The story of the Detroit water crisis is getting a familiar treatment in the media. Once again a major story of mass activism at home is getting relatively short shrift while international stories get saturation coverage. In the same way that protests abroad dominated American headlines while those in Madison were largely ignored, efforts to stop the water shutoffs are barely recognized in favor of news from Ukraine and Gaza.
Those stories are important as well, but it seems that big media outlets have an almost institutional reluctance to report on major events if they don’t affect the right people. While cultural flash points like abortion and marriage equality get at least some coverage, economic ones struggle to make it on the radar - barring a dramatic moment like Anthony Bologna’s pepper spraying of kettled protesters. (For as big a story as Occupy Wall Street became, it was largely ignored by mainstream outlets until that footage went viral.)
Part of the reason is probably that even large news organizations are not equipped to cover certain stories. Newspapers have business sections, but not labor or worker sections, so a story like the union uprising in Madison didn’t have a natural home. Sometimes a story might be too depressing, and the water shutoffs in Detroit sure as hell clear that bar. Why bring your readers down by telling them about low income people being forced into unlivable conditions, right?
But I think outlets are tempted to ignore these stories for perhaps an even more powerful reason: they make too fundamental a critique of our contemporary capitalist narrative. For the last several decades we have been told that capital is mobile; unions are archaic; free trade and globalization are inevitable; government is sclerotic, bureaucratic and ineffective; and privatization is efficient.
The Detroit water crisis cuts against much of that. As Rose Hackman points out in a terrific piece, the shutoffs are being done as part of an effort to privatize the municipal water supply. It is being rammed through by an autocrat who has replaced the city’s democratically elected leaders. It is being overseen (and outsourced, naturally) by a department stocked with business executives - the kind of people we are routinely assured have the management experience to whip things into shape. These are all supposed to be best practices, yet they add up to the unconscionable infliction of misery on a mass scale. How can this be reported without calling into question the very way we are told the world works these days?
Detroit papers have by turns reported it using tortured attempts at balance (“Critics have portrayed water service as an essential human right”) (via), while Hackman writes of The Detroit News jeering at “water scofflaws.” (She also notes the stigmatizing: painting blue lines in front of houses that have had water turned off. This, along with Poor Doors, are the latest examples of the hardy perennial favorite You Should Be Ashamed For Not Having Enough Money.) Meanwhile, throwing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars at sports team owners is business as usual, impossibly crowded classrooms are an experiment, and curious anomalies escape notice.
Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. The international community has taken notice, and at least some highly placed citizens are aware of that. Visibility and shame from outside might compensate for the lack of reporting here. The community has been actively resisting the shutoffs and getting the word out, with or without mass media coverage. Here might be the most interesting twist: The war in Gaza is one of the stories crowding out coverage of Detroit, and many have begun to realize how social media is allowing the kind of on-the-ground eyewitness reporting that was previously almost impossible.
That kind of coverage has, for the first time, outflanked Israel’s ability to shape narratives to its liking. Yet the same thing is happening in Detroit as citizens protest, risk arrest in blockades and otherwise try to put themselves in the way of this great injustice. Their efforts from the scene can now be viewed by the whole world, and have the same potential to route around traditional gatekeepers’ attempts to frame the story. It would be quite a shock if, while those gatekeepers marvel from thousands of miles away as one seemingly unshakable pillar falls, their own begins to crack at the foundation.
You can donate to the Detroit Water Brigade here.
The recent semi-retirement of DougJ bummed me out. In addition to writing the funniest line ever posted on the Internet (“Apparently, Qatari humor is a little too edgy for American audiences”), he regularly made astute observations about politics. In May, for instance:
Most politics is about turf wars. For example no one cares about the budget deficit per se, it’s just a concept that Galtians and neo-Confederates latch onto to promote policies keep the blahs and poors in their place. And establishment media latches onto it to keep the hippies in their place.
Anyway, this is why I generally recommend ignoring the so-called substance of human beings’ arguments and focusing instead on the psychology that motivates their positions.
Now, the pitfall to that is understanding what really motivates someone - presuming to know another’s thoughts is dicey. Doing so frequently, and with no more support than “knowing” it’s true, makes one susceptible to conspiratorial thinking, wild accusations of bad faith, and tribalism.
On the other hand, some kinds of behaviors and patterns are pretty hard to miss. Take Doug’s example with the deficit. When Republicans are president, conservatives might carp about the deficit but don’t do anything about it. Ronald Reagan joked the deficit was big enough to take care of itself and everyone had a hearty laugh. Dick Cheney famously sneered “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter,” and who on the right challenged him? Yet when a Democrat is president the GOP shuts down the government over it. That’s pretty much a case study in ignoring the substance and focusing on the psychology.
There are lots of other instances. Glenn Greenwald’s concern over David Sirota’s ouster at Pando Daily looks a little different in light of the unsparing criticism Pando’s Mark Ames has had for Greenwald’s boss Pierre Omidyar. Seems like there was at least a little turf war mixed in with any sincere interest on that one. Situations like these are not conflicts of interest, but they should function in a similar way: readers who know about them should take them into account when evaluating a piece. Or in DougJ’s formulation, consider the motivation before the content.
Jonathan Chait supplied a splendid example this week. It began when Diane Ravitch made a mildly sexist comment about Campbell Brown:
“I have trouble with this issue because it’s so totally illogical,” says Diane Ravitch, an education historian. “It’s hard to understand why anyone thinks taking away teachers’ due-process rights will lead to great teachers in every classroom.”
As for Brown, Ravitch is dismissive: “She is a good media figure because of her looks, but she doesn’t seem to know or understand anything about teaching and why tenure matters…I know it sounds sexist to say that she is pretty, but that makes her telegenic, even if what she has to say is total nonsense.”
That last line is kind of dumb and Ravitch even acknowledged its sexism as she said it, so ding her for that. Chait had a much more dramatic reading though: “Genuinely curious to see if left ideological solidarity protects @DianeRavitch from backlash for this blatant sexism.” Chait has a nice perch at New York magazine for sounding off on whatever strikes his fancy, yet sexism - blatant or otherwise - has largely managed to escape his notice (though to be fair, he has certified the bangability of withered hags like Cameron Diaz).
He’s written about Ravitch before, though, and about the charter school movement she opposes. He makes no secret of his visceral revulsion towards teacher unions. Both he and his wife have sung the praises of KIPP charter schools, and she works at a charter school where multiple board members have KIPP ties. It would have been nice for Chait to let his readers know about that. It certainly would explain how he somehow misses the disreputable whiff of Campbell Brown’s new pro-charter operation, and also how he misses the legitimate concerns Ravitch has expressed about KIPP.
In fact, that is a characteristic of his analysis when he digs in on a wrongheaded position. I first noticed it when Ta-Nehisi Coates was methodically dismantling him back in April: he zooms out to a high level view - and we’re talking International Space Station altitude - which prevents him from cluttering up his beautiful mind with troublesome details.
One would think, for example, that given his interest in Ohio he might know about the charter school scandals here. Shouldn’t these developments cause him to revisit his bland, unsupported assertion that “charter schools are more aggressive about creating accountability standards to promote good teachers and coach up or replace bad ones”? I am, to borrow a phrase, genuinely curious to see if new information is capable of changing his opinion.
Of course, I’m not actually curious about that - no more so than Chait was about the response to Ravitch’s comments. His family has a direct financial interest in charter schools; as long as that’s the case it’s hard to imagine him being anything less than an enthusiastic cheerleader. He’s got his cause to sell.
What this week showed, though, is that he’s willing to grab any handy issue to try and discredit an opponent. He may have thought he was scoring some clever points, but to anyone who’s followed his work he was doing something else: Identifying as someone to be evaluated by DougJ’s guideline. Ignore the substance of his arguments, and look at the motivation.
Several weeks ago Rick Perlstein wrote a piece about the standoff between Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). He called it “a watershed in American history” because those at the ranch were able to use firearms and the threat of violence to get the BLM to back down. Perlstein notes “anti-constitutional insurgency as Constitution-worship on the right” has a long history, and cites the Minutemen as an example. Yet he neglects to mention more recent history that provides important context.
The federal government had similar confrontations with armed insurgents at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco in 1993, and both cases ended with people dead - spectacularly so in the latter. Those events have taken on iconic significance for the far right. A quick trip to your favorite search engine will turn up an abundance of pages devoted to memorializing the events, and citing them as examples of a tyrannical government waging war against its citizens.
How would Perlstein have the BLM approach this case? There is every reason to believe another armed showdown would once again lead to loss of life, and another item being added to the far right’s list of grievances against the government. I understand his consternation at the BLM backing down last month, but history has shown that escalating tensions at such a volatile moment can have disastrous short term consequences and pernicious long term ones.
For as much as I think Bundy is a freeloader, a liar and a mooch, I was glad to see the BLM pull back. Situations like this one, Ruby Ridge and Waco are typically years in the making - and the worst thing the government can do is to force a dramatic conclusion. The BLM acted prudently by not creating one. I thought it showed the government had learned from recent history and was being careful not to repeat it.
That doesn’t mean the government should just go away, of course. It should just use the better means at its disposal to bring Bundy to justice. It can play the situation out longer than Bundy, and it should. The gun toting yahoos who showed up at Bundy’s ranch aren’t going to stick around if it looks like they won’t have a chance to play Freedom Fighter. They’ll drift away when it becomes clear the resolution is going to be considerably less exciting.
Officials seem to be thinking that way. On Sunday federal and state employees were quoted saying that Bundy crossed a line and the matter should continue to be pursued through the legal system. They haven’t given up or gone away, and they haven’t conceded anything to Bundy. They just decided - sensibly, I think - to dissipate the tension that led to the crisis and take a less provocative approach.
For as unsatisfying as it is to see the gun nuts claim victory in that one encounter, it’s better in the long run to see the thing slowly wind down with a whimper and not a bang. It isn’t hard to isolate Bundy. One way is just to put a microphone in front of him and let him talk. The support that sprang up around him began to wither once he began to expand on his thoughts. Another is to start cutting him off from the civilized world. Surely a rugged individualist like him can do without postal delivery, right? That’s just another form of dependence on the feds.
Maybe the same could be done with phone and Internet service. Other, non-firearm intensive federal agencies could start giving him some extra attention. He can be gradually squeezed without being attacked. Doing so will take more time, but it’s a necessary precaution when dealing with violent extremists. It would be nice to bring such people under the law more quickly; not doing so is no watershed moment, though. Hotheaded fanatics have to be handled differently. The last thing we need is to create a new generation of martyrs.
Years ago - I don’t remember where or when, or I would give credit - I heard the line “don’t pay attention to what’s in the news; pay attention to what’s not in it.” Media cultures often develop story lines and decide what is newsworthy based on how well if fits the narrative.
The protests in Wisconsin a few years ago were a really clear example. Large corporate outlets have been long settled into a neoliberal economic framing. Capital mobility is the new reality. International agreements that facilitate it are merely expressions of that reality; issues like collective bargaining and establishment of community standards are fondly regarded but antiquated notions in our brave new world.
So when Madison erupted over union representation, many outlets didn’t have any sensible language for describing what was going on. As a result, a huge story was mostly ignored. (Interestingly, many of the themes from it foreshadowed the Occupy movement later that year, which was similarly blacked out in its first weeks.)
Sometimes, though, a story gets ignored because it has simply become too routine to be considered news any more. Gun violence in urban areas like Chicago is not a national story now (if it ever was), and school shootings appear to be getting regarded as less and less newsworthy. After Tuesday’s shooting in Oregon, CNN initially tucked it under an “OJ 20 years later” story. CNN’s Wes Bruer initially tried to explain why it was right to do so, but ending up falling back on a defensive “the other guys aren’t covering it either” reply. Perhaps related: CNN followed up the next day with a “this is becoming the new normal” story.
Treating the proliferation of gun violence as routine means relegating certain stories to the sidelines. A four hour pursuit and standoff with an automatic weapon-wielding gun nut that winds through neighborhoods, evacuates schools and concludes with the suspect getting smoked out? No body count, so don’t bump it. Bulletproof blankets to shield kids during school shootings? Just another day in America.
We might be starting to see some changes, though. Some on the left have urged the media to make the connection between violent right wing rhetoric and metastasizing gun violence. While that isn’t a new observation, it’s starting to get picked up in established outlets. One of my regular reads, Esquire blogger Robert Bateman, has announced his intention to focus his post-military career on the issue. Moms Demand Action has a passionate and grassroots approach reminiscent of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and I don’t think many people would dispute MADD’s success in changing both laws and culture on that issue.
If none of that is considered a sufficiently compelling news hook, how about this. I know the Republican establishment is currently voiding its bowels over the teabaggers claiming the immaculately coiffed scalp of Eric Cantor, but the gun violence coming from the ammosexuals has a character to it that demands a response from GOP leadership. We now have armed right wing extremists targeting law enforcement officers for summary execution. That’s not just a horrific crime, but a political statement as well.
John Boehner and others at the top of the party should be very specifically and persistently asked how they characterize political murder, and where they draw the line between a horrific crime and domestic terrorism. The execution of police officers doesn’t qualify for Boehner. OK, fine - then what does? Does Boehner consider the Oklahoma City bombing domestic terrorism? Since he doesn’t consider the Las Vegas murders to be, we know that at a minimum he draws the line somewhere between the two. Where is it?
Here’s another thought. The Las Vegas killers were trying to use murder to launch a revolution. That’s something that unfortunately has a history in our country, most infamously with Charles Manson. Does Boehner think there is any difference between Manson and the Las Vegas killers? If so, what are they? He shouldn’t be allowed to keep doing his cigar store Indian impression on this issue, no matter how unfavorable the political environment is at the moment.
Revolutionary violence has a history in our country. So does domestic terrorism. It’s entirely appropriate to link contemporary violence to comparable events in our past, and to get our leaders on the record. Where on the continuum do they place those events? They don’t happen in a vacuum or exist in isolation. Pressing leaders to clarify where today’s gun violence fits in our history might reveal some interesting positions. Might, you know, make some news.