This week on CounterSpin: The FDA is on the verge of approving genetically engineered salmon in spite of opposition by the public, scientists and consumer groups. On November 15 the group Food & Water Watch released internal documents from Fish & Wildlife Service scientists expressing misgivings about the safety of the altered salmon and the legality of the FDA's procedures. We'll talk to Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch.
Also on the show: A one-minute commentary by a cable TV host brought a swell of public awareness, political attention and money to a snowstorm-devastated Cheyenne River Sioux community in South Dakota—demonstrating the power of the media spotlight, and unfortunately, how faint and flickering that light is when it comes to Native American issues. Author of a recent column on that topic is Rose Aguilar, host of Your Call on San Francisco's KALW and author of Red Highways: A Liberal's Journey Into the Heartland. We'll talk with her about that.
That's coming up but first, as usual, we'll take a look back at recent press.
—The recent proposal from the White House deficit commission has generated intense and serious criticism from progressive economists and budget experts who don't think the most effective way to deal with the country's long-term debt problem is to slash social spending, raise the retirement age and give tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy. But those arguments are having a hard time cutting through the corporate media, where praising austerity economics as tough and bipartisan is de rigeur.
The deficit debate on the November 14 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press featured former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan and right-wing pundit and politician Newt Gingrich. On the "other" side was Harold Ford, the chair of the right-leaning Democratic Leadership Council. A debate, then between the near-right and the far-right—with non-partisan Vanity Fair journalist Bethany McLean thrown in the mix. The results were unsurprising, with Ford's contribution being to offer to give up his own social security, since he's wealthy enough to do so. Of course, rich people not taking their benefits would have a negligible impact compared to what taxing them on more of their income would have—Ford didn't make any offers about that.
Meanwhile, the premiere interview show on public television wasn't doing much better. After the draft proposal was released, Charlie Rose invited Harvard economist Martin Feldstein and David Walker of the Pete Peterson Foundation. Both cheered the blueprint, but wished it had gone farther. On November 15, Rose hosted Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, who is also on the commission. And who was next? Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of the deficit commission who authored the plan. One of the most critical issues facing the country, and not even public television can have a real debate? FAIR's asking the Charlie Rose show to do better: You can join that call at FAIR.org.
—When Barack Obama seemed to be changing his mind to support extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, after previously opposing those extensions, the Los Angeles Times described the change like this: "Obama has loosened his longstanding view that tax cuts should be extended permanently only for households earning less than $250,000 a year ($200,000 for singles)." So, Obama's becoming less "uptight" about taxes, sounds like a good thing here....though of course, it's precisely the sort of thing that's described as a "flip flop" when journalists disapprove.
Another form of "terminological inexactitude" is the headline that says the opposite of what the story says. This is usually done in the service of a powerful interest. Thus, if you actually read the New York Times story from November 15, "U.S. Plan Offers Path to Ending Afghan Combat," you'd know that a more accurate headline would have been, "U.S. Plan Extends Afghan Combat by Three Years"—since the story's about how the White House is leaning toward extending the Afghan withdrawal deadline from 2011 to 2014.
Finally, in the language department: On November 12, Fox News anchor Trace Gallagher took a study that said that there are 100,000 fewer Hispanics in Arizona than before the debate over the state's disputed anti-immigrant law, and reported it as 100,000 fewer "illegals." The Fox anchor's racist bungling of the study's terms did serve as useful illustration of the case made by opponents of the Arizona law.
—We got a glimpse of how low Glenn Beck will go to smear a political foe, when he said that liberal philanthropist George Soros, a Jew, helped "send the Jews to the death camps." Beck told the outrageous lie on his November 10 radio show. But it was Beck's overall crusade against Soros, portraying him as a "puppet master" out to destroy America and affect a new international order, that drew charges the radio host and Fox News star is anti-Semitic.
As Daily Beast writer Michelle Goldberg put it after watching Beck's special Fox News series on Soros,
As Media Matters has pointed out, the reading list that Beck recommends to his followers includes titles by vicious anti-Semites like Elizabeth Dilling, known for blaming Jews for the rise of the Nazis and referring to U.S. President Eisenhower as "Ike the Kike." Moreover, last May, while attacking Black liberation theology, Beck incidentally repeated the classic trope of anti-Semitism, stating, "If Christ was a victim, and this theology was true, then Jesus would've come back from the dead and made the Jews pay for what they did."
Michelle Goldberg allows that Beck's anti-Semitism may be inadvertent, that he may not fully understand the historical the terms and images he is dealing in; but as evidence mounts, that case becomes harder and harder to make.
—Retirement seems to give some people license to misremember the past and their own role in it. It would be less galling if they didn't package their rose-glasses view as a lesson to the whippersnappers, and if they didn't do so in the newspaper. That's our reaction, anyway, to former ABC Nightline anchor Ted Koppel's November 14 op-ed in the Washington Post. Koppel waxes on about the "nonpartisan sadness" he feels watching the likes of Olbermann and O'Reilly, lamenting that nowadays such opinionated commentary has become "highly profitable." There are mentions of what the founding fathers intended for us, the "electronic hearth" around which the country supposedly used to huddle, awaiting the "relatively unbiased accounts" on offer from a news media that, to hear Koppel tell it, was run as some sort of public charity. It's all very nice and...well, inaccurate...but mostly it's irritating because Koppel hasn't been gone long enough to be forgotten, and what folks may remember is a show that didn't really live up to these standards whose passing he claims to lament. The actual Ted Koppel ran a show that was a conveyor belt for elite opinion, whose two most frequent guests during one 40-month period were Henry Kissinger and Al Haig, where dissenters were near-invisible, by the host's explicit choice: "We are governed by the president and his cabinet and their people." Koppel answered critics of his show's insularity, "And they are the ones who are responsible for our foreign policy, and they are the ones I want to talk to."
As for declining standards in general, let's just say we'll take that lecture from a guy who didn't say, "The word voyeurism was created for a day like this" as a lede for one of several shows devoted to Michael Jackson's child molestation charges. Thanks.
—And finally: It's possible to work too hard trying to figure out what a pundit is saying, or thinks he's saying, or actually believes—it's better just to let them speak for themselves. That's what we'll do with the latest from Howard Kurtz, former media reporter at the Washington Post now at the Daily Beast, which is in the process of merging with Newsweek, which used to be owned by the Washington Post. Kurtz was on Keith Olbermann's show, chastising the host for those Democratic party donations because, as Kurtz explained, there should be a line between journalists and partisan players.
As we've noted on this show, that rule would make more sense if it weren't the case that corporate media owners, with much more money to throw around than journalists, make huge political contributions in efforts to influence politicians and policy.
Kurtz has thought about that too, but his take is very different. Journalists should not be allowed to give to politicians, he says, but it's fine for their bosses at General Electric or Comcast because "Once you get up to the corporate level, where they're not meddling with newsroom decisions... corporations are going to give money." I guess all we can do is marvel that a veteran, high profile mainstream media critic believes that a reporter's thousands represent a conflict of interest where a media owner's millions do not, and leave it at that.
CounterSpin: In spite of opposition from the public, scientists and consumer safety groups, the Food & Drug Administration is expected to approve a new genetically engineered salmon produced by the Massachusetts biotech company AquaBounty. Critics say the altered salmon is being rushed to market by an FDA which they say has shirked required procedures and withheld crucial information about the product's safety.
These concerns were amplified when the consumer group Food & Water Watch disclosed documents gained through Freedom of Information requests revealing safety concerns among government scientists outside the FDA. Joining us now is Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch.
Welcome back to CounterSpin, Wenonah Hauter.
Wenonah Hauter: Glad to be here.
CS: Well, before we talk about the documents, briefly bring us up to date on the status of the FDA's confirmation process regarding the genetically engineered AquaBounty salmon?
WH: First of all, the FDA is rushing this. They gave a two-week comment period on the approval process, and they are using a veterinary drug process that keeps the information about testing and so forth secret. We're very concerned about GE salmon because it could threaten public health; it could wipe out wild salmon populations; it could diminish biodiversity in marine environments; and it could further drive this unhealthy trend toward producing more fish in these factory fish farms.
CS: I want to bring you out a little bit on the safety concerns. First, there's one that the fish could actually cause problems with people eating it. Then there's another one: if these mutant fish escape and get into nature.
WH: Well first of all, AquaBounty, the company that is trying to make their production of eggs legal, used only four studies to prove that genetically engineered fish is safe to eat. Three of these studies weren't peer-reviewed, and the fourth study was very old. They have not seriously considered any of the potential health hazards around this fish making people sick from allergic reactions, and they also culled any deformed salmon before they looked at differences between genetically engineered salmon and wild salmon. They just cheated all the way down the line. And the shocking thing is that the FDA is using this process that wasn't designed to look at foods, and their advisory committee on this issue is comprised of veterinarians.
CS: Tell us how the documents that Food & Water Watch has obtained through the Freedom of Information Act figure in this debate.
WH: I don't know if your listeners realize it, but there is no real process for considering genetically engineered foods. A number of different agencies have some piece of the responsibility. We used the Freedom of Information Act to find documents and emails from Fish and Wildlife Services, and frankly we were shocked. For instance, one of the top scientists said in an email: maybe the FDA should watch Jurassic Park. They also talked about the rush to do this, the lack of a forum for this agency to be involved in looking at the impacts. A high-ranking FWS employee complained that they just didn't consult as they were required to by law. And they said that it's a situation where the FDA, which isn't focused on natural resources, is now approving an application that could have a very negative impact on the marine environment.
CS: I wonder if you could explain what you think that Jurassic Park reference refers to?
WH: Well you know, the proponents of GE technology always say that it's like selective breeding, which has been done over the course of hundreds of years, but in all reality what you're doing is taking the genetic material of one species and inserting it into another species. So in this case it's an eel gene being inserted into a salmon and causing a hormone to be produced that speeds up the way that the salmon grows, so it grows faster. This is really messing with nature, and no one really knows what the impacts will be, and I think what the Fish and Wildlife Service officials were especially concerned about is that these eggs—which are being produced in Canada by AquaBounty, and then being sent to Panama to be grown out in a land-based facility—well, one official, high-ranking at this agency said, well we know that these eggs will get around. And that's the truth. Once these eggs are in the market, we already know that there's a lot of interest in producing these faster-growing salmon in locations where the salmon could end up in the natural environment. And the company has lied. AquaBounty said during the hearings that they had no intention of ever selling eggs to companies that were going to produce these fish anywhere near the natural environment. Well, from our Freedom of Information Act requests, we found out that one of the former company executives had already contacted Maine's environmental department and requested a permit to grow these salmon in—it's a land-based facility but the water spews into the North Atlantic. So this shows that the company isn't serious and that the problem of escapement of this farmed salmon could be real. It could cause this genetically engineered salmon to out compete the wild salmon for food and for space, and they could also interfere with breeding in a variety of ways, pushing wild stocks towards extinction. I mean this could just cause incredible competitive pressure in these marine environments that are already stressed. It is a completely irresponsible move on the part of the Food and Drug Administration.
CS: So we're on the verge of something unprecedented: the FDA approving for the first time an animal food, a genetically engineered animal food, and you come out with documents that show that another federal agency has great misgivings about the FDA's process, about the safety of the product. This is big news. It's like your group, Food & Water Watch is doing the media's business for it. They must be very thankful, and of course they must have all picked up on this story, right?
WH: Well you know, we really expected that this would become a big media story. There was interest early on on this issue in the media, and we've been terribly disappointed that none of the elite newspapers have picked this story up. I mean we do think that this is big news. The Obama Administration's agencies with appointed officials are in deep disagreement about what the FDA's doing and an approval could happen any day. In fact, the 22nd is the last day for comments around labeling of GE salmon, but the agency could decide to legalize it at any time. And we just haven't seen this picked up as a big story.
CS: We've got very little time left, but I want to hear from you, what does Food & Water Watch want to see happen here?
WH: We want people to contact the administration, the Obama administration, tell the agencies to halt this process. People should go to our website, FoodAndWaterWatch.org, and they can contact the Obama administration through our front page.
CS: And it wouldn't hurt if journalists picked up on your group's disclosures. We've been speaking with Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, you can read the group's material on genetically engineered salmon at their website at FoodAndWaterWatch.org.
Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Wehonah Hauter!
WH: Thanks so much for having me.
CounterSpin: When's the last time you saw a national news story that engaged issues involving Native Americans, or addressed the impact of events or policies on those communities? Odds are it's been a long time, and if you exclude stories on sports mascots and casinos, an even longer one. When a group gets major media inclusion as rarely as Native Americans, one instance can have dramatic impact, as when MSNBC's Keith Olbermann spoke briefly about a South Dakota Sioux community in January. The story says something about the revelatory potential of media, and something about how inconsistently it's applied.
Our next guest discusses the near invisibility of the country's 2 million Native Americans in the media in a recent column for Truthout. She's Rose Aguilar, host of Your Call, the daily call-in radio show on KALW in San Francisco and KUSP in Santa Cruz.
Welcome back to CounterSpin, Rose Aguilar!
Rose Aguilar: Hi Janine, thanks for focusing on this issue.
CS: Sure. Well, tell folks first, if you would, about that Keith Olbermann incident that serves as a jumping off point for your column. What was he talking about and what happened after?
RA: Well on January 21, a devastating snowstorm hit the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation—it's one of the poorest in the country. We're talking about an 85 percent unemployment rate. And the snowstorm knocked down over 3,000 utility poles. Residents were without electricity, water or heat in sub-zero temperatures for weeks. This is the same time that the earthquake happened in Haiti, and so this didn't get much attention. On February 9, just a couple of weeks later, Keith Olbermann did a one-minute commentary telling his viewers about this humanitarian crisis. He said it was so bad, college basketball fans were being asked to share their soles. Haiti?, he asked—South Dakota. The shoe donations are being sought at the University of South Dakota, and they're for the residents of the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation. Now he was clearly very angry in this one-minute commentary. What was striking was that he didn't show any photos; he didn't have any videos; and he didn't have any interview with a tribal member. It was basically Keith Olbermann yelling at the screen about how the U.S. government treats Native Americans. He said, "doing nothing for these people, an American tradition since at least 1776." I was curious to find out how that commentary affected the tribe. Did people react to it? The reaction was overwhelming. The tribe said they expected maybe $20- or $30,000 in donations because Olbermann directed his viewers to a link where they could offer some money to help the tribe. They ended up raising $975,000. And the tribe said they were completely overwhelmed; their phones were ringing off the hook by members of the press. They said people drove up to 13 hours to donate water and clothing and shoes.
CS: Well, we're going to talk a bit more about that response, but let me just stick with the story itself for a minute now, because there's history there that undergirds the current crisis in the Cheyenne River Sioux community.
RA: Right. I didn't know about this until I started doing my research. This goes all the way back to 1944. Congress authorized the Pick-Sloan plan, which was a $490 million proposal to build the Missouri River dams. And this was in response to devastating floods in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska. And I found through my research this interesting book called Damned Indians Revisited by historian Michael Lawson, and he said that the building of these dams caused more damage to tribal land and resources than any other public works project in history. So as a result of this, back in 1944, the tribe is still suffering, and they still don't have enough water to deliver to all of their people. And I interviewed a man, Leo Fisher, who's the general manager for the water system for the tribe, and he said that after this Olbermann commentary ran, he went to D.C. to talk with government officials about what they're currently facing. He said that government officials he spoke with were outraged by this one-minute commentary because it made them look bad.
CS: Well, that actually I wanted to ask you about, he says the first thing they said to him when he got to this D.C. meeting was, we don't want national news on this—which, to me, sounds like journalism working just the way it should: putting politicians on notice that they're being observed, put to public scrutiny. Of course the downer, if you will, of this story is how inadequately that attention is sustained with regard to Native American issues.
RA: It's true. In fact the tribe said they haven't had a phone call from a reporter since March. No one has bothered to call to say how are you doing now, what are you facing right now? But you're right, this just proves that if the media spent less time on, say, Sarah Palin, or some of these ridiculous things that we hear every single day, over and over again, and maybe just spent a tenth of the time on those issues on real issues, like what's happening in Native American tribes, the suicide rates are incredibly high, the meth use is incredibly high, what could we accomplish? I mean, I think this just proves that the public actually wants substance from the media, they're just not getting it. And when they are given information, and they're basically told: this is how you can get involved, and you can take action, they do take action. Because I've found a lot of blogs that said what else can we do, how else can we get involved?
CS: And I'm sure also wondering, why didn't we know about this before? Well, maybe we know this, but is our sense correct from your understanding that the general picture for Native Americans in the media is one of really near-invisibility?
RA: Oh, it's completely invisible. In 2007, the American Society of Newspaper Editors reported that 324 Native Americans were working in newsrooms. Because of the layoffs people of color tend to get hit really badly, and women. In 2009, that number shrunk to 293, so today in newspapers across this country, there are only 122 Native Americans working. So that's another reason why this issue is just brushed under the rug.
CS: You're a journalist who listens to people every day, so what is your response to the idea that people aren't interested in communities far from their own, or outside their own?
RA: That is not true at all. I think people want to take action. On our radio show in San Fransisco and the Santa Cruz area, people are hungry for independent media especially, and this also speaks to the importance of independent media and why we really need to support it. People want substance, and they want to take action. We're facing so many problems right now, and I think over the next two years it's going to get worse. But they want to know what is happening in different communities, and how can we get involved, how can we take action here?
CS: We've been speaking with Rose Aguilar. She's host of Your Call on KALW in San Francisco and KUSP in Santa Cruz and author of Red Highways: A Liberal's Journey into the Heartland.
Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin.
RA: Thank you, Janine.