Gallup: Oops!

By Al Giordano

The Gallup polling company, which set off a week's media cycle of Chicken Little squawking among Democrats - and triumphant drape-measuring by Republicans - in the US with its August 30 declarations about a supposedly "historic" advantage for the latter party in the upcoming Congressional midterm elections, is now walking it back.

The August 30 tracking poll - picked up almost universally by political pundits and bloggers as the supposed narrative for 2010 - showed Republicans with a ten percentage point lead on the generic question of which party voters will vote into Congress. The narrative was: This year we're gonna party like its 1994! I, and others, tried to explain at the moment that the poll looked and smelled like an "outlier," divergent with the results of the aggregate of fresh polling data available. But pundits are pundits and chickens are little on any day of the year, and so they had quite the week in the henhouse.

Well, lo' and behold, some seemed to forget that those numbers were from a tracking poll, which means another one would come out in a week and make the last one yesterday's news. And guess what? Today's Gallup tracking poll on the generic Congressional ballot suggests an abrupt turnaround, with party preferences dead even at 46 percent apiece.

Don't believe that either. Republicans probably still enjoy a five or six point advantage that falls naturally to the party out of power on midterm election years. And they'll likely pick up a couple dozen House seats and a half a dozen in the Senate, short of the majorities they covet. But this little adventure in media and blog spasm in response to one week's tracking poll results tells us plenty about the behavior of the political commentary class: always willing to take the smallest factoid of supposed data and blow it up into a platform on which to lecture the White House and everyone else about what it is supposedly doing wrong. ("If only the President had listened to ME," is how most of the commentary can be translated, "the sky wouldn't be falling.")

By now the expectations have risen so high among Republicans that if they fall short of taking back control of Congress the heads will be rolling on their side of the aisle, with finger pointing and blame game galore. It doesn't take a degree in political science to know who will be their scapegoat: GOP chairman Michael Steele. (Kids, can any of you explain to the class why it will be him?)

Truth is, the political season has only just begun, post Labor Day in the US. And there is many a slip twixt the cup and lip yet to come. I've been crunching numbers on US House races and here's another interesting piece of data that keeps coming up: in about 75 percent of the closely contested ones, the Democrat enjoys a significant fundraising advantage over the Republican. There are exceptions, of course, but that's why political reporters are supposed to exist, to inform you as to where the holes in a story line can be found. What is clear is that nobody's been asleep at the wheel over at the HQ of the party in power. They've been moving the pieces quietly around the chess board all summer long.

This week's Gallup tracking poll, while it has the horse race pulled even, still has twice as many Republicans telling pollsters that they are "enthusiastic" about voting as Democrats who say that. But I suspect that's more a commentary on the personality traits on each side than an outcome determinative factor. Voting is like going to the dentist. Hard to be enthusiastic about it, but if the tooth aches, one goes anyway. 

Coach's Log: The Regular Season of News Begins

By Al Giordano

The rest of the world celebrated Workers' Day on the first of May, but today is Labor Day in the United States, and tomorrow marks the kick-off of the regular news season.

Yes, news, like sports, has it's on and off seasons.

And journalism being a contact sport – especially down here, South of the Border, where injury and even death are on the rise among reporters – a lot of times I notice the similarities between NFL Football, which also begins its regular season this week, and what we do. The main difference is that this is a game with much greater consequences. What the two "sports" have in common is the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the weekly adrenaline rush, a reliance on strategic and tactical planning, and the greatest reward to those who leave it all on the field and keep on comin' against rivals bigger than them, without fear.

Very little happens, news-wise, during most summers, and recent months are no exception. So many of the top news makers and decision makers behind the stories get to take summer vacations, but most folks, at least those who are not students or professors, end up continuing with the sweaty, heavy lifting of making the world go ‘round all summer long. You know who you are.

For the freelance creative class, summer can be particularly frustrating: not much moves from Memorial Day to Labor Day, since the people who are doing the hiring and firing are in the Hamptons, or on Martha’s Vineyard, or some west coast or inland equivalent, or in a beach or mountain summer home. Most of those who are left behind in the corporate newsrooms still have to serve up a daily fare and call it “news,” and to keep their jobs have to compete with each other for the attention of the rest of us who are not at the beach. And that’s how “stories” like a pathetic Glenn Beck rally in Washington or a dust-up over a Manhattan mosque end up being spun as BIG NEWS even when they are not.

In 2009, the June 28 military coup in Honduras shocked the hemisphere and authentic journalists had to jump into the fire. I cracked open the locker, laced up my reporter’s cleats, and ran across most of that country’s territory reporting the story of the resistance to that coup here. When one gets to be my age, that kind of exertion wears one down a bit. As the years pass one becomes more aware of the creeping suggestion that there are encroaching limits to a player’s physical stamina. No matter how healthy our diet, how active our lives, Kerouac's "forlorn rags of age" eventually drape us all. That’s especially true if, when reporting from what is a kind of war zone, one doesn’t count with the budget, the five star hotels, the chauffeurs, the luxurious expense accounts and “ground control” support back at the corporate flagship: the work we do at Narco News by necessity operates more under guerrilla conditions. The silver lining is that it also keeps us independent and more real.

In the end, like NFL football, the stars of authentic journalism are young folks by necessity. Not too many dented-up veterans have racked up the Brett Favre level mileage I did doing the ground level reporting you read here in 2008 and 2009. And, like Favre, the youngsters have come to fetch me to pad up and put on a helmet in 2010, so, in the immortal words of Henry prior to the battle of Agincourt once more into the breach, dear friends, once more…

If you love the Authentic Sport, as I do, if it is your life's work, eventually you transition into the role of a coach, a process I embarked upon in 2003 with the first School of Authentic Journalism, and deepened in the 2004 and 2010 J-Schools. This year, we will invite applications for scholarships to the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism, penciled in for May of next year. Our 2006 project, the Other Journalism, in which we crisscrossed all of Mexico with the participation of more than 70 independent journalists, and the J-Schools, have brought hundreds of talents of conscience through these nomadic newsrooms, and we with more experience have coached many a younger authentic journalist to be better, faster and more coherent at this craft. And we also learn from them, from their passion, their impatience, the technological savvy and spirit of innovation, and that keeps us on our toes, and inspired, too.

So this past summer I set up a training camp, NFL style, and this week we march out onto the field to do battle. Here are the players on your Fall 2010 Season Narco News Team:

Fernando León Romero, 23, native of Mexico City, is now in his second year in this league as the Spanish language editor and increasingly sharpening his cleats as news reporter of this online newspaper. In football terms, he’s quick, agile, well studied in the playbook, the game plan and philosophy of the organization, and moves the ball down the field consistently for that first down. Of course we renewed his contract for another season. This summer, his reporting skills have advanced considerably, and you’re already seeing his byline more and more. He's been a mentor this summer to the other players on our roster...

Erin Rosa, 23, born in Spain and raised in Colorado, already has six years of on-field experience: she’s been working as a reporter since she was a teenager. She was our number one draft pick from the 2010 J-School and it took some months to sign her to the team and wrestle her from her other obligations. Assistant coach Bill Conroy assisted with that scouting mission. She arrived South of the Border in late June. A disciplined reporter, keen investigator, always looking for and finding the next story that nobody else has reported, in football terms, Rosa always tends to find the hole that nobody else sees to run through. She’s getting even better at it, too. Her projected score for the fall season is among the best in the league, and we’re doing all we can to maximize her talents. She’s also an excellent assistant coach and mentor to other young journalists, with real teaching skills. You may remember her from our video: How to Write a News Story. If you haven't seen it yet, it will soon be on Narco News TV.

Sebastian Kolendo, 22, born in Germany, raised in Wisconsin, expressed surprise when we accepted his application to the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism. "Why?" he said. Because... a journalist is one who asks questions? An Internet-savvy Wikipedia editor, he’s already told you the story of learning to use a video camera last February at the J-School. He arrived South of the Border in May knowing almost no Spanish, and with your help on our last fund drive we were able to send him to the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM, in its Spanish initials) for an intensive crash six-week language course. He was monolingual when he entered, and he finished his exams at the most important university in the country with a grade of B. A fast learner, Seb is currently extremely busy developing and editing the first productions of Narco News TV.

In football terms, Narco News has always been a team known for its ground game: grinding out the hard news stories with grassroots reporting from below (this political blog ain’t called The Field for nothing, after all) and knowing the turf – in news terms, the beat - better than any other news organization in the hemisphere.

Now we will make our play to rule the air as well.

Sebastian is an important part of our about-to-be-launched aerial game plan: Narco News TV. With one report already – Al Gore’s Mexican Adventure – and another likely to come out any moment now, and the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the NNTV platform only days away, this online newspaper now comes blitzing into the YouTube era of the Internet.

The credo we intend to live up to is: “Making Cable News Irrelevant Since 2010.”

So, stay tuned, and don’t touch that dial!

As a team, we’ve spent the summer in permanent huddle at this training camp, hammering out the playbook on each week and on every major story we’re reporting, getting each other up to speed for the Fall season. (The fact is that Internet traffic dips considerably in the summer months, and spikes dramatically starting tomorrow.)

The grizzled veteran of our team, Narco News’ director of cyber development, David Briones, 29, of El Paso, Texas, has been hammering away at our keypad for four years now, and, as he announced the other day, will soon be moving on to other gridirons. (Four years was the tenure of our first webmaster, Dan Feder, as well: for the subsistence level budget of our league, it’s about as long as we can hold onto cyber-talents like these.) If you think you’ve got the right webmaster chops – check out the job description, kind reader – there is an opening for you to join this team, right away, by following those instructions and emailing us post-haste. If you’re seriously interested in juggling Apache2 servers, Drupal upgrades, if you know that PHP is not a drug, and such, make sure to read my additional thoughts on the job, too. But don't dawdle, we've already heard from some good draft prospects...

(We also have high hopes to get Chris Fee, our newsroom coordinator, off the P.U.P. list and back onto the field, shortly.)

We are blessed with the best coaching staff of any team in the leagues of authentic journalism: the professors and graduates of the School of Authentic Journalism. In this summer’s pre-season, investigative ace Bill Conroy and viral video wizard Greg Berger did particularly outstanding work with our players, and many others – Quetzal Belmont, Noha Atef, Anne Vigna, among them - entered the newsroom and leant important hands at this summer training as well.

It occurs to me that the players I’ve just introduced you to are also, probably not coincidentally, the same age as that of most NFL football players. This is the largest full time team this coach has ever fielded.

And we accomplish it all from a locker room without a scanner, a printer, sans optimal speed Internet, and other vital tools so far. And yet you and we both just know that in spite of our economic disadvantage to the big projects, we are going to win the morning, day after day, in the weeks to come, as we've done for ten years now, putting the rest of the news media on their heels again and again and playing catch up.

When the summer began and we were still short of our spring fundraising drive goal, I rolled the dice and drafted this larger-than-ever team anyway, and simply burrowed myself into the newsroom all summer long eating cucumber sandwiches and avoiding jazz clubs to save pesos and make it possible. It made no sense to ask you for donations during the very season when, probably like me, with a little expendable cash you might have taken a short vacation of your own. Mine lasted five days in early July. How was yours? I hope it was longer than mine.

In the coming days and weeks, you’ll be hearing from our players, coaches and from me asking for your support, again: I’ve met our obligations all summer long by severely scaling down my own spending, something most of you have had to do periodically, too. You and we are the same in that way: we’re the people who work really hard in this world, and make the most out of the least, and the cubs always eat before the lions, that's how leadership goes.

But now that the fall season is underway, and you’re back at the workplace, or teaching or learning, you don’t need to wait for our next fund appeal to toss a coin into your favorite online news team’s Super Bowl cup: I have $6 dollars in the bank at present, and The Fund for Authentic Journalism is flush with a total of $8 right now. We made it through the summer doldrums with a combined $14 dollars to spare, had a very successful training camp, and now it’s time for another season kickoff and to deploy the kind of hard-hitting journalism that we’ve pioneered and defined for a decade.

So whether you have a little or a lot to spare, it would be very much appreciated at this moment. You can contribute at this link, even before the stack of fund appeals from our players and coaches I’ve collected this summer begin flowing your way.

But whether or not you’ve got the swag to help us out, you still get season tickets and a front row seat to the news we’ll be reporting this fall, because to know a a free press, a truly free press, well, free means you don’t have to pay. Period.

I hope all our readers had an excellent summer (or winter, south of the equator), and welcome you back to the start of the regular news season. And I’m pretty sure you’re gonna like your team and what we do for you even more this fall than you did already.

To those who fear and dread our reporting - the enemies of authentic democracy, human rights, justice and freedom, and the professional simulators of the corporate news media, who also check these pages daily - when you get hit hard and tackled to the ground next, hear me roar: Welcome to the NFL of Authentic Journalism: and wear a cup!

And to the rest of you who do root for this team, who share in our excitement at the start of a new season, once again, we enter the stadium together as the opening whistle blows.

A Primer on the 2010 US House and Senate Elections

By Al Giordano

The national conversation among political junkies, insiders and reporters over whether the Republican party can take the US House and/or Senate this November is fraught with dysfunction, so it’s really hard to reach beyond the many smokescreens and attempted manipulations of public opinion to get a good read on it.

The comparisons to 1994, when then-House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich and his “Contract for America” brought GOP triumph in 52 Democratic congressional districts, ending 72 years of Democratic control of the House, are manifold. It was the midterm election after a Democrat (Bill Clinton) won the White House, and the ghost of ’94 still has Democrats spooked, Republicans pumped and political reporters and pundits reaching for the easy comparison.

I covered those elections in ’94 for The Boston Phoenix, and let me please just point out some key differences between then and now:

As of last year, 62 percent of Americans had Internet access in the home (and 82 percent of those had broadband). That wasn’t the case in 1994. As late as 1997, only 17 percent of Americans had Internet access in the home. And, today, about 90 percent of US homes have cable or satellite TV. That was a healthy 62 percent in 1994, but without the screaming cable news channels like Fox on the right or General Electric’s MSNBC counter-programming to reach a liberal demographic audience. CNN was basically the only national cable news channel in town in 1994.

Back then, network TV news and daily newspapers were all powerful in determining the political discourse in the United States: ABC, CBS and NBC, and their local affiliates, were royalty. Their news shows were the most important slot for candidates to place their campaign ads, because that's where most of the voters could be found each night. Network TV news and daily newspapers still enjoyed the illusion of authority. People actually believed that what the local TV newscaster or the editorial page writer said was true!

What has changed since 1994 is that the American populace has splintered into thousands of sub-demographic groups and is getting its news and forming its political opinions based on a wide variety of media sources. The golden age of network and daily newspaper dominance over the electoral choices made by citizens has evaporated.

I take you on this stroll down this Amnesia Lane because the new media landscape makes it less likely that electoral history in 2010 will so cleanly repeat what occurred in 1994. I’m not saying that it is impossible that the Republicans could take the House or the Senate or both. What I’m saying is that if it does happen, it won’t happen because the dominant national media discourse (as it did in 1994) stokes an electoral stampede, but, rather, it will happen because one party outmaneuvered the other, one contest at a time, in 50 or 60 key congressional districts and senate contests, more or less.

November will not be a national election, but a series of separate state and congressional district elections each with their own dynamics. (Ironically, former US House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s credo, that “all politics is local,” is even more true today than it was when he said it in the years leading up to 1994.)

Much ado has been made over a recent Gallup poll showing a reported ten-percentage point gap between Americans who say they would vote for a generic Republican over a generic Democrat for Congress. First of all, generic candidates aren’t going to be on anyone’s ballot this November. (I’m reminded of another popular political axiom: that most Americans hate Congress but they like their own district’s congressman.) But even if we presume that the generic poll offers at least some guidance as to what will happen in November, the fact remains that the Gallup poll is almost an outlier among the sum total of public opinion surveys on that question.

Mark Blumenthal at points out that the average of all polls on the question show not a ten percent difference in generic party preference for Congress, but, rather, a five point (and according to the average that includes newer polls, a four point) advantage for Republicans (which, if it doesn’t increase by November, would point to GOP gains in Congress but short of an outright majority that would shift which party controls the gavel and the committee chairmanships). Five points is actually quite normal for a year like this, given American voter tendencies to lean toward the party not in the White House during midterm elections:

But headlines that merely tell the truth – “Normal Election Forecast for November” – don’t sell newspapers, or keep you glued to the TV or Internet screen. And beyond the transparent effort by so many in the media to grab your attention with apocalyptic warnings for Democrats or triumphant teasers for Republicans, there is another level of duplicity going on behind the curtain.

If you look at the comments section under Blumenthal’s “just the facts, M’am” essay you can see the partisans on each side cheering or attacking each pollster based on whether the results fit what the commenter wants to happen. But that’s the rank-and-file party activist or sympathizer position. Up above, in the war rooms of the political consultants and party operatives, Democrats are actually stoking the reports of their own demise under the belief that they will scare their grassroots troops into action. (And that explains, for example, why the Democratic-leaning New York Times has already sensationalized its new team member Nate Silver’s Senate projections to imply something that Nate’s own numbers do not: a GOP takeover of the Senate: the headline accurately states “New Forecast Shows Democrats Losing 6 to 7 Senate Seats,” but the lede paragraph jumps immediately to the doom and gloom scenario: “The Democrats now have an approximately 20 percent chance of losing 10 or more seats in the Senate.”)

Using the 538 model, which is still useful if one can look beyond the NY Times editors’ spin on it and just at the hard numbers, there are in fact just eight states in which the aggregate difference in the polls show a contest to be within five points. It is in these states where the control of the Senate will be decided: Democratic seats in Colorado, Nevada, Illinois, Washington, California and Wisconsin plus Republican seats Kentucky and in Florida where Governor Charlie Crist, running as an independent, could wrestle the seat from the extremist Marco Rubio. Other states still in play include Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, while Senate elections in Alaska and Delaware could take turns toward the crazy and still get into play by November.

If you live in one of those states, then, yes, you’ve got a battle on your hands. If you live in an nearby state without a competitive contest, and you were active in the 2008 presidential campaign, you’ll likely receive an invitation to come knock on doors (or make phone calls from your own) in the neighboring state very soon, if you haven’t already.

A similar political logic is at play in the House. If there are 50 or 60 or 70 congressional districts where one party might wrestle the seat from the other, that means that 80 to 85 percent of Americans live in districts where the incumbent party will almost certainly retain control. In the coming weeks I will try to produce a list of the remaining 15 to 20 percent of congressional districts that are in play, because that is where the action is going to be this fall. Feel free to use the comments section here to offer your nominees for that list and explain how you know that contest is close enough to go either way.

In those closer contests, a lot depends on the individual candidates and the competence of their campaigns. Organizing for America – Obama’s grassroots political army, now part of the Democratic party – has made lists of all the first time voters from 2008 in each of those contested districts and a lot will ride on whether they can be inspired or pulled by the ear to actually vote. That’s not going to happen because of duplicitous scare tactics. That kind of thing only happens the way it did in 2008: through person-to-person recruitment, effective door knocking, phone banking and the deployment of community organizers in social networks, and not just the online variety.

Another factor that cuts somewhat against GOP chances to retake the House or Senate is the dysfunction in its own party ranks, between the Republican establishment and the in-house radicals broadly painted as “tea party” factions. Think Progress has a very interesting story that reveals seven congressional and three senate elections (as well as various gubernatorial races) where the Republican candidate defeated in that party’s primary has not endorsed the party's nominee: there is a lot of internecine bad blood flowing inside the GOP ranks. And in cases where the more radical “tea party” associated candidate won many primaries, the sheer battiness of the nominee produced is going to scare some voters away (and this phenomenon could still happen in some contests yet to have their primaries, such as the Republican senate primary in Delaware).

In this sense, a political parody site like Wonkette has become more relevant to the 2010 midterm elections than the entirety of the so-called Netroots, which in 2006 became a kind of kingmaker in the Democrats’ midterm electoral triumphs. I tuned out completely on the Netroots blogs since June and only started browsing them again recently, and its as if they’re stuck on autopilot, still debating “Obama, good or bad” and blissfully disinterested in the midterm elections, certainly compared to where they were in 2006. On the eve of the 2010 elections, they’re still infighting like it’s 2009! Meanwhile, day in, day out, Wonkette is producing wonderful caricature profiles of the insane class of GOP congressional and senate nominees this year, and is actually driving the media discourse about them.

Likewise, the cable TV political shows on Comedy Central – The Daily Show and The Colbert report – have become far more relevant to the national political discourse than any host on MSNBC or even Fox, which has gone down the Glenn Beck rabbit hole in a manner that only increases the dysfunction inside the GOP. Fox and the “tea party” minions it has stoked are now the Republican Party’s own version of the 2010 Netroots: mirrors on each side of the partisan divide that seem more concerned with asserting their own illusory relevance and factional power than with actually getting out there and winning general elections in November.

In the cases of Wonkette and Comedy Central the defining edge is, of course, a sense of humor, or, more importantly, not having lost one. My own coverage of the upcoming US midterm elections will try to adhere more closely to theirs than to the humorless pundits, talk show hosts and bloggers of the right and the left. That took a summer of turning all of them off to rewire my own news gathering habits and get back to the basics of researching what the actual numbers really show us.

The two main points I would like to make are: First, that it will not be the end of the world if a new generation of GOP circus clowns take over the House or the Senate (an event, that if it happened, would create its own backlash by 2012), and; Second, that it is still more likely that the Democrats hold onto both houses than that the GOP takes either of them. The outcome will be decided by efforts like those of Organizing for America, and whether Democrats can successfully package their opponents in so many districts as the mentally unstable whack jobs that so many GOP primaries have produced for 2010.

The fact is that there is not one election this November, but up to eighty separate ones where the control of the House and Senate will be determined. Each one has its own unique candidates and dynamics. And on the congressional district level, and in the less populace states, these are contests where a sole volunteer with good community organizing chops could still make the difference between victory or defeat.

Update: Wonkette asks the Internets, with a quote from this essay, Are You People Driving the Media Discourse? Heh.

Are you ready for some football, Field Hands?

Six American Zeroes: Reason Enough to Support California Prop 19

By Al Giordano

As support continues to grow for California’s November referendum to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, the six US drug czars from four different administrations have now flailed together to try and stop the biggest electorate in the nation from bringing America back to its senses. In an August 25 column in the Los Angeles Times, Why California should just say no to Prop 19, the six epic losers posse up and ride out West in an attempt to rescue their failed cause.

Because memories are short, let’s review all the big successes of these brave and valiant drug czars, who assuredly saved the nation from drugs and drug abuse and all the violence and corruption caused by policies of prohibition all these years, so we can remind ourselves of why these six American Zeroes are the last people we should listen to when it comes to figuring out how to solve problems associated with illegal drugs.

William Bennett (1989-91)

At the January 1989 press conference when then-president George Bush, Sr. established a new cabinet-level post and named William Bennett as “drug czar,” an enterprising reporter asked how could Bennett – a heavy cigarette smoker – lead the nation away from addictive drugs when he himself was an addict? The press conference briefly halted as Bush and Bennett huddled in the rear of the stage whispering back and forth. Bennett returned to the microphone and announced that for the duration of his term in the National Office of Drug Policy Control he would quit smoking cigarettes.

Nine months later, as Bennett oversaw a major escalation in federal spending and repression against users and suppliers of some drugs, the Doonesbury comic strip revealed a scoop that would later be confirmed by official media: Bennett had been chewing Nicorette, the nicotine chewing gum then only available with a doctor’s prescription, to mask his nicotine addiction.

Bennett’s hardline approach to combating drugs was, as everybody knows, an abject failure and he left the post in just two years, parlaying it into a gig as a national conservative political pundit and author of the so-called “The Book of Virtues.” In 2003, reports revealed that this braggart moralist had lost millions of dollars gambling in Las Vegas. Virtue might not have a book, but it sure does have a bookie.

Bob Martinez (1991-1993)

After Florida voters unseated him as their governor, Martinez replaced Bennett as drug czar. Although not known for any tobacco habit, Martinez did Bennett one better, as the Miami New Times reported at the time: “…if approved by the Senate during confirmation hearings that begin this week, he will be the first drug czar known to have enjoyed the financial support of a major drug trafficker.” You can’t make this stuff up! Click the link to read all about it.

Lee P. Brown (1993-1995)

The former police commissioner in Houston and New York was tapped by then-president Bill Clinton to be a kinder, gentler drug czar, emphasizing Brown’s role as “the father of community policing.” Like his predecessors, Brown accomplished absolutely nothing to curb drug use or abuse in the US, but he did use the post as a trampoline into a job as Mayor of Houston. His was the last political campaign supported by the Houston-based Enron corporation, which went belly-up shortly after Brown’s 2001 reelection.

General Barry McCaffrey (1996-2001)

Narco News owes a great debt of gratitude to General McCaffrey, the craziest drug czar of all, with an even battier press secretary. On our first day of publication, April 18, 2000, I issued a public invitation to the White House to respond to our reports of official corruption, malfeasance and ineptitude in the US-imposed “war on drugs.” And McCaffrey’s spokesman incredulously took the bait… more than a year later, and after McCaffrey had been supplanted as drug czar.

McCaffrey’s spokesman, Bob Weiner (whose congressional campaigns I had covered a decade prior in Massachusetts) apparently discovered the Internet around 2002 after he and his boss left the office and wrote an email-to-the-editor complaining about our coverage of his office. Here’s an example of the quality of work that came out of McCaffrey’s regime:

“Al -- HI! In browsing the net, I JUST saw your strange report of over a year ago (sixth item) when you attacked me (?) for not only my "silencing" two reporters during my then ongoing stint at the White House but my strategies in my congressional campaign...????!!!!  First of all, what am I missing here -- you and I were/are liberals fighting for just about all the same causes, and were then. Second, why didn't you just call me up at that very number you printed (which I am of course no longer at -- now I'm at 202-361-0611). It would have been great to hear from you -- AND I would have given you a lot more substance from your (and my) point of view than you mysteriously printed without, for some reason, even calling me up! What was that all about and why didn't you call?”

“Why didn’t you call?” I haven’t heard that since my last one-night stand.

Anyway, McCaffrey had a few bigger scandals as drug czar, like when he got caught secretly paying millions of taxpayer dollars to TV networks to implant subliminal anti-drug messages on television programs.

And remember how that and the other pioneering work by McCaffrey’s drug war command post stopped the flow of illegal drugs?


Me neither.

John P. Walters (2001-2009)

One of the only members of the George W. Bush administration to last the entire eight years, Walters survived mainly because of his superpowers as The Invisible Man. The former chief of staff to the first drug czar, William Bennett, Walters saw his role eclipsed when in 2001 the war-on-drugs took a back seat to the war-on-terror as the pretext for erasing the Bill of Rights.

Sure, millions of Americans continued to go to jail and suffer when family members were imprisoned for violating drug laws, lost their homes, and were denied access to basic medicines like marijuana even when they were sick, and meanwhile during Walters’ term multiple Latin American countries that had been victimized by US drug policies set a new course away from US dominance.

But, surely, Walters ended the scourge of drug use and abuse utilizing quiet invisible leadership, didn’t he?

Um, guess not.

And now the current drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, the former Seattle police chief friendly to harm reduction policies, somehow got himself caught up signing an open letter with his Rogues Gallery of predecessors.

They chose a title for their LA Times op ed column utilizing that failed slogan of the 1980s war-on-drugs – “just say no” – that had been championed then by First Lady Nancy Reagan. One wonders why they didn’t invite Mrs. Reagan to sign the letter, too. At least she’s a California voter.

As Tom Lehrer says, parody is dead when stuff like this happens: the six guys who most embody the failure of prohibitionist drug policies – none of whom vote in California, by the way - now are telling California voters to continue to bankrupt their state budget on enforcement of laws that can’t be successfully enforced. They might as well have titled their open letter, “We Screwed Up and You Can, Too!”

There can be no more ringing endorsement to vote Yes on Proposition 19 than its opposition from the very bureaucrats that exacerbated the problems associated with illegal drugs over the past two decades with their stubborn and cowardly cling to same policies that clearly have never worked, and never will. But they and their lost war are now at the mercy of California voters, who in November could deliver the fatal blow to a budget-busting drug policy that wore out its welcome years ago.


NNTV: Al Gore's Mexican Adventure

By Al Giordano

The 2012 presidential campaign is already underway... in Mexico.

And, as in previous Mexican elections, US interests are all over it like a cheap suit.

Mexico will vote two Julys from now for a chief of state that will serve a six-year term. Two of the last four presidential elections south of the border were determined by blatant and well-documented acts of election fraud: both times to prevent center-left candidates from assuming power. US president George Bush Sr. endorsed the 1988 imposition of Carlos Salinas de Gortari and George W. Bush, Jr. supported the 2006 installation of Felipe Calderón. But lest anybody think that only Republicans in Washington meddle in Mexican politics, think again.

Last week’s Narco News story by Fernando León and Erin Rosa, Al Gore Stirs Controversy, this time in Mexico, and the follow up piece by Rosa, Al Gore’s 7 Simple Rules for Blocking Media Access offer eyewitness reporting of the former US vice president’s August 4 visit to Mexico. Now comes Sebastian Kolendo, of Narco News TV (you’ll be seeing and hearing more from the nascent NNTV project very soon) with a video report underscoring the key points of the story. In just two minutes, Kolendo – who reported the story with León and Rosa – offers viewers a crash course of the surrealistic relationship between US and Mexican politicians, and introduces the guy that key gringo economic and political powers have already designated as Mexico’s next president, the violent repressor Enrique Peña Nieto, governor of Mexico state, the most populous in the country.

For Gore, as reported, his appearance at Peña Nieto’s conference on “climate change” was lucrative, according to one source, to the tune of five million pesos ($380,000 US dollars), paid by an undisclosed donor or donors (it is not known whether these financial backers in the shadows were Mexican or North American).

What Peña Nieto gets for his (or someone else’s) money is the public perception in Mexico that he’s the chosen one to quarterback the country’s never-ending game with Washington. Gore was only the first player to be rolled out onto the field in this media strategy. On Wednesday, Peña Nieto was in DC, invited by the elite Woodrow Wilson International Center to give a speech on “Mexico in Globalization” and was also received by US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who posed for this photo op with the butcher of Atenco:

Notimex, the state-owned news agency in Mexico, quickly served up a fawning report of Peña Nieto as the gringos’ golden boy for 2012. As to why major Democratic party leaders like Gore and Napolitano have leant themselves as steps Peña Nieto’s ladder, they haven't said. But the game on the Mexican governor’s side is clear as day. It’s the resurrection of the time-dishonored Mexican practice known as “el dedazo.”

For six decades – from 1935 to 1994 – the winner was determined by a tradition called the finger-pointing (“el dedazo”), in which the incumbent Mexican president from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI, in its Spanish initials) would hand-pick his successor. That happened ten times in a row until in 2000, when Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (the PAN) won the Mexican presidency away from 69 years of single party rule with big promises of change that never came.

Since there is no incumbent president from the PRI party at present, Peña Nieto’s political gamble is simply to eliminate the middleman and create a series of media spectacles that give the impression that he has received the dedazo directly from Washington. His slogan could be “why go to la Malinche when I can go directly to Cortéz?” And as recent events demonstrate, key sectors of the Democratic party in the US are so far cooperating with the gambit.

The truth is that Washington has always meddled in Mexican presidential elections. Beyond the US-endorsed election frauds of 1988 and 2006, there are other recent examples. In 1994, when leading PRI candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated in Tijuana, then-US ambassador James Jones was at a breakfast with leading Mexican intellectuals including the author Carlos Fuentes. The attendees all gathered around Jones to ask him for Washington’s reaction to the vacuum created by the death of the frontrunner. Jones – of the Clinton administration – said, according to published reports, “Salinas de Gortari now has three options for his successor: Zedillo, Zedillo or Zedillo.” Ernesto Zedillo, in turn, became the next head of state.

In 2000, when PRI warhorse Manuel Bartlett was gathering steam for his own presidential campaign, offering a return to the populist roots of the PRI, which in the 1920s and ‘30s began but quickly strayed from its roots as a project in socialism, then-US ambassador Jeffrey Davidow, also of the Clinton administration, without offering any evidence at all, simply said to a Mexican magazine that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had “files” on Bartlett, and with that one statement exercised the veto power that no one speaks of but everybody knows the US government has over who gets to be president in the neighboring country.

Foreign policy deciders in the Obama administration should think again whether Peña Nieto - the man who in 2006 in the town of Atenco brought back the violent tactics of the dirty wars of the sixties and seventies against Mexican social movements – is really what the twenty-first century needs in the nation next door. A new wave of government repression would only serve to motivate millions more to cross the border in order to escape the return of brutal authoritarianism in Mexico. The fact is that only an improvement in the Mexican economy and how its vast wealth is distributed for the tens of millions of the poor, the unemployed, and the marginally employed workers and farmers of the land can stem the northbound migration that has proved such a policy headache and political hot potato for US officials.

Peña Nieto – economically backed and allied with a particular gang of oligarchs, robber barons and reported narco-traffickers from Mexico state, some of whom deny being part of a secret society within the PRI called the Atlacomulco Group – would surely be just yet another Mexican president dedicated first and foremost to redistributing wealth from the many into the hands of his few cronies. For Mexico, that would be another chapter in the same long tragedy, and it would have severe consequences north of the border, as well; economically and, subsequently, politically.

It is not yet clear exactly who in the Democratic Party side of Washington and Wall Street is moving the strings for Peña Nieto (one naturally shoots a fleeting glance at the Clintons), but it is easy to see that somebody north of the border is busy in cahoots with the aspirations of this dictator-in-training. We're gearing up our investigative reporting on that and related stories, and welcome Narco News TV as the newest weapon in our arsenal of authentic journalism.

“Shut Off the Raging Dialogue of the Story of the Week”

By Al Giordano

Al Giordano & Noha Atef - Citizen Journalism and Digital Resistance (FSI 2010)

Late last month, Egyptian authentic journalist Noha Atef and I led a workshop at Tufts University’s Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict near Boston for seventy community organizers and civil resistance leaders from 41 countries. This video shows the first hour of that ninety-minute session. We were invited by our friends at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict to host the plenary session.

Careful readers of The Field will have heard some – but not all – of the points we made on journalism as civil resistance. We talked from our own experience at the School of Authentic Journalism and as journalists and communicators. It probably wasn’t a “normal” session for such an esteemed academic institution: I did part of my talk in darkness after shutting off the lights in the hall, and later led participants outdoors through what I called a “discipline building exercise” into the preferable set and setting of a perfect New England summer day, where everyone who had something to say had a chance to say it. My intervention was essentially designed to kill the Power Point method of education-as-spectator-sport and unleash more of the innate imagination in each individual so that we could think and speak creatively together.

Noha Atef is, simply, a force of nature. Even if you only have time to watch her part of the presentation, do that: You really want to meet the 25-year-old soft-spoken warrior who through persistent journalism, a lot of guts, and a significant sense of humor, tore down the curtain on torture by Egyptian police and hear about how she did it. The presentation she gave at Tufts was an encore of one she gave last February in Mérida, Yucatán at the Narco News J-School, but we didn't videotape that one at her request. In Boston - in what was her US premier - she was ready to bring her story to a global audience.

You’ll also get a taste, from this hour, of what the School of Authentic Journalism is like and of how we do things, in case you’re thinking of applying to the 2011 session or know someone who should.

At the six-day session we met organizers who are from or work in Argentina, Armenia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium, Bulgaria, Burma, Camaroon, Canada, China, Colombia, Egypt, England, Ethiopia, Georgia, Germany, Guinea, India, Kenya, Mexico, Morroco, Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, the US, Vietnam, the West Bank, West Papua-Indonesia, Yemen and Zimbabwe.

We broke bread and conversed late into the nights with each other, and also with veteran social fighters like Mary Elizabeth King and Jim Lawson. We found some excellent recruits for the School of Authentic Journalism from the continents of the earth and made some new friendships, which are sure to last.

The point of it all was that nonviolent struggle is not a question about whether one considers oneself a pacifist or not (I certainly don’t, and regardless, the group was a serious enough collection of free thinkers and doers that we didn’t waste our time having that stupid “debate” that some “activists” like to have on a perpetual hamster wheel in which nothing ever gets resolved except to displace the real work of organizing) but that nonviolent resistance is really about how we, as aspiring change agents, learn to plan and act strategically.

I wouldn’t quite call it a “science,” although it does resemble certain laws of physics. It is more of an art, even a martial art, in which every circumstance in every struggle is unique but also shares common dynamics with all struggles. And so it is very helpful to listen to the experiences of others in lands we’ve never visited. We see our own struggles in theirs, and solutions for how to win ours in the strategies and tactics developed locally by each one.

And, of course, the matter of media is now central to all struggles. Our workshop began with a premise:

“A movement that makes its own media has considerable advantages and better chances of success than those that must depend on commercial media to tell their story and define their narrative.”

And that’s the story Noha and I tell in this video. If you spend the hour to watch it and don’t find it worthwhile, I’ll personally give you your money back... Oh. Wait. It’s free!

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