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Updated: 8 hours 56 min ago

Humanitarian Imperialism

March 3, 2021 - 5:44pm

 

Aversion to military intervention has been the default position of the left for at least half a century—certainly since the huge protests against the Vietnam War. Washington planners lamented the development of the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome”—a widespread progressive hostility towards US interventions (invasions, bombings, coups or economic warfare) around the world. A 2018 survey found the public still infected, with over two-thirds in support of limiting military action overseas, including 78% of Democratic voters.

President Joe Biden’s record of support for foreign intervention spurns that progressive tradition. As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden played a key role in selling the Iraq invasion to both Democratic colleagues and a skeptical public. He was also vice president in an administration that was bombing seven countries simultaneously by its end in 2016, and was a strong voice within the administration in favor of intervention (Foreign Policy, 2/25/11).

Worse, many of Biden’s cabinet picks have alarmed antiwar and human rights activists. His director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, was instrumental in covering up the US torture program, while his choice for head of USAID, Samantha Power, supported both the Iraq and Libya wars, arguing that the US must intervene on humanitarian grounds.

CNN (2/26/21) praises Joe Biden for killing people with restraint.

Earlier this week and barely a month into his presidency, Biden launched an airstrike on Syria, killing a reported 22 people, in supposed response to a rocket attack on a US base near Erbil, Iraq, that killed one US contractor. CNN international security editor Nick Paton Walsh (2/26/21) applauded the move, claiming Biden had successfully “sent a message” to Iran while being as “minimally lethal” as possible. For CNN, Biden had “used a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer.” Bloomberg columnist Bobby Ghosh (2/26/21) was similarly delighted, lauding the president’s unwillingness to tolerate Iranian “aggression,” claiming that this was sure to snap Iran out of its “sense of impunity.”

If history is any judge, further aggressive actions will also be met with approval by corporate media, who have continually found creative ways to pitch such actions to the traditionally anti-interventionist left, primarily through the use of progressive language to justify Washington’s global agenda.

Media are experts in using progressives’ empathy and compassion against them, presenting them carefully selected images and stories of suffering around the world, and suggesting that US military power can be used to alleviate it. As such, intervention is sold to the US left less on the basis of fear than of pity.

But when, as in the examples below, US actions make the situation worse for the peoples affected, the corporate press is careful to ignore or gloss over that suffering, or at least not present it as a direct consequence of US meddling in other nations’ affairs.

Not an invasion, a ‘no-fly zone’

PRI (3/8/11): “Military action…must begin quickly to prevent Libya and the world from becoming an even more dangerous place.”

In the run up to the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, media tried hard to sell the concept of a supposedly “humanitarian intervention.” “Why Obama should bomb Libya. Now,” ran Public Radio International’s headline (3/8/11). The US must act immediately to “bring to justice this brutal kleptocrat” (Moammar Gadhafi) who was attacking his own people, it argued. Without NATO action, it insisted, “a humanitarian disaster could soon unfold,” and failing to intervene would constitute a “victory for dictators across the globe.”

The New York Times (3/18/11) reported that three women close to Obama—Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power—were teaming up to “stop a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Libya.” Pro-intervention human rights lawyers like Geoffrey Robertson waxed lyrical about how the West’s fighter jets and cruise missiles would bring peace and prosperity to Libya (London Independent, 3/5/11, 10/23/11). “The civilised world has the right, and duty, to intervene. Failure may mean the mass murder of innocents,” he insisted (Sydney Morning Herald, 3/7/11).

In an article titled “Libya: The Case for US Intervention,” Time (3/7/11) insisted that any action would be focused not on overthrowing Gadhafi, but merely on establishing a “no-fly zone” to stop Gadhafi killing more civilians. Meanwhile, the Atlantic (3/10/11) published a list of “16 Ways the US Can Help Libya,” which included a number of military options. Doing nothing, it conceded in the final sentence after 1,700 words of regime change propaganda, was “also an option.” But, it told readers, that might be “the riskiest option of all.”

Of course, the “no-fly zone”—sold as an attempt to stop Libyan jets bombing their own country—quickly turned into a full-on military attack, with NATO air power driving Gadhafi into the hands of militia forces that brutally killed him. “We came, we saw, he died,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laughed to a CBS reporter (10/20/11) when she heard the news.

NATO’s intervention left much of the country destroyed and in the hands of ISIS, replete with slave markets. Yet when reporting on this fact, the corporate press were careful to erase NATO’s role in all of this (FAIR.org, 11/28/17), thereby helping make sure the Vietnam Syndrome did not metastasize into the Libya Syndrome. Seven years after NATO destroyed Libya’s government and left the country in the hands of feuding warlords, the New York Times (5/3/18) offered a multimedia tour of a ruined Benghazi, ostensibly answering the question, “How did the city come to this?”—and never once mentioned the NATO assault.

Behind closed doors, however, the “humanitarian intervention” crowd championed in media was far more frank about its motives, sounding as crass and bloodthirsty as Donald Trump. Leaked emails show that Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal Center for American Progress, was demanding that the US bomb Libya and make them pay us back for the pleasure: “We have a giant deficit. They have a lot of oil…. Having oil-rich countries partially pay us back doesn’t seem crazy to me,” she wrote (Intercept, 11/5/15). Tanden was Biden’s choice to direct the Office of Management and Budget (FAIR.org, 2/24/21), a nomination now withdrawn due to her history of intemperate tweeting.

If only US intervened more

The Guardian’s editorial board (9/3/15) denounced Western inaction in Syria, while demanding “much more must be done” to help refugees in the Middle East. “Compassion is necessary, and there are hard decisions to be made about Europe’s place in the world,” it argued, before clearly implying what sort of solution it wanted to see. “The refusal to intervene against Bashar al-Assad gave the Syrian president permission to continue murdering his people,” it wrote, suggesting that only “limited air strikes” would be inadequate.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson (9/3/15) declared that in Syria, “Inaction was a conscious, determined choice on the part of the Obama White House”—despite the fact that Obama’s CIA was spending $1 billion a year to overthrown the Syrian government (Washington Post, 6/12/15).

On the same day, the Washington Post (9/3/15) went further. In a column headlined “The Horrific Results of Obama’s Failure in Syria,” columnist Michael Gerson bemoaned that “relatively small actions might have reduced the pace of civilian casualties in Syria.” “How hard would it have been,” he asked, to order one more military intervention or some airstrikes? This would have swung the balance to what he called “more responsible forces.” Whether these “responsible forces” were the same as the “moderate rebels” his newspaper later admitted were “intermingled” with Al Qaeda/Al Nusra (Washington Post, 2/19/16) was not made clear. Instead, Gerson concluded, all we got was four years of a “pantomime of outrage”; a “sickening substitute for useful action.”

In reality, Obama was intervening heavily in Syria. The Post (6/12/15) itself had noted that the CIA was spending $1 billion per year (1/5th of its entire budget) on training, arming and fielding 10,000 of those “moderate rebels.” The Pentagon had also spent around half a billion dollars on a similar endeavor. There were also an estimated 1,000 US troops occupying Syria (FAIR.org, 9/5/15, 4/7/17).

Yet the “Obama did nothing” line continued into the Trump era, with the Associated Press (4/5/17) reporting:

After warning Assad that a chemical attack would cross a red line and trigger US action, Obama failed to follow through. Rather than authorizing military action against Assad in response to a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds outside Damascus, Obama opted instead for a Russia-backed agreement to remove Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

That was seen internationally as a major blow to US credibility and, for Obama’s critics, a prime example of weak leadership.

Thus a decision to favor diplomacy over potentially triggering World War Three was presented as an inherent “failure” of a “weak” Obama administration.

And when Trump took a more warlike stance on Syria, authorizing airstrikes on the country in 2017, corporate media went from resistance to assistance. A FAIR study (4/11/17) found that 39 of the top 100 US newspapers by circulation published editorials praising the decision, with only one (Houston Chronicle, 4/7/17) offering limited pushback on technical grounds. Meanwhile, Brian Williams, anchor on the supposedly adversarial network MSNBC (4/6/17), seemed to reach a higher plain of ecstasy watching Trump commit a major international war crime:

We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.” And they are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments.

L’impérialisme humanitaire 

Bernard-Henri Lévy in Newsweek (1/18/13): “For all those who think that democracy should not stop at the border any more than terrorism does, the French intervention is an undeniable victory.”

Media will also promote military intervention by foreign states, if the US government approves of it. A case in point was the French invasion of Mali in 2013. “France Comes to the Rescue of Mali,” thundered a Washington Post editorial (1/11/13). “For months, it has been evident to many global observers that a military intervention would be necessary,” it began, insisting that the country “must be rescued from becoming a failed state and a haven for the Islamic radicals.” It failed to mention that Mali was being overrun by jihadist forces precisely because of the already discussed French and US actions in nearby Libya.

An NPR segment (2/4/13) also implied that France’s actions were unimpeachable. When one guest suggested that a “cynical” position would be that French President François Hollande did it primarily to protect his ally Niger and to boost his ratings, this was denounced. The idea that this could be something more cynical, like a colonialist takeover, was summarily rejected, since France was invited to take action by the Malian government. Indeed, one guest on the program had just written an article called “The End of Neocolonialism.”

Newsweek (1/18/13) also applauded the move, running a piece by Bernard-Henri Lévy claiming it “restates the prominent role of France in the front lines of the struggle for democracy.” Complicating the picture was the bothersome fact that France was actually supporting a military dictatorship that had overthrown a democratically elected government less than a year previously. This conundrum was solved by not mentioning it.

Stop hitting yourself

Venezuela has been the target of more than two decades of US regime change operations, all met with virtually unanimous approval from corporate media (FAIR.org, 11/1/05, 5/16/18, 4/30/19). Chief among the cheerleaders has been the Washington Post. Its board puts out a constant flow of pro-regime change editorials (e.g., 4/14/02, 6/2/16, 6/30/17, 12/7/20), ignoring the effect US sanctions have had in devastating the country.

The Washington Post‘s caption (7/27/17) translates graffiti calling President Nicolás Maduro a “murderer,” but not the homophobic slur that follows it.

A typical example of this was a 2017 editorial (Washington Post, 7/27/17) that claimed that the “once-prosperous oil-producing nation has descended into political chaos and humanitarian crisis over the past several years.” The culprit, for the Post, was clear: it was the “Maduro regime”—that is, the government of President Nicolás Maduro—that “bears exclusive blame” for the “catastrophic economic conditions it has created.” The US role, it told readers, had been “consistently inadequate—too little and too late,” although it praised Trump for further sanctioning the country, insisting that he was only targeting “senior Venezuelan officials involved in drug trafficking and the suppression of democracy.”

In reality, Trump’s sanctions were aimed at the “poor and most vulnerable classes,” according to the United Nations. A study (4/25/19) by the Washington-based Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) later estimated that the new sanctions the Post had cheered about were responsible for the deaths of more than 40,000 Venezuelans between August 2017 and the end of 2018 alone.

The report could have been used by liberal outlets to hammer Trump. But the organizations that reported on CEPR’s findings were few and far between, and mostly limited to small, foreign sources (FAIR.org, 6/26/19).

The humanitarian impact of US sanctions has also been hidden by media when it comes to Lebanon (FAIR.org, 8/26/20) and Iran (FAIR.org, 4/8/20), allowing the corporate press to represent those countries’ struggles as purely a result of their governments, thus further fueling calls for something to be done—that “something” far more likely to be increased intervention than an end to economic warfare. In essence, the sanctions put in place the economic conditions necessary for corporate media to demand intervention on humanitarian grounds.

Amazingly, bombs, missiles, coup attempts and sanctions don’t help foreign countries flourish. On the contrary, they are often the catalysts for political, social or humanitarian situations to worsen. These conditions, in turn, are subsequently used as more justification for increased sanctions or bombings. It is a beautiful system: when the cure causes the disease, you will never run short of demand for your medicine.

The forgotten war

Perhaps the most blatant example of ignoring the effect of US actions is Yemen, the country the United Nations has called, for some years now, the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” Some 24 million people (80% of the population) require   assistance, as cholera and other diseases run rampant. If humanitarian intervention is necessary anywhere, it is here.

Unfortunately, the US is already intervening—to make matters much worse. For years, the US has been arming, training and supporting the Saudi-led coalition’s onslaught, largely aimed at the civilian population, signing a reported $350 billion arms deal with Riyadh, and even helping with target acquisition for Saudi bombers. The Saudis have deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure; since the war began in 2015, they have carried out an attack on medical or water facilities once every ten days, on average. The US has defended its ally at the UN, and even pressured member states into reducing their donations to the relief effort. As a result, aid to Yemen halved to just 25 cents per person per day in 2020.

Yet outlets with comparatively progressive audiences have not been informing their audiences of these facts, let alone calling for a humanitarian intervention. In fact, MSNBC went over one year without mentioning US involvement in the world’s bloodiest ongoing war. For comparison, over the same period, it ran 455 segments on Trump’s connections to porn star Stormy Daniels (FAIR.org, 7/23/18). Yemeni journalists complain that the West sees Iraq and Syria as more “newsworthy” than the conflict raging further south, making it harder to find publishers for their work. A search for “Syria” on the websites of the New York Times, CNN or Fox News will elicit 3-4 times more results than one for “Yemen” over the same time period.

NBC (2/5/21) reported that “Saudi Arabia…has long been an important ally of the United States in the region, cooperating on counterterrorism, acting as a bulwark against Iran and presiding over crucial oil reserves.”

Biden has announced a withdrawal of support for the Saudi offensive, a sign of what he modesty labelled America’s “moral leadership” of the world. “We shine the light, the lamp, of liberty on oppressed people,” the president said in a speech publicizing his new position, a stance that generated considerable praise (e.g., NBC News, 2/5/21; New York Times, 2/5/21; The Hill, 2/6/21).

Yet as Yemen-born academic Shireen Al-Adeimi (In These Times, 2/4/21) pointed out, Biden only committed to stopping support for “offensive operations,” while doubling down on Saudi Arabia’s right to “defend” itself from supposed Houthi aggression. This appears to be only a repositioning of Obama’s Yemen stance. Furthermore, helping Saudi Arabia “defend” itself could de facto support the offensive, as it will free up more Saudi units for offensive duties.

The point of the language of humanitarian intervention is to try to manufacture consent for regime change, war or sanctions on foreign countries among progressive audiences who would normally be skeptical of such practices. This is done through selective outrage, naked deception and the use of a new language of humanitarian intervention, pulling on the heartstrings of readers to get them to support fundamentally illiberal actions. Once it is no longer politically expedient, interest in the rights of others is dropped and the press turns its attention to the next story, leaving the survivors to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Next: The Tropes of Humanitarian Imperialism

Equality Act Coverage Provides a Platform for Hate—but Not for Trans Voices

March 3, 2021 - 2:16pm

 

In a Twitter thread (2/25/21), Ari Drennen pointed out that news reports on the Equality Act amplified bigotry but not trans voices.

Despite the increased societal acceptance of people in the LGBTQ community, 29 states have failed to pass anti-discrimination laws to protect them. To address this, the Equality Act—a federal bill to provide national protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, public education, federal funding, credit and the jury system—passed the House of Representatives for the second time on February 25. However, the media coverage of the bill has underrepresented LGBTQ people and propagated narratives that are harmful for the same people the Equality Act seeks to protect.

As Ari Drennen, a communications staffer at the Center for American Progress, pointed out in a Twitter thread, several major outlets failed to quote even a single trans person in their stories. Her list included the New York Times (2/25/21), the Washington Post (2/25/21), CNN (2/25/21), NBC (2/25/21), CBS (2/25/21), The Hill (2/25/21) and USA Today (2/25/21). (The Washington Post later added a quote from Virginia Delegate Danica Roem, one of the country’s first openly transgender elected officials.)

“Shutting trans people out of mainstream discussions of our rights means these conversations are missing their most moving element,” Drennen explained in a tweet. “I have friends who’ve been denied jobs or housing for being trans. They need protection, but you wouldn’t know it from the news.”

Other parts of  the LGBTQ community fared only slightly better in most coverage. Although Rep. David Cicilline, an openly gay co-sponsor of the bill, was quoted in most breaking news articles in major outlets (though not necessarily with any identification of him as gay), he was often the only one. USA Today (2/25/21) was one of the only major outlets to push beyond this apparent invisible limit and quote three LGBTQ people. Those included Democratic Rep. Mark Takano of California—the first openly gay person of color in Congress—and Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the first LGBTQ woman elected to Congress in 1999 and to the Senate in 2012. Both congressmembers emphasized how important the bill is for ensuring the rights of LGBTQ people.

While sidelining LGBTQ sources, journalists focused on the Republican opposition—which meant that rather than hearing about the content of the bill and how it could codify millions of Americans’ civil liberties and concretely impact their lives, readers were treated to largely unchallenged reprintings of the GOP’s hateful and dangerous rhetoric on the issue.

Politico (2/25/21) regrets that the “antics” of open haters like Marjorie Taylor Greene have deprived more decorous Republicans of the ability to “sensitively communicate” their opposition to human rights protections.

A Politico headline (2/25/21) put that approach on full display: “Historic LGBTQ Rights Bill Passes—After Exposing GOP Divisions.” The piece, by Olivia Beavers and Melanie Zanona, highlighted the Republican Party’s newest attention-seeking conspiracy theorist, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, whose anti-trans harassment of fellow Rep. Marie Newman, who has a transgender daughter, drew widespread condemnation. “Some Republicans,” Politico reported,

worry that [Greene’s] controversial antics…have stomped on their attempts to sensitively communicate why they are opposed to the LGBTQ rights bill. Most Republicans say they oppose the measure due to its perceived infringement on religious freedom, not out of discriminatory sentiment toward LGBTQ people — a fine line that Greene has effectively erased.

But Politico did its best to help out the GOP’s attempts to “sensitively communicate.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was described as opposing the bill based on “its effects on religious liberties and women’s sports,” saying it is part of a Democratic “onslaught against freedom of religion—for girls’ sports as well.” Politico allowed him to make these claims without a shred of evidence.

Trans women and men have been participating in sports, and efforts to exclude them are not about “protection” but rather control, and the ongoing effort to erase trans people from all facets of society. In fact, scientists have repeatedly stated that there is no single biological determinate for sex, and a person’s sex assigned at birth does not innately yield them advantages or disadvantages in any manner of competition.

The piece also quoted Rep. Chris Stewart, author of a “compromise” bill “aimed at protecting LGBTQ rights as well as religious freedom”: “‘It isn’t an either-or,’ Stewart said, referring to protecting LGBTQ rights and religious freedom. ‘We believe it can be both.'”

But alas, Beavers and Zanona wrote, “that message has been complicated by Greene”—not, apparently, by the fact that civil rights and LGBTQ groups have pointed out that Stewart’s bill is “deeply dangerous” and would not just “essentially licens[e] discrimination against LGBTQ people and women,” but also “erode protections that already exist for people based on race, sex and religion,” a stance only briefly and vaguely referenced in the article.

Politico wasn’t alone in its problematic approach to the Equality Act. CNN (2/25/21) reported that “opponents say [the bill] would force women and girls to share private spaces with men,” and that “critics also say the bill could facilitate men participating in women’s sports if they identify as female”—formulations that accept the transphobic misgendering of trans women, akin to reporting that “critics of the Civil Rights Act say that it would give subhumans the same rights as people.”

CNN went on to quote Republican Rep. Andy Biggs, who called the bill a “devastating attack on humanity,” and claimed that it “recklessly requires girl’s and women’s restrooms, lockers, gyms or any place a female might seek privacy, to surrender that privacy to biological males.”

The only rebuttal CNN offered to these gross misrepresentations came in the form of vague quotes from Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, calling Republicans “mean” and emphasizing the need for “pride.”

NBC (2/25/21) offers three paragraphs of transphobic propaganda from the Heritage Foundation—but no rebuttal from trans people.

NBC (2/25/21) quoted the website of the right-wing Heritage Foundation think tank at length, giving a platform to baseless claims about what would result from the bill’s passage—from stating that people might lose their jobs or businesses if they don’t “conform to new sexual norms,” to asserting that the bill would “leave women vulnerable to sexual assault.” The network’s choice to regurgitate the think tank’s claim about sexual assault is particularly abominable considering trans people face staggering, unconscionable rates of violence, including sexual assault and murder.

The Hill (2/25/21) also quoted lies about the bill without offering any rejoinders. It printed a lengthy excerpt from Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, who made many aggressive claims about abortions, surgeries and gender identity during his floor speech about the bill. That quote followed several paragraphs stating similar conservative claims about freedom and religious liberty; the paragraph after it merely mentioned a number of large companies that support the bill.

Each of these outlets offered influential platforms to Republicans to lambast the bill and vilify the LGBTQ community with antiquated and deeply harmful talking points. Crucially, opponents were given space to make false or misleading claims about the impact of the bill, while proponents were rarely given a chance to offer a vision of what they hoped the bill would accomplish.

What those advocates have made clear, outside of these articles, is that the Equality Act would finally expand and codify the tenuous anti-discrimination protections LGBTQ people currently have, making them significantly harder to take away. As Imara Jones, the creator of TransLash Media and a trans woman of color, explained on MSNBC (2/28/21):

As long as people can use their own discrimination as a basis to deny us equal access to housing, to education, to health care, to the full range of things that everyone else has, makes the case that we need the Equality Act.

That lack of equality, she said, “underscores that the work of this country remains fundamentally undone.”

The Guardian (2/25/21) was able to cover the Equality Act without spreading falsehoods about trans people.

International news outlets like the BBC (2/26/21) and the Guardian (2/25/21) have done a significantly better job of covering the bill’s passage. “Equality Act: US House Passes Sweeping LGBTQ+ Rights Bill,” read the Guardian headline above a piece that focused on the bill’s real implications. The article quoted a diverse set of LGBTQ people, including Janson Wu, executive director of GLAAD and a gay Asian American—though it failed to quote a trans person in its reporting.

The British paper also mentioned the Republican opposition and the uphill battle the bill faced in the Senate, but, importantly, it did so without giving a platform to unsubstantiated claims and hate speech. By withholding that platform, it also protects LGBTQ people. US outlets should take a cue from their British counterparts.

Featured image: Photo of rainbow flags accompanying a BBC story (2/26/21) about the Equality Act.

‘The System Worked as Designed in Texas; That’s the Really Scary Thing’

March 2, 2021 - 12:31pm

Janine Jackson interviewed Food & Water Watch’s Mitch Jones about the Texas freeze-outs for the February 26, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Texas Monthly (2/19/21)

Janine Jackson: The winter energy crisis in Texas has led to a number of strange scenes, from frozen fish tanks and basements turned into skating rinks to officials claiming that the crisis—in which more than 4 million people were left without electricity or heat, some without water, during a frigid week, and those whose lights stayed on faced eye-popping bills—was caused by the state’s reliance on renewable energy sources. Or, in the words of Gov. Greg Abbott, that it “just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.” Even a critical article on the “disaster foretold” takes the time to spell out:

For the record, no one who is well-informed about energy is suggesting that Texas, or, for that matter, the nation or the world, can or should operate without fossil fuels—in at least the next several decades.

So will that be the takeaway from this chain of events that, by the way, killed at least 80 people, including an 11-year-old boy found frozen in his bed? A round of fingerpointing among officials, followed by a return to the same set piece of debate about “regulation” versus “freedom,” a kind of ping-pong match on the edge of a cliff, while regular people wonder if we’ll survive the next “unprecedented,” “surprise” catastrophe, or the one after that?

Assuming we want to get off this dangerous dime, what type of conversation will move us forward, and what ideas need to be left behind? Mitch Jones is policy director at Food & Water Action and Food & Water Watch. He joins us now by phone from Baltimore. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Mitch Jones.

Mitch Jones: Thank you, Janine; it’s great to be back on.

Washington Post (2/23/21)

JJ: One could spend a lot of time, I guess, with the various factors, and blame, and history, and there are important stories there. But if we want to prevent such a thing from happening again, then it seems like we need to target the conversation.

Like, for example, board members of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, that monitors the electricity grid, and that ordered the outages: I hear that they’re resigning now, and I’m reading that folks are outraged because some of them didn’t even live in Texas—and I’m not really sure how germane that particular outlet of energy is. I wonder if you would talk us through: What are the things to be looking at as the main factors that led to this still-evolving crisis in Texas?

MJ: One of the biggest factors in all of this, the immediate crisis anyway, was the fact that the Texas regulators never required the power plants in Texas to winterize. And you would think, given that they had major power outages in 2011, in winter, and then came very close to doing so again in 2014, that by now, the Texas legislature would have taken steps to winterize power plants. But that wasn’t done.

Texas remains a widely deregulated electricity market. There’s very little oversight over the utilities in the state, relative to other states. They aren’t required to take these necessary steps to protect reliability, because it will harm profits, and the Texas system is designed to put profits before people.

And this is really, in the immediate crisis, the thing that failed most, was that you had a lot of fracked-gas electricity go offline, you had nuclear power go offline, you had coal plants go offline and, yes, you did also have some non-winterized wind turbines go offline. But the vast majority of the electrical load that dropped was from fossil fuels, and it was because of the lack of regulation and preparation in Texas, and putting profits before having a reliable grid system.

New York Times (2/21/21)

JJ: When media, like the New York Times, for example, are talking about that deregulation—which I think folks are kind of acknowledging at least set the stage for this storm, and the outages around it, to be as catastrophic as it was—the New York Times explains that “the people” wanted that energy deregulation that the energy industry also wanted. And the phenomenon that you just explained—the Times says, “With so many cost-conscious utilities competing for budget-shopping consumers, there was little financial incentive to invest in weather protection and maintenance.”

It sounds a little bit like, it’s not that the system was flawed, but it just kind of didn’t work, and at least partly because people are so cheap–people were trying to save money, you know. And the Times piece also says that the ‘prediction of low-cost power generally came true.’ In other words, deregulation may have failed in the pinch, but that up until now, it was working just fine.

MJ: That’s interesting, because the Wall Street Journal, that paragon of socialism, reported yesterday that deregulation in Texas has cost Texas ratepayers $28 billion since 2004. In other words, their research shows that had Texas not deregulated, the residents of Texas would have saved $28 billion over the past 17 years on their utility bills.

So if the Wall Street Journal can see, by looking at the evidence and looking at the data, that deregulation not only failed to deliver the lower prices that were promised—and this is seen throughout the country; it’s seen basically everywhere electric markets were deregulated—if the Wall Street Journal can see that, then I think we need to take really seriously the fact that deregulation failed on its central promise, which was to deliver lower electricity prices to consumers.

JJ: Let’s talk a bit about the opposite of that, these folks who are getting really life-altering electricity bills now, the folks who did not lose power. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is saying, “We have a responsibility to protect Texans from spikes in their energy bills that are a result of the severe winter weather and power outages.”

Well, that’s sidestepping exactly what those spikes are the result of, but I also have a question. I don’t want people to be stuck with these crazy bills, but I just wonder: Will this failure mean nothing if we then go back to saying, “Look, it’s cool to do this off-the-grid thing, because mostly you get low rates, and then, when the system works as intended and you get gouged in times of trouble, well, the state will step in and soften it.” It sort of seems like they get to live by the sword but not die by it, and promote a system that doesn’t actually work the way that they say that it will.

Mitch Jones: “We at Food & Water Watch have called publicly, loudly, for a public takeover of electric utilities and power generation, so that it can actually be governed democratically for the good of the people.”

MJ: Right. We’ve got to be clear: The system worked as designed in Texas; that’s the really scary thing. From the failures because they didn’t winterize to the price-gouging prices. And the big headline grab is that costs shot up to $9,000 a megawatt-hour for electricity. The fact of the matter is, that’s the cap in Texas, and in the immediate wake of the power outages, there were people proposing lifting the cap to as high as $21,000 a megawatt hour. In other words, there were people saying, “What Texas doesn’t have enough of is even a wilder price swing in the middle of a crisis,” which is obviously fundamentally absurd.

You know, we don’t want people to be paying these bills; they shouldn’t have been price-gouged in the first place. There is a hazard that if the state steps in and takes over those bills, however, that we do get into a situation where the state of Texas is effectively bailing out the utilities, and feeding them the price-gouging prices every time a crisis happens. And then there’s no incentive–because, again, there’s no regulation to force the companies to do this in Texas–but there’s no incentive then for these companies to take measures to avoid these outcomes in the future.

And if anything, the way that the market is designed in Texas is designed specifically to prevent these utilities from taking precautionary measures ahead of time, because they make their profit from the price gouging. That is where their profit is going to come from. That’s why—and it’s not just on electricity, it’s on natural gas; there was the president of the natural gas company owned by Jerry Jones (who’s also the owner of the Dallas Cowboys), who said they “hit a jackpot” last week because of price spikes, due to an inability to deliver natural gas through frozen pipelines.

That’s how the Texas system is designed, and we can’t fall into a repeated pattern of the government bailing out the utilities in this way. Texas needs really massive reform to its electricity system. It needs to get a handle on those electric providers. And we at Food & Water Watch have called publicly, loudly, for a public takeover of electric utilities and power generation, so that it can actually be governed democratically for the good of the people.

JJ: Well, that sounds like right where I wanted to go for a final question, just maybe expanding on it.

MJ: I was reading your mind.

JJ: I saw this thing from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that they’re going to “open a new investigation to examine…”—and you just, ugh! A new investigation to examine the threat…. Is the scale of the response commensurate with the scale of activity that things need to be on now? And if it’s not, what really is called for?

MJ: The response isn’t of a commensurate scale to the crisis and the failure, which also extended to water systems and other systems.

Congress really needs to take a lead. I know they’ve been talking about holding hearings, but they need to do more than just hold hearings. They need to craft and pass meaningful legislation to begin to unwind the decades-long push driven by the Koch brothers, Enron and others, to deregulate our electric markets, our electric utility industries, and turn them into for-profit cash cows for investors. That’s where Congress needs to go. It needs to be a federal response, not a state-by-state response. And at the moment, we’re not really seeing concerted effort for that.

Some members of Congress, Congresswoman Cori Bush from Missouri, in particular, are calling for these sorts of measures. But right now, we’re not really seeing that concerted effort. But I hope that in the weeks to come, we will start to see those hearings form and see legislation be drafted in response.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Mitch Jones from Food & Water Watch and Food & Water Action. They’re online at FoodAndWaterWatch.org. Thank you so much, Mitch Jones, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MJ: Thank you, Janine.

 

Corporate Media Parrot FBI Talking Points as More Americans Turn to Encrypted Communication Online

February 28, 2021 - 5:46pm

 

FBI Director James Comey (Nextgov, 10/8/15) told Congress that his agency lost track of “dozens” of terror suspects because of encryption. “We’re really not just mak­ing this up,” he assured senators.

Before he became a household name as the accused spoiler of the 2016 election, James Comey, FBI director under President Barack Obama, was already well-known in tech circles as a crusader against strong encryption. Still smarting from Edward Snowden’s exposure of the US government’s massive and illegal domestic spying operations, Comey grabbed any microphone he could during the waning years of Obama’s tenure to warn Americans that encryption technology was putting us all at grave risk by causing law enforcement to “go dark.”

Cryptography is the art of encoding text or other data such that only those who have the secret key can read it. This data can include anything from messages and records to digital currency—but these days encryption most commonly protects account passwords and other sensitive information as it traverses the internet.

Encryption has been around for millennia and, in modern times, it is used on a daily basis by nearly every person living in a technologized society. But like any technology, it can frighten those in power when wielded by the relatively powerless. In the summer of 2015, Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee that encryption had suddenly inspired the FBI “to consider how criminals and terrorists might use advances in technology to their advantage.”

Sensitive to the public’s lingering outrage at the Snowden revelations, Comey turned to the usual parade of horribles in his attempts to convince Congress that encryption isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: “Malicious actors can take advantage of the internet to covertly plot violent robberies, murders and kidnappings,” he warned. “Sex offenders can establish virtual communities to buy, sell and encourage the creation of new depictions of horrific sexual abuse of children.”

Comey preferred to use “horrific sexual abuse of children” and the specter of terrorism to disparage encryption technology—recall the showdown between the FBI and Apple after the perpetrators of a late-2015 massacre in San Bernardino left behind an encrypted iPhone. But the ACLU (4/1/16) quickly exposed his fraud: Researchers uncovered 63 court orders for access to encrypted devices and reported, “To the extent we know about the underlying facts, these cases predominantly arise out of investigations into drug crimes”—rather than terrorists and pedophiles.

In the wake of the January 6 mob attack on the US Capitol Building, this pattern is repeating itself again…only now corporate media are taking up the FBI’s mantle on their own behalf.

NBC (1/12/21) warned that “right-wing extremists are using channels on the encrypted communication app Telegram to call for violence against government officials on January 20.”

Following the violence in DC, headlines across corporate media declared: “Far Right Turns to Encrypted Platforms to Stoke Further Unrest” (Financial Times, 1/14/21). This mass “relocation” online led corporate outlets to speculate that political extremists were planning something huge. NBC News (1/12/21) cherry-picked posts on the encrypted messaging app Telegram to foment fears of “a big turnout in Washington at Biden’s inauguration on January 20.” Politico (1/12/21) and the Washington Post (1/14/21) similarly linked the use of encryption to imminent violence. Despite weeks of breathless anticipation, that violence never materialized.

Like Comey, corporate media have resorted to guilt by association to turn their readers against digital security. According to Vice (4/17/19), encrypted messaging apps and e-mail systems are chock-full of the worst people in the world, like “ISIS members,” “neo-Nazi extremist groups” and at least one “paramilitary organization.” Now we can add angry white men in furs to the list.

More recently, Forbes (1/13/21) introduced its readers to the creators of Signal and Telegram (among the most popular encrypted messaging platforms) who belong to another infamous class: billionaires. Never mind that Forbes normally counts billionaires among the world’s most important people. To cement reader acrimony, they made sure to mention that Telegram’s founder is Russian.

What preoccupied corporate media more than the possibility of violence in the near term, however, were the long-term implications for law enforcement. The Washington Post lamented, in multiple articles (1/17/21, 1/18/21), that the feds have “lost a valuable resource to monitor the growing threat.” Fortune (1/13/21) similarly complained that “encryption makes it difficult for law enforcement to monitor users.” The message is clear: Far-right extremists are coming to a town near you and, thanks to evil billionaire-funded technology, the police are helpless to do anything about it.

Corporate media’s argument that encryption creates crime and that cops need exceptional access to stop it is as outmoded as it is simplistic. Their premise and conclusion are just as false now as they were when Comey staged his anti-encryption tour five years ago.

In fact, news media’s resurgent obsession with encryption is just the latest episode in a decades-long effort to undermine user security in favor of domestic surveillance, with each iteration colored by the threat du jour. But instead of educating readers on the history of this conflict and the lessons learned, most corporate media seem to have forgotten all about it.

Alex Gladstein (Time, 1/26/21): “The main superspreaders of extremist content remain centralized corporate platforms like Facebook and YouTube, not open-source privacy platforms.”

As Alex Gladstein recalled for Time (1/26/21), this debate originated in the 1990s with the dawn of internet communication and the US government’s original complaints about “going dark.” To solve that pseudo-problem, the National Security Agency developed the Clipper Chip, a piece of hardware that, when installed in consumer products, would give law enforcement exceptional access to otherwise unreadable data.

The Clipper Chip met fierce resistance from consumer advocates and was panned by scholars, who concluded that this kind of technology would “require significant sacrifices in security and convenience, and substantially increased costs to all users of encryption,” that “the breathtaking scale and complexity” of such a system was “beyond the experience and current competency of the field,” and for these reasons “may well introduce ultimately unacceptable risks and costs.” After securing only one major adopter—its own Department of Justice—the US government abandoned the project.

As Comey ramped up his crusade against encryption in 2015, the same scholars got together again to reassess these so-called “crypto wars.” They found that “today, the fundamental technical importance of strong cryptography and the difficulties inherent in limiting its use to meet law enforcement purposes remain the same.” And although Comey sought to convey the sense that a “going dark” phenomenon was just emerging, “the arguments are the same as two decades ago,” they concluded.

Here we arrive at the present day, with corporate media peddling a new bogeyman in service of the same bogus arguments. Forbes (2/1/21) declared that “tech companies are going to have to decide whether they hate right-wing extremists more than they love privacy and freedom from government snooping.” “The problem is these apps are hamstrung by their absolutist posture,” Mark MacCarthy wrote, suggesting a middle-ground approach that wasn’t feasible in 1993 and is even less feasible today.

While there are myriad problems with giving cops exceptional access to encrypted systems, the overarching issue is that technical vulnerabilities are morally agnostic—it doesn’t make any difference if the person taking advantage of the exploit is an FBI agent or a malevolent hacker.

As the experts cited above wrote, “This is a trade-off space in which law enforcement cannot be guaranteed access without creating serious risk that criminal intruders will gain the same access.”  Not just messaging apps, but all internet-based activity is put at risk by creating backdoors to encryption.

At the end of the day, Snowden demonstrated that there is no “going dark” phenomenon—we live in a golden age of surveillance, in which the US government and tech corporations have ready access to more data about their targets than at any point in history.

Moreover, all of corporate media’s bellyaching about political extremists and encryption occurred after the riot was announced online, endorsed on nationwide radio, permitted by the National Park Service, and organized in plain sight on Facebook. Why, then, are corporate media again suggesting that we cripple the most important technology on the internet when law enforcement can’t even prevent violence planned out in the open?

Shoshana Zuboff (New York Times, 1/29/21): “The United States and many other liberal democracies chose surveillance over democracy as the guiding principle of social order.”

The answer is that there is a facile tendency to blame technology (encryption) for social-political problems, while at the same time heralding technology (surveillance) as a silver bullet against those problems. And while the problematic technology is typically accessible to everyday people, the exceptional technology is only available to those with power.

After the Snowden revelations, several NYU graduate students recognized this fixation on technology as part of a troubling depoliticization process. “The idea that solutions for societal problems can come from technical progress and sophistication in the private sector,” they wrote, “is the bread and butter of Silicon Valley corporations.” In other words, by focusing reader attention on encryption instead of the social and political conditions that give rise to right-wing extremism, corporate media are doing yeoman’s work for their benefactors.

In an extraordinary op-ed for the New York Times (1/29/21), Shoshana Zuboff offered a different take on the January 6 riot—that such reactionary violence is an inevitable outcome of social surveillance, not digital privacy:

Social media is not a public square but a private one governed by machine operations and their economic imperatives, incapable of, and uninterested in, distinguishing truth from lies or renewal from destruction.

Time‘s Gladstein (1/26/21) thinks “the culture war over encrypted messaging might finally be ending,” but, so long as corporate media parrot FBI talking points and keep readers in the dark about their invalidity, the battle will continue with everyone’s online security as collateral damage.

Power Analysis Failure

February 26, 2021 - 6:05pm

 

This New York Times piece (2/17/21) criticized “advocates for fossil fuels” for “trying to shift blame” for blackouts to renewables…

“No, Wind Farms Aren’t the Main Cause of the Texas Blackouts,” a New York Times headline (2/17/21) instructed readers three days after the extreme weather event that precipitated widespread infrastructure failures in the Lone Star State, failures that caused mass suffering and led to dozens of deaths. The article, by Dionne Searcey, appeared after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was called out by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (among many others) for blaming renewable energy sources for the state’s power grid collapse.

Abbott, the Times accurately reported, was “among the most prominent in a chorus of political figures” blaming renewables for the blackouts. “The talking points,” it said, “reinvigorated a long-running campaign to claim that emissions-spewing fossil fuels are too valuable a resource to give up.” It went on to explain that wind power produces only some 7% of the state’s power, and that insufficiently weatherized infrastructure across energy sources was the real problem. “That didn’t stop some Republicans from targeting green energy as a chief culprit,” the Times intoned.

Yet two days earlier, the Times itself was doing the same thing. In a piece by Clifford Krauss and energy reporter Ivan Penn headlined “Frozen Turbines and Surging Demand Prompt Rolling Blackouts in Texas” (2/15/21), no other energy sources were explicitly mentioned as “part of” the problem, even though Texas’s small renewable energy sources actually outperformed forecasts during the crisis. It seems that fossil-fuel “talking points” influenced the paper of record, as well as Texas politicians.

(The Times was hardly alone in following fossil-fuel messaging blaming renewables. Climate analyst Ketan Joshi provided extensive examples in a February 15 tweet thread.)

…but just a two days earlier, another piece in the Times (2/15/21) stressed that “part of the problem arose when wind turbines in West Texas became frozen.”

This pair of New York Times articles was illustrative of what I found when I looked at 45 articles the Times posted from February 15 to February 23. Early stories focused mostly on the impacts on people and businesses without much explicit analysis, though nonetheless inescapably suggested an analysis, one that tended to exculpate energy companies and their allies in the Texas government.

In “Winter Storm Disrupts Wide Swath of American Business,” for instance, the Times‘ Peter Eavis and Neal E. Boudette (2/16/21) reported that grid managers “have had to order rolling blackouts after many power plants were forced offline because of icy conditions and some could not get sufficient supplies of natural gas. Some wind turbines also shut down.”  This framing in effect blamed the weather rather than insufficiently weatherized infrastructure, and didn’t explain at all why natural gas supplies ran out. One additional sentence said, “At the same time, demand for electricity and natural gas has shot up because of the cold weather,” without adding that the extra demand was more than the grid could accommodate, thus prompting blackouts.

Rising anger and frustration at the infrastructure failures prompted the first Times piece (2/16/21) that gave more than a few lines to the question of why Texas’s electric grid failed. It, too, started by reflexively blaming the weather: “As a winter storm forced the state’s power grid to the brink of collapse….”

“For years, energy experts argued that the way Texas runs its electricity system invited a systematic failure,” the article, by David Montgomery, Rick Rojas, Ivan Penn and James Dobbins, said. It cited researcher Robert McCullough’s view that by dropping requirements for power producers to hold reserves, the state “simply lacked backup for extreme weather events increasingly commonplace as a result of climate change.”

This New York Times article (2/16/21) failed to examine the claim that “the state’s energy market has functioned as it was designed.”

But then the Times cited a counterpoint from the Harvard Kennedy School economist who designed the Texas energy market, and abandoned analysis by simply reporting a “he said, he said” argument. According to this William Hogan, “the state’s energy market has functioned as it was designed”:

That design relies on basic economics: When electricity demand increases, so too does the price for power. The higher prices force consumers to reduce energy use to prevent cascading failures of power plants that could leave the entire state in the dark, while encouraging power plants to generate more electricity.

Is it too much to ask that the paper of record itself assess whether supply shortages, days-long blackouts, lack of potable water, and people freezing to death in their homes is a systemic failure or a system functioning as designed?

The New York Times shrugged off this responsibility, noting simply that “the rules of economics offered little comfort” to those stuck without power.

“The steep electric bills in Texas are in part a result of the state’s uniquely unregulated energy market,” the Times (2/20/21) explained in “His Lights Stayed on During Texas’ Storm. Now He Owes $16,752.”  This article, by Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and (again) Ivan Penn, went on to repeat the same point/counterpoint, from the same sources, as the earlier one, quoting William Hogan saying, “As you get closer and closer to the bare minimum, these prices get higher and higher, which is what you want.”

But again, there’s no engagement with this view. Just another shrug about a woman who gave in to the rules of economics and said: “I finally decided the other day, if we were going to pay these high prices, we weren’t going to freeze. So I cranked [the thermostat] up to 65.”

Was it “energy independence” that Texas proponents of deregulation sought, as this New York Times headline (2/21/21) suggests—or higher profits for energy companies?

It was not until a week after the storm that the New York Times (2/21/21) ran a piece on the grid failure itself, “How Texas’ Drive for Energy Independence Set It Up for Disaster,” wherein “energy independence” should really be spelled “market fundamentalism.” The piece, credited to Clifford Krauss, Manny Fernandez, Ivan Penn and Rick Rojas, traced the current problems back to the 1999 decision to radically deregulate the Texas energy market.

“The energy industry wanted it. The people wanted it. Both parties supported it,” the Times said about that decision. It went on to say that the “prediction of lower-cost power generally came true.” No “experts argue that,” no citation; just flat-out statement of fact.

But it’s not true. A Wall Street Journal investigation (2/24/21) demonstrated this week that deregulation raised prices, not lowered them:

Those deregulated Texas residential consumers paid $28 billion more for their power since 2004 than they would have paid at the rates charged to the customers of the state’s traditional utilities.

It seems the New York Times just took the benefits of deregulation on free-market faith rather than factchecking it.

In addition to the (nonexistent) cost savings, the Times said in the same February 21 piece, “the newly deregulated system came with few safeguards and even fewer enforced rules.” “With so many cost-conscious utilities competing for budget-shopping consumers, there was little financial incentive to invest in weather protection and maintenance,” it explained:

With no [reserves] mandate, there is little incentive to invest in precautions for events, such as a Southern snowstorm, that are rare. Any company that took such precautions would put itself at a competitive disadvantage.

Dressed in the antiseptic language of economics—“little incentive to invest”—this article tries hard not to say what it is saying: that the free market cannot provide social goods. That is, absent non-market intervention (i.e., regulation), for-profit utilities simply will not develop the kind of infrastructure that is needed to address human needs that are required for survival.

This New York Times article (2/19/21) blames deaths in the freeze on “poverty, desperation and…a lack of understanding of cold-weather safety”—not on the “state’s energy market [that] functioned as it was designed.”

Texans have paid a steep price, not just in electric bills, but in suffering and lives lost, as a direct consequence of the market dogmatism that undergirds their energy system. But the way the New York Times covered the crisis obscured rather than illuminated that. Articles on the crisis that detailed the suffering and losses have avoided analysis of the causes, and articles explaining the systemic failure (such as they are) don’t delve into the human cost.

“Extreme Cold Killed Texans in Their Bedrooms, Vehicles and Backyards” (2/19/21), by Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Richard Fausset and Johnny Diaz, for instance, painted a grim picture and includes heartbreaking stories. As for analysis, this is all there was: “Coming into clearer view were the dimensions of a public health crisis exacerbated by poverty, desperation and, in some cases, a lack of understanding of cold-weather safety.” No mention of the market functioning as it was designed to, or explanation of the relationship between deregulation and the inability of the electric grid to withstand an extreme weather event of this sort. Just blaming poverty (itself a systemic failure) and the poor, who don’t spend time skiing in Aspen and therefore aren’t familiar with “cold-weather safety.”

Keeping the causes and effects of the Texas Freeze crisis in separate articles lessens the chance that readers will feel the full weight of the reality that capitalism kills. William Hogan is in fact right: The system is functioning as it was designed to. And that’s the problem. Just don’t expect the New York Times to help anyone realize 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.

 

Trump Briefings? Always News. Biden Briefings? Not News.

February 26, 2021 - 4:30pm

 

Nowadays, corporate media would have you believe they are appalled by Donald Trump: He’s a liar and a cheat who distorted our democracy and was rotten to the press. I mean, they had to cover him because he was president, but they held their nose the whole time, and now they can’t wait to get back to serious reporting on policy.

CNN (3/16/16) shows Trump’s empty podium.

The only trouble is, if you have a memory longer than a minute, you’ll recall that CBS head Les Moonves (Extra!, 4/16) declared flatly that the ad money and ratings Trump brought the network mattered much more than any harm giving him a platform might incur. “It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” Or maybe you remember the time that CNN, Fox and MSNBC (FAIR.org, 3/16/16) all aired an empty podium where Trump was scheduled to speak instead of Bernie Sanders actually speaking.

Or maybe you’re just paying attention. As Press Run critic Eric Boehlert (2/22/21) noted recently, just a month into Joe Biden’s term, CNN has unceremoniously stopped airing daily White House press briefings. They didn’t cover Barack Obama’s much; in the last six months of his presidency, just 3% of daily briefings aired live (Media Matters, 5/30/17). But in early 2017, the DC press corps collectively decided that every Trump utterance had to be broadcast live, even if the briefings were “built on deceits [and] designed to foil honest inquiries,” as Boehlert said. Even if he was telling folks to inject themselves with bleach or accusing hospital workers of stealing PPE.

After one freakish display, CNN anchor John King (4/13/20) declared, “That was propaganda aired at taxpayer expense in the White House briefing room.” But the network just kept on airing them.

So the upshot: Obama briefings? Not news. Trump briefings? Always news. Biden briefings? Not news again.

Whatever you make of the fact that a news network’s rule of  “Everybody stop what you’re doing, the White House is about to make a statement!” only seemed to hold when they could expect that statement to be akin to a flaming car wreck…just remember that those are the “journalistic” criteria they’re working with all the time.

ACTION ALERT: Messages to CNN can be sent here (or via Twitter @CNN). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your message in the comments thread of this post.

Featured image: Trump spokesperson Sean Spicer and Biden spokesperson Jen Psaki.

‘Workers Are Increasingly Required to Sign Away Their Rights’

February 26, 2021 - 12:14pm

 

The February 19, 2021, episode of CounterSpin brought together archival interviews from Celine McNicholas, Joanne Doroshow and Kate Bronfenbrenner on forced arbitration and the NLRB. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Welcome to CounterSpin, your weekly look behind the headlines. I’m Janine Jackson. This week on CounterSpin: One of the more hopeful things you might not have heard about is the revival in the House of Representatives of the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal (or FAIR) Act that would ban those ubiquitous small-print “agreements” that annul critical worker and consumer rights, like the ability to bring class action lawsuits. Prominent proponents include Google employees and former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson; but as bill sponsor Hank Johnson of Georgia explained, it’s really about narrowing the “massive power differential between soulless corporations and individuals just trying to get by.”

We’ll get some background on forced arbitration and why it matters from previous CounterSpin conversations with Celine McNicholas from the Economic Policy Institute and Joanne Doroshow from the Center for Justice and Democracy.

An important if hidden engine of the corporate corrosion of worker/consumer rights has been the National Labor Relations Board, the federal enforcer of labor law. It seems like change is afoot there: Biden apparently called for the resignation of the Board’s general counsel, famously anti-union Peter Robb, 23 minutes after becoming president. He fired Rob when he refused to resign. And then Biden fired the next Trump appointee who took the job. We talked about the Trump-era NLRB while it was happening with Cornell University’s Kate Bronfrenbrenner. We’ll hear part of that conversation today.

That’s all coming up on CounterSpin, brought to you each week by the media watch group FAIR.

***

Janine Jackson: The press release for a 2019 report from the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Popular Democracy included a straightforward quote from Oregon college student Brenda Rojas:

While working at Buffalo Wild Wings, my coworkers and I experienced wage theft regularly, and worked in an environment of constant sexual harassment. Complaining about these working conditions was pointless, because we had signed a forced arbitration clause, and the company knew that we couldn’t fight back in court. None of us understood the forced arbitration language when we signed our new-hire paperwork. But we were told that if we did not “check all the boxes,” we would not be hired. How can students like me build a brighter economic future when our employers are allowed to rip us off?

We talked with one of the report’s authors, Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs and labor counsel at the Economic Policy Institute. We asked about the significance of releasing that report on the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, Epic Systems v. Lewis.

Celine McNicholas: Epic Systems essentially codified the problem that you just revealed in the quote that you read, that workers are increasingly being required to sign away their right to sue when their employment rights are violated by their employer.

And Epic Systems essentially green-lighted employers embracing that practice, and, unfortunately, going into the decision, the majority of workers were already facing the threat of this. And we now know that employers are increasingly embracing it since the decision. So a year out, we’re seeing this more and more.

JJ: We talk, in media and elsewhere, about the labor “market,” as though people were mobile economic actors who can make informed choices about where to work. So if you don’t want to sign away your right to a class action lawsuit, the unspoken thinking goes, don’t take a job that requires it.

We should take issue with that idea, and, obviously, people have never been identically situated with regard to choices.

But your report makes it clear that in the private sector, in the nonunion private sector, not signing these things is increasingly just not an option. And it’s not just college students and their first jobs.

CM: That’s exactly right. And I think you hit on the fundamental myth, right, that we’re all sort of free agents in this economy.

And I think it’s wonderfully encouraging that unemployment continues to decrease, and wages, for the first time in a long time, we’re actually experiencing some level of an uptick. But still, most working people feel lucky to have a job, and feel that they have very little leverage, in that initial negotiation with their employer for the terms and conditions of their work.

And so in practicality, we all know, we can all admit that we signed the paperwork on the first day on the job—and we’re happy to be signing up for, potentially, if we’re lucky enough, healthcare, and all of the other tangential forms—but we also may be signing away this right, without even really realizing the implications of what we’ve been asked to sign as a condition of working there. And that’s a really troubling trend, because it applies across all employment rights.

JJ: These forced arbitration clauses that the report projects, by 2024, 80% of private-sector, nonunion workers will be covered by these forced arbitration clauses. Let’s spell it out: What is wrong with forced arbitration?

CM: So, short answer is “everything.” We’ll go into detail here: Essentially, when you are forced to arbitrate a claim, an employment claim, I would argue, in particular, because we just talked about the fact that most workers, you have limited leverage on the job; the employer, if they’re not happy with you, they can fire you for any reason at all, just not a narrow set of prohibited reasons that are protected reasons under the law.

Let’s say you’re being sexually harassed in your workplace, but you’ve been forced to sign an arbitration agreement on that first day. That means that, if you’re not getting any kind of relief, you go to HR, you go to your supervisor, and he or she says, “OK, we’re going to help you resolve this, but we’re going to do it through arbitration, you have no right to sue us.”

That immediately limits your leverage. But it also puts you into a process that hugely favors that employer, because you’re going it alone, you’re using a system that they’re paying for, “they” being the employer. That disadvantages all workers.

JJ: You very specifically are prohibited from joining together with other folks in the workplace who are experiencing the same problems that you might be.

CM: Yes, because many of these waivers include what you just referenced, a class or collective action component. And that means that you are in this system, arbitration, which is this unequal, unfair system, because the employer is really the entity that is a repeat player; that means that they are more familiar with the arbitrators, they’re often giving them business. So there’s this implied injustice in the whole system itself.

But then in addition to that, you’re doing this alone, you’re navigating as an individual worker. Whereas if you brought suit as a class or collective action, you would have a great deal more leverage.

JJ: And I understand that, mainly, what it does is just kind of discourage. It’s not even so much that workers lose when they go through this process; knowing that that’s their only option pretty much discourages them from taking action in the first place.

CM: I think that that’s exactly right. And it makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. Just think of how difficult in practicality it is to voice any kind of concern in your place of work. Figuring out who do you go to. Oftentimes, a supervisor may be, unfortunately, involved in the conduct that is violating the law.

And so you’re navigating an already difficult process, and then you’re being compelled to do so on your own. Most folks are not familiar with arbitrations; it sounds like an incredibly formal process. And it would not be incorrect if the employer says, “This is going to cost you money,” because oftentimes workers are absorbing some of the cost for the process itself. And in addition to that, they can say, “You’re going to be unlucky in this system, because we’ve navigated this a couple of times, and your fellow workers haven’t done very well in the process.” And as you point out, that is true.

So it’s not as advantageous. People do worse in the system than they do in court.

JJ: There are meant to be entities that are enforcing these workplace rules. Even if the sort of David vs. Goliath situation of individual workers is disadvantageous, there are protective entities, government agencies, that are meant to be looking out for them. The report also deals with problems in that enforcement area. What’s the problem or the concern there?

Celine McNicholas: “At the same time that many of us in our work are being asked to sign away our private right of action through this system of forced arbitration, we are also facing fewer and fewer cops on the beat in terms of public enforcement of those rights.”

CM: This is sort of a perfect storm, in my view, because what you’re seeing is decreased public enforcement; there are fewer and fewer public dollars being invested in enforcing workplace protections.

So at the same time that many of us in our work are being asked to sign away our private right of action through this system of forced arbitration, we are also facing fewer and fewer cops on the beat in terms of public enforcement of those rights. The Department of Labor’s, state departments of labor’s, budgets have decreased, while the workforce has expanded, and that leaves all of us with less protection in the workplace. And also, combined with forced arbitration, it’s such an incredible advantage—which is where that ominous title of this report comes from—it is an incredible advantage to corporate employers at this point, because they are making enforcement of any means, whether private or public, something that the vast majority of the workforce is losing access to.

JJ: We have these laws, you know, we make these laws on wages, against wage theft or on workplace safety. And then it seems like with Epic, the Supreme Court is just kind of waiving them away.

I mean, it’s kind of a balance of powers question, too, isn’t it? It seems like a real lopsided power that the Court is exercising here.

CM: Absolutely. And, in my view, Congress needs to act on this to restore the rights that were hard-won protections when they were originally enacted. Title VII, the right that fundamentally you can’t be discriminated against, harassed in the workplace, that’s an enacted law, that’s an enacted protection. And, essentially, it has been made very difficult, if not impossible, for many, many workers in this country to access that right.

Congress needs to then restore the right and say, “Hey, Supreme Court, you’ve misinterpreted this, you’ve essentially made this something that is no longer enforceable for the vast majority of workers when we gave this protection to the US workforce. You’ve overstepped”—just as you said—“and now we want to correct you.”

And this is not the first time that something like this has happened, where Congress has had to come in and correct something that the Supreme Court has misinterpreted. And it is my hope that they will do so here, because this cuts across fundamental rights, like even being paid the minimum wage. It is more difficult to enforce those rights when you have a system of forced arbitration that the Supreme Court has essentially blessed at this point in time.

***

Janine Jackson: The Supreme Court’s 2018 Epic Systems ruling rested on previous decisions, like one in 2013 that said that the fact that the arbitration process might cost plaintiffs, workers or consumers fighting mammoth corporations more than they could hope to recover, was immaterial. “Antitrust laws do not guarantee an affordable procedural path to the vindication of every claim,” sniffed Antonin Scalia.

In 2015, the New York Times ran an important series exposing the machinations that lay behind such thinking. We talked about that with Joanne Doroshow, founder and executive director of the Center for Justice and Democracy, and cofounder of Americans for Insurance Reform.

Joanne Doroshow:  Yeah, what we found out from this New York Times series is that in 1999, a bunch of big companies got together in a room and decided how they were going to start strategizing to make sure that they could start doing this to consumers, that they could start inserting these clauses and banning class actions, and that the US Supreme Court would uphold it. It was really startling to find out that the current Supreme Court chief justice, John Roberts, when he was a corporate defense lawyer, was part of all of that; he was representing Discover, the credit card company, at the time. And so now we are stuck with these decisions.

JJ: It seems important, again, to underscore that class action lawsuits, while they might be about the $30 overcharge that one person got, they really also are the only way, in some ways, you can expose wrongdoing on a big scale. I mean, some of these cases are about Taco Bell, for example, the charge that they—at least one outlet—was denying Black people promotions. The class action lawsuit isn’t just about the particular legal remedies for individuals; they really are about exposing wrongdoing on a larger scale.

JD: Absolutely; one of the most famous class actions in history was Brown vs. Board of Education. It is a very important tool for anyone who has been discriminated against, or who wants to try to hold big institutions to account for any kind of wrongdoing.

JJ: The pushback to the Times series is already underway. Forbes had a piece saying: Aha, the Times doesn’t tell you who the lawyer was for the one of the businesses involved in the case against American Express; he’s a lawyer known for fighting credit card companies! That’s the real face of consumer class action. These aren’t lawsuits by little guys trying to vindicate their rights; they are lawsuits by wealthy attorneys trying to get wealthier.

JD: That’s the only thing they have to say, is to try to blame lawyers. But there’s nothing I’ve seen so far, in any of the critiques of these New York Times articles coming from businesses, that suggests in any way that there is anything inaccurate about anything they said. What these businesses try to do is make it seem as if consumers are not benefiting from these class actions, but what we also know is that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in March, after a long empirical study, they found, in just the last year, tens of millions of people benefiting to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

***

Janine Jackson: CounterSpin spoke with Joanne Doroshow again in 2018, in the immediate wake of the Supreme Court’s 5–4 ruling in Epic Systems.

Joann Doroshow: “You’re forced to resolve your case in a private, secret, rigged arbitration system that’s controlled by the company.”

Joanne Doroshow:  Just to step back for a minute, it’s not, of course, just workers that are affected by the problem we’re talking about. And the problem we’re talking about are forced arbitration clauses that are buried in the fine print of, these days, most credit card, cell phone, any kind of online terms-of-use agreements; nursing home admission forms; many other everyday contracts, including employment contracts.

And what they mean is that if the company cheats, defrauds, discriminates against or harms you in some way, you cannot sue the company in court, or have any kind of judge or jury trial. And, instead, you’re forced to resolve your case in a private, secret, rigged arbitration system that’s controlled by the company. And you may have to pay the arbitrator. There’s no right to appeal.

And these clauses also have what’s called “class action bans” or “class action waivers,” which means that you—as you say—you cannot join with others, you have to only litigate your dispute individually, your small claim, let’s say. In most cases, this is going to mean that you’re not going to be able to bring your dispute to any kind of resolution at all, because you’re not going to be able to afford to do that.

That’s why class actions are so important: It allows you to join with others, cover the expenses that way. And also, when we’re talking about discrimination, let’s say, or harassment, it’s critical that you be able to join with others, in order to show a pattern or a practice of discrimination, or a systemic company policy. You can’t do that as an individual. So there are many reasons why class actions are so important. And what this decision did, it basically said that an employer can unilaterally prevent you from bringing class action, and force you into these secret arbitration systems.

JJ: And it rests—inasmuch as there’s an argument for it—it rests on this in-a-vacuum libertarian fantasy world in which labor, for example, is as mobile as capital, and all workers and consumers are completely informed and have choices. So if, for example, your prospective employer requires you, as a stipulation for employment, to sign away your right to class action suits, well, you just pick another employer, you know? You just go elsewhere.

And in the case of Epic Systems, they sent a form to their employees, and if you showed up for work, then you were deemed to have accepted the terms of that agreement. So you talk about small print; I mean, it’s small print and it’s also a kind of blackmail in a way.

JD: Yes, and that goes to the issue of consent. What the other side says is, “Oh, you’ve consented, because you’ve signed this.”

Well, these are all “take it or leave it” contracts, and if you don’t take it, you don’t get a job, or, in the context of consumer contracts, everybody in the entire industry has them. There is no negotiation here.

And, sadly, what Congress was trying to do, with the National Labor Relations Act in the 1930s, is they made it illegal for employers to interfere in any way with the employees’ rights to engage in “concerted activity.” They knew that there was strength in numbers, and they needed to be able to join with others in order to get a fair deal from big companies, from employers.

And what this case did is basically said that legal concerted activity, like a class action, it’s OK to violate that section, basically, of the National Labor Relations Act; it’s OK for an employer to prevent concerted legal activity. So it really undermined the entire purpose of the labor law, which was the seminal piece of legislation enacted in the ’30s.

It’s shocking that the Court would just so casually do something like this, and yet they did it at a 5-to-4 vote. It was certainly not inevitable, but unfortunately, once Neil Gorsuch got on the Court, the vote became that. And he was the one that wrote this decision.

***

Janine Jackson: The National Labor Relations Board is the interpreter of US labor law, charged with protecting employees’ rights, and with encouraging collective bargaining. Authors of the National Labor Relations Act were well aware that workers’ safety and strength lay in their numbers. While multiple factors have undermined workers’ power for decades, the Trump-era NLRB still managed to make things worse.

We talked in late 2019 with Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research and a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.  She said the problems were clear from the start.

Kate Bronfenbrenner:  We could just look at the appointees that came to the Board under Trump. The first appointee, John Ring, had to recuse himself from the first decision that came before the Board when he came through; he was actually involved in the company that the decision was on. He didn’t recuse himself, and then they had to reverse the decision, because he was actually involved with the employer.

JJ: It says a lot. Well, let’s pull back just a little bit and explain what the NLRB is. I mean, it’s kind of like the FCC, you’ve just indicated; it’s these five presidential appointees, it’s always going to be weighted by the party that’s in power. But right now, there’s just four of them, right? There’s a vacant seat.

KB: That’s right.

JJ: Their rulings are binding, though, even if you’re not used to seeing them in the headlines, but they do have a legal effect in workplaces, right?

KB: They do. And they’ve always been somewhat of a political animal in that the president, when there’s a vacant seat, they get to fill that vacant seat, but it’s never been an effort to have extreme people on the Board.

JJ: Right.

KB: But under the Trump administration, the appointees have been extremists. And that has really changed the tenor of the Board.

JJ:  I wanted to draw you out a bit on that, because I saw you cited in a piece by Bobbi Murray at Capital & Main, saying that it’s not uncommon, when an administration changes, when a new White House comes in, for National Labor Relations Boards to reverse some decisions, some preceding decisions, but that what’s happening now with the Trump NLRB is of a different order. What are you talking about there?

KB: The decisions have been to reverse long-standing precedent, as opposed to reversing cases that have been always debated. So before, the trend was to reverse cases that have been always one of debate, where there was a one-vote difference. But now, the reversals have been on cases that had been upheld for decades. And that’s a very different trend. Longstanding principles before the Board.

JJ: Can you talk about a recent decision on how employers can stop bargaining? It sounds like it’s minutiae, and it’s huge in its impact, this new decision, calling for a new union election every time the contract is up for expiration…

KB: The Board is now giving employers much more power to question the majority status of the unit. Before, it was up to workers to file a decert petition at the end of the contract. If workers wanted to decertify the union, it was up to workers to file decertification. (Decertification means that they no longer want the union.) But the employer wasn’t the one that initiated that, the workers did. The only way the employer could say that they felt that the union shouldn’t be there is if they had a really strong reason to believe the union no longer represented the majority. For example, that there had been a complete turnover in the workforce, that they knew that all the workers they had hired were no longer there.

But now the employer can call for an election, that there should be a decertification election, and not wait for the workers to do that; and they can do that every time the contract expires. So that’s a huge change.

JJ: And sort of throw everything into turmoil. It just seems like a tremendous lever to move over to the employers’ hand.

Kate Bronfenbrenner: “No matter what employers do, workers still try to organize.”

KB: Most of all, it means the union has to spend energy; every time the contract comes up, a union has to spend its energy dealing with running through an election process, rather than working on building power for bargaining. And unions will probably win those, but it’s a negative effort, rather than the positive effort of building power for bargaining.

JJ: I think that although listeners may not have known about some of these NLRB decisions, they may not be surprised; they’re fitting in with a slew of anti-worker actions that we’ve seen from this administration, from letting companies that commit wage theft police themselves, and denying extension of overtime protections and undercutting antidiscrimination enforcement. We could go on and on. But I know that, at the same time as we see this administration trying to lock down this anti-organizing Board, we also do see a lot of tangible worker victories. Teachers, for instance, but then also the Fight for 15. If you expand your understanding of who “labor” is, there’s plenty to see right now that’s encouraging, don’t you think?

KB: Well, we see young workers more excited about unions than ever before. And that means that the future will have more union support. That’s a positive trend that’s very exciting. We see an increased interest among white-collar workers, we see digital media is organizing, we see workers across the industrial spectrum organizing, that’s a new trend.

We also see the immigrant workers, despite all the pressures against them, what a frightening time it is, that they are organizing. And despite all the shenanigans about misclassification of workers, contract workers have been organizing for decades. And I think that it shows that no matter what employers do, workers still try to organize. So Uber workers and Lyft workers have been going on strike, trying to organize.

JJ: Yes, it seems that workers recognize that the playing field is not what it was. But there is, if anything, maybe I’m hopeful, but I do see a revival of worker-organized activity inside and outside of traditional unions, as we understand them.

KB: Yeah. And there’s been a groundswell of organizing among low-wage workers, high-tech workers, and much of it is led by women of color.

***

Janine Jackson: That was Kate Bronfenbrenner from 2019; before her, you heard Joanne Doroshow from 2015 and 2018,  and Celine McNicholas from 2019. And that’s it for CounterSpin for this week.

CounterSpin is produced by FAIR, the media watch group based in New York.The show is engineered by Alex Noyes. I’m Janine Jackson. Thanks for listening to CounterSpin.

Mitch Jones on Texas Freeze-Outs, Joe Torres on News for All the People

February 26, 2021 - 11:09am

 

New York Times (2/21/21)

This week on CounterSpin: As Texans continue to deal with impacts of a deadly combination of frigid weather and power outages, the New York Times report on the crisis allows as how “part of the responsibility for the near-collapse of the state’s electrical grid can be traced to the decision in 1999 to embark on the nation’s most extensive experiment in electrical deregulation.” There have been multiple warnings of potential problems, the Times says, “But there has not been widespread public dissatisfaction with the system, although many are now wondering if they are being well served.” It sounds a little like blaming people for not realizing they’d been sold a broken umbrella while the sun was out. If media really expect people to actively challenge the promises pushed—aggressively and constantly—by the energy industry, maybe they could do a little more challenging themselves? We’ll talk about lessons from Texas with Mitch Jones, policy director at Food & Water Watch and Food & Water Action.

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Verso Books

Also on the show: Part of the scandal of Black History Month is that it’s a “month” at all, of course, with the implication that the contributions and experiences of Black people in this country are ancillary to the “real” history—that’s it a class you can skip and still pass the course. The further scandal is that so much of the history we learn in February is not just little-known, but hidden—entire stories of events and movements and lives that, if they were stitched routinely into our understanding of this country, would utterly reshape it. That’s true not least of media’s own history—a  problem named and responded to with the 2011 publication of News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, co-authored by Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres. We spoke with Joe Torres, now senior director of strategy and engagement at the group Free Press, when the book came out. We’ll hear that conversation today.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at (non-)coverage of White House press conferences.

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What Is ‘Moderate’ About Opposing a Minimum Wage Backed by 3/5ths of Voters?

February 25, 2021 - 2:02pm

 

Douglas Schoen (The Hill, 2/24/21) wrote that including a minimum wage increase in the Covid relief package “will likely ensure the bill’s failure in the Senate,” because “some moderate Democrats and almost all Republicans are likely to oppose it.”

As Democrats push to include a $15 federal minimum wage in the Covid stimulus package, many media reports have been giving the false impression that it’s an idea far outside the mainstream.

CNN (2/21/21) labeled the $15 minimum wage a “controversial measure.”  The Hill (2/18/21) wrote, “The minimum wage increase is one of the most divisive parts of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief package.”

At the New York Times (2/21/21), Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition to including the wage measure prompted this analysis:

Mr. Manchin’s position is also bolstered by a political reality that places moderate voters at the forefront—a fact that Mr. Biden’s White House is keenly aware of. For Democrats to maintain their House majority in the midterm elections next year, they must hold seats in Republican-drawn districts that are often populated by moderate suburban voters. In the Senate, where Democrats are seeking to expand their razor-thin control of the chamber in 2022, they must secure tough statewide victories in places like North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

But however “moderate” such voters might be, they’re likely to support the measure. The latest polling (Quinnipiac, 1/28–2/1/21) finds 61% of the public backs a $15 minimum wage, with only 36% opposed. A 2019 Pew poll that broke support down by party and ideology found that even among Democrats (and independents who lean Democratic) who identify as moderate or conservative, a whopping 82% favor the wage hike, and that 59% of Republicans and Republican leaners who identify as moderate or liberal back it as well. On Election Day in Florida, where Trump won by 3 percentage points, voters also backed a $15 minimum wage ballot initiative by nearly 22 percentage points—which clearly undermines Manchin’s position rather than bolstering it.

The LA Times (2/17/21) reported that Biden, described as “a pragmatist who spent decades in the Senate,” was worried that a minimum wage hike would be deemed “inappropriate” for reconciliation.

Yet terms like “moderate” (and similar journo favorite “pragmatic“) pepper reporting about the minimum wage hike to describe those who oppose it on both sides of the aisle. The LA Times (2/17/21), describing Biden “pumping the brakes” on keeping the minimum wage hike in the relief bill, labeled him a “pragmatist,” and explained that “some moderate Democratic senators have expressed concern about the wage hike.” At the New York Daily News (1/30/21), “pro-business GOP moderates oppose the hike.”

Yet for all the professed concern, $15 per hour wouldn’t even be a living wage in many parts of the country, as a CNBC report (2/21/21) pointed out. A study by Dean Baker (CEPR, 1/21/20) noted that if the minimum wage had kept pace with gains in productivity—as it did from 1938 through 1968—it would today not be $15 an hour, but $24. In other words, it’s a policy that’s not just popular, it’s also hardly extreme.

In corporate media, it seems, the minority view that opposes a living wage can also be the “moderate” one—so long as it’s “pragmatically” courting business interests.

Featured image: Graph from CEPR (1/21/20) comparing the actual minimum wage in inflation-adjusted dollars to a hypothetical minimum wage that kept pace with productivity.

 

Applause for Perseverance Ignores Plutonium Bullet We Dodged

February 25, 2021 - 11:07am

 

ABC (2/22/21) had one of many reports that celebrated the Mars landing without noting that the rover was powered by plutonium—or the risks NASA had taken in launching that payload into space.

With all the media hoopla last week about the Perseverance rover, frequently unreported was that its energy source is plutonium—considered the most lethal of all radioactive substances—and nowhere in media was the NASA projection that there were 1-in-960 odds of an accidental release of the plutonium on the mission.

“A ‘1-in-960 chance’ of a deadly plutonium release is a real concern,” says Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.

Further, NASA’s Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the $3.7 billion mission acknowledges that solar energy could have been an “alternative” power source for Perseverance. Photovoltaic panels have been the power source for a succession of Mars rovers.

One in 100 rockets undergo major malfunctions on launch, mostly by blowing up. NASA in its SEIS (viewable online) described the potential impact of an accidental release of plutonium during Perseverance’s July 30, 2020, launch on the area around Cape Canaveral under the heading “Impacts of Radiological Releases on the Environment:

In addition to the potential human health consequences of launch accidents that could result in a release of plutonium dioxide, environmental impacts could also include contamination of natural vegetation, wetlands, agricultural land, cultural, archaeological and historic sites, urban areas, inland water and the ocean, as well as impacts on wildlife.

It adds:

In addition to the potential direct costs of radiological surveys, monitoring and potential cleanup following an accident, there are potential secondary societal costs associated with the decontamination and mitigation activities due to launch area accidents. Those costs may include: temporary or longer term relocation of residents; temporary or longer term loss of employment; destruction or quarantine of agricultural products, including citrus crops; land use restrictions; restrictions or bans on commercial fishing; and public health effects and medical care.

NASA was compelled to disclose the estimated odds of an accident, consequences of a plutonium release and alternatives to using nuclear power under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Meanwhile, the US is now producing large amounts of plutonium-238, the plutonium isotope used for space missions. The US stopped producing plutonium-238 in 1988 and began obtaining it from Russia, a trade that was halted in recent years. A series of NASA space shots using plutonium-238 are planned for coming years.

Plutonium-238 is 280 times more radioactive than plutonium-239, the isotope used in atomic bombs and as a “trigger” in hydrogen bombs. There are 10.6 pounds of plutonium-238 on Perseverance.

We dodged a plutonium bullet on the Perseverance mission. The Atlas V rocket carrying it was launched without blowing up. And the rocket didn’t fall back from orbit, with Perseverance disintegrating on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and dispersing its plutonium.

But with NASA planning more space missions involving nuclear power, including developing nuclear-powered rockets for trips to Mars and launching rockets carrying nuclear reactors for placement on the Moon and Mars, space-based nuclear Russian roulette is at hand.

The acknowledgement that “an accident resulting in the release of plutonium dioxide from the MMRTG [Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator] occurs with a probability of 1 in 960” is made repeatedly in the SEIS.

The amount of electricity produced by Perseverance’s plutonium generator is minuscule—some 100 watts, similar to a light bulb.

The solar-powered Mars rover Opportunity, designed for a 90-day mission, kept working for 14 years. (image: NASA)

A solar alternative to the use of plutonium on the mission is addressed at the start of the SEIS, in a “Description and Comparison of Alternatives” section. First is “Alternative 1,” the option adopted, using a plutonium-fueled generator “to continually provide heat and electric power to the rover’s battery so that the rover could operate and conduct scientific work on the planet’s surface.”

That is followed by “Alternative 2,” which states:

Under this alternative, NASA would discontinue preparations for the Proposed Action (Alternative 1) and implement a different power system for the Mars rover. The rover would use solar power to operate instead of a MMRTG.

The worst US accident involving the use of nuclear power in space came in 1964, when the US satellite Transit 5BN-3, powered by a SNAP-9A plutonium-fueled radioisotope thermoelectric generator, failed to achieve orbit and fell from the sky. It broke apart as it burned up in the atmosphere. “A worldwide soil sampling program carried out in 1970 showed SNAP 9-A debris to be present at all continents and all latitudes,” according to a 1990 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Swedish National Institute for Radiation Protection; the level of  plutonium-238 in the Earth’s environment tripled (LA Times, 7/25/88).

After the SNAP-9A (SNAP for Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power) accident, NASA became a pioneer in developing solar photovoltaic power. All US satellites now are energized by solar power, as is the International Space Station.

The worst accident involving nuclear power in space in the Soviet/Russian space program occurred in 1978, when the Cosmos 954 satellite with a nuclear reactor aboard fell from orbit and spread radioactive debris over a 373-mile swath from Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake in Canada. There were 110 pounds of highly enriched uranium fuel aboard.

I first began writing widely about the use of nuclear power in space 35 years ago, when I broke the story in The Nation magazine (2/22/86) about how the next mission of the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle, which blew up on January 28, 1986, was to loft the Ulysses space probe, designed to orbit around the Sun, which was fueled with 24.2 pounds of plutonium-238.

If the Challenger had blown up on that mission, scheduled for May 1986, and released Ulysses’ plutonium, it would not have been six astronauts and teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe dying, but many more people.

Pursuing the issue, I authored the books The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet and Weapons in Space. I wrote and presented the TV documentary Nukes in Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens and other TV programs. And I have written many hundreds of articles.

The absence in media reporting on the nuclear dangers of the Perseverance Mars rover is not new. In The Wrong Stuff, I include a section on “The Space Con Job.”

I quote extensively from an article published in the Columbia Journalism Review (7–8/86) after the Challenger accident by William Boot, the magazine’s former editor, headlined “NASA and the Spellbound Press.” He wrote:

Dazzled by the space agency’s image of technological brilliance, space reporters spared NASA thorough scrutiny that might have improved chances of averting tragedy—through hard-hitting investigations drawing Congress’s wandering attention to the issue of shuttle safety.

He found “gullibility” in the press. “The press,” he wrote, has been “infatuated by man-in-space adventures,” and “US journalists have long had a love affair with the space program”:

Many space reporters appeared to regard themselves as participants, along with NASA, in a great cosmic quest. Transcripts of NASA press conferences reveal that it was not unusual for reporters to use the first person plural. (‘When are we going to launch?)

In The Wrong Stuff, I also wrote about an address on “Science and the Media” by New York Times space reporter John Noble Wilford in 1990 at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Wilford declared: “I am particularly intrigued by science and scientists…. My favorite subject is planetary science.” After his talk, I interviewed him, and he acknowledged that “there’s still a lot of space reporters who are groupies.” Still, he went on, “Some of the things that NASA does are so great, so marvelous, so it’s easy to forget to be critical.”

On NBC’s Today show (2/18/21), the attitude of the reporters on the morning of the Perseverance landing  was as celebratory as the label of the video aired: “Jubilation at NASA Control.” Never was there a mention of nuclear power or plutonium, or the acknowledged risks of an accidental dispersal.

The Global Network’s Bruce Gagnon commented:

I am disheartened that the media shows little inclination to mention the words “plutonium” or “probabilities of accidental release” in their so-called reporting of the Mars rover arrival. You have to question who they work for.

We daily hear the excited anticipation of the nuclear industry as stories reveal the growing plans for hosts of launches of nuclear devices—more rovers on Mars, mining colonies on the moon, even nuclear reactors to power rockets bound for Mars. The nuclear industry is rolling the dice while people on Earth have their fingers crossed in the hope technology does not fail—as it often does.

Gagnon’s Maine-based international organization has been challenging the use of nuclear power and the deployment of weapons in space since its formation in 1992. The US has favored nuclear power as an energy source for space-based weapons (LA Times, 7/25/88). He added:

The media, while ignoring the Mars rover plutonium story, are also guilty of not reporting about the years of toxic contamination at the Department of Energy nuclear labs where these space nuclear devices are produced. The Idaho Nuclear Laboratory and Los Alamos Nuclear lab in New Mexico have long track records of worker and environmental contamination during this dirty space nuke fabrication process.

The public will need to do more than cross our fingers in hopes that nothing goes wrong. We need to speak out loudly so Congress, NASA and the DoE hear that we do not support the nuclearization of the heavens. Go solar or better yet—stay home and use our tax dollars to take care of the legions of people without jobs, healthcare, food or heat.  Mars can wait.

 

 

Amid Scrutiny of Tweets, Tanden’s Role in Killing a Union Website Should Not Be Forgotten

February 24, 2021 - 2:38pm

 

Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP) think tank, may or may not be confirmed by the Senate as the Biden administration’s budget chief. Republicans and one conservative Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, may reject her based on her past of posting overly personal attacks against Republicans on Twitter. Those attacks also extended to independent socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, although it is expected that he’ll vote for her (Newsweek, 2/11/21).

The obvious angle much of the press is focused on is Republican complaints that Biden has appointed a partisan in-fighter while claiming to be pursuing national unity (CBS, 2/20/21; CNN, 2/22/21). It’s tempting to view the whole affair as another episode of finger pointing over “cancel culture,” as Republicans, who nominally object to angry social justice activists limiting the free speech of aggressive Twitter users, are now trying to do just that to someone on the other side of the aisle.

A typical story from ThinkProgress (8/28/19)

While it’s not an issue that is likely to torpedo her nomination, one part of her record should give pause to anyone concerned with how she would set economic policy when it comes to workers: her role an apparent attempt to bust a union of media workers.

CAP, under Tanden’s leadership, published ThinkProgress, a liberal-leaning news site covering many aspects of policy and politics—similar to Huffington Post or Politico, but with a clearer partisan anchoring. The ThinkProgress union was a unit of the Writers Guild of America East, which in recent years has moved beyond the film and television industry to organizing journalists in the digital media sector (FAIR.org, 6/18/19). The ThinkProgress union secured its first collective bargaining agreement in 2016, which included wage floors, revenue sharing, editorial independence and a just cause provision, the latter making it hard to fire workers.

The short version is, according to Talking Points Memo (9/10/19): CAP announced that it was shutting down the site, laying off union staffers, and then said it was going to relaunch the site days later. The union cried foul, seeing this as a ploy to simply cleanse the news organization of its union. In the wake of the backlash, CAP decided not to reopen the site, and archived its contents instead.

Politico (11/30/20) reported that a source close to Tanden denied union busting was at play in the shutdown of the site. “The Center for American Progress remained neutral during ThinkProgress‘ unionization drive,” according to the unnamed source, “and the site shut down because of declining ad revenue and social media algorithm changes, not due to the union.”

Media unionists weren’t convinced by this defense. Paul Blest of Splinter (9/10/19) put it this way:

In the end, CAP’s arrogant certainty that it could essentially borrow a line out of the Bustle playbook after stressing its support for unions for years and years resulted in public humiliation and less revenue. That’s little solace, of course, to the people who lost their jobs and those who spent years building ThinkProgress into one of the better sources of smart policy journalism in America.

If there’s any lesson to be gleaned from this, it’s that liberal think tanks like the Center for American Progress are not a friend to media workers, or workers in general. These places, and the people who run them, spend an inordinate amount of time trying to “unify” all of the various wings of the progressive and liberal movements (with a desire for less input from some wings than others, I imagine) under the banner of being on the same “team” against the Republican Party. But it ultimately didn’t matter that these bosses were liberal and nice…. The workers at this site still got jerked around for quite a long time before being unceremoniously dumped under the reasoning that the media industry just isn’t profitable enough.

This isn’t extraordinary. The liberal news outlet Vox was accused of union busting by workers there (Washington Examiner, 12/13/17). And although Vox eventually came around to recognizing the union (Variety, 1/11/18), the employer’s hardline stance in negotiating led to a one-day staff walkout (Bloomberg, 6/6/19). BuzzFeed workers also staged a walkout in their organizing efforts (The Hill, 6/17/19).

There is plenty of talk among Tanden’s defenders that if she is rejected, it will be because of partisan pettiness (bolstered by misogyny). Her supporters argue that her experience in executive leadership make her qualified for the job, and that because she is undoubtedly close to the Democratic Party establishment, Biden could count on her for loyalty.

But many workers or labor organizers in liberal nonprofit settings have learned the hard way that lofty ideas of equality and justice in the workplace don’t extend to the home office. For progressive media workers,  who have long watched the WGAE’s efforts to unionize the digital media sector with hope, Tanden embodies that dynamic. So while it might be Republican hypocrisy that ultimately sinks Tanden, supporters of workers rights may breathe a sigh of relief to see her removed from the budget-making process.

Featured image: Neera Tanden (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)

Limbaugh Helped Create the Conservative Movement—and Paved the Road for Trump

February 24, 2021 - 10:18am

 

Extra! (7–8/94)

Rush Limbaugh died on February 17, leaving behind a legacy of lies, bigotry, science denial and conspiracy mongering—as well as a media and political system significantly transformed by his influence.

Limbaugh was a talented broadcaster who forged an intimate connection with his audience. Since he launched his nationally syndicated radio show in 1988, his success has helped to inspire an army of lesser talk radio clones, fueled an explosive growth in right-wing media generally, and introduced a new era of conservative commentary and politics steeped in aggrieved resentment and a willful disregard for facts.

Limbaugh’s influence can be seen in everything from 1994’s “Gingrich Revolution” to the Bush administration’s baiting of “reality-based communities” to the Tea Party movement to the January 6 storming of the Capitol. It is no exaggeration to say that the Donald Trump movement is in many ways the culmination of the project Rush Limbaugh has been working on for more than three decades.

By the time FAIR published its pioneering 1994 report on Limbaugh, “The Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh vs. Reality” (Extra!, 7–8/94), his show was already the biggest thing in talk radio, Ronald Reagan had dubbed him the leader of the conservative movement, and George H.W. Bush had carried Limbaugh’s luggage to the White House Lincoln Bedroom. GOP leaders would soon credit the talk radio host with helping flip the House in their favor in the 1994 elections.

Our report provided dozens of examples of Limbaugh’s penchant for falsehoods, like his claims that bra size is inversely correlated with women’s IQs, that there is “no conclusive proof” nicotine is addictive and that “the poorest people in America are better off than the mainstream families of Europe.”

Ad for FAIR (USA Today, 12/7/95) featuring praise for Rush Limbaugh from politicians and media figures like Ted Koppel and Tim Russert.

But despite his power and connections, the fact that Limbaugh was a serial dissembler seemed to come as a surprise to establishment media, who treated the report like a breaking story. A clipping service FAIR hired for the occasion found more 1,200 outlets had published an Associated Press story (6/29/94) on our report, while dozens more stories ran from other wire services and newspapers. Why had Limbaugh escaped serious scrutiny for so long?

One explanation is that many of these outlets were complicit in Limbaugh’s rise. As we wrote at the time (Extra!, 7–8/94):

Limbaugh’s chronic inaccuracy, and his lack of accountability, wouldn’t be such a problem if Limbaugh were just a cranky entertainer, like Howard Stern. But Limbaugh is taken seriously by “serious” media—in addition to Nightline, he’s been an “expert” on such chat shows as Charlie Rose and Meet the Press. The New York Times (10/15/92) and Newsweek (1/24/94) have published his writings. A US News & World Report piece (8/16/93) by Steven Roberts declared, “The information Mr. Limbaugh provides is generally accurate.”

A year later, FAIR expanded the report into a book, The Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error, listing even more Limbaugh falsehoods, and much more on his racism and bigotry towards women, LGBTQ people, the poor, the homeless and people living with HIV.

For many, FAIR’s report and book marked Limbaugh for the first time as a mendacious bigot. David Letterman dubbed him “The Lyin’ King,” House Speaker Gingrich stopped appearing regularly on his show, and media invites became less frequent. When Limbaugh was being considered for a job as a color commentator on ABC’s Monday Night Football program, an LA Times op-ed (6/7/00) by myself and FAIR founder Jeff Cohen reportedly played a role in ABC ultimately denying Limbaugh the job.

Leave Rush alone!

Rush Limbaugh, 2006

Based on my long years of listening to talk radio, Limbaugh’s mastery of  the medium owed much to his obvious talents—his voice and his usually light entertaining manner—and to the intimacy of a medium in which listeners, typically alone when they tune in, develop a deep if one-sided personal connection to the hosts.

And here was where Limbaugh set himself apart from other talkers. As he projected a view of himself as a victim, he also nurtured the same aggrieved sensibility in his listeners. If you listened for any amount of time, the “Rush and me against the world” vibe came through in both host and callers.

One early example of this was Rush’s false claim (Extra!, 11–12/94) that critics were campaigning to silence him through reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, which he referred to as a “Hush Rush” bill. In reality, the doctrine was never a threat to talk radio hosts, who by virtue of taking calls from listeners with various perspectives were seen as naturally complying with the FCC rule. (The rule was widely misunderstood as requiring “equal time,” which it never mandated—Extra!, 1–2/05.) Over its entire history, not one FCC judgment involving the Fairness Doctrine ever concerned itself with talk radio, which flourished locally under the doctrine for decades before its 1987 scrapping.

If Limbaugh lost some mainstream cachet because of our criticism, by the early ’00s he had served a vital purpose. The right had built up its own outlets, so conservatives didn’t need the validation of the establishment to thrive. The conservative media establishment that the right dreamed of since the days of Richard Nixon (Extra!, 3–4/95) and the Powell Memo had been realized. The year after our LA Times op-ed, Fox took over first place in cable news, and has remained there ever since. The new conservative media firmament adopted the language of grievance and resentment from the man who showed how to use establishment scorn as a recruiting tool better than anyone until Donald Trump.

It may be too simple to say that without Limbaugh, there would be no Trump, but before Limbaugh there wasn’t really a conservative movement; there was an alliance of convenience between the religious right and pro-business conservatives, who disagreed on several issues (FAIR.org, 3/6/18). Limbaugh’s show taught these disparate parts of the right that they should be one big happy family. Trump took Limbaugh’s lessons to heart, and to the White House; that may be Limbaugh’s most lasting legacy.

Sidebar:

Why Talk Radio Blew Up

Talk radio not only thrived for decades under the Fairness Doctrine, it was rapidly growing in the decade before the doctrine was scrapped. A variety of factors unrelated to the doctrine contributed to the growth of talk radio in general, and conservative talk in particular. As musical programming fled to higher-fidelity FM signals, AM programmers were left with empty schedules to fill. At the same time, improvements in satellite technology and cheaper 800-number telephone lines were making national call-in shows more feasible (“Talk Show Culture,” EllenHume.com; Extra!, 1–2/07).

This confluence of factors created opportunities, and conservative talk radio, which was already going strong locally across the country, took advantage of them. Limbaugh, who’d been getting good ratings on Sacramento’s KFBK, was just one of many conservative talk hosts who benefited; in 1988, he moved to New York to launch the syndicated show on WABC that brought him to national attention.

—S.R.

Guardian Columnist’s Firing Over Israel Joke Highlights Paper’s Rightward Drift

February 22, 2021 - 3:12pm

 

Current Affairs editor and former Guardian US columnist Nathan Robinson

The Guardian has fired one of its columnists for its US edition, Nathan Robinson, because Robinson jokingly tweeted about US military aid to Israel. The Guardian’s US editor-in-chief, John Mulholland, charged Robinson with spreading “fake news.” Worse, Mulholland suggested that his columnist was promoting antisemitic tropes about Israel’s influence on the US government.

In a since-deleted tweet (12/23/20), Robinson had written, in response to the $500 million in military aid for Israel in the spending that included Covid relief:

Did you know that the US Congress is not actually allowed to authorize any new spending unless a portion of it is directed toward buying weapons for Israel? It’s the law.

Lest anyone fail to recognize this as typical Twitter sarcasm, Robinson immediately appended a clarification: “or if not actually the written law then so ingrained in political custom as to functionally be indistinguishable from law.”

Later that day, Robinson received a note from Mulholland, whom he had never before heard from. (Robinson revealed his communication with Mulholland and wrote about his firing in Current Affairs2/10/21—the socialist magazine Robinson edits.) Mulholland insisted that, “given that no such law exists,” the tweet was “fake news”—”irrespective of the later tweet when you say that it is ‘indistinguishable from law.'” And he went on to link Robinson to antisemitic conspiracy theories:

Given the reckless talk over the past year—and beyond—of how mythical “Jewish groups/alliances” yield power over all forms of public life, I am not clear how this is helpful to public discourse.

Guardian US editor John Mulholland

Mulholland also complained that Robinson’s remark on Twitter—a medium that limits its contributors to 280 characters at a time—did not explore the question of aid to Israel more deeply, with a cross-national historical perspective:

I am not sure why singling out financial aid to Israel in a tweet and devoid of any context—and without mention of aid to other countries either currently or historically—is a useful addition to public discourse.

“It dismays me that someone who presents themselves as a Guardian columnist would make such a clearly erroneous statement without…any context/justification,” Mulholland concluded.

It’s not a particularly persuasive critique, but as Mulholland was his boss, Robinson deleted his tweet and promised to be more careful in the future. “I greatly appreciate your thoughtful response,” Mulholland replied—but it was soon made clear that the Guardian would be publishing no more of Robinson’s columns, and that the tweet, deleted or not, was the reason.

Robinson told FAIR that Mulholland was policing his conduct beyond his role as a columnist. “It is very clear that John Mulholland wants the ability not just to curate the content of the paper, but to curate the public thoughts of all writers affiliated with the paper,” he said.

Robinson joins the ranks of journalists and intellectuals who have been “canceled” because of their criticism of Israel. Notable subjects include professor Marc Lamont Hill losing his job at CNN (11/30/18) and Steven Salaita having a job offer rescinded by the University of Illinois (Chicago Tribune, 11/12/15).

Beyond the flagrant abuse of the charge of antisemitism against any criticism of Israel (which in this case was actually a joke about US spending on Israeli arms), the incident raises a troubling question about the Guardian. When high-speed internet access became more prevalent at the dawn of the new millennium, English-language outlets outside the United States became go-to sources for left-leaning readers frustrated by the pro-Israeli and pro-US bias in US Middle East coverage (FAIR.org, 1/1/01; 1/28/11; 4/19/12). The websites of the BBC, the Guardian and the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz have, in recent decades, become important sources for broader coverage of Israel/Palestine.

The Guardian, like the Independent, has been considered one of Britain’s left-of-center publications, favored by Labour Party voters. The Guardian formalized its US online edition 10 years ago (Guardian, 9/14/11).

The kind of thing the Guardian (2/26/13) is not embarrassed to run, apparently.

Of course, the Guardian’s storied anti-imperialism in the Middle East is sometimes rooted in more myth than fact: The paper (1/18/03) championed US and British-led military action in Iraq and even gave John Bolton, a prominent hawk in both the Bush and Trump administrations, space to look back approvingly on the war (2/26/13). The author page for former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who led the nation into the war and moved the Labour Party sharply rightward, has 75 articles.

At the same time, pro-Israel outlets have accused the Guardian of having an anti-Israel bias (Jewish Journal, 12/4/03; Algemeiner, 7/23/20). Pro-Israel media watchdogs like CAMERA and Honest Reporting have catalogued what they describe as a pro-Palestinian slant in both opinion and news coverage at the Guardian.

Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, media officer for Britain’s Jewish Voice for Labour, told FAIR that the group has seen a steady decline in the paper’s Middle East coverage, most recently with what the group saw as a downplaying of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem’s statement that Israel is, indeed, an apartheid state.  The Guardian’s editorial (1/17/21) on the subject “was of the mealy-mouthed ‘on the one hand on the other hand’ variety,” she said:

It was left to Middle East Eye (1/14/21), one of very few independent platforms in the UK with the courage to allow open expressions of a radical, anti-colonial perspective on Israel/Palestine, to highlight the significance of B’Tselem’s work.

She pointed out that the Guardian’s opinion pieces “have in recent years become virtually closed to advocates for Palestine,” while pro-Israel “lobbyists seem to have free rein”:

The choice in October 2016 of the Israeli Ambassador to author its commemoration of 80 years since the battle of Cable Street (Guardian, 10/6/16), comparing the threat of fascism in the 1930s with that of “left-wing antisemitism” now, was the last straw for me as a life-long Guardian reader.

Wimborne-Idrissi argued that this trend mirrored the paper’s negative slant against former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, as he fought accusations from the party’s centrist faction that he allowed antisemitism to fester in the party:

Influential columnist Jonathan Freedland, executive editor for a time, has played a huge role in pushing forward the anti-Corbyn agenda. Editor-in-chief Katherine Viner, despite evidence of past pro-Palestinian sympathies, has done nothing to rein in attacks on the left, including on Jewish critics of Israel who have attempted in vain to generate discussion about the so-called IHRA definition of antisemitism. The definition conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism, and is being aggressively deployed to close down expressions of support for Palestine.

Current political correspondent in the Westminster lobby team is Jessica Elgot, who joined the Guardian in 2015, having cut her teeth at the Jewish Chronicle, authoring many an attack on the Labour left under Corbyn. In her current role, she has continued her enthusiastic support for the smear campaign. A feature of her coverage has been to quote uncritically (Guardian, 3/8/18) from right-wing zealots with a clear anti-Palestinian—some might say Islamophobic—agenda, such as David Collier (understood to be part of the @gnasherjew collective on Twitter) and Joe Glasman of the misnamed Campaign Against Antisemitism. The latter caused consternation by responding to Corbyn’s defeat in the 2019 general election with a video celebrating how the CAA’s “spies and intel” had “slain the beast.”

Declassified UK (9/11/19): “The Guardian, Britain’s leading liberal newspaper with a global reputation for independent and critical journalism, has been successfully targeted by security agencies to neutralize its adversarial reporting of the ‘security state.’”

A lengthy investigation by DeclassifiedUK and the Daily Maverick (9/11/19) noted that after the Guardian (6/11/13) revealed Edward Snowden’s leaks about National Security Agency surveillance, the paper’s investigatory abilities in regard to state security operations became compromised. It said that at the time of the leaks, “Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger withstood intense pressure not to publish some of the Snowden revelations.” However, in March 2015, “the situation changed when the Guardian appointed a new editor, Katharine Viner, who had less experience than Rusbridger of dealing with the security services.” The investigation pointed out that Viner previously worked at the

fashion and entertainment magazine Cosmopolitan and had no history in national security reporting. According to insiders, she showed much less leadership during the Snowden affair.

Justin Schlosberg, a senior lecturer in journalism and media at the University of London, echoes this in a chapter in a forthcoming book about the paper: “Following the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, the Guardian’s relationship with the security state began to look increasingly more cooperative than antagonistic,” he wrote, adding that “between 2016 and 2019, the paper was awarded three ‘exclusives’ with spy agency and counter-terror chiefs,” which were “largely devoid of the kind of interrogative scrutiny characteristic of the Rusbridger era.”

At the same time, Schlosberg noted, the paper moved to the right during the years Corbyn led the Labour Party (2015–20). “On the whole, comment pieces were aggressively hostile towards the Corbyn leadership,” Schlosberg wrote, and “the selection of issues and sources in news coverage overwhelmingly favored the accounts and agendas of Corbyn’s detractors.”

For some of the Guardian’s critics, this editorial switch can be felt today in much of its coverage and commentary of the Labour Party and in the Middle East. And that decline matters, because the Guardian has long been seen as providing much-needed nuance and broader reporting to the US newspaper market, and as a direly needed alternative to a British newspaper market that is dominated by nationalistic, Tory-aligned tabloids. Robinson’s firing is just the latest example of what these critics have seen for a while.

“What this shows is that even at the Guardian, the editors want to very tightly police what writers say on Israel/Palestine,” Robinson told FAIR, adding that its editors “want to make sure the criticism is carefully approved and stays only within certain bounds.”

Of course the paper has published criticism of Israel, Robinson said, but he noted, “It has also shown that it is willing to cede ground to those who treat legitimate criticisms of the country’s policies as bigoted.”

FAIR published an open letter (2/18/21) to the Guardian‘s John Mulholland calling on him to reinstate Nathan Robinson as a columnist. You can write to Mulholland at john.mulholland@theguardian.com  or via Twitter: @jnmulholland. Remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

Crediting Xenophobia—Rather Than Organizing—With Raising Workers’ Wages

February 19, 2021 - 5:41pm

 

“Are the two related?” the Economist (2/15/20) asked. Turns out—probably not.

The Economist (2/15/20) ran a brief article last year with a startling headline: “Immigration to America Is Down. Wages Are Up. Are the Two Related?” Maybe, the article’s anonymous author answered, at least for the short term.

A few on the right were quick to cite this conclusion as support for former President Trump’s efforts to deter immigration. “Amazing how that works,” Donald Trump, Jr., tweeted. “Thanks @realDonaldTrump.” Breitbart’s Neil Munro (2/19/20) used the article to claim that immigration restrictions were “driving up blue-collar wages, and those extra wages are stabilizing the US economy.”

The Economist article didn’t get much public attention beyond these references. But we can expect more claims of the sort as conservative politicians and media react to Biden administration moves to address wage disparity and to reverse some of Trump’s xenophobic policies. A preview came on February 16, when Utah Sen. Mitt Romney tweeted that he and a fellow Republican, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, were introducing legislation to raise the federal minimum wage—but only in exchange for further restrictions on undocumented immigrants seeking jobs.

“We must protect American workers,” Romney explained.

Wages go up…

The Economist’s argument is based on a pay increase that low-wage workers received during the Trump years. Nominal wages for US workers without a high school diploma jumped by nearly 10% in 2019, according to the article, while most workers have only received an increase of 2–3% in recent years.

Brookings (1/21/20): “One reason that workers at the bottom are doing relatively better recently is the recent increases in many state and local minimum wages.”

Why would low-wage workers be getting a disproportionate boost? The obvious answer is that state and local governments have been raising their minimum wage requirements over the past few years. The Brookings Institute finds that low-paid workers in states with sizeable minimum wage increases have seen their real pay rise three times as much as similar workers in states that failed to raise the minimum. (Brookings cites tightening job markets in those states as an additional reason for the increase.)

The Economist admits that minimum wage hikes may be one of “many factors” for wage increases, but it focuses on a different explanation. Net immigration to the United States (the number of immigrants entering minus the number leaving) fell to 595,000 in 2019, the lowest number for the decade. So slower growth in the immigrant population could have cut down the number of low-wage immigrants competing for jobs with low-wage US-born workers, and this would then drive up wages for the latter group.

There’s a big problem with this argument, however: the lack of any evidence that Trump’s policy changes significantly reduced the number of low-wage immigrant workers.

…when immigration goes down?

Undocumented immigrants are disproportionately employed in low-wage jobs. As of 2014 undocumented immigrants only made up about 5% of the total workforce but represented some 31% of drywall installers, 24% of maids and housekeepers, and 20% of grounds maintenance workers. Documented immigrants also work in these jobs (as do many US citizens), but they often find more remunerative employment.

The official US immigration system, meanwhile, favors wealthier, better-educated applicants; nearly half of the foreign-born authorized to enter the United States over the last decade have a college degree, a higher rate than the US-born population.

These better-paid authorized immigrants seem to have been the ones most impacted by Trump’s immigration policies (Documented, 11/3/20). A large part of the reduction in recent immigration results from the former administration’s assault on legal channels for entering the country and acquiring lawful residence: the “Muslim ban,” the drastic reduction of refugee resettlement, the de facto dismantling of the asylum system, and the new bureaucratic hurdles in the visa application process.

In contrast, Trump did less to lower the number of undocumented workers. As the Migration Policy Institute has noted, “The Trump administration deported less than half as many unauthorized immigrants during its first three fiscal years than did the Obama administration during the same timeframe.” The undocumented population may even have risen slightly from 2017 to 2018.

What really works

In any case, the Economist’s argument depends on a supposed correlation between the number of low-wage immigrants and the pay of low-wage US-born workers. But most of recent history doesn’t show any such correlation. The Pew Research Center (8/20/20) reports that unauthorized immigration soared in the late 1990s, from 5.7 million to 8.6 million, while the period from 2010 to 2014 brought a small decline.

Did low-wage workers lose out in the first period and make gains in the second? Not at all. According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, wages for the bottom 10th percentile of US workers rose in the late 1990s, and fell during the years from 2010 to 2014.

A CNN Business op-ed (2/9/21) warns that a $15/hour minimum wage will turn the US into Seattle—where jobs increased 12.9% and average wages increased 14.5% after the city began hiking its minimum wage in 2015 (CNBC, 1/2/20).

It’s not really surprising that the Economist chose to focus on immigration policy rather than minimum wage regulations as an explanation for pay increases. Corporate media tend to be critical of calls to lift the wage floor, often citing exaggerated claims about unemployment and dire but unfounded warnings about the destruction of restaurants and other small businesses. “A $15 Minimum Wage Would Hurt Those It’s Meant to Help,” an opinion piece on CNN Business (2/9/21) advises.

What’s even worse, for both Trump backers and corporate publicists, is the way the wage increases were won: through campaigns by the low-wage workers themselves (New York, 12/1/18). Groups like Fight For 15 organized, marched and walked out—often with strong participation by immigrant workers (The Nation, 5/1/17)—to push state legislatures and city councils into doing the right thing. These efforts are continuing: a number of fast-food workers held strikes on February 16 to demand a $15 federal minimum wage (Guardian, 2/16/21).

For years, the media narrative has been that repressive immigration policies—billions spent on immigration enforcement, families torn apart, thousands dying on the southwestern border—will somehow lead to wage hikes. They haven’t, and they won’t. What really works is organization and class struggle.

 

 

 

 

Cuomo’s Nursing Home Scandal Vindicates His Critics in the Press

February 19, 2021 - 1:47pm

 

New York Times (2/12/21): “The state’s attorney general…accused the Cuomo administration of undercounting coronavirus related deaths connected to nursing homes by the thousands.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s moment as the “hero” of the Covid-19 crisis is fading, with revelations (New York Times, 2/12/21) that his administration covered up the scope of the coronavirus death toll in the state’s nursing homes, as one Cuomo aide “admitted that the state had withheld data because it feared an investigation by the Trump Justice Department.” The anger at the governor is bipartisan; legislators on both sides of the aisle are discussing curtailing his powers, and even impeachment (City and State, 2/12/21).

It seems like yesterday when Cuomo, the son of legendary New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, was in the spotlight as the leader who rose to the occasion in cinematic fashion. Marie Claire (3/26/20) made him “America’s Boyfriend,” the powerful voice in command while then-President Donald Trump stumbled over his own narcissism. NPR (3/24/20) said his supposed qualities—“decisiveness, taking charge, listening to the experts and sticking to the facts—are playing well in a public health crisis,” while the Guardian (3/23/20) called Cuomo an “alternative guiding force” for the nation. CNN (3/22/20) praised his press briefings as offering “something simple and, to many viewers, deeply necessary: a sense that someone is in charge, even if the news is bad.” The New York Times (3/16/20) made him out as the benevolent dictator the people needed:

Mr. Cuomo has emerged as the executive best suited for the coronavirus crisis…. Even many of his critics say the very qualities that make him abrasive in ordinary interactions are serving him well now.

It doesn’t hurt when you have a brother who is a CNN host who interviews you constantly, and goes on to say you’re the best in the country (USA Today, 6/25/20).

“It seems his No. 1 priority is to make sure that New Yorkers are safe,” NPR (3/24/20) quoted a political scientist. Daily deaths from Covid in New York state would rise 1,400% over the next three weeks.

The image of Cuomo as the leader in a time of need scored him a book deal about (as the subtitle put it) “Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic.” His press conferences even won him an Emmy Award (Guardian, 11/20/20), although now some politicians are calling for the prize to be revoked (New York Post, 2/12/21). These laurels came even as New York persistently had the second-highest per capita Covid death toll of any state, with nearly 1 in every 400 residents dying from the disease.

The fawning was extremely frustrating for many journalists following Cuomo, as they had reported deeply on his commitment to austerity, corruption and anti-labor posturing. Even as Cuomo was elevated as the “anti-Trump” in the media, some reporters were able to foresee the problems we see now. Theodore Hamm in the Indypendent (4/23/20) was, perhaps, the first journalist to spot the link between Cuomo and nursing homes, and the Wall Street Journal (5/14/20) called Cuomo’s nursing home policies a “fatal error.” David Sirota (Guardian, 5/26/20) followed up, and Ross Barkan (The Nation, 3/30/20) reported on how Cuomo’s healthcare policies had left the state in such a vulnerable position.

For journalists who have covered Cuomo’s tumultuous governorship, the recent revelations are a return from the adoring media frenzy of a year ago (documented at the time by FAIR—3/30/20) to the Cuomo they remember: a corrupt bully who perhaps embodied the Trumpian spirit as much as anyone else in power today.

For example, after Cuomo set up the Moreland Commission in 2013 to root out corruption, the New York Times (7/23/14) reported that a

three-month examination…found that the governor’s office deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.

One of Cuomo’s closest aides was taken down on federal bribery charges (New York Times, 9/20/18), and the “principle architect” of one of the governor’s biggest development projects was convicted in a “bid-rigging scheme that steered hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts to favored companies in Buffalo and Syracuse” (New York Times, 7/12/18). The Glen Falls Post-Star (7/22/18), an upstate paper, said the capital of Albany had become the “scandal capital of the country” under Cuomo.

Marie Claire (3/26/20) ran a column with the thesis, “I think I’m in love with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.”

Before the pandemic, Cuomo was notorious for keeping the press corps at arm’s length, at one point only holding press conferences over the phone, in which his aides picked which reporters got to ask questions and often planted questions themselves (Daily News, 12/7/17). The situation left the public in the dark, according to one editorial board in Schenectady (Daily Gazette, 12/11/17), which said that for six months, journalists “have not been able to ask Cuomo directly and collectively about a number of important issues,” which included “the corruption scandals, the failure of the state’s economic development programs, state taxes and other issues vital to New Yorkers.”

Contrast this with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He was cantankerous, thin-skinned and imperious, and always feisty with reporters, but even he found a way to do direct, in-person briefings nearly every day.

Then, of course, there is the governor’s long war on the public sector. Cuomo cut pension benefits for government workers, which state AFL-CIO president Mario Cilento (Reuters, 3/15/12) said was another example of how “middle-class New Yorkers will pay the price for Wall Street’s misdeeds.” As this writer noted in the Brooklyn Rail (11/12), Cuomo used the threat of layoffs to force “the state’s two biggest unions—the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) and the Public Employees Federation (PEF)—to settle contracts that provide 0% wage increases in their first three years.” Cuomo was sued in 2013 over withholding $250 million in school funding, a move parents and education advocates said denied “kids a constitutional right to a sound public education” (Daily News, 2/6/13).

“I am gratified that the wide-scale recognition of Cuomo’s failure has come this soon; my fear was that it would come much later or it wouldn’t come at all,” Barkan told FAIR.

For Barkan, the press obsession with Cuomo one year ago was similar to what he saw in the press’s inability to hold Robert Moses accountable, as documented in the quintessential tome on New York politics, The Power Broker. Barkan recalled that a year ago, when Cuomo received so much “great praise…I was surprised initially, because it was so counter to that I was perceiving.” Barkan noted, “By no metric did New York handle this crisis well.”

Barkan points out that Cuomo benefited from being a perceived contrast to Trump’s incompetence, and enjoyed being in the nation’s densest media market–after all, Barkan notes, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee handled the pandemic far better (KOIN, 5/8/20), but has never received the level of national media love Cuomo has enjoyed.

Also, Cuomo’s bravado and toughness, along with his dynastic name and unrealized rumors of a place in a Democratic presidential administration, in opposition to the ineffectual nature of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, made Cuomo a figure that press could deify in a crisis. Cuomo “projects power,” Barkan said, “and journalists have a fetish for that.”

 

Celine McNicholas and Joanne Doroshow on Forced Arbitration, Kate Bronfrenbrenner on NLRB

February 19, 2021 - 10:32am

This week on CounterSpin: One of the more hopeful things you might not have heard about is the revival in the House of Representatives of the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal, or FAIR, Act, that would ban those ubiquitous small-print “agreements” that annul critical worker and consumer rights, like the ability to bring class action lawsuits. Prominent proponents include Google employees and former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson; but as bill sponsor Hank Johnson of Georgia explained, it’s really about narrowing the “massive power differential between soulless corporations and individuals just trying to get by.” We get some background on forced arbitration and why it matters from previous CounterSpin conversations with Celine McNicholas from the Economic Policy Institute and Joanne Doroshow from the Center for Justice and Democracy.

(cc photo: USW Local 8599)

An important if often hidden engine of the corporate corrosion of worker/consumer rights has been the National Labor Relations Board, the federal enforcer of labor law. It seems like change is afoot: Biden apparently called for the resignation of the Board’s general counsel, famously anti-union Peter Robb, 23 minutes after becoming president, fired him when he refused to resign, and then fired the next Trump appointee who took the job. We talked about the Trump-era NLRB while it was happening with Cornell University’s Kate Bronfrenbrenner. We hear part of that conversation this week.

 

Open Letter to John Mulholland, US editor of The Guardian

February 18, 2021 - 12:31pm

 

 

We write in support of Nathan Robinson, founder of Current Affairs magazine, who was fired as a columnist for The Guardian for a joking tweet critical of U.S. military aid to Israel. This is shocking behavior for a publication that has earned the respect and loyalty of millions of readers around the world for courageous journalism that has often offended the sensibilities of the powerful.

The paper has not denied that it terminated Robinson’s column over the tweet and has only said that it did not technically “fire” Robinson because it does not offer its columnists contracts. The Guardian’s US editor, John Mulholland, sent Robinson a “confidential” message saying that while Robinson was “free” as an opinion columnist to speak his mind, his tweet had antisemitic connotations. Though Robinson immediately deleted the tweet and apologized for violating the Guardian’s unwritten policy, the paper immediately stopped accepting his pitches before discontinuing his column entirely. It was made clear by an editor that this was a direct result of the tweet criticizing U.S. military support for Israel.

The Guardian has been criticized before for its casual use of antisemitism accusations against critics of Israel. We strongly condemn antisemitism. We also strongly condemn the deployment of the baseless charges of antisemitism to silence criticism of Israeli policy or U.S. support of that policy. Regardless of one’s opinions on the Middle East, everyone should be distressed by The Guardian’s act of blatant censorship.

Aside from the loss of Robinson’s contributions to the Guardian, we are worried that this action will have a chilling effect on other media workers, who will be under increased pressure to avoid straying from orthodoxy lest they lose their jobs. The ability to harshly criticize the policies of powerful governments is a basic freedom and is essential to preventing atrocities. Even if the Guardian regularly publishes material critical of Israel’s policies, which it does, by not making it clear what writers are and are not allowed to say, the paper chills the ability of its contributors to comment openly and freely on the issue.

The Guardian’s termination of Robinson has evoked widespread criticism. His firing has sent a message to writers at The Guardian and elsewhere that they will be punished if they post unapproved opinions on Israel. We demand that Robinson be reinstated and that Mulholland apologize for this crime against free expression. The Guardian must make clear that its writers have the freedom to comment critically on Israel without suffering career consequences.

Support for Palestinian rights and criticism of US policy toward Israel can’t be an exception to free speech.

 

Liza Featherstone, Jacobin & The Nation

Doug Henwood, Behind the News

Noam Chomsky, Laureate Professor of Linguistics, University of Arizona

Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, Columbia University

Johann Hari, author, Chasing the Scream and Lost Connections

Ilan Pappé, Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies, University of Exeter

Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, University of Oxford

Dina Matar, Director, Center for Palestine Studies, SOAS, University of London

Nur Masalha, Professor, SOAS, University of London

Maximillian Alvarez, editor in chief, The Real News Network

Jason Stanley, Professor of Philosophy, Yale University

Corey Robin, Professor of Political Science, Brooklyn College

Greg Grandin, C. Vann Woodward Professor of History, Yale University

Noura Erakat, Rutgers University

Katie Halper, Rolling Stone & The Katie Halper Show

Sam Seder, The Majority Report

Katha Pollitt, The Nation

Cornel West, Harvard University

Glenn Greenwald, co-founder, The Intercept

Jeet Heer, The Nation

Meagan Day, Jacobin 

Molly Crabapple, artist

Diana Buttu, Institute for Middle East Understanding

Andrew Cockburn, Harper’s 

Steven Lukes, Professor of Sociology, New York University

Ben Burgis, Jacobin and Rutgers University

Robby Soave, Reason 

Ryan Grim, The Intercept

David Palumbo-Liu, Stanford University

David Klion, Jewish Currents 

Jonathan Cook, former Guardian journalist

Samuel Moyn, Professor of History, Yale University

Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science, Hobart & William Smith Colleges

Natasha Lennard, The Intercept

Ken Klippenstein, The Intercept

Osita Nwanevu, New Republic

Briahna Joy Gray, Bad Faith, former press secretary for Bernie Sanders

Ryan Cooper, The Week

Jim Naureckas, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)

Janine Jackson, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)

Julie Hollar, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)

Luke Savage, Jacobin 

Branko Marcetic, Jacobin 

Jonathan Rosenhead, Emeritus Professor, London School of Economics

Ana Kasparian, The Young Turks 

Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University

James Livingston, Rutgers University

Michael Moore, filmmaker

 

Featured image: Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs (left) and John Mulholland of The Guardian.