This week on CounterSpin: It had the elements of a nightly news story: Protestors, including some Americans, being abused by officials in an Arab country. But this story was a non-starter with U.S. media. We'll talk to Sam Husseini of the Institute for Public Accuracy, who just left Egypt where a delegation of human rights activists were abused by Egyptian police when they protested that country’s refusal to let them cross the Egyptian border into Gaza for a Freedom March.
Also on the show: The Washington Post has been on the deficit hawk beat for some time, so readers might've thought a recent article "Support Grows for Tackling Nation's Debt" was just par for the course. The paper didn't let on that there was more to this particular piece than met the eye, and when you hear the background, you'll understand why. We'll hear from economist Dean Baker about the story behind that story.
All of that's coming up but first, as usual, we'll take a look back at the week's press.
—On January 5, the day that Democratic senators Byron Dorgan and Chris Dodd and the Democratic governor of Colorado, Bill Ritter, announced that they would not be running for re-election in 2010, ABC News' influential news digest The Note ran a story on Democratic retirements under the headline "Dropping Like Flies." The report, by ABC's David Chalian, declared, "You will certainly hear a lot of talk from Republicans that Democrats are beginning to face the reality of just how tough the current political landscape looks for them and they are running for the hills."
Well, yes, you probably will hear a lot of such talk in the corporate media, but what you probably won't hear is the kind of reality check provided by Steve Benen of the blog Political Animal, who points out that if Democrats are dropping like flies, Republicans must be dropping faster than flies, with a greater number of announced retirements in the 2010 election cycle in the Senate, the House and governor's races as well.
AP's Liz Sidoti had a similar take in a story headlined "Abrupt Democratic Retirements Show Tough Landscape." Her lead asserted that the announcements stressed "the perilous political environment for President Barack Obama's party as anti-incumbent sentiment ripples across the nation." Sidoti called Democratic retirements "a dispiriting trend for a party that had been soaring after winning control of Congress and the White House in back-to-back elections." But then, nine paragraphs into the story, the AP writer shifts gears, writing: "That said, the GOP has troubles of its own, with even more Republicans than Democrats leaving Congress and governors mansions instead of running again."
Corporate media articles that treat reality as a footnote to partisan spin—now that's really a dispiriting trend.
—As we reported last month, two of the most hard-hitting shows on public television—NOW and the Bill Moyers Journal—will be going off the air in April. Moyers announced in November that he will be stepping down from his program, and at the same time, PBS announced that it would end NOW's run, which started in 2002 with Moyers as host.
The two shows stand out for offering viewers a glimpse of what PBS should offer throughout their schedule: unflinching independent journalism and analysis. The shows have covered poverty, war, and media consolidation—not to mention serious discussions of topics other outlets wouldn't touch, like the impeachment of George W. Bush.
PBS still hasn't offered much by way of explanation, saying only that they will announce some changes this month. But in the meantime, rather than just hope for the best, you can sign on to the petition to PBS that FAIR launched to demand that the shows that replace NOW and the Moyers Journal provide the same kind of critical, uncompromised journalism viewers deserve—and that live up to the mission of public broadcasting. Thousands of people have signed on already; you can go to FAIR.org to add your name.
—On the January 3 edition of Fox News Sunday former Fox anchor Brit Hume suggested that Tiger Woods "turn to Christianity" to get through his current troubles. Said Hume,
A day later on Fox's O'Reilly Factor , Hume said his advice to Woods was not proselytizing, that he just thinks, "Jesus Christ offers Tiger Woods something that Tiger Woods badly needs."
Okay. The religious chauvinism in Hume's remarks received some attention, but there was something else curious in what he said: Immediately after O'Reilly asked him whether he was proselytizing, Hume said,
Well, the comment is patronizing enough on its own, Woods doesn't need Brit Hume rooting for him as a golfer, let alone "as a man." But with Hume borrowing the "content of his character" line from Martin Luther King, it's hard not to hear Hume "always saying" to people that Woods ought not be judged by the color of his skin, in other words, don't think of him as a black man, because, well, you know, he's one of the good ones. Now, in Hume's view, Woods needs Jesus' seal of approval to regain his status.
—A late December NATO attack in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province reportedly killed at least nine people—according to NATO, all militants. According to Afghans, civilians, including children. The first round of reporting showcased how some outlets continue to be willing to take the U.S./NATO line at face value—especially when that line is delivered anonymously, as in the December 29 New York Times. "A senior NATO official with knowledge of the operation said that the raid had been carried out by a joint Afghan-American force and that its target was a group of men who were known Taliban members and smugglers of homemade bombs." The nameless official was adamant: "These were people who had a well-established network, they were IED smugglers and also were responsible for direct attacks on Afghan security and coalition forces in those areas." The official, we're told, has to be anonymous "because of the delicacy of the issue."
Well, some would say the "delicacy" of the issue is another reason people should be required to make accusations on the record, and be held accountable when those claims turn out to be distortions or falsehoods, as has happened numerous times in Afghanistan. In this case, too, a subsequent story in the Times will tell readers that NATO has since "backed away somewhat" (that's the paper's parlance) from their intial certainties. But the paper's credulousness never seems to abate. It's only reserved for U.S. officials though. The December 29 piece even warns readers about some less reliable actors they might be hearing from: "Senior American military officials cautioned that such episodes tended to be complex and that because of the anger about civilian casualties, Mr. Karzai was under enormous pressure to speak out quickly, sometimes before investigations were complete."
That's propaganda at work: assurances from "officials" that the raid killed exactly who they say it did, and the reminder that another version of reality may soon emerge from the Afghan side, due to "anger" that their politicians must react to. The Times added that
It never seems to occur to anyone at the Times that it might not be the "contentious political issue" of civilian casualties that troubles Afghans. Maybe it's the dead relatives.
—And finally, the New York Times runs occasional Q&As with staffers that give readers a sense of the behind-the-scenes decisions that go into running the newspaper. Trouble is, some of those decision-making processes seem better left a mystery. On December 31, the paper's Talk to the Times column featured Denise Warren, senior vice president and chief advertising officer of the New York Times Media Group and general manager of NewYorkTimes.com. One reader had a complaint about what he called "those ever larger full-page ads that cover up the content I'm trying to read", and the paper's increasing use of intrusive video advertisements, which he noted can really hobble older computers like his. Warren's response was pretty priceless. She told the reader that
Did you get that? They run pages with intrusive ads because they make money—and that money allows them to bring you...well, more pages with intrusive ads. Like you've come to expect.
CounterSpin: The story includes American civilians and others being violently abused by police forces in an Arab country—and there's videotape! These are the sorts of sensational journalistic elements that would usually guarantee prominent placement in the news. But why is U.S. media largely ignoring the story? Perhaps it's something to do with which Americans are being abused, and which nation's police are doing the abusing.
Sam Husseini of the Institute for Public Accuracy joins us now by phone from Amman Jordan. He just left Egypt where he and a group of activists were stopped by officials from crossing the border into Gaza on a human rights mission. Then, when the activists staged non-violent protests over being refused passage, Egyptian police physically abused many of them.
Sam Husseini, welcome back to CounterSpin!
Sam Husseini: Glad to be with you, Steve.
CS: Well, tell us about the group you were with and why you were trying to get into Gaza.
SH: Well, a year ago Israel bombed Gaza—three weeks long bombing campaign—and for several years Israel has in effect had a massive blockade in Gaza where it's very difficult to get the bare necessities of life in and out and for at least the last two years. Egypt, which also borders Gaza, has joined in that blockade, has cooperated in effect with the Israeli government in making it extremely difficult for bare necessities of life including construction equipment to rebuild stuff after the Israeli bombing campaign—to get in. So 1,300 people from over 40 countries—roughly equal to the number of Gazans who were killed in the attack of last year (thirteen Israelis were also killed) were trying to get into Gaza. We had every expectation that that would happen, a reasonable expectation. Code Pink, the main organizer, has been able to get several delegations into Gaza, and we were just wanting to get in. And then the Egyptian authorities pulled the plug on all of the buses that were supposed to take us from Cairo to Gaza to the Rafah Crossing, and so people began protesting.
CS: So tell us about how the group was treated by the Egyptian officials for protesting as you say their refusal to allow you into Gaza through the Rafah Crossing?
SH: Well, there were several incidents—one at the bus depot the day that we were supposed to leave, I believe the following day that there was a standoff where 30 of us were penned into an area at the U.S. Embassy. The French delegation, which was extremely well organized and extremely feisty, took to the streets in front of the French Embassy and were similarly cornered off to the sidewalk. And they basically camped out for the better part of a week, and the ambassador came out to meet them and so on and so forth. That created a fair amount of press in Europe I believe. But the biggest day of protest was in near Tahrir Square right outside the main Egyptian museum in Cairo, it's sort of the equivalent of doing something in Times Square in New York City, and what was decided there was that we would literally gather there and literally try to march to Gaza and we were very quickly stopped by the Egyptian authorities and then dragged, kicked, punched, women were pulled by their hair, people were kicked in the ribs, people were hit with walkie-talkies, largely by plainclothes Egyptian government forces—I don't want to call them security forces because I certainly didn't feel very secure about them. But this was a very coordinated attack by forces that are obviously very skilled at breaking up protests—I'm sure they've done it many, many times against Egyptian protesters. We were immediately thrown, shoved, dragged into basically a penned-in area. The Egyptian authorities were very skilled at wanting to get protests out of sight as quickly as possible so that the passerbyers would have as little glimpse of people attempting to exercise freedom of speech.
CS: Now Sam, you videotaped much of this action, and you've posted that on your website, and it's available to all. And through your group the Institute for Public Accuracy, you have made yourself and other participants available for interviews. In other words, you've done much of the journalists' work for them. That said, how have you found the pick-up on this story in the U.S. press?
SH: Incredibly little. I mean one can imagine if Americans were treated this way by say the Iranian government. If for some reason hundreds of Americans and hundreds of others from around the world were protesting in Tehran for some reason and they were treated this way, I think it's fair to say that there would be substantial if not wall-to-wall coverage on the U.S. cable news stations.
CS: And this could be the exact same people, I mean many of the same people that are there on this human rights mission would also be the sorts of people who might protest in the streets of Tehran.
SH: Absolutely, the Egyptian activists that I talked to told me that when they tried to protest in solidarity with the Iranian protesters that they were stopped, even though Egypt and Iran don't get along. So the Egyptian government doesn't want any protests even against governments that they don't like, because they don't want any form of democracy breaking out.
CS: This next question gets to Ed Herman's idea about worthy victims. Journalists, at least many of them, can't say they don't know about this story because you've put it in their face. Why is it you think they're mostly ignoring it? Why are protesters in Cairo, American protesters in Cairo not news but in Tehran they would be news?
SH: I don't think that there's any reasonable explanation for it other than what Ed Herman calls a propaganda model. I mean here we have sensationalism, the novelty of these internationals gathering, I mean, you have to go back decades to think of what might be a parallel for this and I've got an iPhone and I was able to upload the video instantaneously and people can look at it. I set up a specific blog that people can go to the WashingtonStakeOut.com webpage and it'll link to the Gaza blog that I set up and see some of the videos, particularly the ones around New Year's Eve.
CS: Do you think part of the lack of coverage could be that these Americans and others were a human rights mission to Palestine to Gaza for one, and they were protesting in the capital of a nation that is on fairly good terms with the U.S.?
SH: Absolutely, in terms of being worthy victims, Palestinians generally are not worthy victims in the U.S. media culture and Americans who are protesting against the favored Egyptian government which is generally gotten off scott free. You know, it is a dictatorship and somehow it's rarely described as such. The Egyptian media of course was totally ignoring them or propagandistically against it. The Arab satellite stations like Al Jazeera, I was surprised at how little coverage they gave it. Frankly you know I obviously fault the U.S. mainstream media, but I was kind of surprised at some blogs that didn't pick it up. Philip Weiss of the Nation magazine picked it up and gave it good coverage but some of the other blogs that I would've thought would've picked it up apparently didn't do so, I'm just finding out now that I'm Amman and able to look around.
CS: Well we talked about whose done a bad job. Just before we go, Sam, tell us about where people can learn more about this story, can get the facts and some actual reporting.
SH: Sure. There were several blogs set up. Ali Abunimah through his ElectronicIntifada blog got some good information out. Several Pacifica stations covered things contemporaneously with some interviews, and as I say, I put some comments and particularly what I think is crucially important video and people can get at that through WashingtonStakeout.com.
CS: We've been speaking with Sam Husseini of the Institute for Public Accuracy. Sam Husseini, thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin.
SH: Thank you, Steve.
CounterSpin: In this day and age, savvy media readers know that outlets have opinions, even choices about what's a story and what isn't reflect a worldview. At the same time we still distinguish between having a general perspective and serving a particular ideological vision over and above journalistic fundamentals that call for accuracy, balance, and the clear identification of interests. For many people the Washington Post stepped boldly over the line with the announcement of a partnership with something called the Fiscal Times. And with the news article that was the first fruit of that partnership. Here to give us the troubling story behind the story is economist Dean Baker, codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and author of, among other titles, Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy. He joins us now by phone from Washington DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Dean Baker.
Dean Baker: Thanks for having me on.
CS: Well the Washington Post says that they're going to jointly produce content focusing on the budget and fiscal issues with this outfit the Fiscal Times. The New York Times in their writeup described the Fiscal Times as a startup news organization. Can you fill us in on what exactly the Fiscal Times is and who it is, more to the point?
DB: Yes, the Fiscal Times was recently started by Peter G. Peterson. People may be familiar with him. Mr. Peterson's an investment banker, he's a very wealthy investment banker, has several billion dollars as I understand. And he's been on a crusade to cut Social Security and MediCare for the last several decades and he's put much of his fortune to use towards that end. Back in the '90s he was the starter of the Concord Coalition which has been working for cutting Social Security and MediCare over this period. And then more recently in 2008 he started a new foundation, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation that also is devoted in large part towards efforts to cut Social Security and MediCare. Now the Fiscal Times is a new project that he started. And it's devoted, the description, to covering fiscal issues, but clearly with Mr. Peterson's agenda in mind. This actually I only found out from the New York Times article: it was started with Pete Peterson's son picking the staff for the Fiscal Times. Now interestingly, perhaps not surprisingly, given the current environment interests, they do have a number of well-respected reporters who they've signed as reporters for the Fiscal Times, which simply reflects the plight of the newspaper profession with the New York Times, the Washington Post, and so many other papers laying off staff. But I think it's very clear Pete Peterson did not start the Fiscal Times with the idea that he wants everyone to know more about the budget. This is part of his more general agenda to cut Social Security and Medicare. The first piece that appeared in the Washington Post—I should also point out that piece was not at all identified with Peter Peterson—it was identified with the Fiscal Times and I suspect none of the readers or almost none of the readers would've had any idea what the Fiscal Times was. That certainly was consistent with that agenda, it was sort of highlighting this proposal that people connected with the Peterson Foundation have been pushing: to have a commission set up that would come up with a budget plan that would be fast-tracked, the presumption is that the plan would involve cuts to Social Security and Medicare. And it would be fast-tracked and it would go outside the normal Congressional procedure and the article implied that this was gaining—in fact that was the headline, I believe—that it was gaining support in Congress and perhaps not surprisingly, two of the sources cited in the piece were on the one hand the Concord Coalition and then a report that had come out from the Peterson Foundation along with the Pew Foundation. So the Fiscal Times certainly on its first article looks like this is yet again another mouthpiece for Peter Peterson in his effort to cut Social Security and Medicare, not the sort of thing you'd expect to see as a news article in a serious newspaper.
CS: You note that that article cited other Peterson projects, the Concord Coalition and the Peterson Foundation, and no mention of the connection between those institutions and the Fiscal Times contained in the article.Isn't that true?
DB: That's right. You would expect that that would be sort of the bare minimum to at least make this clear to readers that this is a newspaper that—you know, there's a commonality of interests here—they're talking to their friends.
CS: Well, there's one thing to have an agenda or a point of view and it's another thing to stretch or skew or distort facts in serving that agenda. So if you had just looked at this article, "Support Grows for Tackling Nation's Debt," would you have had problems with it no matter where it came from.
DB: Yeah, I mean what you would expect in a context like that is one to clearly document that support grows. I mean they had this comment from the Speaker Nancy Pelosi that I would say at best misrepresented if not actually contradicted. I mean, it was sort of implying that she was supporting this, which certainly she's not said publicly. And it didn't talk to any number of people who could've been found to speak against this idea of a commission because it's clear there are very many opponents both among academics, policy people, and among key advocacy groups—the AARP, the labor unions, I mean you would have no difficulty finding any number of people to speak against the proposal who were not mentioned in the article.
CS: Well, and when you cite organizations, the Concord Coalition, other foundations, you're kind of amplifying your perspective. You make it sound as though, you know, it's not just us saying this—look, these other people are saying it too even if they all turn out to be sort of the same entity. Well, William Greider in his piece about it said that the biggest lie is Peterson's refusal to acknowledge the looting aspect of what he proposes. I know you've rehearsed this many, many times but the premise about Social Security is fundamentally flawed.
DB: Well that's right, I mean, the idea that you would somehow have occasion to cut Social Security. People have been paying their taxes; they've paid for those benefits, and we keep a separate account. I mean he may not like it but that is the law. We keep a separate account, we have a Social Security trust fund that currently has over $2.5 trillion dollar of assets. And the idea that we would turn around and then take away benefits that people have paid for, that are covered under the law, under the cost of the program, and say, you know, there's not money there for them. That's really an incredible story. So I do find it an outrage, you know, quite apart from the news aspect of it. But, that's our policy towards Social Security. In fact, it amounts to defaulting on the debt, we really should say that because, Social Security holds bonds, U.S. Government bonds, in the trust fund, and that was supposed to pay for benefits. And if those aren't used to pay for benefits, we've effectively defaulted on those bonds. This is very similar to if the National Rifle Association or the Tobacco Industry formed their own publication, and imagine the National Rifle Association had a publication called Firearms Today, and the Washington Post were just to pick one of the stories, start to print stories in the Washington Post as their own stories from Firearms Today and didn't even tell readers that this was funded by the National Rifle Association, that's in effect what we're talking about here.
CS: Well, we also have seen, and you in your blog Beat the Press where you look at the Washington Post, the New York Times and other outlets, in particular economic coverage, it's a meeting of the minds here. The Washington Post, although this may be a real breach journalistically, ideologically it's not that far from what at least the editorial page at that paper has seemed to endorse, you know, of their own accord.
DB: Well, this is certainly the perspective that has been pushed on the editorial page and I would say unfortunately to a large extent actually in their news stories. But as I say it's not that far from what they had been doing, but it does—there's an air of impropriety around this that goes even beyond what I would have expected from the Washington Post.
CS: Absolutely. Well finally, you have not just shaken your fist at the sky about this but you and others have gotten together and communicated with the Post and are asking for a meeting. Any news on that? What do you hope will come from that?
DB: Well, they've indicated they are open to a meeting. I think mostly the key issue here is just more public pressure. I think it has to be clear that this isn't acceptable journalism, that you can't just take news stories—supposed news stories—written by an advocacy organization, which is in effect what we're talking about here, and print them as news stories to your readership. That is simply not honest journalism, and again, there are lots of complaints that I and others have had about the lack of fairness in the Washington Post reporting, certainly in Social Security and Medicare and many other issues—but this really over the top. I think a lot of reporters who don't necessarily share my political views feel the same way. And it's just really violating journalistic ethics, and I'm hoping that we can get them to reverse this.
CS: We've been speaking with Dean Baker, you can read his blog Beat the Press on the website of the American Prospect.
Thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
DB: Thanks a lot for having me on.