To say that the criminal justice system is a huge, dehumanizing conveyor belt of punishment and surveillance might be an understatement. As the role of cops and prosecutors in America has been under increasing scrutiny over the last few years since the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve been made privy to all sorts of interesting tidbits: the transfer of military surplus equipment to local police, the rise of “predictive policing” and Stingray technology that cops use to spy on us, to name a few.
However, another questionable police tool has developed in plain sight—and is being dutifully pushed forward by some in the press. Crime Stoppers USA is a national organization, founded by a cop, whose local affiliates provide rewards for tips that lead to arrests. If you live in an urban city, chances are you’ve seen ads for Crime Stoppers, or similar programs, at bus stops or in the street. You’ve also likely seen Crime Stoppers in the media, because that’s one of its main goals, as stated on the website:
Crime Stoppers is publicized on a regular basis by all media outlets including print, broadcast and web-based partners. Special attention is given to unsolved crime re-enactments, “Crimes of the Week,” cold cases, narcotics activity, wanted fugitives, and suspected terrorist and gang activity.
The practice of encouraging people to provide incriminating information for money, however, raises questions. The Justice Department’s inspector general released a report last year that called into question the Drug Enforcement Agency’s use of paid informants, because “poor oversight” led to “an unacceptably increased potential for waste, fraud and abuse.” Lawyers and advocates against the drug war told the Washington Post (9/30/16) that “paying informants creates incentives to lie or fabricate evidence.”
With those concerns being raised about a federal agency, which can be audited, what kind of protections or protocols do local, private nonprofits use when they dangle money in front of us in exchange for crime tips?
The New York City iteration of Crime Stoppers is likely the most developed of these types of programs in the country. And while it doesn’t seem to be connected to the national Crime Stoppers program, it’s run by a controversial organization for the same purposes of making informants out of us.
Established in the 1970s to raise private money for the NYPD, the New York City Police Foundation provides technology and other resources for police, but operates somewhat inconspicuously in the shadows. The Foundation’s financials, for example, aren’t very transparent, raising concerns about how money is spent and whether donors—which include CIA-linked Palantir (founded by controversial Gawker-slaying tech mogul Peter Thiel)—are given questionable access to the police department.
But the New York City Police Foundation doesn’t operate completely off the radar, either. With a propensity for throwing lavish gala fundraisers, its central purpose seems to be direct money from wealthy donors, like billionaire investor Carl Icahn and mega-developer Bill Rudin, to fund a public/private piggy bank for the NYPD.
The Foundation’s board of trustees is chaired by a real estate developer and reads like a who’s who of developers and financiers. At its 2014 fundraiser, Rudin, former police commissioner Bill Bratton and other attendees received keepsake bullets from the Foundation. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was also there and rejoiced over rising property values in Brooklyn that he suggested were the result of declining crime rates.
Clearly, New York’s elite have a vested interest in the police department, but what, some may ask, does their money get them?
Former CBS anchor Dan Rather, a foundation donor, has been rewarded for his generosity with ride-alongs and even the chance to join a “search for a robber at a housing project.” The “charity” has funded studies buttressing zero-tolerance policing of squeegee men (aka the Broken Windows theory of policing), and even perks and political consulting work for former NYPD leader Ray Kelly, who once considered a run for mayor. There have also long been questions of cronyism, as Foundation money has been used to pay consulting fees to friends of ex–NYPD chief Bratton.
The most well-known Police Foundation project, however, might be NYC Crime Stoppers, which offers rewards of up to $2,500 to anonymous tipsters. NY1 News, a popular 24-hour local news channel in the city, has for years extensively featured Crime Stoppers features in its everyday programming.
A search of NY1‘s coverage shows hundreds of segments this year, thousands over the past few years, that encourage viewers to send tips to the Police Foundation’s Crime Stoppers hotline. Segments air footage showing not only people who’ve been accused of violent crimes, but also those accused of things like stealing five bucks and tossing coffee on someone, robbing toothbrushes and vandalizing a Trump golf course. Most, if not all, of NY1‘s Crime Stoppers stories finish with these exact instructions:
Anyone with information on the case should contact the Crime Stoppers hotline at 1-800-577-TIPS, or text CRIMES and then enter TIP577, or visit www.nypdcrimestoppers.com.
This past summer, NY1 was honored by the Police Foundation and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill for featuring Crime Stoppers coverage. Local reporter Clodagh McGowan accepted the “Chief of Detectives” award from O’Neill on behalf of NY1 News and its parent company, Spectrum. Said McGowan:
I think it’s so important that we have this partnership with the NYPD where they can impart, share with us, some of the media, of the videos, the pictures that they collect, and we can turn it around, get the information and get it on the air.
This cozy arrangement between NY1, Crime Stoppers and the NYPD means that the lines between law enforcement and journalism are significantly, if not completely, blurred. What are the ethical questions and privacy concerns raised when identities of alleged criminals are put on thousands of television screens before anyone has even been charged? What are the details of NY1‘s apparent arrangement with the Police Foundation and the NYPD? Do NY1‘s producers have any research-based evidence that paid informants actually help solve crimes—without leading to wrongful convictions? What are the effects of inundating the viewing public with images of alleged crimes?
The most compelling question may be whether aiding police investigations by publishing Crime Stoppers information on a daily basis conflicts with NY1’s journalistic mission. (When FAIR attempted to ask these questions of NY1, PR manager Nikia Redhead’s response was, “We’ve chosen to decline the request to participate in this story.”)
Just as local prosecutor’s reliance on police makes it difficult to convict or even indict violent cops, local news channels that become appendages to a police department will find it difficult to report independently on brutality or corruption. Perhaps NY1 and its reporters are comfortable sacrificing their independence to catch criminals—even golf course vandals—but many others may not be. The very least that NY1 can do is be clear and transparent about its collaboration with the NYPD, and tell the public why it’s working with the controversial, billionaire-funded Police Foundation.
If you have any tips about NY1 or the Police Foundation, tweet Josmar Truillo at @Josmar_Trujillo.
For many years, corporate media have largely ignored a single-payer system as a possible solution to the United States healthcare crises (FAIR.org, 3/6/09). This silent treatment, however, is increasingly hard to justify now that the most popular politician in the country has forced the issue into the mainstream of the Democratic Party.
Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill now has 16 cosponsors, up from zero when he introduced a similar bill in 2013. Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, a record 119 of 194 Democrats are cosponsors of HR676, John Conyers’ single-payer legislation. The math is simple enough: 135 of 242 Democrats in Congress (and counting) are on the record as supporting the federal government assuming responsibility for the costs of healthcare.
Unable to continue ignoring the policy, corporate media have, with predictable uniformity, undermined it as utopian nonsense. The typical elite narrative since Sanders’ bill was announced last Wednesday has been to amplify the same kind of scare tactics that have been injected into the national discourse for decades (at a considerable expense) by the for-profit health industry, the American Medical Association (AMA) and right-wing think tanks.The False Equivalency of Sanders’ Bill and GOP Plans
Many of these smears—seen in both news and opinion sections of major newspapers—are old tropes at this point, and have been countered many times. The most common: it is unaffordable, politically impossible, a reckless electoral strategy and doesn’t work in other nations. Some even warn of the dreaded “government takeover,” recalling the days when Ronald Reagan declared national healthcare as some kind of Bolshevik conspiracy that would “invade every area of freedom” in America.
The media, however, are now peddling a new and particularly dubious angle: equating Sanders’ bill with GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act as similarly “extreme” alternatives. This is particularly disingenuous, given that a single-payer system, which would provide universal coverage, is supported by a slight majority of the public in recent polling (Quinnipiac, 7/27/17–8/1/17 ; Kaiser Family Foundation, 6/14–19/17), while every recent GOP proposal would throw millions of Americans off insurance (Congressional Budget Office, 5/24/17, 6/26/17, 7/27/17) and is wildly unpopular (Washington Post, 6/30/17).
Consider the New York Times’ “Medicare for All or State Control: Healthcare Plans Go to Extremes” (9/13/17), which compares Sanders’ Medicare for All with the regressive “Cassidy/Graham” policy. Reporter Robert Pear’s premise is that the Sanders proposal is the left-wing “extreme,” the mirror image of the the GOP’s equally radical proposal to repeal the ACA.
On the one hand, you have a bill that establishes healthcare for all, which is a norm in the industrialized world (OECD, 7/22/16). On the other hand is yet another regressive version of Trumpcare (Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 9/13/17), the Republican proposal to slash Medicaid and repeal requirements that protect patients with pre-existing conditions. Given these dramatic differences, this comparison seems to be doing readers a disservice.
If these plans represent the ideological extremes, as the Times suggests, what would be a rational, non-extreme proposal? The status quo, which leaves us with 28 million uninsured, and the most expensive, wasteful system on the planet? Some minor tweaks to it? Pear doesn’t say. This is a classic dilemma when you treat the world, as the Times often does, as if the Democratic Party represents the left, the GOP represents the right, and magical solutions exist in some undefined center.
Pear’s sourcing is also rather lopsided, with the following people quoted: Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.) and a representative of the major insurance lobby, American Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), who capped off the article with a warning that “government-run healthcare won’t work.” In other words, Sanders, three militant opponents of single-payer and a false equivalency.
Another piece about how “single-payer healthcare could trip up Democrats” (New York Times, 9/11/17) quotes former Obama administration appointee Andy Slavitt comparing single-payer to the GOP’s promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, saying it “could be the Democrats’ version of the thing that they promised to do for seven years and couldn’t do.” Again, the distinction is lost that one policy would provide healthcare to all while the other would take it from millions.
The Times’ Paul Krugman—who was frequently dismissive of Sanders during the 2016 presidential campaign (FAIR.org, 11/27/16)—also compared Sanders’ single-payer bill to the GOP’s health and tax proposals. In his column “Politicians, Promises and Getting Real” (9/15/17), he warned that Sanders’ bill could lead the Democrats to a “Trumpcare-type debacle.”
Krugman, who used to be supportive of single-payer (New York Times, 7/25/05, 3/23/06), has wavered recently in favor of private plans, falsely suggesting the ACA is a pathway to universal care. “It more or less achieves a goal—access to health insurance for all Americans—that progressives have been trying to reach for three generations,” he wrote (New York Times, 1/18/16). In Krugman’s worldview, a bill that leaves 28 million uninsured, does not cut costs and has no pathway to universal coverage (CBO, 3/20/10; Truthout, 6/9/16) is “more or less” the same thing as actual guaranteed care for all.
Krugman says he doesn’t “mean to suggest that these cases are comparable,” but this seems disingenuous, given that the article is structured around the very comparison he claims he is not making.
The tone of the Washington Post’s coverage was clearly evident to those who saw the giant headline “Healthcare for All, and Higher Taxes,” on the Kindle version of one of its articles (9/13/17). The emphasis on higher taxes is telling. It is true that single-payer would require higher taxes. But studies (and the experience of other nations) show new taxes would be offset by dramatic administrative and out-of-pocket savings that would decrease overall spending (BMC Health Services, 11/14). If only the press chose to be so judgmental about past endeavors: Would “A War in Iraq, and Countless Corpses” have made it past editors when the paper helped enable that tragedy years ago (FAIR.org, 3/19/07)?
Another Post article (9/14/17) about Sanders praising the Canadian health system also links Sanders’ Medicare for All bill to GOP policies. The article quotes the libertarian Cato Institute’s health analyst Michael Cannon arguing, “If Bernie wants the United States to move in the direction of Canada’s healthcare system, he should be advocating not ‘Medicare for all’ but ‘Medicaid block grants for all,” Cannon said:
Interestingly, it is actually Senate Republicans who are proposing to move in the direction of Canada’s healthcare system, while Bernie Sanders wants even more federal control.
It is hard to make sense of this comment, given how radically different the two proposals are in purpose and design. While it’s true the Canadian Health Transfer channels healthcare funds through the provinces, it does so with a principle of “universality” that guarantees that each Canadian citizen gets comparable coverage, no matter where they live or how much they earn, which is not the case with the GOP proposals for Medicaid block grants.
The false comparisons continue. An op-ed in the Post by Catherine Rampell, headlined “Sanderscare Is All Cheap Politics and Magic Math” (9/14/17), argued the bill proves that the “lesson the Democrats seem to have taken from the 2016 electoral trouncing is that they need to become more like Republicans,” and described “single-payer” as a catchphrase no different from “repeal and replace.” “Will Mexico pay for it?” she quips, comparing Sanders’ bill to Trump’s proposed border wall.Where Are the Medicare for All Advocates?
Also glaring is how few advocates of Medicare for All are quoted or published in major media outlets. The New York Times did publish an op-ed by Sanders (9/13/17) on the day his bill came out; but outside of that, finding an article that is not dismissive or hostile, let alone supportive of the plan, proves difficult. This is despite popular support for Medicare for All, according to numerous polls (e.g., Economist/YouGov, 4/2/17).
Consider the Boston Globe, which conservatives would have you believe is the ideological equivalent of the Socialist Worker. Its search engine shows three major articles about Sanders’ proposal. The headlines alone leave little doubt as to the tone of the coverage. “Single-Payer May Sound Appealing, but It’s Complicated,” reads one (9/13/17). The same day, the paper ran a column by former Clinton speechwriter Michael Cohen, headlined “Single-Payer Snake Oil” (9/13/17). The third (and so far final) major article it published was called “Not Everyone Agrees on Bernie Sanders’ Healthcare Plan. But Everyone Wants to Vote on It” (9/15/17), which emphasized the GOP’s eagerness to run against the bill.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with writing skeptically, or even critically, of single-payer. Every plan has winners and losers, and the public has a right to know about these scenarios: job churn for those in the insurance industry, the trade-off between tax increases and overall savings, and so on. But the coverage focuses almost entirely—sometimes hysterically—on the potential losers, and very little on who would win: the vast majority of Americans, who would pay less overall and never have to worry about losing their insurance due to job loss or lack of income.
And the lack of pro-single-payer voices is glaring. The Globe coverage reflects this bias; as of this writing, there are no positive op-eds or editorials in favor of the bill to counter the mostly negative news coverage or Cohen’s angry retort, which made the same comparison as others to GOP repeal efforts: “The great irony of the push for single-payer is that it ignores the lesson from the GOP’s recent failure to repeal Obamacare — don’t rock the boat.”
Cohen offered that “if the goal is to get America to universal coverage there are plenty of ways—other than single-payer—to achieve that goal.” But none of the proposals he mentions—a Medicaid buy-in/public option, stabilizing the individual market with government funds or extending CHIP—would do that.
The CBO scored a public option (11/13/13), for example, and found it to have “minimal effects” on access or the number of the uninsured. The Medicaid buy-in or public option is widely believed to lead to “adverse selection” (Urban Institute, 9/16), or a disproportionate amount of poor and sick people joining the public plan, making it less efficient.
When progressives pushed for the retention of a public option in the healthcare reform plan of 2009–10, they were told by President Obama that it was an unessential “sliver” of his proposal (New York Times, 8/17/09). When progressives lamented Obama’s decision to drop this policy (Extra!, 4/10), they were portrayed by the Times (12/17/09) as ideological militants who were “smacking the pragmatic president in the face.” Now Krugman and Cohen would have you believe it is the obvious, viable solution to our healthcare problems.
It seems that in the dominant media narrative, anything progressives want —regardless of specifics—is extreme and reckless. Anyone who offers this point of view, and pursues less bold changes, is “pragmatic.”
This is also a curious departure from how the dominant media covered much of the GOP health reform efforts. When the House version of Trumpcare was being debated, the media focused on right-wing critics of the bill who claimed the proposal was too generous (FAIR.org, 3/15/17). Left critics of the ACA who pushed for single-payer were virtually ignored by the press when that bill was being made.When All Else Fails, Resort to Mockery
The current debate over Sanders bill is not all that different from the debate over his proposals during his presidential campaign. At that time, the New York Times (2/15/16) quoted Ezra Klein and others who mocked Sanders’ plans as “wishful thinking,” “fairy tales,” “puppies and rainbows” and “magic flying puppies with winning Lotto tickets tied to their collars.”
It seems some things never change. Steve Chapman recently wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune (9/15/17) where he echoed this tired joke: “[Sanders’] proposal really should be called Medicare for All and a pony. It’s everything you could want and then some.”
Maybe some people find that funny. But given the extent of our healthcare problems, there is little to laugh about.
When Stephen Colbert introduced a surprise guest at the end of his Emmys opening monologue on Sunday night, the audience didn’t seem to expect to see former Trump administration press secretary Sean Spicer. The Late Night host shocked most of the crowd—Veep actress Anna Chlumsky was particularly amazed—with the selection of one of comedy’s favorite targets of the last year.
Colbert brought on Spicer, complete with the rolling press office podium that Melissa McCarthy made famous in her Saturday Night Live impression, to mock President Donald Trump. From the New York Times transcript:
SPICER: This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period. Both in person and around the world.
COLBERT: Wow, that really soothes my fragile ego. I can understand why you would want one of these guys around.
As the night went on, pictures emerged on social media of Spicer enjoying himself backstage and at parties. Spicer was photographed schmoozing with late night hosts Seth Meyers and James Corden (the latter was caught giving Spicer a kiss on the cheek), actor Alec Baldwin (who won an Emmy for his performance on Saturday Night Live mocking Spicer’s former boss) and other entertainment industry figures. By Monday night, Late Night With Stephen Colbert was using the gag in sponsored posts on Facebook. It was quite the turnaround for Spicer, whose reputation for lying in service of the president included downplaying the Holocaust and defending the administration’s Muslim ban.
Given Spicer’s recent history representing Trump, reaction to the joke decidedly mixed. On Monday morning, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni (9/18/17) frowned on the whole affair, writing that “Colbert abetted Spicer’s image overhaul and probably upped Spicer’s speaking fees by letting him demonstrate what a self-effacing sport he could be.”
An unnamed source close to the decision to include Spicer told entertainment outlet Vulture (9/18/17) that it was only a joke, though one not intended for everyone: “There was no expectation everyone would love this,” the source said.
Yet for all the outrage over the appearance, and for all the distaste over Spicer’s relatively quick public rehabilitation (Spicer left the White House less than three weeks ago, on August 31), the fact is that it’s par for the course in how the corporate media—both in news and entertainment—treat those in power when they leave Washington.
Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie pointed out as much on Twitter on Monday. “The expectation this time will be different is wrong,” Bouie said, debunking the idea that that Trump was too toxic to preclude his acolytes from being offered redemption. And MSNBC‘s Chris Hayes tweeted on Sunday night shortly after Spicer’s appearance that “power is all about who gets forgiven. Who gets fresh starts.”
Hayes should know. The network he works for has repeatedly given airtime to George W. Bush administration speechwriter and Iraq War booster David Frum, whose image has undergone its own rehabilitation since the advent of the Obama administration. And it’s not only Frum who’s benefited from MSNBC‘s selective memory of the early 2000s. Bush White House communications director Nicolle Wallace hosts a show, Deadline: White House, on the network every weekday; officials like Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card and election strategist Steve Schmidt frequently appear on any one of the shows that fill out the week’s lineup.
Of course, MSNBC isn’t alone in scrubbing clean the images of those whose political careers have resulted in war, austerity and mass surveillance. In March, FAIR (3/7/17) reported on how George W. Bush was being feted by newspapers and morning television— and how the nostalgia around Bush’s time in office was part of a longstanding media tradition of normalization for political figures.
During Bush’s book tour, he was welcomed with delight by Ellen Degeneres, a woman whose marriage would have been impossible under Bush’s administration. As the host of the satirical Colbert Report, Colbert in 2013 included war criminal Henry Kissinger—conservatively estimated to be responsible for at least 3 million deaths—in a quirky dance video. Kissinger appeared on the Report for a softball interview the following year. Trump himself appeared on SNL in late 2015, well after his racist and misogynistic comments had become part and parcel of his campaign.
But even though this practice is a time-honored tradition, the 17 days between Spicer leaving the White House and his arrival onstage at one of Hollywood’s biggest events is notable for how swiftly the worm has turned for the former press secretary. If this is what Spicer’s post–White House career looks like, expect Trump to be back on the Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon less than 48 hours after he resigns from office.
“It’s a big club,” the late comedian George Carlin once said of the elite in America, “and you ain’t in it!” It’s hard to imagine looking at Spicer’s appearance at the Emmys, and the intersection between the entertainment industry and the politicians they claim to #resist, and not understand that the world the corporate media inhabit is a world where the regular social and moral rules don’t apply. Once you’re in, you’re in.
Janine Jackson interviewed Shaye Wolf about Hurricane Harvey’s toxic aftermath for the September 8, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: The story of devastating weather events like hurricanes is many stories, really. There’s no need to compete; they’re all critical. But there is something about the oil industry spurring climate disruption, lobbying against preventative or preparatory measures, and then adding to its harmful impact with their methods of operation. As Texas continues to reel under the effects of Harvey, it’s been noted that besides massive flooding, some communities were also faced with dangerous chemicals released into the air by refineries and petrochemical plants.
How did that happen, and what can prevent it from happening again? Our next guest has been investigating that. Shaye Wolf is climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity. She joins us now by phone from Oakland. Welcome to CounterSpin, Shaye Wolf.
Shaye Wolf: Thank you for having me.
JJ: Most of us are not scientists, of course, but we do understand that not every multisyllable word is dangerous. So it isn’t just that “chemicals” were released in South Texas; it really matters what those chemicals were. Fill us in on what your analysis found. What were the emissions, and what caused them to be released?
SW: The South Texas coast where Harvey hit, just to kind of set the context, is just littered with hundreds of fossil fuel and industrial facilities that store large amounts of dangerous chemicals. We looked at the amounts of air pollutants that refineries and petrochemical plants in South Texas reported releasing, either during Harvey or after Harvey, into surrounding communities, and it was a staggering amount. Our analysis, which was as of August 31, and the number has only grown—we totaled more than 5-and-a-half million pounds of air pollutants.
And of that, we looked at seven particularly dangerous chemicals that were released to the air, all of which are documented to have serious health impacts, and some that cause cancer. And we totaled almost a million pounds of those seven particularly dangerous chemicals. So those are things like benzene and butadiene, which are carcinogens, cancer-causing chemicals. And we also included sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. Those are chemicals that really cause a lot of respiratory irritation. So you’ve heard reports of people complaining about difficulty breathing, or burning eyes, burning lungs, in the Houston area. And that’s very concerning, because these are communities living in some of the worst air conditions in the country, because of all of these facilities, and then during storms, they get hit with an extra load of toxins. And that’s just not fair; these communities shouldn’t be having to live with this toxic burden.
JJ: What happened at the refineries and plants that caused these chemicals to be released?
SW: Yeah, that’s a really good question. There are several sources. Some of the chemicals were released because of leaks due to storm damage. So there were six facilities that reported that the roofs on their tanks that are holding chemicals failed during the storm, and released toxins onto the roof, and a lot of those escaped into the air. So things like benzene, that carcinogen.
Many of the chemicals came from routine industry practice during storms. When they do quick shutdowns, either before or in some cases during the actual storm—which is dangerous for workers, having to go out and do the shutdown during Harvey—the industry uses flaring and these pressure release valves that release a lot of the toxins to the air. And the problem is that’s allowed. There are pollution-control technologies that should and could be implemented on these facilities to reduce the toxic burden during the shutdown, and then the startup of the plants during storms.
JJ: Let me just ask you: The media coverage that we’ve seen on this issue seems to be overwhelmingly focused on one company, on Arkema, where emergency workers had to move things around, and were made ill. But even when those stories were good, and some were, they kind of suggested that this company was an outlier, or maybe even unique. But you seem to be saying that these sorts of problems are really not confined to Arkema.
SW: Oh, absolutely not. I mean, Arkema was very dramatic because of the explosions that were very dangerous. But in our analysis, those 5.5 million pounds of air pollutants — and growing; there are many more now as companies continue to report — that came from 40 facilities, so 40 refineries or petrochemical plants. And there are many more now that are reporting, so it’s a widespread problem.
JJ: I have read industry officials describe the situation during Harvey as “unprecedented,” and Arkema officials said, “We’ve never experienced anything that would have given us any indication that we could have that much water.” You note, though, that they certainly had ample warning of hurricane risk, so what’s the disconnect there? Are they asking us to accept “unprecedented” as meaning the same thing as “unpredictable”? What’s going on?
SW: I think that statement is a real problem, because we know that the Gulf Coast is very vulnerable to hurricanes and major storms that can cause damage to these petrochemical plants and refineries. And we also know that climate change, climate disruption, is intensifying the power of these storms. So the fossil fuel industry is inherently unsafe to public health and to our climate, and then climate change is just making these facilities even more dangerous, because the damage from storms can be more intense. This is a problem that’s not going to go away; it’s just getting worse as climate disruption increases.
JJ: There seems to be a problem with, also, the status of just access, public access, to information. Matt Dempsey from the Houston Chronicle has spoken about the difficulty he had getting a chemical inventory out of Arkema. And apparently these companies can use the threat of terrorism, of terrorists learning what these chemicals are, as a way to defeat or get around the public’s right to know. How are you able to get what information you can get?
SW: I think you’ve identified a really critical problem, and that is, in its short time in office, the Trump administration has really increased community vulnerability to the pollution from fossil fuel industries during storms like Harvey, and it’s done that in a number of ways. And one way is that there have been several rollbacks of really important public safety protections, right-to-know protections.
And one big mistake that the Trump administration made was to delay the implementation of a chemical safety rule that required companies to make information about the dangerous chemicals at their plants more easily accessible to the public, and also that increased the enforcement of company safety plans in worst-case scenarios like we saw at Arkema. And even though that rule wouldn’t have in itself prevented that explosion in Crosby from happening, it would have given the public and first responders better information about what was going into the air, and what the risks were.
So it is very disturbing and troubling that the Trump administration has delayed the implementation of this right-to-know, really important public safety rule. Our information, from some reporting that chemical companies are doing—the rules have been suspended and relaxed on reporting during and after Harvey, which is a problem, but some companies are reporting. So once again, our numbers are probably a vast underestimate of what’s actually going into the air.
And another thing that was very worrisome is what’s going into the water. We have seen initial reports of companies reporting wastewater outflows and overflows, sometimes onto the ground. One company reported wastewater flowing into San Jacinto River. So these are wastewater from refineries and petrochemical companies. They’re most of the time not reporting how much and what’s in the water, but some companies have reported 100,000 gallons, 350,000 gallons of wastewater flowing out of their facilities. And that’s tremendously disturbing, because as we know, a lot of communities are dealing with homes that have been soaked in flood water, and there could be a problem with dangerous chemicals getting into the flood waters that have soaked their homes and their communities.
JJ: I just saw a story in which an official was saying, yeah, don’t let your children play in the flood water. You know, don’t let them touch it. And if they touch it, then wash them off. It just seems not tenable, really.
SW: It’s very frightening to know that your neighborhood has been soaked in water, and in many places the flood water still surrounding your home, that could be dangerous, not only from the petrochemical facilities and refineries, but also from all of the Superfund sites that have toxic chemicals, that have been flooded. And there’s been a lot of reporting on 13 flooded Superfund sites in the Houston area, Corpus Christi area, that may have damage, where chemicals can be leaking out. And that’s really scary for the communities around those sites. I saw some reporting this morning of globs of mercury washing up in Houston, and they’re not sure where those globs of mercury are coming from, so—
JJ: Wow, wow. You get the sense from media that there is a problem, but that the problem is that these companies didn’t submit to the regulatory system as it currently exists, where the implication is that would have prevented this. A New York Times story talked about how this is going to “bring fresh scrutiny on whether these plants are adequately regulated.” Is it your sense that we have all the necessary rules in place, and they just need to be followed, or they just need to be enforced?
SW: No, I think there’s a multifold problem. And one is that the fossil fuel industry is exempt from the provisions of many of our foundational environmental laws. So just to give you an example, there’s an Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act that required industrial facilities to report big releases of toxins, so that the community can know, and the oil and gas industry is largely exempt from that requirement. So that has to change. The oil and gas industry should not have exemptions from protections provided by environmental laws.
So in some cases, many cases, the rules and regulations aren’t sufficient, need to be stronger, and in other cases, there is not proper enforcement. So we already know that under the Trump administration, there have been tremendous cuts of staffing and funding for environmental protection agencies like the EPA or OSHA. And so we have agencies with the mission of helping protect Americans from toxic pollutants, and their staff and budgets are being cut, and the enforcement then isn’t there.
So we know, for example, during Harvey that a lot of the air quality-monitoring devices were turned off. So during the most intensive part of when pollutants are being put into the air, we don’t have a lot of independent verification of what went into the air, beyond what the chemical companies are self-reporting. And then we need a lot of comprehensive monitoring on the ground of what went into the air, the water, the soil, so we can comprehensively clean up communities. And then we need more prevention in the future, so these things don’t happen again. And it’s worrisome, that is not happening on the level, at the scale that it should be.
JJ: Finally, we still have those talking about the “climate change agenda.” But in large part, media have moved; they acknowledge that human-driven climate disruption is real, and they’re reporting the impacts—in the United States, anyway. But this never-ending call for “fresh scrutiny” makes me nuts. At some point, I guess we have to ask whether a journalist’s job is satisfied by simply narrating destruction, or are they charged with really naming the causes and naming the ways toward solutions?
SW: Yes, and I think that’s really important: setting a different vision, laying out what this really looks like in practice on the ground. And then it has to be, we need to make change on a more rapid scale. We know from all of the hundreds of thousands of scientific studies, and what we’re seeing just with our own eyes, that in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to phase out fossil fuels very quickly. And we need to phase in clean energy, from rooftop solar and wind, that creates clean, good jobs, and it protects our climate and protects people and the environment.
And having more recognition of what that looks like in practice, and the absolute need for that—it could not be a more critical point to be talking about, over and over again, because this is our future. This is our present, our present and our future. What’s happening now with the storms, and other climate change-related damage, is unacceptable, it’s just getting worse, and there couldn’t be a more critical issue to be talking about with our friends, with our neighbors, in the media, with our colleagues, all the time.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity. They’re on line at BiologicalDiversity.org. Shaye Wolf, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
SW: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Vox.com, which brands itself as both a news source and an “explainer” of news, constructs many of its headlines around the word “why.” These include opinion essays (e.g., “Why Now Is Such a Strange Era in American Political History,” 9/6/17) or interviews (“A Veteran GOP Strategist Explains Why Conservative Elites Put Up With Trump’s Lies and Corruption,” 3/22/17). The headline style assures the reader that they can turn to Vox to understand the reasons behind current affairs.
Vox’s lead story on Wednesday (9/13/17) used the same structure, with a curious (and clunky) twist: “Bernie Sanders Explains Why He Thinks Everything Short of Medicare-for-All Is Failure.” The unnecessary addition of “he thinks” to the formula sacrifices elegance for an extra layer of skepticism.
The same format shows up in cases where Vox is overtly trying to discourage the reader from accepting their subject’s claims, as in the headline, “Understanding the Fear of Vaccines: An Activist Explains Why He Buys a Debunked Idea” (2/4/15).
Sanders’ claim, while no conspiracy theory, is certainly controversial. Yet controversial and often partisan claims are “explained” in Vox’s headlines without similar distancing:
- “A House Republican Explains Why Ryan Should Throw Away His Bill and Try Again” (3/21/17)
- “An Ex-CIA Officer Explains Why Intelligence Officials ‘Absolutely Can’t Trust’ Trump” (5/16/17)
- “This Cartoon Explains Why the Revised GOP Healthcare Bill Is an Attack on Sick People” (7/14/17)
- “Bernie Sanders Explains Why Trump Is So Dangerous” (6/22/17)
In fact, Vox has published dozens of headlines in the past two years using this exact format, and has almost never sought the extra degree of editorial separation provided by “explains why he/she thinks.” A search of their website yields only two other headlines that are similar to Wednesday’s, one of which is “Shaun King Explains Why He Thinks the Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved” (5/26/16), a critique of the Democratic Party leadership for its conservatism and ties to big business.
Media Companies in Tough Spot on Single-Payer
Vox’s headline-meddling provides an insight into corporate media’s approach to hot-button issues like single-payer health insurance. The support in the Senate for Sanders’ “Medicare-for-All” legislation is forcing news outlets to revise their approach to single-payer, which NPR casually dismissed as a “political nonstarter” in February (2/28/17, via Kaiser Health News). The Medicare-for-All proposal (AKA “single-payer”), which would provide all US citizens with no-premium, no-deductible health insurance, faces numerous political challenges, including Republican rhetoric about socialism and government interference; centrist Democrat rhetoric about impracticality and untimeliness; and corporate lobbying from the massive, extremely profitable private healthcare industry.
Appearing to promote single-payer, then, would put any media company at odds with powerful entities that they rely on for journalistic access or other support. Adam Johnson, writing for FAIR.org (1/30/16) last year, pointed out that Vox’s owner Comcast has deep financial ties to the healthcare industry, as well as a close, mutualistic relationship with the Democratic Party.
NPR reports about healthcare in partnership with Kaiser Health News (KHN)—the news service of the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). Both KFF and KHN claim independence—from each other, and from their financial supporters, which include health insurance companies and their foundations. As Johnson wrote:
Kaiser Family Foundation is itself invested in a number of healthcare-focused portfolios, including Berkshire Hathaway, which has a stake in healthcare tech companies like Sanofi and DaVita.
NPR’s corporate sponsors for 2016 included Aetna, UnitedHealth Group, PhRMA (the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) and a slew of other healthcare industry entities.
Avoiding the Issue
Where do all these hidden influences surface in media coverage? The same dutiful skepticism that inspired Vox to alter its standard headline format shapes these outlets’ coverage—what they choose to question and what they take for granted.
While they can no longer call it a “nonstarter,” journalists and editors can still downplay the uncomfortable side of the debate—the healthcare corporations and wealthy individuals that care about their bottom line, rather than the human need for healthcare, and the political influence those sectors wield.
News outlets can minimize the powerful economic interests at play by presenting us with an alternate reality in which honest politicians reject single-payer merely because they worry it’s not politically or economically practical. NPR’s Scott Detrow (8/11/17) thus validates Nancy Pelosi’s rejection of single-payer:
The resistance is tactical, not ideological. It took decades to pass something like Obamacare. And the fear is that despite what polls might suggest, something as aggressive as single-payer just isn’t politically feasible right now.
NPR.org’s most recent write-up (9/14/17) devotes a section to “the politics” of single-payer, addressing why it is still considered fringe in Congress, despite being favored by the majority of Americans in polls (KFF, 7/5/17). NPR explains that “polling is tricky.” For a different angle, a recent study by Maplight (9/14/17) concluded that “Democratic senators who haven’t signed on to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ ‘Medicare for All” proposal have received twice as much cash from the insurance industry as the bill’s sponsors.” The Maplight study was unmentioned by NPR.
The vast majority of Americans think that politicians are influenced by corporate cash in how they vote (New York Times, 6/2/15), and that the government and big businesses “often work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors” (Rasmussen, 7/6/16). In other words, people are ready to hear a more realistic narrative—one that acknowledges the class conflict at play beyond traditional partisan bickering.
Avoiding this class conflict narrative means having to find other ways to explain why single-payer is so hard to achieve. News outlets can oversell other aspects of the narrative—the “trickiness” of polling, or the political risk posed by the necessary increase in government spending.
NPR.org’s rundown on the bill (9/14/17) raised the specter of the Urban Institute’s 2016 claim that Sanders’ plan would increase federal spending by $32 trillion over a decade. NPR totals up Sanders’ revenue plan for comparison, but like the Urban Institute study itself (Huffington Post, 5/9/16), NPR ignores the plan’s prediction of savings in administrative costs and drug costs (despite its inclusion on the front page), and thus misrepresents what Sanders’ financial proposal says.
Most significantly, the article makes no attempt to compare the study’s purported $32 trillion price tag with the amounts that Americans—individuals and government—are projected to spend over the next ten years: $49 trillion (Washington Post, 7/6/17). More than half of this spending is private, much of which would be eliminated in a single-payer system.
In awkward headlines and gaping plot holes, we find evidence of the discomfort that comes with challenging the political establishment, the healthcare industry and the richest Americans all at once. An honest narrative would outline the difficulty in implementing single-payer healthcare in terms of political power and class conflict. Nobody can realistically argue that the US could not raise the funds to insure its entire population, but Vox and NPR may not be the most prepared to explain to us who stands in the way—and why.
A recent survey by progressive watchdog Public Citizen (9/12/17) on the media’s coverage of hurricanes Harvey and Irma confirms what’s long been known: Corporate media are indifferent to the causal relationship between climate change and extreme weather, and by far the worst offenders are the Rupert Murdoch–owned Fox News, Wall Street Journal and New York Post.
The survey covered 18 outlets hurricane coverage for the week of August 25–September 1: ten major newspapers, three weekly news magazines, and ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News. Out of 2,000 media items, there were only 136 mentions of climate change, many denialist in content.
Outlets owned by Murdoch’s umbrella corporations, News Corp and 21st Century Fox, clearly led the denialist camp. These firms constitute the core propaganda machine of the right in the English-speaking world, with the highest-rated cable news network (Fox News) and the first and sixth biggest-circulation newspapers (Wall Street Journal, New York Post) in the United States. As Public Citizen’s media survey reveals, they go beyond indifference to advocate outright denialism.
The Journal had three op-eds and Fox News had two segments that denied—and laughingly mocked—any connection between hurricane intensity and climate change, the survey found:
- Holman W. Jenkins, Jr: “First Houston’s Resilience, Then Washington’s Boondoggle” (Wall Street Journal, 8/29/31)
- Roger Pielke Jr: “The Hurricane Lull Couldn’t Last” (Wall Street Journal, 8/31/17)
- Editorial Board: “Texas, Thou Hast Sinned” (Wall Street Journal, 8/31/17)
- Tucker Carlson Tonight (Fox News, 8/31/17)
- The Five (Fox News, 8/25/17)
Other media did better, but some not much more so. ABC News and NBC News didn’t mention climate change at all in the context of Hurricane Harvey or Irma. Other outlets, such as USA Today (8/30/17, 8/30/17), used a “both sides” framing to provide a platform for denialists, but the paper’s editorial ultimately concluded climate change “juiced Hurricane Harvey.”
Public Citizen’s survey found that climate coverage in the context of Harvey and Irma was concentrated in four outlets—the Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, New York Times and CNN, which together produced 72 percent of the pieces that mentioned climate change. CNN led the way with 30 mentions of climate change, only two of which were denialist in nature: interviews with Rep. Pete Olson (R.–Texas) and Bill Read, the former director of the National Hurricane Center. The Post had 23, the Chronicle had 22 and the Times had 18. The remaining 28 percent were peppered across 10 sources.
The survey highlighted what it considered the “seven aspects” of climate change coverage:
- Clearly connected climate change to Hurricane Harvey (or to events like it)
- Framed questions regarding the role of climate change as whether it contributes to or intensifies the damage from events like Harvey rather than whether it “causes” them
- Discussed relevant clearly connected climate change to Hurricane Harvey (or to events like it);
- Noted ways to adapt to climate change (for example with better disaster preparedness or zoning or building policies)
- Noted ways to mitigate climate change (for example by reducing greenhouse gas pollution and switching to renewable sources of energy)
- Noted specific relevant policies or actions that have been or could be taken at the local or state level; and
- Noted specific relevant policies or actions that have been or could be taken at the federal level.
Only five outlets hit all aspects. Murdoch brands New York Post and Wall Street Journal went 0 for 7 and 1 for 7, respectively, and Fox News went 4 for 7—mentioning these aspects, but doing so in a derisive or dismissive manner.
As consensus emerges not just around the science of climate change, but also its amplifying effects on extreme weather events, Murdoch’s media empire—and the Republican Party that its talking points inform—will remain the last holdout. Even the nominally respectable Wall Street Journal, bought by Murdoch ten years ago, publishes snarky and glib editorials on the topic (8/31/17):
Who says progressives don’t believe in religion? They may not believe in Jehovah or Jesus, but they certainly believe in Old Testament-style wrath against sinners. Real Noah and the Ark stuff. Witness the emerging theme on the media left that Texas, and especially Houston, are at fault for the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.
LOL funny stuff, right? A city underwater and extreme weather amplified by catastrophic climate change is all one big joke. A recent Guardian (9/10/17) report documented how corrupting Murdoch’s hand has been with the establishment paper, with dozens of writers quitting after being pressured to “normalize” Trump. Nevertheless, the Journal continues to ignore basic science to remain lockstep with their party and president, becoming more tabloid in tone and more craven in purpose.