Oct 2 2009

Gareth Porter on Iran, Christopher Martin on ACORN


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This week on CounterSpin: This week on CounterSpin, did the White House really disclose the existence of Iran’s new Uranium enrichment plant, and does the plant, as many news stories seem to indicate, really violate the law? And what evidence is there that the new plant may have anything to do with a nuclear weapons program, as certain prominent U.S. media figures have claimed, but which U.S. intelligence agencies say does not exist? We’ll talk to historian and free lance journalists Gareth Porter about the latest wave of allegations against Iran.

Also this week: The community activist group ACORN has been in the news lately, thanks to the efforts of two right-wing activists, who posed as a pimp and a prostitute seeking business advice at local offices. The story’s become a national scandal, but a new study suggests that this is par for the course for ACORN and the corporate media. Who’s behind the anti-ACORN campaign? We’ll talk it over with Christopher Martin, professor of journalism at the University of Northern Iowa and co-author of a new report on ACORN and the media.

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

–When it comes to the ongoing debate over healthcare, the distance between public sentiment and the corporate media is striking. On September 25, the New York Times fronted their new poll on various political issues ranging from Afghanistan to the healthcare overhaul—which the article’s lead said made people “anxious and confused.” But to get to the really newsworthy part you had read the article from the bottom up, where you’d quickly find this buried gem: “On one of the most contentious issues in the health care debate—whether to establish a government-run health insurance plan as an alternative to private insurers; nearly two-thirds of the country continues to favor the proposal.”

What’s more, the poll actually asked whether people supported “the government offering everyone a government-administered health insurance plan like Medicare.” That would be more ambitious than even some of the “public option” proposals discussed in Congress. In other words, the public prefers a substantially more progressive health care plan than anything being discussed in the Beltway or in the corporate media. In fact, they seem to support something resembling the “Medicare for all” concept that was trashed in the previous Sunday’s New York Times.

But after being buried, that news was quickly erased from the Times‘ memory. In a story four days later about the Senate Finance Committee voting not to add a public option to the committee’s healthcare bill, the paper reported, “The votes vindicated the middle-of-the-road approach taken by the committee chairman, Senator Max Baucus.”

The Times poll had found just 26 percent opposed to a public option; to call the approach favored by the rightmost one-quarter of public opinion “middle-of-the-road” is something.

–Addressing Iran’s recent disclosure to the U.N. of a new uranium processing plant near the city of Qom, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote on September 29th: “They then turned themselves in to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and, as usual, said the site was intended for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. These Persians lie like a rug.” Get it? The fact that this bigotry appears in a column chastising Barack Obama for not being serious enough only makes it worse. As Cohen put it: “Sooner or later it is going to occur to Barack Obama that he is the president of the United States.”

But it’s worth remembering that Cohen also once wrote that “only a fool; or possibly a Frenchman” would argue with Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 U.N. presentation about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Too bad that, in addition to the anti-French slur, Cohen’s assessment of Powell’s speech; which Powell has since called a blot on his career; was also wrong.

And so it follows naturally that there is no credible evidence for Cohen’s suggestion that Iran’s new plant is part of a secret weapons program. Iran has invited the U.N. to begin inspections of the facility and, while some observers believe Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, others believe Iran has not had a nuclear weapons program for decades. It is the consensus view of 16 US intelligence agencies that Iran stopped pursing nuclear weapons in 2003. Whatever the case may be, only a fool or a Washington Post editorial page editor would bank on Richard Cohen’s bigoted arguments.

–A piece in the October 5 edition of Time magazine wondered if fair trade coffee is too cheap; in other words, should consumers be paying more than they’re currently paying for coffee that is designated as a better deal for coffee workers? The prevailing rate for fair trade coffee is about $1.50 a pound, according to the Time article;and some observers think that the proper price should be closer to $2 a pound, with the extra money going to workers harvesting and roasting the coffee beans. Far be it from a corporate media outlet to present workers’ struggles without a catch, though, and Time locates the problem by finding someone drinking a four dollar Starbucks in Miami. That consumer, we’re told, applauds the coffee chain for buying fair trade beans, but when Time asks if she’s willing to pay 50 cents or a dollar more for her drink, well she’s not so sure.

But the math here doesn’t make any sense. Let’s say the price of a pound of coffee rose by even a dollar; that pound will make about 25 coffees. So the actual increase in the price of a coffee drink; if the price of coffee is the determining factor; would be more like a nickel at the most. It’s reminiscent of the times when corporate media fret over things like sweatshops; sure, we’d all like workers to be paid more, but do we really want to pay twice as much for, say, a pair of sneakers? That kind of thinking makes no sense economically, but it does serve to send the message that a living wage can’t be paid to workers in the developing world.

–Conservative pundit Bill Bennett has questionable values. After years of decrying the country’s values deficit he was exposed as a gambling addict. As Reagan’s drug czar he was addicted to cigarettes. He once said that, while it would be reprehensible, aborting all black fetuses would lower the crime rate. So Bennett would be an awkward choice for a speaker at something called the Values Voters Summit, right? Wrong. At the September event, Bennett evoked the name of Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a leading progressive intellectual, telling the crowd: “I don’t know why more of the African American leadership doesn’t talk about Frederick Douglass…. Probably because of his deep devotion to Lincoln, and his deep devotion to this country.”

Suggesting that black leaders dislike this country or Lincoln, or that they are insufficiently appreciative of Frederick Douglass, shows, at best, ignorance, but Bennett’s main point, that Douglass’ was deeply devoted to Lincoln, is just wrong.

At an 1876 memorial for Lincoln, Douglass said, among other things, “truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought and in his prejudices, he was a white man.” Douglass added that even Lincoln’s arguments against the extension of slavery “had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race.”

But it turns out that Bennett’s “history” lesson may not have been the most embarrassing thing at what turns out to have been an event with questionable values, where the organizers also presented Fox‘s Bill O’Reilly, the well-known bully and sexual harasser, with its courage award.

–And finally, the headline on Fortune magazine’s story is “Why Business Loves Charlie Rose,” but it’s clear the feelings are mutual and it’s easy to see why. Readers are told that Rose had a career in commercial media before taking the PBS gig, where we’re told, he took a really substantial pay cut: down to “under $500,000.” Yes, Rose is a veritable slave to public broadcasting, but it’s OK. Because it turns out the scramble to raise money for the show has led him to a number of beautiful friendships—or what the article calls “peculiar interconnections between Rose and the people he covers.” Media mogul Barry Diller and designer Diane von Furstenberg, for instance, are longtime financial supporters of the show, and also guests, presumably favorably treated. Same for Rupert Murdoch. Media owner and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg donates studio space.

Nevertheless, it’s explained, Rose “relishes his independence.” This evidently includes the “independence” to disclose his money ties or not. A rep from a venture capital firm in which Rose is a limited partner has made repeated appearances on his show; sometimes Rose discloses his role; other times he’s said the guy was a “business friend and colleague,” or someone with whom he had a “business relationship.” It might be a little hard for readers to imagine the same coming from Edward R. Murrow, whom we’re told Rose aspires to emulate.

Before you start sending him care packages though, keep in mind that Rose supplements his meager half-million dollar salary with between 1 and 2 million dollars’ a year worth of “appearances,” at things like the Microsoft CEO summit, and board memberships, like the one at Citadel Broadcasting that brought him $50,000 a year until very recently. But seriously, the point of Fortune’s story is that Rose “obviously isn’t in it for the money.” One has to wonder what on earth he would do if he were.


CounterSpin: When the White House announced that Iran has a new Uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom, and declared the plant illegal, much of the media followed suit. Stories crediting the White House with disclosing the existence of the plant, and echoing charges that Iran was breaking the law were widespread.

But what’s the real story here? How does the law actually apply to the developments in Iran? And how does this latest story of Iranian malfeasance fit into a larger pattern of Iran coverage? Independent historian and journalist Gareth Porter joins us now, his latest piece for Inter Press Service, is “U.S. Story on Iran Nuke Facility Doesn’t Add Up.”

Welcome back to CounterSpin Gareth Porter!

Gareth Porter: Thanks very much for having me.

CS: Well, let’s begin with how this story emerged. We’ve seen claims in the New York Times that Obama himself disclosed the plant’s existence. What really happened here?

GP: Well, of course, the reports by news media didn’t actually explicitly credit Obama with having revealed it so much as having credited U.S. intelligence with having discovered this and forcing the hand of the Iranian government to then inform the International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday of last week, by letter, of the existence of this second enrichment facility. So the problem is that the Iranian letter was not covered but it was covered, but it was buried in the stories, certainly in the Washington Post and New York Times stories, it was buried pretty deep in the stories, so that you got the impression that in fact somehow Obama had come out with the news that this second facility had been discovered, rather than being tipped off by the Iranian government of the existence of the site and then coming out and denouncing the Iranian government.

CS: The whole gist of the coverage, across the country then, is that Iran had something secret going on to begin with.

GP: Exactly, and of course, the problem here is that secrecy, covertness, is a very ambiguous concept in the context of this problem of the Iranian nuclear program, and this has been a problem all along with regard to the official U.S. stance as well as the media coverage of the issue. If you think about, just for a moment, the history of the Iranian program, Iran never hid the fact that it had the intention of mastering the nuclear fuel cycle.

Going all the way back to the early 1980s, they have been above board and public about that, and they consulted with the I.A.E.A. throughout that period in regard to their desire to do that. And the United States treated that Iranian policy, that Iranian ambition to master the fuel cycle and to enrich uranium for nuclear power as illegitimate from the beginning. And so the Iranians chose not to inform the I.A.E.A. or the United States, obviously, of everything that they were doing in detail. And so that’s where the issue of whether this is covert and secret or simply avoiding the sanctions by the United States and its allies becomes an issue.

CS: Well, as it plays out, if U.S. officials can make their version of things prevail; and that depends greatly on a servile media;they can cast doubt on all of Iran’s intentions. After all, if Iran is keeping secret nuclear facilities, it must be because they’re doing something wrong, and that thing must be that they are developing nuclear weapons.

GP: Right and so just to get to this specific case, what we now know; there’s still ambiguities about this, there’s still things that are not known for sure;but since I wrote my story there has been some further development in terms of the information available. We now know that the Iranian, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency has said that he took over the site only last year and that previously it had been an ammunition dump owned by the Iranian military. And I would add that further analysis of the satellite photos of this site by the I.S.I.S., a think tank in Washington DC, which has been very critical of the Iranian program, now suggests that the head of the Iranian atomic energy organization may be correct, may be honest in his statement about this.

So we now see the possibility that in fact the Iranians have been telling the truth that they did not change their stance on the reporting to the I.A.E.A. about the design of a facility until they had decided that they were going to make this enrichment facility in 2008. In other words they changed their position in order to be strictly in line with their safeguards agreement and that is a very complex legal problem. But the Iranians may be on sound ground in withdrawing, saying that they withdrew from the revised commitment to inform the I.A.E.A. as soon as the decision was made and to go back to the previous commitment that they had had that they would do so only 180 days before the introduction of nuclear material. And that has, of course, as you suggested earlier, that difference has been the basis for saying that this was illicit, that this was illegal rather than in line with their safeguards agreement.

CS: You’ve said that the main reason this story has been so botched by U.S. corporate media; and just to give a couple of examples here: Fox‘s Bill O’Reilly and ABCs Diane Sawyer have both suggested that this new plant was part of a nuclear weapons program. You’ve said that the reason that the story was originally botched was because the sources for the story were all U.S. officials, and that journalists failed to follow up on that original story. What other advice would you give to a journalist trying to tackle the Iran story?

GP: Well, that’s right. I mean I think that the problem is that the journalists who wrote this story in the print media, certainly, were relying on the briefing that they got, and not really going back and checking to see if the account that they were given was really the only possible way that this could be; that the story could be constructed and actually it’s consistent with the known facts or whether it makes sense or not. And I think that, you know, had they waited a little bit, or at least gone back to check on this they would have seen that further filling in of the facts would suggest that it was a much more ambiguous situation, that in fact U.S. intelligence did not know for sure that this was an enrichment facility. They had indications, they had hints that it might be in recent months, but they were not prepared to go public precisely because they did not really know for sure until the Iranians told the I.A.E.A. And furthermore, of course, there was the legal angle of this is much more complex than was suggested by the illicit charge.

CS: I’d like to point out that writers such as Cyrus Safdari and Scott Ritter, and others, in addition to you, have been challenging the official story and what has become the corporate media’s story, too.

We’ve been speaking with historian and journalist Gareth Porter. His latest story, “U.S. Story on Iran Nuke Facility Doesn’t Add Up,” is available from Inter Press Service at IPSnews.net.

Gareth Porter, thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin!

GP: My pleasure. Thanks a lot.


CounterSpin: Community activist group ACORN has been a target of the right for some time now, and that campaign has ramped up in the past few weeks. Two conservative activists went undercover posing as a pimp and a prostitute in order to embarrass staff workers at local offices of the group. That stunt, of course, has received national exposure; it’s led Congress to quickly vote on limiting the group’s federal funding, and it’s caused some big media outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post to admit, in one form or another, that they haven’t paid enough attention to the right wing’s complaints about ACORN.

Looking at the right’s current crusade against ACORN, it pays to remember that all of this didn’t start two months ago. The right’s war goes back some time, and contrary to the mythology promoted by the likes of Glenn Beck on Fox, accusations against the group have been picked up by the mainstream media. Joining us now to talk about that history is Christopher Martin. He’s a professor of journalism at the University of Northern Iowa and co-author of a new report on ACORN and the media.

Christopher Martin, welcome back to CounterSpin.

Christopher Martin: Thanks, it’s nice to talk to you.

CS: Now, it’s been reported that one of these undercover conservative activists was motivated by the group’s defense of homeowners facing foreclosure, which tells you quite a bit about where he’s coming from. Your study found that the main storyline on ACORN in the mainstream media was voter fraud, but that conservatives have been pushing that into the mainstream media but they’ve also been using that as a sort of a proxy; that the behind-the-scenes they’ve been concerned about other aspects of ACORN well before October 2008. Where did this story come from, originally?

CM: The efforts against ACORN have been around for years. We looked at all the reports on ACORN from fifteen mainstream media organizations from 2007-2008 and found that the story on ACORN was emanating from who we called opinion entrepreneurs, which are conservative Republican operatives, oftentimes bloggers, and then gets filtered up through the conservative media, like Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and other outlets, Lou Dobbs of CNN including, and works its way up into the mainstream media.

CS: And the overwhelming storyline that you found was voter fraud in the ACORN—culpability in that?

CM: Yeah, the suggestion was that ACORN was doing voter fraud, and that became a huge story in October of 2008. It actually was one of the most dominant stories, and I actually think that if the economy hadn’t surfaced as a story it might have been even more influential in the election but what we found out was that, well first of all, voter fraud is actually a misnomer, it was actually allegations of voter registration problems, so…. And what ACORN was doing—and one of the many things that wasn’t fact checked by the press—is that ACORN was actually passing those fraudulent registrations back into the county boards of election as they’re required to do by law. Organizations just can’t selectively decide to submit some registrations and not others and they actually flagged them and said we think these are bad registrations and so that’s what they’re required to do, but in more than 80 percent of the stories we looked at the mainstream new media organizations did not mention that, that ACORN was actually doing that, and they’re required to do that by law.

CS: You mentioned October, and that was when the ACORN coverage really exploded. We had this debate with John McCain and Barack Obama where McCain was quoted saying that ACORN was on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history and maybe destroying the fabric of democracy. The rhetoric was kind of overwhelming, and it wasn’t just voter fraud.

When you look at the frames that you selected, how ACORN is talked about in these stories, the positive frames versus the negative frames, overwhelmingly if you paid attention to the media, you heard bad stories about this community activist group.

CM: Exactly, most of the, over 2007-2008, most of the stories were about voter fraud, or those allegations, but there were also accusations that public funds were being funneled to ACORN, gross overstatements that billions of dollars were going directly to ACORN with the stimulus bill, and that was completely untrue. There were stories that ACORN is a front for registering Democrats, and it turns out that ACORN registers anyone regardless of party, as we just talked about. But actually that gets to some of the reason and motivation for Republicans not liking ACORN is that they do register and have very effectively registered people in urban areas who are more likely to vote Democrat. So that’s actually one of the reasons they really don’t like ACORN.

CS: You pointed out that some of the stories were pushed initially by these shadowy business groups like the Consumer Rights League and the Employment Policies Institute, groups that aren’t identified in the media as being behind this at all. But clearly they’re not motivated by voter registration, there’s something else, they’ve got more skin in the game than that?

CM: Exactly, voter registration is one thing that the Republicans don’t like about ACORN but business groups have not liked ACORN for many years because ACORN does other things like support minimum wage laws, increasing the minimum wage, and also working for living wage laws. And so businesses that employ people at low wage jobs like restaurants and organizations have paid money to astroturf lobbying organizations like Berman and Company in Washington, D.C. that then sets up websites and sets up bloggers that are constantly trying to tear down ACORN, usually with plenty of mistruths in those allegations.

CS: It wasn’t just the right-wing media that was pushing this stuff, once it got into Fox and into talk radio you have quite a bit about CNN, for example, where some of the most irresponsible reporting was actually happening on CNN which is not usually considered part of that right-wing media machine.

CM: Well, it’s interesting, Lou Dobbs was just as conservative as Fox news, Glenn Beck used to be on CNN, and he actually went over to Fox where he probably fits a little bit better. But the mainstream organizations performed oftentimes just as badly on this story as the conservative media, and actually what this whole study of ACORN in two years’ worth of coverage suggests is that the allegations that there’s a left-wing or liberal mainstream media just doesn’t hold up. In fact they were taking the same narrative frames from the conservative media and ultimately, going back further, in their lineage came from Republican operatives and business groups, they took those same frames and actually put them in the mainstream media with little or no fact checking. So that’s not a liberal media, that actually a rather careless media, and one that sounds very conservative.

CS: There was something that we were struck by in looking at the report and subsequent to the report some of the reactions of the big papers. The Washington Post and the New York Times in particular, they’ve now said, I guess we aren’t paying enough attention to what Glenn Beck is worrying about and maybe in the case of the New York Times we’ll assign an editor to monitor opinion media to do this. So it does seem like on this story and on others certainly that the “mainstream” media have an opening for the conservative media to kind of funnel their stories directly into the mainstream.

CM: Yeah, someone should be telling the mainstream media, the Post and the New York Times, that they’ve already been taking their story and been paying attention to them whether they’ve been cognizant of it or not. They’ve actually been doing their story for them. But in this most recent story, I mean, if you consider the background of it, and I look at it from kind of a journalist’s eyes, I teach journalism, you know we had selectively edited videos by an avowed conservative videographer who used questionable hidden camera methods and then posted them to a partisan website and then it was hyped by the same conservative media that’s been crying wolf about ACORN for years. I mean from my perspective, I think you need to take a step back and say let’s check this out, let’s take a little bit of time and get it right, rather than what Glenn Beck was suggesting was that you rush to it immediately, which was exactly what he did on Fox news.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Christopher Martin. He’s a professor of journalism at the University of Northern Iowa and he’s co-author of the report: “Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN Was in the News, and What the News Got Wrong.” You can find that study at MediaCrit.com. Christopher Martin, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin!.

CM: Thank you.–>


–“U.S. Story on Iran Nuke Facility Doesn’t Add Up,” by Gareth Porter (CounterPunch, 9/30/09)

–“Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN Was in the News, and What the News Got Wrong,” by Christopher Martin and Peter Dreier