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Scrutiny for Supreme Court Pick Fails to Focus on Rights of Disabled

February 17, 2017 - 3:06pm

For the New York Times, blocking Gorsuch is appeasement, while letting him on is honorable.

Since Donald Trump announced Neil Gorsuch as his nominee for the Supreme Court, media have coalesced around a few themes: One is about whether any Trump appointment should be blocked as payback to Republicans, as expressed in a New York Times headline (2/13/17): “Democrats’ Quandary on Gorsuch: Appease the Base or Honor the Process.” Spoiler: The paper thinks the real strain is on “those in the middle.”

Another theme is Gorsuch’s “eloquence” and his being “hard to pigeonhole” as conservative: One story said he “didn’t skip a beat” when a friend came out to him as gay.

There are stories about concerns around Gorsuch’s record on the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit: They focus on his justifiably concerning ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, where the chain store won the right to deny employees contraception coverage and in which he described birth control, falsely, as “destroying a fertilized human egg.”

But the lens corporate media use for Supreme Court nominees has some blind spots. In this case, you could read all the elite press have to offer on Gorsuch and never hear about human rights for people with disabilities. You’d need to find ACLU attorney Claudia Center’s piece on her group’s website (2/3/17) to learn about Hwang vs. Kansas State University—a case brought by assistant professor Grace Hwang, who was returning to work after a leave of absence for cancer treatment when the campus broke out in a flu epidemic, leading her to request to work from home for a short period as her immune system was weakened.

Judge Gorsuch sided with the school that this request was unreasonable and he said that disability rights rules aren’t meant to “turn employers into safety net providers for those who cannot work.”  That call, which Center notes represented errors of both law and fact, went against every other circuit decision on the issue, as well as guidance from the EEOC and the Supreme Court. But a search of major media on “Gorsuch” and “Hwang” turns up zero stories.

Despite disabled people constituting, according to the Census Bureau, some 19 percent of the US population—that’s nearly 1 in 5 people—how the highest court in the land may affect their ability to work and live just isn’t that interesting to corporate media. With a president that openly mocks disabled people, that kind of disinterest is even more dangerous.

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

Jessica Gonzalez on FCC Chair Ajit Pai

February 17, 2017 - 10:02am
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Ajit Pai (photo: FCC)

This week on CounterSpin: “T-Mobile Very Pleased with Direction of Change under Trump Administration, CEO Says.” That headline tells you pretty much what  you need to know about Ajit Pai, Trump’s choice of chair for the FCC—the entity charged with representing the public interest in the communications industry. The phone company exec is pleased, he says, because Pai’s appointment signals “an air of less regulation.”

The idea that the media industry hates regulation is fiction, given that it’s government that grants licenses to companies to use the public airwaves and monopoly franchises to cable companies. In so doing, as media scholar Bob McChesney has said, government isn’t so much setting the terms of competition as picking the winners. What’s objected to, of course, are public interest regulations—including the net neutrality rules that allow for a democratic and diverse internet. What’s ahead for the public interest under Ajit Pai’s FCC? We talk with Jessica Gonzalez, deputy director and senior counsel at the group Free Press.

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First we’ll take a look back at recent press, including the Muslim ban, wars that “promote freedom and democracy,” and Neil Gorsuch.

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ACTION ALERT: WaPo’s Post Live Series Is a Love Letter to Corporate Conflicts of Interest

February 16, 2017 - 5:46pm

Since 2010, the Washington Post has been banking on its pedigree and prestige by putting on Q & A sessions with influential Beltway personalities—sponsored by corporations directly involved in the topics of discussion. Event sponsors include Bank of America, Eli Lilly, Qualcomm, WGL Energy, AFLAC, GlaxoSmithKline and UnitedHealth, among others.

These events, billed as “Post Live,” are generally fluffy, non-combative industry hype sessions sponsored by a relevant corporation and quarterbacked by a Washington Post columnist or reporter to lend it gravitas. The ideological scope, as one would expect based on who funds them, ranges from “how capitalism and the US military can be more awesome” to “capitalism and the US military are already awesome.” This ideological capture is seen most starkly in Post Live’s coverage of healthcare and war.

David Ignatius interviewing Susan Rice in the glow of sponsor Raytheon. (photo: John Vela/Twitter)

Four events from March, June, September and December of 2016, titled “Securing Tomorrow,” were all sponsored by weapons manufacturer Raytheon and the Center for a New American Security, a DC think tank largely funded by weapons contractors, the US Department of Defense, the Japanese government and US oil companies.

Needless to say, how politicians can slash military budgets and prevent war from happening in the first place were entirely absent from the discussion, as evidenced by videos of the event found on the Post’s website.

The series’ Beltway-friendly banter featured Post columnist David Ignatius, who spoke mostly in the first person plural when talking about the US military, chatting it up with Deputy Secretary of State Robert Work (3/30/16), National Security Advisor Susan Rice (6/10/16), Director of Intelligence James Clapper (9/20/16) and DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson (12/13/16). Opening remarks were given by a representative from Raytheon, the sponsor.

Raytheon, whose bombs were used by Saudi Arabia to kill 140 people attending a wedding in Yemen last October, heavily promoted the event, tweeting out links to the live video stream throughout the day.

Post spokesperson Kris Coratti told FAIR: “The Washington Post draws a hard line between the content of our events, which are developed and run by our newsroom, and our sponsors. Sponsors do not pay our people, nor do they have any say in the programming.”

Raytheon on the agenda. (photo: Chris Shea/Twitter)

When FAIR asked how the sponsors could have no say in the programming when they literally give remarks at the program, Coratti responded, “Opening remarks are their own, and not part of the news program.”

That would be hard to discern from the event agenda (posted on Twitter), which sandwiched the “Sponsor Remarks” of Raytheon VP Rick Hunt between the “Welcome Remarks” of the Post’s VP of communications (Coratti herself) and the “Conversation” with Secretary Johnson—all listed in the same typeface.

Healthcare is another frequent topic of Post Live events. A session asking “Is Technology Improving Your Health?” (6/14/16) was sponsored by Philips, which describes itself as “a leading health technology company focused on improving people’s health.” A program on “Chasing Cancer” (12/6/16) was presented by AFLAC, an insurance company that specializes in cancer policies, with additional support from Pfizer and Genentech, makers of cancer drugs.

Most recently, a Post Live event on the future of the Affordable Healthcare Act (12/12/16) was sponsored by industry giants GlaxoSmithKline and UnitedHealth. Filled with industry executives, the topic of single-payer healthcare was taboo, as Corporate Crime Reporter’s Russ Mokhiber (1/12/17) noted:

Was anyone who was supportive of single-payer national health insurance invited to participate? No.

And the Post insists that the sponsors had nothing to do with this.

Speaking at that healthcare session last month, GlaxoSmithKline’s Caroline De Marco made it clear that in her company’s view, a Medicare-for-All single-payer system was not an option.

“Maintaining a market-based system with strong collaboration between the government and private sector is the best way to insure patient affordability and access,” De Marco said.

Similarly, at no point in the security series did Ignatius feel the need to interview anyone outside the US military apparatus on how to “secure tomorrow.” No peace advocates, no anti-war voices, no budget skeptics in Congress. Of course, such participants wouldn’t boost the Post’s insider cred, nor would they attract big sponsor dollars from $44 billion weapons contractors.

As with most instances of corporate influence, what makes the Post Live series dodgy isn’t that journalists and business executives all gather in a room and hatch anti-poor and pro-war conspiracies. It’s that such gatherings, by design, exclude any voices that would meaningfully question corporate sponsors or the US apparatchiks who take part. It’s a process of filtering rather than overt collusion; and it’s inherent in a business model that trades on the independence and credibility of a journalistic institution as an alternative revenue stream for their parent corporation.


Please contact the Washington Post and urge it to stop allowing corporations to sponsor events when they have a direct financial interest in the subject.


Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan

Email: letters@washpost.com

Twitter: @washingtonpost

Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

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

Trump Supporters Support Trump: To Maintain ‘Balance,’ Media Resort to Tautology

February 15, 2017 - 2:43pm

Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East has been a major story during the new administration’s early days. As one of Trump’s main campaign promises, this immigration policy has generated untold hours of TV coverage and news headlines.

The policy’s sloppy language, bungled roll-out and punitive real-world impact on innocents have rightly been prominently reported by journalists. Much of the coverage has focused on the widespread backlash to the ban, which has manifested itself in numerous legal challenges and a nationwide series of rapid-response airport protests. Coupled with the new president’s record-low approval ratings, the refugee ban increasingly tells a tale of a White House struggling to impose an unpopular agenda.

Now it can be told: Trump backers tend to back Trump.

But coverage of the opposition to the ban has also sparked a kind of reflexive counter-narrative within the corporate media. Since the first protests broke out a few weeks ago, a competing genre has appeared adjacent to that coverage. In it, the press parachutes into red-state diners, barbershops and grocery store parking lots to seek out Trump voters—and only Trump voters—to gauge their support for the ban.

As a result, the “news” in these news stories isn’t that surprising. Turns out the same people who consistently backed the idea of a Muslim ban during the primaries and after the national nominating conventions also like Trump’s current ban by a similar margin.

Nevertheless, wire services (Reuters, 1/30/17; Associated Press, 1/31/17), newspapers (New York Times, 1/30/17; Hartford Courant, 2/1/17; Boston Globe, 2/1/17), magazines (Time, 1/31/17; Newsweek, 1/29/17), online news sites (NorthJersey.com, 1/30/17; Huffington Post, 1/31/17), and national radio and TV networks (CNN, 1/31/17; NPR, 2/2/17; VOA News, 2/6/17) have all indulged in this kind of tautological reporting. Just this week, you could find more examples in Politico magazine (2/13/17) and the Philadelphia Inquirer (2/13/17).

With overall public sentiment on the refugee ban largely split—though poll question phrasing can vary the responses significantly—it’s entirely legitimate for the press to dig into and understand the arguments animating both sides of the issue. But it’s also important to note that only one side shows evidence of being animated over the ban right now. So it’s entirely fair to report the split among the public and still devote more coverage to events that are actually newsworthy, like courts issuing temporary restraining orders in defiance of the president, or thousands of people across the country marching in the street and in airport terminals.

In effect, these Trump-supporters-support-Trump-ban stories share an implicit bias in their narrative framing: that (overwhelmingly white) Trump voters deserve rarefied, privileged attention by the media, even when doing nothing newsworthy. As Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel has suggested, the press never devoted a series of articles to quoting Democratic supporters of the Affordable Care Act under the framing  “Despite Protests, Obamacare Popular in Berkeley.”

The insidious double standard of this tautology-as-news trend isn’t the only unhealthy journalistic aspect of this genre. To borrow a favorite phrase from the right wing, the press has increasingly carved out journalistic “safe spaces” for Trump supporters to air their support, free of reported context or rigorous factchecking.

For example, in the many stories I reviewed, dozens of Trump supporters routinely conflated immigrating refugees with an increased risk of terrorism. But only one article, from Huffington Post (1/31/17), bothered to point out the incredibly low actuarial risk of dying from a terrorist attack carried out by a refugee: 1 in 3.64 billion per year.

Likewise, when one ban-supporting veteran was quoted by Newsweek (1/29/17), “He just wants to have [agents] in place to process people and make sure they’re vetted,” there’s no follow-up from the Newsweek reporter to note that, in fact, an extensive vetting infrastructure for refugees already exists. Stripped of that key context, one could easily get the impression from the story that Trump has somehow lit upon some common sense revelation about immigration policy. Much closer to reality: Trump’s promise of “extreme vetting” is a vacuous bit of national security theater with no specific policy improvements attached to it.

By straining to offer meta-balanced coverage of the refugee ban, corporate media all too often end up reinforcing right-wing memes and talking points. An Associated Press article (1/31/17) went out of its way to let its readers know that Trump fans insult Democrats and liberals critical of the ban as “snowflakes” and “soft-hearted do-gooders” that need to “calm down.” The headline on a Reuters (1/30/17) article trotted out the old “heartland voters” saw, which is but a half-step removed from the odious, loaded term “real American.” Its lead sentence also adopted the same “calm down” condescension often expressed by Trump-ban supporters. But it’s this passage that not-so-subtly captured whose voices Reuters was exclusively featuring here (emphasis added):

The relaxed reaction among the kind of voters who drove Trump’s historic upset victory—working- and middle-class residents of Midwest and the South—provided a striking contrast to the uproar that has gripped major coastal cities, where thousands of protesters flocked to airports where immigrants had been detained.

To read this story is to realize that the “kind of voters” being singled out in this class and geographic division are mainly white (although few are ever identified by race).

Protest against Trump’s immigration ban at Dallas/Ft. Worth airport, deep in the heart of Trump country. (image: @caldwell_court/Twitter)

Reuters was by no means alone. Time and again, these Trump-supporters-support-Trump stories paint all voters in the South and Midwest—referred to as being from “heartland,” “Trump country,” “Republican strongholds”—in crudely monolithic terms. To illustrate the tension between them and so-called coastal elites, the mainstream press plays up the airport protests in New York City and Los Angeles while almost wholly ignoring protests happening in places that don’t easily conform to its red-state/blue-state narrative, like Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Denver, Detroit, Charlotte and Columbus, and even smaller airports in Trump-friendly areas like Bangor, Maine; Boise, Idaho; Bloomington, Indiana; and Birmingham, Alabama.

In the very worst cases, the press ends up joining in on the misinformation. This NorthJersey.com “article” (1/30/17)—actually little more than a series of trite person-on-the-street interviews—simply offers a string of nearly unanimous support for the immigration ban from Trump voters. When one man provides a dangerously vague, flagrantly xenophobic statement—“If you know who your enemy is, why invite them in?”—there’s no follow-up from NJ.com about just who the “enemy” is or why that language might be counterproductive. Instead, it passes unchallenged, and so gets the imprimatur of legitimacy.

Similarly, Erin Burnett Outfront (CNN, 1/31/17) dedicated an entire segment to interviewing Trump voters from Atlanta, all of whom supported the ban. (Were Trump voters who opposed the ban even allowed to participate? CNN never made its methodology clear.) As the Trump supporters continually conflated Muslim refugees and immigration with terrorism as a justification for “changing policies,” CNN played right along, running B-roll of the aftermaths of the 9/11, San Bernardino, Paris and Nice attacks to ratchet up the fear factor.

The network never found it necessary to explain that most of the Paris attackers were radicalized French or Belgian citizens, that the husband in the San Bernardino attack was a native-born US citizen, and that the Nice terrorist, a Tunisian national, had been living in France for 11 years before the attack. In other words, Trump’s refugee ban would have had little to no chance of preventing similar attacks in the US, yet it would strand tens of thousands of innocent people in desperate, war-torn countries.

Even the New York Times (1/30/17) can’t help but pull its punches in this genre. When pushing back against a Trump supporter echoing the president’s claims that a refugee ban would prevent terrorism from abroad, this Times story insists on diluting the truth with a weak he-said/he-said framing (emphasis added):

Mr. Trump has tapped into a deep anxiety that is a relatively recent feature of modern American politics: terrorism from abroad. His detractors argue that his actions are not borne out by facts.

This Times story does have an ironic silver lining, however. It inadvertently offers up a stinging meta-critique of the media’s own flawed coverage of refugees and terrorism, a phenomenon that Trump has manipulated masterfully as part of his political ascent.

But emotions are powerful forces, and much of what people know comes from smartphone and tablet screens showing an endless stream of news of terrorist attacks that feel immediate and threatening even if they are far away.

“I don’t begrudge my grandma who never met a Muslim in her life, but all she sees on TV are Muslims blowing things up,” said Mr. Bower, 35, who grew up in rural Idaho. “It is not irrational that people are worried.”

Make no mistake, Trump’s 18-month-long presidential campaign is responsible for stoking untold amounts of Islamophobia and xenophobia within our country. But the complicity of the corporate press in setting the conditions for his rise through decades of irrational, fear-based coverage of terrorism can’t be overlooked either.

Tragically, the media appear unwilling or unable to learn this necessary lesson. But a good first step would be to stop force-fitting journalism into the same narrative frames used by a president who believes in prioritizing (mostly white) fears of the other.

Reed Richardson is a media critic and writer whose work has appeared in The Nation, AlterNet, Harvard University’s Nieman Reports and the textbook Media Ethics (Current Controversies). You can follow him on Twitter at: @reedfrich.


‘Trump Wants to Take an Axe to the Regulatory State’ - CounterSpin interview with Amit Narang on the anti-regulation rule

February 14, 2017 - 1:38pm

Janine Jackson interviewed Amit Narang about Trump’s anti-regulation rule for the February 10, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Amit Narang: “A lack of regulation hits the poor and the vulnerable the hardest.” (image: RT)

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Janine Jackson: As with other of his maneuvers, the intent of Donald Trump’s executive order on regulations might have been equally well-conveyed by a crayoned sign—in this case reading, “Regulations Bad.” For any new rule added, agencies are directed to, “unless prohibited by law,” identify at least two existing regulations to be repealed, and the cost of all new regulations “shall be no greater than zero.” As with other of his orders, it’s not clear that this can even be implemented without tangling various agencies in knots, and equally unclear how much that matters, since the intent can be plenty destructive on its own.

Amit Narang is regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. The group has just filed suit against Trump based on this order. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Amit Narang.

Amit Narang: Thank you so much for having me.

JJ: The order seems at a glance to rely on an almost cartoonish understanding of how regulation works, or why it exists, for that matter. But with reference to Public Citizen’s lawsuit around it,  White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer just said that that suit “presumes a lot of outcomes that are wildly inaccurate.” So I wonder how you respond to that claim, and what the grounds are for Public Citizen’s suit around this executive order.

AN: I think that that claim by Mr. Spicer is laughable. Essentially what he’s saying is that, oh no, this executive order is not going to operate the way we intend it to operate, which is to make it almost impossible to regulate in areas that are key to protecting the public’s health, safety, making sure Wall Street is accountable to the public and not acting recklessly, environmental protections. And let’s be clear, President Trump has made claims that he wants to get rid of 75 percent of existing regulations, without specifying, of course, which ones those are, but he can’t do that without touching bedrock, fundamental protections that the public takes for granted, frankly, and that Congress has produced legislation to protect, that is some of the most popular legislation that Congress has ever produced, stuff like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Dodd-Frank Act.

If that is the case, that Trump wants to essentially take an axe to the regulatory state, then it’s ridiculous for Mr. Spicer to say that the way we are reading the executive order, which is that agencies will be simply unable to regulate in critical areas across the board, somehow that is a problematic reading of the EO. It’s exactly what the EO intends, and we are taking it very seriously. I assume the administration is as well. I wonder where these remarks are coming from from Mr. Spicer.

JJ: As with many things Trump, one wants to both say, you know, what is this nuttiness? and then also to say, well, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. When Donald Trump talks about there being 72 rules for something, he’s trading on an existing idea, that there are lots of dusty, arcane regulations that businesses nevertheless have to comply with, which if they didn’t, those businesses would be providing jobs and national prosperity. This is kind of taking it to the Nth degree. But, bigger picture, how do we argue back against that general idea?

AN: So that general idea, as you’re saying, is false, that regulations somehow cost the economy; in fact, if anything is true, it’s the opposite. And we saw that with the Wall Street crash. Massive deregulation of Wall Street led to $14 to $22 trillion in lost wealth to this country. That was average Americans, mostly, bearing those losses and losing their homes, okay? To be clear, regulation protects jobs, it protects our economy. Now, of course, big businesses and corporate America and conservatives that are ideologically opposed to regulation want to paint this picture, which is completely a false picture.

With respect to the presumption underlying this executive order, that there are tons of old regulations that serve no purpose, that are all dusty and laying around and can be easily repealed, and of course, since they serve no purpose, they must be costing corporate America a lot of money—that’s a little bit of sarcasm; I don’t know how they reconcile that—but even that presumption is false.

Why? Because President Obama initiated in 2011 what’s called regulatory retrospective review process, where he asked agencies to look at the rules that they had on their books and see if, in fact, there were any of these old regulations that really weren’t serving any purpose, that would be able to be repealed without harming the public. And they did find some. They didn’t find that many, and frankly, they didn’t come anywhere close to pleasing corporate America with this initiative. But in any case, they did find some, and they did repeal them.

Will the government have to stop regulating mercury in the air in order to regulating lead in water? (photo: USFWS)

And this is a real problem for the Trump administration’s implementation of this executive order. Because under the executive order, in order for agencies to put out new regulations—let’s say, updated lead standards in drinking water, which is not a hypothetical; the EPA’s supposed to do that in 2017—in order for the EPA to do that, they have to find a regulation that doesn’t serve any purpose, that’s just sitting on the books, that’s costing the energy industry money, to get rid of. Well, if those regulations have already been identified by the Obama administration and have already been repealed, what are they going to turn to?

Then we start talking about regulations that absolutely still serve a purpose, that still protect the public—say, getting mercury out of the water, essentially, by requiring power plants to not spew mercury out when they spew out emissions that eventually fall into the water that then makes its way into the food that we eat. Are we going to sacrifice mercury regulations in order to then regulate lead in drinking water?

I’m constantly amused by claims from the Trump administration and other conservatives that they aren’t against regulation. And yet, at every step, they’re trying to stop any regulation that the EPA does to enforce the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act or to combat climate change. And, frankly, that happens across agencies, when it comes to public health and safety.

JJ: I just want to draw out one point which I think doesn’t get a lot of attention, which is that there’s a substrain, isn’t there, of this “regulations vs. jobs” argument, that says that people of color in particular should be resentful of red tape that’s impeding their advancement somehow. I wonder how you address that idea in particular, that for some reason regulations pose a particular harm for poor people and people of color?

AN: So the theory, just to give it its due in terms of explaining it, is that because regulation imposes costs on consumer products, imposes costs on electricity prices — now, that’s them saying it, not me, but let’s just take it as a plausible hypothetical — because consumers bear those costs of regulations, it hits the poor—and thus, I presume the assumption is, minorities—harder than it hits wealthy Americans.

Now, I don’t believe that is the case. Public Citizen has shown in report after report that climate change regulations do not result in increased electricity prices in any state in this country. In fact, they will result in reduced energy prices, because of the energy efficiency measures that are forced through regulatory action on climate change. But these are corporate lobbyshop–driven studies, and so of course they can show what they want to show. The truth is that, as I mentioned, a lack of regulation hits the poor and the vulnerable the hardest. This is just in terms of the pocketbook. The Obama administration successfully put out a regulation near the end of the term to increase overtime pay. That will absolutely help the poor in this country, poor workers in this country.

JJ: And women as well, yeah.

AN: Environmental justice measures will help those urban areas where the dirtiest power production facilities are inevitably located. And then, moving beyond that, regulation has been critical to combating discrimination, and that has been a direct benefit to minorities in this country. So this is absolutely a false narrative that really doesn’t reflect the lived reality of the poor and minorities in this country.

New York Times (2/5/17): “In Mr. Pruitt…the president has tapped a surgeon, not a butcher.”

JJ: I don’t think I was the only one who was dismayed to see a New York Times story headlined “Scott Pruitt Is Seen Cutting the EPA With a Scalpel, Not a Cleaver.” I mean, you got the substance, that Pruitt was expected to reduce the EPA’s effectiveness, perhaps to near meaninglessness. But you still felt like you were somehow supposed to be pleased that he was a “surgeon, not a butcher,” who “knows the legal intricacies of environmental regulation—and deregulation.” Now, I’m not saying every headline should be “Run for Your Life,” but this seemed a little bit like misplaced emphasis. What kinds of reporting would be helpful — you can respond to that, of course — but also, what kinds of reporting would be helpful in conveying the set of issues at stake here?

AN: So I agree, that’s disappointing that Scott Pruitt is being represented in that way. He is a potential EPA head that simply doesn’t believe in a federal role for regulating the environment, this despite the fact that environmental issues of course cross state boundaries. Clean water is not something that is just related to one state; dirty water passes state lines, just like with air pollution. And, of course, climate change is the biggest threat, and that is not something that is a state-level threat; that’s a federal threat, that’s a global threat.

I think what we need in terms of reporting is far more skepticism towards putting in place individuals that head these agencies that fundamentally disagree with the mission of those agencies. And then, beyond that, to the extent that they are citing what’s viewed as statistics, or some kind of grounding in basis for their anti-regulatory or deregulatory measures, those have to be vetted far more carefully. Industry and industry lobbyists in DC get away with so much when it comes to what they claim to be studies and reports, that only look at the economic costs of regulation to their clients, to their industries, and never look at the benefits of regulations, the very real benefits, but the less tangible benefits when it comes to clean air, clean water, a safe financial system that doesn’t implode, safe food, anti-discrimination measures.

I think we’re going to see now, just like with Obamacare and the attempt to repeal Obamacare, now all of a sudden people realize, oh, this is a very important law that gives us tangible benefits. The same thing is going to happen in the regulatory space, and I really think that journalists need to point out exactly what’s at stake and exactly what people will be losing as the Trump administration seeks to repeal all sorts of Obama-era regulations, and potentially even older regulations, that absolutely benefit the public greatly.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Amit Narang. He’s regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. You can follow their work, including their lawsuit against Donald Trump, online at Citizen.org. Amit Narang, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

AN: My pleasure. Any time.

‘School Choice Is Not Serving the Most Disenfranchised’ - CounterSpin interview with Kevin Kumashiro on Betsy DeVos

February 14, 2017 - 10:41am

Janine Jackson interviewed Kevin Kumashiro about Betsy DeVos for the February 10, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Kevin Kumashiro: “If we’re now saying that the role of the federal government is not to advance issues of equity, diversity and social justice, but rather to fuel the privatizing and the dismantling of public education, then that absolutely is a big shift.” (photo: Center for Anti-Oppressive Education)

Betsy DeVos’s thoughts about grizzly bears might be the least worrisome thing about her. (cc photo: vanderfrog)

Janine Jackson: There were near-countless causes for concern about the appointment of deep-pocketed Republican Betsy DeVos as secretary of Education. She’s given money to 17 of the senators voting on her. She’s never taught or had her children in public school. She seemed to know little about core educational issues, like the debate over measuring students’ proficiency versus their growth, or whether or not the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act is a federal law. In the end, her line about needing guns in schools for grizzly bears might be the least worrisome thing about her. Yet here we are.

It’s been said that the Education secretary has less day-to-day power than other agency heads. But what does the DeVos appointment represent in terms of this administration’s potential impact on children and schools, and how do we fight for a different vision? Kevin Kumashiro is the former dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco, and founder of Education Deans for Justice and Equity. He’s the author of the book Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture. He joins us now by phone from California. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Kevin Kumashiro.

Kevin Kumashiro: Janine, thanks so much for having me.

JJ: I think it’s fair to raise concern about DeVos’s lack of classroom experience, but I can imagine someone who has never taught who nevertheless understood what teachers do. As with other Trump appointments, it seems like it’s not a matter of DeVos not being the “best” person; the problem is she represents a position that’s opposed to the mission of the department. Is that fair to say, do you think?

KK: I think that’s very fair to say. I mean, I think in so many instances, having outsider perspectives can be very helpful, so I agree it’s not about whether or not she herself has taught, although that would be very helpful if she had. It’s more about what is her vision for public education, and what is her track record that shows what she’s already done and where she’s likely to take public education.

And the Department of Education was created in a time when the federal government was leveraging the little money that it has in public education—well, little in terms of the percentage, right? The federal government accounts for only about 10 percent of public school funding. But, you know, it’s a $600 billion-a-year enterprise nationally. There’s lots of money to be made in public education.

So the federal government for several decades, from the ’50s through the ’80s, was actually exerting more and more influence, to try to make public schools address diversity, equity and injustices. That was the hallmark of the string of legislation that came through the federal government that culminated, in 1979, in the creation of the Department of Education.

So if we’re now saying that the role of the federal government is not to advance issues of equity, diversity and social justice, but rather to fuel the privatizing and the dismantling of public education, then that absolutely is a big shift from historically where it’s been going, and a big shift from what should be its primary role in schooling.

JJ: Well, yes, having people in charge of agencies that they don’t think should exist is a special kind of confusing, including for people who have to report on it. But what we get are sort of arguments about ideas and then a lot of buzzwords, and “school choice,” like “accountability,” is a great buzzword. And taking off from what you’ve just been saying about the original intent of the whole department, school choice is being presented as, in particular, a way for students of color and poor kids to access the great equalizer that is education. You know, wealthy kids presumably already have school choice. I find the cynicism of Betsy DeVos professing to care about poor black and brown children almost unbearable. But, first of all, no one says some charter schools haven’t helped some kids, right? But we have data here, and if it’s kids that we care about, those data just don’t support a shift of resources away from public schools.

KK: Oh, absolutely. When we talk about the track record of Betsy DeVos, we should look at Michigan, because it’s in Michigan where she leveraged millions of dollars to rapidly expand the creation of charter schools, at the same time that she pushed for legislation that would deregulate, in other words that would lessen the oversight of charter schools. And particularly in Detroit, this is what we saw, right, a proliferation of charter schools with far less oversight.

And are we seeing the gaps in achievement and attainment being closed? Well, absolutely not. Even proponents of school choice are saying that the very expensive experiment in Detroit was a failure. And the test scores show it as well, right? In Michigan, schools have seen what’s called the nation’s report card, the NAEP score, the test scores actually go down in the short time that she has been leading the reforms. It is not the case that school choice is serving the most disenfranchised.

I like to point out the irony that when we talk about a democracy, of course freedom of choice is a very big part of that, conceptually. But within the realm of education, we very narrowly define what we mean by school choice. It is often a way to move funding around. And who benefits the most? It’s actually not those who struggle the most. It tends to be those who already have access, who already have privilege, who know how to work the system. School choice is not proving to be a savior. And if that’s the singular focus of this secretary, then we have a really big problem. We need to be looking at the bigger picture, we need a more complex understanding of the system, and that’s not what we’re seeing yet with this new secretary.

JJ: People may be somewhat starved for silver linings right now, but I have seen a number of people saying that they’re grateful that there was such a big fight around Betsy DeVos. One piece said “Americans don’t usually get this worked up about education,” which I’m not sure is really true. But it is true that power over schools is more decentralized in some ways than some other areas, and there are more points for potential involvement. But I wonder, going forward, do you see something that we can use from the argument that we’ve been having over her appointment?

KK: Yeah. Let me make two points, one is kind of historical and then one is moving forward. Historically, I think we need to remind ourselves that both Democrats and Republicans have brought us to where we are right now. Right? In the last administration, under President Obama and the secretaries Arne Duncan and John King, they were moving us towards things like narrowly defining “standards” and “accountability,” fueling the growth of school choice and of privatizing and marketizing school systems. So the kind of thing that we’re talking about, that Betsy DeVos has pushed in Michigan, is actually building on the history that we’ve led ourselves to over the past three and a half decades. So both sides are to blame for bringing us to this point. And I think when we hold our leaders accountable, let’s hold everyone accountable for the failures of past so-called reforms and for coming up with much bolder visions for what schools should look like that are based in research.

I think moving forward, one of the entry points for activism is that in this moment, as you’ve pointed out, we have moved towards more decentralization. When the federal government reauthorized the very big education law, called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—it was first created in 1965, it was reauthorized just last December—when they reauthorized it, one of the really big, important changes they made was they weakened the federal government. And this was because both Democrats and Republicans were so unhappy with the move, under particularly the Obama administration, to hoist even more testing and even more decision-making based on those tests, which is what we call high-stakes testing. Even more high-stakes testing was happening, to a point where our kids—everyone knew they were being overtested, and there wasn’t really much gains from that.

So as a result we rewrote the law, and we weakened the ability of the federal government to push states. Why is this a problem? Because we first created that law in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, in the midst of the War on Poverty, to force states and school districts to address issues of equity and diversity in their school systems. We’ve weakened the federal government, which strengthens the states and locals. What we need to recognize, then, is that our organizing really needs to target the locals and the states.

So it is an interesting time that she’s coming in, right when we have this new law. And I think activists need to be mindful of, there is a role that the federal government plays, but there’s also very significant roles that the state and local governments play in education. We need to learn how the system works and target our activism towards that.

Betsy DeVos reminds the Chicago Tribune (2/2/17) of Arne Duncan in her “focus-on-the-kids zeal.”

JJ: To your point about there being a lot of pre-existing groundwork, if you will, for this moment, the Chicago Tribune endorsed Betsy DeVos because, they said, she reminded them of Arne Duncan. So there are people who see the record and they’re okay with it.

But bigger picture, I wonder if media’s overall framing is less than helpful. There’s a picture of key players, and that’s teachers, which kind of really means unions, and there’s parents and then there’s “reformers,” and it’s supposedly a kind of a power tug-of-war. Do you think we’re just asking, or that media are just asking, the wrong questions? How should the conversation change around education?

KK: I think sometimes the media likes to paint a story where there’s two sides and they’re battling, and it’s just not so simple in this case. Both unions very quickly endorsed Obama when he was running for re-election, despite that that was the middle of the Arne Duncan administration, as we already knew the direction that education was moving in. As you pointed out, a lot of attention was given to the statement about grizzly bears, right, and that’s why we need guns. But there are so many deeper, much more complicated conversations that we needed to be having. Let me point to one.

Right after her confirmation, a lot of the media attention was played on how all the Democrats staged that 24-hour talk-a-thon to stall the confirmation vote in the full Senate. We didn’t talk about how a lot of those Democrats actually supported the policies that she’s talking about around privatization. We didn’t talk about how the two Republicans who dissented were actually in the Senate committee, and had either of them voted against her in committee, it would have never gone to the Senate vote. We also didn’t talk about how within hours of the confirmation vote, one of our congresspeople put forward a one-sentence bill that basically would dissolve the Department of Education in the end of 2018. These are some of the muted stories that point to these bigger struggles over what public schools can and should be looking like.

And let me just tie the dots with one more point. I think we’ve come to a point in our nation where the framing conversation around education is how we can fuel competition to make things better. It’s like grocery stores in the neighborhood; it’s a competition that’s going to make things better. Well, in a competition, there has to be both winners and losers; that’s what it means to structure a competition. And so we should be asking ourselves, why are we talking about education where we presuppose, where we expect, that some are going to lose? Why do we talk about education as if it’s a commodity, where those who have the resources can get the best and the masses get something very substandard?

Public education was first envisioned by some of our earliest leaders in this country, who were thinking and talking about public education as a public good, as something that every child should be able to walk to and attend a school that embodies the very best that our nation has to offer. We’ve lost sight of this idea, that education should be a central institution in our democratic nation. We are more and more buying into the story that it is a commodity, or it is a competition, and some will get something great and the masses will not. That’s the underlying story that needs to be really rattled, and these small debates over outlandish statements, or even policy issues, sometimes mask that really deeper debate that we as a nation need to be having.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Kevin Kumashiro of Education Deans for Justice and Equity, on line at EducationDeans.org. The book is Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture. Kevin Kumashiro, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

KK: Thank you so much for having me and for covering this really important topic.

‘It Is Not at All Typical to Stifle Basic Scientific Information’ - CounterSpin interview with Andrew Rosenberg on Trump's hostility to science

February 13, 2017 - 10:11am

Janine Jackson interviewed Andrew Rosenberg about the Trump administration’s hostility toward science for the February 3, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Andrew Rosenberg: “If you tell technical experts…you have to only give us information that we like, then you’re not getting technical advice. You’re telling them not to do their jobs.”

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Janine Jackson: Any administration would like to restrict what the public knows about its actions—an unpopular one, all the more so. Combine that with a frank hostility to government regulations and you have the present moment, with Trump White House efforts to make federal agencies limit what they tell the public, and efforts to give them less to talk about in the first place. It may not get the same sort of headlines, but the White House’s war on science could well yield casualties as great as other violent acts more traditionally defined.

Here to tell us about the pressures and the resistance is Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He joins us now by phone from Cambridge. Welcome to CounterSpin, Andrew Rosenberg.

Andrew Rosenberg: Thank you very much, Janine.

JJ: The Washington Post says for a new White House to take centralized control of PR is fairly typical, but “the sweeping nature of some of the new controls is unusual.” Well, the hostility to science, to intractable facts, you know, fairly wafts off this new cabinet. But what are some of the particular moves that worry you right now?

AR: Well, what we’ve seen in the first days of the administration, and it’s hard to believe that it’s only been a few days, but we’ve seen the rollout of bans on scientists—as well as other employees—being on social media, speaking to the press, releasing any reports or other products. And while I would agree that it might be typical to hold off on making policy pronouncements for a new administration, it is not at all typical to stifle scientific products—which is basic scientific information, coming out to the public—from public employees.

So that’s one thing we’ve seen, which has been announced and then walked back. We’ve seen a hold on grants and contracts, which was touted as being the usual course of business. I’ve never seen that before, and I’ve been involved in several transitions before. So it is an extraordinary level of not only control, but of pushback on federal scientists.

And in addition to that, all of the messaging around the transition, as well as the new administration, has been very negative towards public employees generally, and in some cases toward scientists in particular.

JJ: I wanted to draw you out on just that, because it isn’t just pressure on science, the product, but of course on scientists themselves. And I wonder if you could talk about the re-introduction that we saw in January of the Holman Rule and what implications that may have for government scientists.

AR: Well, the Holman Rule was—in some sense, we hope it’s symbolic, but it says that Congress can target an individual employee and reduce their salary down to one dollar. This is something that is a holdover from the 19th century and has been revived in the House of Representatives. They would have to do that through appropriations, but the very idea that Congress should target individual employees for doing their jobs if somebody doesn’t like the answer—so this is not personnel action where somebody isn’t doing their job, this is, you did your job but I didn’t like the answer and, therefore, we may be able to target you. So whether it actually gets implemented in an appropriations bill or not, it’s sending the signal to every public employee: Beware, we’re going to come after you.

And further than that, just this week, when State Department employees raised concerns about the immigration actions, using a channel that’s been used since the 1960s and has been designated for that purpose—in other words, a specific communication mechanism that’s been set up by the State Department to voice their concerns—they were effectively told by the White House press secretary if you don’t like it, then get out. If you tell technical experts—and, frankly, foreign service officers are technical experts, but not scientists—you have to only give us information that we like, then you’re not getting technical advice. You’re telling them not to do their jobs. And so that level of disrespect, I think is incredibly alarming.

JJ: And, of course, from the point of view of the public, we can imagine the sorts of findings that this administration will be inclined to dislike, and they will have to do with pollution and fuel emission standards and things like that. I mean, there definitely are public health and safety implications of these sorts of moves; they’re not, strictly speaking, about mere information, if you will.

AR: Absolutely. And, you know, I think this is an incredibly important point, because the rhetoric from the administration and from Congress has all been about rollback of regulations, because these regulations impose costs on businesses, and we really need to get rid of these useless regulations because of the costs. Two things I point out there. First is, never in those discussions is anyone pointing out the benefits to the public from reducing pollution or providing safe water or providing product safety, food safety, all of those things are benefits to the public. And secondly I point out, yes, there are costs to businesses from doing this, and if the businesses don’t bear those costs, who do you think bears them? The public bears them, and so it’s not like they just go away.

There is a false narrative that implies there’s thousands of regulations out there that are just totally unneeded and they’re there because nobody can be bothered to remove them. And that’s a completely false narrative; it’s just not the case.

JJ: Tell us about what the Union of Concerned Scientists is doing, and in fact has been doing since before this administration came in. And then also maybe a little more broadly about what you see as the role of the scientist in the resistance.

AR: Union of Concerned Scientists has been very active at trying to strengthen the case for science-based policy-making across a wide range of areas. The institution was formed in the 1960s by scientists who were concerned that the discussion of the Vietnam War and the nuclear weapons program really was not getting the proper information out to the public. And since then, we’ve gone on to work on major issues: climate, energy, food and the environment broadly, clean vehicles, and we continue to work on global security. And we also work on just the role of science generally, the program I lead for the role of science generally, in public policy and democratic discussion.

So we have seen an incredible level of energy in the science community since the election. So while we have in the past worked to try to ensure that the scientific information coming out of government agencies followed what are called scientific integrity policies, that you were hearing from the scientists, not someone’s political spin, and so on, we have ramped up those efforts very substantially for the new administration, because of the level of attacks that have come out from both the administration and Congress.

And the response that we’ve seen from our 20,000-strong network of scientists—so those are credentialed scientists who’ve said that they want to do specific work with us; this is not just membership—is really extraordinary. And people are helping us watchdog what will be going on in Congress and in the administration, and reaching out to their elected officials as constituents and saying, I’m a scientist, I’m very concerned about these issues.

I think it’s important to bring scientific information to the fore. And some of the actions that are being taken—particularly in Congress, but some also in the new administration—will undermine that role of science. This is not about science funding. That’s an important issue, too, but we’re focusing on the way that science is treated in our public policy and our public discussion.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Andrew Rosenberg of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. You can find their work online at UCSUSA.org. Andrew Rosenberg, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

AR: Thank you very much, Janine.

‘This Is a Country That’s in a Tremendous Crisis’ - CounterSpin interview with Zaid Jilani on the Yemen raid

February 13, 2017 - 9:48am

Janine Jackson interviewed Zaid Jilani about Trump’s Yemen raid for the February 3, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Zaid Jilani: “It’s important for people, whenever they address news events, to understand that we don’t live in year zero. There’s always a history and a context.” (image: Arn Menconi/YouTube)

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Janine Jackson: “Women Killed in Yemen Raid Were Qaeda Fighters, Pentagon Says” was the headline on a January 30 New York Times story on the recent commando raid in central Yemen, the first on Donald Trump’s watch. The Times says the Pentagon first denied any civilian casualties, then backtracked as evidence came in of such deaths, including children. But that’s no reason not to now quote a Pentagon spokesperson’s statement:

We saw during this operation as it was taking place that female fighters ran to pre-established positions as though they’d been trained to be ready and trained to be combatants.

Whether they were “female fighters” before they ran to these pre-established positions or because they did is neither asked nor answered, but the spokesperson does get to wink to the paper’s millions of readers, “Take reports of female casualties with a grain of salt.”

No such caveat attaches to the claim that the Yemen raid yielded valuable materials that will help prevent terror attacks. The paper notes the spokesperson “did not provide details,” where another might say what was missing was proof.

So while Trump’s Yemen raid is being called tactically flawed, the near bottomless credulity with which elite media accept the official line on US actions in Yemen would seem unchanged. Joining us now to talk about it is Zaid Jilani. He’s a reporter for The Intercept. Welcome to CounterSpin, Zaid Jilani.

Zaid Jilani: It’s great to be here.

JJ: In general terms, I’m wondering, is this a departure, does this represent a departure, either of US involvement in the coalition attacks on Yemen, or a departure in terms of US media’s treatment of that involvement?

ZJ: It’s really interesting; US military, including Special Operations and drones, have been active in Yemen for years, stretching back even through the Bush administration, and certainly in the Obama administration. This raid was targeting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has grown considerably over the past few years, even though there’s an ISIS presence in Yemen now.

And part of the reason that it’s grown is because the Saudi-led coalition, which the United States mostly was supportive of, has been bombing the government in Yemen, which took power, basically, in a coup led by the Houthis. And the Houthis were opponents of Al Qaeda and also of ISIS, and so that civil war in Yemen between the Houthi-led government and the old government of Yemen, which is supported by Saudi Arabia and other countries, has opened up space for groups like Al Qaeda to grow, even ISIS to grow.

The US doesn’t want to directly fight the Houthis, who are basically Saudi Arabia’s enemies right now, but it does want to fight Al Qaeda. So that’s why we’ve seen this sort of action taking place on the side. But the larger situation in the country, that is one of the largest international crises with millions of people on the edge of starvation, seeing the civil war that doesn’t end and the Saudi involvement that doesn’t end. Regardless of whether we’re talking about one raid or another, it’s important to understand the larger situation in Yemen is an international crisis that wasn’t really resolved under the Obama administration, and certainly it looks like the Trump administration is not even talking about resolving that larger crisis, let alone approving raids like this, which, you know, are not too atypical for US policy in the past few administrations.

Saudi Ambassador Abdullah Al-Saud responds to Zaid Jilani’s question about cluster bombs. (screengrab: MintPress News)

JJ: You had an encounter recently with the Saudi ambassador that was interesting in several ways. Can you tell us, first of all, the circumstances of that encounter; where were you?

SJ: Sure. So there’s an organization called NCUSAR, which is basically a US/Arab relations group. I mean, it’s backed by many of the Gulf Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia, but also many US businesses that do business between the United States and these countries. Basically they held a conference in Washington, DC, where we had a number of foreign policy discussions.

So the Saudi ambassador was there, he gave some remarks, and that’s when I decided to basically query him a little bit about Yemen, because he had defended the war during his remarks.

JJ: You asked him about the use of cluster weapons, and he basically treated you as a heckler, almost.

ZJ: He laughed and called me habibi, which is sort of like “darling” or something in Arabic. I asked him, basically, if they would continue to use these sort of weapons in Yemen, because cluster munitions are not precise weapons and they persist long after the strikes, often, and kids pick them up and are killed by them, and it’s very destructive.

So I asked him if they would continue to use them, and he told me, this is like asking me if I’m going to continue to beat my wife. He made a big joke out of it and laughed about it. He was trying to make light of it what actually is a very serious issue.

The use of these weapons in Yemen actually had Saudi Arabia placed on a UN list of countries that were endangering and killing children. Interestingly, the UN took them off that list, and then the secretary-general basically admitted they took them off the list because Saudi Arabia was threatening to cut funding to the United Nations. They’re very, very sensitive to criticism about these things. I mean, it’s not a democratic country, and they’re not a country that is used to intense criticism, either from the UN or from folks like me.

We also wrote an article in The Intercept talking to people who used to be ambassadors there in Yemen, or to Saudi Arabia even, and universally, every single person we talked to thought what they were doing in Yemen was really problematic, and that it had no real end in sight.

So I think they’ve come under a lot of criticism for their behavior there, but they feel like because they have support from foreign countries–I mean, they get logistical support and arms shipments from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, other places–they feel like they can keep doing it pretty much forever, which may end up being the case. But the reality is that it’s also sort of becoming their version of Vietnam, and they have suffered retaliatory attacks, and it’s supposed to be ended a long time ago. I mean, they don’t exactly know what they’ve gotten themselves into. So it may be that the internal situation of the conflict is what ends up overwhelming them politically. But they certainly do feel like they’re insulated, at least, from external criticism.

JJ: Speaking of that insulation, one of the things that I think folks will find striking about the video, and even the write-up of it on The Intercept, is it shows how rarely folks like this really face confrontational questioning from reporters. They seem to respond to it so poorly. And one of the things I thought was interesting was to have other reporters back up the question and not allow him to simply deflect it. Do you worry that that kind of direct questioning of the sort that you did is — it just seems like it’s not that common among corporate media, or mainstream media.

ZJ: Part of the problem is that I think a lot of people who work in media are not necessarily attuned to these issues; it’s not really a front-burner issue for US politicians, and they tend to let the agenda be set by whatever’s being talked about by the US politicians, and most US politicians, unfortunately, don’t care very much about this topic.

And watching this play out for us at The Intercept, this is a topic that we pay a lot of attention to. For us, it’s no sweat to take these questions to them, but there’s also the other question of access, right? I don’t think that the Saudi ambassador would sit down for a formal interview with us. I’ve had to appear at an event like this and just talk to him on the fly, because they are not super interested in talking to people who offer any questions like this. And I think that a lot of mainstream journalists can score those interviews because they won’t ask those questions. And, unfortunately, that’s a trade-off you have when you take this approach.

Rex Tillerson (cc photo: William Munoz)

JJ: Finally, if you would, I wanted to direct folks also to a recent piece that you wrote or co-wrote, I’m not sure, about Rex Tillerson which connects these issues that we’ve been talking about. What was preeminent in that piece, and how does it link up to what we’re talking about here?

ZJ: With respect to Tillerson, and he was just confirmed secretary of State actually yesterday, he was actually asked about this conflict, during his confirmation hearing, between Saudi Arabia and what’s happening in Yemen. And basically, he was asked about the use of cluster munitions in the conflict, and his response was something like, well, I mean we can help Saudi with some targeting and we can make sure they’re not hitting noncombatants and things. Which was remarkable, because that’s already what the United States has been doing, providing information that should be doing that. But a big part of the problem is that Saudi Arabia does not seem to have a whole lot of concern about that in the way that they’re prosecuting their war. It’s not a matter of giving them better information.

And, honestly, he seemed almost legitimately ignorant of the fact that the United States had been doing that, almost like he has paid no attention to what’s happening there, which is really remarkable for someone who, as of today, is now responsible for US diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and other countries. And it really shows that a lot of people I think may assume, maybe even I would assume, that the CEO of a large multinational corporation would be highly cognizant and aware of these issues, and respond to them intelligently, but that’s not always the case, and I think that’s certainly the case with how Tillerson responded to that question.

JJ: Of course, we have Donald Trump now saying the raid was a big success, and that’s the line that the White House is going to put out. So I guess I’d just ask you, finally, if we don’t want the story to drop from the headlines, what would you be encouraging other reporters to be doing right now who are interested in — who are at least — maybe just the death of the Navy Seal is enough to start them, but who are going to be looking into the US role in Yemen. What are some directions you might point them for things to look at?

ZJ: I think the important thing is to look at the broad situation of what’s happening in Yemen. I mean, obviously the details of this operation were quite a disaster, and it will be investigated and litigated. But people should understand this is a country that’s in a tremendous crisis, that rivals probably only Syria in that region, a humanitarian crisis—and a crisis that could be ended should we see an end to the civil war, primarily the Saudi involvement; it would be really positive to see an end to that involvement. That’s something the United States could create. That would also create space for locals to be able to push back against groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, and reduce the need or any desire for us to be even more militarily involved.

This has been going on for a couple of years now, and unfortunately it’s dropped off the map, because Yemen’s a very poor country and not a lot of countries have a lot of interests there, other than neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia. It’s important for people, whenever they address news events, to understand that we don’t live in year zero. There’s always a history and a context.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Zaid Jilani, reporter for The Intercept. You can find their work on line at TheIntercept.com. Zaid Jilani, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

ZJ: Yeah, thank you, Janine.

Kevin Kumashiro on Betsy DeVos, Amit Narang on Anti-Regulation Rule

February 10, 2017 - 10:16am
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Betsy DeVos (cc photo: Keith A. Almli/Wikimedia)

This week on CounterSpin: Betsy DeVos’s website describes her as a “disruptor.” Now that she’s confirmed as Education secretary, what calls for disruption is the set of myths that carried her through, despite an evident lack of experience or expertise. Myths to do with “school choice” and “accountability,” which corporate media rarely interrogate thoroughly, or contrast with different visions of education. We’ll talk about that with Kevin Kumashiro, former dean of education at the University of San Francisco, and founder of Education Deans for Justice and Equity.

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Sean Spicer (image: SNL)

Also on the program: The new lawsuit Public Citizen v. Trump stems from the administration’s executive order requiring federal agencies to eliminate two regulations for every new one they institute. Press secretary Sean Spicer says the suit “presumes a lot of outcomes that are wildly inaccurate.” Our guest says it presumes outcomes that are not only predictable, but that reflect the order’s actual intention. Amit Narang is regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

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NYT: Unlike Russian Wars, US Wars ‘Promote Freedom and Democracy’

February 9, 2017 - 5:35pm

The New York Times defends its country’s innocence.

The New York Times, in its recent rebuff of comments President Donald Trump made about Russia, seems not to have evolved its understanding of US geopolitics past an 8th grade level. Trump had been asked by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly (2/5/17) why he wouldn’t condemn Vladimir Putin, whom O’Reilly called a “killer.”

“You got a lot of killers,” Trump told O’Reilly. “What, you think our country’s so innocent?”

Naturally, this prompted a torrent of pearl-clutching from liberal patriots aghast that the president could equate the moral worth of the United States with that of the dastardly Russians. Most prominent among these was the New York Times, whose editorial board published a flag-waving scolding called “Blaming America First(2/7/17):

Asserting the moral and political superiority of the United States over Russia has not traditionally been a difficult maneuver for American presidents. But rather than endorsing American exceptionalism, Mr. Trump seemed to appreciate Mr. Putin’s brutality—which includes bombing civilians in Syria and, his accusers allege, responsibility for a trail of dead political opponents and journalists at home—and suggested America acts the same way.

Oh my, the horror.

A rough look at the actions in question since Putin has been in office reveals this outrage to be, at best, misplaced. One tally by Airwars, a Western nonprofit, puts the total number of Syrian civilians killed by Russia since it entered the war in September 2015 at just over 4,000, or 0.8–0.4 percent of the 500,000 to 1 million civilians who died due to George W. Bush’s unilateral invasion of Iraq in 2003. Add to this the thousands of other civilians killed in other theaters of the “War on Terror” under the Bush and Obama administrations, including Afghanistan, Libya and Syria itself, and the idea of pointing to respect for civilian lives as something that elevates the United States above Russia seems a little absurd.

But the addition of stifling dissent and allegedly killing journalists takes Russia over the line into Bad Guy territory, the Times suggests—ignoring the US’s own harsh punishment for whistleblowers, infiltration of dissident groups and bombing of foreign journalists. Not to mention the US’s sprawling, unprecedented incarceration system, or its unmatched institutional racism–all human right abuses leveled at home.

The Times goes on to insist that “no American president has done what Mr. Putin has done,” including “invading Ukraine” and “interfering in the American election.” Of course, American presidents have invaded other countries and intervened in other elections, but for reasons unclear, the Times suggests that those two cases are the ones that indicate the US’s moral superiority over Russia.

The New York Times briefly mentions the Iraq War and torture, but whistles past these episodes by insisting they were “terrible mistakes.” The Times seems to be under the impression that Russia kills innocents for laughs, while the United States does so only with the best of intentions:

At least in recent decades, American presidents who took military action have been driven by the desire to promote freedom and democracy, sometimes with extraordinary results, as when Germany and Japan evolved after World War II from vanquished enemies into trusted, prosperous allies.

That US invasions “have been driven by the desire to promote freedom and democracy” is not argued, let alone proved; it’s presented as an article of faith. As the Times’ “recent decades” go back to World War II, the United States presumably killed an estimated 3.8 million in Vietnam “to promote freedom and democracy”—despite President Dwight Eisenhower admitting that given the chance, 80 percent of the Vietnamese people would have voted for Ho Chi Minh, the leader whose government the US opposed. Implicitly, the US’s use of covert terror to try to overthrow the elected government of Nicaragua, and US military support for death squad regimes elsewhere in Central America, were likewise motivated by a longing for freedom and democracy.

As FAIR (9/30/16) has noted, the most important function of major editorial boards is to be gatekeepers of national security orthodoxy. And there is no more axiomatic orthodoxy than American exceptionalism. One can handwring over “mistakes,” even occasionally do harsh reporting on American war crimes—so long as one arrives back at the position of American moral superiority. “Yes, America has made mistakes,” the good liberal insists, “but at least we don’t do this other bad thing that is, unaccountably, uniquely disqualifying.”

Clearly, Trump’s motives in questioning American innocence were anything but liberal or noble. He was evoking America’s own sins not to challenge them, but to apologize for those of the Russian president and, preemptively, his own. But the outrage over Trump’s comments from pundits and editorial boards did not seek to spotlight his cynicism and its dark implications, but rather to insist that the United States is, in fact, on a higher moral plane than Russia. This is a childish assertion that serves to flatter the ego of American readers while legitimizing their government’s crimes.

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

You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com (Twitter:@NYTimes). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

On Iran, SPLC’s ‘Extremist’ Is NPR’s ‘Expert’

February 7, 2017 - 5:03pm

NPR’s report on Iran turned for analysis to what the SPLC describes as “a conspiracy-oriented mouthpiece for the growing anti-Muslim movement in the United States.”

Last week, the Trump administration began ratcheting up hostilities with Iran, nominally in response to a ballistic missile test in late January. NPR (2/2/17) dutifully reported Trump’s announcement of new sanctions on Iran, framing the issue as the Trump White House responding to an Iranian “provocation” in regards to Iran’s agreement with the UN, rather than simply executing long-held plans. A follow-up explainer by international correspondent Peter Kenyon (2/3/17) would muddy the waters further and use an incredibly dodgy source to do so.

The piece was headlined “Did Iran’s Ballistic Missile Test Violate a UN Resolution?” and in keeping with Betteridge’s Law, quickly answers its own question with a reluctant “no.” To do this, NPR uses the Vox-approved “most experts agree” formulation (without, of course, bothering to cite any experts that hold with the broad position):

Most nonproliferation experts would say Iran certainly defied the spirit of the UN resolution, but technically didn’t violate it—because it contains no prohibition against such testing, as one of its predecessors, passed in 2010, specifically did.

Here Kenyon concedes Iran didn’t violate the UN resolution, but rather its “spirit,” to help provide the required “both sides” framing. As a matter of law, Iran is not in violation—and thus Trump’s actions are seemingly unwarranted—but another side must exist, so one is dug up.

Frank Gaffney has called for “a new and improved counterpart to the Cold War-era’s HUAC” to root out the “civilization jihad” in the US government.

To do this, Kenyon must go further to the right of the already exceedingly right-wing assumption that  the United States has the right to dictate the energy policy of foreign nations. Enter: Frank Gaffney’s extremist Center for Security Policy:

Conservative critics of the nuclear agreement argued strongly against the language change, calling it a dangerous watering-down of the international position on Iran’s ballistic missile program….

“For its part, Iran says it never agreed to missile restrictions in the JCPOA and claims its missile tests do not violate Security Council resolutions because they are not designed to carry nuclear warheads. This is absurd,” former CIA analyst Fred Fleitz argued in the  National Review last year. “Iran’s missile program is widely believed to be a delivery system for nuclear warheads. If Iran were telling the truth, it would be the only nation in history without a nuclear-weapons program that nonetheless developed missiles with a range of 2,000 kilometers or more. Iran is not building long-range missiles to carry warheads full of dynamite or to fire monkeys into space.”

Who is Fred Fleitz? He’s the senior vice president for policy and programs at the Center for Security Policy—an important piece of omitted context, for two reasons: 1) The CSP has close ties with the Trump White House, with its founder and president, Frank Gaffney, personally advising him. 2) The benign-sounding CSP is, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “a conspiracy-oriented mouthpiece for the growing anti-Muslim movement in the United States.” Here’s what the nation’s foremost hate-group monitor said of NPR’s source:

For the past decade, CSP’s main focus has been on demonizing Islam and Muslims under the guise of national security. Statements from Frank Gaffney and other CSP staffers, along with claims made in CSP publications, have become increasingly conspiratorial in nature, making such claims as Muslims are attempting to overthrow the US government from within, and that Shariah law is trumping the constitution in American courts.

Conventional wisdom on the issue of Iran has moved so far to the right that high-status Breitbart wannabes are now propped up by NPR as a reasonable second opinion. At the very least, NPR should have noted Fleitz’s ties to an anti-Muslim extremist group instead of simply labeling him a “former CIA analyst,” as if he’s just a neutral party calling balls and strikes.

This is part of a broader pattern whereby the media are very critical of Trump on his unconventional truth-fudging, but give him a pass on truth-fudging that is bipartisan and long-standing in nature (FAIR.org, 1/25/17, 1/25/17). Iran is eagerly seeking a nuclear weapons and must be stopped at all costs is a truism (FAIR.org, 9/9/15), even more so when Trump doubles down on it.

To top it off, Kenyon ends the piece by uncritically echoing former Obama administration official Philip Gordon’s fear-inducing claim that Iran could respond by launching “terrorist attacks on Americans in the Mideast”—despite the fact that Iran has never launched a terror attack on American civilians, in the Mideast or elsewhere.

But the stakes need to be raised, and the conflict between the Trump White House and Iran has to be presented as two equals duking it out, as opposed to a new, hot-headed president—surrounded by Islamophobes, including NPR’s source’s boss—recklessly asserting his will over a sovereign nation.

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

You can contact NPR ombud Elizabeth Jensen via NPR’s contact form or via Twitter@ejensenNYC. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

How Corporate Media Paved the Way for Trump’s Muslim Ban

February 6, 2017 - 4:54pm


NBC News (1/25/17) covers Donald Trump signing the immigration ban.

President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations justifiably led to much outcry from activists, politicians and foreign leaders. The list—currently struck down by a federal judge in Seattle—was arbitrary, motivated by disjointed racist panic and was reportedly causing deaths worldwide. But while it’s important to lay primary blame for the ban at the feet of the man who signed it, years of Islamophobic coverage in corporate media—right-wing, centrist and “liberal”—laid the propaganda groundwork to get us here.

Surveys have found support for Trump’s Muslim ban ranging from 42 to 47 percent. This in line with the 43 percent of Americans willing to admit to having at least some prejudice against Muslims. Trump’s order exploits an irrational fear that media have spent at least 15 years conditioning.

Attention has rightly been paid to the Islamophobia industry—a loose consortium of professional far-right trolls such as Pam Geller, Frank Gaffney, Steve Emerson, Breitbart, Infowars, etc. And while these forces certainly were major factor in creating the Trump-friendly Muslim-fearing climate, it’s important not to lose sight of at least three other media phenomena that also had a major role: 1) the presentation of “terrorism” as a unique, existential threat, arbitrarily defined as applying almost exclusively to Muslim violence, 2) New Atheist liberal bigots and 3) disproportionate news coverage of the ISIS spectacle.

‘Terrorism’ as Muslim political violence

As FAIR has shown time and again (5/1/11, 4/15/14, 6/22/15, 6/14/16) over the years, media unjustifiably reserve the word “terrorism”—and the corollary breathless coverage it entails—overwhelmingly for political violence leveled by Muslims. Indeed, this past week provided one of the starkest examples of this asymmetry: White supremacist Alexandre Bissonnette’s January 30 attack on a Quebec mosque was not generally described as “terrorism” by the press, and despite killing six times more people than the October 2014 attack on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill by Muslim Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, it received only one-sixth as much coverage by US media (FAIR.org, 2/4/17).

As the “War on Terror” drags on into its 16th year, liberal and mainstream media have largely accepted the premise that “terrorism” is a separate and urgent manifestation of violence worthy of a global, generational struggle. This elevation to a separate moral order a particular kind of crime—whose definition, in practice, is arbitrarily restricted to perpetrators from a specific religious background—justifies throwing all sense of proportionality out the window. The very concept of a never-ending “global war on terror” laid essential groundwork for our current fever pitch of anti-Muslim sentiment.

‘New Atheist’ Islamophobia

Bill Maher, Real Time

Bill Maher is a fan of Bernie Sanders, a huge Obama booster and a frequent subject of write-ups on liberal websites for his latest dig aimed at Republicans. Maher is also a pro-war ideologue with a long history of bigoted statements about Muslims.

On his popular HBO show Real Time, Maher has repeatedly railed against Muslim immigration into Europe and the United States. He once declared that “civilization begins with civilizing the men; talk to women who’ve ever dated an Arab man. The results are not good.” Maher has repeatedly downplayed the killing of Palestinians in Gaza, even once comparing Hamas to a “crazy woman” whose wrists you could only hold “so long before you have to slap her.”  Some other gems:

  • “Islam is the only religion that acts like the Mafia that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing.”
  • “The Muslim world has too much in common with ISIS.”
  • “People who want to gloss over the difference between Western culture and Islamic culture and forget about the fact that the Islamic culture is 600 years younger and that they are going through the equivalent of what the West went through with our Middle Ages, our Dark Ages”

Bill Maher is a so-called “New Atheist”—those who use the pretense of reason and liberal enlightenment to advance otherwise banal conventional wisdom about American and Israeli aggression in the Middle East.

Other New Atheists, such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, routinely provide faux-liberal cover to the most vulgar aspects of anti-Muslim sentiment. Dawkins tweets things like “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge,” and had a much-mocked weeks-long feud with a 14-year-old Muslim kid over a clock he built for school, often times devolving into embarrassing conspiracy-mongering.

Sam Harris has turned anti-Muslim sophistry into a high art, focusing heavily on the pernicious influence of Muslim immigrants and the dangers they pose. Here’s Harris in 2006:

Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. The demographic trends are ominous: Given current birth rates, France could be a majority Muslim country in 25 years, and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow. Throughout Western Europe, Muslim immigrants show little inclination to acquire the secular and civil values of their host countries, and yet exploit these values to the utmost—demanding tolerance for their backwardness, their misogyny, their antisemitism and the genocidal hatred that is regularly preached in their mosques. Political correctness and fears of racism have rendered many secular Europeans incapable of opposing the terrifying religious commitments of the extremists in their midst.

Harris’ screeds Europe find an echo in the manifesto of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine people in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015:

From this point I researched deeper and found out what was happening in Europe. I saw that the same things were happening in England and France, and in all the other Western European countries. Again I found myself in disbelief. As an American we are taught to accept living in the melting pot, and black and other minorities have just as much right to be here as we do, since we are all immigrants. But Europe is the homeland of white people, and in many ways the situation is even worse there.

That the “demographic” threat is demographically groundless is no surprise; a 2016 Pew Research poll showed that people often wildly overestimate how many of their compatriots are Muslims. In France, for example, respondents said they believed 31 percent of the population was Muslim, when the number is actually 7.5 percent. In the United States, people put the number at 17 percent, when the actual figure is less than 1 percent. This distortion of reality is promoted by the “demographic threat” fear that Harris sows.

Graphic: Guardian (12/13/16)

It’s difficult to measure exactly how much the New Atheists contribute to today’s anti-Muslim trend, but their cable TV shows, public intellectual status, large followings and nominally liberal appeal certainly help normalize what would otherwise be considered rank bigotry. Indeed,  Harris has spent the past week boosting voices defending the underlying logic of Trump’s Muslim ban, while pouting at those calling it “Islamophobic.”

Manufactured ISIS plots and the problem of meta-terror

Americans’ perception of terrorism is, for the most part, not informed by actual terrorist activity, but rather what we call “meta-terror,” or the fear caused by the coverage of terrorism, unconnected from any actual threat. Meta-terror has five manifestations: 1) the media disseminating ISIS threats in the form of video of audio; 2) reports about speculative terror attacks (e.g., LA Times, “A Freeway Terror Attack Is the ‘Nightmare We Worry About,’ Law Enforcers Say,” 12/21/15); 3) media treating “ISIS plots” manufactured by the FBI as actual ISIS plots, despite the fact that no one in ISIS was actually involved; 4) FBI and DHS “terror alerts” that never precede any actual attacks; and 5) the whole-cloth creation of fake ISIS stories.

In all five of these categories, it bears repeating, there is no actual act of terrorism. There is simply the specter of a threat, or a Potemkin plot. Taken together, meta-terror inflates the perception of Islamic terrorism, inflaming anti-Muslim prejudice.

There is no doubt the so-called Islamic State has killed tens of thousands under its brutal rule. In the lead-up to the war in fall 2014, however, this legitimate threat was consistently magnified wildly out of proportion by US media, especially as it related to the group’s direct threat to the US “homeland.”

As FAIR (2/15/15) noted at the time, in the second half of 2014, there was basically no story involving ISIS media wouldn’t publish. Fox News told us ISIS was building training camps in Mexico, ABC News published a scary-as-hell “ISIS caliphate map” that was lifted from a neo-Nazi website, a fake story about ISIS imposing female genital mutilation, an even faker story about a $425 bank robbery in Mosul, a church burning that never took place—none true, but all reported as such by mainstream outlets. Again, while ISIS’s crimes are not in doubt, the rush to exaggerate and fabricate the scope of its horrors inflated the threat to an apocalyptic fervor.

One of the key elements to selling the expansion of the war to Syria in the summer and fall of 2014 also fed greatly into the broader fear of Islamic terrorism—that ISIS’s social media sophistication was recruiting dozens and dozens of Americans. “More than 100 Americans” are fighting for ISIS, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress in fall 2014, which media dutifully repeated without question.

“More than 100 young home-grown Muslims, including some from Gotham, are being trained to become an enemy within by Al Qaeda–inspired groups like ISIS,” declared the New York Daily News (6/19/14). “More Than 100 Americans With Syrian Rebels,” a CNN headline (8/27/14) insisted. Americans, we were told again and again, were being seduced to fight in Syria en masse.

But wait. Two days after the US began airstrikes on Syria, this number was quietly reduced by 88 percent by FBI Director James Comey. “Around 12 Americans Are Fighting in Syria, Not 100,” the AP (9/26/14) reported.

The inflated terror threat didn’t stop there. As FAIR has documented repeatedly (4/1/15), FBI-contrived terror plots (ones where the FBI is the primary mover—buying materials, making plans, etc.) are frequently reported by the media simply as “ISIS plots.” For example, when former CIA deputy director Michael Morrell went on CBS This Morning in June 2015, referencing this map as evidence of recently unraveled ISIS plots, he omitted that every single one of these was created with the assistance of the FBI, and none ever posed any actual threat:

Another notable such case was an “ISIS nuclear plot” in 2015 that never actually involved either ISIS or nuclear weapons (FAIR.org, 10/9/15)—but one would hardly know this, reading or watching US media:

As FAIR wrote at the time:

What takes place, before our very eyes, is a kind of War on Terror transubstantiation. Representational terror plots become real ones, fake enemies become Russo-Jihadi crime syndicates, and an American public, once again, is presented with a cartoonish, wildly inflated threat profile that’s increasingly divorced from reality.

Then there’s the images. ISIS trades on violent and extreme images that our corporate media dutifully disseminate. For months and months, the average American was inundated with the most vile and over-the-top ISIS propaganda (FAIR.org, 5/26/15):

It’s no wonder, after years and years of FBI- and media-created “ISIS plots,” the playing of ISIS agitprop on loop, and endless terror warnings that never bear fruit—and a definition of “terror” that includes any Muslim who follows the wrong Twitter feed but excludes white supremacists who want to start a race war—that many Americans’ perception of Muslims would grow negative at a corollary rate. So-called centrist or liberal media cannot spend the better part of the past three years running non-stop Islamo-panic, then turn around and act shocked when Trump exploits the fallout.

It’s important to document the way the right stokes hatred of Muslims. But it’s also essential to note how that hatred seeps into mainstream and liberal circles as well. The rise of Trump did not happen in a vacuum, nor do the intellectual threads that led to many Americans supporting his arbitrary, hate-motivated Muslim ban.

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