Mojo - October 2009

Open Letter to Michael Burnham & New York Times

| Wed Oct. 21, 2009 1:25 PM EDT

From: Josh Harkinson
Sent: Wednesday, October 21, 2009 12:49 PM
To: Michael Burnham
Cc: James Surowiecki; Shawn Zeller; Mary Esch; Clark Hoyt
Subject: Request for Correction

Dear Michael,

As a close follower of all things related to the US Chamber of Commerce, I've admired your recent reporting on how the group set its climate change policies. In particular, I appreciated your October 9th story in Greenwire and the New York Times in which you quoted an anonymous source who said, contrary to the Chamber's claims, that its policies are ultimately set by its staff in concert with large donors. Your work built upon a similar story I'd reported two days earlier. So it's with regret that I write to point out an inaccuracy in your more recent work and ask for a correction.

As you may be aware, on October 13th I noted that the US Chamber of Commerce does not have the 3 million members that it claims. At a press conference the next day, the Chamber admitted—as it has on a few other rare occasions—that it actually has 300,000 members. Even so, you have continued to report the 3 million number. On October 16th, in a story reprinted in the Times, you wrote that the Chamber has "more than 3 million members—a figure that reflects dues-paying executives and local chambers of commerce."

While I appreciate your effort to explain the meaning of the "3 million" claim, your clarification is unfortunately wrong and misleading. It would more accurately and cumbersomely read: "a figure that reflects dues-paying executives and non-dues-paying members of local chambers of commerce." In other words, the US Chamber is dubiously claiming the members of local chambers as its own. In a hope that you and other reporters will abandon this kind of clunky and ridiculous qualifier in favor of simply using the real membership number, here again are ten reasons why the members of local chambers are in no way members of the national group:

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Torture Investigation Hindering Torture Transparency?

| Wed Oct. 21, 2009 1:11 PM EDT

If you want accountability, you can't have transparency.

That's essentially what government lawyers told the American Civil Liberties Union in a letter [PDF] filed with Judge Alvin Hellerstein in federal district court in New York on Monday. The letter is the latest development in an ACLU lawsuit that aims to force the Department of Defense and other government entities to disclose documents relating to the treatment, death, and extraordinary rendition of detainees.

On September 2, Judge Hellerstein ordered the CIA to search records within its inspector general's office for documents relating to the destruction of videotapes of illegal interrogations and the "persons and reasons behind their destruction." The government's latest letter informs the court that the CIA found some information that should rightfully be disclosed under to the Freedom of Information Act—but it still couldn't release any of it. The special prosecutor appointed by the Bush administration to investigate the destruction of the videotapes has asserted that the documents are exempt from disclosure, because their release could impair his ability to conduct his investigation.

The move by the special prosecutor, John Durham, in support of withholding the documents "could delay transparency," says Alex Abdo, one of the ACLU lawyers working on the case. Prosecutors often use this particular FOIA exemption, Abdo says—sometimes with good cause and sometimes to justify neverending internal inquiries that prevent any outside groups from obtaining evidence of government wrongdoing. If there's eventually accountability for the people responsible for torture and the destruction of the tapes, that might be an acceptable trade-off, Abdo says.

But without more information, it's hard for the ACLU to tell whether Durham is justified in claiming that more transparency could harm his investigation. The government is due to file a more detailed explanation of what it's withholding and why next Tuesday. We'll know more then.

It Gets Worse for Hank Paulson

| Wed Oct. 21, 2009 12:56 PM EDT

Just how extensive were the ties that bound Hank Paulson, Bush's Treasury secretary, to his former employer, Goldman Sachs?

On Tuesday, two watchdog groups told Mother Jones that Paulson could have broken ethics laws by meeting secretly with Goldman's board of directors in Moscow months before he obtained an ethics waiver allowing him to work on issues affecting the investment bank. That incident was reported by Andrew Ross Sorkin in his new book on the financial meltdown; today Felix Salmon points out another very questionable episode:

If all that weren’t enough to deal with, [Lehman president Bart] McDade had just had a baffling conversation with [CEO Dick] Fuld, who informed him that Paulson had called him directly to suggest that the firm open up its books to Goldman Sachs. The way Fuld described it, Goldman was effectively advising Treasury. Paulson was also demanding a thorough review of Lehman’s confidential numbers, courtesy of Goldman Sachs.

McDade, though never much of a Goldman conspiracy theorist, found Fuld’s report discomfiting, but moments later was on the phone with Harvey Schwartz, Goldman’s head of capital markets. "I’m following up at Hank’s request," he began.

After another perplexing conversation, McDade walked down the hall and told Alex Kirk to immediately call Schwartz at Goldman, instructing him to set up a meeting and getting them to sign a confidentiality agreement.

"This is coming directly from Paulson," he explained.

As Felix explains, this latest Sorkin anecdote looks even worse for Paulson than the clandestine meeting in Moscow: Paulson is basically "forcing Lehman to open its books fully to a direct competitor, for no obvious reason." There's no evidence that Treasury's lawyers signed off on the move, either. Felix says that there's more than material out there to prompt a congressional investigation of Paulson. I'm asking around to see if there are any members of Congress who agree.

The Death Penalty's Big Tab

| Wed Oct. 21, 2009 11:06 AM EDT

A new study from the Death Penalty Information Center, "Smart on Crime," reports that halting executions could save millions of dollars. This is no small consideration for cash-strapped state governments—especially if the large sums they spend aren't delivering greater public safety. The study reports that a national poll of police chiefs rate the death penalty at the bottom of their list of crime-fighting priorities: "The officers do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder, and they rate it as one of most inefficient uses of taxpayer dollars in fighting crime. Criminologists concur that the death penalty does not effectively reduce the number of murders."

Nationwide, death sentences have declined by 60 percent since 2000 and executions by nearly as much. Keeping 3,300 inmates on death row is very expensive, as are prosecutions seeking the death penalty because the legal process is so long and complex. In many instances, people sentenced to death end up sitting in prison for many years before ever getting close to facing execution—and some never reach that point at all. From the report:
 

Obama: Crazy Like a Fox?

| Wed Oct. 21, 2009 10:35 AM EDT

In a column for PoliticsDaily.com, David Corn ponders the White House-Fox feud and observes that the Obama crew might be wasting too much firepower on the conservative network. After noting that it's ridiculous for Fox to deny it's a rightwing media outfit, he points out:

Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes have the right to make Fox as right-wingish as they desire. Their network can provide a platform for a host who calls the president a "racist." It can broadcast interviews in which a conservative host asks a conservative guest softball questions. (See Hannity.) It can elect to focus on (real or imagined) foibles of Democrats more than those of Republicans. It can beat the drums for war or recruit foot soldiers for anti-Obama rallies. And it can repeatedly—and laughably—assert that it's "fair and balanced." But polite society doesn't have to accept any or all of this.

Neither does the White House. But that doesn't mean the Obama administration has to make a federal case over Fox.

In recent days, the White House has let loose its big guns. On Sunday shows these past two weekends—as Fox has duly noted—top Obama officials blasted the network. First, White House Communications Director Anita Dunn slammed Fox as "opinion journalism masquerading as news." Then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said that the other cable news networks shouldn't be "following Fox." Senior White House aide David Axelrod declared that Fox is "not a news organization." On Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs accused Fox of skewing its coverage to the right for the sake of profits. And the White House has stopped providing guests to "Fox News Sunday." Dunn told The New York Times, "We're going to treat them like we treat an opponent." Now Washington is abuzz over which side will blink first.

Corn writes that it's unclear if the Obama White House has attacked Fox as part of some master political strategy craftily designed to whip up its own base and isolate conservative opposition in a Fox corner.

It looks to me that the Obama-ites are in a zone somewhere between following a grand strategy and winging it. After all, it was only a few weeks ago that Axelrod was meeting with Ailes. And during the campaign, Obama had a secret confab with Ailes and pounded him for running a network that was practically equating him with terrorists. So there has been a shift from trying to deal with Fox to treating it as a major adversary. (MoveOn.org, the liberal advocacy group, has entered the fray, urging its millions of members to pressure Congressional Democrats to stay off Fox.)

Yet whatever Obama and his aides are attempting, they're doing it with a heavy hand. That's probably a mistake. Fox is a distraction, an irritant. It's true that Beck has been scoring boffo ratings—topping 3 million watchers on special nights—which is good for cable but still not a gigantic audience in a country this size. Tom DeLay had seven times or so that amount of viewers when he did his "Wild Thing" on "Dancing With the Stars." (There's no solid figure for Rush Limbaugh's audience, but a decent estimate is that he draws about 14 million listeners a week.)

Rather than react in a huffy manner to Fox—which provides an alternative reality to outraged conservatives who feel lost in Obama's America—the White House ought to opt for what I'd call strategic derision. Good-natured belittling—but belittling, all the same—would go further than indignation, even if the indignation can be justified. That is, don't demolish Fox, demean it. Gibbs should chuckle when a Fox correspondent asks a Foxian question. After all, if Fox is not to be taken seriously, don't take it seriously. And by all means, don't send Obama officials on Fox shows. But if a White House official is asked about this, he or she should reply with dismissive humor, not anger. ("We'd rather be reading the Senate Finance Committee's health care reform bill.") Obama is well-skilled when it comes to deploying a light-but-cutting touch. That ought to be terms of engagement for his aides involved in the Fox skirmish. Fox is not important enough to be treated as Public Enemy No. 1.

Bashing the conservative network could rally Obama's base. But Obama, for good or bad, did promise to rise above partisan sentiment and the game playing of the Washington political-media circus. With a clever use of strategic derision, Obama and his aides could do this and still stick it to the network. Fox is just not worth a game of chicken.

Media watchers will be staying tuned to this channel to see if the White House, with its attack on Ailes & Co., turns out to be crazy like a fox.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

 

MoveOn Targets Toyota's Chamber Membership

| Wed Oct. 21, 2009 10:32 AM EDT

The liberal activist group MoveOn is pressuring Toyota—maker of the eco-status-symbol Prius— to leave the embattled US Chamber of Commerce.

With the Chamber under fire for its opposition to climate change legislation, advocates for action are pushing for more environmentally conscious businesses to quit the group, or at least publicly distance themselves from the Chamber's rhetoric. (Another business, Mohawk Fine Paper, left the group yesterday.)

MoveOn is asking members who own Priuses (Prii?) to send in photos asking Toyota to resign its membership. So far, they've gathered more than 770 images, which they plan to deliver to the company's New York headquarters and dealerships around the country.

"There are a lot of people out there who really did buy a Toyota saying, 'I feel better doing business with this company because of their green image,'" Steven Biel, MoveOn's clean energy campaign director, told Mother Jones. "Our members who own Priuses or other fuel efficient Toyotoa automobiles find this really outrageous, it just doesn't make sense to them."

More photos of pissed-off drivers can be found here.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 21, 2009

Wed Oct. 21, 2009 8:09 AM EDT

Retired Staff Sgt. Luke Wilson jokes that audience members can play with his prosthetic leg if they want to during a "town hall meeting" with Soldiers of 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, during a visit by wounded warriors participating in Operation Proper Exit, Oct. 15, at Camp Ramadi, Iraq. (US Army photo via army.mil.)

Need To Read: October 21, 2009

Wed Oct. 21, 2009 7:58 AM EDT

Today's must-reads:

Get more stuff like this: Follow me on twitter! David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets, as does MoJo blogger Kate Sheppard. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

Yes Men Descend on Capitol Hill

| Tue Oct. 20, 2009 6:21 PM EDT

After creating quite the spectacle at the Press Club yesterday, the Yes Men were on Capitol Hill on Tuesday showing off their Survivaball suits to unsuspecting senators and passersby.

The Survivaball, as they describe it, is "the stupidest costume known to humankind," intended to "highlight the absurdity of the Senate's slow pace in responding to climate change." They market the climate-change survival suits to potential customers as a "gated community for one."

Today's activities apparently included harassing Arlen Spector (D-Pa.), a senator who has been on the fence about passing climate change legislation this year. From their blog:

At another point, a fleet of Survivaballs chased Senator Arlen Spector outside the Hart Senate Office Building. "Anyone as wishy-washy on climate issues as the Senator, who thinks that clean coal is an answer, needs a Survivaball," said Ross Finlayson, a top Surviva-model involved in the chase. "Maybe he ran away because he knew that even he couldn't afford one."

VIDEO: There's No Recovery Here

| Tue Oct. 20, 2009 4:26 PM EDT

Big Finance may be breathing a sigh of relief these days, but what about the rest of the country? With foreclosures at a record high and the national unemployment rate at 9.8 percent, I went to talk with some of the people still waiting for their recovery, their bailout, at a massive homeowner relief event in the San Francisco Bay Area. Organized by the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, the "Save the Dream" tour offers many people a last-gasp hope at saving their homes—and for many, their American Dream.

Watch the video below to meet them and hear their stories.