Saturday, January 10, 2009

Maverick News: Less-Told Stories

This week: A crackdown on dissent in Nicaragua, the PR War over Gaza, Vanishing Iraq coverage, and a new freedom movement in China. National: the difference between recession and depression – and why the media didn’t warn us earlier, street tolls, and the worst corporations of 2008. Vermont: Start of the 2010 campaign for governor, and the end of an era in local journalism. Plus, the weekly Drug Report. Live Broadcast Friday, January 9, Noon EST, on The Howie Rose Show (WOMM), streamed on The Radiator.

NICARAGUA: THE REVOLUTION IS OVER. Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua and leader of the Sandinista movement that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship 30 years ago, is becoming a bit of tyrant himself. Since his most recent election in 2006, he’s been using bogus charges and lawsuits to go after those who criticize his regime. The targets include former allies such as priest and poet Ernesto Cardenel, now 83, convicted last summer on trumped up defamation charges, and women’s rights activists Sofia Montenegro, whose office was raided after she denounced Ortego for outlawing abortion. Political rivals have also been banned for accusing his government of corruption and repression.

The most prominent target is Carlos Chamorro, a noted journalist and member of one of the country’s leading political families. After Chamorro exposed a huge extortion scheme, armed police raided the office of his non-profit on suspicion of money laundering and confiscated all the computers. Chamorro may be the only figure left in the country with enough credibility and moral authority to hold Ortega accountable. But even though he might be able to get some US support, he doesn’t want it. His feeling is that any statement in his favor from the US will only allow Ortega to portray himself as the victim of a conspiracy. On the other hand, if Ortega succeeds in silencing his last major opponent, it will be a step toward a new authoritarianism in Latin America.

GAZA: THE PR WAR. As the crisis the Middle East continues, doubts are emerging about some of the coverage due to Israel’s aggressive PR campaign. To gain support, Israeli Foreign Minister (and candidate for Prime Minister) Tzipi Livni directed the Foreign Ministry to lead a PR blitz. This includes YouTube videos and Internet press conferences via Twitter. The Israeli military described one of its YouTube videos as a bomb attack on "a Hamas truck carrying dozens of Grad rockets." Yet human rights groups say the truck belonged to a local resident, who was moving equipment out of his workshop, after the house next to it was bombed. Ahmed Samur, the person who says the bombed vehicle was his, told the press, "These were not Hamas [who were killed], they were our children.

According to BBC, the incident shows “how an apparently definitive piece of video can turn into something much more doubtful." Doubts have also been raised about the Foreign Ministry's changing graph of the number of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. The apparent goal is to "justify the air attacks" and "show that there is no humanitarian calamity in Gaza."

IRAQ: THE VANISHING. One story not getting the attention it used to is Iraq. Reporting in the Columbia Journalism Review, Megan Garber notes that the war now regularly wins less than two percent of the weekly US news hole. The big shocker is that, after Iraq's cabinet approved a 2011 deadline for the withdrawal of all US troops – suggesting a resolution of the 'timetable' debate and a move toward ending the war – the agreement was all but ignored in the media. The problem, Garber says, is "partially logistical: on-the-ground reporting from the country is both exceptionally expensive ... and incredibly dangerous. For the sixth year in a row, Iraq has been named the deadliest country in the world for journalists." The story of Iraq, she concludes, “is, if not fading altogether from our collective consciousness, then at least fading generally from our collective conscience."

CHINA: A NEW FREEDOM MOVEMENT. In December thousands of Chinese citizens, including well-known dissidents and intellectuals, signed a public statement calling for major reform of the political system and the end of one-party rule. Called Charter 08, it calls for a reformed system based on human rights and democracy. It’s an inspiring statement, one that would resonate almost anywhere. The signers call for a new constitution, separation of powers, freedom of the press and association, fair and open elections, economic reform, social security, environmental protection, respect for all ethnic and religious groups, and more.

Predictably, however, the government started intimidating and detaining the signers even before the statement was released. In a massive example of Irony Deficiency, the authorities didn’t notice that they were underlining the country’s failure to uphold the principles being advanced – free expression and freedom of association. Charter 08 says, “We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.” Yet the government is putting people in prison for exactly that. It also calls for the rule of law – in a country that sends in the police in the middle of the night. Since mid-December, Chinese living outside the country have begun signing the statement, and the Dalai Lama has written a letter of support, calling on the government to release prisoners detained for exercising freedom of expression.


DEPRESSION: ARE WE THERE YET? How do we know if we’re having a Depression? The word has recently been popping up more often than at any time in the past 60 years. But what does it mean? To start, we have to distinguish it from a recession. The rule of thumb on that is two consecutive quarters of falling Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The National Bureau of Economic Research recently declared a recession based on various indicators. But there’s no accepted definition of depression.

How severe does a slump have to get before it warrants the "D" word? An Internet search suggests two main criteria for distinguishing a depression from a recession: a decline in real GDP that exceeds 10%, or one that lasts more than three years. America's Great Depression qualifies on both counts: GDP fell by around 30% between 1929 and 1933. Output also fell by 13% during 1937 and 1938. The Great Depression was America's deepest economic slump (excluding those related to wars). But at 43 months it wasn’t the longest: that honor goes to the one from 1873-79, which lasted 65 months. So, no. We’re not there yet.

WHY THE PRESS MISSED THE STORY. Depression talk raises the question of why we didn’t get an earlier warning that things were going south. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the British Guardian, thinks fear of libel lawsuits from big corporations may have contributed to the failure to adequately report on dangerous economic decisions. In an article for the New York Review of Books, he recounts his paper's recent serious brush with the British defamation laws when it was sued by Tesco, one of the largest public companies in Britain and the fourth-largest retailer in the world.

The case centered around a report he admits the newspaper got partly wrong. Tesco was using complex financial deals to avoid paying taxes, but its reporters misunderstood the specifics. The ensuing lawsuit consumed more than a million in legal fees before it was settled out of court. Very few reporters – and not even most investors – understand the complex financial dealings of big corporations or financial institutions. And cutbacks in newsrooms only make the situation worse. Few news organizations want to take the risk of getting it wrong. The result is that they tend to avoid complex stories.

Rusbridger concludes: “In years to come people may not question why newspapers got things wrong about such complicated matters as corporate tax structures and the behavior or investment banks; they may express wonder that they even tried.”

PAY FEE AND DRIVE. Following the lead of London, Stockholm and Singapore, San Francisco is considering a plan to ease traffic by charging drivers a fee for entering clogged sections of the city. Using $1 million in federal funds, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority is studying various "congestion-pricing" options. If approved, this would make San Francisco the first US city to charge cars a fee to enter certain neighborhoods at certain times. In 2003, London began charging drivers to enter the central part of the city. Singapore and Stockholm, Sweden, also have such fees. Last year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed charging drivers $8 to enter a heavily trafficked part of Manhattan, but the plan died in the state Assembly.

PHOTO OP. Last week Barack Obama met with the four living presidents – Carter, Clinton, Bush and Bush. Next week, the plan is to meet with several dead presidents. Lincoln is expected to warn him about the dangers of live theater, and Washington will provide advice on flossing and other aspects of dental care.


CANDIDATES, START YOUR SPINNING. The 2010 elections got underway this week with the announcement by Doug Racine that he’ll run for governor in two years. Racine ran against incumbent Jim Douglas in his first election six years ago, and has since returned to the state senate. Racine was Lt. Gov. for four years, and lost to Douglas by less than 6000 votes. He’s 56, and chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding and Secretary of State Deb Markowitz are also considering the race.

BURLINGTON: END OF AN ERA. Noted columnist Peter Freyne died early Wednesday morning after an extended illness. Freyne became ill several months ago, and was founded in his apartment with a strep infection that had reached his brain. He was best known for his column, Inside Track, which began running in the old Vanguard Press in the early 1980s.


And now, the 10 Worst Corporations of 2008, courtesy of Multinational Monitor. Actually, it would have been easy to restrict the awards this year to Wall Street firms. But the rest of the corporate world wasn’t on good behavior, so this Top Ten list includes only one financial company. And since it’s pretty hard to say who’s really the worst, it’s alphabetical. Here goes: AIG, Cargill, Chevron, Constellation Energy, Chinese National Petroleum Corporation, Dole, GE, Imperial Sugar, Philip Morris, and Roche. Highlights on some of the top offenders:

AIG. No one party is responsible for the global financial crisis. But if you had to pick a single corporation, there's a very strong case for American International Group (AIG), which has already sucked up more than $150 billion in taxpayer money. Through "credit default swaps," AIG basically collected insurance premiums while making the absurd assumption that it would never pay out on a failure – let alone a collapse of the entire market it was insuring.

CHEVRON. In 2001, Chevron swallowed up Texaco. It was happy to absorb the revenue streams. It has been less willing to take responsibility for Texaco's ecological and human rights abuses. In 1993, 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians filed a class action suit, alleging that Texaco had poisoned the land and waterways, allowing billions of gallons of oil to spill and leaving hundreds of waste pits unlined and uncovered. Chevron had the case thrown out of US courts, on the grounds that it should be litigated in Ecuador. But now the case is going badly for Chevron in Ecuador -- Chevron may be liable for more than $7 billion. So, the company is lobbying the Office of the US Trade Representative to impose trade sanctions on Ecuador if the Ecuadorian government doesn’t make the case go away. Here’s what a Chevron lobbyist told Newsweek about the case: "We can't let little countries screw around with big companies like this -- companies that have made big investments around the world." (Chevron subsequently stated that the comments were not approved.)

CONSTELLATION ENERGY. Although too dangerous, expensive and centralized to make sense as an energy source, nuclear power won't go away. Constellation Energy Group, operator of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland -- a company involved in a scheme to price gouge Maryland consumers -- plans to build a new reactor at Calvert Cliffs, potentially the first new reactor built in the US since the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. The plan: to take advantage of US government-guaranteed loans for new nuclear construction, available under the 2005 Energy Act. The company acknowledges it couldn’t go ahead without the government guarantee.

CHINESE NATIONAL PETROLEUM CORPORATION. Sudan has been able to laugh off existing and threatened sanctions for the slaughter it has perpetrated in Darfur because of the huge support it receives from China, channeled largely through the Sudanese relationship with the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation. According to Human Rights First, "Not only is CNPC the largest investor in the Sudanese oil sector, but Sudan is CNPC's largest market for overseas investment." Oil money has fueled violence in Darfur. "The profitability of Sudan's oil sector has developed in close chronological step with the violence in Darfur."

IMPERIAL SUGAR. On February 7, an explosion rocked the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia, near Savannah. 14 People died, and dozens were badly burned and injured. As with most industrial disasters, the tragedy was preventable. The cause was accumulated sugar dust, which is highly combustible. A month after the explosion, Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors investigated another Imperial Sugar plant, in Louisiana. They found 1/4- to 2-inch accumulations of dust on electrical wiring and machinery, and as much as 48-inch accumulations on workroom floors. Imperial obviously knew of the conditions in its plants. In fact, it had taken some steps to clean up operations before the explosion. But it wasn't enough. A new vice president brought in to handle the clean up told a Congressional committee that top-level management told him to tone down his demands for immediate action.

ROCHE. The Swiss company Roche makes a range of HIV-related drugs. One of them is enfuvirtid, sold under the brand-name Fuzeon. Fuzeon brought in $266 million to Roche in 2007, though sales are declining. Roche charges $25,000 a year for Fuzeon and doesn’t offer a discount for developing countries.

Like most industrialized countries, Korea maintains a form of price controls -- the national health insurance program sets prices for medicines. The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs listed Fuzeon at $18,000 a year. Korea's per capita income is roughly half that of the US. But instead of providing Fuzeon at Korea's listed level, Roche refuses to make the drug available in Korea. Korean activists say that the head of Roche Korea told them, "We are not in business to save lives, but to make money. Saving lives is not our business."

For the full story, visit Multinational Monitor.


The El Paso City Council came up with a new strategy to deal with the bloody drug war that last year claimed 1,600 lives in Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. A resolution passed unanimously asked the US government to "open, honest, national dialogue on ending the prohibition of narcotics." In other words, they asked the government consider legalizing drugs. But Mayor John Cook vetoed the resolution hours after it was approved.

Beto O'Rourke, an El Paso city councilman, argued that, "We think it should at least be on the table.” The Mayor called the idea unrealistic. The nonbinding resolution suggested that legalizing drugs in the US could help reduce violence. But it would be a tough sell to Congress.

Speaking of violence, gunmen threw a grenade and opened fire outside a Mexican TV station during its evening broadcast on Tuesday and left a message warning journalists from reporting on drug war violence. The note left on a car bumper near the studio read: "Stop reporting just on us. Report on the narco's political leaders," a reference to the Mexican government.

Violence is spiraling in Mexico between warring drug gangs and the army. This war killed about 5,700 people last year. Attacks on the media have increased since President Felipe Calderon launched his assault on cartels at the end of 2006. Since then, 15 journalists have been killed, making Mexico one of the world's most dangerous countries for the media, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Meanwhile…In Massachusetts, possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized by a referendum, but police departments across the state don’t even bother to ticket people they see smoking grass. According to Mark Laverdure, chief of police in Clinton, a Central Massachusetts town, the law was so poorly written that it can’t be enforced. And the police chief in Auburn, Andrew Sluckis, says his officers won’t issue $100 citations for possession of an ounce or less, as required under the ballot initiative. “As it stands now we're not going to be issuing civil citations," he said. If an officer spots someone smoking marijuana, "We will confiscate it and the person will be sent on their way."

Finally, from Alaska… politics may have delayed the arrest of Sherry Johnston, mother of Levi Johnston – the fiancĂ© of Sarah Palin’s daughter -- until after the November election. Johnston was arrested in December on six felony drugs counts. She's accused of illegally selling Oxycontin, and pled not guilty last Monday.Johnston's son Levi and Palin's daughter Bristol recently announced the birth of their son, Tripp.

The Anchorage Daily News says that investigator Kyle Young sent an e-mail to the Public Safety Employees Association saying the case against Johnston "was not allowed to progres in normal fashion" and the search warrant was delayed "because of the pending election." Alaska's Public Safety Commissioner insists the case was handled fairly.

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