U.S. Courts and the Mass Media
Voices is running a nine-month series written by human rights, anti-war activist, Bert Sacks. This is the second article in the installment.
Special note From Bert Sacks for February: This month's article is delayed by one week because it is about the courts and especially about the media. I've been waiting for a response from a key media figure before completing the article. If you have not already read the January posting, please read it first as it's essential background. It's posted on the Archives page where all monthly articles will be available.
CHAPTER 2: FEBRUARY
After reading the January posting it is natural to ask the question, What can we do?
To think wisely about that I suggest we need to ask an earlier question: How is it possible that the U.S. could create conditions in Iraq which knowingly led to the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children – maintain those conditions for twelve years until 500,000 children had died – and publicly state that this will continue until the government of Iraq is overthrown – all without any major public outcry?
We are at the 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s famous farewell address to the nation, where he warned us of the undue influence of the military-industrial complex. In an earlier draft, he apparently included “congressional” as part of that complex … and with good reason. Without doubt, Congress, the military, and its allied industries all share some responsibility for this happening.
But aren’t U.S. courts supposed to be an independent check on Congress and the Executive?
On the courts
In 2004 lawyers on my behalf brought a law suit against the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). That’s the agency which fined me for my 1997 trip to Iraq. The fine gave me legal standing to challenge in court the U.S. economic sanctions on Iraq.
I learned a lot from this three-year experience in the courts, up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Here is my short summary: If the U.S. Congress passes laws which lead to the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children in pursuing its foreign policy – and if the Executive carries out those laws as stipulated – then it is legal! At best, if not legal, there is no legal way to challenge the policy.
If this sounds exaggerated, I ask you to read about our most dramatic legal argument: We contended that a policy which knowingly causes the deaths of half-a-million Iraqi children constitutes genocide. The federal district judge ruled to dismiss our suit beforewe were allowed to present any evidence. The judge, in order to dismiss the case, had to accept that we could reasonably argue this was genocide.
But the judge found that Congress, in partially ratifying the Genocide Convention, “provided that the Convention creates no ‘substantive or procedural right enforceable by law by any party in any proceeding’”! Genocide was made by Congress, not legal, but beyond any U.S. legal remedies!
The treaty’s full name is the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” What prevention or punishment of genocide is possible under these terms? It speaks to the difficulty of challenging U.S. policy in our courts (as does this extensive article, “The Charade of U.S. Ratification of Human Rights Treaties,” by Kenneth Roth).
On the media
But if turning to the courts for remedies of human-rights violations is difficult, there is an even greater barrier. It is public opinion – misinformed or not informed at all – by a mainstream media which is failing our democracy badly.
Frank Blethen is publisher of the Seattle Times. In 2009 he testified before a U.S. Senate committee saying: “The greatest danger to democracy is, and has always been, the ‘untold stories,’ whether due to disinvestment in journalism or corporate-office intimidation ….” I wrote to Mr. Blethen that I could not agree more.
However, in that letter to him I described how badly the Seattle Times failed to report on a major story about the deaths of 500,000 children in Iraq. It took six months for that statistic to make it into the news section of his paper, and then it was buried in the middle of a news article on another subject.
I feel embarrassed to have to point out to Frank Blethen how his own paper has contributed to “the greatest danger to democracy … the ‘untold stories’” by so badly failing to report on a story of national and international import: the number of children who were dying in Iraq … and why they were dying.
Imagine if we knew what the Iraqis knew: they lost their electricity, safe water, good health care, and plenty of food when, in 1991, the U.S. bombed their civilian infrastructure and used economic sanctions to try to overthrow their leader. Would we then have believed Dick Cheney’s promise that American soldiers would be greeted with open arms and flowers by Iraqis when we invaded in 2003? In fact, if we knew what we had done, would we have considered the Iraq invasion a good idea?
It is no consolation at all to report on how poorly virtually all of the U.S. mass media failed to cover this story. I once asked Dan Rather of CBS Nightly News how this could have happened. He had no answer. Over the 15 years that I have been trying to get the Seattle Times to tell these ‘untold stories’ about Iraq, my last email to Mike Fancher executive editor at the time, from June 24, 2004, still has gone unacknowledged. As has my letter to Frank Blethen from January 24, 2011.
What are we to do?
Next month I’ll share my thoughts, with an emphasis on what nonviolence might teach us.
In the meantime, those who would like to take some action could begin this way: write or email Mr. Blethen a respectful letter. Follow the hyperlinks here and include the most compelling facts you’d like to raise (or perhaps your own). Remember, be courteous and factual. And also remember that it becomes harder for everyone to admit errors and change when confronted with angry words.
Mr. Blethen’s mail address is Publisher of the Seattle Times, P. O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, USA. If you prefer to write an email, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll collect and deliver them to him.
Another very important action you can take is to turn off your TV, especially the mainstream news – and don’t rely solely on whatever mainstream newspaper you might read. Instead look to alternative media. For example, my favorite electronic media isDemocracy Now! on KBCS.fm and streaming on my computer; my favorite print media is now fast becoming Real Change, Seattle’s great street paper.
One final comment and a preview of my thoughts on nonviolence.
I’d like to suggest that there’s a benefit to the person who really tries to practice nonviolence, whatever the ‘outcome’ is. On January 5th, the Seattle Times published a sympathetic op-ed by the conservative editorial writer Bruce Ramsey about the law suit against me. (Ironically, it’s the editorial pages of the paper – at least for a period around the year 2000 – which editorialized about the deaths of half-a-million Iraqi children, while the news section of the same paper was continuing to ignore the story.)
After the op-ed, the first of 52 comments began on the readers’ comment blog. I began to answer them.
Working to remain calm and factual is very good practice in nonviolence. Whatever happened ‘out there’ with other readers, it was an exercise that benefited me. Nonviolence entails speaking the truth, as best you understand it, while wishing well even for those whose views you are working to oppose.
Hard work sometimes!
In answer to a common criticism that we must all obey all laws, no matter what the laws are, this is part of my answer: “150 years ago it was the highest law of the United States of America that runaway slaves from the South were legally ‘stolen property’ of their owners. Anywhere in this country, an American was breaking the law to help such a slave escape via the ‘underground railroad.’ The people I greatly admire from this terrible era in our history were not law-abiding citizens, but those who broke the law to help slaves. They risked legal penalties and personal danger out of a conviction that slavery was wrong, and that helping slaves to escape was their obligation. I have come to feel a similar obligation to the Iraqi people, especially the children, who suffer and die from sanctions.” Would we wish to obey the law in those circumstances and return a slave to his slave-owner … or would we not?