What did people use to do when half of America didn't vote -- and too many of those folks were young voters?
Not very much. Sure, someone would pass out some recycling literature at a concert. There might be a lonely voter registration table or two. Or sometimes, there would be an impassioned plea from the stage -- but frankly, it was pretty hard to hear other than "<Insert Politician's Name> Sucks!" But not any more.
Now I am not here to tell you that a young generation of idealistic activists is rising up to lead America to the promised land. Not quite yet. But there are some folks who have had it with alienation and non-voting and aim to turn things around. They are not waiting for permission or for a rulebook with instructions from above. They are building their own infrastructure as they go,
These young people are motivated to hit the streets and hit the road...more like the barnraising style of Habitat for Humanity rather than the sitting back and waiting for the funding. Breaking ground requires no mission statement or long-term commitment -- people just work together on one project and see how they like it. If it works, they rinse and repeat. If it doesn't, they move on down the road. Fuzzy projects are frowned upon, practical efforts honored. Does this register a voter? Does it build my skills? Does it build real community? Otherwise, forget about it.
In a nutshell, call this approach "pick up a hammer" politics.
So where's the inspiration for this? It comes mainly from the perspiration and the shoulders you rub up against in the work. It comes from the understanding that political power comes from organizing and mobilizing, connecting face-to-face. It comes from honoring the foot soldiers, not the general. It's rooted in the Public Enemy/Chuck D classic: "Don't Believe the Hype."
Hip hop writer Jeff Chang wisely points out how today's generation needs to first be convinced that political action of any kind, especially voting, is even remotely important. Can you prove that anything can change according to the rules that exist? Can you get young people excited in a world where 4000 advertising images are pushed in their faces every day? Selling easy answers, which is what most politicians do, is a tough sell in this environment. And young people have highly evolved crap detectors.
Why should this generation give a hoot? Born in the Reagan era, bred under Bush and then undercoated on the final assembly line with a Clinton presidency stained by blue dresses and school uniforms -- no risk of hero worship in the average 18-25 year old, that's for sure. So ... don't believe the hype. Believe what you can see. Believe what you can do, with your friends.
A new book called How To Get Stupid White Men Out of Office documents great stories of young people in action all over the country. The authors are out on the road in 90 cities making contact on the ground. The book was produced by the League of Independent Voters, a feisty, imaginative collection of sharp tongued, energetic organizers out to change the perception of young people as apathetic non-voters. Visit their online home and tie in to their training of youth organizers and voter registration efforts.
Another great book for the youth voting revolution is Storming the Polls: How to Vote Your Views and Change the Rules, produced by the online youth magazine Wiretap. (Wiretap is a sister project of AlterNet).
Thousands of young people are going to make the scene at the Hip Hop Voters Convention June 16-18 in Newark, New Jersey -- where some serious organizing is going down. To be a delegate, you need to have registered 50 voters before the event. So absolutely no posers are allowed -- ya gotta be real.
There's a lot for us all to learn here. These crews aren't spending any energy moaning about Kerry's shortfalls -- because they don't look to him for most of the answers. Sure, they mostly want Bush out of office, but they see this as the first step toward building a stronger base of young people to exercise political power no matter who is elected.
Young activists aren't the only ones taking matters into their own hands. The artists and bands have had it too -- they are organizing themselves in ways never seen before. Before the election comes around there will be hundreds of music concerts across the land. So are you ready to rock? Check out Rock the Vote, PunkVoter, and Music for America to get a taste of what is in the works. An exciting new collaborative, called Air Traffic Control is spearheading new efforts to connect progressive grassroots organizing and music fans more effectively. So get ready for a hot summer of music and registration.
Dan Carol is a Democratic political strategist and a founding partner of CTSG, a progressive consulting firm based in Eugene, Ore., and Washington, D.C.
Politically, it's my least favorite time of year. I'm not talking about all the hype over who has won the Democratic primaries before a single vote has been cast -- that game comes every four years and sorry, no predictions here. We'll find out soon enough with Iowa now over and the New Hampshire primary coming up. No, I'm talking about the annual Kabuki Theater around the State of the Union.
You know the visual. President Bush speaks to the Congress in full assembly, "Hail to the Chief" plays, Vice President Dick Cheney sits in a chair behind Bush (Dan Quayle, we miss ya buddy!) and all through the show Democrats squirm and worry if they are clapping too little -- or too much.
Ugly stuff. But that's just the parts we see.
Behind the scenes, we have a month of political jostling before and after the "SOTU" itself. The Democrats are working on their "pre-buttal" plan to try and anticipate and pre-spin what Bush says, both sides are lining up their ammunition for the budget fight that starts right after the speech, Bush is thinking about impressing us by going to Mars, and White House handlers are scouring the grassroots for the right citizen hero to sit next to Laura Bush.
Like I said, ugly stuff.
Last year, the main issue was the war. As in, whether we should have one in Iraq.
This year, I think the battle is less obvious but arguably as important. It's about the future and what investments we need to make. And we'd better get the math right. Otherwise, a 30-year Republican strategy for destroying government's role in meaningful public investment (outside of space satellites and homeland security) will continue unabated.
We need to deal with the aftermath of the Bush budget binge. After squandering a trillion dollars on tax cuts, buying off seniors with a dubious drug benefit that doesn't kick in until 2006, and putting America in red ink as far as green eyeshades can see, Bush is now saying we need to trim our belt and cut domestic programs.
Trim our belt? After stuffing their pockets with tax cuts, these shameless freaks now want our pants -- and the shirts off our backs (or better yet, they want state government to deal with it all).
Can we call Bush a big spender without turning ourselves into budget hawks? That's a tight fit. Let's remember how much credit Clinton and the Democrats got for "being responsible" and balancing the budget mess left over by Reagan and his "I Love The 1980s" gang. The answer is zero. Nada. Zilch. So whether it's Howard Dean (he of 11 balanced budgets in Vermont) or someone else, the Democratic nominee needs to be careful before we raise our hands and do it all over again.
Well here's an idea. How about we don't play the Republicans' game until we stop stacking the deck against smart policy choices? It doesn't have to be that way -- not if we demand a serious look at the costs and benefits of public investment and make the case for payback economics.
Here's an example. This week, The Apollo Alliance is releasing an outside economic study showing how major league investments in good green jobs and energy independence would, in fact, pay for themselves, create over three million new jobs and over a trillion dollars in new economic activity. What's not to like?
Can we out-trump the Republicans on economics and demand a "policy payback analysis" to all federal or state investments? How would Bush's buddies do if their corporate welfare programs had to be benchmarked against, say, proven pre-kindergarten education investments for kids? Jesse Jackson had it about right years ago in talking about the importance of investing in the front side of life. Before we spend $30,000 a year on a jail cell. Let's get the substantive cost-benefit analysis done to make that case on everything we are in favor of achieving in the next 30 years.
Republicans will say each idea costs too much. But once we count the benefits, they won't have a lot less to say while we will have much more to offer.
Whether it's the interstate highway system, the electronics industry or the Internet, there are endless examples of how public investment has catalyzed economic success.
This is no-brainer stuff. Voters can get this. So let's do the math.
Dan Carol is a Democratic political strategist and a founding partner of CTSG, a progressive consulting firm based in Eugene and Washington, D.C.
In sketching out a new map for taking power, via a state-by-state effort to rally the D/democratic troops, we face an important challenge. Just how can we sound the call to arms -- when we know it won't be on Fox News? Or NBC, or anywhere else?
While it may be tempting, we won't change much by moaning about Rush Limbaugh and the ever-annoying shortfalls of the "mainstream media." Nor will our dreams for a progressive media network be realized anytime soon.
Sorry, but it's tough love time, folks. We have to understand there are no miracles on the horizon. The fact is, even if we had a spare $500 million to start a liberal cable channel tomorrow, it's highly doubtful we could fill it 24/7 with compelling programming. Frankly, we'd be lucky to deliver a few hours each day of liberal talk that was provocative rather than preachy. That's the bad news.
The good news is we can create our own liberal "echo chamber" using the media platforms, opinion soapboxes and marketing channels we already control. However, the model will be driven less by "broadcast" media (e.g. Rupert Murdoch's Direct TV), and rely more on "narrowcasting" mechanisms such as face-to-face outreach and peer-to-peer contact. Imagine, for instance, an army of progressive Avon ladies (and gentlemen!) fanning out to preach to our "choir" -- and to win over potential new converts.
So what are the pieces we can cobble together to create a liberal, Avon "media platform" of our own? It's really not such a bad line up:
- Soup cans and string: very affordable and popular with the small fry. Or better yet, add a salad and hold house party for ProgressiveMajority.org, MoveOn.org or another effective group you support. Voila, you've created a marketing channel that's more fun than Fox.
- The color of money: Sorry, Ann Coulter, but liberal authors like Jim Hightower, Arianna Huffington, and Michael Moore are top-10 best sellers. Publishers are getting the clear message that our politics actually sells books. Watch what happens when organic consumers get seriously empowered to act through new media channels like Organic Valley's Farm Friends Network. These and other efforts will, I bet, change quickly our thinking about what an "action figure" really looks like.
- (Not) The alternative press: Hey, pardon me, but I hate this term -- it marginalizes so-called "alternative" newspapers. Why do their editorial opinions count less than other papers? Because we help that happen by calling the others papers "mainstream." Let's stop.
- Pop & politics: It used to be we'd spend tens of thousands of dollars on a rock concert to get thousands of folks excited about an issue -- and then we'd leave the scene with six e-mails. Not good. Fortunately there's a new generation of organizers who can stage cultural conversations, teach-ins and concerts that bottle the positive energy that artists create at events effectively -- before it dissipates. There's even a manual for this new form of channeling. E-mail email@example.com to get yours.
Yes, in the long run we will want to re-capture mass media outlets on TV and radio from the media giants who own them now. (Al Gore, in fact, is actively developing a progressive news channel targeting a young, MTV-style audience and a liberal talk radio network is reportedly in the works).
That said, we're not going to reverse the right's hold on traditional media overnight -- or by traditional means. We shouldn't copy their business model either. In fact, in a new age of 500 cable channels and TIVO technology that allows viewers to fast-forward through commercials, the old advertising-based model which supports Fox, Clear Channel and other conservative conglomerates is in serious jeopardy.
What's back in season? A fresh approach to an old idea is that membership-based revenue model of public television offers the most sustainable pathway for growing liberal media. That plus content that engages and entertains.
[Having trouble tuning in to all this media jargon? I'll bet. Check out the Media Reform website for the clearest thinking in this area. Their national conference coming up this weekend will be a great well-spring to tap.]
Dan Carol is a Democratic political strategist and a founding partner of CTSG (www.ctsg.com), a progressive consulting firm based in Eugene and Washington, D.C.
It's easy to underestimate Victoria Jamali. She doesn't call attention to herself or cause a stir when she walks into a room. She seldom wore the traditional hejab, or head covering, of Muslim women during a visit to the United States last fall. But a veil of calm reserve seemed to envelop her, and she kept her opinions hidden behind them.
Nevertheless, Jamali is helping to spearhead a quiet revolution in her home country of Iran. Along with colleagues from the University of Tehran, she is launching the country's first environmental law program. She also co-founded one of Iran's most active non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the Women's Society Against Environmental Pollution.
"I think Victoria is comparable to pioneers of the U.S. environmental movement, a David Brower or a John Muir," says Bern Johnson, executive director of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (E-LAW), which sponsored Jamali's visit last fall.
"It's unusual to see someone who goes in where no citizen environmental movement exists and starts one."
In America, the popular view of Iran has focused on arms-for-hostage deals, the war with Iraq, and the Ayatollah Khomeini's condemnation of Salman Rushdie. Few have heard about the Persian zebras, Iranian cheetahs, lung-choking air pollution, and dwindling caviar in the Caspian Sea. And few are aware of the country's burgeoning environmental activism.
But in the wake of the Islamic revolution, another revolutionary movement has emerged in Iran -- this one led by women.
Ten years ago, Jamali was approached by a seventy-four-year-old woman, a librarian at the university named Mahlagh Mallah. Concerned about air pollution and other environmental problems, she wanted to organize a group of women to work on these issues.
"The family is the smallest group of the society," Mallah was fond of saying. Thus, as caretakers of families and teachers of children, the role of women in society is very significant.
Today, the group Jamali and Mallah founded has more than 2,500 members and publishes a bilingual journal, "Cry of the Earth." And as Iranian society has become more open, especially over the last five years, close to 250 other environmental NGOs have sprung up and grown.
Many in Iran are concerned about severe water and air pollution. Cities like Tehran must close the schools during fall air inversions, when pollution suffocates children, the sick, and elderly. Grand predators such as the Persian cheetah that dwell in the central mountainous regions are in trouble, along with other endemic species. And the Caspian Sea, a body of water bordered by several nations, including Iran, is losing the Caspian salmon, Caspian seal, and important caviar-producing fish, due to over-fishing and pollution.
"The country has severe pollution problems given the primitive state of environmental regulation there," says Bob Percival, a law professor at the University of Maryland, who co-led a workshop on U.S. environmental law at the University of Tehran last May.
But Percival adds, "It was very heartening to see that a thriving civil society has begun to emerge in Iran, despite the immense political problems the country still faces."
The lack of regulations and public knowledge about environmental matters sparked Jamali's own interest in environmental education. While studying geography at the University of Tehran during the 1960s, she spent time on the outskirts of the city and saw firsthand how sprawl was affecting the landscape and rural communities.
"I could see the effects of population expansion and development," she explains, "how they are related to each other and how they work."
After earning a Master's degree in rural and regional resources planning, in 1974, from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, Jamali began working at the University of Tehran's Institute of Environmental Studies.
Though the institute had to make changes after the Islamic Revolution, in 1979, it was able to persist and even expand, especially after the more moderate Khatami Mohammad was elected president in 1997. "We kept this center alive," Jamali says. "There was a need for knowledge about the environment."
But sometimes knowledge is not enough. Now that Iranian civic life has begun to open up, Jamali wants to give citizens the tools to protect the environment as well as understand its problems. Now as director of environmental research at the University of Tehran, she wants to train Iran's scholars and activists in American-style environmental law.
"That's the way we have to go," she says, "even if it causes some problems in the beginning."
Jamali got the idea for the program after taking part in a conference in Washington, DC, in 1999, attended by leaders of environmental NGOs from both Iran and the United States. The conference was sponsored by the nonprofit organization Search for Common Ground and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Jamali presented a paper on "Higher Education in Environmental Studies in Iran," and she got a glimpse of how environmental NGOs in the United States were effecting changes in policy and practice. She realized that law was an arena where activists could wield some power.
Upon returning to Iran, Jamali successfully convinced male deans at her university that the program was a good idea. Then she proceeded to make it happen. She got funding from Search for Common Ground to hold an environmental law workshop with three American experts, who came away wowed by Jamali 's brains and determination.
"So much of the progress of the environmental movement, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, has been the result of the courageous actions of extraordinary individuals," says Percival. "Victoria Jamali is one of these remarkable people. Her life has been enormously disrupted by revolution, war and the oppressive policies of a radical theocracy."
He adds, "Despite the incredible obstacles facing Iranian women who seek to promote social change, Victoria has been a tireless crusader for environmental justice. Though this has been a lonely crusade at times, she now has growing support for her efforts, which our trip was designed to help facilitate."
Iran faces an torrent of environmental problems, which the country is only beginning to tackle. Although a Department of Environment was established in 1971, industrial and political goals have tended to trump long-term environmental concerns. Conservation was the main focus during the '70s, with the establishment of a number of national parks, national monuments, and wildlife refuges throughout the country.
After the Islamic Revolution, the government enshrined environmental protection in the Constitution. "In the Islamic Republic of Iran protection of the environment, in which present and future generations should enjoy a transcendent social life, is regarded as a public duty," reads Article 50. "Therefore, economic and any other activity, which results in pollution or irremediable destruction of the environment is prohibited."
However, eight years of war with Iraq, political isolation, and economic sanctions kept environmental concerns on the back-burner. Tehran, with about 10 million people, is one of the world's most polluted cities. Two million cars, many more than 20 years old, run largely on leaded gasoline in a city that boasts just a single subway line.
Though some environmental laws are on the books, such as clean water and clean air acts, they rarely are enforced. For instance, in the recent planning of a highway from Tehran to the Caspian Sea, the government ignored citizens' requests to conduct an environmental impact analysis. "The government didn't listen to the NGOs," Jamali maintains. "If NGOs were educated more about the rights of citizens, laws, and the environment, they would be more likely to demand protections."
However, the smoggy winds may be shifting. President Khatami recently appointed the Iranian feminist Massomeh Ebtekar to be Vice President for the Environment. Ebtekar is now the highest-ranking female official in a Muslim country. Westerners might know her best, though, as "Mary," the English-fluent spokeswoman for the Iranian students who seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, taking 52 Americans as hostages and holding them for 444 days.
Since those radical days, Ebtekar became an immunologist, married, had children, and launched an intellectual journal on women's issues. She briefly worked for Khatami as a journalist, and when he became president in 1997 he made her a vice president (one of the few cabinet-level positions that doesn't require approval by parliament).
Instead of cursing American foreign policy, Ebtekar today denounces pollution and the ecological perils facing the Caspian Sea. As head of the Department of the Environment, she also oversees registration and coordination of Iran's environmental NGOs.
"The environment and ecology must become policy priorities," she told members of the foreign press last year.
According to Robin Wright, author of "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran," Ebtekar typifies an emerging group in Iran known as "regime women," who believe gender equality can be achieved through an Islamic government.
Though the political and professional role of women was stifled considerably in Iran after the Ayatollah Khomeini and other religious leaders came to power, Wright says, "Iranian women ... proved to be irrepressible.... Even the clerics, in the end, had to begin ceding ground."
In 1996, 200 women ran for parliament and 14 won (outnumbering female U.S. senators at the time). In 1997, four women registered to run for the presidency, and a national poll revealed that 72 percent of the public approved of a woman as president. About a third of Iranian government employees are female. Around half of the students in Iran's highly competitive university system are female. Iranian women work as professors, doctors, teachers, engineers. They play basketball other sports (in female-only leagues).
Even though Iranian women must wear hejab, their faces can still be seen, and increasingly their voices can be heard.
Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian scholar and consulting director of the Middle East Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says, "There are a large number of Iranian professional women who are achievers. They have managed to progress and advance within the restrictions of that revolutionary society."
Esfandiari met Jamali when both attended the Search for Common Ground conference in Washington, DC, in 1999. She says Jamali fits this profile.
Esfandiari adds that Iran's women-led NGOs, such as the Women's Society Against Environmental Pollution, are extremely impressive. "They have their roots in the communities," she says. "They're doing very practical work."
Under Iran's system of government, a lobbying group can promote their agenda if they gain support from just a few members of parliament. The key to success is buying into the overall system, while focusing on a narrow arena of policy change.
Esfandiari predicts, "As long as you have women like Victoria who are very capable but also apolitical, they will be able to function."
Jamali agrees that she must remain above the political fray -- both inside Iran and internationally -- in order to achieve her goals. "We all think about protecting the environment, nature, and protecting the planet," she says. "It's beyond politics."
Cheri Brooks writes for the Eugene Weekly, where a version of this article first appeared.
In "America's New War" the first U.S. casualty may be the First Amendment. The military, Bush administration propaganda and the media itself have squelched news in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Asked at a press conference whether he would lie to the media about the war, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quoted Winston Churchill about disinformation around the D-Day invasion. "Sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies." Rumsfeld is about the only source the U.S. media has for covering the Afghan war. The military has refused to allow journalists to accompany troops and pilots fighting in Afghanistan or even interview them after their missions.
"They plan to fight the war and then tell the press and the public how it turned out afterwards," the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) quoted CNN correspondent Jamie McIntyre. The military spin is that pinpoint smart bombings will keep civilian casualties to a minimum, international investigative reporter Phillip Knightley wrote in a CPI commentary. "Bloody TV footage or grim still photographs of civilian bomb victims would threaten this most outrageous piece of propaganda, so an essential part of the Western alliance's strategy has been not only to bomb in the dark but, as far as possible, to keep the public in the dark as well." John Barry, Newsweek's Pentagon reporter, told The New York Times that the military is restricting coverage, that "might not be consonant with their basic message that they're making inexorable progress toward inevitable victory." The media blackout is the culmination of a long trend toward military censorship. After Vietnam, the military blamed the media for turning public opinion against the war.
The British managed to successfully keep the media away from directly covering their Falklands War. A U.S. Naval War College publication reported on the Falkland lessons. To maintain public support, the article said, a government should sanitize the visual images of war; control media access; censor information that could upset readers or viewers; and exclude journalists who would not write favorable stories, according to CPI. The U.S. applied the Falklands model in Grenada and Panama. The biggest application was in the Gulf War. A CPI report on Gulf War coverage noted gross exaggerations of the effectiveness of Patriot missiles and smart bombs and success rates for bombing missions. The 1991 report concluded, "information about Defense Department activities ... [was] restricted or manipulated not for national security purposes, but for political purposes -- to protect the image and priorities of the Defense Department and its civilian leaders, including the president." Media groups complained after the Gulf War, and the Pentagon promised to allow more access next time. But that hasn't happened and media groups are complaining again.
The presidents of a group of 20 journalism organizations issued a statement expressing concern "over the increasing restrictions by the United States government that limit news gathering and inhibit the free flow of information in the wake of the September 11 attack. ... We believe that these restrictions pose dangers to American democracy and prevent American citizens from obtaining the information they need." But the Pentagon has not budged. With patriotism running high, the military may reason that the public isn't likely to complain. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed 59 percent of respondents want more military control over reporting the war. Only 28 percent want more media control, the Times reported. That has left journalists trying to cover the Afghan war from Pakistan. Masood Anwar of the News International in Pakistan describes the coverage from Quetta as "mainly cooked up and rubbish, as the journalists themselves are hostages to circumstances and strict security concerns" and must have Pakistani military escorts.
When a reporter in Pakistan does manage to report news, they can be kicked out. The London Telegraph reported that its correspondent was deported from Pakistan after uncovering evidence of a covert operation by rogue elements of Pakistan's military intelligence service to smuggle arms to the Taliban.
UO Prof. Anita Weiss, author of several books on Pakistan, reads Pakistani and other Arabic newspapers and is "appalled" by the local interviews and perspectives U.S. media are missing. "We're being fed a line," she said. A free press "is a civil liberty we've quickly lost."
Reporting on the domestic war on terrorism has also been severely curtailed. After the media complained that the Justice Department refused to provide the names and charges for 1,200 people it detained after the terrorist attacks, the department announced that it would no longer release even the total number of detainees. Now, President Bush has signed an order allowing an unknown number of present and future accused terrorists to be tried and potentially executed in secret by military courts.
Government censorship has moved onto the Internet, with information being removed from dozens of government web sites on the theory that terrorists might use it, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has removed information about nuclear reactors, the Environmental Protection Agency pulled information about chemical plant accidents and the Federal Aviation Administration removed information about airport security violations. The public now must trust that the government will make nuclear plants, chemical plants and airports safe.
Government censorship has even moved into space. The Pentagon has bought exclusive rights to commercial satellite imagery of Afghanistan, blocking media from using the images, the Times reported.
The censorship is producing growing mistrust. Variety reported that ABC News anchor Peter Jennings wrote about his misgivings in an e-mail to viewers: "We have been given to understand that the Taliban forces had been 'eviscerated,' that its ranks had been severely depleted by defections, and that the United States had bombed so heavily it was running out of targets. ... Today, as bombing enters week four, those claims appear questionable.'' A Frankfurt, Germany newspaper has warned readers about disinformation, the Times reported. "Substantial amounts of information about current military actions and their consequences is subject to censorship by parties to the conflict," the warning said. "In many cases, an independent confirmation of such information is not possible for this newspaper." UO political science professor Jerry Medler said the military censorship has been successful in limiting opposition to the war. "No one has stood up to say, 'wait a minute...' and the reason is we have very little information." But the military may be shooting itself in the leg in the long run. The New York Times held back from reporting on the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba under pressure from President John F. Kennedy. Later, after the disastrous invasion, Kennedy told the paper's editor that he wished the paper had printed everything. "If you had printed more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake," the Times reported.
"There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and that this is not a time for remarks like that," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer in response to comments from ABC comedian Bill Maher questioning whether terrorists on suicide missions should be called "cowardly." In its propaganda war against Al Qaeda, the Bush administration is pushing the media to watch what it says and does on many fronts.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice told network news executives that they shouldn't broadcast taped messages from Osama bin Laden. The networks now paraphrase or air only snippets of the tapes.
"We Americans ... are now the only people in the whole developed world who can't actually hear what our enemy is saying about us," lamented New York University media professor Mark Crispin Miller in a Mother Jones column. Censoring bin Laden's anti-American rants is actually counter-productive, according to Robert Giles, of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. The violent bin Laden statements would only support the need for the war, he wrote in a Times op-ed, "which makes it especially odd that the administration would want to keep it from the American public." The bin Laden videos come to U.S. media through the Al-Jazeera Arabic news channel.
Bush sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to press Qatar to censor the independent media outlet that U.S. officials have criticized as anti-American. Recently, the U.S. bombed the station's Kabul office. The Bush Administration would likely be secretive and anti-media even without the war. Journalists have complained about administration efforts to fight Freedom of Information Act requests, subpoena the phone records of a reporter, and withhold presidential records from George Bush senior's administration that could prove embarrassing to officials in junior's White House.
After Sept. 11, the Bush Administration came down hard on leaks. Bush even threatened to end security briefings for many members of Congress before the Republican and Democratic officials complained bitterly. There's so little information from the U.S. government that Americans have come to rely on the British government for news about their country. Prime Minister Tony Blair was the first to release details of the legal case against bin Laden, and British military officials were the first to discuss the likely need for ground troops to catch bin Laden.
The Bush administration is now asking Hollywood to contribute to the propaganda war. Moviemakers are reportedly willing to do their part.
Bush's moves to sacrifice civil liberties in the war on terrorism has been chilling, the Village Voice reported. Paul McMasters, of the Freedom Forum, said that "In such an atmosphere, voices of dissent grow silent, probing questions by the press are viewed as unpatriotic and subversive, and whistle-blowers within the government are quieted." With public opinion polls registering a patriotic 80 percent or more support for Bush, the President is seeing few limits to his power to bend the First Amendment and other rights to his will. Tim Lynch, of the conservative Cato Institute, told The Washington Post that the high polling numbers have fostered "an arrogance at the White House." He said officials believe they can take presidential power "farther than it's gone before."
The Bush administration doesn't need to do anything to censor many media outlets; they do it themselves. CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson ordered news staff to limit reports of Afghan war casualties and use World Trade Center deaths to justify the killings, the Washington Post reported. After the deaths in the U.S., it "seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan," Isaacson wrote in a memo.
Other U.S. networks have taken a similar approach, according to the Times. "In the United States television images of Afghan bombing victims are fleeting, cushioned between anchors or American officials explaining that such sights are only one side of the story," the Times reported. In other countries, however, "images of wounded Afghan children curled in hospital beds or women rocking in despair over a baby's corpse" are "more frequent and lingering." Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) called CNN's casualty coverage policy itself "perverse." "One of the world's most powerful news outlets has instructed its journalists not to report Afghan civilian casualties without attempting to justify those deaths." San Francisco Chronicle columnist Stephanie Salter wrote, "Between the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the so-called war in Afghanistan, a once-great news operation seems to be morphing into the Atlanta-based annex of the West Wing." Salter quoted from a New York Times report that "after two months, American television's cautious approach has turned into knee-jerk pandering to the public, reflecting a mood of patriotism rather than informing viewers of the complex, sometimes harsh realities they need to know." Too many journalists view themselves as part of the military. CBS's Dan Rather said of the commander in chief, "Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he'll make the call," reported media commentator Norman Solomon.
Brit Hume, anchor for the conservative Fox News Channel, said that neutrality isn't appropriate in coverage for this war because the enemy are "murderous barbarians," WorkingForChange reported.
But ABC President David Westin warned in a speech that "unless we are diligent our enemy could use our own patriotism against us by encouraging us to shut down independent thinking and open mindedness."
Many media outlets appear to be shutting down reporting for fear of negative reaction from patriotic zealots. FAIR quotes from a warning memo from the chief copy editor of the Panama City, Florida News Herald. "DO NOT USE photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. Our sister paper in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening e-mails and the like. ... DO NOT USE wire stories which lead with civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. They should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT." Organized right-wing "patriot police" have hounded network executives, according to FAIR. ABC's Westin said his network got a "torrent of complaints" when it aired an interview with a PLO spokesman. Some media outlets don't need prompting to toe the popular line. "If you get on the wrong side of public opinion, you are going to get into trouble," CNN's Isaacson said, according to WorkingForChange. Newspaper columnists have felt the heat. Columnists for the Texas City Sun and Oregon's Grants Pass Daily Courier were fired after they criticized Bush for cowardice in not immediately returning to Washington after the Sept. 11 attacks.
At a University of Oregon peace conference last month, UO journalism Prof. Carl Bybee held up a copy of The Register-Guard coverage of the conference that he said was skewed. The story reported that a keynote speaker favored a police action to apprehend bin Laden. "Even peace activists want revenge," began the R-G story.
In the atmosphere of self-censorship, FAIR has complained that peace protests have been undercovered and peace opinions are given little room on op-ed pages.
Rallying around the president in war time may have even skewed the reported results of the media consortium recount of the Florida presidential vote. The Nation notes that the recount showed that Al Gore would have narrowly won if all ballots in the state were accurately counted. But CNN declared, "Florida recount study: Bush still wins." With the U.S. media censored and waving flags on the air, more aggressive British reporters have repeatedly scooped American journalists. The Brits were first to report on a new video in which bin Laden justifies Sept. 11th, first to find documents abandoned by retreating Al Qaeda forces hinting at efforts to build nuclear bombs, and first with an interview of Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Times reported.
Recently, the BBC gave far more detailed and prominent coverage of alleged atrocities by Northern Alliance troops in Mazar-i-Sharif than did CNN or The New York Times.
America cannot risk losing the First Amendment to war, said NYU Prof. Crispin. "If we allow the government and media to keep us all in nervous ignorance, American democracy will not prevail against the terrorists; it will have been destroyed regardless of the outcome of this latest war."
After Nike CEO Phil Knight angrily withdrew a planned $30 million donation to the University of Oregon, UO President Dave Frohnmayer fell over himself trying to get back on the irascible billionaire's good side.
In interviews, Frohnmayer repeatedly described Nike as a "world leader" in promoting fair labor.
Nike isn't a leader in reforming sweatshops, says Trim Bissell, national coordinator for the Campaign for Labor Rights (CLR). But, he says, the corporation "is a world leader in issuing press releases declaring it's a world leader."
Bissell notes that activists struggled for years to get Nike to even admit that it had any control over working conditions at the 700 third world factories where the $10 billion corporation contracts to make clothes and shoes. It took years more to get the corporation to even give the names of the factories where its products were made. "Any progress they've made, we've dragged them kicking and screaming every inch of the way," says Bissell.
Nike public relations executives have long derided their critics as ignorant or malicious or both. The company says it does far better than its competitors in providing safe and fair working conditions for the half-million third-world factory workers that make its products in factories scattered around the globe.
Jeff Ballinger, director of Press for Change and a Nike watchdog for the past decade, dismisses the company's fair labor claims as "a lot of PR spinning."
For example, Nike recently claimed that it had dramatically increased wages at its Indonesian factories. But Ballinger points out the wage increases fell below what was needed to keep up with massive inflation in the country.
The crash of the Indonesian rupiah versus the dollar meant that Indonesian workers went from earning $2.46 a day to about $1 a day, according to Bissell.
Given that exchange rate, Nike's labor costs in Indonesia actually fell by tens of millions of dollars, even with the new wage increases. Knight, who's personally made an estimated $4 billion to $5 billion off Nike's sweatshops, could have afforded to pay his workers more than 13 cents an hour, Bissell and Ballinger say.
In another example, Nike recently said it would replace toxic glues in its factories with water-soluble adhesives. Labor rights groups had said for years that poorly ventilated factories thick with toluene fumes were putting the company's young women workers at high risk of liver, kidney and central nervous system damage as well as birth defects.
At first, Nike vehemently denied the toxic air charges. But a leaked report from the corporation's accountant Ernst & Young revealed that Chinese workers at one plant were exposed to carcinogens that exceeded local legal standards by 177 times. More than three-fourths of the factory's workers suffered from respiratory problems.
Nike is now trying to take PR credit for clearing the air in its factories, but Ballinger says "it's something they never should have done in the first place."
In a new PR thrust, Nike has also started posting internal audit reports of its factories on its web site. But Ballinger says the reports are "bogus" and "laughable." The reports aren't independent inspections, don't even reveal the identity of the specific plants inspected, and are completely unverifiable, he says. Also, the reports focus on nit-picking regulatory details such as failure to post regulations, but ignore larger issues such as whether or not the workers have been harassed or fired for trying to unionize or for failing to meet harsh production quotas.
In recent independent studies of Nike factories, researchers found workers still have "lots of complaints," Ballinger says.
In April, a coalition of fair labor groups released a report documenting ongoing labor abuses at Nike contract factories in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and China. A survey of 3,500 workers producing for Nike in Indonesia found serious labor abuses. Punishment for minor infractions included pulling workers' ears, slapping, fining, and forcing workers to stand in the sun or run laps around the factory.
The report found forced overtime in Nike's Chinese factories. Some work weeks were as long as 12 hours a day for seven days in a row. Other interviews with workers in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia revealed anti-union crackdowns, low pay and extreme exhaustion from brutal production quotas.
Nike issued a press release denouncing the latest research by labor monitors as "simply not credible." The corporation claimed "no one can dispute" its leadership for fair labor.
Nike's spin on its sweatshops in third-world dictatorships has long claimed that the corporation isn't exploiting workers, but helping foster economic development that will lead to better living standards and a move to democracy. In its 1996 annual report Nike described itself as "U.S. foreign policy in action."
But Ballinger and Bissell say Nike has opened factories in dictatorships to maximize profits with cheap labor and government suppression. They point to a letter last year by a Nike executive to the Vietnamese dictatorship as an example of the corporation's true views of democracy. Nike Vice President Joseph Ha wrote that fair labor activists at the company's factories and abroad are attacking Nike as "the first step for their political goal, which is to create a so-called democratic society on the U.S. model."
A broad spectrum of human rights groups denounced the letter as anti-democratic and authoritarian, and Nike PR people appeared to back away from Ha's claims. But Bissell says Ha was not disciplined by the company. Thirty years ago, Nike pioneered the corporate model of seeking out the world's lowest-wage dictatorships to produce products, says Bissell. "It was Nike that set the standard. They created this mode of corporation -- the virtual corporation that produces image instead of shoes."
Nike first set up shop in Taiwan and South Korea. But soon left for cheaper labor. "When these countries started to democratize, Nike put on its running shoes," Bissell says.
Nike is now in the process of moving its factories from Vietnam and Indonesia to even cheaper labor and harsher dictators in China. The April report by fair labor activists reported that Nike has increased its sneaker production in China from 10 percent to 40 percent in recent years. In China, the corporation can exploit labor for as little as 11 cents an hour and enjoy the support of a repressive government, the report notes. The Chinese will insure little information leaks out about bad working conditions at Nike factories, and the dictatorship has a history of severe repression of independent unions including torturing and imprisoning workers' rights activists, according to the report.
Years of pressure by student and fair labor activists have had an impact on Nike, Ballinger says. The corporation has found from marketing research and falling sales that the brand name it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to create is now soiled by its sweatshops.
But the corporation has reacted more with spin than with actual reforms, fair labor activists charge. The corporation's new director of labor practices is a former corporate PR executive, they note.
The new Worker Rights Consortium has great promise for using pro-labor sweatshop monitoring to increase pressure on Nike in the media and on campuses to reform, Ballinger says. But after a decade trying to push the Swoosh in the right direction, he says he doesn't expect quick results.
"The progress is so glacial," Ballinger says. "I don't see this company turning around any time soon."
Nike's Track Record
- Newspaper of Indonesian trade union publishes investigative report exposing poor working conditions at a South Korea-based shoe company producing for Nike.
- Articles appear in Indonesian newspapers about wage protests at Nike contractors, Tae Hwa and Pratama Abadi. (Wage at the time, 86 cents a day -- most shoe factories paying illegal "training wage.")
- Rise of Setia Kawan (Solidarity) independent trade union -- subsequently crushed by Indonesian authorities after less than a year.
- Strikes at Hardaya Aneka and Pratama Abadi factories in Indonesia.
- Indonesian daily Media Indonesia runs three-day report on abuses at shoe factories. Headline second day: "World Shoe Giants Rape Worker Rights."
- Thames TV (UK),The Economist and Knight Ridder report on poor working conditions at Nike contractors in Indonesia.
- The Oregonian prints lengthy article on Nike's Indonesia operations -- Phil Knight (Nike CEO) writes angry denunciation.
- U.S. State Department report to Congress on Human Rights highlights shoe factories' refusal to pay Indonesia's minimum wage.
- Nike formulates "Code of Conduct and Memorandum of Understanding" for contractors.
- Sung Hwa protest leaders fired after 10-week investigation by local security forces -- included intimidation and interrogations.
- Critical reports in New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Economist and Jakarta Post.
- Sneaker campaigns undertaken in Holland, Italy and Germany
- Strike at Pou Chen Indonesian factory.
- CBS-TV (US) broadcasts highly critical report on Nike-contractors' labor practices in Indonesia.
- Extensive Indonesia sweatshop report in The Rolling Stone.
- Nike hires accounting firm, Ernst and Young to do "social audits" at Indonesia-based contract factories.
- Donald Katz' book Just Do It characterizes Indonesian operations as "management by terror and browbeating." CEO Knight appears with Katz for Portland book-signing.
- Press for Change study in Indonesia documents wage cheating by employers.
- Strikes at Pou Chen, Pratama Abadi, Nagasakiti Paramshoes and Tae Hwa factories in Indonesia.
- Major investigative reports in Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune expose poor working conditions at Nike's Indonesia factories.
- Manager at Pratama Abadi factory making Nike shoes lines up and slaps 15 women from quality control section.
- U.S. A.I.D.-sponsored research finds that more than 500 workers at Nike-producing factory in Majalaya, W. Java report problems such as forced overtime and illegal wage deductions.
- Strike leads to dismissal of 13 activists at Pou Chen.
- Washington-based Multinational Monitor names Nike to annual "Ten Worst" list.
- Portland organization, Justice, Do It Nike, begins regular protests at Nike store.
- New research by Press for Change in Indonesia uncovers widespread violations of Nike's own "Code of Conduct."
- Fair labor advocates submit "anti-sweat" resolution to Nike shareholders meeting.
- Kathie Lee Gifford controversy brings unprecedented media attention to sweatshop issue.
- White House forms "Apparel Industry Partnership" to deal with sweatshop issues. Fired worker from Nike-producing factory in Indonesia is denied chance to speak at AIP's founding conference.
- The Rev. Jesse Jackson is refused visit to Nike-producing factory while in Indonesia.
- Canadians and French send hundreds of thousands of protest post cards to Nike.
- Brutal political and labor union crackdown in Indonesia.
- Nike sends five-page letter to universities across North America to "explain" child labor controversy.
- Phil Knight, Nike CEO becomes sixth richest person in U.S. with $5.3 billion (all from shoes/apparel).
- Several Nike shoe contractors in Indonesia apply for exemptions from paying new minimum wage in Indonesia. Increase is from $2.25 to $2.46 a day.
- Strikes by thousands of Nike-producing workers in Vietnam.
- Portland's Jobs With Justice helps to organize big May Day protest at Nike store.
- Nike hires former UN Ambassador Andrew Young to tour Asian factories. Young uses Nike translators and his report is viewed by fair labor advocates as shallow and unhelpful.
- Protests conducted at new Nike store openings in Seattle, San Francisco and Boston.
- Massive protest and three-day strike at Garuda Indawa factory in Indonesia.
- Asian economic crisis and crash of Indonesian currency brings Nike contractors' per-day labor cost down from $2.50 a day to $.70 per worker.
- Campaign for Labor Rights organizes world-wide day of protest concerning Nike's labor practices. Actions in 50 cities.
- Berkeley-based Transnational Resource Action Center releases report documenting severe health problems at Nike shoe factory in Vietnam.
- Student protests against Nike links with universities erupt at University of Illinois, Penn State, University of North Carolina, Colorado, Florida State, Michigan and others.
- Phil Knight vows to eliminate hazardous chemicals from shoe production.
- Unions leave White House panel on sweatshops due to irreconcilable differences on monitoring and reporting compliance. Filmmaker Michael Moore interviews Phil Knight for movie, "The Big One."
- Nike announces pay increase (25 percent) for Indonesian shoe workers, but adjusting for high inflation, worker wages are still 30% behind mid-1997 figure.
- Michael Jordan, Nike's premier endorser, makes the first of several promises to visit Asian production facilities.
- Julia, a worker at Nike-producing "Formosa" factory in El Salvador, is beaten and fired for taking a day off to care for her sick child.
- Hero of E. Timor independence struggle, Jose Ramos Horta, likens Nike contractors' operations in Indonesia to Japanese occupation of the archipelago.
- Joseph Ha, a top advisor to Phil Knight, sends letter to highest-ranking labor official in Vietnam portraying "anti-sweat" activists as enemies of the state with a "political" agenda.
- Government survey of 175 businesses in Vietnam shows that shoe factories have largest wage/salary disparities (line workers compared to management).
- Under pressure from students, Nike agrees to disclose factory locations where university-licensed apparel is being produced. Vietnam survey shows that worst manufacturing pay rates are in footwear sector.
- Nike increases advertising spending by 53 percent for coming year.
- Nike factory in Vietnam was scene of country's largest food-poisoning incident of the year.
- Indonesian official links bribe-taking by police and military to low wages paid to factory workers.
- UO joins the Worker Rights Consortium, a sweatshop monitoring group started by labor and student activists.
- Phil Knight angrily cancels planned $30 million gift to UO.