Dec 3 2010

Robert Naiman on WikiLeaks-Honduras, Richard Prince on the Scott sisters

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This week on CounterSpin: WikiLeaks strikes again, this time with the release of 250,000 diplomatic cables that shed considerable light on how U.S. foreign policy is conducted. The headlines so far are about Iran’s weapons and the perilous situation in Pakistan. But one story hasn’t received enough media attention: how the U.S. embassy really saw the 2009 coup in Honduras. How did this cable conflict with official U.S. pronouncements and corporate media spin? We’ll talk to Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy.

Also on CounterSpin today: Two women are serving double life sentences in Mississippi for the alleged robbery of $11? Virtually everyone who hears the story of the Scott sisters finds it an unconscionable act of injustice. Which makes the next question: how many people will get to hear it? We’ll talk to Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education about the story of the Scott sisters and who, so far, finds it worth telling.

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

—One of the things we were supposed to learn from the Iraq War debacle was not to take government claims at face value. It was odd, then, to see the way the New York Times treated one of the recently leaked WikiLeaks cables on November 29. The paper refused to publish the cable, but did run an article touting the explosive allegation that Iran had received powerful new missiles from North Korea, giving them “the capacity to strike at capitals in Western Europe.”

But a look at the cable in question—which was posted on the WikiLeaks website—should have given the Times some reasons to be cautious. The cable recounted a meeting between U.S. and Russian officials. While the Times faithfully gave the U.S. case, it utterly failed to present any sense of the Russian side; their intelligence officials doubted the very existence of these BM-25 missiles, and pointed out that North Korea had never been shown to have successfully tested them. Further doubts were raised in the December 1 Washington Post, which actually quoted a U.S. official downplaying the notion that any such missiles ever made it to Iran. And independent experts were equally suspicious of the U.S. claims. The Post pointed out that in the cable, U.S. officials claim to have learned of this supposed transaction in a German newspaper—which actually hadn’t reported what the Times and U.S. officials were claiming.

We’re waiting to see how the Times responds to these criticisms. In the meantime, the paper’s big scoop has been picked up everywhere in the media, often treated as fact. The New York Times, a big story about an enemy’s fearsome weapons, a total lack of skepticism… seems like this has happened before.

—Speaking of the Times, the Paper of Record is a lot like other corporate media outlets in that they’re constantly advising Democratic politicians to move to the right. The most recent call came on December 1, when Matt Bai used the debt commission to ask whether Barack Obama will finally stand up to the liberal base of the Democratic party. The headline of his piece: “Debt-Busting Issue May Force Obama Off Fence.”

As Bai sees it, Obama isn’t a Bill Clinton-style “triangulator,” and that’s a big problem. It “seems to have put Mr. Obama in something of a box. Since he isn’t willing to break publicly with liberals, independent and conservative voters tend to see him as a tool of the left.” Bai did note that the left is unhappy too, which made his argument somewhat confusing. But what is clear to him is Obama’s willingness to cross the party base. Except for escalating the Afghan War, doing nothing on card check or immigration, a pay freeze for federal workers, offshore drilling, failing to close
Guantánamo, leaving intact most of Bush’s “war on terror” policies and junking the public option, Matt Bai is right—Obama has never really told the party base to stuff it.

Bai also mentioned—as he’s fond of doing—that “The national debt is near the top of any list of voter concerns at the moment.” Except that it’s not; a recent post-election CBS poll found a whopping 4 percent of respondents believed this to be the top issue the new Congress should address. Earlier New York Times polls found the same. Bai’s entitled to dispense nonsensical political advice we suppose, but shouldn’t reporters should be expected to get facts right.

—Listeners may know that the Pentagon’s own study of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy found that 70 percent of active-duty and reserve forces saw little or no problem with ending it. But you wouldn’t guess that from reading the Washington Post. As Jason Linkins pointed out on Huffington Post, the paper’s December 1 story, “”Voices of the troops from the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ report”, inexplicably backgrounded that 70 percent, in favor of a focus on…well, here’s the story’s lede:

Some expressed fears about contracting AIDS or getting leered at in the showers. Others worried that it would get in the way of critical bonding at barbecues and bar outings. Still others said it would be an affront to their religious beliefs and harm the military’s credibility.

The news of the actual study comes in the third paragraph. It’s just the latest in a series of strange calls at the Post, which you might remember chose National Coming Out Day to run an op-ed by anti-gay bigot Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. The paper subsequently defended that call, noted Linkins and Pam Spaulding, by suggesting it was “balance” to a live chat they’d hosted with Dan Savage, of the YouTube It Gets Better campaign aimed at preventing gay and lesbian suicides. There’s not much to say about a paper that thinks “it gets better” is a view that needs countering.

—The November 29 New York Times reported on the re-election of a governor of Okinawa, Japan, who opposes the U.S. military base there. Strangely, the article seemed to treat what would seem to be central—the views of the people who live there—as one thing to maybe think about, and an annoying, in-the-way thing at that, with people’s resistance to the base described variously as a “wrench,” (in U.S.-Japanese relations) a “thorn” (in their alliance) an “obstacle” and a “headache” for the White House.

Overwhelming local opposition to the base is noted second, after the Japanese prime minister’s view that the base is “a critical deterrent against regional security threats—a message driven home by North Korea’s deadly artillery strike on a South Korean islet on Tuesday.” Can you “drive home” something that isn’t true? It sounds more like the Times thinks the deterrence capability’s crucialness is a fact, not a “message,” and that the artillery strike just proves it. One might just as easily point out that the U.S. presence there could be part of what keeps North Korea on edge. The fact that South Korea can conduct mock invasions and war games with the assistance of the most powerful military on the planet might not seem like peacekeeping to everyone.

The Okinawan governor’s opponent’s proposal that the base be moved out of Japan altogether earns the epithet “strident” from the Times—just by definition, evidently, since the paper doesn’t point out any way he was particularly loud or shrill about it. Just having the wrong position, it seems, makes you a ranter.

—And finally, the WikiLeaks documents have been the dominant story in the media; those conversations have featured a parade of establishment figures criticizing the website’s decision to publish the leaked cables. Public television’s guest lists have hardly been much better than commercial TV, and one comment from the Charlie Rose show stood out to us. Former Clinton State Department official Jamie Rubin declared that the WikiLeaks documents amounted to a “attack against the American government’s ability to conduct its foreign policy.”

And he went on to say this:

And ironically, the State Department are the people who are trying to do the job that the WikiLeaks founder says he’s trying to do, which is world peace. It’s not going to happen if the State Department can’t make secret agreements sometimes with foreign leaders.

Now, we were not aware that the State Department’s job is to create world peace. But Jamie Rubin did work there, so he would know better.


CounterSpin: The latest WikiLeaks documents have elicited a range of media reactions. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange should be tried for espionage, or he should be executed. The documents are a grave assault on U.S. democracy, or they tell us absolutely nothing new. There’s another line of thinking that suggests the lesson is that U.S. diplomats are doing good work. As one L.A. Times columnist put it, the cables “don’t show unauthorized war, fraudulent procurement practices or unexpected assassination. They don’t show America forming significant alliances with sworn enemies or visiting unexpected deceit on friends.”

Well, that’s a pretty low bar. But one WikiLeaks lesson mostly eluding the media concerns the 2009 coup in Honduras. The diplomatic cables on that event portray the U.S government as reaching one rather definitive conclusion about the illegality of that coup—a conclusion they didn’t press much in public. So how much does this revelation tell us about a story the media so thoroughly botched in real time? Robert Naiman is policy director for the group Just Foreign Policy, and he’s put some of those pieces together. He joins us now by phone.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Robert Naiman.

Robert Naiman: Good to be with you.

CS: Well, for the sake of a reminder: in 2009, this left-leaning president of Honduras Manuel Zelaya was removed from office in a military coup. The story we were told was that he was trying to engineer some sort of vote in order to remain in office, in violation of the constitution of the country. So while a coup seemed extreme, the real danger here was this Hugo Chávez-style autocrat trying to cling to power. Now, in the WikiLeaks document there is a diplomatic cable from our embassy in the country, and what does it tell us, exactly?

RN: It tells us that according to the view of the embassy a month after the event, after investigating the event, and investigating the law, they gave their summary view of what happened and its legality and its constitutionality. And the document is an exemplar of moral clarity. The ambassador said there is no doubt that the events of June 28, constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup. The subject of the cable was “Open and Shut: The Case of the Honduran Coup.” This cable, this was the topic, the focus: what happened, was it legal, was it constitutional? This cable went through the arguments being given by supporters of the coup and said none of them has substantive validity under the Honduran constitution. And it referred to what the military did as kidnapping and abducting President Zelaya.

So this is totally clear cut, and it’s very different from the story certainly that U.S. news consumers, newspaper readers had during this period after the coup, where supporters of the coup in the United States-including Republican members of Congress and media talking heads— were saying, well, now, it’s complicated, President Zelaya broke the law, and he took unconstitutional action, and it’s not clear it’s a coup, it’s not clear it’s a military coup.

And the State Department itself a month after this cable was sent, in an August 25 press conference was telling reporters that State Department military lawyers were still studying the events and the law to determine whether a “military coup” had taken place. Because that was the trigger under U.S. law for cutoff of U.S. aid; U.S. law requires U.S. aid to be cut off to a government if there is a military coup.

But this document, this July 25 document, highlights—this secret cable that we now have—highlights that this August public policy was total nonsense because there wasn’t any ambiguity. And a month earlier, our ambassador—and this is part of the ambassador’s job is to report from the country back to Washington what’s going on here—the embassy had already reviewed the evidence, had come to this crystal clear conclusion that a military coup had taken place.

So U.S. aid should have been cut off immediately, and the reason that it wasn’t clearly was that officials in Washington were pursuing a different game, trying to engineer a diplomatic compromise that would allow President Zelaya to come back but with sharply curtailed powers, and so on and so forth.

So there was a big contradiction between the world as the U.S. embassy knew it—namely, there’s been a military coup, it’s clear cut—and the world as presented to the public by the State Department a month later saying well, these events are murky, and reality is in between.

And this is what was reflected in U.S. press coverage, saying oh well reasonable people can disagree about what happened, and the reality is murky.

In fact, that legacy persists today. So there was just a report in the Hill about Lanny Davis being hired by the now-Honduran government, and it refers to the events by saying many called it a coup. Well, you know, that’s a legacy of well, people disagree and some people called it a coup and some people called it something else. That’s a legacy that was created by these two different realities: the reality that the embassy of Honduras knew as reflected in the secret cable that we now have and what was presented to the public by the U.S. government. In that Los Angeles Times piece it claimed that there’s no examples of deceiving our allies, but this is an example of deceiving the American people. What the American people got from news media was very different from the reality as the embassy of Honduras knew it.

CS: When we talk about what media are expecting or looking for in these WikiLeaks cables, you see a lot of references to well, it’s nothing that we didn’t know already or it just retells us stories we already know. As you’re pointing out, actually this cable is telling us something that we didn’t know or at least it conflicts with the official line on something. How much coverage did this cable get in the media in the last couple of days?

RN: It got some coverage. CNN had a very good piece, which not only reported the cable but got the story right. The lead paragraph of the CNN story was the contradiction between what the embassy was telling top government officials and what the public line of the U.S. was, namely it’s murky as opposed to it’s clear cut. McClatchy had a story which missed that completely. The headline was, you know, “All Sides Committed Crimes,” which is not the story, and then it just reported the cable without putting it in the context of what happened in U.S. policy—what was the contradiction between this cable and what U.S. policy was during the time that this cable was written.

CS: There is this idea that—from people who are critics of releasing these cables—that this going to harm the ability of U.S. officials to conduct foreign policy, which requires the ability to say one thing in private and another thing publicly, this is part of the work of diplomats and of our foreign policy. Broadly speaking, bigger than Honduras, how do you respond to that idea that these are things that we just shouldn’t know?

RN: Well, this is an example of something that we should have known. We should have known that the U.S. government internally saw it as clear cut. And more generally, we should know when the—if U.S. policy in its official justification is based on descriptions of reality that are not true, then we should know that because we should be trying to have a policy that’s based on reality as it is. And, of course, you know, if you believe that U.S. foreign policy should be determined democratically because it’s something the U.S. government does and we live in a democracy, then people have to have access to the information about what’s really going on.

If the war in Afghanistan, if top government officials are telling each other that U.S. policy has failed, we need to know that. We can’t have a discussion about what the policy should be based on somebody telling us that the policy is working if in fact top U.S. government officials are telling each other that the policy has failed.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Robert Naiman from the group Just Foreign Policy. You can follow their work at

Robert Naiman, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

RN: Good to be with you.


CounterSpin: The relationship between reporting and social justice is long and compelling; the sunshine of press scrutiny can save lives. But what does it take to turn it on? One story of a serious perversion of justice in Mississippi has been alive, mostly in local and African American media, including blogs and radio, for many months now, but is only slowly breaking through to a national stage—and that, it seems worth noting, due largely to African American columnists and hosts. The story of the Scott sisters, Jamie and Gladys, still has a hope of being one of those “power of the press” ones, but that will depend in part on major outlets looking beyond their usual sources.

Here to tell us what the story is about and who, so far, is telling it is Richard Prince. His column Journal-isms is carried by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Richard Prince!

RP: Great to be back.

CS: Well, let’s begin with the facts of the story: Jamie and Gladys Scott are two sisters who are serving double life sentences in Mississippi. For what?

RP: Well, they are accused—I guess they were convicted of having conducted an armed robbery for the grand total of eleven dollars. This happened in 1993, they were basically framed, according to their defenders, in this small town by some teenagers who were promised that they would get off easy if they testified against them, and they did. And they’re long free, been free while these two sisters are in jail. And as you mentioned, they got a double life sentence, and they’ve been in jail for sixteen years.

CS: This is a crime in which no one was hurt and which, as you noted, the sum total was eleven dollars, and in which the boys who actually claim that they committed the crime put up to it by the Scott sisters have been in and out of jail already.

RP: Right.

CS: Well now, you have traced the media attention to this case. It’s now been addressed in places like USA Today, subsequent to the NAACP calling for Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to pardon the Scott sisters. Jane Velez-Mitchell has done it on cable TV. But where did it come from, did you find?

RP: Well, it started off with a woman named Nancy Lockhart who was a law student in Chicago. She was working in the office of Jesse Jackson, the Congressman—Jesse Jackson, Jr., the Congressman—and she saw a letter. She said I’ll never forget the frigid Chicago morning when I opened the letter from Mrs. Evelyn Rasco, a mother and widow, and this is two years ago she wrote this for, which is a black leftist nationalist website. She told the story of her daughters and said she had written RainbowPUSH for eleven years without a response. Eleven years. She redirected her strategy this time and wrote to Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. in a plea to get the letter to his father. The letter was hand-delivered.

So she took an interest in this; she was studying law, and she has now become the most ardent defender of these sisters. But it started off with this blog entry on the Black Commentator from Nancy Lockhart. Curiously enough, the owner of one of the radio stations down in Gulfport, named Rip Daniels—it came to his attention because a friend of his was reading the Black Commentator while in Cuba, and told Rip about this. Rip then made a big deal about this on his radio station, and then it took off, at least in Mississippi.

CS: Well you know, people will often tell us that it shouldn’t matter or doesn’t matter if journalists are black or white, men or women; news is just news. But it seems reasonable to consider whether this case would have even the so-called “big” media presence that it’s gained at this point, if it weren’t for Bob Herbert at the New York Times who’s written about it, Leonard Pitts, syndicated columnist, Michel Martin at NPR. It has been not entirely, but it’s had a lot to do with highly-placed black journalists that the story has kind of bubbled up.

RP: True, although there have been some white journalists

CS: Absolutely

RP: James Ridgeway at Mother Jones—but, yeah, we found this to be the case and let’s say the Jena Six case. And there are other cases where the black community has a particular interest in what happens to our own, and so we gravitate—and that, after all, is the purpose of the black press. I mean, going back to Freedom’s Journal, we wished to tell our own story. And so that’s how the story got out. But it is important to emphasize this is not strictly, totally racial because there are whites who are concerned about these things, and there are blacks who are not concerned. [wry laughter]

CS: Absolutely. As on any story. Well, it seems, just from a journalistic perspective, to contain the potential for lots of different stories: you’ve got Haley Barbour’s criteria for issuing pardons, you’ve got the prison conditions that the sisters are talking about, including medical care, the obviously inadequate legal representation. And yet Nancy Lockhart, this legal volunteer you mentioned who’s been pushing the case, says that for all the outlets that have mentioned it, many more are not returning the phone calls, are not following up. It seems in a way shocking that people would think this is not newsworthy.

RP: Yes, that’s true. And I cannot explain it other than to say that, you know, the media operate a lot of times on what would drive ratings and what will capture the audience’s attention. I would think this would, but as we all know from the stories of missing white women, you know, what we might think would attract people’s attention is not necessarily what those who control the news think.

CS: Yeah, you noted James Ridgeway, and he has written on this for Mother Jones, and I noticed that in his writing he points out that Mother Jones was among the first non-local media to pick up on this story. He’s proud of it, you know, and I would sort of think that more journalists would see this as kind of a clear-cut story and a chance for journalism to really have a concrete impact, to really right a wrong. I wonder if that’s an old-fashioned ideal, that sort of muckraking impulse on the part of journalists.

RP: Well, I mean, I just can’t explain it. I mean, I agree with you: of course it’s a good story, and of course people should jump on this and champion—I mean we’re here to right wrongs and champion the people who can’t champion themselves and all that good stuff. And, you know, I’m at a loss as to why people haven’t leaped on this. Especially, if I can be so modest, now that I’ve joined and said look people, this is a story.

CS: Are there other stories, Richard Prince, that you have bubbling under that you are working on, that you’d like to see broader attention given to?

RP: Well, I did just write about the case of the black farmers, and they had been at this for 27 years trying to get justice-even though they’ve had findings in their favor, it’s only now that Congress this week passed the money to go to them—and then behind them are coming Hispanic farmers, and women farmers. And people have to be vigilant to be sure that these farmers actually get the money that’s been appropriated to them. So that’s—and I also, by the way, traced how that store came to the public consciousness as well, and that’s another parallel track to this story about the Scott sisters. But yes, follow that, make sure those farmers get their money, let people know what’s going on with the Hispanic farmers and the women farmers and whether people are going to get their due.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Richard Prince and you can find his column, Journal-isms, on the website of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education—that’s

Thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

RP: Thanks Janine, I appreciate it.


Just Foreign Policy

Richard Prince’s Journal-isms