On the Coverage of the Washington Mudslide

I received an email this morning from Dr. Harvard Ayers. Harvard is a professor emeritus of anthropology at the Appalachian State University, a long-time activist against mountaintop coal mining in the Appalachia, and oil drilling in the Arctic. He writes: “It made me visibly angry to read Time Magazine’s coverage of the Washington landslide in this weeks magazine. All Nature, no mention of Homo sapiens’ responsibility (logging and climate change as we know).” The article he refers to is “Washington Mudslide Death Toll Hits 29” by Michelle Arrouas that you can read here. The tragic event took place on March 22 in Oso, a small town along the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, in the Washington state. Harvard urged me to write a response.

Since the mudslide took place in Washington, where I live, I must Howl against Time’s reporting of it.

It’s worth quoting a few lines from Ginsberg’s America.

I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie
producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.

Harvard correctly observed the two important things that are missing from Time’s reporting of the Washington mudslide: no mention of climate change, and no mention of industrial logging. Those two anthropogenic injuries are the likely contributors to the recent mudslide in Oso.

For a good discussion of industrial logging as it relates to landslides, see Jeffrey St. Clair’s article “The Floods of Forgetfulness: A Brief History of Logging, Floods and Landslides” here, and Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn’s article “When Clearcuts Kill: Logging and Landslides” here; both in CounterPunch. And for the connection between climate change and the Oso mudslide see Lindsay Abram’s article “Tragedy in Washington state: Why climate change will make mudslides more common” in Salon here.

I’ll instead focus on “businessmen” who are “serious.”

In another epoch, we could have said that some lazy journalist Googled a few things and wrote up a sloppy article on the mudslide, in Time. In our time, however, we can no longer say that. It might even be a deliberate act, because after all, “Businessmen are serious,” as Ginsberg had correctly observed.

Thom Hartmann pointed out in a recent article, “The Mainstream Media’s Criminal Climate Coverage,” the sharp right-turn that Reuters made, after the reputed organization hired “climate skeptic” Paul Ingrassia as deputy editor-in-chief.

John Fogarty, former Reuters Asia Climate Change reporter wrote that in early 2012 he was “repeatedly told that climate and environment stories were no longer a top priority for Reuters.” By the end of the year, he was shown the door: “I was told my climate change role was abolished.”

Hartmann focused on the “false balance” that exists all across the corporate media. In addition to quoting climate scientists, the corporate media is also quoting climate skeptics in equal measure, “as if they are one half of a really complicated debate when they are really just a small, crazy, and almost always bought-and-paid-for minority,” Hartmann noted.

The Time’s story of the Washington mudslide, however, is different. It is not “false balance”, but instead, suppression-by-silence, a form of self-censorship. If we don’t talk about, it doesn’t exist. By not discussing clear cutting and global warming, a deadly mudslide becomes a natural tragedy that we are supposed to mourn, without critical thinking.

The Time reporter does gesture towards morning: “Treacherous conditions and bad weather have complicated the search for human remains buried in the debris, which is contaminated by chemicals, fuel and human waste. Both rescue workers and search dogs are being hosed down at decontamination stations after completing their tasks.”

It’s worth repeating here a conversation I had last year with Jaisal Noor of The Real News Network during a major flood in Colorado that had caused much devastation over a long stretch along the Colorado Front Range, from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins, with Boulder as its epicenter. Noor had asked me the following questions:

“How is the media covering the story?
Are they making that link (to climate change)?
Are they doing their job to inform the public about the reality of not only what’s happening now, but what may continue to happen in the future as far as these unprecedented natural disasters?”

This is how I responded (presented here with minor edits): After I wrote the first piece on Boulder flooding, I received numerous comments from readers that the media is showing the tragedy, and what is happening, but no one (in corporate media) is raising a single question about if this event is related to climate change (or not). There will be no scarcity of extreme weather events in a globally warmed Earth. How we report on it becomes extremely important; an ethical act. Showing just the tragedy, again and again, without critical analysis, results in what I’d call an exercise in perversion. Just to show a tragedy, and not discuss the likely causes of the tragedy, becomes a form of entertainment. The entities who benefit financially from such reporting are essentially the corporate media, and the corporations who arrive, after the tragedy, with lucrative contracts, to rebuild the place (Dick Cheney’s former employer Halliburton in Iraq, for example).

There is a lot of money to be made from restoration-after-devastation, in the Anthropocene that includes globally warming and varieties of other anthropogenic injuries. By not discussing the likely causes of environmental devastations, corporate media is aiding-and-abetting the profitable nexus that exists between anthropogenic destruction and corporate restoration.

Subhankar Banerjee is a photographer, writer, and activist. His most recent book is Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (Seven Stories Press). He was recently Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Distinguished Visiting Professor at Fordham University in New York, received Distinguished Alumnus Award from the New Mexico State University, and Cultural Freedom Award from Lannan Foundation. For more information visit his website www.subhankarbanerjee.org.

Subhankar Banerjee is an artist, activist and public scholar. He was most recently cocurator (with Josie Lopez) of the exhibition Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande. Editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point  (Seven Stories Press, 2013), Subhankar is currently cowriting (with Ananda Banerjee, with drawings by laura c. carlson) a book on biological annihilation to be published by Seven Stories Press, and coediting (with T.J. Demos and Emily Eliza Scott) a book on contemporary art, visual culture and climate breakdown to be published by Routledge. He has spent two decades contributing to the multispecies justice campaigns to protect significant biological nurseries and human rights of the Indigenous peoples in Alaska’s Arctic. Subhankar is the Lannan Foundation Endowed Chair and a professor of Art & Ecology at the University of New Mexico.