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Updated: 12 hours 18 min ago

Flint ‘Really Comes Down to People Not Being Listened To’

January 26, 2021 - 4:09pm

 

The January 22, 2021, episode of CounterSpin brought together archival interviews about the Flint water crisis from Chris Savage, Talia Buford and Peggy Case. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Cartoon by Politico‘s Matt Wuerker.

Janine Jackson: Welcome to CounterSpin, your weekly look behind the headlines. I’m Janine Jackson. This week on CounterSpin: Michigan’s attorney general has indicted nine state officials, including former Gov. Rick Snyder, the state’s former health director and two of the emergency managers of the city of Flint, for exposing at least 100,000 people to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water, and for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed at least 12 people and sickened many more.

In an op-ed for The Hill, Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee called the 2014 decision to switch the source of Flint’s drinking water “one of the greatest environmental injustices in our lifetimes.” Which is true, but “the environment” didn’t do it: It’s often forgotten that Flint was a crisis of democracy. Decision-making had been taken out of the hands of Flint’s elected officials and given to an “emergency manager” tasked with reining in costs—a system that seems to be used disproportionately in communities of color, taking decision-making out of community hands but leaving them to deal with the fallout of those decisions.

There’s been a $640 million settlement of class action lawsuits, but Michigan Radio reports that many civic leaders say the deal presents inappropriate hurdles—children might not get their settlement if they don’t undergo a specific bone lead test—and some question how money could ever compensate Flint residents for months and months of washing and bathing and cooking with bottled water to avoid exposing themselves and their families to a neurotoxin, all while officials deflected and denied and belittled their concerns.

We’ve talked about Flint on CounterSpin, in its particulars and in terms of how it fits into bigger questions around environmental racism and resource control and local governance. In light of the renewed attention around the story—which has not ended, even as media have looked away—we’re going to revisit some of those conversations today.

You’re listening to CounterSpin, brought to you each week by the media watch group FAIR.

***

Janine Jackson: While Flint’s water became a symbol—a meme, even, around the world—of environmental racism and government indifference, it was mainly local reporters who really tracked the political actors and actions behind what was not at all a natural disaster.

In January 2016, we talked with Chris Savage, owner/publisher of the Michigan-based Electablog.com, about the chain of events.

Chris Savage: “The ironic part about this, and the really just disgusting part about this, is that that phosphate treatment would have cost them about $60 per day to do. It was very inexpensive to do.”

Chris Savage: The whole thing really began in 2013. Prior to that, Flint had been considering changing where it got its water. It was at the time getting its water from the city of Detroit, through the Detroit Water & Sewage Department; they had a nearly 50-year contract with them. However, the water was very expensive; they had some of the highest water costs in the country, actually, in Flint, Michigan.

They joined up with other regional concerns, like Genesee County and other groups around the area, and decided to form what was called the Karegnondi Water Authority. And they’re building a pipeline and a water treatment plant to provide their own water, rather than purchasing it from Detroit. That happened in April of 2013.

Several days after they did that, the Detroit Water & Sewage Department exercised its option to cancel their current contract with the city of Flint, which meant they had to give one-year advance notice. This was done, by the way, with Detroit being under an emergency manager as well. So both cities were actually under the control of emergency managers at the time, who were making all of the decisions for the local government.

So what transpired in the following year was that Flint had to make some decisions about where they were going to get their water, or if they were going to renegotiate their contract with Detroit. Just prior to when Detroit’s contract ended with them, in April of 2014, the Detroit Sewer & Water Department sent Darnell Earley, who was at the time the Flint emergency manager, a letter saying you can stay on our system, you’re not being kicked off, but they were going to renegotiate the contract. And of course, because of this, their water rates were going to go even higher. And I find some brutal irony in this, that both cities were under emergency managers, and yet you have one city basically exploiting the other city for higher water costs.

JJ: Right.

CS: So Darnell Earley at that point just sent them a letter back, saying thanks but no thanks. He had made the decision they were going to go to the Flint River. And in April of 2014, that is when that happened. And that really was the fateful decision, that decision not to remain on Detroit water, but to switch to the Flint River in the interim, while the Karegnondi pipeline was being completed.

The idea that they would go to Flint had been considered in the past, and a report was sent to the state of Michigan in 2013, telling them that going to the Flint River would require considerably more water treatment, including phosphate treatments to prevent the mineral scale and biofilm on the insides of people’s pipes from being eroded away and revealing the lead solder underneath. And it’s that lead solder in the pipelines going from the main water line in the streets to people’s homes that is the source of the lead in people’s drinking water.

They made the switch in April 2014. Almost immediately, people in Flint began to report this disgustingly discolored water coming from their taps. The water smelled foul, people were getting rashes, people were getting sick. They found that there were high levels of E. coli, so there was a boil-water alert for some time. They began treating with chlorine to fix that problem. And because of the overtreatment with chlorine, it started creating trihalomethanes, which are a byproduct of disinfection. They exceeded the Clean Water Act’s regulations on those. That had to be treated. So they had a lot of problems before the lead issue manifested itself.

It took a while for that water of the Flint River, which is more corrosive than the Detroit River, to sort of erode away this coating that’s on the inside of these pipelines. And it was basically around January of 2015 that the lead problem started to become manifest.

Reports that were being sent to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, which is in charge of approving all water treatment plants for municipalities, they had been doing testing according to guidelines, and they were using the guidelines incorrectly. They were supposed to be testing 100 different high-risk homes at the tap and then, if the lead level in the 90th percentile was above 15 parts per billion, then they were supposed to take action. This is required by federal law. They had only taken actually 72 samples, which they were supposed to take 100, and some of those had spiked pretty high, putting them in the action zone in the 90th percentile. And so people that were responsible for that reporting were instructed by DEQ to remove two of the samples, and that brought them down below the action level of 15 parts per billion, and so they could continue on without further treatment.

The ironic part about this, and the really just disgusting part about this, is that that phosphate treatment would have cost them about $60 per day to do. It was very inexpensive to do, this phosphate treatment, which is very effective at maintaining that film that covers the lead, and protects the water from being exposed to lead. But the DEQ signed off on the treatment that did not include the phosphate, and that’s why the Snyder administration—Governor Snyder is our governor—and his administration is complicit in this.

I do give a lot of credit to our local media. I don’t always do that, Janine, but the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News, MLive, these organizations have done a very good job over the last couple of years in following this story and making sure that people knew what was going on. In an interesting turn, the ACLU actually hired an investigative journalist, Curt Guyette, and he’s done a lot of the FOIA work, and has revealed a lot of the information that we have today that has shined a light on the Snyder administration, and the ways that they have so tragically failed the Flint residents.

***

Janine Jackson: There were those who claimed that the fact that Flint is a predominantly African-American and predominantly poor community had nothing to do with the poisoning of their water. We talked around such people in February 2016 with Talia Buford, then a reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, working on a series called  “Environmental Justice, Denied.” She filled us in on the role of agencies like the EPA.

Talia Buford: “When you have something ‘not in my backyard’ from these more politically connected people, it still goes in someone’s backyard.”

Talia Buford: I think that what we see in Flint is a failure on a number of different levels, a failure from the city level to the state level to the federal level. EPA has a role, of course, as an overseer of the Michigan Environmental Agency. The Michigan department should be probably the one that has a bigger responsibility than the federal agency, since they are working in conjunction with the state, but I think that everyone here had something that they did where they fell off the job.

JJ: A headline of a piece that you co-wrote recently was “Environmental Racism Persists, and the EPA Is One Reason Why.” Those are strong words. You’ve talked about the Office of Civil Rights. What did your investigation turn up about the actual track record of that office?

TB: In our investigation, we looked at more than 15 years of complaints that citizens had filed to the EPA Office of Civil Rights. These are minority communities, often low-income but not always, who are saying, we live next to a sewage plant that makes it horrible for us to sit outside on our porches, or there are pesticides being sprayed on the fields next to our schools.

So what we found is that over the 22-year history of the office, the agency had only had about 300 complaints, and they’ve never made a formal finding of a Title VI violation. They’ve made one preliminary finding, and there have been some investigations, but they’ve never come out and said, Texas or Indiana or whatever state, you are violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

And that struck us as something—especially over a decades-long history—that you can’t find one bad actor, when we know that there are so many of these cases; we hear about them all the time. To hear that there’s been no wrongdoing, it struck us as kind of odd.

So in our investigation, what we also found is that only 12 of those cases that the EPA has found, they’ve closed with any actual official action. That means they’ve either negotiated or had some sort of informal settlement. The rest of them were all resolved among the complainants or the agencies, or dismissed. And that even beyond that, there are several cases, almost 20, that have been just waiting in limbo, waiting for EPA to act in some way. In some cases, they’ve been waiting more than a decade.

JJ: Your thoughts on journalistic coverage of this?

TB:  I’m thinking about it in the context of Flint, and I think that a lot of the local news media is paying attention, and there’s been some amazing reporting and watchdogging that’s been coming out of the Detroit Free Press and the Flint Journal. But a lot of this really comes down to people not being listened to—either by state officials and, in some cases, by the national media.

There is so much information that’s just out there if you look for it. Our series was built on data that we pulled from the EPA that was publicly available. We were able to get it through a FOIA request. We actually created a database and made it public on our website, so that people can tell their own stories using our data as well.

So I think that these stories like Flint, or other stories out of the Office of Civil Rights even, can be a jumping off point for us to just start asking more about our communities and asking more about the world that we live in, and looking for the data to back those questions up.

***

Janine Jackson: We spoke with Talia Buford again in July 2017, after Michigan’s Attorney General brought involuntary manslaughter charges against five officials, one of whom—Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon—had been reported saying, “Everyone has to die of something.” Now at ProPublica, Talia Buford gave us some history of environmental justice as a state concern.

TB: It popped up during the civil rights movement, but it really took hold in the early ’80s, when citizens in North Carolina really pushed back on the state choosing to dump contaminated soil in a landfill near their homes. After that happened, the federal government started to take notice. There were some studies by EPA, and then there was a church group that also did a really instrumental study on just where toxic facilities were sited around the country.

And after that, President Bush—this is George H.W. Bush—at that point decided to implement the Office of Environmental Equity, which is today the Office of Environmental Justice. That was in ’92.

Two years later, President Clinton gave us, I guess, the biggest win for the environmental justice community. Clinton signed an executive order in ’94 that required federal agencies to consider environmental justice in all of their policies. What he also did is he declared that environmental injustice was a violation of Title VI’s Civil Rights Act, which was huge, because it’s the same law that also sought to end segregation in schools. So this is a really powerful tool that advocates now had to use.

During the second Bush administration, however, a lot of those protections got rolled back. They were watered down, in some instances. The Title VI office was basically dormant for years, cases languished for literally a decade, and there just wasn’t any movement on the issue.

And Democrats in Congress tried to push legislation on this issue forward, to really mandate and legislate some of the protections that Clinton had tried to implement through the executive order, and just really make them law and really crystallize them and give them some teeth. They weren’t able to even get a vote on any of those issues during the time that they were in Congress, and, actually, there’s never been a vote on an environmental justice bill in Congress ever since this has become an issue.

Under Obama things got a lot better, but they still weren’t perfect. He was able to really focus on environmental justice during his administration. They cleared a backlog of civil rights complaints, they really elevated the idea of environmental justice, and the Office of Environmental Justice was really, really productive during that period. They were able to go out and give grants, and they had meetings and really talked to communities, and it really did a lot of education during that point.

But even then, there was still a lot more that could have been done. There could have been a stronger executive order that was put forward, to maybe have a federal environmental justice advisor at every federal agency, or we could have tried to push further to codify a lot of the things into law that the executive order professed, and those things were never done.

So there was a lot of progress, and then things just kind of stalled a little bit. And now the movement is at a point where a lot of the protections they had been relying on are possibly in retreat.

JJ: The fact that the Trump White House is looking to eliminate the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, that’s no surprise, and it fits with everything else. They’re doubling down on this ideological twist, if you will, that you note predates them, that comes really from Bush Jr., this effort to say, oh, sure, all people deserve protection from environmental harm.

TB: Right. And some of the people we talked to, they called it the “all lives mattering” of environmental justice. The idea that, yes, of course, everyone should not be subjected to intense environmental pollution. And, yes, you do want to have protection for everyone. But by not focusing on the people who currently do not have those protections, you’re basically ensuring that they never will.

Phys.Org (1/20/16)

JJ: I just want to cite the work of Paul Mohai, from the University of Michigan, who researched the chicken-or-the-egg question in terms of environmental racism. You know, do polluting industries cause white people to move out, or people of color to move in (for lack of options, for example)? Or do companies locate polluting industries and hazardous waste facilities in minority and poor communities? And he found that it’s the latter, that existing minority communities are targeted. It’s not happenstance, and class has a lot to do with it, but it’s not class alone. There’s this irreducibility of racist impacts that it seems to me the whole environmental justice movement is about, and I guess I’m asking what one of the sources in your piece asks: Do we have to prove this all over again?

TB: A lot of work has been done to tie a lot of zoning issues to environmental justice. Think about whatever community your listeners may have grown up in; think about where facilities were sited in your community. Were they in the more affluent areas, with tree-lined streets, and along the waterfront in a very affluent part of town? No, they were probably—maybe they’re on the waterfront, but they were on a part near a landfill and near, you know, a power plant, and near dilapidated buildings or more industrial areas. And there are always homes still around there.

So you have to think about the people who are maybe not allowed to, either through restrictive covenants or other more blatant reasons, not allowed to move into some of those nicer places, some of those more affluent places, and had to settle or had to move and make their homes in communities in places that were less desirable, less affluent areas or generally less desirable areas. So that’s definitely a part of it.

And when you don’t take into account the history of the way that communities are formed or have been formed in our country, you’re in danger of ignoring an entire section of the population that needs that special attention, or needs, at least, that focused attention, in order to make sure that they aren’t being unduly harmed.

JJ: Yeah. I cited the Mohai research, because I think sometimes people think that environmental justice is about the feeling that some people are disproportionately impacted, or it’s just a sense that we have—and people should understand that there’s plenty of data to back it up.

I wanted to bring you back for just a moment. In the piece, you talk about one of the early beginnings of the environmental justice movement, in Afton, North Carolina, and you cite a pastor who was one of the people resisting a landfill there. And what he says is so important: He says, “Nobody thought people like us would make a fuss.” And so we really are talking about political voice.

And that seems to be what the Flint story is about, too. It’s not just the water; it’s the way the community was treated when they complained. It really is a story about political agency as well.

TB: That’s a main tenet of environmental justice, that the communities that are impacted have a voice, their voices are listened to, and they’re taken into account before decisions are made. And I think that definitely, that’s what you saw in Flint. That was where you had people complaining for months and months and months, and they were literally being dismissed, and told that they were wrong and that there was nothing wrong, even though we now know that it was the state and then the federal regulators who were doing something wrong.

Environmental justice, when I think about it, a lot of times I think of the idea of “not in my backyard.” There are certain communities that if something were to happen, they’re able to call their local congressman, or their city council member or the mayor, and get a direct line and complain, maybe because they have donated money for a campaign, or maybe because they’re politically connected in some other way, and their concerns are listened to.

But there are other people who, whether they are minorities, or whether they are low-income, or whether they just don’t have a lot of political clout, are often cast aside, and their issues are not championed in the same way as someone who is a little bit more connected would be. And so when you have something “not in my backyard” from these more politically connected people, it still goes in someone’s backyard, and those backyards are often the people who are low-income, minority or speak a different language.

***

Janine Jackson: By April 2018, a judge was calling an agreement to screen Flint’s children for learning disabilities a “win/win situation for all sides.” The state cut off free bottled water for residents, whether or not their tap water was safe. And, to complete the circle, Michigan decided to let Nestlé extract more spring water to sell for profit.

It shouldn’t take much to connect these things, which is what Peggy Case, president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, did when she spoke with us in April 2018. First, we noted that when media said Nestlé faced a fight moving into Michigan, her group was who they were talking about.

Peggy Case: Flint “get[s] money taken away from them; Nestlé gets profits given to them, in the form of free water. It’s just completely unjust.”

Peggy Case: That’s how our group was formed, actually, back in the year 2000, when we discovered that Nestlé was pumping 400 gallons per minute from a spring well in Mecosta County, Michigan. When they put up the bottle plant was when people realized they were even there. So our organization formed way back then to oppose it, because there were already damages showing up to a stream and a lake, and the environment was already being impacted with that level of withdrawals.

It took a nine-year court battle and a million dollars to win a case. It was a partial victory. We didn’t get Nestlé out of there. They had to reduce their pumping by a half, down to 218 gallons per minute, and the judge ruled that anything more than that is damaging to the environment.

So that’s a court precedent case that still stands on the books, and it’s important to know that, because almost two years ago, Nestlé applied for a permit to increase their pumping at a well in Evart, Michigan, 20 miles down the road from where the original battle was, to 400 gallons per minute, the exact amount they were told they really couldn’t take from Mecosta.

It’s spring water, which is bottled as “Ice Mountain,” and they were given an increase of 100 extra gallons per minute, with no public comment, no chance for anybody to go through the proper procedure, and we think it really violated the existing water withdrawal laws. Then they tacked on another 150 when they applied for the 400 permit. So it gets very complicated after a while, and your head starts to spin. But the bottom line is that Nestlé’s wanting to take even more out of a stream that’s already damaged. So of course we’re contesting that again.

And I just wanted to say that I’m really glad that you started your comments out by mentioning Flint, because that’s been really significant for us. We have been connected to the Flint battles over water from the beginning. We were invited to come and consult in Flint four years ago, when things first began to develop. We find it totally outrageous that Flint is still in the condition that it’s in, and people are getting shut off from their water.

And you mentioned the high water bills. They’re even higher than you suggested. Some people we know are paying $350 or $400 a month for water that they still can’t drink.

JJ: Wow.

PC: And at the same time, the water that the city claims is good water, now, people are being shut off from that water as well. It’s not just that they’re not delivering bottled water to people; they’re also cutting people off at the tap, in the same way that they’ve been doing in Detroit now for a number of years. We think those issues, Detroit and Flint, are intimately related to what’s going on with Ice Mountain.

Before the Flint crisis, the state had cut Flint off of revenue-sharing money that could have been used to fix their infrastructure. They get money taken away from them; Nestlé gets profits given to them, in the form of free water. It’s just completely unjust.

JJ: There’s not been a tremendous amount of coverage, but those stories that have existed, that are deeper, will mention that this has been a twisty road for Nestlé, and that in fact they were initially rejected by the state’s water withdrawal assessment tool, that said, “You’re going to harm streams, you’re going to harm fish.”

But Nestlé appealed that decision, and it’s that appeal that is now being approved. So it’s not as though it was always obvious, you know, there’s no environmental impact, or no harm here.

PC: Yeah, the water assessment tool, which they got scored a D on it—that’s the lowest grade you can get—so they didn’t pass that. So they go to the site-specific review, which is not site-specific at all. It’s a computer model. It takes place in an office. They never visit the actual site to determine what’s really going on there. So in both cases, you’re dealing with computer models; you’re not dealing with reality.

Whereas, we walk out and walk around in the woods and tromp around in the streams and the wetlands, and take reporters who are interested to look at the actual site where the streams are dried up, where Nestlé claims that water is pumping at 250 gallons per minute, and you’re looking at a puddle that’s one-foot wide and there’s no water moving in it at all.

They were given a lot of expert testimony, legal testimony, extensive, that was submitted as part of those 80,000 comments. They chose to ignore that as well.

JJ: I guess it’s a question of, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” Because Nestlé’s natural resources manager for Michigan says, “We never take out more than nature’s bringing back in.”

PC: Yes, that’s probably Arlene, right?

JJ: Yes.

PC: Yes. We’ve gone to their dog-and-pony shows, which is what we call them, where they do their PR work. It’s very fancy, charts and graphs, and they keep passing the same information out to people all the time.

The other issue is that they create 3,000 plastic bottles—I can’t remember whether it’s in an hour or what. So there’s the plastic bottle issue as well. Another story.

JJ: What would you say to people who hear that now a company, Nestlé or another company, is coming to their community to pump their water out from under them?

PC: One of the things that has to happen is that people have to strengthen the laws that are supposed to be protecting the water. Because we do have the  public trust doctrine in Michigan, which requires that the state of Michigan protect the water for all of us. And if that were actually honored, they wouldn’t be able to come and take it and send it off in bottles elsewhere, and they wouldn’t be allowed to destroy the environment.

In 2008, however, the state of Michigan weakened its laws a bit. They gave themselves the loophole to send it out as much as they wanted to, in small plastic bottles that end up in the Pacific Ocean. There’s some pieces of that Safe Drinking Water Act that could be used by the government to protect the water, but they don’t choose to use those pieces of the law.

So I would tell people, “Get those laws in place that actually make the government protect the water.”

Particularly it’s important that the state laws get strengthened, and that the people who are paying attention continue to put pressure on the various agencies to do it.

***

JJ: We’ll end on that note of people paying attention and applying pressure. That was Peggy Case of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. Before her you heard Talia Buford of ProPublica and Chris Savage of Electablog.com. And that’s it for CounterSpin for this week.

CounterSpin is produced by the national media watch group FAIR.  We’re engineered by Erica Rosato. I’m Janine Jackson. Thanks for listening to CounterSpin.

Ritchie Torres: The AOC Alternative Who Isn’t

January 26, 2021 - 10:33am

 

Eli Lake (Bloomberg, 11/16/20) describes Ritchie Torres as a “rising progressive star who has proudly resisted” an “anti-Israel purity test.”

Corporate media are having a field day with the ascendance of Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat from New York City. The image we see repeated across outlets is that he is a new kind of progressive: a young Black gay man from the Bronx, he stands as an alternative to the rise of democratic socialism. In particular, he is offered as a pragmatist, rather than an idealist, and above all, he’s aggressively pro-Israel.

Media sources (New York Times, 6/11/20; City and State, 8/23/20) anointed Torres as the Goldilocks candidate in a complicated open Democratic primary last year: He was well to the left of the conservative and anti-gay Ruben Diaz, Sr., but more palatable to the Democratic establishment than socialist Samelys Lopez. Now representing the Bronx along with two socialists who have bucked the pro-Israel consensus, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, Torres continues to brand himself as an alternative that the establishment can trust, and media are going along for the ride.

Bloomberg (11/16/20) was one of many news sources to trumpet Torres’ victory as a win for pro-Israel advocates, carving out a place for Zionism on the left. And his announcement that he would not join the “Squad,” the small socialist-backed congressional faction primarily associated with Ocasio-Cortez, due to its support for Palestine, made headlines from Tremont Avenue to Tel Aviv (Jerusalem Post, 12/21/20; Daily Beast, 12/31/20; Ha’aretz, 12/21/20; New York Post, 12/19/20; i24, 12/21/20).

He downplayed his non-association with the socialist contingent, telling WNYC/Gothamist (12/31/20) that he refuses “to be defined in relation to someone else,” and that he wants to be “defined on my own terms, based on my own story and my own record.” He told Jewish Insider (12/5/19) that a 2015 trip to Israel helped inspire his belief that anti-Zionism is antisemitic. (This would make a great many Jews antisemitic, by the way.)

Torres told Jewish Insider (1/15/21) that “you can run as a pro-Israel, pragmatic progressive without catering to the extremes.”

He later told Jewish Insider (1/15/21) that a “few demagogues [can] pump antisemitic poison into the bloodstream of a political party,” and that he wants to “resist the Jeremy Corbynization of progressive politics in the United States.” It’s a reference to the idea that former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn allowed antisemitism to fester in the party, which Corbyn’s defenders call a politically motivated accusation designed to steer Labour to the right (Jacobin, 10/29/20).

This framing of a left-wing critique of Israel as “antisemitic poison” is line with the impulse to take a misleading “both sides” approach to antisemitism: Sure, on the right, literal armed Nazis are storming the Capitol, but politicians and media alike feel the need to equate that with left-wing lawmakers getting too vocal about Palestinian human rights (FAIR.org, 11/6/18).

The coverage of Torres’ Israelophilia is also unbalanced. For example, in the New York Post piece, he says: “I remember meeting a family in Sderot. And I had no concept of what it was like to live in a city that lives under the fear of rocket fire.” But here’s a fact he leaves out about that Israeli city: It is where Israelis infamously gathered in 2014 to watch rockets rain down on Gaza as if it were a sporting event (New York Times, 7/14/14). There are two sides to the terror and to the hatred in the conflict, and Torres missed half the lesson. Worse, Torres doesn’t appear to get questioned about it.

Certainly, a progressive politician in the United States might be interested in like-minded, progressive lawmakers and activists abroad. But his appearance last summer for an LGBT event with the Israeli embassy, alongside former Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and Israeli Defense Force Lt. Col. Dana Ben-Ezra, is an example of support for Israel’s right-wing government that is hardly in line with Torres’ stated domestic agenda. There are numerous organizations in Israel that organize against discrimination and offer services for LGBT people. Standing with them would, indeed, be progressive. But doing public relations for Israel’s current right-wing leadership very much isn’t. Who in his constituency or the progressive Democratic base benefits from this? The media covering his “progressive but pro-Israel” image ignore this contradiction.

Torres told the New York Post (12/19/20) that he saw “his strong support for Israel as a primary distinction” between democratic socialists and “true progressives.”

Some of the coverage of Torres’s pro-Israel advocacy, like the New York Post piece (12/19/20), pays lip service to the other side of the issue: Yes, he supports a two-state solution and believes in addressing the rights of Palestinians, and, as he told Jewish Insider (12/5/19), it’s OK to criticize Israel as long as you don’t threaten to cut aid or “delegitimize” the state, especially by backing boycott campaigns meant to highlight the second-class status of Palestinians living under occupation.

What Torres and his media cheerleaders miss is that such existential questions about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and the legitimacy of the current government, are at the heart of the nation’s own discourse. The country’s leading human rights group, B’Tselem, declared recently “that the entirety of Israel should be considered an apartheid state” (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 1/14/21). Street protests against the right-wing prime minister are more than half a year old (Ha’aretz, 1/16/21). Israel’s main political opposition leader has said he is open to an alliance with the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties and the left-wing Hadash party (Middle East Monitor, 1/18/21). Sixty Israeli teenagers have refused military conscription this year, citing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories (Ha’aretz, 1/5/21).

One would think that on the question of Israel’s future, a progressive would be aligned with these forces rather than the current leaders of the state. But US media’s concept of Israeli politics is woefully unnuanced: You either support Israel, or your criticism veers into pro-Palestinian extremism. A realist might conclude that Torres is taking advantage of that media myopia, branding himself as a pro-Israel lawmaker in order to seek funding opportunities in the future.

Hot button compromiser

At first glance, Torres comes into Congress with a fairly progressive platform. For instance, he has voiced support for the Green New Deal and told one progressive LGBT Democratic club that he’d support “universal healthcare, including the availability of Medicare for all,” as long it had the support of organized labor and wouldn’t result in healthcare job losses in the Bronx.

A police reform advocate (Politico, 12/12/17) called Torres’ watering down of a police ID bill a “dishonorably crass political move”—which Torres rejected as the complaints of a “fanatical few.”

But missed by much of the media branding is his time as a City Council member, where he often found himself as a compromiser on hot button issues. On police violence, it’s true that he’s taken heat from cop advocates—the sergeants union once tweeted that he was a “first class whore” (Gay City News, 9/4/20), the kind of vitriol that can be a badge of honor for police reformers. But advocates of reform have also accused him of “surrendering to the mayor and police department” (Politico, 12/12/17)—with more substance to back up their criticism.

At issue was Torres’ role in the Right to Know Act, a set of proposals to promote transparency and accountability in the New York Police Department. As the Center for Constitutional Rights explained, “at the very last minute,” Torres, a sponsor of one of the key bills, “pulled the version supported by [more than 200] community groups” and put forth a “compromise version backed by the NYPD and the mayor which effectively removed the key provisions of the bill.” The group said Torres helped craft an exception that excused “officers from showing their ID in a vast majority of encounters.”

While “defund the police” became a battle cry for the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, Torres was quoted in the  New York Post (12/19/20) saying the phrase was “arbitrary and irresponsible.”

Torres (Daily News, 11/21/18) has touted “public-private partnerships” as the key to saving public housing.

While fair housing has been his key city issue, Politico (10/1/19) reported that his congressional campaign received cash from “executives at a contracting company with a history of wage theft allegations and safety violations,” and The City (10/21/19) found that his campaign took in more $100,000 in real estate industry contributions. Campaign finance records also show that he took money from the pro-Israel group NorPAC, as well as Elliot Management, the hedge fund of Paul Singer, who mostly gives to Republican candidates (Intercept, 10/15/20). One Democratic Socialists of America chapter (Twitter, 6/18/20) called out Torres for accepting money from Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist who also was campaign manager for Michael Bloomberg’s controversial third mayoral run.

The Trump administration in 2018 signed a “massive expansion of a controversial program called Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, which privatizes public housing” (Intercept, 4/2/18). Torres co-wrote an op-ed (Daily News, 11/21/18) in favor of this program, and City Limits (11/19/15) covered his embrace of privatization more than five years ago. The New York Post (8/29/18), in a pro-privatization editorial, praised Torres for pushing the public housing authority management to seek more discipline against its workers.

Despite the media hype, Torres not joining AOC’s Squad is not a case of a fellow progressive challenging the group’s pro-Palestine position, but rather a politician considerably to their right declaring that he is much more at home with the Democratic establishment. The media should be honest about that, rather than making him out to be an iconoclast that he isn’t.

 

Media’s Deficit Hawks Fly Again—as Soon as a Democrat Takes Office

January 25, 2021 - 3:13pm

 

If raising the national debt is “Trump’s most enduring legacy,” as the Washington Post (1/14/21) suggests, then it follows that in order to reverse that legacy, President Joe Biden will have to reduce the debt.

A Democrat has assumed office, and so, like clockwork, corporate media are here to play their favorite game of pretending to suddenly be deeply concerned with the deficit and the national debt. Debt has risen sharply after a Covid-induced economic crash and rounds of enormous Trump tax cuts (the last of which gave 82% of the benefits to the richest 43,000 Americans, while only 3% went to those earning less than $100,000 per year). While media had little problem with those tax cuts as they were happening (FAIR.org, 2/28/18), the party is now over, and it’s apparently time for austerity.

The Washington Post (1/14/21) led the fearmongering in a piece co-produced with ProPublica, warning that the “immense” debt was “approaching World War II levels,” but that, “This time around, it will be much harder to dig ourselves out.” Throughout the article, reporters Allan Sloan and Cezary Podkul also linked the debt crisis to Social Security and Medicare programs, insinuating that these need to be drastically cut, even though Social Security by law can only spend money from its own dedicated tax stream (or money from that stream borrowed by the Treasury and returned with interest), and so can never make a net contribution to the national debt (FAIR.org, 2/28/17).

Fortune (1/14/21) went even further, claiming that the US is now in a similar debt position to Italy, “the most worrisome basket case among Europe’s major economies.” It uses scare words such as “gigantic debt,” “ever-rising mountain,” “gamble,” “gigantic risk,” “staggering $3-trillion-plus deficit” and “mushroom[ing]” to describe the US’s new problem. Not to be out-sensationalized, Business Insider (1/17/21) insisted that “America’s soaring national debt is a looming disaster.”

Biden is proposing a $1.9 trillion spending package featuring unemployment benefits, vaccine programs and direct checks to every American (which corporate media also tended to oppose—FAIR.org, 1/8/21).

“Dear Joe Biden: Deficits Still Matter,” was the Financial Times’ response (1/20/21), with Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma claiming that, “as vaccines roll out and normalcy returns, injecting more stimulus into a recovering patient is likely to do more harm than good.” “There is no free lunch,” he wrote. “The path to prosperity cannot be so easy as to just print and spend,” he added, claiming that further government spending will actually cripple growth and increase inequality.

The Wall Street Journal (1/18/21) warns that the US “debt already exceeds the annual output of the economy, putting the US in company with economies including Greece, Italy and Japan.”

The Wall Street Journal (1/18/21) was also suddenly as worried. “How much [debt] is too much,” it asked, wondering if “there is a ceiling on the US’s debt load and how the country will pay it back.” One source described Biden administration plans as “gluttony.” Other outlets expressed their new concern for the rising figures (e.g., Raw Story, 1/14/21; Fox Business, 1/19/21; CNBC, 1/21/21)

The Detroit News (1/11/21) spelled out what it wanted to see to combat what it considered the “out of control” spending: “Develop a balanced budget amendment like those already in place by 49 of the 50 US states.” Given the economic crisis the country is in, this would mean drastic cutbacks in government programs keeping people alive through the pandemic, and likely no stimulus at all.

It is unclear whether Biden will listen to the deficit hawks, but he should be used to this by now. As he and President Barack Obama assumed office during an economic crisis, media pretended to be greatly concerned with the debt and the deficit, trying to foment a nonexistent public outrage with the problem (FAIR.org, 6/18/10, 6/24/10). The Washington Post (5/19/10), for example, led a story with the words:

With voters up in arms over the mounting federal debt, congressional Democrats are growing increasingly queasy about adding to the nation’s tab, with some arguing that additional spending to prop up the economy and help the unemployed should be paid for or abandoned.

In reality, polls showed that the public considered the debt a secondary or minor issue.

The debt then, as now, was caused principally by a sustained economic shock, Republican tax cuts and gigantic military spending. Yet a FAIR study (9/11/11) of six months of ABC World News, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News broadcasts covering the deficit or debt found that only three segments mentioned any of these causes at all, even in passing.

Likewise, the same corporate media who feigned outrage at Bernie Sanders’ pro-public spending ideas, questioning how America could ever afford such lavish proposals as universal healthcare or student loan forgiveness, were uniformly silent when the Trump administration decided to add $81 billion extra onto the military budget that already rivaled that of all other nations combined (FAIR.org, 11/21/17).

The New York Times‘ Paul Krugman (12/17/20) points out that “the real interest rate on U.S. debt—the rate adjusted for inflation—has lately been consistently negative, which means that the additional debt won’t even create a major future burden.”

There is some dissent to the austerity orthodoxy in corporate media, perhaps most prominently economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who has long argued against the phony deficit doom-mongering (e.g., New York Times, 2/4/10). “We know what’s going on here,” he wrote last month (12/17/20), predicting what was coming. Republicans are “clearly getting ready to invoke fear of budget deficits as a reason to block anything and everything Biden proposes once he’s finally sworn in.” Once again, they have found an ally in even nominally liberal media outlets.

With Biden’s spending plan aimed at providing direct aid to people and necessary support to vital services and institutions, the relief package is far from frivolous. Furthermore, as the Center for Economic and Policy Research co-founder (and FAIR regular) Dean Baker (Beat the Press, 1/13/21) has noted, rock-bottom interest rates make these debts particularly straightforward to pay off in the future. Without  relief, we will see sustained decreases in living standards for ordinary Americans.

Ultimately, however, that is the point of deficit hawkery: to scold and scare readers into accepting cuts to welfare and public services that are of no use to the wealthy. While they curiously have little problem with Republicans running deficits to suit their wealthy constituents, as soon as a Democrat is elected, media move to neutralize the threat that any progressive legislation might be enacted on behalf of the people.

Featured image: Washington Post graph (1/14/21) of debt-to-GDP ratio.

Media Allow Republicans to Use ‘Unity’ as Tool of Division

January 22, 2021 - 12:11pm

 

“Republicans complained that the new president’s agenda on immigration, economics and the environment advanced through executive actions and proposed legislation offered no gesture toward them,” wrote Peter Baker (New York Times, 1/21/21), who was not only alive but held a prominent job as a journalist during the Trump administration.

“In Biden’s Washington, Democrats and Republicans Are Not United on ‘Unity,’” declared the headline over a New York Times analysis by Peter Baker (1/21/21), with the subhead:

The new president seeks bipartisanship, but he is caught between Republicans who want tangible concessions and Democrats who are in no mood to compromise.

Having made clear at the outset which is the party of compromise, Baker wrote that Biden

reached out to Republicans with messages of conciliation, vowing to work together…. But in Mr. Biden’s opening hours at least, the outreach was more about words and symbols than tangible actions.

Baker then enumerated Biden’s sins:

He did not appoint any members of the opposition party to his cabinet, as Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama did, and many of the executive orders he signed in his first two days in office were aimed at reversing Mr. Trump’s policies and enacting liberal ideas, not finding common ground. He has offered no examples of Republican priorities he was willing to adopt in the interest of bipartisan cooperation nor described what compromises would be acceptable to win congressional approval of his initiatives.

When Biden used the word “unity” in his inaugural address, that he followed it immediately by invoking Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was certainly no accident; it was intended to make quite clear that “unity” does not mean “adopt the priorities of the minority opposition (which, by the way, just sought to overthrow the democratic election).” Rather, it means that we “treat each other with dignity and respect” and, crucially, that “disagreement must not lead to disunion.” And what president launches their term by describing the ways they’re going to back off their campaign promises?

But rather than judge Biden against his own claims, Baker turned the idea of unity into an open question with two valid and competing perspectives: “Biden and his allies, however, argue that unity means something different than concession—more of a change in culture, not splitting the difference on policy plans,” while

Republicans complained that the new president’s agenda on immigration, economics and the environment advanced through executive actions and proposed legislation offered no gesture toward them.

The rest of the article is structured as a back-and-forth, quoting competing claims by Democrats and Republicans, as if claims about unity coming from people like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who repeatedly backed Trump’s lies about Democrats stealing the election, should be given equal time to scold the opposition for “not hav[ing] the ability or the willingness to unify us.”

The result painted exactly the narrative the GOP will work for the next two years to build: that Democrats are the ones sowing division by refusing to work together to get things done. It is the narrative the GOP—which, with a split Senate, has already made its obstructionist intentions patently clear—desperately needs in order to take back the House and Senate in 2022, and to avoid accountability for the most serious attack on US democracy in living memory. And the country’s top “liberal” paper is handing it to them on a silver platter.

NBC‘s report (1/21/21) revolves around a Republican “vision of unity in which Biden refrains from actions that antagonize their base of voters.”

Similarly, at NBCNews.com (1/21/21), Sahil Kapur began:

When President Joe Biden seeks to fulfill his urgent plea for unity, he will confront a dissonance between the two parties’ definitions of the word, and is likely to be forced to choose between fighting for a bold agenda and forging bipartisan agreements.

This presents “forging bipartisan agreements” as a task that can actually be accomplished through the efforts of the president alone. The piece quoted three Republicans, a former Obama adviser and a right-wing House Democrat from New Jersey, who illustrated the idea that “some Democrats believe the wiser path is moderation” by warning against letting “the far left of our party dictate our agenda.” Not a single progressive was quoted.

The opinion the furthest to the left NBC included was that of the former Obama adviser, Dan Pfieffer, who astutely noted:

There will be a tendency among many press and pundits to condense Biden’s promise to heal the soul of the nation into nothing more than appeasing congressional Republicans.

Apparently Kapur believed that including Pfieffer’s observation absolved him of essentially bearing it out.

Impeachment plays a big role in the discussion about unity. At the New York Times (1/19/21), reporter Trip Gabriel wrote, Biden “has tried to focus on his policy plans. But many of those who elected him are still fixated on his predecessor.” Noting that an impeachment trial for Trump was imminent, Gabriel predicted:

The opening chapters of the new administration are likely to be marked by tension among Democrats about how to move forward. Party institutionalists led by Mr. Biden want to hammer out deals with congressional Republicans, while the Democratic base is eager for Mr. Trump, his allies and his family members to be held fully accountable.

This is presented as if the two are incompatible—which is only true if Republicans refuse to engage with a party that demands accountability for coup attempts.

Chris Savage, Talia Buford & Peggy Case on Flint Water Crisis

January 22, 2021 - 10:20am

 

Water in a Flint, Michigan, hospital, 2015.

This week on CounterSpin: Michigan’s attorney general has indicted nine state officials, including former Gov. Rick Snyder, the state’s former health director and two of the emergency managers of the city of Flint, for exposing at least 100,000 people to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water, and for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease killed at least 12 people and sickened many more.

In an op-ed for The Hill (1/19/21), Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee called the 2014 decision to switch the source of Flint’s drinking water “one of the greatest environmental injustices in our lifetimes.” Which is true, but “the environment” didn’t do it: It’s often forgotten that Flint was a crisis of democracy—as decision-making had been taken out of the hands of Flint’s elected officials, and given to an “emergency manager” tasked with reining in costs—a  system that seems to be used disproportionately in communities of color, taking decisions out of community hands but leaving them to deal with their fallout.

There’s been a $640 million settlement of class action lawsuits, but Michigan Radio (1/11/21) reports that some civic leaders say the deal presents inappropriate hurdles—young children might not get their settlement if they don’t undergo a specific bone lead test—and some question how money could ever compensate Flint residents for months and months of washing and bathing and cooking with bottled water, to avoid exposing themselves and their families to a neurotoxin, all while officials deflected and denied and belittled concerns.

We talked about Flint on CounterSpin, in its particulars and in terms of how it fits into bigger questions around environmental racism, resource control and local governance. In light of the renewed attention around the story—which has not ended, even as media looked away—we revisit some of those conversations this week.

Reports of Racial Disparities in Covid Vaccines Distort Science

January 22, 2021 - 7:51am

 

LA Times (12/15/20) reports that Pfizer vaccine is “74.4% effective in Asian Americans, and…only 10.4% effective” among people described as multiracial—though in both cases, only one vaccinated person in the demographic came down with Covid.

Science reporting frequently fails to meaningfully communicate research results, especially when it comes to medical research. Out of context numbers and percentages only create public misunderstanding of the scientific results.

When the LA Times (12/15/20) published Karen Kaplan’s comparison of the Moderna and Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines consisting essentially of a list of percentages without explanation, it created the impression that one vaccine was better than the other for certain populations. Asian parents sent the article to their children urging them to get the Moderna vaccine if possible. Yet these numbers were calculated with a sample size too low to make even a guess of that conclusion.

Many people have seen in numerous news stories and press releases that both of these vaccines have about 95% efficacy. But news stories don’t explain how these numbers are calculated. Vaccine efficacy (VE) is calculated by comparing the difference in rate of infection between the vaccinated group and the placebo group.

The efficacy calculation used in these vaccine trials is reduction in relative risk in the vaccinated group, calculated with this formula:

In the Moderna vaccine trial, 13,934 study participants received the vaccine and five of those participants developed Covid-19. 13, 883 participants received the placebo and 90 of those participants developed Covid-19. (Source: Page 23, Table 9 of FDA Moderna briefing document)

In the Pfizer vaccine trial, 18,198 study participants received the vaccine and eight of those participants developed Covid-19. 18,325 participants received the placebo and 162 of those participants developed Covid-19. (Source: Page 24, Table 6 of FDA Pfizer briefing document)

These numbers answer the question the LA Times poses, “How effective are the vaccines overall?” The FDA had signaled it was prepared to consider emergency use authorization to any vaccine with over 50% efficacy, and these VE percentages were well above that threshold.

But then, the LA Times article goes on to ask the same question for different populations, and answers it based on the VE % for different subgroups published in the study data. The problem is that many of these subgroups do not have a large enough sample size of study participants who developed Covid-19 for this VE % to be statistically evaluable.

The data are displayed in the documents for completeness, but any difference between the subgroup VE % and the overall VE % is most likely due to chance. Publishing these numbers as if the Pfizer vaccine is 100% effective in Pacific Islanders when there was only one case of Covid-19 among Pasifika participants for the analysis is irresponsible and misleading.

Calculations for how each VE % published in the LA Times article are shown in the following table, and show how absurd it is to conclude that one vaccine is better than the other for any of these subgroups. The comparisons made were not always even between subgroups of the same criteria, for example showing the VE % for ages 65+ for the Moderna trial and ages 56+ for the Pfizer trial in the evaluation of whether these vaccines are effective in older people.

Note: We calculated Pfizer’s Asian and Multiracial VE% to be 74.6% and 10.9%, respectively, but they appear as 74.4% and 10.4%, respectively, in Pfizer’s FDA briefing.

There simply is not enough data to assess efficacy among groups that make up a small percentage of the trial participants. While there are efforts to recruit people of color and older trial participants, and most of these trials end enrollment for younger white people once they reach certain overall enrollment goals, it would take thousands more Asian, Black and other trial participants to make any meaningful assessment on the vaccine’s efficacy for any of these specific groups.

Overblown racial disparity

Yahoo! (12/4/20) says a vaccine simulation “examine[s] a vaccine similar to these big developers'”–but they differ in precisely the way the study found to be problematic.

Likewise, the reporting on the MIT machine learning study, as in a Yahoo! report (12/4/20), wrongly implies that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines may not be as effective for Asian and Black participants:

Researchers used artificial intelligence and machine learning to examine a vaccine similar to these big developers’, and found that while less than 0.5% of white trial participants didn’t respond strongly to the vaccine, nearly 10% of Asian participants didn’t.

This is misleading, and overblows the potential racial disparity in vaccine efficacy. For a summary of the immunological reasons for this, please refer to this Twitter thread by professor of immunology Akiko Wasaki. Yahoo! also reports on the study as if it were a clinical trial performed on real people, but it was a computer simulation that modeled theoretical vaccines.

The MIT study found striking simulated racial disparities for a predicted vaccine that only encodes the receptor binding domain (RBD) of the spike protein:  37.3% of Asian people’s immune systems wouldn’t be able to recognize an RBD vaccine.

For whole spike protein vaccines (S), >99% of all people’s MHC class I can present at least 1 peptide, and >98% of Asian people’s MHC class II can present at least 1 peptide.

However, Moderna’s vaccine encodes the entire spike protein. Astrazeneca’s vaccine encodes the entire spike protein. Pfizer performed trials on two vaccine variants: one encoding only the RBD and one with whole spike protein. The whole spike protein version of Pfizer’s vaccine is the only one approved for emergency use in the UK and US. The MIT study actually predicts more than 98% robust coverage for every demographic group for a vaccine that encodes the whole spike protein.

The study does say that vaccines which contain the whole virus, or at least includes more than one viral protein, are more robustly effective than a vaccine which only expresses the spike protein. For example, we can infer from the MIT study that SinoVac’s inactivated virus vaccine may be more effective than any vaccines developed by Operation Warp Speed. However, the MIT study suggests that all the vaccines developed by these US companies are predicted to be effective for most people in every demographic group as well.

All vaccines in development in the U.S. Operation Warp Speed program. S = whole spike protein; RBD = receptor binding domain of spike protein. Liu et al.

 

Misleading and distracting

There are two take-home messages we’d like to focus on.

1. Much of the scientific journalism on US Covid vaccines has been inaccurate, misleading, fearmongering and irresponsible. That should make people think extra hard about how poorly represented the Chinese (and likely other future non-Western) vaccines are in any reporting on them done by Western corporate media.

2. The US clearly has enough problems to worry about with domestic Covid containment, vaccine production and distribution, and lack of clear and accurate reporting of information to the people. US corporate media should stop wasting its time speculating on China’s vaccines and Covid caseload from last winter. These are racist distractions that only hurt Americans further.

A version of this article originally appeared in Plan A (12/30/20).

‘The Basic Problem Is a Lack of Central Strategy’

January 21, 2021 - 2:17pm

 

 

Janine Jackson interviewed Kaiser Health News‘ Elisabeth Rosenthal about the troubled vaccine rollout for the January 15, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

A day after Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the administration would be releasing all of the federal government’s Covid vaccine reserves, officials admitted that these reserves were nonexistent (Washington Post, 1/15/21).

Janine Jackson: Having for weeks held back doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, the federal government announced this week that not only is it releasing all of it now, but states will be penalized for not using it quickly enough. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar claimed that this was always the plan, that states have “ample funding” to roll out the vaccines to the public, and that there was “never a reason” for prioritizing any groups like healthcare workers, or the frontline workers, overwhelmingly low-waged people of color, who have been disproportionately sickened and killed.

It’s just the latest opportunity for reporters to use words like “stunned” and “perplexed” in describing the response of state and local officials to the vaccine rollout, which would have been challenging at the best of times—and these sure aren’t those.

Joining us now to talk about what we’re seeing is Elisabeth Rosenthal, longtime journalist, now editor-in-chief at Kaiser Health News, and author of the book, An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Elisabeth Rosenthal.

Elisabeth Rosenthal: Thanks for having me here.

JJ:  You see phrases in stories like, “The administration of vaccines has met with delays and roadblocks.” That passive voice is safe. But the opposite of that isn’t necessarily finger-pointing, another word we’re seeing a lot. It’s just trying to understand where the breakdowns or flaws in the system are, so they can be addressed. I think it’s understood that this process was going to present challenges, as we say, but what would you identify as the primary factors that have made it more confusing, more chaotic, than it needed to be?

Kaiser Health News (1/14/21)

ER: Sure. I always say this is not rocket science; it’s complicated logistics, but not even that complicated. The basic problem is a lack of central strategy. You can argue that a lot of different kinds of algorithms should dictate who gets the vaccine. And instead of deciding nationally, with the best experts, how we want to do it, basically the feds have sent it to the states, the states decide how they want to allocate it to the counties, the counties decide how they want to allocate it to hospitals, and likewise to nursing homes and CVS. And it’s just predictable chaos without a central plan which people can trust.

And the newest wrinkle in this today, which I have smoke coming out of my ears for, is all these governors and mayors have announced that, OK, starting this week, January 11, folks over 75, or over 65, will be able to sign up for the vaccine. Well, good luck with that. I compare it to trying to get a delivery from Whole Foods during the beginning of the pandemic; you have to be tech savvy, sitting there when the slots are released, refreshing your web browser. That is a crazy way to do a vaccine program.

And I think one thing that would have made this whole thing better was a central strategy, where everyone knew where they stood. And if someone says to me, “OK, you’re going to get your vaccine in April,” I can be OK with that, because I can at least know exactly when and where it’s coming, rather than this current turmoil, where we have—literally, these are the stories we are hearing at Kaiser Health News today, where I’m currently editor-in-chief: A doctor’s office will get a call from a hospital saying, “Hey, we have six extra doses, send your staff over here,” or there’ll be an announcement at a Giant supermarket saying: “Hey, we’ve got four extra doses. Come one, come all.”

You hear of a one nursing home getting everyone vaccinated, and another one 10 miles away, which is presumably not as well-connected, or in a different county that’s doing things differently, having no idea when they’re getting that vaccine. So that introduces chaos, introduces anger. And we just have to be slow and plodding and systematic about the way we do this, in a rapid way. So how’s that for a challenge?

JJ: And particularly at a time when public trust is obviously going to be paramount, you have to trust that there is a plan. But first I wanted to say, it can be hard for some people to see the unfairness in that “first come, first served”; it sounds like it’s equitable. Of course, it’s not at all equitable, both in terms of, as you say, having to be tech savvy enough to get in line on the website, or sign up and then know when you’re supposed to show up to someplace. But also, of course, a lot of folks—we’re talking about undocumented workers, we’re talking about homeless people, a lot of the folks who should be getting vaccinated—they’re just left out entirely. There’s no incentive, in that sense, to reach them, particularly if the federal government is going to be counting how quickly you can say you’re vaccinating folks.

ER: Yes. And I think we know there’s more vaccine skepticism, generally, in those populations, which makes it even more troubling. Boy, you have to be good at playing the game of accessing healthcare in the US. As you said, you need to be tech savvy. So what does that mean? It means maybe 80-year-olds are not as good as the 65-year-olds, or an 85-year-old who has a 30-year-old grandson who can snag an appointment is in much better shape. So you’re kind of favoring the well-educated, well-connected, well–hooked up to the internet. And then, PS: We’ve seen in some states, like New York, where you officially get an appointment, but it’s not really timed, so there are these long lines. So many people, particularly low-income people, have to work, so they need an appointment time if you want this to go smoothly, or good weekend and evening times. There are ways to do this well, and other countries are doing so, but we are not.

JJ: Well, but you say “central plan,” what are you, some kind of Communist?

ER: [laughing] No, not at all.

JJ: Your book is about the businessification of healthcare. I wonder what role you see that playing in all of this, in terms of the development of the vaccines and their distribution?

New York Times (12/24/20)

ER: Well, no, I’m certainly not a Communist or a socialist, but being a capitalist doesn’t mean you don’t plan; it should mean the opposite, right? But instead of planning, having a government plan, we’ve let every company—and I will call hospitals “companies” for the purpose of this interview—and doctor’s office go it on their own, and nursing homes.

So, for example, what did many hospitals in New York do? There was a great New York Times article about this: They gave it to their entire staff, including people who’d been working from home for the last eight months.

Now, that’s what a company would do: You would protect your own before you protected your vulnerable patients. A hospital that really cared about its community would say, “Yes, we want these frontline workers who have Covid exposure to be vaccinated. But then, next, we’re going to look to our vulnerable cancer patients, who may be in here every week for chemotherapy, or our vulnerable people with bad lung disease.” And we did not see that happening at many, many hospitals.

JJ: I think part of the problem was the setup: A vaccine was presented as “the light at the end of the tunnel” for a scientifically under-informed and to some degree politicized public; it was going to be something that would put an end to arguments about what we needed to do societally, since we could do this thing individually–or not, you know.

ER: Yes.

JJ: In a way, “public health,” as a thing—kind of like democracy—it seems is being tested.

Elisabeth Rosenthal: “We have chosen the most profitable form of ending the pandemic, which is a vaccine…. This is the only solution, given how out of control we’ve let this become, as a result of not being good at public health.”

ER: Yes, we have chosen the most profitable form of ending the pandemic, which is a vaccine. And, you know, the fact that we’ve gotten vaccines at record pace, I’m not going to say that’s a bad thing; it’s a good thing, and that was one way to solve the problem. But why can these other countries be more methodical and systematic? It’s partly because they have central planning, but it’s partly because Covid never got out of control there. So we are desperate for a solution; this is the only solution, given how out of control we’ve let this become, as a result of not being good at public health. And so there’s a kind of feeding frenzy for how to distribute it and who should get it, and survival of the fittest, in a way—and that’s not very good.

JJ: Not the way to do it. Well, I wonder, are there things that you think reporters could maybe do more of, could maybe do less of, in covering Covid and the vaccine?

ER: I’ve written that I thought the public service announcements should be scarier, because Covid is scary, if you get a bad case. I think we believe in this, like, “Let’s be good neighbors, think about your grandma.” That didn’t work. We saw it all over the country, we’ve had Covid exploding, because we didn’t do the right public health things.

So I think, lessons learned is, we really need to reinforce our public health system, make the CDC and the FDA scientific, not political, organizations. And then at this point, yes, we will be depending on a vaccine, mostly, to get us out of it, but that doesn’t mean you should stop the social distance and masking.

And a lot of people are, you know, the classic American thing, “Well, which vaccine is the best? I only want the best.” I think the answer so far is any one that’s out there looks pretty good—and, you know, different countries are using different ones—but when it’s your turn, you should take what’s available. That would be my advice as a journalist and as a former physician, and it’s what I intend to do.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Elisabeth Rosenthal, editor-in-chief at Kaiser Health News. Her book is called An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back, out from Penguin Press. Elisabeth Rosenthal, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

ER: Thanks for having me.

Media Elevate Eugenicists, Sideline Disabled Voices in Discussions of Covid Rationing

January 20, 2021 - 3:57pm

 

In the sticky conversations around rationing life-saving treatments and vaccines during the Covid pandemic, corporate media have elevated some experts without disclosing their troubling views on disability, aging and the value of human life. Meanwhile, media outlets have largely sidelined the voices of disabled activists and others who could speak on behalf of those most affected by the pandemic.

‘Quality of life’

“The stark message to chronically sick, disabled people and elders is that we are ‘acceptable losses,'” Elliot Kukla wrote in the New York Times (3/19/20).

In the first weeks of the Covid outbreak, national media outlets did shine a spotlight on issues for disabled people, including the potential for discriminatory triage guidelines. Disabled voices appeared in the op-ed pages of the New York Times (3/19/20, 3/23/20), Washington Post (4/6/20, 4/9/20) and Vox (4/4/20), advocating for their rights.

Disability became a viral social media topic in July 2020, after a Texas woman shared a recording of a doctor refusing life-saving treatment for her Covid-infected husband, Michael Hickson, a Black father of five who was already a quadriplegic with brain damage. On tape, his doctor defended his choice based on Hickson’s lack of “quality of life,” by which he clarified to mean Hickson being “paralyzed with a brain injury,” not the infection. He also referred to Covid medication as being appropriate for patients who are “walking and talking.”

A few national outlets picked up the story, reflecting varying degrees of understanding of the disability issues at stake. Newsweek (7/2/20) leaned on statements by the hospital and care agency only, which defended the doctor’s medical choice but glided over his statements. Nor did Newsweek‘s article itself include all of the doctor’s incriminating words—or any input from disability advocates.

The Washington Post (7/5/20) described the contrast between Hickson’s wife, who wanted life-saving measures used, and his sister, who sought legal guardianship to let him die, as between a “voice of hope” and “a pragmatist,” respectively. The sister’s pragmatism was illustrated by her acceptance that Hickson was no longer “a genius,” or “the person he was before 2017,” when he was injured—with the Post not questioning the assumption that that prior brain damage was relevant to whether he should be saved.

None of the national stories pointed out how the doctor’s statements by themselves violated federal anti-discrimination rules for Covid triage, as a physician pointed out in an op-ed in The Hill (7/15/20). Still, the Hickson case brought brief attention to disability issues, with follow-up stories from outlets like USA Today (7/14/20) and Politico (8/10/20) covering state and local battles for disability rights.

‘Happiness’

Peter Singer (New York Times Magazine, 4/10/20) rejects comparisons of the Covid death toll to Vietnam War casualties, because “this is killing mostly older people. I think that’s really relevant.”

While national corporate media have sometimes, especially early on, centered disabled and affected voices during this pandemic, representatives of affected groups have not been included in conversations about rationing and other policy issues.  No advocates of disability or aging were invited to participate in either of two debates on Covid-19 ethical issues published in the New York Times Magazine and hosted by staff writer Emily Bazelon: “Restarting America Means People Will Die. So When Do We Do It?” (4/10/20), and “People Are Dying. Whom Do We Save First With the Vaccine?” (12/24/20).

Both conversations brought together five “thinkers,” as Bazelon described them. Each included author Peter Singer, described as “bioethics professor at Princeton [University].” Singer’s beliefs are guided by a “utilitarian” philosophy, which, he says, “does the most to increase the net surplus of happiness over misery” (NPR, 6/1/20). Singer has received significant positive attention in the last few years from national media outlets. An otherwise glowing article on Singer in Vox (12/11/20) did point to one notable mark on his record:

He has also been at times a controversial figure in modern ethics, alienating many in the disability community with what they’ve called his simplistic and horrifying takes on intellectual disabilities.

Indeed, Singer has argued, repeatedly and emphatically, that parents should be able to euthanize their disabled babies — not just abort fetuses, but kill actual infants. He describes nondisabled lives as “hav[ing] a greater chance at happiness” than disabled lives (New York Times, 2/16/03). Singer also believes that people with significant cognitive disabilities, such as Alzheimer’s disease, cease being “persons,” because they lack self-awareness, and so can ethically be euthanized by caregivers (New Yorker, 9/6/99).

Otherwise, Singer claims to value human and animal life highly (Vox, 10/27/20). He wrote a book called Animal Liberation and opposes eating, testing on or harming animals. (He has not offered an opinion on disabled animals.)

Disabled activists, religious scholars and others have spoken out ardently against Singer’s views for years, describing them as “eugenics” (e.g., Independent,, 10/10/11; National Review, 9/2/13;), which is defined as a coordinated effort to improve the genetic make-up of a population. The most famous eugenicists, the Nazis, sterilized and killed disabled people.

The beliefs that undergird Singer’s positions on disability correspond to some of his opinions on Covid. In the April debate in the New York Times Magazine, and in other writings around that time, Singer argues that the consequences of “lockdowns” are “horrific,” because “more younger people are going to die,” and that most of the people who died have been very old, with “underlying medical conditions.”

In the December New York Times Magazine debate, Singer argues that we should reconsider the plan to vaccinate older people in nursing homes first. “I think we should ask questions about the quality of their lives,” he says. “The objective that we should aim for is to reduce years of life lost.” He has said that he would give up lifesaving measures to someone “much younger” than himself, if that person didn’t have “underlying health conditions that mean that their life expectancy is no greater than mine” (NPR, 6/1/20).

Criticism of Singer was more prominent in mainstream media ten or more years ago, when British media outlets referred to him as “the man who would kill disabled babies” (Independent, 5/13/98) and “the most dangerous man in the world” (Guardian, 11/5/99).  Yet Singer’s reputation would not have been a mystery to Bazelon or the Times when they selected him for the two Covid-19 debates. He has published similar views in the Times recently.

In 2017, Singer argued in a Times op-ed (4/3/17) that rape charges were unfair against a woman who had sex with a noncommunicative man with cerebral palsy. Singer’s argument shifted: the man “may lack the concept of consent altogether,” he offered at one point; elsewhere he suggested, even if the woman “wronged or harmed him, it must have been in a way that he is incapable of understanding and that affected his experience only pleasurably.”  The Times earlier (1/26/07) gave Singer space to question a disabled body’s autonomy, dismissing qualms about doctors deliberately stunting the growth of a disabled child as “lofty talk about human dignity.”

Singer’s collection of beliefs is peculiar to him and nonscientific, yet he was invited to the Covid debate table among experts on public health. His ideas of “happiness” and “quality of life” are not measurable, and there is no evidence that happiness correlates with physical or cognitive ability. Scientists also cannot predict the life expectancy of anyone with “underlying medical conditions.”

What is more, Singer has no experience working in medicine or public health; bioethics is a humanities discipline, created in the late 1960s. He acknowledges as much in a Washington Post op-ed (4/27/20) on Covid-19, in which he and his co-author suggest people could voluntarily get sick to provoke immunity. “We are ethicists, not medical or biological scientists,” they write. “When it comes to factual beliefs about the pandemic, we defer to expert scientific opinion, as everyone should.”

Diminishing capacities’

Singer was not the only controversial bioethicist to participate in Bazelon’s New York Times Magazine debates on Covid rationing. Her first conversation also included Ezekiel Emanuel. Unlike Singer, Emanuel does have a medical background, although not in epidemiology; he is an oncologist.

Even more than Singer, Emanuel has become one of the national media’s go-to experts on Covid, making frequent appearances on CNN (10/13/20), MSNBC (10/2/20), CNBC (10/13/20) and other news networks throughout the crisis, as well as writing numerous op-eds and being sought for comment. His media profile was further elevated after President-elect Joe Biden appointed him to his Covid-19 task force. Previously, Emanuel worked on the creation of the Affordable Care Act under President Barack Obama.

A member of Joe Biden’s Covid advisory panel argued that “society and families—and you—will be better off if nature takes its course swiftly and promptly,” and kills him at age 75 (Atlantic, 10/14).

Like Singer, Emanuel has shared disturbing views on disability and aging in the past. Most famously, he published a piece in the Atlantic (10/14) titled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”  In the essay, Emanuel writes that aging “renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived.” The article enumerates a long list of physical and cognitive losses, or “diminishing capacities,” associated with aging. Emanuel lists various conditions that are normally experienced by disabled people of all ages and determines they would make life no longer worth living.

A good deal of Emanuel’s article focuses on how people over 75 almost never achieve great things, which, for him, is associated with production and validation in a capitalist society. When asked about seniors over 75 who do lead active lives, he replied (Technology Review, 8/21/19): “When I look at what these people ‘do,’ almost all of it is what I classify as play. It’s not meaningful work. They’re riding motorcycles; they’re hiking.”

Emanuel’s 2014 Atlantic essay ends with a promise to avoid any medical tests or interventions after 75, including the flu shot. He refers to pneumonia as “the friend of the aged” by gifting the elderly with death.

For this and other reasons, advocates for the disabled and elderly were especially concerned when Emanuel’s name was announced as part of Biden’s Covid-19 advisory team. These advocates and others spoke out on social media and in the independent press. Corporate media mostly ignored the controversy in its coverage of his appointment, with Fox News (11/9/20) and USA Today (11/25/20) as notable exceptions. But USA Today only mentioned the controversy to defend Emanuel, calling his Atlantic essay a “personal preference,” even though the essay used “we” and “us” language, making assumptions about shared views on aging and disability. The essay also included a long critique of the American impulse to fight aging.

Emanuel appears on talk shows regularly discussing Covid, but he has rarely if ever been asked about his views on disability and aging since 2014. Bazelon did bring it up during the Times Magazine debate. He told her the premise of his Atlantic article was a “personal preference, not a policy proposal,” the same language used by USA Today.

If Emanuel’s outlook on aging and disability is a “personal preference,” he has nonetheless pursued policies that seem to align with it. During Obama’s presidency, he proposed systematizing the rationing of scarce medical resources, like organs, based on a calculus of age and disability instead of first-come, first-serve. He also argued in opposition to the Hippocratic oath putting individual patients over cost and the greater good. These views were controversial, prompting some conservatives to suggest the ACA would instill “death panels’ (Forbes, 9/24/14).

Emanuel has been proposing a similar approach to who should receive Covid-19 treatment and vaccination. He proposes prioritizing individuals with greater social value and more estimated years remaining, which is calculated based on age and disability (New York Times, 3/12/20; NEJM, 5/21/20).

Several media outlets, especially the New York Times, have provided extraordinary and mostly uncritical space for Emanuel’s ideas on Covid, even though he is not an epidemiologist. He is also not the only member of Biden’s Covid advisory board. The Times has published 12 op-eds related to Covid written or co-written by Emanuel since the pandemic started (e.g.,  4/14/20, 7/29/20)—more than the total number of Times op-eds about how Covid has affected disabled people and seniors. Emanuel has also written several Covid-related opinion pieces for the Washington Post (e.g., 4/22/20, 7/31/20), as well as for USA Today (3/19/20, 10/10/20), Science (9/11/20) and the Atlantic (4/18/20, 5/22/20) (for which he previously wrote reviews of DC-area restaurants).

Corporate media’s elevation of Emanuel and Singer as experts on Covid-19, without scrutinizing their troubling views, points to how unprepared news outlets are to report on the nuances of disability in the age of Covid. On November 7, many disabled people on Twitter were pleasantly surprised after CNN’s Jake Tapper mentioned “#cripthevote” on live television, a popular hashtag for disabled political conversation.

“This is not a community that gets a lot of attention as a political force,” Tapper said. About 25% of the US population has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and this percentage is likely to have grown in the last year, with the rise in long-haul Covid illness.

Corporate Media’s Leaked Chinese Documents Confirm China Didn’t Hide Covid-19

January 20, 2021 - 1:47pm

 

CNN (11/30/20) examined “China’s mishandling of the early stages of Covid-19,” despite the fact that China brought its pandemic under control within two months, whereas CNN is based in a country that at the time was seeing its own outbreak surge to unprecedented heights.

Several reports on China’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic came out late last year, based on what US outlets like CNN, the New York Times and ProPublica claimed to be leaked Chinese documents. Although these reports implied that China was responsible for how bad the pandemic has been because of its downplaying of numbers and censoring of critical information, these narratives are themselves misleading in several ways.

CNN (11/30/20) released “The Wuhan Files” in late November, announcing “a string of revelations contained within 117 pages of leaked documents from the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention.” According to CNN:

Taken together, the documents amount to the most significant leak from inside China since the beginning of the pandemic and provide the first clear window into what local authorities knew internally and when.

However, though the documents provide no evidence of a deliberate attempt to obfuscate findings, they do reveal numerous inconsistencies in what authorities believed to be happening and what was revealed to the public.

This is not the first time Chinese information has been leaked. Earlier in 2020, Foreign Policy (5/12/20) reported on a leaked dataset of coronavirus cases and deaths from the Chinese military’s National University of Defense Technology, which indicated that the Chinese government’s internal information matched the Covid-19 numbers the government publicly posted online, corroborating multiple professional judgments that China’s reported numbers were reliable. Dr. Bruce Aylward—a Canadian medical expert with 30 years of experience combating polio, Ebola and other global health emergencies—concluded that he “didn’t see anything that suggested manipulation of numbers,” after leading a team of experts visiting China for the World Health Organization (New York Times, 3/4/20).

‘Numerous inconsistencies’

CNN (11/30/20) pointed out that China was reporting 2,345 Covid cases at a time when a broader definition put the case count at 5,918. To put this in perspective, this is 0.01% of the total cases that the US is now reporting, vs. 0.02% as many cases.

So, what are these “numerous inconsistencies”? Again, according to CNN:

The documents show a wide-range of data on two specific days, February 10 and March 7, that is often at odds with what officials said publicly at the time. This discrepancy was likely due to a combination of a highly dysfunctional reporting system and a recurrent instinct to suppress bad news, said analysts. These documents show the full extent of what officials knew, but chose not to spell out to the public.

Even though CNN claims that the Wuhan Files “provide no evidence of a deliberate attempt to obfuscate findings,” it’s still instructive to examine these inconsistencies on February 10 and March 7. On February 10, CNN notes that “Chinese authorities reported 2,478 new confirmed cases,” even though a confidential document in the Wuhan Files “list a total of 5,918 newly detected cases on February 10.” These were “never fully revealed at that time,” which CNN implies is due to “China’s accounting system” appearing to “downplay the severity of the outbreak.”

CNN is careful to note that the Chinese government wasn’t lying when it didn’t report all 5,918 newly detected cases, as it notes that the 5,918 figure is actually a total derived from a “variety of subcategories,” which include 2,345 “confirmed cases,” 1,772 “clinically diagnosed” cases and 1,796 “suspected cases.” and five who “tested positive.” (There were also five cases described as having “tested positive”; CNN does not specify how these differ from “confirmed cases,” which is how China described those who tested positive for a polymerase chain reaction [PCR] or genetic sequencing test.)

Apparently, the “inconsistencies” stem from Chinese officials taking a conservative approach in their daily reports of new coronavirus cases due to “strict and limiting criteria,” leading to “misleading figures” by omitting some subcategories:

That month, Hubei officials presented a daily number of “confirmed cases,” and then included later in their statements “suspected cases,” without specifying the number of seriously ill patients who had been diagnosed by doctors as being “clinically diagnosed.” Often in nationwide tolls, officials would give the daily new “confirmed” cases, and provide a running tally for the entire pandemic of “suspected cases,” also into which it seems the “clinically diagnosed” were added. This use of a broad “suspected case” tally effectively downplayed the severity of patients who doctors had seen and determined were infected, according to stringent criteria, experts said.

Certainly, without further context, it appears as if these announcements “downplayed” the number of China’s cases by treating as “suspected” what were really clinically confirmed cases, but merely being familiar with CNN’s own reporting about the outbreak is sufficient to dispel the notion. Just three days after these figures were presented, CNN (2/13/20) reported that health authorities in Hubei province (where Wuhan, the city where Covid-19 was first detected, is located) announced that “there had been nearly 15,000 new cases overnight—almost 10 times the number of cases announced the previous day.” What was the explanation behind this sudden and drastic increase in the number of reported cases? CNN explains that China had revised its methodology in reporting new cases to include “clinically diagnosed cases,” the very subcategory that had been omitted on February 10:

The government was quick to point out the outbreak didn’t suddenly get much worse; the authorities had simply changed the way they reported cases in order to allow more people to access treatment faster.

The total number of cases reported by China now includes “clinically diagnosed cases.” These are patients who demonstrate all the symptoms of Covid-19 but have either not been able to get a test or are believed to have falsely tested negative.

Coverup or clarifying?

Closer to home, revisions to pandemic statistics are treated as attempts to be more accurate, not as signs of a sinister coverup (Politico, 4/14/20).

Is revising how a country reports new Covid information an abnormal practice unique to China? Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove (Hindu, 4/18/20), a WHO epidemiologist commenting on China revising Wuhan’s Covid-19 death toll upwards by 1,290—adjusting its previously reported number of deaths from 2,579 to 3,869 on April 17—stated that China’s actions were “an attempt to leave no case undocumented.” She also stated that she anticipates that “many countries” are “going to be in a similar situation where they will have to go back and review records” to see if they caught all cases.

And indeed, in April, New York City (the primary source of infection around the US, after travelers from Europe infected them) revised its death toll by 3,778 in one day, bringing its previous total of 6,589 deaths to 10,367 (Politico, 4/14/20). Britain likewise added 2,142 fatalities on April 11, revising its death toll from 4,093 on April 4 to 6,235 (Wall Street Journal, 4/14/20).

Despite these revisions occurring within a week of each other, only China’s revisions were presented as a possible “coverup” (Guardian, 4/17/20). It is actually normal to revise the criteria for counting new cases and deaths during a pandemic, to incorporate new information and improved testing capacities in real time.

On February 21, when China again revised its methodology of counting cases to include more cases, not fewer, CNN (2/21/20) reported that Chinese officials cited improved testing capacity as the reason for doing so. Revising death tolls upwards and broadening case definitions to include more people are actions that contradict the Western media narrative of China trying to deceive the world with fake statistics that minimized the outbreak.

Chinese officials (Xinhua, 4/17/20) gave a detailed explanation behind its discrepancies when they revised the death toll upwards on April 17. They explained that overwhelmed medical facilities at the beginning of the outbreak caused them to miss cases; a rapid increase in designated hospitals for Covid-19 had left some medical institutions unconnected to the epidemic information network, which prevented them from reporting their data in time; and there were repetitions, mistakes and incomplete registration information among some deceased patients.

Keeping New York City and Britain’s revised death tolls in April as a frame of reference, CNN’s Wuhan Files reporting that China had only reported 2,986 deaths in Hubei province on March 7, while having a total of 3,456 deaths divided into subcategories of 2,675 confirmed deaths, 647 clinically diagnosed deaths and 126 suspected case deaths, does not seem like an egregious discrepancy.

The only examples offered of China underreporting deaths—as opposed to omitting subcategories—was on February 10, when China didn’t publicize the deaths of six healthcare workers, and on February 17, when it reported only 93 deaths in Hubei Province when the daily confirmed deaths was 196. But the size of those discrepancies is small enough to have been accounted for in future revisions, and the Wuhan Files account for these discrepancies primarily on local health officials being “reliant on flawed testing and reporting mechanisms,” not on official dishonesty.

Compared to what?

Disclaimers and qualifications aside, one cannot simply report numbers or approaches without putting them in a context that would be meaningful to the public. CNN’s Wuhan Files report omitted specific comparative figures like the ones cited above, even though it’s difficult to assess how competent China’s pandemic response was without any frame of reference. When Western media reports omit this necessary context, they imply that the appropriate benchmark to compare China’s response to is perfection, which it inevitably falls short of, allowing the creation of a narrative in which China’s pandemic response was especially (and suspiciously) incompetent and sluggish.

For example, the Wuhan Files mention a report from early March stating that the average time it took from the onset of symptoms to a confirmed diagnosis was 23.3 days, indicating that local officials were facing a “lumbering and unresponsive” IT network. Certainly, 23.3 days was a significant lag by early March, as the lag between onset symptoms and a positive test was four days in the US at the beginning of April (New York Times, 4/1/20).

But CNN citing professionals claiming that that delay would have made it hard to direct public measures is silly, considering that it had already cited the overwhelmingly successful results of the first 50 days of the pandemic (Science, 5/8/20). The Wuhan Files note that by March 7, “over 80% of the new confirmed cases diagnosed that day” were being recorded that same day, which was a significant improvement from earlier.

When compared to the US, where numerous reports (Washington Post, 3/30/20; New York Times, 3/10/20, 3/28/20; Wall Street Journal, 8/18/20) detail how the US’s failures to produce adequate testing kits and pursue aggressive testing until early March made it impossible to contain the outbreak—since it’s very difficult to stop a virus from infecting others without knowing where it is—the imperfections of China’s pandemic response seem grossly exaggerated. Notoriously, the Trump administration said that the US should slow down testing to avoid bad statistics, and even stripped the CDC of control over its own coronavirus data to a central database in Washington, which led the new Covid-19 hospital data system to be riddled with delays and inaccuracies as late as July (NPR, 7/31/20). Even when the daily growth in coronavirus cases appeared to be dropping at times, testing shortages threw the US coronavirus numbers into doubt (CNBC, 8/12/20).

When corporate media outlets report on the failures of US testing, they usually don’t go beyond comparing the US’s response with South Korea’s; if the US’s response were to be compared to China’s, the contrast would be even more embarrassing. China tests entire cities with millions of people, and implements swift lockdowns within days as soon as they detect even a single asymptomatic case. While it may be fair to criticize China for going against WHO guidelines by not including asymptomatic cases among its confirmed cases, this cannot be interpreted as a coverup, since China still records them in its own subcategory and quickly requires them to be under strict 14-day quarantine guidelines, with additional follow-up visits afterwards to make sure they are not spreading the virus (CGTN, 11/18/20).

An exceptional response

But if it’s unfair to compare China’s response with one of the world’s worst performers, the US, one can also compare China’s response to countries like Germany and South Korea—which are frequently praised by corporate media—along with India, the only country with a comparable population to China, to get a sense of how exceptional China’s response has been. Although international comparisons are difficult for a variety of reasons—including missing data from these countries early on—data on new cases per week and total deaths from Johns Hopkins University clearly shows that China outperforms all of them. Here is data on February 10 and March 7 from these countries, the dates the Wuhan Files emphasizes to make the argument that China was “downplaying” the pandemic, along with the current status of these countries.

Source: 91-DIVOC

Despite being the first country to deal with the novel coronavirus, China has the lowest new cases per day, and has fewer deaths than all of them except for South Korea. But when we recall that China’s population is approximately 27 times that of South Korea’s, it’s apparent that many more people are dying as a percentage of the population there than in China.

Source: 91-DIVOC

 

It’s difficult to present this data in a visual format, because the vast disparities between China and everyone else—especially the US—make such a rendering visually unhelpful:

Source: 91-DIVOC

But here is that same graph (which normalizes for population size) with the United States and Germany removed, to illustrate how even among countries that had relatively low rates of Covid infection, China was exceptional:

Source: 91-DIVOC

Although the Wuhan Files offers some vindication of China’s pandemic response by noting the difficulties it had being the first country to confront the virus, and how little knowledge of the virus China was operating with, it is hard for readers to grasp how well China has done without including other countries’ performance as a basis for comparison.

Even CNN’s defense of China’s initial pandemic response, noting that China “faced the same problems of accounting, testing and diagnosis that still haunt many Western democracies even now,” is misleading, because it suggests China’s initial response was as bad as Western democracies’ current responses. In reality, initial corporate media reporting noted that scientists had begun research with “unprecedented speed,” due to how quickly China sequenced and shared the SARS-CoV-2 genome (Washington Post, 1/24/20). The Lancet (3/7/20) criticized countries around the world for their “slow and insufficient” actions, and cited a WHO/China joint mission report describing China’s response as probably the most “ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history,” making for a “striking contrast.” Dr. Bruce Aylward (Vox, 3/2/20) claims that the “key learning from China is speed—it’s all about the speed.”

‘Whistleblower doctors’

A New York Times/Pro Publica article (12/19/20), on how China promoted a “soothing message from the Communist Party: that it had the virus firmly under control,” neglected to point out that the Chinese Communist Party in fact had the virus firmly under control.

Perhaps this is why CNN’s Wuhan Files, and another report from the New York Times co-published with ProPublica (12/19/20), based on supposedly leaked Chinese documents, focus on the repeatedly debunked myth of Dr. Li Wenliang and other supposed “whistleblower doctors.”

The Times/ProPublica claim to have obtained more than 3,200 directives and 1,800 memos from China’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, as well as internal files and computer code from Urun Big Data Services, a Chinese company. Unlike the Wuhan Files, it’s unclear how credible these documents are, since the Times and ProPublica don’t provide lengthy explanations for how they authenticated the documents. (They were provided by a hacker group called CCP Unmasked, which has provided unauthenticated documents before.) But assuming the Times/ProPublica documents are real, the report is still misleading in several ways when it describes how China’s censors “got to work suppressing the inconvenient news and reclaiming the narrative” of Li’s passing:

They ordered news websites not to issue push notifications alerting readers to his death. They told social platforms to gradually remove his name from trending topics pages. And they activated legions of fake online commenters to flood social sites with distracting chatter, stressing the need for discretion: “As commenters fight to guide public opinion, they must conceal their identity, avoid crude patriotism and sarcastic praise, and be sleek and silent in achieving results.”

While Li’s loss is a tragedy, he wasn’t a whistleblower, nor the first doctor to discover the Covid-19 outbreak, and he wasn’t even ahead of the Chinese government; international media were able to publish contemporaneous reports on the Covid-19 outbreak without relying on him as a source. On December 30, Dr. Ai Fen circled the word “SARS” on a report containing a false positive for the 2003 coronavirus and sent it to a former medical school classmate, which was shared until it reached Li. He shared the picture in a private WeChat group on December 30 as well, but he didn’t consider himself a whistleblower, and asked the group not to make it public before it was leaked on December 31. He and his colleagues were brought in for questioning by the police, and were reprimanded for spreading rumors on January 3 before being released. This might be why the Times/ProPublica avoid calling him a “whistleblower,” as many  Western media reports did previously.

Dr. Zhang Jixian, the first doctor to report the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan.

Dr. Zhang Jixian was the first doctor to discover the Covid-19 outbreak, and she wasn’t a whistleblower either, because she followed established protocol by reporting an unfamiliar respiratory illness to her hospital’s disease control department on December 27. This is why Dr. Zhang was never punished, but rewarded for her contribution. Her report led to an investigation and resulted in an announcement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission on December 30, and a media statement on December 31. This is why various foreign news outlets (e.g., Reuters, 12/31/19; AP, 12/31/19) reported on this “pneumonia outbreak,” and how institutions like the WHO (12/31/19) and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (12/31/19) received this supposedly “secret” information in real time.

This is public knowledge, and is probably known by the Times and ProPublica, since they studiously avoid calling Li the “first” doctor to report Covid-19’s existence, and instead refer to him merely as “a doctor who had warned about a strange new viral outbreak.” The Times/ProPublica link to an early Times report last year (2/7/20) also only describes Li as “among the first to warn about the coronavirus outbreak in late December,” which suggests that they are aware that someone else had already reported Covid-19 to health authorities before Li’s information was leaked. Yet their report and a search on both their websites for Zhang’s name turns up nothing, suggesting that they are burying the real story of how Covid-19 was discovered and reported, which is ironic for a report decrying Chinese censorship.

In fact, a Nexis search for Zhang Jixian’s name from January 1, 2020, to December 19, 2020, from the Associated Press, New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, MSNBC, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News and Fox News return no results. To be fair, Nexis doesn’t catch all reports, but even after searching on Google and outlets’ websites, it’s clear that the biggest news outlets in the country are themselves omitting critical information that contradicts their false narrative of a Chinese government coverup.

Although the Associated Press failed to report on Zhang’s story, it has two press releases on its website from CGTN (4/13/20, 4/13/20)—a Chinese state media outlet—that mention her role in informing the world of Covid-19. Fox News (3/13/20, 4/16/20) is the only outlet above that briefly reported Zhang’s role in two reports that present baseless speculation, relying on anonymous sources, about the evidence-free lab leak theory, and about the WHO collaborating with China to conceal Covid information. The latter piece misleadingly presents a retroactive tracing of the first Covid-19 patient in China’s Hubei province to November 17, 2019 as evidence of a Chinese coverup.

The Washington Post (whose data is no longer included by Nexis) has only mentioned Zhang twice, once in a factcheck (5/20/20) debunking President Trump’s misleading letter to the WHO (which cites Zhang), and the other in an article (2/24/20) that shares the same talking points as CNN’s Wuhan Files report. A search for Li’s name on the Post‘s website, meanwhile, returns 81 results.

Information against infection

One question ignored by the Times/ProPublica report, and countless other stories from Western media outlets condemning how local officials in Hubei province handled Li and his colleagues (for which the Chinese government has issued an apology and fired local government officials), is whether sharing Li’s mistaken information would have been helpful. If the Chinese population had been convinced that the initial reports of a mysterious pneumonia outbreak was a return of the 2003 SARS virus, instead of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19), that could have had disastrous results. One critical difference between SARS and SARS-CoV-2 is the latter having presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission (where cases could infect others before, or without developing any symptoms), whereas SARS did not (Lancet, 5/1/20). Would it have been helpful for people to think they should only quarantine or isolate themselves when they develop symptoms?

Likewise, another question the Times, ProPublica and other Western outlets ignore when they criticize China for censoring “anything that cast China’s response in too ‘negative’ a light” is whether sharing negative or sensationalized information is useful for containing a pandemic. It’s impossible for any news media outlet to cover every bit of information, so story selection and prioritization of information is unavoidable and necessary. From the beginning, the WHO has criticized what it called an “infodemic,” which is an overabundance of information that can be either inaccurate or useless. FAIR has criticized news media for not prioritizing scientific coverage of how people get infected (4/11/20, 5/9/20), sensationalist reports that incite panicked and racist responses (3/6/20, 5/7/20), or misleading coverage that instills a false sense of security (5/27/20) or resigned helplessness (3/20/20, 5/1/20).

When the Times/ProPublica criticize the Chinese government for trying to “steer the narrative not only to prevent panic and debunk damaging falsehoods domestically,” but in order to “make the virus look less severe” and “the authorities more capable,” they omit that not only have the Chinese government’s pandemic results been superior to those achieved by most other governments, but that delivery of accurate information to the public was critical to that success. A visitor to China early in the outbreak (HuffPost, 1/30/20) noted that coronavirus coverage dominated all other topics, and prioritized explaining the rationale behind government measures, scientific information on how it spreads, and reports encouraging confidence and compliance with government directives:

Another really interesting manifestation of the power of government is the news. The coronavirus may be big news internationally, but in China, it’s the only news right now…. While China’s tight control of the media has many pitfalls, it seems uniquely well-suited for keeping an epidemic under control.

Other people living in China have testified that because the vast majority of the Chinese people express trust and support for their government, Chinese media’s unified messaging and emphasis allowed for a much more unified response and widespread compliance with government directives to prevent panic and infection.

 

Deadly censorship

Studies of right-wing coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic “paint a picture of a media ecosystem that amplifies misinformation, entertains conspiracy theories and discourages audiences from taking concrete steps to protect themselves and others” (Washington Post, 6/28/20).

In contrast, influential US media outlets like Fox News have been criticized by doctors for eroding trust in medicine, scientists and other data (NBC, 12/18/20). Numerous media studies of pandemic coverage (Washington Post, 6/28/20) have found that contradictory US media coverage has led millions of Americans to believe that the pandemic threat is exaggerated, join anti-quarantine protests, refuse to comply with wearing masks and social distancing measures, as well as panic shop for toilet paper, hand sanitizer and face masks, leading to shortages across the country at the beginning of the outbreak. The US has also allowed misinformation and conspiracy theories peddled by the notorious Plandemic documentary and right-wing media before social media giants like Twitter and Facebook began suppressing them.

The Times/ProPublica report also ignored how the US government engages in censorship and narrative controls in order to lie to the public, and crack down on actual whistleblowers. These actions are consistent with the deliberate mass infection strategy that the administration contemplated; whether or not that was the actual agenda, the government’s policies led to catastrophic deaths. These omissions create the misimpression that China’s government was uniquely incompetent and dishonest in its response to Covid, when any fair comparison would belie this.

It is important for American journalists to combat these misperceptions, so that the US can learn from China’s response on how to better deal with the current crisis—saving lives in this as well as future pandemics, as well as reducing tensions between the nuclear powers US and China.

‘The Lost Cause in Some Ways Won the Civil War’

January 20, 2021 - 10:35am

 

Janine Jackson interviewed historian Keri Leigh Merritt about the New Lost Cause for the January 15, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men (Cambridge, 2017)

Janine Jackson: You can feel the eagerness of many people, including in the media, to get over January 6, to section those people off as outliers with little to do with the US conversation, much less the mainstream Republican Party, and why don’t we move along to the healing already? Donald Trump, in this rendering, is a unique, lamentable phenomenon that doesn’t represent who “we” are as a country, and when he leaves, those hateful ideas will leave with him.

Black Americans, anyway, know the price of healing without reckoning, because we pay it. And historians, too, are shaking their heads at descriptions of the attack on the Capitol as “unpredictable” and “unprecedented,” because, while it was many things, it wasn’t that.

People are ready to take on a more complicated understanding of this country’s roots. But will news media help inform that conversation, or just inflame, or even worse, ignore it?

Keri Leigh Merritt is an independent historian, author and filmmaker. She’s author of the book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South and co-editor of Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class and Power. She’s also working on a new film on the Civil War. She joins us now by phone from Atlanta. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Keri Leigh Merritt.

Keri Leigh Merritt: Thank you so much for having me.

JJ: In the essay that you co-wrote with Rhae Lynn Barnes for CNN.com, you call the Lost Cause of the Confederacy “America’s most successful disinformation campaign.” Folks are kind of talking about the Lost Cause as an idea, but there’s not necessarily a deep understanding of what that’s really all about. I wonder if you can talk about that, and the resonances that lead you and others to talk about Trumpism with reference to a kind of New Lost Cause.

Keri Leigh Merritt: “I think we’ve underestimated how much you can whip up racism and xenophobia by just saying, ‘You were robbed of this, you’ve got something to be angry over, you’ve got something to be aggrieved about.’”

KLM: Right. So I think what’s happening today definitely has its roots in the mid–19th century. And obviously, we’re not the only historians to say this, or to be saying it for the last five years; as you were talking about, we’ve all been saying this since Charlottesville. And to be quite honest, Black Americans and Indigenous Americans, they’ve been saying this for four centuries now. So this is not a surprise to people who have been oppressed in America; it’s only coming as a surprise to white people, and people who have been in a privileged enough position to really not have to know the history, the really bad history, the bad side of our country’s history.

So a lot of the reason they don’t know this bad side of the history is because of the Lost Cause. And the Lost Cause is also known as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. It was basically an ahistorical theory which accomplished two things: One was that all white Southerners supposedly fought for the Confederacy, valiantly and willingly, and really believed in the cause; and they made it into more of a states’ rights issue than the real cause, which was, of course, slavery. And then the second part of the Lost Cause mythology is that all these whites were fighting valiantly for the Confederacy because slavery wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t a bad institution; it was really a benign institution run by these benevolent, Christian men who were trying to uplift and take care of these kind of happy slaves. It’s that kind of imagery that’s in Gone With the Wind and some of these popular cultural representations that all of us know.

But, essentially, the Lost Cause helped to solidify the white South, even up until the very recent past; Georgia, obviously, was an outlier in that this year. But even up until this day, the Deep South, where slavery was at its apex, has traditionally, since Reconstruction, disenfranchised all the Black voters that it could, and united white Southerners of all classes in a white-supremacist, racist ideology that is actually rooted in this Lost Cause–ism.

And we argue that Lost Cause–ism is a type of grievance, right, a way that you get people to be white supremacists and to really have a lot of racial hatred in them, especially among poor whites, or working-class whites, who would have more in common on an economic level or a labor level with other working-class people from different races. You have to engender that by not only rhetoric, but by using grievance as a tool.

And I think we’ve underestimated how much you can whip up racism and xenophobia by just saying, “You were robbed of this, you’ve got something to be angry over, you’ve got something to be aggrieved about.” And scholars like Heather Cox Richardson have shown how this Southern sense of grievance, and white supremacists who are feeling like they were losing control of the country in the 19th century, this ideology really spread west, and then it also took over the whole United States. So essentially, the United States becomes Southern white supremacists, in some ways. And so really, the Lost Cause has in some ways won the Civil War, even up to this day, and we’re seeing how that’s playing out right now.

JJ: You talk about class fissures among white Americans. And media have fed the narrative of Trump supporters as hardscrabble white working-class people, that economic anxiety was the primary driver. But when you look at January 6, at least one of those folks came in on a private jet. And you’ve alluded to it, and I know we talked about it back in 2017 after Charlottesville: the misunderstanding, the kind of instrumental erasure of class difference among white people, is also historically referent.

On CNN.com (1/7/21), Rhae Lynn Barnes and Keri Leigh Merritt call the Lost Cause of the Confederacy “America’s most successful disinformation campaign.”

KLM: Yes, and I have said from the beginning, as well as other scholars, yes, a majority of all whites supported Trump, until these recent elections, across all demographics, and there wasn’t a huge difference between affluent, well-educated whites, and poor and working-class whites.

First of all, I think those things need to be well-defined, because you have a lot of affluent whites that don’t have anything higher than a high-school education. So first of all our categories are messed up in how we’re analyzing all of this.

But second of all, the real drivers of all of this are these elite whites. I mean, who’s running this? Elite white men from the heights of New York wealth and high society. And they’re engendering this class hatred, and we’ve seen it from the first time Trump began running, it was whipping up as much hatred and xenophobia among poor and working-class people as whites as he could. And that’s just a complete continuation of the Jim Crow playbook that goes all the way back to how white supremacists, led by slaveholders and their sons, used a combination of really horrible racist rhetoric, the police state as well—they’ve used police to arrest people for essentially doing nothing and incarcerate as many Black people as they could — and then also with just violence, with vigilante violence, with any kind of terroristic violence that they could get away with.

Reconstruction is the bloodiest period in our nation’s history, in terms of this terroristic violence. We still don’t understand the depths of how many Black people were murdered and lynched during these years. And so we’re seeing today these threats of violence, these threats of white supremacist backlash. And our point in writing the article for CNN is there have to be punishments for all of the leaders, very publicly and very obviously, so that we can hopefully deter this from escalating, essentially.

JJ: And that’s part of the problem from the past, was a lack of repercussion, that essentially, in the name of things we’re used to hearing today, “civility” and “not being divisive,” “reaching across the aisle”; there was a desire to “go forward and not back” and all of that, and that has an effect, that absence of repercussion for this sort of backlash.

John Wilkes Booth

KLM: Right. There were no repercussions for even the leaders of the Confederacy. And so because of this, because Lincoln actually was pretty lenient, but then, of course, an upper-class white Southern zealot comes in and murders Lincoln, and then it’s left to Andrew Johnson, who killed any kind of progress that was to be made in terms of punishing the former Confederates who led this uprising against our country.

And if that had happened, which was the Radical Republicans’ plan at the time—they wanted to punish the Confederates primarily by taking away their huge plantations, and then dividing those up and giving land to freed men and women. And so that would have radically, radically changed the entire trajectory of America; it would have not gotten rid of, but it would have really minimized the incredible racial wealth gap we see today. It would have gotten rid of a lot of the police state, because formerly enslaved people would have land, and thus they would have some political and economic power.

And so because we failed to punish the leaders of the Confederacy, landholding in the South never changed, wealth-holding in the South never changed. Some of these small rural areas in the South are still run by the descendants of the people who ran the big plantations. And power and wealth has never changed hands in much of the rural South.

JJ: Finally, when we had you here in 2017 after Charlottesville, you were talking about an unwillingness or a hesitancy on the part of many historians to “enter the fray.” That they were academics, and getting into the political conversation was sullying somehow. I take it you have not changed your thinking about the idea that there’s an important role for historians in public conversation.

KLM: Absolutely. And we’ve unfortunately seen the backlash of this, over the last couple of years, with professors that have been outspoken about the racist violence in this country, or the brutality of our racist criminal justice system, the people who have actually spoken truth to power about these things have been fired or run out of their jobs, or there have been mobs to literally threaten their families on a daily basis. So anybody who’s actually speaking out about these issues is facing a lot of threats, and in some cases they’re having to give up their entire livelihood, because they’re telling the truth.

JJ: And yet that just speaks to the importance of it.

KLM: Absolutely, yes. The powers that be do not want this information out; they’re cutting education budgets, they’re cutting humanities, they’re cutting history.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with independent historian Keri Leigh Merritt. She’s the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, which is out from Cambridge University Press. She’s also working on a new film on the Civil War with Rhae Lynn Barnes. And her article with Rhae Lynn Barnes, “A Confederate Flag at the Capitol Summons America’s Demons,” can be found on CNN.com. Thank you so much, Keri Leigh Merritt, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

KLM: Thank you.

 

Even After January 6, Some in Media Can’t Kick Their Addiction to False Balance

January 18, 2021 - 5:05pm

 

In the wake of the unprecedented events of January 6, many in corporate media—on both the editorial and reporting sides—have displayed a new and refreshing ability to apply accurate labels to people and their behaviors (“sedition,” “incitement,” “white nationalists,” etc.) and to apportion blame based on reality, not a wished-for fantasy of balance.

That false concept of balance, which FAIR has criticized for years (e.g., 9/30/04, 9/17/20), is finally coming under greater scrutiny. As Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan (1/17/21) recently wrote: “When one side consistently engages in bad-faith falsehoods, it’s downright destructive to give them equal time.”

And many of her colleagues appear to have finally absorbed that lesson as they cover this month’s events. Where previous coverage of Trump and his followers often strained to balance the positive and the negative (e.g., FAIR.org, 6/1/17, 7/24/19), reporting and analysis of the insurrection and its aftermath have largely cast aside attempts at false balance. At CNN.com (1/12/21), a news headline unequivocally announced, “Defiant Trump Denounces Violence but Takes No Responsibility for Inciting Deadly Riot,” using language corporate media in the past would typically have reserved for opinion pieces. In the New York Times (1/6/21), after quoting several of Trump’s statements to the crowd, Rudolph Giuliani’s call for “trial by combat” against the Democrats and Donald Trump Jr.’s “we’re coming for you” threat to Republicans who wouldn’t back Trump’s efforts to overturn the democratic election, reporter Maggie Haberman wrote directly, “Mr. Trump helped set in motion hours of violence and chaos that continued as darkness fell on Wednesday.”

Blaming a “nation…losing its sense of self,” as the New York Times (1/13/21) does, is a good way to avoid holding anyone in that nation responsible.

Considering that Trump has few allies left within the establishment—even many big businesses have publicly turned against him—perhaps it’s easier for journalists to cast off their commitment to false balance. But it’s far from inevitable. At the New York Times, longtime White House correspondent Peter Baker (1/13/21) proved incapable of escaping the magnetic pull of both sides–ism as he described the second impeachment of Donald Trump :

With less than a week to go, President Trump’s term is climaxing in violence and recrimination at a time when the country has fractured deeply and lost a sense of itself. Notions of truth and reality have been atomized. Faith in the system has eroded. Anger is the one common ground.

As if it were not enough that Mr. Trump became the only president impeached twice or that lawmakers were trying to remove him with days left in his term, Washington devolved into a miasma of suspicion and conflict. A Democratic member of Congress accused Republican colleagues of helping the mob last week scout the building in advance. Some Republican members sidestepped magnetometers intended to keep guns off the House floor or kept going even after setting them off.

Ah yes, the miasma of suspicion and conflict that envelops all in Washington without distinction, as each side gets their dander up over actions they find offensive. It’s all equivalent, isn’t it? But let’s be frank: The country has not lost a sense of itself here. One faction of the country has been encouraged and enabled by Trump and his GOP supporters to embrace an increasingly vocal and emboldened fascism. That the New York Times‘ senior White House scribe cannot bring himself to distinguish between these things seems reason enough to disqualify him from his job.

But he continued, describing the impeachment debate:

Most lawmakers quickly retreated back to their partisan corners.

As Democrats demanded accountability, many Republicans pushed back and assailed them for a rush to judgment without hearings or evidence or even much debate. Mr. Trump’s accusers cited his inflammatory words at a rally just before the attack. His defenders cited provocative words by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Representative Maxine Waters and even Robert De Niro and Madonna to maintain there was a double standard.

That the comparisons were apples and oranges did not matter so much as the prisms through which they were reflected. Mr. Trump sought to overturn a democratic election that he lost with false claims of widespread fraud, pressuring other Republicans and even his vice president to go along with him and dispatching an unruly crowd of supporters to march on the Capitol and “fight like hell.” But his allies complained that he had long been the target of what they considered unfair partisan attacks and investigations.

“Donald Trump is the most dangerous man to ever occupy the Oval Office,” declared Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas.

“The left in America has incited far more political violence than the right,” declared Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida.

The starkly disparate views encapsulated America in the Trump era.

That the comparisons are apples and oranges in fact matters immensely, but Baker, a journalist whose very job is to seek truth, appears to have resigned himself (and consigned his readers) to a world in which truth is relative.

‘Above partisanship’

Politico turned over its Playbook feature (10/14/21) to Ben Shapiro to make the extended argument yes, but Democrats are mean.

So, too, has Politico. The day after Trump’s second impeachment, readers of Politico‘s popular Beltway newsletter, Playbook (10/14/21), were treated to the musings of the day’s guest editor—racist right-wing Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro—such as:

Opposition to impeachment comes from a deep and abiding conservative belief that members of the opposing political tribe want their destruction, not simply to punish Trump for his behavior. Republicans believe that Democrats and the overwhelmingly liberal media see impeachment as an attempt to cudgel them collectively by lumping them in with the Capitol rioters thanks to their support for Trump.

Shapiro’s turn at the wheel was replete with false equivalence itself, equating Republicans who voted to overturn a democratic election with Democrats who “winked and nodded—and sometimes more—at civil unrest around the nation emerging from Black Lives Matter protests and antifa violence over the summer,” and to Stacey Abrams, who “never accepted her election loss” (but who had actual evidence of massive voter suppression, in contrast to Trump, who actively tried to throw out valid votes). Shapiro also downplayed Trump’s January 6 speech, finding it

unfortunately, commonplace in today’s day and age, and sometimes even end[ing] with violence (see, e.g., a Bernie Sanders supporter shooting up a congressional softball game).

Editor in chief Matt Kaminski defended giving a platform to this whataboutism, calling it part of Politico‘s tradition of “mischief-making” (WaPo, 1/15/21) and noting that MSNBC‘s Chris Hayes had served as guest editor the day before—”as an example,” according to a writeup in the Washington Post (1/14/21), “of how Politico had sought varying perspectives.” Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the site released a statement arguing that “we rise above partisanship and ideological warfare—even as many seek to drag us into it.”

Bigotry and providing cover for officials seeking to overturn democratic elections are not “mischief,” and “mischief-making” is not a journalistic value. Suggesting that Chris Hayes balances out Ben Shapiro is the epitome of false balance; as press critic Eric Boehlert (1/15/21) observed, while one is indeed on the left and the other on the right, Hayes is “an honest and insightful analyst, while Shapiro is a congenital liar who delights in hate speech.” The trouble is, honest and insightful analysts who support Trump are virtually impossible to come by, since Trumpism is founded on the rejection of truth, honesty and even coherence.

It’s this fanciful idea that the two balance each other that undergirds the otherwise absurd argument that publishing Shapiro rises above partisanship and ideological warfare. If both left and right are equally valid perspectives, and Politico offers space to both, then it hasn’t taken sides, and has adhered to the journalistic virtue of fairness. The right has learned it can endlessly game this system, pulling the center ever-rightward to the point that white nationalism and authoritarianism have entered the mainstream.

The good news is that most of Politico‘s staff revolted, as did many in the mediasphere (Washington Post, 1/14/21). Not everyone did, though, it’s important to note. Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple (1/15/21), for example, called Politico‘s decision “a crummy, one-off guest-hosting gig that merits neither an apology nor a retraction from Kaminski. If editors live in fear of going too far, chances are good that they won’t go far enough.” Wemple predicted that one fallout of this will be that “mainstream-media editors will proceed with ever-greater caution in publishing conservative voices.”

Wemple’s fear is overblown, to say the least. For the past 35 years, FAIR has been documenting the consistent bias toward GOP sources across the country’s leading outlets (FAIR.org, 6/1/17Extra!, 5–6/04, 11–12/05), while framing progressive voices as beyond the pale. (Remember when Wemple’s paper published 16 negative Bernie Sanders stories in 16 hours?)  Wemple frames editorial “caution” as a bad thing. But if editors learn anything from the events of the last four years, it should be that “balance” is a dangerous substitute for fairness and accuracy. And if they can begin to distinguish “conservatives” from “bigoted liars,” that would be a step in the right direction.

Trump’s Twitter Ban May Be Justified, but That Doesn’t Mean Tech Giants’ Power Isn’t Scary

January 15, 2021 - 4:07pm

 

EU commissioner Thierry Breton (Politico, 1/10/21):  “Regardless of whether silencing a standing president was the right thing to do, should that decision be in the hands of a tech company with no democratic legitimacy or oversight?”

In the wake of the dramatic storming of the Capitol last week, a host of big media companies, including Facebook, Reddit, Pinterest, Twitch, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok, have all taken measures against Donald Trump. Making the most headlines, however, was the decision of the president’s favorite medium, Twitter (1/8/21), to permanently suspend him “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”

It’s difficult to argue that Trump did not repeatedly violate Twitter‘s rules against “threaten[ing] violence” and “glorification of violence,” justifying his ban. But we urgently need to rethink the power of these social media behemoths, because there are plenty of other examples where their enforcement of their rules has been arbitrary and non-transparent.

Whether one saw the assault on the halls of Congress as a coup attempt (e.g., Atlantic, 1/6/21; Buzzfeed News, 1/6/21; Guardian, 1/6/21), a “riot” (MSNBC, 1/10/21; Wall Street Journal, 1/12/21) or “protests” (Fox News, 1/7/21, 1/8/21), there is no doubt that Trump did incite the crowd to invade the seat of government. Instructing his followers to “fight like hell” to stop a “stolen election,” he insisted: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

The media reaction to the social media ban was varied. Writing in tech publication ZDNet (1/7/21), Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols supported the decision. “The right to free speech doesn’t give you the right to right to shout fraud in a fractured country,” he said. “Twitter should have suspended Trump’s account years ago,” wrote Sarah Manavis in the New Statesman (1/7/21):

For years the president has been allowed to tweet anything he wants, with deadly consequences…. The case for kicking one of its highest-profile users off the platform is self-evident.

Chris Stevenson (Independent, 1/11/21): The Trump ban involves “a moral obligation in not spreading words that could incite violence.”

Meanwhile, Chris Stevenson in the London Independent (1/11/21) argued that privately owned websites have every right to remove their services from users.

Jessica J. González, co-CEO of the media advocacy group Free Press (1/9/21) and co-founder of the anti-hate speech Change the Terms coalition, hailed the ban as a victory for media activism:

Twitter’s decision to permanently suspend Donald Trump is a victory for racial-justice advocates who have long condemned his continued abuse of the platform.

From the launch of his presidential campaign when he defamed Mexicans as rapists, criminals and drug dealers, to the desperate last gasps of his presidency as he has egged on white supremacists to commit violence and insurrection, Trump had used his Twitter account to incite violence, lie about the election outcome, encourage racists and spread conspiracy theories. He did not deserve a platform on Twitter, or on any other social or traditional media.

Others were not so heartened by the news. Writing in Politico (1/10/21), European Union official Thierry Breton worried:

The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on POTUS’s loudspeaker without any checks and balances is perplexing. It is not only confirmation of the power of these platforms, but it also displays deep weaknesses in the way our society is organized in the digital space.

Michelle Goldberg (New York Times, 1/11/21): “I find myself both agreeing with how technology giants have used their power in this case, and disturbed by just how awesome their power is.”

National leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador also characterized the move as a blow against free speech. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg (1/11/21) was in the middle, stating that tech giants were right to ban Trump, but worried about the “scary power” they were amassing.

Perhaps the most histrionic reaction came from Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted (1/9/21):

The world is laughing at America & Mao, Lenin, & Stalin are smiling. Big tech is able to censor the President? Free speech is dead & controlled by leftist overlords.

In reality, of course, actual, self-described leftist and Communist figures are routinely purged from the site. Twitter shut down virtually the entire Cuban state media apparatus in 2019, removed tens of thousands of accounts it claims were linked to the Chinese Communist Party, and has suspended Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s account multiple times without explanation. These moves failed to elicit handwringing condemnations and essays on the nature of free speech, however.

With the power that he wields as president, Trump is undoubtedly the most belligerent user in Twitter history, using the platform to threaten genocide against Iran and threaten North Korea with “total destruction” (presumably nuclear in nature). So blatant were his violations of the site’s anti-violence rules that it had to craft new “public-interest exemptions” to justify not kicking him off. Although they couched their decisions in the language of free speech, the president’s wild proclamations were always a huge money spinner; Twitter lost $3.4 billion in market value overnight after announcing the ban last week.

While Trump’s actions clearly breached the company’s terms of service by not only calling for but producing violence, the affair brings up bigger questions about private ownership of public forums and the massive power social media giants like Facebook and Twitter hold over the public sphere. Sixty-eight percent of American adults use Facebook and 25% use Twitter. Both platforms are huge gateways and distributors of news around the world. Facebook is by a long way the most widely used news source in the United States, and both platforms have user bases far larger than the collective circulation of all daily US newspapers. They also give ordinary people the opportunity to share information and build communities, making them immensely important parts of the modern public square.

Adam Johnson (FAIR.org, 5/21/18): “Readers should know who’s helping bankroll groups that get to define what the most influential media platform in the history of the world deems ‘fact and fiction.'”

A free press is the cornerstone of any open, democratic society. But like it or not, in just a few short years, massive online companies have far surpassed the reach of legacy media outlets, with news generally being broken on Twitter before anywhere else. Companies like Google and Facebook have become monopolies by design, squeezing out or buying up the competition. There are no practical alternatives of any size to these behemoths, raising questions of whether they should be in private ownership at all, given their importance to the public discourse.

Western governments already exercise considerable control over the content of social media, but for their own interests, not ours. In 2018, Facebook announced it would be working closely with the Atlantic Council to help it curate its news feeds and stamp out false information (FAIR.org, 5/21/18). The Atlantic Council is a NATO cutout organization funded by the State Department and allied foreign governments. Its board of directors includes high-ranking Bush-era officials like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, US military generals and no fewer than eight former CIA chiefs. When organizations such as these influence the most influential means of global communication, that is coming close to state censorship on a worldwide scale.

Meanwhile, in 2019, a senior Twitter executive was unmasked as an officer in the British Army’s psychological operations and online warfare division. Corporate media reacted with a collective yawn, the news covered by only one US outlet of any note (Newsweek, 10/1/19; see FAIR.org, 10/24/19)—a response that raises many troubling questions about the relationship between deep state and fourth estate. The journalist who covered the story resigned a few weeks later, citing stifling top-down censorship.

Branko Marcetic (Jacobin, 8/15/18): “Trusting a group of faceless, corporate bureaucrats to decide what is and isn’t legitimate news is a recipe for disaster for the left.”

Perhaps this helps explain why the online media giants’ primary targets of censorship have always been the domestic left and foreign enemies of Washington. Facebook has shut down pages belonging to a myriad of anti-establishment groups, such as Occupy London and the anti-fascist No Unite the Right, while suspending those of alternative media like TeleSUR English and Venezuelanalysis.

Last year it also announced that, since President Trump had designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization, all posts presenting recently slain General Qassem Soleimani in a positive light would be immediately deleted across its platforms (Instagram, WhatsApp, etc.). “We operate under US sanctions laws, including those related to the US government’s designation of the IRGC and its leadership,” a company spokesperson said. Taking into account that Soleimani had a more than 80% domestic approval rating, this meant that one pronouncement from Trump effectively barred Iranians from sharing their overwhelmingly popular opinion online with each other.

Facebook has also deliberately changed its algorithm in an attempt to throttle traffic to left-wing news sites. Last year, the Wall Street Journal (10/16/20) reported that Mark Zuckerberg personally approved changes that would hit “left-leaning” political news sites harder than previously planned. Meanwhile, conservative and far-right commentators dominate the site, despite their constant and well-documented violations of the terms of service.

Twitter has also purged hundreds of thousands of Russian, Chinese, Turkish and Venezuelan accounts, while constantly suspending antiwar voices and publications. Like with Facebook, left-wing independent news site Venezuelanalysis is a favorite target.

Private companies probably should not be hosting the largest online forums. However, if they do, there need to be transparent and enforced rules in place to deal with grave breaches of conduct. In this sense, it was a prudent decision from social media companies to suspend or ban the president, who has flagrantly disregarded those rules for years.

However, Silicon Valley corporations are far from neutral moral arbiters, and have a history of abusing their power. In 2018, it took barely 24 hours for big tech companies to shift their ire from conservative conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to the left (FAIR.org, 8/22/18), deleting and suspending accounts with little rhyme or reason. Don’t expect this to be the last highly controversial censorship decision they make.

Keri Leigh Merritt on the New Lost Cause, Elisabeth Rosenthal on Troubled Vaccine Rollout

January 15, 2021 - 10:30am

 

CNN (1/7/21)

This week on CounterSpin: As media sift through the fallout of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, it’s important to see that the insurrectionists were not simply victims of a modern disinformation campaign, hoodwinked via social media into believing that Donald Trump got more votes in the election; they were also participating in a tradition “deeply rooted in the American experience,” as historian Eric Foner put it, that says that only some people’s votes should count—that Black political power, as exercised in Georgia, represents a threat to the “natural” societal dominance of white people, and that violence is appropriate to neutralize that threat and maintain that status quo. That resonance is why historians are shaking their heads as media talk about January 6 as “unprecedented”; while shocking and dispiriting, it has layers and layers of precedent that need to be learned and engaged, if we are ever to actually have the racial reckoning that corporate media are forever insisting we’ve already had.

Keri Leigh Merritt is an independent historian and filmmaker, author of the book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South. Her essay, co-authored with Rhae Lynn Barnes, “A Confederate Flag at the Capitol Summons America’s Demons,” appeared on CNN.com. We talk with her about this country’s past that is never dead, or indeed even past.

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Kaiser Health News (12/24/20)

Also on the show: You don’t have to choose between the assault on the electoral process by violent, disinformed white nationalists, and a disease that has killed more than 380,000 people in this country and left many it didn’t kill with lasting health problems—both are major crises. And just as many people could and did predict something like the attack on the Capitol, many could and did predict that the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine would be marred by the Trump administration being the Trump administration, and the hollowing out of public health infrastructure. We talk about the troubled vaccine rollout with Elisabeth Rosenthal, longtime journalist, now editor in chief of Kaiser Health News.

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ACTION ALERT: What Can ‘Now Be Told’ by NYT About Pentagon Papers Isn’t Actually True

January 14, 2021 - 5:30pm

 

The most important claim in the New York Times‘ revisionist history of the Pentagon Papers (1/7/21) is demonstrably false.

The day New York Times journalist Neil Sheehan died, the Times ran a story (1/7/21) with the headline, “Now It Can Be Told: How Neil Sheehan Got the Pentagon Papers.” It purports to be the true story of how the paper obtained the Defense Department’s classified history of the Vietnam War that had been secretly photocopied by former Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg. Here’s what Sheehan told reporter Janny Scott in 2015, on the condition that it could not be published until after Sheehan’s death:

Contrary to what is generally believed, Mr. Ellsberg never “gave” the papers to the Times, Mr. Sheehan emphatically said. Mr. Ellsberg told Mr. Sheehan that he could read them but not make copies. So Mr. Sheehan smuggled the papers out of the apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Mr. Ellsberg had stashed them; then he copied them illicitly, just as Mr. Ellsberg had done, and took them to the Times.

In Sheehan’s telling, Ellsberg is a fearful neurotic, so afraid of going to prison that he makes foolish mistakes that could lead to getting caught—and so Sheehan had to lie to his source and make his own copy, because he was determined that, as he put it, “this material is never again going in a government safe.”

When the papers are published and Ellsberg discovers the ruse, Sheehan has Ellsberg say, “So you stole it, like I did.” To which Sheehan supposedly replied:

No, Dan, I didn’t steal it….  And neither did you. Those papers are the property of the people of the United States. They paid for them with their national treasure and the blood of their sons, and they have a right to it.

As you can probably tell from that dialogue, Sheehan made himself very much the hero of the story, which is perhaps why he wanted it published only after he was no longer around to be contradicted. There was nothing stopping Scott, though, from calling Ellsberg, who is still quite alive, and asking him for his reaction to Sheehan’s account. She did not do so, but Daniel’s son Robert Ellsberg provided that missing piece in a response to the story on Twitter (1/10/21).

Robert points out that his father’s actions were not those of someone who feared prison; when he was arraigned, he asked reporters, “Would not you go to prison to help end this war?” Rather, Daniel Ellsberg was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to get out the secrets he was risking prison to expose.

The New York Times online story (1/7/21) on how the Pentagon Papers were published has a photograph of Times managing editor A.M. Rosenthal and other staffers reading the published document in the paper, and another photo (above) of Rosenthal congratulating Neil Sheehan and other staffers—but no image of Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who was actually responsible for bringing the Pentagon Papers to the public.

Daniel has explained—notably in his 2002 memoir Secrets—that he would have given a copy of the Pentagon Papers to Sheehan immediately if only Sheehan had told him that the Times was seriously interested in publishing them. Which was true, but for reasons that aren’t very clear in Sheehan’s account, the reporter was unwilling to tell Ellsberg that. (“He feared that Mr. Ellsberg’s reaction might inadvertently tip the government off,” is the explanation proffered.) As Robert notes, this meant that Daniel had to keep looking for another publisher—increasing and not decreasing the chances that the government might learn about and seize the copied papers.

What Daniel Ellsberg remembers telling Sheehan when he found out about the Times‘ secret copy is, “You did what I did”—not, “So you stole it, like I did.” As Robert writes, “My father never considered that he had stolen anything”—and didn’t need a reminder from Sheehan that the papers belonged to the American people.

Of course, it’s impossible to say which of two versions of a conversation that occurred between two people is correct—even if one version has the strong whiff of something that one person wishes they had said. But there is an important part of the Times story that is definitely false, and requires correction—because it’s contradicted later in the same story.

That’s when the story reads, “Contrary to what is generally believed, Mr. Ellsberg never ‘gave’ the papers to the Times.” In fact, Ellsberg did give the papers to Sheehan, as the story gets around to revealing 38 paragraphs later:

So he told Mr. Ellsberg that he now needed the documents, not just his notes…. This time, when Mr. Sheehan asked, Mr. Ellsberg consented…. He arranged for Mr. Sheehan to pick up a complete copy of the historical study stowed in an Ellsberg family apartment in Manhattan.

So the big revisionist revelation in the New York Times article turns out to be false. Rather, if you read to the end of this 2,800-word piece, you find that “what is generally believed”—is actually true.

ACTION ALERT:

Please tell the New York Times to set the historical record straight by correcting its story to note that Daniel Ellsberg did in fact give the Pentagon Papers to the Times.

CONTACT:

Letters: letters@nytimes.com
Readers Center: Feedback
Twitter: @NYTimes

Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your communication in the comments thread.

Featured image: Daniel Ellsberg

 

‘Being Neutral in the Face of a Fascist Threat Is Not an Acceptable Journalistic Value’

January 14, 2021 - 4:06pm

 

Janine Jackson interviewed political scientist Dorothee Benz on the January 6 insurrection for the January 8, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

(photo: Tess Owen/Vice)

Janine Jackson: People saw for themselves the boggling scenes: crowds of Trump supporters storming the halls of Congress, busting into offices, yelling for lawmakers to come out, trying—minimally—to disrupt the ceremonial electoral count declaring Joe Biden president.

But the story will be, is being, shaped by news media, in subtle and unsubtle ways. Will media not just denounce Wednesday’s incredible actions, but trace them to their societal and institutional roots? And then go on to act, to report and investigate and challenge and demand, as though they really understood those connections?

Confronted with such boundary breaking, in multiple senses, many people will want to hear that it was just a small fringe group of zealots, abetted by a few law enforcement bad apples, in service to an aberrational individual president, who’s anyway on his way out. Will corporate media sell the story that things got scary for a minute, but belief in the system is the way to safety?

Joining us now in media res—it’s just January 7—is political scientist Dorothee Benz.  A writer, organizer and strategist, she has many years of work in frontline struggles here in the US. She joins us by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Dorothee Benz.

Dorothee Benz: It’s great to be here.

JJ: My brain at first went to language, you know: Is “protester” the best label when the target is the democratic process?  Is “chaos” the most evocative description for a planned and predicted action with some measure of evident official sanction? Now I’m reading “unprepared”; everyone was “unprepared.”

But there are deeper questions about corporate media’s role here. Just to throw a dart: While they’ve recently begun to qualify it, elite media spent years referring matter of factly to “voter fraud,” despite its virtual nonexistence, because they simply had to suggest a Democratic equivalent to evidence of Republican voter suppression, lest they be accused of bias. So the idea that you can just declare fraud without evidence has been well-established by the press itself.

That’s one of the things I’m thinking of. What are some of the things that are coming to your mind as you look at this early-stages coverage?

New York Review of Books (11/10/16)

DB: The first thing that comes to my mind is Masha Gessen’s warning four years ago, after Trump was elected, when they said, “Believe the autocrat.” And in the intervening four-plus eternal years, as the left, and as Black Lives Matter activists and immigrant rights advocates, have raised the alarm over and over again about rising political violence, about the profoundly anti-democratic, racist policies of the administration, we have been called alarmists, we have been told it’s not that bad. We have been told, basically, to calm down.

And we could see this coming, as could anybody, actually, who’s been on social media for the last three or four weeks. This violent piece of insurrection was planned openly on unencrypted channels. I saw yesterday on Twitter, there was merch, there were people in T-shirts that said “Civil War January 6, 2021.” So “unprepared and surprised” is the last thing that anyone should have been, whether that’s the Capitol Police or the media covering this story.

JJ: Absolutely. Many people have noted—refused to deny, you could say—that everything would have been different yesterday, from beginning to end, including before yesterday, as you’re noting, if these people were Black, or were brown, or were disabled, really anything but what they were. I would add that that would extend beyond the day; had these been Black people, there would be real-world, lasting repercussions for all Black people, right? And if you complained, all anyone would need to say would be like, “1/6/21, man.” The point is, talking about how differently they would have been treated if they were Black, say, it’s not a rhetorical exercise; it’s not a game of “what if?” That contrast is really the story, right?

DB: It is. And it goes well beyond the obvious—I mean, so obvious that even some of the mainstream media has noted it—that Black Lives Matter activists would have been treated differently; that Native Americans, defending their land and their legal rights, who were waterhosed in subfreezing temperatures at Standing Rock, were treated differently; that activists who were just begging their senators not to kill them by eliminating their healthcare, were ripped out of wheelchairs and thrown in handcuffs. Yes, those are the obvious differences, as opposed to the kid glove treatment that the white nationalists got yesterday.

Dorothee Benz: “It’s not that they were unprepared, it’s that they were prepared for white nationalists, which to them is not a crisis in the same way that Black people demanding rights is.” (photo: Mike DuBose, UMNS)

But the deeper problem is really the entire white nationalist project that, as you alluded to in the introduction, this whole venture rests on. The fact that the police were so-called “unprepared”—I saw that word several times in the media coverage—it’s not that they were unprepared, it’s that they were prepared for white nationalists, which to them is not a crisis in the same way that Black people demanding rights is, or people insisting that public healthcare and national healthcare should be a thing.

The problem goes much deeper there. And it is both a problem of how we have governed, and a problem of how the police and the military have been central to white supremacy. Structurally, foundationally, ideologically, the function of the police has always been to defend the system as it exists, and the system is a white supremacist system. The ruling power started 500 years ago with settler colonizers; it went on to include genocide, slavery, strikebreaking in the more modern capitalist era. It has never included defending democracy. That is a central understanding of how the police work. They weren’t overwhelmed. They knew; they just didn’t think it was a problem.

JJ: I can’t keep playing that “imagine if” game, because I’m really thinking, every Black candidate forever would be side-eyed by the media: “So if you don’t win, are your people going to riot? We know that you all don’t really believe in democracy.” I don’t think media, as “Oh my gosh” as they are right now,  I don’t think they’re really taking on board the counterfactual that they’re sort of thinking about.

And then, more cynically, I think, in contrast, there won’t be the same kind of repercussions for people who, not just look like the insurrectionists from yesterday, but who think like them, except that maybe media might seek them out to say: “You’re the good Trump deadender; what makes you tick? Why didn’t you storm the Capitol?”

Twitter (1/7/21)

DB: Yeah, I saw a comment this morning from Ben Ehrenreich, who was talking about the media label of a “mob,” reaching for sort of a classist term, instead of calling them “‘fascists” or “neo-Nazi” or “racist” or “white supremacists”—and not calling them just “protesters,” because, rightly, they were trying to differentiate between, let’s say, Black Lives Matter or healthcare protesters—but not going for the term that’s really there.

JJ:  It is difficult to grapple with the language around here; we’re in kind of new territory. But what we do see is an unwillingness to use the terms “white nationalist,” to use “white supremacist” in connection with this kind of thing. And I think it is part of media’s desire to splinter people off, to say, “This really is a fringe,” and discourage the connections between these people and, in fact, the mainstream of the Republican Party, and of many US institutions.

DB: I think that that is absolutely right. There’s two things going on there, in that I would call it a soothing effort to make this not a bigger problem, right? The larger problem is not contextualizing it in white supremacy, the larger problem is not admitting that the entire American project is a white supremacist project.

You know, the media did point some fingers at Donald Trump yesterday, rightly, but they seem to exempt almost wholly the entire rest of the Republican Party. This morning, on the New York Times’ homepage, at least on the app, they had a bunch of quotes, and they were all from Republicans making them look really principled: [senators Lindsey] Graham, [Mitch] McConnell and [Kelly] Loeffler saying, well, this isn’t the right thing to do. As if these people hadn’t been feeding the same right-wing monster for the last four years, not to mention the last four weeks.

JJ: Right.

DB: So that’s one way in which the media is trying to create a respectable-looking set of Republicans in the middle of what is not…that.

The other is not talking about the larger shift here, which is the assault on democratic norms and the assault on democracy itself, which has moved from sort of a cloaked phase—you know, voter ID laws that we pretend are just about voter fraud, or that are somehow facially neutral or whatever; mass incarceration, which disenfranchises and creates second-class citizenship for millions and millions of people. Moving away from that cloaked phase to this really overt phase and testing what works, like, “Well, let’s throw some lawsuits at it, let’s try that. Let’s try to directly shake down some officials and threaten them. OK, let’s try that.”

In October, Rep. Mike Lee floated the term “rank democracy,” as if there is such a thing as too much democracy, like, “Don’t let the unwashed actually vote.” And that’s exactly what it is.

And that is actually both a point of continuity and discontinuity with the entire American project. It has never been a country that is a democracy, a true democracy, in the sense of a universal franchise, let alone economic and social democracy. But it has pretended for a long time that it is. And what the right is doing now is testing even that pretense, to see how they can proceed. And that is a genuine fascist threat.

JJ: And that’s the danger of portraying this as marginal or fringe or failed, right, portraying it as a “failed attempt,” because, as you and others have said, that failure doesn’t mean the end of it.

New York Times (1/4/21)

DB: Absolutely not. I mean, yes, I’ve seen a couple of headlines about like, “Well, Trump’s on his way out anyway.” And this morning, as I was listening to NPR, the reporter or the anchor said, “Well, what did [they] think they would accomplish?” You know, like they were talking about some kids on a playground. And it’s not that they failed at overturning the election; it’s that they succeeded in mainstreaming fascism and fascist tactics. That’s really the point. And I haven’t seen that anywhere in the mainstream media coverage.

Similarly, on NY1, or in a NY1 tweet I should say, to be exact, somebody was talking about how the property damage this morning was actually quite minimal. Yeah, it might be minimal, although when property damage happens at a Black Lives Matter protest, you would think it was a matter of national security. But I responded to that tweet by saying, “That’s beside the point. The assault isn’t on Capitol Hill property, it’s on democracy itself.” And that really has not been enough of the focus.

As a matter of fact, in a general kind of a way, this is a continuity from the entire Trump era, where media have gone out of their way to normalize fascist tactics and try to squeeze them, “square peg in a round hole” style, into the box of normal political imagery, where they describe something like—they had a headline yesterday, before all this went down, “With Objection to Election Results, Hawley Puts His Party in a Bind.” So they’ve turned this overt anti-democratic effort to overturn an election into an intra-party political quandary, thus normalizing what is not normal, or what should not be normal in an allegedly democratic society.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally: In a real way, corporate media’s deepest role here is as champions of the capitalist neoliberal system that creates the real grievances that are weaponized and combined with white supremacist ideology—doesn’t create the white supremacy, but it drives those grievances that then become so combustible.

And for the lesson, therefore, from yesterday to be, “Don’t push for real social change, because that’s fighting, and that leads to violence,” for the lesson to be, “Now, both sides: both people who bust into the Capitol and Black Lives Matter and AOC,” that balancing. “Let’s have civility, let’s have color blindness, let’s look forward and not back.” If media come out of the gate and that’s the message, I feel like that’s almost the most dangerous thing that could happen.

DB: It is the most dangerous thing that could happen. If you just shift the language a little bit, and you imagine them saying, “Antifascists really need to reach across the aisle and be in a spirit of bipartisanship with the fascists,” well, then you would get the problem.

And that is exactly the problem. Part of it is the media habit, the very bad habit, of pretend objectivity, that puts everything in a “he said, he said” frame, even when one set of claims is factually demonstrable and the other side is demonstrably untrue, and pretending that those things are equivalent. But also, just on the surface, pretending that being neutral in the face of a fascist threat is an acceptable journalistic value. It’s not.

JJ:  We’ve been speaking with writer, organizer and strategist Dorothee Benz. You can follow her on Twitter @DrBenz3. Dorothee Benz, thank you for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

DB: It’s my pleasure.

 

‘What Happened at the Capitol Could Not Happen Unless Police Allowed It to Happen’

January 13, 2021 - 5:17pm

 

Janine Jackson interviewed the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund’s Mara Verheyden-Hilliard on police responsibility for the January 6 insurrection for the January 8, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: We spoke with our next guest in January of 2017, in the wake of the mass arrest of protesters and journalists at Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the decision to bring felony riot charges against them. What accounts for how differently DC law enforcement behaved yesterday?

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard is an activist and attorney. She’s co-founder and executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard: Glad to be with you.

JJ: So I just have one big question, really, which is, “What the hell?” And why is the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, along with the Center for Protest Law and Litigation, calling for public investigations here?

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard: “There has to be exposure and accountability for every single officer, for every single command official, for everyone who was involved in allowing, facilitating, this white supremacist mob violence.” (image: WTTG)

MVH: I think what we witnessed yesterday, in addition to being an extraordinary event in US history and our lifetimes, is fully defining of what has been told to us over and over again is the neutral application of law enforcement, and law and order. Any of us who have ever demonstrated in Washington, DC, or been in Washington, DC, know full well the capacity of the police agencies here to shut down and repress completely peaceful protest. Our clients and we have been subject to kettling, to mass arrest, to projectile weapons, to being soaked in chemical weapons, to tear gas, and there’s been no hesitation to use this. The police have all the materiel, the riot gear, the personnel, the weapons, the tactics at their disposal.

So that can lead us only to the most obvious conclusion, which is, what happened yesterday at the nation’s capital could not happen unless the police allowed it to happen. And they did in fact allow it to happen.

So we are demanding an investigation, because there has to be exposure and accountability for every single officer, for every single command official, for everyone who was involved in allowing, facilitating, this white supremacist mob violence.

Our point here is not calling for police repression; our goal is not to increase police repression. What we need to do and must do here is expose the nature of police repression, and that is so evident here today. We know perfectly well that if there had been a peaceful demonstration that had come en masse to the Capitol and had tried to enter through the front doors, we would have seen a massacre, I mean, a massacre.

And here is a white supremacist group that had been publicly bragging that they were coming to Washington, DC, that they were trying to smuggle illegal weapons in here. And the idea that the Capitol Police were caught off guard, or were somehow outmaneuvered, is completely false. Over 20 years of litigation in the District of Columbia, in constitutional rights cases, we have seen, over and over again, the very sophisticated operation that exists here in planning for major events in the District, and for demonstrations and for rallies and for everything. And they have very effective and significant coordinated interagency communications, operation manuals, tabletop exercises, planning, mutual aid agreements.

It’s simply not possible, particularly in the post–9/11 world at the Capitol, that they lacked preparedness, or that they lacked knowledge for what was going to happen.

Janine Jackson: We’ve been speaking with Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. You can follow their work online at JusticeOnline.org. We will be following this investigation. Thank you so much, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, for joining us today on CounterSpin.

MVH: I’m glad to be with you.