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Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

MSNBC Under 'Seige'

Are Bush's plunging poll numbers rattling them over at MSNBC's Scarborough Country?

The other day, CBS News had Kerry topping Bush by five percent. The ABC/Washington Post poll has Kerry leading by nearly ten points. And a recent Time/CNN poll shows the public is now seriously split regarding Bush's credibility in key areas: the state of the economy, the federal budget deficit, Iraq's WMD prior to the war; and the cost of rebuilding Iraq. Americans are also convinced that Bush is more "tied to special interests" than Kerry and a recent focus group revealed that Bush's message fell flat on both college educated and non-college educated voters. As one non-college educated man from Phoenix put it, "what world is he in--Bush World?"

Over in Bush World, or Scarborough Country, the consequences of the President's cuts in education may be taking their toll faster than expected. As I sat on the set, waiting to be grilled by Scarborough and denounced by some vile man heading Vietnam Veterans Against Kerry, I couldn't help but be mesmerized by what appeared to be a caption malfunction. "Bush Under Seige" was slapped up on the screen for several minutes. Hey guys, great to see that Bush is under fire---but last I checked it was spelled "siege."

Tax Cheats

We all know that Halliburton is gouging taxpayers--according to the Pentagon, Vice President Cheney's old company overcharged the US government by as much as $61 million for fuel in Iraq. But now we learn that more than 27,000 military contractors, or about one in nine, are evading taxes and still continuing to win new government business.

According to the General Accounting Office, these tax cheats owed an estimated $3 billion at the end of 2002, mainly in Social Security and other payroll taxes, including Medicare, that were diverted for business or personal use instead of being sent to the government. (Lesser amounts were owed in income taxes).

In one 2002 case, the New York Times reports, a company providing dining, security and custodial services to military bases received $3.5 million in payments from the Defense Department despite owing almost $10 million to the government. (Shockingly, the GAO estimated that the Defense Department could have collected $100 million in 2002 by offsetting payments to delinquent companies still on its payroll.)

The http://www.senate.gov/~gov_affairs/index.cfm?Fuseaction= Subcommittees.Home&SubcommitteeID=11&Initials=PSI"> Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has scheduled a hearing this Thursday to look into what committee chair Norm Coleman calls "an outrageous situation." At present, federal law does not bar contractors with unpaid federal taxes from obtaining new government contracts. (The GAO has recommended policy options for barring contracts to those who abuse the federal tax system.)

At a time when $200 million would purchase enough ceramic body armor--the kind that usually works, the kind the Pentagon wouldn't splurge for--to protect almost 150,000 GIs in Iraq, Republicans and Democrats should demand that these tax cheats pay up.

A Victory for Decency

"All eyes of the nation should be on Philadelphia Wednesday, but now they're going to be on Michael Powell's public scolding of Janet Jackson," lamented Jeff Chester, head of the non-profit Center for Digital Democracy.

Wednesday, February 11, is when opening arguments on the FCC's new media ownership rules are scheduled to be heard in a Philadelphia appeals court. That's the same day that the GOP Congress has called back-to-back hearings in the House and Senate on violence and indecency on the public airwaves. (At least one Democratic FCC commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein, planned to travel to Philadelphia for opening arguments in the appeal of the agency's controversial decision last June, but had to change his plans when Congress tapped him--and the other four FCC commisioners, including Michael Powell--to testify. )

We can expect Powell to rail against profanity and smut on TV, and repeat his refrain that Viacom/CBS/MTV's Super Bowl stunt with Janet and Justin must be punished. He and several Republicans are already pushing a bill to increase indecency fines tenfold. But for most conglomerates, even major fines won't dent their massive lobbying budgets. Besides, given the multi, mega-billion giveaway that Congress and the last several Administrations gave the broadcasters (free broadcast spectrum in 1996 worth $300 billion plus; cable channel space in 1992, worth tens of billions more), what Congress is doing must be seen by TV industry lobbyists as a minor nuisance at most.

As Andrew Schwartzman, head of the Media Access Project, put it, "I don't think the solution to indecency and bad taste is more fines. I think it's selecting broadcasters that are going to be more responsive to the needs of the local community."

By holding the hearings on the same day as opening arguments in Philadelphia, the GOP Congress and Bush Administration are cravenly trying to change the channel--deflecting attention from their own role in creating the TV networks' weapons of mass distraction.

This week, the important implications are in Philadelphia--not DC. That's where public advocates, media labor unions, and church groups square off against Viacom/CBS; News Corp/Fox; GE/NBC, and lawyers representing almost every newspaper in the US, all of whom will be arguing that the court should affirm and extend what Michael Powell and his GOP wrecking crew did last June.

For years, the media industry has had a sympathetic hearing in the DC Appeals Court. So, the networks and newspaper companies were shocked when the Philly Court--after winning the case in a lottery--took the arguments of the media reformers seriously. (The court suspended implementation of Powell's rules--putting on hold all the deals planned to begin after the FCC June 2 decision.)

It would be a shame if the grandstanding in DC this week overshadows what happens in a courtroom in Philadelphia. It is there that the future of our media landscape may be decided. Will we live with Citizen Kane on steroids? Or can we achieve a media that serves the public interests of citizens? Now, that would be a victory for decency.

Maybe He's Smarter Than We Knew?

"I don't think America can stand by and hope for the best from a madman."

George W. on "Meet the Press," Sunday, Feb. 8th

Mission (not) Accomplished

If Bush hoped to use his appearance on Sunday's "Meet the Press" to restore his vanishing credibility regarding the war in Iraq, his National Guard stint, and his stewardship of the economy, he failed.

As millions of Americans headed to church, I sat down to watch what Calvin Trillin calls "the sabbath gas bags." The big gas bag this Sunday--President Bush--was questioned by Tim Russert for an entire hour in the Oval Office. Yet, the gravity of the surroundings did little to obscure the fact that Russert's pointed questions were met with the usual Bush meets-the-press treatment: mislead, deny, deflect and hide.

Fortunately, people who want the truth--not whitewashed, rewritten history--can click here to check out the Center for American Progress's valuable dissection of Bush's appearance, "Claim vs. Fact: The President on Meet the Press." It's a valuable antidote to Bush's deceptions and well worth circulating to both friends and foes.

Questions We Hope Russert Will Ask

In his first appearance since being (s)elected, George W. Bush will appear for the full hour on this Sunday's Meet the Press. Last time Bush did the program in 1999, the program's usually combative host Tim Russert had a warm, respectful one-on-one with then-candidate Bush. Let's hope that gladiator Russert reappears this Sunday morning. For, as David Corn, points out in his weblog, "There is, of course, much to ask Bush about."

Here's what my questions would be if I were Tim.

1/ In a January 18th article, veteran Washington Post reporter David Broder quoted articles that appeared in the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News in 2000 showing that there was no evidence that you reported for duty with the National Guard during an eight-month stint in Alabama. Could you set the record straight?

Follow up: Although you were never penalized for failing to fulfill your Air National Guard duty for an extended period at the height of the Vietnam War, do you think your conduct casts doubt on your credibility as commander in chief?

2/ You have suggested in two different statements that we went to war because Saddam Hussein wouldn't let weapons inspectors into Iraq. But between November 2002 and March 2003, UN inspectors headed by Hans Blix conducted 731 inspections. Did you misspeak? Are you misinformed?

Follow up: Last September, you told Brit Hume of Fox News that "the best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world." Do you feel your top advisers have let you down by failing to provide you with accurate facts and objective information? Will you start reading newspapers, magazines--and which ones?

3/ In a major speech on Thursday, addressing the failure to find WMDs in Iraq, CIA director George Tenet said the intelligence community never told the White House that Iraq was an imminent threat to America. Yet you and key figures in your Administration issued repeated and unequivocal claims that war was necessary because Iraq posed an "imminent," "immediate," "urgent" and "mortal" threat. Why should the commission created to investigate intelligence failures exclude the role you and other senior officials may have played in abusing the facts?

4/ Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday that he does not know whether he would have recommended an invasion of Iraq if he had been told it had no stockpiles of banned weapons. What is your view of your Secretary of State's statement?

5/ Your former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill recounts that Vice President Dick Cheney dismissed concerns about the deficit--now estimated to reach $521 billion in fiscal year 2004--asserting: "Reagan proved deficits don't matter. We won the midterm. This is our due." Do you agree with the Vice President?

6/ Your most recent tax bill gives people who make over $1 million an average tax cut of more than $22,000; at the same time, it gives people making $35,000 per year a tax cut of $35. Paul O'Neill has reported that in cabinet discussions about your Administration's second tax cut, you asked, "Didn't we already give them a break at the top?" What did you mean?

7/ How many men and women currently serve in the military? (Russert grilled Howard Dean about this.)

8/ Why are even Republican members of the 9/11 Commission complaining about being stymied in gaining access to vital intelligence information related to the attacks? Don't you believe that Americans deserve to receive the fullest possible accounting of the attacks and whether they could reasonably have been prevented?

9/ Just this week, former State Department spokesperson Margaret Tutwiler told a Congressional committee that America's standing abroad had deteriorated to such an extent that "it will take us many years of hard, focused work" to restore it. What is your response?

10/ You recently cut back on the AIDS funding you promised to provide to Africa. Is this because you think the crisis there is getting better?

Bonus question: What are your views regarding "evolution"?

Liar, Incompetent or Space Cadet?

Is he incompetent, clueless, lying? Why has President Bush--once again--asserted that he went to war because Iraq refused to allow weapons inspectors into the country? Last Wednesday, Bush went on about how "it was [Saddam's] choice to make, and he did not let us in."

Bush made the same false statement, last July, with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at his side. "We gave [Saddam} a chance to allow the inspectors in," Bush declared, "and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power."

These statements defy rational explanation. As Democrats.com observed last summer--after launching a website petition to declare Bush insane under the 25th amendment--"everyone in the world knows that Hussein allowed a fully-equipped team of UN inspectors to comb every inch of his country...The only conclusion we can draw is that Bush has lost touch with reality. In other words, he has gone mad."

Or is it that he prefers his news heavily filtered, aka censored? As Bush told Brit Hume on Fox News last September, "The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world."

Objective sources? Like Dick Cheney, who just last week insisted that those mobile trailers were "conclusive evidence" that Hussein "did in fact have programs for weapons of mass destruction"? The former UN weapons inspector David Kay had earlier told the New York Times that the trailers may have been useful for blowing up balloons. So, maybe Bush really is what his former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill likened him to--"a blind man in a roomful of deaf people."

Then there's question of whether he's lying. My personal view is that Bush doesn't have the fullblown Nixonian character to blatantly lie on issues of war; Cheney does. But, whatever the case, as the esteemed former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee once explained, "Even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face."

The nation's media needs to find an effective way of reporting untruthful statements emanating from the White House. As Paul Waldman wrote last year in the Washington Post, "when politicians or government officials lie, reporters have an obligation not only to include the truth somewhere in the story or let opponents make a counter-charge, but to say forthrightly that the official has lied. When a politician gets away with a lie, he or she becomes more likely to lie again. If the lie is exposed by vigilant reporters, the official will think twice before repeating it."

With this President, it may be three strikes before the truth comes out. But, as Eric Alterman wrote months before the war in his Nation column, "Reporters and editors who "protect' their readers and viewers from the truth about Bush's lies are doing the nation--and ultimately George W. Bush--no favors."

Justin, Janet and Weapons of Mass Distraction

The investigation will be "thorough and swift," Powell said yesterday. "Our nation's children, parents and citizens deserve better." That would be Michael--not Colin--Powell and this is not about that investigation into those pesky missing WMDs; it's that high-level probe into who knew what and when about how Janet Jackson's breast--adorned with a silver "nipple guard"--was exposed by pop idol Justin Timberlake before millions of upstanding Americans during the Super Bowl half-time show.

Surfing Tuesday's morning shows, I blearily counted more time devoted to heated discussion about what Timberlake called a "wardrobe malfunction" than to debate about the Administration's hyping and cherry-picking (excuse the word) of intelligence in order to mislead a nation into war.

But, I'm not shocked that our TV culture cares more for weapons of mass distraction. Nor am I shocked at Michael Powell's "shock." As executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy Jeff Chester points out, Powell is trying to distract the public and press from the impact of his decision last June changing the media rules and making CBS, among others, far more powerful. Powell's rule changes have done more than anything to support the "rude-lewd" business model of the big networks, a fact he's hoping his investigation will obscure.

And, let's not forget, as Chester reminds us, that CBS is now lobbying the Bush White House and the GOP leadership for more favors after the Administraton leaned on Congress to cut a special deal two weeks ago on TV ownership, allowing Viacom and Fox to keep extra stations over the previously-legal limit.

How about an FCC investigation into that kind of indecency?

First Ladies, the Media and the War

If you're fed up with First Ladies being pigeonholed into thetraditional Laura or careerist Hillary box (or, as Timothy Noah in Slate put it, the "victim" or "bitch" box), check out Katha Pollitt's sassy, smart and scathing look at media coverage of Judy Dean Steinberg.

After that--if you're not fed up with all the attention paid to the candidates' wives--check out the Washington Post's Outlook section this Sunday. I'm contributing to a forum (along with Wendy Wasserstein, Danielle Crittenden, Kati Marton and the First Gentleman of Michigan, Dan Mulhern) exploring America's attitudes toward First Ladies. Are we ready for one who would shun the traditional aspects of the role? I think so.

And on Sunday morning, I'm going to mix it up with Howard Kurtz, David Frum and Newsweek's Evan Thomas on CNN's Reliable Sources.

Topics: Kerry coverage; Dean's relations with the media (by the way, he's on for the full hour on Meet the Press this Sunday); and a question I debated last year, around this time, on Kurtz's show: Could the media have done a better job reporting how the Bush Administration misled us into war? You bet.

Of Horse Races and Issues

At the end of December, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman ticked off a few pet peeves and proposals regarding the media's campaign coverage.

Peeves:

*Don't talk about clothes

*Beware of personal anecdotes

*Don't fall for political histrionics

Proposals:

*Actually look at the candidates' policy proposals.

As we leave New Hampshire, campaign coverage seems to be sixty percent horse race, thirty percent analysis of style and rhetoric, and ten percent coverage of issues. Sure, the volatile fluidity of the Democratic primary lends itself to Racing News-style coverage, but what about some rigorous reporting on pesky issues and policy proposals?

For savvy political consumers who want a quick survey of where the candidates stand on the central issues affecting America's middle class--the cost of housing education, childcare, and healthcare; unemployment; the minimum wage; the right to organize; credit card debt; bankruptcy--check out the Drum Major Institute's (DMI) valuable survey, "The Myth of the Middle? Campaign 2004 on America's Middle Class."

Over the last few months the New York-based non-partisan, non-profit organization sent questionnaires to all the campaigns, in an effort, as Institute President (and former Bronx borough president) Freddie Ferrer says, "to get rid of rhetoric and begin a true discussion on the concerns relating to America's struggling middle class."

In surveying the candidates, DMI "intends to help Americans form an opinion about where the Presidential contenders stand on protecting the middle class and restoring the mobility of poor and working families who want to earn their way into the middle class."

Some of the report's key findings:

*Most candidates agree that the main challenges facing the middle class are falling incomes and job security, affordable health care, and the rising cost of higher education.

*The candidates disagree on their approaches to expanding access to health care, on support of a National Usury Law to limit credit card companies' interest charges, on an increase in the minimum wage with annual adjustments for inflation, and on their plans to restructure the tax code to best meet the needs of middle class families.

*General Clark refused to commit support for increasing federal regulation of the credit card industry, Howard Dean wouldn't commit to increasing the ceiling for eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Joe Lieberman didn't take a stand on increasing the minimum wage.

*All of the candidates supported the expansion of eligibility for unemployment insurance, making college tuition tax-deductible, and the Employee Free Choice Act, which allows a union to be certified if a majority of employees have signed authorization cards.

*When asked what each candidate had already done to improve the lives of the middle class, responses ranged from Clark's efforts to improve the quality of military housing for soldiers under his command, to Dr. Dean's creation of 56,000 new jobs as Governor of Vermont, to Senator Kerry's defense of Medicare and Social Security during the Newt Gingrich years.

In contrast, Bush's GOP has steadfastly refused to raise the minimum wage (stuck at $5.15 since 1997), has forestalled all proposals to address the dramatically increasing healthcare costs borne by the middle class, and has effectively eliminated overtime pay for some eight million American workers.

As Rep. Bernie Sanders wrote recently in a powerful piece for The Progressive titled " We Are the Majority," currently, "40 percent of American workers are working fifty hours a week or more...The scandal of our time is that with all the explosion of technology and productivity the average American is not working fewer hours and making more money. We are not down to a thirty-hour week. The middle class is not expanding, and poverty has not been eliminated. On the contrary, it has increased."

Fortunately, groups like DMI are around to inform Americans of policies which counter the GOP's ruthless war against the middle class. Click here to help spread word of DMI's valuable new report.

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