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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Corporate America’s New Scam: Industry P.R. Firm Poses as Think Tank!

How the media fell hook, line and sinker for the propagandist, respectable-sounding "Employment Policies Institute"

When scholars at University of California, Berkeley, recently released a study finding that low wages in the fast food industry cost taxpayers $7 billion every year in social supports to subsidize salaries of low-income workers, they ran into a respectable-sounding opponent. The professors had argued that the minimum wage should be increased to relieve the burden on taxpayers who underwrite supersize restaurant industry profits.

Richard Berman (Credit: CBS News)

But as the bona fide academic study rolled out, multiple media outlets ran comments criticizing the report’s numbers and methodology from the scholarly sounding “Employment Policies Institute.”  The Austin Business Journal characterized EPI as a think tank “which studies employment growth,” while the Miami Herald ran a quote from Michael Saltsman, whom the paper named as EPI’s “research director.”

For his part, Saltsman ran aggressive Op-Eds against any minimum wage increase in papers such as the the Missoulian, where he was described as EPI’s “research fellow.” In an Op-Ed he wrote for the Washington Post, his title was listed as EPI’s “research director” but with a notation that EPI “receives funding from restaurants, among other sources.” But even this partial disclosure provides a disservice to readers in the nation’s capital.

In fact, the Employment Policies Institute operates from the same office suite as Berman and Co., a public relations firm owned by Richard Berman. This is not an opinion; it’s a fact anyone can verify by viewing EPI and Berman and Co.’s websites. In such a depressed media environment — where there are four public relations flacks for every reporter, compared to a 1-to-1 ratio in the 1960s – it is not surprising that a P.R. company could successfully rebrand itself as a think tank and capitalize on an acronym held by an actual think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, with 20 staff and 36 respected research associates.

At the Center for Media and Democracy, we have spent 20 years tracking disinformation and spin, and Richard Berman has long been one of our favorite research subjects. Berman came out of the restaurant industry, spending several years as a top executive at Steak and Ale before launching Berman and Co. to help advocate for corporate America. His clients have included tobacco companies (for which he formed an entity he called the Center for Consumer Freedom) and the soda makers (for which he created the American Beverage Institute).  He was once profiled on a “60 Minutes” piece titled “Dr. Evil.” But one of his most successful products has been the Employment Policies Institute.

EPI regularly opines in the press on a host of topics. Recently it has been working to show that restaurant workers don’t need higher wages or paid sick days, but few Americans are informed by the press that this “think tank” is just one or two individuals working for spinmeister Berman, likely on a contract for the restaurant industry.

We recently analyzed three years of newspaper stories from across the country that quoted from EPI or Michael Saltsman.

In 83 percent of the stories we examined, reporters provided readers with no information about EPI’s relationship with Berman and Co. In most cases, journalists stated that EPI is a “Washington DC nonprofit” and called Saltsman a “research director.” In some instances, reporters took tentative steps in the right direction and called EPI “conservative” or “pro-business.” Only about 3 percent of the time did they correctly link EPI to Berman and Co.

Failing to note EPI’s role as an arm of Berman and Co. fools readers into thinking it is a legitimate and independent voice in national politics. In 37 percent of stories we found reporters tapped EPI to counter positions by government experts or politicians; in 39 percent EPI was used to counter policy experts at nonprofits; and 22 percent of the time, EPI was used as a counterpoint to academics at American universities.

Certainly corporations have a right to have their voice heard, but that voice should be their own, not that of a phony expert on retainer.

Lisa Graves is Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy, the publisher of PRWatch.org, SourceWatch.org, and BanksterUSA.org. She formerly served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice, as Chief Counsel for Nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and as Deputy Chief of the Article III Judges Division of the U.S. Courts.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Corporate America Wants the Trans-Pacific Partnership for Christmas This Year

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Corporate America Wants the Trans-Pacific Partnership for Christmas This Year


In Secret Negotiations, U.S. Officials and Corporate Representatives Trade Our Human and Constitutional Rights for Corporate Profit

When “Everything That’s Fit to Print” Doesn’t Include the Content of a Proposed Trade Agreement, Who Represents the Public Interest at the Bargaining Table?

The New York Times – likely the most influential newspaper on the planet – last week editorialized in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade and investor rights agreement currently being negotiated in Washington D.C. by the United States Trade Representative (USTR) and eleven other nations which border the Pacific Ocean. Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam are all currently participating in the talks.

The Times’ editorial is of great interest – given the enormous influence the paper has upon public debate – and may represent yet another low point in the paper’s 21st century journalism, despite its benign title, “A Pacific Trade Deal.” 

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently pointed out, the text of the TPP remains a secret, known only to the trade representatives involved in the talks and the 600 corporate representatives who have been invited to comment on it. The EFF’s Maira Sutton wrote:
That raises two distressing possibilities: either in an act of extraordinary subservience, the Times has endorsed an agreement that neither the public nor its editors have the ability to read. Or, in an act of extraordinary cowardice, it has obtained a copy of the secret text and hasn’t fulfilled its duty to the public interest to publish it.
So which is it – subservience to elite, undemocratic decision-making, or a cowardly deference to the exclusive authority of those elites?

Endorsing a trade agreement which has yet to be seen by the public, public interest groups, or our representatives in the House or Senate raises alarming questions about the New York Times’  view of the role of journalism in a functioning democracy. If all parties to public policy discussions agree that the policies in question should remain a secret, and the institutions of journalism which are indispensable to an informed citizenry find that acceptable, how is the public to voice its opinion of those policies?

U.S. negotiators have made no secret of their rationale for keeping the nearly-complete text of the agreement from the public. According to former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, once the mayor of Dallas, Texas and a golfing partner of President Obama, releasing the text before finished could raise such public opposition to the agreement that participants might later refuse to sign it. Kirk suggested in an interview with Reuters that this was the case in 2001, when the administration of George W. Bush released a highly edited, draft text of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and subsequently failed to reach a final agreement.

Congress, it seems, is no more inclined to demand a review of the trade documents in question, much less insist upon more public input. This is despite the fact that the U.S. Constitution grants Congress exclusive authority to negotiate the terms of trade agreements between states and with foreign countries.

In June, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) sent Obama’s nominee to replace Kirk, Michael Froman, a letter requesting the TPP text, stating “I believe in transparency and democracy, and I think the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) should too.” The USTR’s argument against releasing the text was, Warren wrote, “exactly backward.”

“If transparency would lead to widespread public opposition to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the United States.”

On June 19, 2013, Sen. Warren announced that she would not vote for Froman to take the trade office position due to his refusal to release the TPP text, even in an edited or redacted form. The Senate approved Froman’s nomination that day by a vote of 93 to 4, with few other senators willing to join Warren’s stand for transparency and the public interest. California Senator Barbara Boxer voted “present.”

Good Reason to Fear the TPP


According to information leaked from the secret negotiations over the past several years, as well as Public CitizenFood & Water Watch, and other public interest organizations, there are numerous areas in which the public should be concerned as the negotiations conclude. Many of the proposed rules in the agreement read like an extended Christmas wish list for corporate predators. Rules currently being negotiated would allow corporations to:
  • Buy land, natural resources, and factories without governmental review
  • Demand compensation from member countries for loss of “expected future profits” due to member countries’ health, labor, or environmental laws
  • Sue governments directly, before tribunals of private sector lawyers
A primary goal corporations have pushed the TPP to achieve has been the elevation of individual corporations and their investors to an equal standing with member nations; citizens of the member nations have no standing under the proposed TPP rules, and no legal recourse.
There are numerous other areas of concern:
  • Food safety - U.S. food safety laws governing pesticide residues, bacteria, and additives could be outlawed and weakened. Food labeling laws such as organic, animal-welfare, and GMO identification could be eliminated as an “illegal trade barrier.” Many TPP nations are huge farmed fish producers which use chemicals and antibiotics prohibited in the U.S. The TPP would increase the import of unsafe fish into the country.
  • Local foods - “Buy local,” “Buy American,” or other preferential purchasing programs, designed to strengthen local food systems and economies could be declared barriers to trade, with corporations and investors suing to force their elimination.
  • Fracking - The TPP would remove the Department of Energy’s authority to regulate natural gas exports to TPP member countries, eliminating DOE review of environmental and economic impacts of fracking on our communities. Given Japan’s insatiable demand for natural gas – representing a third of the world’s import market – pressure to increase fracking in the U.S. would certainly grow. This would also increase pollution and carbon emissions in the U.S., as the energy required to cool and liquefy natural gas into an exportable state renders it nearly as dirty as coal production.
  • Jobs - The TPP gives incentives to corporations to relocate jobs to lower wage TPP member nations, by guaranteeing both low risk and lower cost of doing so.
  • Banking - The TPP prohibits transaction taxes currently being discussed worldwide as a means to control financial speculation, which repeatedly threatens the international economy with financial crises. It also limits national “too big to fail” rules and reforms that separate consumer banking from riskier investment banking.
  • Internet - Despite their failure to pass last year’s wildly unpopular Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which was derided as a gift to corporate desires to control and profit from the internet, many of SOPA’s provisions were folded into the TPP. The agreement would empower corporations to monitor our activities, arbitrarily cut off our internet access, remove content, and impose fines.

Fast-Track Authority

The White House and other participants to the TPP talks recently stated they’re on target to complete the trade negotiations by the end of the year.

Consequently, Obama has requested that Congress grant the administration fast track authority as the deal is finalized.

Fast track authority limits Congressional oversight – and therefore our only public analysis and input – of international trade deals. In recent years public interest advocates, activists, and others have successfully brought fast track to the public’s attention by pointing to its inherently anti-democratic nature – limiting public debate, Congressional review, and oversight removes the sole means by which the public can influence trade deals which impact us all.

Unfortunately the limited response of corporate negotiators and their associated friends and allies in the United States has been to rebrand fast track authority as “trade promotion authority” (TPA).

Senate Finance Committee leaders, Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-UT) recently stated they will be working with their counterparts in the House to grant Obama the TPA he’s requested very soon.

Public interest groups are attempting to mobilize public opinion to oppose fast track authority and focus attention upon the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but time is running short. A group of fourteen organizations recently sent members of Congress a letter urging them not to grant the Obama administration fast track authority, citing the secrecy surrounding the TPP’s negotiation and the subsequent lack of accountability to the public that fast track would encourage.
The letter read, in part:
The American public has a right to know the contents of the international agreements its government is crafting. Corporations cannot be the only interests represented in this agreement, since they do not advocate for policies that safeguard or even represent the interests of the public at large. Given the administration’s complete lack of transparency in negotiating the TPP, it is vitally important that democratically elected representatives are at least given the opportunity to conduct a review and push for fixes.


Economist Dean Baker commented recently on the New York Times’ endorsement of the TPP.
Bizarrely, the NYT editorialized in favor of the TPP, concluding its piece:
A good agreement would lower duties and trade barriers on most products and services, strengthen labor and environmental protections, limit the ability of governments to tilt the playing field in favor of state-owned firms and balance the interests of consumers and creators of intellectual property. Such a deal will not only help individual countries but set an example for global trade talks.
Yes, boys and girls, Goldman Sachs, Exxon-Mobil and Pfizer will put together a deal that does all these things. This is serious?
Citizens concerned about the health and well-being of our communities, our food supply, our environment, jobs, freedom of speech and association, and the corporate takeover of our human rights are encouraged to contact their elected representatives and discuss the TPP with their colleagues, friends, and relatives.

Ask your reps to deny the administration the inherently undemocratic fast track authority. Insist upon a thorough, public review of the TPP by Congress. Though our nation increasingly appears to be run by, and for, the benefit of corporate America, those corporate elites and their benefactors’ greatest fear is an informed citizenry which is actively involved in the civic and political life of the country. We the people have the power. We have only to exercise it.
Resources for further information and for exercising your rights:

Contact your elected representatives

The Trans-Pacific Partnership and intellectual property rights

Expose the TPP

The Electronic Frontier Foundation

Public Citizen

• This article originally appeared at The Raucous Rooster

Christopher Fisher is an independent Sonoma County journalist whose work has appeared at Truthout, Civil Eats, Grist, and the Petaluma Bounty blog. He is also the Vice President of the recently reborn Petaluma Grange, one of the rapidly growing California Granges, which support democratic communities, sustainable agriculture, and fair local food systems. Read other articles by Christopher.