This week on CounterSpin: The firing of Juan Williams from NPR might seem like an inside media story; it’s become more as Williams, who was let go after saying people in “Muslim garb” on planes make him nervous, has become something of a cause celebre for the right. We’ll talk about what it all says about the present moment with Clarence Lusane, professor at American University and author of the forthcoming The Black History of the White House.
Also on CounterSpin today: The U.S. war in Afghanistan is nearly a decade old. But U.S. military actions in neighboring Pakistan, relying on unmanned drones and raids by U.S. Special Forces, have been going on for years—and have intensified under Barack Obama. What effect does this war have on civilians in Pakistan? We’ll talk to Chris Rogers of CIVIC, the Campaign For Innocent Victims In Conflict.
All that’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.
—The whistleblowing website WikiLeaks released almost 400,000 classified documents and field reports about the Iraq War on October 22. Some outlets like the New York Times played them big, which made sense since they got early access to the files. Others had peculiar reactions. On the Fox News website, contributor Christian Whiton wondered why WikiLeaks hadn’t been declared “enemy combatants” and taken out via “non-judicial actions.” Well that’s pretty out there—or is it, really? On the October 22 broadcast of ABC World News, host Diane Sawyer presented a report on WikiLeaks that noted early on that “Arab television is already trumpeting the revelations.” After ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz summarized the contents of the WikiLeaks files—hundreds of Iraqi civilians killed at U.S. checkpoints, thousands of unreported civilian deaths and torture—Sawyer offered this bizarre follow up: “I know there’s a lot of outrage about this again tonight, Martha. But tell me, anything more about prosecuting the WikiLeaks group?”
When most people hear revelations about torture and killing, they probably don’t wonder how to prosecute the people who brought those facts to light.
—And some news about another famous whistleblower. The papers of Phil Agee, the CIA agent famous for his 1975 exposé Inside the Company, are headed to a library at New York University. An October 27 Washington Post article by Jeff Stein notes that Agee’s revelations were “arguably more damaging than anything WikiLeaks has produced.” But Stein spent a lot of time critiquing the library’s press release, reporting that it “made no mention of the renegade agent’s KGB and Cuban intelligence connections.” Those “connections” were something Agee always denied.
Stein continued with his critique of the library, and in the process he gave a lesson in how a journalist can abuse anonymity. The library noted that after the publication of his book, “Agee was a target of CIA assassination threats.” That didn’t sit well with the Post reporter, who asked the library to back up the claim. The library cited CIA documents along with Agee’s subsequent book, information the Post rejoined with this: “A CIA spokesperson, speaking on the condition of anonymity, dismissed the allegation as ‘not only wrong, but ludicrous.'”
And really, who better than an anonymous CIA source to counter charges about secret CIA activity?
—Washington Post reporter Amy Gardner came upon a novel way of covering the Tea Party movement—she did some actual reporting. Gardner surveyed over 600 of the groups, and found most of them are doing very little political campaign work. She also reported that “Eleven percent said that Obama’s race, religion or ethnic background was either a ‘very important’ or ‘somewhat important’ factor in the support their group has received.” So in the long-running debate over the Tea Party and racism, some Tea Party activists believe the fact that Obama is black serves to motivate some of their members. Well, maybe that’s not a surprise; but Gardner’s October 27 follow up included something that surprised many: most Tea Party activists think the media coverage of them has been fair.
As Gardner noted, this is somewhat surprising, given that complaining about the “liberal media” is such an integral part of the Tea Party message—and it’s been a right-wing grievance for decades. But one problem with Gardner’s piece came when she wrote that the media had ignored early Tea Party events: “Major news outlets paid little attention to the first wave of tax-day protests in April 2009 and even a large march the following September in Washington.”
Well this is incorrect. Those tax protests in April were covered by all 3 network newscasts—a good gauge of whether a political movement is considered important by the media. The same goes for the later D.C. rally, which got far more coverage than a gay rights march on Washington around the same time that had a similar turnout. The truth is that the tea party movement was created in the media, and has been sustained by regular media coverage.
—When the October 25 USA Today called on the U.S. to adopt austerity measures like those being adopted in Britain and France, the paper dropped its usual rule of pairing editorials with an opposing view. Only one side to this, apparently. An opposing voice might have pointed out the specious reasoning behind the paper’s call for Social Security benefit cuts: “The argument that the system can simply spend its huge trust fund is nonsense, unfortunately,” the paper wrote. “The trust fund’s cash was spent long ago.”
Now, when someone borrows from someone else, no one thinks that they put that money is a box to give back when the loan is due. They spend it or invest it, with the understanding that they’ll pay back the money with future resources. The government borrowed from the Social Security Trust Fund to help lower tax rates for the rich. Now it’s come due. What USA Today is airily dismissing is the idea of paying it back, most obviously by raising those tax rates back up again. To them, cutting benefits is the only thing that’s not “nonsense.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times does have two views on austerity: The paper reported September 16 that “The deficit barely registers as a topic of concern when survey respondents were asked to volunteer their worries.” But on October 26, a front-page news story described the elections as “a midterm campaign that has turned heavily on the issue of the mounting federal debt.” So the campaign has turned on an issue that barely registers with voters. Maybe the Times could bring in an outside writer to make sense of that.
—And finally, many readers must have been struck by this New York Times headline October 23: “Effort to Rehabilitate Suharto’s Reputation Grows in Indonesia.” The piece led with this:
Coming from the New York Times, this is rich. In the waning days of his rule, the paper was reassuring readers that “Suharto is no Saddam.” Though to many, Suharto’s autocratic reign certainly qualified. It began with one of the greatest acts of mass murder in post-World War II history: the genocide of ethnic Chinese that accompanied his 1965 rise to power and included years of bloody occupation of East Timor. But to the Times, as Ed Herman noted in Extra! after his death, Suharto was a “profoundly spiritual man,” a “reforming autocrat,” motivated not by mere personal ambition but by “a fear, shared by many in this country of 210 million people, of chaos.” He was sometimes described as “authoritarian,” but never as a mass murderer. Going back further, the Times was remarkably supportive of Suharto’s bloody rise to power in real time. A Max Frankel dispatch from October 1965 was headlined, “U.S. Is Heartened by Red Setback in Indonesia Coup”.
So some Indonesians view Suharto as a hero? Maybe they’re longtime readers of the New York Times.
CounterSpin: Longtime NPR analyst Juan Williams was let go by that network after comments he made on Fox News, where he is also employed. Williams told Bill O’Reilly that he gets “worried” and “nervous” on airplanes “if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims.” Later on he assured, “there are good Muslims.” Years ago Williams described racism as the lazy man’s substitute for using good judgment, talking about the idea of shop owners who refuse to admit young black men. But that was then and this is now. Williams’ firing has landed him a bigger job at Fox and made him a cause célèbre for some conservatives who say he’s a victim of a left-wing unto socialist media.
How many things are wrong with this picture? And how do we place it in the current political and media landscape? We’re joined now by Clarence Lusane, associate professor at the School of International Service at American University, author of among other titles, the groundbreaking Pipe Dream Blues: Racism and the War on Drugs and the forthcoming The Black History of the White House.
Welcome to CounterSpin, Clarence Lusane!
Clarence Lusane: Hi, thank you.
CS: Well, what is your reaction to the notion—advanced overwhelmingly but not solely by the right—that NPR‘s firing of Juan Williams represents a knee-jerk, unjust or censorious reaction, along the lines of Shirley Sherrod?
CL: Well, clearly the remarks made by Juan Williams were bigoted—and there’s kind of no way around that—and NPR was not only justified in doing that, but if Fox had any credibility, it would have reprimanded Juan Williams as well. But instead of course, they rewarded him with a two-million dollar contract. But by journalistic standards in general, and NPR standards specifically, Juan Williams crossed the line, so they were justified in firing him. And I think the firing provided an opportunity for those on the right who have long wanted to go after NPR, PBS, public stations that they feel are too biased to the left. And so regardless of the merits of the case against Juan Williams, it created an opportunity that the right has jumped on.
CS: Well NPR says that this wasn’t the first time that they had problems with Williams. From your perspective, did these most recent comments seem to be out of the blue for him?
CL: No, it’s a long history, not just at NPR but kind of more generally because Juan Williams has been a commentator on Fox for many, many years. And in fact, many of the reporters at NPR had been less than happy that NPR had actually tolerated for so long him being able to be an analyst—which is a position he ultimately ended up in at NPR because there were problems with him being a correspondent—and then him being a commentator on Fox news.
CS: Some have said that the better thing to do would have been to engage Williams’ comments about Muslims, to call for more dialogue around them. Would that have been appropriate, to your mind?
CL: Well, the two are not mutually exclusive. I think that there should be a discussion because the irrationality that was expressed by Juan Williams that when he sees someone in what is Muslim garb, which is a stereotype of Muslims in any case, has little to do with security. If you look at the shoe bomber, if you look at the underpants bomber, if you look at the individuals who’ve actually been captured and identified as being people actively engaged in terrorism, they weren’t wearing Muslim garb. So it’s not a way of identifying a security risk; it’s racial profiling. I think there should be a discussion about that. But that’s a very different issue than whether or not NPR, who had hired Juan Williams in a specific kind of role, and he violated that contract, should have been fired or not.
CS: Well, there certainly no shortage in the media of people declaring Muslims scary, if that was one’s concern. And Williams himself has hardly been silenced; he’s been overtly rewarded with an expanded gig at Fox. Now, Fox is not a network famous for it’s promotion of the interests of black people. What is Williams’ role there?
CL: Well, ironically, the role he played at NPR, which was to be basically a black male voice, because there virtually are no others, will essentially be the role he will play at Fox. The difference being that Fox wants him to play a particular kind of ideological, up-front ideological role, which NPR, of course, did not want him to do. So he goes to Fox, and he becomes a means by which it rationalizes its politics on race because it says well, of course we’re not racist, we have black people who are commentators, who are analysts, who sit here and come to you every day. And so he becomes a fig leaf for what has been just a well, well- well- well- well-documented history of bias from the station—not only regarding African American, and other people of color, but against gays and lesbians, againsts Muslims, against a whole range of groups, that on Fox can be attacked with impunity.
CS: Now, your recent column made linkages between Juan Williams and Clarence Thomas, and what they both represent to the current batch of conservatives. What did you see as interesting about linking the two of them? What’s that connection?
CL: Well, they both have presented themselves as martyrs. And their careers, Juan Williams’ career as well as Clarence Thomas’, have significantly sought to distance themselves from what they see as a civil rights gangster cabal that included everybody from Jesse Jackson to Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP. And they have railed against these groups for decades now. Their charge is that
those groups have used race as a means of excusing their own responsibility. Now, when they get in trouble, the first card they throw off of the deck is the race card. Both Clarence Thomas and Juan Williams see themselves, not as victims, but as black victims in particular. And while Williams has said since he was fired that this was really an attack—and others on the right have said this—on a black man. And Clarence Thomas, of course, is famous for—when he got in trouble during his nomination—he used the language of lynching to reflect upon what he saw as an attack by the liberals and white liberals to stop his nomination. Now subsequent to his actually getting on the Court, further investigation revealed that many of the charges that were made against him, particularly by Anita Hill, had validity to them.
CS: So they both have a kind of set of qualities that might make them the sort of black man who’s appealing to a certain kind of white conservative, this is what they can get behind.
CS: Well, for some people having so few black people at NPR, or anywhere, means that you should defend Williams. For some, having such poorly premised attacks on public broadcasting, now evidently including bomb threats, means that you blanket endorse NPR. Are there no other options here for people?
CL: Certainly there are. And again as we talked about a bit earlier, the issue of the diversity at NPR should be one up for discussion. And just as many individuals at NPR, including some of the black staff, were not happy with having Juan Williams in the dual kind of role that he had. They’re also not happy that there was not more diversity and that a number of black male and black female news reporters’ news programs over the years have been phased out. And so there’s very little of that kind of diversity that exists now. And so there should be a discussion and there should be, I believe, some pressure on NPR to open up that jar of worms because, regardless of how you see the merits of the issue around Juan Williams, there is still a broad gap at NPR, which is a national public radio, in terms of its diversity at the top.
CS: We’ve been speaking with Clarence Lusane, associate professor at the School of International Service at American University. His book, The Black History of the White House, is forthcoming, and you can find “Sold Brothers: The Bizarro World of Juan Williams and Clarence Thomas” on CounterPunch.org.
Thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin, Clarence Lusane.
CL: Thank you very much.
CounterSpin: The website WikiLeaks just published nearly 400,000 secret military documents about the Iraq War. One lessons drawn: the U.S. government did appear to be counting civilian casualties, and their secret tally was far higher than what they were saying publicly. To many media outlets, this wasn’t big news. We’ve already reported civilian deaths was one common response. The Washington Post editorial page concluded that 100,000 killed doesn’t sound like so many compared to other, higher estimates.
But that’s Iraq—a war that Americans are keenly aware of, and one that for years was a routine subject of media attention. The U.S. war in Pakistan, though, remains largely unknown, a by-product of the Afghan War. Joining us now to discuss the effects of the war in Northwest Pakistan is Chris Rogers, a human rights lawyer and a Field Fellow at CIVIC, the Campaign For Innocent Victims In Conflict. He is the author of a new report, “Civilian Harm and Conflict in Northwest Pakistan.”
Chris Rogers, welcome to CounterSpin.
Chris Rogers: Thanks very much for having me.
CS: You noted that the Obama administration launched its first drone attack in Pakistan three days after the inauguration. What little we know about these strikes is that they’ve increased significantly under his watch, but the U.S. position seems to be that few civilians are ever killed. Give us a sense of what your research on the ground was able to uncover about the effects of U.S. drone strikes and the military conflict there overall.
CR: Amongst other conflict-related violence we researched, we interviewed nine victims of drone strikes in northern Pakistan in North Waziristan and South Waziristan. Now in these nine cases alone, we uncovered 30 civilian deaths, including 14 women and children. The United States has not publicly acknowledged the drone strikes, never mind been forthcoming about its estimates of civilian casualties. However, the estimates that it has anonymously leaked are in the range of 20-30 casualties since January of 2009 when Obama came into office. Just in the nine cases we investigated, again we uncovered 30 civilian casualties, which I think casts a pretty significant and disturbing level of doubt on the assertions made by the administration thus far.
CS: One reality that I think a lot of journalism fails to convey is the feeling of Pakistani civilians who know that these drones are buzzing overhead, they can fire missiles at any time, and you don’t have any sense of what kind of behavior or signal you could send that could cause one of these drones to fire. What did you find when you talked to Pakistanis about this?
CR: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right, that people do live in fear of these drones. You know, at any given time, there may be five to six drones surveilling or flying over a particular area. You can hear the faint buzz, the hum of the drones; locals often use the word bangana, which is the Pashtun word for a wasp or a bee, to describe the sound. One aspect that I think is often difficult for Americans to understand from the outside which is that it’s not just at the moment the drones strike that’s problematic, but it’s the reality that people on the ground are living with day to day. And I think that that’s compounded by the fact that we don’t know what the legal foundation is for the drone strikes, and that’s a problem not only from the perspective of the U.S. and the public and our politicians, but also from the perspective of the victim on the ground who doesn’t know what kind of conduct could put him at risk or his family at risk.
CS: Let’s talk about that a little bit because the legal debate has been broached in the media from time to time. It’s interesting because the actual existence of the drone program is in a kind of limbo—we know it’s happening; there seems to be some kind of arrangement between the governments of Pakistan and the United States to keep it somewhat obscure. But the White House has tried to make a legal argument that these strikes are in accord with international law, haven’t they?
CR: The first and perhaps really only substantive statement on this was Harold Koh a number of months ago—who’s head of Legal at the State Department—and I think he was at that time somewhat applauded for speaking out, finally, somewhat publicly on drones. But if you actually unpack his remarks, he says very little, I mean it’s much less substance that we would even get from the Bush Administration. It’s essentially the administration’s say-so that these strikes are legal. So I think we have a long way to go in terms of understanding, number one: what the relationship is between Pakistan and the United States with respect to the strikes, especially when it comes to Pakistani sovereignty. And number two: what the basis is for targeting people, meaning how the United States defines and distinguishes combatants and noncombatants and how it ensures that it’s maintaining and adhering to principles of proportionality. And the reality is we have no idea the legal position of the administration with respect to these issues, even in spite of some comments.
CS: You do get a sense sometimes that the U.S. strikes are getting the bad guys. There was a headline in the New York Times that said “Drones Batter Al Qaeda and Its Allies Within Pakistan.” There also have been stories in papers like the New York Times that suggest that Pakistanis aren’t entirely bothered by the drone program—either they support the strikes against terrorists, or don’t care much about people in that part of the country, people in the more populated cities are not concerned with people who live in that region of Pakistan. Do you get a sense from being in Pakistan that that’s the case?
CR: I think public opinion is somewhat complicated on this issue. I think in greater Pakistan, Pakistan as a whole, there is fierce opposition to the drone strikes, particularly because it’s perceived as a violation of Pakistani national sovereignty—that this is something that the United States is doing irrespective of how it impacts, or the consent or input of, the Pakistani government. So I think that’s the first problem, and that’s a somewhat uniform position by people in Pakistan. Where things get a little bit more complicated is when you actually speak to people in FATA, the Federal Administered Tribal Areas that borders Afghanistan but is part of Pakistan. And then even drilling down a little bit deeper into the actual affected areas, because the areas that are being hit by drones are relatively small. It’s primarily North Waziristan and South Waziristan and in the last couple of months only North Waziristan, which is a relatively small area. So public opinion polls, especially when they look at the nation as a whole, I do think those are interesting and important to take note of. But I do think, when it comes to—if one is concerned with the strategic implications of these strikes, the opinion of people in the affected areas is what matters most because these are the persons that are going to be contributing to militancy by recruitment, intelligence, other forms of support, etc. So the reality is, if you want to combat militancy in these areas, you have to look at the opinions and views of people who live there. And on that note, I do think also that you know, sometimes these opinion polls and so forth don’t really take into account sort of secondary effects, second order effects of drone strikes. So it’s not just how a person may feel in the abstract about a drone strike or whether or not they support the militancy more as a result of it. But it’s also the consequences that drones have on the ability of the government, the Pakistani government, to go into areas and engage in development work, political engagement, governance programs, etc. And these are the kinds of efforts that are central to lasting stability and security in places like FATA. And to the extent that the drones really make it tougher to do these sort of things, to get local elders and tribal officials on board with these kinds of programs, that’s really harmful to the long-term goals.
CS: We’ve been speaking with Chris Rogers. He’s a field fellow at CIVIC, Campaign For Innocent Victims In Conflict. You can read their new report at CivicWorldwide.org.
Chris Rogers, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
CR: Thanks very much for having me.
—”Sold Brothers: The Bizarro World of Juan Williams and Clarence Thomas,” by Clarence Lusane (CounterPunch, 10/26/10)
—CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict)