Aug 13 2010

Rick Steiner on oil spill, Stephan Salisbury on ‘Ground Zero Mosque’


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This week on CounterSpin: Sighs of relief as BP’s Macondo well appears to be sealed, and some stories are already headlined “After the Spill.” Our guest says it’s no time to celebrate, and “after” isn’t the right word. We’ll hear from marine conservationist Rick Steiner.

Also on the show: The right-wing storyline about a radical al Qaeda-supporting imam’s proposal to build a mosque on the 9/11 ruins in Manhattan is false in virtually every aspect. The media haven’t been totally remiss in fact-checking some of the falsehoods, but how does this story fit in with the larger context of increasing Islamophobia across the country? We’ll talk to Philadelphia Inquirer cultural writer Stephan Salisbury about his piece, “Mosque Mania.”

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

—Last year, when California’s Supreme Court upheld the state’s gay marriage ban known as Proposition 8, there was little speculation about the sexual orientation of the seven justices or the possible heterosexual biases they might harbor.

But when federal Judge Vaughn Walker overturned Proposition 8 on August 4, reporting and commentary treated allegations of Walker’s gayness as a matter of fact. This, despite the fact that Judge Walker had never addressed his sexual orientation publicly. As gay activist Michelangelo Signorile noted on the Huffington Post on August 9, “most major media organizations, from the New York Times and ABC News to the Washington Post and National Public Radio, have reported on him as gay or had commentators saying it.”

This situation, while it violates the rules journalists normally use to determine if they will or will not report on a subject’s sexual orientation, was a welcome outcome to anti-gay groups who’d claimed that Walker’s alleged gayness made him biased and unfit to rule on Proposition 8. In the twisted logic of the homophobes, heterosexuals’ views on gay marriage are unbiased.

Of course there isn’t a lot of daylight between the position of those who oppose gay rights and the position of journalists who treat sexual orientation as newsworthy when judges’ decisions favor gay rights, but not worthy of mention when they don’t.

As Signorile concluded on the Huffington Post (in an article that weirdly referred to allegations of Walker’s gayness as a “smear”), this is more than a story about the tactics of the anti-gay rights right, “it’s a testament to how easily the media is manipulated by the right into doing things about which editors and reporters claim to be staunchly opposed.”

USA Today‘s lead story on August 10 was about the pay of public workers, a subject the paper has complained about repeatedly. “Federal Workers Earning Double Their Private Counterparts,” the headline read.

Well, that sounds unfair—some workers earning twice as much as their counterparts just because they work for the federal government? How could readers but agree with the source from the right-wing libertarian Cato Institute, who says, “Can’t we now all agree that federal workers are overpaid and do something about it?”

Until, that is, you get to the second-to-last paragraph, which reveals: “USA Today reported in March that the federal government pays an average of 20 percent more than private firms for comparable occupations. The analysis did not consider differences in experience and education.”

So when you look at “comparable occupations”—and don’t just put all federal workers up against all private workers—you don’t get a 100 percent difference, you get a 20 percent difference. And that’s without adjusting for differences in experience and education, which you would have to do if you wanted to make an apples-to-apples comparison. So, when you do that, is there any difference between public and private sector pay? USA Today doesn’t say.

So, underlying USA Today‘s front-page story is the assumption that in a fair system, all workers would be paid the same amount—regardless of what they do, or how much education or experience they have. That sounds like communism—a more extreme version than the old Soviet Union. It’s funny, we’ve never seen USA Today embracing radical economic philosophies before—except when it comes to lowering public workers’ wages.

—Since the announcement that Christiane Amanpour would host ABC‘s This Week, she’s been charged with everything from having bad hair to being a Taliban supporter. In reality, her show, whose debut interview was with Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral Mike Mullen, seems unlikely to break any Sunday morning molds.

Asked recently whether there would be any changes to the roundtable, Amanpour reassured that the panelists viewers “know and love,” in her words, would still be there. She did say that “we eventually want to start adding and increasing the different voices and different perspectives.” August 8’s show featured George Packer from the New Yorker, the Washington Post‘s Michael Gerson and John Harris from Politico. So, eventually definitely means not yet.

—To hear corporate media tell it, the WikiLeaks Afghan War documents weren’t news, because when civilians are killed by U.S. forces it’s covered by major newspapers. We got a reminder of how what is meant by “covered” in the August 6 New York Times. The piece discussed one incident in which Afghan officials say 52 civilians died; NATO officials say the total was 6. How does the paper explain this rather significant discrepancy? By talking to a NATO official who cannot be named, which the paper attributed to “a matter of policy because of his position”—whatever that means. Said official told the paper that Marines on the scene showed “unbelievable” restraint, and that the disparity in the body count is due to “significant political challenges” in the Afghan government. The Times quietly notes that NATO’s first response on this incident was to say that no civilians had died at all. So, the people who at first said they didn’t kill anyone at all now say that they killed a few people—far fewer than the Afghans are claiming were killed, but you shouldn’t trust what they say. Oh, and don’t use my name.

Also disheartening is the continued tone-deaf language of some reporting, as when USA Today reported August 5 on new rules of engagement for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The rules “are aimed at limiting civilian casualties,” the paper explained, because “Civilian casualties can alienate the population.” Yeah.

—And finally, last week we were wondering whether the New York Times ever corrected inaccuracies in op-eds. We wondered because the paper ran a piece claiming that Palestinians ought to realize that other Arabs don’t care about them, based on what the writer presented as a reliable survey but was in reality a website readers poll. This week we got our answer. The corrections section of the August 10 edition of the New York Times included the

following: “An op-ed article on Sunday about Arizona and immigration mistakenly suggested that javelinas are pigs. They are peccaries.” Perhaps we should rephrase the question. Does the Times correct op-eds that misrepresent people?


CounterSpin: We’re told that BP’s “static kill” measure has served to stop the gushing of oil into the Gulf of Mexico from the company’s Macondo well, leading to justified sighs of relief. But what comes now? Media often use moments like this one to talk about “lessons learned,” the extraction of which is presumably part of journalists’ job. But it’s fair also to think about it as what lessons media teach—after all they highlight some data over others, interview some sorts of folks and not other sorts. So who gets to define what it means to have “fixed” the spill?—or how “bad” it was?—or how it should affect our decisions going forward? Clearly the stakes of having that conversation misdirected are very high.

We’re joined now by Rick Steiner, marine biologist, and for many years marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska. He joins us now by phone from Anchorage.

Welcome to CounterSpin, Rick Steiner!

Rick Steiner: Thanks very much. Hi to all.

CS: Well, the basis for an editorial like USA Today ran August 6, headed “After the Spill,” which talks about how we can look back now “as the crisis ebbs and emotions calm,” as they put it. The basis for that is the fact that …

federal scientists said quite confidently Wednesday that the vast bulk of the oil is already gone (captured, evaporated, skimmed, dissipated, eaten by microbes), and survey teams have been surprised by how little of the coastline has been damaged.

The oil’s gone, then? Is that what the National Incident Command report said?

And what should we know about that report?

RS: Well, unfortunately, USA Today and many other media outlets got this wrong. I wish the oil were gone, and certainly we’ve moved into a new phase of this disaster. Even if the blow-out is truly over, the spill is not, and will continue. The federal government report, which was primarily authored by NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, basically said that there was maybe 26 percent of the oil still residing in the environment, plus 24 percent that was dispersed naturally or chemically—which just means it’s smaller than a hundred microns in diameter, which is about a 1/10th of a millimeter. They were not asserting that that oil was gone, just that it was in a small droplet size. So you add those two together, and that’s at least half of the oil out of 200 million gallons that came out, so the report itself is saying that something like 100 million gallons of this oil is still in the environment. Some of it is certainly naturally degrading but not gone. So, unfortunately, this was misinterpreted by a number of people. Secondly, there’s a number of flaws in the report, and I sincerely question the methodology by which they derived their figures, etc.

But regardless, this was a huge, and is still, a huge environmental disaster, and it is continuing. A good example is in Exxon Valdez here in Alaska 21 years ago, all of the oil came out in one day, yet there were—the cleanup went on for three successive summers and we are still here 21 years later, still dealing with a not fully-recovered ecosystem. And there’s still toxic oil in the beach sediment. So even if the oil outflow has been ceased, and that’s great if that is truly the case—and we’ll know next week—that does not mean, unfortunately, that this spill is over.

CS: So it’s not just rhetorical to say that we really shouldn’t be talking about after the spill. Well, media we’ve found, can find themselves at the heart of any story. In this case, a substantial kind of sub-dialogue has been devoted to questioning whether media coverage exaggerated the impact of the disaster—Time magazine, CNN‘s Anderson Cooper, and so on. I take it you, along with many others, think that kind of discussion is really more part of the problem than the solution.

RS: It is. I mean there’s always these questions in environmental

disasters: how bad is it? What caused it? How long will the damage last? And so forth. But in most of them, particularly this one, we knew on day one that this disaster was bad enough to do everything from a policy standpoint that’s humanly possible to prevent another recurrence of this sort of thing. You know the discussions about exactly what the environmental damage is, you know, from an academic standpoint are of interest, but from a policy standpoint, are actually surprisingly irrelevant. The bottom line is: how large was this spill?

It was too large. And how much damage did it cause? It caused too much damage.

And how long will the damage last? It will last too long. We know what caused it in general. We know it was human error, equipment failure, corporate negligence, and lax government oversight. So, that, you know, we knew on day one—with the tragic loss of the eleven rig workers and the other injuries in the explosion of the rig, even if there had not been an oil spill—that the damage was sufficient that we needed to do everything possible to prevent it in the future. So, you know, from the standpoint of environmental recovery, it will be interesting for the scientists to monitor this. As well, this is a little bit unique of an oil spill simply from the standpoint that it came out from 5,000-feet deep, 50 miles offshore, so much oil—the largest accidental spill in human history—so there is an academic, scientific interest in monitoring the impacts and the recovery. But we know that we can’t do much about the damage. We can prevent additional damage in the system, which is mainly additional large oil spills like this, and having these other chronic degradation sources corrected—like the reduced sediment loads in the Mississippi, the increased nitrogen phosphate load down in Mississippi—those sorts of things need to be corrected to help this ecosystem recover.

CS: I would say that we have seen, in this instance, so-called alternative press really fill a lot of holes in the story. In terms of mainstream media right now, it’s not wholly celebratory. We have seen a lot of “questions remain” sort of headlines. But experience teaches us that just because reporters announce, “This is important. We must continue to scrutinize this,” doesn’t actually mean they’re going to continue to scrutinize it. I wonder, finally, what kind of journalism to your mind could move this issue forward in a useful way? What kinds of stories would you like to see reporters pursuing in this moment where many might unfortunately be turning away?

RS: Well, that’s a great question, and I think basically all of it, but certainly the in-depth pieces. We’ve had some recently in Mother Jones; Rolling Stone has done some very good in-depth pieces, and some other outlets as well—the New York Times, and others.

Unfortunately, this recent report from NOAA, there’s been some inaccurate, misinterpretation of the whole thing, and folks want this thing to go away.

It’s sort of a fresh, novel angle on this spill—that there was all this worry and concern and fear for the last three months and oh, well, here’s the fresh angle. And I really get a little upset about journalists simply looking for the fresh angle, even if it’s wrong, and the contrarian angle. It’s good to pose those, but also to be very clear that this is up for the reader and viewer and listener to decide, and not for the journalist, and to incorporate all sides of the debate and do your best.

CS: We’ve been speaking with marine conservationist Rick Steiner. You can read his most recent Oil Spill update on The Mudflats at

Thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin, Rick Steiner.

RS: Thanks very much.


CounterSpin: If you’ve followed the story of the proposed Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan—dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque” by its opponents—it’s likely that you have been exposed to a good deal of the right-wing storyline that claims that an al Qaeda-supporting Imam is planning to build a mosque on the ruins of Ground Zero. This monumental slap in the face to western Christendom, apple pie, and everything else sacred—according to this line—was to be called “Cordoba House,” in honor of the Islamic conquest of Spain, where the Muslim victors built a Mosque on the ruins of a sacked Catholic Church. You may also know that this storyline doesn’t match up very well with the facts of the proposal, the Imam, or his lengthy record as an activist for understanding and tolerance.

Joining us now to talk about all of this is Stephan Salisbury. Salisbury is a cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, his report “Mosque Mania” is available on

Welcome to CounterSpin Stephan Salisbury!

Stephan Salisbury: Well, thanks for having me, Steve. I appreciate it.

CS: Well, as I’m sure many listeners know, nearly everything in the opposition storyline is wrong. The cultural center will be blocks away from Ground Zero, on Manhattan’s Park Place; the key figure behind the proposal, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has, of course, condemned al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks and is best known as American Muslim leader who strives, in the Sufi tradition of Islam, for peace and tolerance and better relations between Muslims and Westerners. He wanted to name the center “Cordoba House,” in honor of the renaissance period that flourished in Cordoba in Spain nearly a thousand years ago. We could go on about these facts, but you say in your article that what is happening around this story is not really about the cultural center. What do you mean?

SS: Well, I think that we’re really talking about America and what kind of a country it is and whether or not Muslims can be allowed to live as citizens in the United States. I think that’s ultimately what this is about.

The attacks on those who are seeking to construct the Islamic center in lower Manhattan are very similar to attacks on those who are seeking to build or expand mosques in other parts of the country and indeed in other parts of New York City, which are far away from Ground Zero. So I don’t think that this is really about constructing a mosque within the site of the sacred space of Ground Zero. I think it’s really an issue of whether or not Muslims can ever be admitted to full citizenship in the United States. It’s as simple as that, and many people clearly think that no, the answer is they cannot, they cannot be trusted. Now, the question is: well, why do people feel that way? And I think you have to go back over many years of history, certainly the history of what’s happened in this country since 9/11, and even before that—going back to the Oklahoma City bombing when you recall in 1995, subsequent to that horrible attack on the city, so-called terrorism experts took to the network airwaves and said this is absolutely the work of Islamic extremists from the Middle East, it bears all their stamps, they care little about life. Then of course that’s not what proved to be the case. Subsequent to that attack, there were widespread reprisal actions, beatings and whatnot. In the wake of 9/11 all that was multiplied geometrically. 9/11 was a horrific event, and the reprisals that followed were equally horrific. People were killed in retaliation across the country. The government established a framework for people to operate in this sort-of shadow world. On the one hand, President Bush was saying oh, Islam is peace; on the other hand, the Justice Department was going out and rounding up thousands and thousands and thousands of Muslims, interrogating them, deporting them, detaining them, jailing them, charging them with whatever could stick.


the Justice Department and the federal government in general and law enforcement on down the line to the local level, were operating in a world in which they were charged with preventing the next attack at all costs. In essence they were engaged in a pre-crime activities. Who can predict what a person might do? So, in essence, your neighbor, my neighbor could in fact be someone operating undercover—deep, deep cover that law enforcement was basically given a free hand to round up anyone. And all this activity focuses on Muslims I think generated the feeling in the country at large, aside from tremendous fear and anxiety, the sense that well, if law enforcement is looking so hard at this specific group, they must be looking for something—there must be something there. And in fact, Robert Mueller, the head of the FBI, said well, what we’re most worried about is what we can’t see, what we’re not seeing. When law enforcement operates in that world, it’s a prescription for trouble. So, now we’re in a position where there’ve been a few highly publicized incidents, and less publicized are what’s happened in their wake. There were bombings of a mosque in Florida in the wake of the Times Square incident from last May, you may recall, and arson attacks on mosques in Tennessee and Texas and the proliferation of these protests against mosques.

All of which, almost all of which are inflamed by two things: the grassroots activism of the Tea Party movement, which is a relatively new phenomenon—and they’ve been prominent in the controversy over the Lower Manhattan Islamic Center—and the fact that it’s an election year, and members of largely the Republican Party have been seeking to exploit for their own poliltical purposes these controversies. You see it in New York with Rick Lazio identifying himself with opposition to the Cordoba House project. We saw it in Tennessee in a Congressional race where one of the candidates identified with opposition—a very, very rancorous dispute over a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, pushed by the Wilson County Tea Party. The candidate for the governor’s office, Republican candidate opposed that project, too, and then went so far as to say that Islam is not a religion, it’s a cult, it’s an ideology that shouldn’t be afforded protections of the First Amendment. You see it out in California with the protests there, which has been pushed by some freelance members of various Tea Party groups. And the local, and the Baptist Church there, for example, has come up with another theme that you hear a lot at these opposition protests, that mosques are associated with cells of Islamic terrorists and therefore we can’t have an expanded appropriate house of worship for Muslims in Temecula, California. Then, added to that—I think this is the final element—is the terrific economic anxiety that people are feeling now as the economy is crippled and it’s faltering. And all this is a very combustible mix that’s just waiting for someone to come along and synthesize it all—to bring together the demonization of Muslims and the economic anxiety—and at that point, we’ll be in for something probably a little bit worse than McCarthy.

CS: What about the practice of including in the media discussion, commentators who see Muslims as evil or innately criminal? On August 11, CNN‘s Anderson Cooper had a guest on who said “Islam is a lie from the pit of hell.” It reminds us of a time in the ’50s and early ’60s when Klan members used to appear on televised debates about civil rights. Now how have the media been doing in covering this story—the smaller New York story and the larger story in your view?

SS: By the time these protests reach certainly the national level, they’ve been defined by those who oppose the project. And that’s certainly the case in New York where opposition kind of blindsided the proponents of the Islamic Center. And this opposition was able to frame the debate as a mosque at Ground Zero, and people still talk about a mosque at Ground Zero. And the media has been very slow on the uptake here in questioning the definitions and perspectives that opponents have used and have often simply adopted the terminology. Now that’s beginning to change a little bit certainly, I think, with the New York controversy. But even in New York there’s been little certainly mainstream exploration of who the opponents of this project are. Who are the people who really began it, have been beating the drums against this project? Who in the Tea Party movement? What other things are they doing? Mark Williams of the Tea Party Express who talked about the monument at Ground Zero to the monkey god of Islam or, you know, the Stop Islamization of America group which is run by a couple of people, one of whom has cartoons of Prophet Muhammed as a pig on her website—there are other backers of that group who have some pretty extreme views. The press has not been as diligent in reporting some of this stuff as it might be.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Stephan Salisbury. You can read his piece, “Mosque Mania,” at

Thanks again for joining us on CounterSpin

today, Stephan Salisbury.

SS: Thanks, Steve. I appreciate it.