NPR, as FAIR has noted throughout the years (e.g., 8/14/01, 11/01, 2/5/02, 11/15/12, 10/10/14), takes a default pro-Israel line when reporting on the affairs of Israel/Palestine. Its correspondents almost always live in West Jerusalem or in Israel proper, are rarely Palestinian or Arab, and they work consistently to deflect blame for Israeli violence—either shifting blame onto Palestinian victims or dispersing it through false parity.
A segment from Friday (All Things Considered, 3/30/18) on Israel’s killing of Gaza protesters provides a case study in this process. NPR host Ari Shapiro set up the segment, an interview with reporter Daniel Estrin, by blaming the 17 dead and hundreds of injured Palestinians on “the militant group Hamas,” framing Israel as totally defensive. From the very first line, blame is deflected from the Israeli military:
Today saw some of the most violent clashes in years between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli troops.
We do not have one party’s snipers opening fire on another, unarmed party; we have “violent clashes”—a term, as FAIR (8/12/17) has noted before, that implies symmetry of forces and is often used to launder responsibility. The whitewashing got worse from there:
Tens of thousands of people in Gaza answered the militant group Hamas’ call to protest.
Palestinians have no organic reasons for wanting to protest the occupation of their homes; the whole thing was a top-down decree from “the militant group” Hamas.
They threw rocks and firebombs near the border fence with Israel. On the other side, Israeli troops assembled.
This conveys the impression the Israeli military was just sitting around, minding its own business, when it was aggressively attacked by hundreds of Palestinians, then responded to this assault.
The “firebombs” claim is repeated later in the piece by Estrin himself: “Israel responded to Palestinians throwing rocks, firebombs, burning tires.” This isn’t qualified with “according to the IDF” or “the Israeli government”—even though as of now, there’s no independent evidence firebombs were used, much less used before any sniper fire from Israel.
The issue isn’t trivial: The matter of first blood when it comes to the Palestinian/Israeli “conflict” is a crucial one (FAIR.org, 12/8/17); framing Israel as always responding to threats, rather than inflicting aggressive violence on an occupied people, is a critical difference. And subtle framing devices like “clashes,” distorting timelines of who did what, or morphing IDF claims of “firebombs” into fact are how media keep this myth alive, and further delegitimize Palestinian resistance. (It should be borne in mind that opposition to occupation, even armed opposition, is a right guaranteed by international law.)
When FAIR pointed out to Estrin on Twitter that he had reported the “firebombs” as fact and not a claim by the IDF, he responded, “I reported the firebombs as an Israeli claim.” When FAIR showed evidence he and host Shapiro had done the opposite, Estrin deflected: “Be kind; it’s live radio.”
“Explain why this violence broke out today,” host Shapiro asked. It’s not a massacre or an attack or “firing on protesters,” as it is when official US enemies do it; it’s simply “violence breaking out.”
Estrin again took care to re-establish Hamas as the “driving force” and guilty party:
And it was billed as an independent Palestinian protest campaign. But actually Hamas, which controls Gaza, was a driving force.
This effectively militarized the whole of the protest, treating it not as an outpouring of popular grievances but as an operation quarterbacked by “a militant group.” This is where Estrin asserted the protesters used “firebombs” without attributing the claim to the Israeli attackers. Instead, he cited the IDF as a source on crowd size:
And according to the Israeli army, there were more than 30,000 Palestinians at six different spots along the border. Israel responded to Palestinians throwing rocks, firebombs, burning tires. Israel fired tear gas and live fire. It was the most violence in Gaza since the Gaza War in 2014.
A brief mention of the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza was thrown in, but it is blamed on an “ongoing internal Palestinian political fight” that has made the situation “even worse.” Estrin then erroneously told listeners “Hamas took control of Gaza by force a decade ago,” when Hamas actually gained power in Gaza in 2006 through an internationally recognized election. In 2007, Hamas won a civil war with US-backed Fatah, the faction it had defeated in the election, but to say Hamas “took control of Gaza by force” falsely paints it as an usurping force with no legitimate authority.
Asked what will happen next, Estrin shrugged and says more of the same, and that is it.
It’s a brief report, but a highly revealing one: Hamas is at fault, the Palestinians threw “firebombs” first, then the Israeli army “assembled.” The illegitimate Hamas astroturfed the protest, the people are being exploited. Israel just killed those 17 protesters in self-defense.
Janine Jackson: In April 2004, CNN brought on the editor-in-chief of Al Jazeera, one of a handful of networks then broadcasting from inside the Iraqi city of Fallujah, then under siege from US forces—and the site, we were hearing, of mounting civilian casualties. Rather than ask if Al Jazeera’s footage corroborated such accounts, CNN badgered him about why he didn’t suppress the footage. Insisted CNN’s Daryn Kagan:
Isn’t the story, though, bigger than just the simple numbers? With all due respect to the Iraqi civilians who have lost their lives, the story, bigger than just the numbers of the people who were killed, or the fact that they might have been killed by the US military, that the insurgents, the people trying to cause problems within Fallujah, are mixing in among the civilians, making it actually possible that even more civilians would be killed. That the story is what the Iraqi insurgents are doing, in addition to what is the response from the US military.
For a different view, you had to look to different, independent journalists. Also in April 2004, CounterSpin heard from Rahul Mahajan, author of the book Full Spectrum Dominance: US Power in Iraq and Beyond. Mahajan had just returned from Iraq, where he spent some time in besieged Fallujah. Here’s CounterSpin’s Steve Rendall talking with Rahul Mahajan in April 2004.
Steve Rendall: Rahul, let’s begin with the overall import of the attack and the siege of Fallujah. How important is this story, do you think?
Rahul Mahajan: This is critical. In fact, I wrote at one point that the events of the past few weeks may be seen in the future as just as much of a turning point for the world as the events surrounding 9/11. This is the time, in this past month or five weeks, this is the time when any possibility for the United States to build some kind of stable military client regime, that is accepted by just enough Iraqis that it can survive, pretty much seems to have collapsed, and Iraqi public opinion is crystallizing from resentment and frustration into anger and resistance.
SR: Do you feel like the US press is giving that sort of import to the story, is seeing the story in the same way you are?
RM: No, no I don’t. In fact, it was hard to always get a clear sense of what was going on in the US media while I was there, but I got the impression that Bob Woodward’s latest book of trading on his own access to the president was being treated as more important than this critical turning point in the occupation.
SR: There’s a late-breaking story, as we tape this show on April 29, that an agreement has been reached where Iraqi security forces will go into Fallujah, and US forces will withdraw. I wonder if you could comment on that.
RM: The first thing to say is that these are Iraqi security forces under a rehabilitated Ba’athist general. They didn’t give the full name, but most likely Lt. Gen. Salam Abed Al-Jabri, who was the governor of Al Anbar province, which includes Fallujah and Ramadi. So this is just yet another example of the feeling that Iraqis have and express all the time about the occupation: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
SR: Why wouldn’t they welcome this former friend of Saddam, former colleague of Saddam, this Ba’athist Sunni, I assume, Sunni general?
RM: First of all, I would say they probably will welcome him more than they would an American commander of forces there. I mean, the status of the occupation has fallen that low. But the standard story that they give you about Fallujah as a Ba’athist stronghold, a Saddamist stronghold, is simply untrue, and people who knew anything about the politics and history of Iraq would not be able to make this claim. There were Saddamist strongholds, like Tikrit and to a lesser degree Samarra. But Fallujah, ever since 1995, when Saddam killed one of the big native sons of Al Anbar province, Mohammed Mazloum al-Dulaimi, there’s been almost an open state of blood feud between some of the tribes in Al Anbar province and those in Saddam’s tribe.
SR: On media coverage of Fallujah, over the last few weeks, we’ve seen repeated news reports saying the US is trying to keep down the number of civilian casualties inside Fallujah. For instance, in the New York Times, Eric Schmitt reports that the US Marines’ strategy in Fallujah is designed to avoid civilian casualties. What do you say to that?
RM: What I would say is that assaults on residential areas with AC-130 gunships cannot possibly be designed to minimize civilian casualties. Attacks by snipers in which—by the evidence of my own eyes, I saw that people who were hit and wounded or killed were a full cross-section of the population, including women, children and old people—are hardly designed to limit civilian casualties. The use of 2,000-pound bombs, again in residential areas. If they wanted to limit civilian casualties, they should have had Marine riflemen go in on the ground, without all of this bombing from the air.
This is just another example of what we’ve seen so often, especially with Fallujah, which is that the military makes some claim, like Mark Kimmitt can say, well, 95 percent of the people killed are fighting men, and it’s simply reported without any attempt at questioning or interrogating those claims.
SR: In one of your dispatches on EmpireNotes.org, you issue an estimate of the number of women and children, the number of civilians, that have died inside Fallujah. What did you find?
RM: The numbers I quote in the article on EmpireNotes are actually from the director of Fallujah General Hospital, who said over 600 people killed, roughly 200 women, roughly 100 children. I saw myself about 20 casualties come into one small clinic that was being used as a hospital, over the course of several hours, and, again, the composition of those casualties are completely consistent with those numbers.
SR: While we’ve seen some of those numbers in mainstream media accounts, it seems like the mainstream media, with all of its resources, has a hard time finding this information. Why is it so easy for you, do you think, and so difficult for them?
RM: In the case of Fallujah, very recently, one of their excuses is actually legitimate. It’s been difficult for Western reporters to get in recently. This doesn’t explain why for so many months, when so many reporters had been covering the occupation, there were huge stories that go completely uninvestigated.
Like, for example, where is an accounting of the CPA’s use of Iraq’s oil revenues? No reporters have gone and done that, even though it would have been very easy.
In this case, however, very few Western journalists got in, and the problem is rather that there is this wholesale dismissal of Arab journalists, of reports from eyewitnesses on the ground. There was a slight improvement in this reporting as refugees from Fallujah got to Baghdad, and a handful of reporters have actually interviewed them and reported what they said.
SR: There are many media assumptions in covering this story, and one of them is that Day One of the Fallujah story—the Fallujah story really began on that day when the four US contractors were killed; I believe five Marines were killed that day, too. Is that really Day One of this story?
RM: To me, Day One of this story is one year and one day ago: April 28 of 2003. It’s before the end of what was then called a “major combat operation,” and there was a protest in Fallujah. Human Rights Watch people who investigated found no reason to believe that the people protesting were armed. Even if there were some guns, though, there were certainly a peaceful, nonviolent protest, and US soldiers fired into a crowd of a few hundred people, killing 15. A couple days later, they killed again three civilians, and this set off the constant cycle of violence and resistance, and increasing resentment and hatred of the people of Fallujah against the soldiers in the occupation. That’s when it really started.
SR: Rahul, I want to change directions a little bit here. In today’s New York Times, today is April 29, there’s a story about Al Jazeera and about how the coalition has begun to analyze the accuracy of Arab media outlets. They use something they call a “truth matrix.” What are your thoughts about the recent sort of assault, really, on Arab media, particularly Al Jazeera?
RM: Well, first of all, it really is an assault. I mean, I think it’s scandalous that the military has attacked Al Jazeera headquarters so many times, that the military made Al Jazeera’s withdrawal from Fallujah, or initially tried to make it, a condition of the ceasefire, and that the Western media—who you’d think ought to have some sort of collegial relationship with their fellows in the Arab world—don’t say anything about this, and don’t make a big deal about this extremely blatant, direct, violent coercion against the media. So that’s one kind of assault.
And then there’s this other kind of assault. I’d love to see a “truth matrix” done on Judith Miller’s reporting about weapons of mass destruction in the New York Times.
Janine Jackson: That was CounterSpin’s Steve Rendall talking with reporter Rahul Mahajan in 2004.
The 2016 presidential exit polls “substantially underestimated the number of Democratic white working-class voters…and overestimated the white college-educated Democratic electorate,” New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall (3/29/18) writes. A new Pew survey finds that “33 percent of Democratic voters and Democratic leaners are whites without college degrees,” says Edsall, which is
It’s good for Edsall to acknowledge this—as FAIR (10/9/15) had to take him to task in 2015 for the tortured logic behind his assertion that “Democrats now depend as much on affluent voters as on low-income voters.”
But now that Edsall has admitted that the Democrats are not actually “the favorites of the rich,” as his 2015 headline put it, what should the Democrats do about it? He tips his hand in his opening paragraphs, where he glosses “whites without college degrees” with the phrase “many of whom are culturally conservative,” and describes the “white college-educated Democratic electorate” as “a far more culturally liberal constituency.”
It takes him a while to get to what he’s getting at. “These numbers have powerful ramifications for both Democrats and Republicans preparing for the 2018 and 2020 elections,” he notes about a fifth of the way into the lengthy piece, “strengthen[ing] the case made by Democratic strategists calling for a greater emphasis on policies appealing to working-class voters and a de-emphasis on so-called identity issues.”
But what are those policies? You have to wade through a lot of words on what’s wrong with exit polling before you come to “what are the implications for Democrats and Republicans?” Then—after just a little bit more about exit-poll problems—Edsall says:
[Ruy] Teixeira of the Center for American Politics and William Galston of the Brookings Institution, two longtime Democratic strategists, suggest different but complementary directions in which to take the Democratic Party going forward.
He turns first to Galston, a policy adviser to Bill Clinton, and a campaign consultant to John Anderson, Walter Mondale and Al Gore, who now writes a column for the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal. (He’s been called “America’s wrongest columnist” by Dave Weigel in Slate—11/9/12.) Edsall says Galston “argues that Democrats need to moderate their stand on immigration in order to win over white noncollege voters,” and quotes from his Journal column:
Defenders of liberal democracy should acknowledge that controlling borders is a legitimate exercise of sovereignty, and that the appropriate number and type of immigrants is a legitimate subject for debate. Denouncing citizens concerned about immigration as bigots ameliorates neither the substance nor the politics of the problem. There’s nothing illiberal about the view that too many immigrants stress a country’s capacity to absorb them, so that a reduction or even a pause may be in order.
OK, so Democrats should seek the anti-immigrant vote. And what’s the “different but complementary direction” from Teixeira? Well, in Edsall’s telling, he thinks white working-class voters are important, and says:
If Democrats hope to be competitive in Ohio and similar states in 2020, they must do the hard thing: find a way to reach hearts and minds among white non-college voters.
Yes, but how do you do that? Rather than letting Teixeira elaborate, Edsall interjects, “Let’s go back to Galston…because in my opinion no one captures the situation better than he does.” Then the piece closes with six more long paragraphs of Galston urging Democrats to cater to the supposed xenophobia of working-class whites, terrified as they are of “foreign people, foreign goods, foreign ideas.” Edsall closes with a “better get to it!” paragraph, and that’s the end of the column.
The funny thing is, in the piece of his that Edsall cites (Vox, 1/29/18), Teixeira does offer a strategy for reaching white working-class voters, one that is indeed different though not actually complementary to Galston’s. Contrary to Galston, Teixeira argues that Democrats should not be
changing their position on key immigration issues like DACA. That would hardly pull Trump’s hardcore supporters from their man, and it would compromise a serious policy commitment of the party. Instead, Democrats should reach out to those white non-college voters for whom issues besides immigration are potentially more salient.
And then Teixeira makes the point that Edsall seems to spend 3,000 words trying to avoid:
It is on economic issues that these voters are most open to overtures, the polling data shows.
Yes, if you want the support of working-class whites without engaging in xenophobia or other forms of race-baiting, the obvious approach is to appeal to them as members of the working class. For Texeira, that means
a massive public jobs program…linked to investment in desperately needed infrastructure, including not just roads and bridges but also community-anchoring institutions like schools and child care centers.
Others might suggest universal healthcare, an increased minimum wage, free college tuition…. It’s not hard to think of popular policies that would appeal to workers of all ethnicities, if that’s what you’re interested in doing.
Edsall, who has criticized Democrats and the left for their failure to “hear — or to grant some legitimacy to — the grievances of white America as it loses power and stature to ascendant minorities,” seems to have another agenda.
Will interest payments take up the entire federal budget?
Greg Ip gave us another rendition of this old scare story in a Wall Street Journal column (3/28/18). The argument is that the interest paid on US government debt will soon impose an enormous burden on the federal government, choking off spending on important government programs.
The key part of this story is that interest rates will jump at some point in the not-too-distant future. While this is in fact what the Congressional Budget Office predicts, it is also what it has been predicting ever since the Great Recession, and has consistently been shown wrong.
The key question is, why would interest rates rise? There are two stories where we see this happening. One is that we start to see an uptick in the inflation rate. In that case, long-term rates would almost certainly rise, since investors would have the option of getting a better return just by holding physical commodities. Of course, the Fed would almost certainly raise interest rates in response to higher inflation, which would more directly cause interest rates to rise. One point about higher inflation that is worth noting, though, is that it reduces the real value of the debt.
The other reason interest rates could rise is that the Fed raises rates even in the absence of higher inflation. In that case, the Fed as a matter of policy would be increasing our interest burden. (Selling off its assets also has the same effect, since the interest on the assets held by the Fed are refunded to the Treasury.)
Arguably, the Fed’s rate increases in the last year and a half have not been justified by higher inflation, as the inflation rate remains well below the Fed’s target. It is striking that none of the deficit hawks, including the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is cited in this piece, have ever expressed concern about the higher debt service burden resulting from these interest rate hikes.
The deficit hawks have also never raised any concerns about the burdens created by government-granted patent and copyright monopolies. This is bizarre, since these monopolies are an alternative mechanism to direct funding. The government could directly pay for research on drugs, software and other items, paying for it through taxing or borrowing, or it can tell private companies to do the research, and then give them monopolies to allow them to recover their costs.
The deficit hawks hyperventilate endlessly about the former route of paying for things, but completely ignore the latter, even though it poses a much larger burden. In the case of prescription drugs alone, the burden is more than $370 billion a year. (We pay more than $450 billion for drugs that would likely cost less than $80 billion in a free market.) This sum is just under 2.0 percent of GDP, and more than twice the interest burden net of money rebated by the Fed. The total cost from these monopolies, including medical equipment, chemicals, software and other items, would likely be more than three times the cost of drug patents.
Anyone who is seriously concerned about the burden of government debt on future generations must also be concerned about the burden posed by patent and copyright monopolies, if they are consistent. Of course, if their goal is simply to cut Social Security, Medicare and other social programs, then it is understandable they would not want to discuss patent and copyright monopolies.
A version of this post appeared on CEPR’s blog Beat the Press (3/30/18).
You can send letters to the editor of the Wall Street Journal at email@example.com. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.
This week on CounterSpin: The administration that has announced and acted on its intention to root out, harass and deport black and brown non-citizens wants to add the question “Are you a US citizen?” to the census. The list of problems with that is long. We’ll discuss some key ones with democracy reform activist Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause.PlayStop pop out
Also on the show: As the US government ramped up for war in the wake of September 11, 2001, TV screens were filled with what seemed a parade of generals. Military men became the sources of first resort, over and indeed against regional experts, historians and peace advocates. FAIR founder Jeff Cohen witnessed the parade firsthand, working in cable news. We caught up with him recently to discuss his current case of deja vu. We’ll talk about lessons unlearned with Jeff Cohen, associate professor of journalism and director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, and author of the book Cable News Confidential.PlayStop pop out
Plus Janine Jackson takes a look at recent press, including “What next in Africa?” and the Arabia Foundation.PlayStop pop out
Remember that Muslim mass murderer who belonged to an Islamic home-madrassa called INTIFADA, where knife-wielding Shari’a survivalists studied the Qur’an, guns and dangerous chemicals? And how the liberal media fawningly portrayed him as a misunderstood and under-loved young man otherwise full of promise?
You don’t, because that never happened. But have you heard about of the Christian Texas child-killer from an all-white sect who slaughtered the president of a homeowners’ association and a 17-year-old aspiring neurosurgeon, both on their own doorsteps and in front of their families? Both victims were African-Americans. This same murderer was a suicide bomber who blew himself up before police could arrest him and take him for a hamburger (as they did with Dylann Roof, the young white man who killed nine African-Americans at their church).
Had killer Mark Anthony Conditt been a brown Muslim, it’s hard to imagine corporate media not at least speculating that hateful ideology was a motive, and using (or at least debating the use of) the term “terrorism” to describe his crimes. But because Conditt was a white, conservative, homophobic Christian, corporate media and police alike have been—ahem—generous in their eulogies. Austin Police Chief Brian Manley even helpfully explained that Conditt never used the word “terrorism” in his 25-minute final recording, which was “the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his own life.”
So what were Conditt’s views, and who “radicalized” him? Conditt blogged about his opposition to abortion, his support of the death penalty, his desire that gay marriage should be illegal, and that terrorists were bad. (As with Conditt’s defenders in corporate news and law enforcement, Conditt’s command of irony was nothing compared to his command of lethal explosives.)
According to the Independent (3/22/18), Conditt belonged to a homeschooling, Christian survivalist youth group called RIOT (Righteous Invasion Of Truth); while its Facebook group is inactive, the website for its sponsoring church (Grace House Clinton) shows photographs of an all-white congregation. RIOT taught the Bible and guns; Conditt’s sister Cassia Schultz explained that many RIOTers carried knives and “would discuss chemicals and how to mix them and which ones were dangerous.” She “could not recall” if they ever discussed making bombs.
If White Conditt were Brown Khalid, is it remotely conceivable that corporate news would have buried such a prima facie case of violent extremism? As Qasim Rashid tweeted, “White male privilege is detonating 5 bombs, executing 2 Black men, & media calls you a ‘quiet nerdy young man from a tight knit godly family.’”Sympathy for the Devil
Some outlets managed to dramatize the whimsy behind capturing a Texan executioner, as with the New York Times headline (3/21/18) “Lucky Breaks, Video and Pink Gloves Led to Austin Bombing Suspect.” But to provide the most relevant psychological assessment of a serial murderer, NPR’s All Things Considered (3/21/18) helpfully sought Conditt’s friend Jeremiah Jensen. Despite not having seen Conditt for four years, Jensen explained that Conditt was “not a psychopath” (i.e., not a superficially charming, grandiosely self-important person utterly lacking in remorse for, say, bombing people at their homes).
Jensen, a former intern at an NPR station in Dallas, said the serial murderer was “shy, smart and thoughtful.” Despite being “pretty rough around the edges…dominant, pugnacious in nature,” he “attended church” and “started to soften” enough that Jensen “thought he was going to bloom into a productive person.” Conditt was “a deep thinker, very smart… funny and happy for the most part… [an] intense person and…hard to love but…a person. He was alive.”
Via NPR, Jensen reveals Conditt as shy, like many “homeschool kids,” while struggling to visit with non-family members. “I think that he might have isolated himself,” says Jensen, who wishes Conditt would have shared his pain to avoid such a grim end.
Fortunately for Conditt, his race and politics seem to have insulated him from being labelled a “snowflake” who refused to accept personal responsibility for his failures, and insulated his community from accusations of producing a super-predator who “doesn’t value life the way we do.” Conditt has posthumously embarrassed Jensen and Chief Manley, however; Reuters (3/24/18) reports that Conditt described himself as a psychopath in his final video testament (which Manley had already seen when he called the murderer “a very challenged young man”).
But surely NPR always doles out the sympathy when portraying murderers? Its story “Man Who Killed Officers Told Passersby: ‘Watch What I Am Going to Do’” (12/21/14) concerned Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who’d killed two police officers. NPR noted Brinsley’s online “postings and rants,” which showed “anger against the government,” Brinsley “burning a flag,” and discussions of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, “who were killed in encounters with police.” (Note the use of the passive voice.) While he had “15 prior arrests,” Brinsley showed “no signs of radicalization.” His Muslim family reported he’d “attempted suicide in the past, including trying to hang himself last year.”
Too bad for Brinsley he wasn’t friends with Jensen, who could have offered psychological insight into the link between mental illness and suicide. Countless memes and even Family Guy jokes highlight how Euro-American, Christian murderers get to be forgiven as “mentally ill.” One must wonder what magnificent cultural practices so perfectly inoculate African-Americans and Muslims from psychic maladies.Safe Spaces for Racist Terrorists
The word “terrorist” is certainly a loaded one—used to justify everything from suspensions of civil liberties at home to drone strikes and even invasions abroad. But that makes it all the more important that media use a single standard for applying the term.
So what makes one a terrorist? The US Military Guide to Terrorism in the 21st Century (8/15/07) defines terrorism by function, not identity, as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious or ideological.” But in the upside-down world of corporate media, the race of the terrorist, and the races of the people he’s murdered, seem to matter more than the actions committed.
Reality rarely offers laboratory conditions for neat comparisons, but the difference between coverage of the Austin Bomber and the Boston Bomber is striking. As FAIR (6/19/15) reported, following two bombs that killed three people at the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon, US newspapers tracked via Nexis news database ran 2,593 stories about the attack, and 34 percent of them cited “terrorism,” or variants such as “terroristic,” “even though the bombers, let alone the bombers’ motivations, would not be known until days later.”
By contrast, in the case of Dylann Roof, who slaughtered nine churchgoers, only 7 percent of news stories the following day used the words “terrorism” or “terrorist.” Unlike the bombers, Roof never hid his ideology. He posed in numerous online pictures with Confederate flags, gave himself the nickname “Storm” (a common Nazi reference, as with the Daily Stormer, Stormfront and the original SS), and as The State (6/18/15) reported, he told his victims before he shot them, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” One of Roof’s friends said he was “big into segregation” and sought “a civil war.”
The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote a piece called “Why We Shouldn’t Call Dylann Roof a Terrorist” (6/19/15), despite—as even Breitbart (5/20/15) reported (Breitbart!)—Roof being “racist, anti-American, antisemitic and white supremacist,” not to mention murdering nine people at church. Bump admits that the murders themselves were terrorist, but hey, apparently nine acts of terrorism do not a terrorist make, because:
When I see Dylann Roof, I remember being a white male his age, barely out of my teenage years and experiencing weird anger in a difficult time…. We can identify much more easily with who he is.
On the day after Conditt’s death (3/22/18), he was mentioned in 118 stories in US newspapers, according to a Nexis search. In only four of these stories (3 percent) does the paper or a source quoted by the paper call Conditt a “terrorist.” or his crimes “terrorism.” (The word “terrorism” appears in many more of these stories, mainly via quotes of Chief Manley saying Conditt’s final message didn’t “mention anything about terrorism.”)
Some media “got” Conditt and those describing him. The headline to Slate’s piece, “Austin Chief Baffled by What Could’ve Motivated White Right-Wing Survivalist Bomber to Kill Two Black People” (3/22/18), sarcastically slices Chief Manley and selectively-colorblind media coverage. But even north of the border, the finger-waggingly “we’re better than the Americans” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (3/19/18) ran a story called “Massive Investigation Unfolding After Texas Bombings: 2 Dead, 4 Seriously Injured After String of Explosions.” Like the headline and CBC’s national radio coverage on March 20, the story doesn’t use the words “terror” or “terrorist” at all, not even to refute their applicability, and never cites racism as a possible motive.
But why not? Because racist terrorists are such a minimal problem in the US? No. As PBS NewsHour (8/13/17) reported last year, right-wing extremists (including Nazis) have killed 68 Americans since September 11, 2001, and stage an average of 300 violent attacks each year; US law enforcement groups say “anti-government violent extremists” are “a more severe threat than radicalized Muslims.” NewsHour guest Peter Bergen, a national security analyst for the centrist think tank New America, explained the government and media pretext for labelling some political crimes “terrorist” and not others:
When a neo-Nazi carries out a violent attack, it’s usually simply treated as murder or sometimes as a hate crime, but not usually as terrorism from a legal point of view, because there isn’t an association with an international terrorist organization such as ISIS, such as Al Qaeda.
Pointedly, this “international terrorist organization” qualification—which is not part of the legal definition of “terrorism”—explicitly excludes the most violent domestic terrorists of all, which, according to Nazi-doxxer Daryle Lamont Jenkins of One People’s Project, are Atomwaffen, the National Socialist Movement, the Traditionalist Worker Party and the Ku Klux Klan, the oldest private terror outfit in the US. In other words, the media definition of terrorism is a rigged game, designed to ensure that journalism provides a “safe space” for the “snowflake” Euro-American identity.Invisible Victims
Anthony Stephan House and Draylen William Mason were such exemplary human beings that had they been fictional characters, people would accuse their writer of creating unbelievable paragons of virtue. House and Mason were the type of “perfect victims” that corporate media supposedly loves: attractive, accomplished and American—yet missing at least two identity markers that International Business Times (3/20/14) and others associate with “missing White Woman syndrome.”
House was a 39-year-old senior project manager for Texas Quarries, and a former hedge fund manager at House Capital Management. A graduate of Texas State University with a degree in business administration, he was president of his neighborhood’s homeowners association. Heavy.com (3/12/18) reported that House was happily married to an elementary school teacher, and was preparing to take their 8-year-old daughter to school when Conditt slaughtered him.
But playing by the rules to pursue the American Dream was not enough to protect House from police suspicion that he was a terrorist. As Effie Orfanides wrote in her Heavy story, “In fact, police initially wondered if House had been making a bomb and it detonated inside his home by accident.” Norrell Waynewood, who told Heavy he was House’s brother, accused local authorities of attempting to “frame” House.
Although he was just a 17-year-old boy, Draylen Mason was an accomplished bassist, an aspiring neurosurgeon, a karate instructor and an award-winning writer on racial profiling; he was also a Christian who played music for church services. As Atlanta Black Star (3/14/18) reported, Doug Dempster, dean of the College of Fine Arts at UT Austin, called Mason a “most remarkable talent in a most remarkable youth orchestra program,” the Austin Soundwaves, which teaches music for free to “artistically underserved children.” Dempster said Mason was devoted to helping younger, unsure students, and that his “gentle confidence seemed to come from a conviction that hard work and talent was going to work for him. It did.”
According to a search of the Nexis database, 270 stories mentioned Mark Conditt’s name in the days following his self-destruction. Of these, 86 mentioned the names of one or both of the people he killed—less than 1 in 3. Among the stories that didn’t mention either House or Mason’s name: the All Things Considered profile (3/21/18) that described Conditt as “shy, smart and thoughtful.”
Research Assistance: Justin Anderson
Janine Jackson interviewed Omar Farah about the Department of Homeland Security’s “Race Paper” on the March 23, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: Listeners know the US government has a shameful history of surveilling and intimidating people engaged in First Amendment-protected acts of public protest or public criticism. Black activists have for decades been victims of campaigns to demonize, harass and discredit them and their movements.
So when racial justice groups—using the Freedom of Information Act to find out how the FBI and Department of Homeland Security are monitoring protests around police violence and the Movement for Black Lives—turn up a document referred to as the “Race Paper,” which, on receipt, turns out to be completely redacted, with not even the official title visible, it makes for a handy emblem…but just an emblem of a problem that’s far deeper and more worrying.
Joining us now to talk about the “Race Paper” and what it may tell us is Omar Farah, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. He joins us now by phone, from here in town. Welcome to CounterSpin, Omar Farah.
Omar Farah: Thank you so much for having me.
JJ: The Center for Constitutional Rights and Color of Change have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to get at the contents of this memo, based on the references to it that you could see. What do you suspect they’re hiding?
OF: I think you have to start with the function of the agency that produced the report in order to get a sense of what it might say, and as you pointed out, it is entirely redacted. Every version of the document that we have is blacked-out, from the first word to the very last, and each report is roughly seven or eight pages. The sub-agency within the Department of Homeland Security that produced the report, and that itself calls it the “Race Paper,” is the Intelligence and Analysis Office, which is tasked with producing predictive intelligence and national security-related information that then gets funneled throughout the federal government.
And so we are left with the unfortunate assumption that at least part of what this is is a counter-terror or intelligence-related assessment that somehow implicates the question of race. How that is, we obviously can’t say. But the two things together are enough to raise some very disquieting questions.
JJ: Let’s just unpack, a little bit, this idea of predictive intelligence. This is this idea where supposedly you have analytical frameworks or algorithms that can predict criminality?
OF: That’s one of the most pressing fears that I have, in speculating about what might actually be behind these redactions. Some of the emails that accompanied the transmission of the “Race Paper” within DHS I&A, the Intelligence and Analysis Office, included references to things like “drivers” and “indicators.” Now, I have to be perfectly honest: We just don’t know what the document says. But those terms, to me, in the absence of any other information, suggest ways in which law enforcement and intelligence agencies within the government have in the past tried to use indicators that would help them predict criminality or behavior.
Those things, of course, are invariably based on totally bunk analytical frameworks that ascribe behavioral tendencies to certain protected classes of people–by race, and oftentimes by religion, we’ve seen, in a national security context. Those are things that the public needs to be aware are potential uses of this “Race Paper,” and it certainly deserves full scrutiny.
Those kinds of frameworks are exactly the things that lead to the most unfortunate kinds of law enforcement tactics. We’ve seen it in “stop and frisk”; we’ve seen it in counter-terror-related policing, and it’s one of the things that made the documents jump out at us, amongst the thousands of documents we got.
JJ: I’m not sure that we should need to say that public protest is protected activity, that every day it’s more obviously an activity that we need to vigorously protect, and that calling for things to change—even if that means things, yes, including this police force that’s right in front of me as I’m protesting—calling for change is not a crime.
OF: Calling for change is not a crime. It’s indispensable to the health of the democracy. But, as you know well, black and brown voices for accountability and for change, and particularly around policing, have historically been viewed as deeply threatening. And that is part of the overall context that prompted the Center for Constitutional Rights and Color of Change to initiate this FOIA, was the very real experience of people in the Movement for Black Lives and allied activists, recognizing that by speaking out about the crisis levels of police violence against black people, they were being targeted. And our effort was really to uncover the scope of that targeting, and to arm people in the movement with the information they need to resist the chilling effect that that has.
JJ: You hear people say that, “Well, if activists don’t commit any crimes, then really there’s nothing to worry about.” And that seems to miss something fundamental about the way that this happens, about the impact of this kind of surveillance.
OF: I couldn’t agree more. That is a framing that reads out of our history all of the ways that law enforcement has expressly targeted political speech, to raise the stakes associated with speaking out, to a point that just discourages people from doing it. It’s not about anyone’s individual criminality, or lack thereof. It’s about what it costs to get into the street and say, “Enough is enough. This has to change.” And if law enforcement uses race, religion or a particular political viewpoint as a proxy for criminality or threat, it just means that that many more of us are going to be reluctant to speak out when it’s absolutely necessary.
JJ: Well, a fully redacted document strikes me as not just bizarre, but as journalistic catnip. But as of now, I’ve seen write-ups in Gizmodo, The Intercept, Splinter, The Root, Wisconsin Gazette, News One, Blavity, RT, Mint Press, Color Lines…. I may have missed one or two, but, as of this morning, March 22, my search of mainstream media, so-called, found bupkis on this “Race Paper.” Am I missing something, that this is not an important story?
OF: No, I think it’s absolutely an important story. You’re touching on, I think, one of the equally troubling things that is a feature of the counter-terrorism/national security paradigm that oftentimes we find ourselves in these days. I mean, one of the bases that the Department of Homeland Security is using to claim their entitlement to black out the entirety of the “Race Pager,” is the National Security Act.
FOIA is a statute that encourages transparency, but it does give the government some exemptions that it can claim, if it thinks that something is too sensitive to be released to the public. And one of the ways that the government is using that, in this case, is to say, “This information in the ‘Race Paper’ implicates the National Security Act.” And so, unless you are the kind of journalist who sees this as catnip, and can’t resist asking more probing questions about what’s behind it, you’re left with just a totally blacked-out document. And, of course, that presents real challenges for reporting.
So it doesn’t surprise me that this is a story that hasn’t gained national attention just yet. I certainly hope that in the near future, a judge will see it our way, and suggest that at least some of that document can be segregated, some information can be disclosed to us, and that ends up being the thing that draws more eyes to this document.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Omar Farah, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. You can find their work online at CCRJustice.org. Omar Farah, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
OF: I really appreciate your interest in the story. Thanks a lot.
The Arabia Foundation appeared in spring 2016, seemingly out of nowhere, as a Saudi-focused think tank with “ties to Riyadh,” but vaguely independent of the regime. Or at least independent enough so that media wouldn’t represent it as an extension of the kingdom. But the past few weeks have clearly shown it to be little more than a PR outlet for de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman and his sprawling, opaque business interests.
After multiple requests by FAIR for its donors, the Arabia Foundation refused to give any, other than its founder, Saudi investment banker Ali Shihabi. It insists it doesn’t take money from “the Saudi government,” but instead is backed by unnamed private Saudi citizens.
The distinction between private citizens and the “government” in the hereditary monarchy of Saudi Arabia is notoriously blurry, but one connection is worth noting: The registered agent and legal counsel of the Arabia Foundation, Eric L. Lewis, represented the Saudi government and related “charities” in the lawsuit brought by families of 9/11 victims over the Saudi royal family’s role in the September 11 attacks. The website of Lewis’ law firm, Lewis, Baach, Kaufmann and Middlemiss, boasts it has “extensive experience representing and advising foreign sovereigns, including the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt.”
The New York Times (11/30/18) has described the group as “close to the Saudi government,” while the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor (11/6/17) noted it had “close ties to the kingdom.” That doesn’t stop the Post opinion section from running multiple op-eds from Arabia Foundation figures (5/31/17, 12/20/17, 1/4/18, 1/22/18). In most press appearances, the group is simply identified as “a Washington-based think tank.” Absent documented evidence of who exactly funds the group, why should media not assume—based on its connections to the government and cartoonishly pro–bin Salman line—that the Arabia Foundation is a front group for the government?
In repeated interviews (BBC World News, 3/20/18; Morning Joe, 3/20/18; CNN, 3/19/18) last week, Shihabi, the head of the nominally independent group, spun for war crimes, human rights abuses and a whole host of morally dubious activities carried out by the increasingly despotic Saudi ruler. The Arabia Foundation’s ties to the Saudi government are never noted or even vaguely referenced in these interviews.
On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, after saying the “crown prince” has engaged in a “massive corruption crackdown” (a wholly PR frame discredited earlier this month by the New York Times, 3/11/18), host Mika Brzezinksi teed up Shihabi to comment on Saudi Arabia. The softball interview that followed hit all of the regime’s central premises without question: as well as “cracking down on corruption,” bin Salman is “modernizing Saudi Arabia” and “taking on the religious establishment.”
No one on the panel brought up Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war crimes in Yemen—consistent with MSNBC’s network-wide virtual blackout on one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises (FAIR.org, 3/20/18). The Council on Foreign Relations’ Richard Haas made one opaque reference to Saudi “war with Yemen,” but didn’t note the thousands killed or up to one million infected with cholera; the US-backed war was was simply dismissed as a “strategic overreach.” The New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller, another panelist, did get in a question about torture, which Ali Shihabi dismissed as having “no evidence” despite Bumiller speaking with several doctors who witnessed it.
Reliable Saudi stenographer David Iglesias who, as FAIR (4/28/17) noted last year, has been running the same reformist press release for the royal family for 15 years, continued his unique brand of faux criticism, insisting that the Saudi prince was too “bold”—the political commentary equivalent of answering “I work too hard” when asked on a job interview what your biggest flaw is.
Shihabi claimed without irony that what Saudi Arabia needed was “autocracy to affect change,” and a “benevolent autocrat.” His evidence that the masses approved of bin Salman’s “bold, needed” leadership was approved of by the masses? That there has been “no bloodshed, there’s been no demonstration, no domestic strife.” Of course, the last time there were anti-government demonstrations, in 2011, the Saudi military opened fire on protesters, and snuffed out resistance with torture and extrajudicial killings. In 2017, when one Shia town resisted the regime, Riyadh flattened an entire neighborhood. This could perhaps be why the general population isn’t quick to take to the streets, but the Arabia Foundation insist it’s an implicit admission the crown prince is loved and popular.
The CNN and BBC interviews, likewise, didn’t note the Arabia Foundation’s obvious ties to the Saudi regime.
Forbes keeps running “op-eds” by Arabia Foundation fellow Ellen Wald that amount to little more than press releases for Saudi investment opportunities (e.g., 12/11/17, 2/1/18, 3/13/18). Another pundit on the Arabia Foundation’s payroll, Bernard Haykel, writes fawning profiles of bin Salman in the Washington Post (1/22/18) without disclosing he’s a founding director of the organization—instead listing his more benign academic credentials.
The Arabia Foundation is so satisfied with the media’s presentation of its messaging that it routinely tweets out articles it’s featured in and TV appearances it’s had, knowing its messaging is syncing up nicely with bin Salman’s PR tour to the United States. “Yemen is a tragedy. Wars are a tragedy. Saudi is aware of that and is going out of its way to try to address humanitarian issues there,” boasted one tweet, quoting Shihabi’s interview with the BBC.
By contrast, this obtuse inability to connect dots is absent when discussing think tanks “close to” the Syrian government. Never is the Assad-connected British Syrian Society set up as a neutral arbiter of affairs of the Syrian conflict. It is met with disdain, painted as “little more than a Syrian regime propaganda exercise” (Guardian, 10/26/17), the “mouthpiece in the West” (Middle East Eye, 10/19/17) for a war crime–committing tyrant. Those who associate with it, including academics, journalists and British members of parliament, are publicly shamed for participating in a “regime PR exercise” (Independent, 10/29/16). Yet somehow the “Saudi-connected” Arabia Foundation, which cheers on a “benevolent autocrat” as he rains bombs on Yemen and uses hunger as a weapon of war, receives no such moral banishment. Instead, it is dressed up as just another respectable think tank.
The fact that the Arabia Foundation is a thinly veiled PR firm for the Saudi government matters. The average reader or viewer would take Shihabi and his network of mercenary “fellows” less seriously if they were presented as spokespeople for a repressive government rather than quasi-academics from a impressive-sounding “foundation.”
With all the hysteria surrounding RT and foreign influence on the American public, one might think such an obvious racket would give editors and TV producers pause. But the same rules don’t apply to American allies. Their propaganda is treated not like a sinister “influence operation,” but like a respectable group of academics calling balls and strikes on international affairs.
When the “War on Terror” was launched in 2001, mainstream media—especially cable TV news—started a parade. It was a narrow parade of hawkish retired military and intelligence brass promoting war as the response to the crime of 9/11, predicting success and identifying foreign enemies to attack.
We can look back at this parade and laugh at the total nonsense dispensed. But the more human response is to cry—over the toll, still mounting, of hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond, and violent instability across the region, including countries that were relatively stable and prosperous on September 10, 2001. (Not to mention militarization and loss of civil liberties at home.)
I witnessed the parade of disinformation from inside cable news, where I worked as an on-air contributor at Fox News and MSNBC at the beginning of the War on Terror. In fact, this parade eventually knocked me off the air—and out of my job at MSNBC, three weeks before the US invasion of Iraq.
It’s now the 15th anniversary of the tragic invasion of Iraq. The huge mainstream media failure in the run-up to the invasion is taught in college journalism courses, including mine.
Who can forget CNN’s chief news executive boasting that, before the Iraq invasion, he’d sought prior approval and received “a big thumbs up” from the Pentagon on the ex-generals that CNN featured as allegedly independent analysts?
Who can forget David Barstow’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize–winning expose for the New York Times (4/20/08)—based on 8,000 pages of internal Pentagon emails and transcripts—showing that network TV’s hawkish retired generals were not only being paid by big military contractors, but were being spoon-fed talking points and spin by the Pentagon, month after month as they paraded on TV?
Who can forget that NBC/MSNBC’s top military analyst, ex-Gen. Barry McCaffrey, relentlessly pushed for war based on falsehoods—like warning of “thousands of gallons of mustard agents, sarin, nerve agent VX still in Iraq”; offered continuously ridiculous punditry (like praising Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s advance planning of the Iraq occupation); and famously crowed on MSNBC, “Thank God for the Abrams tank and the Bradley fighting vehicle”—without mentioning his role at military contractor IDT that made millions for doing God’s work on the Abrams and Bradley?
Who can forget all these things?
I turned on the “progressive” news channel a few nights ago to see Chris Hayes politely interviewing General McCaffrey. Did Hayes—during the week marking the 15th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq—press McCaffrey on his role in that disaster? Perhaps demand an explanation or an apology? No. The topic was Trump’s weird attraction to Putin. That’s a worthy topic. But Barry McCaffrey as expert and arbiter! Still?
Just as they did in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, MSNBC and CNN now serve up a steady parade of war-hawks, spies and liars, presenting them as credible and almost heroic as long as they criticize the despicable man in the White House.
I’d turned to MSNBC that night after disgustedly turning off Anderson Cooper softly interviewing a CNN contributor who seems to appear every hour: ex-National Intelligence Director James Clapper. You remember Clapper? Five years ago this month, Clapper infamously perjured himself before the US Senate by denying NSA bulk surveillance. His perjury is not a topic that CNN asks Clapper about—while he discusses the lack of ethics and honesty in Team Trump.
When it comes to Trump critics, CNN and MSNBC regularly serve up a basket of elite deplorables from the military/intelligence establishment—for example, the appalling ex-CIA Director John Brennan and horrific former acting CIA Director John McLaughlin. The hollowness of their Trump critique on “liberal cable news” was on display last week when both men endorsed Trump’s choice for CIA chief, torture-overseer Gina Haspel.
I’m worried about anti-Trump activists, even some quite progressive, who’ve come to see corporate news channels like CNN and MSNBC as their saviors. It’s a dangerous illusion.
A few points to consider:
- Not all foes of Trump are allies of progressives—especially the hawks, spooks and perjurers who parade across CNN and MSNBC every day.
- Progressives should be wary of the growing alliance between Clintonite/MSNBC-style liberals and neo-con militarists forever in search of the next enemy—an alliance that began before the Trump campaign, and will likely continue after Trump is deposed (hopefully soon).
- Trump is doing enormous damage to our country and the world—but you won’t see most of it on MSNBC or any mainstream outlet that covers the Trump White House as a TV soap opera.
When you hear nightly on CNN and MSNBC about Putin’s “attack on our democracy,” let’s not forget that—whatever impact Russia had on the 2016 election (evidence so far suggests it was small)—“our democracy” has been under attack for decades by internal enemies: big money control of both major parties, corporate media dominance, Democratic subservience to Wall Street, Republican suppression of voters of color and youth, an archaic election system protected by both parties, etc.
I would like to see even 10 percent of MSNBC’s “Russiagate” coverage diverted to any of the above issues, but I’m not holding my breath. Nor am I waiting for the Comcast-owned channel to offer thorough coverage of Trump’s biggest threat to the First Amendment: his FCC’s attack on Net Neutrality (FAIR.org, 8/18/17, 12/14/17).
All progressives should agree that an essential task is to end Republican control of Congress and depose Trump.
Yet the fight for justice and democracy will also require battles against powerful and oppressive institutions that may now seem to be anti-Trump: certain media conglomerates and the military-industrial-surveillance complex.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Common Dreams (3/26/18).
“Pentagon Grapples With a Thorny Question After Niger Ambush,” a recent Washington Post headline (3/19/18) read: “What Next in Africa?”
Among the possible answers not considered by the Post article: “Close US military bases,” “End US drone strikes” or “Stop US special forces raids.”
While the question of US military intervention in Africa is one that deserves deep interrogation and investigation by journalists, the Post approaches it by assuming the benevolence of America’s aims on the continent, and fails to question the strategic value of endless war.
Post national security reporter Dan Lamothe reports that the four US Green Berets killed in Niger last October “did not have air support for an hour after calling for help, leaving it vulnerable as a larger force of about 50 militants attacked with rifles and machine guns.” According to the Post, the ambush “underscores the danger of dispersing small teams across a vast continent where the Pentagon does not have the same level of support for its service members as it does in a country such as Iraq or Afghanistan,” where US forces “have a more robust network of fire support, aerial surveillance, medical help and quick-reaction rescue units when a crisis erupts.”
By juxtaposing the US military presence in “hot battlefields” like Iraq and Afghanistan with its role in places like Niger and Somalia—sometimes referred to as being outside of “areas of active hostilities”—the implied answer to the question “What next in Africa?” is something along the lines of, “Expand US military infrastructure in Africa to protect and provide support for US special forces who will inevitably engage in hostilities.”
The goal is not to prevent US casualties—and, more importantly, the devastation inevitably wreaked by the most powerful military in the world—by, for example, withdrawing US forces from the continent. For the Washington Post, US military presence in Africa is assumed—not challenged or questioned in any meaningful way.
For comment, the Post consults Carter Ham, commander of AFRICOM from 2011 to 2013:
“Sometimes, the knee-jerk reaction when something bad happens of, ‘Get them out of there,’ that’s not a particularly good response,” he said.
What’s wrong with that response? The Post doesn’t ask.
The only space the Post gives to dissent in this case is to Erik Goepner, a visiting research fellow at the Cato Institute and the last person quoted in the article:
I think American citizens should rightfully ask, “How do we define this mission set?” Is it building up indigenous forces, and is that the extent of it? If so, great. Or are we doing kill-capture missions? Because if we’re doing kill-capture missions, the horror of war is that you’ll always kill the wrong guy in some numbers.
The Post doesn’t follow up on the questions Goepner raises about how the US will intervene militarily in Africa. But left completely out of the discussion is anyone who thinks the US military shouldn’t be intervening in Africa at all. That ensures that the answer to “what next in Africa?” will always involve endless war.
American journalism has long maintained a sort of egalitarian myth about itself. While our country’s free press requires no formal training or licensing, an honest history of the profession shows very distinct hierarchies, from the vaunted Runyonesque blue-collar beat reporter to legendary insiders, like Washington uber-columnist Scotty Reston, who act as handmaidens to the powerful. And it is no coincidence that arguably the nation’s two preeminent newspapers—the New York Times and Wall Street Journal—stand apart as the most rarefied of perches in our nation’s news ecosystem. It’s at these outlets that these class distinctions are the most glaring—and most problematic.
Just how elite these papers have become was the subject of a new study from Jonathan Wai and Kaja Perina, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University and the editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, respectively. The two have just published a survey in the Journal of Expertise (3/18) that looked at the educational backgrounds of hundreds of Times and Journal staffers, comparing them to the elite individuals these papers routinely cover. The survey reveals how the staffs of the Times and Journal are starkly different than typical journalists. The findings also tell us a lot about how reporters and editors from these two news organizations cover the powerful, as well as why their coverage often falls short of holding the powerful to account.
The reality is that the average New York Times reporter shares much more in the way of educational and cultural background with those they cover than with the general public. Or, as the study found: “Elite journalists resemble senators, billionaires and World Economic Forum attendees in terms of educational attainment.”
As a result, the study concludes that, among those criteria, “top 1 percent people are overrepresented among the New York Times and Wall Street Journal mastheads by a factor of about 50.”
The specific numbers are even more illuminating. According to the survey, “43.9 percent of New York Times and 49.8 percent of Wall Street Journal staff editors/writers attended an elite school.” (At the center-left DC-insider magazine The New Republic, this elite background bias was even more pronounced, as nearly two-thirds of the current staff went to an elite college, and over half attended an Ivy League school.) And even though most journalists do not possess a master’s degree in the field, at the Journal, more than half of reporters and editors had one (at the Times, the number was lower, 14 percent). For both papers, a master’s degree from Columbia University was most prevalent and, according to the authors, “convey[ed] a definite advantage on those hoping to work at elite newspapers.”
To be sure, Columbia’s physical proximity to the Times and Journal plays a part in its alumni’s propensity to be on the staff of those papers; graduates who already live in New York City, after all, are more likely to get jobs with news organizations in that city. Likewise, there is no doubt a correlation between the school’s reputation as having one of the best journalism schools in the country and the willingness of newspapers with high-profile, national reputation to seek out those who attended that school. (Disclosure: I graduated from Columbia’s Journalism School, where my master’s adviser, and numerous other professors, worked for the Times. I have never written for either the Times or the Journal.) However, the paper’s authors also point out that there could be a strong but subtle bias coloring these hiring decisions, one that presupposes to be all about objective merit, but in fact also relies upon in-group signaling (emphasis added):
It is unclear whether a master’s degree from an institution such as Columbia University confers added skills or simply builds a journalist’s network, thereby giving them access to jobs at elite papers such as the WSJ and NYT. Social networks may be disproportionately important in publishing and the arts/humanities generally, given that there are fewer quantitative gauges of output (patents earned/peer-reviewed articles submitted) and talent is more subjectively judged in journalism and publishing.
This is almost certainly true. Journalism is a job that is best learned by doing, which is why the curriculum at journalism schools like Columbia emphasizes reporting, writing and editing actual news stories rather than news theory.
So in a highly competitive journalism job market—which is even more magnified at high-profile newspapers like the Times and Journal—who you know can end up being the tipping point. This strong tendency to hire journalists with academic backgrounds from elite and Ivy League schools, in effect, replicates the same implicit biases that distort admissions to those schools, which are mostly private institutions located on the East and West Coasts with extremely high tuition. Current tuition for Columbia’s full-time, 10-month M.S. program, for example, runs to $105,000 with living expenses.
While many of these elite, competitive schools do make a point of seeking diverse student bodies, and possess large endowments that allow for scholarships for those in need, the high cost of entry naturally precludes many otherwise capable candidates. (I graduated from Columbia Journalism School’s part-time program, which offered no scholarships but allowed me to work full-time and go to school.) So even with these schools’ efforts to recruit students of lower socioeconomic status and diverse ethnic backgrounds, the byproduct of their upper-class student bodies ends up creating an increasingly cloistered news staff whose personal experiences, assumptions and blindspots are unrepresentative of the country in terms of culture and class.
Of course, it should be noted that both the Times and the Journal publish excellent, rigorous journalism every day. Both papers employ plenty of journalists with varied work and class backgrounds as well as educations, and our democracy, on the whole, would be poorer without them. And yet the more the staffs of the Times and Journal resemble those powerful politicians and wealthy public figures that they cover, the greater the risk they will become too credulous or incurious about them, whether intentionally or unwittingly. This, in turn, makes it that much harder for those papers to produce necessarily fair and critical coverage. And because these two newspapers occupy such a key position of prestige, their institutional blindspots can ripple outward through our news ecosystem, fostering reporting failures on a massive scale.
This point is particularly salient on this, the 15th anniversary of the US’s invasion of Iraq. Of all the flawed reporting by the mainstream media leading up to the war, perhaps none was a bigger contributor to that foreign policy disaster than that of the New York Times’ Judith Miller (Media Beat, 10/17/05). She fits the same profile uncovered by this latest study, having gotten an undergraduate degree from Barnard (now part of Columbia) and a master’s of public affairs from Princeton. Thanks to her background and years of national security reporting at the Times, for which she won a Pulitzer in 2001, Miller had become member of the tony Aspen Institute, a veritable Who’s Who of Washington foreign policy insiders, where she enjoyed access to numerous senior Bush administration officials.
In 2002, those officials wanted to push a phony story about Iraqi WMDs, and Miller, whose reporting clearly suggests she viewed those officials as kindred spirits instead of sources to vet, was more than willing to tell it. And if more and more reporters and editors at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal similarly mirror the powerful subjects that they cover, the likelihood of more such catastrophic failures of journalism will only increase.
National Geographic has long had a negative reputation for exoticizing people of color, and failing to challenge colonialism and its legacies. The magazine (now owned by Murdoch, but scheduled to be sold to Disney) addresses this history in its new issue (4/18); and most are crediting them with trying, anyway. Though, as sociologist Victor Ray assesses in a Washington Post op-ed (3/16/18), the magazine rather steps on its message with a cover story on mixed-race twins that traffics in the same sort of “curiosity and surprise” racial clichés the magazine says it’s interrogating, along with a lazy social science that presents racism as a matter of individual attitudes, and overstates progress toward equality.
But only Richard Prince of the online column Journal-isms (3/17/18) seems to have thought to reach out to Charles Cobb, former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, co-founder of the National Association of Black Journalists and the Geographic’s first black staff writer.
Cobb noted that no one from the magazine contacted him about the “race issue”—despite his being not just the first, but until the hiring of a new culture editor last summer, the Geographic‘s only black staff writer. He confirmed that “white supremacist images and words infected the magazine for decades,” but said he found omission an even bigger problem. “The most difficult stories to persuade the magazine to take on were stories about Africa that were not natural science stories,” Cobb said. And “stories about Black America were the toughest sell of all.”
Cobb called for a deeper discussion “about how white supremacy has functioned in this country, especially in media, and the depth of the white supremacist sensibility.” For National Geographic and other media, he says, “It is a bit too easy to say, ‘We’re not like that now.'”
Another co-founder of the National Association of Black Journalists died March 19. Les Payne was a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, a passionate—or, if you’re the New York Times (3/20/18), “fervid”—columnist and a mentoring editor at Long Island Newsday. As the latter paper, where he worked for decades, noted (3/20/18), Payne went undercover with migrant farmworkers in Long Island, tracked heroin from Turkey to the US, covered the guerrilla war in Zimbabwe and the Soweto uprising in South Africa. But readers might remember most how he “fiercely challenged assumptions of his suburban audience” at Newsday, demanding they continue to face the racism that continues to plague the country, and the press.
This week on CounterSpin: Corporate media didn’t make too much of the 15th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, and perhaps it’s just as well, as they’d’ve likely used the occasion to reinforce their favored idea: that the spectacularly devastating invasion was due preeminently to popularly shared miscalculations, on which they reported, rather than a campaign of demonization and deceit in which they participated.
By early 2004, what media still presented as a US campaign to “win hearts and minds” in Iraq came up against reality hard in the city of Fallujah, where a military attack and siege killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians. Reporting on this “First Battle” of Fallujah was a case study in the gap between corporate media’s picture of the war and what we were able to learn from independent reporters. In April 2004, CounterSpin spoke with journalist Rahul Mahajan, just returned from Fallujah. We’ll hear that interview again today.PlayStop pop out
Also on the show: Racial justice groups are suing the Department of Homeland Security to get access to something called the “Race Paper” that may provide clues to the surveillance of black activists. Why do we have to fight the state for protection for First Amendment activities? And why don’t corporate media care? We’ll hear from Omar Farah, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.PlayStop pop out
Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look back at recent press, including coverage of Venezuela, National Geographic and race, and Les Payne.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson interviewed Maha Hilal about CIA torturer Gina Haspel for the March 16, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: Because this is the way things are now, the country’s secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was fired via Twitter this week. Tillerson is to be replaced by current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and Pompeo’s top spot may be taken by the current deputy director, Gina Haspel.
Most people won’t recognize the name, but human rights advocates know Gina Haspel well as chief of base of a secret prison in Thailand, called Cat’s Eye, where a man suspected of being in Al Qaeda was brutally tortured, including being waterboarded 83 times and hung by hooks from the ceiling. Questions are being raised about Haspel’s precise role in the torture, about whether her views have changed. But from a president who has declared support for “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” the nomination of someone deeply involved in the rendition, detention and interrogation programs that shocked the conscience as they violated the law is deeply worrying.
Maha Hilal is the inaugural Michael Ratner fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and an organizer with Witness Against Torture. She also works with the DC Justice for Muslims Coalition, and is a co-principal Investigator with the Torture Treatment Initiative out of Tulane University’s Traumatology Institute. She joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Maha Hilal.
Maha Hilal: Thank you, Janine.
JJ: Let me just ask you what your first thought was on hearing that Gina Haspel might be the new head of the CIA?
MH: Honestly, my first thought is really about the idea that in this country, and particularly in the course of the “War on Terror,” those who have committed the crime of torture—or who have overseen torture, or endorsed torture—actually get promoted, not demoted or prosecuted.
JJ: And, in Haspel’s case, as I say, I’m hearing folks say, “Well, maybe she just oversaw it.” But what do we know about her involvement in what anyone would call torture?
MH: She played a pretty direct role in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, and she’s alleged to have overseen, specifically, the violent interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and [Abd al-Rahim] al-Nashiri. So it seems pretty clear that, while we don’t have all the evidence, that she did play a pretty big and direct role in the torture that happened in many of the CIA black sites.
JJ: The New York Times is talking about how Haspel’s nomination will “reignite the wrenching debate” over interrogation “techniques,” like waterboarding, confinement in boxes and sleep deprivation. First of all, it sounds like those being hurt are the ones who have to debate the issue, you know, or look at the photographs, rather than the people who were and who may be tortured.
But also, torture is illegal, isn’t it, even if you label it “enhanced interrogation”?
MH: It is illegal, and it’s important to keep the context of torture, with respect to the “War on Terror,” where under the Bush administration, there was a series of torture memos that essentially said that in order for abuse to rise to the level of torture, it had to result in organ failure or death. That’s a pretty high threshold.
Under Obama, there was presumably an understanding that torture had been outlawed. However, there were still many indications that torture was still occurring. And the fact of the matter is, so long as there’s no accountability for torture, I don’t think that it really matters that much what the discourse is.
And I think that it’s particularly important, not just because of what has happened, but because of this narrative that “this is not who we are.” So it’s really treated as if it’s this exceptional kind of abuse that we’ve continue to use in the course of the “War on Terror,” as if it’s something new. And the fact that it’s not new is precisely why many of these narratives will continue to actually make no difference whatsoever in terms of whether or not torture continues to be a tactic.
JJ: Well, I think that’s a very interesting point, and I would say that pertains also to the narrative around legality, because the idea that the United States doesn’t do things that are illegal, and that you can’t participate in sort of a serious policy conversation unless you buy that, really distorts the whole conversation.
MH: Absolutely. I think we’ve seen throughout the “War on Terror,” that legality as a concept is very malleable. So what do you do when something is illegal? You make it legal. You find a way. You write a series of memos. You change the law. Whatever you want to do. Because, again, there’s no accountability whatsoever, and so it becomes easier to basically make the law cater to whatever abusive policies you want to continue or perpetuate.
JJ: Haspel, we know, was also part of the 2005 plan, under Jose Rodriguez, the head of the CIA’s clandestine service, to destroy video tapes of waterboarding, which also indicates something about transparency at the agency. The New York Times quoted former officers saying that she was “a strong advocate for getting rid of the tapes.” We hope that–you know, often we put reporters in a role that is not the one that they actually play, but coming down on the side of transparency from government agencies seems like a pretty low bar, and Haspel’s record would suggest that she deserves extra scrutiny in that regard.
MH: Right, and I think that there’s an additional point here. One is, you know, we can talk about Haspel’s nomination specifically. But we also have to have the conversation of what the CIA, as an institution, has been designed to do. There are many levels of a lack of accountability. So not only will there probably be no accountability whatsoever for Haspel, and she may very well be nominated and assume the position of leadership. But once that happens, is there going to be a conversation about what the CIA, as an institution, what kind of crimes it has allowed the US government to commit?
I think there has to be a larger conversation, because this is not just about that one person; this is a systemic issue that we fail to address time and time again. And even the way that the CIA has been talked about in many of these circles, it’s as if it’s this very admirable institution that has, you know, all it has done is sought to preserve America’s national security. It has also destroyed many lives around the world, including the Muslim victims of the CIA black sites.
JJ: To me, when media stopped putting the expression “War on Terror” in quotation marks, something was really lost, you know? Because that term is just a tool, that is an instrument that is used very selectively. And the US has never sought to find and prosecute “terrorists,” per se. It really has only been certain people that are targeted. And I hear you saying, we can’t lose sight, as we talk about Gina Haspel being this person, being head of the CIA, and what her particular role in torture was, we can’t lose sight of how it fits into an ideological campaign of hatred and fear. It’s not really about protecting the country.
MH: Right. And I think if you ask any one of the Muslim victims who’ve been tortured, presumably they would not think that what they endured had anything to do with US national security. And I want to just really emphasize this point, because many of the discussions—or at least most of the discussions that I’ve observed—on Haspel’s nomination have made no mention of the fact that every single victim of the CIA’s black sites has been Muslim. And that point has gone extremely unnoticed and under-emphasized.
And I think that that’s a very critical point because, in my opinion—and based on the work and the research that I have done—the reason why the torture has been allowed to be so egregious is because of the way Muslims have been so dehumanized in the “war on terror.” I can’t imagine this happening to a group of, for example, white Christians. There would be outrage, there would be a lot more outrage, than if it’s happening to non-white Muslims across the globe, and in Guantanamo Bay, which, as we know, is an institution where torture has happened, and could very well be happening at present.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Maha Hilal. She’s the Michael Ratner fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. They’re online at ips-dc.org. Maha Hilal, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
MH: Thank you, Janine.
The United States has for years undermined the Venezuelan economy with economic sanctions, but US media coverage of Venezuela’s financial crisis has gone out of its way to obscure this.
The intent of the sanctions is clear: to inflict maximum pain on Venezuela so as to encourage the people of the country to overthrow the democratically elected government. SUNY professor Gabriel Hetland (The Nation, 8/17/16) pointed out in 2016 that the Obama government “prevented Venezuela from obtaining much-needed foreign financing and investment.” Such policies, Hetland notes,
have had a considerable and highly detrimental impact at a time when Venezuela is in desperate need of dollars but is prevented from gaining access to them by Washington.
In August 2017, two weeks before the Trump administration intensified the sanctions against Venezuela, UN Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy noted that they “would worsen the situation of the people of Venezuela” and that
sanctions are disruptive for any state, and can have a particularly devastating impact on the citizens of developing countries [such as Venezuela] when they impair the economy.
When Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in November 2017 proposed a meeting with creditors to discuss a restructuring of the country’s public debt, the Trump administration warned US bondholders that attending this meeting could put them in violation of US economic sanctions against Venezuela, which can be punished with 30 years in jail and as much as $10 million dollars in fines for businesses.
That same month, the US government added further sanctions that prevent Venezuela from doing what governments routinely do with much of their debt, which is “roll it over” by borrowing again when a bond matures. The sanctions also made it difficult if not impossible for Venezuela to undertake debt restructuring, a process wherein interest and principal payments are postponed and creditors receive new bonds, which the sanctions explicitly prohibit.
According to economist Mark Weisbrot (AlterNet, 11/3/17), the sanctions implemented that month appear designed “to prevent an economic recovery and worsen the shortages (which include essential medicines and food).”
All of this is rarely mentioned when US media report the hardships facing Venezuelans or describe the causes of Venezuela’s economic and political crisis. A New York Times (12/17/17) story told readers that Venezuelan children are facing hunger, with hundreds dying from malnutrition, because “years of economic mismanagement set the stage for the current disaster”—according to “many economists.”
However, less than two weeks earlier, following a trip to Venezuela, UN Rapporteur Alfred de Zayas (ThinkProgress, 12/8/17) offered his analysis of what “set the stage for the current disaster.” He reportedly said that the conditions in the country did not constitute a full-blown humanitarian crisis, but that there are “shortages, scarcity and distribution delays, etc.,” and listed sanctions among the causes of these problems:
What is important is to get to know the causes and take measures against contraband, monopolies, hoarding, corruption, manipulation of the currency and the distortions in the economy caused by an economic and financial war which includes [the effects of international] sanctions.
The Washington Post’s editorial board (2/23/18), in writing about what it misdescribed as “Latin America’s Worst-Ever Refugee Crisis” (see FAIR.org, 2/18/18), overlooked these dimensions of what has happened in Venezuela, writing:
Though it controls the world’s largest oil reserves, the regime founded by Hugo Chávez has wrecked not just oil production but the economy as a whole.
At no point did the paper mention the US role in wrecking the Venezuelan “economy as a whole.” It’s a striking example of what Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez described in Foreign Policy (1/12/18):
[A] problematic idea driving current US policy is the belief that financial sanctions can hurt the Venezuelan government without causing serious harm to ordinary Venezuelans. That’s impossible when 95 percent of Venezuela’s export revenue comes from oil sold by the state-owned oil company. Cutting off the government’s access to dollars will leave the economy without the hard currency needed to pay for imports of food and medicine. Starving the Venezuelan economy of its foreign currency earnings risks turning the country’s current humanitarian crisis into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe.
Even as Venezuela’s export revenues rose last year, as world oil prices increased, Venezuela’s imports fell by 31 percent, Rodríguez pointed out:
The reason is that the country lost access to international financial markets. Unable to roll over its debt, it was forced to build up huge external surpluses to continue servicing that debt in a desperate attempt to avoid a default.
It’s sanctions, not “years of economic mismanagement,” Rodríguez noted, that prevent Venezuela from turning rising oil prices into food for hungry children:
Major financial institutions have delayed the processing of all financial transfers from Venezuelan entities, significantly hampering the ability of Venezuelan companies to do business in the United States. Even Citgo, a Venezuelan-owned subsidiary that owns 4 percent of the United States’ refining capacity, hasn’t been able to get US financial institutions to issue routine trade credit since sanctions were imposed.
Another Post article, by Rachelle Krygier (3/8/17), reporting on the serious challenges facing Venezuela’s health system, likewise ignored US sanctions as part of the explanation. Instead, she wrote:
Lower oil prices and populist policies championed by the late Hugo Chávez and continued by his successor, President Nicolás Maduro, have plunged Venezuela into a spiraling economic emergency.
The Post’s Anthony Faiola (3/2/18), writing about the “humanitarian crisis” driving Venezuelans to flee their country, similarly acquitted the empire of any wrongdoing:
Venezuela has reached a breaking point, with lower oil prices and economic mismanagement leading to the world’s highest inflation rate and spiraling indexes of poverty and malnutrition.
CNN (3/2/18) also exclusively blamed the Venezuelan government for the country’s difficulties: “Corruption, mismanagement and price freezes have caused Venezuela’s economy to collapse.”
In an article on NBC’s website (3/12/18) on how “Life Is a Daily Struggle in Venezuela,” Mariana Zuñiga claimed that “Venezuela’s crisis can be traced back to Chávez,” who “relied heavily on oil revenues to fund his ‘21st Century Socialism’ agenda,” leaving Venezuelans with “little savings to fall back on” when oil prices collapsed. The other key reasons she listed for Venezuela’s problems were government currency controls and “years of excessive regulations [that] have discouraged local production.”
She neglected to point out what 150 scholars, writers, artists, activists and workers did in a letter published three days earlier (Alliance for Justice, 3/9/18): that the impact of US sanctions “falls most heavily on the poorest and most marginal sectors of society, to coerce political and economic change in a sister democracy.” They described sanctions as “a cynical use of coercive economic power to attack a nation that is already dealing with hyperinflation and shortages of basic commodities.” The letter also points to polls showing that a large majority of Venezuelans oppose sanctions, and notes:
It is no secret that Venezuela, unlike Mexico, Honduras, Colombia, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, is targeted for regime change by the US precisely because of Venezuela’s leadership in resisting US hegemony and the imposition of the neoliberal model in Latin America. And of course, Venezuela holds the largest oil reserves in the world, attracting more unwanted attention from Washington.
As the situation worsens in Venezuela, the US government has decided to aggravate matters further by repeatedly ramping up sanctions, most recently earlier this month, but media have failed to note the connection between such measures and the multitude of stories about Venezuelans’ struggles that they keep publishing.
These elisions exonerate the empire’s economic warfare against Venezuela and the harm the U.S has intentionally inflicted on the Venezuelan people. As de Zayas (Real News Network, 3/14/18) notes simply, the sanctions “have caused death.”
That these articles opt against informing their readers that American sanctions are contributing to the issues facing Venezuela is all the more egregious considering that the sanctions violate international law, contravening both UN Resolution 2625, which forbids “the use of economic, political or any other type of measures to coerce another state” and the charter of the Organization of American States, which bars the “use of coercive measures of an economic or political character.” As usual (e.g., FAIR.org, 9/19/13, 12/8/17), US media do not deem American violations of international law newsworthy.
Janine Jackson interviewed Orion Danjuma about the voter suppression trial for the March 16, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: It is passing strange that someone planning to run for governor of a state should be engaged in trying to change the law to make it much harder for some people to vote. But that’s just one angle on what’s playing out in a Kansas City courtroom, where a defendant, Kansas’s Secretary of State Kris Kobach, is representing himself in a federal trial over a state law requiring people to show citizenship documents, like a birth certificate or a passport, when they register to vote.
Kobach is the architect of that law, the force behind the now-disbanded “Presidential Commission on Election Integrity,” and the man who suggested that Donald Trump claim that he won the popular vote, “If you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
Fish v. Kobach, as the case is named, opened March 6, a day before the 53rd anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when police beat and tear-gassed hundreds of non-violent civil rights activists on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama—activists marching for voting rights. The ACLU has been fighting Kobach’s plans for years. We’re joined now by Orion Danjuma, staff attorney in the ACLU’s Racial Justice program. Welcome to CounterSpin, Orion Danjuma.
Orion Danjuma: Thanks very much. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
JJ: Well, Fish v. Kobach is about this 2013 law that Kris Kobach pushed through in Kansas. What was the effect of that law, or its impact, such that the ACLU sued over it, and that brings us to where we are today?
OD: Yes, so the law was passed initially in 2011, and began to be implemented in 2013, after extensive delays that the state gave to Mr. Kobach to start putting this law into place, and, as you mentioned in the intro, the law was passed under the pretense that there was this wave, this threat, of hordes of noncitizens who were potentially infiltrating voting booths, and voting in elections, and changing the results of American elections. And the law was basically passed based on these anecdotal reports that people saw someone who looked like a Muslim lady, or African immigrants, at polls, and were protesting the fact that those individuals might not be citizens.
After the law was passed, the state saw, almost immediately, tens of thousands of individuals whose voter registration applications were suspended, and blocked from registering, because they couldn’t come up with the documents that the state was demanding: a birth certificate or a passport. And part of that was the fact that the law was so poorly implemented and so confusingly explained—or not explained—to individuals, that even some people who had documents were denied an opportunity to register to vote. And then many others who were simply too poor to have the necessary documents, or couldn’t locate them, were unable to provide those documents by the time they needed to register to vote.
The ACLU brought suit, because approximately 14 percent of new voter registration applications, over 30,000 individuals, between January 2013 and December 2015, were blocked by this requirement. That restriction violates federal law, the National Voter Registration Act, which requires that states make voter registration simple and straightforward. So we brought suit to block this restrictive registration requirement.
JJ: And it was, in fact, blocked. And is this now part of trying to decide whether that law is going to stand at all? This is what we’re talking about now?
OD: What happened is that in 2016 and in advance of the 2016 election, we brought suit and requested a preliminary injunction. And the judge who was assigned to the case issued a preliminary ruling in 2016, saying that it certainly looked very likely that this law violates federal law, which is supposed to make it easy to register to vote, but delayed a decision on the final merits until a full trial could be had after the election. And that judge’s decision was upheld by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, and no appeal was taken to the Supreme Court at the time. So that preliminary injunction has blocked the law since 2016.
Basically, the judge then said to Secretary Kobach, you now have an opportunity to prove whether or not noncitizen voter registration fraud is actually a problem. That court and the Court of Appeals said that, from the evidence produced thus far, it seemed that the idea that noncitizens were registering to vote was so minimal as to be negligible. The court essentially said it is a nominal problem at best, and the Court of Appeals said that the secretary’s claims that lots of noncitizens registering to vote was simply pure speculation.
So what’s at issue right now, in this trial that’s taking place in Kansas City, is it’s really Secretary Kobach’s “put up or shut up” moment. For literally years, at this point, he’s been using this threat of noncitizens voting in elections as a pretext for restrictive voter registration requirements. And he’s only had to defend these wild allegations on Fox News, or various very sympathetic forums, and what’s different now is he has to come into court, to really come up with actual evidence.
And I can say that, at least from our perspective as a plaintiff, his showing has been completely disastrous. All of the evidence that he’s sought to introduce at trial has been riddled with errors, has been statistically incomprehensible, or simply outright fabrications and lies. Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the court to decide whether the evidence that he’s provided is significant or not, but that is the meaning of this trial, is it is essentially a test of the claims that he’s now made for years about whether noncitizens really are voting in elections or not.
JJ: This whole line, and I think corporate media are still credulous about it to a certain extent, is that there is some valid concern about voter fraud, that experts might disagree about the numbers, but you’re still given to understand that there’s some there there, that it’s a dispute, anyway. And even if an article winds up concluding, as the courts have, that voter fraud is not a significant problem, still the article posits it as the object of concern. And documents, including testimony from Kobach that the ACLU obtained, really illustrate the extent to which it is a purposive red herring. I wonder if you could just talk a little about what you have called “the plays in Kobach’s voter suppression playbook.”
OD: Absolutely. So over the course of this litigation, shortly after the judge in this case entered a preliminary injunction blocking the law, after we filed suit — as I mentioned, that decision was issued a few months before the 2016 election—right in the wake of that election, the secretary of State was photographed going into a meeting with Donald Trump, and in his hands was a document, sort of a memo: Secretary Kobach’s master plan for the Trump administration. And one key item on it was to draft amendments to the National Voter R…—and the rest of that document was covered up by his arm.
So in the course of the litigation in advance of trial, we were able to obtain access to those documents. The secretary’s office fought us literally tooth and nail. I can tell you there are probably 60 docket entries; I’ve never filed as many papers over a mere document dispute as I did in this case. But the reason why it was so critical is that the secretary’s own evidence showed that his claims were completely false and invalid.
What we found is that not only was there this agenda that Mr. Kobach had brought into a meeting with Mr. Trump, Mr. Kobach had actually prepared a version of a draft amendment which would allow him to impose a birth certificate or passport requirement on voters, even if there were no proof at all that any noncitizens were registering to vote, and I think it’s really clear…. And then he was aggressively lobbying, immediately after the 2016 presidential election, to try to get Mr. Trump and his senior advisors to pass new legislation to make it harder to vote.
And why I think that’s so critical is that for years, the secretary has been saying that noncitizens are registering to vote; they’re everywhere registering to vote. But as soon as he’s forced to go into court to prove that that’s happening, he desperately tried to change the law to eliminate the requirement that he come up with any proof at all. And I think that’s really, really clear evidence that he just knows he doesn’t have any proof. He knows that this is really just about blocking individuals who he doesn’t want to vote from getting to the polls easily. And that is one of the reasons why laws like these are so dangerous, and why a trial like this, that gets to the bottom of what the evidence really is, is so important.
JJ: And it’s why I would hope that media would change their angle of approach to the story. They’re no longer balancing, rhetorically, “voter fraud” and “voter suppression,” in the same way that they used to. But I still feel that they fall short of describing an actual thought-out plan to suppress the votes of the young and the poor and people of color, and covering it and approaching it in that way. It still makes it sound as though “some people think this, some people think something else,” and we kind of have to hash it out.
So what I want to say is, you show that Kobach has had these plans for a while now, from before the election. And I’ve just read that if he loses this case in Kansas, he still has his friend Steve King in Congress, who is set to try to push through this we-don’t-need-evidence rule at a national level? He could try to win in a different way, if he loses in Kansas City?
OD: Shortly after the election, in the early part of 2017, President Trump made a surprise announcement that Secretary Kobach was going to be appointed as the de facto head of the Voter Integrity and Election Commission, and that was a huge alarm bell for all of the voting rights community, because we knew that the only reason he would be in a position like that was to create a false narrative about the scope of voter registration fraud, to basically lay the foundation for an amendment to federal voting rights law, to make it much harder to vote.
Now, after the extreme incompetence that Secretary Kobach displayed—hiding documents from members of the commission itself, not abiding by any of the requirements for any presidential commission; he basically failed to do the bare minimum of what you need to do in an investigatory commission appointed by the president of the United States—now the commission has been disbanded, because it was so poorly run.
But you’re absolutely right, that either at the federal level, through federal legislation, or at the state level, by enacting restrictive voter registration regimes or new voter ID requirements, there is a core of individuals who are dedicated to suppressing the right to vote, not based on any legitimate fear of fraud, either by noncitizens or individuals voting in multiple states, but simply because they don’t want certain voters to participate in the political process. And that is a fundamental threat to our most important civil right and civil liberty. For Secretary Kobach, I think he felt there was a way to lock in a voter pool that he liked, the current set of registered voters, and erect a wall to make it as hard as possible for new, young voters, unaffiliated voters, to join the political process and get involved.
JJ: So for those of us who are interested in maintaining and expanding voting rights, we have to keep our eyes on the prize, really.
OD: Absolutely. This is a part of the plan that Secretary Kobach, I think, now has exposed, because, to some extent, we were just lucky enough to see that there was a document at issue, and that gave us enough of a hook to get into court to see what he was cooking up behind closed doors. But you had better believe that there are all sorts of other plans that involve different voter protection laws that are outside of the ones that are involved in this case, and it is incredibly important to be alert to each of those issues, as events unfold in Congress and in the states.
I want to just answer one thing you mentioned earlier before, and that’s about balance between, you know, “some people think noncitizen voter fraud is a problem, some people don’t,” and there’s this sort of false equivalency that’s part of the national discourse on this issue. I think that’s right, but most importantly, I think it misses the point that in a case like this, we have direct evidence of bad intent by someone. We have the papers that show this plan. So that shows that it wasn’t just a sort of arbitrary, “some people think one thing; some people think another thing.” We know what the secretary thought. He tried to make it so that he’d never had to prove that a single noncitizen registered to vote, in order to disenfranchise 30,000 voters in Kansas.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Orion Danjuma, staff attorney in the ACLU’s Racial Justice program. They’re online at ACLU.org. Orion Danjuma, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
OD: I’m so happy to be with you.