Sep 24 2010

Reza Aslan on Turkey, Todd Tucker on free trade agreements


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This week on CounterSpin: Turkey voted on a package of constitutional reforms this month. The message you heard in much of the media coverage is that the victory for the ruling Islamic party, Justice and Development, is more evidence that Turkey is drifting in the wrong direction, shunning the West and playing to its Islamic majority. But does this analysis make sense? We’ll talk to author and professor Reza Aslan.

Also on the show: More so-called free trade agreements are on the White House agenda; Obama says they’re the way to increase exports, which is the way to create jobs. He won’t get any pushback on that from the corporate press corps who never met a free trade deal they didn’t love, but what if the whole “FTAs lead to export growth” idea is flawed? Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch has a new report that says just that. We’ll hear from its co-author, Todd Tucker.

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

—When the White House announced that Lawrence Summers would be stepping down as Obama’s chief economic adviser, the New York Times and Washington Post had very similar takes. The Times‘ Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote that the news “set off speculation that Mr. Obama would replace him with a corporate executive to counter the impression that he is anti-business.” The Post‘s Lori Montgomery likewise reported that “the White House is considering whether to choose a candidate who could blunt criticism that the administration has been anti-business, such as a corporate chieftain or prominent investor.”

The suggestions that Larry Summers represents an “anti-business” strain in economic thinking is kind of bizarre. Prior to joining the administration, he was a managing director at DE Shaw, a gigantic hedge fund that paid him $5.2 million in 2008. In the same year, he collected $2.7 million in consulting fees from other financial firms, including Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. Clearly Wall Street didn’t detect too much “anti-business” attitude.

It’s not like Summers’ Wall Street ties are a secret—just the day before these articles appeared, a New York Times blog recalled how much money he’d made there, and noted accurately, that Summers “has often been criticized for his close ties to the financial sector and dubbed a conduit for Wall Street to influence the White House.” Seems like the blog, DealBook, is presumed to be read by financial insiders and so it can report honestly on such connections; when you’re writing for the front section of the print edition though, you have to maintain the pretense that the only criticisms of Summers should come from the right.

—”Nearly Half Oppose Tax Hike for Rich,” read the headline of a September 16 Associated Press story about their poll about taxes.

That’s one way to put it. Just like one could report the results of the 1988 election by saying that Michael Dukakis got “nearly half” of the popular vote.

The more logical way of putting it would be that More Than Half support letting tax cuts expire for the rich: 54 percent, as opposed to 44 percent. But framing it instead around the minority position lets AP focus on how Democrats might worry about “provoking the 44 percent who say the reductions should include the wealthy”—as opposed to worrying about provoking the majority who don’t feel that way.

And it’s a majority that’s particularly strong among Democratic voters (75 percent), who are presumably the ones Democratic lawmakers need to be most worried about, particularly given the much-remarked drop in “enthusiasm” among those voters.

—Media can pack a lot of bias into just a few words. Here’s the New York Times‘ September 20

But as the first full week of the 2010 general election season opens across the country on Monday, Washington is scheduled once again to debate immigration and gay men, lesbians and bisexuals in the military, two deeply divisive social issues that threaten to polarize the conversation on the campaign trail.

Let’s see: A CNN poll a couple of months back found a full 78 percent of respondents support repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell—not a lot of social division there. Immigration of course is somewhat trickier, but the legislation they’re talking about would provide a path to citizenship for students who have been here 5 years and are either attending college or who have served in the military. A poll cited in the Texas Tribune found 70 percent in support of that.

It would be much more helpful if reporters explained that when they say “divisive social issues” that will “polarize” the campaign, they mean that a handful of Republican politicians will very loudly endorse the views of a shrinking segment of the public. And reporters will write about them.

—With midterm elections approaching, we’re bound to see new polls that attempt to assess the mood of the electorate. The New York Times had one poll in its Sept 16 edition. Amidst the usual bad news for Democrats, the Times noted this fact:

The economy and jobs are increasingly and overwhelmingly cited by Americans as the most important problems facing the country, while the deficit barely registers as a topic of concern when survey respondents were asked to volunteer their worries.

Well, huh? The New York Times has spent a lot of time telling readers that the public cared very deeply about the deficit; in a June 24 Action Alert, FAIR asked the paper to provide evidence for those assertions. Like when Times reporter Matt Bai suggested in June that “the federal deficit has emerged as a chief concern for voters.” Or when the Times reported on June 18 that the Senate’s failure to pass a spending bill was evidence that lawmakers were “reacting to rising public concern” about the deficit. Now it’s not that the Times was the only outlet doing this; deficit panic has been a pretty widespread media phenomenon. But since the Times never responded to FAIR’s criticism, we wonder, is this the way the paper has chosen to correct the record?

—And finally, USA Today‘s Money section had a piece on September 20 headlined: “Wal-Mart raises bar on going green: Retailer today to announce new solar power initiative.” As with a lot of what passes for reporting about the retail giant, the article felt a lot more like a press release than a serious newspaper article.

For starters, if you get past the headline, you learn that Wal-Mart’s goal 5 years ago was to be 100 percent reliant on renewable energy. The new solar plan, announced here with great fanfare, is to “almost double the number of locations” that use solar power. Readers also learn that Wal-Mart has “barely made a dent” in its 100 percent goal. So this would seem to represent a significant reduction in the company’s commitment to green energy—which would be the opposite of the headline’s suggestion that the company is raising the bar.

So why is this story about Wal-Mart anyway? That question may have occurred to some readers as they learned, well into the article, that the company is not ahead of the retail pack when it comes to using renewable energy—USA Today says that’s actually the Kohl’s department store chain-and that another corporate giant, Kimberly Clark, “produces far more green power than Wal-Mart.” Again, readers are left wondering what’s so special about Wal-Mart’s efforts in this area. There is a pro forma nod to the company’s many critics, whose views are quickly rebutted. The article does mention in passing that Wal-Mart “isn’t pursuing renewables just for good PR.” But that is just what USA Today gave them.


CounterSpin: If you were reading U.S. media coverage closely, you knew that there was a major vote on constitutional reforms in Turkey on September 12. But what those reforms were, and what they meant, was far less clear. The message that some media outlets seemed to be sending was that this was a victory for the ruling Islamic party, or AKP. The storyline, then, was one of an Islamic country that embraces what we like to call “Western values” moving in the wrong direction. But does this interpretation make much sense?

Our next guest offered a very different take in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. Reza Aslan is the author of several books, including No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. He is an associate professor of creative writing at UC Riverside.

Reza Aslan, welcome to CounterSpin.

Reza Aslan: Thanks for having me.

CS: Now, I wanted to read to you the lead sentence of the New York Times story on the Turkey vote, since it did seem to capture the certain line that we were seeing in the press coverage. Here’s the way the Times put it:

Turkish voters approved a sweeping package of constitutional reforms by a wide margin on Sunday, handing a major victory to the Islamist-rooted government that continued the country’s inexorable shift in power away from the secular Westernized elite that has governed modern Turkey for most of its history.

So an Islamist government prevails over secular Western sentiments. That’s the message, and that sounds like a bad thing, doesn’t it?

RA: Well, now, everything in that sentence is actually true, but it’s a good thing. It is true that the AKP is essentially an Islamist party, we call it a mildly Islamist party. Now what that means, because the term Islamism can mean almost anything, it essentially just means that they are a party very much modeled on Europe’s Christian democrats, which are as committed to the Constitutional values of democracy and human rights and pluralism. And every single action that this party has taken in the decade or so that they have been in power has only furthered human rights, has furthered the rights of speech and religious freedoms, and made Turkey into much more of a democratic state than it has ever been. And yes it’s true that over these last decades that they’ve been in power, they’ve been slowly chipping away at the control that the—what the New York Times referred to as the sort of secular elite have had. Now the secular elite in Turkey primarily means the military. The military has on four separate occasions conducted military coups overturning democratically-elected governments in Turkey “in the name of secularism.” But what Turkey calls secularism, most other people would call authoritarianism, or totalitarianism. Under the “secular regimes” in Turkey, many of them military regimes, Kurds have been stripped of their human rights; Christians in Turkey have been marginalized and oppressed; the rights of women have been trampled upon. The notion that under the secular regimes no woman in Turkey is allowed to get any kind of education, either at a high school or a college education if she decides to put a simple piece of cloth on her hair, is not what most people would say is an actual democratic state. And what the AKP has done, with enormous support from Turks themselves, is begin to chip away at the myths that the only path to democracy in Turkey is at the hands of this so-called secular elite. Here’s a party that espouses, you know, Islamic values, but not Islamic law by any means. And yet who has managed to bring Turkey closer to a full-fledged democracy than any other government has since Turkey’s founding in 1924.

CS: Some of the news articles—you would read through them, and you had a hard time assessing what was actually in these constitutional reforms. The suggestion was that there was something amiss here, but you’re—I remember reading the New York Times story and there was a Sports section story that ironically enough gave a little more information about the reforms than the news article did. It was about the Turkish national team playing in a basketball game, and you saw in one sentence that the reforms were affirmative action, the rights of children, labor rights were going to be enhanced and enforced, and you thought well this is a very different impression than I’m getting from the news article.

RA: Right. The previous Constitution, the Constitution that this referendum reformed, was written by the military after their last coup against the democratically-elected government in Turkey. They deposed that government and then sat down and amongst themselves, the generals themselves, wrote a Constitution. Well, there’s obviously a lot of problems with that kind of process. And what the AKP has done, and I think this is the first step toward writing a new Constitution, is that they have created these reforms that you say, giving greater labor laws, giving greater rights to women and to minorities, to the handicapped. They have taken the military essentially out of the politics in Turkey. Now, at the same time there has been some fairly legitimate, I think, criticism by some people, who have said that well what this does is it puts too much power in the hands of the AKP. And especially it gives them too much power over the judicial system, over the courts. Now understand, under the previous Constitution, no member of the military could actually be tried in a civilian court for any kind of crime. And the military has been accused of murder, of rape, or torture, and they have basically gotten away scot-free. On the one hand it’s good that the military is no longer influential in the court system; on the other hand, if you believe that the AKP has some sort of evil designs on Turkey, and you hear this all the time that, you know they’re just, any minute now going to pull off their masks and you’ll see that they’re all really ayatollahs underneath and they’ll want to turn Turkey into another Iran. If that’s how you feel, then yeah, you’re going to be nervous about the fact that the AKP has more power to appoint the judiciary. However, if you are a promoter of democracy, that’s how it’s supposed to work. I mean, the AKP is in power because they get elected into power, and if they become unpopular, or if their policies begin to fail, they’ll be voted out of power. The truth is is what the Constitution has done is it’s given the democratic apparatus of Turkey, regardless of who is the prime minister or the president, the powers that any democracy should give them in order to appoint judges and make sure that the judiciary is independent of the military.

CS: If we pull back a little bit, there does seem to be in the last couple of months some elite panic about where Turkey’s heading. The Gaza flotilla attack, we saw Turkey very assertive in criticizing Israel—that was a problem; it made people nervous. There’s a story in the New York Times today about Turkey at the UN and Turkey’s “muscle-flexing.” There does seem to be a bigger story here than this constitutional vote. It’s something that you’ve written about and spoken about: the idea that democracy and Islam are mostly incompatible. Is this still, do you think, a significant hurdle to understanding something like the political dynamics in Turkey?

RA: I think it is for some people and for some commentators. It’s a ridiculous notion. I mean the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia, is a democracy. The second-largest Muslim country in the world, Turkey, is a democracy. Pakistan is a democracy; Malaysia is a democracy; Bangladesh is a democracy; Senegal is a democracy. I mean, one-third of the world’s one and a half billion Muslims live in democracies. So, you know, it’s just empirically false, this idea that somehow Islam and democracy are incompatible. It’s frankly a stupid argument, but it’s one that you hear a lot. But that’s not what the hand-wringing over Turkey is really about. The truth is that Turkey is now, unquestionably, the new superpower in the Middle East. And it’s beginning to sort of feel its oats a little bit. It’s economy is the third fastest economy, third fastest GDP-growth in the world, behind Singapore and Taiwan. Turkey actually came out of the global recession stronger and more economically stable than before the global recession. It’s the only Muslim-majority country in NATO, and for many, many, many years it has been sort of the bridge between the East and West—to sort of rely on the old cliche—and it has been a reliable partner of the United States. Well, Turkey’s not really willing to play that role any longer. Turkey wants to be an independent nation, a powerhouse in the region, an ally of the U.S. for sure, but not sort of America’s lap dog any longer.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Reza Aslan. He is the author of several books, including the most recent one: Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Globalized Age. You can read his work at

Reza Aslan, thanks for joining us today on CounterSpin.

RA: Thanks for having me.


CounterSpin: The Obama White House has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years. At last week’s meeting of the Export Council Obama said this meant “building an economy where America’s businesses and American workers once again do what they do best, which is build great products and sell them around the world.” A key step to achieve that: new trade agreements, like those pending with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. While occasional nods are made to a downside for some workers and the environment, that so-called “free trade agreements” lead to export growth is an unchallenged tenet of mainstream reporting, as well as mainstream politics. Which makes a new report from Public Citizen, “Lies, Damn Lies and Export Statistics,” a pretty unwelcome guest at the party.

Todd Tucker is the co-author of that report, and research director at Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch; he joins us now by phone from Washington, D.C.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Todd Tucker!

Todd Tucker: Thanks for having me.

CS: Well, we often recall the 1993 New York Times front-page article that began: “Free trade means growth. Free trade means growth. Free trade means growth. Just say it 50 more times and all doubts will melt away.” And it wasn’t a joke. Corporate media have acknowledged that FTAs, Free Trade Agreements, shaft a great number of workers, but that’s always trumped by the notion that they do something for the economy that will eventually be good for everybody. Now, critics have always felt shafting workers was bad enough, but your new work suggests these deals don’t even necessarily even do that supposedly mitigating thing.

TT: Yeah, that’s right. The trade agreements, even though they’re branded under the name free trade, are in fact long documents, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of pages long, where a minority of the provisions in the agreement actually deal with things you might consider trade, such as reducing tariffs, reducing export quotas. A lot of what is in these agreements have a lot more to do with the ways we regulate or don’t regulate the economy, and also what kind of rights investors have, private property owners have, within the whole domestic regulatory mix. But there’s always been criticisms of trade deals. There’s, you know, even sort of corporate apologists for these agreements, have often admitted that there may be some environmental destruction associated with them, that there may even be workers displaced by imports. But up until now, they’ve always had the talking point unchallenged in the mainstream media, as you mentioned, that whatever else these deals might do, they do increase exports. And we looked at this question, and we found in fact, that in relative terms FTAs do not help exports, Free Trade Agreements do not help exports. They’re not associated with an even higher than average growth rate in our exports to other countries. So then that means that there’s other reasons that we need to look at for what may be influencing the flow of U.S. exports overseas and have a bit more of an honest conversation about that, rather than just the ongoing sales job on the part of corporate America.

CS: Well, research from the Chamber of Commerce and of the National Association of Manufacturers had been used prominently to promote these FTAs as an engine of export growth. So how do you account for your findings, which are the opposite?

TT: Well, one of the main things that corporations do when they are making these kind of projections is they include in their estimates things called re-exports—these are basically products that are not made by U.S. workers but which pass through U.S. ports. And if you use those numbers, it artificially inflates the U.S. exports abroad. We looked into some of their math, and we found just a number of mathematical errors as well that perhaps unsurprisingly tended to be helpful of their conclusion that trade deals were good for exports. So in our report we go—it’s a 42-page report—and we go sort of line by line through a number of these studies, both by the Chamber of Commerce and by the National Association of Manufacturers, and really just kind of catalog both errors and sort of questionable methodologies that they’ve used to boost export numbers. And again, we find that you can say that over ten years exports to a given country grew by some phenomenal amount, but the question at the end of the day from a social science perspective, needs to always be relative to what? Does that go above or below the average? And we find in the report that our exports to trade deal countries are actually growing at quite a bit slower rate.

CS: Well, the New York Times story on the Public Citizen report was given the headline, “In the Form of a Study, a Salvo from the Left Questions Obama’s Trade Goals.” We don’t often find pro-free trade reports presented as “salvos” “in the form of” studies, but there you go. I wonder what you made, overall, of the media treatment because it did get pick-up?

TT: That’s right. Yeah, we had stories in the New York Times, Washington Post, there was even a 5:00PM Wolf Blitzer segment on it. And I think actually what I was interested in was on the CNN segment Wolf Blitzer did a segment, a taped segment with myself and then with someone from the opposing side of the aisle: The Peterson Institute, which has tended to back trade deals like NAFTA. And on that taped segment we found that there was a quote from an economist from the Peterson Institute saying something to the effect of, oh Public Citizen is right about the need for a greater social safety net to deal with workers displaced by imports, but there’s a net benefit to our trade agreements—kind of refusing to engage with the substance of the report. And of course Public Citizen does care about the social safety net, does care about environmental regulations, I mean, that’s our main work, but really sort of refusing to engage with the central finding of the report. But then I was surprised, pleasantly surprised that Wolf Blitzer in the following segment used our report as the basis to begin questioning an Obama administration official about the administration’s plan to push a NAFTA-modeled trade agreement with Korea, and was actually fairly aggressive, and the administration official, Fred Hochberg tried to dodge the question, but Blitzer kept going back to the finding of the report to have him address that. So we were pleased with that, that was fairly serious journalism, I would say. But unfortunately we have seen an attempt both by the Chamber of Commerce and by the National Association of Manufacturers to sort of throw out very obscure sort of questions about our methodology that then aren’t really contested in the reporting. So I think that the corporate groups figure if they throw out an arcane enough an objection, and they can get it picked up in the press cycle in the next week, then maybe by the following week, no one will be reporting on our report anymore. That’s fairly cynical on their part, but we’ve been doing what we can to actually speak about what was in the report and how we really up to this point anticipated every objection that the other side has made.

CS: Yeah, there’s a big difference in taking the data and using it as a springboard for further questions and just kind of having another comment from somebody else, and then you wind up with a kind of pox on both their houses type of thing that doesn’t leave the viewer with any more information. I mean, the Washington Post in their write-up called the conversation-the dispute about re-exports that you mentioned—a “typically arcane dispute.” And it seems to me, finally, that you’re saying that this shouldn’t be arcane, that’s kind of your whole point, that there are real people affected here, and we have to make a real effort to clear the terms of debate so we can have an honest discussion.

TT: That’s right. That’s right. If corporate groups have been using inflated statistics all these years as support for their claim as to why Americans need to stomach more of these controversial and harmful trade deals, then they better be willing to back that up with something more than just kind of a he-said-she-said frame in the media cycle. So we’ve been again pleased with some of the journalism, but also really sort of wish that if we’re going to bring up these methodological questions that we actually give both sides a fair hearing.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Todd Tucker, research director at Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and co-author, with Travis McArthur, of their new report on export statistics. Find them on the web at

Thanks very much, Todd Tucker.

TT: Thank you.



Reza Aslan

—Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch