Apr 30 2010

Marcie Keever on oil spill, Alessandra Soler Meetze on Arizona SB 1070


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This week on CounterSpin: April 29 headlines suggest the oil spill from the explosion of a Deepwater Horizon oil rig may be as much as 5 times larger than originally predicted. But according to some media observers, TV news anyway, has kept the focus on the disaster story, and the human story, but the “What does or should this mean for increasing offcoast oil drilling story?” Not so much. How might journalists be connecting those dots? We’ll hear from Marcie Keever, Clean Vessels Campaign Director at the group Friends of the Earth.

Also on CounterSpin today, It wasn’t so long ago that we were hearing that the issue of immigration was taking a back seat to other concerns on Capitol Hill, like passing a climate bill. But immigration was thrust back into the national debate thanks to a harsh new law in Arizona that’s generated national outrage. SB 1070 won’t take effect for several months, but it’s produced a wave of coverage, with supporters of the law stressing that it’s a commonsense solution to a serious problem. Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona, will join to check those claims.

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

—One lesson to be learned about the media’s reaction to the right-wing Tea Party protests might be that the corporate press have developed a new-found enthusiasm for citizen action. If so, this is a welcome development. Of course, if this were true, then other citizen movements would get the wall-to-wall Tea Party treatment as well. And that just doesn’t seem to happen. Take the April 25 climate change rally in Washington, D.C. Now most people agree that this is not an abstract problem—unlike, say, the Tea Party’s worries about the dawn of Obama socialism in America. So when tens of thousands gathered to rally in support of climate action, what did the press make of it? Not much, from what we can tell. Climate blogger Joe Romm noted that the hometown Washington Post covered the rally… in the Style section. On the national networks, ABC World News did a 60 word rip-and-read. And there wasn’t much more to the media coverage than that. So maybe next time, climate protesters should figure out a way to work in references to fascism or Hitler. Apparently that’s what works.

—Speaking of coverage of protests: There were some brief media references to April 24 protests on the Japanese island of Okinawa. A crowd of 90,000 gathered to voice their opposition to a plan to build a new U.S. military base there. Turnout was remarkable—about 10 percent of the island’s total population. But the day of the protests, the Washington Post reported that the new Japanese government had buckled to U.S. pressure and agreed to go along with the U.S. plan. The Post reported that this apparent agreement

marked the first significant good news in a relationship that has been marked by strain, mistrust and befuddlement on both sides ever since a new Japanese government took charge in September.

Now this would be good news.. to whom, exactly? Certainly not those protesting the construction of a new base—many of whom oppose the existing U.S. military base too. And John Feffer of Foreign Policy in Focus noted that shortly after the Post story ran, the Japanese government announced that there was no such deal. So would that decision be bad news, then, to the Washington Post? The paper ran a brief AP followup which noted the Japanese government’s continued insistence that no new base should be built on Okinawa, and offered no explanation about what had happened. But the point readers can draw seems clear enough— good news is when another country does what the United States government wants it to do.

—Goldman Sachs is accused by the SEC of misleading investors on complex mortgage securities they knew would become toxic, reaping billions at clients’ expense and contributing to the disastrous housing bubble. But those familiar with corporate media knew there was little danger the company would go undefended in the press. So it’s no real surprise to find Fareed Zakaria, for example, in a column published in the Washington Post and in the Post-owned Newsweek suggesting that, rather than think about, say, the real people hurt by Goldman’s gamesmanship, we should instead consider our own blame for the situation. The rage at Goldman, Zakaria pontificates,

can cloud our perspective and distort public policy. We’re going through a familiar part of America’s boom-and-bust cycle. Having been mesmerized during the go-go years, having unduly lionized and feted industries, firms, and people as they rode the wave, we now want to throw these people to the wolves.

Sorry, Fareed Zakaria, “we” didn’t do anything of the kind, though you and your corporate media colleagues certainly did. Talk about a clouded, and narrow, perspective.

—It may have sounded at first a little like an Onion headline, but it was in the April 26 Washington Post: “Amid Outrage Over Civilian Deaths in Pakistan, CIA Turns to Smaller Missiles.” It was, as you might guess, a story based on assurances from government officials—anonymous, as you might guess—of “technological improvements” to drone missiles and “advanced surveillance techniques,” resulting in “more accurate” operations. No one will say what kinds of weapons are being used, much less specify the “improvements,” but, readers are told, “two counterterrorism officials said in interviews that evolving technology and tactics have kept the number of civilian deaths extremely low.” It’s a pig in a poke, in other words, but the Post wants you to know it’s a very fine pig.

It’s one of those stories where all readers can do is accept the government’s (anonymous) claims at face value, since they won’t go on the record or share their data with independent researchers. But it makes you wonder why papers don’t just print Pentagon press releases. Especially when, as in this case, the reporters’ “analysis” includes statements like this one: “The drone strikes have been controversial in Pakistan, where many view them as an infringement on national sovereignty.” Yes, many people do look on secret, deadly airstrikes conducted by another country as just exactly that.

—And finally, there was another Washington Post headline that got our attention, this one also on April 26: “Sharing a West Bank Highway Proves a Tall Order for Israel, Palestinians.” The first thing is the familiar formulation—the Mideast conflict as a problem of “both sides” failing to come together. But this story is actually a lot worse than that. The highway in question was built by the Israeli government on occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank. Since 2000, Israeli authorities have barred Palestinians from using the road. In response to an Israeli court decision, they are now offering to open just two on-ramps for use by Palestinians, who would be searched upon entering the highway. And the highway would still not provide access to the Palestinian city of Ramallah, which is an important commercial center. So what would justify the notion that Palestinians, like Israelis, aren’t doing their part to “share”? Nothing. This is the only explanation of any sort that the Post‘s Janine Zacharia offers:

The debate over Highway 443 illustrates a fundamental rub in the West Bank: If the Israelis and Palestinians can’t agree over how to share nine miles of pavement, how will they ever resolve the far more complex issues that divide them?

She adds a bit more with this:

From an Israeli viewpoint, allowing Palestinians on the road increases the risk of violence and adds traffic. To Palestinians, the road is another example of Israel’s reluctance to make life easier for them in occupied areas.

So one side wants some basic rights; the other side is worried about traffic. Treating those as equal concerns is obscene.


CounterSpin: Media researcher Andrew Tyndall couldn’t help but notice that none of the big 3 network newscasts made any mention of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill during their Earth Day features, opting instead for stories on things like how goats can replace lawn mowers. What’s more, Tyndall notes, in the first few days of the spill, tv news seemed to find it more of a human drama than an ecological nightmare, with ABC, for one, thinking the story was so done by Day 3, they didn’t even file a follow-up. All of that is changed now, of course, and media know that this is a much bigger story than they may have believed. But a big story doesn’t mean a well-done story, one that puts events in some appropriate context and makes the connections between our fear and concern and dismay now and our public policy choices for the future.

Here to help us put things in some perspective is Marcie Keever. She is Clean Vessels Campaign Director at the group Friends of the Earth. She joins us now by phone from the Bay Area.

Welcome to CounterSpin, Marcie Keever!

Marcie Keever: Good morning.

CS: Well, there is such a thing as making improper use of a dramatic situation to further an agenda or a cause, but if you’re someone who’s been trying to call attention to the hazards of offcoast drilling, it seems like it would be wrong not to use this Deepwater Horizon spill as a “teachable moment” if you will. So what would you say to journalists who are looking to see the relevance of this spill for our policies on drilling and on energy?

MK: Well I think this really brings into stark relief the reminder that there really is no way to avoid the risk from things like offshore drilling, and this is just a tragedy on a human scale, for the families that have lost someone—on an environmental scale, both for human health from the air and water pollution that this generates, all the way on down to the terrible damage to the marine environment that we are seeing and will see in the coming weeks and months.

CS: You’re saying this is really unavoidable, but we know that when companies are calling for drilling, are encouraging drilling, we get all kinds of assurances that they’ve imagined all kinds of scenarios and costed them out and then they’re surprised again and again. Is it only we outsiders who feel as though, gee I feel like I remember enough of these spills that I can’t imagine saying that they’re unimaginable.

MK: Well, yes, I mean the reason we have many of the environmental laws—Earth Day is over 40 years ago when Platform A off of Santa Barbara in California blew out and there was a 100,000 gallon spill and we saw oil beaches and harm to marine life, let alone the tourism industry. And ever since then California has prevented new oil drilling from happening, and yet we still see what’s being reported today, that it’s not just a thousand barrels a day coming out of that well, but now closer to 5,000 barrels, and we’re hearing experts say it could be up to 20,000 barrels. So in the context of the amount of oil spills that we’ve seen, we’re looking at potentially on the scale of an Exxon Valdez in as little as two weeks to two months. Unfortunately, we’re also seeing the industry, specifically BP and others opposing stronger mandatory regulations for regulation offshore oil drilling. And in the case of this particular well, BP has been allowed to drill, and they are not paying any royalties on this well. And so the indication and the statements from the oil industry that this is all safe—really we’re seeing, unfortunately, quite clearly that this is not the case, and they are getting away with this and opposing any new restrictions on their operations.

CS: It’s hard to really credit why they should be believed again in the future. I mean if we included these kinds of costs at the outset of these proposals—and I feel that reporters could do it if corporations themselves or the government won’t do it, but if we could somehow include these potential hazard costs—I mean, wouldn’t we find some of these things just too expensive to go forward with?

MK: Most definitely, and even with the proposals that are coming out of the Administration for the expansion of oil drilling, we wouldn’t even potentially see the benefits for 10-15 years if you want to talk about reliance on fossil fuels as being a benefit, and so the policy of Friends of the Earth and the position that we’ve put out there: that this is the wrong direction to take, that we really should be focusing right now on available technologies that are clean and green and available now, to really start pushing those as opposed to continuing to rely on fossil fuel extraction and utilization, which is just unfortunately, not safe.

CS: Well, I’m going to ask you in just a moment how listeners can be part of that and get involved in that, but I did want to ask you one other thing which is as I was looking into this I saw a little pop up of a New York Times online story, and the headline was “In Area with Few Options, Rigs are Mixed Blessing.” This is a kind of standard type of story I think that we find in this kind of occasion, in which it says yeah, this industry is very dangerous, but in these regions it’s really the only economy these people can have, and you really shouldn’t look down on them for choosing this. I wonder how you work against this environment vs. economy sort of narrative?

MK: Well, we would seriously disagree with that kind of assessment. We’re coming into the spring and summer, we’re coming into beach season. This is less than 15 miles from hitting shore at this point, the oil. All of our coastal areas in this country are highly populated, there’s huge recreational and tourism opportunities which will potentially be lost from oiled beaches, let alone the commercial and recreation fishing industry, which is a huge industry in the Gulf, let alone all the coastal areas in our country—and the fact that this is highlighted as the only driver of the economy in the region is, I think, just untenable.

CS: This story is clearly evolving as we speak. I wonder, what things would you like reporters to be following up on as we go forward? What sorts of questions would you like them to be asking of the industry and of the government?

MK: Well I think the idea that the industry has historically opposed any mandatory or strong regulation of their industry and the behaviors and the rules that they have to follow, and we’re also hearing reports this morning that the platform itself lacked a safety valve that could have been a last resort for potentially stopping this disaster, whether that plays out in the future—but really asking those questions. BP was coming out and saying well, they were disagreeing a bit with the Coast Guard and the assessment of how much oil is being released per day. You know this could be—it took 71 days to cap the blowout of the platform in the Timor Sea off of Australia back in August, and we really aren’t seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. So getting more answers from an industry that has historically been secretive and opposing anything mandatory when it comes to their operations is really something that needs to continue to be highlighted here.

CS: Well, finally, what is Friends of the Earth up to right now with regards to this spill and how can people who are watching the news reports and wondering what to do, how can they get involved?

MK: We have more than 16,000 activists have joined Friends of the Earth in our call to President Obama and the Administration to reconsider the plan for expanding offshore oil drilling. If people would like to go to FOE.org, our website at Friends of the Earth and sign our petition, you can join more than 16,000 activists who’ve put out the call, and we are going to continue to be out there asking people to speak up and join the thousands and thousands of voices calling for a cleaner energy future.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Marcie Keever. She is the clean vessels campaign director at the group Friends of the Earth. You can find them on the Web at FOE.org. Thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin, Marcie Keever.

MK: Thank you.


CounterSpin: When Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law on April 23, immigration policy was suddenly thrust back into the media spotlight. The White House spoke out against the Arizona law, and the TV screens were filled with split screen debates about what the law should, or would or wouldn’t do. The national media conversation often dwelled on the political ramifications of the Arizona law—how it might benefit Democrats in the November elections, and so forth. But establishing what SB 1070 would do in the first place to people in Arizona would seem to be more important than handicapping the midterm elections. That task that is made difficult given the abundance of media commentary that seeks to reassure readers and viewers that whatever you’ve heard, this law is not as far-reaching or aggressive as you might think. So are those claims right?

Joining us now to try and decode some of that spin is Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona.

Alessandra, welcome to CounterSpin.

AM: Thank you so much, Peter, for having me.

CS: Now some of the straight reporting on the law has tried to tease out how the language is going to be applied in real life, and I’ve seen some good discussions about the possible Constitutional challenges to the law. But the punditry and the talking heads can fog things up considerably, so let’s start there. Two of the most common defenses tell us that this new law bans racial profiling, and that it only instructs law enforcement to act in the course of other routine police business. So we’re left with this impression that SB 1070 is much less intrusive than it seems or than we’re being told. What’s your response to those two claims?

AM: Well, to the first point about the allegation that it will actually ban racial profiling, that’s basically empty language. The civil rights provision basically states that officers can rely on race as long as it’s not the only factor, and so what does that mean? In all practicality it means that they can rely on race and, for example, accent —that combination, those two things. And of course we know that, you know, our commitment to a color-blind society requires that we not consider race, color, or national origin to any degree. And in fact the Department of Justice guidelines prohibit the use of race to any degree. There’s been some Ninth Circuit court decisions that say that you cannot in any circumstance consider race at all. So that’s basically what it boils down to: the state says that you can’t solely consider race, which means you consider—as long as you consider race and another factor, it’s permissible.

CS: And this idea that you’re only going to see this applied in routine traffic stops or things like that…

AM: Right, exactly, I mean, it’s during police encounters, and so what does that mean? It means it could be while you’re driving, it could be while you’re walking on the street. The difficulty is what will police officers use to make that determination that somebody is in the country unlawfully? How are they going to determine what is considered reasonable suspicion? It’s not defined in the law and what will likely happen is that they will rely on their own biases. They will see somebody walking down the street, they’ll see them kind of dressed like somebody just came from a construction work site, they will see that they have landscape tools in the back of their truck, and they will use those as one of the indicators to then continue questioning. Now the law allows them to undertake that questioning, so they will begin questioning, and then depending on the responses of the individuals, they then have the authority—if they have probably cause—to make that arrest. And of course probably cause is a little bit more evidence that that person is here unlawfully, but again, none of these police officers—there’s no language in the bill mandating training. So federal immigration officials have extensive training to determine whether or not somebody is here unlawfully, and they do not use race; there are other factors. One indicator is failure to carry identification, another indicator is evasive behavior. And so most of the media has really focused on the carrying of the papers, and that’s exactly what it does: it states that if you do not have government issued ID, that is one indicator that you may be here unlawfully.

CS: Reading this I was thinking of drug arrests in New York City where someone is walking down the street minding their own business and the police decide you have the, you fit the profile for someone who might be carrying drugs, so they search them. There’s no reason to believe that that wouldn’t happen in Arizona, right?

AM: Oh, exactly, and that’s exactly what is happening now in Maricopa County, which has had this authority to enforce immigration laws for the past two years, and we know that happens. We’ve collected dozens of affidavits from U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents who are stopped and questioned simply because they were limited English proficient, but these are, you know, U.S. citizens who’ve been living here for, you know, their entire lives. And so we all know that it’s difficult, and you cannot determine immigration status simply by color of skin, especially in a state like Arizona where 30 percent of the population is Latino, and the majority of those people are U.S. citizens.

CS: We’re also hearing from the law’s supporters that, as usual and as to be expected, pro-immigrant groups and the ALCU will be hauling the state into court to challenge this law. But there seems to be, according to your reading of the law and of course of others, a more serious problem in that citizens who feel that local authorities aren’t being aggressive enough under these powers can actually sue local law enforcement for failure.

AM: Exactly, and there is this private right to sue provision, so if they feel like a police department or a city is not fully enforcing federal immigration laws then they have the right of action, the right to file a lawsuit. It’s really a Catch-22 for these police departments, though, because if they don’t enforce the law, they could be subject to lawsuits, and then if they do they’re essentially being required to profile.

CS: You’re likely seeing right now in Arizona, national and perhaps international media descending on the state to cover this. Is there anything you think that they’re missing, as a former reporter, or things that they really need to be sure to cover in order to flesh out this story?

AM: Yeah, I mean, I think in terms of covering it accurately. I mean there’s sort of two different debates that are going on now, right? There’s the discussion about border security and you hear about how this is going to secure our borders. I think it’s very important to point out that this impacts everyone in the state, living far, far away from the border, and it subjects everyone who looks or sounds foreign to additional questioning and requests to confirm their citizenship. I think many times people think that they’ll cover the story and they may have not visited Arizona or they may have not recognized just how the border is very, very different from the cities and towns in northern Arizona, and what we’re doing here is giving officers the ability to enforce immigration laws far, far away from the border. And I think the implications are pretty significant.

CS: I wanted to ask you finally, syndicated columnist George Will has received some attention—mostly not the good kind—for this column he wrote about the Arizona law, praising it. He mounts a defense of its constitutionality, and he makes the point that it prohibits racial profiling (which he seems to think is one of the bad parts of the law). But he closes by criticizing the critics for being sort of out of touch elites. He wrote this:

Arizonans should not be judged disdainfully and from a distance by people whose closest contacts with Hispanics are with fine men and women who trim their lawns and put plates in front of them at restaurants, not with illegal immigrants passing through their back yards at 3 a.m.

It seems offensive on at least two levels—critics don’t know any Latinos other than those who serve them, and in Arizona immigrants are prowling around in people’s backyards. How do you respond to something like that?

AM: Well I think it certainly reinforces the stereotypes and really the fearmongering and the bigotry that has led to the passage of this bill, it contributes to that misinformation and that bigotry. The bill will without a doubt affect and impact U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, people of color, Native Americans in this state. They will undoubtedly be swept up in the application of this bill, and I think what has been so frustrating for me and for many of us working on this issue is that people will think well you know, so what if people just get harassed and detained by officers as long as they’re not arrested. But people should not have to lose their liberties simply because of the color of their skin, and we know that’s exactly what’s going to happen in this case. So I think it really creates that sort of climate of bigotry and fearmongering that led to the passage of this bill, and it’s really unfortunate.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Alessandra Soler Meetze; she’s executive director of the ACLU of Arizona. You can read their analysis of SB 1070 at ACLUaz.org.

Alessandra Soler Meetze, thank you for joining us this week on CounterSpin.


Friends of the Earth

ACLU of Arizona