Friday, November 21, 2008

Maverick News: Hype, Hope & Hoaxes

This week: Cheney’s first indictment – in Texas no less, Why a bail out of the auto industry may be necessary, Fake campaign news and viral e-mails, the latest corporate scam – shrinking products, How Obama auditioned for power, and Cigarettes vs. Grass. Greg’s Comment: The Hype of Hope. Live Broadcast Friday, November 21, Noon EST, on The Howie Rose Show (WOMM), streamed on The Radiator.

RISE OF THE BLACK PRINCE. Here’s a bedtime story: Once upon a time a charismatic prince named Barack appeared magically (and nationally) by giving an instantly famous keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Sounds believable, doesn’t it? But, as Ken Silverstein revealed in Harpers two years ago, by this time Obama “had already undergone an equally successful but much quieter audition with Democratic Party leaders and fund-raisers, without whose support he would surely never have been chosen for such a prominent role at the convention.”

The first favorable elite assessment of Obama reportedly came in October, 2003. Vernon Jordan, the well-known power broker who chaired Bill Clinton's presidential transition team in 1992, placed calls to roughly 20 of his friends and invited them to a fund-raiser at his home. That event – not some living room cell group meeting in Bill Ayers’ home – “marked his entry into a well-established Washington ritual – fund-raising parties and meet-and-greets where potential stars are vetted by fixers, donors, and lobbyists."

Obama passed with shining colors. At social meetings with big "players" from the financial, legal and lobbyist sectors, Obama impressed people like Gregory Craig – a leading attorney, former special counsel to the White House, and now Obama’s pick to do it again; Mike Williams, legislative director of the Bond Market Association; Tom Quinn, partner at a top corporate law firm, Venable, and a leading Democratic power broker; and Robert Harmala, another Venable partner and big player in Democratic circles.

The good word about Obama spread through Washington's blue-chip law firms, lobby shops, and political offices, going massive after his win in the March 2004 Democratic primary. Elite financial, legal, and lobbyist contributions streamed in at a rapid and accelerating pace. The "good news" for insiders? Obama's "star quality" wouldn’t be directed against the elite segments of the business class. He was, wrote Silverstein, "someone the rich and powerful could work with." According to Obama biographer and Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, in 2003 and early 2004, Obama cultivated support by advocating fiscal restraint, calling for pay-as-you-go government and singing the praises of free trade and charter schools. He "moved beyond being an obscure good-government reformer to being a candidate more than palatable to the moneyed and political establishment."

"On condition of anonymity," Silverstein noted, "one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn't see him as a 'player.' The lobbyist added: 'What's the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?'"

AND THE OSCAR FOR FAKE NEWS GOES TO…. One of the lingering questions of campaign 08: Did Sarah Palin know that Africa is a continent? To get to the truth, let’s follow the source. Fox News broke the story, quoting an unnamed McCain person. Who was the source? The name finally popped up on a blog last week, and was then aired by MSNBC’s David Shuster. Supposedly, McCain Policy Advisor Martin Eisenstadt was the source of the leaks.

Trouble is, Martin Eisenstadt doesn't exist. He has a blog, but it’s a put-on. He’s a senior fellow at a Think Tank, the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy. But here’s where it breaks down. The Harding Institute, named for one of the least regarded US presidents, is nothing more than a fake website. TV clips of and documentaries about Eisenstadt are also fake. Claiming to be the source for the Africa charge is just the latest ruse. It’s an elaborate hoax that’s been going on for months.

Eisenstadt was created by two filmmakers, Eitan Gorlin and Dan Mirvish. As The New York Times has reported, they succeeded in fooling countless media outlets, including The New Republic and The Los Angeles Times, into believing he was a real political insider. Over a year and a half, under the guise of Eisenstadt, they repeatedly infiltrated political coverage, as media outlets picked up on their fake political commentary and video clips.

They say they created Eisenstadt, played by Gorlin, to help them pitch a TV show based on the character. At this point, there are some great moments and episodes of a fake BBC documentary, The Last Republican, on YouTube. Take a look:

Last June they produced what appeared to be an interview with Eisenstadt on Iraqi television promoting construction of a casino in the Green Zone in Baghdad. Then they sent out a news release in which he apologized. Outraged Iraqi bloggers protested the casino idea. In October, Eisenstadt blogged that Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, aka Joe the Plumber, was closely related to Charles Keating, the disgraced former savings and loan chief. It wasn’t true, but other bloggers ran with it.

After Election Day, Fox News cited anonymous McCain aides as having claimed that Palin didn’t know Africa was a continent. Palin’s people went after the anonymous source for taking the governor's comment out of context. Mirvish and Gorlin weren't the source, but they jumped at the opportunity to make fun of what they call the media's propensity to use anonymous sources. On November 10, they posted a blog entry about the Fox report in which Eisenstadt claimed to be coming forward as the anonymous source who leaked the Palin blunder. Shuster ran with it.

MSNBC corrected Shuster’s mistake. But groups like Source Watch, a media watchdog project by the Center for Media and Democracy, had been warning about Eisenstadt and the Harding Institute for months. So, Martin Eisenstadt is a hoax. Still, the question about Palin’s geographical knowledge remains unanswered.

DIGITAL RUMORS. Even without fake news and the occasional hoax, viral emails have emerged as a form of stealth propaganda recently, noticeably in the recent US presidential campaign. Barack Obama was dogged with false claims that he was a Muslim, that he refused to salute the American flag, that he wasn’t a US citizen, and so on. Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, attempted to trace the chain of one of those emails and found what the Washington Post called "valuable insight into the way political information circulates, mutates and sometimes devastates in the digital age."

The anonymous nature of viral emails, combined with the word-of-mouth way that they spread, makes them hard to counter. "This kind of misinformation campaign short-circuits judgment," Allen said. "It also aggressively disregards the fundamental principle of free societies that one be able to debate one's accusers."

INCREDIBLE SHRINKING PRODUCTS. You may not have noticed, but prices on your favorite grocery items are going up. Many companies have found a sneaky new way to raise prices without losing customers to less expensive brands: by shrinking their packaging.

A jar of Skippy peanut butter is the same height and circumference it’s always been. But now it has a hidden, inward "dimple" on the bottom that decreases the amount the jar holds by two ounces. Boxes of breakfast cereal: they appear to be the same height and width as always. But manufacturers have reduced the depth of the boxes from front to back, decreasing the amount of cereal they hold. Rolls of Scott toilet tissue contain the same number of sheets (1,000), but the length of each sheet has been cut from 4 to 3.7 inches. And a can of Starkist Tuna has been downsized from six to five ounces.

When asked about the shrinkage, most companies point to higher costs for ingredients, manufacturing and fuel. Can consumers fight back? Yes, by refusing to buy from manufacturers who engage in this tactic.

LET THE PROSECUTIONS BEGIN. It would be like getting Al Capone for tax evasion: Dick Cheney has actually been indicted in Texas on charges related to alleged prisoner abuse in federal detention centers. A grand jury in Willacy County, right near the US-Mexico border, has brought the indictments against Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at the urging of the county DA, Juan Angel Guerra.

According to the Associated Press, the indictment stems from Cheney's investment in the Vanguard Group — an investment management company that reportedly has interests in the prison companies in charge of the detention centers. It also charges that Gonzales halted an investigation into abuse at the detention centers while he was attorney general. So, not murder – Bugliosi style, just self-dealing and obstruction of justice maybe.

Sounds like a start. But it gets squirrely from here. Guerra has also indicted Democratic state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., and Lucio’s lawyer calls Guerra a "one man circus." We shall see. Exhibit One: In the March 2008 Democratic Primary, 70 percent of the Willacy County voters to remove Guerra as Willacy County DA. In a few weeks, he’s out of there. So, Lucio’s people say he’s just seeking revenge on those he sees as political enemies. And Cheney’s people: "The vice president has not received an indictment," they say. Stay tuned.

CRASH TALK. Is a bailout of the auto industry really needed? Some say the big companies are destined to go bankrupt, either now or in a few years. If that’s true, why bother saving them, right? The problem is that the economies of Michigan and Ohio are still heavily dependent on the Big Three. If they go under at the moment, a whole group of suppliers will suddenly incur large losses due to the money owed to them, as well as their lost orders. This will lead to a large second wave of bankruptcies as suppliers go under. State and local governments will see plunging tax revenue.

This would be extremely painful for the region at any time, but it could be devastating in the middle of the current recession. The federal government would have to step in with large amounts of money, helping governments in the region to provide essential services and support the unemployed workers.

On the other hand, in two or three years it’s reasonable to hope that the economies of Michigan and Ohio will have rebounded, at least enough to withstand a bankruptcy if it happened. So, if you’re opposed to helping out the auto industry, you might want to consider the short-term consequences.


LOOK WHO’S SMOKING WHAT. According to a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control, fewer Americans are smoking cigarettes than at any time in modern history. "The number of US adults who smoke has dropped below 20 percent for the first time on record," Reuters reports. This is less than half the percentage (42 percent) of Americans who smoked cigarettes during the 1960s.

Imagine that. In the past 40 years, tens of millions of Americans have voluntarily quit smoking a legal, yet highly addictive intoxicant. Many others have refused to start. And they've made the decision without ever being threatened with criminal prosecution and arrest, imprisonment, probation, and drug testing.

By contrast, during this same period of time, state and local police have arrested some 20 million Americans for pot law violations – primarily for violations no greater than simple possession. And yet marijuana use among the public has skyrocketed from an annual rate of 600,000 new users in 1965 to 2.5 million annual new users today.

There are lessons to be learned. To start, tobacco, though harmful to health, is a legally regulated commodity. Sellers are licensed and held accountable by federal and state laws. Users are restricted by age. Advertising and access is limited by state and federal governments. And health warnings regarding the drug's use are based upon credible science. In contrast, marijuana remains an unregulated black market commodity. Sellers are often entrepreneurs who, for the most part, operate undetected and can sell their product to anyone.


The Hype of Hope

You can almost feel the air leaking out of the change bubble that has been inflating this year. As the new political messiah begins to reveal his brain trust it becomes harder to continue believing the pre-election hype. Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Rahm Emanuel, Gregory Craig, Eric Holder – the first names announced for the Obama administration suggest that we may be heading forward into the past.

But it’s still too soon to know whether our expectations are just a bit high or the promise of real change turns out to be a hoax.

In the past, the revelation that we’ve been fooled has often led to a greater wisdom. In the 19th Century, we had the 1835 announcement of life on the moon, which helped expand the readership of the New York Sun, the Cardiff Giant (a fake missing link), and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic forgery about a Jewish plot to control the world. As a result, we realized that the media will sometimes create news to increase income, and that hate-filled rumors have considerable power.

Sometimes hoaxes appeal to our primal fears, like Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, possibly the most influential, through accidental hoax of the last century. Thousands believed that the Martians had landed.

Many hoaxes are just designed for personal advancement – Clifford Irving’s fake biography of Howard Hughes, for example, or Rosie Ruiz’s first place finish in the 1980 Boston Marathon – she actually road the subway to reach the finish line first.

In some cases, however, a hoax has influenced public opinion enough to change the direction of a country. A case in point: The so-called Zinoviev letter, created by British intelligence, that claimed a Soviet revolution was about to take place in England. The scare was effective enough to get Brits to elect a conservative government. The rationale for the War in Iraq may turn out to fall into the same category.

When they’re exposed, hoaxes sometimes help us to understand the world a bit better, or at least make us a little more skeptical when the next scam is tried.

Thus, it’s natural to be a bit suspicious about the current promise of change. At this point the rise of Obama certainly doesn’t qualify as a hoax, but we’re learning fast that, at least to some extent, there has been a bit of hype. Yet there’s still some hope that we haven’t been completely faked out.

In this media-manipulated world, it becomes harder each day to tell reality from fakery. Last year, for example, a reality TV show in the Netherlands, the Great Donor Show, focused on a terminally-ill woman donating a kidney to one of three people who needed a transplant. Turns out it was a stunt.

Still, there’s a chance that the Obama bubble is more than another bait-and-switch operation, a bit of hype mixed with enough reality to keep hope alive. I could be wrong, but just because the current news suggests that there won’t be as much change as promised, that doesn’t mean we’ve been completely punked.

One More Time

Fake McCain Advisor Martin Eisenstadt rants about community organizers:

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