Tag Archives: Mark Hertsgaard

The Washington Post: Watchdog or stenographer to power?

The Washington Post: Watchdog or stenographer to power?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 March 2018

STEVEN SPIELBERG’S new film about the Washington Post’s decision in 1971 to publish the Pentagon Papers — a secret history of the Vietnam War that proved successive US presidents had lied to the US public — has received huge amounts of critical acclaim.

The Post “is a pointed celebration of liberal decency” and “a stirring example of principle,” wrote Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian’s film critic, in his four star review.

Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian’s senior liberal hawk, made a case last month for the film to be awarded best picture at the Oscars, arguing it’s a newspaper story “full of … integrity.”

The Post is, undoubtedly, an impressive film that tells a riveting and important story.

Under intense pressure from the Richard Nixon administration, the paper’s publisher Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) and executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) choose to disregard the government’s warning about endangering “national security” and publish the leaked documents.

As one of the newspaper’s employees tells the newsroom, relaying the Supreme Court’s decision that supported publication, in one particularly Spielbergian scene, “The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

Frustratingly, a number of inconvenient facts have been largely forgotten in this self-serving celebration of the US press as crusading, obstinate and deeply critical of government.

As the film highlights, Washington Post assistant managing editor for national news Ben Bagdikian played a key role in getting hold of the Pentagon Papers and their eventual publication.

However, what I haven’t seen mentioned in any reviews or wider coverage is that Bagdikian went on to write one of the most important critiques of the mainstream media in the US.

First published in 1983, The Media Monopoly explained how the increasingly concentrated corporate ownership, combined with the impact of mass advertising, created news media that “suffer from built-in biases that protect corporate power.”

Political discourse “is limited to an unrepresentative narrow spectrum of politics,” trade unions are treated poorly, while media owners, their interests, families and friends are usually treated as “sacred cows” in newsrooms — off limits to critical reporting.

Though he made his name at the Washington Post, Bagdikian doesn’t spare the newspaper in the book, seeing it as a central part of the US mass media that collectively weakens the public’s ability to understand the economic and political forces that shape the world.

“Criticising capitalism has never been a popular subject in the general news,” Bagdikian argued in 1997, echoing The Media Monopoly’s main argument.

A recording from a recent internal New York Times meeting shows he was right on the money, with the paper’s editorial page editor telling staff: “We are pro-capitalism.”

Why was the most influential paper on the planet so supportive of capitalism? “Because it has been the greatest engine of, it’s been the greatest anti-poverty programme and engine of progress that we’ve seen.”

Returning to Spielberg’s The Post, the film conveniently skates over the Washington Post’s early and strong backing of the US aggression in Vietnam and wealthy socialite Graham’s offer of support to Nixon after he was elected in 1968.

Despite this, as Norman Solomon noted in the Huffington Post last year, Graham wrote in her memoirs, “I don’t believe that who I was or wasn’t friends with interfered with our reporting at any of our publications.”

Robert Parry, a Washington correspondent for the Graham-owned Newsweek magazine in the 1980s, has a different take.

Parry reported “self-censorship because of the coziness between Post-Newsweek executives and senior national security figures,” providing an example from 1987.

“I was told that my story about the CIA funnelling anti-Sandinista money through Nicaragua’s Catholic church had been watered down because the story needed to be run past Mrs Graham and [former US Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger was her house guest that weekend. Apparently, there was fear among the top editors that the story as written might cause some consternation.”

In 1988 Graham revealed her democratic credentials in a speech to the CIA. “We live in a dirty and dangerous world,” she said. “There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t.

“I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.”

It seems the legendary Bradlee, who played a key role in reporting the Watergate revelations that led to Nixon resigning in 1974, also stumbled badly in the 1980s.

Speaking to author Mark Hertsgaard for the 1988 book On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency, Bradlee explained that the Washington Post “and probably a good deal of the press gave Reagan not a free ride, but they didn’t use the same standards on him that they had used on [President Jimmy] Carter and on Nixon.”

“We did ease off,” he added.

After 9/11, the US media become even more supportive of the US government. Famously, the highly respected veteran US news man Dan Rather appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman soon after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, solemnly explaining: “George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions. And, you know, as just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where and he will make the call.”

Like the majority of the US press, the Washington Post supported the march to war in Iraq in 2003.

From August 2002 to the launch of the war there were more than 140 front page stories that focused on the Bush administration’s rhetoric against Iraq, while stories questioning the government’s case for war were generally buried inside the paper or sometimes spiked.

Having struggled to get stories past senior editors, veteran reporter Thomas Ricks noted: “There was an attitude among editors — Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?”

The coverage was “strikingly one-sided at times,” according to staff writer Howard Kurtz. These stats and quotes are taken from a 2004 front page investigation the Washington Post conducted into its woeful pre-war reporting. Bradlee, having stepped down as executive editor in 1991, said he was “embarrassed” by this public apology.

Shockingly, the Washington Post argued in 2016 that US whistle-blower Edward Snowden, whom the paper had used as a source for stories on the US government’s vast electronic surveillance programmes, should stand trial on espionage charges.

Its reasoning was that his leaks likely endangered “national security” — the same justification given by editors at the New York Times for spiking journalist James Risen’s reports on the US government’s vast domestic surveillance programme in 2004. For more on this, read Risen’s extraordinary expose published by The Intercept earlier this month.

It turns out the government’s crying wolf about “national security” and interfering in the so-called free press isn’t just something that happened when journalists smoked in newsrooms and called sources from payphones.

What all this shows is the Washington Post’s coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate was, in reality, small islands of crusading, dissenting journalism in a sea of stenography to established power.

Worryingly, the sole owner of the Washington Post today is Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and main stakeholder. Beyond the obvious concerns about corporate influence, the Amazon link is troubling because the internet giant signed a $600m contract with the CIA in 2014 to provide it with a computing “cloud.”

As the US academic Robert McChesney once wrote, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”

No doubt Bagdikian, who died in 2016, would strongly agree.

Obama: The Sham Environmentalist

Obama: The Sham Environmentalist
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
26 January 2017

What grade does President Obama deserve for his environmental policies? According to the BBC the Obama Administration should be awarded an “A-” for negotiating the 2016 Paris climate agreement, introducing new regulations governing pollution from US power plants and designating 548 million acres of US territory as protected areas.

The Guardian anticipated this positive assessment of Obama’s actions on the environment, with a 2014 leader column asserting that “President Obama’s commitment to fighting climate change has not been in doubt”.

This support for Obama was taken to extraordinary lengths by last year’s BBC documentary series Inside Obama’s White House. With the 2009 United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen heralded as the final chance to save the planet from dangerous levels of climate change, the BBC’s one-sided account explains Obama worked to solve the climate crisis in the face of Chinese intransigence (the Chinese – and not the US, apparently – “were afraid of the impact on their economy”). With India, Brazil and South African joining China in a supposedly secret meeting “to stop the climate deal”, the film excitedly tells a story of Obama crashing the party to force an agreement on China in a sincere attempt to save the planet.

There is, of course, more to the story. As the US historian Howard Zinn once noted, “The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying, it is omission or de-emphasis of important data.”

In contrast to the BBC’s hagiography, George Monbiot, arguably the most knowledgeable environmental commentator in the UK, noted at the time that “The immediate reason for the failure of the talks can be summarised in two words: Barack Obama.” Bill McKibben, a leading US environmentalist, concurred, arguing Obama “has wrecked the UN and he’s wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming.” Missing from the BBC’s account, Canadian author Naomi Klein highlighted a key reason behind Monbiot’s and McKibben’s conclusions: “Obama arrived with embarrassingly low targets and the heavy emitters of the world took their cue from him.”

How low? The European Union went into the talks promising to cut its carbon emissions by 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Obama – whose commitment to fighting climate change, remember, “has not been in doubt” – offered a measly four percent cuts below 1990 levels by 2020. Obama was “the conservative voice among world leaders” when it came to climate change, “supporting the least-aggressive steps”, noted Peter Brown, the Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in the Wall Street Journal.

The attempt to block significant action on the international stage broadly mirrors the Democratic president’s (in)action domestically during his first term. The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg uncovered an important spring 2009 meeting at the White House between the Obama Administration and leaders of the US green movement in which, incredibly, the environmentalists were told not to talk about climate change. With the Obama team apparently concerned about attacks from industry and conservative groups, Goldenberg noted the meeting “marked a strategic decision by the White House to downplay climate change – avoiding the very word”, which in turn produced a near total absence of the issue during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Goldenberg reports that “environmental groups, taking their cue from the White House… downplayed climate change” after the meeting. McKibben, who attended the summit, was one of the few people to speak out against the strategy: “All I said was sooner or later you are going to have to talk about this in terms of climate change. Because if you want people to make the big changes that are required by the science then you are going to have to explain to people why that is necessary, and why it’s such a huge problem”.

While the liberal media was dazzled by Obama’s Christ-like campaign rhetoric about slowing “the rise of the oceans” and healing the planet, in office the first Black president pursued an “all-of-the-above” energy policy. This, according to environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard, “made the United States the world’s leading producer of oil and gas by the end of his first term.” Writing in 2013, McKibben provided clarification: “We are… a global-warming machine. At the moment when physics tells us we should be jamming on the carbon breaks, America is revving the engine.”

What about the Environmental Protection Agency rules Obama introduced in 2014 to cut carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent? These are certainly a step in the right direction but, as Kevin Bundy from the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute noted, the proposals are “like fighting a wildfire with a garden hose – we’re glad the president has finally turned the water on, but it’s just not enough to get the job done.”

Internationally, the ongoing UN climate talks continued to be a fiasco in the years after Copenhagen, with the Guardian’s chief environmental correspondent John Vidal laying the blame in 2012 “squarely on the US in particular and the rich countries in general.” Vidal continued: “For three years now, they have bullied the poor into accepting a new agreement. They have delayed making commitments, withheld money and played a cynical game of power politics to avoid their legal obligations.”

Troublingly, the widely heralded Paris Agreement – for which the liberal media have repeatedly congratulated Obama for realising – is looking increasingly like a red herring. Though the text of the accord agrees to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C, and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C, a recent survey of a number of leading climate scientists and analysts by author Andrew Simms found that not one thought the 2°C target would likely be met. Speaking last year to the Morning Star top climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson said the pledges made by nations at Paris would likely lead to a catastrophic 3-4°C rise in global temperatures (“and probably the upper end of that”).

Asked by Hertsgaard in 2014 how history will judge the 44th president on climate change, senior Obama adviser John Podesta replied that while his boss “tried to address the challenge… fifty years from now, is that going to seem like enough? I think the answer to that is going to be no.” Writing in The Nation earlier this month, Hertsgaard reconfirmed Podesta’s conclusion: “Obama did more in his second term, but nowhere near enough. The climate emergency is still advancing faster than the world’s response, not least because of the United States’ inadequate actions.”

Two lessons about climate change can be taken from the eight years of the Obama Administration. First, it is clear the liberal media such as the BBC and the Guardian cannot be trusted to give an accurate picture of what Obama actually did in office – what George Orwell called the “power of facing unpleasant facts”. Second, many of the positive steps Obama took on climate change were arguably down to grassroots pressure. For example, the Obama Administration’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline which was going to transport oil from the deadly Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico was, as McKibben and Hertsgaard have argued, a victory for the indigenous-led grassroots resistance movement.

With the climate change-denying President Donald Trump and his powerful supporters threatening a bonfire of US environmental regulation and international climate agreements, it is essential the US and global green movements grow substantially and become more active and effective. Terrifying though it is to contemplate, it is no exaggeration to say that the very future of humanity rests on the outcome of this struggle.

Obama Turns On The Hose

Obama Turns On The Hose
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 June 2014

Barack Obama’s recent announcement on climate change is further proof of the liberal media’s never-ending supply of wilful nativity when it comes to the US president.

“The Obama administration unveiled historic environment rules cutting carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent… spurring prospects for a global deal to end climate change”, heralded The Guardian. Noting it was the first time any US president had moved to regulate carbon pollution from power plants, Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian’s US Environmental Correspondent, explained the proposed regulations would cut carbon emissions from power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Goldenberg provided supportive quotes from former Vice-President Al Gore, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, the Chief Executive of the World Resources Institute (a “momentous development”) and the leaders of both parties in Congress. Of the report’s 1,400+ words just one unsourced sentence hinted at dissension: “The new rules were not as ambitious as some environmental groups had hoped.”

We shouldn’t be too hard on The Guardian though – this type of positive, unquestioning coverage occurred right across the media.

In reality the headline figure of a 30 percent reduction by 2030 is a lot less impressive than it sounds. This is because of the Obama Administration’s habit of moving the goalposts on climate change policy. So while the rest of the world uses 1990 as the baseline for measuring reductions in carbon emissions, the US uses 2005 – a far easier baseline figure to aim for as emissions were significantly higher in 2005 than in 1990. According to Kevin Bundy from the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute the 30 percent reduction in power plant emissions shrinks to just a mere 7.7 percent reduction when the 1990 baseline is applied.

Compare this to the 2007 recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to the IPCC industrialized nations should cut emissions by between 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 to have a good chance of keeping global warming under the internationally agreed 2oC. Moreover, many climate experts see the IPCC’s guidelines as conservative. For example, Professor Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, recently pushed the European Union to pursue an “equitable and science-based 2030 decarbonisation target” of around 80 percent on 1990 levels. Regarding Obama’s new targets, Anderson, along with Dr Maria Sharmina, notes it “is a death sentence for many of tomorrow’s more vulnerable communities.”

The obvious mismatch between the science and US Government policy is the reason Bundy described Obama’s proposals as “like fighting a wildfire with a garden hose – we’re glad the president has finally turned the water on, but it’s just not enough to get the job done.” Erich Pica, President of US Friends of the Earth, agrees, arguing the new rule “simply doesn’t go far enough to put us on the right path.”

More worryingly, even Bundy’s calculations are too generous as they only refer to emissions from power plants – just one (significant) sector of the US economy. Putting the power plant emission cuts in the context of US national emissions Wenonah Hauter of Food & Water Watch and Janet Redman from the Institute for Policy Studies note “with the President’s targets, US economy-wide emission would still be above 1990 levels in 2030.”

We should, of course, be supportive of any steps taken, however small, to combat climate change – especially when it happens in the unwelcoming US political environment. So we should be prepared to defend the Obama Administration’s proposals from attacks from the right and the fossil fuel industry. However, we also need to be clear: given the size of the climate problem Obama’s plan is completely inadequate. Obama’s “historical fate is to be in power at a time when good intentions and important steps are no longer enough”, notes Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation magazine’s Environmental Correspondent. “The science he is faced with… demand actions that seem preposterous to the political and economic status quo.”

The good news is the emissions cut target is still to be finalised, and therefore open to influence from outside actors. With the stupendously wealthy fossil fuel-based industries lobbying hard it’s essential there is a mass movement to pressure the Obama Administration to institute more ambitious targets. To this end a massive rally is being organised in New York City on 20 September 2014 to coincide with an international climate summit. Back in the UK we can demand our government takes climate change as seriously as the science itself demands.

With climate change an existential threat to humanity, doing nothing is not an option.


Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair 

*An edited version of this article was published in the Morning Star