% of all guests that month. On climate, however, the shows have proved even worse, inviting not a single climate scientist or other climate expert or advocate as a guest over the entire year.

Of the partisan guests asked about climate issues, 12 were Democrats and only three were Republicans (taking 17 versus seven questions, respectively), despite the fact that Republicans dominated Washington for the year, holding both the White House and Senate and blocking any major climate change legislation. In fact, the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News Sunday shows didn’t pose a single question about the climate crisis to a Republican politician the entire year.

In effect, these shows are allowing politicians to define reality. If Republicans say the climate crisis doesn’t exist, then Sunday hosts—with the exception of CNN—don’t question them about it.

Twelve of the 18 segments centered on the US presidential election or the subsequent presidential transition, five were about the West Coast wildfires and Hurricane Laura, and one was a feature about an actor whose climate activism came up in a question.

CNN‘s Dana Bash. CNN was the only network whose Sunday show posed a question about climate change to a Republican all year.

All but one of the 10 climate-related questions in the extreme weather segments were about whether climate change is an important contributor to extreme weather events of 2020, or whether humans are the main driver of that climate change—questions that have long been settled science. CNN (8/30/20, 9/13/20) posed several such questions to two Republican climate deniers, and the network’s Dana Bash (8/30/20) stated clearly multiple times in her interview some variation of “the overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity is responsible for the climate crisis.” While holding Republicans accountable for their climate denial stance is important, it’s also important to go beyond settled science and press them on policy. But with so few questions to Republicans at all, none did so.

What’s more, three Democrats were also asked whether climate change could be blamed for the West Coast wildfires (ABC, 9/13/20; CBS, 9/13/20; CNN, 9/13/20), letting then–President Donald Trump frame the news with his claims that it was simply a “forest management” problem, rather than doing what they ought to have done: set the record straight on what the science says about the role of climate change in wildfires, then use their questions to ask their political guests about government responses based on those scientific facts.

If we have any hope of addressing the climate crisis, journalists have to move beyond debating its existence or importance, and start looking at both its causes—very concretely, looking at culprits—and its solutions. You can’t debate climate solutions without understanding what is driving climate change, yet only 12 questions were asked on the Sunday shows all year that even touched on emissions or the oil and gas industry, and none mentioned agriculture, deforestation or capitalism more generally.

The fossil fuel industry advertised heavily in 2020 “to persuade voters that natural gas is a climate-friendly fuel” (Independent, 8/19/20).

Of those 12 questions, few got the national conversation closer to where it needs to be, instead asking about such things as whether Biden’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050 was “realistic” (ABC, 9/13/20) or the impact of his stance on oil and gas on voters, not the planet (CNN, 10/25/20; Fox News, 10/25/20). On ABC, host Martha Raddatz (10/25/20) asked Democratic strategist Rahm Emanuel whether Biden’s promise in one of the presidential debates to transition away from oil and gas made him “cringe a little bit.”

Meanwhile, the industry didn’t reduce its own media output during the pandemic; in fact, it increased it. The American Petroleum Institute, the largest industry lobbying group, spent over $3.1 million on TV ads—a 51% increase from the year before—falsely touting natural gas as “clean” energy (Independent, 8/19/20). These ads aired during almost the exact same period (1/1/20–8/16/20) that most of the Sunday shows were completely silent on climate.

Media’s Top Meaning for ‘Proxy’ Is ‘Iranian Ally’


Foreign Policy (1/10/20) depicts “Iran’s proxy threat” as “the real problem.”

“Proxy,” defined as someone who works on someone else’s behalf, is a term of delegitimation in international politics: It undermines the credibility of both those who are accused of being “proxies” and those accused of having “proxies.” In the former case, the term suggests that the party in question is not representing its peoples’ interests, but rather those of an outside actor. The nation described as having proxies is implicitly accused of meddling in another country’s affairs.

When I searched the databases of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post for the last ten years, I found that variations on the terms “America’s proxy,” “American proxy,” “United States’ proxy” and “US proxy” appeared a total of 183 times. In contrast, all forms of the term “Iranian proxy” were used a total of 798 times. In other words, Iran is said to use “proxies” more than four times as often as the United States, even though the US has a vastly larger global footprint than Iran. Thus, these outlets are downplaying the extent of US interference in other countries, while frequently portraying Iran as undercutting other peoples’ independence.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen

A Washington Post column (3/4/21) debates whether Saudi Arabia is an “ally” or a “partner”–but “proxy” is not on the menu.

A Washington Post column (3/4/21) by Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky, two long-time State Department employees, mentioned “Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.” The article is about the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, and at no point is the Saudi government described as America’s “proxy.”

Yet there are grounds for applying the term. Rutgers University historian Toby C. Jones (Jacobin, 10/22/14) provides an overview of the trajectory of US/Saudi relations, writing:

Although American political and corporate interests surrendered direct control of Saudi Arabia’s oil resources in the early 1980s, they were present in the eastern province, in and around Shiite communities, from the late 1930s through much of the 20th century.

Fearful of politically mobilized Saudi labor in the mid twentieth century, the Arabian American Oil Company (which was known to employ CIA officials) coordinated closely with Saudi leaders from the 1940s until the 1970s in building a centralized, discriminatory political order that was anti-democratic, anti-labor, and that sought to create disciplined and docile bodies in a place where the al-Saud lacked much in the way of political legitimacy….

American policymakers no longer think in terms of the interests of an American oil company that controls Saudi oil. But its practical and political economic interests have changed very little. Since the late 1970s, in fact, these connections have proliferated, most importantly through weapons sales and the entanglement of the American military/industrial complex with Saudi oil wealth. There is no greater engine for the recycling of Saudi and Gulf Arab petrodollars than massive and expensive weapons systems. These sales are largely justified in the language of security and by invoking regional threats like Saddam Hussein and whatever regime sits in Tehran. The reality, though, is that they are hugely profitable.

While the United States is no longer dependent on importing Saudi oil the way that it once was, the State Department makes clear that it nevertheless regards Saudi reserves as critical, saying that “Saudi Arabia is the third leading source of imported oil for the United states, providing about half a million barrels per day of oil to the US market.”

The department also emphasizes that oil is not the only reason the US thinks the Saudi government is useful, writing that

Saudi Arabia’s unique role in the Arab and Islamic worlds, its holding of the world’s second largest reserves of oil, and its strategic location all play a role in the longstanding bilateral relationship between the Kingdom and the United States.

It calls Saudi Arabia “a strong partner in security” and “in military, diplomatic and financial cooperation,” and says that the two countries work together in “counterterrorism efforts” (a rather dubious term for such operations).

Furthermore, the State Department highlights the continued relevance of Jones’ point about “the entanglement of the American military/industrial complex with Saudi oil wealth,” noting that “Saudi Arabia is the United States’ largest foreign military sales (FMS) customer, with more than $100 billion in active FMS cases.”

A sponsor/“proxy” arrangement typically involves a power asymmetry in which a weaker party is dependent on a stronger one. A Congressional Research Service report from March report is telling in this regard:

The Al Saud have sought protection, advice, technology and armaments from the United States, along with support in developing their country’s natural and human resources and in facing national security threats. US leaders have praised Saudi cooperation in security and counterterrorism matters, and have sought to preserve the secure, apolitical flow of the kingdom’s energy resources and capital to global markets.

Clearly, the state that seeks “protection,” as well as “support” in resource development, is in a subordinate relationship with the state they’re asking to provide these. My argument is not that there are never any tensions in the US/Saudi relationship, or that the Saudi government never has any leeway to chart its own course, but it is remarkable that, given how readily the word is employed in Iranian contexts, the sample I examined included no cases where Saudi Arabia was called a US “proxy.”

This rhetorical choice obscures the degree of US complicity in Saudi Arabia’s internal crimes, which include “repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly,” according to Amnesty International:

Among those harassed, arbitrarily detained, prosecuted and/or jailed were government critics, women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, relatives of activists, journalists, members of the Shi’a minority and online critics of government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Virtually all known Saudi Arabian human rights defenders inside the country were detained or imprisoned at the end of the year. Grossly unfair trials continued before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) and other courts. Courts resorted extensively to the death penalty and people were executed for a wide range of crimes. Migrant workers were even more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of the pandemic, and thousands were arbitrarily detained in dire conditions, leading to an unknown number of deaths.

Crucially, referring to the Saudis as US “proxies” would make it unambiguous that the US, which has provided targeting assistance, weapons, logistics, training and intelligence sharing to the Saudis (In These Times, 2/4 /21), has direct responsibility for the war on Yemen that has killed nearly a quarter of a million people (The Nation, 3/27/21) and brought famine to the country (CNN, 3/11/21).

NBC (5/24/19) suggests that it’s Iran’s “proxies”—and not the fact that it’s one of the largest Middle Eastern countries—that gives it a significant role in the Middle East.

Perversely, Yemen’s Houthi movement is constantly decried as an Iranian “proxy.” The Wall Street Journal (9/9/19) asserted that “using the Houthis as its proxy, the Iranian regime has established a strategic outpost in war-torn Yemen.” Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times (11/29/20) that “the Saudis have been trying to [fight a shadow war] versus Iran’s proxies in Yemen.” The Washington Post (2/19/21) alleged that “Iranian proxies, such as the Houthis in Yemen, are not rewarding Biden’s more diplomatic approach with restraint.”

Seeing the Houthis as mere Iranian “proxies” is an over-simplification and a misrepresentation. Political scientist Stacey Philbrick Yadav (Jadaliyya, 1/21/20) argued that the Houthis should be seen as Iran’s allies rather than its “proxies,” pointing out that

the Houthi insurgency predates substantial Iranian involvement. It has existed as an armed movement since 2004, and developed out of a broader populist movement during the 1990s.

Similarly, Vincent Durac of University College Dublin  (The Conversation, 9/19/19) said that

while the Houthis have benefited from support from Iran, the suggestion that they constitute little more than an Iranian proxy is wide of the mark.

There is limited evidence that Iran controls the Houthis’ strategy. The Houthis reportedly ignored Iranian advice not to take over Sanaa in 2014 and, while the Arab coalition spends between $5-6 billion each month on the war, Iran’s spending on the Yemen war has been estimated at little more than several million dollars each year.

 Syria and Lebanon

Including Syria on the list of Iranian “proxies,” as Miller and Sokolsky did in the Washington Post, is commonplace. For instance, an article by Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal (3/1/21) cited “the military success of Iranian proxies” in countries such as “Iraq, Syria and Lebanon,” the type of “regional aggression” by Iran on which the Biden administration wants to place “restraints.”

Ranj Alaaldin (New York Times, 3/31/18) writes, “The Shiite proxies of Iran in Syria are motivated by the fear that the overthrow of the Assad regime would be an existential threat to the Shiite faith, a fear that Tehran encourages.” Or maybe they were worried about the threat of genocide from ISIS not because they’re “proxies,” but  because ISIS openly threatened genocide against Shia?

A New York Times op-ed (3/31/18) by Ranj Alaaldin is a particularly revealing example of the chicanery that the word “proxy” allows. Alaaldin made seven references to Iranian “proxies” fighting on the government’s side in the Syrian civil war. He used their presence to argue that the US should continue to militarily occupy Syria for an unspecified period:

Iranian allies will shape the future of the Syrian state and the political landscape of the whole Middle East. The United States can alter the course of events if it commits to staying in Syria, builds on the current deployment of American forces and nurtures long-term partnerships to ensure that the fate of Syria and the region is not left to Iran and its proxies.

Alaaldin also wrote that

The United States has failed to even establish red lines, let alone enforce them when it comes to both its own interests and those of its allies on the ground, as Syrians, Kurds, Arab Sunnis and Western-aligned Shiite factions in Iraq have found out.

For Alaaldin, the US has allies, a term that evokes a partnership between co-equals, but Iran’s “allies” are also “proxies.” The only other way that groups fighting against the Syrian government were characterized in the article was as “Syrian rebel groups”: At no point in the piece is any Syrian faction called a “US proxy.”

However, the New York Times (8/2/17) reported that in “one of the costliest covert action programs in the history of the CIA,” more than $1 billion dollars over the four-year life of the operation, the US teamed up with Saudi Arabia and “armed and trained thousands of Syrian rebels” to fight the Syrian government. It is unclear what would make a group a “proxy,” if not receiving training and armaments from what sounds an awful lot like a sponsor.

Alaaldin, Mead, and Miller and Sokolsky all mentioned Iranian “proxies” in Iraq. While each article presented Iranian influence in Iraq as a problem that needed to be solved, they said nothing to suggest that the presence of US troops in Iraq is problematic. That Iraqi lawmakers voted to expel US troops (NPR1/6/20) does not earn a mention from Miller and Sokolsky, or from Mead, whose articles were written after the vote, and they aren’t the only ones to make this omission (e.g., New York Times, 2/22/21; Washington Post, 3/3/21). Evidently, it’s not OK to have “proxies” in a country, but military occupation against the will of elected officials is just fine.

Voice of America (9/19/20) reported that “Iran proxies” in Iraq were “emboldened” by a US decision to withdraw some troops, as they called on the US to withdraw all its troops—as did the Iraqi legislature, but perhaps it’s full of “Iran proxies” too.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah is routinely described as an Iranian “proxy.” Alaaldin’s thesis is that “Iranian proxies do not just turn up for battle, fight and return home. Hezbollah’s political prominence and ‘state within a state’ status in Lebanon was once the exception, but now it is a model that is being replicated by other militia groups” in other countries.

Similarly, Miller and Sokolsky complain that Saudi Arabia has not been confrontational enough toward Iran and its partners such as Hezbollah, writing:

The Saudis have talked a good game about countering Iran’s malign regional influence, but they have done relatively little to counter Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

A Wall Street Journal (2/20/20) report by Benoit Faucon and Ian Talley described “internationally recognized terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas that act as Iran’s international proxies.”

That view oversimplifies the Iran/Hezbollah partnership. Amal Saad, a Lebanese scholar and a leading authority on Hezbollah, found that

Hezbollah’s expanding regional role and advanced military capabilities make it an invaluable strategic ally for Iran and has created a sense of mutual dependency whereby Iran has increasingly come to depend on Hezbollah’s regional clout and power; interdependence rather than subordination and control, defines the essence of this relationship.

Saad went on to write:

Hezbollah has in fact a vast degree of autonomy from Iran, as demonstrated by its indisputable role in mobilising support for the besieged Assad government and in persuading Iran to directly intervene. That Syria is now far more dependent on Hezbollah than the converse is testimony of Hezbollah’s rising status as a regional power, placing it on a par with Iran as a junior partner and ally, rather than a subordinate.

By reducing the group to mere Iranian puppets, writers like Miller and Sokolsky, and Faucon and Talley, nurture the mistaken impression that Hezbollah is simply a tool of a foreign power with no popular base in Lebanon. This mystification serves to justify US sanctions against Hezbollah, and lends plausibility to the far-fetched claim that one could harm the organization without harming the Lebanese population (FAIR.org, 8/26/20), never mind the even shakier presumption that the US should do such a thing.

Faucon and Talley are hardly the only ones to characterize both Hezbollah and Hamas as Iranian “proxies.” For example, a Washington Post article (9/11/15) praised Hilary Clinton for her promise of “cracking down on Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas.” Just as the Iranian “proxy” label obscures the sense in which Hezbollah is an organic Lebanese force whose original raison d’etre was to fend off US/Israeli attacks, saying that Hamas is a mere Iranian “proxy” transforms a key branch of the Palestinian liberation movement into the plaything of an outside agitator. A struggle between colonizer and colonized is recast an international conflict between two states, Iran and Israel.


The media sample that I’ve examined also leaves out the corollary to the Iranian “proxies” in Lebanon and Palestine, namely that there are ample grounds for calling Israel—a regular invader of the first and ethnic cleanser of the second—a US proxy. When one state gives another $3.3 billion a year in military aid, as the US does with Israel (In These Times, 9/20/16), it’s likely that the giver expects something in return.

Israel has certainly rendered innumerable useful services to the US ruling class, many of which have taken place far from the lands that Israel controls, including helping the United States provide support to dictators like Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, Idi Amin in Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo (when it was still Zaïre), Jean-Bédel Bokassa of Centfural Republic, and the apartheid governments in Zimbabwe (when it was known as Rhodesia) and South Africa, despite international bans against doing so in the latter two cases. In Latin America, Israel acted as a US arms broker by selling weapons that, because of congressional legislation, the United States often could not sell directly to the murderous tyrannies in Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua (In These Times, 1/8/19).

That’s not to say that Israel has no capacity to act independently of the United States. However, in view of the dynamics I’ve laid out, it is curious that I found zero cases of the word “proxy” being used to characterize the US/Israeli relationship in the Times, Journal or Post in the last ten years. This reduces the likelihood of Israel being broadly seen as a pawn of the world’s sole superpower, and obfuscates the degree to which the US attempts to dominate the peoples of the Middle East by using Israel as one of its “cops on the beat” (along with the Shah’s Iran), in the words of Melvin Laird, Nixon’s Defense secretary.

Bloomberg (1/5/20) presents an “asymmetric fight” between Iran’s “proxy fighters” and the “forces of the US and its allies.”

Of the 183 references to America’s “proxies,” some use the term in the sense I’ve outlined: to describe the US leveraging political forces in countries where it is trying to assert its will.  For instance, in a New York Times column (5/30/14), Anand Gopal wrote about “predatory American-backed strongmen” in Afghanistan, and calls them “American proxies.” A Wall Street Journal piece (3/15/17) employed “American proxies” in its account of the US war ostensibly aimed at defeating ISIS. David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post (8/30/16) that “American proxies were fighting each other” in Syria. In another Post article (7/21/17), Michael Gerson lamented what he saw as “the ignoble cutoff of aid to American proxies” in Syria, part of what the author dubiously described as “Trump’s breathtaking surrender to Russia.”

However, many of those 183 are not examples of “proxies” being used in the manner on which this article focuses. The New York Times (12/30/20), for instance, said that “Beijing is not known to provide substantial support to anti-American proxies in combat zones like Afghanistan.” An entry on the Times’ blog (7/8/13) noted that “Institutional Shareholder Services, the biggest American proxy advisory firm, recommended that Dell investors accept the $13.65-a-share offer made by Mr. Dell and the investment firm Silver Lake.” A Washington Post (10/31/19) article mentioned how the early 20th century author and lawyer Adolf Berle “saw in the public corporation the American proxy for the European welfare state.” The Wall Street Journal (2/21/14) wrote about how, during World War I, “The Germans, through an American proxy, established a plant in Connecticut that tried to purchase the ingredients for explosives, in order to deny them to factories manufacturing bullets and shells for the Allies.”

Media outlets use the word “proxy” unevenly, applying it far more frequently to Iran and its partners than to the US and its partners, with no sound basis for doing so. Through this practice, Iran and its allies are portrayed as interlopers and flunkies, while the US and its associates are represented as peers in a consensual relationship. In this regard, “proxy” functions as a propaganda term for corporate media that vilifies enemies while either disguising or sanitizing the US empire.


Math Is Hard—but Vital for Understanding Vaccine Risks


Readers of CNN’s website (4/15/21) saw an alarming headline: “So Far, 5,800 Fully Vaccinated People Have Caught Covid Anyway in US, CDC Says.” Nearly 6,000 so-called “breakthrough” infections—cases of Covid-19 contracted by people after they had been vaccinated against the coronavirus that causes Covid — had been identified in the US by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and “some became seriously ill and 74 people died.”

Ars Technica (4/15/21) and CNN (4/15/21) wrote about the same report—but only Ars Technica understood the point of the report.

Three hours later, the tech news site Ars Technica (4/15/21) reported: “99.992% of Fully Vaccinated People Have Dodged Covid, CDC Data Shows.” Breakthrough infections, Ars Technica wrote, “occur at the teeny rate of less than 0.008% of fully vaccinated people.”

The two stories were, in fact, the same story. Both CNN and Ars Technica had read the same CDC analysis of its vaccination database and come to opposite conclusions: one that breakthrough infections were alarmingly high, the other that they were hearteningly low.

Scientists, when they appeared in news reports, tended toward reassurance. “This is a really good scenario, even with almost 6,000 breakthrough infections,” Kent State epidemiologist Tara Smith told NBC News (4/15/21). “Most of those have been mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic. That’s exactly what we were hoping for.” Yet NBC went with the headline “CDC: About 5,800 ‘Breakthrough Infections’ Reported in Fully Vaccinated People.”

The Hill (4/15/21) reported the breakthrough infection rate of just 0.008% in its story, but for a headline went with “CDC Finds Less Than 1% of Fully Vaccinated People Got Covid-19”—which, while true, still overstates the breakthrough infection rate by a factor of 100, making its headline equivalent to saying “less than 25% of the US House of Representatives is under investigation for child sex trafficking.”

A similar math problem reared its head in the other big vaccine-related story of the week: the news that the CDC and FDA were calling for a “pause” in the use of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid vaccine as a result of some recipients having developed potentially life-threatening blood clots. In typical reporting, CBS News’ website (4/14/21) ran the headline “US Recommends ‘Pause’ for Johnson & Johnson Covid Vaccine to Review Blood Clot Cases,” referring to “adverse side effects” but noting they were “extremely rare.”

How rare, exactly? Six people out of more than 6.8 million vaccinated had developed blood clots that, if treated improperly, could lead to severe complications or even death — enough for the government agencies to call a temporary halt to use of the vaccine. (Only one vaccine recipient, a woman from Virginia, was reported to have actually died from blood clots after getting vaccinated.)

Math is hard, for journalists as well as readers, and there’s an understandable reflex for news sites to try to keep the numbers in their stories simple, to avoid making people’s eyes glaze over. Yet a number, whether 5,800 or six, doesn’t tell you much unless you know not just the numerator of a fraction—how many people are affected—but also the denominator, how many people are in the total pool being studied. If six people out of every thousand suffer side effects, that’s alarming; if six people out of every 6 million do, that’s assuredly bad for those six people, but not necessarily a significantly bigger concern than that one out of every 2.4 million Florida residents will get eaten by an alligator (National Geographic, 6/15/16).

Unfortunately, too much vaccine coverage has left readers and viewers with no way to tell whether news about infections and side effects should be cause for alarm, or just what’s to be expected in a world so large that even unlikely circumstances are likely to happen to someone, somewhere. Even attempts at reassurance sometimes missed the mark, as when Yahoo! (4/15/21) warned in a headline, “CDC Reports 5,800 Breakthrough Covid-19 Infections in People Who Were Vaccinated,” but added the conciliatory note: “Doctors Say, ‘Don’t Panic.’” (Um, if you say so?)

NPR’s All Things Considered segment  (4/13/21) on the J&J story was headlined on the web “Blood Clot Concerns Put Johnson & Johnson Vaccine on Pause.” NPR science correspondent Joe Palca reported that seeing six of such cases among the 6.8 million people who received the J&J vaccine was “not very common, but more common than you would expect from people who never got the vaccine.” But even this, it turned out, wasn’t necessarily true: NYU Vaccine Center investigator and immunologist Purvi Parikh told CNBC (4/13/21) the same day that a Canadian study had found people who contract Covid are “much more likely” to develop blood clots than those who get the vaccine.

Contrary to the New York Post (4/7/21), it’s not news if one of the half a billion people who have gotten a Covid vaccines dies after the shot—not even if it happens in Australia.

Sometimes all it took was a numerator of one person to spark a story warning of potential vaccine failures. The New York Post (4/7/21) ran an entire article on an 82-year-old Australian woman who died shortly after receiving a Pfizer vaccine shot, though it noted it was “unclear whether the jab played any role in her death.” (With millions of people being vaccinated every day, it would be more shocking news, statistically speaking, if no one ever died the same day they got a vaccine.)

Both the New York Times (1/12/21) and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (4/8/21) ran long articles on a Miami Beach doctor who died of a brain hemorrhage 16 days after getting a Pfizer shot, though the only evidence linking the death to the vaccine was his wife’s Facebook post wondering about a connection.

Providing all the numbers is vital, because in a world where both policymakers and individuals are trying to decide whether vaccines are effective and safe, the only way to do so is with math. Does the benefit of having a fully vaccinated population outweigh the risk of possible side effects? But as medical experts have tried to point out in the wake of the J&J pause, people all too seldom consider numbers in context (STAT, 4/13/21):

“You have a greater chance of being in a car accident on the way to getting this vaccine than you have of having a problem from this vaccine. But that’s not how people view risk,” said Paul Offit, a vaccine expert at Philadelphia Children’s Hospital.

It’s certainly important to investigate the potential side effects of vaccines, and to warn people that getting vaccinated isn’t a license to blithely ignore the virus as if you’re 100% immune. But as the Covid endgame increasingly turns into a political battle over whether to get vaccinated, it’s also not enough to run an alarmist headline and consign the scientific consensus to the latter half of a story—especially as more and more readers, especially on social media, never read past the headlines.

Journalists’ job is to do the math for the rest of us, so we can better understand what are acceptable and unacceptable risks; just throwing the grabbiest numbers on a screen may be good for traffic, but it’s not likely to be good for public health.

‘Divisive’: How Corporate Media Dismiss Ideas Unpopular With Elites


“The idea of Medicare for All is immensely contentious,” says the New York Times (3/18/19).

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (Twitter, 12/29/20) described a $2,000 Covid relief check as “divisive,” even though 75% of Americans (and 72% of Republicans) wanted the government to prioritize another universal payment. All too often, words such as “divisive,” “contentious” or “controversial” are used merely as media codewords meaning “ideas unpopular with the ruling elite”—what FAIR calls “not journalistically viable.”

Medicare for All is a prime example of this. At least since the issue began receiving national media attention as a result of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, a majority of Americans have supported some form of national, publicly funded healthcare system. Some polls have found nearly three in four support the idea, including a majority of Republican voters. Yet corporate media continue to disparage universal public health insurance, labeling it “divisive” (Axios, 2/14/20), “controversial” (Christian Science Monitor, 6/4/19; Time, 10/24/19; New York Times, 1/1/20) or “politically perilous” (Associated Press, 3/25/19).

In an article entitled “Medicare for All Is Divisive (in the Democratic Party),” the New York Times (3/18/19) described giving people free healthcare “immensely contentious,” framing it as a risky and enormously expensive gamble that centrists in swing districts could ill afford to take coming up to an election. The reality, of course, was the opposite: Every single Democratic incumbent in a swing district who endorsed Medicare for All won reelection in 2020. The same cannot be said for those that did not endorse it.

There can be few policies that would so directly and immediately benefit so many Americans as raising the minimum wage to $15 (though that’s still not enough to afford rent in most US states). Forty percent of the country told Reuters/Ipsos pollsters in February that they or someone close to them would be positively impacted by such a change. The same poll found that supporters of raising the minimum wage outnumbered opponents by 25 percentage points. Regardless, increasing it is often described as “divisive” (e.g., Bloomberg, 10/2/17; Politico, 3/16/21; Delaware News Journal, 3/10/21).

The leader of a corporate front group (The Hill, 9/15/17) mocked labor leaders for “attempting turn the minimum wage into a major election issue” that would spark “a massive voter engagement drive for the 2018 election cycle.” 

The Hill, for instance, published an opinion piece (9/15/17) claiming support for a living wage was “stale, misguided and divisive.” While $15 per hour sounds good on paper to people “not informed of the consequences,” the policy is a big vote loser, insisted Michael Saltsman of the corporate-funded Employment Policies Institute.

Saltsman was the brains behind crude propaganda campaigns against raising the minimum wage in California; he put up a billboard in  San Francisco threatening workers they would be replaced by iPads if they demanded fairer remuneration for their work. He was  described by Bay Area-based journalist Paul Bradley Carr (Pando, 7/21/14) as “the asshole behind San Francisco’s most assholeish billboard.” The “divisive” measure was approved by city voters with 77% support (CNN Money, 11/5/14).

The Green New Deal—a major jobs program that would transition the US to a clean energy economy, which has been described as the only coherent plan to save the US from climate breakdown—is also constantly written off as too contentious to work (Reuters, 3/21/19; Atlantic, 6/12/19). CNBC (3/12/19), for instance, reported on the “story” that fossil fuel executives in Houston dismissed the plan pushed by Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and co. as “unrealistic, unworkable and politically divisive.” Instead, they propose rather nebulous “market-oriented solutions” to the crisis.

Thank you for that extraordinary insight, CNBC! Perhaps you could next enlighten us on what Wall Street traders think of the idea of pursuing criminal investigations into their behavior in 2008? (Giving space to billionaire energy bosses to trash environmentalists is something of a tradition at CNBCFAIR.org, 2/3/20).

Meanwhile, one Guardian article (12/29/18) noted that 81% of American voters back the Green New Deal plan, yet still managed to present it as a “divisive” proposal that “lacks key political support,” thereby tacitly underlining how little the will of the people matters to policymakers—or elite media.

The range of opinion on Warren Buffet’s proposal to tax the rich published by The Week (8/15/11) went from “many lower or middle class voters oppose all tax hikes” to “automatic deal-breaker” to ” terribly inefficient and unfair.”

The wealth of the super-rich has skyrocketed in recent years, with the planet’s billionaires increasing their fortunes by 55% since the beginning of lockdown measures last March. A large majority of Americans, including more than half of Republicans, support increasing taxes on the rich. Despite this, a modest wealth tax, like the one put forward by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren—2% on those with more than $50 million, and 3% on fortunes larger than $1 billion—is consistently undermined as too divisive to work (FiveThirtyEight, 10/28/19; Bloomberg, 3/1/21).

Writing in the Washington Post (2/5/19), columnist Steven Pearlstein dismissed the left’s ideas on taxing the wealthy, free healthcare and a Green New Deal as fringe, flawed and divisive. Even when some billionaires themselves were asking to be taxed more, The Week (8/15/11) still described the idea as “divisive” in a headline. Are we really to believe that there is such a fervor among the public against the richest people in the world becoming minutely less wealthy?

All of the populist, pro-working class policies detailed above enjoy significant majority support with the public. They are not, by the dictionary definition, controversial. And yet time and time again, they are attacked as too contentious or divisive to work.

While billionaire-owned media outlets could simply come out and say, “We oppose these proposals for ideological reasons,” a much better rhetorical tactic is to present themselves as neutral observers, merely concerned about the practicality of such legislation.

The next time you hear your favorite political proposals being labeled as too “divisive,” “contentious” or “polarizing” to work, check the polls first. You might be being sold a bill of goods by dishonest commentators trying to pour cold water on a progressive fire.

Featured image: Creative Commons photo by Daniel Case.

‘Hale’s Crime Is Not Leaking Information, but Exposing Government Lies About the Drone Program’


Janine Jackson interviewed Defending Rights & Dissent’s Chip Gibbons about drone whistleblower Daniel Hale for the April 9, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Daniel Hale

Janine Jackson: Do you care about the US military’s increasing use of drone warfare, because of the disastrous impact on its targets and/or the predictable blowback from the conflicts it foments? Do you care about the US public’s ability to know what’s being done in our name and have a hope of understanding the repercussions? Do you care about what happens to those people who take it on themselves to reveal things that could not be revealed any other way except by somebody who was inside and knew them to be true? And about the ability of the press to publish those truths so the public can take informed action?

If any of that matters to you, you care about the case of Daniel Hale, whether or not you’ve heard his name.

Joining us now to fill us in is researcher and journalist Chip Gibbons. He’s policy director of the group Defending Rights & Dissent. He joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Chip Gibbons.

Chip Gibbons: Thank you for having me back.

JJ: We’re really, I think, starting from zero for a lot of folks on this story. There hasn’t been much out there about it. Daniel Hale’s case has meaning beyond its particulars, but the particulars matter, too. So who is Hale, and what did he do?

CG: Sure. And you know, I would not blame anyone for not having heard of Daniel Hale. There’s been almost a complete media blackout on this topic.

So Daniel Hale was a US Air Force veteran from, I believe, 2008 to 2013. After he left the US Air Force, he became a contractor who did some military contracting and intelligence contracting, but, most importantly, he became very outspoken about the use of US drone warfare. He appeared at book events with Jeremy Scahill; he appears in the movie National Bird, which is an award-winning film about drone whistleblowers, talking both about their own attempts to expose the drone program, as well as the moral injury that they suffered within the military. And in the course of the filming of this movie, National Bird, Daniel Hale’s house is raided as part of an FBI search, in connection to an Espionage Act investigation.

Intercept (10/15/15)

As many of your listeners may know, the Espionage Act was what they used to go after Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden. Espionage Act prosecutions of whistleblowers were extremely rare, all but unheard of, until the Obama administration, when they really normalized the practice.

So this is 2014, and it’s not 100% clear in the film what’s going on; obviously, Daniel Hale doesn’t give a lot of information, other than that he’s talked to his lawyer and he thinks he’s being targeted for his political activism. And the film comes out in 2016. But in 2015, the Intercept publishes something called “The Drone Papers.” The Drone Papers were a secret cache of documents about the US drone program, given to the Intercept by an anonymous source. So now we’re one year out from the raid against Mr. Hale.

Then in 2019–and you will now note we’re five years on—Daniel Hale was indicted under four counts under the Espionage Act and one count of theft of government property. And if you read the indictment, it accuses him of taking classified information about the drone program and giving it to a journalist. That journalist has not been named in any of the court proceedings, but it’s very abundantly clearly a reference to Jeremy Scahill of the Intercept, who wrote a book called Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, as well as being the journalist who published the “Drone Papers.”

Being a whistleblower indicted under the Espionage Act, it’s almost impossible, if not impossible, to mount a defense. I’ve been talking with some of the whistleblowers who have been supporting Daniel Hale, and they all have particularly absurd stories from their trials. Thomas Drake, NSA whistleblower, was telling me about how his attorney couldn’t use the words “fiber optics” during the trial, because the existence of fiber optics was considered “classified,” or they couldn’t use the word “newspaper,” you know, these secret words.

JJ: Oh my gosh!

Daniel Ellsberg

CG: And the biggest thing is that whistleblowers are gagged from using the word “whistleblower,” gagged from mentioning the First Amendment, but they’re also gagged from talking about their story.

The first one of these cases was the Daniel Ellsberg case. And Daniel Ellsberg very much wanted to take the stand and tell the jury how being on the inside of the US national security state and looking at the deception, looking at the lies, reading the Pentagon Papers—this secret history of the Vietnam War that showed the government was lying—how that led him to give it to the media.

And his lawyer asked him on the stand, “Why did you leak the Pentagon Papers?”

And the judge instantaneously intervened, saying, “You’re not allowed to answer that question.”

And the lawyer says to the judge, “I’ve never heard of a case, in all my years of practicing law, where a defendant cannot explain themselves.”

And the judge says, “Well, you’re hearing of one now.”

And that’s been basically the prototype for these cases since then.

Daniel Hale’s attorneys tried to raise a selective prosecution defense to have the charges dismissed, a vindictive prosecution motion for dismissal, as well as a First Amendment one. And with the selective prosecution, they argued that people in official Washington leak all the time, right? The biggest leaker of US government secrets is the US government itself.

JJ: Right, right.

CG: And people leak information about the drone program; they give it to these sorts of gullible journalists, who then turn around and tell the public how great our international program of extrajudicial executions and assassinations are.

So Hale’s crime, it isn’t leaking information about the drone program; let’s all be honest: It’s exposing the government as having lied about the drone program. But that was rejected; his First Amendment claims were rejected, and the government put forward a series of motions preemptively asking the judge to bar the defense from mentioning the defendant’s good motives—“good motives” in quotation marks is in their brief—because motives, good or not, don’t matter.

They asked the judge to bar them from challenging the classification of documents, or raising a misclassification defense, both on the grounds that classification is the sole purview of the Executive Branch—and therefore, a judge cannot rule a document’s been misclassified, and the defense attorney cannot challenge a classification—as well as the claim that the Espionage Act does not require information to be properly classified.

There’s a huge problem, even inspector generals within the government talk about it, of overclassification, right? You’re not supposed to be able to just, in theory at least, classify any document willy-nilly, and you’re certainly not supposed to be classifying documents because you want to stifle public discourse, and because you want to conceal information that’s embarrassing to the US government. But we know that happens in practice.

JJ: Yeah.

CG:  So the prosecution, knowing that would come up, said, “Can’t raise that defense.”

And the most bizarre and just outlandish motion that I read—and I spoke to two different Espionage Act defendants and, unfortunately, neither one of them was surprised by this one—they said that the defense was barred from arguing that an “alternative perpetrator committed the charged crime unless they could present nonspeculative evidence of that individual’s connection to the particular reporter, and knowledge of access to the documents and issues.”

So at this point, I think everyone listening is thinking, what kind of defense could Daniel Hale present? And the answer is basically none at all. So last week, he pled guilty to one count, under the Espionage Act, of unlawful retention and transmission of “national defense information.”

Now, the government—and I’ve spoken to lawyers who have said in all their years of practicing law, they’ve never heard of this—the government has not dismissed the remaining four charges, and has merely asked the trial to be postponed until he’s sentenced on this charge. Meaning that if the government thinks the judge gives too lenient a sentence, they’re basically reserving the right to go and have a trial on the remaining charges.

Now, whether or not they’d get away with that, it’s not clear to me. The defense pushed back on that during the change of plea hearing, and a couple of legal experts I’ve spoken to think they might not be able to get away with that. But it’s just an unprecedented move here, just across the board.

And this brings us to the question: What did Daniel Hale give to the world? I mean, we hear “Espionage Act,” that sounds like a spy or a saboteur furnishing military secrets to a hostile enemy, troop movements to Al Qaeda or Putin, right? But no, he gave information to the Intercept about the US drone program that gave us an unprecedented look into the “kill chain,” right, the bureaucratic process by which people are basically chosen for summary execution by the president, showing they were culling data from the “terror watchlist.”

They were making these targeting packages called “baseball cards,” where they would reduce all the information about a potential target to a baseball card. And then the president would get this, and could decide whether or not we should murder this person or not. And if he says yes, the military has 60 days to do this.

These practices are oftentimes called “targeted killings.” I would remind people, or maybe inform them for the first time: The Israeli government had a program of targeted killings, and the Bush administration criticized and rebuked the Israeli government, claiming that program violated international law. When the Obama administration was looking for legal justifications for its own targeted killings, it cited Israeli court rulings and Israeli actions. So we went from, “The US government is officially opposed to Israeli targeted killings as a violation of international law. These are extrajudicial executions; these are assassinations,” to “Look, the Israelis have shown us that it’s legal to do this,” which is just mind boggling to me.

JJ: Yeah.

Ten Forward Films

CG: And they call them “targeted killings,” but guess what: 90% of the people—per the Drone Papers—who were killed in US airstrikes, in one five-month period, were not the intended target. And when the US government kills unintended targets, it labels them, by default, “enemies killed in action,” unless information emerges after their murder, after their death, showing that they were not an “enemy combatant” or a terrorist. And these papers showed how these decisions were being made, in part using very faulty technology in signals intelligence and metadata.

And the anonymous source, who I guess we all know now is Hale, [says], you have to have a lot of faith in technology to do this; and I personally have seen faulty intelligence. And it goes back to what Hale was talking about in the movie National Bird, how he had “no way of knowing” if people engaged in the targeting of the “kill or capture program” were civilians or not, because it was just impossible to know.

And Hale said, once again anonymously, back in “The Drone Papers”:

This outrageous explosion of watchlisting—of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them “baseball cards,” assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield—it was, from the very first instance, wrong.

So this is purely, purely assisting a journalist in newsgathering, and giving to the American people information about what its government is doing. And I know the enemies of whistleblowers always prattle on about, “Oh, they should have gone through official channels, official channels, official channels.” You know, those official channels are not quite that good; but in a case like a global assassination program that’s US policy, I mean, the check for that is called our democratic process. It’s us, as a nation, deciding whether or not we think this is what we should be doing. But from the Pentagon Papers to the Drone Papers, the US government has sought to conceal the realities of its warmaking, and take from us our ability to make democratic choices about what our government is doing.

Chip Gibbons: “From the Pentagon Papers to the Drone Papers, the US government has sought to conceal the realities of its warmaking, and take from us our ability to make democratic choices about what our government is doing.”

And the first use of the Espionage Act, during World War I, was putting opponents of World War I in jail for comments that would now be considered protected speech. Infamously, Eugene Debs was charged under this, and the comment that got him in trouble, the illegal comment, was something along the lines of, “Wars have always been fought by the servant class and started by the master class. If war be right, let the people decide.”

And since the creation of the Espionage Act, that is what the US government has been working against, this idea that if war be right, let the US people decide for themselves about the war: first by, during World War I, putting opponents of the war in jail, and then, since the Pentagon Papers and the Drone Papers and the WikiLeaks revelations, concealing information from the US public about what their government is doing in their name, and then putting in jail anybody who tells the people what’s going on, so they could possibly decide for themselves if war be right.

JJ: I came across, in looking into this, and coverage of drone warfare generally, a piece called “The Moral Case for Drones,” from the New York Times in 2012, that was about what it called drones’ “seductive” promise of “precision killing and perfect safety for operators.” In other words, how specifically the superior ability to avoid civilian casualties made drones better than any other method of warfare, better at “identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage,” as one source had it.

So Hale’s revelations about, for example, how any “military-aged male” in the vicinity of a target was deemed “legitimate”—his revelations drive a stake right through that moral posturing about how it’s OK because they kill fewer civilians than any other method of warfare.

And Kevin Gosztola, one of the few reporters who’s actually talked about this, adds that another of Hale’s revelations was that “nearly half of the people on the US government’s widely shared database of terrorist suspects are not connected to any known terrorist group.”

So these are the kinds of things that, as you’ve explained, would bring on this intense, unto absurd, shroud of silence that is being charged under the Espionage Act; this is the content that the government is so interested for us not to know. And I would add that one of the few pieces—and I’m going to ask you about media in a second—one of the few pieces that I saw, from the AP, cited Jameel Jaffer, who’s now at Columbia, who for years at the ACLU was filing FOIAs on the drone program, and he said he just wasn’t able to get that much information going through these official channels. So in other words, Hale’s disclosures were emphatically important, and were revelations that could not be obtained otherwise.

So I want to ask you about what you make of the virtual silence of media on the story. But I wanted to ask you, quickly, and I think I know what you’ll say, it sounds as though you think the Espionage Act should just be off the books?

CG: Yeah, if not off the books, it should be very much amended. The organization I work with, Defending Rights & Dissent, has worked with WHISPeR, the Whistleblower and Source Protection project at ExposeFacts, who represented Hale, Drake, Snowden.

We did congressional advocacy about what we thought were the deficiencies of the Espionage Act, and we put forward some, I think, fairly modest reform. What constitutes a modest reform of the Espionage Act on Capitol Hill is quite a different story, right? I mean, I just suggested—you know, consider this crazy idea, Janine—that in order to get a conviction for espionage, the US government has to prove the specific intent to aid a foreign power or injure the national security of the United States (i.e., the definition of actual espionage, “true espionage”).

That didn’t meet with many takers. Tulsi Gabbard did introduce a bill that was supported by Defending Rights & Dissent, and supported by Daniel Ellsberg, that would have made that a requirement.

And Ro Khanna and Ron Wyden did another bill that would not have helped Daniel Hale, but would make it so you could not prosecute journalists under the Espionage Act, because, right now—a lot of us have been saying for years; you’ve heard me say this—this war on journalists’ sources is eventually a war on journalists, and then with the indictment of Julian Assange, this is clearly a war on journalists.

JJ: Right.

Rule of Law (3/18/21)

CG: And the official parties usually say, “No, no, no, that’s not true.”

There’s this ex-NSA lawyer, I believe his name is George Croner, who has been running around the internet with journal articles and tweets, being like, “the Assange case is criticized because it opens the door to prosecute journalists. I think this is great, and this is why the Assange case is great,” and has commented publicly that it’s great they got a conviction against Daniel Hale, by browbeating him into a plea, by robbing him of his constitutional right to a defense, but it’s really a shame they didn’t prosecute the journalist too, and that the Assange indictment, this ex-NSA lawyer said, gives us the precedent to go after the journalist, who in this case is not being named in the court documents, but we all know is Jeremy Scahill, a fantastic journalist, you know, who has done good reporting on the US national security state, going back to being one of the few people in the late ’90s to cover the impacts of the US sanctions on Iraq, where we were causing mass death amongst children, and covering those airstrikes, and then being critical of the Iraq War, and then exposing Blackwater, and now drone strikes.

I mean, this is an ex-NSA lawyer who wants him in jail. And it’s only going to get worse, because there hasn’t been that much of a pushback.

JJ: And that’s just where I wanted to bring us, finally. The virtual silence of major media, we’ve seen it, not just silence, but that then is complicity with folks like this ex-NSA lawyer who, you know… it’s so self-defeating on the part of journalists. And I know media are not monolithic, and there has been coverage, certainly, in independent media. And, of course, journalism is at the center of the story, in terms of the Intercept carrying Hale’s revelations.

I always am going to have a problem with mainstream journalists who will not go to bat for the rights of whistleblowers, but will dust off their shelf for the awards that they expect to win based on those revelations. I just don’t understand it.

Let me ask you, finally, what you make of the media’s role here. It’s so central to the First Amendment, it’s so central to the democratic process, and yet there’s no spotlight.

CG: With Assange, I thought that was really terrible media coverage. But pretty much every major newspaper editorial board, when push came to shove, came out and opposed the extradition request and indictment against Julian Assange, saying that was a threat to the press.

Many newspapers—New York Times, I think Boston Globe—editorialized on behalf of Snowden getting a pardon or clemency. The Washington Post, which got a Pulitzer Prize for Snowden’s revelations, did not; they thought Snowden belonged in jail for being their source—perhaps a first in the world of newspaper editorial boards, I don’t know about that one.

Jacobin (4/10/21)

But with Hale, besides the Washington Post coverage; besides Kevin Gosztola, who is a hero for his coverage of these issues; and besides a piece I’m working on for Jacobin right now, which hopefully will be out by the time people are listening to this, there’s just been a real silence.

And I think part of it is the complicity in the drone program, that the media has propagandized for drones. I think part of it is the Trump era, and that this doesn’t necessarily go with some of the narratives people want to tell in the media about Trump. On the one hand, they were so concerned with whistleblowers and free press when Trump was attacking the mainstream media. But they also would paint Trump as being insufficiently bellicose or militaristic, which inside the Beltway is the worst crime you can commit, and which was far from true. He escalated drone strikes, he escalated air wars, and there was silence on that. And then I also don’t think it helps that so much other news has happened, with the impeachment and then with Covid, at the time this story was released.

JJ: I understand that Daniel Hale’s sentencing is coming up in July, so there is an opportunity to get more attention to the case in the meantime, and hopefully we will see that.

CG: Yeah, and RightsandDiseent.org is hosting an action calling for leniency for Daniel Hale.

Obviously, I don’t think Daniel Hale should have to require leniency; he should not have been indicted or convicted. But we’re in the situation we are in now, and I think seeing an outpouring of support from people who say, what Hale did was in the public interest, or the interest of our democracy; please, please show leniency and take that into account; he’s a whistleblower, not a spy—I think we need that outpouring of voices.

JJ:  We’ve been speaking with Chip Gibbons, policy director at Defending Rights & Dissent. They’re online at RightsandDissent.org. Chip Gibbons, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

CG: Thank you for having me back.

Dorothy A. Brown and Amy Hanauer on Tax Unfairness



(cc photo: John Morgan)

This week on CounterSpin: Taxes, the concept of taxation, does a lot of work in US public discourse, though the role is not consistent: When reporting on a wished-for social good, like universal healthcare or improved infrastructure, the “cost to taxpayers” is presented as central; “raising taxes” is a synonym for increasing hardship on working people, and unironically offered as the reason those same people can’t have nice things, like healthcare and infrastructure. At the same time, but on a different page, we read that corporations like Zoom, Amazon and Netflix are super-successful, exemplary—what magic do they have to earn themselves such fortune?—and, oh yeah, they pay zero or near zero federal tax on their profits, but that’s complicated, and sort of clever? And anyway legal, so whaddya gonna do? Except, remember that you can’t have nice things because: taxes.

We’ll talk today with two people who, while recognizing that it’s not the sole source of inequality, have thoughts about what we can do about blatant, enduring and powerful unfairness in US tax policy.

Dorothy A. Brown teaches tax policy as Asa Griggs Candler professor of law at Emory University School of Law. She’s author of the new book, The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans—and How We Can Fix It.

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Amy Hanauer is executive director at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and Citizens for Tax Justice. They’ve been tracking corporate tax avoidance and its societal impact for decades.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at rewriting the history of the January 6 coup attempt.

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New York State Hands Billions Back to Wealthy Investors—and NYT Doesn’t See a Story


Assemb. Phil Steck (Times-Union, 5/20/19) describes a tax on Wall Street transactions as “a fair way to make sure the economy works for everyone across the state.”

New York State Assemb. Phil Steck had an idea. A great many Democrats have agreed that the state needs more revenue, not just to avoid budget cuts but to augment services and fund education. New Yorkers already fund the state through income taxes and sales taxes; the legalization of marijuana adds another “sin tax.” Shouldn’t the state, he said, also take a tiny slice out of stock trades?

Funny story: The state does have a stock transfer tax, it’s just that since 1982, all of the revenue from those taxes is rebated back to investors. So 100% of an on-the-books tax goes to subsidizing the wealthy people who pay it, and the public receives nothing. Steck proposed repealing the rebate, a move that some lawmakers said would “raise an estimated $13–16 billion in annual revenue” for the state. The pro-business Citizens Budget Commission (11/9/20) came out against removing the rebate, although generally transaction taxes are popular among a wide range of economists and policy experts.

Steck’s bill got some discussion in the press (Albany Times-Union, 5/20/19; Spectrum News, 9/21/20; City and State, 12/21/20), but not enough to make a splash, even though it was a seemingly pragmatic policy response to the outcry against inequality raised by Occupy Wall Street, the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and economists like Thomas Piketty. The editors of the New York Times clearly know about the public outrage about inequality—and affect concern about it.

The New York Times could have written about this fundamental outrage, that the state has billions of dollars that could pay for roads, schools and services from Troy to Buffalo but instead is handed back to wealthy financiers. Why not highlight such a crude imbalance by featuring a bill that’s trying to fix it?

In fact, at least one Times reporter, according to sources, has done reporting on the bill, speaking at length with Steck, and with consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, about the stock transfer tax. But a decision was apparently made in the Times editorial chain of command that that bill wasn’t likely to move forward, and therefore it wasn’t worth writing about.

Some of the bill’s advocates aren’t buying this logic. After all, how many times has the Times, like  any other major news outlet, covered a policy proposal that never came to fruition? Nader, speaking to FAIR, saw a clear double standard:

The presumed response of the Times that the bill didn’t have the chance to pass, if applied to all the reports about legislation, would have foreclosed hundreds of articles from their…archives from various legislatures around the country and the world…. Every day they’re writing about a Biden legislation that can’t get through Congress, for example. Often they write about two or three legislators introducing a bill that doesn’t have a chance of enactment on the first round, but has newsworthy substance.

Wall Street is extremely opposed to paying a stock transfer tax—the New York Stock Exchange even threatened to move out state if it was enacted (Reuters, 2/9/21)—and other finance advocates have blasted new taxes (Wall Street Journal, 2/23/21). And the Times has long been hostile to the stock transfer tax—the editorial board opposed its introduction more than a century ago, decrying it as Albany’s “appetite for New York City’s money” (New York Times, 3/14/05), although it later admitted the tax worked as intended (7/20/05). The paper then claimed it was pushing investors out of New York after the mid-’70s fiscal crisis (New York Times, 12/14/75), and the editorial board lambasted the idea of a stock transfer tax again under Mayor Ed Koch (New York Times, 4/23/83).

“Historians have cast doubt on the suggestion that the Exchange would pick up and move,” Gothamist (10/13/20) reports.

Relocating the exchanges, though, can be viewed as a bluff. Citing “tax experts,” Gothamist (10/13/20) pointed out, “The New York Stock Exchange is unlikely to pack up and leave, since it doesn’t pay the tax itself but passes it on to investors.” Hong Kong has a stock transfer tax, one that is more onerous than would be imposed on trades under Steck’s plan, and investors believe it works well (CNBC, 2/25/21; Dealbreaker, 2/25/21).

Steck even argued that like all small taxes, the stock transfer tax could be built into the cost of high-speed trading. “You just build the 5 cents [per trade] into your model,” he told FAIR. “It’s not a big deal.”

A stock transfer tax might even inspire less capital flight than a direct tax hike on millionaires, which is a part of this year’s New York state budget plan, advocates said. “We have argued that it would be far easier for millionaires to decamp than the stock exchanges,” James Henry, former chief economist at McKinsey & Co. and a fellow at Yale’s Global Justice Program, told FAIR. He noted that individuals can move their homes more easily than global financial institutions that have entrenched themselves in a particular location for a century.

Henry said that “a lot of the money that would be raised by the stock transfer tax” wouldn’t necessarily be paid by state residents, but “paid by New York businesses.” He told FAIR: “This can be thought of as a progressive sales tax. It’s a tax on the casino-like behavior of the stock market.”

Steck’s bill is a far more centrist measure against Wall Street than calls for more restrictive regulations on trading that usually outrage fiscal conservatives. Such a tax wouldn’t stop traders from getting rich or create more red tape; it would simply let the rest of the state share a little in the wealth.

For the bill’s advocates, the New York Times‘ choice not to cover it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Saying it doesn’t have a chance of passing destroys the bill’s chances by marginalizing it in the public discussion. The paper—clearly the most powerful media outlet in New York state, if not the entire United States—deprived the proposal of the media oxygen it needed to become a more viable policy outcome, or at least a form of pressure on the state government to adopt other progressive tax measures.

It’s not like the Times  (5/18/18, 2/26/18) has ignored the orgy of profiteering on stock trades. Other city publications (e.g., New York Daily News, 2/3/20) have highlighted previous efforts to take its slice of Wall Street trades. And the Steck bill could have been featured in a piece about the many ideas to tax Wall Street; state Sen. Julia Salazar and Assemb. Yuh-Line Niou proposed another such bill concerning stock trades (Daily News, 2/9/21).

“Wall Street was more afraid of the stock transfer tax” than other tax proposals in the state, Henry said, because financiers feared that if the idea took root in the nation’s center of capital, “it would be picked up in Washington and have a national version.” He added that not collecting the tax is a missed opportunity: “It would provide revenue,” and is a “great source for bondable funds…to finance all the heavy infrastructure investments [the state] has to make.”

“I don’t think the problem was with the reporter, it was with the editors,” Steck said, adding, “For some reason, this tax seems to raise the hackles of establishment Democrats.” Henry noted that the Times editors “aren’t the most aggressive when it comes to reporting on Wall Street.”

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



Support the Tropes


In an earlier piece (FAIR.org, 3/3/21), we explored some country case study examples of how the press helps to manufacture consent for regime change and other US actions abroad among left-leaning audiences, a traditionally conflict-skeptical group.

Some level of buy-in, or at least a hesitancy to resist, among the United States’ more left-leaning half is necessary to ensure that US interventions are carried out with a minimum of domestic opposition. To this end, corporate media invoke the language of human rights and humanitarianism to convince those to the left of center to accept, if not support, US actions abroad—a treatment of sorts for the country’s 50-year-long Vietnam syndrome.

What follows are some of the common tropes used by establishment outlets to convince skeptical leftists that this time, things might be different, selling  a progressive intervention everyone can get behind.

Think of the women! 

The vast majority of the world was against the US attack on Afghanistan that followed the 9/11 attacks in 2001. However, the idea had overwhelming support from the US public, including from Democrats. In fact, when Gallup (Brookings, 1/9/20) asked about the occupation in 2019, there was slightly more support for maintaining troops there among Democrats than Republicans—38% vs. 34%—and slightly less support for withdrawing troops (21% vs. 23%).

Media coverage can partially explain this phenomenon, convincing some and at the least providing cover for those in power. This was not a war of aggression, they insisted. They were not simply there to capture Osama bin Laden (whom the Taliban actually offered to hand over); this was a fight to bring freedom to the oppressed women of the country. As First Lady Laura Bush said:

We respect our mothers, our sisters and daughters. Fighting brutality against women and children is not the expression of a specific culture; it is the acceptance of our common humanity—a commitment shared by people of goodwill on every continent…. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.

Wars are not fought to liberate women (FAIR.org, 7/26/17), and bombing people is never a feminist activity (FAIR.org, 6/28/20). But the New York Times was among the chief architects in constructing the belief in a phantom feminist war. Within weeks of the invasion (12/2/01), it reported on the “joyful return” of women to college campuses, profiling one student who

strode up the steps tentatively at first, her body covered from face to foot by blue cotton. As she neared the door, she flipped the cloth back over her head, revealing round cheeks, dark ringlets of hair and the searching brown eyes of a student.

The over-the-top symbolism was hard to miss: This was a country changed, and all thanks to the invasion.

Time magazine also played heavily on this angle. Six weeks after the invasion (11/26/01), it told readers that “the greatest pageant of mass liberation since the fight for suffrage” was occurring, as “female faces, shy and bright, emerged from the dark cellars,” casting off their veils and symbolically stomping on them. If the implication was not clear enough, it directly told readers “the sight of jubilation was a holiday gift, a reminder of reasons the war was worth fighting beyond those of basic self-defense.”

“How much better will their lives be now?” Time (12/3/01) asked. Not much better, as it turned out.

A few days later, Time‘s cover (12/3/01) featured a portrait of a blonde, light-skinned Afghan woman, with the words, “Lifting the Veil. The shocking story of how the Taliban brutalized the women of Afghanistan. How much better will their lives be now?”

This was representative of a much wider phenomenon. A study by Carol Stabile and Deepa Kumar published in Media, Culture & Society (9/1/05) found that, in 1999, there were 29 US newspaper articles and 37 broadcast TV reports about women’s rights in Afghanistan. Between 2000 and September 11, 2001, those figures were 15 and 33, respectively. However, in the 16 weeks between September 12 and January 1, 2002, Americans were inundated with stories on the subject, with 93 newspaper articles and 628 TV reports on the subject. Once the real objectives of the war were secure, those figures fell off a cliff.

Antiwar messages were largely absent from corporate news coverage. Indeed, as FAIR founder Jeff Cohen noted in his book Cable News Confidential, CNN executives instructed their staff to constantly counter any images of civilian casualties with pro-war messages, even if “it may start sounding rote.” This sort of coverage helped to push 75% of Democratic voters into supporting the ground war.

As reality set in, it became increasingly difficult to pretend women’s rights in Afghanistan were seriously improving. Women still face the same problems as they did before. As a female Afghan member of parliament told Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies (CounterSpin, 2/17/21), women in Afghanistan have three principal enemies:

One is the Taliban. Two is this group of warlords, disguised as a government, that the US supports. And the third is the US occupation…. If you in the West could get the US occupation out, we’d only have two.

However, Time managed to find a way to tug on the heartstrings of left-leaning audiences to support continued occupation. Featuring a shocking image of an 18-year-old local woman who had her ear and nose cut off, a 2010 cover story (8/9/10) asked readers to wonder “what happens if we leave Afghanistan,” the clear implication being the US must stay to prevent further brutality—despite the fact that the woman’s mutilation occurred after eight years of US occupation (Extra!, 10/10).

Vox (3/4/21) asserted that the US occupation of Afghanistan has meant “better rights for women and children” without offering evidence that that is the case.

The trick is still being used to this day. In March, Vox (3/4/21) credulously reported that Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Mark Milley made an emotional plea to Biden that he must stay in Afghanistan, otherwise women’s rights “will go back to the Stone Age.” It’s so good to know the upper echelons of the military industrial complex are filled with such passionate feminists.

In reality, nearly 20 years of occupation has only led to a situation where zero percent of Afghans considered themselves to be “thriving” while 85% are “suffering,” according to a Gallup poll. Only one in three girls goes to school, let alone university.

And all of this ignores the fact that the US supported radical Islamist groups and their takeover of the country in the first place, a move that drastically reduced women’s rights. Pre-Taliban, half of university students were women, as were 40% of the country’s doctors, 70% of its teachers and 30% of its civil servants—reflecting the reforms of the Soviet-backed government that the US dedicated massive resources to destroying.

Today, in half of the country’s provinces, fewer than 20% of teachers are female (and in many, fewer than 10% are). Only 37% of adolescent girls can read (compared to 66% of boys). Meanwhile, being a female gynecologist is now considered “one of the most dangerous jobs in the world” (New Statesman, 9/24/14). So much for a new golden age.

The “think of the women” trope is far from unique to Afghanistan. In fact, 19th century British imperial propagandists used the plight of Hindu women in India and Muslim women in Egypt as a pretext to invade and conquer those countries. The tactic’s longevity is perhaps testament to its effectiveness.

He’s attacking his own people!

One of the many justifications used to engineer public consent for the disastrous Iraq War was that Saddam Hussein was a monster who was a danger to his own country. ‘There’s no question that the leader of Iraq is an evil man. After all, he gassed his own people. And we know he’s been working on weapons of mass destruction,” President George W. Bush frequently said, with the media parroting his every word.

In the run up to the Iraq War, the New York Times suddenly became extremely concerned with Hussein’s crimes against civilians. Foreign correspondent John F. Burns (1/26/03), for example, compared him to Stalin and denounced him for plunging Iraq into a “bloodbath of medieval proportions.” The cornerstone of Burns’ pro-regime change argument was, ironically, the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. How did that one work out?

The evidence McClatchy (2/21/11) offered that Gadhafi had been charged with “genocide” was a single interview on Al Jazeera.

At the same time NATO was deciding to intervene in Libya to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, corporate media were filled with passionate denunciations of his regime, most telling readers that he had attacked “his own people” (e.g., McClatchy, 2/21/11; Washington Post, 3/11/11; New York Times, 3/15/11).

The Washington Post (4/1/11), approving of the intervention, reported that “a massacre of civilians, amounting to crimes against humanity,” would likely have transpired absent NATO’s intercession. It compared the supposed imminent slaughter to the Holocaust, implying that the United States’ actions “followed reflection in the international community about the failures to prevent genocide in the 1990s.” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (3/21/11) also praised the attack as “the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention,” claiming its “humanitarian purpose” was plain for all to see.

The phrase “killing his own people” (or “gassing” them) became commonplace in media accounts of enemy wrongdoings, as it directly fed into the new Responsibility to Protect doctrine, a legal framework that allowed military intervention in other countries under humanitarian auspices. In practice, however, it was generally invoked to overthrow adversarial states. Data from Google Trends shows only minor interest in Libyan human rights until early 2011, reaching a massive spike in March (the date of the NATO intervention) before quickly dropping down to negligible levels and staying there ever since. A majority of Democratic voters supported the intervention, almost on a par with Republicans.

The fact that talk of human rights in Libya has reduced to a trickle suggests either that the situation has drastically improved there, or that there were ulterior motives for all this human rights talk in the first place. It is clearly not the former (FAIR.org, 11/28/17). That media lost interest in the human rights situation  just after a successful military intervention strongly suggests their newfound passion was not genuine, and was a tool to sell war all along.

As with Libya, peak discussion of human rights in Syria coincided with the US bombing of the country in April 2017. It stayed high throughout the early period of the civil war, although it has petered out in recent years, as a victory by the government of Bashar al-Assad becomes ever more certain. To corporate media, Assad is a dictator who is “gassing his own people” (e.g., Vox, 4/4/17; Bloomberg, 12/4/18; New York Times, 6/25/18; Economist 6/18/20) and so, the implication is, something must be done—that something likely involving military jets. (In a 2019 survey, far more Democrats opposed withdrawing US troops from Syria than Republicans: 66% vs. 23%—Brookings, 1/9/20.)

A prime liberal interventionist argument can be found in the Huffington Post (8/26/13), where lawyer Josh Scheinert argued that “Syria’s civilians have paid the highest price” for Obama’s hesitancy, and demanded that “that…must change.” Scheinert wrote that he wanted to “believe that as a global community, when it came to the worst atrocities, not just the really bad ones, we might have moved on from our dark history of failures.” By failures, he did not mean active US participation or leadership in coups, wars and genocides in Latin America and Southeast Asia (to name but a few), but the times when the US military did not intervene.

The Guardian‘s Natalie Nougayrède (3/1/19) presented the arrest of Bashar al-Assad as a matter of legal spadework rather than military invasion.

Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrède (3/1/19) made a similar argument, maintaining that “Assad Can Still Be Brought to Justice—and Europe’s Role Is Crucial.” “Massive human rights violations must not be left unpunished,” she argued, claiming his arrest would “act as a deterrent against further slaughter.” Of course, the only realistic way to arrest Assad, as she surely understood, would be to send an invasion force into the country to overthrow the government and kidnap him. Thus, she effectively managed to couch what would be an all-out military assault on the scale of Iraq as a narrow legal response aimed at preventing human rights violations.

Sometimes atrocities will simply be made up out of whole cloth, such as Gadhafi’s Viagra-fueled rape squads, Saddam’s soldiers killing babies in incubators, or the “Gay Girl in Damascus” hoax. President Lyndon Johnson used the imaginary “open aggression on the high seas” known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident to convince Congress to authorize the Vietnam War (FAIR.org, 8/5/17).

Going further back, incidents like the USS Maine explosion—the impetus for US intervention in the Cuban war of independence—and British World War I propaganda about Germans bayoneting babies, crucifying prisoners and cutting the heads of children helped whip a skeptical, pacifist public into a bloodthirsty fervor.

We have to save democracy!

This trope has been used extensively against Venezuela, as the Washington Post illustrates. The paper’s editorial board has published editorial after editorial demanding a coup (or more) in order to supposedly save democracy.

Rather than “stand[ing] by as Venezuela veers toward civil war,” the Washington Post (6/30/17) appears to want the US to actively intervene to make civil war more likely.

The Post (6/30/17) strongly supported a wave of opposition violence in 2017 that killed at least 163 people, including an incident where an opposition leader stole a military helicopter and used it to bomb the Supreme Court and Interior Ministry. The Post strongly (and falsely) implied that it was an inside job by the Maduro “regime,” who were resorting to increasingly “far-fetched” and “brutal” repression of demonstrations that have the “support of the vast majority of Venezuelans.”

In fact, this “vast majority” turned out to be less than 3% of the country, as a poll taken that week by an opposition-linked firm showed. Eighty-five percent opposed the movement’s tactics, with 56% against any form of opposition action whatsoever, even if it were entirely peaceful. This continued a long trend of media invisibilizing the majority of Venezuelans, with only those agreeing with Washington’s ambitions worthy of being labeled “the Venezuelan people” (FAIR.org, 1/31/19).

The same editorial made a number of inflammatory predictions that if the US did not act, Maduro would “eliminate the opposition-controlled National Assembly” and “convert Venezuela into a regime modeled after Cuba’s.” None of this has proven to be true. The Post appeared bewildered by the lack of appetite for a US coup from Venezuela’s neighbors, explaining this by telling readers that they had been “bribed by Caracas with discounted oil.”

One month later, the Post’s editorial board (7/27/17) was still informing us that the violent US-backed coup attempt was actually a peaceful demonstration supported by the “vast majority of its own people,” and that “Venezuela’s lawless regime” was itself the one conducting a coup against democracy. We must act now was the message, as Maduro was about to “abolish” the National Assembly and “cancel future elections”— again, none of which actually happened.

“The response of the United States and other democracies [to Venezuela] has been consistently inadequate,” the board lamented. Given that the US was doing everything short of active military intervention in the country, the implication of what should be done was clear.

In case that was not obvious enough, however, the Post (11/15/17) also ran a column headlined “The Odds of a Military Coup in Venezuela Are Going Up. But Coups Can Sometimes Lead to Democracy.” The piece claimed that Maduro had “cracked down on dissidents by force and run roughshod over the country’s democratic institutions.” The military, it noted, will “play a key role in determining whether a country will move to real democracy.”

“Ortega first ruled Nicaragua for 11 years after the 1979 revolution, until his ouster in the country’s first genuinely democratic election,” wrote the Washington Post (8/12/16)—ignoring the 1984 elections, because to the Post, elections are only democratic if they US-favored candidate wins.

The Washington Post (8/12/16) has also claimed that action against Nicaragua was necessary to save democracy. Leftist President Daniel Ortega, the board told readers, has been “astonishingly contemptuous of democratic norms,” including overseeing “a bogus repeal of constitutional term limits, electoral fraud, intimidation of the opposition and control of major media.” How can the United States, which the Post claimed “spent so much money and political capital to promote democracy in Nicaragua during the 1980s,” sit by and offer “nothing but mild verbal opposition?”

The level of contempt displayed here for basic historical truth is staggering. In reality, the US government in the 1980s trained, armed and funded far-right death squads that wrought havoc in Nicaragua and the rest of the region, killing hundreds of thousands in genocides the area will never recover from. Quite apart from its architects being found guilty in US courts, the Reagan administration was tried and convicted by the International Court of Justice on 15 counts centering on the illegal use of force. It is these actions, presumably, that the Post described to  readers as “promoting democracy,” thereby using a mythical past to convince left-leaning audiences that further “democracy promotion” is necessary today.

The US has for years been supporting a domestic protest movement aimed at toppling Ortega. However, it has failed to get very far, primarily due to his widespread public support and the opposition’s own unpopularity.

Corporate media chided the United States, but generally only for not doing enough to ensure a change in government. “What America Must Do to Help Nicaragua Restore Democracy,” ran the Hill’s headline (1/30/20). The article advised that the US must “diversify its strategy and increase sanctions on regime insiders complicit in carrying out human rights abuses.” “Two years After Nicaragua’s Mass Uprising Started, Why Is Daniel Ortega Still in Power?” grumbled a Washington Post headline (1/5/20), disappointed that democracy had not been restored yet.

Unfortunately, even much of the US left media has aligned with the corporate press in condemning progressive Latin American administrations, thereby greasing the skids for US-supported attempts at regime change (FAIR.org, 10/12/19, 1/22/20).

Who gets to talk on human rights

Sourcing is a key component of journalism; who the sources are will shape the tone and the argument of anything a news organization produces (Extra!, 1–2/06). However, there are myriad potentially suitable individuals or organizations to go to, and journalists themselves are largely in control of who they select. Media can therefore effectively decide which arguments get heard and which do not, simply by going to the people who reflect the views they wish to push.

At the beginning of the Iraq invasion, corporate media was saturated with pro-war voices, while dissent was largely squelched. A FAIR study (5/1/03) of TV news in early 2003 found that 64% of all sources favored an attack, while only one in ten voiced any opposition to the idea. As a result, viewers were effectively blitzed by voices arguing for an intervention.

Moving to the present, a search for pro-peace think tanks such as the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for Economic and Policy Research elicits 86 and 53 results, respectively, in the New York Times over the past five years, going back to the beginning of 2016. Hawkish organizations are referenced far more frequently; the Center for American Progress, whose executive director Neera Tanden has called for “oil-rich countries” to pay the US for the privilege of being bombed (FAIR.org, 3/3/21), has featured in 432 Times articles since 2016, while conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation appears in 529 over the same period, suggesting that what we saw during the Iraq invasion is the rule rather than the exception.

If well-paid US columnists start becoming preoccupied with human rights in your country, it is a pretty good sign that you are about to get bombed. It is also remarkable how quickly those same pundits will lose their acute interest in human rights in a nation after a US intervention. Therefore, the next time you hear freedom, human rights and democracy in another country being endlessly discussed, be on your guard for ulterior motives; these cold-blooded media figures may just be crying crocodile tears in the service of empire.