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The Nation

Christmas for Big Media

In less than 24 hours, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin plans to hold a vote on rules that will let the largest media companies swallow up more local newspapers and TV stations.

As I posted about last week, Martin is forging on with the vote, which he knows he will win, despite bipartisan Congressional requests to delay the vote and the adamant opposition of two of the five FCC commissioners. If you care about the dismal state of the media, please stop what you're doing and lend a hand.

The media reform group Free Press is operating on overdrive trying to generate at least 100 calls to every US senator before 5:00 p.m. today asking the lawmakers to pressure the FCC to delay tomorrow's vote until Congress can vote on the Media Ownership Act of 2007 (S. 2332), which is waiting for a vote on the Senate floor. Click here to find your Senator's phone number and click here to check out useful talking points.

Just last week, senators from both parties berated FCC Chairman Kevin Martin about his big giveaway to Big Media. He didn't flinch. He's now thumbing his nose at both Congress and the public. There's less than a day to derail Big Media's efforts to eliminate regulatory roadblocks to increasingly rapid media concentration. Call your Senators immediately.

If you need any incentive to act, check out this new YouTube video from Free Press which shows how high the stakes really are, and read Katrina vanden Heuvel's recent primer on how the Democratic candidates stack up on the media issue.

No Taxes for War

More and more Americans are fed up with watching their tax dollars support the greatest foreign policy disaster of our time. Over the past year, millions of US citizens have voted, lobbied, marched, written and taken direct action to end the war in Iraq. Yet Congress continues to appropriate billions of dollars for an occupation that has become a humanitarian catastrophe. And despite the recently released NIE report on Iran, the Administration's saber rattling stunningly continues.

That's why Chris Hedges recently pledged in The Nation, " will not pay my income tax if we go to war with Iran… I will put the taxes I owe in an escrow account. I will go to court to challenge the legality of the war." It's also the reason a coalition of antiwar groups – including CODEPINK, the 2008 War Tax Boycott coalition, United for Peace and Justice, Goldstar Families for Peace, Institute for Policy Studies, and others – are using this weekend's Boston Tea Party anniversary to begin circulating this pledge: "When I am joined by 100,000 other US taxpayers, I will join in an act of mass civil disobedience and refuse to pay the portion of my taxes that pays the US military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan." The organizers hope to reach the goal of 100,000 tax resisters by April 15 who will hold in escrow or redirect the war taxes to humanitarian aid projects--such as those providing relief to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

The social democrat in me has always been uncomfortable with tax resistance, despite my admiration for the War Resisters League. As progressives, we want to enlarge the public sphere, and elevate the primacy of politics, engaged in collectively, as the means for solving social problems. Taxes are obviously a crucial element of meeting our common goals. In that respect, opting out of the collective decision making of the polity about how to spend the nation's money is problematic.

At the same time, there's a long and admirable tradition of civil disobedience and tax resistance, and at a certain point when the normal mechanisms of politics have broken down, extraordinary action of this sort may be justified. There's a good case to be made that we've reached that point now. As CODEPINK said in a released statement, "Taxpayers who oppose this war have the power to show Congress how to cut off the funds for this war and redirect resources to the pressing needs of the people."

Life After The Surge

Is the Department of Veterans Affairs finally turning a corner or is the worst yet to come?

From Walter Reed to false diagnoses of personality disorder, a Department that was never given the resources to provide health care for returning Iraq soldiers has relied on scandalous shortcuts. A glimmer of hope was provided yesterday, though, when the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously approved the nomination of James Peake as new department secretary. Peake promised that he will hire more medical staff and stop using so much of the department budget on bonuses to senior officials.

A separate House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, however, offered a depressing glimpse at the escalating health care problems the next secretary will inherit. The hearing was prompted by a CBS News report that veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide as the rest of the population. Each day an estimated 17 veterans commit suicide.

Dr. Ira Katz, the Deputy Chief of Staff of Patient Care at VA, testified that those numbers will significantly increase with more troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Katz also related his findings that more than 100,000 of the 750,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have requested mental health treatment. At least those veterans can recognize their need for help, as Katz also noted that as many as 48 percent of returning troops suffer from posttraumatic stress.

That the government institution in charge of veterans is only now developing a structure to deal with mental health problems is certainly alarming. Even more troubling is that new leadership will be in the process of developing new programs at the same time that thousands more people are entering the VA health system. Peake acknowledged to the committee that if he gets the job he will be in "constant crisis mode."

Like Nuclear Waste, the Nuclear Lobby Never Goes Away

Recently I wrote about the grassroots fight to keep billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for the nuclear industry off of the historic Energy Bill (and also here ). So far, that fight has been successful.

But, as I suggested in my previous post, it looks like Big Nuclear's cronies – led by Senator Pete Domenici – are trying to slip $25 billion in nuclear giveaways into the Appropriations bill, as the New York Times reported today: "Congress reached a tentative agreement on a major energy package that it plans to enact outside the energy bill….The agreement would guarantee loans of up to $25 billion for new nuclear plants and $2 billion for a uranium enrichment plant, something those industries had been avidly seeking. It would also provide guarantees of up to $10 billion for renewable energy projects, $10 billion for plants to turn coal into liquid vehicle fuel and $2 billion to turn coal into natural gas."

Despite the carrot of a renewable energy subsidy in this package this is no way to embark on a new, green future of energy independence. Use this link to let Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and your representatives know that it's time to oppose regressive, failed, brought-to-you-by-yet-another-corporate-lobbyist energy policies, and promote a bolder and brighter future.

House Judiciary Trio Calls for Impeach Cheney Hearings

Three senior members of the House Judiciary Committee have called for the immediate opening of impeachment hearings for Vice President Richard Cheney.

Democrats Robert Wexler of Florida, Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin on Friday distributed a statement, "A Case for Hearings," that declares, "The issues at hand are too serious to ignore, including credible allegations of abuse of power that if proven may well constitute high crimes and misdemeanors under our constitution. The charges against Vice President Cheney relate to his deceptive actions leading up to the Iraq war, the revelation of the identity of a covert agent for political retaliation, and the illegal wiretapping of American citizens."

In particular, the Judiciary Committee members cite the recent revelation by former White House press secretary Scott McClellan that the Vice President and his staff purposefully gave him false information about the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson as a covert agent as part of a White House campaign to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson. On the basis of McClellan's statements, Wexler, Gutierrez and Baldwin say, "it is even more important for Congress to investigate what may have been an intentional obstruction of justice."The three House members argue that, "Congress should call Mr. McClellan to testify about what he described as being asked to ‘unknowingly [pass] along false information.'"

Adding to the sense of urgency, the members note that "recent revelations have shown that the Administration including Vice President Cheney may have again manipulated and exaggerated evidence about weapons of mass destruction -- this time about Iran's nuclear capabilities."

Although Wexler, Gutierrez and Baldwin are close to Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers, getting the Michigan Democrat to open hearings on impeachment will not necessarily be easy. Though Conyers was a leader in suggesting during the last Congress that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney had committed impeachable offenses, he has been under immense pressure from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to keep Constitutional remedies for executive excesses "off the table" in this Congress.

It is notable, however, that Baldwin maintains warm relations with Pelosi and that Wexler, a veteran member of the Judiciary Committee has historically had an amiable and effective working relationship with Conyers. There is no question that Conyers, who voted to keep open the impeachment debate on November 7, has been looking for a way to explore the charges against Cheney. The move by three of his key allies on the committee may provide the chairman with the opening he seeks, although it is likely he will need to hear from more committee members before making any kind of break with Pelosi -- or perhaps convincing her that holding hearings on Cheney's high crimes and misdemeanors is different from putting a Bush impeachment move on the table.

The most important immediate development, however, is the assertion of an "ask" for supporters of impeachment. Pulled in many directions in recent months, campaigners for presidential and vice presidential accountability have focused their attention on supporting a House proposal by Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nod, to impeach Cheney. When Kucinich forced consideration of his resolution on November 7, Pelosi and her allies used procedural moves to get it sent to the Judiciary Committee for consideration. Pelosi's hope was that the proposal would disappear into the committee's files.

The call for hearings by Wexler, Gutierrez and Baldwin puts impeachment on the table, at least as far as activists are concerned, creating a pressure point that can serve as a reply when House Democrats who are critical of Bush but cautious about impeachment ask: "What do you want me to do?" The answer can now be: "Back the call for Judiciary Committee hearings on whether to impeach Dick Cheney?"

"Some of us were in Congress during the impeachment hearings of President Clinton. We spent a year and a half listening to testimony about President Clinton's personal relations. This must not be the model for impeachment inquires. A Democratic Congress can show that it takes its constitutional authority seriously and hold a sober investigation, which will stand in stark contrast to the kangaroo court convened by Republicans for President Clinton. In fact, the worst legacy of the Clinton impeachment - where the GOP pursued trumped up and insignificant allegations - would be that it discourages future Congresses from examining credible and significant allegations of a constitutional nature when they arise," write Wexler, Gutierrez and Baldwin.

"The charges against Vice President Cheney are not personal," the House members add. "They go to the core of the actions of this Administration, and deserve consideration in a way the Clinton scandal never did. The American people understand this, and a majority support hearings according to a November 13 poll by the American Research Group. In fact, 70 percent of voters say that Vice President Cheney has abused his powers and 43 percent say that he should be removed from office right now. The American people understand the magnitude of what has been done and what is at stake if we fail to act. It is time for Congress to catch up."

Arguing that hearings need not distract Congress, Wexler, Gutierrez and Baldwin note that the focus is on Cheney for a reason: "These hearings involve the possible impeachment of the Vice President -- not our commander in chief -- and the resulting impact on the nation's business and attention would be significantly less than the Clinton Presidential impeachment hearings."

They also argue, correctly, that the hearings are necessary if Congress is to restore its position in the Constitutionally-defined system of checks and balances.

"Holding hearings would put the evidence on the table, and the evidence -- not politics -- should determine the outcome," the Judiciary Committee members explain. "Even if the hearings do not lead to removal from office, putting these grievous abuses on the record is important for the sake of history. For an Administration that has consistently skirted the constitution and asserted that it is above the law, it is imperative for Congress to make clear that we do not accept this dangerous precedent. Our Founding Fathers provided Congress the power of impeachment for just this reason, and we must now at least consider using it."

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John Nichols is the author of THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Clinton, Obama, Drugs and the Politics of Cynicism

There are plenty of what might charitably be referred to as "unsavory" characters associated with the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, who tends to attract the seamy political hangers-on who like to attach themselves to candidates who have money and good poll numbers.

One of the worst of these, Bill Shaheen, was serving as co-chairman of the Clinton campaign in New Hampshire.

Now he's suddenly out of his official role. But don't think this shady character is gone for good.

Shaheen, the husband of former New Hampshire governor and current U.S. Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen, got in hot water after saying Clinton's leading challenger for the nomination, Illinois Senator Barack Obama', would be a weak nominee because of his admission of past drug use.

But don't think that Billy Shaheen, one of the most calculating people in New Hampshire -- and America, for that matter -- made any kind of mistake.

The veteran Democratic leader in New Hampshire was not really expressing concern -- sincere or simulated -- about the drug use admission. That's old news and Obama's frankness about the issue pretty much put it to rest.

Rather, Shaheen was trying to get reporters digging for more dirt on Obama and drugs -- and, of course, to get grassroots Democrats in key states worried about the prospect that the Republican opposition research team has already assembled the materials need to finish Obama in the fall.

"The Republicans are not going to give up without a fight ... and one of the things they're certainly going to jump on is his drug use," Shaheen told a Washington Post reporter Wednesday. "It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?' There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome."

Notice the none-too-subtle "Obama-might-have-been-a-dope-dealer" hint by Shaheen.

That's the claim the Clinton campaign, which is feeling the heat from Obama's hot pursuit in polling data from the first caucus state of Iowa and the first-primary state of New Hampshire, wants circulating as the January 3 caucusing and January 8 voting rapidly approach.

For floating the drug-peddler's-don't-make-sound-presidential-timber line, Shaheen was officially -- if somewhat insincerely -- rebuked by Clinton and everyone around her.

But don't think Bill Shaheen has really lost favor with a Clinton campaign that likes nothing so much as digging dirt and distributing it -- preferably without the finger prints of the candidate or her top national aides.

Shaheen will remain a key player in New Hampshire and in the national Clinton campaign; working, whether officially or unofficially, for Clinton. As the preeminent Democratic fixer in what for the fading front-runner has emerged as the critical primary state, he knows his services will be in demand.

He also knows that the Clinton camp doesn't hold grudges against people who do the dirty work.

Officially, Bill Shaheen is off the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Unofficially, the smart bet is that Shaheen's taking "thank-you" calls from the Clinton team and awaiting his next assignment. An even smarter bet is that Shaheen's will not be a long wait.

Express Yourself

This January 22 will mark the 35th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized the right to abortion, Roe vs. Wade. Choice USA is trying to celebrate the occasion with a YouTube video montage, bringing together footage from young reproductive rights activists on campuses and in communities nationwide. The idea is to have young people of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and hues explain, in their own voices, what Roe means to them. Choice USA offers tips and guidelines for creating the videos here. Submissions are being accepted through January 11th, 2008.

On the Media

Michael Copps, a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), stops by The Nation offices every year to talk about what is happening to our media landscape. Invariably, he let's us know that no matter what a person considers his or her #1 issue – whether it be fighting poverty, ending the war, affordable health care, or anything else – the #2 issue better be media matters.

As he recently said in an interview with Salon: "Your No. 2 issue has to be this media issue, because all those other issues you care about… are funneled and filtered through big media, if they're lucky enough to get in that funnel at all…. Then they're covered with the slant of a few particular companies."

Copps is currently battling FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's attempt to circumvent public comment and rush through an anti-democratic plan that would make it easier for a single company to own multiple media outlets in a single market. Though Martin claims he would only allow companies in the top 20 markets to own both a daily newspaper and a broadcast outlet, Copps points out that that represents approximately 43 percent of US households, and there is a major loophole allowing companies to do the same in "just about any market on the basis of meeting a few loose criteria." Martin's consolidation not only would weaken an already lacking diversity of voices in the media as well as in media ownership, it would also deepen the political crisis of our time – our downsized politics of excluded alternatives.

It's worth noting that the FCC attempted an even more extreme consolidation makeover in 2003 and an outpouring of transpartisan grassroots, citizen opposition defeated its efforts. (That proposal would have allowed a single company in one town to own up to three TV stations, eight radio stations, the daily newspaper, the cable system and the Internet service provider – so it's not just old media that Martin has set his sights on.) The response in 2003 was a model of citizen activism that can work again. But at this crucial time, it's also important that presidential candidates show leadership, speak out, and educate the public on these issues. Some are doing that, and most are at the very least cosponsors of the bipartisan Media Ownership Act of 2007 which would prevent Martin from holding a FCC vote on the new rules – scheduled for December 18 and sure to win approval – for at least six months. Below is a look at what most of the democratic candidates are doing – or not doing – to address these issues.

Joe Biden: His campaign office directed me to this press release, in which Senator Biden stated his opposition to Martin's effort to repeal the rule which prevents a company from owning both a newspaper and a television station in the same city. "The Federal Communications Commission's plan to lift its anti-monopoly regulations could have dangerous consequences," said Biden. "If this plan goes forward, two or three media conglomerates could end up controlling every broadcast medium in the country. From a safety perspective, what happens if one company controls the television, radio and internet services in a region and its servers go down during a natural disaster or terrorist attack? From a constitutional perspective, what happens when one company owns all of the airwaves in an area and it refuses to broadcast certain content? These are important security and constitutional issues best addressed by keeping the current rules in place." Biden is a cosponsor of the Media Ownership Act.

Hillary Clinton: Her campaign press office sent me this statement: "Senator Clinton is very concerned about the manner in which Chairman Martin is attempting to change the media cross-ownership rules. There has been insufficient time given for public comment. Also, the Chairman is promoting media consolidation without attending to more pressing matters: increasing women and minority ownership of media, and preserving localism in media. Accordingly, Senator Clinton is cosponsoring the Media Ownership Act of 2007 which requires that an FCC rulemaking aimed at relaxing the consolidation rules be preceded by: (1) a thorough review and comment process, (2) a rulemaking on the preservation of localism, and (3) FCC action to promote female and minority media ownership…. In 2003, she co-sponsored legislation that aimed to limit consolidation of TV stations; and in 2004 she voted against the Omnibus Appropriations Conference bill in part because it included measures that would have increased media consolidation." It's disappointing, however, that there is nothing about these pressing matters on her website – in contrast to the other "top-tier" candidates.

Christopher Dodd: Sen. Dodd is a cosponsor of the Media Ownership Act. His campaign directed me to his statement on Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal takeover in which he said, "The power of the media is swiftly being limited to a few controlling hands, which poses a serious threat to our democracy. The foundation of our democracy rests in our ability to hear from a diverse array of sources so that we can make informed decisions." The campaign also referred me to Dodd's YouTube video response to the question of what he would do to protect independent voices in the media. Dodd discusses the impact of media consolidation, the importance of net neutrality, and expanding broadband access in this video.

John Edwards: Sen. Edwards speaks out strongly about media consolidation threatening free speech; tilting the public dialogue towards corporate priorities and away from local concerns; and making it increasingly difficult for women and minorities to own a stake in our media. His campaign forwarded me this link, which offers a very detailed take on the issues, including trends and statistics regarding media consolidation; impact of consolidation and deregulation on public interest and localism; and the need to maintain net neutrality and keep corporate media from blocking access, as well as provide universal broadband. Edwards has said, "The basis of a strong democracy is a diverse and dynamic media. It's time to take away the corporate media bullhorn and let America's many voices be heard."

Dennis Kucinich: He has a strong record addressing this issue. Rep. Kucinich wants "to create a greater diversity of viewpoints in the media by breaking up the major media conglomerates, encouraging competition and quality as well as diversity. We should place new caps on media ownership and ban the granting of exceptions to those caps. We should limit the number of media outlets one corporation can own in a given medium, such as radio, print, or television. We should strictly prohibit cross-ownership and vertical integration…. Funding for public broadcasting channels on television and radio should be greatly expanded, assuring the existence of media outlets free of the influence of advertisers.… I have a strong record on media reform. I filed formal objections with the FCC to their deregulation of the media. I held hearings on Capitol Hill on what the media weren't telling people about the war."

Barack Obama: A cosponsor of the Media Ownership Act, Sen. Obama has also written previously to Chairman Martin (along with Sen. John Kerry) – "to address the issue of minority media ownership, and the impact that new rules would have on opportunities for minority, small business, and women owned firms." He also co-authored an op-ed with Kerry addressing minority ownership and diverse viewpoints. His website states that "the Federal Communications Commission has promoted the concept of consolidation over diversity…. As president, he will encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation's spectrum. An Obama presidency will promote greater coverage of local issues and better responsiveness by broadcasters to the communities they serve." His detailed plan also includes protecting net neutrality and universal broadband access and his internet policies have been praised by well-known digital figures like Lawrence Lessig and Matt Stoller.

Bill Richardson: The campaign sent me this statement, "Growing media ownership consolidation is a problem, and Governor Richardson will work hard to ensure that this trend does not continue along the current path. Governor Richardson will re-invigorate both the FCC and the Department of Justice to make sure that our democracy is not undermined by excessive control of the media being placed in the hands of just a few. In that vein, Governor Richardson is adamantly opposed to Kevin Martin's proposed rule-change. We must remain vigilant in preventing media consolidation, whether by law or by loophole. Our democracy depends quite seriously on it."

While there are good, strong statements, and some detailed plans from the likes of Edwards, Dodd, Obama, and Kucinich, what is lacking is the integration of this message into the candidates' basic stump speech – the kind of thing Copps battles for every day: to make citizens realize that without a free, diverse media, we're up a creek if we want the issues that matter most to us to receive a good public airing and debate. It will take strong presidential leadership, continued congressional attention, and citizen vigilance to ensure that media consolidation doesn't further erode our democracy.

As Michael Copps recently wrote in an op-ed, "I say this is hardly the time to rush headlong into more of what we know has not worked given the wreckage caused by our decades-long flirtation with the notion that Wall Street always knows best when it comes to journalism." Here's a modest proposal for the candidates: how about Michael Copps as a pro-democracy FCC Chairman come 2009?

Some Sanity When It Comes to the "War" on Drugs

In a bold step forward in the campaign to reduce the damage the war on drugs is causing, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously today to make a recent amendment reducing recommended sentences for crack cocaine offenses retroactive. The decision come a day after the US Supreme Court ruled that federal judges can sentence individuals below the guideline recommendations in crack cocaine cases.

The sentencing commission's decision means that up to 19,400 currently incarcerated people will be eligible for early release. "The government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars and incarcerated millions of Americans --disproportionately black or brown Americans--yet drugs are as available as ever," said Bill Piper, national affairs director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's time to start treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue."

While the three leading Presidential candidates support ending the sentencing disparity that punishes crack cocaine offenses one hundred times more severely than powder cocaine offenses --(although Clinton is the only one, based on a recent report, who opposes retroactivity) the House Democratic leadership, according to the Drug Policy Aliance's Piper, has posed "the biggest obstacle to eliminating the racist/crack/powder disparity." (The House leadership has reportedly prohibited committees from dealing with the issue.) In the Senate, on the other hand, Senator Joe Biden has a bill to completely eliminate the disparity; and two Republican bills reduce the disparity, but do not elmininate it. Hearings are expected in February. (Write your Representative and urge them to demand hearings so as to send a clear signal that they care about reducing racial disparities.

It's time to end this senseless war on drugs which has filled our prisons, fattened our prison-industrial complex and incarcerated too many people of color.