By Al Giordano
The current media, political and prosecutorial uproar over WikiLeaks’ 250,000-document dump of leaked US State Department cables largely misses the big story altogether.
The story isn’t WikiLeaks per se, nor its founder Julian Assange, nor even the information made public from those documents, interesting and newsworthy though much of it is.
The story – one that defines the times we live in - has been going on for a while now: State power (and that includes private-sector “states” such as corporations and commercial media organizations) can no longer hide behind commercial (and State-owned) media to consolidate and centralize power when citizens deploy decentralized, small scale, and even temporary media resistances outside of those institutions in these ways that make big media irrelevant.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can shout all she wants about the WikiLeaks revelations being somehow “an attack on America.” The New York Times can betray its own Pentagon Papers heritage and former street cred when its columnists like David Brooks mutter inanities like “I don’t think we should have access to the cables.” Amazon can banish WikiLeaks from its servers. INTERPOL can hunt down Assange, deport him to Sweden, which can then extradite him for prosecution in the US. The Justice Department can lock him - or his sources - up in Guantanamo or SuperMax and none of it will stop the institutional bleeding. Behold: Big media’s tourniquet around State and corporate power has shredded into tiny pieces of torn and bloody gauze.
An old order is coming unglued before our very eyes. WikiLeaks is more a symptom than a cause of this gigantic shift away from a big media controlled world of public opinion. It is the latest chapter among many that came before it and many more to come next. And it can be understood by studying a simple law of nature: Life finds a way.
In the 1993 motion picture Jurassic Park (based on the 1990 Michael Crichton novel), that was a phrase repeated over and over again by a nerdy scientist type, played in the movie by Jeff Goldblum: “Life finds a way.” Now, here is a related phrase that we splice upon that credo: “Information is life.” Oh, isn’t that catchy? Aside from that it will probably be stolen by Apple or Microsoft as its next ad campaign slogan, it also happens to be true. Indeed, information behaves very much like life itself. It reproduces, it mutates, it evolves, it can be hunted down, captured, locked up, and even be killed but eventually it always comes back to life anew, just like other forms of life. Understanding that basic truth of our era gives you a front row seat to how the WikiLeaks story – and the rest of the history of our lifetimes - is going to play out.
In that context, let me please rattle off two main observations provoked by the WikiLeaks chapter in this longer saga.
1. If US officials prosecute WikiLeaks under the US Espionage Act, it will result in a “not guilty” verdict.
At today’s US State Department press briefing, official blowhard Philip J. Crowley, asked about the WikiLeaks document dump, growled, “a crime happened under U.S. law and we are going to hold those responsible fully accountable.” Pressed by reporters, he backpedaled to talk mainly about the US employee or employees who allegedly leaked the documents to WikiLeaks. But the tone, like that from other government officials, was meant to intimidate and suggest that “ongoing investigations” could cast a wider net on the messengers, too.
US Attorney General Eric Holder rattled similar sabers this week when he said: "To the extent that we can find anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law, and who has put at risk the assets and the people that I have described, they will be held responsible. They will be held accountable."
A Wednesday National Public Radio story looked at what US law actually says regarding a possible prosecution of WikiLeaks members:
Washington defense attorney Abbe Lowell said, prosecuting the website WikiLeaks is no slam-dunk.
"The biggest taboo that has been out there, sort of the dirty little secret in the Espionage Act for a long time, has been whether it would ever be used to prosecute somebody in the media, as opposed to the government employee leaking the information,” Lowell said.
The dilemma, Lowell said, is whether WikiLeaks is a member of the media that warrants special free speech protections, or more like a rogue operation dedicated to hurting the U.S.
"What I worry about and what many worry about is that WikiLeaks makes it easy for the law enforcement community to apply this law for the first time, in a precedent-setting way, that can be used against other people in the media," Lowell said.
In fact, the question of whether an Internet site that publishes information on “matters of public concern” enjoys the same First Amendment protections as the New York Times under the law was settled nine years ago this week, on December 5, 2001. How do we know that? It happened when the New York Supreme Court ruled in our favor in the case of Banco Nacional de Mexico v. Mario Menendez, Al Giordano and Narco News. The court ordered:
"Narco News, its website, and the writers who post information, are entitled to all the First Amendment protections accorded a newspaper-magazine or journalist... Furthermore, the nature of the articles printed on the website and Mr. Giordano's statements at Columbia University constitute matters of public concern because the information disseminated relates to the drug trade and its affect on people living in this hemisphere..."
While I’ve never reached the heights of fame-or-infamy that WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange has ascended to this week – a candidate for both Time’s Man of the Year and for a prison cell in Sweden or the US or elsewhere – the experience of that court adventure was illuminating on the current topic. Banamex v. Narco News settled, once and for all, that Internet journalists are indeed journalists in the eyes of the law. It set the legal precedent upon which WikiLeaks now stands. The government witchhunt to intimidate WikiLeaks and others like it might even be able to ramp up the hysteria enough to get a lower court to convict the web site or its personnel, but there is no way a conviction survives on appeals.
If WikiLeaks is guilty for having published information leaked by US employees, then we’re guilty too, for having used its documents last week to report Bill Conroy’s story, State Department "Secret Cable" Lays Out U.S. Intelligence-Gathering Agenda in Paraguay, and Erin Rosa’s story, Memo Reveals US State Department Knew Honduras Coup Was Illegal, Did Not Follow Own Advice.
And not only are we guilty, but so is the Spanish daily El Pais, the German daily Der Spiegel, the French daily Le Monde, the British daily Guardian and the US daily New York Times, as well as every other of thousands of news organizations in possession of copies of the leaked documents and that have published and quoted from them. And although some politicians like US Senator John McCain want to take the NY Times to task for having done so, that’s just not going to happen: State power isn’t going to turn against its favorite surviving gatekeeper! And if you can’t prosecute the Times, you can’t win a prosecution vs. WikiLeaks, period.
The officials of State power are angrier than a five percent tip. And they’re not angry because, say, WikiLeaks lied about them. To the contrary, they’re hopping mad because everything in those documents presents an absolutely truthful account of what US officials wrote, and what they reported that officials from other governments said to them and did for them. WikiLeaks put no spin upon them at all. It just laid them out, naked, and hung many of those officials – their career paths, their carefully cultivated reputations – on the petard of their own words. Hey, dudes! Welcome to the NFL and wear a cup. You’re public officials. Your employer – the public – has a legitimate stake in knowing what you’re doing on its dime.
That said, could WikiLeaks and its celebrated founder Assange have done a better job at dealing with this info gold mine that fell on their laps? I don’t know. All I can tell you is how, based on our Banamex case history and other experiences, we would have handled it differently…
2. How we would have done this differently than WikiLeaks did it.
From public relations stunts to court case discovery proceedings, there is a rule of thumb as old as PR itself: If you want to confuse people, or distract them from something you did, give them too much information.
And if you want them to focus on one thing, give them that one thing and nothing else.
Thus, every Friday afternoon, government and corporate press secretaries do “negative information dumps.” That’s when they announce resignations, or disclose scandals, or unfavorable economic reports, usually in the context of lots of competing information being dumped into public view at the same time so that the undesirable story gets drowned in the ocean of data and largely forgotten by Monday morning’s news cycle.
By releasing all 250,000 documents at once, WikiLeaks deprived every single one of those documents of the solitary importance that many of them could and should have had if released on its own, with well reported stories explaining the document’s full context. That is indeed how WikiLeaks first came to the attention of many: when it released a single leaked video from a US military helicopter in Iraq, documenting the assassination by US forces of a journalist. That story had legs, because it was given the space to stand on its own two feet.
Had a treasure trove of documents like this one landed instead on our laps at Narco News, we would do what we’ve always done (and in fact did with two of those documents this week): make them available one at a time, day after day, with reported stories of authentic journalism to bring these “matters of public interest” their full and deserved importance. Then, instead of everyone reading and chattering about whether Muammar al-Gaddafi receives Botox injections or whether someone called Nicolas Sarkozy a pompous ass (and whether he likes being called a pompous ass; we suspect he does!) we might all be talking about something real, like this gem from the WikiLeaks documents, that Slate’s Jack Shafer chose to underline, which reveals why Secretary Clinton responded with over-the-top rhetoric about the WikiLeaks document dump being supposedly an attack on Mom, baseball and apple pie:
How embarrassing are the WikiLeaks leaks? A secret cable from April 2009 that went out under (Secretary of State) Clinton's name instructed State Department officials to collect the "biometric data," including "fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans," of African leaders. Another secret cable directed American diplomats posted around the world, including the United Nations, to obtain passwords, personal encryption keys, credit card numbers, frequent flyer account numbers, and other data connected to diplomats. As the Guardian puts it, the cables "reveal how the US uses its embassies as part of a global espionage network."
Additionally, Clinton's State Department specifically targeted United Nations officials and diplomats posted to the United Nations. Among the targeted were Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and permanent security-council representatives from China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom, as this secret cable from July 2009 lays out. The State Department also sought biometric information on North Korean diplomats, security-council permanent representatives, "key UN officials," and other diplomats at the United Nations.
Whoa! Say what? The US Secretary of State violated the treaties the United States signed to host the United Nations in New York? Had WikiLeaks led with that story all its own, that’s what everybody would be talking about all week long. And instead of Julian Assange’s call for Clinton to resign, it would have come from a thousand surrogates, instead of becoming another free-floating piece of data in the “let’s make Assange look crazy and dangerous” lobby’s arsenal.
As I wrote last week for OpenDemocracy, in an essay titled, Authentic Journalism: Weapon of the People:
Citizen journalism, in some corners, however, has shown it can take from big media what they claim to do and do it better: Go out there and report stories, interview real people, make sure their voices are heard accurately and without distortion, investigate and produce documents and evidence of official wrongdoing (the staggering public support and donations to Wiki-Leaks, for example, indicate a significant hunger and thirst for this kind of reporting). In sum, the solution is no more complicated than embarking on a humble return to the basics of reporting a news story: the proverbial “who, what, when, where, why and how” of what happens each day in human events.
I can certainly understand how it came to be that WikiLeaks didn’t use our approach instead. We’re only in the position to do this after ten years of publishing, of going through legal hell and back again, and after three sessions of the School of Authentic Journalism which give us the necessary small army of skilled reporters of conscience we could call up on waivers to sift through 250,000 documents and State Department cables and be able to devise a strategy that could have been much more devastating for State power, with a daily water torture of one solidly reported story after another coming out, day after day, and providing the necessary public attention and focus on each of the many important ones.
Instead, WikiLeaks chose to “partner up” with the same big five daily newspapers so responsible for the protection of State power in their respective countries (and, yes, all of them will squawk that to the contrary, they’re at odds with governments, but you and I both know how untrue that is). And the overall result is mass confusion that buries all the stories in these documents under a gigantic mound of distraction.
Sure, WikiLeaks has increased the reach of its own brand name. Was that the primary goal? Again, I don't know. But it has also hastened the day by which other, newer ventures, will replace it in the work of making secret documents public, because, fair or not, it is not at all clear that WikiLeaks itself can withstand the intense scrutiny, reaction and repression now upon it. We’re sympathetic to WikiLeaks. We oppose those attacking it. We will defend it from spurious prosecution (our attorneys, who essentially wrote the law that protects WikiLeaks, are also on standby). We hope it can withstand the firestorm. But we’re reality-based and have seen radical celebrity stories turn quickly to flashes in the pan before. This game ain’t tiddlywinks. There are real consequences at play. And it's tough for metal to go through fire if it wasn't forged in fire, first.
What will remain, though, and it’s a wonderful thing, is that the whole world now knows that anyone can make unseen documents shoot ‘round the world in the course of a day. A thousand whistleblowers, in every land, are pondering the new landscape, with itchy trigger fingers on the send button. And Washington, methinks, protests too much, because the next waves will surely include leaks of documents from other countries, too, probably including from many of its adversaries. And then their Secretaries of State will be likewise screaming bloody murder and issuing stern threats to the media that expose them. The tactic of exposing hidden information is not wed to any ideology or “ism.” It is merely a tool that can be made to work for all sides in any conflict. Don’t be surprised if the next big data dump comes from leaked documents from Iran, or North Korea, Russia or any number of State powers at odds with the United States. This pox will soon be upon all houses of State and upon private corporations, too. (I’ve long said: The next Daniel Ellsberg will have to come from inside the New York Times rather than leaking to it.) And that, too, is as it should be: Information is Life! It finds a way!
I’ll give Jack Shafer the last word here (and await your own in the comments section):
“Information conduits like Julian Assange shock us out of that complacency. Oh, sure, he's a pompous egomaniac sporting a series of bad haircuts and grandiose tendencies. And he often acts without completely thinking through every repercussion of his actions. But if you want to dismiss him just because he's a seething jerk, there are about 2,000 journalists I'd like you to meet.”
Members of the official Fourth Estate, meet your newest member. He’s more like you than you think, and the New York Supreme Court has already issued the precedent by which he enjoys the same legal protections as you do. Your fate is now tied in with his. So cut with the crybaby act and get back to work. The days are counted in which your institutions will be able to pay you to do it anyway, so enjoy it while you can, and if you have documents to leak from inside your media organization, or any other institution, mi email es tu email: email@example.com.
By Al Giordano
(If only the late choreographer, theater and film director Bob Fosse, and head coach Vince Lombardi, were around to advise me now...)
The School of Authentic Journalism that we’ll be able to host for only the fourth time since 2003 - in May 2011, in Mexico - is, to so many who have attended, one of the most intense, pleasing and meaningful life experiences we’ve ever known.
I’ll never forget Johanna Lawrenson’s parting words to the last session of 70 participants from 40 countries back in February on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. I mean, Johanna lived and traveled for fifteen years – seven of them as fugitives – with the late, great Abbie Hoffman, one of the funniest, most exciting and most historic figures of the last century. She noted that she and Abbie had attended hundreds of conferences, gatherings and historic events and moments together, but that “this one, was by far, the best.”
As the school’s “head coach” it’s my responsibility to choose each school’s roster of professors, and, later, the students, all of whom come on scholarships. There are, of course, other coaches on this team with whom I discuss each school’s potential faculty prospects at length and I hear many arguments from different perspectives in favor of, or not, one talent or another and how they combine as a group. But in the end the job falls on me to pick the year’s roster of players. You can’t blame any assistant coaches for bad decisions: they’re mine when all is said and done.
Or, since not everybody relates to sports metaphors, think of it as a Broadway stage production, or a major motion picture: one needs the right combination of actors and other talents to make it work and succeed and have meaning.
It is an unbelievably difficult job, with so many talents to choose from, especially because each season we seek out students from previous years who we think are ready to teach in our subjects of investigative journalism, video production, online reporting and the strategies and tactics of the social movements that we report.
And what inevitably happens is we can’t choose everyone, not every person who has something to teach, nor every person we love and respect. And because the school is an event that so many past participants want so passionately to return to, there is inevitably disappointment – in some cases, even anger and resentment – from some who don’t get invited to come back. Ah well, there is a common expression here in Latin America: "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die to get there."
Others, of course, understand. They applaud and congratulate each new school’s faculty roster, especially the up-and-comers who are promoted from student to professor. They take pride in having helped their colleagues grow and advance. (And not all understand: It is no picnic to be a professor at this school, with me constantly pushing them to prepare better, teach better and do better: It's the students alone who think this school is heaven!) And we really appreciate and respect them even more for their good wishes and willingness to find other ways to collaborate with and stay involved in the very big project that is Narco News. They “get” that having been invited even just once – especially since students pay no tuition and in many cases we pay their air travel, room and board – is a once in a lifetime experience.
Since we are about to announce the j-school 2011 roster of professors and invite everyone in the world to fill out applications to convince us why we want them to attend as students, I want to explain our criteria to all for how we went about choosing the 2011 faculty.
There have been about 180 student and professor positions from more than fifty countries that have participated in previous Schools of Authentic Journalism as either professors, students or staff. Since some professors return from school to school, and some students are promoted to professor in subsequent schools, I would estimate that around 150 to 160 people have passed through its doors and received at least one diploma. Most of them are still considered very valued colleagues and collaborators and, most importantly, our friends. We wish we could invite every one of them. But for 2011, we will have 40 new students, and space for a maximum of 40 professors and staff, and we can’t choose all our friends to come. Instead, we choose the people we think will be the best teachers of the lessons we want to teach.
Other factors are geographic and language balance (the school is bilingual, in that everything is translated to and from English and Spanish while it is happening), having enough personnel in each category of learning that we teach (kinds of media, a broad set of skills, and the all-important strategic dynamics of movements curriculum) and – I’m especially a stickler on this, because too many “progressive” events seem to have terrible disequilibrium when it comes to this – gender balance. We also try to have all age groups represented, too.
The truth is, the only faculty that has absolute job security for these (unpaid, and thus doubly impressive how coveted they are) professor positions are the school’s “social directors,” Tiberio and Maia, because they’re a big part of the reason that almost everybody always wants to return! The rest have to fill the very specific teaching and staff needs that are also necessary, and work very hard with us over the coming months to give our collective and individual absolute best to the students. And we build our roster from there.
Now that letters have gone out to next year’s professor corps – 31 experienced professors and nine 2010 students invited to come back as professors (almost all of whom confirmed within 24 hours, to give you an idea of the passions for the school) – word has begun to circulate among the j-school community and some folks, upon realizing they didn’t get “the letter,” have responded with the gamut of possible emotions and reactions. Some apparently felt a sense of entitlement and are upset, even angry, that they won’t be teaching this year. I’ve been on the receiving end of some frosty communications and a very few others have put spins on it and decided to respond with speculation and/or gossip to others about why they think they were “rejected” or “excluded.” I suppose that is human nature, but it’s not very professional, is it?
I really should talk to some theater directors or sports coaches about this whole process, because I find it interesting: Like, let’s say you once got the most wonderful present – a scholarship to what probably was the most fun and meaningful school or team or Broadway performance you ever attended in your life – but then didn’t get a second ticket to perform on the next run of the show or the next season on the ball field. I’ve known some great actors, actresses, entertainers and even some sports figures who handle this sort of thing like pros. They know that you don’t get called up after every audition, but there will be another audition for a future show and your chances haven’t ended to be part of it in the future. And stuff can even happen between now and next May, when the show premiers and the season begins! There is always the chance of being called up on waivers if another player or actor is injured or falls ill or gets a better gig. Especially for the pros who carry themselves as such.
Anyway, for the rest of you who are not in the middle of this community (not yet, but we hope you someday will be), you can look forward to the upcoming release of the awesome faculty roster for the May 2011 School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico. And I hope you’ll congratulate and wish every starting player, each leading and supporting actor, and the all-important crew behind the curtain the best. And if you would like to show your support by tossing a coin or two into the cup, please do so, because this happens only because enough of you do.
Together, we’re about to pull off the biggest, and hopefully the best, School of Authentic Journalism yet. The theme will be “Movement Strategies for Journalists.” And we’ll usher in yet another next generation of auténticos whose good works you’ll be reading, viewing and informed by for years to come.
And even if you don’t attend, even more of the curriculum will be shared with you via Narco News TV and the stories our students post on these pages.
Meanwhile, I just look up at the skies and say, “Where are you, Bob Fosse and Vince Lombardi, when I need your counsel now?!”
By Al Giordano
Poster made for the 2010 Narco News J-school by Ellen Fields. Photo DR 2010 Mariana Simoes.
They say it’s the quiet ones who will get ya. If you’ve been around this page enough you know that when I’ve been quiet for a spell it indicates that there’s been a lot churning behind this screen, all in preparation to bring something special back to you. And before these words are done, you’ll be the recipient of some exciting news, indeed. But first, hear me out, because we need your collaboration to make it happen.
Regular readers of Narco News have been able to follow, in recent days and weeks, the Mexican town of Atenco’s struggle against what may be a government plan to resurrect the international airport project that the locals defeated in 2002, and follow the gathering of “Other Campaign” participants last weekend in that town, and of two other towns that prevented Walmart from building stores there. You also now know how the people of Tepoztlán organized to expel their police chief, and about farmworkers’s victories on both sides of the border.
Most of those stories - all important, all worthwhile - weren't reported by any other publication. This is the only place where all of them appeared.
You also know about the continued boom in herbicidal fumigation of coca crops in Colombia, and the true facts about Ecuador’s indigenous movements and their ongoing struggle against hostile governments from the right and from the left. You know these things because in recent weeks, Narco News School of Authentic Journalism graduates Fernando Leon and Erin Rosa have investigated and reported them to you. As it was with Joe Hill, where people organize, fight and win against powerful interests, it’s there you’ll find Narco News. In fact, through our reports, it’s there you’ll find yourself... and a mirror to your own daily struggles from which we all learn to be faster, better and more coherent at righting the wrongs all around us.
Meanwhile, investigative reporter Bill Conroy continues breaking story after story that expose the US-imposed “war on drugs” and he drives the official censors crazy with Freedom of Information Act requests and dogged persistence. And when I’m not bailing water and plugging leaks to keep this ship of authentic journalism afloat, I hope that my writings and reports, as well as those of all our other participants, have likewise been of value to you.
But the time has come when I need to ask you again for the favor of your participation and support, because we’ve been bailing water too much lately and that sometimes slows down the voyage.
Daily, from every continent, in different languages, people come to these pages to know a little bit more about events and news that other media don’t report. And supporters from every continent have donated over the past ten years to make it possible for us to keep doing it. Today I have a special request of our readers and supporters in the United States: We held back this autumn from asking for your donations because we knew so many of you were putting your all into Proposition 19 in California and other important November elections and community organizing efforts. Sometimes when we’re not asking, it’s not because we don’t have a need: it’s because we respect that others may have needed your time and resources more at that moment.
But now we are in real need:
- We’ve been working without a webmaster since September 24 because the previous one left unannounced for greener pastures before we could hire a new one, and we haven’t had the funds to be able to bring anyone new on board. Meanwhile, technical glitches and problems are beginning to impede our ability to keep this online newspaper up and running to bring so much real news to you.
- We are various months late in our payments to our Internet service provider, to which we owe $129 a month.
- We have two full-time reporters to whom we provide modest monthly stipends and who give their all, every day and night, to this work.
- We went two thousand dollars in debt over the summer (when fundraising is difficult to impossible) to be able to meet all our obligations.
You’re probably scratching your head and thinking, “$129 bucks? Stipends? A couple thousand dollars for a summer full of hard-hitting journalism? That’s nothing!” And it is almost nothing compared to the resources that other news organizations and projects eat up to accomplish far less. But we’re not in this for the money. And we’ve learned to live close to the land in order to give you the most for the least. We’re in this because we have a mission: to break the information blockades and usher in the authentic journalism renaissance.
And we’re doing quite well at that mission, but we need a booster shot right now.
Please pull out your bank or credit card and make whatever donation you can afford, today, right now if you can, to The Fund for Authentic Journalism to support the work of Narco News. You can do that online by clicking this link:
Or you can mail a check to:
The Fund for Authentic Journalism
P.O. Box 1446
Easthampton, MA 01027 USA
Do you know that the hardest part of this wonderful work is having to ask you for your help? We know you have your own daily struggles, too. But many small contributions – plus a few larger ones, when possible – have always added up to keep this ship a’ sail.
Now, with that part out of the way, we do have an exciting announcement to make:
The next School of Authentic Journalism will be held in May 2011 in Mexico City and its mountain regions. Our friends at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, who supported the 2010 j-school last February on the Yucatán Peninsula, are ready to support us to create 40 scholarships in authentic journalism, the largest Narco News j-school ever. But to be in the position to accept that support, we have to demonstrate, as always, that we also stand on our own two feet and are self-sufficient as a news organization with enough reader support to continue to be viable at this important work you help us to do.
Starting today, every dollar you contribute to The Fund for Authentic Journalism, up to $20,000, will receive matching support – toward the 2011 j-school and its scholarships – from that organization. We were very pleased with the results of the 2010 school and the work that its graduates are now doing as they report from every corner of the hemisphere and even the world.
So click this link and know that your donation will be doubled:
Or mail a check to:
The Fund for Authentic Journalism
P.O. Box 1446
Easthampton, MA 01027 USA
…and that, too, will be matched.
So not only will you, by participating and contributing, keep Narco News reporting, but you’ll pave the way to scout, recruit, select and train forty more talents of conscience to unleash upon this world and all the unreported stories in it.
In fact, we're pretty sure you know somebody who should apply for the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism. So start working on 'em while keeping an eye on these pages for upcoming information about how to receive an application.
Everybody complains about “the media.” And they’re right to do so. We do it every day. But what other news organization or journalism school is doing anything to change it from below by mounting a global army of authentic journalists to do even more of the work that you come to these pages to read?
This is your project. Every day, for more than ten years, it has been for you and for the people whose struggles we report that we have had good reason to exist.
Let’s keep a good thing going.
Have you made your donation yet?
Oh, good. Because now I have something else to show you!
From somewhere in a country called Europe, via the online publication Open Democracy, today I publish what others might call the theoretical and practical underpinnings of the authentic journalism renaissance:
Authentic Journalism: Weapon of the People
For the first seven years of Narco News, we reported mainly from Latin America and along the US-Mexico border. In 2007 and 2008, I turned my pen back toward the United States (all the while maintaining our unparalleled coverage from Latin America) and a new generation of readers - Field Hands! - joined those already here. The year 2010 brought with it definitive lessons about how the mass media disfigures democracy, and we have the unique and innovative plan to combat them.
With this one small push from enough of you right now, we can set the stage for the authentic journalism movement to go global, and, again, without dropping the ball in this hemisphere one iota. At the May 2011 School of Authentic Journalism, we hope to find about ten outstanding talents of conscience from Africa, Asia, Europe and all corners of this earth with whom to join forces in this hemispheric - soon to be worldwide - project of mutual aid among real independent journalists and communicators, and bring them to Mexico, too.
I’ll have a rapid-fire series of related announcements in the coming days and weeks, but first we need $129 to pay our Internet rent, some months of back rent, a couple of monthly stipends for our terrific hard-working reporters, a new webmaster and a stipend for him or her, and to pay off a small debt. And to think, every cent and peso of it will be matched to begin our grand march around the globe to make this renaissance truly worldwide. It doesn’t take much. It never has. But it does take a little.
Thank you so much for your continued support. We have so much more work to do together.
From somewhere in a country called América,
By Al Giordano
Today is Election Day in the United States and all activities should properly begin with a G and be followed by O, T and V. You know that already.
And between phone calls, door knocks, and shuttling people to the polls, and especially in those hours between polls closing and when the results come in, I wanted to give y’all something to think and talk about that - no matter what the election results will be - is going to fast become a long overdue national (and international) public conversation.
As Jon Stewart put it so well on Saturday, the real threat to democracy stands naked before us all: It’s the media.
There is nothing threatening about a free press, which is a wonderful thing, always. But the bought-and-paid-for “news organizations,” an entire system of them, the ones with that permanent “for rent” sign pasted to their foreheads - including the ones that claim to be on our side - now must be identified as Public Enemy number one, and dispensed with as such.
Elections come and go every couple or few years, depending on your country of residence, and entire industries are devoted to what Pat Cadell presciently labeled in 1976 as The Permanent Campaign. In fact, the considerable booty received by political consultants, pollsters, staffers, party bureaucrats and others in that genre is dwarfed by the financial rewards each election brings to the commercial media (and, sorry, bloggers that depend on advertising are also part of the commercial media, let’s end the charade right here and now). Most of the money raised for political candidates is spent on TV, radio, newspaper and Internet ads, as well as putting on the free show that media organizations can produce as “news” and use to rent your attention to advertisers.
Which is why I was, before it happened, skeptical about Saturday’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the Washington Mall produced by Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I enjoy both those guys and their TV shows well enough when I get the chance to see them. But after a couple years in which the so called “alternative media” – from “liberal” MSNBC hosts to “netroots” bloggers to the Huffington Post to state-run media that claim to be leftist or socialist or whatever in parts of Latin America and the world – have proved themselves to be as ugly and snarling and petty (and reckless with the truth) as Fox News, in that context, I was bracing myself for a huge disappointment with Stewart and Colbert’s rally.
Truth is, I had forgotten the Stewart-Colbert event was going to happen – it wasn’t that much on my mind - and had planned on spending a beautiful sunny Saturday away from the screen. Then I made the mistake of checking email Saturday morning and clicking a link and there it was, live streaming on C-Span, with Colbert playing the spastic Dean Martin role to Stewart’s Frank Sinatra.
I had already heard complaints from democracy’s best (maybe only) friends, community and field organizers, that Comedy Central’s scheduling of the rally would pull many attendees off the phone banks and door-to-door canvasses to get out the vote today. But what the hell, it must be good for a few laughs, and there I was, sucked, like so many others, into its vortex, another spectator among millions.
After all, I thought, Tuesday’s US elections might well go as badly as the media keeps telling us they will, so might as well look for something to laugh rather than cry about. And the Colbert-Stewart schtick on the Washington Mall was entertaining enough, and it was nice to be made to feel that folks like us are the real mainstream, and they got in some clever zingers exposing the hypocrisy not just of Fox News but of the wolves in sheep’s clothing that are the New York Times and National Public Radio. Hooray! But I still felt kind of empty about it, and annoyed with its timing, until at the end when Jon Stewart delivered “the speech.”
Stewart’s speech was a really important moment, and here is why I think so.
Now, I was just a kid when Sinatra premiered the Claude Francois, Jaques Revaux and Paul Anka-penned “My Way,” but I imagine that for the millions of us who watched Jon Stewart get serious and sincere on live TV on Saturday that it was probably, for many of us, a moment like that of a previous generation hearing the “I did it my way” anthem for the first time. It was historic, and it came by surprise from a stage that we did not expect it to come from.
In a few brief minutes, Stewart defined the real problem with politics, identified it as the neighborhood bully in the global village, and delivered a staggering left hook to its jaw. And the bully’s apologists and wannabes are still quite concussed and off balance. “Jon Stewart has met the enemy, and it’s the media,” fretted our fine feathered friends at Politico. And the hen house has been clucking ever since.
To wit, the predictably smarmy reaction from the New York Times:
The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear will be remembered, in part, as an expensive, engrossing act of media criticism.
Jon Stewart, the comedian who hosted the Comedy Central rally alongside Stephen Colbert, spoke about the press as an “immune system” for the country — one that he evidently thinks is extremely sick. His words echoed up and down the National Mall on Saturday afternoon. National Journal wound up wondering if the event should have been called the Rally to Restore Journalism.
Mr. Stewart has ventured into serious media criticism before on “The Daily Show” and in appearances on CNN and Fox News. But Saturday’s comments were notable because hundreds of journalists were in attendance, standing on a press riser near the stage and interviewing rallygoers in the crowd.
The media’s flaws also came up time and time again in the crowd…
An “expensive, engrossing act of media criticism” they called it (as if putting out a single day’s edition of the boring and status quo chasing NY Times isn’t at least as expensive and engrossing as Comedy Central’s Saturday afternoon gathering of hundreds of thousands of its closest friends). Anyway, the Times had banned its employees from attending the rally, which earned it one of Colbert’s “fear awards” handed out during the event.
The aforementioned National Journal story said:
Maybe it's a good thing many mainstream journalists weren't allowed to attend the "Rally to Restore Sanity." They wouldn't be the most popular people there.
For, in a protest against a culture of yelling, journalists are drawing much of the ire...
The Christian Science Monitor – no longer a hard copy newspaper but, rather, an exclusively online rag, which probably makes it a bit more sensitized to new realities of media, engaged in some pre-rally navel gazing:
If you thought the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear ” coming up on Oct. 30 in Washington was just a date for some good laughs and maybe hot entertainment, think again. It is also shaping up as yet another event in the ongoing dialogue about where journalism is headed in the brave world of new media, where points of view are welcome.
I’m always amazed at these graduates of the “the best journalism schools” who misunderstand it all. They seem to think that the conflict is between journalists who can disclose our opinions and those who think they can’t. The real conflict is between those who seek the to involve the people in discovering the whole truth, and those pursuing ratings and advertising or sponsors, who think they are somehow a caste above the plebes. But, anyway...
Well, enough of what the recipients of Stewart’s critique have to say. Let’s listen or read together to much of what Stewart actually said that has so many of their panties – I’m winkin’ at you, Keith Olbermann – in a bunch. Stewart said:
I can’t control what people think this was. I can only tell you my intentions. This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies.
But unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24 hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying up to our problems bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic.
If we amplify everything we hear nothing…
The press is our immune system. If we overreact to everything we actually get sicker--and perhaps eczema.
And yet, with that being said, I feel good—strangely, calmly good. Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a fun house mirror, and not the good kind that makes you look slim in the waist and maybe taller, but the kind where you have a giant forehead and an ass shaped like a month old pumpkin and one eyeball.
So, why would we work together? Why would you reach across the aisle to a pumpkin assed forehead eyeball monster? If the picture of us were true, of course, our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable. Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution or racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own? We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is—on the brink of catastrophe—torn by polarizing hate and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done, but the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day!
The only place we don’t is here or on cable TV. But Americans don’t live here or on cable TV. Where we live our values and principles form the foundations that sustains us while we get things done, not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done. Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do—often something that they do not want to do—but they do it--impossible things every day that are only made possible by the little reasonable compromises that we all make.
Look on the screen. This is where we are. This is who we are.
(Stewart then uses a large video screen as a visual prop, showing an aerial view of what looks like an entrance to the Holland or Lincoln tunnels that connect New Jersey with New York and a four lane highway narrowing into two lanes as traffic enters the tunnel.)
These cars—that’s a schoolteacher who probably thinks his taxes are too high. He’s going to work. There’s another car-a woman with two small kids who can’t really think about anything else right now. There’s another car, swinging, I don’t even know if you can see it—the lady’s in the NRA and she loves Oprah. There’s another car—an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car’s a Latino carpenter. Another car a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan. But this is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief and principles they hold dear—often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers.
And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile long 30 foot wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river. Carved, by the way, by people who I’m sure had their differences. And they do it. Concession by conscession. You go. Then I’ll go. You go. Then I’ll go. You go then I’ll go. Oh my God, is that an NRA sticker on your car? Is that an Obama sticker on your car? Well, that’s okay—you go and then I’ll go.
And sure, at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute, but that individual is rare and he is scorned and not hired as an analyst.
Because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey. But we do it anyway, together.
If you want to know why I’m here and want I want from you, I can only assure you this: you have already given it to me. Your presence was what I wanted.
Sanity will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder. To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine. Thank you.
Our friend Tom Watson’s response was to playfully tag Stewart as America’s First Jewish President, which has a nice ring to it. And in the sense that a significant sector of society is finally coming to the long overdue conclusion that media is the central problem of our times could be defined as a nation, of sorts, or a shared state of mind, Stewart certainly gave voice to the one problem the media won’t and can’t honestly address: Itself. It took a “comedy” commentator to be able to talk plainly and matter-of-factly about it.
And now I understood why Stewart called and produced the rally: He is thinking beyond this news cycle (“election day” and its consequences) and toward what, tonight and tomorrow, comes next.
In 1996, I wrote:
Media now controls a new economic order: one that has supplanted governments, churches and productive industry to impose a mediating tyranny over people and our Daily Lives.
Among the 30,000 words I penned for that essay, were these:
The public is angry, of course, but Media channels our hostility toward each other, as groups and market niches, instead of against the overall phenomena of Middlemen and their mediating technologies. Ah but we notice at fissure in its vessel: Media has programmed us well to seek scapegoats, and has test-marketed every scapegoat upon us except itself.
Everything we’ve created since, for the past 14 years, from Narco News to the School of Authentic Journalism to The Field, has been building and preparing for public opinion to find its voice on the problem of media, helping to inform it when we can, and constructing these laboratories to invent and test what we, the people, can do to replace the media and make it less powerful over our daily lives. And we’ve risen up a small army or network of like-minded authentic journalists across international lines, many of whom are conducting their own experiments and inventions. We suffer from a perpetual lack of resources (okay, that is sugar-coating it: we live in abject poverty, many of us in the so-called “third world”) and generally those who already have plenty of money are disinterested, or too dependent on maintaining good relations with big media themselves, or outright hostile to the suggestion that the whole “news media” show needs to be blown up and something new created from the ground up. But we don't complain. We'd rather be here than there.
Back in 2007, when I was reporting on the Obama campaign and its resurrection of community organizing as a political tool, I was very impressed with its “Camp Obama,” in which tens of thousands of mostly young people from every demographic in the US were trained in its fine but then forgotten arts. And I suggested to the big guns of Obama’s political organization – David Plouffe, David Axelrod, at the time Marshall Ganz - that they expand the concept to also start a kind of “Obama Media Camp” training program and form an army of independent video makers, reporters and communicators in all forms of media to construct a counterforce to the dominant media discourse. After all, its something we had already invented through The School of Authentic Journalism, it works, and if applied on a mass grassroots level, a political movement would no longer be dependent on or victim of the very different and often hostile operating procedures of commercial media. They were busy with other things, understandably, but I bet that, after today’s elections, they’ll wish they had done something like that.
Every grassroots citizen movement in every country has to start building its own media, now, urgently, immediately, to have a fighting chance at defining itself and its message before public opinion, or big media will continue pummeling the hope and inspiration out of everyone.
And that’s why Jon Stewart’s message on Saturday came at the exact opportune moment in history, because starting tonight, more and more people in the United States and elsewhere are going to realize that the problem in our cultures is much bigger than mere politics. The broken political systems are mere symptoms of what Stewart described when he observed: “The press is our immune system. If we overreact to everything we actually get sicker.” Every time I have written against panic and “Chicken Little” approaches to politics, it has been from that same instinct: that overreaction makes its practitioners not only useless as change agents, but also unattractive and unappealing to the great mass of people out here who we need to organize and convince to get almost anything real done.
After the success of Stewart and Colbert’s rally (plenty of credit should also go Colbert’s way because he so artfully plays the “insane” role that allows Stewart to effectively play the voice of “sanity”), a lot of folks in the media, especially those who market themselves as “alternative” media, will be acting as if they are enthusiastic supporters of Stewart’s message while they continue behaving like “liberal” versions of Fox News (which is why I’m kind of relieved to see Keith Olbermann’s Twitter outburst, “It wasn't a big shark but Jon Stewart jumped one just now with the ‘everybody on The cable is the same’ naiveté,” inadvertently demonstrating the truth of what the MSNBC host was denying).
Sorry, Keith (and Arianna, and even my once-and-future little brothers Markos and Nate, there is still a place for you all among the people when you decide to go for broke instead of going for the money, and we'll all welcome you back with open arms). It doesn’t matter who plays the token liberal roles on TeeVee or newspapers or magazines or radio or the Internet as long as y’all are playing the same ratings and advertising driven game; drumming up the outrage and the poutrage, making every pothole seem like an earthquake, desperately trying to hang on to a public that is evidently tuning out on all that. It is the game board itself that has to be torn up and something else altogether invented from the bottom up to replace it.
And I know that a great many of the millions who saw Stewart’s sincere remarks Saturday live from the Washington Mall, or since, “get” that at the most profound level. The question of what we now do about it is one we have been asking and answering for ten years from this web address and out beyond it in the realm of daily life. And Stewart has opened up a hole in the media system that we can and must now jackhammer, fracture and make bigger in order to drive a stake through its heartless pacemaker.
Saturday was a heroic moment for Jon Stewart, who may yet disappoint us, still, but for now is on fire, and good on him. All props to him and his team, a Sinatra Rat Pack for our times. And I’m reminded of Aunt May’s speech to Peter Parker in Spider Man 2, on point:
Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they'll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer. I believe there's a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams...
I have a feeling that was what Jon Stewart’s words meant for a lot of people on Saturday, and since. And starting Wednesday, the organizing begins anew to do something big about it, to make and be the change we might not have made electorally in 2010. We have it in our collective power to organize something really, truly, authentically historic, to make history once again: To get this yoke of “the media” off our necks. Never mind the scoreboard at the end of a single Election Day. Elections come and go. It’s the other 360-something days a year when we really control our destinies or not. Elections are important. There is no denying it. But every single other day and night of the year has import, too. Let’s keep perspective, and never panic. Yes, we will. And we shall overcome.
By Al Giordano
You may have heard that Democrats have a problem this November and are at risk of losing control of the US Congress in Tuesday's elections. Whose fault is that? I’m going to tell you the whole truth even though many of you won’t like hearing it: If the House goes down, it’s going to be the fault of white people.
No, I’m not talking about Republicans or Tea Party bigots. I’m talking about white Democrats and liberals who don’t turn out to vote in midterm elections. Hey liberal pundits and bloggers: We have met the enemy and it is us. Look no farther than the mirror to find a scapegoat for next Tuesday’s electoral debacle if it happens.
With Nate Silver predicting a 52 vote swing in the US House to the Republican side (39 are needed to change the party in power) and the Cook Report estimating GOP gains of 48 to 60 seats, and Jay Cost saying it could be way more than 60, and lots of chatter about an “enthusiasm gap” in which Republican voters will turn out in bigger numbers while enough Democrats stay home to throw them the US House gavel, I can’t find any data (except in California, where Democrats are going to be just fine; and that’s good for Democrats, because California has the most US House seats, 53, of any state) to demonstrate otherwise. In other words, I’m saying they’re probably right, and the Democrats have only one Hail Mary pass left and its name is Organizing for America. And if the day is saved it is OfA and its army of volunteers - that might be you - that will deserve all the credit and none of the blame if it goes the other way.
I had hoped to be able to identify the 20 or 30 key Congressional Districts in play this year and wrap them up neatly for you here. The problem is that even now, just six days out, there are as many as 100 districts in play (yes, if everything goes wrong for Democrats all at once, Tuesday could be a massacre nearing those proportions): roughly one out of every five districts and almost half of all US House Democrats are at some risk (in fact, it is about half of all Democratic seats outside of California that could be in play).
Pundits are wondering aloud why it is that the Democrats can be in such danger of losing the House, but appear to be on the verge of maintaining a Senate majority. They tend to settle on, “well, Senate races are more personality driven,” and to a limited extent that is true. But here is the real reason why Democratic Senators are safer next Tuesday than so many Democratic US House members: Congressional districting.
Every ten years state legislatures are given the new census numbers and told how many US House seats their state will have, and are then charged with drawing a new map to reflect population shifts so that all Congressional Districts have roughly the same size of population. And in general, district lines are drawn to create black districts, white districts and, increasingly, Hispanic districts. And African American leaders and organizations are all for this because they get more Congressional representation by members of their demographic group. And white leaders and organizations are all for this because they get to have districts where their politicians don’t even have to shake many black people’s hands, much less attend to the needs and demands of that (more organized) sector of the American citizenry. And everybody in power is happy with this deal – courts have even backed it up – until, perhaps, now, when it is going to have a real impact.
But back to the Senate contests: Why are enough Democratic US Senate seats likely to remain Democratic while in those very same states US House seats are going to the GOP? It’s because they can’t redistrict state lines to separate the whites and the blacks. And those who blab on about an “enthusiasm gap” between Democrats and Republicans obviously talk only to white folks, because among African-Americans there is no lack enthusiasm or voter participation. If anything, they’re more enthusiastic to turn out and vote this year than Republicans and tea baggers. And since African-Americans are the reliable core of the Democratic “base vote,” white liberal pundits and bloggers who whine that “Obama hasn’t fired up the base” obviously have the same problem a lot of white politicians have in that they don’t have much exposure to black folks in daily life. They certainly don’t have a clue as to who makes up “the Democratic base.” The biggest demographic sector of “the base” is already fired up and ready to vote. So who is not as likely to vote? Young white people, mostly; those cell phone voters we identified last week in California who are likely turning out there because Proposition 19 to legalize and tax marijuana is on the ballot, but who don’t exactly identify with the political culture of Washington of which Democratic politicians, like Republicans, too often resemble wind-up Ken and Barbie dolls with strings pulled by lobbyists and special interests. They look the same, they sound the same, and they say the same empty phrases over and over again whenever their strings are pulled.
These folks turned out in record numbers in 2008 because presidential candidate Barack Obama didn’t look or sound the same. And he’s still different, and still popular (more popular than Reagan or Clinton were at this point in their first terms) and no matter how it goes down on Tuesday he’ll likely still be reelected in 2012, because then everybody will turn out to vote.
With only one exception I can think of, virtually all the Democratic House members going down on Tuesday represent predominantly white districts outside of California. Congressional redistricting has literally zoned them out of representation of African-American voters. Thus, there is no cavalry coming to rescue them if you can't or won't do it.
But if Democrat Joe Sestak suddenly pulls off a surprise victory in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, it will be because the 9.6 percent of that state’s population that is African-American rescued him. And if Alex Giannoulias pulls out a come-from-behind victory to become the junior Senator from Illinois, that will be because the 14.6 percent of that state’s population that is African-American put him over the top. If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid survives, guess who will have saved his ass? The 6.4 percent of Nevadans who are African-American, voting in bigger numbers than their actual per capita of the population. Senator Russ Feingold: the 5.4 percent of the people you represent in Wisconsin may be your last hope, too. They're turning out to vote. It's the rest of the citizenry that poses a problem.
Democratic Senators Patty Murray in Washington state, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Michael Bennett in Colorado, and US Senate candidate Paul Hodes in New Hampshire – all in states where African-Americans make up less than five percent of the vote – will only win if young white and Hispanic voters get their butts to the polls on Tuesday. (And, frankly, Sestak, Giannoulias, Reid and Feingold need plenty of that kind of help too.) Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer in California is likely going to get reelected because the marijuana referendum will pull enough young voters to the polls (and also because the 6.1 percent of her state’s population that is African-American will turn out in big numbers).
For the Democratic Senate and House candidates in overwhelmingly white states and districts, the last and only hope is the ground war: that their field organizations and that of Organizing for America can drag enough first time voters from 2008 and other young and Hispanic folks who don’t usually vote in midterm elections and get them to the ballot box (or bring the mail-in ballot to them). Organizing for America is targeting these potential voters and also you. They want you to help make seven million phone calls this week, something, they remind, that you can do from home or work and they’ll set you up with the list, the script or even invite you to a phone bank location in your area where you can do it together with other interesting people like you who aren’t just sitting around complaining and worrying.
There is no doubt that Democrats will suffer losses next Tuesday. Almost always, the party in the White House loses some Congressional seats during the midterms. That’s the contrary nature of so much of the American electorate: If I can’t find my socks this morning, it’s the fault of the party in power. But whether Tuesday is the electoral blow-out that so many in the media are predicting, or closer to a normal midterm result, is not up to Obama, and will not be because of “what Obama did or didn’t do,” and anybody who comes around next Wednesday or beyond trying to sell that used car will get interrogated from this corner: How many phone calls did you personally make? How many voters did you personally turn out? Hit the phones, or pound sand. Armchair presidents need not apply. Between now and Tuesday, we’re all Mr. and Mrs. President. That’s how democracy was designed to work. The only missed opportunity this week will be your own.
By Al Giordano
Throughout the 2008 presidential primaries and election I frequently cited polls by SurveyUSA, or SUSA, as the ones that best helped me to be able to pick the winner in 51 out of 55 primary contests and 51 out of 54 Electoral College entities in November. I don’t know if SUSA provided the most accurate polling or not, but I consider their reports to be the most detailed and transparent, with plenty of demographic data to extract with which to be able to see the deeper currents and undertows beneath the up-and-down horse race numbers.
SUSA’s poll results this week showing a narrow (48 to 44 percent) lead for California’s Proposition 19 – to legalize and tax marijuana – actually reveals more of a mixed bag for the referendum’s proponents than many presume, and I’ll explain exactly what is going on in a moment, but first I wanted to draw attention to something the pollsters wrote in their own analysis: That some Democratic party candidates in California – we’re lookin’ at you Senator Barbara Boxer – are going to win or lose based on whether Proposition 19 pulls enough infrequent voters to the polls. And this is paradoxical because Boxer is among the many Democrats who have voiced opposition to Prop 19, and the lessons that come out of November 2 will ring her bell and go all the way up to the White House and into the 2012 election cycle.
SUSA titles its analysis, “Some Evidence That California's Marijuana Tail is Wagging Barbara Boxer's Dog; Voters Without Home Phones, Voters Focused on Decriminalization, May Tip Senate.” In sum, the pollsters have identified the key factor in Boxer’s contest vs. Republican Carly Fiorina, who leads narrowly with 46 percent over 44 percent for the incumbent. By looking separately at voters who only use cell phones, those who have both cell and home phones, and those only with home telephones, SUSA has found significant differences in the voting intentions of the cell phone-only citizens and the rest. It is no secret to young people (of all ages) who use cell phones exclusively that they are culturally distinct from land liners in ways that extend beyond hardware preferences.
Nomadic, and on the move, more reliant on the Internet than the television for their news intake, they’re the future of the United States. And they’re also a lot more multi-racial – and more actively defy societal apartheids - than the rest of the population. OMG! Wait… wait… see that little light bulb popping on over our heads? By Jove, I think we get it! Those are the 2008 first time Obama voters, duh! And getting them to vote in the midterm elections is the biggest headache that the White House and the Democratic party has right now leading up to November 2.
But it is less of a headache in California this year, precisely because Proposition 19 is on the ballot. And not only because many youngsters want cheaper, cleaner and safer access to marijuana: Younger African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and others who don’t smoke pot at all but have grown up with the experience of being hassled by police and searched “for drugs” know first hand that the drug war is a cruel scam that is, at least in part, intended to keep them down and put them in prison and on parole. It puts them at a disadvantage in the competition for jobs and careers and opens them to more discrimination in every realm of life. They know that white folks use most of the drugs, but they and their family members are the ones being sent to jail for it. Before we look at age and race as factors in the upcoming vote, let’s first look at the voter tendencies among cell phone users vs. land liners:
As you can see, 62 percent of those who exclusively use cell phones (labeled "CPO, liv") will vote to legalize and tax marijuana while only 29 percent oppose it. They’re just seven percent of the potential electorate, but whether they vote or not makes them the proverbial “swing voters” of 2010, and not just in California.
Now lets look at preferences by age (and, yes, I’m getting to the lesson for everyone in US politics, but especially for Democrats, before these words are done) and by race:
As you can see, among California “hippies” (ha ha, have a sense of humor, Gramps), the 50-64 age group, marijuana legalization enjoys a 48 percent to 40 percent lead, but it’s among voters under the age of 34 where Proposition 19 gets the margin of victory it needs to push it over the top: 59 percent of those voters favor the ballot question to just 33 percent against. Elderly folks are the biggest obstacle for the referendum, with 57 percent against to just 37 percent in favor.
Meanwhile, all racial groups – white, black, Hispanic – except, according to this poll, for Asian-Americans (and at 12 percent of the survey – about 73 respondents – that stat is likely from a survey sample not large enough to get an accurate reading) favor Prop 19, with the highest margin of victory among Hispanic Californians. Since demographically they are younger than the rest of the population, I would venture that age has at least as much to do with that result as race does. Those numbers also confirm something I’ve talked to the organizers of Prop 19 about since the effort began: That they must avoid making the same mistake as opponents of Proposition 8 (the illegal ban on gay marriage) in 2008 did: that Prop 19 needed a much more aggressive community organizing and field campaign among blacks and Hispanics. These numbers, and the moves I’ve watched them make over the past year, indicate that they are aggressively campaigning across all racial lines. And if Proposition 19 wins, that will be the number one reason why it triumphed.
Now, onto some more interesting numbers from the same SUSA survey, which bring us back to the larger question-of-the-month in all United States politics and elections:
Most Democrats and Independents favor marijuana legalization. Most Republicans oppose it. Most moderates and liberals favor Prop 19. Most conservatives oppose it. Most people who dislike the “Tea Party” will vote yes, while most who like it (and a smaller group, noted) will vote no. It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science or in polling to see the overlap between Proposition 19’s constituency and that of the Democratic Party and its future.
It is on this point that SurveyUSA mines the data and states what ought to be obvious. “Much learning out of California,” they note, with considerable understatement:
United States Senator Barbara Boxer,Democrat, nominally trails Republican Carly Fiorina among California likely voters interviewed on their home telephones, but, among voters who do not have a home telephone, and who were interviewed by SurveyUSA on their cellphone, Boxer leads 2:1. When the two groups are proportionally blended, SurveyUSA pegs it as Boxer 46%, Fiorina 44%, very much within the survey's theoretical margin of sampling error, and still too close to call, but indicative of how important voters without home phones are if Boxer is to hold her Senate seat, and, as fate may have it, if Democrats are to keep majority control of the United States Senate.”
Then, the pollsters ask aloud: “What's the Tail and What's the Dog Here?” Well, well... guess which dog is soon going to finally have its day:
“SurveyUSA includes a question designed to see if those who rarely vote in congressional elections, but who tell SurveyUSA they are uniquely motivatedto vote in 2010, are voting Republican. One theory underlying much of the 2010 campaign narrative is that Republicans are uniquely motivated, Democrats uniquely dispirited. In other geographies, this question produces expected learning: uniquely motivated 2010 voters are in fact more Republican than habitual midterm voters.
“In California, the opposite. Uniquely motivated 2010 voters are more Democratic, turning a 4-point Democratic advantage among habitual voters in the race for Governor into the 7-point Democratic advantage that SurveyUSA reports here; turning a 2-point Democratic advantage among habitual voters in the Lieutenant Governor's contest into the 6-point Democratic advantage SurveyUSA reports here, and turning a 2-point advantage for "Yes" on marijuana into the 4-point "Yes" advantage that SurveyUSA reports here. But in the Senate contest: the incumbent Democrat trailsby 4 points among habitual voters, and nominally leads by the 2 points that SurveyUSA reports here only when these uniquely motivated voters are included….”
And here comes the money quote:
“Subject to the limitations of a small sample size, the data may suggest that what is uniquely motivating Californians is marijuana. Uniquely motivated voters vote 7:4 to decriminalize marijuana. The even smaller subset of uniquely motivated voters interviewed on a cellphone is voting 12:1 ‘Yes’ on marijuana. Are the ‘Yes’ on marijuana voters the tail wagging Barbara Boxer's dog?This is more plausible to SurveyUSA than the reverse, which would be that 3-term incumbent Boxer has a unique tractor-beam in 2010 that is drawing to the polls otherwise disaffected voters who just happen to be pushing Proposition 19 over the top.”
(Emphasis in bold text added by The Field.)
Interestingly enough, Boxer opposes Proposition 19. So does former and future Governor Jerry Brown (considering that his nickname back in the seventies and eighties was “Governor Moonbeam” for his Zen proclivities, it’s disappointing to watch his anti-Prop 19 charade with a straight face). And when I see Attorney General Eric Holder and drug czar Gil Kerlikowske embarrass themselves with anti-Prop 19 posturing – given that the data shows that highly motivated Prop 19 supporters are the Democrats’ only ace left to save the California senate seat, and what that implies for the rest of the country in 2012 – I have to wonder aloud whether this is the usual fear-motivated political posturing on the part of these Democrats or a more calculated strategy to hope Prop 19 loses narrowly in order to have it on the ballot again two years from now and bring the new “swing voter” back to the ballot box again. If that is the hidden agenda, it is a risky one, not one that I would recommend, because if Prop 19 goes down this year there are going to be a lot of pissed off reform votes out there, some of whom remember when the words "tea party" had other connotations.
Already there is talk in high Democratic Party circles of seeding many state ballots with marijuana legalization referenda in 2012 to boost turnout of these cell phone voters. It's about time the Democrats had a great "wedge issue" in the culture wars, and Prop 19 is introducing it to the nation. What these numbers out of California are demonstrating is that had that been done this year in more key states, Democrats would not be in such high danger of losing the US House of Representatives. Outside of California, these cell phone-toting mobile voters are not likely to vote in such high numbers, and that will make the difference between defeat and victory in many Congressional districts and some Senate seats, too. Campaign managers, Democratic National Committeepersons, political consultants and Organizing for America operatives are pulling their hair out in 49 states of the union trying to drag unmotivated voters to the polls. Prop 19 – whether it wins or loses – is now Senator Boxer’s only hope of reelection. Because she sure ain’t motivating this emerging force in US politics we’ll call cell phone voters, even if most of those that do vote will hold their noses and pull a lever for her.
Here is, also, a word of caution to Proposition 19 proponents and drug policy reformers nationwide who are reading the polls too optimistically and counting their votes before they are cast: The SUSA poll, while it shows the “yes” vote in a narrow lead, also reveals some weaknesses for the referendum’s chances. Among those Californians who had already voted – a whopping 19 percent of the projected electorate – Proposition 19 is losing with 47 percent to 50 percent against it. Thus, it is an open question just how "motivated" Prop 19 supporters will be over the next ten days.
The highest undecided groups are African-Americans (16 percent undecided), people 50-64 (probably some tea partiers in that group, too) and women (12 percent). There is probably considerable overlap in those three groups, too: a large number of African-American women over fifty years old, and women in general over 50, are the most uncertain constituencies here, and Prop 19 proponents need an aggressive final push over the next ten days to convince them. They also need an Obama ’08 style Get Out the Vote (GOTV) ground game to actually get the cell phone voters to vote on and before November 2. In the early balloting, they haven’t done that job well enough yet. The good news is, that Organizing for America - the 2010 version of the 2008 Obama field organization - does have a GOTV army and will also be pulling the California cell phone voters by the ear, tantalizing them with Prop 19 on the ballot, no matter what the Attorney General or "drug czar" say from Washington. Cabinet members do not now, and never will, rule the ground. ¡Olé!
The best case scenario for Democrats, however, is not that Prop 19 loses and comes up again in California in 2012, but to the contrary: If the historic Proposition 19 passes, the pundits and talking heads that generate the misnamed “conventional wisdom” in the Washington DC beltway will be falling all over each other to note that Prop 19 won and it pulled Boxer out of the fire with it. If coming out of Election Night, Prop 19 emerges with the sheen of a newly-minted winner, Democratic strategists will have little choice but to adopt a “50 state strategy” (especially in the 26 states - Maine, Massachusetts, and virtually everything west of the Mississippi River - that have citizen generated statewide ballot initiative processes), and go “all in” on legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana, even if their politicians continue to balk at saying it aloud. And if you’re a Democratic (or Republican) politician that doesn’t yet see the writing on the wall, remember how most of you were wrong (or late) in your predictions two and three years ago, and that "Yes, We Can" means "Yes, We Cannabis," too.
Update: Prop 19 proponents continue to make the right moves (as recommended above). I just received an advisory that the NAACP and the Drug Policy Alliance are holding a press conference tomorrow in Oakland, featuring Alice Huffman, President, California NAACP State Conference, Stephen Gutwillig, State Director, Drug Policy Alliance, Major Neill Franklin, Executive Director, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Danny Glover, Actor, Richard Lee, President, Oaksterdam University, Robert Rooks, Director, Criminal Justice, National NAACP and Dr. Jocelyn Elders, Former Surgeon General, to release a new report, “Arresting Blacks for Marijuana in California: Possession Arrests in 25 Cities, 2006-08.”
Not only is that a good campaign move, but it tells an important truth, too.