Sometimes it seems that every news outlet covers the same stories, in the same way, on the same day. While Russ Baker pays close attention to the news of the day, he believes in taking the long view.
He looks closely to see which stories and events and people are linked to each other, and what these links tell us about the otherwise hidden dynamics behind the stories. And sometimes the media itself is part of the story. To him, revealing these connections constitutes the real work of serious journalism.
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Podcast Russ Baker 14 April 2016
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio Whowhatwhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
Each day when we look at stories about politics, international affairs, finance and the economy, and even entertainment, we tend to see disparate stories happening at a rapid digital pace in an integrated global landscape. For some observers, though, there’s a unique ability to connect the dots, to see how many of these events are related, connected, and even manipulated in ways to benefit the few at the expense of the many. One of those keen observers is our own Russ Baker, the founder and editor-in-chief of Whowhatwhy.org. We’re going to spend some time with Russ today talking about these events, we’re going to spend some time talking with Russ about these connections, how it impacts whowhatwhy’s coverage of the current election campaign and news in general. Russ, thanks for being here.
Russ Baker: Thanks very much, Jeff.
Jeff: It’s great to have you here. As you look around the world today at the politics that are going on here in the US, as crazy as they are, some of the international stories that whowhatwhy has been covering, talk a little about how you see connections between all of this and certainly we see it in the way the public is reacting throughout the world getting kind of fed up with what has been going on.
Russ: Sure. Let me give an example from this morning where I was reading about Goldman Sachs’s settlement with the federal government over its involvement in the financial crisis of 2007/2008. And what struck me was how this is the … really gets at the core of what the politics are about this year. Basically, the bottom line is that Goldman Sachs, which held out longer than any of these other institutions that negotiated a penalty with our government, has gotten by far the best deal. They’re receiving all kinds, they ostensibly have to pay a large fine. And that’s what goes out in the press releases. If you actually look at it carefully, what they’re paying in fact is much, much less, because they’re being given all sorts of tax credits and other benefits in return for this deal. Now what this is about is really the anger of the American people, which we see certainly in the Bernie Sanders supporters, but we also see in the Donald Trump supporters. I think we see it in a lot of them. A lot of the Cruz supporters are angry. I’m sure some of Hillary Clinton supporters are angry. But look at these other factors here. Hillary Clinton doesn’t want to release the speech that she gave for money to the very same Goldman Sachs. Huge amounts of money being donated either directly or through super PACS to the candidates through Goldman Sachs and outfits like it. We see them basically admitting to criminal behavior that they knew perfectly well that they were selling rotten goods to investors and that everybody was in collusion, that the people who issued the mortgages knew that the people they were enticing to own a home couldn’t afford to own a home. All the way down the chain there was criminality. And then we see that poor people, particularly people of color for example, go to jail for almost anything. We see poor people of all kinds, working class people of all kinds, struggling, paying a lot in taxes. They can’t get the kinds of credits that Goldman Sachs gets, they can’t cut deals that are advantageous for them, and so everybody is angry. Everybody, I think, to some extent understands that the system is rigged. But how that plays out, really, I think defines our presidential politics. So for example the Bernie Sanders supporters, there’s a more of a direct appeal that the system is dirty and we need to shut these people down. The Hillary Clinton supporters kind of get it but they don’t feel comfortable with Sanders. They feel more comfortable with Hillary Clinton, or perhaps they’re more focused on getting a woman in the White House, or something else. I think the reasons that they support her tend to be a little bit amorphous. And I want to bring up another issue, which is about her foreign policy experience which is being touted as one of her main assets. The Trump supporters are angry. They lash out. That’s more of that nativist thing, they lash out at people who look different from them. They think these are the people who are hurting them. A lot of it comes down to how much information people have. How educated they are in how the system works. How much attention they pay to these kinds of stories, the nuances, more complicated sorts of things. And that, I think, is what direction people are sent in terms of the candidates that they back.
Jeff: We’re seeing this play out on the global landscape as well with the recent release of these Panama Papers, and starting to see anger certainly about what happened in Iceland and what happened yesterday in terms of the reaction to David Cameron in the UK. We’re seeing bits of this throughout the world.
Russ: That’s right. Now of course one of the questions that some people are asking is “why are we not hearing about Americans parking their money off-shore?” I think it’s too early to tell. There have been mentions that in these millions of pages that are held by this consortium of journalists there will be material on Americans forthcoming. I was struck in the past when there were tiny little leaks of this when this source of information came out about Americans who were involved with off-shore tax evasion, that they tended to be people we hadn’t heard of before, if you will, almost bit players. And so one wonders what are the super-rich in this country doing? Are they not sheltering their income as well? Well, of course they are and that gets into a whole other subject of how they do it. And I think part of it is just the fact that our tax structure in this country is already so advantageous that they’re able to pay very little taxes even to begin with and so maybe they don’t need to go to these lengths and risk this kind of criminal behavior. But in terms of the people who are being focused on, clearly the biggest of all the names out there is that of Vladimir Putin. And although he is not directly involved, we’ve seen articles pointing to this friend of his who, the cellist, who somehow seems to have earned improbably vast sums of money and parked it offshore. Putin of course says it’s really not his money. In all probability it is, just as it is with all of these, or many of these leaders. I think no country is immune to leaders enriching themselves. Certainly the Clintons have become very, very wealthy legally since they left office. And so that Panama Paper story is very important. It’s important to remember that Putin is an enemy of the United States establishment. Very much so. He is a threat to a lot of the more imperial designs of the United States. The prime minister of Iceland. Iceland is certainly not a country that is in lockstep with the United States at all. Cameron is a little more complicated. I think we have to a closer look at that and see what it might mean that he could be in trouble or perhaps take a fall. This is just beginning to evolve and we don’t know where it’s going to go. It strikes me in some ways as a little bit of a distraction because like Watergate and other things everybody gets all worked up and there’s a tremendous amount of fulmination. But in the end if you ask people what is this really about, they have trouble explaining. And of course what it’s really about is that the rich are tremendously advantaged, they are advised to keep as much of their wealth as they possibly can through any of many means, and they take advantage of it. And there is a sort of constant battle supposedly between the authorities and the rich in trying to make them pay their fair share which is related to, in part, to the tremendous benefits they accrue from the services of all these governments, that they don’t want to pay. The problem of course is that the government regulators are the same people negotiating, say, with Goldman Sachs. There’s a revolving door. They themselves go to jobs in the same companies and that is the side of the bread that is buttered.
Jeff: You mentioned Iceland, for example, a small country, not a major player, and yet it was also a place that was very much at the center of the global financial crisis that impacted us in 2008/2009. These places, these people, show up over and over again. People may not understand credit default swaps, they may not understand derivatives, but they certainly do understand that something is going on. And that, as you say, people are enriching themselves from it.
Russ: Well, that’s right. And two excellent points you made there I want to talk briefly about Iceland and also about the credit default swaps. Yes, Iceland is a complicated place. It’s a tiny place, really tiny. The population of Iceland is smaller than that of Staten Island. And yes, it was absolutely one of the first to fail in this sort of chain of dominoes. That one can argue that in many ways Iceland was more of a victim than anything else. But it’s interesting how so much attention can be focused on a small place and not the commensurately larger attention that should be focused on the larger places. Also, Iceland politics tend to be, if you will, quite left. This was the place, one of the birthing grounds of Wikileaks, and it has members of its parliament who are very influential Greens, and so forth. It’s an unusual country. It’s very, very progressive. And when anything bad happens to Iceland, I always pause for a moment. In terms of the credit default swaps and what was really going on with the crash, it is complicated but in a nutshell – and I think it’s important that we do that pretty well at whowhatwhy – we try to boil these very complicated things down to be as clear as possible about overall what was going on. I think that’s an important service to the public that the media doesn’t provide
often enough. I just want to make the point that what we’re looking at is that these companies like Countrywide that were not that well known, that kind of came out of nowhere, I personally remember and I’m sure you do, these advertisements, constantly, everybody should own their own home, remember? And I was thinking, well, why should everybody own their own home? If you go to other countries, particularly the western countries in Europe and so forth, many people do not own their own homes. Many people live in apartments, many people rent. There are all kinds of issues involved. And of course home ownership, while it’s a nice thing, it also is extremely costly, not just to the people themselves but to the whole society. Los Angeles, the story behind the movie ‘Chinatown’, where their entire transit system was destroyed in part by these real estate interests that wanted people to buy land further out that meant that they had to buy cars and so forth and that this benefitted of course the petroleum industry as well. So there are often very great costs to homeownership, to society. We never had a conversation about that. Because in this country we were always touting these unquestioned values: this is good, this is good, this is good. Growth is always good, more is always good, bigger is always good. In the era of climate change, that’s not a realistic way to think anymore. But in any case, the core thing was this basically fleecing people who didn’t have enough income flow to service the debt on their homes. But these are the same people who have been victimized again and again and again over the years, told to buy everything on credit. Refrigerators, things that they couldn’t afford. They were told that they were not whole human beings unless they owned these things. And so this is the background of all this. It began with that and then these companies that were making the loans, they knew these people couldn’t pay so that was criminal right there. And then what they did, they said “we’ve got to unload these loans because we’re not going to get paid back,” and they turned to the entities like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America, and they said “Listen, how about we sell you these loans at a considerable discount and you can do what you want with them?” And then they were able to wash their hands. It’d be interesting to see the accounting, what they still made after they discounted these things. But in any case they sold them to these banks. The banks took them and packaged them and issued bonds to the unwary – again to the public, a different public, but still the public – and said “Look, the credit rating agencies – and here’s the third criminal element here – says that these elements here are just smack-dab terrific, really, really solid, you ought to buy these bonds and we’ll give you a good deal. And so basically, one entity after the other, criminal behavior, and they are passing it all off to the sucker which is the average American. Well, come full circle, the elections this year, no wonder people are mad. No wonder most of us are struggling and in spite of the supposed good economy, don’t feel that it’s good at all.
Jeff: It’s interesting that when we go back to the 2008 election, 2012, in many ways those were about recovering from the damage of the financial crisis. This seems to be the first opportunity where people get to look back, at what happened, why did it happen, how did it happen. All the points that you were just talking about and they’re beginning to see, that though there’s been some recovery, there’s a price we’ve paid for that and it’s not one that’s been helpful to the vast majority of Americans or to a lot of people throughout the world.
Russ: That’s right. And of course with that kind of situation comes number one, all of the damage that has been done to many Americans from which they’ve never recovered, whether loss of their homes, loss of their jobs, the loss of pensions, retirements, of a secure future, all kinds of benefits that they had, health and otherwise. And so the entire society is destabilized but more than that. We can look and see the people who were the criminals in this, basically came out ok. I don’t see enough attention paid to that. Even Sanders doesn’t focus so much on that and he’s got his mantra which is just a few lines repeated over and over. It is this piece of it. Who are these people? I don’t see the media, for example, identifying the criminals. Why is it that we know who killed one person or who robbed one store, but we don’t know who robbed the whole store and who killed the dreams of a whole country! What I would love to do, Jeff, as whowhatwhy grows, we need more, we need money too, we need money from the public. We don’t want to take it from the Goldman Sachses in the world. As we grow, I would love to see us cover the criminals, the big criminals, and put their names out there, and their pictures and the stories.. It’s not ok to be criminal, it’s not ok to lack ethics and morality and to victimize your fellow citizens.
Jeff: Are we perhaps at some kind of a tipping point? Some kind of an inflection point in terms of the public waking up to realizing some of the things that we are talking about?
Russ: I hope so. Sometimes it feels that way. Certainly if we look at a lot of these issues and the underlying premise of our discussion that greed and selfishness and powerlust drives almost everything in the public discussion or drives a lot of the negative news. I would hope that we’re seeing some kind of a change. We’ve been talking about this thing for years at whowhatwhy. We’ve been doing stories about the wars and the stress, overstress on terrorism, and panicking people with disinformation and so on, how all of this feeds and benefits certain corporate agendas, and … I think people are a little bit waking up and starting to understand it. They’re getting pieces of this thing. They see the Panama Papers and they are at least briefly outraged. Some people with the Occupy Wall Street movement, certainly the Snowden revelations, Wikileaks. There have been any number of things, and obviously the economic collapse where people see that there is something wrong. Whether the public will take the next step, which is to really educate themselves so they understand what is going on and why, and whether they will take the step after that which is to do something about it, really is what remains to be seen.
Jeff: Do you see it as a generational shift also? When you look at the readers and the comments and the people that talk to you about the things in the stories by whowhatwhy, are you seeing a generational shift here?
Russ: I do see a generational shift. Our readership is fairly diverse demographically but overall I would say, I was just looking at the polls for New York State, that Hillary Clinton is way ahead. The group where she’s furthest ahead of Bernie Sanders, is among African Americans. The second group that she is most ahead in, is with elderly people. And then the third group is women. That’s quite interesting because Sanders is winning among young people. He’s also faring better among men. But this is very interesting because if you would go do actually a civics test, a quiz of the people in the poll, I think there’s no question that not all elements of society are equally aware of the kinds of things that we are talking about. It’s sad to say, but the audience, right now, for the kind of things we’re talking about, tend to be well educated, a younger, largely white audience. And if you look at African Americans, and this is in part because they still are very much economically struggling and in other ways beset by an unfair criminal justice system, so much crisis and turbulence in the lives of our urban and also rural black population. Getting through the day is difficult enough. There really isn’t a lot of time to read The Atlantic or listening to PBS or something like that. And that is just the reality that is not discussed. Elderly people are somewhat set in their ways, worried a little bit about change, though in some ways perhaps Bernie Sanders is more of a vigorous advocate in protecting Social Security and other benefits and things, I think they’re a little scared and a little worried and responding to the notion that maybe he is not as experienced as she is and that’s that reaction. With women it’s understandable. There’s never been a woman president and that’s important to them. As today it’s the day that the … point that they use today, I wouldn’t call it a holiday, it’s a day that’s demarked for drawing attention to pay inequity, that women have to work four extra months out of the year to earn the same as a man earns in a year. These are understandable things and I’m hoping that if Clinton becomes president we’ll see greater equality. I’m not sure that will necessarily follow just as I think that electing an African American as president didn’t necessarily benefit African Americans.
Jeff: And talk a little bit finally about how whowhatwhy is covering this election, the things that you want to focus on in the coming months.
Russ: Sure. One of the handicaps we faced and what I talked about earlier is a lack of resources. You’ve got to pay your writers, your editors, and so we haven’t been able to do what I’d like to do. I consider whowhatwhy an aspirational project. That means that what you see on the site are the kind of examples that we like to do, to do more of, more stories, more frequently on more subjects, going deeper. But what we have done, and I think we have certainly put out enough stories, giving our audience a sense of what we think is important, is to not follow the pack. Not to participate in the sort of beauty contest horserace aspect of who is up and who is down, who has done a better job of acting on the public stage, who has done a better job of hiring the right people and running the right ads. It’s not that that is uninteresting, but that’s the kind of inside thing of baseball stuff that doesn’t really have a lot to do with the choice itself. And whowhatwhy emphasizes that what really matters is the choice itself. Right now there is a discussion between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who is more qualified, who is more experienced. Well, what does the word qualified mean and if we look at qualifications, what are those qualifications and how do they play out? How are they … if somebody says they are more qualified, what does that mean and what do they do? Certainly in the case of Hillary Clinton, and I don’t mean to unduly pick on her, but she is the front runner both on the Democratic side and overall to be the next president. They talk about her experience, that she was secretary of state. And yet we see Jimmy Carter, a revered peacemaker, and he says that Hillary Clinton did nothing to advance peace when she was secretary of state. I mean, that’s a very harsh critique. And so I think what whowhatwhy is doing, we’re looking at the stories, we’re trying to find the diamonds in the rough, things that are buried, that really matter. We’re looking at things like the disenfranchisement of voters. We have been doing a lot of stories about the democracy process itself. Should we be worried about things ranging from electronic voting without a proper paper audit trail, to whether or not certain elected officials are helping candidates that they favor, and creating obstacles in the path of voters that they do not want to vote. I think you see on whowhatwhy those kinds of forensic digs, soil samples, if you will, on the state of the health of democracy itself.
Jeff: Russ Baker, whowhatwhy.org. Russ, thanks so much for spending some time and sharing your thoughts with the listeners.
Russ: Thank you, Jeff.
Jeff: And thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio whowhatwhy. I hope you’ll join us next week for another Radio whowhatwhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy Connected globe (Dominic Alves / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0), Hillary Clinton (Gage Skidmore / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0), Vladimir Putin (MARIAJONER / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 4.0)