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‘Charging Domestic Terrorism Is Intended to Make the Cost of Protesting Too High’ - CounterSpin interview with Cody Bloomfield on anti-activist terrorist charges

May 26, 2023 - 4:33pm


Janine Jackson interviewed Defending Rights & Dissent’s Cody Bloomfield about activists being charged with terrorism for the May 19, 2023, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Resistance to the militarized police training complex known as Cop City has been happening since its inception, when Georgia authorities overruled community opinion to create the facility, being built on Atlanta’s South River Forest in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter actions, that includes an area for explosives training and a whole “mock city” for cops to practice suppressing urban protest.

FAIR.org (3/27/23)

In January, police killed the environmental activist known as Tortuguita in a hail of bullets, while they, an autopsy revealed, sat cross-legged with their hands up. The medical examiner ruled it homicide.

There isn’t more you can do to someone protesting your actions than kill them, but authorities are trying to ruin the lives of many others with domestic terrorism charges that call for many years in prison. The state actors behind Cop City, if you somehow can’t see it, are engaging in the overt employment of the very overreaching, harmful powers activists are concerned the facility will foment.

Cody Bloomfield is communications director at Defending Rights & Dissent. They join us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Cody Bloomfield!

Cody Bloomfield: Thank you so much for having me, and I’m dismayed by what’s happening in Cop City, but always appreciate the opportunity to bring this news to more folks.

JJ: Absolutely.

CounterSpin (3/24/23)

Well, Atlanta organizer Kamau Franklin told CounterSpin a few weeks back that the land that Cop City is going to be on was promised to the adjacent community, which is 70% Black, as a park area, and there was going to be nature trails and hiking. And then when the idea of Cop City arose from the Atlanta Police Department, the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Foundation, all of those plans were scrapped immediately, without any input from that adjoining community, and they went forward with this idea.

Just to say, people didn’t suddenly start protesting Cop City recently, and they didn’t do it because they saw something on social media. This project has been over and against the community—and the environment, not that they’re separate—since the beginning. So just to say, the context for the bringing of these charges of domestic terrorism against activists, it’s not that activists are suddenly engaged in something new and especially dangerous that is calling for this response.

CB: Yeah, so the occupation of Cop City has been going on for over a year, and we see from the very outset that there has been police resistance to these protests. Very early on, back in 2021, activists told me that during the pandemic, they couldn’t show up in person to city council meetings, because all of the meetings were being held remotely, and so they decided to do a banner action outside of one of the city council member’s homes during the decisions to approve Cop City. They dropped the banner outside of someone’s house, and then they were arrested by police, and they were hauled to jail for the crime of being a pedestrian in the roadway. This was all the way back in 2021.

Then people started camping in the forest, also way back in 2021. The first arrest for domestic terrorism didn’t happen until December 2022, and at that point, people were being arrested for just using the forest. Like in December, there were reports that someone had been arrested who was just going on a hike, who wasn’t part of the occupation.

Intercept (4/20/23)

But in December was when the police crackdown began in earnest, and the people who had been camping for months were arrested for things like sleeping in a hammock with another defendant, [which] was used as evidence, as was First Amendment–protected activities, including being a member of the prison abolition movement. And that’s when the escalated stage of repression really began.

And this repression accelerated in January, when police again stormed the encampment, and murdered Tortuguita, and issued more domestic terrorism arrest warrants. Then there were the subsequent protests over the killing of Tortuguita in Atlanta, and still more people were charged with domestic terrorism.

And all that was a lead-up to a mass mobilization that the activists called for the first week of March, in which many people came from out of state and around the world to protest. But what a lot of the media’s been missing is, they focused on the week of action and saw in the list of arrestees many people from out of state, they’re missing that this out-of-state solidarity was just the tip of the iceberg of months and years of local organizing.

JJ: Right, and I bring it up in part to say that I think that folks who are distanced from it might fall to that line of, if only folks would protest in “the right way,” you know, without breaking anything. And so it’s important to understand that even when folks did things like banner drops and petition drives, they already were being abused and harassed for that style of protest.

But domestic terrorism, that’s deep, that’s serious. How loose are the rules for applying these charges? This is talking about perhaps 20 years in prison for people. There have to be some legal definitions around the charge of domestic terrorism, don’t there?

CB: Yes, and it’s really interesting, actually. Some states don’t even have domestic terrorism statutes, because most crimes that you could prosecute as domestic terrorism, you could also prosecute under existing statutes. Like, the Georgia law was passed in response to Dylann Roof’s massacre in a Black church, but they could have decided at that juncture to prosecute mass murder and prosecute these murders independent of the statute. But they decided that for subsequent events like this, they wanted the domestic terrorism statute, and they passed a very broad statute.

Time (5/4/23)

The Georgia statute defines domestic terrorism as something that endangers critical infrastructure, and this critical infrastructure can be publicly or privately owned. It can be a state or government facility. And as long as someone’s acting with the intent to change or coerce the policy of government, that can count as domestic terrorism.

Now, this statute stands out from the national landscape of domestic terrorism statutes—again, some states don’t even have them, and they seem to be doing fine—and in most other states that have domestic terrorism statutes, the statutes address things like weapons of mass destruction, or they at least require for someone to have died as a result of the alleged terrorism. The Georgia statute doesn’t.

And you might notice, in the part about altering or changing the policy of government, that’s precisely what a lot of protest is intended to do. And protest intended to change the policy of government, that happens to take place in conjunction with critical infrastructure, which they’ve been arguing that Cop City is, opens up activists for being charged with domestic terrorism.

Now, this is a very serious statute. It has a mandatory minimum of five years in prison, going all the way up to a maximum of 35 years in prison. So that alone might be enough to dissuade some activists from showing up to protest. And it’s worth pointing out here that among the people charged with domestic terrorism during the March week of action, some people say that they were only going to attend a music festival, which would have been, at most, misdemeanor trespassing. But when people came back from a march in which they burned bulldozers, which is defined as critical infrastructure that’s there to build Cop City, they went into a crowd, police started to make arrests at random. So some people who by all accounts were not involved in burning the bulldozers, who simply showed up for Stop Cop City solidarity activism and a music festival, were charged with a really serious statute.

And then most were held in jail for over a month, and so then their whole lives were disrupted; they’re faced with this intimidating statute that will take a lot of money and a lot of time to fight, all to dissuade people from becoming activists.

We worry a lot about the chilling effect around these sorts of things in the civil liberties community. It’s often something we talk about in very hypothetical terms, but around this was a rare instance where I saw the chilling effect in practice. There was a group that reached out to me about possibly going down to protest, and I felt like I had to give the heads-up that these domestic terrorism arrests are happening somewhat at random, and the activists ultimately decided not to go down. They decided the risk of protesting was simply too high.

And that’s what charging domestic terrorism is intended to do. It’s intended to make the risk of protesting too high, so that people will just stay home, so that people will stay quiet.

AP (4/13/23)

JJ: Absolutely, and we should note that the harms don’t necessarily have to come from law enforcement or in the form of prison. We have seen people coming back from protests being, for example, kicked out of school. So this is something that is hovering over them, even if they don’t wind up in prison.

CB: Yeah, and recently we’ve heard reports of a loss of access to financial institutions for some of the defendants. So far we’ve heard that Chase Bank, Bank of America, Venmo and US Bank have withheld access to banking for certain domestic terrorism defendants. Also a few people had Airbnb accounts closed. As you mentioned, there was the law student who was unable to return to school. So these charges, even though they have not seen their day in court, have not been proven in court, are already having detrimental effects on the activists.

JJ: I want to bring you back to this “outside agitator” line, which ought to ring bells for lots of folks. To be clear, the public rejection of hyper-policing is being used as a reason for more hyper-policing. And then the fact that people are recognizing, well, this isn’t just Atlanta, this isn’t just Georgia, this is something that can come to me. That is itself being used as more reason.

Truthout (3/26/23)

And your Truthout piece cites the Atlanta police department’s assistant chief saying, “None of those people live here,” speaking of activists:

None of those people live here. They do not have a vested interest in this property, and we show that time and time again. Why is an individual from Los Angeles, California, concerned about a training facility being built in the state of Georgia? And that is why we consider that domestic terrorism.

What the actual heck, there?

CB: Yeah, it’s an extremely striking quote, mostly because it’s just a lie that any part of the statute depends on who’s in-state versus out-of-state. And we look at the history of activism, and activists have always traveled to be where they’re most needed. Throughout the civil rights movement, people frequently crossed state lines. There was the whole Freedom Rider movement.

And whenever there’s international solidarity or national solidarity, we always see this narrative of “outside agitators” being used to discredit the entire movement. It’s seen as mysterious outside actors driving the movement, instead of solidarity that starts where the negative thing is happening, and expands outwards from there.

It’s an incredibly frustrating narrative, and it’s frustrating to see people with state power repeat this narrative, especially when the actual charges have no relation to that.

Cody Bloomfield: “whenever there’s international solidarity or national solidarity, we always see this narrative of ‘outside agitators’ being used to discredit the entire movement.”

JJ: Absolutely, and, you know, it hardly needs saying, Cop City itself is not a wholly local enterprise, is it?

CB: No, Cop City is designed to be a training facility for police across the country, and with the interconnected systems of policing, of intelligence-gathering, we see that Cop City is an everywhere problem, as is all policing. And to charge that only people within a specific mile radius should have anything to say about it is absurd.

JJ: Part of this kind of repression of activity involves suppressing information. And that has involved the overt harassment of reporters, Truthout’s Candice Bernd and others, for example, but it also involves suppressing information itself about what is going on. And I understand you at Defending Rights & Dissent have been working on the transparency front of what’s happening here.

CB: Yeah, so we, from a FOIA release to Pilsen Books in Chicago, we know that, at least from the federal intelligence perspective, they’re very much seeing the Stop Cop City movement as national. When some of the Defend the Atlanta Forest folks went on tour, talking about resistance to Stop Cop City elsewhere, the FBI decided to spy on an anarchist bookstore that was holding the event, and they went through the social media of the event organizers, they went through the social media of the bookstore, and created intelligence files.

And we think that that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There hasn’t been a lot of transparency around what sort of intelligence is being gathered on these activists. Given that they’re charged with domestic terrorism, we expect that quite a lot of evidence has been acquired against them, much of it likely open source and First Amendment-protected. The line in one of the arrest warrant affidavits sent out to a defendant being a member of the prison abolitionist movement gives some hint that they’re likely surveilling a lot of social media. But we don’t know the full extent of surveillance that’s happening here.

Unicorn Riot (4/13/23)

And it’s worth pointing out, if we talk about surveillance, that surveillance on its own can also be a form of repression, especially for vulnerable activists who might be worried about protesting as a person of color, who might be worried about having an existing FBI file, the prospect of being surveilled might alone dissuade them from engaging in activism. But we don’t know the full landscape of that surveillance.

So Defending Rights & Dissent, along with, recently, Project South, have filed a new round of Freedom of Information Act requests, and open-record requests, targeted at looking at just how much the state is surveilling these activists, and what kind of evidence and intelligence is being collected.

And so far we’ve just been stonewalled. They’ve only responded to one query, which was about the Atlanta Police Foundation, and they said, oh, it’s like hundreds of thousands of emails; you need to refine your request. And then we refined our request and haven’t heard from them since.

So we anticipate having to litigate all these requests, which is ridiculous, because under the federal statute, under the state statute, there is a dedicated amount of time in which they’re supposed to give us this information. They’re supposed to be about transparency, and they just haven’t been in this case.

Indiana Herald-Times (5/5/23)

JJ: This is exactly where one would hope for the powers of journalism and independent journalism to move in, to use their heft to get at some of these questions, and yet in terms of larger corporate media—there’s been a ton of terrific independent reporting on this—but larger corporate media….

You know, I saw a piece by Eva Rosenfeld in the Indiana Herald Times in which she was talking about the over-acceptance of the police narrative on certain things, but also asking about big framing questions. Why are media not asking, for example, “Why is a $90 million investment intended to fight crime better spent building a mock city than investing in real communities?”

Too often we see big media zeroing in: Did this person actually break a window? Rather than pulling back and saying, wait a minute, is property more important than human beings? What is actually happening here? I’m wondering what you make of big media’s approach to this story.

CB: Yeah, every second that we spend in the media litigating about whether or not people should have burned down a bulldozer, or whether or not people had the right to go camping, is another moment we’re not spending talking about the substantive issues here. And I think, as soon as the domestic terrorism charges came down, the whole conversation became about whether or not the activists were domestic terrorists, which was a reasonable line of argument, but totally missed the story of an anti-democratic lack of accountability permeating throughout Cop City. From when city council ignored 70% of public comments in opposition to Cop City to recently, when they were charging other people with intimidation of an officer for handing out flyers, trying to do public education, this whole movement to build Cop City has been profoundly undemocratic, and we lose that when we spend time focusing on what crimes protesters may or may not have committed.

Appeal (12/8/21)

JJ: Personally, I want to say that I feel like, you know, “know your rights” is a very important thing for individuals to know, what their rights are in given situations. And yet it’s not so satisfying to say, I know my rights, and they’re being violated right now. We can’t really individualize protest—which it seems like is so much the effort of those who oppose it, to separate us and to say, “do you, Janine Jackson, really want to show up at this protest?”

CB: Yeah, and that’s why, especially in fighting these prosecutions, movement solidarity will be so important. We saw, after the January 20 protests against the inauguration of Trump, an attempt by prosecutors to engage in kind of conspiratorial thinking, and to paint protesters with a broad brush, and protesters were really successful in trying to fight this as a bloc, and insisting on taking cases to trial, where many of them were thrown out. Prosecutors gave up on a lot of the charges, and so that was a success of movement organizing.

And I think here that we have to have that same sort of solidarity. Because you might know your rights, and go to this music festival, and you’re charged with domestic terrorism anyway. It requires solidarity against an overwhelming onslaught of police repression, and that’s something that’s really hard to do. But despite how much the police talk about protesting the right or wrong way, when they’re defining protesting the “wrong way” as being from out of state, and policing the “right way” as shooting unarmed civilians and making arrests at random, the “know your rights” framework kind of goes out of the window, and it has to be about solidarity.

JJ: I just want to end by saying that I really appreciated the emphasis of the headline that Truthout put on your March piece, which was “Atlanta’s ‘Stop Cop City’ Movement Is Spreading Despite Rampant State Repression.” In other words, it’s scary, very scary, what’s happening, but we do recognize that they’re amping up because we’re amping up, and so it isn’t the time to falter.

And I really just appreciated the idea that this is still happening. Folks are scared, and they should be scared, and yet they’re doing it anyway. And the more we stand together, the less scared we need to be.

CB: Yes, it’s been really inspiring to see activists who continue to undertake this fight, who are willing to fight these cases in court, who are willing to look for where Cop City analogs are occurring in their local spaces. Like, there’s people beginning to protest in Pittsburgh. There’s people who are beginning to say, everywhere is Cop City, and looking at the effects of police militarization in communities. And I think what Cop City has done is, despite all the repression, is giving people a sense of how to fight this, and that they can fight this, and for that it’s really important.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Cody Bloomfield, communications director at Defending Rights & Dissent. They’re online at RightsAndDissent.org. And you can find their piece, “Atlanta’s ‘Stop Cop City’ Movement Is Spreading Despite Rampant State Repression,” at Truthout.org. Cody Bloomfield, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

CB: Thank you.


The post ‘Charging Domestic Terrorism Is Intended to Make the Cost of Protesting Too High’ appeared first on FAIR.

Underexposure Exposed

May 26, 2023 - 1:34pm


If you’re working for establishment media covering an official enemy of the United States, your main job is to convey to your audience that such places are dystopias, where everyone is miserable and whatever economic punishment Washington imposes on them can’t make things any worse.

The problem is that many of these enemies are tropical countries that often have sunny weather and lush greenery. If you run a realistic photo of such places, people might get the idea that things don’t look so bad there, and could even start wondering whether the living hell described in your text is a completely accurate portrayal.

That’s why corporate media have hit on a simple trick: If you want people to think that a country resistant to US leadership is a festering doomscape, just underexpose the hell out of your photographs.

So when the New York Times (12/5/20) covers an election in Venezuela, it sets the scene with a photo that looks like this:

Whereas, when you take the same image and run it through the automatic exposure adjustment filter of a popular photo editor (in this case PicMonkey), you get this:

When the Times (4/3/19) showed Venezuelans protesting on a bridge to Colombia—a bridge that was the focus of heavy anti-Maduro propaganda efforts (FAIR.org, 2/9/19)—the photo would have originally looked something like this:

But thanks to the magic of digital editing, the sunshine-soaked protest could be drenched in shadow, the better to convey the oppression the demonstrators were struggling against:

Or say you have a photo essay (New York Times11/27/20) on a mother and son displaced from Colombia to Venezuela by the Covid pandemic. You want to run a photo of the boy in Venezuela with the caption, “Venezuela was in far worse shape than Sebastián’s family had imagined.” Trouble is, the photo looks far too pleasant:

There’s an easy solution: Just turn down the brightness until it looks like the photo was taken during a total eclipse of the Sun, and you’ve got the image as it appeared in the Times:

The Times uses this trick a lot in covering Venezuela (see FAIR.org, 3/26/19, 12/19/20), but it works just as well in other countries—either enemy nations, or maybe nations that just have enemies within them. Here’s the image that illustrated a Times piece (4/30/23; see FAIR.org, 5/12/23) on Brazil with the classic red-baiting headline, “If You Don’t Use Your Land, These Marxists May Take It.”

Naturally, you don’t want that photo with exposure properly adjusted, because that would give the impression that the (perfectly legal) land reform the Times is describing was taking place in a land that’s not under a Mordor-like permanent shadow:

While the New York Times is the king of underexposed photos, it’s far from the only outlet to turn down the brightness in pursuit of propaganda. The Atlantic (2/27/20) ran a piece about Venezuela by Anne Applebaum, explaining how its “citizens of a once-prosperous nation live amid the havoc created by socialism, illiberal nationalism and political polarization,” that was accompanied by this photo:

If it had run the photo with a normal exposure, Venezuela would have seemed to have at least 50% less havoc:

The Wall Street Journal (8/10/22) ran an article about lithium mining in Chile’s Atacama Desert, where serious concerns about the environment stand in the way of efficient extraction of resources by multinational corporations (FAIR.org, 8/23/22)—or, as the Journal put it, public companies “risk mismanaging the resource in a region where state-run firms have long been mired in corruption and nepotism.” The piece was headed by a photo of one of the evaporation ponds from which lithium is extracted:

Deserts, of course, are typically bright, sunny places—but running a realistically lit photo of a lithium mine isn’t going to give the reader the proper image of a location “mired in corruption”:

Back when China was still trying to wipe out Covid, Reuters (12/20/21) ran a piece about daily coronavirus cases in China falling from 102 to 81. Though this was a tiny fraction of the number of Covid cases at the time in the US–which recorded some 241,000 new cases that December 20–we were still supposed to read this as bad news, which you can tell because the accompanying photo looked like this:

As opposed to a normally adjusted version of the photo, which has a much less ominous tone:

While the darkening technique is usually used on photographs from official enemy nations, it can also be used with internal enemies. When the New Yorker (9/13/15)  ran a profile by film critic Anthony Lane of then–British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, which compared him to “the class grouch, making trouble but never headway,” someone who makes “you all roll your eyes whenever he raises his hand, because you know what’s coming next,” it was accompanied by this image:

With an ordinary exposure applied to the photo, Corbyn doesn’t look nearly so much like someone whom you would naturally shun:

It’s easy to see how this basic processing of images serves these outlets’ ideological needs—exploiting the crude association between dark and bad. (Remember in 1994 when Time magazine darkened OJ Simpson’s skin when they put his mugshot on the cover after his arrest?) But applying this sort of distortion is inherently unethical, since the basic principle of photojournalism is that photos are supposed to convey reality and not political spin. As the Code of Ethics of the National Press Photographers Association spells out:

Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

If ethics alone aren’t enough to deter establishment media from such distortion, they should consider how much uglier photographs are when they’re steeped in unnecessary murk. Again and again, when I adjusted the brightness on obviously underexposed photos, it rescued the images from the one-dimensional cartoons they were run as, revealing detail, atmosphere, humanity. The properly exposed photos provided views of real people in real places—but, of course, if your intention is to publish propaganda, that’s the last thing you want.

The post Underexposure Exposed appeared first on FAIR.

Eric Thurm on the Hollywood Writers’ Strike

May 26, 2023 - 9:49am


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GQ (5/5/23)

This week on CounterSpin: Going on strike is something that people with no personal experience are comfortable depicting as frivolous and selfish. That extends to many corporate news reporters, who appear unable to present a labor action as other than, first and foremost, an unwonted interruption of a natural order. However else they explain the issues at stake, or humanistically portray individual strikers, the overarching narrative is that workers are pressing their luck, and that owners who make their money off the efforts of those workers are not to be questioned.

It’s a weird presentation, whether it’s baristas or dockworkers or TV and movie writers. As we record on May 25, the Writers Guild strike is on its 23rd day, and having the intended effect of shutting down production on sets around the country.

Eric Thurm wrote a useful explainer on the WGA strike for GQ. Thurm is campaigns coordinator for the National Writers Union, and a steering committee member of the Freelance Solidarity Project. We hear from him about some behind-the-scenes aspects of the strike affecting what you may see on screen.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at recent media coverage of San Francisco.

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The post Eric Thurm on the Hollywood Writers’ Strike appeared first on FAIR.

Montana TikTok Ban a Sign of Intensified Cold War With China

May 25, 2023 - 4:51pm


“Montana can no more ban its residents from viewing or posting to TikTok than it could ban the Wall Street Journal because of who owns it or the ideas it publishes,” a lawsuit argues (AP, 5/18/23).

There is an emerging consensus in US foreign policy circles that a US/China cold  war is either imminent or already underway (Foreign Policy, 12/29/22; New Yorker, 2/26/23; New York Times, 3/23/23; Fox News, 3/28/23; Reuters, 3/30/23). Domestically, the most recent and most intense iteration of this anti-China fervor is the move to ban the Chinese video app TikTok, which is both a sweeping assault on free speech movement and a dangerous sign that mere affiliation with China is grounds for vilification and loss of rights.

Several TikTok content creators are suing to overturn “Montana’s first-in-the-nation ban on the video sharing app, arguing the law is an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights,” on the grounds “that the state doesn’t have any authority over matters of national security” (AP, 5/18/23). TikTok followed up with a lawsuit of its own (New York Times, 5/22/23). The app is banned on government devices at the federal level and in some states (CBS, 3/1/23; AP, 3/1/23), but the Montana law is the first to bar its use outright.

Momentum for a wider ban

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R.-Wis.), a congressmember seeking to ban TikTok nationally, called the app “digital fentanyl that’s addicting Americans” (USA Today, 12/13/22).

Republicans see this as momentum to push other state bans. Lawmakers of both major parties are pushing legislation that “would block all transactions from any social media company in or under the influence of a ‘country of concern,’ like China and Russia,” a move that would ban TikTok in the US (USA Today, 12/13/22). Such a sweeping ban is popular among voters, especially among Republicans (Pew, 3/31/23; Wall Street Journal, 4/24/23).

The reason for the swift action is the app’s Chinese ownership. Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) said, “Having TikTok on our phones is like having 80 million Chinese spy balloons flying over America” (Twitter, 2/28/23)—a reference to one of the most overblown news stories of 2023 (CounterPunch, 2/7/23; FAIR.org, 2/10/23). FBI Director Christopher Wray (CNBC, 11/15/22) told Congress of his “national security concerns” about TikTok, warning that

the Chinese government could use it to control data collection on millions of users. Or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations…. Or to control software on millions of devices…to potentially technically compromise personal devices.

The New York Times (3/17/23) reported that the

Justice Department is investigating the surveillance of American citizens, including several journalists who cover the tech industry, by the Chinese company that owns TikTok.

Social spying hypocrisy

While US lawmakers railed against the possibility that TikTok might be used by China to spy on US users, Al Jazeera (3/28/23) reported, the “US government itself uses US tech companies that effectively control the global internet to spy on everyone else.”

The funny thing here is that if the US government is worried about social media being used for surveillance, it should look inward. The Brennan Center (8/18/22), which is suing for Department of Homeland Security records on its use of social media surveillance tools, notes that “social media has become a significant source of information for US law enforcement and intelligence agencies.” The civil liberties organization notes that “there are myriad examples of the FBI and DHS using social media to surveil people speaking out on issues from racial justice to the treatment of immigrants.”

Even as Congress mulls a ban on TikTok, Al Jazeera (3/28/23) reported, the Biden administration is seeking “the renewal of powers that force firms like Google, Meta and Apple to facilitate untrammeled spying on non-US citizens located overseas.” Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) gives Washington the power to snoop on the social media conversations of users both foreign and, through the use of so-called “backdoor searches,” domestic. While many governments spy, the Qatari news site pointed out, “Washington enjoys an advantage not shared by other countries: jurisdiction over the handful of companies that effectively run the modern internet.”

“They’re making a big stink about TikTok and the Chinese collecting data when the US is collecting a great deal of data itself,” Seton Hall constitutional law expert Jonathan Hafetz told Al Jazeera. “It is a little bit ironic for the US to sort of trumpet citizens’ privacy concerns or worries about surveillance. It’s OK for them to collect the data, but they don’t want China to collect it.”

Accordingly, the Biden administration is demanding the platform be sold to rid itself of Chinese ownership, insisting that failure to do so would result in a nationwide ban. The New York Times (3/15/23) said this stance “harks back to the position of former President Donald J. Trump, who threatened to ban TikTok unless it was sold to an American company.” In 2020, FAIR (8/5/20) raised the possibility that Trump would leverage anti-Chinese sentiment to go after the app, but now a Democratic administration could finish what Trump started.

Don’t assume the president is bluffing, either; FAIR (7/1/21) reported that the Biden administration, citing “disinformation” as a reason, “shut down the websites of 33 foreign media outlets, including ones based in Iran, Bahrain, Yemen and Palestine,” a list that included Iranian state broadcaster Press TV.

An orchestrated campaign

Facebook parent company Meta paid a GOP consulting firm to “get the message out that while Meta is the current punching bag, TikTok is the real threat, especially as a foreign-owned app that is #1 in sharing data that young teens are using” (Washington Post, 3/30/22).

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a for-profit tech company headquartered in Beijing and incorporated in the Cayman Islands. ByteDance disputes that it has the ability to track US citizens (CNBC, 10/21/22), and the Chinese government denies that it pressures companies to engage in espionage (New York Times, 3/24/23). But TikTok, like other for-profit social media platforms, routinely collects data on users to sell to advertisers (MarketWatch, 10/25/22; CBC, 3/1/23).

Global Times (3/24/23), published by China’s Communist Party, declared that the “witch-hunting against TikTok portends US’s technological innovation is going downhill.” “The political farce against a tiny app has seriously shattered the US values of fair competition and its credibility,” the paper added.

The party paper (3/1/23) acknowledged that TikTok still has a profit “gap with Google, Facebook, etc.,” but maintained that “its growth momentum is rapid,” and thus “directly threatens the advertising revenue of several major social networks in the US.” The paper said that “if the US does not go after TikTok and curb its growth in the relevant market, several leading US high-tech and networking companies” would feel a competitive sting.

Chinese state and party media have hyperbolic tendencies, but this accusation of a financial motive for opposition to TikTok isn’t far-fetched. In fact, the Washington Post (3/30/22) reported that

Facebook parent company Meta is paying one of the biggest Republican consulting firms in the country to orchestrate a nationwide campaign seeking to turn the public against TikTok.

The campaign includes placing op-eds and letters to the editor in major regional news outlets, promoting dubious stories about alleged TikTok trends that actually originated on Facebook, and pushing to draw political reporters and local politicians into helping take down its biggest competitor.

Such a move might seem comically cynical, but it’s working. Corporate anti-competitive power has joined an alliance with Cold War fears about the Chinese to influence US policy, to the extent that the government is contemplating censoring media now available to 80 million Americans. (By comparison, CNN.com reportedly has 129 million unique monthly visitors in the US, the New York Times brand has 99 million and FoxNews.com has 76 million.)

Unprecedented silencing

A growing share of TikTok users are regularly getting news from the site (Pew, 10/21/22)—”in contrast with many other social media sites, where news consumption has either declined or stayed about the same in recent years.”

A media silencing of that magnitude seems unprecedented; the Biden administration’s seizure of Middle Eastern media websites is troubling, but Press TV isn’t as central to US life as TikTok is. “In just two years, the share of US adults who say they regularly get news from TikTok has roughly tripled, from 3% in 2020 to 10% in 2022,” Pew Research (10/21/22) reported, which stands “in contrast with many other social media sites, where news consumption has either declined or stayed about the same in recent years.” TikTok has announced plans to share its ad revenue with its content creators (Variety, 5/4/22), and the platform played a role in the rebounding of US post-pandemic tourism markets (Wall Street Journal, 5/8/23).

TikTok has argued that bans would hurt the US economy (Axios, 3/21/23), although the nation’s top lawmakers are unmoved by this (Newsweek, 3/14/23).

The urge to cleanse the media landscape of anything related to China has been roiling at a smaller scale for some time. Rep. Brian Mast (R.-Fla.) wants to ban Chinese government and Communist Party officials from US social platforms (Mast press release, 3/22/23; Fox News, 6/14/22) because, as he said in a press statement, “Chinese officials lie through our social media.” Singling out the sinister duplicity of Chinese officials overlooks the reality that mendacity among politicians is a universal cross-cultural phenomenon.

The Trump administration required “five Chinese state-run media organizations to register their personnel and property with the US government, granting them a designation akin to diplomatic entities,” affecting “Xinhua News Agency; China Global Television Network, previously known as CCTV; China Radio International; the parent company of China Daily newspaper; and the parent company of the People’s Daily newspaper” (Politico, 2/18/20).

In an effort to paint the Democratic Socialists of America-backed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D.-N.Y.) as some sort of shadowy foreign agent, Fox News (2/2/23) ran the headline, “AOC, Other Politicians Paid Thousands in Campaign Cash to Chinese Foreign Agent.” But buried in the clunky language of the news story is the fact Ocasio-Cortez and other politicians, including at least one Republican, simply ran campaign ads in Chinese-language newspapers owned by Sing Tao, a Hong Kong-based newspaper company. Candidates routinely buy ads in ethnic media to reach voters, but Fox offered this innocuous campaign act as evidence of Chinese treachery within our borders.

Fear of an Asian menace

Gov. Ron DeSantis presents Florida’s discrimination against Chinese nationals as a move to counter “the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party in the state of Florida” (Guardian, 5/9/23).

It’s worth remembering that fear of an Asian menace in the United States led to the nation’s first major immigration restrictions (CNN, 5/6/23) and mass imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (NPR, 1/29/23; FAIR.org, 2/16/23). It continues to lead to racist murder (CNN, 6/23/22) and other anti-Asian crimes (Guardian, 7/21/22).

“Inflammatory rhetoric about China can exacerbate the sense that Asian Americans are ‘racialized outsiders,’” Asian-American advocates said during the Covid pandemic (Axios, 3/23/21). Florida’s recent ban on property ownership by Chinese nationals (Guardian, 5/9/23) shows that the impulse to scapegoat is alive and well.

If official fears about TikTok collection of user data—which is central to the business model of all major US social media companies—can override First Amendment guarantees and deprive Americans of a major communication platform, then one has to ask what more the states and the federal government that are already frothing with anti-China hysteria are willing to do next.

In this sense, the people suing to keep TikTok available in Montana aren’t simply fighting for their access to a content platform, but are repelling a political impulse that in the past has led us to blacklists and McCarthyism. Let’s hope these video makers are victorious.

Research assistance: Lara-Nour Walton

The post Montana TikTok Ban a Sign of Intensified Cold War With China appeared first on FAIR.

The Character Assassination of San Francisco

May 24, 2023 - 10:31am


CNN (5/14/23) aired a special report on “What Happened to San Francisco?”—although what mainly happened to the city is that it became the target of right-wing attacks.

CNN has joined the media chorus decrying the death of San Francisco with a one-hour special (Whole Story, 5/14/23). On an episode hosted by Sara Sidner, the network declared that “the city by the bay is now at the forefront of the nation’s homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction crises,” while some “residents worry Northern California’s largest municipality could become a so-called failed city.”

The narrative of San Francisco’s demise has been building for some time. In the corporate press, the closure of a Whole Foods (Newsweek, 4/11/23; ABC, 4/12/23; New York Times, 4/30/23) is like the moment Afghans clung to a US Air Force plane as the nation fell to the Taliban. The story of this store’s exit is more complicated than criminal activity (48Hills, 4/11/23)—but no matter, the narrative holds that permissive policies protecting the homeless have allowed a zombie army of criminals to exert control over the city, countered only by a police force that can do nothing, Democratic politicians fearful to act and tech bosses cowering in fear.

CNN has had some more reasonable coverage of the city in the past, placing its crime statistics in a national context (4/7/23) and a fuller picture of why a much-hyped Nordstrom closure had less to do with crime and more with general retail trends (5/3/23).

But in the lead-up to the documentary, CNN (5/14/23) also told a heart-wrenching story about a San Francisco mother who lamented that the city’s policies led her son into drugs. She may genuinely feel that way, but that doesn’t make it so: West Virginia leads the nation in drug deaths (CBS, 8/2/22), with more than three times the per capita rate of California; why is there no media drumbeat against Gov. Jim Justice?

‘No one is safe’

A local ABC reporter’s hyperbolic comment to CNN (5/14/23) becomes a Fox News headline (5/15/23)—because it’s San Francisco.

It’s normal for the Rupert Murdoch–owned press (Fox News, 5/11/23, 5/15/23; Wall Street Journal, 5/3/23; New York Post, 5/4/23) to obsess about San Francisco falling apart. Tucker Carlson, formerly Fox News’ most-watched host and a San Francisco native, ran a weeklong special on the city called “American Dystopia” (Fox News, 1/6/20), which Media Matters for America (1/13/20) described as “dehumanizing homeless people.”

But this trend is embraced by the more centrist corporate press, too. The New York Times gave space to venture capitalist Michael Moritz (2/26/23) to lament the excesses of Democratic governance and repeatedly eulogize the city’s retail establishments (12/17/22, 2/9/23, 4/30/23).

When tech boss Bob Lee was fatally stabbed near his home, the Times (4/7/23) took at face value statements from fellow tech bosses about how he was the victim of the out-of-control anarchy allowed by progressive leaders. As it turned out, Lee was likely the victim of sex-and-drug-fueled, tech boss–on–tech boss violence (New York Post, 5/12/23, 5/14/23).

In another example of media outlets showing their hand, CBS (4/7/23) reported, “A brutal and brazen attack on former San Francisco Fire Commissioner Don Carmignani” left “him battling for his life and neighbors on edge.” The person who had attacked the former commish was unhoused, fueling the sentiment that the streets were filled with roving sociopaths targeting people of all ranks, including civic leaders. Along with the Lee killing, “both violent assaults have ignited an intense debate over safety in the city.” The New York Post (4/7/23) highlighted the attack as evidence that “no one is safe” in San Francisco.

The New York Times (4/7/23) presented the stabbing of tech exec Bob Lee as a symbol of “deepening frustration over the city’s homelessness crisis”—before another “tech leader” was arrested for his murder.

But as with the Lee story, the media assumptions were premature. Video evidence later revealed that Carmignani had attacked the homeless man with bear spray and that the homeless man acted in self-defense, although Carmignani disputed this (CBS, 4/26/23; CNN, 4/27/23; LA Times, 5/11/23). In fact, lawyers for the homeless man in the case “alleged that Carmignani may be involved in other incidents in which homeless people were sprayed in the Cow Hollow and Marina District neighborhoods” (NBC, 4/27/23).  Carmignani also has his own checkered past: he resigned from his commissioner post “one day after he was arrested in connection with an alleged domestic violence incident” (SFGate, 9/24/13).

At the Atlantic (6/8/22), Nellie Bowles—a California heiress (SF Chronicle, 10/28/21; LA Times, 6/14/22), former New York Times writer, and a participant in the conservative and lucrative anti-woke propaganda network (Daily Mail, 11/5/21)—brought an out-of-touch upper-class perspective to a San Francisco she, like CNN, called a “failed city.” Her heart no doubt bleeds for suffering people on the street, but she placed the blame on a regional culture of permissiveness:

This approach to drug use and homelessness is distinctly San Franciscan, blending empathy-driven progressivism with California libertarianism. The roots of this belief system reach back to the ’60s, when hippies filled the streets with tents and weed. The city has always had a soft spot for vagabonds, and an admirable focus on care over punishment. Policy makers and residents largely embraced the exciting idea that people should be able to do whatever they want to do, including live in tent cities and have fun with drugs and make their own medical decisions, even if they are out of their mind sometimes.

‘Failed city’

San Francisco’s homicide rate has dropped by half since the early 2000s—prompting the Atlantic (6/8/22) to run an essay on “How San Francisco Became a Failed City.”

The casual use of the phrase “failed city” is insulting hyperbole. The analogous term “failed state” was popularized in an early ’90s Foreign Policy article (Winter/92–93), which defined the “failed nation-state” as one “utterly incapable of sustaining itself as a member of the international community”—a definition that seems designed to invite intervention by said “community.” (See University of Chicago Law Review, Fall/05.) A failed state is a technical term for a place, due to internal mismanagement and external pressure, where civil society has broken down amid collapse in central governance. There is no major world body that considers the loss of a Nordstrom store (SF Chronicle, 5/3/23) a valid metric of societal meltdown.

But even if we forgive journalists for their flexible poetic license, the media narrative that San Francisco stands outside the US norm runs contrary to reality.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that the highest rates of drug overdose mortality are in West Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana and Kentucky, with California far behind. US Department of Agriculture research shows that the highest poverty states are Louisiana, West Virginia, New Mexico and Mississippi. Forbes’ list (1/31/23) of the most dangerous cities cites New Orleans, Detroit, St. Louis and Memphis (as well as Mobile and Birmingham, Alabama), but not San Francisco. San Francisco/Oakland does appear on the list of cities with the highest homelessness rates—but seven cities have higher rates, including New York City, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Surreal media narrative

Toro Castaño (KQED, 9/27/22) on homeless “sweeps”: “A lot of things they’re taking are warm clothes, warm jackets, blankets, things that you need just to survive.”

It’s a surreal media narrative for Zal Shroff, a senior attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, who recently helped win an injunction against what the group calls the city’s discrimination against homelessness. “On paper, the city has 3,000 shelter beds for 8,000 unhoused people,” he told FAIR, noting that while residents may be frustrated with street homelessness, there are often few places for the homeless to go.

“There is no avenue for an unhoused person to seek shelter. You can only get it after you’ve been harassed by police and beg for it,” he said. “You can’t go to the police and ask, they have to threaten you with citation and arrest, and then maybe they’ll ask to see if there is a shelter bed.”

Despite the media narrative about the city’s lawlessness, LCCRSF’s summary of the lawsuit states—and so far, one court agrees—that the city’s unhoused population are subjected to “brutal policing practices that violate [their] civil rights.” As Toro Castaño (48Hills, 9/27/22), who was homeless in the city from 2019 to 2021, told the court, “I was harassed by San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) and Department of Public Works (DPW) staff several times a week for the entirety of the two years I was homeless.” He noted in the court papers that while living on the street in May 2020, he was “harassed by police officers from the Castro beat every day for five weeks.”

KQED (9/27/22) noted that “Castaño had his belongings taken from him by the city four times during the pandemic, according to the complaint,” and that “while Castaño was unhoused, he said he was asked to move nearly every day.”

As Sarah Cronk, an unhoused person said in court papers, “If the City does not have adequate shelter or housing for us, then it should not be harassing us.” She and her partner “are just trying to scrape by and build as much of a life for ourselves as possible—with both dignity and safety,” Cronk said, but the city government “makes that impossible for us.”

This is hardly the “lunatics are running the asylum” image the media would have the public believe is the case.

For Shroff, the situation is frustrating, because while the injunction is meant to stop police harassment of the homeless while encouraging more affordable housing and shelter services, in the city’s narrative, his organization is calling for outright anarchy (SF Chronicle, 1/23/23; Law360, 4/26/23). “That’s the narrative that’s out there and is winning the day in the press,” he said, “which is interesting, because we’re winning this case.”

Myth of soaring crime

San Francisco did have a high murder rate in the early 2000s, but it has since fallen dramatically, to close to the US and California averages.

And then there’s the mythology of the city’s soaring crime. As the San Francisco Standard (12/22/22) reported, the city’s “crime totals cratered in 2020 when the city hunkered down for the first waves of Covid,” and then rose again. But “crime in San Francisco has not yet increased to pre-pandemic levels—with a few key exceptions.”

The online news outlet said crime rates “have fallen tremendously since peaks in the 1990s, which mirrors trends in cities across the country,” and that the “city’s most recent crime spikes came in 2013 for violent crime and 2017 for property crime.” (To put this admission into perspective, the Standard is financed by the aforementioned Michael Moritz.)

SFGate (1/7/22) also noted that violent crime rates in San Francisco matched national trends, and were not national outliers. Despite ideas of the city’s lawlessness and left-wing calls to “defund the police,” the “San Francisco Police Department budget increased overall by 4.4% from 2019 to 2022” (KGO-TV, 10/13/22), and Mayor London Breed has called for “a $27 million budget supplemental to fund police overtime citywide” (KGO-TV, 3/8/23). The right blamed the property crime spike on former District Attorney Chesa Boudin, but with his recall (FAIR.org, 7/11/22), there is no longer a George Soros–backed boogeyman to hold up as a scapegoat (The Hill, 6/9/22).

Oddly enough, the “failed city” has “the fastest growing economy in US” (SFGate, 11/16/22).

And while it is true that the city’s population has decreased (SF Chronicle, 1/26/23), the housing market is still hot, “with rents returning to pre-Covid levels, and a median one-bedroom there now priced at $3,100 a month, up 14% and the highest in two years” (Bloomberg, 7/26/22). The city’s tourism economy is currently booming, after the pandemic hurt the sector (SF Chronicle, 3/21/23). The city’s unemployment rate had been sitting at a low 2.9% (KPIX-TV, 3/10/23; SF Chronicle, 4/21/23) and has only recently spiked—not because of some progressive City Hall policy, but thanks to nationwide layoffs in the locally concentrated tech sector (SF Chronicle, 4/21/23). One report (SFGate, 11/16/22) showed that the “San Francisco Bay Area led the country in economic growth in 2022, with a 4.8% increase in GDP.”

The skyrocketing wealth is connected to the homelessness problem, Schroff said. While there is a mythology that street homelessness in San Francisco is the result of outsiders traveling there for the services and the mild weather, Schroff notes that LCCRSF research has shown that a bulk of unhoused people are long-time area residents who cannot find shelter.

The group’s lawsuit said “San Francisco failed to meet state targets for affordable housing production between 1999 and 2014—ultimately constructing 61,000 fewer very low-income units than needed.” From “2015 to 2022, the city only built 33% of the deeply affordable housing units it promised, and only 25% of actual housing production went to affordable housing.”

“The mental health services and the drug addiction services are robust, but that doesn’t solve that two thirds of unhoused people are reporting that they can’t find affordable housing,” Schroff said. “There is no exit option.”

American Gomorrah

New York Post (10/15/22): “San Francisco is governed by a leadership that is so enamored of the city’s progressive, humanitarian self-image that the idea of enforcing basic laws—even ones that save people’s lives like controlling drug sales and consumption—has come to be regarded as reactionary.”

In a country where a state like Texas has seen six mass shootings this year (USA Today, 5/8/23), why is San Francisco the object of such obsession? The San Francisco Bay Area, in the imagination of the American right, is the closest thing America has to Sodom and Gomorrah. San Francisco is identified as the epicenter of gay liberation, the home of the hippies, vegan restaurants and streets where Cantonese and Spanish are heard as much as English. Berkeley, just across the Bay, was a primary site of 1960s student radicalism and counter-culture, and the flagship UC campus continues to be a dreaded symbol of state-funded academic wokeness (Berkeleyside, 12/12/18; Washington Examiner, 8/21/22; Daily Beast, 10/31/22).

Affluenza has cleansed the Bay of much of its bohemia, but its national political legacy lives on in Democratic establishment titans like Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein. The area’s tech industry, like Hollywood in the southern end of the state, is a lucrative capitalist sector that the right, not incorrectly, associates with Democratic voting (Open Secrets, 1/12/21; Wall Street Journal, 2/20/21).

So to paint San Francisco as an example of failed governance is, in the right-wing narrative, to prove that the progressive urban experiment has broadly failed. The Nazi Joseph Goebbels probably didn’t say, “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth,” but it remains a central principle of propaganda. The failure of San Francisco has been a drumbeat in the conservative press, and as a result, major corporate media are acting as if this is true, or at least arguable. CNN, the New York Times and the Atlantic, by buying into this mythology, are able to call into question compassion for the homeless and alternatives to aggressive policing.

In fact, the Washington Post (5/21/19) seemed a little lonely in the corporate press when it argued that it was an “earthquake of wealth” that permanently worsened the city’s character, not the poor or any overly compassionate social policy.

But all of the recent negative coverage surrounds the issue of homeless people. Homelessness and poverty are the tragic results of unfettered capitalism and raging inequality, whether it’s in rural West Virginia or in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Drug addiction is a public health crisis that the US healthcare system neglects, like many other ailments. These media pieces aren’t appalled by the conditions that create seas of unhoused people, but are appalled that housed, professional people have to deal with them. The New York Times and CNN are in many ways different from Fox News and the New York Post, but this is where their worldviews meld.

This is media outrage focused not at systemic injustice, but based in disgust at the victims of injustice.

The post The Character Assassination of San Francisco appeared first on FAIR.

‘Apartheid’ Designation Ignored as Israel Kills Children in Gaza Again

May 23, 2023 - 1:43pm


Human Rights Watch (4/27/21) recognized Israeli domination of Palestinians as an apartheid system more than two years ago.

Israel’s recent bombing of the Gaza Strip from May 9–13 killed 33 Palestinians, including seven children. FAIR looked at coverage of these attacks from the Washington Post, New York Times and CNN, and didn’t find a single reference to Israel as an apartheid state, despite this being the consensus in the human rights community.

Since apartheid is the overriding condition that leads to Israel’s violent outbursts, and since the US has vigorously supported Israel for the last 60 years, US media should be putting it front and center in their coverage.  Omitting it allows Israel to continue to portray any violence from Palestinians as a result of senseless hostility, rather than emerging from the conditions imposed by Israel. For audiences, that distortion serves to justify Israel’s attacks on civilians and continued collective punishment of all Palestinians.

The term apartheid originated with the South African system of systematic racial segregation, which was not unlike Jim Crow in the United States. Apartheid is considered a crime against humanity—defined in the UN’s Apartheid Convention as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

The term has been increasingly applied to the Israeli apparatus of checkpoints, segregation, surveillance, arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial murders that it uses to oppress Palestinians. In particular, the exclusion of most Palestinians under Israeli control from participation in Israeli politics, under the pretense that Palestinian areas either are or someday will be independent, mirrors the disenfranchisement of Black South Africans through the creation of fictitious countries known as bantustans.

Human Rights Watch published a report in 2021 titled A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution. That same year, the leading Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, labeled Israel’s rule “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” Amnesty International published a major report in 2022 on “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians.”

After the biggest, most respected human rights organizations labeled Israel an apartheid state, much of the US political establishment erupted in bipartisan indignation in defense of Israel. The New York Times actually refused to even mention the Amnesty International report for 52 days (Mondoweiss, 3/24/22).

‘Trading fire’

The Washington Post (5/12/23) depicts a “face off” between a society under siege and the besieging forces.

Gaza, the Palestinian enclave between Israel and the Mediterranean, is arguably the most abused territory under the apartheid regime. Most of the water in the enclave fails to meet international standards, and was even called “undrinkable” by the United Nations. The illegal blockade regularly prevents important medicine and other supplies from being widely available in the country.

Regular Israeli military attacks on the Gaza Strip are a key part of the repression, killing unarmed civilians, destroying neighborhoods, schools and hospitals—most notably in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2021. These periodic attacks on the Palestinians, often crassly referred to as “mowing the grass,” have killed 5,460 Palestinians since 2007. International observers have often referred to Gaza as an “open-air prison,” with 2 million people being crammed into 146 square miles.

The recent Gaza coverage fails to capture this context, and instead portrays the situation as a conflict between equals. The Washington Post (5/12/23) described it as a “face off” when (at that point) 30 Palestinians, including six children, were killed by Israeli airstrikes, along with one Israeli killed by Palestinian rocket fire; a New York Times article (5/11/23) described the conflict as Israel and Islamic Jihad “trad[ing] fire.”  Another New York Times (5/12/23) headline vaguely referred to the attack as “A New Round of Middle East Fighting.”

CNN (4/12/23) used the classic whitewashing word “clash” in describing the attacks. CNN’s use of the term was even more striking because it appeared in a headline that included the incongruity between 30 dead Palestinians and one dead Israeli.

Outlets gave several “how we got here” pieces that purported to give context for the current escalation (e.g., New York Times, 5/9/23; Washington Post, 5/13/23). Again, not a single article FAIR reviewed used the term “apartheid” or referenced the recent findings from human rights NGOs to describe the current situation in Palestine.

‘Consequences of territorial ambitions’

UN special rapporteur Francesca Albanese (Guardian, 5/12/23): Israel “cannot justify the occupation in the name of self-defense, or the horror it imposes on the Palestinians in the name of self-defense.”

On a recent trip to London, Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Occupied Territories, criticized the the tendency to omit important context and trends in the discussions about Israel (Guardian, 5/12/23):

For me, apartheid is a symptom and a consequence of the territorial ambitions Israel has for the land of what remains of an encircled Palestine…. Israel is a colonial power maintaining the occupation in order to get as much land as possible for Jewish-only people. And this is what leads to the numerous violations of international law.

Member states need to stop commenting on violations here or there, or escalation of violence, since violence in the occupied Palestinian territory is cyclical, it is not something that accidentally explodes. There is only one way to fix it, and that is to make sure that Israel complies with international law.

The dominant and overriding context of anything that happens in Israel/Palestine is the fact that the state of Israel is running an apartheid regime in the entirety of the territory it controls.  Any obfuscation or equivocation of that fact serves only to downplay the severity of Israeli crimes and the US complicity in them.

The post ‘Apartheid’ Designation Ignored as Israel Kills Children in Gaza Again appeared first on FAIR.

WSJ Worries Debt Limit Fight Could Jeopardize Military Contractors’ Profits

May 22, 2023 - 5:04pm


Wall Street Journal (5/12/23): “The drama in Washington this spring reflects a deeper political impasse that risks crimping military-spending growth in future budget negotiations.”

The Wall Street Journal is very concerned about the effects of the debt limit fight…on military contractors. In an article (5/12/23) headlined “Debt-Ceiling Fight Weighs on Defense Industry,” the paper reported, “If the US defaults on its debt and is unable to pay all its bills this summer, the pain will fall squarely on the defense industry.”

A default could disrupt payments to military contractors, the Journal pointed out, and even a temporary suspension of the debt ceiling for several months “would raise the likelihood the Defense Department will have to make do with a temporary budget known as a continuing resolution.” This would likely “inflate the costs of military programs, delay the launch of new ones and prevent production increases.” In short, weapons producers might feel a momentary pinch after years of war profits.

But, given the unlikelihood of outright default, the more concerning scenario for the Journal has to do with budget talks. The piece noted that, as the largest item on the discretionary side of the federal budget—which excludes social programs like Social Security and Medicare, which are funded on an ongoing basis—military spending could soon find itself on the chopping block. And who’s taking the pain? Your friendly old drone supplier:

Concerns that military spending could be cut—or, at best delayed—in a debt-ceiling fight have weighed heavily on investor sentiment toward the biggest military contractors. Shares in Lockheed Martin are down this year more than 7%, with General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman off 15% and 20%, respectively.

Dear God, no! We must take action to address the “‘wall of worry’ among investors”!

All the valiant fighters for justice are concerned. We hear from a congressional representative who castigates Republicans who “play chicken with the full faith and credit of our country” and “jeopardize our national security.” Then an Air Force secretary is brought in to sound the alarm about the strategic harms of failing to fund the military.

Where are the voices opposed to increased military spending, who represent the majority of the US public rather than the minority of war profiteers? Probably off playing hackysack. The Journal evidently couldn’t reach them.

The cost of cuts

The Journal article featured an image of a weapons display for Lockheed Martin, whose stock is “down this year more than 7%.”

There’s a hint of hope, though! The piece notes:

While Republicans are seeking a spending freeze, many members have voiced support for a larger increase in the military budget, though it would come at the cost of cuts in other areas.

What these other areas would be remains unspecified. But let’s take a look. According to a recent analysis by the New York Times (5/8/23), if the military budget, along with veterans’ health and the border patrol, are spared from cuts, each remaining area of the discretionary budget would have to be cut in half to satisfy the Republican spending caps. That includes Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others.

It’s beyond absurd to exclude this context, and instead hand-wring about the area of the discretionary budget that appears least likely to face cuts—and, by any reasonable account, the most able to survive them.

Again, as the Washington Post (4/26/23) has reported, “Republicans have promised to focus…cuts on federal healthcare, education, science and labor programs, while sparing defense.”

An article by military analyst William Hartung from last month in Forbes (4/26/23) likewise opened:

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced the outlines of a possible Republican budget plan last week, and the big winner was the Pentagon [emphasis added]. Even as McCarthy called for a freeze in the federal discretionary budget at Fiscal Year 2022 levels as a condition for raising the debt ceiling—a move that he promised Freedom Caucus members when they grudgingly supported his election as speaker in January—he signaled that the Department of Defense would not be impacted.

This is a completely different story from the one that the Wall Street Journal has chosen to promote, and one that has far more basis in reality.

But let’s raise a glass to Raytheon. May they get through these tough times and thrive. If there’s one thing the world is lacking, it’s enough weapons contracts for war profiteers.

ACTION ALERT: You can send a message to the Wall Street Journal at wsjcontact@wsj.com (or via Twitter: @WSJ) Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your communication in the comments thread.

The post WSJ Worries Debt Limit Fight Could Jeopardize Military Contractors’ Profits appeared first on FAIR.

‘The Court’s Position Is, No One Can Tell Them What to Do’ - CounterSpin interview with Ian Millhiser on Supreme Court corruption

May 19, 2023 - 5:49pm


Janine Jackson interviewed Vox‘s Ian Millhiser about Supreme Court corruption for the May 12, 2023, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: If you are disturbed, but also overwhelmed, by the sheer volume and severity of revelations of corruption at the US Supreme Court, you’re far from alone. Clarence Thomas, his wife Ginni and billionaire operative Harlan Crow may be at the current epicenter, but our guest suggests the problem, and consequently the necessary response, is much bigger and deeper.

Ian Millhiser covers the Court and the Constitution as senior correspondent at Vox. He is the author of the book Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted, and The Agenda: How a Republican Supreme Court Is Reshaping America.

He joins us now by phone from Virginia. Welcome to CounterSpin, Ian Millhiser.

Ian Millhiser: It’s good to be here, thanks so much.

ProPublica (4/6/23)

JJ: Well, let’s start with the information that many folks will have heard at least some piece of. Clarence Thomas has been recipient of millions of dollars worth of gifts—including vacations, homes, the private school tuition of a child he says he’s raising as a son— from Republican billionaire Harlan Crow, without disclosure. As you’ve noted, this relationship between Thomas and Crow has actually been going on for years, and has been known about for years.

Thomas’ line has been, there’s no conflict, because Harlan Crow doesn’t have any business before the Court. That’s not true, and if it were, I imagine that many people would be surprised to learn that the standard of the highest court in the land is that a powerful billionaire, who overtly wants to reshape the country’s laws and regulations, can give you lots of money and benefits over decades, and it doesn’t matter, if they aren’t a named party in a case you’re actively considering.

And Roberts, and all the justices, I understand, signed a letter saying that, basically, We aren’t really governed by ethics rules, but it’s OK because we follow them anyway. Are we missing something, or is this really the Court’s official response to this?

IM: Yeah, the Court’s position is essentially, no one can tell them what to do. They use the words “separation of powers” a lot, to claim it would be wrong if Congress or someone else imposed an ethics code on them. But the reality that it creates is that there are no rules for the justices, other than the rules that they feel like complying with.

And to be clear, if the justices were anywhere else in government, there would be extraordinary ethics constraints on them. There’s a statute that says if you work for a federal agency, you cannot accept any gift, period, from anyone who is regulated by the agency that you work for. If you’re a member of Congress, or even if you’re just a congressional staffer, there’s a rule saying that if you want to accept a gift, even from one of your lifelong friends, and it’s more than $250, you have to get approval from the House Ethics Committee.

I used to work for an organization; we’d host a lot of congressional staffers for luncheons sometimes. And they would ask us, before we served them a meal, “Does this cost more than $25?” The reason why is because, under the ethics rule, if the meal costs more than $25, they aren’t allowed to eat it.

And so those are the rules that apply to other people in government. The rules that apply to the Supreme Court justices, apparently, are that Clarence Thomas can accept a $500,000 vacation from a billionaire, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Or at least nothing can be done to him.

New York Times (6/27/16)

JJ: John Roberts wrote an opinion, some years ago, vacating the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who had been convicted of accepting luxury gifts and loans from a bigwig. And in Roberts’ opinion, he said it was “distasteful…but our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes and ball gowns.” That seems to say, “We’re just above all of this; you might think this is a concern, but we’re Supreme Court justices, and we are just above it all.”

IM: This, I guess, shows you why they’ve taken such a blasé attitude to all these gifts that Clarence Thomas is getting. They almost don’t believe that the concept of corruption exists.

JJ: That’s what I was wondering.

IM: Basically what they have said—I mean, they said this explicitly, and this was the holding of the Citizens United decision—is that the only thing that counts as corruption is an explicit quid pro quo arrangement.

So if I go to a congressman and I say, “I will give you $10,000 if you vote for this bill,” that’s the one thing that the Supreme Court has said actually qualifies as corruption. But if I am, say, a lobbyist for, let’s say, the pork industry, and I write a congressman a $10,000 check and say, “Here’s $10,000, I’d like to have a meeting with you,” and then in that meeting, I say, “Here’s a list of bills I want you to vote for,” the Supreme Court has said that’s not corruption, because there was no explicit “you only get the $10,000 if you do what I say.” They even said, in the Citizens United case, that it’s good that elected officials are more responsive to their donors, because “democracy is premised on responsiveness.”

So you’re dealing with a bunch of folks who don’t see any problem at all with people who have a lot of money, who are willing to spend it on public officials, getting more access, and getting more beneficial outcomes from government. And so it doesn’t surprise me at all that Clarence Thomas, who has joined all those decisions, says, “Well, if Bob McDonald can get a Rolex, and if members of Congress can get the $10,000 donation, why can’t I get all the goodies that I want?”

LA Times (5/2/23)

JJ: Right. It’s just the joke is on everybody else, right?

I want to ask you about a big thing that I think folks may have not learned about yet. I want to ask you about Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. Can you just tell us about the significance of that 1984 ruling, and then the significance of its potential overturn, which is possibly going to happen?

IM: So one trend I’ve been watching very closely in this Court—and this, I think, should trouble everyone who’s worried about the corruption in the Court as well—is that this Court is very eager to concentrate power within itself. And this is a break; there’s all kinds of cases, throughout the 20th century, establishing that courts should be reluctant to exercise power, in part because federal judges aren’t elected, so when they exercise power, they are taking power away from democratically elected officials.

Chevron is one of those cases.  The way that a lot of federal law works is that, Congress writes a law and it delegates to a federal agency the power to figure out how to implement that law, how to achieve the goal of the law; the agency issues a regulation using the authority it’s been delegated by Congress. And Chevron said that, generally, courts should defer to the agencies when they issue those decisions. Courts should stay out of the question of  whether those regulations are good ideas or not.

And the reason why is twofold. One is that judges don’t know a lot about the subject matters that agencies regulate; agencies know more, and are likely to do it well. And the other reason why is that, while the heads of federal agencies are typically not elected, they are all appointed by and serve at the pleasure of an elected president. And so there’s still democratic accountability there in a way that there isn’t in the judiciary.

Chevron has been around since 1984. The Supreme Court recently announced that it will take a case that seeks to overrule Chevron. And I see this quest to overrule Chevron as part of this much bigger project the current Court is engaged in, of trying to concentrate power in the Supreme Court itself, and to roll back all these old decisions that said that judges should be reluctant to exercise power.

JJ: And just as a point of information, or maybe more, Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion on Chevron, right? But now he’s opposed? He says he’s matured and changed his mind?

IM: Chevron was handed down before Thomas’ time; it was Justice Stevens who wrote the opinion. I believe that Thomas was in the Reagan administration when Chevron was handed down.

JJ: No, that’s right.

IM: But we have seen a huge shift. Thomas used to join decisions advocating for judicial restraint, like what was argued in Chevron. Justice Scalia, the conservative icon, was an evangelist for Chevron.

And of course Scalia was an evangelist for Chevron in the 1980s, when Republicans controlled the government. And so conservatives were very, very happy for courts to stay out of policymaking, and leave matters up to the experts in the federal agencies, when those agencies were controlled by the Republican Party.

When we started to see conservatives, including people like Thomas, shift away from this support for judicial restraint, was when Barack Obama moved into the White House, and all of a sudden there was a risk that Democrats might be making calls within the agencies. And so all of a sudden, many of the same conservative judges, who had been huge advocates of judicial restraint under Ronald Reagan, suddenly decided that the Court should be more active in checking Barack Obama.

Vox (6/25/22)

JJ: Well, for some people, when the guy who starred in Bedtime for Bonzo became president, it damaged the role, the legitimacy, of the presidency itself. The Court-packing by a president who didn’t even win the majority vote, the guy who likes beer, you know, the Roe overturning, Citizens United—it’s led to a similar drop in many people’s respect for the Supreme Court. Confidence in the Court, we hear, is at a historic low.

To which you have said, “Good.” And not just that, but that if one knows the Supreme Court’s history, and understands its structure, what’s going on today is not this wild, unprecedented, “how could this happen” situation that some might suggest. What should we understand?

IM: The thing to understand about the Supreme Court throughout history is, first of all, you don’t get on the Supreme Court unless you’re a lawyer, and you don’t get on it unless you’re a fairly elite lawyer. So it’s an institution that has always been controlled by elite professionals. And, I mean, I’m a lawyer myself, I don’t think that all lawyers are terrible human beings, but when you have a graduate degree, and you earn the kind of money that lawyers can make, that tends to skew your perspective on society.

So it doesn’t surprise me that this institution that will always be controlled by elites has not been a particularly beneficent organization in American history. Through the history of judicial review, the idea that the Supreme Court is allowed to strike down federal law, the first case they ever did was Marbury v. Madison. All that Marbury says is that they’re allowed to do it. The second case they ever did that in was in Dred Scott, which was an abysmal pro-slavery decision, which said that Black people—I apologize, this is offensive language—but the opinion said that Black people are “beings of an inferior order,” and therefore aren’t entitled to the same rights as white people. So that was the second time the Court ever exercised judicial review.

We passed three constitutional amendments—the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments—to get rid of Dred Scott, and the Court spent the first 30 or 40 years that those amendments were in effect basically writing them out of the Constitution. And then they spent the next 30 or 40 years, in what is known as the Lochner era, where they read the amendments, that were supposed to achieve racial equality in the US, to protect business owners from laws that gave their workers a minimum wage, from laws that allowed their workers to unionize, from laws that said that workers could not be overworked.

Extra! (1/11)

That’s the history of the Supreme Court. I could go on, I could talk about Korematsu, I could talk more about Citizens United, I could talk about them striking down parts of the Voting Rights Act. But the Supreme Court, for almost all of American history, has been a malign force, and that’s a big reason why I often argue that it should have much less power.

JJ: Let me just draw you out on one thing, because the media depiction is, “Republicans and Democrats fight over these tools, of which the Court is one, and whoever gets control of them has power.” But that’s not quite how it goes; there are reasons that it’s harder to do progressive policy with control of the Court than the other way around, yeah?

IM: Two responses. One, with respect to the assertion that, well, this is just a prize that both parties fight over, and whoever gets it gets it, fair and square: We are supposed to be a democracy; we have presidential elections every four years in this country; that means that if your candidate wins the presidential election, your party should get to govern for four years. It does not mean that you should get to govern for forty years.

One impact of the fact that Donald Trump happened to get elected at a time when three seats became vacant on the Court means that this guy who lost the popular vote, who tried to overthrow the federal government, got to appoint a third of the Supreme Court. And a recent paper that came out, by a friend of mine up at Harvard, argues that Democrats may not have a shot of regaining a majority in the Supreme Court until 2060. I will probably be dead the next time there’s a Democratic majority on the Supreme Court.

So, again, I think it is fair that if Republicans run a candidate for president, and that candidate wins the election fair and square, then they get four years of power. They should not get forty years of power.

And on top of that, the power that they get—Courts are very good at striking down laws, they’re very good at saying “no” to things. Courts can’t really build anything from scratch. Courts don’t have economists, they don’t have people who enforce their decisions, they don’t have the web of bureaucracy that you need to create, say, a welfare state.

And so courts wind up being much more powerful tools in the hands of conservatives, people who want to stop the government from doing things, because the Court can always strike a law down, they can always say no to a policy that is enacted. But they just aren’t very good at building things. Again, they do not have the staff, they do not have the infrastructure, to build policies; they can only destroy. 

Vox (5/4/23)

JJ: Maybe following from that, you have written, “There are better ways to design a judiciary.” Can you tell us just a little bit about what you think some of those ways might be?

IM: The idea behind a court is that you’re supposed to have judges who are obedient to legal text. They read the statute, they read the Constitution, they read what the precedents say. The answer to every legal question isn’t always 100% clear, but judges are supposed to do their best job of following what the law is, regardless of what they want the policy to be.

It’s really hard to have disinterested public servants in those roles as judges, if the way you pick those judges is that a partisan president nominates people, that inevitably that partisan president will think will implement their agenda from the bench, and then those judges are confirmed by a partisan Senate. The way that we choose judges all but guarantees the sort of people who serve as judges will be partisan, they will not engage in that disinterested practice of reading the legal text and trying in good faith to discern what the law is, not what they want the policy to be.

Other countries, other states in the US, do it very differently. There is the Missouri model, which is where you have a commission, and you have different inputs into the commission: The governor gets to appoint a few members, the bar gets to appoint a few members, I believe the Missouri chief justice gets to appoint a member. The idea is you have enough inputs onto this commission, so it is much harder for one party to capture control over judicial selection.

And then different states do it in different ways; different countries’ selection systems, they do it in different ways. The way that it works specifically in Missouri is that, when there’s a state supreme court vacancy, the commission comes up with three names, the governor has to pick one of them. And that helps reduce the partisanship of the judiciary.

The French system: Some of France’s courts are staffed by civil servants, like literally someone who goes to judge school—they get a graduate degree that qualifies them to be a judge—and then they move up the ranks, and they’re promoted from within. There are many ways to design a judicial selection process in a way that doesn’t make judges into partisan appointees, and, unfortunately, we just don’t do that at the federal level in the US.

JJ: OK. Your work at Vox, ProPublica, Politico, the Lever, the Washington Post—all of the stories and exposés around this court corruption story, it’s showing, really, the power and importance of investigative reporting.

Crow’s laughable line about how he covered up payments to Ginni Thomas in one case becausepeople are so mean, and if it got out, people would say mean things about her”: It’s laughable, but it’s not funny, and I just have to think that surely what some powerful people are taking away from this is that there should be no more exposés.

I wonder if, along with what legislators might do and what people might do, what would you hope to see journalists do to keep this from being a couple weeks’ long scandal, and then we’re on to something else?

Ian Millhiser: “I think the most important thing that journalists can do is make it clear that Clarence Thomas is a Republican, and to speak of the Court, speak of the justices, as political appointees chosen by partisan officials.”

IM: It is a good question, because I think if Clarence Thomas, again, were in any other branch of government—like, if we found out that the secretary of transportation was getting flown all over the world, taking these lavish vacations being paid for by a billionaire political donor, the secretary of transportation would lose their job, because it would be too much of a scandal, and it would blow back on the president if they weren’t fired.

If a member of Congress did this, they would probably resign, and if they didn’t resign, they would be pushed out of office, either in their primary election, because their own party wouldn’t want them as an anchor hanging around their necks, or in the next general election.

And the Supreme Court, the only way to remove a justice is by impeachment. That takes 67 votes in the US Senate, which means that you would need at least 16 Republicans to vote to remove that justice. And, I mean, Clarence Thomas could eat a live human baby on national television and there wouldn’t be 16 Republican votes to remove him from office. They are committed to keeping this man on the Supreme Court.

I’ve covered the Supreme Court for a very long time. I covered Clarence Thomas’ scandals in which he accepted gifts from billionaire Harlan Crow in 2011, a dozen years ago I was on this story. It flared up, I wrote about it, a bunch of other reporters wrote about it, I went on the Rachel Maddow Show twice to discuss it. And nothing happened, because under our Constitution, Clarence Thomas is impossible to fire.

And so we can keep shining a light on this. I think the most important thing that journalists can do is make it clear that Clarence Thomas is a Republican, and to speak of the Court, speak of the justices, as political appointees chosen by partisan officials, so that the voters know, “OK, if I don’t want someone like Clarence Thomas appointed in the future, I know which party to blame.” But ultimately, that’s the only leverage that voters have with respect to the Supreme Court, because they enjoy this extraordinary protection from being fired, virtually no matter what they do.

JJ: And that just underscores the importance of voting rights, right? It all kind of tangles together, when the tools that you need to fight back against something like this are at least partly in the hands of the very people that you would be fighting.

IM: Now it’s getting so much attention, because Dobbs happened, because of the scandals with Thomas, because of the circumstances that led to Brett Kavanaugh getting on the Court, people are beginning to realize there are interesting stories, important stories, to be told there.

But ultimately, like I said, any consequences for what the Court has done are going to be one step removed from the people who are actually doing the terrible things. We probably cannot remove Thomas or Kavanaugh or any of those folks. The thing that voters need to understand is just that these are Republican political appointees doing these things, and if you think that the things that they are doing are bad, then take that into account when you show up at the voting booth.

JJ: All right, we’ll end it there for now.

We’ve been speaking with Ian Millhiser, senior correspondent at Vox, author of Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted and The Agenda: How a Republican Supreme Court Is Reshaping America.

Ian Millhiser, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

IM: All right, thank you.

The post ‘The Court’s Position Is, No One Can Tell Them What to Do’ appeared first on FAIR.

Dehumanization Killed Jordan Neely—and Dominated Coverage of His Death

May 19, 2023 - 3:38pm


An earlier Daily News headline (5/2/23) was “Brawling NYC Subway Rider Dies After Chokehold, NYPD Says.”

Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old unhoused Black man, appeared to be in the throes of a mental health crisis and asking for money on a New York City subway train when another passenger—a 24-year-old white man—put him in a chokehold for several minutes, killing him.

The dozens of other passengers in the car of the northbound F-train did not stop the attack, although in a witness video, one bystander can be heard warning Penny he was “going to kill” Neely. The video also reveals some passengers cheering, while two other men stood above Neely, holding him down while Penny choked him for several minutes until he went limp.

The death was ruled a homicide. The killer’s name, Daniel Penny, was not released to the media for four days. Penny was not charged until May 11, ten days after the killing, and after protests took place across the city demanding that he be arrested. He was charged with second-degree manslaughter, but released on $100,000 bond. A fundraiser on a right-wing Christian crowdfunding website called GiveSendGo has raised more than $2.5 million as of May 19.

‘A man in pain’

Roxane Gay (New York Times, 5/4/23) raises questions “about who gets to stand his ground, who doesn’t, and how, all too often, it’s people in the latter group who are buried beneath that ground by those who refuse to cede dominion over it.”

Neely, who often busked as a Michael Jackson impersonator, had a history of mental illness and trauma. Before he was killed, he was reportedly yelling on the train, complaining of hunger and thirst and throwing his jacket down in a way some witnesses described as aggressive.

“I don’t have food, I don’t have a drink, I’m fed up,” a witness quoted Neely saying. “I don’t mind going to jail and getting life in prison. I’m ready to die.”

No witness accounts suggested he was physically violent. Even so, much of the corporate press deliberately refrained from framing Neely as a victim, and far-right media outlets have gone even further to dehumanize him and excuse the killing.

An opinion piece by Roxane Gay for the New York Times (5/4/23) rightly grouped this killing in with other recent wannabe vigilante–style assaults: 16-year-old Ralph Yarl shot for ringing the wrong doorbell in Kansas City; 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis fatally shot for pulling into the wrong driveway in upstate New York; competitive cheerleaders Heather Roth and Payton Washington shot after one got into the wrong car in a parking lot in Texas; a father and four members of his family—including an 8-year-old boy—fatally shot for asking his neighbor to stop firing an AR-15 assault rifle in his yard.

Gay writes of Neely:

Was he making people uncomfortable? I’m sure he was. But his were the words of a man in pain. He did not physically harm anyone. And the consequence for causing discomfort isn’t death, unless, of course, it is.


The New York Daily News (5/2/23) announced Neely’s killing under the headline “NYC Man Threatening Strangers on Manhattan Subway Dies After Marine Corps Vet Put Him in Chokehold.” The lead made it clear that his killer was to be understood as the “good guy” in this story:

A disturbed man threatening strangers on a Manhattan subway train died after getting into a brawl with the wrong passenger—a US Marine Corps veteran who put him in a chokehold.

Of course, Neely didn’t “get into a brawl” with Penny, who by all accounts approached Neely from behind. But this framing of Neely as the instigator of violence was common.

New York Times columnist David French (5/14/23), suggesting that Neely’s death was fundamentally a failure of the “rule of law”—not because of Penny’s vigilantism, but because of the city’s failure to keep Neely behind bars for more than 15 months after a 2021 assault charge—called Neely “reportedly aggressive and menacing.” French’s only evidence of this characterization was Neely’s yelling about needing food and water and being ready to die.

As Neely’s killer knew nothing about his arrest record, Newsweek‘s headlining it (5/4/23)  suggests the magazine thinks it should affect how sorry we should be that Neely is dead.

Piling on the dehumanization, Newsweek (5/4/23) published an article centered on Neely’s prior criminal record: “Man Killed on Subway Had 42 Prior Arrests.” While quoting homeless advocates who condemned the ways poor and homeless people are demonized and dehumanized, Newsweek simultaneously framed the piece in a way that demonized and dehumanized Neely, relying on law enforcement accounts.

Sara Newman, director of organizing at the housing justice group Open Hearts Initiative, told Newsweek:

Jordan Neely’s murder is the direct result of efforts to dehumanize and demonize New Yorkers who are experiencing homelessness, living with mental illness or just existing in the world as Black and poor.

But Newsweek‘s piece overall did just what Newman condemned, citing a “police spokesperson” who outlined Neely’s arrests between 2013 and 2021: four for alleged assault and others for low-level crimes and crimes of poverty, including transit fraud, trespassing and violations like having an open container in public.

Activists quoted in the article called out the NYPD’s willingness to disclose Neely’s entire record as an attempt to vilify him and justify his killing, but that didn’t stop Newsweek from leading with the police narrative.

At the time of publication, Penny’s name had still not been public, but nearly a decade of Neely’s prior arrests that had nothing to do with the incident that got him killed were headline news.

‘Was this heroism?’

NBC‘s New York affiliate (5/4/23) asks, “Was this heroism, or vigilantism?”

Reporting on Neely’s death being ruled a homicide caused by the chokehold, NBC New York (5/4/23) still managed to pose the question: “Was this heroism, or vigilantism?” The report described Neely’s killer as someone “initially hailed as a Good Samaritan.”

FoxNews.com (5/4/23) reported that demonstrators chanted “Fuck Eric Adams” and implied that was because the New York mayor had said “that the DA should be given time to conduct his investigation.” In fact, protesters were angered because, as FAIR (6/25/22, 12/7/22, 4/4/22) has documented, Adams’ policies have stigmatized homelessness and mental illness, while inflating police budgets and cutting funds for education—and doing little to make people safer.

New York Times (5/4/23) and NBC (5/4/23) headlines also referred to the killing as a “Chokehold Death.” Even well-intentioned reporting that highlights the demands of protesters is eclipsed by the passivity in this language. If a chokehold causes someone’s death, it’s more than just a death; it’s a homicide.

Gay’s piece for the Times put it best:

News reports keep saying Mr. Neely died, which is a passive thing. We die of old age. We die in a car accident. We die from disease. When someone holds us in a chokehold for several minutes, something far worse has occurred.

A ‘debate’ of their own design

USA Today (5/18/23) suggests that one way to look at Neely’s killing is that a “former Marine” drew “accolades” for “choking him into submission.”

USA Today (5/17/23) illustrated the “Grand Canyon-size rift between the left and the right” in how people view the death of Neely:

A former Marine stops a violent homeless man from harassing subway passengers, choking him into submission and drawing accolades for his willingness to step in.

A well-known Black street performer who struggled with mental health and homelessness for years dies at the hands of a white military man in front of horrified onlookers.

The headline online was, “An Act by a ‘Good Samaritan’ or a Case of ‘Murder’: The Rift in How US Views Subway Chokehold Death.” In print, “Chokehold Death Hardens Stark Divide” says the same thing in fewer words: The value of Jordan Neely’s life is up for debate.

The  New York Times (5/4/23) also both-sidesed New Yorkers’ opinions on this killing, calling it a “debate”:

For many New Yorkers, the choking of the 30-year-old homeless man, Jordan Neely, was a heinous act of public violence to be swiftly prosecuted, and represented a failure by the city to care for people with serious mental illness. Many others who lamented the killing nonetheless saw it as a reaction to fears about public safety in New York and the subway system in particular.

And some New Yorkers wrestled with conflicting feelings: their own worries about crime and aggression in the city and their conviction that the rider had  gone too far and should be charged with a crime.

It later explained, “Many have grown worried about safety on the subway after experiencing violence or reading about it in the news.”

But the overwhelming majority of riders have not experienced violence on the subway themselves. As FAIR (12/7/22) has pointed out, one’s odds of being the victim of a crime while riding New York City public transportation is approximately 1.6 out of 1 million. The NYPD’s own statistics show transit crimes essentially flat for the past 10 years, excluding the dramatic drop during the pandemic, when ridership plummeted. On the other hand, if you follow the news, you’re virtually guaranteed to hear about supposedly rampant subway crime—meaning the fear of rising crime in the city and the subways has been almost entirely manufactured by the news media itself.

‘Paths crossing’

The New York Times (5/7/23) describing a killing as “paths crossed” recalls its reporting (11/23/14) a police officer shooting an unarmed man in a stairwell as “two young men” who “collided.”

A later Times piece was titled “How Two Men’s Disparate Paths Crossed in a Killing on the F Train” (5/7/23). In true Times-style storytelling, a man killing another amounts to “paths crossing.”

“Was this a citizen trying to stop someone from hurting others? Or an overreaction to a common New York encounter with a person with mental illness?” mused the paper of record. The article explained that the type of chokehold Penny used resembled one taught in the Marines. The Times reports the maneuver is meant to cut off blood and oxygen to the brain but not crush the windpipe (it did). It quotes a Marines press release from 2013 that describes choking techniques as a “fast and safe way to knock out the enemy” (1/31/13).

Characterizing Penny’s chokehold as a generally harmless maneuver gone wrong is irresponsible. Chokeholds like the one Penny used are designed for combat—not the subway. In 2021, the Justice Department banned the use of chokeholds by federal law enforcement agencies unless lethal force was authorized.  In a piece for Military.com (5/9/23), Gabriel Murphy, a former Marine who started a petition to prosecute Penny for Neely’s death, explains that these martial arts methods Marines learn in training are “not designed to be non-lethal or safe.”

Unlike much coverage of unhoused murder victims—of whom there are many—the article did offer some humanizing details about Neely’s life: that his mother was murdered when he was 14, and that a former high school classmate remembered him as a good dancer and a well-behaved student.

But it then focused on his record of arrests and use of K2, a potentially dangerous form of synthetic marijuana, and his voluntary and involuntary hospitalizations over the years. The paper paraphrased a hospital employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “because they were not authorized to discuss his history.” In other words, the employee was granted anonymity to violate patient privacy laws and air Neely’s personal medical history.

Meanwhile, a “surfing friend” of Penny got the last word in the piece: “He could only guess at Mr. Penny’s mind-set: ‘Knowing Danny and knowing his intentions, it was to help others around him.’”

Right-wing depravity

“The rhetoric from Mr. Neely was very frightening, it was very harsh,” the New York Post (5/18/23) quoted an anonymous bystander. “I sensed danger.”

Right-wing media coverage of Neely’s death reached yet another level of depravity. “Shocking Video Shows NYC Subway Passenger Putting Unhinged Man in Deadly Chokehold,” read one New York Post headline (4/2/23). In the piece, the victim was described as a “disturbed man” and a “vagrant,” while the person who killed him for yelling on the subway was a “subway passenger” and a “Marine veteran.”

The Post quoted freelance journalist Juan Alberto Vazquez, who captured the video of the incident. “I think that in one sense it’s fine that citizens want to jump in and help. But I think as heroes we have to use moderation,” he said, adding that if police had shown up earlier, “this never would have happened.” (The Post did not challenge this suggestion that police are not notorious choke-holders themselves—see George Floyd, Eric Garner, Elijah McClain.)

Fox host Brian Kilmeade (Media Matters, 5/4/23) justified the killing, saying the other passengers who “felt threatened” “helped out,” too. He added that Neely had prior arrests for “assault, disorderly conduct, fare beating.”

“I can’t tell you how many times you see this guy—these guys—walking up and down screaming, and you think to yourself, this can be out of control at any moment,” Kilmeade said.  He added:

You have a 24-year-old who we trained in the military, lives on Long Island, hopping on a subway, and said, let me help out the American people again, when I’m not in Afghanistan, let me just grab this guy and hold him down. No cops around, because they are understaffed and they are not on the trains. They are upstairs. And this guy takes action. And now you have people protesting for the homeless guy? Were you protesting when he was throwing garbage at people and threatening people in their face? So, I have no patience for these people.

Assault, disorderly conduct, fare beating, throwing trash and disrupting passengers are not punishable by the death penalty in a court of law—and certainly not by a subway passenger who decided to play judge, jury and executioner on his afternoon ride. No matter how short on patience Kilmeade is for people he sees on his commute to his $9 million/year job, Jordan Neely was a human being.

Mental illness is not a crime

Additionally, Adams’ police “omnipresence” plan deployed more than 1,000 extra officers underground in early 2022. Despite record levels of police underground, the April 2022 subway shooting that injured at least 29 people still happened. Officers on the platform that Michelle Go was fatally shoved off of that same year didn’t stop her murder, either.

In April 2023, the NYPD reintroduced a $74,000 robotic police dog to spy on people in Times Square. Meanwhile, the city’s department of education may lose $421 million in additional budget cuts next school year (Chalkbeat, 4/4/23).

It can’t be repeated enough that mental illness and homelessness are not criminal, and that the demonization of both things are leading to policies and prejudices that cost lives. Homelessness and mental illness are both conditions that make someone more likely to be victims of crimes, not perpetrators (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 1/24/22; NIH, 1/9/23).

But as the corporate media has demonstrated with Neely’s story, even a victim of homicide is framed as guilty when he is Black, unhoused and mentally ill.

The post Dehumanization Killed Jordan Neely—and Dominated Coverage of His Death appeared first on FAIR.

Sorry, Sulzberger—NYT’s Anti-Trans ‘News’ Is Neither True Nor Important

May 19, 2023 - 12:49pm


A.G. Sulzberger, hereditary leader of the New York Times, argued in CJR (5/15/23) that his newspaper has to publish so many anti-trans stories because they are “true” and “important.”

New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger (CJR, 5/15/23) has weighed in on the ongoing debate among legacy journalists about whether they ought to pursue “objectivity” and what the  proper goals of journalism ought to be.

His piece is more than 10,000 words long, and mostly it’s the expected Timesian defense against those critical of its “both sides” approach. But there’s a section towards the end that caught my eye, in which Sulzberger addresses the recent vocal criticism (of which FAIR was a part) of the paper’s coverage of transgender and non-binary people and issues.

The section begins:

Another line of criticism asserts that when journalists report information that makes a negative outcome more likely, they are complicit in that outcome. This argument typically takes two forms: that news organizations should not publish information that bad actors might misuse and that they should not offer airtime to views that should be excised from the public square.

“In general,” he writes,

independent reporters and editors should ask, “Is it true? Is it important?” If the answer to both questions is yes, journalists should be profoundly skeptical of any argument that favors censoring or skewing what they’ve learned based on a subjective view about whether it may yield a damaging outcome.

In Sulzberger’s telling, the Times is reporting perfectly true and important stories that critics want to see skewed and censored—”excised from the public square”!—for the misguided reason that “bad actors” happen to be misusing that excellent reporting, to ends whose damage is merely “subjective.”

Stop skewing the news

The state of Texas entered a widely debunked New York Times article (6/19/22) as evidence in support of its claim that gender-affirming healthcare is “child abuse” (Texas Observer, 7/22/22). Strangely, the Times has never reported on this use of its journalism.

It’s true that bad actors are explicitly using Times reporting to advance their anti-trans agenda, citing it to justify restricting and even criminalizing gender-affirming healthcare for youth—though the Times has yet to directly acknowledge that in its own paper. And trans youth, who already have much higher rates of suicidality than their cisgender peers, are both already experiencing clear negative mental health outcomes from this campaign, and are almost certain to experience negative mental health outcomes from the loss of access to gender-affirming care. But apparently to the Times, whether that’s “damaging” is merely subjective.

Critics like FAIR aren’t asking the Times to “skew” or “censor” its trans-related coverage. We’re asking for the Times to center trans people in that coverage, and stop skewing it toward those spinning misleading anti-trans narratives.

Specifically looking at trans coverage, Sulzberger claims:

The Times has covered the surge of discrimination, threats and violence faced by trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people, including the rapidly growing number of legislative efforts attacking their rights. We’ve also covered the many ways in which people challenging gender norms are gaining recognition and breaking barriers in the United States and around the world. Yet our critics overlook these articles—and there are hundreds of them—to instead focus on a small number of pieces that explore particularly sensitive questions that society is actively working through, but which some would prefer for the Times to treat as settled.

Failing the test

As it happens, FAIR recently took a close look at a full year of the New York Times‘ trans-related coverage—not every article, but every one it put on its front page, which are the ones that the paper chose to foreground. FAIR’s study (5/11/23) reveals Sulzberger’s argument to be a misrepresentation.

FAIR (5/11/23) found that two-thirds of the family members of trans youth quoted in front-page New York Times stories were nonsupportive of their  child’s transition.

It’s not untrue that the Times has produced a great deal of coverage of trans issues, and some has certainly focused on the right-wing campaign against trans people. But the articles the paper featured in its prime front-page real estate have completely failed the “Is it true? Is it important?” test Sulzberger proposes.

Looking at coverage from April 2022 through March 2023, the Times only put trans-related issues on its front page nine times. And the Times hasn’t been highlighting the “surge of discrimination, threats and violence” there:

Only two of the paper’s nine front-page headlines (“Swimming Body Bars Most Transgender Women,” 6/20/22; “Roe’s Reversal Stokes Attacks on Gay Rights,” 7/23/22) even began to hint at the dire situation faced by trans people today as a result of the war waged against them by the far right. Even these fell woefully short, with the second of the two not even naming trans people. Neither headlined the perspectives of trans people in the United States or those fighting alongside them.

Meanwhile, we found that

six of the Times‘ nine front-page articles about trans issues wove narratives of transition being risky, likely to be regretted, or prematurely forced onto unwitting youth (9/26/22, 11/22/22, 1/23/23), and/or of trans people threatening others’ rights, such as those of cisgender women and parents (5/29/22, 6/9/22, 7/21/22, 1/23/23). These six articles also consumed far more space in the paper than the other three, averaging 2,826 words versus 1,636, suggesting which kinds of stories about trans people the paper believes are most worthy of deep investigation.

To evaluate these by Sulzberger’s criteria: Is it true? Well, in terms of transition being risky, likely to be regretted, or prematurely forced onto unwitting youth, it’s not true. As we explain in the study, the Times paints a seriously skewed picture of the dangers of transition, which is far less risky than forcing trans youth to conform to a socially assigned gender identity.

And sure, some cisgender women and some parents of trans kids feel their rights are being trampled on when trans people are acknowledged and granted the same rights as their peers. But that leads us to the second question: Is it important? In this instance, is the right to exclude trans people more important than the right of trans people to be included?

This is where the illusion of “objectivity” falls apart. The Times has made clear that it thinks these kinds of stories are absolutely important, since they are the ones it has put on its front page—in fact, more important than the stories about attacks on trans people’s rights and existence.

How is that not ‘legitimizing’?

Sulzberger wasn’t done:

The second bad outcome that is often raised is “platforming,” the concept that including people with bad or dangerous views in articles—or allowing them to write guest essays in the opinion section—makes the world a worse or more dangerous place. The central concern in this argument is that the very act of examining or sharing disliked or repugnant opinions, without explicitly condemning them, amounts to promoting and legitimizing them.

It’s a bit of a head-scratcher. If you, a newspaper with millions of subscribers, share a repugnant or dangerous opinion without condemning it, you might not be communicating that you necessarily agree with it, but you most certainly are promoting and legitimizing it.

After Sen. Tom Cotton called for sending in troops against Black Lives Matter protesters, Sulzberger (Vanity Fair, 6/8/20) acknowledged the obvious point that not every idea deserves space on the New York Times op-ed page.

Sulzberger appeared to recognize that when he apologized for the paper’s decision to publish Sen. Tom Cotton’s op-ed calling for US troops to be used against Black Lives Matter protesters. At the time, Sulzberger (Vanity Fair, 6/8/20) called it “contemptuous” and “needlessly and deliberately inflammatory.” Obviously Sulzberger does not believe that every view deserves space in his paper’s opinion section—and so with the views that he does include, he is necessarily drawing a line that includes those perspectives among those that deserve a prominent platform. That’s what “legitimizing” means.

It’s an important power that the New York Times has, and it ought to be exercised thoughtfully—rather than hand-waving the problem away by asserting that those with different ideas about which views should be legitimized are censors.

Likewise with the questions of which claims can go unchallenged in the Times‘ news section. These are fundamentally subjective, political decisions. But Sulzberger still refuses to recognize the Times as political:

In the long run, ignoring societal disagreements or actively suppressing certain facts and viewpoints—even with the best of intentions—turns the press into an overtly political actor.

This brings us back to the question of the role of the newspaper and the folly of aspiring to objectivity. Journalists and leaders at the Times make decisions every day about which opinions to publish, which stories to put on the front page and which sources to lean on to shape a narrative. Pretending to be apolitical may serve the Times‘ bottom line, in its efforts to appeal to a certain kind of subscriber—and advertiser—but it does nothing to erase the paper’s complicity in the right-wing campaign against trans people.

FEATURED IMAGE: New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger.

ACTION ALERT: You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com (Twitter: @NYTimes). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your communication in the comments thread.


The post Sorry, Sulzberger—NYT’s Anti-Trans ‘News’ Is Neither True Nor Important appeared first on FAIR.

Cody Bloomfield on Anti-Activist Terrorism Charges

May 19, 2023 - 10:29am
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Time (5/4/23)

This week on CounterSpin: Do you care about environmental degradation? Then you care about Cop City. Do you care about violent overpolicing of Black and brown communities? Then you care about Cop City. Do you care about purportedly democratic governance that overrides the actual voice of the people? Then you care about Cop City.

But be aware: Your concern about Cop City, and its myriad impacts and implications, may get you labeled a domestic terrorist. The official response to popular resistance to the militarized policing facility being created on top of the forest in Atlanta, Georgia, is an exemplar of how some officials fully intend to bring all powers to which they have access, and to create new powers, to treat anyone who stands in opposition to whatever they decide they want to do as enemies of the state, deserving life-destroying prison sentences. So if your thoughts about Cop City don’t motivate you, think about your right to protest anything at all.

We’ll talk about anti-activist terrorism charges with Cody Bloomfield, communications director at Defending Rights & Dissent.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at recent media coverage of Israel’s “crisis of democracy.”

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The post Cody Bloomfield on Anti-Activist Terrorism Charges appeared first on FAIR.

NYT Fearmongers Over Debt as GOP Holds Economy Hostage

May 17, 2023 - 3:49pm


In a recent op-ed for the New York Times (3/10/23), the economist and longtime Times columnist Paul Krugman gave readers “a pro tip”:

Anyone who makes alarmist claims about debt by talking about trillions of dollars as opposed to, say, percentages of gross domestic product, is engaged in scare tactics, not serious discussion.

It would be great if his own paper would listen to him.

Republican hostage-taking

Things you don’t need to know about the debt, according to the New York Times (5/2/23): how big it is compared to the US economy, or to other nations’ debt burdens.

Instead, the Times has been engaged in outright fearmongering over the size of the US federal debt over the past several months. This at the same time that the Republican Party has taken the economy hostage, in order to exact wildly unpopular cuts to government programs.

In a rerun of Obama-era fights, Republicans are using their majority in the House to refuse to raise the debt ceiling. As the Times (5/2/23) has acknowledged:

Lifting the debt limit does not actually authorize any new spending—in fact, it simply allows the United States to spend money on programs that have already been authorized by Congress.

Failing to raise the ceiling risks default, which could potentially bring economic disaster, and also appears to directly violate the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which states, “The validity of the public debt of the United States…shall not be questioned.”

In the midst of this political battle, with one party using unconstitutional methods and the threat of economic catastrophe to try to kick people off social programs, a responsible paper of record might want to avoid mindlessly promoting a key premise of the economic terrorists: that government debt is a serious problem that we should be very concerned about.

That’s a lot of money, huh?

For the New York Times (3/9/23), Joe Biden is trying to “recapture the more centrist identity that long defined him” by being “increasingly focused on deficit reduction.”

But who said the Times was responsible? In April, over a third of the articles that the paper ran as part of its coverage of the political battle over the debt limit featured the scary raw number for the US federal debt: $31 trillion. Only one included reference to debt as a percentage of GDP. The story was similar in March, when five of 14 articles referenced the raw number or projections for that number, and only two articles mentioned the debt-to-GDP figure, or projections for that figure.

Some pieces that did not include the $31 trillion number nevertheless repeatedly alluded to the addition of trillions to the debt. In one case, the Times (3/9/23) described Biden as

cast[ing] himself as a new-generation Franklin D. Roosevelt pressing for a modern-day New Deal, with large-scale spending on climate change, social welfare programs and student debt relief that will add trillions of dollars to the national debt in years to come.

In another (3/31/23), it referenced

the tax cuts signed by President Donald J. Trump in 2017, which his administration said would pay for themselves, but which independent evidence showed added trillions to the national debt.

No context was provided for what “trillions” more in debt actually means. Basically all the reader gets is, That’s a lot of money, huh?–plus the insinuation, Probably not great, don’t you think? This approach may balance both sides—Hey, they’re both blowing a hole in the budget!—but it’s far from Krugman’s benchmark for responsible reporting.

‘No good, hard governance anymore’

The New York Times (4/18/23) is nostalgic for the days when Republicans asserted that “benefit cuts to Social Security and Medicare [are] absolutely vital to the nation’s future.”

When additional context was added, it was not always helpful for anything other than inducing debt-phobia. One particularly egregious article (4/18/23) accompanied its mention of the $31 trillion figure with a warning of “a herd of elephants coming over the horizon,” with this herd represented in part by rising interest payments on the national debt. It noted that in the first half of the current fiscal year, “interest payments rose from $219 billion to $308 billion, a 41% leap that put debt servicing nearly on par with military spending.” Scary! (Maybe a little less scary when you learn that “nearly on par” means two-thirds as large as next year’s proposed military budget.)

The piece, by Jonathan Weisman, was littered with debt-scolding, with the subhead reading, “After a decade of rising deficits and soaring debt, the top White House contenders, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, show little interest in battling over the nation’s finances.” It quoted fiscal hawks, who variously lamented that “there is no good, hard governance anymore,” and that “it’s clearly good politics to recast yourself as the defender of Social Security and Medicare. It’s just bad for the country.”

Curiously, no policy expert opposed to gutting the federal budget made an appearance.

Even in the one April article (4/21/23) that discussed debt as a percentage of GDP, the framing was designed to stoke fear:

Even if the entire estimated savings from the [Republican spending] plan came to pass, it would still leave the nation a decade from now with total debt that was larger than the annual output of the economy—a level that [House Speaker Kevin] McCarthy and other Republicans have frequently labeled a crisis.

No debt crisis in sight

Paul Krugman (New York Times, 5/4/23): “Creating a global depression because we’re afraid of looking silly would be utterly irresponsible.”

Whether that level of debt is actually a crisis was not up for discussion. Maybe the Times thinks that’s besides the point. But without such a discussion, readers can easily leave with the assumption that government debt is a serious problem, and with the notion that something drastic must be done, and soon.

As Krugman (5/4/23) has put it, though, “What’s odd about this potential crisis is that it has nothing to do with excessive debt.” In the same op-ed (3/10/23) cited above, he elaborated:

If we do look at debt as a percentage of GDP, it’s indeed high, but not outside ranges that other countries have managed without crisis…. Britain spent large parts of both the 19th and 20th centuries with debt well above current US levels, but without experiencing a severe debt crisis.

Likewise, if we look at American public debt over time, we see that it is still below the record levels it reached in the 1940s. It’s projected to bump past the domestic record by 2028, but there’s little reason to think that will lead to a crisis, besides one ginned up by the right for obviously political reasons. Writing in February (Project Syndicate, 2/9/23) of the projected rise in debt levels over the next decade, Barry Eichengreen, a Berkeley economist who recently co-authored the book In Defense of Public Debt, observed:

This increase is by no means catastrophic…. Cutting essential public programs now to address a debt problem that won’t even begin to materialize for a decade would be shooting ourselves in the foot.

In any case, the debt-to-GDP ratio could easily be stabilized or reduced by raising taxes and controlling healthcare costs, as Krugman recommends.

The federal debt is set for a gradual rise over the next decade, not exactly the uncontrolled explosion that some are warning of.


‘Ticking time bomb’?

The New York Times (5/8/23) says a solution to the debt ceiling crisis will “most likely include the partial reversal of legislative victories won during Mr. Biden’s first two years,” because asserting that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional risks “financial volatility.”

The New York Times editorial board, interestingly, has taken a different approach to describing the federal debt than the paper’s reporters, writing in a recent editorial (5/8/23), “The federal debt totals about $24.6 trillion, equal to roughly 94% of the nation’s gross domestic product, a high level by historical standards.”

It’s notable that the actual number for debt as a percentage of GDP showed up here, given that it didn’t even show up in the one April article featured in the Timesdatabase of debt limit coverage that referenced the measure. But perhaps more significant is that the Times chopped down the raw figure for the federal debt from the one that has shown up repeatedly in the paper’s news articles. One article (4/21/23) last month, for instance, had opened:

Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California has repeatedly said that he and his fellow House Republicans are refusing to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, and risking economic catastrophe, to force a reckoning on America’s $31 trillion national debt.

“Without exaggeration, America’s debt is a ticking time bomb that will detonate unless we take serious, responsible action,” he said this week.

Now we hear from the Times editorial board that the debt is not $31 trillion, but $24.6 trillion. It turns out that both numbers are correct—the difference is that the first is the one used to determine the legal debt limit, while the second number excludes debt that the government owes to itself, which gives a better sense of the actual debt burden. It would be reasonable to cite either one, or both, in a discussion of the debt limit. Even-handed coverage might cite both numbers equally. The approach of the Times news section, however, is to constantly elevate the larger number, the one that lends itself to more effective fearmongering.

The point is not that people would get such a better sense of the scale of the debt if they read $24.6 trillion rather than $31 trillion. It’s that there’s clearly a more and a less responsible way of presenting the size of the debt. The way the Times editorial presents it doesn’t give all the context you would need if you wanted to inform your readership of what’s going on with the debt, and whether it’s sustainable. But it’s worlds apart from an article that opens with a massive number and no context, followed by an unchallenged description of the debt as “a ticking time bomb.”

‘Ruling out cuts’ to safety net

The New York Times (4/21/23) chides the Republican Party for its “lowering of ambitions” in not calling for even deeper cuts in spending.

Unfortunately, the Times’ news section has often preferred to throw out big numbers without context rather than giving a fuller picture to its readers. Times reporter Jim Tankersley has been a prime offender here. In the same April piece (4/21/23) that opened with the $31 trillion figure, Tankersley followed up McCarthy’s description of the debt as a “ticking time bomb” with the line, “But the bill Mr. McCarthy introduced on Wednesday would only modestly change the nation’s debt trajectory.” Further down, he continued that the spending cuts proposed by McCarthy

are a far cry from Republicans’ promises, after they won control of the House in November, to balance the budget in 10 years. That lowering of ambitions is partly the product of Republican leaders’ ruling out any cuts to the fast-rising costs of Social Security or Medicare, bowing to an onslaught of political attacks from Mr. Biden.

Notice the framing here: The costs of Social Security and Medicare are “fast-rising.” And a political opponent’s attacks are preventing Republicans from going after those costs.

Unmentioned? The costs of Social Security and Medicare are not unsustainable. According to Congressional Budget Office data from February, Social Security is fairly paltry in comparison to similar programs in many European countries—5.1% of GDP in 2023, versus 14.8% of GDP in spending on public pensions in France in 2019. The projected level of spending for Social Security by 2050? 6.4% of GDP. Gasp!

Medicare costs, meanwhile, are projected to rise from 3.1% to 5.4% of GDP over the same period. One way of viewing this: The combined cost of the two programs in 2050 doesn’t even match the cost of the French government’s public pension system in 2019 (relative to each country’s economic output).

Moreover, Biden’s defense of these programs is certainly tying Republicans’ hands, but so is public opinion. Medicare and Social Security are, and have historically been, incredibly popular (FAIR.org, 4/12/23). There’s a reason why both programs are known as third rails in American politics. Why not acknowledge that this is not a simple matter of red versus blue, but the US public versus those who would take away their retirement benefits?

‘Fiscal responsibility’

The New York Times (2/15/23) reported that “some were dismayed” that Biden did not heed the “sober warnings from the experts” by calling for cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

Perhaps because Tankersley is quite fond of peddling concern over the costs of these programs. An article of his published in February (2/15/23), towards the start of the current round of debt ceiling drama, for example, bore the headline, “As Lawmakers Spar Over Social Security, Its Costs Are Rising Fast.” Its second paragraph read:

Mr. Biden has effectively steered a debate about fiscal responsibility away from two cherished safety-net programs for seniors [Social Security and Medicare], just as those plans are poised for a decade of rapid spending growth.

Noting that Republicans have agreed not to touch these programs during negotiations over the debt limit, Tankersley observed that the “debate will exclude the primary spending-side drivers of future federal debt and deficits.” He went on to present some dizzying statistics meant to impress the size of the spending on readers without actually informing them of much of anything:

On Wednesday, the budget office predicted Social Security spending would grow by two-thirds over the coming decade. That’s more than double the expected growth rate for spending on the military and on domestic programs like education and environmental protection….

Medicare is a smaller program but poised to grow even faster, at three times the rate of military and other discretionary spending over the next decade, according to the May forecasts.

The cost of these programs as a percentage of GDP was nowhere to be found.

Tankersley then pointed out that Obama agreed with the fiscal hawks in his 2011 State of the Union Address when he called for a bipartisan solution to Social Security (read: cuts to Social Security). The piece continued:

Some were dismayed that Mr. Biden—and Republican lawmakers—did not follow a similar path at his own State of the Union this month. “The sober warnings from the experts is quite a contrast to the gleeful cheers from bipartisan policymakers at the State of the Union for doing nothing,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which advocates federal debt reduction.

Was a progressive expert brought in to balance the budget hawk? Of course not. That would give the views of the majority of the public far too much representation.

A new path forward

A New York Times graphic (5/8/23) helpfully shows how much of the discretionary budget would have to be cut under the Republican plan.

Articles in the New York Times’ news section haven’t uniformly conformed to debt-scolding. A recent article (5/8/23) outlined in detail the severe and unpopular cuts that the Republican spending proposal would require, and even included a graph showing recent trends and future projections for public debt as a percentage of GDP. An earlier piece (3/6/23) did something similar, and even provided a longer time frame for the debt-to-GDP graph, though little additional context was included.

What would be great to see from the Times going forward, as the US approaches the X-date when the government can no longer delay dealing with the debt limit and may in fact default, would be far more serious reporting that provides readers with the context necessary to evaluate debt and spending figures. And to be clear, this would involve more than just giving debt as a percentage of GDP; that’s not some magical number that tells you all you need to know, though mentioning it is more useful than saying $31 trillion over and over.

The paper’s history doesn’t offer much hope, but it’s encouraging that its editorial board, in sharp contrast to the board of close rival the Washington Post (FAIR.org, 2/24/23), has refrained from an all-out assault on social spending in recent months, as is the fact that one of the paper’s core columnists has remained clear-eyed on this issue. At the end of the day, Times reporters probably don’t want to be remembered for having enabled Republican hostage-taking, so maybe they should start writing like it.

ACTION ALERT: You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com (Twitter: @NYTimes). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your communication in the comments thread.

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Israel’s Real ‘Crisis of Democracy’ Is That It’s Not a Democracy

May 16, 2023 - 4:54pm


Map of Israel/Palestine

For much of this year, widespread protests have engulfed Israel in response to the Netanyahu government’s attempts to overhaul the state’s judiciary. Corporate media in the United States (e.g., LA Times, 3/27/23; Politico 3/31/23) present this situation as a  “crisis of  democracy” in Israel. Since the demonstrations began on January 7, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post have run a combined total of 194 pieces that contain some variety of the words “Israel,” “crisis” and “democracy.” Only 77 of these, or just  under 40%, include some form of the terms “Palestine” or “Palestinian.”

This shortage of references to the Palestinians is startling, considering that the Israeli government controls the lives of approximately 14 million people who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, half of them Jewish and half of them Palestinian. These include 2.6 million Palestinians living in the West Bank under Israeli military occupation and without political rights, and 2 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, where Israel prevents them from enacting their political rights and confines them to an open-air prison. A further 350,000 Palestinians living in eastern Jerusalem, which was illegally annexed by Israel in 1967, nevertheless do not have the right to vote in Israel’s national elections.

Roughly 1.9 million Palestinians, living on the land that Israel has controlled since 1948, do have Israeli citizenship and can vote in Israeli elections, but discrimination against them is enshrined in law.

In other words, of the 7 million Palestinians over whom Israel exercises authority, approximately 5 million have no say in who governs them or how, while Israel relegates the remaining 2 million to second-class citizenship. By writing about a “crisis” in Israel’s “democracy,” without foregrounding or most often even mentioning the fact that Israel completely disenfranchises some 5 million Palestinians, coverage in the Times, Post and Journal whitewashes the apartheid that fundamentally disqualifies Israel as a democracy.

Mischaracterized as democracy

Wall Street Journal (3/29/23): Despite the “refrain from the American left that Mr. Netanyahu’s elected government is somehow a threat to Israeli democracy…Israeli democracy is alive and well.”

Much of these papers’ commentary on the crisis in Israel nevertheless mischaracterizes Israel as a democracy. The Times’ Thomas Friedman (3/28/23) said that Israelis are demonstrating “to ensure the 75th anniversary of Israeli democracy will not be its last.” According to the Journal’s editorial board (3/29/23), “If we’ve learned anything in recent weeks, it’s that Israeli democracy is alive and well.” The Post’s Jennifer Rubin (3/29/23) wrote:

The Israeli episode holds lessons for the United States and other democracies. First and foremost, unity is essential. Whatever differences on policy issues exist, refusal to join hands with those with whom you disagree is a fatal error when trying to save a democracy. It’s essential to persuade citizens to put loyalty to democracy above loyalty to party or institutions (even the military). Without a democratic foundation, no other political cause or institution can survive.

These are propagandistic descriptions of Israel, not only because the state denies more than a third of the people it governs the right to vote, but also because it is holding 4,900 Palestinian political prisoners and has a decades-long habit of assassinating Palestinian political leaders. In addition, it prevents Palestinians from exercising key democratic rights, such as press freedom (Electronic Intifada, 4/13/21) and the right to organize and express themselves politically: As Human Rights Watch (4/27/21) noted, “[Palestinians] can face up to ten years in prison for attempting to influence public opinion in a manner that ‘may’ harm public peace or public order”:

The [Israeli] army regularly uses military orders permitting it to shut down unlicensed protests or to create closed military zones to suppress peaceful Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank and detain participants. One military order, for example, imposes a prison term of up to 10 years on civilians convicted by military courts for participating in a gathering of more than 10 people without a military permit on any issue “that could be construed as political” or for displaying “flags or political symbols” without army approval.

Can you really describe a country that imposes such a rule on roughly two million people as a “democracy”?

A defining feature, not a possibility

Gershom Gorenberg (Washington Post , 3/23/23) warns that limiting judicial review “would weaken Israel’s already fragile democracy”—though Israel’s Supreme Court hasn’t prevented the disenfranchisement of the vast majority of Palestinians under Israeli control.

Meanwhile, Gershom Gorenberg wrote in the Washington Post (3/23/23) that “Netanyahu and his henchmen” are seeking “to undo liberal democracy in Israel.” To him, even as Israel is a “fragile democracy,” it is one that “Israeli society…owes allegiance” to, and which it “has taken to the streets…to defend.” Gorenberg warns that, if Netanyahu successfully weakens the courts,

the most right-wing coalition in Israeli history could follow with laws harming the rights of women, the Arab minority, LGBTQ citizens and the press. A lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party has already submitted a bill aimed at disqualifying prominent Arab politicians from running for the Knesset.

It may be true that Netanyahu’s gambit could make life even worse for Palestinians—the “Arab minority” to which the author refers—living on the Israeli side of the Green Line. But it’s dishonest for Gorenberg to present “laws harming the rights of” Palestinians as a hypothetical possibility, rather than a defining feature of Israel’s past and present.

Israel already has 65 laws that explicitly discriminate against Palestinians “on the basis of their national belonging,” and Gorenberg only mentions one of these in his article: the nation-state law that, among other racist provisions, says that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is solely for the Jewish people,” even though 20% of the citizens of Israel are not Jewish.

‘Better health than believed’

Bret Stephens (New York Times, 3/28/23) defends Israel’s “democracy” without ever using the word “Palestinian.”

Two observers of the protests in Israel even praised Israel’s commitment to “democracy.” Bret Stephens of the New York Times (3/28/23) asserted that, “if Israel’s democracy is to be judged, let it at least be judged against other democracies. By that standard, it may be in better health than is sometimes believed.”

Stephens seems to be using a novel definition of democracy, wherein the practice allows for sweeping prohibitions of political parties: The Human Rights Watch report (4/27/21) that I refer to above notes that, as of 2020, the Israeli Defense Ministry had “formal bans against 430 [West Bank Palestinian] organizations, including the Palestine Liberation Organization that Israel signed a peace accord with, its ruling Fatah party, and all the other major Palestinian political parties.”

Nor, HRW goes on to note, are Palestinian parties inside Israel exempt from similar treatment:

Legal measures aimed at protecting the Jewish character of the state that discriminate against Palestinians undermine the pledge in Israel’s Proclamation of Independence to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Palestinian citizens vote in elections and have served in the Knesset, but Israel’s Basic Law: The Knesset—1958, which has constitutional status, declares that no candidate can run for the Knesset if they expressly or implicitly endorse “negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Israel’s Law of Political Parties (1992) further bars registration of any party whose goals directly or indirectly deny “the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” While the Supreme Court often opts against disqualifying candidates for violating these provisions, the provisions formally block Palestinians from challenging the laws that codify their subjugation and, in so doing, diminish the value of the right of Palestinian citizens to vote.

In other words, in Israel’s allegedly vibrant “democracy,” Palestinians can run for the legislature as long as they don’t endorse Palestinian equality. Or, to put it another way, Palestinians have the right to participate in Israeli “democracy,” provided they don’t call for Israel to become a democracy.

‘Harsh repression’—’elsewhere’

Nadim Koteich (Wall Street Journal, 4/10/23): “The Palestinian issue shouldn’t be the sole metric by which we measure Israel’s standing as a democracy,” because “few countries in the Middle East have a sterling record when dealing with ethnic or racial minorities.”

Similarly, the Wall Street Journal’s Nadim Koteich (4/10/23) claimed that there is “a distinction between the demonstrations in Israel and the protests elsewhere in the region,” where dissenters often face “harsh repression in the form of lawless imprisonment and execution.” However, Israel routinely enacts precisely such brutality against Palestinians.

For example, during the 2018–19 Great March of Return, Palestinians in Gaza held weekly demonstrations near the barrier that Israel uses to fence in the Strip. The demonstrators’ demands were that Israel lift the siege of Gaza and allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, as UN Resolution 194 stipulates. The UN reports that

Israeli forces responded by shooting tear gas canisters, some of them dropped from drones, rubber bullets and live ammunition, mostly by snipers. As a result, 214 Palestinians, including 46 children, were killed, and over 36,100, including nearly 8,800 children have been injured.

You probably won’t read about in your daily paper, but Israel’s real crisis of democracy is that Israel is not a democracy.


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