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Humanitarian Imperialism

FAIR - 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

FAIR - 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.

Five big findings from the Journalism Crisis Project

Columbia Journalism Review - March 3, 2021 - 8:07am
In March of 2020, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism began tracking newsroom cutbacks in the wake of the pandemic. The tracker’s map tells part of the story of journalism’s ongoing crisis: an upheaval that hurt newsrooms, journalists, and—by straining journalism’s margins—the communities that those newsrooms and journalists are charged to serve.  One year later, […]

Is the press too pessimistic about the pandemic?

Columbia Journalism Review - March 3, 2021 - 7:59am

Yesterday, President Biden gave a speech at the White House and said that the US is on track to have enough vaccine supply to cover every adult in America by the end of May—a two-month improvement on his administration’s previous timeline. Biden announced that the federal government has taken steps to accelerate the production of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, including helping to finalize a deal that will see Merck, a rival pharmaceutical company, manufacture doses. “This is a type of collaboration between companies we saw in World War II,” Biden said, calling them “good corporate citizens.” He also announced plans to get a first dose to every teacher this month. Across the mediasphere, these new developments were hailed as very good news. Some politics-watchers noted that they also reflected smart media management on Biden’s part. Eli Stokols, White House reporter for the LA Times, recalled “how Trump, desperate to win the daily news cycle, said COVID would be gone by Easter, then summer—and kept moving goalposts back.” There’s more benefit, Stokols wrote, in “setting moderate expectations, working to exceed them, and THEN doing the press conference.”

US health officials only approved Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which requires just a single dose, last weekend. The greenlighting was also welcomed in much coverage. The Washington Post greeted it, in a push notification, as added “firepower in the fight against the pathogen.” Spencer Bokat-Lindell, an opinion editor at the New York Times, put the new vaccine at the heart of his “case for COVID optimism”; Insider’s Hilary Brueck and Andrew Dunn wrote that it is “probably the best shot,” since it’s relatively easy to administer, works very well in young people, and potentially has lesser side effects than other vaccines. Still, such positivity wasn’t ubiquitous: Ever since Johnson & Johnson reported its trial data, some coverage has emphasized that its vaccine has lower headline efficacy rates than those produced by Pfizer and Moderna. The Post recently reported, under the headline “Johnson & Johnson vaccine deepens concerns over racial and geographic inequities,” that the expected deployment of the new shot to hard-to-reach areas could “drive perceptions of a two-tiered vaccine system, riven along racial or class lines—with marginalized communities getting what they think is an inferior product.” On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci toured the networks and was repeatedly asked what he’d say to Americans who’d rather wait for Pfizer or Moderna shots than get Johnson & Johnson’s; he explained patiently that all three vaccines are very effective and that since they were tested under very different conditions, minute comparisons of efficacy percentages aren’t useful. On Monday, Alex Gorsky, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, was asked the same question on Today. He stressed that the company’s vaccine, unlike its competitors’, was tested late last year, when COVID was at the peak of its spread, in countries with differing dominant variants. He added that the shot was still completely effective against hospitalization and death.

ICYMI: They were arrested while covering protests last year. They’re still in legal limbo.

These variations in tone, despite the broad underlying positivity of the Johnson & Johnson news, speak to a broader question that I briefly visited a month ago, and that experts and observers have since continued to ask: is the press being unduly pessimistic in its coverage of the pandemic? Late last week, the techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci—who has argued repeatedly that the answer is “yes”—made her most detailed case yet in an article for The Atlantic that took aim at various public-health communicators, as well as journalists.

“The steady drumbeat of good news about the vaccines has been met with a chorus of relentless pessimism,” Tufekci wrote. She then outlined five fallacies that, in her view, have consistently bedeviled COVID messaging: the undue fear that advising certain precautions will trigger a false sense of security and widespread reckless behavior; the repetition of inflexible rules at the expense of educating people about mechanisms of transmission, so they can make risk calculations for themselves; misleading media scolding about outdoor activities like going to the beach; excessive absolutism; and “a poor balance between knowledge, risk, certainty, and action”—the framing, for example, that vaccines’ ability to reduce transmission (in addition to infection) remains a scary unknown, when sound reasoning and available evidence suggests they do have this ability, pending the collection of more data. “The public,” Tufekci concluded, “has been offered a lot of misguided fretting over new virus variants, subjected to misleading debates about the inferiority of certain vaccines, and presented with long lists of things vaccinated people still cannot do, while media outlets wonder whether the pandemic will ever end.”

But there is, of course, still ample bad news about the pandemic. As I wrote last week, case and death counts remain objectively very high—yesterday, they again topped fifty-four thousand and one thousand eight hundred, respectively—and optimism about a general decline in rates shouldn’t obscure that gutting human cost. Trump may be gone from the federal government, but state leaders continue to make foolish decisions: yesterday, the governors of Texas and Mississippi moved to roll back mask mandates and other restrictions, defying CDC guidance and offering every news show a fretful counterpoint to the hope of Biden’s vaccine speech. As Ellen Ruppel Shell, a professor of science journalism at Boston University, told me last month, much coverage, in seesawing between good and bad news, has felt “schizophrenic,” and induced whiplash. Yesterday, the Times wrote, in an article on the reopenings, that many Americans “are wondering whether to follow the lure of optimism, or to heed the warnings of health officials who say it’s premature to lift restrictions.”

It’s helpful, instead, to think of such formulations as false dichotomies: health officials are optimistic, but in the long term, more than the short. The pandemic has been marked by a flattening of time—the arrival of March sparked innumerable Twitter jokes about how last March never ended—but time is essential to any assessment of what constitutes good and bad pandemic news. We need constantly to interrogate how our baselines have shifted—not just in terms of what we consider to be high numbers of cases and deaths, but also in more positive contexts. If the overall efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is worth noting at all, it’s in the sense that a year ago, the breadth of our current vaccine arsenal, and the pace of the rollout, was almost unimaginable; as James T. McDeavitt, of Baylor, told the Times last week, if Johnson & Johnson’s shot had been authorized before Pfizer’s and Moderna’s, “everybody would be doing handstands and back flips and high-fives.” Time also has a distorting effect when we look forward. The light at the end of the tunnel illuminates how much tunnel we still must navigate, which creates a set of expectations different from the one-day-then-the-next grind of the past year.

The best thing we can do to guard against whiplash is to situate optimism and pessimism not as contrasting poles of a coverage debate, but compatible—indeed, unavoidable—facets of this same everything story we’re all still living. As Tufekci put it, “effective communication requires a sense of proportion—distinguishing between due alarm and alarmism; warranted, measured caution and doombait; worst-case scenarios and claims of impending catastrophe.” In her view, such balance has a practical benefit: encouraging “people to dream about the end of this pandemic by talking about it more, and more concretely,” she wrote, “can help strengthen people’s resolve to endure whatever is necessary for the moment.” Yesterday, during his vaccine speech, Biden said that the Johnson & Johnson news is “a huge step in our effort to beat this pandemic, but I have to be honest with you: This fight is far from over.” Increasingly, and may be a better word than but.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • “The looming vaccine story”: Oliver Darcy, a media reporter at CNN, writes that with Biden’s new timeline for supply, the vaccine story is about to enter a new phase. “Stories about limited doses and the need for new approvals of new vaccines are about to be a relic of the past,” he writes. “Instead, the story looming on the horizon is about vaccine hesitancy and skepticism.” Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a CNN medical analyst, told Darcy that coverage should “start talking about how being vaccinated changes someone’s outlook and daily life,” and center the stories of vaccinated people from communities of color.
  • What the numbers don’t show: For Scientific American, Amy Yee takes aim at the “myth,” stoked by widely-reported polling data, that the pandemic has been less hard financially on Asian-Americans than on Black, Latinx, and Native Americans. Working-class Asian-Americans, Yee writes, “are woefully neglected by researchers, academics and pollsters” and consequently overlooked by the press and policymakers. “Coverage about struggling Asian Americans and unemployment are a fraction of similar coverage about other racial groups,” Yee writes.
  • Fatphobia and the press: On The Takeaway, Rebeca Ibarra spoke with Virginia Sole-Smith, a journalist who has covered weight stigma, about the role of the press in amplifying fatphobic narratives before and during the pandemic. Early on, researchers noticed a correlation between weight and COVID outcomes; “they were not saying that higher body weights cause the severe COVID… but that’s not how it got reported in the media,” Sole-Smith said. “It was presented as a causal relationship, which is not scientifically true. That’s when we started to see negative bias against high body weights really spike.”
  • The media-business angle: For the Daily Beast, Sophia June profiles four alt-weeklies that figured out how to survive the pandemic, despite early predictions that it would spell their financial demise. “While so much news coverage of alt-weeklies has eulogized them before they’re gone, perhaps the real story is one of resilience,” June writes. “Because for all the stories about the end of alt-weeklies, there are many that, against all odds, have survived. In true alt-weekly edge, it’s a stubborn, punk refusal to let go.”
  • The press-freedom angle: The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China surveyed its members about worsening press freedom in the country. Their responses highlighted ways that the government used the pandemic to hinder reporting. “Journalists who sought to report in Wuhan, the city which reported the first cases of COVID-19, said they were harassed by police and forced to delete images or footage gathered in the course of reporting,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Others said authorities forced them to take an unreasonable number of COVID-19 tests or were threatened with quarantine—efforts they said were intended to disrupt reporting.”

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Michael Tubbs on disinformation, racism, and news deserts

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

FAIR - 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.


They were arrested while covering protests last year. They’re still in legal limbo.

Columbia Journalism Review - March 2, 2021 - 7:51am

On June 1, as protests intensified across the US following the police killing of George Floyd, Richard Cummings, a freelance photojournalist in Worcester, Massachusetts, saw dozens of police officers assembling in riot gear, even though the day’s main demonstration had wound down. He started to film them and take pictures. “Worcester’s never had anything with riot gear before,” Cummings told me recently. “It looks like the end of the world. It was crazy.” A few officers, Cummings said, were cracking jokes, including about shooting members of the public with their pepper guns; eventually, they noticed Cummings, who turned away. “I didn’t want to pry into anything, or get anyone angry,” he said. A different officer had given Cummings permission to stand nearby after he identified himself as a journalist, but after that officer moved on, the cops that Cummings had been filming tackled him. According to Cummings, who described his experience to me, one pinned him to a brick wall, twisted his arms and screamed about breaking them, called him a homophobic slur, cuffed him so tightly his arms bled, and dragged him over to a van carrying other detainees. Cummings’s mask came off; the officer refused to help him put it back on. Police also confiscated Cummings’s phone; when he eventually got it back, he noticed that videos had been deleted. “It really did freak me out,” he said. “I didn’t have any idea that there was even a chance I’d be arrested for anything.”

Cummings was subsequently charged with disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and failure to disperse. Two-and-a-half months after his arrest, he pleaded not guilty to all three charges. Five-and-a-half months after his arrest, a judge dismissed the first two charges against him. He still faces the third. Next week, a court will hear his attorneys’ motion to dismiss the case, on the grounds of police misconduct and lost exculpatory evidence. Another court date is set for late April. Cummings’s lawyer, who is representing him pro bono, told me that he is confident in his case, especially in light of the video evidence that Cummings still has in his possession. If the charge is not dismissed, it’s not clear—due to pandemic-induced delays—when Cummings might get a trial. “It seems like they’re just waiting everybody out,” Cummings told me. “It’s been going on forever, for almost a year.” (A spokesperson for the Worcester Police Department referred me to the district attorney’s office, which declined to comment on an open case.)

ICYMI: When a word starts to smell

Cummings’s is not a unique case. According to data maintained by the US Press Freedom Tracker, more than a hundred and twenty-five journalists were arrested or detained in the US last year—a twelve-thousand percent increase over 2019—and at least forty-three of them were also assaulted. Cummings was one of at least seventy-one journalists to be arrested in the week spanning May 29 and June 4. Most of those affected faced no ongoing legal consequences—but, as of the end of last year, the Tracker listed eighteen journalists, including Cummings, whose cases were still pending. In recent days, I’ve reached out to all eighteen to find out where they stand now. Four of them—Chae Kihn, who was arrested in New York; Robert Spangle and Pablo Unzueta, who were both arrested in Los Angeles; and Brendan Gutenschwager, who was arrested in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin—told me that their charges have now been dropped. Four didn’t respond to multiple inquiries. Ten confirmed that their cases are still pending. Some declined to comment further; others described a long-term limbo, exacerbated by a pandemic that has gummed up the legal system, and, in a couple of cases, by the confiscation of equipment and ongoing harassment by law enforcement and members of the public. Some will soon face days in court. Others must continue to wait.

Of the journalists still facing charges, a few have institutional affiliations. In the most high-profile of these cases (even if its profile is still not high enough), Andrea Sahouri, a reporter with the Des Moines Register who was pepper-sprayed then cuffed with zip ties while covering a protest on May 31, will go on trial next week, charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts. She declined to be interviewed this close to trial; last week, the Register wrote, in an editorial, that the charges are “a clear infringement on the freedom of the press.” April Ehrlich—who works for Jefferson Public Radio, in Oregon, and who wrote recently for CJRwas arrested in September, while she was covering police evictions at an encampment for the unhoused in Medford. She was charged with trespassing, resisting arrest, and interfering with a peace officer; the latter charge was dropped, but the first two weren’t and she faces a pre-trial hearing in two weeks. In October, police in North Carolina arrested Tomas Murawksi, a reporter with the Alamance News, who had been covering a poll march that ended with officers pepper-spraying participants, including children; he was charged with resisting, delaying, or obstructing a public officer, and also has a court date later this month. Veronica Coit is a freelance journalist in North Carolina, but had been working regularly for the Asheville Blade when they were arrested at a protest against police brutality, in August. They were charged with failure to disperse and impeding the steady flow of traffic. Their court date is set for early May.

The majority of those who still face charges are freelancers who either work for a multiplicity of clients or were just out documenting events for themselves when they got into trouble. In some cases, that status has caused them additional problems, including a relative lack of attention to their cases. Today, Lynn Murphy—an independent reporter who was arrested while covering a racial-justice protest in Richmond, in September—faces a hearing related to her misdemeanor charge of obstructing free passage. Murphy told me that her charge would likely have been dropped already, but that her lawyers wanted extra time to challenge a police search of her phone. She says that the lingering charge cost her a paid reporting job at a local outlet, and, initially, barred her from leaving the state, meaning she couldn’t travel to events she had planned to cover in Washington. A charge filed against Ronald Weaver II, an independent filmmaker who was arrested at an anti-ICE protest in New York in September, is still pending, as is a charge against Blair Nelson, who was arrested at a protest in Wauwatosa in October. Vishal Singh and Sean Beckner-Carmitchel—two videographers who were arrested at protests in Los Angeles around the election, in November, for unlawful assembly and failure to disperse—told me that they still don’t know if they’ll face formal charges; both must appear in court next week. Beckner-Carmitchel, who was arrested twice on successive days, has been identified in press reporting as an activist, as well as a videographer, but he told me he has transitioned firmly into journalism. Besides, he said, “the police don’t get to decide who is and is not press.”

The Press Freedom Tracker operates on a relatively broad understanding of who is and isn’t press; what matters, it says, “is whether the person was performing an act of journalism” when they were targeted. When Cummings was arrested, in Worcester, he was out in a neighborhood that he’s been capturing for a longer-term book project. His arrest, he told me, has affected him ever since, triggering anxiety and panic attacks. “It’s just like this weird, uneasy, uncertain dark cloud that has been following me around for a whole year,” he said. “I know I’m not gonna do any hard time or anything like that. That’s not really what I’m scared of. I’m more scared of, I guess, the fact that it can happen at all.” His work has helped him get through it. Taking photographs, he told me, “has just been like a coping mechanism, to the point where, like, it’s all I do.”

Below, more on journalists and the police:

  • Minnesota: Last week, a judge in Minnesota ruled that Linda Tirado—a freelance journalist who was blinded in one eye after police struck her with a rubber bullet during the protests that followed Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis last year—may proceed with a lawsuit against the city and the former head of its police union. The judge said that the allegations of Tirado and others “plausibly suggest an unconstitutional custom carried out by MPD officers of targeting journalists for unlawful reprisals.” Elsewhere, Deena Winter reports, for the Minnesota Reformer, that officials in Minneapolis are working to prepare residents for further trauma ahead of the trial of the white cop who killed Floyd, which is slated for next week. Per Winter, the effort includes “a ‘community information network,’ including partnerships with media that reach under-represented communities that don’t rely on mainstream media for news”; the city will also ask social-media influencers for help dispelling disinformation.
  • California: Last month, Sarah Belle Lin, an independent journalist in the Bay Area, filed suit against a local police department; she alleges that officers shot her with a rubber bullet and physically shoved her while she was covering a protest in Oakland, on May 30. Bay City News has more. Also in California, state senators have introduced a bill that would prohibit law enforcement from obstructing “duly authorized representatives” of news organizations who seek access to sealed areas at protests. A hearing is set for next week.
  • Oklahoma: Last week, lawmakers in Oklahoma voted to advance a bill that would criminalize the sharing of information about police officers—including photos and videos of them—with the intent to “threaten, intimidate, harass or stalk,” in a manner that “causes, attempts to cause or would be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress or financial loss to the law enforcement officer, or to the family, household member or intimate partner of the law enforcement officer.” Deon Osborne has more details for the Black Wall Street Times.


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Press freedom comes second to self-interest—again—as Biden lets MBS off the hook

When a word starts to smell

Columbia Journalism Review - March 2, 2021 - 5:55am
Bryan A. Garner, he of Garner’s Modern English Usage, polled his 40,000-plus followers on Twitter in late January: “‘To trump’ is now a verb that should be (A) accepted as a neutral verb denoting the idea of vanquishing an opponent, or (B) viewed as invariably meaning that but suggesting the former incumbent of the White […]

Press freedom comes second to self-interest—again—as Biden lets MBS off the hook

Columbia Journalism Review - March 1, 2021 - 7:05am

On Friday, a day later than expected, the Biden administration made official a fact we already knew: that, in the judgment of the US intelligence community, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder, at a consulate in Turkey in 2018, of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident journalist, columnist for the Washington Post, and US resident. The report that Biden made public was brief and did not contain a smoking gun, but it nonetheless made a damning case. Ahead of time, the decision to release the report was a study in contrasts—it would mark, NBC wrote, “a new chapter in US-Saudi relations and a clear break from Trump’s policy of equivocating about the Saudi state’s role in the brutal murder.” Trump had kept the report under wraps, despite bipartisan pressure from Congress and legal demands mandating its release. He instead put out a statement explaining why he was “standing with Saudi Arabia”: it began “The world is a very dangerous place!” and continued, “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Separately, Trump called Khashoggi’s murder “a very bad original concept,” that was “carried out poorly.” The cover-up, he added, “was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups.”

After Biden released the report, he continued to win points for transparency. On her MSNBC show Friday, Nicolle Wallace called Biden’s decision “exponentially better than the last guy”; her guest Julian E. Barnes, a national security reporter at the New York Times, stressed “that this is a return to the normal state, where a high-confidence conclusion by the CIA is given weight and not dismissed”; facts, Wallace concurred, “are facts again.” But the dominant mood of much coverage was scathing criticism of what Biden did—or rather didn’t do—next. His administration announced that it would be slapping sanctions on dozens of Saudis, but not MBS himself; per the Times, Biden concluded that personally punishing the de facto leader of a close ally would carry unsupportable diplomatic costs (despite having promised, on the campaign trail, to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah”). The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer called the decision “pathetic.” The Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who knew Khashoggi, wrote that Biden “let a Saudi murderer walk”; members of the Post’s editorial board, who worked with Khashoggi, wrote that Biden had given “what amounts to a pass to a ruler who has sown instability around the Middle East in recent years while presiding over the most severe repression of dissent in modern Saudi history.” On CNN, Jake Tapper asked whether “the difference between Trump bragging about saving MBS’s ass and Biden acting as if he has no choice but to save MBS’s ass” was just words. Ultimately, Tapper noted, MBS’s ass had been saved.

New from CJR: Michael Tubbs on disinformation, racism, and news deserts

The Biden administration didn’t only sanction various Saudis, but simultaneously announced a new category of visa restrictions, called “the Khashoggi Ban,” that Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, pledged to wield, going forward, against agents of any foreign government “who are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities, including those that suppress, harass, surveil, threaten, or harm journalists”; on Saturday, meanwhile, Biden said that he would have more to say about Saudi Arabia on Monday. It does seem, though, that MBS is definitively off these hooks. A White House official told Reuters that while the State Department will today “provide more details and elaborate” on its Saudi decisions, it will not make any new announcements. And, touring the Sunday shows yesterday, Jen Psaki, Biden’s press secretary, defended leaving MBS untouched. “Historically—and even in recent history, Democratic and Republican administrations—there have not been sanctions put in place for the leaders of foreign governments where we have diplomatic relations and even where we don’t have diplomatic relations,” she said, on CNN.

The sad bottom line here is that when it comes to press-freedom issues, particularly internationally, there is less distance between Trump and Biden than we’d like to believe. Despite his coddling of MBS, Trump already sanctioned lower-level Saudi officials implicated in the Khashoggi killing—and despite his fusillade of “fake news” rhetoric at home, his surrogates commonly wielded press freedom as an American Value abroad when it served their purposes to do so. Vice President Mike Pence pressed Aung San Suu Kyi, the now-deposed leader of Myanmar, to release jailed reporters in 2018; Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, often stressed media freedoms in his dealings with countries including Kazakhstan and Belarus. This is not to defend either man—both abetted all of Trump’s horrors; Pompeo blew up at an NPR journalist and barred her colleague from his plane—but rather to say that Biden and his representatives must clear much higher bars than basic transparency and civility. It’s easier to punish your enemies than your friends; easy, too, to hide behind lame statements about bipartisan precedent. Does a sanctions regime that purports to protect the truth but doesn’t apply to those with the most power really deserve to carry the name of a man who was killed for holding power to account?

According to the Times, one of the key costs of punishing MBS, in Biden’s view, would have been lost Saudi cooperation on Iran. The day before he released the Khashoggi report, Biden targeted that country, albeit indirectly—dropping bombs, for the first time as president, on facilities in Syria with links to Iran-backed militias that previously targeted US troops in Iraq. Wallace, of MSNBC, called the bombing and the release of the Khashoggi report “a show of force coupled with moral clarity” that together constituted Biden’s “boldest moves to date in asserting American leadership on the world stage.” More accurately, they were our clearest reminders to date that the normality for which so many pundits pined is not a moral state at all, but one where strategic self-interest almost always wins out. The release of the Khashoggi report is a good thing—even if we shouldn’t have to rely on the CIA for the truth—but ultimately, diplomatic choices speak much louder than words on a page. We now have one more reason to believe that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s killing, but the world is still a very dangerous place.

Below, more on the White House and press freedom around the world:

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Akintunde Ahmad spoke with Michael Tubbs, a rising star in the Democratic Party who surprisingly lost his bid for reelection as mayor of Stockton, California, last year after a local website targeted him with a sustained campaign of lies. Afterward, Tubbs called Stockton “the miner’s canary for the impact of disinformation”; he now plans to work on potential solutions to the problem. “I definitely see myself advocating for policy and really being a voice around the dangers of disinformation and also about the need for local press—the need for a vibrant and free press that’s local, that has trust, that has credibility, that can be as objective as possible and at least bring us to a shared understanding of what the facts are,” he said. (You can also listen to Ahmad’s conversation with Tubbs on The Kicker, by following this link.)
  • Last week, Lindsey Boylan, a former aide to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, accused him of sexual harassment. Charlotte Bennett, another former Cuomo aide, shared Boylan’s post on Twitter; Jesse McKinley, of the Times, subsequently reached out to Bennett, who agreed to share, on the record, that Cuomo had harassed her, too. Yesterday, Cuomo apologized for behavior that could have been “misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation,” and agreed—eventually—to a fully independent investigation. Even before the allegations, Cuomo was in the thick of a negative news cycle that has contrasted, as I wrote last month, with his hero status of the early days of the pandemic.
  • Zeynep Tufekci, of The Atlantic, makes the case that much pandemic coverage is unduly negative. “We need to be able to celebrate profoundly positive news while noting the work that still lies ahead,” she writes, but instead, “the public has been offered a lot of misguided fretting over new virus variants, subjected to misleading debates about the inferiority of certain vaccines, and presented with long lists of things vaccinated people still cannot do, while media outlets wonder whether the pandemic will ever end.”
  • Jason Ravnsborg, the attorney general of South Dakota, acknowledged to investigators that he was browsing right-wing conspiracy content on his phone while driving in the minutes before he struck and killed a pedestrian last year. Ravnsborg initially told police that he thought he’d hit an animal, but, per the investigators, the victim’s glasses were found inside Ravnsborg’s vehicle. Timothy Johnson, of Media Matters, has the video.
  • David Brooks, a columnist at the Times, lavished praise on Facebook Groups in a blog post for the platform’s corporate website, BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac report. The Times said that editors were not aware of the post, which instead stemmed from Brooks’s work on the Weave Project—an initiative, housed within the Aspen Institute, that has received funding from Facebook. (Brooks was not paid for the post.)
  • Bryan Curtis, of The Ringer, spoke with Catalin Tolontan, a Romanian journalist whose explosive reporting on a health scandal is the subject of Collective, a new documentary. Tolontan, curiously, works for a sports newspaper. As he sees it, “a political investigation that’s sandwiched between match reports is one that’s more likely to be read with an open mind,” Curtis writes. “In a funny way, sports suppresses the public’s passions.”
  • Last week, journalists who worked at Q, a British music magazine that was forced to shutter by the financial wreckage of the pandemic, launched The New Cue, a weekly publication hosted on Substack. Ted Kessler, the former editor of Q, told The Guardian that the new venture is an “evolution” of the final years of Q, when “we had very little to work with, so we were more imaginative”—a period that he found “creatively satisfying.”
  • And New York’s Olivia Nuzzi writes about learning of her mother’s death, from breast cancer, while covering a visit by Jill Biden, the first lady, to a cancer center in Virginia last week. “If you think about it for long enough, any story about the presidency is a story about the meaning of life and, in that sense, a story about death,” Nuzzi writes. “If you stare at it hard enough, ambition can look like running hopelessly away from mortality.”

ICYMI: The ongoing fight against racism in newsrooms

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

FAIR - 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

FAIR - 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.

FAIR - 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’

FAIR - 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

FAIR - 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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Michael Tubbs—the former mayor of Stockton, California—on racism and disinformation

Columbia Journalism Review - February 26, 2021 - 8:29am
Last year, Michael Tubbs was the focus of an HBO documentary, Stockton on My Mind, that followed his experience trying to reinvent the Central Valley, California, city as its first Black mayor. Within a few months, however—and with his campaign for reelection coming up—Tubbs found himself subjected to a targeted disinformation effort from a fake-news […]

The ongoing fight against racism in newsrooms

Columbia Journalism Review - February 26, 2021 - 7:13am

Yesterday, Alex Goldman—a co-host of Reply All, a popular tech podcast produced by Gimlet—popped up in the show’s feed with a brief programming announcement: “The Test Kitchen,” Reply All’s recent series about racism at the food magazine Bon Appétit, has been canceled; the show as a whole is going on hiatus; and two of its journalists—P.J. Vogt, a co-host alongside Goldman, and Sruthi Pinnamaneni, who reported the Test Kitchen series—won’t be coming back. Goldman also offered an apology. “We now understand that we should never have published this series as reported, and the fact that we did was a systemic editorial failure,” he said. “We’re very sorry for our many failings.”

These failings were not ones of shoddy fact-gathering; on the contrary, the Test Kitchen series won wide praise for its detailed, nuanced exploration of the toxic working environment at Bon Appétit under Adam Rapoport, who stepped down last summer. Rather, the failings pertained to hypocrisy. Two weeks ago, after Reply All released the second episode of its series (of an intended four), Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings, two podcast hosts who formerly worked at Gimlet, wrote on Twitter that although staffers at Bon Appétit deserved airtime for their stories, Reply All was not an appropriate messenger. Eddings wrote that he felt “gaslit” by the Test Kitchen series because Vogt and Pinnamaneni “contributed to a near identical toxic dynamic at Gimlet”; the pair, Eddings wrote, had “AGGRESSIVELY” opposed efforts to diversify the company, including by wielding the internal power of the Reply All team as a “cudgel” against a unionization push spearheaded by staffers of color. (Pinnamaneni had addressed her opposition to the union in the second episode of the Test Kitchen; she said that she should have made “different choices,” but added that “ideally, employees shouldn’t have to make those kinds of choices at all.”) Eddings’s tweets went viral. Vogt and Pinnamaneni publicly apologized; Nicholas Quah reported, for Vulture, that both would be leaving Reply All. (Pinnamaneni was already scheduled to move on at the end of the Test Kitchen series; Vogt was not.) Yesterday, Goldman promised that Reply All would enter a period of introspection. He also said that the first two episodes of the Test Kitchen would stay online. “We had a lot of debate about it,” he said, “but ultimately, we don’t want to bury our failure.”

New from CJR: Bridging gaps in year-round election coverage

A podcast about workplace racism causing its own reckoning with workplace racism may have been a bit meta, but it was not an outlier incident in the journalism world. Early this month, Donald G. McNeil, Jr., a veteran science reporter at the New York Times, left the paper after the Daily Beast reported that he used an anti-Black slur and made other bigoted remarks while accompanying high-schoolers on a Times-led trip to Peru. His exit, and the Times’s botched handling of it, led to a debate—conducted with wildly varying degrees of good faith—about the use of the slur in various contexts; last week, Mike Pesca, a podcast host at Slate, argued in an internal discussion about McNeil that white people should be allowed to say the word in some cases, and was subsequently suspended. (According to Defector, Pesca has used the slur at work before.) In the world of TV, Meg James, of the Los Angeles Times, reported on allegations that Peter Dunn and David Friend, senior executives at CBS Television Stations, were responsible for institutionalized racist and sexist bullying at the company; both have since been suspended pending an investigation; their employees are speaking out. (James also reported on concerns about a deal Dunn brokered to buy a Long Island TV station that came with a tony golf-club membership attached.) In the world of public radio, Cerise Castle, a former producer at KCRW, in LA, spoke out this week about “blatant racism” she faced at work, “starting when I was physically prevented from entering the building multiple times within my first month of employment.” (KCRW called some of her claims “unsubstantiated.”)

In recent weeks, we’ve also seen the conclusions of longer-term reviews commissioned last summer, including a content audit at the Philadelphia Inquirer—where, last June, the headline “Buildings Matter, Too” led to a staff sickout and the resignation of the top editor. In a roundup for Poynter, Andrea Wenzel, an academic at Temple University who helped conduct the audit, wrote that the disproportionate whiteness of the Inquirer’s staff is reflected in its coverage, not only in terms of “how often communities of color were covered, but how they were covered.” This week, the Times published a report that focused less on diversity metrics and more on the culture of the newsroom; it concluded that “the Times is too often a difficult place to work for people of all backgrounds—particularly colleagues of color, and especially Black and Latino colleagues.” Black staffers in non-leadership roles were found to leave the paper more often than white colleagues; Asian-American women and other staffers of color reported feeling “unseen—to the point of being regularly called by the name of a different colleague of the same race.” The Times promised to hardwire diversity, equity, and inclusion into its HR practices.

Since the summer, quantitative and qualitative assessments of newsroom racism have run alongside each other, with frequent overlap. On the former front, major outlets—including Bon Appétit—have hired journalists of color into senior editorial positions; several created new roles focused on “diversity and inclusion.” And yet “minorities remain underrepresented at nearly every level of these companies and across departments,” as NBC’s Ahiza García-Hodges reported last week, based on data from Condé Nast, Hearst, and Vice Media. “Also, while some companies showed improvements in the hiring of employees of color, at most companies, the majority of new jobs continued to be filled by white people.”

Lately, news organizations have published packages re-evaluating, and often apologizing for, decades of racist coverage; the Kansas City Star, in one representative example, removed from its masthead the name of William Rockhill Nelson, who founded the paper and advocated racial segregation. But future-facing cultural shifts have proven harder. Last month, hundreds of public-radio staffers signed a statement, organized by Celeste Headlee, calling urgently for an “anti-racist future” for public media. “The work that faces us is painful and frustrating and profoundly uncomfortable,” they wrote. “We hope to tear down public radio in order to build it back up.” Recently, CJR’s Alexandria Neason explored the history of newsroom apologies—which long predates last summer—focusing, in particular, on the case of North Carolina’s News & Observer, whose publisher, Josephus Daniels, used the paper in 1898 to support a white-supremacist coup. “The press of today has a different relationship with white supremacy, but the modern manifestations—of language, of omission, of framing—are the offspring of Daniels’s tactics, only softened, normalized, and couched in industry norms,” Neason observed. Apologies, she wrote, are crucial to accountability, but also inadequate. “Something else is required,” she wrote. “And, certainly, something else is possible. We’re ready when you are.”

Below, more on racism and the press:

  • Diversity work: For CJR’s latest magazine, Maya Binyam explored whether media unions might be able to make newsrooms inclusive. “Nearly every union organizer I spoke with expressed some variation on the belief that their managers genuinely wanted to possess diversity,” Binyam writes. “At the bargaining table, most bosses even tout it as a common cause. But when presented with language that would bind the company to concrete obligations, these same managers fall back on noncommittal rhetoric or vacate the conversation altogether.”
  • The back story: Before news broke of Vogt and Pinnamaneni’s departures from Reply All, Eddings spoke with Justin Ray, of the LA Times, about his criticism of the Test Kitchen. Eddings said that Pinnamaneni emailed him and tried to set up a call about her opposition to the Gimlet union drive, in the context of her reporting on Bon Appétit. “It was upsetting just because it really actually brought up a lot,” Eddings said. “It’s been frankly about two years at this point since all these things went down.” He added, “Doing it in this context felt really disingenuous.”
  • Abuse: Yesterday, Seung Min Kim, a politics reporter at the Washington Post, posted on Twitter about racist abuse that she has received in response to her reporting on Neera Tanden, President Biden’s seemingly-doomed nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget. (The abuse was triggered, in particular, by a photo of Kim showing the Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski one of Tanden’s old tweets.) Steven Ginsberg, national editor at the Post, put out a statement in support of Kim. “No one should have to deal with the hate that has been directed at Seung Min,” he wrote.
  • A firing: Last week, WTTW, a TV station in Chicago, ousted Hugo Balta, its news director, after several staffers complained to management about the political views expressed in his social-media posts. In a letter to the Chicago Sun-Times, Balta, who is Latino, said that he was fired because “I don’t hide behind the handicap of objectivity as if journalists can check their humanity at the door.” Instead, he writes, “I subscribe to transparency in the pursuit of truth. By acknowledging my own biases, I surround myself with people who don’t often share the same experience, background and ideologies.”
  • A good job?: For Nieman Lab, Summer Harlow, a journalism professor at the University of Houston, summarized her recent research—with Danielle Kilgo, of the University of Minnesota—showing that journalists still tend to think that they are doing a good job covering protests for racial justice, “even though studies that I and others have done repeatedly show that mainstream media tend to delegitimize protesters and their causes.” Harlow and Kilgo surveyed reporters in Missouri, Virginia, Arizona, and Texas and matched their answers against a content analysis of nearly a thousand protest stories. (In June, Cinnamon Janzer interviewed Kilgo about protest coverage for CJR.)
  • A renaissance: Alison Bethel McKenzie, of Report for America, writes that Black-owned and -operated publications are enjoying “a renaissance,” after years of being hard hit by the financial headwinds buffeting the news industry. “Following increased attention on racial inequality in the United States and a call in Black communities for more news by and for African Americans, funders are beginning to focus their attention—and dollars—on helping support the Black press,” McKenzie writes.

Other notable stories:

  • The Biden administration will imminently release an intelligence report linking Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the killing, in 2018, of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi; various outlets reported that we would see the document yesterday, but still, we wait. Biden did speak yesterday with King Salman, MBS’s father. Publicly, the White House has been critical of the Saudi regime, but, per the Times, its account of yesterday’s call was “polite” and “vague,” and made no mention of the Khashoggi report.
  • CJR’s Lauren Harris spoke with Jessica Huseman about her work leading Votebeat, a new nonprofit newsroom that is partnering with local journalists to prioritize stories about voting rights and administration, as focus on the subject begins to ebb post-election. “For a really long time, voting has been the sort of ugly stepchild to campaign coverage,” Huseman said. “We’ve decided that it’s not important because it’s not always sexy.” (To subscribe to Harris’s weekly newsletter on the news business, click here.)
  • Tara McGowan—a Democratic operative whose strategy firm, Acronym, created a stable of “local news” sites with a partisan slant—is launching the Project for Good Information, which will pursue similar objectives without the direct backing of an overtly political group. McGowan’s allies “say she is one of the few Democrats willing to fight fire with fire,” Recode’s Theodore Schleifer writes. “But PGI wants to ‘restore social trust’ in media, and its critics argue ideological outlets only erode that even further.”
  • On Wednesday, staffers at the Southern California News Group, a chain of local papers owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, announced that they are unionizing. The same day, journalists at the Austin American-Statesman voted officially to unionize after that paper’s owner, Gannett, declined to recognize the effort voluntarily. And the National Labor Relations Board ruled that staffers at four Washington State newspapers owned by McClatchy can unionize as a single unit. Poynter’s Angela Fu has a roundup.
  • In media-jobs news, Amy Walter is leaving The Takeaway, where she hosted a weekly show focused on politics. Her final episode will be broadcast today. Elsewhere, Mehdi Hasan, who currently hosts a show on NBC’s streaming service, is getting a prime-time Sunday-night slot on MSNBC. And Sunday will be Marty Baron’s last day at the Post. Yesterday, his colleagues threw him a virtual farewell party featuring pre-taped tributes from various media luminaries—and from Liev Schreiber, who played Baron in Spotlight.
  • This week, Janet Cruz, a Democratic state senator in Florida, proposed a bill that would make it a hate crime to threaten or attack a journalist—a designation that, currently, only applies to protected characteristics such as ethnicity and sexual orientation. In a statement, Cruz cited the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol as an impetus behind the bill. Colin Wolf, of Creative Loafing: Tampa Bay, has more details.
  • For CJR, Jessica Lipsky reports on the relaunch of Wax Poetics, a hip-hop magazine that halted its regular print distribution in 2017, amid declines in ad revenue and readership. “Four years later, Wax Poetics has new owners: Alex Bruh and David Holt, British marketers and brand consultants,” Lipsky writes. Holt “has faith that WP can be financially viable again while keeping to the editorial mission of the original magazine.”
  • Barkha Dutt, a journalist in India, writes for the Post about a recent viral video that called for her to be hanged, alongside eight of her colleagues, for her reporting on farmers’ protests in the country. Trolls targeted Dutt after her work was mentioned in a protest “toolkit” that was shared online by activists including Greta Thunberg. Recently, police arrested Disha Ravi, an Indian climate activist, for “conspiring” to share the toolkit.
  • And Twitter unveiled “Super Follows,” a new feature that will allow users of the platform to charge their followers to see bonus content. Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen reports that journalists are “drooling” at the prospect—though it’s an open question, she writes, “whether newsrooms will let reporters paywall their tweets and keep the money.”

ICYMI: Facebook and the news after Australia: What happens now?

Bridging gaps in year-round election coverage

Columbia Journalism Review - February 25, 2021 - 3:00pm
US state legislatures are largely back in session, and they’re introducing hundreds of voting bills. In the wake of the 2020 election—which introduced significant changes to allow voters more safety amid a pandemic—the number of election procedure bills is four times higher nationwide this year over last, the Brennan Center for Justice reports: 165 restrictive […]

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

FAIR - 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

FAIR - 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.



Beloved hip-hop magazine Wax Poetics gets revived

Columbia Journalism Review - February 25, 2021 - 8:08am
In the Nineties, during the Golden Age of hip-hop, hip-hop heads and record collectors Andre Torres and Brian DiGenti moved to New York. Not seeing coverage of the scene that excited them, they created a music magazine, one that would be for fellow—DiGenti was so obsessed with hip-hop samples that he printed the entire Rap […]

Facebook and the news after Australia: What happens now?

Columbia Journalism Review - February 25, 2021 - 6:45am
The Australian version of Facebook got decidedly less newsy a week ago, after the company blocked Australian news outlets from posting their stories to its platform, and regular users in that country from sharing news from any media outlet anywhere in the world. (Traffic to Australian news sites fell by as much as 20 percent, […]


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