______________________________________________________________________________________

The Most Curious Creature of All

The world of politics, as they say, makes for strange bedfellows indeed. The Right sleeps around with the Left, the Left sleeps around with the Right, and the Center sleeps around with just about anybody they can find across the spectrum. Nothing unusual about that, though, right? Politics, after all, is arguably the world’s oldest profession.

But among all the individuals that we can find whenever we explore the wondrous world of politics, none is more exotic, alien, peculiar and vexing than the most curious political creature of them all. I’m talking, of course, about the White American Liberal (WAL).

What makes this creature so curious in the political animal kingdom? No. 1 is the double standard. Every person in politics has a double standard of some sort or another, naturally. But the White American Liberal has perfected the double standard and raised it to an art form.

For a recent example of such a curious creature, we need look no further than to Dennis Kucinich, the former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the midwestern state of Ohio. Kucinich, an American of European descent, has long stood as a champion of liberal causes in everything from abortion to war — sometimes in contradiction to that towering castle of American neo-liberal capitalism to which he belongs, the Democratic Party. Kucinich even won a “Gandhi Peace Award” in 2003 from a U.S. non-profit organization run by other White American Liberals.

Kucinich ran for president of the United States twice (2004 and 2008) on liberal campaign platforms, but lost. After retiring from the U.S. Congress in 2013, Mr. Kucinich decided to become a “political analyst”. For which media company, you ask? Why, for none other than the bastion of right-wing extremism, Fox News. Yes, you read that right: Dennis Kucinich has been using his credentials as a WAL pundit these past few years on such popular Fox News programs as “The O’Reilly Factor” (goodbye and good riddance, Bill).

It was on
one of these recent Fox News programs that Kucinich and Fox program host Sean Hannity, an unapologetic and mostly uninformed right-winger, wholeheartedly agreed about the existence of a “deep state”, an invisible government of sorts operating behind the public façade of the U.S. government today and working beyond anyone’s control. “You have politicization of the agencies that is resulting in leaks…and the intention is to take down a president,” Kucinich said, referring to current U.S. president Donald Trump and his many problems with U.S. intelligence agencies. “Now, this is very dangerous to America. It’s a threat to our republic. It constitutes a clear and present danger to our way of life.”

Mighty scary words there: “a clear and present danger” to the American Way of Life, or AWOL. We should all be concerned about something so dangerous to the public. But wait a minute — hasn’t Dennis Kucinich himself, as a vaunted member of the White American Liberal class, served the aims of the deep state in the past? The answer is yes, in fact, he has.

On September 14, 2001 — just three days after the 9-11 attacks —
Kucinich joined 419 other members of both houses of the U.S. Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, in passing House Joint Resolution 64, which would allow then-U.S. president George W. Bush sweeping powers in the newly declared “war on terrorism”. Only one member of the U.S. Congress bothered to vote against that resolution, and that was African American representative Barbara Lee of California. For Lee’s brave vote of conscience and her well-placed concern about giving the U.S. president such broad powers, she was condemned by conservatives and liberals alike.

President Bush signed the resolution into law as
Public Law 107-40, “Authorization for Use of Military Force”, on 18 September 2001, a week after the 9-11 attacks. The law was used from then on by the Bush administration to justify, among many other bad things, the suspension of fundamental habeas corpus rights of hundreds of illegally held prisoners at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and the wiretapping of innocent U.S. citizens on a mass scale at home.

Fifteen years and several overseas wars later, Barack Obama, on his way out the door as U.S. president,
issued a report that essentially gave his legal blessing to that same law as “provid[ing] the domestic legal authority for the United States to use military force against the terrorist threats” of organizations like al Qaida and the Taliban, justifying Obama’s decision to bomb Syria. That was just about the best possible Christmas present that president-elect Donald Trump could have asked for, and in the short time he has been in office, Trump has continued those war policies of the Bush-Obama years to devastating effect.

And to think: All of this was made possible in part by White American Liberals in the U.S. Congress like Dennis Kucinich, who helped get the law passed in the first place. Now, in 2017, Kucinich crows wildly on Fox News about the dangers of a deep state that seems intent on taking Trump down (not that some of us wouldn’t enjoy watching Trump being disgraced and led out of office in an orange jumpsuit). Yet, the blame for the current state of political affairs, and the continued rise of the deep state, must also be laid at the feet of Kucinich and other WALs like him who played footsie with the U.S. deep state at key moments since 2001.

Kucinich has also advocated over the years the creation of a new “
Department of Peace” that would replace the current U.S. Department of Defense (aptly named the Department of War up until 1947, two years after the end of World War II). This new “DoP” as proposed by Kucinich would be a cabinet-level department in the executive branch of government.

While the idea of such a Peace Department overseen by a U.S. president sounds nice in theory, all kinds of questions and liberal double standards arise: Wouldn’t this new Department of Peace then become part of, or at least serve the aims of, the deep state that Kucinich is so alarmed about? Could this new department even begin to make a dent in the worldwide military-industrial complex that has come to make war the ultimate profit-making venture in the 21st century? Would world peace then be something controlled and manipulated by the U.S. government, instead of fostered by the people themselves? So many questions abound.

Another factor that distinguishes the curious White American Liberal in the political animal kingdom is the deathly fear of being branded unpatriotic. Such liberals will say anything, do anything, to avoid being branded with a scarlet
U (for Unpatriot) on their chests and being called a coward to their faces. It strikes fear into the very hearts of white liberals, activating a primitive flight-or-fight instinct deep within them like nothing else can.

I happened to be in the United States at the time of 9-11, and I saw firsthand how members of major U.S. news media organizations — many of them liberal and white individuals — literally trampled over each other in the rush to follow the self-appointed patriotism police at Fox News in shamefully cheerleading for war. One TV episode from around that time still stands out clearly in my mind: a live Fox News program in which the host was berating another White American Liberal icon, Medea Benjamin of the women’s activist group
Code Pink, who was rightly criticizing Bush. “Why do you hate America?” the Fox News host demanded to know. Benjamin was aghast. “I don’t hate America!” she shot back, “I love America!” The conversation went downhill from there.

The White American Liberal, like a fish in water, will always bite on the bait of being called “unpatriotic” or “un-American” out of fear. To be fair, though, Japanese liberals here in Japan do the same thing with right-wing accusations of being a
hi-kokumin — literally, a “non-citizen” or traitor. I guess it’s just something in the liberal DNA worldwide that you can’t change.

If you ask me, we should just stop dealing with such curious political creatures as White American Liberals altogether, step around them and the political obstacles they seem to be constantly erecting, and then muster the truly progressive, grassroots people out there who are ready to get down and fight for the changes that we all seek. No more liberal double standards or patriotic fears or wishy-washy apologies or weak-kneed compromises: We all come together across our societal differences and join hands to fight the good fight (of course, using the Gandhi/King principle of nonviolent action to guide us), and really make things happen.

Then, what to do with that most curious creature of all? One idea might be to just gather together all the best and brightest of the White American Liberals in one nice, air-conditioned museum someplace in the continental United States and make those WALs the subject of a major public exhibit. There, paying visitors could point and gawk and be awed at how those liberal marvels of nature sitting there behind the thick glass wall have driven themselves to near-extinction in the U.S. political scene today.

That solution could work well in two ways: It would give the curious White American Liberals on display at the museum a permanent, captive, non-questioning liberal audience — a new base. And, more importantly, it would free up the rest of us to move progressively ahead and get down to the serious work of
real social change, now and for the future. Advance tickets for the museum show, anyone?

A New Media Storyline for MLK (pt. 1)


mlk_riverside_1967
Coming out against the Vietnam war: Martin Luther King Jr.
at Riverside Church, New York City, 4 April 1967


Today, 16 January, the people of the United States of America will recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday. And just as they have for most of the 31 years that the birthday of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been a nationally observed holiday, the American news media will basically get the story wrong.

Every year around this time, the storyline of the U.S. press goes
something like this:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. battled racial segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 [cue up: brief excerpts of violent police scenes against Black marchers], followed by a heartwarming speech later that year during a big public demonstration at the U.S. capital of Washington DC in which he shared his dream of future racial harmony in the USA [cue up: brief excerpts of “I Have a Dream” speech]. In 1965 King marched in Selma, Alabama for voting rights for African American citizens [cue up: more brief scenes of police violence against Black marchers]. And finally, in 1968 King was killed by the single bullet of a lone, crazed assassin, ending King’s dream forever [cue up: brief scene of a fatally injured King lying flat on his back on a second-floor motel walkway].

That’s how the American media version of Dr. King’s life has gone for most of the past 49 years since his death: with the sad tale of a nonviolent, naïve dreamer who stood up for the rights of his people but who died never having achieved his dream of racial harmony between black children and white children. Martin Luther King Jr. — the harmless, hopeless dreamer.

But King’s own actions during the last full year of his life tell us a much different story, one that the U.S. press establishment has never been comfortable with reporting in detail, in part because the press played a direct role in knocking King down at the time. Here are parts of the U.S. media’s yearly storyline on Martin Luther King Jr. and the national holiday in his name that have been all but erased from history and public memory:

• Vietnam war awakening — Rev. King, by his own account and that of others who knew him, was shown the January 1967 edition of Ramparts, a leftist political/literary magazine based in San Francisco, California, just after the magazine had come out. That issue of Ramparts featured a lengthy article by U.S. educator and activist William Pepper titled “The Children of Vietnam”, based on evidence he gathered during a trip to Vietnam. The report by Pepper featured shocking photos of innocent Vietnamese children who had been maimed or severely burned by napalm (jellied gasoline) used by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. Rev. King would later say that once he saw on those pages of Ramparts the truth of what his own government was doing to innocent civilians in Vietnam, he knew he could never remain silent about the Vietnam war again, as he had been in the past.

• Coming out against war — From the pulpit of the interdenominational Riverside Church in downtown New York City (a church financed and built decades earlier by the wealthy Rockefeller family), Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gives one of the most important speeches of his life — if not the most important one. In “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, co-written with historian Vincent Harding, King speaks for about an hour and announces for the first time his opposition to the U.S. war of aggression on the Southeast Asian nation of Vietnam. “…I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos [of America] without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those [Black] boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent,” King declares.

King points out the cruel irony of young African American men being drafted in disproportionately high numbers to fight side by side with young white American men in Vietnam, burning down the villages of Vietnamese peasants together, while back at home in the USA those same young men of different races might not even be able to attend the same schools or live in the same neighborhoods.

The U.S. war on the people of Vietnam was a symptom of something deeper and more sinister, King says, than just a matter of simply fighting against communism abroad: The real enemy is capitalism at home in the USA, which had turned the nation into a “thing-oriented society”. King points out how the USA is increasingly on the wrong side of struggles for freedom around the world, and that it is time to look beyond the U.S. war in Vietnam to the real causes of war, poverty and racism. He calls for a “true revolution of values” in the USA, and quoting the Christian bible, urges America to support such a revolution: “These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. ‘The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light’. We in the West must support these revolutions.”

King encourages young people in the USA to refuse to fight in the Vietnam war by becoming conscientious objectors. King is instantly welcomed into the broad anti-war movement in the USA, but is immediately ostracized and isolated among those, both Black and white, who think the “civil rights” struggle should be kept separate from the anti-Vietnam war movement. King’s direct access to U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, a southern Democrat who had worked with Black leaders for civil rights in the past and who also dramatically escalated the U.S. war on Vietnam, is now gone forever.

King chose the language of nonviolent revolution, strong and clear, to make his case for coming out against the war. The date of King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech was 4 April 1967 — a date that would figure significantly in his remaining life.

• Condemned by the press — The influential U.S. news media establishment reacted swiftly and strongly against King following his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. The Washington Post publishes an editorial that ends on a merciless note with these words: “Dr. King has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies in a great struggle to remove ancient abuses from our public life; and he has done an even graver injury to himself. Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people. And that is a great tragedy” {*1}.

The New York Times publishes an editorial, titled “Dr. King’s Error”, in which it chastises King for trying to link together the fight for civil rights of Black people at home in the USA with the anti-war movement spreading across the nation, which the Times called “two public problems that are distinct and separate. By drawing them together, Dr. King has done a disservice to both” {*2}. A comparison by King in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech between the USA and Nazi Germany draws a swift rebuke from America’s newspaper of record: “…Dr. King can only antagonize public opinion in this country by recklessly comparing American military methods to those of the Nazis testing ‘new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe’. The facts are harsh, but they do not justify such slander.”

In severely criticizing King and his new anti-war stance, the big American media companies were essentially trying to put King in his place and strip him of his credibility among the public. But one thing that the
Washington Post and New York Times never bothered to tell the public at the time back in 1967 is that these two newspapers (and several other U.S. major news media outlets as well) had been maintaining close ties at the highest levels of their news companies to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the most powerful spy agency within the U.S. government, as this writer and others have documented {*3}. Such news organizations were far from being objective, neutral sources of reporting on King and his activities.

• Challenging press hypocrisy — A few weeks later, on 30 April 1967, Rev. King reconfirms his stance against the Vietnam war during a Sunday sermon that he preaches at his home church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. In his sermon, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” (text link here), King reiterates much of his earlier speech at the Riverside Church in New York, but with an important addition: He takes the American press to task for its hypocrisy in the way that news media companies reported on him both before and after he came out against the Vietnam war:

“There’s been a lot of applauding over the last few years. They’ve applauded our total movement and they’ve applauded me. America and most of its newspapers applauded me in Montgomery [Alabama in 1956], when I stood before thousands of Negroes getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, ‘We can’t do it this way’. They applauded us in the sit-in movement when we nonviolently decided to sit in at lunch counters. The applauded us on the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press was so noble in its applause and so noble in its praise when I was saying ‘Be nonviolent toward Bull Connor’, when I was saying ‘Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark’ [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff]. There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say ‘Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark’, but will curse and damn you when you say ‘Be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children’. There’s something wrong with that press!”
[applause]

“Three Evils” speech — Rev. King is the keynote speaker of a political gathering he helped organize in Chicago on 31 August and 1 September 1967 by the National Conference for New Politics (NCNP), a group of prominent intellectuals and activists on the political left who wanted to directly challenge the pro-war policies of both the Republican and Democratic parties. In this memorable but long-forgotten speech, King attacks what he calls the “three evils” of contemporary American society: racism, militarism and excessive materialism (speech transcript here). King, in putting his support behind the NCNP, saw much potential common ground to be tapped between the civil rights movement, with its focus on Black equality, and the broad anti-war movement of mostly white young people.

The NCNP conference this Labor Day weekend includes laying the groundwork for fielding an independent presidential candidate in the upcoming 1968 election. The presidential candidate nominated at the NCNP conference? Martin Luther King Jr. himself, with pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock nominated as King’s vice presidential running mate. (This first annual meeting of the NCNP turned out to be its last, due to the presence of
agents provocateurs and U.S. government infiltrators in the audience who managed to sabotage the group’s activities.)

• Poor people’s campaign — Rev. King ends the year 1967 by announcing on 4 December his next big campaign: taking the model of local marches against poverty in the U.S. South to the major cities of the North, and expanding them greatly in scale. The first target of this massive Poor People’s March: Washington DC, in spring of the coming year, to be followed by a series of major marches on other big northern U.S. cities as well.

“This will be no mere one-day march in Washington,” King says, but rather “a trek to the nation’s capital by suffering and outraged citizens who will stay until some definite and positive action is taken to provide jobs and income for the poor.” People will flood into Washington DC in their thousands, pitch tents, and lay claim to the financial resources and governmental policy priorities that are rightfully theirs as U.S. citizens, he states: “We will go there, we will demand to be heard, and we will stay until America responds”
{*4}.

King says this new anti-poverty campaign will involve a base of about 3,000 African American volunteers, and other volunteers across the racial spectrum, from at least 10 major northern U.S. cities, and grow from there. The human resources and networks of the anti-war/peace movement in the U.S. will be used to help carry out the poor people’s campaign at the grassroots level, he said, and all participants in the Poor People’s March are to be trained in nonviolent tactics of resistance. King emphasizes that this sustained, nonviolent campaign against poverty and war in the United States is a preferred alternative to the violent, destructive riots that are sure to engulf U.S. cities in the near future.

• Olympic boycott — Ten days later, on 14 December 1967, Rev. King enters a raging controversy in international sports when he announces his public support for Black American athletes who are threatening to boycott the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City the following year, refusing to playing as part of the U.S. team. This Olympic boycott, King says, is “a protest and a struggle against racism and injustice” toward Black athletes and other athletes who were being discriminated against {*5}.

(continued in part 2)

A New Media Storyline for MLK (pt. 2)


Cartoon_Shreveport Times_1967
Editorial cartoon, Shreveport Times
(Shreveport, LA), 13 Dec. 1967


(continued from part 1)


• 1968 — The new year of 1968 begins on a turbulent note with a severe routing of U.S. forces in South Vietnam as part of the successful “Tet offensive” of the North Vietnamese guerrilla fighters, exposing the lies of U.S. military commanders and President Johnson himself that the USA was winning the war in Vietnam. U.S. public opinion against the war rises steadily from this point onward. Rev. King, at this critical time, stands at the forefront of the nation’s anti-war movement. And, as the above editorial cartoon shows, King is being increasingly viewed by white America as a rabble-rouser and a "troublemaker" who needed to be dealt with; U.S. government agencies such as the FBI are treating King as public enemy No. 1.

• Shanty towns in Washington — Rev. King announces on 2 February 1968 that the ongoing plans for the kickoff of the massive Poor People’s March in Washington DC, scheduled for a few months later in April, are basically to occupy Washington. This will include the erecting of makeshift shantytowns by thousands of poor people in the nation’s capital as a symbol of the USA’s deep poverty problems. In doing so, he says, the poor people of America hope to provoke some drastic policy changes from the U.S. Congress and also appeal to the conscience of the nation.

King says that poor children joining the march, who are in dire need of medical treatment, will occupy the hospitals of Washington DC until they get treated, while other demonstrators will take their protest directly to their members of Congress, and still others will “descend upon government offices in waves”. King is seeking a reaction from the U.S. government: “We plan on staying [in Washington DC] until we get a response. If a response is not coming, we will escalate our methods. Disruptive measures will be used only as a last resort”
{*6}.

A few days later, on 8 February, Rev. King gives the U.S. government a price tag of at least $10 billion as the amount the government needs to urgently set aside in its fiscal budget to meet the job and income needs of the thousands of African Americans who will be joining the Poor People’s March in Washington DC a few months later. At a time when the U.S. government is spending billions of dollars on a losing war in Vietnam, King says, allocating $10 billion for the needs of poor Black people at home in the USA should not be hard to do
{*7}.

• “Unfulfilled Dreams” speech — On 3 March 1968, Rev. King preaches a Sunday sermon in Atlanta, Georgia at his home church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church, on the theme of “Unfulfilled Dreams”. Speaking mostly in Biblical terms, King delivers a personal reflection and confession of sorts on his successes and failures. King was a man who always chose his words carefully, and the deeper meaning behind his words are hard to miss: Long gone are his optimistic “I Have a Dream” sentiments of racial harmony from five years before at the big March on Washington. That dream had not been fulfilled; the reality of racist violence and social upheaval still confronted his country. King speaks powerfully and prophetically to his congregation this morning, almost as if sensing he does not have much time left.

• Peace efforts in Africa — A few days later, it is confirmed that Rev. King will be joining a delegation of four other well-known African American leaders on a peacemaking mission to the African nation of Nigeria starting 15 April {*8}. The purpose of the mission is to help mediate between the two sides in the country’s civil war, which had begun the year before: the heavy-handed military government of Nigeria on one side, versus the Biafra region of the country that had seceded and declared itself an independent state on the other side. The underlying cause of the civil war was the supply of oil in the region. Millions of civilians in the Biafra region were reported to be starving to death due to a blockade by the Nigerian government, and relief efforts for Biafra were springing up all over the world.

While the U.S. government claims to be neutral in the conflict and thus offers no help to the millions of starving Nigerians, the U.S. is giving military assistance to the Nigerian government. American companies are heavily invested in the oil-rich region as well. By going to Nigeria as a peace broker, Martin Luther King Jr. is standing in direct contradiction to U.S. government policy in the Biafran war. But, it is reported, King will be back in the United States in time for the start of his massive Poor People’s March on Washington DC, which is moving ahead as scheduled for 22 April 1968.

• National Cathedral address — At the end of that month, on 31 March 1968, Rev. King preaches a Sunday morning sermon to an overflowing crowd of hundreds at the prestigious Washington National Cathedral in Washington DC, titling his talk “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”. He had given variations of this same sermon several times in the past, but this day it takes on a whole new meaning: His planned Poor People’s March on Washington DC is now just a few weeks away, and there is indeed a sense of revolution in the air.

King had evolved and come full circle since his “I Have a Dream” speech in this same city just five years before at the big March on Washington. This time, at the National Cathedral, he uses the metaphor of “being awake” as a sort of counterpoint to the dreaming of the past. Delivering this sermon was a masterful orator at work, crystalizing everything he had worked for up to this point. His eyes are wide open now to what he calls the “difficult days ahead in the struggle for justice and peace”. But, he says, “I will not yield to a politic of despair. I’m going to maintain hope as we come to Washington in this campaign. The cards are stacked against us. This time we will really confront a Goliath. God grant that we will be that David of truth set out against the Goliath of injustice, the Goliath of neglect, the Goliath of refusing to deal with the problems, and go on with the determination to make America the truly great America that it is called to be.”

In a press conference following his sermon, King confirms that the Poor People’s March will begin in Washington DC on 22 April as planned, followed later in the week by 3,000 to 4,000 selected demonstrators who will build shantytowns at a site within the city, symbolizing the need for the government to deal with poverty. That, in turn, will be followed by a much larger demonstration of hundreds of thousands of people coming to Washington DC on 15 June.

If that does not get any meaningful results from the U.S. government, King hints, then the Democratic Party’s upcoming 1968 election convention later that summer in Chicago might also be targeted for nonviolent protests — the Democrats “will have a real awakening”, he says — along with the Republican Party’s planned convention in Miami Beach, Florida
{*9}. King is turning up the heat as high as it could go on the political powers that be in America.

That heat was no doubt felt all the way across town at the White House, where, that very same evening of 31 March, President Lyndon Johnson announces in a televised address to the nation that he will not be running for re-election in the next presidential campaign. Johnson is a defeated president by then, having gone up against public opinion in escalating the war and losing that public support in the process. And it surely did not help Johnson to have Martin Luther King Jr. publicly opposing him and his policies, both domestic and foreign. King’s address at the National Cathedral that Sunday morning would be the last major speech of his life.

• Assassination — Rev. King’s planned trip to Africa as a diplomat for peace at the international level never took place. King is killed by the single bullet of an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee on 4 April 1968. That date is significant: It was exactly one year to the day since King had first come out against the Vietnam war in his speech at the Riverside Church in New York City.

The Poor People’s March on Washington went ahead in the wake of King’s killing that spring, however, with a few thousand volunteers setting up a tent camp called “Resurrection City”. A few months later, the police forcibly removed the volunteers and cleared the area. Without King to lead it, the poor people’s campaign all but withered and dried up, receiving few if any meaningful concessions from the U.S. government in addressing the problem of poverty throughout the nation. The American war in Vietnam would go on for another five years or so.

• “Lone crazed assassin” theory — Part of the U.S. news media storyline every year in commemorating the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is the tale of James Earl Ray, a petty criminal who had been in and out of jail, as the man who relentlessly stalks Rev. King during his final days out of racial animosity and finally catches up with him that day in Memphis when King steps out of his motel room at the Lorraine Motel and Ray shoots him to death.

But there is one big problem with the U.S. media’s reporting on James Ray as the killer of Rev. King: It never actually happened. The lone, crazed assassin theory is merely that — an official theory, and not a well-constructed one at that, as to how King was assassinated. The true facts of the killing of King, which have come out in bits and pieces in the decades since his death, provide us with a much different and more disturbing conclusion.

Ray fought for years from inside of prison, with the strong support of the surviving family members of Martin Luther King Jr. and some of King’s closest associates, to clear his own name in the notorious murder, and in demanding the public trial he had been denied from the beginning
{*10}.

Ray, the accused assassin, at one point retained as his attorney William Pepper, a former friend and associate of Martin Luther King Jr. It was Pepper, remember, who had published the shocking report for
Ramparts magazine back in 1967, “The Children of Vietnam”, that had been shown to King, eventually leading King to come out against the war in Vietnam in the first place.

Nobody has done more than attorney William Pepper, in fact, in establishing the closest thing to the truth regarding the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Pepper has published several books over the years on the King assassination
{*11}. In his research and investigation for those books, Pepper presents chilling evidence of King being under military surveillance and followed in his final weeks by a U.S. army special forces sniper team — right up to the moment King was killed.

And it was Pepper, as an attorney for the King family, who helped bring to trial the only court case ever held in relation to the death of Rev. King. In that case,
Coretta Scott King, et al, vs. Loyd Jowers, et al, the jury decided on 8 December 1999 that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed on 4 April 1968 as a result of a conspiracy that involved Loyd Jowers, a local Memphis restaurant owner, and also a conspiracy involving U.S. “governmental agencies”.

And the actual shooter of Martin Luther King Jr.? The shooter has been identified as Frank Strausser, a police officer with the Memphis Police Department (MPD) and a highly skilled marksman back in 1967. The MPD shooter fired the single, lethal shot at King from behind bushes just across the street from the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King and his entourage were staying. The ensuing cover-up at various levels kept the MPD’s role in the assassination secret for years.

It had taken more than three decades for the truth to rise again about Rev. King’s death in the trial brought by Pepper and the King family, but it was now out. “This verdict is not only a great victory for my family, but also a great victory for America. It is a great victory for truth itself,” Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain leader,
said afterward.

And where was the American watchdog press during this trial of the century? Fast asleep as usual or busy chasing down other more titillating stories around that time, such as a presidential sex scandal and yet another U.S.-led war overseas. The 1999 conspiracy trial of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. appeared nowhere on the
list of the top reported news stories of that year or, indeed, of that whole decade.

The wrap-up: Such media treatment should come as little surprise now in 2017, considering that while Rev. King was alive and pushing ahead with his activities for social and economic justice in the richest country on the planet, he was often vilified by the press in the U.S., from the local level up to the national level. In some cases, we now know, members of the news media even cooperated with U.S. government agencies such as the FBI to smear, discredit and otherwise distort King’s message and work. And yet the myth of a free, unfettered American press persists.

Today, 49 years after King’s death and 31 years since his birthday became a nationally observed holiday in the USA, the public still receives a media-washed version of King’s life that comes nowhere near to being complete or even correct on many counts. As we approach the half-century mark of King’s demise next year, it is more important than ever that people insist that Rev. King in death be reported on more accurately and fully as the social revolutionary he was in life — not as some mere harmless, hopeless dreamer, but rather someone who posed a real threat to the existing structures of political and economic power in the USA.

We will know we have succeeded in our insistence when a new U.S. media storyline of the observance Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2018, exactly a half-century after Rev. King’s death, is something more along these truthful lines:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for which today’s national holiday is named, battled racial segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 [cue up: extended footage of violent police scenes against Black marchers], followed by a heartwarming speech later that year during a big public demonstration at the U.S. capital of Washington DC in which he shared his dream of future racial harmony in the USA [cue up: footage of “I Have a Dream” speech]. In 1965 King marched in Selma, Alabama for voting rights for African American citizens [cue up: more extended footage of police violence against Black marchers], and was instrumental in getting a historic voting rights bill passed into law that year.

In 1967, King spoke out for the first time against the U.S. war on the sovereign nation of Vietnam and the many civilian deaths that war was causing [cue up: news footage of dead Vietnamese families killed by U.S. soldiers + King’s speech at Riverside Church]. He was attacked in the U.S. press after his “Beyond Vietnam” speech [cue up: close-up shots of critical newspaper articles]. In the last year of King’s life, he increasingly spoke of “revolution” and of waking up from the dream [cue up: audio/video of King’s National Cathedral speech]. King was organizing a series of massive Poor People’s Marches, starting with one on Washington DC planned for the spring of 1968, demanding that poverty be addressed in the United States, when he was cut down by a single bullet from an assassin [cue up: scene of a fatally injured King lying flat on his back on a second-floor motel walkway].

The initial suspect, James Earl Ray, was imprisoned for the shooting. Ray long maintained his innocence in the killing, and was even supported in his quest for a public trial by the King family itself. Ray eventually died in prison without ever getting his full trial. The real killer of Martin Luther King Jr., meanwhile, has been identified since then as a Memphis Police Department sharpshooter, officer Frank Strausser.

A historic civil lawsuit was brought in 1999 by the King family [cue up: footage of Coretta Scott King giving testimony at the trial]. The final jury verdict in that trial was that U.S. “governmental agencies” had been involved in a “conspiracy” to assassinate Dr. King. But why would the U.S. government want King dead?

That question remains unanswered today. Perhaps it had something to do with Dr. King being seen as a very real threat to the government and to the favored status of major corporations in American society in his demands for an end to war, racism and militarism — and for more U.S. tax money to be spent on the millions of Americans who lived, and continue to live, below the poverty line in our country. After all, just a few months before his death, he was laying the groundwork for standing as a U.S. presidential candidate in the 1968 presidential election. In the last one year of his life, especially, King was becoming more radicalized in his political views and actions, thus becoming a thorn in the side of the political and corporate powers-that-be in the United States. He had to be removed, permanently, from the scene.

This year marks 50 years since Dr. King’s death, and today’s national holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is a day of reflection and action for a man many consider to be one of the most remarkable public figures of the last century: a Baptist preacher by profession, a revolutionary thinker and nonviolent social activist for peace, a tireless advocate for racial equality and economic justice in the USA. Has his dream been achieved? Will it ever be achieved?

That, of course, will be up to us.

___________________

{*1} “A Tragedy” (editorial), Washington Post, 6 April 1967, p. A20.

{*2} “Dr. King’s Error” (editorial), New York Times, 7 April 1967, p. 36.

{*3} Brian Covert, “Played by the Mighty Wurlitzer: The Press, the CIA, and the Subversion of Truth”, in Censored 2017 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2016), pp. 251-284.

{*4} United Press International (UPI), “King Vows Capital Marches”, Chicago Tribune, 5 December 1967, p. 1A-9, and Associated Press (AP), “King Plans March of Poor on Washington”, Danville Register (Danville, VA), 5 December 1967, p. 8-B.

{*5} Associated Press, “Dr. King Backs Negro Boycott”, Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, NM), 15 December 1967, p. D-1.

{*6} Associated Press, “Shanties in Capital Planned by King for Poor People’s March”, Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 February 1968, p. 8.

{*7} Associated Press, “Key to Job Demands”, Kansas City Times (Kansas City, MO), 8 February 1968. p. 16C.

{*8} Associated Press, “Martin Luther King Plans Nigerian Visit”, Kane Republican (Kane, PA), 9 March 1968, p. 3.

{*9} Associated Press, “Dr. King Threatens Convention Protests”, The Tennessean (Nashville, TN), 1 April 1968, p. 12.

{*10} See James Earl Ray, Who Killed Martin Luther King?: The True Story by the Alleged Assassin (Washington DC: National Press Books, 1992). Foreword by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, a former close associate of King.

{*11} See William F. Pepper, Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1995), and William F. Pepper, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King (London/New York: Verso, 2008). Pepper’s latest book is The Plot to Kill King: The Truth Behind the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016).

Three Books in the Bag (or, A Year of Living Creatively)

It is always worth a celebration when you get a book project finished. You naturally want to share with the world the results of your labor, and you watch with great anticipation how your work is being received one way or the other. These past few years I’ve been lucky enough to get at least one book project (and sometimes two) brought to completion in a year’s time.

About this time a year ago I started burrowing down into my work — deeply investigating, researching, then writing, rewriting, editing, re-editing. It was a long haul and, I confess, at times I wondered what I had gotten myself into by taking on so much with barely enough time to sleep or to literally exhale.

A year later, and the results are finally in for all to see. The creative spirits, as I like to think of it, kept me productive and busy this past year. I’ve surpassed my own past personal records now by getting not one, not two, but three book projects in the bag this past year. So, naturally, I get to celebrate and share this personal milestone by (how else?) writing even more words for people to read. Such is the life of an impassioned writer….

Putting it to the Tests

As anyone who has spent time living and working in Japan can tell you, the language business is a major industry (some might even call it a racket), with lots of money to be spent by consumers and lots of money to be made, in turn, by publishers, by private and public language schools, by bookstores and on down the line.

Nowhere does that seem more apparent than in the testing field, with its promises of helping Japanese young people to pass the seemingly endless array of exams that will let them open doors and overcome various barriers in society, and ostensibly lead them to find a measure of success in life. And ranking high up there in the royalty of the Japanese testing field is the Test of English for International Communication, or TOEIC.

At any given time, there are literally dozens of TOEIC and other related test books on the shelves of booksellers throughout the Japanese archipelago, so choosing just the perfect study guide to help you pass that big exam on the test day can be a daunting task for any student or learner of a language. That’s where the “racket” part comes in: The educational quality of these kinds of testing books, like any other genre of publication, can range from totally worthless to remarkably high.

I have always consciously aimed for the latter. For several years now I’ve been invited by a few different Japanese university professors writing for various publishing houses to participate in making TOEIC test books to be used at the university level throughout Japan. I’m not a full-time educator, but I do have one hand in the academic field as a university-level instructor of journalism, so naturally I do take great pride in putting out something that will have real meaning for the students and other readers who eventually use them.

Hot off the presses are two new books I’ve co-authored that have just been released by the Tokyo-based Asahi Press, one of the major publishers of educational books in Japan.
Step-Up Skills for the TOEIC Listening and Reading Test (Level 2) is an intermediate-level TOEIC book that my fellow authors and I have created from scratch. As with past TOEIC books, I’ve not only done writing and editing on this one, but also some of the graphic design work as well, which means I had some say both in the substance of the book and in its style. And if I may be so humble in saying so, I think this one is our best TOEIC book yet as a team of four authors. The high editorial quality is there, and it really catches the eye as well (though you probably wouldn’t know it by the plain-looking book cover). But trust me — as far as TOEIC books go anyway, this one rocks.

The other book of ours that Asahi Press has just released is
Step-Up Skills for the TOEIC Listening and Reading Test (Level 3), an advanced-level book that we had published in the past with a different cover. We have updated the contents to include some of the new changes in the TOEIC testing procedures and polished up the contents with our magic touch as co-authors. The result is an old book of ours being given a new lease on life.

Asahi Press is releasing these two books (and another one to be published later) together as its first-ever foray, I’m told, into the marketing of its TOEIC books as a set series — something they have not done before. So our books will apparently be the test case to see how well this strategy works, and Asahi Press is no doubt counting on the past strong sales of our books as individual projects to continue now that those books are released as a new three-part series. We’ll have to wait and see how it goes, but somehow I’m confident that classroom instructors across Japan and their students will give it a thumbs-up, as they have so graciously done in the past.

I have to give credit here where it is due: We could not have pulled all this off without the teamwork and cooperation of everyone involved. Some publishers can be like plantation owners to work for, but the good folks at Asahi Press have been nothing but flexible and supportive in making sure every that little detail is worked out to our liking as authors. And the efforts of that cooperative partnership have indeed paid off, both sales-wise and in the personal satisfaction that comes with knowing you have put out a damn good book for the people to read.

So, if you are a teacher of the TOEIC test somewhere here in Japan who is looking for substance and style in your lessons, look no further. Our brand-new TOEIC book series is now off and running, and how it does in the long-term future will be determined, of course, by none other than you and your students.
Yoroshiku!

Spies and the Media — A Love Story

My third book project for the year is one that I’m especially proud to be a part of. The U.S.-based media watch group
Project Censored puts out a book annually on what it deems are the top censored news stories that went unreported or misreported by the esteemed U.S. corporate press, and this year marks the milestone of 40 years for the group.

My contribution to their new book,
Censored 2017, is a chapter titled “Played by the Mighty Wurlitzer” about the historically close relationship between the U.S. government’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the institution of the free press in the USA. We all know that the freest press on the planet used to play footsie with the CIA, but what many of us probably don’t know or may not remember is that the relationship between the spies and the journalists never really ended. It was a “tryst” born of shared anti-communist, propagandistic Cold War values in the late 1940s, and continues 70 years later in the digital age in a much more subdued and hidden way. In other words, the two are still fooling around together and keeping it very discreet.

Is this healthy for a democracy? Definitely not, when you consider the finer details of that CIA-press relationship, as I did over the course of several months. There were no naïve notions on my part going into this investigation, of course, since I knew what I was diving into from the start. But as I pored through news archives and databases, public and private documents and all sorts of printed and online sources of information, it became clear that the CIA-news media relationship had gone far deeper than the press itself had ever reported in the past, far deeper than those in academia had ever researched, and certainly far deeper than the U.S. government had ever dared to admit to the public.

The big, influential news companies — the
Washington Post and New York Times newspapers, Newsweek magazine and the CBS television network, to name just a few — were the guiltiest parties when it came to cooperating with the CIA in its various clandestine operations and keeping those ties a secret from the public. Journalists worked covertly for the agency as paid (or non-paid) operatives, CIA officers were given press credentials and posed as reporters, and the U.S. Congress just looked the other way until it was forced on a few occasions during the 1970s to hold public hearings on the issue.

I won’t ruin the suspense by naming the names here; you can pick up the new
Censored 2017 book and read all about it there. But suffice it to say that you are going to find out more about the CIA and the news media than you probably knew about or cared to remember.

I will add that I noticed a distinct pattern emerging in my investigation, one I hadn’t expected to find so clearly: Starting from about the early 1970s, some big news reports would surface in the media about the CIA and journalists working together, the story would generate controversy (or not) for a short time, the U.S. Congress might investigate it (or not), then the story would die out and the media would conveniently forget about it. Then, a few years later, the same cycle would play out, and then die out again. Over and over that pattern would repeat. And still the news media establishment treats this as an invisible story today. Why the continual memory lapse on the part of the media and the refusal to confront this issue openly and honestly over the course of several decades? What is there to hide? Why not just “come out” and admit that the press has been cooperating with an agency as unlawful as the CIA? Isn’t openness with information what the free press in America is supposed to be about? Or is a “free press” about something else entirely?

The spark for this chapter on the CIA and the press actually came when I was researching the “Dark Alliance” story of the 1990s and the fate of journalist Gary Webb in breaking the big CIA-contra-crack cocaine story back then, in a chapter I was writing for Project Censored’s previous book,
Censored 2016. I had dug up so much information on the CIA-press relationship in the course of doing that “Dark Alliance” chapter that I knew I had to devote a whole chapter in itself to the CIA-media story in the future. The good folks at Project Censored were receptive to the idea, and now you have the whole story in your hands in Censored 2017.

This is by far the longest, most substantive piece I’ve ever gotten published, and I can’t think of a better book in which to have it released. Project Censored has been fighting the good fight for 40 years in keeping the media honest and relevant to our daily lives, and I’ve long been a fan of their work. I’ve now contributed essays of my own to five editions of the yearly
Censored book (and edited/ghostwritten a couple other Censored book essays by Japanese authors), and it’s been a great experience all the way. Just as I’ve done above with the Japanese books, I have to give credit where it is due: to everyone at Project Censored and at the New York-based Seven Stories Press for their teamwork, cooperation and flexibility in seeing it all through to fruition. I’m convinced that there is great power in joining forces with other like-minded, dedicated people for a common higher good — in our case, the informing of the public and the holding of news media accountable in society.

So, hats off to all those who have worked so hard together to get the 40th anniversary edition of
Censored 2017 out to the people. It’s been a long time in coming. We all benefit from the timely and important information the new book provides us, and we will continue to benefit for as long as Project Censored is around and doing its good work. Which is surely more than we can say for certain U.S. government spy agencies and some of their lapdog followers in the American poodle press.

Remembering ‘Dark Alliance’ (3)

High up in a skyscraper overlooking the port of San Francisco, California, Coral Talavera Baca began telling the story of “Dark Alliance” that no one in the USA had yet heard. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, 15 February 1997, and a TV documentary program crew from Japan (for which I served as coordinator) had her wired for sound and the video camera rolling. It was all going on the record — her first public comments ever in regard to the controversial “Dark Alliance” investigation by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb that was published the year before.

A former gymnast with short brown hair and dressed in a dark-blue pant suit, Talavera Baca sat somewhat nervously at a long conference table in a meeting room of a San Francisco law firm, where she was employed as a legal worker. She told us how U.S. government involvement in drug trafficking wasn’t some sort of “conspiracy theory”. It was fact. Her boyfriend, Rafael Corñejo, a Nicaraguan national, was then still in prison in California in connection with cocaine trafficking in the Bay Area, and she had long moved in family circles that allowed her to know firsthand of such U.S. government links to the illicit cocaine trade.

She recalled visits to a small, secluded island in the Bahamas some years before that was owned by Carlos Lehder (she used the pseudonym “Carlos Perez”), a Colombian drug lord and co-founder of the infamous Medellín drug-trafficking cartel. People who she came to understand were working for Lt. Col. Oliver North, a National Security Council staff member under former president Ronald Reagan, would fly cocaine shipments from South America and “stop off at his [Lehder’s] island usually and refuel, and then fly back to the United States”. Talavera Baca characterized North as “the biggest drug trafficker in the United States’ history” despite North’s repeated denials over the years of having anything at all to do with such criminal activities.

It was through fighting her boyfriend’s court case that she first reached out to
San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb in 1995. Actually, she had contacted reporters from three other major newspapers as well — the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner — but none of them seemed “too smart” when it came to understanding the complex issues of drugs in society. She decided to open all her files exclusively to Gary Webb instead, which led to “Dark Alliance” eventually getting published, and she was sure now that she had made the right choice.

“When Gary started looking in all these boxes, I think he was pretty much blown away. I think he planned to come in and peruse them and make lunch in the city and what have you,” she said. “He was at that office the whole day, and at the end of the day, he says, ‘Can I take these boxes with me?’. And there was just a chemistry there, you know? From the first time, he was a great guy. He was a professional in every sense of the word. …I made a really, really good choice because he’s done a great job on this”.

“He documented everything [in ‘Dark Alliance’] beautifully,” she added.

Contrary to the portrayal of Webb by the big media companies as something of a journalistic loose cannon who was sloppy in reporting facts in “Dark Alliance”, Talavera Baca had found Webb to be just the opposite: a bit too cautious and even naïve about high U.S. government involvement in the cocaine trade . “His story very clearly implicates the United States government,” she said. “And I don’t think Gary went far enough. Gary just takes it to the CIA. I think he needed to take it and go right up to the steps of the White House. And he didn’t like me saying that to him. However, I got a phone call recently from [Webb] and he says, ‘Wow, you were right. It led all the way to Oliver North’”.

We asked Talavera Baca if she thought her life might be in any danger, now that she was going public on "Dark Alliance" through our interview. She put on a brave face and shrugged it off, making an oblique reference to the assassination of the late U.S. president John F. Kennedy. “No one has ever made threats,” she said. “But you know, it’s like, if they really want you taken out, they’ll just take you out. And if they can get to a president, they surely can get to me”.

Much of the interview with Coral Talavera Baca, the prime source for Webb in the “Dark Alliance” investigation, turned out to be a bit rambling and anecdotal, but there was enough information there to mold into a solid story. After the interview she saw us all off to the elevator, where we shook hands and said goodbye. As soon as the doors slid shut and the elevator started descending with all five of us and our gear crammed inside, I and Scott Gorman, our U.S. coordinator and interviewer, gave each other some triumphant high-fives. “Can you believe that?” “We got it!”

The other three Japanese members of our film crew looked on, a bit puzzled, at my and Gorman’s elation. I explained over lunch later to the Japanese crew members the gist of the interview with Coral Talavera Baca and Gary Webb, and how important they were. This could be the centerpiece of our documentary film — a real scoop, I said, that no journalist in the U.S. has yet gotten. I explained to them in Japanese all about the CIA and drugs and the
contras. “Contras?” came the reply, with blank looks. I explained: “Yeah, you know, the right-wing terrorist army run by the CIA in Nicaragua back in the 1980s”. More blank looks: “Nicaragua?” Me again: “Nicaragua, yeah. You know, the country in Central America?” Still more blank looks. They did not seem to have the slightest idea where Nicaragua was geographically, let alone the historical significance of all this information we had gathered over the past few days concerning “Dark Alliance”.

It was at that point, for the first time in our 10 days of filming in the U.S. for a Japanese TV program on the so-called global “drug scourge”, that I realized we might be in trouble.

The Wrap-Up

From there, the five of us headed up north to Washington state, where Scott Gorman had lined up for us some more good interviews with struggling drug addicts, drug treatment counselors, methadone center staff and others. Together with all the footage we had shot over a week and a half in New York City, San Francisco, Sacramento, and now Seattle and surrounding environs, we had what I considered to be the makings of one hell of an exposé on the state of America’s drug problems to be included as part of the Japanese TV program.

I was the one entrusted to hand-carry all the video footage in a locked aluminum briefcase with me from California back to Tokyo, while the other Japanese crew members continued on to Europe to get more drug-related footage for our planned documentary.

Two months later, with great anticipation, I sat before my family’s living room television in Japan and tuned into TV Tokyo during the evening prime-time hours of Tuesday, 1 April 1997 — April Fools’ Day, appropriately — for the broadcast of our two-hour program on drugs. By the second half of the program, I was still waiting for the part about “Dark Alliance” to come on. With each passing minute of the program, my heart sank lower and lower. With about 10 minutes left in the program, I had given up all hope, and it was all I could do just to keep the TV on through the closing credits.

There was no “Dark Alliance” in it. No Gary Webb. No Coral Talavera Baca. And very little of the best footage we had shot over 10 days of filming in the States. Instead, the TV program focused on some of the more sensational scenes of drug addicts getting high, scary background music, sloppily shot footage from Europe, and even some episodes that, to my trained journalist’s eye, appeared to be what Japanese media critics call
yarase (faked scenes). Even the facts were screwed up: Seattle, for example, was referred to in the documentary as “America’s third largest city”, a major mistake. And in fact, I now realized that it wasn’t meant to be a documentary, per se, at all. It was conceived as just the typical kind of low-quality tripe that is so pervasive on the so-called “wide shows” of all the corporate TV networks in Japan, and that is what it finally delivered.

So much for the perfect alignment of the stars….

Picking Up the Pieces

I should have seen it all coming, back when the film crew members expressed puzzlement about Nicaragua that time in San Francisco. But looking back then, I couldn’t say I was totally surprised. There were lots of tense moments throughout our 10 days of filming between the Japanese and American team members. The three Japanese members were younger than us and had no journalism qualifications whatsoever; they were just employees of some Tokyo production company, not reporters. Scott Gorman and I had had more seniority, both age-wise and in the news field, and we did use that seniority often during our shooting schedule to keep things journalistically honest, which no doubt went unappreciated among our less-experienced brethren from Japan.

(And in the interest of public disclosure 20 years later, toward the end of our filming leg in the USA, Gorman and I did conspire among ourselves on how we might liberate and rescue all the “Dark Alliance”-related video footage we’d shot from a possible editorial death on the cutting room floor in Tokyo, and maybe use that footage instead to make a hard-hitting documentary film of our own on the issue in the States. But that conspiracy, dear readers, is another story for another time.)

In May 1997, just one month after our TV program on drugs bombed out in Japan, the hammer fell at the
San Jose Mercury News in California. The newspaper abandoned the “Dark Alliance” investigation and essentially hung its star reporter, Gary Webb, out to dry. The “Dark Alliance” website itself was pulled down not long afterward. It was all over. Webb left his news company in disgust by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Scott Gorman, back in Washington state, had become managing editor of an online news magazine called
REALNews. Gorman kindly offered to help salvage something of our “Dark Alliance”-related interviews by publishing our joint analysis of “Dark Alliance” and its significance to journalism in the new age of the Internet. REALNews later went defunct, but that analysis survives today as one of the first of its kind to recognize the long-term importance of “Dark Alliance” in the digital age of journalism.

I still had Gary Webb’s business card, though, and I kept in touch with him by e-mail, offering whatever long-distance sympathy and support I could as a fellow journalist in the ranks of the newly independent, for what it was worth. I told Webb that if he could somehow pay his own way over to Japan, I would try to use my connections over here to help set up a paid speaking tour for him in Japan concerning his “Dark Alliance” investigation and make sure his accommodations were taken care of while he was in the country. Webb thanked me in reply but politely declined my offer, saying that under his new job as investigative writer with the California state government, he was not allowed to accept outside remuneration. In hindsight, I should have realized the real reason — that Webb was going broke at the time and had no extra money to be flying anywhere.

It was encouraging, though, to hear a year later that Webb got full his “Dark Alliance” investigation published in book form by the New York-based Seven Stories Press. Of course, I ordered a copy of it here in Japan and devoured every word.

The last time I ever heard from Webb personally was some time in 1999, when he let me know in an e-mail that Seven Stories Press was coming out with a paperback version of his book
Dark Alliance, and that I might want to pick up a copy, since it contained a lot of new information. And with the future looking bright once again for the journalist that the U.S. media establishment had tried so hard to discredit, I moved on and mentally wished him all the best.

POSTSCRIPT

Five years later in 2004, I happened across a news article on the Internet that referred to Gary Webb in the past tense, as “was”. No, I thought, it can’t be. But it was true, and Webb was found dead at age 49 of two gunshot wounds to the head in his Sacramento, California home. The date of his departure: 10 December 2004 — seven years to the day after he had left the
San Jose Mercury News.

Like many of his colleagues in journalism I felt devastated, and overwhelmed by a personal and professional sense of loss. I still do. And the real loss, of course, is as much for the public as it is for the journalism community.

I can’t say that Gary Webb was a close friend. I can’t say I knew him well or that we worked closely together. And I can only imagine the deep despair he found himself in, a few years after enduring the sustained assault on his credentials by those in a profession to which he devoted his life. But as one who has worked in the media field for some years, I do know a very important news story when I see one and I do recognize a damn good journalist when I meet one. And Gary Webb was the best journalist I’ve had the honor to personally know in my lifetime.

Webb’s seminal work, the “Dark Alliance” investigation, has stood, and will continue to stand for many years, the test of time as a classic, high-quality work of journalism. And in a way that I wish could have turned out so differently, Webb and his laudable work will have the last word on it all. Of that much, I am certain.

In the post-“Dark Alliance” world of corporate-created news cycles, pompous press personalities and media self-censorship in the United States, the challenges remain as daunting as ever for those among us who still feel some sense of responsibility to the higher purposes of journalism and to take the kind of risks Gary Webb took in getting the facts and the truth out to the people. Twenty years after “Dark Alliance”, the real work, in many ways, begins now.

webb-meishi

Remembering ‘Dark Alliance’ (2)

There is nothing like a little police harassment to lend an air of authenticity to producing a TV documentary on the so-called “drug scourge”, and that, appropriately enough, is just what I and a couple other Japanese members of a video production team first experienced upon our landing at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on Sunday afternoon, 9 February 1997.

The three of us were getting our suitcases together when, suddenly, a big German shepherd dog appeared out of nowhere and was in front of me, aggressively sniffing at my ankles (apparently in search of some drug stash hidden in the socks, the oldest trick in the book).

I love dogs, but the sight of this unfamiliar canine blocking my way visibly startled me. The plainclothes agent holding the dog’s leash said something like, “Don’t worry, he’s just smelling you”, but I was still frozen momentarily in fear. The dog checked our bags and we got a pass from the drug agents, who disappeared as quickly as they had come. Man, I thought, they really
are paranoid about drugs in this country. I also wondered at the time if the drug agent, a Caucasian, would have tried to reassure me like he did had my skin color been a darker shade of brown.

Our next big surprise was just outside the terminal doors at JFK Airport. There, we were met by Scott Gorman, a big, bearded bear of a guy who was living and working in Washington state as an independent journalist. I had invited him on to our project as the paid guide, driver and overall Stateside coordinator for the 10-day filming excursion of a planned Japanese TV documentary on the issue of drugs for our five-member Japanese/American team.

Gorman opted for making a big opening splash and, to our surprise, he had reserved a long, white limousine during our two days of filming in New York. So, we headed off on the expressway into Manhattan in style — the first and last time I had the pleasure of riding in a limo.

Through the Camera Eye

Our very first destination for filming the next day: a walk-in drug recovery clinic at 23 St. Marks Place in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York City. There, we filmed heartbreaking stories of otherwise decent people from all backgrounds who were strung out on one narcotic substance or another and just in off the street, looking for a place to “dry out” before they could move on to a formal drug treatment program. These people’s wrecked lives struck me as the undeniable evidence of the failure of America’s so-called “war on drugs”.

This building with the drug clinic also happened to be a piece of countercultural history: It was once the home, back in the late 1960s to early 1970s, of the “Electric Circus”, a nightclub and multimedia event space where all the big names of American underground music and art hung out and performed. As we trudged up and down the faded psychedelia-colored stairway inside the old building, I had the distinctly eerie feeling of music, people, lights filling the now-deserted rooms. There were some old ghosts still lingering in that building, to be sure. By the time we got there in 1997 to film for our Japanese TV documentary, however, the old Electric Circus building was a near-forgotten relic of the past that was being used in part as a drug recovery clinic.

A few days later on Wednesday, 12 February, we were in downtown San Francisco, California, filming at the Cannabis Cultivator’s Club on Market Street. The issue of medical marijuana was a hot one at the time, and the U.S. government was coming down hard on doctors, patients and anybody else, including in “liberal” California, who went afoul of strict federal U.S. drug laws in daring to use marijuana even for healing purposes. We got a lot of great footage at the smoke-filled Cannabis Club of people legally toking up and buying plastic baggies of weed over the counter, just like you would at a drugstore.

Dark Alliance’

By noon that day, we were set up in a classroom across town at City College of San Francisco, where we were going to film a quite different angle of the so-called drug problem: a special guest lecture by Gary Webb, the
San Jose Mercury News reporter. At long last, I was going to see him in person. Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series on the CIA-contra-crack cocaine connections had been out six months by this time, yet the public outrage had still not died down. The Big Three newspapers — the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times — had already trashed the “Dark Alliance” series and run defense for the CIA, taking great pains to try and destroy Webb’s credibility as an investigative journalist in the process.

But as we soon found out for ourselves, half a year after “Dark Alliance” had been published, crowds of people were still gathering to hear Webb speak and were still angry at the prospect of the U.S. government having had a hand in the crack cocaine outbreak of the 1980s. And they were also angry about the way the U.S. corporate media had treated Webb and his big story. The classroom at CCSF that day was filled to capacity with 100 or more students, and even though it was a beautiful, sunny day outside and it was noontime, the students opted to skip lunch and stay indoors to hear what Webb had to say. There was a buzz of excitement in the crowd as the students waited for Webb’s arrival.

We had a camera and sound machine set up in the back row of the classroom by the main doors, and soon in walked Gary Webb with Juan Gonzales, head of the CCSF journalism department. Looking every bit the image of the overworked journalist, with his shirt sleeves rolled up and his necktie loosened at the collar, Webb was introduced to me. He expressed some surprise at my having come all the way from Japan, smiling as we shook hands.

Webb
spent the hour or so with CCSF students that day walking through the “Dark Alliance” story, how he chased it down and where things stood at that point, then taking questions from the audience. There was a lively exchange of opinion, and Webb was warmly received by the audience. At the end, we interviewed some of the students as they filed out of the classroom. African American students were particularly incensed over the “Dark Alliance” controversy, as well they should have been, since it was their communities that were hardest hit by all the crack cocaine that had inexplicably flooded into cities across the United States a decade before.

The next day, 13 February, we drove up north to interview Gary Webb face to face at his
Mercury News Sacramento bureau office, located in the press building just across the street from the state capitol complex. Webb kept us waiting for a while, and when he finally did show up, he came in casually attired in faded blue jeans, a tieless shirt with rolled-up sleeves and in tennis shoes, as if he had just gotten up (which he probably had). I have to confess: I wondered at that point if we would get a usable interview from him. But any doubts I may have harbored were soon dispelled as the camera rolled and Webb took all our questions in stride. And they were not all softball questions, either. Our coordinator, Scott Gorman, who did the interviewing, occasionally put Webb in defensive mode. But Webb handled all the questions forthrightly and directly, and gave us what I thought was a great interview.

Gorman, in fact, had put it plainly to me at one point during our filming trip in the U.S. that he was “not as enamored” with the whole “Dark Alliance” affair as I was. It was a hard sell, even among our film crew: I wasn’t “enamored” with anything, I had to explain. I just felt strongly that if we were going to be doing a serious documentary on the so-called drug problem, then at some point we would have to include U.S. government complicity in the global drug trade as part of our report. And Gary Webb had documented precisely that kind of complicity in his “Dark Alliance” series. As far as I was concerned, Webb’s story had to be a vital part of our planned documentary — or any documentary on the subject of drugs, for that matter.

We ended the interview with Webb that afternoon by asking him about what was next for “Dark Alliance”. He answered that there was “a
lot more information” about the CIA-contra-crack connection to be reported and that his newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, was planning to run two additional follow-up stories that he had already written. Webb would go on to do a total of four follow-up stories to the initial three-day “Dark Alliance” series.

After the formal interview with Webb that day in his cluttered
Mercury News office, we invited him out to lunch with us. I was dying for some good homemade Mexican food at this point (having been deprived of such pleasures while living in Japan), but knowing that the Japanese palate was often too tender for such spicy and heavy cuisine as Mexicana, we took the three other Japanese crew members to a nearby Chinese restaurant instead. There, Gorman and I continued to talk with Webb in a more relaxed and open way about the “Dark Alliance” investigation. It was a rare treat for us. On less serious topics, like music, Webb talked about rock musician Frank Zappa, whose music he apparently dug.

After lunch, we all walked across the street to the state capitol complex and filmed some final scenes of Webb conducting his research on a microfiche machine in the state capitol library. We said our goodbyes there, and as the five members of our Japanese/American team headed back toward our rental car through the tree-lined lanes of the state capitol grounds in Sacramento, I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow the worst was yet to come for Gary Webb and his “Dark Alliance” investigation. To this day I can’t explain why it all hit me that way, but as events later played out, my gut instinct was proven right.

Straight to the Source

Before we left Sacramento that evening, however, at my request we contacted Webb for one more favor — a big favor that I knew he was likely to turn down: We asked him to let us talk directly to his prime source in the “Dark Alliance” story, Coral Talavera Baca. She was the one who had first tipped Webb off to the U.S. government connections to the Nicaraguan drug dealers who had, in turn, helped fuel the crack cocaine outbreak in inner-city Los Angeles back in the 1980s. Webb said he would run our request past Talavera Baca, and get back to us.

The reply soon came. To my great surprise, they said yes. I guessed that at that point, having endured the American corporate media onslaught against “Dark Alliance” and all the U.S. government denials about the CIA and crack cocaine, Webb and Talavera Baca probably felt they had nothing left to lose by sharing their story with a TV film crew from faraway Japan. Whatever their reasons were for accepting our request, I knew that we were getting access into the inner sanctum of the “Dark Alliance” story that no other press company, certainly not in the USA, was getting at the time. This was indeed an exclusive — the first public interview that Coral Talavera Baca would do in relation to “Dark Alliance”.

I also knew that Webb was also violating the unspoken rule in the news business of never sharing your prime sources with other journalists. It was a universal thing in the news business: When you had a big story, you kept your sources close to you and usually did not go around sharing them with other reporters. I myself had refused to share sources in Japan in the past when I worked for Japanese newspapers. The magnanimity of Webb’s gesture in our case was not lost on me, at least, and my professional respect for him rose a notch higher.

What kind of interview would we get from the woman who had lit the fuse that led to the national and international firestorm that was “Dark Alliance”? We headed early the next morning back down to the San Francisco Bay Area, where we would soon find out.

(continued in part 3)

Remembering ‘Dark Alliance’ (1)

It was late in the afternoon on a September day in 1996, when my wife and I and our young son, then just a couple years old, visited a small retail store in West Los Angeles that U.S. filmmaker Spike Lee had recently opened to promote merchandise from his various films. Being a fan of Lee’s work at the time, I knew his store, “Spike’s West”, was one of the places we had to visit during our brief vacation in L.A. before we returned home to Japan.

As we walked into the store that late afternoon, my eye caught a set of free newspapers sitting on a small vertical rack on the sidewalk just outside the shop. I paused to browse through them. They were local African American community newspapers, and a front-page story on one of them immediately pulled me in.

It was a story about a recently held town hall meeting organized in Los Angeles by Ms. Maxine Waters, a representative of the U.S. Congress whose district covered this part of the city. She had brought a special guest to speak directly to her constituency: a reporter I had never heard of, Gary Webb, who worked for a newspaper I knew well, the
San Jose Mercury News of northern California.

I read on, literally glued to the spot, and waved my wife and son on into the store ahead of me. As I stood in front of the store reading the article, everything around me was tuned out, even the noise of traffic on busy Melrose Avenue and passersby on the sidewalk. The newspaper article reported about how the journalist, Gary Webb, had published just the month before a three-part series in the
Mercury News that linked the crack cocaine outbreak in the United States with the contras, a right-wing paramilitary force in Nicaragua sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the 1980s, back when actor-in-chief Ronald Reagan was president of the USA.

The CIA and crack cocaine? How come I never heard of this? I wondered. I had left the corporate newspaper business in Japan for good the previous year in 1995 and was admittedly out of the loop on things, but this seemed like a major issue. Why hadn’t I ever heard anything about it in the Japanese press — or even in the American press, for that matter?

Before I realized it, the sun was slowing sinking and lights were starting to come on. I put the newspaper back in the rack and made a mental note to myself to pick it up again when we left the store. And that’s just what I did. Later that evening, when I had time to sit down and read through the whole story, the sense of shock sank in even more deeply.

It was shock not so much at the thought of the CIA being linked to drugs — there was a documented history of that, after all — but more like shock over a U.S. government connection to a major social problem that had literally devastated Black communities all across America, as the outbreak of crack cocaine use and abuse had done in the 1980s and 1990s. Now the powerful truth was finally starting to come out.

And that’s how I first encountered “Dark Alliance”, one of the most important news stories in decades: not from the big U.S. corporate press companies (which were mostly ignoring the story at that early stage), but by Black news media across the U.S., which were all over “Dark Alliance” from the beginning. It was really due to them that I had come across this story at all.

Today, 18 August, and the next two days, arrive exactly 20 years on the calendar since Gary Webb’s three-part “Dark Alliance” series was published in the
San Jose Mercury News, leaving its indelible mark on the world. Many things have happened since then, and at this point in time it seems appropriate to stop and reflect on all the events of two decades ago, and to share a few insights from my own humble place in the broader “Dark Alliance” saga.

I’ve gone on to write quite a lot about “Dark Alliance” and Gary Webb over the years, but this time, in commemorating both the story and the journalist at the 20-year mark, I’d like do something I’ve never done before and write about it more from the personal side: the impressions, thoughts, feelings I had about covering “the story about the story”, what it all meant to me personally and professionally, and why it remains so relevant to me and a lot of other people all these years later.

Getting on the Case

Once my family and I returned from our vacation to Japan later in September 1996, I kept my eye out for any word in the news about that story, “Dark Alliance”, and its author, Gary Webb. Not a thing about it appeared in the press here in Japan.

Then, a couple of months or so after we got back home, a door opened. I was asked by a Japanese photojournalist friend of mine, who was then working for a television production company in Tokyo, to join in the making of a planned TV documentary about the “drug scourge” in Japan, the U.S. and Europe. The documentary was to be broadcast on TV Tokyo, one of the major television networks in Japan, during prime time. I jumped at the chance, and knew right away what story I would push for as part of that documentary: the “Dark Alliance” investigation that I remembered reading about in front of Spike Lee’s store back in L.A only a few months earlier.

I then contacted Scott Gorman, an independent journalist based in Anacortes, Washington state, to be the Man Friday — the person on the ground back in the U.S. who would help us put it all together. I had recalled briefly meeting Gorman a couple years earlier in Osaka, Japan, when he was visiting on some kind of foundation-sponsored trip, and sent him an e-mail. In my pitch to him about the planned Japanese TV documentary project, I wrote:

One off-the-wall idea…is interviewing Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News, the intrepid reporter who recently exposed the CIA-contra-crack connection, to get his version of the sordid tale. My reasoning is that since politics and narcotics are so hard to separate these days, it is essential for a serious documentary on drugs to cover a government’s role in such a mess.

Luckily, Gorman took the bait, and we now had a team — and a lot of work to be done under demanding conditions. I thought of it as one of those situations that was almost destined to happen. The stars seemed perfectly aligned. All the connections and chance occurrences of the past few months and years seemed to be falling right into place. After 10 years of working for newspapers in the U.S. and Japan, I had recently quit the corporate news business and was now ready to prove myself as a journalistic free agent. The Japanese TV documentary project came along at the best possible moment, and I was passionate from the outset about getting coverage of “Dark Alliance” into our video report.

So, we started the gears moving on the project and soon were ready to begin our 10 days of traveling and filming in several U.S. cities, both on the east and west coasts, in early February 1997. The night before I was to catch my flight from Tokyo to New York, I got my first-ever view of something called a “website” on the computer of my Japanese photojournalist friend, the only person I knew in Japan who even owned a personal computer equipped with such high-tech functions at the time.

I gave him a website address I had jotted down, and soon saw for the first time what it was that had been causing all the uproar over the CIA and crack cocaine back in the USA. Slowly, as the image rolled down the pitch-black screen from top to bottom, there in all its glory was the stark image of a man smoking crack cocaine behind the official seal of the CIA. “
Dark Alliance — The Story Behind the Crack Explosion” read the dark-red letters in typewriter font. And there was the reporter’s name, Gary Webb, the guy I had read about in that newspaper article in front of that store in L.A. some months before.

I sat there in front of the computer transfixed, as much by the advanced technology of these new things called the “World Wide Web” and the “Internet” as by the realization that I was witnessing the future of journalism right before my eyes. And all the way on the flight from Tokyo to New York, all I could think about was us getting to California in a few more days to interview that newspaper reporter and get his “Dark Alliance” story on tape so that TV audiences in Japan too could be exposed to the latest U.S. government connections to the underworld of international drug trafficking. I took it as something of a personal mission of mine to help get the “Dark Alliance” story out to the Japanese public.

But if I had bothered to look out at the vast night sky on that long overseas flight, I might have noticed just one or two stars that were not quite aligned. Fate, as they say, sometimes makes its own calls despite the best of well-laid plans.

(continued in part 2)

Bagdikian Remembered


bagdikian_blog250


I never met professor
Ben Bagdikian in his lifetime, though I had always wanted to. So I did the next best thing: Over the past few years I introduced his classic book The Media Monopoly (the updated version) to students of my own journalism courses at the university where I teach in Kyoto, Japan.

But recently I realized I had known little about Bagdikian’s personal background, his family history and how he came to be the respected journalist and professor he was. What kind of price had he paid to get to that high place in journalism? I wanted to find out.

A few months ago, then, I bought a copy of his post-retirement book
Double Vision: Reflections on My Heritage, Life, and Profession and added it to my (ever-rising) stack of books that I intend to read in the near future.

As it turned out, Bagdikian beat me to the punch before I could start on his book. The
news traveled quickly on the Internet on March 11 that Bagdikian had passed away in the United States at age 96 — four years shy of a whole century.

And what a life he had. His family was among the Armenians who had escaped genocide at the hands of neighboring Turkey in 1915 and who had resettled on the east coast of the USA, starting life from scratch. Newly arrived Armenians on both the east and west coasts of the U.S. had a tough time of it in those days, being the target of ugly racism in American society.

Bagdikian later went into local newspaper reporting in the U.S., harboring a sense of social justice. As a young reporter, he said, he relished covering the local beats and interviewing the kinds of people that most other American reporters wouldn’t waste their time on. Bagdikian got in hot water with one newspaper he worked for in the 1950s, the Rhode Island-based
Providence Journal-Bulletin (reportedly the oldest continuously published daily paper in the U.S.) by supporting the editorial staff’s demand for a new labor union branch at the paper.

He later reported on the “Little Rock crisis” in 1957 in Arkansas, as U.S. army soldiers had to be called to escort nine African American students into a racially integrated high school. Bagdikian recalled getting interviews and good stories that many of his competitors in other news outlets were simply missing in Arkansas.

A decade later, as an independent journalist, he was writing a column for the esteemed
Columbia Journalism Review, the voice of the media establishment in the U.S. His final CJR column in 1967 was about the Washington Post and how it lacked greatness as a big-city newspaper. The Post responded by contacting Bagdikian and inducing him to essentially either put up or shut up, offering him a job as a high-ranking editor on the paper’s national news desk. Bagdikian took the offer. Having him on staff would prove to be a mixed blessing for the Washington Post.

Just a few years on in 1971, Bagdikian served as the conduit for whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg to get the
Pentagon Papers published in the Post. The documents Ellsberg had gathered showed the lie behind the United States' reasons and rationale for waging war on the sovereign nation of Vietnam.

Depending on whose version of the story you believe, the top people at the
Washington Post were either boldly determined to go ahead and publish Ellsberg’s documents or they were hesitating to publish the documents for fear of reprisal by the corrupt Nixon administration.

But what most accounts of the Pentagon Papers generally agree on is that the
Washington Post lawyers were strongly advising their client not to publish the Pentagon Papers and that Ben Bagdikian, the paper’s national news editor at the time, was pushing for the Post to keep its promise to Ellsberg that it would print the documents. At question was whether or not the Post even had the legal right to publish such confidential reports. “The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish” was Bagdikian’s argument, and the paper soon did. The rest is history.

Bagdikian became the
Washington Post ombudsman after that, and ended up leaving the paper a year later in 1972. By 1976, the Post was embroiled in a labor union strike by its own employees — a strike Bagdikian publicly endorsed. Post publisher Katharine Graham, in her 1997 memoirs, recalled how she had fired off a memo to then-Post executive editor Ben Bradlee about their former charge and his support for the strike. Graham’s memo read in part:

I am really embarrassed to think that this ignorant biased fool [Bagdikian] was ever national editor. Surely the worst asps in this world are the ones one has clasped to the bosom.

But Graham’s elitist eloquence was no match for Bagdikian’s journalistic street credibility, and he went on to an even greater career as a professor and media critic of big news corporations like the
Washington Post. His book The Media Monopoly, updated over the years as fewer and fewer mega-corporations came to own and control the press, remains a classic work of media studies.

And so, with Bagdikian’s recent passing, his book
Double Vision still sits here in front of me, waiting to be read for the first time. I will treasure reading it all the more now that he is gone, and as I do, I will remember a wise man who served us with a warning about the dangerous power of giant media corporations at a time when most people were scoffing at the idea.

After all the obituaries and reminisces have come and gone in the wake of his passing, I guess all that’s left to say from me is:

Professor Ben Bagdikian, thank you. It was an honor to serve in the same field as you and to share your ideals and concerns about this line of work. Your legacy will be carried on. And if there’s any divine justice up there where you are now, please have them send down a thunderbolt or two aimed directly at the headquarters of Fox News. Amen.

‘Censored’ — the Missing News Stories

How come I never heard about that in the news?

If you’ve ever asked yourself that question about some important issue you’ve found out about long after it occurred, then you’re not alone. I find myself asking that very same question every year around this time, when the latest edition of the annual
Censored book comes out in the United States.

Censored 2016 has just been released, and with it comes the same old question about why I’ve never read, viewed or heard about certain big news stories that were not really considered “hot news” enough to be reported in depth by the major U.S. news media companies (and by extension, the corporate-dominated Japanese press as well).

Project Censored, the California-based nonprofit media-watch group that compiles every year the top 25 unreported or underreported news stories of the year before, and Seven Stories Press, the New York-based publishing house that has enough courage to print each year’s Censored book, have done it yet again with Censored 2016. Among the top 25 censored stories are a few news topics that you may have remembered seeing covered well in the independent news media (but not in the corporate press) sometime during 2014 and 2015, other stories that may strike you as vaguely familiar (“Where have I heard that story before?”), and other stories that will no doubt leave you scratching your head and wondering why and how they disappeared from the news radar of the big media companies — or why those stories were never on the radar in the first place.

Stories like what? Well, for instance, take
Censored 2016’s No. 14 censored story about how the population of “displaced persons” (refugees, exiles or other victims left homeless by war or poverty) around the world has hit an all-time high of 50 million people and rising. Only now are we seeing the big media companies in the U.S. and elsewhere superficially covering the issue with the waves of “immigrants” pouring into European countries from areas where the U.S. is waging war. But the story was there all along — what took big media companies so long to catch up to the issue?

Or what about other top censored stories in
Censored 2016, such as the Pentagon and NATO encircling China and Russia with a ring of U.S. military bases and missile defense systems (the No. 13 top censored story)? Or how about the No. 9 censored story: how tens of millions of American citizens living in poverty appear far less in news coverage by the big media companies than a few hundred U.S. billionaires do? (No big surprise there, but that reporting gap should not even exist in the first place.)

A top censored story in
Censored 2016 that hits close to home for us here in Japan is this year’s No. 5 censored story: “Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Deepens”. Japanese corporate media reporting of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis — and yes, it is still at a “crisis” stage more than four years after the 2011 nuclear accident — has been shameful enough, but U.S. and other foreign media coverage of Fukushima seem to have been just as bad or even worse. The New York Times, among other big media companies, tends to downplay the Fukushima catastrophe as the “worse nuclear accident since Chernobyl”. Actually, folks, Fukushima is the worst nuclear accident ever in the history of human civilization. But somehow that seriousness gets distorted by the time it reaches us through the airwaves and headlines of the big news companies.

If the ongoing mass die-off of marine life all around the Asia-Pacific region that we are currently seeing is any indication, then Fukushima will be recognized as much more than a nuclear accident and more accurately as the trigger for even more extreme natural disasters and ecosystem breakdowns that we will be seeing in the coming years.

Japan is also represented in
Censored 2016 with another important essay concerning Fukushima and censorship: a piece by Japan-based U.S. filmmaker Ian Thomas Ash and how his film on Fukushima and radiation effects on Japanese victims, A2-B-C, has faced direct and indirect censorship in Japan, post-Fukushima.

And I too am privileged to have contributed a chapter in this year’s
Censored 2016, titled “‘Dark Alliance’: The Controversy and the Legacy, Twenty Years On”. It has nothing to do with Japan per se, but rather is focused on the “Dark Alliance” investigation in the U.S. in the mid-1990s by the late journalist Gary Webb. I was quite familiar with Webb’s investigative series — and the connections it made between the CIA, crack cocaine and the right-wing Nicaraguan contras paramilitary groups — having covered it at the time (and since then) for independent media on the Web.

Twenty years after “Dark Alliance”, I look back on the controversy surrounding that important series and hope that I do justice with my chapter in the new
Censored book in honoring the legacy of both “Dark Alliance” and Gary Webb, who I consider to have been one of the best investigative reporters of my generation.

I will have much more to say about my chapter in
Censored 2016 a few months from now, when the actual 20th anniversary of “Dark Alliance” rolls around, so please be looking forward to that.

For now, all I can say is: Buy the new
Censored 2016 book, if knowing the truth is important to you. I referred earlier to the book’s organizer, Project Censored, as a media watch group, but that is not quite accurate. As the new book shows, Project Censored stands on the frontline of not only criticizing the news media but is also an active force in helping to encourage up-and-coming journalists to fill in the news gaps that so many employees of big news media companies routinely miss. It’s been exciting for me to be involved with Project Censored, first as a big fan of the yearly Censored books for many years and now as a contributing writer.

“Do you trust your country’s news media?” — this is a direct question I throw out to Japanese and overseas exchange students in one of my university journalism courses in Kyoto every year as a point of class discussion. And the answer that usually comes back from most of them is a resounding
No! I then try to direct the discussion toward this idea: So, what do you think is the solution to trusting the news media again…and what are you going to do about it?

Project Censored is doing something about it. And you can too, by picking up your own copy of the new
Censored 2016 book some time soon and supporting the important work the organization has been doing for more than three decades. In the process, you will be supporting the kind of reporting you really want to see every time you open the pages of a newspaper or magazine, turn on the TV, listen to the radio or check out a news website — real news as opposed to “junk food news”, as Project Censored calls it.

So, how come you haven’t heard about this big story or that one in the news before? Treat yourself to a copy of
Censored 2016 and find out exactly why you haven’t. It may well be the best book purchase you make this whole year.

One Who Made a Positive Difference

Japan as a nation is still mourning, as I write these words, the recent killing of two Japanese citizens — especially independent journalist Kenji Goto — in the Middle East.

It was with a heavy heart that I, too, watched the videos of Goto and heard his emotionally cracking voice reading his captors’ messages, and then saw his beheaded, blood-spattered body lying on the ground. It was such a cold, cruel, senseless killing. Goto’s family loses a beloved father and husband, and the ranks of journalists in Japan lose a valued colleague.

Some of Goto’s
recent messages on the Internet reveal the kind of person he was. He seemed to sincerely care about the people he was covering and wanted to get the truth of their stories out to the world.

There are generally two kinds of journalists in any country. There are those who are in it for their own ego, their own career and their own personal benefit. These types tend to be full of themselves and full of hot air; you instantly recognize them for the arrogant blowhards they are the moment you first meet them. I’ve known many a journalist like this, both in Japan and in the United States, and my reaction is not to have anything to do with them. I brush them off from the start and don’t waste any time even talking to them again.

Then there are the other kind: the journalists who honestly care about other people’s suffering and tough predicaments in life, and who want to make the world a better place through their work. They may seem idealistic and utopian in their outlook, but that to me is a virtue rather than a vice. I can instantly relate to and bond with these types of journalists, and I am honored to call them my colleague.

Kenji Goto, by all accounts, belonged to the second category of journalist. I never met Goto in Japan, and to be honest, if I’ve ever seen his reportage from the Middle East, I don’t remember much about it. But knowing what I know now about Goto’s character and his work, I know I would have welcomed the chance to meet him and possibly even to work with him in some way. No doubt he would have had my utmost respect.

Now, with Goto gone, we are left with one less colleague going out there and taking risks to make the truth known to an often indifferent world. But despite the sad, tragic way his life ended, his work will live on and continue to inspire others for many years to come.

Kenji Goto was one who made a positive difference, as a journalist, to the lives of the people he touched and to the lives of those he reported on from dangerous places. I would like to think that somehow, wherever he is now, Goto sees and feels all the well-deserved, heartfelt tributes coming his way after his passing. Yes, in fact, I’m sure he does.

Two More Books and a Celebration

A couple of books that I have been involved with again this year (one here in Japan, one in the United States) are finally out and available to the people — always a good reason to celebrate. So while the presses are still hot, let me share with you a couple recommendations for some good year-end reading and/or teaching material....

One Big Censored Family

Every year the media watch group
Project Censored, based in California in the U.S., publishes a book of the top news stories that you probably didn’t see reported in much depth by the big media companies over the previous year. I’ve been a regular reader of the yearly Censored books for some time, and have always looked forward to picking up the newest edition when it came out every autumn.

As I used to read the
Censored books, I would usually come across some big story or two that I had not seen reported anywhere during the course of the previous year. I found myself asking: “How come I didn’t hear about that in the news?” And I’m a person who works and teaches in the media field — you can imagine how many other Censored readers ask that very same question as well.

Thankfully, the good folks at Project Censored are on the case, as they have been for more than 35 years during the organization’s existence, and we can get some much-needed answers to such questions this year by reading the new
Censored 2015 edition just published by Seven Stories Press.

In addition to being a regular annual
Censored reader, I’ve also had the privilege over the last few years of contributing my own written reports to the yearly book. Censored 2015 contains two of my essays this time: an update on the situation with the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan, and a chapter on media coverage of South Africa and the late Nelson Mandela.

I’ve been welcomed as a member of the Project Censored family, and I have to say it’s a great feeling to be in such good company with other writers, editors, educators and student researchers from around the world who are doing their part as well — one big Censored family, you might say.

We each have our different area of focus and particular concern in each edition of
Censored, but one thing we all seem to share is a strong desire for wanting the truth told to us by the press. We want a news media that does the job of informing the public that they are supposed to do — and when they don’t do their job, we make that known too.

This year’s
Censored 2015, while a bit slimmer in volume than last year’s edition, nevertheless contains a wealth of information that you just will not find anywhere else. I encourage you to pick up a copy of Censored 2015 sometime soon (at your local independent bookstore, of course). By doing so, you’ll be supporting the vital work that Project Censored has been undertaking for more than three decades. In this age of media globalization, that work is more important than ever.

Learning Quality

Over past years, I have also been involved in working on TOEIC exam-related books with other Japanese professors and instructors. Our latest book is now out,
Crossing the TOEIC Bridge (Japanese title: 『ブリッジから始めるTOEICテスト』 ), which is geared more toward beginning-level readers.

I have to admit that I’m no expert when it comes to prepping students for such exams in Japan. But having lived and taught students in Japan for a couple decades, I do know how badly the Japanese educational system fails in teaching kids to communicate and express themselves in foreign languages, especially in English. That motivates me to do what I can to help fill in those educational gaps, whenever I work on these kinds of books, by keeping the quality of learning as high as possible.

In addition to serving as writer/proofreader for this and other TOEIC books, I’ve also done a bit of the design work of the book’s pages. I had always loved doing the layout/design work of newspaper pages as a newspaper editor, and I’ve learned by trial and error how to create pages in books as well that look appealing to the eye and yet carry substance in them.

Asahi Press, one of the bigger publishing houses in Japan, has put out a few of our books in recent years and, unlike some publishers in Japan, the folks at Asahi are great to work with. They’ve even asked me to come up with the titles of our books (including this new one), a privilege I never take for granted as a foreigner working in Japanese society.

So, if you are a teacher in Japan and are looking for a university-level TOEIC textbook that keeps the quality of learning high and looks good at the same time, consider
Crossing the TOEIC Bridge authored by two Japanese university educators and yours truly.

I have a few extra copies of the new book on hand, and will be glad to send a complimentary copy of the book to the first few readers who contact me off-blog (provided you live somewhere within Japan). It would be my own small way of thanking in return the many people, known and unknown, who have supported these TOEIC books I’ve worked on over the years. I look forward to hearing from you.

Breaking the ‘Static’ in Japan

I have been reflecting a lot these days on Democracy Now!, the daily TV/radio news show that broadcasts from New York, and the important role it serves as a much-needed independent media organization in a world dominated by corporate versions of news. So, before any more time goes by, let me share a few thoughts on this topic with you.

The idea of establishing an independent news media in Japan on the model of
Democracy Now! is something I have been floating among progressive friends for a few years now. Or if that was not possible, I maintained, we at least need to invite Democracy Now! someday to broadcast live from here in Japan.

It was with great delight, then, when I heard a few weeks ago in mid-January that that “someday” had arrived: that
DN! host/executive producer Amy Goodman and crew were indeed in Japan and would be broadcasting over a few days from Tokyo. It was their first time broadcasting here, and I was eager to see what they would be covering in the coming days.

Fukushima, certainly, would be the top story, I knew. But there were other important stories from here in Japan that usually don’t get a lot of in-depth media coverage in the United States — the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade talks, U.S. military bases in Okinawa, Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, among them — and I hoped
DN! would fill in those news gaps while they were here.

It turned out to be everything I had hoped for, and more.

For a look at what
Democracy Now! reported on in Japan during its shows for January 15-17, 2014, check out this page. If you haven’t seen these programs already, I encourage you to set aside a little time in your busy schedule to watch them. They will keep you well updated on the important issues being discussed here in Japan that you are not likely to see covered in any real depth by other news media, certainly not in the U.S.

Live in Kyoto

Most of Amy Goodman’s time in Japan was necessarily spent in Tokyo, of course, as one of the world’s major media capitals. She was scheduled to make only one public appearance outside of Tokyo and luckily that was a lecture in Kyoto, in the region of Japan where I live.

The last time I had had a chance to attend a talk by Goodman was about 10 years ago in the U.S., when she was to speak at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California — located in the North Coast redwood country, where I was then living with my family — as part of a national speaking tour. I couldn’t make her speech at that time, though, due to family obligations. But the wait was worth it: a decade later, and here she was coming overseas into my “territory” in Japan.

So on the chilly winter’s night of Sunday, January 19, I commuted a couple of hours (one way) to Kyoto and joined around 200-300 other members of the audience at the auditorium of the Kyoto Kyoiku Bunka Center, a public education/cultural center in downtown Kyoto. On the bill to speak were Goodman and Japanese journalist Yasumi Iwakami, head of
Independent Web Journal (IWJ), a broadcast media outlet. Serving as MC would be John Junkerman, an independent filmmaker based in Tokyo whose works I have long admired and who I had recently met in person at the university in Kyoto where I teach journalism part-time.

“I think media can be the greatest force for peace on Earth,” Goodman said at one point in her talk. “Instead, it is wielded as a weapon of war — and
that has to change.” The news media have been hijacked by powerful corporate interests, she added, and “we have to take it back”.

She touched upon a number of subjects I had seen her speak about before on the Web, so it was nothing new. Goodman tends to improvise when she speaks, jumping from one point to another, sometimes jaggedly, sometimes smoothly, but always confidently and with passion.

Those who are concerned about issues of climate change, war and so on, she said, “are not a fringe minority — not even a silent majority, but a
silenced majority: silenced by the media.” She went on to say that “We are not supposed to be a part of the state, as journalists. We’re supposed to be apart from it.” It was a message that I hoped at least some corporate news hacks in Japan would hear and heed.

One interesting point that she brought up was official government pronouncements and corporate propaganda in the form of “static” — that irritating buzz-sound we hear on TV or radio. She mentioned how it is the job of independent media everywhere in the world to cut through the sound barrier of that official static to expose the truth about important issues in society and, whenever we can as citizens and journalists, to create our own static that essentially challenges the status quo and demands change and openness in society.

Class lecture

But for me, the best part of all of Goodman’s speech in Kyoto that night came when she opened up a copy of her 2004 book
The Exception to the Rulers and began reading passages from Chapter 16 of the book, “Hiroshima Cover-Up: How the War Department’s Timesman Won a Pulitzer”. The chapter concerns a New York Times reporter, William Laurence, who had once worked as a propagandist for the U.S. government during World War II, and also Wilfred Burchett, an Australian who was the first foreign journalist to report from the atomic-bombed city of Hiroshima back in 1945.

As Goodman read the passages aloud, a big grin spread across my face. This book by Goodman was the same book I had been using this semester as the course textbook in my university journalism class. In fact, I had scheduled the next class lecture on the following Thursday, just a few days later, to be on this very same Chapter 16 about Hiroshima.

It was all coincidental, but the timing was perfect. I only wished all the students of my journalism class had been there at the auditorium that night in Kyoto to receive our next class lecture directly from Goodman herself. As it turned out, one of my students, a visiting foreign-exchange student from Germany, was in the audience that night, and I knew she was getting a real treat by being there and hearing Goodman’s lecture firsthand. Too bad my other students had missed it.

Goodman noted toward the end of her talk that while in Tokyo she had done exclusive interviews with Kenzaburo Oe, the respected Japanese author and anti-nuclear advocate, and Naoto Kan, the former prime minister of Japan at the time of the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011. Goodman promised that these two interviews would be put on the
DN! website sometime soon. Keep an eye out for them; they should be good.

After the lecture, as Amy Goodman was busy signing autographs and exchanging greetings with guests at a table set up in the lobby, I had a chance to go up and chat with her briefly. I told her we were keeping the spirit of
Democracy Now! alive and well in my university journalism course by watching DN! in class and by using her book The Exception to the Rulers as the course textbook.

I offered my business card in the true Japanese way; Goodman studied it for a moment, then jokingly asked if that was my real last name. It was a pun I’ve been used to hearing for many years now, due in no small part to former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, who made the phrase “covert operations” nearly a household word in the USA back in the 1980s during the big Iran-Contra scandal. (Thanks again, Ronnie!) I thought of coming back to Amy with any one of a number of wisecrack replies I’ve saved for just such occasions, but decided to go the polite route this time: Yep, that’s the name they gave me, I said.

As I talked with Amy Goodman, the one thing that surprised me was how short and thin she was physically. When you see TV personalities on screen they look larger than life, and I guess that’s how I expected Goodman to look too. But it says a lot about her personality and inner drive that even a small person in stature like her conveys such a commanding presence on the
Democracy Now! show, and on a daily basis at that.

The sheer exhaustion from her demanding schedule in Japan over the previous days was apparent on her face, so I quickly took my leave, thanking her for everything she’s doing and letting her move on to the next guest in line.

I also had a chance to talk in the lobby with Denis Moynihan, writer and
DN! staff member, who was busy handing out Democracy Now! bumper stickers to people. I told him how surprised I had been to see Democracy Now! broadcasting live from the Tokyo studio of NHK International, the English-language arm of NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster. After all, NHK has always been a political tool of the Japanese government, serving as little more than a propaganda service to one degree or another (especially so under the current neo-fascist prime minister, Abe). And I remembered well how back in the 1980s, when insiders had accused NHK International itself of censoring their news reports, particularly those concerning China.

Moynihan replied something along the lines that
Democracy Now! and NHK International shared the same satellite cable linkage, and that there was no editorial influence at all exerted by NHK; they were just providing the studio space. That explanation made sense, but still: Democracy Now! and NHK? They are polar opposites when it comes to good journalism. Well, hopefully the good work that Democracy Now! does had rubbed off in some way on NHK during those few days in Tokyo.

Breaking the static

In these times, when the corporate-dominated news media in Japan, the U.S. and other countries are facing serious political and legal challenges in reporting the truth of issues like the ongoing Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, it is reassuring to know that
Democracy Now! is out there doing a first-rate job and setting a positive example for what successful independent news media could be and should be.

That said, though, I still look forward to the day when we here in Japan have a Japanese vernacular TV program of our own on the model of
Democracy Now! — one that is nonprofit and truly independent, strongly supported by the Japanese public. I still want to see that realized someday. But at least DN! had made it here to Japan for a live broadcast, and that was a great place to start.

One can only hope that
Democracy Now! will be back again in the Land of the Rising Sun, and not just once or twice but as often as possible. We can use all the help we can get over here in breaking the seemingly endless stream of official noise in Japan called “static”, and in getting the Japanese corporate-owned lapdog press more motivated to do a better job in exposing the ever-increasing layers of official static that cover up the truth.

Two Books and a Celebration

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged in here, as I was waiting for the news to become official. And now it has: Two book projects I worked on this year have reached completion and the books recently published — and along with them, a good cause for personal celebration on my part.

The first book,
CENSORED 2014, published by Seven Stories Press of New York, contains my analysis of some of the news stories that have been avoided, ignored, neglected or otherwise censored by the U.S. corporate-dominated press, as chosen by the nonprofit media-watch group Projected Censored.

In the book’s news-cluster section on “Whistleblowers and Gag Laws,” I offer my own take on Project Censored’s No. 1 censored news story of the year (“Bradley Manning and the Failure of Corporate Media”), its No. 4 censored story (“Obama’s War on Whistleblowers”), its No. 16 censored story (“Journalism Under Attack Around the Globe”) and a couple of others.

It was an honor to work with
CENSORED 2014 editors Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth, both of Project Censored, on researching and writing up this essay for the new book, which has “Fearless Speech in Fateful Times” as its very appropriate subtitle this year.

My contribution to the Project Censored book this year follows a chapter I contributed to last year’s book,
CENSORED 2013, on the Fukushima nuclear crisis and news censorship in Japan — a censored topic if there ever was one. I’ve been buying Project Censored’s books and supporting its important work in “uncensoring” the U.S. news media for a number of years now, so it was a real treat to be involved in contributing my part to the CENSORED book last year and again this year.

If truth in media and uncensored news are important to you too, I strongly encourage you to support the vital work of Project Censored by ordering your own
CENSORED 2014 book and/or making a donation of whatever you can to the nonprofit organization. It all goes to keeping media honest and keeping us informed. You can order the book directly from Project Censored here.

The second book I’ve worked on this year is of a completely different nature, but no less important in reaching readers, especially in the education/ESL field here in Japan. I am one of the authors of the newly released
More Step-up Skills for the TOEIC Test (Japanese title: 一歩上を目指すTOEICテスト), published by Asahi Press in Tokyo, one of Japan’s major publishers of education-related materials.

This new book, co-authored with three other Japanese university educators, is aimed at preparing young Japanese readers pursuing English as a second language to challenge the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) and to sharpen their skills in English in a very natural way.

I was involved in the writing, editing and layout/design aspects of the book (and even came up with the book’s ever-so-humble-sounding title in English). Most people know me for my writing and editing work, but I also enjoy doing design and layout work — skills that I crafted years ago as a newspaper editor both in the U.S. and Japan.

This new TOEIC book comes as a kind of sequel to another TOEIC book that myself and the other three authors, through the same publisher, had released in 2010. That earlier TOEIC book has apparently been selling quite well in Japan these past few years (as evidenced by the occasional royalty checks, which yours truly is always thankful for), and I guess Asahi Press was wise enough to go with a reliable team of authors again this time around when it decided to publish this book as a sequel of sorts.

There are hundreds of TOEIC-related books on the Japanese market in any given school year, and most of the TOEIC books out there, in my opinion, are little more than educational junk food — hardly worth the money that people dish out for them. My personal goal for this particular book was to help create something that not only stands up in quality against everything else that’s out there on the Japanese market but also to create a book that is very user-friendly, that doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence, and that sets a high standard for other books like it in the field to follow.

Only time will tell whether or not we’ve succeeded at that. But just looking at the finished book now in my hands after all these months of work, my feeling, if I may say so without sounding too arrogant, is that we’ve come up with a real winner of a TOEIC book here.

So if you are an educator or teacher in Japan and looking for something new, original and honest, look no further than
More Step-up Skills for the TOEIC Test. If you do end up using the book in the classroom here in Japan, I look forward to hearing how you used it and how it was received by your students. Drop a line and let me know.

In closing, these two new, very different books I’ve worked on this year have given me good cause to celebrate and a reason to smile from the inside: I may not be getting rich as a writer here in Japan, but the quality of writing and editing work I’m doing is still high, the work still seems to be relevant to a lot of people and, best of all, I haven’t had to sell out any of my ideals along the way. In these financially tough times, when fellow writers or journalists will understandably sell their souls to get just one more rung up the ladder (or just to keep from sliding back down again), it's personally satisfying to know that, after all these years since starting out, I haven’t had to sacrifice quality for quantity. I can have both.

I’ve had to change with the times, of course. But I find I’m still inspired by the written word, I’m still thankful for my creative muses (always checking over my shoulder, it seems), and I still believe that writing can be something of a force for good in the world when used in the right way. And the proof, dear reader, if you need any, is right here in the pages of these two new books. Read them and enjoy.
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