This week on CounterSpin: Corporate media didn’t make too much of the 15th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, and perhaps it’s just as well, as they’d’ve likely used the occasion to reinforce their favored idea: that the spectacularly devastating invasion was due preeminently to popularly shared miscalculations, on which they reported, rather than a campaign of demonization and deceit in which they participated.
By early 2004, what media still presented as a US campaign to “win hearts and minds” in Iraq came up against reality hard in the city of Fallujah, where a military attack and siege killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians. Reporting on this “First Battle” of Fallujah was a case study in the gap between corporate media’s picture of the war and what we were able to learn from independent reporters. In April 2004, CounterSpin spoke with journalist Rahul Mahajan, just returned from Fallujah. We’ll hear that interview again today.PlayStop pop out
Also on the show: Racial justice groups are suing the Department of Homeland Security to get access to something called the “Race Paper” that may provide clues to the surveillance of black activists. Why do we have to fight the state for protection for First Amendment activities? And why don’t corporate media care? We’ll hear from Omar Farah, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.PlayStop pop out
Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look back at recent press, including coverage of Venezuela, National Geographic and race, and Les Payne.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson interviewed Maha Hilal about CIA torturer Gina Haspel for the March 16, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: Because this is the way things are now, the country’s secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was fired via Twitter this week. Tillerson is to be replaced by current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and Pompeo’s top spot may be taken by the current deputy director, Gina Haspel.
Most people won’t recognize the name, but human rights advocates know Gina Haspel well as chief of base of a secret prison in Thailand, called Cat’s Eye, where a man suspected of being in Al Qaeda was brutally tortured, including being waterboarded 83 times and hung by hooks from the ceiling. Questions are being raised about Haspel’s precise role in the torture, about whether her views have changed. But from a president who has declared support for “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” the nomination of someone deeply involved in the rendition, detention and interrogation programs that shocked the conscience as they violated the law is deeply worrying.
Maha Hilal is the inaugural Michael Ratner fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and an organizer with Witness Against Torture. She also works with the DC Justice for Muslims Coalition, and is a co-principal Investigator with the Torture Treatment Initiative out of Tulane University’s Traumatology Institute. She joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Maha Hilal.
Maha Hilal: Thank you, Janine.
JJ: Let me just ask you what your first thought was on hearing that Gina Haspel might be the new head of the CIA?
MH: Honestly, my first thought is really about the idea that in this country, and particularly in the course of the “War on Terror,” those who have committed the crime of torture—or who have overseen torture, or endorsed torture—actually get promoted, not demoted or prosecuted.
JJ: And, in Haspel’s case, as I say, I’m hearing folks say, “Well, maybe she just oversaw it.” But what do we know about her involvement in what anyone would call torture?
MH: She played a pretty direct role in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, and she’s alleged to have overseen, specifically, the violent interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and [Abd al-Rahim] al-Nashiri. So it seems pretty clear that, while we don’t have all the evidence, that she did play a pretty big and direct role in the torture that happened in many of the CIA black sites.
JJ: The New York Times is talking about how Haspel’s nomination will “reignite the wrenching debate” over interrogation “techniques,” like waterboarding, confinement in boxes and sleep deprivation. First of all, it sounds like those being hurt are the ones who have to debate the issue, you know, or look at the photographs, rather than the people who were and who may be tortured.
But also, torture is illegal, isn’t it, even if you label it “enhanced interrogation”?
MH: It is illegal, and it’s important to keep the context of torture, with respect to the “War on Terror,” where under the Bush administration, there was a series of torture memos that essentially said that in order for abuse to rise to the level of torture, it had to result in organ failure or death. That’s a pretty high threshold.
Under Obama, there was presumably an understanding that torture had been outlawed. However, there were still many indications that torture was still occurring. And the fact of the matter is, so long as there’s no accountability for torture, I don’t think that it really matters that much what the discourse is.
And I think that it’s particularly important, not just because of what has happened, but because of this narrative that “this is not who we are.” So it’s really treated as if it’s this exceptional kind of abuse that we’ve continue to use in the course of the “War on Terror,” as if it’s something new. And the fact that it’s not new is precisely why many of these narratives will continue to actually make no difference whatsoever in terms of whether or not torture continues to be a tactic.
JJ: Well, I think that’s a very interesting point, and I would say that pertains also to the narrative around legality, because the idea that the United States doesn’t do things that are illegal, and that you can’t participate in sort of a serious policy conversation unless you buy that, really distorts the whole conversation.
MH: Absolutely. I think we’ve seen throughout the “War on Terror,” that legality as a concept is very malleable. So what do you do when something is illegal? You make it legal. You find a way. You write a series of memos. You change the law. Whatever you want to do. Because, again, there’s no accountability whatsoever, and so it becomes easier to basically make the law cater to whatever abusive policies you want to continue or perpetuate.
JJ: Haspel, we know, was also part of the 2005 plan, under Jose Rodriguez, the head of the CIA’s clandestine service, to destroy video tapes of waterboarding, which also indicates something about transparency at the agency. The New York Times quoted former officers saying that she was “a strong advocate for getting rid of the tapes.” We hope that–you know, often we put reporters in a role that is not the one that they actually play, but coming down on the side of transparency from government agencies seems like a pretty low bar, and Haspel’s record would suggest that she deserves extra scrutiny in that regard.
MH: Right, and I think that there’s an additional point here. One is, you know, we can talk about Haspel’s nomination specifically. But we also have to have the conversation of what the CIA, as an institution, has been designed to do. There are many levels of a lack of accountability. So not only will there probably be no accountability whatsoever for Haspel, and she may very well be nominated and assume the position of leadership. But once that happens, is there going to be a conversation about what the CIA, as an institution, what kind of crimes it has allowed the US government to commit?
I think there has to be a larger conversation, because this is not just about that one person; this is a systemic issue that we fail to address time and time again. And even the way that the CIA has been talked about in many of these circles, it’s as if it’s this very admirable institution that has, you know, all it has done is sought to preserve America’s national security. It has also destroyed many lives around the world, including the Muslim victims of the CIA black sites.
JJ: To me, when media stopped putting the expression “War on Terror” in quotation marks, something was really lost, you know? Because that term is just a tool, that is an instrument that is used very selectively. And the US has never sought to find and prosecute “terrorists,” per se. It really has only been certain people that are targeted. And I hear you saying, we can’t lose sight, as we talk about Gina Haspel being this person, being head of the CIA, and what her particular role in torture was, we can’t lose sight of how it fits into an ideological campaign of hatred and fear. It’s not really about protecting the country.
MH: Right. And I think if you ask any one of the Muslim victims who’ve been tortured, presumably they would not think that what they endured had anything to do with US national security. And I want to just really emphasize this point, because many of the discussions—or at least most of the discussions that I’ve observed—on Haspel’s nomination have made no mention of the fact that every single victim of the CIA’s black sites has been Muslim. And that point has gone extremely unnoticed and under-emphasized.
And I think that that’s a very critical point because, in my opinion—and based on the work and the research that I have done—the reason why the torture has been allowed to be so egregious is because of the way Muslims have been so dehumanized in the “war on terror.” I can’t imagine this happening to a group of, for example, white Christians. There would be outrage, there would be a lot more outrage, than if it’s happening to non-white Muslims across the globe, and in Guantanamo Bay, which, as we know, is an institution where torture has happened, and could very well be happening at present.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Maha Hilal. She’s the Michael Ratner fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. They’re online at ips-dc.org. Maha Hilal, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
MH: Thank you, Janine.
The United States has for years undermined the Venezuelan economy with economic sanctions, but US media coverage of Venezuela’s financial crisis has gone out of its way to obscure this.
The intent of the sanctions is clear: to inflict maximum pain on Venezuela so as to encourage the people of the country to overthrow the democratically elected government. SUNY professor Gabriel Hetland (The Nation, 8/17/16) pointed out in 2016 that the Obama government “prevented Venezuela from obtaining much-needed foreign financing and investment.” Such policies, Hetland notes,
have had a considerable and highly detrimental impact at a time when Venezuela is in desperate need of dollars but is prevented from gaining access to them by Washington.
In August 2017, two weeks before the Trump administration intensified the sanctions against Venezuela, UN Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy noted that they “would worsen the situation of the people of Venezuela” and that
sanctions are disruptive for any state, and can have a particularly devastating impact on the citizens of developing countries [such as Venezuela] when they impair the economy.
When Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in November 2017 proposed a meeting with creditors to discuss a restructuring of the country’s public debt, the Trump administration warned US bondholders that attending this meeting could put them in violation of US economic sanctions against Venezuela, which can be punished with 30 years in jail and as much as $10 million dollars in fines for businesses.
That same month, the US government added further sanctions that prevent Venezuela from doing what governments routinely do with much of their debt, which is “roll it over” by borrowing again when a bond matures. The sanctions also made it difficult if not impossible for Venezuela to undertake debt restructuring, a process wherein interest and principal payments are postponed and creditors receive new bonds, which the sanctions explicitly prohibit.
According to economist Mark Weisbrot (AlterNet, 11/3/17), the sanctions implemented that month appear designed “to prevent an economic recovery and worsen the shortages (which include essential medicines and food).”
All of this is rarely mentioned when US media report the hardships facing Venezuelans or describe the causes of Venezuela’s economic and political crisis. A New York Times (12/17/17) story told readers that Venezuelan children are facing hunger, with hundreds dying from malnutrition, because “years of economic mismanagement set the stage for the current disaster”—according to “many economists.”
However, less than two weeks earlier, following a trip to Venezuela, UN Rapporteur Alfred de Zayas (ThinkProgress, 12/8/17) offered his analysis of what “set the stage for the current disaster.” He reportedly said that the conditions in the country did not constitute a full-blown humanitarian crisis, but that there are “shortages, scarcity and distribution delays, etc.,” and listed sanctions among the causes of these problems:
What is important is to get to know the causes and take measures against contraband, monopolies, hoarding, corruption, manipulation of the currency and the distortions in the economy caused by an economic and financial war which includes [the effects of international] sanctions.
The Washington Post’s editorial board (2/23/18), in writing about what it misdescribed as “Latin America’s Worst-Ever Refugee Crisis” (see FAIR.org, 2/18/18), overlooked these dimensions of what has happened in Venezuela, writing:
Though it controls the world’s largest oil reserves, the regime founded by Hugo Chávez has wrecked not just oil production but the economy as a whole.
At no point did the paper mention the US role in wrecking the Venezuelan “economy as a whole.” It’s a striking example of what Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez described in Foreign Policy (1/12/18):
[A] problematic idea driving current US policy is the belief that financial sanctions can hurt the Venezuelan government without causing serious harm to ordinary Venezuelans. That’s impossible when 95 percent of Venezuela’s export revenue comes from oil sold by the state-owned oil company. Cutting off the government’s access to dollars will leave the economy without the hard currency needed to pay for imports of food and medicine. Starving the Venezuelan economy of its foreign currency earnings risks turning the country’s current humanitarian crisis into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe.
Even as Venezuela’s export revenues rose last year, as world oil prices increased, Venezuela’s imports fell by 31 percent, Rodríguez pointed out:
The reason is that the country lost access to international financial markets. Unable to roll over its debt, it was forced to build up huge external surpluses to continue servicing that debt in a desperate attempt to avoid a default.
It’s sanctions, not “years of economic mismanagement,” Rodríguez noted, that prevent Venezuela from turning rising oil prices into food for hungry children:
Major financial institutions have delayed the processing of all financial transfers from Venezuelan entities, significantly hampering the ability of Venezuelan companies to do business in the United States. Even Citgo, a Venezuelan-owned subsidiary that owns 4 percent of the United States’ refining capacity, hasn’t been able to get US financial institutions to issue routine trade credit since sanctions were imposed.
Another Post article, by Rachelle Krygier (3/8/17), reporting on the serious challenges facing Venezuela’s health system, likewise ignored US sanctions as part of the explanation. Instead, she wrote:
Lower oil prices and populist policies championed by the late Hugo Chávez and continued by his successor, President Nicolás Maduro, have plunged Venezuela into a spiraling economic emergency.
The Post’s Anthony Faiola (3/2/18), writing about the “humanitarian crisis” driving Venezuelans to flee their country, similarly acquitted the empire of any wrongdoing:
Venezuela has reached a breaking point, with lower oil prices and economic mismanagement leading to the world’s highest inflation rate and spiraling indexes of poverty and malnutrition.
CNN (3/2/18) also exclusively blamed the Venezuelan government for the country’s difficulties: “Corruption, mismanagement and price freezes have caused Venezuela’s economy to collapse.”
In an article on NBC’s website (3/12/18) on how “Life Is a Daily Struggle in Venezuela,” Mariana Zuñiga claimed that “Venezuela’s crisis can be traced back to Chávez,” who “relied heavily on oil revenues to fund his ‘21st Century Socialism’ agenda,” leaving Venezuelans with “little savings to fall back on” when oil prices collapsed. The other key reasons she listed for Venezuela’s problems were government currency controls and “years of excessive regulations [that] have discouraged local production.”
She neglected to point out what 150 scholars, writers, artists, activists and workers did in a letter published three days earlier (Alliance for Justice, 3/9/18): that the impact of US sanctions “falls most heavily on the poorest and most marginal sectors of society, to coerce political and economic change in a sister democracy.” They described sanctions as “a cynical use of coercive economic power to attack a nation that is already dealing with hyperinflation and shortages of basic commodities.” The letter also points to polls showing that a large majority of Venezuelans oppose sanctions, and notes:
It is no secret that Venezuela, unlike Mexico, Honduras, Colombia, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, is targeted for regime change by the US precisely because of Venezuela’s leadership in resisting US hegemony and the imposition of the neoliberal model in Latin America. And of course, Venezuela holds the largest oil reserves in the world, attracting more unwanted attention from Washington.
As the situation worsens in Venezuela, the US government has decided to aggravate matters further by repeatedly ramping up sanctions, most recently earlier this month, but media have failed to note the connection between such measures and the multitude of stories about Venezuelans’ struggles that they keep publishing.
These elisions exonerate the empire’s economic warfare against Venezuela and the harm the U.S has intentionally inflicted on the Venezuelan people. As de Zayas (Real News Network, 3/14/18) notes simply, the sanctions “have caused death.”
That these articles opt against informing their readers that American sanctions are contributing to the issues facing Venezuela is all the more egregious considering that the sanctions violate international law, contravening both UN Resolution 2625, which forbids “the use of economic, political or any other type of measures to coerce another state” and the charter of the Organization of American States, which bars the “use of coercive measures of an economic or political character.” As usual (e.g., FAIR.org, 9/19/13, 12/8/17), US media do not deem American violations of international law newsworthy.
Janine Jackson interviewed Orion Danjuma about the voter suppression trial for the March 16, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: It is passing strange that someone planning to run for governor of a state should be engaged in trying to change the law to make it much harder for some people to vote. But that’s just one angle on what’s playing out in a Kansas City courtroom, where a defendant, Kansas’s Secretary of State Kris Kobach, is representing himself in a federal trial over a state law requiring people to show citizenship documents, like a birth certificate or a passport, when they register to vote.
Kobach is the architect of that law, the force behind the now-disbanded “Presidential Commission on Election Integrity,” and the man who suggested that Donald Trump claim that he won the popular vote, “If you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
Fish v. Kobach, as the case is named, opened March 6, a day before the 53rd anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when police beat and tear-gassed hundreds of non-violent civil rights activists on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama—activists marching for voting rights. The ACLU has been fighting Kobach’s plans for years. We’re joined now by Orion Danjuma, staff attorney in the ACLU’s Racial Justice program. Welcome to CounterSpin, Orion Danjuma.
Orion Danjuma: Thanks very much. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
JJ: Well, Fish v. Kobach is about this 2013 law that Kris Kobach pushed through in Kansas. What was the effect of that law, or its impact, such that the ACLU sued over it, and that brings us to where we are today?
OD: Yes, so the law was passed initially in 2011, and began to be implemented in 2013, after extensive delays that the state gave to Mr. Kobach to start putting this law into place, and, as you mentioned in the intro, the law was passed under the pretense that there was this wave, this threat, of hordes of noncitizens who were potentially infiltrating voting booths, and voting in elections, and changing the results of American elections. And the law was basically passed based on these anecdotal reports that people saw someone who looked like a Muslim lady, or African immigrants, at polls, and were protesting the fact that those individuals might not be citizens.
After the law was passed, the state saw, almost immediately, tens of thousands of individuals whose voter registration applications were suspended, and blocked from registering, because they couldn’t come up with the documents that the state was demanding: a birth certificate or a passport. And part of that was the fact that the law was so poorly implemented and so confusingly explained—or not explained—to individuals, that even some people who had documents were denied an opportunity to register to vote. And then many others who were simply too poor to have the necessary documents, or couldn’t locate them, were unable to provide those documents by the time they needed to register to vote.
The ACLU brought suit, because approximately 14 percent of new voter registration applications, over 30,000 individuals, between January 2013 and December 2015, were blocked by this requirement. That restriction violates federal law, the National Voter Registration Act, which requires that states make voter registration simple and straightforward. So we brought suit to block this restrictive registration requirement.
JJ: And it was, in fact, blocked. And is this now part of trying to decide whether that law is going to stand at all? This is what we’re talking about now?
OD: What happened is that in 2016 and in advance of the 2016 election, we brought suit and requested a preliminary injunction. And the judge who was assigned to the case issued a preliminary ruling in 2016, saying that it certainly looked very likely that this law violates federal law, which is supposed to make it easy to register to vote, but delayed a decision on the final merits until a full trial could be had after the election. And that judge’s decision was upheld by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, and no appeal was taken to the Supreme Court at the time. So that preliminary injunction has blocked the law since 2016.
Basically, the judge then said to Secretary Kobach, you now have an opportunity to prove whether or not noncitizen voter registration fraud is actually a problem. That court and the Court of Appeals said that, from the evidence produced thus far, it seemed that the idea that noncitizens were registering to vote was so minimal as to be negligible. The court essentially said it is a nominal problem at best, and the Court of Appeals said that the secretary’s claims that lots of noncitizens registering to vote was simply pure speculation.
So what’s at issue right now, in this trial that’s taking place in Kansas City, is it’s really Secretary Kobach’s “put up or shut up” moment. For literally years, at this point, he’s been using this threat of noncitizens voting in elections as a pretext for restrictive voter registration requirements. And he’s only had to defend these wild allegations on Fox News, or various very sympathetic forums, and what’s different now is he has to come into court, to really come up with actual evidence.
And I can say that, at least from our perspective as a plaintiff, his showing has been completely disastrous. All of the evidence that he’s sought to introduce at trial has been riddled with errors, has been statistically incomprehensible, or simply outright fabrications and lies. Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the court to decide whether the evidence that he’s provided is significant or not, but that is the meaning of this trial, is it is essentially a test of the claims that he’s now made for years about whether noncitizens really are voting in elections or not.
JJ: This whole line, and I think corporate media are still credulous about it to a certain extent, is that there is some valid concern about voter fraud, that experts might disagree about the numbers, but you’re still given to understand that there’s some there there, that it’s a dispute, anyway. And even if an article winds up concluding, as the courts have, that voter fraud is not a significant problem, still the article posits it as the object of concern. And documents, including testimony from Kobach that the ACLU obtained, really illustrate the extent to which it is a purposive red herring. I wonder if you could just talk a little about what you have called “the plays in Kobach’s voter suppression playbook.”
OD: Absolutely. So over the course of this litigation, shortly after the judge in this case entered a preliminary injunction blocking the law, after we filed suit — as I mentioned, that decision was issued a few months before the 2016 election—right in the wake of that election, the secretary of State was photographed going into a meeting with Donald Trump, and in his hands was a document, sort of a memo: Secretary Kobach’s master plan for the Trump administration. And one key item on it was to draft amendments to the National Voter R…—and the rest of that document was covered up by his arm.
So in the course of the litigation in advance of trial, we were able to obtain access to those documents. The secretary’s office fought us literally tooth and nail. I can tell you there are probably 60 docket entries; I’ve never filed as many papers over a mere document dispute as I did in this case. But the reason why it was so critical is that the secretary’s own evidence showed that his claims were completely false and invalid.
What we found is that not only was there this agenda that Mr. Kobach had brought into a meeting with Mr. Trump, Mr. Kobach had actually prepared a version of a draft amendment which would allow him to impose a birth certificate or passport requirement on voters, even if there were no proof at all that any noncitizens were registering to vote, and I think it’s really clear…. And then he was aggressively lobbying, immediately after the 2016 presidential election, to try to get Mr. Trump and his senior advisors to pass new legislation to make it harder to vote.
And why I think that’s so critical is that for years, the secretary has been saying that noncitizens are registering to vote; they’re everywhere registering to vote. But as soon as he’s forced to go into court to prove that that’s happening, he desperately tried to change the law to eliminate the requirement that he come up with any proof at all. And I think that’s really, really clear evidence that he just knows he doesn’t have any proof. He knows that this is really just about blocking individuals who he doesn’t want to vote from getting to the polls easily. And that is one of the reasons why laws like these are so dangerous, and why a trial like this, that gets to the bottom of what the evidence really is, is so important.
JJ: And it’s why I would hope that media would change their angle of approach to the story. They’re no longer balancing, rhetorically, “voter fraud” and “voter suppression,” in the same way that they used to. But I still feel that they fall short of describing an actual thought-out plan to suppress the votes of the young and the poor and people of color, and covering it and approaching it in that way. It still makes it sound as though “some people think this, some people think something else,” and we kind of have to hash it out.
So what I want to say is, you show that Kobach has had these plans for a while now, from before the election. And I’ve just read that if he loses this case in Kansas, he still has his friend Steve King in Congress, who is set to try to push through this we-don’t-need-evidence rule at a national level? He could try to win in a different way, if he loses in Kansas City?
OD: Shortly after the election, in the early part of 2017, President Trump made a surprise announcement that Secretary Kobach was going to be appointed as the de facto head of the Voter Integrity and Election Commission, and that was a huge alarm bell for all of the voting rights community, because we knew that the only reason he would be in a position like that was to create a false narrative about the scope of voter registration fraud, to basically lay the foundation for an amendment to federal voting rights law, to make it much harder to vote.
Now, after the extreme incompetence that Secretary Kobach displayed—hiding documents from members of the commission itself, not abiding by any of the requirements for any presidential commission; he basically failed to do the bare minimum of what you need to do in an investigatory commission appointed by the president of the United States—now the commission has been disbanded, because it was so poorly run.
But you’re absolutely right, that either at the federal level, through federal legislation, or at the state level, by enacting restrictive voter registration regimes or new voter ID requirements, there is a core of individuals who are dedicated to suppressing the right to vote, not based on any legitimate fear of fraud, either by noncitizens or individuals voting in multiple states, but simply because they don’t want certain voters to participate in the political process. And that is a fundamental threat to our most important civil right and civil liberty. For Secretary Kobach, I think he felt there was a way to lock in a voter pool that he liked, the current set of registered voters, and erect a wall to make it as hard as possible for new, young voters, unaffiliated voters, to join the political process and get involved.
JJ: So for those of us who are interested in maintaining and expanding voting rights, we have to keep our eyes on the prize, really.
OD: Absolutely. This is a part of the plan that Secretary Kobach, I think, now has exposed, because, to some extent, we were just lucky enough to see that there was a document at issue, and that gave us enough of a hook to get into court to see what he was cooking up behind closed doors. But you had better believe that there are all sorts of other plans that involve different voter protection laws that are outside of the ones that are involved in this case, and it is incredibly important to be alert to each of those issues, as events unfold in Congress and in the states.
I want to just answer one thing you mentioned earlier before, and that’s about balance between, you know, “some people think noncitizen voter fraud is a problem, some people don’t,” and there’s this sort of false equivalency that’s part of the national discourse on this issue. I think that’s right, but most importantly, I think it misses the point that in a case like this, we have direct evidence of bad intent by someone. We have the papers that show this plan. So that shows that it wasn’t just a sort of arbitrary, “some people think one thing; some people think another thing.” We know what the secretary thought. He tried to make it so that he’d never had to prove that a single noncitizen registered to vote, in order to disenfranchise 30,000 voters in Kansas.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Orion Danjuma, staff attorney in the ACLU’s Racial Justice program. They’re online at ACLU.org. Orion Danjuma, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
OD: I’m so happy to be with you.
The murder of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14 has sparked protests and marches for gun control, led by many of the Parkland teenagers who experienced the horror of the massacre. The students have taken an outspoken stance against the National Rifle Association and the politicians it funds.
In response, some gun advocates pulled out a familiar rhetorical tool: accusing shooting victims of being paid “crisis actors,” pretend victims supposedly employed by left-wing boogeymen like George Soros to drum up support for gun control and other progressive policies. Victims of past mass shootings, including Newtown, Sutherland Springs and Las Vegas, had earlier been accused of participating in “false flag” attacks designed to justify federal gun control. These preposterous claims have subjected the families of the victims of those tragedies to death threats and harassment from hoaxers and conspiracy theorists.
Seventeen-year-old David Hogg was one Stoneman Douglas Student singled out for crisis actor accusations. An account named “mike m” reposted a YouTube video of a CBS Los Angeles clip that featured Hogg recounting a verbal altercation with a lifeguard in 2017, when he was living in Redondo Beach, California. Captioned “DAVID HOGG THE ACTOR,” the video set off waves among far-right internet circles, who saw it as proof that Hogg had already graduated from high school in California, and thus was an imposter.
Citing the fact that Hogg’s father was a former FBI agent—something Hogg brought up on CNN (2/19/18)—conspiracy theorists accused him of working alongside the Bureau, ominously observing that the FBI failed to preemptively apprehend the Parkland shooter after he posted numerous threats on YouTube comment threads.
YouTube took down the “mike m” video—after it received over 200,000 views and appeared on the website’s “trending” page. However, right-wing and conspiracy-oriented news sources and activists had already picked up the story and run with it. A former congressmember and a Pennsylvania state representative fanned the flames. Even Donald Trump Jr. liked tweets connecting the massacre to the FBI, which is currently investigating his father. While some sources didn’t come out and endorse false flag/crisis actor conspiracies outright, they used the typical rhetorical devices used to drum up paranoia, claiming they were “just asking questions” or “connecting the dots.”
America’s leading right-wing conspiracy-monger, Alex Jones, did much to spread the hoax that Hogg was a crisis actor. Numerous videos about supposed “inconsistencies” in accounts of the shooting—including coverups and multiple shooters—have also appeared on his popular YouTube channel (currently the 16th most popular News and Politics channel on YouTube, with over 2.2 million subscribers) and other YouTube channel affiliates that repost content from Jones’ InfoWars website.
YouTube has increasingly become a haven for conspiratorial far-right media sources. Outlets like the New York Times Magazine (8/3/17) and Salon (8/13/17) have noted the upswing of hoax-laden right-wing videos on the Google-owned website in recent years, comparing the reach of reactionary opinion on YouTube to that of talk radio, long a mainstay of ultraconservative discourse. While radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage indoctrinated older demographics in conspiratorial right-wing politics in recent decades, right-wing YouTube videos serve the same purpose for younger age groups.
“Conspiracy theory” is often a loaded term. The Merriam-Webster definition is:
A theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.
Of course, this definition could cover legitimate political critique as well as blatant falsehoods. For example, if you explain business-friendly regulations as the result of corporations funneling massive amounts of money to politicians through SuperPACs and lobbying groups, are you a “conspiracy theorist”? Clearly not, as there is substantial evidence proving your claim’s veracity. Relevant political critique can more usefully be delineated from what are called “conspiracy theories” by the latter’s use of false, dubious and misleading evidence. Alex Jones and his acolytes could not advance their clearly bogus theories—like ones involving crisis actors, the claim that 9/11 was an inside job, and the idea that John Podesta and Hillary Clinton ran a child prostitution ring out of a DC pizza restaurant—without a willingness to make logical leaps, accept as valid any confirmatory evidence and reject as “part of the plot” any information that calls their beliefs into question. Funnily enough, Jones often walks back his conspiracy theories after they have been debunked, but not before his videos have made their rounds and left impressionable people believing their lies.
Jones maintains a facade of professionalism, with his snazzy studios and upscale production values, that other conspiracy theorists lack; the format of most hoax-propagating right-wing videos is usually just a person talking at the camera from their office, living room or car, or provocative news clips interspliced with incendiary narration intended to shock viewers. Like their talk radio counterparts, the YouTube right homes in on familiar right-wing punching bags: the purported evils of political correctness, social justice warriors, immigrants, Antifa, Black Lives Matter, Islam, feminism, transgender rights, “cultural Marxism” and, as we have seen in the case of David Hogg, gun control. Their videos leave little room for context, nuance or factchecking, and frequently devolve into gross conspiratorializing.
These far-right conspiracy videos insulate viewers in reactionary content bubbles through YouTube’s “suggested content” algorithm. The algorithm is centered on bundling viewers into neat “identity” groups that the platform can then market to advertisers. Since 2012, YouTube’s algorithm has done this by focusing on the amount of time watched per video, rather than number of clicks, on both channels and videos, thereby rewarding videos that attract dedicated viewers rather than quick samplers. Additionally, keywords, tags, descriptions and titles help videos get noticed and suggested by the algorithm, so having a set of buzzwords like “social justice warriors” helps get related videos into viewers’ suggested video queue.
By targeting a specific demographic (say, the lucrative white males aged 14-34 demographic) with ads based on an identity profile built by monitoring the keywords and the amount of time an individual watches specific videos, YouTube can generate more clicks on the accompanying ads and in turn drive the costs of ads up. And this streamlined targeted advertising is lucrative: According to Brightcove, 74 percent of consumers have said that watching videos on social media affects their purchasing decisions, while the average consumer watches almost an hour of “social” video a day, half of which takes place on YouTube. With YouTube’s financial incentive to bring viewers more of the same kind of content, a trip down the right-wing conspiracy theory rabbit hole is specifically built to ensnare people, primarily young males, who might be lonely, alienated, politically naive or just in search of alternatives to mainstream corporate media sources.
YouTube has taken steps to ban some far-right users for spewing conspiracy theories or racist rhetoric. The website recently removed a video on the Alex Jones Channel titled “David Hogg Can’t Remember His Lines in TV Interview,” which claimed “it’s about a 90 percent chance” that the Parkland shooting was a false flag, and insinuated that Hogg was “coached” by “the deep state” for a CNN interview. YouTube also told Jones that he had received his “first strike,” warning of a potential termination from the website if he accrues two more violations of the YouTube content policy within the next three months.
Recently, YouTube notified Jones that advertisers were fleeing his channel after a CNN study (3/3/18) alerted them that their ads were appearing alongside his videos. Painting himself as a victim of a censorship campaign against right-wing media sources by more centrist media, Jones claims that his longtime enemy CNN has been actively lobbying YouTube to ban InfoWars.
Yet the libertarian-influenced free-speech stance maintained by many big Silicon Valley tech platforms, like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, is frequently applied only selectively, and is seemingly more favorable towards the far right. People have been banned on content platforms for much less than genocidal Nazi chanting or smearing massacre victims as hired actors. For example, Twitter has locked users for swearing at people with “verified” accounts, Facebook has locked or banned users who post pictures of breastfeeding and Black Lives Matter activists who have called white people racist, and both YouTube and Facebook have, at the behest of the Israeli government, de-platformed Palestinian journalists and activists documenting brutality of Israeli soldiers.
Conversely, the content platforms frequently drag their feet on banning Nazis and conspiracy theorists that run afoul of their content policies. YouTube banned Nazi group Atomwaffen from their website, following an article by the Daily Beast (2/26/18), but only after repeated refusals to do so.
Recently however, large tech platforms like YouTube have shown a new willingness to shift towards a tougher approach in enforcing their content policies with the addition of displaying Wikipedia articles alongside conspiracy theory videos and with crackdowns against Nazis. However, Sam Levin of the Guardian (2/28/18) argues that taking down conspiracy theory videos and potentially banning users like Jones from their platforms only reinforces their narrative that the “deep state” conspiracy is persecuting them to silence “the real truth.” Additionally, when the left acts as cheerleaders for political censorship, or deputizes a company like Google to move against a particular group, these tactics can backfire when the same censorship is used against them. Indeed, it’s likely that a mandate to censor conspiracy theories could end up targeting legitimate structural critiques of power that are misleadingly grouped into the same category. Asking Google, perhaps the most powerful corporate entity in the world, to become the arbiter of what is and isn’t a conspiracy theory is certainly not ideal for healthy political discourse. The moral panic among Democrats about the influence of “fake news” during the 2016 election provides a stark example of similar potential blowback.
Still, real life exists outside the internet: Conspiracy theories peddled by the far right can incite real-world harassment and violence. This harassment has not come without reprisal: Jones has been sued for defamation by Brennan Gilmore, a former State Department foreign services officer who was attacked by Jones as a “deep state operative” after he caught the horrific murder of Heather Heyer by a Nazi on camera during the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally.
Conspiracy theories and challenges against the “official narrative” have long been fixtures in the paranoid style of American politics. InfoWars continues to release conspiracy theory videos on YouTube that receive millions of views. One of Jones’ latest videos, “The Florida Shooting Happened! ‘Crisis Actors’ Are a MSM Hoax to Censor the Web,” now denies that the shooting was a false flag, but maintains that the mainstream media is using the massacre as a tool to promote gun control and censor right-wing internet “truth tellers.”
Conspiracy theories such as these are unlikely to dissipate any time soon, especially while the internet remains a useful tool for spreading disinformation to the masses, and while content suggestion algorithms like YouTube’s provide financial incentives not to stop them. While deputizing YouTube to silence Alex Jones and his ilk is an approach that is likely to have negative consequences, it is still necessary for both public and media to continuously call out blatantly false conspiracy theories peddled by the right.
One group that is not afraid to challenge the conspiracy-mongers: the Parkland survivors themselves. It’s refreshing to see David Hogg and others striking back against those who have smeared them. Jones has of late gone on Twitter to beg Hogg to tone down his attacks, pleading with him to come on his show.
What use is having a “liberal” cable network if it remains silent on the major issues facing the left?
As FAIR noted in January (FAIR.org, 1/8/17), MSNBC’s coverage of the US-assisted bombing and siege of Yemen is virtually nonexistent. In the year 2017, MSNBC ran only one segment that focused on the US’s role in Yemen; zero in the second half of the year. In 2018 so far, MSNBC hasn’t run a single segment on Yemen, much less the US’s role in in it.
The US-supported, Saudi-led bombing campaign has caused upward of 1 million cholera cases and killed over 10,000 civilians (a figure that is over a year old, with the current toll likely much higher). The only segment this year that even mentioned Yemen, according to a search of MSNBC transcripts in the Nexis news database, was a Chris Hayes interview (All In, 3/2/18) with Ryan Grim of The Intercept, in which Grim described the impact of Jared Kushner’s secret dealings with Qatar:
The Yemen crisis and the humanitarian disaster going on there is tied into this, because it’s kind of the way the politics play out there. Saudi cares more about the Yemen war and the UAE cares more about Qatar, and so there’s sort of a quid pro quo going there, like Saudi will help UAE going after Qatar, the UAE helps Saudi go after Yemen. So facilitating this entire thing has helped, you know, explode a cholera epidemic and mass starvation in Yemen while we’re at it.
Viewers who rely on MSNBC for their news were likely at a loss to say what Grim was talking about.
In the run-up to a vote this week on a bill co-sponsored by senators Bernie Sanders, Mike Lee and Chris Murphy to withdraw US support for the Saudi air campaign—a move that, according to at least one insider, would end the war itself—the US’s major “liberal” cable network has continued its radio silence. MSNBC continued to ignore the story this week as activists and a broad coalition of anti-war groups tried to put pressure on the Senate to finally end the US-sustained siege of Yemen.
MSNBC’s three major stars—Hayes, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell—haven’t used their sizable social media followings to highlight the issue either. None of the well-paid pundits has tweeted about the topic of Yemen in 2018. While Hayes has handwrung about the topic on Twitter in the past, he hasn’t covered it on his show since summer 2016. O’Donnell has tweeted about Yemen once in 20,000 tweets since joining the social media platform in June 2010; Maddow has mentioned it in four out of 7,000 tweets, two of those mentions in 2010.
Even as frequent MSNBC guests Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy, as well as celebrities like Mark Ruffalo and Susan Sarandon, lobby directly for the bill, MSNBC has not dedicated a single segment to the war, or to the recent high-profile efforts to end it.
MSNBC ceding anti-war sentiment is notable in its own right, and as part of a broader trend of liberal institutions abandoning anti-war voices in favor of short-term liberal jingoism (FAIR.org, 8/24/16). Despite not having a single segment on Yemen thus far in 2018, MSNBC did manage 143 segments on Stormy Daniels, the woman President Trump paid off and harassed to hide an affair. A story to be sure, but perhaps not one worth 143 more reports than thousands being bombed with the help of US weapons sales and military support.
It’s extra disconcerting that MSNBC is being outflanked from the left by Breitbart, which has covered efforts to end the war a dozen or so times—likely for cynical, nativist reasons. But anti-war sentiment is going to be led by someone, and one imagines that those concerned with building progressive anti-war coalitions would prefer it be led by a liberal network rather than a fascist one.
It’s hard not to have a certain attachment to the Washington Post‘s longstanding crusade against Social Security and Medicare. After all, it has been pushing for cuts to these programs at least since I came to town in 1992. They did in the high-deficit years of the early 1990s, the boom times of the late 1990s, the housing bubble years of the 2000s and through the Great Recession. The Post calling for cuts to these programs is pretty much as predictable as the sun coming up. So this morning’s call for “reform” (3/19/18) is a bit like the morning coffee, although somewhat less pleasant.
At the most basic level, you sort of have to love the Post criticizing politicians for not wanting to go on record for cuts to these programs, even when the editorial writers, who don’t have to run for office, are scared to say what they actually want, and instead use the euphemism “reform” when they mean cuts. But the substance is also a bit hard to take.
Suppose we get to the years when these programs face a shortfall and simply raise taxes enough to meet the tab. Yes, this would mean a hit to workers at the time, and would be unpopular. But since the programs are hugely popular, there quite likely would be public support for higher taxes, precisely because of the demographics described in the Post:
That is, 21 percent of the entire population will be on Medicare, Social Security or, in most cases, both. Just five years thereafter, in 2035, the number of 65-and-overs will surpass the number of Americans under 18 for the first time in the nation’s history.
Would it be a disaster if we had to raise taxes to pay for these programs? Well, we raised taxes by amounts comparable to the projected shortfalls in the decades of the ’60s, the ’70s and the ’80s, so tax increases have precedents.
It’s also important to keep in mind that average wages are projected to be more than 25 percent higher in 2035 than they are today. This means that after-tax wages would be more than 20 percent higher in 2035 even if we raised the payroll tax by 3 percentage points. (I’m not saying this is the best way to close the projected shortfall, just pointing out the arithmetic.)
People can rightly make the objection that most workers have not seen much gain in wages over the last four decades, as most of the benefits from growth have gone to high-end earners like CEOs, Wall Street types and upscale professionals like doctors and lawyers. That’s an important point, but that would suggest we focus on policies to reverse this upward redistribution, which has cost workers hugely more than any remotely plausible increase in the payroll tax. (Yes, this is yet another pitch for my [free] book, Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer.)
If the Post were interested in free trade, we could also do a lot to directly reduce the cost of Medicare and Medicaid by bringing in more foreign doctors and ending patent monopoly financing of prescription drug research. But we know the Post is only interesting in cutting the wages and benefits for ordinary workers, not doing anything that would jeopardize the incomes of rich people.
Finally, people should be completely disgusted by hearing for cuts in these programs from a paper whose austerity policies have literally cost the country trillions of dollars in wages over the last decade. Maybe if Post editorialists acknowledged their mistake, their ideas might deserve an audience, but surely not now.
A version of this post appeared on the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s blog Beat the Press (3/19/18).
As FAIR has noted many times before (7/10/16, 1/30/18), one of the primary goals of “Copspeak”—broadly defined as the media internalizing police verbiage to sound Cool and Official—is to dehumanize those officers have detained, harassed or killed.
One popular iteration of Copspeak is when reporters refer to children or teenagers as “juveniles.” This works to criminalize and dehumanize a distinction—being a child—we would otherwise view in a sympathetic light, by using the dry, scientistic language of an anthropological study. “Police shoot fleeing juvenile” impacts us far less than “police shoot fleeing child” or “police shoot fleeing teenager,” which is why it’s the preferred term of the police, and thus police-aligned local reporters doing their best Copspeak impression.
Here are a few recent examples, children are referred to as “juveniles” before they’ve been indicted much less found guilty of any crimes:
- Juvenile Male Shot in NE DC (WUSA, 10/17/17)
- One Adult Dead, Juvenile Wounded in Officer-Involved Shooting in St. Louis City (KPLR, 11/23/17)
- “Between 700 and 1,000 disorderly juveniles gathered en masse near the JCPenney wing of the Cherry Hill Mall, according to police.” (Philly Voice, 12/29/17)
- Juvenile Expected to Be Charged After Officer-Involved Shooting in Jackson (WJHL11, 12/30/17)
- Police: ‘Large Disturbance’ Involving Juveniles at North Riverside Mall (ABC7, 3/3/18)
- “Sounds like @BaltimorePolice has dissipated the hundreds of juveniles along W. Franklin, according to @7eleven employee who says no damage occurred.” (Baltimore Sun’s Doug Donovan, Twitter, 3/10/18)
For centuries, societies have made a distinction between crimes committed by children and adults, with an understanding that, developmentally, they have different notions of guilt and responsibility. Blurring this distinction with “juvenile” turns children into criminals, instead of what they are: children.
Often, the term “juvenile” is coupled with “male” to maximize the dehumanization. This works in conjunction with other elements of Copspeak (FAIR.org, 1/30/18): Instead of a “boy” or “teenager killed,” we have a “dead juvenile male” dying “after” an “officer-involved shooting.” The normal language of human interaction is replaced with Borg-like jargon: Chests become “torsos,” boys become “juvenile males” and—by design—humans become cadavers.
If one opens Google in incognito mode and types in “juveniles,” the top results are either medical-related (e.g., “juvenile diabetes”) or connected to crime: “juvenile detention,” “juvenile detention center” and “juvenile justice.” One does not, after all, ask a friend how their “juveniles” are doing, or tell your spouse to put the “juveniles” to bed; when people we consider like ourselves are under the age of 18, we generally call them “children.”
During the Baltimore unrest in April 2015, a panic that produced several bogus narratives (FAIR.org, 4/29/15, 6/25/15), the Baltimore Police Department routinely used the term “juvenile” to pathologize a gathering of mostly African-American children. “Several juveniles are part of these aggressive groups,” the department breathlessly warned on Twitter: “There is a group of juveniles in the area of Mondawmin Mall. Expect traffic delays in the area.”
Baltimore police were not unique in applying this phrase to African-American children: The “disorderly juveniles” in the Philadelphia-area mall and the “juveniles” causing a “large disturbance” in suburban Chicago, cited above, were also mostly black teenagers.
When 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by Cleveland police, USA Today (1/23/14) wrote in its lead paragraph that cops were responding to a report that “a juvenile was scaring people.” The fatal shooting by Houma, Louisiana, police of Cameron Tillman—a 14-year-old hanging out in an abandoned building with a bb gun—was summarized by local media (WDSU, 9/23/14) as “the deputy fired a shot or shots, striking one of the juvenile suspects.” After George Zimmerman killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson (7/2/13) asked former NYPD detective Bo Dietl about Martin’s school records, and Dietl responded:
Well, you know, a lot of times when they’re juveniles like this, they could commit robbery. And they classify as a juvenile delinquent type of act.
All three of these “juveniles” were African-American children.
Reporters likely believe they’re being Official and Serious when adopting Copspeak, but they ought to consider why these terms are used. Police, like the military, use language deliberately designed to dehumanize those with whom they interact, in order to obfuscate their guilt when they kill or injure. It’s an institutional lexicon developed over decades of public relations fine-tuning. There’s no objective reason why reporters ought to follow suit, unless they view themselves as extensions of the police.
This week on CounterSpin: Corporate media have moved beyond rhetorically balancing right-wing claims of voter fraud with documented evidence of voter suppression, but have they taken the next step—to acknowledging the voter fraud pretense as part of the voter suppression effort? The federal trial over voter fraud mouthpiece Kris Kobach’s effort to change registration laws in Kansas is a good test case. We talk about it with Orion Danjuma, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program.PlayStop pop out
Also on the show: “I don’t envy her trying to get through confirmation,” says a CIA lawyer quoted in the New York Times, talking about Gina Haspel, the agency’s current deputy director, now nominated by Trump for the top spot. The source, and to some extent the article, focused on the difficulties Haspel may face getting the job, as if her involvement in so-called “counterterrorism” programs that included torture were, above all, a potential career impediment. We get a different view from Maha Hilal, the Michael Ratner fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and an organizer with Witness Against Torture.PlayStop pop out
And Janine Jackson takes a quick look at Hollywood and guns.PlayStop pop out
Commentators across the spectrum of acceptable establishment opinion are alarmed by the possibility of peace breaking out on the Korean peninsula.
Some oppose the idea of talks between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on principle. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin (3/9/18), for instance, suggested that Trump should not meet with Kim:
Is Trump now to glad-hand with Kim, treating him as just another world leader? Will Trump even bring up human rights? (You will recall that, in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama was ridiculed for suggesting he’d sit down with the North Korean dictator; he prudently backed off that idea.)
Her newly hired colleague Max Boot (Washington Post, 3/8/18) concurred:
As recently as August, Trump tweeted: “The US has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!” He was absolutely right.
Boot went on to contend:
The South Koreans claim that the North Koreans are willing to discuss denuclearization, but the likelihood is that they will only do so on terms that the United States should never accept. Kim may offer to give up his nukes if the United States will pull its forces out of South Korea and sign a peace treaty with the North.
What Boot sees as a doomsday scenario—peace between the two Koreas and the withdrawal from the peninsula of US troops, which serve as a constant threat to the North and thus ensure the permanent threat of war—is actually a formula for ensuring that there isn’t a second Korean war, one that is certain to be even more devastating than the catastrophic first one for Korea, and likely for the region and further afield.
Rachel Maddow (MSNBC, 3/9/18) seemed flabbergasted by the prospect of a meeting between the leaders:
It has been the dream of North Korean leaders for decades now that they would advance their weapons programs and their nuclear programs so much so that the United States would be forced to acknowledge them as an equal and meet with the North Korean leader…. They got there with [Trump] and I don’t know that the administration intended it to be that kind of a gift. It’s just a remarkable time to be covering this stuff.
MSNBC blogger Steve Benen (3/9/18) says he’s “not opposed to direct diplomacy,” but he sounded like a time capsule from 1951 when he warned that
Trump has agreed to give Kim Jong-un exactly what he wants. North Korean leaders have sought this kind of meeting for decades because it would necessarily elevate the rogue state: It would show the world that North Korea’s leader is being treated as an equal by the Leader of the Free World.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (3/9/18) also claims to prefer that the US and North Korea exchange words rather than missiles, but he expressed relief that the threat of peace was minimal: “It’s genuinely encouraging that Kim doesn’t object to the US resuming military exercises,” he wrote, but worried that America
has agreed to give North Korea what it has long craved: the respect and legitimacy that comes from the North Korean leader standing as an equal beside the American president.
For Maddow, Benen and Kristof, a catastrophic nuclear war likely to kill millions is less threatening than the (frankly remote) possibility of America treating a small Asian country as an equal. This sort of commentary shows that liberal analysts are every bit as capable of a chest-thumping jingoism as their counterparts on the right.In Praise of Sanctions
Sanctions on North Korea make it harder for aid organizations to operate in the country, and for people living there to obtain drugs and medical supplies, such as anesthesia used for emergency operations and X-ray machines needed to diagnose tuberculosis (Washington Post, 12/16/17). Tomás Ojea Quintana, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, says he is “alarmed by reports that sanctions may have prevented cancer patients from access to chemotherapy and blocked the import of disability equipment.”
According to Kee B. Park (12/18/17), a neurosurgeon at Harvard Medical School, the hunger in North Korea “is devastating. And it’s our fault. Led by the United States, the international community is crippling North Korea’s economy” by “banning exports of coal, iron, lead, seafood and textiles, and limiting the import of crude oil and refined petroleum products,” “punishing the most vulnerable citizens” of the country. For example, UNICEF says that “an estimated 60,000 children face potential starvation in North Korea, where international sanctions are exacerbating the situation by slowing aid deliveries.”
The Post’s Boot, however, is impressed by the sanctions, and worried that they might be lifted: “North Korea hopes at a minimum for a relaxation of sanctions just when they are beginning to bite.” In the interest of precision, he should have added “60,000 children” after the word “bite.”
It may make sense to talk to North Korea, but at a lower level, while maintaining the “maximum pressure” sanctions policy. Eventually the regime may feel so much pain that it will be willing to bargain in earnest.
North Korea doesn’t have the capacity to pain on the US, so it’s worth asking: Who will enforce hunger on America and destroy its economy to compel it to reverse its past approach (The Nation, 9/5/17) and “bargain in earnest” with North Korea? And would Boot endorse such an approach?
Boot can rest easy, however, about “so much pain” being reduced, as the Trump administration appears poised to maintain the sanctions until it determines that there has been “real progress” in the talks (AP, 3/13/18).
Kristof, like Boot, suggests that Trump “probably does” deserve credit for using sanctions to get North Korea to suspend tests of nuclear weapons:
First, Trump raised the economic pressure on North Korea with additional sanctions and extra support from China, and the pain was visible when I visited North Korea in September. Kim has made rising living standards a hallmark of his leadership, and sanctions have threatened that pillar of his legitimacy.
Kristof has made a career branding himself a bleeding heart concerned for the world’s most vulnerable but evidently his heart doesn’t bleed for “the most vulnerable citizens” of states that defy US dictates.
Janine Jackson interviewed Mike Elk about the West Virginia school workers strike for the March 9, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: A deal was signed giving all public employees in West Virginia a 5 percent pay raise, after a nine-day work stoppage by teachers and school staffers that shut down every school in the state. More than 20,000 teachers and 13,000 staffers walked out February 22, mainly over healthcare costs, despite the fact that they had no legal right to strike.
And a funny thing happened: The public supported them, and they won. The teachers and staffers, we understand, are feeling joy and relief. Observers around the country seem to be feeling something else: inspired.
Mike Elk is senior labor reporter and founder of Payday Report. He writes also for the Guardian. He joins us now by phone from Pittsburgh. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Mike Elk.
Mike Elk: So great to be on the show with you, Janine. I’m such a big fan of your work.
JJ: Thank you. Well, this deal in West Virginia is not perfect, particularly in terms of how things will be funded, and we’ll talk about that. But first, it’s important to claim victories, even as we push for more. Could you just talk a bit about why the West Virginia teachers action is meaningful, is significant, right now?
ME: Well, I think it shows a couple of things. Right now, the US Supreme Court is taking up a case called Janus, and what that would do is drastically reduce the ability of unions to collect dues off of all their members. It would allow people in certain workplaces in the public sector to opt out of paying dues. It could hurt unions.
So there’s been all this alarmist rhetoric that, “Oh, unions are going to go under, blah blah blah.” When, in the South, you’ve had unions that don’t have collective bargaining rights, that don’t even have dues checkoff at all, that are in right-to-work states—that have been winning victories for decades. And I think what West Virginia showed was that, hey, the law can be against you and you can still win. So it was a real shot of energy to the labor movement in that way.
I also think it was really an expression of #MeToo in the workplace. I don’t think this has been covered as much, but nationally, about 79 percent of teachers are women. One of the big issues that really upset a lot of women in this struggle for a contract was that, in order to get $500 a year off of your health insurance cost, you had to participate in a wellness program where you had to wear a Fitbit that monitored your every move. A lot of women really objected to this, that this was invasive, that this was invading women’s bodies, that this was the male state legislature refusing to give a pay raise, and wanting to do this terribly invasive thing.
And so I think this is also a big victory for the #MeToo movement in the workplace, and could inspire other types of public-sector strikes. Already, Pittsburgh teachers were in union talks while the West Virginia strike was going on, and Pittsburgh is about 45 minutes from West Virginia. We share a lot of the same media market. And so last week, last Monday, they voted to strike. And what winded up happening was they voted to strike on Monday, and gave notice they would go out on Friday. By that Wednesday, the school district folded and gave them everything they wanted.
So it was already showing an effect here in Pittsburgh, and now today in Oklahoma, the teachers union announced there that they were going to go out on strike on April 2.
So how far this thing goes is really unclear, but it’s been a long time since the labor movement had a victory this big, on this big of a scale, a mass walkout over an entire state. And even though they didn’t get everything they wanted with health insurance plans, they put themselves in a position where they gained leverage and support. So they were able to get a 5 percent pay raise, not just for teachers, but for all public employees, which helped them out in terms of gaining more public support, because initially that wasn’t on the table at all. The other public employees were going to get 2 percent less.
They got a 19-month freeze to all out-of-pocket healthcare costs, which is a big victory. And then they got set up a taskforce to study how to fix the state health insurance program. It’s supposed to have a report presented by October, and this taskforce will have many members of the teachers union on it.
And it’s important that that’s coming in October, because in October, the state legislature comes back into session, and then in November, there are legislative elections. So if no action is taken, it really puts the issue front and center; it puts the union in a position to fight another day, rather than going on a multi-week strike, where they might lose support.
You know, a strike is a very difficult thing to maintain, and these teachers did a great job of doing community outreach, of setting up daycares, of setting up lunch programs, making sure that children were provided for during the strike, and keeping public support on their side. So it’s really a remarkable victory for the labor movement.
JJ: I was going to ask about that public support, which—I wasn’t actually sure how deep it went, how strong it was; I heard it referenced. But do people seem to be seeing the big picture? In other words, there didn’t seem to be this splitting of teachers’ interests versus parents’ interests, or versus students’ interests. And part of this was the union workers’ positive effort to hold on to that public support, but do you think there’s a shift in the wind, in some degree, or is it special to that area—that there would be such support for a strike like this?
ME: I think a combination of things. I think there’s somewhat of a shift in the wind. But at the same time, I mean, it is West Virginia; it’s a state with a very deep, radical labor history. You know, these teachers were talking about how they had seen their teachers walk out in 1990, about how their grandparents had walked out of the coal mines in 1969, when 40,000 coal miners went on strike demanding black lung benefits. So there’s a history of mass walkouts in the political consciousness of West Virginia, going all the way back to the ’20s. Further than that, going back to the Mine Wars.
And there’s always been this history, so what’s unique—and I think why the public supported them so much in West Virginia—is because the situation is so bad. There’s something like 700 vacancies in West Virginia schools. It’s not uncommon for kids to have three or four teachers for one subject in one year, or to have classes that simply turn into substitute periods. I was looking at a map of West Virginia, and it was showing that over 60 percent of students in the southern counties of West Virginia, over 60 percent of those students when they go away to college have to take remedial courses. So people know, on a very deep level, that the education system is broken in West Virginia. And there’s a very deep, cultural sense of, you know, our history is engaging in these kind of radical struggles.
So the public support, from what I saw out on picket lines, in terms of people stopping and honking the horns, was very, very high, and there wasn’t ever a real campaign of angry school parents against them. Actually, the PTA endorsed the effort. So there wasn’t significant opposition. And as you can see, the Republican governor and the Republican state legislators were forced to fold on their positions very quickly, because they had no political space to stand on.
JJ: Let me ask you about one of the kind of asterisks, which is that there was some hope, wasn’t there, that the pay increases and the improvements on the insurance plan—which was teachers’ big concern—that those might be funded with a tax on natural gas?
JJ: So what happened with that?
ME: That got nowhere. Instead, there was this provision that there was something like $58 million in projected revenue, when they changed their revisions. So instead of doing that, they cut the budget in other areas, mainly because the natural gas industry doesn’t want to see fracking taxed.
JJ: And I noticed in something that I think that you had written, the note that the coal folks, including the governor, their negligence in taxpaying has something to do with the cutbacks in the first place.
ME: Well, yeah. Jim Justice, the governor of West Virginia, owes something like $15 million in taxes in six different states. These are big, big landholders, these coal and gas companies. And they often don’t pay their taxes, for legal reasons, and nobody cracks down on them. And so there’s a huge issue of not getting enough revenue in a place like West Virginia.
JJ: Let’s talk about media. Traditionally, corporate media’s antipathy to labor actions is almost comic. They pit workers against consumers, they stress the hardship, or the traffic tie-ups or whatever, that are caused by strikes. And then you add to that the lack of love for the public sector, you know, “teachers are dumbing down our kids,” and don’t get them started on the postal service. I guess I just expected worse coverage. But is it that there was relatively little national coverage till late in the day? What did you make of media’s treatment of the West Virginia teachers action?
ME: A lot of different things. I think it showed the need for a professional labor press corps. Not just in the corporate media, but also in the left press. There was very little reporting from a national perspective, where national publications were actually sending reporters to West Virginia. I think Dave Jamieson from the Huffington Post went; I went. I think someone from The Intercept went. But not that many national publications did.
However, CNN really caught up to the ballgame. And I think the coverage was much more, you know, there were flaws in it, in terms of details and things like that. But the coverage was much more sympathetic.
And I think that really has to relate back to the huge wave of pro-union sentiment you see now in the media industry, over the last three and a half years. I was trying to organize a union back at Politico in 2015, and the Washington Post at the time wrote this article called “Why Don’t Internet Journalists Organize,” and it basically argued—the Washington Post—that organizing will never happen in the media industry.
But then, five months later, Gawker happened. I wasn’t really involved in that. But after Gawker, there were a lot of conversations, that had already been taking place prior to Gawker, but that were amplified and given support. And what we found, when we organized in the media industry, is that when people get coverage, they do organize, because they get support; they know they have public support.
And so, over the last three years, we’ve seen something like 36 media outlets—or some number, it was above 30—organize. I lost count. And we’ve seen major ones like the LA Times organize, as well as Mic, and Vice, and Vox, and HuffPost. We’ve seen a lot of big outlets organize. And so there’s a big pro-union sentiment in the industry right now. And I think that’s starting to play out in some of this reporting that’s happening.
I think a lot of the media realize, also, that they missed the boat on Bernie in 2016; they don’t want to miss the boat again. So I don’t think we saw that same kind of media coverage.
On the other end, there’s a trend in the left press that I like to call “yuppiesplaining.” There’s this term out there, “mansplaining,” about when men explain obvious things to women; there’s this term “whitesplaining” when white people explain what it’s like to be a person of color to people of color. But my friend Jamie was joking that there ought to be “yuppiesplaining.”
You know, I come from a very blue-collar background, in coal country, a union household. And there’s this trend now in the left press, I think, to write these really elitist narratives of labor struggles. And so we started seeing all these labor stories in the left press that wouldn’t even quote workers, that were drawing all these big-picture analyses of what was happening, and then lecturing people on, “Well, you have to understand the whole history of West Virginia.” And it just wasn’t really rooted at all in the story of what people were doing.
So I think we both—in the corporate media and in the left press—have a long way to go to really developing a better professional labor press corps, because it is a specialized area, it does require a lot of knowledge, and it does really require you to go out of your way and actually quote workers—just not write hot takes, but actually get out into the field, have lunch with people, spend a lot of time with people, and get a sense of what the feeling is like among organizing. Because you can’t understand organizing over the phone; you can only really understand it when you’re out there with workers.
JJ: Your latest pieces have been talking about a possible catch-on effect, or the inspiration that the West Virginia strike is having. We talked about in Oklahoma, for example; I’ve also heard, well, in today’s headlines, Arizona teachers, maybe Kentucky teachers. And I think it’s not just kind of, “Oh, there’s an example, they did it; we can do it.” It’s also maybe even a more literal, “There are people out there who will have our backs if we do this,” sort of touching on what you were just saying.
I don’t know if people can really imagine how, if they haven’t done it, how frightening it is to go on strike, you know? Even if it’s very official and sanctioned, it’s not as if you just eat peanut butter for a week and then you win. There’s a lot of untold story in just how difficult it is, and how up against it people are, and that’s why solidarity is really like a material resource to people involved in these things.
ME: Oh, yeah. And we were out on the picket line in Wheeling, West Virginia, on the first day. And the teachers out there were very nervous to come out. You know, they weren’t really certain what kind of support they would get, if people would be flipping them off…. They knew they had a lot of support, but people always think they have a lot of support, because we live in silos. And on that first day, there was just so much support, and then it kept building and building.
But if that strike had gone on for another week or two, would there have been that same level of enthusiasm? It’s very tough to maintain strikes, walkouts, for a long period of time; people get bored. You know, you can only stand so much on the picket line and chant. These things are very tough to do, and tough to maintain.
So it will be interesting to see what happens in Oklahoma, because we’re entering a new space of organizing, which I think we’re only beginning to understand. And I know that might sound cliché, but social media has really shaken things up, in terms of the positive feedback we can provide to people. Particularly in West Virginia, they would go on Facebook, they would look at what all their friends and neighbors were posting. And they knew people had their back.
Ten years ago, you didn’t have that. You know, however the corporate media covered you was how you pretty much thought the world was like, outside of the people you talked to on a daily basis. So that’s really changing the dynamic, and, I think, this coming at the same time that students are walking out, and there’s a general sense among a lot of people fed up with the Trump era, of just wanting to shut it down.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Mike Elk, senior labor reporter at Payday Report; they’re online at PaydayReport.com. His article, “West Virginia Teachers’ Triumph Offers Fresh Hope for US Workers’ Rights,” appeared in the Guardian. Mike Elk, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
ME: Thanks, Janine.
The Washington Post, like a lot of corporate media (CounterSpin, 10/20/17), has spent a great deal of time hyping the bidding process for Amazon HQ2, Amazon’s planned second headquarters that hundreds of localities are allegedly competing for. The thing that distinguishes the Post’s coverage is that it and Amazon share an owner—world’s richest billionaire Jeff Bezos. So it’s notable—and uniquely sketchy—when the paper not only uses prime media real estate to uncritically hype Amazon’s primary corporate sales pitch, but does so while failing to disclose that Amazon’s CEO is the paper’s boss.
The Post’s Darla Cameron and Jonathan O’Connell (3/7/18) wrote a press release–like breakdown of the “race to land Amazon.com’s second headquarters and its 50,000 jobs,” titled “The Amazon Finalists Are Already Building Tech Economies. Which Are the Best?” The 1,100-word, graphics-heavy article didn’t include a single mention that Amazon’s boss and richest person in the world (current net worth: $130 billion) is also Cameron and O’Connell’s employer.
While the Washington Post‘s coverage of its corporate big brother usually throws in a perfunctory disclosure midway through its 95 percent softball coverage (FAIR.org, 7/28/17), this time editors didn’t bother.
Like last year, when FAIR (10/25/17) noted that O’Connell was simply cutting and pasting revenue figures for HQ2 from an Amazon press release, O’Connell begins the piece citing a “50,000 jobs” figure based entirely on the same Amazon press release. Like the nebulous “$30 billion to the local economy” and the “$55 billion in “spinoff benefits” Amazon HQ2 is supposed to contribute, these 50,000 jobs are a major selling point Amazon’s marketing department is throwing out, and O’Connell is uncritically reporting as fact. One can only guess where Amazon got these Sexy Large numbers, since neither it nor O’Connell bothers to cite a source. The job totals and “economic impact” of HQ2 has been repeated so many times that they are truth by sheer repetition. They just are.
Even assuming these “50,000 jobs” are real, the studies that suggest Amazon provides no net employment (job gains are offset with other job losses) are never addressed. These “50,000 jobs” are presented as a net win; any negative effects are simply ignored.
O’Connell’s other recent hard-hitting coverage of Amazon’s PR effort to extract as much value as possible from local governments includes:
- For Amazon’s Next Headquarters, DC Pitches Four of Its Trendiest Neighborhoods (10/16/18)
- Washington to Amazon: How Urban Do You Want to Be? (2/8/18)
- For Finalists in the Amazon Headquarters Sweepstakes, the Fun Has Turned Serious (2/26/18)
- The Amazon Headquarters Search Mystery Has Been Solved! Or Has It? (2/26/18)
- Activists Urge Bezos to Choose LGBT-Friendly State for New Headquarters (3/1/18)
- Amazon Tours DC, Maryland and Virginia in Search for New Headquarters (3/5/18)
In fairness, O’Connell did have one article (1/31/18) expressing mild concerns about the race to the bottom entailed in the HQ2 bidding war, but he made sure to point out that the primary critic featured in the piece, Richard Florida, “admired Amazon as a company and believes some incentives for tech jobs can be a good idea.” The conflict was one of degree, not substance.
FAIR (11/10/15) has also noted that when the Post writes puff pieces about Uber, it frequently fails to disclose that Bezos owns billions of dollars worth of stock in the car-sharing corporation.
Cameron and O’Connell’s infographic article was timed to be released with a new Brookings report about “the local value of economic development incentives.” (Spoiler alert: They’re good.) The Brookings report did little to meaningfully criticize Amazon or the broader practice of race-to-the-bottom competition for “jobs.”
A New York Times and New England Center for Investigative Reporting investigation (8/8/16) two years ago caught Brookings doubling as an undisclosed lobbyist for corporate development projects. Massive donations from JPMorgan Chase, global investment firm KKR, Microsoft and Hitachi yielded glowing reports, fellowships and policy papers pushing the funders’ economic agendas. FAIR emailed the Brookings Institute to inquire whether Bezos, Amazon or any related entity donates to Brookings. (Unlike most think tanks, Brookings doesn’t disclose its donors.) It did not return our request for comment by publication time.
The Washington Post, like most publications, repeats Amazon claims without question, props up the broader proposition—with only mild criticism around the margins—that tech investment is a boon to communities, and does little to push back at the premise that cities fighting for the privilege to serve the richest person in the world is healthy and normal. A problem in its own right, but one made even worse when it fails to clearly note that richest person in the world also happens to sign its employees’ paychecks.
On February 22, President Donald Trump suggested that violent movies and video games are the real cause of mass shootings:
I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts. And then you go the further step, and that’s the movies…. Maybe they have to put a rating system for that.
The response by tech, video game, and movie outlets, predictably, was that this is a distraction from the real issue of gun ownership. What this misses is that they aren’t actually different issues: The connection between gun violence on screen and in reality goes both ways, and if we really looked at it the way the NRA and the Republicans are suggesting, it’s unlikely that either would be happy with the results.
As far as Trump’s idea of having a rating system for movies, that system already exists. The system was created and is enforced by a trade association representing Hollywood studios called the Motion Picture Association of America, and it is deeply, perhaps irreparably, flawed. In addition to disproportionately punishing sex and female pleasure over violence (as covered in the 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated), the MPAA has always been more squeamish about the consequences of violence than that violence itself.
When comparing the PG-13 theatrical release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) to the R-rated “Ultimate Edition,” both feature the same kind of violence, but only the latter shows the blood spray and human suffering that results, including shots of blood being smeared on walls, clouds of blood after people are shot, and blood spraying on the wall after a character is hit with an assault rifle. Screenrant (6/28/16) described the Ultimate Edition as being “a bit more realistic” because of its inclusion of human suffering after the gunfire.
A ticket to a PG-13 movie can be sold to anyone over 13, while an R rating requires viewers under 17 to be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. The PG-13 rating (by far the most lucrative one the MPAA dishes out) was invented in 1984 when Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom didn’t seem quite violent enough for an R rating, but still featured a guy’s heart being torn out of his chest. In director Stephen Spielberg’s words, it was a way to put “a little hot sauce” on a PG rating, while still allowing children to watch.
Thirty years later, a study found that gun violence in PG-13 movies had tripled, and today there is more gun violence in PG-13 movies than R-rated ones. So according to the MPAA, showing someone gleefully firing a weapon is fine for children, but showing what happens when bullets strike a person is not.
Hollywood’s penchant for sensationalizing violence is an old, tired argument. You can find studies and anecdotal evidence both that it’s poisoning our children, and that it’s almost entirely harmless. But while people fret over that controversy, they ignore the fact that most people get their education on how guns work from on-screen violence, and movies (and TV) mislead their audience on how useful — not to mention easy to use — firearms are.
In Django Unchained (2012), the title character becomes an expert marksman with a pistol after just one winter’s worth of practice. In The Walking Dead (2010–present), several characters who once worked as teachers or lawyers are capable of pulling off zombie headshots at a moment’s notice, and basically only miss if the plot demands it. Major movies that feature people with no weapons training using guns like they were experts include The Fate of the Furious (2017), Annihilation (2018), Baby Driver (2017) and any of the countless action movies that rely on relatable characters who are put in extraordinary situations and have to shoot their way out of them.
Even when they give “experts” guns, they make the weapons unrealistically easy to use. In John Wick (2014), Keanu Reeve’s titular character fires an unsuppressed .40 (or 9mm) caliber pistol several dozen times in an enclosed space, and then has a hushed conversation with a police officer just a few seconds later. In No Country for Old Men (2012), the assassin Chigurh uses a shotgun with a suppressor that renders its shots whisper-quiet, even though suppressed weapons in real life are as loud as a jackhammer.
The never-stated but always implicit message is that gunplay is second-nature to any American—or at least it would become second nature, if you found yourself in a highly stressful situation. If you’ve been trained to use a gun, well, it’s hard to imagine a problem that this incredibly versatile tool couldn’t solve.
The reality is nothing like that. The sound of a gunshot is many magnitudes louder than what can damage your hearing, especially in an enclosed space, so Wick would have been rendered deaf by that gun fight (unless there’s some advanced assassin training that toughens up your eardrums). And stressful situations, instead of honing your murderous instincts, make even the well-trained worse with their weapons. Police officers are able to hit their targets only 18 percent of the time in simulated combat situations, and innocent bystanders so often and so tragically end up worse off than the people actually fighting.
You might think there are exceptions; the movie Heat (1995) is often touted by gun enthusiasts as an amazing example of realistic gunfighting on screen. But regardless of Val Kilmer’s proper firing stance and ability to change his assault rifle’s magazine quickly, the movie still shows an absolutely ludicrous situation where police officers initiate a gun fight with bank robbers in downtown Los Angeles, and then continue firing at them through crowded streets. Al Pacino shoots Tom Sizemore in the head while the latter carries a small child as a hostage, endangering a minor in order to prevent a few hundred thousand dollars from being stolen from an FDIC-insured bank. The only innocent bystanders killed are the ones intentionally targeted by criminals. Even in a “realistic” movie gun fight, there’s no collateral damage, no one bleeds painfully to death in the street, and the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
Unlike the controversial and undoubtedly complex relationship between on-screen violence and real world violence, the connection between movie gun sensationalism and gun enthusiasts’ buying habits is clear. At the beginning of Dirty Harry (1971), Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood, threatens a criminal by giving him the sales pitch for his Smith & Wesson Model 29. “This is a .44 Magnum,” he says, pointing the weapon at him, “the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off.”
He’s not lying: In 1971, Smith & Wesson really had made the most powerful revolver to ever exist. So powerful, in fact, that it wasn’t selling—it was too loud and too big to be of any practical use to anyone. Demand had fallen so low that the company had stopped producing them. But once Dirty Harry came out, demand for the Model 29 tripled overnight. That trend continued with every sequel, and legend has it that every time a Dirty Harry movie airs on TV, sales for this weapon spike.
This is Hollywood’s relationship with the gun industry: When you put a gun on screen, people are going to want to buy it, regardless of whether it’s used by good guys or bad guys, and regardless of whether or not the gun actually exists. In Die Hard 2 (1990), Bruce Willis claims that a character is using a “Glock 7,” and even though a Glock 7 isn’t a real gun, Glock is a real gun company that, unlike other companies, told Hollywood that they didn’t mind if heroes or villains used their guns in movies. That marketing decision — a disregard for morality — helped make them the most popular gun company in America. The implication is that Hollywood can increase a weapon’s sales by telling audiences that the weapon is really useful for crime.
The NRA knows all of this. That’s why, even while railing against irresponsible gun violence in movies, they maintain a “Hollywood Guns” exhibit in their National Firearms Museum, recognizing iconic guns of film history. Dirty Harry’s Smith & Wesson is there, naturally—along with Chigurh’s suppressed shotgun. And the relationship goes both ways, since production companies have campaigned against gun control laws because “they need to use real weapons for verisimilitude” (New York Times, 5/1/13).
So we have a rating system that rewards movies for making gun violence look fun, easy and harmless—except to the bad guys—and a gun industry that benefits from that mythology by selling more guns. Whether or not you agree with the idea that violent movies are hurting anyone, it’s clear who they’re helping, and that’s the gun industry. Hollywood is nothing less than the advertising department for all deadly weapons in the country. If we actually took a hard look at gun violence in film and tried to take action because of it, you can bet the NRA would change their talking points real quick.
One of the most effective rhetorical tools in normalizing massive military budgets is to treat spending billions—and sometimes trillions—of dollars as something one has to do in order to be “modern.” “Modernization” is, after all, a normative label; who doesn’t want to be modern? Here are just a handful of examples over the past month:
- “The Department of Energy said the money was needed to modernize and restore the country’s nuclear weapons complex.” (Reuters, 2/12/18)
- Pentagon Budget Seeks Billions for Modernizing Nuclear Arsenal, Missile Defense (The Hill, 2/12/18)
- “The United States Army will receive increased funding in the president’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal as the service struggles to modernize while simultaneously fighting wars in current conflicts.” (National Interest, 2/19/18)
- “US nuclear policy is aimed at deterring Russia through the modernization of the US arsenal.” (CNN, 3/1/18)
- US F-35 Fighter Modernization Could Cost $16 Billion Through 2024 (Reuters, 3/7/18)
- Navy to Modernize Its Super Hornet Fleet (Military.com, 3/7/18)
A variation on this tautology is “overhaul” (New York Times, 8/27/17) or “rebuild” (The Hill, 1/20/18), the idea being that something has fallen into disrepair or broken down and simply needs to be put back together. How vast new expenditures on weapons that can already end civilization can be justified in either financial or moral terms is simply breezed past. A “modern” United States is self-evidently preferable to a pre-modern one, and the United States must be “modern” to “keep pace” with perennial Bad Guys Russia and China.
As FAIR (e.g., 3/7/18, 6/12/17) has shown time and again, the media must frame the US as always reacting to military escalations by others; the idea that Russia and China could themselves be responding to long-existing US plans for military buildup by the United States is never entertained. Nor is it often pointed out that the US spends roughly three times as much on its military as China—whose economy is three-fifths as large—and about ten times as much as Russia.
It’s essential, after all, that the US—when it’s not stumbling around like a hapless giant—always be the party responding, not provoking. The “modernization” frame plays into this narrative nicely; the US military is simply updating its massive arsenal, as you would your iPhone software—an inevitable and therefore not at all hostile act.
Indeed, “modernization” has been a popular framing used by the media to casually report on the United States’ constantly growing empire for over a 100 years:
Things that the government is somehow never obligated to “modernize”: healthcare, education, family leave policy. The potential funds spent on bringing these programs up to the standard of other wealthy countries are framed as “massive tax hikes,” and those who promote such programs are challenged to “find the money.” They’re not inevitable, nor are they a natural part of any “modern” norm for which the US must strive.
But a slick, sprawling US military, with all the latest toys and bombs, certainly is, and anyone suggesting otherwise is clearly stuck in the past.
Janine Jackson interviewed Mary Bottari on Silencing Unions for the March 2, 2018 episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: When you hear the name of a court case—Smith v. Jones—there’s a tendency to look for a story, a particular story, about Smith, and Jones, and which of them—given the details—seems most justified.
Of course, there are ultimately individuals behind a case like Janus v. AFSCME, now before the Supreme Court. But to make sense of the case, you have to pull back and see the bigger story. In this case, that’s one of a network of corporate and conservative organizations with a thought-out plan to redraw the country’s legal/political landscape more to their liking, including draining unions of their remaining power and influence.
Helping workers and advocates to have at least awareness on our side is Mary Bottari. She’s deputy director of the Center for Media and Democracy, part of their critical ALEC Exposed investigation. Her report “Behind Janus” appears in the March issue of In These Times. She joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Mary Bottari.
Mary Bottari: Thanks for having me.
JJ: Well, we won’t stop at the particulars, but let’s start there. Janus v. AFSCME Council 31—that’s the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the biggest public service employees union—Janus is about whom, and what is at issue?
MB: If you read the mainstream media, you’ll get a whole bunch of detail about a child support worker named Mark Janus and his lonely battle against his union. And they’ll also spend a whole lot of time explaining agency fees, and “fair share” fees, and how it all works when a person who’s represented by a union, but doesn’t want to be a member of the union, is required to pay a small portion of the fees that compensate the union for representing him.
OK, so now we’ve got the legalities out of the way.
But what the real story is, and what we’re trying to explain in the In These Times article, aren’t the details of Mark Janus’s case, but a deep-pocketed, many-year, if not many-decade, fight by very wealthy individuals, corporations and foundations to dismantle unions in America. I mean, Mark Janus never had an original action; this lawsuit didn’t seem to be his idea. He was put up to this by a large group of institutions and individuals, who have been working quietly behind the scenes for years to dismantle unions.
JJ: I want to draw you out. It’s a network of advocacy and funding groups, who are not just kind of ad hoc, coming together around this issue and then around that issue, where they find their interests are aligned. It’s a pre-existing group with an agenda.
MB: It’s a pre-existing structure. And most people are aware that there’s this group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, and it brings right-wing politicians and lobbyists together behind closed doors to develop, for instance, union-busting bills, to develop bills that privatize schools, and those kinds of things.
But that group has a sister group called the State Policy Network, and that’s a group of 66 think tanks in the states, and they work very closely with ALEC on this sort of union-busting agenda. And so in red states, ALEC has worked hard to introduce bills to bust unions (like the “right to work” bills), and in blue states, the SPN groups have worked very hard to bring lawsuits to bust unions. And one of those lawsuits is now going up to the US Supreme Court—and that’s the Janus case.
JJ: And that looks at public sector workers. But, you know, public sector workers—that union membership rate is about 34 percent, as compared to 6.5 percent in the private sector, so it’s more than five times higher in the public sector. But we shouldn’t be fooled that Janus is just about public sector unions in particular; the longer-term goal really has to do with all unions.
MB: The long-term goal is to take out what Grover Norquist says is a funding pillar of the Democratic Party, and that is unions and their boots on the ground, which is a very, very valuable asset. Organized people, knocking on doors every election cycle, is a very, very valuable asset.
And what we did in our investigation is we portrayed the “two faces of Janus.” So here’s the one face of Janus, that’s in mainstream media, this nice child support worker, who’s a Boy Scout and blah blah blah. But really, this case has very little to do with this person or his particulars. It has to do with this long history and this deep-moneyed assault.
We did an analysis of all the groups. There’s lots and lots of amici briefs coming in on the side of this guy, Mark Janus, arguing why this is the right thing to do, because workers like Mark Janus are having their free speech rights taken away, and he deserves workplace freedom, and all these kinds of things.
Well, 13 of the 19 briefs came in from current or former members of State Policy Network. Seventeen of the 19 were filed by groups that had received funding from the Bradley Foundation or Donors Capital and Donors Trust. Seventeen of the 19, and one of the missing ones is a sort of subsidiary of one of the other groups. Do you know what I mean? So this is a very coordinated assault.
And we looked at who funds all those groups. It’s the Bradley Foundation, and it’s Donors Capital and Donors Trust, tied to the Koch brothers. So this agenda, it seems broad—there are many briefs from across the country—but in reality, it’s a narrow group of people with a very determined agenda.
JJ: What keeps us from seeing that, and being able to trace their operations in that way, has to do with the feints that get thrown up, throughout the media in particular. And the language, you know? You’ve found—and it’s in this In These Times report—that the State Policy Network, in particular, they have rules about how they will talk, and the point is to sound as though you are not anti-union. Our other guest on the show was saying, the fact that people want to co-opt the language around “Medicare for All” shows that the idea itself is popular. Which is why it’s then such a betrayal to see that desire turned back on people, or to see people fall for this idea. But these folks have a PR campaign that also is part of having us look away from what they’re really doing. And in some sense, it’s to say they’re doing the exact opposite of what they’re doing.
MB: No, that’s right. So in public, all these groups talk about workers’ rights. But, in reality, these groups have been caught behind closed doors, or in fundraising letters, or in foundation memos, saying something completely different. For instance, the head of the State Policy Network, Tracie Sharp, sent out a fundraising letter in 2016, asking her donors to strike “a major blow to the left’s ability to control government.” And she says, “I’m writing to you today to share with you our bold plans to permanently break the power of unions this year.”
I mean, that’s a very different language than, “Oh, we love Mark Janus and his free speech rights struggles,” right? She’s making it crystal clear that this entire agenda is about depriving the Democratic Party from access to millions of dollars.
JJ: And also, as you cite Theda Skocpol, making there be really no big power that can stand toe-to-toe with big business and with wealthy donors. You know, the power of unions, just on the political playing field, such as it is — to gut that, as well, has a specific meaning.
One of the things that you note also is that gutting these public sector unions, part of that playbook includes pretending that it’s about saving money, saying that we’re broke, and that’s where the money has to come from—and that turns out to be BS.
MB: Right. So folks will remember that Scott Walker attacked unions in the states. And he said, “There’s nothing I can do; I have to get rid of collective bargaining, because we just can’t afford it anymore.” But later, when he was testifying before Congress, he admitted that that wasn’t the real reason, that it wasn’t just because the state had taken a dip in its coffers.
Similarly, this case actually originated with Bruce Rauner, the Republican governor of Illinois. And he is a multi-millionaire, if not billionaire, venture capitalist. And he decided to order the state, by executive order, to stop withholding fair-share fees. And it was an assault on unions that was similar to Walker’s, and he similarly said, “We have to do it because we’re broke, because of the budget.” And in truth, he was caught at the Hoover Institute in California, in front of a more friendly audience, admitting it had nothing to do with the budget.
This is a coordinated plan, this Rauner assault: He was told he didn’t have standing. Groups came in with other workers (who were state workers, so that they’d have standing). Mark Janus was one of those workers. In a way, Mark Janus took over the suit from Rauner, and now all the media’s forgotten that it started with Rauner.
So this is a very deliberative, two-pronged attack on unions. One through governors, and state houses in red states; and the other through blue state litigation.
JJ: It seems important to note also that, when I think of public sector unions, we know that anything affecting them has an inordinate impact on people of color and on women, who have traditionally found opportunity through government jobs and public sector jobs.
MB: That is a very, very important point. Unions, and public sector unions, have been essential to shared prosperity. They’ve been essential to the upward mobility ladder, for women, for African-Americans, and for other minority groups, just essential. And so what’s going to happen if Janus rules against public sector unions? If those jobs—that have been so important for shared prosperity—are going to get worse and weakened, and public sector services themselves are going to get worse and weakened?
And so it’s not just about unions, and union leadership, and those kinds of things. It’s about the public sectors in our society, and making good-paying jobs crap jobs. Is that really what we want our teachers’ jobs to be like, terrible jobs without good benefits and good pay? It’s going to be a decision that’s going to impact all of us.
JJ: Finally, some say the teachers strike in West Virginia shows that labor can have power, as long as people will go out, you know? Because many people think that the Supreme Court is going to rule against AFSCME. What next? Where should we be looking?
MB: Some of my brothers and sisters in the labor movement think that that West Virginia situation is exactly the right response. You know, when you have public sector workers who collectively bargain, year after year after year, you have labor peace, and that’s a huge benefit, for especially kids in public education. Well, if they want to give away that huge benefit, then perhaps it’s time for them to remember what it was like back in the days when we had wildcat teacher strikes. So that’s definitely something that unions are taking a look at.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Mary Bottari, deputy director of the Center for Media and Democracy, online at PRWatch.org. Her report, “Behind Janus: Documents Reveal Decade-Long Plot to Kill Public-Sector Unions” appears in the March issue of In These Times. Mary Bottari, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
MB: Thank you so much for having me.
On any given day, the American public can watch one of several Wall Street–focused cable news channels, read numerous high finance–oriented newspapers (as well as ubiquitous business sections in others), or click on a seemingly endless supply of online sites and news apps tracking the profits and losses of US businesses and corporations. It’s not a stretch to say that the business of modern American journalism is, to a stunning degree, about covering business.
This is not a new phenomenon. In the late 19th century, the New York Times famously adopted a pose of “objectivity”—which soon became the profession’s national animating philosophy—in large part to appeal to a wider business audience and sell more ads. But for much of the 20th century, press attention paid to Wall Street and corporations was coupled with a similar focus on covering unions and labor movements.
No longer is that the case. As union membership has declined from about 35 percent of US workers 50 years ago to barely 10 percent now, the mainstream press’ broader institutional interest in the labor beat has ebbed as well, as Columbia Journalism Review (3/12/15) noted several years ago. Today, we are left with a vast news infrastructure that ceaselessly covers management concerns and breathlessly fêtes CEOs, while critical labor issues—like workers’ rights and safety, stagnant middle-class wages, and a decades-long campaign to undermine union power—struggle to get mentioned in the press.
The statewide teachers and school staffers strike in West Virginia—just concluded earlier this week with a stunning victory by the union—offers an ominous case study of the state of labor coverage in the national press. More than 20,000 teachers and 13,000 staffers walked out, shutting down every school in the state, despite having no legal “right” to strike—a remarkable feat. Yet many in the corporate media took days to notice the story, while others neglected to cover it until the stoppage was all but resolved. Some chose to rely heavily upon wire service coverage to backstop a lack of in-house coverage, effectively treating the strike like a local, general interest item, rather than as a story with larger political ramifications, as is already evident. (The pay and healthcare cost issues raised by the West Virginia teachers have now sparked or shored up a movement among educators in states like Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky to consider similar actions.)
Former longtime New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse noticed the media’s delayed response. “I think the national press was maybe a day or two late writing about this,” he said. “I think it took people some time to realize that it’s a very big strike and the stakes are really interesting.” He says there is noticeably less news coverage of strikes than there used to be—partly because there are fewer strikes; and even those that happen are seen as more of a private dispute between two parties. “Fifty years ago, when there was a strike, or even 30 years ago, a lot of editors thought this would be a matter of public import,” he notes.
Greenhouse, who left the Times in late 2014 after 31 years at the paper, was part of a dying breed in the mainstream press. Currently, only a handful of national corporate news outlets have reporters specifically assigned to cover labor issues: the New York Times (Noam Scheiber), Huffington Post (Dave Jamieson), Bloomberg News (Josh Eidelson), Washington Post (Danielle Paquette) and Politico (Timothy Noah, who is editor of labor policy). The Wall Street Journal’s last labor reporter, Melanie Trottman, left several months ago without being replaced.
Not surprisingly, dedicating staff to reporting on labor issues seemed to correlate with earlier coverage of the West Virginia teachers’ strike. The Huffington Post ran its first story on West Virginia teachers’ pay issues in early February and had its second story—on a smaller, one-day walkout—the week before the statewide strike began. The Times, Bloomberg and the Washington Post all had on-the-ground reports by the strike’s second day.
By contrast, the three broadcast networks, CNN and MSNBC took several more days before their first, in-house coverage. Fox News and Politico, despite the latter’s labor beat, brought up the rear, essentially foregoing any real coverage until the strike was all but resolved. (Worth noting: Politico did mention the strike every day from its inception in a daily news brief and, curiously, neither the Times’ nor Washington Post’s labor reporters wrote a single story about the two-week-long strike, which was covered by other reporters at those papers.)
Though many in the national press arrived late, most of them ramped up their coverage as the strike continued into its second week. And after the teachers rejected a proposed half-measure solution on February 27 from the state’s Republican-led legislature—a smaller-than-demanded pay raise and no help defraying healthcare costs—coverage expanded considerably in the strike’s second week.
The Times, which routinely drives TV and radio news choices, supplemented its coverage with six editorials during the second week of the strike, pushing the issue beyond the news pages and into the broader discourse. CBS, NBC and ABC News had all run multiple segments on the strike on their evening news and morning broadcasts by the second week. CNN went hard into the story, with numerous, on-the-ground reports and segments that dug into the pay and healthcare cost issues prompting the strike.
Others, however, still lagged far behind. Politico’s lack of interest in a story without a DC-insider angle was palpable; it ran just two news articles over two weeks. MSNBC’s belated and subdued news interest was perhaps the most striking. As FAIR (3/2/18) has pointed out, the “liberal” cable network’s high-profile primetime hosts completely ignored the strike well into its second week. And the Journal’s early coverage fizzled out, too. Of note, over the second weekend of the strike, the Journal’s reporter left West Virginia for western Pennsylvania, to write up yet another Trump-supporter profile story about the president’s recently announced steel tariffs.
This juxtaposition should raise some hard questions about how the press covers workers. Ever since Trump’s surprise election in 2016, corporate media outlets have fallen over themselves to chronicle the struggles of the white working class in the Midwest, often to the exclusion of other key parts of the electorate. So much so, that this story genre has quickly lapsed into clichéd parody (FAIR.org, 2/15/17). The struggles of workers in West Virginia, though not a swing state in the presidential race, also figured heavily in Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Yet a national press corps that for the past year has seemingly been eager to send its national correspondents into every steeltown diner between the Delaware and the Mississippi was mostly caught flat-footed by a massive teacher protest in the heart of blue-collar America.
Greenhouse also noted that, as a result of the dwindling corps of full-time labor reporters, economic, education and regional reporters are left to pick up the slack of covering workers’ issues—when they can, that is. This shift in emphasis makes labor coverage even more of an afterthought for resource-strapped assignment editors. “How many people are really going to be affected by this strike? Does this story intersect with any of our other beats? Why should West Virginia teachers interest people in Oregon or Arizona?” These are the kinds of questions that increasingly drive newsroom decision-making about labor or union stories, and they can present a higher bar to clear to justify coverage.
While no one would argue that the press must cover every single labor/management dispute, a clinical, how-many-will-be-impacted mindset—in particular when covering strikes—can have insidious effects, leading reporters to dismiss as unworthy of attention disputes that may appear minor but are far-reaching in their impact.
Ironically, this comes at a time when journalists themselves are increasingly energized about unionizing and seeing the fruits of that labor (pun intended). Notably, the recent successful union drive at the Los Angeles Times literally saved the newsroom from a corporate owner planning drastic cuts.
Not every publisher is inclined to endure newsroom resistance, however. Last fall, Washington Post reporter Fredrick Kunkle, in his role as a labor union official, wrote a HuffPo op-ed (9/1/17) criticizing the paper’s billionaire owner, Jeff Bezos, for his shoddy track record of shortchanging workers. Kunkle was subsequently disciplined for breaking a company rule about “freelancing,” but union officials argued that Post management actually violated labor law by trying to squelch his free speech.
That newsrooms are a newly fractious frontline between corporate parents and unionizing employees may offer a silver lining in the form of a rekindled interest in labor issues. With more firsthand knowledge of pay cuts, healthcare plan erosion and anti-union campaigns, perhaps reporters, producers and editors will start to break out of the profession’s slow spiral down into reactive, resource-strapped coverage that prioritizes workers’ rights below the convenience of consumers (who are addressed as though most were not also workers) and employers’ bottom lines.
That kind of news framing focuses primarily on the impact upon the company, or inconvenience to the broader public, which effectively prejudices coverage against striking workers, as labor scholars like Christopher Martin have pointed out. As Martin wrote in his book Framed:
The ultimate outcome of the news media’s consumer-oriented framing of labor stories is that the news is often severely critical of labor’s actions and and enthusiastically supportive of capital’s actions.
This implicit bias will continue to cause some in corporate media to overlook or neglect stories like the statewide West Virginia school workers strike. In a media system that is structurally designed to be “enthusiastically supportive” of business, the diminishment of workers voices is a loss we can’t afford.