Jul 23 2010

Thomas Ferguson on Wall St. reform, Michael Messner on women’s sports and TV


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This week on CounterSpin: As the corporate media would have it, the new Wall Street reform bill is the most “comprehensive” overhaul of financial regulation since the Great Depression, and a huge victory for President Obama who it is said squared off with Wall Street in order to deliver the “sweeping” reforms. We’ll talk to University of Massachusetts professor Thomas Ferguson about the reality of the bill and how it was made.

Also on the show: Americans are often said to be uninterested in soccer but recent excitement around the World Cup might suggest that Americans can get into it, if it’s presented to them and promoted. So what does it mean that new research shows that TV coverage of women’s sports is not just low but getting lower? We’ll talk with USC professor and author Mike Messner about that study of women’s sports on TV.

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

—The headline on the July 20 front page story about Social Security in USA Today read, “Faith in Social Security Tanking: Most Expect Cuts or Lose Hope for Funds.” As reporter Susan Page explained, … A USA Today/Gallup Poll finds that a majority of retirees say they expect their current benefits to be cut, a dramatic increase in the number who hold that view. And a record six of 10 non-retirees predict Social Security won’t be able to pay them benefits when they stop working. … Page seems puzzled that the public is so misinformed about the status of social security’s solvency, since they are “more dire than the calculations of Social Security’s trustees.” She points out that even if the trust fund were exhausted by 2037, the system “could finance about three-fourths of current benefits through the payroll tax.” Page quotes one expert who points out that the public misperceptions might be a result of “all the attacks on Social Security that we have this total crisis in the program.”

True enough. Take, for example, a USA Today front-page article on February 8 of this year, headlined, “Social Security Races to ‘Negative’: Rash of Retirements Push Fund to Brink.” That piece sounded the alarm by reporting that Social Security’s “annual surplus nearly evaporated in 2009 for the first time in 25 years.” That claim, along with so many others about the imminent demise of Social Security, in USA Today and other corporate media outlets, was false.

So, where do people get these wrong ideas about Social Security? They read them in the newspaper.

—The story of U.S. Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod’s disgraceful treatment by right-wing and other media, followed by her equally squalid dismissal by an administration that took that media at face value, really boils down to a single question: When will journalists see Andrew Breitbart as the serial promoter of journalistic frauds that he is, rather than as a legitimate source for story ideas?

Listeners will remember Breitbart for pushing those videos that purported to show ACORN employees advising right-wing activists dressed up as a prostitute and her pimp. Investigation revealed that story to be a fraud, based on deceptively edited video.

So it should come as little surprise that Brietbart’s latest fraud involves promoting video of a speech of Sherrod’s, selectively edited to make it appear she’s evincing bias against white people when the unedited version shows she was actually talking about racial conciliation.

It’s also no surprise that folks like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity stood by Breitbart even as the truth was being revealed. Bill O’Reilly, for his part, called for Sherrod’s resignation, chastised mainstream outlets for not covering the bogus story, then backtracked when it all went south, saying, “I owe Ms. Sherrod an apology for not doing my homework.” He then added, “I well understand the need for honest reporting,” showing that he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

And of course O’Reilly was wrong about so-called mainstream media; they did cover the non-story and continued to even after the truth emerged, some like the Washington Post and AP even taking the chance to repeat Breitbart’s earlier fraud about ACORN.

—Since the Israeli raid on a boat filled with aid for the Gaza Strip, there have been attempts in the press to label IHH, the Turkish humanitarian group that co-sponsored the flotilla, a supporter of “terrorism.”

On July 15, the New York Times ran a story on the group’s “extensive connections with Turkey’s political elite” and reported that Germany had banned IHH’s office because of its ties to Hamas, which Germany considers a “terrorist” group.

But the reporters on the story didn’t do their homework. Numerous news outlets, like Ha’aretz, the Financial Times and the Turkish daily Hurriyet, have noted that the German organization, which shares the Turkish group’s initials, is not connected to the Turkish group that co-sponsored the aid flotilla, meaning that Germany did not ban the Turkish group over “terrorist” ties. The other outlets noted that “German authorities” say the groups split from one another in 1997 and “are now two separate entities.”

The Times also alleged that IHH “has links to Al-Qaeda,” despite the fact that independent journalist Max Blumenthal and Lia Tarachansky of the Real News Network had gotten the Israeli Defense Forces to admit that they had no evidence of that.

FAIR has contacted the New York Times several times over these inaccuracies; so far we’ve received no response.

—France’s lower house of parliament recently approved a ban on wearing full-face Islamic veils such as the burqa or niqab. It was news for several major U.S. outlets: the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times all had stories July 14. Those stories had something in common: they talked about Muslim women, their rights, their behaviors: they just didn’t talk to them. Of 11 named sources in these stories, 2 were Muslim, none were Muslim women. 10 of the 11 were French government officials. Whatever you think of the law—and Muslim women think a range of things, as outlets that bothered to find some can attest—Journalism 101 would suggest finding room in your story for the perspectives of the people directly affected by it. You might want to take extra care to do that if you’re going to be talking about their visibility.

—And finally, last week we reported on PBS‘s 3-hour-long tribute to Reagan-era Secretary of State George Shultz, brought to you by George Shultz’s friends and associates. We encouraged activists to write to PBS and hundreds did. The network’s official response was par for their course: the show of which, of 13 funders, 13 had professional or personal ties to Shultz, or both “fully meets our standards for editorial integrity” the network says. Yes, that’s the problem. They also say the fact that one funder was the Bechtel family foundation and Shultz was both a board member and president of Bechtel was cool because the “subject matter of the program was Shultz’s role as Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, not his role in the corporation.” So you see how that goes.

As it happens though, PBS ombud Michael Getler didn’t see it that way. He sided with FAIR activists, writing on July 16 that the series … created at least the appearance of a conflict of interest; a portrait so glowing that it overwhelms whatever modestly critical elements are included, that does not easily fit the designation one usually associates with a documentary, and that is indeed funded in part by associates of the subject. It doesn’t mean that funders exerted any editorial influence, but it left me feeling they didn’t have to. … Perhaps Getler could conduct some in-house informational sessions at PBS.


CounterSpin: If corporate media were your sole source of information, you’d have the impression that the financial reform legislation President Obama signed on July 21 was a really big deal. A “milestone” of Obama’s presidency and “the most sweeping overhaul of lending and high-finance rules since the Great Depression,” was how the July 21 Los Angeles Times put it. CBS News also called it “sweeping,” and many outlets joined PBS‘s Nightly Business Report in describing it as “comprehensive.” You might also get the impression that the Obama administration itself was the spearhead of the reforms. As the headlines on that July 21 Los Angeles Times report put it: “Triumphant Obama signs financial overhaul, says it will protect consumers, rein in Wall Street.”

Joining us to talk about what’s in and out of the Wall Street legislation is Thomas Ferguson. He’s a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and a senior fellow of the Roosevelt Institute. Ferguson’s books include Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems.

Thomas Ferguson, welcome back to CounterSpin!

Thomas Ferguson: Hi.

CS: Well, what do you think of the new financial regulations and how do you think they will affect Wall Street?

TF: Well, I have to tell you: you know when you were reading those press discussions, I couldn’t help but think of the way some music critics deal with third-rate French operas that are sometimes four hours long, and they think anything that’s four hours long has got to be significant. But they’re not. I mean, this bill is 2,300 pages long, and it does have some quite meaningful and significant parts. It also has a lot of nonsense in it, and it doesn’t really deal with the central problem. I think it’s most fairly categorized actually by a British journal that’s not usually thought of as unsympathetic to business, that’s the Financial Times. They called it the great escape. Effectively, the large financial houses of the United States helped—I mean they had a lot of help—but they destroyed the world in 2008. And these guys should have been much more heavily regulated than they were. They largely got off. The Financial Times has it right: it’s the great escape.

CS: Well, what’s missing from the legislation?

TF: Okay, they whiffed on the fundamental issue, which was how are they going to deal with the so-called too-big-to-fail problem. Too big to fail means, effectively, that some of these people are so big that if they get into trouble, say by borrowing a ton and then because of their compensation structures that reward huge risks immediately, the so-called I’ll-be-gone syndrome—in other words you just buy this junk and you stick it in the balance sheet at the bank and then you disappear a year or so later with your bonus before things collapse—I mean, that pay structure’s still there. Effectively what happens in that: they can bring down the rest of us just by being so huge. They didn’t fix that. Indeed the most able opinion on this, I think, regards it as a bill that’s likely to cement the position of the largest banks. The start of the financial crisis in late 2007: the four largest banks had something like 40 percent of all deposits in the United States; today that number is something like 57 or 58 or so, and I do not doubt that it will be going a lot higher, with all the implications for lack of competition and credit cards and loans and everything else that that means. They should at least have regulated leverage, that is how much money these guys can borrow on top of what they have in the bank themselves. And they didn’t. There is a provision in there that the new regulatory council can decide among—if they think a firm’s really dangerously large they can restrict their leverage, but they don’t have any sort of hard and fast rules of any type in there. They also just didn’t deal with the derivatives problem, which, you gotta understand, the derivatives are basically the biggest probably profit item in the largest banks. These folks did force some derivatives to be traded on exchanges because right now the pricing on most of them is completely impenetrable by anybody, which was even the regulators can’t figure out what the obligations are or what they should be worth. They didn’t force all the derivatives out onto exchanges, and they left about 80 percent of the derivatives business in the large banks. Now that’s going to be nothing but trouble. They also allowed the large banks to continue owning hedge funds and things like that. They did put a limit on that, but it’s not that big a deal. No, I’m not impressed by this, and I think most other people who’ve looked at it sharply are not. It’s the great escape.

CS: You know the writing of legislation is compared to sausage making sometimes.

TF: The difference there is you buy the sausage later, whereas in this particular thing the sausage makers, that is Congress, were being paid all the way—record-breaking sums and an enormous number of former legislative aids lobbying their old bosses.

CS: On that subject, what about portraying President Obama as squaring off with Wall Street? What do we know about the White House’s actual role in shaping the legislation?

TF: I’d say they asked for too little to start with, and then they just failed to follow through in most cases. They plumped for a few things—they realized they had to have some kind of consumer protection agency or just every sort of ordinary person would be totally turned off. Then they allowed the Senate to sort of take it out as an independent agency and stick it in the Federal Reserve, which if you know Federal Reserve and its traditional attitude towards consumers, that’s just ridiculous. And moreover, a really scary part of this legislation is how much of it is unfinished in that there’s something like 200 or so reports the various regulatory agencies have to file, a large amount of this stuff was just in effect kicked down the street. Now the scary thing about that is what that does is it throws the real meaning of the legislation into the implementation phase of the legislation. Now, look, I will guarantee you that the big media in the U.S. spent a lot of time sort of in general discussion of financial reform and very little time on its specifics. They will not cover the regulatory stuff apart maybe from the non-appointment of Elizabeth Warren to the Consumer Affairs Agency, in much detail at all. And so you’re going to have this process dominated by special interests, meaning financial houses. Congressmen and -women aren’t very good at representing ordinary people, but they are terrific at shaking down financial interests for contributions, and when you do this type of deferred rule making, it’s effectively inviting everybody that’s already paid you enormous amounts of money to double up or triple up again over the next few years. This is the very subtle aspect of this: the way, especially in the last eight or ten years the Congress just sort of defers more and more of these decisions. These guys know what they’re doing when they do this.

CS: I just wanted to ask you quickly, what advice would you give to reporters covering financial regulation and other stories like this one?

TF: Well, they need to pay attention to details, in particular an awful lot of financial reporting is done in very general terms. They outline, you know, somebody wants a consumer protection agency, somebody doesn’t. But they don’t usually tell us who the somebodies are. And, of course, they fail almost completely to make even the most obvious connections between the cash coming in and the legislation coming out.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Thomas Ferguson, professor of political science at University of Massachusetts, Boston and the author of, among other books, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Thomas Ferguson!

TF: Okay, thank you.


CounterSpin: If you’re a sports fan or even if you’re not, you know that media give less attention to women’s sports than to men’s. That reflects, well, everything else in U.S. society. But you might assume that as women’s sports expands and grows an audience, that coverage would expand with it. So, is that what’s going on? And about that coverage, aside from its quantity, what can we say about its quality?

Our next guest is a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California, and co-author of a new report on just this set of issues. Michael Messner is also an author of most recently It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families & Youth Sports. He joins us now by phone from California.

Welcome to CounterSpin, Michael Messner!

Michael Messner: Thank you, thanks for having me.

CS: Well, you and your co-author Professor Cheryl Cooky have been looking at gender and televised sports for years now. Tell us what you looked at and the major findings in your most recent report.

MM: Yeah, we started doing this study back in 1989—so this iteration of this study is now 20 years out from the first time we did it—and every five years what we’ve done, starting in 1989, is we’ve looked at the three network affiliates in Los Angeles, evening and late night news shows. We’ve taken two-week segments in March, July, and November to get different seasons, and we examined how much women get covered in the evening news shows—women’s sports compared to men’s sports—and then when they do cover women, how do they cover them? In 1999 we added ESPN Sports Center to this study because we discovered around then that people were getting a lot more of their sports information from these kinds of highlights shows that had popped up and by now are extremely popular. So we started doing the same thing during the same time frame for ESPN—so we have 1999, 2004, and 2009 data for Sports Center.

CS: What have you found longitudinally? Over time, what has it looked like?

MM: Well that’s probably one of the most valuable aspects of this study at this point is the longitudinal nature of it, and we have these data points every five years now going back to 1989. And back in ’89 and ’93, the first two studies found that women were getting about five percent of the coverage. And back then people said well, it will just kind of gradually start going up, it’ll be kind of an evolutionary growth: more and more women are playing sports, families are supportive of their daughters playing sports, college women’s sports is growing. And indeed, by 1999, the coverage of women had gone up to 8.7 percent on the network news, which was a pretty good little jump. And we thought well, gee, I guess it is climbing, but then 2004 it dipped down to 6.3 percent. And then this most recent study that collected data over 2009, it plummeted, just dropped off the cliff to 1.6 percent—and ESPN is no better: they’re 1.4 percent of the airtime devoted to women’s sports. So we were kind of stunned to find that it had not only—we thought maybe it would flatten—but just basically had dropped off to almost nothing.

CS: It’s really not what one would have anticipated, for any number of reasons. So when you looked into it, I mean, what kind of explanation, if any, can you come up with?

MM: Yeah, well it’s hard without getting inside the newsrooms and inside the heads of people who do the programming, but we can certainly speculate. I mean, one thing is that, you know, we found that over time, the newsroom, and this would go for print media as well, is one of the few parts of a news industry where the job has really not become desegregated. I mean, it’s still primarily a male occupation and sports news is still kind of treated in a lot of ways kind of like an electronic version of the locker room for men. Another thing that we found that was really interesting, I think, was that in those earlier years when women were covered, they tended to be sexualized or made fun of, the object of sexual joking or they would focus on, you know, the sexy tennis player and not the best tennis player. And a lot of people were very critical of the news media and Sports Center’s use of women as kind of sexual objects of humor. And in 2004, that kind of declined, and in 2009, we saw very, very little of that kind of humorous sexualization or kind of putting women down on these news shows—which we see as a good change, but the problem is when they quit covering women in sexualized or degrading sorts of ways, they pretty much quit covering women’s sports altogether. So that bad reporting wasn’t replaced by respectful and good reporting, the kind of reporting you see just routinely about men’s sports.

CS: Well, it’s true what you say: it’s tough to talk about cause and effect when you’re doing media research, but there other phenomena going on. You point out that it’s not just women’s sports that are being left out. It really is that there’s kind of a focus on a select and narrow number of sports and everything else gets downplayed.

MM: What we found is that increasingly in 2009, the main focus on ESPN and on the network news is on what we call the big three: men’s college and professional men’s football, men’s basketball, and professional men’s baseball. And so it’s not just women’s sports that are being left out, it’s a lot of the other men’s sports as well aren’t getting much or are getting very, very little coverage. And I think there’s a kind of retrenchment there towards an extremely cautious pitching to the center of what they assume the media public really wants to see or wants to read or wants to hear. And that really flies in the face of growing interest and excitement over women’s sports for one thing. I mean, one of the things we did in the study that was more interesting is we looked at the coverage of women’s and men’s NCAA basketball because these are two kind of symmetrical sports that are taking place at the same time and the NCAA tournament’s at the same time. And the audience for women’s basketball—which turns out to be also one of my favorite things to watch is college women’s basketball—the audience has grown pretty rapidly over the years. In 2009 and -10, each year there were over 11 million people attended women’s games. The audience for ESPN’s coverage actually of the women’s tournament this year was about 1.6 million viewers per game and 3.5 million viewers for the championship game between UConn and Stanford. So there’s a growing audience there, but it’s not being reflected in the news and highlights shows, which, you know, I think one of the things that news and highlights shows do in the sort of larger scheme of things is they help to build audience excitement for all of these men’s events that are happening. And you’d think Sports Center, at least, since they’re covering now the women’s games live, would use Sports Center to help build knowledge and excitement about the various events that they are broadcasting.

CS: Yeah, it doesn’t even seem to make business sense, which is something that we’re often told to look to for media reasoning. Well, let me ask you finally, about the reception to your findings. I think it’s fascinating that you note that it’s been women reporters who’ve been interested in the study.

MM: It has been primarily. And I think this is another sign if women could break in in greater numbers into sports reporting, you might have more respectful and greater amount of coverage of women’s sports. The response to this study, you know there have been two or three men reporters or radio people who’ve done really good pieces on this, but primarily, you know, it’s been people like Sally Jenkins at the Washington Post, Diana Nyad on Public Radio—the few really established women reporters out there and broadcasters out there who have seen this study as something worthy of talking about and covering. So again, I think there’s a deafening silence from most male sports broadcasters and news people about women’s sports and then about these findings in this study.

CS: It speaks volumes. We’ve been speaking with Michael Messner of USC. His latest book is It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families & Youth Sports. You can find his and Cheryl Cooky’s report, “Gender in Televised Sports,” online at college.usc.edu/tvsports.

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

MM: Thanks a lot for having me.