This week on CounterSpin: Months after winning an election that ended five decades of one-party rule, Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned, citing his failure to close a U.S. military base on the island of Okinawa. U.S. media told us quite a bit about why the U.S. wants the base to remain on the island, but next to nothing about why Okinawans so strongly oppose the U.S. troop presence. Brown University anthropology professor Catherine Lutz will join us to talk about that.
Also on CounterSpin today, News outlets have been cutting back on coverage of federal agencies for years—federal agencies that have a huge impact on the lives of citizens. What results when these agencies go unscrutinized, and how does the resulting lack of reliable information ultimately affect the prospects of American democracy? We’ll talk to Jodi Enda about “Capital Flight,” the title of her important new report in the June/July edition of the American Journalism Review.
All that’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.
—The Washington Post went after Social Security again on June 9. This isn’t surprising; but this time the paper focused on Social Security advocates who question the existence of a crisis in the program, which is a view rarely heard in the media discussion. The Post said these activists are focusing on the White House’s deficit reduction commission—giving the commission’s work a “sinister cast,” according to the paper, which informs us that these Social Security supporters believe the commission has a “secret plan” to cut Social Security and are using “heated rhetoric” to make their point.
Well, that sounds conspiratorial, but the plan’s not at all secret; as the Post eventually acknowledged, the commission’s members are in agreement on “adjusting Social Security benefits.” “Adjustment” here means cuts.
Like many other news accounts, the Post portrayed this issue as simple mathematics: “Budget experts say it would be difficult to significantly reduce future deficits without addressing the rising cost of Social Security.” So we have Social Security advocates or defenders on one side, and “budget experts” on the other. As if to reinforce this point, the Post quoted an analyst from the conservative Heritage Foundation about the “intellectual consensus” that supports his argument.
As economist Dean Baker noted at his Beat the Press blog, the upshot here is that the “experts” believe the government should default on the portion of its debt held by the Social Security trust fund. Well, that’s a radical idea—misappropriating trillions of dollars collected from working people to support the retired elderly, and instead using the money to keep down tax rates for the wealthy. One can count on outlets like the Washington Post to portray this as a necessary solution offered up by “experts.”
—And, speaking of expertise, Barack Obama’s nomination of retired general James Clapper to be the next Director of National Intelligence is a peculiar one. In 2003, as a high ranking U.S. intelligence official, Clapper expressed the view that Iraq had secretly moved its banned WMD to Syria in advance of the U.S. attack.
But it was hard to find mention of Clapper’s extreme position in reporting about his recent nomination. For instance, there was nothing in the New York Times news story about the nomination, or in the paper’s online bio of Clapper—though back on October 29 2003, the Times found it worth noting that Clapper thought “that illicit weapons material ‘unquestionably’ had been moved out of Iraq.”
This view, for which Clapper has never cited any other evidence, was a favorite of the most extremist neo-cons and Fox News hosts, most notably, Sean Hannity, who still hasn’t come to grips with the fact that there were no Iraqi WMD. Bush White House aide Karl Rove cites Clapper’s support for the theory in his recent book Courage and Consequences.
So, where was the coverage of Clapper’s extreme position? A view that might reflect on the way evidence is analyzed in the agencies Clapper would be overseeing in the new job? Well, you could find in the far right Washington Times, which wrote approvingly of Clapper’s cranky position.
—Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez is often derided in the U.S. press for being “out of touch” and dictatorial. So you’d think his opening a Twitter account, and encouraging the public to send him complaints and requests would be seen as some sort of “opening up.” It was seen that way in much of the press: Reuters described it as a digital avenue for the thousands of appeals Chávez receives each year from people seeking help with medical expenses and the like, as in a complaint from recent college graduates about high unemployment. AP reported how Chávez used his account to tweet early news of the safe evacuation of workers from a sunken oil rig.
Now, if you prefer the comic book version though, there’s Newsweek‘s Mac Margolis. For him the story was “Chavez Twists Twitter Into Tool of Repression.” Margolis explains: “Far from embracing the democratic spirit of the Web, though, the Venezuelan strongman is using his accounts and blog to exhort people to spy on each other.” Well, sorta. But readers might not be quite as dismayed as he is that the hotline has “resulted in actions against allegedly credit-stingy banks and currency speculators.”
Margolis concludes with the news that “El Presidente” is considering a plan to move Venezuelan Websites from U.S.-based servers to domestic ones. Margolis concludes this “would, of course, make them far easier to control. Big Brother would be proud.” A country controlling its own communications technology, yes that is an Orwellian nightmare. If the country’s Venezuela. And you’re Mac Margolis.
—In the June 7 edition of Newsweek, editor Jon Meacham surveys what he calls “the growing category of failing institutions.” Making the list—the financial sector, the Catholic Church, the occupation of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. All of these failures “seem to mark the beginning of an era in which apparently competent institutions have all too often proved incompetent.”
Well, that’s hard to argue with. Meacham’s next line is harder to swallow though:
Let’s see—Wall Street shenanigans, Catholic priest sexual abuse, BP’s oil spill, the Iraq invasion and the disastrous response to Katrina. It seems that most of these do fit pretty easily into one ideological category: These are all things opposed by the left, and, if you blame the conservative Catholic hierarchy for covering up abuse allegations, carried out by the right.
But for Meacham, Iraq and Katrina go in the left column, because the government launched the invasion, and the government failed to help the people of New Orleans.
It’s insights like that that have helped put Newsweek in the category of failing institutions.
—And finally, by now you’ve probably heard plenty of commentary about Helen Thomas. The veteran White House reporter and columnist resigned abruptly after a video surfaced in which she implored Israel to “get out of Palestine,” referred to the occupation of Palestinian lands and suggested that Israelis go back to places like Poland, Germany and the United States.
The comments of course received wide play; it’s not much worth trying to rescue her words in order to make them sound less offensive. And it goes without saying that other media figures have made grotesque comments advocating violence or advancing bigotry without having to resign. Part of the Thomas spectacle was seeing media figures criticize the frank and critical questions she posed at some White House press conferences. As the June 8 New York Times put it, Thomas persisted in this despite “what many in Washington observed to be the increasingly hostile and outlandish nature of her questions in recent years.” Well like what, exactly? The Times explained that “Ms. Thomas seemed particularly critical of the Iraq war and repeatedly pointed out during White House briefings that the American-led invasion was costing civilian lives.” Now if that counts as outlandish and hostile to “many in Washington,” then let’s have more of it, thank you very much. Thomas wasn’t without her supporters, including Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who praised Thomas’ questioning of White House officials over the Afghan war, Wall Street reform and the like.
The fallout extended to a high school in Maryland, where Thomas was scheduled to give a graduation speech. She’s been replaced by CBS anchor Bob Schieffer. Now whatever you think of Thomas’s comments, it sure doesn’t seem fair to punish those kids like that.
CounterSpin: Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned abruptly early this month, plagued by a variety of domestic scandals. His political decline was somewhat extraordinary; just a few months ago his party had managed to dislodge the right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled Japan for 54 years. During the campaign, Hatoyama criticized the U.S. military base in Okinawa, a position that likely contributed to his electoral success. The U.S. insisted on maintaining its military presence, perhaps on a new base in a different part of the island. Many Japanese want the base off the island altogether. The Obama White House proved to be inflexible on this point, and less than a year after he was elected, Hatoyama was out. Coverage in the U.S. press of the Japanese political shake-up unsurprisingly focused on U.S. military interests.
Joining us now to shed some light on the Okinawa controversy is Catherine Lutz. She is a professor of anthropology at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, and she’s the editor of the book, The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle Against U.S. Military Posts.
Catherine Lutz, welcome back to CounterSpin.
Catherine Lutz: Thanks for having me, Peter.
CS: Now, the overriding message seemed to be one of relief here—Japan had been making this terrible mistake in opposing U.S demands, so Hatoyama’s resignation was something of a relief. The New York Times had a story that talked about whether his successor “can better balance Washington’s demands with those of Okinawans.” It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that some politicians are expected to do what Washington wants, or they face some rather serious consequences. Is this typical of U.S. base interests, that Washington, no matter what the administration, simply will not budge and will not negotiate on these issues?
CL: Well, the United States negotiates all the time on a variety of concerns related to the bases. For example, how much money the host country will either receive or pay to host the bases. But, yes, the United States military considers its network of bases to be a resource for the world and a security gift in a sense, even, to the country that it’s in. So it’s often presented in this way—as really something that’s kind of a no-brainer. Of course, Washington’s interest in the base would be the same as the host country’s.
CS: Now, public opinion in Japan would seem to be somewhat mixed, but people who live on Okinawa would seem to be overwhelmingly opposed to these bases on their island. And this is not new. But we hear next to nothing about why, though. Reading some of the stories in the Washington Post, for example, I was struck by how often there were references to the bases being noisy, a lot of helicopters flying overhead. Obviously there’s more to it than that; what are the objections that Okinawans have been voicing for almost as long as the bases have been there?
CL: Well, there’s a series of problems that the base brings with it. Noise, of course. That is actually a more serious question; it’s not just an annoyance. It actually has been associated with some really serious health consequences for the neighbors: high rates of miscarriage, mental disorder, stress-related diseases. But the other big issues are crime, pollution, and sovereignty. So the crime issue has been a big one on Okinawa. The U.S. Marines have been associated with much higher rate of crime, and particularly crimes against women and girls. There was a famous, or infamous, case in 1995 of the rape of a young girl by three U.S. Marines that really ramped up the protests. But the protests on these grounds have been going on for decades.
CS: I was struck, in the chapter on Okinawa in the book that you edited, about the amount of crime that can be attributed to U.S. forces there. This is something we don’t hear a lot about. We hear occasionally about this one case, this rape of a child in Japan, but when we look over the last 20 years, we’re seeing dozens of cases of robbery, of different kinds of sexual assault. It’s something that hardly pierces the consciousness of U.S readers or viewers in looking at this.
CL: No, it’s a problem, not just because there are higher rates of certain kinds of crimes in the U.S. military wherever they are. In particular, domestic violences, rapes are higher than in the civilian population. But it’s been a special problem overseas because U.S. service members sometimes, unfortunately, feel free to do things there that they would not do at home. And whether it’s because they don’t see the local population as really as fully human or important as their own neighbors at home or again because they feel like they’re free-er from surveillance or local law, the crime rates do go up. And the people of Guam, which is one of the very important news stories that’s also been missing, the people of Guam have been very concerned about having that problem exported to their island as this deal that the Bush administration struck with Japan simply told the people of Guam that they were about to inherit Okinawa’s problems with crime and with pollution and noise.
CS: The protests in Okinawa, and the most recent ones, were extraordinarily large, based on the size of the island. It seemed like many of the people who lived there were out to protest these bases, but I think the coverage that we saw here was usually reduced to a photo of a protest with very little accompanying information about what was going on. There does seem to be a crude political lesson here: Don’t cross the U.S. on these kinds of issues. Do what we want, you’ll be rewarded. That happens in other countries. Is what’s happening in Japan more or less in line with what’s happening with political fights over U.S. bases elsewhere around the world? How unusual is Okinawa?
CL: There have been protests around the world, and in some cases they were so powerful that they resulted in the eviction of the U.S. military base in places like Vieques and elsewhere around the world over the last many decades. Okinawa is unusual in the sense that they have been tirelessly turning out a majority of the population, adult population, in some cases for these protests for many years. They have enough people who are against this to link arms and completely surround the base at Futenma, which is a gigantic base. It’s really been a remarkable, inspiring, somewhat frustrating case of people really trying to express the will of the people—and not being heard.
CS: The news accounts seem to suggest that opinion on Okinawa is one thing; opinion in the rest of Japan is a little bit different.
CL: Yes, it’s true. The people in the rest of Japan see Okinawa as a place where basically the people aren’t fully Japanese. The Ryukyu Kingdom was a separate, autonomous entity before Japan took over. So they’re somewhat a victim of that attitude that things that might not be okay in Japan are okay in Okinawa and better there than with the rest of us in the mainland.
CS: So where does this go, do you think? Is it status quo wins, the U.S. base gets, or I guess this new base is going to be built elsewhere on the island, or?..
CL: No, actually, I don’t think it is. This has really demonstrated that the people of Okinawa won’t give up. And in fact, when they began to do the test boring and other work for this new base in the northern part of Okinawa, local protestors successfully thwarted the attempt to do that. They had a small flotilla of boats, they had a peace encampment, and those protests will surely continue as they try to do this. But I think the real story here is that the United States has a tremendous amount of money that it gets from Japan in order to keep the bases on Okinawa, and in Japan. They get $4 billion a year from Japan to support U.S. military activity. So that’s $4 billion that the Pentagon saves and can use for other purposes. And the bases on Okinawa are used to train and send Marines for war in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, given how expensive those wars are and how large the U.S. military budget is and how many cost pressures there are on the Pentagon, we really have a recipe for, again, a tremendous effort on the U.S. part to stay.
CS: We’ve been speaking with Catherine Lutz. She is a professor of anthropology at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. She’s also the editor of the book, The Bases of Empire: the Global Struggle Against U.S. Military Posts.
Catherine Lutz, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
CL: Thanks for having me, Peter.
CounterSpin: Federal agencies have a tremendous impact on our lives, but what happens when these agencies are able to operate in an environment free of scrutiny? That’s an increasingly crucial question as fewer and fewer journalists are assigned to watchdog federal agencies.
It’s a question that is addressed in a major new report, “Capital Flight,” in the June/July edition of the American Journalism Review. The author of the AJR report, Jodi Enda, is a Washington D.C. writer and a former White House correspondent for Knight Ridder‘s Washington bureau. She joins us now by phone from D.C.
Jodi Enda, thanks for joining us today on CounterSpin!
Jodi Enda: Thanks for having me.
CS: Well, let’s talk about the situation. What is the reality as far as federal agency watchdogging—how has it changed?
JE: Oh boy, it’s changed a lot over the years and the decades. First of all, there used to be much more coverage of what in Washington we call guilding, which means reporters would be assigned to cover a certain department, and be in that building a lot. And you can wander the halls and walk in and out of offices, get to know people and really know what’s going on in, say, the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Now reporters are covering issues more often. So they might cover real estate and occasionally call the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but they’re not there on a daily basis, and they only cover the little portion of the issues that they’re interested in, not the department as a whole. So a lot of things go uncovered. That’s the first thing, and that started really in the ’90s. Bureaus in Washington felt, or editors felt, that the stories weren’t interesting enough, they were losing readership, and they thought that covering issues was more interesting than covering departments or agencies.
CS: Remind us why scrutiny of these agencies is so important, and how it can make a difference.
JE: Well these agencies affect the lives of millions, hundreds of millions, of Americans. These agencies are the ones who put in place the decisions made by the White House and Congress. So for instance, Congress passed and President Obama signed an enormous healthcare overhaul. Well, the regulations of how that overhaul is going to be worked are now going to be written. Somebody needs to pay attention to how they’re being written, and that will determine, for instance, who gets covered and who doesn’t get covered and how much coverage there is and how much doctors are paid and hospitals. That’s a huge impact on Americans, on our economy, and on our way of life. That same type of regulation takes place in every department and agency. If you look now at what’s going on in the Gulf of Mexcio, that points to a prime reason why reporters need to be covering agencies.
CS: Well, in this very significant report that you published in AJR, you give several examples of fairly recent stories. For instance, you lead with the coal mining disaster. Tell us about how this diminishment of agency coverage affected that story.
JE: Sure. Well, in Washington there’s exactly one reporter who covers the Mine Safety and Health Administration, MSHA, which oversees coal mining and all mining, actually, on even a part-time basis. Nobody covers it on a full-time basis. One guy, Jim Carroll, from the Louisville Courier-Journal covers it some of the time, and there’s a trade publication, which really is for experts in the field that also covers it. So what that means is that when there are problems with inspections, when inspectors aren’t doing their jobs, people aren’t paying very much attention to that. And things that were going on in West Virginia were overlooked because there weren’t people looking at what MSHA was doing. The same thing happened with the Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore oil drilling. There was a huge amount—now we know—of coziness going on between the inspectors, who work for the Minerals Management Service which is part of the Interior Department, and the people who they were supposed to be inspecting: the oil companies. As a matter of fact, over the last decade, a large number of the inspectors were hired by Minerals Management Service from the oil industry itself. So there was a huge amount of coziness, and there were not a lot of checks going on there. There’s not one reporter in Washington who covers that agency on a regular basis.
CS: Well now, speaking of the BP disaster, a recent example of the impact of agency coverage cutbacks occurred in USA Today. Back in April, the paper’s editors were encouraging offshore drilling: “The last serious spill from a drilling accident in U.S. waters was in 1969, off Santa Barbara, California.” Well, since the BP crisis, the paper’s reporters have finally caught up and corrected this misinformation, reporting on June 8, just a few days ago, that spills from offshore oil rigs and pipelines have quadrupled in the current decade. That’s news we could have used back when the president was pondering what would become his pro-offshore drilling policy. But this is the sort of crisis reporting that is not untypical under the current conditions, isn’t it?
JE: That’s exactly right. What happens is, whenever there’s a crisis like the coal mining disaster, or the explosion on the oil rig, journalists rush to the site and all of a sudden there’s lots of reporting on these issues, and a lot of looking backwards. This also happened with the Toyota crisis last year when people were dying because of sudden acceleration. There had been a very small amount of reporting about sudden acceleration when the agency that oversees traffic safety, which is called the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was investigating Toyota. However, when NHTSA dropped a lot of its investigation—they dropped, I believe it was four of the six things they were looking at, complaints they were looking at with Toyota—there was very little reporting on that. No one followed up to find out, for instance, what we know now: that NHTSA got rid of a lot of complaints because they thought they were frivolous. Well, it turns out they weren’t. So, perhaps, if there had been a little bit more digging in there and if people had been paying more attention, then some of these deaths might have been avoided. I do want to say something in the reporters’ defense because I believe much of this problem stems from newspapers, which really are the ones who cover Washington most in-depth. It’s not the reporters themselves. Newspapers have cut back so much on Washington reporters that the reporters are spread very thin, and so it’s hard for them really to cover as much as they used to cover.
CS: As you mentioned, and you quote Ralph Nader pointing out that some of these stories actually, if they had been done better and earlier and more systematically, could have saved lives. But how do we maintain an open society and democracy, or at least the aspirations of democracy, if citizens don’t have the information they need to make the sort of decisions that are required?
JE: Well, that’s a very good question. I think that at some point a lot of this is going to shake out, and there will probably be someone to help fill the void, it’s just not there now. There are some websites, some blogs, and some newsletters and specialty publications that are trying and are starting up to fill some of the gaps left by the mainstream media, but it’s not happening fast enough. And a lot of the publications do not have the readership that newspapers have had in the past. TV stations are covering a little bit of it, and NPR, for instance, covers some of the departments, but it’s a very small handful of the departments, and they don’t have the staff to cover them the way newspapers have in the past. So I think it’s really a problem and when newspapers close their Washington bureaus, as so many have done, or cut them drastically, there just aren’t enough people to cover these things. So what do we have? We have glitz coverage, we have coverage of the Salahis—I’ll bet more of your listeners would recognize the names of the Salahis, the people who wandered into the state dinner that President Obama had in November, than Sean Donovan—and because I don’t want everybody to have to go Googling Sean Donovan, I will tell you that he is the secretary of HUD.
CS: We’ve been speaking with Jodi Enda, you can read report, “Capital Flight,” online at the American Journalism Review Website.
Jodi Enda, thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin!
JE: Thank you for having me.
—”Capital Flight,” by Jodi Enda (AJR, 6-7/10)