Political MoJo

What the Media Finds Funny

Thu May 4, 2006 4:21 PM EDT

Stephen Colbert's recent skewering of the president and the press at the White House Correspondent's Dinner prompted a number of journalists to declare that Colbert "just wasn't that funny." (Lloyd Grove suggested that the lampoon had "bombed badly.") But while mainstream outlets have all but ignored or belittled the event, web writers have rushed to Colbert's defense. Yesterday Salon wrote a cover story on the media's efforts to sweep Colbert under the rug—and got more traffic for this than for any story since breaking the Abu Ghraib torture photos—while the liberal blogosphere has been talking about him nonstop.

The disdain for Colbert's remarks, most of which touched on issues that were all perfectly valid and matters of public record (NSA spying, the energy crisis, global warming, FEMA and Joseph Wilson), raises the question: what does the media find funny? Apparently, it's when President Bush makes fun of those missing WMDs. According to Alternet:

It occurred on March 24, 2004. The setting: The 60th annual black-tie dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association (with many print journalists there as guests) at the Washington Hilton. On the menu: surf and turf. Attendance: 1,500. The main speaker: President George W. Bush, one year into the Iraq war, with 500 Americans already dead. That night, in the middle of his stand-up routine before the (perhaps tipsy) journos, Bush showed on a screen behind him some candid on-the-job photos of himself. One featured him gazing out a window, as Bush narrated, smiling: "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere."
Since Bush's parody—which received none of the media backlash that Colbert's did—1,900 more Americans have died in Iraq. Yet two years later Colbert points out indisputable failures of the administration and it's widely considered "unfunny."

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The War Against Cola...

| Thu May 4, 2006 3:04 PM EDT

Apparently all those irresponsible rumors about the soft-drink industry being totally omnipotent were overstated, as the three major soda companies have recently and voluntarily agreed to remove "sweetened drinks like Coke, Pepsi, and iced teas" from school cafeterias, in response to the growing number of lawsuits and pending state legislation that would ban soda from schools for health reasons. And here we thought that the soda lobby could prevail against these legislators forever. Guess not.

On the other hand, maybe it's too early to count Big Cola out. The Times story notes that "the beverage industry said its school sales would not be affected because it expected to replace sugary drinks with other ones." Graham Amazon, med student and intrepid blogger, thinks that the juice these companies will now peddle heavily in schools will pose a new problem, partly because everyone thinks juice is healthy—even when it's not juice, but sugar that tastes like juice. This would all seem sort of silly if it wasn't making everyone unhealthy and driving up our medical bills.

Lobbying Reform Is a Sham

| Thu May 4, 2006 2:39 PM EDT

So Republicans in the House passed a "lobbying reform" bill today. What kind of lobbying reform? Here's how the Times describes it:

The new bill would require lobbyists to disclose more of their activities, increase financial penalties for violations and require lawmakers and their aides to attend ethics training.

It also aims to discourage earmarks by requiring House members who write spending bills to disclose them, a move lauded by fiscal conservatives who complain that earmarks waste taxpayer money and drive up the cost of legislation.That second paragraph can be dispatched rather quickly; "earmarks" amount to a very, very tiny fraction of government spending (about 0.1 percent in 2006). That "reform" won't amount to anything major. So the first paragraph there seems to be the nut of it: Congress will crack down on lobbyists. But Democrats, who "denounced the measure as a sham," have long argued that lobbyists are only half the problem. And they're totally right. The actual members of Congress, after all, first had to open the door for Jack Abramoff and his ilk before any corruption could take place.

Most importantly, the bill does absolutely nothing about the procedural abuses that Republicans have devised in Congress to stifle debate and create a "spoils" system for their corporate funders. (Susan Milligan's three-part series on this subject is invaluable.) As the Democratic analysis of the bill notes, "A legislative process that does not allow open debate and provide opportunity for amendment on legislation, and instead allows small groups of House leaders and private interests to write the bills, is a process vulnerable to corruption and improper influence from lobbyists." That's really the main issue, and on this point the reform bill is utterly silent.

Instead, the bill focused on minor rules governing gifts and the like. But as a number of experts who testified before the House and Senate noted, Congress already has a number of rules governing gifts and lobbying law and ethics violations. Unfortunately, they've been inadequately enforced, especially since Denny Hastert helped push through a rule in 2005 making it easier for Republicans to block ethics investigations. And so long as effective oversight is nowhere to be found, minor new rule changes won't make all that much of a difference.

Taliban not classified as terrorist organization

| Wed May 3, 2006 12:48 PM EDT

The Raw Story reports that the United States and its coaltion allies do not classify the organization as a terrorist group. According to State Department documents, the Taliban has not been classified as terrorist for the past six years. The Taliban provided safe haven for Osame bin Laden and al Qaeda, and is currently in southern Afghanistan, intimidating villagers and ambushing vehicles.

No reason is given for the omission of the Taliban as a terrorist organization. State department officials describe the group as "an insurgent organization that will periodically use terrorism to carry out its operations." Using George W. Bush's definition, this would make the Taliban terrorists.

Though it may not be relevant, it is worth nothing that since the mid-90's, the United States has negotiated on and off with the Taliban for various oil pipeline deals; one such negotiation was taking place as late as 2001.

American Dream Harder Than Ever to Reach

Tue May 2, 2006 6:14 PM EDT

A new report by the Center for American Progress looks at economic mobility in the United States, and finds that children's potential for success in this country is very closely tied to the financial status of their parents. In particular, children from low-income families have only a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of the income distribution in their lifetime, while children of the rich have a 22 percent chance of doing so.

Other key findings:

Gang Members in the Military

| Tue May 2, 2006 3:48 PM EDT

Here's a fascinating piece in the Chicago Sun-Times about how gangs such as Chicago's Latin Kings and Vice Lords are sending members into the U.S. military—some of them making it as far as Iraq. Only a very small fraction of soldiers are gang members, and few commit crimes while on base, but some observers seem to be worried that many will eventually leave and then use their training and access to military equipment to become "deadly urban warriors" when they return home.

[Scott] Barfield[, a Defense Department gang detective] said gangs are encouraging their members to join the military to learn urban warfare techniques they can teach when they go back to their neighborhoods.

"Gang members are telling us in the interviews that their gang is putting them in," he said…

Barfield said he has documented gang-affiliated soldiers' involvement in drug dealing, gunrunning and other criminal activity off base. More than a year ago, a soldier tied to a white supremacy group was caught trying to ship an assault rifle from Iraq to the United States in pieces, he said.Part of the reason the military has been letting in so many gang members is that it's had to lower its standards; recruits are increasingly getting waivers for criminal backgrounds, and recruiters are told that it's now okay to accept people with gang tattoos, so long as there are fewer than five. And, of course, part of the reason that standards have dropped so low is that the military's bogged down in a pointless and deadly war that no one wants to fight. But at least we'll have some great urban violence to show for it.

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How to Conquer Canada

| Tue May 2, 2006 3:32 PM EDT

Michael Byers, a professor in British Columbia, writes in the Toronto Star about a little-known plan to increase cooperation between the Canadian and American militaries:

They seem harmless enough at first: two mid-level Canadian Forces officers and a mild-mannered bespectacled American consultant explaining the work of their 48-member Bi-National Planning Group to audiences across Canada. Their professed goal is to improve co-operation between the Canadian and U.S. militaries, the better to defend both countries.

Yet a close reading of their final report released last month, reveals that their actual intent — or at least the intent of the politicians who set their mandate — is far from benign. They seek nothing less than the complete integration of Canada's military, security and foreign policy into the decision-making and operating systems of the U.S. …

Today, two Canadian elections later, the authors of the BPG report can hardly believe their luck. Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have only a minority government, but there is little doubt he desires closer ties with Washington.Really? What? Looking more closely, it's hard to say what will actually come of this. Certainly there are degrees of cooperation being considered. At the very lowest level, the BPG report recommends that the two countries expand the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which was established during the Cold War to watch for threats from the air, in order to include maritime surveillance. (And yes, the idea that this continent is in danger of an attack by sea seems ludicrous, but there you go.)

The BPG's most radical proposal, however, is to put the Canadian military essentially under U.S. command. Does that mean we could use Canadian troops whenever election time rolled around and a failed president needed to topple some "rogue" regime somewhere? It's not clear, but it sure sounds that way. Of course, that could make any sort of U.S. military action more difficult if the average Canadian voter—who appears a bit less militaristic than your average American voter—suddenly has a right to sound off on who's invading whom. Either way, it's kind of a weird development.

Same-Sex Couples and Immigration

| Tue May 2, 2006 3:03 PM EDT

It's not entirely surprising, but Human Rights Watch points out in a new report that current immigration law discriminates rather seriously against gays and lesbians. There are at least 40,000 same-sex couples in the United States in which one partner is a citizen or permanent resident and the other a foreign national. But in those relationships, the U.S. citizen isn't allowed to sponsor his or her partner for entry into the country in the way that virtually all heterosexual couples can:

For more than 50 years, family reunification has been a stated and central goal of U.S. immigration policy. Immigration law places a priority on allowing citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their spouses and close relatives for entry into the U.S. Although the system remains imperfect, riddled with delays that rising anti-immigrant sentiment only intensifies, U.S. citizens and their foreign heterosexual partners can easily claim spousal status and the immigration rights that it brings.

U.S. citizens with foreign lesbian or gay partners, however, find that their relationship is considered non-existent under federal law. … Based on interviews and surveys with dozens of binational same-sex couples across the United States and around the world, the report documents the pressures and ordeals that lack of legal recognition imposes on lesbian and gay families. Couples described abuse and harassment by immigration officials. Some partners told stories of being deported from the United States and separated from their partners. Many couples, forced to live in different countries or continents, endure financial as well as emotional strain in keeping their relationships together.
A number of transnational same-sex couples end up in exile in one the 19 countries that actually allow same-sex couples to immigrate. Interestingly—or depressingly; take your pick—the report notes that a good deal of immigration policy in the United States has been motivated by fears of sexuality for quite some time. Up until 1990, the U.S. barred foreign-born gays and lesbians from entering the country, a policy that started in the McCarthy era. It still imposes a ban on H.I.V.-positive individuals from entering the country—one of the only industrialized countries to do so—despite the fact that there's not really a compelling public health reason to do so. And now this, which, sadly, isn't likely to be corrected anytime soon.

The Decline of Workplace Safety

| Tue May 2, 2006 2:35 PM EDT

I probably should've linked to this a few days ago, but Jordan Barab had an outstanding post on Worker's Memorial Day about the dismal state of workplace safety standards in the United States. Workplace deaths have risen to 6,000 a year—that's 15 every day; serious injuries are going underreported; negligent employers are getting off lightly; and the Bush administration continues to gut MSHA and OSHA, the two agencies responsible for workplace safety. This part is particularly damning:

Although rarely used, OSHA has the ability to criminally prosecute employers when a willful violation of a standard leads to the death of a worker. ("Willful" means violations in which the employer knew that workers' lives were being put at risk.)

OSHA was embarrassed in 2003 by a New York Times investigation that revealed that from 1982 to 2002, OSHA declined to seek criminal prosecution in 93 percent of more than 1200 cases where a worker was killed due to a willful violation of an OSHA standard. At least 70 employers willfully violated safety laws again, resulting in scores of additional deaths. Even these repeat violators were rarely prosecuted. Fewer than 20 employers have ever gone to jail despite well over a thousand cases involving work deaths that involve "willful" OSHA violations over the past twenty years.Indeed, most of the time OSHA merely chooses to slap fines on willfully negligent employers; but the maximum fine only comes to $70,000 (and fines rarely reach even that)—hardly enough to persuade billion-dollar businesses to just think a bit harder about worker safety. Barab notes that state and local prosecutors have tried to exact stricter punishments, but, of course, unless the federal government steps in, businesses will frequently be able to move to whatever part of the country has the laxest standards and the gentlest juries. But, of course, the federal government won't step in so long as a wholly-owned subsidiary of big agribusiness, etc., is sitting in the White House.

White House trying to get suit against NSA thrown out of court

| Mon May 1, 2006 8:18 PM EDT

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, filed a class action suit against the government at the end of January, claiming that AT&T's alleged cooperation with the National Security Agency in eavesdropping on Americans violates Constitutionally guaranteed free speech and privacy rights. AT&T has not responded to the suit, but on Friday, the U.S. Justice Department filed a Statement of Interest, saying it intends to intervene and have the suit tossed out of court. The government plans to invoke the State Secrets privilege.

According to the EFF:

The lawsuit alleges that AT&T Corp. has opened its key telecommunications facilities and databases to direct access by the NSA and/or other government agencies, thereby disclosing to the government the contents of its customers' communications as well as detailed communications records about millions of its customers, including the lawsuit's class members.

The lawsuit also alleges that AT&T has given the government unfettered access to its over 300 terabyte "Daytona" database of caller information -- one of the largest databases in the world. Moreover, by opening its network and databases to wholesale surveillance by the NSA, EFF alleges that AT&T has violated the privacy of its customers and the people they call and email, as well as broken longstanding communications privacy laws.

The lawsuit also alleges that AT&T continues to assist the government in its secret surveillance of millions of Americans. EFF, on behalf of a nationwide class of AT&T customers, is suing to stop this illegal conduct and hold AT&T responsible for its illegal collaboration in the government's domestic spying program, which has violated the law and damaged the fundamental freedoms of the American public.