Feb 12 2010

Sikivu Hutchinson on Tea Party movement, Carl Conetta on Pentagon spending


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This week on CounterSpin: Journalists are lining up to tout the Tea Party movement’s relevance and strength, but show little interest in probing its deep contradictions or finding out what actually makes the activists tick. That’s why they can describe as populist a movement closely, if fitfully, allied with the corporate-dominated GOP. In her report “Mainstream Media’s Tea Party Tryst,” Sikivu Hutchinson digs a little deeper. Hutchinson, the editor of BlackFemLens.org and a contributor to Black Agenda Report, will join us to talk about the Tea Party movement.

Also on CounterSpin today, before the recent snow storms hit Washington DC the talk was of a different sort of freeze—a spending freeze. The Obama White House announced that it was time to do something to rein in government spending; but military spending was conspicuously exempt from the belt-tightening. Carl Conetta from the Project on Defense Alternatives will join us to talk about the facts about Obama’s military budget, and why this conversation doesn’t have much of a place in the corporate media.

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

USA Today offered the latest example of Social Security scaremongering, greeting readers February 8 with the headline: “Social Security Races to ‘Negative’: Rash of Retirements Push Fund to Brink.”

The piece led with the warning, “Social Security’s annual surplus nearly evaporated in 2009 for the first time in 25 years,” though later, readers were told that the program has been “accumulating a $2.5 trillion trust fund,” and that by a “nearly evaporated” surplus, the paper means the program “took in only $3 billion more in taxes last year than it paid out in benefits.”

The “crisis”, though, is on its way and here’s why: “because the government uses the trust fund to pay for other programs, tax increases, spending cuts or new borrowing will be required to make up the difference between taxes collected and benefits owed.”

Actually, that Social Security would begin paying out more in benefits is not alarming. In the 1980s, Social Security taxes were raised and benefits were cut in the name of covering the retirement of the Baby Boomers—and, not incidentally, so that the system could loan its surplus to the Treasury Department to cover for Ronald Reagan’s income tax slashing.

What articles like this leave out is that if Social Security fails to collect the money that it is owed by the Treasury, that would amount to a massive fraud and transfer of wealth, as trillions of dollars specifically collected to pay for workers’ retirement benefits would never be used for that purpose.

Social Security is projected to have an actual deficit by the year 2037, when the money borrowed from the program is scheduled to be paid back, but many economists argue that this could be addressed with minor measures. “Benefits to be Paid as Expected” isn’t an exciting headline, but it would have been more accurate than anything about Social Security being on the brink.

—The New York Times has been going out of its way lately to give a fair shake to those who believe that global warming is a hoax engineered by a global conspiracy of climate scientists. On February 9, the paper ran a front-page story headlined “UN Climate Panel and Chief Face Credibility Siege,” which reported that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its head, Rajendra Pachauri, are “under intense scrutiny, facing accusations of scientific sloppiness and potential financial conflicts of interest from climate skeptics, right-leaning politicians and even some mainstream scientists.”

A few paragraphs down we’re told that the most common criticisms “have proved to be half-truths,” and that the “general consensus among mainstream scientists is that the errors are in any case minor and do not undermine the report’s conclusions.” And so these charges are on the front page of the New York Times because … why, again?

It’s worth noting that the only “mainstream scientist” quoted in the piece as being critical of the IPCC is Roger Pielke, a political scientist who says he’s not skeptical that climate change is happening—but is regularly cited by leading global warming deniers, like Sen. James Inhofe, because of his skepticism about efforts to do anything about global warming.

Speaking of Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican was prominently featured—along with Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh—in another New York Times front-pager on global warming headlined, believe it or not, “Climate Fight Is Heating Up in Deep Freeze.” This February 11 piece was balanced, in fine New York Times style, between, on the one hand, those who argued that heavy snowfalls on the East Coast of the United States are evidence that global warming is not happening, and on the other hand, by those who think that’s nonsense.

—On February 5, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank made a confession: “I miss John McCain.” Milbank proudly calls himself “an original McCainiac”—by which he means that he, like so many others in the corporate media, adored the so-called “maverick” John McCain of the 2000 presidential campaign, the McCain who Milbank saw as a “refreshing antidote” to partisanship in Washington. But recently, Milbank laments, McCain’s been “shedding his idiosyncrasies” and become a “conventional conservative.”

He’s not the only one professing surprise at McCain’s conservatism. On February 9, the New York Times front page broke the shocking news that in the face of a challenge in this year’s primary election, McCain has been changing some of his political positions. Jennifer Steinhauer reported that “McCain finds himself jammed, moving starkly—and often awkwardly—to the right.”

But as we’ve pointed out plenty of times before, moving to the right is hardly awkward for McCain, as his Senate record has been staunchly conservative throughout his career—except for those anomalous years, just before and after his unsuccessful bid for the 2000 presidential nomination, when the press mostly fell in love with him.

Wishing for that John McCain to return, as Milbank does, is akin to wishing that a politician would just lie to you one more time.

—A few weeks ago we talked about the lack of mainstream media pick-up for an explosive report in Harper’s magazine. In the piece, Scott Horton reveals evidence to suggest that three prisoner suicides at
Guantánamo were not suicides at all, but may have been murdered by U.S. officials. Well that story has finally been reported in the New York Times. Sort of.

The paper ran a February 1 piece about editorial changes at Harper’s magazine, and quoted publisher Rick MacArthur saying that the mainstream media was ignoring his publication. In a letter to the editor a few days later, MacArthur clarified the record; he was speaking specifically about the media ignoring the
Guantánamo suicides story. So, just to be clear: The Times heard MacArthur complain that the
Guantánamo exposé was being ignored by the media—a fact that they then proceeded to ignore in their story about Harper’s. MacArthur’s point about the corporate media blackout was more correct than he thought.

—And finally, 173 Toyota dealers in the Southeast have found one way to strike a blow against journalism—they’ve pulled their ads from local ABC stations as punishment for reporting on Toyota safety problems by ABC network correspondent Brian Ross

The ad agency representing the Toyota dealers says they switched their ads to non-ABC stations because of the network’s “excessive stories” about Toyota’s safety and recall issues. You can bet the stations benefiting from this change will think twice before reporting too much on Toyota.

It would be hard to find a more brilliant demonstration of the structural vulnerability of our corporate-owned, advertiser-driven information system—except for another recent case where the Ford Motor Company paid local Los Angeles station KTLA to run “exclusive” upbeat reports about Ford in the middle of the station’s 10 o’clock news program.

According to Los Angeles Times reporter James Rainey, the ads-masquerading-as-news segments exposed KTLA viewers to three nights in a row of “shameless puffery about the ‘dramatic turnaround’ at Ford Motor Co.” Payment for the “stories,” which ran under the segment title, “The View From the Driver’s Seat,” was disclosed at the end of the hour-long news program.

When Rainey raised questions about the wall between editorial and advertising with station officials, he was told there was no foul, and given a hustle about how the disclaimers at the end of the news programs were really about a self-produced Ford documentary KTLA was to air the day after the stealth ads concluded.

Needless to say, when it comes to corporate advertisers versus journalistic standards—and this goes double when auto makers and dealers are paying for the ads—the corporate paymasters are, as KTLA put it, in the driver’s seat.


CounterSpin: Scott Brown’s election to the Senate in January and a Nashville “Tea Party” gathering in early February, have provided big opportunities for journalists seeking to tout and rationalize the right-wing “populist” Tea Party movement. For instance: On February 11, the Washington Post ran a David Ignatius column calling for a European Tea Party movement; and a David Broder column praising Nashville Tea Party keynoter Sarah Palin’s “pitch perfect populism.” Palin’s speech, said Broder, offered “the full repertoire she possesses, touching on national security, economics, fiscal and social policy.” To try to rationalize a movement that detests government spending and opposes Medicare cuts, that despises the TARP bailouts but makes heroes of one-time TARP supporters Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, is a tough job. The same goes for portraying a movement that is strongly, if fitfully, allied with the GOP, as a populist phenomenon.

But how do you make sense of a movement that often makes no sense at all? Sikivu Hutchinson has found a way, and she writes about it in “Mainstream Media’s Tea Party Trist,” a column you can find on BlackFemLens.org. Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of BlackFemLens and a contributor to Black Agenda Report, she joins us now from Southern California.

Welcome to CounterSpin! Sikivu Hutchinson.

Sikivu Hutchinson: Hi, Steve.

CS: Hi. Well, writing about the Tea Party movement, New York Times editor Sam Tanenhaus cited a Town Hall activist who confronted a politician exclaiming “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” [SH laughs] It sounds incredibly ignorant, but to Tanenhaus it showed a deeper wisdom on the part of the activist. We won’t get into that mess, but it raises questions about how journalists tell us that Tea Party activists’ views—like opposition to government spending—are serious, philosophical positions demanding serious discussion. But is this the most useful or accurate way to understand what drives tea party activists, in your view?

SH: Absolutely not, and I think that the media has really abdicated its responsibility to unpack the deep historical legacy that’s informing these uprisings, grassroots uprisings as they’ve been dubbed. You know this is nothing new. I mean, we’ve seen this before whenever there is the perception that underclass, particularly urban, people of color, women, gays, the disenfranchised are going to be given a place at the table in American society. We’ve seen these backlashes. I mean certainly during the late 1940s and early 1950s with the emergence of the Dixiecrats that broke off from the mainstream Democratic Party in opposition to civil rights legislation, and that party was helmed by Strom Thurmond. We saw this in the 1960s with the deployment of the Southern strategy by Richard Nixon to try and curry favor with disaffected, independent Democrats and bring them into the Republican fold on the plank of states’ rights and law enforcement. And of course we saw this in the 1990s with the election of Bill Clinton and obviously his and Hilary Clinton’s derailed efforts to try and bring about healthcare reform. So this is again a very persistent and inveterate strain within a white working class, white middle class sensibility that views the federal government as an entity that is going to, quote unquote, basically take away all of the rights and privileges that they enjoy as white people in the United States.

CS: And you’re suggesting that the election of Barack Obama, a black Democrat or biracial Democrat, is the trigger here.

SH: Absolutely. I mean let’s look at the symbolism that was most trumpeted when the Tea Party broke onto the scene. I mean the birther symbolism, the terrorist symbolism, the xenophobic critique and propaganda that surrounded Barack Obama’s election and his platform. So we can’t disassociate that kind of iconography from this critique of government spending, critique of healthcare, critique of, again this whole dynamic of social welfare. I mean, they’re all interrelated and again mainstream and to a certain extent, yes, liberal media have not delved into the deep, institutionalized, racist roots of this particular uprising.

CS: Well, Scott Brown’s election, we are unceasingly told, signifies the strength of the Tea Party movement, and its positions—opposition to big government, return to constitutional principles, opposition to the healthcare plan, etc.—is that the way you see Brown’s election?

SH: Yes and no. I mean, obviously the Massachusetts Democratic candidate was very weak and very, I think, inept with regard to trying to galvanize the traditional Democrat electorate in Massachusetts. But there are also a lot of outside forces that descended upon Massachusetts to try and make that victory happen. So I think again these are smoke screen issues, this whole idea of big government being the bogeyman is really just a metaphor for this deep, in my view, white supremacist reclamation.

CS: Well, speaking of Brown’s election and some of the media “wisdom” it has prompted, there’s another message that has occasionally gotten through, that gets to a point that you’ve already made. On MSNBC on January 19 pundit Donnie Deutsch described Brown’s election as a white male, as “getting back to basics,” to which columnist Peggy Noonan added, “he looks like an American.” There was also cheering of Tom Tancredo’s endorsement of poll taxes at the Nashville Tea Party event. Do these sentiments better get at what you think represent, what really animates the Tea Party activists?

SH: Well, okay, let’s look at the demographics of these Tea Party gatherings. How many disenfranchised, working class, unemployed people of color do we see at these rallies and these conventions and these confabs? It’s 99.9 percent white. Again it’s harkening back to this historical legacy to attempt to recuperate all of the privileges and entitlements that, frankly, European Americans enjoyed as a result of the institutionalization of New Deal social welfare entitlements. I mean, that’s the egregious irony in all of this. So if we look at who’s really suffering from the recession, from corporate welfare being granted to bailing out banks, if we look at the real victims of this debacle, it’s depressed urban people of color, African Americans who are at 15 percent or more of the unemployed, Latinos who are at 12 percent or more of the unemployed. Where are they in the Tea Party discourse and the Tea Party demographics?

CS: We’ve been speaking with Sikivu Hutchinson, the editor of BlackFemLens.org, and a contributor to Black Agenda Report.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin!, Sikivu Hutchinson.

SH: Thank you, Steve.


CounterSpin: In a move that was interpreted by many as an attempt to mollify some right-wing critics, the White House recently announced that they were ready to get federal spending under control, starting with a freeze on certain domestic programs. The details were somewhat scarce, but the exceptions to the freeze were clear. The most prominent—and perhaps the most puzzling—exception was military spending. The fact that the country’s military budget would be apparently off the table when it came time to cut costs led to some complaints from editorial boards and a few columnists. But it’s hard to have a serious conversation about federal spending without putting military costs front and center.

Joining us to do just that is Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives. His group has released two new reports about military spending and the federal budget.

Carl Conetta, welcome to CounterSpin!

Carl Conetta: My pleasure to be here.

CS: Now, the first order of business might be to get a handle on the level of current military spending, and where we’re likely headed in the near-future. I read an op-ed in the New York Times recently that referred to the “likelihood of austere Pentagon budgets in the coming years.” That doesn’t seem to be what I’m getting from your reports.

CC: No, if you take a historical look at it and ignore the current rise, we’re looking at a $708 billion budget at the beginning of fiscal year 2011. By the end of the year, it will probably be higher. But if you don’t even take that into account and just take a look at future spending planned by the administration, all of it is above the level of the highest years of Ronald Reagan’s administration, corrected for inflation, and it’s above the highest years of the Vietnam War period. In fact, the president is planning to spend in eight years more than any administration has since the Second World War. And it significantly outdistances his predecessor, George Bush. So when they talk about austerity, you can only be thinking that what they mean is that it’s not going to go as high as the Pentagon would like it to go. But in no sense is this austere. This is an unprecedentedly high budget.

CS: Now when you drill down into the numbers, which you did in one of these reports in particular, do you find anything that’s unusual or something that might explain what’s going on here?

CC: Well, we identified a number of things that have been driving up the Pentagon’s statements of requirements, and I put requirements in quotation marks—we have to do that—because there’s actually a lot of room to move here if people so decided. There is the war, of course, the wars. Interestingly they only account for about 20 percent of the current DOD budget. And of all the money added since the low point in the 1990s, with the post-Cold War reduction—and it bottomed out in 1998—since then they’ve added $2.5 trillion above 1998 levels. About half, just slightly less than half of that, has gone to the wars. The other half has gone to regular peacetime activities. That’s an enormous amount. Part of what’s been driving it is that the, there’s been sort of a, the Pentagon has had a blank check since 9/11. They’ve spent a lot of money on modernization, buying new equipment, but that has moved in all sorts of directions without much effort to prioritize.

Interestingly, there’s a huge investment in Cold War programs, programs that have their origin back when the Soviet Union was the principal threat. Those programs came into the post-Cold War period with a lot of momentum, a lot of—they had their own offices, they had a lot of industry investment in them, a lot of political clout, and so they gobbled up a lot of that money. Along come these new wars, and we discover well we don’t have what it takes to fight these particular types of wars, so you have to modernize all over again.

So you have this layering of modernization programs, one atop the other, without sufficient prioritization, and that comes directly from the Pentagon essentially having a blank check. There is a lapse of accountability here that is as serious as any in the financial realm, but it’s not something that draws the same type of attention.

CS: It certainly doesn’t, and you know, one thing that I have always wondered about and found at least part of the answer in one of the reports was about the use of private contractors in the military. It’s something that is only rarely talked about especially in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan, but it does drive up costs.

CC: Well, that’s right. Well, it’s an interesting thing. Contractors can be cheaper than having military personnel or having DOD civilians. The idea here is to save money by essentially hiring people who are not going to have the same type of lifetime benefits. Some contractors make a great deal of money, but a large portion of the contracting labor pool is either foreign or locally, they’re at the lower end of the wage spectrum. So this is supposedly an economizing move, but where the big money comes in is this: we’ve reduced the size of the military and we’ve filled in behind with all of these contractors. So we’ve reinflated the budget back toward the Cold War. The workforce today is about as big as it was when we were facing the Soviet Union. The difference is that it’s been restructured; a lot more of the workforce is private contractors. And this is really in response to trying to have the military do so many different things. A lot of us think about the military as being smaller, and it is. There’s 30 percent fewer DOD civilian personnel directly employed by the Pentagon. There’s 30 percent fewer military personnel, but there’s 40 percent more contractors.

CS: Now, every media outlet, every major media outlet, has a Pentagon correspondent. Is this issue just too big to kind of tackle for a reporter who’s doing day-to-day journalism about the military? It seems like it gets, it suffers from a severe lack of attention.

CC: Yeah, well I think there’s a couple of things going on. You know I think everybody looks for a hot story; everybody looks for the fight that’s going on. Republicans vs. Democrats, that’s the heavyweight bout. And as it turns out, when you turn to the two parties, really with regard to defense spending overall, Congress divides into three sections. First there are those people who have never seen a budget, never seen a defense budget that couldn’t use some extra billions of dollars. The second group don’t want to talk about the defense budget. That’s most Democrats, principally because they see that it puts them in a politically disadvantageous position. And then the third group is Barney Frank.

CS: And what group is Barney Frank in?

CC: Barney Frank is the one person who is making a career out of pointing to the need and the possibility for significant reduction in the defense budget. But he’s the only one. Because he’s coming from a solid district that supports that perspective. I think that narrows coverage.

The other thing I think is that it’s hard to get, it’s hard to get the public discussion out of the schoolyard, out of a way of framing this that is really overly simplistic. And the best example is the current controversy over the freeze. Many discretionary items are now frozen. Supposedly most of the discretionary budget is frozen, except for the Pentagon. And this has been quite controversial. Well, it’s a good place to start a discussion, but to tell you the truth, it doesn’t go very far. I think you can make a case that defense is privileged and should be privileged. We need security. I don’t think there’s any question about that. The real question is do we need the amount of money we’re spending? It’s not whether its frozen or not frozen. It’s, do we need this amount of money? And we never get to that discussion, so it sort of stays in a schoolyard level. Things should be even-Steven. And really the conservative response would be, we’re at war, how can you say things should be even-Steven? Well, what we show in the reports is that even if you take the war into account, there’s an extraordinary rise in spending. The rise since 1998 is equivalent to the Reagan surge plus the Kennedy/Johnson Vietnam War-era surge together.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Carl Conetta; he’s co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives. You can find their reports on Pentagon spending at COMW.org/pda.

Carl Conetta, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin!

CC: My pleasure.


–“Mainstream Media’s Tea Party Tryst,” by Sikivu Hutchinson (BlackFemLens.org)

Project on Defense Alternatives