The November 6 midterms are fast approaching, yet much of the media is still looking back to the 2016 elections, and specifically the alleged Russian interference in them.
The New Yorker (10/1/18) published a 7,000-word article headlined “How Russia Helped Swing the Election for Trump.” Considering other explanations for Trump’s victory and Clinton’s loss, such as her tactical campaign errors, gerrymandering, vote suppression, racism and the actions of James Comey for only a paragraph, it quotes one expert claiming, “It stretches credulity to think the Russians didn’t” win it for him.
Meanwhile, the New York Times (9/20/18) released an intensive 10,000-word history and analysis of the Trump/Russia story, explaining to its readers that it was Putin’s “seething” ambivalence towards the West and his “nostalgia for Russia’s lost superpower status” that were the driving forces behind Russia’s nefarious actions.
There is also a great deal of fear about supposed hacking of the upcoming midterms. USA Today (10/9/18) warned, “As Russia and perhaps other foreign governments seek to undermine democratic elections, Congress and states need to get serious about defenses.” The PBS NewsHour (10/11/18) quoted one official who noted, “Given our experiences of 2016 and what we saw the Russians attempt to do across the nation’s election equipment, the election infrastructure, we certainly have a degree of concern of what their capability is.” Meanwhile, the Washington Post (9/26/18) writes, “While Russia is clearly trying to influence the 2018 elections, this time the United States is prepared and taking action to counter it.”
There is little concrete evidence offered in these reports; see Gareth Porter in Consortium News (10/10/18) for a dash of cold water on the New York Times’ narrative. Yet even the lack of evidence is an ominous sign for some. The Daily Beast (10/8/18) published an article headlined, “No Evidence That Russia Is Messing with Campaign 2018—Yet.” Despite that lack of evidence, the article asserted that the US should brace itself: “Russia has an arsenal of disruption capabilities… to sow havoc on election day,” it said, and “everyone is expecting the 2016 shock and awe” again.
The concern of the media over Russian actions has not resonated with the public more generally; a July Gallup poll reported that the number of Americans who considered Russia a top problem for the country was less than 1 percent. On the subject of the midterms and threats to their legitimacy, NPR (9/17/18) found that large majorities feel voter fraud or suppression to be a much greater danger to election integrity than foreign interference. Yet these concerns are not addressed nearly as thoroughly by the media. A search for “Russia” and “election” in the New York Times database generates 4,489 stories since the start of 2017, as compared to just 234 for “voter suppression” and “election,” 306 “gerrymandering” and “election” and 727 “racism” and “election.”
The question is not whether Russia, like other countries with extensive intelligence apparatuses, seeks to influence the elections of foreign nations. The question is why corporate media are concentrating on foreign interference, and not the other threats to democracy. In a previous article (FAIR.org, 7/27/18), I argued that the Democrats are using Russia to deflect anger and discontent away from their own failings. If Russia is to blame, there is no need for introspection, nor to address the deep race and class divides in the country that are addressed by surging political movements on the left, from Sanders to Black Lives Matter, and exploited by Trump and the alt-right. The focus on Russia as the sole reason for Trump’s victory allows establishment Democrats to continue as normal, without need for radical internal or policy change. As Clinton said, “America is already great.” To deflect pressure from the left, they can construct a narrative to explain why they lost to the most unpopular candidate ever.
For corporate media, the story of Russia covertly influencing the country promotes a climate where they can re-tighten their grip on the means of communication by accusing alternative media on both left and right of being Russian-sponsored “fake news.” As previously reported (FAIR.org, 8/22/18), under the guise of protecting readers, big media companies like Google, YouTube and Bing have changed their algorithms, resulting in devastating drops in traffic for reputable alternative media sites. Alternative media has been deleted, de-ranked, de-listed and de-monetized, effectively sidelining them. In response to ostensible Russian meddling, media giant Facebook announced last week (Washington Post, 10/11/18) it had shut down over 800 US accounts and pages for “inauthentic behavior,” a term even more nebulous than “fake news.” Included in the 800 were several police accountability watchdog groups and other alternative media, adding to its recent (temporary) deleting of TeleSUR English.
However, the best example of fake news and “inauthentic behavior” by media outlets in the modern age remains the manufacture of consent for the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, with the crucial assistance of corporate outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post and NBC (FAIR.org, 11/1/01; 3/18/03; 10/23/17). Forty-five percent of Americans get their news from Facebook, but it seems doubtful the tech giant will remove accounts belonging to those publications.
While it is clear that Moscow has an interest in who the US elects and doesn’t elect, the media’s focus on Russiagate through the midterm elections has as much to do with its political utility as with the evidence. With President Trump accusing China of midterm interference (CNN, 8/26/18), it appears that both major parties have sown doubt into the process and have a pre-made excuse if they fail on November 6. Both sides undermining trust in the democratic process does not augur well for the future of US politics.
This week on CounterSpin: The horror stories are real—about migrant children pulled from their parents at the US/Mexico border, sometimes locked in cages, sometimes given up for adoption while ostensibly waiting to be reunited with families the government had no plan for reuniting them with. But when corporate media tell the story through the White House’s cruel prism—even if they criticize it—they’re obscuring ideas and actors that are moving things in a more humane direction. We’ll talk about why it matters who you talk to with Tina Vasquez, senior immigration reporter at Rewire.News.PlayStop pop out
Also on the show: If it’s a new day, you’re right to ask if the Trump administration is coming for your rights in a new way, and the answer is yes. The White House is now—via the National Park Service—seeking to squelch public protest in Washington, DC, by, yes, charging for it. Because the important thing about Martin Luther King’s March on Washington is how much it cost to fix the lawn. It’s not hard to see through this anti-democratic ploy, but what does it take to fight it? We’ll hear from Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund.PlayStop pop out
Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at CNN‘s coverage of the responsibility for climate change.PlayStop pop out
‘The Media Continue to Promote a Narrative of Dependency’ - CounterSpin interview with Teresa Basilio on Puerto Rico communications
Janine Jackson interviewed Teresa Basilio Gaztambide about communications failures in Puerto Rico for the October 12, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: Advocates and activists are calling on FCC chair Ajit Pai to appoint an independent commission to examine the causes for communications failures in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, just over a year ago. Over 95 percent of cell sites were knocked out of service, hindering rescue and recovery efforts. Days after the storm, no TV and only a handful of radio stations could function. And the restoration has been painfully slow.
The coalition of groups also urged the agency to convene public hearings in Puerto Rico, so that commissioners could “hear directly from Puerto Ricans on how their lives were impacted” by the lack of a resilient communications infrastructure.
But the conversation around communications in Puerto Rico is not primarily one of petitioning the powerful. If anything, the hurricane and the inadequate federal response have made clearer the need for other kinds of work, in other places, that can give people more power over their communications rights, as part of the fight for all of their rights.
Our next guest is part of that work. Teresa Basilio Gaztambide is director of Resilient Just Technologies, as well as an artist and organizer. She’s just back from Vieques, and joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome to CounterSpin, Teresa Basilio.
Teresa Basilio: Thank you.
JJ: When we talk about communications failures in Puerto Rico after Maria, we’re talking, of course, about people who couldn’t check on their family and friends because phones weren’t working, failures that may have increased the storm’s death toll of at least 3,000, new research says as many as 5,000, human beings.
The work you’re doing seems to grow out of recognition of the fullest meaning of communications: technology and storytelling, and how they meet. So what were you doing in Vieques, and what does or doesn’t it have to do with events of the past year?
TB: First off, I’m from Puerto Rico originally. I was born there, but I was raised, like many of my folks, we were raised in the States. But I have continued to have a very deep connection with Puerto Rico, and so in the past few years, my emphasis has moved to trying to figure out really tangible ways to support the process of decolonization for Puerto Rico. Because I have been working in media for a long time–prior to this work, I worked at Global Action Project, which is a youth media social justice organization–so I work with young people in creating collaborative films that tell the story of what their issues are and how to resolve them.
And so I come from a background of storytelling myself, and seeing the importance of storytelling, not just to get our stories out there, but also as a way to build community. So I moved into this work of technology, and I started Resilient Just Technologies, as a way to garner all of the things that I’ve learned, and the people that I’ve been fortunate to work with, to see if I could leverage all the different things that for me communications encompasses, which includes not just the communications, but media, political education, decentralized technology, storytelling, a whole host of things that are interconnected with the idea of communications. I was looking to leverage all of these different ideas for organizers on the front lines of racial, economic and climate justice movements, and so I’ve been working here in New York with New York City communities who are building local networks, wireless networks, for use in emergencies and for community organizing.
And so I really wanted to figure out how to use that knowledge and relationships and understandings to support my folks in Puerto Rico and the diaspora. I was in Vieques–I just got back a few days ago–I was in Vieques and Comerío, two areas that, for a variety of reasons, have a long history, both of struggle, as well as of just really innovative ways of organizing communities. So I was there to talk to communities who were directly impacted by the loss of the communications infrastructure, following both hurricanes Irma and Maria. As we saw, or as we know, the communications system completely failed.
The purpose of these conversations–which are story circles, which is a cultural organizing tool that comes from the South here in the US–the idea is to really, in community, have a conversation about what happened to us: What was the impact of that? And then also talk about, what does a just communication system look like for our people? So really a visioning as well, and affirming the ways in which we’ve been able to organize already, and protect ourselves and our communities.
And what came out of these conversations was a whole lot of stuff. I mean, there was the clear evidence of trauma, not just not being able to reach your relatives, but not being able to reach medical care, not even knowing what’s happening day-to-day, if there was access to clean water, if food was coming. There’s just so many things that people were just cut off from completely, their basic human right to communication.
The stories are really important, to tell what really has been the impact, but also as a healing justice part of the work. I think that some of the times, we have these conversations, but we don’t talk about the impact of trauma on our communities, and how we need spaces together in community to really deal with it and address it and move together to continue supporting each other through it. So I was in both Vieques and Comerío to facilitate those story circles with my friends at Free Press, and with Melissa Rosario, who runs a healing justice and decolonization project in Puerto Rico called CEPA.
JJ: You’re talking about the importance of these conversations, and then there is the matter of creating and maintaining the space in which to have those conversations, and there’s where the technology can come in. So I wanted to ask you about these Portable Network Kits that you also work with.
TB: Right. So part of the project—and my understanding of both community technology, as well as a just transition for Puerto Rico, means that our communities also need to have access to the infrastructure. I think it’s one thing to say, “We’re going to push the FCC and the telecoms to do the right thing.” It’s a whole other project to validate people’s self-determination by the ownership and governance of their infrastructure.
And so in a colonial situation, these things get very, very difficult. So the conversation that I’ve been having with people there is, “What technology is available that can support a lot of these kinds of efforts, these self-determination efforts, that are happening throughout the island?” Most notably through the CAMs—the mutual aid centers that popped up, I there’s maybe 11 or 12 of them, that popped up immediately after the storms, to do everything from feeding people to health services, acupuncture—I mean, you name it. They’ve been doing that work, and they continue to do that work, one year past the hurricane.
So in my conversation with some of these folks, it seems like they were looking for technology that could be maintained and governed by communities, and have local usage. And what I mean by that is, that if internet fails, this technology—the Portable Network—can be started here in New York City through the Resilient Networks NYC project, which is the project I was mentioning before, where we have five communities that are building their own local networks.
So we produced these Portable Network Kits. And they were initially just going to be used as a repair kit for our networks that are here. But we realized that they had a use in emergency situations because they’re portable, because they have some additional security measures, they’re affordable (a small one could be as little as $300), and they have different kinds of resiliency features, including, you can power them through solar panels and battery packs. So there’s just a variety of ways in which they’re really, really useful.
So we did the training with one of the camps in Santurce three weeks ago, called El Hormiguero. They’re doing amazing work in Santurce, again, a variety of things, from feeding people to self-defense classes to resiliency planning.
So they invited us there, myself and some colleagues, community technologist colleagues from The Point, which is one of the community organizations that’s building the network in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. They came with their digital stewards. “Digital stewards” is the name that we use for community residents who are trained in building, maintaining and running the networks, ensuring, again, local governance and control.
And so we built a small, local network there in Santurce, and that network is up and running. And what I was mentioning before, the thing that’s significant about it, is that it can work with the internet, so it can help share the internet with the different sites, but it also can function as a local network without the internet, with something called island mode. So people can continue to communicate with each other in a local space, and send files to each other, videos, photos–just communicate, basically–when everything goes down. And so this is a really important tool that folks in Puerto Rico are interested in using. We’ve been working with folks there who are excited about that work. And also trying to support the ongoing work of the mutual aid centers throughout the island.
JJ: The power, of course, of these very local and direct, people-to-people communications goes well beyond the fact that they can continue to function even in times of environmental catastrophe. It’s also what they get to say. We saw a spate of stories after Maria about what you call this “mutual aid.” We heard about communities working together to clear the roads and to fix houses in the absence of support from the state.
But it’s very evocative to think about applying that mutual aid ethic to communications. As a media critic, you always get this sense that you’re supposed to “win the media,” that social justice organizations have to “win the media,” and that’s the way to speak to the people in order to change things. But this is a way of working around—and without—elite media, in order to tell stories that need to be told.
TB: Exactly. That focus on decentralized technologies, which is, you know, a movement across the world; this is not a new thing. But it’s a movement to really support self-governance in a place like Puerto Rico, where colonialism is the rule, and a very brutal form of colonialism and neoliberalism that is impacting our people. Even after a hurricane, now they’re trying to put all sorts of awful privatization schemes on top of that.
A lot of the relationship to the telecoms has been one very much of, like, client relationships, right? So it’s really trying to shift that narrative away from that to one of, again, self-governance, community control. Again—not things that are new, but really trying to utilize existing technologies that are affordable as a way to support that very basic human right towards self-determination.
JJ: I wanted to ask about that in particular. The relationship between the US government and Puerto Rico wasn’t reflected, of course, only in agency foot-dragging. And the curtain was pulled off, the sneer of it, the arrogance of that relationship, with that image of Donald Trump tossing freaking paper towels to people at an aid distribution center. If there were any mystery to it, I think it should be removed.
But all of which is just to say that taking control of the narrative, and being able to subvert imagery that’s pervasive, that means particular things for Puerto Ricans.
TB: Definitely. Absolutely. Certainly, the narrative of dependency, the narrative that the federal government was putting forward, that somehow we were to blame for the misery that colonialism causes; that our people…they lacked gratitude for the work that was being done, when actually things were not getting there. We weren’t getting food. We weren’t even getting tarps. Most of the tarps that ended up on the island came because people brought them there. The diaspora sent them there.
So there is a huge failure on the local and federal government level. And you’re right, it absolutely did reveal the mask of colonialism, the brutality of it. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of the media has not learned that lesson, and so continue to promote a narrative of dependency, of paternalism, and doesn’t recognize the amazing work that people are doing to help each other, to support each other. And that’s what I saw when I was in Vieques and in Comerío, you know, communities very impacted also by poverty, ongoing poverty; it unveiled the brutality of the political and economic situation. And so folks have been supporting and doing what they can to help each other out throughout.
But I think at this moment, because of the hurricane, there’s an opportunity to shift that narrative. There’s an opportunity to shift resources, to shift understandings of what the relationship is between Puerto Rico and the United States, and Puerto Rico and the rest of the world.
So I’m hopeful, and also incredibly inspired by the people that I met, that I spoke with who shared their stories, who are working in their localities to promote these ideas around self-determination, because the process of decolonization is a long process. But it’s one that has to be at the forefront of any conversation, whether it’s communications, food sovereignty, whatever it is, that’s at the root of the issue.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Teresa Basilio Gaztambide, director of Resilient Just Technologies. Thank you so much, Teresa Basilio, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
TB: Thank you so much for having me.
Featured image: “El Desastre Es la Colonia” (The Disaster Is the Colony), graffiti, San Juan, Puerto Rico (cc photo: Lorie Shaull)
Long ago and far, far away, in a Canadian prairie city and a prior life as a local and regional reporter for TV news, I wondered why we covered Indigenous issues so badly. I presented this question to reporters, editors and producers in print and broadcast newsrooms, including my own, throughout the city. This in a city where roughly one-quarter of the local population was Indigenous, living literally on the other side of the tracks.
Not a single person I interviewed argued against my premise. Everyone agreed our coverage was “lousy,” and got worse throughout the province, the further away from the city you were. Most gave me the usual excuses: We didn’t have enough time or people to do better, given tight deadlines; didn’t have adequate resources or people, given tighter budgets; and we worried about accusations of racism if we did a story about the problems, and accusations about racism if we painted over the problems.
One producer in TV news said something different. She didn’t agree with what she called easy excuses. She said it was about money—advertising. Poor people in poor neighborhoods didn’t buy advertising, as a rule. Indigenous peoples, often the poorest of the poor, not only didn’t buy ads, but didn’t pay attention to ads or buy newspapers, a major source of stories and ideas for local broadcasting newsrooms. To her, Indigenous peoples got the coverage they paid for: no money, no coverage.
Put simply—we weren’t considered part of the audience or readership.
Most journalists also said we didn’t bother to cover Indigenous peoples because there was no journalistic payoff. We, reporters, preferred to do stories to improve situations and conditions, by pointing out things that didn’t work properly. We looked for bad guys, stories about corruption or inept business owners, government administrators, politicians, cops, for example. Yet similar stories about Indigenous communities never went anywhere. Things never changed. Also, by telling these stories, we faced accusations of concentrating on the negative. (See comment above about racism.)
In my opinion, things haven’t changed much in the last 25 years in Canadian print and broadcasting, with the exception of APTN News, now in its 18th year of broadcasting a national newscast by, for and about Indigenous peoples. CBC News, to its credit, has played catchup, creating its own unit called CBC Indigenous. There are a handful of reporters and opinionators at other major news organizations, print and broadcasting, with a working or better knowledge about Indigenous peoples, histories, politics and lives. Notable is Doug Cuthand, a Cree and a columnist at the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.
Otherwise most journalists continue to rely on old stereotypes and stubborn prejudices, and on superficial and erroneous stories, as they helicopter into and out of “Indian Country” to report on complicated issues. Take the mainstream media’s coverage of the TransMountain oil pipeline in Western Canada and the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines through the United States. The legacy media covered these stories in one of two ways: as protests against oil pipelines, citing damage to health of people and the ecology; or as paramilitary and police forces used by governments to suppress peaceful protest. Basically, good guys vs. bad guys, depending on your point of view, with the spirit of “cowboys fighting Indians” the underlying narrative. True, but nowhere near the whole and much better story.
In both Canada and the United States, anti-pipeline protests galvanized Indigenous activists, creating broad alliances with non-Indigenous activists and turning scattered voices into emerging political movements. For example, Idle No More, often described by the mainstream media as a fading social media phenom, found traction with people fed up with the inaction or lack of support from Indigenous politicians over the Standing Rock, North Dakota, protests. There were plenty of pious promises from Indigenous politicians, but the only real action came from grassroots activists putting their bodies out there. Similar frustration with the established orders in “Indian Country” on both sides of the Canada/US border is leading to calls for change from a younger generation of Indigenous peoples, asking their political representatives for more push for their rights and less give to government demands.
That was the story most journalists missed, in some cases because the story handed to them limited the historical scope of what was at stake in anti-pipeline protests. The Oceti Sakowin Camp was billed and billed itself as “a first-of-its-kind historic gathering of Indigenous Nations.” But real historic memory would show it was only the latest broad political alliance going back to the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969; the “Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan” to Washington, DC, in 1973; and the occupation of Wounded Knee, also in 1973, by the American Indian Movement.
“The Alcatraz occupation is recognized today as one of the most important events in contemporary Native American history,” according to the US National Park Service:
It was the first intertribal protest action to focus the nation’s attention on the situation of native peoples in the United States. Because of the attention brought to the plight of the American Indian communities…federal laws were created which demonstrated new respect for aboriginal land rights and for the freedom of American Indians to maintain their traditional cultures.
In Canada, the 78-day Oka Crisis at Kanehsatake Mohawk Territory, Quebec, in 1990 grabbed national and international news interest. Canadians were shocked from complacency as Mohawks set up barricades and governments ordered more of the military than it would later send to the first Gulf War, to corral 40 men women and children—all over the expansion of whites-only golf course from nine to 18 holes. The Oka Crisis is often credited with sparking an awakening of Indigenous activism across Canada, and a series of developments from commissions of inquiry to the creation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Most reporters at major news networks and newspapers didn’t see those historical threads, because it’s never been part of their journalistic DNA. They were never taught about these events, social and political developments in their history or poli-sci classes. Those courses didn’t exist until relatively recently as Native or Indigenous Issues at a few colleges and universities. Even if the courses were available, journalists were unlikely enroll in them, as the courses didn’t increase their chances for a job or advance their career in a newsroom.
In my humble opinion, the alternative and Indigenous news media did better covering these Indigenous stories. Vox, Vice, APTN and Mother Jones understood better the significance of these stories to Indigenous nations, communities and peoples, because they accepted the need to see stories through their eyes. These are the missing pieces in the puzzles presented to both US and Canadian audiences by the legacy media. Indigenous perspectives, plural because there are many, have always been missing to our understanding, whether it’s about pipelines, land rights, racism or music.
Things are changing, if slowly, thanks to Royal Commissions, justice inquiries, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, and—yes—thanks to more and better media coverage. There’s greater interest, a genuine hunger by the audiences and readerships to know more about Indigenous peoples than ever. There’s a greater understanding that we need the missing pieces in this puzzle called us. There are more stories asking the right questions. More Indigenous and people of color journalists telling their own stories. Better trained and informed non-Indigenous reporters graduating J-schools and entering newsrooms than ever.
That’s good news.
‘Their Policies Toward Indigenous People and Toward the Land Need to Change’ - CounterSpin interview with Amrah Salomon on Indigenous Peoples Day
Janine Jackson interviewed Amrah Salomón about the limits of Indigenous Peoples Day for the October 12, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: The second Monday of October has passed, and listeners may have noticed that there was less “In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” than they might remember from the past. More and more cities, states and colleges have officially changed the day’s name to Indigenous Peoples Day, in acknowledgment that Columbus’s legacy of mass murder, rape, invasion and enslavement is nothing to celebrate.
Challenging the glorification of someone who did such horrific harm is welcome. But changing the name of the holiday might give some the impression that that harm—which is ongoing—has been addressed. And that wouldn’t be just untrue, but unhelpful.
Our next guest is among those asking that, even should the whole country go along, we think more deeply about declaring Indigenous Peoples Day a completed intervention.
Amrah Salomón is a writer, educator and community-builder. She’s a doctoral candidate in ethnic studies at the University of California/San Diego, where she directs the UCSD Community and Labor Project. She joins us now by phone from California. Welcome to CounterSpin, Amrah Salomón.
Amrah Salomón: Thank you.
JJ: I read this thoughtful piece from last October by Indigenous Action Media, which states, “We’re all for removing colonial symbols and nationalistic myths, so long as structures such as colonialism and racism go along with them. Problem is they are not.” Is it that gap between symbol and reality that’s at the core of your concerns around Indigenous Peoples Day?
AS: Definitely. I think those of us who worked on this piece together and were in conversation about it, we’re all for the abolition of Columbus Day. And we were talking about, at the time, the movement around the country also to take down Confederate statues, to take down statues of Columbus. And so we were thinking about not just holidays, but also these physical examples that are in our daily lives, such as these statues and Confederate flags and things that are all around us.
And we were concerned that removing the symbol didn’t really get to the core issue that we felt needed to be addressed, which was the abolition of those systems that the symbols represented. Even though the symbols themselves are very traumatizing to black and indigenous and Latinx people, who’ve been at the brunt of 500 years of colonialism, who’ve been suffering from genocide, slavery, heteropatriarchy and extractive capitalism. We didn’t feel that just removing the symbols really addressed that historical trauma, and it definitely didn’t address the fact that those systems still are the structure and foundation of this country.
JJ: We’ve heard it said, earnestly, “Yes, but it’s a step in the right direction.” But certainly, in the corporate media, anyway, taking down of statues, changing the names of holidays, is presented as a “dethroning,” and a controversial one at that—you know, it’s still up for debate—and not as part of any plan of action. In other words, it is not seen as a piece of something larger; it’s kind of the endgame.
AS: Yeah, and that’s the problem, is that for most of us who—especially those of us in indigenous communities—who are experiencing these overwhelming statistics: that indigenous women are more likely to experience disappearance, sexual assault, murder, domestic violence, than any other category of women; or that Native people are more incarcerated than any other category, or more likely to experience police brutality. Those are the goals that we want to focus on: the end of heteropatriarchy, the end of rape culture, the end of the mass incarceration of people of color and indigenous people, the end of police brutality. And removing the symbol of those things, it allows us to open conversations, but those conversations need to lead towards concrete actions.
You know, I think there’s two ways that folks react to it. On the one hand, I’m not criticizing indigenous people who participate in those actions, because I think for Native people who participate in it, what they’re doing is re-occupying space that has been stolen. And so what they’re doing is, not just declaring that we’re still alive, that we’re still here, but also that we have concerns, right? That we have concerns that matter, that need to be addressed still, and there’s something about that reoccupation that’s empowering for them.
But the way that I see institutions and cities take up the holiday is exactly opposite of that intention, of reoccupation; it’s more like this multicultural consumerism that just puts the exoticism of indigenous culture on display for settlers to consume. And that’s inherently disempowering.
JJ: It shouldn’t be too hard for people to imagine a city “honoring” and “recognizing”—on paper—indigenous people, while at the same time desecrating sacred sites, or polluting land and water, or defunding social programs. And so, you have to think about: it isn’t just that it isn’t enough, it actually can provide a kind of cover for those kinds of behaviors.
AS: And in most cases it does. I think if you look at large cities, like you look at—the first Indigenous Peoples Day, was in Berkeley, California, and there’s been, since that time where the day was commemorated, ongoing desecration of Ohlone land, desecration of graveyards, desecration of sacred sites, marginalization of the indigenous people there. And you see that everywhere else that it’s been taken up, in Los Angeles and Phoenix, across the board, that the holiday is just used as something to make settlers feel like they’re doing something without actually doing something.
JJ: I remember a New York Times story around the Dakota Access pipeline struggle, in which the reporter talked about how indigenous people want to, or think about, going back to a time “before treaties.” Which, first of all, of course, what many would want is for treaties to be honored. But I thought it represented a pervasive kind of vague sympathy that we see, that’s in fact dismissive and even infantilizing.
It’s like, “Oh, wouldn’t we all like to go back to a time of clean water, when we were as one with the Earth, but alas, we’re grownups, and we know that that’s just silly.” It was a throw-away phrase in this article, but it seemed to me to represent a lot about how you can sort of throw sympathy towards a group, while at the same time suggesting that they don’t really have concerns that need to be actively addressed.
AS: Yes. I mean, on the one hand, it reinforces negative stereotypes, like the noble savage. But it also reinforces this idea that indigenous people are a race to be included and to be visibilized, like our culture is there for settler consumption, versus indigenous nations having sovereignty, and having the first rights to this land, and also the right of self-determination, the right to protect our own people.
So it kind of elides all of those concerns that fall into, broadly, the work of sovereignty, broadly the work of decolonization or abolition.
JJ: Many people are, if not literally young, newly aware in their own experience, newly becoming aware of the deeply painful history of this country, and its ongoing effects and its daily reproduction. And it is very difficult knowledge to hold.
What would you tell them about what it would take to make Indigenous Peoples Day campaigns not a mere rebranding, but actual platforms for struggle?
AS: And I think people are trying to do this. So I’m going to say this, and I’m also going to acknowledge that there are many indigenous people actually working on this, and actually trying to strategize, “How can we use this holiday in a more effective way?”
So one of the things is that, I think if we’re trying to change the relationships—the social relationships that are constructed by colonialism, by the ongoing processes of genocide, mass incarceration, slavery, heteropatriarchy—then we have to start with the truth. If you think about any authentic relationship, it’s built on truth. We have to be able to share the actual truth of what happened.
And some people use the holiday as a platform to try to get those messages out there. Some people are trying to use it as this educational opportunity to really confront the truth of what happened and what is ongoing, what is still happening.
But I think beyond that, it has to be more than just educational as well. Our relationships with each other actually need to transform. And so it does need to be part of a larger process that manifests in actual, material change. Material change in our socializations, material change in our policies, the policies of these schools, these cities, that are honoring, or claiming to honor, people, need to change; their policies toward indigenous people and towards the land need to change.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Amrah Salomón. You can still find the piece, “Uprooting Colonialism: The Limitations of Indigenous Peoples Day,” on IndigenousAction.org. Thank you, Amrah Salomón, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
AS: Thank you.
There is a popular line in elite DC circles that political figures are not supposed to talk about the Federal Reserve Board’s monetary policy. This was the theme of Catherine Rampell’s latest Washington Post column (10/11/18). The piece complained about Donald Trump’s criticisms of the Fed’s interest rate hikes and said that countries where monetary policy is controlled by politicians end up with hyperinflation.
While there is a list of countries where political control of the central bank has led to hyperinflation, there are also many examples of countries where political control did not lead to hyperinflation, starting with the United Kingdom. The Bank of England had been under the control of the finance minister until Tony Blair “set it free” in May 1997. The United Kingdom did not have any bouts of hyperinflation that I can recall.
The law gives the Fed a large degree of independence. Its seven governors are appointed by the president and approved by Congress. They serve 14-year terms, which means they don’t have to worry about losing their jobs if they anger a politician. There are also 12 presidents of the regional Feds who sit on the Fed’s Open Market Committee that determines monetary policy. (Only five have votes at any point in time.) These bank presidents largely owe their job to the banks in the region.
The Fed’s structure gives the financial industry a disproportionate voice in setting monetary policy. This means that the Fed has a tendency to be overly concerned about limiting inflation, a main concern of the financial industry, and much less concerned about the full employment part of its mandate.
In this context, it is perfectly reasonable for politicians to criticize the conduct of monetary policy. We can view the Fed as being like the Food and Drug Administration. While we would not want members of Congress or the president deciding which drugs get approved, it would be very reasonable for them to complain if, for example, the FDA went three years without approving any drugs, or alternatively was rapidly approving drugs that were causing people to die. Similarly, political figures have every right in the world to complain if the Fed is being overly concerned about inflation at the cost of slower growth and higher unemployment.
It is questionable whether Trump has adopted the most effective route in pressing this sort of criticism. Rather than saying he does not like the policy that the Fed chair he picked is following, it might have been more useful to have his Council of Economic Advisers produce evidence that the economy does not face a serious risk of inflation right now.
He might also choose to withdraw the nomination of Marvin Goodfriend for one of the open governor positions. Goodfriend has long been an inflation hawk who has argued for higher interest rates for many years. If Trump really doesn’t want the Fed to raise interest rates, it doesn’t make sense to appoint someone to the Board of Governors who is very committed to raising rates.
Featured image: Federal Reserve of New York Building (cc photo: Jim Naureckas)
This week on CounterSpin: Adding to the ravages brought to Puerto Rico by hurricanes Irma and Maria was the failure of the island’s communications systems; with virtually all cell sites down, many people were unable to call for help or to check on others. A year later, the system is not fully restored. What’s more, the US government shows little interest in finding out what went wrong, or how to prevent it happening again. (Reporter Kieran McCarthy at The Register notes that the FCC only seems to show interest in Puerto Rico when agency chair Ajit “Pai’s team feel the chairman himself will be personally impacted by criticism”—as when they hurriedly announced a public comment period days after learning that the GAO was releasing a critical report.) For media activists, the storm and the official response only underscored the need for the creation of communications systems grounded in community. We’ll talk to someone working on just that, Teresa Basilio, director of Resilient Just Technologies.PlayStop pop out
Also on the show: We’ve just seen how a number of states and cities have changed the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, a long-overdue exercise in shifting attention from a mass murderer to the people whose lives, cultures and land were devastated. But given that indigenous peoples in the US today face wildly disproportionate rates of police violence, incarceration, sexual violence and homelessness, it should be clear that a conversation that begins—and ends—with history is not enough. We’ll talk about going beyond symbols with writer and educator Amrah Salomon, director of the Community and Labor Project at University of California, San Diego, where she’s a doctoral candidate in ethnic studies.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson interviewed Neil deMause about Amazon and the Village Voice for the October 5, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: Amazon got a PR boost from its announcement that, after considerable pressure, it would raise workers’ minimum wage to $15 an hour. Immediately after, we learned that the company would simultaneously be cutting monthly bonuses and stock options, such that many warehouse employees have said that they’ll actually be getting less money.
That sort of maneuver is one of the things that rubs many people wrong about Amazon, now one of the country’s largest employers, along with responding to charges of abusive conditions by having select staffers maintain Twitter accounts in which they explain, Stepford-like, how glorious it is to work there. But maybe most galling is the disjuncture between nickel-and-dimed employees, some of who report peeing in trash cans because bathroom breaks are recorded as “time off task,” while Jeff Bezos is rich as Croesus. And how is it that a company with paid employees who rely on food stamps, and that demands tremendous subsidies from communities just to locate there, can be held up by media as an exemplar of “success”?
It matters whether we label Amazon as “a success” without asterisks, and whether we’re OK with the extent of its power. One with questions on that is journalist Neil deMause. His latest book is The Brooklyn Wars, and he joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Neil deMause.
Neil deMause: Always a pleasure.
JJ: I think many people think of Amazon as a “guilty convenience.” We know the company has problems, internal and societal, so if we use it, we feel culpable. And this frustrates me: Amazon’s malfeasances are not determined by people who don’t have bookstores in their town, you know, or people who can’t physically go out to the store. But there’s the limit, and you write about this in your piece for Gothamist, the limit of seeing ourselves only as consumers. That’s our only power, is where we spend money, but it turns out not to be very much power. So I’ll just ask you the question you pose in the piece: “In the absence of a trust-buster in the White House, is there anything that mere mortals can do to reduce Amazon’s sway over our lives and pocketbooks?” And then for those who may wonder, why should we want to reduce that sway?
NdM: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, I certainly empathize with everyone else who looks at Amazon as a convenient pleasure. It is a phenomenal way to avoid thinking about where the best place is to get a product, where the cheapest place is to get a product, to just think, “Well, I’ve already got my Prime membership. I’ll just go to Amazon, and they’ll have it for some price that is probably OK, and the shipping’s free, so it’s great! And, look, I can go and watch a TV show while I’m there.”
But one of the interesting things is, we have this idea [that] the way to respond to corporate malfeasance in our age is to vote with our pocketbooks, right? And we’ve learned from boycott movements, and I remember, back 20 or 30 years ago, there was a spate of paperbacks that came out about how to “shop for a better world.” And it very much is the ethos of modern times that you make a statement with your dollars.
And that was not always the case. And one of the things I found interesting, in researching this article, was the degree to which that was, first of all, a response to some of the big, corporate chains like A&P, in the ’20s and ’30s, trying to get people to identify more as consumers, because they want people thinking, and voting, on the basis of, “What’s best for me for easy shopping,” not, “What’s best for me as a worker? What’s best for me as a business owner who has to compete with these chains?”
And then again, after that, starting in the ’60s, and running through the ’80s and ’90s and onto today, consumer movements as a response to our lack of political power in other ways, right? You know, “If Congress is all sold out to corporations, at least we can vote with our dollars.” The problem, of course, being that that’s not a very effective way of accomplishing things.
So one of the things that I tried to do in the article is look at both what you can do when you go to shop, but also what you can do to affect our shopping choices and our corporate world, outside of that consumer basis.
JJ: Well, yeah, so much, first of all, that’s presented as eternal is actually just historical, and there has been a shift. Now we talk about companies: Are they good companies? Are they bad companies? But it used to be that just bigness itself, just size itself, and power, was considered to be a cause for concern.
NdM: Yeah, and clearly Amazon, with this announcement this week of raising their minimum wages, is trying to cast themselves as “we’re not bad guys, we’re good guys,” right? And that shouldn’t be the point, right? I mean, it’s nice that they’re doing that. But does that mean that we should trust a company with massive control over all areas of our consuming experience and our entertainment experience and our cultural experience and the ability to compile massive amounts of data from our behaviors in all these different places? Does it make it better if they’re nicer people, rather than worse people? I mean, I guess a little bit, but really, if we’re going back to the principle that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” the idea is really nobody should be trusted with that level of power, which is the whole point of the antitrust movement of the late 19th and early 20th century.
And I think one of the realizations is here—and what Stacy Mitchell was saying eloquently in my article—is that we need to not just approach this as, “How do we find the most conscientious way to shop?” But we need to really have a return to antitrust; we really haven’t had a strong antitrust movement to break up these enormous monopolies in the last few decades and, regardless of whether it’s Democrats or Republicans in power, we really need to start pushing in that direction.
JJ: And what Stacy Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self Reliance says is that folks are starting to see that, she thinks, that there was a period where Amazon was this bright, shiny thing that made life easier, and now it’s starting to shift a bit to people recognizing that cancelling your Prime account is not necessarily going to be enough, given that, as you report, a lot of what Amazon does is out of the reach of individuals: They’re selling to public agencies, they’re selling over your head, in a sense. But there is movement afoot to talk about antitrust in a way that might make it more meaningful again.
NdM: Yeah, and the FTC is holding hearings, and there’s an antitrust caucus in Congress now, and there’s some rumblings, and I think some things like, obviously, Facebook breaches, and all the other sort of big malfeasance that we’re clearly seeing by some of these big, overarching corporations, is starting to get attention–not just from consumer advocates of the world, but also in Congress and other places.
But it’s going to have to be a big push, obviously, right? Because Amazon and companies like that have the ability not just to lobby like crazy, but also to do things like try to undercut opposition by suddenly saying, “Hey! We’re going to raise our minimum wages,” which, again, is not nothing, but it’s an attempt to deflect, right? An attempt to get people off their backs. I think something that is going to be a battle, not just over the next year or two, but over the next decade or two, is to really sort of try and push back. Again, in the same way that it took decades to fight the power of the monopolies, whether railroads or whoever, Standard Oil, back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
JJ: And probably now, as well as then, investigative journalism is going to play a role, and that leads me to a segue. You were, until recently, the news editor at the Village Voice, launched in 1955, the first alternative news weekly. The Village Voice has ceased publication, and that has a lot of meaning for some of us. I’d just like to ask you—certainly it changed over its history, certainly it means different things to different people—what did the Village Voice mean for you, and what do you think its closure means for the city?
NdM: Yeah, there’s been a lot of talk, in the same way there is in a lot of things these days, especially in New York, about, “Well, the Voice wasn’t what it used to be, anyway.” You know, what in journalism is right now?
I had written for the Voice for 20 years, and been editor there the last couple. One of the things that I really realized, the more time I spent working on the Voice, was the special role that it really had to play in terms of being a real alternative to the corporate media, and some of what you see in other outlets. It really was the predecessor of a lot of the sort of bloggy things, like Gothamist, for example, which does a great job, but the Voice really had an ability, and sort of ethos, of trying to be both the funniest and wittiest people in the room, and also the smartest and the most serious about the journalism. I think it’s something that I’d like to think that we carried out until the bitter end.
And I’m obviously writing for other places right now, and other people who contributed to the Voice are going to continue to do that, too. But I hope that there will still be room for that kind of journalism in the world. You know, stuff that makes us laugh, but at the same time stuff that really does the best at what investigative journalism is supposed to do; not just giant articles trying to win Pulitzers, but really exposing the dynamics of power, and exposing what we need to do in order to change our world for the better. So I am very sad to see the Voice go, not just as a staffer and as a writer, but as a reader of it, and I hope that people who are thinking of journalistic endeavors in the future try and find a way to make that sort of project work again, because I think it’s what we still very much need.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Neil deMause. His latest book is The Brooklyn Wars, and you can find his article, “What Can Be Done to Stop Amazon From Devouring Everything,” online at Gothamist.com. Neil deMause, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
NdM: My pleasure.
Ben Jealous, the Democratic candidate to be Maryland’s governor, is hoping to pull off a big upset in the November midterm elections against Republican incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan. If he wins, Jealous will be the state’s first African-American governor, and just the third elected African-American governor in the country. (Other 2018 gubernatorial candidates with the same potential to break that racial barrier include Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia, who would be the first-ever black female governor if she wins.)
Those who believe in the myth of the “liberal media” might assume that the Washington Post would support a progressive who backs policies such as Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage and legalization of marijuana. In fact, the paper—the most influential news outlet in much of Maryland—seems to have an axe to grind with Jealous, and has instead chosen to support Hogan for the governor’s race. As Pete Tucker at CounterPunch (8/31/18, 9/18/18, 10/8/18) has explained, the Post has opposed Jealous at every turn.
Most of the paper’s criticisms relate to what it depicts as Jealous’s spendthrift economic policies. Last year, the Post editorial board (10/29/17) called Jealous’s education policy a “gigantic giveaway,” a promise of “free lunches” that would “blow a Chesapeake Bay-sized hole in the state budget.” In July (7/19/18), it defined the race between Hogan and Jealous as a “stark contrast” between “centrist or liberal,” questioning whether the latter’s “soak the rich” agenda was “implementable, wise or remotely bipartisan.” Jealous’s policies in support of raising teacher wages and advancing universal pre-K were called “pricey,” because they would raise taxes on the One Percent in Montgomery County, the state’s largest and richest county.
Condescension toward left-wing economic policy is nothing new for corporate media, but when the Post describes Jealous as a “coup leader” who is both “craven” and “reckless,” they seem to be out to personally demonize the candidate. The Post’s news pages (8/18/18) decried Jealous’s skipping events on Maryland’s deep-red Eastern Shore, and tsked him for dropping an F-bomb when a reporter repeatedly called him a socialist, a label he has continually rejected. The paper’s reporting seemed aimed at keeping the spotlight on Jealous’s missteps.
By contrast, the paper continues to downplay Hogan’s entanglements and liabilities as governor, including the eyebrow-raising financial success of his real-estate company—turned over to his brother’s management in a half-hearted effort to avoid conflict-of-interest issues—as well as his anti-immigrant stances and pro-pollution policies (although the Post did publish a letter from Hogan’s environmental director, who unsurprisingly hailed the governor’s record).
While these priorities sound much like the current occupant of the White House, the Post editorial board labeled Hogan a “moderate” because he distanced himself from the National Rifle Association, who declined to endorse him, and a “radical centrist” for his supposedly “anti-Trump” policies. They continue to frame Hogan in glowing terms, portraying him as “down to earth” and folksy.
As Tucker highlights in CounterPunch, Hogan never receives blame (or even mention) by the Post for any of Maryland’s problems, such as the lack of air conditioning in public schools during heatwaves. And the newspaper continually declines to ask questions of Hogan that it does of other public officials, such as whether he supports President Trump’s federal worker pay freezes—a major issue in the DC metro region—or his opinion on Colin Kaepernick’s NFL protests against police brutality. Tucker also criticizes the Post for disingenuous headlines like “Jealous Tries to Leverage Trump’s Attack on His Free College Proposal”—a framing that suggests the story is Jealous’s political machinations, rather than Trump’s opposition to a popular policy. (The headline was later changed.)
The Post’s support for Hogan and demonization of Jealous could be a big reason why some Democratic politicians in Maryland have been reluctant to get behind Jealous. However, since the Democratic politicians named are mostly no longer in office, the Post does Hogan a favor by highlighting their opinions—just as it does when it praises rather than scrutinizes him for his supposed political distance from other members of his party.
Tucker also highlights the Post’s burial of reports on Jealous’s overwhelming support in polls from African-American voters, stories that were relegated to the back of the Metro section. On the other hand, the Post pushed a story on one poll that found Hogan trailing Jealous among black voters by a relatively narrow 14 percentage points—offering Jealous’s lack of endorsements from African-American Democrats, such as former Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, as an explanation.
While polls are often unruly and have frequently been wrong, they’ve been used by the Post to hammer Jealous. By consistently describing the governor as “popular” (even though his policies are not), the paper inculcates apathy among Democrats, suggesting that a loss by Jealous is a foregone conclusion. While Hogan indeed does have high approval ratings, the Post’s reporting has the feel of a prophecy that hopes to be self-fulfilling.
Looming over the Post’s coverage of the governor’s race is Hogan’s ingratiating support for Amazon, the e-commerce giant owned by the world’s richest person, Jeff Bezos, who also happens to own the Washington Post. Amazon, and the paper’s relationship to it, hardly ever come up in articles about the governor’s race: In the past year, just three articles about Ben Jealous’s run for governor mentioned Amazon. This level of attention underplays just how much Amazon, and its owner, have at stake in Maryland.
Amazon has a vested interest in seeing Maryland remain “business-friendly,” something the Post considers Hogan to be. The former White Flint Mall in Montgomery County, just north of the wealthy DC commuter suburb of Bethesda, is a leading candidate in the company’s high-profile search for a second headquarters. Amazon is expected to settle on a location by the end of the year.
The relationship between Amazon and states with the potential to host its “HQ2” is different from typical lobbying arrangements. While businesses usually lobby state governments for subsidies, tax breaks and the like, it is state governments that are heavily lobbying Amazon to select their states. Governor Hogan pledged $8.5 billion in state incentives for the Montgomery location, so far the highest offer of any state (after the inclusion of $2 billion in contingent transportation improvements).
On the company’s potential relocation plan, Hogan remarked, “HQ2 is the single greatest economic development opportunity in a generation, and we’re committing all of the resources we have to bring it home to Maryland.” Hogan met with Bezos in person at the Economic Club of Washington in September.
But even if it doesn’t land in Maryland, the state already figures large in Amazon’s plans; the company operates or leases a number of sprawling fulfillment and sorting warehouses in the state, including one in Cecil County, one in Rockville in Montgomery County, one outside BWI Airport in Anne Arundel County, and three facilities by the Baltimore Marine Terminal. The company just finished building its newest fulfilment center in Sparrow’s Point in eastern Baltimore County, a location chosen after the state and county doled out $2.2 million in incentives.
All told, Amazon has received $46 million in subsidies from the state and local governments in Maryland since 2000, more than 42 other states. Considering that the company has spent only $10 million in lobbying in Maryland and given $6 million in campaign contributions to state politicians over the past 18 years, this is a healthy return on Amazon’s political investments.
Even if HQ2 doesn’t come to Maryland, there is a decent chance that it will be located nearby, with other possible sites located in Washington proper or close to the sprawling data center campuses near Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia. The metro area’s interconnectivity and its intimate relationship with the federal government mean that Amazon would no doubt become a bigger regional player, regardless of which state it actually ends up calling home.
As Amazon receives increasing antitrust scrutiny from President Trump, legislators, regulators and the public at large, and continues to diversify into a wide variety of industries like groceries, media, healthcare and drone delivery, its interests require an ever-expanding lobbying presence. The e-commerce giant’s lobbying expenditures have exploded by more than 400 percent over the past five years, and in 2017 was the eighth-largest corporate lobbyist, and the second-largest in the technology sector, after Google’s parent company Alphabet.
Amazon also receives large contracts from the federal government, including providing cloud computing services for the CIA, while Bezos’s spaceflight company Blue Origin maintains large contracts with NASA.
What’s more, Bezos just purchased the largest house in DC, a former textile museum, while his ownership of the Washington Post anchors his relationship to the city his paper serves, as well as to Maryland and Virginia. A friendly governor in Maryland, a key part of the DC metro region, is crucial for Amazon’s continued presence there.
While Hogan seems to fill that role, Jealous is not as certain. If he were to be elected, Jealous has stated that he would honor a potential deal made by Hogan for Amazon’s new headquarters if they decided on a location in Maryland within the coming months. However, Jealous has criticized the incentives offered by Hogan as “fundamentally bad negotiation,” and has questioned the rationale for giving a “generous tax package to one of the world’s wealthiest corporations.” One article (7/27/18) on “tepid” support for Jealous from establishment Democrats cited the fact that he “appears insufficiently supportive” of efforts to woo Amazon.
Perhaps the biggest red flag for the Post is Jealous’s alignment with Bernie Sanders, a longtime adversary of Bezos. Last week, Sanders pressured the billionaire into raising wages at Amazon with his proposal of the Stop BEZOS Act, which would tax companies on the amount their employees receive in public benefits.
The Post has a penchant for attacking Democrats who don’t toe the corporate line. They have gone out of their way to try to discredit Sanders on numerous occasions (FAIR.org, 10/1/15, 3/8/16, 5/11/16, 11/17/16, etc.), running 16 negative stories on Sanders in one 16-hour period during the 2016 primaries. The paper (7/11/18) described Mark Elrich, a progressive who is running for Montgomery County executive, as a “leftist” whose “anti-business and anti-development” attitudes should be “cause for concern” to voters—though it said that Elrich’s assurance that “he would embrace a decision by Amazon to locate its second corporate headquarters in the county” was “welcome.” Like Jealous, Elrich has since assured Bezos that he will not attempt to block the Amazon HQ should it land in Montgomery County.
As it does with Sanders and Elrich, the Post’s coverage of Jealous combines skepticism towards his electoral chances and dismissal of his supposedly radical policies. Disparaging the political and practical viability of such people-friendly policies as universal healthcare and a livable minimum wage is in the obvious interests of the billionaire class—and, by extension, billionaire-owned news outlets like the Post.
Such interests are rarely directly expressed. A media outlet’s awareness of the preferences of its owner seldom takes the form of a memo from the boss telling editors to assign stories critical of the owner’s enemies or supportive of their friends. Shrewd employees understand what kind of work makes the person who signs their paychecks happy, and direct their efforts accordingly. And savvy employers know how to hire workers who will do what is expected without being told—which is why pioneering press critic George Seldes wrote:
The most stupid boast in the history of present-day journalism is that of the writer who says, “I have never been given orders; I am free to do as I like.”
The Post does offer dissenting opinions every now and then. This week, it published a pro-Jealous op-ed, as well as a letter to the editor that decried the paper’s “loaded words” in a past report on Jealous’s relation to the Maryland Democratic Party. The paper has also published pieces skeptical of Amazon’s relocation to the DC metro area (on the grounds that it will increase traffic and housing costs, rather than opposition to the multi-billion dollar incentive plan), as well as reporting on activism against the potential to land HQ2. But this hardly balances the negative approach it has taken towards Jealous, or the praise it has showered on Hogan.
Bezos’ effect on the Washington Post’s coverage of politicians who will influence Amazon’s business plans, either positively or negatively, is hard to demonstrate with a smoking gun. What is clear is that newspapers’ editorial decisions have real impact on public opinion, elections, people’s livelihoods, corporate power, race relations, environmental sustainability and many other facets of life. The more papers are owned by billionaires like Bezos, the more potentially pervasive the billionaires’ influence.
After right-wing billionaire Joe Ricketts shut down the local news site DNAinfo last year, one week after the outlet’s New York City workers unionized, there was justifiable outrage. The move highlighted the dangers of corporate and billionaire-backed media capriciously operating under the umbrella of the super wealthy, who would fold rather than recognize basic labor rights.
After the initial shock, employees at DNAinfo Chicago announced they were effectively re-opening the brand under a new name, Block Club Chicago, with a new funding model—one seeded by an inspired KickStarter that raised over $180,000. Founded as a nonprofit and underwritten by foundation support from groups like Civil, Block Club Chicago was to usher in a new era of local reporting, promising “nonpartisan and essential coverage of Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods.”
Except Block Club Chicago suffers, particularly on the issue of “crime” reporting, from the same stunted ethical scope all other local corporate media does. Again and again, Block Club’s “crime” reporting consists of simply copy-and-pasting Chicago police blotters about alleged crimes, with no effort to report any side other than the police’s. When they do engage in actual reporting, the vast majority of the time, it’s just more police stenography.
A survey of Block Club’s crime reporting from a two-week span (9/19/18–10/3/18) found that 61 percent of all sourced claims in their “crime” articles came directly from the Chicago Police Department. Thirty-nine percent were from non-police parties (almost entirely victims of crimes, their families or their legal teams). There were zero claims or quotes from adversarial sources, such as defense attorneys, accused persons or local activists watchdogging the CPD.
In addition, these stories often ended with a plea to the reader to call a snitch line (“Anyone with information is urged to call detectives at (312) 744-8263” is a common tag) so they can, presumably, report suspicious activity—deputizing vigilante readers to go on the hunt for criminals. This is a common feature for local media; “crimestopper” local TV news does it routinely (FAIR.org, 9/20/17). But is this feature—passing along scary crime stories uncritically, while insisting the public call the cops on anyone deemed suspect—something a nonprofit, community-oriented paper should be doing?
The first problem is journalists shouldn’t, as a matter of course, be copy-and-pasting press releases of any kind—doubly so when the press releases are disseminated by people in power. Repeating government claims is bad enough, but literally publishing press releases with no original reporting or questioning of the underlying claims, while insisting readers Do Their Part to help the state, is a whole other level of stenography. The reality is Block Club Chicago has made no effort to ascertain whether most of these alleged crimes even took place (something its own reporter acknowledges on social media).
In the context of the extremely charged Jason Van Dyke trial which had just got underway in Chicago (involving a white police officer who shot and killed black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014), could the CPD be hyping up crime trends in neighborhoods with a sizeable amount of white liberals sympathetic to Black Lives Matter? Could the underlying robberies indeed be happening, but the CPD is selectively highlighting some for political purposes? Could the CPD be concentrating resources on gentrifying neighborhoods (like Wicker Park and Logan Square, frequent settings for Block Club police stories) because—as study after study shows—that’s what police institutionally target?
“Crime” reporting that doesn’t consider these factors, much less interrogate them, isn’t engaging in journalism, it’s engaging in PR. And with a public relations budget well over $1 million, this isn’t something the Chicago Police Department needs Block Club to do pro bono. Even Obama’s Department of Justice acknowledged that Chicago cops have been repeatedly caught lying about “force incidents”—and have a pattern of “unreasonable killings” and racist harassment. So why should journalists take that same departments’ claims at face value?
The second problem with this approach is what we consider “crime.” This is an institutional problem, and one that’s perhaps unfair to ask small media organizations like Block Club to unpack, but there’s a degree of mindlessness in “crime” reporting that’s in urgent need of rethinking. According to the Economic Policy Institute, wage theft in the United States is greater in scale than all personal larceny, robbery, burglary and car theft cases combined. Which is to say, in monetary terms, the most common crime scene is the workplace, and the most common criminal is the executive or middle manager who steals money from workers. (And not in the theoretical Marxist way; we’re talking about actually stealing money legally owed to workers.)
Thus far, since its launch eight months ago, Block Club Chicago hasn’t done a single story on wage theft, a particularly egregious omission given the near-impunity for wage thieves in Illinois. Why is that? Certainly there are waiters and bussers and cashiers and domestic workers who can be canvassed, and asked about this problem. The institutional, one-sided focus on “crimes” done by one-off, often poor individuals resonates, perhaps, because of its visceral nature—certainly being held up with a gun is more frightening to the average reader than not being paid for working a shift. But why ignore entirely the iteration of crime that constitutes more than half of all theft?
And if the excuse is Block Club covers sensationalist or visceral crime, this doesn’t hold up either. Certainly shoplifting and other petty larceny is no more sensational or “violent” than wage theft, but Block Club has found time to report on these great injustices time and again, complete with plastering the mugshot of an African-American shoplifting suspect right on the front page.
Indeed, the sleazy tabloid practice of plastering mugshots on the front page before those individuals have seen a judge, much less been tried or convicted of anything, is common fare at Block Club. This practice—again, routine in local media (FAIR.org, 4/25/16)—forever sullies people’s SEO, indelibly associating their name and face online with criminality for all future employers, prospective partners and loved ones to see.
Could the CPD have made a mistake? Got the wrong person? Framed someone? These questions are totally unimportant to the vigilantes at Block Club Chicago. Presumably this practice is to warn people of what a suspect looks like, so they can partake in further vague notions of vigilance or vigilantism, but what of the rights of those arrested? What of their baseline humanity? Are they not in the “local” communities Block Club claims to serve? The harm wrought by mass distributing a mugshot is not theoretical and, once published for internet posterity, cannot be undone.
In fairness, Block Club does cover issues of gentrification, community outrage at police, and activism in a semi-sympathetic manner (though these stories are a trickle compared to the nonstop deluge of “crime” headlines that often take up half or three-quarters of the front page). And, again, it’s important to note these problems are not unique to this publication. These are routine, unexamined tropes in local reporting across the United States. Reporters and editors are overworked and under pressure to push out articles, and likely don’t see anything per se wrong with repeating PD statements that provide a nonstop supply of titillating, click-ready content. But this doesn’t mean everyone should just accept this brand of reporting as a law of nature. We should, instead, ask basic questions about why the genre exists in the first place.
What purpose does it serve beyond turning newsrooms into de facto PR agents for the state? What’s the social benefit to treating police departments’ word as fact? What’s the good in ruining young African-Americans’ and Latinos’ lives by plastering their names and photos online, purely on the say-so of local police? Why is “street” crime the only crime that matters, whereas rampant wage theft, worker abuse and white collar crime are never something “local” news feels the need to cover?
Much of the journalist community understandably rallied around DNAInfo workers when their publication was shut down by a craven billionaire. And it was broadly seen as positive when they relaunched with the stated mission of bringing “local news” to places that didn’t have any.
But “news” is not a morally neutral enterprise, local or otherwise. It ultimately serves certain interests more than others. Whose interests are served when the bulk of the “crime” reporting is little more than rehashed police statements? Block Club claims in its mission statement to be “nonpartisan,” but a cursory review of its “crime” output reveals it very much serves a party—the Chicago Police Department.
Sarah Lazare contributed to this article. Research assistance: John McCullough.
Janine Jackson interviewed Hannah Hetzer about Trump’s new “war on drugs” for the September 28, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: The September 20 Columbus Dispatch ran an op-ed from Jim Carroll, identified as “deputy director of national drug control policy and President Trump’s nominee for drug czar.” Carroll evinced concern for the “lives lost” to drug overdoses and empathy for the “loved ones devastated by their loss,” as well as “those in recovery”—all by way of explaining why he was
in Columbus to meet with law enforcement officers from Ohio and across the Midwest about working together to stop heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamines and other drugs from entering our communities and ruining people’s lives.
That immediate recourse to a policing response is writ large in Trump’s “call to action” on what his administration calls the “World Drug Problem,” but it doesn’t reflect the direction of much of the actual world. So how much impact can that disconnect have?
Hannah Hetzer is senior international policy manager at Drug Policy Alliance; she joins us now by phone from here in town. Welcome to CounterSpin, Hannah Hetzer.
Hannah Hetzer: Thank you for having me.
JJ: As you have reported, the nature of the UN event at which this document, the Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem [was presented], the nature of the event is, itself, telling. The UN has its maybe Byzantine ways, but this was still special. What was the story behind this less-than-18-minute meeting?
HH: I think, ultimately, what this was was just an attempt by Trump and his administration to have a photo-op where they’re surrounded by other countries that look like they are giving support to the administration, and to demonstrate leadership on the drug issue without providing any real solutions both domestically and internationally.
So Trump hosted this high-level event that was called the “Call to Action on the World Drug Problem,” where he and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and UN Secretary General Guterres all gave remarks. At the event, Trump launched into very outdated ’80s, ’90s drug war rhetoric about a drug-free world, drug-free futures, about eradicating supply and the scourge of drug addiction, while Ambassador Haley just went on and on praising Trump for his leadership on this issue, and saying he’s ready to take this leadership worldwide.
The event in itself, this rings so false, because Trump has demonstrated no leadership on this issue domestically. He’s actually ignored the advice of scientists, advocates, people from the medical profession, about what actually works to help treat addiction and support people who use drugs and may be struggling. And has just enforced a very criminal justice-heavy approach.
Connected to this event was a document called the Call to Action on the World Drug Problem, which the US Mission circulated to other UN member states, which was a one-page document. And there are several things wrong with this document, both the way it was circulated, which was, it was given to these countries, saying, “This is not open for negotiation, it’s a final document,” and if they sign, they’re invited to this event with Trump and can have this photo-op with Trump.
The UN is, as you said, very bureaucratic, but it does rest on the pillars of negotiation and consensus. So all documents are agreed upon, and other countries get to weigh in and negotiate the language.
This just came out of nowhere, and said it was final and non-negotiable. So it’s very contrary to regular UN processes, and also UN processes on drug policy, where there’s several avenues for debate, and this is not one of them.
There’s also problems with the language of the letter. It doesn’t mention key UN agencies, like development program, or it doesn’t even mention development goals, the UN aides, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. And it ignores some of the agreed-upon language in the last few years at the UN about human rights, development, key populations—you know, women, children—and harm-reduction strategies. It doesn’t have the words “harm reduction” in it. So there’s a problem with the language of the text. There’s a problem with the way it was circulated. And, ultimately, I think it was just a ploy by the administration to look like they’re showing leadership on this issue.
JJ: Yeah, the non-mention of human rights seems central, as we think about the impact that the drug war has had. But there’s not just—as media might lead a casual reader to think—there’s not just this Trump worldview of things, and then people who are only defined by their opposition to that. There is, in fact, a developed, evidence-based conversation that runs counter, in terms of the definition of the problem, and in terms of the responses represented. And, in fact, those views, as it happens, were showcased on the very day Trump had his dog-and-pony show.
HH: That’s right. It’s ironic that on the day that Trump had this event, former prime ministers and heads of state that make up the Global Commission on Drug Policy—this is a distinguished group of world leaders, the ex-presidents of Switzerland and Greece and Colombia and Brazil, together with people like Richard Branson and, before he passed away, Kofi Annan—they make up this Global Commission on Drug Policy.
And on that very day, they were launching their report, that’s called “Regulation: The Responsible Control of Drugs,” where they call for an end to drug prohibition. They talk about the harms that drug prohibition has wreaked across the world, and call for taking control of drugs, through governments, responsibly.
And this isn’t coming from grassroots activists; this is coming from people who used to hold high positions of power, who you wouldn’t think would necessarily be the ones presenting these very innovative, groundbreaking strategies. But they have experience, and their language is just in such stark contrast to Trump’s language. They’re forward-thinking. They’ve seen what hasn’t worked. They’re calling for new approaches that do work, and for trying new things as well, while Trump just looks backwards.
And then there’s just also not a consensus within the UN member states. Unfortunately, a lot of countries signed on to this that domestically are more reform-oriented, and probably did so out of a lot of heavy diplomatic pressure from the United States. It was unfortunate that Canada signed on, even though they are ramping up their harm-reduction interventions, increasing the number of supervised consumption facilities, moving to legalize marijuana. And there are other countries that signed on to this that have much more progressive policies domestically, but probably just felt a lot of pressure from the Trump administration.
And then there are countries that are engaging in brutal, lethal war on drugs. A good example is the Philippines, in which thousands of people have been killed in this drug war, and President Trump actually has praised the Philippine president for his approach. So there’s a fractured consensus. There are countries that are more forward-thinking, and the US is definitely trying to regain control of the debate and take us backwards.
JJ: Speaking of Philippine President Duterte: Donald Trump, has he not even endorsed the idea, or sort of floated the idea, of executing drug dealers in this country?
HH: That’s right. It’s so, I mean, it’s terrifying. It’s extremely worrying that not once but twice, Trump has mentioned the idea of the death penalty for people who sell drugs. It’s concerning, when you don’t see human rights language being put first and foremost. It’s incredibly frightening.
JJ: I feel like sometimes in media, the “human rights over the punitive” approach is sort of set up as “in this corner…,” you know. But for one thing, humaneness is good. But for another, it’s effective, if our goal is individual and public health and well-being. But I sometimes believe that many media conversations on this debate leave out what various parties would even define as winning. For some people, anybody who alters their consciousness in any way should be punished, period. But we don’t explore that. There’s fundamental debate about the framing of whether this is a health issue, or this is a morality issue, I think.
HH: That’s right, I mean, we’ve just seen the total failure of repressive policies. Prohibition and repression and punishment are unethical in and of themselves, but they are also inefficient. It doesn’t work. And there are examples of strategies that do work, that do center public health and human rights and dignity and development. It’s not just immoral. It’s also inefficient.
JJ: Domestically, too, there are things happening. In Ohio, where I understand 12 people die each day from accidental overdoses, there’s a conference, September 27 and 28, that’s talking about “health-centered treatment,” that’s talking about “harm-reduction,” terms you note are missing from this Trump document. So we’re having this conversation within this country as well, of these varying approaches.
HH: In localities, leaders and advocates are really being about to push through groundbreaking strategies that were almost not conceivable in this country up until now. The big example of that right now is the discussion around supervised consumption facilities, which is taking place in a number of cities around this country, and this is not a new, crazy idea globally. There are many countries that have supervised consumption facilities, many cities, and there has never been a single overdose death in any of them. They’ve been peer-reviewed. There’s evidence that these work to support people who are using drugs, that they lower the rates of infectious diseases, of overdose deaths. They’re incredibly effective, and they’re incredibly humane.
And I think now we’re at a point where, in desperation, a lot of cities are finally accepting the words of people who use drugs, and people who advocate for people who use drugs, to say that, “This is what we want and this is what works.” And it looks like we’re going to be able to open one in this country over the coming year, which is very exciting. But we also need to scale up other programs that have proven to work, like syringe-exchange programs, the availability of Naloxone, all of these harm-reduction strategies that have worked elsewhere and here.
JJ: Media could be playing a role in letting folks know that those things are possible and happening.
HH: Absolutely, which is why I’m very thankful that you’re hosting this program because, again, this is not inventing the wheel; these are proven strategies, and the more that that’s presented as viable and helpful the better, and if we think about the amount of resources that we pour into prohibition and law enforcement, that could go to treatment and support and harm reduction, we would just be in a much better place.
JJ: I don’t want to close without noting the maybe most recent positive step, as we record, which is that the SITSA Act, the Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues Act of 2017, that the House passed in [June], I understand it was kept out of the final congressional bill on opioids. So something that would have pushed things in the more punitive direction that we’re talking about, it sounds like it has been halted for the moment?
HH: There are these little glimmers of hope, because I think more people are becoming more sensitized to this issue. So that is a small victory, yes.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Hannah Hetzer, senior international policy manager at Drug Policy Alliance. You can find their work online at DrugPolicy.org. Hannah Hetzer, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
HH: Thanks so much for having me.
Janine Jackson interviewed Marjorie Cohn about the Brett Kavanaugh nomination for the October 5, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: Donald Trump’s public mockery of Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who testified she was assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, was an acutely despicable spectacle in an administration that is no shirker when it comes to despicable spectacle. But the Kavanaugh hearings, the FBI “investigation” into allegations against him, the whole process, seemed to indicate more serious failures than Trump’s vindictive creepiness. What is going on here, and what might it mean for the Supreme Court going forward?
Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. She joins us now by phone from San Diego. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Marjorie Cohn.
Marjorie Cohn: Thanks for having me, Janine.
JJ: We’re in media res here, of course. We just heard this morning, October 4, that the FBI had completed its investigation, which Susan Collins called “very thorough,” despite it not including statements from Ford, or dozens of others who wanted to contribute. I have so many questions, but they really all kind of amount to, how is this happening? How are we at a place where a man who shout-sobbed his way through his hearings, snarling and accusing, and making clear that he hates “Democrats,” “the Clintons” and “the left,” could even be considered to have the temperment appropriate to a Supreme Court justice?
MC: That’s an excellent question, but it’s very clear, and it’s been clear from the start, that the Republican leadership, in concert with Donald Trump, is going to ram this nomination through so that they can achieve a solid, right-wing majority on the Supreme Court which will last for decades, and will reverse many of the rights that we hold dear.
The Republicans know that Kavanaugh would provide a reliable vote against immigrants, workers, voters, and gay and transgender people. He would deliver a dependable vote for employers, private property and church-state bonding, and they can rest assured that he would do his best to immunize Trump from criminal liability, and enable him to continue their mean-spirited, right-wing agenda. And this is more important to them than any judicial temperament, than any credible allegations of sexual assault, because the bottom-line issue—one of the most significant issues—is abortion rights, reproductive rights, and overturning Roe v. Wade, in addition to gay rights, and they have rationalized all of these other horrors to that end.
JJ: Kavanaugh seems so tainted, though, at this point. Why not just some other conservative? What is it about the timeline that you think makes them feel like they have to keep going with this candidate, over the objection of now, you know, millions of people?
MC: In part, they want Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court before the November 6 midterm elections, because if the Democrats achieve a majority in the Senate, then there might not be sufficient votes to confirm him after the election. That’s the most immediate consideration, but they were in a hurry to get him confirmed by October 1, which was the first day of the Supreme Court’s new term, and they want to help ensure the outcome of several hot-button cases that are on the Court’s docket, including cases involving double jeopardy, immigration, age discrimination and the Endangered Species Act. And there is a possibility that the Court might decide to take up cases involving gerrymandering, gay and transgender rights, and the separation of church and state.
JJ: You’ve been writing about Brett Kavanaugh for a while now, and you have pointed out that there’s plenty to undermine his candidacy even before we get to sexual assault allegations, and those other things are, in a way, at risk almost of being overlooked. And one of the concerns is around his record on international law and the power of the president. What are the flags there? And, again, they’re nothing to do with his “personality,” but they’re derived from his public record as a judge.
MC: Keep in mind that international law—insofar as the United States has ratified treaties—or customary international law are part of US law, under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, and yet Kavanaugh has nothing but scorn for international law, and he confuses international law with foreign law. International law, as I said, is treaty law and customary international law, which is customs that countries have built up over the years. But foreign law is totally different. It’s the law of France or Brazil or Germany; and he conflates the two.
Now that he’s been on the Court of Appeals, and during the Bush administration’s so-called “War on Terror,” Kavanaugh almost always deferred to the president on executive power. Now, the Supreme Court, during the Bush administration, did check and balance the executive, the president, and said that federal courts have jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus petitions by Guantánamo detainees; they said that a US citizen who’s being held as an enemy combatant has due process rights to contest his detention, and they said that Bush’s military commissions violated the Geneva Conventions and the Federal Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Now, in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that Guantánamo detainees held as enemy combatants have the right to file habeas corpus petitions in US federal courts, to say, “I’m being unlawfully held.”
But after Boumediene, Kavanaugh—on the Court of Appeals—did his best to try to neuter these habeas corpus rights that the Supreme Court had upheld in Boumediene, in case after case. And also, Kavanaugh has a record of dangerous deference to the president. Notwithstanding the case of Jones v. Clinton, the Paula Jones case, which said that a president has to answer to at least a civil case—that didn’t involve a criminal case—Kavanaugh doesn’t think that a president should be bothered to answer to a civil case or a criminal case while he’s in office.
And under US v. Nixon, a unanimous Supreme Court said that Nixon had to turn over the tapes during the Watergate scandal, and that led to Nixon’s resignation. And yet, although that case, US v. Nixon, is a settled precedent, Kavanaugh has said he thinks it should be reconsidered. And one of the most disturbing things, Janine, is that in a law review article, Kavanaugh wrote in 2014, he wrote that, yes, the Take Care Clause of the Constitution requires the president to enforce the law, it says that the president shall “take care” that the laws are faithfully executed. But then Kavanaugh went on to say, yes, the president has to enforce the law
at least unless the president deems the law unconstitutional, in which event the president can decline to follow the statute until a final court order says otherwise.
So Kavanaugh would create a dangerous presumption in favor of a president who refuses to follow the law. That is very worrisome.
JJ: And it should be worrisome, I should think, to people of any political stripe, allowing the president to make the law. And there are references, also, “Well, we’re in wartime.” But of course, given that the war is the “War on Terror,” it’s like we’re always going to be in wartime, so we can’t really think of that as a temporary status.
MC: Yes, that’s the excuse for whatever the president wants to do: “Oh, we’re fighting terrorism, the ‘War on Terror.’” The “War on Terror” is a misnomer. Terrorism is a tactic; it’s not an enemy. And yet, under the guise of the so-called “War on Terror,” Bush and Obama, and now Trump, are decimating our civil liberties. And Congress, unfortunately—not in every case, in some cases there’s pushback, but—largely defers to him, and the courts are the last resort to check and balance an out-of-control executive. And yet with Kavanaugh on the Court, that checking and balancing is not going to happen.
JJ: It seems important for the conversation to separate our concerns about Kavanaugh in particular, and then also this process that’s happening, that’s allowing him to advance in this way. There’s the lack, as Anita Hill pointed out in an op-ed, the lack of a protocol for vetting charges of harassment or assault in confirmation hearings, which should have been put in place before Clarence Thomas, but certainly after.
There’s Jeff Flake saying, we’re going to have an investigation by the FBI to last “no longer than a week.” What kind of an investigation decides how long it’s going to last before it starts?
The process, I think, just seems so broken to folks.
And I know that we knew that the Supreme Court was subject to partisan push and pull. I mean, Merrick Garland, George W. Bush, it’s not a new thing. But, I don’t know, it’s hard to see how anyone can, going forward, see the Supreme Court as a check or balance at this point.
MC: I think you’re absolutely right, and I think when Kavanaugh, and I say when because I think his confirmation is a foregone conclusion, especially because this so-called FBI investigation, which didn’t even last a week, this perfunctory investigation, which ignored many people coming forward who had evidence, including a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary who would confirm and corroborate the allegations of Deborah Ramirez, who said that Kavanaugh waved his penis in her face, forcing her to touch it.
It really is a farce, but Collins and Flake, at least the two of them, are getting political cover from this so-called week-long investigation—saying there’s “no new credible corroboration,” it was a “thorough” report. Whereas many, many people—it was detailed in Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker article—came forward and tried to contact the FBI, saying that they had relevant information, and yet the FBI did not contact them. They gave it a lick and a promise.
And evidently, during his testimony, Kavanaugh said, oh, I’ve been through six FBI investigations and there’s never been a problem. Well, actually, during the FBI investigation for his appointment to the Court of Appeals, the American Bar Association reduced their “Very Qualified” rating to “Qualified,” because there were problems with his judicial temperament.
And we saw that on display in the hearings—terrible judicial temperament. I mean, he was having tantrums, he was aggressive, he was acting, you know, “I know you are but what am I?“ with the senators, which is just unheard of.
And I am proud to say that I’m one of more than 1,000 law professors who signed a letter saying that he should not be confirmed, solely on the basis of his judicial temperament, which is really, really beyond the pale.
JJ: I understand that Chuck Schumer is asking for the FBI report to be made public, along with the White House directive. I imagine that many folks who see it will or would think, “Well, yeah this was a sham.” But what does that outrage translate to? What can we do, and is this a tipping point, potentially, for making actual, structural changes to the Court itself?
MC: Well, I don’t know about structural changes. I mean, that’s a tall order. But you see people in the streets today, yesterday, probably tomorrow and Saturday. The #MeToo movement has really galvanized the whole issue of women—and men, in some instances—being afraid to come forward to report sexual assault, because of feelings of humiliation or the ramifications.
And because of this time in history, where Kavanaugh has been accused of these things in the wake of the #MeToo movement, this has galvanized people all over this country, and these people are not going to go away. We are not going to go away. We are going to continue to pressure the branches of government.
And the fact that there were two courageous women, survivors of sexual assault, in an elevator with Jeff Flake, in his face, challenging him, is the only reason, I think, or certainly a primary reason, that he agreed to this investigation, this so-called investigation.
So political pressure, and I’m talking about people pressure, really does have an effect, and we have to keep it up, and people should be sitting in Collins’ office, and Murkowski and Flake and Manchin, who are the swing voters, and they should be around the block, and they should be demanding that they vote “No” on this confirmation.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Marjorie Cohn. You can find her most recent piece, “Five Reasons Why the GOP Is Rushing to Confirm Kavanaugh,” online at TruthOut.org, that and other work at MarjorieCohn.com. Marjorie Cohn, thank you so much joining us this week on CounterSpin.
MC: Thank you so much, Janine.