Sep 4 2009

Jordan Flaherty on Katrina anniversary, Sarah Anderson on executive pay


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This week on CounterSpin: Corporate media promised to pay more attention to poverty and race after the Gulf Coast’s Katrina disasters in 2005, and for a short time they did a little more reporting. But where was the followup on this year’s August anniversary, when papers like the Washington Post and L.A. Times, and networks like ABC and Fox offered essentially no coverage at all. We’ll talk to journalist Jordan Flaherty, reporting the story since 2005, about the stories from the continuing Katrina crisis that the corporate media don’t seem to care much about.

Also on the show–a new report on executive pay might make you see red: the top executives at the banks that got the biggest bailouts, and laid off more than a hundred thousand workers, took home bigger paychecks than executives in less-troubled industries. But corporate media seem to only want to discuss economic ‘incentives’ for behavior when they’re debating whether to allow recipients of government aid another nickel a month; somehow it’s not on the table when the subject is guys in suits taking home tens of millions. We’ll hear from Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies on what can be done about ‘America’s Bailout Barons.’

–The Republican National Committee got some attention recently for sending out a questionnaire that suggested that Republicans would be denied healthcare in what it called a “Democrat-imposed healthcare rationing system.” Another question in the same survey asked: “Does it concern you that the liberal media has gone to unprecedented levels to only give Obama’s views on healthcare and no one else’s?”

Really? No one else’s? When the Project for Excellence in Journalism looked at coverage of the healthcare debate in 2009, it found that protests against the reform proposals were the second most-frequent topic of coverage. PEJ director Tom Rosenstiel told PBS‘s NewsHour on August 31st:, “The protests have gotten more coverage, actually, than description of the healthcare plans…and twice as much coverage as the stories about the state of the healthcare system.”

Since the protests often feature alarmist misinformation about “death panels” and the like, you might imagine that people could get some mistaken ideas about the proposals. And an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released August 19, did find that 45 percent of respondents thought health reform would allow the government to decide when to stop giving medical care to the elderly. Another 50 percent thought it would allow tax dollars to pay for abortions, while 55 percent said it would provide coverage to undocumented immigrants. None of this is true.

The level of misinformation was particularly high among Fox News viewers, 75 percent of whom said the reform would let the government make end-of-life decisions. Fox, it should be noted, features about six guests opposing healthcare reform for every reform advocate, according to a mini-study released by Media Matters on August 12. You can’t say for sure, of course, that makes Fox viewers particularly confused–but it can’t help.

–Say the leader of a rather new national organization moves to Washington to up his profile. And say that organization’s sole purpose is to fight against equal rights. What’s the appropriate response from Washington’s major newspaper? Apparently the Washington Post thinks a glowing profile is the way to go. Reporter Monica Hesse’s August 28, piece, headlined “Opposing Gay Unions With Sanity and a Smile,” introduced readers to National Organization for Marriage Executive Director Brian Brown, a man described as “instantly likable” who “tries to help people see that opposing gay marriage does not make them bigots” and is proud of being “rational, mainstream and sane.” Hesse contrasts Brown with “fringe” activists like James Dobson and Pat Robertson and quotes some other anti-gay marriage leaders who praise Brown as an effective leader and say he and his group “have a sense of dignity about human beings” and are “not gay bashers.” In fact, there’s not a single critical voice in the piece.

In response to heavy criticism from gay activists and their supporters, Hesse told OutQ News that she felt “some readers could read and decide that they found his arguments persuasive. And some readers could read and find that ‘rationality’ to be cold and calculating and absurd and irrational.” Of course, it’s hard for readers to make informed judgments about a subject when critical facts and viewpoints are entirely left out; as Media Matters‘ Jamison Foser pointed out, Brown’s former employer, the Family Institute of Connecticut, is associated with Focus on the Family, the group headed by James Dobson–one of those “fringe” activists that Brown’s supposedly different from. Foser also noted that Brown is opposed to civil unions as well as gay marriage, and that he promotes the idea that a great many gay people “entered into that world” through rape or abuse and “yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.” I guess that’s some people’s definition of sanity.

–In his August 27th Time column Joe Klein writes:

“So what should Obama do about Afghanistan? His dilemma isn’t as stark as has been posed in recent press accounts, with screamers on the right demanding slavish devotion to the military’s wish list and screamers on the left demanding a withdrawal. The U.S. military has become far more nuanced when it comes to making requests of presidents. The negotiations about what General Stanley McChrystal can officially request will not take place anywhere near the public eye. It is very likely that more troops will be sent–to build and train Afghan security forces, it will be said. Obama’s problems on the left will be mitigated by the fact that most Democrats have also supported this war–as opposed to Iraq’s–and have little desire to reverse themselves. They don’t want to hurt the President, and they don’t want to be perceived as weak on defense come election time.”

If opposing the Afghanistan War makes one a “screamer on the left” this should come as good news to progressives, as a majority of the country — 57 percent in a very recent CNN-Opinion Research poll — oppose the Afghanistan War.

And what does it mean that Democratic office holders favor the war? According to several polls, in the neighborhood of 70 percent of their constituents now oppose it.

Apparently it matters because the real issue here is not what the public wants, but whether Democratic officials are seen to be “hurting the president” or are “perceived as weak on defense.” Pundits like to tout American democracy, but it’s funny how in the elite bubble that Klein and so many others inhabit, public opinion can be ignored, or even treated as an obstacle, whenever it interferes with their worldview.

–The Washington Post has an occasional op-ed feature called Topic A, where they publish short pieces from various people on a single theme. The choice of who gets to speak is of course key to such a feature, and the selection of participants can sometimes be revealing. On August 30 the subject was ‘How Can President Obama Regain His Political Footing?’ The contributors list leaned well to the right, featuring six Republicans and conservatives, like Newt Gingrich and Ed Gillespie. Those six were paired with three rather moderate Democrats, one of whom was Harold Ford of the centrist DLC. At a time when progressives seem increasingly disappointed and disenchanted with the Obama administration, it is striking that the Post didn’t see fit to include that view in their discussion.

The next day the Post had another Topic A discussion, this time on Afghanistan. And again, the spectrum was the story. Historian Andrew Bacevich argued against escalating the Afghanistan war, a position more or less in sync with the majority of the American public. That position, though, was ‘balanced’ by four contributors arguing in support of the war. The Post did raise some eyebrows with a recent column headlined “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan” by conservative George Will. Will called the idea of a long occupation with increased troop levels “inconceivable,” but it’s worth pointing out what he’s actually for:”forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy–America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air-strikes and small, potent Special Forces units.”

Aerial bombing, drones and cruise missiles. That’s the Washington Post‘s peacenik.

–Finally, just over a year ago the Wall Street Journal broke a story on a conflict of interest surrounding Mark Penn, then the campaign strategist for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. It seems Penn was having tete a tetes with the ambassador to Colombia about a trade pact that his client, Clinton publicly opposed. Well things are different now, nowadays Mark Penn works for the Wall Street Journal! Yes, the pollster/strategist was given a column in the Journal late last year, from which he purports to spot something called ‘microtrends’. And yes, Penn is still the CEO of the PR firm Burson Marsteller. Is that a conflict? Why, yes it is. Gawker‘s Hamilton Nolan has reported on a recent example: a column Penn wrote about a phenomenon called “glamping”–or glamorous camping. (Don’t ask.) The column ran over a weekend, and “by Monday,according to an internal email obtained by Gawker, Burson was already trying to recruit companies from the industry featured in the column as clients.”

This conflicts with the Journal‘s code of ethics, right? Wrong, as it happens. Confronted with the information, a Journal spokesperson told Gawker, presumably with a straight face, “Mark has assured us that through our conversations that he’s complied with his conflict of interest policy. He does not have any glamping clients nor did they target them before the column appeared.” Gawker asked, as one might, whether this meant that it’s perfectly fine for a columnist to recruit clients from a column he just wrote after it’s published. The reply: “Obviously when you have a contributor, they use a column to market themselves. Clearly what was done is not something that we liked. But we’re pretty sure that it’s going to stop.” So this was a thing that was obviously going to happen, but clearly they didn’t like it, but they’re pretty sure it’s

going to stop? That’s the sort of ‘reassurance’ the paper might better’ve kept to itself.


CounterSpin: August 29 marked the fourth anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The devastation wrought by both the hurricane itself, and the government’s inept response to it, prompted remarkably critical corporate media coverage that promised to fight for Katrina survivors and change the way we talk about poverty and race. What followed immediately was a little more attention to Katrina and these related issues. But four years later the follow up has mostly fallen flat. For instance, neither the Washington Post nor the L.A. Times ran a single piece on the anniversary. And neither ABC or Fox News have mentioned the hurricane or its aftermath at all. Some outlets, including the New York Times, NBC News and especially CNN, offered more coverage, but too often even that coverage failed to sufficiently look at the urgent stories of gulf coast devastation that continue four years later.

Joining us to talk about Katrina is Jordan Flaherty. He is one of the journalists who never left, continuing to chronicle the stories of New Orleaneans and gulf coast residents in such publications as Left Turn and CounterPunch. You can read Jordan’s latest on Katrina, “Still Homeless, Still Struggling in New Orleans”, at the CounterPunch website at

Jordan Flaherty, welcome back to CounterSpin!

Jordan Flaherty: Thank you. It’s an honor to be on.

CS: Well, not to put too fine point on this anniversary stuff–stories like this should be covered on an ongoing basis–but I wonder if you could offer us some of your observations on the mainstream coverage of the anniversary.

JF: Well, Steve, exactly as you said, there was this promise from the corporate media that they would use this as an opportunity four years ago to really have this dialogue on race in this country, the legacy of racism, white supremacy, slavery, how it is a current reality, and I think in most measures the discussion still has not happened. I think, specifically in New Orleans,everyone loves a happy ending, and I think the corporate media really wants to be able to say the story is over, the city is rebuilt, there are now successes. We have a quick sort of stumble at the beginning and now we have moved on and things are okay.

The reality is that’s not true. We still have, depending on your measurement, around 40 percent of the city still not back, at least 100-something thousand, perhaps as many as 200,000 thousand people, out of a former population of 500,000, that still have not returned. And you know that’s a huge, tragic loss, and if you look at the studies that have been done, that’s overwhelmingly African-American folks. It’s overwhelmingly poor-folks, and in the studies, when people have been talked to, they overwhelmingly want to come back but have not been able to come back because of the housing situation, education, healthcare, all these systems that still have not recovered.

CS: Well, you know, that’s exactly what we found when we looked at NBC News, they did file four stories on the anniversary, but they were mostly upbeat. They basically put a positive spin on progress in New Orleans. But let’s get in a little more to some of these stories that you’ve touched on–people continue to be displaced, rising rents. Tell us a little more about that.

JF: You know I think that what we’ve seen New Orleans turn into is a bit of a survival of the fittest kind of situation. In the immediate days after Katrina, a lot of these neo-liberals like Milton Friedman and politicians like Richard Baker were celebrating this blank slate that they had to remake the city. A lot of the powerful voices in the city like businessman Jimmy Rice were quoted saying that we were turning a page for the city and that they were going to rebuilt it as something new. And so when you see these celebrations in the media of, for example, the education system…

The education system before Katrina had many problems and also had some really great schools. Now it also has many problems and really great schools. And what you have now is if you as a student have a parent who can advocate for you, who can find the best school in this now mostly charter public system, you can get a really great education in New Orleans. But for those that don’t have someone to advocate for them, it’s a lot harder.

The same in housing. There’s some great housing in the city, but the prices have gone up almost twice as much. More than 5,000 units of public housing, virtually all of the public housing in the city, has been demolished. Section 8 is still mostly unavailable for most folks. So it’s possible to have a great life in the city, but I think that for those that are in most need of help, that help is the least available.

The same with healthcare. There’s new community clinics that do great work, but if you don’t know about this clinic, if you don’t have one near you, the main system that used to serve people, the charity hospital system still remains closed. So for some people, it’s gotten a lot better, but a lot of people have been left out, and those are the voices that have been excluded from the corporate media coverage as well.

CS: Well your piece concentrates to some degree on the homeless population there. Tell us a little bit about that and why.

JF: Well, we have, as I mentioned, in addition to the 5,000 units of public housing torn down, we still have more than 65,000 empty, abandoned, flood damaged residential addresses in this city. That’s about a third of the housing in the city. It’s more than anywhere else in the country. Detroit is a close number two, but Detroit, of course, that happened over decades. Here in New Orleans it happened overnight.

So massive amounts of empty housing,unusable housing, rents skyrocketing as also mentioned. And a lot of people that used to be renters, that had jobs, that were doing okay in the city, now are homeless. There’s an estimated about 11,000 folks homeless, and that’s by a conservative estimate. And, you know, that’s nearly 5 percent of the current population of the city. So if you were talking about, for example, 5 percent of New York City being homeless, I think that would be, what, about 500,000 homeless folks. So,you know, it’s a large percent of our population that’s homeless, and a lot of them are living in these empty, abandoned houses, you know, struggling to make a life there.

Of course it’s incredibly unhealthy. Local organizations here Unity for the Homeless has gotten some funding from the federal government for housing vouchers for people, and they’ve, you know, put people on a list. At the top of the list is people most in danger of dying if they don’t get housing. Sixteen people have already died from the top of that list and still the housing vouchers have not come through. So it’s a massive housing crisis and people just really need the minimum level of a safety net, and that just has not come through for people of New Orleans.

CS: Well, we’re running out of time, but I just have to ask you, in addition to highlighting many of these ongoing stories about the displaces, high rents, homelessness, and so on, the Institute for Southern Studies has also noted the racial disparities in the ongoing impact of the disaster. Yet, we’ve noticed very little attention to race or racism in the scant coverage that we’ve seen. What have you seen as far as journalistic attention to racism in this crisis?

JF: I think that you’re right, and I do think it’s important to talk about race as distinct from class in this situation. For example, if you look at this success story of the school system–the so-called success story that’s talked about in a lot of the media–what isn’t mentioned is that the entire staff of the school system was fired in the days after the storm. And that was almost certainly majority African-American. Their union was one of the largest sources of middle-class, black political power in the city. And that’s an example of where this displacement has really disproportionately affected the black middle class.

So, you know, it’s not just poor folks who’ve been affected. And I do think that the media’s not covered the way race has affected this, and you mention that report card–you know, a lot of social justice folks are working on these issues, and I think that that’s an aspect I also want to mention, is that there is inspiring organizing–organizations like STAND for Dignity that work with homeless and other working poor folks in the city, organizations like VOTE NOLA, which works with families with former incarcerated folks, trying to build political power for them in the city, to INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, who are working, especially around healthcare in the city.

So there’s a lot of important organizing happening here, but the resources, whether from the government or even from progressive foundations, simply hasn’t come through, nor has the media coverage.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Jordan Flaherty. You can read his latest, “Still Homeless, Still Struggling in New Orleans,” at Jordan Flaherty, thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin!

JF: Thank you, Steve.


CounterSpin: If you’ve been following the slow train wreck of the financial crisis for months, your head may be swimming in numbers, but these will still cut through: the 20 banks that got the biggest federal bailouts–and laid off over 160,000 workers? In the last two years their top executives made more money than executives in other industries, about $32 million each in personal compensation, and the value of their stock options soared some $90 million. But for corporate media, the question of executive pay is often treated as a side issue, certainly not near the core of the causes for the crisis; and while addressing stratospheric–and seemingly based-on-nothing –pay packages might make us feel good, we’re told, it wouldn’t really change anything. That’s just hard to believe and there are plenty of reasons not to in a new report on executive pay from the Institute for Policy Studies. It’s called America’s Bailout Barons, and it’s the latest in IPS’s annual series, Executive Excess.

Sarah Anderson is director of the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and lead author of the latest report. She joins us now by phone from Washington DC.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Sarah Anderson!

Sarah Anderson: Thank you. Great to be here.

CS: Well, it’s not news that top executives at banks or anywhere else make a lot of money. But the who and the when and the how much add up, really, to an outrage here. Tell us the key findings of this new report.

SA: Yes, well, as you said, we took a very close look at the financial firms that have received the most bailout money, and I think what was most shocking to me was seeing how these executives could actually use the crisis as a springboard to even more windfalls. And that’s because many of these firms handed out new stock options grants early this year at a time when their stock prices were really at bargain basement levels. And, so now that taxpayer money has helped these firms recover somewhat in the past few months, the executives stand to reap really massive benefits.

We looked at these new stock option grants at ten of the big bailout companies, and the executives at those ten firms have had an increase in the value of their options portfolios of about $90 million. I can give one example that might make it a bit more clear: one of the big winners was the CEO of American Express who got stock options in January when the stock was way down in the toilet, and since then, his options have increased in value by about $18 million, even though the company’s stock is still about half what it was before the crash. They haven’t fully recovered, so shareholders who bought American Express stock a year and half ago are still hurting, but the CEO is being very well-rewarded.

CS: And, I mean, you’ve said it, but the reason that these companies are recovering and doing better and these options are increasing in value, have to do with government bailouts, right?

SA: Exactly, and that is getting a big missed in a lot of the media coverage. There’s a lot of celebrating going on by people who see the stock market coming back a bit and seeing these banks appear to be getting a bit back on their feet and kudos going out to the executives. And of course many of these firms wouldn’t even exist today if it weren’t for taxpayer help.

CS: Well, it’s not unreasonable, is it, to talk about economic incentive in this context? I mean, what, after all, will bring about better decision making if they’re compensated at the same levels or higher no matter what’s going on?

SA: Well, the pay system was just out of control. We weren’t talking about just a fair reward for doing a good job. We were talking about really obscene levels of pay that actually encouraged the reckless behavior that got us into this mess, and President Obama has been very powerful and very passionate in speaking about that and blaming the compensation system as a key factor in the cause of this crisis. The problem is we just haven’t seen a lot of action to reign it in, and that is troublesome as of course we should be finding every way possible to prevent a future crisis.

CS: I just want to ask you quickly about something else you looked at, which was the relationship of Wall Street pay to regulators’ pay? Why is that significant in terms of not just invidious comparison but in terms of regulation?

SA: That’s another issue I’m glad you brought it up because it’s just not getting into the debate–this extreme gap between what people make on Wall Street and what people make in the Federal regulatory agencies that are supposed to be the watchdogs on Wall Street. And the reason why this should be looked at carefully is because these huge paychecks in the private sector lure away talent from public service and can also breed conflict of interest, you know, you’re sitting there in a regulator job in Washington. Are you going to be as tough on these companies as you really should be if you’re angling for a job at that company where you can be making 10s if not 100s of times more than what you’re making as a regulator. I think, again, if we’re serious about preventing a future financial crisis, we need to have very strong regulatory capacity and right now that gap is undermining our regulators.

CS: Well inasmuch as media talk about this issue, as we’ve said, it’s presented as a little bit ancillary. What makes you think changes would have a real impact and what sorts of changes are you talking about?

SA: Let me say there is a big debate still going on in Washington over what to do about executive pay. Most of it is focused on what I call governance reforms. So, how can we give shareholders more of a say over executive pay or how can we make board compensation committees more independent?

I think all those things are important, but I don’t think they are going to do enough to solve the problem. I think that there needs to be much more direct government action. We could use tax policy to encourage more reasonable pay levels. We could limit the tax deductability of executive pay. We could use the power of the public purse. We could use government contracts, and give preferences to companies that have more reasonable pay levels.

There’s all kinds of creative things that the government could be doing. A lot of people accuse me of being for a fixed ceiling for pay–and you know that gets people really rankled–that’s not American, you know. There are a lot of other ways that you can get at this issue that would be a responsible and practical approach to reigning in executive pay.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies. You can find their new report America’s Bailout Barons at their website, which is Thank you very much, Sarah Anderson, for joining

us this week on CounterSpin!

SA: My pleasure.