The sad decline and fall of 60 Minutes has been a long time coming, but now it is nearly complete. Just in recent months: the horrid hit on Americans with disabilities, the Lara Logan affair, and now tonight’s whitewash of NSA (and bonus slam vs. Edward Snowden), hosted by longtime FBI/police/NSA propagandist John Miller. Good night and good luck!
Here’s the complete transcript of tonight’s show. It’s got something to offend everyone. All that’s missing is an Amazon drone delivering a package of listening devices to an NSA agent in the field. Here's a much-needed and valuable factcheck from Spencer Ackerman at The Guardian. Good review at The Atlantic’s Wire highlights the NSA "minders" preventing any tough questions that might have been asked. Marcy Wheeler says John Miller should take that police job again and never work in journalism again. Also don't miss Kevin Gosztola with more on Miller's "revolving door journalism."
And in this interview, Miller explains his motivation: "Because this is really the side of the story that has been mined only in the most superficial ways./ We've heard plenty [emphasis his] from critics" of NSA.
[UPDATE: A Federal District judge ruled on Monday that the NSA's massive collection of phone records is likely unconstitutional.]
The response on Twitter and elsewhere on the Web to the 60 Minutes puff piece was swift and savagely negative. Glenn Greenwald tweets: “60 Minutes forgot to ask about how James Clapper & Keith Alexander routinely lied to Congress & FISA courts—just ran out of time.” And: “60 Minutes producer gushing about his NSA access: ‘It was like Star Trek…. My favorite room was the Black Chamber!’ ” Later he called it and "access-for-uncritical-reverence NSA propaganda piece" that "was a new low for US journalism."
From other key media observers. Dave Itzkoff of the NYT: “NSA Doing Great Job, NSA Says—60 Minutes.” Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker: “Wow, the 60 Minutes piece about the NSA was just embarrassing. Kudos to the NSA communications staff. You guys should get a raise.” Jeff Jarvis: “For shame,
#60Minutes, for shame…. CBS just *bragged* that John Miller is ‘the ultimate insider.’ Yes, he just demonstrated that!”
The great Amy Davidson at The New Yorker: "Quick pivot on @60minutes from Snowden character-trashing to how NSA will save us all from cyber attacks...Oy,
@60minutes--still waiting for a tough question, follow-up for General Alexander..." Will Bunch posted a photo of Edward R. Murrow with this comment: "Next on @60Minutes -- a special report on a man who's actually spinning in his grave."
John McQuaid of Forbes: "Would love to see a transcript of CBS-NSA negotiations over that 60 Minutes story. What journalistic prerogatives did CBS agree to give up?" Carne Ross: “Hadn’t realized
@60Minutes now does infomercials…. Where the hell is Lowell Bergman when u need him? Oh yes, he quit at the end of the movie.” Jay Rosen: “This ‘60 Minutes’ report on the NSA is… TV. That’s not a compliment.”
Andy Greenberg: “This 60 Minutes episode has been a pretty good infomercial for the NSA so far. Did anyone catch that 1-800 number so I can order?” Xeni Jardin: “Remember when 60 Minutes was where people looked for quality journalism?” The official WikiLeaks feed: “60 minutes and NSA pair up to strike back on
#NSA leaks; character assassinate #Snowden.”
Greg Mitchell has written more than a dozen books about famous political campaigns, WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning, the media and Iraq, nuclear cover-ups, Beethoven's Ninth, and more.
Read Next: Peter van Buren asks if Google and the NSA could actually make whistleblowers disappear.
Next week’s all-but-certain confirmation of Janet Yellen as Federal Reserve chair presents a crucial opportunity to implement bold, progressive ideas in an institution that has for too long done too little to combat the vast economic inequalities in American society. As The Nation’s longtime national affairs correspondent William Greider wrote in our October 7, 2013 issue, Yellen “well understands that much deeper change must be considered to get the economy back in balance.”
Should the new chair need additional ideas as to what exactly should be changed at the Fed, Greider’s articles in The Nation over the past decade would be a helpful place to start.
In “The One-Eyed Chairman: How Greenspan Has Pushed the Right’s Agenda” (September 19, 2005), Greider lambasted the outgoing chairman’s partisanship, irresponsibility and betrayal of ordinary Americans. It is amazing to read Greider’s warnings, years before the 2008 crash, about the inevitable failure of Greenspan’s policies and the implications that would have for the broader deregulatory ideology of which he was for several decades perhaps the most prominent champion. (Greenspan would concede as much with his famous admission in October 2008 that there was “a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.”)
Beware of economic policy-makers who go to extremes in defense of ideological convictions. Essentially, that is the nature of Greenspan’s grave failure. The real world did not cooperate with his right-wing beliefs, but he persisted anyway. In the hydraulics of monetary policy, his posture set in motion deep waves of economic extremes: fabulous personal wealth alongside a deeply indebted populace; extraordinary corporate profits alongside stagnant wages and surplus labor; too much capital and not enough consumer demand. These exaggerated waves, and some others, are still sloshing back and forth in the US economy. They will for years ahead, with more crises to come. Greenspan collected much praise for his swift and daring rescue missions—the nimble fireman rushing from blaze to blaze, putting out fires before they destroyed the economy. What many people did not understand is that it was Greenspan who lit the match.
In 2009, as the Obama administration was reeling from aftereffects of the crash, Greider wrote “Dismantling the Temple: How to Fix the Federal Reserve” (August 3/10, 2009), which outlined a plan for a more democratic, more transparent, and more effective Federal Reserve.
"A reconstituted central bank might keep the famous name and presidentially appointed governors, confirmed by Congress, but it would forfeit the mystique and submit to the usual standards of transparency and public scrutiny. The institution would be directed to concentrate on the Fed’s one great purpose—making monetary policy and controlling credit expansion to produce balanced economic growth and stable money. Most regulatory functions would be located elsewhere, in a new enforcement agency that would oversee regulated commercial banks as well as the “shadow banking” of hedge funds, private equity firms and others.
The Fed would thus be relieved of its conflicted objectives. Bank examiners would be free of the insiders pressures that inevitably emanate from the Fed’s cozy relations with major banks. All of the private-public ambiguities concocted in 1913 would be swept away, including bank ownership of the twelve Federal Reserve banks, which could be reorganized as branch offices with a focus on regional economies.
Altering the central bank would also give Congress an opening to reclaim its primacy in this most important matters. That sounds farfetched to modern sensibilities, and traditionalists will scream that it is a recipe for inflationary disaster. But this is what the Constitution prescribes: “The Congress shall have the power to coin money [and] regulate the value thereof.” It does not grant the president or the treasury secretary this power. Nor does it envision a secretive central bank that interacts murkily with the executive branch."
Finally, in a superb November 2012 essay, “The Fed and the Silence of the Left,” Greider encouraged progressives to be more vocal in their support for the Federal Reserve’s efforts to stimulate the economy, especially at a time when conservative voices were trying to convince chairman Ben Bernanke to cut back. Greider approved of Bernanke’s attempts to stimulate lending and spending, but asked “what else can the Fed chair do?” His answer offers many ideas Yellen could consider as a way to take the Fed in a more progressive, democratic direction. “Instead of pumping more money into the banking system,” Greider wrote, “the chairman should figure out how to get it to the sectors of commerce or industry that really need it.” The Fed, he continued,
"...could use its regulatory muscle to unfreeze the risk-averse bankers who are still unwilling to lend—the same bankers whose reckless risk-taking nearly brought down the entire system four years ago. The Fed could create special facilities for directed lending (just as it did for the imperiled banking system) that gets the banks to relax lending terms for credit-starved sectors like small business. If bankers refuse to play, it could offer the same deal to financial institutions that are not banks.
The Fed could help restart the enfeebled housing sector by collaborating on debt reduction for the millions of underwater home mortgages. It could help organize and finance major infrastructure projects, like modernizing the national electrical grid, building high-speed rail systems and cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy—public works that create jobs the old-fashioned way. The Fed could influence the investment decisions of private capital by backstopping public-private bonds needed to finance the long-neglected overhaul of the nation’s common assets."
With Yellen’s installation as the first-ever chairwoman of the Federal Reserve expected in January, one thing is certain: should she fail to steer the bank in a more progressive direction, it won’t be for a lack of actionable ideas.
* * *
Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.
Read next: John Nichols on the popular rebellion that tripped up Larry Summers.
On Tuesday I quoted Chicago anti-privatization activist Tom Tresser about why corporate America is falling in love with cities: “We have a massive global movement of capital which, because they’ve burned their own fucking houses down through their own greed, don’t have the gilt returns that they’re used to receiving…. So the new guaranteed annual returns that big business and big capital are looking for is our assets.”
Consider the very model of the modern major municipal contractor: Cubic. Trading on the NASDEQ with a market capitalization of almost a billion dollars under the adorable stock symbol CUB, Cubic earns over 99 percent of its revenues from government contracts, according to a Credit Suisse equity research report. When it’s not mismanaging urban fare-transit collection systems like Chicago’s Ventra, it does a once-pretty trade as “the leading pure-play provider of [the] defense training and mission support service areas which stand at the heart of modern military practices.” But, as we’ll see, defense isn’t offering the gilt-edged returns it once did. So look for Chicago’s very stupid smart cards to come soon to a city bus near you. Look, in other words, for Cubic to be picking your pocket, too.
Cubic was founded in 1951 in a San Diego storefront as a modest electronics company specializing in precision distance-measuring equipment. In 1966 it developed the first electronic stadium scoreboard. Then it gained worldwide recognition for the first satellite-based surveying system—expertise that turned out to be useful for getting its foot into the door where the real money was: defense. Tracking systems for military aircraft. Measurement apparatuses for missile ranges. “These core technologies,” Credit Suisse’s analysts explain, “led to the development of combat training instrument displays.” By 1973 it had created the “world’s first Top Gun ACMI system for the Marine Corps Air Station at Yuma, Arizona,” whatever that is; “Later, Cubic pioneered the world’s first turnkey ground combat/instrumentation system at Hohenfels, Germany. The same technologies were incorporated into Cubic’s broadcast data links and combat personnel recovery system, which were used successfully during Operation Desert Storm and in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia.”
Its “best known products” now, according to a JPMorgan report, “are laser engagement simulation kits used to conduct realistic war games…communications products, such as data links, power amplifiers, avionics systems, multi-band communications tracking device, and cross-domain hardware solutions for multi-level security requirements.” Their subsidiary NEK Special Programs Group, LLC “[o]ffers special training services in the areas of combat marksmanship, close quarter battle, sniper and survival training, tactical evasion driving, tactical life saving, military freefall and winter warfare, mountaineering operations, and medical training and services…. Cubic supports three of the four U.S combat training centers as a prime contractor (e.g. Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk), and serves as a subcontractor on the fourth.”
Which used to be a damned reliable customer base. But listen to the advice of the analysts at the House of Morgan: “The threat of sequestration continues to hang over defense segment funding, and we think Mission Support will be under pressure owing to DoD scrutiny of contractor sources.” They predict “flattish growth for these businesses.”
Good thing, then, that Cubic has a diversified product portfolio.
The San Diego company first got into the municipal fare-collection business when it bought a company called Western Data Products in 1971. Soon, it invented the world’s first plastic magnetically encoded tickets for Pennsylvania’s Port Authority. It is now the only publicly traded company in the business of providing RFID fare cards, like those used in Chicago's new system. And unlike with the defense stuff, when you’re part of the municipal-industrial complex, everything’s coming up roses.
A chart in the Credit Suisse report tells the story: “Smart Fare Card Penetration” was 9 percent of public transportation systems in 2007, 18 percent in 2009 and 22 percent in 2011. “The company is aggressively aiming to expand its addressable market from its current estimate of $2bn to $5bn,” says Credit Suisse. “The key driver in this segment is municipal transportation investment.” Investors are advised that “low smart card and growing magnetic reader penetration in the United States” is “a further positive in the long term.” Better yet, “aggregate passenger spending on public transportation shows little sensitivity to economic downturn and has increased every year.” Flat-lining defense spending? No worries. Cubic is covered. With guaranteed returns. Buy! Buy! Buy!
And so investors have bought, bought, bought. One of them, Blackrock, the largest investment fund in the world, owns 78,809 shares of CUB. Is it a coincidence that Blackrock CEO Larry Fink is a member of what Chicago Reader reporter Ben Joravsky calls Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s“ Millionaires Club”? I cannot firmly say. What I can say is that it makes perfect sense for the same sort of companies that once gave us the $500 hammer and the $750 toilet seat via “cost-plus” contracts that guaranteed gilt-edged returns, whether they did a good job or not, to keep mayors like Emanuel (who earned $18.5 million in two and a half years doing very little as an “investment banker”) on speed dial.
I wrote about the serial disasters of Chicago’s smart cards. But Cubic has the problem covered. The public relations problem, that is. Read one internal corporate communication: “The open payment system is likely at some point to be subject to criticism, so it’s important that all possible points of contention be considered and prepared for.” By making sure the problems are addressed? Not so much. “Spin,” a memo instead explains (emphasis added), “needs to be heavily positive.”
Speaking of spin, the Chicago Transit Authority’s head, Forest Claypool, has explained to the public that the horrific glitches have not yet cost the city anything because the CTA is holding back payment until the problems are fixed. He’s dissembling. As Credit Suisse’s analysts explain to investors (though I’ve never seen Chicago citizens get the same sort of straightforward explanation; telling, no?), “Most transport contracts are taken over ten years,” with almost half usually paid out up front: Vancouver paid Cubic 40 percent in advance for its smart-card system; Sydney, Australia, laid out 45 percent. Contrariwise, “for the Chicago project, revenue will be taken entirely over the ten-year span of the contract.” What seems to be happening here is that Cubic knew that Chicago’s rushed implementation, without a testing phase, would make for horrible botches and built that into the deal. They can’t be punished by getting money taken from them because there isn’t yet any money to take.
Once the kinks are worked out, though, and the problems are forgotten—that’s when the money rolls in, as if nothing untoward had ever happened. Indeed the public relations memo I quoted says as much, referencing the “need to spin the transition away from the [old] cards, and the fact that there are dates certain for that to happen.”
Indeed, it looks like the perfection of Cubic’s evolving business model. Consider another revealing chart in Credit Suisse’s report on Cubic for investors, in the “Sales Growth Outlook” section. It shows “Backlog as % of Forward Two-Year Sales” over a four-year period. That’s a way of describing projected payments in a contract that are guaranteed down the line, but can’t yet be counted as revenue. The chart has three lines. Two of them, for Cubic’s Defense Systems and Mission Support divisions, turn worrisomely south. Like the man said, “The threat of sequestration continues to hang over defense segment funding, and we think Mission Support will be under pressure owing to DoD scrutiny of contractor sources.” But the Transportations Systems line, conversely, shoots promisingly skyward.
And once more Chicago’s City Hall gives away the store to Big Money, slicing its citizen on the cutting edge of the municipal privatization grift.
Read Next: Rick Perlstein exposes the many flaws in Chicago's new public transit payment system.
Let’s start with the facts.
The Washington Redskins are stomping toward another “flaming bag filled with dog crap” of a season. One year removed from winning the NFC East, they are 3-10. Star quarterback Robert Griffin III has been benched with three games left in the season, demoted to third-string status. Coach Mike Shanahan seems to be simultaneously feuding with owner Daniel Snyder, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (his son) and anyone who looks at him cross-eyed.
This is what us sports insiders/advanced stat mavens call “a clusterfuck.”
Let’s talk about another fact: in the past year, numerous Native American and civil rights organizations have in unprecedented fashion asked the team to change its name. They have argued that “redskins” is an ugly racist slur that speaks to the darkest chapters of US history. They have pointed out that the team was named by an owner, George Preston Marshall, who was an open racist and that it is past time for the team to join the twenty-first century and change the damn name. Snyder has been belligerent in response, calling the name “a badge of honor” and refusing to meet with Native American leaders to even discuss it.
Given how terrible the team has been not just this year but over the last two decades, the question has been raised in The Washington Post about whether the team is in fact cursed. Yes, cursed. Mike Wise of the Post wrote an entire column devoted to the question. He gave a platform to Jay Winter Nightwolf, who called Wise to tell him about the curse he placed on the franchise. In 2000, Nightwolf was hosting his talk radio show on DC's Pacifica station, WPFW, speaking about the racist history of the name. A “fan”, called Nightwolf’s radio show and sang, “Hail to the Redskins” to rub it in Nightwolf’s face. The Buffalo Ridge Cherokee told Wise that in response he said on the air, “Great Spirit, you have always been the beginning of Creation and you will be the Father at the end of Creation. Your children ask that you remove the racism that plagues all of mankind. And, in particular, would you please do something for this team not to win anything of real merit until they change their name, including an NFC championship and a Super Bowl?”
How credible is this? I will not speak to curses, but in sports I do believe in karma, in vibes, in small distractions metastasizing into crippling weight on a team’s expectations. What is the weight on a team in 2013 of having a racist name? Of being asked constantly about the controversy? Of having sportswriters refuse to say it? Of it being fodder for discussion on Sunday Night Football and Meet the Press? With apologies to Langston Hughes, does it stink like rotten meat? Does it fester like a sore? Does it hang like a heavy load? Is this 3-10 season, and Mike Shanahan’s unchained id of a press conference a sign that it did in fact explode?
I do know that a turning point in the season was when the team was 3-5 and playing a poor Minnesota Vikings team. Before the game, 1,000 people protested outside the stadium chanting for the team to change the name and saying, “The ‘R’ word is no different than the ‘N’ word” and “Hey Hey Ho Ho! Little red Sambo has got to go!” Did the team know? Did it even in an infinitesimal way affect their play?
I also know that there could be no bigger curse on this team than the man who insists that that the name will never change, team owner Dan Snyder.
Dan Snyder wants to be loved by the Washington football fans. He yearns for it like a canine wanting his belly rubbed. It leads him to do things that are incredibly stupid. Overpay for future Hall of Famers past their prime-time play? You do it. Sign prize free agent and noted head case Albert Haynesworth for $100 million? You do it. Cuddle up in embarrassing fashion to whoever you think the “coolest” of your players happens to be? You do it. Threaten to sue columnists and radio broadcasters who mock you? You do it. Insist that the team name will never change no matter how many Native Americans, religious leaders, civil rights organizations, sportswriters and presidents ask? You do it.
This is not leadership. It is cowardice. It has also led to a profoundly dysfunctional franchise that has more in common with a nighttime ’80s soap opera—perhaps called Ex-Dynasty—than anything resembling an NFL team. The name is toxic. The owner is toxic. And the fish rots from the head. Has someone truly put a curse on this team? It seems hardly worth the effort.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on Peyton Manning.
—Aaron Cantú focuses on the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, social inequality and post-capitalist institutional design.
“Everyone Is a Criminal: On the Over-policing of America,” by Chase Madar. The Nation, December 9, 2013.
Madar examines how mindless “zero-tolerance” zeal and decades of increasing police militarization have led us to a point in which few moments in our lives aren’t managed by (mostly) boys in blue. It’s interesting to consider how police proliferation has happened alongside (or complicity with?) the development of a massive surveillance apparatus. With this in mind, it’s probably more absurd to suggest that the US is not a police state.
—Owen Davis focuses on public education, media and the effects of social inequality.
“Cyberlibertarians’ Digital Deletion of the Left,” by David Golumbia. Jacobin, December 4, 2013.
What does the Left look like online? David Golumbia answers in the negative: cyberlibertarians. From the hacktivist ideology, which posits that liberating information will liberate humanity, to the neoliberal corporatism of Silicon Valley, Golumbia examines the underlying politics of those who own the web. But being progressive in cyber-politics poses vexing contradictions. For instance, Google bankrolled and even coordinated protests against SOPA and PIPA, bills liberals characterized as overreaching favors to the entertainment industry. Meanwhile, online civil liberties groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are helmed by libertarians and funded by corporations. Cyberlibertarians espouse a distrust of government and a faith in private interests, both of which challenge those who value a democratic government’s role as check on concentrated capital.
—Hannah Gold focuses on gender politics, pop culture and art.
“What the New York Times (and France) Got Wrong About Prostitution,” by Melissa Gira Grant. Slate, December 11, 2013.
Last Wednesday, the French National Assembly passed its “fine for john laws,” placing the legal onus on customers rather than sex workers. On Monday The New York Times endorsed this position with an editorial, giddy at the thought that “governments around the world are increasingly guided by the idea that sex workers are victims.” Grant, whose book Playing The Whore will be published by Verso next year, points out that these laws still shame sex workers, pushing them farther underground. She also notes that the op-ed did not consult or quote any actual sex workers in its outpouring of progressive sympathy. As Laurie Penny wrote in her column at the New Statesman about the massive and highly publicized police raids of sex workers in London last week: “At a time when millions of women and girls across the continent are being forced to make hard economic choices—including prostitution—why does the biggest public feminist conversation still resolve around whether or not it is moral to have sex for money…?”
—Allegra Kirkland focuses on immigration, urban issues and US-Latin American relations.
“ATF uses rogue tactics in storefront stings across nation,” by John Diedrich and Raquel Rutledge. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 7, 2013.
This investigation exposes the coercive, shameful techniques used by undercover agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Targeting juveniles and mentally disabled adults, ATF operatives conducted dozens of storefront stings, pressuring their patrons and “employees” to procure guns and drugs to be sold at the stores and then arresting them after several months of illicit transactions. Their phony pawnshops, which paid top dollar for stolen goods, spurred burglaries and theft in the rundown neighborhoods where they were located. Jeff Griffith, a Wichita lawyer representing one of the defendants, makes the glaring, succinct point: "There is enough crime out there, why do you have to manufacture it?"
—Abbie Nehring focuses on muck reads, transparency, and investigative reporting.
“Push to Diversify City Contracting Falls Short of Goals,” by Adam Wisnieski. City Limits, December 10, 2013.
In his second year in office, Mayor Bloomberg resurrected an anti-discrimination law that had had been killed years earlier by Rudolph Giuliani. Bolstered by a 294-page study completed in 2005, Local Law 129 set citywide goals for government agencies to grant contracts under $1 million in certain industries to companies owned by minorities and women, counteracting the stark disparity in the companies that have historically been successful in bidding for city contracts. Yet this three-part series in City Limits reveals that agencies have failed to meet almost every goal the law established. Reporter Adam Wisnieksi provides various explanations for the shortcomings, from a lack of accountability in tracking the law's results to the way it interacts with the city's preexisting procurement rules, which make it difficult for agencies to handpick the contractors they want. This reporting and, in my opinion, much of the digging beneath the headlines you find in the pages of City Limits plays an important role in holding the city government accountable to the goals it sets for itself.
—Nicolas Niarchos focuses on international and European relations and national security.
“Whose sarin?” by Seymour Hersh. London Review of Books, December 19, 2013.
I was sitting down to eat (and rather hungry at that) when this came over the Twitter feed on Sunday. But for the time I took to read the piece, the wiles of Limus were cast aside, dinner be damned. As Fielding would say, “Men who pay for what they eat will insist on gratifying their palates, however nice and whimsical these may prove”—and my taste was for Hersh’s piece. The meat of my repast was the revelation that the Obama government had indulged in some sort of reconstruction of evidence in trying to go to war in Syria in late August and early September. Hersh alleges, based on sourcework, that there is little evidence to tie Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Army to the August chemical attacks, and that the administration lied when it says it was sure it was the culprit. The wine was that the media misreported the story and didn’t try to verify Obama’s claims. I disagree with his article on some fronts. Intelligence gathering is (I’ve read) a complicated process, and always involves some cherry-picking. He also has utter faith in US sensors around Syrian chemical bases, which I think is certainly misplaced. Another problem is that he implies Jabhat al-Nusra could have launched the Sarin gas, which, as Dan Kaszeta, a former army chemical weapons expert, wrote in Now, is almost impossible to countenance. The debate, in any event, is interesting from the government perspective. Hersh has caught the Obama administration in yet another act of duplicity. “Can we ever trust the government on ‘National Security’ matters?” I asked myself as I finished and began to set about my evening vittles. I speared some eggplant. “Probably not.”
—Andrés Pertierra focuses on Latin America with an emphasis on Cuba.
“Obama and Castro shake hands: could this indicate a new rapprochement?” by Jonathan Watts. The Guardian, December 11, 2013.
The recent handshake between Barack Obama and Raúl Castro has gotten a lot of flak in the US, with Senator John McCain comparing it to shaking hands with Hitler. Mainstream outlets haven’t been much better. Here is an interesting and balanced look at what the real impact of the exchange may be.
—Dylan Tokar focuses on Latin America, politics and literature.
“State of Deception,” by Ryan Lizza. The New Yorker, December 16, 2013.
Lizza’s piece is filled with juicy details from pivotal intelligence briefings, and appends much-needed history to the debate that many are only aware of through the leaks of NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
—Elaine Yu focuses on feminism, health, and East and Southeast Asia.
“Madiba in Palestine,” by Robin D.G. Kelley and Erica Lorraine Williams. CounterPunch, December 10, 2013.
In light of the American Studies Association's boycott of Israel, and as an antidote to "what Cornel West calls the 'Santa Claus-ification' of the man who was only removed from the US Terrorist Watch list in 2008," this CounterPunch article reflects on Mandela's political career by looking at his understanding and advocacy of boycotts as a strategy of resistance, his conception of the Palestinian struggle for nationhood as a global movement and his vision of citizenship not based on race or religion. While the historical contexts of apartheid and the Israel-Palestinian conflict are obviously different, comparing the necessity for a victory based "on the sharp edge of principles, struggle and solidarity, not forgiveness, apologetics, and compromise" is vital.
Last night, Twitter made a change to what happens when a user blocks another user. Originally, when users were blocked they could no longer see the other’s account and visa versa. But while the new policy still kept the feature that hid a blocked user’s tweets from the person who blocked them, it allowed the blocked user to see the other’s account if it was public. “If your account is public, blocking a user does not prevent that user from following you, interacting with your Tweets, or receiving your updates in their timeline,” the company stated. That meant that potential stalkers or harassers could retweet their victims’ tweets into their own stream, opening up the victims to potential blowback from a harasser’s followers.
After a wave of outrage against the policy change, Twitter later reversed course, saying, “We have decided to revert the change after receiving feedback from many users,” adding, “we never want to introduce features at the cost of users feeling less safe.”
When it made the original change, the company explained that it was to fix the fact that users can tell when they’ve been blocked, which it said meant there was “antagonistic behavior where people would see they were locked and be mad.” As Ashe Dryden pointed out, “This is dictating an abuse victim’s safety based on how upset their abuser feels.” As Zerlina Maxwell explained in her petition to get Twitter to reverse its decision, “I am very concerned because stalkers and abusers will now be able to keep tabs on their victims, and while there was no way to prevent it 100% before, Twitter should not be in the business of making it easier to stalk someone.”
It’s not necessarily a coincidence Ashe and Zerlina are women. Women are more likely than men to experience stalking and harassment, and women on the Internet experience a high volume of this abuse. There’s plenty of tales of personal experience, but also hard evidence, like a study that found that chat users with female-sounding usernames were 25 percent more likely to get threatening or sexually explicit messages. As Zerlina noted, she is often the victim of online rape and death threats. Women know what they need to be better protected from its effects.
And this might help explain why Twitter didn’t see the backlash coming. It, like many other tech companies, is a male-dominated company. Just two of its twelve executive team members are women, and they were not likely involved in the decision: they are its vice president of human resources and the general counsel. It just added its first female board member last week, a sign of its recognition that diversity is important but that there is so much father to go. This maleness is counter to its user base: the majority are women, which is true for social media in general.
Twitter’s mistake seems like one it could have seen coming. Someone might have been able to put themselves in the shoes of those who experience harassment and stalking and realized that getting their tweets retweeted into an abuser’s stream opens victims up to even more abuse. It has also taken other big public mobilizations to get the company to make changes that could help users who are the targets of threats. Given that women are more likely to these targets, it might take having someone of that gender in the room to come to these realizations ahead of time. This is one of the many benefits of having a more diverse team: you get more diverse opinions, reactions, and ideas.
Twitter is far from the only company suffering from a lack of women making the decisions; women are a small percentage of the chief executives of the country’s largest companies, for example. Yet there’s a large body of evidence that more women in leadership roles at companies means better financial performance. And Twitter’s experience last night illustrates that it isn’t necessarily just about the dollar figures. A workplace that has employees of all genders, races, sexualities, classes, religions, etc. means a better chance to bring different ideas to the table—and different perspectives that can stop a bad decision before it gets made.
Read Next: Jessica Valenti on Michigan’s anti-choice bill.
First a couple of Alter-reviews, then Reed:
Last Friday I went around the corner to Symphony Space on the occasion of Theatre Within’s 33rd Annual John Lennon Tribute. I’ve been to a couple of these before, but I don’t recall anything like the terrific line-up they amassed for Friday’s show. To be honest, it could hardly suck, given the material. But it could, and occasionally did, drag, in the middle. It got off to a really strong start with Teddy Thompson, who will almost certainly grow more and more popular as more people hear him. He’s got a powerful and often beautiful voice and a winning stage persona. I can’t remember what he sang anymore, but I remember hearing it anew. (Each performer, pretty much, did one Beatles song and one Lennon solo song.) Performances by Dan Bern, Dana Fuchs , Bettye LaVette, Toshi Reagon and Rich Pagano (of the Fab Faux). Lennon Tribute creator and MAD Magazine Senior Editor Joe Raiola followed and were either great or not so great depending on your taste. Since we’re talking about my taste I think things really began to take off again with Steve Earle dong “Cry Baby” and something else and then insanely great performances by Raul Malo (looking like a dead ringer for Lunciano Pavarotti) doing “The Ballad of John and Yuoko” and “Twist and Shout.” Joan Osborne batted clean-up as she says, and funked up the place with Ms. Lavette and left everybody feeling good, though “And So this is Christmas was the lamest of sing-a-long closers one could imagine. Great band too, led by Mr. Pagano.
The Tribute was produced in association with Music Without Borders and shared its profits with the Spirit Foundations, established in 1978 by John and Yoko as a vehicle to support charities that address “the problems of the aging, abused women and children, and victims of terrorism and natural disasters.” Theatre Within, meanwhile, is dedicated to “furthering the performing arts as a positive social force through concerts, theatrical productions and workshops.” Look ‘em up here
Speaking of the Fabs, while I don’t think I’m up to Mr. Lewisohn’s Tune In anytime soon—almost a thousand pages and it ends in 1962—and if you feel that way too, you might enjoy, as I am, Philip Margotin’s All The Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release, which is a thumb-through kind of picture and data book for obsessives who don’t have as many blocks of time on their hands but find this stuff endlessly interesting. (It relies on earlier work by Mr. Lewisohn’s research.) It’s a big fat doorstop/coffee-table book with wonderful photos and decently-footnoted stories, pretty-well written and impossible not to like for Beatle-types (unlike at least one other Fab coffee table books published this season).
And if you’re looking for a book on the history of Israel and the Palestinians, I strongly recommend Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. I would not have thought it possible to do justice to all the competing visions of what the land and the struggle mean had Shavit not done it. I listened to the audio version and it was read beautifully by Paul Boehmer with a lilting, Israeli-infected baritone.
Pirate’s Life: The Rise and Fall of “Murdoch’s World”
by Reed Richardson
By all accounts, Rupert Murdoch is not a man given to introspection or burdened by self-doubt. The son of an Australian newspaper publisher who died while Rupert was still in college, there’s little evidence he ever considered anything other than following in his father’s successful footsteps. Yet to think of Murdoch’s global empire as simply the lifelong fulfillment of a second-generation media mogul driven by his desire for wealth and influence would be a mistake. Indeed, in newsrooms of yore, that kind of naïve, overly simplistic narrative probably would have gotten one’s copy thrown back in one’s face by Murdoch himself. Get the real story, mate.
And he’d be right; just because someone isn’t haunted by doubt doesn’t mean they’re not haunted by something else. In Murdoch’s case, the money and power he has accumulated over the decades aren’t the real payoff, they’re merely plot devices in his own personal Count of Monte Christo-like tale of vengeance and vindication. Fittingly for someone who grew up in the antipodes, his is a reactionary existence, one that constantly measures itself against the perceived establishment in London or New York and positions itself in opposition accordingly. His is an underdog’s tale in which there must always be cast a foil or a villain, someone or something that can’t wait to brush him off, lay him low, or cheer his failure. Thus, in Murdoch’s world, no slight goes unregistered, no grudge goes unborn, and no victory goes uncelebrated (often rudely).
This consummate outsider shtick is, to put it mildly, bullshit. Murdoch fils enjoyed a ridiculously privileged childhood growing up in Australia, went on to attend Oxford, and, thanks to his father, hob-nobbed with the world’s rich and powerful along the way. On his first trip to America, at age 19, he visited Hillandale, the country home of the Sulzbergers. That trip culminated with a visit to the Truman White House. Then, at age 20, he accompanied his father to meet the pope. His family was known to entertain Katharine Graham, doyenne of the Washington press establishment. This penchant for conveniently interpreting history is something of an inherited trait, it turns out. His father, Keith, while a reporter during World War I, filed a dispatch from the battle of Gallipoli that accused British officers of intentionally risking Aussie soldiers’ lives while protecting their own. His outrage turned him into a national hero and launched his career, no matter that it mostly turned out to be fiction, as Rupert himself later admitted.
Murdoch’s complicated relationship with his father is the key that unlocks nearly everything he has done in his career, as NPR reporter David Folkenflik makes clear in his excellent, insightful new book “Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires” (Public Affairs, $27.99). Not coincidentally, the book opens with a set piece from last year where Murdoch, shamed and shaken, profusely apologizes to the tramautized family of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old English girl whose murder was both tainted and sensationalized by his newspapers’ voracious phone hacking. But even in the midst of his overwrought contrition for a scandal that will eventually sunder his media empire in two, the mask slips; 60 years on, the son still can’t let go of his incessant compulsion for score-keeping:
"Mention of his father seemed to change Rupert’s mood. His shame melted and he found himself repeating a signature complaint that had motivated him throughout his career. My father was a great newspaperman, Keith Murdoch’s son said ruefully in the London hotel room. The British never gave him his due. It was absolutely irrelevant to the people in the room, a strange aside, an echo of old battles called to mind by his father’s ghost that he had summoned unwittingly to the conference."
Folkenflik’s book is mostly an outsider’s view of the News empire, as Murdoch refused to participate and actively encouraged others not to as well. As such, when it comes to in-the-room reporting, Folkenflik acknowledges in an author’s note that he is relying upon his source’s sometime paraphrased recollections of what was said, as the italicized portions above indicate. As far as journalistic flaws go, this one is relatively minor, and the meticulous reporting throughout the book and the 50 pages of endnotes speaks to a high degree of due diligence.
Indeed, Folkenflik’s latest addition to the Murdoch canon stands in stark contrast to the previous entry on bookshelves, Michael Wolff’s 2008 book “The Man Who Owns the News.” Wolff’s account, which primarily focused on the 2007 acquisition of the Wall Street Journal, included unfettered access to Murdoch and stands as a classic example of the dangers of getting too close to one’s subject. For example, the very first sentence of Wolff’s prologue dubiously begins: “Rupert Murdoch, a man without discernible hubris—or at least conventional grandiosity…” But then just a few pages later, Wolff informs the reader that, as the Journal deal was wrapping up, Murdoch gleefully planned an in-your-face marketing campaign aimed squarely at taunting his sworn establishment enemies, the New York Times and the Financial Times:
“One of the ads had the big headline ‘Agent Provocateur.’ Another proposed the idea of pirates—the notion that for more than fifty years the company had been…well, if not exactly outlaws…not literally still…”
In light of the multiple international investigations and criminal indictments of Murdoch’s news executives since then, Wolff’s language here is eerily prescient, even though he either wasn’t able or interested in seeing it. In essence, Wolff’s book fell under the spell of the Murdoch mystique, documenting the very moment when the News empire peaked, but leaving readers without any sense of the coming crash. Folkenflik’s book, on the other hand, looks at an empire in retreat, after the bubble has burst. But there is one broad, perplexing leitmotif that occurs in both Wolff’s and Folkenflik’s exploration of Murdoch: pirates.
Again and again, the terms “buccaneer,” “swashbuckling,” and “pirates” comes up, whether used descriptively by Folkenflik or prescriptively by News editors themselves. For the former, the term helps explain Murdoch’s lifelong pursuit of rapacious acquisition. From the latter, it helps explain how, despite being spread across the world, the many News archipelagoes function with such seamless sensibility. As former London Sun editor David Yelland puts it: “Definitely there’s self-censorship…Murdoch editors wake up in the morning, switch on the radio, hear that something has happened and think: ‘What would Rupert think about this.’”
It’s hard to believe, but the book actually makes a good case that whatever influence Murdoch exerts inside the U.S. pales in comparison to his media dominance in his home country. For instance, Folkenflik lays out how Australians are beset by Murdoch’s media reach from cradle to grave. Perhaps not coincidentally, Murdoch’s news ventures—the Australian, the Telegraph, and the Herald Sun—all ranked at the bottom in terms of public trust of media coverage of that nation’s 2013 elections. But clearly not everyone within Murdoch’s pirate chip is fully on board—nobody said the Aussies don’t have a clever sense of dissent.
For the uninitiated, “Murdoch’s World” serves as a worthwhile reminder that there’s far more to the News empire than just Fox News. Nevertheless, the portions of the book devoted to Murdoch’s U.S. entities come across as far less interesting to the reader and, for that matter, Murdoch himself. Chapters on Fox News, for instance, feel a bit stale, even when Folkenflik helpfully revisits his past NPR reporting about Fox News’s right-wing bias during its ostensible “news” portions. For long stretches, Murdoch, a newspaperman at heart, all but disappears from the narrative about the TV network, replaced by his proxy, Roger Ailes. And if you’re anxious to read the hundredth take on Fox’s 2012 Election Night coverage, well, this book has you covered. (Folkenflik has serialized a good portion of the book’s passages about Election Night and Ailes’s notoriously ruthless PR shop on TPM and Politico.)
Similarly, Folkenflik’s discussion of the Faustian bargain struck by the Wall Street Journal six years ago finds some of the more outrageous fears of Murdoch’s impact unfounded. But the idea that he would rapidly reincarnate the paper into a kind of serious person’s New York Post—an oxymoron if ever there was on—was to always miss the point. There’s no mistaking that his “too long, didn’t read” critique of the Journal’s pre-acquisition coverage has clearly taken hold, however. Under fellow Aussie and Murdoch “mate” Robert Thomson, Folkenflik’s sources at the newspaper explain how it has denuded its deep-rooted business accountability coverage while slowly and subtly constricted its supposedly straightforward political coverage to enforce right-wing talking points. It’s worth pointing out that the Journal hasn’t won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting since Murdoch took over. And though the Journal did win last year’s prize for commentary, the Pulitzer Committee’s choice has not worn well, to say the least.
The propulsive force of “Murdoch’s World,” though, is its detailed curation of the myriad immoral, unethical, and illegal actions taken by the editorial and managerial leadership at Murdoch’s U.K. newspapers News of the World and the Sun. Like a thorough prosecutor, Folkenflik weaves together strand after strand of evidence that Murdoch’s British newspapers had devolved into a corrupt, tip-sheet journalism driven by phone hacking and paying off cops. At one point, a former NotW reporter matter-of-factly tells Folkenflik that tips came from “police force employees” before catching himself. Building upon the reporting of Murdoch competitors like the Guardian, Folkenflik makes a compelling case that the rot went on for more than a decade and reached all the way to the top of the paper’s individual mastheads, and likely into the executive suite.
That such a hands-on owner like Rupert Murdoch, or his son James, a high-level UK News executive, were unaware of the poisoned culture at the News of the World and the Sun is intellectual naivete of the highest order. The reality: the chummy, insular mateship across all of Murdoch’s News empire fueled an almost impenetrable, years-long code of silence, one whose allegiance was not to the truth but merely to mutual enrichment. As Neil Minow of GMI Ratings, a firm that tracks corporate integrity and transparency, explains to Folkenflik: “We have consistently given Mr. Murdoch’s board an F since they first incorporated in the U.S., and that’s only because there’s no lower grade.” Pirates, it should come as no great shock, make better far plunderers than managers.
Murdoch’s greatest trick, particularly in Britain, has been to use the leverage provided by his media empire to convince politicians to enable their own plundering. When viewed through that prism, his newspapers’ seemingly incongruous partisan twists and turns make perfect sense. As Folkenflik points out, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, who enjoyed News endorsement, the Labour Party “softened its stance on media ownership, labor unions, the euro, and other policies dear to Murdoch’s heart.” As for this notion of being Murdoch being an “outsider,” former Blair press aide Lance Price puts that lie to rest, calling Murdoch effectively a cabinet member, “one of only three people other than Blair whose opinion counted in making government policy.”
Murdoch’s stature, though, has taken a well-deserved beating of late. The ongoing criminal investigations of his former NotW editor and News International CEO Rebekah Brooks, his humbling, halting testimony before a parliamentary inquiry, and a scathing report by Lord Leveson all combined to sabotage his bid for full control of the BSkyB satellite network. Following that, the British government recently deemed him “not fit” to own a major media company, which ultimately forced him to cut his empire in two. One half includes his lucrative TV and movie properties—dubbed “Goodco” internally—while the other is mostly comprised of either struggling or tainted newspaper properties—snarkily called “Shitco” by News employees. Though Murdoch still bestrides both entities as chairman, the permanence of the News Corp. legacy that he will bequeath to his children has been thoroughly undermined.
That legacy for the next generation of Murdochs is the final piece of the puzzle to come under Folkenflik’s unblinking gaze. Throughout the book, the undercurrent of his mercurial relationship with his three heirs apparent—sons Lachlan and James, and daughter Elisabeth—makes for a Shakespearean drama all its own. (Murdoch’s eldest daughter Prudence, from his first marriage, expresses no interest in the family business and his two youngest children, from his third failed marriage, are of grade-school age.) Through the years, each of them enjoy their moment in the sun before being eclipsed by their father’s larger shadow once again. Lachlan, the first-born son, long ago gave up trying to prove himself and his ambitions to his father and has retreated to a comfortable life running the Australian News properties. James, damaged the most by the phone hacking revelations, has been all but run out of the company. And Elisabeth has not so subtly declared her independence by citing in a prominent media lecture a critic of her father who once called him a “drivel-minded, global huckster and so-to-speak media psychopath. Rupert Murdoch…Hannibal the Cannibal.”
Nevertheless, at eighty-two years old, Murdoch gamely swashbuckles on. But, as Folkenflik notes in his conclusion, Murdoch’s world is slowly but surely splintering under the weight of a lifetime of unfulfillable grievances and a selfish unwillingness to share the spoils of leadership. Beset by a corrupted, pay-for-news culture and an increasingly anachronistic old-boy network—check and mate, if you will—the old pirate king has fewer and fewer moves left to play.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Thank you for your column on Third Way. There’s never a shortage of folks who think that the “responsible” thing to do is coddle bankers and devastate Social Security and Medicare.
I enjoyed your article about the “3rd Way” and their incessant anti-New Deal drivel, but I am of the opinion that most commentators miss the most obvious fact when making comparisons between the various budgets of yesteryear compared with the now: in sheer numbers our population has expanded (and continues to expand).
I perceive a failure to explicitly mention population growth as an obvious driving factor in government expansion. There are more of us alive “NOW” (and requiring services) compared to “THEN” (be it 60’s, 70’s, 80’s).
For the most part this is a good thing considering the reverse would be a depopulation event (otherwise known as a die-off). Is it possible that the Right Wingers & 3rd way have a vision for an America with less people (but maybe more robots)?
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Last week's column on what Third Way reveals about the Beltway.
At least he’s consistent—crazy, yes, but consistent. Back in 2007, Norman Podhoretz, the wheezing, 76-year-old neoconservative warhorse wrote a piece for Commentary magazine called “The Case for Bombing Iran.” (Commentary helpfully reprinted it this week.) In that piece, widely scorned at the time, Podhoretz urged immediate bombing of Iran. He said:
In short, the plain and brutal truth is that if Iran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of military force—any more than there was an alternative to force if Hitler was to be stopped in 1938.
Podhoretz said, then, that George W. Bush—who was, we now know, being urged to unleash the bombers by Vice President Cheney at the time—might be the man to bomb Iran. “As an American and as a Jew, I pray with all my heart that he will,” concluded Podhoretz. As evidence, perhaps, that one’s prayers aren’t answered when directed toward Satan, Bush didn’t.
Fast forward six years. This week, writing in the Wall Street Journal, the even older Podhoretz, 83, issued an updated version of his argument from 2007’s Commentary. Called “Strike Iran to Avert Disaster Later” (i.e., “Disaster Now, Not Later!”), Podhoretz has given up on the idea that the United States will bomb Iran, so he suggests that it’s Israel’s job:
Given how very unlikely it is that President Obama, despite his all-options-on-the-table protestations to the contrary, would ever take military action, the only hope rests with Israel. If, then, Israel fails to strike now, Iran will get the bomb.
Yet as an unregenerate upholder of the old consensus, I remain convinced that containment is impossible, from which it follows that the two choices before us are not war vs. containment but a conventional war now or a nuclear war later.
In the piece, Podhoretz trots all the old arguments: that Iran’s moderates are really secret, Israel-hating hawks, that Iran doesn’t care if it loses millions of people in a nuclear exchange because they are suicide-loving fanatics (and here he quotes the equally old, wheezing warhorse Bernard Lewis).
When it comes to neoconservativism, of course, Podhoretz is royalty. His wife is the equally radical Midge Decter, his son-in-law is Elliot Abrams, and his son John Podhoretz—who, if anything, is crazier than his parents—is a stalwart at the American Enterprise Institute and current editor-in-chief of Commentary. It’s hard to overstate how far out of the mainstream is the Podhoretz clan, which makes it easy to dismiss old man Podhoretz’s ravings. Even the Israelis, who’ve bitterly criticized the U.S-Iran interim accord reached last month, generally recognize that the military option has been taken away from them, and so Israel and the Israel lobby in Washington have fallen back to a strategy of trying to head off the more permanent deal expected to be reached between Iran and the P5+1 in 2014.
But Podhoretz is channeling another extremist pro-Israeli kook, Sheldon Adelson, the 79-year-old billionaire casino magnate who singlehandedly funded Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. In remarks in October, Adelson said that the United States ought to bomb Iran, using nuclear weapons:
What are we going to negotiate about? What I would say is, “Listen, you see that desert out there, I want to show you something.” You pick up your cellphone … and you call somewhere in Nebraska and you say, ‘O.K., let it go.’ So there’s an atomic weapon goes over, ballistic missiles, in the middle of the desert, that doesn’t hurt a soul. Maybe a couple of rattlesnakes, and scorpions, or whatever. Then you say: “See! The next one is in the middle of Tehran. So, we mean business. You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development. You want to be peaceful? You want to be peaceful? Just reverse it all and we will guarantee you that you can have a nuclear power plant for electricity purposes, for energy purposes.” So.
So. You see. That’s it.
Even though, according to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal ’sBret Stephens said that he agrees with “98 percent” of what Adelson said, even the Journal today isn’t quite calling for bombing Iran—though it gives Podhoretz a forum. Instead, like AIPAC and other hawks, the Journal is essentially trying to wreck the deal by demanding new, tougher sanctions on Iran. That’s not working, because Senate Democrats have been working with the White House to head off new sanctions, which would indeed destroy the ongoing talks with Iran. Thus, the Journal editorializes, not quite grammatically:
Especially since the only hope for producing a positive outcome is if the mullahs are convinced that the alternatives would be crushing sanctions and military strikes on their nuclear sites. The Administration has already all but declared that it does not view military strikes as a serious option and that it is prepared to accept Iran as a threshold nuclear state as long as it doesn’t actually test a bomb. Now the Administration is signaling that it also isn’t keen to exert more economic pressure.
In fact, Iran is already taking steps to implement the November agreement, and there will be new talks soon aimed at putting the finishing touches on the interim deal and then securing a final accord.
Read next: Bob Dreyfuss on the future of U.S. relations with Iran.
Dana Wilson, a back-up dancer on Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience World Tour, moved to Los Angeles from Aurora, Colorado, when she was 18. She’s in her mid-20s now and has started to think about her pension. Tours like Timberlake’s can go on for months, even years, and backup dancers typically lose their SAAG-AFTRA union benefits while on the road.
Before the tour started, in November, Wilson and the other dancers decide to demand a union contract—a touring contract has existed since 2006, but no dancer has ever been covered by it (though back-up singers for James Taylor, Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Blues Traveler, Josh Groban and Jefferson Starship have). “A few of us have healthcare and pension plans through a spouse, but we thought it was important for not just us but for dancers in the future,” said Wilson, whom I spoke to from the lobby of her hotel in Indianapolis. She had just checked out of her room and had an hour until she had to be at that evening’s venue, the name of which she could not remember. She performs four times a week, dancing on wood, metal and Plexiglas. “It’s virtually the same as dancing on concrete,” Wilson said. “It could take its toll.” There’s a moment in the show—she didn’t want to give away too many details—where the stage expands into the audience while the dancers are not secured. “I still get nervous,” Wilson said. “It’s not a situation that a normal worker would be put in.”
The negotiation took months and was nerve-wrecking at times. “Tours are very sought after jobs for dancers,” Wilson said. “But ultimately, what’s more important than having a cool job is being able to work for a long, long time.” She had also performed in Timberlake’s Future Sex/Love Show tour, in 2007, and was worried that her activism might create friction with her old boss. “On tour, you’re a close family, you don’t ever want to be a thorn in anyone’s side or be ruffling feathers,” Wilson said, “but at a certain point it is really worth it to ruffle a few feathers.” The six back-up dancers had support from the wider community; at the peak of their negotiations, they hosted an event at the Avalon club in LA that more than 1,000 people attended. “I heard the applause that night and I knew we weren’t in trouble and we were in the right place at the right time to make a change,” Wilson said.
Timberlake’s management eventually agreed (“They were all decorum and business,” Wilson said.) Timberlake, she says, “has become such a hero in the dance world.” Randy Himes, who works for the union and helped organize the dancers, is hoping to make the 20/20 Experience World Tour contract an industry standard. In 2012, Wilson and Himes, along with other members of the Dancer’s Alliance, successfully negotiated a union contract for dancers in music videos; it was the Alliance’s first campaign, though the organization has been around for more than twenty years, and culminated in a flash-mob outside Sony’s office to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and two long days of heated discussion with record executives until an agreement was reached at 1:30 am.
There are some basic challenges to organizing dancers. They are a motley crew—some are classically trained, others learn on the street—and convincing professional dancers that they are all in the same field has been a challenge for the Dancer’s Alliance. They’re also young and driven, and not necessarily thinking about retirement, or even life after 30. “The average age of a dancer has to be early 20s, at that age you really feel invincible,” Wilson said. “It’s a passion so we don’t care if our knees hurt or our feet are bleeding.”
“We’re trying to get young people taking responsibility for being business professionals,” said Himes. “Helping artists step up and get respect for what they do.”
Read Next: NYU grad students voted to unionize, becoming the only private university student body to do so.
Nearly two years ago, TheNation.com launched This Week in Poverty as a way to keep the issue of poverty—and what we can do about it—front and center for our readers.
We felt that poverty was largely ignored by the mainstream media, with the exception of every September, when the new Census Bureau statistics were published. In contrast, as the oldest political weekly magazine in the country—founded by abolitionists in 1865—The Nation has poverty coverage in its DNA. It’s been a great privilege to be a part of that coverage on a weekly basis.
Today marks my last This Week in Poverty post. I’m going to spend more of my time working with local, state and national organizations engaged in the fight against poverty. I look forward to continuing to contribute to The Nation as well as to BillMoyers.com, which has also been so supportive of this blog.
For me, spending more time in the field, and having the freedom to engage strategically with activists, feels like a natural progression of my work at The Nation. The more I have spoken with people who are struggling in poverty, or with workers trying to survive on low wages; the more I have been alarmed by Republicans, and disillusioned with Democrats; the more I have been impressed with the activists, thinkers, and advocates fighting for good policy and stronger communities, while also searching for new approaches to that fight… the more I’ve wanted to get involved as an activist myself.
TheNation.com created this blog with the notion that it simply isn’t true that we don’t know what to do to turn the tide in the fight against poverty—that there are many progressive organizations and, most importantly, people living in poverty themselves, offering solutions that are there for the taking and that need to be heard.
My friend and editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and I share a deep respect for the people who are doing this work, and that was also a key motive for creating this blog: we need to recognize people and groups for their good ideas, and their hard work, much of which is done in relative anonymity. And of course, it was a glaring weakness in most media coverage of poverty that the stories rarely engaged with people who are actually living in poverty themselves. As we headed into the presidential campaign last year, this absence was even more glaring.
I think one of the best moments for this blog and what its readers could accomplish was TheNation.com’s #TalkPoverty effort during the presidential campaign, which was developed in collaboration with senior editor Emily Douglas and community editor Annie Shields.
We interviewed advocates (here, here, here, and here) and people living in or near poverty, providing them with an opportunity to pose direct questions to President Obama and Governor Romney. It was an effort to push a constructive conversation about poverty into the presidential debate. Little did we know that so many groups and individuals would adopt the campaign as their own, trying to get the moderators of three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate to ask at least a single question about poverty (which the moderators failed to do). In the end, the Obama campaign responded to This Week in Poverty, and #TalkPoverty still thrives on Twitter today as a way to share information and promote action.
It’s my hope now that we will aggressively move beyond talk to organizing and taking action to push for known solutions. I believe that we will not see the kind of change we seek without a movement that is visible, constant, and disruptive, as we have witnessed with the recent immigration reform and marriage equality movements.
The conditions for an antipoverty movement now exist: when more than one in three Americans are living below twice the poverty line (below about $36,500 for a family of three)—unable to pay for the basics like food, housing, healthcare, education, and unable to save—something’s got to give. When 95 percent of the economic gains are going to the top 1 percent, and more than 60 percent to the top .1 percent—the potential is there to unite the majority of people who are being denied an opportunity to get ahead.
So my hope as we close out this blog is the same as it was when we launched it—that readers will get involved in the fight against poverty, and work and push, and work and push, and work and push some more, until we get where we need to go.
Below is a list of organizations whose work I’ve had the privilege to get to know over the past two years. If you keep up with these groups, sign up for their updates, you will know more about poverty and what we can do about it than the vast majority of members of Congress or your state and local representatives do, and you will find opportunities to get involved. You can also share your own ideas with these groups about how we can build a strong movement—and I know you have great ideas. I know it because the most unexpected thing of all about this blog was the number of people who started e-mailing me about what needed to be covered. Your passion and ideas helped shape This Week in Poverty in significant ways over the past two years, and I thank you for that.
I hope you will keep in touch—I’m still writing—but most importantly I hope you will get involved and fight hard.
Children, Parents and Families
Healthcare, Disability and Aging
Housing and Homelessness
Justice and Courts
Race and Civil Rights
Greg Kaufmann challenged democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow's support for cuts to food stamp funding.