Feb 19 2010

Sebastian Jones on Media-Lobbying Complex, Ibrahim Hooper on Islamville TV report


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This week on CounterSpin: Paid-for pundits. If you’ve ever wondered who the so-called experts pontificating on cable news channels really are, a new investigation published in the Nation magazine gives you some answers. Reporter Sebastian Jones will join us to talk about the secret corporate PR spinners and lobbyists who pose as pundits—without viewers knowing who they’re actually working for.

Also on CounterSpin today: Did a local Nashville TV newscast, featuring anti-Muslim propaganda and warnings about the terrorists among us, spark a vandalism attack on an area mosque? Many Nashvillians, including many in the city’s Muslim community think so. We’ll talk with CAIR’s Ibrahim Hooper about anti-Muslim attacks and media responsibility.

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

—Barack Obama’s announcement of $8 billion in loan guarantees for a nuclear plant in Georgia received a mostly favorable media reception. The February 17 reports on ABC World News and NBC Nightly News were the most telling examples.

On ABC, reporter Jake Tapper stressed the industry claims about job creation for this new plant and energy production, and he quoted two local residents saying their town needs the jobs.

One critic—Greenpeace’s Jim Riccio—made a short comment about safety before being countered by Tapper, who stressed that safety has improved. He then turned to nuclear industry lobbyist Patrick Moore, a media favorite because he was once affiliated with Greenpeace. Tapper called him one of the group’s founders, which is inaccurate.

The report by NBC Nightly News suffered from some of the same problems: Three sources are quoted supporting the nuclear plan, with only one critic. In attempting to discuss safety concerns, NBC mentioned Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. But neither network report mentioned the current problems with nuclear reactors; the Vermont Yankee plant, for example, is leaking radioactive tritium into the groundwater, a safety hazard happening at dozens of other nuclear sites as well.

While both network reports mentioned that the Georgia plant would be the first built in the U.S. in three decades, neither report explained why this was the case. Nuclear power critics have documented for years that the plants have been financial disasters, with severe cost overruns and a general reluctance among investors to foot the bill.

The coverage could hardly have been more favorable if it was produced by the nuclear industry itself. Which it sort of was; NBC‘s parent company General Electric is a major player in the nuclear industry, and has done business with the company planning to build the plant in Georgia plant—a major fact NBC somehow neglected to mention in its report.

ABC News correspondent Miguel Marquez led his February 14 report from Afghanistan with news of a “major setback for international forces tonight: a claim that 12 civilians were killed when a missile missed its target.” The idea of the deaths of Afghan civilians, as primarily a problem for those that kill them, seems ingrained in corporate news, where deaths like these most recent ones in Marja can scarcely be acknowledged in their own right, without some accompanying hint that we should somehow see them as less significant than they are. NBC‘s February 15 segment on the killing introduced it as a “serious setback” to “the effort to win over the Afghans,” then brought on retired General Barry McCaffrey to say: “It was a tragic accident. But these people need to be free of a Taliban redoubt and a major drug production center.” (Presumably, he’s speaking of the living here.)

U.S. reporters seem to see no alternative to ingenuous repetition of the storyline about how killing non-combatants in Afghanistan is a “concern” because it “complicates” the job of convincing them you’re doing what’s best for them; certainly there’s not much digging beneath those official regrets and promises. The New York Times even seemed a little unclear on what un-spun information on the story might look like. One of the paper’s February 16 reports on the Marja attack included this:

Still, the deaths are troubling to the American and NATO commanders, who have made protecting civilians the overriding objective of their campaign—even when doing so comes at the expense of letting insurgents get away. The stream of news releases flowing from NATO headquarters detailing the episodes is testament to how seriously military commanders here take the problem.

How else to measure humanitarian concern, if not by the quantity of press releases?

—When Dick Cheney appeared on ABC‘s This Week on February 14, the media takeaway was about how Cheney’s views on terrorism clashed with those of Vice President Joe Biden, who appeared on two other Sunday chat shows.

The contrived drama generated a lot of commentary, but nothing really earthshaking. It wasn’t as if the former vice president had taken to ABC‘s airwaves to admit that he’d committed crimes against humanity. Except that he had.

Cheney actually told This Week anchor Jonathan Karl, “I was a big supporter of waterboarding,” and he added that he’d become outspoken on the issue when there was talk of disbarring Justice Department lawyers who’d provided the Bush White House with legal opinions permitting torture—or, in Cheney’s words “Who’d done what we asked them to do.”

As human rights lawyer Scott Horton pointed out on his Harper’s blog No Comment, “the federal criminal code makes it an offense to torture or to conspire to torture. Violators are subject to jail terms or to death in appropriate cases.” While Horton acknowledged that prosecutions of Bush officials for torture would be complicated, he suggested it might be easier for cases “in which an instigator openly and notoriously brags about his role in torture.”

Though waterboarding has been repeatedly judged to be torture, the media have been either agnostic on the question, or, more commonly, applied the Bush/Cheney construct “enhanced interrogation” to the practice. This explains why the breaking news out of the Sunday chat shows was that Cheney said Bush had a better terrorism approach than Obama, while Biden said the opposite was true. Stop the presses.

–A February 13 Washington Post headline informed readers: “2008 Habeas Ruling May Pose Snag as U.S. Weighs Indefinite Guantánamo Detentions.”

What’s wrong with habeas corpus? Well, reporter Del Quentin Wilber writes that the terrorism case against a
Guantánamo detainee named Hatim “seemed ironclad” until a federal judge deemed it too weak—because some of the statements against the defendant had been coerced and because the government’s informer was “profoundly unreliable.” This, Wilber notes, happens more often than not—judges “have gutted allegations and questioned the reliability of statements by the prisoners during interrogations and by the informants.” This is bad news, we’re told; in court, “the government is likely to suffer further losses.”

You have to read almost to the end of the piece before you get a more direct view of things: In Hatim’s case, his statements that he’d trained in an Al Qaeda camp were dismissed because “the Justice Department did not dispute his contention that he was tortured in U.S. custody and that he made those admissions to avoid further mistreatment.”

In other words, the government is trying to justify holding prisoners indefinitely based on evidence gleaned from torture. To deem that a “snag” caused by the 2008 habeas ruling is, well, a rather tortured way of looking at things.

—And finally, the nonsense on climate change just won’t stop. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank thinks it’s silly for Republicans and climate change deniers to say that the recent snowstorms mean that climate change is phony, but he’s not letting greens off the hook so easily. As he put it on February 14, “There’s some rough justice in the conservatives’ cheap shots. In Washington’s blizzards, the greens were hoist by their own petard.”

Well how so? Because climate activists like Al Gore “have argued by anecdote to make their case.” And it’s not just Al Gore. When climate scientists arranged a conference call to rebut the snow-means-no-global-warming nonsense, one expert reminded journalists on the call that there is overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming’s existence. According to Milbank, though, another scientist “shot down” that remark. But that scientist, after reading Milbank’s column, wrote on his website that he did no such thing.

The storyline here is a familiar one: both sides—scientists and deniers—are exaggerating. But one side seems to offend Milbank more, as he writes:

The scientific case has been further undermined by high-profile screw-ups. First there were the hacked e-mails of a British research center that suggested the scientists were stacking the deck to overstate the threat. Now comes word of numerous errors in a 2007 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, including the bogus claim that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear in 25 years.

Well, there is no credible evidence that climate scientists were “stacking the deck.” And there have not been “numerous” errors in that report—there have been two minor ones. The whole point of climate change denial is to manufacture a political scandal—which is what journalism like this does so well.


CounterSpin: Cable news is profitable in part because it’s so cheap. One of the most common criticisms of cable shows is that they feature guests in a studio pontificating about the news instead of actually reporting the news. This is undeniably true, and much cheaper than hiring actual reporters. So who those experts are is pretty important, since they’re granted so much airtime. A new investigation in the March 1 edition of the Nation magazine reveals that dozens of analysts and experts are actually paid spokespeople and lobbyists, often for the very industries they’re on TV discussing. And viewers are usually none the wiser.

Freelance writer Sebastian Jones wrote the piece “The Media-Lobbying Complex,” and he joins us now to talk about it.

Sebastian Jones, welcome to CounterSpin.

Sebastian Jones: Thanks. Great to be here.

CS: I guess we should start by walking this back a little bit to some kind of starting point, and last year, there was this minor controversy about a guy named Richard Wolffe. He’s a fixture on MSNBC; he was a reporter for Newsweek. But he left that job for a PR gig. Nonetheless, he continued making appearances on shows like Countdown With Keith Olbermann. Then the story broke about his new job, he was off the air for a little while, and then he came back. Is he kind of typical of what you found?

SJ: I think actually he’s atypical in the sense that anyone ever figured it out. For the most part, it’s very difficult to find guys who actually were caught and then had any action whatsoever sort of taken. So in that way he’s sort of an exception in the sense that he was ever actually off the air and there was ever a discussion of it.

CS: And you found about 75 people who make regular appearances?

SJ: Right, and I think it’s important to say as well, to qualify that number in a way. That was just sort of a list we started keeping as the investigation rolled on, but it’s very difficult to come up with a firm, scientifically firm number because the transcripts for these programs at least during the daytime are pretty much inaccessible; they are not made. And so you end up having to either watch it as it happens live on TV, or you have to go back through clips—and again, clips are a little bit better than no transcripts, but it’s difficult there as well. Not everything gets put on, and you can’t always figure out what date it is, and things like that. So, you know, we say at least 75, but there may very well be more—significantly more, possibly.

CS: And these are people who are lobbying or who are actually working for PR companies that represent the healthcare industry, AIG?..

SJ: Right, right, and in a number of cases we also included people like Tom Ridge, who sit on the board of a company that he then speaks about on TV. In his case, it was discussing on the topic of how to fix the jobs problem, how to create more jobs. Ridge’s solution was that we need to build nuclear power plants. And funny enough, it just so happens that he sits on the board of the nation’s largest nuclear power provider. So to give you an example of sort of the third category. But that really only applies to men like Ridge and Barry McCaffrey, sort of more established, ex-political figures do that. The vast majority are sort of small-time players, who you might recognize if you saw them, but you wouldn’t necessarily be able to pin down who they are or what’s their sort of work history.

CS: And oftentimes they’re ID’d for political work—he was an ex-staffer of so-and-so—when that was ten, fifteen years in the past.

SJ: Right, yeah, no that’s a funny thing, and I think Jeff Cohen was the one who told me that basically whatever name you get fifteen years or twenty years before the highest public service position you achieve will always be your identifier—always.

CS: Now, you started talking to some of the networks and some of the pundits about the policies involved here. How willing were people to talk about this at all?

SJ: I would say, you know, I’ve done some reporting in D.C. and this was one of the most difficult to report because very few people, pretty much no one who is actually involved with the business, a handful, would speak to me on the record when I initially contacted them. I spoke with many people off the record on background just to sort of try and get an understanding of the business, but I can tell you that it’s very secretive—and the funny thing of course, is that these are all people who are on television very frequently, so they’re very public people. But in discussing this particular issue, they’re not that public at all, for a variety of reasons, obviously. I mean some of them just simply want to continue being on TV, and I don’t blame them, they don’t want to make the networks look bad and then never get invited back on.

CS: The responsibility then would seem to fall entirely on the journalistic outlet—a lobbyist or a PR group doesn’t want to be identified for a number of reasons, all of them obvious. But journalists should have some responsibility here—I mean, if you write an op-ed for the New York Times and it turns out you’re a healthcare lobbyist, they’ll print an editor’s note or a correction about this.

SJ: Right, and actually this is something when I spoke with the ombudsman at NBC, you know, he rightly said that, you know, everyone has their problems and cited some recent difficulties—I think the Chertoff op-ed/connection to a company that makes full-body scanners, and he had been coming out in favor of that. But I think there’s a big difference as well because in the case of the cable news networks, unlike newspapers or even NPR, has a sort of process of going through and reviewing these cases and publicly doing so, so that either listeners or readers will understand that if an error was made, here’s what happened. And even if the explanations aren’t always that great or illuminating, there at least is the understanding that a process took place when a potential conflict of interest situation arose. With the television networks that we looked at, the cable networks, there’s no evidence that that ever occurred to the viewers—there’s no public sort of interaction on it. And the fact that Barry McCaffrey, who has been identified for years as working for defense contractors, still goes on and still is not identified as anything but an NBC military analyst and as a retired general, that tells you a lot about sort of a lack of a review process. There’s been plenty of time to fix that, that’s an easy fix.

CS: There was one person quoted in the piece, Jay Rosen saying, you know, disclosure is good but why are these people on in the first place? You can certainly have a conversation about these issues without talking to lobbyists. At the risk of sounding naïve, did you get a sense that these networks even have written guidelines that they’re violating? Since they’re not telling the viewers about this, are there rules that they’re breaking, or do they just not have rules?

SJ: Well, I can tell you with some certainty in the case of NBC, MSNBC and CNBC that they do have rules—a copy of which, a booklet, I was able to obtain from 1998 when they did a rewrite of the rules. And it very explicitly dealt with this topic and basically stated, in the most unequivocal terms, that you need to provide all the information that a viewer needs to understand the point of view that a guest is making. I think it even says something to the effect of, it’s not simply good enough to identify someone as an analyst with the network or to say John Smith of XYZ Foundation or Firm. You actually have to provide—you have to go a step further and explain, what does that mean practically? And that’s something you see throughout the cases we examine, that someone might be identified, say, as working for Burson-Marsteller—a large public relations firm—but they’ll be talking about you know, the interest of a client like AIG. So simply telling viewers they work for Burson-Marsteller doesn’t really tell you a lot and would require you the viewer to then do the reporting essentially—it’s your job to go and Google and find out, you know, that they work for AIG. And good luck doing that, frankly, because some of these firms really protect their client lists.

CS: We’ve been speaking with freelance reporter Sebastian Jones. His report “The Media-Lobbying Complex” can be read at TheNation.com.

Sebastian Jones, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin!

SJ: Thanks for having me on.


CounterSpin: It’s not the first time a U.S. media outlet has fomented hatred toward Muslims, and not the first time a mosque has been vandalized. The attack on Nashville’s Al Farooq Islamic Center came just two days after Nashville’s NewsChannel 5, aired a story including anti-Muslim propaganda and baseless charges about another local Islamic organization. It all raises questions about the broadcast and its role in the attack. For days, NewsChannel 5 promoted the two-part story with the teaser, “Inside Islamville: Is a Local Muslim Community Tied to Terrorism?” When the first part of the report finally aired, here’s how channel 5’s anchors introduced it:

Tonight, reports of a secret Islamic terrorist camp right here in middle Tennessee. A so called home-grown Jihad. That’s also the name of a nationally distributed video now making the rounds in, among other places, local churches. It raises concerns about terrorist training inside our borders close to home.

Well, it also raises questions about NewsChannel 5‘s journalism. Here to talk about some of these is Ibrahim Hooper, the communications director of CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Ibrahim Hooper, welcome to CounterSpin!

Ibrahim Hooper: Thanks for having me.

CS: Well, among other sensational claims, NewsChannel 5‘s report included a clip of the narrator of the film Home Grown Jihad, saying, “Overwhelmingly, the vast majority of the Muslim organizations inside the United States are affiliated with terrorist groups overseas.” Many of Nashville’s Muslims are pointing a finger at NewsChannel 5 and suggesting its story may have prompted the attack. Jeff Woods, of the Nashville Scene blog, has also suggested as much and has quoted other Muslims saying that Channel Five has a lot to answer for. How do you see this situation?

IH: Well, one kind of unrecognized aspect of this whole thing might be the nature of local television itself. I mean, I used to be in local television, and February is sweeps month when you’re trying to build your ratings so that you can charge advertisers more the rest of the year. And typically what happens is the news directors ask reporters and producers and others to come up with a day-by-day breakdown of “sensational” stories for that ratings month. And I get the feeling that this was one of those stories, that they said okay this is going to boost our ratings on this particular day or these two days and we’ll go for it. So money may be more of a factor in here than ideology or bias. But unfortunately, we’re seeing a rising level of anti-Muslim sentiment and anti-Muslim rhetoric in our society, and we believe it’s tied directly to incidents like the vandalism at the National Mosque and vandalism and other incidents targeting Muslims nationwide.

CS: Well of course we wouldn’t see this sort of local news segment attacking some other stronger and more major religious groups in the United States. This is really no different than many other attacks, except for the close proximity in time of the broadcast to the vandalism. It was just the vandalism came two days later. Can you put this into context, talk about the role that media can play in either exacerbating or diminishing resentment towards these communities?

IH: Well, I work with media professionals on a daily basis, and the vast majority of them are just doing their job as best they can with the resources and knowledge base they have. Of course you’re going to have the agenda-driven minority out there—mainly on the Internet, the blogs, the commentary pages, letters to the editor, these kinds of things—that is driving this kind of rise in Islamophobia that we’re seeing nationwide. A recent poll showed that more than four-in-ten Americans admit to anti-Muslim prejudice, and that’s very disturbing. And we’re seeing it unfortunately go up. Every year we do an annual report on the status of American Muslim civil liberties, outlining the bias incidents, the hate crimes, whatever that have happened in that particular year. We’ve done that since 1995, following the attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City when Muslims were first blamed in the first few days after that. And each year, unfortunately, the trend line is up, the number of cases is up. You know, one category might go down one year and go up the next, but the overall trend line is up.

CS: And of course media must play some role in that bias.

IH: Yes, media has an important role to play in terms of how they frame stories, the content, the accuracy, the balance, the angles they chose to take and, again, it’s something that the American Muslim community has a role in as well. I teach media relations workshops for Muslim activists, and I try and teach them how to interact with media professionals, whether it’s at the local or national level, to help them do a better job at covering issues related to Islam and the Muslim community, because often they just, the media professionals, just don’t have that knowledge base. So when somebody comes to them with a sensational, propagandistic film, they say, oh well, maybe that is true; maybe that’s something we should look into. But if they’ve had a long-term relationship with the local Muslim community, they’ve been educated about what Islam is and what it isn’t, they go, look, this is just a bunch of propaganda being put forward by people with an anti-Muslim agenda. So in some ways it’s up to the American Muslim community to work with media professionals to make sure incidents like this don’t occur.

CS: In part two of the NewsChannel 5 report, the channel pretty much concluded that the nearby Islamic community of Islamville, posed no threat. Does that let the station off the hook for the initial report in your view?

IH: No, but you know that’s one of the problems with local television. You don’t often have the sophistication that you might have and the knowledge base that you would have at a national level for doing these kinds of things. You’re not going to see this kind of reporting at the national level, but you do sometimes see it at the local level. But yeah, I saw the report, and the first one is like oh boy we’re going to scare you to death, and the second one was oops nothing here, move along, you know. So it was a very strange kind of pairing of the two reports.

CS: While the initial report featured clips of the extremist film Home Grown Jihad, co-produced by a right-wing Christian group, and included hateful remarks by locals, including a Christian pastor, suggesting Islamville was indeed a threat—it looks like the story’s prompted some positive, if perhaps unintended, events involving many Nashville area communities, including religious ones. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

IH: Yeah, there’s been a very good response from the Nashville interfaith community; people went and helped, people of other faiths went and helped clean up the mosque, get the graffiti off the mosque. There was an open house at the mosque that was attended by hundreds of people of all faiths from the local community. There have been some letters to the editor and editorials expressing solidarity with the local Muslim community. So, you know, we like to see that when an incident like this occurs, that people don’t remain silent, that they actually actively go out and support the other citizens in their area who happen to be Muslim.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Ibrahim Hooper, spokesperson for CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin!, Ibrahim Hooper.

IH: Thank you for having me.


–“The Media-Lobbying Complex,” by Sebastian Jones (Nation, 3/1/10)