When corporations kill, media turn fatalistic
Anyone could have predicted the Boston Marathon bombing would receive the high-color, saturation-style coverage it’s gotten. The April 15 attack lends itself to all sorts of narratives U.S. corporate media love to explore: the ever-present “terrorist” threat, scary Muslims and their “networks,” the potential of new security technology.
Still, it was hard not to be struck by the contrast between the attention devoted to the Boston bombing and that given to a disastrous explosion two days later in a Texas fertilizer plant.
TV networks especially “seemed to decide covering two big stories was covering one too many,” as Mike Elk (Washington Post, 4/23/13) noted, and gave the lion’s share of attention to a bombing that “killed fewer people and is extremely rare,” rather than to an industrial explosion that “killed more people, is far more common and is far easier to prevent.”
It was not just the quantity of coverage, but its quality: the fascinated assiduousness with which reporters pursue every thread tied to the Tsarnaev brothers’ alleged actions—the “updates” even when there’s no news; the eager seeking out of any angle, any theory, however tendentious, to explain the bombers’ motivations or worldview—versus the workmanlike nature of the Texas coverage, a story about “regulatory oversight” and “slipp[ing] through bureaucratic cracks” (New York Times, 4/25/13), in which the guilty party is “a complicated flow chart of agencies responsible for collecting and distributing information on ammonium nitrate supplies” (Boston Globe, 4/24/13).
The owners of West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas, stored more than 270 tons of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate in a warehouse near schools, houses and a nursing home, but this was not reported appropriately to federal agencies. Several state agencies knew but “did not discuss fire or explosive risks with the company or with each other” (Dallas Morning News, 2/24/13).
Texas doesn’t have an occupational safety and health program that meets federal requirements, and OSHA hadn’t inspected West since 1985 (Christian Science Monitor, 4/29/13); state inspectors acknowledge they lack the resources to enforce safety laws, and that fines anyway are so low that companies “willfully violate” them (L.A. Times, 4/24/13).
Elite media’s decision to present the resulting catastrophe through a sort of “alas, such is life” regulatory prism rather than a “this must be avenged” criminal one has real-world impact, not only encouraging malfeasant owners and complicit regulators to carry on without fear of sunlight or scrutiny, but conditioning the public about what may be asked or expected of corporate actors.
This approach stultifies even “sympathetic” coverage of the disastrous consequences of corporate actions. On April 24, a nightmarish collapse in yet another code-violating Bangladesh worksite making clothes for the United States and Europe killed more than 1,000 people and injured many more. A New York Times report (4/24/13) began by noting, as if it were ironic, that the disaster occurred “only five months after a horrific fire at a similar facility prompted leading multinational brands to pledge to work to improve safety.”
Thus the paper encourages readers to see a “pledge to work to improve” as something to be taken seriously, while neglecting to mention that the most powerful company in the area, Walmart, scuttled an actual plan to improve safety in Bangladesh (AP, 4/26/13).
Crediting their promises to improve implies corporations have some agency, yet when it’s time to assign blame, they become passive spectators, as the paper explains that “rising wages in China have pushed many global clothing companies to look for lower costs elsewhere” (New York Times, 4/24/13).
One source, Workers Rights Consortium’s Scott Nova, ex-plains that wealthy transnational companies are not, actually, being pushed around, but are the ones driving the circumstances that lead to tragedy. His comments point to a paradigm shift in the way journalists could report industrial “accidents”—not as “lapses at all” but as a flawed system functioning as one would predict. In the Times, that’s presented as just another opinion, alongside that of unnamed “advocates” who “credit the industry for lifting people out of poverty.”
Journalists obviously prefer their crime stories with individual (preferably “alien”) protagonists and obvious smoking guns. But the dead in Bangladesh and West, Texas, deserve justice as much as the dead in Boston. And unless media can evince some of the same energy in investigating corporate crimes—corporate owners also have motives, after all, along with “networks” of abettors and a “culture” that sanctions their actions—they guarantee the recurrence of terrible catastrophes, all the more terrible for being preventable.