Superior journalism as Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel do it.

Journalism is the profession that is supposed to keep us abreast of what is going on in the world, so its reports become an archive of events and activities as they transpire. But good journalism needs also to be examining the claims of officials, to see how they match with the public record. Good journalism has to be more than, as someone has said, a stenographer; it should be reminding us, the public, of things we tend to forget, matching official statements against events and statements in the past. In fact, the public has a short memory, and some of us have a notably short memory, a problem I have had since …, well, as long as I can remember [!] . So journalists need to help us remember what officials have done and said that bear upon what they are doing and saying in the present.

Officials need to be scrutinized — what they say about themselves and the world – for how accurately they represent the truth, at least as it can be known, a process that entails matching their public affirmations with the available public record. This professional service is necessary because officials have agendas of their own; they want the public to understand situations as they do, in order to justify their perspectives, their past decisions, and their projects. Politics is a continuing debate about how situations should be defined and so is often, by implication, about the past as well as the present. And because definitions of situations affect the interests of public officials, the public statements of officials can be contorted by their interests. The interested viewpoint of officials and the professional obligation of journalists to examine the statements and activities of officials in the light of the public record places journalists and officials on opposing sides. The interests of one clash with the interests of the other.

So a common device of politicians is to dismiss those to bring up embarrassing details as already biased “on the left” or “on the right.”

We have recently heard a speech by former Vice President Dick Cheney that has been available for the scrutiny of journalists. As the speech rehearses policies of the Bush administration, it invites such scrutiny. I wonder how many journalists have examined his speech in light of the public record, to see how faithfully the Vice President represented the past. Certainly a fine example of good journalistic practice was the work of Washington DC McClatchy journalists Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel, who went through the Cheney speech and found as many as ten “omissions, exaggerations and misstatements.” [Click on the title for a link to their article.]

I wonder how many other journalists have provided this service to their readers? I don’t remember seeing anything like it elsewhere, except for Frank Rich’s statement in the New York Times today.

Dictators in many countries simply control the news by abusing journalists, intimidating, imprisoning, even assassinating those who stubbornly insist on presenting embarrassing and “inconvenient” truths as they know them. In our country we hope our journalists will avoid censoring themselves. When they become reluctant to point out the failures of leaders we all lose, no matter which side we are on in a specific debate.

We now have a new administration. They will have their own perspective, policies, and projects, like the previous one. Lets hope the journalist profession does a better job with this adminstration than they did with the past.

How to be a great journalist the Nicholas Kristof way

Many of us have admired the reports of Nicholas D. Kristof. He has reported on many of the regions of great suffering among human beings around the world. He has faithfully humanized what it’s like to be a slave, a woman trafficked in the sex trade, children forced into war. What we don’t get to see much is what is entailed in telling the world about the human condition in its most tragic forms. Today’s report, though, reveals some dimensions of what it is like to be a great reporter of human suffering. You will have to read it yourself to see what he says, but there is a subtext in what he says worth putting into words. This is what I surmise from today’s op-ed piece about what one has to do to be a great reporter of the human condition:

• Live out of a back pack.
• Hide your valued possessions on your person at all times.
• Travel in the scrawniest taxis available.
• Watch out for bed bugs.
• Block your hotel room door so intruders cannot sneak in on you when you are sleeping.
• Be prepared to fight pickpockets — and to lose the fight.
• Be prepared to charm bandits who are equipped kill you on the spot.
• Know how to deal with those who might poison you.
• Watch out for robbers who carry machetes.
• Know how to manage corrupt police and fake police.
• Be prepared for a bus crash when almost everyone is injured.
• If you get malaria, shrug it off.

[Click on the title to see the original article.]

Complexities in the Iran-Pakistan pipeline deal.

Bruce Pannier [Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty] provides further information on the recently announced pipeline deal between Iran and Pakistan [What Are The Prospects For Iran-Pakistan ‘Pipeline Of Peace’?, May 25, 09].

Deals for infrastructural development like this are important because they establish new long term mutual relationships and effectively reduce the cost of, in this case, the transport and accessibility of a good that is vital to the maintenance of a modern society. They indicate practical arrangements that become possible only in certain friendly contexts and that can establish a mutual dependence that in the long run will be costly to disrupt. So we see this announced deal as evidence of a willingness to become mutually more interdependent, thus tightening relations of mutual interest in the Middle East-South Asian region. It’s one more way of making the world smaller and vital goods (gas for Pakistan; money for Iran) more accessible to wider numbers of people.

But in this case, as in most such arrangements, there are serious issues yet to resolve. Here are some details of importance that are mentioned in the article:
• This is a 25-year deal that could export some 150 million cubic meters of gas to Pakistan per day.
• The pipeline would extend 2,100 kilometers from Iran’s South Pars field into Pakistan, starting in the city of Asalouyeh. Even though India is not a part of this deal it is hoped that an agreement could be made for the pipeline to be extended into India, another 600 kilometers.
• One of the main problems is how to fund the project. The Asian Development Bank has shown no interest in supporting this project even though it is willing to back the rival gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan.
• That Iran and Pakistan abut each other in Baluchistan means that the new pipeline will have to pass through an unstable region, as Baluch nationalists who want more autonomy have already disrupted Pakistan’s only local gas pipeline.
• The project could start within the next three or four years and take five years to build.

A gas deal between Iran and Pakistan

According to AFP Iran and Pakistan have announced that they are about to sign an agreement to export gas to Pakistan. India was once to be part of the deal but they withdrew from talks about the deal last year. The report says, “The 900-kilometre (560-mile) pipeline is being built between Asalooyeh in southern Iran and Iranshahr near the border with Pakistan and will carry the gas from Iran’s South Pars field.” It says that only 250 kilometers of pipeline was still to be constructed. The infrastructural mechanisms for integrating south Asia and Central Asia is proceeding apace, with large implications. Pakistan’s need for gas will soon be desperate. It will pass through Baluchistan, making a zone of dissidence that is already vital because of its own gas reserves all the most vitally important to the country of Pakistan.

The shameful record of American health care: Some statistics

To follow the previous statement of a need to abolish the health care insurance industry in the United States I add here some statistics on how poor the current system of health care is for the American people as a whole.

On the quality of health care in the United States: For the society as a whole it is among the worst health care results among the industrial nations.
On the mortality of children under 5, the US has twice as many deaths as Japan, and more than any of the other four countries listed below.

In 2007 the mortality rates were the following: US 8%; Canada 6%; Japan 4%; UK 6%; Germany 4%.

In 2005 [Latest date available] mothers who died in childbirth were the following: US 11 per 100,000; Canada 7; Japan 6; UK 8; Germany 4.

In 2007 infant mortality statistics per 1000 were the following: US 7; Canada 5; Japan 3; UK 5; Germany 4.

Source: Reuters [http://www.alertnet.org/thefacts/chart.htm?rt=1&period=0&startdate=2000&enddate=2006&category=standard_of_living.0.life_expectancy_average&countrycode_unsel=&countrycode=214383&countrycode=JP&countrycode=NO&countrycode=GB&countrycode=221882&go=Generate%20Graph]

A statement in support of single payer health insurance

I am mailing a letter to the President and to my two senators, Claire McCaskill and Kit Bond. The issue seems critical for the future of the country. RLC

President Barak Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama,
In his May 22 program on PBS Bill Moyers and his guests described how the attempts to develop a useful health care reform bill have been subverted by the health insurance industry. [I append a list of some details from that program.]

I would like to express concern that what appears to be a good solution — a “single payer” system – is being sidelined in the discussions about health care because of the influence of the insurance industry on the various senators considering health care reform.

Most terrifying in the Moyers report is the sense that what the public most wants is being ignored because of the power of big moneyed interests such as the health insurance industry. I am hearing in various ways, in various contexts, that the democratic process, which we take such pride in – by which elected officials represent the interests of those who elected them – has been subverted by large financial interests. The result has been, of course, an emasculation of the democratic process.

I do understand the problem of the elected official: these days one has to garner huge amounts of money to be elected, which in effect – despite all denials – effectively creates obligations that need somehow to be reciprocated. It is easy to suppose that every elected official is in the pocket of at least some wealthy interests. I am therefore writing to ask you what can be done to free public officials from such dependence on such large financial interests. A way needs to be found to ensure that elected officials will actually represent the interests of those who elected them, without the public interest being hijacked by the wealthiest industries in the country. Nothing reveals more clearly how seriously our government has become dependent on big moneyed interests than the Medicare bill that prohibits competitive bidding for the cost of medication.

I therefore urge you to
(a) help promote a single payer health system bill, following the model of Canada and Taiwan [mentioned in the transcript]; and
(b) pursue legislation that will enable those who run for office to be free from heavy obligations to wealthy donors and powerful corporate interests.

Sincerely,

Robert L. Canfield

Some statements from the Bill Moyers PBS program of May 22, 2009.

• What [is being proposed] is single-payer health care — a non-profit system that would remove the role of the insurance companies and unify the financing of the health care system under one entity, a government run organization, like Medicare, that would collect all health care fees, and pay out all health care costs.

• [These were] arbitrary decisions [by the insurance companies], which were not about people’s health care. They were about profits: How can I get away with the least amount of care offered to this person, so that their premium is going to give me the most profit? That’s not the way health care decisions should be made.

• [T]he process [has been] hijacked by the insurance industry.

• The money and the power that’s exerted in Washington on them from the health insurance and health industry lobbies is very powerful. It’s hard for them to break out of that loop.

• [D]octors have had to spend hours of every day not in patient care but on the phone, hassling with insurance companies, trying to negotiate to get a patient a treatment. It makes it very difficult to deliver the right kind of care.

• If you get sick, you find out just how inadequate that insurance may be. Not only did I have health insurance; I had Aflac disability insurance, and a health care savings account on top of that. So we were like the prime example of responsible people who try and keep ourselves covered. And yet when we got sick, there was no way the deductibles and out-of-pocket maximum exposure [could add up]; [they accumulated] so quickly that we were buried very quickly financially.

• [In] data where we just ask about a national health insurance system, . . . 60 percent of the American public say we’ve got to have a national health program.

• It’s spun out of control. It’s going to bury us financially. It’s going to mortgage our children, and it kills people. It just is not working.

• So just who has been getting the chance to testify before Congress? . . . The Business Roundtable. The U.S. Chamber Of Commerce. The conservative Heritage Foundation. Representatives of the insurance industry, including Blue Cross Blue Shield – all in favor, more or less, of the status quo.

• The president asked representatives of the health care business to reason together with him at the White House. They came, listened and promised to cut health care costs voluntarily over the next ten years. . . . [But we have heard this before:]

o In the 1970’s in response to a proposal by Jimmy Carter “the very industry that only a decade earlier had tried to strangle Medicare in the cradle, seemed uncharacteristically humble and cooperative. “You don’t have to make us cut costs,” they promised. “We’ll do it voluntarily.”

o [In the early 1990’s,] . . . the health care industry . . . came after the Clinton reforms with one of the most expensive and deceitful public relations and advertising campaigns ever conceived.. . . [And] they said, “We’ll cut costs voluntarily.”

• [Now] the industry is pouring big money into lobbying, more than half a billion dollars last year alone, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. They’re also shelling out megabucks for a publicity blitz and ads attacking Obama’s public plan or any health care reform that threatens to reduce the profits from sickness and disease.

• [A major problem is] the power of the health insurance industry. Only about one out of 14 people trust the insurance industry as being honest and trustworthy. On the other hand, in Washington, they’re in bed with the health insurance industry.

• Half of the bankruptcies [in this country] are medical bankruptcies. And of those medical bankruptcies, three quarters of those people had insurance, at least when they first got sick. But people have insurance that goes away after they actually need it.

• The seats at the table, or the witnesses at the hearing are, in a sense, controlled by the health insurance industry.

• “We don’t need a health insurance industry. We can do what most other countries in the world have done. Have the government collect the money and pay the bills and get rid of all these people who are wasting $400 billion a year on excessive administrative costs.”

• [We now have] a fragmented health insurance industry. And it thrives on being fragmented. The pharmaceutical companies make much more money with the fragmentation, because there’s no price control. The insurance companies make much more money, ’cause they can push away people who aren’t going to be profitable. The only people that suffer are the patients.

• And there’s big money being made. There are billions being made from the private health insurance industry, from the drug industry, and that gets spread around Washington.

• The biggest recipients of insurance money, of drug money, are the powerful people who chair the committees, who decide what witnesses testify.

• Senator Baucus [who is chair of the Senate hearings] is the third highest recipient of donations from the health insurance and health care industry in general.

• Over the last 30 plus years there have been maybe two and a half, three times more doctors and nurses. Pretty much in proportion with the growth in population. There are 30 times in the insurance industry. These people are not doctors. They’re not nurses. They’re not pharmacists. They’re not providing care. Many of them are being paid to deny care. So, they are fighting with the doctors, with the hospitals to see how few bills can be paid. That’s how the insurance industry thrives: by denying care, paying as little out as it can.

• In Canada, back in 1970 or so, they were spending the same percentage of their gross national product as we were on health. They had huge numbers of uninsured people. They had the same insurance companies. Blue Cross Blue Shield. They decided to just get rid of the health insurance industry. . . .

• Canadians [now] have better choice than we do. They spend half as much per person on health care as we do.

• We’re really talking about social insurance, like Medicare is social insurance. But doctors and hospitals remaining privately owned.

• Medicare actually takes care of the sickest, most expensive parts of the system. So in a way, they subsidize the private insurers. They take the unprofitable patients off the private insurer’s hands.

• Canada has been a very good model. It’s been going on for 38 years. Canadians would revolt, literally, if someone said, “We’re going to take away your health insurance system.”

• [F]or the insurance industry, for people making $225 thousand a day as CEOs of insurance companies, [the single-payer system would be] disruptive for them.

• [S]urveys are showing that most doctors support national health insurance-

• Taiwan [recently] said, “We don’t like the fact that 40 percent of our people are uninsured.” They passed, essentially, single-payer plan and within a few years 90-95 percent of the people were covered.

Tariq Ali exposes incidents of abuse of women in Pakistan

I have just gotten around to looking at my copy of the December issue of the London Review of Books and there I discovered an article by Tariq Ali that should not be buried and forgotten. Tariq Ali is noted for giving us valuable information on affairs in Pakistan; I especiallay appreciate his analysis of the way Pakistan is structured [see his article “The Colour Khaki.” New Left Review, Jan-Feb 2003; http://www.newleftreview.org/?view=2429].

In the December 18, 2008, of LRB [article entitled “Diary”] Ali reveals details about the rough treatment of women among some populations. Mostly, he tells us about Pakistan. What he reveals is of course usually carefully hidden; it should be exposed as such practices are cause of shame for any people.

Ali tells us the following about the treatment of women in Pakistan:
• Traditionalists have always considered love to be something that brings shame on families: patriarchs should be the ones to decide who is to be married to whom, often for reasons to do with property.
• A sample survey showed 82 per cent of women in rural Punjab feared violence resulting from their husbands’ displeasure over minor matters; in the most developed urban areas 52 per cent admitted to being beaten by their husbands.
• [O]fficial statistics admit to 1261 honour killings in 2006 and half that number again the following year. The actual figures are probably much higher, since many deaths go unreported. ‘Women are considered the property of the males in their family irrespective of their class, ethnic or religious group, and the owner of the property has the right to decide its fate,’
• Since the police and the judicial system regard murder in the family as a private affair, most cases don’t get to court even if they’re reported.

Here are some specific incidents he describes [in his words]:
• A man dreams his wife has betrayed him. He wakes up and sees her lying next to him. In a fury he kills her. This really happened in Pakistan and the killer escaped punishment.
• In 1999, Hina Jilani was in her office with Samia Sarwar, a mother of two from Peshawar seeking a divorce from her husband, when Sarwar’s mother burst into the room with two armed men in tow and had her daughter shot dead. In 1989 Samia Sarwar had married a first cousin. For six years he beat her and kicked her. But after he threw her downstairs when she was pregnant with their second child, she went back to her parents’ house. The minute she told them she wanted a divorce they threatened to kill her. Yet they were educated and wealthy people.
• One widely reported murder this year was that of Tasleem Solangi, the 17-year-old daughter of a livestock trader in the Khairpur District of Sindh. She wanted to go to university and become a doctor like her uncle, but instead agreed to marry a cousin in order to settle a protracted family dispute over property. Her mother, Zakara Bibi, tried to stop her, but Tasleem was determined. Her father-in-law, Zamir Solangi, came to collect her and swore on the Koran that no harm would befall her. A month after the marriage, Zakara had a message from her daughter: ‘Please forgive me, mother. I was wrong and you were right. I fear they will kill me.’ On 7 March, they did. She was eight months pregnant. The Koran-swearer accused her of infidelity and said the baby was not his son’s. She went into labour, her child was born and instantly thrown to the dogs. She pleaded for mercy, but the dogs were set on her as well and the terrified girl was then shot dead.
• Another case much discussed this year is that of five women in Baluchistan who were buried alive in Baba Kot village, about 250 miles east of Quetta, the Baluch capital. Three of the women were young and wanted to marry men they’d chosen for themselves; two older women were helping them. Three male relatives have been arrested. According to the local police chief, the brother of two of the girls has admitted that he shot three of the women and helped bury them, though they weren’t even dead.
• In the last week of October, my uncle’s granddaughter, Zainab, barely 18 years old, was shot dead by her brothers, Inam and Hamza Ahmed. Zainab apparently had a lover and despite repeated warnings refused to stop seeing him. She was on the phone to him in her grandfather’s house when her brothers pumped seven bullets into her body. . . . I find it deeply shocking that my uncle allowed the young woman’s body to be buried that same day without at least insisting that a First Information Report be lodged at the local police station, let alone demanding an autopsy.

In looking back at this blog I have realized that many of the recent entries here have dug at Pakistan. I have repeatedly made statements or quoted the statements of others that are critical of social practices in Pakistan as well as of the Pakistani leadership. Truth is, these criticisms reveal how deep is my worry about the Pakistani people and their country. In this case, at least, I have quoted from a Pakistani observer, and one who has earned the right to be heard. Note that he has exposed real names, real situations.
[To read the whole article click on my title above.]

The melting ice sheets of the world: What will it mean in Central Asia?

Joseph Romm tells us that Bolivia’s 18,000 year-old Chacaltaya glacier is gone. Chacaltaya glacier was famous because it has been studied for many years. One reason for the scholarly interest in Chacaltaya has been its location on the equator where the shifts in the axes of the earth have had a different effect from the ice sheets at the poles. It provided information on the history of the earth that some other glaciers did not. Now it’s gone. [Click on the title for a link to his article.]

This is not to lament the loss of a famous glacier so much as to use the occasion to reflect on what it could mean if the glaciers of the Himalayas would similarly disappear. Joseph Romm reminds us that the waters that run off in spring provide the surface flows that enable the irrigation of crops; millions of people live on water that originates as glacial runoff. The runoff of the winter snows on the mountains, which replenish the glacial ice, also supply the aquifers that supply wells and sometimes rise to the surface further downstream.

So when he tells us that there is already massive loss of glacier ice in the Himalayas comparable to the loss of glaciation in South America Romm is sounding a warning about the eventual risks for populations who depend on the water flows from the great ice-covered mountains of Inner Asia — altogether a substantial portion of the world’s populations. Romm quotes a report by Swiss geologists who say that as many as half a billion people are at risk.

An eventual problem that could further complicate affairs in an already complicated social world.

Brother of Afghanistan’s President threatens a reporter for enquiring into drug connections

Several sources on the drug industry in Afghanistan have accused the brother of Hamed Karzai, President of Afghanistan, of being a major figure in the illicit drug industry in southern Afghanistan where more than 90% of all the opium in the world is produced. Tom Lasseter of the McClatchy newspapers went looking into the question and directly confronted Ahmad Wali Karzai, head of Kandahar’s provincial council. The reaction was to threaten him.

Karzai grabbed my hand and used it to give me a bit of a push into the next room. He followed me, and his voice rose until it was a scream of curse words and threats.

I managed to record just one full sentence: “Get the (expletive) out before I kick your (expletive).”

I won’t describe the rest, because it involves the Afghans I was working with, none of whom wants to risk revenge in a country where feuds often end in blood.

Lasseter got out and can now tell the story, but I wonder about his assistants. One of the people who had informed on Ahmad Wali Karzi had subsequently been killed; perhaps there was no connection but one wonders . . . . In any case, if Lasseter was threatened, then the Afghans who work with him, who cannot leave, are still threatened.

The search for the truth is a more risky game than most us think about. But it turns out that in the modern world the truth is precious, for [to quote again from the wisdom of the ancients] “men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil; they would not come into the light lest their deeds be exposed.” Afghanistan’s drug industry has to be one of the most critical elements of the insurgency problem in the region, and discovering and revealing how it operates will be a perilous venture. [Click on the title for the original article.]

Vivid fears of an American invasion in Pakistan

From this side of the world the behavior of the Pakistanis seems bizarre. On the one hand they would never want to live under a regime like the Taliban while on the other hand they cultivate the Taliban. Graham Usher has explained that the military are still fighting a war with India and they see Afghanistan as in the pocket of India and therefore don’t mind if the Taliban attack Afghanistan. That’s one reason. Anatol Lieven has given us another [(London) Times, May 5, 09, “Mistrust of the West is stronger in Pakistan than fear of the Taleban”]: the Pakistanis believe the Americans want to dominate the Muslim world, indeed are so bent on taking over the Muslim world that they would murder thousands of their own people in order to have an excuse to blame Muslims and invade. Here is what Lievan tells us:

“to judge by my meetings with hundreds of Pakistanis from all walks of life over the past nine months, . . . the vast majority of people believe that the 9/11 attacks were not an act of terrorism by al-Qaeda, but a plot by the Bush Administration or Israel to provide an excuse to invade Afghanistan and dominate the Muslim world.”

And he adds: “most of the Pakistani population genuinely believe it, even here in Sindh where I have been travelling for the past week; and the people who believe it include the communities from which the army’s soldiers, NCOs and junior officers are drawn.” [Click on the title above for a link to the source.]

Here are some other things worth noting about Pakistanis, according to Lievan:
• What will be tolerated is Taleban strength in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. As I discovered during a visit to the region last September, the level of support for them there is such that crushing them completely would take a huge campaign of repression.
• The jihad of the Afghan Taleban against the US “occupation” of Afghanistan enjoys overwhelming public approval in northern Pakistan,
• The Pakistani judicial system is such a corrupt, slow, impenetrable shambles that the Taleban’s programme of Sharia enjoys a great deal of public support, at least in the Pashtun areas that I have visited.
• The security Establishment is determined to prevent Afghanistan becoming an ally of India, and continues to shelter parts of the Afghan Taleban as a long-term “strategic asset” against this threat.

Even so, he reassures us that

There is no possibility at present of the Taleban seizing Islamabad and bringing down the state. In Punjab . . . [there is] as yet, nothing like the insurgency occurring among the Pashtun tribes. In the interior of Sindh, support for the Taleban is virtually non-existent.

The whole situation underlines how vulnerable we all are to information flows around us. In an earlier post I quoted from a Pakistani blogger who seems to believe that the Taliban are a creation of the CIA in order to provide an excuse for Americans to invade Pakistan. It sounds so haywire from here that we are all likely to discount it as a single crank. But we are all caught up in currents of opinion larger than we are. It is just easier to see it in others.

We all live within fields of lies, piled upon one another, so that it becomes difficult to sort out the truth from the misunderstandings and even the deliberate lies — like that promoted by the Pakistani military virtually on 9/11/01 that the Americans had done it to themselves in order to promote their imperial interests. Such a story works in Pakistan because the South Asians are vividly aware of how long they have been dominated by outside powers. From here it just sounds bizarre. But we have only to remember that the Bush administration persuaded the American people that Saddam Hussain had been involved in the attack on 9/11/01. We create the myths we live by — sometimes very costly myths, as those that justified a ‘preemptive’ attack on Iraq. As far as I know, our only hope is to seek the most authentic and reliable sources available in order to understand as we best can what is going on around us.