May 15 2009

Manan Ahmed on Pakistan, Dean Starkman on ‘Power Problem’


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This week on CounterSpin: There are many legitimate concerns about Pakistan, but our guest, historian Manan Ahmed, says the U.S. media discussion of recent developments there, portraying Pakistan as a country “on the brink,” border on hysteria. We’ll talk to Manan Ahmed about the hype, and about what he thinks the media should be paying more attention to in Pakistan.

Also on CounterSpin today: It certainly seems like the business press missed the big stories of the decade–namely the housing bubble and the meltdown in the mortgage business. Many business reporters, though, will tell you that they asked the right questions, wrote the right pieces, but readers just weren’t paying attention. Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review decided to try and settle that argument. He’ll join us to tell us what he found.


Legends of the Fail, by Manan Ahmed (National, 5/7/09)

Power Problem, by Dean Starkman (Columbia Journalism Review, 5-6/09)


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

—Reports of a massive May 5 U.S. attack that reportedly killed over 100 civilians in western Afghanistan hewed to a familiar formula, stressing U.S. denials, and framing the scores of dead civilians as largely a PR setback for the American war effort. Just look at the headlines: “Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War” at the New York Times; the Wall Street Journal went with “Claim of Afghan Civilian Deaths Clouds U.S. Talks;” and at the Washington Post, “Afghan Civilian Deaths Present U.S. With Strategic Problem.”

The New York Times report called the civilian deaths “a decisive factor in souring many Afghans on the war.” CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric said, “Reports of these civilian casualties could not have come at a worse time.” Many stories, like the May 7 New York Times report, featured anonymous Pentagon officials denying responsibility for the deaths and blaming them on Taliban grenade attacks and that group’s use of civilians as human shields.

But by May 8 the story had changed, and the Times was reporting U.S. bombs were likely responsible for some of the 100 deaths; the paper added that the Pentagon was now saying that the stories about Taliban grenades were “thinly sourced.” But it was apparently enough for many corporate media outlets to run with.

So back to that bad PR angle; as CBS‘s Couric paraphrased one U.S. general: “Because it takes time to uncover the truth, the U.S. is at a distinct disadvantage in the propaganda war with the Taliban, who often blame the United States for any civilian deaths.”

Reducing dead Afghan civilians to mere chits in a propaganda game, whether it’s done by U.S. officials or journalists, is a ghoulish practice that creates a PR disadvantage of its own.

—And speaking of propaganda: On May 10, CBS‘s 60 Minutes presented a remarkably one-sided report on unmanned Air Force drones firing missiles into Afghanistan and Iraq. Though the drones have been criticized for killing hundreds of civilians, CBS included no critics of the weapons. Instead, correspondent Lara Logan seemed awed from the very start:

“Every so often in the history of war, a new weapon comes along that fundamentally rewrites the rules of battle. This is a story about a revolution in unmanned aviation that is doing just that. Most people know them as drones. The Air Force calls them unmanned aerial vehicles, and right now there are dozens of them in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan hunting down insurgents, every minute of every day.”

Logan stressed that CBS was “given secret clearance and unprecedented access to bring you this story.” The report relied entirely on pilots and the Air Force chief of staff. The closest it came to airing any criticism at all was when Logan asked one pilot if he’d ever been wrong in launching a missile attack. The pilot hesitated, before stressing the “clarity” of these operations. Logan acknowledged that drone attacks have killed civilians, but that brief reality check was accompanied primarily by footage of screaming, protesting Afghans.

It’s not hard to find critics of the drones— even among those close to the military. A week before the CBS report, the House Armed Services Committee heard testimony from David Kilcullen—a former advisor to General David Petraeus—who believes the drone attacks take too many civilian lives. He estimated that drone-fired missiles have killed 14 Al-Qaeda leaders since 2006 in Pakistan—along with about 700 civilians, a 50:1 ratio of innocent victims to targeted enemies.

Such perspectives were missing from the CBS report, leaving 60 Minutes to air what amounted to little more than military propaganda about controversial—and deadly—weapons.

—The Washington Post, for reasons clear only to itself, vehemently supports cutting Social Security benefits. Last month they suggested that cutting these benefits,which, of course, workers have already paid for, would be a good way to reduce the deficit—even though retirees and older workers are already facing tremendous losses, in housing wealth for instance.

Now the Post is using the annual release of the Social Security and Medicare trustees’ reports to once again raise fears about the solvency of the program. The headline on the paper’s May 13 article, “Alarm Sounded on Social Security”, is well chosen, since that does indeed appear to be the piece’s intent. The lead reads, “The financial health of the Social Security system has eroded more sharply in the past year than at any time since the mid-1990s, according to a government forecast that ratchets up pressure on the Obama administration and Congress to stabilize the retirement system that keeps many older Americans out of poverty.”

This presentation is typical for the Post, but if you weren’t accustomed to the paper’s tendencies, you might be genuinely surprised to get to the facts of the story and learn that the trustee’s forecast is that, without corrective measures, Social Security’s trust fund would be depleted in 2037, while Medicare’s hospital trust fund will run out of money in 2017. In fact, as readers learn deep into the story, Medicare “remains the more urgent problem.” Just not, apparently, worth sounding any alarms over.

—The New York Times‘ Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner wrote on May 9 about the Israeli government’s development plan in Jerusalem—a “$100 million, multiyear development plan in some of the most significant religious and national heritage sites just outside the walled Old City here as part of an effort to strengthen the status of Jerusalem as its capital.”

According to the Times, this will involve tearing down some Palestinian homes around the city, while at the same time cleaning up other areas and putting up “new signs and displays that point out significant points of Jewish history.”

Bronner and Kershner explain that the areas affected were taken in the 1967 war but that annexation was “never recognized abroad.” The reporters call this is “a battle for historical legitimacy”, because Israeli archaeologists have found evidence of ancient Jewish life in this Old Jerusalem area. The problem, it would seem, is with how the other side is reacting:

Palestinian officials and institutions tend to dismiss the finds as part of an effort to build a Zionist history here. In other words, while the Israeli narrative that guides the government plan focuses largely—although not exclusively—on Jewish history and links to the land, the Palestinian narrative heightens tensions, pushing the Israelis into a greater confrontational stance.

Apparently in the battle for legitimacy, tearing down your opponents’ homes is focusing on “history,” while downplaying archeology is “heightening tensions.” Good to know.

—And finally, in a March 11 broadcast of his national radio show Rush Limbaugh made plain what many have heretofore identified as the racist subtext of conservative attacks on the White House. Here’s what Limbaugh said:

As the economy performs worse than expected, the deficit for the 2010 budget year beginning in October will worsen by 87 billion to 1.3 trillion. The deterioration reflects lower tax revenues and higher costs for bank failures, unemployment benefits and food stamps. But in the Oval Office of the White House none of this is a problem. This is the objective. The objective is unemployment. The objective is more food stamp benefits. The objective is more unemployment benefits. The objective is an expanding welfare state. And the objective is to take the nation’s wealth and return to it to the nation’s, quote, “rightful owners.” Think reparations. Think forced reparations here if you want to understand what actually is going on.

Well that was Rush Limbaugh. As Steve Benen of the Political Animal blog put it, “The ‘substance’ of Limbaugh’s argument is obviously insane, but the racism of his attack is hardly subtle. It’s almost hard to believe—the nation’s leading conservative argued, in all seriousness, that the president of the United States is trying to destroy the economy, on purpose, as part of a ‘forced reparations’ campaign.”

Well, if Limbaugh is the voice of opposition, it’s little wonder that the movement’s increasingly shrinking ranks are also increasingly concentrated in the states of the old Confederacy.


CounterSpin: The situation in Pakistan is being treated with alarm by U.S. officials and journalists alike, who all seem to be reading from the same script. Among the routine refrains is that Pakistani Taliban are closing in on the capital, and creating a crisis situation that threatens Pakistan’s very stability. Talk of Pakistan as a potential failed state, and as teetering on the brink has been fairly common.

All-purpose foreign affairs pundit Fareed Zakaria has gone as far as to say that the problem in Pakistan, is “we don’t have anybody there. We don’t have any U.S. troops there. We don’t have a UN mandate there.” (Because, apparently, recent history shows U.S. troops are good at solving problems.)

Our guest, Manan Ahmed is a historian of modern Pakistan and South Asian Islam from the University of Chicago, and a blogger at Manan Ahmed joins us now by phone from Chicago.

Thanks for joining us today on CounterSpin.

Manan Ahmed: Thank you for having me, Steve.

CS: Well, appearing on Democracy Now! last week, you said “there is this hysteria, or at least a hyperventilating that’s going on in U.S. media outlets, specifically the Washington Post, New York Times, the sort of the mainstream top-of-the-line newspapers, and also coming from Secretary of State Clinton.” Could you explain what you mean here?

MA: Well I think if we can dial back to maybe middle of January to late January and start looking at how Pakistan and Pakistani news have been circulating in our mainstream press, there’s a very remarkable trend and a very remarkable consensus that appears right after the Swat deal, the “ceding” of Pakistani territory to the Taliban happened. And that consensus is that the Taliban are now taking over the country. And so what happens as a result of this consensus is that numerous stories in November, December were calling Pakistan a dangerous country, now simply say, well Pakistan is failing and the Taliban are 100, 120 miles from Islamabad; they’re a 100 miles or 80 miles and in fact this line—Taliban are X miles from Islamabad—becomes the necessary ingredient to any first paragraph in a number of these news reports and magazine articles. And so what struck me as someone who studies Pakistan both professionally and, I am a Pakistani, so I follow the news here: the consensus. I mean, I can understand people having different concerns and I can understand obviously having a different reading on the situation than my reading would be, but what I was surprised and taken aback by was that nobody seemed to be challenging in any significant way this overarching consensus that Pakistan was about to fall to the Taliban, and it isn’t the fact that this is a matter of sort of really deep analysis. I mean if you can simply consider the fact of the Taliban have been reported to be between 15,000-20,000 at the maximum in the region between Peshawar and the northwestern boundaries of Pakistan. At best they can be sort categorized as a militia with arms. They do not have a theological sort of agenda. They cannot attract people on some sort of theological basis, it’s basically reign of terror in all the communities that they have entered. But to say that that small segment can overrun a country that has 500,000-600,000 armed forces, has major cities, seemed to me a rather bizarre conclusion.

CS: So the Taliban is not about to get control of the country’s nuclear weapons any time soon. Well, one of the corollaries of the Pakistan-on-the-brink theme, which as you point out, is a theme that goes back decades, is the suggestion that maybe what’s needed—this is a suggestion in Western press, the U.S. press—is a pro-Western strongman.

MA: Right, and I think we’ve always been much more comfortable with a pro-Western strongman and this is not just in Pakistan. You know, we’ve always had—and here the “we” is our foreign policy—has always had a predilection towards military strongmen who are westernized either in their worldview or in their training or in their upbringing and we feel that Iran, for example, and we feel that we can trust them where we cannot trust the masses, the brown masses, so to speak. You know, it’s starkly sort of apparent, especially in the recent coverage. I mean, an op-ed that I remember with much clarity is Patrick French who wrote an op-ed in March, I believe, early March maybe in the New York Times in which the entire lawyers movement, which is a secular sort of ground based sort of movement by the lawyers to bring justice to various, to bring justice to the people of Pakistan, reinstate the Supreme Court—the movement that’s responsible for the ousting of our previous strongman, military strongman Pervez Musharraf—so he characterizes this movement, this democratic movement in Pakistan, which single-handedly takes out a ten-year military rule, as a destabilization. And he goes on to say well you know there isn’t—the gist of his op-ed was simply that you can’t have these people out in the street and that it’d be much better if there was the stabilizing hand of a Musharraf-like person. And that theme of “if only we had someone we could trust” comes out in, for example, the Senate hearings of John Kerry, when Secretary Clinton was up for her confirmation. It comes out in various other pronouncements by Senators and Congressmen because fundamentally speaking, whether or not we trust the particular military dictator, we do not trust the people in Pakistan, the people in Egypt, the people in Iran, or the people in Saudi Arabia for that matter. And I think the Pakistan media coverage sort of crystallized, at least for me, this severe dichotomy.

CS: Well, I’m afraid we’re running out of time, but I’m going to ask you anyway: What should U.S. media be worried about in Pakistan—what are the stories that journalists should be covering more prominently?

MA: I think there is a strong sense in which the Pakistani army and the Pakistani state have let down the people in Lahore, in Karachi, in Islamabad, across the nation, in terms of security, in terms of basic human rights, in terms of basic guarantees that the state provides its citizens. And I think that’s the space to interrogate, to figure out why is it that the Pakistani state has problems legitimizing itself. And within that you will find answers to why certain ideologies or certain people are able to use this distancing for their own advantage. And I’m just going to quickly say this, that during this mass exodus that is right now going on where 800,000 people are being displaced internally in Pakistan, one of the organizations that are at the forefront in those regions for helping the refugee is Jamatud Dawa, the very organization that is supposedly behind the Mumbai terrorist attacks. This is a relief organization… they’re doing relief work. Why aren’t U.S. or Pakistani state or Pakistani army at the forefront of helping these people, these internally displaced people? That to me is a much bigger story that doesn’t seem to be registering anywhere while we’re all fixated on the Taliban.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Manan Ahmed, Pakistani historian and blogger at

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Manan Ahmed!

MA: Thank you very much for having me.


CounterSpin: Media criticism can be a bit subjective—you look at coverage and come to what you consider reasonable conclusions about what you read. Those on the receiving end of your criticism, though, can usually cite a few examples of their own to show that their critics are all wrong. Think the press didn’t do its job on the Iraq War, for example? Well, some reporters will tell you, you’re clearly forgetting the Very Important Story that ran deep in a Saturday edition that no one paid attention to.

You can see something like this with the post-mortems on the financial collapse; while it sure seems like the press missed the warning signs on the housing bubble and all manner of Wall Street shenanigans, many business reporters will tell you that no, they sounded all the right alarms. So was no one listening, or are they just wrong? Our next guest sought to answer that question. Dean Starkman runs the Audit section of the Columbia Journalism Review‘s website, and he’s written a piece for the magazine’s June issue headlined “Power Problem.” He joins us now—welcome to CounterSpin Dean Starkman.

Dean Starkman: Nice to be with you, Peter.

CS: Now, this is an ambitious project, to say the least—reading over 700 stories in the business press from 2000 to 2007, from the housing bubble’s inflation to the collapse of Bear Stearns. I’m not sure what you did to deserve this, but give us the headline finding—on the question of whether the warnings were there, were they?

DS: Yeah, the headline is “No the Warnings Weren’t There” and that the business press did everything but take on the powerful institutions that caused the problem.

CS: Now, you looked at nine different outlets?

DS: I did.

CS: And I recall that the American Journalism Review did something similar to this and their finding was kind of the opposite of what you’ve come up with.

DS: Right, it depends on sort of what you’re looking for and what questions you’re asking. AJR, our cousins—we’ll we’re not really related but we like them just the same—they’re at the University of Maryland. They wanted to just make the point that there were some stories that would qualify as warnings, and here they are. Therefore, they sort of expanded that finding to a premise that readers missed what was available. In other words, it’s the public’s fault. We took issue with that whole approach, and while obviously conceding that, of course, some things were done.

CS: How did you find the 700 and some odd articles—what kind of categories of articles?

DS: It was fairly common sense approach. We looked at the outlets that we thought were the most influential, all the ones you are familiar with: Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, etc. What we’re looking for were stories where they were actually covering the institutions that were making the bad loans and creating the bad securities. So we looked at other institutions that you’ve also heard of, so on Wall Street it was Bear Sterns, Merrill Lynch, Neiman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, etc. In the lending area, Citigroup, Countrywide, Ameriquest, New Century, IndyMac, etc, etc. We used the Factiva database and we looked at common sense terms that would lead us to the best stuff, which would be housing bubble, mortgage lending, predatory lending, that type of thing: derivatives, collateral, debt obligations and all that. I think the thing that we really did that was the smartest was knowing that Factiva searching is really unscientific. We asked all of the outlets for their best work during the period, and all but one contributed and that really gave us a lot of confidence that we didn’t miss anything… important, anyway.

CS: Now one of the surprising things to me at least reading this was that if you looked at sort of two different periods—the first half and the second half—the stronger material happened in 2000-2003?

DS: Yes, isn’t that strange?

CS: It is.

DS: When you think about it and you look at it in context, it becomes a little less strange. If you go back in U.S. financial history 10-15 years, you see that predatory lending, which is sort of the heart of why we’re here today, was a big topic of discussion in the sort of the public arena and especially on the state level. State legislatures, state banking commissioners, attorneys general, and importantly the federal government were really concerned about predatory lending and the reason for that was there was this boomlet in the mid to late-90s that resulted in all sorts of problems, foreclosures, etc. Also financial problems for these old line predators, really what they were, these places you may have heard of—Household Financial, Household Finance, Greentree, Conseco—all those crashed and burned in the early part of the decade. And journalists and regulators were both sort of on the case and they both feed off each other. I don’t think people really realize that journalism and regulation actually work in some sort of harmony to provide a lot of information to the public and that’s what was happening during this period.

CS: And in that later period when the business was really kind of running off the rails, you were writing that journalism kind of disappeared, or changed shape a little bit, as the regulators stopped regulating.

DS: Yeah, left the field. I think that’s right. It’s really actually quite disheartening and disappointing to look at that period because I don’t think even today we fully realize sort of how off the rails things had become on the lending side and on the securitization side. We’re looking at numbers that just should never ever happen: subprime lending becoming 20 percent of the market, including Alt-A, badly documented loans—33 percent of all loans were these terrible products so at that time the press did sort of pull in its horns. I think it did follow the lead of the federal regulatory apparatus, which essentially left the field, mostly for ideological reasons. And, as I say in the piece, the coverage turned to what I call useful but insufficient service pieces; these are pieces that warn—sort of consumer pieces—that warn the public about individual or particular bad loan products, like interest-only option-ARMs or whatever. And they also gave people good investment advice, saying “Hey, there’s a housing bubble, prices are really high,” etc. What they didn’t do was really look at the heart of the issue, which was who were the lenders who were out of control and where was their money coming from?—which was of course, Wall Street.

CS: You mentioned in the piece that you find a lot of this in the business press, this sense of extreme know-it-all-ism, that the journalists that cover these beats feel like they’ve got this—and a couple of years ago we talked to Tim Rutten of the L.A. Times and he was kind of telling us the opposite in a way, when journalists were covering Enron and they would say “that doesn’t make sense to me,” and the corporate officials would say “well that’s your loss. We’re the ones who’ve got this game down.” You close the piece with some lessons, what should people make of this; you made the point very clearly that it’s important to remember that the interests of the business press aren’t necessarily the same as the public interest. That’s kind of a fundamental point.

DS: There is a lack of alignment there, and it’s not a scandal and it’s not an unsolvable problem, but it’s true. What happens is we’re looking at a specialized field, a subculture of journalism that lives in what I call the corporate or business press space and they cover these institutions, they adopt their nomenclature, and they rely on them for stories and for sources, and again that’s not a problem, not necessarily a problem, it’s just a fact of journalistic life. What readers need to realize though, is that these journalists have an obligation to push back against these institutions and occasionally burn a bridge when it becomes necessary. That wasn’t done during the period, and that’s where I really fault not necessarily individual reporters but certainly editorial leadership.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Dean Starkman. You can read his regular criticism of the business press at the Audit at That’s also the place to read his new article: “Power Failure: The Business Press Did Everything but Take On the Institutions that Brought Down the Financial System.” Dean Starkman, thanks for joining us here on CounterSpin.

DS: You’re awfully welcome.