Jul 24 2009

David Swanson on healthcare reform, Harold Meyerson on California’s budget crisis


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This week on CounterSpin: “Obama May Have To Wait for Health Reform” explained one July 22 headline. Leave it to corporate media to take a life-and-death issue for millions of Americans and reduce it to an item on a president’s wish list. But if they’re going to mainly cover healthcare policy as inside the Beltway politicking, how good a job are they doing even of that? We’ll hear from activist and author David Swanson about the current state of play in healthcare reform efforts and what the media may have to do with it.

Also on the show: California’s budget crisis may be coming to a close and that may be good for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and state politicians, but what about the potential crises to come, caused by a budget that severely cuts programs serving the elderly and the young? And what are the prospects of any permanent solution for the wealthiest state in the union which seems perpetually broke? We’ll talk to Washington Post columnist and editor at large for the American Prospect Harold Meyerson.


If Media Were Any Good, by David Swanson (AfterDowningStreet.org, 7/21/09)

GOP: Going Over the Precipice, by Harold Meyerson (Los Angeles Times, 7/23/09)

California: A Dream Decimated, by Harold Meyerson (Washington Post, 7/1/09)


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

–Over the course of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor, a pattern has emerged in which the just about the only analysis or criticism of the nominee deemed valid by the corporate media comes from the right. Nowhere is this more clear than in a July 15 New York Times report headlined “Future Nominations Are at Stake in Hearing,” where New York Times reporters Peter Baker and Charlie Savage suggest that Sotomayor’s confirmation is a given, but that the real battle among partisans and legal activists is over defining “the parameters of an acceptable nomination in case another seat opens up during Mr. Obama’s presidency.”

It’s interesting, then, to see what the parameters are in the report. The Times solicits comments from five conservatives or Republicans, Rachel Brand, Fred McClure, James R. Copland, Manuel Miranda and Kenneth M. Duberstein. The Times also quotes one law professor with a liberal reputation who has been a forceful critic of Sotomayor (suggesting she is intellectually unqualified for the court), and Nan Aron, described as being “of the liberal Alliance for Justice.”

Among the piece’s conclusions? “Several legal experts said Judge Sotomayor’s testimony might make it harder for Mr. Obama to name a more liberal justice next time.” Not exactly a surprise from reporters whose sources are largely on the right.

Newsweek had a peculiar take on the unanimous international condemnation of the recent military coup in Honduras. In a July 20 piece headlined “The World Goes Bananas Over Honduras,” Newsweek‘s Mac Margolis suggested world leaders’ outrage over the coup was hypocritical, because they hadn’t responded in the same way to political shifts in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. In the ‘rush to judgment’, writes Margolis, “heads of state showed selective zeal for democracy, at best.” He then cites a “former Venezuelan diplomat” who calls it “odd” that people insist on saying coups are committed against presidents, and not against “Congress or the courts,” which is what he’d presumably have us believe is what happened in Venezuela, and Newsweek backs him up on that, writing “In recent years, executives in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua have stacked their benches and legislatures with yes men and muzzled the media, while international leaders looked the other way.”

The actual citizens who voted for those legislatures might not be aware of that, but then they probably also think they have democratically elected leaders; whereas Margolis describes these democratically elected leaders as “aspiring autocrats” and contrasts them unfavorably with the Honduran military, who, remember, just committed an actual coup, because the latter “could reasonably argue that it was acting in good faith by ejecting a leader hellbent on seeking re-election.”

Well, at this point, the fact that the elected Honduran president Zelaya wasn’t in reality seeking re-election almost seems like a footnote, given that this piece isn’t really about facts at all, is it? After all, a fact-based discussion of assaults on democracy in Latin America would include mention of the anti-Chávez coup in Venezuela which this story does not. And any principled concern with leaders trying to stay in office would’ve had to mention right-wing Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, who not long ago engineered a change to his country’s constitution in order enable his re-election, which this story does not.

Of course the magazine does make a strong point about selective zeal for democracy, but only by example.

–On July 14 a New York Times headline announced, “Mindful of Civilians, Pilots in Afghanistan Alter Tactics.” The piece explains that new orders from General Stanley McChrystal have been enacted to try to reduce civilian deaths. Four different military sources are quoted saying things like, “We certainly don’t want to cause civilian casualties” and “There’s a saying that the most important bomb is the one you bring back.” The article touts commanders’ claims that “there had been no reports of civilian casualties from any of the missions.”

Sounds great! But in the nearly 700-word article, not a single Afghan voice was included, nor any numbers on Afghan casualties, nor any attempt to measure the actual impact on civilians of McChrystal’s new orders. How comforted do Afghans feel about the new array of tactics that will be used in their villages, which “range from making loud shows of force to dropping 500-pound bombs guided by lasers or satellites”? The Times doesn’t seem to be so mindful of that.

–In his front-page profile of movie industry blogger Nikki Finke that ran on July 17, New York Times media reporter David Carr couldn’t resist a self-congratulatory dig. Carr wrote of Finke: “Her liabilities in the world of print, a penchant for innuendo and unnamed sources, became assets online.”

Oh zing. Except: those familiar with the print media world that the New York Times belongs to may be aware that unnamed sources are not exactly unknown there. To find an example, no need to go further than, well, Carr’s own article, which devotes a paragraph to anonymous attacks on Finke. It went goes this:

“I’d prefer not to ever deal with her,” said a senior communications executive at a studio who declined to be identified. Many others declined comment saying, variously, “she gave me a nervous breakdown,” “she terrifies me,” and “there’s no percentage in me saying anything to you about Nikki no matter what it is.”

Anonymous sources suggesting dire things about a subject without providing any specifics, that’s what you call innuendo. So are innuendo and unnamed sources liabilities or assets in Carr’s print-media world? One thing is clear: Hypocrisy won’t hold you back.

–And finally: Fox. Fox News anchor Brian Kilmeade apologized on air for remarks he made July 8 while discussing a study from Sweden and Finland on marriage and Alzheimer’s disease. Kilmeade offered viewers such pearls of insight as “Swedes have pure genes,” while “in America we marry everybody,” which he further elucidated “we keep marrying other species and other ethnics.”

Yes, some of you are thinking, that’s what you get for turning on Fox. But the UNITY Journalists of Color association wasn’t laughing; they demanded an apology and further discussion of the issue, noting that Kilmeade’s comments “were more than silly… They validate, under the guise of light-hearted humor, the basest of white supremacist ideologies, the notion that white people and non-white people are of different species, with the white race as ‘pure.'”

Assuredly it was the activism generated by UNITY and not any intellectual or moral epiphany that occasioned Kilmeade’s July 20 apology, or what passes for apology, the admission that he’d “made comments that were offensive to many people.” St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans notes on the blog The Feed, that even that wishy-washyness may lead to a charge of “political correctness gone amok, Fox News soothing ruffled feathers among journalists of color.” But he notes that when it comes to promoting racism on major media, there’s more at stake than hurt feelings; and he asks, “Will Fox make good on the other part of UNITY’s demand, and air a real discussion of this issue at a time when most viewers can see it? Will that discussion feature any of the journalists of color who helped spark the discussion in the first place? And, if Fox had some diversity on its anchor desk, would Kilmeade have felt free to voice such a stupid opinion in the first place?”

Sadly we suspects the answers are: probably not, probably not, and probably.


CounterSpin: Healthcare reform is the domestic policy issue of the moment. As we record this show it’s just a day after Barack Obama’s primetime news conference, billed as a “critical moment” in his effort to pass legislation making its way through Congress. A number of media reports referred to increasing public skepticism on the possibilities for reform, but without spelling out any possible causes for those concerns. What about media coverage? Has elite media’s narrow conversation on healthcare, with significant perspectives off the table, affected what’s politically possible? Here to discuss the current state of play and what about it your newspaper may not have told you is activist David Swanson, he’s co-founder of AfterDowningStreet.org and author of the upcoming Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union, out in September from Seven Stories Press.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, David Swanson!

David Swanson: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

CS: Well, it’s a tendency of corporate media to take issues where policy intimately and critically affects human lives and treat those issues as first and foremost political footballs, or matters of partisan politicking. With that said, of course, the story of how policy actually gets made is a really important one. So imagining that all we needed the press corps to do was to track legislation, tell us about developments, what the options are, how would you say they’re doing on that score on healthcare?

DS: Miserably, because I think that in a democracy, in a republic where our legislators are supposed to somehow draw their inspiration from what their constituents want, what their constituents want ought to have some bearing and for decades you’ve seen polls of Americans supporting government-funded health coverage, a single-payer system. And there is a bill, has been for years and is again in this Congress, in the House, HR 676, sponsored by Congressman John Conyers with now 85 other co-sponsors, that would create a single-payer system, and no other legislation has that kind of support. No other legislation has such a history and a background and richness of development of studies of how it would be done and what the outcomes would be, and in fact, no other legislation comes close to meeting the goals of the public or the stated goals of the legislators as well as that one and it’s completely off the radar screen, almost unmentionable to the point where you have events happen, such as on I think it was July 17, in the House Education and Labor Committee an amendment was successfully passed with bipartisan support to the developing bill in the House that would facilitate state governments in creating state-level single-payer healthcare in the event that the federal government does not do it. That ought to have been huge news. Here’s something being done by our Congress on a piece of legislation that is the biggest news in government coverage in recent weeks, and virtually no mention of it.

CS: Well we have talked on this program about the perhaps unique toxicity to single-payer that the corporate media have been representing for more than a decade at this point. This is nothing new, but I wonder if you also could talk about the editorial kind of flavor. In particular I wonder if you think that the editorial, I mean, I would really call it hectoring, in a way, about “bipartisanship” and the need for bipartisanship, do you think that that really serves to convince Democratic lawmakers that they need Republican votes in a way that they simply do not?

DS: I think so. I mean, we were told for years and years by the Democratic Party, “give us money; if we just had 60 senators you would just have peace and harmony in abundance,” and we got 60 sentors, 58 Democrats, and two Independents, caucusing with the Democrats. You’ve got your 60, and you’ve got a large majority in the House, and you’ve got the White House, and yet we have actually less support for majority positions, like single-payer, among the Democrats than we had when they were in the minority. In the minority, they wanted to impeach Bush and Cheney, they wanted to end the wars, they wanted to do single-payer and so forth. And when they’ve got the power, they want to not use those majorities to ignore the Republican Party, which was supposed to be the whole point, but they want to focus on drafting legislation that includes the Republican Party, and then the President campaigned on this, sees himself as fulfilling his promise of bipartisanship, never mind that the public couldn’t care less.

CS: Well, now besides omitting the overwhelming popular desire for a single-payer plan, corporate media now seem to be, and it’s just unfolding, maybe doing something with public opinion. The new tone seems to be, well here’s USA Today‘s opener on a July 23 piece, “President Obama repeatedly reassured a skeptical public Wednesday that an overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system will put ‘more money in people’s pockets,’ improve care for patients and offer peace of mind.” Well, that’s linguistically vague enough that it could mean that people are skeptical of Obama’s plan or of government’s ability to succeed in carrying off reform, but it mainly suggests that people don’t think any change could possibly save money and improve care. Meanwhile, of course, they don’t provide any evidence for that, and as we’ve discussed, they don’t seem to be trying very hard to really find out the public’s thoughts and concerns. But I wonder about this new twist that coverage seems to be taking, where they’re suggesting that the public is pushing back against the very idea of reform.

DS: We could go for hours on the misleading angles of that. I mean, first of all, there’s no distinction made between types of spending of money. All the rage in Washington is how much public money will be spent on healthcare, but if people are spending huge percentages of their income on private health insurance and then not getting coverage, and in fact 60 percent of bankruptcies are due to medical bills and 80 percent of those people had so-called health insurance, it doesn’t matter to people so much whether they’re spending the money through a private system or a public system. They’d like to actually spend less money, that’s the important thing, and get coverage. What the public is skeptical about is the same thing that the media uses to write off the supposed viability of a single-payer solution, and that is the open and legal campaign bribery of Congress members by the health insurance companies and the drug companies. And yet you have all of these articles written and shows produced discussing these Congress members and their opinions as if they’re having these opinions on their own, never mentioning the amount of money these people have taken from health insurance companies and other interests. And on the rare occasion that it gets mentioned, Max Baucus is sort-of denounced as the one guy who’s taken a lot of money and more than anyone else, never mind that he’s taken a fraction of what Barack Obama has taken, because suggesting that Barack Obama might be influenced by such mundane things is just beyond the pale. And then you have this pretense that the problem as you say is coming from the public, to the point where the public is instructed by the media to really hate its own interests. So I read a few days ago in the Washington Post, that the problem we have in our healthcare system is that somebody has to say no, you can’t just let doctors do anything they want. And right now the private insurance are stepping up to the plate to be that one to say no. And that really, according to experts quoted by the Washington Post without comment, is the better way to do things because if you had the government having to say no, it couldn’t, because it would be unpopular. The public wouldn’t want the government to say no to anything, and so the public is really better off having private insurance companies step up and fill that role. To begin with, this ignores the fact that these insurance companies have an interest in saying no as much as possible to up their profits, and then it goes against the entire idea of self-government, in which the public having a say in things is understood to be in the public’s interest, that in fact the worst outcome for the public doesn’t always from the public having a say in things. But this is the way that the Washington Post seeks to spread democracy.

CS: Well finally, what is the legislative state of play in terms of what’s happening that listeners should know about and might not know about?

DS: Anything’s possible. It’s entirely possible that nothing will pass. There is debate over whether Congress will stay in session or go on vacation in August without anything passed. And from the point of view of some of us as activists, pushing single-payer is probably the best thing anybody can do. And asking the media to cover it as FAIR has been doing is probably the best thing anyone can do, even if you think the best outcome is going to be a compromise and some sort of public option, because you ask for what you want and then you compromise.

CS: We’ve been speaking with David Swanson.

You can find more of his work online at AfterDowningStreet.org His upcoming book is Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union. It’ll be out in September from Seven Stories Press. David Swanson, thank you for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

DS: Thank you, Janine.


CounterSpin: It’s being reported that California’s budget crisis may be coming to a close. But with a proposed budget that would severely cut programs for the poor, the elderly and the young, what crises might be in store for California’s most vulnerable? And why is the nation’s wealthiest state funding its services as if it were among the poorest? These are some of the questions raised by California’s longstanding fiscal crisis, which has often been treated by journalists as more of a political problem for politicians than a source of real hardship and pain for Californians.

Joining us to answer some of these questions is Harold Meyerson. He is a columnist for the Washington Post and editor-at-large for the American Prospect. His most recent column on this, “GOP: Going Over the Precipice,” can be found in the July 23rd Los Angeles Times.

Welcome to CounterSpin, Harold Meyerson!

Harold Meyerson: A pleasure to be here.

CS: A headline in the latest Time magazine reads “Schwarzenegger Shrinks California in Order to Save It.” That report’s lede states that “Schwarzenegger had to act. He knows all about the political risks involved in budget crises: he rode to victory in a recall election when his predecessor, Governor Gray Davis, was hamstrung by a similar budget crisis in 2003.” It’s as if the governor’s political future is really what is at stake here. In a July 23 piece you wrote for the Los Angeles Times, you talk about how California’s legislative peculiarities have resulted in a sort of minority rule in the state. And how that has produced a budget that will hurt Californians. Does that mean that you don’t completely agree with Time that Governor Schwarzenegger has saved California?

HM: Well he saved it, I suppose, in the same way that the U.S. Troops saved the village by destroying it in Vietnam. He is part of a budget deal which really is only going to begin the crisis now. The crisis was only partly that of the state’s inability to pass a budget. The real crisis, the cutbacks that are now coming that are going to throw hundreds of thousands of children out of the state’s S[tate] C[hildren’s] H[ealth] I[nsurance] P[rogram] program in essence, blocking their access to healthcare. It’s going to deny in-home services to elderly who need them, probably tens of thousands of those. It’s going to really cut back on public schools K-12, a number of districts, including Los Angeles, eliminating their summer school programs. And it’s going to decimate the legendary University of California and the State University system; they’re taking 20 percent cuts this year. And in a state that prides itself on being globally competitive, it means that the educational edge that California has historically enjoyed from having the world’s best public university system may be coming to an end.

CS: Well you’ve also written about how the cuts will likely deepen California ‘s economic downturn. How is that?

HM: Well sure, California is far and away the largest economy in the United States, and if it were an independent nation, it would rank I think about seventh in the world’s largest economy, but it’s got the fifth highest unemployment rate of any state, currently at about 11.5 percent. This is going to unemploy tens of thousands of other people by cutting programs for which they worked. It’s going to reduce the spending abilities of public employees all across the state. They’re getting a 14 percent pay cut as a result of this deal. It’s going to increase the number of housing foreclosures, and therefore toxic assets in a state that has more of them than any other state, putting more bad paper into the bank. So it’s really going to deepen the recession in a state that’s home to one out of eight Americans.

CS: In a front-page New York Times piece on July 22, headlined “Pinch of Reality Threatens the California Dream,” reporter Jennifer Steinhauer remarks: “What comes next is anybody’s guess, but it may be that California’s standing as paradise is meeting an organic end.” I’m guessing you would disagree that California has come to this pass by some sort of natural progression, that there were maybe other options to this hard landing?

HM: No, this wasn’t fated like the setting of the sun in the Pacific Ocean, which happens every day in California. This was a result of a crazy political system that gives a minority party, the Republican Party, really almost majority rule in California because it takes 2/3 vote in both houses of the legislature to pass a budget and to raise taxes, conditions that are peculiar only to two other states in the U.S. And since the Republicans oppose any and all tax increases, including on oil companies for extracting oil, something that every other state has, all of these cutbacks were enacted but there were no tax increases which is quite the reverse of the approach of Ronald Regan and Pete Wilson, when they were Republican governors of the state in earlier recessions, they went for a balance of tax increases and cutbacks so that the state would not be decimated, but such is not the case today.

CS: Well, in a lot of the national reporting we hear about this peculiar legislative process in California. What is discussed less is how this has resulted in some of California’s wealthiest sectors, you just mentioned oil, contributing less and less over the years. Can you expand on that a little bit?

HM: Well, bank incorporation taxes used to take a far higher share of the revenues coming into the state treasury than they do now. And similarly, one of the oddities of Proposition 13, which was enacted in 1978 during a time when housing inflation in California was clearly out of control, is that it froze property taxes on the number of commercial properties that have therefore had minimal increases in the, what is it, 30 years since. And therefore some of the state’s wealthiest businesses are paying almost nominal taxes on their property in the state, which has had a real impact on the state’s inability to meet its needs.

CS: Is there a way out for California to get out of this?

HM: Yes, but it’s not simple. It’s not simple. It has several components: a restructuring of the tax system so that you can have businesses pay property taxes. It would take a renewed attention to some high-end income taxes and a real revival of the property tax. But fundamentally it’s going to take structural reform so that budgets and taxes can be passed by majority vote. And that may require something as complicated as a constitutional convention in California.

CS: Where else, besides your columns, which have a lot of great information in them, can listeners go for good information and discussion?

HM: Michael Hiltzik at the L.A. Times writes a business column about the state, which I think is very, been very good in treating these issues. And also there’s a website CalBuzz.com, which is edited and written by two former terrific political reporters of newspapers, Phil Brownstein and Jerry Roberts, which is very informative and very in-depth on the state’s problems.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Harold Meyerson, editor at large of the American Prospect, and Washington Post columnist. Thanks for joining us today on CounterSpin, Harold Meyerson.

HM: Thank you!