Dec 25 2009

Best of CounterSpin 2009


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On this special CounterSpin program we’ll take a look back at some of the stories of the past year, and hear again from a few of the many journalists, activists, researchers and critics that brought those stories to us, or helped us make sense of them.

CounterSpin: Writer and investigative historian Gareth Porter joined us back in April to talk about the big picture questions still mostly missing from the media discussion of the Afghanistan war, especially the very rational for the war itself.

Gareth Porter: There’s not been a single story that I have seen that really asked the question, “What is the rationale for this war?” or rather “Is the rationale for this war that has been provided by the administration making sense? Is it one that you can break down and look at the pieces and see that they fit together in a coherent fashion?” And even within stories I find that there’s not attention being given to the question of the rationale for the war.

CS: Porter added that the Obama administration’s emphasis on Al Qaeda is at odds with the finding that Al Qaeda is mostly not in that country at all:

Gareth Porter: There’s really no evidence, in fact, that Al-Qaeda now has a presence in Afghanistan. It appears that there’s some factions of the Taliban who have links with Al-Qaeda in Pakistan who’ve looked to Al-Qaeda for some sort of technical or other assistance, but Al-Qaeda is apparently not present in Afghanistan in any meaningful sense.

So when we come back to Obama’s initial speech in which he talked about the fact that we must defeat Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, this became a really central part of his pitch for the war. No one has really pointed out that really the idea that we’re fighting Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is simply an untruth. And that even his own interagency policy group, when it issued a report the same day, they actually did not say what he said. They did not say that we’re fighting Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; rather, they said we’re fighting Al-Qaeda in Pakistan; the problem is really limited to Pakistan.

This is the kind of sort of propaganda ploy that one would’ve associated with the Bush administration in its run-up to the war in Iraq, and so I find that this is a fairly significant political fact that simply has not been reported by the media, as far as I know.

CS: As the coverage of the Afghanistan war focused on Beltway personalities and Obama and his generals, openings for a more nuanced media conversation were rare. Radio host and author Sonali Kolhatkar joined us in July to talk about the things the media have missed. In particular the forgotten issue of women’s rights, once a media staple and a primary justification for the Afghanistan war when it was launched.

Sonali Kolhatkar: I think that media has done a terrible job on exposing how women’s rights have actually gone backward over the past eight years, how our occupation has actually fueled misogyny. They’ve also done a terrible job on the warlord domination of the government, which is part of that same story. They’ve done a terrible job on exposing Hamid Karzai as a pro-fundamentalist president, who is an opportunist and who has betrayed the people of Afghanistan and is deeply, deeply unpopular. They’ve done a terrible job of showing how incredible Afghan resistance has been to the occupation, to the Taliban, and the warlords.

There’s ordinary people every day who are struggling against it or speaking out or fighting back, risking their lives. They should be profiled by the newspapers. Malalai Joya, this dissident member of Parliament that I mentioned, her being kicked out of Parliament should have been on the front pages of the newspapers. She is completely against the occupation. That’s why she is not given credence.

Because the people who are struggling for human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan are also naturally against the occupation, they are not given enough coverage in the mainstream media. The mainstream media has just walked lockstep along with the liberal Democrats and President Obama, who are also currying big favor with the Republicans in supporting the war on Afghanistan.

CS: Healthcare Reform dominated policy debate this year, and corporate media continued their staunch policing of the conversation to exclude ideas of truly public plans like single payer, despite such ideas having widespread support among the public. Having excluded some important ideas, media went on to pretend that the options they sanctioned were all that was possible. Columbia Journalism Review editor Trudy Lieberman told us in August that that’s a lot like what happened in the last round of reform.

Trudy Lieberman: The ideas for reform have not changed a bit. In fact, we have pretty much foreclosed discussion of other countries’ systems from the very beginning. And at least in ’93-’94 there was some discussion of that, at least at the beginning.

But the ideas for reform, a public plan, an individual mandate, making employers pay a little bit, taxing insurance benefits from your employer; all these ideas have been around since the early ’90s in one form or another. So the ideas have not changed at all, and the limits of the debate haven’t changed. We still, in this country, want to entertain very narrow ideas and very narrow solutions to a very big problem.

CS: That narrow conversation continued and Trudy Lieberman returned to the show in November, to point out that with all the ink, reporters were ignoring the most fundamental angle.

TL: I’ve been following this latest round of health reform for the last two years, and what has always been missing from the coverage has been the people’s stories. How are ordinary individuals going to be affected by this legislation? So now we are at the eve of passing the bill, perhaps, and we still haven’t seen that kind of coverage. And it has just mystified us at about why that hasn’t happened, and we’ve written about it from time to time.

Most people are just now beginning to understand that there’s going to be this individual mandate, which is the requirement that they’re going to have to carry health insurance. And I think people are really not aware of that, that they will either have to get coverage from an employer, a public program like Medicare, or they’ll have to buy it in the individual insurance market. So they don’t really understand that.

And I think once they get to that point, they don’t understand how it will work and how much they have to pay. This whole notion of penalties if they don’t buy policies has not really been discussed a lot; it’s just been glossed over. Nor has the issue of affordability, which I think is really a key issue here in the debate, and it really isn’t being discussed. How much will I or my family have to pay out of pocket for this?

CS: Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report joined us in October to talk about the “public option”—an aspect of proposed health care reform that was much discussed but little understood.

Bruce Dixon: Well, the first thing to know about the public option is that it doesn’t apply to most of the public, that it only applies to a very, very small section of the public. Barack Obama in his early September healthcare speech described the public option that he said would only apply to at most 5 percent of the insurance market.

Now if a public option is supposed to keep insurance companies honest by competing with them, it’s got to be far, far larger than that. The guy Jacob Hatcher, who invented the term public option back around 2001, he envisioned a public option that would contain 120 million people, and that would have made it large enough to actually compete in the marketplace against private insurance companies, but the public option that’s being described by Democrats now is just a tiny, tiny public option.

So it’s not going to be able to compete with the big guys on price, it’s going to be restricted to people who can’t get insurance any other way, and you won’t be able to… well, it’s neither public nor optional, I guess you could say for most people. It’s not public because it’s only open to a small number of people, and it’s not an option that most of them will be able to avail themselves of, because you won’t be able to switch from your employer provided insurance to it, and you won’t be able to switch from the insurance that they’ll make you buy in most cases to it. So, it’s neither public nor optional.

CS: Early in 2009, having banned reporters from the area, Israel launched an offensive in the Gaza Strip that had killed more than 500 Palestinians by the first week of the war, many of them civilians and children. The U.S. media have a formula for reporting on Israel/Palestine that says Palestinians or Hamas incur violence; Israel only defends itself, and they followed that here. CounterSpin spoke with Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada about that narrative.

Ali Abunimah: When you look at the official Israeli government talking points, the ones they actually send out to journalists, and the majority of the coverage in the United States, you find that they’re almost identical. There’s absolutely no scrutiny of Israeli claims going on, which is particularly shocking when you consider that Israel has barred international journalists from entering the Gaza Strip. There are journalists there but not Western ones. And I think many media organizations are so afraid of being criticized that they’re anti-Israeli that they play this story as if there is balance, as if Israelis and Palestinians are experiencing this equally.

I mean, in Gaza you have a real humanitarian catastrophe–families fleeing their homes with nowhere to go, schools being shelled, hospitals with piles of bodies in them, everywhere in the Gaza strip injured people not even going to hospitals because they know they can’t get treatment, people without food, the Red Cross talking about major breaches of international humanitarian law.

In Israel, three civilians have been killed. I feel very sorry for them. But again to put that in perspective, statistically more Israelis will have died from road accidents since December 27 than from this conflict. And in Israel football matches are going on, an election campaign in going on, you know, all the TV reality shows are going on, as if it were a million miles away from the hell that Israel has created in Gaza. There is no proportion to this story.

CS: Ali Abunimah responded to a Los Angeles Times report that Arab media were using “emotional” images to portray Gazans as martyrs and heroes.

AA: What they play on there is kind of the racist notion that Arab journalists couldn’t possibly be objective or they couldn’t give you the facts, and that’s what really I think lies behind that kind of snide remark from the L.A. Times. The reality is that we’re getting live coverage on Al Jazeera.

Incidentally, anybody can get Al Jazeera in English on the Internet. They have an English channel now, and it’s free on the Internet, and it is worth watching to see what you are missing from the mainstream media.

But the reason Al Jazeera has live coverage is because they take these stories, they take the lives of Palestinians seriously and so they had bureaus permanently stationed there. Where is the Western, and particularly American, network, all their reporters are up in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem living a very nice life, and they trot down to Gaza once in a while for a day trip or to do a story if ever. And so it was very easy for Israel to just close the border and all those journalists are stuck in Tel Aviv.

Well, they couldn’t do that to Al Jazeera, because they were already there.

CS: Some stories really showcase elite U.S. media’s fealty to official and corporate friendly thinking, even when that doesn’t look a lot like democracy, and the military coup in Honduras was one of those. U.S. readers could hardly make sense of the story, given the press corps distorted telling. Begin with the central fact of whether ouster Honduran president Manual Zelaya had been trying to unconstitutionally extend his rule. We asked Greg Grandin, professor of Latin American history at New York University, about that key assertion.

Greg Grandin: Well, it’s just a lie, and this is just something that’s been repeated over and over again in all forms of journalism, high and low. The fact is that Zelaya was putting forth a non-binding referendum that had nothing to do with term limits. It had to do with asking Honduran citizens if in November of this year, whether they wanted to vote on convening a Constitutional Assembly to revise the Constitution. He himself wouldn’t be president.

Presumably the terms of those revisions would be debated by an elected assembly, representatives of an elected assembly. Ending term limits, or presumably having presidents allowed to serve two terms, would presumably be one of the issues to be debated. It wouldn’t affect the fact that Zelaya himself wouldn’t be running for reelection in the next go-round. So it’s completely false the way it’s been portrayed.

CS: We asked Grandin if media were trying to demonize Zelaya in the same way they have their favored enemy Hugo Chávez, and about the real sources of anti-Zelaya dissent.

GG: Undoubtedly, I mean, they’re clearly just trying to portray Zelaya as [laughs] Hugo Chávez’s “Mini-Me”. They use a lot of the same terms: that he’s alienated sectors of society, that he’s unpopular, that it’s a power grab. And it basically obscures the fact that Zelaya, over the last couple of years, has adopted a rather progressive agenda, and that agenda is quite at odds with the platform that he ran on as president.

Zelaya comes from a wealthy family, he’s a rancher. He’s a member of an establishment political party, a center-right political party, the Liberal Party. He ran on a center-right platform, and sometimes what happens in Latin America is that the burdens and the realities of trying to govern a country as desperately poor as Honduras–60 percent of the population live in poverty, 50 percent in extreme, extreme poverty–tends to reinforce a liberal slant that it moves people to the left in some ways.

In particular, Zelaya had to confront the reality that the Central American Free Trade Agreement has been a dismal failure. It hasn’t delivered on its promised development. It has actually deepened inequality. Honduras now competes with its impoverished neighbors, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala for foreign investment, which means they have to drive wages down even lower. It’s increased its trade deficit with the United States.

So all of these factors have led Zelaya to look about for other allies, to diversify Honduras’, try to diversify Honduras’ politics and economics. And also to democratize its politics a little bit. Honduras’s political establishment is notoriously exclusive and elitist and restricted and part of the attempt to convene a Constitutional Assembly is an effort to open it up a little bit and democratize society.

CS: Anniversaries might be somewhat artificial news pegs, but they offer reporters a chance to reflect on significant past events and shed new light on them, show how far we’ve come… or show how far we haven’t by rehashing the same old storyline. 2009 marked 20 years since the Exxon Valdez oil tanker dumped at minimum 11 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska. It also meant 30 years since this country’s worst nuclear accident, the partial core meltdown at Pennsylvania nuclear plant Three Mile Island. Both were seen as watershed revelations of institutional failures and led to activism and calls for reform.

We asked activist and marine biologist Riki Ott to what extent the Exxon Valdez is a present day story in 2009.

Riki Ott: We still do not have the herrings back in Prince William Sound. Herring are a foundational species in Prince William Sound. They’re the forage fish that whales, seals, sea lions, sea birds all rely on. Realistically without herring Prince William Sound cannot recover.

CS: Riki Ott described a phenomenon she called “media capture.” We asked her how it worked.

RO: I was shocked to see how easily these big oil companies, in this case Exxon, could make its story the dominant story in the news. And this has actually driven me to write two books trying to correct 20 years of wrongheadedness by the media.

The lies started on day one. I landed on Valdez and within 12 hours of the grounding I was down federal scientists the NOAA people, and they were estimating the size of the spill based on computer modeling. And it was between 11–low-end estimate–million gallons to 38 million gallons. Exxon captured the low end number; when the press started asking, I was in the room watching. Who validated that? Who verified that? Exxon spokesperson Frank Iarossi kind of threw out that alcohol may have been involved. Quote.

And just like that, I watched the national media switch tracks like a railroad, and it became 11 million gallons ever since that day. The reason that’s important, and I knew it would be, was because penalties are based on spill volume, and correction measures are based on spill volume, so what do we have in Alaska right now? We are prepared to respond to an Exxon Valdez size oil spill, which means three times less than what really spilled.

CS: Three Mile Island looms large in public awareness, but when, as happens every so often, the nuclear power industry tries to orchestrate its own resurgence, we see a portrayal of Three Mile Island as a non-event. No one died, the health impacts were meaningless, nothing to see here. Harvey Wasserman is a longtime nuclear activist and co-author of the book Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation. CounterSpin got his response to this presentation of things.

Harvey Wasserman: Utter nonsense. I mean, the fact is that nobody knows how much radiation escaped from Three Mile Island, and nobody knows where it went. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has admitted in front of Congress that they don’t know where it went, and we just had a study released yesterday at Three Mile Island saying that a nuclear engineer has looked at it 30 years later and believes that far more radiation, as much as a hundred times more radiation escaped than was originally believed.

I went into Three Mile Island, the Three Mile Island area, the year after the accident, and I conduced dozens of interviews with local people, and it was the worse week of my life. People were complaining of cancers, leukemias, birth defects, rashes, hair loss, lesions, metallic taste in their mouth, which we correlated to similar reports at nuclear bomb tests. And, actually, among the pilots who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.

There is absolutely no doubt that Three Mile Island killed people. And now 30 years later we still have 2,400 families who filed a class action lawsuit in the 1980s after the accident, demanding compensation, and they have yet to have their case heard.

CS: Another more recent anniversary was that marking four years since hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and displaced more than a million people from their homes. At the time, elite media were full of calls for deep investigation and more attention to questions of how poverty and racism affected the hurricane’s impact and the government response. Four years later a number of national outlets did exactly nothing on the story.

Jordan Flaherty was one of the journalists that never left, writing for outlets like Left Turn and Counterpunch. We spoke with him about mainstream media coverage.

Jordan Flaherty: There was this promise from the corporate media that they would use this as an opportunity, four years ago, to really have this dialogue on race in this country, the legacy of racism, white supremacy, slavery, how it is a current reality, and I think in most measures the discussion still has not happened.

I think, specifically in New Orleans, everyone loves a happy ending, and I think the corporate media really wants to be able to say the story is over, the city is rebuilt, there are now successes. We had a quick sort of stumble at the beginning and now we have moved on and things are okay.

The reality is that’s not true. We still have, depending on your measurement, around 40 percent of the city still not back, at least 100-something thousand, perhaps as many as 200,000 and people, out of a former population of 500,000, that still have not returned. And you know that’s a huge, tragic loss, and if you look at the studies that have been done, that’s overwhelmingly African-American folks. It’s overwhelmingly poor folks, and in the studies, when people have been talked to, they overwhelmingly want to come back but have not been able to come back because of the housing situation, education, healthcare, all these systems that still have not recovered.

CS: We asked Flaherty about a not so subtle subtext in some corporate media coverage that maybe Katrina provided just the opportunity some sought to “remake” New Orleans.

JF: In the immediate days after Katrina, a lot of these neo-liberals like Milton Friedman and politicians like Richard Baker were celebrating this blank slate that they had to remake the city. A lot of the powerful voices in the city like businessman Jimmy Rice were quoted saying that we were turning a page for the city and that they were going to rebuilt it as something new.

And so when you see these celebrations in the media of, for example, the education system…. The education system before Katrina had many problems and also had some really great schools. Now it also has many problems and really great schools. And I think, what you have now is if you as a student have a parent who can advocate for you, who can find the best school in this now mostly charter public system, you can get a really great education in New Orleans. But for those that don’t have someone to advocate for them, it’s a lot harder. For some people, it’s gotten a lot better, but a lot of people have been left out, and those are the voices that have been excluded from the corporate media coverage as well.

CS: Corporate media’s failure to provide real debate on escalating the Afghanistan war, to question the official line on Israel’s invasion of Gaza or the coup in Honduras, their unwillingness to challenge the corporate line on environmental issues, or to dig deeper into questions of structural inequalities–we can’t help but think of all these as reporters and academics discuss the “future of journalism.” 2009 saw fervent, almost desperate debate over how to save newspapers and preserve investigative reporting. CounterSpin asked Jim Naureckas, editor of FAIR’s magazine Extra! what was missing from most versions of the conversation.

Jim Naureckas: I think that what’s wrong with a lot of the discussions about the future of journalism is that they don’t look back to see where journalism has been. If you take a step back and look how well journalism has served the public and served democracy, you really have to say that it’s not doing very well. The future of journalism has to be looked at in the context of present-day journalism that is really letting us down. So we have to think not, how can we preserve journalism as it is, but how can we create a system that works better?

CS: The talk of journalism’s future is tied to a decline in ad revenue, leading to questions of how, if big corporations step back, we might possibly fund reporting.

JN: There is a lot of talk about citizen journalism, you know, which is essentially volunteer journalism, and I think that will play an important role in the future, where people who are writing because they want to be heard, and not because they’re making a salary, are helping to keep us as a society informed.

But we also think that you’re always going to need full-time, paid journalists because investigating the complex stories of advanced society really is a full-time job. It’s not something that you can do in your spare time, and so how do you pay for that? And, you know, traditionally the answer has been through the money that you get from advertising.

We’ve always felt at FAIR that you would have a much healthier media culture if you had a more diverse set of funding streams–if you had a public funding stream that was really insulated from official pressure, which we don’t have now; if you had nonprofits really taking seriously the importance of generating information for democracy.

And I think that you will always have a for-profit sector–it will probably be smaller than it is now, and I don’t think media will ever generate the profits that it used to generate in the past. And that’s a good thing.

The reason that media corporations were able to make so much profit from selling news is because the news system really had problems. It was hard for people to get into it. They had this kind of monopoly on the information that we really depend on for carrying on our politics and our culture. Because they had a monopoly, they were able to make huge amounts of profits. That fact that that monopoly has the potential to be broken up, that’s a good thing. It’s a bad thing for corporate profits, but it’s a good thing for society.

CS: That was Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra!

That’s it for this special year end Best Of CounterSpin 2009.