Jul 16 2010

Adam Serwer on DOJ/New Black Panthers, Mark Weisbrot on South of the Border


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This week on CounterSpin: Have you heard the one about how the Obama Justice department refused to prosecute voter intimidation of white people by black people? A few days ago you could’ve missed the story just by avoiding Rush Limbaugh but now even the Washington Post is giving ink to the “political bombshell.” We’ll ask the American Prospect‘s Adam Serwer how much, if anything, there is to this latest tale and what’s behind it.

Also on CounterSpin today: Oliver Stone’s new film South of the Border takes a look at the leftward shift in Latin America over the past decade—a political realignment that has made Washington and the corporate media unhappy, to put it mildly. The film attempts to correct for what it argues is a skewed presentation in the U.S. media of these developments. So what kind of reaction has the film received so far? We’ll ask Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and a co-writer of the film.

All of that’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

PBS viewers who catch a glimpse of the three-part three-hour documentary Turmoil and Triumph now airing around the country can be forgiven for thinking they’re watching an infomercial. It just happens to be an infomercial for…George Shultz. Even corporate media are scratching their heads over the unusually lengthy, completely uncritical tribute.

Not just because Shultz is an undeniably controversial figure yet the film’s speakers are what even the Wall Street Journal‘s Dorothy Rabinowitz calls “an exceptionally enthusiastic lot.” But because the film’s slant, while remarkable, is unsurprising given its production by Free to Choose Media, the folks behind that 1980s PBS series celebrating conservative economist Milton Friedman, and its funding by none other than the Stephen Bechtel Fund and Charles Schwab, both companies of which Shultz was a board member. He was even president of Bechtel for years. Individual funders include John C. Whitehead, George Shultz’s deputy secretary of state. So no, there was no time in the 180 minutes to note Shultz’s rallying for invading Iraq while still on Bechtel’s board, for example.

Keep in mind: PBS refused to distribute the film Out at Work which dealt with workplace discrimination because it received funding from labor unions and a lesbian rights group, and that “might be perceived” as a conflict. A documentary about domestic violence didn’t meet PBS guidelines because one of the producers was affiliated with a support group for battered women. A historical drama about a 19th century textile strike got some labor funding, so PBS said no way. We await the network’s explanation of how those stringent standards have been applied in this case.

Newsweek‘s Latin American correspondent Mac Margolis was playing games with statistics again in the magazine’s July 2 edition. After the obligatory attack on Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez as a “chest-thumping autocrat,” Margolis lavished praise on his and official Washington’s favorite Latin American country, Colombia, as a nation deserving “lead billing” among the “new stars of the emerging markets”: … In the past eight years, the Andean nation has gone from dud to dynamo: foreign investment has risen 250 percent. Its stock index is up 15 percent this year, and 35 percent (versus Brazil’s 14 percent) over the decade. … Since Margolis makes the comparison between Colombia and Brazil, let’s look at a more meaningful one: In 2000, per capita GDP in Colombia’s was $6,200, and Brazil’s was $6,150. In 2009, the last year available, Colombia’s per capita GDP was $8,200—Brazil’s was $9,400. Brazilians, who started the century just slightly behind Colombia in economic output, are now 13 percent ahead—regardless of how well those nations’ stock investors are doing.

On top of that, Colombia is “the only major country in Latin America in which the gap between rich and poor has increased in recent years,” as the Washington Post‘s Juan Forero reported on April 14, citing the UN Economic Commission on Latin America. Twenty-three percent of Colombians live in extreme poverty, versus 7 percent of Brazilians, according to the UN.

So, Newsweek readers should remember that Margolis defines “duds” and “dynamos” based on ideology, not economics.

—Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker is not a comedian. At least, we don’t think so. So she was presumably serious when she wrote her June column, “Obama: Our First Female President.” And she was also presumably serious in her surprise at the negative reaction to that column, which she attempted to address in a subsequent one. According to Parker’s July 4 update, many black readers in particular weren’t keen on her assessment, some noting the reaction Obama would likely face as a black politician if he were to appear too “angry.” She stood by her point but added this grace note: … But I also recognize that my life experience is different from that of most African-Americans. And that experience allows me both the luxury of seeing people without the lens of race, but also (sometimes) to fail to imagine how people of other backgrounds might interpret my words. … Come again? Being white, or having “experience different from most African-Americans,” means “seeing people without the lens of race”? She sounds like Stephen Colbert’s long-running gag in which he tells African-American guests he’ll just have to take their word for it that they’re black because he “doesn’t see race.”

But Colbert’s joking. Parker evidently is not when she writes, … You’ll have to take me at my word when I say that I don’t view Obama exclusively as a black man—no matter what he said on his census form. Not only is he half-white, but also he has managed to transcend skin color, at least from where I sit. … So is it being white, or maybe even being half-white, that permits one to transcend race? And where is this place she’s sitting? Perhaps Kathleen Parker, or someone on the Pulitzer committee, can explain further.

—You’re probably aware of the fights in Congress over extending unemployment benefits. Senate Republicans have managed to remain more or less united in their opposition to extending benefits in the face of what everyone agrees is a horrible job market. Why they’re doing so is another matter; some press accounts tell us that these lawmakers are concerned about adding to the deficit (adding to it in this way, that is). But other lawmakers have more, shall we say, nuanced arguments. Like Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl. He recently explained that an unemployment check makes people less likely to go out and find a job. NPR‘s All Things Considered thought this argument deserved some analysis on their July 12 broadcast; host Bob Siegel called it “unusual” (and it is, among economists who actually study such things). But the guest NPR called in was conservative Harvard economist Ken Rogoff, a John McCain advisor in 2008, and the point of that, Siegel said, was that “we wondered how attractive that argument is to conservatives”. Rogoff’s take was that there is “certainly a truth to it,” though he had to allow that actually “there just aren’t a lot of jobs.” He got in a few swipes at European countries for being too generous with their safety net programs, and he offered the upshot that folks like Kyl “are making a correct point but they’re stretching it.” But what about having someone other than a conservative economist assess conservative Republican economic rhetoric? That critical perspective had to wait until the show aired letters from listeners actually trying to live on unemployment checks.

—And finally, Octavia Nasr had been CNN‘s Mideast correspondent for 20 years. When a prominent Shia cleric died earlier this month, she wrote on her Twitter page: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.” This comment provoked outrage from right-wing pressure groups and the like. So Nasr wrote a lengthier explanation on CNN‘s website, pointing out that Fadlallah “took a contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on women’s rights,” he spoke out against honor killings and other abuses against women. But that context apparently wasn’t good enough, and CNN announced that she was out. An internal memo explained that her “credibility” had been “compromised.”

But what about CNN‘s credibility? Do they have a standard against Twitter messages that are deemed offensive? No; they recently hired far-right commentator Erick Erickson, who’s perhaps best-known for a handful of hateful tweets. Is it the appearance of bias, then? Well, no; CNN allowed host Lou Dobbs to bash immigrants for years, and defended his inaccurate, one-sided rants. Nasr is not being accused by anyone of doing anything like that.

Interestingly enough, a few days later Time magazine—owned by the same company as CNN— ran an obituary for Fadlallah written by the magazine’s intelligence columnist Robert Baer. Baer called him a central figure in Mideast history, and he praised Fadlallah for standing up to Iran. Baer called him an independent, courageous voice, and suggested that “we should regret his passing.” The column attracted no controversy. What it did was offer readers a more nuanced view of an important figure in Mideast history—the kind of thing CNN has decided its viewers shouldn’t get.


CounterSpin: You might with good reason choose to ignore a tale going around right-wing media, like this week’s example, about how the Obama Justice Department supposedly refused to prosecute members of the New Black Panther Party who had been intimidating white voters. Even when there’s ultimately no there there, such stories can have an impact, in this case distorting just that much more the history and reality of voter suppression in this country—and of feeding a more widespread narrative about how Obama, and by extension all black people, have advanced at the expense and now to the actual detriment of white people.

Joining us now to discuss this issue is Adam Serwer. He’s a staff writer, focusing on civil rights, human rights and criminal justice, for the American Prospect.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Adam Serwer!

Adam Serwer: It’s great to be here. Thank you.

CS: Well, The New Black Panther Party tale has been taken up by right-wing bloggers and outlets like the Washington Times and has bubbled up through Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh to now the Washington Post because it’s meant to be proof of something. In a nutshell, what is this story supposed to say about Obama and/or his administration? And then, how much reality is involved?

AS: The crux of the case from a conservative point of view is that the case proves that the Obama Administration isn’t interested in prosecuting black defendants in cases where the victims are white. In 2008 Fox News caught two members of the New Black Panther Party, who were standing outside a precinct in Philadelphia, and one of them was holding a baton. And two McCain poll watchers, they said the members were using racial slurs towards them—which I don’t believe was on the camera but which wouldn’t be very surprising considering they’re members of the New Black Panther Party, which is defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. But the issue was, during the Bush Administration a case of voter intimidation was filed under an obscure provision of the Voting Rights Act called Section 11(b). A few months later, about May of 2009, the Justice Department dismissed the case on the basis that there wasn’t enough evidence to go forward. And I want to clarify that this was not a criminal case. Section 11(b) doesn’t specify any criminal or monetary or civil penalties. This was not a criminal case. After receiving a preliminary injunction against the individual who was holding a baton, the Justice Department decided to drop the case because they felt there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that this was sort of a coordinated effort to suppress white voters. And part of the reason for that was that this incident actually occurred in a very Democratic, mostly black voting precinct. Part of why the Justice Department concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue it was that there were not actual voters who came forward and said they had been intimidated by the Black Panther Party, not in Philadelphia or anywhere else. The complaints of voter intimidation were made by Republican poll watchers who were present. Not a single voter has said the New Black Panther Party made me scared to vote. That’s something that really can’t be lost in this.

CS: Well, one of the factors that has been picked up by conservatives who are promoting the idea that the Obama Justice Department squashed this case is that you had political appointees who are overriding the judgment of more seasoned veteran civil servants. That seems to be one angle that people are promoting when they’re trying to say that it’s not about race or racism. What do you make of that angle?

AS: I think there’s not really much evidence for that at all. There’s the claims of the Justice Department “whistleblower” who has a pretty conservative background. But there’s no papers suggesting that; there’s no documents suggesting that. And the case itself was very small potatoes. It wasn’t as though there was going to be some big punishment that these guys were missing out on. And the other man who was present, the one who didn’t have a baton, was actually a certified poll watcher.

CS: Well, you point out that many people have said the case is small potatoes on its face, so we have to ask the question about why so relatively much is being made of it. Eric Boehlert recently wrote a column in which he sort of describes it as almost a Trojan horse, a way of opening up a conversation that then is going to be quite extreme in some part. Thinking back to Glenn Beck in July, saying that Obama has “exposed himself as a guy” with a “deep seated hatred for white people,” what is the bigger picture that this is fueling?

AS: I think in general there’s a conservative narrative, and they sort of tiptoe around it, but this is essentially a broad conservative claim of large-scale, systemic discrimination against white people on the part of a black president. And when you actually put it that way, it seems very silly. And so they’ll generally tiptoe around it, but they’ll suggest that the president is racist, that he encourages the black Attorney General to enforce the law in a racist manner and that what’s going on is that white people are being oppressed by black leadership in the United States. I think it’s a rather ugly idea.

CS: And one that you think reporters, their feelings aside, could kind of call out, at least ask for evidence on, policy evidence. The Washington Post calls it a political “bombshell” even though the story underneath says there’s really nothing to see. So, it’s funny how media can kind of make a big deal out of something at the same time as saying well, there’s not really much there there.

AS: Well, I think what’s remarkable about this story in particular is that during the Bush Administration you had internal Justice Department saying unequivocally that political leadership at the Bush Justice Department broke civil service laws with its hiring practices by considering political affiliation in hiring. And of the four people who signed the original Black Panther complaint, all of them have significant ties, either to the Republican Party or to the politicized leadership DOJ. And when I say politicized, that’s not actually—you know, here conservatives are arguing that the Department of Justice is politicized, but there’s no argument about whether or not the Bush Justice Department was politicized; that’s what the Department of Justice concluded in it’s internal report. And I think there’s sort of an understory here about this controversy and what this controversy is really about. And what it really is, it’s the people who were hired during the Bush Administration, who are angry at the people who are now running things in the Obama Administration, and they’re looking for a way to make them look bad. I mean, this is sort of office politics, you know, spilling into a political conversation—but it really is just a battle between the people who used to work in the Justice Department, at a time when there was a scandal that made the Justice Department and the Bush Administration look really bad, repeating the same accusations against the people who work there now.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Adam Serwer. You can find his work on the web at Prospect.org.

Adam Serwer, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

AS: Thank you.


CounterSpin: There are certain subjects where the corporate media consensus couldn’t be any clearer. Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is an autocratic menace pushing failed socialist policies and crushing dissent, for instance. The gap between what Fox News will tell you about Venezuela and what gets printed on the Washington Post op-ed page is slim-to-none. The larger story in Latin America over the past decade or so is very much influenced by Chávez and the blossoming of democratic citizen movements in the region that are challenging the U.S.-backed economic theories that, while popular with some elites, have proven to do little for the vast majority of the people across Latin America.

Those movements, and the political leaders that have emerged as a result, are the subject of the new Oliver Stone film South of the Border. The film was co-written by Tariq Ali and our next guest Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He joins us now by phone.

Mark, welcome back to CounterSpin.

Mark Weisbrot: Thanks, Peter. Good to be here.

CS: Now, these are themes that we’ve talked about with you for years, and you’ve devoted much of your work over the past decade to talking and writing about this stuff. How did that work translate into a film?

MW: Well, a lot of the ideas, a lot of the things, I mean I’ve written a lot—not only about these countries, but how they’re treated in the media as well. And the huge gap between what we see and hear here and what is kind of self-evident in Latin America, and I think that’s where the presidents—you know we interview seven presidents, one former president in the movie—and I think that’s where it really comes in, because they say all these things that you never hear here.

CS: The media criticism element of the film is so strong, and it’s something that Oliver Stone has stressed in all of his interviews—that what people know about these leaders and these countries is often tainted by media misinformation. And sometimes that message is reinforced by the outlets interviewing Stone: CNN host John King said to Oliver Stone, “Many are going to say you are glorifying South American leaders who don’t think like Americans, who don’t like democracy.” So the film that is in part is about media bias generates coverage that serves to make the point even clearer. The best example of this might be Larry Rohter’s attempt to take down the film in the June 26 New York Times. For those of our listeners who may have missed Larry Rohter’s piece, what inaccuracies did he uncover in the film?

MW: Well, he didn’t find any. I mean, he tried rather desperately. He even tried, for example, there’s a five-second sound bite from an oil analyst that appears on TV making a completely different point that probably nobody—I mean if you saw the film you wouldn’t notice it; I didn’t notice it—and he used data from 2004-2010 to try to refute this irrelevant statement made by the TV analyst in 2002. And it was clear in the film that he was speaking in 2002, so this is just one out of seven or eight things in his long piece that took up most of the front page of the Arts section of the New York Times, where he just grasped and stretched and scraped to try and find something that he could call a question of accuracy—that was the headline: “Questions of Accuracy Arise.” And he came up with nothing at all. In fact, he made a number of mistakes of his own.

CS: And yet there’s been no correction from the Times, no letters printed to defend the movie.

MW: Nothing at all. Of course we’re still pressing that.

CS: The thing that’s interesting about this is that Rohter’s piece will be and has been cited by other media outlets writing about South of the Border. So they’ll—even in pieces that are relatively mild—they’ll toss off a phrase about how Larry Rohter at the New York Times documented some inaccuracies in the film. So this false story becomes kind of a truism in the rest of the media discussion. How would you say the media’s been in portraying the film outside of the New York Times? What kind of reaction has it gotten?

MW: Well, a lot of it’s been hostile, and a lot of it kind of proves our point about the sloppiness of the media. I mean, there were a number of reviews that couldn’t get the presidents right and the country, that matched the presidents and the countries. Probably the funniest was the Washington Post, which printed a picture of Sacha Llorenti, who is completely unknown in the United States and had a caption that said Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, and the only way they could have gotten that would be they watched a clip in the film because I don’t think his picture has ever even appeared in the U.S. press. They took a clip of the film where Llorenti, who is Minister of Government in Bolivia, was translating for the president, and they looked at the picture and figured that the white guy speaking English was the president. But that was just one of the number of screw-ups where they got presidents wrong and all kinds of facts wrong. And even that Washington Post thing said that Chávez tried to make himself president for life, which is of course nonsense. There was a public vote on a Constitutional referendum which passed, which removed term limits. Of course you don’t have term limits in most European countries either, though we wouldn’t call them presidents or prime ministers for life.

CS:I guess it’s not surprising that a film that so squarely puts the blame on the U.S. media would receive a somewhat hostile reception in the U.S. media. One of the things that was interesting and kind of revealing though, was listening to the presidents that were interviewed in the film talk about their reception in the U.S. media. They have a very clear understanding that if the U.S. media is cheering on their political decisions, or their elections, or their rule, they’re probably doing something wrong.

MW: Yes, and one thing that we were able to show in the film, too, that didn’t get any attention in the reviews was just the U.S. role in the coup. We made a major point of that; we presented five pieces of evidence, and you can find them all on the SouthOfTheBornerDoc.com website. And it’s funny how this just went by all the reviewers as though it really didn’t matter. And that’s exactly the way the media’s been treating it for eight years. There’s this dispute between the United States and Venezuela, and it seems like the U.S. involvement in the attempt to overthrow the government just isn’t relevant to them. They’ve never really done an article or even looked at the evidence, and when they do mention it at all, it’s usually mentioned as an allegation by Hugo Chávez that the U.S. was involved in the coup, not something that is a pretty well-documented fact from the State Department documents and CIA documents and everything else.

CS: I guess it’s telling that Larry Rohter wouldn’t devote much time to that, but would try to take apart the movie based on five seconds of B-roll from CBS Evening News.

MW: Well, Rohter also, you know, he supported the coup himself in his reporting in 2002, and so did the New York Times editorial board. We made a point of that in the film. It’s also interesting that the reviews, when they do mention the media, they always, they focus on Fox, and as you said in your introduction, there’s really not a lot of daylight between Fox and the Washington Post editorial board. And we made that point in the movie that the major media, you know, has distorted this entire reality, these huge historic changes that have taken place over the last decade, that have made South America in particular more independent of the United States than Europe is—something that hasn’t been true for any time in the last 150 years. And they really have done it—but it isn’t really just Fox or even just TV news, it’s print media and especially the editorials. You know, I’m glad you mentioned the editorials because that’s something that most people don’t know is that the way most Americans get the idea that Venezuela is a dictatorship, for example, is from these editorials because hardly anyone actually reads the article, the reporting online. It’s mostly wire services that bury it, it may not be in your local newspaper; so for people who do read newspapers, that’s the information they get. And these editorials are really over the top.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Mark Weisbrot. He’s co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He co-wrote the new film South of the Border, which is directed by Oliver Stone. You can find out how to see the film and more about it at SouthOfTheBorderDoc.com.

Mark Weisbrot, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MW: Thank you.


—Adam Serwer’s American Prospect blog

South of the Border