Of Forests and Trees

Something the media seems to have a lot of trouble with is getting distracted by events rather than the higher level causes of classes of events. A dramatic recent example of this is the Gold King mining disaster in Colorado. Public radio did a reasonable job talking about the particulars of the event, and some shows made it clear that the Gold King site was one of thousands of closed-mine time bombs all over the U.S. that are either polluting or destined to pollute local environments.

But out of the nine stories NPR shows have produced to date about the problem, not one has covered the noisome economic feedback loop that allows mining companies to make incredible profits while ignoring or riding roughshod over environmental regulations. Local public radio station KUNC did an okay story about it, though it focused too much on Gold King. Even the oft-reviled CNN managed to emit a decent story which described some of the higher level dynamics of the mining industry. It’s often a complicated issue, but sometimes it amounts to mining companies simply declaring bankruptcy once a mine is no longer profitable. At that point it’s up to taxpayers to pay for clean-up. You’d never guess that listening to NPR over the last couple of weeks.

This is a huge blind-spot. If I were conspiracy-minded I’d come up with some theory about the Koch brothers muzzling this kind of information. Since it’s probably not a conspiracy, then what is the reason? I have no idea, but I can venture a few guesses regarding stories about the economics of mining:

  • They can be complicated and therefore are too much work for harried reporters.
  • They are considered boring and might turn off listeners.
  • They are inherently political and therefore getting into the details, ugly as they are, opens up NPR to accusations of anti-business (read anti-Republican) bias.
  • NPR producers, reporters, and interviewees are ignorant of the economic systems that produced these mines.

I have no idea which of these, if any, are true. If anyone knows, please drop me a line.

Meanwhile the principle remains that reporters and producers need to do a better job detecting and telling stories about the higher levels of abstraction that generate the every day events they currently have most of their focus on. Just today there was a piece about the abandonment of the term “alien” to describe those who are now more usually called “undocumented”. It was a fine story which detailed how this specific word went from official usage as a euphemism by Latino activists to a discouraged epithet.

But this is happening to language every day. Any euphemistic word describing something which is innately troubling, hateful or otherwise problematic will inevitably accrue negative connotations. Replacing the word with a new one simply delays the process. Eventually the failure of this kind of linguistic reality laundering will result in negative feelings about “undocumented” as well. This is a much more trivial issue than tens of thousands of abandoned mines, but it points to the blindness to or silence about the complicated patterns and levels of abstraction behind so many of the things we experience every day.

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