Archive for June, 2010


June 30th, 2010 Comments off

Threat Assessment

The Bloomington Alternative

For all of our concern with safety and security — in our homes, at the airport, and on the border — our way of life is threatened as never before.

According to national security experts, the threat comes from Islamic extremists, and, to a lesser extent, popular democratic movements in Latin America. For the Tea Party movement, Big Government threatens traditional American values and individual liberties. White supremacist and anti-immigration groups perceive undocumented workers from south of the border as threats to American national identity and culture. Meanwhile, U.S. business interests point to labor and environmental regulations that threaten our competitive advantage in the global marketplace.

And that’s just the short list — the one that plays out on a regular basis in the American news media.

It’s a list that narrowly defines the nature and extent of an existential threat to the United States: a threat posed by corporate power that undermines democratic practices and institutions — most notably the Fourth Estate. For example, despite round-the-clock press coverage of the BP oil disaster, there’s been precious little attention paid to the pernicious effect of corporate lobbying and influence peddling on American political processes, labor and economic standards, and economic well-being.

From Enron to Bernie Madoff, the dominant media narrative typically fixes blame on “a few bad apples.” Doing so studiously avoids any mention of the structural arrangements that lead to corruption and abuses of power in the first place. For instance, these days BP CEO Tony Hayward makes a convenient whipping boy for the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and the ongoing environmental calamity in the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, however, BP’s dismal record of worker and environmental safety receives far less press scrutiny.

Similarly, Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas) is singled out for his sycophantic apology to BP executives for the Obama administration’s demand that the oil giant establish a $20 billion escrow account to cover damages in the Gulf. When Barton characterized the plan as a “shakedown” the American press corps milked it for all it was worth.

However, other leading GOP figures, including U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Mississippi Gov. Haley Barber and talk radio host Rush Limbaugh were just as critical of the fund. For instance, Bachmann referred to the idea as a “redistribution of wealth” scheme; and for his part, Limbaugh called the plan a “slush fund” that would go to ACORN and union activists. Significantly, their comments — standard issue GOP hyperbole — haven’t garnered much press coverage.

Likewise, a statement issued by the Republican Study Committee — a group of conservative House members — was harshly critical of the fund. According to Talking Points Memo, committee chairman, U.S. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) said, “BP’s reported willingness to go along with the White House’s new fund suggests that the Obama Administration is hard at work exerting its brand of Chicago-style shakedown politics. These actions are emblematic of a politicization of our economy that has been borne out of this Administration’s drive for greater power and control.”

Absurd as they are revealing, this sort of criticism demonstrates the GOP’s willingness to bend over backwards to defend corporate interests. Nevertheless, the U.S. press corps refuses to interrogate these comments — and what they might say about the power and influence of corporate interests in American politics.

In short, while individual gaffes — and the inevitable apologies that follow — generate considerable press coverage, these media spectacles tend to obscure larger truths. In the case of the BP oil disaster, or the Massey coalmine explosion for that matter, the enormous influence that the oil, natural gas and coal industry exert over the U.S. political economy.


The media frenzy surrounding General Stanley McChrystal’s interview with Rolling Stone — and his subsequent dismissal — is another case in point.

For days, the news cycle was dominated by talking heads debating whether or not McChrystal’s derisive comments regarding senior administration officials amounted to insubordination. Obama’s ensuing decision to sack McChrystal has likewise focused on the need to have discipline within the ranks of the military.

Despite all the press coverage of McChrystal’s comments and his subsequent dismissal, the mainstream media has all but ignored the substantive questions raised by Michael Hastings profile of McChrystal. While not inconsequential, the press corps’ emphasis on the tension between McChrystal and his team and the U.S. civilian leadership overshadows the fundamental problems with America’s military strategy in Afghanistan.

Writing for AlterNet, Josh Holland nailed it when he observed the following: “Ultimately, what the Rolling Stone story tells us is that even those tasked with carrying out Obama’s Afghanistan policy know it’s an exercise in futility. McChrystal and his aides are protecting his legacy against history’s harsh judgment of what will prove an incoherent policy from its inception.”

In essence, by focusing on McChrystal’s insubordination, the press corps has turned a blind eye to the failure of a military solution to the situation in Afghanistan. This is not the first time that American press corps has conveniently avoided indications of a failed Afghan policy.

In March of this year, McChrystal acknowledged the toll his counterinsurgency strategy is having on Afghan civilians. In a videoconference, McChrystal said: “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.” Talk about a sound bite! And yet, this remarkable acknowledgement received little press coverage, let alone criticism or condemnation.

Press reaction to Obama’s decision to fire McChrystal followed a similar pattern. Uncritically following the White House lead, the U.S. press corps dutifully repeated the president’s claim that the problem here was one of personnel, not policy. And so, despite every indication that the surge strategy is an unmitigated disaster, American news outlets refuse to consider any option other than military action.

Put bluntly, the U.S. press corps is doing a lousy job of informing the American people of the consequences of nine years of war and occupation. In doing so, news workers are complicit in legitimating a failed policy: a policy that has this country mired in a protracted conflict that threatens our credibility abroad, saps our resources at home and continues to exact a horrendous toll on the lives of Afghan civilians, American armed forces, and our NATO allies.

Now doesn’t that make you feel safe?

Is Jeff Beck having too much fun?

June 29th, 2010 Comments off

INDIANAPOLIS — On Monday, June 21, just a few days shy of his 66th birthday, guitar legend Jeff Beck played a sold-out show at the Egyptian Room of the Murat Theater.

If the rare Indianapolis performance is any indication of how his world tour is going, it’s safe to say that Jeff Beck is having the time of his life. And why not? He’s on a roll.

In January, Beck won a Grammy Award for his instrumental version of the Beatle’s classic “A Day in the Life.” Since that time, he’s toured with fellow Yardbirds alumnus Eric Clapton; released his first studio recording in seven years, Emotion & Commotion (Atco); and performed a tribute to Les Paul at New York City’s intimate Iridium Room, on what would have been the guitar innovator’s 95th birthday.

Beck opened Monday night’s 90-minute set with a cover of the Billy Cobham’s “Stratus.” Propelled by Narada Michael Walden’s explosive percussion, this number put the enthusiastic crowd on notice: “Fasten your seat belts; you’re in for a wild ride.”

Over the course of the evening, Beck and his band, featuring Jason Rebello on keyboards and Rhonda Smith on bass, moved seamlessly between the more subdued work on Emotion & Commotion and the sonic pyrotechnics that Beck is best-known for.

Looking fit, trim and toned, Beck played his signature Fender Stratocaster with apparent ease, sometimes coaxing, other times tapping, slapping or otherwise rough housing with the instrument to generate just the right sound.

Early on, Beck and company dipped into the new release for two numbers: a haunting rendition of Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol,” followed by “Hammerhead,” a showcase of sorts for Beck’s speed, agility and technical virtuosity.

Not much of a chatterbox, Beck prefers to let his guitar do the talking — and the singing as well. His vibrato evoked Judy Garland’s plaintive style on “Over the Rainbow” and his melancholic rendition of the Irish folk tune “Mna na h-Eireann” (“Women of Ireland”) was sheer heartbreak.

On those rare occasions when Jeff Beck addressed the crowd, his comments were sparse, but sincere and, as always, a touch self-effacing. Introducing it as “the best thing that came out of Woodstock,” Beck and company launched into an amped up version of Sly Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher.” And during the encore, he told the crowd that he’d learned Les Paul’s “How High the Moon” when he was 16, “but could never play it like the master.”

Throughout the evening, Beck dipped into some of his back catalogue and pulled out a few gems including “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” — a song he dedicated to Roy Buchanan on the landmark Blow by Blow album — and “Brush with the Blues” a tour de force number that’s been a staple of Mr. Beck’s live performances for years.

Beck also threw in a few cuts from his 2001 release You Had it Coming: the Grammy winning instrumental “Dirty Mind” and a raucous cover of Muddy Water’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” featuring Ms. Smith on vocal.

The show stopping encore, “Nessun Dorma” — another orchestral piece from Emotion & Commotion — brought an appreciative crowd to its feet.

For the faithful, Monday night’s performance illustrated that Jeff Beck is at the top of his game. And for the uninitiated, the show confirmed Beck’s status as one of the most dynamic and accomplished guitar players around.

As for Mr. Beck himself, it’s clear he can’t have too much fun doing what he does best.


June 14th, 2010 Comments off

Index of Accountability

The Bloomington Alternative

In recent weeks, a handful of seemingly unrelated events — the BP oil disaster in the Gulf, an Israeli commando raid on a Gaza-bound humanitarian flotilla, umpire Jim Joyce’s blown call that cost Detroit Tiger’s pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game and reporter Helen Thomas’s abrupt retirement from the White House press corps over her controversial remarks on Israel-Palestine — offer valuable lessons about taking responsibility for one’s actions.

Call it an index of accountability.

Despite conflicting reports over the amount of oil that is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, there is no doubt this is the worst oil spill in U.S. history. To date, BP’s efforts to control the leak have failed. And while the extent of the environmental damage is difficult to assess at this time, it is clear that the Gulf’s ecosystem is in crisis — and likely will be so for years to come.

As for people who live in and around the Gulf, the economic impact of the spill, and the subsequent clean up efforts, is equally devastating. Well-established regional industries, such as commercial fishing and tourism, are reeling from the disaster. Equally important, for a great many communities along the Gulf, a whole way of life is under siege and may never recover.

Local, state and federal officials promise to hold BP accountable for the spill and its immediate and long-term consequences. But as ProPublica’s reporting on BP reveals, this is not the first time that the oil giant has neglected environmental and worker safety regulations.

BP’s flagrant disregard for federal rules, as well as internal investigations that revealed serious violations of the company’s own safety policies, suggests that BP’s corporate culture is wholly irresponsible.

Add to this the hubris of BP officials who deny the existence of underwater plumes of oil — despite independent and government reports to the contrary — and who otherwise refuse to cooperate with environmental scientists and you get a perfect recipe for unprecedented environmental disaster and unparalleled corporate malfeasance.

Significantly, not a single BP executive has been fired or asked to resign in the wake of the oil spill and the ensuing public outrage. To be blunt, there’s scarcely a hint of accountability in BP’s response to the disaster.

None of this is to suggest that the federal government is any less responsible for the unfolding crisis in the Gulf. Much to the (repeated) consternation of his supporters, President Obama announced his decision to approve new offshore drilling in March of this year.

Within a matter of weeks, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Ever since, the Obama administration has been spinning the story to deflect criticism of the president’s energy policy and otherwise avoid responsibility for the ensuing environmental calamity.

As his poll numbers plummet, Obama has ratcheted up the rhetoric denouncing BP executives for their handling of the spill. Asked what he made of BP CEO Tony Hayward’s callous remark about “wanting his life back” Obama told NBC’s Matt Lauer, “He wouldn’t be working for me after any of those statements.”

The rub here is that Obama, like so many of his predecessors, is the one who works for BP — and Exxon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, ATT, Time Warner, Citibank, Goldman Sachs and other corporations that have a stranglehold on our political system.

In a different register, the state of Israel likewise has undue influence over U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Case in point: the tepid “official response” to the deadly Israeli raid on a humanitarian flotilla bound for the Gaza strip.

Whereas the international community condemned Israel’s May 31 assault that claimed the lives of nine activists, the United States refused to support a Security Council statement critical of Israel’s military action.

Instead, the U.S. government — along with the American press corps — has bought Israel’s specious claim that the raid was a defensive measure. The Obama administration has yet to issue an outright condemnation of the flotilla assault.

More recently, Israel has rejected calls from around the world for an independent, multinational investigation into the flotilla raid. In the meantime, the three-year blockade continues, despite charges by human rights groups that Israel is imposing collective punishment on the people of Gaza.

With U.S. backing, then, Israel uses military force with impunity. In doing so, Israel is charting a course that parallels the worst aspects of American neo-imperialism.

Although the United States and Israel refuse to be held accountable for policies and practices that make a mockery of international law and deny people basic human rights, it is heartening to know that there are people in public life who acknowledge mistakes and attempt to make amends for their words and deeds.

Take the example of Jim Joyce, the first-base umpire whose blown call spoiled Armando Galarraga’s June 2 bid for a perfect game. Upon realizing his error, Joyce had enough respect for himself, for Galarraga, and for the game of baseball, to admit his mistake — and to own it.

Following the game, a remorseful Joyce appeared at a press conference to express his regret and apologize to Galarraga for missing the call. Joyce didn’t offer any excuses. He didn’t try to deflect the criticism. He simply took responsibility for a regrettable error: “I did not get the call correct. I kicked the sh*t out of it.”

For his part, Galarraga was a good sport about the entire episode. The next day, Galarraga presented Joyce, who was working behind the plate, with the lineup card. The two men shook hands and then, a tearful Joyce patted Galarraga on the shoulder in an admirable display of good sportsmanship and mutual respect.

The incident reveals the value and palliative effects of accountability — an increasingly rare commodity in public life. Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson summed it up well when he wrote: “Armando Galarraga is an artist. But my fondest hope for my children is that they grow up to be like Jim Joyce.”

As for me, my fondest hope is that up and coming reporters look past the unfortunate circumstances that proved to be the undoing of long-time White House correspondent Helen Thomas and emulate her passion, intelligence and journalistic integrity.

Thomas, often referred to as the dean of the White House press corps, resigned early last week in the wake of a firestorm of criticism surrounding remarks she made about Israel-Palestine.

Responding to a question about Israel, Thomas said, “Tell them to get the get the hell out of Palestine. Remember, these people [the Palestinians] are occupied and it’s their land.” Thomas continued, “They should go home, to Poland, Germany and America”.

Posted on YouTube, the video quickly went viral and set off a controversy that ultimately cost Thomas her job and tarnished her reputation.

To be sure, Thomas’s comments were troubling as they were controversial. Nevertheless, the reaction within the White House press corps and official Washington was self-serving and decidedly overblown.

Don’t get me wrong; I view public apologies with a great deal of skepticism. Still, given Helen Thomas’s history and reputation for vigorous, watchdog journalism, it is something of a tragedy that her statement of regret did little to stem the criticism and condemnation directed at her.

Indeed, as a number of commentators have noted, the outrage directed at Helen Thomas within official Washington and among the White House press corps stands in sharp contrast to the silence among news workers for their complicity in allowing politicians, military planners and corporate executives from avoiding any measure of accountability.

For instance, Grit-TV’s Laura Flanders observed, “The White House Correspondents Association showed more fury in 24 hours towards Thomas than they’ve ever shown towards the journalists who, unlike Thomas, softballed Bush for eight straight years and passed on government lies that led us into the Iraq invasion.”

Whatever we might make of Helen Thomas’s remarks, one thing is clear: she has taken responsibility for her words. Would that this, along with her 50 years of keeping U.S. presidents accountable to the American people, becomes part of her legacy.

Nader: Reinstate Helen Thomas

June 12th, 2010 Comments off

Longtime consumer advocate and sometime presidential candidate Ralph Nader makes a compelling case for reinstating Helen Thomas to the White House press corps (WHPC).

In this interview with The Real News Network, Nader cites Helen Thomas’s path breaking career. The first women to join the WHPC, Thomas asked tough questions of presidents and administration officials.

Unlike most of her colleagues, Thomas would ask fundamental questions about domestic affairs and foreign policy. As Nader observes, her favorite question was: why. While some journalists consider this question taboo, its precisely this sort of basic reporting that is woefully lacking inside the Beltway.

Nader also highlights the double standard at work in the American news and media ecology. Controversial statements regarding Israel are dealt with swiftly and severely. Conversely, the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim statements that are so much a part of our national discourse barely raise an eyebrow.

Like Nader, Thomas is a hero to many — especially those courageous enough to speak truth to power. For others — particularly apologists and agents of elite power — both Nader and Thomas are troublemakers.

Seems we could use a little more of that sort of tenacity within the US press corps.

More at The Real News

Worse than Vietnam?

June 7th, 2010 Comments off

Comparisons between previous conflicts, like Vietnam, and our current military adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq are inevitable. We often look to the past to help us make sense of the present. And yet, all too often the lessons of history are ignored by politicians, military planners and the general public.

For their part, American journalists seem willfully ignorant of the the fact that the conflict in Afghanistan is the longest war in US history. Print and electronic media don’t mind a bit of history when its convenient — say the news reports commemorating the anniversary of the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. But a more painful and revealing history lesson fails to generate much discussion.

As has been their practice for sometime now, Brave New Films and Rethink Afghanistan have put together a short video — the sort of reporting that broadcast and cable TV news ought to be doing — that underscores the futility of our effort in Afghanistan and the need for a responsible withdrawal from that desperate land.

Sure there are parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan. But the current conflict shows no signs of letting up. And the US media is complicit in keeping the American public disengaged from the war and its implications for the near future.

Costs of War

June 3rd, 2010 Comments off

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On Memorial Day, the National Priorities Project, a research organization that analyzes federal data to help the American people better understand how their tax dollars are being used, announced that the cost of the so-called war on terror has topped 1 billion dollars.

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Not surprisingly, this bit of information hasn’t received very much attention in the US news media. All too often the costs of war — human and financial — are purposefully obscured by economic and political elites. If this sort of thing was common knowledge, perhaps the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq would come to a much quicker end.

Instead, there seems to be no end in sight.