Sep
25
2009

Joseph Romm on Climate Summit, Elinore Longobardi on 'Subprime' vs. 'Predatory'

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This week on CounterSpin: the highest-level conference yet on climate change took place this week at the UN. The press made much of the obstacles faced on the way to any international agreement -- but if the front page of the country's paper of record is saying that temperatures haven't risen in 10 years, maybe one of those obstacles is media coverage? We'll talk to Joseph Romm of Climate Progress.org

Also on the show: Words mean things and the way reporters use them can shade the way we see the world. A new study published in the Columbia Journalism review looks at the way "predatory," as in the term "predatory loans," a term that puts the onus on lenders, has been eclipsed in business reporting by the term "subprime," which puts the spotlight on the borrower. We'll talk to Elinore Longobardi the author of the new study "How 'Subprime' Killed 'Predatory.'"

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

--You can’t rely on corporate media for real debate. On September 22nd the Washington Post’s dreadful “Topic A” column featured five conservative Republicans and two conservative Democrats offering media advice to Barack Obama. Republican panelists included Karl Rove, former John McCain advisor Dan Schnur, former Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush aide Ed Rogers, George W. Bush press secretary Dana Perino, and former Reagan aide Linda Chavez. Added for “balance” were Fox News liberals Lanny Davis and Douglas Schoen.

USA Today’s regular ‘debate” between conservative right-wing Republican Cal Thomas and Fox News Democrat Bob Beckel featured no argument at all on September 17. The headline said it all: Time to Dig In, Not Bail Out. Thomas and Beckel agreed that now is not the time to end the war with the exchange ending with Beckel saying:

“As much as my liberal instincts want us out of this war, I have to agree with you that it's time to stay and fight. The more dangerous path would be to retreat.”

Thomas responded:

Among the many things I admire about you, Bob, is that you are often able to overcome your instincts when facts get in the way. Your party was once a keeper of freedom's flame when it came to engaging and defeating Communism. Now we have a new enemy. Nothing would benefit America more than to see Democrats and Republicans unite to defeat this enemy.

The thing that the conservative Thomas admires in Beckel—his inability to advocate left positions—is the same thing corporate media look for in liberal pundits. It’s this amazing coincidence that earns democrats like Beckel, Davis and Schnur prominent positions in our national media.

--Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana unveiled his long-awaited health reform proposal recently, the results of weeks of negotiations among the Senate Finance Committee's so-called "Gang of Six"--three conservative Democrats and three moderate-to-conservative Republicans. The bill does not include a public option and could end up leaving middle-income Americans paying a great deal for health insurance, according to an analysis by Think Progress. At the same time, no Republican--including those in Baucus' "Gang"--has indicated that they intend to vote for this bill.

But in some media's skewed view of things, pleasing almost no one is a good thing for legislation. USA Today's front page headline on September 17 was "Bill Seen as Step in the 'Right Direction.'" But the story itself didn't include any actual 'fans'; the source who sees it as a step in the "right direction" is Sen. Olympia Snowe, who the paper says isn't sure she'll support the bill anyway.

The same day, Washington Post reporter Ceci Connolly gave a similar take, with a piece that led: "On the surface, it appears that no one is happy with Sen. Max Baucus--and that may be the best news President Obama has had in months."

What exactly is the good news? Well, beyond the objections to the bill, dismissed here as "rhetorical fireworks," Connolly explained that "the fragile coalition of major industry leaders and interest groups central to refashioning the nation's $2.5 trillion health-care system remains intact." In fact, these "influential players" found reasons to be happy: "Most enticing was the prospect of 30 million new customers." So that is good news -- if you believe that pleasing health insurance companies is the key to passing meaningful reform of that industry.

--Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya snuck back into his country this week, putting the Honduras story back in the news. Unfortunately, corporate media are still misreporting the story behind his ouster, relying on those who supported the coup to explain their actions.

Take the Associated Press dispatch that ran in the September 22 edition of USA Today:

"The legislature ousted Zelaya after he formed an alliance with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and tried to alter the nation's constitution. Zelaya was arrested on orders of the Supreme Court on charges of treason for ignoring court orders against holding a referendum to extend his term. The Honduran Constitution forbids a president from trying to obtain another term in office."

Where to begin? Besides being confusing -- is an "alliance" with Hugo Chávez illegal? -- this formulation repeats the baseless claim that Zelaya was seeking to illegally extend his rule, when, in reality, he sought a non-binding poll in June about whether to revise the constitution. A 'yes' vote would have led to a vote on the November ballot about convening a Constitutional Assembly to revise the Constitution, and at the same time voters would choose Zelaya's successor. So the process could not have resulted in Zelaya extending his term. The claim is simply false, and was still false the next day, when USA Today ran another AP report that said, "Zelaya was put on a plane by the military in June for trying to force a referendum to change the constitution's limit of one term for presidents." But here's the thing: Before the coup, the Associated Press seemed to know these claims were untrue. On June 26, they reported that the referendum Zelaya sought "has no legal effect: it merely asks people if they want to have a later vote on whether to convene an assembly to rewrite the constitution." If they got the story right once, readers have a right to wonder why they decided to start getting it wrong.

--New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman opened his September 19 piece with some provocative questions. "Do we owe the French and other Europeans a second look when it comes to their willingness to exercise power in today’s world? Was it really fair for some to call the French and other Europeans 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys'? Is it time to restore the French in 'French fries' at the Congressional dining room, and stop calling them 'Freedom Fries'? "

Which likely provoked questions among lots of readers. Like: Is Thomas Friedman just now getting around to forgiving the French for warning the U.S. against invading Iraq? Can he really not be bothered to use Google for 30 seconds and find out that Capitol Hill has been calling its French fries "French fries" for three years now?

The answer is: No, Thomas Friedman can't be bothered to write any more carefully or thoughtfully about U.S./French relations, because that's not what he's really writing about. What he is writing about is why nuclear power is so great, and France--which gets 80 percent of its electricity from nukes--is typically brought up by nuclear energy boosters as an example the U.S. should follow. France, according to Friedman, has, "managed to deal with all the radioactive waste issues without any problems or panics."

Actually, as Harvey Wasserman points out in the September 22 CounterPunch, France has thousands of spent fuel rods piling up at its nuclear reactors, because they haven't figured out what to do with longterm waste--part of their short-term solution involves releasing radiation into the English Channel. But, you know, if you can't look up what they call "French fries" at the U.S. Capitol, how can you be expected to know the details of a nuclear energy program on a whole other continent?

--Finally -- Listeners may have heard the news: Barack Obama's energy proposals will cost each American family $1,761. That talking point has ricocheted around the mediasphere and although it's far from true, it does serve to illustrate how this process can work. As FAIR noted on our blog on September 16th, elite media touchstone the Drudge Report ran the figure in a scary red headline that day, with a link to post on CBSNews.com. That post referred to a 'previously unreleased analysis' by the Treasury Department that listed that figure as "the upper end of the administration's estimate." More importantly, that analysis was based on a plan that bears no relationship to reality, as it called for auctioning all of the carbon-burning permits, while the bill that passed the House auctions just 15 percent of them. Which is different. So different that CBS felt obliged to add an "update" indicating as much, though they presented the reality as the 'viewpoint' of an environmental group.

Likewise the popular-among-journalists site Politico, which had run a similar story, but then ran an actual correction, in which the writer acknowledged that the vaunted documents refer to a version of the legislation profoundly different than the one that passed, and even cited a critic's question: "Why not use the [Congressional Budget Office] analysis of the house bill? Republicans seem more than happy to use CBO when it helps their case... But CBO said that ACES [that's the current energy bill] would only cost a postage stamp a day per household...in 2020."

And that, in case you wondered, is how we arrive at the sight of Fox News' Glenn Beck on September 18th, fanning himself with an oversized $1,761 postage stamp and claiming that "buried" documents have revealed “outright lies” by a “spooky” White House. Because as regular media watchers know, being untrue is just not enough to stop a story if some in the media really want to tell it.

Thank you very much Steve. You're listening to CounterSpin, brought to you each week by the media watchgroup F.A.I.R. I'll be giving more information about F.A.I.R. later on the program.

JOSEPH ROMM, CLIMATE SUMMIT

CS: The recent U.N. summit on climate change described as the highest level conference yet on the issue garnered headlines. But although U.S. president Barack Obama made strong statements about the need for action, saying our prosperity, our health, and our safety are in jeopardy, the major media take was generally somewhat downbeat, with major newspapers like USA Today underscoring the illusiveness of any international deal, and the myriad political and economic issues that hinder talks to stop warming. “The deadline is nearing and hope is fading,” the paper wrote, referring to the December conference in Copenhagen, in which they say a treaty was to be finalized.

What role are media playing in informing the public about policy decisions on warming? Especially given that alongside such sober concerns, we also get a hearty mixture of climate change denialism, from the Washington Post's George Will to the various T.V. talking heads.

Here to help us access some of the sorts of coverage we're seeing is Doctor Joseph Romm. He's the editor of Climate Progress a project of the Center for American Progress where he's a senior fellow, and author of Hell and High Water: Global Warming, the Solution and the Politics and What We Should Do.

He joins us by phone from Washington D.C. Welcome to CounterSpin Joseph Romm.

JR: Hello

CS: Well what is your take away from the U.N. Summit this week? Do you think that the deadline nearing, hope-fading theme seems appropriate?

JR: Well, I think people need to understand that the United States has not only done nothing for eight years, but under President Bush, we actively blocked international action. So, we haven't been able to start negotiating internationally until January 20th of this year, so, I think anyone who thought there would be a sign in deal out of Copenhagen was not really paying attention. I think the media wants to tell the story that everything is going badly because that's sort of their frame right now.

But I think fundamentally things are actually going okay, the House passed a climate bill, the Senate is poised to consider it. I think Obama's speech makes clear that this remains a very high priority issue for him and that's the most important thing to pass the bill.

We've seen India start to talk about making carbon reductions, we've seen China clearly saying that it is going to off of the business as usual admissions pass. Japan has announced a stronger target.

There's no question that the United States is a laggard. But, I don't think that anything that's happened in the last two days is a particular surprise.

CS: Well we always make the point here that public opinion shapes public policy and that media, in turn, helped shape public opinion. On this issue it matters very much that corporate media have for years now sustained a debate about warming when there really no longer is a scientific debate, and that's generated a fair amount of confusion and, perhaps, inertia.

Ah, speaking of confusion then, I wanted to talk about the New York Times' September 23rd piece by Andrew Revkin, which begins:

World leaders who met at the United Nations to discuss climate change on Tuesday are faced with an intricate challenge. Building momentum for an international climate treaty where global changes have been relatively stable for a decade, and may even drop in the next few years.

Well, I know you had a reaction to it, tell us your thoughts on that.

JR: I wrote at length on the blog that that statement just has no scientific validity.

This decade, the decade...of the 2000s will be the hottest decade on record. In fact, it will probably be about three-tenths of a degree Fahrenheit warmer then the decade of the 1990s, which was the warmest decade on record. So, this myth that the planet has not been warming, I just think that Revkin knows better. And his notion that the next two years might actually cool down is in fact the exact reverse of a number of major peer reviewed articles that appear in the next couple years.

I expect that the next decade will be the hottest decade in record, again, easily beating this decade. We've already seen by the way, that the National Oceanamic and Atmospheric Administration has said that this summer (June/July/August) the oceans were the warmest they've ever been in the hundred and fifty year temperature record. Whether your looking at the unexpectedly fast melting of the Arctic ice, the unexpectedly fast melting of the Greenland and Arctic ice sheets, or the unexpectedly fast melting of the inland glaciers, the planet is warming up, and its just going to get much hotter if we don't take action soon.

CS: Revkin might say that he's reporting on people's opinions, and people's misunderstandings, and those are valid subjects, but, doesn't a reporter have a responsibility in a piece like this to be clear about what some people's opinions and what the reality is?

JR: Absolutely. He's the top climate science reporter at the so-called paper-of-record. And I just think that that article was misleading, he had a line there about the recent state of relatively cool years, when in fact, every year this decade was in the top fourteen warmest years in the temperature record. So, we've been having a state of relatively hot years and its just going to get hotter.

CS: Well let's talk about another piece of this because if we're talking about commercial media or corporate media, its not a conspiracy theory, its just the case that they have, big industries in many cases polluting industries as major sponsors, and that they are deluged ,these outlets, every second of the day by corporate P.R. from these industries.

This may have some relevance to when you described climate progress as “the worst major media story on energy this year.” Can you tell us a little about the piece you're talking about there?

JR: Well, this was the Newsweek piece, which I think the headline was: “Big Oil Goes Green for Real.” And, big oil has not gone green for real. In this country, big oil is spending a lot of money through the American petroleum institute and through companies like Exxon Mobil, to push disinformation on global warming and to block action on climate and green energy. They have been funding, not only disinformation campaigns, but these phony grassroots campaigns trying to convince members of Congress that there's some sort of uprising against creating clean energy jobs and reducing pollution. And all the polling shows the exact opposite is true.

These companies are largely green-washing. They spend a tiny fraction of their funds on, so-called “green projects,” while they continue to produce the principle contributor to warming up the planet and ruining clean air and clean water.

One thing is very safe to say. Big oil has not gone green yet.

CS: You do site good coverage when you find it. You pointed to an Eric Pooley commentary about Exxon Mobil, that was actually on bloomberg.com. Do you think that the coverage of climate change is getting better?

JR: I don't think its getting better—there's more of it.

CS: Hmm

JR: There is certainly some good coverage out there. I think one of the problems is that now that global warming has become a major political issue a lot of the major political reporters have started to right about it, and they don't know anything about the subject. So you get people like David Broder, the dean of the Washington moderate pundits, and those types of people writing about a subject that they don't know much about. They don't understand its importance, and so they haven't bothered to educate themselves.

People can come to blogs like climateprogress.org, and others, if they want what I consider to be the unvarnished analysis. One other point—the mainstream media has downsized its science reporting staff, downsized its environmental reporting staff, is pushing more drama and personality based reporting, and fluff. So I'm afraid that if people really want to know what's going on, they're really going to have to pick and choose.

CS: We've been speaking with Doctor Joseph Romm. He's the author of Hell and High Water, you can find climate progress on the web at climateprogress.org.

Thank you Joseph Romm, very much, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

JR: My pleasure.

ELINOR LONGOBARDI, 'SUPRIME' VS 'PREDATORY'

CS: Decades ago, journalist and media critic A.J. Liebling wrote about how terms can skew a story in the minds of newspaper readers, in one instance, noting the frequency with which journalists described disputes between management and labor by employing two loaded verbs, offers and demands. As in the construction, “management officers, labor demands.”Now, as then, words matter, and the terms journalists choose to tell their stories make a difference in the way we can see those stories.

That's why a new study published in the Columbia Journalism Review caught our eye. The study looks at terms journalists use to tell the story of financial collapse, how those terms have changed over time, and what those changes mean.

Joining us now is the study's author, Elinore Longobardi, staff writer for The Audit, the Columbia Journalism Review's online business desk. Longobardi' study, “How Subprime killed Predatory” can be read in the September/October issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. Welcome to CounterSpin Elinor Longobardi.

EL: Thank you very much for having me.

CS: Well tell us about the study. What did you look at, and what did you find.

EL: We at The Audit have been very analyzing the press' coverage of the recent financial crisis. And, while I was reading reams of coverage, I noticed that the term 'predatory lending' was at one point seen to be fairly common in coverage, and then, kind of, fell out of use.

We did a much more systematic analysis of the coverage using news databases and found out that indeed, 'predatory lending' as a term did have a kind of hay day, between 2000 and 2003, which I think its no coincidence corresponded with a lot of regulatory activity, primarily on the part of the state, who were very concerned about predatory lending.

But in 2003-2004, the federal government, spearheaded by the office of control of currency really cracked down on the states for trying to regulate on behalf of consumers. And so at around that point, uses of the term predatory lending declined significantly, and uses of the term, sub-prime started to increase and bloomed to on order of 75,000 or so by the year 2007. And what is additionally significant about this is the years 2004 or so to 2006 were really kind of the worst for predatory lending, and the subprime market as a whole ballooned and then the lending practices, the tactics used, reached their low point. And so, it was particularly tragic that the press lost sight of the larger picture just at that moment.

CS: And so, could it be said that the term sub-prime supplanted or eclipsed the term predatory lending?

EL: It did, it definitely did. Its not that predatory lending quite disappeared, but it became the subtext to the story when it should have been the primary story.

CS: Now what's important? What's significant about that language, about those two terms and the switching from one to the other, if you will?

EL: Well subprime is a very market-oriented term and it is a classification of the borrower. It doesn't say anything about lenders. And I think lenders are really what we needed to focus on here. The importance of the term predatory lending is that it injects a moral aspect into the argument, which I think is crucial. And I think often, the business press is uncomfortable with that but the fact is there's some stories that you just can't cover if you don't have that angle.

CS: Well you quote a couple of definitions of predatory lending, one in The Wallstreet Journal, that states: “under predatory lending, a bank knowingly lends money to people who it knows don't qualify for loans in order to foreclose on them later and sell the property at a profit.”

That puts in bold relief why choosing to use the term subprime and not predatory makes a real difference.

EL: Oh definitely. And I also think its also kind of instructive that it appeared in The Wallstreet Journal, because that again, appeared during the high years of coverage when I think the national business press was really more aware of the problem, and that kind of trailed off in later years. If the national business press had continued that kind of coverage, I think we would have had a different idea of the financial crisis that's causes and its implications.

CS: I think you've touched on this already, but how do changes like this come about? Why the switch, or the eclipsing of the term predatory by the term subprime?

EL: I think the full explanation for that is probably beyond my can at the moment. Its a very broad topic, and I think that study of language is not really scientific in a lot of ways. But, I think what I can say about it is, subprime got a lot of support from people in powerful positions, so on Wall Street.

CS: As you say, its industry friendly.

EL: Its an industry friendly term, the industry definitely backed it. It didn't for obvious reasons back the term predatory lending. So in some ways, I think subprime is a safer term to use, and I think, when the crisis hit, everyone was scrambling to cover the story, and didn't have the time or take the time to understand predatory lending because subprime was kind of an alternate term. Which, while in our mind, not ideal, was accepted enough to be used by the major institutions and the press.

CS: Do you think it had anything to do with the fact that journalists are quoting other sources, and that therefor, when those sources change their terminology, the press language changed. In other words, the less independent thinking, if you will, by reporters. People their talking to are using a different term now and they're just writing it down.

EL: I think its true. I think they definitely follow those kinds of trends and the fact is, it takes a lot of resources and time to go beyond that. And in some cases there is just such a scramble to report on the facts that happen that that kind of fell by the wayside.

CS: F.A.I.R.'s magazine Extra! recently published a study or the term 'class war,' and how it was used to describe advocates for policies that would benefit the wealthy, and how often it was used to describe the advocacy for the less well off.

We found that the term was applied eighteen times as often to describe bottom-up advocacy as it was to describe top-down advocacy. What do you think these kinds of choices tell us about journalism in your case, business journalism?

EL: One of the big lessons here is that the closer you look at consumers and borrowers and the more familiar you are with their situation, the more well-rounded the story's going to be. There were some local papers, some local and regional papers that did some really excellent coverage on predatory lending. The Atlanta Journal Constitution comes to mind. In the early 1990s they were on the story. I think that one of the reasons that that happened is that they were really close enough to the sources, they really saw the devastation that was going on. Something that I don't think fully filtered up to the national press until much later. And so, I think it is really important to kind of connect the ethereal world of finance, with what's going on in people's everyday lives.

CS: So the journalists might be too close to the lenders, and not close enough to the borrowers.

EL: I think that can happen.

CS: We've been speaking with Elinor Longobardi, you can read her study, “How 'Subprime' Killed 'Predatory,'” in the September/October edition of the Columbia Journalism Review. Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Elinor Longobardi.

EL: Thank you for having me.