By Joe Emersberger
I emailed Stephanie Nebehay of Reuters on May 22 about her article, “Venezuela Turns to Russia, Cuba, China in Health Crisis” (5/22/19). Her article depicted the impact of US sanctions as an allegation that Venezuelan government officials are alone in making. The article stated:
The opposition blames [medical shortages] on economic incompetence and corruption by the leftist movement in power for two decades, but [President Nicolás] Maduro says US economic sanctions are the cause.
I asked why the piece made no mention of a study (CEPR, 4/25/19) released a month earlier by economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs, which directly linked US sanctions to 40,000 deaths in Venezuela since August of 2017.
Her reply to me on May 23 was quite telling:
I was not aware of that study, but am now and will bear in mind.
It would indeed have been impossible for a Reuters reporter to be aware of the study if they depended only on Reuters articles to keep informed. The news agency hadn’t mentioned the study since it was released, never mind written an article about it.
I asked a contact I have at Reuters about this, and he was also surprised that Reuters hadn’t even mentioned the study. He suggested I query some of Reuters’ Venezuela-based reporters, which I did a few days later.
In my email to them, I passed along a list of news articles since August 2017, when Trump first dramatically intensified economic sanctions, that described worsening economic conditions. I also noted that though the Sachs/Weisbrot study was ignored by Reuters, it had been intensely debated in public by Venezuelan opposition economists (i.e., the kind of people Reuters and other Western media actually pay attention to on Venezuela).
The Brookings Institution published a few rebuttals to the study (here and here), which I also pointed out to Reuters. The objections Brookings made were essentially already addressed by Weisbrot and Sachs in response to other critics.
On June 9, Reuters finally mentioned the study, at the end of an article by Nebehay, who is based in Geneva:
One study in April, co-authored by US economists Jeffrey Sachs and Mark Weisbrot, blamed sanctions for causing more deaths and disproportionately hitting the most vulnerable.
“We find that the sanctions have inflicted, and increasingly inflict, very serious harm to human life and health, including an estimated more than 40,000 deaths from 2017–2018,” they said, arguing they were illegal under international law.
Nevertheless, since the day Nebehay replied to me, Reuters has continued to portray the severe impact of US sanctions as an allegation that only Maduro and other Venezuelan officials have made. It was even done by Reuters in an article published June 10, the day after the wire service finally mentioned the study:
The government of President Nicolás Maduro says Venezuela’s economic problems are caused by US sanctions that have crippled the OPEC member’s export earnings and blocked it from borrowing from abroad.
Other instances of Reuters representing the idea that US sanctions work as they are intended to do—in other words, that they hurt the Venezuelan economy—as an allegation made by Maduro or his government:
- “He [President Maduro] says the country’s economic problems are the result of an ‘economic war’ led by his political adversaries with the help of Washington.” (5/23/19)
- “Maduro, who maintains control over state institutions, calls Guaidó a puppet of Washington and blames US sanctions for a hyperinflationary economic meltdown and humanitarian crisis.” (5/26/19; repeated almost verbatim, 5/28/19)
- “Maduro’s government, however, says US-imposed sanctions were responsible for the children’s deaths, by freezing funds allocated to buy medicine and send the children to Italy for treatment under the 2010 agreement.” (6/1/19)
- “Maduro blames the situation on an ‘economic war’ waged by his political adversaries as well as US sanctions that have hobbled the oil industry and prevented his government from borrowing abroad.” (6/7/19)
- “Maduro says Venezuela is victim of an ‘economic war’ led by the opposition with the help of Washington, which has levied several rounds of sanctions against his government.” (6/7/19)
Two recent articles by Reuters, however, stated the obvious about the most recent US sanctions that were implemented in 2019:
- “Venezuela is in the midst of a years-long economic and humanitarian crisis that has deepened since the United States imposed sanctions on the country’s oil industry in January as part of an effort to oust Socialist President Nicolás Maduro in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaidó.” (6/7/19)
- “Venezuela’s oil exports dropped 17 percent in May because of the sanctions.” (6/6/19)
But the study Reuters belatedly mentioned shows that US sanctions have been devastating to Venezuela’s economy, and seriously aggravating the humanitarian crisis, since August 2017.
Apologists for Trump always rush to say that Venezuela’s depression began years before Trump’s sanctions—as if that made it acceptable to deliberately worsen a humanitarian crisis. To tweak an analogy Caitlin Johnstone used, think of a defense attorney saying, “Your Honor, I will show that the victim was already in intensive care when my client began to assault him.”
Moreover, as Steve Ellner recently discussed, US support for an insurrectionist opposition in Venezuela goes back over a decade before the crisis, and was a factor in causing it. Economic sanctions Obama introduced in 2015 were also harmful—Weisbrot (The Hill, 11/6/16) in 2016 called them “ugly and belligerent enough to keep many investors from investing in Venezuela and to raise the country’s cost of borrowing”—even before Trump’s dramatic escalation of economic warfare that they paved the way for.
Putting aside a study by prominent US economists, the “Maduro says” formulation is also inexcusable because US Sen. Marco Rubio, who has been widely reported as a major influence on Trump’s Venezuela policy, gleefully tweeted on May 16 that Maduro “can’t access funds to rebuild electric grid.”
Rubio didn’t pretend he was referring to an imaginary electric grid used exclusively by Maduro. Reuters (5/30/19) has itself referred to Rubio as the “leading voice in the crafting of President Donald Trump’s Venezuela policy,” in a lengthy piece about US sanctions that said absolutely nothing about their impact on the general population, implying throughout that sanctions only impacted Maduro and other officials. (“Being blacklisted also crimps the lifestyle of Venezuelan officials’ families,” Reuters reported.)
Media copy and paste from news organizations like Reuters and Associated Press, which themselves employ many cheaper local journalists.
In Venezuela, these journalists are not neutral actors, but come from the highly partisan local media, affiliated with the opposition, leading to a situation where Western newsrooms see themselves as an ideological spearhead against Maduro, “the resistance” to the government.
Even worse than being the “resistance” to Maduro is that Reuters has often made itself the “assistance” to politicians like Rubio, who are vicious enough to celebrate the economic strangulation of millions of people.
Reuters may carry on as if it had never reported the study by Weisbrot and Sachs. Western media outlets are perfectly willing to ignore their own reporting when it suits powerful interests (Extra! Update, 10/02). It is therefore up to all of us to not be passive consumers of news, and continually bear in mind that the news we are getting about official enemies may be less than half the story.
Featured image: Reuters depiction (6/7/19) of Venezuelan refugees. (photo: Pilar Olivares/Reuters)
This week on CounterSpin: Two deep conversations, about oil and much more.
The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico happened from the spring through the fall of 2010. The blowout of the Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 people, and countless animals, on its way to becoming the worst marine oil spill in history. It seemed to take that protracted disaster on the US coast to generate a New York Times front-page story on June 16, 2010, about oil industry ravages in Nigeria’s delta region, which, the article noted, “has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years, by some estimates.” CounterSpin had a powerful conversation that week with filmmaker and video artist Sandy Cioffi, whose film, Sweet Crude, looks at the oil industry in Nigeria, and the way it is covered in the US. We’ll hear that conversation today.PlayStop pop out
Also on the show: Oil spills are often discussed in media in terms of the Exxon Valdez. But if the use of the Valdez as a touchstone might give the impression that “lessons were learned” from that 1989 disaster…. Well, that mainly applies to the lesson that not disaster, but activism—dogged, ongoing, out-of-the-spotlight, misunderstood and maligned activism—is what changes things. That’s part of what we learned when we spoke with activist and marine biologist Riki Ott in 2009—then the 20-year anniversary of that “oil spill to end all oil spills”—now many spills ago.PlayStop pop out
Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look back at recent coverage of Venezuela.PlayStop pop out
by Dean Baker
Oh no, Japan is running out of people!
That’s what Robert Samuelson tells us in his latest column (Washington Post, 6/12/19). That might seem a strange concern for a country that is ten times as densely populated as the United States, but Samuelson apparently sees it as a real nightmare.
After all, if its population keeps shrinking, Japan will face a severe labor shortage. They may have a hard time getting people to fill lower-paying, lower-productivity jobs. For example, it might be hard to find workers to shove people onto Toyko’s overcrowded subways.
But it gets worse. As a result of the social services required by the elderly, Japan has been running large deficits and built up an enormous debt:
The mounting deficit spending has in turn ballooned Japan’s government debt to 226 percent of GDP—”the highest ever recorded in the OECD area” and roughly twice the US level.
Yes, and the burden of this debt is absolutely crushing to the Japanese people. According to the IMF, Japan’s debt service burden will be equal to 0.1 percent of GDP this year, which is equal to roughly $20 billion in the US economy. And if the country continues on its current course, its debt service burden will turn negative in two years.
The issue here is that Japan has negative (nominal) interest rates. Lenders pay the Japanese government to borrow their money. As a result, the interest burden on Japan’s “highest ever recorded” debt is no burden whatsoever.
But wait, it gets worse. Samuelson tells us (citing economist Timothy Taylor):
Half of Japanese children born in 2007 are expected to live to 107.
As we can see, the situation in Japan is pretty bad. Samuelson warns us that it could be our future, too, which I suppose might be possible if we fix our healthcare system.
Samuelson and his clique really need to do a better job of finding a bogeyman.
A version of this post originally appeared on CEPR’s blog Beat the Press (6/12/19). Messages can be sent to the Washington Post at email@example.com, or via Twitter @washingtonpost. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.
A recent segment on WAMU, one of the NPR affiliates in Washington, DC, focused on efforts to change the name of the largely African-American neighborhoods “East of the River” to “East End.”
The station reported:
Residents insist the name change only encourages gentrification, and the term “East of the River” must stay put. “My question is: Who are we trying to change that connotation for? And my sense is — the developers,” Jo Knight, a resident of historic Anacostia, said at a recent community meeting about the area’s rebranding.
While Knight is doubtlessly correct about who would benefit from the euphemism, it’s worth noting that this short paragraph contains at least one other major euphemism: “developer.”
It’s an incredibly positive term that has burrowed so deeply into our language that we rarely think to question it. In practice, “development” often means the destruction of historic architecture, the disruption of neighborhood interconnections and, of course, the driving out of existing residents—often low-income people, people of color or immigrants. None other than Frank Lloyd Wright derided the influence of “advertising men; the realtor, the so-called ‘developer’—all defacing life,” in his 1957 book-length essay A Testament.
But scare quotes around “developer” have long ceased, with even their most ardent critics accepting that flattering term. Our language has become so distorted, it’s hard to keep track.
Part of the issue is that there’s no obvious replacement for the term. Perhaps, taking a cue from Wright, we could adopt the dysphemism “defacer.” This notion was a regular refrain from Wright, who continually called for an architecture “that belonged where you see it standing—and was a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace.”
And it is, after all, “developers” who are likely responsible for defacing, or at least distorting, our language, such that euphemisms like “rebirth” and “revitalization” have become euphemisms for gentrification. I should hasten to add that Barbara Schiffler charged in a letter to the Los Angeles Times (12/1/15) that “‘gentrification’ is a euphemism for market cruelty.” Indeed, it just might be euphemisms all the way down.
This is all part of a process Neil deMause (FAIR.org, 2/19/16) has called “developer-speak,” in which “rebirth or revitalization or renaissance is what happens to neighborhoods when you build new stuff.” Ironically, the word “developer” is itself one of the greatest triumphs of “developer-speak.”
Then there’s WAMU‘s use of the word “rebranding” here. In this context, it’s something of a euphemism as well. The “East End” proposal isn’t like a radio station, like WAMU, switching from promoting itself as “88.5—listen when you drive” to “88.5—now with less baloney and jive,” or some such. Instead, the new neighborhood name is part of a process that will, as residents charge, help drive them from the community.
As Wright told Mike Wallace in 1957:
Our natures are now so warped in many directions, we are so conditioned by education, we have no longer any straight, true, clean reactions that we can trust, and we have to be pretty wise and careful what it is we give up to, what it is we admire, what it is we are inspired by.
Not just our natures, but our language—and not just by education, but by media as well.
‘The US Has No Real Moral Authority to Talk About Freedoms’ - CounterSpin interview with Netfa Freeman on Cuba sanctions
Janine Jackson interviewed Netfa Freeman about Cuba sanctions for the June 7, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: The Trump administration announced a ban on people-to-people group travel to Cuba, a sanction merited, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin explained, because of Cuba’s “destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere, providing a communist foothold in the region, and propping up US adversaries in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua by fomenting instability, undermining the rule of law and suppressing democratic processes.”
It’s refreshing, in a way, to have media saying, “Ignore that guy in the corner. Here’s how you can still go to Cuba.” But US citizens have a right to deeper answers about why the state gets to tell them where they can go, and indeed use their freedom of movement as a political tool, all while employing imagery out of Red Scare 101.
Our next guest has recently returned from Cuba. He’s the Institute for Policy Studies’ Netfa Freeman, longtime director of the Institute’s Social Action & Leadership School for Activists. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Netfa Freeman.
Netfa Freeman: Thank you, Janine.
JJ: I guess let’s do a little background. This move, which is just part of a number of sanctions that the Trump White House has planned against Cuba, is being presented, like many things, as a departure from or an undoing of Obama policy.
But like many things, it’s not really a 180 degree turn away from that policy. What would be some relevant history, including going further back? Just what context should we be aware of as we consider this new travel ban?
NF: So I think the context that we should be aware of is the United States has waged a multifaceted and protracted war, for the purpose of regime change, against Cuba since 1960, since the dawn of the revolution. And it’s taken on many forms, and various intensities, depending on which party, which US administration, was in office. 1960 was when the United States first initiated a blockade against Cuba, trying to isolate it from the world, and then formalized that blockade in the form of the Helms/Burton Act in 1994, I believe that was the year, and then adding an additional act through the Torricelli bill in 1997.
These acts actually legislate things like the international economic embargo against non-US companies and US companies that are doing any type of trade with Cuba. It blocks Cuba from being part of any international financial institutions. It also allocates money, taxpayer dollars, through agencies like the US Agency for International Development, for what they call democracy programs, aiming television broadcasts and radio broadcast signals into the island, and also giving money, support on the ground, to Cuban citizens who want to participate in the subversion of their own country with the United States—through what they call “independent journalists” or “independent human rights organizations,” which are really not independent, because they’re funded by the United States.
The difference in the Obama approach and previous approaches is how that final agenda is carried out in terms of regime change. Like when they say Cuba is not democratic, and then all of them—even right now, the bipartisan Working Group on Cuba, led by people like Barbara Lee, just wrote a response to the administration, says that this [travel ban] undermines the efforts to “bring democracy” to Cuba. So that means there’s a bipartisan consensus that Cuba is not democratic. And then there’s the assumption that democracy is synonymous with capitalism.
And these are all assumptions. The Obama administration’s, I guess you would say, objective, regardless of the normalizing-of-relations policy, was to overwhelm Cuba with capitalist ventures and those kind of things, and also visits to the island with the intent to say that—and this is also in the bipartisan Working Group’s response—the US citizens are the best “ambassadors” to Cuba, the assumption being that Cuba will change if we just bring more visits, more programs that are US-based, and those kind of things. But the regime change objective remains the same.
The difference is the Trump administration, through John Bolton and Pompeo and all these different forces, is more shamelessly colonialist, more shamelessly implementing of the Monroe Doctrine. It doesn’t really care about the truth that is missing from their assertion that Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua constitute some “troika of tyranny,” when, in fact, it’s actually the US that constitutes, with the EU and NATO, an axis of domination that wants to crush all radical independent states that want to chart their own path, and want to exercise self-determination.
JJ: That narrow range of debate among politicians, I think, is reflected in the press as well. You see opposition to sanctions like this ban, but it seems to be, as a columnist had it on CNN, things like, “It is true that the Cuban government oppresses its people and deprives them of many freedoms, while helping to prop up the malevolent Venezuelan regime,” but sanctions are the wrong stick to use to make them better. Or we read, sanctions will push Cuba into the arms of Russia and China.
And you have to wonder, is this really the best we can do as a critique of the policies? And I would just say, they do take the US, and long have taken the US, out of step with the international community, haven’t they, with regard to Cuba?
NF: Oh, yes. And that’s one thing that media fail a lot on doing, in terms of, you mentioned the international community: Every year, Cuba introduces a resolution to the United Nations condemning the embargo, and asking for it to be lifted or demanding that it be lifted. And every year, overwhelmingly, all of the countries of the world vote in favor of this resolution, the exceptions only being Israel and the US. Sometimes there’s a third country, that is usually under the domination of the United States, that will also go along with it; but it’s always only three. And right now, just last year, was 189 countries against the two countries that voted against this.
Not to mention that polls in the United States show a favorable…. US people, like by 75 percent, think that the relations between the two countries should be normalized, that the blockade—many of us call it a blockade, because of its pervasiveness—but that the embargo or the blockade should be lifted, regardless of whatever else they think about the country. So yeah, this is completely out-of-step.
And then also what media really don’t do is make any kind of contrast/comparison between US policy toward Cuba, and their policy towards countries like Honduras or Haiti or Israel or Saudi Arabia, which obviously are repressive.
In fact, in Honduras, they’re about to recognize, 10 years after a US-orchestrated, -imposed government, where they helped depose the democratically elected president there, and now the country is facing serious repression, privatization of things, all sort of oppression. And the United States has nothing to say about those kind of things.
JJ: It’s very frustrating to hear even leftists say, “Of course, I have a principled objection to US-imposed coups or punitive actions by the US, but I’m not going to voice it now because, you know, that country has some real problems.” I’m guessing that Cubans know that they have problems, and things they want to deal with in their society, and to the extent that they are working on things to improve their society, aren’t there real ways that people in other countries could show solidarity?
NF: Yeah, there are real ways. I think one of the real ways is to look at some of the basic principles of sovereignty or human rights that have been laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And the UN Charter, it talks about countries’ rights to self-determination. You know, it’s like the pot calling the kettle black for the United States, that has no real moral authority, to talk about freedoms, or to impose its concept of how another country should be. But countries deserve the right even to make their own mistakes.
A lot of media operate almost like they’re the fourth branch of the United States government, in terms of peddling misinformation, when you can’t tell the distinction between the misinformation and what is actually happening in countries. So when people have reservations about how countries really are facing whatever problem it is, they have to acknowledge US policy that also includes misinformation about that country. And so they have to know how to distinguish between those things. And the media really have responsibility to do this. For example, the Trump administration keeps saying that Cuba has 20,000 security forces in Venezuela, and this is completely false. But we don’t really hear the US media talking about the fact that the administration is saying this, and then countering it with some facts.
JJ: One of the things most obviously missing from US media coverage of Cuba is Cubans, and the voice of actual Cubans. We virtually never hear from them. We hear from Cuban-Americans, but not Cubans themselves. And I just wonder, I know you’re not trying to speak for them, but what would be some of the information that, if we had that voice of Cuban citizens in our media dialogue, how would that change things?
NF: Oh, it would change things tremendously. Cubans are very informed people, because of the universal education; they’re just very well read, they know about things around the world. And they can articulate why the blockade and why US policy has harmed their country, in terms of the monies and those kind of things, in terms of the cost to the Cuban economy. And they also make a distinction, which is very interesting, politically sophisticated, between the US people and the US government. So they talk about wanting friendship and exchanges with US people, people in the United States, and they make they sure, they always seem to understand, that the US policies by the government aren’t a reflection of US people.
Also, Cubans are not averse to talking about the problems they have with their own country. They can talk about what the issues are, and they don’t hesitate to do it. We hear propaganda that makes it seem like people are scared to speak, but no, they are very, very talkative people when it comes to sharing criticisms, even about Cuba itself. And we can see those things, and then know how to tell the difference between those things and the propaganda that we hear against the country. So they can articulate these things very well. And I think if we had some more voices in the media, it would just prove how illicit the policies are.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Netfa Freeman of the Institute for Policy Studies. You can find their work on Cuba and a range of other issues on their website, IPS-dc.org. Netfa Freeman, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
NF: Thank you.
The New York Times’ 2,400+ word report (6/3/19) by Julie Bosman, Julie Turkewitz and Timothy Williams on the historic flooding in the Midwest—amidst the wettest 12 months ever since recording began 124 years ago—is an illustrative example of how not to do disaster coverage.
Recalling the Great Flood of 1993 and focusing on the four inundated towns of Davenport, Iowa; Valmeyer and Prairie du Rocher, Illinois; and Clarksville, Missouri, along the Mississippi River, the Times provided yet another example of a major news outlet covering the catastrophic effects of the ongoing climate crisis without ever mentioning that crisis—among other human contributions to the disaster that go unacknowledged—leading readers to think that there are no solutions to mitigate or prevent these disasters (FAIR.org, 1/18/13).
One could be forgiven for coming away from the New York Times report that “relentless floods” just happen as isolated occurrences, and that there’s just not that much we can do about it.
The Times mentioned that the 2019 deluge is “reviving painful memories of the Great Flood,” and that the “consequences of the decisions made in the aftermath of 1993” have “suddenly come back,” but when it explained those decisions, it mostly confined them to the local level, without setting them in the context of other important decisions made at the state and federal level.
The Times treated Valmeyer as an exemplar on how to respond to disasters, as “experts in flood management” hailed Valmeyer as a “case study,” and cited Mayor Howard Heavner claiming that Valmeyer is proof that “you can do everything right and the community can still be in danger.”
But when one reads closely on what Valmeyer did to be such a role model, one discovers that people essentially just moved away from the river, as a resigned Heavner said: “You can only position yourself so there is the least amount of loss.” Apparently, the only flaw in their otherwise flawless response is that “not everyone moved.”
The Times’ previous reporting (1/6/16) on Valmeyer’s response to flooding noted that “nearly everyone” who moved to what’s called New Valmeyer agreed that “they had no choice.” So why would people “choose” to stay behind in a mostly uninhabitable and hazardous location?
The current report hints at an answer from the only other source cited to explain this, Heavner’s own father Robert, but doesn’t expand on its significance, instead framing his being too poor to move as a personal choice or failing. It quotes him as saying that staying in the bottom area was “the most economical way to do what I did,” with his son the mayor claiming that he couldn’t force poor people to leave because they “chose their own path.”
This is consistent with FAIR’s previous findings (Extra!, 8/07; FAIR.org, 9/1/17) on how corporate media marginalize the poor, who often stay behind in hazardous areas because they have no place to go and no means to leave, in their coverage of disasters.
In Clarksville, the Times uncritically mentioned that Clarksville depended on a “dwindling set of volunteers” from the Americorps, National Guard, prisoners and the elderly to build “monumental sandbag walls,” and noted the paltry number of volunteers Clarksville has in 2019, compared with the 2,000-some volunteers it had in 1993.
In Prairie du Rocher, the Times detailed how local officials took a “desperate gamble” in defying the advice of the Army Corps of Engineers in 1993 when they blasted and dug up holes in the levee above town to divert the flow away from the community’s center. They plan on doing the same this year, except that they “hope” to “blast the levee at a higher point.” Local levee commissioner Steve Gonzalez also wants to convince the federal government to incorporate the town into a national park, to “make Washington responsible for fortifying the community from floods.” If such plans fail, continual increases to the cost of the government subsidized National Flood Insurance Program run by FEMA and Washington’s further plans to raise premiums on those policies might “be the final nail in the coffin” for Prairie du Rocher.
Several questions could’ve been asked here: Why should Clarksville depend on a “dwindling” number of volunteers to deal with flooding? Why do local officials in Prairie du Rocher have to make “desperate gambles,” or plot to convince the federal government to take responsibility for the town’s safety?
The Times doesn’t discuss how the federal government’s refusal to adequately fund disaster infrastructure and management programs—in order to pay for continuous tax cuts for the rich and corporations—leave the country unnecessarily vulnerable to disasters. Nor does it discuss the Trump administration’s FEMA leaving out climate change in its strategic planning for disaster response, or failing levee systems consisting mainly of makeshift soil barriers, instead of the kind of modern water-diverting infrastructure in place in a country like the Netherlands, because the federal government refuses to appropriate funds to the few flood projects it authorizes, when it doesn’t reject them altogether (Roll Call, 6/13/18; The Hill, 4/5/19).
ProPublica (8/6/18) found that the cost-benefit calculations used by the Army Corps of Engineers to prioritize its scarce resources are essentially formulas to justify devastating poorer towns, like the ones in the Times’ report, as it pursues levee systems that protect the most high-value land at the cost of intensifying the flooding for others nearby, by cutting off a river’s ability to spread over the floodplain. This would partially explain why Midwest towns like Valmeyer, Clarksville and Prairie du Rocher are flooded as much as they are.
Even when cities like Davenport pursued praiseworthy alternatives to levees, like buying out land on the floodplain to embrace the river—which was successful from 1993 until 2019—the Times failed to link the floods overwhelming the city with a changing climate. This is the most glaring omission in the lengthy report’s failure to ever mention the worsening climate crisis, along with its neglecting to cite any climate scientist.
Of course, as FAIR’s Jim Naureckas (7/2/12) has pointed out, asking whether the climate crisis caused the flooding is a failure to understand the conceptual distinction between weather phenomena like droughts, floods and unremarkable days, and the climate. All weather events now take place within a changing climate, which will affect the severity and likelihood of these events, as climate scientists are projecting that floods—which are already the most frequent and costliest natural disaster—will become more frequent and powerful, with current and future devastating effects on essential activities like growing crops (Wired, 5/24/19).
While other outlets like Common Dreams (6/4/19) had no problem making the connection, this is also in contradiction with previous reporting in the Times (11/19/18), which warned of projections that increased flooding and other climate-fueled disasters would resemble a “terror movie that is real.” Ironically, just last month, the Times (5/15/19) carried a story about the aversion of leaders in places like Davenport and Clarksville to talking about the impacts of the climate crisis—headlined, “In Flood-Hit Midwest, Mayors See Climate Change as a Subject Best Avoided.” Apparently some Times reporters see it the same way.
Featured image: New York Times depiction of flooding in Valmeyer, Illinois. (Photo: Hilary Swift/New York Times)
‘It’s Seen by Indigenous Activists as a Template for Similar Confrontations Around the Globe’ - CounterSpin interview with Reynard Loki on indigenous oil victory
Janine Jackson interviewed Reynard Loki about an indigenous environmental victory in Ecuador for the June 7, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
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Janine Jackson: The story was brief but compelling: The indigenous Waorani in Ecuador were fighting to keep the government from auctioning off their land, and with it their lives and culture, to oil companies, and were actually being heard in court. A Waorani leader is cited, saying: “Our fight is not just a fight about oil. This is a fight about different ways of living, one that protects life and one that destroys life.”
Why didn’t I see what looks like a Reuters wire piece picked up in a major daily?, you might wonder. Then you see the tag at the bottom that explains that the article is from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, described as the “charitable arm” of Thomson Reuters, that covers “humanitarian news.” In other words, the fight over whether extractive industry is permitted to erase and endanger communities, as part of the despoiling of the region known as the lungs of the planet, is news—but not news news.
Joining us now to talk about a case that in reality brings together some of the most important questions of the day is Reynard Loki, editor and chief correspondent of the Earth | Food | Life project of the Independent Media Institute. He joins us now by phone from here in town. Welcome to CounterSpin, Reynard Loki.
Reynard Loki: Thanks for having me, Janine.
JJ: As you report in your recent article on this, which I first saw on Common Dreams, the fight between indigenous communities and oil companies in Ecuador has been going on for many years now. But this April 26 court ruling, and recent demonstrations in support of it, have reference to particular actions by Ecuador, going back to 2012. Can you just walk us through what the April ruling said, and some of the context in which it came?
RL: The April 26 ruling was by a three-judge panel in the Pastaza territory, which is where the Waorani people live, along with several other indigenous people. The Waorani actually sued three government bodies in Ecuador earlier this year—the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources, the secretary of Hydrocarbons and the Ministry of Environment—for basically undertaking what they claimed, successfully, were faulty consultations with their community, back in 2012, before the government listed their land for sale in an international oil auction.
Those consultations were held because the Ecuadorian constitution requires that indigenous people are given free, prior, informed consultation regarding plans or programs for prospecting and marketing non-renewable resources located on their land, which could have a cultural or environmental impact on them.
And the judges ruled that those consultations were improper; they were done in bad faith, they failed to properly inform the Waorani of the risks and impacts of the government’s plans to auction off their territory, and really didn’t take into consideration at all the different kinds of cultures and traditional decision-making methods that the Waorani and other indigenous people have, versus the Ecuadorian government’s version.
Basically, the auctioning off of those lots is indefinitely disrupted. However, it is a bit tentative, because I just heard today, actually, somebody at Amazon Frontlines, a nonprofit group in Ecuador that is working with the indigenous population there, that the appeal date has been set for July 1. So if this landmark ruling—and it is a landmark ruling, make no mistake—does hold up to appeal, then there will be a big celebration in Ecuador, and around the world, for those who support indigenous rights and the environment.
JJ: Let me just ask you about that consultation process. The Ecuadorian constitution, as you say, says that indigenous communities have a right to free, prior, informed consultation. And the ruling didn’t say just that the state didn’t, and oil companies didn’t, consult with Waorani, but that they sort of “fake consulted,” they sort of pretended to honor that responsibility, but then they didn’t, really.
But I just want to ask you, not even cynically, one would want to ask: Well, does “consultation,” even though it sounds very good, does it include the right to say no? Are we talking about preserving the right to consult, or preserving the right to oppose environmental destruction?
RL: That’s a great question. I think the answer to that question is going to be found out in the appeals process.
It is a bit vague-sounding in the constitution, it really just gives “free, prior and informed consultation,” known as FPIC, within a reasonable period of time. But if they can prove that the government plans for prospecting and marketing renewable resources that are located on their land, do have an environmental and cultural impact on them, it would probably run afoul of that piece of the constitution.
But your listeners may also be aware that Ecuador is very unique in the sense that they have now, since 2008 when they rewrote their constitution, they became the first country to recognize the rights of nature, constitutionally.
So really, they are, on one hand, on the cutting edge of protecting nature, nature rights, environmental conservation, constitutionally based. So that part has not been considered yet, to my knowledge, in the courts, but that could be a constitutional crisis on two fronts—not just the free, prior, informed consultation angle, but also the fact that it would be running afoul of protecting nature, and the rights of nature chapter in the constitution acknowledges that nature and all of its life forms has the right to persist and maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.
Oil production clearly does not allow for that, as we’ve seen in Ecuador, where oil has been being drilled since at least the late ’60s, when Texaco struck oil in the northeastern province there, but also in Peru, where studies have shown that oil production has led to dramatic and potentially permanent changes in the chemistry of the waters of the Amazon River.
So there are two constitutional frontiers within Ecuador, when it comes to trying to get oil from the ground. But there are also two other laws, there are international laws, that the lawyers for the Waorani and the other indigenous people could call upon. One is Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization, which was ratified by Ecuador in 1998, and the other is the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People, which was adopted by Ecuador in 2007. Both of those agreements require signatories to consult with this indigenous population properly before touching their land.
JJ: It’s so fascinating, because in some ways, Ecuador is very special, the fact that you can have the environment named as a defendant in a court proceeding. And yet it’s cutting-edge. It’s not just unique; it’s kind of where the world is going, one would hope, in some ways. So I guess I would say, even though Ecuador is a special context, this still could be a meaningful precedent.
RL: Well, yeah, this could be a meaningful precedent, not only for Ecuador, but because this type of argument now can be used in this particular court case, it’s being seen by indigenous activists as a template that can be used in similar confrontations around the globe.
JJ: There was a piece in the New Yorker by Rachel Riederer, but in general, US corporate media had crickets on this story that is so important. Independent, smaller, noncommercial media was really where it’s at, despite the high-profile palaver we hear from elite media about climate disruption.
And for myself, I think it’s partly because, not to put too fine a point on it, the climate of corporate media is one in which indigenous people who can end a court proceeding by singing, as the Waorani have done, are ultimately an unserious anachronism. And corporations getting what they want is, in this climate, an ultimately benign inevitability.
And I would say that the changes needed to protect the Waorani, to protect the Amazon, to protect the planet and all of us—they’re also changes about what stories we tell right and who we listen to.
RL: Yeah, that’s a great point you bring up, Janine, and obviously something that your organization FAIR is obviously on the cutting edge of reporting on.
And I’m sure you probably have seen the recent Nation article about why the New York Times and the Washington Post are producing “native advertising”—and that phrase is so crazy to me, because of the double entendre with the word “native”—because that is really advertorials for big oil that the New York Times and the Washington Post are producing. Obviously, you can’t get those big news organizations to cover stuff when they are clearly in bed with the oil majors.
JJ: Right. I think there’s also a matter of perspective; I can hear people saying: “Ecuador is a small country, they should get to stand toe-to-toe with other oil-producing countries. They ought to get the power of their resources.”
And so you have to angle it differently, and say: “Well, when we say ‘Ecuador,’ who are we talking about? How are those resources and the riches from them, if you will, distributed?” It all kind of depends which way you slice it, I think, if you’re trying to tell the story.
RL: Yeah, and if you’re talking about Ecuador’s resources, we should not forget that Ecuador is one of five Andean nations, including Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, that together represent nearly a fourth of the planet’s total biodiversity. In fact, the Galápagos Islands, which is on Ecuadorian territory, has the densest biodiversity on Earth.
So that’s a resource that Ecuador has that most nations around the planet do not have. And something that I would tell President Lenín Moreno, who has been really pushing aggressively for oil production in his country—mind you, he did sign the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, but then the following year, he was really pushing private/public partnerships to develop oil and mining—but biodiversity, the biodiversity in Ecuador, is a tourist draw. So that is something that if they can develop a sustainable, eco-friendly tourism platform that expands on their tourism, I think they could lean on that.
JJ: It’s just a matter of choices. If you’re writing to readers in Wisconsin, if you’re writing to readers in New York, if you’re writing to readers anywhere, there’s no need to present this fight between the Waorani and oil companies in Ecuador as if it’s a local or a very specific or particular story; it really is about everybody.
RL: That is a central point, Janine; I’m glad you brought that up, because it really is more than a local issue, it’s more than a regional issue. It really is a global issue. If you believe your life is touched by climate change and the loss of biodiversity on the planet, then this is an issue that should be central to you. It’s frustrating and sad that the major news organizations will not cover something that is so important, that should be on the front page.
JJ: Right. Well, let me just say, finally, you make clear in your piece that the fight is not over; you’ve just announced that the government has already said they’re going forward with the appeal, and have a date for it.
But we also know from other situations that sometimes just holding up deals can be meaningful; investors can get squirrelly, and it can change the dynamic of things. So I don’t want us to undersell the meaningfulness, no matter what happens, of the stay, anyway, that the Waorani people won in this provincial court in Ecuador.
RL: Absolutely. One hundred percent agreed.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with artist-journalist Reynard Loki. He’s editor and chief correspondent of Earth | Food | Life; that’s a project of the Independent Media Institute. Reynard Loki, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
RL: Thank you, Janine.
by Justin Anderson
Another day, another internal debate at YouTube about whether it will enforce its own content policies. And yet again, YouTube’s decision seems to solidify that the video platform will continue to be a welcoming home for channels that promote hate speech and harassment, and serve as a conduit for laundering far-right ideology—as long as those channels continue to make YouTube money.
Carlos Maza, host of the Vox online video show Strikethrough, published a tweet thread on June 4 detailing the online harassment he has received as a result of a campaign against him by right-wing pundit and comedian Steven Crowder. Crowder has repeatedly used anti-gay rhetoric to attack Maza, calling him a “lispy queer,” an “angry little queer” and “Mr. Gay Vox,” among other insults. He frequently refers to Maza’s ethnicity, calling him a “gay Mexican” or a “gay Latino from Vox.”
Since I started working at Vox, Steven Crowder has been making video after video “debunking” Strikethrough. Every single video has included repeated, overt attacks on my sexual orientation and ethnicity. Here’s a sample: pic.twitter.com/UReCcQ2Elj
— Carlos Maza (@gaywonk) May 31, 2019
Crowder, a former Fox News contributor, is perhaps best known for his “change my mind” meme, where he attempts to debate college students over issues like how many genders there are. His YouTube show centers around rants, pranks and sketches designed to shock or “trigger” the usual targets of right-wing anger, like feminists, gays, immigrants and “social justice warriors.” Crowder has a history of using racial slurs in his comedy, and also sells T-shirts on his YouTube page and website that declare “Socialism Is for F*gs.” (He coyly maintains that the word in question is “figs.”)
Multiple studies of YouTube’s algorithm have placed Crowder firmly within the same crowd of conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and outright Nazis on the website, all of whom network with one another through interviews and promotion, exploiting the algorithm and autoplay functions built into the website in order to increase their views and subscriptions.
While Crowder might not be as extreme as some of his contemporaries, the so-called Intellectual Dark Web and the far-right anti-SJW cadre aren’t some small subculture tucked away deep in the Internet’s basement; they are massively popular and major money makers for YouTube, whose business model is based around selling advertisements. Crowder alone has almost 4 million subscribers, and many of his videos amass tens of millions of views.
In response to Maza’s thread, YouTube reviewed Crowder’s statements in his videos and “found language that was clearly hurtful.” However, the company maintained that Crowder’s videos did not violate their website’s content policy. Never mind that the torrent of hate Maza has documented from both Crowder and his millions of fans violates YouTube’s rules against harassment. Crowder’s videos targeting Maza’s sexual orientation and ethnicity clearly violate the platform’s rules against hateful content as well.
According to Gizmodo (6/5/19), who reached out to YouTube parent company Google, the website maintains that it focused on whether the videos were centered “primarily on debating the opinions expressed,” or whether the videos were “solely malicious”—as though slurs embedded in a coherent far-right ideology are preferable to ones uttered at random.
Obsession with “debate” is a constant fixture of the online right. Crowder and contemporaries like Ben Shapiro relish in constantly calling for debates with their ideological opponents, using debate as a mask for their own interest in trolling, harassing and employing slurs against their targets. When their opponents refuse these clearly bad-faith challenges, the right decry the left’s supposed lack of “logic,” “reason” and “rationality.” (Strikingly, when these right-wingers actually do get challenged to real debates, they either refuse or embarrass themselves; when they aren’t arguing with 18-year-old college freshmen, they don’t tend to do so well.)
According to Maza, when he was doxxed last year, he was greeted with an endless stream of texts calling for him to “debate” Crowder. But because Crowder didn’t explicitly instruct his followers to harass or doxx Maza, YouTube decided that Crowder was not in violation. As Maza noted to Vox (6/5/19), “a policy that says that all you need to do to get away with hate speech on the platform is to mix it with something else is an instruction manual to monsters who want to figure out a way to target people based on identity.”
YouTube’s refusal to seriously address Maza’s complaints exposes the platform’s avowed support for the LGBT community as nothing but hollow branding. Like many companies, YouTube and Google have heavily integrated Pride Month and LGBT themes as marketing tools. YouTube’s own spotlight homepage currently displays the company logo in rainbow colors, with the backing of a LGBT mural. All of YouTube’s other official social media accounts use the same branding. The top promotion on the YouTube spotlight homepage is a playlist celebrating Pride. The company also created a Pride documentary commemorating gay liberation struggles, and plans to release two more during the month.
There is clearly a fundamental disconnect between the inclusive PR-shaped image that YouTube seeks to promote, and the tolerance for homophobia of its actual content policies in practice. Here is a member of the LGBT community clearly being harassed based on their sexual orientation and race, while the supposedly progressive platform for the harassment throws up its hands, saying that there’s nothing it can do. This sort of “pinkwashing” is the norm within companies that profess to support LGBT rights. However, YouTube’s hypocrisy is much more visible, considering the leeway they give creators who are hostile to the LGBT communities, immigrants and people of color generally.
YouTube’s business model is about empowering creators who attract eyeballs, no matter what content those creators publish. It’s why it took them years to kick the massively popular conspiracy theorist Alex Jones off the platform. And it’s why YouTube has long been a conduit for conspiracy theories, far-right reactionary ideology, white supremacy and Nazism.
Following a day’s worth of online backlash to their handling of the Maza/Crowder affair, YouTube declared that it would “demonetize” Crowder’s channel, a sanction that it has previously imposed on numerous LGBT channels. (“I’ve done multiple tests in proving that the word ‘transgender’ on my channels has demonetized my videos,” trans YouTuber Chase Ross complains—The Verge, 6/4/18.) However, this decision amounts to a mere slap on the wrist: All of Crowder’s videos remain up, they just won’t get promoted, or make money through YouTube’s AdSense network, until he removes links to his web store that sells the “Socialism is for F*gs” t-shirts. Crowder appears to have met these incredibly lax terms, but followed up by publishing a half-hearted apology video where he maintained that he is not in violation of YouTube’s content policy, and continued to promote his T-shirts—via his website rather than YouTube. In response to the affair, Crowder’s followers have since took to selling T-shirts declaring “Carlos Maza is a F*g.”
Along with Crowder’s demonetization, YouTube announced that it was finally banning content that promotes white supremacy. However, YouTube did not specify which white supremacist accounts had been banned. At first glance, numerous white supremacist accounts, such as Red Ice, American Renaissance and Identity Evropa, along with Charlottesville marchers James Allsup and Nick Fuentes, are still active on the platform. While some of these channels have been demonetized, their continued existence on the site signal that YouTube is ultimately OK with keeping this sort of content on their site. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that most of the accounts that were actually banned were smaller channels with mere handfuls of subscribers.
As an addendum to the white supremacist bans, YouTube’s Chris Dale put out a blog post saying that the platform would take a look at its content policies, and potentially update policies on harassment and hateful content. However, Dale said he was reluctant to ban speech that YouTube considered to be “borderline,” noting that if YouTube “were to take all potentially offensive content down, we’d be losing valuable speech.” “Valuable,” apparently, being the operative word here.
YouTube is not taking a free speech absolutist position, yet it still accords users the right to stir up hatred against a “lispy,” “angry little queer” among millions of followers. Regardless of what YouTube chooses to do about its content management in the future, the white supremacist ban and Crowder’s demonetization have given fuel to the right’s constant paranoid refrain that social media sites like YouTube and Facebook are biased against them.
Crowder, along with scores of other right wingers like Tim Pool and Dave Rubin (who misleadingly labels himself a “classical liberal”), would post videos lamenting “censorship” and a “crackdown” against free speech by YouTube. Popular commentators like Joe Rogan, whose show has hosted numerous members of the alt-right and the Dark Web, equated Crowder’s homophobic content to videos of left-wing figures debunking right-wing videos. As a guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show (2/6/19), free speech advocate and Intercept editor Glenn Greenwald confoundingly called Maza “powerful” and Crowder “marginalized.”
In the midst of Crowder’s demonetization and the bans of racist extremists, YouTube, likely on accident, demonetized or banned a number of channels that were not white supremacists or Nazis, but actually ones that document them. These casualties include News2Share‘s Ford Fischer, who extracts clips from the far right to document extremism, and filmmaker and history teacher Mr. Allsop, who uses World War II–era Nazi footage as a teaching tool.
Following the unintended demonetization of Fischer, Allsop and others, the right instantly seized on YouTube’s mistakes, circulating the hashtag #VoxAdpocolypse and accusing Maza of leading a coordinated campaign to silence journalists, citing his support for deplatforming Nazis and throwing milkshakes at members of the far right. Commenters on 4Chan continued to spread blatant lies about Maza, while others dug through his tweets for potentially damning comments, taking many out of context.
There will always be issues with giving multi-billion-dollar tech companies like Google the power and responsibility of policing online discourse, especially when deplatforming tactics intended for the far right are frequently turned against the left. But YouTube, as a private company, has terms of service that clearly bar harassment and the promotion of hatred based on sexual orientation, ethnicity and other identities—yet it allows homophobic slurs to be continually directed against an individual, so long as that target’s ideas are ridiculed along with his identity.
Clearly, YouTube’s content regulation policy is in practice arbitrary, or at the very least not enforceable to the standards that they currently publish on their website. Under this system, whichever way YouTube decides to enforce its content policy on any given day will always piss someone off. More often than not, however, YouTube sides with the creators who drive the most views and engagement, and thus make it the most money. Right now, the platform is too afraid to upset their money-making machine—that is, the content mill of far-right reactionary ideology that brings in tens of millions of views.
As Maza himself said, Crowder isn’t necessarily the problem. There will always be homophobes, racists and bigots in the world. But YouTube gives them an outsized voice and the ability to reach millions of followers, not just by hosting the videos but by steering audiences to them via its system of recommendations.
As long as YouTube continues to adhere to an advertising-based business model that rewards harassment and hate in its recommendation algorithms, high earning bullies like Crowder shouldn’t have much to fear. The same can’t be said about vulnerable members of the LGBT community that YouTube supposedly cares about.
Featured image: Steven Crowder marketing his coyly homophobic T-shirt.
When it comes to North Korea, stories are often too bad to be true.
The country has been in the news of late, as ongoing negotiations between the Trump and Kim Jong-un administrations appear to have soured. The chief casualty of this diplomatic failure, the New York Times (5/31/19) breathlessly reported, was Kim Jong-un’s negotiating team, with the vice chair of the North Korean Workers’ Party, Kim Yong-chol, being sent to a forced labor camp in “the latest example of how a senior North Korean official’s political fortune is made or broken at the whims of Kim Jong-un.”
Other outlets went further; Bloomberg (5/30/19) and Fox News (5/31/19) claimed Kim Jong-un had executed five top envoys for their failure, while Reuters (5/31/19) reported that a Korean interpreter had been locked up in a prison camp for a mistranslation, as part of what CNBC (5/30/19) called “a massive purge to divert attention away from internal turmoil and discontent.”
The story, based solely on an unverified claim from conservative South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, which has a history of printing highly inflammatory and even fake stories on the North, was picked up across the press, including by the Wall Street Journal (5/31/19), Time (5/31/19) and ABC News (5/31/19). There was one problem: Kim Yong-chol appeared only a few days later at a high profile art performance alongside Kim Jong-un.
This is far from the first time corporate media have been caught printing fake news about the country based on highly questionable sources. For example, it was widely reported (CNBC, 8/29/13; LA Times, 8/29/13; Business Insider, 8/29/13) that popular Korean singer and reputed former lover of Kim Jong-un, Hyon Song-wol, was executed in a “hail of machine gun fire while members of her orchestra looked on,” according to the same Chosun Ilbo—only for her to later appear in numerous public places, including at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Three years later, media were awash with supposedly factual reports that Gen. Ri Yong-gil (the officer President Trump awkwardly saluted in 2018) had been dramatically executed (e.g., Guardian, 2/10/16; Washington Times, 2/10/16), as part of a “brutal consolidation of power” (CNN, 2/10/16), only for him to turn up at a party congress. Even in its story about the miraculous resurrection, CNN (5/10/16) returned for more “expert” analysis to the same anonymous South Korean official who fed them fake news in the first place. This time, he repeated a highly dubious assertion that another general, Hyong Yong-chol, had been executed with an anti-aircraft gun, an accusation based on South Korean spies who the Washington Post (5/12/15) admitted were “as wrong as often as they are right” even as they passed along their claims anyway. (See FAIR.org, 5/13/15.)
North Korea is also a favorite location for wacky and easily disprovable stories. The BBC (3/28/14) originally reported that all men were required to wear their hair like Kim Jong-un, with other haircuts banned. Watching any video featuring North Korean officials would show this was untrue. Meanwhile many outlets (Fox News, 9/8/16; Daily Telegraph, 9/8/16; London Independent, 9/8/16) claimed the country had “banned sarcasm.”
Many of these stories are written by experts who appear to either display an astonishing lack of knowledge about the country or be engaged in active disinformation. The Washington Post’s Korea specialist claimed that tall buildings and electricity are “unknown” in North Korea (a cursory Google image search for “Pyongyang” would disprove this), while other journalists, such as Andrea Chalupa, believe that North Koreans are taught Australia and Africa don’t exist. Ironically, Chalupa styles herself an expert on George Orwell’s work.
Adam Johnson puts forward the theory of the “North Korea Law of Journalism,” where editorial standards and quality of reporting on a country are inversely proportional to its relationship with the US (FAIR.org, 7/6/17). Friendly countries are reported on favorably, whereas anything goes with enemy states like Venezuela, Iran or North Korea. FAIR has also documented how the threat the country with an economy less than one-thousandth the size of the US poses to us is consistently overemphasized (FAIR.org, 1/6/16, 3/22/17, 5/9/17).
Stories about the secretive nation are disproportionately based on accounts from biased sources with a clear incentive to lie, such as South Korean intelligence or media like Radio Free Asia, a US government-funded propaganda outlet created by an act of Congress. Added to this are the testimonies from North Korean defectors who are paid in cash for interviews, which the poor, jobless and isolated defectors themselves complain forces them to exaggerate their stories and reproduce certain narratives that journalists ask for.
Nor do journalists have incentive to report more neutrally or factually about Korea. Articles from the other side of the world that do not grab attention will not be commissioned by editors. Blood and guts sell, meaning the most alarmist stories are encouraged, and those offering them will go further in the business.
Errors in factual reporting that would lead to censure, dismissal or perhaps even worse if reporting on domestic affairs, or events in friendly nations, are forgiven, or even perversely incentivized, when writing stories about official enemies. (Governments typically discipline reporters by controlling access to official leaks, but these are of little value when they come from enemy states.)
In contrast, even factually reporting on the crimes of the US state or official allies is not an advisable career move, as seen by the treatment of whistleblowers, or publishers like Julian Assange. Such is the upside-down world of corporate journalism on enemy nations.
Featured image: Screenshot from a CNN report (5/10/16) on an “executed” North Korean official attending a party conference.
by Xavier Best
When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s harrowing retelling for Netflix of the false conviction of the five New York youths who became nationally known as the Central Park Five, has reignited discussions about race, stereotypes and how America’s penal system has historically brutalized black people under the banner of “criminal justice.”
Yet this conversation would be incomplete without a serious reckoning with corporate media’s role in fanning the flames of racist hysteria and misinformation, which condemned these innocent youth—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise—as guilty in the court of public opinion long before the official verdict was handed down. “The press response to this, and the press failure around this case, is something really important to interrogate,” DuVernay told The Root (5/28/19).
While the highly publicized antics of Donald Trump and the coldhearted manipulation of lead investigator Linda Fairstein have received a great deal of condemnation, less attention has been paid to how prominent media outlets, like the New York Times and the New York Daily News, fell in lockstep with the myth of five deranged black youths randomly attacking white cyclists and joggers in Central Park.
Take, for example, a Times article written by David E. Pitt (4/25/89). Under the headline “Gang Attack: Unusual for Its Viciousness,” Pitt indulged all of the now disproven cliches that accompanied the public vilification of the five young men, including the media buzzword of “wilding” and the reference to the brutal rape of Trisha Meilia—in a phrase borrowed from New York prosecutor Peter Reinharz—as a “wolf-pack attack.”
Aside from disregarding the elementary fact that it had yet to be established that the rape was carried out by more than one person (DNA testing later found evidence of only one rapist), the use of the “wolf pack” label to describe a rape allegedly carried out by black youth was disturbingly consistent with the general trend of dehumanization that prevailed in mainstream discussion of the five defendants.
Some of the most flagrant examples of this brand of dehumanization occurred in the pages of the Daily News, which ran fear-mongering headlines like “Marauding Packs Have Run of the City” (4/25/89). News writers Adam Nagourney (who now writes for the Times) and David J. Krajicek exemplified this mood, writing:
Bands of marauding teenagers similar to the one that ran wild in Central Park last week are creating pockets of anarchy in the city by taking over subway trains …. Cops call them wolf packs; merchants call them rat packs. A social worker says they rampage because “there are no more rules.”
These alarmist portrayals of young people of color, often accompanied by highly dubious psychiatric diagnoses of the teens as uniquely remorseless and cruel, helped to create a climate of mass panic that ensured once the suspects were punished, there would be no serious reflection on the ethical, moral or legal reasoning that informed judicial decision-making.
Tragically, this absence of reflection is more the rule than the exception in current media treatment of the case. Although these outlets ran numerous propagandistic and highly misleading stories—neglecting even to use the word “alleged” to describe the accused in 95 percent of news articles—barely any instances of contrition can be found today.
One exception is an article by New York Times journalist Jim Dwyer (5/30/19), who accepts personal accountability, wishing he “had been more skeptical,” and “had shouted, rather than mumbled, the doubts [he] did express.” Interestingly, he notes in the next sentence:
The enormity of what went wrong was first revealed to a broad audience in a 2012 documentary, Central Park Five, by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns.
This was a full ten years after the sentences against the five exonerees were vacated in 2002, thanks to DNA evidence revealing the crime to have been committed by serial rapist Matias Reyes, but the “enormity of what went wrong”—namely, the public persecution and false imprisonment of five teens for 6 to 13 years—didn’t dawn on him until a filmmaker made a documentary about it? Go figure.
And where the New York Times is halfhearted in regret, the New York Daily News is wholly unapologetic in its disregard for basic journalistic integrity. Reviewing When They See Us, Daily News writer Kate Feldman (5/31/19) criticizes the “black-and-white version of the Central Park Five case,” and calls attention to “details DuVernay glosses over,” specifically the fact that some believe “the teens should have been exonerated for the rape, but not other beatings and muggings that occurred that night.”
DuVernay’s refusal to engage with this idea that the five teens may have been violent muggers despite not being rapists prompts Feldman to conclude, “More important than the facts is the idea that the facts no longer matter.” It is the height of irony that a writer for a publication that regularly trafficked in the worst forms of counterfactual, anti-black racism during this period has more to say about the artistic choices of a filmmaker than the real-life decisions of her editors, or the systems of authority to which these editors often subordinate themselves.
While individual gestures of accountability are certainly welcome, no meaningful reconciliation for the trauma inflicted on these youths and their communities at the hands of the most respected media outlets can be achieved until there is a recognition of the systemic character of the misrepresentations that paved the way for many other young black people like them to enter the penitentiary. This would mean official statements from the New York Times board of editors pointing out the errors in judgement they participated in, and, more importantly, steps being taken today to ensure those moral failures are not repeated. Anything less would be a disservice to McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana and Wise, their families, and the countless others who strive every day for a more just and equitable culture of justice.
Featured image: Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise in When They See Us.
This week on CounterSpin: A former US diplomat to Cuba, Wayne Smith, wrote once that Cuba “seems to have the same effect on American administrations that the full moon once had on werewolves.” It comes to mind as you hear of National Security Advisor John Bolton denouncing Cuba’s “malign influence and ideological imperialism”—to an audience including veterans of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, no less—as the reason for renewed sanctions on the country, including restrictions on US citizens’ ability to travel there. It could be occasion for the press to explore the US’s “international outlier” stance toward Cuba. We’ll talk about what’s happening with Netfa Freeman of the Institute for Policy Studies.PlayStop pop out
Also on the show: Corporate media would have us believe they’re interested in climate action, but they’re failing a key test of that, which would be taking seriously the lives and deaths of people on the frontline. The recent court victory of Ecuador’s indigenous Waorani, against the government’s push to auction off their land to oil companies, brings together critical things: Biodiversity, the global impact of the Amazon, the integrity of agreements between indigenous communities and the state, and legal protections for nature. But coverage suggests it’s just not that interesting to corporate media. We’ll get the story from Reynard Loki, Editor at the Earth | Food | Life project of the Independent Media Institute.PlayStop pop out
by Joshua Cho
A Wall Street Journal report (5/25/19) by Warren Strobel whitewashed CIA Director Gina Haspel’s career and put a positive spin on the CIA’s insulation from public accountability with its turn towards its greatest opacity “in decades.”
While one might expect CIA officials to support greater secrecy around the organization, it’s odd that ostensibly independent journalists—with a mission to hold official organizations accountable by informing the public—would treat less information coming from the agency as a positive development.
Yet that’s exactly what the Journal report did, depicting Haspel’s strategy of avoiding backlash from the Trump administration by not publicly contradicting its dubious claims as “protecting the agency” from “the domestic threat of a toxic US political culture.”
“She and her agency have adopted their lowest public profile in decades,” Strobel writes—just before summing her up as a “CIA director who has been warmly received by the workforce she has spent her life among.”
In other words, for the Journal, a public intelligence agency sharing its intelligence with the public is a bad thing, unless it supports US foreign policy by agreeing with whatever the Trump administration is saying. This position is echoed in the piece by official sources, like former CIA official and staff director of the House Intelligence Committee Mark Lowenthal, who assures us, “It’s not going to be any good for her [Haspel] to be out there attracting lightning bolts.”
However, the most egregious part of Strobel’s report is its whitewashing of Haspel’s disturbing record in the CIA by uncritically transmitting glowing endorsements by other CIA officials:
Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell said he is absolutely confident that Ms. Haspel will push back if policy makers ask the agency to do something it shouldn’t.
“I was told that somebody asked that the agency do something that was inappropriate. Her response was, ‘No. And don’t ask again,’ ” said Mr. Morell, who hosts the Intelligence Matters podcast. He said he did not have details of the incident.
Strange: That’s precisely the opposite of what Haspel did when she was asked to violate domestic and international law by torturing post-9/11 prisoners (euphemized by Strobel as “controversies” over “treatment of detainees”), and peddling lies about torture’s effectiveness (National Security Archives, 4/26/18).
Nor did Haspel say “No. And don’t ask again,” when told to destroy videotape recordings of the CIA inflicting torture on its captives, which was condemned as “obstruction” by 9/11 Commission chairs Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean (Intercept, 3/13/18; New York Times, 1/2/08).
Haspel actually supervised Detention Site Green in Thailand, one of the US’s notorious “black sites” where suspects were sent to be tortured after being kidnapped and held in another country to evade legal accountability in the US (Washington Post, 11/2/05). Sondra Crossby, a US Navy Reserve doctor with extensive experience treating torture victims around the world, described one of Haspel’s prisoners as “one of the most traumatized individuals I have ever seen.”
John Kiriakou, a former CIA official not cited in this laudatory profile, said that Haspel was known to other colleagues as “Bloody Gina” because people like her “tortured for the sake of torture, not for the sake of gathering information” (Democracy Now, 3/14/18).
Many of Haspel’s champions have offered the irrelevant and unacceptable “Nuremberg Defense” of “just following orders” to shield her from criticism. Morell himself is one of those people, as he praised her nomination as deputy director specifically because she obediently follows immoral orders (Cipher Brief, 2/2/17):
Haspel does not shy away from the toughest jobs; in fact, she gravitates toward them. Some of the assignments that she took on have later come under political fire, but in each case she was following the lawful orders of the president.
Morell, as FAIR (10/29/13) has noted, is a propagandist who denies that the CIA engaged in what is indisputably torture, and echoes CIA lies about drone strikes being a “very precise weapon,” with “very low” collateral damage. Such dishonesty is par for the course for CIA higher-ups (Guardian, 1/7/13).
Strobel presumably knows this, as FAIR (Extra!, 4/06) has also noted that Strobel provided some of the most critical reporting on the Bush Jr. administration’s WMD hoax in real time, as Morell was doing his best to advance it. That Morell would defend Haspel is predictable, given that he conducted an internal investigation “clearing” her of any wrongdoing (Intercept, 5/14/18).
Since Strobel’s report depends on current and former intelligence officials as sources, it’s unsurprising that Haspel is considered to be “a good steward” of the CIA precisely because she won’t be a “transformational leader” who would dare to do radical things like respecting the US Constitution’s rejection of “cruel and unusual punishment” and international humanitarian law. The piece downplays the CIA’s illegal activities as mere “controversies,” and presents Haspel and the CIA’s attempts to avoid scrutiny and accountability as “no small accomplishment.”
Perhaps if outlets like the Wall Street Journal provided less adulatory coverage of the CIA’s leaders and the organization’s illicit activities, it would be harder for its members like “Bloody Gina” Haspel to get away with lying. Perhaps instead of getting promotions, they’d face accountability for their actions (FAIR.org, 5/20/09; NBC, 2/9/11).
You can send letters to the editor of the Wall Street Journal at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.
by Gregory Shupak
US leaders have been threatening Iran for years, but US corporate media persistently and wrongly paint US escalations against Iran as defensive countermeasures.
George W. Bush said in 2008 that “all options are on the table” in terms of the policies the US will consider toward Iran, which was a way of saying that the US might militarily attack Iran—even a nuclear first strike would fit under “all.” (Oddly, when officials talk about “all options,” options that involve killing people seem to be the only kind they have in mind.)
President Barack Obama repeatedly made the same threat, vowing “we will do anything” to stop an Iranian nuclear weapons program that US intelligence agencies have long said Iran doesn’t have (FAIR.org, 10/17/17). Signing a nuclear accord with Iran did not end his administration’s belligerence, as Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, repeated the threat: “The president, this president or the next president, will have all options on the table, including military ones.”
John Bolton openly urged a military attack on Iran (calling for “a thorough job of destruction”—New York Times, 3/26/15), and President Donald Trump went on to appoint him national security advisor. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that, you guessed it, “all options” are on the table against Iran, including military ones. Recently Trump refused to rule out a war against Iran (“I don’t want to say no, but hopefully that won’t happen”).
Surrounding a country with military forces is also a threat. Major US military bases have encircled Iran. The US has ships, jets, drones and tens of thousands of soldiers on Iran’s doorstep—surely US media would see it as threatening if Iran deployed comparable forces to Canada, Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico. Further, the US has openly talked about drawing up plans to invade Iran.
The US has gone beyond making threats to actually carrying out attacks against the country. Sponsoring Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran and helping Iraqi President Saddam Hussein use sarin and mustard gas in that war, as the US did, is one example. Throttling Iran socio-economically, as the US is currently doing, is another.
Nevertheless, US media have persisted in ignoring this long record of US threats and hostile actions against Iran, casting Tehran as the aggressor in its conflict with the US.
The Hill (5/13/19) published an article under the headline, “B-52s Conduct First Mission of Counter-Iran Deployment.” The sources for the notion that Iran is doing something that the US needs to “counter” are such impartial observers as a statement released by the US Air Force Central Command (AFCENT) and comments from an AFCENT spokesperson.
The article moved on to treat those claims as if they merited no skepticism, branding the US’s intimidation from the sky a “response:”:
The B-52s were deployed to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar last week as part of the US response to what the Trump administration described as “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” for Iran.
From uncritically repeating the administration’s interpretation of Iranian conduct, The Hill went on to absorb that worldview, describing the US sending offensive weaponry to the Gulf as a “response” to some unspecified Iranian action: “As part of the Iran response, the Trump administration also sent the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group to the region.”
A Foreign Policy headline (5/13/19) said “US Sends More Firepower to Counter Iran.” Apart from the unimpeachable word of the Pentagon, the sole proof offered for the claim that Iran is taking actions in need of “countering” is that
Tehran issued an explicit threat to the Abraham Lincoln, which transited through the Suez Canal. In the past, a US aircraft carrier would be a threat; now, it is a “target,” said Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the Revolutionary Guard’s air force.
However, the “explicit threat” can be read very differently from the way Foreign Policy suggests. Here are Hajizadeh’s remarks, quoted in Al-Jazeera (5/13/19), via the hyperlink in the Foreign Policy article:
“An aircraft carrier that has at least 40 to 50 planes on it and 6,000 forces gathered within it was a serious threat for us in the past. But now it is a target and the threats have switched to opportunities,” said Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Revolutionary Guard’s air force.
“If [the Americans] make a move, we will hit them in the head,” he added, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA).
Foreign Policy’s article is written as though the second half of Hajizadeh’s statement—saying that Iran will defend itself if attacked by the large military force assembled on its borders—didn’t exist. It’s extremely misleading to call the statement as a whole an “explicit threat.”
ABC used the headline (5/24/19) “1,500 More Troops and Defensive Capabilities Headed to Middle East to Deter Iran.” How the US sending soldiers to the doorstep of a country that has not attacked it is “defensive,” or the evidence of the need to “deter” Iran, goes unexplained, an egregious omission when one considers that there is every reason to doubt US claims that Iran is about to attack the US.
A CNBC headline (5/24/19) told readers that the “Pentagon Will Send 1,500 Troops, Along With Drones and Fighter Jets, to the Middle East to Counter Iran Threat.” CNBC presents US officials’ justifications for their military maneuvers as though they were facts:
Currently, the USS Arlington, USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group, a Patriot missile defense battery and a US Air Force bomber task force have been sent to the region in order to deter Iranian and proxy threats.
Rather than being the debatable claims of US officials, these “Iranian and proxy threats” are presented as flat descriptions of reality. The article functions as a sort of information-laundering service, turning state talking points into neutral pieces of data:
The movement of additional US forces to the Middle East is the Trump administration’s latest effort to pressure Tehran over its support for weapons proliferation and extremist groups in the Middle East.
What’s most remarkable about this piece is that its next two paragraphs describe US maneuvers that not only constitute a threat against Iran, but actual aggressive actions the US has taken against the country:
Earlier this month, Trump ordered new sanctions placed on Iranian metals, Tehran’s largest non-petroleum-related source of export revenue. The US also took aim at Iranian oil by effectively ordering countries worldwide to stop buying Tehran’s oil or face sanctions of their own.
Additionally, the US designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. Iran responded with threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, where about a third of the world’s oil export vessels pass. The US then announced it was expediting the deployment of a carrier strike group equipped with bomber aircraft to the region.
The article says that the US is “counter[ing]” the Iran “threat,” but offers no concrete evidence of such a threat. Meanwhile, specific hostile actions the US has taken against the country, including menacing troop movements and US government attempts to subvert the Iranian economy, are not depicted as a US threat against Iran.
Both the ABC and CNBC articles note that Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, blamed Iran for attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure and for a rocket that landed near the US embassy in Baghdad. Neither piece notes that US officials have said they have no evidence that Iran was behind either drone attacks on the pumping stations or the sabotage of four oil tankers, two of which were Saudi, in the Persian Gulf. Nor did either report inform their readers that the US produced no evidence that Iran was responsible for the rocket in Iraq. (Yemeni Houthis, falsely depicted as pawns of Tehran, said they carried out attacks of Saudi oil pumping stations in retaliation for the Saudi/US/UAE/UK/Canadian invasion and immiseration of Yemen.)
Iran is a threat to US interests in the sense that Iran is a barrier to full-spectrum US domination of the Middle East. But there’s no evidence Iran will attack the US, which is how the word “threat” will generally be interpreted by consumers of news media.
The media’s false implication that Iran is a danger to the population of the United States makes US escalations against the country appear necessary and justified, and reduces the likelihood that a sufficient number of US citizens will mobilize to stop the potential and actual harm being inflicted in their name.
Featured image: ABC News report (5/24/19) on “Responding to Iran Threat.”
After British police arrested Julian Assange on April 11, the first instinct of corporate journalists was to perform a line-drawing exercise. In so doing, corporate media dutifully laid the groundwork for the US Department of Justice’s escalating political persecution of the WikiLeaks founder, and set the stage for a renewed assault on a free and independent press by the Trump administration.
Following the philosopher of science Karl Popper, I’ll call this the problem of journalistic demarcation. Facing his own demarcation problem in 1953, Popper set out “to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.” This philosophical exercise had an overtly political purpose: Popper hoped to draw his line in such a way as to specifically exclude Marxism from the ranks of scientific theory. Stripping Marxism of its claim to scientific status would help undermine the legitimacy of a political movement that, at the time, posed a serious challenge to the ascendancy of Western capitalist powers following World War II.
The problem of journalistic demarcation is no less ideologically motivated and, through their effort to discredit Assange and WikiLeaks, corporate media have snugly aligned themselves with the contemporary brokers of US imperial power against a journalistic movement that, over the last decade, has presented them with their most significant challenge.
As Assange’s asylum was violated and he was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London at the behest of US authorities, the DoJ unsealed an indictment against him carrying one conspicuously minor charge. Despite their much-ballyhooed skepticism toward the Trump administration, corporate media instantly took the bait and drew their line.
Alan McLeod detailed for FAIR.org (4/18/19) that, because the Trump administration had “done well” by only charging Assange with conspiracy to “hack” a government computer, the prevailing corporate media response was to exclude him from the ranks of journalism. “If Assange Burgled Some Computers, He Stopped Being a Journalist,” read a paradigmatic headline at Bloomberg (4/11/19). This reaction intersected normal partisan boundaries, with a similar line collectively drawn by the Washington Post (4/11/19), National Review (4/12/19) and Fox News (4/12/19).
Individual journalists also took to social media to exile Assange from their profession. Katie Benner, a Justice Department reporter for the New York Times, tweeted (4/11/19) that true journalists “don’t help sources pick the locks on the safes that hold the information.” David Corn (Twitter, 4/11/19), the DC bureau chief for Mother Jones, similarly drew a line between himself and Assange: “As a journalist, I’ve been careful to distinguish between accepting info and inducing or helping leakers break laws to obtain information,” he declared.
When the US DoJ predictably superseded its initial indictment of Assange on May 23, charging him with 17 additional counts of espionage, corporate media’s demarcation problem just as predictably blew up in their faces. As Assistant Attorney General John Demers announced the new charges, he boldly traced the all-important line, guided by corporate media’s hand: “Julian Assange is no journalist,” he asserted.
Because the new indictment is significantly more severe and relates to WikiLeaks’ publication of classified material, not just with how that material was obtained, corporate media are now unsurprisingly questioning the line they were so eager to draw. The New York Times (5/23/19) no longer thinks the Trump administration is doing well by Assange. Bloomberg (5/23/19), the Washington Post (5/24/19) and Fox News (5/30/19) are also having second thoughts.
David Corn (Twitter, 5/25/19), for whom the line was so clear a month ago, now sees “a threat to journalists.” Katie Benner apparently deleted her previous demarcation tweet and has since contributed to a new article (New York Times, 5/23/19) about the “frightening charges” now facing Assange.
It is impossible to accept that corporate media were simply naïve to the inevitability of further charges against Assange. Moreover, we have known all along that, as C.W. Anderson said nearly ten years ago, “it’s very hard to draw a line that excludes WikiLeaks and includes the New York Times” (CFR, 12/23/10). So why the sudden change of heart?
Here Popper’s demarcation question about science becomes relevant, not only formally but also substantively, because WikiLeaks is a vehicle for what Assange calls “scientific journalism”—an approach that threatens corporate journalism.
Assange wrote in a 2010 op-ed that WikiLeaks aspires to “work with other media outlets to bring people the news, but also to prove it is true.” “Scientific journalism,” he explained,
allows you to read a story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?
This considerably ups the ante in terms of professional accountability for journalists. While corporate media are content with sourcing “people familiar with the documents,” for WikiLeaks obtaining and publishing those documents is not just a bonus or a lucky break, it is a requirement.
This documentation-based journalism precludes the blockbuster fabrications that make corporate media boatloads of money, from never-opened bridges in Venezuela to the entire #Russiagate debacle. Readers can’t click online to see whether the Guardian’s story (11/27/18) about a secret meeting between Paul Manafort and Assange is true, because it simply isn’t true.
So long as the persecution of Assange seemed only to do with his particular style of journalism, corporate media were happy to throw him under the bus. Now seeing that their own jobs could get caught up in the collateral damage (Consortium News, 6/5/19), all of a sudden corporate media are scrambling to erase their line.
Meanwhile, much has been made, both by corporate media and the US officials pursuing him, of Assange’s supposedly inadequate harm-prevention effort in releasing unredacted classified documents. Marc Theissen of the Washington Post (5/28/19), for example, reproduced the US’s latest indictment at length to illustrate the “unfathomable damage” allegedly caused by WikiLeaks as it revealed actual crimes perpetrated by the US military.
Aside from the fact that there is no harm-prevention proviso in the First Amendment, and the further fact that the Pentagon previously could not demonstrate any harm stemming from the disclosures in question, it was actually the Guardian that released the password to the unredacted Cablegate archive (WikiLeaks, 9/1/11). Guardian editors disputed WikiLeaks’ characterization of this mistake, but not their paper’s role in it. Yet no one expects Alan Rusbridger to stand trial, or for the Washington Post to clamor to see him in the dock.
Corporate media jealously guard their self-anointed prerogative to set a limit on what the public may know. Ironically, while Popper sought to exclude Marxism from science because it was too occult, corporate media have sought to exclude WikiLeaks from journalism because it is not occult enough. In both cases, however, the division ultimately comes down to ideological rather than semantic lines.
In the wake of the Manning and Snowden leaks, Northeastern University professor Candice Delmas tried to nail down what it is about these events that provokes such uncritical reaction. Government whistleblowing of the sort WikiLeaks has enabled, she argued, amounts to a kind of “political vigilantism” that “involves violating the moral duty to respect the boundaries around state secrets, for the purpose of challenging the allocation or use of power.” This coheres with Assange’s own assessment: “We deal with almost purely political material—I don’t mean party-political, I mean how power is delegated,” he said in 2011.
Corporate media have made it clear that, Trump or no Trump, they remain ideologically committed to the objectives of US imperialism. Whether inciting war with Iran (FAIR.org, 10/4/18), promoting regime change in Venezuela (FAIR.org, 4/30/19), whitewashing crimes against humanity in Yemen (FAIR.org, 4/9/19) or downplaying the last three decades of occupation in Iraq (FAIR.org, 4/16/19), it is evident that corporate media retain little interest in challenging US imperial power.
Still, one might have thought that, when drawing a line between Pulitzers and prison, corporate media would instinctively err on the side of caution and go to bat for Assange. Instead, their ideological and vocational attachments to US power, along with their professional jealousy and fear of WikiLeaks, rendered him a political target who was simply irresistible…at least until now.
Corporate media’s belated and self-interested reinvestment in the Assange case might have come too late, both legally and with regard to the humanitarian situation. The UN special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, recently reported that Assange’s prolonged isolation and crushing political persecution are now manifesting as “intense psychological trauma.” Even in a best-case legal scenario, he may never fully recover.
Legally speaking, despite their newfound concern, this isn’t the last we will hear of corporate media’s demarcation problem. Insofar as the First Amendment issue rides on whether Julian Assange is a journalist, US prosecutors will no doubt introduce the litany of unsympathetic line-drawing exercises provided by corporate media journalists as evidence that he does not qualify for protection. Sadly, this means that, should the Trump administration’s campaign succeed, Assange will indeed have been convicted by a jury of his peers.
‘There Was a Story Being Told About Why They Were Asking for This Information’ - CounterSpin interview with Ian Head on freedom of information
Janine Jackson interviewed Ian Head about freedom of information for the May 31, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: We frequently hear calls for transparency from government entities, complaints about a lack of openness from agencies and departments and barriers to access to documents intended by law to be public. And such calls and complaints are well-warranted.
But sunshine on the shrouded actions of the state isn’t so much a quest for knowledge as a tool for change. In other words, we need to keep asking, “Transparency for what?”
A new project seems to be aimed right at that question. The Center for Constitutional Rights has just launched the Open Records Project: FOIA for the Movement. The project is coordinated by Ian Head, senior legal worker at CCR, co-editor of the Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook and a former executive vice president of the National Lawyers Guild. He joins us now by phone from here in town. Welcome to CounterSpin, Ian Head.
Ian Head: Thanks so much for having me.
JJ: Justice advocates of all stripes know we’re kind of in the Hellmouth right now, on many fronts; there’s a lot of work to be done. What is the particular problem, or need, or deficit, that this project is a response to? Why did you think we need to do this, now?
IH: This project really comes out of Center for Constitutional Rights hearing from our grassroots partners and community partners on the ground, about their use of both FOIA, the federal FOIA requests, and state open requests as a really important tool for their campaigns and movement priorities.
And I think, instead of having us at the Center racing around and trying to answer requests when we can, and helping out here and there, creating this new open records project provides a more centralized place that can work on resources that come out of what we’ve been hearing from folks on the ground, and can be used by them, as well as potentially give trainings, connect them with legal resources….
We just put out a guide called FOIA Basics for Activists. And we’re hoping that that’s a helpful resource for just getting grounded and starting using FOIA requests, and state open records requests, for organizers and organizations.
We’re looking to hopefully provide online webinars, in-person trainings, additional electronic resources, and connect people to other FOIA experts who are out there. We are definitely not the only people litigating and doing FOIA requests. There’s a significant amount of expertise out there. And I think we just want to create a new point that specifically is targeted as a resource for activists, rather than just, say, journalists or just other groups that might be using FOIA.
JJ: “Journalists, you probably think FOIA requests are about you,” was the lead on a piece in Columbia Journalism Review a couple of years ago. And it actually reported that journalists are just a small fraction, 7.6 percent, of requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
And, in fact, it’s businesses, law firms and individuals who are using FOIA more often, which I think might be surprising to people, a little bit, but the truth is that the gatekeeper journalists are not—although there are examples of journalists using FOIA to tremendous effect, of course—but they are not the main folks using it. So it’s important that other people know how to.
JJ: Well, where would you like reporters, though, to see themselves in this project?
IH: The reporters play such a key role in often assisting our movement partners to achieve their goals, reporting on the findings of these requests, and helping shape the narrative that is so important for our grassroots partners and their campaigns, to push forward and reach, whether it’s reach other people in their community or reach the places in power, Congress and others. I think it’s critical that journalists are part of this.
JJ: Yeah, I always say with regard to whistleblowers, whistleblowers can pitch, but reporters have to catch.
And it’s the same for data: If it’s allowed to be accessed, but nobody bumps it with a trumpet, you know, or puts it to use, then the power of the knowledge is kind of squandered. In the case of the whistleblower, that could be their whole life that went into getting this information out, and we can’t just let it lay on the page.
And that’s what I see in this project, of really trying to not just get the information, but use the information to make a difference in the world.
JJ: Talking to media using it, USA Today, for example, has compiled this incredible national database on police officers that have been banned from the profession. It’s information that was kept secret by lots of folks. And they used state open record laws to collect these public records about police conduct.
And they actually have been detailing just how difficult it is. They said, “in state after state, USA Today had to employ the assistance of its lawyers to gain access to the public records, a resource that citizens walking in the door searching for public information often don’t have.”
So the state level, even though the project names FOIA, the state level is really critical here, too, right?
IH: Absolutely. The state level is, especially right now, really critical. And we’ve definitely had certain successes in getting records, and getting records faster, at times at the state level rather than through the FOIA.
JJ: Are there any cases that, for you at CCR, make especially clear the importance of these access laws around things like FOIA?
IH: I mentioned that we’re doing these FOIAs on behalf of, or just supporting FOIA requests from, our grassroots partners. So, one of our partners recently was Color of Change, which is a great organization that does a lot of advocacy around racial justice issues. They have been hearing from their people about the surveillance of black activists, especially around a lot of the protests against police brutality in the last several years.
We did together a FOIA request to DHS and FBI, to get more information about this surveillance. CoC chose to connect with journalists and try to build some press around the request and the litigation itself, so that there was a story being told about why they were asking for this information, the importance of getting this information from the government. So even before we started getting documents, I think it was really amazing to see how CoC strategized around using the request in that way.
And then among the documents we got were a number of scary reports and emails. But one of them was a series of emails that referred to something called, literally, the DHS analysts were calling it the “Race Paper,” that’s how it was referred to in the emails. And we actually had the so-called “Race Paper” produced to us as well, but completely redacted. There was nothing visible except for just a big black square on eight pages of paper. And again, we litigated to try to get at least part of that unredacted.
Ultimately, a judge looked at that, and said that it was a draft paper, and so it couldn’t be released. But the organizing around the litigation, by CoC and others, got a lot of media attention, going back to what we were saying about the importance of journalists. And so there was a lot of bubbling of, “What is this ‘Race Paper’? Why are they hiding it? What is this? Does it connect to the leaked FBI report on so-called ‘Black Identity Extremists’?”
And that has continued and, actually, Rep. Donald Payne, I believe, of New Jersey, in a recent hearing with DHS officials, questioned them about what the “Race Paper” is—in fact, holding up the eight redacted pages in the hearing to say, “Why can’t you tell me what it what this is? Why is there something that’s been produced called the ‘Race Paper’?”
JJ: That’s a great illustration of how sometimes even when you don’t get the information, you get the story. Because the digging reveals something that is it in itself informative.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Ian Head, senior legal worker at the Center for Constitutional Rights, and you can find out more about the Open Records Project: FOIA for the Movement at their website, CCRJustice.org.
Thank you very much, Ian Head, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
IH: Thanks so much.
When Norwegian right-winger Anders Breivik invoked “cultural Marxism” as the reason for his 77-person killing spree in 2011, many observers placed the notion in the same category as the killer—the fringe. But since the election of Donald Trump, Brexit and the rise and re-election of other far-right governments around the globe, “cultural Marxism” has become a well-known nationalist buzzword, alongside “globalism”: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro denounces it, and the media empire of former White House advisor Steve Bannon revolved around fighting it.
The phrase is seeping into mainstream media discourse, a far cry from its former days as an extremist catch phrase, and it’s creating a dangerous situation with an ominous historical context.
Doing his usual shtick of a more refined version of Abe Simpson, columnist David Brooks (New York Times, 11/26/18) lamented that today’s youths “tend to have been influenced by the cultural Marxism that is now the lingua franca in the elite academy,” giving them a “clash of oppressed and oppressor groups” worldview. Also in the Times, contributor Molly Worthen (4/20/19) quoted the phrase “cultural Marxism”—not approvingly, but not explaining what it meant, either, just offering it as an example of what “conservatives” were complaining about. A Times story in 2017 (8/11/17) about a former White House aide reported that the aide believed “globalists” would “impose cultural Marxism in the United States”—again, without defining for the layperson what that might mean.
The Washington Post (like other newspapers) invoked the phrase in its reports on Bolsonaro’s rise to power last year, and even on the hipster styles of the new wave of American white nationalists: In November 2016, the Post (11/30/16) reported that the style of shaved sides with long hair combed back is “worn by men who feel their whiteness has been infringed upon by the ‘cultural Marxism’ of the Americas.” And opinion-haver Andrew Sullivan took to New York (2/9/18) to denounce “cultural Marxists” for inspiring social justice movements on campuses.
What does cultural Marxism mean for the far right? In the modern iteration, in spaces like Breitbart or Infowars, it is the belief that a failure by communists to topple capitalism through worker revolt has led to a “Plan B” to destroy Western society from the inside. By tearing down the gender binary, de-centering Christianity values, championing the weak over the privileged and creating a multicultural society, revolutionaries have unanchored traditional Western order. Everything from gay rights to Muslim immigration is, in the language of the far right, part of a plot to finish the job that radical worker organizing could not.
Suffice it to say, this is a most paranoid fantasy. Most Marxists don’t speak in these terms, and people who do advocate for immigration, multiculturalism or secularism do so out of a certain regard for human and civil rights. But the far right still obsesses that this is a historical cultural struggle.
Like others on the right, the National Review (8/9/18) saw proof of the plot in the Frankfurt School, which
was born out of a psychological need to explain why communism had failed to take root, initially in Germany but more broadly in the West. The answer that Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and others settled on—after borrowing some ideas from Freud and Nietzsche—was that the structure of capitalist society (which they perversely and ludicrously equated with fascism) was even more totalitarian than they had realized. In other words, communism couldn’t take root because fascism already had.
It’s far from a cultural grappling with the Frankfurt School’s actual ideas, which live mostly in academia. As Spencer Sunshine, an associate fellow at Political Research Associates, points out, the focus on the Frankfurt School by the right serves to highlight its inherent Jewishness. “A piece stands in for the whole,” he said.
This isn’t one of those “yeah, it could be interpreted as antisemitic” things—it’s straight from Nazi ideology, with just enough cosmetic changes to make it acceptable for the modern right. “Cultural Bolshevism” was the term used by Nazi critics of modernist art, which they believed to be rooted in Jewish decadence and thereby, according to Nazi logic, connected to the communist specter. As Dominic Green (Spectator USA, 3/28/19) wrote in a conservative critique of conservatives’ complaints about “cultural Marxism”: “For the Nazis, the Frankfurter School and its vaguely Jewish exponents fell under the rubric of Kulturbolshewismus, ‘Cultural Bolshevism.’”
It came into the American sector through paleoconservative writers William S. Lind and Paul Weyrich, who in a series of articles recrafted the Nazi idea of “cultural Marxism” as a scare tactic for the American right. “These guys were all Jewish,” Lind told a Holocaust denial conference in 2002; Lind would be later be cited as a prominent influence on Trump’s nationalist agenda.
As Sunshine noted:
It is deeply disturbing that it is used by mainstream conservatives when it’s clearly antisemitic…. They attribute it to all these things, anything from Black Bloc to Hillary Clinton, any kind of social liberalism.
It’s not too surprising that the nationalistic right still clings onto such fascist anachronisms; it’s clearly helping them at the voting booth, from the United States to Europe to Brazil. It’s an important mobilizing call for the far right, depicting things like immigration and secularism not simply as liberal values, but as far-left revolutionary tools.
What should be shocking is the cavalier way some traditional media, like the Times and the Post, are allowing it to live on their pages. Brooks rebrands cultural Marxism as mere political correctness, giving the Nazi-inspired phrase legitimacy for the American right. It is dropped in or quoted in other stories—some of them lighthearted, like the fashion cues of the alt-right—without describing how fringe this notion is. It’s akin to letting conspiracy theories about chem trails or vaccines get unearned space in mainstream press.
And it’s not as if the Times doesn’t know this. In 2018, Columbia University historian Samuel Moyn wrote in a Times blog post (11/13/18):
That “cultural Marxism” is a crude slander, referring to something that does not exist, unfortunately does not mean actual people are not being set up to pay the price, as scapegoats to appease a rising sense of anger and anxiety. And for that reason, “cultural Marxism” is not only a sad diversion from framing legitimate grievances, but also a dangerous lure in an increasingly unhinged moment.
Newspapers should be responsible with such phrases, and it’s easy to do that. It is common—and good practice—for mainstream journalists to avoid imprecise phrases like “pro-life,” and instead call the position “anti-abortion.” Reuters has tight rules for using the word “terrorist,” because the label is too often thrown around. For those with strong feelings about terrorism, it might have seemed insensitive, but for the sake of straight reporting, it was necessary. Brooks shouldn’t have used “cultural Marxism,” not because he should be censored, but because what he meant was “political correctness” and not (we hope) a century-old antisemitic trope.
It would be sensible, when the term is invoked by far-right extremists, to provide readers with a definition of the phrase and its origin. And unless it is invoked in a quote, writers like Brooks should be encouraged not to use it all. “They should define it as an antisemitic conspiracy theory with no basis in fact,” Sunshine said of mainstream news editors.
Failure to do that, as places like the Times and Post are guilty of, has bitter consequences. “It is legitimizing the use of that framework, and therefore it’s coded antisemitism,” Sunshine said.
Featured image: Illustration of “cultural Marxism” from a neo-Nazi website.
‘It Puts You Into a Process That Hugely Favors the Employer’ - CounterSpin interview with Celine McNicholas on forced arbitration
Janine Jackson interviewed Celine McNicholas about forced arbitration for the May 31, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
The press release for the report contains a quote that presents the problem clearly. Brenda Rojas, a college student in Oregon, says:
While working at Buffalo Wild Wings, my coworkers and I experienced wage theft regularly, and worked in an environment of constant sexual harassment. Complaining about these working conditions was pointless, because we had signed a forced arbitration clause, and the company knew that we couldn’t fight back in court. None of us understood the forced arbitration language when we signed our new-hire paperwork. But we were told that if we did not “check all the boxes,” we would not be hired. How can students like me build a brighter economic future when our employers are allowed to rip us off?
But there is resistance, too, to be found in the report, called Unchecked Corporate Power: Forced Arbitration, the Enforcement Crisis and How Workers Are Fighting Back.
We’re joined now by one of the report’s authors. Celine McNicholas is director of government affairs and labor counsel at the Economic Policy Institute. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Celine McNicholas.
Celine McNicholas: Thank you for having me.
JJ: First of all, the report was released, for a reason, on the one-year anniversary of a Supreme Court decision. What was the significance of Epic Systems v. Lewis? How did that ruling spur this report?
CM: Epic Systems essentially codified the problem that you just revealed in the quote that you read, that workers are increasingly being required to sign away their right to sue when their employment rights are violated by their employer.
And Epic Systems essentially green-lighted employers embracing that practice, and unfortunately, going into the decision, the majority of workers were already facing the threat of this. And we now know that employers are increasingly embracing it since the decision. So a year out, we’re seeing this more and more.
JJ: Well, we talk, in media and elsewhere, about the labor “market,” as though people were mobile economic actors who can make informed choices about where to work. So if you don’t want to sign away your right to a class action lawsuit, the unspoken thinking goes, don’t take a job that requires it.
We should take issue with that idea, and, obviously, people have never been identically situated with regard to choices.
But your report makes it clear that in the private sector, in the nonunion private sector, not signing these things is increasingly just not an option. And it’s not just college students and their first jobs.
CM: That’s exactly right. And I think you hit on the fundamental myth, right, that we’re all sort of free agents in this economy.
And I think it’s wonderfully encouraging that unemployment continues to decrease, and wages, for the first time in a long time, we’re actually experiencing some level of an uptick. But still, most working people feel lucky to have a job, and feel that they have very little leverage, in that initial negotiation with their employer for the terms and conditions of their work.
And so in practicality, we all know, we can all admit, that we signed the paperwork on the first day on the job—and we’re happy to be signing up for, potentially, if we’re lucky enough, healthcare, and all of the other tangential forms—but we also may be signing away this right, without even really realizing the implications of what we’ve been asked to sign as a condition of working there. And that’s a really troubling trend, because it applies across all employment rights.
JJ: These forced arbitration clauses that the report projects, by 2024, 80 percent of private-sector, nonunion workers will be covered by these forced arbitration clauses. Let’s spell it out: What is wrong with forced arbitration?
CM: So short answer is “everything.” We’ll go into detail here: So essentially, when you are forced to arbitrate a claim, an employment claim, I would argue, in particular, because we just talked about the fact that most workers, you have limited leverage on the job; the employer, if they’re not happy with you, they can fire you for any reason at all, just not a narrow set of prohibited reasons that are protected reasons under the law.
Let’s say you’re being sexually harassed in your workplace, but you’ve been forced to sign an arbitration agreement on that first day. That means that, if you’re not getting any kind of relief, you go to HR, you go to your supervisor, and he or she says, “OK, we’re going to help you resolve this, but we’re going to do it through arbitration, you have no right to sue us.”
That immediately limits your leverage. But it also puts you into a process that hugely favors that employer, because you’re going it alone, you’re using a system that they’re paying for, “they” being the employer. That disadvantages all workers.
JJ: You very specifically are prohibited from joining together with other folks in the workplace who are experiencing the same problems that you might be.
CM: Yes, because many of these waivers include what you just referenced, a class or collective action component. And that means that you are in this system, arbitration, which is this unequal, unfair system, because the employer is really the entity that is a repeat player; that means that they are more familiar with the arbitrators, they’re often giving them business. So there’s this implied injustice in the whole system itself.
But then, in addition to that, you’re doing this alone, you’re navigating as an individual worker. Whereas if you brought suit as a class or collective action, you would have a great deal more leverage.
JJ: And I understand that, mainly, what it does is just kind of discourage. It’s not even so much that workers lose when they go through this process; knowing that that’s their only option pretty much discourages them from taking action in the first place.
CM: I think that that’s exactly right. And it makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. Just think of how difficult in practicality it is to voice any kind of concern in your place of work. Figuring out who do you go to. Oftentimes, a supervisor may be, unfortunately, involved in the conduct that is violating the law.
And so you’re navigating an already difficult process, and then you’re being compelled to do so on your own. Most folks are not familiar with arbitrations; it sounds like an incredibly formal process. And it would not be incorrect if the employer says, “This is going to cost you money,” because oftentimes workers are absorbing some of the cost for the process itself. And in addition to that, they can say, “You’re going to be unlucky in this system, because we’ve navigated this a couple of times, and your fellow workers haven’t done very well in the process.” And as you point out, that is true.
So it’s not as advantageous. People do worse in the system than they do in court.
JJ: There are meant to be entities that are enforcing these workplace rules. Even if the sort of David vs. Goliath situation of individual workers is disadvantageous, there are protective entities, government agencies, that are meant to be looking out for them. The report also deals with problems in that enforcement area. What’s the problem or the concern there?
CM: This is sort of a perfect storm, in my view, because what you’re seeing is decreased public enforcement; there are fewer and fewer public dollars being invested in enforcing workplace protections.
So at the same time that many of us in our work are being asked to sign away our private right of action through this system of forced arbitration, we are also facing fewer and fewer cops on the beat in terms of public enforcement of those rights. The Department of Labor’s, state departments of labor’s, budgets have decreased, while the workforce has expanded, and that leaves all of us with less protection in the workplace, and also, combined with forced arbitration, it’s such an incredible advantage—which is where that ominous title of this report comes from—it is an incredible advantage to corporate employers at this point, because they are making enforcement of any means, whether private or public, something that the vast majority of the workforce is losing access to.
JJ: We have these laws, you know, we make these laws on wages, against wage theft or on workplace safety. And then it seems like with Epic, the Supreme Court is just kind of waiving them away.
I mean, it’s kind of a balance of powers question, too, isn’t it? It seems like a real lopsided power that the Court is exercising here.
CM: Absolutely. And, in my view, Congress needs to act on this to restore the rights that were hard-won protections when they were originally enacted. Title VII, the right that fundamentally you can’t be discriminated against, harassed in the workplace, that’s an enacted law, that’s an enacted protection. And, essentially, it has been made very difficult, if not impossible, for many, many workers in this country to access that right.
Congress needs to then restore the right and say, “Hey, Supreme Court, you’ve misinterpreted this, you’ve essentially made this something that is no longer enforceable for the vast majority of workers when we gave this protection to the US workforce. You’ve overstepped”—just as you said—“and now we want to correct you.”
And this is not the first time that something like this has happened, where Congress has had to come in and correct something that the Supreme Court has misinterpreted. And it is my hope that they will do so here, because this cuts across fundamental rights, like even being paid the minimum wage. It is more difficult to enforce those rights when you have a system of forced arbitration that the Supreme Court has essentially blessed at this point in time.
JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, about specifically the legislative moves that are underway. How do the Restoring Justice for Workers Act and the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act address this outrage? And what’s the status of those legislative pieces?
CM: Both bills that you just referenced would prohibit forced arbitration, and class and collective action waivers, in any kind of employment disputes, so workers could no longer be compelled, on their first day on the job, to sign away those rights.
And both bills are pending, both in the House and Senate. So they’ve been introduced. And I really encourage listeners to contact their representatives, and encourage them to insist on passage of those bills.
The Fair Labor Standards Act, the National Labor Relations Act, our health and safety protections, they’re only as meaningful as our ability to enforce them. And without the Restoring Justice for Workers Act or the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act, we are going to be increasingly unable to enforce those fundamental rights. So we really need Congress to act to restore them on our behalf.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs and labor counsel at the Economic Policy Institute. You can find the report, Unchecked Corporate Power, on EPI’s website, EPI.org. Celine McNicholas, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
CM: Thank you for having me.