Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Media Rants: Health Beat v. Wealth Beat

Media Rants 

From the April 2014 edition of The SCENE

Obamacare: Health Beat vs. Wealth Beat

Last month in what some in the punditocracy view as a dire warning for pro-Affordable Care Act (i.e. ACA or Obamacare) Democrats heading into November’s midterm elections, Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink in a special election for Florida’s 13th Congressional District. David Weigel’s Slate.com piece released two days before the election (“Obamacare’s Ground Zero”) lent support to the view that Jolly’s “repeal the law” rhetoric mobilized his base voters more than Sink’s “fix the law” message mobilized hers.

No one disputes that the roll out of healthcare.gov was a disaster, and it’s also true that President Obama and Congressional Democrats employed misleading sound bites (e.g. “If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan. Period.”) in the run up to the vote on the bill and afterwards. Unfortunately, the rigor with which the press attacked the website woes and presidential gaffes seems absent when it comes to Obamacare “horror stories.” The stories involve citizens like Michigan cancer patient Julie Boonstra (featured in a Koch Brothers’ Americans For Prosperity ad) who, allegedly because of Obamacare, will be made to suffer medically and/or financially in a way not possible before the legislation. 

Few if any of the horror stories hold up to scrutiny, yet continue to be featured in GOP campaign advertising, fundraising appeals, and stump speeches.

In 2012, when called out on their inaccuracies about President Obama’s record on welfare reform, Romney campaign pollster Neil Newhouse famously said “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.” The “Newhouse Strategy” now represents the GOP approach to communicating about Obamacare.

Some working journalists have taken up the task of debunking Obamacare horror stories. The most accessible are PaulWaldman in the American Prospect, Erik Wemple in the Washington Post, Eric Stern in Salon, and MichaelHiltzik in the Los Angeles Times. Some on the Right accuse such journalists of trying to “silence Obamacare critics.” Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize recipient, correctly notes that when it comes to Obamacare horror stories news organizations aren’t doing their jobs: “What a lot of these stories have in common are, first of all, a subject largely unaware of his or her options under the ACA or unwilling to determine them; and, second, shockingly uninformed and incurious news reporters, including some big names in the business, who don't bother to look into the facts of the cases they're offering for public consumption.” (emphasis added)

Probably the most diligent media watchdog of Obamacare stories is Maggie Mahar, author of  Money-Driven Medicine: The Real Reason Health Care Costs So Much (Harper Collins 2006). On her blog (healthbeatblog.com) she approaches Obamacare the way all journalists should: probing beneath the partisan fantasies to find out what the law is actually doing. In our hyper-politicized media environment, Mahar’s Journalism 101 approach is in some quarters  labeled “pro-Obamacare.” She told WNYC’s “Onthe Media” program: “I'm not an advocate for Obamacare. I'm an advocate for the truth. I've read the entire law three times. I know what's in it. And so, when I read accounts of the legislation that are not true, I write about it.”

Following what should be standard journalistic practice, Mahar laboriously interviews producers, reporters, and subjects of stories she finds misleading or inaccurate. Her two-part blog entry “How a CBS Video About an Obamacare Victim Misled Millions” is instructive in showing the extent to which shoddy reporting turned a major network into part of the anti-Obamacare disinformation campaign. The blog entry analyzes errors in a CBS report headlined “Woman Battling Kidney Cancer Losing Company Health Plan Due To Obamacare.” In the report, citizen Debra Fishericks of Virginia Beach believes, inaccurately as it turns out, that under Obamacare her insurance premiums would go up “higher and higher” because of her pre-existing cancer condition. She’s worried that Obamacare might break her budget to the point where she can no longer visit her grandson in Indiana. Fishericks’ story ran on 58 CBS stations, thousands of blogs, and other sources.

Mahar’s interviews with the CBS team involved in producing the Fishericks story reveal a staff that seemed to have internalized conservative anti-Obamacare talking points. The CBS report fit the pattern Mahar finds in many stories about Obamacare:  Reporters were printing and parroting the fictions and half-truths that conservatives fed to the media. And in an era of cut-and-paste journalism, the myths became memes, iterated over and over again. Little wonder that many people—including journalists—didn’t know what to believe. This, I think, is one reason why no one at CBS caught the glaring error in Fishericks’ story.”

Mahar has sympathy for reporters who might not have time to wade through a 2000 page law. “But ideally, reporters would have dug into the in-depth briefs published by groups such as the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund, or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation,” she says. That’s good advice for all of us.

Even if reporters better grasped the ACA, we’d probably still see exploitative, sensationalistic stories as the mainstream media norm. Why? Because while sensationalism is a terrible way to cover the health beat, it does feed the media wealth beat. News producers do not believe that nuanced, well researched stories can attract and sustain high audience levels.Sad.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Media Rants: The Not So Invisible Mann

From the March 2013 edition of The SCENE

Media Rants by Tony Palmeri

The Not So Invisible Mann

Dr. Michael E. Mann, Director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center, is best known for the iconic “hockey stick” temperature graph. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and environmentalists worldwide use the graph to create a sense of urgency around warming. For their efforts, Mann and other climate scientists in 2007 jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize. 
Mann neither denies nor minimizes the impact natural forces have on climate change, but his research provides compelling evidence for the claim that human activities (e.g. increased use of fossil fuels and deforestation) play a major role in raising global temperature. That simple yet consequential thesis (it forces us to reconsider and challenge deeply embedded industrial and energy policies and entrenched interests profiting from them) has made Mann into one of the most vilified scientists in global history. A coalition of right wing think tanks and media outlets, pundits, and politicians, many funded by fossil fuel interests, attempt to discredit IPCC endorsed science and scientists by any means necessary.

In 2009 hackers obtained more than a thousand emails from scientists associated with the Climate Research Unit of the UK’s University of East Anglia. For global warming deniers, the emails were a “smoking gun” proving that warming theories were a “hoax.” Responding to this “Climategate,” 25 leading US scientists sent an open letter to Congress: “We would like to set the record straight. The body of evidence that human activity is the dominant cause of global warming is overwhelming. The content of the stolen emails has no impact whatsoever on our overall understanding that human activity is driving dangerous levels of global warming.”

Climate change “skeptics” aiming for the jugular vein thrive on the fact that most scientists are not equipped for the hardball battle that is contemporary political debate. The vicious and personal nature of the attacks led Dr. Mann to write The HockeyStick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (2012). Chapter 15 is titled “Fighting Back.” Mann writes: “. . . climate change contrarians continue to launch hand grenades, the denial machine persists in churning out disinformation, and the attacks against climate scientists-myself included-continue. Yet something is different now. The forces of climate change denial have, I believe, awakened a ‘sleeping bear.’ My fellow scientists will be fighting back, and I look forward to joining them in this battle.” 

As if trying to test Mann’s resolve, Rand Simberg of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) along with Mark Steyn and Rich Lowry of National Review provoked a defamation suit. The right wing blogosphere defends these comments as intellectually rigorous contributions to the climate debate:

Simberg: “Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science that could have dire economic consequences for the nation and planet.” Further, he accuses Mann of “scientific misconduct” and calls him the “posterboy of the corrupt and disgraced climate science echo chamber.”

Steyn:  Mann “was the man behind the fraudulent climate-change ‘hockey stick’ graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus.”

Lowry: Called Mann’s work “intellectually bogus.”

Dr. Mann is considered to be a public figure, even though most outside the pundit universe, if they even recognize the name, might know “Michael Mann” as the director of “The Insider” and “Public Enemies.”  Given his public figure status, to prevail in a defamation lawsuit Dr. Mann has to show “actual malice” on the part of the defendants. The New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) standard defines actual malice as making a false statement about another “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

The actual malice bar is high, which is why public figure defamation suits are rare. Yet two DC Superior Court judges found that Mann’s suit should go to trial.  Last July Judge Natalia CombsGreene wrote: “There is sufficient evidence presented that is indicative of ‘actual malice.’ The CEI Defendants have consistently accused Plaintiff of fraud and inaccurate theories, despite Plaintiff’s work having been investigated several times and found to be proper. The CEI Defendants’ persistence despite the EPA and other investigative bodies’ conclusion that Plaintiff’s work is accurate (or that there is no evidence of data manipulation) is equal to a blatant disregard for the falsity of their statements. Thus, given the evidence presented the Court finds that Plaintiff could prove ‘actual malice.’”

The case could conceivably be settled out of court, but a trial would accomplish what mainstream media have been unwilling or unable to: demonstrate for all to see that Dr. Mann’s research follows accepted scientific methods, makes reasoned claims supported by evidence, and is endorsed by overwhelming majorities of independent climate scientists.

National Review (NR) was founded by the late William F. Buckley. In his prime Buckley would have invited someone like Mann to participate in a public debate. His NR heirs unfortunately prefer cheap shots, “gotcha’” reporting, and general denigration of those who disagree. Sadly, those tactics sometimes succeed in making targets disappear from the public sphere. Who needs the grief?

Finally a target is fighting back. Instead of being run into hiding, Dr. Michael has become the Not So Invisible Mann.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Censored in 2013

Censored in 2013

I frequently ask students to reflect on how their thinking or behavior has changed as a result of exposure to corporate media. It’s always a difficult discussion because none of us like to admit publicly that media exert power over our lives. When they do open up, students will typically talk about how things like their language and fashion choices mimic something they saw or heard in film or on television.

Sometimes the responses are quite humorous. Last year for example a young man said, “My behavior changed when I just happened to catch the Dr. Oz show while channel surfing. He talked about how to poop and pee perfectly.” That response was actually a great segue into a discussion of the Project Censored organization.

Since 1976 Sonoma State University’s Project Censored has produced an effective treatment for the mental constipation caused by corporate “junk news” media. Annually the Project compiles a volume of news stories "underreported, ignored, misrepresented, or censored in the United States.” Walter Cronkite said that “Project Censored is one of the organizations that we should listen to, to be assured that our newspapers and our broadcasting outlets are practicing thorough and ethical journalism.” Ralph Nader agrees: “Project Censored should be affixed to the bulletin boards in every newsroom in America.”

Project Censored defines censorship as “anything that interferes with the free flow of information in a society that purports to have a free press.” They argue further that censorship may include stories that were never published, but also “those that get such restricted distribution that few in the public are likely to know about them.”

Censored2014 (Seven Stories Press) identifies “Bradley Manning and the Failure of Corporate Media” as the top censored story of 2013. Other parts of the book address the Obama Administration’s hardball war on whistleblowers; ugly statist bullying that would have the so called “left” up in arms were it being carried out by any Republican. For me, the war on whistleblowers is far and away the most important, most inaccurately reported, and most underreported story of our time. 

The good news is that there are some independent journalists out there working hard to reveal the true nature, extent, and consequences of the war on whistleblowers for citizens, journalists, and democracy in general. In this rant I only have space for three examples.

First, Glenn Greenwald of the London Guardian writes about civil liberties transgressions with a depth and sense of urgency that calls to mind the best muckraking journalism of the early 20th century. Greenwald wrote extensively about the government’s persecution of Bradley Manning, but in 2013 his coverage of whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed in dramatic detail the extent of the National Security Administration’s global surveillance program. 
Greenwald’s also detailed the troubling case of Barrett Brown, an alternative journalist and creator of  Project PM, which is "dedicated to investigating private government contractors working in the secretive fields of cybersecurity, intelligence and surveillance." Brown’s case will be the subject of a future Media Rants column, but for now suffice it to say that he is looking at up to 10 years in jail for essentially sharing a hyperlink. 

Second, writer and activist Alexa O’Brien courageously covered the trial of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning from start to finish, providing an inspiring contrast to the mainstream media’s self-censorship and cowering in the presence of the government and military. O’Brien writes of the mainstream media and the Manning trial: “. . . the traditional press was effectively absent. When they did attend, their coverage was superficial and deficient of the kind of detail that a historic case such as hers required. Hundreds of journalists and talking heads did, however, show up to hear the verdict 20 months into the trial. On that day, Fort Meade was teaming with sightseeing content junkies and rumor militants. When the presiding military judge, Colonel Denise Lind, read her verdict into the record, no one had correctly or completely recorded or understood the entire verdict.” 

Third, the independent website Firedoglake.com in 2013 began publishing John Kiriakou’s letters from prison. Kiriakou is the former CIA agent who revealed the existence of a CIA torture program and that torture was official government policy. For his whistleblowing he was charged with espionage, making false statements, and violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. The irony is that no one who ordered or participated in torture has ever been tried or sent to jail; rather, the person who exposed the illegal policy is in prison. Kiriakou is currently serving 30 months in jail even though numerous CIA agents have asked that his sentence be commuted. 

Kiriakou’s letters from prison are important in showing the ugly consequences for someone choosing to blow the whistle on illegal or unethical government policies. He reports on harassment from prison officials, racking up nearly $1 million in legal bills, permanent loss of travel privileges after his release, having insurance and bank accounts cancelled, and other punishments. Reading Kiriakou’s letters make it clear that Edward Snowden made the right decision to seek exile rather than by subject to the prosecutorial zeal of federal prosecutors whose war on dissenters recalls the worst days of J. Edgar Hoover.

For more on Barrett Brown and John Kiriakou, go to freebarrettbrown.org and defendjohnk.com.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Media Fumbles Football CTE Crisis

Media Fumbles Football CTE Crisis

From the January 2014 edition of The SCENE 
In December a terrible New York train wreck killed four people and injured 63 others. The National Transportation Safety Board immediately announced an investigation. Governor Cuomo consoled the victims’ families and pledged that the train operator would be held accountable if found negligent. The mainstream media diligently looked into previous incidents at the crash site as well as the accident record of Metro-North railroad. Even Metro-North officials appeared cooperative. The response so far looks to be a good example of civics 101: government, railroad management, media, and the public at-large working together to soothe those in pain, identify the problems that caused the derailment, and hopefully solve them. 
Imagine if the press response to the train tragedy was to minimize the responsibility of Metro-North. Suppose instead of investigating they went to the surviving victims and asked something like this: “So, if you had to do it all over again, do you think you would have gotten on that train?” Or what if they queried the public at-large: “Now that you know there’s a dangerous curve on that track with a history of accidents, would you let your children ride that train?”  We would see those questions at best as missing the point. 

What does this have to do with the National Football League? Lots. 

In October PBS broadcast “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.” The film is based on the reporting of Steve Fainaru (Pulitzer Prize for Iraq Warreporting) and Mark Fainaru-Wada (broke the Barry Bonds/steroids story). They released a book of the same name. That football players suffer long term health problems is not news, though American culture remains in deep “please don’t force me to think about anything that could ruin my Sunday Funday” denial about it.

What’s new in the film is the extent to which the NFL, very much like the tobacco industry undermining the link between smoking and cancer, worked hard to discredit the science proving the connection between concussions and the brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Two scientists featured in the film, Dr. Bennet Omalu and Dr. Ann McKee (originally from Appleton), recount the shock they experienced as NFL execs not only disputed their research findings but even threatened their careers. Dr. Omalu is quoted as saying, “CTE has dragged me into the politics of science, the politics of the NFL. You can’t go against the NFL. They’ll squash you. I really, sincerely wished it didn’t cross my path of life, seriously.”

CTE is the most troubling sign of an NFL train wreck that’s been a long time in the making. Greedy train company operators (i.e. owners), many chugging along rapidly on taxpayer subsidized tracks (i.e. expensive stadiums), refusing to be held accountable meaningfully for derailing the lives of accident victims (i.e. the players).  Not wanting to go too far in upsetting a multibillion dollar industry, the corporate press fails to treat football and CTE as a civic matter that implicates ALL of us, not just players who choose to take the risks on the field and the parents who struggle with the decision of whether or not to let their sons play Pop Warner.

The Gannett Corporation’s local reporting after the PBS special is typical of what we are seeing nationwide.  In an October18th story, the reporter quotes an Appleton pediatrician whose 9 year old son plays football. He’s also identified as an Affinity Health System doctor who runs a sports concussion clinic. He says, “Certainly, I’m concerned about my son getting injured and (other) kids getting injured . . . But every sport has inherent risks with it. It’s up to each family to balance that risk with the potential benefits of the sport such as physical fitness, self-esteem and teamwork.” Given the source’s credentials, a conflicted parent might feel better about saying yes to football. Missing are opinions of scientists like Dr. Robert Cantu, colleague of Dr. McKee, that no youth under 14 should be playing tackle football. Dr. McKee herself, when asked in the PBS special if she would let her hypothetical 8, 10, and 12 year old children play football, said unequivocally, “No. They would not.”

In a lengthy November 23rd story, “Will head injuries be death knell for football?,” the fate of football is placed in the hands of parents. A featured source is Dr. Jennifer Weibel, a concussion specialist with the Appleton-based Osteopathic Medicine and Physical Therapy Group who leads the ImPact baseline testing program for the Appleton Area School District. She believes that “right now, youth football is a safe sport.”  Her view is never contrasted with other medical professionals, leading readers to believe that youth football is in fact safe or that the danger of it has not been established sufficiently.

Civics 101 and plain common decency holds that if we see a train wreck taking place, we’re responsible for doing something even if we don’t know anyone on the train.  As regards the NFL, part of the solution must be for all of us who enjoy the game to stop being willfully blind about the consequences of what we see on the field.  Public awareness prevents the NFL from sweeping the problem under the rug, which an enabling corporate media seems all too ready to let them do.