Jul 17 2009

Gerald LeMelle on Obama in Africa, Katha Pollitt on Caitlin Flanagan in Time


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This week on CounterSpin: Barack Obama’s recent trip to Africa gave the press corps a chance to opine predictably on Obama’s “unique role” as a “son of Africa” who was specially suited to “tell African leaders hard truths”. It should’ve also been a chance for a serious look at the substance of U.S. Africa policy. How’d they do on that score? We’ll hear from Gerald LeMelle of Africa Action.

Also on the show: In her Time magazine cover story, “Why Marriage Matters,” Caitlin Flanagan argues for “intact” marriage because there is “no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage.” Do it for the kids, says Flanagan. Is this just the latest chapter in the treatise that brought us the Mommy Wars and other anti-feminist arguments? We’ll talk with the Nation’s Katha Pollitt.


Africa Action

Subject to Debate: Can This Marriage Be Saved?, by Katha Pollitt (Nation, 7/15/09)


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

—Whatever you may think of the White House-backed healthcare legislation currently working its way through Congress, it’s only fair that it should be held to the same standards of reporting as other legislation.

That’s why a July 15 front-page story in USA Today caught our eye. The headline, “How Much Healthcare Can You Get for This?” ran over a graphic portraying a trillion dollar bill. The gist of the piece is stated in the headline over the jump on page two: “If plans’ costs top $1 trillion, lawmakers risk losing public support.”

This all might seem to suggest to some, perhaps even many, that the program’s projected cost is a trillion dollars a year, as budget costs are usually expressed as annual appropriations.

It’s not until further into the story that the reader learns that the trillion dollars is not per year, but over ten years.

Well, if the public is averse to paying more than a trillion dollars over ten years, you can just imagine how much less appealing the plan would be with price tag of a trillion dollars per year, as suggested by USA Today‘s muddled headline and graphic.

Not to suggest that the health of our people is nearly as important as our ability to wage war, but just imagine how it might affect public support for defense spending if news outlets similarly expressed that spending as ten year totals. We can just imagine it, a USA Today headline reading “Defense Spending to Reach 12 Trillion”—well actually we can’t, but you get the point.

—Some things can be said with numbers. So: The number of stories in the Nexis news database dated July 15 that mentioned Alabaman Republican Senator Jeff Sessions’ questioning of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, in which Sessions accused Sotomayor of harboring ethnic prejudices: 69.

Number of such stories that recalled that Sessions was rejected as a judicial nominee in 1986 in part because of his approving remarks about the Ku Klux Klan: 2.

Sessions, who once complained that the NAACP was “trying to force civil rights down the throats of people,” who concurred that a white lawyer working on a civil rights case was a “disgrace to his race,” who was accused of calling a black assistant “boy,” also got in trouble for “joking” about the Klan that “I used to think they were okay” until learning that some of them smoked pot, according to sworn statements. It’s too bad so many media accounts missed it; readers and viewers might’ve more fully appreciated the grilling of a Latina woman about ethnic bias had they known it was coming from an unreconstructed racist.

—Did a major poll show that a plurality of Hondurans support the military coup against democratically elected President Zelaya? If you read accounts in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor and the Reuters newswire, you’d say yes. As Robert Naiman of the blog Just Foreign Policy discovered, all of those outlets, over July 9 through the 11th, reported that a CID-Gallup poll showed 41 percent of Hondurans in favor of the coup, with only 28 percent opposed.

In reality, the poll showed that 46 percent—a plurality—were opposed to the coup, as correctly noted by AP and the New York Times.

Noting that even majority support for a coup would not legitimize it, Naiman suggests the confident misreporting of what ought to have been counterintuitive findings of public opinion is a significant error, suggesting “the U.S. press is out of touch with the majority of the population in Honduras, and therefore credulous to results which misreport Honduran public opinion as being much more similar than it is to the opinions of Honduran elites.”

The Journal and the Monitor, so far, have published “clarifications” in response to reader complaints, but only future reporting will show how they address the deeper questions about how they got the wrong information and why they believed it.

New York Times reporter John Burns had a piece on July 12 about the British debate over Afghanistan that had some big news about the U.S. debate over Iraq—news anyway to those who get there news form the Times. Talking about an increase in British war deaths in recent weeks, Burns wrote “So far…the reaction in Britain has not run to the kind of popular groundswell for withdrawal that President George W. Bush faced when the war in Iraq worsened after his re-election in 2004.”

So, there was a popular groundswell for withdrawal from Iraq in the U.S. after 2004? Funny, that’s not what the Times was telling us back then. Instead, the paper spent its time suggesting that withdrawal was not a very popular idea.

For instance, a June 14, 2006, article warned that a vote on a withdrawal deadline “could create a hard choice for Democrats in the Senate, antagonize the party’s anti-war base or provide fodder for Republican attacks.”

Well, now the Times tells us that it wasn’t just an anti-war base that wanted withdrawal, but a large sector of the public. Better late than never, we suppose. But could the paper maybe try to report on anti-war opinion in real-time, rather than several years later?

Apparently not—the same piece by John Burns asserts that there’s not a groundswell in Britain for withdrawal from Afghanistan, but rather a grassroots call for a bigger British military budget. But the London Guardian the next day reported a poll saying 42 percent of the UK public wanted troops out immediately, and another 14 percent wanted them back home by the end of the year.

That’s 56 percent who want troops out in the next six months. We’ll find out from the Times if that constitutes a “groundswell” somewhere around 2014.

—Finally, still glaringly absent from the healthcare debate is an option that’s remarkably popular among the public: a single-payer national health insurance program.

Single-payer, or “Medicare-for-all,” as listeners will know, would eliminate the role of the private health insurance industry. It would also expand coverage to everybody and it has the support of about 60 percent of Americans, and about an equal percentage of physicians. Yet a recent FAIR study found that of hundreds of stories about healthcare in major outlets earlier this year, only five stories included the views of advocates of single-payer—none of those appearing on the television networks.

Thousands of people have now signed on to FAIR’s petition that demands that the TV networks cover single-payer proposals and stop silencing their advocates. If you’d like to join folks like Michael Moore, Phil Donahue, Mike Farrell, Donna Smith of the California Nurses Association, and Obama’s own former physician, Dr. David Scheiner, you can find the petition at FAIR’s website at FAIR.org.


CounterSpin: A July 11 New York Times story pronounced, “The gulf separating the West and many African leaders on fundamental issues like human rights was on display just last week.” What indicated the gap between some African countries and more enlightened nations? Well, the African Union “announced that it would refuse to cooperate with the International Criminal Court in its attempt to prosecute the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan Al-Bashir.” The claim is near nonsensical—given the U.S.’ own history of determined opposition to the ICC, such that if enthusiasm for the court were a test of being Western, well then the U.S. would fail. So it doesn’t seem too much to ask whether such silliness can pass editorial muster because it shores up a familiar narrative of an African continent that is basically lawless, chaotic and, well, backward. Africa has always deserved better treatment of course; but what does the lack of more serious debate mean now, as we try to assess the Obama White House’s policy on the region?

We’re joined now by phone from Virginia by Gerald LeMelle, executive director of Africa Action. Welcome back to CounterSpin!, Gerald LeMelle.

Gerald Lemelle: Well, it’s a pleasure to be here, Janine. Thank you for having me.

CS: Africans are high on the list of those talked about more than talked to in the U.S. press. In a recent column you pointed to the public reception in Africa to the founding of the new U.S. Africa Command, AFRICOM, as an instance where the U.S. press really missed the story. Since AFRICOM is a keystone of U.S.-Africa policy, the way it was received in Africa is a pretty big story to miss. I wonder, what about this time around? What’s being left out or underinvestigated in coverage of Obama’s recent trip to Africa?

GL: Well, you hit the nail on the head. It is amazing that right now we are going to be investing almost $3 billion, and that’s $3 billion that we know of, in AFRICOM, the U.S. Africa Military Command—$3 billion and yet we can’t even mention it in the press. It’s like a major foreign policy initiative. The fact of the matter is many of us have been complaining for the last 10 years of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, that we have seen the numbers—2001: $10 million for U.S. military initiatives in Africa, today: over $3 billion. How can this be done without any mention or any critique in the press, let alone amongst the policy circles because you find this strange sort of silence about it, despite the attempts of some activist groups to engage in conversation, to answer some very important questions about AFRICOM, but yet no one seems to be willing to do this. It’s the kind secrecy, the kind of hidden policy that is very very concerning to Africans.

CS: Well, something is being said by these diplomats and officials. I mean we’re hearing about democracy promotion and the promotion of economic growth. I guess what I’m hearing you say is if the big question right now, if we’re to consider it a question whether U.S.-Africa policy is being militarized, you seem to be saying there’s evidence we can look at, which might be at odds with these official pronouncements. And I guess that’s kind of a road map for journalists: don’t just follow the official talk, but look at the facts on the ground.

GL: Absolutely, I mean, you know, we’ve got to remember: the military is not seen as a force for protection in Africa. The military has always been seen as an instrument of destructive self-interest whether it’s domestic or foreign. You look at a place like Ghana. In 1999 the evidence was presented, the CIA admitted that they were involved in the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. They practically introduced the concept of the military coups in Africa, so now as we’re talking about the military is supposed to have a role for good across the continent, there are definitely going to be questions. Anybody who has even cursorily studied African history would have questions as to how this is going to be done. The truth of the matter is the military is going in to professionalize and support and to arm a lot of regimes across the continent that have not demonstrated any interest in democracy or rule of law or human rights at all. And I’m talking about Ethiopia, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, Chad—a number of these countries where there are serious questions about how they have used the military in the past. Professionalizing the military and giving a strengthened instrument to these dictators—I don’t know how this is going to translate into rule of law, democracy and accountability.

CS: Well of course it would seriously reshape that media conversation if, and we’re kind of coming back where we started, if Africans themselves appeared more often in coverage. Clearly there’d be much more of a debate.

GL: Absolutely, I mean one of the things we’ve found, and particularly for an organization like Africa Action that for 56 years has developed very strong ties with civil society groups on the ground in Africa, we have seen throughout the continent a series of op-eds, articles, speeches, papers, whatever have you, all condemning or raising many of the questions about AFRICOM that need to be answered for people to accept this. It seems, however, that the U.S. position is that Africans aren’t worth spending the time having to explain it to them. This is the de facto racist policy. This is the policy that goes back to the colonial period, actually the pre-colonial period, going back to the days of slavery. So, you know, why can’t Africans be spoken to, why can’t there be conversation the way it’s done in democracies in the west. Is it because there are things we are doing in Africa that we really can’t explain? That’s the question. Certainly many Africans are thinking about these things, they’re discussing this, they’re debating this, but they’re all very very concerned, based on the history, what is ultimately the role of the U.S. military in Africa? And why we can’t raise it? President Obama can’t raise it in his speech in Ghana, or raise it as a matter of fact in various comments about the future of Africa, seems a bit strange. It’s going to beg the question: Why?

CS: Let me ask you, finally, you do media appearances on Africa and African issues here in the U.S.. Do you find reporters disinterested, underinformed? What’s driving this kind of void in the coverage?

GL: Well, I think you know, the perception that Africa is so underdeveloped extends to reporters not thinking that Africans actually think these things through. And perhaps because many Africans do not have the power to influence policy at home people think that well, they’re just irrelevant to the conversation. But it’d be a huge mistake, we’ve got a billion people on the continent; only a handful are in the leadership positions. You’ve got a billion people, many of whom debate these issues every day. If you want to follow the trends, if you want to follow the needs, if you’re looking to establish rule of law, democracy, human rights—then you’ve got to know what these folks are thinking, and there, I think that most reporters have been a bit lazy in trying to figure out what’s going on in Africa. I think many of them do not know, in fact, we have a press conference that we host any time the president goes to Africa, when Bush went twice and then when Obama just went, we have these press conferences where we try to inform the press corps surrounding the president. And you would be amazed at the kinds of questions you get. It’s really very clear that while they can give you chapter and verse of what’s going on in countries around the world where the presidents are visiting, they can’t tell you a thing about Africa. And it’s really like, “Well I spoke to my driver and he said things are good”—you know that kind of analysis. When that kind of thinking comes from the reporters, then you’re in trouble.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Gerald LeMelle; he’s executive director of Africa Action. Find them online at AfricaAction.org. Thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin!

GL: Thank you for having me.


CounterSpin: In her June 13 Time magazine cover story, “Why Marriage Matters,” anti-feminist Caitlin Flanagan manages to argue at once that marriage is a thing many desire to escape, and a thing that must be saved, because there is “no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage.” The damage divorce causes children, writes Flanagan, is pervasive, crossing all socioeconomic barriers: “on every single significant outcome … children from intact, two-parent families outperform those from single-parent households … If you can measure it, a sociologist has; and in all cases, the kids living with both parents drastically outperform the others.”

Joining us now to talk about Flanagan’s story is Katha Pollitt. Katha Pollitt writes the “Subject to Debate” column for the Nation magazine. She is author of, most recently, the poetry collection, The Mind-Body Problem. She joins us now on the phone. Katha Pollitt, welcome back to CounterSpin!

Katha Pollitt: Hi Steve, thanks for having me.

CS: Well, you’ve been fielding these anti-feminist arguments for some time, from Flanagan and others—before we get down to specifics, what was your impression on first reading this Time cover story?

KP: I thought it was over the top, irresponsible, and if it wasn’t sexist, I would even say hysterical.

CS: Well, the print cover headline was “Unfaithfully Yours,” with a subhead that referred without irony to “our most sacred institution”—that’s marriage. Isn’t that kind of a lot of presumption, before you’ve even opened the magazine?

KP: Well, yeah, and also the rest of the tagline is “how to make marriage matter again,” which they actually don’t tell you how to do. They just say it should matter again, it really should, it really should.

CS: Well, in a piece in Psychology Today taking on Flanagan’s Time essay, psychologist Bella DePaulo goes after the science, refuting Flanagan’s claim that by every measure, children in two-parent families do “drastically” better—and DePaulo asks the important question: What happens to children living in “intact” married-parent homes in which the two parents aren’t really getting along? Isn’t that kind of an important question?

KP: Well, yeah, I mean if you compare children in divorced households with the children of rapturously happy, sane, prosperous, loving, nurturing parents, it could well be that the latter do better. We’d all like to be in a family like that, whatever age we are. But that’s not the choice that couples that are contemplating divorce have. They have the choice of well, do we stay together and fight a lot? Or maybe there’s drinking and drugs, and infidelity and a lot of screaming and depression and not having any time for our children because we’re too busy fighting each other and etc., etc. That’s not a good situation.

CS: Well, Flanagan seems to put all her eggs in the marriage basket, diminishing the possibility that any other factors may play a detrimental role in child development. But even if some studies show modest differences in the U.S., this doesn’t hold true in many other countries. Doesn’t that sort of suggest, I think as you’re already getting at, that marriage may be less important and other factors may be more so?

KP: What I say in my column is that in our society the family is a major safety net for people and does for people some of the things that in other societies, social welfare democracies, are done by the state. And I think if you look at the Netherlands, if you look at Scandinavia, if you look at France, or Germany, the outcomes are different there because people aren’t so poor and desperate. They’re not going to fall through the floor if they lose the major breadwinner in the family. There’s healthcare, there’s day care, there’s all kinds of things for people, and that makes a big difference.

CS:This is Janine Jackson. Katha, so in a way it’s kind of like this is really a social policy article in disguise as a piece about Jon and Kate. It really has social policy implications while it’s sort of pretending to be about individuals and individual choices.

KP: Yes, I think that’s true. You know an interesting feature of conservative writing in general, and of Caitlin Flanagan’s writing in particular, is that the only time they ever express interest in and concern for low income and especially black people is when they can use it as a stick to beat liberals with. So Caitlin Flanagan writes a piece about you know, feminists don’t pay their cleaning women enough. But she’s never interested in cleaning women at any other time. She was very sympathetic to women in prison because ex-SLA member Kathleen Soliah got a special deal, a special parole deal, but she never writes about women in prison at any other time. And it’s the same here, it’s like she actually says—and this is a very common sort-of right wing think tank idea—is that well okay, maybe it’s okay for upper-class parents, and it’s not great, but upper class parents getting divorced, but this irresponsible behavior percolates down into “the underclass” and destroys it. And you could say, but according to you it was already the underclass, something else has to be going on, you know. But she’s not interested in poor people at any other time except when it can be, when we have to get them married. It’s not we have to get them some great housing, and some decent transportation, and some healthcare, and some jobs, it’s never that.

CS: Well, besides everything else, this is a trend piece in search of a trend: despite Flanagan’s hand-wringing on the “increasingly fragile construct” of marriage, divorce rates are actually down. They’ve been down almost a third since 1992. You’ve just spoken to Flanagan’s motivations, but seriously now, what makes a story like this so very appealing to a national magazine?

KP: Well, I think it’s the summertime, trend stories are always big, and they usually have a conservative slant. The big national magazines, news magazines like Time are desperate to have people buy them. And I think they’re just so cynical, that’s the other thing, I think the people who edit these things, who are probably all divorced themselves, are so cynical that even if you pick holes in all the facts, and all the arguments as Bella DePaulo does in her very good article in Psychology Today, and a lot of bloggers have done, too—they don’t care, it’s just “Oh, people are talking about it,” you know. They can just put something out there and people can talk about it, and they’re happy.

CS: Well, and finally, doesn’t it also tap into, in terms of moving it off the newsstand, it taps into very real anxieties that people have, you know, about whether what they’re doing is good for their children—about their family difficulties? They’re always going to find those tensions there if they want to play on that.

KP: Yes, and there’s also the whole theme of political infidelity that we’re having quite a rash of now, what with Governor Mark Sanford and Senator Ensign and looking back we had Eliot Spitzer and David Vitter and Larry Craig—so you know that puts this all in the news. I thought an interesting feature of this article was that she goes on and on about infidelity as if this is big problem. And she never gives any evidence of that, that the reason marriages end in divorce is more infidelity than things that people bicker about when they’re married like, well, money, substance abuse, realizing that you made a big mistake, things like that, just really not having a good relationship. And if it is infidelity, then there’s really no hope because the chances of people as they’re currently constituted in the United States suddenly saying you know infidelity, we’re just not going to do that anymore—that would be unprecedented in world history and it isn’t going to happen.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Katha Pollitt. You can read her piece on the Caitlin Flanagan Time magazine cover story at TheNation.com. Katha Pollitt, thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin.

KP: Thanks so much for having me.