Elitist Shills for the War Machine: Judith Miller and Fareed Zakaria

You may have seen Jon Stewart questioning Judith Miller on The Daily Show. I’m glad that her attempts to claim to be a journalist are receiving criticism, if not quite enough.

A couple years ago, I wrote a piece titled “War and the American Elite,” in which I discussed war-promoters like Miller. I focused on the close class alliances between elite politicians and elite media-makers.

Here is what I wrote about Miller.

Liberal writers and media outlets also played an enormous role in building the fraudulent case for war. In fact, Bush & Co.’s preferred means of planting false information in the public mind was The New York Times—and, specifically, reporter Judith Miller. Here is a short list of bogus claims presented as true in Times articles either written or co-written by Miller.

1. Saddam Hussein was seeking components for nuclear weapons.

2. Saddam already had an array of chemical weapons, including anthrax.

3. The Iraqi military was attempting to make a biological weapon, using smallpox.

The Bush gang’s puppeteering of Miller was so tightly controlled that on September 8, 2002, when another set of their planted lies appeared in the Times under Miller’s name, Dick Cheney went on Meet the Press to tout the article. “There’s a story in The New York Times this morning,” Cheney said, wearing his somber face. “And I want to attribute the Times.” Say “Times” again, Dick.

For her part, Miller later looked back on her false reports and said this: “If your sources are wrong, you’re going to be wrong.” Actually, the last time I checked, journalists were supposed to assess the credibility of their sources.

Why did Miller align herself so closely with the administration? Also, how did someone with so little understanding of how journalism works rise to a top position at The New York Times? While you’re pondering those questions, allow me to mention that Miller is a graduate of Barnard College, an expensive, private women’s institution in Manhattan, affiliated with Columbia University. She also obtained a master’s degree from Princeton.

After Miller’s reporting was exposed as a sick joke, NYT management initially defended her. But criticism of Miller grew so widespread that she ultimately resigned and took a job on Fox News Channel. Sources at the Times stated that Miller had been specially protected by the newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who inherited that post from his father. Doug McGill, a former reporter at the Times, said in 2005, “Arthur’s social closeness to Judy is making it hard for him to see things clearly.” I like that word choice. “Social closeness” sums up not only the politics of the NYT but the larger problem of corporate media’s cozy relationship with the Bushites.

Another shill for the Iraq War, Fareed Zakaria, recently appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher to lecture the host about Muslims. Zakaria is not so much an expert on Muslims as he is an expert on getting Muslims killed by the hundreds of thousands in imperial wars. Why is this guy still considered any kind of expert? If you understood Foreign Policy 101, you knew better than to invade a deeply divided Muslim country such as Iraq. If you had paid attention to the careers of the gang around George W. Bush, you knew better than to believe the WMD stories they were peddling. Zakaria didn’t know better, in either case. Why does anyone now care what he says?

Because he’s a member of the club. Here is what I wrote about Zakaria in “War and the American Elite.”

When Fareed Zakaria endorsed Bush’s invasion plan, he lent credibility to the argument for war. Zakaria was less stridently conservative than the usual parade of right-wingers on Fox News Channel. He also possessed greater cosmopolitan credentials than many other war-backers. An immigrant from India, Zakaria had edited the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs and met numerous world leaders.

In an interview with New York magazine shortly before the start of the war, Zakaria explained why he agreed with Bush. “[Iraq] is so dysfunctional, any stirring of the pot is good. America’s involvement in the region is for the good.” In other words: Oh, what the hell? Why not? Just stir the pot and see what happens. Zakaria’s words do not spring from a careful weighing of the consequences of war—for the soldiers who fight it or the civilians who become “collateral damage.” They are the words of a rich kid haphazardly deciding to place a bet at the roulette wheel. To Zakaria, Iraq was just a game, a puzzle of dysfunction that the U.S. elite might be able to solve by tossing other people’s lives and money into it.

Like George W. Bush, Fareed Zakaria inherited his place in the game. His father was a high-ranking politician and his mother was a newspaper editor. After graduating from prep school, Zakaria received degrees from Yale and Harvard. Referring to his privileged upbringing, he told New York “I grew up in this world where everything seemed possible.” “We saw the best architects, government officials, and poets all the time,” he added. “Nothing seemed out of your reach.” That was the problem. Coverage of the war debate would have been better if the media’s anointed “experts” had come from a world of limited possibilities or had experience dealing with the consequences of destructive policies.

You can read the full article here.

I keep hearing that things happen in threes. If so, we are due for another spate of breathtakingly stupid comments from Bill Keller. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Interview with Candice Tobin of Razorcake

Razorcake has posted my interview with Candice Tobin, which is in audio format. We had a great discussion.

We talked about class bigotry in higher education, of course. We also discussed contempt for working-class people among bourgeois conservatives and liberals. Other topics included the narrow outlook of academia, and ways that working-class people can fight to end class-based discrimination at American colleges.

If you’re new to this blog and want to learn about my resignation at Washington University and issues of class bias, this interview is a great starting point. Even if you’ve been visiting the blog for a while, you will find new discussion of my earlier writing and of the academic world in general.

You can listen here.

Thanks for reading (and listening).

Open Letter to the Ferguson Commission

Clayton, Missouri, seat of St. Louis County government
Clayton, Missouri, financial center and seat of St. Louis County government

Dear Ferguson Commission Members:

Thank you for taking on the task of finding ways to heal our community. I would like to offer a proposal for your consideration. It is time to use tax policy to redress severe inequalities.

The killing of Michael Brown Jr., and the events that followed, demonstrated once again that institutionalized racism is alive in St. Louis—City and County. But I am encouraged by the new proposal from one of your commission’s working groups, which calls for additional police training aimed at reducing racial bias. Last October, veteran activist Percy Green II advocated that police receive regular psychological testing and be required to live in the communities they serve. I believe those recommendations are also essential.

We must confront racism in policing and in other aspects of daily life. But we must also deal with economic divisions. Municipalities like Ferguson receive a large part of their operating funds from a race- and class-biased system of excessive fines. That poisons relationships between police and community, creating a system that more closely resembles a colonial occupation than the protection of free citizens.

These are the main economic causes of that system: the rich do not pay their fair share in taxes, and rigid divides between jurisdictions prevent the wealth of St. Louis from benefiting all St. Louisans. For the past three-and-a-half decades, the wealthy have received one huge tax cut after another. When the rich avoid taxes, the working class gets squeezed. And working-class African Americans are by far the most frequent targets of profiteering law enforcement.

Likewise, Michael Brown Jr.’s story highlighted educational inequalities. It brought media attention to issues of poverty and budget shortfalls at Normandy High School, problems that symbolized the struggles of so many public schools. Again, this is about taxes, and those who do not pay their share.

I propose that, in addition to raising taxes substantially on the rich in general, we revoke tax exemptions for rich, socially exclusive colleges. I recently resigned my position as an archivist at Washington University to protest taxpayer-subsidized class bias in admissions. Wash. U. is the least economically diverse top national university in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Only 6% of that university’s undergraduates receive Pell Grants, a federal scholarship for low- and middle-income students.

Washington University also lags behind in racial diversity: 6% of Wash. U. undergraduates are African American and 5% are Hispanic, according to the most recent federal data. Yet that university is exempt from taxes—federal, state, and local—despite possessing an endowment of (at last federal count) $5.3 billion.

Wash. U. administrators recently set a goal of 13% Pell Grant recipients in the 2020-21 freshman class, which may not even be enough to get Wash. U. out of 25th and last place on the U.S. News economic-diversity list. For comparison, here are the latest (2012-13 academic year) percentages of Pell Grant recipients at local four-year colleges:

Harris-Stowe State University: 84%

Fontbonne University: 43%

Webster University: 41%

Lindenwood University: 39%

University of Missouri at St. Louis: 34%

Maryville University: 34%

Missouri Baptist University: 23%

Saint Louis University: 15%

Washington University: 6%

(Figures are based on federal data available here and here.)

I am sure that Wash. U. administrators would tell us that theirs is a leading international university and that such local comparisons are unfair. But the University of California at Berkeley is rated higher than Wash. U. in most rankings and has an endowment with less than one-fourth the value of Wash. U.’s. However, 36% of UC Berkeley undergrads are Pell Grant recipients. I do not believe that colleges with enormous wealth, such as Wash. U., deserve tax exemptions, unless they do at least as well as UCB in enrolling Pell recipients.

Washington University also discriminates blatantly in its admissions policies. That university offers preferences for rich, and mostly white, children of alumni, known as “legacies.” That system of hereditary privilege has no place in the 21st century. It is especially unfair to working-class St. Louisans, whose children are placed at a disadvantage when applying to Wash. U., but who have to pay regressive sales taxes that Wash. U. is allowed to avoid.

To be fair, Washington University provides services to the St. Louis community, especially in the form of programs that offer free health care for some low-income patients. But the value of those services is outweighed by the negative effects of the university’s tax exemptions. Also, a university is ultimately about students, and decisions about which students to admit should not be discriminatory. The problem with institutions such as Wash. U. is that they want to act like country clubs and be taxed like charities.

St. Louis University, with a 2012 endowment of $852 million and only 15% Pell Grant recipients in its undergraduate student body, also stands out as a rich institution sadly lacking in social diversity. As such, SLU should also lose its tax exemptions. Many assume that religious institutions are guaranteed tax exemptions by the U.S. Constitution. That is not true; it is simply a matter of policy.

There is also a simple, practical consideration. Whenever anyone proposes a corporate tax increase, we always hear that it will drive out business. Well, St. Louis’s rich colleges are not going anywhere. We’ll never see Chancellor Mark Wrighton uproot Washington University, put it on the world’s largest flatbed truck, and drive it to Kansas to take advantage of tax cuts for business. (Sorry, Governor Brownback.)

There is little information on the financial value of tax exemptions for private colleges. Those institutions’ private status restricts access to data, and most experts have ignored the issue. In 2013, however, Brian Schmidt, former executive director of the Missouri General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Tax Policy, estimated tax losses from properties Wash. U. owned in University City, excluding those on the main Wash. U. campus. He reported that there was “a loss of potential tax revenue totaling $1,056,279 in 2012.”

That revenue loss relates to only a portion of Wash. U.’s property, and property tax is only one area of taxation. The university is also exempt from paying taxes on the purchases it makes, the donations it receives, and its income from investments on Wall Street. Despite the effects of the financial crash of 2008, Wash. U.’s endowment grew by an average of $118 million a year between 1999 and 2012—all tax-free. We can no longer afford such indulgence, if we ever could.

As I write this, events in Baltimore are providing a grim reminder that the problems that caused the Ferguson crisis still plague the country and the world. To solve those problems, we need to address economic inequalities as well as racial ones. Fairer tax policies, including taxation of rich, socially exclusive universities, must be part of the solution. I respectfully urge you to say so in your report.

Thank you for your consideration.


Chris Pepus

St. Louis County resident and taxpayer

Quick Updates

My new phone is working, in case you wanted to call. Also, this will be a big week of posts. I have two more open letters to share with you, as well as a thorough explanation of the problem of class bigotry in higher education. A couple of these posts have taken longer than I wanted. But my attempts to open lines of communication with activist groups and media have taken longer than I wanted.

Stay tuned.

Calling Out Colleges on Legacy Preferences

I was interviewed recently for a Razorcake podcast that will be available next week. Candice Tobin conducted the interview and she asked some questions about what people can do to confront class bigotry in college admissions.

I mentioned one suggestion I made a while ago. If you applied this year to a college that offers preferences to legacies (children of alumni, especially rich ones), and you got rejected, write the person in charge of admissions.

Here are some questions to ask.

1. Did any legacies get admitted with records weaker than yours?

2. How can the college justify admitting applicants who have had every advantage, yet would not be able to get in on merit?

3. Do legacy preferences constitute invidious discrimination?

4. Is the college tax exempt?

5. If so, why do college administrators believe that taxpayers should subsidize practices that place most applicants at a disadvantage, relative to the rich?

You can post the questions and answers on a blog or social media. Feel free to send them to me, if you like. I’ve created a hashtag on Twitter: #endlegacybias

Incidentally, if you want a graphic representation of legacy preferences, and other biases in favor of the rich, here is a great Tom The Dancing Bug cartoon by Ruben Bolling.

Thanks to Class Action for Posting My Story on Their Facebook Page

The team at Class Action have linked my resignation letter on their Facebook page. If you haven’t visited Class Action before, the group is a non-profit that fights prejudice based on social class, as well as other forms of prejudice.

If you’ve come to my blog from Class Action, you might be interested in this post on media coverage of first-generation college students. Also, a couple weeks ago, I persuaded The New York Times to fix errors in an article. But not before the editor insulted me in a manner that expressed contempt for working-class people. You can read about that here.

While you’re here, please take a look at this post on discrimination against working-class whites in higher education and its dire consequences.

Likewise, you can find a lot of useful information on Class Action’s Facebook page and web site. Their writers point out class bias in media (a full-time job in itself) and address the growing problem of student debt.

Class Action also provides links to stories of low-income and first-generation college students, such as this one submitted by an anonymous student to Stanford Class Confessions.

“Today a professor, in going through the background lab material for the class, kept referring to how much ‘we’d all seen in high school already’. I felt so uncomfortable because I never really saw anything he discussed in my high school because the school couldn’t afford to do any of the labs.”

Thanks to Betsy Leondar-Wright and everyone at Class Action for helping me get the word out, and for their daily work on class issues.

Greece versus the International Financiers

Alexis Tsipras, prime minister of Greece, with the shadow of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, president of the Eurogroup (a collection of Eurozone finance ministers). Photo by Petros Giannakouris.
Alexis Tsipras, prime minister of Greece. The shadow belongs to Jeroen Dijsselbloem, president of the Eurogroup (a collection of Eurozone finance ministers). Photo by Petros Giannakouris.

I have been busy communicating with activists and media people, setting up and even participating in some interviews. I’ll be back to posting on higher education tomorrow.

In the meantime, I want to discuss today’s news concerning Greece’s public debt. It is starting to appear that negotiations are breaking down between the new Greek government headed by Alexis Tsipras and the proxies of international finance (the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the economic imperialists in Angela Merkel’s right-wing German government).

Government leaders in the European Union worry that if Greece defaults, it will bring an end to the European Union’s common currency, the euro. They warn that serious economic dislocation will result. As I noted elsewhere, the EU’s currency (the euro) belongs on the scrap heap. Its rules require austerity during economic downturns. That inflicts suffering on the people and redistributes wealth toward the elite.

But if EU leaders are so worried about the Eurozone, the solution is to cancel most or all of Greece’s debt. The creditors, mostly the same people who benefited from bank bailouts after the financial crash they caused, have no right to complain.

For more information, please take a look at the film Debtocracy, written and directed by Aris Chatzistefanou and Katerina Kitidi. The film offers a thorough, engaging study of the issues surrounding Greece, debt, and the euro, including a discussion of the legal concept of “odious debt.” English subtitles are included.

Context on First-Generation College Students

I have written several recent posts on first-generation college students, but I want to point out a useful piece of context on that subject.

Some top colleges have been touting self-reported statistics showing that their incoming classes have percentages of first-generation students in the ’teens. In an article in last week’s New York Times, which has been the subject of a few posts and some enjoyable correspondence, we read that 17 percent of students in Brown’s current freshman class are first generation. (The source isn’t given—Brown administrators probably.)

According to the article, Brown defines “first-generation” students as those who come from families in which neither parent had a bachelor degree. How many of the families of today’s college students fit that description? It’s impossible to determine, but data on educational attainment provided by the U.S. Census Bureau can give us a very general idea.

Using the first sub-category in Table 1 (“All Races”), we can get data on the age group most likely to be parents of today’s college freshmen. I define that group as persons aged 40-59.

Of the 84.433 million people in that age group, 27.376 million, or 32%, have at least a bachelor’s degree. So 68% of the parents of today’s college freshman do not. While there are undoubtedly households in which one parent has a degree and one doesn’t, that 68% figure indicates that Brown University officials have little room to boast if 17% of their freshman class are “first gen.”

The other colleges mentioned in the same sentence of that Times article had lower reported percentages of first-gen freshmen than Brown: Dartmouth – 11, Princeton – 12, Yale – 14, Amherst – 15, Cornell – 16. So, again, the degree of social diversity at top private colleges is less than you would expect, based on all the self-congratulation in those quarters.

NYT Editor Jane Karr’s Contempt for Working-Class People

Last time, I was discussing The New York Times  and my efforts to persuade the paper’s Education Life Editor, Jane Karr, to fix obvious errors in an article from Wednesday. Specifically, I noted the penultimate message that Editor Karr sent me, which ended with these lines.

Good luck with any new venture. We see you’ve quit your job over this statistic, but we are comfortable with what we’ve written.

Though the Times made the corrections after I received that message, I felt I should reply to Ms. Karr and particularly to those last two sentences. Here is my latest e-mail to her.

Ms. Karr:

I am glad to see the revised text. I believe that our correspondence proved valuable. Your newspaper got to correct some inaccuracies. I got to know that I was helpful in some small way to The New York Times. And you got to taunt me about the fact that I may suffer financial ruin for confronting Wash. U. officials about their admissions policies. Everybody won.

However, I want to make clear that I did not quit my job over a statistic. I resigned my job at Washington University to protest systemic class bias. Looking at enrollment data at Wash. U. and other top private colleges, you may only see statistics.

But, behind the statistics, I see many talented, hard-working people from my background who are consigned to dead-end jobs because many top colleges discriminate in favor of the rich and well-connected. I also see those same working-class people paying their taxes, like good Americans, and thereby paying for the tax exemptions of the colleges that discriminate against them. Legacy preferences and other forms of invidious class bias are tolerated by most journalists who cover education, but they should not be tolerated.

I was heartened to read the stories of first-generation college students in Laura Pappano’s article. I wish we had a campus organization for “first-gens” when I was an undergraduate.

But just as the uncorrected text on Wash. U. exaggerated the degree and rate of change at that university, the article in general exaggerated improvements in social diversity at many of the colleges discussed. For instance, Ms. Pappano wrote:

Data compiled for the 1vyG conference by Dr. [Thomas G.] Mortenson shows that from 2000 to 2013, Amherst, Harvard, Brown and Princeton doubled or almost doubled Pell recipients. Yale’s growth was modest, while Cornell numbers declined slightly.

The increases in Pell enrollments at Amherst, Harvard, Brown, Princeton, and Yale would have looked smaller had you noted that the number of Pell recipients nationwide increased 73% between the 2006-07 academic year and the 2012-13 year.

Likewise, in this passage, it may not have been a bad idea to mention that, based on the latest federal data, 36% of UC Berkeley undergraduates receive Pell Grants.

The proportion of freshmen at elite campuses who are first generation — 11 percent at Dartmouth, 12 percent at Princeton, 14 percent at Yale, 15 percent at Amherst, 16 percent at Cornell, 17 percent at Brown — nearly matches that of their low-income Pell grant recipients.

There is also this quote from Ms. Pappano’s article regarding comments by William R. Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard.

Despite efforts, the percentage doesn’t budge much, and Mr. Fitzsimmons expects it will take a generation before hard-to-reach students consider Harvard in substantial numbers. “We have a long slog ahead of us.”

Had an Ivy League administrator said that it would take a generation to achieve gender or racial diversity because women or minorities stubbornly refuse to apply, you at the Times would have rightly challenged that assertion. You would have noted examples of other leading colleges that did not seem to have the same problem. You would also have raised legitimate questions about institutional bias and victim-blaming.

Mr. Fitzsimmons’s statements were treated as valid, however. Why is it considered acceptable to blame working-class students, rather than administrators, for elite colleges’ lack of social diversity?

Despite my objections to your approach, and the NYT’s, I am not being facetious when I say that I benefited from our correspondence. I had been seeking a concise way to sum up elite media-makers’ contempt for working-class people—especially those of us who write about issues that matter to us.

You managed to do that in just two sentences: “Good luck with any new venture. We see you’ve quit your job over this statistic, but we are comfortable with what we’ve written.”

I am grateful for that.


Chris Pepus