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For Media, Giving in to Debt Limit Blackmail Was a Triumph of Bipartisanship

FAIR - June 2, 2023 - 4:31pm


When Congress passed the debt ceiling deal hammered out by President Joe Biden and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, centrist media celebrated.

If we had anything like a responsible White House press corps, we never would have gotten to this point. Treating the Republican gambit—demanding deeply unpopular policy measures in exchange for allowing the government to pay off debts Congress had already authorized—as anything other than economic hostage-taking gave it the legitimacy the party needed to stick with it without fear of massive political blowback (CounterSpin, 5/5/23).

Instead, the press corps we have gave three cheers for bipartisanship.

‘Complaints on either side’

NPR (6/1/23): “For one night, the pragmatists won.”

NPR‘s Domenico Montanaro (6/1/23) hailed the compromise in a piece headlined, “Don’t Believe the Hype: Low-Key Lawmakers Helped Avert a Debt Ceiling Crisis.” A paean to “pragmatists,” the article argued that

it will be those who eschewed the wings of their parties—which have some of the most vocal, attention-getting members—who averted a potentially calamitous, first-ever US debt default.

Call them perhaps the Silent Middle Majority.

Montanaro offered a both-sides framing of the deal:

There were plenty of well-founded complaints on either side—on the left, worries about increased work requirements that could hurt people in poverty, nervousness about the environmental impact of sped-up energy permits; on the right, continued head-shaking about what they see as out-of-control spending and debt, now topping $30 trillion.

But in the end, two-thirds of House Republicans and more than three-quarters of Democrats voted for the bill for a total tally of 314–117.

It’s an analysis that simply assumes the validity of the premise that some sort of deal needed to be worked out to begin with: If a hostage-taker complains that their demands have only partially been met, how well-founded is that complaint?

And on top of the false premise, Montanaro has to stretch to make both sides’ “complaints” seem at all comparable, matching the left’s “worries” and “nervousness”—about harming people and the environment—to the right’s “what they see as” problems. But there’s solid research behind the “worry” that work requirements exacerbate hardship (CBPP, 3/15/23), and speeding up energy permits is intended to increase fossil fuel production (American Prospect, 6/2/23), which is precisely what must be halted to stave off the worst of climate change outcomes.

And however much right-wing politicians shake their heads about the debt, it’s journalists’ duty to point out the disingenuousness of a party that runs up debt via tax cuts, and then pretends to favor fiscal responsibility when it comes time to pay the bills (FAIR.org, 1/25/21).

‘Far-right and hard-left…in revolt’

New York Times (5/29/23): “Some economists say the economy could use a mild dose of fiscal austerity right now.”

The New York Times also luxuriated in the outpouring of bipartisanship, with chief White House correspondent Peter Baker (5/28/23) reporting that Republicans’ success in holding the economy hostage “bolsters President Biden’s argument that he is the one figure who can still do bipartisanship in a profoundly partisan era.” He added, though, that the deal “comes at the cost of rankling many in his own party who have little appetite for meeting Republicans in the middle.”

Another piece, by congressional reporter Catie Edmondson (5/31/23), presented the deal as “a broad bipartisan coalition” in support of “a critical vote to pull the nation back from the brink of economic catastrophe”:

With both far-right and hard-left lawmakers in revolt over the deal, it fell to a bipartisan coalition powered by Democrats to push the bill over the finish line, throwing their support behind the compromise in an effort to break the fiscal stalemate that had gripped Washington for weeks.

When the Times reports that the “far right” and “hard left” both oppose something, that’s a sure sign that the paper thinks it’s a good thing. Another front-page piece in the paper, by Jim Tankersley (5/29/23), went out of its way to argue that not only was it good that the White House made a deal, but that, all in all, it was a good deal:

Economists say the agreement is unlikely to inflict the sort of lasting damage to the recovery that was caused by the 2011 debt ceiling deal—and, paradoxically, the newfound spending restraint might even help it.

“The economy could actually use a mild dose of fiscal austerity right now,” Tankersley reported economists were saying; the cuts will throw people out of work, so the Federal Reserve won’t have to. In the 23rd of 25 paragraphs, after presenting the Republican argument that the deal “will help the economy by reducing the accumulation of debt,” the reporter acknowledged that the cuts “will affect nondefense discretionary programs, like Head Start preschool, and…new work requirements could choke off food and other assistance to vulnerable Americans.”

‘Centrists’ vs. ‘fringes’

The Washington Post (5/30/23) reported that “Biden and McCarthy have each struggled at times to balance governing responsibly with appeasing their party’s base voters”—making it clear that it thought giving in to McCarthy’s threats to torpedo the economy was the responsible thing to do.

The Washington Post (5/30/23) seemed practically giddy at the deal: “A Washington Surprise: Centrists Push Back Against Fringes in Debt Deal.”

In the piece, White House bureau chief Toluse Olorunnipa found a way to equate Republicans willing to blow up the economy if they weren’t given policy concessions—ones they didn’t think they could achieve through legislation—with Democrats who insisted that government debts simply had to be paid:

For weeks, conservative Republicans warned House Speaker Kevin McCarthy not to back down from sweeping spending cuts, saying anything else would be an unforgivable betrayal. Liberals implored President Biden to abandon the debt ceiling talks altogether, insisting the Constitution enabled him to simply ignore Republican demands.

But in the end, the two leaders opted for a middle-of-the-road settlement, aiming to coalesce center-right and center-left lawmakers around the idea that an imperfect deal was preferable to a historic default that could devastate the economy. It was the first significant test for the Biden/McCarthy era of divided government, and if a theme emerged, it was the unmistakable reassertion of the political center.

“Both sides were initially sounding very ardent about an inflexible position,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “Yet both sides ultimately blinked—and that is what American politics is all about.”

Winners and losers

In all of the coverage, one consistent theme was the compulsion to declare winners and losers. Some outlets picked one side or the other: “House Passes Debt Ceiling Bill in Big Win for McCarthy,” judged the Hill (5/31/23), and USA Today (6/2/23) similarly had “McCarthy Gets Win Passing Debt Deal.” “Apostle of Bipartisanship: Why US Debt Ceiling Deal Was a Victory for Joe Biden,” explained the British Guardian (6/1/23), while the Washington Post (6/1/23) had a more confusing “Biden Won on the Debt Ceiling. Why Doesn’t He Want It to Look That Way?”

USA Today (6/1/23) acknowledged in passing that the deal would hurt people with student loans and those who need nutritional assistance, among others—but they won too, apparently.

Others declared both dealmakers victorious. Politico‘s popular Playbook newsletter (6/1/23) ran with “How McCarthy and Biden Both Won the Debt Deal.” The Washington Post (6/1/23) simply offered the two sides’ own declarations: “Sidestepping Crisis, Biden and McCarthy Claim Victory in Debt Deal.” Another USA Today piece (6/1/23) made the bold claim, “Debt Ceiling Plan Passes Senate. Who Wins? Everyone, and Here’s Why.”

In a different twist, CNN (5/30/23) offered its perspective on which companies were “winners” in the deal—leading off with Equitrans Midstream, the lead developer of the Mountain Valley Pipeline project that Sen. Joe Manchin forced into the agreement.

It also included lending company SoFi, which would profit from an end to the student loan repayment freeze included in the deal, and H&R Block and TurboTax, which are expected to benefit from the deal’s cuts to the IRS. This curtailment will likely stymie the agency’s plan to develop a free electronic tax filing system, which would have rendered those tax preparers’ offerings much less profitable.

CNN‘s “winners” begin to suggest who some of the “losers” are in this deal. It preserves tax cuts for the wealthy and funding for the Pentagon, while cutting the rest of discretionary funding, forcing more work requirements on recipients of public assistance, fast-tracking fossil fuel projects and weakening environmental protections—all great for corporations and wealthy political donors, and terrible for most people. But both major parties agreed to inflict this damage—and that in itself makes it good news for establishment media.


The post For Media, Giving in to Debt Limit Blackmail Was a Triumph of Bipartisanship appeared first on FAIR.

For Media, ‘Border Crisis’ Means Migrants Coming—Not Migrants Dying

FAIR - June 2, 2023 - 2:37pm


As the pandemic-era border policy known as Title 42 ended last month, news outlets spent a great deal of time caterwauling about a “border crisis” and a “surge” that never materialized. But when an actual migrant child died in custody at the border, media concern was conspicuously muted, demonstrating once again that centrist media’s definition of a “border crisis” has less to do with human lives and more to do with partisan politics.

Title 42, an ostensible public health measure initially invoked under President Donald Trump, allowed the US government to expel migrants without due process or access to asylum (AP, 5/12/23). Though experts and even some judges declared it both illegal and inhumane, the Biden administration had continued the policy for all migrants except for unaccompanied youth (FAIR.org, 3/25/21). But when President Joe Biden announced an official end date to the federal Covid-19 public health emergency—May 11—Title 42 was scheduled to end with it.

‘Mobs and even rioters’

Time (5/8/23) reported that “on Thursday, May 11, one emergency will officially end and another may begin”—but what that new emergency might be was never spelled out.

The nativist right was predictably apocalyptic about the coming border policy change. Fox News, which mainstreamed the Great Replacement Theory with its regularly scheduled fearmongering about invading migrants (FAIR.org, 5/20/22), even put a doomsday clock on the lower-right corner of its screen for maximum effect.

The New York Post (5/12/23) ran a lengthy piece promoting frenzied warnings about potential “mobs and even rioters,” including the Border Patrol union’s assessment that without Trump’s border policies in place, “the American public is going to suffer,” and its prediction that “nobody except the cartel thugs is prepared for what’s about to hit us.”

But some centrist outlets played up a looming “surge” as well. On May 11, CBS   Evening News warned that “the clock is ticking.” Time (5/8/23) offered the headline  “Why the US May Be Days Away From a Border Crisis.” The article began, “At 11:59 pm on Thursday, May 11, one emergency will officially end and another may begin.” The emergency that’s officially ending, of course, would be the Covid-19 public health emergency; the one that “may begin” was an imagined border emergency precipitated by the US removing one controversial tool from its immigration policy toolkit.

The Time piece never quite spelled out exactly what that “emergency” might be beyond “a surge of people” attempting to cross the border, though it did quote a press release from Republican Sen. Thom Tillis warning of “catastrophic fallout at the border” without a Title 42–like policy in place.

‘Going to be chaotic’

Right-wing outlets like the New York Post (4/18/23) were delighted to hear Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas repeating their language.

Such coverage was due in no small part to the Biden administration’s own framing of the situation. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas described the federal government’s sending of troops to the border with the same “surge” language media used (ABC, 5/5/23): “What we are seeing is an operation that was stood up in 72 hours by the United States Border Patrol to address a surge.” Biden himself prepared the public for the worst: “It’s going to be chaotic for a while.”

But, while no one could have predicted exactly what would happen when Title 42 ended, the policies Biden had announced to replace Title 42 certainly appeared draconian enough to prevent the kind of migration apocalypse that media outlets anticipated (WOLA, 5/9/23). Biden planned to return to Title 8—normal US immigration law—but also introduced several new policies to make seeking asylum more difficult.

For instance, migrants now must show that they sought and were denied asylum in every country they passed through on their way to the US (a slightly modified version of Trump’s transit ban). They also must book an elusive appointment through the glitchy new CBPOne app, or be blocked from entering the US for five years.

While border apprehensions did increase in the days leading up to May 12, there was no massive “surge” after Fox‘s clock reached zero. Instead, border encounters actually dropped.

‘Barbaric and cruel’

Title 42 “is being replaced with restrictive and harsh policies that are going to make it very difficult for asylum seekers to be able to have a fair chance at seeking asylum in the United States,” an immigrant advocate told Source NM (5/12/23).

While the Post‘s “mobs and rioters” never materialized, it’s clear there continues to be a crisis at the border—a humanitarian crisis that will not be resolved by the end of Title 42 (FAIR.org, 3/25/21, 5/24/21). Source NM (5/12/23) reported that immigration rights advocates expected due process to continue to be subverted for those seeking asylum, “sacrificing protection in the name of speed.”

A delegation of rights groups (Human Rights First, 5/18/23) that visited the border as the new policies were implemented called them “barbaric and cruel” and expressed “grave concerns” that they

will endanger the lives of people seeking asylum, discriminate against many of the most vulnerable people seeking asylum, and vastly complicate asylum adjudications down the road.

Human Rights Watch (5/11/23) similarly warned that Biden’s new set of policies

will almost certainly lead to a rise in the already record number of migrants dying at the United States southern border, enrich criminal cartels, and return refugees to likely harm.

‘Crisis’ defined

One aspect of the humanitarian crisis continues to be the inhumane conditions at CBP detention centers. In one extreme example, eight-year-old Anadith Tanay Reyes Alvarez died in Border Patrol custody in Texas on May 17.

“She cried and begged for her life and they ignored her,” Anadith Reyes’ mother said of Border Patrol agents (CBS, 5/22/23).

The girl had been taken into CBP custody, along with her parents and siblings, eight days earlier after crossing the border, and had been diagnosed with influenza a few days later. (Migrants are not supposed to be held more than 72 hours.) The day of her death, her mother brought her to a medical unit three times, where she said agents refused to take Anadith to a hospital (Newsweek, 5/20/23).

This happened only a week after 17-year-old Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza died on May 10, in CBP custody in Florida.

A search of the Nexis news database found Anadith’s name mentioned on air twice across all major outlets: once on MSNBC (All In, 5/23/23) and once on the CBS Evening News (5/22/23). A search of Time‘s website for “Anadith” turns up no results.

The New York Times put border stories on its front page eight times in the three weeks starting May 5, the day Mayorkas warned of a “surge,” but the story of Anadith’s death never made it to the paper’s front page. At the Washington Post, border stories made front-page news six times during that period; as at the Times, the child’s death was not among them.

That lack of concern reveals corporate media’s true priorities. What is the “crisis” at the border if not the death of a child?

The post For Media, ‘Border Crisis’ Means Migrants Coming—Not Migrants Dying appeared first on FAIR.

Jeff Chang & Jeannie Park on Asian Americans and Affirmative Action

FAIR - June 2, 2023 - 9:29am
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NBC (11/2/22)

This week on CounterSpin: Corporate media have never been the right place to look for thoughtful, inclusive consideration of affirmative action. For them it’s an “issue,” a political football, rather than a long effort to address the real historical and ongoing discrimination against non-white, non-male people in multiple aspects of US life.

But when it comes to the role that anti-discrimination, pro-equity efforts have had on Asian-American communities, there are particular layers of mis- and disinformation that benefit from exploring. Listeners will know that Asian-American students are being used as the face of attempts to eliminate affirmative action or race-consciousness in college admissions. It looks like the Supreme Court will rule on a watershed case this month. We talk about it with writer and cultural critic Jeff Chang, author of We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, among other titles.

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We also hear some of an earlier discussion of the case Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. vs. Harvard that CounterSpin had with Jeannie Park, founding president of the Asian American Journalists Association in New York, and co-founder of the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard.

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Transcript: “This Case Was Never About Defending Asian Americans”

The post Jeff Chang & Jeannie Park on Asian Americans and Affirmative Action appeared first on FAIR.

WSJ Says Corporate Profiteering Is Good, Actually

FAIR - June 1, 2023 - 2:06pm


Greed is good, actually. At least that’s the journalistic line the Wall Street Journal has decided to take, with a recent headline (5/25/23) reading, “‘Greedflation’ Is Real—and Probably Good for the Economy.”

To refresh your memory, “greedflation” is the idea that corporate profiteering has contributed to inflation—a thesis that was, up until recently, generally downplayed or outright ridiculed by the media (New York Times, 1/3/22, 6/11/22; Bloomberg, 5/19/22, Washington Post, 5/12/22). As Axios (5/18/23) summarized earlier this month, however:

Once dismissed as a fringe theory, the idea that corporate thirst for profits drives up inflation, aka “greedflation,” is now being taken more seriously by economists, policymakers and the business press.

The change in tenor was captured by Intercept reporter Ken Klippenstein on Twitter (5/26/23):

As recently as February, the Wall Street Journal (2/14/23) had completely ignored the role of corporate profiteering in a piece on rising prices for breakfast staples, blaming supply shocks instead. Writing for FAIR (2/21/23), Luca GoldMansour pointed out that the piece completely ignored strong evidence of price gouging by egg producers.

Now, in a piece by columnist Jon Sindreu, the Journal is changing its tune by recognizing the importance of profiteering. But instead of criticizing the practice, it’s celebrating it.

‘A bit of corporate greed’

The Journal (5/25/23) provided a useful graph showing that corporate profits have contributed far more to price increases than in the past. Businesses have enjoyed historically high profit margins over the last several years, as supply shocks have provided them with ready excuses to hike up prices with little resistance from consumers.

In the column, which was published in the paper’s “Heard on the Street” section, Sindreu argues:

A bit of corporate greed may be helping the fight against recession…. Yes, inflation may be higher as a result of corporations flexing their pricing muscle. But it is probably also the reason why the recession everyone expects always seems to be six months away.

All this amounts to is a sleight of hand. As Sindreu admits towards the end of the piece, what’s actually saved the economy from a downturn is not corporate profits, but “the surprisingly strong spending patterns seen during and since the pandemic.” People keep spending money; the economy keeps chugging along.

You might say that exceptionally high corporate profits are a reflection of this strong spending—in which case spending would still be the reason why we have avoided a recession, and high profits would just be an outcome of that spending—but even that is misleading.

As Sindreu notes, “Companies, which in normal times are wary of angering customers with big price changes, seem to have seized on the excuse of generalized inflation to shield their margins.” Basically, in an environment where inflation is rising, and where outlets like the Journal (2/14/23) are portraying price increases as simply the result of “a perfect storm” of issues wreaking havoc on supply, companies suddenly have more wiggle room to raise prices without pushback from consumers. The result has been a more substantial surge in profit margins than we would have seen had companies not had ready excuses for their price hikes (Bloomberg, 3/9/23).

Thus, rather than simply being an indicator of a strong economy, the high profit margins we have seen throughout the pandemic years have reflected companies’ success in capitalizing on well-publicized supply shocks to redistribute consumers’ income to themselves—aided and abetted by a media eager to insist that no such thing was happening.

Extorting billions

A business owner tells Bloomberg (3/9/23) that any national news event can be “an opportunity to increase the prices without getting a whole bunch of complaining from the customers.”

This point is made firmly by the advocacy group Farm Action in its January 2023 letter to the Federal Trade Commission on price-gouging by egg producers. After examining the evidence that supply issues could not explain the more than doubling of egg prices between 2021 and 2022—crucially, the fact that “the industry’s quarterly egg production experienced no substantial decline in 2022 compared to 2021”—the group’s letter concludes:

In the end, what Cal-Maine Foods and the other large egg producers did last year—and seem to be intent on doing again this year—is extort billions of dollars from the pockets of ordinary Americans through what amounts to a tax on a staple we all need: eggs.

And this sort of profiteering is not limited to the egg business; other industries have adopted the strategy of jacking up prices and seeing what the consumer will accept. Take Wingstop, which has continued pushing up prices for wings even as the price of wholesale wings has declined. As Bloomberg (3/9/23) notes, “The chain’s profit margins are up, and its stock has soared almost 250% from the low it hit during the depths of the Covid-sparked market rout in early 2020.”

That is greedy. It’s hard to see how it’s good for the economy.

‘Investors should push back’

Sindreu wants the wealthy to be able to defend themselves against claims that they have been rewarded excessively in the midst of inflation:

As for the political optics, investors should push back against notions that income distribution is the simple result of a power struggle between capital and labor. Profit margins need two to tango: Corporations have successfully increased prices only because—unlike in the 1970s—the rest of the economy has kept spending.

You see: If companies successfully dupe consumers into accepting price increases above and beyond their cost increases, while media spread word of supply chain issues and downplay the possibility of corporate profiteering, then who’s really at fault? Forget all that talk about class struggle, let me introduce you to victim-blaming.

Profits good, wage growth bad

The Wall Street Journal (3/2/23) sees wage growth as bad, even though it’s much more closely tied than profits to the consumer spending that it says is saving the economy—because the paper sees itself as being on Team Owner and not on Team Worker.

Notably, the way the Journal has decided to frame profit growth in this piece is completely different from how it and the rest of the media tend to frame wage growth. In the case of profit growth, the Journal tells us it’s actually good, because it’s supposedly helping stave off recession.

In the case of wage growth, by contrast, the media has consistently told us it’s bad, because it pushes up inflation:

  • “Wages Grow Steadily, Defying Fed’s Hopes as It Fights Inflation” (New York Times, 5/5/23)
  • “Cooler Hiring and Milder Pay Gains Could Aid Inflation Fight” (Associated Press, 1/6/23)
  • “The Jobs Market Is Still Hot. And That’s a Problem.” (Politico, 10/7/22)
  • “The Red-Hot Labor Market Still Isn’t Cooling Off. The Fed Has Its Work Cut Out.” (Barron’s, 7/8/22)
  • “Worker Pay Is Rising, Complicating the Fed’s Path” (Washington Post, 4/28/23)
  • “Wage Growth Has Slowed, but Still Pressures Services Inflation” (Wall Street Journal, 3/2/23)

But profit growth has also pushed up inflation. And while it’s true that wage growth has contributed to inflation (in a very mild way), wage growth has also helped stave off a recession, and has done so in a much more obvious way than profit growth has.

Strong consumer spending—the very factor that, by the Journal’s own admission, is preventing an economic downturn—has been possible partially due to strong wage growth. Rising wages give people greater purchasing power, which they can then exercise to keep the economy afloat. On the other hand, rising profits, at least in the context of the last couple years, have facilitated a redistribution of income away from consumers, draining them of purchasing power.

But the Journal says, Never mind that! Profit growth good. Wage growth bad. Why? Because high profit growth helps prevent a recession. (Forget about the fact that it’s also pushing up inflation.) And high wage growth drives up inflation. (Forget about the fact that it’s also helping prevent a recession.) See if you can spot the contradiction.

Maybe greed is good. Maybe the Journal has things exactly right. Maybe a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch isn’t siding with his fellow billionaires over the vast majority of its readers.

Or maybe not.

ACTION ALERT: You can send a message to the Wall Street Journal at wsjcontact@wsj.com (or via Twitter: @WSJ) Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your communication in the comments thread.

FEATURED IMAGE: The Wall Street Journal (5/25/23) illustrated its defense of “greedflation” with a photo of an outlet for Ralph Lauren, which raised prices an average of 12% despite already sky-high profit margins.

The post WSJ Says Corporate Profiteering Is Good, Actually appeared first on FAIR.

‘Studios Are Really Trying to Turn Writing Into Gig Work’ - CounterSpin interview with Eric Thurm on the writers' strike

FAIR - May 31, 2023 - 5:20pm


Janine Jackson interviewed the National Writers Union’s Eric Thurm about the Hollywood writers’ strike for the May 26, 2023, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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More Perfect Union (5/22/23)

Janine Jackson: Whenever workers find their employment conditions, or those of their coworkers, so difficult or dangerous, so precarious, or simply so unfair that they make the decision to withhold their labor in order to effect change, it’s a big deal, sometimes a life-altering one for individuals, and sometimes a sea change for an industry. But folks who have never been in that situation don’t always understand it, and some don’t try.

What looks like public support for the ongoing strike by the Writers Guild of America may stem from the fact that it centers on the people who write the TV shows and movies that help many of us get through this thing called life.

But does that mean it includes an understanding of the role that power, and the balance of power, plays in all labor actions? That could definitely be an added benefit, no matter the particular outcomes here.

Eric Thurm is the campaigns coordinator for the National Writers Union, and a steering committee member of the Freelance Solidarity Project. His explainer on the writer’s strike appeared recently in GQ, and he joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Eric Thurm.

Eric Thurm: Thank you. Happy to be here.

GQ (5/5/23)

JJ: Labor actions in various industries are definitely perceived differently, by the broader public and by the news media that report on them. I think that difference stems, in part, from just a lack of consistent worker-centered journalism generally, but also from this idea of just, well, if you make more money than I do, I can’t see your beef.

In the case of writers, it goes up a notch; as with athletes, “You make money doing something fun.” It becomes almost, “How dare you?”

And there’s a lot wrong with that, but part of it is this laser focus on money. Pay is central, often, and why wouldn’t it be? That’s the literal currency of valuing work. But labor actions are virtually always about something more than that.

So take your time, if you would, and break down, particularly, those behind-the-scenes industry specifics that we as outsiders might not see, but should see, as the central issues in what looks like an important strike.

ET: Yeah, absolutely. So I think that there are a couple of things that are driving the strike. One of them is that, for all that there is a popular perception that writers get paid extremely well, that increasingly is not the case.

And in the same way that it is, like you mentioned, for athletes or for actors or for a lot of other highly visible professions, there is a very small number of people at the top who basically have a winning lottery ticket, and just get paid extremely well.

But in order to even have a chance at winning that, you have to spend a lot of time in the trenches, with much worse working conditions, often even less pay, with a lot less stability, and in particular, an original source of stability, and the reason that a lot of people have been able to make a career as writers is because of something called residuals, which basically is an amount of money that you get paid when something that you worked on and are credited on gets used in another context.

Slate (5/4/23)

So that’s why, if you ever have heard people talk about syndication, or getting to a hundred episodes: If you wrote, let’s say, one episode of Friends, and when that gets to the point where it just is on TBS all the time, you get a check every time it airs.

And that functions as an additional bit of stability, particularly because even people that have been successful often have very long periods without working, just because of the nature of the industry.

And that safety net, I think as safety nets for people in all industries are being slowly dismantled, or as bosses are trying to dismantle them, that is a safety net that a lot of writers don’t have anymore, especially because the residual payments for streaming are basically nothing.

So in theory, you could write something that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people are watching on Netflix or Hulu or something, and you will see no additional money from that.

JJ: I think viewers understand that we’re watching media differently today. I can watch a whole series that took months or years to create in a weekend. And I’m like, well, that’s that.

As media critics, we don’t blame the people, but there are things that we don’t see that could be useful for us to understand. And I think residuals is definitely one of those.

And then, also, you write about something called a mini-room, like it has to do with the pipeline of how you grow and get work as a writer, that I don’t see, just watching TV, but is very meaningful for the quality of what I see.

Los Angeles (5/5/23)

ET: Totally. And that’s something that if you, like me, are a big nerd about this sort of thing, you start to notice people’s names popping up in different contexts and credits of things. And if you pay a lot of attention, you start to see that pipeline. But for a lot of people, it definitely isn’t visible.

So basically a mini-room essentially means a writer’s room that has fewer writers in it, and is convened for less time. There are supposed to be basic minimums in the WGA contract, and there are the minimum basic agreements that stipulate if you are making this type of TV show, you have to have this number of writers, and they have to be employed for X amount of time.

And that is also an additional source of stability, but it also is how people learn the business, and how people learn how to produce, or how to eventually make their own shows.

So if you are the new writer, which in a lot of respects is still kind of a misnomer, because by the time somebody gets staffed on their first room, if they’re working in TV, it’s very possible, if not likely, that they have been grinding away at a lot of other things for a long time.

But once you get that credit, you spend time around the showrunners and the people that are more senior to you, who know a little bit more about the industry, and you observe them.

A lot of the time writers will go to set to supervise on episodes that they wrote, which can be really important for a lot of reasons, both because it is useful training for the writer, but also because a lot of decisions get made on a snap basis on set, and the writer is the person who knows where the show is going, where the show has been.

Vince Gilligan (CC photo: Gage Skidmore)

I think people have this assumption that everybody knows everything about the overall plan of the show at any given moment, but if you’re the director or the cinematographer or even some of the actors, you don’t know that. And so things that might feel disjointed to people, if you’re watching something that, for example, has a mini-room, would probably actually be much better and make more sense if there had been a writer on set to be like, “Actually, this is where we’re taking it. Let’s make a decision that’s more in line with the overall creative direction.”

And that also is how people learn all the ins and outs of this stuff. And without having that, there just is no way for people to get better at their craft, or to develop any of the skills that people need to have in order to make any of the stuff that we like.

Just to give one example: Vince Gilligan, who created Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, and this stuff that people really like, worked for quite a while on The X-Files, and wrote a bunch of episodes, and produced some of the episodes, and then eventually ran this very brief spinoff.

And you can really see how those careers develop. People don’t emerge out of nowhere knowing how to run the small army that is a TV production.

JJ: It also sounds just a little bit like a lot of other workplaces, where management says, “Ooh, if you work 40 hours, you get benefits….so we’re just going to book two people for 20 hours.” It sounds like evading valuing people.

And one of the things that you wrote in the GQ piece was, “Emerging technologies will continue to be a tool for companies seeking to reduce the amount they pay workers (or to get rid of them entirely).”

And I just think that’s another issue where people are kind of shadow-informed, halfway informed. It’s not that writers hate technology, obviously, or hate AI, or don’t understand it, but it’s another part of the power relationship here.

Eric Thurm: “Essentially, every time technology evolves, the studios will use it as a way to attempt to cut workers out.”

ET: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that I talked about a little bit in the piece is that technology has been a source of struggle for decades, in particularly the Writers Guild contracts, because, essentially, every time technology evolves, the studios will use it as a way to attempt to cut workers out, which I suspect a lot of people will be intimately familiar with. This is the business model of some of the biggest companies and most worker-hostile companies in the world.

And that dates back to when home video emerged, or when DVD box sets emerged. And part of the reason that streaming pays so little is that it was new the last time that the writers went on strike in 2007, and they agreed to have it be covered by the minimum basic agreement, but not as fully as, like, a TV network.

And so of course the companies exploited that as much as possible. And on some level, it’s hard to blame them, at least in the sense that the purpose of the company is to take as much value out of the workers as it can.

And this is what people are referring to when they say that the studios are really trying as much as possible to turn writing, but also acting, and all of the other myriad jobs that go into making entertainment that people watch, into gig work, into stuff where you just have no say in your work, and are told by this unfeeling algorithm, or app or whatever it is, what you are and are not supposed to do.

Washington Post (5/30/23)

And in the context of what people like to call AI, beyond the fact that the issue with a lot of these programs is that they are trained on a lot of other people’s work—I saw someone recently describe it as, “This is just a plagiarism machine,” which I think is a very accurate description. Even in cases where it does something interesting, you can use it as a smoke screen to avoid having to credit the people that created something.

I think that’s something that we are going to see the studios try more and more, even without necessarily having AI be involved.

Literally, just the day before we’re having this conversation, HBO Max rebranded as just Max, and apparently they have changed the way that movies and TV and everything show up on their site, so that it just says “creators,” and that will include producers and directors and some other people, and you don’t really know who did what, rather than saying, this was directed by this person, and this was written by this person.

And I think that that attempt to obfuscate things, and make it harder to understand the people who are actually creating something, is the entire point of how the studios are trying to handle this, and part of why they’re so interested in AI.

CounterSpin (4/7/23)

JJ: I think a lot of folks would actually be maybe a little surprised, and certainly disheartened, to know that bosses in creative industries act a lot like bosses in every other industry. The response has been, essentially, you’re lucky to have a job, you ungrateful whelp. There’s a line of people just like you I could hire tomorrow. And then, also, I thought we were all friends!

This is the line that Starbucks gives baristas who go on strike. There’s a lot of similarities across industry that might be more important than the differences. And yet nobody asks the CEOs, “Aren’t you a creative? Isn’t this a labor of love for you?”

This sort of general societal understanding, which I blame news media a lot for, is that a strike is an interruption in a natural order of things, and the workers who go on strike are to blame for any disruptions or harms that come from it.

ET: Yeah, I think that that’s definitely true. And you could have long conversations, or write whole books, about the attempt of capital and bosses and corporations to make their profit-extracting mechanisms look like these very cuddly or friendly things.

I think there’s, like you’re saying, a real direct line to bosses saying, “Oh, we’re all a family here, and we don’t want a union”—that’s somehow a third party, even though it’s just the workers—”coming between us and our little family.”

Deadline (5/8/23)

And even in the context of these negotiations, one of the things that the writers are asking for is these more concrete minimums for staffing, in terms of numbers of writers and the amount of time that people are in rooms. And the studio response was to say, this is an unfair or arbitrary quota that is, and I think this is the direct quote, “counter to the creative nature of our industry.”

And it’s like, OK, you’re not the people making the creative decisions. And if you were, right, I would love to see what these people came up with, if they had to try to write a whole season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or something.

And it’s funny, I think that that actually is something that comes out of, or is impressed into a lot of, not just news media, but entertainment media. I don’t really know exactly how to fully extricate these things, but I do think that it’s quite telling that one of the dominant forms of media, that makes the most money and gets the most push behind it, is the workplace sitcom, the central thesis of which is that your coworkers are supposed to be your family.

And it’s extremely rare to see anything like that, where anybody really talks about the material conditions of people in the workplace.

Jacobin (3/11/22)

JJ: That’s a great point.

ET: That’s a kind of bugbear of mine. And I am cautiously optimistic about what will come out of the strike, and what will come out of what I think is a much more increased labor consciousness among people, both in these creative industries, but also more broadly.

When I was growing up, and I think that for quite a long time, the dominant Hollywood depiction of labor is, oh, union bosses, corruption, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, all the things that we’ve heard a million times.

And I think that in a lot of respects, that really is a lingering effect of the Red Scare, and a lot of purges of people in creative fields. And it does feel like there’s been at least some recovery, or attempts to change that.

Even something like Riverdale, this adaptation of a previously existing IP that’s a kind of silly CW teen soap, had a really fantastic subplot in one of the most recent seasons, where Archie from Archie Comics forms a union, and they have all these conversations about solidarity, and about the importance of music and labor formation, and this stuff that I would never have expected to see even two or three years ago.

Washington Post (5/16/23)

JJ: I’m going to ask you one final and also hopeful question on that. I did want to just kind of cram in this Washington Post piece that fits this template that we’re talking about, that was talking about the last Hollywood writers’ strike, which you referenced, in 2007–08.

And the Post piece said that that strike

cost writers and other workers an estimated $772 million, while knock-on effects did more than $2 billion in damage to the broader California economy. Promising shows were hamstrung, promising movies were shot with half-finished scripts, promising careers were cut short.

And if that wasn’t enough, the piece went on to say that because of those darn strikers, TV was forced to go to reality shows and, yep, Donald Trump. So I guess the idea was, maybe think about that when you’re supporting striking workers?

I don’t even think this piece was meant to be mean, but it was such the template of “the labor action causes damage, the labor action causes hurt, and what went before it was somehow not causing damage, and not causing hurt.” And so you’re supposed to be mad at the interrupters.

And I just want to attach that, though, to the idea that we know that many journalists have internalized the idea that they aren’t workers, they’re independent contractors. They’re just individuals doing a job, and unions are kind of icky, and who needs solidarity until it happens to you. All of which is just to say that you see change there, besides the landscape, you see change in that mindset among writers, among journalists, a change in the idea that, no, we’re not workers, no, we don’t need to band together. You see something different happening there.

New York Times (6/4/15)

ET: Yeah, definitely. That’s something that has been really heartening for me. I’ve been in and around digital media for a little over a decade now, which feels really wild to say, but the beginning of that period, I was in college, and I had no real understanding of a lot of these issues. And I definitely, I think if you had asked me, I really did feel, oh, I’m lucky to be here.

In the intervening years, and especially since Gawker unionized in, I think, 2015, the rush of solidarity, and the proliferation of unions across digital media, has been really powerful.

And I think that that has been both enormously meaningful for the people that are doing the work, and then getting a lot of people who, like I think you said, would not have ordinarily thought of themselves as workers to see themselves as such.

It also has created this broader awareness that I think has led to much better journalism in the last few years, even places like Vice or the Washington Post or Business Insider, and these people who were able to get jobs where they can cover this stuff.

And I think that there are a lot of reasons why, a lot of lines you can draw between the strength of these unions and the ability to produce this kind of coverage. But that also has led, I think, to a much stronger sense of worker solidarity across the industry.

Freelance Solidarity Project

So I am really involved in the Freelance Solidarity Project, which organizes freelancers across digital media as a division of the National Writers Union. We have done a lot to organize in parallel with, and supporting, people who are facing similarly precarious conditions.

And I think that a lot of people, who before would have been like, “I exist above things, and I would never think of myself as being in the same position as someone who has a gig-based job,” I think now people are a lot more aware of the similarity of those positions, and a lot more thoughtful about what’s driving that precarity, and what we can do to stop it, which also is something I think that you see as the WGA strike plays out right now.

A lot of people who are unionized with IATSE, which is the union that represents most below-the-line crew and production staff, a lot of IATSE workers have refused to cross picket lines. And all of these things are part of what makes production possible, and it’s part of why so many shows have had to shut down.

The economic damage that you reference, that this Washington Post article is talking about, not only is it caused by the bosses, but it also is the direct result of people being able to stand in solidarity and say, we are not going to allow this thing to continue to happen.

And it’s been really heartening to me to see so many people say, “I am so amazed by the Teamsters standing with us. If they have to go out this summer, we’re going to be right there.” I think that’s so great.

JJ: It sounds like you’re saying, better solidarity among workers leads also to better creations and better work.

ET: I sure hope so.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Eric Thurm. He’s campaigns coordinator for the National Writers Union; they’re online at NWU.org. He’s a steering committee member of the Freelance Solidarity Project, FreelanceSolidarity.org, and you can still find his explainer on the ongoing writer strike at GQ.com. Eric Thurm, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

ET: Thank you.

The post ‘Studios Are Really Trying to Turn Writing Into Gig Work’ appeared first on FAIR.

‘Charging Domestic Terrorism Is Intended to Make the Cost of Protesting Too High’ - CounterSpin interview with Cody Bloomfield on anti-activist terrorist charges

FAIR - May 26, 2023 - 4:33pm


Janine Jackson interviewed Defending Rights & Dissent’s Cody Bloomfield about activists being charged with terrorism for the May 19, 2023, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Resistance to the militarized police training complex known as Cop City has been happening since its inception, when Georgia authorities overruled community opinion to create the facility, being built on Atlanta’s South River Forest in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter actions, that includes an area for explosives training and a whole “mock city” for cops to practice suppressing urban protest.

FAIR.org (3/27/23)

In January, police killed the environmental activist known as Tortuguita in a hail of bullets, while they, an autopsy revealed, sat cross-legged with their hands up. The medical examiner ruled it homicide.

There isn’t more you can do to someone protesting your actions than kill them, but authorities are trying to ruin the lives of many others with domestic terrorism charges that call for many years in prison. The state actors behind Cop City, if you somehow can’t see it, are engaging in the overt employment of the very overreaching, harmful powers activists are concerned the facility will foment.

Cody Bloomfield is communications director at Defending Rights & Dissent. They join us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Cody Bloomfield!

Cody Bloomfield: Thank you so much for having me, and I’m dismayed by what’s happening in Cop City, but always appreciate the opportunity to bring this news to more folks.

JJ: Absolutely.

CounterSpin (3/24/23)

Well, Atlanta organizer Kamau Franklin told CounterSpin a few weeks back that the land that Cop City is going to be on was promised to the adjacent community, which is 70% Black, as a park area, and there was going to be nature trails and hiking. And then when the idea of Cop City arose from the Atlanta Police Department, the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Foundation, all of those plans were scrapped immediately, without any input from that adjoining community, and they went forward with this idea.

Just to say, people didn’t suddenly start protesting Cop City recently, and they didn’t do it because they saw something on social media. This project has been over and against the community—and the environment, not that they’re separate—since the beginning. So just to say, the context for the bringing of these charges of domestic terrorism against activists, it’s not that activists are suddenly engaged in something new and especially dangerous that is calling for this response.

CB: Yeah, so the occupation of Cop City has been going on for over a year, and we see from the very outset that there has been police resistance to these protests. Very early on, back in 2021, activists told me that during the pandemic, they couldn’t show up in person to city council meetings, because all of the meetings were being held remotely, and so they decided to do a banner action outside of one of the city council member’s homes during the decisions to approve Cop City. They dropped the banner outside of someone’s house, and then they were arrested by police, and they were hauled to jail for the crime of being a pedestrian in the roadway. This was all the way back in 2021.

Then people started camping in the forest, also way back in 2021. The first arrest for domestic terrorism didn’t happen until December 2022, and at that point, people were being arrested for just using the forest. Like in December, there were reports that someone had been arrested who was just going on a hike, who wasn’t part of the occupation.

Intercept (4/20/23)

But in December was when the police crackdown began in earnest, and the people who had been camping for months were arrested for things like sleeping in a hammock with another defendant, [which] was used as evidence, as was First Amendment–protected activities, including being a member of the prison abolition movement. And that’s when the escalated stage of repression really began.

And this repression accelerated in January, when police again stormed the encampment, and murdered Tortuguita, and issued more domestic terrorism arrest warrants. Then there were the subsequent protests over the killing of Tortuguita in Atlanta, and still more people were charged with domestic terrorism.

And all that was a lead-up to a mass mobilization that the activists called for the first week of March, in which many people came from out of state and around the world to protest. But what a lot of the media’s been missing is, they focused on the week of action and saw in the list of arrestees many people from out of state, they’re missing that this out-of-state solidarity was just the tip of the iceberg of months and years of local organizing.

JJ: Right, and I bring it up in part to say that I think that folks who are distanced from it might fall to that line of, if only folks would protest in “the right way,” you know, without breaking anything. And so it’s important to understand that even when folks did things like banner drops and petition drives, they already were being abused and harassed for that style of protest.

But domestic terrorism, that’s deep, that’s serious. How loose are the rules for applying these charges? This is talking about perhaps 20 years in prison for people. There have to be some legal definitions around the charge of domestic terrorism, don’t there?

CB: Yes, and it’s really interesting, actually. Some states don’t even have domestic terrorism statutes, because most crimes that you could prosecute as domestic terrorism, you could also prosecute under existing statutes. Like, the Georgia law was passed in response to Dylann Roof’s massacre in a Black church, but they could have decided at that juncture to prosecute mass murder and prosecute these murders independent of the statute. But they decided that for subsequent events like this, they wanted the domestic terrorism statute, and they passed a very broad statute.

Time (5/4/23)

The Georgia statute defines domestic terrorism as something that endangers critical infrastructure, and this critical infrastructure can be publicly or privately owned. It can be a state or government facility. And as long as someone’s acting with the intent to change or coerce the policy of government, that can count as domestic terrorism.

Now, this statute stands out from the national landscape of domestic terrorism statutes—again, some states don’t even have them, and they seem to be doing fine—and in most other states that have domestic terrorism statutes, the statutes address things like weapons of mass destruction, or they at least require for someone to have died as a result of the alleged terrorism. The Georgia statute doesn’t.

And you might notice, in the part about altering or changing the policy of government, that’s precisely what a lot of protest is intended to do. And protest intended to change the policy of government, that happens to take place in conjunction with critical infrastructure, which they’ve been arguing that Cop City is, opens up activists for being charged with domestic terrorism.

Now, this is a very serious statute. It has a mandatory minimum of five years in prison, going all the way up to a maximum of 35 years in prison. So that alone might be enough to dissuade some activists from showing up to protest. And it’s worth pointing out here that among the people charged with domestic terrorism during the March week of action, some people say that they were only going to attend a music festival, which would have been, at most, misdemeanor trespassing. But when people came back from a march in which they burned bulldozers, which is defined as critical infrastructure that’s there to build Cop City, they went into a crowd, police started to make arrests at random. So some people who by all accounts were not involved in burning the bulldozers, who simply showed up for Stop Cop City solidarity activism and a music festival, were charged with a really serious statute.

And then most were held in jail for over a month, and so then their whole lives were disrupted; they’re faced with this intimidating statute that will take a lot of money and a lot of time to fight, all to dissuade people from becoming activists.

We worry a lot about the chilling effect around these sorts of things in the civil liberties community. It’s often something we talk about in very hypothetical terms, but around this was a rare instance where I saw the chilling effect in practice. There was a group that reached out to me about possibly going down to protest, and I felt like I had to give the heads-up that these domestic terrorism arrests are happening somewhat at random, and the activists ultimately decided not to go down. They decided the risk of protesting was simply too high.

And that’s what charging domestic terrorism is intended to do. It’s intended to make the risk of protesting too high, so that people will just stay home, so that people will stay quiet.

AP (4/13/23)

JJ: Absolutely, and we should note that the harms don’t necessarily have to come from law enforcement or in the form of prison. We have seen people coming back from protests being, for example, kicked out of school. So this is something that is hovering over them, even if they don’t wind up in prison.

CB: Yeah, and recently we’ve heard reports of a loss of access to financial institutions for some of the defendants. So far we’ve heard that Chase Bank, Bank of America, Venmo and US Bank have withheld access to banking for certain domestic terrorism defendants. Also a few people had Airbnb accounts closed. As you mentioned, there was the law student who was unable to return to school. So these charges, even though they have not seen their day in court, have not been proven in court, are already having detrimental effects on the activists.

JJ: I want to bring you back to this “outside agitator” line, which ought to ring bells for lots of folks. To be clear, the public rejection of hyper-policing is being used as a reason for more hyper-policing. And then the fact that people are recognizing, well, this isn’t just Atlanta, this isn’t just Georgia, this is something that can come to me. That is itself being used as more reason.

Truthout (3/26/23)

And your Truthout piece cites the Atlanta police department’s assistant chief saying, “None of those people live here,” speaking of activists:

None of those people live here. They do not have a vested interest in this property, and we show that time and time again. Why is an individual from Los Angeles, California, concerned about a training facility being built in the state of Georgia? And that is why we consider that domestic terrorism.

What the actual heck, there?

CB: Yeah, it’s an extremely striking quote, mostly because it’s just a lie that any part of the statute depends on who’s in-state versus out-of-state. And we look at the history of activism, and activists have always traveled to be where they’re most needed. Throughout the civil rights movement, people frequently crossed state lines. There was the whole Freedom Rider movement.

And whenever there’s international solidarity or national solidarity, we always see this narrative of “outside agitators” being used to discredit the entire movement. It’s seen as mysterious outside actors driving the movement, instead of solidarity that starts where the negative thing is happening, and expands outwards from there.

It’s an incredibly frustrating narrative, and it’s frustrating to see people with state power repeat this narrative, especially when the actual charges have no relation to that.

Cody Bloomfield: “whenever there’s international solidarity or national solidarity, we always see this narrative of ‘outside agitators’ being used to discredit the entire movement.”

JJ: Absolutely, and, you know, it hardly needs saying, Cop City itself is not a wholly local enterprise, is it?

CB: No, Cop City is designed to be a training facility for police across the country, and with the interconnected systems of policing, of intelligence-gathering, we see that Cop City is an everywhere problem, as is all policing. And to charge that only people within a specific mile radius should have anything to say about it is absurd.

JJ: Part of this kind of repression of activity involves suppressing information. And that has involved the overt harassment of reporters, Truthout’s Candice Bernd and others, for example, but it also involves suppressing information itself about what is going on. And I understand you at Defending Rights & Dissent have been working on the transparency front of what’s happening here.

CB: Yeah, so we, from a FOIA release to Pilsen Books in Chicago, we know that, at least from the federal intelligence perspective, they’re very much seeing the Stop Cop City movement as national. When some of the Defend the Atlanta Forest folks went on tour, talking about resistance to Stop Cop City elsewhere, the FBI decided to spy on an anarchist bookstore that was holding the event, and they went through the social media of the event organizers, they went through the social media of the bookstore, and created intelligence files.

And we think that that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There hasn’t been a lot of transparency around what sort of intelligence is being gathered on these activists. Given that they’re charged with domestic terrorism, we expect that quite a lot of evidence has been acquired against them, much of it likely open source and First Amendment-protected. The line in one of the arrest warrant affidavits sent out to a defendant being a member of the prison abolitionist movement gives some hint that they’re likely surveilling a lot of social media. But we don’t know the full extent of surveillance that’s happening here.

Unicorn Riot (4/13/23)

And it’s worth pointing out, if we talk about surveillance, that surveillance on its own can also be a form of repression, especially for vulnerable activists who might be worried about protesting as a person of color, who might be worried about having an existing FBI file, the prospect of being surveilled might alone dissuade them from engaging in activism. But we don’t know the full landscape of that surveillance.

So Defending Rights & Dissent, along with, recently, Project South, have filed a new round of Freedom of Information Act requests, and open-record requests, targeted at looking at just how much the state is surveilling these activists, and what kind of evidence and intelligence is being collected.

And so far we’ve just been stonewalled. They’ve only responded to one query, which was about the Atlanta Police Foundation, and they said, oh, it’s like hundreds of thousands of emails; you need to refine your request. And then we refined our request and haven’t heard from them since.

So we anticipate having to litigate all these requests, which is ridiculous, because under the federal statute, under the state statute, there is a dedicated amount of time in which they’re supposed to give us this information. They’re supposed to be about transparency, and they just haven’t been in this case.

Indiana Herald-Times (5/5/23)

JJ: This is exactly where one would hope for the powers of journalism and independent journalism to move in, to use their heft to get at some of these questions, and yet in terms of larger corporate media—there’s been a ton of terrific independent reporting on this—but larger corporate media….

You know, I saw a piece by Eva Rosenfeld in the Indiana Herald Times in which she was talking about the over-acceptance of the police narrative on certain things, but also asking about big framing questions. Why are media not asking, for example, “Why is a $90 million investment intended to fight crime better spent building a mock city than investing in real communities?”

Too often we see big media zeroing in: Did this person actually break a window? Rather than pulling back and saying, wait a minute, is property more important than human beings? What is actually happening here? I’m wondering what you make of big media’s approach to this story.

CB: Yeah, every second that we spend in the media litigating about whether or not people should have burned down a bulldozer, or whether or not people had the right to go camping, is another moment we’re not spending talking about the substantive issues here. And I think, as soon as the domestic terrorism charges came down, the whole conversation became about whether or not the activists were domestic terrorists, which was a reasonable line of argument, but totally missed the story of an anti-democratic lack of accountability permeating throughout Cop City. From when city council ignored 70% of public comments in opposition to Cop City to recently, when they were charging other people with intimidation of an officer for handing out flyers, trying to do public education, this whole movement to build Cop City has been profoundly undemocratic, and we lose that when we spend time focusing on what crimes protesters may or may not have committed.

Appeal (12/8/21)

JJ: Personally, I want to say that I feel like, you know, “know your rights” is a very important thing for individuals to know, what their rights are in given situations. And yet it’s not so satisfying to say, I know my rights, and they’re being violated right now. We can’t really individualize protest—which it seems like is so much the effort of those who oppose it, to separate us and to say, “do you, Janine Jackson, really want to show up at this protest?”

CB: Yeah, and that’s why, especially in fighting these prosecutions, movement solidarity will be so important. We saw, after the January 20 protests against the inauguration of Trump, an attempt by prosecutors to engage in kind of conspiratorial thinking, and to paint protesters with a broad brush, and protesters were really successful in trying to fight this as a bloc, and insisting on taking cases to trial, where many of them were thrown out. Prosecutors gave up on a lot of the charges, and so that was a success of movement organizing.

And I think here that we have to have that same sort of solidarity. Because you might know your rights, and go to this music festival, and you’re charged with domestic terrorism anyway. It requires solidarity against an overwhelming onslaught of police repression, and that’s something that’s really hard to do. But despite how much the police talk about protesting the right or wrong way, when they’re defining protesting the “wrong way” as being from out of state, and policing the “right way” as shooting unarmed civilians and making arrests at random, the “know your rights” framework kind of goes out of the window, and it has to be about solidarity.

JJ: I just want to end by saying that I really appreciated the emphasis of the headline that Truthout put on your March piece, which was “Atlanta’s ‘Stop Cop City’ Movement Is Spreading Despite Rampant State Repression.” In other words, it’s scary, very scary, what’s happening, but we do recognize that they’re amping up because we’re amping up, and so it isn’t the time to falter.

And I really just appreciated the idea that this is still happening. Folks are scared, and they should be scared, and yet they’re doing it anyway. And the more we stand together, the less scared we need to be.

CB: Yes, it’s been really inspiring to see activists who continue to undertake this fight, who are willing to fight these cases in court, who are willing to look for where Cop City analogs are occurring in their local spaces. Like, there’s people beginning to protest in Pittsburgh. There’s people who are beginning to say, everywhere is Cop City, and looking at the effects of police militarization in communities. And I think what Cop City has done is, despite all the repression, is giving people a sense of how to fight this, and that they can fight this, and for that it’s really important.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Cody Bloomfield, communications director at Defending Rights & Dissent. They’re online at RightsAndDissent.org. And you can find their piece, “Atlanta’s ‘Stop Cop City’ Movement Is Spreading Despite Rampant State Repression,” at Truthout.org. Cody Bloomfield, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

CB: Thank you.


The post ‘Charging Domestic Terrorism Is Intended to Make the Cost of Protesting Too High’ appeared first on FAIR.

Underexposure Exposed

FAIR - May 26, 2023 - 1:34pm


If you’re working for establishment media covering an official enemy of the United States, your main job is to convey to your audience that such places are dystopias, where everyone is miserable and whatever economic punishment Washington imposes on them can’t make things any worse.

The problem is that many of these enemies are tropical countries that often have sunny weather and lush greenery. If you run a realistic photo of such places, people might get the idea that things don’t look so bad there, and could even start wondering whether the living hell described in your text is a completely accurate portrayal.

That’s why corporate media have hit on a simple trick: If you want people to think that a country resistant to US leadership is a festering doomscape, just underexpose the hell out of your photographs.

So when the New York Times (12/5/20) covers an election in Venezuela, it sets the scene with a photo that looks like this:

Whereas, when you take the same image and run it through the automatic exposure adjustment filter of a popular photo editor (in this case PicMonkey), you get this:

When the Times (4/3/19) showed Venezuelans protesting on a bridge to Colombia—a bridge that was the focus of heavy anti-Maduro propaganda efforts (FAIR.org, 2/9/19)—the photo would have originally looked something like this:

But thanks to the magic of digital editing, the sunshine-soaked protest could be drenched in shadow, the better to convey the oppression the demonstrators were struggling against:

Or say you have a photo essay (New York Times11/27/20) on a mother and son displaced from Colombia to Venezuela by the Covid pandemic. You want to run a photo of the boy in Venezuela with the caption, “Venezuela was in far worse shape than Sebastián’s family had imagined.” Trouble is, the photo looks far too pleasant:

There’s an easy solution: Just turn down the brightness until it looks like the photo was taken during a total eclipse of the Sun, and you’ve got the image as it appeared in the Times:

The Times uses this trick a lot in covering Venezuela (see FAIR.org, 3/26/19, 12/19/20), but it works just as well in other countries—either enemy nations, or maybe nations that just have enemies within them. Here’s the image that illustrated a Times piece (4/30/23; see FAIR.org, 5/12/23) on Brazil with the classic red-baiting headline, “If You Don’t Use Your Land, These Marxists May Take It.”

Naturally, you don’t want that photo with exposure properly adjusted, because that would give the impression that the (perfectly legal) land reform the Times is describing was taking place in a land that’s not under a Mordor-like permanent shadow:

While the New York Times is the king of underexposed photos, it’s far from the only outlet to turn down the brightness in pursuit of propaganda. The Atlantic (2/27/20) ran a piece about Venezuela by Anne Applebaum, explaining how its “citizens of a once-prosperous nation live amid the havoc created by socialism, illiberal nationalism and political polarization,” that was accompanied by this photo:

If it had run the photo with a normal exposure, Venezuela would have seemed to have at least 50% less havoc:

The Wall Street Journal (8/10/22) ran an article about lithium mining in Chile’s Atacama Desert, where serious concerns about the environment stand in the way of efficient extraction of resources by multinational corporations (FAIR.org, 8/23/22)—or, as the Journal put it, public companies “risk mismanaging the resource in a region where state-run firms have long been mired in corruption and nepotism.” The piece was headed by a photo of one of the evaporation ponds from which lithium is extracted:

Deserts, of course, are typically bright, sunny places—but running a realistically lit photo of a lithium mine isn’t going to give the reader the proper image of a location “mired in corruption”:

Back when China was still trying to wipe out Covid, Reuters (12/20/21) ran a piece about daily coronavirus cases in China falling from 102 to 81. Though this was a tiny fraction of the number of Covid cases at the time in the US–which recorded some 241,000 new cases that December 20–we were still supposed to read this as bad news, which you can tell because the accompanying photo looked like this:

As opposed to a normally adjusted version of the photo, which has a much less ominous tone:

While the darkening technique is usually used on photographs from official enemy nations, it can also be used with internal enemies. When the New Yorker (9/13/15)  ran a profile by film critic Anthony Lane of then–British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, which compared him to “the class grouch, making trouble but never headway,” someone who makes “you all roll your eyes whenever he raises his hand, because you know what’s coming next,” it was accompanied by this image:

With an ordinary exposure applied to the photo, Corbyn doesn’t look nearly so much like someone whom you would naturally shun:

It’s easy to see how this basic processing of images serves these outlets’ ideological needs—exploiting the crude association between dark and bad. (Remember in 1994 when Time magazine darkened OJ Simpson’s skin when they put his mugshot on the cover after his arrest?) But applying this sort of distortion is inherently unethical, since the basic principle of photojournalism is that photos are supposed to convey reality and not political spin. As the Code of Ethics of the National Press Photographers Association spells out:

Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

If ethics alone aren’t enough to deter establishment media from such distortion, they should consider how much uglier photographs are when they’re steeped in unnecessary murk. Again and again, when I adjusted the brightness on obviously underexposed photos, it rescued the images from the one-dimensional cartoons they were run as, revealing detail, atmosphere, humanity. The properly exposed photos provided views of real people in real places—but, of course, if your intention is to publish propaganda, that’s the last thing you want.

The post Underexposure Exposed appeared first on FAIR.

Eric Thurm on the Hollywood Writers’ Strike

FAIR - May 26, 2023 - 9:49am


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GQ (5/5/23)

This week on CounterSpin: Going on strike is something that people with no personal experience are comfortable depicting as frivolous and selfish. That extends to many corporate news reporters, who appear unable to present a labor action as other than, first and foremost, an unwonted interruption of a natural order. However else they explain the issues at stake, or humanistically portray individual strikers, the overarching narrative is that workers are pressing their luck, and that owners who make their money off the efforts of those workers are not to be questioned.

It’s a weird presentation, whether it’s baristas or dockworkers or TV and movie writers. As we record on May 25, the Writers Guild strike is on its 23rd day, and having the intended effect of shutting down production on sets around the country.

Eric Thurm wrote a useful explainer on the WGA strike for GQ. Thurm is campaigns coordinator for the National Writers Union, and a steering committee member of the Freelance Solidarity Project. We hear from him about some behind-the-scenes aspects of the strike affecting what you may see on screen.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at recent media coverage of San Francisco.

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Montana TikTok Ban a Sign of Intensified Cold War With China

FAIR - May 25, 2023 - 4:51pm


“Montana can no more ban its residents from viewing or posting to TikTok than it could ban the Wall Street Journal because of who owns it or the ideas it publishes,” a lawsuit argues (AP, 5/18/23).

There is an emerging consensus in US foreign policy circles that a US/China cold  war is either imminent or already underway (Foreign Policy, 12/29/22; New Yorker, 2/26/23; New York Times, 3/23/23; Fox News, 3/28/23; Reuters, 3/30/23). Domestically, the most recent and most intense iteration of this anti-China fervor is the move to ban the Chinese video app TikTok, which is both a sweeping assault on free speech movement and a dangerous sign that mere affiliation with China is grounds for vilification and loss of rights.

Several TikTok content creators are suing to overturn “Montana’s first-in-the-nation ban on the video sharing app, arguing the law is an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights,” on the grounds “that the state doesn’t have any authority over matters of national security” (AP, 5/18/23). TikTok followed up with a lawsuit of its own (New York Times, 5/22/23). The app is banned on government devices at the federal level and in some states (CBS, 3/1/23; AP, 3/1/23), but the Montana law is the first to bar its use outright.

Momentum for a wider ban

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R.-Wis.), a congressmember seeking to ban TikTok nationally, called the app “digital fentanyl that’s addicting Americans” (USA Today, 12/13/22).

Republicans see this as momentum to push other state bans. Lawmakers of both major parties are pushing legislation that “would block all transactions from any social media company in or under the influence of a ‘country of concern,’ like China and Russia,” a move that would ban TikTok in the US (USA Today, 12/13/22). Such a sweeping ban is popular among voters, especially among Republicans (Pew, 3/31/23; Wall Street Journal, 4/24/23).

The reason for the swift action is the app’s Chinese ownership. Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) said, “Having TikTok on our phones is like having 80 million Chinese spy balloons flying over America” (Twitter, 2/28/23)—a reference to one of the most overblown news stories of 2023 (CounterPunch, 2/7/23; FAIR.org, 2/10/23). FBI Director Christopher Wray (CNBC, 11/15/22) told Congress of his “national security concerns” about TikTok, warning that

the Chinese government could use it to control data collection on millions of users. Or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations…. Or to control software on millions of devices…to potentially technically compromise personal devices.

The New York Times (3/17/23) reported that the

Justice Department is investigating the surveillance of American citizens, including several journalists who cover the tech industry, by the Chinese company that owns TikTok.

Social spying hypocrisy

While US lawmakers railed against the possibility that TikTok might be used by China to spy on US users, Al Jazeera (3/28/23) reported, the “US government itself uses US tech companies that effectively control the global internet to spy on everyone else.”

The funny thing here is that if the US government is worried about social media being used for surveillance, it should look inward. The Brennan Center (8/18/22), which is suing for Department of Homeland Security records on its use of social media surveillance tools, notes that “social media has become a significant source of information for US law enforcement and intelligence agencies.” The civil liberties organization notes that “there are myriad examples of the FBI and DHS using social media to surveil people speaking out on issues from racial justice to the treatment of immigrants.”

Even as Congress mulls a ban on TikTok, Al Jazeera (3/28/23) reported, the Biden administration is seeking “the renewal of powers that force firms like Google, Meta and Apple to facilitate untrammeled spying on non-US citizens located overseas.” Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) gives Washington the power to snoop on the social media conversations of users both foreign and, through the use of so-called “backdoor searches,” domestic. While many governments spy, the Qatari news site pointed out, “Washington enjoys an advantage not shared by other countries: jurisdiction over the handful of companies that effectively run the modern internet.”

“They’re making a big stink about TikTok and the Chinese collecting data when the US is collecting a great deal of data itself,” Seton Hall constitutional law expert Jonathan Hafetz told Al Jazeera. “It is a little bit ironic for the US to sort of trumpet citizens’ privacy concerns or worries about surveillance. It’s OK for them to collect the data, but they don’t want China to collect it.”

Accordingly, the Biden administration is demanding the platform be sold to rid itself of Chinese ownership, insisting that failure to do so would result in a nationwide ban. The New York Times (3/15/23) said this stance “harks back to the position of former President Donald J. Trump, who threatened to ban TikTok unless it was sold to an American company.” In 2020, FAIR (8/5/20) raised the possibility that Trump would leverage anti-Chinese sentiment to go after the app, but now a Democratic administration could finish what Trump started.

Don’t assume the president is bluffing, either; FAIR (7/1/21) reported that the Biden administration, citing “disinformation” as a reason, “shut down the websites of 33 foreign media outlets, including ones based in Iran, Bahrain, Yemen and Palestine,” a list that included Iranian state broadcaster Press TV.

An orchestrated campaign

Facebook parent company Meta paid a GOP consulting firm to “get the message out that while Meta is the current punching bag, TikTok is the real threat, especially as a foreign-owned app that is #1 in sharing data that young teens are using” (Washington Post, 3/30/22).

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a for-profit tech company headquartered in Beijing and incorporated in the Cayman Islands. ByteDance disputes that it has the ability to track US citizens (CNBC, 10/21/22), and the Chinese government denies that it pressures companies to engage in espionage (New York Times, 3/24/23). But TikTok, like other for-profit social media platforms, routinely collects data on users to sell to advertisers (MarketWatch, 10/25/22; CBC, 3/1/23).

Global Times (3/24/23), published by China’s Communist Party, declared that the “witch-hunting against TikTok portends US’s technological innovation is going downhill.” “The political farce against a tiny app has seriously shattered the US values of fair competition and its credibility,” the paper added.

The party paper (3/1/23) acknowledged that TikTok still has a profit “gap with Google, Facebook, etc.,” but maintained that “its growth momentum is rapid,” and thus “directly threatens the advertising revenue of several major social networks in the US.” The paper said that “if the US does not go after TikTok and curb its growth in the relevant market, several leading US high-tech and networking companies” would feel a competitive sting.

Chinese state and party media have hyperbolic tendencies, but this accusation of a financial motive for opposition to TikTok isn’t far-fetched. In fact, the Washington Post (3/30/22) reported that

Facebook parent company Meta is paying one of the biggest Republican consulting firms in the country to orchestrate a nationwide campaign seeking to turn the public against TikTok.

The campaign includes placing op-eds and letters to the editor in major regional news outlets, promoting dubious stories about alleged TikTok trends that actually originated on Facebook, and pushing to draw political reporters and local politicians into helping take down its biggest competitor.

Such a move might seem comically cynical, but it’s working. Corporate anti-competitive power has joined an alliance with Cold War fears about the Chinese to influence US policy, to the extent that the government is contemplating censoring media now available to 80 million Americans. (By comparison, CNN.com reportedly has 129 million unique monthly visitors in the US, the New York Times brand has 99 million and FoxNews.com has 76 million.)

Unprecedented silencing

A growing share of TikTok users are regularly getting news from the site (Pew, 10/21/22)—”in contrast with many other social media sites, where news consumption has either declined or stayed about the same in recent years.”

A media silencing of that magnitude seems unprecedented; the Biden administration’s seizure of Middle Eastern media websites is troubling, but Press TV isn’t as central to US life as TikTok is. “In just two years, the share of US adults who say they regularly get news from TikTok has roughly tripled, from 3% in 2020 to 10% in 2022,” Pew Research (10/21/22) reported, which stands “in contrast with many other social media sites, where news consumption has either declined or stayed about the same in recent years.” TikTok has announced plans to share its ad revenue with its content creators (Variety, 5/4/22), and the platform played a role in the rebounding of US post-pandemic tourism markets (Wall Street Journal, 5/8/23).

TikTok has argued that bans would hurt the US economy (Axios, 3/21/23), although the nation’s top lawmakers are unmoved by this (Newsweek, 3/14/23).

The urge to cleanse the media landscape of anything related to China has been roiling at a smaller scale for some time. Rep. Brian Mast (R.-Fla.) wants to ban Chinese government and Communist Party officials from US social platforms (Mast press release, 3/22/23; Fox News, 6/14/22) because, as he said in a press statement, “Chinese officials lie through our social media.” Singling out the sinister duplicity of Chinese officials overlooks the reality that mendacity among politicians is a universal cross-cultural phenomenon.

The Trump administration required “five Chinese state-run media organizations to register their personnel and property with the US government, granting them a designation akin to diplomatic entities,” affecting “Xinhua News Agency; China Global Television Network, previously known as CCTV; China Radio International; the parent company of China Daily newspaper; and the parent company of the People’s Daily newspaper” (Politico, 2/18/20).

In an effort to paint the Democratic Socialists of America-backed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D.-N.Y.) as some sort of shadowy foreign agent, Fox News (2/2/23) ran the headline, “AOC, Other Politicians Paid Thousands in Campaign Cash to Chinese Foreign Agent.” But buried in the clunky language of the news story is the fact Ocasio-Cortez and other politicians, including at least one Republican, simply ran campaign ads in Chinese-language newspapers owned by Sing Tao, a Hong Kong-based newspaper company. Candidates routinely buy ads in ethnic media to reach voters, but Fox offered this innocuous campaign act as evidence of Chinese treachery within our borders.

Fear of an Asian menace

Gov. Ron DeSantis presents Florida’s discrimination against Chinese nationals as a move to counter “the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party in the state of Florida” (Guardian, 5/9/23).

It’s worth remembering that fear of an Asian menace in the United States led to the nation’s first major immigration restrictions (CNN, 5/6/23) and mass imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (NPR, 1/29/23; FAIR.org, 2/16/23). It continues to lead to racist murder (CNN, 6/23/22) and other anti-Asian crimes (Guardian, 7/21/22).

“Inflammatory rhetoric about China can exacerbate the sense that Asian Americans are ‘racialized outsiders,’” Asian-American advocates said during the Covid pandemic (Axios, 3/23/21). Florida’s recent ban on property ownership by Chinese nationals (Guardian, 5/9/23) shows that the impulse to scapegoat is alive and well.

If official fears about TikTok collection of user data—which is central to the business model of all major US social media companies—can override First Amendment guarantees and deprive Americans of a major communication platform, then one has to ask what more the states and the federal government that are already frothing with anti-China hysteria are willing to do next.

In this sense, the people suing to keep TikTok available in Montana aren’t simply fighting for their access to a content platform, but are repelling a political impulse that in the past has led us to blacklists and McCarthyism. Let’s hope these video makers are victorious.

Research assistance: Lara-Nour Walton

The post Montana TikTok Ban a Sign of Intensified Cold War With China appeared first on FAIR.

The Character Assassination of San Francisco

FAIR - May 24, 2023 - 10:31am


CNN (5/14/23) aired a special report on “What Happened to San Francisco?”—although what mainly happened to the city is that it became the target of right-wing attacks.

CNN has joined the media chorus decrying the death of San Francisco with a one-hour special (Whole Story, 5/14/23). On an episode hosted by Sara Sidner, the network declared that “the city by the bay is now at the forefront of the nation’s homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction crises,” while some “residents worry Northern California’s largest municipality could become a so-called failed city.”

The narrative of San Francisco’s demise has been building for some time. In the corporate press, the closure of a Whole Foods (Newsweek, 4/11/23; ABC, 4/12/23; New York Times, 4/30/23) is like the moment Afghans clung to a US Air Force plane as the nation fell to the Taliban. The story of this store’s exit is more complicated than criminal activity (48Hills, 4/11/23)—but no matter, the narrative holds that permissive policies protecting the homeless have allowed a zombie army of criminals to exert control over the city, countered only by a police force that can do nothing, Democratic politicians fearful to act and tech bosses cowering in fear.

CNN has had some more reasonable coverage of the city in the past, placing its crime statistics in a national context (4/7/23) and a fuller picture of why a much-hyped Nordstrom closure had less to do with crime and more with general retail trends (5/3/23).

But in the lead-up to the documentary, CNN (5/14/23) also told a heart-wrenching story about a San Francisco mother who lamented that the city’s policies led her son into drugs. She may genuinely feel that way, but that doesn’t make it so: West Virginia leads the nation in drug deaths (CBS, 8/2/22), with more than three times the per capita rate of California; why is there no media drumbeat against Gov. Jim Justice?

‘No one is safe’

A local ABC reporter’s hyperbolic comment to CNN (5/14/23) becomes a Fox News headline (5/15/23)—because it’s San Francisco.

It’s normal for the Rupert Murdoch–owned press (Fox News, 5/11/23, 5/15/23; Wall Street Journal, 5/3/23; New York Post, 5/4/23) to obsess about San Francisco falling apart. Tucker Carlson, formerly Fox News’ most-watched host and a San Francisco native, ran a weeklong special on the city called “American Dystopia” (Fox News, 1/6/20), which Media Matters for America (1/13/20) described as “dehumanizing homeless people.”

But this trend is embraced by the more centrist corporate press, too. The New York Times gave space to venture capitalist Michael Moritz (2/26/23) to lament the excesses of Democratic governance and repeatedly eulogize the city’s retail establishments (12/17/22, 2/9/23, 4/30/23).

When tech boss Bob Lee was fatally stabbed near his home, the Times (4/7/23) took at face value statements from fellow tech bosses about how he was the victim of the out-of-control anarchy allowed by progressive leaders. As it turned out, Lee was likely the victim of sex-and-drug-fueled, tech boss–on–tech boss violence (New York Post, 5/12/23, 5/14/23).

In another example of media outlets showing their hand, CBS (4/7/23) reported, “A brutal and brazen attack on former San Francisco Fire Commissioner Don Carmignani” left “him battling for his life and neighbors on edge.” The person who had attacked the former commish was unhoused, fueling the sentiment that the streets were filled with roving sociopaths targeting people of all ranks, including civic leaders. Along with the Lee killing, “both violent assaults have ignited an intense debate over safety in the city.” The New York Post (4/7/23) highlighted the attack as evidence that “no one is safe” in San Francisco.

The New York Times (4/7/23) presented the stabbing of tech exec Bob Lee as a symbol of “deepening frustration over the city’s homelessness crisis”—before another “tech leader” was arrested for his murder.

But as with the Lee story, the media assumptions were premature. Video evidence later revealed that Carmignani had attacked the homeless man with bear spray and that the homeless man acted in self-defense, although Carmignani disputed this (CBS, 4/26/23; CNN, 4/27/23; LA Times, 5/11/23). In fact, lawyers for the homeless man in the case “alleged that Carmignani may be involved in other incidents in which homeless people were sprayed in the Cow Hollow and Marina District neighborhoods” (NBC, 4/27/23).  Carmignani also has his own checkered past: he resigned from his commissioner post “one day after he was arrested in connection with an alleged domestic violence incident” (SFGate, 9/24/13).

At the Atlantic (6/8/22), Nellie Bowles—a California heiress (SF Chronicle, 10/28/21; LA Times, 6/14/22), former New York Times writer, and a participant in the conservative and lucrative anti-woke propaganda network (Daily Mail, 11/5/21)—brought an out-of-touch upper-class perspective to a San Francisco she, like CNN, called a “failed city.” Her heart no doubt bleeds for suffering people on the street, but she placed the blame on a regional culture of permissiveness:

This approach to drug use and homelessness is distinctly San Franciscan, blending empathy-driven progressivism with California libertarianism. The roots of this belief system reach back to the ’60s, when hippies filled the streets with tents and weed. The city has always had a soft spot for vagabonds, and an admirable focus on care over punishment. Policy makers and residents largely embraced the exciting idea that people should be able to do whatever they want to do, including live in tent cities and have fun with drugs and make their own medical decisions, even if they are out of their mind sometimes.

‘Failed city’

San Francisco’s homicide rate has dropped by half since the early 2000s—prompting the Atlantic (6/8/22) to run an essay on “How San Francisco Became a Failed City.”

The casual use of the phrase “failed city” is insulting hyperbole. The analogous term “failed state” was popularized in an early ’90s Foreign Policy article (Winter/92–93), which defined the “failed nation-state” as one “utterly incapable of sustaining itself as a member of the international community”—a definition that seems designed to invite intervention by said “community.” (See University of Chicago Law Review, Fall/05.) A failed state is a technical term for a place, due to internal mismanagement and external pressure, where civil society has broken down amid collapse in central governance. There is no major world body that considers the loss of a Nordstrom store (SF Chronicle, 5/3/23) a valid metric of societal meltdown.

But even if we forgive journalists for their flexible poetic license, the media narrative that San Francisco stands outside the US norm runs contrary to reality.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that the highest rates of drug overdose mortality are in West Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana and Kentucky, with California far behind. US Department of Agriculture research shows that the highest poverty states are Louisiana, West Virginia, New Mexico and Mississippi. Forbes’ list (1/31/23) of the most dangerous cities cites New Orleans, Detroit, St. Louis and Memphis (as well as Mobile and Birmingham, Alabama), but not San Francisco. San Francisco/Oakland does appear on the list of cities with the highest homelessness rates—but seven cities have higher rates, including New York City, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Surreal media narrative

Toro Castaño (KQED, 9/27/22) on homeless “sweeps”: “A lot of things they’re taking are warm clothes, warm jackets, blankets, things that you need just to survive.”

It’s a surreal media narrative for Zal Shroff, a senior attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, who recently helped win an injunction against what the group calls the city’s discrimination against homelessness. “On paper, the city has 3,000 shelter beds for 8,000 unhoused people,” he told FAIR, noting that while residents may be frustrated with street homelessness, there are often few places for the homeless to go.

“There is no avenue for an unhoused person to seek shelter. You can only get it after you’ve been harassed by police and beg for it,” he said. “You can’t go to the police and ask, they have to threaten you with citation and arrest, and then maybe they’ll ask to see if there is a shelter bed.”

Despite the media narrative about the city’s lawlessness, LCCRSF’s summary of the lawsuit states—and so far, one court agrees—that the city’s unhoused population are subjected to “brutal policing practices that violate [their] civil rights.” As Toro Castaño (48Hills, 9/27/22), who was homeless in the city from 2019 to 2021, told the court, “I was harassed by San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) and Department of Public Works (DPW) staff several times a week for the entirety of the two years I was homeless.” He noted in the court papers that while living on the street in May 2020, he was “harassed by police officers from the Castro beat every day for five weeks.”

KQED (9/27/22) noted that “Castaño had his belongings taken from him by the city four times during the pandemic, according to the complaint,” and that “while Castaño was unhoused, he said he was asked to move nearly every day.”

As Sarah Cronk, an unhoused person said in court papers, “If the City does not have adequate shelter or housing for us, then it should not be harassing us.” She and her partner “are just trying to scrape by and build as much of a life for ourselves as possible—with both dignity and safety,” Cronk said, but the city government “makes that impossible for us.”

This is hardly the “lunatics are running the asylum” image the media would have the public believe is the case.

For Shroff, the situation is frustrating, because while the injunction is meant to stop police harassment of the homeless while encouraging more affordable housing and shelter services, in the city’s narrative, his organization is calling for outright anarchy (SF Chronicle, 1/23/23; Law360, 4/26/23). “That’s the narrative that’s out there and is winning the day in the press,” he said, “which is interesting, because we’re winning this case.”

Myth of soaring crime

San Francisco did have a high murder rate in the early 2000s, but it has since fallen dramatically, to close to the US and California averages.

And then there’s the mythology of the city’s soaring crime. As the San Francisco Standard (12/22/22) reported, the city’s “crime totals cratered in 2020 when the city hunkered down for the first waves of Covid,” and then rose again. But “crime in San Francisco has not yet increased to pre-pandemic levels—with a few key exceptions.”

The online news outlet said crime rates “have fallen tremendously since peaks in the 1990s, which mirrors trends in cities across the country,” and that the “city’s most recent crime spikes came in 2013 for violent crime and 2017 for property crime.” (To put this admission into perspective, the Standard is financed by the aforementioned Michael Moritz.)

SFGate (1/7/22) also noted that violent crime rates in San Francisco matched national trends, and were not national outliers. Despite ideas of the city’s lawlessness and left-wing calls to “defund the police,” the “San Francisco Police Department budget increased overall by 4.4% from 2019 to 2022” (KGO-TV, 10/13/22), and Mayor London Breed has called for “a $27 million budget supplemental to fund police overtime citywide” (KGO-TV, 3/8/23). The right blamed the property crime spike on former District Attorney Chesa Boudin, but with his recall (FAIR.org, 7/11/22), there is no longer a George Soros–backed boogeyman to hold up as a scapegoat (The Hill, 6/9/22).

Oddly enough, the “failed city” has “the fastest growing economy in US” (SFGate, 11/16/22).

And while it is true that the city’s population has decreased (SF Chronicle, 1/26/23), the housing market is still hot, “with rents returning to pre-Covid levels, and a median one-bedroom there now priced at $3,100 a month, up 14% and the highest in two years” (Bloomberg, 7/26/22). The city’s tourism economy is currently booming, after the pandemic hurt the sector (SF Chronicle, 3/21/23). The city’s unemployment rate had been sitting at a low 2.9% (KPIX-TV, 3/10/23; SF Chronicle, 4/21/23) and has only recently spiked—not because of some progressive City Hall policy, but thanks to nationwide layoffs in the locally concentrated tech sector (SF Chronicle, 4/21/23). One report (SFGate, 11/16/22) showed that the “San Francisco Bay Area led the country in economic growth in 2022, with a 4.8% increase in GDP.”

The skyrocketing wealth is connected to the homelessness problem, Schroff said. While there is a mythology that street homelessness in San Francisco is the result of outsiders traveling there for the services and the mild weather, Schroff notes that LCCRSF research has shown that a bulk of unhoused people are long-time area residents who cannot find shelter.

The group’s lawsuit said “San Francisco failed to meet state targets for affordable housing production between 1999 and 2014—ultimately constructing 61,000 fewer very low-income units than needed.” From “2015 to 2022, the city only built 33% of the deeply affordable housing units it promised, and only 25% of actual housing production went to affordable housing.”

“The mental health services and the drug addiction services are robust, but that doesn’t solve that two thirds of unhoused people are reporting that they can’t find affordable housing,” Schroff said. “There is no exit option.”

American Gomorrah

New York Post (10/15/22): “San Francisco is governed by a leadership that is so enamored of the city’s progressive, humanitarian self-image that the idea of enforcing basic laws—even ones that save people’s lives like controlling drug sales and consumption—has come to be regarded as reactionary.”

In a country where a state like Texas has seen six mass shootings this year (USA Today, 5/8/23), why is San Francisco the object of such obsession? The San Francisco Bay Area, in the imagination of the American right, is the closest thing America has to Sodom and Gomorrah. San Francisco is identified as the epicenter of gay liberation, the home of the hippies, vegan restaurants and streets where Cantonese and Spanish are heard as much as English. Berkeley, just across the Bay, was a primary site of 1960s student radicalism and counter-culture, and the flagship UC campus continues to be a dreaded symbol of state-funded academic wokeness (Berkeleyside, 12/12/18; Washington Examiner, 8/21/22; Daily Beast, 10/31/22).

Affluenza has cleansed the Bay of much of its bohemia, but its national political legacy lives on in Democratic establishment titans like Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein. The area’s tech industry, like Hollywood in the southern end of the state, is a lucrative capitalist sector that the right, not incorrectly, associates with Democratic voting (Open Secrets, 1/12/21; Wall Street Journal, 2/20/21).

So to paint San Francisco as an example of failed governance is, in the right-wing narrative, to prove that the progressive urban experiment has broadly failed. The Nazi Joseph Goebbels probably didn’t say, “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth,” but it remains a central principle of propaganda. The failure of San Francisco has been a drumbeat in the conservative press, and as a result, major corporate media are acting as if this is true, or at least arguable. CNN, the New York Times and the Atlantic, by buying into this mythology, are able to call into question compassion for the homeless and alternatives to aggressive policing.

In fact, the Washington Post (5/21/19) seemed a little lonely in the corporate press when it argued that it was an “earthquake of wealth” that permanently worsened the city’s character, not the poor or any overly compassionate social policy.

But all of the recent negative coverage surrounds the issue of homeless people. Homelessness and poverty are the tragic results of unfettered capitalism and raging inequality, whether it’s in rural West Virginia or in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Drug addiction is a public health crisis that the US healthcare system neglects, like many other ailments. These media pieces aren’t appalled by the conditions that create seas of unhoused people, but are appalled that housed, professional people have to deal with them. The New York Times and CNN are in many ways different from Fox News and the New York Post, but this is where their worldviews meld.

This is media outrage focused not at systemic injustice, but based in disgust at the victims of injustice.

The post The Character Assassination of San Francisco appeared first on FAIR.

‘Apartheid’ Designation Ignored as Israel Kills Children in Gaza Again

FAIR - May 23, 2023 - 1:43pm


Human Rights Watch (4/27/21) recognized Israeli domination of Palestinians as an apartheid system more than two years ago.

Israel’s recent bombing of the Gaza Strip from May 9–13 killed 33 Palestinians, including seven children. FAIR looked at coverage of these attacks from the Washington Post, New York Times and CNN, and didn’t find a single reference to Israel as an apartheid state, despite this being the consensus in the human rights community.

Since apartheid is the overriding condition that leads to Israel’s violent outbursts, and since the US has vigorously supported Israel for the last 60 years, US media should be putting it front and center in their coverage.  Omitting it allows Israel to continue to portray any violence from Palestinians as a result of senseless hostility, rather than emerging from the conditions imposed by Israel. For audiences, that distortion serves to justify Israel’s attacks on civilians and continued collective punishment of all Palestinians.

The term apartheid originated with the South African system of systematic racial segregation, which was not unlike Jim Crow in the United States. Apartheid is considered a crime against humanity—defined in the UN’s Apartheid Convention as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

The term has been increasingly applied to the Israeli apparatus of checkpoints, segregation, surveillance, arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial murders that it uses to oppress Palestinians. In particular, the exclusion of most Palestinians under Israeli control from participation in Israeli politics, under the pretense that Palestinian areas either are or someday will be independent, mirrors the disenfranchisement of Black South Africans through the creation of fictitious countries known as bantustans.

Human Rights Watch published a report in 2021 titled A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution. That same year, the leading Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, labeled Israel’s rule “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” Amnesty International published a major report in 2022 on “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians.”

After the biggest, most respected human rights organizations labeled Israel an apartheid state, much of the US political establishment erupted in bipartisan indignation in defense of Israel. The New York Times actually refused to even mention the Amnesty International report for 52 days (Mondoweiss, 3/24/22).

‘Trading fire’

The Washington Post (5/12/23) depicts a “face off” between a society under siege and the besieging forces.

Gaza, the Palestinian enclave between Israel and the Mediterranean, is arguably the most abused territory under the apartheid regime. Most of the water in the enclave fails to meet international standards, and was even called “undrinkable” by the United Nations. The illegal blockade regularly prevents important medicine and other supplies from being widely available in the country.

Regular Israeli military attacks on the Gaza Strip are a key part of the repression, killing unarmed civilians, destroying neighborhoods, schools and hospitals—most notably in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2021. These periodic attacks on the Palestinians, often crassly referred to as “mowing the grass,” have killed 5,460 Palestinians since 2007. International observers have often referred to Gaza as an “open-air prison,” with 2 million people being crammed into 146 square miles.

The recent Gaza coverage fails to capture this context, and instead portrays the situation as a conflict between equals. The Washington Post (5/12/23) described it as a “face off” when (at that point) 30 Palestinians, including six children, were killed by Israeli airstrikes, along with one Israeli killed by Palestinian rocket fire; a New York Times article (5/11/23) described the conflict as Israel and Islamic Jihad “trad[ing] fire.”  Another New York Times (5/12/23) headline vaguely referred to the attack as “A New Round of Middle East Fighting.”

CNN (4/12/23) used the classic whitewashing word “clash” in describing the attacks. CNN’s use of the term was even more striking because it appeared in a headline that included the incongruity between 30 dead Palestinians and one dead Israeli.

Outlets gave several “how we got here” pieces that purported to give context for the current escalation (e.g., New York Times, 5/9/23; Washington Post, 5/13/23). Again, not a single article FAIR reviewed used the term “apartheid” or referenced the recent findings from human rights NGOs to describe the current situation in Palestine.

‘Consequences of territorial ambitions’

UN special rapporteur Francesca Albanese (Guardian, 5/12/23): Israel “cannot justify the occupation in the name of self-defense, or the horror it imposes on the Palestinians in the name of self-defense.”

On a recent trip to London, Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Occupied Territories, criticized the the tendency to omit important context and trends in the discussions about Israel (Guardian, 5/12/23):

For me, apartheid is a symptom and a consequence of the territorial ambitions Israel has for the land of what remains of an encircled Palestine…. Israel is a colonial power maintaining the occupation in order to get as much land as possible for Jewish-only people. And this is what leads to the numerous violations of international law.

Member states need to stop commenting on violations here or there, or escalation of violence, since violence in the occupied Palestinian territory is cyclical, it is not something that accidentally explodes. There is only one way to fix it, and that is to make sure that Israel complies with international law.

The dominant and overriding context of anything that happens in Israel/Palestine is the fact that the state of Israel is running an apartheid regime in the entirety of the territory it controls.  Any obfuscation or equivocation of that fact serves only to downplay the severity of Israeli crimes and the US complicity in them.

The post ‘Apartheid’ Designation Ignored as Israel Kills Children in Gaza Again appeared first on FAIR.

WSJ Worries Debt Limit Fight Could Jeopardize Military Contractors’ Profits

FAIR - May 22, 2023 - 5:04pm


Wall Street Journal (5/12/23): “The drama in Washington this spring reflects a deeper political impasse that risks crimping military-spending growth in future budget negotiations.”

The Wall Street Journal is very concerned about the effects of the debt limit fight…on military contractors. In an article (5/12/23) headlined “Debt-Ceiling Fight Weighs on Defense Industry,” the paper reported, “If the US defaults on its debt and is unable to pay all its bills this summer, the pain will fall squarely on the defense industry.”

A default could disrupt payments to military contractors, the Journal pointed out, and even a temporary suspension of the debt ceiling for several months “would raise the likelihood the Defense Department will have to make do with a temporary budget known as a continuing resolution.” This would likely “inflate the costs of military programs, delay the launch of new ones and prevent production increases.” In short, weapons producers might feel a momentary pinch after years of war profits.

But, given the unlikelihood of outright default, the more concerning scenario for the Journal has to do with budget talks. The piece noted that, as the largest item on the discretionary side of the federal budget—which excludes social programs like Social Security and Medicare, which are funded on an ongoing basis—military spending could soon find itself on the chopping block. And who’s taking the pain? Your friendly old drone supplier:

Concerns that military spending could be cut—or, at best delayed—in a debt-ceiling fight have weighed heavily on investor sentiment toward the biggest military contractors. Shares in Lockheed Martin are down this year more than 7%, with General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman off 15% and 20%, respectively.

Dear God, no! We must take action to address the “‘wall of worry’ among investors”!

All the valiant fighters for justice are concerned. We hear from a congressional representative who castigates Republicans who “play chicken with the full faith and credit of our country” and “jeopardize our national security.” Then an Air Force secretary is brought in to sound the alarm about the strategic harms of failing to fund the military.

Where are the voices opposed to increased military spending, who represent the majority of the US public rather than the minority of war profiteers? Probably off playing hackysack. The Journal evidently couldn’t reach them.

The cost of cuts

The Journal article featured an image of a weapons display for Lockheed Martin, whose stock is “down this year more than 7%.”

There’s a hint of hope, though! The piece notes:

While Republicans are seeking a spending freeze, many members have voiced support for a larger increase in the military budget, though it would come at the cost of cuts in other areas.

What these other areas would be remains unspecified. But let’s take a look. According to a recent analysis by the New York Times (5/8/23), if the military budget, along with veterans’ health and the border patrol, are spared from cuts, each remaining area of the discretionary budget would have to be cut in half to satisfy the Republican spending caps. That includes Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others.

It’s beyond absurd to exclude this context, and instead hand-wring about the area of the discretionary budget that appears least likely to face cuts—and, by any reasonable account, the most able to survive them.

Again, as the Washington Post (4/26/23) has reported, “Republicans have promised to focus…cuts on federal healthcare, education, science and labor programs, while sparing defense.”

An article by military analyst William Hartung from last month in Forbes (4/26/23) likewise opened:

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced the outlines of a possible Republican budget plan last week, and the big winner was the Pentagon [emphasis added]. Even as McCarthy called for a freeze in the federal discretionary budget at Fiscal Year 2022 levels as a condition for raising the debt ceiling—a move that he promised Freedom Caucus members when they grudgingly supported his election as speaker in January—he signaled that the Department of Defense would not be impacted.

This is a completely different story from the one that the Wall Street Journal has chosen to promote, and one that has far more basis in reality.

But let’s raise a glass to Raytheon. May they get through these tough times and thrive. If there’s one thing the world is lacking, it’s enough weapons contracts for war profiteers.

ACTION ALERT: You can send a message to the Wall Street Journal at wsjcontact@wsj.com (or via Twitter: @WSJ) Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your communication in the comments thread.

The post WSJ Worries Debt Limit Fight Could Jeopardize Military Contractors’ Profits appeared first on FAIR.

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