Jun 26 2009

David Barsamian on Iran upheaval, Chandra Bhatnagar on UN racism report


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This week on CounterSpin: Events in Iran continue to unfold with protests still underway in what seemed to begin as a rejection of the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Has it become something more now? And how are the press corps–not famously nuanced on Iran–handling events? We’ll hear from David Barsamian, founder and director of Alternative Radio and co-author of the book Targeting Iran.

Also on the show: The UN Human Rights Council’s report on racism in the U.S., released this month, fell on deaf ears in the U.S. media, despite the fact that it was done at the invitation of the U.S. government. We’ll talk to Chandra Bhatnagar, staff attorney at the ACLU’s Human Rights Program about the UN report and its noteworthy if not newsworthy findings.


Targeting Iran, by David Barsamian

— ACLU Biography of Chandra Bhatnaga


That’s coming up but first as usual, we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

One of the bright spots at the Washington Post media enterprise was Dan Froomkin’s online column, White House Watch, for WashingtonPost.com. It often struck us that Froomkin had a whole different attitude – skeptical of those in power, and critical of their journalistic enablers – than most of his colleagues at the Post Co. So it was perhaps not too surprising to hear that Froomkin, one of the Post‘s most popular online writers, had been fired – not long after his column was placed under the authority of editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, who is one of the journalists who best exemplifies the Post‘s dominant ethic of service to authority.

Those who had accepted the premise that the purpose of journalism was to advance the agenda of official Washington were understandably resentful of Froomkin, who was a constant reminder that that was not, in fact, the only way to report the news. Post ombud Deborah Howell wrote a column back in 2005 complaining that Froomkin was “highly opinionated and liberal,” – hilariously quoting the Post‘s then-national political editor John Harris as saying that Froomkin’s column “dilutes our only asset – our credibility.”

Let’s be clear – it’s not that they don’t like you injecting opinion into the news at the Washington Post; in fact, they do that so much that economist Dean Baker refers to them as “Fox on 15th Street.” But they have to be the right opinions – if, like Post columnist Dana Milbank, you think single-payer advocates are pathetic and ridiculous, that’s an opinion the Post Co. is happy to showcase. If your opinion is, like Froomkin’s, that the torture performed by the U.S. government ought to be called “torture,” well, that might be putting at risk what the Washington Post calls “credibility.”

In a June 19th article about the prospects for healthcare reform, New York Times reporter Kevin Sack wrote:

Seeking broad popular support, the president and congressional leaders have played between the 40-yard lines of the health policy spectrum. Those who favor a single-payer, government-run insurance system have been marginalized, along with those who would unleash the system to the free market.

Like most corporate media, the Times apparently believes that if they simply state, again and again and again, that single-payer is unpopular, that that will somehow make it so – presumably justifying their lack of interest in it. Reality, though, just as stubbornly refuses to oblige. According to, well for example, a New York Times poll from January, single-payer healthcare is in fact broadly popular; that poll found 59 percent in favor. The decision to marginalize a popular idea is, certainly, noteworthy; but playing between the 40-yard lines, it isn’t.

On June 23rd CBS Evening News reported on recently released Nixon tapes, recounting what correspondent Bill Plante called his “candid and sometimes coarse conversations.” Why Plante didn’t use the terms “racist” and “anti-Semitic” is a mystery. After all, CBS recounts how Nixon is caught on one tape saying he thinks there should be exceptions to the abortion ban in the case of rape, and “When you have a black and a white.” And in a conversation with the Reverend Billy Graham, Nixon spouts pure anti-Semitism: *** This anti-Semitism is stronger than we think, ya know. It’s unfortunate, but this has happened to the Jews, happened in Spain, it happened in Germany, it’s happening, and now it’s gonna happen in America if these people don’t start behaving. It may be they have a death wish, that’s been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries. *** CBS played that clip, including Billy Graham’s response: “Well, they’ve always been through the Bible at least, God’s timepiece. He has judged them from generation to generation and yet used them and they’ve kept their identity.”

But as Jonathan Schwartz of A Tiny Revolution found, CBS News carefully edited out Graham’s initial and most newsworthy remarks, which came between Nixon’s “start behaving” line, and his “death wish” line. Here is what CBS cut: “Well, you know I told you one time that the bible talks about two kinds of Jews. One is called the Synagogue of Satan. They’re the ones putting out the pornographic literature. They’re the ones putting out these obscene films.”

CBS‘s covering for Graham’s anti-Semitism is outrageous, but not totally surprising in a segment where the reporter shrinks from identifying racism as “racism,” and anti-Semitism as “anti-Semitism.”

The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported on a cash prize its own staff writer Jaxon Van Derbeken accepted from the Center for Immigration Studies. Van Derbeken and his editors defended his acceptance of the award – despite the conflict of interest raised by a journalist who covers immigration accepting a cash prize from the Center, a potential source and player in the immigration debate. The paper noted that the award-winning story was praised by the Center as representing “the best tradition of journalism” – the Center itself was described as “an independent research group that studies the effects of immigration.”

Well, let’s just say others differ – as the Southern Poverty Law Center documented in a recent report, the Center for Immigration Studies is actually the main think tank in the powerful network of nativist groups founded by John Tanton – a man with a long record of racist statements against Latinos and others – the Center has blamed immigrants for problems ranging from terrorism to global warming. Though its reports have been widely cited in the corporate media, its research has consistently been found erroneous and lacking in evidence by academics and think tanks including the Immigration Policy Center and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Now, the fact that a key player in the nativist lobby praised Van Derbeken’s work as representing “the best tradition of journalism” is perhaps not surprising, given that Van Derbeken’s coverage of immigration has been criticized as inflammatory by immigrant rights groups. That the Chronicle sees nothing wrong with its writer accepting a prize from the nativist lobby, well that mainly says a lot about the Chronicle.

And finally, do they still teach the First Amendment in law school? You might’ve wondered that if you heard the argument made by a lawyer for the Obama administration’s Justice Department. “Career civil division lawyer” Jeffrey M. Smith explained in the June 19 Washington Post that statements made by former vice president Dick Cheney in the Scooter Libby probe ought to be kept secret, because a future vice president might refuse to speak to a future investigation out of concern “that it’s going to get on the Daily Show.” Yes, evidently the plan to ensure that officials cooperate with criminal investigations is going to be to use government secrecy to guarantee that their statements will never be subjected to criticism in the media.

Now, you’re probably asking, what about a different idea? How about instead we allow media to criticize and even satirize the statements of public officials, and make sure that officials cooperate with criminal investigations by subpoenaing them if they refuse? No, Smith says; that would be, in his word, “unseemly”.


CounterSpin: The meaning of recent events in Iran – where an apparent election victory for president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was met with charges of fraud and widespread public protest – is not clear even to those knowledgeable about the region and its history. How much more confusing, then, for the average U.S. citizen, reliant on major media whose foreign policy coverage is often cartoonish and in this case, where some of the most vocal in the debate about how best to encourage democracy in Iran are the same folks who a few months ago wanted to bomb that country off the map. What are we to make of what’s going on in Iran and what’s missing from the media conversation that might help us see it more clearly? Here to help with that is David Barsamian. He’ll be familiar to many listeners as founder of Alternative Radio. He’s also author, with Noam Chomsky and others, of the book Targeting Iran. He joins us now by phone from Boulder, Colorado. Welcome to CounterSpin, David Barsamian.

David Barsamian: Thank you, Janine.

CS: Well, the spark for the protests certainly seemed to be Ahmadinejad’s election victory, not just because people didn’t like him, or expected Mir Hussein Moussavi, his main rival, to win, but because there were allegations also of corruption. Has it become about more than that now? Was it always about more than that?

DB: It’s always been about more than that. The election provided the trigger for the street demonstrations and the outpouring of public resentment and antagonism to a regime now that has been in power since 1979 and to a Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who has been ruling Iran virtually unchallenged since 1989. You know, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he’s the face of the Islamic Republic, and he’s been a very convenient piñata, a kind of punching bag for the western media and for a lot of the political static coming out of Washington. But I think it’s important to stress that he is not the ruler of Iran, that political power rests with the clergy and particularly with one particular cleric, the Supreme Leader, in this case, Ali Khamenei. You have a Supreme Leader on top, below him you have the Guardian Council, which vets all the candidates, and they sign off on elections and the Guardian Council is appointed by the Supreme Leader, and they can also nullify any law passed by the Iranian Parliament, the Majlis, and so the electorate is on the bottom. They vote for the President, they vote for the Majlis, the Parliament, and the Assembly of Experts, which consists of 86 clerics, and it is chaired by Rafsanjani, who is a previous president of Iran – who now seems to be in opposition to the ruling government, and he is joined by, very significantly, another senior cleric, a grand Ayatollah, Montazeri. So there seems to be a split within the clerical leadership of Iran, and Mir Hossein Moussavi, of course was vetted by the Guardian Council. He had to pledge his allegiance to the theocratic state of Iran. So all of the candidates that ran in the election were carefully screened for their allegiance to the Islamic Republic. Having said that and from conversations I’ve had when I was in Iran and subsequently from what I’ve learned, you could categorize Moussavi as a kind of reformer within the Islamic state context. Now for ordinary citizens in Iran who are, let’s say, experiencing extreme heat of 110 degrees, if a candidate comes along a la Moussavi and says I’ll reduce the heat by 20 degrees to 90, that’s something very significant in people’s lives and we shouldn’t simply dismiss this as a continuation of the Islamic dictatorship.

CS: However you’re suggesting that the overweening U.S. focus on Ahmadinejad and Moussavi and the electoral process per se, not taking into account the whole system, that’s going to kind of miss the point of what people are actually out in the street about.

DB: Well, you know the 1979 Islamic Revolution was called the cassette revolution, and I remember seeing those cassettes of, you know, speeches from Imam Khomeini, and this uprising is being called the Twitter or the Facebook Revolution because of the technological developments that it seems are much more widespread. The uprising is being overemphasized, this is not to say that there are not people in the streets, of course they are, but in sheer numbers, it pales in comparison to 1978, 1979, when the 26-year rule of the U.S. supported Shah came to an end. And here you have, I think, an important turning point for U.S. policy. The so-called loss of Iran, it’s always bothered whoever’s been in power in Washington. So Iran, with the second largest oil reserves in the world, the second largest natural gas reserves in the world, is a big, big prize, and U.S. policy has sought, unsuccessfully so far, to bring Iran back into the orbit of U.S. power.

CS: Well, let’s do just a little bit more history there, when Obama referred to the 1953 overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (in a CIA coup) it was presented in the press as a big deal, to simply acknowledge this relatively recent and very relevant fact – as if it would be OK to glide over it. Mossadegh of course headed the last democratic government in Iran (including freedom of religion and of the press, freedom for organizing.) I just have to wonder, what you’re making of the current conversation about how the U.S. can best lead the way on democracy there, and then what is your take on the coverage in general?

DB: Well, I think Obama has adopted a very carefully crafted political position. He’s quite aware that any appearance of U.S. support or as it was called, meddling in the internal affairs of Iran, will hugely backfire. I saw this myself when I was in Iran during the Bush period. Whenever any kind of bellicose statement came out of Washington, the regime, then under Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, used that to discredit whatever political opposition there was in the country as being tools of the United States. The media coverage seems to be – surprise, surprise – full of cliches and platitudes, comparing this to other colored revolutions that Washington has backed in Georgia, in the Ukraine, and elsewhere. I think it’s far more complicated than people like David Gergen or Robin Wright or others who appear, let’s say, on the Charlie Rose show, really have an appreciation of. There’s now a major internal struggle inside of Iran about the very nature of the Islamic Republic, and now that is being challenged within the framework of clerics as well as politicians like Moussavi.

CS: On the media coverage, some of it is not that they don’t know this history. I mean major outlets did report, for instance, that Bush policy and U.S. policy helped elect Ahmadinajad in the first place by undermining moderates by rejecting their overtures back in 2003, so….

DB: That’s a very good point. Under Mohammad Khatami, who is regarded as a reformist – he, too, is a cleric, by the way. He went out of his way to support the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October of 2001. This was a bold move by Khatami by making these overtures to Washington, and within weeks, Khatami got his payback from President Bush, who named Iran as one of the Axis of Evil states.

CS: We’ve been speaking with David Barsamian, founder and director of Alternative Radio and author with Noam Chomsky and others of the book, Targeting Iran. Thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

DB: You’re very welcome.


CounterSpin: The recently released report by the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on racism expressed what should have been newsworthy findings. But chances are you didn’t read about it in your newspaper or see it on the nightly news. This, despite the fact that the report was produced at the invitation of the U.S. government.

Joining us now to discuss the report and the coverage or lack of coverage, is Chandra Bhatnagar, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program.

Welcome to CounterSpin Chandra Bhatnagar.

Chandra Bhatnagar: Hi, Steve, thanks, good to be with you.

CS: Well, let’s begin with how the UN report came about, and how it was produced?

CB: Sure, well first of all, the report was written by a U.N. Special Rapporteur on racism, and what a Special Rapporteur is, is an international expert who has a specific mandate to investigate, to monitor, and to recommend solutions to specific human rights problems. They’re independent experts who have thematic mandates in different areas, so this particular rapporteur is a rapporteur on racism and contemporary forms of discrimination. There are also rapporteurs on violence against women, on the right to food, on the right to education, on extrajudicial executions, etc., etc. So the rapporteur indicated to the United States government that he was interested in having a country visit, and the Bush administration State Department, to their credit, invited him to come to the U.S. and to conduct what’s called a country visit, where he’s able to meet with members of civil society, government, members of the judiciary, law enforcement, effected communities, and then to document what he found and then produce a report which is formally presented to the Human Rights Council. So he visited last year in May and June of 2008.

CS: And what did the report find?

CB: The report is actually remarkable. It’s a real blueprint for the kind of path forward to address some of the fundamental and really very thorny problems of endemic, systemic racial discrimination in the United States. He actually described in the report, he said that “Racism and racial discrimination have profoundly and lastingly marked and structured American society. The U.S. has made decisive progress. However, the historical, cultural and human depth of racism still permeates all dimensions of life and American society.” It’s a real profound understanding of the way that racism impacts American life, and he called for specific solutions. He called on the U.S. government to pass the End Racial Profiling Act as he had documented widespread racial profiling, in both the immigration context and the post-9/11 context, and the drug introduction context. He talked about the sentence of juvenile life without parole, which the U.S. is one of the few nations to mete out, where people who commit crimes when they are children are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He also found problems in terms of racism in the criminal justice system and the crack/powder disparity, treatment of low wage workers, be they immigrant or African American workers in the Gulf Coast post-Katrina. So it was a very well-researched and well-documented report, and I think to its credit, the Obama administration, in response to the report as it was presented in the Human Rights Council, they praised the legitimacy of the report, and they said that they appreciated the Special Rapporteur’s report and it’s constructive spirit, which is about as positive a response as you could get from the U.S. government.

CS: Well, in the past the U.S. has been openly hostile to some of UN Human Rights Council’s projects. Tell us a little bit about the context that this report comes after.

CB: That’s absolutely correct, and the context is really crucial because for many, many years, the United States had somewhat of a schizophrenic relationship with the international human rights communities and mechanisms, especially. The U.S. was obviously one of the co-creators of the modern human rights apparatus, machinery, mechanisms that exist, be they the Human Rights Council, be they the United Nations itself – and while the U.S. was part of the creation of those entities, you know, after World War II for the next 50-odd years, it fought to exempt itself from the very requirements that it helped to develop. So as a result, you had this kind of U.S. exceptionalism where all of these things should apply everywhere else, but god forbid they be brought home. Sadly, much of the motivation within the U.S. government for particular senators, especially Southern senators during the 1960s, was of the fear that human rights international mechanisms could be used to attack domestic racial injustice. And as such, the U.S. actually resisted the convention against genocide for fear that anti-lynching activists might use it as part of their efforts to pass a federal anti-lynching legislation or that Native American communities might use it to address historic and contemporary forms of genocide that they’ve endured. So there’s a real kind of split between U.S. rhetoric with regard to the rest of the world on the importance of preserving and defending human rights and the absolute lack of enforcement and implementation domestically.

CS: So, the U.S. has this big turnabout, it invites the U.N. Special Rapporteur on racism to come in and do this report and then it welcomes the reports findings. This would all seem to be fairly newsworthy. It’s not often that media ignore stories involving U.S. officials at these high levels, but in this case, we found virtually nothing in several major papers and the same thing with the nightly network news shows. Did you find much coverage yourself?

CB: We found a deafening silence. It’s not completely unprecedented for the U.S. to invite a Special Rapporteur, to be fair, to visit. There was previously a Special Rapporteur on the rights of migrants who visited, previously there’s been a Special Rapporteur on violence against women. The U.S. has engaged in this process in the past. What is noteworthy, though, is the Obama administration’s desire to be a member of the Human Rights Council, and they have recently become members and actually this meeting where the report was presented was the first meeting where the U.S. sat as a member. And the response to the report – usually the reports are dismissed. It is noteworthy the shift in the tone regarding the response and the stated part of their candidacy to join the Human Rights Council the U.S. put this list of kind of commitments in April that it was going to adhere to, including domestic implementation of human rights. That’s very newsworthy. And, you know, it’s a shame that it wasn’t covered, and actually to your credit and this program that you’re devoting some time to it today. But I think part of the fault of it actually lies with activists as well. We have to do a better job as lawyers as advocates as others in media and in journalism to really tell these stories and to shine light on these processes. In other parts of the world, when a Special Rapporteur report is released, it’s a big deal. It’s credible, it’s documented, it’s something that the government you know, looks at as a way to kind of enhance their domestic legislative process or move forward, and I think hopefully with the Obama administration we’ll be able to make some progress in that direction.

CS: Well, I’d like to ask one more question about the why – why the lack of coverage – it’s not like the UN lacks for a publicity department, and the ACLU even put out a press release on this, but still, very little coverage. Do you think it may have something to do with the U.S.’ traditional denial about racism, perhaps bolstered by this new supposed post-racial notion that with a black man in the white house, racism really is a thing of the past?

CB: Absolutely, I think that the irony of this is that for decades racial justice activists from Malcolm X to W.E.B. DuBois to Albizu Campos to others have called for making our civil rights problems into human rights problems – taking the injustice that we see here, sharing it with the rest of the world, and then shining a global spotlight on the challenges that we still face. And I think the resistance domestically to that was largely because of what you just said, that they didn’t want to air America’s dirty laundry. And we actually, I mean, there are wonderful stories, Chief Deskaheh, who was the leader of the Iroquois Nation in the early 1900s, actually traveled to Geneva prior to the creation of the United Nations when it was actually the League of Nations, and traveled to the League of Nations to protest genocide against his people – traveled with an Iroquois passport because he did not recognize the legitimacy of either the United States or the Canadian government. So, and to this day, indigenous communities have really been at the forefront of using international mechanisms to try to address the domestic injustice that they face. So I do think progress has been made, but there’s a lot more work to be done.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Chandra Bhatnagar, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Human Rights Program.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin Chandra Bhatnagar!

CB: Thank you, Steve.