404: Information Missing From Your Daily News
Summaries of under-reported news, updates on previous Monitor stories
The scandal was the bribery charges against Salt Lake City boosters who sought the 2002 winter games for their city, as Monitor first reported in 1999. Even then, coverage of the alleged crime was mostly dumped in sports, and rarely was the topic discussed by op/ed writers outside of Utah, so most Americans didn't see the story at all. But particularly in the last few months, the story has had some surprising twists. Here's an update:
Just a couple of weeks before the July, 2001 trial was to begin, U.S. District Judge David Sam dismissed the bribery and racketeering charges against Tom Welch and David Johnson, the leaders of the committee that convinced the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to award the Olympics to Salt Lake City. With the trial postponed indefinitely, Judge Sam followed by tossing out the other 11 counts of fraud and conspiracy in November. Judge Sam ruled that federal prosecutors had based their case on Utah's rarely-used commercial bribery law, which makes employee kickback schemes illegal. (A possible example: Computer maker "Microstuff" wants store salespeople to steer customers towards its products, and promises those clerks that they will be quietly slipped $50 for each sale without their boss knowing about the deal.)
Sam ruled that the case belonged in state courts, not federal. But the Utah attorney general had never filed charges; it looked like the Olympic committee might be off the hook. Then on January 23, the Department of Justice said that they could prove Judge Sam was wrong. "The United States has an interest in demonstrating that it will not tolerate corruption in the competition for the selection of host cities for the Olympic Games," wrote the Justice Dept. The matter now goes to the appeals court, which is not expected to rule before November, 2002.
But in early January, before the feds announced they would pursue the case, Welch and Johnson gave their first interviews to the press. Predictably, it was a sports paper -- Canada's Observer Sport Monthly.
Welch -- a former Mormon bishop -- said that as many as 100 of the 126 members of the IOC accepted some sort of gift from Utah. "one IOC member was known as a 'human vacuum cleaner' because he sucked up a quarter of a million dollars worth of gifts, hospitality and cash," the London, Ontario paper reported. Welch said they arranged plastic surgery for a member's wife, scholarships for relatives, and deposited cash into a bank account for a daughter that didn't exist. The government also charges that Welch and Johnson funnelled money to IOC members via phony contracts, fake humanitarian programs, and similar tricks to conceal their trail.
Johnson added that they did nothing unusual. "There were 12 cities lobbying the same hundred people," Johnson told the Canadian paper. "We found that, within the window of just one year, a total of $100 million was spent on those people. Salt Lake was not alone in what it did."
Meanwhile, another Olympic scandal is brewing -- and again, it floats mostly just in the sports sections.
In its December 10 issue, Sports Illustrated -- a magazine not known for its investigative reporting -- revealed that the U.S. government had spent $1.5 billion on the Salt Lake City Olympics. (Since then, federal numbers shows the total closer to $2 billion.) It is more than the combined total for the other 7 Olympics that have been held in the U.S.
Nearly half of the federal gift is being spent on transportation improvements, which means lots of wonderful new highways and a new rail transit system. When the winter games are over in mid-February, Utah real estate developers will be able to use their free new roads to build in places no Utahn (real word!) subdivision has gone before.
The boondoggle doesn't end there. Says journalist Bob Dicesare:
The Olympic movement as a whole has become a shell game of immense magnitude. The U.S. sends $1.9 billion in aid to Salt Lake. The Salt Lake Olympic Committee takes in some $800 million in corporate sponsorships. NBC pays the IOC $3.5 billion for the television rights for 2000 through 2008. Is it a stretch to think that a few pockets of individuals are getting filthy rich off this?That's an important perspective, but where did it appear? The Washington Post editorial page? NPR? An alternative media source? Sorry -- Dicesare is a sports writer for the Buffalo News. (January 25, 2002)
Faith, prayer, and love of family are the article's main themes, with almost no space devoted to political questions....The magazine was also thorough in addressing -- and dismissing -- facts about Bush that might be perceived as flaws. The president doesn't read many books, Newsweek explained, because "he's busy making history, but doesn't look back at his own, or the world's.... Bush would rather look forward than backward. It's the way he's built..." Newsweek says that the White House spin machine had nothing to do with their portrayal of Bush. In this interview, wrote Newsweek, "there were few mangled sentences. The handlers at the table were listening, not handling." Maybe that's because Newsweek was doing their job for them.
The mag continues its hail to the chief in its February 4 issue, which leads with a profile of Enron evil-doer Kenneth Lay. Only once in the six-page story is George W. Bush mentioned, and then to echo the White House line that Lay got nothing for his enormous campaign contributions. Newsweek also repeats the disengenuous bleat that, hey, the Bush family suffered too because Laura's mom lost $8K. Perhaps the First Mother-in-Law will be spending her golden years working at Denny's next to the Enron employees who were robbed of their retirement plans.
But it's again the Newsweek cover story that flunks Objective Journalism 101. This time the cover features Bill and Melinda Gates, with the headline, "They've Given Away $24 Billion. Here's Why. Bill & Melinda Gates Bet a Fortune on Bringing Better Health Care to the World's Poorest Children." Inside, the article describes the good works performed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Africa and elsewhere: funding research into life-saving vaccines, training health workers, providing medical supplies.
The author lavishes praise on the Gates, including a rare interview with Melinda. The world's richest woman gets the world's kindest interview : "Can you recount one or two of the most memorable experiences you've had?" has to win some kind of award as the most inane question asked by a real journalist.
But that seems like hard-hitting investigative reporting next to the treatment of husband Bill, who "has more than met his [philanthropist] dad's expectations." Gates is "...applying his legendary business sense to the enterprise, he has helped create a whole new model of philanthropy." The article ends with, "As Gates likes to say, better health is an end in itself, but it has countless virtuous side effects. It's a lever, in other words, and he's got $24 billion pushing it."
Details on how their philanthropy works are sketched lightly, but the article makes it sound like Gates' "legendary" business acumen is a kind of tough-love: "The Gates Foundation... treats grant recipients as business partners, auditing their performance and demanding that they contribute whatever they can to a project. Governments, however strapped, typically have to increase their own health spending to qualify for help. And before funding a new initiative, the Gates team demands evidence that it will become self-sustaining in the future."
The devil's in the details, however, and there is much that Newsweek leaves out or misrepresents. Start with that cover: The Gates' haven't "given away" $24B to charity; the money went to their Foundation, which has actually forked over very little cash. As of the Y2000 disclosure (the latest available on the Foundation web page, when there was about $21 billion in the fund) only about $1.5 billion actually had been given out. That means that the Gates's foundation awarded about 6 cents out of every dollar. The rest of the fund is squirreled away in an investment portfolio.
Newsweek also didn't mention recent stinging criticism of the Foundation's keystone project, GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations). In mid-January, the respected British-based charity Save the Children produced a report questioning whether the program was just a marketing tool for pharmaceutical corporations. Noting that industry members were on the Board of Directors, the charity warned that the world's poorest countries could become hooked upon expensive vaccines.
In one case study, Save the Children reported that "Ghana was given 10 days to decide whether or not to accept a new high-tech vaccine, without any evidence that it was actually needed. Their decision more than doubled the annual costs of its immunization program. Although this funding gap will initially be covered by GAVI, with only five years of commitment from donors, the long-term sustainability of the program is questionable." Did Newsweek know about this criticism? Stories appeared in both the BBC and Associated Press, as well as smaller news wires.
Even if Newsweek hadn't seen that coverage, they couldn't have missed the front page story in the December 3 Wall Street Journal. The conservative paper wrote that GAVI is facing opposition to its "corporate-style incentive system," and the very nations that the Gates' say they want to help are "not in a position to meet the organization's demands." The WSJ continues: "some people says it's inappropriate -- and potentially even dangerous -- to impose Western style measures of accountability on the world's poorest countries."
Nor did Newsweek mention that philanthropist Bill has cut back his support of the Foundation drastically. In 2001, the Gates donated $2 billion, down from $5 billion in Y2000.
But perhaps the biggest angle that Newsweek -- and thus far, all other media -- has overlooked is the investment pattern that suggests Gates might be investing Foundation money to leverage Microsoft. Earlier this month the Foundation bought 5.4 million shares in cable TV and Internet provider Cox Communications. On the same day Gates personally bought another 8.1 million shares. Combined it gives Gates control of about two percent of the broadband company, enough to provides some traction in a company that could help Microsoft greatly.
But whither Newsweek? Has the Washington Post- owned magazine become a PR flack for the rich and powerful? In the case of the Gates story, it's disturbing to note that Newsweek editors and writers are working closely with msnbc.com, and using the top-rated web news site "as their daily outlet" for their reporting, according to a recent Poynter Institute article. Newsweek is a partner in the web site, which is (of course) jointly owned by NBC and Bill Gates' Microsoft. Is Newsweek's one-degree of separation from Microsoft enough for there to be no conflict of interest in Newsweek writing about the Gates Foundation? Maybe, maybe not. But eyebrows probably would have been raised if a puff piece like that had appeared on the Microsoft-owned web pages of slate.com.
Also note that Newsweek continued its PR for the Foundation on-line. In their "Live Vote" poll for January 26, the question was this: "If you had control of the Gates Foundation's $24 billion, how would you spend the money?" The majority (49 percent) of over 13,000 voted: "The same way the foundation is now -- trying to stop the spread of infectious diseases around the world." While it was a valid opinion question to ask, that coy second clause in the answer is just spin. (January 31, 2002)
It's a fascinating story introduced in the MONITOR feature, The Pooh Files. (You can also search the archives for later updates -- CLICK HERE.) There are more than a few parallels to the Enron story; Disney shredded thousands of documents that apparently incriminated the corporation. Like Enron, Disney worked hard to keep everything mum, not even revealing to stockholders that the court had sanctioned Disney for "willful suppression of evidence." Until this month, there has been almost no public disclosure about the details of the case -- although it has gone on for more than a decade.
It's been a rough year for Disney. First they announced a $158 million loss for last year, then the state of California found that they were using a contractor who paid home-workers the equivalent of $1.35 an hour to assemble the Cinderella tiaras ($15.95) and magic wands ($2.95) sold at Disneyland and DisneyWorld. Disney agreed to pay $902,000 in back wages, and may have gotten off easy -- the state could only enforce labor violations going back three years, and Disney had used this contractor since 1992.
Disney has also been locked in a critically important fight with Dish Network. The satellite TV company, which has 6.4 million subscribers, announced last year that it was dropping the ABC Family Channel and ESPN Classic, both owned by Disney. A court restraining order was obtained by Disney to block them from dropping the Family Channel until at least a scheduled March 11 hearing.
Since the first of the year, there's been a tense war of the words. EchoStar, the company that owns Dish Network, says that Disney simply wanted too much money for the rights to carry the channels. That's a lie, said Disney. The head of EchoStar fired back with an astonishing charge: That Disney's alleged rate increase was tantamount to demanding "hush money" to keep Disney's small army of Washington lobbyists from fighting a proposed merger. The Dish Network wants federal approval to join DirecTV and create a satellite TV monopoly -- an entirely different media scandal that's too big to discuss here.
Like the situation with the Pooh lawsuit, Disney has an enormous amount of money on the table. Disney/ABC just bought the Family Channel from Fox last summer for $5.2 billion, and it would be quite a blow to lose half -- or all -- the satellite TV market. And like the Pooh situation, a Disney defeat could benefit a rival: Vivendi Universal recently bought 11 percent of EchoStar
Making the corporate battlefield even stranger, Disney this month found an ally in the Rev. Al Sharpton, who says the Dish Network doesn not offer enough "wholesome" programming and will lobby in Washington against the satellite TV merger. The wholesome ABC Family Channel lineup includes televangelist Pat Robertson's controversial talk show, "The 700 Club" (nonstop on Sundays) as well as many reruns of ABC shows such as. "America's Funniest Home Videos." (January 28, 2002)
"The international human rights group Human Rights Watch has released its annual report, and it says that several countries are using the U.S.-led war against terrorism as a justification to ignore human rights. Human Rights Watch says that Russia, Egypt, Israel, China, Zimbabwe, Malaysia and Uzbekistan have all cracked down on domestic opponents in the name of terrorism."
According to watchdog group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting), that summary is close to what the group's press release stated. However, FAIR underscores that "one country singled out for criticism by Human Rights Watch was conspicuously absent from ABC's report: the United States, whose anti-terrorism measures were described in the group's press release as 'threatening long-held human rights principles.'"
According to Human Rights Watch, several recent Bush administration actions demonstrate a "troubling disregard for well-established human rights safeguards, including new laws permitting the indefinite detention of non-citizens, special military commissions to try suspected terrorists, the detention of over 1,000 people, and the abrogation of the confidentiality of attorney-client communications for certain detainees."
As FAIR says, ABC did a disservice to its viewers by excluding criticism of the U.S. Indeed, U.S. human rights problems are most likely to affect American viewers, and Americans are also in the best position to do something about them. FAIR is asking people to pressure ABC to issue a correction to its original report about the Human Rights Watch Annual Report to reflect the group's criticisms of the U.S. You can contact ABC at:
World News Tonight
Albion Monitor Issue 96 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)
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