Three Media Home Runs. No, Seriously.

If they gave Oscars for journalism, these would be our nominees for this year in the categories newspaper, radio and TV. (Photo by Cliff1066/Flickr)

The Lamestream (news) Media (thank you, Sarah) don’t get much respect here or anywhere else these days, because they mostly do not deserve any. But now and again, traditional journalism rears its gorgeous head, and uses words and images to reveal and explain the realities of our world in riveting and memorable ways. Typically, such works sink from sight and remembrance like stones tossed in a polluted river, so let us remove our hats and mumble a few respectful words over three masterful works that appeared in the past few days — one in a newspaper, one on the radio (remember radio programs?) and, yes, even one on TV.  

Newspaper: No More Happy in Texas

It is increasingly rare to see any newspaper piece a) run longer than a thousand words, b) deal with a complex subject, or c) fail to coat any facts indicating dire outcomes with gallons of high-fructose corn syrup (the industry substitute for sugar). Herewith, an exception.

This piece takes a long and nuanced look at the town of Happy, Texas (not far from Lubbock, in the Panhandle) and its impending death. It explains that the High Plains farmers in the area, descendants of the folks who caused the Dust Bowl, are the first to actually exhaust their portion of the vast Ogallala Aquifer, the underground lake whose exploitation has enabled industrial agriculture to proceed in desert conditions. The Ogallala, stretching from the Dakotas to Texas, is fossil water, trapped by tectonic action millions of years ago, and like oil, exists in a finite amount.

The newspaper is wrong in one minor particular: the Aquifer is replenished, but at an infinitesimally slow rate, by the scant High Plains rainfall. Meanwhile, as the piece reports, the irrigation pumps of industrial agriculture have in 50 years reduced the average depth of the aquifer from 240 feet to 80. And only around the dying town of Happy, where the irrigation wells have run dry, have the pumps so much as slowed down in their rush to the next, and worst, Dust Bowl.

Wait, there’s more: the discovery by the likes of T. Boone Pickens that water, as it runs out, is going to become more valuable. In his relentless drive to become the richest man ever to die of thirst, Pickens plans to build a huge pipeline to suck even more water — 65 billion gallons a year — out of the Ogallala to water the lawns of Dallas 250 miles away. And to shorten by years the life of the remaining farms in the Panhandle.

In this piece, quotations are not used to set up the “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand, only-time-will-tell” claptrap of modern industrial reporting, or to perpetrate the ignorance of uninformed people. Instead, we hear the voices and see the viewpoints of people involved (not one climate-changer denier was sought out for this piece), and we feel the pain of a way of life that is dying. The final quote, which you must not read until you have finished the piece, will pierce your heart.

And what American newspaper published this paragon of journalistic virtue? Not one. You’ll find it in the Telegraph, published in London, and you can read it here: US farmers fear the return of the Dust Bowl

[Thanks to Daily Impact reader Steven Martin for the heads-up about this story.]

Radio: Fracking is an Ugly Thing to Watch

If you do not listen to NPR, you may have forgot that radio can be a powerful journalistic medium. There is no program on the air today that demonstrates this more regularly than This American Life, a creation of Ira Glass produced by Chicago Public Media and distributed by Public Radio International. When This American Life decided last week to take on natural-gas fracking, the results were outstanding. It reveals, in stark detail, frequently in the heart-wrenching words of the participants, just how ugly has become the drive to wrest from the earth its last drops, or vapors, of fossil fuel.

Fracking — in case you have been vacationing on another planet — is a recently invented way to blow out of deep shale formations the bubbles of natural; gas trapped in the rock. It requires that millions of gallons of water, sand and up to 80 toxic chemicals be injected in the rock under enormous pressure.  What you get is millions of gallons of water polluted not only by the stuff you put into it, but by salts and radioactive material from down under; and gas, pushed not only out your well but God knows where else far underground.

In the first part of “Game Changer,” the episode of This American Life devoted to fracking, Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig explain how the natural-gas industry (like Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Sugar, Big Pharma and Big Agriculture before it) has co-opted universities (and politicians and media outlets) with lavish applications of money.

They tell the stories of two professors, each making a calculation that no one had made before. The first, Terry Engelder, a geologist at Penn State, was estimating the amount of natural gas that’s theoretically recoverable by fracking from the Marcellus shale, a giant rock formation that’s under Pennsylvania and several other Eastern states. The second, Conrad “Dan” Volz, at the University of Pittsburgh, estimated how much toxic crap fracking is going to put out while getting at that gas. Can you guess which of the p[rofessors is today administering muliple million-dollar grants, and which is unemployed?

The rest of the program, detailing what happened when a small Pennsylvania town tried to resist being taken over by gas frackers, is just as well done, and just as depressing. It is great radio, and great journalism, and if enough people reacted to it it could save our lives. Listen to it here: “Game Changer.”

TV: The Frivolity of Hideous Burn Victims

The newspaper story about Happy, Texas, was in part an account of how big money is moving to preempt the last drops of water from a shrinking aquifer; the radio program was in part an account of how big money controls the research of major universities; our TV nominee for Journalist of the Decade shows exactly how big money has largely taken over our system of justice.

The late Stella Liebeck lived a decent and unremarkable life until she was in her late seventies. Then she was injured — by a scalding-hot cup of McDonald’s coffee — and insulted as few people have ever been. She became, through no fault or action of her own, the laughingstock of late-night TV comedians, politicians, two-bit disc jockeys and hack journalists.

For years I have been introducing journalism students to the concept of shlock journalism and industrial spin machines by asking them what they know about Stella Liebeck, her injury, and the ensuing court case; then demonstrating that every single thing they know about it is wrong.

For the record: Mrs. Liebeck was not driving, the car was not moving, she did not sue for, or get, two million dollars, and her burns were hardly minor, they were massive and required extensive skin grafts. You will see them, in this film, and I challenge you not to wince, and not to change your opinion about what constitutes a “frivolous” lawsuit. The large punitive award in this case — Mrs. Liebeck asked only for medical expenses, which were so huge she had no hope of paying them — was decided on by a jury to express its outrage at the arrogance and indifference of a huge corporation.

Now comes veteran medical-malpractice lawyer Susan Saladoff with a film — the first she ever tried to make —  that not only sets the record straight about Mrs. Liebeck, but tells the story of three similar cases, to make a much larger and more ominous point: Big Money has not stopped with virtual ownership of our political system, it wants — and has largely taken over — the judicial system as well.

Ms. Saladoff has constructed a stinging indictment of the corporate PR machinery that held Mrs.Liebeck up to ridicule, invented the terms “frivolous lawsuit” — to mean any action seeking redress for an injury done by a large company — and “tort reform” to mean finding ways to prevent people from getting into court with a “frivolous lawsuit.” It seems resonable to hope that we will hear from Ms. Saladoff again: her first-ever film has been honored by the 2011 Sundance, Silverdocs, Nantucket, Provincetown, Los Angeles, Seattle, Little Rock, Atlanta and Boston film festivals, and was bought and is being aired by HBO.

You can learn more about the film here; and if you subscribe to HBO you can see it when they broadcast it, or online at HBO GO.

Tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.