Nov 27 2009

Maryann Napoli on mammography guidelines, Rebecca Solnit on ‘The Battle for Seattle’


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This week on CounterSpin: There’s a lot of controversy around new mammogram guidelines—but it’s not coming from the research community. We’ll talk to Maryann Napoli of the Center for Medical Consumers about that evolving story.

Also on the show: Ten years ago a seemingly obscure meeting of a relatively unknown international trade body made headlines around the world. The so-called Battle of Seattle galvanized anti-globalization protesters who shut down the World Trade Organization meetings and pushed criticism of the WTO’s unchecked power into the corporate media. So, a decade on, how do those corporate media remember—or misremember—Seattle? And what do the activists behind those demonstrations consider the real lessons? Rebecca Solnit is the co-editor of a new book The Battle of the Story of the “Battle of Seattle” She’ll join us to talk about the book, and her battle with the New York Times.

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

—A November 18 headline in the Washington Post announced, “Poll Finds Guarded Optimism on Obama’s Afghanistan Plan.” The Post has been pushing the idea that public opinion is more pro-war than it really is, and this seemed to be more of the same. The Post had just conducted a poll on the war, and they reported on the findings:

Asked to choose between a larger influx of troops to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and train the Afghan military, and a smaller number of new U.S. forces more narrowly focused on training, Americans divide 46 percent for the bigger number, 45 percent for the lower one.

So apparently to the Washington Post, the debate is between a smaller surge to train the Afghan military, or a larger one to do that plus to defeat bad guys. It’s not a huge surprise then that a lot of people would find the larger surge appealing if you put it that way. But does that resemble the actual debate going on over Afghanistan? And why exclude the option of sending no additional troops, or bringing the ones already there back home? The Post has done this sort of thing before, crafting poll questions that make opinion on the war seem like an even split. Most other polls, asking more straightforward questions, show a public eager to end the war.

It’s clear that the Post‘s editorial page is strongly supportive of a troop surge; is someone trying to make sure the paper’s polling helps them make that argument in the news pages?

—Listeners probably know Parade, that slim little magazine tucked in with Sunday papers around the country, usually next to the funnies. Those who actually read it recently got a little weird class bias along with the celebrity Q&A and the Marmaduke cartoon. On one level, the November 22 piece by Gary Weiss was just an unfortunate retread of the notion that “something needs to be done—and fast” to save Social Security—an idea whose lack of evidential support hasn’t kept it from being repeated endlessly by advocates of privatizing one of the country’s most popular public programs.

But along the way Parade explains that there’s a downside to the idea of raising the ceiling on taxed income, so that income above the current ceiling of $106,800 would be subject to the Social Security tax: “Raising the cap is popular among Social Security reformers but would increase the tax burden on the middle class, since more of their income would be subject to the tax.” Now, the Census Bureau says that less than 5 percent of individuals over the age of 15 in the U.S. have incomes exceeding $100,000 a year. But for Parade that’s the “middle class”. That’s definitely funnier than Marmaduke.

—Social Security’s ever-imminent death is on its way to becoming one of those media tropes that, despite occasional debunking, remains thoroughly enshrined. Such ideas get repeated because they serve people’s needs, and unless someone is there to actually check them. Fortunately Jessica Valenti, editor of the blog Feministing, was there to check the most recent high-profile iteration of one of the sillier tropes. Deborah Solomon, the New York Times Magazine columnist whose heavily edited Q&A’s tend to showcase her own ideas more than the subjects’, put it to Valenti for the November 15 magazine: “How would you rate the effectiveness of online activism compared to old-style models of political engagement like rallies and marches and displays of bra-burning?”

Valenti pointed out that bra-burning was “completely made up by the media” but readers still had to wonder how Solomon could carry around such a canard. But then, one of her other questions for Valenti is how she could use such ungainly language in naming her website. So maybe for Solomon how things sound is better than, you know, whether they’re true.

—The big news out of the Middle East last week was the Israeli government’s decision to approve an expansion of the Gilo settlement near Jerusalem. The White House’s muddled position on settlement expansion has been a key part of Israel-Palestine negotiations. The Israeli settlements—or, perhaps more accurately, colonies—are built on Palestinian land occupied by Israel, which is blatantly illegal under international law and has long been condemned by the UN as a “serious obstruction” to achieving peace.

The Washington Post, though, went with this headline on November 18: “Housing Plan for Jerusalem Neighborhood Spurs Criticism.”

The article by Howard Schneider refers to a “disputed neighborhood of Jerusalem,” to the “Jewish neighborhood of Gilo,” and to a place “annexed to the city in a step not recognized by the international community.”

There is also a reference to White House policy, noting that the Obama administration “has vacillated in its stance on Israeli construction in areas claimed by the Palestinians.”

That same day the AP also referred to Gilo as “a Jewish neighborhood in the part of Jerusalem claimed by Palestinians,” and the next day the New York Times adopted similar language, calling Gilo “a Jewish residential district in south Jerusalem also on land captured in the 1967 war.” That building Israeli houses on that land is illegal, the Times couldn’t quite manage to say.

So why do major U.S. media outlets refuse to label Gilo accurately, as an illegal settlement? It’s an old story, as FAIR’s magazine Extra! pointed out in 2002, Gilo was a major cause for pro-Israeli media activists, who successfully pressured outlets like CNN to stop referring to Gilo as a settlement and use more innocuous terms like “neighborhood.” Apparently those lessons have been learned.

—And finally, the New York Times on November 21 ran a piece about some potential changes in the Japanese media. The particulars are somewhat interesting, but the description of the problems of the Japanese media is what’s most intriguing. How bad is it in Japan? Well, the Times tell us that the media there is dominated by “a century-old, cartel-like arrangement in which reporters from major news media outlets are stationed inside government offices and enjoy close, constant access to officials.”

Well, that’s bad, but there’s more: critics say that the system

has produced a relatively spineless press that feels more accountable to its official sources than to the public. In their apparent reluctance to criticize the government, the critics say, the news media fail to serve as an effective check on authority.

Now how on Earth can they live that way?


CounterSpin: New guidelines about mammograms brought on a strong reaction from some doctors and organizations, and an at times not very helpful discussion in the media. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a panel of primary care physicians, indicated that most women don’t need mammograms until their 50s, and then every other year, revising guidelines that said that biannual or annual mammograms should start at age 40. The panel “tried to balance benefit of exams vs. harm of false positives—but many women don’t care about statistics,” declared one headline. But is women’s presumably emotional or unscientific nature to blame for confusion around the efficacy of mammograms? Maybe there are some other factors to consider.

Joining us now by phone is Maryann Napoli, associate director of the Center for Medical Consumers here in New York City.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Maryann Napoli!

Maryann Napoli: It is my pleasure.

CS: Well, media reports keep telling us breast cancer is a passionate issue, it’s an emotional issue. But let me ask you first of all, is this supposedly new guideline on mammograms scientifically controversial?

MN: No, it isn’t. The guidelines came from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which is a highly respected committee of outside experts. They had no ax to grind. They have to make sure they have no conflicts of interest to be on this committee. And their task is to not consider money, so this doesn’t have anything to do with saving money, a la healthcare reform. It has to do with assessing all of the available evidence, both old trials that have been done comparing women with mammography with those who are not given this breast examination by x-ray. And they are also basing their recommendations on mammography in the real world, you know, which is quite different from receiving mammography in a clinical trial. And what they have come up with that’s new; although to people like me who’ve been following it for so many years, it’s not really all that new. But I think it’s new to the public and seems to be new to this task force, that the harm is considerable, particularly to younger women. And this harm I’m going to describe applies to older women as well.

They’re finding out now that one in every three breast cancers found on a mammogram would never become lethal or even produce symptoms had they been left undetected, because now doctors know that many breast cancers either grow so slowly that they’ll remain dormant—you’ll outlive them—or so slowly that it doesn’t matter whether you found it at age 48 in a mammogram or in the shower at age 58, you’re going to live a long life. And this hasn’t been explained to women, and what happens to women when they have found something very small in a mammogram is virtually all are treated. And they’re treated as if they had a cancer that would’ve killed them.

And the sad part is that about one in three did not need that treatment. And so what you have is an illusion that this technology works because you have the women who are the angriest out there at these new recommendations are women who have had their breast cancers diagnosed in their 40s because of a mammogram. You know, they’re saying I’m still alive, so therefore it worked.

CS: When, for example, women’s groups bemoan announcements like this, they all but say, you know, “it’s not the science; it’s the way that we know it’s going to be heard and interpreted. “Most women…after age 50…” will eventually sort of become “you don’t need a mammogram.” I wonder, is that just an inherent problem with these sweeping “public health messages” or campaigns like those that have grown up around mammograms, that they’re just not subtle enough?

MN: That argument, I find it kind of patronizing. It usually comes from doctors. They’re assuming that everyone should have a mammogram, and what I like about these recommendations is that they have left the door open, finally, for women to make an informed decision whether or not they want to have a mammogram. And to me that is valid because the harms greatly outweigh the benefits, especially for the younger women.

CS: So it really is a blanket recommendation, but one that puts you back in conversation with your healthcare provider and your own decision making?

MN: Well, you know, I have to say, Janine, that I stopped telling telling people—in fact I never did really tell people to ask their doctors—because doctors are greatly ill-informed about this because they usually get their script, so to speak, from the American Cancer Society or the American College of Gynecologists Obstetricians. That’s why I put in my article, which is at our website,, I put the links where women should go and educate themselves. They should bypass their doctors, many of whom have given us kind of a one-sided story on mammography all these years.

CS: Well you touched on this earlier, but predictably enough, Republicans and other opponents of healthcare reform declared that this was an example of “rationing care.” And I saw many media accounts that, while they may have sourced that opinion to conservatives or politicians or whomever, they still themselves closely linked “cost containment and evidence-based medicine,” as though those were two sides of a coin. Those are really two different things.

MN: Yes, they are, and I would hope that all of us would want to make medical decisions, especially about screening, based on evidence. Because think of it: this is an intervention that is aimed at symptomless women, and you don’t want to make a decision that is going to give you more problems that would compromise your health than you’ve already got.

And I particularly would want to have a task force set up every couple of years look back on the information our doctors have given us years ago and then tell the public—like they did when they released their data—you know, what their findings are now. That’s what medical science is all about—reassessing the evidence.

CS: And it’s nothing to do with saving money in this case?

MN: No, no, the whole point of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force—other countries would look at cost effectiveness—it’s such a hot button issue in this country and has been, that they are not allowed to consider cost.

CS: Well, finally, there’s of course a bigger context here, in the way that corporate media talk about disease, and about cancer in particular. When we spoke with you back in 1999, we were talking about Breast Cancer Awareness month—and pink ribbons and 10K runs. It seems appropriate to ask you again, what’s the matter with all this “awareness” or with awareness as the approach to cancer? What’s missing from that?

MN: Well any kind of awareness also escalates into, pretty quickly, into fear mongering. And the more you screen people for anything, prostate cancer, screen them for bone density, the more you make people into patients, the more false alarms you will find, the more people will have a risk factor or some kind of problem that would have gone away on its own, and that’s why drug companies and mammography facilities, and, as you put it, the corporate media, love screening. Because screening creates customers.

CS: I’d like to thank you very much. We’ve been speaking with Maryann Napoli of the Center for Medical Consumers. You can find much more information on their website, which is

Maryann Napoli, thank you for joining us this week on CounterSpin!

MN: Thank you, Janine.


CounterSpin: At this time ten years ago, corporate media were caught off guard by massive protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. What was supposed to be a sleepy trade conference turned out to be anything but, as tens of thousands of activists from around the world gathered to voice criticisms of such corporate-friendly trade policies.

All at once, journalists were confronted with arguments that they had mostly ignored, and spent much of their time chronicling the mayhem in the streets. The protests did a lot to change the perception of this pro-corporate trade policy, but another legacy is more troubling—the tendency of media to exaggerate, and even invent, violence or the threat of violence at such demonstrations.

Rebecca Solnit is a writer and the co-editor of a new book The Battle of the Story of the “Battle of Seattle”. She joins us now to talk about the lessons of Seattle in 1999.

Rebecca Solnit, welcome to CounterSpin.

Rebecca Solnit: My pleasure.

CS: In addition to editing this book, you contributed a chapter that’s titled, “The Myth of Seattle Violence. My Battle With the New York Times.” Any headline like that is bound to get our attention. You wrote that the Times was lying about Seattle—and this was in 2004. Tell us quickly what the paper was doing, and what you did in response.

RS: There’s a widespread myth that the New York Times was repeating that activists in it were extremely violent in various ways. The New York Times referred to the widespread arson in Seattle, among other things, and that made me angry in a way that’s very rare for me. Because there was no widespread arson in Seattle, and it was part of a myth of activists as violent, dangerous, and in those days, in 2004, akin to terrorists that justified taking away our civil liberties, depriving us of the First Amendment rights that are really important to a democracy, and etc.

CS: So you wrote to the paper, and the public editor seemed open to this criticism since it was a clear error in their reporting. What happened subsequent to that?

RS: You know I started out writing letters to the editor and then realized they wouldn’t be published. I then had extended correspondence with the public editor, who admitted that, in fact, there had been no widespread arson and that that and other things were misrepresentations. And then finally I said to the public editor, okay so where’s the correction you promised me, and he said oh didn’t you see it, and they’d published this little correction that was itself completely distorted. I could read it to you if you like.

CS: Sure.

RS: It says,

Because of an editing error, a front-page article on September 2 about New York police tactics at the largely peaceful demonstrations during the Republican National Convention referred incorrectly to the violent demonstrations of December 1999 at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Although numerous small fires were set in Dumpsters in Seattle, there were no reports of widespread arson.

You know, and that was already a new round of lies because it referred to the violent demonstrations in a way that sounds like the activists were violent, which they weren’t. There was some property destruction; there was not a single recorded incident of activists harming any other human being. And then it says, “although numerous small fires were set in dumpsters in Seattle.” To my knowledge, there was one fire in one dumpster, and how it got set, you know, is uncertain. So their correction essentially promulgated the version of history they wanted, which as far as I’m concerned, is a version of history that doesn’t have that much relation to the truth.

CS: Now this was interesting because this was almost five years later, and they’re looking back to Seattle to sort of justify the clampdown on protesters in 2004. It seems like the important lesson is that this fiction can become current or future reality. And it does seem like every major protest is accompanied by news reports alleging all manner of nefarious plots—there will be urine bombs thrown at the local police. The myth of Seattle violence did sort of lay this foundation, it seems like.

RS: Yeah, and it’s one of the pernicious myths of our time the way that spitting in returning Vietnam soldiers faces became one of the pernicious myths, not really of the 1970s because it was invented in the 1980s, but of the post-Vietnam era. It’s pernicious not only because it libels and maligns activists but because it justifies using oppressive measures, you know, depriving people of Constitutional rights, and generally making this a much less democratic society. And often what happens, and it certainly was how the New York Times was framing it in this post-Republican Convention 2004 moment, is that because of our massive repression, none of these nefarious acts took place.

Which is akin to my saying, because of this garlic around my neck, no vampires showed up at work today. You know the fact that you engage in massive repression doesn’t prove that their would have been violence otherwise. And usually, you know, the reputed violence is entirely mythical.

CS: And looking at this new book as a whole, it’s not just about violence and how violence was reported—give us a sense of how Seattle activists view the lessons from a decade ago. What did you gather in this book?

RS: You know there’s a whole spectrum of misrepresentations on the part of the Right. Seattle is misrepresented as a moment of activist violence and mayhem rather than an out-of-control police during a peaceful demonstration. So, there’s another myth on the Left that was destructive afterwards as well that my brother David takes on. He was one of the organizers in Seattle, and he found afterwards that a lot of activists wanted to believe that it was this beautiful, spontaneous uprising that just kind of magically happened rather than the fruit of long organizing, careful coalition building, and a lot of other groundwork that made such a convergence, such a large attendance, and such a fantastic strategy possible.

So, in between then you get a lot of other things. David did a bit of battle with the director of the Battle of Seattle feature film that came out and sort of disappeared pretty quietly because the original script he got ahold of portrayed activists as being motivated by a lot of juvenile pop psychology things—you know, you hate the government because you have issues with your father. The implication being that if you didn’t have issues with your father, the government wouldn’t be doing anything wrong. You know, other things that were just kind of patronizing and dismissive about who activists are, what their motives are, how they organize, etc. You know, even getting a film to show anarchist consensus organizing principles, which is what was really at play there rather than some kind of charismatic leader, which was I think very difficult to explain to the people responsible for the movie.

So there’s a whole spectrum from far right to far left of distorting what actually happened in Seattle. And I think getting it right really matters because we need a lot more Seattles to deal with climate change and some of the other issues facing us right now.

CS: Well, there is this running debate among activists about whether mass protests are worth it—if the point is to send a message to the broader public, aren’t there better ways to do it, doesn’t the internet provide this, and so on. The lesson from Seattle seemed to be that you could, if only for that one moment, turn the media’s gaze to something they wouldn’t have covered on their own for sure. Do you think there will be another Seattle in that sense, or is just hard to crack that media wall with all of the lingering feelings about the violence that was created in Seattle? Is it just too difficult to imagine the media being surprised like this again?

RS: You know, I think that the way that you’re framing it is that it’s about the element of surprise and it’s about media coverage, and I do think that there may be some huge actions in Copenhagen, that there are other moments that have received that kind of coverage. But it’s not only about media coverage. One of things that happened in Seattle is that the protests outside, like the protests outside the Cancun World Trade Organization Ministerial in 2003, really galvanized a lot of developing world, global south countries to stand up against the bullying of the wealthy developed countries. And so to change the fate of the World Trade Organization, and therefore the fate of the world, from inside as well.

You know, an action like that has a lot of catalytic effect on the activists and audiences around the world, on people who have different kinds of roles in these things above and beyond the media coverage. The media coverage of Seattle was a little bit surprising to me because as far as a lot of the newspapers and magazines were concerned, this was the biggest thing since the ’60s, ’cause apparently they’d been asleep since the ’60s and missed the massive anti-nuclear actions of the 1980s and a lot of other remarkable moments. And you know I think it was partly because you had lots of media gathered there to cover the Ministerial that suddenly turned into covering the actions outside that it got such coverage.

There was an element of surprise, and you know in some ways it felt like the world wanted a catalytic millennial moment, and happily we provided one that was really about a millennial moment—about a new millennium beginning with popular power, with resistance to corporate domination, with alternative sources of ideas, and possibilities, than the ones that had been so dominant in the 1990s.

And I do think those kinds of moments are possible again, and I’m hoping to see them in Copenhagen around climate change. And I think was saw a bit of it on October 24, with the global day of action demanding climate change focusing on the number of 350, the parts per million of carbon we need to return to. That was in about a 180 countries with more than 4,000 actions.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Rebecca Solnit. She’s an activist and writer, and co-editor of the new book The Battle of the Story of the “Battle of Seattle”. It’s out now from AK Press.

Rebecca Solnit, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

RS: You’re welcome.


Center for Medical Consumers

The Battle of the Story of the “Battle of Seattle”