The headline news from President Donald Trump’s 60 Minutes interview, taped on October 20, was that he walked out and ended the interview early, a fact CBS played up ahead of the October 25 airing of the show.
It was on brand for both Trump and the network. For Trump, it supported the image of the tough businessman who doesn’t play by Washington’s rules. It enabled CBS, meanwhile, to look like hard-hitting journalists.
The gulf between brand and reality, though, was significant in both cases.
Lesley Stahl started the interview by asking, “Are you ready for some tough questions?”—instead of actually asking any tough questions. It was hard not to feel some sympathy for her, given that even her softest softball questions went unanswered and/or were interrupted while Trump complained, “You’re so negative,” and lobbed one outsized lie after another at her. She did try at times to correct his falsehoods, but mostly she just gave up on one subject after another and moved on.
But as anyone who has raised children or puppies knows, if you give in to the bad behavior, it is bound to be repeated. Stahl’s first substantive question (I use that term loosely) was “Why do you want to be president again?” To which Trump responded:
Because we’ve done a great job, and it’s not finished yet. And when I finish, this country will be in a position like it hasn’t been maybe ever. The economy is already roaring back. And—other people aren’t going to bring it back, certainly the person that we’re dealing with is not going to bring it back. They’re going to raise taxes.
This response begs for follow up. How exactly have you done a “great job”? How can an economy with staggering food and housing insecurity, tens of millions unemployed, and crushing impacts on BIPOC communities be described as “roaring back”? And perhaps most importantly, what is your vision for a country “in a position like it hasn’t been maybe ever”? Yet Stahl didn’t engage with any of it, and thus set the terms for the rest of the interview— that Trump’s claims, no matter how outrageous, would go unchallenged.
Later, when Stahl tried to counter Trump’s assertion that “we created the greatest economy in the history of our country,” saying, “You know that’s not true,” it was futile. And by the time she was arguing with him about whether he said, “Suburban women, will you please like me?” her counter to his fictional great economy had dwindled to “the economy has kind of stalled a little bit.”
As of mid-October, 10.3% of US adults had not had enough food in the last week, compared to 3.7% of adults who reported not having enough food sometime during all of 2019. In households with children, that number rises to 14%. These numbers bear witness to a massive increase in grotesque economic violence; and when considered alongside the fact that US billionaires increased their already obscene wealth by $845 billion during the first six months of the pandemic, there simply are no words to properly describe the depths of this depravity.
But here was Stahl, trying to keep the toddler in chief from throwing a tantrum by sweeping all this under the rug: kind of…stalled…a little bit.
Instead of actual tough questions that cited facts and demanded accountability for economic hardship; or human rights abuses by police and immigration authorities alike; or environmental regulations that are speeding global warming, extinction and mass deaths, Stahl asked inane questions like, “Can you characterize your supporters?” and “Do you think that your tweets and your name-calling are turning people off?” and made comments like, “I wonder if you think that masks don’t work.”
There are many other problems with this interview, but the absolute worst part was this comment from Stahl:
Four years ago, you were behind in the polls, as you are now, and you pulled it out. But this time, you have kind of a double migraine. You have unemployment claims going up. You have Covid cases going up. I mean, it’s like the gods have suddenly decided to conspire against you—
Trump cut her off, and I can’t even tell where this was headed as a question, but What The Actual Fuck? Here is one of the supposedly top journalists in the country, preemptively absolving (the gods conspired!) the most powerful man in the world of responsibility for twin crises that we all know he made immeasurably worse with his actions and inactions.The real Covid dilemma: How many guests for Thanksgiving
Stahl’s interview with Vice President Mike Pence was no better.
The vice president is the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and, as such, should answer for the federal government’s breathtaking failure to address the pandemic. From the failure to provide testing or PPE, to the refusal to issue a national mask mandate, or to even mildly encourage the use of masks; the invocation of the Defense Production Act to force meatpacking plants to stay open, ravaging immigrant communities, and the failure to apply it to secure ventilators; the lack of aid to struggling states and cities; billions in corporate bailouts, and peanuts for the tens of millions who have lost jobs. And so much else.
But did Stahl ask about any of those things? No. Instead, as with Trump, she turned life-and-death policy failures into matters of individual judgment and opinion. She asked if Pence cared to comment on Trump’s calling Dr. Fauci an idiot. Nine million Americans have been infected and a quarter million have died, not because of Trump’s insults, but because of a systematic and deliberate refusal to enact necessary public health measures. Where was that question?
Next, Stahl ignored Pence’s false dichotomy between the economy and public health, and asked this instead:
So let’s say there’s a mother out there. Let’s say in a hot spot in Wisconsin. And she’s wondering whether she should send her children to school. Now, what’s your advice?… So are you saying she should send the kids back? Should the kids wear masks?
Pence said they “should adhere to whatever criteria the school administrators and local health officials determine to be appropriate,” which, amidst other nonsense and lies, was actually not a terrible answer. But it tells us nothing about what the administration has and hasn’t done, will or won’t do, or should or shouldn’t do. The framing of the question itself precluded a meaningful conversation about policy, erasing the responsibility of the federal government and devolving responsibility instead to a matter of personal judgment.
After this, Stahl and Pence agreed that Thanksgiving was one of their favorite holidays, and you’d be forgiven if your takeaway from this interview was that the most pressing public health question facing the nation is how many people to invite for Thanksgiving this year.What’s scarier than a Halloween haunted house? A liberal White House
As bad as the Trump and Pence interviews were, the ones with former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (10/25/20) were worse. When they weren’t just stupid (“Could Donald Trump still win this?”), Norah O’Donnell’s questions were based on textbook neoliberal orthodoxy. Indeed, they were virtually indistinguishable from the warnings corporate media have had for Democratic politicians in (and between) every election cycle.
The president made the case at the Republican Convention that your administration would be a Trojan horse for liberals. That AOC, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren would actually be controlling policy, that this would become the most liberal administration in US history.
Besides being obviously and laughably untrue, note that the framing of this comment rests on the assumption that being “the most liberal administration in US history” would be a bad thing. And when it came to economic policy and taxes, the bias got even clearer:
You are proposing several trillion dollars in new spending over the next decade for economic relief, education, healthcare. How are you going to pay for that?… You think it’s a good idea to raise taxes [on people earning more than $400,000] when the economy’s in dire straits?
Where was the question about whether it’s a good idea to let children go hungry and families get evicted? Where was the question about how to provide healthcare for the 15 million people who have lost insurance coverage during the pandemic, or what Biden’s plan is in the (very likely) case the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Act in 2021?
The only way to tell that this interview was from 2020 rather than 2016, 2008 or 1992 was the addition of a pandemic neoliberalism section, raising alarm at the prospect that public health measures might “lock down the economy,” and citing, uncritically and without context, Scott Atlas’s herd immunity policy recommendations. (I wrote about the first wave of kill-grandma proposals to save the economy stock market last spring.)
O’Donnell’s interview with Harris was more of the same, grilling her on whether she would be loyal to Biden’s more conservative policy agenda:
You supported the Green New Deal, you supported Medicare for All. You’ve supported legalizing marijuana. Joe Biden doesn’t support those things. So are you going to bring… those progressive policies… into a Biden administration?
There were multiple follow-ups doubling down on this, including some classic red-baiting asking if Harris’s perspective was “socialist.” To her credit, Harris laughed at that.
The follow-ups on whether Harris would pull a Biden administration to the left also included a specific request for reassurance that Harris would not, as vice president, ever advocate for universal healthcare:
Just to button that up, because you have fought for Medicare for All…. If you become vice president, would you say to a President Biden, “You know what? Let’s—we should really be pushing for Medicare for All….”
Just to reiterate: The United States is in the midst of a catastrophic pandemic, hundreds of people are dying literally every day, 15 million people have lost healthcare coverage, the Supreme Court is set to end the program that provides coverage to another 21 million, and the thing O’Donnell felt it was important to “button up” was that the next vice president of the country would not be advocating for any kind of national healthcare.
Got it.Oops, we forgot to ask about racism
Among the various ways that Stahl tried to placate Trump was her shameful avoidance of any discussion of the administration’s racist and ethnic cleansing policies. The only person asked if any of Donald Trump’s actions were racist was Harris…the only Black person interviewed. Natch.
Stahl found a slew of euphemisms to replace any mention of white supremacy (“racial strife,” “the country being divided against itself”) and failed to mention its impacts, particularly devastating in 2020, altogether.
O’Donnell did no better. But she did inadvertently admit that US policing is inherently racist. She told Biden:
There’s a sense that there’s a divide out there, that in order to address systemic racism, that it’s anti-police, that you would not be a law-and-order president.
This, too, was a fishing expedition, looking for confirmation that Biden would choose “law and order,” i.e., the continuation of oppressive, racist policing, over addressing systemic racism. That much was clear from the follow up, in which O’Donnell invoked Trump’s barely coded racist boast, “I saved the suburbs.”
Whatever happens on and after November 3, one thing seems pretty clear: We can count on 60 Minutes to cover it in a way that props up the status quo.
As Republicans ram through Trump’s third Supreme Court nomination with an election underway, Democrats are increasingly contemplating expanding the court. But rather than cover it with the “objectivity” they claim to strive for, the country’s dominant media outlets have adopted a right-wing frame of the issue—calling it “court packing”—that delegitimizes court expansion.
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Death Revives Talk of Court Packing,” announced a New York Times headline (9/19/20). “What Is Court Packing, and Why Are Some Democrats Seriously Considering It?” asked the Washington Post (10/8/20). In that piece, the Post‘s Amber Phillips explicitly acknowledged the bias inherent in the phrase, yet presented it as practically official:
Expanding the Supreme Court to more than nine seats sounds like a radical idea, and the term for it, “court packing,” sounds derisive because it has created controversy every time it has come up.
In typical corporate media style, such articles often present the issue as a he said/she said dispute. In the WaPo piece, Democrats are “frustrated that the Supreme Court could get even more conservative,” while Republicans “paint that as sour grapes”; over at the Times, Democrats “characterize court expansion as a defensive move against Republican actions, not a unilateral power grab,” while Republicans “have called the idea radical and undemocratic.”
In these formulations, one side must win and the other lose. But the reality they gloss over is that those aren’t the real teams here. The struggle over the Court is at heart a struggle between anti-democratic forces and the interests of the vast majority of people in this country.
In recent years, massive amounts of corporate money have been directed toward efforts, led by the right-wing Federalist Society, to capture the US courts for corporate interests—dismantling voting rights, favoring corporate rights over individual rights, and stripping the power of government to regulate corporations (CounterSpin, 10/16/20). By framing the issue as one of Republicans vs. Democrats, media ignore the more important threat to democracy as a whole. And by accepting “court packing” as “the term for” expanding the court, journalists lend a hand to those anti-democratic forces.
The phrase “court packing” isn’t new. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s opponents coined it to delegitimize his plan to expand the court after it repeatedly struck down parts of his New Deal in the name of restraining government power (federal and—in some cases, like the court’s rejection of New York’s effort to set a minimum wage for women—state). In the end, FDR’s plan languished in the Senate, but the president won the war; in the wake of his public campaign against it, the court began issuing rulings more favorable to the New Deal and other economic recovery plans. One of the conservative justices retired, giving FDR the opportunity to swing the balance back in his favor—no thanks to the media, which ran predominantly unfavorable stories about FDR’s plan.
The circumstances are different this time around, with Republicans on the verge of installing a 6–3 conservative majority, and none of the conservative seats likely to open under a Biden term; the oldest conservative justice, Clarence Thomas, is just 72, and hasn’t given any indication that he’s interested in retiring. Plus, it’s unlikely Biden would push forcefully for a court expansion the way FDR did, putting pressure on the court to temper its rulings. But the rampant journalistic use of the biased term “court packing” hasn’t changed.
A Nexis search of US newspapers for the past three months (7/24/20–10/24/20) turns up 244 headlines with some version of the phrase “court packing” (including, e.g., “pack the court” or “packing the court”). Less than half as many, 98, used a version of the more neutral “court expansion” (such as “expanding the court”), and almost half of those (48) also used the phrase “court packing” within the article.
It’s also noteworthy what that these “court packing” stories highlight—and ignore. In arguments about court expansion, the right tends to focus on ideas of tradition (like the false claim that adding justices would be unprecedented) and the culture wars (like Roe v. Wade). Democrats often lean on the Republican hypocrisy of blocking Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat in 2016, when the GOP insisted, eight months before an election, that the voters should have a chance to weigh in before a new justice was confirmed—a principle instantly abandoned when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died seven weeks before an election.
The role of corporate money and the Federalist Society, and the threats they pose to democracy, often go unmentioned by both sides. In the last three months, newspaper stories that mentioned “court packing” also mentioned Merrick Garland 358 times and abortion 337 times; Roe v. Wade made 159 appearances. But these stories mentioned the Federalist Society only 33 times; of those, only seven mentioned “corporate” or “corporation.”
In the end, it’s unlikely that even if—and it’s a big if—Democrats take the presidency and the Senate, there will be enough agreement within the party to expand the Supreme Court. But that’s also not the only way to counter the corporate takeover of the court. In the face of an intransigent pro-slavery court, Lincoln and his anti-slavery allies recognized that their most powerful and effective strategy was not to try to add enough justices to gain the upper hand within the court; it was to undermine the false image of an impartial, democracy-protecting court that must always have the last word. As Matt Karp writes in Jacobin (9/19/20):
Lincoln persisted in rejecting judicial supremacy — and also the basic idea underlying it, that law somehow exists before or beyond politics, and thus it was illegitimate to resist the proslavery court through popular antislavery mobilization. “We do not propose to be bound by [Dred Scott] as a political rule,” he said. “We propose resisting it as to have it reversed if we can, and a new judicial rule established upon this subject.”
Others have advocated for a similar approach today: marginalizing rather than trying to capture the court (e.g., New Republic, 10/13/20). Neither task would be easy, but getting journalists to talk more directly about the true problems with the court is a critical step along the way.
Featured image: Anti-FDR cartoon from the Waterbury Republican (2/14/1937).
The Republican National Convention this year made fighting “cancel culture” a priority for the party. Former Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch wrote in the Wall Street Journal (7/27/20) that cancel culture was at the heart of the crisis facing academic freedom in the nation. Other right-wing activists noted the same in the Washington Times (8/10/20), and Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson (Real Clear Politics, 7/3/20) talk about the issue constantly.
The message is that cancel culture is a lurking threat against any professor or writer. Make one transphobic comment, a slightly sexist joke, a perceived slight against an oppressed group, and you could see dozens, hundreds or thousands of Twitter social justice activists rally for your termination of employment. This is the new McCarthyism, say cancel culture critics: A mob of politically correct warriors can suppress conservative speech by using the power of internet outrage to enforce liberal-defined speech codes on race, gender, etc. At any minute, you—especially if you are a white, heterosexual, cisgender man—are just one slip-up away from getting, well, canceled.
It’s not just the conservative media’s war. The New York Times has published several pieces on the subject (8/10/20, 7/14/20, 7/16/20). Last summer in Harper’s (7/7/20), a group of well-known writers and academics denounced the attitudes of social media users (FAIR.org, 8/1/20).
Fear that tone-policing liberals will squelch free inquiry on campus and elsewhere isn’t new (FAIR.org, 5–6/91). Academic Paul Berman’s Debating PC and late Village Voice journalist Nat Hentoff’s Free Speech for Me—but Not for Thee explored these topics in 1995 and 1992, respectively. But today’s moral panic in response to collegiate liberalism and the online commentariat has reached a point that the president of the United States has felt moved to make combating this social plague a part of his re-election campaign (USA Today, 9/3/20).
Opposition to cancel culture has created its own media industry. Tory broadcaster Piers Morgan has a new book on the subject. Judy Gold (Jewish Insider, 7/28/20) and Adam Carolla (The Hill, 11/20/19) are among the many comics who have built shticks on attacking the sensitivities of liberal culture. There is even a podcast, Blocked and Reported, devoted entirely to reviewing instances of online censoriousness.
But who, in fact, is being “canceled” at universities (FAIR.org, 6/15/17)? Steven Salaita, whose pro-Palestine comments were perceived as insensitive to Jews (e.g., “If it’s ‘antisemitic’ to deplore colonization, land theft and child murder, then what choice does any person of conscience have?”—Twitter, 7/19/14), lost his job offer at the University of Illinois in 2015. Political theorist George Ciccariello-Maher, an outspoken activist against white supremacy, was forced out of his tenured position at Drexel University in 2018 after his Twitter post mocking the ludicrous notion of “white genocide” was misconstrued as anti-white racism. Most recently, Zoom, now the ubiquitous application used for holding remote meetings and forums, in September 2020 canceled the airing of a talk at San Francisco State University by Leila Khaled, whose affiliation with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine rankled pro-Israel groups.
In 2018, several groups wrote to nearly 300 universities demanding free speech protections for campus communities, which, activists said, were under attack by outside pro-Israel groups—their letter insisted that administrations condemn the
Canary Mission, the David Horowitz Freedom Center and other groups that use defamatory intimidation and blacklisting tactics, including those that chill advocacy for Palestinian rights on campus.
Thousands of conservative activists in December 2016 pressed Hunter College to fire urban policy professor Matthew Lasner because his husband was allegedly mean to Ivanka Trump, the daughter of the then-president-elect, on an airplane. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, one of the Trump administration’s biggest cheerleaders in academia, was instrumental in forcing DePaul University to oust political scientist Norman Finkelstein, a critic of Israel (and Dershowitz), in 2007.
Yet this isn’t exactly what the anti-cancel culture zealots are referring to. Bari Weiss, a former conservative opinion editor for the New York Times and one of the signers of the Harper’s statement, had fought against professors deemed too critical of Israel. Another signer, Cary Nelson, had backed the cancellation of Salaita.
It’s not hypocrisy. It’s something worse.
First, if we’re to assume that academics and journalists are at risk of losing their jobs over their controversial opinions, that is because there is a lack of due process and union protections for these workers. If we’re to protect these workers from the threat of termination, the answer isn’t to tell Twitter activists to self-censor every time they see something offensive, but to end the precarity that comes with at-will employment in media and at universities. But we don’t hear too much about this from anti-cancel culture warriors—although the unionized workers at the New Yorker ended at-will employment there, winning a “just cause” provision in their collective bargaining agreement (CNN, 8/5/20).
Accusing your enemy of doing what you’re doing—in this case, right-wing organizations canceling left-wing academics, and then claiming liberals are perpetrating cancel culture—is a form of deflection that riles the right-wing base against intellectuals, but also sends the coded message that the Republican Party will do what it can to silence left-wing critics.
Here’s an illustration: New York Times conservative columnist Bret Stephens (7/3/20) wrote that the biggest threat to free speech are liberals who seek to curb the expression of those who don’t endorse social justice liberalism. But Stephens had complained to George Washington University professor David Karpf—and, crucially, cc’d the GWU provost—after Karpf joked on Twitter that Stephens was a “bedbug.” Karpf (LA Times, 8/28/19) wrote:
That isn’t a call for polite, civil, rational discourse. It’s an exercise of power. He wanted me and my employer to realize that I had offended an important voice at the paper of record.
Stephens is the cancel culture warrior, not the victim. The message Stephens sent, quite clearly, is that cancel culture is against free speech when social liberals are too vocal about their objections to old hierarchies and the status quo, but it is a perfectly acceptable tool for conservatives to use against the left or critics of conservatism.
This isn’t the only time the right situates itself as the victim when it is actually the offender. Think, for example, about how the far-right spoke about the fear of “jack-booted government thugs” coming to put Christian Americans into FEMA camps in the 1990s. When the Trump administration deployed federal agents to throw Black Lives Matter protesters into unmarked vans, or when federal law enforcement put migrant children into what may fairly be called concentration camps, it’s easy to see hypocrisy on the part of the right-wingers who protested federal police at Ruby Ridge or Waco, but embrace them when used against immigrants or BLM.
But rather than hypocrisy, those fears were a statement of intent. The right’s fear of what could be done to them was an expression of what it hoped to do unto others.
Right-wing hysteria about cancel culture is similar. The Trump administration, the Republican Party and right-wing media (propped up by mainstream media) are telling their base: Yes, we will make liberal professors scared, we will get them fired and use “cancel culture” to suppress speech and academic inquiry we find distasteful or dangerous. Think of it as a declaration of a cultural counter-revolution.
Media should be more honest about this as this subject continues to bubble up.
Featured image: “Cancel culture” cartoon by Chip Bok (6/13/20).
Bolivia’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party won a decisive victory in the country’s presidential elections on Sunday, with its candidate Luis Arce apparently winning by a large enough margin to avoid a runoff, likely achieving an absolute majority. The leading opposing candidate, neoliberal Carlos Mesa, and the right-wing unelected President Jeanine Áñez congratulated Arce on his victory.
Some in US corporate media, however, failed to describe what was really going on in the country.
When the Wall Street Journal (10/19/20) reported on the MAS victory, for example, it kept to the usual line (FAIR.org, 11/11/19, 11/18/20) about the previously elected president from MAS, Evo Morales, having been “driven from power” in November 2019 after “an election that observers said was marred by irregularities”—avoiding referring directly to Morales’ military overthrow as a “coup.” Instead, the Journal wrote that “Bolivians rose up against Mr. Morales” after he “had grown increasingly authoritarian” and already “ruled” for 14 years.
First off, to say that Morales “ruled” in his country is about as accurate as saying that Barack Obama “ruled” the United States from 2009–17. Until Morales’ ouster, Bolivia was (and hopefully will again be) a functioning democracy. Trying to paint democratically elected leaders as dictatorial autocrats is a time-honored US tradition going back at least as far as Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala, removed in a CIA-backed invasion in 1954.
The “irregularities” mentioned are a reference to an analysis by the Organization of American States (OAS), an institution that gets 60% of its budget from the United States. Its analysis, released immediately after the election, expressed “deep concern” about a “hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results.” Their analysis was immediately challenged by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a progressive DC-based think tank, which noted that the OAS provided “absolutely no evidence—no statistics, numbers or facts of any kind”—to support its conclusions. (See CounterSpin, 7/31/20.) The study was later fully debunked, as reported by both the Washington Post (2/27/20), which wrote that “the OAS’s statistical analysis and conclusions would appear deeply flawed,” and the New York Times (6/7/20), which came to similar conclusions (FAIR.org, 3/5/20, 7/8/20). The Wall Street Journal neglected to mention any of this in its reporting.
To say that “Bolivians rose up” against Morales is true only in the narrow technical sense that the coup leaders that forced the president’s removal were from Bolivia. In fact, the situation was far more complicated. After a month-long delay in the vote count, the OAS statement and right-wing protests against the president, military leaders forced Morales to step down from office and flee the country. Morales eventually took refuge in Argentina, barred from returning to Bolivia due to terrorism charges that Human Rights Watch describes as “politically motivated.”
Jeanine Áñez, a member of a far-right party that won just 4% during elections, declared herself the interim president, violently repressing those who protested the move (FAIR.org, 12/13/19). The US State Department supported Áñez’s ascension. At the time, the Wall Street Journal (11/11/19) described these incidents as “a democratic breakout.”
Áñez then began to sell off public resources and take out massive international loans on behalf of the nation. Over the next year, her government delayed elections three times (FAIR.org, 8/6/20) until an unprecedented general strike forced the government to agree to an election. Despite all of this, the Journal and other outlets described the coup regime benignly as a “caretaker government.”
The Associated Press (10/18/20) ran a story reprinted by the Washington Post (10/18/20) that had many of the same omissions as the Wall Street Journal piece, describing the coup against Morales as a “resignation” followed by a “self-exile,” and ignoring US support.
The New York Times (10/19/20) published a piece that was more sympathetic to Morales and his party, but still contained several critical omissions. The Times cited MAS’s popular support as well as its success in reducing Bolivia’s poverty. Their piece cited Morales describing his ouster and the violence that followed as a
“coup,” and did not dispute it.
However, in describing his departure from the country, the Times neglected to mention that Morales was under threat of arrest. After reading that Morales merely “fled the country,” a reader may assume that it was more voluntary than it was. The Times also failed to mention the election’s repeated delays and the general strike that finally brought it into existence.
The Washington Post (10/18/20) did a better job capturing the situation, describing how the right wing “drove the left from power” last year. They wrote that Morales’ supporters called it a coup, but placed “coup” in quotation marks and linked to a Post piece (11/11/19) headlined “After Morales Resignation, a Question for Bolivia: Was This the Democratic Will or a Coup?” The Post’s post-election piece reported on the many delays as well as the US support for Áñez.
The next day, the Post (10/20/20) published a piece that said “Bolivia’s democracy…has delivered Morales’s movement back to power,” and noted positively that “Arce’s victory adds to the sense of momentum behind socialist or left-leaning politics elsewhere in the region.”
It may seem surprising that so much reporting on Bolivia still ignores facts that are critical to understanding the situation there, but US media have a long history of reporting on Latin America that does more to please the State Department than to inform readers.
This week on CounterSpin: Earlier this year, the New York Times ran a column helpfully headlined “The Simple Reason the Left Won’t Stop Losing,” in which David Leonhardt claimed that “left-wing movements…have often prioritized purity over victory,” and encouraged progressives to “break with orthodoxy.” One way to do that? By “announcing that fracking and nuclear energy are crucial to fighting climate change.” That fits with corporate media’s approach to fracking—which, as Joshua Cho noted for FAIR.org, prioritizes the supposed “risks” to the electoral prospects of Democrats who call for banning it over the prospects for human civilization’s survival. We’ll talk about why fracking is still bad with Mitch Jones, policy director at Food & Water Action and Food & Water Watch.PlayStop pop out
Also on the show: The fact that no Louisville police officer was even charged with the March 13 murder of Breonna Taylor is only one outrageous aspect of that terrible story that is layered with injustice. Our guest says that our outrage and anger and sorrow for Taylor can be coupled with an understanding of the broader picture of this country’s decades-long “war on drugs” that set the conditions for that night. Matt Sutton is director of media relations at Drug Policy Alliance.PlayStop pop out
Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at coverage of the weaponization of the powers of government.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson interviewed True North Research’s Lisa Graves about what’s behind the Amy Coney Barrett nomination for the October 16, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: As we record on October 14, the Senate is still considering the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Barrett has a record of racism, supporting a kind of “separate but equal” arrangement in a case she saw on the Seventh Circuit; of opposing reproductive rights—she signed a letter lamenting the “barbaric legacy of Roe v. Wade,” and sought to overturn a Supreme Court precedent allowing states to regulate protesters blocking abortion access; and a record of favoring corporations over workers and consumers—76% of the time, according to one analysis. She ruled to help companies avoid paying overtime to contracted workers, to limit enforcement of age discrimination laws, and to restrict the government’s ability to protect against predatory debt collectors and companies that lie to the public.
Her record is why Barrett was selected to be forced on us, but the forcing is the story of the day. It’s important to know what Barrett stands for and would be likely to do on the court. But it’s kind of as if you were being bullied, and encouraged to devote attention to whether the bully is more likely to land an uppercut or a jab—when you would think the point would be to stop the bullying.
There’s a lot of consequential stuff happening right now, but a change on the Supreme Court is high on the list of lasting consequence, and deserves much, much more than a “Republicans vs. Democrats” style of reporting.
Lisa Graves is executive director and editor-in-chief at True North Research. She joins us now by phone from Wisconsin. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Lisa Graves.
Lisa Graves: Thank you so much for having me on. I really appreciate it.
JJ: Like I say, we should look at Barrett’s extremely conservative, anti-worker, anti-woman, anti-queer record; it explains why she’s in the chair. But to start the story now—This person is up for the court and some people like her but others don’t—is just looking at the shadows on the cave wall at this point, and missing the reality of what’s happening.
So let me just start by asking—it sounds rhetorical, but it’s not: Shouldn’t we get beyond thinking of Republicans who blocked Obama’s Supreme Court appointment, they said because of an approaching election, and now are steamrolling Barrett through because of an approaching election, shouldn’t we stop thinking of them as hypocritical? Wouldn’t it, in general, make more sense to see them as goal-oriented?
LG: That’s a great question and, also, I really appreciate the reference to Plato in your question. I think that this situation, it certainly is hypocritical, but I think it’s much worse than that. It’s a very determined power play to pack our Court, in order to try to reverse precedents that many Americans rely upon. And to do so in a very disingenuous way, by claiming this is merely about the rule of law—which it’s not, it’s actually about overturning rules of law—and by claiming that this person that they’ve chosen is merely going to interpret the law rather than make it, when she’s clearly been chosen for the opposite, with a view that she will unmake the law, unmake precedents.
So I really appreciated Senator Whitehouse’s comments yesterday, in which he talks about the fact that the hearing is very much like a puppet stage, in a way, because you can’t see from that hearing who’s pulling the strings behind the scenes, who’s moving the levers. And he tried to shine a bright light on that, in talking about how she was chosen, and the dark money forces that have been behind choosing people like Amy Barrett for the Court, and also then teeing up cases for those judges to rule upon, in favor of many of the same interests that are funding the confirmation process to get these radically reactionary judges put on our court for lifetime terms.
JJ: Yeah, it seems so important to tell the story simply: Rich people are buying the institutions that will serve their interests, even though they are institutions that we think of as serving the public interest. So let me dig you a little into what the senator was talking about, and ask you directly: Who is Leonard Leo?
LG: Leonard Leo was previously the executive vice president for the Federalist Society, which describes itself as a group of conservative and libertarian lawyers and law students. But really, it’s been a major vehicle that’s been used by the Republicans in the selection process for judicial nominees.
And Leonard Leo is someone who was exposed last year by the Washington Post, which did a deep investigation and found that he was at the center of a network of money that amounted to more than $250 million, over the course of a couple years, to block President Obama’s last nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, in 2016, and to push through Neil Gorsuch as well as Brett Kavanaugh for the bench, nominees of President Trump, and also to push through many judges in the federal courts, the lower federal courts, as well as on state supreme courts.
So who is Leonard Leo? He’s someone who has really been orchestrating this campaign to take over our courts, to capture our courts. And in that Post story, they quoted him, in a closed-door room to funders, talking about how through these appointments, we stand at the precipice of what he called a “revival” of what he described as the “structural Constitution.” And he said that the people in that room, no one had seen the type of revolution in the law that was about to unfold, due to these appointments, and this was before Judge Barrett was nominated.
We’ve already seen that revolution underway. It’s the revolution that really destroyed the power of the Voting Rights Act. It’s the decision by the court to unleash this massive dark money into our political system through Citizens United. And it’s also the decision to have the Supreme Court tell lower courts that they cannot intervene in extreme partisan gerrymandering. That’s just the beginning of this revolution that Leonard Leo’s orchestrating.
But for whom, as you asked? Well, we know that in some of these instances, it’s been a single donation from one entity or person, for example, $17 million from one group, passed in almost its entirety to another group, called the Judicial Crisis Network, that then spent money to try to block President Obama’s nominee and push in someone who they thought would rule favorably to them.
So this is a way in which, as you point out, a handful of extremely rich people who are not known to us, not disclosed to the American people, are almost buying seats. They’re having the effect of basically having Leonard Leo choose who Donald Trump chooses from, like being the chef at a restaurant. He decides who Trump can choose from.
And, quite frankly, we know definitively that Leonard Leo began trying to put Amy Barrett on the circuit court, and then ultimately on the Supreme Court list, in the spring of 2017. He’s not doing that because there’s a belief that she’s going to be a fair and independent judge; he’s doing that because there’s a belief that she will decide in their favor on cases that they want overruled. And that includes not just Roe v. Wade and cases on the rights of LGBTQ Americans, but also, as you point out, cases to undermine our ability in a democracy to regulate corporations. And so that’s his agenda, and there’s more about him I’d love to tell you about, if you have a few minutes, but that’s the sort of baseline of who he is.
JJ: Well, absolutely. And let’s just take it from there. I mean, you’re laying it out: If you want to stay in power, even as you represent, in yourselves and in your ideas, a minority of the population, well, checks and balances are not your friends. And yet here are a lot of us, stuck in eighth grade civics class like mugs, like, Uh, I don’t think they’re supposed to be doing that, you know, or Well, we’ll rely on their civility that they won’t do it next time. It’s kind of silly, and folks are cottoning on to the silliness. Forget a knife, it’s like we’re bringing a furrowed brow to a gunfight.
And that’s why it’s no longer, as of recently, outrageous to talk about expanding the Supreme Court, which you have noted is already not a democratic institution, but to talk about expanding it, because it’s unreflective of the country that it’s supposed to serve. Folks are calling it “packing”—and I think media critics have told folks that that’s a prejudicial way to phrase it—but expansion of the Court, is that one of the responses that we could look to?
LG: Well, I think we have to look at all options and, quite frankly, what’s happening with the Supreme Court and this appointment process of these Trump nominees is particularly unseemly. You have a situation where Trump has chosen Leonard Leo to be a so-called volunteer adviser. In the year 2018, when he took a paycut of nearly $100,000 from the Federalist Society to spend time as a free adviser to Trump and to these other outside groups, he suddenly paid off the mortgage on his house in Northern Virginia, and literally on the eve of the confirmation vote of Brett Kavanaugh to become a justice—this was two years ago last week—he closed on a $3 million mansion in Maine across from the yacht club. So suddenly this man, who filed no financial disclosure forms because he’s not a federal employee, but who has this nearly decisive role with this president in helping determine who gets chosen from for the Supreme Court, is flush with cash. Whose cash?
You know, I think there’s a cloud hanging over all of these nominations, but it’s beyond these nominations, what’s been happening to our Court, because you also have people who’ve been chosen on this claim that they’re going to be so-called “originalists” or “textualists.” You know, these are the same people that have rejected an actual textual interpretation of Constitution, as with the Voting Rights Act. To say that we do not need the protections of the Voting Rights Act in the year 2016, basically, or this past decade, is to be myopic. And you can see that same sort of myopic narrowness in the answers that Judge Barrett has been giving before the Senate.
But the reality is that in this country, we had only a very brief period in the ’50s and ’60s when there were actually judges on the Supreme Court who were willing to fully interpret the terms of that document, including things like that if you have a right to counsel, that means you actually have a right to counsel, and that if we have a representative democracy, that that means “one person, one vote,” that people have a say, that all Americans do, not just a few Americans do.
And case after case, the court finally breathed life into our Constitution, which had been really curtailed by some of the same types of judges that Leonard Leo wants to take us back to, a hundred years ago, to roll back 100 years of legal precedents.
And the other part of that story is that, quite frankly, the court, as you point out, is already packed. This Supreme Court in my lifetime, in the past 50 years, has had 15 nominations confirmed that were made by Republican presidents, and only four that were named by Democratic presidents; 15 to four.
JJ: So we’re really talking about repacking.
LG: Well, unpacking it. And, quite frankly, the other thing that’s happened that’s really astonishing is that this court has a jurisdiction that’s almost entirely discretionary. Under the Constitution, there are a very narrow category of cases that the Supreme Court must hear, like disputes between states, which are actually pretty rare. The entire rest of its docket is entirely a matter of choice, if four judges on that Supreme Court decide they want to hear a case—which basically means they think that they have five votes on a nine-person court, a majority, to overturn it.
What’s happened is that these judges, who’ve been mostly Republican appointees, have been picking and choosing which cases they want to change our laws in, including anti-corruption laws, the campaign finance laws that were struck down in Citizens United, including the Voting Rights Act, which was the decision that the court made in the Shelby case, and more. And so you have these judges choosing, specifically, totally in their own discretion, which areas of law they want to move in the direction they want to move it. And that’s a problem.
But also, this court has nearly 9,000 appeals a year, and it only considers and issues decisions in about 80 of them. So it’s handpicking 80 cases, or it’s going to “resolve a conflict” or move the law, and the cases it’s choosing are ones that advance the partisan political agenda of the party of the president who nominated these judges. And they are moving in a regressive way to strip away Americans’ rights, including our rights to regulate corporations, and the rights for us to have agencies that regulate those corporations, as well as the very essential tools in our democracy.
JJ: There’s a gap between their agenda and their framework of what they want to do, and the public understanding of it, and media play a role there. In terms of issues, I would argue with passion that the day that we recognize that abortion is an economic issue, and stop cordoning it off as culture war fodder, is going to be a great day. But I understand the power of saying, “Hey, fight over reproductive rights, because we know that’s hot button, while we quietly cut off every other right you have,” and then media step in and say, “Well, this one’s controversial, and this one we won’t even talk about.” So the way our attention is directed as a public influences whether we can actually see clearly that agenda that you’re discussing.
LG: That’s exactly right. It’s misdirection; it’s sort of a sleight of hand. And, in fact, the abortion issue is very fundamentally an economic issue, and it’s also just a human autonomy issue, the ability to determine your own destiny by having control of your body. But what’s happened, as you point out, is that this issue is described in the press as a sort of social or cultural war, and the focus on that has allowed them, almost like the camel’s nose under the tent—
LG: —to move through an agenda that then the press largely is not reporting on, or not reporting on it for what it is.
And you can see what it is, in part because Charles Koch, one of the richest men in the world, the billionaire who leads Koch Industries, who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money, and money of his fellow billionaires, to try to distort our democracy and our elections, is a big player in this fight over the Supreme Court and who gets on the court. He claims to be pro-choice, but it doesn’t matter, because his real agenda is about stripping our power in our democracy to control corporations, to have controls over them.
As Nancy MacLean wrote about in her book Democracy in Chains, when you hear them talk about “limited government” or “limited constitutional government,” that’s a fancy way of saying “limited democracy.” It means removing from “We the People” the power to make decisions over things like corruption in our elections and how to regulate it, as well as things like how we’re going to mitigate climate change, and whether this court will issue any rulings allowing the federal government to have any jurisdiction over carbon under the types of arguments that Charles Koch has been funding.
And so, it’s a true crisis in our democracy, and our economy. And the debate has been largely twisted into this narrow version of a culture war, when it’s actually about a much broader revolution, a regressive revival—a “revival,” in the words of Leonard Leo—to roll back a century of precedents to before the New Deal, basically, potentially to roll back our worker rights, civil rights and so much more.
JJ: You know, I thought I’d need to bring it back to this. I don’t think I do, I’ll say it anyway. But I would say that sometimes the conversation, even when it’s righteous, can get over-abstract. We get riled up about the process, or even about “democracy,” but it’s not a word on a page that’s being endangered here; democracy isn’t going to die of Covid, or of an unsafe abortion, or of workplace hazards, or of a nursing home malfeasance where they couldn’t have a class action suit. That’s going to be human beings.
I just wish media would take it out of, Well, if you’re a Democrat, you might think…. Like the New York Times’ perfectly good piece, but it said, you know, this ramming through of this confirmation is deepening anger on the left. And I think, if we can’t take it out of that partisan frame, we’re really misunderstanding the importance, the deep importance, of the moment that we’re living through.
LG: I agree with you, and your description is so powerful and evocative. In my work, I’ve seen some of these groups that are funded by Charles Koch push measures, for example, to say that you can’t get emotional damages—pain and suffering damages—except for as a multiplier of your compensatory damages, and apply that rule to nursing homes. People who do not have lost wages, who do not have compensatory damages, basically saying that you can only recover limited pain and suffering, based on how much money you make.
And you can see that in other ways in the Supreme Court, where this court has basically elevated the rights of corporations over the rights of ordinary human beings, including asserting a religious right of corporations that trumps the actual rights of ordinary human beings. In some of these cases about the Affordable Care Act, it’s about saying that a corporation has some sort of religious belief that trumps a woman’s right to access birth control, an IUD; in other cases about the ACA, it’s about a very narrow view, or an expansive view in some ways, of corporate rights over an individual’s right to access just the basics of affordable healthcare to save their lives.
And so these are all issues about our rights and our lives as human beings. And, increasingly, we have a court that is seeing those issues in a very narrow way for humans, but a very expansive way for corporations, which really are artificial creatures that we, as human beings, have the right to control. And so the stakes are high and, as you point out, unfortunately, the media often talk about these things in a very abstract way, and do not talk about the real-world consequences for ordinary people, and there are very huge real-world consequences for ordinary people.
But I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that seeing this unfold right now will help awaken people even more to the need for substantial reforms to protect the rights of human beings in this country, and to understand the humanity that our law ought to reflect, versus this very narrow, corporatist view of our country.
JJ: Well, I’m hopeful right along with you.
We’ve been speaking with Lisa Graves. She’s executive director and editor-in-chief at True North Research. They’re online at TrueNorthResearch.org. Lisa Graves, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
LG: Oh, thank you so much. It’s a joy to hear your voice and your analysis, and really be in conversation with you.
The coronavirus pandemic has greatly increased wealth inequality in the United States, a key issue in the upcoming presidential election. Polls are currently looking good for the Democrats, many of whom have been murmuring about—or even demanding—a new wealth tax. Recent surveys show the idea is overwhelmingly popular with the electorate, with voters in 11 polled states more than three times as likely to support than oppose a candidate backing a tax on the assets of the wealthy.
America’s super-rich (who have seen their fortunes surge since the beginning of lockdown) are getting nervous. Last week CNBC (10/14/20) reported that wealthy families are desperately trying to change ownership status of their assets — passing them down to their rich kids — before year’s end, in case of sweeping Biden tax reforms that could lose them millions.
And corporate media—whose owners are overwhelmingly from the class that would be paying a wealth tax—are returning to throw cold water on the idea, after successfully sidelining the candidates who most enthusiastically promoted taxing the wealthy during the Democratic primaries this year.Round One
The primaries put the notion of a wealth tax on the political table, with a number of high-profile candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, proposing one. While the idea was popular with the public (polls show it was strongly supported, with even half of Republican voters backing it), it was not popular with corporate media pundits, who rejected it as a “bad,” “foolhardy” (CNN, 2/17/19) or “terrible” idea (Washington Examiner, 2/15/20), “bad for workers” (Reason, 1/28/20) and an “administrative nightmare” (Time, 1/30/19).
A CNN opinion piece (11/27/19) warned that it would be just plain “wrong” to claim that a wealth tax is a serious solution, based as it is on “voodoo incantations,” and instead suggested a tax cut to address inequality. Fox News (12/31/19) went even further, attacking the idea as a misguided “fantasy,” before presenting its own dream of any wealth tax being found unconstitutional (which, to be fair, the current Supreme Court might well do—particularly with the addition of Amy Coney Barrett).
But at least the pool of interchangeable think tankers and rent-a-pundits pretended to believe inequality is a real problem that they want to fix. Before the great crash of 2008, corporate media were cheerleaders of inequality, the standard line being that it is nothing to worry about, or even a good thing for society (Extra!, 9–10/07).
The press have now moved one step along, claiming they really do want to solve the inequality issue, only directly addressing it through redistribution won’t work. Thus a CNN op-ed (11/19/19) argued: “Rising income inequality is indeed a problem for economic growth. But taxing wealth could exacerbate the problem, not fix it.” The authors, two staffers at the right-wing Illinois Policy Institute, claimed that seizing assets from “the world’s best allocators of capital” would stifle innovation and inevitably hurt workers.
There has been a limited amount of positive coverage of any potential wealth tax. The New York Times (4/21/20), for instance, claimed a one-off Covid-19 solidarity assessment on the wealthy would “help prove that we are all in this together.” But this was a break from the normal negativity that claimed it would be too hard to implement (New York Times, 11/15/19) or simply unconstitutional and dishonest (New York Times, 1/24/20).Round Two
Joe Biden is not proposing any specific wealth tax. The former vice president even began his campaign explicitly reassuring wealthy donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” under his presidency. “I need you very badly,” he told them. Yet even with Sanders and Warren defeated, America’s rich are worrying that a President Biden would be swayed by progressive forces in his party.
As a result, the concept has again become a talking point for the media in recent weeks. And like last time, the tone is overwhelmingly hostile. Thus, a wealth tax simply “won’t work” (Daily Telegraph, 10/6/20), creates “false expectations” (Toronto Sun, 9/22/20) or might cost more to administer than it would bring in (Spectator, 10/8/20). “A wealth tax is not a solution for income inequality,” insists Forbes (9/29/20), a magazine most noted for its glorification of billionaires, claiming it is a “policy driven by spite” against the rich, and would somehow “make everyone—rich and poor—worse off.”
Perhaps CNBC (10/6/20) went with the most galaxy-brained line of attack. Biden’s plans categorize anyone in the top 1.8% of income (making $400,000+ annually) as “wealthy.” But those poor souls earning just $400,000 per year “aren’t exactly living large,” CNBC insisted, finding “experts” willing to claim that that sort of annual income only provided a “relatively middle-class lifestyle” in much of the country. Why, they might only be able to afford three “modest” family vacations per year.
CNBC (9/23/20) also recently sat down with JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, uncritically parroting his line that any wealth tax would be “extremely complicated” and “almost impossible,” an interview that was picked up and amplified across the media (e.g., The Hill, 9/23/20; New York Post, 9/23/20; MSN, 9/23/20; Forbes, 9/23/20). Wow, who would have thought that a billionaire investment banker would oppose a wealth tax! Under even a modest tax hike like Warren’s, Dimon would stand to lose out on tens of millions of dollars annually. Yet this massive, unmissable conflict of interest was not even presented as a problem in these articles, let alone seen as a reason to dismiss his opinion. Rather, he was presented as a neutral expert offering legitimate criticism, rather than a biased actor with a huge amount of skin in the game. In much the same way as reporting that billionaires don’t like socialism is treated as front-page news (FAIR.org, 2/3/20), the super-wealthy being against wealth taxes is apparently also newsworthy.
Ultimately, a wealth tax as modest as some Democrats are proposing would affect precious few Americans, but still generate trillions of dollars of revenue from people who have largely been increasing their fortunes throughout the pandemic. That so much of the media are so dead set against the idea suggests whose interests they really serve.
In last week’s vice presidential debate between Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence, Harris reiterated Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s rejection of a fracking ban, despite her earlier call for one when she was a presidential candidate (CBS News, 10/7/20):
“I will repeat, and the American people know, that Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact,” Harris said.
Harris emphasized that Biden “believes” in science; claimed that he “understands that the West Coast of our country is burning” and “sees what is happening on the Gulf states, which are being battered by storms”; and that he has “seen and talked with the farmers in Iowa, whose entire crops have been destroyed because of floods.”
One can —only wonder whether Biden or Harris truly “believe” in science when they pretend a fracking ban and a host of other strong climate measures are not urgent necessities required immediately. In 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced that carbon pollution needed to be cut by 45% by 2030 in order to keep the planet below the critical 1.5°C warming threshold to prevent irreversible planetary devastation (Guardian, 10/8/18). As time goes on, more reports inform us that pollution and the climate crisis are actually even worse than we thought (e.g., Vox, 8/12/20; New York Times, 10/23/19, 12/4/19).
Yet whenever there are discussions about enacting a national fracking ban, corporate media seem to prioritize the supposed short-term potential “risks” to Democrats’ electoral prospects, or potential economic downturns, over the long-term prospects for human civilization’s survival.
When there was discussion of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s bill for a nationwide fracking ban earlier this year, the New York Times’ “In Crucial Pennsylvania, Democrats Worry a Fracking Ban Could Sink Them” (1/27/20) cited a few state Democratic politicians claiming that any presidential candidate who supports a national fracking ban would risk losing Pennsylvania in the general election. The Times trivialized the issue by reducing it to a “political bet,” with the highest stakes being the mere loss of a Democratic presidency, as opposed to dooming humanity to climate apartheid (FAIR.org, 7/30/19) and ultimately losing human life as we know it to natural disasters (FAIR.org, 6/11/19, 9/5/19, 1/3/20, 9/18/20). The Times’ Lisa Friedman and Shane Goldmacher wrote:
A pledge to ban all hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, could jeopardize any presidential candidate’s chances of winning this most critical of battleground states — and thus the presidency itself… In some ways, the fracking ban is indicative of the entire political bet undergirding the candidacies of Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren that the 2020 campaign will not be won by appeals to the narrow interests of traditional swing voters but through the mass mobilization of an energized electorate.
NPR’s “Proposals to Ban Fracking Could Hurt Democrats in Key States” (2/11/20) likewise made dubious pronouncements on the opinions of swing-state voters the focal point of the story, as opposed to what actions are required to resolve the climate crisis:
Climate change is a top issue in the Democratic presidential primaries and some candidates have taken relatively aggressive policy stands, including vows to ban hydraulic fracturing. But some Democrats worry that could push moderate voters in key swing states to reelect President Trump next November… In a swing state like Pennsylvania, a major gas producer, fracking and energy are key issues. Even a small segment of voters swayed one way or another could change the election.
After the primaries, it’s clear that corporate media believe it’s their duty to function as Biden’s de facto campaign manager by explaining to voters what Biden’s position on a fracking ban actually is, as well as advising Biden to reject a fracking ban because, they claim, that would be an electoral disaster. Soon after the debate, Quartz (10/8/20) explained that Biden and Harris don’t support a fracking ban, because it “tempts political suicide in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio where fossil fuels still rule.” Why an electoral disaster ought to be prioritized over civilizational disaster is never explained.
The Los Angeles Times’ headline “Joe Biden’s Pennsylvania Hurdle: Voters Who Fear a California-Style Energy Plan” (9/23/20) presented swing voters as an obstacle to Biden’s electoral ambitions, as opposed to presenting Biden as an obstacle to stronger environmental protection and meaningful climate action for the country. The LA Times described Biden’s opposition to a fracking ban as a “nuanced position,” and characterized Biden’s climate plans as “robust,” despite his opposition to climate action on the scale of a Green New Deal. Instead of advising Biden to go after younger voters who care more about climate action, the LA Times advised Biden to go after swing voters who don’t care as much:
Television commentary about the presidential race may focus on the future of the Supreme Court and other national questions, but in the states that will actually decide the election, local issues often matter more. In this corner of America, that means fracking. Voters whose economic well-being depends on extracting natural gas are extremely skeptical of any politician who would inhibit it.… The key for Biden, party strategists believe, is to maintain a carefully balanced approach, even if that frustrates activists on both sides.
However, as journalist David Sirota (Daily Poster, 10/8/20) pointed out, this flimsy basis for rejecting a fracking ban isn’t even true:
There’s just one problem with that storyline: It isn’t substantiated by empirical data. Indeed, the idea that a fracking ban is political poison in Pennsylvania is a fantastical tale fabricated by a national press corps that refuses to let public opinion data get in the way of fossil fuel propaganda and a manufactured narrative.
A January poll of Pennsylvania voters, from Franklin and Marshall University, found that more voters (49%) believe that the environmental risks of fracking outweigh the economic benefits than the reverse (38%), and that more registered voters support a fracking ban (48%) than oppose it (39%). A local CBS report (1/30/20) noted Franklin and Marshall University’s findings in its headline, showing that “Pennsylvanians Favor Statewide Ban on Fracking.” A later CBS/YouGov poll in August found 52% of Pennsylvania voters supporting a fracking ban. A slight majority in support of a fracking ban does not make it a political ace, but neither is it “political suicide.”
Environmental activist Bill McKibben (New Yorker, 10/9/19) pointed out that US claims to have reduced carbon emissions during the past 20 years have mainly been accomplished by replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas-fired power plants. While burning gas produces less carbon dioxide than coal, carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas. The second most important contributor is methane, which can warm the planet more than 80 times as much as the same amount of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
“Fracking,” more formally known as “hydraulic fracturing,” is a method of extracting natural gas (as well as oil) from the ground with a horizontal drilling process that pumps water, sand and chemicals into the ground to fracture rocks that release fossil fuels. And in the process of fracking, lots of methane leaks out at every stage. The US strategy of reducing carbon emissions without reducing the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted is a form of literal gaslighting that encourages other countries to do the same.
The New York Times (11/8/19, 12/16/19) has published a series of excellent investigative reports that used infrared video gear and satellite measurements to capture the invisible methane emissions at “super emitter” fracking sites, where large-scale methane leaks are responsible for a disproportionately high share of methane emissions. The Times (6/21/18, 2/19/20) has also reported on findings showing that the US oil and gas industry is responsible for a much larger proportion of methane emissions than the US government previously thought, with oil and gas production in general being more responsible for soaring methane levels than natural sources, like the ocean bed and mud volcanoes.
For example, a 2017 study of the Barnett Shale Basin in Texas found that super emitters made up 1% of sites, but were responsible for nearly half of all methane emissions, while Robert Howarth, an earth system scientist at Cornell University, estimated that North American gas production is responsible for a third of the global increase in methane emissions in the past decade. So when US media outlets issue doomsday warnings of mass unemployment from a fracking ban (e.g., CNN, 2/7/20; The Hill, 2/27/20), or pedantic factchecks (e.g., USA Today, 6/19/20; AP, 7/31/20) criticizing Trump for falsely accusing Biden of supporting a fracking ban—when he merely supports banning new oil and gas permits on federal land (which reportedly accounts for less than 10% of US oil and gas production)–it comes across as lethally obtuse.
FAIR (10/16/19) has pointed out how corporate media cheerleading of the “Shale Revolution” helped lead the US to become the world’s largest oil and gas producer during the Obama years; when they bemoaned the loss of fossil fuel emissions during the Covid pandemic (FAIR.org, 4/29/20), corporate journalists seemed more concerned with the profits of advertisers than with the survival of human civilization. Running excuses for presidential candidates in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry is only more evidence of the same.
Environmental and labor activists, economists and scientists have for years discussed the need for a full employment program based on green jobs to serve as a just transition for workers who would be displaced by a fracking ban; there is no reason for a fracking ban to be “political suicide” unless corporate journalists are determined to equate that with the death of the fossil fuel industry.
Janine Jackson interviewed Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection’s Mary McCord about unlawful militias for the October 9, 2020, episode of CounterSpin–recorded before news was in about an alleged attempt by private paramilitaries to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: A major worry, in an electoral season that has enough of them, is the prospect of people in military garb, and armed with lethal weapons, showing up at polling stations, marching around and, minimally, staring menacingly at people. Some of those would be part of self-declared “militias,” a term we’ve heard thrown around, but news reporting on militia intervention in the election, for example, reads a bit like that of an oncoming storm cloud: It’s not good, but what are you going to do?
The thing is, there are laws, and we can have a public conversation around the fact that people in camo with guns are showing up at social justice protests and threatening people, claiming they have a constitutional right to do so.
Addressing a concern starts with understanding it, and that’s what our guest does. Mary McCord is legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, and a visiting law professor at Georgetown University. She joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Mary McCord.
Mary McCord: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
JJ: Let’s start, I guess, with some definition. What defines a militia, and what makes a militia unlawful?
MMC: Right. Well, it’s a good question, because oftentimes these unauthorized armed groups of individuals will point to the Constitution’s use of the word “militia” as their authority to exist. But “militia,” as used in both federal and state law, simply refers to all able-bodied residents between certain ages—it’s usually like 17 to 45, or some states, 17 to 55—who are available to be called forth by the government in defense of the state. So in the case of the US Constitution, Congress has that authority to call them forth through statutory enactments, and then they would report up to the president, and in the states, it’s the governor who has the authority to call them forth.
But there is no authority under federal or state law for groups of armed individuals to sort of self-activate as a militia and undertake what are typically law enforcement functions, or even functions of actual state-sponsored militias. So the only lawful militia is the militia that’s been called forth by the state; for example, the state National Guards, those are what the Constitution refers to as the state militias. Those are official military organizations that report up through the governor, or the governor’s deputized person. So there’s no authority for this sort of self-deployment.
JJ: I wonder if we could talk a little bit about DC v. Heller, because the Second Amendment is this kind of zombie idea; it’s this idea that just won’t let go, the invocation of it. And even news media present it as kind of, “Well, some people interpret the Second Amendment as giving them the right to organize and do this,” but the law actually did speak on this, yeah?
MMC: Yes. In fact, the Supreme Court has been very clear about this. There’s a lot of gray area in the Second Amendment; this is not one of those gray areas.
So I’ll get to Heller in a minute, but Heller actually reiterated an opinion that the Supreme Court issued in 1886. In that case, it actually upheld a state statute, which exists on the books of 29 states even to this day, a state statute that bars bodies of men from associating together as a military unit, or parading or drilling with firearms in public. Now, mind you, this dates to post–Civil War, that’s when these statutes were passed, and you can imagine the last thing that states wanted to have to reckon with were rogue militias that might threaten their own authority.
So in that case in 1886, the Supreme Court thought it without question that states must be able to ban paramilitary organizations in order to preserve peace and good order. 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court decided, for the first time, that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms for individual self-defense, and it actually pointedly contrasted that right with things that are not protected, and it restated its decision from 1886 that the Second Amendment does not prevent states from prohibiting paramilitary organizations; and, in fact, all states do.
JJ: And we’re gonna get to that, to that state-by-state guide that I know that ICAP has just put out. But the law is just words on a page until it’s activated, and the group that you work with, the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University, activated the law in the wake of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, in which, listeners will know, James Fields drove his car into people who showed up to oppose this tiki torch, Nazi-evoking march, and Heather Heyer was killed, and many were injured. What did you see in that that suggested a response that you could use with existing legal and policy tools, and what came out of that?
MMC: Yeah, that’s where this sort of strange niche expertise has developed in anti-militia law; that’s really where it first started. So in the immediate aftermath of that really horrendous event, a lot of commentators were a little bit shrugging and saying, “Well, what can be done? There’s a First Amendment right to engage in free speech and assembly, and there’s a Second Amendment right to bear firearms, and Virginia is an open-carry state.” And it was kind of like, “Wow, what can be done?”
But as lawyers, and particularly those—I’d spent most of my career at the Department of Justice, until early 2017—myself and my colleagues, we thought, “Well, the First Amendment does not protect violence, and it doesn’t protect incitement to imminent violence. And the Second Amendment, thanks to the decision in Heller, we know protects an individual right to bear arms for self-defense, but it doesn’t allow groups to organize together as private armies.”
And so that’s what led us to the state anti–paramilitary activity laws in Virginia, which is where the “Unite the Right” rally took place, and that’s what also eventually led us to learn that all 50 states include provisions, either in their state constitutions or in state statutes, that bar private, unauthorized paramilitary activity. And so we relied on those—in Virginia, it’s a constitutional provision as well as a criminal statute, and also an additional criminal statute that bars individuals from falsely assuming the functions of law enforcement, as we see some of these militias do—so we relied on all of those laws to seek a court order to prohibit these groups from returning in the future and engaging in that kind of armed, coordinated use of force, or projection of the ability to use force.
We weren’t seeking damages for injuries in the past; there’s other lawsuits doing this. This was purely forward-looking relief. And we represented the city of Charlottesville, and local businesses and local residential associations who were concerned that the white nationalists were going to return with their heavy militarization, and cause similar violence in the future.
And that case was successful; we won on all of our theories against a motion to dismiss the case, and then after that, actually, it resolved before trial, because every one of the 23 different individuals and organizations who were defendants ended up agreeing, by consent decree, to court orders that would prohibit them, permanently, from returning to Charlottesville as part of units of two or more people, acting in concert, with weapons, during any rally protest, demonstration or march.
And so that work is what caused us to do, then, ultimately a 50-state catalogue of the laws that prohibit private paramilitary activity; that’s what’s led us to actually partner up with the district attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in another, similar case against an unlawful militia there.
And it’s what led us to do the 50 fact sheets that we’ve recently published, a separate one for every state, to help people know what to do if they see groups of armed individuals around polling places. And that’s not just so that voters will know, that that can be intimidating, and that it’s illegal, but it’s also so election officials will know, and so local law enforcement will know, and state elected officials will know, and state attorney generals and secretaries of state — because there’s been such a mythology about the Second Amendment, that so many people actually believe it protects this activity, and it does not. So part of this was just to make sure to get that word out there to correct the record: This is not constitutionally protected.
JJ: And I’ll just add, in looking through your recent writings, I see the phrase “sit idly by” recur as an indication that that’s not what we need to do; we don’t need to just let this happen; there are things that folks can actively do to push back against the encroachment of these unlawful militias in our communities, yeah?
MMC: That’s right. In fact, that phrase is from the circuit court’s opinion in our Charlottesville case, that the state and the city should not have to sit idly by and allow this to happen. And in fact, since we put out these fact sheets in the last week, we’ve had engagement with state and local officials at multiple different levels from multiple different states, and some are starting to make strong statements.
The district attorney in Philadelphia, for example, held a press conference just recently with election officials, as well as state and local elected officials, and he invited me to be part of that as well, to explain to the voters that they intend to take voter intimidation laws seriously, and the anti-militia laws seriously, and they will be enforced, so that every voter in Philadelphia can feel safe in going to the election, that the district attorney’s office and other election officials are monitoring for this, and won’t allow it to happen.
And our hope is that more officials will make similarly strong statements. It should be a completely nonpartisan issue, because it’s not to anyone’s benefit to intimidate voters. It’s not to anyone’s benefit to have armed, non-publicly accountable individuals, private armies, on the streets. And so, again, we put this out there, informational, in a nonpartisan way, in the hope to just be able to give people a chance to prepare for things that could be coming, but that we hope will not be.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with law professor Mary McCord, legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University. Mary McCord, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
MMC: Thank you.
This week on CounterSpin: Despite the symbolism of her White House launch party being a superspreader event, the story of Amy Coney Barrett, the conservative judge currently looking like being foisted on the Supreme Court, actually begins a while back. Understanding how we got to this place—where a person who uses the term “sexual preference” may have a hand in interpreting laws governing all of our lives—requires looking behind the curtain of the “partisan tug of war” narrative corporate media present every day, to see how a powerful minority in this country manages to use public institutions to do unpopular things. We’ll get the story behind Amy Coney Barrett from Lisa Graves, editor-in-chief and executive director at True North Research.PlayStop pop out
Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at Susan Page’s moderation excuses, NBC‘s reward to Trump for pulling out of the debates, and media yawning at revelations that the child separation policy was deliberate.PlayStop pop out