The overwhelming crush of news emanating from the Trump administration makes it all but impossible to give more than passing attention to some of its worst and most damaging acts.
It can’t be helped. Though you could argue that the media pay too much attention to the president’s sociopathic Twitter feed, you certainly can’t fault journalists for focusing on the childish insults he has directed at Justin Trudeau and his embrace of the murderous dictator Kim Jong Un. To its credit, the press has also managed to provide reasonably comprehensive coverage of the administration’s inhumane treatment of refugee families.
But when you get down to wonkish issues like industry-backed changes in the way that the Environmental Protection Agency regulates toxic substances, well, good luck finding the sort of coverage that truly commands attention and sparks outrage. And yes, I’m going to recount some information I learned from a story that appeared on the front page of The New York Times last week, so this is not exactly a secret. But we all know that without amplification from the media echo chamber in the form of follow-up stories, cable news chatter, and the like, important stories tend to fade away pretty quickly.
The Times article, by Eric Lipton, grabbed my attention for a very specific reason: During the 1980s I was a reporter for The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, where I reported on families whose children became sick with leukemia — some fatally so — after the city water supply was contaminated with industrial solvents. The families sued the likely polluters, leading to a federal trial that was featured in Jonathan Harr’s riveting book “A Civil Action.” (The book was made into a less-than-riveting movie of the same name.)
A variety of chemicals were at issue in the Woburn case, but the two most important were trichloroethylene (a degreaser) and tetrachloroethylene (also known as perchloroethylene, used in dry cleaning) — both of which are now on the list of substances the EPA wants to ease up on. According to Lipton’s story, the EPA, acting at the behest of the chemical industry, may abandon an Obama-era initiative to measure the effect of these hazardous chemicals in the ground, water, and air, focusing instead on workplace exposure. Yet contaminated drinking water was precisely what was at issue in Woburn.
“The approach is a big victory for the chemical industry, which has repeatedly pressed the EPA to narrow the scope of its risk evaluations,” writes Lipton, who notes that Nancy Beck, the Trump appointee in charge of the initiative, “previously worked as an executive at the American Chemistry Council, one of the industry’s main lobbying groups.”
The 1986 federal case did not end well for the Woburn families — they settled out of court for short money after the trial ended in a muddle. But they left a legacy regarding what can happen when industry is allowed to dispose of toxic waste without regard for safety or health. Now that legacy is under attack. The media need to shine a light on this story — and to keep shining it until the EPA backs down.
An ambitious challenge
There was a time not too many years ago when newspaper owners hoped they would develop an advertising-based business model for online content that would allow them to earn profits while giving away their journalism. Craigslist, Google, and Facebook put an end to those dreams. In recent years, the emphasis has been on persuading readers to pay for digital news.
Now The Sacramento Bee has issued a challenge to its readers. Editor Lauren Gustus has written a note calling for digital subscriptions to quadruple, from 15,000 to 60,000. “We could fully fund our newsrooms — from salaries and benefits to notepads and pens — if we had 60,000 people supporting us through digital subscriptions,” she says.
Needless to say, that is a hugely ambitious goal. Though national newspapers such as The New York Times (3 million-plus) and The Washington Post (1 million-plus) have had some real success with digital subscriptions, regional papers have struggled. The Boston Globe, with nearly 100,000 digital-only subscriptions, has done as well as anyone. But though Globe executives say the paper could become sustainable if they double that number, that will likely prove to be an exceedingly difficult task.
Still, the Bee has some factors in its favor. According to Gustus’ message, the paper is bolstering its coverage with more accountability journalism and an audio newscast. Its owner, McClatchy, is widely regarded as one of the better corporate chains. And the price of a digital subscription — $130 a year — is affordable, especially compared with the Globe’s $360.
The best part about reader-funded journalism is that, if it works, owners will be wary of slashing their news coverage. People will pay more for more; they might even pay more for the same. But they’re not going to pay more for less.
Honoring Parkland’s student journalists
The third annual Danny — an honor named for the late, great progressive journalist Danny Schechter — has been awarded to The Eagle Eye, the student newspaper at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The award was announced by Rory O’Connor, Schechter’s friend and longtime business partner.
O’Connor writes in AlterNet that The Eagle Eye was singled out for comments by its student journalists that they sought to combine journalism with activism aimed at preventing mass shootings such as the one that took place at their school. Although some observers criticized the students for not embracing objectivity, O’Connor says that activist journalism is in the best tradition of the work performed by Schechter, “The News Dissector,” starting in the early 1970s at WBCN Radio in Boston and continuing until his death in 2015.
The award comes with a $3,000 donation to the paper’s journalism scholarship fund.
“Increasingly,” O’Connor writes, “it is becoming understood that journalists with strong, transparent points of view are giving us news and insights we truly need and can use.”
WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy is the author of “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century.”