Jun 12 2009

Phyllis Bennis on Obama’s Cairo speech, Jonathan Tasini on the Boston Globe/GM


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This week on CounterSpin: Barack Obama has either been currying favor with Muslims or extending an olive branch in the Middle East depending on which media you consume. We’ll talk with Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies about Obama’s major speech in Cairo, and the size of the gap between words and actions.

Also on the show: The Boston Globe says it will impose a 23 percent wage cut on its employees on June 14. This is needed, says the Globe’s parent New York Times Company, because that paper is losing money. But is there more to the story? We’ll hear from Jonathan Tasini; he blogs at WorkingLife.org and is executive director of the Labor Research Association.


Obama in Egypt: Changing the Discourse, by Phyllis Bennis (Institute for Policy Studies, 6/4/09)

Globe Cuts, by Jonathan Tasini (WorkingLife.org, 6/8/09)


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

—In his June 11th Washington Post column about a Capitol Hill hearing featuring single-payer advocates (imagine that!), Dana Milbank sheds little light on the policy debate, but does show how deeply ensconced he is inside the beltway bubble.

“Socialism is not dead,” smirks Milbank. “It has, however, been confined to a House subcommittee.” Milbank drips condescension on activists at the hearing for harboring the quaint presumption they might get any real attention in Washington with such a unpopular policy.

Writes Milbank: “President Obama said it would be a ‘huge disruption.’ Democratic lawmakers ignored the single-payer crowd so completely that 13 activists got themselves arrested last month protesting at Senate Finance Committee hearings.”

Since single-payer is such a non-starter, Milbank explains, the hearings are really no more than a blow-off valve, a token bone thrown to the silly advocates who have a lot of steam to blow off.

In the end, Milbank explains, little of substance was aired because, “It was a day for venting, not answers.”

In the world outside Milbank’s bubble, of course, single-payer is quite popular. For the past 15 years, polls have consistently found majorities supporting tax-financed national health insurance. A January New York Times/ CBS poll found 59 percent in favor of government-provided national health insurance. The same goes for surveys of medical professionals. For instance, a 2008 poll of U.S. doctors, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found 59 percent supported a “single payer” plan.

Milbank might have used his valuable column space to probe this disconnect in American democracy, where the public and relevant professionals favor a policy that can barely get arrested in official Washington. While he thinks he made good fun of healthcare activists, all he’s really done is reveal how profoundly he, and everyone else inside the Beltway bubble, is alienated from basic notions of democracy and the open debate of ideas.

—Well, if you’re following the media debate around EFCA, the so-called “card check” law that would make it easier to form unions, you may have encountered the “statistic” that increasing union membership leads to an increase in unemployment of as much as 3 percent. That line has popped up in coverage of card check in the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, CBS News and, a lot, on Fox, according to a piece by In These Times‘ Art Levine. One problem is, Fox in particular seems to forget to tell viewers that the statistic, popularized by economist Anne Layne-Farrar who used it in Senate testimony earlier this year, comes from “research” funded by the anti-union group Alliance to Save Main Street Jobs.

The bigger problem is that the research is nonsense. A closer look finds that, for one thing, the study itself notes that they did not collect enough data to draw conclusions about card check, that the data they did have was too weak for economic analysis, and that the author doesn’t even compare union membership data and unemployment data from the same time period. Meanwhile, she dismisses studies showing that countries such as England, Denmark and Norway have higher unionization and lower unemployment than the U.S. as “simplistic correlations.”

Well, besides being what some people want to hear, how does baseless work like Layne-Farrar’s make its way to the center of public debate? One suggestion is that reporters are just so confounded by terms like “regression analysis” that they can’t be counted on to figure out whether research really supports an author’s conclusions. But as one of Levine’s sources explains, “Just because she calls it ‘econometrics’ and ‘regression analysis’ doesn’t mean that it makes any sense.”

—In the June 9th online edition of the New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat suggests that pro-choice activists and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling are responsible for violence against women’s healthcare providers, such as the murder of Dr. George Tiller last week.

“If anything, by enshrining a near-absolute right to abortion in the Constitution, the pro-choice side has ensured that the hard cases,” says Douthat, referring to abortions performed later in a pregnancy, “are more controversial than they otherwise would be. One reason there’s so much fierce argument about the latest of late-term abortions—Should there be a health exemption? A fetal deformity exemption? How broad should those exemptions be?—is that Americans aren’t permitted to debate anything else.”

Well yes, Constitutional protections are funny that way. But Douthat’s solution? Pro-choicers should give up Roe v. Wade—as if NARAL and Planned Parenthood make Supreme Court decisions—in order to lower the ferocity of the debate. “If abortion were returned to the democratic process, this landscape would change dramatically. Arguments about whether and how to restrict abortions in the second trimester—as many advanced democracies already do—would replace protests over the scope of third-trimester medical exemptions.”

But just when you suspect Douthat’s reconciliation plan might be lopsided, he explains what’s in it for pro-choice people: “The result would be laws with more respect for human life, a culture less inflamed by a small number of tragic cases and a political debate, God willing, unmarred by crimes like George Tiller’s murder.”

As blogger Megan at Jezebel.com put it: “To sum up: if we just roll over, accept the end of abortion access, and let them teach us about respect for human life, they won’t kill any more abortion providers. Good to know whose hands Douthat thinks Tiller’s blood is really on.”

—The website Gawker caught Newsweek making some sneaky changes in an online article; changes that were ordered by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, and which just happened to favor the host of a show that Meacham appears on regularly.

On the afternoon of Friday, June 5, Newsweek‘s website put up an interview with Joe Scarborough, the conservative host of MSNBC‘s Morning Joe. The introduction pointed out that Scarborough had once been the defense attorney for an anti-abortion activist who murdered a doctor, and noted that the host had been criticized for giving insufficient attention to the murder of Dr. George Tiller, which occurred less than a week before the interview appeared.

By Friday night, though, the introduction to the Scarborough interview had been completely rewritten. Gone was any reference to abortion provider shootings, replaced instead by rather bland observations about “the rise of partisan media outlets” and “how conservatives lost their way.” What happened? Jon Meacham happened, that’s what. The Newsweek editor, a frequent guest on Morning Joe, told Gawker he was contacted about the interview by, “a member of Scarborough’s team,” and after looking at it he decided that, “it was better to include that material in the flow of the interview.”

Hmm. Journalists don’t usually think it’s “better” to make the lead of a story less newsworthy by taking out references to current events. But then, newsworthiness might not be the first thing you think of when you’re editing a story about a friend of yours who routinely gives you valuable national television exposure. Which is why the better thing to do would have been for Meacham to tell the member of Scarborough’s team that he couldn’t second-guess the web editor’s decision-making.

—And finally: on May 27, FAIR called on its supporters to contact New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt over the paper’s unskeptical coverage of a leaked Pentagon report on former
Guantánamo prisoners. In his June 6 column titled “What Happened to Skepticism?”, Hoyt cited FAIR activists and called the paper’s front-page story “seriously flawed and greatly overplayed.” He agreed with FAIR that the report—under the headline, “1 in 7 Freed Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds,”—adopted the “Pentagon’s contention that freed prisoners had ‘returned’ to terrorism, ignoring independent reporting by the Times and others that some of them may not have been involved in terrorism before but were radicalized at

Unlike many such columns, Hoyt connected the flawed article to its real world impact, noting that it provided “ammunition” for Dick Cheney’s campaign against Obama’s plan to close the offshore prison camp. Also unusual, he did not present it as an anomalous case, but compared it to the Times‘ uncritical coverage of leaked intelligence on WMDs in the lead-up to the Iraq War, and noted that it “demonstrated again the dangers when editors run with exclusive leaked material in politically charged circumstances and fail to push back skeptically.”

FAIR thanks and congratulates all the activists who contacted the Times, and thanks Clark Hoyt for taking their concerns seriously.


CounterSpin: Reported as a “bold overture to the Islamic world” in the New York Times and as “blaming America first” on Fox, Barack Obama’s June 4 speech in Cairo could obviously be understood differently depending on one’s perspective. Likewise, while some dismissed the speech as mere words, for others those words were strong signs of future policy directions, again either hopeful or worrisome, depending on what you read. Here to help us sort through the rhetoric and the reality is Phyllis Bennis, Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute, specializing in Middle East and United Nations issues. Her most recent book is called Ending the Iraq War: A Primer. [Her other books include Understanding the Palestinian/Israeli conflict: A Primer and Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power.] Welcome back to CounterSpin, Phyllis Bennis.

Phyllis Bennis: Thanks. It’s great to be with you.

CS: Well, saying is not doing, of course, but in the realm of international politics, to say certain things is significant. In that sense, what was most striking or noteworthy to you about Obama’s Cairo speech?

PB: Well I think there were several things, Janine. One is that the words themselves, in an unusual way, were more important than is ordinarily the case. And we can come in a minute to all the limitations—what wasn’t there in terms of real evidence of policy change—but one of the real dangers we faced throughout the years of Bush administration and the rise of the neo-cons across the powerful spectrum of leadership in this country was the change of discourse to one that legitimated the kind of reckless imperialism that George Bush stood for. So you had this justification for unilateralism, for militarism, as the basis for U.S. foreign policy, and unfortunately, because it was so powerful for so many years, it was taken on by many people across the United States, who responded to the politics of fear brought on by 9/11 with an embrace of that.

So when we had President Obama challenging it and moving away from that ideological framework of militarism and unilateralism, the framework that really shaped the Bush administration’s years in power, that’s very important. He used a different language and, in fact, condemned aspects of the Bush administration; didn’t just distance himself, but said they were wrong. He said that the Iraq war was a war of choice that didn’t have to be. That’s very, very important. He acknowledged, I think in an unprecedented acknowledgment for a U.S. president, that the U.S. was responsible for the overthrow of an elected government in Iran in 1953, which helps explain the U.S./Iran tensions. No president has ever been willing to do that before. And so, in that context, the discourse shift alone is very important.

Of course, on the question of policy, that’s where the real change is yet to come, and we’ll see how far it goes. His discussion of Iran was probably the most specific, where he repeated again his commitment to moving towards negotiations that would be based on no preconditions and mutual respect. That’s very important, not least because it’s the same language that Iranian leaders and Iranian intellectuals have used as the necessary basis for negotiations. The key will be now to see whether that happens. On the question of Israel/Palestine, he began with all the expected stuff that’s consistent with the Bush administration—the unbreakable bond between the U.S. and Israel, etc., etc.—but what was very different here was that he made equivalences between Palestinian and Israeli suffering, between Palestinian and Israeli legitimacy in those national struggles.

Now, in my view, there is no comparison. The Palestinians are a people living under military occupation; Israel is the occupying power. Under international law it has the obligation to end the occupation. Palestinians don’t have that same obligation, so they’re not really parallel. But after so many generations, really, in this country, it’s been two and a half generations, where we’ve seen uncritical support of Israeli occupation, Israeli apartheid, and everything that Israel does to the tune of billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic aid over the years, now three billion dollars a year in military aid, never challenging the legitimacy of Israel, never acknowledging the legitimacy of the Palestinians, to come to that equivalence, is a huge step forward.

CS: Well, and he certainly took a lot of heat on it, particularly on Fox, where just that point of saying Israel and Palestine in the same sentence, that was a half hour of fodder there. And then you also had things like Newt Gingrich, clearly responding to what you’re talking about in terms of just the discourse, saying “I am not a citizen of the world.” You know, really responding to the tone of the speech as much as its substance. Well, we’ve been talking about particular issues, and let me ask you on another point because on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Obama addressed, in both case he made statements about “we pursue no bases,” “we seek no military bases.” I wondered what you made of that in light of, well, all the bases in those countries.

PB: Well, this is very significant again, he reiterated that he intends to abide by the agreement that was signed between Iraq and the United States during the Bush administration, the last few months of the Bush administration, that with enormous pressure from the anti-war movement in the U.S. and from the Iraqi Parliament, which emerged as a major force really for the first time in those last six or eight months of the Bush presidency, the Bush administration was forced to give in— and the Maliki administration in Iraq was forced to demand— to avoid really losing all credibility, the idea of a complete U.S. withdrawal, albeit way too long. It’s by 2012, which is years too long for that withdrawal; it should happen by the next six months, not in another two and a half years.

But it was still significant that Obama reasserted his intention to abide by the terms of that agreement, including, and he mentioned them, no permanent bases. The agreement calls for the U.S. to turn over all bases to the Iraqis, no claim on resources—again that’s something that has been demanded by the peace movement since the war began, to end the claim on Iraqi oil—and the question of troop withdrawals out of the cities, out of the Iraqi cities by the end of this month, and then out of the country altogether by the end of 2011.

Again, actions will speak much louder than these very powerful words, but his reassertion of his intention to abide by that agreement and his assertion of the legitimacy of the agreement, was also very important.

CS: Well, of course we’ll be looking to journalists to really map the distance between these proclamations that Obama has made and the actual policies that result. Well, I want to ask you finally and sort of generally, I wonder, you know the Houston Chronicle had a lead that said that Obama “spoke to the world’s Muslims, and by all accounts, they listened.” Is there not some harm in having this conversation, particularly as it has had in the media, about Muslims, as if they were a precisely defined and univocal group? What’s being lost here?

PB: Absolutely, there is a sense that the Muslim World—at least they don’t say the Arab World, because of course the majority of Muslims are not Arabs—but the Muslim World, from Indonesia and Malaysia through India and Pakistan through the Arab Middle East, through Persian Iran, through much of Africa, the Muslim world is incredibly diverse and this view that you can talk to ‘the Muslim World’ in one voice with one set of words and that somehow there’s going to be a uniform way of hearing that denies the reality.

That said, I think that again, challenging the eight years of the Bush administration policy of not just addressing the Muslim World, which they never did, but treating the Muslim World as subjects of a war, as targets, as military targets of the U.S., as the enemy, this was a major shift away from that. So it’s certainly true that it’s not sufficient, it denied the wide range of opinion, of national histories, of religious approaches, of all the different things, of languages, of race and gender, and all of the things that make the Muslim World as diverse as any other part of the world. I don’t think we ever think about talking to “the Christian world” as if they are a unified whole and can speak with one voice or hear with one ear. But I think that again, in the context of U.S. presidents, it was a step forward to talk to the Islamic world rather than bomb them.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute. Her commentary “Obama in Egypt: Changing the Discourse” can be found on IPS’s website IPS-DC.org. Thank you very much, Phyllis Bennis, for joining us today on CounterSpin!

PB: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.


CounterSpin: The Boston Globe says it will impose a 23 percent wage cut on its employees beginning Sunday, June 14. The announcement comes after Globe employees rejected another austerity plan, and the Globe‘s corporate parent, the New York Times Company, moved to impose the cuts that it says are necessary to continue to operate what it says is a money-losing paper. Less reported as possible contributing factors in the Times Company‘s squeezing of the Boston Globe, are that the Times is in some financial straits itself, due in part to debt incurred in what many thought was overpaying for the Globe—it paid in the neighborhood of a billion dollars for the paper in 1993—as well as its recent building of palatial offices in New York City that it apparently cannot afford.

Joining us now is Jonathan Tasini. He’s the executive director of the Labor Research Association and he writes the blog Working Life. Recently, Tasini has appeared with some regularity defending working people, even auto workers, on, of all places, CNBC. Jonathan Tasini, welcome back to CounterSpin!

Jonathan Tasini: It’s great to be here, Steve.

CS: Well, it’s an old story, the corporate parent of a newspaper chain puts the squeeze on its smaller newspapers out in the hustings. Gannett, the owner of USA Today, has perfected the practice with its smaller papers. Not that smaller papers aren’t also important, but in the Globe‘s case, the Times Company is putting the squeeze on what’s the largest news organization in New England. Jonathan, you’ve been writing about all this on your blog, Working Life. What should listeners know about the Times and the Globe and the alleged crisis?

JT: I think you put your finger on it in the intro, Steve. The Times overpaid by industry standards for the Globe, paid over a billion dollars, and in order to do that, took on a fair amount of debt. The Times has been under pressure recently from outside investors for what’s perceived on the outside as mismanagement. The Times is controlled by the Sulzberger family—who control the company through a certain class of stock that essentially makes sure that only the insiders can really make decisions that affect the corporation—and so you’ve got a situation that people feel the company’s mismanaged and that there’s no way to change the direction of the company.

You also pointed out correctly, in addition to the debt they’ve taken on in other ventures, that they built this palace, as you put it, which has now been, I believe, leased out in order to try to undo some of the debt load that the Times is carrying.

CS: The Globe‘s newsroom union, the Boston Newspaper Guild, filed unfair labor practices charges with the NLRB on June the 10th, what do you think should be done here?

JT: Well, I think it should be negotiated, not imposed, and that’s what the upshot of the charges are: that the Times just, through the Globe, went ahead and imposed these cuts. One thing—and this will be a typical corporate story that we’ve heard before—while the Times is forcing cuts of 23 percent on its workers, it’s not enforcing those kinds of cuts on Arthur Sulzberger, the chairman and publisher of the New York Times Company, or the higher management, or the board members who are family owners, so once again the workers are taking the hit.

CS: Well, what should journalists interested in more than just the corporate side of this story be looking at? What questions should they be asking?

JT: In general, on this story, there should always be a question about how we got to this point. There’s no question of the advertising slump and a general pressure on the newspaper industry, that’s real. But one has to look at whether those companies were mismanaged by decisions that were made by publishers and upper management, whether they took on a debt load in order to make obscene profits at certain points, or to pay off their top CEOs, who have, you know, lavish packages and pensions, that is a typical story that I don’t think is different from the rest of corporate America. And that’s something that really doesn’t come out, certainly not in the coverage of the New York Times, but I don’t think that’s really the case that’s pointed out in other newspapers’ stories.

CS: Well, certainly that’s the case in a lot of newspapers’ stories, as Ben Bagdikian, the great media scholar points out, a lot of these papers would be profitable outside of those debt burdens, and those insane profit demands. It’s just that they wouldn’t be as profitable as those parent companies want them to be. Well, I want to switch gears a little bit here. In your writing on the GM bankruptcy, and about the bailout plan, you indicate that one of the problems in understanding all this is that media, for one, don’t connect the dots between high “labor costs” and health care, for example. They don’t put things in the big picture.

JT: Yeah, that’s absolutely right, and it’s very frustrating and actually drives me nuts because the underlying problem in the auto industry has not been workers getting paid too much. Auto workers could work for free and the auto industry would still be in deep trouble.

The real problem has been really threefold: One of mismanagement, the second is dumb trade policy, but the third, most obvious one, is the ideological opposition to single-payer, medicare for all healthcare system. If we had put that system in place 10, 15, 20 years ago, these auto companies never would have incurred the tens of billions of dollars in healthcare costs, which is really the largest cost that’s burdening these companies and forcing them into bankruptcy. So you have this insane ideology that’s led us, this free market ideology, this opposition to national healthcare, single-payer healthcare, which has lead us to this point, which now auto workers are taking the brunt of.

CS: Well, as mentioned, you have been appearing recently as the defender of working people, on CNBC, where you’ve found yourself squaring off against not just the likes of Larry Kudlow and James Glassman, free market conservatives, but even against ostensible “allies” such as Robert Reich. I want to ask you, what are you trying to do when you appear on CNBC? How do you see your role in that context?

JT: Sometimes I think it’s insane to appear on these programs frankly, but one of the reasons I do it is: there are a lot of people who are what I would call small investors, who watch CNBC because they think they’re going to get rich, they’re going to get some stock market tip, and they’re gong to figure out how to invest their own money. And that’s sort of the fallacy that’s been inculcated in America, that you can get rich in the stock market, so I’m really trying to speak to those people.

I’m not going to convince Maria Bartiromo and Larry Kudlow that unions are great for America, though I love to say that ’cause it makes their heads spin like in The Exorcist, but it is really trying to educate the lurkers, the people who are watching, that to have a strong labor movement means having a strong economy and that’s really the goal that I take on when I get on these programs.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Jonathan Tasini, you can read his writing on the Boston Globe, GM and other labor issues at WorkingLife.org. Thanks again for joining us on CounterSpin Jonathan Tasini!

JT: Always a pleasure.