What you don’t see can hurt you
James Tankard, one of journalism’s key scholars, talks about news reporting as a “magician’s sleight of hand.”
Tankard means that we muggles pay attention to the rabbit and the high-top hat, while oblivious to the gloved hand we cannot see.
Like Tankard, I study how news framing can obscure the core issues of a topic—let’s take the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests as an example—by replacing them with hype and rhetoric.
The hype looks like, feels like and reads like click-bait.
And by click-bait I mean the most tantalizing bits of a story that hardly skim the surface.
In the case of DAPL, attention is drawn to the brutes blasting water, rubber bullets, stun grenades and attack dogs on unarmed protestors.
Researchers who study news coverage of the pipeline say attention peaked in November 2016 when powerful fire-hoses soaked water protectors in freezing weather for six hours, injuring 300 and hospitalizing 26.
Reporters focus their lenses on the cruel treatment of folks defending their health and civil rights but fail to look beyond the immediate drama to expose the rotten core.
Despite the protests, the pipeline—which runs through four U.S. states—was completed with little fanfare after the incoming administration took the reins in 2018 and shredded President Barack Obama’s official decree that would halt the construction.
Today the pipeline flows at the rate of 570,000 barrels each day, with a market price of $59.58 per gallon: that’s just short of $40 million per day.
Imagine trying to thwart a venture that rakes in $40 million each day.
What journalists fail to cover are the long-term, structural machinations—in science, politics and city planning—that encourage businesses like oil companies to pursue ventures that reap benefits for their shareholders while harming communities.
The movement—labelled the Water Protectors—protested the construction of a crude oil pipeline through Sioux homelands, which are protected under the Fort Laramie Treaty.
Since the treaty’s signing in 1851, the promises were peeled away, bit by bit, as settlers coveted the territories reserved for Native tribes.
Historians note that homesteaders, entrepreneurs and investors keenly desired the Indian lands, and, despite the treaties, continued to encroach onto Native soil with scant attention to treaties.
Discovery of gold in the 1870s began what one writer called a stampede into the sacred Black Hills, and the US government failed to enforce the treaties.
Today, the Dakota Access Pipeline echos the past: entrepreneurs covet the water, the soil and even the air, and governing bodies enable private businesses to set the agenda for how the nation’s resources are managed.
Only a handful of voices is heard, and the elite groups determine policy behind closed doors, while other stakeholders, including Native voices, are silenced.
A key feature is the interlocked network of government actors and business interests.
As the New Yorker reports, key officials in the administration that took power in 2018 have vested interests in oil production, including the president, who owns stock in Energy Transfer Partners (the firm behind the pipeline).
The New Yorker reporter says the current president owns, “between fifteen and fifty thousand dollars of stock in Energy Transfer Partners.” The reporter says she found no documentation that the shares have been sold.
Other officials have interests in Big Oil.
Rick Perry, the current Secretary of Energy, sat on the board of directors of Energy Transfer Partners before being named to head the agency that makes policy affecting gas and oil production.
Perry owned more than $150,000 in partnership units, the New Yorker says.
Energy Partner’s CEO—Kelcy Warren—donated more than a $100,000 to the president’s election campaign.
Scott Pruitt, who headed the EPA until an ethics scandal resulted in his departure in 2018, was actively involved in lawsuits against the EPA—the agency he was hired to defend, not destroy.
And the president’s pick for one of the most powerful arbiters of foreign relations—Rex Tillerson—was CEO of the world’s largest oil and gas company.
Like Pruitt, Tillerson was forced out of office.
My point is that, we need to reveal the magician’s secrets—not just the damage that occurs with stun grenades and rubber bullets—but the silent operations behind the scenes that create fertile ground for graft, collusion and crimes against muggles like us.
12 August 2019
Image and poster created by Ernesto Yerena Montejano