Thursday, January 28, 2016

Swept under the Rug

The thing about news is that it has to be new. The term news implies information that is fresh, virgin to the eyes and ears of readers and listeners. Newspapers and television news shows know that their customers don’t want to see the same thing they saw the day before. So the stories must keep changing, because otherwise news organizations would lose readers and viewers, and that means losing advertising dollars. Thus, what you see all boils down to money… What will make suppliers of your news money. Think about that: your sources of information, the sources of your ultimate font of knowledge, are filtered through a pipeline designed with a corporate profit motive in mind.

There’s a pipeline in Flint, Michigan but the water that flows through that pipeline is unfiltered. The pipes contained lead, an element known to cause permanent brain damage and other physical maladies in humans who consume it. It’s not healthy to drink water flowing through lead pipes. Which made it news when the governor of Michigan ordered Flint to switch obtaining its drinking water from a pure, glacial lake to the impure Flint River; dismantle the existing sanitary pipeline running to the lake; and use lead contaminated pipes to bring river water to the citizens of Flint to drink and bathe in. Lead poisoning is such a grave threat to human health that in 1986 the U.S. Congress passed The Safe Drinking Water Act restricting the use of lead-based materials for delivering drinking water. Apparently, someone forgot to tell Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder about the federal law in his attempt to cut a few dollars from the state budget after giving a huge tax break to Michigan’s wealthiest taxpayers. Not surprisingly, the inhabitants of Flint who have been drinking and bathing in this water for several years, young and old, are now suffering the permanent effects of lead poisoning: nerve damage, brain damage, kidney failure, intermittent abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, muscle pain, insomnia, delirium, and hallucinations. Children are particularly susceptible to the effects of lead poisoning.

The situation in Flint, Michigan is a hot news story right now. It will be played out in the days or weeks ahead until it has been milked for everything it can be and the freshness of the news has worn off. Yes, like milk, news has an expiration date. The Flint story will be taken off the shelf and replaced with a new, fresher product for the consumers. The old story will be out of sight and out of mind as far as the media are concerned. That is the nature of the news cycle. The problem is, the story isn’t over; the effects of the poisoning on the inhabitants of Flint are permanent and they will have to live with them for the rest of their lives long after the news crews have packed up their cameras and left town.

Water is not the only thing carried by pipelines; oil also flows through pipelines. In April 2010, the big news story was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The BP (a.k.a. British Petroleum) oil company-contracted Transocean Ltd. Deepwater Horizon oil rig pumped 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days, making it the largest oil spill disaster in U.S. history. A federal judge ruled BP had made “profit-driven decisions” during the drilling of the well that led to the fatal blowout that killed 11 men. BP lied about the amount of oil escaping from its pipeline during the ongoing crisis, downplaying the urgency of the disaster unfolding. The Gulf of Mexico and the shorelines of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida – 16,000 total miles of coastline – were bathed in 210 million gallons of crude oil.

BP made a big show of sending people to scrub oil off the beaches, but the environmental damage was unprecedented and, like that of Flint, Michigan, permanent. The spill area is home to 8,332 species, including fish, birds, mollusks, crustaceans, sea turtles and marine mammals. Within six months of the spill, 8,000 birds, turtles, and mammals were reported dead. The oil spill resulted in the presence of 40 times more carcinogenic hydrocarbons in the water in which the fish we eat swim. A 2014 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)-funded study found other toxins in the waters of what it called “one of the most productive ocean ecosystems in the world”. Another study that year found tuna exposed to the spill were dying. Fishermen reported fish with oozing sores and lesions. Researchers found in 2013 that oil on the sea floor did not appear to be degrading. Dead baby dolphins washed up along the Mississippi and Alabama shores. A 2015 NOAA study linked a sharp increase in dolphin deaths to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The devastating environmental damage from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is expected to continue for the next century. But for the news purveyors, the moment had passed. Video of filthy crude oil bursting from underwater pipes made for riveting television, but the aftereffects – aside from visuals of oil-coated waterfowl – no longer met the definition of news. The long-lasting and permanent effects of this man-made disaster, like those of the one in Flint, had a short shelf life in media terms and such stories are routinely deemed to be “over” as the news media search for fresher ones.

Which brings us to another man-made disaster: climate change. Early on, the media tagged this with the misnomer of “global warming”, which allowed disingenuous politicians to misinform their constituents about the severity of the crisis. Global warming is only one effect of climate change. That doesn’t mean temperatures are rising everywhere; but it does mean they are rising in the Arctic where the polar ice caps are melting and glaciers have become green patches of land. It means rising water levels and changes in tides and the atmosphere that result in devastating typhoons, hurricanes, snowstorms, and mega storms like Sandy. It means an increase in the severity and quantity of earthquakes, fires, floods, and droughts. While the effects of climate change are what we would call natural disasters, the cause of climate change is man-made. Industrialization has released greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the heat trapping emissions – most notably the burning of fossil fuels – are the culprits.

The Republicans would have you believe climate change does not exist, while the Democrats harp on the refrain that we must act immediately to reverse its effects. Like all politicians, they are lying to you. The truth is that climate change is real and irreversible. We are long past the point at which we could have reversed the damage. Barring some unlikely scientific breakthrough, climate change will eventually cause the planet to be uninhabitable. The only bright spot is that this will be a relatively slow, albeit inexorable, process and will not occur within your lifetime, or your children’s, or your grandchildren’s. Therefore, it’s not news. The story’s over, you can change the channel.

Climate change, like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Flint, Michigan poisoned water stories, are all man-made events with devastating permanent consequences. They make for good news copy when first reported, but the news media know the public’s attention span does not extend to long-term, complicated stories. So they stop covering them, move on to something new, something flashier, and the public assumes those stories are over. But they’re not. They’ve simply been swept under the rug to make way for the next “crisis ”. The public may banish them from its collective memory, but it does so at its peril, because these crises have not gone away simply because the media no longer reports on them.

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