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Let Them Drink Coke: The Media’s Indifference to the West Virginia Chemical Spill | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Let Them Drink Coke: The Media’s Indifference to the West Virginia Chemical Spill

West Virginia chemical spill

Employees of the South Charleston Public Works Department assisted residents in obtaining cases of water after a chemical spill in the Elk River contaminated the public water supply in nine counties. (AP Photo/Michael Switzer)

The paywall is down on my Nation column, Remember “Benghazi"?

Now this: Some people, including as it happens, my editors, think my last blog was inaccurate when I noted that that Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss complained of “too many Jews” at The Nation, since the authors of these repellent articles were addressing themselves only to Israel/Palestine related issues and were complaining only about the "relative" representation of Jews vs. Palestinians, Muslims, Arabs and others. I don’t mind pointing out that this was the topic at hand but, unlike my editors, I do not find the qualification to be mitigating in the slightest.

I’ve wasted enough of my life responding to the mob of BDS fanatics who either do not understand, or care, for the basic tenets of evidence-based journalism and/or argument so I won’t bother pointing out the lies contained in their posts about me or The Nation. I trust that most readers will already be aware of their respective lack of standards in such matters. With respect to the accuracy of my post, however, I will merely point out the following:

1) I linked to both articles so that any reader could see the quotes for themselves in context.

2) Both sites write pretty much exclusively (and obsessively) about the Middle East so what else could they have been complaining about?

3) Most important: both articles complain about the number of JEWS writing in the Nation on these issues relative to other nationalities. They don’t complain about the number of pro-Zionist or pro-Israel writers (which is a good thing, because The Nation publishes more anti-Israel articles than any other print publication in America, no contest). Both articles specifically target JEWS. Think about it. Jews are as divided about Israel as any group of people on earth. Jews have every imaginable position on the Middle East, including, especially, fanatical hatred of Israel, as more than a few Jewish contributors to The Nation have consistently demonstrated. And yet JEWS are somehow the problem for both Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss.

To complain about too many Jews writing on the Middle East or any other issue is to essentialize a racial/ethnic characteristic and ignore the quality of argument and evidence. Should The Nation limit the number of African-Americans it publishes on civil rights? Should it limit the number of Latinos it publishes on immigration? Should it limit the number of women it publishes on feminism? Should it limit the number of whites, non-Hispanics and men respectively as well? And what, pray tell, is the difference? Either the arguments are compelling or not. Either the evidence support them or it does not. The race/ethnicity/gender of the person making an argument is, or ought to be, irrelevant. (And this is to say nothing of the fact that these are hardly static categories as, for instance, both our current president and Chelsea Manning can attest.) This is not politics we are talking about, where representation obviously matters, but the world of argument and ideas, which ought to rise or fall strictly on their moral and intellectual merit. 

And to that very point, just what, exactly, is a Jew and who gets to decide? The Reform movement (and Reconstructionist movement as well) accepts patrilineality, and so those with just a Jewish father may consider themselves Jewish. But Conservative and Orthodox Jews do not. How is The Nation to decide how many Jews are too many when Jews themselves cannot agree on who’s Jewish? Christopher Hitchens did not learn of his Jewishness until he was in his forties. Should The Nation have barred him from writing about Israel once he broke the news? (Or does the “Count the Jews” rule not count for anti-Zionists?) In my posts, I suggested the relevance of the Nuremberg Laws. If any of the ignorant (and dishonest) bigots at Electronic Intifada or Mondoweiss have a better idea, I’m all ears.

And if anyone still cares at this point, you can read the original post at the bottom of this one and judge for yourselves.*

PS: Salon is about to publish an article on this riveting topic or on a related one. I’m not sure why it rises to that level. I was disappointed when, recently, Salon allowed Max Blumenthal to lie about me, but pleased that they published a correction after he made it clear he could not substantiate his claims. I’m hoping there are no such problems with this one because believe me, I am profoundly sick of this subject.

I was out of the country on vacation this week so there are no Alter-reviews.

Now here’s Reed:

Let Them Drink Coke: The Mainstream Media's Casual Incuriosity of the West Virginia Chemical Spill
by Reed Richardson

Last winter, 3,000 vacationing Americans were deprived of drinking water and functioning bathrooms when an unexpected fire aboard a Carnival cruise ship in the Caribbean left it with almost no power. The deprivation and unsanitary conditions dragged on for almost a week and forcing a handful of people to be emergency airlifted off the ship for medical reasons. This was a legitimate news story, no doubt, but thanks to cable news’s sudden infatuation with it, it blew up into a full-blown media phenomenon—the “poop cruise.” As the ship limped back to port, no major newspaper or TV news network could resist the pull of covering it, none more so than CNN, which churned out an unbelievable 758 broadcast minutes—more than twelve full hours—to “poop cruise” coverage on the voyage’s final day.

Last Thursday, 100 times as many Americans lost access to clean, safe water for drinking, cooking, and bathing in West Virginia when a 7,500-gallon spill of a hazardous chemical using for coal processing contaminated the Elk River and the region’s water supply. Lacking water, the state capital effectively shut down, leaving Charleston’s streets ominously empty, like in some dystopian future. As the ordeal stretched into a new workweek, still no date had been given for when residents might be able to trust what comes out of their faucets again. This too is a news story, a big one, in fact. But with a few exceptions (among them, Al Jazeera America), it has been shrugged off by the major newspapers and mostly ignored by the broadcast and cable news TV networks. CNN, contra their “poop cruise” saturation coverage, has devoted around thirty minutes—a mere half-hour—to the water crisis over the past several days.

So, what’s behind this disproportionate journalistic response? Why the disconnect about focusing on what really matters? I’d submit that a lot of the mainstream media’s latent biases are lurking in this story, forming an almost perfect storm of national press apathy to West Virginia’s plight. And it’s instructive to unpack how they work.

To be fair, one has to look at the lack of coverage of the spill and subsequent water crisis in the context of the news events surrounding it. It’s pretty easy to identify the major stories grabbing the attention of the pundits and filling up most of the news hole the past few days—Chris Christie’s bridge-closure scandal and, yes, the Golden Globes. That these stories are rooted in Los Angeles and the New York metro area may seem like a coincidence, but it’s not. A vast majority of the national press lives in New York, LA, and Washington, DC. These journalists know what they see and hear, and this effect has been magnified of late, as almost every major news organization has uprooted most, if not all, of its local bureaus across the country. As a result, unquestionable confirmation and proximity biases, which have unmistakable class undertones, drive mainstream media editorial decision-making.

For instance, it’s no accident that Wall Street Journal reporters started poking around the Christie Bridgegate scandal not long after a few Journal editors got stuck in the Fort Lee traffic on their way into work. One wonders what kind of wall-to-wall coverage that same size chemical spill might have enjoyed if it had shut down the water in a tony neighborhood like Georgetown or the Upper East Side. Similarly, if you were looking to NBC News for an update Sunday night on the hundreds of thousands of poor and middle-class people suffering in West Virginia, you were out of luck. That’s because NBC chose to forego that evening’s national newscast to instead spend the 6:00 hour covering rich celebrities arriving at the Golden Globes. (In an ironic twist, a minor pipe leak occurred on the red carpet, which likely received more cumulative media attention than the spill in West Virginia.)

Now, one could argue the spill’s impact on West Virginia had been well mitigated by Sunday night. And that’s true. (Although that doesn’t mean the ongoing water embargo wasn’t newsworthy). By all accounts, the FEMA response has been swift and substantial, helping to avoid an even larger public health emergency and possible loss of life. But it also reveals the media’s reductive, reactive nature, which is marked by being more caught up in the immediate response to man-made or natural disasters than their systemic causes.

There was a similar obtuseness in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, where the coverage all too often focused simply on "rebuilding" rather than asking tougher questions about the long-term impact of climate change on coastal communities. And sometimes the press doesn’t even stick around long enough to miss the point. For example, last spring, the deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, pried big-time media folks like Anderson Cooper out of their studios for a day or two. But the Boston bombing story proved too good to give up, and before anyone had figured out what ignited the blast, the national press had lost interest and moved on.

Similarly, a competent government response to disaster can actually cause the press to overlook or badly misread the potential dangers averted. How else to explain these outrageously tone-deaf sentences, stuck in the middle of an otherwise well-reported Washington Post story on West Virginia from Sunday?

Even if this does not turn out to be a public health disaster, the water crisis has provided a reminder of why the Kanawha River Valley is sometimes called Chemical Valley. [emphasis mine]

 

Life here is a lot like camping.

Note: due to widespread concern over chemical ingestion and exposure, more than 1,000 West Virginia residents called Poison Control in the days after the spill, 169 people sought treatment at area hospitals, and ten were admitted for serious symptoms that included severe vomiting. That is a public health disaster. Full stop. That it wasn’t worse was merely due to luck, charity and a capable federal emergency response. What’s more, it is outright demeaning to cavalierly compare 300,000 people losing their drinking water from corporate—if not criminal—negligence to engaging in outdoor recreation. What is happening in West Virginia is not at all like camping, it’s more like a taste of the Third World, where the powerful behave recklessly and leave the poor to suffer the consequences.

Lest you think the company guilty of the spill—the oh-so-perfectly named Freedom Industries—isn’t used to getting its way, consider its aggrieved response to the initial criticism. The girlfriend of company executive Dennis Farrell, for example, took to Facebook last Friday to tell everyone to just chill: “I’m not asking for anyone’s sympathy,” Stover-Kennedy wrote, “but a little empathy wouldn’t hurt. And just so you know, the boys at the plant made and drank coffee this morning! I showered and brushed my teeth this morning and I am just fine!”

And while the public was desperately buying up every drop of potable water as well as any other beverages left on store shelves, company president Gary Southern took his cloistered privilege a step further. After a brief public apology on Friday evening, Southern tried to quickly wrap up his press conference by noting how hard the disaster has been on him. “It has been an extremely long day,” he whined. “I’m having a hard trouble talking at the moment. [sic]” It took a local TV reporter to shame him into answering more questions, but not before Southern refreshed himself, Marco Rubio-style, with a quick, on-camera swig of bottled water. The symbolism between the haves and the have-nots couldn’t have been more clear, even if the tapwater wasn’t.

In the past, this kind of shameless corporate posturing, along with the company's misleading statements about how the spill was discovered and its size, might have triggered warning signs within the mainstream media, pushing it deeper into the story. For far too long, however, the national press has outsourced its outrage cues to politicians. So, with Republicans notably silent and both the current and former Democratic governors of the state—one now a US Senator—more than ready to downplay the disaster, the media followed suit. One notable exception is MSNBC’s “All In,” which did a long segment on the spill. (At the 2:05 mark in his clip one can watch current West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin uncharitably trying to put a coal industry PR lackey out of a job.) Consequently, it fell to the local press to uncover the criminal background of one of Freedom’s founders as well as the complete lack of local emergency preparedness.

This spill could have served as a national wake-up call, prompting a conversation about how good jobs and protecting public health and natural resources need not be considered mutually exclusive. That’s a broad policy discussion, though, and that’s the final bias afflicting the West Virginia spill coverage. Policy reporting is boring. Or at least that’s the common knock against it. It’s not boring, though, but it is tough. It takes a much more dedicated and resourceful journalist to connect government action (or inaction) to its real-world impact in a way that a reader or viewer can understand. What's more, policy reporting often involves empirical judgments about what works and what doesn't; that's anathema to those brought up in the ways of orthodox objectivity.

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On Monday, The New York Times finally got around to putting last week’s chemical spill into some broader policy context with a long article about West Virginia’s lax environmental regulations and its poor workplace safety record. Sadly, this was the exception, not the rule, and even that effort felt a bit too narrow. For example, there's been no mention in any coverage of the Freedom spill of the state’s ongoing lawsuit with the EPA and the nationwide consequences if it successfully rolls back regulations of the Clean Water Act. Or the fact that, just as West Virginia was just beginning to grapple with the costs of the water crisis, the US House was simultaneously passing a bill that would make it easier for polluting companies to skip out on paying for hazardous waste cleanup. Of particular note: West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall, who represents about one-third of the counties without clean water, was one of five Democrats who crossed the aisle to vote for it.

As Rahall would no doubt point out in his defense, accidents happen. Of that there is no doubt. But it’s no longer an accident when the concerted actions of the powerful—whether in Congress or the Fourth Estate—enable the same mistakes to happen over and over again. Then it becomes negligence, an unforgiveable willingness to look the other way while we force the least among us to suffer and flush our most precious resources down the drain.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The Mail:
Frank Moraes
Santa Rosa, CA

As I think you know by now, I really enjoy your columns. And I'm very used to being unhappy with the state of our nation and so much more.

However, this week's column really made me angry. I think I understand why Bob Schieffer wants to talk about process rather than substance: it makes it automatically "objective." The fact is that there really isn't much substance behind the GOP position on not extended unemployment insurance. That puts him in a difficult position in his effort to appear objective. If he talks substance, there isn't really anything to counter. But he looks like a "real journalist" when he talks about vote counting.

I very much liked your take on the Rand Paul comment. But I was also bothered by the obvious "budget worry" hypocrisy. Unemployment insurance must be paid for, but it's fine to set up "economic freedom zones" where the government will get less in taxes. So what is it, Rand? Does the budget deficit matter or doesn't it? Or are you going to repeated the thoroughly refuted claim that tax cuts pay for themselves? Of course, the actual answer is that unpaid-for government spending* is fine, but only as long as it benefits the wealthy.

It disgusts me.

*Special tax deductions such as these "economic freedom zones" or the mortgage interest deduction are exactly that: government expenditures according to no less than Milton Friedman. I go into this in more depth in, Hidden Welfare for the Rich, where I discuss how our corporate tax rate is exactly the same as the government sending Mitt Romney a welfare check for a half million dollars each month. I think if we did it that way, there would be more pressure to change the system.

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