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FAIR - April 9, 2021 - 5:37pm

 

In an earlier piece (FAIR.org, 3/3/21), we explored some country case study examples of how the press helps to manufacture consent for regime change and other US actions abroad among left-leaning audiences, a traditionally conflict-skeptical group.

Some level of buy-in, or at least a hesitancy to resist, among the United States’ more left-leaning half is necessary to ensure that US interventions are carried out with a minimum of domestic opposition. To this end, corporate media invoke the language of human rights and humanitarianism to convince those to the left of center to accept, if not support, US actions abroad—a treatment of sorts for the country’s 50-year-long Vietnam syndrome.

What follows are some of the common tropes used by establishment outlets to convince skeptical leftists that this time, things might be different, selling  a progressive intervention everyone can get behind.

Think of the women! 

The vast majority of the world was against the US attack on Afghanistan that followed the 9/11 attacks in 2001. However, the idea had overwhelming support from the US public, including from Democrats. In fact, when Gallup (Brookings, 1/9/20) asked about the occupation in 2019, there was slightly more support for maintaining troops there among Democrats than Republicans—38% vs. 34%—and slightly less support for withdrawing troops (21% vs. 23%).

Media coverage can partially explain this phenomenon, convincing some and at the least providing cover for those in power. This was not a war of aggression, they insisted. They were not simply there to capture Osama bin Laden (whom the Taliban actually offered to hand over); this was a fight to bring freedom to the oppressed women of the country. As First Lady Laura Bush said:

We respect our mothers, our sisters and daughters. Fighting brutality against women and children is not the expression of a specific culture; it is the acceptance of our common humanity—a commitment shared by people of goodwill on every continent…. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.

Wars are not fought to liberate women (FAIR.org, 7/26/17), and bombing people is never a feminist activity (FAIR.org, 6/28/20). But the New York Times was among the chief architects in constructing the belief in a phantom feminist war. Within weeks of the invasion (12/2/01), it reported on the “joyful return” of women to college campuses, profiling one student who

strode up the steps tentatively at first, her body covered from face to foot by blue cotton. As she neared the door, she flipped the cloth back over her head, revealing round cheeks, dark ringlets of hair and the searching brown eyes of a student.

The over-the-top symbolism was hard to miss: This was a country changed, and all thanks to the invasion.

Time magazine also played heavily on this angle. Six weeks after the invasion (11/26/01), it told readers that “the greatest pageant of mass liberation since the fight for suffrage” was occurring, as “female faces, shy and bright, emerged from the dark cellars,” casting off their veils and symbolically stomping on them. If the implication was not clear enough, it directly told readers “the sight of jubilation was a holiday gift, a reminder of reasons the war was worth fighting beyond those of basic self-defense.”

“How much better will their lives be now?” Time (12/3/01) asked. Not much better, as it turned out.

A few days later, Time‘s cover (12/3/01) featured a portrait of a blonde, light-skinned Afghan woman, with the words, “Lifting the Veil. The shocking story of how the Taliban brutalized the women of Afghanistan. How much better will their lives be now?”

This was representative of a much wider phenomenon. A study by Carol Stabile and Deepa Kumar published in Media, Culture & Society (9/1/05) found that, in 1999, there were 29 US newspaper articles and 37 broadcast TV reports about women’s rights in Afghanistan. Between 2000 and September 11, 2001, those figures were 15 and 33, respectively. However, in the 16 weeks between September 12 and January 1, 2002, Americans were inundated with stories on the subject, with 93 newspaper articles and 628 TV reports on the subject. Once the real objectives of the war were secure, those figures fell off a cliff.

Antiwar messages were largely absent from corporate news coverage. Indeed, as FAIR founder Jeff Cohen noted in his book Cable News Confidential, CNN executives instructed their staff to constantly counter any images of civilian casualties with pro-war messages, even if “it may start sounding rote.” This sort of coverage helped to push 75% of Democratic voters into supporting the ground war.

As reality set in, it became increasingly difficult to pretend women’s rights in Afghanistan were seriously improving. Women still face the same problems as they did before. As a female Afghan member of parliament told Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies (CounterSpin, 2/17/21), women in Afghanistan have three principal enemies:

One is the Taliban. Two is this group of warlords, disguised as a government, that the US supports. And the third is the US occupation…. If you in the West could get the US occupation out, we’d only have two.

However, Time managed to find a way to tug on the heartstrings of left-leaning audiences to support continued occupation. Featuring a shocking image of an 18-year-old local woman who had her ear and nose cut off, a 2010 cover story (8/9/10) asked readers to wonder “what happens if we leave Afghanistan,” the clear implication being the US must stay to prevent further brutality—despite the fact that the woman’s mutilation occurred after eight years of US occupation (Extra!, 10/10).

Vox (3/4/21) asserted that the US occupation of Afghanistan has meant “better rights for women and children” without offering evidence that that is the case.

The trick is still being used to this day. In March, Vox (3/4/21) credulously reported that Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Mark Milley made an emotional plea to Biden that he must stay in Afghanistan, otherwise women’s rights “will go back to the Stone Age.” It’s so good to know the upper echelons of the military industrial complex are filled with such passionate feminists.

In reality, nearly 20 years of occupation has only led to a situation where zero percent of Afghans considered themselves to be “thriving” while 85% are “suffering,” according to a Gallup poll. Only one in three girls goes to school, let alone university.

And all of this ignores the fact that the US supported radical Islamist groups and their takeover of the country in the first place, a move that drastically reduced women’s rights. Pre-Taliban, half of university students were women, as were 40% of the country’s doctors, 70% of its teachers and 30% of its civil servants—reflecting the reforms of the Soviet-backed government that the US dedicated massive resources to destroying.

Today, in half of the country’s provinces, fewer than 20% of teachers are female (and in many, fewer than 10% are). Only 37% of adolescent girls can read (compared to 66% of boys). Meanwhile, being a female gynecologist is now considered “one of the most dangerous jobs in the world” (New Statesman, 9/24/14). So much for a new golden age.

The “think of the women” trope is far from unique to Afghanistan. In fact, 19th century British imperial propagandists used the plight of Hindu women in India and Muslim women in Egypt as a pretext to invade and conquer those countries. The tactic’s longevity is perhaps testament to its effectiveness.

He’s attacking his own people!

One of the many justifications used to engineer public consent for the disastrous Iraq War was that Saddam Hussein was a monster who was a danger to his own country. ‘There’s no question that the leader of Iraq is an evil man. After all, he gassed his own people. And we know he’s been working on weapons of mass destruction,” President George W. Bush frequently said, with the media parroting his every word.

In the run up to the Iraq War, the New York Times suddenly became extremely concerned with Hussein’s crimes against civilians. Foreign correspondent John F. Burns (1/26/03), for example, compared him to Stalin and denounced him for plunging Iraq into a “bloodbath of medieval proportions.” The cornerstone of Burns’ pro-regime change argument was, ironically, the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. How did that one work out?

The evidence McClatchy (2/21/11) offered that Gadhafi had been charged with “genocide” was a single interview on Al Jazeera.

At the same time NATO was deciding to intervene in Libya to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, corporate media were filled with passionate denunciations of his regime, most telling readers that he had attacked “his own people” (e.g., McClatchy, 2/21/11; Washington Post, 3/11/11; New York Times, 3/15/11).

The Washington Post (4/1/11), approving of the intervention, reported that “a massacre of civilians, amounting to crimes against humanity,” would likely have transpired absent NATO’s intercession. It compared the supposed imminent slaughter to the Holocaust, implying that the United States’ actions “followed reflection in the international community about the failures to prevent genocide in the 1990s.” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (3/21/11) also praised the attack as “the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention,” claiming its “humanitarian purpose” was plain for all to see.

The phrase “killing his own people” (or “gassing” them) became commonplace in media accounts of enemy wrongdoings, as it directly fed into the new Responsibility to Protect doctrine, a legal framework that allowed military intervention in other countries under humanitarian auspices. In practice, however, it was generally invoked to overthrow adversarial states. Data from Google Trends shows only minor interest in Libyan human rights until early 2011, reaching a massive spike in March (the date of the NATO intervention) before quickly dropping down to negligible levels and staying there ever since. A majority of Democratic voters supported the intervention, almost on a par with Republicans.

The fact that talk of human rights in Libya has reduced to a trickle suggests either that the situation has drastically improved there, or that there were ulterior motives for all this human rights talk in the first place. It is clearly not the former (FAIR.org, 11/28/17). That media lost interest in the human rights situation  just after a successful military intervention strongly suggests their newfound passion was not genuine, and was a tool to sell war all along.

As with Libya, peak discussion of human rights in Syria coincided with the US bombing of the country in April 2017. It stayed high throughout the early period of the civil war, although it has petered out in recent years, as a victory by the government of Bashar al-Assad becomes ever more certain. To corporate media, Assad is a dictator who is “gassing his own people” (e.g., Vox, 4/4/17; Bloomberg, 12/4/18; New York Times, 6/25/18; Economist 6/18/20) and so, the implication is, something must be done—that something likely involving military jets. (In a 2019 survey, far more Democrats opposed withdrawing US troops from Syria than Republicans: 66% vs. 23%—Brookings, 1/9/20.)

A prime liberal interventionist argument can be found in the Huffington Post (8/26/13), where lawyer Josh Scheinert argued that “Syria’s civilians have paid the highest price” for Obama’s hesitancy, and demanded that “that…must change.” Scheinert wrote that he wanted to “believe that as a global community, when it came to the worst atrocities, not just the really bad ones, we might have moved on from our dark history of failures.” By failures, he did not mean active US participation or leadership in coups, wars and genocides in Latin America and Southeast Asia (to name but a few), but the times when the US military did not intervene.

The Guardian‘s Natalie Nougayrède (3/1/19) presented the arrest of Bashar al-Assad as a matter of legal spadework rather than military invasion.

Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrède (3/1/19) made a similar argument, maintaining that “Assad Can Still Be Brought to Justice—and Europe’s Role Is Crucial.” “Massive human rights violations must not be left unpunished,” she argued, claiming his arrest would “act as a deterrent against further slaughter.” Of course, the only realistic way to arrest Assad, as she surely understood, would be to send an invasion force into the country to overthrow the government and kidnap him. Thus, she effectively managed to couch what would be an all-out military assault on the scale of Iraq as a narrow legal response aimed at preventing human rights violations.

Sometimes atrocities will simply be made up out of whole cloth, such as Gadhafi’s Viagra-fueled rape squads, Saddam’s soldiers killing babies in incubators, or the “Gay Girl in Damascus” hoax. President Lyndon Johnson used the imaginary “open aggression on the high seas” known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident to convince Congress to authorize the Vietnam War (FAIR.org, 8/5/17).

Going further back, incidents like the USS Maine explosion—the impetus for US intervention in the Cuban war of independence—and British World War I propaganda about Germans bayoneting babies, crucifying prisoners and cutting the heads of children helped whip a skeptical, pacifist public into a bloodthirsty fervor.

We have to save democracy!

This trope has been used extensively against Venezuela, as the Washington Post illustrates. The paper’s editorial board has published editorial after editorial demanding a coup (or more) in order to supposedly save democracy.

Rather than “stand[ing] by as Venezuela veers toward civil war,” the Washington Post (6/30/17) appears to want the US to actively intervene to make civil war more likely.

The Post (6/30/17) strongly supported a wave of opposition violence in 2017 that killed at least 163 people, including an incident where an opposition leader stole a military helicopter and used it to bomb the Supreme Court and Interior Ministry. The Post strongly (and falsely) implied that it was an inside job by the Maduro “regime,” who were resorting to increasingly “far-fetched” and “brutal” repression of demonstrations that have the “support of the vast majority of Venezuelans.”

In fact, this “vast majority” turned out to be less than 3% of the country, as a poll taken that week by an opposition-linked firm showed. Eighty-five percent opposed the movement’s tactics, with 56% against any form of opposition action whatsoever, even if it were entirely peaceful. This continued a long trend of media invisibilizing the majority of Venezuelans, with only those agreeing with Washington’s ambitions worthy of being labeled “the Venezuelan people” (FAIR.org, 1/31/19).

The same editorial made a number of inflammatory predictions that if the US did not act, Maduro would “eliminate the opposition-controlled National Assembly” and “convert Venezuela into a regime modeled after Cuba’s.” None of this has proven to be true. The Post appeared bewildered by the lack of appetite for a US coup from Venezuela’s neighbors, explaining this by telling readers that they had been “bribed by Caracas with discounted oil.”

One month later, the Post’s editorial board (7/27/17) was still informing us that the violent US-backed coup attempt was actually a peaceful demonstration supported by the “vast majority of its own people,” and that “Venezuela’s lawless regime” was itself the one conducting a coup against democracy. We must act now was the message, as Maduro was about to “abolish” the National Assembly and “cancel future elections”— again, none of which actually happened.

“The response of the United States and other democracies [to Venezuela] has been consistently inadequate,” the board lamented. Given that the US was doing everything short of active military intervention in the country, the implication of what should be done was clear.

In case that was not obvious enough, however, the Post (11/15/17) also ran a column headlined “The Odds of a Military Coup in Venezuela Are Going Up. But Coups Can Sometimes Lead to Democracy.” The piece claimed that Maduro had “cracked down on dissidents by force and run roughshod over the country’s democratic institutions.” The military, it noted, will “play a key role in determining whether a country will move to real democracy.”

“Ortega first ruled Nicaragua for 11 years after the 1979 revolution, until his ouster in the country’s first genuinely democratic election,” wrote the Washington Post (8/12/16)—ignoring the 1984 elections, because to the Post, elections are only democratic if they US-favored candidate wins.

The Washington Post (8/12/16) has also claimed that action against Nicaragua was necessary to save democracy. Leftist President Daniel Ortega, the board told readers, has been “astonishingly contemptuous of democratic norms,” including overseeing “a bogus repeal of constitutional term limits, electoral fraud, intimidation of the opposition and control of major media.” How can the United States, which the Post claimed “spent so much money and political capital to promote democracy in Nicaragua during the 1980s,” sit by and offer “nothing but mild verbal opposition?”

The level of contempt displayed here for basic historical truth is staggering. In reality, the US government in the 1980s trained, armed and funded far-right death squads that wrought havoc in Nicaragua and the rest of the region, killing hundreds of thousands in genocides the area will never recover from. Quite apart from its architects being found guilty in US courts, the Reagan administration was tried and convicted by the International Court of Justice on 15 counts centering on the illegal use of force. It is these actions, presumably, that the Post described to  readers as “promoting democracy,” thereby using a mythical past to convince left-leaning audiences that further “democracy promotion” is necessary today.

The US has for years been supporting a domestic protest movement aimed at toppling Ortega. However, it has failed to get very far, primarily due to his widespread public support and the opposition’s own unpopularity.

Corporate media chided the United States, but generally only for not doing enough to ensure a change in government. “What America Must Do to Help Nicaragua Restore Democracy,” ran the Hill’s headline (1/30/20). The article advised that the US must “diversify its strategy and increase sanctions on regime insiders complicit in carrying out human rights abuses.” “Two years After Nicaragua’s Mass Uprising Started, Why Is Daniel Ortega Still in Power?” grumbled a Washington Post headline (1/5/20), disappointed that democracy had not been restored yet.

Unfortunately, even much of the US left media has aligned with the corporate press in condemning progressive Latin American administrations, thereby greasing the skids for US-supported attempts at regime change (FAIR.org, 10/12/19, 1/22/20).

Who gets to talk on human rights

Sourcing is a key component of journalism; who the sources are will shape the tone and the argument of anything a news organization produces (Extra!, 1–2/06). However, there are myriad potentially suitable individuals or organizations to go to, and journalists themselves are largely in control of who they select. Media can therefore effectively decide which arguments get heard and which do not, simply by going to the people who reflect the views they wish to push.

At the beginning of the Iraq invasion, corporate media was saturated with pro-war voices, while dissent was largely squelched. A FAIR study (5/1/03) of TV news in early 2003 found that 64% of all sources favored an attack, while only one in ten voiced any opposition to the idea. As a result, viewers were effectively blitzed by voices arguing for an intervention.

Moving to the present, a search for pro-peace think tanks such as the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for Economic and Policy Research elicits 86 and 53 results, respectively, in the New York Times over the past five years, going back to the beginning of 2016. Hawkish organizations are referenced far more frequently; the Center for American Progress, whose executive director Neera Tanden has called for “oil-rich countries” to pay the US for the privilege of being bombed (FAIR.org, 3/3/21), has featured in 432 Times articles since 2016, while conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation appears in 529 over the same period, suggesting that what we saw during the Iraq invasion is the rule rather than the exception.

If well-paid US columnists start becoming preoccupied with human rights in your country, it is a pretty good sign that you are about to get bombed. It is also remarkable how quickly those same pundits will lose their acute interest in human rights in a nation after a US intervention. Therefore, the next time you hear freedom, human rights and democracy in another country being endlessly discussed, be on your guard for ulterior motives; these cold-blooded media figures may just be crying crocodile tears in the service of empire.

‘We Really Can’t Take Anything These Companies Say at Face Value’

FAIR - April 9, 2021 - 1:54pm

 

Janine Jackson interviewed Public Citizen’s Jane Chung about Big Tech lobbying for the April 2, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Public Citizen (3/24/21)

Janine Jackson: A new report from Public Citizen on Big Tech’s political influence opens with some illustrative quotes, including one from former Trump official Mick Mulvaney, about his time as a House representative for South Carolina: “We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.” It’s nice to have it put so boldly, I suppose, but that is our understanding of how things often, regrettably, work.

So what does it mean that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google—all wildly profitable enterprises that are being challenged on multiple fronts, from internal practices to societal impact—are showering money on Congress at startling levels? What are they looking to buy? Are they getting it? And how would we know?

The report is called Big Tech, Big Cash: Washington’s New Power Players, and we’re joined now by its author, Public Citizen’s Big Tech accountability advocate, Jane Chung. She joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome to CounterSpin, Jane Chung.

Jane Chung: Thanks for having me.

JJ: As I say, although it stinks, no one is really shocked to know that money changes hands in DC, that industry and lawmakers rub shoulders at parties and then—huh!—here’s favorable legislation. They might be surprised at the sheer scale of the outlays you document, and their increase. Give us a sense of the scale of the lobbying, campaign-contributing effort of these Big Tech corporations.

JC: Sure. Some comparisons I make in the report, I think, help illustrate the scale. When I was just coming into my political awareness, I’ll say, I learned that Big Oil and Big Tobacco, for much of the ’90s and the early 2000s, got their way in legislation and regulation in Washington because they were pouring money into lobbying and campaign contributions.

What I found throughout my research phase of this report is that Facebook and Amazon—which are now the two largest individual corporate spenders on lobbying in Washington—they now spend about twice as much as the companies Philip Morris and ExxonMobil. So that just gives you a sense of who today’s big players are, as compared to yesterday’s, when we know that Big Oil and Big Tobacco were really the biggest forces in Washington.

JJ: This is an update to a 2019 report, so you can also see the increase, right, in the spending from those actors?

JC: Yep, exactly. And it’s not surprising; as you mentioned earlier in your introduction, there’s a lot of regulatory and legislative challenge that is coming to the Big Tech companies. We’ve seen it last Congress, we’ll see more this Congress, and if I had it my way, hopefully, it leads to some real action and change as well.

JJ: Each of the players, of course, has their own set of issues and problems. Amazon workers, listeners know, are struggling to unionize right now, after years of complaints about workplace conditions. They have got a friend in DC, who’s not new in town, and who reflects another thing that the report spotlights, which is the revolving door. That plays a role with these tech companies as well, doesn’t it?

JC: It plays a huge role. And to give you a little bit of a sense of what happens behind closed doors: I call myself an advocate; really, I’m also a lobbyist, but we like to think of ourselves as lobbyists for the people.

JJ: Right.

Jane Chung: “We really can’t understate the importance of relationships in Washington, and specifically how much the revolving door benefits corporate interests.”

JC: And corporations have their own lobbyists.

And so much of our job is calling and messaging staff members on the Hill, to try and get meetings, to tell them about the issues that are important to us, and to try and move them toward what we think is the best solution.

When it comes down to it, and you have an email in your inbox or you have a missed call, and it’s your buddy from 10 years ago when you worked together on the Hill, you’re much more likely to pick up than someone whose phone number you don’t recognize. And so we really can’t understate the importance of relationships in Washington, and specifically how much the revolving door benefits corporate interests.

JJ: It seems important to say: Lobbying is not inherently bad, and receiving money isn’t prima facie evidence of co-optation or corruption, necessarily, on the part of an official.

In comments you made to the New Statesman, you were saying that sometimes the reason behind lobbying is self-evident, but at other times, it’s not clear. And part of what you’re trying to do is not just say, “hey, this money went from here to there—voilà!,” but try to figure out what is the interest that a company might have in particular legislation.

And something you said, that I thought was very interesting, is that sometimes, a company could be lobbying for an issue that seems counterintuitive to its business interests, but there’s other reasons that they’re doing that. Can you just talk a little bit about that?

New Statesman (2/15/21)

JC: Sure. You mentioned earlier, many of your listeners probably know, that Amazon is facing a lot of scrutiny for its labor practices, as workers in Alabama are counting up votes this week to establish a union for the first time, it would be for the first time in Amazon‘s corporate history.

Amazon has spent a lot of money, lobbying and advertising about raising the federal minimum wage to $15. They’ve bought out full-page spreads in the New York Times, they’ve bought out every newsletter that any Washington politico subscribes to, and even in the lobbying filings, as I was going through them, they list a $15 minimum wage as an issue that they’re lobbying for.

You might think, “Well, that’s objectively a good thing.” And given Amazon‘s history of not exactly treating their warehouse workers well, this seems like they may have turned a new leaf. Why would they want to pay their workers more? Why would they do something that seems so counterintuitive to an employer’s interest?

And the reason in this case is because they want to overshadow all of the abuses that are happening in the workplace with this great PR slogan about how they were ahead of the curve on raising their minimum wage to $15. When the reality is, when they raised their warehouse workers’ wages to $15, there were plenty of reports online around how this actually didn’t raise the real wages for a lot of workers, and they cut back a lot of benefits and incentives at the same time, so the workers weren’t experiencing, actually, any better material conditions as a result.

Other reports online say that warehouse workers, typically, made much more than minimum wage, and so Amazon is putting downward pressure on the industry-wide wages for that type of work.

So we really can’t take anything these companies say at face value. Another great recent example is, a few of the companies—including Facebook and Google and Amazon—created a new group in Washington, called the “Chamber of Progress,” where they’re touting progressive slogans, and interests like “democracy reform” and “income equality”; all the while, we know that this is really just a front group for advancing corporate interests in Washington. And so I think it’s a sleight of hand that we have to pay attention to as we look at these companies.

JJ: “Chamber of Progress” makes me want to puke, I’m just going to say that right now.

JC: Exactly.

Former Obama press secretary and current Amazon vice president Jay Carney

JJ: When we’re talking about Amazon‘s new friend in DC, that’s a guy named Jay Carney. And I just wanted to point out that his official title appears to be “senior vice president for policy and press,” which I find very interesting, as a way of thinking about image management as part of what is going on here.

Well, one of the reasons that you and others track lobbying outlays and campaign contributions, even though that’s not the only kind of influence peddling that’s going on, but it’s one of the pieces of information that you can get. And we should note that you’re working with data from the Center for Responsive Politics; they’re online at OpenSecrets.org.

But other things happen that we just can’t get a spotlight on, that we can’t measure, right? So you’re not trying to say this is this is the whole of it, yeah? This is just a piece of it.

JC: Sure, yeah, that’s exactly right. The spending that I cover in this report is just a slice—and we don’t know how big of a slice that is—of the full pie of spending that not only Big Tech, but corporate interests at large, are spending in Washington.

So just to give you a few examples: This report covers federal lobbying and campaign contributions. It does not cover state-level lobbying and campaign contributions, as well as local, which are much more difficult to quantify and track, because there are different standards on a state-by-state or locality basis. This doesn’t track super PACs and other intermediaries; we know that a lot of corporations will essentially launder money through a bunch of different names and organizations and super PACs and (c)(3)s and (c)(4)s to obscure the source of the funding, and contribute to elections and candidates in that way.

And then a whole new frontier that we’ve recently discovered is advertisements, funding research, funding academics. We’ve seen recently that David Brooks, of the New York Times op-ed column, was publishing all sorts of great things about Facebook while not revealing that Facebook is one of the sources of funding for his new projects.

JJ: Right.

JC: So these are all ways that Big Tech takes its tentacles into the Washington machine, and are very, very, very difficult for us to track.

JJ: Let me just ask, finally: I started out by saying, “no one’s shocked,” but just because we’re jaded doesn’t mean we accept, in a society with democratic aspirations, shall we say, that it’s just “money in, policy out.”

Briefly, unfortunately, what do you think about in terms of change? In terms of the problems that this report outlines, what are the big things that could change, and should change, that would ameliorate, anyway, the problems you outline?

JC: One of the things we call for at the end of this report is for all of these tech companies—and we’ve made this call for corporate America at large—to shut down their PACs, to end all super PAC contributions. And that’s a small fix that the companies can do themselves.

But in terms of the government, we really need the federal government to come in and make a stance, and pass things like HR.1 or S.1, the For the People Act, which has a lot of reforms in it to reduce the influence of corporate money in politics and increase transparency. These are the sort of changes we need to see, to ensure that the democracy that we all participate in is reflective of what the people want and need, rather than what Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple want and need.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Jane Chung, Big Tech accountability advocate for Public Citizen. Find the report, Big Tech, Big Cash, on the site citizen.org. Jane Chung, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

JC: Thank you.

 

 

 

CNN Public Editor: how a ratings fixation affects coverage

Columbia Journalism Review - April 9, 2021 - 11:26am
For cable outlets including CNN, ratings are a kind of deity. Every day, producers receive viewer numbers. What people have watched previously determines their coverage. If immigration and climate change don’t rate, they don’t get covered.  I decided to dig into this basic issue. I found that using ratings to determine news value is riddled […]

Chip Gibbons on Drone Whistleblower Daniel Hale

FAIR - April 9, 2021 - 10:43am

 

Daniel Hale

This week on CounterSpin: The idea that you don’t “shoot the messenger” dates back, evidently, to Sophocles. It echoes today as a man named Daniel Hale stands convicted nominally of breaking a law aimed at spies sneaking intel to foreign enemies, but actually with revealing things the US government didn’t want known about its drone warfare programs—the ones elite media have often presented as precise in separating “bad guys” from “innocents,” and so superior to other methods of (what we are to understand is) “counterterrorism.”

Big media have shown little interest in the case. We’ll get a backgrounder from researcher and journalist Chip Gibbons, policy director of the group Defending Rights & Dissent.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look back at press coverage of Georgia’s voter suppression law.

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Looking for a future beyond print in western Iowa

Columbia Journalism Review - April 9, 2021 - 8:00am
The Western Iowa Journalism Foundation was formed amid the pandemic to try to address the decline of journalism in the region. The foundation’s goal is to funnel philanthropic aid toward local publications with ever-decreasing margins so that those outlets can survive––and also plan for the future. It looks to do the work of connecting donors […]

Myanmar’s military junta slaughters protesters and press freedom 

Columbia Journalism Review - April 9, 2021 - 7:07am

In early February, in the days after Myanmar’s military overthrew the elected government, E. Tammy Kim spoke, for CJR, with Swe Win, the editor of Myanmar Now, a news outlet based in Yangon. Kim first encountered Swe Win in 2019, when he was enmeshed in a long running defamation case; he was subsequently shot in the leg, apparently at the directive of military leaders, and decided to go into exile. When the coup took place, he wasn’t in Myanmar. He instructed his colleagues on the ground to evacuate the newsroom and stay with family or friends, but some staffers quickly went back to work to cover burgeoning protests. “It would be a shame if we missed the entire public opposition,” Swe Win told Kim. “It would be psychologically devastating to all of us—we’d feel very irresponsible—so I put half the team back at work. But still, we’re in disarray. They’re still grappling with the trauma of the coup.” He also spoke with donors about opening a newsroom outside Myanmar.

Journalists in Myanmar have been grappling not only with trauma, but with uncertainty; initially, the military did not directly target the press, though it did shut off internet access in parts of the country, and some broadcasters went off air. As Kyaw Hsan Hlaing and Emily Fishbein reported for CJR, things soon got much worse. The day after CJR published Kim’s interview with Swe Win, the junta ordered reporters not to call it a junta, and also sought to ban the words “regime” and “coup.” In early March, authorities raided the newsroom of Myanmar Now, seizing documents and electronic equipment. They revoked the site’s license to operate, and did the same to four other independent newsrooms: Mizzima (which was also raided), 7 Day News, Democratic Voice of Burma, and Khit Thit Media. Officials charged another news site, The Irrawaddy, under an Orwellian security law criminalizing reporting that, in the eyes of the state, could encourage soldiers to mutiny—marking the first time the law has been wielded against a whole news organization, rather than an individual journalist. Every newspaper not run by the state has ceased printing. Internet restrictions are getting harsher; yesterday, according to the Associated Press, following a clampdown on social media and mobile data, fiber broadband started flickering out, too. And officials in some areas have used loudspeakers to order residents to hand over their satellite TV dishes—and with them their remaining access to international news channels.

ICYMI: Could NFTs help the media, or are they just a sideshow?

Then there’s the physical violence. Soldiers have shot and wounded at least three photojournalists, including Ko Htet Myat Thu and U Si Thu, who believes that a military gunman was aiming for his head. (He was hit in the hand as he took a photo.) Around sixty journalists have been arrested, including Ma Kay Zon Nway, of Myanmar Now; Ko Zaw Zaw and Ko Than Htike Aung, of Mizzima; Thein Zaw, of the AP; Aung Thura, of the BBC; and Robert Bociaga, who was on assignment for the German press agency dpa. The AP published a video showing police putting Thein Zaw in a chokehold; Bociaga was beaten by soldiers. Both have subsequently been freed, as has Aung Thura. (Bociaga was deported.) But thirty or so reporters remain behind bars, and many of them, including Ma Kay Zon Nway, face lengthy potential sentences under the mutiny law. This week, a number of journalists faced preliminary hearings in their cases. One of them, a freelance video journalist named Aung Ko Latt, has tested positive for COVID-19 since his arrest. His hearing coincided with the birth of his son.

Reporters who are not already in Myanmar have struggled to gain access. Ari Ben-Menashe—a lobbyist hired by the junta who has called coverage of the coup “nonsense”—recently brokered entry for a CNN team led by Clarissa Ward, and for Allegra Mendelson, a reporter with Southeast Asia Globe; they were transported around the country under armed guard, then taken to meet with officials and others who told them flimsy tales of protesters perpetrating abuse. The visit “became a clumsy attempt by the regime to remake its global image,” Mendelson writes. “Escorts monitored our every move, with cameras and phones raised to record us. They even tried following us into bathrooms at times.” Locals nonetheless made their views heard, banging on pots and pans as the foreign reporters passed, and in some cases approaching them on the street, despite the nearby soldiers; at least eight people were arrested for talking to CNN—all of whom, the network says, have since been released. Speaking on air yesterday, Ward hailed them as “extraordinarily brave”—but CNN has been criticized, by some regional media-watchers, for exposing them to danger. Such critics also accused CNN of “parachute” and “celebrity white savior” journalism, and, as Vice put it, of glossing over “the tireless work of plenty of journalists on the ground in Myanmar as well as elsewhere in Asia.”

Ward is now back in London. The journalists on the ground are still there, and in an increasingly dire situation. Yesterday, security forces killed at least eleven protesters in the town of Taze, taking the civilian death toll since the coup above six hundred, according to one widely-cited count. Richard C. Paddock, of the New York Times, reports that despite the extreme danger of protest, journalists are increasingly looking to blend in with the demonstrators, and have stopped visibly identifying themselves as press after doing so made them targets; many, Paddock writes, “also keep a low profile by not receiving credit for their published work and avoiding sleeping in their own homes.” And the line between citizens and journalists—always and everywhere, to some extent, imaginary—has blurred professionally, too, with citizen journalists, or “CJs” as they have become widely known, helping under-pressure reporters document the carnage. “They are targeting professional journalists so our country needs more CJs,” Ma Thuzar Myat, who is among their number, told Paddock. “I know I might get killed at some point for taking a video record of what is happening. But I won’t step back.”

Below, more on press freedom around the world:

  • Myanmar: In mid-February, Swe Win and Kim spoke with Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, about the situation for the press in Myanmar on our podcast, The Kicker. For more listening on the crisis, Hannah Beech, of the Times, spoke this week on the paper’s Daily podcast about the insular culture of Myanmar’s military and the case of a ten-year-old girl who was shot and killed by a soldier. “I think what this has done, more than anything, is to harden the resolve of people in Myanmar to fight the military regime,” Beech said, “because a group of soldiers and a group of policemen that do this — that are given orders to execute children—is something they cannot stand.”
  • Russia: On Wednesday, a court in Russia fined Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a broadcaster funded by the US government, seventy-thousand dollars for failing to label itself as a foreign agent. RFE/RL’s leadership has decried the ruling as an effort to force its reporters to stop working in the country; Reuters has more. Meanwhile, Russia’s internet censors extended their slowdown of access to Twitter as they seek to force the company to delete old tweets that they say encourage criminality. The censors had previously threatened to ban Twitter altogether. The Financial Times has more details.
  • Syria: Ben Fox, Eric Tucker, and Matthew Lee, of the AP, have previously-unreported details of talks that senior US officials held last year with their counterparts in Syria. The discussions had been aimed at freeing American hostages including Austin Tice, a journalist who was captured in the country in 2012. According to the AP, “the trip was ultimately fruitless, with the Syrians raising a series of demands that would have fundamentally reshaped Washington’s policy toward Damascus” and offering “no meaningful information on the fate and whereabouts of Tice and others.”
  • Northern Ireland: On Wednesday, amid flaring sectarian violence in Belfast, two masked men attacked Kevin Scott, a photographer with the Belfast Telegraph. He was not seriously hurt, but his camera was destroyed. “At the age of 26 and working as a press photographer for the Belfast Telegraph for the past nine years, I am no stranger to rioting on the streets,” Scott wrote, of the attack. “Thankfully, I did not have to cover the tragedy and turmoil of the Troubles as some of my colleagues had to, but I have covered enough incidents to understand the dangers and risks that are involved.”
  • NFT: This week, Forbes sold a version of its latest cover as an NFT, or non-fungible token, for more than three hundred and thirty thousand dollars. The magazine is donating the proceeds from the sale to the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Women’s Media Foundation. (Yesterday, my colleague Mathew Ingram explored the future of NFTs in the media industry in this newsletter.)


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Ron DeSantis’s narrative whiplash

Western Media Incite Anti-Asian Racism When They Join in Cold War Against China

FAIR - April 8, 2021 - 5:37pm

 

Over the past few weeks, the subject of anti-Asian racism has received an unusual degree of Western media attention, ever since a video showing the January 28 killing of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai immigrant in San Francisco, was widely shared on social media. Coverage intensified when gunman Robert Aaron Long targeted three Asian-owned spas on March 6, killing six Asian women among eight victims in Atlanta, Georgia. Local and national media centered the gunman’s professed motive of a “sex addiction” and police statements disputing whether the crime was racially motivated, even though gendered racism is still a factor when racist incidents don’t meet the narrow and arbitrary requirements of what constitutes a hate crime (FAIR.org, 3/26/21).

While this has given more exposure to the longstanding history of racism towards Asian people in the West, as well as the various ways Asians are often gaslit by having their racial oppression trivialized, Western news outlets have also deceptively omitted the centrality of media-promoted Sinophobia to this latest spike in hate crimes toward anyone perceived to be Chinese.

Western media reports throughout the pandemic have presented the most obvious explanations behind the spike in anti-Asian violence, settling on the Trump administration’s repeated use of the phrase “Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu,” even after being informed that such rhetoric fuels the risk of hate crimes and discrimination against Asian people.

USA Today (2/11/21) acknowledges that Covid messaging can encourage hate crimes, but doesn’t examine corporate media’s participation in the new cold war against China.

Time (3/20/20) pointed out that Trump was “part of a long history of associating diseases with foreign countries.” USA Today (2/11/21) reported that “racist rhetoric about the coronavirus pandemic may be fueling a rise in hate incidents.” The Los Angeles Times (3/5/21), reporting on a study that found anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 major cities had risen 149% last year—while total hate crimes against all minority groups had dropped 7%—declared that “the rise is almost certainly related to the pandemic.”

But the Trump administration wasn’t the only actor associating Covid-19 with China. Asian writers (Salon, 2/7/20; CNN, 3/28/20) have pointed out the racist logic often employed by the scientific community and Western media in naming an epidemic: If a virus is believed to have originated from and is circulating in Western countries, either refer to it by a generic numerical designation (e.g. H1N1), or reference the animal believed to be responsible for the zoonotic spillover (e.g., Mad Cow Disease, Swine Flu). If the virus is first detected in a country that the West has stereotyped, then the epidemic will be named after the region it’s believed to have originated from (e.g., Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, West Nile Virus).

The World Health Organization (WHO), breaking with this tradition in 2015, officially named the novel coronavirus that started the pandemic “Covid-19” on February 11, 2020, to avoid stigmatizing Chinese people, even though the virus was informally referred to as the “Wuhan Coronavirus” in Western media reports both before (e.g., New York Times, 1/21/20; CNN, 2/4/20; US News & World Report, 1/24/20), and after the WHO’s official designation (e.g., Fox, 12/29/20; BBC, 8/18/20). Indeed, towards the beginning of the pandemic, US media outlets saw fit to publish loaded headlines in op-eds like “A Communist Coronavirus” (Wall Street Journal, 1/29/20), “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” (Wall Street Journal, 2/3/20) and “Coronavirus Spreads, and the World Pays for China’s Dictatorship” (New York Times, 1/29/20).

Scapegoating China

Despite WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus’s calls to avoid politicizing the virus and “pointing fingers,” because it would hinder international cooperation crucial to combating the pandemic, Western media have also echoed the Republican Party’s strategy of blaming China to avoid accountability for the US’s disastrous handling of the pandemic.

“If China had a different government, the world could have been spared this terrible pandemic,” claims Paul D. Miller (Foreign Policy, 3/25/20). Like one of the Western governments that allowed a thousand times more Covid cases per capita than the Chinese government?

Foreign Policy ran an op-ed, “Yes, Blame China for the Virus” (3/25/20), dismissing calls to avoid politicizing the virus as “nonsense” because the Chinese government’s “missteps are directly responsible for its global transmission and uncontrolled spread.” The Atlantic ran another op-ed, “China Is Avoiding Blame by Trolling the World” (3/19/20), stating that the “evidence of China’s deliberate cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is a matter of public record,” and that the Chinese “regime imperiled not only its own country and its own citizens but also the more than 100 nations now facing their own potentially devastating outbreaks.”

Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen wrote “The Election Is Over. Can We Finally Blame China for the Pandemic?” (12/8/20) arguing that those who tried to avoid blaming China were merely attempting to suppress an inconvenient truth for political gain:

If the regime had taken action as soon as human-to-human transmission was detected, it might have prevented a worldwide pandemic. Instead, Chinese officials deliberately covered up the outbreak, punished doctors who tried to warn the public, intentionally lied to the world about the danger the virus posed, and proactively impeded the US and international response. It is the Chinese regime’s lies and incompetence that are responsible for the most devastating and costly pandemic in American history.

Western media also ran op-eds demanding China pay “reparations” to other nations, asserting that China was not only to blame for the pandemic, but deserved to be punished: Newsweek (5/1/20) published an op-ed by far-right British politician Nigel Farage, which described the “liberal democracies of the West” as being “increasingly pitched against that clever, ruthless opponent called China,” and questioned whether “Western governments really have the collective nerve to ensure” China pays reparations to them. The Spectator (12/5/20) talked about “the need of the citizens of the world to be given reparations by China for what it did to us all this year.”

Marc Thiessen (Washington Post, 12/8/20) blames China for not doing enough in December 2019 to stop a pandemic that killed its first identified victim on January 9, 2021.

In “China Should Be Held Legally Liable for the Pandemic Damage It Has Done,” the Washington Post‘s Thiessen (4/9/20) declared, “Somebody has to pay for this unprecedented damage. That somebody should be the government of China.” He accused Beijing of “intentionally lying to the world about the danger of the virus, and proactively impeding a global response that might have prevented a worldwide contagion.”

The inevitable result of Western media actively assisting the Trump administration’s attempts to blame China for the world’s pandemic woes is to give rationalizations to those carrying out anti-Asian violence out of the racist belief that all Asians, wherever they are, are collectively guilty and worthy of punishment for perceived wrongdoings of the Chinese government. But pointing fingers at China doesn’t just inflame anti-Asian racism; it’s also factually inaccurate.

Western media narratives of a supposed Chinese “coverup” primarily hinge on the myth of the Chinese government punishing “whistleblower doctors” like Dr. Li Wenliang, and other falsehoods, such as the Chinese government denying that there was any human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 before January 20, 2020, or needlessly delaying the release of the SARS-CoV-2 genome (FAIR.org, 10/14/20, 1/20/21; CGTN, 4/23/20, 8/22/20).

What nearly all Western media reports criticizing China for not acting faster than it already did omit is that a joint mission report from WHO and China described the Chinese response as probably the most “ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history.” They also omit that earlier action and information probably would have made little difference, since countries like the US didn’t act on the information it already had when the Chinese government initiated the unprecedented lockdown on Wuhan on January 23, 2020, which was widely dismissed and condemned by US media outlets at the time for being “authoritarian” (e.g., Washington Post, 1/27/20; Atlantic, 1/24/20; Slate 1/24/20).

In actuality, the Chinese government and people went to extraordinary efforts to contain Covid-19, buying the rest of the world time to prepare for the pandemic (which countries like the US squandered).

Foreigners and Chinese people living in China were motivated to produce the independent documentary Blaming Wuhan after seeing the blatant falsehoods and misrepresentations in Western media about what was happening on the ground in China, so that people could see and hear for themselves what Chinese life was really like. The documentary contains numerous testimonies showing that Chinese media’s unified science-based reporting to contain panic and prevent infection—along with the Chinese people’s expressed trust and respect for their government—led to widespread compliance with government directives, as opposed to complying out of fear. The documentary also attributes China’s success in containing the pandemic to greater cultural consideration for the collective good, as well as the government devoting significant resources to contain the virus.

Their testimonies are corroborated by visitors to China such as Dr. Bruce Aylward, an experienced Canadian medical expert who led a team visiting China for WHO (New York Times, 3/4/20):

Journalists also say, “Well, they’re only acting out of fear of the government,” as if it’s some evil fire-breathing regime that eats babies. I talked to lots of people outside the system—in hotels, on trains, in the streets at night.

They’re mobilized, like in a war, and it’s fear of the virus that was driving them. They really saw themselves as on the front lines of protecting the rest of China. And the world.

Promoting Sinophobia

The New York Post (1/23/20) reported on a video showing a woman eating a bat “at an undisclosed restaurant in the Wuhan province”—which turned out actually to be in Palau, an island nation 2,700 miles from China.

Despite this, Western media have promoted centuries-old racist stereotypes of Chinese people as exceptionally uncivilized and filthy. Western media reports like the New York Post’s “Revolting Video Shows Woman Devouring Bat Amid Coronavirus Outbreak” (1/23/20) reported on a “gag-inducing clip” featuring an “unidentified woman at an undisclosed restaurant in the Wuhan province clutching what appears to be a fruit bat with chopsticks while nibbling its wing like chicken.” The Daily Mirror’s “Coronavirus: Woman Eats Whole Bat in Disturbing Footage After Outbreak Linked to Soup” (1/24/20) described the video as a Chinese woman “eating a bat in a plush restaurant, despite fears the new deadly coronavirus could have been spread by a soup made from the mammal,” with bat soup being “a delicacy in the country and a popular dish in Wuhan, where the virus originated.”

In fact, the widely circulated video was first shared by Chinese social media users condemning the act, and was later revealed to be the host of an online travel show eating in the Micronesian nation of Palau in 2016. But when Western media operate within an Orientalist framework that depicts all Asian people as a barbaric monolith, factchecking crucial details like time and location don’t matter when they can spread clickbait articles by playing into racist stereotypes instead.

Before the origin theory of Covid-19 emerging from Wuhan “wet markets” was abandoned, I also criticized (FAIR.org, 5/7/20) how early Western media coverage falsely conflated what were called “wet markets” with wildlife markets, even though the vast majority of wet markets don’t keep or sell wildlife.

An op-ed in USA Today (4/8/20) from a former Shanghai-based journalist described how the “strangest animals for human consumption” to his “Western eyes” were “turtles, snakes and frogs,” before condemning Chinese “cultural traditions of medicine, animal husbandry and culinary tastes” for being a “unique incubator of terrible diseases.” Georgetown professor Bradley Blakeman wrote a patronizing op-ed (The Hill, 4/1/20) arguing that “China’s domestic demand and customs for exotic and live food are a direct threat to the health, safety and welfare of the world.”

Business Insider’s “Both the New Coronavirus and SARS Outbreaks Likely Started in Chinese ‘Wet Markets.’ Historic Photos Show What the Markets Looked Like” (2/6/20) maximized shock value and outrage by using photos that are up to 16 years old across China, along with images from Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, which undermined the epidemiological need to be specific about what animal species the Huanan Market in Wuhan actually contained, and in what frequency. There are significant regional variations in cuisine in a country populated by over 1.3 billion people, and a more contextual approach would have informed audiences that wildlife actually isn’t commonly eaten in China—the practice being largely restricted to the southeast region and some towns—with one poll finding nearly 97% of Chinese people disapproving of the practice.

One can also find sources critical of the unsanitary eating habits of Americans, as well as them eating exotic meat like turtles, snakes, frogs, squirrels and camels, yet it still wouldn’t be fair to criticize all Americans for the peculiar eating habits of a few.

Reinforcing implicit bias

Western media have also made Asian people the face of the coronavirus from the very beginning of the pandemic, giving excuses for people who already held latent racist and xenophobic attitudes towards Asians to act on them under superficially plausible pretexts. Several reports have criticized Western media practices of lazily and insensitively using stock photos of Chinatown and Asian people wearing masks, even when the people getting infected and dying from the coronavirus weren’t Asian, or in Asian countries. Western media have also used photos of Asians wearing masks, even when the racial background of people testing positive for coronavirus haven’t been released in those reports, reinforcing implicit biases against Asians.

Gothamist (1/31/20) illustrated an article about the absence of coronavirus in New York with a photo of Flushing, a largely Chinese-American neighborhood in Queens.

The most notable instance of this practice was when outlets like the New York Post and New York Times used images of East Asian people in Queens wearing masks on a story about New York City’s first confirmed Covid-19 case being in Manhattan, after contracting the virus in Iran. This particular story is especially ironic, because it was later revealed that New York City was the primary source of infection across the US, with most New York cases being traced back to Europe, not Asia.

The story of Covid-19 itself is especially ironic, as observers, including Indi Samarajiva in Sri Lanka, have pointed out that Western incompetence in containing the pandemic, and hoarding of vaccines, have been responsible for infecting and harming the rest of the world. Samarajiva (Medium, 5/4/20), along with FAIR (6/6/20), has criticized Western media coverage for praising and highlighting the Global North’s efforts in combating the pandemic, while downplaying the superior pandemic achievements of Asian nations in the Global South like China, Vietnam and the Indian state of Kerala.

Yet white people have not been blamed or associated with the coronavirus the way Asians have in racialized Western media coverage. This is despite some white people leading anti-lockdown, anti-mask and anti-vaccine protests, along with the European Union and the US having more than 58 million total confirmed cases as of April 7, 2021, with China barely surpassing 100,000 total confirmed cases—even though China has around double their combined population—according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data project.

US imperialism & anti-Asian racism

Several Asian observers have already made the connection between US imperialism and expansionism in Asia, accompanied by bipartisan aggressive and fearmongering rhetoric about China, leading to racist stereotypes, anti-Asian violence and state persecution of Asian people (Nation, 3/19/21; Washington Post, 3/19/21). Dehumanizing portrayals of Asian people have been necessary to prepare Westerners to rationalize massacring millions of Asian people in the West’s historical legacy of invasion and colonization, as well as to justify paranoid and blanket state persecution of Asian people living in the West, often with many false accusations, and little evidence of alleged Chinese infiltration and espionage (e.g., USA Today, 8/23/20; Newsweek, 10/26/20; Foreign Policy, 9/28/20).

Looking at the alarmism in Western media coverage throughout the years, one can easily get the impression that China is a hostile and expansionist power seeking to dominate the world, as the US has done since World War II:

  • Axios (7/9/20): “China’s Extraterritorial Threat”
  • Foreign Policy (10/12/19): “Can American Values Survive in a Chinese World?”
  • Economist (10/4/18): “China Has Designs on Europe. Here Is How Europe Should Respond”
  • The Week (3/29/18): “The Looming Threat of Chinese Imperialism”
  • Washington Post (3/12/21): “China’s Rise Is Exactly the Kind of Threat NATO Exists to Stop”
  • The Hill (1/21/21): “Xi Jinping’s China and Hitler’s Germany: Growing Parallels”

China has repeatedly declared its explicit desire for a “multipolar” world and “win/win cooperation,” with “no ambition to seek hegemony, much less to replace the United States,” which it contrasts with a US preference for “unilateralism” and “zero-sum games” (People’s Daily, 9/10/20). As with most nations, China’s past and current foreign policy has unscrupulous aspects, but Chinese state media have also criticized the non sequitur that aspiring to become a more powerful nation necessarily means desiring world domination, citing the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence codified in China’s constitution (People’s Daily, 5/21/15). While government declarations of principles shouldn’t always be taken at face value, these are recognizably different arguments from Chinese media than the ones commonly found in US media propagandizing the desirability and necessity of US supremacy (FAIR.org, 12/11/20).

And despite Western media’s dehumanizing and incoherent portrayals of Chinese people being a monolith of brainwashed robots supportive of their government, while simultaneously being cognizant people with agency being governed against their will, one can find a wide diversity of opinion on China and the US’s place in the world there:

The debate around whether Chinese officials can be trusted generally ignores the question of whether US officials can be trusted not to start a war, or fearmonger about an ascendant China to retain US hegemony. A Defense News analysis (2/17/21) argued that “lawmakers, Pentagon leaders and defense industry–funded think tanks have been ramping up ‘great power competition’ rhetoric for years as a ploy to justify greater military spending,” and that China’s military investments are clearly “meant to keep invaders at a safe distance rather than project its own military power forward,” with the Chinese military advantages evaporating “beyond its shores.”

In Defense News (2/17/21), Dan Grazier notes, “When spending levels threaten to dip, discussion of a new national security threat ramps up to coax defense spending safely upward.”

Even establishment commentator Fareed Zakaria (Washington Post, 3/18/21), generally noted for his celebration of US power, mocked the threat inflation surrounding China, citing the US having 20 times as many nuclear warheads as China, the US having over 800 military bases around the world (many surrounding China) compared to China having as many as three, and China spending roughly only one-third as much annually on its military as the US (FAIR.org, 10/1/19).

And while the Western-centric question of whether China is a threat to us is a convenient distraction from the more pertinent question of whether the US is a threat to China, the Union of Concerned Scientists (5/7/20), for example, has pointed out that China has had an unconditional no-first-use pledge ever since it first developed a nuclear deterrent in 1964, whereas the US maintains the right to target China with a nuclear first strike. China is not planning to build a hostile missile network, or deploy Chinese soldiers near Western borders, as the US is doing to China (Nikkei Asia, 3/5/21, 7/5/20). Despite being more powerful than ever, China has never invaded another country in over 40 years, whereas at least 800,000 people have been directly killed in the US’s ongoing post-9/11 wars.

As a Korean American, it’s not hard to see the parallels between today’s Sinophobic hysteria over China’s rise with historic white supremacist fears of nonwhite people seeking retribution, or inevitably becoming just as bad as their oppressors: from white slaveowners fearing revenge from newly freed slaves, to Western media paranoia about Black South Africans slaughtering white South Africans and Palestinians killing Jewish people upon ending apartheid (FAIR.org, 2/1/19). When one is aware that Western media spread the exact same Yellow Peril propaganda of deceptive and ruthless Chinese ambitions for global domination even while Western imperialist powers were dominating China during its Century of Humiliation—and before the Chinese Revolution brought the Communist Party of China to power—current speculations over China’s alleged desire for hegemony seem more like projections and an unfalsifiable thesis, rather than evidence-based fear.

Racist critiques 

While Western media like to self-present as “objective,” “impartial” and ideologically normative, FAIR has repeatedly criticized their bias in favor of white supremacy and the political and business establishment. And when we recall that US foreign policy has been designed by white supremacists, along with US newsrooms remaining predominantly white, it’s fair to question whether race is still a factor behind US foreign policy and Western media’s vilification of both the Chinese people and the Chinese government, especially when US journalists have held more hostile views towards China than the general public (Columbia Journalism Review, 11/5/18; Newsweek, 5/2/19). With US public opinion of China plummeting to all-time-lows as a result of the US’s expanded information warfare against China, it’s no surprise that Asian people are suffering from racist violence (Mintpress News, 5/18/20, 3/1/21).

It’s not inherently racist to criticize the Chinese government, but it is racist to insist on criticisms based on dubious evidence and outright falsehoods, or to prioritize hypocritical critiques of China when the West has committed more egregious atrocities than the worst Western media allegations against China (CounterPunch, 1/4/13; Mintpress News, 12/16/20). It’s racist to assume China is inherently dishonest, has nefarious motives behind all its actions, and presumed guilty of alleged wrongdoings without investigating the accuracy of Western media claims, or without critically considering non-Western views of China (e.g., Hankyoreh, 6/21/20; Medium, 10/26/20; South China Morning Post, 10/21/20). Yellow Peril and Red Scare propaganda has serious consequences for the Asian diaspora, as anti-Asian racism is spiking in Western countries as an inevitable result of Western imperialism (Time, 3/8/21).

Just as official condemnations of Islamophobia didn’t spare anyone perceived to be Muslim from state persecution and racist violence in the wake of the US’s post-9/11 wars, Asian people will continue to be targeted, despite disingenuous condemnations of anti-Asian racism, as long as the new Cold War against China continues. When many Westerners can’t even distinguish between hating the Chinese government and the Asian diaspora, it’s hard to believe familiar claims of only hating the Chinese government and not the Chinese people.

Featured image: Bloomberg illustration (5/21/20) of Chinese Covid policy.

‘It’s in the Interest of Everyone in the US to Vaccinate the World as Quickly as Possible’

FAIR - April 8, 2021 - 1:38pm

 

Janine Jackson interviewed Public Citizen’s Peter Maybarduk about global vaccination for the April 2, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: The availability of Covid vaccines at corner drugstores, here in New York City and elsewhere, reports that nursing homes in the US are seeing steep declines in new Covid cases after being prioritized for vaccines, and maybe just the arrival of spring, have many folks hopeful that we’re nearing the end of the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. But, as ever, we have to ask, who’s “we,”exactly?

UN Secretary General António Guterres was among those complaining in February that 10 countries have monopolized 75% of the world’s Covid-19 vaccines; meanwhile, people in more than 130 countries were yet to receive a single dose.

For many people, the pandemic was undeniable evidence of what is always true: that we are interdependent, physically as well as societally; that while problems can be global, protections are not; and that when profit making and public health collide, you need to pick a side.

What stands in the way of our using that awareness to shape global access to vaccines? Joining us now by phone is Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Peter Maybarduk.

Peter Maybarduk: Great to be with you.

Public Citizen (12/8/20)

JJ: Let’s talk about what’s possible, and compare it with what’s happening. You produced research showing how the US could basically get everyone on the planet vaccinated with targeted investment. And, obviously, doing that now is better than any time other than now. It wasn’t a moral appeal, though that’s entirely appropriate; it was a plan of how this could actually happen, right?

PM: Absolutely. So we think an investment of $25 billion would be sufficient to produce 8 billion doses of mRNA Covid vaccine in a little more than a year’s time, which is timely to shorten the pandemic, because many people in low- and middle-income countries are potentially going to be waiting until 2024 for a vaccine. And it’s actually not entirely clear that we’re on track to vaccinate everyone in the world, ever, as opposed to just run into a long-term problem of boosters with endemic Covid.

So we think that there is a need to inject ambition, and set up new production lines with a small capital investment–we think about $2 billion to do that–and for the Biden administration to call on drug makers and other world leaders, and say: We can do this. We can actually produce more than we currently have planned to produce, if we share vaccine recipes, if we pool the available facilities, if we put what really is a very modest amount of money in, compared to the economic cost of the pandemic.

JJ: Yeah, $25 billion—I’ll just note: the 2020 military budget was $721 billion. And then, we’re talking about something that would pay for itself. And we’re not talking about charity, you know?

Let me just draw you out: What are the global dynamics, or relationships, in play? We have wealthy countries sitting on vaccines, or the recipe for vaccines? And then, that “wealthy versus less wealthy countries” is also interlaced with a tension between private profit and public health. What’s going on there?

Peter Maybarduk: “If we don’t ramp up manufacturing quickly, with some new investments and some high-level political leadership now, a million more people will die.”

PM: It’s true that wealthy countries are sitting both on doses and on recipes. Donations are going to become a very big issue in the United States shortly, because we’re actually, amazingly, going to have a surplus of vaccines in the United States at some point over the summer, and there will be a discussion of what to do with those excess doses.

And we think they should be equitably allocated to people in low- and middle-income countries in the COVAX initiative. However, it’s very important to note that that, on its own, will not be anywhere near enough to meet the scale of global need. And if we don’t ramp up manufacturing quickly, with some new investments and some high-level political leadership now, a million more people will die than would otherwise be the case, and trillions of dollars will be lost. So it’s critically important.

One of the greatest public health/private profit tensions in this story is the value of “vaccine recipes” and vaccine technology. A company like Moderna isn’t thinking only about the value of its mRNA vaccine—which is actually an NIH, a publicly developed vaccine, in partnership with Moderna, paid for by taxpayers over many years already. But they’re thinking about the value of future products: They’re thinking that their recipes and their techniques, their production techniques, the specifics of their platform technologies—that’s the long-term value plan for the company, and so they don’t want to share with the world, openly, how that is done.

But there are solutions to that, including paying the companies appropriate compensation for disclosure of that technology, essentially buying out the know-how. We can afford, at this moment in time, collectively, to pay some appropriate amount to companies and investors that are truly making innovation happen. But what we can’t afford is commercial secrecy, fragmenting of a supply ecosystem, limiting how far we can scale up vaccine access—and that’s what’s happening today.

Intercept (3/18/21)

JJ: I would refer folks to Lee Fang’s reporting for the Intercept, where he has Pfizer CFO Frank D’Amelio saying, “As this shifts from pandemic to endemic, we think there’s an opportunity here for us,” and the Johnson & Johnson executive VP Joseph Wolk is telling investors that they’ll “reevaluate the vaccine for ‘pricing that’s much more in line with a commercial opportunity’ when the pandemic is over.” It’s important to note that they think they’re in charge of saying when the pandemic is over.

When we talked last, I think, we were talking about Donald Trump; he’s a sociopath, straight-up saying, “to heck with COVAX; us for us!” That’s not the tone or the message, certainly, in the new White House, but do you think that in terms of actions, that Biden might still be thinking too small, too domestic?

PM: So far, that’s a concern. Let me put it a little differently: We do think we need to see some signs of greater ambition from the White House. To be clear, I think we, and a great many people, are very grateful to see the turnaround from the White House in dealing with the pandemic in the United States, and grateful to see the renewed support for multilateralism, and recognizing that the world is in this together.

JJ: Absolutely.

PM: But we need a lot more ambition and upfront investment on the global problem now, recognizing the unique capabilities of the United States government to organize production for the world, and to set standards for other world leaders, and for drug companies, and say here’s how we’re going to get this done. If the US government doesn’t step into that role, we’re just going to lose a lot of lives needlessly, because there isn’t another player to fill that void.

And right now, there’s production happening, but we are letting the companies dictate far too much of it. And there isn’t a pooling of resources, or scale, to make up the difference in those billions of doses that are needed to vaccinate everyone.

JJ: Let me just pull you back to the science of it. I think sometimes—and this comes through in the media—it’s as though we can make this a political issue, we can enforce a political template onto what is not, inherently, political. If we wait too long to get vaccines to people, then isn’t it true that those vaccines might no longer be effective if the virus mutates? So it’s not just immoral; it’s not just uneconomic; it’s also kind of stupid to wait too long, and to enforce a kind of unequal immunity on the globe?

PM: We definitely think it’s in the interest of everyone living in the United States to vaccinate the world as quickly as possible, and take some of the wind out of the sails of the variants of the mutations. If the world is not going to do a good job of getting the pandemic under control, then we’ll have a worse problem of variant spreading; it’ll be something that we all have to worry about quite a bit more in the future.

Notably, it’s also going to be harder to restart the global economy. We’ve got global supply chains; we’re going to have parts of the world shut down, communities devastated for the foreseeable future, unless we get it under control. So an investment now, in order to protect the future, seems quite sound to us.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Peter Maybarduk, director of the Global Access to Medicines Program at Public Citizen, online at Citizen.org. Peter Maybarduk, thanks once again for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

PM: So good to be with you.

 

Media Manage to Both-Sides Georgia GOP’s Suppressing Democracy

FAIR - April 8, 2021 - 12:45pm

 

Georgia’s new voting law—one of the first in a crowded field of breathtakingly brazen state voting bills the GOP is pushing across the country—has made national headlines. As voting rights reporter Ari Berman (CounterSpin, 3/16/21) has explained, these bills are essentially “an effort to overturn the election by other means.” But despite Republicans’ obvious—often explicitly stated—goal of rigging future elections more successfully than they have in the past, many of those national media outlets can’t give up their commitment to both-sidesing the story, giving cover to the anti-democratic campaign.

The New York Times (3/25/21) highlights claims from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp that the point of the voter suppression bill is “to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

In its initial report on Georgia’s new voter suppression law, the New York TimesNick Corasaniti (3/25/21) explained that Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp highlighted his history of

fighting for stronger voter identification laws, which Democrats have denounced as having an outsize impact on communities of color. Mr. Kemp said that protests against the bill were pure politics.

Who’s to say which side readers should believe? Don’t ask the Times. Corasaniti seemed incapable of sorting out truth from fiction, noting later that opponents of the bill called “for a boycott of major corporations in Georgia that they said had remained silent on the voting push, including Coca-Cola.” It’s not hard for a reporter to verify that claim; it’s their job, in fact.

The piece offered this context for understanding the GOP’s motivation:

Seeking to appease a conservative base that remains incensed about the results of the 2020 election, Republicans have already passed a similar law in Iowa, and are moving forward with efforts to restrict voting in states including Arizona, Florida and Texas.

It’s a neat little trick to shift blame—the party is simply being responsive to its constituents! Never mind that it was the party that drilled the lie of the stolen election into the heads of their base. As Vox‘s Zack Beauchamp (4/6/21) points out, laws like Georgia’s aren’t just premised on the lie of election fraud; they serve to ratify that lie.

In a later analysis, the New York Times‘ Nate Cohn (4/3/21) downplayed the impact of Georgia’s law on voting rights, arguing that both sides “misunderstand” the effect that making it harder to vote has on turnout. As voting rights expert Charlotte Hill quickly pointed out, Cohn’s argument is on very shaky ground for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it misses the disparate impact such restrictions can have on different groups—like minority or youth voters, who disproportionately vote Democratic.

Voting rights expert Charlotte Hill (Twitter, 4/3/21) notes that the New York Times‘ Nate Cohn (4/3/21) “focuses on the reforms least likely to benefit the voters who need the most help.”

To Cohn, those outraged over laws aimed at suppressing and manipulating the vote are as much to blame as the suppressors themselves for the lack of “bipartisan compromise” on such laws:

The perception that voting laws have existential stakes for democracy or the political viability of the two parties has made bipartisan compromise extremely difficult. The virtue of bipartisanship is often and understandably dismissed as naïve, but voting laws are a rare case where bipartisanship has value of its own. Democracy, after all, depends on the consent of the loser.

One might add that democracy depends on the right and ability of people to vote. The whole impetus for these bills, of course, is the lack of consent of the losers; telling the only party willing to play by the rules of democracy that it needs to “compromise” with the authoritarian party is a great way to further erode democracy, which makes that media mantra not just wrong but dangerous.

Even where reporters called it straight, Times headline writers still couldn’t always bring themselves to do so. In an analysis  (3/25/21) in which reporters wrote without equivocation that “the new barriers will have an outsize impact on Black voters, who make up roughly one-third of the state’s population and vote overwhelmingly Democratic,” the paper went with the sub-headline:

The state’s new Republican-crafted law is set to restrict voting access in ways that Democrats and voting rights groups say will have an outsize impact on Black voters.

ABC News (3/25/21): “Democrats say the law amounts to voter suppression; Republicans say it will restore trust in the election system.”

Some headlines were even worse, giving no indication of the import of the law. ABCNews.com (3/25/21), for instance, ran with this headline: “Kemp Signs Sweeping Elections Bill Passed by Georgia Legislature. Here’s What’s In It,” followed by the equally uninformative subhead: “The nearly 100-page bill overhauls multiple areas of election law in the state.”

In that piece, the issue was explained with perfect false balance:

Democrats and voting rights advocates have blasted the bill as a voter-suppression tactic and legislative “power grab” in response to former President Donald Trump and GOP allies peddling false conspiracy theories about a stolen, fraud-filled election for months. But Republicans contend the bill increases accessibility and is meant to streamline elections, provide uniformity and address a lack of confidence in Georgia’s elections “on all sides of the political spectrum,” a notion Democrats dispute.

Similarly, CBSNews.com (3/26/21) reported: “Conservative groups hailed the legislation’s passage, while liberals voiced their concern. ”

NPR (3/25/21) manages to report on a bill aimed at making it more difficult for African Americans to vote without ever mentioning race.

Remarkably, in an over 1,000-word article describing what the headline termed an “election overhaul,” NPR (3/25/21) failed to bring up who will be impacted by the changes or how—let alone whether provisions that primarily target minority and low-income voters are legal. Reporter Stephen Fowler managed to cover one of the most egregious efforts to disenfranchise Black voters in recent history without using the words “Black” or “minority”—and using the word “rights” only to note that some previously-planned restrictions were removed because of opposition from “voting rights groups,” among others.

Indeed, while much of the coverage of Georgia’s law has quoted opponents comparing it to Jim Crow laws that ensured white supremacy after Reconstruction, very little of it made any reference to the Voting Rights Act (or white supremacy, for that matter). Though the Roberts Court gutted critical parts of the VRA in its Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013, the provision prohibiting discriminatory voting laws (Section 2) still stands. The current Court, now tilted even further to the right, is expected to rule on Section 2 shortly.

It’s a key point that has paved the way for the current GOP push—as well as the Democrats’ push for a new federal voting rights act—but only two of the above articles even mentioned it. One, Cohn’s piece, referenced it only to tout an unpublished grad student paper arguing that Shelby v. Holder didn’t reduce Black turnout.

And so, rather than making this a story about racist, anti-democratic attempts by the Republican party to disenfranchise Black and other minority voters as part of its ugly turn toward a white nationalist authoritarianism, too many journalists normalize those efforts with bloodless “he said, she said” accounts of “election overhauls.”

Could NFTs help the media, or are they just a sideshow?

Columbia Journalism Review - April 8, 2021 - 6:45am

Over the past several months, technology journalists have had to get used to a new concept: the “non-fungible token,” or NFT, a concept that has been lighting up the cryptocurrency world, as well as art and media. An NFT is a string of code that, once it has been “minted” (generated by a computer) resides on the Ethereum blockchain, a ledger of every transaction since the currency was created. The “non-fungible” part just means that a token can’t be exchanged for another string of similar code, so it’s unique. What has made this phenomenon so compelling is that these tokens can be associated with specific real-world objects: pieces of art, such as the digital canvas created by an artist named Beeple that sold for $69 million, clips of NBA highlights, or even newspaper articles — such as the New York Times piece by Kevin Roose about NFTs that recently sold for $560,000 (the paper donated the money to charity).

In many cases, the people buying pieces of digital art for $69 million or a single news article for half a million dollars are cryptocurrency “whales” — investors who bought Bitcoin or Ethereum early and have seen their investments increase as Bitcoin has risen by more than 600 percent. Others run auction platforms for NFTs or other cryptocurrency trading systems, and likely see spending those kinds of sums as marketing. So is all of this just Las Vegas casino-style froth, or is there something of real value happening — something that could benefit the media industry and journalism? To answer those and other questions, we used CJR’s Galley discussion platform to bring together a number of experts, including Jarrod Dicker, vice president, commercial for the Washington Post; Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia; developer Julien Genestoux; Elizabeth Lopatto, deputy editor of The Verge; and Josh Quittner, co-founder and chief executive of Decrypt Media.

Dicker, who was involved in a cryptocurrency venture called Poet before he joined the Post, said that his primary interest in NFTs is as a way of bringing “an ownership element back to media” and put more value on  individuals and the work they create. “If we as content creators are able to manage control of assets at the inception of the idea, what dynamics come about that give us more creative control, monetization and agency?” he asked. “This gives both control as to how that content is used, licensed and distributed as well as a means to be able to collect revenue.” The Tow Center is looking at NFTs because “the idea of authentic, distributed systems that can be verified and controlled away from central entities should appeal to journalism,” Bell said. Bell was on the advisory council for Civil, a blockchain-powered platform for independent journalism that eventually shut down last year, and says she liked the idea of funding journalism via “more community-based methods.”

Related: How the culture war is impeding necessary scrutiny of ‘vaccine passports’

Lopatto said a sense of community is likely to be crucial if media or journalism is to get much out of the NFT craze. “If we’re going to take them seriously as assets, we need to talk about who’d be buying them,” she said. “It’s great in theory to have people out there swapping an NFT of one of my articles forever — but is anyone actually going to do that? I need to have a following of people who like me and want to ‘own’ my work, or there’s no market. Does your outlet have hard-core fans who will buy to support you?” Genestoux said his startup, called Unlock, is trying to use the blockchain to help media companies control access to their content. For example, he says, publishers could use his service to allow readers who have paid for access to an article to share a link, along with a slice of their membership to allow that person to read it without paying. Cuen noted that one important aspect of an NFT is that it doesn’t really give anyone specific rights to a physical object — the code is just a kind of digital receipt noting that the person has paid with a cryptocurrency.

“I can take a piece of paper and write down ‘Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck, $100′ and hand it to my friend [but] I never owned the maverick’s sweater,” she says. “An NFT is not proof of owning anything. It is only proof that I used a blockchain.” Cryptocurrency advocates like Dicker note that technically this is true, but the physical deed that a homeowner gets when they buy their house is also a kind of a receipt, and could be forged. The benefit of the blockchain ledger, these advocates say, is that it keeps track of every transaction, which creates a record of provenance. If someone tried to mint an NFT for something they didn’t own, it would be relatively easy to prove that it was fake. And despite the risk, some are already experimenting with the prospect of using NFTs for their journalism, including Quittner at Decrypt Media (which is funded by ConsenSys, a cryptocurrency fund that also backed Civil). He says Decrypt just launched crypto tokens that readers can exchange for various features on the site, and even turn into tradable NFTs.

Here’s more on cryptocurrency:

  • Unpalatable truth: Bell says the idealism of new financial platforms is prone to some of the same problems as the idealism of new speech platforms such as Facebook. “It’s all fun and games until you instigate a violent coup, and then see bits of the Capitol riots traded through NFTs.” The real issue for journalism, Bell says, is that “not enough people want to voluntarily pay for it to sustain the amount of journalism we need to cover every community. It doesn’t matter if you chop it into a thousand pieces and upload it to the blockchain, that very unpalatable truth remains non-fungible.”
  • Built on trust: Open up the $69 million NFT that Beeple sold at Christie’s, and you won’t find much, says The Verge. “The name of the artwork isn’t there. The name of the artist is missing. And crucially, you won’t even find the actual piece of art. That’s not a flaw in Beeple’s NFT — it’s just how the system works. It turns out, the house of cards that is the NFT system is even more precarious than it first appears.” NFTs are fundamentally built on trust, the Verge piece points out: trust that a seller won’t screw you over, trust that these tokens magically have value. Ultimately, “you’re buying a collection of metadata.”
  • The worst tendencies: Nathan Schneider, a media studies professor, says he wonders whether we are generating democratic communities via cryptocurrency or “are we creating more commodities through which the rich can get richer? It is nice that some artists are making some money lately, but I don’t think this is the path toward an economy of creativity that will be especially sustainable, particularly for artists and culture-bearers in already marginalized communities. I would love to be proven wrong, but I’m concerned that we’re using new tech to amplify precisely the worst existing tendencies of the art-world.”
  • Opportunism: Anil Dash, the chief executive of Glitch, a collaborative programming platform, says when he helped invent non-fungible tokens seven years ago, he and a partner were trying to protect artists, but now “tech-world opportunism has struck again.” Dash says he and artist Kevin McCoy came up with the idea during a hackathon in New York City in 2014. “I was working as a consultant to auction houses and media companies — a role that had me obsessively thinking about the provenance, ownership, distribution, and control of artworks. By the wee hours of the night, McCoy and I had hacked together a first version of a blockchain-backed means of asserting ownership over an original digital work.”

 

Other notable stories:

  • CBS has ousted two powerful TV station executives following allegations of racist and abusive behavior, the Los Angeles Times reported. Peter Dunn, who served as president of the TV Stations group since 2009, and David Friend, the senior vice president of news for more than a decade, are no longer part of CBS, the company’s chief executive, George Cheeks, said Wednesday in an email to staff. The move comes two months after an investigation by the Times alleged that the pair cultivated an environment that included bullying female managers and blocking efforts to hire and retain Black journalists.
  • Reuters released its first annual diversity report, which shows that the company’s newsrooms, especially in the US, are overwhelmingly white and male. Joyce Adeluwoye-Adams, Reuters’ Editor of Newsroom Diversity, said in a pre-release statement that “As we expected, the data to date highlights some clear areas for improvement. Our organization is not as diverse as the societies we serve and the problem is particularly acute amongst leadership roles.  This needs to change if we want to continue to be a successful global newsroom covering the world in all its depth.”
  • Danielle Kwateng was announced as Teen Vogue’s new executive editor Wednesday. The announcement came in the form of a tweet from the publication’s account, which The Wrap said was noteworthy because the account hasn’t posted anything since the March announcement that Alexi McCammond would be the new editor in chief. McCammond later withdrew her name before even starting the job. Kwateng, formerly Teen Vogue’s entertainment and culture director, released a note to readers Wednesday.
  • Andrew Rosenthal, former editorial page editor of the New York Times, is joining a struggling Swedish news startup called Bulletin, despite the fact that he admits he doesn’t speak or read the language, and doesn’t know much about the country’s politics. “It’s not my job to figure out Swedish politics, and it’s not my job to influence the Opinion pages,” Rosenthal told Vanity Fair. “The purpose here is to stand up a functioning news organization.”
  • Brooke Baldwin, a former CNN news anchor who recently announced she is leaving the network after 13 years, opened up this week about gender pay disparity at the network, according to a report by The Wrap. “The most influential anchors on our network — the highest-paid — are men. My bosses, my executives, are men. The person who oversees CNN Dayside is a man and my executive producer for 10 years is a man, so I’ve been surrounded by a lot of men,” Baldwin said while reflecting on her decade at the network during an appearance on Ms. Magazine’s “On the Issues” podcast.
  • Gimlet Media and The Ringer agreed on a three-year union employment contract with Spotify, marking a historic moment for both the tech giant and the podcasting industry, according to The Verge (whose employees are part of the same union). The contracts cover diversity at the company, salary bases, annual raises, and titles. It’s a big step — not just for unionization in podcasting, but also for the tech industry overall, which has been resistant to take up unionization.
  • YouTube saw the most significant growth of any social media app among American users during the pandemic, the Pew Research Center reported in a new report released Wednesday. The Google-owned video service saw usage grow from 73 percent of U.S. adults in 2019 to 81 percent in 2021. That was followed most closely by Reddit, which saw usage grow from 11 percent of U.S. adults in 2019 to 18 percent in 2021. The conclusions are from a survey of 1,502 U.S. adults conducted between January 25 and February 8.
  • Atlantic Media released a statement admitting that on March 1, it became aware that an unauthorized actor had accessed the magazine’s servers. According to the company, which is now a minority shareholder in the magazine following its purchase by Laurene Powell Jobs, the forensic investigation found no evidence that any subscribers’, customers’, or clients’ financial or sensitive information was involved, but did find that portions of the network file server “were potentially briefly accessible to the unauthorized actors.” The potentially accessible folders included one containing W-2 forms, W-9 forms, and other tax documents that contained names and Social Security Numbers of employees.

ICYMI: The ‘Diversity Hire’ podcast talks about racism in media

Ron DeSantis’s narrative whiplash

Columbia Journalism Review - April 7, 2021 - 7:30am

On Sunday, 60 Minutes, on CBS, aired a segment examining “how the wealthy cut the line during Florida’s frenzied vaccine rollout,” and the “corruption allegations clouding” the effort. At one point, reporter Sharyn Alfonsi brought up a vaccination partnership between the state and Publix, a chain of grocery stores that, in Palm Beach County, at least, has steered doses away from public-health bodies, disadvantaging poorer residents of color, in particular. Asking why Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, chose to partner with Publix, Alfonsi noted that in the weeks before the deal was announced, the company gave a hundred thousand dollars to DeSantis’s political action committee, and that figures connected to the company have donated to the PAC in the past. DeSantis declined to be interviewed, but Alfonsi was able to confront him at a press availability near Orlando. “How is that not pay to play?” she asked. DeSantis replied that she was pushing “a fake narrative”; after some back and forth, he told her, “you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” and pivoted to a different reporter.

The segment has since blown up, and not in a way that has been very positive for 60 Minutes. Conservative critics accused the show of deceptive editing and of pushing a baseless conspiracy; Publix, which declined to comment to Alfonsi, called the suggestion of pay for play “absolutely false and offensive.” So far, so unsurprising—but a pair of prominent Florida Democrats soon added their voices to the criticism: Jared Moskowitz, the director of the state’s Division of Emergency Management, said it was “malarkey” to suggest that DeSantis had recommended the Publix partnership; then, Dave Kerner, the mayor of Palm Beach County, went even further, accusing CBS of spreading “intentionally false” information. In a pair of statements, CBS defended its editing and reporting practices, and noted that Moskowitz had declined to be interviewed on camera. Yesterday, Moskowitz retorted that he told 60 Minutes that the Publix story was “bullshit,” adding, “the fact that I didn’t sit down on ‘camera’ because I am responding to a hundred year emergency doesn’t change the truth.”

Related: How the culture war is impeding necessary scrutiny of ‘vaccine passports’

The rare prospect of bipartisan media censure piqued the interest of national outlets. But the reality is more complicated. Melissa McKinlay—a Palm Beach County commissioner who represents a low-income area featured by 60 Minutes, and spoke to the program—furiously attacked both DeSantis and Kerner for inaccuracies in their claims. (She later buried the hatchet with Kerner.) The Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown pointed out—in response to a tweet by Megyn Kelly—that Palm Beach politics “has zero to do with Dems vs. Republicans,” but is rather about power and money. DeSantis, meanwhile, has used the episode to slam not only CBS, but the press as a whole. Appearing on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show on Monday, he accused 60 Minutes of “reckless disregard for the truth.” Yesterday, he said at a press conference that while “the corporate media thinks they can run over people, you ain’t running over this governor. I’m punching back.” He added, menacingly, that “this is not over by any stretch of the imagination.”

It’s not just 60 Minutes; throughout the pandemic, the national media conversation around DeSantis’s performance has see-sawed between competing extremes. Last May, after early predictions that COVID would hammer Florida—nourished, in no small part, by DeSantis’s many similarities to Trump—did not appear to materialize, Politico took aim at the national press and DeSantis’s “sky-is-falling” critics. “The national news media is mostly based in New York and loves to love its Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, about as much as it loves to hate on” DeSantis, Marc Caputo and Renuka Rayasam wrote. “Maybe things would be different if DeSantis had a brother who worked in cable news and interviewed him for a ‘sweet moment’ in primetime.” Florida was subsequently hit hard by COVID, but last month, with confirmed case rates down again, DeSantis won similar headlines: Politico declared that he has “won the pandemic”; CNN’s Jeff Zeleny noted that “Florida is not only back in business, it’s been in business—and the governor’s gamble to take a laissez-faire approach to coronavirus appears to be paying off, at least politically, at least for now.” Other outlets, by contrast, have continued to cover him as a reckless, swampy Trump wannabe. Which brings us back to Sunday.

Again, the truth here is messier than caricature—as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson put it last week, “Florida is where national narratives go to die.” DeSantis may have eschewed measures like mask mandates—but local officials in many densely-populated areas did not. “Florida’s COVID-19 saga is a story about local officials and regular people working in the absence of any guidance or common sense from the state,” Nate Monroe, a columnist at the Florida Times-Union, argued recently. “To the extent there were any successes in Florida, they belong to locals. Or to plain dumb luck.” Comparing the public-health and economic performances of different states is tricky; to the extent that it’s possible, Florida is hardly a standout performer. And, crucially, there’s a lot we still don’t know about DeSantis’s handling of the pandemic. Early on, inadequate testing made it hard to track viral spread; when the Miami Herald moved to sue for data about nursing homes, the state not only refused, but pressured the paper’s lawyers into dropping the case. (The Herald eventually won.) Around the same time, state attorneys blocked officials in Miami-Dade County from providing the Herald with death records, and agencies declined to acknowledge prison deaths and a testing backlog. Recently, more than two dozen researchers, journalists, and lawmakers told Mary Ellen Klas—a Herald reporter who was once barred from a DeSantis briefing after she raised social-distancing concerns—that officials have been reluctant to share data that “contradicts the governor’s upbeat narrative.”

We do know, thanks in no small part to dogged local journalism, that Florida’s vaccine rollout has so far faced real equity issues, whatever the truth behind the Publix partnership. Dan DeLuca, of the Fort Myers News-Press, reported recently that in the early stages of the rollout, the state vaccinated wealthy seniors at higher rates than less wealthy ones, and allotted more doses to counties with higher average incomes; Zac Anderson and Josh Salman, of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, meanwhile, reported on ethical concerns around pop-up vaccination clinics at golf, yacht, and country clubs. There have been oversight concerns around Publix, too. Early last month, Sarah Blaskey and Ben Conarck, of the Herald, and Allison Ross, of the Tampa Bay Times, found that state officials shipped seventy thousand doses to Publix’s distribution center without any idea as to how the company would subsequently allocate them.

Ultimately, scrutiny of DeSantis and Florida’s vaccine rollout needn’t rest solely on allegations of pay for play—a fact that has gotten a bit lost in the national fallout from 60 Minutes. Following the money is a hallowed tenet of American journalism; following the lack of it, less so. Not as hallowed, but still a tenet, is covering leaders’ political momentum in ways that can obscure their records. That’s a bipartisan truth, as coverage of Cuomo has proved, but in DeSantis’s case, the stakes are particularly high—not just because Florida is home to tens of millions of people, but because DeSantis is clearly eyeing a national political career. It’s too early to cover 2024. But presidential bids, as we know all too well, often build on insufficiently critical early national attention.

Below, more on Florida:

  • Average devastation”: Recently, the press critic Eric Boehlert took aim at positive coverage of DeSantis’s performance. “Despite thirty-two-thousand COVID deaths in the state, as well as a mediocre at best vaccination rollout, journalists are lining up to do the Republican’s bidding,” he wrote, highlighting “the absurd (nonexistent?) standard the Beltway press often uses for grading Republican politicians.” Borrowing a line from Monroe’s column—that Florida has had “average devastation”—Boehlert concludes that “for the Beltway press, average devastation now counts as a Republican win.”
  • Piney Point: Recently, a leak was reported at a reservoir holding wastewater from an old phosphate plant in Piney Point, Florida, near Tampa, posing a catastrophic flooding risk; officials have since worked to drain water into a retention pond, and yesterday lifted a local evacuation order, though environmental risks remain. Marc R. Masferrer, the editor of the nearby Bradenton Herald, noted on Twitter that the paper has been covering the plant for the sixteen years he’s been there, while in the same period of time, “governments, politicos, and the owners of the site have failed to reach a solution to prevent what is happening right now.”
  • Gaetzkeepers: Since taking his seat in the House of Representatives, in 2017, the pro-Trump Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz has clocked nearly fifty hours of airtime on Fox. Last Tuesday, he appeared there again after the New York Times reported that he is the subject of a federal underage sex-trafficking investigation—but since then, according to Rob Savillo, of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, the network has only devoted forty-five minutes of airtime to the story. In the same period, Fox has spent an hour and a half talking about the Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (I wrote about Gaetz and right-wing media on Monday.)
  • Trump, Bump: The Washington Post’s Philip Bump makes the case that “Trump’s grip on our attention has collapsed” to levels not seen since he launched his presidential bid—as of last month, “his Google search interest was lower than at any point since June 2015, as was the amount of time he was seen on cable,” with the networks now covering him far less, as well. (He remains interesting enough for Politico to publish an “obsessive, inch-by-inch” annotation of the first public photo of his new Florida office.)


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: The ‘Diversity Hire’ podcast talks about racism in media

How the culture war is impeding necessary scrutiny of ‘vaccine passports’

Columbia Journalism Review - April 6, 2021 - 7:32am

On Saturday, the US administered more than four million coronavirus vaccine doses, a new one-day record. Last week, Washington, DC, opened vaccination to journalists who can’t work from home; according to occupational data that city officials accidentally posted online, nearly fifteen hundred DC media workers had already been vaccinated by March 23. Despite a push from some officials, New York declined to provide journalists, as a group, with early vaccine access, but starting today, every adult in the state is eligible for their doses anyway. (One hospital system in New York City has reportedly reserved shots for employees at Bloomberg.) Yesterday, ESPN opened a drive-thru vaccine site on its campus in Bristol, Connecticut, in partnership with local health providers. With vaccinations accelerating, many people—and the press in general—have started paying more attention to exactly when, and how, life will return to something approaching normality. One idea we’re starting to hear more about is that of the “vaccine passport” (or “certificate” or “credential”)—a broad term for various plans that would require vaccinated people to show proof of protection in various settings. These are mostly hypothetical, but New York has already launched a digital “Excelsior Pass” for entry to some businesses.

In recent days, right-wingers—in politics and the media—have slammed vaccine passports as a new form of liberal tyranny. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, signed an executive order banning their use in the state; other Republicans have accused Democrats of a “double standard,” since they oppose voter-ID laws. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson called the idea “Orwellian”; on a different show, his colleague Steve Hilton echoed that sentiment, wagged his finger three times (“No. No. No.”), then invited on the writer Naomi Wolf, who called vaccine passport plans “literally the end of human liberty in the West.” Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a North Carolina Congressman, told Fox that “proposals like these smack of 1940s Nazi Germany”; in an op-ed for The Hill, Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, called them “vaccine fascism.” Not to be outdone, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia (and QAnon infamy), took to Facebook and asked whether vaccine passports are “something like Biden’s mark of the Beast?”

ICYMI: Conversations with Friends

As Hilton might put it, “No. No. No.” The Biden administration is coordinating various vaccine passport initiatives, but officials have said repeatedly that the private sector is in the driving seat, and that there will be no federal mandate ordering the use of  a uniform credential. Various liberal commentators have pointed this out, and otherwise moved to smack down the right-wing hysteria; as Matt Gertz, of the watchdog group Media Matters for America, put it last week, “with vaccine passport discussions at an early stage, Republicans and GOP propagandists at Fox and elsewhere in the right-wing media have simply made up the most repressive viewpoint possible and attributed it to the Democratic Party at large.” Other commentators have pointed to (in their view) successful precedent for vaccine passports, noting that similar documentation is already required, in many places, of young children and international travelers. Jordan A. Taylor, a historian at Smith College, in Massachusetts, wrote for Time that US border officials once demanded smallpox vaccine certification, or, failing that, “a properly scarred arm, or a pitted face.” On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough slammed the “anti-science idiocy” of vaccine—and passport—skeptics. “The government, our sports teams, our concert promoters,” he said, “damn well better put together something where you can show your vaccine receipt.”

Much coverage of these arguments has cast vaccine passports as the hot new trend in the wider COVID “culture war.” (The mask wars are so 2020.) As I’ve written before, such framing, while fundamentally accurate, has routinely and frustratingly impeded proper coverage of the pandemic—obliterating nuance, and calcifying the inherent messiness of scientific discovery into patterns of false certainty and entrenched partisan bipolarity, in which conservatives typically attack “the science” and liberals typically defend it. One of these stances, clearly, is better than the other. But there has never been such a thing as “the science,” singular. Vaccine passports, too, pose a web of epidemiological and technological questions that, as yet, lack clear answers.

There’s a much deeper messiness here as well: unlike, say, uncertainty around mechanisms of viral transmission (where the truth exists, even if we haven’t fully found it yet), vaccine passports engage crucial questions of social science that are fundamentally subjective, and highly political. It’s ridiculous to cite Orwell and Nazi Germany, but vaccine passports do indeed pose a privacy risk. An even bigger risk, perhaps, is equity—regulating access to previously routine social settings based on vaccinations poses inherent ethical questions, and that’s before we even consider how vaccine access and takeup tracks with broader societal patterns of racism and marginalization. (Not everyone who refuses—or can’t get—a vaccine is an “anti-science idiot.”) Some sharp coverage and scholarship—from as far back as a year ago and as recently as last week—has started to grapple with these concerns, but other coverage has referred only in passing to legitimate concerns while ridiculing the hyperbole of the Greenes and Cawthorns of the world. In doing so, it has glossed over key problems—the questionable assumption that restrictions on liberty begin and end with federal mandates; the fact that vaccine passports for mass events are not the same as passports for grocery stores are not the same as passports for international travel, and so on—and, in some cases, even slipped into uncritical support. Many outlets haven’t prominently interrogated vaccine passports much at all.

The debate about vaccine passports, of course, is not limited to the US. Israel has them already; the European Union has outlined tentative plans, as has the UK, where the idea is currently at the heart of a contentious national debate. (Ministers previously said they wouldn’t be introducing vaccine passports; they will now test them at mass events.) As in the US, hardcore conservatives and lockdown skeptics have vocally opposed the introduction of vaccine passports, but so, too, have politicians and commentators on the left and in the liberal center. Yesterday, Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, convened a press conference to discuss a range of COVID updates but faced a barrage of questions about vaccine passports, including from Beth Rigby, of Sky News, who asked (as a journalist, not a rabid right-wing opinionator), whether long-term certification is “your vision now for what freedom looks like for all of us.”

Britain is hardly an exemplar of healthy public discourse—but, despite some recent claims to the contrary, its every debate of consequence is not forced through a single limiting cultural prism. Whatever your view on vaccine passports, they will have profound consequences for everyday life; these might well be short-term, but the end of the pandemic is impossible to foresee with any certainty, and restrictions on civil liberties that have followed past crises have often proven hard to roll back. There’s a risk, at the moment, of missing the forest for the right-wing trees. Sometimes, the best way to reclaim power from bad-faith trolls is to ignore them, and resist their efforts to short-circuit good-faith debate. The media can play a central role in that. As more and more people get vaccinated, we should start by remembering the rights of those who haven’t been.

Below, more on vaccines:

  • A critical perspective: Last week, Jay Stanley, of the American Civil Liberties Union, warned that “there’s a lot that can go wrong with vaccine passports.” Stanley argues that any system should not be exclusively digital, given that many people, especially in vulnerable groups, lack smartphone access; should be “decentralized and open source,” giving individuals “control of their credentials and identity data”; and should not allow for data tracking. “We don’t oppose in principle the idea of requiring proof of vaccination in certain contexts,” he concludes. “But given the enormous difficulty of creating a digital passport system, and the compromises and failures that are likely to happen along the way, we are wary about the side effects and long-term consequences it could have.”
  • Vaccine hesitancy: According to Allan Smith, of NBC News, some public-health and communications experts fear that the “politicization” of vaccine passports by prominent figures on the right could exacerbate vaccine hesitancy among conservatives. “The idea of a vaccine passport has become politicized quickly,” Brian Castrucci, an epidemiologist, told Smith, “making it a wedge separating people rather than a bridge to our goal of increasing vaccination.” Some Trump voters in a focus group that the pollster Frank Luntz convened recently expressed such concerns, though the feeling was not universal.
  • Meanwhile, at Fox: Last week, CNN’s Oliver Darcy pointed out that while Fox personalities have decried vaccine passports on air, the network is requiring audience members for a new show hosted by Greg Gutfeld to take a COVID test, pass an online health screening, and bring documentation to the door. “Hypocritical much?” Darcy asked. Gertz, of Media Matters, wrote late last week that Fox “routinely attacks pandemic health measures while implementing them for its own staff.”
  • Publix interest: On Sunday, 60 Minutes pointed to a recent donation that Publix, a supermarket chain, made to DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, and suggested a possible link with Florida’s decision to partner with Publix on vaccine distribution. Two senior Democrats in the state have since pushed back on the show’s characterization: Jason Moskowitz, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, called the suggestion of a conflict of interest “absolute malarkey,” and Dave Kerner, the mayor of Palm Beach County, accused 60 Minutes of “intentionally false” reporting. DeSantis and Publix have pushed back, too; CNN’s Darcy has more.


Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Taylor Moore profiles the Empowerment Avenue Writer’s Cohort, a program in which journalists help incarcerated writers with ideas, drafts, placing stories in publications, and logistical issues including payment. And Kevin D. Sawyer, who pitched CJR via the program from San Quentin State Prison, in California, writes about his experience and perspective as an incarcerated writer. “Unlike freelance journalists and those who work for mainstream and corporate publications, we who are imprisoned get to bite the hand that feeds us,” Sawyer writes. “And we never miss a meal.”
  • NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny profiles The News Alerts of Beaver County, a Facebook group that plays a crucial—yet fraught—informational role in a Pennsylvania news desert. The group “isn’t home base for a gun-wielding militia, and it isn’t a QAnon fever swamp,” she writes, but the junk that’s often found there is “in some ways more insidious, because it’s more likely to be trusted. The misinformation—shared in good faith by neighbors, sandwiched between legitimate local happenings and overseen by a community member with no training but good intentions—is still capable of tearing a community apart.”
  • For FiveThirtyEight, Meredith Conroy explores how distrust of the media among Republican voters went from being “an attitude about the institution itself to a credential of conservatism.” Such distrust “is more central to conservatives’ group identity than it was before Trump,” Conroy writes. Taeku Lee, a political scientist at UC Berkeley, told Conroy that signaling mistrust is now “much the same as wearing a red MAGA cap.”
  • HuffPost’s Kevin Robillard, Amanda Terkel, and Dave Jamieson profile Jay Carney, a former journalist, Biden spokesperson, and White House press secretary who now runs comms for Amazon and has recently led the company’s “increasingly defensive” pushback against its critics, amid a union drive by Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama. Biden and other senior Democrats have supported the unionizing workers.
  • Frank Bruni is stepping down as an opinion columnist at the Times to take a position at Duke University. He will continue to write a newsletter and contribute opinion pieces to the paper. In other Times news, the paper named Jim Dao as its new metro editor, replacing Cliff Levy, who was promoted in January. Dao served as op-ed editor until last year, when he was reassigned to the newsroom amid the Tom Cotton op-ed controversy.
  • Politico’s Tina Nguyen interviewed Andrew Yang, who is running for mayor of New York, about his experience as an Asian American man. He reflected, at one point, on coverage of his presidential bid, in 2019. “I thought that there would be some media organizations that were at least somewhat excited at the prospect of there being an Asian American presidential candidate in the modern era,” Yang said. “And that almost never occurred.”
  • CJR’s Camille Bromley profiles Diversity Hire, a podcast founded last year by Kevin Lozano, who works at The Nation, and Arjun Ram Srivatsa, who works at Condé Nast, that dissects racism in the media industry. “Lozano and Srivatsa resist formalities and buzzwords in favor of meandering conversations,” Bromley writes, “capturing what it’s like to work in journalism far more truthfully than any demographic review.”
  • Tauhid Chappell, a former Philadelphia Inquirer staffer who now works for the media-policy group Free Press, will write an occasional column for Generocity, a “social impact” news group in Philadelphia. Chappell will use the column to “revitalize the role and mission of the public editor” by examining how “media organizations in Philadelphia transform themselves into entities that address their internal and external racism.”
  • And editors at New York magazine, in partnership with New York Forever, are selling collections of cookies from across the city to raise money for restaurant workers. “Gathering together the city’s best cookies is something New York’s food editors do rather frequently,” Alexis Swerdloff, the magazine’s deputy editor, said. “But literally gathering them together is a new and exciting proposition for us.”

ICYMI: John Boehner, Matt Gaetz, and government by right-wing media

John Boehner, Matt Gaetz, and government by right-wing media

Columbia Journalism Review - April 5, 2021 - 7:13am

On Friday, Politico published an excerpt from On the House, a forthcoming memoir by John Boehner, the Republican former House speaker, that, in Politico’s words, is the story of “how America’s center-right party started to lose its mind, as told by the man who tried to keep it sane.” The excerpt made quite a splash. Politico’s Playbook team called it “juicy,” and noted that the book’s cover—which shows a crisply-suited Boehner with a goblet of red wine in his hand and tendrils of cigarette smoke wafting up from an ashtray to his left—is “very Don Draper.” Journalists admired the tightness of Boehner’s lede: “You could be a total moron and get elected just by having an R next to your name—and [in 2010], by the way, we did pick up a fair number in that category.” Jonathan Swan, of Axios, reported that in “wine-soaked” recording sessions for his audiobook, Boehner went off-script to “insert random violent attacks on Ted Cruz”; by way of receipts, Swan tweeted a clip of Boehner waxing lyrical about freedom, then telling Cruz to “go fuck yourself.” The clip was replayed on TV, under bleeps of various lengths.

Boehner sees right-wing media as a key factor in his party’s mind loss, and it’s a central theme of the Politico excerpt. “When I was first elected to Congress, we didn’t have any propaganda organization for conservatives, except maybe a magazine or two like National Review,” he writes. “There was no Drudge Report. No Breitbart. No kooks on YouTube spreading dangerous nonsense like they did every day about Obama.” This started to change, in Boehner’s conception, when Mark Levin started spouting such “crazy nonsense” on the radio, scoring ratings and eventually dragging Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh “to Looneyville” along with Boehner’s “longtime friend” Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News who, Boehner writes, “got swept into the conspiracies and the paranoia and became an almost unrecognizable figure.” (Fox’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, by contrast, was “a businessman, pure and simple,” who didn’t appear to entertain the conspiracies but “clearly didn’t have a problem with them if they helped ratings.”) Boehner accuses Republicans elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 of aiming not to govern, but to get on Fox, and accuses Fox, in turn, of “creating the wrong incentives” by “making people who used to be fringe characters into powerful media stars.” An early “prototype out of their laboratory,” Boehner writes, was then-Rep. Michele Bachmann, who once said she’d squeal to Hannity if Boehner denied her a post on the House Ways and Means Committee.

New from CJR: ‘All I need is a pen, paper and the First Amendment’

Since the excerpt appeared, some commentators have drawn a straight line from Boehner’s warnings to another Republican lawmaker who is in the news at the moment: Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Trump ally who represents a district in Florida. “The widening Matt Gaetz scandal,” CNN’s Brian Stelter said, “is proving John Boehner right.” The specifics of that scandal—which involve allegations of underage sex, sex trafficking, and drug use against Gaetz; allegations of extortion made by Gaetz against others; and a Justice Department probe—are too mind-bending to explain here. (Gaetz, amid many weird statements to journalists, has denied wrongdoing.)

But Gaetz is practically a textbook Boehnerian example of a relatively junior GOP lawmaker riding conservative media attention to stardom. The Washington Post found recently that Gaetz has clocked nearly fifty hours of airtime on Fox since he was elected to Congress, in 2017, amid many appearances on other right-wing platforms, including the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s radio show. In July, Politico reported that Gaetz installed a TV studio at his father’s home, with taxpayers footing the bill for the camera. “If you aren’t making news, you aren’t governing,” he wrote, in a book that came out last year. “The hairdressers and makeup ladies and cameramen pick our presidents. As well they should. They are closer to the viewers and therefore the voters.” The first day of the Gaetz scandal, last Tuesday, began with Axios reporting that he was considering quitting Congress to take a job at Newsmax, and ended with a Fox hit that his interlocutor, Tucker Carlson, described as “one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted.”

Happily for Boehner, he and Gaetz are, indeed, very different creatures. But they aren’t, as some coverage has implied, at opposite poles of a sane-crazy continuum. Progressive critics have pointed out that Boehner failed, at minimum, to rein in the Gaetzes of the world when he was speaker. “Boehner’s I-Was-Just-a-Feather-in-the-Gales-of-Crazy act gets a little wearisome for those of us who lived through it,” Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce wrote Friday. “If there’s any evidence that John Boehner tried to arrest the prion disease before it took over his caucus, and then his entire political party, it was not evident in his performance as Speaker.” On MSNBC, Mehdi Hasan accused Boehner of trying to ride the Tea Party wave for political advantage. “The reason we are where we are today is because these ‘old school Republicans’ didn’t stand up to the crazies,” Hasan said. “Now the crazies are ascendant, and John Boehner wants to be celebrated for calling them crazy. For now finally calling it like it is. Well—too little, too late.”

Nor was Boehner quite a helpless victim of right-wing media culture. He has complained of partisan “echo chambers” while also touting his longstanding relationships with Ailes, Hannity, and other flamethrowers who may have moved farther to “the dark side,” but were hardly Jedi Knights to begin with. In his book excerpt, Boehner recalls meeting with Ailes “to plead with him to put a leash on some of the crazies he was putting on the air.” According to a prior account of the meeting, in Tim Alberta’s book American Carnage, Boehner’s pleading came with a “sweetener”—advance knowledge of the Congressional probe he would shortly be launching to investigate the 2012 attacks on the US compound in Benghazi, Libya, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of them. Benghazi, of course, has long been a Fox obsession; Trey Gowdy, the then-Republican Congressman who headed the probe, has since become a contributor and host on the network. Boehner recalls phoning Hannity in 2015 and questioning his coverage—not, apparently, by citing moral objections, but to find out “why he kept bashing House Republicans when we were actually trying to stand up to Obama.” When Bachmann demanded a plum post on Ways and Means under threat of right-wing media reprisals, Boehner said no. He helped find her a seat on the House Intelligence Committee instead.

It’s worth noting, too, that Boehner is no stranger to cultivating an image in the media. This isn’t the first time he’s spoken out since quitting Congress; he was candid, too, in a 2017 Politico profile that was written by Alberta and littered with photos of Boehner golfing, playing with his lawnmower at home, and lying back in an armchair, cigarette in hand. The cover of his new book evokes the pleasures of retirement, too, as well as a certain nostalgia for country-club Republicanism and deals cut in (literally) smoke-filled rooms—a nostalgia to which many journalists and pundits have proven themselves susceptible. Some recent coverage of Boehner (including Alberta’s) has been insightful, to be sure. But we should be careful not to put Boehner in the past tense and Gaetz in the present, with a bright dividing line in between. And we should avoid saying that Boehner is only now “free to speak his mind.” Powerful people always are.

Below, more on the right:

  • “Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad”: After the New York Times first reported on the investigation targeting him last week, Gaetz went on a media blitz, confirming the probe and airing his counterclaims of extortion. This wasn’t unusual for Gaetz—but the subjects of federal investigations don’t typically comment before charges are filed, and legal experts told Bart Jansen and Kevin Johnson, of USA Today, that Gaetz may have complicated matters for himself by speaking out now. “It’s very dangerous because it paints him into a particular story, which later facts may show he’s not telling the truth about,” Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor, said. “It’s a bad, bad, bad, bad, bad idea legally.”
  • Riggle room: Jeremy W. Peters, of the Times, profiles Denver Riggleman, a former Republican Congressman who lost his seat last year, and is now trying to combat the disinformation and conspiracies gripping his party. “The undoing of Mr. Riggleman—and now his unlikely crusade—is revealing about a dimension of conservative politics today,” Peters writes. “The fight against radicalism within the GOP is a deeply lonely one, waged mostly by Republicans like him who are no longer in office, and by the small handful of elected officials who have decided that they are willing to speak up even if it means that they, too, could be headed for an early retirement.”
  • Another new memoir: Hunter Biden, son of Joe, is also out with a memoir—and according to Maureen Dowd, of the Times, its opening scene features Gaetz trashing Hunter’s struggles with drug addiction on TV. Hunter uses the book to address problems in his personal life, and also his central place in right-wing media campaigns targeting his father. Today, Hunter is being interviewed by Anthony Mason, on CBS This Morning.
  • Meanwhile, at Fox: In his column for the Times, Ben Smith profiles Viet Dinh, who he calls “the lawyer behind the throne” at Fox. “Two former Fox employees and one current and one former Fox News employee familiar with his role painted him as the omnipresent and decisive right hand of a chief executive [Lachlan Murdoch] who is not particularly hands-on,” Smith writes. “While Mr. Dinh is not running day-to-day programming, he manages the political operation of a company that is the central pillar of Republican politics, and he’s a key voice on corporate strategy.” (Dinh has previously denied that he is anything more than an in-house counsel at Fox.)


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: A traumatic news cycle for journalists and audiences

‘All I need is a pen, paper and the First Amendment’

Columbia Journalism Review - April 5, 2021 - 5:55am
During the covid-19 pandemic, CJR received a submission, via the Empowerment Avenue Writer’s Cohort, from an incarcerated writer, Kevin D. Sawyer, who explained what it’s like to be a journalist in San Quentin State Prison, in Northern California. We felt it needed no editing, and that even the means of submission—typewritten, with corrections by hand—helped […]

With Nicaragua, Scary Covid Projections Are More Newsworthy Than Hopeful Results

FAIR - April 2, 2021 - 4:06pm

 

One year ago, as both the Trump administration in the US and the Johnson government in the UK responded fitfully to the growing pandemic, the international media were looking for whipping boys: other countries whose response to the virus was even worse.

There were some cases of obvious neglect—Brazil was and is a prime example (FAIR.org, 4/12/20). But the press also turned on Nicaragua, repeating allegations from local opposition groups that the Sandinista government was in denial about the dangers, and that the country was poised on the edge of disaster.

When, as the death toll in other countries grew alarmingly, Nicaragua “flattened the curve” of virus cases more quickly than its neighbors, its apparent success was ignored. Despite the importance of identifying how poorer countries can contain the virus effectively, measures used by Nicaragua remain uninvestigated by the international media. Why did this come about?

The Guardian (4/8/20) cited what it described as “wild speculation” and a “conspiratorial article” about President Daniel Ortega’s lack of public appearances.

The media’s feeding frenzy on the Sandinista government began with the BBC. Last April, BBC World (4/4/20) claimed that President Daniel Ortega’s government had taken “no measures at all” in the face of the virus threat. It invented a media trope: Ortega’s “long absence” from public view. (He’d not appeared in person or on TV for three weeks, something not at all unusual.)

Two days later, the New York Times (4/6/20) was asking, “Where Is Daniel Ortega?,” adding that his government had been “widely criticized for its cavalier approach,” and that the public “is deeply dubious about government claims.” The Guardian (4/8/20) joined the chorus that same week, claiming that Ortega was “nowhere to be seen,” adding four days later that the “authoritarian” Ortega was one of four world leaders in denial about the virus. According to the Washington Post (4/13/20), Ortega had “vanished,” leaving a government operating a “laissez-faire approach” to the pandemic.

Not only the headlines but the substance of the stories had many similarities. A government quote (often from Vice President Rosario Murillo) was parenthesized by statements from opposition groups, or by what appeared to be independent medical bodies, such as the Committee of Multidisciplinary Scientists and the Citizens’ Observatory for Covid-19, both of which were openly supported by the opposition.

Juan Sebastián Chamorro, an opposition leader with the same excellent connections to the international media as other Chamorro family members, is the “go to” opposition voice, while frequently quoted sources are Chamorro-owned newspaper La Prensa and opposition-supporting news website Confidencial, run by Carlos F. Chamorro. (Both of these outlets and the website 100% Noticias, also strongly critical of the government, have received regular financial support from the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, which has benefited from $4.6 million in USAID funding in the past three years.)

The international media even use reporters with close ties to the opposition. For example, the Guardian describes the Managua-based writer of its Covid-19 stories, Wilfredo Miranda, as “freelance,” but at the time he was writing regularly for Confidencial. The Guardian has a track record of using opposition-aligned journalists: In 2018, along with the Washington Post and BBC, it ran stories by Carl David Goette-Luciak, who was shown by Max Blumenthal (Canary, 9/28/18) to be working with anti-Sandinista groups. (Blumenthal’s report led to open conflict between the Canary website and the Guardian.)

Similarly, the BBC’s report on April 4 was from Dora Luz Romero, head of digital information at right-wing La Prensa, and the first quote in her story was from that newspaper’s editor-in-chief. The Managua correspondent for the New York Times, Alfonso Flores Bermúdez, makes his political sympathies clear in his Twitter feed (for example, referring to those found guilty of armed attacks in the 2018 coup attempt as political prisoners).

The pandemic confirmed trends which have been growing anyway: that it is convenient and cheaper to use local journalists, even if they are uncommitted to balanced reporting, and to give voice to opposition figures who are readily available with quotable comments, often in fluent English. In part this is because government officials are reluctant to engage with the media—a stance which can be criticized, but is a response to the derisive way their comments are treated (coverage of Ortega’s “disappearance” providing some prime examples).

In Covid denial?

The New York Times (5/31/20) reported that “the signs are everywhere that the coronavirus is raging across Nicaragua.”

There were two main threads to the adverse media coverage in mid-2020. The first was that the Nicaraguan government was in denial about the pandemic, and either unprepared or unwilling to take the necessary steps to combat it. An article I wrote for COHA (5/30/20) last year responded to these criticisms: While the Nicaraguan government rejected the use of lockdowns as impractical in a country where most people survive on what they earn each day, and few can work without leaving home, in other respects its response to the pandemic was ahead of other countries.

Nicaragua announced its strategy much earlier (in late January, when most Western countries were still dismissing the likelihood of a pandemic); it prepared wards in 18 hospitals to receive Covid patients, and reserved one hospital solely for this purpose; it put health checks in place at points of entry to the country with mandatory quarantines, and it began a program to combat misinformation being purveyed via social media (several rounds of house-to-house visits, a free phone line, streetside clinics and more).

The measures were taken in consultation with experts in Asian countries already dealing with the crisis, such as Taiwan and South Korea, with which Nicaragua has strong links. Yet even when the government published a “white paper” (5/25/20) setting out its strategy in detail (in English as well as Spanish), it was ignored or discounted as inadequate by international media. The Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia (5/27/20), for example, dismissed it as promoting “herd immunity” when this term did not appear in the document.

If reporters had done some elementary research, they might have discovered that the plans had substance: More than one-fifth of Nicaraguan government spending goes to the public health service; it has built 19 new hospitals in 13 years, and has six more under construction. Nicaragua now has more hospital beds (1.8 per 1,000 population) than richer countries such as Mexico (1.5) and Colombia (1.7).

The second thread of criticism was that, as a result of government neglect, Covid-19 would run rampant. A huge caseload was forecast, clandestine burials were taking place, and ill-prepared health services were on the point of collapse. The BBC’s second report (5/4/20) on Nicaragua, also by Dora Luz Romero, included a prediction by a local NGO called FUNIDES that by June, there would be at least 120,000 virus cases and 650 deaths. (FUNIDES receives US government money from the National Endowment for Democracy.)

The New York Times (5/31/20) called Nicaragua “a place of midnight burials,” without noting the opposition’s practice of creating fake news items with which to confuse people. For example, Nicaraguan residents (like me) could follow pickup trucks loaded with coffins as they made meandering journeys through city streets, in blatant attempts to create panic.

The medical journal the Lancet (4/6/20) carried a report in April from 13 doctors, none based in Nicaragua, claiming that “the fragile public health infrastructure could collapse.” This was regularly cited by the general media, ignoring a response in the same journal (4/30/20) from this writer that rebutted the arguments.

Pessimists off the mark

Were the pessimists correct? No, they were widely off the mark. It is just one year since Nicaragua’s first official Covid-19 case, identified on March 18, 2020. Since then, official figures report 6,629 cases in total, whereas the unofficial Citizens’ Observatory reports double this number, 13,278. The higher figure is based on “suspected” (not tested) cases, and according to the observatory website includes “rumors” as one source of information. But even the higher figure is dramatically lower than those for adjoining countries, as this chart shows.

Covid-19 Cases and Deaths per Million in Mexico and Central America
Source: Author calculations based on data from MINSA Nicaragua and Citizens’ Observatory for Covid-19 (3/29/21).

If deaths are counted rather than numbers of cases, Nicaragua’s official figure (26 per million inhabitants) is similarly low. The observatory’s figure for “suspicious” deaths is considerably higher (450 per million), but this includes reported pneumonia cases. In the event that these are all actually Covid cases, this would still be less than half the current Latin American average of 1,174, by official tallies. (It should be kept in mind that in most countries, the official count of Covid deaths is considerably less than the overall increase in mortality during the pandemic; if there are more deaths associated with Covid in Nicaragua than are officially tabulated, that would make the country the norm rather than the exception.)

But the statistics are not the real story. The untold and more significant one in terms of learning from the pandemic is that Nicaragua’s peak of cases and deaths was very short. Essentially it lasted for two months, from mid-May until mid-July. Half the official total cases in the past year occurred in these two months, and since then the daily total has been consistently low. (On no occasion since July has the observatory’s unofficial figure of “suspicious” cases exceeded 100 daily.)

The trend could be confirmed by talking to people working in the health service, as I did on various occasions. In late June, an epidemiologist monitoring the situation nationally told me that hospitals were reporting that the peak had passed. In July, I checked with a local hospital that was dealing with virus cases: Its intensive care unit still had Covid patients, two on ventilators, but wasn’t full. In August, the same hospital recognized the efforts of all the staff—doctors and nurses, porters and cleaners—in a moving ceremony to mark the end of the crisis, attended by many of the patients who had recovered, and who expressed their thanks for the attention they had received.

This achievement in turning the pandemic into what was, effectively, a short, sharp shock, came despite Nicaragua having no lockdowns. Adjoining countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica had strict lockdowns, yet had many more cases. In Costa Rica, there was a prolonged peak from September until January, an experience directly opposite to Nicaragua’s. Honduras continues to have a high incidence of the virus, with hospitals at the point of collapse even in 2021.

All the neighboring countries used the pandemic to become more authoritarian, provoking demonstrations often violently repressed by the police; Nicaragua’s measures were all advisory, not compulsory. Nevertheless, it was Nicaragua which was listed by the New York Times (7/29/20) as one of five Latin American countries where democracy “declined” during the pandemic.

What led to Nicaragua’s relative success during a period when the pandemic was rampant in neighboring countries? At this stage, no scientific study appears to have been undertaken, so any observations are speculative. One factor seems to be the relative absence of viral transmission by travelers from abroad, since (after the violent coup attempt in 2018) there were few tourists in early 2020 to bring the virus into the country. Health checks at border crossings were introduced and, together with quarantining of new arrivals, appear to have been very effective.

House-to-house visits by “health brigades,” approaching 5 million in number, served to raise awareness and combat fake news. Nicaragua’s 37,000 health personnel were all trained in handling Covid-19 at an early stage, and have long experience of controlling other viral epidemics. However, the true factors behind Nicaragua’s “flattening of the curve” of Covid cases after a short peak clearly warrant much fuller investigation.

Unrecognized success

In September, I wrote in Popular Resistance (9/22/20) that

it can only be a matter of time before Nicaragua’s effective response to the pandemic is recognized by the corporate media, especially as it is in such contrast to the experience of most other Latin American countries, and of course that of the US and the UK.

Six months later, there is still no sign of this happening. At the beginning of this year, the Wall Street Journal (1/1/21) listed eight countries which handled Covid well; Time (2/25/20) ran a piece listing 11 countries with the “best global responses” to Covid. Neither included Nicaragua.

The Washington Post (8/8/20) attacked “Ortega’s bizarre and dangerous response to Covid-19,” citing an unofficial tally of 2,537 deaths. Almost eight months later, the same tally stands at 3,014 deaths—suggesting that Nicaragua did in fact succeed at limiting the Covid toll.

The Guardian ran an article (12/29/20) mentioning several low-income countries from which the US and UK could learn, omitting Nicaragua. When I pointed this out in a letter published on December 31, the newspaper immediately published a reply under the headline “Nicaragua’s Covid Story Far From Truth”—noting that the opposition has its own  numbers for Nicaraguan Covid cases, but not mentioning that even those numbers are far lower than those of Nicaragua’s neighbors.

What is apparent is that Nicaragua’s unconventional approach has been derided but, when it turned out to be successful, has been ignored. The Covid-19 Observatory at the University of Miami, which monitors anti-virus measures in Latin America, has a public policy adoption index which monitors measures taken to reduce social contact (stay-at-home requirements, school closures, etc.): Nicaragua has the lowest score. But as the Guardian (9/19/20) pointed out in September, much of Latin America was subject to prolonged lockdowns, inducing severe poverty, yet produced five of the top ten countries globally for incidence of the virus. (See FAIR.org, 7/30/20.) As the exception, Nicaragua’s experience should have stood out, not least because it received so much initial media attention for eschewing lockdowns and keeping schools open.

Instead, the international media continued to pour scorn. Even as the pandemic subsided in Nicaragua, the Washington Post (8/8/20) was calling the government’s response “bizarre and dangerous.” The Financial Times (10/4/20) reported Nicaragua’s Covid statistics in October, but gave the impression that the numbers of cases were exceptionally high, part of “a worsening economic and social crisis.” As recently as this February, the Guardian (2/19/21) criticized Nicaragua’s “stumbling response to the coronavirus pandemic” in a cynical and misleading report characterizing the country’s efforts to monitor the use of its air space for satellites and other near-space activities as a grandiose “space agency.”

The picture that emerges is one where there was considerably more coverage of dire predictions than of the surprisingly mild outcome as the pandemic ran its course. Covid-19 was a convenient issue on which the Sandinista government, regularly criticized by the international media, could be attacked again.

Journalists, who should be more skeptical of negative reports from local opposition media and NGOs whose political alignment is well-known, simply repeated them as reliable indications of a disaster waiting to happen. Their apocalyptic warnings strengthened the media’s narrative that the Sandinista government is failing its people. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that politically useful guesses were found to be more newsworthy than politically inconvenient reality.

 

“They forget about you”: The media advice Parkland parents give to mass shooting survivors

Columbia Journalism Review - April 2, 2021 - 11:06am
Joaquin Oliver was murdered in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. His parents, Manuel and Patricia Oliver, recognize a pattern, both in how the US media covers mass shootings by rote, and in how Americans are able to look away once the news cycle ends. On this week’s Kicker, the Olivers, who founded Change […]

Peter Maybarduk on Global Vaccination, Jane Chung on Big Tech Lobbying

FAIR - April 2, 2021 - 10:55am

 

(image: NIAID)

This week on CounterSpin: Between two and a half and three million people have died from Covid-19. That’s just what is reported. And we know the toll is so much greater, beyond even the more than 128 million people who have been infected by the virus, many with long-lasting and poorly understood repercussions.

That’s why a year after the WHO declared coronavirus a pandemic, protests demanding global access to vaccines were held around the world. At this point, media could ask how the global economy can recover if only parts of the globe are vaccinated…. But what if they went deeper and wondered: If we don’t learn from this pandemic that none of us can be healthy unless all of us are healthy, how many chances will we get? We’ll talk about global vaccination and what’s in the way of it with Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program.

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Also on the show: There are more congressional hearings for Big Tech companies coming up—about their role in spreading misinformation about Covid along with, you know, racism and violent insurrection and stuff. We’ll see the congressional debate, assuming there is one, play out in the press. What we won’t necessarily see is how Big Tech companies are furiously working—by which I mean spending—behind the scenes to tilt things in their favor. We’ll talk about that part with Jane Chung, Big Tech accountability advocate at Public Citizen and author of a new report on the subject.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at past coverage of police murder trials.

A traumatic news cycle for journalists and audiences

Columbia Journalism Review - April 2, 2021 - 7:16am

On Tuesday, the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white former cop from Minneapolis who has been charged with murdering George Floyd, entered its second day. Three teenagers and a nine-year-old witness testified about the toll that seeing Floyd die took on them. Wednesday brought more emotional testimony. On Thursday, it was the turn of Courteney Ross, Floyd’s girlfriend, who recalled how she met Floyd and described him as a “mama’s boy,” dabbing her face with a tissue. Throughout the first week of the trial, prosecutors have played devastating footage of Floyd’s arrest and death; at one point, a witness named Charles McMillian sobbed on the stand. Millions of people have seen the same footage on TV, since the court agreed to let cameras in. As Amudalat Ajasa wrote for The Guardian this morning, watching has “acutely re-traumatized” many “Minnesotans and Black people across the country, in particular.” CNN has displayed numbers that viewers can call for support, with the advice: “It’s always important to speak to someone and not feel that you’re facing this alone.”

Journalists are among those who are struggling. Yesterday, Yamiche Alcindor, of PBS, tweeted, “I can’t watch this video anymore.” And it’s not just the Chauvin trial. We are living—and, in the case of journalists, working—through a news cycle that is traumatizing almost anywhere you turn. It’s only been two and a half weeks since a white gunman killed eight people, six of them Asian women, at spas in the Atlanta area. (“More than anything, my heart hurt—my role as a reporter aside—as a person from the same immigrant society,” Sang Yeon Lee, the president of Atlanta K, a Korean-language outlet, told my colleague Shinhee Kang.) Last week, a gunman killed ten people at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado. This week, a gunman killed four people, including a nine-year-old, at an office complex in Orange County, California. We’re all still living in the grip of the pandemic—vaccination is accelerating in many places, but confirmed infections are climbing again, too. On Monday, Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, went off script at a press briefing and talked about her sense of “impending doom”: America has “so much reason for hope,” she said, “but right now I’m scared.” Her warning was covered widely.

ICYMI: An insider-trading indictment shows ties to Bloomberg News scoops

In addition to the bleakness of the news, many journalists—and women and reporters of color, in particular—are under direct attack. Trump may be gone from the White House, but the anti-press hostility he stoked lives on, and online abuse seems only to have gotten worse in recent months. In February, Seung Min Kim, a politics reporter at the Washington Post, was attacked online in retaliation for her reporting on the (ultimately doomed) nomination of Neera Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Last month, Taylor Lorenz, a tech reporter at the New York Times, spoke out, on International Women’s Day, about a “harassment and smear campaign” that has “destroyed” the past year of her life; in response, Tucker Carlson attacked Lorenz on his Fox News show, accusing her of “pretending to be oppressed.” Soon after, the pro-Trump One America News Network aired the email and phone number of Rachel Abrams, a Times reporter working on a story about OAN, and urged viewers to contact her in the name of fighting “intimidation by the left.”

In response to these attacks, editors put out statements defending Kim, Lorenz, and Abrams; the Times accused Carlson of using “a calculated and cruel tactic, which he regularly deploys to unleash a wave of harassment and vitriol at his intended target.” Many reporters, however, feel that newsroom managers do not have their backs. Last week, an unnamed Times reporter told Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein that often, editors tell reporters to simply ignore trolls, which demonstrates a failure to understand the “emotional toll” of online abuse. “Where I used to be afraid to open my email and see a torrent of things,” the reporter said, “now I’m afraid to open Twitter.” Klein’s story quoted Steven Ginsberg, the editor at the Post who defended Kim. After it was published, Felicia Sonmez, another Post reporter, tweeted that Ginsberg and his colleagues had not come to her aid her last year—when Kobe Bryant died, and she drew attention to a rape allegation against him, then was mobbed with abuse and death threats. Instead of receiving support, Sonmez was suspended; she said that Post editors barred her from covering sexual assault because she had spoken publicly about her own experience with it. This week, the paper lifted the prohibition. “This is good news,” Sonmez tweeted, “but it’s unfortunate that it had to come at such a high emotional toll, and after my distress was dismissed for years.” On the same day the Vanity Fair story came out, Hemal Jhaveri announced in a Medium post that she had just been fired as a race and inclusion editor at USA Today after she erroneously identified the Boulder shooter as white, and was targeted by right-wing trolls. Jhaveri wrote that she has been harassed online many times before and that her bosses “never offered public, institutional support.”

The brutality of the news cycle, abuse, and the general bad state of the media industry are putting journalists under intense strain. As a result, many talented people, and especially those from oppressed groups, have been prevented from doing their best work—or have decided to quit their jobs altogether. This week, Stacy-Marie Ishmael and Millie Tran, the editorial director and chief product officer, respectively, of the Texas Tribune, announced that they would leave their posts fourteen months after starting, because they had become burned out. Both cited the news cycle. “It has been impossible for me to separate what’s been happening in the world, which we’ve been covering rigorously and intensely for these twelve months, from what’s happening in my own life and in the lives of my friends, family and communities,” Ishmael said. “The simultaneity of each tragedy means there’s no time to process, so everything deepens, compounds, repeats,” Tran wrote on Twitter. She added, “crises also clarify. I realized it’s essential to give as much care to the entirety of my life as I do my work.”

For many journalists, the past year has piled on pressure to work that has been difficult for a long time. Three years ago, my CJR colleague Alexandria Neason wrote of the toll that repeat awful news cycles had taken on her. When she entered the industry, in 2014, it was “amidst a news cycle oversaturated with an endless loop of unarmed shootings of black men, boys, women, and girls,” Neason wrote. “I found myself relying on those old norms and suffering in silence, leaving my fatigue—and the guilt I felt for feeling it at all—unaddressed”; over time, as the nation’s focus shifted toward Trump, “that lethargy began to snowball even more quickly, as a volatile administration transformed the news cycle yet again. That lethargy has now gone mainstream.” Trump may be gone, but for many of us, the pain has only gotten worse.

Below, more on a traumatic news cycle:

  • Reporting from court: Due to coronavirus restrictions, only two reporters are physically allowed to attend the Chauvin trial at a time. Yesterday, it was the turn of CNN’s Sara Sidner to be in the room; during a recess, she went outside, walked through a high-security area, and spoke about the experience in a video that she posted online. “After concentrating, and seeing people cry, and seeing those horrifying pictures of George Floyd as they’re trying to resuscitate him,” she said, “then you come out to what looks like some sort of a Green Zone, war-zone situation. It really is surreal.”
  • “When the mob comes”: For her newsletter, Men Yell at Me, Lyz Lenz shared her experience of online harassment, and spoke with Talia Lavin, another journalist who has faced abuse. After Lenz profiled Tucker Carlson for CJR in 2018, her “phone exploded,” she wrote. “My Google number, which I used almost exclusively then, was doxed and I got message after message of alt-right memes. Facebook messages. Twitter messages. Instagram messages and comments. Emails. So many emails. For an entire year, it didn’t end.”
  • The local level: Last month, Gary Harki, an investigative reporter at the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, wrote for Poynter that “the harassment and hate directed at national news outlets in the ‘fake news’ hasn’t trickled down to smaller markets. It’s always been there.” Harki’s story, which describes the vitriol his colleagues have faced, particularly when covering race, was originally set to appear in the Virginian-Pilot, but editors decided to submit it to Poynter instead: “To run it in our paper, with its descriptions of the effects the harassment has on reporters, would be giving the trolls ammunition.”
  • Self-care: In a post for NBCU Academy, Bruce Shapiro, who leads the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia, offered self-care tips for reporters who “feel emotional distress covering the violence and abuse their communities face”; they include putting your phone away, getting help if you need it, and “pacing your trauma load.” (ICYMI, on April 6, Dart will partner with CJR to host a virtual summit dedicated to improving coverage of guns and mass shootings. You can find out more here.)


Other notable stories:

  • CNN’s Matt Egan spoke with Patrick Soon-Shiong, the owner of the LA Times; in the interview, Soon-Shiong denied reports that he is considering selling the paper, confirmed reports that it lost more than fifty-million dollars in revenue last year, and said that he is closing in on appointing a new executive editor. Elsewhere, the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani profiles Soon-Shiong’s daughter, Nika, who has emerged as an informal “surrogate” between the LA Times and her family, and encouraged the paper “to vastly increase its coverage of nonwhite communities.”
  • The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson debunked claims made by Alex Berenson, a former Times reporter turned regular Fox guest who, Thompson writes, is “the Secretariat of being wrong” about the pandemic. “Berenson seems to enjoy spelunking through research to find esoteric statistics that he then dresses up with spooky language to make confusing points that sow doubt about the vaccines,” Thompson writes, yet “the case against the vaccines wobbles because it is built upon a steaming pile of bullshit.”
  • For CJR, Bill Grueskin reports on an insider-trading indictment that alleges a pattern of contact between the accused, Jason Peltz, and a reporter at Bloomberg, which published stories about various companies shortly after Peltz arranged to buy shares in them. “No one at Bloomberg is accused by prosecutors of wrongdoing or of being aware that these stories might be linked to an insider-trading scheme,” Grueskin writes.
  • Last week, the New Republic announced plans to move the bulk of its editorial operations from New York to DC, which worried many New York-based staffers. The union that represents them raised their concerns with management, which has since agreed, per the union, “that no employee currently working in New York City will be asked to relocate and no one will lose their jobs relating to the company’s decision.”
  • Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s decision, under the Trump administration, to loosen media-ownership rules, making it easier for a single company to own multiple news organizations in the same market. An appeals court ruled that the FCC failed to properly assess the impact of its decision on women and minority media ownership, but the Supreme Court rejected that reasoning.
  • Vice Media is opening an office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; according to Alex Ritman, of the Hollywood Reporter, the office will be “a small operation mostly focussed on commercial and business-to-business offerings.” Vice will partner with a research and marketing firm that has ties to the Saudi government.
  • Yesterday, a court in Hong Kong convicted Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media tycoon, and six other defendants of involvement in a 2019 pro-democracy march. Lai, who owns the Apple Daily newspaper, faces up to five years in jail and could be convicted of other charges. (Recently, Elaine Yu spoke with more than two dozen Hong Kong journalists and asked, for CJR, whether its free press will survive.)
  • On Wednesday, residents of Yangon, Myanmar, banged pots and pans in protest of the country’s military regime while a team of journalists from CNN made their way through the city under armed guard. According to Reuters, Ari Ben-Menashe, a lobbyist working for the regime, arranged CNN’s visit; he said that the guard was “escorting” CNN’s team to interviews with officials and to see factories that were recently destroyed.
  • And Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, of the Times, are adapting She Said, their book about Harvey Weinstein, into Chasing the Truth, a new edition that promises to be “a young journalist’s guide to investigative reporting.” Kantor said that the new edition aims to show young people how “this work can uncover hidden truths, hold the powerful to account, and help drive social change.” The Associated Press has more.

ICYMI: Substack raises more money, but is that a good thing?

An insider-trading indictment shows ties to Bloomberg News scoops

Columbia Journalism Review - April 1, 2021 - 1:35pm
For more than six months, federal prosecutors say, a New York man used inside information to make illegal profits in the stock market—and a core element of his alleged scheme was his interaction with Bloomberg News, which published several stories shortly after the trader arranged to make significant purchases of the companies’ shares. Last month, […]

Substack raises more money, but is that a good thing?

Columbia Journalism Review - April 1, 2021 - 6:45am
Axios reported on Tuesday that Substack is raising another $65 million in venture financing, which will give the newsletter-publishing platform a theoretical market value of $650 million. That’s more than ten times what it was reportedly worth when it raised its first $15-million round of financing in 2019, which — like the latest round — was […]

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