From African-American voter suppression to the U.S. role in Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, Adam Johnson of the Los Angeles Times and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting breaks down the under-covered stories of 2017 (part 1 of 2)
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. 2017 was a year in which things like Donald Trump’s tweets or undisclosed meetings between Trump campaign officials and Russians made front-page news. Now, no matter where you stand on the importance of those stories, inevitably, many important issues were lost in the shuffle.
Well, my next guest has just written a piece going through some of the stories that we may have missed in 2017. The story is called “The Top 10 Under-Covered News Stories of 2017,” and it’s by Adam Johnson, a media analyst for Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, and cohost of the podcast Citations Needed. Adam, before we go through your list, your just overall reflections on the news of the year and how some important stories were lost in the mix.
A. JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean, obviously, the day-to-day kind of breathless coverage of … I mean, I guess you’re obviously a Russiagate skeptic. I would sort of put myself generally in that category. If the president did, indeed, collude with a foreign government, that’s obviously a huge story, but I think the issue has always been one of proportionality. It’s not that these stories aren’t important. It’s that they really do just consume the bulk of the daily front-page coverage, what’s trending on Twitter, the latest kind of Mueller probe tea-leaf reading. I think all that’s fine. I just think it sort of really does consume the bulk of our attention.
What I tried to do with this piece, and what I try to do with my editor at the LA Times, is sort of try to highlight news that really wasn’t covered that I thought was important to the extent it needed to be covered. And to remind people that the world … there are other things going on. When you have the leading nominal liberal network, like MSNBC, that is basically just a 24-hour Russia commercial … I think that it’s things like the J20 prosecution where two journalists and 200 protestors were facing 10 to 65 years in prison for the simple crime of being in the proximity of a few broken Starbucks windows, things like the border deaths in Mexico, and Trump’s escalations of the wars in Iraq and Syria as well as the rising death toll there. These things were really not covered. To say nothing, of course, about anything dealing with Palestine. MSNBC never covers Palestine. I didn’t mention it here because that’s sort of an evergreen story of not being covered.
AARON MATÉ: Right.
A. JOHNSON: Until last week’s Jerusalem story, for example, MSNBC had gone two years and only mentioned Palestine one time, so their priorities, to me, are entirely out of whack.
AARON MATÉ: In two years of coverage, MSNBC had not mentioned Palestine and the Palestinians except for … Wait, just once?
A. JOHNSON: Yeah, one … No, I’m sorry, twice.
AARON MATÉ: That’s right, twice. Yeah.
A. JOHNSON: It was two. It was a total of nine minutes. From November of 2015 to November of 2016 … or sorry, sorry, November 2017, I went through, I did a pretty exhaustive search, and found two segments on Palestine, both of which were aired in the afternoon, both of which were comprised of about nine minutes of coverage, out of over one million minutes of coverage. So yeah, I mean, again, I think the issue with the Russia thing is always an issue of proportionality.
AARON MATÉ: Adam, did they cover Israel but just not mention Palestine and the Palestinians?
A. JOHNSON: Yeah. I categorized it by actually mentioning Palestine, yeah. There had to be a meaningful reference to Palestine. Keep in mind that the only reason they started covering it this month was because of Trump’s Jerusalem move, which they viewed through a partisan lens. In their defense, they did sort of bring on more Palestinians this month, but it’s not … They don’t typically cover the issue unless there’s some, obviously, American involvement. But the idea that America’s always involved in the permanent occupation of Palestine for going on 50, 70 years, depending how you define it, is, I think, a scandal for the sort of nominal liberal network, right?
AARON MATÉ: Right. This gets to the issue of also partisan utility. Often, issues like this…
A. JOHNSON: Yes.
AARON MATÉ: … like Palestine, like Yemen, are not covered unless there’s some partisan use for them. Before we get to that, we’ll get back to Yemen, let’s go through your list one by one. You start of the list with the disenfranchisement of African-American voters.
A. JOHNSON: Yeah. It should be a really huge scandal, but efforts by Republicans to slowly disenfranchise African-Americans over the past few years … It really started with the wave of the Tea Party in 2010. Of course, it always had been going on forever, right? It never really stopped, but that was really when it started the uptick because the Republicans started taking over House legislators pretty systematically. As the Republicans began to take over, they started passing really draconian voter ID laws where they started, basically, purging people from the voter rolls.
Some people have been trying to highlight this, and it just seems like it’s one of those things where it’s so sort of baked into the cake of this country, there’s not really a lot of attention paid to it, and there’s not really an inciting incident where you say, “Okay, this happened today.” But the amount of disenfranchised voters in major swing states like Wisconsin was, I think, a huge scandal that didn’t really get enough coverage. People have tried to sort of highlight, and MSNBC has sort of mentioned it a few times, but generally, it’s just not a sexy story, so we put it number one on the list.
AARON MATÉ: Right. The reporter who I think has done the most work on this is Ari Berman, first of The Nation, now he’s at Mother Jones.
A. JOHNSON: Yeah.
AARON MATÉ: He’s just been dogging on the story. Now, obviously, I am a Russiagate skeptic, but whenever I see Ari Berman’s stories, I wonder what if the media put just half the resources that it puts into Russiagate, and covering all these Russiagate pieces, into voter suppression?
A. JOHNSON: Yeah. Of course, they would argue that you could do both. In theory, that’s possible, but in practice, that almost never happens. What I want to be careful to do is I want to be careful not to use these stories as part of a broader proxy war against the Russiagate issue, because I think that’s kind of cynical. I think it is useful as a point of reference, right? But I want to be clear that at least I’m not saying that you can’t both care about Russia and these stories. I just think that, manifestly, as far as the percentage of coverage from liberal outlets, that that ends up being the case.
AARON MATÉ: Fair enough, Adam. I’ll just say that I’m generally anti-proxy war, but in this case, as you could tell, I think it’s justifiable, but I take your point. Let’s move on to the South Korean peace movement.
A. JOHNSON: Yes. The coverage of Korea, in general, is very bad. One of the things that’s completely omitted from the narrative is that the people of South Korea, on average, in the aggregate, and there’s obvious exceptions, are far, far less militant and warmongering than the U.S. media is. Now, there’s a few reasons for that. Number one, South Korea was a fascist state for several decades, so there’s a huge … There’s tremendous activist and left-wing movements there because they did live under a fascist dictatorship.
They oppose the THAAD missile system, which was accelerated by Trump, started under Obama, and the fact that the majority of South Koreans believe that the THAAD missile system should be suspended, and ultimately elected a president who did so, was completely omitted. What you had in the U.S. media was stories that were populated by weapons-contract-funded think tanks like CSIS and warmongers like Lindsey Graham. They sort of consumed all the oxygen on the North Korea issue. The voices of the South Koreans in the activist community there and, frankly, the majority of South Koreans when you look at polling, are far less hostile and are far more focused on peace and reconciliation, eventually, than they are trying to overthrow the government of North Korea.
AARON MATÉ: Adam, just to exemplify what you’re talking about there when it comes to sound bites, let’s go to a clip of Lindsey Graham talking about the Korean peninsula.
So that’s Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Adam, moving on to number three, you have President Trump’s non-Russia corruption.
A. JOHNSON: Yeah. President Trump is, by far, the most corrupt president, the most conflicted president we’ve ever had. Now, obviously, all presidents are going to be corrupt, by definition, since they manage a largely malevolent empire, but Trump has sort of taken it to kind of cartoon lengths. His sons run his business operations, which he [inaudible 00:09:52] constantly branding himself while he still profits off his business, to say nothing of the fact that we still don’t have his tax returns, which is unprecedented. So I mean, again, these things are … It’s kind of, at this point, banal because he sort of owns the fact that he’s so corrupt. But the fact of that corruption, the type of scandals that would ruin any other president, are sort of, kind of yawn-inducing. We’re kind of like, “Oh, well, that’s just Trump.”
At the same time, the journalists who have done good work on this, at the New York Times for example, there isn’t any kind of inciting incident to make it a scandal. I think that if you actually objectively step back and look at Trump’s corruption, it’s quite shocking. It’s quite shockingly brazen, and yet the story doesn’t really break into the news cycle. One of the reasons is that Trump is really good at framing the day’s media narrative by tweeting really early in the morning, and then so, for the rest of the day, we’re kind of chasing that story. It’s kind of a brilliant move on his part, since he basically sets the agenda. People have noticed this, of course, and tried not to fall into the trap, but it’s becoming sort of impossible not to.
AARON MATÉ: Moving on to number four, you have the U.S. helped to bomb and starve Yemen. This is something that’s been going on for many years now, but still not getting the attention that it merits, especially given the extent of the U.S. role in Yemen’s catastrophe.
A. JOHNSON: Yeah. 60 Minutes did a 13-minute report on the bombing and using starvation as a weapon of war in Yemen, and shockingly, even by corporate media standards, did not even mention the U.S. involvement and, in fact, did a 180 and presented the U.S. through the World Food Aid Program, and the head of the World Food Aid Program is an American, they presented them as the heroes of the story. It was pretty perverse.
Then, of course, The Washington Post had, that same month, two separate editorials condemning the Saudi bombing of Yemen and sort of moral posturing. Neither of them mentioned the U.S. involvement which, of course, according to even the, I would say, pretty pro-war Brookings Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations, both of whom acknowledged that, without U.S. support, there would be no war in Yemen, that it’s not just a sort of incidental support, that the U.S. is actually a fundamental part of the war itself and, without it, there would be no war. Yeah, the media, startlingly, sort of vaguely paid attention to it because it has escalated under Trump, but U.S. involvement is being consistently white-washed, and Saudi Arabia is treated as this kind of rogue Arab country that’s not doing so at the behest of the U.S.
AARON MATÉ: Right. This gets to the issue of partisan utility that we were speaking about before. Your colleague at FAIR, Ben Norton, has a piece coming out soon about media coverage of Yemen over the past year. He points out that, on MSNBC, there was an uptick in coverage at the beginning of the year when Trump came into office and ordered that raid on a Yemeni village that killed many Yemeni civilians but also led to the death of a U.S. Navy Seal. It was that death that got a lot of attention because it could be used by Democrats to go after President Trump. That’s when, Ben Norton says, that Yemen got some coverage. But after that, in the months afterwards, pretty much nothing.
A. JOHNSON: Yeah, because it doesn’t have partisan utility because it’s a war that Obama started and Obama supported, and Trump sort of … kind of like all these things, right? He escalated it, but he was fundamental in just carrying out what Obama was doing before.
AARON MATÉ: Do you think that, inside these newsrooms, they discuss Yemen and they ask themselves if it’s worth covering? I mean, how do you think that the process works where it’s just decided that it’s not worth covering unless there’s something major that has partisan use like the killing of a Navy Seal?
A. JOHNSON: It’s factored in. Dead, dead, dead brown people are factored in. They don’t care. The only time they do care is when it helps U.S. imperialism, like when Russians bomb Syria, then they suddenly care, and they’re outraged by it. But when it’s U.S., or Saudi, or Emirati bombing, it doesn’t have political utility, and it undermines the narratives of U.S.’ moral arbiter, and so they just don’t care. Most editorial boards and most editors are fundamentally about preserving the ideological framework of U.S. imperialism as a sort of good, and so when it undermines that, and to the extent they can even have coverage, like you see in the case of Fox, for example, it’s framed as Saudi Arabia is somehow tarnishing our good moral value and that they’ve somehow … You see this a lot, Saudi Arabia dragged the U.S. into war, Saudi Arabia compels. Fareed Zakaria said Saudi Arabia played Trump into supporting their war. Even when the U.S. involvement is acknowledged, we’re framed as some sort of benevolent active who’s sort of gone astray, but we’re fundamentally good. A story that so blatantly undermines that narrative has to be ignored because the cognitive dissonance is too great.
AARON MATE: Alright, so that’s going to wrap part one of our discussion with Adam Johnson on the under-covered news stories of 2017. Join us in part two.