Jun 25 2010

Joshua Holland on Afghanistan, Sandy Cioffi on Nigeria’s oil drilling crisis


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This week on CounterSpin, Gen. Stanley McChrystal is out as commander of troops in Afghanistan after derisive remarks he and aides made about the White House and the war to Rolling Stone magazine. But in all the folderol about insubordination and civilian command, are reporters missing the real story? We’ll talk to Joshua Holland of AlterNet about what else is in that Rolling Stone piece.

Also on the show, it’s hard to imagine a worse situation than the oil spill in the gulf, but the Niger Delta in Nigeria has by some accounts suffered spills equaling the Exxon Valdez disaster, every year for the last five decades. But besides the rare report, you wouldn’t know about Nigeria’s ongoing environmental and health disasters from reading U.S. corporate media. We’ll talk with filmmaker Sandy Cioffi, creator of the award-winning 2008 film Sweet Crude, about the ongoing oil disaster in Nigeria.

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

—When BP, the oil company responsible for the catastrophe in the gulf, hired regular CNN commentators Alex Castellanos and Hilary Rosen as lobbyists, the most notable reaction to the hirings was at the Huffington Post, which severed its relationship with Rosen who had been its Washington editor-at-large.

The two lobbyists kept their CNN pundit jobs. But lobbyists as pundits are nothing new, as former CounterSpin guest Sebastian Jones wrote in the March 1 edition of the Nation earlier this year,

Since 2007 at least 75 registered lobbyists, public relations representatives and corporate officials—people paid by companies and trade groups to manage their public image and promote their financial and political interests—have appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, CNBC and Fox Business Network with no disclosure of the corporate interests that had paid them.

But, don’t worry, says CNN, they won’t allow either Castellanos or Rosen to appear in stories or discussions of oil spills. As CNN spokesperson Edie Emery told the New York Daily News: “Both Alex and Hilary are political contributors used to comment on political issues. They are not being used to discuss the oil-disaster story.”

So corporate lobbyists will only appear in political stories. That’s comforting. But they won’t appear in “oil disaster stories,” because those don’t raise any political issues?

—There are plenty of issues where corporate media coverage lacks appropriate nuance, context or balance. One of those is genetically engineered food; much of the press put their faith in the assurances of giant corporations like Monsanto, and look down their noses on the anti-science Luddites of Europe who just can’t seem to get with the program. Both of those media tendencies were on display in a June 28 Time magazine piece with the cheeky headline, “How Frankenfood Prevailed.” Time didn’t so much as bother to offer a discussion about the issue: There are three quotes in the piece, two from a Monsanto executive and one from an academic praising their corporate strategy, whose job is funded by another major agribusiness company.

“The industry claims that after nearly 15 years of GM-crop use, there are no well-documented food-safety problems,” the magazine tells readers—followed by a parenthetical acknowledgment that “a couple of critical reports challenge this assertion.” Well, what are those reports and what do they say? Who knows? Let’s move on. Time notes that “Some problems could arise—for instance, superweeds that have adapted traits from herbicide-resistant GM plants.” Saying this critically undermining problem “could arise” would tend to obscure the fact that it’s already arisen, as research reported in other media attests. At Time though it’s still hypothetical and overall “biotech crops seem to mostly benefit the environment.” A Monsanto official talks about efforts to convince the public of the safety of GM crops. Surely the public still needs answers in part because outlets like Time don’t seem to want to ask any questions.

—The New York Times reported from Brussels on June 18 that the mood was “upbeat” as Estonia adopted the euro as its official currency. Despite the debt crisis, according to reporter James Kanter, “the euro remains among the strongest currencies in the world, and membership opens the door to a club with global influence. For small and unsure countries on the fringes of the European Union, it doesn’t get much better.” Euro membership, the piece stated is “an important signpost that a country is on the way to achieving Western European standards of living.”

Toward the end, Kanter did allow that “the preparation to join the euro zone created some disadvantages for Estonia”—but he doesn’t provide any clue as to what those “disadvantages” might be. Another reporter might’ve noted that joining the euro meant Estonia couldn’t devalue its currency in response to the recession, so instead it got nearly 20 percent unemployment and an economy that shrank by almost one-fifth. If they’re on their way to a higher standard of living, it’s looking like a long road. But we’re told, their currency is strong, so it’s okay.

Enthusiasm for austerity is a common theme in Times reporting. A June 23 story on the severe budget cuts announced for Britain declared, “Conservatives believe they can repeat the Thatcher-era revival, when sharp budget cuts—even during a recession—restored market confidence in Britain’s future and helped spark a strong economic expansion through the decade.” Except that Britain didn’t have particularly strong growth in the 1980s—the average growth rate under Thatcher was 2.1 percent, while Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair averaged 2.7 percent. The abstract appeal of austerity is too strong, it seems, for reporters to ask much about its real-world effects.

—And it carries right through to domestic policy, where corporate media are echoing the notion of Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress that public concern over federal budget deficits makes it impossible to pass a new round of job-creating stimulus spending. In the June 21 New York Times, John Harwood wrote, “The same polls that show voters upset about joblessness also show them upset about deficit spending, which Democratic leaders consider their only short-term method of reducing joblessness.”

The Washington Post put the same narrative on its June 19 front page under the headline, “Election-Year Deficit Fears Stall Obama Stimulus Plan.” Reporter Lori Montgomery acknowledged that many economists see a greater threat looming if the government doesn’t provide additional stimulus. But, she countered, “a competing threat—the exploding federal budget deficit—seems to be resonating more powerfully in Congress and among voters.”

Really? Let’s see. Recent surveys asked voters to rank problems facing the country. Unemployment was more important than deficits by a spread of 49 percent to 5 percent in a CBS/New York Times poll, 35 percent to 20 percent in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, and 47 percent to 15 percent in a Fox poll. A recent Gallup survey found that 60 percent of the public approved of “additional government spending to create jobs and stimulate the economy.”

If such polls—conducted after all by news outlets themselves—were taken seriously, news reports would state that politicians were bucking public opinion in order to pursue fiscal austerity. It sure isn’t the public they’re serving when they turn that reality on its head.

—And finally, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly has endorsed the draconian Arizona immigration law on the grounds that immigration has caused the state’s crime to skyrocket—undaunted by the fact that, as we’ve noted before, crime in the state has actually gone down.

Well, after a few weeks of silence on the matter, O’Reilly returned to it on June 17 with a fresh set of nonsense, arguing that crime has dipped during the recession because “there aren’t as many illegals here now,” but that if you compare current rates to 10 years ago, “every city is up big.”

Once again, O’Reilly is inventing his own reality. The FBI’s violent crime reports show that figures are down substantially in almost every big city since 2000—including Phoenix—as well as in the border states of Arizona and California.

The next night O’Reilly was trying the recession angle again:

Crime has gone down in all the border states. In El Paso, we did a big extensive study, the Factor did, of this. You can’t break out illegal alien crime. You can’t break it out because they don’t keep stats that way. It’s down. And a lot of people think it’s because of the economy that fewer people are coming here to the United States because of jobs are harder to get.

Of course, the chances of O’Reilly being right about this are as likely as that the Factor did a “big extensive study.” In fact, the fall in crime in El Paso is not a recent, recession-related phenomenon; violent crime in the largely immigrant city is down 34 percent since 2000. That’s consistent with national trends, that show that from 1994 to 2005, as the undocumented immigrant population doubled, violent and property crime rates in the U.S. dropped by a third and a quarter, respectively. That’s also true for border cities.

So when will O’Reilly finally admit his error and apologize? We won’t hold our breath.


CounterSpin: It’s made for dramatic political theater: the commander of troops in Afghanistan and his aides make derisive remarks about the administration to a freelance reporter and he winds up out the door. But our guest says the way most media are treating it, the story of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s comments to Rolling Stone about the Afghan war are mainly a distraction. There is much else in that Rolling Stone article that ought to be the subject of more media attention than whether somebody said “Bite me”. What’s being missed here and what does it say about press priorities, nine years into a conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives?

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He joins us now by phone from the Bay Area.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Joshua Holland!

Josh Holland: Thanks so much for having me.

CS: Well, the article by Matt Hastings in Rolling Stone has a lot in it. We’ve seen which bits seem to most interest the corporate media, and it’s not that they’re not interesting, but I wonder if you would tell us what you found to be the most provocative or most revealing parts of that Rolling Stone article?

JH: I thought that the key part of the Rolling Stone article, which is getting very little attention, is what it says about the viability of our counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. McChrystal was, of course, the most public advocate of what’s known as COIN. The concept behind COIN is that you not only use military means to achieve your objective, but you use all of the means that the United States can bring to bear—political means, building civil society—and the ultimate goal is to create a viable state and strengthen the capacity of the Afghan government, so that it can police its own and confront extremists. And the thing that I think is so stunning about Hastings’ article in Rolling Stone is it really highlights the depth to which the military has not bought in to what it claims to be its central strategy in Afghanistan. And the point that I made is that if everybody isn’t on board, if this is not actually an all-encompassing effort, then what we have is a situation where it’s a military tactic disguised as a strategy. And I think that the really big issue is that Afghanistan is a project where we’ve set out certain goals that may very well be impossible, and what we’re seeing is senior military leaders saying that, you know, basically deriding the civilian leadership that needs to be hand-in-hand working with the military in order for COIN to even have a theoretical chance of success.

CS: Well, and one of the things that comes out is the extent to which, given the kind of failures on many actual levels, the war has become about managing perceptions.

JH: One of the key passages in Hastings’ piece was that he quoted an analyst at RAND who said what is being called a strategy by the Obama administration and military leaders is basically a means of staying in-country because they’re fighting out of inertia, right. I mean, the bottom line is that the military has an amazing institutional resistance to the idea of withdrawing from Afghanistan because that concedes defeat, and that’s just not part of the culture. So we’re in this country, and we’re supporting a government and, one point that I made in the article is that, you know, Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai has said that he has no faith in either his government or the coalition forces to actually defend the country and create a viable state. So who are we trying to build capacity for? You know, this is a very key question that I dont’ think has been asked to the degree it should. And, you know, a lot of what we’re seeing, I believe, is based on people believing their own propaganda. I think a lot of this is based on the Iraq surge model, which is supposedly a fabulous success story. The problem is that the Iraq surge, that is the increase in troop strength had very little do with a drop off in violence that happened around the same time. And Iraq remains a big mess today. Baghdad is the least liveable city in the world. Violence is still very prevalent. So if you believe that the surge worked, then it’s a kind of a natural leap to think okay, we’ll take these tactics or this strategy, if you will, and we’ll apply it to this other country.

CS: Well, you’ve just kind of gone to what was going to be another question because now we hear that David Patraeus is going to lead us forward in Afghanistan, and it’s kind of everything old is new again. Blackwater’s going to get the contract, or excuse me, not Blackwater—XE. And we’ve learned about paying-off of Taliban warlords, which also looks very much like Iraq. AP referred to David Patraeus as the architect of the Iraq turnaround, so it seems like, for the media at least, Iraq is going to be our benchmark. Weren’t media supposed to have learned a new way forward after Iraq? What does it mean that now Iraq is the success story?

JH: I have not seen this new way forward that was so much touted after the Iraq conflict. Here we are bringing in Patraeus. It’s kind of like almost a cult of personality has developed around this man, and I don’t really understand how anybody can think that a general, regardless of who it is—I think he could reanimate the bloated corpse of General Patton and send him over to Afghanistan—is going to do anything about the structural problems over there. I mean, what’s being missed, I think, in the entire narrative about Afghanistan is that we entered a civil war, we entered a hot civil war. The Taliban was not in charge of Afghanistan, there was an active civil war, we got in, we chose sides, and now the idea that we can create a viable state without doing the kind of reconciliation that you need to do to create a real, sustainable peace deal is, I think, an exercise in futility. I mean, the bottom line is that what Hamid Karzai is saying is not wrong. You know, the Taliban are not a foreign force, and in any conflict you’ve got to bring the various stakeholders to the table and give them some reason to lay down their arms. We haven’t done that at all.

CS: Well, finally, The New York Times had an editorial June 24 (the day we’re taping) that concludes: “Americans are weary of this 9-year-old war. Mr. Obama needs to do a better job of explaining why it is so central to American security. More important, he and his aides have to do a better job managing it.” This, to me, says it all about the limits of media dialogue: people don’t like the war, it’s killing people, it’s not even doing what it claimed it would do. So please, Mister President, sell it better and even more, “manage it” better. Is this the best we can expect from our watchdog press?

JH: Tragically, I believe it’s par for the course with our watchdog press. I’ve been writing about public diplomacy for years and years and years. And the argument is always: if we can just do a better job of explaining why we’re bombing these people, then they’ll be okay with it. That doesn’t work. If we’re waiting to get out until we have developed a modern, viable nation state, it’s going to be a long slog. And this is already our longest conflict in the history of our nation.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Joshua Holland. He’s editor and senior writer at Alternet, where you can find his recent piece, “Don’t Let the McChrystal Frenzy Obscure the Dirty Truth about Afghanistan.”

Thanks very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

JH: Thank you for having me.


CounterSpin: It’s hard to imagine how things being could get worse, but you don’t have to—there’s the Niger River delta in Nigeria, where oil companies, including most notably Shell and Chevron, have been polluting the land and watershed for going on five decades. U.S. readers were offered a rare glimpse of the destruction in a front-page New York Times article on June 16. As the Times noted, the delta region “has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates.” But it seems to have taken the BP disaster to get Nigeria front-page coverage in the Times. As the headline read, “Far From Gulf, a Spill Scourge 5 Decades Old.”

Sandy Cioffi is a filmmaker whose 2008 film, Sweet Crude, looks at the catastrophe in Nigeria and the way it is covered in the U.S. Cioffi joins us now by phone from Montana.

Welcome to CounterSpin, Sandy Cioffi!

Sandy Cioffi: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

CS: Well, let’s begin with your thoughts on the crisis in the Gulf. Perhaps you could describe some of the differences and similarities if there are some?

SC: Obviously my first reaction, like anyone, is emotional and the emotions run deep for me because part of my motivation in making the film Sweet Crude was to point out to people that when you see a place like the Niger Delta, it’s not only a current crisis, but it’s also a cautionary tale. And I had hoped that my film along with all of the other activism going on around the world might help to avert a disaster of this kind, not just in the Gulf but in all of the places around the world that those disasters are happening and imminent. It’s devastating, is really the simple answer. There are some similarities, and I think those are important to note—particularly one that doesn’t get all that much ink, which is the use of these chemical dispersants as a way of dealing with oil spills. The testing grounds for those chemicals for all these years has been the Niger Delta. One of the chief complaints of the women who, somewhat famously in 2002 and 2003, took over oil platforms in the Niger Delta—one of their chief complains was the devastating health effects of those chemical dispersants on their children, and demanding that oil companies no longer use them as a way to pretend in cleaning up an oil spill. I think people don’t know that when you hear something like the chemical dispersants, you somehow think that this is the first time that they’re being tried. And you know, thinking about the Niger Delta as a sort of terrible and demonic testing ground is a better way to put it. That’s one similarity. Another, of course, is just to see the immediate impact to wildlife. The long-term consequences of those kinds of oil spills aren’t something—you know I hear biologists being interviewed saying we don’t know those answers—well, we know some of those answers because they’re sitting right there in Nigeria, unbeknownst to most people. There are of course also corporate lack of any kind of preparation similarities, lack of any kind of government regulation similarities. I think the distinction is simply that if it’s in Africa, you don’t hear about it at all. And it’s been aptly pointed out, at least somewhat in the last few weeks, that the media coverage about the Gulf spill is at least happening. And at least you’re seeing some images of the Niger Delta and oil spills and the other devastating environmental impacts just aren’t in your head. But it’s like being in Mad Max when you’re there. It’s some strange sort of trip into the future when you’re there. And I just, I would like to say that I get a little concerned about doing too much kind of pitting one place against another, saying they got no coverage, we get coverage. That’s part of story, it’s an important part of a story, but I think if we really go to the next point, it was always a place that governments and corporations together were figuring out a way, under the radar, to behave with impunity when it comes to oil. And there are ways in which that is a continuum. It’s a terrible continuum all over the world, and there’s far more that the countries who are facing that, including the U.S., have in common than they have differences. And I think that the organizations that are finally bringing 40 nations together to look at, whether you live in an oil-run state or state-run oil, you’re facing some of the same kinds of consequences.

CS: Well, we think of the U.S. regulatory system as being weak or even in the tank for the oil companies. Is it fair to say that the Nigeria story shows us what oil companies will do with virtually no restraints, when they can pretty much do as they please, with government support?

SC: It’s more than fair. It’s a perfect way to look at it, and that’s what I mean by continuum. I mean, if you look at the most abusive days of the Nigerian situation, you have full-on, flat-out military dictators, both supported by American foreign policy and supported by oil companies. I mean, you have Chevron and Shell guilty of actually arming young men against each other in a sort of pit-enemies-against-one-another strategy to keep chaos and prices of oil fluctuating. You in fact had two fairly famous cases in the last two years of people actually being able to sue Chevron and Shell in American courts for their participation in what were very violent situations in the Niger Delta. So you can take the Niger Delta as an extreme and unfortunately classic situation of a full-on kleptocracy, of an oligarchy that is completely in place as an oil state. And then if you look on the other end of the spectrum, some people would say Norway—although that’s not all a bed of roses either—but if you look at that entire continuum of how to deal with oil, the United States might be somewhere in the middle, but it’s certainly at this point, an oil-run state.

CS: Among your many experiences in Nigeria, you had occasion to see how ABC‘s Brian Ross tried to cover the Nigerian opposition movement. Ross wasn’t exactly focused on the predations of big oil, or the environmental and safety threats, or a peaceful resolution to the conflict over these issues. Tell us a little about what you think that says about U.S. coverage of Nigeria, and perhaps Africa at large?

SC: At its most benign, African coverage is nonexistent. At its most problematic, the coverage is either about a group of people who are victims huddled by the side of the road waiting for aid or brutal people who just don’t value life and are at each other’s throats and brewing terrorism. ABC news’ report shows the latter characterization of an armed movement that has grown out of decades of unarmed resistance, which met with virtually a silent world paying no attention to them. And they’re decision in 2006 to begin to kidnap oil workers, guess what?, it yielded media coverage. So they were reinforced in the notion that if they pick up arms, they’re going to see CNN and ABC. Unfortunately, the CNN and ABC, particularly ABC, that they saw was a classic sensationalist, just incendiary report of young men with guns, and they used as their sources an unnamed email address rather than an unmasked interview that I delivered for them while working as a freelance person for them. They left it on the cutting room floor. It’s probably true that there could be an explanation about the ways in which they have not enough time, and not enough research associates, but there’s something more important at play. The idea that you fearmonger as a way to get viewers, and you speak about the new African terror threat, and you imply a relationship to Al Qaeda-which a pesky detail of fact is that the young men of the Niger Delta would never be in association with Al Qaeda because they’re deeply Christian and quite anti-Muslim, which is, in and of itself, a concern for people of Nigeria. But aside from that fact, there’s plenty of evidence and sources to prove that they have nothing to do with Al Qaeda, but he went to air with a story that implied there might be an association of coordinated attacks. And to my mind, the connection of that and what happened in the Gulf is that part of that fear mongering has led to deeper and deeper ocean exploration for oil. It’s an actual strategy among oil companies and all of the geopolitical considerations—that if you can fearmonger enough, you can get a public that says fine, even thought the safety measures are not in place, we’ll drill ten miles in the ocean if we don’t go to foreign oil because we keep saying foreign oil, foreign oil in this way that’s all about a level of racism and fearmongering, rather than looking at the question of our relationship with oil in general.

CS: We’ve been speaking with filmmaker Sandy Cioffi. You can learn more about her film, Sweet Crude, about Nigeria’s oil catastrophe at her website, at SandyCioffi.com.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Sandy Cioffi!

SC: Thank you.


Don’t Let the McChrystal Frenzy Obscure the Dirty Truth About Afghanistan (Joshua Holland, AlterNet, 6/23/10)

Sweet Crude