by Joshua Cho
Quick question: Does the US ever break, breach or violate its international agreements?
Apparently not, according to US coverage of Iran’s recent announcement that it intended to go beyond the limits of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in enriching uranium for its civilian nuclear program (frequently mischaracterized as a nuclear weapons program in media coverage). Reading corporate media’s inversion of reality, it’s hard to escape the impression that while Iran betrays its international agreements, the US just leaves them behind.
An Associated Press report carried by USA Today (6/17/19) was headlined: “Iran Says It Will Break Uranium Stockpile Limit in 10 Days,” and reported that Iran’s announcement indicated its “determination to break from the landmark 2015 accord,” while noting that “tensions have spiked between Iran and the United States,” partly because the US “unilaterally withdrew” from the landmark agreement. Note that the US rejection of its obligations under the deal is referred to in neutral terms—Washington “withdrew”—while Iran’s response to US nonobservance gets negatively characterized as a “break”—a pattern that persists throughout the coverage.
There was no indication in the AP piece that Iran offered conditions under which it would continue to comply with the Iran Deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), which gives the false impression that Iran’s decision to end compliance with the JCPOA is settled and unconditional.
The Wall Street Journal (6/17/19) offered the same kind of misleading headline: “Iran to Breach Limits of Nuclear Pact, as US to Send More Troops to the Middle East.” Again, Iran’s potential departure from the pact whose terms the US has vitiated is portrayed as a “breach,” while the US’s actual violation of the deal is labeled a “pullout” in the accompanying piece.
The Journal, unlike the AP, did note that Iran offered conditions under which it would continue to comply with the JCPOA’s terms:
The spokesman for Iran’s atomic energy agency, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said that by June 27—10 days from Monday—the country would surpass its enriched-uranium limits. He said Iran would further increase its production in early July, but could reverse both steps if Europe provided relief from [US] sanctions.
CNN (6/17/19) went with “Iran says it will break the uranium stockpile limit agreed under nuclear deal in 10 days,” as their headline. Only people who read past the headline, which most people don’t, would’ve known that that’s not really what Iran is saying:
Iran has reiterated that it could reverse the new measures should the remaining European signatories in the nuclear deal (France, Germany and the United Kingdom) step in and make more of an effort to circumvent US sanctions.
To its credit, CNN added “withdraw” in addition to the usual “violate,” “break” and “breach” in its list of words to describe Iran’s potential departure compared with just “withdrew” to describe the US’s actions.
The New York Post (6/17/19) chose “Iran Will Violate Nuclear Deal, Boost Uranium Stockpile” as the headline to mislead readers, and kept with the pattern of describing the US’s JCPOA breach as “pulling out of the deal.” However, unlike other reports, it didn’t feature any sources skeptical of Iran’s responsibility for the recent Gulf of Oman attacks on Japanese and Norwegian commercial oil tankers, despite crew members aboard the Japanese Kokuka Courageous contradicting US allegations of an Iranian mine attack by claiming to have been hit by a “flying object,” and European officials calling for further investigation and urging “maximum restraint.”
The New York Times’ headline (6/17/19): “Trump Adds Troops After Iran Says It Will Breach Nuclear Deal,” not only continued the above trends by not giving any hint that Iran might not depart from the pact, and characterizing the US’s JCPOA violations as a mere “withdrawal,” it also reported on US sanctions on Iran without mentioning that the sanctions themselves are violations of international law (Guardian, 10/3/18).
The Times uncritically cited Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statements that the US is “considering a full range of options”—including military strikes—without mentioning that these would be violations of international law because they go against UN Security Council Resolution 1887, which requires peaceful resolutions to disputes regarding nuclear issues, in accordance with the UN Charter and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which both the US and Iran are parties to.
In fact, virtually all coverage fails to address the JCPOA in light of the NPT, because none of it challenges the legitimacy of the US’s prerogative to impose limits on Iran’s civilian nuclear program to begin with. Article IV of the NPT supports the “inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” in accordance with Articles I and II forbidding the transfer and receiving of nuclear weapons from nuclear-weapon states.
FAIR (10/17/17) has observed that corporate media frequently attribute malicious intentions to Official US Enemies without going through the bother of presenting evidence. Iran is often accused of sneakily plotting to develop nuclear weapons, the way US ally Israel actually did when it built the only nuclear weapons arsenal in the Middle East (Guardian, 1/15/14).
This is ironic, because Iran has actually been a consistent leader in the nuclear disarmament movement. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, when Iran was the chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, critiqued the JCPOA because it didn’t go far enough to ensure peace in the Middle East by not establishing a Nuclear Weapons–Free Zone there. Iran was also one of the first countries to propose making the Middle East a NWFZ, bringing up the proposal to the UN General Assembly in 1974 (CounterPunch, 12/13/13).
Journalist Gareth Porter (Foreign Policy, 10/16/14), reporting on Iran’s little-understood theocratic system, noted that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against building any kind of WMDs in the 1990s is a formal ruling on Islamic jurisprudence, holding a legal status above mere legislation. He also pointed to Khomeini’s refusal to develop WMDs when up to 20,000 Iranians were killed by chemical weapons by then–US ally Saddam Hussein in the 1980s (Reuters, 9/16/13)—with an additional 100,000 survivors developing chronic diseases. Current US sanctions aiming to bring Iran’s “oil exports to zero” are exacerbating those chronic diseases, in addition to further strangling Iran’s economy, by restricting access to necessary medicine (Guardian, 9/2/13).
Of course, none of this can be mentioned, because it contradicts the corporate media narrative of Iran being an enemy that must be confronted, with US aggression against Iran being portrayed as defensive countermeasures (FAIR.org, 5/19/19, 6/6/19). For US media, Iran is the only JCPOA party with commitments that can be “breached,” “violated” or “broken,” with the US free to leave them whenever it wants to, without harming its reputation as a trustworthy party to international agreements.
This week on CounterSpin: New revelations from Brazil: Whistleblower-leaked records show the anti-corruption crusade, called Car Wash or Lava Jato, that put popular ex-president Lula da Silva in prison and paved the way for fascist president Jair Bolsanaro—all while being celebrated in the US corporate press—was actually, as critics contended, less interested in corruption than in keeping Lula’s Workers Party out of power. It’s a story about what investigative journalism can reveal…and about how elite media can try and cover it right back up. Journalist Brian Mier has lived in Brazil for more than 20 years. He’s co-editor at Brasil Wire and author of the new book Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil.PlayStop pop out
Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at coverage of When They See Us.PlayStop pop out
‘Governments and Corporations Were Figuring Out a Way to Behave With Impunity When It Comes to Oil’ - CounterSpin interview with Sandy Cioffi on oil in Nigeria
FAIR’s Steve Rendall interviewed Sandy Cioffi about oil in Nigeria for the June 25, 2010, episode of CounterSpin—an interview that was reaired for the June 14, 2019, show. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: A recent report in the Guardian, based on internal documents from the Mobil Foundation—the philanthropic arm of Mobil Oil Company—shows how the foundation named a certain Dr. David Page in its decision to fund a marine research lab at Bowdoin College, writing that it could “assure rapid response to any possible Mobil spill events.”
Between Mother Nature and Mobil’s highly effective and targeted response, the shoreline was spared what could have been a very serious environmental event.
Oil companies in Nigeria are also hoping to “counter” people like filmmaker Sandy Cioffi. Cioffi went to Nigeria to make a documentary about a community library, but came away with Sweet Crude, a hard-hitting look at industry-incurred devastation and violence in the Delta.
Sandy Cioffi: Obviously, my first reaction, like anyone, is emotional. And the emotions run deep for me, because part of my motivation in making the film Sweet Crude was to point out to people that when you see a place like the Niger Delta, it’s not only a current crisis, but it’s also a cautionary tale. I had hoped that my film, along with all the other activism going on around the world, might help to avert a disaster of this kind, not just in the Gulf, but in all of the places around the world. But those disasters are happening and imminent. It’s devastating, is the really simple answer.
There are some similarities. And I think those are important to note, particularly one that doesn’t get all that much ink, which is the use of these chemical dispersants as a way of dealing with oil spills. The testing ground for those chemicals, for all these years, has been the Niger Delta. One of the chief complaints of the women who, somewhat famously, in 2002 and 2003 took over oil platforms in the Niger Delta, one of their chief complaints was the devastating health effects of those chemical dispersants on their children, and demanding that oil companies no longer use those as a way to pretend “cleaning up” an oil spill.
I think people don’t know that when you hear about something like the chemicals dispersants, you somehow think, this is the first time that they’re being tried. And thinking about the Niger Delta as a sort of terrible and demonic testing ground is a better way to put it. That’s one similarity.
Another, of course, is just to see the immediate impact to wildlife. The long-term consequences of those kinds of oil spills aren’t something—you know, I hear biologists being interviewed to say we don’t know those answers—well, we know some of those answers, because they’re sitting right there in Nigeria, unbeknownst to most people.
There are, of course, also corporate lack-of-any-kind-of-preparation similarities, lack-of-any-kind-of-government-regulation similarities. I think the distinction is simply that, if it’s in Africa, you don’t hear about it at all. And it’s been aptly pointed out, at least somewhat in the last few weeks, that the media coverage about the Gulf spill is at least happening, and at least you’re seeing some images of the Niger Delta, and oil spills. And the other devastating environmental impacts just aren’t in your head.
But it’s like being in Mad Max when you’re there. It’s some strange sort of trip into the future when you’re there. And I just would like to say that I get a little concerned about doing too much pitting one place against another, and saying, “Well, they got no coverage, we get coverage.”
That’s part of the story. It’s an important part of the story. But I think if we really go to the next point, it was always a place that governments and corporations together were figuring out a way, under the radar, to behave with impunity when it comes to oil. It’s a terrible continuum all over the world. And there’s far more that the countries who are facing that, including the US, have in common, than they have differences. And I think that the organizations that are finally bringing 40 nations together to look at, whether you live in an oil-run state or state-run oil, you’re facing some of the same kinds of consequences.
Steve Rendall: We think of the US regulatory system as being weak, or even in the tank for the oil companies. Is it fair to say that the Nigeria story shows us what oil companies will do with virtually no restraints when they can pretty much do as they please, with government support?
SC: It’s more than fair, it’s a perfect way to look at it. And that’s what I mean by continuum. I mean, if you look at the most abusive days of the Nigerian situation, you have full-on, flat-out military dictators, both supported by American foreign policy and supported by oil companies. You have Chevron and Shell guilty of actually arming young men against each other in a sort of pit-enemies-against-one-another strategy to keep chaos, and prices of oil fluctuating. You, in fact, had two fairly famous cases, in the last two years, of people actually being able to sue Chevron and Shell in American courts for their participation in what were very violent situations in the Niger Delta. So you can take the Niger Delta as an extreme, and unfortunately classic, situation of a full-on kleptocracy, of an oligarchy that is completely in place as an oil state. And then if you look on another end of the spectrum — some people would say Norway, although that’s not all a bed of roses, either — but if you look at that entire continuum of how to deal with oil, the United States might be somewhere in the middle, but it’s certainly, at this point, an oil-run state.
SR: Among your experiences in Nigeria, you had occasion to see how ABC’s Brian Ross tried to cover the Nigerian opposition movement. Ross wasn’t exactly focused on the predations of big oil, or the environmental and safety threats, or a peaceful resolution to the conflict over these issues. Tell us a little bit about what you think that says about US coverage of Nigeria, and perhaps Africa at large.
SC: At its most benign, African coverage is nonexistent. At its most problematic, the coverage is either about a group of people who are victims, huddled by the side of the road waiting for aid, or brutal people who just don’t value life, and are at each other’s throats and brewing terrorism. ABC News’ report chose the latter characterization, of an armed movement that has grown out of decades of unarmed resistance, which met with virtually a silent world paying no attention to them.
And their decision in 2006, to begin to kidnap oil workers, guess what? It yielded media coverage. So they were reinforced in the notion that if they pick up arms, they’re going to see CNN and ABC. Unfortunately, on CNN and ABC, particularly ABC, what they saw was classic, sensationalist, just incendiary reports of young men with guns. And they used as their sources an unnamed email address, rather than an unmasked interview that I delivered for them, while working as a freelance person for them; they left it on the cutting room floor.
It’s probably true that there could be an explanation about the ways in which they have not enough time and not enough research associates, but there’s something more important at play. The idea that you fearmonger as a way to get viewers, and you speak about the “new African terror threat.” And you imply a relationship to Al Qaeda, which a pesky detail of fact is that the young men of the Niger Delta would never be in association with Al Qaeda, because they’re deeply Christian and quite anti-Muslim, which is, in and of itself, a concern for people in Nigeria. But aside from that fact, there’s plenty of evidence and sources to prove that they have nothing to do with Al Qaeda. But he went to air with a story that implied there might be an association of coordinated attacks.
And to my mind, the connection of that, and what happened in the Gulf, is that part of that fearmongering has led to deeper and deeper ocean exploration for oil. It’s an actual strategy among oil companies, and all of the geopolitical considerations, that if you can fearmonger enough, you can get a public that says, “Fine, even though the safety measures are not in place, we’ll drill 10 miles in the ocean if you don’t go to foreign oil,” because we keep saying “foreign oil,” “foreign oil” in this way, that’s all about a level of racism and fearmongering, rather than looking at the question of our relationship with oil in general.
by Alan MacLeod
Alan MacLeod interviewed Noam Chomsky via Skype on March 13, 2018, for MacLeod’s new book Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. They discussed the origins of the classic work of media criticism (co-authored with Edward Herman) Manufacturing Consent, the role of that book’s “propaganda model” today, Google and Facebook, Donald Trump and Russia, fake news and Syria. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Alan MacLeod: I would first like to ask you about how Manufacturing Consent came about. How did you know Edward Herman? What was the division of labour with the book? What parts did you write and what parts did he write?
Noam Chomsky: Ed wrote the basic framework, the institutional analysis, the corporate structure, the relations to government programs and the fundamental institutional structure of the media—that was basically him. He also did parts on some of the specific studies, like on the coverage comparison of a hundred religious martyrs in Latin America with one Polish priest. He did the comparison of the elections, which was partly drawn from a book that he had already done on demonstration elections. I did all the parts on Vietnam and on the Freedom House attack on the media. Of course, we interacted on all the chapters, but the main division of labor was that.
AM: And what was the reaction to it when it came out? Was it celebrated? Ignored? Attacked?
NC: The reaction was quite interesting. Mostly the journalists and the media did not like it at all, of course. And, interestingly, they did not like the defense of the integrity of journalism: the last part, which investigated Peter Braestrup’s major, two-volume Freedom House attack on the media for having been treacherous, for having lost the Vietnam war, and so on (which turned out to be a total fraud).
I was probably the only person who read the actual document, both of the two volumes. One, the attack on the media, [the other] the documentary basis. Hardly any correlation between them! It was just literally total fraud!
And what the results showed was that the journalists were courageous, honorable; they had integrity, they did their work seriously—but, of course, all within the framework of US government ideology. Like all the coverage of the war, like, say, David Halberstam. It was honest, serious, but, almost without exception, within the framework of the assumption that the United States is making a mistake by trying to save democracy in South Vietnam from Communist aggression. That is the picture. The idea that the United States was carrying out a major war crime by invading another country and destroying the indigenous resistance…. the facts were there, but not the framework of discussion.
And they did not like that. Journalists would much prefer to be regarded as aggressive, independent, thinking for themselves, and if they were treacherous, well, OK, maybe they went overboard attacking the US government—that they much preferred. So as far as the journalists themselves were concerned, aside from a few exceptions, they did not like that picture of journalism as being honest, courageous and with integrity.
There were very few reviews of the book, but there was one critical discussion that I wrote about later, by Nicholas Lehmann [New Republic, 1/9/89], a well-known scholar of journalism, who wrote a review in which he disparaged it, saying, “This doesn’t mean anything.”
For example, he discussed the chapter comparing the assassinations of a hundred religious martyrs in Central America, including an archbishop, American nuns and leading Latin American intellectuals—where there was virtually no coverage—with the coverage of the assassination of one Polish priest, where the assassins were immediately apprehended, tried, sentenced to jail—where there was vast reportage. This was one of our many examples of the way in which “worthy victims” are treated, as compared with “unworthy victims.”
He said, “Well, this doesn’t mean anything, it is just because the media focused on one thing at a time, and they happened to be focusing on Poland, not El Salvador.” So, out of curiosity, I went to the New York Times index, and it turned out there was more coverage of El Salvador than of Poland during that period. But it does not matter, because this is a world of alternative facts. The media commentary is mostly propaganda and ideology. There were a few other critiques rather like that…but in the mainstream, it was basically ignored.
The first book that Ed and I wrote together, Counterrevolutionary Violence, was published by a small publisher that was doing quite well. They published 20,000 copies of it, and were ready to distribute it. The publisher was owned by a big conglomerate, Warner Brothers, now part of Time Warner. One of the Warner executives saw the advertising for the book, and did not like it. He asked to see the book, and when he saw it, he went berserk and ordered them to stop distributing it immediately.
The publisher at first did not agree. They said they would publish a critical volume with contrary views, but that was not enough. To prevent it from being published, in the course of the discussion, he just put the whole publisher out of business, destroying all their stock—not only our book, but all their books.
We brought this to the attention to some civil libertarians at the American Civil Liberties Union. They did not see any problem. It is not government censorship; it is just a corporation deciding to destroy a publisher to prevent them distributing a book.
We immediately started working on an expansion of the book: The Political Economy of Human Rights. The reaction to that was quite interesting. Many things were discussed, but there were two major chapters where we compared two huge atrocities going on at the same time in the same place, in South East Asia: one in Cambodia under Pol Pot; the other in East Timor, after the Indonesian invasion.
They were very similar. Per capita, the East Timor atrocities were worse, as they killed a larger portion of the population; but they were comparable. The fundamental difference between them was that in one case, you could blame it on an official enemy and there was absolutely nothing to do about it—nobody had a proposal as to how to stop it.
In the other case, we were responsible. The United States and its allies were crucially responsible. The US blocked action at the United Nations, provided the arms for Indonesia. The more the atrocities increased, the more the arms flowed. And there was everything you could do about it: You could just call it off.
The reaction was, not a word on our chapter about East Timor; that disappeared. But there was a huge attack on our discussion of Cambodia. There was a huge literature on this, trying to show that we were apologists for Pol Pot. The reason for this was that we went through the media and said, “We don’t know what the facts are, we can’t know, but we will compare the facts available with what came out of the media filter,” and it was grotesque: There was lying at a level that would have astonished Stalin. So we went through that record. That led to total hysteria. Look it up, you will find a ton of literature about it. We recently published a new edition of the book, and we didn’t change a comma, because there was nothing wrong with it. But that is the kind of reaction you get with Manufacturing Consent.
AM: It’s now been almost 30 years since its publication, and the media landscape has, in many ways, changed greatly since 1988. I think perhaps the largest difference is the arrival of the internet and social media. One 2016 study showed that half of all British people get their news online now, with online news having overtaken television in its reach, and having far superseded it among those under 45 years old. Twenty-five percent of the UK receives its news primarily through social media like Facebook or Twitter. In the United States, two-thirds of the adult population get news through social media, and that figure is growing at nearly 10 percent a year. Even the majority of over-50s use social media for news. Could you speak about the internet and social media, its usage and the evolving media landscape with regard to the propaganda model?
NC: I don’t think the internet and social media changes the propaganda model at all. The propaganda model was about the major media institutions and they remain, with all the social media and everything else, the primary source of news, information and commentary. The news that appears in social media is drawn from them. So, if you look at the news on Facebook, it comes straight from the major media. They don’t do their own investigations.
As far as the major media are concerned, there is no fundamental difference. In fact, in some ways, they are a little more independent than they were back in the 1980s, partly because of changes in the society, which have opened things up to an extent. But fundamentally, they are the same. In fact, Ed and I did a second edition of Manufacturing Consent about 16 years ago, and we talked about the internet and whether to write anything about it, and we decided just to leave it alone.
As far as social media are concerned, they are interesting in themselves. There has been a certain amount of study of them. What they have done is create bubbles. If you read the New York Times—which, incidentally, young people did not read much in the 1980s, either—but if you read the New York Times or the Washington Post, or even if you watch television news, you get a certain range of opinion, not very broad—it goes from center to far-right, but at least there is some discussion, and occasionally you get a critical voice here and there.
On social media, that has declined. People tend to go to things that just reinforce their own opinions, so you end up with bubbles. And it is all across the spectrum. The people on what is called the left see the left media, the people on the right see the right media. And the level of material is, of course, much more shallow.
The mainstream media, as we wrote in Manufacturing Consent, are a very significant source of news and information, and provide very valuable material. The first thing I do every day is read the New York Times, as it is the most comprehensive journal. You have to critically analyze what you read and understand the framework, what is left out and so forth, but that is not quantum physics; it is not hard to do. But it is a source of news.
On social media, you do not find that. There are exceptions; there are internet journals that are very good—for example, The Intercept—but most of it [internet and social media] is pretty shallow, and has led to a decline in understanding of the world in many ways.
AM: And, of course, there is the increasingly close relationship between these massive online monopolies and the US state. For instance, Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post and Amazon, received a $600 million contract with the CIA. Meanwhile, Google has something of a revolving door with the State Department, and shares enormous amounts of data about us with it, and are constantly listening to us through products like Siri and Alexa. Its former CEO, Eric Schmidt’s book about technological imperialism came heartily endorsed by Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair—and the former head of the NSA, who called Google part of the “defense industrial base.” Julian Assange has called some of Google’s projects “Orwellian horrors.”
NC: To a certain extent, that is true. They do things that are connected with state power, but I think Google and Facebook and the other few conglomerates that monopolize the system are basically connected with advertisers. They are part of the business world.
So they are essentially selling you to advertisers, just as the major old media do; they are also selling audiences to advertisers, but in a different way. Google and Facebook are doing it by monitoring everything about you, so that somehow advertisers will be able to make more money approaching you. And that is very dangerous. And some of the things that are done and are not reported are quite interesting.
So take the last German elections, for example. There was a lot of talk about potential Russian interference, that the Russians would undermine the election and so on. It turns out there was interference in the election. It was not Russian. It was from the United States. A media company that works for nice guys like Trump, Le Pen and Netanyahu got together with Facebook, and the Facebook office of Berlin provided them with extensive details of the kind they have on German voters, so then the media company could microtarget ads to specific voters to try to influence them to vote in a certain way. For whom? For Alternative für Deutschland, the neo-fascist party! Which probably is a factor in their surprisingly high vote.
This was reported in the business press, so you can read about it in Bloomberg Businessweek. But try to find a report in the mainstream press. It is not the kind of electoral manipulation we like to talk about. That is typical of the kind of things we discussed in Manufacturing Consent. So, yes, there is interference in elections, this is a good example. But the main thing is the way in which people are individually tracked to monitor the environment in which they live, so as to control them for the benefit of advertisers and business.
You may have read that there are recent studies showing that automobile manufacturers are now so flooded with data from drivers of cars, that they have not yet worked out a way on how to get a business model, to allow advertisers to follow you every moment of your life. There are already apps that you can get where they give you some free device, and in return you agree to have advertisements posted on the car dashboard the whole time you are driving. So if you are approaching an area where there is a certain restaurant, there will be an ad for that restaurant, things like that. This is really insidious, and it can be used in very dangerous ways, and sooner or later will be, I am sure.
AM: Are companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon too big to exist privately and in their current form?
NC: Any kind of near-monopoly as these companies are is extremely dangerous. They have enormous power and outreach. I do not think that any organization at all should have that kind of power. Their ability to collect information and to devise means of controlling what you see and do is very dangerous. Even at the level of you looking up on a search engine, Google deciding what you are going to see first, second and so on is quite dangerous. And they can be quite insidious, like what happened in the German election.
AM: In chapter four, I suggest that the anti-Communist filter that you wrote about in the 1980s, as one of the five crucial filters that affect news, is being drawn upon to create a new “anti-Russian” filter, where journalists and political figures who do not toe the establishment line on war and foreign policy will be chided as “Russian agents” or “Putin’s puppets.” You mentioned The Intercept; its co-founder Glenn Greenwald is an archetypal example of this. Another would be Jeremy Corbyn. [Note: The day after this interview took place, the Sun, Britain’s largest newspaper by circulation, ran with the front-page headline, “Putin’s Puppet: Corbyn Refuses to Blast Russia on Spy Attack,” as the leader of the Labour Party did not unreservedly endorse sanctions on Russia.] What is your opinion about the #Russiagate allegations, and the general political climate with regards to Russia?
NC: As you probably know, in the United Kingdom right now, there are moves to remove people’s access to RT, which is another television outlet. When I am overseas, I look at that and BBC, and they give a lot of information and news from different perspectives. But you have to protect people in the UK from an alternative point of view. In the United States, it is not a problem, because practically nobody has heard of RT. And Al-Jazeera, for example, had to cancel its efforts to reach an American audience, because practically no station would allow them to appear. So there is no state censorship, it is just Counterrevolutionary Violence business censorship again.
Let’s take the Russia business. Let’s say all the claims are true. Suppose Russia tried to interfere in the American elections. That ought to make people laugh hysterically. There is huge interference in American elections. It comes from the corporate sector. They practically buy the elections. In fact, there is extensive work in mainstream academic political science that demonstrates very convincingly that you can predict the electability, hence largely the votes, of people in Congress on major issues just by looking at their campaign funding. That is one factor, let alone lobbying and everything else. That is massive interference in elections.
About 70 per cent of the population of the US is not even represented, meaning that their own representatives pay no attention to their views, and follow the views of the major funders. This is manipulation on an enormous level! Whatever the Russians might have done is not even a toothpick on a mountain compared to that, quite apart from the fact that the US not only intervenes in elections (including in Russia), but overthrows governments. The whole thing is a bad joke, and a sign of the collapse of the Democratic Party as a serious institution. They are focusing on this marginal phenomenon as a way to discredit Trump, and almost totally ignoring the really devastating things carried out by the Trump administration.
Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting did a study a little while ago of interviews with Trump by the major media since his election. It turns out that climate change was not mentioned. That is the most serious thing that he is doing!
It should be a major headline every day that, alone in the world, the most powerful country in human history is not only refusing to participate in the efforts to deal with an existential crisis, but, in fact, is acting to exacerbate the crisis, pouring funds and money into more use of fossil fuels. Try and find an example in history of any political organization that was dedicated with passion to trying to destroy the prospect for organized human life. Even the Nazis were not doing that!
And that is the Republican Party under Trump. It is the most dangerous organization in human history, for this reason alone. It is not asked about, not discussed. It is hard to find words to describe it. Instead of that, and plenty of other things that they are doing, what the media is trying to do is find some Russian interference in the election. It is hard to know what to say about it!
AM: Of course, these actions are not happening in a vacuum. There is a huge geopolitical backdrop, where Western and Russian forces are conducting a silent war in places like Ukraine and Syria. Could I get you to comment on the coverage of the Syria situation, and ask how we critique our own media without undermining genuine aspirations of Syrians struggling for a better society?
NC: I think the media should cover Syria accurately and seriously, as a number of journalists—Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, Charles Glass, Jonathan Randall—do. Those journalists cover it very accurately, that’s what they should be doing. Incidentally, you will notice that I mentioned journalists who write in England, not the United States. Serious coverage is much harder to find here. There is some, but not much. So the media should cover what is happening.
As far as critical discussion is concerned, what Assad has been doing with Russian support is vicious and criminal. Right now, what is happening in Eastern Ghouta is a major atrocity. But as Patrick Cockburn pointed out in the Independent, what is happening in Afrin is about the same.
AM: Happening where, sorry?
NC: Afrin. Turkish forces and their allies are carrying out the attack in a mostly Kurdish area. Patrick Cockburn has covered it, but almost nobody else. The fact that you ask is itself revealing. The Turkish invasion of Syria is quite serious, and it is threatening to destroy the Kurdish independent areas. It is not a joke. But it is barely covered, apart from people like Patrick Cockburn and Charlie Glass that cover it, but not many.
AM: I wanted to ask about clickbait and fake news as well. In the context of decreased revenues, we have seen an increase in inflammatory and often simply false reporting. Even organizations that do not rely on the traditional financing structure, like the BBC, have told their staff to “emulate Buzzfeed.” What is your opinion on fake news today, its uses and abuses?
NC: The use of just invented news—Breitbart, for example—is not new, but it used to be on supermarket shelves. You would see the National Enquirer, that would tell you Obama had an affair with whomever. That is fake news. But now it has spread quite widely, but not really in the major media. I think they do pretty much what they did before. It is true that advertising revenues had declined for a time, but they increased with Trump. The television media in particular are delighted with the Trump phenomenon—you cannot turn on the television set without seeing something about Trump. And it is bringing in many more viewers. One of the CEOs of CBS said during the presidential campaign that “for us, economically, Trump’s place in this election is a good thing,” that he has “never seen anything like it” and it is “going to be a very good year for us.”
I happened to be overseas when the election took place, and I watched BBC for several days. It was 100 percent Trump! Nothing else in the world! Actually, the election was important, but it was important for quite different reasons that were not reported. For example, November 8, the day of the election, was an extremely important day in history. The World Meteorological Organization was meeting in Morocco and trying to put some teeth in the Paris negotiations. It had presented a dire picture of the impact of climate change on the world. As soon as the election results came in, the meeting basically stopped, and the question was, “Can we even continue when the most powerful country in human history is deciding to destroy our efforts?” That was the major news of the day, not the fact that some half-mad billionaire with huge media support managed to win an election. But it was not even mentioned. A couple of weeks later, I found some mentions in the back pages.
As far as the election itself was concerned, the most striking feature was the Sanders campaign. The Sanders campaign was the first time in over a century of American political history that a candidate was able to get to where he did. Sanders probably would have been nominated if it had not been for the machinations of the Obama/Clinton party managers. But he did this with no name recognition, no funding from wealth or corporate power, and no media support or recognition—that is astonishing! That has never happened in American political history. In the United States, elections are basically bought, as I mentioned previously. This was a really striking phenomenon, but was barely mentioned in the media.
By now, he is by far the most popular political figure in the country, but you hardly see a mention of him anywhere. He and his movement are doing lots of things, but they cannot get any reporting on it. Those are the really important things. And the BBC is the same; it is “Trump did this,” “Trump did that.”
What Trump actually is doing is pretty clever. It is a dual program underway; Trump carries out one ridiculous antic after another. The media focus on it, the factcheckers start, and a couple of days later they say, “Well, this and that fact were wrong,” but by then, everyone has forgotten about it, and he is on to some new antics.
Meanwhile, while media attention is focused on the megalomaniac conman who is working to attract their attention, the really savage wing of the Republican Party, the Paul Ryan wing, is busy dismantling every element of government that might help the general population, and dedicating themselves to their real constituency: the super wealthy and corporate power. That is happening in the background, while everyone is focusing on Trump’s latest antics. It is a good system and is working very well.
Meanwhile, he is maintaining his base, who are under the illusion that somehow he is going to bring back jobs or that he is standing up for America. It is working quite well, and the media and the Democrats are in particular responsible for allowing it to continue.
AM: As many old media companies struggle to maintain advertising incomes due to increased competition from online marketing companies, like Google AdSense, does this make the second filter of the propaganda model weaker, or, perversely, stronger, as media are more desperate than ever to appease their remaining sponsors? Furthermore, journalism appears to be becoming a less professionalized field, with fewer and fewer full-time staff journalists employed by newspapers and TV, and more freelancers and citizen journalists. In this context, what is journalism’s future?
NC: Media coverage is shrinking, but the part that is there is still professionalized. There are very good, professional correspondents in the field, analysts and so on, but there are much fewer of them. Take Boston, where I have lived for many years. The Boston Globe was a major, leading newspaper. It had international bureaus; it did the best coverage of Central America during Reagan’s wars. Now there are a few things apart from local news in it, and the rest is what they pick up from wire services. It is essentially hardly a newspaper anymore.
That kind of thing is happening around the country, but it is not deprofessionalization, it is just a decline in the model of the media that had functioned. In part, it is being undermined by social media. If people can turn on the computer and get a couple of headlines, then go on with their lives, it is a lot easier than reading a newspaper and trying to figure out what is happening. So there is a general cheapening of the culture that is affecting the media. But I see no evidence that the media are more influenced in their news coverage and analysis by advertisers than was the case before. It may be so, but I do not have any evidence for it.
AM: Are the five explanatory filters more than an arbitrary list of possible causes for the declawing of media? Are they all even “filters,” given that at least one of them, flak, requires conscious activity (more like an injection of poison than a filter), and the fifth is more a very broad idea about ideology?
NC: The fifth one, the anti-Communist filter, was too narrow. In our  edition of Manufacturing Consent, we expanded it to invented threats to try to control opinion and discussion. Iran is a good example; the war on terror is another. It is not just anti-Communism.
Aside from that, I do not understand what is arbitrary. We looked at the institutional structures of the [mainstream] media. What are they? They are major corporations, that are often parts of bigger, mega-corporations. They have a product that they sell to a market. The product is readers of newspapers, or viewers on television, and the market is advertisers.
So they are corporate institutions that sell readers to advertisers. They are all closely linked to government. There is a lot of flow, in and out, of personnel, with a lot of influence.
And we asked a simple question, that anyone who believes in free markets would ask at once: Do the structure of the producer, of the market, and the links to other power structures, does that affect the media content? That is the propaganda model. There is nothing arbitrary about it. That is just elementary. And if you believe in free markets, that is exactly what you would look at.
AM: It is 30 years since Manufacturing Consent was published. Today, what would you have added or subtracted to the book if you were writing it today? Or do you think the propaganda model still holds very strongly?
NC: The model is about the same today as it was in the 1980s. I would just use new examples. Take, say, Iran. There is a lot to say about that. There is a lot of concern about the potential threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. A couple of questions arise: Suppose Iran was developing nuclear weapons. Who would be threatened?
Actually, we have an analysis of this, by a US intelligence report to Congress on the nature of the strategic issues of the world. This is before the P5+1 agreement. What they point out is that if Iran is developing nuclear weapons, which we do not know, the reason would be as part of their deterrent strategy. As they point out, Iran has very low military expenditure, even by the standards of the region, and, of course, by the standards of the West. Their strategic doctrine is defensive; they want to defend themselves from any attack. And if they are developing nuclear weapons, it would be part of their deterrent strategy.
Who is that a threat to? It is very simple: It is a threat to the rogue states that want to rampage in the region without any deterrent. There are two of them. They are called the United States and Israel. It is a threat to them if anyone has a deterrent. That is the potential “threat” of Iran.
Is there a way of dealing with that potential threat? There is one very simple way: move to establish a nuclear weapons–free zone in the area. Is there a barrier to that? Not from Iran. Iran has been calling for that for years. Not the Arab states, they have been pressing for it almost forever. In fact, they initiated the effort. Not the rest of the world, which is strongly in favor of it.
There is one barrier. It is called the United States. The US, over a long period of time, has refused to allow this to proceed, most recently Obama in 2015. The US and Britain have a special commitment to this. Here is what ought to be the headlines on Iran: The United States and Britain have a particular commitment to a nuclear weapons–free zone in the region. When the US and Britain invaded Iraq, they had to concoct some sort of pretext. What they did was refer to a 1991 Security Council resolution that called on Saddam Hussein to stop his production of weapons of mass destruction. That very same Security Council resolution calls on “all parties,” meaning the US and Britain, to move towards establishing a nuclear weapons–free zone in the region.
So the US and Britain have a special commitment to move towards the one measure that could end any possible threat that anyone believes Iran poses. Why aren’t they doing it? There is a simple reason. They have to prevent any inspection or control of Israel’s nuclear facilities. That is the story. Do you see it discussed? No. And I would give many other examples in a new edition.
AM: And in terms of the future of journalism, what do you think? Is it bleak?
NC: Well, there is an audience that is interesting. Let’s go back to the Sanders campaign that I mentioned earlier. The fact is that Sanders is by far the most popular political figure in the country. Journalism could try to respond to that. It could try to reach the people who are really interested in doing something about the hard problems of the world, and engage with them. There are plenty of such people. But the media are not reaching them. They can and they should. That would be the future of really independent media.
Take something like I.F. Stone’s Weekly. One person working on his own was able to reach a large number of people. Furthermore, it was magnified by the fact that the professional, mainstream media pretended he did not exist, but the journalists were reading his stuff all the time and cannibalizing it. That could be done by the media themselves.
Featured image: Noam Chomsky (cc photo: Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación Argentina)
‘Now We Know Oil Is More Toxic Than We Thought’ - CounterSpin interview with Riki Ott on Exxon Valdez spill
Janine Jackson interviewed Riki Ott about looking back on the Exxon Valdez oil spill for the March 27, 2009, episode of CounterSpin—an interview that was reaired for the June 14, 2019, show. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
But in June of 2010, the spill was front-page news. And that was about the time when BP hired regular CNN commentators Alex Castellanos and Hilary Rosen as lobbyists. Rosen lost her job at the Huffington Post, where she’d been Washington editor-at-large, but they both kept their jobs as CNN pundits. It’s OK, CNN explained, because
both Alex and Hillary are political contributors, used to comment on political issues. They are not being used to discuss the oil disaster story.
That sort of malfeasance never seems to play a role in corporate media “looks back” or “lessons learned” at catastrophic events like major oil spills. The press was part of the story when CounterSpin spoke with Riki Ott in 2009. Riki Ott is an activist and marine biologist, and author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. When I spoke to her in 2009, my first question was to what extent the Exxon Valdez was a live story, and not one 20 years old.
Riki Ott: We still do not have the herring back in Prince William Sound. Herring are a foundational species in Prince William Sound; they’re the forage fish that whales, seals, sea lions, sea birds all rely on. Realistically. without herring, Prince William Sound cannot recover. So we are waiting for the herring to recover, and they collapsed, really, in 1989, when the young of the year did not survive their oil bath. And four years later, when those fish should have become adults, they weren’t there. And that’s when the population crashed.
We also rely on herring for our economy. So there are still fishermen, to this day, the herring fishermen—it’s closed indefinitely—they are out of that line of work. We are still incurring long-term harm from something that happened 20 years ago now. So that’s sort of the environmental and economic side.
But there’s more. And this is where it’s in the interest of all Americans to really understand what happened in our Supreme Court decision, back in June of 2008.
The Supreme Court decided to break the link between punishment and profit; the jury had decided that it would really take a link between punishment and profit to punish a corporation. This big $5 billion was one year’s net profit in 1994. The Supreme Court decided, “No, punishment should instead be linked to damages.”
As I’ve just explained, we were only compensated for short-term damages. But this set precedent, now, this capping of punitive damages to a one-to-one ratio of punitive to compensatory, this makes every community in America vulnerable to corporate greed, and the most—let’s stay with Exxon Valdez — if $5 billion had indeed been punishment, then Exxon should have been the first company to double-hull its tanker fleet and make them safer, rather than the last.
And what we see now is Exxon, of the top 10 oil shippers, Exxon has more single-hull tankers afloat in the world’s oceans than the other nine companies combined, all to earn its shareholders an extra penny a year on their stocks.
JJ: On that hulling note, I was interested in the New York Times editorial that declared matter of factly that supertankers are now double-hulled because of the Valdez. They made it sound as though policies flowed sort of naturally and immediately from the disaster. And that’s not at all how it went. I mean, you’ve just indicated that the company that ought to have gone straight to double-hulling, Exxon, is lagging, and it’s been a lot of activism that has made the other companies take the steps that they’ve had, hasn’t it?
RO: It’s only been activism. Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that requires double-hull tankers by the year 2015. That essentially gave these big, powerful oil companies 25 years to try to weaken and reduce that standard. And try they have. And the only thing that has kept that standard, there were two things: One was citizen oversight, citizen activism, also required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. It pushed back each end-run that the oil companies tried, four times. And, finally, the Prestige and the Ericka oil spills in Spain and France sealed the deal, when the international community just got outraged and demanded double-hull tankers by the year 2012. The fleet is largely shifting; over and again, it’s been Exxon who’s the most recalcitrant company of all.
JJ: So if the theme is “lessons learned,” I guess maybe the most important lessons have to do with activism. Let me ask you: You’ve watched media operate now in Alaska and nationally for decades now. And you describe a process that I’ve heard you call “media capture.” What do you mean by that? How does that work?
RO: I was shocked to see how easily these big oil companies, in this case Exxon, could make its story the dominant story in the news, and this has actually driven me to write two books, trying to correct 20 years of wrong-headedness by the media.
The lies started on day one. I landed in Valdez, and within 12 hours of the grounding, I was down with the federal scientists, the NOAA people. And they were estimating the size of the spill, based on computer modeling. And it was between 11 (low-end estimate) million gallons to 38 million gallons. Exxon captured the low-end number.
When the press started asking, I was in the room, watching. Who validated that? Who verified that? Exxon spokesperson Frank Iarossi kind of threw out that “alcohol may have been involved” quote. And just like that, I watched the national media switch tracks like a railroad, and it became 11 million gallons ever since that day. The reason that’s important, and I knew it would be, was because penalties are based on spill volume, right, and correction measured based on spill volume.
So what do we have in Alaska right now? We are prepared to respond to an “Exxon Valdez-size” oil spill, which means three times less than what really spilled.
JJ: …than what actually happened. Well, that 11 million —or even 10.8, is what is on the record—that’s what’s being reported in the anniversary coverage.
In 1989, FAIR did a study of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, then as now considered among the most serious news programs. And between February and August of that year, they did seven segments on the Valdez spill, not one of which included an environmentalist. Debate on that show was illustrated by the then-chairman of Exxon and the governor of Alaska, who sat down to have a cozy conversation, in which the governor of Alaska said that the chairman of Exxon was being far “too heavy on his own company.”
So we found that a kind of top-down bias in media—talking to just the corporate officials and government officials — really left out what were the key perspectives at the time.
RO: And, you know, it’s not just at the time; that’s another huge problem, is that these stories evolve. The killing did not stop in 1989. Where was the media to cover the 1992 pink salmon run collapse, the 1993 pink salmon run collapse? I mean, we actually held a blockade of the Valdez Narrows, held up oil tanker traffic, that brought in the media and attention, and it started the ecosystem studies, which took 10 years to complete. And now we know that oil is more toxic than we thought.
And where is the news on this? This should be tied into the debates right now on global climate crisis. Do we need to get off oil, not only for the sake of the planet, but also that this stuff is much more toxic than we thought in the 1970s, when we passed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act? We’re talking 1 percent of a child’s lung capacity for every one year of their life, just by breathing urban air that the federal government regulates as safe and is not. Bush administration standards are now being challenged by Obama. And this is the fine soot standard, this is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the fraction of oil that we now know causes long-term harm, in wildlife and in people.
JJ: Let me ask you, how then do we sanction corporations that commit acts of devastation like that of the Valdez?
RO: I would like to see us take a good look at what we’ve done with these big corporations. We have given them, through the Supreme Court, rights that were only intended for humans. We have created, literally, a monster in our midst; we have created a way to consolidate wealth and power and privilege that is destroying our ability to hold these companies accountable.
So I am advocating coalescing this sort of unrest across the nation, that we saw starting with WTO protests in Seattle, into a citizen movement, and to pass the 28th amendment to the Constitution, stripping corporations of human rights. This gets to the heart of campaign abuse, the legal system abuse, lack of enforcement of our law officials, and actually strikes at the heart of globalization.
JJ: That was Riki Ott, activist, marine biologist and author of, among other titles, Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. You can catch up with her work at her website RikiOtt.com
The Democratic National Committee has announced the lineups for its first two presidential primary debates, which will be hosted by NBC on June 26 and 27. For many voters, it will be their first real chance to learn about and evaluate the candidates. But despite new nods to diversity, there is little evidence so far to suggest that the debates will be any less circumscribed and shallow than those in the past.
In response to pressure from Democratic and environmental activists, DNC chair Tom Perez rejected the idea of holding a climate debate, because it “would be putting our thumb on the scale”—presumably not in favor of the planet, but on behalf of Jay Inslee, the candidate who requested the debate. It’s true that the scandal over the DNC’s scale-tipping for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries should make it sensitive to such concerns. The trouble is, the DNC builds the scale itself, and it’s hardly neutral to begin with.
By establishing thresholds for both polling and number of financial contributors that have to be reached in order to participate in debates (with more stringent thresholds in place for upcoming debates), the DNC throws the advantage to politicians who can afford the outrageously expensive online ad buys necessary to drum up far-flung supporters. And Inslee is far from the only candidate in favor of such a debate, as Perez suggested; more importantly, Democratic voters overwhelmingly want a climate debate, and they consistently name climate change and the environment as top issues.
But never fear; corporate media will take care of it: “I have the utmost confidence that, based on our conversations with networks, climate change will be discussed early and often during our party’s primary debates,” Perez wrote.
There are strong reasons to doubt this; there has been a near-blackout on climate-related questions in presidential and primary debates in the past several years. Even if the debates do raise climate questions, the particulars of the questions matter. In an entire debate devoted to climate change, candidates would be hard-pressed to evade specifics, but in two-hour events covering a wide range of issues, viewers will be lucky to get more than a couple of minutes on what is arguably the most complex emergency facing the next president—and some candidates will almost certainly escape climate questions entirely.
There are other serious issues facing the country—inequality, healthcare, racist police violence, immigration and reproductive justice jump to mind. If candidates are willing to spend a couple of hours comparing ideas on a particular topic, and voters are interested, why stand in the way?
The media hosts are also attempting to preempt voters’ concerns about diversity: The first host, NBC, has announced its moderator team, and four out of five are not non-Latino white men over the age of 45—quite a reversal of fortune for those in the latter category. This change has rightfully been praised, and hopefully the other media hosts will follow suit in future debates. But corporate diversity is still, ultimately, corporate, and we can still expect the range of ideas expressed to be sharply limited.
The hand-wringing over the inclusion of “opinionator” Rachel Maddow as a moderator highlights the lack of space for progressive perspectives in the debates. In the 2016 primaries, corporate media included right-wing commentator Hugh Hewitt alongside CNN anchors to question Republican primary candidates; no progressive commentator was included in a Democratic debate. Maddow, whose Russia obsession keeps her “left” perspective a safe distance from any challenge to MSNBC corporate advertisers, is unlikely to give voice to key progressive concerns in the way Hewitt unabashedly represented the right.
Instead, tightly controlled by the parties and the media, the televised debates prioritize style over substance, encouraging candidates to eschew clear policy positions in favor of bland platitudes. Of course, if corporate media’s goal were an informed electorate, voters would already know more about the candidates’ positions than about their jockeying in the polls, and the debates would carry less weight.
But beyond the DNC debates, media could elevate the conversation with more and better coverage of the candidate forums being organized to address particular topics—which, because they are “forums” and not “debates,” seem to evade the DNC’s ban on specificity. On June 17, for example, the Poor People’s Campaign held a forum on poverty and systemic racism, which nine candidates attended. Questions were mostly asked by poor people and activists rather than journalists, and the narrow focus meant that the candidates had to dive deep on an issue that was not raised by moderators in a single one of the nine DNC debates in the last election cycle.
As the first event in which Biden faced his opponents, the forum received fairly widespread coverage, but most outlets focused almost exclusively on Biden (e.g., Washington Post), with some covering only his comments on bipartisanship, not poverty (e.g., Newsweek). Even in the New York Times, which refreshingly treated the event itself as newsworthy, key voices were notably absent: those of the poor.
The collective bargaining agreement between Vox Media and the Writers Guild of America East puts an end to one of the more contentious unionization battles that have gone on in US digital media. Vox management took longer to voluntarily recognize the union than other outlets, and workers recently staged a walk-out to protest Vox’s intransigence in bargaining.
The agreement that was finally ratified on June 14 covers 350 workers; Vox Media publishes Eater, Curbed, Polygon, SB Nation, The Verge and Recode, in addition to its namesake political news and explainer site, Vox.
In the end, it broke the workers’ way. Economically, the union won generous wage floors, 16 weeks of paid parental leave, 10 days of bereavement leave, other leave provisions, cost-of-living increases and, perhaps most interestingly, a provision granting workers a cut of the profits on media they produce that Vox later sells to third parties. There are even new protections against the laying off of staffers in order to replace them with freelance labor—a common and well-grounded fear in the media industry.
The news of the wage agreement already has a resonance; workers at BuzzFeed plan to stage a walk-out similar to the one Vox workers held.
But it’s really the non-economic provisions the WGAE won that should grab the eye. The union said in a statement:
The company commits that 40 percent of the people in the applicant pool to make it beyond the phone interview stage in the hiring process will be from underrepresented backgrounds. This number will be 50 percent for the highest-paid, most senior positions…. Each vertical will maintain and regularly distribute a policy to promote diverse sourcing and freelancing bylines.
This is a continuation of the kind of initiative that made headlines last summer when the union reached a contract with the Intercept that contained similar diversity provisions, and is a refreshingly blunt declaration that wage justice in the workplace must go hand-in-hand with racial and gender diversification. It’s striking that there is language mandating diversity in freelancing hiring, something that doesn’t directly benefit the union.
The statement such efforts make is this: It’s not just important that media companies have diverse hiring for the sake of putting more money in the pockets of more people, but because the mainstream journalism world is often and rightly regarded as being too white, too male and too Ivy League, news consumers would be better off if outlets had voices from more backgrounds—and voluntary commitments to more inclusive hiring don’t work.
This is part of a broader trend we’re seeing with WGAE’s drive for unionization in digital media, in which the union is looking beyond bread-and-butter provisions in its wage agreements and attempting to give workers more control over the editorial voice.
For example, the WGAE statement about the Vox deal notes that the new agreement includes “enhanced editorial standards that state that editorial content creators will never be forced to work on anything over which advertisers have approval.”
Read that again if you must. For those of us who have worked in the world of ink and butcher-paper news writing, this might seem foreign—reporters of a former generation understood that there was supposed to be a wall between the editorial and business sides of a newspaper, and that the work of one side should have no bearing on the work of the other.
But digital media doesn’t earn money from subscriptions or newsstand sales, and when it comes to advertising, the money increasingly comes from what’s known as “branded content”—advertising that’s meant to look and feel like the outlet’s own reporting. Yes, such content is usually identified somehow, but such ads earn a premium because in the fast-clicking world of digital media, the lines for readers get blurry—and from a media workers’ perspective, that traditional wall between editorial and business work gets blurrier as well, or even eliminated.
Hamilton Nolan, who led the WGAE organizing drive at the now-defunct Gawker empire, told FAIR that protections for editorial freedom, as well as payments for reuse, are key concerns for the union. In the first Gawker contract, he said:
We had editorial freedom protection, in the form of a clause that says only the head of editorial can make editorial decisions—a contractual guarantee that no editorial decisions can be made by the business side or others.
Getting writers paid for reuse of our work has also been a big issue at a lot of places—I think it’s been approached differently in several different contracts—but in the big picture, it’s great that these contracts are helping the people who do the work capture more of the money being made off of our work.
The provisions in the Vox contract don’t fix everything—for example, someone can still be exploited while receiving payments on resold content, and the contract doesn’t end the dubious practice of branded content—but it is some concrete recognition for Vox Media workers that they are journalists, and not public relations hustlers. Inclusive hiring is testament to a type of unionism that doesn’t simply protect incumbents, but seeks to open the shop up to a broader range of workers, and gives the staff a progressive say in how management makes new hires. On the whole, that’s a far more holistic vision for a union than simply just winning wage increases and severance packages. The recent deal at Vox indicates that the WGAE wants to win power throughout the media organizations they’re organizing, not just winning more dollars in paychecks.
Featured image: Vox Media collective bargaining committee.
By Joe Emersberger
I emailed Stephanie Nebehay of Reuters on May 22 about her article, “Venezuela Turns to Russia, Cuba, China in Health Crisis” (5/22/19). Her article depicted the impact of US sanctions as an allegation that Venezuelan government officials are alone in making. The article stated:
The opposition blames [medical shortages] on economic incompetence and corruption by the leftist movement in power for two decades, but [President Nicolás] Maduro says US economic sanctions are the cause.
I asked why the piece made no mention of a study (CEPR, 4/25/19) released a month earlier by economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs, which directly linked US sanctions to 40,000 deaths in Venezuela since August of 2017.
Her reply to me on May 23 was quite telling:
I was not aware of that study, but am now and will bear in mind.
It would indeed have been impossible for a Reuters reporter to be aware of the study if they depended only on Reuters articles to keep informed. The news agency hadn’t mentioned the study since it was released, never mind written an article about it.
I asked a contact I have at Reuters about this, and he was also surprised that Reuters hadn’t even mentioned the study. He suggested I query some of Reuters’ Venezuela-based reporters, which I did a few days later.
In my email to them, I passed along a list of news articles since August 2017, when Trump first dramatically intensified economic sanctions, that described worsening economic conditions. I also noted that though the Sachs/Weisbrot study was ignored by Reuters, it had been intensely debated in public by Venezuelan opposition economists (i.e., the kind of people Reuters and other Western media actually pay attention to on Venezuela).
The Brookings Institution published a few rebuttals to the study (here and here), which I also pointed out to Reuters. The objections Brookings made were essentially already addressed by Weisbrot and Sachs in response to other critics.
On June 9, Reuters finally mentioned the study, at the end of an article by Nebehay, who is based in Geneva:
One study in April, co-authored by US economists Jeffrey Sachs and Mark Weisbrot, blamed sanctions for causing more deaths and disproportionately hitting the most vulnerable.
“We find that the sanctions have inflicted, and increasingly inflict, very serious harm to human life and health, including an estimated more than 40,000 deaths from 2017–2018,” they said, arguing they were illegal under international law.
Nevertheless, since the day Nebehay replied to me, Reuters has continued to portray the severe impact of US sanctions as an allegation that only Maduro and other Venezuelan officials have made. It was even done by Reuters in an article published June 10, the day after the wire service finally mentioned the study:
The government of President Nicolás Maduro says Venezuela’s economic problems are caused by US sanctions that have crippled the OPEC member’s export earnings and blocked it from borrowing from abroad.
Other instances of Reuters representing the idea that US sanctions work as they are intended to do—in other words, that they hurt the Venezuelan economy—as an allegation made by Maduro or his government:
- “He [President Maduro] says the country’s economic problems are the result of an ‘economic war’ led by his political adversaries with the help of Washington.” (5/23/19)
- “Maduro, who maintains control over state institutions, calls Guaidó a puppet of Washington and blames US sanctions for a hyperinflationary economic meltdown and humanitarian crisis.” (5/26/19; repeated almost verbatim, 5/28/19)
- “Maduro’s government, however, says US-imposed sanctions were responsible for the children’s deaths, by freezing funds allocated to buy medicine and send the children to Italy for treatment under the 2010 agreement.” (6/1/19)
- “Maduro blames the situation on an ‘economic war’ waged by his political adversaries as well as US sanctions that have hobbled the oil industry and prevented his government from borrowing abroad.” (6/7/19)
- “Maduro says Venezuela is victim of an ‘economic war’ led by the opposition with the help of Washington, which has levied several rounds of sanctions against his government.” (6/7/19)
Two recent articles by Reuters, however, stated the obvious about the most recent US sanctions that were implemented in 2019:
- “Venezuela is in the midst of a years-long economic and humanitarian crisis that has deepened since the United States imposed sanctions on the country’s oil industry in January as part of an effort to oust Socialist President Nicolás Maduro in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaidó.” (6/7/19)
- “Venezuela’s oil exports dropped 17 percent in May because of the sanctions.” (6/6/19)
But the study Reuters belatedly mentioned shows that US sanctions have been devastating to Venezuela’s economy, and seriously aggravating the humanitarian crisis, since August 2017.
Apologists for Trump always rush to say that Venezuela’s depression began years before Trump’s sanctions—as if that made it acceptable to deliberately worsen a humanitarian crisis. To tweak an analogy Caitlin Johnstone used, think of a defense attorney saying, “Your Honor, I will show that the victim was already in intensive care when my client began to assault him.”
Moreover, as Steve Ellner recently discussed, US support for an insurrectionist opposition in Venezuela goes back over a decade before the crisis, and was a factor in causing it. Economic sanctions Obama introduced in 2015 were also harmful—Weisbrot (The Hill, 11/6/16) in 2016 called them “ugly and belligerent enough to keep many investors from investing in Venezuela and to raise the country’s cost of borrowing”—even before Trump’s dramatic escalation of economic warfare that they paved the way for.
Putting aside a study by prominent US economists, the “Maduro says” formulation is also inexcusable because US Sen. Marco Rubio, who has been widely reported as a major influence on Trump’s Venezuela policy, gleefully tweeted on May 16 that Maduro “can’t access funds to rebuild electric grid.”
Rubio didn’t pretend he was referring to an imaginary electric grid used exclusively by Maduro. Reuters (5/30/19) has itself referred to Rubio as the “leading voice in the crafting of President Donald Trump’s Venezuela policy,” in a lengthy piece about US sanctions that said absolutely nothing about their impact on the general population, implying throughout that sanctions only impacted Maduro and other officials. (“Being blacklisted also crimps the lifestyle of Venezuelan officials’ families,” Reuters reported.)
Media copy and paste from news organizations like Reuters and Associated Press, which themselves employ many cheaper local journalists.
In Venezuela, these journalists are not neutral actors, but come from the highly partisan local media, affiliated with the opposition, leading to a situation where Western newsrooms see themselves as an ideological spearhead against Maduro, “the resistance” to the government.
Even worse than being the “resistance” to Maduro is that Reuters has often made itself the “assistance” to politicians like Rubio, who are vicious enough to celebrate the economic strangulation of millions of people.
Reuters may carry on as if it had never reported the study by Weisbrot and Sachs. Western media outlets are perfectly willing to ignore their own reporting when it suits powerful interests (Extra! Update, 10/02). It is therefore up to all of us to not be passive consumers of news, and continually bear in mind that the news we are getting about official enemies may be less than half the story.
Featured image: Reuters depiction (6/7/19) of Venezuelan refugees. (photo: Pilar Olivares/Reuters)
This week on CounterSpin: Two deep conversations, about oil and much more.
The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico happened from the spring through the fall of 2010. The blowout of the Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 people, and countless animals, on its way to becoming the worst marine oil spill in history. It seemed to take that protracted disaster on the US coast to generate a New York Times front-page story on June 16, 2010, about oil industry ravages in Nigeria’s delta region, which, the article noted, “has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years, by some estimates.” CounterSpin had a powerful conversation that week with filmmaker and video artist Sandy Cioffi, whose film, Sweet Crude, looks at the oil industry in Nigeria, and the way it is covered in the US. We’ll hear that conversation today.PlayStop pop out
Also on the show: Oil spills are often discussed in media in terms of the Exxon Valdez. But if the use of the Valdez as a touchstone might give the impression that “lessons were learned” from that 1989 disaster…. Well, that mainly applies to the lesson that not disaster, but activism—dogged, ongoing, out-of-the-spotlight, misunderstood and maligned activism—is what changes things. That’s part of what we learned when we spoke with activist and marine biologist Riki Ott in 2009—then the 20-year anniversary of that “oil spill to end all oil spills”—now many spills ago.PlayStop pop out
Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look back at recent coverage of Venezuela.PlayStop pop out
by Dean Baker
Oh no, Japan is running out of people!
That’s what Robert Samuelson tells us in his latest column (Washington Post, 6/12/19). That might seem a strange concern for a country that is ten times as densely populated as the United States, but Samuelson apparently sees it as a real nightmare.
After all, if its population keeps shrinking, Japan will face a severe labor shortage. They may have a hard time getting people to fill lower-paying, lower-productivity jobs. For example, it might be hard to find workers to shove people onto Toyko’s overcrowded subways.
But it gets worse. As a result of the social services required by the elderly, Japan has been running large deficits and built up an enormous debt:
The mounting deficit spending has in turn ballooned Japan’s government debt to 226 percent of GDP—”the highest ever recorded in the OECD area” and roughly twice the US level.
Yes, and the burden of this debt is absolutely crushing to the Japanese people. According to the IMF, Japan’s debt service burden will be equal to 0.1 percent of GDP this year, which is equal to roughly $20 billion in the US economy. And if the country continues on its current course, its debt service burden will turn negative in two years.
The issue here is that Japan has negative (nominal) interest rates. Lenders pay the Japanese government to borrow their money. As a result, the interest burden on Japan’s “highest ever recorded” debt is no burden whatsoever.
But wait, it gets worse. Samuelson tells us (citing economist Timothy Taylor):
Half of Japanese children born in 2007 are expected to live to 107.
As we can see, the situation in Japan is pretty bad. Samuelson warns us that it could be our future, too, which I suppose might be possible if we fix our healthcare system.
Samuelson and his clique really need to do a better job of finding a bogeyman.
A version of this post originally appeared on CEPR’s blog Beat the Press (6/12/19). Messages can be sent to the Washington Post at email@example.com, or via Twitter @washingtonpost. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.
A recent segment on WAMU, one of the NPR affiliates in Washington, DC, focused on efforts to change the name of the largely African-American neighborhoods “East of the River” to “East End.”
The station reported:
Residents insist the name change only encourages gentrification, and the term “East of the River” must stay put. “My question is: Who are we trying to change that connotation for? And my sense is — the developers,” Jo Knight, a resident of historic Anacostia, said at a recent community meeting about the area’s rebranding.
While Knight is doubtlessly correct about who would benefit from the euphemism, it’s worth noting that this short paragraph contains at least one other major euphemism: “developer.”
It’s an incredibly positive term that has burrowed so deeply into our language that we rarely think to question it. In practice, “development” often means the destruction of historic architecture, the disruption of neighborhood interconnections and, of course, the driving out of existing residents—often low-income people, people of color or immigrants. None other than Frank Lloyd Wright derided the influence of “advertising men; the realtor, the so-called ‘developer’—all defacing life,” in his 1957 book-length essay A Testament.
But scare quotes around “developer” have long ceased, with even their most ardent critics accepting that flattering term. Our language has become so distorted, it’s hard to keep track.
Part of the issue is that there’s no obvious replacement for the term. Perhaps, taking a cue from Wright, we could adopt the dysphemism “defacer.” This notion was a regular refrain from Wright, who continually called for an architecture “that belonged where you see it standing—and was a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace.”
And it is, after all, “developers” who are likely responsible for defacing, or at least distorting, our language, such that euphemisms like “rebirth” and “revitalization” have become euphemisms for gentrification. I should hasten to add that Barbara Schiffler charged in a letter to the Los Angeles Times (12/1/15) that “‘gentrification’ is a euphemism for market cruelty.” Indeed, it just might be euphemisms all the way down.
This is all part of a process Neil deMause (FAIR.org, 2/19/16) has called “developer-speak,” in which “rebirth or revitalization or renaissance is what happens to neighborhoods when you build new stuff.” Ironically, the word “developer” is itself one of the greatest triumphs of “developer-speak.”
Then there’s WAMU‘s use of the word “rebranding” here. In this context, it’s something of a euphemism as well. The “East End” proposal isn’t like a radio station, like WAMU, switching from promoting itself as “88.5—listen when you drive” to “88.5—now with less baloney and jive,” or some such. Instead, the new neighborhood name is part of a process that will, as residents charge, help drive them from the community.
As Wright told Mike Wallace in 1957:
Our natures are now so warped in many directions, we are so conditioned by education, we have no longer any straight, true, clean reactions that we can trust, and we have to be pretty wise and careful what it is we give up to, what it is we admire, what it is we are inspired by.
Not just our natures, but our language—and not just by education, but by media as well.
‘The US Has No Real Moral Authority to Talk About Freedoms’ - CounterSpin interview with Netfa Freeman on Cuba sanctions
Janine Jackson interviewed Netfa Freeman about Cuba sanctions for the June 7, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: The Trump administration announced a ban on people-to-people group travel to Cuba, a sanction merited, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin explained, because of Cuba’s “destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere, providing a communist foothold in the region, and propping up US adversaries in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua by fomenting instability, undermining the rule of law and suppressing democratic processes.”
It’s refreshing, in a way, to have media saying, “Ignore that guy in the corner. Here’s how you can still go to Cuba.” But US citizens have a right to deeper answers about why the state gets to tell them where they can go, and indeed use their freedom of movement as a political tool, all while employing imagery out of Red Scare 101.
Our next guest has recently returned from Cuba. He’s the Institute for Policy Studies’ Netfa Freeman, longtime director of the Institute’s Social Action & Leadership School for Activists. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Netfa Freeman.
Netfa Freeman: Thank you, Janine.
JJ: I guess let’s do a little background. This move, which is just part of a number of sanctions that the Trump White House has planned against Cuba, is being presented, like many things, as a departure from or an undoing of Obama policy.
But like many things, it’s not really a 180 degree turn away from that policy. What would be some relevant history, including going further back? Just what context should we be aware of as we consider this new travel ban?
NF: So I think the context that we should be aware of is the United States has waged a multifaceted and protracted war, for the purpose of regime change, against Cuba since 1960, since the dawn of the revolution. And it’s taken on many forms, and various intensities, depending on which party, which US administration, was in office. 1960 was when the United States first initiated a blockade against Cuba, trying to isolate it from the world, and then formalized that blockade in the form of the Helms/Burton Act in 1994, I believe that was the year, and then adding an additional act through the Torricelli bill in 1997.
These acts actually legislate things like the international economic embargo against non-US companies and US companies that are doing any type of trade with Cuba. It blocks Cuba from being part of any international financial institutions. It also allocates money, taxpayer dollars, through agencies like the US Agency for International Development, for what they call democracy programs, aiming television broadcasts and radio broadcast signals into the island, and also giving money, support on the ground, to Cuban citizens who want to participate in the subversion of their own country with the United States—through what they call “independent journalists” or “independent human rights organizations,” which are really not independent, because they’re funded by the United States.
The difference in the Obama approach and previous approaches is how that final agenda is carried out in terms of regime change. Like when they say Cuba is not democratic, and then all of them—even right now, the bipartisan Working Group on Cuba, led by people like Barbara Lee, just wrote a response to the administration, says that this [travel ban] undermines the efforts to “bring democracy” to Cuba. So that means there’s a bipartisan consensus that Cuba is not democratic. And then there’s the assumption that democracy is synonymous with capitalism.
And these are all assumptions. The Obama administration’s, I guess you would say, objective, regardless of the normalizing-of-relations policy, was to overwhelm Cuba with capitalist ventures and those kind of things, and also visits to the island with the intent to say that—and this is also in the bipartisan Working Group’s response—the US citizens are the best “ambassadors” to Cuba, the assumption being that Cuba will change if we just bring more visits, more programs that are US-based, and those kind of things. But the regime change objective remains the same.
The difference is the Trump administration, through John Bolton and Pompeo and all these different forces, is more shamelessly colonialist, more shamelessly implementing of the Monroe Doctrine. It doesn’t really care about the truth that is missing from their assertion that Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua constitute some “troika of tyranny,” when, in fact, it’s actually the US that constitutes, with the EU and NATO, an axis of domination that wants to crush all radical independent states that want to chart their own path, and want to exercise self-determination.
JJ: That narrow range of debate among politicians, I think, is reflected in the press as well. You see opposition to sanctions like this ban, but it seems to be, as a columnist had it on CNN, things like, “It is true that the Cuban government oppresses its people and deprives them of many freedoms, while helping to prop up the malevolent Venezuelan regime,” but sanctions are the wrong stick to use to make them better. Or we read, sanctions will push Cuba into the arms of Russia and China.
And you have to wonder, is this really the best we can do as a critique of the policies? And I would just say, they do take the US, and long have taken the US, out of step with the international community, haven’t they, with regard to Cuba?
NF: Oh, yes. And that’s one thing that media fail a lot on doing, in terms of, you mentioned the international community: Every year, Cuba introduces a resolution to the United Nations condemning the embargo, and asking for it to be lifted or demanding that it be lifted. And every year, overwhelmingly, all of the countries of the world vote in favor of this resolution, the exceptions only being Israel and the US. Sometimes there’s a third country, that is usually under the domination of the United States, that will also go along with it; but it’s always only three. And right now, just last year, was 189 countries against the two countries that voted against this.
Not to mention that polls in the United States show a favorable…. US people, like by 75 percent, think that the relations between the two countries should be normalized, that the blockade—many of us call it a blockade, because of its pervasiveness—but that the embargo or the blockade should be lifted, regardless of whatever else they think about the country. So yeah, this is completely out-of-step.
And then also what media really don’t do is make any kind of contrast/comparison between US policy toward Cuba, and their policy towards countries like Honduras or Haiti or Israel or Saudi Arabia, which obviously are repressive.
In fact, in Honduras, they’re about to recognize, 10 years after a US-orchestrated, -imposed government, where they helped depose the democratically elected president there, and now the country is facing serious repression, privatization of things, all sort of oppression. And the United States has nothing to say about those kind of things.
JJ: It’s very frustrating to hear even leftists say, “Of course, I have a principled objection to US-imposed coups or punitive actions by the US, but I’m not going to voice it now because, you know, that country has some real problems.” I’m guessing that Cubans know that they have problems, and things they want to deal with in their society, and to the extent that they are working on things to improve their society, aren’t there real ways that people in other countries could show solidarity?
NF: Yeah, there are real ways. I think one of the real ways is to look at some of the basic principles of sovereignty or human rights that have been laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And the UN Charter, it talks about countries’ rights to self-determination. You know, it’s like the pot calling the kettle black for the United States, that has no real moral authority, to talk about freedoms, or to impose its concept of how another country should be. But countries deserve the right even to make their own mistakes.
A lot of media operate almost like they’re the fourth branch of the United States government, in terms of peddling misinformation, when you can’t tell the distinction between the misinformation and what is actually happening in countries. So when people have reservations about how countries really are facing whatever problem it is, they have to acknowledge US policy that also includes misinformation about that country. And so they have to know how to distinguish between those things. And the media really have responsibility to do this. For example, the Trump administration keeps saying that Cuba has 20,000 security forces in Venezuela, and this is completely false. But we don’t really hear the US media talking about the fact that the administration is saying this, and then countering it with some facts.
JJ: One of the things most obviously missing from US media coverage of Cuba is Cubans, and the voice of actual Cubans. We virtually never hear from them. We hear from Cuban-Americans, but not Cubans themselves. And I just wonder, I know you’re not trying to speak for them, but what would be some of the information that, if we had that voice of Cuban citizens in our media dialogue, how would that change things?
NF: Oh, it would change things tremendously. Cubans are very informed people, because of the universal education; they’re just very well read, they know about things around the world. And they can articulate why the blockade and why US policy has harmed their country, in terms of the monies and those kind of things, in terms of the cost to the Cuban economy. And they also make a distinction, which is very interesting, politically sophisticated, between the US people and the US government. So they talk about wanting friendship and exchanges with US people, people in the United States, and they make they sure, they always seem to understand, that the US policies by the government aren’t a reflection of US people.
Also, Cubans are not averse to talking about the problems they have with their own country. They can talk about what the issues are, and they don’t hesitate to do it. We hear propaganda that makes it seem like people are scared to speak, but no, they are very, very talkative people when it comes to sharing criticisms, even about Cuba itself. And we can see those things, and then know how to tell the difference between those things and the propaganda that we hear against the country. So they can articulate these things very well. And I think if we had some more voices in the media, it would just prove how illicit the policies are.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Netfa Freeman of the Institute for Policy Studies. You can find their work on Cuba and a range of other issues on their website, IPS-dc.org. Netfa Freeman, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
NF: Thank you.
The New York Times’ 2,400+ word report (6/3/19) by Julie Bosman, Julie Turkewitz and Timothy Williams on the historic flooding in the Midwest—amidst the wettest 12 months ever since recording began 124 years ago—is an illustrative example of how not to do disaster coverage.
Recalling the Great Flood of 1993 and focusing on the four inundated towns of Davenport, Iowa; Valmeyer and Prairie du Rocher, Illinois; and Clarksville, Missouri, along the Mississippi River, the Times provided yet another example of a major news outlet covering the catastrophic effects of the ongoing climate crisis without ever mentioning that crisis—among other human contributions to the disaster that go unacknowledged—leading readers to think that there are no solutions to mitigate or prevent these disasters (FAIR.org, 1/18/13).
One could be forgiven for coming away from the New York Times report that “relentless floods” just happen as isolated occurrences, and that there’s just not that much we can do about it.
The Times mentioned that the 2019 deluge is “reviving painful memories of the Great Flood,” and that the “consequences of the decisions made in the aftermath of 1993” have “suddenly come back,” but when it explained those decisions, it mostly confined them to the local level, without setting them in the context of other important decisions made at the state and federal level.
The Times treated Valmeyer as an exemplar on how to respond to disasters, as “experts in flood management” hailed Valmeyer as a “case study,” and cited Mayor Howard Heavner claiming that Valmeyer is proof that “you can do everything right and the community can still be in danger.”
But when one reads closely on what Valmeyer did to be such a role model, one discovers that people essentially just moved away from the river, as a resigned Heavner said: “You can only position yourself so there is the least amount of loss.” Apparently, the only flaw in their otherwise flawless response is that “not everyone moved.”
The Times’ previous reporting (1/6/16) on Valmeyer’s response to flooding noted that “nearly everyone” who moved to what’s called New Valmeyer agreed that “they had no choice.” So why would people “choose” to stay behind in a mostly uninhabitable and hazardous location?
The current report hints at an answer from the only other source cited to explain this, Heavner’s own father Robert, but doesn’t expand on its significance, instead framing his being too poor to move as a personal choice or failing. It quotes him as saying that staying in the bottom area was “the most economical way to do what I did,” with his son the mayor claiming that he couldn’t force poor people to leave because they “chose their own path.”
This is consistent with FAIR’s previous findings (Extra!, 8/07; FAIR.org, 9/1/17) on how corporate media marginalize the poor, who often stay behind in hazardous areas because they have no place to go and no means to leave, in their coverage of disasters.
In Clarksville, the Times uncritically mentioned that Clarksville depended on a “dwindling set of volunteers” from the Americorps, National Guard, prisoners and the elderly to build “monumental sandbag walls,” and noted the paltry number of volunteers Clarksville has in 2019, compared with the 2,000-some volunteers it had in 1993.
In Prairie du Rocher, the Times detailed how local officials took a “desperate gamble” in defying the advice of the Army Corps of Engineers in 1993 when they blasted and dug up holes in the levee above town to divert the flow away from the community’s center. They plan on doing the same this year, except that they “hope” to “blast the levee at a higher point.” Local levee commissioner Steve Gonzalez also wants to convince the federal government to incorporate the town into a national park, to “make Washington responsible for fortifying the community from floods.” If such plans fail, continual increases to the cost of the government subsidized National Flood Insurance Program run by FEMA and Washington’s further plans to raise premiums on those policies might “be the final nail in the coffin” for Prairie du Rocher.
Several questions could’ve been asked here: Why should Clarksville depend on a “dwindling” number of volunteers to deal with flooding? Why do local officials in Prairie du Rocher have to make “desperate gambles,” or plot to convince the federal government to take responsibility for the town’s safety?
The Times doesn’t discuss how the federal government’s refusal to adequately fund disaster infrastructure and management programs—in order to pay for continuous tax cuts for the rich and corporations—leave the country unnecessarily vulnerable to disasters. Nor does it discuss the Trump administration’s FEMA leaving out climate change in its strategic planning for disaster response, or failing levee systems consisting mainly of makeshift soil barriers, instead of the kind of modern water-diverting infrastructure in place in a country like the Netherlands, because the federal government refuses to appropriate funds to the few flood projects it authorizes, when it doesn’t reject them altogether (Roll Call, 6/13/18; The Hill, 4/5/19).
ProPublica (8/6/18) found that the cost-benefit calculations used by the Army Corps of Engineers to prioritize its scarce resources are essentially formulas to justify devastating poorer towns, like the ones in the Times’ report, as it pursues levee systems that protect the most high-value land at the cost of intensifying the flooding for others nearby, by cutting off a river’s ability to spread over the floodplain. This would partially explain why Midwest towns like Valmeyer, Clarksville and Prairie du Rocher are flooded as much as they are.
Even when cities like Davenport pursued praiseworthy alternatives to levees, like buying out land on the floodplain to embrace the river—which was successful from 1993 until 2019—the Times failed to link the floods overwhelming the city with a changing climate. This is the most glaring omission in the lengthy report’s failure to ever mention the worsening climate crisis, along with its neglecting to cite any climate scientist.
Of course, as FAIR’s Jim Naureckas (7/2/12) has pointed out, asking whether the climate crisis caused the flooding is a failure to understand the conceptual distinction between weather phenomena like droughts, floods and unremarkable days, and the climate. All weather events now take place within a changing climate, which will affect the severity and likelihood of these events, as climate scientists are projecting that floods—which are already the most frequent and costliest natural disaster—will become more frequent and powerful, with current and future devastating effects on essential activities like growing crops (Wired, 5/24/19).
While other outlets like Common Dreams (6/4/19) had no problem making the connection, this is also in contradiction with previous reporting in the Times (11/19/18), which warned of projections that increased flooding and other climate-fueled disasters would resemble a “terror movie that is real.” Ironically, just last month, the Times (5/15/19) carried a story about the aversion of leaders in places like Davenport and Clarksville to talking about the impacts of the climate crisis—headlined, “In Flood-Hit Midwest, Mayors See Climate Change as a Subject Best Avoided.” Apparently some Times reporters see it the same way.
Featured image: New York Times depiction of flooding in Valmeyer, Illinois. (Photo: Hilary Swift/New York Times)
‘It’s Seen by Indigenous Activists as a Template for Similar Confrontations Around the Globe’ - CounterSpin interview with Reynard Loki on indigenous oil victory
Janine Jackson interviewed Reynard Loki about an indigenous environmental victory in Ecuador for the June 7, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: The story was brief but compelling: The indigenous Waorani in Ecuador were fighting to keep the government from auctioning off their land, and with it their lives and culture, to oil companies, and were actually being heard in court. A Waorani leader is cited, saying: “Our fight is not just a fight about oil. This is a fight about different ways of living, one that protects life and one that destroys life.”
Why didn’t I see what looks like a Reuters wire piece picked up in a major daily?, you might wonder. Then you see the tag at the bottom that explains that the article is from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, described as the “charitable arm” of Thomson Reuters, that covers “humanitarian news.” In other words, the fight over whether extractive industry is permitted to erase and endanger communities, as part of the despoiling of the region known as the lungs of the planet, is news—but not news news.
Joining us now to talk about a case that in reality brings together some of the most important questions of the day is Reynard Loki, editor and chief correspondent of the Earth | Food | Life project of the Independent Media Institute. He joins us now by phone from here in town. Welcome to CounterSpin, Reynard Loki.
Reynard Loki: Thanks for having me, Janine.
JJ: As you report in your recent article on this, which I first saw on Common Dreams, the fight between indigenous communities and oil companies in Ecuador has been going on for many years now. But this April 26 court ruling, and recent demonstrations in support of it, have reference to particular actions by Ecuador, going back to 2012. Can you just walk us through what the April ruling said, and some of the context in which it came?
RL: The April 26 ruling was by a three-judge panel in the Pastaza territory, which is where the Waorani people live, along with several other indigenous people. The Waorani actually sued three government bodies in Ecuador earlier this year—the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources, the secretary of Hydrocarbons and the Ministry of Environment—for basically undertaking what they claimed, successfully, were faulty consultations with their community, back in 2012, before the government listed their land for sale in an international oil auction.
Those consultations were held because the Ecuadorian constitution requires that indigenous people are given free, prior, informed consultation regarding plans or programs for prospecting and marketing non-renewable resources located on their land, which could have a cultural or environmental impact on them.
And the judges ruled that those consultations were improper; they were done in bad faith, they failed to properly inform the Waorani of the risks and impacts of the government’s plans to auction off their territory, and really didn’t take into consideration at all the different kinds of cultures and traditional decision-making methods that the Waorani and other indigenous people have, versus the Ecuadorian government’s version.
Basically, the auctioning off of those lots is indefinitely disrupted. However, it is a bit tentative, because I just heard today, actually, somebody at Amazon Frontlines, a nonprofit group in Ecuador that is working with the indigenous population there, that the appeal date has been set for July 1. So if this landmark ruling—and it is a landmark ruling, make no mistake—does hold up to appeal, then there will be a big celebration in Ecuador, and around the world, for those who support indigenous rights and the environment.
JJ: Let me just ask you about that consultation process. The Ecuadorian constitution, as you say, says that indigenous communities have a right to free, prior, informed consultation. And the ruling didn’t say just that the state didn’t, and oil companies didn’t, consult with Waorani, but that they sort of “fake consulted,” they sort of pretended to honor that responsibility, but then they didn’t, really.
But I just want to ask you, not even cynically, one would want to ask: Well, does “consultation,” even though it sounds very good, does it include the right to say no? Are we talking about preserving the right to consult, or preserving the right to oppose environmental destruction?
RL: That’s a great question. I think the answer to that question is going to be found out in the appeals process.
It is a bit vague-sounding in the constitution, it really just gives “free, prior and informed consultation,” known as FPIC, within a reasonable period of time. But if they can prove that the government plans for prospecting and marketing renewable resources that are located on their land, do have an environmental and cultural impact on them, it would probably run afoul of that piece of the constitution.
But your listeners may also be aware that Ecuador is very unique in the sense that they have now, since 2008 when they rewrote their constitution, they became the first country to recognize the rights of nature, constitutionally.
So really, they are, on one hand, on the cutting edge of protecting nature, nature rights, environmental conservation, constitutionally based. So that part has not been considered yet, to my knowledge, in the courts, but that could be a constitutional crisis on two fronts—not just the free, prior, informed consultation angle, but also the fact that it would be running afoul of protecting nature, and the rights of nature chapter in the constitution acknowledges that nature and all of its life forms has the right to persist and maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.
Oil production clearly does not allow for that, as we’ve seen in Ecuador, where oil has been being drilled since at least the late ’60s, when Texaco struck oil in the northeastern province there, but also in Peru, where studies have shown that oil production has led to dramatic and potentially permanent changes in the chemistry of the waters of the Amazon River.
So there are two constitutional frontiers within Ecuador, when it comes to trying to get oil from the ground. But there are also two other laws, there are international laws, that the lawyers for the Waorani and the other indigenous people could call upon. One is Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization, which was ratified by Ecuador in 1998, and the other is the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People, which was adopted by Ecuador in 2007. Both of those agreements require signatories to consult with this indigenous population properly before touching their land.
JJ: It’s so fascinating, because in some ways, Ecuador is very special, the fact that you can have the environment named as a defendant in a court proceeding. And yet it’s cutting-edge. It’s not just unique; it’s kind of where the world is going, one would hope, in some ways. So I guess I would say, even though Ecuador is a special context, this still could be a meaningful precedent.
RL: Well, yeah, this could be a meaningful precedent, not only for Ecuador, but because this type of argument now can be used in this particular court case, it’s being seen by indigenous activists as a template that can be used in similar confrontations around the globe.
JJ: There was a piece in the New Yorker by Rachel Riederer, but in general, US corporate media had crickets on this story that is so important. Independent, smaller, noncommercial media was really where it’s at, despite the high-profile palaver we hear from elite media about climate disruption.
And for myself, I think it’s partly because, not to put too fine a point on it, the climate of corporate media is one in which indigenous people who can end a court proceeding by singing, as the Waorani have done, are ultimately an unserious anachronism. And corporations getting what they want is, in this climate, an ultimately benign inevitability.
And I would say that the changes needed to protect the Waorani, to protect the Amazon, to protect the planet and all of us—they’re also changes about what stories we tell right and who we listen to.
RL: Yeah, that’s a great point you bring up, Janine, and obviously something that your organization FAIR is obviously on the cutting edge of reporting on.
And I’m sure you probably have seen the recent Nation article about why the New York Times and the Washington Post are producing “native advertising”—and that phrase is so crazy to me, because of the double entendre with the word “native”—because that is really advertorials for big oil that the New York Times and the Washington Post are producing. Obviously, you can’t get those big news organizations to cover stuff when they are clearly in bed with the oil majors.
JJ: Right. I think there’s also a matter of perspective; I can hear people saying: “Ecuador is a small country, they should get to stand toe-to-toe with other oil-producing countries. They ought to get the power of their resources.”
And so you have to angle it differently, and say: “Well, when we say ‘Ecuador,’ who are we talking about? How are those resources and the riches from them, if you will, distributed?” It all kind of depends which way you slice it, I think, if you’re trying to tell the story.
RL: Yeah, and if you’re talking about Ecuador’s resources, we should not forget that Ecuador is one of five Andean nations, including Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, that together represent nearly a fourth of the planet’s total biodiversity. In fact, the Galápagos Islands, which is on Ecuadorian territory, has the densest biodiversity on Earth.
So that’s a resource that Ecuador has that most nations around the planet do not have. And something that I would tell President Lenín Moreno, who has been really pushing aggressively for oil production in his country—mind you, he did sign the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, but then the following year, he was really pushing private/public partnerships to develop oil and mining—but biodiversity, the biodiversity in Ecuador, is a tourist draw. So that is something that if they can develop a sustainable, eco-friendly tourism platform that expands on their tourism, I think they could lean on that.
JJ: It’s just a matter of choices. If you’re writing to readers in Wisconsin, if you’re writing to readers in New York, if you’re writing to readers anywhere, there’s no need to present this fight between the Waorani and oil companies in Ecuador as if it’s a local or a very specific or particular story; it really is about everybody.
RL: That is a central point, Janine; I’m glad you brought that up, because it really is more than a local issue, it’s more than a regional issue. It really is a global issue. If you believe your life is touched by climate change and the loss of biodiversity on the planet, then this is an issue that should be central to you. It’s frustrating and sad that the major news organizations will not cover something that is so important, that should be on the front page.
JJ: Right. Well, let me just say, finally, you make clear in your piece that the fight is not over; you’ve just announced that the government has already said they’re going forward with the appeal, and have a date for it.
But we also know from other situations that sometimes just holding up deals can be meaningful; investors can get squirrelly, and it can change the dynamic of things. So I don’t want us to undersell the meaningfulness, no matter what happens, of the stay, anyway, that the Waorani people won in this provincial court in Ecuador.
RL: Absolutely. One hundred percent agreed.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with artist-journalist Reynard Loki. He’s editor and chief correspondent of Earth | Food | Life; that’s a project of the Independent Media Institute. Reynard Loki, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
RL: Thank you, Janine.
by Justin Anderson
Another day, another internal debate at YouTube about whether it will enforce its own content policies. And yet again, YouTube’s decision seems to solidify that the video platform will continue to be a welcoming home for channels that promote hate speech and harassment, and serve as a conduit for laundering far-right ideology—as long as those channels continue to make YouTube money.
Carlos Maza, host of the Vox online video show Strikethrough, published a tweet thread on June 4 detailing the online harassment he has received as a result of a campaign against him by right-wing pundit and comedian Steven Crowder. Crowder has repeatedly used anti-gay rhetoric to attack Maza, calling him a “lispy queer,” an “angry little queer” and “Mr. Gay Vox,” among other insults. He frequently refers to Maza’s ethnicity, calling him a “gay Mexican” or a “gay Latino from Vox.”
Since I started working at Vox, Steven Crowder has been making video after video “debunking” Strikethrough. Every single video has included repeated, overt attacks on my sexual orientation and ethnicity. Here’s a sample: pic.twitter.com/UReCcQ2Elj
— Carlos Maza (@gaywonk) May 31, 2019
Crowder, a former Fox News contributor, is perhaps best known for his “change my mind” meme, where he attempts to debate college students over issues like how many genders there are. His YouTube show centers around rants, pranks and sketches designed to shock or “trigger” the usual targets of right-wing anger, like feminists, gays, immigrants and “social justice warriors.” Crowder has a history of using racial slurs in his comedy, and also sells T-shirts on his YouTube page and website that declare “Socialism Is for F*gs.” (He coyly maintains that the word in question is “figs.”)
Multiple studies of YouTube’s algorithm have placed Crowder firmly within the same crowd of conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and outright Nazis on the website, all of whom network with one another through interviews and promotion, exploiting the algorithm and autoplay functions built into the website in order to increase their views and subscriptions.
While Crowder might not be as extreme as some of his contemporaries, the so-called Intellectual Dark Web and the far-right anti-SJW cadre aren’t some small subculture tucked away deep in the Internet’s basement; they are massively popular and major money makers for YouTube, whose business model is based around selling advertisements. Crowder alone has almost 4 million subscribers, and many of his videos amass tens of millions of views.
In response to Maza’s thread, YouTube reviewed Crowder’s statements in his videos and “found language that was clearly hurtful.” However, the company maintained that Crowder’s videos did not violate their website’s content policy. Never mind that the torrent of hate Maza has documented from both Crowder and his millions of fans violates YouTube’s rules against harassment. Crowder’s videos targeting Maza’s sexual orientation and ethnicity clearly violate the platform’s rules against hateful content as well.
According to Gizmodo (6/5/19), who reached out to YouTube parent company Google, the website maintains that it focused on whether the videos were centered “primarily on debating the opinions expressed,” or whether the videos were “solely malicious”—as though slurs embedded in a coherent far-right ideology are preferable to ones uttered at random.
Obsession with “debate” is a constant fixture of the online right. Crowder and contemporaries like Ben Shapiro relish in constantly calling for debates with their ideological opponents, using debate as a mask for their own interest in trolling, harassing and employing slurs against their targets. When their opponents refuse these clearly bad-faith challenges, the right decry the left’s supposed lack of “logic,” “reason” and “rationality.” (Strikingly, when these right-wingers actually do get challenged to real debates, they either refuse or embarrass themselves; when they aren’t arguing with 18-year-old college freshmen, they don’t tend to do so well.)
According to Maza, when he was doxxed last year, he was greeted with an endless stream of texts calling for him to “debate” Crowder. But because Crowder didn’t explicitly instruct his followers to harass or doxx Maza, YouTube decided that Crowder was not in violation. As Maza noted to Vox (6/5/19), “a policy that says that all you need to do to get away with hate speech on the platform is to mix it with something else is an instruction manual to monsters who want to figure out a way to target people based on identity.”
YouTube’s refusal to seriously address Maza’s complaints exposes the platform’s avowed support for the LGBT community as nothing but hollow branding. Like many companies, YouTube and Google have heavily integrated Pride Month and LGBT themes as marketing tools. YouTube’s own spotlight homepage currently displays the company logo in rainbow colors, with the backing of a LGBT mural. All of YouTube’s other official social media accounts use the same branding. The top promotion on the YouTube spotlight homepage is a playlist celebrating Pride. The company also created a Pride documentary commemorating gay liberation struggles, and plans to release two more during the month.
There is clearly a fundamental disconnect between the inclusive PR-shaped image that YouTube seeks to promote, and the tolerance for homophobia of its actual content policies in practice. Here is a member of the LGBT community clearly being harassed based on their sexual orientation and race, while the supposedly progressive platform for the harassment throws up its hands, saying that there’s nothing it can do. This sort of “pinkwashing” is the norm within companies that profess to support LGBT rights. However, YouTube’s hypocrisy is much more visible, considering the leeway they give creators who are hostile to the LGBT communities, immigrants and people of color generally.
YouTube’s business model is about empowering creators who attract eyeballs, no matter what content those creators publish. It’s why it took them years to kick the massively popular conspiracy theorist Alex Jones off the platform. And it’s why YouTube has long been a conduit for conspiracy theories, far-right reactionary ideology, white supremacy and Nazism.
Following a day’s worth of online backlash to their handling of the Maza/Crowder affair, YouTube declared that it would “demonetize” Crowder’s channel, a sanction that it has previously imposed on numerous LGBT channels. (“I’ve done multiple tests in proving that the word ‘transgender’ on my channels has demonetized my videos,” trans YouTuber Chase Ross complains—The Verge, 6/4/18.) However, this decision amounts to a mere slap on the wrist: All of Crowder’s videos remain up, they just won’t get promoted, or make money through YouTube’s AdSense network, until he removes links to his web store that sells the “Socialism is for F*gs” t-shirts. Crowder appears to have met these incredibly lax terms, but followed up by publishing a half-hearted apology video where he maintained that he is not in violation of YouTube’s content policy, and continued to promote his T-shirts—via his website rather than YouTube. In response to the affair, Crowder’s followers have since took to selling T-shirts declaring “Carlos Maza is a F*g.”
Along with Crowder’s demonetization, YouTube announced that it was finally banning content that promotes white supremacy. However, YouTube did not specify which white supremacist accounts had been banned. At first glance, numerous white supremacist accounts, such as Red Ice, American Renaissance and Identity Evropa, along with Charlottesville marchers James Allsup and Nick Fuentes, are still active on the platform. While some of these channels have been demonetized, their continued existence on the site signal that YouTube is ultimately OK with keeping this sort of content on their site. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that most of the accounts that were actually banned were smaller channels with mere handfuls of subscribers.
As an addendum to the white supremacist bans, YouTube’s Chris Dale put out a blog post saying that the platform would take a look at its content policies, and potentially update policies on harassment and hateful content. However, Dale said he was reluctant to ban speech that YouTube considered to be “borderline,” noting that if YouTube “were to take all potentially offensive content down, we’d be losing valuable speech.” “Valuable,” apparently, being the operative word here.
YouTube is not taking a free speech absolutist position, yet it still accords users the right to stir up hatred against a “lispy,” “angry little queer” among millions of followers. Regardless of what YouTube chooses to do about its content management in the future, the white supremacist ban and Crowder’s demonetization have given fuel to the right’s constant paranoid refrain that social media sites like YouTube and Facebook are biased against them.
Crowder, along with scores of other right wingers like Tim Pool and Dave Rubin (who misleadingly labels himself a “classical liberal”), would post videos lamenting “censorship” and a “crackdown” against free speech by YouTube. Popular commentators like Joe Rogan, whose show has hosted numerous members of the alt-right and the Dark Web, equated Crowder’s homophobic content to videos of left-wing figures debunking right-wing videos. As a guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show (2/6/19), free speech advocate and Intercept editor Glenn Greenwald confoundingly called Maza “powerful” and Crowder “marginalized.”
In the midst of Crowder’s demonetization and the bans of racist extremists, YouTube, likely on accident, demonetized or banned a number of channels that were not white supremacists or Nazis, but actually ones that document them. These casualties include News2Share‘s Ford Fischer, who extracts clips from the far right to document extremism, and filmmaker and history teacher Mr. Allsop, who uses World War II–era Nazi footage as a teaching tool.
Following the unintended demonetization of Fischer, Allsop and others, the right instantly seized on YouTube’s mistakes, circulating the hashtag #VoxAdpocolypse and accusing Maza of leading a coordinated campaign to silence journalists, citing his support for deplatforming Nazis and throwing milkshakes at members of the far right. Commenters on 4Chan continued to spread blatant lies about Maza, while others dug through his tweets for potentially damning comments, taking many out of context.
There will always be issues with giving multi-billion-dollar tech companies like Google the power and responsibility of policing online discourse, especially when deplatforming tactics intended for the far right are frequently turned against the left. But YouTube, as a private company, has terms of service that clearly bar harassment and the promotion of hatred based on sexual orientation, ethnicity and other identities—yet it allows homophobic slurs to be continually directed against an individual, so long as that target’s ideas are ridiculed along with his identity.
Clearly, YouTube’s content regulation policy is in practice arbitrary, or at the very least not enforceable to the standards that they currently publish on their website. Under this system, whichever way YouTube decides to enforce its content policy on any given day will always piss someone off. More often than not, however, YouTube sides with the creators who drive the most views and engagement, and thus make it the most money. Right now, the platform is too afraid to upset their money-making machine—that is, the content mill of far-right reactionary ideology that brings in tens of millions of views.
As Maza himself said, Crowder isn’t necessarily the problem. There will always be homophobes, racists and bigots in the world. But YouTube gives them an outsized voice and the ability to reach millions of followers, not just by hosting the videos but by steering audiences to them via its system of recommendations.
As long as YouTube continues to adhere to an advertising-based business model that rewards harassment and hate in its recommendation algorithms, high earning bullies like Crowder shouldn’t have much to fear. The same can’t be said about vulnerable members of the LGBT community that YouTube supposedly cares about.
Featured image: Steven Crowder marketing his coyly homophobic T-shirt.
When it comes to North Korea, stories are often too bad to be true.
The country has been in the news of late, as ongoing negotiations between the Trump and Kim Jong-un administrations appear to have soured. The chief casualty of this diplomatic failure, the New York Times (5/31/19) breathlessly reported, was Kim Jong-un’s negotiating team, with the vice chair of the North Korean Workers’ Party, Kim Yong-chol, being sent to a forced labor camp in “the latest example of how a senior North Korean official’s political fortune is made or broken at the whims of Kim Jong-un.”
Other outlets went further; Bloomberg (5/30/19) and Fox News (5/31/19) claimed Kim Jong-un had executed five top envoys for their failure, while Reuters (5/31/19) reported that a Korean interpreter had been locked up in a prison camp for a mistranslation, as part of what CNBC (5/30/19) called “a massive purge to divert attention away from internal turmoil and discontent.”
The story, based solely on an unverified claim from conservative South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, which has a history of printing highly inflammatory and even fake stories on the North, was picked up across the press, including by the Wall Street Journal (5/31/19), Time (5/31/19) and ABC News (5/31/19). There was one problem: Kim Yong-chol appeared only a few days later at a high profile art performance alongside Kim Jong-un.
This is far from the first time corporate media have been caught printing fake news about the country based on highly questionable sources. For example, it was widely reported (CNBC, 8/29/13; LA Times, 8/29/13; Business Insider, 8/29/13) that popular Korean singer and reputed former lover of Kim Jong-un, Hyon Song-wol, was executed in a “hail of machine gun fire while members of her orchestra looked on,” according to the same Chosun Ilbo—only for her to later appear in numerous public places, including at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Three years later, media were awash with supposedly factual reports that Gen. Ri Yong-gil (the officer President Trump awkwardly saluted in 2018) had been dramatically executed (e.g., Guardian, 2/10/16; Washington Times, 2/10/16), as part of a “brutal consolidation of power” (CNN, 2/10/16), only for him to turn up at a party congress. Even in its story about the miraculous resurrection, CNN (5/10/16) returned for more “expert” analysis to the same anonymous South Korean official who fed them fake news in the first place. This time, he repeated a highly dubious assertion that another general, Hyong Yong-chol, had been executed with an anti-aircraft gun, an accusation based on South Korean spies who the Washington Post (5/12/15) admitted were “as wrong as often as they are right” even as they passed along their claims anyway. (See FAIR.org, 5/13/15.)
North Korea is also a favorite location for wacky and easily disprovable stories. The BBC (3/28/14) originally reported that all men were required to wear their hair like Kim Jong-un, with other haircuts banned. Watching any video featuring North Korean officials would show this was untrue. Meanwhile many outlets (Fox News, 9/8/16; Daily Telegraph, 9/8/16; London Independent, 9/8/16) claimed the country had “banned sarcasm.”
Many of these stories are written by experts who appear to either display an astonishing lack of knowledge about the country or be engaged in active disinformation. The Washington Post’s Korea specialist claimed that tall buildings and electricity are “unknown” in North Korea (a cursory Google image search for “Pyongyang” would disprove this), while other journalists, such as Andrea Chalupa, believe that North Koreans are taught Australia and Africa don’t exist. Ironically, Chalupa styles herself an expert on George Orwell’s work.
Adam Johnson puts forward the theory of the “North Korea Law of Journalism,” where editorial standards and quality of reporting on a country are inversely proportional to its relationship with the US (FAIR.org, 7/6/17). Friendly countries are reported on favorably, whereas anything goes with enemy states like Venezuela, Iran or North Korea. FAIR has also documented how the threat the country with an economy less than one-thousandth the size of the US poses to us is consistently overemphasized (FAIR.org, 1/6/16, 3/22/17, 5/9/17).
Stories about the secretive nation are disproportionately based on accounts from biased sources with a clear incentive to lie, such as South Korean intelligence or media like Radio Free Asia, a US government-funded propaganda outlet created by an act of Congress. Added to this are the testimonies from North Korean defectors who are paid in cash for interviews, which the poor, jobless and isolated defectors themselves complain forces them to exaggerate their stories and reproduce certain narratives that journalists ask for.
Nor do journalists have incentive to report more neutrally or factually about Korea. Articles from the other side of the world that do not grab attention will not be commissioned by editors. Blood and guts sell, meaning the most alarmist stories are encouraged, and those offering them will go further in the business.
Errors in factual reporting that would lead to censure, dismissal or perhaps even worse if reporting on domestic affairs, or events in friendly nations, are forgiven, or even perversely incentivized, when writing stories about official enemies. (Governments typically discipline reporters by controlling access to official leaks, but these are of little value when they come from enemy states.)
In contrast, even factually reporting on the crimes of the US state or official allies is not an advisable career move, as seen by the treatment of whistleblowers, or publishers like Julian Assange. Such is the upside-down world of corporate journalism on enemy nations.
Featured image: Screenshot from a CNN report (5/10/16) on an “executed” North Korean official attending a party conference.