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Hey, NYT–the ‘Relentless Populist’ Relented Long Ago

January 22, 2017 - 10:58am

In the New York Times‘ view, a politician whose nominees have a net worth of $14 billion has been “shun[ning the] establishment.”


In the New York Times‘ lead news analysis after Donald Trump’s inauguration (1/20/17), White House correspondent Mark Landler wrote of Trump, “It remains an open question whether he will continue to be the relentless populist who was on display on Friday.”

Really? Looking at Trump’s nominations and appointments—the clearest indication during the transition period of how a president-elect actually intends to govern—it’s hard to discern any signs of populism whatsoever:

  • Trump’s Treasury nominee, Steve Mnuchin, worked for Goldman Sachs and George Soros before launching his own investment firm, where he earned the title of “Foreclosure King,” with critics accusing him of “using potentially illegal tactics to foreclose on as many as 80,000 California homes.”
  • Trump named the president of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn, to be his chief economic advisor. Cohn has argued that the way to keep business in the US is to create a “really competitive environment.”
  • Labor nominee Andrew Puzder, a fast-food CEO, has fought against raising the minimum wage, expanding overtime pay and sick-leave policies. He has said he prefers robots to human workers because “they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”
  • Wilbur Ross, Trump’s choice for Commerce, is a billionaire investor who has declared that “the 1 Percent is being picked on for political reasons” and endorsed Mitt Romney’s claim that 47 percent of the public are “dependent upon government.”

Landler also wrote that “Mr. Trump is as close to an independent as has ever served in modern times,” as “he ran against the Republican establishment as much as he ran against Hillary Clinton.” One suspects that the most independent president of modern times wouldn’t pick the head of one of the two major parties to be his White House chief of staff, as Trump did with Reince Priebus. Probably their vice president wouldn’t have previously held their party’s third-highest leadership position in the House, either.

Landler is not alone at the New York Times in his approach of paying attention to what Trump says, not to what he does. In the next day’s paper (1/21/17), national political correspondent Jonathan Martin began an article by asking of Trump, “Will he actually pursue his campaign agenda of big-government nationalism, all but obliterating the liberal-conservative distinctions that have defined America’s political parties for a century?” To Martin, Trump’s speech at his swearing-in ceremony seemed to answer that question: “An inaugural speech delivered with the same blunt force that propelled Mr. Trump’s insurgent campaign has dashed Republican hopes for a more traditional agenda.”

The LA Times‘ Doyle McManus endorses the principle of paying less attention to what Trump says and more to what he does–such as appointing orthodox Republicans to cabinet positions.

LA Times political reporter Doyle McManus (12/8/16) took on this kind of analysis in a column last month:

If you watch what Trump does, not what he says—which at this point, mostly means the choices he makes for Cabinet positions—he doesn’t look unusual at all.

In Trump’s picks for economic and domestic policymaking jobs, there’s a consistent underlying thread…Republican orthodoxy. Trump’s choices have all been thoroughgoing conservatives who believe in the free market, deregulation and, wherever possible, privatization of government functions.

Most of them could have been nominated by any GOP nominee, including Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.

There’s nary a populist among them—not even the conservative kind.

The New York Times (1/21/17), to its credit, was willing to refer in a headline to Trump’s “false claims,” noting his assertion that 1.5 million people attended his inauguration was “a claim that photographs disproved” and that White House spokesperson Sean Spicer tried to back up this contention with “a series of false statements.” The paper needs to entertain the possibility that Trump may be lying about his political ideology as well as the size of his audience.

Jim Naureckas is the editor of FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @JNaureckas.

You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com, or write to public editor Liz Spayd at public@nytimes.com (Twitter:@NYTimes or @SpaydL). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

Trump’s Inauguration and the Legitimacy Fetish

January 20, 2017 - 4:39pm

Jonathan Turley has spoken.

As John Lewis and 66 other Democratic members of Congress boycotted the festivities surrounding the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, they got an earful from pundits about how wrong it was to question the “legitimacy” of an elected US president.

“For all of John Lewis’s heroic service to his country,” wrote the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus (1/16/17), “the Georgia congressman’s assertion that Donald Trump is not a ‘legitimate‘ president was not appropriate or helpful.”

“In the end, the protests are not about legitimacy,” declared Jonathan Turley (USA Today, 1/19/17). “Trump is by any measure our duly elected and legitimate president. It is about a refusal to accept legitimate results.”

“I’m ready to grit my teeth and accept Trump as our legitimate president for the sake of national unity,” said Clarence Page (Chicago Tribune, 1/17/17), “just as I hoped America would unite behind President Obama, whether they voted for him or not.”  He went on to “suspect that Lewis, not being a stupid man by any means, knows Trump is ‘legitimate,’ at least in the constitutionally legal sense.”

While acknowledging that “moral legitimacy” was “in the eye of the beholder,” Page concluded that “as good Americans, we should support our newly elected president in good faith, even as we criticize his ways—and look ahead to the next election.”

Real Clear Politics warns John Lewis against questioning authority.

In Real Clear Politics (1/17/17), Carl Cannon and Caitlin Huey-Burns wrote of “The Danger of Delegitimizing Trump,” which turned out to be a warning that there might be “long-term ramifications to these guerrilla tactics that Republicans can choose to employ the next time they lose the White House.” So Republicans might start questioning the legitimacy of a Democratic president? Ominous.

Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg (San Francisco Chronicle, 1/18/17) complained that “Lewis is…refusing to attend Trump’s inauguration and arguing that Trump cannot be a legitimate president because of Russian meddling in the election.” His rebuttal to that was peculiar:

Lewis may have reason to believe that Trump did not win fair and square, but questioning Trump’s legitimacy is exactly what the Russians probably wanted from the beginning: to undermine Western and American faith and confidence in democracy.

So Goldberg’s argument is that you should not question the legitimacy of a president who, through “Russian meddling,” likely “did not win fair and square”—because, otherwise, the Russians win? Got it.

Goldberg noted as “a sign of Lewis’ partisanship that he also boycotted George W. Bush’s first inauguration because he didn’t think Bush was legitimate either.” That’s the Bush, you may recall, who lost the popular vote, but was awarded the presidency when a partisan majority of the Supreme Court ordered a halt to the recount in Florida. That George W. Bush.

(Goldberg also cited, as an example of “poisonous cynicism,” Lewis’ “insinuating that voting for Mitt Romney might lead America to ‘go back’ to the days of fire hoses, police dogs and church bombings.” Those who have followed the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline are aware that the use of water cannon and attack dogs against protesters is alive and well in 21st century America. As for church bombings, the BATF has reported at least 2,378 cases of arson at houses of worship over the past 20 years—if you’ll pardon my cynicism.)

Why is it so important to corporate media commentators that presidential legitimacy not be questioned? By and large, they are part of, and identify with, an establishment whose fragility is all too evident. That’s why you get circular arguments like Marcus pleading for the public to accept election results because accepted election results are what the public needs:

At some point, after the procedures established by the rule of law have run their course, the country needs to accept the result, however difficult it may be…. Trump is a legitimate president because our system demands finality and acceptance even in the presence of uncertainty. Posting an asterisk next to an election result is not healthy for democracy.

That’s completely wrong: Refusal to accept undemocratic results is the only thing that has moved democracy forward. This country came into being when people refused to accept a system in which the chief executive was the first-born son of the previous chief executive. Even though hereditary monarchy was the procedure established by the rule of law, the signers of the Declaration of Independence rejected it, holding that it was their inalienable right to alter or abolish their form of government.

(graphic by WikiMedia/CircleAdrian)

The new system of government, of course, still left almost everything to be desired from the standpoint of democracy. From 1789 until 1824, the proportion of the US population taking part in presidential elections never got above 4 percent, and usually was closer to 1 percent. With the extension of suffrage to non-propertied white men, to African-American men, to women, to young adults, the country came closer to being a society where the people actually ruled—but this happened only when the people refused to concede the legitimacy of systems designed to disenfranchise.

It’s easy to see now that a country where only wealthy white men could vote was not a democracy. For some of us, it’s equally obvious that the system we have now—where a candidate who loses by 2.9 million votes is declared the winner, due to an archaic structure designed to preserve the power of slaveholders; where voter suppression removes voters from the rolls or simply leaves their votes uncounted; where vast disparities of wealth allow a handful of billionaires to alter the course of elections—cannot call itself democratic either.

Only when we refuse to accept such results—when we say that a rigged system has no legitimacy—will these problems be addressed. It’s the boycotters, and not the legitimacy-mongers, who are pushing this country toward what it ought to be.

Jim Naureckas is the editor of FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @JNaureckas.

 

‘What Communities Are Doing Is Making Homelessness Less Visible’ - CounterSpin interview with Megan Hustings on Food-Sharing

January 20, 2017 - 11:54am

Janine Jackson interviewed Megan Hustings about laws against food-sharing for the January 13, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Megan Hustings: “Homelessness is a large problem, but we’re not going to solve it by saying, you can’t be homeless here.”

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Janine Jackson: When seven people were arrested recently in Florida for serving free food to homeless people in a public park, it got a smattering of news coverage. One wire report began by explaining that what many see as a charitable act is “actually a legally complicated matter that could violate laws and even send you to jail.”

The piece contends that the Florida activists “found this out” after the event; but of course those people, members of the group Food Not Bombs, knew just what they were doing, along with the reasons that would be presented, this time, for their arrests.

In troubling times, more people may be tempted or driven to participate in social change more directly. So what can we learn from the experience around food-sharing and the state–and the media–response? Megan Hustings is director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Megan Hustings.

Megan Hustings: Thanks, Janine. Thanks for having me.

JJ: Well, homelessness, of course, is not new, and people giving food to homeless people and getting in trouble for it, that’s not new either.

MH: Unfortunately.

JJ: And yet it seems like it’s a moment when maybe more people than usual are thinking about the most vulnerable in society, and that we can’t assume that government is going to help or protect them, and asking, what can I do? And feeding the hungry sounds like a simple place to start. So give us some background on, first of all, maybe, the importance of food-sharing programs. Where they exist, they do help people.

Food Not Bombs sharing food in New York City after Hurricane Sandy.

MH: Yeah, and what’s key about food-sharing, especially as Food Not Bombs tends to do it, which is just going out into the community, into the parks where people congregate, is that it finds people where they are. We have someone, a long-time advocate who was homeless himself, who always says that homeless people are the least lazy out there, because they have to walk, you know, two miles from the shelter to get their lunch, and then two miles back to get dinner and come back at night. So oftentimes even though there might be free food or meals available, they’re not always convenient for folks who are staying outside. So those who do feed in public areas like parks are providing a very needed service.

JJ: Let’s talk about the pushback on that, because what one gets from the media coverage, which of course is kind of thin and occasional, is, oh sure, it sounds like a good idea, but there’s really these actually very good reasons that it’s not a good idea. What forms do the restrictions tend to take?

MH: They can take many forms. The restrictions that we know about have been anywhere from requiring a permit, which I believe is what is on the books in Tampa, permits to share food, and sometimes that requires that you do it actually indoors, or have some sort of facility where food prep is highly regulated. Orlando had a law on the books that said that you cannot share food with more than 25 people in public places, so folks were getting arrested when they handed out that 26th sandwich.

In general, these ordinances have been around for a very long time. We’ve been tracking them for about 20 years, and what we see is that, in general, what communities are in effect doing is making homelessness less visible. Even though that might not be the outward intention, that’s usually what happens.

And in the case of Tampa, we have to mention that there was a large college football event earlier this week, and so it was odd that even though there had been a law on the books for a very long time, that police and the city had not responded by asking the Food Not Bombs folks to move along until there was the event that a lot of people would be paying attention to in the city, and perhaps wanted not to see this kind of sharing of food or these, quote unquote, “types of people” in their city.

JJ: It fits together with what I know—in the 2014 report that the Coalition did, Share No More, you talk about kind of myths and motivations of the pushback. And there’s a number of levels to it that you’ve touched on. One of them was reflected in a kind of otherwise good, straightforward story, but it referred to municipalities threatening or actually jailing groups that feed the homeless, and it said they’re acting against “private groups that work to serve food to the needy instead of letting government-run services do the job.” That makes it sound as though there are these government services that could be feeding all of these people, and groups like Food Not Bombs are getting in the way of it. And I guess there’s a problem there, which you’ve already pointed towards, of whether those programs really do exist, or do meet all the needs that are out there.

So it’s not, in other words, feeding people instead of letting the government do it; sometimes it’s feeding people instead of letting them be hungry.

MH: Uh-huh. Or have to stress to find another way to eat.

JJ: Right, right. But then, perhaps more depressingly, there seems to be this idea that somehow helping homeless people in this sense, and feeding them, is creating or driving homelessness, as though if you didn’t feed them, they wouldn’t exist?

MH: Yeah, and we find that very troubling, especially troubling, because homelessness has so many causes, and something that we have really highlighted in recent years, with the increased number of encampments that are springing up across the country is, first of all, there’s not enough affordable housing in our communities, but also there’s just not enough shelter, either. And unfortunately, even federal funding has been, in recent years, tailored more towards permanent supportive housing programs, which are extremely successful and really doing a great job of housing a small number of folks. And so there’s a lot more people who are just not finding the resources or the help that they need on a daily basis.

JJ: So that’s another piece of the problem.

And then another piece that, I guess, raises some questions about the idea that the restrictions are motivated by real concern and a desire to truly or more deeply help homeless people, that’s kind of belied by other laws that we see on the books that affect homeless people. Can you tell us a little about some of the context of the other laws that people without homes are up against?

MH: Uh-huh. And this is definitely how we see it. We know some of our partners have slightly different perspectives, that would really encourage folks to go to a service provider instead of someone who’s feeding in a park, so they can get further services. But, again, I think what we see is not just restrictions on feeding, but also there’s been lots of laws that restrict camping or sleeping, even sitting down in public places, sitting on sidewalks or even benches.

There’s not just ordinances but also subtle things that cities do, like putting arm rests in the middle of public benches so that you can’t lie down. Here in DC, we have bus stop benches that have little dividers between the seats, and they’re very, very skinny, so it would be very difficult to lie down and be comfortable.

So there’s these little things here that are subtly saying, we don’t want to see people who are homeless in our cities, in our downtown areas. You know, we try to move them along in any way we can. And we just think that this is really antithetical to ending homelessness, and truly doing something to help people get off the streets.

And we understand that there’s a lot of cities’ mayors who get a lot of feedback from their community that homelessness is a large problem, but we’re not going to solve it by saying, you can’t be homeless here. That’s not looking at all at the causes of why somebody is homeless, or really what the issues are that are preventing them from getting and affording long-term housing.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally: I guess folks who are motivated to do things, we’re all going to have to decide what our relationship to the law should be when we disagree with those laws. That’s going to be a choice that, I guess, more and more folks are going to be making.

Let me ask you, are there not things that municipalities themselves can do? We hear about places making themselves sanctuary cities, so maybe there’s going to be a federal law that’s pressing deportation, but we’re going to make a statement that in our community we’re going to do things differently. Are there those sorts of tools available in terms of homelessness and feeding hungry people?

MH: Most definitely. Again, at the root of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. Communities across the country, we’re all struggling to find housing that we can afford. So that’s the basic level, we really need more advocacy from folks, calling your legislators—they really do actually want to hear from you—and being involved in advocacy efforts to really increase funding for affordable housing programs.

There’s also a number of cities who have endeavored to support encampments and folks who live in them while longer-term housing solutions are found. So there are some encampments across the country— some cities who have agreed to do things like trash pickup and mail delivery services even, anything to provide a higher standard of living for folks who only have the ability to live outdoors, or there’s not a viable option for them to be indoors at the moment.

So that’s definitely something that we encourage. If there’s more of a realization that there are positive things we can do to ultimately end homelessness while also supporting the individuals who are on the streets right now, that’s much preferable to the alternative.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Megan Hustings, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Find their work online at NationalHomeless.org. Thank you very much, Megan Hustings, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MH: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

The Media and Martin Luther King - A CounterSpin special featuring Gary Younge, Rick Perlstein, Jim Naureckas and Brandi Collins

January 20, 2017 - 9:41am
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Corporate media don’t like to recall the Martin Luther King who called for a “radical restructuring of society.”

This week on CounterSpin: Quite a few newspapers carried conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg’s complaint that the inauguration boycott by Rep. John Lewis and others “is exactly what the Russians probably wanted from the beginning.” (Goldberg’s proof that Lewis’ stance is mere partisanship is that he also boycotted George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration.)

Still, when Donald Trump greeted the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, if you will, with a swipe at Lewis, many in corporate media expressed ready disapproval for what Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson called Trump’s “disregard for the American narrative,” in which Lewis is an undeniable hero. (For Gerson, Lewis’s challenge to the 2000 election is merely a sign of his “disturbing habit of hyperbole.”)

But the relative ease with which elite media defended John Lewis belies a more complex relationship between the press corps and the civil rights movement, which the Martin Luther King holiday always serves to highlight.

As Free Press’s Joseph Torres wrote recently, “Sanitizing King’s legacy is a deliberate act.”

Media’s traditional misremembering of King distorts his ideas and priorities, and rewrites the press’s own role in history; it also projects a distorted vision of what protest means and how social change happens—a clear view of which is much in demand right now.

We’ve talked about this subject a number of times on the show; we revisit some of them  in a special look at “The Media and Martin Luther King.”

NYT Ignored Reality at 2001 Bush Inauguration; Now Ignorance Is History

January 19, 2017 - 11:52am

It was much harder for TV than for newspapers to downplay the reality that George W. Bush was greeted in 2001 by massive protests.

Discussing the security challenges posed by the inauguration of Donald Trump, the New York Times (1/18/17) reported:

Those numbers are quite likely to be larger than any seen at an inauguration since at least the Vietnam War era. Mr. Bush’s 2001 inauguration attracted modest protest action, the largest in more recent memory, but it was largely disorganized and caused no significant disruptions.

The link in that passage goes back to the Times‘ 2001 coverage of the inauguration—coverage that was critiqued by FAIR at the time under the headline “Ignoring Reality at the Inauguration” (Extra!, 3–4/01):

The New York Times editorial the day after George W. Bush’s inauguration (“A Vision of Unity,” 1/21/01) predicted, based on the inaugural address, that Bush could “lift the nation to a new era of inclusion and social justice,” and found room to describe how “the gloomy light of a winter’s day was offset by splashes of color like Laura Bush’s blue coat.”

But it didn’t find space to mention the most striking feature of the 2001 inauguration: that it occurred amidst widespread and angry protests rejecting the legitimacy of Bush’s claim to office, the likes of which have not been faced by any modern president. Along the parade route, he was confronted by signs with messages like “Shame,” “Bush Lost” and “Hail to the Thief.” The London Guardian (1/22/01) reported that the inaugural parade “fell well short of being triumphant, and on many occasions during its slow advance through the drizzle, the sound of jeering drowned out the cheers.”

But the front page of the New York Times showcased stories like “Bush, Taking Office, Calls for Civility, Compassion and ‘Nation of Character’; Unity Is a Theme” and “Proud Father and Son Bask in History’s Glow”—both of which discussed Bush’s teary-eyed father while avoiding any mention of protesters.

While the Times‘ news editors could not totally ignore the estimated 20,000 demonstrators, they did their best to downplay them, placing the one story about them (“Protesters in the Thousands Sound Off in the Capital”) on page 17, the sixth out of eight pages of inauguration coverage. This article featured one quote from Rev. Al Sharpton and one from a demonstrator who spoke of the “inchoate feeling” that led her to march. This abbreviated presentation of the viewpoints of the tens of thousands of anti-Bush protesters was “balanced” by another quote from one of the 100 anti-abortion activists who demonstrated outside Planned Parenthood’s offices.

All told, the story measured 15 column inches out of eight full pages of inauguration coverage. (It was about three-fourths the length of “Floridians of the GOP Savor ‘Special Victory,” on page 18.) The accompanying photo, a tiny 2″ x 3″ shot of one of the day’s anti-Bush marches, was the only one out of 19 inauguration-related photos in the paper to show any sign of dissent.

Given the paper of record’s strenuous downplaying of the 2001 inaugural protests in the name of “Tradition and Legitimacy,” it’s not surprising that 16 years later, the paper’s reporters remember those protests as being “modest.”

Jim Naureckas is the editor of FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @JNaureckas.

You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com, or write to public editor Liz Spayd at public@nytimes.com (Twitter:@NYTimes or @SpaydL). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

Manning Sentence Commuted–No Thanks to Corporate Media Opinion

January 18, 2017 - 3:47pm

The only major newspaper editorial we could find on the issue of clemency for Chelsea Manning before her commutation was announced.

President Barack Obama shook the media world Tuesday by announcing he is commuting the 35-year prison sentence of US Army leaker Chelsea Manning. While responses on his actions are split, with some calling it “joyous news” and others–including a writer from a putatively liberal outfit like Media Matters–insisting she was “a traitor, not a whistleblower,” the build-up to Obama’s decision was uniform: Major print media almost completely ignored Manning’s pleas for clemency.

The editorial boards of the most influential newspapers in the United States—the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today—published nothing in support of Manning. When an outlet did register an opinion, as with the New York Post (1/13/17), it was to adamantly warn against commuting or pardoning her.

The only sympathetic commentaries we found in major papers over the past year were in the LA Times (9/16/16)—an op-ed by N+1 associate editor Richard Beck that called, not for a pardon itself, exactly, but for “widespread, coordinated support for a full pardon” for Manning—and a piece by Michael Tracey (“Let Chelsea Manning Go Free”) that appeared in the New York Daily News (1/17/17) 45 minutes before the commutation was announced. (The paper’s editorial board retorted later that day with “Leniency for a Traitor: Obama Clemency for Criminal Leaker Manning Is Unjust.”)

On the reporting side, it’s worth noting that the New York Times’ Charlie Savage has devoted a considerable amount of time over the past few months to documenting Manning’s difficulties as a trans woman in a men’s prison (1/13/17)—and reporting, for example, her placement in solitary confinement as punishment for a suicide attempt (9/23/16).

But on the editorial side—the department charged with driving popular opinion—support for mercy for Manning was nonexistent. This is especially striking, given that her exposure of government secrets through WikiLeaks was the basis for countless media reports (FAIR.org, 12/4/12)—including revelations about a 2007 US military attack in Iraq that killed two Reuters journalists. Manning’s conviction under the Espionage Act—even though she had given secrets to media, not an enemy power—posed a chilling threat to all media sources who seek to expose government wrongdoing.

The Washington Post hasn’t always been this stingy with appeals for leniency. In 2009–10, they ran not one, not two, but three columns calling for clemency for filmmaker and confessed child rapist Roman Polanski:

  • Anne Applebaum: The Outrageous Arrest of Roman Polanski (9/27/09)
  • Richard Cohen: Let Polanski Go—but First Let Me at Him (9/28/09)
  • Richard Cohen: Thank You, Switzerland, for Freeing Polanski (7/13/10)

Needless to say, both Applebaum and Cohen have been silent on the issue of Chelsea Manning, whose crime, unlike Polanski’s, never actually harmed anyone. The New York Times also made room to publish a pro-Polanski op-ed in 2009, “Why Arrest Roman Polanski Now?” (10/3/09). (Times alum Judith Miller, whose relaying of false intelligence reports helped paved the way for the blood-soaked invasion of Iraq, had the chutzpah to demand on Twitter—1/17/17—“How many people died because of Manning’s leak?”)

After Obama’s decision on Manning, the coverage was even worse. In addition to a predictable denunciation from the New York Post (1/17/17), the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin (1/18/17) piled on Obama, insisting his “grave misstep” wasn’t “popular” with Democrats (because popularity, apparently, is now a moral rubric one should strive for). The Wall Street Journal  editorial board (1/18/17) published what was, even by its own standards, an incredibly vulgar take, referring to Manning as “a gender celebrity” and Obama’s move as “politically correct clemency.” The anonymous editorial would courageously misgender Manning three times.

Also notably absent from mainstream editorial advocacy leading up to Obama’s announcement were Puerto Rican activist Oscar López Rivera and Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who have been in federal prison for 35 and 40 years, respectively. The Chicago Tribune had one of the few newspaper editorials addressing the latter’s case—”Clemency for Leonard Peltier? Never” (1/13/17)—although Time (8/31/16) did publish an opinion piece from Peltier’s daughter seeking freedom for her father.  López Rivera received clemency from the president on Tuesday, while Peltier still holds out hope for the same.

It’s a strange day when the president of the United States is actively to the left of all major media outlets on an issue. Now that Obama has given the Manning commutation his seal of approval, some in the press will likely follow in praise. But when Manning needed support most from the fourth estate, the supposed protectors of transparency and justice in the US media were, per usual, nowhere to be found.

Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.

‘It’s Tough to Say How Much Leverage People Have on Him’ - CounterSpin interview with Russ Choma on Trump's conflicts

January 18, 2017 - 2:41pm

Janine Jackson interviewed Russ Choma about Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest for the January 13, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

 

Russ Choma: “Donald Trump keeps on saying this thing about, well, I’m the president, so I can’t have conflicts of interest, and that’s just not true.”

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Janine Jackson: Donald Trump owns a lot of things, and his big announcement January 11 was that he intends to keep on owning them—despite this presidency business, or however anyone who isn’t Donald Trump has ever done it. Whether it’s the power of persuasion or the persuasiveness of power, it’s not an unfounded concern that some in public life, including in the media, might provide insufficient challenge to the idea that worries about conflicts of interest are really just sour grapes. Reporter Russ Choma has been tracking Trump’s conflicts for Mother Jones. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Russ Choma.

Russ Choma: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Some of Russ Choma’s stories for Mother Jones about Trump’s conflicts of interest.

JJ: I know that not everyone can cover everything, and there’s a whole lot of ground to cover. But still, you’re one of not very many reporters that have really fleshed out Donald Trump’s conflicting interests, rather than just sort of mention them, or say that they’re “controversial” or something like that. Before we talk about coverage, let’s talk about some of the substance here. What, for you, are among the most significant and/or troubling conflicts for the president-elect?

RC: I think, first of all, the thing that probably troubles me the most is that we just don’t know very much, or we know some but not enough. He’s disclosed his assets and his liabilities, but we’re missing a lot of details. We’re missing, especially, details on the debts, the liabilities. He reported, or now is reporting, about $713 million in debts to a number of banks. We don’t know the details of these loans. We know that he’s personally guaranteed some of the money, we don’t know how much. We know that some of these loans have been turned around and sold off. We don’t know everyone who owns the loans now, or how much is he spending to make these payments. We have some idea of his income, we have some idea of his net worth, but it’s tough to say how much leverage people have on him.

All these things are things that concern me that we don’t know. Getting a little more detail, getting his tax returns, would help with all of this. But that’s the first concern, is that we just don’t know enough.

I think that the next biggest thing is the debt, for me. That’s something that we’ve covered a lot, is the debt. His biggest lender is Deutsche Bank, which is a large German bank. They’re financially troubled. They’ve also run into a lot of trouble with US regulators. They just settled a $7.2 billion fine with the Department of Justice for the role that they played in creating bad mortgages and then packaging them in the lead-up to the 2008 economic crisis. They’re currently under investigation for the role that they played in potentially helping Russians who were under sanction get money out of Moscow; the New Yorker had a really great piece this summer on what essentially looked like money-laundering.

Department of Justice is investigating them. They’re his biggest lender. He’s going to be in charge of the Department of Justice. How tough is he going to be on them? And this fall, when the question came up about their role in the 2008 mortgage crisis, when the Department of Justice initially said, we’re going to be very, very tough; we want a fine of $14 billion—the bank almost went under. Its stock crashed, the German government had to announce that they were not going to step in and prop the bank up. I mean, it could have very quickly become an international crisis, an international situation.

And if he owes these people money, $364 million by our count, he needs them to keep lending him money, that’s a huge conflict. And to me, it’s something you can’t get around. You know, he can say he’s not going to run his business anymore, he can turn it over to his children, but if he’s personally guaranteed these loans, and these lenders have this leverage over him, that’s something you just can’t get around, unless you get rid of the loans, and you get rid of the assets that you’ve mortgaged against them.

JJ: I think that emphasis on, as you put it, not just what he owns, but what he owes, is very interesting, and an interesting point that’s not being brought up so clearly, maybe, in mainstream media coverage. But the conflicts are similar in that, you know, he owns Vegas casinos, and they will be involved with the National Labor Relations Board, and he’s going to appoint members there. The nature of the conflicts between what you would look for a president to do politically and choices he might make as a businessman or as an owner, the nature of the conflict is similar.

RC: Right, I don’t want to say that there aren’t conflicts with what he owns, because you’re absolutely right. Like you pointed out, the National Labor Relations Board; that’s been one that has come up, and it’s sure to come up again, considering how many people are employed at his hotels. And then his foreign interests, the things that he owns overseas, all that—most of those aren’t actually attached to any debt, but that’s a good example of what he owns.

JJ: Right. Well, I’m not at all saying that media has ignored the issue. But the way stories present things, we read about “almost” an “appearance” that “might suggest” to “some” a “potential” conflict…. It’s almost like conflicts of interest are chimerae. And I think it’s because, on some level, it’s seen as a judgment call, like you’re making a moral claim: “You might think he has a conflict of interest, because you don’t trust him.”

But it’s really just a situational definition, isn’t it? You’re saying a person has two interests, they’re competing. You’re not even claiming that they’re favoring one over the other. But it’s not a wait-and-see type of thing, it’s just a kind of relationship that in itself presents a problem.

RC: Right. Donald Trump keeps on saying this thing about, well, I’m the president, so I can’t have conflicts of interest, and that’s just not true. You may legally not be subject to the conflict of interest law, but the conflict is still there. The fact that Deutsche Bank is your biggest lender and Deutsche Bank is in trouble with the Department of Justice, or potentially in trouble with the Department of Justice, that’s a conflict. Now the question becomes, can it be managed? Is it a big deal? Is it something to be concerned about? But it’s a conflict.

The other thing is with conflict of interest — and this is a big part of the thinking on all conflict of interest—is that you don’t have to have an actual act of wrongdoing. You know, Donald Trump could act with the best intentions when it comes to Deutsche Bank; he could do everything that he’s supposed to do. Deutsche Bank could not ask for any favors, could not pressure him at all. But as long as that conflict exists, and people think that there’s a possibility that something happened—you know, it’s the appearance of a conflict that’s just as important as the actual conflict. People are going to question it.

JJ: After the press conference, headlines like “Trump Said Ready to Turn Business Over to Trust Run by Sons and Associate” imply that some sort of meaningful concession was made. But these moves, the “many documents” he says he signed, making inside hires of ethical advisors—that doesn’t really touch the key conflict that you’re talking about, does it?

RC: Right. I mean, we need a lot more detail. The ethics experts I spoke to said none of what he announced at the press conference actually addresses the core issues that need to be addressed. But even for those steps to do the things that he said, we need a lot more information.

There’s a concern with the Constitution, that the Constitution says that federal officeholders can’t accept a financial benefit from a foreign government. Would that apply to his hotel in Washington, which foreign delegations seem to be rushing to rent rooms at? And his lawyer said, well, we’ll donate the profits from any transaction with a foreign delegation to the US Treasury.

Well, what do you mean, profit? Are you counting the money that you make only after you pay all of your overhead, you pay your debt service, you pay your taxes? Because you could still take a lot of money before you get to that point.

And how do we know that you’re actually doing that? Are you going to open up your books? Are you going to make the hotel’s books public? Are they going to be affected by FOIA? I mean, there’s a lot of details before anything that he said yesterday can really be verified.

And then even when it is, like I said, the ethics experts that I’ve spoken to say it doesn’t actually meet the requirements that they think need to be made.

JJ: Right. Well, what can you tell us about congressional efforts to address this problem?

RC: I guess the good news is that Congress can act if they’d like to, with the power of hearings and oversight committees. And I think that, as we saw with Hillary Clinton’s emails, if members of Congress want to make something into a very big deal, they will.

And I spoke to one constitutional lawyer who said if you thought that Hillary’s emails were a big deal, wait till you see what they do with Trump’s conflicts of interests. Now, that requires having members of Congress who want to do that. If he has supportive Republicans, who currently control both houses, they’re not going to do anything. And right now, there are Democrats who are attempting to make a fuss, who are releasing press releases, who are sponsoring legislation, but without Republicans to go along with them, those hearings aren’t going to get held, that legislation’s not going to move. And so, at the moment, it’s sort of dead in the water.

Now, we did see that when the Republicans moved to lessen the power of the congressional Office of Ethics—which is not actually anything to do with Trump—a huge, huge response from the public, where people called and swamped the switchboard, that actually had an impact. And so we’ve seen that members of Congress can be swayed by a public outcry, and that on the issue of ethics, there is a public concern, and the public wants our government to act ethically. So I think that it’s not out of the question that Congress could take steps. They just need to be motivated. And I think right now, the majority doesn’t feel motivated, and the minority doesn’t have a lot of options without help.

JJ: Finally, and directly to that point of possible sources of that motivation, what role do you see for reporters and for the public?

RC: So this is something that I’ve been writing about for the last 18 months. I mean, I wrote my first story, it’s about his personal finances, back in July of 2015, about a week or two after he announced he was running, and for a long time, I felt like I was a little bit alone on the beat.

Lately there have been a lot of people who have brought this up. His debt is finally becoming something people are talking about, and I think there is a lot of attention. I mean, I agree not all of it is always correct or productive, but I think that reporters have finally caught on.

And I think the key is to keep working on it. But it’s also easy to get frustrated. Having worked on it for so long, and feeling like people weren’t paying attention, sometimes as a reporter you wonder, is this something worth pursuing? I think that we’ve seen that as interest has grown, as he got closer to the presidency, as some of these things became more obvious, the interest was there, and it was worth it. But I think that reporters have to keep it up, and I think that reporters also have to find a way to continue to make it relevant, because there are people pushing back on this. I mean, Trump himself, and all of his sort of entourage, push back on the idea that he should have to do anything.

And so I think that it’s not going to be an easy thing for reporters, and the media doesn’t always have a great attention span. And if you don’t get immediate action, the media sometimes lets things go. And I’m lucky enough to work somewhere where I feel like we continue to pursue stories even when it’s not the most obviously popular thing to do, and I think hopefully other reporters will be able to do that as well.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with reporter Russ Choma. Follow his work on Trump’s conflicts of interest and other issues at MotherJones.com. Russ Choma, thanks so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

RC: Thank you for having me.

WaPo, Organ of Extreme Center, Calls MLK ‘True Conservative’

January 16, 2017 - 3:16pm

The Washington Post‘s misidentification of Martin Luther King.

Because words and history evidently have no meaning, the Washington Post  (1/16/17) decided to honor civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. by painting him as a “true conservative.”  In what one can only hope was a terribly botched attempt at high-wire satire, the Post’s editorial board attempted to use King’s frequent appeals to the “founding fathers” as evidence King should be lumped in the same ideological category as William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater.

Under the headline “Martin Luther King Jr. Was a True Conservative,” the editorial began:

Martin Luther King, Jr., conservative. That description of the civil rights leader whose birth we celebrate today might surprise or even offend many of the people coming to town to celebrate the inauguration of a new president and the supposed triumph of conservatism in some form or other. (The current choices seem to range from Calvin Coolidge to Marine Le Pen.) But in his way, Dr. King did a lot to preserve, protect and defend the best of our principles and values. Just as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was despised by many conservatives of his day, helped keep American society from succumbing to the radical ideologies that brought death and devastation to much of Europe and Asia, Dr. King worked to turn back extremism, violence and racial nationalism at the height of the civil rights movement, and to keep the cause of essential and long-overdue change in the American mainstream.

The Post sets up a false dichotomy that marks much revisionism of the era: MLK, to the Post, represented the “good” left, unmoved by racial nationalism and Marxist ideology. The lines, of course, were never that clear and simple. King considered himself a democratic socialist, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children,” King said to the Negro American Labor Council in 1961.

He made a habit of not punching left, even though constantly prompted to do so. While he had different approaches and tactics, King often spoke fondly of black nationalists such as Malcolm X and didn’t say a bad word about the decidedly Marxist and Maoist Black Panthers, who were emerging as a national force at the time of King’s assassination in the spring of 1968. King did not “work to turn back” these forces as much as he simply sought a different approach, often in tandem.

“Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice.” These statements are uniformly not conservative. They are expressly leftist and/or progressive in nature, depending on how one defines such concepts.

Also left unmentioned was that after the tactics of the early 1960s had reached their limits, with the achievement of de jure civil rights in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, King’s politics began to be more openly radical. With the concerns shifting to economic rights such as housing, jobs, wealth redistribution and affirmative action,his tone also shifted.

King’s split with the Democratic Party became most apparent in his scathing denunciations of the Vietnam War: “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” King told the Riverside Church in April 1967, is “my own government.” On the issue of economic justice, it’s often overlooked that when King was killed in Memphis in April 1968, he was there in solidarity with an illegal sanitation strike—hardly the actions of a “conservative.”

The editorial would end on a note of lazy literalism that wouldn’t pass muster in a high school rhetoric class:

“My friends,” Dr. King said in his Detroit sermon, “all I’m trying to say is that if we are to go forward today, we’ve got to go back and rediscover some mighty precious values that we’ve left behind. That’s the only way that we would be able to make of our world a better world, and to make of this world what God wants it to be. . . .”

Spoken like a true conservative, and a truly great one.

King would often appeal to tradition, both national and religious, as a rhetorical strategy to normalize and bring into the mainstream what were then still very radical ideas. Today his ideals of racial equality—though not his associated ideas of economic justice and pacifism—while still unrealized, are considered much more mainstream. This does not mean his values were at all “conservative”; just because history catches up to someone’s radicalism does not mean they were somehow always a mainline “true” conservative. This is not how history, or power, or political change works.

The Post is not alone. Given his now-unimpeachable standing, many of the right and center have been trying to claim Dr. King as their own for decades (Extra!, 5–6/95; Death and Taxes, 1/20/14). Indeed, “If MLK were alive today he would…” has become a sort of red flag for all ill-considered opinions in this mold. The reality is, King was a leftist and a progressive, and the Post’s attempt to argue otherwise is just one in a long line of attempts to flatter the predilections of their conservative, older white readership.

Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.

Messages can be sent to the Washington Post at letters@washpost.com, or via Twitter @washingtonpost. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

Fox News Going All-In on Trump in the New Era

January 13, 2017 - 4:53pm

The new face of Fox: The hiring of Glenn Beck signaled the channel’s reaction to the Obama presidency.

On January 19, 2009—the day before Barack Obama was sworn in as president—Fox News aired the first episode of Glenn Beck. Obama was a polished representative of the multicultural values that the conservative movement had fought to defeat for decades, and  Beck was the perfect expression of right-wing rage and frustration with him: The eponymous host alternated between anger, conspiracy theories and sobbing.

Beck’s tenure at the channel didn’t last long; Fox News chair and CEO Roger Ailes declined to renew his contract in early 2011. But by that point, the GOP had won back the House of Representatives in the 2010 Tea Party wave, a right-wing backlash movement that owed at least some of its success to Beck’s overly earnest mugging.

Beck’s hire signaled to the network’s base and the country at large the direction Fox would take as a reaction to Obama’s election: The network was prepared to spend the next four to eight years in constant opposition to the newly elected president, with no angle of attack too extreme.

Eight years later, after a very different election result, at a different moment for the country and the network, Fox is once again signaling its priorities to an incoming administration: After a number of high-profile dust-ups with Trump, including the candidate skipping two network-hosted primary debates in January and March, and his infamous “blood coming out of her whatever” comment about the channel’s star anchor Megyn Kelly, the network appears poised to deliver mostly uncritical support to the new president for at least the next four years.

Fox is once again telegraphing its approach to a new administration by providing an elevated platform for an ascendant right-wing media figure. But this time, it’s Fox‘s own Sean Hannity.

Hannity’s star is rising like never before. His brand of right-wing anger dominated every aspect of conservative politics in 2016, from the election to the ongoing upheaval at Fox. Hannity, the pundit’s 10 p.m. show, has been through enough changes and slot switches that the show is hardly recognizable from its Bush-era iteration, Hannity and Colmes (Extra!, 11–12/03), and now functions as the network’s primary Trump advocacy program.

Megyn Kelly’s faux professionalism allowed her to come through controversies with her brand as a reasonable conservative intact.

As the comparatively more-measured Kelly leaves the Fox news desk for NBC, Hannity’s more nakedly toxic version of conservatism is virtually unchallenged at the network. Kelly’s faux-professionalism allowed her to gloss a layer of polish over what Jamelle Bouie (Slate, 1/4/17) described as her “racial demagoguery.” Hannity, on the other hand, aggressively mocks and belittles social justice movements, scoffs at progressive activism and concentrates much of its criticism at African-Americans and other minorities (Extra!, 9/13).

Kelly’s legalistic delivery allowed her to build her career on the back of a manufactured scandal over the New Black Panthers and let her wriggle out of much of the backlash for her December 2013 declaration that “Santa is what is he is, which is white.”

The news that Kelly was leaving the network for NBC on Tuesday set off an internal staffing earthquake at Fox. Kelly had long been promoted as the shining star in the conservative news network’s stable. She landed the coveted 9 p.m. slot in 2013 at the expense of—you guessed it—Hannity, whose show was bumped to the 10 p.m. hour to make room for his rival.

But in 2016, as tensions rose between Kelly and Trump, and rumored tensions rose between her and the two men bookending her timeslot (Hannity and Bill O’Reilly), her ratings began to fluctuate.

In October, though Kelly snagged the top spot, Hannity showed the greatest improvement in numbers, up 65 percent for the year. Hannity’s rise in the ratings, combined with Kelly’s rocky relationship with Trump, made what’s happening at the network now predictable with the gift of 20/20 hindsight.

First, Ailes, the network’s longtime chair, was forced out after afternoon anchor Gretchen Carlson accused him of sexual harassment on her way out the door. Carlson’s accusations led other women at the network, including Kelly, to disclose stories of abuse. As the PR nightmare became too much for Fox owner Rupert Murdoch to handle, Ailes was dismissed, and the Murdoch family came to retake control of the news channel.

Once Ailes was gone, clauses in on-air talent contracts kicked in. Longtime stars like Hannity and Greta Van Susteren could leave the channel without breaking contract if they did so within a certain time frame of the chair’s departure. Van Susteren took advantage of the clause; Hannity remained at Fox.

After news veteran Brit Hume subbed for Van Susteren’s 7 p.m. spot, Daily Caller founder and frequent Hannity sub Tucker Carlson was called up to permanently fill the hour. Carlson, a vociferous Trump supporter despite his image as a bowtie-wearing establishmentarian, quickly established a name for himself through combative interviews with the likes of Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald and Teen Vogue’s Lauren Duca, and a one-on-one with Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald.

On Thursday, news broke that Van Susteren will join MSNBC for a 6 p.m. show named On the Record, replacing the canceled With All Due Respect. Hours later, Fox announced Tucker would be taking over Kelly’s 9 p.m. slot.

Despite (or because of) a reputation for bottom-feeding pandering, Fox & Friends, the program that provided Trump with a platform every Monday morning for years, maintains its grip on morning cable news ratings. The show has been a reliable mouthpiece for some of the more extreme positions taken by the American right: Co-host Brian Kilmeade, for example, said American bloodlines were no longer pure because of marriages with “other species and ethnics.” In the video, you can see the aforementioned Gretchen Carlson nervously laughing with him.

Bill O’Reilly (1/12/17) is stepping up his defense of Donald Trump.

It’s all adding up to a new media reality at 1211 Sixth Avenue. With Kelly, Carlson and Van Susteren gone, the channel has lost three of its most prominent female faces in six months. The channel’s nightly old guard has been reduced to three veteran programs: the 6 p.m. “hard news” program Special Report With Bret Baier and, for “opinion,” the 8 p.m. O’Reilly Factor and 10 p.m. Hannity

O’Reilly sometimes played the role of loyal opposition during the Obama years; the longtime Fox anchor has interviewed the president three times over the past eight years, including two pre–Super Bowl exclusives in 2011 and 2014. Even so, O’Reilly helped boost the careers of Eric Bolling and Jesse Watters, a birther and Orientalist, respectively, giving the former the opportunity to substitute-host for the O’Reilly Factor and the latter his own recurring segment on the program—which has now led to the attack artist getting his own weekly Fox show.

And now O’Reilly, the perennial champion of Fox ratings, is ingratiating himself to Trump in advance of the inauguration. This was evident on January 3, when he complained to Fox analyst Charles Krauthammer about the lack of Hollywood stars performing at the inauguration. (Krauthammer dismissed O’Reilly’s distress over the absence of stars, saying, “You are not summoned to perform for the king.”)

It seems to be part of a shift in the network towards Trump’s particular brand of populist conservatism. The channel as a whole was less warm to the candidate during the campaign. The first question Trump was asked on a debate stage during his rise to the highest office in the nation was from Kelly (8/6/15), who asked him about his history of offensive comments about women.

The Five‘s Greg Gutfeld described the inter-network tension over the candidate in March 2016 as omnipresent. “On any given day, we have tension over this nomination, over this candidate,” Gutfeld said. “You can look at our network as a whole.”

Even Fox‘s parent company NewsCorp founder and executive chair Rupert Murdoch had issues with how the network was handling its responsibilities. Murdoch “didn’t like that Ailes was putting Fox so squarely behind the candidacy of Donald Trump” during the campaign, media watcher Gabriel Sherman reported (New York, 9/2/16). Murdoch, the acting CEO of Fox after Ailes’ ouster, has worked to repair the relationship with the president-elect, even visiting Trump Tower ten days after the election (Hill, 11/18/16).

Sean Hannity asserts his masculinity.

Hannity, on the other hand, has been consistent. The pundit made no secret of his allegiance to Trump as the real-estate mogul campaigned for the Republican nomination and, later, the presidency. Hannity  interviewed Trump multiple times over the campaign, and even appeared in a campaign video for the nominee in September. (He was reprimanded.)

Hannity’s devotion to Trump inspired Kelly to casually insult her colleague during a post-debate chat with the Republican nominee on September 26:

We’ve got Trump speaking to our own Sean Hannity. We’ll see whether he speaks to the journalists in this room after that interview.

Trump and Hannity’s personalities mirror one another’s in many ways. Both are right-wing entertainment figures from the New York City metro area. Both have a pronounced antipathy to minorities in general and black people in particular (FAIR.org, 5/6/11; Extra!, 9/13).

Each has a pathological need to impress his masculinity on his surroundings. Where Hannity relentlessly touts his MMA progress and feels the need to awkwardly throw a football offscreen in between every segment, Trump brags about his past athletic prowess in school: “I was captain of the baseball team. I was supposed to be a professional baseball player.”

And both men know how to hold a grudge: Trump has railed against Rosie O’Donnell ever since she belittled him in December 2006 on The View. Hannity has never forgiven Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs for confronting him in 2008 debate over Hannity giving a platform to an antisemite to attack then-candidate Obama.

Trump and Hannity’s bigotry and bluster would be a regrettable commonality in two men of modest means and power. But now that Trump is poised to become president, the powers of the office will be centered on a man whose political touchstone is a talkshow host whose particular mix of rage and racial resentment are setting the tone for the nation’s most popular cable news channel.

Fox is sending a message to a Trump-governed United States with its programming choices: We’re with him. That message is likely to resonate for the length of the billionaire’s presidency.

Eoin Higgins is a journalist and historian from Western Massachusetts. You can find more of his work at eoinhiggins.com and follow him on twitter at @EoinHiggins_.

NYT: If Only We Knew What We Already Know About Jeff Sessions

January 13, 2017 - 3:02pm

The New York Times (1/8/17) raises questions about Jeff Sessions–questions it admits have already been answered.

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions seems to be on his way to becoming attorney general. Many people are angry and frightened, that the person in charge of the Justice Department could be a man whose public record demonstrates hostility to the idea of equal rights under the law. In particular, Sessions brought vote fraud charges, threatening decades of prison time, against voting rights activists who had worked with Martin Luther King; he has referred to the Voting Rights Act as “intrusive,” and supported voter suppression.

That’s part of why there have been sit-ins and phone banks and multi-group public statements, reflecting the large number and wide range of people familiar with Sessions who state that his record, not his accent or personal demeanor, make him unfit for office.

In this light, the January 8 New York Times editorial struck me as highlighting, painfully, the limits of elite media.

“What Are You Hiding, Jeff Sessions?” was the headline, and the thrust of the thing was that Sessions has been insufficiently forthcoming:

If anyone requires a thorough vetting, it’s Mr. Sessions, the Republican senator from Alabama who trails behind him a toxic cloud of hostility to racial equality, voting rights, women’s rights, criminal justice reform and other issues at the heart of the Justice Department’s mandate.

See, some would say that toxic record constitutes such a vetting. But for corporate media, some questions are forever being “raised”…even when many another would suggest they’d actually been answered.

Indeed, all the while it was criticizing Sessions’ lack of disclosure, the Times was making clear that it isn’t necessary: Sessions claimed there’s no record of many of the interviews he’s given, “but a quick Google search disproves that.” The paper detailed his rejection for a federal judgeship, based on testimony about his racism from former colleagues, then stated that Sessions himself “made no mention” of it on a questionnaire that specifically requested the information. He’s now saying he personally litigated desegregation cases, which the paper calls a “myth” that has been “debunked.” He “failed to mention” comments to Fox about Trump’s bragging about sexual assault, comments the Times provided a link to. And so on.

Yet despite all this, the editorial’s upshot was that “Mr. Sessions is trying to hide from the American people the things he said and did.” And the answer: “Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking Democrat, needs to take the lead in ensuring that Americans know as much as possible about the man who would be the nation’s top law enforcement official.”

Hmm. If only there were some other social actor or institution, positioned to prevent a politician from hiding his record from the public…who could help ensure Americans know as much as possible about him…?  Who would that be?

Not the corporate media, presumably, if asking what Jeff Sessions is hiding is as far as they plan to go with regard to what’s in plain sight.

Janine Jackson is the program director of FAIR and the producer and host of CounterSpin.

You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com, or write to public editor Liz Spayd at public@nytimes.com (Twitter:@NYTimes or @SpaydL). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

Dossier’s Russia Charges Should Be Treated Skeptically–but Taken Seriously

January 13, 2017 - 2:01pm

The idea that charges of Trump colluding with Russia came from an “intelligence report” is itself an invention.

Some in media are treating the report on Donald Trump’s ties to Russia published by BuzzFeed (1/10/17) as though it were an intelligence report—as in the Washington Post‘s headline, “Trump Says ‘Sick People’ Invented Russia Intelligence Report” (1/11/17).

It’s not an intelligence report, or a government report of any kind. No official agency had a hand in creating it; indications are it was leaked to media by the same private group that commissioned it. Putting it in the “intelligence” category makes it harder to think about how media outlets should deal with it, bringing in questions of journalism’s relationship to the state. Really, despite its anonymous author reportedly having a background in British intelligence, it’s closer to being itself a strange sort of journalism: It’s an investigator’s account of what information they say they learned by talking to people—not unlike a news article.

Of course, if it’s a news report, it’s from an utterly obscure outlet that’s known to have partisan funders (opponents of Trump in both the Republican and Democratic parties). That’s not generally a recipe for trustworthy journalism; in fact, it describes a lot of the outlets that get labeled as “fake news.” So it’s not too perplexing why the document, though circulating widely in official and journalistic circles, got next to no coverage prior to the election (a Mother Jones story published on Halloween being a notable exception).

But as the document circulated behind the scenes, a funny thing happened: People in governmental positions seemed to be taking it seriously. Senators Harry Reid (D.–Nevada) and John McCain (R.–Ariz.) both pushed the FBI to investigate the report’s charges of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence—Reid before Trump’s election, McCain afterwards. In October 2016, the FBI obtained a warrant from the secret FISA court authorizing an investigation into charges contained in the report. And in January 2017, Trump, President Obama and congressional leaders were given a summary of the report’s charges, which Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said was done in order to “ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.”

Given that the report’s allegations were driving criminal investigations, affecting inter- and intra-party battles and were claimed to have the potential to “affect national security,” it’s hard to argue that the public was better off left in the dark until the powers that be get to the bottom of it. “It’s better not to know” is rarely the answer to journalistic quandaries.

Mother Jones‘ write-up (1/12/17) of the BBC‘s Trump dossier report

With the report now in the public domain, reporters at actual news outlets have been able to push the story further. The BBC‘s Paul Wood (1/12/17), notably, reported that the Kremlin’s gathering of blackmail material on Trump was also alleged by CIA sources, who conveyed that

that there was “more than one tape,” “audio and video,” on “more than one date,” in “more than one place”—in the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow and also in St Petersburg—and that the material was “of a sexual nature.”

The report’s publication also gives the Trump’s spokespeople an opportunity to debunk the claims, as they tried to do at the president-elect’s press conference. Press secretary Sean Spicer said that, contrary to the report’s claims, Trump lawyer Michael Cohen has never been to Prague, and that Cohen’s passport confirms this. Less compelling was Spicer’s assertion that Carter Page, named in the report as a go-between, “is an individual who the president-elect does not know”—given that when Trump was asked by the Washington Post (3/21/16) to name his foreign policy team, Page was the second of five names Trump offered.

FAIR (6/16/16, 8/1/16, 12/15/16, 1/11/17) has repeatedly been critical of the rush to judgment on allegations that Russia was behind the release of Democratic National Committee emails, and the willingness to rely on intelligence agency assertions advanced with scant evidence. But there is also a danger in assuming in advance that such stories are not true, and that indications that the FBI and CIA are taking the allegations of collusion with Russia seriously are merely a facade for (as The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald put it) “an attempt by the Deep State to sabotage an elected official who had defied it.”

There is in fact a record of political campaigns—as it happens, Republican campaigns—making deals with foreign governments to manipulate domestic politics. Just recently, notes from Richard Nixon aide HR Haldeman surfaced (New York Times, 12/31/16) that corroborated the story—which already had plentiful evidence—that the 1968 Nixon campaign conspired to sabotage Vietnamese peace talks to preserve the war as a campaign issue. This illegal intervention likely cost Hubert Humphrey the election, and may have stretched the war out for another six years, at a cost of a million or more human lives.

Can you spot the beginning of the Reagan administration? (source: CBPP)

Later, the 1980 Reagan campaign had a covert program to undercut negotiations to retrieve the US hostages in Iran, which may have included secret negotiations with Tehran (Extra!, 3/13)—the infamous “October Surprise.” If this interference was decisive in scuttling the talks, it probably gave us the Reagan administration—the enduring effects of which can be seen on any  chart of rising economic inequality.

These kinds of conspiracies do exist, and they can have real impact, with a vast cost in blood. If there was one in 2016, we need to know about it now—not in 2064. Conspiracies, by their nature, are hard to prove; if we wait for irrefutable proof before we begin investigating them, they will likely never be uncovered.

It’s also worth considering why the tale of Trump “defiling” a bed that Obama had slept in had the air of, if not credibility, at least truthiness: It fit with what we know about the essential vindictiveness of Trump’s personality. This is the guy, after all, who hired an operative who was fired over Bridgegate to be his political director: He believes in getting back at people. David Corn (Mother Jones, 10/19/16) wrote a rather chilling article detailing the many times Trump has declared vengeance to be one of his essential principles—e.g., “When you’re in business, you get even with people that screw you. And you screw them 15 times harder. And the reason is…not only, because of the person that you’re after, but other people watch what’s happening.”

The thing is, the people at the CIA, the people at the FBI—they know that Trump is like this. They know he is highly likely to go after individuals he sees as having impugned and embarrassed him, not only attempting to end their careers, but also using the vastly increased powers of the post-9/11 presidency to ruin their lives. Surely they didn’t expect that revelations like these would “bring him down.” Yet they chose to investigate these charges anyway, chose to get them into the intelligence briefings. Maybe, just maybe, they did so because they actually believed these were “matters that might affect national security.”

Given Republican control of both houses of Congress and the GOP-engineered conservative majority that will continue to dominate the Supreme Court, there’s very little that can be done to thwart Trump politically before the 2018 midterm elections. If his agenda is going to be effectively resisted, much of that resistance will have to come from within the bureaucracies that will be tasked to carry it out. That includes the intelligence bureaucracies, whose choice to follow or reject orders under Trump may have the most horrific consequences of all.

When those people stand up to Trump, as I hope they will, will they get the commendation and support that whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden received from genuine progressives during the Obama era? Or will they be treated as agents of the “Deep State,” trying to “unilaterally subvert the US election and impose its own policy dictates on the elected president”?

I hope it’s not the latter, because President Trump—who very soon will have his own kill list, the power of indefinite detention, perhaps a resurrected torture program—is likely to take words like that all too literally.

Jim Naureckas is the editor of FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @JNaureckas.

Russ Choma on Trump’s Conflicts, Megan Hustings on Food Sharing

January 13, 2017 - 10:16am
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This week on CounterSpin: It seems clear that for Donald Trump, as for Humpty Dumpty, words mean just what he chooses them to mean—neither more nor less. So if Trump says he’s erased his conflicts of interest by letting his kids run his businesses day to day, well then they’re erased—and it’s fake news to say otherwise. The question for the press corps, then, is whether they will keep both feet in reality, or allow the perceived requirement to “include” the Trump camp’s spin “redefine” previous understandings beyond recognition on things like conflicts of interest. We’ll talk about the substance and the coverage of the problem with investigative reporter Russ Choma from Mother Jones.

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cc photo: Food Donation Connection

Also on the show: Activists with the group Food Not Bombs were arrested recently in Florida for giving food to homeless people in the park. There’s, sadly, nothing new about that—but in a time when more people are looking to get involved in social action, it’s good to get versed on the arguments you’re likely to hear for why, in this case, helping hungry people be less hungry will put you on the wrong side of the law. We’ll hear about food-sharing and its restriction from Megan Hustings, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

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First, as usual, we’ll take a quick look at recent press, namely the New York Times‘ editorial on Jeff Sessions.

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In Absence of Evidence, Media Evoke ISIS in Jerusalem Attack

January 11, 2017 - 5:35pm

A Palestinian man rammed a truck into a crowd of Israeli soldiers boarding a bus in Jerusalem on Sunday, killing four and injuring 17 others. Immediately after the news broke, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the suspect “ISIS” without offering an ounce of proof.

“We know the identity of the attacker,” Netanyahu told reporters, “according to all the signs he is a supporter of Islamic State.” This pronouncement–accompanied by zero evidence–was enough to frame the issue for subsequent media reports:

  • ‘ISIS’ Attack in Jerusalem Uses a Truck, the New/Old Weapon of Choice (Daily Beast, 1/8/16)
  • Jerusalem Truck Attacker Was Probably an ISIS Supporter, Says Netanyahu (Independent, 1/8/16)
  • Jerusalem Lorry Attacker ‘Was IS Supporter’ (BBC, 1/8/16)
  • Jerusalem Truck Attack: Suspect May Have Supported ISIS, Netanyahu Says (CNN, 1/8/16)
  • 4 Israeli Soldiers Killed in ISIS-like Truck Attack (Boston Herald, 1/9/16)

CNN’s live broadcast chimed in, not even putting ISIS claims in scare quotes:

Despite headlining its piece “Jerusalem Lorry Attacker ‘Was IS Supporter,’” the BBC’s very first sentence would concede, “Although Benjamin Netanyahu did not give evidence for the claim….” Lack of evidence, evidently, is no reason not to frame your reporting around an official charge.

The BBC would rationalize this by claiming ISIS has “threatened” Israel in the past, while ignoring the far more material reality that ISIS has never attacked Israel—a rather glaring piece of historical context that was left unmentioned.

Netanyahu, it’s worth noting, has much incentive to inflate the threat as an ISIS one. Aside from needing a distraction from the ongoing investigation by the Israeli attorney general over bribery and corruption, Netanyahu has long-sought to conflate Israeli security threats with those to of Western Europe and the United States to garner sympathy and support. Despite the lack of ISIS attacks on Israel, and the hostility the militant group has received from Palestinians, Netanyahu has frequently evoked their specter, once even insisting “Hamas is ISIS, and ISIS is Hamas.” (Hamas, which is Islamist but not Salafist, has frequently arrested Palestinians suspected of being sympathetic to the Islamic State.)

The conflation also serves to distract from legitimate Palestinian grievances, including preeminently the decades-long occupation by the IDF, massive displacement by settlements in the West Bank  (likely to increase with a new wave of settlement construction) and periodic large-scale bombings of Gaza.

The only superficial connection between Sunday’s attack and recent ISIS ones was the use of a truck to ram the victims.

“This is part of the same pattern inspired by ISIS,” Netanyahu insisted, “that we saw first in France, then in Germany and now in Jerusalem.” Many outlets ran with this thread but, in doing so, omitted two key pieces of context.

First, the attack in Jerusalem was aimed at military personnel, and ISIS typically attacks civilians, since they make no distinction between combatants and noncombatants. Also: the use of vehicles as weapons—by both Islamic and Jewish militants—has been around in Israel/Palestine for over a decade. It cannot be used as per se evidence of an “ISIS attack,”  though many outlets would simply parrot Netanyahu’s claim that it constitutes a “sign” of the group.

Even the Daily Beast, which tried to provide some context had to torture their headline to make the narratives fit by insisting ramming people with trucks was an “New/Old Weapon of Choice.” See, it’s both new (e.g. ISIS) but here are all the times it happened in Palestine before.

ISIS has so far not claimed to have been behind the Jerusalem attack, though it is quick to do so even in cases where no direct link to the militant group can be established. For example, after the Nice attack, ISIS declared that perpetrator to be “a soldier of the Islamic State,” although French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve later said that an ISIS link had “yet to be established” (CNN, 7/21/16). “No element at this stage shows the allegiance of Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel nor links with individuals claiming to be” from ISIS, French prosecutor Francois Molins said, noting that Bouhlel was not an observant Muslim.

In Jerusalem, a hitherto unknown group, the Groups of Martyr Baha Eleyan, claimed to have organized the attack “in defense of our Jerusalem,” though the assertion could not be authenticated (Reuters, 1/9/17). The Times of Israel  reported the attacker, Fadi al-Qunbar, had ties with the secular Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), according to “Palestinian media”—though this was also unconfirmed. These ties, sketchy as they were, did not drive coverage the way the evidence-free assertions of an ISIS angle did; indeed, few news reports even mentioned them.

As FAIR has previously noted (6/14/16, 10/9/15), when the assailant is Muslim, the specter of ISIS is the default position for media eager to evoke the organization’s brand. Whether or not the perpetrator has any actual connection or sympathies to ISIS is typically sorted out later.

The ISIS framing also provided much needed cover for Israeli’s increasingly right-wing government to pass draconian legislation, hours after the attack, to detain “suspected ISIS supporters” without trial. This was followed by mass roundups of Palestinians in the West Bank.

As a general rule, media outlets should not let the unilateral, unsubstantiated and self-serving claims of political leaders dictate how they frame such politically charged incidents. While many outlets chose to remain motive-agnostic (the New York Times’ “4 Die in Jerusalem Attack as Palestinian Rams Truck Into Soldiers” being a good example), the willingness of so many others to uncritically repeat Netanyahu’s sweeping claims–flying in the face of history and baseline evidentiary standards–shows the extreme degree of information and power asymmetry that marks the broader Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.

WaPo’s Factcheck of WikiLeaks Highlights Paper’s Strange View of Facts

January 11, 2017 - 2:01pm

The Washington Post (1/5/17) “factchecks” Julian Assange’s claims without either proving or disproving them.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Fox News, 1/3/17) again denied that the leaked e-mails he published during the election came from Russia—an assertion contradicted by many anonymous US intelligence officials. “We can say, we have said repeatedly over the last two months, that our source is not the Russian government, and it is not a state party,” Assange told Sean Hannity.

It is perfectly reasonable for the media and the public to be skeptical of Assange’s claims, just as they should be of the anonymous intelligence officials who say otherwise. How can we know what the truth is, absent any evidence? This is an especially pressing question since the release of a declassified Intelligence Community Assessment on the matter (1/6/17) which, as released to the public, is big in bold assessments but lacking in forensic evidence. “The message from the agencies essentially amounts to ‘trust us,’” as the New York Times observed (1/6/17).

But thanks to the Washington Post’s dutiful commitment to verifying facts through its “Fact Checker” column, the mystery should be over. Assange’s claim that there no connection between Russia and the leaked documents were put through the Post’s rigorous factchecking criteria (1/5/17) and subjected to its penetrating “Pinocchio Test” scale, earning a damning “three Pinocchio” grade. This, according to the Post’s methodology, means that Assange’s assertion contains “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.

So now that one of the most cherished institutions in American journalism has checked this “fact,” we can all be assured in the knowledge that Assange is wrong and Russia is responsible for the hack, right? After all, the word fact does not—or should not—allow for much ambiguity.

The problem, however, is that the Post’s “Fact Checker” column is often not in the business of checking facts (FAIR, 9/6/12), but instead offers its own judgements and opinions under the imprimatur of factchecking.

At best, the Post provides a counter version of what the truth might be, “contesting one interpretation of the facts with [its] own interpretation,” as Clive Cook once wrote (Atlantic, 9/3/12) in a critique of the column. “An interpretation is an opinion—not a fact,” Cook wrote. “When a fact is wrong, it’s not some number of Pinocchios, it’s just wrong.”

The column’s editor, Glenn Kessler, claims to be “revealing the truth behind the rhetoric,” but “Fact Checker” is really just another op-ed section.

Unproven and Irrelevant ‘Evidence’

The article on Assange, written by the Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee, is a glaring example of this. In more than 1,600 words of “factchecking,” not a single sentence disproves—or, for that matter, proves—the accuracy of Assange’s statement.

Fact Checker’s first method is to connect the statement to Donald Trump’s Twitter account, where the president-elect mentioned Assange’s denial. “As seen in Trump’s tweet, this exchange was ultimately interpreted as Assange saying the ‘Russians did not give him the info,’” Lee wrote.  But one didn’t need Trump’s tweet to make this acknowledgement: Assange’s claim that Wikileaks’ “source is not the Russian government and it is not a state party” is straightforward enough, and follows a much more detailed account of who gave the emails to WikiLeaks by a WikiLeaks associate that Fact Checker simply ignores. (See below.)

It’s newsworthy that Trump, who has a long record of deception, is amplifying  Assange’s denial—and has accordingly been covered by the Post (1/4/17) and virtually every other major outlet—but worthless to meet Fact Checker’s burden to prove that the claim is false.

The next claim is also irrelevant: “We will stipulate that governments regularly spy on each other, and the United States also gathers intelligence on governments such as Russia,” Lee writes.  “The difference here is that intelligence operations allegedly led to the release of information to the public, via WikiLeaks and media coverage.” Indeed, journalists have rightly been criticized for failing to acknowledge the United States role in “interfering” with elections—and not merely by “releasing information to the public” (although that has been one method), but also with violent coups on numerous occasions (CBS News, 9/11/00; Slate, 4/14/16).

But, again, the purpose of this article is to examine if what Assange said was factual, and this effort to acknowledge US covert operations—while also distancing them from Russia’s alleged ones—does nothing to this end.  If anything, the distinction weakens the argument, because it acknowledges that to date Russia is only “alleged” to have been responsible for WikiLeaks’ release of leaked e-mails. By Oxford’s definition, the word “allegation” means “a public statement that is made without giving proof.”

Another unconvincing point of emphasis  was that Assange was telling a falsehood because he made his claim “without providing any evidence in the interview or in response to our inquiry.” It is unclear what kind of proof the paper would hope to see, absent Assange outing a source, which the Post itself refuses to do (5/31/05), even when its source is a US official making false claims.

This specific logic about a lack of evidence is also rich in irony, since it could be used to dismiss most of the anonymous intelligence sources the Post has used in its flurry of articles about the Russian hack—two of which (11/24/16; 12/31/16) have already had to be retracted or significantly “clarified,” due to what one might call “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.” If one applied the same standards to the Post’s own reporting on the Russian hack, the paper would fail Fact Checker’s Pinocchio test.

The article also questions the claims of a hacker named Guccifer 2.0, who presented himself on Twitter as a Romanian hacker responsible for the hack. How this debunks Assange’s claim is hard to understand. Even if one accepts the claims—still based more on US intelligence assertions than on public evidence (Democracy Now, 1/5/17)—that the Russians hacked into the DNC, that does not prove that Guccifer 2.0 was part of that operation, or that he had any connection to WikiLeaks. As Lee notes (emphasis added), “independent analysts suspected that Guccifer 2.0 was linked to the Russian groups that hacked the DNC,” though they “did not have hard evidence because the documents were posted anonymously.”  The article is filled with this kind of inconclusive language, such as “some experts believe,” and “independent analysts suspected.”

Even proving that Guccifer 2.0 was a Russian hacker would still fall short of proving he was the WikiLeaks source. As noted, the Post completely ignores that Craig Murray, a WikiLeaks associate and former British diplomat, denied that Russia was involved; said the emails were leaked, not hacked; and provided by internal “whistleblowers” who had legal access to the emails (Daily Mail, 12/14/16).

“Regardless of whether the Russians hacked into the DNC, the documents WikiLeaks published did not come from that,” Murray  said. Of course, the paper should not simply take Murray—or anyone else—at their word. (See Empty Wheel12/15/16—for a critical analysis of Murray’s account.) But it is rather one-sided to ignore these statements entirely, while amplifying so many other unproven allegations against WikiLeaks.  This, though, is the approach Fact Checker chose to take.

‘All In on Russian Hacking Story

The Assange “factcheck” is part of the  Washington Post’s relentless coverage of the Russian hacking allegation. The Post has gone “all in” on these Russian hacking allegations with an odd certitude and a scary deference to intelligence officials  (FAIR.org, 1/4/17).  The paper’s editor, Marty Baron, even retweeted (which he does very selectively) the paper’s article (11/24/16) that amplified a McCarthyite blacklist from an anonymous group of “researchers” (FAIR.org, 12/1/16). Despite the editor’s note added to the story, the tweet remains, with no mention of the article’s flaws.

The latest Fact Checker article is particularly worrisome because 1) it demonstrates that the paper’s understanding of what qualifies as a “fact” is extremely dubious, and 2) it comes at a time when the outlet is as militant as ever in advancing a narrative—which may or may not be true—that will increase tensions between two nuclear powers with an ugly history.

Given the recent history of media failings covering intelligence and national security prior to the war in Iraq (Washington Post, 8/24/04; FAIR Action Alert, 3/19/07), it is important that outlets undertaking to “check the facts” also undertake to use facts, and not merely  innuendo and allegations, to do so.

Michael Corcoran is a journalist based in Boston. He has written for the Boston Globe, The Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Extra!, NACLA Report on the Americas and other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @mcorcoran3.

Messages can be sent to the Washington Post at letters@washpost.com, or via Twitter @washingtonpost. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

‘We’re Seeing the Result of a 40-Year Assault on the Liberal Mainstream’ - CounterSpin interview with Ellen Schrecker on the New McCarthyism

January 11, 2017 - 10:16am

Janine Jackson interviewed Ellen Schrecker about the New McCarthyism for the January 6, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Ellen Schrecker: “What we see as a result of McCarthyism is a much narrower range of political ideas that impoverished the American political scene.”

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Janine Jackson:  We have major media afroth with tales of Russian hacking of the presidential election, giving millions of Americans the idea that Russian agents actually tampered with voting machines. A Democratic president just signed off on something called the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act, tasked to aim communications at foreign audiences to countermessage the ideas of state-defined terrorists and other extremists in the information space. That was part of the National Defense Authorization Act, a previous iteration of which eliminated parts of the Smith/Mundt Act that prevented the US government from propagandizing domestic audiences.

And while legislation making its way through Congress sets up an interagency committee empowered to target Russian media manipulation, along with such other duties as the president—that would be Trump—may designate, a new website purports to serve as a watchlist on professors deemed guilty of advancing leftist propaganda in the classroom, the Washington Post trumpets a completely unfounded story about Russians hacking the electrical grid in Vermont, a few weeks after promoting a report by an anonymous group on websites accused of purveying fake news in service of a Russian campaign to undermine American interests, and the Wall Street Journal declares it wouldn’t be objective to use the word “lie” when referring to Donald Trump’s false statements.

It is quite a moment. And while not everything old is new again, it’s better not to pretend this is this country’s first excursion into enemies lists and official encouragement to ferret out the insufficiently patriotic. The first inclination is to evoke the McCarthy Era. In what ways does and doesn’t the present moment echo that time, and what are the threads that connect that not-so-long-ago period to today? We’re joined now by Ellen Schrecker, now retired professor of American history at Yeshiva University, and author of, among other titles, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America and No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism in the Universities. She joins us by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Ellen Schrecker.

Ellen Schrecker: Thank you very much, and it’s a pleasure to be talking with you.

Joseph McCarthy “came rather late to the movement that he gave his name to.”

JJ: Well, I know that that introduction was sort of overwhelming, I meant it to be. I think folks are feeling overwhelmed. It’s almost a key feature of the present moment. And that feeling—who do you trust? is the enemy of my enemy my friend?—that feeling can be instrumentalized, if you will. Confusion and fear lead people to accept things and do things that they might not do otherwise. When we think about McCarthyism we tend, naturally enough, to think about Joe McCarthy. But I wonder: Do you think, in a way, that the lessons, such as they are, might lie less in him than in what that time brought out in other people?

ES: Very much so. McCarthy was a convenient figurehead. He was an aberrant personality. He was a guy who knew how to play the press brilliantly. But actually, he came rather late to the movement that he gave his name to. He didn’t really surface until 1950, by which point there had been years of hearings by the House Unamerican Activities Committee; the federal government had imposed a very ideological loyalty security program on its employees. McCarthyism, in other words, was going full steam even before McCarthy showed up at the station.

And I think the main thing that we have to be careful about is not to confuse McCarthy with McCarthyism, because McCarthyism was a much broader movement, and, similarly, not to sort of think that Trump is everything that is happening today. Because I think what is happening today is the fruit of 40 years of a concerted right-wing conservative effort to delegitimize a lot of what we would consider liberal/moderate orthodoxy, to delegitimize things like climate change, for example, which is pretty scary.

McCarthyism was the same way. What we saw in the 1950s was a very broad-based movement, designed ostensibly to eliminate all the influence of American Communism, and all the people involved with it and the ideas and the organizations connected to it, to eliminate that from American life.

Now, there were Communists. I mean, one of the myths of the McCarthy period was that McCarthy and the HUAC and all the other sort of second-tier witch hunters were targeting innocent people. Well, they were and they weren’t. These people were certainly innocent of crimes, they hadn’t done anything wrong. But politically, these were people on the left, these were people, many of them, probably the vast majority of them, the people who were called up by committees or blacklisted, had had some connection to the American Communist Party. And who were still willing to defy the status quo, the sort of standard Cold War consensus, enough to refuse to name names, to refuse to collaborate with this witch-hunting machine. And it was a machine.

And so what we saw was a drive against the left, and one that was incredibly successful. I mean, that’s the thing that we—we can’t just sort of say, look at the 1950s and say, “Oh, McCarthy, you know, he was censured by the Senate, everything turned out fine.” Well, everything didn’t turn out fine. We ended up with a war in Vietnam, among other things. But also what had happened was that the American political spectrum narrowed, that a whole bunch of ideas and causes kind of disappeared from American political discourse and American political life.

And I can give you examples, from the labor movement that stopped trying to organize white-collar workers, for example. Or from the civil rights movement, which in the late 1940s had a very strong economic justice component, and that was completely wiped out, largely because many of the people who were pushing this broader notion of what civil rights was did have some Communist connections, were concerned about issues of economic class, and were simply booted out of the civil rights movement, the mainstream civil rights movement, which was trying to protect itself against some very ferocious red-baiting.

So what we see as a result of McCarthyism is a much narrower range of political ideas that impoverished the American political scene and put a stop to creating a much stronger safety net, for example.

We’re seeing it now with an attempt of the Republicans to roll back Obamacare. Well, back in the late 1940s, President Truman wanted to get the equivalent of Medicare for all. He wanted a full federal financing of healthcare, the same as that that exists throughout much of the industrialized world. But he was attacked, it was considered, quote unquote, “socialized medicine,” and it has yet to return to American politics.

JJ: Yes, you hear folks now saying we’ll survive this, like we survived McCarthyism. I mean, we post-date it, you know, but I think we forget that there were costs, that actual people and actual, as you point out, causes were hurt. There was fallout there, and it’s not simply enough to say, well, we’re going to get through it, as though there’s no damage.

ES: Right. I think that’s very true. And what I would like to emphasize is one of the reasons there was so much damage, and one of the reasons why so many people lost their jobs and even more people just shut up… I’ll give you one example of this is, I taught late 20th century American history; US since 1945 was my main course. And I would talk about McCarthyism, and then I would ask my students to talk about the anti-war movement against the Korean War, which began in 1950 and was every bit as unpopular, according to the polls, as the Vietnam War was, but we don’t know that very well. And I would be greeted by silence in my classes, and I’d say, yeah, that’s the right answer. In other words, McCarthyism had thoroughly prevented any attempt to criticize the Korean War.

In my writing, I always sort of say, wait a minute, what about the books that weren’t written, the movies that weren’t made, the unions that weren’t organized? In other words, the damage from McCarthyism is not just people losing their jobs or going to jail, but all of the movements, all of the projects, all of the books and ideas that weren’t out there in American life. And that’s the kind of thing that’s very scary, because we’ll never know.

JJ: Right.

ES: What I think is responsible for a lot of that and a lot of the self-censorship, which was really ferocious during that period, was the collaboration of what we could see as the moderate middle. The willingness, not just of politicians or journalists, but university presidents and hospital administrators, all kinds of people, to go along with McCarthyism, to somehow buy into the notion that the Constitution protected everybody but Communists.

And so what we got in the 1950s was institution after institution within civil society, all the way up to and including the Supreme Court, refusing to defend the rights of individuals who were attacked during this period, and operating on the assumption that somehow if you were named by HUAC and took the Fifth Amendment, there was something wrong with you. And people knew better. That was what gave McCarthyism so much power, was this collaboration of the employers, of the mainstream media, of the legal system, you name it, to go along with this anti-Communist purge.

JJ: I remember hearing a talk long ago by Robert Kuttner in which he talked about the abandonment of professional ethics. And this is in the ’90s, I guess, or early 2000s. He was talking about lawyers saying, “OK, I can squint and make the law say that torture is okay.” You know, doctors saying, “OK, I can make force-feeding prisoners at Guantanamo square with my Hippocratic oath.” There’s no competing ethics with that that is set out by political power, and that does more than undermine resistance. I mean, there’s no kind of alternate set of values in evidence for people.

ES: Exactly. Exactly. Although to their credit, one has to say the liberals did wake up. It took a while, it took really until the mid- to late ’50s for the Supreme Court to begin to rule that some of the practices of the red-baiters were wrong, or the civil rights movement could pick up again, although in a somewhat attenuated way; there was no longer this stress on economic justice, but rather on sort of legal rights and civil rights. Important as they were, it wasn’t the whole story of racial inequality in America by any means.

JJ: Right.

ES: I think the important thing is to avoid going along with this, these watchlists. And there is hope.

JJ: Let me ask you about that hope, because the word “watchlist” itself, I think, for many people sends a shiver. But at least with regard to universities in particular, we are seeing pushback. So let me just draw you out on that. Where are you seeing resistance?

ES: OK. Well, I am seeing resistance in a number of places. With regard to some of these threats, shall we say, to civil liberties and civil rights, one of the most alarming ones is this notion of a registry of American Muslims. And what we’re hearing from a number of groups and individuals is what I call the king of Denmark moment, which comes from the experience during World War II when the Third Reich, Hitler, invaded Denmark and forced all the Danish Jews to wear yellow stars, and the king of Denmark put on a yellow star as well.

Obviously showing a great deal of courage there. And we are hearing a number of groups and individuals saying, well, if it comes to that in this country, I’m going to register as a Muslim too.

And we’ve actually seen that happen within the academic community with this professors’ blacklist that was published of, started out, some 200 names. It’s a weird little list, because it doesn’t by any means list all the more serious leftist and political activists within the academic community. It seems to be a kind of hodgepodge. I think many of them probably right-wing students who just sent in the names of professors who gave them Cs.

But anyhow, that list was published, and I began getting some interesting things in my in-box, including a letter that was sent from about a hundred faculty members at Notre Dame, which is very interesting. It’s a Catholic school, you know, you would expect the faculty there to be rather conservative, but here come the Fighting Irish. They sent a letter or an email to the blacklisting organization, saying, put us on the list! And then I know that professors at the University of Michigan began to do the same thing. And then an organization called the American Association of University Professors, that I had been active with, that is the main sort of guardian of academic freedom, the main institutional guardian of academic freedom in this country, sent a letter to its members, telling us all where to send our names in as well.

So there is pushback. And more pushback then there had been during the McCarthy period. For example, during the McCarthy period, the American Association of University Professors, AAUP, simply didn’t do a thing. About a hundred faculty members were fired, and the AAUP, which had been theoretically supposed to look into these cases, didn’t lift a finger.

And we saw that throughout American society. The ACLU, for example, during the McCarthy period would not defend anybody who had been a member of the Communist Party unless they had recanted seriously. I don’t think you’d see that today. I do think that some of these organizations are much wiser and more willing to fight back.

But—and let me emphasize this point—there are ways in which it’s much worse. And that’s because of the way in which institutions like the universities, and I’m particularly concerned about the universities, have been completely hollowed out over the past 40 years. There have been structural changes, many of them motivated by politically conservative movements, to press down on universities, and it’s done through defunding, through state legislatures no longer as willing to support higher education as they had been in the 1950s.

JJ: Right. Any final thoughts?

ES: I think the main thing is really to remember, above all, that what we’re seeing is the result of a 40-year assault on the sort of liberal mainstream. It’s not an assault on the left, like McCarthyism, but rather on the American mind, if I can put it that way. And so what we’re seeing is people in power now, probably sponsored in one way or another by corporate interests, certainly we know that climate denial has very strong ties to the oil and gas industry, and it’s this kind of corporate ideological assault on reality, as it were, that is so dangerous. And that, you know, is not just Trump.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Ellen Schrecker. Her most recent book is The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom and the End of the American University. Ellen Schrecker, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

ES: Well, thank you. It was a pleasure.

‘We Need to Give Voice to the People Who Feel Terrified’

January 10, 2017 - 4:10pm

Janine Jackson interviewed A.C. Thompson about hate crimes and Donald Trump for the December 23, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

A.C. Thomson: ” I think the goal of journalism at this time is to provoke some sort of meaningful response from the public and from officialdom that says, this is not something that will be tolerated.” (photo: Lars Klove)

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MP3 Link

Janine Jackson: There are pundits who still say we should wait and see what a Trump White House will do before expressing concerns. But that ignores how Trump’s media-assisted prominence, the mainstreaming of his brand of brazen hatred, has encouraged and emboldened racist, sexist xenophobes around the country already. Donald Trump didn’t invent hate crime, but he has put the relationship between legitimizing talk and violent action on a plate for media. So how will a press corps that still talks about “race relations” when they mean white supremacy deal with the particular brew now concocted?

We’re joined now by reporter A.C. Thompson, co-author of the book Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights; he works now at ProPublica, joins us now by phone from the Bay Area. Welcome back to CounterSpin, A.C. Thompson.

A.C. Thompson: Thanks for having me on.

JJ: We hear, of course, anecdotally or through social media, about individual hate crimes, people who are targeted for harassment or for violence because of their perceived ethnicity or religion or gender. I think people might be a little surprised to learn that the official data collection on the problem is really not very good, is it?

ACT: It’s abysmal. What’s going on is that there’s federal law that’s been in place since about 1990 that says, hey, FBI, you have to go out to state and local cops and ask them what’s going on with hate crimes in their jurisdictions. The problem is, those local and state authorities are not compelled to compile decent statistics and give them to the FBI. So a lot of departments just don’t participate; about 20 percent across the country don’t participate at all.

And then the others that do participate, I think a lot of them are lackadaisical. So in some of these states where we know there’s a significant number of hate crimes, you’re getting reports of two, three, five hate crimes a year, and people that follow this know that’s simply not true.

JJ: We saw James Comey come out and apologize for the lack of data. He seems to do that a lot. He was apologizing that the FBI didn’t have good numbers on law enforcement’s killing of black people, and he’s saying on this, too, yeah, we don’t really have so much to go on. Is it your sense that there is a lack of motivation, perhaps, to collect these things, or is it really just that it’s more work to do?

JCT: You know, there’s several things going on here. One is that, at the local level, a lot of local law enforcement officials don’t necessarily know what they’re dealing with, even today, when they get a hate crime in their jurisdiction. So if you have a verbal assault that involves a racial epithet, that may be get written up and reported simply as a verbal assault, and not as a hate crime, in lots of different places. So that’s one problem, is sort of training and the actual police work on the ground.

The next problem is that there are no penalties for law enforcement agencies that don’t submit accurate data to the FBI, and the FBI has not pushed them to submit accurate data. They have not been particularly forceful about getting decent data, on a lot of fronts, from state and local law enforcement. And so it just hasn’t happened.

There has been legislation that was introduced last congressional session saying, hey, this has got to change; federal funding is going to be tied to departments accurately reporting hate crime information. And that legislation didn’t go anywhere. So it will be interesting to see if this comes up again in the next congressional session.

JJ: Of course, data by itself is not reporting. You have to talk to people or, more importantly, listen to people. What is the project that ProPublica is involved with? What are the goals of what you’re trying to do around collecting this information?

ACT: What we’re doing is we’re building a big coalition that involves civil rights groups, ethnic media, journalism students and mainstream journalism outlets. And basically what we’re trying to do is create a complementary data set to the FBI’s data. What we’re looking for are both things that would be defined under state laws or federal law as a hate crime, but also acts of intimidation and harassment that don’t rise to that level. A lot of things that we’re seeing on social media and Twitter, for example. And we are building this team to really try to understand, document and react positively to this moment, where we have a very direct linkage between political speech and crimes on the ground.

JJ: You were talking about police departments not knowing, maybe, the definition, or not categorizing things as hate crimes, and I think the same thing can go for journalists. You know, motives are always going to be murky. Somebody is always going to have a friend who says they don’t have a racist bone in their body. I’m not trying to minimize the difficulty of getting ahold of this issue, of talking about it. But of course we have to talk about it. I mean, we have to.

Nazi graffiti in Wellsville, NY. (photo: Brian Quinn)

ACT: Absolutely. I think what’s unique about this moment in modern American history is that you have some very clear signs that what is happening, a lot of it relates very directly to the presidential election. So when you see graffiti that is a spin on the Trump campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” that says “Make America White Again,” and there’s a big huge swastika, well, we know that this is a hate crime related to politics, to the current president-elect. When we see swastikas and the word “Trump” at a park in Brooklyn, we know what that’s about. And a lot of the crimes that have occurred since the election, that have been documented by groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, have quite clearly been connected to the political moment.

JJ: You just mentioned Southern Poverty Law Center. When I was speaking with Heidi Beirich from that group, she told me that journalists tell her that they don’t want to report on white supremacy or on racist acts because they have a sense that exposing it is legitimizing or almost glamorizing it. That seems like an unwinning strategy. But I think it’s partly because some journalists have kind of painted themselves into this corner of objectivity, where they can’t say things are bad or wrong, and I think it leads to a kind of undercoverage.

I wonder, what are you looking for from journalists on this? Obviously they use the data, but what would you like to see reporters doing? You’re a reporter who doesn’t just count numbers, but actually goes out and talks to people. What sort of journalism do you think would be helpful in this moment?

ACT: My belief is different than the people who say, oh, you know, we can’t cover this because it’s sort of legitimizing these kooks and giving them the attention they [don’t] deserve. I think we have to report on every one of these incidents that we can verify, and that we can get out there and interview people about. I think that’s crucial. And I think what we need to do is do this journalism that in part is simply witnessing a very, very scary time in our lives, and giving voice to the people who feel terrified.

There are people in my community who feel terrified. We’ve had two very significant hate crimes in my community where I live. And those people, my neighbors, they need to be able to speak and say, hey, this is incredibly scary to us, it’s tragic, it’s very, very upsetting, and we need somebody to listen to us.

And I think the goal of journalism in this moment is to generate some sort of reaction, whether that’s a popular reaction that says, hey, we are not going to tolerate racism, ethnic hatred and the rest in our community, or whether that’s an official reaction that says, hey, we are going to take every one of these crimes absolutely seriously, and we’re going to put people away if they are attacking one another based on religious beliefs, or based on their race or ethnicity or gender orientation. I think the goal of journalism at this time is to provoke some sort of meaningful response from the public and from officialdom that says, this is not something that will be tolerated.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with A.C. Thompson, reporter at ProPublica. Find them online at ProPublica.org. A.C. Thompson, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

ACT: Thanks a lot for having me on.

US Government Tries and Fails to Play Media Critic on RT

January 10, 2017 - 12:14pm

The US intelligence community looks at RT programming.

The much-anticipated Office of the Director of Intelligence (DNI) Report—the combined assessment of the CIA, FBI, DHS and others—on alleged attempts by Russia to influence the 2016 election was released on Friday to a combination of uncritical boosting and underwhelmed perplexity. To many, it was further proof of Russia’s involvement in the DNC and Podesta hacks; to others–even to typically bullish Daily Beast–it was remarkably thin on details and evidence.

As the New York Times (1/6/16) noted in paragraph five of their report on the release, “The declassified report contained no information about how the agencies had collected their data or had come to their conclusions.” The Guardian (1/6/16) conceded that the report itself “lacks detail.” So what was in it?

Filler, mostly. Indeed, the most bizarre part about the release was that it dedicated considerable effort—approximately 40 percent of the report’s content—to the Kremlin-financed Russia Today cable network. Skimming the PDF, one could easily miss the notation buried at the bottom of page six that this section was, in fact, cut and pasted from a 2012 paper on RT from the Open Source Enterprise, a federal intelligence office “dedicated to collecting, analyzing and disseminating publicly available information of intelligence value” (Secrecy News, 10/28/16).

It’s unclear why the DNI, with a budget of $53 billion, couldn’t borrow an intern from the Atlantic Council or the Institute of Modern Russia or the Foreign Policy Research Institute or the dozens of other think tanks dedicated to hand-wringing over the Russian “information war” to update a crucial section of its hugely consequential report.

A sizable chunk of the report that was supposed to silence skeptics of the government’s claims of Russian involvement in  political hacking, then, was an Intro to Marketing-style powerpoint on a modestly funded foreign cable channel. One rarely gets to watch the US government officially engage in media criticism, and the exercise is a useful window into official thinking.

In the report’s worldview, any and all criticism of the social fabric of the United states is seen as sinister propaganda. Seemingly hard-to-deny problems like Wall Street greed and civil liberties abuse get the dismissive “alleged” treatment:

…programming that highlights criticism of alleged US shortcomings in democracy and civil liberties…

In an effort to highlight the alleged “lack of democracy” in the United States.…

alleged Wall Street greed….

allege widespread infringements of civil liberties….

US intelligence presents RT‘s coverage of fracking as a covert tool to promote Russian oil.

A focus on an utterly routine liberal concern like the environmental hazards of fracking is interpreted as a conspiracy with Russia’s oil companies to undercut natural gas:

RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health. This is likely reflective of the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and US natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom’s profitability (5 October).

Same goes for RT’s Occupy Wall Street coverage. The DNI even employs scare quotes for “the ruling class”:

RT aired a documentary about the Occupy Wall Street movement on 1, 2 and 4 November. RT framed the movement as a fight against “the ruling class” and described the current US political system as corrupt and dominated by corporations. RT advertising for the documentary featured Occupy movement calls to “take back” the government. The documentary claimed that the US system cannot be changed democratically, but only through “revolution.”

Whether or not these claims are objectively true is never really discussed. The distinction between fact and fiction is unimportant to the US government, and, by extension, to those parroting the report; what matters is, “Does it make the United States look bad?” The implication is that if RT didn’t exist, issues such as “Wall Street greed” and fracking would be overlooked. If true, what does this say about the health of our press?

Would the average American not think our democracy corrupt if it weren’t for the pesky Russians? If an idea we’ve been protected from seems plausible when we’re finally exposed to it, that in itself seems like evidence of a much broader systemic media failure.

Other ideas that the US government thinks are “supportive of [Russia’s] political agenda” are “broadcasting, hosting, and advertising third-party debates” by Green and Libertarian candidates. Serving those who feel underserved, politically, by our corporate media is here a subversive act in urgent need of Washington’s attention.

Clearly, RT’s primary editorial mandate is to be critical of the United States, as Voice of America and USAID’s mandate is to bring criticisms to unfriendly countries that might otherwise go unheard. When Washington does this, it’s seen as a noble enterprise in the service of free thought, whereas Moscow’s similar efforts place RT in the “foreign propaganda” category, viewed as inherently sinister.

The DNI report refers to RT‘s “new show Truthseeker,” which was cancelled in 2014.

In line with the report’s strangely out-of-date framing, the bulk of its criticism focuses on shows like Breaking the Set and Truthseeker that have been off the air for years. While a 2012 analysis of RT could have provided useful background to a broader breakdown of 2016 Russian influence, that it constituted so much of the report suggests it’s largely padding, meant more to scare the readers than inform them.

Key context is also missing from the report. Despite the (wildly outdated) charts showing RT running up the clicks and views, the reality is RT still has a relatively small impact on the average American’s media diet. The chart the DNI uses to show RT’s YouTube reach, for example, isn’t anywhere near correct. While it’s not clear what the 2012 figures were, the DNI’s claim that RT’s YouTube channel has 8.5 times more views than CNN’s and 3.5 times the subscribers is off massively. While it’s true RT does have more YouTube subscribers and views (due, no doubt, to the fact that CNN’s primary media player is its own), it only does so by about 20 percent, not 850 percent and 350 percent, respectively.

According to the Daily Beast  (9/17/15), RT programming reaches fewer than 30,000 Americans per day, or roughly 0.3 percent the viewership of Judge Judy (though RT, predictably, disputes these figures). RT.com, according to Alexa rankings, is the 542nd most popular website in the United States. The New York Times, by contrast, is 32nd, FoxNews.com 48th and CNN.com 20th.  RT falls a full 100 slots below the official website of the Mormon church.

There could be entire server farms dedicated to storing articles “warning” Americans about the reach of RT and its pernicious effects on our otherwise healthy and liberal body politic. The point of these stories—en masse, if not each individually—is to warn that a creeping foreign enemy is out to trick American citizens into thinking their establishment, and the status quo it maintains, are illegitimate.

It’s not hard to see that RT, like Voice of America, is intended to serve the foreign policy goals of the government that funds it. But the panic of the US establishment in the face of a relatively inconsequential foreign troll says a lot more about its desire to protect its fragile status as the arbiter of information than it does about the menace of Moscow-funded talkshows.

Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.

American Media Must Do Better in 2017 - An open letter to the American media from journalists inside it and out

January 9, 2017 - 3:15pm

Donald Trump on NBC‘s Meet the Press (1/10/16)

There is a crisis in American journalism. For too long, news outlets have prioritized their bottom line over real stories, at the expense of the American people. Stories about the vast systemic problems in America, from war to staggering income inequality to climate change to the amount of money being spent on our political system, are perpetually eclipsed by a 24-hour circus of infotainment.

Nowhere has the failure of the media been clearer than in the 2016 presidential election, where scandals, false statements and horse-race politics so often took precedence over policy. A study from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, found that coverage of Trump on eight major news outlets in 2015 alone was worth $55 million in free advertising for the candidate.

Every time major media outlets asked an irrelevant question at the presidential debates, every time they cued a roundtable of Trump and Clinton surrogates, every time they ignored or downplayed independent or third-party candidates, they failed. They decided to play a dangerous political game, and in turn, were played.

Now we have a president who has openly threatened and aggressed against members of the media. He has called for opening up libel laws and suing the press for their coverage. When we do not fully exercise our press freedoms, when we do not remain vigilant, we are jeopardizing those very liberties and thereby jeopardizing our democracy. Democracy is only as strong as a media that is a watchdog, not a lapdog, of power.

As we enter uncharted political terrain, our jobs as journalists have gotten more difficult and more critical. We cannot afford to foment division at a time of heightened hate speech and crimes against our nation’s most vulnerable populations. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the most pressing issues of our times, such as healthcare, poverty and climate change. We cannot afford to fail the American people again.

This is why we, members of the alternative American press and journalists working within national media, demand that the news media do better. We pledge to do the following in our reporting, and we invite fellow members of the media to sign on and pledge to do the same. You can contact us here if you are interested: <newsmedialetter@gmail.com>.

1. Don’t consent to closed-door meetings

While refusing to hold a single press conference so far since his electoral college victory, Trump has staged private, off-the-record meetings with prominent pundits and network executives. Last month, journalists from major media outlets gathered at his extravagant Mar-A-Lago Estate in Palm Beach, Florida for a closed-door session. More off-the-record meetings followed, including a meeting with Vogue and Vanity Fair editors. The press should treat a man as powerful and dangerous as Trump with utmost scrutiny and transparency—and must never agree to his terms of secrecy. We’re all at risk when the press corps is too busy soaking up sunlight at Mar-A-Lago to shine sunlight on the incoming administration.

2. Stop normalizing hate

It is irrefutable that Donald Trump predicated his presidential campaign on incitement against immigrants, refugees, Muslims and the Black Lives Matter movement. As president-elect, he has appointed white nationalist Stephen Bannon as “chief strategist and senior counselor” and nominated renowned racist Jeff Sessions to be his attorney general. As leaders of Black Lives Matter put it in a recent statement:

Donald Trump has promised more death, disenfranchisement and deportations. We believe him. The violence he will inflict in office, and the permission he gives for others to commit violence, is just beginning to emerge.

Instead of informing the public of the real dangers presented by a president-elect who is giving organized white supremacists a direct line to the White House, many media outlets and prominent pundits are portraying these appointments as legitimate and normal.

On November 9, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times ran an article titled “Gritting Our Teeth and Giving President Trump a Chance.” NPR host Kelly McEvers aired an interview soon after in which she allowed white nationalist Richard Spencer, widely recognized as a leader of the so-called “alt-right,” to lay out his hateful agenda with no aggressive questioning.

We call on media outlets to take a hard, unflinching look at the real dangers the Trump administration poses to society—and report those accurately, clearly and courageously.

3. Cover real issues

According to the Tyndall Report, from the beginning of 2016 until the election, ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News spent a mere 32 minutes covering issues such as healthcare, climate change, gun violence or trade. That is a 70 percent decline in issue coverage compared to 2012. This kind of disregard for real issues affecting Americans is unacceptable.

News outlets must do better than focus on personality-driven politics, clickbait headlines, scandals and fluff pieces.

4. Diversify the newsroom

African-Americans make up just 5 percent of television newsroom jobs—a level of representation essentially unchanged from 50 years ago. Back in 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, wrote that part of what caused the riots that befell American cities in the mid-1960s was that

the media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world. . . .  Fewer than five percent of the people employed by the news business in editorial jobs in the United States today are Negroes.

Race, gender and class identities are not the only variables that make up a good reporter. But when a community is not represented in the staff of a media outlet, it often means their stories are left out.

Today, the issues facing most people of color, and most working-class people, are a world removed from the life experience of the majority of newsroom staff.

5. Coverage of local issues

Journalism is facing an industry-wide reorganization that has gutted local reporting. According to the Pew Research Center, weekday circulation for newspapers fell 7 percent across the country in 2015. Pew notes that “smaller budgets have continued to lead to smaller newsrooms: The latest newspaper newsroom employment figures show 10 percent declines, greater than in any year since 2009.” When there are fewer reporters watching statehouses, local courts and corporate boardrooms—and when there are not enough journalists talking with ordinary people—we end up with a pundit class that is profoundly out of touch. As national media stars show themselves willing to engage in ethically questionable off-the-record conversations with Trump, it is more clear than ever that we need real reporting, rooted in local accountability, with the aim of expanding transparency in the service of the public good.

6. Coverage of political dissent

In cities and towns across the country, people have marched through their communities and organized emergency meetings to make it clear that they reject the Trump administration. Many are having hard conversations about how to defend those communities that will be attacked first under Trump’s most retrograde policies. These efforts necessitate coverage, as does their repression. Demonstrations and public dissent are a constitutional right guaranteed by the First Amendment, and audiences should be reminded of this.

Anti-Trump protests have also nearly always been nonviolent. Showcasing smashed windows when thousands are demonstrating peacefully is inaccurate. Rather than telling protesters they are being too rash, or drawing false equivalencies between angry demonstrations and Trump-style hate, the pundit class should report on dissent and resistance with the respect and attention it deserves.

 

Signed:

 

Francesca Fiorentini (AJ+)

Jordan Flaherty (Author, No More Heroes)

Sarah Lazare (AlterNet)

Laura Flanders (Laura Flanders Show)

Nadia Prupis (Common Dreams)

Deirdre Fulton (Common Dreams)

Kate Elston (AJ+)

Chelis López (KPOO)

Michael Aria (AlterNet)