To say that the criminal justice system is a huge, dehumanizing conveyor belt of punishment and surveillance might be an understatement. As the role of cops and prosecutors in America has been under increasing scrutiny over the last few years since the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve been made privy to all sorts of interesting tidbits: the transfer of military surplus equipment to local police, the rise of “predictive policing” and Stingray technology that cops use to spy on us, to name a few.
However, another questionable police tool has developed in plain sight—and is being dutifully pushed forward by some in the press. Crime Stoppers USA is a national organization, founded by a cop, whose local affiliates provide rewards for tips that lead to arrests. If you live in an urban city, chances are you’ve seen ads for Crime Stoppers, or similar programs, at bus stops or in the street. You’ve also likely seen Crime Stoppers in the media, because that’s one of its main goals, as stated on the website:
Crime Stoppers is publicized on a regular basis by all media outlets including print, broadcast and web-based partners. Special attention is given to unsolved crime re-enactments, “Crimes of the Week,” cold cases, narcotics activity, wanted fugitives, and suspected terrorist and gang activity.
The practice of encouraging people to provide incriminating information for money, however, raises questions. The Justice Department’s inspector general released a report last year that called into question the Drug Enforcement Agency’s use of paid informants, because “poor oversight” led to “an unacceptably increased potential for waste, fraud and abuse.” Lawyers and advocates against the drug war told the Washington Post (9/30/16) that “paying informants creates incentives to lie or fabricate evidence.”
With those concerns being raised about a federal agency, which can be audited, what kind of protections or protocols do local, private nonprofits use when they dangle money in front of us in exchange for crime tips?
The New York City iteration of Crime Stoppers is likely the most developed of these types of programs in the country. And while it doesn’t seem to be connected to the national Crime Stoppers program, it’s run by a controversial organization for the same purposes of making informants out of us.
Established in the 1970s to raise private money for the NYPD, the New York City Police Foundation provides technology and other resources for police, but operates somewhat inconspicuously in the shadows. The Foundation’s financials, for example, aren’t very transparent, raising concerns about how money is spent and whether donors—which include CIA-linked Palantir (founded by controversial Gawker-slaying tech mogul Peter Thiel)—are given questionable access to the police department.
But the New York City Police Foundation doesn’t operate completely off the radar, either. With a propensity for throwing lavish gala fundraisers, its central purpose seems to be direct money from wealthy donors, like billionaire investor Carl Icahn and mega-developer Bill Rudin, to fund a public/private piggy bank for the NYPD.
The Foundation’s board of trustees is chaired by a real estate developer and reads like a who’s who of developers and financiers. At its 2014 fundraiser, Rudin, former police commissioner Bill Bratton and other attendees received keepsake bullets from the Foundation. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was also there and rejoiced over rising property values in Brooklyn that he suggested were the result of declining crime rates.
Clearly, New York’s elite have a vested interest in the police department, but what, some may ask, does their money get them?
Former CBS anchor Dan Rather, a foundation donor, has been rewarded for his generosity with ride-alongs and even the chance to join a “search for a robber at a housing project.” The “charity” has funded studies buttressing zero-tolerance policing of squeegee men (aka the Broken Windows theory of policing), and even perks and political consulting work for former NYPD leader Ray Kelly, who once considered a run for mayor. There have also long been questions of cronyism, as Foundation money has been used to pay consulting fees to friends of ex–NYPD chief Bratton.
The most well-known Police Foundation project, however, might be NYC Crime Stoppers, which offers rewards of up to $2,500 to anonymous tipsters. NY1 News, a popular 24-hour local news channel in the city, has for years extensively featured Crime Stoppers features in its everyday programming.
A search of NY1‘s coverage shows hundreds of segments this year, thousands over the past few years, that encourage viewers to send tips to the Police Foundation’s Crime Stoppers hotline. Segments air footage showing not only people who’ve been accused of violent crimes, but also those accused of things like stealing five bucks and tossing coffee on someone, robbing toothbrushes and vandalizing a Trump golf course. Most, if not all, of NY1‘s Crime Stoppers stories finish with these exact instructions:
Anyone with information on the case should contact the Crime Stoppers hotline at 1-800-577-TIPS, or text CRIMES and then enter TIP577, or visit www.nypdcrimestoppers.com.
This past summer, NY1 was honored by the Police Foundation and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill for featuring Crime Stoppers coverage. Local reporter Clodagh McGowan accepted the “Chief of Detectives” award from O’Neill on behalf of NY1 News and its parent company, Spectrum. Said McGowan:
I think it’s so important that we have this partnership with the NYPD where they can impart, share with us, some of the media, of the videos, the pictures that they collect, and we can turn it around, get the information and get it on the air.
This cozy arrangement between NY1, Crime Stoppers and the NYPD means that the lines between law enforcement and journalism are significantly, if not completely, blurred. What are the ethical questions and privacy concerns raised when identities of alleged criminals are put on thousands of television screens before anyone has even been charged? What are the details of NY1‘s apparent arrangement with the Police Foundation and the NYPD? Do NY1‘s producers have any research-based evidence that paid informants actually help solve crimes—without leading to wrongful convictions? What are the effects of inundating the viewing public with images of alleged crimes?
The most compelling question may be whether aiding police investigations by publishing Crime Stoppers information on a daily basis conflicts with NY1’s journalistic mission. (When FAIR attempted to ask these questions of NY1, PR manager Nikia Redhead’s response was, “We’ve chosen to decline the request to participate in this story.”)
Just as local prosecutor’s reliance on police makes it difficult to convict or even indict violent cops, local news channels that become appendages to a police department will find it difficult to report independently on brutality or corruption. Perhaps NY1 and its reporters are comfortable sacrificing their independence to catch criminals—even golf course vandals—but many others may not be. The very least that NY1 can do is be clear and transparent about its collaboration with the NYPD, and tell the public why it’s working with the controversial, billionaire-funded Police Foundation.
If you have any tips about NY1 or the Police Foundation, tweet Josmar Truillo at @Josmar_Trujillo.
For many years, corporate media have largely ignored a single-payer system as a possible solution to the United States healthcare crises (FAIR.org, 3/6/09). This silent treatment, however, is increasingly hard to justify now that the most popular politician in the country has forced the issue into the mainstream of the Democratic Party.
Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill now has 16 cosponsors, up from zero when he introduced a similar bill in 2013. Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, a record 119 of 194 Democrats are cosponsors of HR676, John Conyers’ single-payer legislation. The math is simple enough: 135 of 242 Democrats in Congress (and counting) are on the record as supporting the federal government assuming responsibility for the costs of healthcare.
Unable to continue ignoring the policy, corporate media have, with predictable uniformity, undermined it as utopian nonsense. The typical elite narrative since Sanders’ bill was announced last Wednesday has been to amplify the same kind of scare tactics that have been injected into the national discourse for decades (at a considerable expense) by the for-profit health industry, the American Medical Association (AMA) and right-wing think tanks.The False Equivalency of Sanders’ Bill and GOP Plans
Many of these smears—seen in both news and opinion sections of major newspapers—are old tropes at this point, and have been countered many times. The most common: it is unaffordable, politically impossible, a reckless electoral strategy and doesn’t work in other nations. Some even warn of the dreaded “government takeover,” recalling the days when Ronald Reagan declared national healthcare as some kind of Bolshevik conspiracy that would “invade every area of freedom” in America.
The media, however, are now peddling a new and particularly dubious angle: equating Sanders’ bill with GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act as similarly “extreme” alternatives. This is particularly disingenuous, given that a single-payer system, which would provide universal coverage, is supported by a slight majority of the public in recent polling (Quinnipiac, 7/27/17–8/1/17 ; Kaiser Family Foundation, 6/14–19/17), while every recent GOP proposal would throw millions of Americans off insurance (Congressional Budget Office, 5/24/17, 6/26/17, 7/27/17) and is wildly unpopular (Washington Post, 6/30/17).
Consider the New York Times’ “Medicare for All or State Control: Healthcare Plans Go to Extremes” (9/13/17), which compares Sanders’ Medicare for All with the regressive “Cassidy/Graham” policy. Reporter Robert Pear’s premise is that the Sanders proposal is the left-wing “extreme,” the mirror image of the the GOP’s equally radical proposal to repeal the ACA.
On the one hand, you have a bill that establishes healthcare for all, which is a norm in the industrialized world (OECD, 7/22/16). On the other hand is yet another regressive version of Trumpcare (Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 9/13/17), the Republican proposal to slash Medicaid and repeal requirements that protect patients with pre-existing conditions. Given these dramatic differences, this comparison seems to be doing readers a disservice.
If these plans represent the ideological extremes, as the Times suggests, what would be a rational, non-extreme proposal? The status quo, which leaves us with 28 million uninsured, and the most expensive, wasteful system on the planet? Some minor tweaks to it? Pear doesn’t say. This is a classic dilemma when you treat the world, as the Times often does, as if the Democratic Party represents the left, the GOP represents the right, and magical solutions exist in some undefined center.
Pear’s sourcing is also rather lopsided, with the following people quoted: Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.) and a representative of the major insurance lobby, American Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), who capped off the article with a warning that “government-run healthcare won’t work.” In other words, Sanders, three militant opponents of single-payer and a false equivalency.
Another piece about how “single-payer healthcare could trip up Democrats” (New York Times, 9/11/17) quotes former Obama administration appointee Andy Slavitt comparing single-payer to the GOP’s promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, saying it “could be the Democrats’ version of the thing that they promised to do for seven years and couldn’t do.” Again, the distinction is lost that one policy would provide healthcare to all while the other would take it from millions.
The Times’ Paul Krugman—who was frequently dismissive of Sanders during the 2016 presidential campaign (FAIR.org, 11/27/16)—also compared Sanders’ single-payer bill to the GOP’s health and tax proposals. In his column “Politicians, Promises and Getting Real” (9/15/17), he warned that Sanders’ bill could lead the Democrats to a “Trumpcare-type debacle.”
Krugman, who used to be supportive of single-payer (New York Times, 7/25/05, 3/23/06), has wavered recently in favor of private plans, falsely suggesting the ACA is a pathway to universal care. “It more or less achieves a goal—access to health insurance for all Americans—that progressives have been trying to reach for three generations,” he wrote (New York Times, 1/18/16). In Krugman’s worldview, a bill that leaves 28 million uninsured, does not cut costs and has no pathway to universal coverage (CBO, 3/20/10; Truthout, 6/9/16) is “more or less” the same thing as actual guaranteed care for all.
Krugman says he doesn’t “mean to suggest that these cases are comparable,” but this seems disingenuous, given that the article is structured around the very comparison he claims he is not making.
The tone of the Washington Post’s coverage was clearly evident to those who saw the giant headline “Healthcare for All, and Higher Taxes,” on the Kindle version of one of its articles (9/13/17). The emphasis on higher taxes is telling. It is true that single-payer would require higher taxes. But studies (and the experience of other nations) show new taxes would be offset by dramatic administrative and out-of-pocket savings that would decrease overall spending (BMC Health Services, 11/14). If only the press chose to be so judgmental about past endeavors: Would “A War in Iraq, and Countless Corpses” have made it past editors when the paper helped enable that tragedy years ago (FAIR.org, 3/19/07)?
Another Post article (9/14/17) about Sanders praising the Canadian health system also links Sanders’ Medicare for All bill to GOP policies. The article quotes the libertarian Cato Institute’s health analyst Michael Cannon arguing, “If Bernie wants the United States to move in the direction of Canada’s healthcare system, he should be advocating not ‘Medicare for all’ but ‘Medicaid block grants for all,” Cannon said:
Interestingly, it is actually Senate Republicans who are proposing to move in the direction of Canada’s healthcare system, while Bernie Sanders wants even more federal control.
It is hard to make sense of this comment, given how radically different the two proposals are in purpose and design. While it’s true the Canadian Health Transfer channels healthcare funds through the provinces, it does so with a principle of “universality” that guarantees that each Canadian citizen gets comparable coverage, no matter where they live or how much they earn, which is not the case with the GOP proposals for Medicaid block grants.
The false comparisons continue. An op-ed in the Post by Catherine Rampell, headlined “Sanderscare Is All Cheap Politics and Magic Math” (9/14/17), argued the bill proves that the “lesson the Democrats seem to have taken from the 2016 electoral trouncing is that they need to become more like Republicans,” and described “single-payer” as a catchphrase no different from “repeal and replace.” “Will Mexico pay for it?” she quips, comparing Sanders’ bill to Trump’s proposed border wall.Where Are the Medicare for All Advocates?
Also glaring is how few advocates of Medicare for All are quoted or published in major media outlets. The New York Times did publish an op-ed by Sanders (9/13/17) on the day his bill came out; but outside of that, finding an article that is not dismissive or hostile, let alone supportive of the plan, proves difficult. This is despite popular support for Medicare for All, according to numerous polls (e.g., Economist/YouGov, 4/2/17).
Consider the Boston Globe, which conservatives would have you believe is the ideological equivalent of the Socialist Worker. Its search engine shows three major articles about Sanders’ proposal. The headlines alone leave little doubt as to the tone of the coverage. “Single-Payer May Sound Appealing, but It’s Complicated,” reads one (9/13/17). The same day, the paper ran a column by former Clinton speechwriter Michael Cohen, headlined “Single-Payer Snake Oil” (9/13/17). The third (and so far final) major article it published was called “Not Everyone Agrees on Bernie Sanders’ Healthcare Plan. But Everyone Wants to Vote on It” (9/15/17), which emphasized the GOP’s eagerness to run against the bill.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with writing skeptically, or even critically, of single-payer. Every plan has winners and losers, and the public has a right to know about these scenarios: job churn for those in the insurance industry, the trade-off between tax increases and overall savings, and so on. But the coverage focuses almost entirely—sometimes hysterically—on the potential losers, and very little on who would win: the vast majority of Americans, who would pay less overall and never have to worry about losing their insurance due to job loss or lack of income.
And the lack of pro-single-payer voices is glaring. The Globe coverage reflects this bias; as of this writing, there are no positive op-eds or editorials in favor of the bill to counter the mostly negative news coverage or Cohen’s angry retort, which made the same comparison as others to GOP repeal efforts: “The great irony of the push for single-payer is that it ignores the lesson from the GOP’s recent failure to repeal Obamacare — don’t rock the boat.”
Cohen offered that “if the goal is to get America to universal coverage there are plenty of ways—other than single-payer—to achieve that goal.” But none of the proposals he mentions—a Medicaid buy-in/public option, stabilizing the individual market with government funds or extending CHIP—would do that.
The CBO scored a public option (11/13/13), for example, and found it to have “minimal effects” on access or the number of the uninsured. The Medicaid buy-in or public option is widely believed to lead to “adverse selection” (Urban Institute, 9/16), or a disproportionate amount of poor and sick people joining the public plan, making it less efficient.
When progressives pushed for the retention of a public option in the healthcare reform plan of 2009–10, they were told by President Obama that it was an unessential “sliver” of his proposal (New York Times, 8/17/09). When progressives lamented Obama’s decision to drop this policy (Extra!, 4/10), they were portrayed by the Times (12/17/09) as ideological militants who were “smacking the pragmatic president in the face.” Now Krugman and Cohen would have you believe it is the obvious, viable solution to our healthcare problems.
It seems that in the dominant media narrative, anything progressives want —regardless of specifics—is extreme and reckless. Anyone who offers this point of view, and pursues less bold changes, is “pragmatic.”
This is also a curious departure from how the dominant media covered much of the GOP health reform efforts. When the House version of Trumpcare was being debated, the media focused on right-wing critics of the bill who claimed the proposal was too generous (FAIR.org, 3/15/17). Left critics of the ACA who pushed for single-payer were virtually ignored by the press when that bill was being made.When All Else Fails, Resort to Mockery
The current debate over Sanders bill is not all that different from the debate over his proposals during his presidential campaign. At that time, the New York Times (2/15/16) quoted Ezra Klein and others who mocked Sanders’ plans as “wishful thinking,” “fairy tales,” “puppies and rainbows” and “magic flying puppies with winning Lotto tickets tied to their collars.”
It seems some things never change. Steve Chapman recently wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune (9/15/17) where he echoed this tired joke: “[Sanders’] proposal really should be called Medicare for All and a pony. It’s everything you could want and then some.”
Maybe some people find that funny. But given the extent of our healthcare problems, there is little to laugh about.
When Stephen Colbert introduced a surprise guest at the end of his Emmys opening monologue on Sunday night, the audience didn’t seem to expect to see former Trump administration press secretary Sean Spicer. The Late Night host shocked most of the crowd—Veep actress Anna Chlumsky was particularly amazed—with the selection of one of comedy’s favorite targets of the last year.
Colbert brought on Spicer, complete with the rolling press office podium that Melissa McCarthy made famous in her Saturday Night Live impression, to mock President Donald Trump. From the New York Times transcript:
SPICER: This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period. Both in person and around the world.
COLBERT: Wow, that really soothes my fragile ego. I can understand why you would want one of these guys around.
As the night went on, pictures emerged on social media of Spicer enjoying himself backstage and at parties. Spicer was photographed schmoozing with late night hosts Seth Meyers and James Corden (the latter was caught giving Spicer a kiss on the cheek), actor Alec Baldwin (who won an Emmy for his performance on Saturday Night Live mocking Spicer’s former boss) and other entertainment industry figures. By Monday night, Late Night With Stephen Colbert was using the gag in sponsored posts on Facebook. It was quite the turnaround for Spicer, whose reputation for lying in service of the president included downplaying the Holocaust and defending the administration’s Muslim ban.
Given Spicer’s recent history representing Trump, reaction to the joke decidedly mixed. On Monday morning, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni (9/18/17) frowned on the whole affair, writing that “Colbert abetted Spicer’s image overhaul and probably upped Spicer’s speaking fees by letting him demonstrate what a self-effacing sport he could be.”
An unnamed source close to the decision to include Spicer told entertainment outlet Vulture (9/18/17) that it was only a joke, though one not intended for everyone: “There was no expectation everyone would love this,” the source said.
Yet for all the outrage over the appearance, and for all the distaste over Spicer’s relatively quick public rehabilitation (Spicer left the White House less than three weeks ago, on August 31), the fact is that it’s par for the course in how the corporate media—both in news and entertainment—treat those in power when they leave Washington.
Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie pointed out as much on Twitter on Monday. “The expectation this time will be different is wrong,” Bouie said, debunking the idea that that Trump was too toxic to preclude his acolytes from being offered redemption. And MSNBC‘s Chris Hayes tweeted on Sunday night shortly after Spicer’s appearance that “power is all about who gets forgiven. Who gets fresh starts.”
Hayes should know. The network he works for has repeatedly given airtime to George W. Bush administration speechwriter and Iraq War booster David Frum, whose image has undergone its own rehabilitation since the advent of the Obama administration. And it’s not only Frum who’s benefited from MSNBC‘s selective memory of the early 2000s. Bush White House communications director Nicolle Wallace hosts a show, Deadline: White House, on the network every weekday; officials like Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card and election strategist Steve Schmidt frequently appear on any one of the shows that fill out the week’s lineup.
Of course, MSNBC isn’t alone in scrubbing clean the images of those whose political careers have resulted in war, austerity and mass surveillance. In March, FAIR (3/7/17) reported on how George W. Bush was being feted by newspapers and morning television— and how the nostalgia around Bush’s time in office was part of a longstanding media tradition of normalization for political figures.
During Bush’s book tour, he was welcomed with delight by Ellen Degeneres, a woman whose marriage would have been impossible under Bush’s administration. As the host of the satirical Colbert Report, Colbert in 2013 included war criminal Henry Kissinger—conservatively estimated to be responsible for at least 3 million deaths—in a quirky dance video. Kissinger appeared on the Report for a softball interview the following year. Trump himself appeared on SNL in late 2015, well after his racist and misogynistic comments had become part and parcel of his campaign.
But even though this practice is a time-honored tradition, the 17 days between Spicer leaving the White House and his arrival onstage at one of Hollywood’s biggest events is notable for how swiftly the worm has turned for the former press secretary. If this is what Spicer’s post–White House career looks like, expect Trump to be back on the Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon less than 48 hours after he resigns from office.
“It’s a big club,” the late comedian George Carlin once said of the elite in America, “and you ain’t in it!” It’s hard to imagine looking at Spicer’s appearance at the Emmys, and the intersection between the entertainment industry and the politicians they claim to #resist, and not understand that the world the corporate media inhabit is a world where the regular social and moral rules don’t apply. Once you’re in, you’re in.
Janine Jackson interviewed Shaye Wolf about Hurricane Harvey’s toxic aftermath for the September 8, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: The story of devastating weather events like hurricanes is many stories, really. There’s no need to compete; they’re all critical. But there is something about the oil industry spurring climate disruption, lobbying against preventative or preparatory measures, and then adding to its harmful impact with their methods of operation. As Texas continues to reel under the effects of Harvey, it’s been noted that besides massive flooding, some communities were also faced with dangerous chemicals released into the air by refineries and petrochemical plants.
How did that happen, and what can prevent it from happening again? Our next guest has been investigating that. Shaye Wolf is climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity. She joins us now by phone from Oakland. Welcome to CounterSpin, Shaye Wolf.
Shaye Wolf: Thank you for having me.
JJ: Most of us are not scientists, of course, but we do understand that not every multisyllable word is dangerous. So it isn’t just that “chemicals” were released in South Texas; it really matters what those chemicals were. Fill us in on what your analysis found. What were the emissions, and what caused them to be released?
SW: The South Texas coast where Harvey hit, just to kind of set the context, is just littered with hundreds of fossil fuel and industrial facilities that store large amounts of dangerous chemicals. We looked at the amounts of air pollutants that refineries and petrochemical plants in South Texas reported releasing, either during Harvey or after Harvey, into surrounding communities, and it was a staggering amount. Our analysis, which was as of August 31, and the number has only grown—we totaled more than 5-and-a-half million pounds of air pollutants.
And of that, we looked at seven particularly dangerous chemicals that were released to the air, all of which are documented to have serious health impacts, and some that cause cancer. And we totaled almost a million pounds of those seven particularly dangerous chemicals. So those are things like benzene and butadiene, which are carcinogens, cancer-causing chemicals. And we also included sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. Those are chemicals that really cause a lot of respiratory irritation. So you’ve heard reports of people complaining about difficulty breathing, or burning eyes, burning lungs, in the Houston area. And that’s very concerning, because these are communities living in some of the worst air conditions in the country, because of all of these facilities, and then during storms, they get hit with an extra load of toxins. And that’s just not fair; these communities shouldn’t be having to live with this toxic burden.
JJ: What happened at the refineries and plants that caused these chemicals to be released?
SW: Yeah, that’s a really good question. There are several sources. Some of the chemicals were released because of leaks due to storm damage. So there were six facilities that reported that the roofs on their tanks that are holding chemicals failed during the storm, and released toxins onto the roof, and a lot of those escaped into the air. So things like benzene, that carcinogen.
Many of the chemicals came from routine industry practice during storms. When they do quick shutdowns, either before or in some cases during the actual storm—which is dangerous for workers, having to go out and do the shutdown during Harvey—the industry uses flaring and these pressure release valves that release a lot of the toxins to the air. And the problem is that’s allowed. There are pollution-control technologies that should and could be implemented on these facilities to reduce the toxic burden during the shutdown, and then the startup of the plants during storms.
JJ: Let me just ask you: The media coverage that we’ve seen on this issue seems to be overwhelmingly focused on one company, on Arkema, where emergency workers had to move things around, and were made ill. But even when those stories were good, and some were, they kind of suggested that this company was an outlier, or maybe even unique. But you seem to be saying that these sorts of problems are really not confined to Arkema.
SW: Oh, absolutely not. I mean, Arkema was very dramatic because of the explosions that were very dangerous. But in our analysis, those 5.5 million pounds of air pollutants — and growing; there are many more now as companies continue to report — that came from 40 facilities, so 40 refineries or petrochemical plants. And there are many more now that are reporting, so it’s a widespread problem.
JJ: I have read industry officials describe the situation during Harvey as “unprecedented,” and Arkema officials said, “We’ve never experienced anything that would have given us any indication that we could have that much water.” You note, though, that they certainly had ample warning of hurricane risk, so what’s the disconnect there? Are they asking us to accept “unprecedented” as meaning the same thing as “unpredictable”? What’s going on?
SW: I think that statement is a real problem, because we know that the Gulf Coast is very vulnerable to hurricanes and major storms that can cause damage to these petrochemical plants and refineries. And we also know that climate change, climate disruption, is intensifying the power of these storms. So the fossil fuel industry is inherently unsafe to public health and to our climate, and then climate change is just making these facilities even more dangerous, because the damage from storms can be more intense. This is a problem that’s not going to go away; it’s just getting worse as climate disruption increases.
JJ: There seems to be a problem with, also, the status of just access, public access, to information. Matt Dempsey from the Houston Chronicle has spoken about the difficulty he had getting a chemical inventory out of Arkema. And apparently these companies can use the threat of terrorism, of terrorists learning what these chemicals are, as a way to defeat or get around the public’s right to know. How are you able to get what information you can get?
SW: I think you’ve identified a really critical problem, and that is, in its short time in office, the Trump administration has really increased community vulnerability to the pollution from fossil fuel industries during storms like Harvey, and it’s done that in a number of ways. And one way is that there have been several rollbacks of really important public safety protections, right-to-know protections.
And one big mistake that the Trump administration made was to delay the implementation of a chemical safety rule that required companies to make information about the dangerous chemicals at their plants more easily accessible to the public, and also that increased the enforcement of company safety plans in worst-case scenarios like we saw at Arkema. And even though that rule wouldn’t have in itself prevented that explosion in Crosby from happening, it would have given the public and first responders better information about what was going into the air, and what the risks were.
So it is very disturbing and troubling that the Trump administration has delayed the implementation of this right-to-know, really important public safety rule. Our information, from some reporting that chemical companies are doing—the rules have been suspended and relaxed on reporting during and after Harvey, which is a problem, but some companies are reporting. So once again, our numbers are probably a vast underestimate of what’s actually going into the air.
And another thing that was very worrisome is what’s going into the water. We have seen initial reports of companies reporting wastewater outflows and overflows, sometimes onto the ground. One company reported wastewater flowing into San Jacinto River. So these are wastewater from refineries and petrochemical companies. They’re most of the time not reporting how much and what’s in the water, but some companies have reported 100,000 gallons, 350,000 gallons of wastewater flowing out of their facilities. And that’s tremendously disturbing, because as we know, a lot of communities are dealing with homes that have been soaked in flood water, and there could be a problem with dangerous chemicals getting into the flood waters that have soaked their homes and their communities.
JJ: I just saw a story in which an official was saying, yeah, don’t let your children play in the flood water. You know, don’t let them touch it. And if they touch it, then wash them off. It just seems not tenable, really.
SW: It’s very frightening to know that your neighborhood has been soaked in water, and in many places the flood water still surrounding your home, that could be dangerous, not only from the petrochemical facilities and refineries, but also from all of the Superfund sites that have toxic chemicals, that have been flooded. And there’s been a lot of reporting on 13 flooded Superfund sites in the Houston area, Corpus Christi area, that may have damage, where chemicals can be leaking out. And that’s really scary for the communities around those sites. I saw some reporting this morning of globs of mercury washing up in Houston, and they’re not sure where those globs of mercury are coming from, so—
JJ: Wow, wow. You get the sense from media that there is a problem, but that the problem is that these companies didn’t submit to the regulatory system as it currently exists, where the implication is that would have prevented this. A New York Times story talked about how this is going to “bring fresh scrutiny on whether these plants are adequately regulated.” Is it your sense that we have all the necessary rules in place, and they just need to be followed, or they just need to be enforced?
SW: No, I think there’s a multifold problem. And one is that the fossil fuel industry is exempt from the provisions of many of our foundational environmental laws. So just to give you an example, there’s an Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act that required industrial facilities to report big releases of toxins, so that the community can know, and the oil and gas industry is largely exempt from that requirement. So that has to change. The oil and gas industry should not have exemptions from protections provided by environmental laws.
So in some cases, many cases, the rules and regulations aren’t sufficient, need to be stronger, and in other cases, there is not proper enforcement. So we already know that under the Trump administration, there have been tremendous cuts of staffing and funding for environmental protection agencies like the EPA or OSHA. And so we have agencies with the mission of helping protect Americans from toxic pollutants, and their staff and budgets are being cut, and the enforcement then isn’t there.
So we know, for example, during Harvey that a lot of the air quality-monitoring devices were turned off. So during the most intensive part of when pollutants are being put into the air, we don’t have a lot of independent verification of what went into the air, beyond what the chemical companies are self-reporting. And then we need a lot of comprehensive monitoring on the ground of what went into the air, the water, the soil, so we can comprehensively clean up communities. And then we need more prevention in the future, so these things don’t happen again. And it’s worrisome, that is not happening on the level, at the scale that it should be.
JJ: Finally, we still have those talking about the “climate change agenda.” But in large part, media have moved; they acknowledge that human-driven climate disruption is real, and they’re reporting the impacts—in the United States, anyway. But this never-ending call for “fresh scrutiny” makes me nuts. At some point, I guess we have to ask whether a journalist’s job is satisfied by simply narrating destruction, or are they charged with really naming the causes and naming the ways toward solutions?
SW: Yes, and I think that’s really important: setting a different vision, laying out what this really looks like in practice on the ground. And then it has to be, we need to make change on a more rapid scale. We know from all of the hundreds of thousands of scientific studies, and what we’re seeing just with our own eyes, that in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to phase out fossil fuels very quickly. And we need to phase in clean energy, from rooftop solar and wind, that creates clean, good jobs, and it protects our climate and protects people and the environment.
And having more recognition of what that looks like in practice, and the absolute need for that—it could not be a more critical point to be talking about, over and over again, because this is our future. This is our present, our present and our future. What’s happening now with the storms, and other climate change-related damage, is unacceptable, it’s just getting worse, and there couldn’t be a more critical issue to be talking about with our friends, with our neighbors, in the media, with our colleagues, all the time.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity. They’re on line at BiologicalDiversity.org. Shaye Wolf, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
SW: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Vox.com, which brands itself as both a news source and an “explainer” of news, constructs many of its headlines around the word “why.” These include opinion essays (e.g., “Why Now Is Such a Strange Era in American Political History,” 9/6/17) or interviews (“A Veteran GOP Strategist Explains Why Conservative Elites Put Up With Trump’s Lies and Corruption,” 3/22/17). The headline style assures the reader that they can turn to Vox to understand the reasons behind current affairs.
Vox’s lead story on Wednesday (9/13/17) used the same structure, with a curious (and clunky) twist: “Bernie Sanders Explains Why He Thinks Everything Short of Medicare-for-All Is Failure.” The unnecessary addition of “he thinks” to the formula sacrifices elegance for an extra layer of skepticism.
The same format shows up in cases where Vox is overtly trying to discourage the reader from accepting their subject’s claims, as in the headline, “Understanding the Fear of Vaccines: An Activist Explains Why He Buys a Debunked Idea” (2/4/15).
Sanders’ claim, while no conspiracy theory, is certainly controversial. Yet controversial and often partisan claims are “explained” in Vox’s headlines without similar distancing:
- “A House Republican Explains Why Ryan Should Throw Away His Bill and Try Again” (3/21/17)
- “An Ex-CIA Officer Explains Why Intelligence Officials ‘Absolutely Can’t Trust’ Trump” (5/16/17)
- “This Cartoon Explains Why the Revised GOP Healthcare Bill Is an Attack on Sick People” (7/14/17)
- “Bernie Sanders Explains Why Trump Is So Dangerous” (6/22/17)
In fact, Vox has published dozens of headlines in the past two years using this exact format, and has almost never sought the extra degree of editorial separation provided by “explains why he/she thinks.” A search of their website yields only two other headlines that are similar to Wednesday’s, one of which is “Shaun King Explains Why He Thinks the Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved” (5/26/16), a critique of the Democratic Party leadership for its conservatism and ties to big business.
Media Companies in Tough Spot on Single-Payer
Vox’s headline-meddling provides an insight into corporate media’s approach to hot-button issues like single-payer health insurance. The support in the Senate for Sanders’ “Medicare-for-All” legislation is forcing news outlets to revise their approach to single-payer, which NPR casually dismissed as a “political nonstarter” in February (2/28/17, via Kaiser Health News). The Medicare-for-All proposal (AKA “single-payer”), which would provide all US citizens with no-premium, no-deductible health insurance, faces numerous political challenges, including Republican rhetoric about socialism and government interference; centrist Democrat rhetoric about impracticality and untimeliness; and corporate lobbying from the massive, extremely profitable private healthcare industry.
Appearing to promote single-payer, then, would put any media company at odds with powerful entities that they rely on for journalistic access or other support. Adam Johnson, writing for FAIR.org (1/30/16) last year, pointed out that Vox’s owner Comcast has deep financial ties to the healthcare industry, as well as a close, mutualistic relationship with the Democratic Party.
NPR reports about healthcare in partnership with Kaiser Health News (KHN)—the news service of the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). Both KFF and KHN claim independence—from each other, and from their financial supporters, which include health insurance companies and their foundations. As Johnson wrote:
Kaiser Family Foundation is itself invested in a number of healthcare-focused portfolios, including Berkshire Hathaway, which has a stake in healthcare tech companies like Sanofi and DaVita.
NPR’s corporate sponsors for 2016 included Aetna, UnitedHealth Group, PhRMA (the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) and a slew of other healthcare industry entities.
Avoiding the Issue
Where do all these hidden influences surface in media coverage? The same dutiful skepticism that inspired Vox to alter its standard headline format shapes these outlets’ coverage—what they choose to question and what they take for granted.
While they can no longer call it a “nonstarter,” journalists and editors can still downplay the uncomfortable side of the debate—the healthcare corporations and wealthy individuals that care about their bottom line, rather than the human need for healthcare, and the political influence those sectors wield.
News outlets can minimize the powerful economic interests at play by presenting us with an alternate reality in which honest politicians reject single-payer merely because they worry it’s not politically or economically practical. NPR’s Scott Detrow (8/11/17) thus validates Nancy Pelosi’s rejection of single-payer:
The resistance is tactical, not ideological. It took decades to pass something like Obamacare. And the fear is that despite what polls might suggest, something as aggressive as single-payer just isn’t politically feasible right now.
NPR.org’s most recent write-up (9/14/17) devotes a section to “the politics” of single-payer, addressing why it is still considered fringe in Congress, despite being favored by the majority of Americans in polls (KFF, 7/5/17). NPR explains that “polling is tricky.” For a different angle, a recent study by Maplight (9/14/17) concluded that “Democratic senators who haven’t signed on to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ ‘Medicare for All” proposal have received twice as much cash from the insurance industry as the bill’s sponsors.” The Maplight study was unmentioned by NPR.
The vast majority of Americans think that politicians are influenced by corporate cash in how they vote (New York Times, 6/2/15), and that the government and big businesses “often work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors” (Rasmussen, 7/6/16). In other words, people are ready to hear a more realistic narrative—one that acknowledges the class conflict at play beyond traditional partisan bickering.
Avoiding this class conflict narrative means having to find other ways to explain why single-payer is so hard to achieve. News outlets can oversell other aspects of the narrative—the “trickiness” of polling, or the political risk posed by the necessary increase in government spending.
NPR.org’s rundown on the bill (9/14/17) raised the specter of the Urban Institute’s 2016 claim that Sanders’ plan would increase federal spending by $32 trillion over a decade. NPR totals up Sanders’ revenue plan for comparison, but like the Urban Institute study itself (Huffington Post, 5/9/16), NPR ignores the plan’s prediction of savings in administrative costs and drug costs (despite its inclusion on the front page), and thus misrepresents what Sanders’ financial proposal says.
Most significantly, the article makes no attempt to compare the study’s purported $32 trillion price tag with the amounts that Americans—individuals and government—are projected to spend over the next ten years: $49 trillion (Washington Post, 7/6/17). More than half of this spending is private, much of which would be eliminated in a single-payer system.
In awkward headlines and gaping plot holes, we find evidence of the discomfort that comes with challenging the political establishment, the healthcare industry and the richest Americans all at once. An honest narrative would outline the difficulty in implementing single-payer healthcare in terms of political power and class conflict. Nobody can realistically argue that the US could not raise the funds to insure its entire population, but Vox and NPR may not be the most prepared to explain to us who stands in the way—and why.
A recent survey by progressive watchdog Public Citizen (9/12/17) on the media’s coverage of hurricanes Harvey and Irma confirms what’s long been known: Corporate media are indifferent to the causal relationship between climate change and extreme weather, and by far the worst offenders are the Rupert Murdoch–owned Fox News, Wall Street Journal and New York Post.
The survey covered 18 outlets hurricane coverage for the week of August 25–September 1: ten major newspapers, three weekly news magazines, and ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News. Out of 2,000 media items, there were only 136 mentions of climate change, many denialist in content.
Outlets owned by Murdoch’s umbrella corporations, News Corp and 21st Century Fox, clearly led the denialist camp. These firms constitute the core propaganda machine of the right in the English-speaking world, with the highest-rated cable news network (Fox News) and the first and sixth biggest-circulation newspapers (Wall Street Journal, New York Post) in the United States. As Public Citizen’s media survey reveals, they go beyond indifference to advocate outright denialism.
The Journal had three op-eds and Fox News had two segments that denied—and laughingly mocked—any connection between hurricane intensity and climate change, the survey found:
- Holman W. Jenkins, Jr: “First Houston’s Resilience, Then Washington’s Boondoggle” (Wall Street Journal, 8/29/31)
- Roger Pielke Jr: “The Hurricane Lull Couldn’t Last” (Wall Street Journal, 8/31/17)
- Editorial Board: “Texas, Thou Hast Sinned” (Wall Street Journal, 8/31/17)
- Tucker Carlson Tonight (Fox News, 8/31/17)
- The Five (Fox News, 8/25/17)
Other media did better, but some not much more so. ABC News and NBC News didn’t mention climate change at all in the context of Hurricane Harvey or Irma. Other outlets, such as USA Today (8/30/17, 8/30/17), used a “both sides” framing to provide a platform for denialists, but the paper’s editorial ultimately concluded climate change “juiced Hurricane Harvey.”
Public Citizen’s survey found that climate coverage in the context of Harvey and Irma was concentrated in four outlets—the Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, New York Times and CNN, which together produced 72 percent of the pieces that mentioned climate change. CNN led the way with 30 mentions of climate change, only two of which were denialist in nature: interviews with Rep. Pete Olson (R.–Texas) and Bill Read, the former director of the National Hurricane Center. The Post had 23, the Chronicle had 22 and the Times had 18. The remaining 28 percent were peppered across 10 sources.
The survey highlighted what it considered the “seven aspects” of climate change coverage:
- Clearly connected climate change to Hurricane Harvey (or to events like it)
- Framed questions regarding the role of climate change as whether it contributes to or intensifies the damage from events like Harvey rather than whether it “causes” them
- Discussed relevant clearly connected climate change to Hurricane Harvey (or to events like it);
- Noted ways to adapt to climate change (for example with better disaster preparedness or zoning or building policies)
- Noted ways to mitigate climate change (for example by reducing greenhouse gas pollution and switching to renewable sources of energy)
- Noted specific relevant policies or actions that have been or could be taken at the local or state level; and
- Noted specific relevant policies or actions that have been or could be taken at the federal level.
Only five outlets hit all aspects. Murdoch brands New York Post and Wall Street Journal went 0 for 7 and 1 for 7, respectively, and Fox News went 4 for 7—mentioning these aspects, but doing so in a derisive or dismissive manner.
As consensus emerges not just around the science of climate change, but also its amplifying effects on extreme weather events, Murdoch’s media empire—and the Republican Party that its talking points inform—will remain the last holdout. Even the nominally respectable Wall Street Journal, bought by Murdoch ten years ago, publishes snarky and glib editorials on the topic (8/31/17):
Who says progressives don’t believe in religion? They may not believe in Jehovah or Jesus, but they certainly believe in Old Testament-style wrath against sinners. Real Noah and the Ark stuff. Witness the emerging theme on the media left that Texas, and especially Houston, are at fault for the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.
LOL funny stuff, right? A city underwater and extreme weather amplified by catastrophic climate change is all one big joke. A recent Guardian (9/10/17) report documented how corrupting Murdoch’s hand has been with the establishment paper, with dozens of writers quitting after being pressured to “normalize” Trump. Nevertheless, the Journal continues to ignore basic science to remain lockstep with their party and president, becoming more tabloid in tone and more craven in purpose.
This week on CounterSpin: In a world rife with military conflict, the Iran nuclear deal is cited as an example of diplomacy at work. It seems clear that Donald Trump wants to destroy the deal, in part by misrepresenting it. How should reporters cover White House maneuvers to depict Iran’s compliance as non-compliance, and make clear what’s at stake? We’ll talk with The Intercept‘s Murtaza Hussain about that.PlayStop pop out
Also on the show: If the animal agriculture industry has nothing to hide, why do they want to criminalize documentation of their practices? And if they have something to hide, why are state legislators helping them cover it up by criminalizing investigation? We’ll talk with Chip Gibbons, journalist and policy and legislative counsel for Defending Rights & Dissent, about the group’s new report on “ag-gag” laws.PlayStop pop out
And a quick look by Janine Jackson at PBS NewsHour‘s misreporting of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson interviewed Tina Vasquez about DACA for the September 8, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: Now there are thousands of people marching in the street across the country in support of the immigration program DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Democratic lawmakers are speaking out in support, thus demonstrating what the Washington Post called a “lurch to the left,” and corporate media are presenting a clear for-and-against battle over the program that allowed some 800,000 people who came to the US as children to legally work, drive and travel outside the country.
But if the “against” argument is obvious, and obviously bogus—they’re criminals who steal jobs while somehow simultaneously draining welfare—the argument of supporters and recipients is not always especially thoughtfully explored. Tina Vasquez is the immigration reporter at Rewire. She joins us now by phone from North Carolina. Welcome to CounterSpin, Tina Vasquez.
Tina Vasquez: Thank you for having me.
JJ: While it’s being covered in some places as an “issue”—you know, a “litmus test” for Democrats or some sort of political volleying on the part of the White House—you heard from a number of young adults who were recipients of DACA, and they had a nuanced understanding of the program. But first, they were clear that it had improved their lives in meaningful ways. What were some of the things they talked about? What has DACA meant for them?
TV: There are overarching things that are very clear, because it provided work authorization and allowed people to get driver’s licenses. There are still challenges even if you are DACA recipient when it comes to going to college, because in states like mine in North Carolina, they still have to pay out-of-state tuition, which is more than three times the cost for citizens. And so there are still a lot of hurdles.
But generally speaking, it allowed people to get better-paying jobs, it allowed them to get jobs in their field of study. It dramatically increased the type of jobs that they were able to get, in terms of how much they were paid, what kind of benefits they received, and enabled a lot of people to go to community college, to go to state universities. So those are just the big picture stuff.
A young man that I interviewed from North Carolina was very clear in that DACA, for him and for a lot of people in his community, helped in ways that American citizens maybe take for granted, in terms of having a driver’s license and being able to safely drive his siblings to school. Or his parents, who are undocumented and who are afraid to drive, or of having any sort of interaction, as undocumented people, with law enforcement, he was able to drive them out of state to visit other family members. He was able to travel within the United States and have the proper documentation to be able to show TSA. Before, that was very scary for him; he only had his Mexican passport. So just things like that, that we don’t think of, and then maybe larger, overarching things that have really improved their lives.
JJ: We know that the right-wing story is false and driven by anti–brown and black immigrant animus. Let’s not say “anti-immigrant,” because come on. But I know that many advocates want to caution us from what is sometimes presented as the counter-argument, which is this line that, “unlike their parents, DACA recipients didn’t do anything wrong.” The phrase “through no fault of their own” comes up a lot. Or that, really, “all of them are working three jobs and going to college at night,” you know. It isn’t that DACA recipients aren’t striving, but that picture, some folks seem to suggest, even if it persuades some people in the short term, it’s not really long-term all that helpful.
TV: If I’m speaking to a person who has DACA, or an undocumented person, and they use that sort of framing, that’s up to them to do. But in terms of the framing that I use in writing about DACA, I avoid phrases like “DREAMers,” I avoid the narrative that they came here through no fault of their own, or that their parents brought them here and it’s not their fault, they shouldn’t pay for their parents’ mistakes.
Because these young people were undocumented before they received DACA. DACA is not a permanent legal status, it’s simply a program. And so that kind of language, to me, demonizes their parents, and it demonizes who they were before they received DACA, and I don’t think that’s helpful to anyone. Their parents made very hard choices to come to the United States, and using that framing isn’t at all necessary to illustrate why removing DACA, rescinding DACA, is so harmful, and so tragic to young undocumented people, or young DACAmented people.
JJ: Can you remind us, just a little bit, of how we got to DACA? Because, certainly, we know that immigrant advocates fought for it, but it wasn’t that it was exactly their first choice. What was some of the trajectory here?
TV: The DREAM Act has been in place since 2001, and so now there’s talk of the DREAM Act again. And based on people that I’m speaking to, and people who’ve been in the immigrant rights movement for a very long time, it’s like reopening a wound. Young people were very, very invested in the DREAM Act, and in it providing this pathway to citizenship, and then it just never happened. And then Obama became president, and there was lots of talk of comprehensive immigration reform, and large immigration moves that were supposed to be made within his first 100 days of office, and that never happened.
And so young people began demanding some sort of administrative relief. And DACA’s been called a lot of things, from amnesty to citizenship. It’s neither of those things. It doesn’t provide a pathway to citizenship. But at least for two-year intervals, they knew that they wouldn’t be deported, they knew that they could work and they can go to school, and that’s all that it’s been. But it was very hard-won by young undocumented people, and it wasn’t just something that was given to them by President Obama.
JJ: Right. Well, the implication now from media is that there’s a possibility that Congress might “save” DACA. But that seems like a rock that bears looking under. Are there concerns about what it might mean to have Congress work out a deal on preserving DACA?
TV: The primary one is the one that’s sort of constant. It’s that immigration and undocumented immigrants are constantly being used as this sort of bargaining chip. So while helping one population of immigrants that we’ve deemed “acceptable,” or young, good people that we should be giving these things to, that demonizes another group of people, and it’s often their parents. And so the way this is often set up is that one group of people has to suffer in order to give other things to other groups of people.
And I think with border-wall funding, that’s certainly a concern. I think to save DACA, that’s what will be proposed, and that’s throwing millions of people under the bus. And that’s also really troublesome, because the border exists, it’s heavily militarized, and it has been since President Obama funneled billions of dollars into it, and hired many, many Border Patrol agents. It’s just unnecessary. And people that I’ve interviewed who live in those communities will tell you how unnecessary more border-wall funding is. But I think that’s the game that’s going to be played in order to save DACA.
JJ: Yes, I heard NPR say that Steve Bannon had convinced Trump to “spare DREAMers and use them as a strategic asset in the coming immigration policy battles.” I don’t think “spare” means there what they think it means.
JJ: Going forward, of course, there is a lot of uncertainty. But some of the people that you heard from said, you know, we’re not most worried about falling out of status, we’ve been out of status. But the database does concern them—not just being newly deportable, but being so easily findable. Is that a concern that you’re hearing?
TV: Yeah, that’s one that’s being expressed a lot. I mean, just the amount of information that the Trump administration has, and the way that it’s already utilizing it, when we look into how the VOICE office is structured, and the DHS VINE database, which has the location and identifying information of undocumented immigrants that are in ICE custody in detention centers, and that anyone can go to and look up their status updates on their cases, and where they are.
And now you have this DACA database, that not only includes things like biometrics and personal identifying information for young DACA recipients, but also information on their family and places that they have lived, which also endangers their families who are mixed status or who are undocumented. So it’s really, really troublesome. And there is little reason to have faith in the Trump administration, and in thinking that they won’t utilize or weaponize this information.
JJ: I wonder, finally, how you think journalists can contribute to that paradigm shift, to that shift from, you know, “let’s help the children and punish their parents,” and that sort of thing, to a more holistic understanding of immigration? What would you like to see change in reporting?
TV: I don’t think that we should assume that we know the framing that will help different populations of immigrants under attack right now. A lot of young people that are protesting right now aren’t just doing it for themselves, and doing it for DACA, but they’re doing it for the 11 million undocumented immigrants that currently reside in the US, and who are their families. And so asking people, what would be useful for people to know, you know, if you’re interviewing someone who has DACA, what do you want people to know, what do you think is being missed by the media? What are some misconceptions that you think are out there? Let them pave the way. You know, they’re living this, and they know what’s best.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Tina Vasquez, immigration reporter at Rewire. You can find her work online at Rewire.news. Tina Vasquez, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
TV: Thank you for having me.
UN Secretary General António Guterres called Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya people “ethnic cleansing,” saying there’s no better word to describe the now 380,000 people forced to flee a violent military campaign—this after decades of discrimination and repression in Myanmar, where Rohingya are denied citizenship and rights, despite having been in the country for centuries. Rohingya militants killed 12 security personnel at a police post in late August; the government’s response has been a brutal scorched earth campaign, burning villages and attacking civilians, while denying human rights organizations access to the region.
Now. See if you would get that sense from PBS NewsHour‘s September 3 account:
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, urged Myanmar today to stop its military crackdown against minority Muslims there, known as Rohingya. Myanmar officials say 400 people have been killed in recent clashes between soldiers and Rohingya insurgents, who claim Myanmar’s 1.1 million Muslims are persecuted. The government considers the insurgents a terrorist group. The United Nations says about 73,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed the border into Bangladesh in the past 10 days.
So the lead is that a predominantly Muslim country is coming to the defense of other Muslims. There are “clashes”—a favored media term that suggests a symmetry of forces—and an implied balance between the Rohingyas’ “claim” that they’re persecuted and the government’s assessment that insurgents are “terrorists.”
But I thought, that was early days; surely the NewsHour will return to this story with a more humanistic take. I was wrong about that. The September 5 program included a brief clip from a UN Refugee Agency official recounting hardships of those fleeing the country, which Judy Woodruff then followed up (you might say countered) with “army officials in mostly Buddhist Myanmar say they’re responding to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.”
Then on September 13, the show aired a brief clip of the UN chief calling on Myanmar authorities to end the violence, which Woodruff followed with “Myanmar claims that it’s only reacting to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.”
Human rights groups and the UN describe that “reaction” as ethnic cleansing. But the NewsHour seems to think this horrific brutality is more of a potato/potahto sort of thing.
ACTION: Please ask the NewsHour to return to the Rohingya story with a report that treats the question of ethnic cleansing as more than a matter of opinion.
Since the Charlottesville attack a month ago, a review of commentary in the six top broadsheet newspapers—the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, LA Times, San Jose Mercury News and Washington Post—found virtually equal amounts of condemnation of fascists and anti-fascist protesters.
Between August 12 and September 12, these papers ran 28 op-eds or editorials condemning the anti-fascist movement known as antifa, or calling on politicians to do so, and 27 condemning neo-Nazis and white supremacists, or calling on politicians—namely Donald Trump—to do so.
For the purposes of this survey, commentary that drew a comparison between antifa and neo-Nazis, but devoted the bulk of its argument to condemning antifa, was categorized as anti-antifa. There were no op-eds or editorials framed as condemnations of “both sides” that spent as much or more time condemning or criticizing neo-Nazis. The “both sides” frame—which was employed by Donald Trump in the wake of the attack, and endorsed by white supremacist David Duke—was almost always used a vehicle to highlight and denounce antifa, with a “to be sure” line about neo-Nazis thrown in for good measure. A breakdown of the op-eds and editorials can be found here.
While most “both sides” columns added a qualifier clarifying that there was no moral equivalency between antifa and neo-Nazis, this framing could not help but imply that there was. And a few explicitly argued that, yes, anti-fascism was just as bad as fascism:
- Marc Theissen: “Yes, Antifa Is the Moral Equivalent of Neo-Nazis” (Washington Post, 8/17/17)
- James S. Robbins: “Trump Is Right—Violent Extremists on Both Sides Are a Threat” (USA Today, 8/30/17)
- Alan Dershowitz: “The Hard Right and Hard Left Pose Different Dangers” (Wall Street Journal, 9/10/17)
Alan Dershowitz’s op-ed took it slightly further than the others, seeming to suggest “antifa” was actually more dangerous, though the famous litigator played coy with this implication:
The danger posed by the extreme hard left is more about the future. Leaders of tomorrow are being educated today on campus. The tolerance for censorship and even violence to suppress dissenting voices may be a foretaste of things to come.
The Washington Post* and New York Times published markedly more critiques of neo-Nazis than of antifa: the Post by five to two and the Times 13 to five. This was in contrast to the coverage in the Wall Street Journal—five antifa condemnations and no anti-Nazi ones–and USA Today, which featured seven anti-antifa pieces and only three opposing white supremacists or calling on Trump to do so. The LA Times and Mercury News were basically split down the middle, with the former publishing six anti-antifa and five anti-Nazi takes, and the latter publishing three against antifa and two against Nazis.
The Wall Street Journal seemed particularly averse to calling out Trump for soft-pedaling and dog-whistling white supremacists. A recent Guardian expose (9/10/17) documented how dozens of writers have left the Journal in response to corporate pressure to “normalize” the Republican president—an effort evident in the uniformly positive takes on Trump’s response to Charlottesville. In addition to Dershowitz’s red scare salvo, the Journal published these anti-antifa takes:
- Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.: “The Extremist Show Is Just Starting” (8/18/17)
- Editorial Board: “Behind the Bedlam in Berkeley” (8/28/17)
- Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.: “When the Truth Is Crazy” (9/1/17)
- Editorial Board: “The Free-Speech Battles of Berkeley” (9/4/17)
Holman Jenkins’ first piece, “The Extremist Show Is Just Starting,” began with a handwave toward an “unambiguous denunciation of white racism or neo-Nazis” that, like all “both sides” takes, ended up being almost entirely a critique of radical leftist radicals—a set of priorities confirmed by a supplemental “Opinion Journal” interview with Jenkins on the Journal’s website the same day (8/18/17) that skipped the token neo-Nazi condemnation altogether and got right to the real business of bashing antifa.
While the Washington Post editorial board condemned both antifa (8/30/17) and Trump’s non-response to neo-Nazi terrorism (8/12/17, 8/14/17) in equally scathing terms, the New York Times passed on the former and doubled down on the latter, issuing three separate editorials (8/13/17, 8/14/17, 8/15/17) scolding Trump and his tacit partnership with racists. Times columnist Charles Blow (8/17/17, 8/21/17, 9/7/17) was particularly consistent in calling Trump’s white supremacist support by name and shaming the broader Republican party for its role in their de facto partnership.
USA Today gave voice to a motley assortment of false-equivalency takes, the lowlights of which included “Media Reports on Antifa … Finally” by Rick Jensen (9/4/17) and “Alt-Right’s Despicability Doesn’t Make ‘Antifa’ the Good Guys” by right-wing provocateur Jonah Goldberg (8/18/17), who wrote a book-length “both sides” eight years ago: Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change.
A month after a leftist protester was killed by a self-professed neo-Nazi, it’s notable that a slim majority of opinion in major newspapers focused on those devoted to combating racism rather than to those advancing it. Bear in mind that one side kills more people than any other ideology in the country and openly promotes genocide, while the other supports aggressive tactics to prevent the promotion of genocide, and hasn’t killed anyone. As FAIR has noted before, the media’s “both sides” fetish is uniquely unsuited for the Trump era, and their peculiar evenhandedness in the wake of Charlottesville illustrates this with stark clarity.
With a major publication like Politico expressly telling its reporters to avoid criticism of “physical attacks on journalists and white supremacy” on social media—so as to not appear “partisan”—one is compelled to ask, of what use is the pretense of “objectivity”? In an attempt to balance the scale, the media put their thumb on it, overemphasizing the threat of antifa while playing down an emerging far right that, in addition to having just killed someone, is in tacit alliance with the most powerful man on earth.
*Given the Washington Post’s sprawling blogging vertical, only published Post articles were included.
Professional truth-teller and self-appointed Russian counter-propagandist Jake Tapper had Arizona Sen. John McCain on his State of Union show (CNN, 9/10/17) for a chummy interview Sunday night. The interview began with Tapper lobbing softballs at McCain about his mortality and reminiscing about buddying up on the 2000 campaign trail (Tapper was, according to his then-editor David Talbot, a McCain “groupie”) before moving on to “issues.”
After letting McCain claim that the US ushered in, after World War II, the “longest period of peace and prosperity” in history (what, one is compelled to ask, was McCain dropping on Vietnamese peasants, Ovaltine?), Tapper let the Republican lawmaker pivot to his default position of warmonger (“We have got to spend more money on defense“), with no pushback of any kind.
The ritual was kicked off with a distortion by McCain that Tapper didn’t challenge. “The Korean defense minister, just a few days ago, called for nuclear weapons to be redeployed—we had them there once—in South Korea,” McCain said. “You think the US should do that?” Tapper asked, when what he ought to have said was, “That’s a mischaracterization of the defense minister’s comment.” What Korea’s Song Young-moo actually said, according to the Washington Post (9/4/17), was that “the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons is an alternative worth a full review.”
But the crusader against Fake News can’t be bothered with messy details that complicate McCain’s regime-change advocacy. Also left unmentioned was that the weapon systems McCain touts, like the THAAD anti-missile system, are opposed by the majority of South Koreans, and the current president was elected with a mandate to halt THAAD—which he promptly did.
But the real lowlight of the interview was the casual genocidal threat by McCain: “If Kim Jung Un acts in an aggressive fashion,” he told Tapper, “the price will be extinction.”
Note that McCain didn’t even say “if North Korea attacks the US,” but simply if it “acts in an aggressive fashion.” What constitutes an “aggressive fashion”? More importantly, what does McCain mean by “extinction”? As McCain seems to be threatening to kill 25 million Koreans, isn’t it worth clarifying what precisely he’s calling for?
Tapper did no such thing; he simply moved on to DACA. And just like that, a distorted pro–regime change narrative is cemented, without so much as a hiccup from “the most trusted name in news.”
Building on this corporate synergy, CNN’s resident dullard Chris Cillizza wrote a creepy hagiography for the senator the very next day (9/11/17), headlined “The Inspiring Joy of McCain.” (Not to be confused with the creepy McCain hagiography he wrote two months ago, “The Absolutely Remarkable Life of John McCain”—7/20/17.)
After assuring the reader McCain was “no saint” who had “made mistakes” (borrowing from McCain’s own faux-humble language in the linked interview), Cillizza went on to praise the lawmaker with generic flattery, noting his “willingness to get knocked down seven times and get up eight,” whatever that means.
In a political world in which it seems like the worst behavior is rewarded the most and which people appear to have lost total faith in the men and women they have sent to Washington to represent them, McCain’s joy should matter.
It should be a reminder that most politicians are in politics for the right reasons. That politicians can represent the best of us rather than our worst impulses. That getting knocked down isn’t a death sentence. That we are a resilient people and that our politics can once again be not only resilient but downright joyful.
What does any of this mean? How can Cillizza possibly know that “most politicians are in politics for the right reasons”? He doesn’t; it’s simply groveling, power-serving flattery of a sitting senator from a news network that maintains, at least in theory, that its purpose is to hold power to account.
Clearly it’s commentary—though not labeled as opinion—but of what use is it? What did Tapper’s interview or Cillizza’s vacuous write-up of it accomplish? A bit of legacy-buffing for McCain, some deeply pernicious pro-war talking points, and a few chuckles between two old friends.
In June, the celebrity magazine Us Weekly (6/7/17) ran a cover story on Ivanka Trump not-so-subtly titled, “Why I Disagree With My Dad.” Relying on carefully chosen anonymous “sources” and “Ivanka insiders,” the story cast the First Daughter as a key player inside the White House who has “battled” her more conservative father over “everything from LGBT rights to the North American Free Trade Agreement,” and who was “disappointed” by his decision to pull out of the Paris climate accords just days earlier. It was standard celebrity tabloid fare, which is to say it was a public relations coup for Ivanka Trump and her husband, real-estate developer Jared Kushner, who were given a sympathetic platform to polish their personal brands.
But most notable about the Us Weekly story was how little it differed from the supposedly serious coverage of Trump and Kushner by news organizations like the New York Times, CNN and Politico. Almost as soon as Donald Trump won the election last November, corporate media began to concoct a collective narrative that the couple would exert a strong moderating influence on the new president, regardless of all Trump’s reactionary, xenophobic and hateful rhetoric during the 2016 campaign.
This phenomenon arose yet again last week during the coverage of Trump’s decision to end the Obama administration’s DACA immigration rule. In the days leading up to the announcement, the New York Times (9/3/17) took care to point out that Ivanka and Jared supported extending the DACA protections. But as often seems to be the case, their policy disagreements with Trump weren’t public or even on the record, but instead landed unbidden in the press with little to no explanation of how they got there. (For all its flaws, Us Weekly at least bothered to offer some kind of attribution.)
Once Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, officially announced the DACA revocation on Tuesday, the Times (9/5/17) again took a detour from its breaking news coverage to dutifully register the dissent of the First Daughter and her husband:
But on the opposite side are two formidable foes—the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who are both White House advisers and encouraged Mr. Trump to extend protections to the estimated 800,000 people protected under DACA.
Casting Kushner and Ms. Trump as “formidable foes” to any policy choice that contrasts with the president’s preference is, by now, absurdly wrong. After ten long months, there has been almost no evidence that Ivanka and Jared can muster any moderating policy influence on Trump. One of the rare claimed victories involved Ivanka getting a paid family leave plan inserted into her father’s federal budget proposal this summer. Her initial rollout was ridiculed as absurdly insufficient, however, and her follow-up plan was likewise criticized as “amateurish.” What’s more, there is still no guarantee that her proposal will even make it into the final budget passed by Congress this fall.
Ivanka has also made a public push for eliminating the gender pay gap. But her messaging shows no signs of having been received inside her own father’s White House. A July 2017 AEI report studying median salaries in the current administration found the gender pay gap was more than three times higher than under President Obama last year.
Then at the end of August, the Trump administration announced it was scrapping an Obama-era rule that would require companies to report wage data—in addition to gender and race information—to the federal government, in an effort to identify gender wage biases. Equal-pay champion Ivanka took the time to make a public statement about this policy move, which she supported. Her explanation for this about face was transparently flimsy, and she offered no alternative ideas for solving this intractable injustice, which costs US women $840 billion a year, according to one estimate.
So she’s made almost no tangible progress on family leave or equal pay, but she’s helped push her father to be more accepting of LGBT rights. Or, at least, that’s what the press wants you to believe. Just weeks after the Inauguration, Politico (2/3/17) hailed Jared and Ivanka as “help[ing] lead the charge” to sink a drastic rollback of Obama-era LGBT protections.
But this bold claim, too, was mostly a PR-driven mirage that shrivels under closer scrutiny. Less than three weeks after that story, Trump publicly rolled back Obama administration guidelines for transgender students’ use of public restrooms. And when the president called for a ban on transgender military service members at the end of July—a few weeks after Ivanka had publicly tweeted her support for LGBT rights—Politico (7/30/17) reported that the First Daughter and her husband were “blindsided” by the move, without ever bothering to mention how its narrative about the couple’s earlier, supposed policy triumph on LGBT rights had unraveled.
The most inexplicable example of the press’s overindulgence in the narrative of Ivanka’s vast influence came in early June—not from Us Weekly, but from CNN (6/3/17). The cable network crafted a long, fawning story about the First Daughter’s Jewish faith, complete with Hallmark-card photos of her and her kids from her Instagram feed. To top it off, CNN shamelessly bestowed upon Ivanka the moniker of “America’s most powerful Jewish woman”—summarily disappearing two Supreme Court justices, the chair of the Federal Reserve and the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to name but a few actual women wielding actual power.
Even more jarring, CNN’s June tongue bath came just days after Ivanka’s arguably biggest policy defeat. During her father’s presidential transition, she’d held high-profile meetings with Leonardo diCaprio and Al Gore, which garnered dozens of favorable news stories, and she’d said climate change was an issue that would be a big focus of her official White House job as assistant to the president. Nonetheless, Ivanka still failed to persuade her father to keep the United States in the Paris climate accords. She was notably absent from the Rose Garden party Trump held—with brass band, no less—to announce the pullout.
Despite all these failures, the press still consistently covers Ivanka and Jared as if they were key policy advisers. And after each major policy decision by the White House that hasn’t gone their way, the corporate press makes sure to report on the couple’s discreet “disappointment” or “disagreement,” just as the Times did this week. But all this does is provide a convenient dose of plausible deniability to Ivanka’s brand, without requiring her or her husband Jared to register a direct, public statement of dissent.
For example, a New York Times article (4/26/17) on Ivanka and her father’s positions about the US accepting Syrian refugees did most of the work of dissent for her. The Times cast Ivanka as having “a pointed public departure from one of her father’s bedrock populist positions.” Her comments, in fact, were much less clear and more circumspect:
“I think there is a global humanitarian crisis that’s happening, and we have to come together and we have to solve it,” Ms. Trump told NBC when asked about the refugee crisis in Syria, which has created a nativist backlash in European countries.
Asked whether that would include admitting Syrian refugees to the United States, she replied: “That has to be part of the discussion. But that’s not going to be enough in and of itself.”
In fact, the First Daughter’s own spokesperson demurred when asked if her remarks were meant to pressure her father—so not quite a “pointed public departure” after all.
This disingenuousness was also evident in how Politico (6/1/17) played Trump’s Paris climate pullout for the couple, offering up a subheadline that reassured its readers Ivanka and Jared “have taken the defeat in stride.” (No mention of the millions of people whose lives will be forever altered thanks to more intense hurricanes, droughts and other catastrophes wrought by climate change.) And while there is some mild criticism of Ivanka’s unsuccessful effort, the story also includes this ridiculous bit of Ivanka-camp spin in an attempt to rewrite history (emphasis added):
People close to the first daughter and her husband now claim that while the pair wanted the president to stick by the Paris deal and tried to bring voices on all sides of the issue to the table, climate change was never their focus. Ivanka Trump has spent most of her time focused on women’s issues and has been credited internally with including paid family leave in a Republican budget for the first time.
Politico then went on to helpfully note—“via two people familiar with their thinking”—that the couple is “playing the long game, helping the president to be successful. And they don’t tally their own influence day by day or bill by bill.” It’s hard to see how Ivanka’s publicist could’ve done a better job in burnishing the duo’s personal brands than with this meaningless statement. It certainly doesn’t belong in a serious news organization’s coverage.
It’s clear that this “long game” the couple is playing really involves manipulating the corporate media into providing them political cover for the atrocious policies of the administration they’ve chosen to be full participants in. How else to explain Ivanka’s reality-defying comments on Fox & Friends (6/26/17), where she actually said, “I try to stay out of politics”—despite having an official (unpaid) position within the White House as assistant to the president. Once again, Politico (6/26/17) wrote up this event with a kind eye toward the president’s daughter, running a paragraph-long, expectations-recalibrating quote about “being at the table” and “dialogue” that Ivanka served up to excuse for her utter lack of policy efficacy.
Protecting their reputations so Ivanka and Jared can survive the Trump administration’s already toxic legacy is really what’s going on, and Politico seems to be more than willing to oblige. A late July story (7/30/17) on how the pair is “find[ing] their limits” centered on their struggles to survive in Washington. And though both declined comment, the story gave plenty of space for a publicist and Trump family friend to plead her case.
“She’s in there doing what she can,” said R. Couri Hay, a publicist and a longtime friend of the Trump family. “It’s unrealistic, unfair and cruel to expect her to change climate policy and pre-K and women’s issues in six months.”
Meanwhile, she desperately wants to lower expectations of what she can achieve in an administration where she views herself as one person on a large team—even though other White House officials said she still has access to the president whenever she desires it. Allies have bucked up her spirits by telling her that her legacy will look better in hindsight if she is successful in moving the needle on her stated issues. And as she navigates the unique role of working-daughter-in-the-White House, she is reading Eleanor Roosevelt’s biography for guidance and inspiration.
The degree to which Politico—along with many others in corporate media—is willfully carrying Ivanka’s water here is an embarrassment and a gross ethical transgression. That’s because the point about Ivanka’s “legacy” is not a small or symbolic one. On her husband’s 2017 financial disclosures, Ivanka valued her personal brand’s business trust at over $50 million. So, she has a eight-figure incentive to spin the press into helping her insulate her post–White House earning potential from the fallout caused by being associated with the discriminatory and exceedingly unpopular decisions of her father, the president.
Indeed, there are no longer any valid reasons for the press to report on how Ivanka Trump or Jared Kushner think or feel about the latest policy decision by the Trump administration. Their opinions are simply no longer newsworthy, because all available evidence says they bear as much impact on the president’s actions as yours or mine. To keep pretending otherwise is to merely propagate a false media narrative about the couple’s power, without holding them in any way accountable for their repeated failures to exercise it. It amounts to little more than comforting the ridiculously comfortable, and is among the worst cases of personality-driven, access journalism.
Eat your heart out, Us Weekly.
Janine Jackson interviewed Sarah Anderson about corporate tax cuts for the September 1, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: In some cases, powerful interests are so invested in telling a certain story, tell it so often and so insistently, that you’d be hard-pressed to guess from media coverage that it’s disputed, or simply false.
Such is the case with a certain line about the relationship between corporate taxes and job creation. CEOs complain about the taxes they have to pay, and make claims about what they’d do if they were taxed less. And corporate journalists aren’t generally in the business of challenging CEOs. But are we seeing some fissures in that argument, now that it’s Donald Trump talking about how his plan for a “competitive tax code”—common parlance for cutting corporate taxes—will lead to “millions of people” earning a “big, fat, beautiful paycheck”?
Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy project at the Institute for Policy Studies, and is a co-editor of the IPS website Inequality.org. She’s also lead author of the annual Executive Excess Reports on CEO pay. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to Counterspin, Sarah Anderson.
Sarah Anderson: Thanks so much for having me, Janine.
JJ: The claim that media consumers could recite in their sleep is that if you reduce corporate taxes, companies will use that money to invest, to expand and, as a consequence, to hire more workers. Sarah, how did you, at IPS, go about testing that for this new report, and what did you find?
SA: We’re not the first people to look at this question, but we did come up with a new methodology, which is that we looked at the US companies that have already been paying next to nothing in taxes. Our official corporate tax rate is 35 percent, but many companies don’t pay anywhere near that. So we looked at all the ones that paid less than a 20 percent effective tax rate, during the period of 2008 to 2015, that had been profitable every year, so they had no excuse for not paying taxes. And what we found was that these companies had not been using their tax savings to create jobs. In fact, their record on job creation was much worse than private companies throughout the economy as a whole. The tax-dodging companies had median job growth of -1 percent, whereas for the rest of the economy, it was positive 6 percent growth.
And so that was step one in our task, so we looked a little bit further: If they aren’t spending their tax savings to create jobs, where is all of that money going? And, surprise, surprise, we found out that a lot of it was winding up in the pockets of their top executives. The companies that were dodging taxes and slashing jobs were paying their CEOs, on average, about $15 million dollars last year, whereas the average, which is already pretty obscene, for big company CEOs is quite a bit lower, at just $13 million.
JJ: It’s interesting; this report is actually part of the Executive Excess series, so that connection between tax-dodging and CEO pay is really important. Well, what is this stuff about companies buying back their own stock?
SA: That has been a big trend, growing over the last decade, where if companies want to make themselves look stronger without actually becoming stronger, they can take profits and use them to repurchase their own company stock on the open market. You’re reducing the availability of stock, so that drives up their share price. It’s a way to artificially increase the value of your shares. And one thing that it does is it expands the paycheck of the top executives, because most CEO pay these days is in the form of stock-based compensation. So they have a personal, vested interest in spending money on these stock buybacks instead of putting it into things like research and development, or investing in new facilities or technologies that might help create jobs over the long term.
JJ: It seems to me, just going bigger picture, that many people have internalized this idea of “makers and takers,” you know; corporations are the drivers of the economy. It’s as though they’re in charge, so if we just give them what they want, maybe they’ll be nice and they’ll let us have some jobs. It just seems like a weird way for a government, or a society, to think.
SA: And there is just no evidence to back it up. So one thing that is really important to look at is in 2004, the US government offered companies that were stashing their profits overseas, and avoiding US taxes, they allowed them to bring the money back to the US at a 0 percent tax rate. The way it normally is, they don’t have to pay US taxes on these foreign earnings unless they bring the money back here, and then they would pay the full 35 percent tax rate. But in 2004, they decided to give companies an incentive to bring the money back by giving them this 0 percent tax rate. And they were sure, they claimed, that these companies then would create oodles and oodles of new jobs in the US. And instead, the companies that got the most benefit out of this just turned around and cut jobs. So we have the evidence there, that’s just an extreme example, of how companies that got huge tax breaks didn’t create a single job; they cut jobs.
JJ: And yet we’re hearing those same ideas get circulated again, and we’re supposed to believe them—this time.
You have an op-ed in the New York Times, “It’s a Myth That Corporate Tax Cuts Mean More Jobs,” and it has gotten a really good deal of pickup, which is terrific. But besides hoping to drive a stake into this particular zombie idea, what else would you like to see come out of this moment? Obviously, we’re talking about it because Congress is going to be considering tax policy soon, but you have some other ideas in that piece about things that we might look at doing.
SA: Absolutely, and people really should buckle up and get ready for a very intense fight over taxes. I know that this issue makes a lot of people’s eyes glaze over, but this is a huge and important fight. If the Republicans get their tax plan through, it would mean losing trillions of dollars because of tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations, and that would just mean huge cutbacks on things that mean a lot to working people, like education and Medicare and so forth.
So this is really important. And what we should be pushing policymakers to focus on is, instead of more tax breaks for people that don’t need them, and companies that don’t need them, we should be focused on closing up the loopholes that have allowed our system to get so perverse and unfair. And one of the big ones is the one that I just mentioned, where companies can stash profits overseas, often in tax havens, and not pay any US taxes on those profits indefinitely. And if we ended that loophole, we could generate enormous amounts of money in a very fair way, that could go for the urgent needs we’re facing in this country, around infrastructure and jobs and so forth.
So that’s one thing we should be looking at, is closing the loopholes. We should also be looking at new forms of taxation that would also make our system more fair. One I love to talk about is putting a tax on Wall Street speculation. So as it is now, when ordinary folks go out and buy something like a winter coat or put gas in their car, they pay a sales tax on that. But these extremely wealthy hedge fund investors and other traders on Wall Street, who are buying millions and millions of dollars worth of stocks and derivatives all day long, they pay no tax on that. Even a very small tax on each trade would add up to a lot for these big high-flyers in the financial system. So we need to be going on offense here, rejecting the false claims that cutting corporate tax rates will create jobs, and really insisting on making the system more fair.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Sarah Anderson, director of the Global Economy project at the Institute of Policy Studies. They’re online at IPS-dc.org, and that’s where you’ll find the new report, Corporate Tax Cuts Boost CEO Pay, Not Jobs. Sarah Anderson, thank you so much for joining us this week on Counterspin.
SA: My pleasure.
The recent collapse of Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act demonstrated that the GOP’s tireless obsessions—free market platitudes and tax cuts for the wealthy—contribute absolutely nothing to fixing the American healthcare system.
Unfortunately, that was the only thing made clear by media coverage of the healthcare debate.
Looking back, we are struck by the degree to which the media’s fixation on a narrative that mocks a small slice of American voters—pro-Trump voters who had new ACA coverage—deflected attention from the frustration of millions of American workers who have struggled with healthcare problems the ACA either failed to address or exacerbated.
The truth is our healthcare system is sick, and the Affordable Care Act has been little more than a bandage on a compound fracture. The ACA cut the rate of the uninsured to an all-time low, and limited the health insurance industry’s most outrageous consumer abuses, both important steps forward. At the same time, 29 million people remain uninsured, most of the non-elderly population who have employer-paid coverage are increasingly underinsured, and costs continue to soar at 200–400 percent of inflation. (See sidebar.)
Instead of taking a serious look at the flaws in the ACA, and the deep impact they have on the lives of working-class Americans, reporters covering the healthcare repeal saga spent untold hours and column inches seeking out a tiny slice of the electorate for “reporting” that amounted to little more than mockery. Less than 2 percent of the American people both got new coverage under the ACA and voted for Donald Trump. Yet major media outlets obsessively sought out this sliver of the electorate, to ask, in the words of the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan (2/23/17),
a question that’s baffled health reporters in the months since the election: Why would people who benefit from Obamacare in general—and its Medicaid expansion specifically—vote for a man who vowed to destroy it?
Vox’s Sarah Kliff found these voters in Kentucky, more than once. Abby Goodnough and Reed Abelson did too in North Carolina for a front-page Sunday feature in the New York Times (3/7/17). Jessica Contrera found them in West Virginia for the Washington Post (3/11/17). The LA Times’ Noam Levy (2/24/17) found them in Florida. The Kaiser Family Foundation held monthly focus groups with them in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, allowing KFF president Drew Altman to opine on the Times’ op-ed page (1/5/17). Like Kliff, ABC (2/27/17) found them in Kentucky, and CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta (1/6/17) went to Florida. Reporting stimulated comment from the Post’s Dana Milbank (12/20/16) to the Times’ Paul Krugman (3/14/17) to influential liberal sites like Daily Kos (1/28/17), Salon (12/15/16) and Digby’s Hullabaloo (3/13/17).
Khazan’s “baffling” question has a simple answer. Trump did not promise to “destroy” Obamacare, he promised to give people better health plans (a promise broken, obviously). Many people can’t afford ACA exchange coverage, made clear in the Kaiser focus groups:
They spoke anxiously about rising premiums, deductibles, co-pays and drug costs. They were especially upset by surprise bills for services they believed were covered. They said their coverage was hopelessly complex. Those with marketplace insurance—for which they were eligible for subsidies—saw Medicaid as a much better deal than their insurance and were resentful that people with incomes lower than theirs could get it. They expressed animosity for drug and insurance companies, and sounded as much like Bernie Sanders supporters as Trump voters.Most people’s healthcare left out of discussion
The most damaging effect of singling out this minuscule fraction of the electorate and questioning their motives was the license it gave media to ignore the realities faced by the rest of American working families and to distort the politics of the Affordable Care Act.
Here’s who the media failed to cover: the 177 million Americans who get their insurance through job-based coverage. They are Clinton voters, Sanders voters, Johnson voters, Stein voters and, yes, Trump voters. Media generally overlook the crushing impact the ACA has had on their health insurance. To the extent people with employer-provided insurance are interviewed on healthcare, they are often wrapped in the wrong frame—that their concerns about the ACA are irrational, because the ACA didn’t impact people who were already covered.
This is just a little of what has actually happened across political, racial, economic and gender divisions to the millions of Americans with employer-sponsored health insurance since the ACA was implemented in 2010:
- The ACA imposed an excise tax on their benefits, the simple threat of which caused 73 percent of employers to cut benefits, raise out-of-pocket costs or make plans to do so.
- Their premiums went up more than 3 times faster than inflation. (See sidebar.)
- Their deductibles increased 89 percent, while their compensation went up just 14 percent.
- When they can afford to get care, they see a stranger: 15 percent of Americans lost access to one of their doctors because their insurance network changed in just the last year.
- Even though the US has the lowest rate of un-insurance in our lifetimes, 31 percent of Americans told Gallup they either skipped or delayed necessary medical care last year because of costs, the majority for serious conditions.
- The Census Bureau reports that 11.2 million Americans live in poverty due to out-of-pocket medical expenses.
In short, the majority of Americans who get their insurance through work are facing an escalating crisis of underinsurance, brewing under the ACA and not addressed in the GOP’s proposed replacements. With more than a third of workers carrying deductibles of $1,000 or more, and 20 percent now in plans linked to Health Savings Accounts, few Americans’ benefits look much like 2010.Shifting costs to patients
The deepest flaws in the ACA are the fruition of President Obama and congressional Democrats creating a law that counted on controlling costs by forcing employers to make American workers pay more so they would use less healthcare, instead of having millionaires pay their fair share. In particular, the misleadingly named “Cadillac Tax” is putting enormous pressure on workers’ out-of-pocket costs, based on the false notion that Americans use too much healthcare and that giving employers and workers more “skin in the game” will shrink overall costs—as if shifting costs to the least-powerful players in the system weren’t a recipe for boosting rather than curbing healthcare inflation.
In reality, we already pay more out of pocket than almost anyone else, but go to the hospital and see the doctor less often than the average for wealthy nations. American costs aren’t out of control because we use too much healthcare, they’re out of control because our healthcare system allows corporations to charge too much:
- Hospitals have been on a 20-year merger spree. Now they’re buying up doctors’ practices and charging monopoly prices for both hospital and physician care.
- Drug companies are gaming patent law and charging monopoly prices, refusing to reveal any justification for their larcenous prices.
- Insurance companies are passing provider and drug prices to their ratepayers and skimming billions of dollars off the top of an ever-growing pie.
These trends are covered, but only episodically compared to the avalanche of coverage of the ACA marketplaces and Medicaid expansion. The New York Times (12/15/15) and others covered a groundbreaking study of 3 billion insurance claims that showed that hospital market power and prices, not utilization, are the primary drivers of private-sector costs. Steven Brill (Time, 3/4/13) has relentlessly exposed extreme hospital prices, and pharmaceutical price-gouging is a national story (e.g., New York Times, 4/26/16). But overall, the media allows Washington politicians to frame the “reform” debate as a false choice between a status quo and Republican reaction—in other words, between a system that punishes working-class Americans and even more punitive proposals.
There are plenty of policy tools to combat healthcare corporate monopolies—from Nevada’s first-in-the-nation law curbing Big Pharma’s price-gouging on insulin, to Maryland’s successful hospital rate-setting system, to Hawaii’s employer mandate—or, of course, creating a universal Medicare-for-All (“single-payer”) system. However, all of these require politicians to put working-class Americans before Pharma, hospital and insurance industry profits. Unfortunately, few in Washington, DC, have a taste for any change that isn’t paid for by poor and middle-class families, and corporate media allow politicians to get away with it.
Republicans’ simplistic market nostrums and fixation on tax cuts for millionaires have already run smack into the brick wall of reality. The Democrats’ turn is coming. Standing back and watching GOP infighting may be satisfying, but until Democrats acknowledge the direct harm that their healthcare reforms have inflicted on American families, and the even greater harm that failing to include any restraint on the industry in the original bill has caused, Democrats will continue to suffer apparently mystifying failures at the ballot box.
The media’s myopic focus on a tiny slice of Trump voters, singled out for mockery and disdain, has enabled Democrats’ denial of the true practical and political consequences of a flawed law under whose purview the family fortunes of the majority of Americans have continued to decline.
Mike Casey is chair of the Healthcare Initiatives Task Force of UNITE HERE, a union of 270,000 North American hospitality workers. John Canham-Clyne is deputy director of research for UNITE HERE.Sidebar: No, Obamacare Has Not Reduced Premium Inflation
Former Obama administration officials and pundits of all ideological stripes insist that the rate at which employer-sponsored premiums have grown has slowed dramatically since passage of the ACA. It simply isn’t true.
One of the critical sources for this false fact is the Kaiser Family Foundation Health Research and Education Trust annual survey of employers. In the fall of 2015 and again in 2016, Obama White House Counsel of Economic Advisors Chair Jason Furman put out press releases linking to the survey with headlines like “New Data Show Slow Healthcare Cost Growth Is Continuing.” The White House line was picked up by pundits all over the internet.
The KFF/HRET data did show that the pace at which the nominal dollar cost of employer-sponsored premiums was growing had slowed dramatically. (For inflation, KFF/HRET uses the April not–seasonally adjusted CPI-U for all cities, available here.) But a freshman economics student knows that such information is meaningless unless adjusted for inflation.
The immediate post-ACA world includes the fallout from the economic crash, followed by the historic 2014 collapse of oil prices—eading to very low, sometimes negative inflation. A look at the actual KFF/HRET data tables reveals that from 2010 to 2016, employer-sponsored health insurance premiums grew by 326 percent of the rate of general inflation (CPI-U). For the six years prior to the ACA, premiums grew at 241 percent.
—M.C. & J.C-CSidebar: Factchecking the Factcheckers
Four outlets who follow healthcare—Propublica, Vox, Stat and Kaiser Health News—teamed up to write “We Factchecked Lawmakers’ Letters to Constituents on Healthcare” (3/22/17), which stated flatly that the letters are “full of lies and misinformation.” As an example, they cited a claim to a constituent by Rep. Mike Bishop (R.-Mich.) that individual premiums are “slated to increase” under Obamacare by 73 percent, and that individual premiums for new purchasers would increase 96 percent.
The factcheckers correctly called Bishop out for citing an old 2013 study predicting that individual market premiums would be much higher upon full implementation of the ACA, and implying that it was a report on current numbers. But they went on to say:
In fact, premium increases by and large have been moderate under Obamacare. The average monthly premium for a benchmark plan, upon which federal subsidies are calculated, increased about 2 percent from 2014 to 2015; 7 percent from 2015 to 2016; and 25 percent this year, for states that take part in the federal insurance marketplace.
“Moderate”? In fact, as with employer-sponsored premiums, Obamacare premiums in the exchange marketplaces are growing at multiples of inflation:
- The 2 percent rise from 2014 to 2015 corresponded with a -0.1 percent decline in inflation.
- The ACA plans’ average 7 percent increase at the beginning of 2016 was 5 times the inflation rate (1.4 percent) for the 12 months ending January 2016.
- Leaving aside inflation, it’s unclear how a 25 percent price hike is “moderate,” but for the record, that was 10 times the 2.5 percent inflation rate for the period.
The ACA has failed to control costs and accelerated a national crisis of underinsurance. To tell readers otherwise comes across less as “factchecking” than as a partisan defense of the ACA.
—M.C. & J.C-C
This week on CounterSpin: One would hope that all those who side-eyed Donald Trump’s assertion back in January that recipients of the immigration program DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) “shouldn’t be very worried. I do have a big heart,” would greet with equal incredulity the administration’s line, as they terminated the program, that they did so after carefully evaluating its constitutionality, and determining that it conflicted with existing immigration laws. But while plenty of coverage is skeptical of Trump, are media really understanding what the program does—and doesn’t—mean for recipients? Tina Vasquez is immigration reporter for Rewire. We’ll talk with her about DACA.PlayStop pop out
Also on the show: As we record, Hurricane Irma has battered the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and is currently coming down on the Dominican Republic and Haiti. This while Texas continues to reel from Harvey. Both hurricanes made more destructive by climate disruption. Amid the questions, one thing seems clear: Corporate media have to move beyond asking what “America has learned from” Harvey. Or Irma. Or whatever comes next. Because America is not univocal. Some have learned, at tremendous cost; some already knew. And some are thoroughly invested in preventing others from acting on what they learn. Harvey revealed another aspect of the oil industry role here—adding toxic chemicals to the air and water during perhaps unprecedented, but not unpredictable, weather events. We’ll talk about that with Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity.PlayStop pop out
What is the point of Ed Rogers, the Washington Post’s most conflict-ridden, mediocre columnist (FAIR.org, 4/23/15)? He doesn’t add a lot to the discourse, his boilerplate Republican talking points could be better written by any number of Heritage fellows, he shills for Trump in the most boring ways possible, and—most glaringly of all—is an actual paid lobbyist for an assortment of sleazy industry interests, via his lobbying firm BGR Group.
So why does a major paper feel the need to continue to give him column inches? Rogers has major conflicts of interest, as AlterNet and Media Matters have noted: Among many other infractions, he neglected to mention his firm’s $500,000 fee from the Saudi regime while boosting Trump’s PR trip there, and promoted the shiny new weapon systems of his client Raytheon on the night Trump used them to bomb the Syrian Air Force.
When he does disclose conflicts, it renders the rest of his writing limp and risible. Take his latest right-wing missive (9/5/17) lamenting the “lurch to the left” of the Democratic Party, which offers up one of the greatest self-owns in the history of the Post opinion section:
Economic policies [of the Democrats in 2020] will consist of government giveaways and anti-business crusades. Social causes will give no quarter to moderate positions, and LGBT special interests, labor unions, global warming fanatics and factions such as Black Lives Matter, along with other grievance industry groups, will face no moderating counterforce. (Disclosure: My firm represents interests in the fossil fuel industry.)
It’s rare for a screed to undermine its own credibility in such a glaring and amusing fashion—to rail against a made-up “grievance industry” only to follow up by letting the reader know that the writer himself shills for a very real and widely loathed fossil fuel industry. The rub is Rogers’ disclosure, such as it was, was only fraction of what it ought to have been.
Almost every “left” issue Rogers opposes conflicts with one of BRG’s corporate or government clients. Let’s run them down:
- “A $15 minimum wage”: BRG clients include the Asia-Pacific Council of American Chambers of Commerce, HNTB Holdings (construction), Caesars Entertainment and a number of corporations reliant on low-wage work.
- “Free college tuition”: BRG client Flagstar Bank issues student loans.
- “Single-payer health-care system”: BRG clients include GlaxoSmithKline, Senior Care Pharmacy Alliance, Lifecare Hospitals, Merck & Co, Eli Lilly, Neurocrine Biosciences and a host of others profiting from for-profit healthcare.
- “Labor unions”: Toyota Motor Corp, Caesars and any corporate client whose profits are threatened by a strong labor movement.
Clearly, an aggressive left-wing agenda would be a major threat to the bottom line of scores of Rogers’ clients. The fossil fuel industry apparently rises to a level of manifest terribleness that made Washington Post editors feel they had to demand a token disclosure. Those lobbying for low wages, massive student loan debt and exploitative private healthcare evidently do not.
Having a lobbyist moonlight as a columnist, of course, is inherently conflicting; the major corporate, financial and fossil fuel interests Rogers represents will, by definition, pollute his writings as surely as his clients do the Earth.
Perhaps Post editors can stop and examine their priorities when one of their columnists has to write, “Disclosure: My firm represents interests in the fossil fuel industry,” in the same 48-hour period three massive hurricanes formed in the Atlantic. The Post seems to be filling a niche that doesn’t need filling: insider oil company pitchman with run-of-the-mill GOP positions.
Rogers’ piece bizarrely went on to claim the 2020 Democratic nominee will attempt to “normalize” and “show common cause” with “the antifa”:
But just as the right tries to normalize President Trump, the left will try to normalize the antifa. As the rationalization gets underway, the presidential candidates wanting to distinguish themselves in a crowded field will be tempted to show common cause and try to harness the antifa fury. The pandering to come will be nauseating, but nonetheless compelling to watch.
Even aside from Rogers’ glaring conflicts, this section is worth highlighting because it shows what an amazingly poor writer he is. It’s a series of lazy ideological assumptions built on top of each other that thinks antifa is called “the antifa” and Democrats seek to embrace radical anarchists, despite the top Democrat in the country coming out expressly against it. Indeed, if Rogers were a venal industry hack who could also write well and make original points, his existence on Washington Post’s payroll would be more understandable. But he’s not; he’s both corrupt and a banal, unlettered writer, leading one to ask, again—what is the point of Ed Rogers?
Janine Jackson interviewed Neil deMause about coverage of hurricanes and poverty for the September 1, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: You still sometimes hear things like “disasters don’t discriminate,” or “it’s wrong to politicize a tragedy.” But as we continue to assess the ravages of Hurricane Harvey, it seems like maybe we’re moving a bit beyond that. Sure, we know that no one ordered up a hurricane, but public policy and political choices do play a role, do make some disasters worse than they might be, and do leave some people more vulnerable than others. Media may be moving beyond “nature, what are ya gonna do?,” but where will they end up? Accountability, translated through the corporate media machine, often winds up just being blame—and blame and accountability are not the same thing. It’s not a question of who to be mad at; it’s about who has the power to make things different, and what should they do? Media themselves are, of course, important players here, so what can we say about their work so far in covering this natural, and not-so-natural, disaster?
We’re joined now by journalist Neil deMause; he writes often about social policy issues for various outlets, including FAIR.org. And he’s author of the book The Brooklyn Wars, and co-author of Field of Schemes. He joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Neil deMause.
Neil deMause: Good to be here, Janine.
JJ: We don’t need to cram Hurricane Harvey into a comparison with Hurricane Katrina; they aren’t the same. But in terms of media, one of the things that people remember about Hurricane Katrina, besides irresponsible and straight-up racist reporting, was mainstream media “discovering” poverty, and the combination of poverty and racism. There was a kind of a lightbulb for a minute there, and media outlets promised that they wouldn’t forget what they learned. Is it your sense that, generally, looking at the coverage of Harvey, media outlets have retained much of that purported lesson?
NdM: I would say that the media have retained a little bit of the lesson? I think the coverage has gotten somewhat better in some small ways, and has not especially improved in some larger ways. I think you have not seen the kind of overtly racist coverage of, you know, people looking for supplies, and calling them “looters” when they are people of color, that you did after Katrina. I think you see a little bit more sympathy for the people who are trapped in this disaster.
But at the same time, what the lesson of Katrina supposedly was—again, for that one minute that the lightbulb went off—was the realization that oh, there are some people who, when faced with a disaster, can’t just pick up and leave, not because they are afraid to or are too stubborn to leave their homes, but because they don’t have the resources. And that’s the kind of thing that you would hope the media would be exploring more when you have another disaster of this scale, and I don’t think we have seen an awful lot of that so far.
JJ: There still is this idea that a disaster is an equalizer, when what it really does is call attention to real differences that exist, such that different people just can’t react the same way. And one of the things that I know you have been thinking about relates to insurance, even. As simple as that.
NdM: So there’s been a fair bit of coverage about the fact that only around one-fifth of homeowners in the Houston area have flood insurance. And I was just watching CNN, and they were again talking about what is the government going to do, and how are we going to address the fact that there is going to be a huge need for additional aid. Those are good questions to ask, but at the same time, are you also asking why people choose not to, or can’t afford to, have flood insurance, or are not getting it? And there have been some indications that one reason is that the National Flood Insurance Program has been running short on cash, both because of the series of storms that we’ve had, thanks to climate change, and more devastating storms, thanks to both climate change and the fact that we have more sprawling development that is getting in the way of these storms.
On top of that, there is underfunding, and President Trump has been talking about cutting funding for the Flood Insurance Program, which would force them either to scale back on the flood maps that would enable people to determine whether they are actually in need of flood insurance, or if they went and paid for it out of the program’s own pocket, then you would have to raise premiums and price people out of affording flood insurance. Again, it’s a complicated series of dynamics that you have to look into, and the coverage mostly stops short of that. It’s just been, “Oh, too bad, people don’t have flood insurance, what are you gonna do?”
JJ: It’s not that it’s not sympathetic, exactly, but if it doesn’t go deep enough, then you sort of have to wonder how sympathetic is it, if it’s not really going to get at the root of these problems? A few times, I’ve heard that, oh well, Houston doesn’t have zoning. But I haven’t really seen it spelled out how that might affect impacts from something like this.
NdM: Right, and there are a couple ways. One is that when you don’t have zoning, you can have a lot of sprawl into areas that, otherwise, you possibly shouldn’t be building in, because these areas are needed as reservoirs for water when you do have a flood. The other piece that there has been a little bit of coverage about is the chemical facility that is having fires. There’s a lot of petrochemical facilities in close proximity to low-income communities in the Houston area. And again, there has been a little bit of coverage of that; Democracy Now! talked about it a bit, and the Houston Chronicle had some coverage of it before the storm. But, again, these things are very easy for the media to start looking into, once you have all this attention on Texas, and instead we’re largely getting the helicopter of the hour, and let’s see the latest rescue, but not actually talking to people being rescued about what got them into this circumstance, and what is going to prevent this from happening in the future?
JJ: Of course, we hoped that the discovery of the nexus of poverty and racism, and how that affects people’s lives day to day, we hoped that would encourage media to look at that all the time, and not just during times of disaster. But having said that, there will, very sadly, be many chances for media to explore the connections between climate change and its impacts, and poverty. They could be doing that even when there isn’t a hurricane, right?
NdM: Oh, absolutely. Again, the broader problem, like you say, is that the media tends to look at everything—except for something like homelessness, that has to be looked at through poverty—they tend to look at everything through the lens of this mythical middle-class everyperson. Right? And the idea that you have around a third of Americans who are living either in poverty or near poverty, and that maybe we should be looking at, whether it’s climate change, or any other issue, how it’s going to affect them, let alone how it’s going to affect the much broader group of people living in poverty worldwide, a lot of whom are going to be hit by climate change a lot worse than anyone here. That never really seems to come up.
And, again, I’m happy to see that the coverage has not been terrible, and that at least there’s been occasional glimpses of trying to examine people’s economic situations and how it impacts what happens in a disaster like this, but it seems like we really still have a long way to go before you start to have that lens being applied to every sort of different political issue, including climate change.
JJ: I did see someone note, or a few places note, that the Texas Border Patrol checks were going to stay in operation, so people who are out of status or undocumented might be making a choice between do I go out on the roads, or do I stay home and possibly die? It’s true that it’s complicated, that there are a lot of interconnected issues, but it just seems that it’s not politicizing it to say that hey, this actually has something to do with immigration policy, it also has to do with a number of other things, and maybe this is an opportunity to get into them, rather than a deflection from the “drama” story.
NdM: Yeah, that was something that the media realized for about two seconds after Katrina, the idea that there are people in this country who cannot just pick up and get into their car and rent a hotel room for a couple of weeks when they need to get out of danger. It’s something slowly trickling into the media, but it’s very, very slow. For example, that story about the immigration checks, right. That that was not seen as politicizing it, and I think that was fairly well-covered, initially; I haven’t seen any follow-up after the storm actually hit. But I think that’s a positive step, in that we actually can talk about these issues. Whether we actually are talking about these issues in the media, that’s another step beyond.
JJ: And then also, who do we talk to when we talk about them? There’s always the question of sources. And some people may have seen the CNN situation in which, I’m not sure if they pre-interviewed this woman or not, but this woman basically said, “People are at the worst moment of their lives and you’re sticking a microphone in our face, and this isn’t the way to do it.” There’s a certain just human-to-human thing that has to happen for reporters, especially when they’re parachuting into a situation like this.
NdM: Which I think is one reason why a lot of the coverage has tended to be on the rescuers, the people who are going in and pulling people out, because that’s what they’re there to do, and they’re not going to feel like you’re imposing on them if you’re interviewing them. But at the same time, you then leave out a big part of the story. The job of journalists here is to figure out a way to tell the stories of the people who are caught in this, and why they’re caught in this, without just sticking a microphone at them, saying, “Hi, you just lost all your possessions, how does it feel?” That’s not easy, but at the same time, that’s what the job of journalism is all about, and I don’t think it’s impossible.
JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, about making connections. We did see mention of the fact that the Trump administration had overturned a rule that infrastructure projects, including roads and bridges, be designed to withstand the impacts of climate change. Even as we’re seeing a lot of focus on Melania’s stilettos, there are certainly national level, as well as state-level, things that are so relevant that you can also be including them in this story as well.
NdM: One of the things that I’m actually really encouraged by, even though it’s coming decades too late, is that there is finally discussion around Harvey, “Yes, climate change is making these storms worse.” It took an awful long time for that to be able to be acknowledged in the mainstream media, and I think it’s good that there is discussion of Trump’s overturning of that Obama-era rule around taking climate change into account. Again, the lesson here of all this isn’t that the media are continuing to do a terrible job, it’s that the media were doing such a terrible job of reporting all of these things a decade ago that incremental improvement is not happening soon enough.
It’s very much like the climate change story itself, right? We were doing not enough to address it 20–30 years ago, now we’re doing a little bit to address it, but we really do not have the time to make incremental improvements to the point where we’re really gonna get this down, I don’t know, 100 or 200 years from now.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Neil deMause. He is the co-author of Field of Schemes and author of The Brooklyn Wars. And he will be writing something for us about Hurricane Harvey very soon. Thank you for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
NdM: My pleasure.