Category Archives: Policy

Pile-On Patriots

Pile-On Patriots

SF Examiner

Nov. 2, 2001

Benjamin Franklin once observed that “They that can give up essential liberty in order to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither safety or liberty.” Outdated sentiment for asimpler era? Or wise counsel in a time of crisis when “pile-on patriotism” is all the rage.

Listening to the Republicans these days (the only voice in town since the Democrats voluntarily disbanded shortly after Sept. 11) it seems that if we don’t toss out the Bill of Rights, rubber stamp right-wing judges, drill the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, cut taxes for the wealthy, and rev up a $200 billion weapon system, we might as well join Osama bin Ladin in one of those caves.

What passes for politics in this country over the past month brings to mind an infamous dictum from an earlier war: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Consider the collateral damage to date.

* Anti-terror legislation, or the “Patriot Act” (old Ben would have appreciated the irony of that moniker) will put the CIA and the National Security Agency back into the business of domestic spying; allow covert searches with only minimal judicial oversight; and expand the definition of “terrorism” so broadly that it could easily include legal political protests. “This bill goes light years beyond what is necessary to combat terrorism,” Laura Ashley, director of the ACLU’s Washington office told the Nation magazine.

The FBI has already unleashed its “Carnivore” software on the Internet, which means it, and 39 other federal agencies, will know where you web surf, what you buy there, and what’s in your email. None of this, mind you, would have had the slightest deterrence on the Sept. 11 events, as Attorney General John Ashcroft admitted to the House Judiciary Committee.

*Republicans are charging Democrats with a lack of patriotism for not immediately confirming White House judicial nominees. Orrin Hatch, ranking Senate Judiciary Committee Republican, said, “Anyone who is interested in helping the president in the war on terrorism should support the president’s judicial nominees.” Given that the Senate has already decided to junk the Bill of Rights, what the hell, why not get rid of “advise and consent” as well?

*Interior Secretary Gale Norton says that Afghan war requires drilling in Alaska. “We have always said that national security is part of the reason we need to get the energy program in place” she told the Washington Times. What Norton is not taking questions on these days is how her office cooked figures collected by the US Fish and Wildlife Services indicating that the drilling would have a major impact on caribou. The study showed a 19 percent drop off in caribou births in developed areas of the wildlife area, so the Secretary and her advisors replaced it with one sponsored by British Petroleum. Well, “cooked” is a kind of benign term for what Norton did: she lied.

*House Republicans wrapped themselves in the flag and rammed through a $100 billion “economic stimulus package” of tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy. When the Democrats suggested that maybe the “stimulus” should be aimed at the hundreds of thousands of laid off workers, Texas Republican Dick Armey said that such aid would be “contrary to the American spirit.” Armey had no such problem in dishing out tax cuts of $1.4 billion to IBM, $800 million to General Motors, and $670 million to General Electric. Funny the way that “spirit” stuff works.

*For the past month Boeing and Lockheed Martin have trotted out mom and apple pie in their competition to build the $200 billion Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), dropping $100,000 on full page ads in the Washington Post and New York Times. Last week Lockheed Martin won the dash for the trough, landing the biggest weapon system in history. Do we need the JSF? Nope. U.S. F-14s, F-15s, F-16, and F-18s are still the big dogs on the block, with no competition in sight. But patriotism demands sacrifice. And not to worry yourself about Boeing. It gets to build the $100 billion Raptor fighter. No losers in this game.

The arms corporations are not alone in jumping on the patriotism pile. General Motors launched its “Keep America Rolling” ads in the wake of Sept. 11, with a voice-over intoning “The American dream. We refuse to let anyone take it away. Believe in the dream. Believe in each other.” And right alongside the auto giant are Bloomingdales, Anheuser-Busch, and a New York Stock Exchange ad featuring “My Country,’Tis of Thee.”

Congress may be reluctant to help out laid off workers, but it doesn’t have a problem bailing out the airline industry to the tune of $15 billion, and it’s already preparing legislation to underwrite the insurance industry by covering 80 percent of the first $20 billion in losses and 90 percent of anything above $20 billion.

And standing in the wings are the media, claiming that its losses should be covered by removing regulations that block mergers. Given that the number of corporations controlling the media has shrunk from 50 in 1984 to less than 10 today, it is not real clear what “regulations” the industry has in mind. But again, if the Bill of Rights, advise and consent, and plain common sense is out of style, why not? How about simplifying matters and just hand over everything to Time Warner-AOL?

What we have had in this country since Sept. 11 is a one party state, and it’s a party that doesn’t have the slightest compunction about using patriotism to carry out an agenda that the majority of people in this country would reject if they had a chance.

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Nursing the Pinion

Nursing the Pinion

SF Examiner

5-7-2002

There are a lot of fancy phrases for saying that history has a bad habit of coming back to haunt one, particularly when you don’t pay attention to its lessons, or re-write it because its inconvenient: Being hoist on one’s own petard; nursing the pinion that impels the steel; what goes around, comes around. But in the end they all mean the same thing: This was a bad idea the first time, and really bad the second.

But there was Vice-President Dick Cheney on television last week talking about how “You’ve got to deal with some bad guys” in the fight against terrorism. And just in case you thought the Bush Administration was irony challenged, he delivered those words on Oliver North’s talk show. North, as you recall, was point man for the Reagan Administration’s covert operations in Nicaragua, where we did indeed deal with some “bad guys.”

Don’t take my word for it. Read who North and his colleagues (including Mr. Cheney) were bedding down with in the U.S.’s effort to overthrow the Sandinista government. In 1987, Edgar Chamorro, a leading member of the Directorate of the Nicaraguan Democratic Front, the so-called “Contras”, told the New York Times:

“During my four years as a ‘Contra’ Director, it was premeditated policy to terrorize civilian noncombatants to prevent them from cooperating with the government. Hundreds of civilian murders, mutilations, tortures and rapes were committed in pursuit of this policy, of which the ‘contra’ leaders and their CIA superiors were well aware.”

We also dealt with a lot of “bad guys” when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan back in 1979. The Reagan Administration, seeing an opportunity to score points in the Cold War, poured money, arms and resources into firing up a jihad. While the cover story was supporting democracy, as soon as the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the CIA dropped Afghanistan like a hot potato. In the words of Milt Bearden, CIA Station Chief in Islamabad, “We got the hell out of there.” What Afghanistan got was the Taliban, and what the world got was people we recruited and trained, like Osama bin Ladin, our government’s poster boy for terrorism.

Bearden made those remarks in last month’s massive New York Times series on terrorism, titled “Holy Warriors.” The pieces were suitable chilling, spotlighting bin Ladin as a sort of super-terrorist, attributing things to him that ranged from likely to silly. At one point the articles accursed bin Ladin of master minding the 1993 “ambush” that killed 18 American soldiers in Somalia. For a minute by minute analysis of that debacle I suggest a pager turner called “Black Hawk Down.” Suffice it to say that the operation was in not an “ambush,” but the attempted kidnapping of the Somalian leader Mohammad Adid by a gung-ho American commander (approved by then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell) that went tragically wrong for everyone involved. Besides the young U.S. Rangers, at least 500 Somalians died, and possibly as many as 1,000. Osama bin Ladin’s “tie” to the event was that a few Somalians had served in Afghanistan, a handful with bin Ladin’s organization, Al Qaeda.

The series linked virtually every terrorist attack since 1991 to bin Ladin and his organization. This is not only bad history, but a wrongheaded way of looking at how to confront the very real dangers of terrorism, ignoring the role that the U.S. played in nursing the pinion. The terrorism the Times writes about is not the result of some crazed mastermind or Islam as a religion. In almost every case, it is the consequence of people driven to the edge by grinding poverty, the horrors of war, or a government in which they have no voice. Knock off Osama bin Ladin, and it will have virtually no effect on the kind of terrorism the Times is going on about.

Focusing on the likes of bin Ladin diverts people’s attention from what the U.S. is up to in Colombia, which is exactly the same thing we were up to in Nicaragua, only it’s 2001, not 1987. Our “bad boys” this time around go by the name of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the right-wing “paramilitaries” allied with the Colombian Army in its war with two leftist guerilla groups. These are really bad guys. They walked into the town of Hato Nuevo Jan. 28 and murdered 10 people. A week earlier they hacked 26 villagers to death in Chengue.

As in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, the U.S. has decided to throw in with the Colombian Army and the paramilitaries in the name of “national security,” in this case suppressing the production of cocaine and heroin. Actually, 200 million barrels of untapped oil has more to do with it, but that is another column. While the Clinton and Bush administrations deny any links between the government forces and the paramilitaries, Human Rights Watch recently charged there is “abundant, detailed and continuing evidence of direct collaboration between the military and paramilitary groups; that many Army officers implicated in death squad killings remain on active duty; and that the Army will not serve arrest warrants on paramilitaries involved in murder. Indeed, the leader of the paramilitaries, Carlos Castano, has collected 22 such warrants. According to human rights organizations, 85 percent of the killings in Colombia are carried out by the paramilitaries.

“Bad guys,” but our bad guys, according to Cheney.

So once again, the U.S. is involved in recruiting, training and supporting terrorism. Once again, in the interests of “national security”, we will find ourselves allied with murderers, rapists and torturers. Once again we have nursed that tiny pinion gear to turn a great wheel. And once again, our media has so thoroughly re-written history, that most people will never know what we are brewing up in Colombia.

Conn Hallinan

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Challenging A Unipolar World

Challenging A Unipolar World

Conn Hallinan

Foreign policy In Focus

1-14-2008

One of the more interesting phenomena to emerge from the U.S. debacle in Iraq is the demise of the uni-polar world that rose from the ashes of the Cold War. A short decade ago the U.S. was the most powerful political, economic and military force on the planet. Today its army is straining under the weight of an unpopular occupation, its economy is careening toward recession, and the only “allies” we can absolutely depend on in the United Nations are Israel, Palau, and the Marshall Islands.

Rather than the “American Century” the Bush Administration neo-conservatives predicted, it is increasingly a world where regional alliances and trade associations in Europe and South America have risen to challenge Washington’s once undisputed domination.

When Argentina thumbed its nose at the U.S.-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund, it had the powerful Mercosur trade association to back it up. When the U.S. tried to muscle Europe into ending agricultural subsidies (while keeping its own) the European Union refused to back down.

And now India, China and Russia are drifting toward a partnership—alliance is too strong a word— that could transform global relations and shift the power axis from Washington to New Delhi, Beijing, and Moscow.

It is a consortium of convenience, as the interests of the three countries hardly coincide on all things.

In security matters, for instance, the Chinese look east toward Taiwan, the Indians north to Pakistan, and the Russians west at an encroaching North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). There are still tensions between China and India over their 1962 border war, and bad feelings between Russia and China go all the way back to the Vietnam War.

But growing trade, security issues, and an almost insatiable hunger for energy has brought the three together in what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls a “trilateral” relationship.

The initial glue was a common interest in the gas and oil supplies of Central Asia.

In 2001, China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to challenge U.S. moves to corner Central Asia’s gas and oil reserves and to counter the growing presence of NATO in the Pacific Basin. SCO has since added India and given observer status to Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Afghanistan.

Access to energy is almost an existential issue for China and India. China imports half its oil, and energy shortages could derail the highflying Chinese economy. India imports 70 percent of its oil, and, unlike China, it has no strategic reserves.

Both nations have made energy a foreign policy cornerstone. China is pumping billions of dollars into developing Caspian Sea oil and gas fields and building pipelines, while India is busy negotiating a pipeline deal with Iran.

The India-Iran deal has come under considerable pressure from Washington. Nicholas Burns, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, told the Financial Times that Washington hoped “very much that India will not conclude any long-term oil and gas agreements with Iran.”

However, Indian Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram says, “We should do it—Iran has the gas and we need the gas.” India is estimated to have up to $40 billion in gas and oil interests in Iran, and the pipeline is projected to cost $10 billion.

To much unhappiness in Washington, China just inked a $2 billion deal to develop Iran’s Yadavaran gas and oil field.

The International Energy Agency predicts that energy needs will be 50 percent higher in 2030 than they are today, and that developing countries will soak up 74 percent of that rise. China and India will account for 45 percent of those energy needs, and by sometime after 2010, China will be the largest energy user in the world.

This past October, the nations which border the Caspian Sea—Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan—jointly declared that they “will not allow other countries to use their territories for acts of aggression or other military operations against any party.” The declaration was seen as directly aimed at U.S. bases in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.

There are also growing trade ties among China, India and Russia.

Trade between India and China was $24 billion in 2007, the same as trade between India and the U.S., and is projected to jump to $40 billion by 2010. Both nations have agreed to reopen an overland route through the Himalayas that has been closed for 44 years.

In 1992 India launched its “Look East” policy, and Asia now constitutes 45 percent of India’s trade. India is the third largest economy in the region, followed by China and Japan.

India desperately needs up to $500 billion in investments to upgrade its infrastructure. South Korea and Singapore are already major investors, and the Russians have shown interest as well. India would love a piece of Russia’s $1 trillion in foreign exchange reserves.

There are growing security ties as well, some of which have a decided downside.

China is relying on Russia for many of its new weapons, including the high performance SU-33 fighter, which can be adapted for use on aircraft carriers. The Chinese say they plan to build several carriers, which would allow them to challenge the current U.S. domination of the Taiwan Straits.

India has just concluded an agreement to buy and jointly assemble Russia’s new fighter, the SU-30, which in recent war games outmaneuvered and outfought the U.S. F-16. New Delhi will buy Russia’s fifth generation fighter, the Future Tactical Aviation Concept, rather than the U.S. F-22 or the European F-35. The Russians are also modernizing India’s Vikramaditya aircraft carrier and have agreed to a joint production agreement to build Russia’s new tank, the T-90.

While none of the three countries’ military budgets approach U.S. military spending, never-the-less, tens of billions of dollars are being funneled into armaments at a time of growing economic inequity in all three nations.

According to the United Nations Development Report, inequality in India has grown faster in the last 15 years than it did in the preceding 50. Mortality for children under the age of five is three times that of China, and greater than Bangladesh and Nepal. Some 46.7% of India’s children are underweight, and 44.9 percent are stunted in growth.

Those figures for China are 10 percent and 14.2 percent respectively.

While India’s poor were getting poorer, India’s 311 billionaires saw their collective wealth jump 71 percent in 2006.

China and Russia do not have the same inequity gulf as India, but there is widening economic disparity in both countries that military spending certainly makes more difficult to address.

Another troubling side to this increasing trilateral cooperation is that the three countries have agreed to support one another on the issue of “terrorism” and “separatism.” In practice, that may give China a free hand in its largely Muslim Xingjian Province, and in Tibet. It might mute criticism of Moscow’s war in Chechnya, and give cover for India to step up its military actions against Maoist “Naxilites,” and put the clamps on restive minorities on its northwest border.

The relationship among the three countries can hardly be called an “alliance.” The Indian military regularly takes part in joint military maneuvers with the U.S. and, so far, military cooperation between India, China and Russia is low level. But all have common interests in securing energy resources and, if not confronting the U.S., at least not letting Washington dictate to them on international and internal issues.

The U.S. is still the big dog on the block, but it can no longer just bark to get its way.

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Fiat Lux

Fiat Lux

SF Examiner

10-24-2001

If there is one thing the world should have learned in the last 30 years, it is that terrorism is a political, not a military problem. And to reduce it to the latter simply sows another generation of dragons’ teeth. The examples abound.

When American embassies were bombed in Kenya and Tanzania, the Clinton Administration pounded Osma bin Ladin’s camps in Afghanistan. We need not dwell on the effectiveness of that response. The blank spots in New York’s skyline are eloquent testimony to the futility of military solutions.

Israel’s invasion and 18-year occupation of Lebanon in an effort to root out “terrorism” resulted in nothing but tens of thousands of civilian deaths, hundreds of dead and wounded Israeli soldiers, and finally, ignominious retreat. The Israeli’s are in the process of writing the same script in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

The story plot in all these places—Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Mindanao, Chechnya, Colombia, Macedonia, Algeria, and a dozen other places in the world—is much the same: Grievances about political power or access to economic resources are met with force. That, in turn, sparks terrorism. Retaliation follows, setting off endless rounds of bloodletting.

Sometimes the terrorists deliberately court repression, always a fertile recruiting ground. We certainly did that in Afghanistan, where the CIA poured in $6 billion to destabilize a regime on the Soviet border. As former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brsezinski commented, “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we consciously increased the probability that they would do so. The secret operation was an excellent idea. Its effect was to draw the Russians into the Afghan trap.”

The invasion did indeed destabilize the Soviet Union, but in the process killed one million Afghans and helped place in power one of the most savagely repressive regimes in the world.

But it does not have to be so. Ireland is a case in point. Bombings, shootings, and intra-communal violence were endemic from 1967 to 1985, in spite of a massive military presence, extra-legal internment, death squads, and repression. It was only when the process moved from the streets to the negotiating table that “terrorism” began to abate. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) has held to that peace for seven years, although its Protestant counterparts have backslid in recent months. If Ireland remains “terror free,” it will because the political process has trumped the phony issue of IRA arms, and the Protestants finally decide that political power is something you share, not corner.

Will such agreements end all terrorism? No. There will always be crazies like the Real IRA or the Protestant Red Hand Defenders death squads who will bomb and murder, but without any support in their respective communities, they will fade. The only danger is from those who want the status quo, and use the actions of a fringe as an excuse to sabotage the peace process, thus bestowing veto power on the most violent and reactionary elements in both communities.

People who blow up pizza parlors filled with teenagers, throw bombs at Catholic children trying to go to school, or ram skyscrapers filled with secretaries have made the wrong choices in life and politics. Whatever conditions led people to make those choices are canceled out by the fundamentally reactionary, inhuman and criminal nature of their acts. They must be brought to justice.

But it has to be a justice for all. Crimes against humanity are crimes, no matter who perpetuates them. It is criminal to blow up Israelis in pizza parlors, but it is also criminal to shoot Palestinian children, rocket houses in Gaza, and occupy land in violation of international law. Justice must be for everyone or for no one.

If we are serious about fighting terrorism, we must examine its roots. This is not to excuse criminality; it is to try to understand why so many people in the world are unhappy with our country and to alter the policies that have brought us to this point.

When we threw in with the likes of Osama bin Ladin and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, we made a conscious choice to undermine a moderately reformist government because it was friendly with our Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union. We made the same decision in 1953 in Iran, installing the Shah over a democratically elected government, earning the deep antipathy Iranians have for the U.S. We did the same thing in Guatemala, overthrowing the democratic Arbenz government to install a series of military regimes that were, in essence, little more than death squads with a national anthem.

So maybe this is bad idea, right? And maybe we ought to come clean and own up to what role we played in 1973 military coup in Chile, and our participation in Operation Condor that tortured and murdered thousands of dissenters throughout Latin America. If we did that, if we opened the books and took responsibility for the some of the horrors we have unleashed on the world, we would have the moral—and more importantly—political high ground.

Most Americans knew nothing about these awful things. That, in part, is why they are so stunned by the events of Sept. 11. If most Americans had known about our role in Iran, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Chile, and elsewhere, I strongly suspect they would not have stood for it. When they found out the truth about Vietnam, they said “out, now” loud and clear.

We must track down the monsters who killed all those people Sept. 11. But we must also look at our own monsters. “Fiat Lux” is the slogan of the university where I work: Let there by light. Excellent idea. Everywhere, on everything, and everyone.

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Sun King Returns

Sun King Returns

SF Examiner

11-27-2001

A long, long time ago, in a political galaxy far away, President Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell told right-wing critics of the Administration not to bother themselves over the President’s image as a moderate, because in practice he would do their bidding: “Watch what we do, not what we say,” he remarked. Looking at the actions of the Bush Administration since Sept. 11 suggests the ghost of one of Nixon’s old thugs has taken up residence in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

While the White House has wrapped itself in the vocabulary of “freedom and democracy,” its actions have been aimed at nothing less than dismantling the US Constitution and amassing the kind of imperial power we haven’t seen since the days of absolute monarchs. It would make the old crook Nixon positively envious. Consider the following actions since Sept. 11.

Military tribunals have been established to try foreigners charged with terrorism. The tribunals, staffed by five military officers, will be held in other countries, admit hearsay testimony, accept illegally seized evidence, and require only a 2/3 vote to inflict the death penalty. There are no appeals. And who defines who is a terrorist? George W. Bush.

The Administration argues it needs the tribunals because speed is essential, but evidence suggests that dispatch is less a concern than outcome. When one of two Libyans charged with bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie Scotland was acquitted, a Justice Department official told the New York Times that it was “not an outcome we would want.” Don’t like the verdict? Pack the court. As Vice-President Richard Cheney said, a military tribunal “guarantees that we’ll have the kind of treatment of these individuals that we believe they deserve.” Hell, why waste time with show trials. Just march ‘em out and string them up.

The fact that the 1993 bombers of the World Trade Center were successfully prosecuted in civilian court is brushed aside, as is the fact that such tribunals are a direct violation of the Fourth and Sixth amendments to the U.S. Constitution (which apply to “persons” and “ accused,” not just citizens). To guarantee the military Star Chamber makes no mistakes about handing out verdicts they “ deserve,” the Administration also has the right to eavesdrop on attorney-client communications. No sense in gambling when you can load the dice.

And just in case you think all of this is temporary, a close reading of the new anti-terrorist “Patriot Act” should dispel the myth that the Act will vanish in 2005. Only a tiny portion of the law will disappear. The police will still have a permanent right to conduct Internet surveillance without a court order; secretly search homes and businesses without notification; and share secret Grand Jury evidence with the CIA. Phone companies, internet providers, and credit reporting firms must supply customer information and phone numbers to the FBI, and Section 505 prevents those companies from disclosing that monitoring.

The Administration has also removed a wide range of public information from its web sites. While the White House claims such information could be a roadmap for terrorists, what was removed looks more like a blueprint for silencing critics of corporate polluters. The US Geological Service has erased material on water pollution, and the Environmental Protection Agency has eliminated information from its Risk Management Plan (RMP) on the dangers of chemical accidents. Chemical companies have long lobbied to remove that information from the RMP, in spite of the fact that both the FBI and the US Congress concluded that it posed no danger for terrorist activity. So are we protecting the nation or Monsanto?

While Attorney General John Ashcroft has been busily incarcerating some 1,200 “suspects” (at last count), “interviewing” 5,000 Arab males age 18-23, he has yet to hold a press conference on his Department’s plan to root out the “terrorists” who have sent anthrax threats to more than 200 abortion centers throughout the country. The Justice Department is more than willing to round up Middle East suspects, but I wouldn’t hold your breath that they will be sharing a cell with members of the Army of God or Operation Rescue.

The White House has also unilaterally abrogated international treaties on arms control, biological warfare, and global warming, as well as blocking a Congressionally mandated law on the release of a predecessor’s records.”There’s just a philosophy in the Administration that the public doesn’t have a right to know,” says Phil Schiliro, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-Ca) chief of staff, “Now they can justify it with national security, but that’s more for convenience.”

What we are witnessing is the dismantling of our nation, with all its delicate checks and balances. The White House’s response to all this? “Wartime powers rest fundamentally in the hands of the executive branch” says Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer, in the spirit of the French “Sun King,” Louis IV, who once proclaimed: “ I am the state.”

Conn Hallinan

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Elections 2001

Elections 2001

San Francisco Examiner

11-24-2000

I told myself I wasn’t going to write a column about the elections or the Florida vote. What’s the point? Do you know a columnist who hasn’t? And won’t it be over before it’s printed? But dammed if the whole craziness doesn’t pull one in, like a sort of political Event Horizon, that bizarre zone bordering a Black Hole.

At first, the cynical part of me dismissed the media’s non-stop obsession as little more than proof of the late A.J. Leibling’s Second Law of Journalism: “There is an inverse relationship between the number of reporters at an event, and the importance of the event.”

But then the numbers began coming in: The TV audience for the returns was bigger than the audience for the last “Survivor” show. The bored voter index dropped from 48 percent to 17 percent. Want to start a conversation? Walk into a, 1) Grocery store; 2) Laundromat; 3) Elevator, and ask anyone, “So, what do you think about the election?” Instead of a shrug or a blank stare, you are likely to get a real discussion.

Media obsession, however, has not necessarily translated into good journalism.

First off, the job the networks did on election night played no small part in starting the whole mess. First CBS, ABC, NBC, and CNN called Florida for Gore, then reversed field, and finally stampeded for Bush when Fox News declared the Texas Governor the winner. Now it turns out George Bush’s first cousin, John Ellis, was at Fox’s helm, and in constant contact with the Republican campaign throughout the night. Fox apologized, and the other networks are conducting a review of their own conduct.

Second, the media has deep sixed what may be the real story of the Florida election: The systematic disenfranchisement of African-American voters and direct violations of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act. In a November 14 letter, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) called on Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate what it called “substantial evidence” for systematic irregularities and discrimination in Black and Haitian precincts.

According to testimony gathered by the NAACP, thousands of African-Americans were denied the right to vote, required to show photo IDs when whites were not, and had polling places moved without forwarding addresses. Haitian Creole speakers were denied assistance, even though Florida law allows interpreters into the voting booths. In a number of cases, police demanded to see voter IDs.

The CBC letter also points to similar incidents in Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri. So far, however, the Black Caucus’ complaint has gone largely unreported. Given the closeness of the count in Florida, this hardly seems an issue the media should go silent around. Nor does one have to be paranoid to suggest that pre-election polls showing overwhelming preference by African-Americans for Gore over Bush might influence the behavior of certain overly partisan voting officials. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris’ duel role as election arbiter and Bush For President state co-chair is a case in point.

Sooner or later, of course, all this will pass. Someone will be President, the public will change channels, and the media will go back to…what? The temptation will be more of the same: Four years of partisan bitterness, civil war and political gridlock leading up to a sequel in 2004: “The Bush vs Gore Rematch.”

Or the media can learn a very valuable lesson from this imbroglio: their audience is a lot more engaged with political issues than it thought. Americans are not apathetic or cynical, they’re ambivalent. With the campaign (and the candidates) we all just went through, who can blame them? But ambivalence is not disengagement.

Further, regardless of what finally happens in Florida, there are still some stories out there that ought not vanish down the memory hole when the dust settles.

First and foremost, was there an attempt to systematically disenfranchise minority voters in Florida, and other parts of the nation? Given that “minorities” now make up close to 30 percent of the population, and are a majority in California, that is not an abstract question

Secondly, what role did the media itself play in influencing the behavior of voters on election night?

Some serious sanity just might come out of all this craziness.

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Diversity and the press

Diversity and the press

San Francisco Examiner

12-22-2000

In the wake of the election debacle in Florida, in particular the widespread disenfranchisement of African-American and Haitian voters, there are some hard questions the media needs to ask itself.

Why did the mainstream media first miss, and then bury, this story? Why was the focus on the infamous “butterfly” ballot in Miami, and not on the exclusion of thousands of legally registered Black voters, or the systematic harassment of voters in Black precincts? Imagine, if you will, that South Florida was Serbia, and Black voters were anti-Milosovic. Wouldn’t the press have portrayed “lost” registration forms, shuttered polling places, and heavy police presence as little more than a ham-fisted attempt to steal an election? How does the press see something in Serbia that it cannot see in South Florida?

For at least part of that answer, all the press has to do is gaze in the mirror. The image reflected back will be white, male, 32 years of age, college educated, Protestant, and middle-class. That is the portrait of the average journalist in the U.S., and very few of them (or the people who fit that profile) were blocked from casting votes this past November.

The press in this country has an ugly little secret: it isn’t even vaguely like the country it purports to cover. In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly called the Kerner Report, took the media to task for its own racism. In Chapter 15, the Commission faulted the news media for “basking in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with a white man’s eyes and a white perspective.” At the time, national minorities made up less than 1 percent of the media.

Chapter 15 was so searing an indictment, that the National Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) pledged to make newsrooms representative of the nation by the year 2000. It is now 33 years later, and with minorities making up about 27.5 percent of the country, it’s time to look at the report card.

Out of 54,000 newsroom employees nationwide, minorities make up 11.1 percent. The breakdown is: 5.1 percent African-Americans; 3 percent Latinos; 2 percent Asian; 1 percent Native Americans. Some 45 percent of the nation’s dailies have never had a minority reporter or editor.

And the situation is getting worse, not better. The National Assn. of Black Journalists recently charged that newsroom employment, “shows a decline in the percentage of African Americans employed by the nation’s mainstream newspapers.” It is much the same for Asians, Latinos and Native Americans. And how did the ASNE respond to all this? It moved the goal posts to 2025, and whined about a “lack of credentials” among minority journalists.

Whenever you hear the words “credentials,” “experience,” or “training,” reach for your Kerner Report. True, 87 percent of the entry level jobs in journalism are filled by people with B.A.s in journalism. But how then to explain the fact that minorities with B.A.s in journalism are three times more likely to be jobless than their white counterparts, and three times more likely to be part time? Wrong B.A. or wrong color?

Not that there isn’t a problem on the educational side. There are fewer than 500 minority journalism professors in the country, and most of them are not on a tenure track. This means there are very few teachers to mentor minority students, who start off in the hole to begin with. Experience with high school and college newspapers plays an important role in acceptance rates to journalism schools, not to mention entrance level jobs in the industry. But many minorities come from an economic class where working while going to school is a given. Holding a job and going to school doesn’t leave much time for extra-curricular activities like working for the school newspaper. The result in a sort of class triage, and as a result, high school and college newspapers across the country remain overwhelmingly white.

Besides being unfair and un-American, it makes for very bad journalism and the marginalization of stories concerning national minorities. How many readers know that both the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights are investigating charges by the NAACP and other civil rights organizations that there were massive violations of the Voters Rights Act on Election Day? That isn’t front-page news? The subject of thundering editorials?

Would increasing the number of minority reporters and editors solve all this? It would certainly help, but this is an institutional problem, not just an employment issue. Reporters don’t determine what stories get into a newspaper. As the press critic A.J. Liebling once commented, “reporters have all the independence of a piano key.” No matter how many reporters of color there are, if the owners and the higher-ups are all white, that will be the prism though which the news is filtered.

But all great changes begin with little things. Having your newsroom look like the nation is a good place to start.

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