Month: December 2005

2005 Media Follies!

by Maria Tomchick & Geov Parrish

Welcome to our tenth year of selecting our annual list of the year’s most overhyped and underreported stories. As one would expect in a year when one of the underreported stories was our government’s covert propaganda campaigns, there’s plenty to unravel: stories that should never have been stories, stories whose reporting largely missed the point, and stories barely told at all in mainstream US media.

The good news is that, more than ever, mainstream media is no longer the last word in journalism. Foreign media, now universally available in English on the Internet, often tells a completely different (and usually more accurate) story than what we see, read, and hear here. So-called alternative media—which has been way ahead of the mainstream media on any number of issues–has repeatedly shown its relevance, to the point where the Internet is rapidly becoming the preferred news source for many Americans.

But it’s the mainstream that still has the largest audiences, and so it is the stories that do and don’t appear there that require our attention. Here’s our list, which is surely incomplete. If you have suggestions for additions to the list, e-mail them to and we’ll run the best ones in a coming issue.

The Year’s Most Overhyped Stories:

The fate of Terri Schiavo. Somehow, the fate of a woman who hadn’t done much more than twitch in nearly two decades, and who had clearly stated that she never wanted to be kept alive in such conditions, became a crude political football for pandering Presidents and members of Congress. They should be ashamed–as should the media outlets that milked this non-story for weeks.

Intelligent Design [sic].

The “War on Christmas.” What do all three of these items have in common? They were all introduced and hammered into self-serving “controversies” by the right wing echo chamber at times when they really wanted to make sure the public wasn’t paying attention to congressional or White House scandals, a disastrous war, or the death of a major American city.

Everything’s Going Splendidly in Iraq. From the myth early in the year that Bush’s vision for democracy was spreading like wildfire throughout the Middle East, to the notion that Iraqi troops were trained en masse and ready to fight, to entirely mythical “progress” in Iraq’s economy and reconstruction, to the prediction, dutifully trotted out during three separate elections, that each such election marked a major turning point and a crippling blow for the insurgency, to an insurgency in its “death throes,” it was hard to take seriously anything the White House said about Iraq. Yet, remarkably, large segments of US media did just that.

Michael Jackson’s Trial.

Martha Stewart’s Comeback.

Julia Roberts’ Baby. OK, OK, any of the beautiful people.

Howard Dean. Now the Democratic National Committee head, Howard still shoots off his mouth (often accurately), and Republicans still get themselves all in a knot whenever he does. Get over it. He’s a glorified party fundraiser now, not a public official. What he says about public policy does not matter.

Pat Robertson. He wants Hugo Chavez dead. He threatens Dover, Pennsylvania on behalf of a God who apparently can’t speak for Himself. He thinks New Orleans’ suffering is punishment for not meeting his warped idea of morality. WHO. CARES. The publicity just encourages him.

The Minutemen. A few hundred yahoos on the Mexican border, and a few dozen on the Canadian border, proves only that there are still unemployed racist idiots living in Orange County and its spiritual equivalents.

Locally, Rossi v. Gregoire. The election was decided in 2004. The court case, in 2005, devolved into the Republicans dragging out a stunningly weak legal argument so that they could repeat, endlessly, their unsubstantiated charges of vote fraud and a massive conspiracy by King County Elections. They were essentially laughed out of court, but not before months of credulous coverage of their bogus claims. And hey, did anyone notice that in 2005 King County Elections performed nearly flawlessly?

Plus sports, 14-Day-Accu–Pinpoint-Doppler-Radar-Insta-Weather, the usual.

The Underreported Stories

George Bush is already a lame-duck president. There’s usually a year or two grace period after the president is elected for the second time, when he can point to his second election victory as vindication for his policies and use it to get some important legislation passed. Bush has squandered his election victory. All the major initiatives he wanted to pass in Congress this year, from the privatization of Social Security to the permanent renewal of the USA Patriot Act provisions, have gone down in flames, even with a solid Republican majority in both houses. The most basic budget bills have failed to pass because Bush couldn’t get a consensus within his own party. Meanwhile, members of his administration are leaking stories of Bush administration misdeeds every week. Three more years of this and the Republican Party may never recover.

The United States is becoming a torture regime. It is no longer a secret that the US tortures prisoners. But numerous aspects of this abomination remain undercovered. The year was full of shocking revelations about how far the Bush administration has taken us into totalitarian atrocities: the NSA listening to and reading US citizens’ foreign telephone calls and e-mail without warrants; the Pentagon spying on peace groups; the rendition of prisoners to secret CIA detention centers in Eastern Europe (and then sneakily flying them to North Africa when the scandal finally broke in Europe); the testimony of former prisoners at Guantanamo and victims of rendition that they were brutally abused while in prison; more evidence that the US maintains secret detention centers around the world; the Guantanamo Bay hunger strikers; dozens of deaths of War on Terror prisoners in US custody; the Graham Amendment, which voids habeas corpus for suspects in the War on Terror and renders moot a Supreme Court challenge to Bush’s military tribunal system; the Army’s newly expanded list of permissible interrogation techniques; the evidence that the decision to employ torture began at the highest levels of the White House; the roots of those techniques in the control unit prisons of America’s forgotten domestic gulag–the list goes on and on. Only a few aspects of Dick Cheney’s War on Decency made the news here, and they were not nearly the scandals here that they were in the rest of the world. And let’s not forget that the new, US-supported Iraqi government is torturing prisoners in ways that mimic Saddam Hussein’s excesses.

Iraq is spinning out of control. Ethnic and sectarian hostilities have turned into open street battles between Shiite religious factions, battles between factions of the Sunni insurgency, mass killings of Sunnis by Shiite death squads, secret arrests, government-sanctioned torture of prisoners, and mass migrations of people between neighborhoods, cities, and provinces–an outright Balkanization of Iraq. Iraq’s oil fields are rapidly deteriorating from a combination of sabotage and neglect. Oil imports are down drastically, leaving the Iraqi government without the money to pay salaries to teachers, doctors, police, and other civil servants. Meanwhile, corruption is rampant at high levels in the Iraqi government, while smaller, local governments run on extortion and bribery (a matter of basic survival when they’re not getting paid a regular salary). And security analysts note that the insurgency is as healthy as ever and becoming more efficient, and more deadly, in its attacks.

Say, where is Osama bin Laden, anyway?

The Downing Street Memos. Ignored for weeks by US media until the blogosphere buzz became simply too loud, these early revelations of “fixing the intelligence around the policy” have now gone down the memory hole again. But their content has been completely corroborated by subsequent revelations.

Bush wanted to bomb Al-Jazeera headquarters in Qatar. This British report was squelched by the Official Secrets Act, but not before it caused a sensation around the world due to its detailed plausibility–except in the US, where corporate media dismissed the allegation out of hand.

The economy is balanced on a knife-edge. The Bush administration would like you to forget that the US has a record trade deficit, a record budget deficit, and that the housing market–the one thing that’s kept the US economy afloat for the past three years–is beginning to cool a little too quickly for comfort. Republican attempts to balance the budget on the backs of poor people while trying to make Bush’s tax cuts permanent have garnered little attention from the press. And so has the fact that China and Japan own most of our public debt. While Bush’s approval ratings rise and fall with the price of oil, a very cold winter is hitting Americans in the pocketbooks, and the press can only talk about the economy “steaming full-speed ahead.” Uh huh.

The Bush administration’s continued attacks on the environment. From criminal attempts to stop the implementation of the Kyoto global warming treaty and a possible successor to the privatization of public lands to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the US press hasn’t cared much about Bush’s shocking attempts to pillage the environment the same way his administration has pillaged the public treasury.

Republican corruption scandals. Some four dozen Congressmen, mostly Republican, have been confirmed as taking money from Jack Abramoff or his clients at about the same time they took legislative action favorable to Abramoff or his clients. Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff are just the tip of the iceberg, but our compliant press has trouble seeing even that much. Now the Supreme Court is reviewing the Texas redistricting scheme that helped the Republicans win a bigger majority in the House–a scheme that was undertaken by the Republicans after their own Justice Department had ruled it unconstitutional. This should be a much bigger scandal than it currently is.

Failures of Homeland Security: Hurricane Katrina, racism, and the gutting of FEMA. This was a huge story that, while briefly covered extensively by the US press, disappeared from the mix far too quickly and without enough analysis. And both the corruption of rebuilding contacts and the complete subsequent abandonment of New Orleans by the feds have received virtually no attention.

Likewise, the devastating earthquake in Kashmir received very little coverage. Kashmiris, of course, are used to the West not caring much about them. But we shouldn’t prove them right.

Our government’s global covert propaganda campaign. Armstrong Williams and the Lincoln Group in Iraq were just the start. All over the world, among countries friend and foe, the Pentagon is running an unprecedented, massive propaganda and disinformation campaign, including the planting of stories designed to find their way back into US media. The planted stories are never identified as being written by the US government. Rumsfeld said after 9-11 that he would continue to lie, and he was telling the truth.

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and its fallout on Israeli and Palestinian politics is more important to Middle Eastern peace than anything happening in the War on Terror, yet the US press has difficulty covering Israeli and Palestinian politics beyond the latest suicide bombing. Likewise, the Palestinian elections, with the split in the Fatah Party and electoral gains by Hamas, have received almost no coverage here, nor has Ariel Sharon’s split from Likud (the party he co-founded). Major shifts are happening in a very important part of the world, and Americans are oblivious. And the passive White House enabling of whatever Sharon wants to do has also received no attention.

The right-wing radicalism of Samuel Alito is no secret; it’s just been deeply ignored by a too cautious press. Likewise, John Roberts’ portrayal as a moderate was simply mind-boggling.

The biggest labor news in decades, the AFL-CIO split and the formation of the new Change To Win Coalition, passed with hardly a whimper in the US press. It’s time to start unionizing a few more media outlets.

A sweet victory for small communities–POCLAD passing legislation in Pennsylvania to stop the construction of megachain stores in local communities–was so far off the radar that you almost had to know someone working on the campaign to have heard about it. That’s shocking.

Locally, the corporate welfare flowing to South Lake Union biotech development, from a useless streetcar to extensive hi-tech infrastructure investment, received virtually no media attention. Nor were any local media pointing out that seemingly every city and suburb in the country is putting its economic development eggs into this same overcrowded basket–all for an industry that, so far, is mostly wildly unprofitable. Didn’t we learn anything from the dotcom binge?

The failure of I-912 at the polls was the first time in recent memory that a statewide anti-tax initiative failed to pass, giving, perhaps, new hope that Washington state voters are willing to invest in basic governmental services when that responsibility is largely being abdicated by the federal government.

Lastly, for the first time, a blog determined the outcome of a local election when David Goldstein’s broke the story that King County Executive candidate David Irons literally beat his mother. Only one major local media outlet (the P-I) would touch it, but the sensational (and true) story was enough to turn a close race into an easy victory for Ron Sims.

Bush Policy in Iraq: Invade, Destroy, and Separate

The best we can ever expect from a stupid president is a strategy of no strategy, but even Republicans were disappointed in George Bush’s speech on Iraq, which was his response to Republican Rep. John Murtha’s call for the United States to pull troops from Iraq immediately.

Reiterating failed US policy, Bush outlined the plan that his government has pursued for the past three years in Iraq: “Clear, hold, and build.” And, not surprisingly, the US public yawned and changed the channel, in search of a new episode of “Lost” (a perfect, one-word metaphor for the war in Iraq).

The Pentagon, which has been caught planting fake news stories in the Iraqi press as propaganda for the war effort, is having a hard time keeping the bad news from US citizens. This past week the Washington Institute for Near East Policy released a report that said the insurgency in Iraq is “as robust and lethal as ever.” The report’s authors were Jeffrey White, a 34-year veteran of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, and Michael Eisenstadt, a former civilian-military analyst with the US Army. These guys know what they’re talking about, and what they say is devastating: the insurgency has barely begun to tap into a vast pool of potential Sunni recruits in Iraq; if they ever start recruiting seriously, the US war effort is doomed.

Meanwhile, US officials still put the insurgency’s strength at about 20,000 men–no change from last year or the year before. The current Iraqi government, on the other hand, estimates the insurgency to include more than 100,000, with no explanation for the difference in estimates, but we might reasonably assume that Iraqi analysts living in the thick of the turmoil in Baghdad would have more information than analysts in Washington, D.C.

The facts on the ground in Iraq are not too hard to discern from here in the United States, however. We can just read the news off the wire service reports. Every week brings a new US initiative in Ramadi, Samara, Hit, Qaim, Tal Afar, Mosul, and dozens of other cities with Sunni or mixed Sunni/Shiite/Kurdish populations. Most, if not all, of these cities have been attacked before by US troops, some of them twice and three times. Previously “cleared” of Iraqi rebels, US troops have turned these cities over to poorly-trained and ill-equipped Iraqi troops or police and moved on to deal with the next targeted town, thereby allowing the rebels to retake the “cleared” cities. In spite of Bush’s speech, this policy can’t change, because there simply are not enough US troops to “hold” every rebel bastion in Anbar Province, much less Diyala, Nineveh, Sulimaniyah, and other provinces where the war has continued unabated.

We might, for a moment reflect on the one city that has been “cleared” and “held”: Fallujah. Fallujah is a garrison town now, its entrances and exits blocked by US forces, its residents subject to search and inspection each time they come and go–much like residents of the Gaza Strip. An estimated 60 percent of the city was destroyed in order to “clear” it, and most of it has not been rebuilt. Fallujah has only one-half the population that it did prior to the US assault, and it’s unlikely to improve for years, if not decades, to come. If this is what “clear” and “hold” mean, then it’s no wonder that the United States is losing the war.

Nor has the United States successfully “held” other important cities in Iraq. Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, is still outside US control. Large parts of Mosul, the third largest city in Iraq, are under the control of insurgents. Basra is run by Shiite militias who have taken over the Iraqi police forces in that city–no surprise, since the Iraqi government doesn’t have the money to pay salaries to its police forces, so they take money and orders from militia leaders, instead. Even Baghdad, which has suffered a Fallujah-like encirclement by US troops and Iraqi security forces, has seen as much as one-third to one-half of its neighborhoods slip outside the jurisdiction of US forces or Iraqi police.

As for “rebuilding,” Bush is clearly referring to rebuilding the Iraqi army. Any other meaningful rebuilding has simply ceased because of the security situation. Of the reconstruction funds spent in Iraq, the largest portion has gone for two things: 1) to pay for private security guards, and 2) to train and equip Iraqi army troops and police forces. But, shockingly, the Iraqi government last week issued its own report on the state of the Iraqi army in which it described its own military as ill-trained, ill-equipped, and desperately lacking qualified recruits.

In the meantime, the Iraqi nation itself is disintegrating. The head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq–the Shiite returning-exile group that runs the current Iraqi government–announced a couple of weeks ago that the Shiites would pursue a separate, autonomous region in the south of Iraq modeled after the Kurdish autonomous region in the north. Last week, the Kurdish regional government agreed to let a Norwegian company begin drilling in a new oil field, without any approval from the federal government in Baghdad. Said Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani: “there is no way Kurdistan would accept that the central government will control our resources.” In this statement of defiance, he used the word “Kurdistan,” which for most Kurds means a separate and independent state. Iraq is moving ever faster towards Balkanization.”Clear, hold, rebuild” is the Bush administration mantra, but the truth on the ground in Iraq looks a lot more like “invade, destroy, and separate.” Rep. Murtha is right; the strategy we need to hear from the Bush administration right now is “disengage, apologize, and withdraw.”

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