Monthly Archives: December 2017

Media Follies 2017

It’s a holiday season tradition! Here, for the 22nd year (!), is the list of overhyped and underreported stories of the year. After a year when “fake news” became a cliche and a “reality” TV star joined a new series in which he plays the president, we can only hope it gets better. Let’s start with the local stories; national and international to follow.

2017’s Most Over-Hyped Local Stories

Was Ed Murray a Creep 30 Years Ago?: Yeah, probably. But even so, timing is everything in politics, and given that Murray’s scandal broke six months before Harvey Weinstein’s accusers kicked off the #MeToo tsunami, he might still have survived decades-old allegations had he not been such an unrecalcitrant bully this year. Murray’s insistence on attacking the character and personal histories of his accusers – and, by extension, every young, old, gay or straight survivor of abuse who has been subjected to similarly dismissive, revictimizing attacks – underscored to too many Seattle voters that he wasn’t the kind of leader they wanted. That was the real story, and a major factor as to why the top four finishers to replace Murray were all women.

Murray was coasting to re-election when the scandal broke, and he took a full month to conduct private polling before deciding to drop his bid. That was plenty of time for Seattleites to take a long, hard look at the present-day actions and character of their mayor under pressure. And even then, it took another four months, and an accusation from a white family member, to finally be rid of the man.

Fun With Homelessness Numbers, and Other Transparent Horseshit: You may have already forgotten, but Murray’s delayed, much-touted $75 million Navigation Center to solve our homelessness pandemic opened in 2017. By year’s end, the city-run “Navigation Teams” meant to fan out across the city, directing the unhoused to housing, had – depending on whose reports you believe – placed somewhere between one and twenty people in permanent housing. In case you’re counting, if the whole purpose of the “Pathways Home” program is housing placement – see the “Underreported” stories below for more on that – you could buy entire apartment complexes for what it’s costing the city to house each person. But that isn’t stopping officials from predicting the city will place over seven thousand people in permanent affordable housing in 2018, a number arrived at by a combination of a creative definition of the word “permanent,” a creative definition of the word “affordable,” a creative definition of the word “housing,” and…uh…pure, ass-covering fantasy.

Plus, as usual, car crashes, fires, violent crimes, big (or not) weather “events,” heartwarming stories of photogenic kids overcoming adversity or reuniting with pets, and every other staple of Chuckle-Buddy News. Every time you watch local TV news it lowers your IQ.

2017’s Most Underreported Local Stories:

Sigh. There’s dozens to choose from, many stemming directly from the down sides of an economic boom our region seems utterly unprepared for:

Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Seattle’s rapidly growing population has masked an unmistakable demographic trend: the immigrants are younger, whiter, and much, much wealthier than existing residents, many of whom are being forced to leave the city in search of more affordable areas. This wholesale change in the character of who lives here has countless cultural and political implications, but local media has not only mostly ignored the trend, but has been happy to keep on featuring articles that drip with child-like wonder over real estate prices. In general, local outlets have kept right on reporting local development issues like it’s 2000 – or, in the case of the Seattle Times, 1950.

In Ayn Rand We Trust: Regardless of who Seattle’s new residents are, they need public services. Utilities, infrastructure repair, transportation, schools, parks, libraries, social services, public safety, and all of the other things governments do. In our region’s case, even though the growth is a direct result of government policies – especially corporate welfare for enormous employers like Amazon and Google – those same policymakers seem to think the free market will take care of everyone’s needs. There’s been no significant investment in any of these issues outside special operating levies, opting instead to use our city’s general fund budget to finance splashy vanity projects like tunnels and streetcars while ignoring basic needs. And even those levies – for light rail, housing, parks, libraries, and first responders, among other things – have been wholly inadequate to meet the demand. At some point voters, especially ones new to the area, are going to hit their limit in regressive taxes.

The City of Seattle desperately needs more revenue: Seattle’s problem isn’t tax-averse politicians. It’s that the limited taxing options allowed by state law – mostly property, B&O, and sales taxes – are already close to maxxed out in terms of what many individuals can afford. So is bonding capacity and Seattle’s ability to pass special levies for ordinary needs. In 2017, the city’s two attempts to enact major new taxes stalled: a high-earners’ income tax passed in June is on hold while challenges to it work their way through the courts, and an employer “head tax” proposed this fall was successfully forestalled by business-friendly council members. Some sort of head-tax type proposal will get considered again next spring, though, because the needs are overwhelming and because that’s where the money is.

Even if successfully enacted, those new taxes won’t be nearly enough. The impossible choice for local leaders will be between cutting programs brutally, and finding the courage to tax local businesses (especially real estate and big employers) and close tax loopholes, and to tax wealthy local residents at a higher rate than the rest of us, rather than simply trying to pile on more regressive sales taxes. The state can’t even fund basic needs, and the federal government is destroying government programs as quickly as it can. Our city has largely chosen to ignore such needs in favor of funding other things, usually for the direct benefit of developers and major employers. That will have to change in 2018.

Seattle Public Schools is overwhelmed with students: Seattle’s troubled school district is also now hemorrhaging money, and the state still isn’t providing adequate funding even for SPS’s existing students. But of course, Seattle’s population boom – largely made up of young professionals of family age – is pouring ever-more students into a district where, away from local media attention, overcrowded, underfunded schools are already the norm. A newly elected progressive majority on the school board will have its work cut out for it.

Seattle’s War on the Homeless: The second full year of the City of Seattle’s “State of Emergency” on homelessness was pretty much conducted as through, in response to a devastating earthquake, city leaders scrambled to invest in new technology to set off bigger, more destructive earthquakes. Ed Murray oversaw an unprecedented, relentless, destructive program to “sweep” unsanctioned encampments (and often illegally seize their residents’ few, most essential possessions). This, even though the city was fully aware there weren’t adequate shelters or affordable housing to even remotely meet the demands of the city’s homeless – let alone all the other city residents pressured out of their existing homes by ever-rising rents.

Nevertheless, the city has insisted that placing people in these phantom affordable units – see the “Over-Hyped” entry above – justifies punishing those undeserving souls too morally repugnant to get with the program. By year’s end, under the guise of “data-driven” preferences for services that direct the homeless to their new nonexistent homes, the city reduced or ended funding for most of its emergency indoor shelters in 2018, along with essential support services like restrooms, showers, and help for domestic violence survivors. That “data” counts as “permanently housed” anyone who receives a three- or six-month voucher for rent in market rate housing – even though most recipients won’t be able to afford the rent afterwards, and there’s no follow-up. The entire approach – to be continued under newly elected Mayor Durkan – is deeply dishonest and cruel. And deadly – by year’s end, a record-shattering 100 people will likely have died living on Seattle’s streets. That’s one or two headline-grabbing train derailments or mass murders every month – not that anyone in local media is counting.

The Obvious Link Between Housing Costs and Homelessness: Once again this year, Seattle’s exploding housing costs got a lot of local media attention, as a good thing. So did the steadily worsening homelessness crisis, as a bad thing. But Murray and other city officials who’ve done their best to promote the real estate frenzy work hard to treat the two issues as entirely separate, and media, shamefully, mostly follows suit. Numerous studies in the U.S. have concluded that regardless of city, an increase of about $100 in median rents correlates closely with a ten percent increase in homelessness. So long as Seattle rents keep exploding, so will our homeless population.

Seattle’s Housing Affordability Crisis Isn’t Just a Homelessness Problem: While people forced entirely out of housing are the most vulnerable and visible part of the problem, anyone in King County not making a six-figure income is now scrambling to find a rental unit they can afford. And I mean rental – nobody at or below that income level is generally going to be able at all to afford home-buying, once a routine expectation for the middle class in this country and a major source of upward mobility through increasing real assets. (A half-century and more ago, a young 20-something couple’s goal was to buy a house and start a family. The house-buying part now seems like a historical fantasy.) At the largest level, this country’s gutting of the middle class, and its concentration of wealth in very few hands, is directly reflected a Seattle housing market which caters almost entirely to the affluent.

The First Year of Seattle’s Groundbreaking “Democracy Vouchers” was a resounding success: The program, the first of its kind in the country, aimed to attract more candidates and more resources for candidates not beholden to special interests by allowing them to qualify for matching city funds after meeting a threshold based on number of donors. This year, only two seriously contested positions – City Attorney and the city council seat vacated by the retiring Tim Burgess – were eligible. In both cases, the winning candidates participated in the program; in the council race, which attracted a number of strong candidates in the primary, the top two finishers made heavy use of the vouchers. It remains to be said whether, by the time the program is fully implemented in 2019, Democracy Vouchers will be enough to counter the enormous corporate and individual wealth being generated in Seattle’s booming economy – some of which will inevitably be invested in the best candidates money can buy. But based on this year’s experience, the vouchers will at least give candidates who don’t want to auction themselves off to the highest bidders a fighting chance.

The closing window for progressive politics in Seattle: One of those growth-related trends is that the remarkably progressive tone of this year’s city council likely won’t last. The infusion of money into local politics – and tens of thousands of new, financially comfortable voters – all but guarantee it. After much noise about the triumph of grass roots politics this year, Jenny Durkan coasted to her election as mayor by tapping into that wealth; so did the two winning city council candidates. It would have been even worse without the Democracy Vouchers, but regardless, there’s a lot more of this coming.

Did I mention that SPD is still a problem?

2017’s Most Over-Hyped National Stories

Donald Trump’s Twitter Account: We get it. The most powerful man in the world is an insecure, belligerent narcissist and blowhard who is less well-informed that your average drunk at the end of the bar. It used to be that a president’s words meant something, but in less than a year Donald Trump has changed that norm, too. Much of this country and all of the rest of the planet understand that he’s an idiot – but since his tweets don’t carry any legal weight, their media coverage inevitably boils down quickly to I-Can’t-Believe-He-Said-That pundit hand-wringing that serves useful no purpose at all. This is particularly true because Trump has an established pattern of creating relatively frivolous controversies (e.g., his attacks on war widows or on NFL players protesting the national anthem) to divert media attention from far more important, and damaging, stories. Try covering what Trump actually does instead.

Speculation on the 2018 Midterms. I understand. Really, I do. The coming year’s elections may be our last best chance to restore some measure of sanity to our country’s leadership. But first we have to get through the year, and as we’re already learned, a lot can happen in ten months.

Any story with the word “Hillary” in it: Determining whether Donald Trump and his extended crime family broke the law before and/or after his election does not require relitigating the 2016 election. Double that for any story that also includes the word “Bernie.” That ship has sailed. We’ve got bigger problems now.

2017’s Most Underreported National Stories:

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch: Remember in 2016, when Republicans in the Senate refused to even consider Barack Obama’s centrist Supreme Court nominee? Yeah, neither does American media. The unprecedented ploy worked, Trump got Neil Gorsuch a lifetime appointment as one of his very first acts, and media moved on. But Gorsuch didn’t – he’s turned out to be perhaps the most reactionary zealot on a high court that already has several of them, and he’ll be with us for decades. Examining what, exactly, Gorsuch has done in his first year has enormous political import, but you have basically had to read law journals to get any sense of it.

Donald Trump Drains the Federal Treasury: A lot of things about Trump’s ascent to power have been unprecedented but given a veneer of normalcy, mostly out of inertia and institutional respect, by a lazy media. Trump’s Cabinet appointments mostly have gotten attention either when they’re verbally fellating Trump or when they’re rumored as about to quit, but the unprecedented mix of billionaires, fringe zealots, Russiaphiles and incompetents have been busy all year gutting their departments and looting the federal treasury. It’s been hard to single out a particularly outrageous appointment because almost all of them have been outrageous – but that trend simply mustn’t be mentioned in polite media circles.

The Protests That, At Least Temporarily, Saved Obamacare and Prevented DACA Deportations: It wasn’t just the pussy hats in January. Grass roots protests in red states throughout the year were instrumental in pressuring enough Republicans that multiple Congressional attempts to gut ObamaCare and seal the fate of DACA immigrants failed. Those issues are still very much in doubt – but the fact that they’re in play at all is due largely to popular revolt.

Federal Courts Consistently Ruled Against Trump: Most visibly on his assorted Muslim immigration bans and transgender military ban, lower federal courts throwing out unconstitutional presidential edicts have been a major, and surprising, check on the power of a man who really, really wants to be the kind of gold-plated dictator common in the business world but antithetical to democracy. But we can’t expect that trend to last, both because Trump’s people are getting smarter about how they draft such edicts, and because Trump and Congress have been working overtime to stack the courts with a new generation of ever-more-reactionary judges. Their handiwork will eventually take a generation or more to undo.

#Russia/Trump Has Become Shorthand For What Appears to Be a Bewildering Variety of Major, Indictable Crimes: Most of the media focus has been on the Trump Campaign’s… odd … relationship with Russia, and its endless succession of now-disproved lies about that relationship. But thanks especially to the newly rediscovered art of investigative reporting (see below), we now know so much more is also rotten in the state of Trumpland – from allegations of endless fraudulent tax schemes to mob connections to financial improprieties to illegal foreign dealings to tax fraud to alleged rape and sexual assault to an international business model that looks increasingly like a glorified money laundering scheme. And that’s not even counting the variety of ways the Trump family is using his office to directly enrich themselves.

And all that, sadly, doesn’t include being a racist xenophobic bully, which is still entirely legal. Even now, as Trump’s multiple foreign conflicts of interest and allegiances to Russia come under question, media has somehow forgotten that buried in last year’s Panama Papers and this year’s Paradise Papers scandals of international high end money laundering were numerous details of Trump campaign guru Paul Manafort’s financial ties with Russian billionaires and crime bosses. Trump’s past is dripping with this stuff, and his profile for decades has been one of an extremely wealthy con artist whose primary victims are the people he gets to front him money, time and again. Does the American public know or care? And if not, why not?

Investigative Reporting Is Suddenly In A New Golden Age: It’s been nearly a half-century since “All the President’s Men” made muckraking sexy for a time. Since then, technology and media consolidation had combined to all but kill investigative reporting…until 2017. Much of what we already know about #Trump/Russia hasn’t come from either Congressional investigations or Robert Mueller’s team. They’ve largely been confirming what we already knew from the Steele dossier and from intrepid reporting by not just the New York Times and Washington Post, but consistent scoops from at least a couple of dozen different media outlets. It’s little wonder Trump has been the most aggressively hostile anti-media politician in US history – and that’s a very high bar. It’s also why a big reason why the loss of net neutrality is such a concern – when Trump consolidates his dictatorship, it won’t be government that enforces censorship. It will be telecommunication companies seeking Trump’s favor.

Who Are Those Racists, Anyway?: Charlottesville and its fallout have likely permanently wed Trump’s image with the ugliest strains of neo-fascism. But this is not your great-grandfather’s racism. The core of Trump’s support isn’t either racist rednecks (the liberal caricature) or laid off steel workers (the even more idiotic Beltway Pundit caricature.) Polling data consistently shows that Trump’s base has been and remains largely older suburban white guys without a lot of education but relatively financially comfortable. And it’s their kids who are showing up at places like Charlottesville – a lot of those proudly racist marchers were under 40, educated and financially comfortable. Their goal has been and remains (think Steve Bannon) to make white nationalism a respected part of our country’s ideological spectrum. In Trump, their strategies have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Dismiss them as stupid at your peril.

U.S. To Puerto Rico: Fuck Off: Climate change resulted in three different record-setting Atlantic hurricanes making landfall in the US: Harvey, which led to a week of record-shattering flooding in Houston; Irma, which devastated the Caribbean before pounding much of Florida; and Maria, which crippled Puerto Rico. Texas and Florida’s federal relief efforts were flawed but relatively orderly.

Puerto Rico has been another matter entirely. The island – surrounded by a really big ocean, let’s not forget – first had to remind Americans, especially the president, that its 3.5 million residents are actually American citizens. Three months after Maria, at this writing, a third of the island is still without power, and in some areas it won’t be restored until May. The initially tiny storm-related death toll is now well over 1,000, especially due to the impact of disease because so much of the island spent weeks and even months without safe drinking water. The relief effort was chaos because while there were workers and supplies on the ground, the federal coordination was disastrous. The relief effort has also been marred with scandal, like the pricey, sweetheart deal for power restoration given to a two-person company from Interior Secretary Ryan Zimke’s small home town in Montana.

To top it off, Congress has decided to punish Puerto Rico for making Donald Trump look bad by suffering and all. Buried in the Republicans’ year-end tax grift bill is a provision declaring Puerto Rico a foreign country subject to a 12 percent import tariff on all goods – a move that will permanently cripple the island’s already devastated economy. In response, the island’s Republican-aligned territorial governor is vowing a voter education campaign to get the Puerto Rican diaspora across America to vote Republicans out of office. This isn’t over – even if America’s media, like Trump, moved on to newer, whiter natural disasters months ago.

2017’s Most Over-Hyped International Stories

The one traditional exception to American media’s disinterest in the world’s other six billion people comes when there’s a major terrorist attack in Israel or a NATO country. If that same terror attack, however, comes in a country enjoying the fruits of Pax Americana (Afghanistan, Iraq), or anywhere in the remaining, irrelevant world (Africa, say, or Asia – one of those places), it’s a non-story. And even when such attacks are covered, usually because they’re in Europe, good luck finding any context.

This year. there’s also a new category for American media to hype: stories in which Donald Trump has offended one or another world leader or country. Look: with exactly two exceptions – Russia and Israel – every other country is both alarmed and appalled by Trump’s unique (but oh-so-American) combination of power, ignorance, and narcissism. It’s a given. Which country is particularly appalled on any given day is strictly a minor detail.

That Kim Jong-Un Sure Is Crazy: Oddly enough, in most of the world, Kim is considered only a relatively minor (albeit concerning) threat to world peace. Trump, on the other hand, terrifies everyone.

2017’s Most Underreported International Stories:

US backs Arabian Peninsula power play: The world’s deadliest war is still in the Middle East, and it’s still a proxy war between America, Israel, and Saudi Arabia (on one side) and Iran and Russia (on the other) – but it’s no longer in Syria. The civil war in Yemen took horrifying turns this year as, well away from American media coverage, American arms and intelligence support backed Saudi Arabia’s direct entry into the war against Iranian-backed Yemeni rebels. By November, a week after a secret visit from Jared Kushner, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin-Salman launched what amounted to a double coup-d’etat, jailing dozens of rival members of the Saudi royal family on corruption charges while simultaneously kidnapping and forcing the resignation of Lebanon’s (Iranian-friendly) prime minister. American and Israeli fingerprints were all over these major long-term developments, as well as Saudi support for repressive Gulf State regimes suppressing their own democratic reformers, but it was all a bewildering and largely invisible mystery to American viewers.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: One aspect of foreign policy not transformed under Trump is the American proclivity to oppose democracy in Latin America, especially in Central America. Largely forgotten in America’s interference in that region’s civil wars of the 1980s (El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua) wass that America’s forward base for all of it was a repressive dictatorship we installed in Honduras. The U.S. was back in Honduras in 2009, backing a military coup against a leader Obama decided was too populist (and popular). Fast forward to this year, when the leader installed by that coup won “re-election” in a vote largely considered rigged, and the country, in response, erupted in protest this fall. As a consequence, Honduras is now under martial law, with a generous assist from…the Trump Administration. The irony of Trump’s war on (Latino) immigrants, many of which are refugees from Mexico and Central America, is that Trump has quietly doubled down on the economic and military policies that create those refugees in the first place.

The Three Men Donald Trump Admires Most Are the Guys Playing Him Like a Drum: Trump famously rips most world leaders – especially leaders of traditional US allies in Europe and East Asia – but there are three he reportedly thinks are just awe-inspiring: Vladimir Putin (of course), Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Ergodan, and China’s Xi Jinping.

The trio has a lot in common. They’re all dictators, but not just any dictators. Putin and Ergodan started as democratically elected before consolidating power (the path Trump likely imagines for himself); Xi this year got himself written into the Chinese Constitution, an elevation no Chinese leader has managed since the days of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. And all three have used flattery of The Donald to get what they want.

As former DNI James Clapper noted this month, Putin, a former KGB officer, handles Trump like an intelligence asset. Ergodan managed to get an actual intelligence asset (Michael Flynn) installed as U.S. National Security Advisor. (Flynn, of course, had also been working for the Russians.)

Remember early this year, when Trump first met Xi and enthused about how, in only ten minutes, Xi taught him everything to know about thousands of years of Korean history? In return and to show his gratitude, this year Trump basically abandoned Asia to the Chinese. Through withdrawing from the TPP, Rex Tillerson’s hollowing out of diplomats in the State Department, and especially in Trump’s bellicose “America First” speech at an APEC meeting in Vietnam, Trump largely has abandoned Asian trade and allowed China to expand its continental influence to a degree never before seen in its long, storied history. China had already invested heavily in resources, development and trade in Latin America and especially Africa; it’s now positioned as the most important economic player across the entire underdeveloped part of the planet, a swath that includes about three-fourths of the world’s population. That’s quite a gift from a grateful – and clueless – Donald Trump.

As for Russia: Trump’s election, as well as 2016’s Brexit vote, are both part of an internationally coordinated movement of far-right, openly racist/nationalist advances in Western democracies, a movement largely taking its cues from Moscow, not Washington. Trump and his proxies haven’t just been meeting with and fellating Russians; they’ve been meeting with and publicly praising authoritarian leaders in countries as varied as Poland, Hungary, and the Philippines, even while heaping scorn indiscriminately on traditional American allies. Trump’s aversion to democracy and his preference for authoritarian leaders mean he’s become a pawn in a very dangerous game. He’s a prominent pawn in it, but not a player. The only remaining question is whether Trump is too stupid to realize the full extent to which he’s being used, and how utterly dispensible he is to Putin’s or Xi’s end game.

Afghanistan is still a total, but forgotten, clusterfuck: The national army of Afghanistan is the Taliban. No one knows who’s a loyal member of the Afghan National Army and who’s a Taliban infiltrator. Meanwhile, aerial drone attacks have alienated most of the countryside, which never supported the corrupt, American-imposed puppet government in Kabul in the first place. That government is collapsing from its own corruption and greed now that the American military is supposedly in a “non-combat” role.

Climate change rudely ignores domestic US politics: The Trump cabal has already been quoted, redolent of the worst moments of George W. Bush, that they can say whatever they like because “we create our own reality.” Nature begs to differ. After yet another year of record heat and drought, wildfires across the US West, ocean acidification, more unprecedented extreme weather events, and endless scientific announcements that climate change is going to be worse than we thought and is proceeding at rates faster than our previous worst-case scenarios, the United States went and installed a president who thinks America’s biggest economic threat, biggest domestic policy threat, and biggest foreign policy threat is all a big hoax. Withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords was just the most visible move in a year of gutting renewable energy programs (and investing in more fossil fuels), killing environmental regulation, and begging the planet to roast us faster. Climate change has already passed the point of irreversibility; now it’s a only question of whether humanity can mitigate enough of the damage to our biosphere in time to survive. If humanity does survive, it won’t remember the legendary “United States of America” fondly at all. What the United States government, which governs the country that remains the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, isn’t doing to respond to this crisis isn’t just a crime against humanity. It’s a crime against the entire biosphere, one of unprecedented scope and depravity.

And, on that cheerful note, get out and make your own news in 2018. If this compilation suggests anything, it’s that we can’t rely on corporate media to push for change, or even to tell us when change is desperately needed. We’ll have to do both ourselves.