May 28 2010

David Helvarg on BP spill, Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Rand Paul


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This week on CounterSpin: The BP/Deepwater oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is by almost any standard a much more severe catastrophe than originally thought. Amid the now-they-tell-us reporting on safety violations and lack of regulatory oversight, some fundamental questions about offshore drilling are still left unaddressed—the most important being, “Is this a good idea in the first place?” David Helvarg from the Blue Frontier Campaign will join us to talk about that.

Also on CounterSpin today, Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul skipped an interview with Meet the Press; the Tea Party poster boy likely would’ve faced more questioning of his statements about the Civil Rights Act and how he doesn’t support all of it. But is the media’s breathless surprise at finding what looks like racism in the Republican Party a little much, given other things we know about the party and its history? And what else might they be asking about Rand Paul’s views? We’ll hear from political analyst and author Earl Ofari Hutchinson.

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

—One of the most prevalent interpretations of the recent elections in Pennsylvania and Arkansas is that both parties are dumping their respectable members in exchange for wild-eyed radicals. Here’s Cokie Roberts with Jake Tapper on ABC‘s This Week on May 23:

Cokie Roberts: I’m not sure, Donna, that the voters this year care about somebody being out of the mainstream. I mean, the people they are choosing in these primaries are definitely people who are out of the mainstream, whether it’s in Utah or whether it’s in—Arkansas is still out, up for grabs, but it looks like it’s going toward the more liberal candidate in Arkansas.

Jake Tapper: That’s the Bill Halter versus Blanche Lincoln race.

CR: Right. I mean, it is in state after state, it is not the mainstream candidate the voters are interested in.

So Bill Halter, the Democrat challenging Senator Blanche Lincoln, is outside the mainstream? That might come as a surprise to, well, almost everyone. As Ari Berman wrote recently for the Nation, Halter is, among other things, a deficit hawk who is opposed to cap-and-trade and is a little slippery on the Employee Free Choice Act. The notion that a moderate Democrat challenging a conservative Democrat represents a threat to the mainstream says a lot about where Cokie Roberts is coming from—and reminds us that the media’s general rule for Democrats is to move to the right.

—The Obama administration has gone to unprecedented lengths to criminalize the leaking of information to the press. Former FBI contractor Shamai Leibowitz was given a 20-month sentence for giving five classified documents to a blog. He said he wanted to expose activity he believed was illegal. This followed the Justice Department’s indictment of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, whose leaks to the Baltimore Sun helped expose how the NSA’s warrantless spying program deliberately failed to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens.

So: leaks bad. Plants, on the other hand… Listen to this passage from the May 26 Washington Post:

Although senior administration officials have voiced growing disapproval of BP, the company operating the rig and responsible for the cleanup, the mission of the Friday trip is not to declare war on the firm, said one senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations. Instead, the official said, the trip will demonstrate that Obama is “on top of it.”

Anonymous White House officials are willing to speak candidly about the boss being “on top of” the BP disaster. Well, thank goodness the Post could grant anonymity to that brave soul, who risked his or her neck to deliver such valuable insight. Hopefully there are more scoops to come!

—Last week we talked about the Iranian nuclear deal brokered by Brazilian President Lula da Silva, seen by much of the world as a positive step forward. The New York Times had a different take on it, as summed up in this May 25 headline: “Iran Deal Seen as Spot on Brazilian Leader’s Legacy.” Times columinist Thomas Friedman had a piece the next day expanding on that theme. Friedman asked, “Is there anything uglier than watching democrats sell out other democrats to a Holocaust-denying, vote-stealing Iranian thug just to tweak the U.S. and show that they, too, can play at the big power table?” And Friedman answered, “No, that’s about as ugly as it gets.”

He quotes a source complaining that Iran had just executed political prisoners who had been tortured, but Lula “didn’t mention a word about human rights.” Tom Friedman presumably is aware that the U.S., too, has prisoners that it has tortured into confessions, and that it maintains the right to execute such captives—but he’s unlikely to complain about Lula not bringing up that particular human rights matter.

Friedman quotes another expert who accuses Lula of a “thwarting of democracy across Latin America.” The evidence? Lula “regularly praises” Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, “while denouncing Colombia, one of the great democratic success stories.”

Colombia is a great democratic success? Amnesty International’s latest report on Colombia’s human rights record notes that in one year there have been almost 300 extrajudicial executions by security forces, over 400 paramilitary killings, almost 50 trade unionist killings, and a dozen murdered human rights workers.

Friedman, in short, is angry that Lula doesn’t criticize the U.S.’s official enemies while ignoring human rights abuses by Washington and its allies. If that’s not ugly, we don’t know what is.

—Does Fred Hiatt own a mirror? The Washington Post editorial page editor wrote a piece May 24 headlined, “In the Absence of Debate, Iraq and Afghanistan Go Unnoticed,” in which he laments the silence surrounding U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ponders whether “the absence of debate reflects not full-bodied consensus but a wishful averting of eyes.” Well huh, maybe as the editorial page editor of a major daily newspaper, you might be in a position to have some impact on that. But then what kind of debate does Hiatt wish the country to have, anyway? As FAIR’s Steve Rendall wrote in his study of the Post‘s op-ed page and Afghanistan: For the first 10 months of 2009, pro-war columns outnumbered antiwar columns by more than 10 to 1: Of 67 Post columns on U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, 61 supported a continued war, with just six expressed antiwar views.

The paper’s editors seemed unaware that an antiwar position even existed. An op-ed “roundtable” asked foreign policy experts, in the paper’s words, “whether President Obama should maintain a focus on protecting the population and rebuilding the country, or on striking terrorists,” no other possibilities included.

And if you have a sense of déjà vu, it might be because Hiatt wrote a similar column back in October, in which he bemoaned a lack of “honest debate” about single-payer healthcare of all things. As we noted at the time, the Post itself had done next to nothing to provide such debate.

—And finally, more on Afghanistan. There are certain rules about how the media cover civilian casualties there—the tendency to take official U.S. denials at face value, to portray admissions of wrong-doing as “PR setbacks,” or to report Afghan anger at such attacks as evidence of a strange, alien culture. So a May 24 headline in the Los Angeles Times caught our eye: “U.S. night raid in Afghanistan elicits outrage, satisfaction.” The language in the piece was familiar: “As the seemingly irreconcilable narratives of a single deadly encounter point up, no tactic employed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan is so thoroughly obscured by the fog of war as night raids.” We learn that “many Afghans” believe such raids are often based on faulty intelligence and kill innocent civilians. At this point in the war these would seem to be established facts, more than just suspicions from many Afghans.

But in an attempt to cut through all that fog of war, the Times gets some exclusive, insider information—in the form of a “rare interview” with “two senior officials of a U.S. special-operations task force that has carried out nearly 1,000 raids across Afghanistan.” And wouldn’t you know it, they say that the vast majority of these raids result in no civilian deaths at all. The paper also tells us that American officials defended the killing of a teenage boy in the raid in question by saying that he “would have been shot only if he had a weapon in his hands”—before noting that they couldn’t be sure that he had a weapon at all. Does that count as the “fog of war”—or is it the fog of media coverage of war?


CounterSpin: It’s pretty difficult to really get your head around the magnitude of the BP/Deepwater drilling disaster. We’ve seen some fairly distinct themes in the media coverage. First we were told that this might be bad, but drilling in the sea is just a necessary—we need the energy and the jobs. Next it seemed that there wasn’t a day that went by without reading another account of the horrendous safety record of BP, or the close-to-nonexistent federal regulation of the offshore industry. A feeble White House response stoked a media push against the administration—even on the evening shows on Obama-friendly MSNBC. Now we’re being told—yet again—that the amount of oil spilled far exceeds the initial estimates. But what are the lessons about offshore drilling that we should have learned before this catastrophe? And given that the blowout happened weeks after the White House announced new plans to expand offshore drilling, where is the discussion of the policy implications of all this?

Joining us now to talk about it is David Helvarg. He’s president of the Blue Frontier Campaign and author of the new book Saved by the Sea: A Love Story With Fish.

David Helvarg, welcome back to CounterSpin.

David Helvarg: Thank you, Peter.

CS: When we were assessing coverage of the Obama announcement back in March, we found plenty of media cheering for more drilling. Your column in the LA Times on April 1 was one of the few dissenting opinions we could find. You pointed out that we always hear that drilling’s safer than it ever was, and that we must do this to get off of “foreign oil.” The latter argument has never made any sense, but the idea that drilling is safer is one you addressed in another piece—the New York Times dubbed this disaster a “freak occurrence” because we haven’t seen anything like this in 15 years. What do you make of that idea?

DH: Um, bad reporting. We’ve seen lots like it. The whole history of off-shore drilling is a history of going into new frontier waters and then creating disasters and moving on. From the first oil piers off Summerland, California at the end of the 19th Century where they began drilling and sabotaging each other’s drill sites and rigs to keep the pressure on. The San Jose Mercury News reported that it was a township awash in oil slime and 60 miles to the north Santa Barbara banned drilling because they didn’t want to risk their tourist and beach economy and their beautiful waterfront. And 60, 70 years later the government came in and said there was new, safer drilling technology. Yet, the first day of the drilling you had the huge spill and, you know, I was on BP deepwater rigs years ago when I was writing my first ocean book and by the early ’90s they thought they’d tapped out the shallow waters—they were talking about a dead sea. But then they found 25 billion potential barrels in deep waters. And you know I was out on the rigs, they were all wearing t-shirts saying “new rig, new people, new records”—it was all about going deeper. I asked the company man out there what happens if you get a blowout a mile or two down in these new unexplored waters. He said we’ll find out when it happens. And, you know, at the same time I was talking with the chief of the Environmental Division of Mineral Management Service. I asked him how come in the history of their agency they’d never canceled the lease based on their own oil spill risk assessments and his response was: something big as a lease, Dave, you’re not going to cancel on one issue. So it’s not like this hasn’t happened before. Ixtoc happened in ’79 and went on for eight months and spilled massive amounts, but because of a lot of it went into Mexico and onto the Texas shore, the Texas politicians didn’t make an issue. When I was down there after Katrina, it was—you know, I traveled all through Placaman and New Orleans along the Gulf Coast, and it reminded me of war zones I’d been in, you know, fewer casualties—about 1,600 dead at the time—but far wider destruction. Plus I was working on my Coast Guard book, Rescue Warriors, and the Coast Guard told me there’s over eight million gallons of oil spilled around the Gulf—so my thinking at the time was after the dead are counted and mourned, this will be a huge national story. It never was and Mineral Management managed to parse it down to say that the 160 rigs that were damaged or destroyed by that storm hadn’t spilled any oil. Well, it’s true: the oil all spilled from the pipelines and tank farms and refinery production facilities that support that drilling. I went in with the Coast Guard a year and a half ago on Hurricane Ike and there were another half million gallons spilled. So there’s this huge history of disaster and ignoring it, and now we’ve hit a disaster that can’t be ignored because it threatens to destroy both 40 percent of America’s coastal marshes in Louisiana and what until now has been a surprisingly healthy ocean ecosystem out in the Gulf, where we have, right now, the breeding season of endangered bluefin tuna and five of seven species of endangered turtle and last remnant populations of sperm whales that we didn’t wipe out in the last century. It’s a horror that was predictable, and I guess the only other thing I’d say is it’s no longer what the debate was 30 years ago, about energy versus marine and coastal pollution. It’s also now a product liability issue. This product used as directed overheats our planet. It’s a climate issue; it’s a pollution issue; it’s how we use our public seas. You know the media outrage, I wouldn’t call it false, but it’s certainly not addressing the larger issues that should be addressed now.

CS: I want to ask you about that, because we’re seeing a lot of reporting on the regulation or the non-regulation of this industry—the coziness between oil companies and Mineral Management Service, the spotty record of BP. How do you, personally, react to that, as someone whose been in the trenches on this for years? One has to suspect that these stories were simply there for the taking for years.

DH: Mineral Management, I mean, it’s over two years since the inspector general put out his report, you know, here’s an agency that’s literally in bed with the industry it’s supposed to regulate—having sex and drug parties and paintball parties in Houston. Yeah, these are issues I’ve been writing about for years, and it is frustrating because I think the only resource not overutilized in our oceans is good investigative reporting on the waste, fraud, and abuse that’s taking place in these waters. I mean, really since the Truman Proclamation that claimed the outer continental shelf for oil and sort of overturned 500 years of legal precedent on open seas. I mean, this is the second largest source of income for the government, so the government’s collected over $100 billion; the industry’s collected over a trillion dollars of revenues off shore, which is not insignificant even for the world’s largest industrial combine. And the fourth estate has, for the most part, not been there to look at the distortions in a range of agencies. I mean, right now our public seas, which are really our last great commons, are being administered by 21 different agencies under 140 different laws. I thought that, you know, President Obama, he initiated this national, new—really first national ocean policy that would try and look at all the users out there and begin to manage the ocean around common usage for greening up the ports and having clean energy sectors and areas for fishing and protection, trying to coordinate it so we have healthy and abundant seas. Unfortunately, as I said, when he, six weeks ago, declared that we’d expand off-shore drilling, it was essentially throwing a harpoon in his own policy. I’m hoping, although I’m not seeing signs yet, that he might have the courage to say that this was a mistake to talk of expanding off-shore drilling.

CS: I want to ask you—we have about a minute left—the debate we’re hearing now among a lot of pundits and commentators is: Is this Obama’s Katrina? You wrote about this because you found yourself strangely agreeing with Tom Friedman, that Katrina wasn’t the right political metaphor; it was something else entirely.

DH: It was 9/11. It was Bush’s moment that when the country seemed ready to make sacrifices and changes, he told us to go shopping, and I think that the country would be—there’s a lot of anger and it’s looking for direction, and leadership is supposed to give the outrage and the sorrow meaning, and the meaning could be that we begin a new energy revolution. And, you know, I thought when he was campaigning, what I was hearing was we were going to get out of the recession with a clean energy revolution. It hasn’t happened. This disaster is just another reason why it should and has to happen. And that’s the debate I’d like to hear.

CS: We’ve been speaking with David Helvarg. He is the president of the Blue Frontier Campaign—you can find them at His new book is Saved by the Sea: A Love Story With Fish, out now from Thomas Dunne Books.

David Helvarg, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

DH: Thank you.


CounterSpin: Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican Senate candidate and Tea Party leading light, ducked a recent interview with Meet the Press. Paul, the son of momentary presidential candidate Ron Paul, has been the focus of media attention and some heat for remarks he made in which he said that he disagreed with certain sections of the Civil Rights Act, in that he believed that private businesses should have a right to discriminate against people. The story raises some questions about Paul—or answers them maybe—but it also raises questions about the press. Is the argument that business owners and homeowners ought to be free to discriminate against people based on ethnicity or disabilities really a shockingly exceptional view? Or would more thorough and consistent coverage of views within the Republican Party—forget the Tea Party—put it in more context?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson has been writing about Rand Paul, his ideas and his reception for the Huffington Post, among other outlets. He’s a political analyst and author of most recently How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Earl Ofari Hutchinson!

Earl Ofari Hutchinson: Well, always a pleasure, Janine.

CS: Rand Paul is the name of the moment, if you will, but this technique is not new, of mixing up anger at Big Brother government with some racism—maybe veiled, or in code words—and then denying that you mean anything racist. Rand Paul may be stumbling a bit, but the path he’s on has been trod before, wouldn’t you say?

EH: Well, I would even take it one step further, too, not only do we have to look at the politics of it in terms of the past, the GOP, going back to Barry Goldwater, states’ rights, the attack on Civil Rights—I mean that’s a well-trodden path within the GOP—but the step further is: how about his family, namely his father, Ron Paul. Now it’s been well-documented that during the presidential campaign in 2008, Ron Paul made very similar statements about the Civil Rights Act, about how he would oppose certain aspects of it, and that’s certainly mirrored in the statements that Rand Paul made. So maybe, Janine, we can say it’s not just history, body politics, race and class in that party, but it’s also father-son.

CS: Right. Well, you wrote that “The instant his quip about abut the Civil Rights Act hit the airwaves, virtually every GOP mainstream politico backpedaled fast from his view of civil rights and him. This is not a negative.” Can you explain that a little?

EH: Well, actually, they did and they didn’t. You know it’s really kind of a chicken-and-egg game that they play. Here’s what they do: when you get a Rand Paul, or even a Ron Paul, but especially Rand Paul, I mean we’ve seen this before, where they make some disgraceful, shocking, embarrassing, and always racist statement, what they do is: Huh! [gasp of indignation]. It’s like we step back, we pause for a minute, sometimes if it’s really over-the-top a really light public reprimand, but it’s always like the chicken, the egg, the wink, and the nod. Behind closed doors essentially they’re not too turned off by that. They’re not too so appalled by that that they would just totally dump the individual. And as we saw, very quickly after the stepping back for a minute, after the feigned shock at Rand Paul and reprimand, they closed ranks, essentially closed ranks. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, we see him and other GOP top cats standing right there with Rand Paul, essentially saying we’re going to win Kentucky; we’re going to win it for the GOP, and we’re going to win it with Rand Paul.

CS: Well, we, and you’ve really just said this, we’re talking about a party whose caucus opposed extension of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, whose Senate Majority Leader for years, Trent Lott, opposed extension of both the Voting and Civil Rights Act. Rand Paul is not exactly a freakish mutation in the Republican Party, many of whom say we don’t need civil rights legislation at all because there’s no more racism. I wonder then, what you make of the tone of surprise or almost-surprise that we’ve seen in some of the media coverage and what you make of the quality of that coverage in general?

EH: Well, I think the coverage has been fairly good. Instantly when Rand Paul made his statement—and it was a series of statements to the Louisville Courier-Journal during an editorial meeting—essentially it got out there, and it sent a shockwave through the media because, think about it, here you have a seemingly bona fide candidate with a name, in a major, major election, a senatorial race in Kentucky at a major point in time, that’s essentially saying I don’t support the Civil Rights Act. Now, we’re talking about going back a half a century—you’ve got to dig deep on that one—to essentially dredge up something and then trash it. So quite naturally the media was shocked by that; although we’ve heard that kind of talk before. And essentially that’s why you saw the GOP at least on the surface say we can’t support this—but we also know, Janine, through the backdoor, they love every minute of it.

CS: Well, and then it resonates with the broader conversation about the Tea Party and whether or not they might be racist. A May 5, Washington Post piece described the Tea Party movement as “struggling to overcome accusations of racism that are tinting perceptions,” and they cited a poll finding that “About 61 percent of Tea Party opponents say racism has a lot to do with the movement, a view held by just 7 percent of Tea Party supporters,” which we thought was a pretty interesting way to measure racism in the group. What’s your take on media’s treatment of the Tea Party phenomenon and particularly hesitancy and clarity in connecting it with the racists views of some of its members?

EH: Well I think it’s been a mixed bag. On the one hand, mainstream media has given an inordinate amount of ink, amount of time, amount of space to the Tea Party. I mean, there’s not a day that goes by, an hour that goes by that there’s not some mention somewhere on some aspect of the Tea Party and some of the candidates that are involved with it, and also some of the players in the Tea Party. I mean they’ve just gone overkill on that. They’ve been totally fascinated with the Tea Party. On the other hand, I’ll give them credit—they have brought out the racism. I mean, the Post, The New York Times—there’ve been countless articles on the racism or racists sentiments among many within the Tea Party, and there’s been some light, very light, analysis of what drives the Tea Party and essentially tying it directly back to President Obama and race. So I will give them credit for that.

CS: Well, let me ask you finally—back to Rand Paul—I think you think he does have more traction than his father, and I wonder: Is it that the moment is so different; is it that he’s set against Obama; is it that he’s got built-in media attention? What should we be looking for and asking of him as we go forward?

EH: Well, I think all of the above. I think, obviously, the media attention is there. I mean if you—a week ago if you asked anybody, Who is Rand Paul? They would say, Oh you mean Ron Paul. Obviously now he’s virtually a household name. That doesn’t hurt. Sent off mixed signals: on the one hand, the GOP stepping back but not really, but on the other hand, the base that supports him, they love it, and they will support him ’til the death. And I think the other part of that is Rand Paul doesn’t have to do anything else anymore. But they’ll talk about limiting government, limiting taxes, the stuff that they talk about—personal freedoms—but at the end of the day, I’m going to go out on a limb, Janine, I think he will win. And I think essentially he’ll win it with a base that understands Rand Paul is there for one reason and one reason only: to be the hammer, both racial and otherwise, against President Obama.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Earl Ofari Hutchinson. He is a political analyst and author of, most recently, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge.

Thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

EH: And thank you, Janine. Take care now.


Blue Frontier Campaign

Earl Ofari Hutchinson