Oct 8 2010

Jodi Jacobson on Tea Party & social issues, T. Christian Miller on military contractor deaths


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This week on CounterSpin: The New York Times says democrats are “wielding” issues like abortion rights in hopes of frightening voters about Republican victories in upcoming elections, whereas Republicans really just want to talk about the economy. Same goes for the Tea Party: we’re told not to focus on the movement leader who calls rape “part of God’s plan,” because actual Tea Partiers really only care about fiscal issues. What’s going on, or not going on, here? We’ll hear from Jodi Jacobson, editor in chief of RHReality Check, whose recent piece is titled, “Social Issues and the Tea Party: By Their Leaders Ye Shall Know Them.”

Also on the show: Contractor deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are largely invisible in U.S. reporting. One exception is the reporting of ProPublica‘s T. Christian Miller, who has been writing about the privatization of war for years. We’ll talk to Miller about his latest piece documenting how in recent months for the first time contractor deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have exceeded military deaths.

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

—Thanks to independent media outlets like GritTV, Free Speech TV and Democracy Now!, you may have been able to follow the happenings at last weekend’s One Nation Working Together rally. The gathering, organized by hundreds of progressive citizens’ groups, labor unions and grassroots activists, drew tens of thousands to Washington, D.C., to make the case for jobs, peace and social justice.

It wasn’t surprising that corporate media didn’t seem to care much. Two of the three network evening newscasts ignored it, as did PBSNewsHour—though that show covered far-right Fox News personality Glenn Beck’s August rally in D.C. before it happened and then again afterwards.

The Washington Post claimed that One Nation lacked “charismatic speakers” like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Journalists are entitled to such opinions, but they don’t get to rewrite history, the way NBC Nightly News tried to, asserting that “thousands of party liberals today borrowed a page from the Tea Party movement, gathering on the National Mall in Washington to try and stir up both passion and Democratic voters.” Actually, the idea of rallying people on the Mall in Washington, D.C., did not originate with the Tea Party, thanks very much.

—Anybody object to the idea of shooting robot missiles into a country we’re not at war with? Not at the Washington Post. Their October 3 story—”Military Drones Aid CIA’s Mission”—about the expanded use of Predator and Reaper drones to carry out strikes beyond the reach of U.S. forces in Afghanistan called the move “unprecedented” and “a signification evolution of an already controversial targeted killing program.” But the story featured no critics of the policy, only unnamed “US officials” and a source from Brookings who’s a former CIA analyst who helped craft official policy in the area.

There are people with serious questions about the legality of the practice: the circumstances in which drones might be used, and against whom. These critics include human rights groups like Amnesty International, and the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, who ought to know a little something about it. They’re not in the Post piece though, where concerns are limited to whether Pakistan might at some point “lose patience” with the practice.

—Some campaign coverage gives you a sense that a media outlet is rooting for one side. Time magazine Mark Halperin—who has a long history of urging Democrats to the right, and once suggested that liberal media bias could be fixed by rooting out leftists in America’s newsrooms—wrote a September 27 piece headlined, “GOP Candidates Withstand Dems’ Efforts to Demonize.”

Now, if someone was actually demonizing their opponent, that’d be bad. But what Halperin is talking about here are a handful of Republican Senate candidates who are fresh from working for giant Wall Street firms and other corporate interests. One candidate favors Social Security privatization. Another is running on a cut-spending-now platform (which is ironic considering he was George W. Bush’s budget director). What Democrats are doing, it turns out, is pointing out this fairly relevant history. It doesn’t seem to be working for them, but it’s hard to see how talking about your opponent’s record on Wall Street is “demonizing” him. Halperin also mentions the “buckets of money” Democrats are spending in these races. He cites the Pennsylvania Senate race as one example. But there, Republican candidate Pat Toomey has raised twice as much as Democrat Joe Sestak. Halperin also cites Indiana, where the Republican candidate’s fundraising also outpaces his Democratic rival; and Ohio, where the Republican has raised twice as much money as his opposition. If Democrats are spending buckets full of money, the poor demonized Republicans would seem be spending barrels of it.

—The U.S. and NATO have a growing problem to deal with in Afghanistan. According to the Washington Post, in recent months the Taliban “has developed increasingly sophisticated and nimble propaganda tactics that have alarmed U.S. officials struggling to curb the militant group’s growing influence across Afghanistan.”

The Post reports that U.S. officials and analysts say the Taliban has become adept at portraying the West as being “on the brink of defeat” and “at exploiting rifts between Washington and Kabul and disparaging the administration of President Hamid Karzai as a ‘puppet’ state with little reach outside the capital.”

This is Taliban propaganda? Does anyone seriously argue that Hamid Karzai has much power outside of Kabul? U.S. news reports regularly suggest that his power outside of the capital is tenuous. And charges that Karzai’s administration is a puppet regime are certainly not restricted to militant Afghan Islamists.

The claim that NATO is on the verge of defeat may be overblown, but is it really more of an exaggeration than western official claims about how the war is going? Revelations from WikiLeaks and a June 22 Rolling Stone exposé suggest that things are going far worse than U.S. officials have publicly admitted.

But if you can get Americans to believe that such critical concerns are just evil Taliban propaganda, well, that would be a “nimble” tactic indeed.

—And finally, when CNN fired Rick Sanchez after he called Jon Stewart a “bigot” and suggested that a sort of insidious Jewish power in the media gave the Daily Show host license to make fun of him, we couldn’t help but wonder.

This is the same cable news network that hired Glenn Beck—who had famously fantasized about murdering filmmaker Michael Moore before his hiring and threatened Muslims with concentration camps on his radio show while working for CNN: “The Muslims will see the West through razor wire if things don’t change.”

And it’s the same cable channel that employed Lou Dobbs for years, as the CNN anchor spewed hatred for immigrants, for instance, suggesting that Mexican immigrants were an “army of invaders” and broadly portraying them as drug smugglers, or suggesting they posed a health threat as carriers of diseases such as leprosy and malaria.

It’s also the channel that hired conservative commentator Eric Erickson, who’s hateful rantings included labeling a gay Obama administration official “profoundly sick and immoral,” and calling Supreme Court Justice John Souter a “goat fucking child molester.”

And the same cable channel that hired Kathleen Parker to cohost a new CNN show airing in part of Sanchez’s old time slot, who once questioned whether Barack Obama had the proper “bloodline” to be president, and who similarly portrayed Supreme Court Justice nominee Elena Kagan as suspiciously otherly because of her upbringing on the Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

So we wondered: Did CNN have a standards and practices manual that applied double and perhaps even triple standards to hateful and bigoted language, with some varieties of bigotry permitted and others forbidden. Or was it just about Sanchez’s lousy ratings?


CounterSpin: You can’t say media haven’t given plenty of attention to the Tea Party movement, but that spotlight hasn’t generally been all that journalistically illuminating, with much time given to bandying about claims and counterclaims about adherents’ ideas and rather less given to investigating them, except anecdotally. A group that gets to mean whatever reporters say it means on a given day may be useful to reporters, but it’s no help to others trying to figure out what the movement actually stands for or is likely to do if its leaders are elected.

Our next guest says big media aren’t just failing to help us understand the Tea Party; it’s almost as though they’re trying not to, persistently portraying the group and its leadership in terms that just aren’t appropriate. Jodi Jacobson is editor in chief of RHReality Check, which provides information and analysis on reproductive health. She joins us by phone from Maryland.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Jodi Jacobson!

Jodi Jacobson: Thank you for having me.

CS: We’ve seen media essentially calling on themselves to take the Tea Party seriously; if a cable TV viewer comes away with nothing else it’s that this is a serious movement not to be dismissed. But you say reporters by and large aren’t taking the Tea Party seriously enough, essentially. What is it that’s leaping out at you, especially with regard to the 2010 elections, about media treatment of the Tea Party?

JJ: Well, I think that the media has been slow to recognize the degree to which the Tea Party represents perhaps the furthest right of the Republican Party. I think there are two kinds of people, probably, who make up the Tea Party—I’m speaking very generically; obviously there are lots of people in the Tea Party—one is people who are disaffected and don’t necessarily have a solution to their disaffection but see a way to vent their anger through Tea Party politics. And the second, and research has just come out showing this, the other half are very conservative, Christian right people who are responding to those candidates affiliated with the Tea Party who hold very conservative, Christian right social views, like the Christine O’Donnells and the Sharron Angles. And the media has been really poor in recognizing this. In fact just last night, as a matter of fact, Time‘s Swampland put out a piece once again saying that the Tea Party doesn’t really want to deal with social issues, and I’m really perplexed by that since every single one of their candidates has extraordinarily far right positions on social issues and has no compunction about articulating them verbally and elsewhere.

CS: Well, that seems to be kind of the rub here. I mean, first we saw a lot of dancing around racism. We heard media saying well, yeah, you can find racists at the gatherings, but the Group itself says they’re not about race; they’re just about fiscal issues, and we’re going to take them at their word on that. And now you’re seeing that same thing with social issues.

JJ: Yeah, but the thing is, who is the group? The Tea Party by its nature defines itself as extraordinarily decentralized. But if you can measure a group by the leadership, then the leaders of the Tea Party who they’ve nominated through primaries and other means to speak for them, are Sharron Angle, Joe Miller, Pat Toomey, Rand Paul—these are the people that are speaking for them. If they’re not articulating what the Tea Partiers believe then why did those folks vote for them? So it’s very nice to go to a small community gathering that considers itself a part of the Tea Party in some one or the other place where, you know, an individual group might think it’s not really engaged in social issues, but the leadership of the Tea Party is engaged in social issues. And those are people who are going to be making law and policies. It’s kind of the difference, for me, between some old guard Republicans who are environmentally very sympathetic to environmental conservation. Those old guard Republicans don’t really represent the party leadership anymore. So you can’t really say that the Republican Party is about conservation conservative values.

CS: Well, give us a little flavor, when you’re talking about those leaders, people like Sharron Angle, what—to the extent that they take on social issues—what are they saying about social issues?

JJ: Well, you’ve got on one hand the so-called libertarian streak of the Tea Party being, you know, stay out of business, small limited government, etc., but their positions on social issues and individual rights really belie those other positions. You have Sharron Angle, for example, and Christine O’Donnell, Sarah Palin, all of these folks saying that a woman should have no right to terminate a pregnancy even in a case of rape or incest. And you have these sort of wild claims, such as having Sharron Angle say if she had a 13-year-old in front of her who was raped by her father and pregnant by her father, she would counsel her that two wrongs don’t make a right and she should have that child. I mean, these are things that are, as the mother of 13-year old, make me feel really upset (a) and (b) they’re not really where people are on these issues if you really dig down deep. Likewise, you have the articulation of pretty hostile feelings toward gay and lesbian people. And those feelings come out not only in their policy language—you know, this is not God’s way; God doesn’t think it’s okay; we don’t feel that there should be any protections for gay people; even worse pronouncements that that—but then also things that Christine O’Donnell did. She had a loyal aid; that aid turned out to be gay, and when he finally came out, she completely shunned him. This is not the world that, I think, we want to be living in, and I think these people really are showing us by their actions what they stand for.

CS: And yet we have something like the October 7, New York Times which tells us:

Republicans have won points with many voters by promising a conservative overhaul of taxes and spending, but Democrats are working hard in the closing weeks of the campaign to convince voters that a conservative social agenda is waiting in the wings, too, should Republicans be elected in large numbers.

It’s almost as though it’s a sleazy trick of Democrats to direct attention away from where Republicans want it on these issues. The Republicans, like the Tea Party writ smaller, are saying oh no, we’re just about fiscal issues, and it’s as though reporters say we should take them at their word and it’s wrong to do anything else.

JJ: Exactly, exactly. Basically, they’re saying it’s wrong to uncover what they really do stand for. So I think it’s really very evident in the way they’re closing themselves off from the media, refusing to do media interviews with anyone who might challenge them on anything. That, to me, is the sign of someone that can’t articulate they’re position in a way that’s meaningful and can be understood, whether or not you agree or disagree with them. And when they have kind of come out from under those covers they have these wild statements that even they then have to walk back, like Sharron Angle and Rand Paul did. But you know, we’ve already seen at the state level—particularly again with women’s rights efforts to create personhood for fertilized eggs, ban contraception, make it harder to get a divorce, denialism of domestic violence—these are all things that come out of this movement of sort of a very fundamentalist, libertarian economic streak with a very fundamentalist religious personal streak. And I think it’s a dangerous combination.

CS: Well finally, there has been some good reporting, some dot-connecting, follow-the-money reporting that you cite in your piece, but it doesn’t seem to be affecting the overall narrative. I wonder, how would you like to see coverage change between now and the election? What would you like reporters to do more of or less of when they talk about the Tea Party?

JJ: Well, I’d like them to do some research, first and foremost, and not just deliver—I’d like them to look a little more broadly at who these candidates are. I’m a little bit perplexed, as I said, in the piece that I did, I pointed out a book by a New York Times reporter who was interviewed on NPR who insists that the Tea Party is not about social issues. And I’m thinking well, have you been looking around since the book went to the publisher? Because it’s pretty evident that they are. Then there’s been this poll by a former director at the Pew Research Center who now directs the Public Religious Research Institute that shows that there’s evidence out there that these folks are pretty far Christian right. I think the evidence is there of what’s happening. It seems to me that reporters aren’t doing very much investigative work any more on a lot of levels, and this is one level where they’re really not investigating. So you get either a kind of sudden splash of someone who gets a lot of attention and then fades from view or a consistent story angle about someone else that isn’t really supported by what they’re saying or doing, like the Sharron Angles and Rand Pauls. These folks have some fairly radical positions, positions that I don’t believe if understood by the majority of Americans would be supported. I think the media has a responsibility to investigate and think about and write about the ultimate implications of those positions.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Jodi Jacobson, editor in chief of RHReality Check. Find them on the web at RHRealityCheck.org.

Thanks very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

JJ: Thank you for having me.


CounterSpin: “More private contractors than soldiers were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent months, the first time in history that corporate casualties have outweighed military losses on America’s battlefields,” so begins T. Christian Miller’s September 23, report for ProPublica.

T. Christian Miller has been writing on the privatization of war for some time. In addition to reporting for the online ProPublica, Miller is the author of Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, and Corporate Greed in Iraq. He joins us now by telephone from Washington, D.C.

Welcome to CounterSpin T. Christian Miller!

T. Christian Miller: Thanks for having me.

CS: Why is it important that, as you report, contractor deaths have eclipsed military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan?

TM: Well Steve, for me what that shows is that we’ve reached a real milestone in the privatization of war. This is the first time that’s ever occurred, going all the way back to the 1700s, when you had more contractors die than soldiers die while fighting a war. I think it’s just an indication of how much the military has contracted out functions, all kinds of different jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan that they’ve never done previously.

CS: Is it fair to say that a lot of these contractors are carrying out jobs that would have previously been done by the military, and so many would have been military deaths?

TM: Right, absolutely. One of the effects of having contractors dying on the battlefield is that you conceal the full total number of casualties you would have had if these guys had been soldiers. So, in Vietnam or in the first Gulf War, a lot of these contractors who’ve died would have been soldiers who had died. And you would have seen those numbers posted on the nightly news and the Pentagon would have had to have said, today we lost X number of people. So I’ve always kind of considered it that if you want to figure out the total number of human lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, you’ve got to figure in both the soldiers who’ve died, but there’ve been a number of contractors who have died as well. And those two numbers together, I think, give you a truer picture of the total human cost over in those two battle zones.

CS: So it sounds like you see the media coverage of all this, as we do, as basically ignoring the contractor casualties.

TM: Contractors pop up all the time in the news, of course, the Blackwaters of the world and private mercenaries, and those are all very valid stories, I don’t mean to downplay them. But I do think that because you have that narrative of the contractors as greedy and bad, you overlook that they are people and they are dying, and they’re employed by U.S. tax payers ultimately, so do we not pay any attention to those deaths at all?

CS: Well, let’s flesh out who the contractors are. You just mentioned that we have this impression that contractors are greedy and bad; they’re not part of the military. Who are they? And is who they are maybe another reason why they don’t get a lot of coverage?

TM: Sure, you have kind of three distinct sets of people over in Iraq and Afghanistan. You have the Americans, and they do all kinds of jobs—a lot of those guys are the private security guys, but they also drive trucks, and sort the mail, and do intelligence gathering for instance. You have a second set who are people who essentially have been hired from poorer, third world countries, and these are guys who are from, like, Nepal and the Philippines, and they basically clean the toilets and do kitchen service and meal service and things like that, those kind of menial labor jobs. And they’re hired, of course, because they’re very cheap labor, and they work all over, in bases all over, and they’re often killed by incoming mortars and things like that. And the third set you have is the locals, the Afghans and Iraqis. They often work specifically as translators, and so they’re really moving around with the soldiers who are deployed, and they’re often killed as well. In fact, one of the statistics that I’ve cited before is that a single company has lost more people in Iraq than the entire British military. And that’s the company that was until recently the main provider of translators, a company called L-3. More L-3 translators have been killed than the British military forces has lost.

CS: We’ve noted on this show before that contractors under the command of the State Department are going to be taking over some military tasks when the status of forces agreement forces the military to leave Iraq. Are you at all concerned that wars may be done by contractors without the military at all in the future? And might that mean that they’ll get less scrutiny by the press in general, too?

TM: I think those are huge policy issues that nobody has really dealt with, and I’m talking the military hasn’t dealt with this; Congress has not considered this very closely; the press hasn’t considered this very closely. And that is, at this stage in the game, you have created, you have outsourced private security functions, you’ve outsourced logistics functions in a way that you’ve never done before. So whereas in a past war, you might be able to say, well what kind of lessons did we learn from this war? What kind of things should we do different? In Iraq and Afghanistan, that expertise within the government has been totally outsourced and is gone as soon as the contract ends. And so how are you going to incorporate all that into any kind of future wars? You created sort of another aspect of the military-industrial complex. In other words, you’ve now created a bunch of private security contractors who are used to getting paid a high wage, and now the war’s gone, so what are all these guys going to do now? Are they going to go back to the U.S. and work as police officers for $30,000 a year? Or is there going to be some kind of external pressure now to get hired in the next African conflict or the next breakout in hostilities in some other part of the world? Those are real policy issues that nobody’s paying any attention to.

CS: Isn’t there also a danger, as wars become increasingly privatized, that accountability and transparency are issues—in that usually public institutions are more transparent than private ones?

TM: Yes, absolutely. The accountability question remains an unanswered question. How do you hold accountable a Nepalese security guard working for a Kuwaiti security firm under contract with the Iraqi government that’s being funded through American donors? And that guy kills a civilian in the course of his work. How do you determine whether or not it was a legal action or not? If you determine it was illegal, do you jail him? How do you compensate the family? In practical terms, how do you do any of the things that you and I would be able to do if we had an incident in the United States where you had a private security guard shoot somebody—there’s all sorts of investigative layers that would take over there. None of those exist in these overseas battle zones. So you have tremendous questions about how do you hold someone accountable? How do you know what’s going on? And they’re not answered.

CS: We’ve been speaking with T. Christian Miller. The author of Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, and Corporate Greed in Iraq. You can read his latest piece,” This Year, Contractor Deaths Exceed Military Ones in Iraq and Afghanistan,” at ProPublica.org.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, T. Christian Miller!

TM: Thanks for having me.


—”Social Issues and the Tea Party: By Their Leaders Ye Shall Know Them,” by Jodi Jacobson (RHReality Check, 10/3/10)

—”This Year, Contractor Deaths Exceed Military Ones in Iraq and Afghanistan,” by T. Christian Miller (ProPublica, 9/23/10)