‘The Idea Is to Have a Conversation About What Happened to Us’ – The Best of CounterSpin for 2018

The Best of CounterSpin for 2018 aired as our December 28, 2018, episode. This is a lightly edited transcript.


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Janine Jackson (photo: Eden Naureckas)

Janine Jackson: “Understanding the limits of the dialogue possible in the elite but influential press is crucial to understanding our political lives.”

Janine Jackson: Welcome to The Best of CounterSpin for 2018. I’m Janine Jackson. Each week, CounterSpin looks behind the media headlines, asking what context is missing, what assumptions glossed over — and who’s being excluded that might challenge that. It’s not a rhetorical exercise: Understanding the limits of the dialogue possible in the elite but influential press is crucial to understanding our political lives…and the importance of maintaining spaces where we can openly debate and challenge a status quo that’s harming millions of people and the planet.

We hope all of our shows advance that effort; we can only revisit a very few now. You’ll find the whole year’s worth online at FAIR.org. For now, what we’ll call The Best of CounterSpin for 2018.

CounterSpin’s brought to you each week by the media watch group FAIR.


JJ: Immigration at the US southern border was a major story in 2018. But it wasn’t immigrants that were telling it. Or regional experts, or historians. CounterSpin spoke with Tina Vasquez, immigration reporter at Rewire.News, in the wake of a report from Amnesty International on family separation and abuses at the border.

Tina Vasquez

Tina Vasquez: “We’re told that we’re supposed to be unbiased, but I can show you facts and evidence to show you that the US immigration system is inherently abusive and violent and racist.”

Tina Vasquez: So Amnesty’s reporting that more than 6,000 families were separated at the border, and that the Trump administration’s family separation policy, that was announced or confirmed by Jeff Sessions in, I believe it was, April 2018, actually started to get rolled out quietly in July of 2017. And so they think it impacted 15,000 individual people, and more than 6,000 families.

And that still is just an estimate. Because when the policy was being rolled out more quietly, with less oversight and without any sort of eyes on it publicly, there’s really no telling how many families were subjected to the policy, how many families remain separated, or how many children were disappeared into the system, and their parents as well, deported, to never be seen again.

It was a really shocking report, and that was just one part of it. You mentioned a lot of the abuses that they’re seeing. A great deal of attention is devoted to the treatment of transgender women, in particular, who are migrating to the US seeking asylum. Women in the report report being sexually abused and assaulted in detention, being detained alongside men, and really having no recourse, not receiving medical care for things that they need. It’s a wide swath of abuses that cover very, very vulnerable people.

JJ: One of the authors of the report indicated that in some of the situations, the behavior actually conforms to internationally recognized criteria for torture.

TV: Yeah. I also spoke to an immigration attorney who told me he’s representing some of the clients that were in the report, and that he certainly thinks of this as torture, and it falls along those lines and those definitions, because of the psychological damage that parents experience, not knowing where their children are for so long, not knowing if they will see them again. And, of course, there’s the damage that the children experience; some are reporting that could be irreparable.

If nothing else, what I hope that my reporting does is it makes it clear—and I’m really unapologetic in my stance on this as a journalist—I think we’re told that we’re supposed to be unbiased, but I can show you facts and evidence to show you that the US immigration system is inherently abusive and violent and racist. And so what you’re seeing is the products of that; it’s just being wielded by a different administration that is more overtly anti-immigrant, and more comfortable being overtly racist.

But that is always my starting point when doing immigration reporting. It doesn’t matter who’s in the White House; that’s the starting point, that detention is inhumane and violent, and so is the immigration system.


JJ: The role of the court system in constraining a White House’s cruelty has been thrown into relief, which is but one of the reasons the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was so disheartening. Law professor and author Marjorie Cohn explained just how disheartening.

Marjorie Cohn

Marjorie Cohn: “Kavanaugh would create a dangerous presumption in favor of a president who refuses to follow the law.”

Marjorie Cohn: It’s been clear from the start that the Republican leadership, in concert with Donald Trump, is going to ram this nomination through so that they can achieve a solid right-wing majority on the Supreme Court which will last for decades, and will reverse many of the rights that we hold dear.

The Republicans know that Kavanaugh would provide a reliable vote against immigrants, workers, voters, and gay and transgender people. He would deliver a dependable vote for employers, private property and church/state bonding. And they can rest assured that he would do his best to immunize Trump from criminal liability, and enable him to continue their mean-spirited, right-wing agenda. And this is more important to them than any judicial temperament, than any credible allegations of sexual assault, because the bottom-line issue—one of the most significant issues—is abortion rights, reproductive rights, and overturning Roe v. Wade, in addition to gay rights, and they have rationalized all of these other horrors to that end.

During the Bush administration’s so-called “War on Terror,” Kavanaugh almost always deferred to the president on executive power. Now, the Supreme Court, during the Bush administration, did check and balance the executive, the president, and said that federal courts have jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus petitions by Guantánamo detainees; they said that a US citizen who’s being held as an enemy combatant has due process rights to contest his detention, and they said that Bush’s military commissions violated the Geneva Conventions and the Federal Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Now, in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that Guantánamo detainees held as enemy combatants have the right to file habeas corpus petitions in US federal courts, to say, “I’m being unlawfully held.” But after Boumediene, Kavanaugh—on the Court of Appeals—did his best to try to neuter these habeas corpus rights that the Supreme Court had upheld in Boumediene, in case after case.

And also, Kavanaugh has a record of dangerous deference to the president. Notwithstanding the case of Jones v. Clinton, the Paula Jones case, which said that a president has to answer to at least a civil case—that didn’t involve a criminal case—Kavanaugh doesn’t think that a president should be bothered to answer to a civil case or a criminal case while he’s in office.

And under US v. Nixon, a unanimous Supreme Court said that Nixon had to turn over the tapes during the Watergate scandal, and that led to Nixon’s resignation. And yet, although that case, US v. Nixon, is a settled precedent, Kavanaugh has said he thinks it should be reconsidered.

And one of the most disturbing things, Janine, is that in a law review article, Kavanaugh wrote in 2014, he wrote that, yes, the Take Care Clause of the Constitution requires the president to enforce the law; it says that the president shall “take care” that the laws are faithfully executed. But then Kavanaugh went on to say, yes, the president has to enforce the law “at least unless the president deems the law unconstitutional, in which event the president can decline to follow the statute until a final court order says otherwise.”

So Kavanaugh would create a dangerous presumption in favor of a president who refuses to follow the law. That is very worrisome.


JJ: Calling out media’s tacit acceptance of an unacceptable status quo is a recurring theme on this show. Blogger Andrew Pulrang, cofounder of #CripTheVote, had thoughts on the 28th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and media’s “We’ve come a long way” type of coverage.

Andrew Pulrang

Andrew Pulrang: “One of the things about disability issues that’s sort of unique, is that details always matter with our issues.”

Andrew Pulrang: The last few years at the anniversary, we were constantly pointing out: Now it’s going to be 28 years, and the thing is, we’ve been hearing essentially the same story, in some vague form, for 28 years, which is that—and it’s not always explicit, but the implication—that, “Oh, these are a bunch of new requirements, and it’s going to take time.” Well, I would accept that even 10 years ago, right? I would even accept that that is in some sense new, in a grand historical span of the way these people have been building buildings.

But 28 years is long enough for people to figure this stuff out. And that includes buildings that in 1990 were already existing, that includes old downtowns with, you know, two steps up to the old store or soda shop or whatever.

But still, it’s been 28 years! There are solutions to these things. I think—with the exception of people who really did their jobs, and code enforcement officials who really did their jobs, which they do not always do—most other people kind of put it on the back burner. They kind of know what the ADA is, but they think, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s just too expensive to get a better place, or put a ramp in, or what have you, and I’m just going to wait until somebody complains.”

JJ: What are some things that you might want to put on the radar in terms of, “You might not know that this engages the disability community, but it actually is critical there.”

AP: OK, I’ll mention, first of all, one of the issues that we were hoping to work on under slightly different circumstances, but haven’t given up on, is the subminimum wage. This is where certain subgroups of disabled folks, it is legal to pay them less than minimum wage for their work, which has been a rehabilitation strategy, I guess you could call it, since the 1930s. We feel it’s long overdue to be ended. If you’re going to have people with disabilities, who maybe, you say, cannot work in a regular job, if you’re going to be doing stuff to have them work in workshops, or do special kinds of employment, why not just pay the minimum wage? You know what I’m saying? You’re already doing all this other stuff, just go ahead and pay the minimum wage. It’s become such an insult and so degrading and so unnecessary, I think, especially right now when the economy, in terms of jobs, is relatively good, comparatively, when there are alternatives for people to go to. So we want to do that.

Another issue is Medicaid and healthcare in general, but particularly right now Medicaid, because last year, part of the healthcare debate proposed massive, massive cuts to Medicaid. And a lot of people with disabilities depend on Medicaid, not just for their healthcare, as we tend to think of it, but for everyday personal care, just to live and function in their own homes. Cuts of the size that they were proposing would just not be sustainable, and we would probably lose a lot of those services.

Medicare for All is a fairly popular idea on the left. I think a lot of us share the general idea of universal healthcare along the lines of Medicaid… Medicare for All (see, I’m slipping right there), but for people with disabilities, frankly, we’d prefer Medicaid for All. Because Medicare doesn’t do home care. And frankly, a lot of people you run into, I’m not going to say everybody, but a lot of people aren’t really sure what’s the difference between Medicaid and Medicare. So you say, “Medicare for All, great!” I know that what they’re referring to is this general idea, but the details do not….

And that’s, frankly, one of the things about disability issues that’s sort of unique, is that details always matter with our issues. Whether it’s the difference between Medicare and Medicaid, or the difference between a half-inch step and no step at all, those little details that everybody looks at and says, “Well, does it really matter?” Well, it almost always really does matter, for us.


JJ: We talk a lot on this show about changing narratives, but the actual work of that is not as simple as writing an op-ed. It involves extended work in community. We talked about that with organizer and artist Teresa Basilio Gaztambide, director of Resilient Just Technologies. She was just back from Puerto Rico, where communications infrastructure was one of the ways the US government failed after hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Teresa Basilio Gaztambide

Teresa Basilio Gaztambide: “ I come from a background of storytelling myself, and seeing the importance of storytelling, not just to get our stories out there, but also as a way to build community.”

Teresa Basilio: I come from a background of storytelling myself, and seeing the importance of storytelling, not just to get our stories out there, but also as a way to build community. And so I moved into this work of technology, and I started Resilient Just Technologies, as a way to garner all of the things that I’ve learned, and the people that I’ve been fortunate to work with, to see if I could leverage all the different things that, for me, communications encompasses, which includes not just the communications, but media, political education, decentralized technology, storytelling, a whole host of things that are interconnected with the idea of communications. And so I was looking to leverage all of these different ideas for organizers on the front lines of racial, economic and climate justice movements, and so I’ve been working here in New York with New York City communities who are building local networks, wireless networks, for use in emergencies and for community organizing.

And so I really wanted to figure out how to use that knowledge and relationships and understandings to support my folks in Puerto Rico and the diaspora. I was in Vieques–I just got back a few days ago–I was in Vieques and in Comerío, two areas that, for a variety of reasons, have a long history, both of struggle, as well as of just really innovative ways of organizing communities. So I was there to talk to communities who were directly impacted by the loss of the communications infrastructure, following both hurricanes Irma and Maria. As we saw, or as we know, the communications system completely failed.

And so the purpose of these conversations–which are story circles, which is a cultural organizing tool that comes from the South here in the US–the idea is to really, in community, have a conversation about what happened to us: What was the impact of that? And then also talk about, what does a just communication system look like for our people? So really a visioning as well, and affirming the ways in which we’ve been able to organize already, and protect ourselves and our communities.

So part of the project—and my understanding of both community technology, as well as a just transition for Puerto Rico, means that our communities also need to have access to the infrastructure. I think it’s one thing to say, “We’re going to push the FCC and the telecoms to do the right thing.” It’s a whole other project to validate people’s self-determination by the ownership and governance of their infrastructure.

And so in a colonial situation, these things get very, very difficult. And so the conversation that I’ve been having with people there is, “What technology is available that can support a lot of these kinds of efforts, these self-determination efforts, that are happening throughout the island?” Most notably through the CAMs—the mutual aid centers that popped up, I think there’s maybe 11 or 12 of them, that popped up immediately after the storms, to do everything from feeding people to health services, acupuncture—I mean, you name it. They’ve been doing that work, and they continue to do that work, one year past the hurricane.


JJ: Communications work at the community level is Tracy Rosenberg’s gig as well. She’s executive director of Media Alliance, and the co-coordinator of the group Oakland Privacy.

Tracy Rosenberg

Tracy Rosenberg: “We can’t preemptively create a police state based on future crime. Can’t do it. That’s George Orwell.”

Tracy Rosenberg: We argue for local action. And the reason for that is when all of these Snowden revelations came out years ago, I, like many other people, and in my own work as a telecom advocate, I really saw online surveillance and spying as a huge problem; that’s sort of how I got into this venue.

It’s like, “What are we going to do? Is ‘Occupy the NSA’ a realistic strategy?” And the answer there is “No.” So the question became, “What can we really do in our own homes and our own communities?” So we started to investigate the links, like, “Where is the information traveling, how is it being collected, where is it being stored, and who has access to it?” And once you open that Pandora’s box, a lot of stuff comes falling out.

What we found, for example, in California, in Los Angeles, there was a lawsuit to get license plate-reader data from the LAPD, and what the LAPD said in court—this went all the way to the California Supreme Court—was, “We don’t have to release that data to you, because it’s evidence in a criminal proceeding.” And we said, “ A criminal proceeding on every single person who has driven through the city of Los Angeles for the past five years?” And they said, “Well, you know, it might be in some future case.”

And essentially what that means is, it is a premise that data collection goes on in order to convict us of a crime that has not yet happened, that we haven’t committed. And we need to turn that whole structure on its head, which is to say that data needs to serve a public safety purpose, or there is no reason to collect it. We can’t preemptively create a police state based on future crime. Can’t do it. That’s George Orwell.

My argument has always been—because, you know, it’s fair to say, “Well, what does transparency do? All it does is tell us the various ways in which we are being oppressed and tracked and hunted and profiled, but it doesn’t stop it.”

But the reality is, there’s such a battle being fought against transparency, and it’s so unwanted, both by law enforcement, and tech and private vendors, and the whole military/industrial complex that we have to deal with, because there is tremendous power in transparency.

Once it becomes clear, the scope of things, then a meaningful response of community control is possible. We can’t do it without transparency. So we have to start there, and fight for that to become the principle, and then the boundaries, the constraints and the limitations become a political battle that we can fight, and we can win.


JJ: It shouldn’t surprise that corporate media that fail to seriously, vigorously champion the rights of US citizens to privacy, to healthcare, to communications, should overlook the role of the US government in death and displacement in a place halfway around the world. Shireen Al-Adeimi works to call attention to, not only the catastrophic effects of the Saudi-led war on Yemen, but the US’s critical role in that war’s continuance. We asked her about coverage that suggests that Yemen is asking for “help” from the United States.

Shireen Al-Adeimi

Shireen Al-Adeimi: “We’re not asking for any saviors. We’re asking for people to stop intervening in Yemen.”

Shireen Al-Adeimi: It’s the complete opposite. It’s that we’ve only gotten to this point because of foreign intervention.

This was a civil war back in 2015; it would have started as a civil war, ended as a civil war. Yemen has seen many civil wars, and we’ve gone through it, and we’ve continued to rebuild after that, and it’s never gotten to these levels of humanitarian crisis.

We’re talking about the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. If it remained in Yemen as a civil war, the ports wouldn’t have been blockaded. People wouldn’t be starving. Every ten minutes, a child dies in Yemen from starvation and disease.

And so we’ve only gotten to this point because of foreign intervention. So I believe, and many Yemenis who are still fighting and resisting and waiting for all of this to be over in Yemen believe: let Yemenis solve their own problems, and we’re not asking for any saviors. We’re asking for people to stop intervening in Yemen.


JJ: Finally, one of CounterSpin’s favorite things to do is fill in history the corporate press leave out. Not just because its omission impoverishes, but because its addition can enrich. Here’s Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN.com, talking about his new book, The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America and the Politics of Patriotism.

Howard Bryant

Howard Bryant: “When it comes to the black athlete, though, what we want from them in exchange for the money is silence.”

Howard Bryant: Absolutely, it starts with Paul Robeson, and of course people don’t realize that he played in the National Football League. He played football before he was the great baritone, before he was the great singer and the great actor and the great activist. And one of the only reasons that he left professional football was because the National Football League was integrated, and then it chose segregation, until 1946. So when he played in 1921 and 1922, football was integrated, and then by 1923, no blacks were allowed to play in the NFL for another quarter century.

It wasn’t just Robeson that I gravitated toward when tracing this Heritage, it was also the fact that the African-American athletes’ political roots did not start with black issues. It started with Jewish issues. It started with World War II. It started with American athletes being asked to defend America against Nazism, and Jewish athletes asking for solidarity against the Berlin Olympics in 1936, and also, of course, asking Jackie Robinson to denounce Paul Robeson in 1949, in support of America during the Cold War.

So it wasn’t until much later, it wasn’t until you had Robinson in that testimony, receiving all of the attention for his denouncing Paul Robeson, but also inside of that testimony, he talked about inequality and police brutality and mistreatment of African-Americans and fairness, and all of these things that would become the foundations of this Heritage. It started with Robinson, but not along racial lines, to begin with; it started with defending America.

JJ: I find Robinson’s HUAC testimony to be maybe the most moving part of the book, and such a clear—first of all, a thing that’s so misremembered.

HB: Completely. We chose to emphasize the parts that made America feel good. Which was, “See, Jackie Robinson is a real American, because he denounced Paul Robeson, the bad Negro Communist.” I don’t even think we misremembered everything; we just chose to ignore it. And when I started to read that testimony, when I was doing the research, I was wondering, “Did I know this?” I think I kind of knew this, but maybe I really didn’t, either.

JJ: Right.

HB: And that’s what we do. We decide to omit. One of the great favorite colleagues and the great writer David Maraniss once said to me that, “History writes people out of the story, and it’s our job to write them back in,” and I think that Robinson testimony is something that needed to be written back in.

JJ: Absolutely.

Well, history’s moving along, and owners and teams are aware that integration is happening, but I like how you note that this idea that became popular, and still holds sway, that, “Oh, they’re only looking for the best players,” that that was fiction, always. And there’s this note that Earl Wilson, when Earl Wilson was signed to the Boston Red Sox, the scouting report described him as a “well-mannered colored boy, not too black, pleasant to talk to.”

So you have this story of integration. But then, black athletes are making money—and some of them are making a tremendous amount of money—and so that gives them a bigger megaphone, and at the same time, more calls not to use it.

HB: For caution, absolutely, and I think that’s this tension that the black athlete has that even other black entertainers don’t have. Why are we now talking about Oprah Winfrey as a potential presidential candidate? Because she has money. And we talk about Mark Cuban as a presidential candidate or Donald Trump as president or Michael Bloomberg as the mayor of New York, because they were all rich.

When it comes to the black athlete, though, what we want from them in exchange for the money is silence. We don’t want to hear from them. We want them to be quiet. We want them to shut up and play, or shut up and dribble.

And this is the one area where money is not affording you a bigger voice. And that goes back to this very interesting relationship that we tend to have with our sports figures. That there’s an ownership to them, that they don’t necessarily get to be citizens. Their job is to entertain us.

And I think that’s one of the areas where this Heritage has become so polarizing in a lot of ways, is this feeling of ownership is now colliding with the fact that you have this new generation of black athletes—post–Trayvon Martin, post-Ferguson, post–Eric Garner and Sandra Bland—who are now citizens, especially thanks to the prevalence of social media. They’re watching these viral videos, just like the rest of us are, on YouTube, and they’re looking at this dashcam footage.

And one of the things that one of the players, Tavon Austin, had said, who played for the St. Louis Rams, when he came out in 2014 with the “hands up don’t shoot gesture” before a game, was:

It’s hard for me to go back to my community, knowing that this is going on, knowing that I’ve got a platform, and all my friends and family are looking at me, going, “People listen to you and you’re not saying anything.”

That’s the Heritage.

JJ: That was Howard Bryant. Before that, you heard Shireen Al-Adeimi, Tracy Rosenberg, Teresa Basilio, Andrew Pulrang, Marjorie Cohn and Tina Vasquez. All just some of the voices it’s been our honor to bring you this year on CounterSpin.


And that’s it for this year’s Best of CounterSpin for 2018.

CounterSpin is produced by FAIR, the national media watch group based in New York. If you missed any of our shows this year, you can find them on FAIR’s website, FAIR.org. That’s also the place to join the Action Alert Network or sign up for the newsletter Extra!. Or to show support for the work, if you’re so inclined.

The show is engineered by Erika Rosato. I’m Janine Jackson. As ever, we thank you for listening to CounterSpin.








This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.