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Shielding US Public From Israeli Reports of Friendly Fire on October 7

February 23, 2024 - 5:47pm

 

Since October, the Israeli press has uncovered damning evidence showing that an untold number of the Israeli victims during the October 7 Hamas attack were in fact killed by the IDF response.

While it is indisputable that the Hamas-led attackers were responsible for many Israeli civilian deaths that day, reports from Israel indicate that the IDF in multiple cases fired on and killed Israeli civilians. It’s an important issue that demands greater transparency—both in terms of the questions it raises about IDF policy, and in terms of the black-and-white narrative Israel has advanced about what happened on October 7, used to justify its ongoing assault on the Gaza Strip.

Indeed, IDF responsibility for Israeli deaths has been a repeated topic of discussion in the Israeli press, accompanied by demands for investigations. But the most US readers have gotten from their own press about the issue is a dismissive piece from the Washington Post about October 7 “truthers.”

Implementing the Hannibal Directive?

Israel’s Haaretz (12/13/23) is willing to raise questions that seem to be taboo in the US press.

In the wake of October 7, after Israel began its genocidal campaign against Gaza, reports began to emerge from the Israeli press of incidents in which Israeli troops made decisions to fire on Hamas targets regardless of whether Israeli civilians were present.

That the IDF’s initial reaction was chaotic at best is well-documented. Much of the early military response came from the air, with little information for pilots and drone operators to distinguish targets but orders to shoot anyway (Grayzone, 10/27/23). Citing a police source, Haaretz (11/18/23) reported that at the Supernova music festival site, “an IDF combat helicopter that arrived to the scene and fired at terrorists there apparently also hit some festival participants.” But there are also mainstream Israeli media reports that credibly suggest the IDF may have implemented a policy to sacrifice Israeli hostages.

Supernova music festival attendee Yasmin Porat had escaped the festival on foot to the nearby village of Be’eri, only to be held hostage in a home with 13 others. One of the captors surrendered and released Porat to IDF troops outside. She described how, after a prolonged standoff, Israeli tank fire demolished that home and killed all but one of the remaining Israeli hostages. Her account was verified by the other surviving hostage (Electronic Intifada, 10/16/23; Haaretz, 12/13/23). One of the Israeli victims was a child who had been held up as an example of Hamas’s brutality (Grayzone, 11/25/23).

Electronic Intifada (1/20/24) quoted the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth (1/12/24) as saying that Israel “instructed all its fighting units to perform the Hannibal Directive in practice, although it did so without stating that name explicitly.”

Yedioth Ahronoth (1/12/24; translated into English by Electronic Intifada, 1/20/24)—one of Israel’s most widely read newspapers—published a bombshell piece that put these revelations in context. The paper reported that the IDF instructed its members

to stop “at any cost” any attempt by Hamas terrorists to return to Gaza, using language very similar to that of the original Hannibal Directive, despite repeated promises by the defense apparatus that the directive had been canceled.

The Hannibal Directive—named for the Carthaginian general who allegedly ingested poison rather than be captured by his enemies—is the once-secret doctrine meant to prevent at all costs the taking of IDF soldiers as hostages, even at the risk of harming the soldier (Haaretz, 11/1/11). It was supposedly revoked in 2016, and was ostensibly never meant to be applied to civilians (Haaretz, 1/17/24).

Yedioth Ahronoth reported:

It is not clear at this stage how many of the captives were killed due to the operation of this order on October 7. During the week after Black Sabbath [i.e., October 7] and at the initiative of Southern Command, soldiers from elite units examined some 70 vehicles that had remained in the area between the Gaza Envelope settlements and the Gaza Strip. These were vehicles that did not reach Gaza because on their way they had been hit by fire from a helicopter gunship, a UAV or a tank, and at least in some of the cases, everyone in the vehicle was killed.

Reports that the IDF gave orders to disregard the lives of Israeli captives have caused great consternation in Israel (Haaretz, 12/13/23). An author of the IDF ethics code called it “unlawful, unethical, horrifying” (Haaretz, 1/17/23). Yet any mention of the reports, or the debates they have inspired in Israel, seems to be virtually taboo in the mainstream US media.

The only mention of “Hannibal directive” FAIR could find in a major US newspaper the since October 7 came in a New York Post article (12/18/23) paraphrasing a released hostage who

claimed that Hamas told them the Israel Defense Forces would employ the infamous “Hannibal Directive” on civilians, a revoked protocol that once allegedly called on troops to prioritize taking out terrorists even if it meant killing a kidnapped soldier.

‘A general’s dilemma’

Readers had to read 150 paragraphs into this New York Times piece (12/22/23) before they came to the stunning revelation that an Israeli general ordered an assault on a house full of hostages “even at the cost of civilian casualties.”

A version of Supernova attendee Porat’s account was related a few days later in the New York Times (12/22/23), which published a lengthy investigative report piecing together what happened across the village of Be’eri. That report included a section about the standoff at the house where Porat was held, under the subhead “A General’s Dilemma.” It did not mention Porat’s prior revelations in Israeli media and the controversy they had caused.

The piece described how

the captors had forced roughly half of the hostages, including the Dagans, into Ms. Cohen’s backyard. They positioned the hostages between the troops and the house, according to Ms. Dagan and Ms. Porat.

After more than an hour of gunfire between the IDF and the gunmen, Ms. Dagan reported seeing at least two hostages in the backyard “killed in the gunfire. It wasn’t clear who killed them, she said.”

The article continued:

As the dusk approached, the SWAT commander and General [Barak] Hiram began to argue. The SWAT commander thought more kidnappers might surrender. The general wanted the situation resolved by nightfall.

Minutes later, the militants launched a rocket-propelled grenade, according to the general and other witnesses who spoke to the Times.

”The negotiations are over,” General Hiram recalled telling the tank commander. ”Break in, even at the cost of civilian casualties.”

The tank fired two light shells at the house.

Shrapnel from the second shell hit Mr. Dagan in the neck, severing an artery and killing him, his wife said.

During the melee, the kidnappers were also killed.

Only two of the 14 hostages—Ms. Dagan and Ms. Porat—survived.

It’s a shocking order; it’s also shocking that the Times offered no comment about the order. After the revelation caused a firestorm in Israel, including demands for an immediate investigation by family of those killed in the incident, the Times (12/27/23) published a followup about how General Hiram’s quote “stirred debate,” including multiple quotes from the general’s defenders.

Ignoring the context

The New York Times (1/5/24) neglected to mention its earlier report about the IDF being willing to sacrifice civilians.

There was another rare mention of Israeli friendly fire in New York Times (1/5/24), reporting on Palestinian Jerusalem resident Soheib Abu Amar, who was also held hostage and ultimately killed in the house Porat escaped from. Bizarrely, it did not mention the controversy over Hiram’s order.

Under the headline, “A Palestinian Man Vanished October 7. His Family Wants to Know Who Killed Him,” the Times traced Abu Amar’s disappearance that day, which began as a bus driver for partygoers at the music festival. Describing his final moments, the Times wrote that “Israeli security forces engaged in an intense battle with Hamas terrorists at the home” in which nearly “all of the hostages were killed.” It later mentioned that “families of the hostages…want an investigation to begin immediately,” but made no mention of Hiram’s order.

None of these Times articles put the Be’eri incident in the context of the Israeli press reports of other “friendly fire” incidents, and no other Times reporting has mentioned them, either, leaving the impression that the Hiram order was an isolated incident.

This is especially remarkable, given that one of the reporters on the Yedioth Ahronoth story, Ronen Bergenen, is also a New York Times contributor, and shared the byline on the Times‘ Be’eri investigation. His Yedioth Ahronoth revelations have yet to be mentioned in the Times, or elsewhere in US corporate media.

‘A small but growing group’

The Washington Post (1/21/24) conflates random cranks who claim that the October 7 attack was “staged by the Israeli military” with independent journalists who report on Israeli media exposés of friendly fire deaths—and associates both with Holocaust denial.

Meanwhile, the first time the Washington Post (1/21/24) made any mention of the controversies, it did so indirectly, and only to dismiss them by conflating them with conspiracy theories. Under the headline “Growing October 7 ‘Truther’ Groups Say Hamas Massacre Was a False Flag,” Post “Silicon Valley correspondent” Elizabeth Dwoskin attacked “truthers” who question the Israeli narrative of October 7, equating them with Holocaust deniers.

The Post’s first subject was a woman named Mirela Monte, who subscribed to a Telegram channel called Uncensored Truths. This convinced her that October 7 was a “’false flag’ staged by the Israelis—likely with help from the Americans—to justify genocide in Gaza.” The Post reported that the channel had nearly 3,000 subscribers, but despite this relatively miniscule reach, still used it as its lead example of dangerous misinformation.

Another target was an anonymous poster on the niche subreddit r/LateStageCapitalism, who claimed that “the Hamas attack was a false flag for Israel to occupy Gaza and kill Palestinians.” Though this is an internet forum largely consisting of memes, the Post described the subreddit as “a community of left-wing activists.”

These were held up as examples of a “small but growing group” that “denies the basic facts of the attacks,” pushes “falsehoods” and “misleading narratives” that “minimize the violence or dispute its origins.” The Post cited a seemingly random woman at a protest who claimed that “Israel murdered their own people on October 7”—linking her to “some in the crowd” who allegedly shouted “antisemitism isn’t real.”

But the Post avoided any attempt to address the empirical question of whether Israel killed any of its own on October 7. Dwoskin’s only reference to the reports from Israel come in a paragraph meant to downplay that question:

Israeli citizens have accused the country’s military of accidentally killing Israeli civilians while battling Hamas on October 7; the army has said it will investigate.

Dwoskin’s framing suggests these are minor concerns that are being appropriately dealt with. But those accusations are not of accidental killings, but of deliberate choices to treat Israeli civilians as expendable. And an internal army investigation is not the same as an independent investigation.

Moreover, the IDF only agreed to investigate the Be’eri incident, not the question of whether the Hannibal Directive was issued—and only after press scrutiny and public pressure, demonstrating the importance of having journalists willing to challenge those in power rather than covering up for them, as Dwoskin’s article did.

Attacking independent journalism

The Washington Post (1/21/24) falsely claimed that Grayzone “suggest[ed] that most Israeli deaths were caused by friendly fire, not Hamas,” because the outlet’s actual claim—that “the Israeli military killed its own citizens as they fought to neutralize Palestinian gunmen”—could not be refuted.

Dwoskin continued by attacking independent media outlets that have been covering the story: “But articles on Electronic Intifada and Grayzone exaggerated these claims to suggest that most Israeli deaths were caused by friendly fire, not Hamas.”

Electronic Intifada and the Grayzone are among the few outlets that have exposed English-language audiences to the reporting from Israel about the IDF’s attacks on Israeli civilians on October 7. To criticize Grayzone‘s reporting (10/27/23), the Post cited the director of “an Israeli watchdog organization dedicated to fighting disinformation,” who said that Grayzone “distorts” a helicopter pilot’s account of having trouble “distinguishing between civilians and Hamas.”

On the word “distorts,” Dwoskin hyperlinked to a Haaretz op-ed (11/27/23) attacking Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal’s reporting. That piece accused him misusing ellipses when he quoted the pilot from the Ynet piece who said there was “tremendous difficulty in distinguishing within the occupied outposts and settlements who was a terrorist and who was a soldier or civilian.”

Haaretz complained that Blumenthal’s ellipses left out a statement from the pilot: “A decision was made that the first mission of the combat helicopters and the armed drones was to stop the flow of terrorists and the murderous mob that poured into Israeli territory through the gaps in the fence.” Blumenthal, the paper complained, ignored that “the pilots were assigned a different task: stopping the terrorists flowing in from Gaza,” and that there was “no ambiguity in this task.”

However, this is entirely consistent with Blumenthal’s claim that “the pilots let loose a fury of cannon and missile fire onto Israeli areas below.” Given that hundreds of hostages were concurrently being taken from Israel into Gaza, there was a great deal of “ambiguity” in the task of “stop[ping] the flow of terrorists…through the gaps in the fence.” It’s highly relevant that the pilot said it was very difficult to distinguish “who was a terrorist and who was a soldier or civilian,” and that only later did the IDF “carefully select the targets.”

The Haaretz piece made several other dubious accusations, including charging Blumenthal with using “biased language” when he described Hamas as “militants” and “gunmen”—terms chosen by many establishment news outlets precisely to avoid bias (AP on Twitter, 1/7/21; BBC, 10/11/23).

The op-ed also accused Blumenthal of omitting “everything related to the war crimes committed by Hamas terrorists,” ignoring his clear statement in his article that “video filmed by uniformed Hamas gunmen makes it clear they intentionally shot many Israelis with Kalashnikov rifles on October 7.”

The Post offered no example of the Grayzone claiming “most” Israeli deaths were caused by friendly fire, and FAIR could find no such claims in the outlet’s October 7 coverage. It has, however, reported extensively on the friendly fire reports in Israeli media that the Post has so studiously avoided.

Hiding the accusations

The Washington Post (1/21/24) misquoted this Electronic Intifada article (11/23/23) as saying that “‘most’ Israeli casualties on October 7″—military and civilian—were killed by friendly fire. What the article actually said was that “Israel killed many, if not most, of the civilians that died during the Palestinian offensive.”

The independent Palestinian-run outlet Electronic Intifada has also based its reporting on articles and interviews from the Israeli press (e.g., Ynet, 10/15/23; Haaretz, 10/20/23, 11/9/23, 11/18/23; Times of Israel, 11/9/23). The Washington Post, however, only wrote that EI senior editor Asa Winstanley was “basing the story, in part, on a YouTube clip (10/15/23) of a man who describes himself as a former Israeli general.”

As Winstanley noted in his response to Dwoskin, “‘Graeme Ipp’ described himself—and actually was—an Israeli major, as I explain in detail in the piece itself.” The Post did not link to the article, video or give any citation to help readers find the article in question, which served to conceal the blatant misquotation.

The Post also misquoted Winstanley to claim he wrote that “most” of the Israeli civilians were killed by the Israeli military that day. In reality, Winstanely (Electronic Intifada, 11/23/23) wrote that Ipp’s testimony was confirmation that “Israel killed many, if not most, of the civilians that died during the Palestinian offensive.”

Had the Post actually pointed its readers to the reporting from the Grayzone and Electronic Intifada, readers may have been able to more easily understand Dwoskin’s distortions. But discrediting those outlets serves an important political purpose: Along with Mondoweiss, they are some of the only English-language outlets that have covered the bombshell revelations that appear frequently within the Israeli press. Attacking their reporting hides from US public view the numerous accusations of deliberate mishandling of intelligence and mass killing by the IDF of its own civilians.

Holocaust denial? 

Mondoweiss (2/1/24): “Stories of atrocity, sometimes cobbled together from unreliable eyewitnesses, sometimes fabricated entirely, have made their way to heads of state and been used to justify Israel’s military violence.”

A sizable chunk of the Washington Post‘s article centered on interviews with pro-Israel “experts” linking October 7 “truthers” to Holocaust denialism, or promoting “internet-driven conspiracy theories.” Dwoskin cited Emerson Brooking, a researcher from the NATO-affiliated Atlantic Council think tank, who warned that “the long tail of Holocaust denial is a lesson in what may happen to October 7.”

Dismissing any actual investigation into the facts, Brooking says, “It’s generally indisputable that Hamas did something—the pro-Hamas camp can’t erase that entirely.” He never specifies what that “something” was—the exact issue in question. Instead, he assumes that “something” is settled fact, and that anyone who investigates it is trying to “chip away at it” in an attempt at “rewriting…history.”

The Post equates people questioning the Holocaust—which has a factual record established over decades of international investigations, scholarship and research—with questioning the details of what Hamas called the Al Aqsa Flood, which has only ever been investigated by the Israeli government. That government, it should be recalled, has a documented record of blatantly lying and fabricating evidence.

Israel’s justification for its relentless assault upon Gaza has depended in large part upon its narrative. Since October 7, the Israeli government has blocked or rejected any serious international inquiry into the attacks or the IDF response. The US government has declined to call for or engage in any investigation.

On the other hand, in a recent statement, Hamas—which maintains that the Al Aqsa Flood was a military, not a terror, operation—has publicly agreed to cooperate with an international investigation into its own war crimes (Palestine Chronicle, 1/21/24).

Many of the most lurid claims that mobilized public opinion in support of Israel’s attack (e.g., 40 beheaded babies, babies cooked in ovens, etc.) have since been debunked and disproven (Mondoweiss, 2/1/24). In fact, Haaretz (11/18/23) revealed that Hamas had no prior knowledge of the festival they were accused of targeting.

Israeli and US officials repeatedly attribute all civilian deaths to Hamas, even though this is certainly false. Clearly, then, s0me Israeli civilian casualties have been “blame[d] on another party.”

How many Israeli civilians were actually killed by Hamas, and how many by Israel? Was the Al Aqsa Flood a terrorist attack designed to kill as many civilians as possible? These are important questions that have yet to be conclusively and independently answered, but the Washington Post seems to want to dissuade people from even asking them. In evoking the specter of Holocaust denial, Dwoskin and the Post are not defending the truth, but attempting to protect readers from it.

The post Shielding US Public From Israeli Reports of Friendly Fire on October 7 appeared first on FAIR.

Government Gag Rules Keep Vital Info From the Public

February 23, 2024 - 3:49pm

 

Reporting on the government institution charged with saving us from the Covid pandemic was restricted enough to leave real holes in what we knew.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—like many other organizations these days, public and private—prohibits its employees from speaking freely to reporters. At many entities, the rules mean staff members cannot have any unauthorized contact with reporters, with media inquiries often redirected to a public information office (PIO).

The forced notification of the higher-ups is quite enough to silence many employees about anything that would displease the bosses. But beyond that, reporters’ requests to speak to someone are often not granted at all.

Unreported gaps in defenses

Washington Post (7/4/20)

Why are those controls not an outrage? Certainly, some CDC shortcomings that led to ill-controlled Covid spread could have been revealed earlier—maybe well before the pandemic—if people were talking to reporters normally. That would include confidential conversations, if that were the agreement between staff member and reporter.

The Covid Crisis Group, in its investigative report last year, pointed out (among many other shortcomings) that neither the CDC nor anyone in government had a well-developed design for screening people at international air gateways. Nor had  CDC or any other agency  “tried to build a rapid-action, interdisciplinary, systematic biomedical surveillance network.” In July 2020, months after the agency’s mistakes with the Covid test hampered the early response, the Washington Post (7/4/20) revealed CDC had made the same mistakes with the Zika virus test four years before.

One could look at each such gap in the nation’s pandemic defenses and think: “There were agency staff who understood the problem—possibly couldn’t sleep at night because of it—and they were banned from speaking freely about it to reporters.”

Quite possibly either a general-interest outlet or a specialized trade newsletter would have been tipped off, if they had  normal contact with such people.

Gradually, over several decades, with almost no public discussion, these gag rules have come to many corners of  society, including public and private entities, businesses, federal, state and local governments, organizations covered by science reporters, schools of all levels, and police departments. The censorship mechanism is taught in at least some communications classes.

Journalists’ responsibility to fight such restrictions, not just get stories, is indicated by regular reports about bad situations that might have been changed earlier: information on generic drug production problems that took author Katherine Eban 10 years to pull out of the system; plans by the Trump administration to separate children from parents; young CDC scientists who knew in early 2020 that Covid could be spread by people who did not seem ill; or the many law enforcement organizations all over the country that stifle reporting on themselves.

Blockages politically driven

Quill (9/22/22)

Former CDC media relations head Glen Nowak (Quill, 9/22/22) has said the agency’s controls grew tighter with each presidential administration, beginning with President Ronald Reagan. Each new administration looked back at what the previous one had done, and saw there had been no adverse political impact from tightening the restrictions. Nowak said the blockages were often politically driven, and frequently effective in controlling information.

When a reporter contacts the PIO for permission to talk to someone at the CDC, the request is sent up through the political layers of government, at least to the Department of Health and Human Services secretary of public affairs, and often all the way to the White House. Behind closed doors, officials decide who may speak to whom, and what may be discussed.

Nowak said:

Administrations, typically, their priority is trying to remain elected. And they’re often looking at policies through: how will this help or not help when it comes to running for election…. A serious health threat can be underplayed or ignored if it doesn’t align with political ideology of the party in power, or a party is trying to get power.

For over 15 years, a number of journalism organizations have been fighting these controls. Letters signed by 25 to 60 organizations have gone to the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations, as well as to Congress, calling for an end to the constraints in federal entities.

News outlets have researched or editorialized against the practice. Last year, the Lexington Courier Journal (6/15/23) found that of 35 Kentucky agencies, 70% restrict or prohibit employees from talking to journalists. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette editorial board (9/4/23) said that “governments and other agencies have tightly constricted access to the people who actually make the decisions and know, first-hand, key information.”

Testing the restrictions

There’s been another important step in the last few months. Two journalists filed separate suits against public agencies for having these policies. Some people, including attorneys, have said in the past that journalists could not sue agencies in such instances.  A plaintiff, they said, would have to be an insider, a “willing speaker.”

However, Brittany Hailer, director of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, sued the Allegheny County Jail last August for allegedly prohibiting employees and contractors from speaking to journalists without prior approval of the warden. Her complaint says that the jail, which houses on average 1,553 people, has had a death rate “reportedly nearly twice the national average among local jails of similar size.”

Hailer is represented by the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

In addition, the publishers of the Catskills, NY–based Reporter sued the Delaware County (New York) Board of Supervisors. The board had pulled the county’s legal advertising from the paper, allegedly in retaliation for news coverage the board didn’t like, and then prohibited county employees from speaking to the paper about “pressing matters of public concern.” The board mandated, the complaint said, that all communications with the Reporter be funneled through the county attorney’s office.

The Reporter’s publishers are represented by the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic and Michael J. Grygiel.

Both cases are currently pending before the courts.

Foundational thinking for the cases was provided by a 2019 report by prominent First Amendment attorney Frank LoMonte, who was then head of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, and is now counsel at CNN. In a summary report, LoMonte said of the constraints:

Media plaintiffs should be able to establish that their interests have been injured, whether directly or indirectly, to sustain a First Amendment challenge to government restraints on employees’ speech to the media. The only question is whether the restraint will be treated as a presumptively unconstitutional prior restraint, or whether a less rigorous level of scrutiny will apply.

Is this authoritarianism?

Is this trend a kind of authoritarianism that is growing out of our public relations culture?

Many types of media—national, local or specialized—publish, with little or no skepticism, information handed out from government agencies. Nor do journalists warn audiences that the staff members who know other parts of the story are walled off from reporters.

Why does the press assume that any human organization will maintain competence or integrity when it is blocking or manipulating information about itself?

Even as climate disruption poses an ever-greater threat, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy have these don’t-talk policies, as do most federal agencies.

Last year, the Department of Commerce, with its prominent role in regulating artificial intelligence, put out a policy saying that requests for official press interviews should go through the public affairs officials, and further

should be submitted by email with details to include story angle, background, requested attribution, Q&A, suggested talking points and reporter’s deadline. Please do not agree to attribution terms prior to OPA [Office of Public Affairs] clearance. If possible, please allow a 24-hour turnaround for print interviews. Please allow a 48-hour turnaround for television interviews, due to the extended White House clearance process.

But, again, even with the hazards inherent in such restraints on journalism, the press doesn’t often tell the public about the controls.

At the local level, stories emerge about abuses by law enforcement, like the murder of George Floyd and systemic abuse by sheriffs’ departments. Still, most of the press doesn’t explain that many police departments impose rules that can hide such violations.

The gag rules, or “censorship by PIO,” have become a cultural norm, and millions of people in the United States are now banned from speaking, or speaking freely, to journalists. Even though free speech is necessary for democracy and public welfare, journalists have in large part acquiesced to making routine, permission-to-speak requests through PIOs or others.

A right to control the message?

Police1 (7/27/20)

I’ve heard reporters from prominent outlets gripe about the process, and the time it takes to be allowed to talk to someone. But there seems to be no recognition that the public needs to know when none of the thousands of people in an agency are allowed to speak to journalists without that oversight, and most can’t speak to them at all. Nor is there discussion that someone in the agency, in a high or low position, could blow the journalists’ story out of the water, even after publication, or blow their minds about something they are oblivious to.

This may have originated with the long-held journalism convention that news outlets do not complain to the public about the trials they go through when people in power try to block their newsgathering. We may fear that if we admit we’ve been blocked, we discredit our news product.

On the other side, some public relations people or agency leaders try to rebut the idea they are censors, saying they are trying to help the press, or increase transparency, or they want to coordinate the story from different parts of their organization. That, of course, doesn’t address the fact they could serve these functions without banning all unfettered contacts.

Other PR officials are quite straightforward about why employees are silenced: People leading an organization, they say, have a right to set the message.

There is no doubt that agencies and offices have real challenges in this communications era. Carefully crafted, honest messages can be blown apart by careless statements. Employees can be ill-informed, or they can be promoting their own agenda. Statements can come across as coming from the organization itself when they are not—due to what the staffer says, what the news outlet says or how the audience interprets it. Journalists are often time-pressured, and can be sensation-seeking or less than careful.

Those are serious problems that can cause real harm. They need to be continuously addressed by both agencies and journalists, with both sides listening carefully to the other. However, they are not a reason to degrade ourselves to what is one of the most repressive and deadly things in history: people in power controlling information.

There is no reason news outlets can’t fight this. If they stand together, they can fight against these policies, and work to ensure the press and others have normal access to staff. They can work within their associations or build coalitions. They can agree to tell the public routinely when employees are gagged, treating the situation like the corruption it is.

The press has led similar fights for decades, pushing for access to documents with freedom of information laws, and access to official meetings under the open meetings laws. Fighting for normal communication with human beings should not be different.

Why is the press doing this?

Popular Resistance (2/5/24)

Jay Rosen, journalism professor at New York University, says (Popular Resistance, 2/5/24): “The news system is not designed for human understanding. Even at the top providers, it’s designed to produce a flow of new content today—and every day.”

Media, at their best, do seriously excellent content. In this era of information tsunamis, a lot of stuff is still pushed at the press. There are also masses of information in the public arena that just take work to pull together. By reading the Federal Register or other public documents, a reporter can find something intriguing that’s getting little attention.  And reporters also get material that isn’t public.

The unfortunate side of all this legitimate supply is that it keeps outlets from worrying too much about how people in power are manipulating us away from overall understanding, and from some of the most critical information.

Journalists often respond to questions about these censorship systems with something like, “Good reporters get the story anyway.” It’s possible that we can use our skills to dig out stories that audiences are interested in, and hopefully our news outlet survives. That doesn’t mean that we are doing good enough coverage of the institutions that impact the public—not with nearly everyone in the organization silenced.

The newsgathering controls began to grow well before today’s alarming decline in numbers of journalists and news outlets, or the emergence of other threats to democracy. One can imagine that vicious cycles among those factors will worsen as journalists grow even more dependent “on inexpensive official sources as the credible news source,” as press critic Victor Pickard (Editor & Publisher, 11/15/21) has called them.

It’s up to journalists to fight for the right to talk to people with vital information normally, fluidly, without authorities’ involvement.

Featured image: Creative Commons photo by .

 

 

The post Government Gag Rules Keep Vital Info From the Public appeared first on FAIR.

Gregory Shupak and Trita Parsi on Gaza Assault

February 23, 2024 - 11:02am
https://media.blubrry.com/counterspin/content.blubrry.com/counterspin/CounterSpin240223.mp3

 

Reuters (2/20/24)

This week on CounterSpin: International human rights lawyer Craig Mokhiber told Electronic Intifada recently that the International Court of Justice hearings on the legality of Israel’s 56-year occupation of Palestinian land are

the largest case in history—more than 50 countries are taking part in this, and the US is virtually alone…in defending the legality of Israel’s occupation. Most states are affirming its illegality and cataloging Israeli war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other gross violations of international law.

Every day the US falls more out of step with the world in its support for Israel’s violent assault on Gaza. As Mokhiber said, US vetoes of ceasefires in the UN Security Council, after which thousands more were killed, mean the US is directly responsible for those deaths: “Complicity is a crime.” Many in the US press seem divorced from the idea of US responsibility, and somehow we’re seeing more of the opinions of random TV actors than of groups on the ground in Palestine, and international human rights and legal bodies.

We get some update on this unfolding nightmare from author and activist Gregory Shupak, from the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto, and from Trita Parsi, co-founder and executive vice president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

https://media.blubrry.com/counterspin/content.blubrry.com/counterspin/CounterSpin240223Shupak.mp3

 

https://media.blubrry.com/counterspin/content.blubrry.com/counterspin/CounterSpin240223Parsi.mp3

 

The post Gregory Shupak and Trita Parsi on Gaza Assault appeared first on FAIR.

‘Disenfranchised, Under-Resourced Populations Are Burdened With Enforcing Major Federal Regulation’ 

February 22, 2024 - 3:53pm

 

Janine Jackson interviewed Ariel Adelman about disability and civil rights for the February 16, 2024, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

https://media.blubrry.com/counterspin/content.blubrry.com/counterspin/CounterSpin240216Adelman.mp3

 

Janine Jackson: In 2000, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was already 10 years old, actor Clint Eastwood was accused of running a California hotel with inadequately accessible rooms, bathrooms and parking lot. “It’s just not fair,” the millionaire complained, and his beleaguered stance found echo in the press, with the likes of ABC‘s John Stossel wondering, if people with disabilities want access to a business or an accommodation that bars them, why don’t they “just ask”? Presumably, the answer could be no, but wouldn’t that be “the decent thing to do,” rather than bringing a lawsuit, which, as Eastwood quipped, means lawyers “drive off in a big Mercedes and the disabled end up riding off in a wheelchair.”

ABC‘s Stossel, in a segment called “Give Me a Break,” introduced by Barbara Walters, called legal efforts to enforce the ADA a “shakedown racket.” The presentation recasts human rights, never mind compliance with a decades-old law, as fundamentally corporate noblesse oblige.

Unfortunately, that still inflects media coverage, and forms part of the backdrop of a current legal case, Acheson Hotels v. Laufer. Our guest will bring us up to date on what’s happening and what it means.

CEPR (1/31/24)

Ariel Adelman is a disability rights advocate and policy analyst. Her piece with Hayley Brown on Acheson v. Laufer appears at CEPR.net. She joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Ariel Adelman.

Ariel Adelman: Hi, good to be here.

JJ: Most recently, in December, the Supreme Court declined to hear Acheson, and that’s significant, but it doesn’t mean the core of the case has been fully addressed. I’m quite sure that many listeners have never heard of this case, so if you could talk us through, what are the facts in Acheson v. Laufer, and what’s at stake?

AA: I’ll give a brief overview of the background of the case. Laufer is a disabled woman with multiple sclerosis who acts as a civil rights tester, specifically for the ADA. Testers are people who basically check to see if people are in compliance with a certain civil rights law. There are individual testers, and testers who volunteer or work for legal organizations.

And so Laufer began testing hotel websites for their compliance with the reservation rule, after a personal experience with a hotel that violated the ADA’s reservation rule. The incident forced her to sleep in her car, when she arrived at the hotel only to find that the room was inaccessible to her.

And something important to note is that it’s completely free for businesses to comply with the reservation rule, which is part of title three of the ADA. All it means is they have to add accessibility information about their rooms and other facilities, even if they’re inaccessible. The hotel just needs to say the room is or isn’t wheelchair accessible, or does or doesn’t have visual fire alarms, for example.

So Laufer was acting as a tester when she sued Acheson Hotels for failing to comply with the reservation rule. And after the Supreme Court heard the case on October 4, they dismissed the case on mootness, because Laufer withdrew her claim in fear that the decision would upend “test your rights” as a whole.

And it’s important also to know that lawsuits filed by individuals are currently the primary enforcement mechanism for the ADA, which is already generally underenforced. The DoJ is technically in charge of enforcing the ADA, aside from individual lawsuits. The DoJ can sue ADA violators, or they can attempt mediation, which only comprises a tiny percentage of cases.

And the DoJ really doesn’t have sufficient incentive, really, to pursue ADA violations in court, even when they’re egregious. And so civil rights testers for the ADA, for the Civil Rights Act, for the Fair Housing Act, for any civil rights legislation, they’re really needed.

And, unfortunately, that also means that individual suits are an unfair burden, especially when it’s on people who are being actively discriminated against. And testers fill that gap, so that people with very few means—which is important to note, that disabled people are generally living in forced poverty; they don’t have the means, the time or the health, really, to bring a lawsuit to sue every single person that violates the ADA. If we were doing that, every disabled person would just constantly be in court, suing people. So testers are really needed to fill that gap.

JJ:The objection to testers has been about standing, right?

AA: Yes. So the big issue at the center of this case is standing, and standing is basically whether or not you have the right to sue. And the case that sets up important precedent for Acheson v. Laufer is Havens Realty Corp v. Coleman, which was a 1982 Supreme Court case that established standing to sue for civil rights testers, regardless of whether they expected to be discriminated against, and, importantly, regardless of their intent to, for example, in that case, buy or rent a home.

So Havens established, it doesn’t matter if you do truly intend to use that good or service. If you’re discriminated against, that constitutes a real injury. And that includes dignitary injury. There’s a bunch of legalese we could go into, that the article covers, but basically you need to know, Havens is already established. You don’t need to actually truly intend.

Unfortunately, the court’s opinion in Acheson, and Acheson’s lawyer’s argument hinged, in part, on the idea that Laufer supposedly had no intent to stay at the inn owned by Acheson Hotels. And the court’s opinion and Justice Thomas’ concurrence repeatedly referred to Laufer, and to civil rights testers in general, as “serial filers,” which, to me, showed pretty open disdain for civil rights testing, despite testers having standing enshrined by Havens for over four decades at this point.

JJ: In case anyone is missing it, the idea is, if you are a person with a disability, you need to wait until you are actively suffering harm, and then you can have standing to sue. And we can’t do proactive compliance testing, with testers who go in to see whether, in fact, these accommodations or venues or whatever are compliant. The idea is, well, “You were just pretending you were going to stay at this hotel, and therefore you don’t have standing to sue that the hotel or whatever is inaccessible.”

AA: That’s kind of the status quo that the conservative elements of the court are gunning for, and business interests in general are hoping for, because they don’t want to have to comply with civil rights law, even if it’s completely free to comply with it.

JJ: And the idea, I think, for the general public is, well, we have the ADA, so something has already happened to make all businesses aware that they need to be compliant, and so why do lawyers need to get involved? But the truth is, the ADA doesn’t have a lot of aggressive enforcement attached to it. So there’s a real critical role for these testers.

AA: Exactly. And the point that my co-author Hayley Brown and I make in our report is that, one, testers fill a really important gap in enforcement. And two, if people are really taking issue with the concept of civil rights testers, that means that we would need to have really aggressive, as you said, proactive enforcement on the part of the government to enforce these civil rights laws, because people right now are just getting away with completely flouting civil rights laws with no consequences.

JJ: What do you think are the implications if Acheson v. Laufer goes the wrong way? I mean, what should folks understand? I’m happy to center the ADA and disabled people at this point, but it does actually have huge implications if we decide that civil rights testers don’t have standing to bring lawsuits.

Ariel Adelman: “How would we go about suing every single time we have our rights violated, when that happens every single day?”

AA: So this case was dismissed on mootness, but if you read the opinion of the court and the concurrence by Justice Clarence Thomas, they make it extremely clear that if this were not dismissed on mootness, they would have ruled in favor of Acheson, which would effectively upend and eviscerate civil rights testing.

And that has really dire consequences for enforcing and maintaining civil rights in general, because that means that overwhelmingly disenfranchised, impoverished, really under-resourced populations are now being burdened with the task of enforcing major federal legislation. And, again, these communities are extremely under-resourced. How would we go about suing every single time we have our rights violated, when that happens every single day?

And the businesses we’re going up against often have these monstrous legal teams that could take down anyone in court. And, of course, with a court that doesn’t want to side with disabled people, it’s really just bad news for civil rights in general in the United States.

JJ: CounterSpin listeners in particular might remember the case Food Lion, in which reporters in 1992, reporters from ABC‘s Primetime Live, went undercover to investigate claims of unsanitary food handling at Food Lion, the supermarket chain. And they found it: old meat being redated and put out again, out-of-date chicken getting soaked in barbecue sauce and then moved to the gourmet section.

But then Food Lion sued ABC, not so much on the accuracy of the story, but that the reporters misrepresented themselves fraudulently by applying for jobs, and then since they were there fraudulently, they were trespassing. And Food Lion won; they won $5.5 million in 1997.

And this chilled investigative reporting as inherently deceptive, for getting stories that they couldn’t get otherwise, and revealing things that were true and in the public interest. And I tie that here because Acheson seems to have implications also for journalism, at least in the way that it touches on the public’s right to know, and the right to know things that folks don’t want to show us.

AA: Interestingly, the opinion talks about the right to information—or I should say, I think it was actually Justice Thomas’ concurrence that talks about whether or not people have a right to information under the reservation rule. And he argues that it doesn’t, even though, at least in my view, in plain text, and according to a lot of disability rights scholars, it does give you the right to information.

And when business interests, or even government entities, are allowed to cloak themselves in uncertainty, even when people affected by their civil rights violations or health code violations, violations of any kind of protection, even if people know for a fact that they’re violating these laws, there’s really no way to bring that to light until you’re actually harmed. And that could harm people, it can kill people.

Extra! (3–4/08)

In the case of that supermarket, if we had to wait for multiple people to die, there’s a death toll to not being able to uncover health code violations. In the case of the ADA, Laufer had to sleep in her car. And who knows if someone has died because they slept in their car, because they didn’t have adequate shelter? What if there was a snowstorm?

And that’s just with inadequate access to information. There’s, of course, issues of literal physical access to buildings. But I think people really undercount the importance of access to information, because if you don’t have proper information, you can’t make the proper decisions to keep yourself safe.

And that’s actually an issue of equal dignity. I wanted to quote from the ACLU amicus brief for Laufer, where they said, “Guaranteeing equal dignity was an animating purpose of the statute’s”—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, its “other antidiscrimination protections.”

And I think that’s really important to keep in mind, is that equal dignity is at the center of basically every civil rights statute. And if we can’t guarantee equal access to information, which is part of the issue in Acheson v. Laufer, then you don’t have equal dignity. And that is not only legally wrong, as it constitutes a dignitary injury, but it’s also morally wrong, if we want to treat disabled people, or anyone part of a marginalized group, as an equal person in society.

JJ: And that equal dignity runs right up against where we started: “Well, why don’t they just ask? Why don’t they just come, hat in hand, and say, ‘Hey, I’d really like to get into your restaurant.’ And then maybe we would say, ‘OK, you could come around the back and we can let you in this other entrance.’” Dignity is often missing from that whole conversation about what businesses are required to do, as if we aren’t talking about human beings.

AA: It’s so bizarre to me. I mean, it’s not bizarre, because I expect it, because ableism is so entrenched in our society. But if you asked someone, “Oh, do you think it would be OK if instead of having robust health code enforcement, if we should just ask if people in restaurants could wash their hands before cooking our food?” Or if small businesses dodge state taxes for 10 years, nobody would go, “Oh, well, they didn’t know any better, and nobody asked them for those taxes. It’s really not their fault.” We only really treat it like this when it comes to civil rights, and it’s not OK.

And a lot of that, I think, is because our society places a really high premium on productivity, and sees disabled people—and, by extension, other marginalized people, whether racially, in terms of gender, religion—they see us as a drain, rather than as a vital part of the population. And as I want to point out to people, disabled people comprise at least a quarter of the population, and that’s rising, because of the ongoing pandemic, which many people have called a mass disabling event.

So we comprise a very large part of society, but people see us as a drain, or they think that our rights shouldn’t really be real, because we’re perceived as not being productive or contributing to society.

Extra! (11–12/00)

JJ: And, finally, the way that folks are seen has not everything, but a lot to do with news media. And back in 2000, many years ago, I wrote about major news outlets presenting the ADA as mainly a regulatory issue affecting private businesses, rather than a human rights issue facing society as a whole.

And my beef, among many others, at the time, as now, was that we saw stories about “It goes too far.” “The ADA goes too far, it’s too expensive and it harms and it’s well-intentioned, but it actually harms.” And that those stories were not sufficiently countered by stories saying, “Well, what if it doesn’t go far enough?” And then, instead, you get the hardy perennial of, “We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.”

It’s not unique, but I feel like there is something special about the way the rights of disabled people, a community that anyone can join at any minute, are somehow never urgent. They’re never front-page news, somehow, there’s never urgency attached to it. And I just wonder, finally, what you think about media coverage, and what you would like to see more of, what you’d like to see less of, in terms of news media?

Vox (9/25/23)

AA: As you said, it’s never seen as urgent or important, despite it being the only marginalized group that you could join at any point. I think that most coverage is really unnuanced, and tends to be overly sympathetic to business interests.

There’s one reporter that I think has had good coverage of this case specifically, which is Ian Millhiser over at Vox. I think his articles are excellent.

With everyone else, there’s headlines like the “Supreme Court Dodges This Ruling,” or “This Woman Sued Over 600 Hotels,” but they never have any headlines that are anything like ”Tourism Industry Tends to Fail to Comply With the ADA,” or “This Hotel Owner and Former Anthropology Professor Repeatedly Flouts Civil Rights Laws.”

And, again, if it were any other major regulatory issue, nobody would really question it, except for maybe small sections of society. But most people think, yeah, we should probably have people regularly checking up to make sure the building doesn’t fall down on us because it’s not up to code, or that we can escape in a fire, or that people are washing their hands before they cook, or give us vaccinations.

And like you said, it’s treated as not urgent. And I think, in part, it’s because disabled people are not just seen as a drain, but we’re seen as somehow cunning, or kind of getting one over on the system. And we’ve seen this kind of backlash before: After the 1918 influenza, postviral disability skyrocketed, and so did the popularity of eugenics and fascism. And so we’ve had reactionaries going after disability rights the exact same way they’re going after immigration, abortion rights, racial equality, labor protections.

CEPR (10/12/22)

And a huge problem is that people across the political spectrum, especially white people, are hostile to the idea that disabled people should have rights at all. And that really is reflected in media, and then it’s reflected back on the population, and then artistic media reflects that back, and then journalism. It’s like a cycle that perpetuates this idea that disabled people are a drain, and their rights are somehow a zero-sum game, that they’re stealing rights from other people.

I did want to add in that there’s really important work being done on these issues, and that if people want to continue to educate themselves, and to follow ongoing disability rights issues, look at my co-author Hayley Brown’s ongoing work on disability and labor, her co-authored piece, “The Long Reach of Long Covid.” And CEPR also has an updated chart book coming on disability and economic justice.

So keep looking at those. There’s really mind-boggling stats that you’ll find that CEPR digs up. Their work is incredible, and I think everyone should look at disability as a cornerstone of civil rights as we are fighting against right-wing reactionaries.

JJ: All right then. We’ve been speaking with Ariel Adelman; the piece “Disability Justice and Civil Rights: The Fight Isn’t Over After Acheson v. Laufer can be found at CEPR.net. Ariel Adelman, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

AA: Thank you.

 

The post ‘Disenfranchised, Under-Resourced Populations Are Burdened With Enforcing Major Federal Regulation’  appeared first on FAIR.

Baltimore’s Media Nightmare and the Billionairification of News

February 16, 2024 - 12:53pm

 

David D. Smith, leading stockholder of Sinclair, Inc., announced on January 15 that he was purchasing what is left of the Baltimore Sun, once regarded as the crown jewel of the Maryland city’s media (AP, 1/15/24).

Sinclair is a multi-billion dollar Fortune 500 company and one of the largest owners of television stations in the country. The company has been criticized for its conservative and not always accurate TV news coverage (Salon, 7/21/17; New Yorker, 10/15/18). In 2018, the company compelled local TV news anchors around the country to read on air the same copy parroting President Donald Trump’s claims about “fake news” (Deadspin, 3/31/18).

The New York Times (1/20/24) reported that many fear David Smith “will impose his political interests on the organization as a final coda to a once proud newspaper that has been facing a long decline.”

The decline of the Sun has been happening for years before Smith’s purchase. The outlet was purchased in 2021 by Alden Capital Group, a hedge fund, which cut newsroom capacity and output. The Sun’s previous owner, Tribune (formerly Tronc), had already been furloughing staff and cutting pay before Alden’s takeover.

Sinclair is a national media giant, owning 294 stations across the country, but it is also headquartered just outside of Baltimore. Smith said he purchased the Sun with his own funding, independent of Sinclair. The Sun (1/15/24) advertised the purchase as “the first time in nearly four decades that the Sun will be in the hands of a local owner.”

Numerous media outlets around the country have expressed concern about Smith’s purchase, with a focus on his right-wing political leanings and his outspoken disdain for print media (e.g., New Republic, 1/17/24; New York Times, 1/20/24).

“A local buyer taking over a struggling newspaper in the 21st century is normally cause for some celebration,” the AP (1/16/24) commented. “But the Baltimore Sun’s newly announced owner has a very specific political background, and some are concerned about what the 187-year-old publication could become.”

Yet the groundwork for Smith’s takeover of the Sun was laid by many of the same news outlets expressing concern about it. Media have created an environment that not only enables takeovers of newspapers by billionaires, but frequently celebrates such acquisitions as important for democracy.

What are billionaires really buying?

CNN (12/30/19) seemed to place a lot of trust in tech billionaire Marc Benioff’s profession of good intentions.

Much of the concern around Smith’s purchase of the Baltimore Sun has to do with his family’s legacy of influencing the news in the region. Over the last 20 years, Smith and his family have become increasingly powerful in Baltimore’s political, corporate and media landscape, and they have used their local media holdings to promote their agendas (Baltimore Sun, 1/18/24). The Sun has a history of reporting critically on Sinclair (9/1/22, 6/27/23, 8/2/23), a threat that has likely been neutralized by this purchase.

Observers are right to be skeptical of  Smith’s promise that he is buying the Baltimore Sun out of an “absolute responsibility to serve the public interest” (AP, 1/16/24). But many of the same news outlets concerned about Smith’s influence over a longstanding daily newspaper have shown little concern about the influence of billionaire news owners in general—or they have shown selective concern.

When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013 (Extra!, 3/14), he assured the public that he was only interested in its potential profitability and that the Post would continue to operate as an independent entity. There wasn’t widespread panic.

Some of the Post’s coverage has seemed to go out of its way to protect the explicit interests of Bezos and the billionaire class (CJR, 9/27/22). As FAIR (10/11/18, 11/21/18) reported, the Post’s coverage of the 2018 Maryland gubernatorial campaign was shockingly biased in favor of Republican Larry Hogan and against Democrat Ben Jealous, a Bernie Sanders supporter. Hogan was negotiating to bring an Amazon headquarters to Maryland, and Jealous had raised questions about the deal.

With some exceptions, like Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter (New York Times, 10/5/22; Newsweek, 10/28/22; MSNBC, 11/21/22), corporate media have covered billionaire takeovers of media outlets in a mostly neutral or positive light, at times portraying the wealthy owners as if they are saving a dying but essential industry out of the goodness of their hearts. That was the dominant tone of the coverage of Marc Benioff’s purchase of Time magazine (CNN, 12/30/19) and John H. Henry’s purchase of the Boston Globe (Reuters, 8/3/13), among others.

When billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong purchased the LA Times, the New York Times (2/7/18) described him as rescuing the outlet from corporate media hell and offering a “welcome alternative” to Tronc. Its article began with a staffer “popp[ing] a bottle of champagne.” Soon-Shiong had previously been Tronc’s vice chair.

To ‘save the news industry’

The “fortunes” the New York Times (1/18/24) describes billionaires losing on their media projects range from 0.7% to 0.05% of their net worth per year.

The New York Times (1/18/24) recently reported that the media outlets bought by billionaires have been largely failing financially—that the billionaires have failed to “save the news industry,” as if that were truly their goal. The Times didn’t consider that billionaires earn other dividends from controlling public discourse, for one.

The national media did exhibit more concern when billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a major casino owner (now deceased), bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2015. News stories highlighted his ties to the Republican Party, and some speculated that he would use the purchase to influence the 2016 presidential election (Guardian, 12/17/15; NPR, 12/17/15; Atlantic, 12/17/15).

There was far less concern over what it means, in general, for a casino magnate to own the news in Las Vegas (Common Dreams, 12/22/15). Would Adelson have faced as much pushback if he weren’t a Republican?

It seems that “liberal” establishment media are concerned about some wealthy corporate owners—the faceless hedge funds and those with far-right leanings—but not the problem of billionaire or corporate ownership in general and its corrosive effects on a free press. But it is the very unchecked environment of corporate news ownership that has enabled the wealthy far-right takeover of so much of it.

None of the billionaires buying up newspapers have offered clear policies and practices ensuring that they won’t be able to influence coverage, only tepid assurances. FCC or other regulations that might ensure news media are free from such conflicts of interest would require sustained public attention–and that would entail corporate media challenging the interests of their own owners.

Baltimore and the Smith family

Afro (12/23/14): Sinclair‘s WBFF reported that “Baltimore activist Tawanda Jones had led a crowd in chanting ‘we won’t stop, we can’t stop, so kill a cop’…when she was actually chanting ‘we won’t stop, we can’t stop, ‘til killer cops, are in cell blocks.'”

Concerns about the Baltimore Sun becoming a blatant tool of the far right are warranted. Within Baltimore, WBFF-Fox 45’s racist and politicized coverage is notorious. Regular coverage fosters fear around Baltimore youth, progressive causes and public schools (e.g., 7/24/22, 1/25/24). In 2014, Fox 45 was caught doctoring footage of noted local activist Tawanda Jones to make it seem like she was saying “kill a cop” during a protest, when she was chanting about “killer cops” (Afro, 12/23/14).

Fox 45 has shown clear favoritism to local politicians. For years, it supported a scandal-ridden candidate, Thiru Vignarajah, in his repeated failed bids for state’s attorney and mayor. Smith family members were prominent donors to his campaigns, and Fox 45 has hosted him in the studio far more than other candidates.

This year, the Smith family has shifted its financial support and airtime to candidate Sheila Dixon, who was previously Baltimore’s mayor but resigned in 2010 after pleading guilty to perjury and embezzlement. Smith’s partner in his deal to buy the Sun, conservative Sinclair commentator Armstrong Williams, hosted a one-hour, flattering interview with Dixon last June.

The Smith family also has a notorious reputation locally for the practices of its restaurant company, Atlas Restaurant Group, which has been aggressively buying up struggling restaurants and other properties. The company has faced controversy for policies that restrict service based on racist and arbitrarily enforced dress codes.

Smith has been less shy than his counterparts in other cities about his plans to influence the Baltimore Sun’s coverage. Sun employees shared anonymous accounts with outside reporters (Baltimore Banner, 1/16/24) of a closed door meeting in which Smith reportedly admitted to wanting to remake the Sun to be more like his local TV station, including featuring unscientific polls on the front page.

The Sun mythology

The Washington Post (1/17/24) presented the Baltimore Sun‘s Freddie Gray Pulitzer nomination as a quality seal of approval.

As part of catastrophizing Smith’s purchase of the Baltimore Sun, media have promoted the newspaper’s legacy as if it were unquestionably vaunted, setting up a good/evil binary. In reality, there has long been substantial local criticism of the Sun, including its coziness with powerful interests, its legacy of problematic hero-reporters, and its negative characterizations of Baltimore’s Black and other marginalized communities.

The Baltimore Banner (1/16/24) brought up the the Sun’s credentials in challenging Smith’s characterization of the newspaper:

Asked Tuesday during the meeting whether he stood by [negative] comments [about newspapers] now that he owns one of the most storied titles in American journalism, Smith said yes. Asked if he felt that way about the contents of his newspaper, Smith said “in many ways, yes,” according to people at the meeting.

The Baltimore Sun won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.

The Banner article was written by three reporters, all of whom previously worked for the Sun.

The Pulitzer Prize was invoked again by the Washington Post (1/17/24) as prima facie evidence of the Sun’s intrinsic goodness. The Post recounted an exchange in which Smith suggested to his new employees that the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death in 2015 were innocent. A staffer challenged him on the point.

“You may believe that they killed somebody,” Smith said. “I’m not here to tell you they did or didn’t.”

The Sun was a Pulitzer finalist for its coverage of Gray’s death.

I previously wrote for FAIR (9/22/23) about how the Sun’s coverage of Freddie Gray’s death leaned almost entirely on the statements of police and promoted police officers as heroes, while marginalizing or ignoring the statements of witnesses, who were the Black residents of Gray’s former neighborhood. The Sun has refused to share new evidence that has emerged in Gray’s death since 2015, failing to correct the record on its mistakes, despite the case being one of the biggest stories in Baltimore’s history.

Likewise, the Sun’s coverage of the riots in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s death was barely distinguishable from how Fox 45 reports on Baltimore’s youth. As FAIR (4/29/15) reported at the time, Sun reporters (4/28/15) repeated a false police story that teenagers had been planning to “purge” that day and attacked police, “pelting officers with water bottles and rocks,” as if unprovoked. The Sun missed the real story of how police fomented a riot by locking down teenagers after school and not letting them return home (Mother Jones, 4/28/15), among other provocative actions.

The Baltimore Sun‘s sensationalized coverage (4/28/15) of anti-police protests failed to contextualize how Baltimore police had provoked violence.

The Sun has continued to portray Baltimore’s Black youth as de facto criminals in many stories (e.g., 9/15/20), often hiding the racism behind a sheen of “both sides” reporting.

Conversely, although Fox 45 has been an easy target for liberal reporters and politicians, not all of its coverage has been as supportive of powerful interests as the Sun’s reporting. Fox 45 (3/19/21) was aggressive in its effort to expose corruption by Nick Mosby, the current City Council president, and former state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby—a Baltimore power couple who recently divorced. (She filed an FCC complaint against the station, accusing it of racist coverage.) Marilyn Mosby was ultimately indicted and convicted by the federal government for perjury and mortgage fraud.

By contrast, the Baltimore Sun published several editorials in support of the Mosbys and minimizing their scandals, including one (3/23/21) arguing that the federal investigation into their possible crimes was “not good for Baltimore.” (One member of the three-person editorial team at the time, Andrea K. McDaniels, is married to a long-time vocal Mosby supporter, Zach McDaniels, who helped Mosby on the Freddie Gray case. Andrea McDaniels is now managing editor of the Baltimore Banner.)

Banner escapes scrutiny

The Baltimore Banner (1/16/24) reported that David Smith, who called print media was “so left-wing as to be meaningless dribble,” was asked by Sun staff “whether he stood by those comments now that he owns one of the most storied titles in American journalism.”

As for the Banner, the Sun’s chief competitor, it has adopted a superior tone in its coverage of the Smith takeover (1/16/24, 2/5/24), but it has its own ties to the Smith family. The Banner has held events in partnership with Atlas restaurants, which are owned by the Smith family, and published article after article that cover Atlas, a Banner advertiser, in a favorable light (e.g., 7/11/23, 10/2/23, 10/18/23).

The Banner has also escaped any scrutiny of its own ownership model. As I previously wrote about for FAIR (12/21/23), the Banner is nominally a nonprofit organization—an “independent” outlet, according to Nieman Lab (1/22/24)—but it is owned by Stewart Bainum, Jr., the very wealthy CEO of Choice Hotels and a nursing home chain, as well as a one-time state politician. He established the Banner after failing to purchase the Sun.

A Democrat, Bainum was described by the national press as the “savior” of Baltimore media (Washington Post, 2/17/21), but the Banner’s board and staff are almost entirely made up of people from the corporate world, its content is buried behind paywalls, and it has platformed right-wing sentiments, including transphobia (9/20/22). Also, like the Sun, it has a habit of parroting what police say (8/27/22) and not offering retractions when those stories turn out to be false (8/30/22).

Smith obviously poses a real threat to the possibility of fair and accurate Baltimore news. At the same time, he serves as a convenient scapegoat for a much deeper and broader problem: the unchecked control of the media by corporate interests, sometimes in the form of what seem like wealthy benefactors.

The post Baltimore’s Media Nightmare and the Billionairification of News appeared first on FAIR.

Ariel Adelman on Disability Civil Rights

February 16, 2024 - 10:14am

 

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CEPR (1/31/24)

This week on CounterSpin: There’s an announcement on the New York City subway where a voice chirps: “Attention, everyone! There are 150 accessible subway stations!” One can imagine an alternate world where we’d hear, “Only 150 of New York City’s 472 subway stations are accessible, and that’s a problem!”

But people with disabilities are meant to be grateful, excited even, for whatever access or accommodation is made available for them to participate in daily life. There’s often an implied corollary suggestion that any violation of the rights of disabled people is an individual matter, to be fought over in the courts, rather than something to be acknowledged and addressed societally.

The overarching law we have, the Americans with Disabilities Act, is meant to be proactive; it is, the government website tells us, a law, “not a benefits program.” In reality, though, the ADA still meets resistance, confusion and various combinations thereof, 33 years after its passage. And news media, as a rule, don’t help.

The Supreme Court recently dismissed, but did not do away with, a case that gets at the heart of enforcement of civil rights laws for people with disabilities—though not them alone. Acheson v. Laufer is an under-the-radar case that, our guest says, is “part of a pattern of far-right reactionaries weaponizing the courts to dismantle labor protections, housing rights and health guidelines.”

Ariel Adelman is a disability rights advocate and policy analyst. Her piece, with Hayley Brown, appeared recently on CEPR.net, the website of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She’ll tell us what’s going on and what’s at stake.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look back at coverage of the racist Charles Stuart murder hoax.

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The post Ariel Adelman on Disability Civil Rights appeared first on FAIR.

‘It’s Important to Focus on Big Companies Using the Cover of Inflation to Jack Up Prices’ - CounterSpin interview with Rakeen Mabud on greedflation

February 14, 2024 - 4:58pm

 

 

Janine Jackson interviewed Groundwork Collaborative’s Rakeen Mabud about greedflation for the February 9, 2024, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: If you buy groceries, you know that prices are high. And if you read the paper, you’ve probably heard that prices are high because of, well, “inflation,” and “shocks to the supply chain,” and other language you understand, but don’t quite understand.

One article told me that

economists see pandemic-related spending meant to stabilize the economy as a factor, along with war-impacted supply chains and steps taken by the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates

—all of which may be true, but still doesn’t really help me see why four sticks of butter now cost $8.

Not to mention that the same piece talks matter of factly about “upward pressure on wages,” which sounds like people who need to buy butter are getting paid more, but I’m pretty sure the language is telling me I’m supposed to be against it.

How do we interpret corporate news media’s coverage of prices? What aren’t they talking about?

Rakeen Mabud is chief economist and managing director of policy and research at Groundwork Collaborative. She joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Rakeen Mabud.

Rakeen Mabud: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be back.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (1/19/24)

JJ: I want to say, the piece that I’m citing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette isn’t a bad piece. It’s just what passes for media explanation of what is a truly meaningful reality. People are really having trouble buying diapers, and buying food. And so to have journalists saying, “Well, it’s because of the blahdy blahdy blahdy blah that you couldn’t possibly understand”—the unclarity of it is galling to me, and it’s politically stultifying. I’m supposed to get mad at inflation, per se?

That’s the kind of informational void that Groundwork Collaborative’s work is intervening in. So let me just ask you to talk about what you find when you look into, for example, high grocery store prices right now.

RM: Yeah, this is a great question, and I love the fact that you’re focusing on the experiences of people, because that’s how we all experience the economy and, frankly, that’s how the economy is made, right, through our actions, through our demand, through our spending. And so it is really important to hone in on what’s going on to people on the ground, as we’re thinking about these big, amorphous concepts like inflation.

And the reality is, as you point out, prices are sky high for people around the country, and folks are really struggling. Grocery prices, obviously, are particularly worth digging into, because there’s a real salience of food prices in everybody’s lives. We all go to the grocery store on a weekly or maybe biweekly basis, and buy groceries to feed ourselves, and feed our families.

And my colleagues at the Groundwork Collaborative, Liz Pancotti, Bharat Ramamurti and Clara Wilson, recently authored a report that really digs into what’s going on with grocery prices. And what they find is that grocery price increases have outpaced overall inflation, and families are now paying 25% more for groceries than they were prior to this pandemic, compared to 19% of overall inflation. So there’s this gap between what folks are paying at the till, and what inflation would suggest.

And this is particularly hitting folks who are on the lower income end of the income distribution harder. In 2022, people in the bottom quintile of the income spectrum spent 25% of their income on groceries, while those in the highest quintile spent just under 3.5%.

And this is a trend that we see across the board with essentials. Because if something is essential, you have to buy it. If you earn less money, a bigger proportion of your income is going to go towards those essentials. And so that means that when you see inflation and, frankly, corporate profiteering, which I’ll get into in a second, showing up in spaces for essential goods, it’s always the people who are most vulnerable who are hit the hardest.

It’s wonderful that you’re really focusing in on groceries. And I think one thing to note, just to zoom out a little bit from grocery prices in particular, is that an underexplored topic still, I think, in the discussions around inflation is the role of corporate profit margins. Because the fact remains that corporate profit margins have remained high and even grown, even as labor costs have stabilized, input costs—the costs of things that are used to produce goods—have come down, and supply chain snarls have started to ease.

And in a different paper by two other of my colleagues, Lindsay Owens and Liz Pancotti, they find that from April to September of 2023, so that’s very recently, corporate profits drove 53% of inflation. When you compare that to the 40 years prior to the pandemic, profits drove just 11% of price growth.

There are a lot of explanations out there of what’s causing inflation, but it’s very important to focus on the role of big companies using the cover of inflation to jack up prices. And they continue to do that, even as their own costs are coming down.

JJ: And I want to say, you can illustrate that point with just data, as these works from Groundwork Collaborative do, but at the same time, you also have, as the kids say, receipts—in other words, earnings calls where CEOs are saying it out loud: Their situation in terms of supply chain, in terms of Covid and whatever, they’re using that as an opportunity to keep prices high.

Other Words (1/31/24)

RM: Yes, absolutely. So let’s talk about another essential good, which is diapers. And I think diapers are really a good example, because it illustrates what’s going on right now, and ties together the idea of corporate profiteering, but also this idea that, as scholars Isabella Weber and Evan Wasner put out there, about tacit collusion and implicit collusion. So let’s unpack that. What does that all mean?

So what they write about is that inflationary environments, when prices are rising across the board, it means that companies, especially those that are in a really concentrated market, can raise their prices, precisely because they know that their competitor is going to do the exact same thing. So if you are one of three big companies, and you know that your competitors are also going to raise prices, there’s no reason for you not to raise prices.

And that logic also applies in the reverse. So when costs are coming down, if you know that your competitors are going to keep their prices high, you’re also going to keep your prices high, which is I think why we’re seeing, even as input costs come down, prices are staying high, and people are still paying more than they should be, given the cost of input.

So diapers, right? Diapers, I think, is the perfect example for this. It’s a super, super concentrated market. Proctor & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark control about 70% of the domestic market, and diaper prices have increased by more than 30% since 2019, from about $16–$17 to nearly $22.

The main thing that goes into producing diapers is wood pulp. It’s also the main input into toilet paper, paper towels, basically paper products that we use around the house. The wholesale wood pulp prices really skyrocketed, by 87% between January 2021 and January 2023.

But in 2023, between January and December of 2023, [wood pulp] prices declined by 25%, but diaper prices have remained high. So what’s going on here?

And to your point, the executives at Kimberly-Clark and Procter & Gamble are not hiding the ball. P&G CFO said on their October 2023 earnings call that high prices were a big driver of the reason that they could expand their profit margins, and that 33% of their profits in the previous quarter were driven by lower input costs. And during their July 2023 earnings call, the company predicted $800 million in windfall profits because of declining input costs.

Same thing on the other side, on Kimberly-Clark’s side; their CEO said in October that the company “finally saw inflection in the cost environment.” And he admitted that he believes the company has a lot of opportunity to “expand margins over time,” despite what they’re “doing on the revenue side and also on the cost side.” So despite large input cost decline, the CEO thinks that the company has priced appropriately, and didn’t anticipate a new price deflation.

So diapers, I think, is a really clear example of how these big corporations are exercising their corporate power in a moment where things are a little murky for consumers. We don’t know, necessarily; we don’t have all the data at our fingertips, or the time, frankly, to figure out: Is the box of diapers more expensive for sensible reasons or not? And these big companies are taking advantage of both the information asymmetry, and the particular inflationary environment we’re living in.

JJ: And you don’t have a choice. You’ve got to buy the diapers. You can try to puzzle out why it costs more than it cost a year ago, or six months ago, but you still have to buy them. And that’s the thing.

I want to draw you out on something, because I see articles—it’s not that media are not ever saying “greedflation,” or that they’re completely ignoring the idea that corporations might be keeping prices high to profit, although it’s still not shaping the dialogue in the way that you would hope. But I do see articles that put “corporate profiteering” in scare quotes, as if it’s not a real thing; it’s just an accusation. And I wonder, what do we call “profiteering,” and how does it differ from capitalism doing its capitalism thing?

Rakeen Mabud: “The truth of the matter is there are vested interests for folks to want to vilify workers, to want to vilify big public investments.”

RM: This is a question that I’ve gotten over the years, as we’ve done this work. It is not necessarily a bad thing for companies to be making a profit. That’s OK. Companies exist to make a profit. What we’re talking about here is really profits above and beyond what they should be making: excess profits, windfall profits, and companies making these profits on the backs of consumers.

The example that I always go back to is just the classic price-gouging example. If you are in the middle of a hurricane or a disaster relief situation, and you are a person who sells bottles of water, or gallon jugs of water—if you jack the prices up because you know that people are going to need that water, because there’s no safe tap water to drink, that’s price-gouging, and that is illegal.

And yet that happens across our economy all the time. And we’ve seen that in particular over the last couple of years, as we’ve experienced the pandemic and have gone through these series of crises. And yet we don’t point it out.

And I think part of the reason this idea is not taken seriously, again, there’s a couple of reasons. The first is that it doesn’t accord with the traditional story of where inflation comes from. The traditional story of where inflation comes from is, workers are super greedy, they’re asking for higher wages. And so we end up with higher wages, which push up prices, which force people to ask for higher wages. And you end up with what economists call a wage-price spiral.

The other factor in the traditional story about where inflation comes from is, too much public investment flooding the economy is just going to jack up prices.

And the reality of the situation is that wasn’t the case here. We have seen historic public investment, and inflation’s come down. We have seen a strong labor market. We haven’t had to put millions of people out of work in order to bring prices down.

And so the textbook story of how inflation works is not really holding water in the moment. It’s not according with literally the reality that we’re seeing in the data.

And the truth of the matter is there are vested interests for folks to want to vilify workers, to want to vilify big public investments, and to continue to perpetuate an environment where big corporations can hold power and hold money and earn windfall profits on the backs of consumers. So I think it’s really important to know that this is a narrative that’s new, and it’s a narrative that is challenging for the dominant stories about how inflation works.

Wall Street Journal (12/2/23)

But the reason it has made a toehold, and I think more than a toehold at this point—I mean, even the Wall Street Journal in December had a headline that said, “Outsize Profits Help Drive Inflation. Now Consumers Are Pushing Back.” The reason it’s gotten its feet on the ground is because of the experience of people across the economy, this is exactly how people are experiencing the economy, and it’s the truth of the matter.

And I think that is really what certainly my work is always trying to do, is let’s get to how people are experiencing the economy and speak to their concerns, because people know what’s up. You don’t need to tell them that big companies are exploiting them. They are very willing to believe it, because it’s how they’ve interacted with the economy for years.

JJ: I have to say, the idea that there’s an abstraction that I’m supposed to pay obeisance to, and it’s going to keep wages down and public investment down, but somehow I’m still supposed to be for it, is kind of strange to me, the idea that I’m supposed to be so opposed to inflation that I’m supposed to be against higher wages for workers, and I’m supposed to be against more public investment. It just shows how far we’ve gone in fealty to an abstraction, essentially, in terms of economic understanding. I find it very odd to have folks saying, “Oh, I don’t want upward pressure on wages, because somehow that’s going to be bad for me ultimately down the road.” It seems to me a kind of distortion of our understanding of the way an economy should work, and who it should serve.

RM: Right, I mean, we are the economy. That’s what we’re always saying at Groundwork, that we are the people, the regular people are the people who are the economy, and it’s our wellbeing that reflects whether the economy is doing well.

And I also think it’s important in conversations about inflation, I think; we pay attention to prices and cost of living and affordability in a moment of crisis. But the truth of the matter is that the high prices that people have been feeling in their household budget long predate this particular inflationary moment: the cost of childcare, the cost of healthcare, the cost of housing, the cost of education. All of these things go beyond what we’re experiencing in this particular moment. They have been burdens on people for decades.

And there are also structural factors that are perpetuating these burdens. So I think housing costs are a really good example. Housing costs are up about 21%, and we have this longstanding shortage of affordable and high-quality housing in this country. There have been instances, over the course of the last couple of years, where we’ve seen big home builders and landlords celebrating inflation as a way to restrict housing supply. Literally had a home builder say, “We could build a thousand more houses, but we’re not going to, because it’s going to help us restrict supply, and therefore jack up the prices of the homes we can build.” We’ve also seen landlords really celebrating inflation as a way to skim a little bit more off the top by raising rent a little bit higher.

So all of that is certainly happening, but we also need to pay attention to broader macroeconomic forces in perpetuating this housing crisis. So one of the best ways, kind of a no-brainer, of addressing a housing supply shortage is to build more houses. But the Federal Reserve, since we last spoke, has embarked on an interest rate–hiking rampage. What does that do? Sky-high interest rates crush new housing construction, because it stymies private investment, and it pushes potential buyers, because of high mortgage rates, back into the rental market, which pushes rents up.

So the Federal Reserve says, “We’re raising interest rates through this theory and this channel that we think works,” which, by the way doesn’t, because again, as I mentioned, we haven’t necessarily seen mass unemployment in order to bring down prices. But they’re saying, we’re trying to bring down prices, guys; we’re trying to bring down prices by raising interest rates. But really what they’re doing is making the problem worse, and they’re perpetuating this cost-of-living crisis that long predates the pandemic.

And so it’s really important, I think, to also call out big institutional actors, like Chair Powell, to lower rates immediately, given that it’s clear from the data that his rate hikes hadn’t had the intended effect, and are actually making the problem worse.

Groundwork Collaborative (2/24)

JJ: One of the latest reports from Groundwork is called “What’s Driving the Rise in Grocery Prices–and What the Government Can Do About It.” So let me ask you, finally, and it’s a lot, but what can government do about the problems that we’re talking about?

RM: I think, actually, we’re living in an exciting time when it comes to an expansiveness in the policy tools that folks are thinking about and using in order to bring down prices. We’re not in your 1970s inflationary world, where we’re just hoping that the Federal Reserve does its job and hoping for the best. They’ve sort of been discredited, and, again, time to bring down interest rates.

But we’ve seen President Biden and his administration really taking the issue of profiteering seriously. I mean, just last month, he said to any corporation that has not brought their prices back down, even as inflation has come down, even as supply chains have been rebuilt, it’s time to stop the price-gouging. To have that come from the president, to call out the big corporate actors who are taking advantage of people and lining their coffers, is remarkable.

And I think it’s not just words, right? The administration has taken some really early actions promoting competition in really concentrated markets—like meat packing, a sector that is really driving grocery-price inflation right now.

Agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are going hard after junk fees. Those are the sort of, when you check into a hotel, it says resort fee, this fee, that fee, and you never really know what you’re paying for. And the truth is, you’re just paying for these companies to get richer, right? So that in banking, overdraft fees, the CFPB has been going hard after junk fees.

The FTC and the DoJ are aggressively using their authority to crack down on the concentration that allows these companies to get away with jacking prices up on consumers.

And so I think what we need to see is a continuation of that. Look at anti-competitive mergers, especially throughout the food industry, but other industries where they’re producing essentials, to make sure that these environments that facilitate and breed both profiteering and tacit collusion are not allowed to be created.  Finalize regulations that improve fairness, competition and resiliency in supply chains.

And then the last policy idea here was—it feels a little bit unrelated, but it’s actually one and the same—we have a big opportunity to tackle the full problem of high prices coming up, because many of the provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the 2017 Trump tax cuts, are expiring at the end of 2025. And one of the best ways to tax excess profits is simply to raise the corporate tax rate. That’s it. It’s a pretty easy policy, and one that people understand and can get behind.

JJ: Thank you very much. We’ve been speaking with Rakeen Mabud, chief economist and managing director of policy and research at Groundwork Collaborative, online at GroundworkCollaborative.org. Thank you so much, Rakeen Mabud, for speaking with us this week on CounterSpin.

RM: Thank you so much for having me. It was such a pleasure.

 

The post ‘It’s Important to Focus on Big Companies Using the Cover of Inflation to Jack Up Prices’ appeared first on FAIR.

Media That Benefit From Inequality Prefer to Talk About Other Things

February 14, 2024 - 11:02am

 

Chart: Washington Center for Equitable Growth (12/9/19)

One of the defining features of contemporary US capitalism is rampant inequality. Though there is some scholarly debate about its precise extent, even conservative estimates suggest a rise in income inequality of 16% since 1979 (as measured by the Gini coefficient). Moreover, of the 38 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of mainly high-income countries, the US currently ranks dismally as the sixth-most unequal.

In 2013, then–President Barack Obama described inequality, alongside a lack of upward mobility, as the “defining challenge of our time” (CBS, 12/4/13). This declaration spurred a brief moment of interest in inequality on cable news channels, which proved fleeting. During the two-month window of December 2013 through January 2014—Obama made his statement during a speech on December 4—the cable news channels Fox, CNN and MSNBC aired about a tenth of the total mentions of the term “inequality” that they would air from the start of 2010 through the beginning of 2024, a 14-year period.

Overshadowed by a hypothetical problem

The rapid rise in inequality over recent decades might have been expected to generate a deep sense of alarm in news media. But on cable news, there’s little sign of distress.

Compare cable coverage of inequality to coverage of other economic topics, such as inflation, recession and government debt. The following chart shows the number of mentions of various terms across Fox, CNN and MSNBC over the course of 2023:

Can you make out the bottom bar? That depicts combined coverage of four terms: “income inequality,” “wealth inequality,” “class inequality” and “economic inequality.” Those four together got less than 1% of the coverage of inflation during 2023.

The skew was evident but less extreme at text-based outlets. Searches of the New York Times archives for the year of 2023 deliver 1.5 times as many articles for “debt ceiling” as for “income inequality,” 2.5 times for “recession” and 7 times for “inflation.” Searches of the Washington Post archives for the same period return a more disproportionate 18 times for “debt ceiling,” 14 times for “recession” and 34 times for “inflation.”

Note that, although inflation and a debt ceiling battle were both issues in 2023, there was no recession. The reason there was so much coverage of the topic was that economists overwhelmingly forecast a recession—and utterly whiffed—and media signal-boosted their inaccurate predictions. Fears of recession, a fantasy problem, consequently overshadowed discussion of the very real problem of inequality.

Redirecting the conversation

Chart: Pew Research (1/9/20)

For media outlets owned by the wealthy, there’s obvious utility in directing the conversation away from inequality and toward other concerns. For instance, if the public’s attention can be directed toward a debt ceiling battle, corporate media outlets can hype fears about unsustainable deficits. In turn, the public can be primed to see government debt as a leading challenge, whether or not this actually makes much sense.

Public opinion data suggests that this has worked—53% of Americans see the federal budget deficit as a very big problem, whereas only 44% view economic inequality the same way.

Media hyper-fixation on inflation and a potential recession over the last couple years, meanwhile, has persistently distorted the economic evaluations of the general population, whose satisfaction with the economy remained at historically low levels last year amidst the strongest economic recovery in decades (FAIR.org, 1/5/24). In a recent poll, asked whether wage growth outpaced inflation over the past year, a full 90% of Americans said that it hadn’t, when in reality it had.

In each case, whether media are fearmongering about deficits, inflation or a potential recession, they have been able to steer the conversation away from progressive policies and toward a more centrist approach.

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post, during last year’s debt ceiling battle, directed attention towards Social Security and Medicare, amplifying arguments for cutting these programs (FAIR.org, 5/17/23, 6/15/23). During the recent bout of inflation, both papers cheered on the Federal Reserve’s campaign to “cool” the labor market (read: reduce workers’ bargaining power) and potentially hike unemployment (FAIR.org, 1/25/23, 6/27/23).

Promotion of recession fears likewise functioned to sow doubts about the sweeping stimulus packages implemented in response to the pandemic, legislation that produced the most rapid recovery in decades and a substantial reduction in inequality. After all, if the inevitable result of an enhanced safety net is inflation and a downturn, why bother?

A focus on the fundamental issue of inequality, which has significantly exacerbated the effects of real but temporary issues like elevated inflation, would not serve these same ends. Rather, its likely effect would be to delegitimize centrist policies and point towards a more radical approach.

Consider these findings from a 2014 study: Asked what they view as an ideal pay ratio between CEOs and unskilled workers, Americans pointed to a ratio of 7-to-1. The real ratio at the time? 354-to-1. Meanwhile, Americans thought that the actual ratio was more like 30-to-1, about an order of magnitude off from reality.

There’s no way to get to Americans’ preferred level of equality without a massive redistribution of income. But is the public going to push for this sort of redistribution if media distract them from the topic, or if a lack of coverage results in them not even recognizing the extent of inequality in the first place?

Toward a less unequal media

CJR (4/18/22) noted that “only a handful of select schools feed the mastheads of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.”

At the heart of the issue is that news media don’t just structure conversations about inequality; inequality also structures the media. The dominant news outlets are major corporations owned by the wealthy. The flow of information is far from democratically controlled. Instead, a billionaire can pick winners among media outlets by, for instance, boosting the circulation of a staunchly centrist publication like the Washington Post.

Within prominent news outlets, journalists are drawn disproportionately from privileged backgrounds and top schools. They may come in with blinders about issues like inequality that are felt more viscerally by lower-income folks.

Even more worrisome is the personal advantage that on-screen personalities on top TV networks derive from ignoring inequality, which may explain why cable news is so much worse at covering inequality than a paper like the New York Times. Popular anchors at Fox, CNN and MSNBC make millions of dollars a year, putting them easily in the top 1% of earners nationwide. Is it at all surprising when they opt for an obsession with the deficit over an interest in inequality?

What can be done about this state of affairs? Calls for journalists to do better may get us somewhere, but more fundamental change is needed. As scholars Faik Kurtulmus and Jan Kandiyali have argued, getting media to pay more attention to issues affecting working-class and poor people requires a different funding model, one where the upper class doesn’t hold all the power.

One option would be a voucher system in which

everyone would be provided with a publicly funded voucher, which they would then get to spend at a news outlet of their choice, with the revenue going to that news outlet…. Coupled with a more representative and diverse pool of journalists, this could lead to a marked improvement in the media’s coverage of issues of poverty and inequality.

A complementary set of reforms are advocated by Thomas Piketty in his recent book A Brief History of Equality:

The best solution [to media concentration in the hands of the wealthy] would be to change the legal framework and adopt a law that truly democratizes the media, guaranteeing employees and journalists half the seats in the governing organs, whatever their legal form might be, opening the doors to representatives from the reading public, and drastically limiting stockholders’ power.

Ultimately, it’s going to take an attack on inequality within media to get media to take inequality seriously.

 

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