FACEBOOK KNOWINGLY PROMOTES DISINFORMATION

Facebook (FB) facilitates an accelerating spread of disinformation; this is widely recognized and well-documented. (See my previous post on this.) Facebook allows toxic speech and dangerous misinformation to spread unchecked on its monopolistic platform. This affects and infects our public discourse and knowledge base, undermining the health of our democracy. However, stopping it runs counter to Facebook’s economic interests because increased activity, regardless of its content, is what increases its revenue. [1]

Recently, damning evidence has come to light of Facebook’s manipulation of its News Feed to favor right-wing sources that are known to be deceptive over trustworthy news sources.

In late 2017, Facebook was in the process of making significant changes in the computer programming code or algorithm it uses to determine which of the overwhelming plethora of sources each of us is shown in our Facebook News Feed. It claimed it was working to bring people together and to prioritize trusted and informative news sources.

It was uncovered recently that FB ran experiments with its first iteration of a revised News Feed algorithm that revealed it would dramatically curtail the dissemination of right-wing, less-than-trustworthy sites, such as Breitbart, the Daily Wire, and the Daily Caller. FB’s software engineers were told to modify the algorithm to reduce the negative effects on these right-wing sites.

A second iteration of the new algorithm was ready in January 2018 and its effects were presented to senior executives at FB. The data showed that it reversed the curtailment of right-wing, less-than-trustworthy sites and instead curtailed distribution of progressive-leaning, credible news sources. The presentation included bar charts showing the impact on a dozen or so specific news sources.

This second iteration of the new News Feed algorithm was, nonetheless, put into use, based in part on support from FB’s Vice President of Global Public Policy, Joel Kaplan, and right-wing-leaning employees working for him. (Kaplan would later loudly support his friend Brett Kavanaugh during Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.) This was not the first time Kaplan had acted to promote right-wing disinformation. For example, in December 2016, when an internal investigation found that a group of FB accounts, mostly based overseas, were behind a lot of the promotion of right-wing disinformation, Kaplan objected to disabling these accounts because “it will disproportionately affect conservatives.” He also has defended and protected right-wing sites that violated FB policies, opposing sanctions on them. [2]

The new News Feed algorithm expanded dissemination of content from the right-wing Daily Wire that routinely shares false content and spreads malicious stories such as ones describing being transgendered as a “delusion,”  calling abortion providers “assassins,” and labeling progressive members of Congress as not “loyal to America.” On the other hand, the new algorithm reduced dissemination of content from left-leaning Mother Jones magazine that provides rigorously fact-checked reporting and investigative journalism that has won it numerous journalism awards, including seven National Magazine Awards (three times for General Excellence). It has also been a National Magazine Award finalist 24 other times. In 2017, it won the Magazine of the Year award from the American Society of Magazine Editors.

In the six months after implementation of the changes in Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, FB traffic to trustworthy, left-leaning Mother Jones articles declined 37% from the previous six months. This means that the over one million Mother Jones followers and others on FB saw fewer of its articles in their News Feeds. On the other hand, over the summer of 2020, the deceptive right-wing Daily Wire had more Facebook engagement (i.e., likes, comments, and shares) than any other English-language publisher in the world. [3]

These data belie Zuckerberg’s claim when he announced the News Feed changes in January 2018 that the goals were “bringing people closer together” and fighting “sensationalism, misinformation and polarization.” He didn’t mention that he and FB were tipping the scales to favor less-than-factual right-wing sources.

Why did this happen? Facebook was tweaking its News Feed algorithm because user engagement was falling, which threatened its revenue and stock price. Zuckerberg and FB may also have wanted to avoid antagonizing Trump and the right-wing Republicans in power in the federal government, thereby reducing the likelihood that they would attack FB either verbally or through government investigations and regulations. Right-wing and “conservative” politicians had been criticizing FB for “liberal” bias (without evidence). A former Facebook employee said that it was made clear  that changes to the News Feed algorithm could not hurt Breitbart, Trump-advisor Steve Bannon’s mouthpiece.

Facebook uses its monopolistic power to determine which publishers’ content the public sees. This power of selective partial censorship and propaganda promotion is Big Brother-type power that we all should be concerned about and fear. Free speech in today’s America  is relative; it is based on how much money one has to broadcast one’s voice or on how FB treats you. Zuckerberg’s claim that he supports unfettered free speech is disingenuous given that FB tips the scales to favor certain sources and disfavor others.

FB’s marketplace power and dissemination of harmful disinformation need to be addressed by government policies and regulations. Slowing the spread of  misinformation and malicious content from a handful of the most active and therefore most harmful sites would have a dramatic effect.

Facebook should be held accountable for disseminating false, misleading, or inflammatory content. Regulation is one way to do this and competition is another. As a monopolistic platform lacking competition, FB has no incentive to do anything but pursue profits and/or Zuckerberg’s personal agenda. FB should be regulated like a monopolistic utility as the phone company once was or as private electricity and gas utilities are. Anti-trust laws should be used to stop FB’s anti-competitive practices and its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp should be reversed. Competition should be facilitated, for example, by creating a not-for-profit, free to users, Internet platform for responsible information sharing and journalism akin to public radio and TV.

I’m not a heavy FB user so my expertise on its on-the-ground operation is limited. Therefore, I welcome your suggestions on how we can send a message to Facebook and Zuckerberg that will be heard loudly and clearly on the issue of the quality of content in its News Feed as well as other issues such as its repeated violations of users’ privacy. Would a one-day boycott where we don’t log into FB be effective? Or would a week where we never click on a FB ad be more meaningful? What else can we do? In addition, of course, to lobbying our elected officials to rein in Facebook and Zuckerberg with regulations and anti-trust laws.

[1]      Alba, D., 10/13/20, “False info thriving on social media,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[2]      Bauerlein, M., & Jeffrey, C., 10/21/20, “Facebook manipulated the news you see to appease Republicans, insiders say,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/media/2020/10/facebook-mother-jones/)

[3]      Bauerlein, M., & Jeffrey, C., 10/21/20, see above

FACEBOOK’S DISSEMINATION OF DISINFORMATION ACCELERATES

 Facebook’s (FB) spreading of disinformation is accelerating, despite any claims to the contrary. Its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, repeatedly says that he does not want FB to be an arbiter of free speech, but it is the arbiter of what information or speech FB users see.

Zuckerberg also asserts that the best way to fight offensive bad speech is with good speech. [1] However, this is a false equivalency as good speech that tries to counter bad speech has to mention the bad speech which furthers its presence in our public discourse. This has been shown by research to further embed the bad or false speech in people’s minds. For example, reporting on Trump’s tweets and stating they are false or misleading, still puts Trump’s tweets in front of the viewing or reading audience.

Facebook’s current stated standard is that posts that are not calling for harm or violence, however offensive, should be protected as free speech. Its new policy announced in October will finally ban posts that deny or distort the Holocaust. This is a very small and belated step forward against some of the worst and most obviously harmful disinformation that FB has spread. Almost a quarter of Americans between ages 18 and 39 say they believe the Holocaust either didn’t happen or was exaggerated. It may be difficult to link this directly to FB or to harm or violence but it’s hard to believe there is no linkage. [2]

Facebook allows toxic speech and dangerous misinformation to spread largely unchecked on its monopolistic platform. Engagement with FB posts (i.e., liking, sharing, or commenting on them) that are from sources that routinely publish misleading or false content tripled from 2016 to 2020, exceeding the rate of increase for outlets that uphold traditional journalistic standards.

This affects and infects our public discourse and knowledge base, undermining the health of our democracy. However, stopping it runs counter to Facebook’s economic interests because increased activity, regardless of its content, is what increases FB’s revenue. [3]

Over the summer and early fall of 2020, the Digital New Deal (DND) project examined engagement with posts on FB and analyzed the reliability of the posts’ sources. It partnered with NewsGuard, a non-partisan service that rates news and information sources for their accuracy. (See note on its methodology at the end of this post.) The DND project focused on 721 deceptive information sources and compared them with a selected group of non-deceptive sources. It categorized the sources into three types:

  1. False Content Producers: repeatedly publish verifiably false content (396 sources)
  2. Manipulators: fail to gather and present information responsibly (325 sources)
  3. Trustworthy Outlets (46 selected sources for comparison)

Engagement with posts from type 1 and 2 sources (referred to as deceptive sources) has grown 242% since 2016. Engagement with posts from Manipulators (type 2 sources) represents 84% of all deceptive source engagement and has grown from 390 million engagement actions in the 3rd quarter of 2016 to 1,520 million in the 3rd quarter of 2020 (almost fourfold). The deceptive sources with the most engagement on FB, including the top five in each of types 1 and 2, promote right-wing or “conservative” politics.

These deceptive sources, masquerading as news outlets, are spreading false information, manipulative messaging, and concocted conspiracies that degrade democratic discourse. This harms the health of our democracy because it undermines informed participation by citizens and voters. [4]

The top ten deceptive sources are all of the Manipulator type and account for 62% of FB engagement interactions with deceptive sources, while the other 711 deceptive sites are responsible for 38% of these interactions. Fox was the most frequent source in the Manipulator category. It is rated more positively by NewsGuard than many other deceptive sources because it sometimes does correct errors, avoids deceptive headlines, labels advertising, and discloses its ownership and financing. Other examples of Manipulators are the Daily Wire, Breitbart, and The Blaze.

My next post will provide even more damning evidence that FB’s goal is not to bring people together, to provide accurate information, or to fight sensationalism, misinformation, and polarization as Zuckerberg has said, but rather to maximize user engagement and profits, and perhaps to promote right-wing politics and curry favor with those in power in Washington, D.C. The post will highlight FB’s 2018 changes to its News Feed algorithm that determines what information or disinformation is presented to FB users. It will also present some ways to address FB’s monopolistic power and its dissemination of false and harmful content.

Note on the methodology for rating information sources used in the DND study summarized above: NewsGuard rates online news outlets based on nine criteria of responsible journalism including:

  • Does not repeatedly publish false content (22 points)
  • Gathers and presents information responsibly (18 points)
  • Regularly corrects or clarifies errors (12.5 points)
  • Handles the difference between news and opinion responsibly (12.5 points)
  • Avoids deceptive headlines (10 points)
  • Website discloses ownership and financing (7.5 points)
  • Clearly labels advertising (7.5 points)
  • Reveals who is in charge, including any possible conflicts of interest (5 points)
  • The site provides the names of content creators, along with either contact or biographical information (5 points)

Outlets receive points for passing a given criteria or they receive zero for failing. A total score of less than 60 merits a Red rating, meaning the site fails to adhere to basic journalistic standards.

[1]      The Associated Press, 10/12/20, “Facebook bans Holocaust denial, distortion posts”

[2]      Frenkel, S., 10/13/20, “Facebook bans Holocaust denial content,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[3]      Alba, D., 10/13/20, “False info thriving on social media,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[4]      Kornbluh, K., Goldstein, A., & Weiner, E., 10/12/20, “New study by Digital New Deal finds engagement with deceptive outlets higher on Facebook today than run-up to 2016 election,” Digital New Deal, German Marshall Fund of the United States (https://www.gmfus.org/blog/2020/10/12/new-study-digital-new-deal-finds-engagement-deceptive-outlets-higher-facebook-today)

WHY OUR MAINSTREAM MEDIA HAVE FAILED IN THEIR COVERAGE OF CLIMATE CHANGE

For decades now, our mainstream media have failed in their coverage of climate change. Earlier this year, Bill Moyers and the Schumann Media Center, which supports independent journalism, announced the creation of the Covering Climate Now project, a partnership of The Nation magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). They hope to increase the coverage of climate issues and help journalism live up to its responsibility to connect the dots and tell important stories so that the public can understand them and act on the information presented. As Bill Moyers, the iconic journalist, said in his amazing speech (30 minutes) kicking off the project (there’s a 2.5 minute excerpt on the CJR website if you scroll most of the way down), “Reporting the truth is always the basis of any moral authority we can claim as journalists.” [1]

The first president to mention global warming was President Johnson in a speech to Congress in 1963. However, attention to it in public policy got lost due to a host of other hot issues (no pun intended). The fossil fuel industry, however, was paying attention and undertook a disinformation campaign that continues to this day.

In October 1970, the Mobil Oil Company began paying The New York Times to publish regular Op-Eds, also called advertorials, written by Mobil’s press office. Mobil viewed them as part of a major political campaign to prevent action against fossil fuels due to global warming. By 1983, Mobil’s press office felt they had succeeded in shifting the Times’ editorial positions to those Mobil had been espousing. [2]

Today, it is increasingly common for the mainstream media to present non-advertising “news” content that has been prepared by or for large corporations. For example, The New York Times and The Washington Post have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel companies and organizations, such as ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, and the American Petroleum Institute, to create the industry’s advertorials, which they then publish. [3]

The mainstream TV media haven’t done any better: combined coverage of climate change by the three major networks and Fox was just 142 minutes in 2018, down 45% from 2017. That’s an average of only 41 seconds per week per outlet! Not only have the major TV networks basically ignored this story, but they have failed to counter the false and deliberately deceptive propaganda promoted by the fossil fuel industry. [4] For example, extreme-weather events are linked to climate change, but the mainstream media almost never mention the climate change connection. Local weather forecasters are doing more to report the links between weather and climate change than the national networks.

The fight over climate change featuring environmentalists and scientists versus the powerful fossil fuel industry and its political supporters sounds like a David vs. Goliath story to which the mainstream media would love to give lots of coverage. But that has not been the case to say the least. [5] For example, in our general election presidential debates, the moderators who are from the mainstream media have not asked a single question about climate change in 2016, 2012, 2008, or ever.

The mainstream media, both TV and print, have been brainwashed by the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda to view climate change as a political story rather than a science story. The fossil fuel industry has successfully spread confusion and doubt about the science using the same public relations strategies and even some of the same “scientists” as Big Tobacco did in its campaign to spread doubt about the dangers of smoking. For example, Frederick Seitz, a physicist by training, received $45 million from Big Tobacco to obscure the risks of smoking and then, with funding from the fossil fuel industry, became the prominent US denier of human-caused climate change. [6]

The fossil fuel industry has bought enough politicians’ support through campaign spending and lobbying to make climate change appear to be a political issue rather than a scientific one. [7] The Republican Party in particular has bought into using climate change as a campaign issue (or perhaps it has been bought by the fossil fuel industry). Therefore, the mainstream media cover climate change as an issue of politics and not science.

As a result, the media typically give equal coverage to the scientific consensus that human activity is a major contributor to global warming and the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda that global warming is exclusively due to natural fluctuations in global temperatures and therefore not related to fossil fuel use.

Responsibility for the failure to accurately report and act on climate change goes beyond the mainstream corporate media and the fossil fuel companies. In many ways it includes much of corporate America, for example through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber is supported by most of the large corporations in the U.S. and has aggressively opposed action on climate change with multiple tactics: massive lobbying, substantial campaign spending, and extensive involvement in lawsuits and other legal actions. The Chamber spends roughly three times as much on lobbying as the next most active group. It has spent almost $150 million on congressional campaigns since 2010, when the Citizens United Supreme Court decision unleashed corporate campaign spending. In most congressional election cycles, the Chamber is the biggest “dark money” spender, meaning that it shields the identity of the donors for its spending. This provides corporations with a protective veil; they can oppose climate change action through contributions to the Chamber and no one will know. The Chamber is also active in court cases. In a three-year period during Obama’s presidency, it was involved in over 500 court cases. Although not all these court cases and all this spending is in opposition to climate change action, environmental issues were the third most frequent subject of its court cases and energy and environmental issues are a major part of its lobbying activities. The Chamber’s position on energy and environmental issues inevitably is in support of fossil fuels. [8] It would be hard to overstate the political clout of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the laundry list of major corporations that provide its funding.

In summary, the mainstream media have failed in their coverage of climate change in terms of both quantity and quality (i.e., accuracy) because of:

  • Their conflict of interest due to revenue from the fossil fuel industry for advertising and the preparation of advertorial Op-Ed pieces,
  • Brainwashing by fossil fuel industry propaganda, and
  • Being part and parcel of corporate America.

[1]      Moyers, B., 7/15/19, “What if reporters covered the climate crisis like Murrow covered World War II?” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/climate-change-media-murrow-boys/)

[2]      Westervelt, A., May 6, 2019, “Why are The New York Times and The Washington Post creating ads for Big Oil?” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/big-oil-pr-fossil-fuel-lobby-herb-schmertz/)

[3]      Westervelt, A., May 6, 2019, see above

[4]      Moyers, B., 7/15/19, see above

[5]      Hertsgaard, M., & Pope, K., 4/22/19, “The media are complacent while the world burns,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/climate-change-media-aoc-gnd-propaganda/)

[6]      Hertsgaard, M., & Pope, K., 4/22/19, see above

[7]      Hertsgaard, M., & Pope, K., 4/22/19, see above

[8]      Schumer, C.E., & Whitehouse, S., 11/21/19, “Climate change and dark money,” The Boston Globe

ARE THE DEMOCRATS’ IDEAS RADICAL?

The mainstream media’s frequent characterization of ideas put forth by Democratic members of Congress and Democratic presidential candidates as “radical” or “far left” or “out of the mainstream” is simply inaccurate. Most of the ideas so labeled are policies that:

  • Have previously been in place in the U.S.,
  • Are broadly supported by the American public,
  • Have been seriously considered in the U.S. in the past, and/or
  • Are widely in place in other wealthy countries.

For example, Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s recent suggestion that the income tax rate on income over $10 million be raised to 70% was called “insane.” In addition, it was stated that it would kill our economy.

However, in the 1950s, the top income tax rate was over 90% and our economy did just fine. The top tax rate was 70% on income over $216,000 up until 1980 and the economy continued to do well. In the 1980s, President Reagan slashed the top tax rate. The economy didn’t boom as a result, rather the growth and prosperity of the middle class stalled, workers’ wages became stagnant, and income and wealth inequality in the country began to explode. [1]

The 1950s, 60s, and 70s were a 30-year period with top income tax rates of 70% or more, on incomes of roughly $200,000 and up. This period also had strong economic growth, a growing middle class, and increasing equality. Therefore, a proposal to restore such a rate on incomes over $10 million represents a partial return to a policy with a proven track record of success. It is not “radical” or “insane” to say the least.

Ocasio-Cortez’s idea, therefore, is a sensible proposal to address growing inequality and an economy that is working for the rich (and especially the super-rich), but for no one else. What is out of the mainstream is President Trump’s and Congressional Republicans’ 2018 tax cut for the wealthy, given that 43% of voters say they want taxes raised on incomes over $250,000 (not just $10 million) and 60% say they don’t feel millionaires are paying their fair share of taxes. Furthermore, since 2003, the Gallup Poll has annually asked the public whether taxes on the rich were too high, just right, or too low. Every year, 60% to 70% of respondents have said “too low.” Yet, the mainstream media refer to supporters of the tax cut for millionaires as “moderates” and those who propose doing what a clear majority of Americans support as “radicals.” [2] [3]

Polls of the public also indicate that several other proposals reported as “radical” or “out of the mainstream” by the media are supported by majorities of Americans. Proposals for universal health insurance or Medicare for All are called radical, yet 70% of Americans support this, including a majority of Republicans. Proposals for tuition-free public college are called radical, but 79% of Democrats and 41% of Republicans support this.

In the 1950s and 1960s, tuition at public colleges and universities was free or minimal. Universal health insurance has been a topic of serious discussion in the U.S. on and off since President Franklin Roosevelt proposed it in 1944 as part of his Economic Bill of Rights, which included “the right to adequate medical care.” (See this previous post on FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights for more information.) Former Representative John Dingell, who just passed away at age 92, filed a bill, “The United States National Health Insurance Act,” in the U.S. House every session from 1955 to 2013; it would have created a single-payer health care system. [4]

Multiple polls have found that most Americans (including a majority or near-majority of Republicans) support Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for an annual wealth tax of 2% on wealth above $50 million, rising to 3% on assets over $1 billion. [5] Yet, the mainstream media and most pundits are calling her proposal radical.

We currently have a wealth tax; but it’s only on the main form of middle-class wealth – people’s homes. Homeowners pay a property tax, which is typically used to fund local government and schools. Nonetheless, the suggestion that other forms of wealth, ones that are typically owned by the very wealthy, be taxed at a similar rate is branded as radical.

Internationally, of course, the U.S. is the country that’s out of the mainstream. Most other wealthy nations have higher income tax rates than the U.S., have universal health insurance, and have free or near-free post-secondary education. A number of these countries also have a wealth tax – and more would have one if it were established as an international standard so the wealthy couldn’t so easily hide or shift their wealth to another country to escape a wealth tax. (But that’s a whole other topic for another post.)

Here in the U.S., these and many other policy proposals being put forth by Democrats are being labeled as radical, when they are actually anything but radical. They are supported by majorities of Americans (see this previous post for more information) and, in many cases, have been mainstream ideas for generations. Many of them have been pushed out for the mainstream by radical “conservatives” over the last 20 years, building on efforts that began over 40 years ago.

These ideas and policies – for higher income and wealth taxes, for universal health insurance, and for free public college – are being brought back into the mainstream by these Democratic politicians and their grassroots supporters. The election results of 2016 have brought them new levels of attention. Broad public support for the politicians proposing them, along with probable future election results, appear likely to put them squarely back in the mainstream. Resistance from the mainstream media and some politicians will have to be overcome, but it’s becoming clear who the real radicals are and who’s truly in the mainstream.

[1]      Eagan, M., 1/11/19, “There’s nothing ‘extremist’ about social welfare,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Eagan, M., 1/11/19, see above

[3]      Meyerson, H., 1/24/19, “AOC’s achievement: Making American’s progressive beliefs politically acceptable,” The American Prospect Blog (https://prospect.org/blog/on-tap)

[4]      Nichols, J. 2/8/19, “John Dingell kept the faith, from the New Deal to ‘Medicare for All’,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/john-dingell-obit-medicare-for-all/)

[5]      Kapur, S., 2/9/19, “Warren starts 2020 bid, vows to end system ‘rigged’ by rich,” Bloomberg (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-09/pushing-a-wealth-tax-elizabeth-warren-to-launch-white-house-bid)

THE TRUE STORY OF THE 2018 ELECTION

The dominant narrative of the 2018 election from our mainstream (corporate) media had congealed even before the polls on the west coast had closed. As it turns out, their narrative was wrong.

The narrative goes something like this: there was no blue wave for Democrats; Trump and the Republicans won the election. Furthermore, there was no progressive shift among voters, because even where Democrats won, it was moderates who won; progressive Democrats, like Beto O’Rourke in Texas, lost.

In an attempt to correct the narrative and provide updates on the many races that were not determined by the end of election night coverage, CNN did a novel thing: it held a night of programming a full week after the election that it called “Election Night in America Continued.”

Because of the expansion of mail-in ballots, absentee voting, and early voting, as well as the new use of ranked choice voting in Maine and some very close races, final results have taken longer to tabulate than in the past. A week and a half after the election, two US Senate seats are still up in the air (Florida and Mississippi), as are seven US House seats and two governorships (Florida and Georgia). [1]

The inaccurate story of Democrats losing the election was based on early results from the east coast. Democrats lost a US House seat in Kentucky that had received a lot of attention only because of a scrappy fight in a long-shot race by a woman combat veteran with some advertising that went viral on social media. Democrats also lost a high-visibility US Senate race in Indiana early in the evening. Close races for Governor in Georgia and Florida, and a close Senate race in Florida, all of which are still counting votes but which some pundits prematurely called Republican wins, fueled the Democrats-are-losing story.

Beto O’Rourke’s close loss in the Texas US Senate race, which had received so much attention only because it was so amazing that this race was anywhere near close in deep red Texas, cemented the narrative that the Democrats were losing.

The premature claims of Republican wins are now being used to fuel Republicans’ and Trump’s demand that vote counting stop with claims that these elections are being “stolen.” These false claims are dangerous as they undermine voters’ faith in our democracy and in our voting systems, as well as the commitment to accurately count every vote.

However, as more votes are counted and more results are finalized, especially from the west coast, the blue wave for Democrats is becoming clearer and larger. The Democrats flipped at least 38 seats in the US House. They will have at least 30 more seats than the Republicans. In the US Senate, the Democrats were defending ten seats in states that Trump won but lost only three of them. Meanwhile, Democrats won two Senate seats from Republicans (Arizona and Nevada). [2]

Furthermore, without the gerrymandering and voter suppression done by Republicans, Democrats would likely have won at least a dozen more seats in the US House. For example, in North Carolina, Democratic candidates for the US House got 50% of the overall vote, but only 3 out of 13 seats. With fairly drawn districts, the Democrats would have gotten 3 or 4 more seats in North Carolina alone.

With votes still being counted, it seems certain that in the overall popular vote for US House candidates, Democrats will have at least 7% more votes than Republicans. This would make the 2018 blue wave bigger than the Republicans’ waves in 2010 (President Obama’s first mid-term election) and in 1994 (President Clinton’s first mid-term election). [3]

The mainstream (corporate) media and others who fear a resurgence of progressive values and policies (such as universal health insurance, a $15 minimum wage, and free public higher education) have inaccurately characterized the Democrats’ successes as coming from moderates. They claim that where Democrats ran progressive candidates, they lost. However, to make this argument, they have had to define as moderates many candidates who support progressive policies. [4] For example, of the 60 new incoming Democratic House members, 45 have publicly supported expanding Medicare (including 20 who support Medicare for All), 42 have publicly supported increasing the minimum wage, 49 support campaign finance reform, 48 support reducing prescription drug prices, and 41 support unions.

Overall, 65% of new House members support expanding Medicare or Social Security, while 82% rejected corporate PAC money for their campaigns and / or support campaign finance reform. (Even before the election, the House’s Expand Social Security Caucus had 150 members and the Medicare for All Caucus had over 70 members.) [5]

The Democratic blue wave was also clearly present in state election results. Democrats picked up at least seven governorships (with Florida and Georgia still undecided), three Attorneys General, 50 state Senate seats, and 200 state House seats. There are now 14 states where Democrats hold the governorship and control of both houses of the legislature, up from 8. Republicans hold similar control in 21 states, down from 26. In fourteen states, the parties share control of state government. [6]

Even in deep red Texas, where O’Rourke lost the US Senate race, Democrats picked up two US House seats, two state Senate seats, 11 seats in the state House, and four appeals court judges. In addition, a slate of 17 black women was swept into offices in Harris County. [7]

So, although Democrats and progressives did not win everything they tried for, there was a strong blue wave for Democrats and it had a strong progressive tint to it.

In my next posts, I will provide an overview of the results of the many ballot initiatives that were voted on and then share some thoughts on policy changes that should be high on the House Democrats’ agenda.

[1]      Ballotpedia, retrieved 11/15/128, “Election results, 2018,” https://ballotpedia.org/Election_results,_2018

[2]      Walsh, J., 11/13/18, “Yes, there was a big blue wave last week,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/midterm-elections-democrats-left/)

[3]      Yglesias, M., 11/13/18, “Democrats’ blue wave was much larger than early takes suggested,” Vox (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/11/13/18082490/blue-wave)

[4]      Walsh, J., 11/13/18, see above

[5]      Green, A., 11/15/18, “The midterms prove it: Progressive ideas are now mainstream,” The Washington Post

[6]      Ballotpedia, see above

[7]      Yglesias, M., 11/13/18, see above

CORPORATE MEDIA THREATEN OUR DEMOCRACY Part 2

Senator Bernie Sanders’ book, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In  [1] includes a chapter titled, Corporate Media and the Threat to Our Democracy. I summarized its information on the six huge media corporations that control 90% of what we see, hear, and read in my previous post.

Senator Sanders experienced firsthand the control and power the six huge media corporations have when he ran for President. Certainly initially, and probably throughout the whole campaign, his candidacy received less coverage than other candidates. Perhaps this was because many of the issues he raised and discussed were ones that made corporate executives uncomfortable. Senator Sanders summarized his experience as follows: “as a general rule of thumb, the more important an issue is to large numbers of working people, the less interesting it is to the corporate media. … Further, issues being pushed by the top 1 percent get a lot of attention.” (page 421)

As an example, Sanders cites the coverage of the assertion that Social Security’s benefits needed to be cut because, supposedly, money to pay them would soon run out. The financial challenges facing Social Security were exaggerated and solutions other than cutting benefits were largely ignored by the corporate media. Sanders and others organized a broad coalition in opposition to Social Security cuts that included AARP and virtually every other seniors’ organization in the country, the American Legion and every major veterans’ group, the AFL-CIO representing 13 million workers, the largest organizations in the country representing people with disabilities, the National Organization of Women (NOW), and others.

A press conference opposing cuts to Social Security benefits was held by this broad coalition, which represented tens of millions of Americans, along with U.S. Senators and Representatives. It received almost no coverage from the corporate media. Similarly, throughout the presidential campaign, many issues that Sanders raised got little to no coverage from the big media corporations, including economic inequality, poverty, Native American issues, the housing crisis, climate change, fracking, and a single-payer health care system. On the other hand, the topics of how much money each candidate had raised, when Sanders was going to formally announce his candidacy, and when he was going to drop out and endorse Clinton received lots of attention from the corporate media.

The corporate media view politics and elections as entertainment and a way to capture attention (and therefore revenue). They do not take responsibility for helping to build an informed American electorate. They are large corporations whose goal is to make as much money as they can for their shareholders and executives.

These media corporations rely on billions of dollars in advertising from the pharmaceutical, auto, financial, health insurance, and fossil fuel industries (among others). This advertising revenue presents conflicts of interest for the media corporations’ executives’ decisions on the reporting of news. Viewers and readers would be naïve to think that news coverage – or lack of coverage – is not influenced by the interests of large advertisers.

The media corporations have a perspective on what is important and worthy of coverage, and what is not. Few of the journalists who work for them cross the boundaries of the corporate perspective. As Senator Sanders writes:

“Over the course of my political life [roughly 45 years] I cannot recall a mainstream journalist coming up to me and asking what I was going to do to end the scourge of poverty in this country, or how I was going to combat the disgraceful level of income and wealth inequality, or what role I would play in ending the influence of big money in politics. Those, and many similar issues, are just not what the corporate media considers important. And my strong guess is that if by mistake, or in some state of confusion, a reporter for the corporate media started asking those types of questions, he or she would not last long with the company.” (page 436)

Concentrated, corporate ownership of the media limits the points of view and the information Americans receive. It limits cross-cultural and cross-class awareness and knowledge. It tends to break us into factions rather than building community in our diverse country. This is not good for democracy.

Furthermore, mergers are in various stages of consideration that could reduce the six corporate media giants to only three. Therefore, media concentration is likely to increase further in the near future, unless we and regulatory government agencies take a stand against it.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has eliminated net neutrality, which gives more market place power to the big media corporations through their control of Internet access.

I encourage you to take action to stop mergers among the giant media corporations and to work to ensure net neutrality. If you want more information about these issues, including how you can take action on them, go to freepress.net. There, you can join with hundreds of thousands of other engaged Americans to fight to save the free and open internet, curb runaway media consolidation, protect press freedom, and ensure diverse voices are represented in our media.

You can also review my earlier post, Our failing mainstream media, that encourages the support of not-for-profit, public or consumer-funded media as a better model for a democracy than the current giant, for-profit, advertising-funded corporations. It identifies six broadcast, on-line, and print media outlets you can patronize and support as good sources of information and good alternatives to the corporate media.

[1]      Sanders, B., 2016, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In. St. Martin’s Press, NY, NY.

CORPORATE MEDIA THREATEN OUR DEMOCRACY Part 1

I’ve just finished reading Senator Bernie Sanders’ book, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In. [1] The first part (6 chapters) is about the campaign and is interesting if you’re a political junkie.

The second part (10 chapters) is the policy platform that was the basis for his run for the presidency. It includes chapters on health care, education, climate change, criminal justice, immigration, the middle class, an economy that works for everyone, and reclaiming our democracy. These chapters are interesting if you’re interested in any of these issues or in knowing how we can get back to a society that is fair and just and provides equal opportunity for all.

The chapter that had the biggest effect on me was the one titled, Corporate Media and the Threat to Our Democracy. This chapter identifies the six huge corporations that control 90% of what we see, hear, and read. Combined, they have over $275 billion in revenues and are controlled by 15 billionaires. (In 1983, 50 corporations controlled 90% of our media and that was a high level of concentration.) Today’s 6 media corporations, and some key information about them, are:

  • Comcast (Revenue: $56 billion in 2011) It owns NBC, Telemundo, USA Network, New England Cable News, and a portion of A&E, the History Channel, Lifetime, PBS KIDS Sprout, and Hulu, as well as much, much more. It wants to merge with Time Warner (see below).
  • Disney (Revenue: $40 billion in 2011) It owns ABC; ESPN; Marvel; 277 radio stations; music and book publishers; Touchstone, Miramax, and Pixar production companies; and majority stakes in A&E, the History Channel, and Lifetime; as well as much, much more.
  • News Corp (Revenue: $33 billion in 2011) It owns Fox, National Geographic, Dow Jones (which includes The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and Smart Money), the New York Post, TV Guide, the book publisher HarperCollins, Blue Sky Studios, and a portion of ESPN and Hulu, as well as much, much more.
  • Time Warner (Revenue: $29 billion in 2011) It owns CNN, HBO, TMZ, TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network, 22 magazines (including Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Life, Entertainment Weekly, Fortune, etc.), and much, much more. It wants to merge with Comcast (see above).
  • Viacom (Revenue $15 billion) It owns MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, Spike TV, BET, Paramount Pictures, and over 160 cable networks that reach over 600 million people, as well as much, much more.
  • CBS (Revenue $14 billion) It owns Showtime; Smithsonian; Simon & Schuster, Scribner, and Free Press book publishing; 130 radio stations; and much, much more.

Currently, Comcast and Time Warner, two of these corporate media giants, are proposing to merge, while two others, Disney and News Corp, are discussing a possible merger, and some shareholders are pressing the final two, CBS and Viacom, to merge. Therefore, media concentration is likely to increase further in the near future, unless we and regulatory government agencies take a stand against it.

These media giants play a huge role in shaping public consciousness and knowledge, and, therefore, affect political beliefs, the public’s understanding (or lack thereof) of policy issues, and election outcomes. Note that there are multiple joint ventures among these media giants, which further limit the variety of content available and provide opportunities for collusion.

Realistically, freedom of the press is accessible only to those who own a press, a radio or TV station, or a cable network, or who produce content distributed by these media outlets. Concentrated ownership of our news media means that a very few human beings, who have significant conflicts of interest (e.g., with advertising revenue), make the decisions about what news is presented and how. More importantly, they make decisions about what is NOT covered or reported.

In my next post, I’ll share some examples that Sanders gives of what’s covered and not covered by the corporate media and why. I’ll also identify some opportunities for action on the power of the giant media corporations and their threat to our democracy.

[1]      Sanders, B., 2016, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In. St. Martin’s Press, NY, NY.

OUR FAILING MAINSTREAM MEDIA

Our mainstream media are failing our democracy. In the last election, they provided almost no coverage of issues and policies, which should play a significant role in voters’ decisions. Even when issues or policies were mentioned, there was little fact checking or context provided, let alone analysis. Such in-depth reporting is critical to having an informed electorate, which is essential for a successful democracy.

Because the mainstream media are mostly huge, for-profit corporations, their focus is on the bottom line – on profits. Their revenue comes from advertising and is determined by how many people read or view their output. Revenue and readership / viewership are experiencing dramatic competition from on-line media. As the number of mainstream media users declines, the revenue per ad declines, so the ratio of ads to content goes up to retain as much revenue as possible. This detracts and distracts the viewer from the news that is presented.

To attract attention and eyeballs, the mainstream, corporate media have turned more and more to shocking, fear-mongering, or titillating stories at the expense of real news; in other words, to tabloid journalism. The phrase “if it bleeds, it leads,” has become all too true of the mainstream media. Crime, terrorism, violence, and tragedy are typically the leading stories because a story that engenders outrage, anger, or fear is more likely to attract viewers.

During the election, shock value was more salient than facts, in-depth details, or analysis. Coverage was more focused on generating emotional reactions than informing. As CBS’s Chairman put it, the shock value of Trump’s statements “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

This focus on the sensational and lack of depth reflect not only the need to attract viewers, but also the slashing of newsrooms’ budgets. To cut costs and increase profits, our corporate, mainstream media now employ roughly 40% fewer news reporters today than they did 10 years ago; and further cuts are coming. [1]

The mainstream “news” is increasingly what is often referred to as infotainment – a cross between information and entertainment. This means less factual content and more emotional content. For political reporting, this has meant the more shocking, outrageous, and emotion-provoking the statement or story, the better. Information and factual content on issues and policies is pushed aside as too boring and too costly to report. The only facts that seem to be reported are from the horse race perspective – who’s ahead in the latest poll and who has raised more money. Ironically, we now get some of our best political analysis from our entertainers, comedians such as Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, John Oliver, and Bill Maher.

The bottom line is that the business model of our corporate, mainstream media is not serving the best interests of our democracy. They are not providing citizens and voters with the information and analysis they need to participate meaningfully in our democracy.

A different business model is needed where news outlets are not huge corporations and are not dependent on advertising revenue. To deliver in-depth, fact-based reporting with context and analysis, not to mention investigative journalism, news outlets will require a significant portion of their revenue to come from public funding and / or readers’ / viewers’ donations. This will ensure that content is free of the coercive effects of advertising or other funders who have a vested, special interest in the news content.

For television and radio, we need our public broadcasting system (PBS). I encourage you to listen to or watch our public broadcasts and to support them financially. I urge you to be on the lookout for and to oppose efforts to cut PBS’s public funding or undermine its independence. It is essential to our democracy and over 40 other countries have highly respected public broadcasting systems, including the BBC in Great Britain and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Canada.

Finding reliable sources for print journalism (hardcopy and on-line) is not easy given all the junk and even fake news that are present on the Internet. For broad-based news coverage that includes coverage of issues of importance to our democracy, I recommend these five sources:

I hope you’ll go on-line and look at one of more of these. You may want to subscribe to their on-line news feeds or to their hardcopy publications (except for Common Dreams which is exclusively on-line). I guarantee you’ll be a better-informed citizen and voter if you do. If you don’t have time to follow one of these regularly, just keep following my blog. I’ll give you the highlights.

[1]      Bauerlein, M., 11/19/16, “How Trump played the media,” Mother Jones (http://www.motherjones.com/media/2016/11/trump-media-fail)

PROBLEMS WITH PRIVATIZED PRISONS

The problems with privatized prisons have come to public attention largely due to the investigative journalism of The Nation and Mother Jones. Their reporting underscores the importance and challenges of investigative journalism. It has become relatively routine for targets of investigative journalism to sue (or at least threaten to sue) the journalists and their publishers. Both corporate and government entities have built an ever stronger set of legal protections including employee non-disclosure agreements and other employer protection laws and legal precedents. The mainstream, corporate media have largely abandoned investigative journalism at least in part due to the threat of litigation and because news and reporting budgets have been slashed to increase profits.

When Mother Jones published its report based on a guard’s experiences at a private prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA, see overview and link below), it received a threatening letter from a law firm on behalf of CCA. It was the law firm that had represented a billionaire and large political campaign donor who had spent 3 years suing Mother Jones over its reporting of his anti-LGBT activities. Although the billionaire lost his case, the legal costs Mother Jones incurred in defending itself were a very serious financial burden. Furthermore, he pledged $1 million to support others who might want to sue Mother Jones over its reporting. [1] Needless to say, this type of aggressive behavior by the subjects of investigative reporting puts a chill on this valuable kind of journalism.

The Nation’s investigative reporting was based on reviewing a large number of documents from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in the US Department of Justice. The documents were obtained only after a lengthy and costly process using the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to these public records.

The records showed that the Bureau of Prisons’ monitors had documented, between January 2007 and June 2015, the deaths of 34 inmates who were provided substandard medical care in the BOP’s private prisons. Fourteen of these deaths occurred in prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America, while fifteen were in prisons operated by the GEO Group. These two corporations are the largest operators of for-profit prisons. [2]

Despite this and other documentation of serious problems at the for-profit prisons, top BOP officials repeatedly failed to enforce the remediation of dangerous deficiencies and routinely extended contracts for the prisons. This was due, at least in part, to a cozy relationship between BOP leadership and the private-prison operators because of the revolving door of personnel between the BOP and the private providers. In 2011, for example, Harley Lappin, who had served as the Director of the BOP for eight years, left to join CCA as executive vice president. There he earned more than $1.6 million in one year; roughly 10 times his salary at BOP. Two previous BOP Directors, J. Michael Quinlan and Norman Carlson, had gone to work for CCA and the GEO Group, respectively. Five BOP employees recalled the former BOP Directors participating in meetings between the BOP and the contractor for whom they worked. The BOP employees felt this influenced decisions that were made and made taking disciplinary action against the contractors difficult.

Mother Jones magazine’s investigative reporting was done by Shane Bauer, a reporter who spent 4 months as a guard at one of CCA’s private prisons in Louisiana. [3] He found that cost cutting was a focus of both the state and CCA. Employee costs made up 59% of CCA’s operating expenses and therefore were a key target for cost-cutting. Starting guards at Bauer’s CCA facility made only $9 per hour while those at public prisons in the state made $12.50. To further save money and increase profits, the CCA facility was typically under-staffed. The facility’s guard towers were unmanned on a regular basis and staffing inside the facility was typically 10% – 20% below standard. Lockdowns, where prisoners can’t leave their wing of the prison, were supposed to be punishments for major disturbances, but they also occurred over holidays and other times when there simply weren’t enough guards to run the prison. Security checks on prisoners were logged as being done even when they weren’t because of understaffing. However, when the state’s Department of Correction was coming for an inspection, guards were required to work overtime so the facility was fully staffed.

As a result of under-staffing and perhaps under-training (another cost-cutting strategy), the use of force or chemical agents, typically pepper spray, occurred more often at the CCA prison than at comparable facilities: twice as often for force and 7 times as often for chemical agents. With 1,500 inmates, 546 sexual offenses were reported at Bauer’s prison in 2014, 69% higher than at a comparable government-run facility. Between 2010 and 2015, CCA was sued more than 1,000 times nationwide, with approximately 3% of the cases involving a death, 6% sexual harassment or assault, 10% physical violence, 15% injuries, 15% medical care issues, and 16% prison conditions and treatment.

Louisiana’s efforts to cut costs and use contractors to run cheap prisons was reflected in the $34 per inmate per day that it paid CCA, while funding for state-run prisons was about $52. In addition, the inflation-adjusted cost per prisoner at the CCA facility Bauer worked at had dropped by 20% between the late 1990s and 2014.

CCA has an incentive to keep prisoners in its prisons in order to maximize revenue. An inmate can be charged with an infraction of the rules and lose credit for good behavior. This can mean that an inmate stays in prison an extra 30 days and that CCA gets paid an additional $1,000.

In Louisiana, the state also had an incentive to keep the prison full because CCA’s contract with the state required that CCA get paid for a minimum of 96% of full occupancy. Occupancy guarantees are common in private prison contracts and are one aspect of privatization that leads to perverse incentives for the state. The state’s incentive to keep the prison full may mean that prisoners who could be released are kept in prison or that the criminal justice system is pressured to arrest and sentence enough people to ensure that the prison is full.

CCA has been very active politically through lobbying and campaign contributions. Since 1998, CCA has spent $23 million on lobbying the federal government. Since 1990, it and its employees have contributed more than $6 million to candidates and other political activity. It has lobbied for high levels of incarceration. It co-chaired the criminal justice task force of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate and conservative think tank that drafts and promotes state-level legislation. Among the pieces of legislation it has promoted are mandatory sentencing laws, punitive immigration reform, and truth-in-sentencing laws, all of which helped fuel the growing prison population of the 1990s.

CCA and other for-profit prison corporations aggressively lobbied Congress in 2009 for a minimum number of undocumented immigrants to be in private detention centers. They succeeded; US taxpayers are required by law to pay for a daily minimum of 34,000 beds in private detention centers. [4] These corporations have also lobbied against bills in Congress that would require private prisons to be subject to public information laws, such as the Freedom of Information Act. Such bills have been introduced at least 8 times in Congress, but have failed to pass each time.

These are examples of the problems and issues with private prisons, and with privatization in general. The problems with the private prisons were severe and intractable enough that the BOP concluded that it had to terminate its use of them. The BOP’s experiences and decision to end privatization should be kept in mind as other privatization efforts are reviewed or proposed.

[1]       Jeffery, C., July/August 2016, “Why we sent a reporter to work as a private prison guard,” Mother Jones (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/06/cca-private-prisons-investigative-journalism-editors-note)

[2]       Wessler, S.F., 6/15/16, “Federal officials ignored years of internal warnings about deaths at private prisons,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/federal-officials-ignored-years-of-internal-warnings-about-deaths-at-private-prisons/)

[3]       Bauer, S., July / August 2016, “My four months as a private prison guard,” Mother Jones (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/06/cca-private-prisons-corrections-corporation-inmates-investigation-bauer)

[4]       Editorial, 8/27/16, “Dump private prisons – all of them,” The Boston Globe

DEMOCRACY IS AWAKENING, BUT NOT IN THE CORPORATE MEDIA

One of the goals of this blog is to provide information on policy and politics that the mainstream corporate media fails to provide. One of the most blatant examples of news ignored by the corporate media is last month’s Democracy Awakening protests.

The Democracy Awakening protests were undertaken to highlight the issues of money in politics and abridgements of voting rights. Starting on April 2 under the banner of Democracy Spring (http://www.democracyspring.org/), over 100 people marched the 140 miles from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, where our democracy was founded, to Washington, D.C. In conjunction with Democracy Awakening (http://democracyawakening.org/), a week of protests, meetings with Congress men and women, and civil disobedience in Washington followed. By the end of the week, over 1,200 people had been arrested for civil disobedience, the largest such protests in decades.

The coverage of any of this in the mainstream corporate media was minimal at best. The most covered element of it was that Ben and Jerry (of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream) were arrested for civil disobedience. This warranted one story each on CBS, in the New York Times, and in the Boston Globe. This was the only coverage that showed up in a search of their websites, other than a letter to the editor in the Times. NBC had one story and ABC had three.

Democracy Awakening is a broad coalition of over 100 groups, including organizations representing campaign finance reform efforts, labor, environmental issues, students, and the racial justice and civil rights movements. They have coalesced with a shared belief that progress on the broad range of policy issues they care about will not occur until we combat attacks on voting rights and the corruption of our elections and democracy by big money.

The reason for civil disobedience at the Capitol was that Congress has refused to act on the issues of voting rights and campaign finance despite the overwhelming support of the American public across party affiliation, even including many in the “Tea Party.” Presidents Obama and Clinton made campaign promises to address these issues but did not follow through.

This lack of action by Congress is not because there aren’t bills that would address these issues. Ninety members of the House have signed a letter demanding action on four bills and a resolution that reflect the Democracy Awakening agenda:

  1. HR 12: Makes it easier for citizens to vote and increases the verifiability of voting results. It would require on-line and same-day voter registration, along with early voting and voting by mail. It would require voter-verified paper ballots and audits of voting results.
  2. HR 2694: Makes voter registration automatic.
  3. HR 2867: Restores some of the protections of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court voided in 2013.
  4. HR 20: Provides incentives for small contributions to candidates for Congress and takes steps to reduce the influence of big money in our elections. It establishes a 50% tax credit for small contributions, bans the joint committee fundraising that has led to contributors giving checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates, and improves disclosure by requiring candidates’ financial reports to be electronic.
  5. Resolution 22: Proposes a constitutional amendment that would reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United and other cases that have allowed unlimited campaign spending by wealthy individuals and corporations, and have also given corporations and other organizations rights under the Bill of Rights that were meant for human beings.

Democracy Awakening is part of a broad effort to mobilize voters and increase participation in our elections. In the 2014 Congressional elections, barely a third of eligible voters voted. The current paralysis in Washington, hyper-partisanship, and negative campaign ads have left voters so disillusioned and cynical that they see no point in participating in our democracy and, therefore, disengage.

We need to re-awaken participation in our democracy. Without informed and engaged citizens, and without high levels of participation, our democracy will not be of, by, and for the people, because special interests will take control and bend public policy to their benefit.

I encourage you to learn more about the Democracy Awakening effort and to sign-up to be informed about this effort at its website: http://democracyawakening.org/. I also encourage you to “Follow” this blog (if you haven’t already) and to sign-up for Bill Moyers’ newsletter, where much of the information for this post came from (http://billmoyers.com/; click on “Newsletter” and enter your email address to subscribe).

IMPORTANT ISSUES FOR THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN

ABSTRACT: There’s no shortage of important issues facing the U.S. today. As candidates announce their intention to run for president, it will be interesting to see which issues they make priorities and which issues the mainstream corporate media decide to cover. Many candidates and the mainstream media are likely to avoid the issues of the struggling middle and working classes and of the growing inequality of income and wealth.

However, MoveOn.org and Robert Reich have teamed up to present 10 important issues for supporting the middle and working classes, reclaiming our democracy from moneyed interests, and saving our planet. Reich does a 3 minute video on each issue.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Democratic candidate for President, has a similar focus. If these issues resonate with you, I encourage you to follow Senator Sanders’ campaign. If you want these issues to be discussed in the campaign, give him some support during the primary.

FULL POST: There’s no shortage of important issues facing the U.S. today. As candidates announce their intention to run for president, it will be interesting to see which issues they make priorities. It will also be interesting to see which issues the mainstream media – the big corporate media – decide to cover. Many candidates and the mainstream media are likely to avoid the issues of the struggling middle and working classes and of the growing inequality of income and wealth. However, there are efforts to explicitly put these issues in the spotlight.

MoveOn.org and Robert Reich [1] have teamed up to present “10 Big Ideas to Save the Economy.” These are 10 important issues for supporting the middle and working classes, reclaiming our democracy from moneyed interests, and saving our planet. The corporate media and many candidates will avoid them. Therefore, MoveOn and Reich are using social media to try and bring these ten issues to voters’ attention. The issues are:

  • Enacting a $15 minimum wage
  • Supporting working families through equal pay for women, predictable work schedules, quality child care, and paid leave
  • Expanding Social Security
  • Reining in Wall Street
  • Reinventing education
  • Ending corporate welfare
  • Strengthening workers’ bargaining power through stronger unions
  • Increasing the estate tax
  • Implementing a carbon tax to cut pollution and address global warming
  • Getting big money out of politics

I’ve done blog posts on the first five and will do posts on the others soon. In the posts, I include a link to the 3 minute video that Robert Reich does to explain each one.

There’s one Democratic candidate for President, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose campaign has a similar focus on the middle and working classes and on inequality. Although the mainstream (corporate) media tend to describe him as a fringe candidate and highlight his socialist political label, his positions on issues are very well aligned with what the voting public supports. For example, he supports: [2] [3] [4]

  • Providing universal pre-kindergarten – supported by 77% of the public
  • Reducing income and wealth inequality – supported by 63% of the public
  • Fair trade that protect workers, the environment, and jobs – supported by 75% of the public
  • Increasing taxes on the rich – supported by 52% of the public
  • Expanding Social Security – supported by 70% of the public
  • Breaking up the big banks – supported by 58% of the public
  • Making higher education more affordable – supported by 79% of the public
  • Reducing the burden of student debt – supported by 78% of the public
  • Ending tax loopholes for corporations that ship jobs overseas – supported by 74% of the public
  • Closing offshore corporate tax loopholes – supported by 70% of the public
  • Addressing climate change – supported by 71% of the public
  • Getting big money out of politics – supported by over 70% of the public across party lines

If Senator Sanders’ positions on these issues resonate with you, I encourage you to follow to his campaign. If you want these issues to be discussed in the campaign, give him some support during the primary. His campaign website is https://berniesanders.com/.

[1]       Robert Reich was President Clinton’s Secretary of Labor and MoveOn.org is the progressive, grassroots organization promoting participation in our democracy.

[2]       Moyers, B., & Winship M., 6/3/15, “Turn left on Main Street,” Moyers & Company (http://billmoyers.com/2015/06/03/turn-left-main-street/?utm_source=General+Interest&utm_campaign=512c7d35f1-Midweek12171412_17_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_4ebbe6839f-512c7d35f1-168350969)

[3]       Cole, J., 5/29/15, “Despite what corporate media tells you, Bernie Sanders’ positions are mainstream,” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/05/29/how-mainstream-bernie-sanders)

[4]       Progressive Change Institute, Jan. 2015, “Poll of likely 2016 voters,” (https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.boldprogressives.org/images/Big_Ideas-Polling_PDF-1.pdf)

WHY GOVERNMENT DOESN’T GET CREDIT FOR ITS SUCCESSES

ABSTRACT: Government rarely gets credit for its successful programs and initiatives in the media or among the public. On the other hand, government failures or shortcomings get lots of attention. One reason is that denigrating government is at the heart of the political strategy of small government proponents and special interests who want large corporations and the wealthy to control our economy. Furthermore, there is no one presenting a forceful argument that government is a necessary part of a functioning society and that government does a lot of good.

Governments are needed, for example, to regulate the economy, protect civil rights, and ensure public safety. There are certain societal functions that only the shared enterprise of government can provide including public education, retirement security, infrastructure such as roads and bridges, a criminal justice system, and a safety net for those who experience life’s misfortunes.

A series of events over the last 50 years has divided the country and created resentment and mistrust of government policies. These experiences have been in sharp contrast to the unifying nature of the recovery from the Great Depression, World War II, and the widespread economic prosperity of the 1950s.

The active and purposeful government-denigrating forces have spent the last 35 years undermining government effectiveness. By under-funding and weakening government programs, the positive effects of government have been lessened and failures made more likely.

Among the public, the benefits of government are often taken for granted, seem to be going to other people, or are invisible or not visibly connected to government. Even direct government benefits are often taken for granted, including unemployment payments, Social Security and Medicare, public education, student loans for higher education, and the income tax deduction for interest on one’s home mortgage. Many people who have received such benefits say they have never benefited from a government program.

The media should cover government success stories with at least the same level of attention they give to stories of government shortcomings and should reject fear mongering and government bashing that is political and unfounded. The American public needs balanced coverage of government, including reporting of all the good government does.

FULL POST: Government rarely gets credit for its successful programs and initiatives in the media or among the public. On the other hand, government failures or shortcomings get lots of attention. [1] There are a range of reasons for this phenomenon. One is that denigrating government is at the heart of the political strategy of small government proponents and special interests who want large corporations and the wealthy to control our economy.

Furthermore, there is no one presenting a forceful argument that government is a necessary part of a functioning society and that government does a lot of good. Governments are needed, for example, to regulate the economy, protect civil rights, and ensure public safety. There are certain societal functions that only the shared enterprise of government can provide including public education, retirement security, infrastructure such as roads and bridges, a criminal justice system, and a safety net for those who experience life’s misfortunes. However, there is no organization or political group with anywhere near the clout of the government bashers that is promoting the good things government does and should do in well-functioning society.

Faith in government has been falling in polls for 50 years. A series of events has divided the country and created resentment and mistrust of government policies, including:

  • Resurgent racism over the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty of the 1960s;
  • Disenchantment with the Vietnam War in the 1970s;
  • Disillusionment over the Watergate political scandal in the 1970s;
  • The small government, pro-corporation, and anti-labor rhetoric and policies beginning in the 1980s;
  • The North American Free Trade Treaty of the 1990s;
  • The Iraq War of the 2000s; and the current
  • Racial bias evident in law enforcement and incarceration;
  • Unjustified barriers to voting in some states; and
  • The slow economic recovery and growing inequality.

These experiences have been in sharp contrast to the unifying nature of the recovery from the Great Depression, World War II, and the widespread economic prosperity of the 1950s.

The active and purposeful government-denigrating forces have spent the last 35 years undermining government effectiveness. They say that taxes – government revenue – can be cut without reducing government services or benefits. Unfortunately, the American public has been willing to believe this promise of a free lunch. Until recently, it hasn’t noticed the deterioration in government services and supports, as well as the decaying of public infrastructure that has inevitably resulted from reducing government revenue. By under-funding and weakening government programs, their positive effects have been lessened and their failures made more likely. And the anti-government crowd is all too happy to point the finger and say, “See, government doesn’t work,” when the then inevitable shortcomings become evident. As a result, the public’s perception of government has been undermined as well.

This makes it hard for those who support the positive role of government because they have to criticize the weak, poorly performing government programs to make their argument for strengthening them. This criticism often just adds to the negativity surrounding government.

Among the public, the benefits of government are often taken for granted, seem to be going to other people, or are invisible or not visibly connected to government. For example, the government’s successful response to the Ebola crisis was taken for granted by many, seemed remote and as benefiting other people to others, and was connected to hospitals and medical personnel not to the government that had funded and supported them. The public isn’t left with a strong, positive impression of government when it acts to avoid a worse outcome, as in the Ebola crisis or the response to the 2008 financial collapse and recession. In particular, with the economic recovery, it is hard to get the public to acknowledge that things are better than they might have been when they are still not great. Let alone to give kudos to government for a job well-done in such a situation.

The Affordable Care Act is an example of where the immediate benefits for most people were hardly noticeable. Most people already had health insurance and for those who didn’t, the benefit of having health insurance is clear only when you are sick and need it. Therefore, requiring everyone to have health insurance, which has a great societal benefit and a long-term personal benefit, can feel, in the short-term, like a burden to those who are healthy. Similarly, the benefit of the ban on denying coverage for a pre-existing condition only becomes evident when one has to change one’s health insurer, which may not happen immediately. Moreover, when it does happen, the ability to get new health insurance is often taken for granted.

Other government benefits that are taken for granted, and only get attention when there is a breakdown or failure, include public safety, roads, and bridges. Even direct government benefits are often taken for granted, including unemployment payments, Social Security and Medicare, public education, student loans for higher education, and the income tax deduction for interest on one’s home mortgage. Surveys indicate that 60% of the people who have taken the home mortgage interest deduction say they have never benefited from a government program. Similarly, many people who have received student loans or unemployment benefits say they have never benefited from a government program. And virtually no one who has attended public schools, driven on our public roads, or felt safe in public recognizes that they have benefited from a government program.

The media should cover government success stories with at least the same level of attention they give to stories of government shortcomings and should reject fear mongering and government bashing that is political and unfounded. The American public needs balanced coverage of government, including reporting of all the good government does. Unfortunately, that is not the case with current media coverage.

You can contribute to achieving a better balance in the media coverage of government by writing letters or emails to the editors of media outlets with stories of government successes and posting them on social media. You can also write to criticize negative stories and the lack of balance and objectivity in the coverage of government. A democracy requires an accurately informed public and the media today are not doing a good job of providing accurate information about the role government plays.

[1]       Cohn, J. Spring 2015. “Why public silence greets government success,” The American Prospect (Much of my post is a summary of this article.)

GOVERNMENT SUCCESSES RARELY GET ATTENTION

ABSTRACT: There are many examples of successful government programs and initiatives but they rarely get much attention in the media or among the public. On the other hand, government failures or shortcomings get lots of attention. The media, and in particular right wing talk radio and Fox, along with “conservative” and libertarian politicians, fan the flames of supposed government failure at every opportunity.

Remember the Ebola crisis of last fall? The right wing media and politicians severely criticized the government for not reacting appropriately, stated that government could not be trusted to handle the situation, and predicted an epidemic here in the U.S. There was no epidemic here. The few patients were treated in facilities funded, designed, and/or supported by our government with great success. However, this success of government policies and facilities got very little attention or acknowledgement.

As another example, the largely successful U.S. government’s response to the 2008 financial debacle almost certainly prevented a worldwide depression. It softened the recession here and put the U.S. on a better track toward recovery than has happened in Europe. However, the government got little credit for keeping us out of a depression or a much worse recession.

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), tens of millions of people now have health insurance who didn’t before. Many of these families are now avoiding financial distress and bankruptcy due to medical bills because they have health insurance. The ACA has probably contributed to the slowing of the increase in health care costs and it clearly hasn’t generated the runaway inflation in health care costs that its critics predicted. Despite the tangible and significant successes of the ACA, the media coverage of it is largely negative as is a large portion of the public’s perception of it.

FULL POST: There are many examples of successful government programs and initiatives, but they rarely get much attention in the media or among the public. On the other hand, government failures or shortcomings get lots of attention; they are blasted across the headlines and blared out by talk radio and social media. [1] It seems that every member of the public has a story of a government failure on the tip of his or her tongue, but has a hard time identifying something positive to say about government.

The media, and in particular right wing talk radio and Fox, along with “conservative” and libertarian politicians, fan the flames of supposed government failure at every opportunity (including contrived ones). From President Reagan’s statement that government isn’t the solution it’s the problem to today’s Tea Party and the undermine-President-Obama-at-any-cost Republicans, denigrating government is in the forefront of these politicians’ political strategy.

Remember the Ebola crisis of last fall? The right wing media and politicians severely criticized the government for not reacting appropriately, stated that government could not be trusted to handle the situation, and predicted an epidemic here in the U.S. Fear mongering ran rampant. But what happened? There was no epidemic here; every one of the small handful of people who contracted the disease in the U.S. recovered, along with a number of others with the disease who were evacuated to the U.S. from Africa. Patients were treated in facilities funded, designed, and/or supported by our government. However, this success of government policies and facilities got very little attention or acknowledgement. The critics didn’t apologize and admit they were wrong, let alone thank the government for a job well-done. The media didn’t cover this success with anywhere near the attention it gave to the criticism and fear mongering.

As another example, the largely successful U.S. government’s response to the 2008 financial debacle, caused by irresponsible behavior by large Wall Street corporations, almost certainly prevented a worldwide depression. The bailout of the financial corporations prevented a full blown collapse of the financial sector worldwide. The economic stimulus bill, formally the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, created about 3 million jobs and kept the unemployment rate 2% lower than it would have been according to most economists. (See my blog post of 9/13/12 for more detail.) It accomplished this despite political opposition that limited the dollar amount of the stimulus and, consequently, its beneficial effects. Nonetheless, it softened the recession here and put the U.S. on a better track toward recovery than has happened in Europe. The slow but steady recovery has also been supported by the policies of the Federal Reserve.

However, the government got little credit for keeping us out of a depression or a much worse recession. It is interesting to note that Congress people who vociferously criticized the stimulus in Washington would tout the jobs it had created when they were at home in their districts.

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), often called Obama Care in an effort to politicize it, tens of millions of people now have health insurance who didn’t before. (This number would be substantially higher if Republican Governors and legislatures had cooperated with the ACA. See my blog post of 8/13/14 for more detail.) Thanks to the ACA:

  • Millions of young adults in their early twenties can and do now stay on their parents’ health insurance;
  • Millions of people with pre-existing health conditions can now change jobs, go back to school to further their education, or start their own businesses because they can’t be denied health insurance if they switch insurance providers; and
  • Many families are now avoiding financial distress and bankruptcy due to medical bills because they now have health insurance to pay them.

Furthermore, the ACA has probably contributed to the slowing of the increase in health care costs and it clearly hasn’t generated the runaway inflation in them that its critics predicted.

Despite these tangible and significant successes of the ACA, the media coverage of it is largely negative as is a large portion of the public’s perception of it.

Another example is the arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors at the Mexican border last summer. Right wing media and politicians blamed the Obama administration for causing the problem and failing to respond appropriately. This crisis was a major news story. In reality, the problem was caused by a spike in violence in three Central American countries and weak, disrupted economies in part due to the NAFTA trade treaty and other long-standing issues. The Obama administration responded with an improved and expedited process for handling the immigration of these children, as well as diplomacy and economic support to address the issues in the three countries. Within three months, the arrival of unaccompanied minors dwindled and the crisis was solved. But coverage and acknowledgement of this success was, for the most part, nowhere to been seen or heard.

My next post will go into more detail on why the government rarely gets credit for or acknowledgement of its successes.

[1]       Cohn, J. Spring 2015. “Why public silence greets government success,” The American Prospect (Much of my post is a summary of this article.)

OUR ELECTIONS ARE ALL ABOUT THE MONEY

ABSTRACT: Although the next presidential election is over 20 months away, there is already media attention focused on who can and who is raising the most money. The top lobbyists / bundlers raise over $1 million for candidates’ campaigns. If this isn’t a blatant way of buying influence, I don’t know what is. A Washington, D.C., lawyer and political activist formed a super PAC that raised $145 million for Romney’s campaign in 2012. Presidential candidate Jeb Bush is holding $100,000 per person fundraisers. He plans to hold 60 fundraisers before April 1, an average of nearly one per day.

The money race is the real race; the actual courting of voters and voting is secondary. The savvy, hard-working, profit-driven individuals making large campaign contributions are looking for a return on their investment. And they get it through government actions that benefit their interests. This, in a nutshell, is the legalized corruption of the political system of our supposed democracy.

We must reform our system of financing election campaigns. Two essential elements are:

  • Reversing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and related decisions, and
  • Establishing campaign financing systems where small contributions to viable candidates are matched by public funds so candidates can be competitive based on support from every day citizens and voters instead of being dependent on wealthy individuals and interest groups.

 

FULL POST: Although the next presidential election is over 20 months away, it is already getting quite a bit of media attention. Little of that attention is focused on the policies that the possible candidates support. Much of the attention is focused on who can and who is raising the most money.

On the Republican side, Romney’s decision not to run has set off a scramble among other possible candidates to win over his financial backers. Romney’s top five lobbyists / bundlers each raised over $1 million for his campaign. These lobbyists for powerful corporate interests solicited campaign contributions from multiple individuals and political action committees (PACs) and presented them in aggregate (i.e., a bundle) to Romney’s campaign. If this isn’t a blatant way of buying influence, I don’t know what is. The top lobbyist / bundler was Bill Graves, president of the American Truckers Association and former Governor of Kansas.

Announced presidential candidate Jeb Bush has been aggressively wooing the Romney fundraisers and others. He began active fundraising last November, two years before the election. In a recent week, he held a $100,000 per person fundraiser in New York, two fundraisers in Washington, D.C., and two in Chicago. He told his audience of lobbyists, CEOs, and corporate industry group representatives that he plans to hold 60 fundraisers before April 1, an average of nearly one per day. Charlie Spies, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and political activist, who formed a super PAC that raised $145 million for Romney’s campaign is now working with a newly formed super PAC supporting Bush. [1]

The money race is the real race; the actual courting of voters and voting is secondary. Is this really the way we want to be selecting candidates for President (or any office) in a democracy? Is this really how we want our candidates to be spending their time? Is this really what we want the media to be reporting about the candidates – how many fundraisers they are having, how much money they are raising, and who is providing them with huge amounts of money? Do we really want our candidates courting and being indebted to these wealthy individuals and interest groups?

The savvy, hard-working, profit-driven individuals making large campaign contributions are looking for a return on their investment. And they get it through government actions that benefit their interests. As one example of such a return, the Koch brothers spent in excess of $100 million in the 2014 federal election, primarily, if not exclusively, in support of Republican candidates. The new Republican-controlled Congress just happened to fast-track a vote on a bill mandating the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The Koch brothers and their corporations lease oil rights on more than a million acres of land in the Alberta tar sands region from which the pipeline would transport oil. The construction of the pipeline would increase the value of their leases by an estimated $100 million! [2] This is just one example of the kind of payback wealthy campaign donors get. And the Koch brothers have just announced their intention to spend close to a billion dollars in the 2016 elections.

This, in a nutshell, is the legalized corruption of the political system of our supposed democracy. We are well down the road to a plutocracy (where the wealth elites rule) or a corporatocracy (where the corporations rule). I’m not sure there’s much difference, actually. (See my post on 7/21/14 for more detail.)

We must reform our system of financing election campaigns or we will lose our democracy – government of, by, and for the people. Reforming campaign financing will not be easy or quick. Two essential elements are:

  • Reversing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and related decisions that equate money with speech and give corporations the free speech rights of the Bill of Rights (see my post on 1/11/15 for more detail), and
  • Establishing campaign financing systems, such as those in Arizona, Maine, and New York City, where small contributions to viable candidates are matched by public funds so candidates can be competitive based on support from every day citizens and voters instead of being dependent on wealthy individuals and interest groups (see my post on 7/25/14 for more detail).

[1]       Viser, M, 2/14/15, “Bush pressing to lock in Romney’s donors,” The Boston Globe

[2]       Hightower, J., 12/14, “Koch Kongress: The best money can buy,” The Hightower Lowdown (http://www.hightowerlowdown.org/)

WHERE O WHERE HAS INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM GONE?

ABSTRACT: Investigative journalism, especially by the mainstream media, is rare these days. Yet it is critical to an informed citizenry, which in turn is critical to a successful democracy. On a recent Bill Moyers TV show, “The lies that lead to war,” Moyers and his guest, investigative journalist Charles Lewis, explore the value of investigative journalism and the reasons for its scarcity. Currently, Lewis says, the media largely just report what those in positions of authority and power tell them, with very little analysis or commentary.

Part of the reason for this is that the corporate, for-profit mainstream media have cut the budgets and staffing of news operations and investigative journalism. The media also have a conflict of interest: they don’t want to alienate elected and corporate officials because they want them as sources for stories and appearances on TV shows.

The Obama administration has been very aggressive in discouraging the leaking of information to members of the media. It has prosecuted leakers. The likelihood that leakers will be caught is high given the extensive surveillance that’s in place. In addition, the Obama administration has been very aggressive in prosecuting investigative journalists. Obama has used the Espionage Act against journalists far more than any other president.

We need good and unintimidated investigative journalism. The whole reason for including freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights was so that the media could report information that those in power and with authority might want to keep hidden. Knowledge in the hands of an informed citizenry is essential to the success of democracy.

FULL POST: Investigative journalism, especially by the mainstream media, is rare these days. Yet it is critical to an informed citizenry, which in turn is critical to a successful democracy. Investigative journalism uncovers and publicizes revealing information not available elsewhere that often has been purposely kept from the public.

According to Wikipedia, “Investigative journalism is a form of journalism in which reporters deeply investigate a single topic of interest, such as serious crimes, political corruption, or corporate wrongdoing. An investigative journalist may spend months or years researching and preparing a report. … In many cases, the subjects of the reporting wish the matters under scrutiny to remain undisclosed. … [Investigative journalists work] to discover the truth and to identify lapses from it.” [1]

On a recent Bill Moyers TV show, “The lies that lead to war,” Moyers and his guest, investigative journalist Charles Lewis, explore the value of investigative journalism and the reasons for its scarcity. [2] Lewis’s recent book, “935 Lies: The future of truth and the decline of America’s moral integrity,” documents the lies that led to the Vietnam and Iraq wars. In both cases, there was a pattern of knowing deception and an orchestrated campaign of lies by Presidents Johnson and G.W. Bush and their administrations that led to these wars of choice. And in both cases, the mainstream media failed, for the most part, to engage in the timely investigative journalism that would have exposed the deception.

Lewis states that the failure of the media to expose deception by public and private officials has gotten worse over time. Currently, he says, the media largely just report what those in positions of authority and power tell them, with very little analysis or commentary.

Part of the reason for this is that the corporate, for-profit mainstream media, in the interests of profitability, have cut the budgets and staffing of news operations and investigative journalism. The media also have a conflict of interest: they don’t want to alienate elected and corporate officials because they want them as sources for stories and appearances on TV shows. Therefore, the media avoid asking them tough questions or engaging in reporting that would embarrass them or cast them in a negative light.

The Obama administration has been very aggressive in discouraging the leaking of information to members of the media. It has prosecuted leakers. The likelihood that leakers will be caught is high given the extensive surveillance of phone calls and emails, the ability to track cell phones’ locations, and the thousands of surveillance cameras in Washington (and elsewhere). Leaked information is essential to investigative journalism, so these aggressive anti-leaking efforts make investigative journalism much more difficult.

In addition, the Obama administration has been very aggressive in prosecuting investigative journalists. Obama has used the Espionage Act against journalists far more than any other president. Nixon used it only once, against Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers. Obama has used it eight times. Obama says he supports a shield law for reporters that would protect the confidentiality of their sources, but he is criminalizing investigative reporting by prosecuting leakers and the journalists with whom they share information.

Currently, James Risen, an investigative journalist for the New York Times, is being threatened with jail by the Obama administration for refusing to identify a source he used in his book, “State of War,” about the secret campaign against the Iranian nuclear program. Risen, one of only about a dozen reporters that focus on national security issues, co-authored stories about domestic surveillance that won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

The Obama administration wants to prosecute the person who leaked information to Risen. It knows who the leaker is, but it doesn’t want to have to reveal the intelligence and surveillance tools it used to identify him. Those tools may be illegal or may appear to be unseemly ways of monitoring government employees. Therefore, it wants to force Risen to reveal his source.

In the case of Eric Snowden, who leaked the information on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) extensive surveillance of Americans and others, he has had to take asylum in Russia to avoid prosecution. The investigative journalists who have published his material have had to work from and remain overseas, while taking extraordinary steps to keep their phone and email communications, as well as their computers and the leaked files on them, from being hacked into by the NSA and the US intelligence agencies.

We need good and unintimidated investigative journalism. The whole reason for including freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights was so that the media could report information that those in power and with authority might want to keep hidden. Knowledge in the hands of an informed citizenry is essential to the success of democracy.

[1]       Retrieved from Wikipedia on 8/5/14, “Investigative journalism,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Investigative_journalism

[2]       Moyers, B., with Lewis, C., 6/27/14, “The lies that lead to war,” Moyers and Company (http://billmoyers.com/episode/the-truth-vs-dcs-propaganda-machine/)