Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pentagon Papers Redux

The release on Monday of about 92,000 classified military records on the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan is the equivalent of the current war’s “Pentagon Papers.” The documents were released by the online watchdog site, WikiLeaks, and were reported Monday by The New York Times, England’s The Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel.

The files represent a six-year archive of the conflict in Afghanistan and—-like the aforementioned Pentagon Papers—-paint a grim and disturbing picture of the U.S. military’s prospects for victory in what President Obama has insisted is the “central front” of the war on terror. The New York Times (July 26, 2010) summarized the leaked documents as illustrating, “in mosaic detail why, after the United States has spent almost $300 billion on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban are stronger than at any time since 2001.”

The records reveal, among other things, that the U.S. military may have greatly underestimated the Taliban’s weapons capabilities, attributing the use of “portable heat-seeking missiles against allied aircraft” to the group. They also acknowledge the military’s use of a secret “capture/kill list” of about 70 top insurgents, though the existence of this list has been well documented outside the corporate media before now. In all, the reports cast doubts on the likelihood U.S. forces will withdraw from Afghanistan in July of next year, as President Obama has promised, or that the woefully inadequate Afghan military will prove at all effective in taking control of the fighting.

Famed whistleblower and Pentagon Papers leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, acknowledged the striking similarities between these recent documents and his own efforts to reveal the truth about an immoral and unpopular war some thirty years ago. Speaking with Nation editor John Nichols, Ellsberg praised WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. “He [Assange] is serving our democracy and serving our rule of law precisely by challenging the secrecy regulations,” Ellsberg said, “which are not laws, in most cases, in this country.”

He went on to note, of whistleblowers in general, “Those who provide the truth to the American people, [show] better judgment in putting it out than the people who keep it secret from the American people.”

All of this comes at a time when a majority of Americans now say they no longer support further escalation in Afghanistan. A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll finds a mere 43% of respondents support further fighting in the nearly decade-long war. (Afghanistan now has the distinction of being the longest war in U.S. history.)

Yet, despite the shift in public support for the Afghanistan war, the House of Representatives just yesterday approved an additional $37 billion to continue both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The vote was 308 to 114 meaning that 148 supposedly anti-war Democrats voted for the war-funding. (It also means 160 “fiscally responsible” Republicans voted for the money as well. And not a Tea Partier in sight to protest the enormous spending-spree.)

Anti-war activists in Maine can at least take slight comfort in the fact that the state’s two Democratic representatives—-Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree—-voted against the war-funding. Of course, it is largely the work of Maine progressives that has influenced Congresswoman Pingree’s consistent opposition to further war funding. “Frankly, I just don’t understand why more members of Congress aren’t voting to stop the funding for this war,” Pingree said during an appearance on Hardball with Chris Matthews yesterday. “When I’m back home I hear from my constituents. They don’t think we’re winning. They don’t understand why we’re continuing the effort. And they want to see some end to this conflict.”

Nor can I understand such continued support for war, myself… The leaked Afghanistan documents will not likely end the war(s) anytime soon. But they can serve as catalyst for greater anti-war participation—just as the Pentagon Papers did during Vietnam. As Assange told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman in an interview today, it is the heroic efforts of whistleblowers like Ellsberg that can create such a movement. “These are the people…who are inside these organizations, who want change,” Assange said. “They are both heroic figures taking much greater risks than I ever do, and they are pushing and showing that they want change in… an extremely effective way.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tea Party Obsession Proves Media's Conservative Bias

The mainstream media’s obsessive fixation on the right-wing Tea Party group is perhaps the most telling indication of its pervasive conservative bias. While popular opinion has long maintained the media approaches the news with a liberal slant, media scholars and researchers dispelled this myth long ago. The media’s near non-stop coverage of the Tea Party for the past year however seems to confirm the corporate bias of the major news institutions.

All of the major news institutions—including supposedly liberal outlets like The New York Times, MSNBC, and NPR radio—have devoted countless stories concerning the angry, right-wing protesters. The group’s would-be-leaders—Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Rand Paul—generate the same amount of news coverage as Hollywood celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, or Mel Gibson. According to Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith (“Tea Party’s Exaggerated Importance”), “Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, which tracks media reports, found that the tea parties consumed a steady measure of news for most of this year before exploding during tax week to compete with the Icelandic volcano for attention and outstripping health care with 6% of all media reports that week.”

And while many Tea Party supporters complain the media’s coverage of the group has been largely negative, portraying members as ignorant and uninformed about the issues they protest, whether or not this is true seems beside the point. News coverage, positive or negative, is still coverage. The agenda-setting goal of corporate news institutions is not necessarily to tell audiences what to think (though many of the broadcast pundits do just that as well), but what to think about. As for the accusations of racism amongst Tea Partiers, consider a poll in the New York Times back in April found that a majority of the group’s members believe that “too much has been made of the problems facing black people,” and that the Obama administration “favors blacks over whites.”

Yet, whether a news network’s goal is to praise or pummel the Tea Party is largely irrelevant. Especially when considering the media’s focus on the Tea Party over other far more established progressive movements—the anti-war movement, for one. Activist Cindy Sheehan, speaking in the Politico story notes, “They’re [the Tea Party] being treated with a lot more respect than the anti-war movement was.”

Sheehan goes on, “The anti-war movement has always been treated as a fringe movement—even though at the height of our movement we had hundreds of thousands of people at protests and the majority of public opinion was on our side.” As it turns out, the Tea Party itself may be the real fringe movement, given that 31% of 2,505 respondents surveyed in a Pew Research poll had never heard of the Tea Party.

Filmmaker Michael Moore made a similar point on a March 17, 2010 appearance on CNN’s “Situation Room.” Citing the Tea Party as a clear example of the media’s right-wing bias, Moore stated, “This is a movement that starts in August of last year and immediately has massive attention paid to it. I know movements that started on the liberal-left end that have been going for twenty years… How much attention do they get on CNN and MSNBC?”

Yet, the notion the corporate media gives preference to conservative concepts and viewpoints over liberal ones is hardly new. The findings of a 1998 study published by the media watchdog group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) titled “Examining the ‘Liberal Media’ Claim,” remain largely unchanged in today’s media landscape. Not only does the study contradict the “liberal media” myth, but also finds a surprising number of journalists tend to be more conservative than the general public.

The journalists polled in the FAIR study gave an overwhelming (80%) vote of confidence for the quality of journalism from “Business-oriented” news outlets, such as The Wall Street Journal. The reporters could not muster the same enthusiasm for the quality of “Public broadcast” institutions, however, with only 45% rating them “Excellent,” or “Good,” quality. So much, it would seem, for the image of the intrepid, watchdog reporter, fighting for the liberal values of speaking truth to power and afflicting the comfortable.

The most definitive study on media bias remains Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988). Analyzing elements such as corporate consolidation of newspapers and broadcast networks, advertiser influence on news content and constant media “flak” from right-wing think tanks, Herman and Chomsky conclude the mass media function, not as a vehicle to inform and educate audiences, but as a system of propaganda.

“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace,” the authors write. “It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.”

Yet, according to the authors, this “propaganda model” remains invisible to most citizens, who continue to regard the media as “liberal.” Even the reporters themselves often believe they are upholding such traditional “watchdog” functions of journalism. Chomsky and Herman write, “The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results from the operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose to interpret the news ‘objectively’ and on the basis of professional news values.”

The media’s current fixation on the Tea Party should not be surprising then. What is perhaps most ironic about the Tea Party coverage is the media’s framing of the group as populist, and driven by the anger of average, blue-collar Americans. Tea Party supporters decry President Obama and the Democratic Congress as “elites” and proponents of the Right’s dreaded “Big Government.” Yet, it is the Tea Party and its ringleaders like Sarah Palin that are the real elites. The group is largely an apologist for corporate power, advocating a Reagan-style vision of free-market absolutism in which the country is run exclusive by privatized businesses. A true watchdog media—one that asks tough, critical questions, and challenges, rather than coddles, corporate power—would have exposed the true nature of the Tea Partiers long ago.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Commodity Fetishism

If the financial crisis of 2008 and current recession that it lead to proved anything it is that Reagan-style, free-market capitalism does not work. The right-wing laissez faire philosophy that the market must be left free of government regulation so the “Invisible Hand” can do its magic work has been revealed to all as the complete shame it is.

The guiding principle of Western free-market economics--lavish the rich with profits and tax-cuts and this money will somehow “trickle down” the economic ladder to the rest of us--is an absurd fantasy designed to maintain the interests of the wealthy few at the expense of the poor and dwindling middle-class. Indeed, perhaps the greatest failure of the Obama administration is its refusal to use the economic crisis as an opportunity to vastly rethink our capitalist society.

For that, one must turn to Raj Patel, author of The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy (2009). An activist and African Studies scholar at UC Berkely, Patel’s book examines how the myopic mentality of viewing the entire world through the lens of the free-market got us into this mess. In a “market society” that places a monetary price on everything (including natural resources like land, water and the air we breathe), Patel argues, it is inevitable that the planet itself will become another commodity.

He uses Oscar Wilde’s prescient quote that “people know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” to frame his thesis. Given Wilde’s observation, Patel correctly notes that, if all things were priced based on their actual cost (including the labor required to produce the item as well as its environmental toll) a hamburger would cost around $200.

Patel writes, “According to one estimate, the energy cost of the 550 million Big Macs sold in the United States every year is $297 million, producing a greenhouse gas footprint of 2.66 billion pounds of CO2 equivalent…. While none of these costs are reflected in the drive-thru price of a Big Mac, they still have to be paid by someone. It’s just that they are paid not by the McDonald’s Corporation but by society as a whole, when we pay the costs of environmental disasters, climate-change-related migration and higher health care costs.”

Patel calls these hidden, often overlooked costs “externalities.” “These are the costs that somehow slip through the net of prices,” he writes. And, of course, it is in the interest of profit-driven corporations like McDonald’s to not only avoid paying for these externalities themselves, but to keep its customers from considering them as well. (This process is also referred to as Commodity Fetishism.)

Through this process of placing a cheap monetary price on everything, Patel argues, we have lost a great deal of our “common” areas--natural land, or public spaces that were once believed to be collectively owned by all citizens. We have also, Patel suggests, lost a sense of civic responsibility—particularly here in the U.S. where democracy consists of little more than showing up to vote in elections every four years.

The first half of Patel’s book looks at the problem of the free-market mindset that attaches a dollar value to everything. (Patel notes how even longtime free-market disciple, Alan Greenspan, was forced to admit to a Congressional panel he found a “flaw” in his economic philosophy.) He uses this section to analyze different theorists’ (Keynes, Adam Smith, John Locke, Rousseau and Karl Marx) views on economics and how an ideal market society would be run.

The book’s second half examines some partial solutions on how to “redefine democracy.” This is typically where progressive authors like Patel struggle—-a common complaint reiterated by Guardian reviewer, John Gray. Still, while this section of Patel’s book becomes rather jumbled and unfocused, he offers more solutions than Gray gives him credit for. Like Naomi Klein’s No Logo, Patel provides various examples of local citizens who have fought against corporate rights, privatized resources and declining civil liberties and won.

“We’ll never be able to see the world clearly through the glass of the market,” Patel writes. “…We've been socialized into thinking only in terms of the money value of something, but thinking this way shrinks us.”

He adds, “In order to reclaim politics, we…will need more imagination, creativity and courage. We will need to remember that democracy’s triumphs come not from the ballot box but from the circumstances that make democracy possible: equality, accountability and the possibility of politics.”