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  • Here's a Hurricane Florence environmental justice story that media outlets need to tell

    Spills from coal ash pits and hog manure ponds in North Carolina would hurt low-income people of color

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    A handful of news outlets are reporting about the danger of coal ash and hog manure spilling into North Carolina's waterways when Hurricane Florence hits the state. But so far they're missing an important part of the story -- that African-Americans and other communities of color could be hit particularly hard by such pollution. They're also failing to note that the Trump administration has been loosening regulations and oversight in ways that could make spills of coal ash and hog waste more likely.

    The dangers of coal ash and hog manure pollution

    North Carolina is home to 31 coal ash pits that power company Duke Energy uses to store an estimated 111 million tons of toxic waste produced by coal-fired power plants. North Carolina is also home to thousands of manure pits, known euphemistically as "lagoons," that store approximately 10 billion pounds of wet waste generated each year by swine, poultry, and cattle operations in the state. This information came from Bloomberg, one of the first outlets to report that Florence could cause the waste pits to spill and create serious environmental and public health risks. The Associated Press also reported on the threats:

    The heavy rain expected from Hurricane Florence could flood hog manure pits, coal ash dumps and other industrial sites in North Carolina, creating a noxious witches’ brew of waste that might wash into homes and threaten drinking water supplies.

    Coal ash pits and hog waste dumps have both leaked and flooded in past years, causing devastating spills in North Carolina -- sometimes in the wake of hurricanes.

    Hurricane Floyd, which struck North Carolina in 1999 as a Category 2 storm, washed 120 million gallons of hog waste into rivers, Rolling Stone later reported. As AP noted this week, that was just one part of the mess caused by Floyd:

    The bloated carcasses of hundreds of thousands of hogs, chickens and other drowned livestock bobbed in a nose-stinging soup of fecal matter, pesticides, fertilizer and gasoline so toxic that fish flopped helplessly on the surface to escape it. Rescue workers smeared Vick’s Vapo-Rub under their noses to try to numb their senses against the stench.

    After Floyd, North Carolina taxpayers bought out and closed down 43 hog factory farms located in floodplains, aiming to prevent a repeat disaster. But in 2016, when Hurricane Matthew hit the Carolinas as a Category 1 storm, at least 14 manure lagoons still flooded.

    Soon after Matthew, The New York Times’ editorial board warned that such flooding could become more of a threat in the future as storms are supercharged by climate change:

    In states where hog farmers use waste lagoons, like North Carolina and Illinois, flooding is a serious hazard that may become more frequent as climate change leads to more severe storms.

    Unless North Carolina and other states require agriculture companies to change their waste-disposal methods, what happened after Hurricane Matthew will happen again.

    In this week’s Bloomberg article, the head of the North Carolina Pork Council dismissed the significance of the 14 breaches in 2016 and downplayed the threat of spills triggered by Hurricane Florence.

    There's an environmental justice component to this story

    Even if they're not widespread, hog waste spills can still be devastating to those who live nearby -- and many of the unfortunate neighbors are low-income people of color.

    Two epidemiology researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published a paper in 2014 with a straightforward title: "Industrial Hog Operations in North Carolina Disproportionately Impact African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians." They wrote, "Overflow of waste pits during heavy rain events results in massive spills of animal waste into neighboring communities and waterways."

    Tom Philpott explained more about that research in Mother Jones in 2017:

    As the late University of North Carolina researcher Steve Wing has demonstrated, [North Carolina's industrial hog] operations are tightly clustered in a few counties on the coastal plain—the very part of the state that housed the most enslaved people prior to the Civil War. In the decades since, the region has retained the state’s densest population of rural African-American residents.

    Even when hurricanes aren't on the horizon, activists are pushing to clean up industrial hog operations. “From acrid odors to polluted waterways, factory farms in North Carolina are directly harming some of our state’s most vulnerable populations, particularly low-income communities and communities of color,” Naeema Muhammad of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network said last year.

    Poor and rural communities of color are heavily affected by coal ash dumps as well. The New York Times reported last month on an environmental-justice campaign against coal ash pollution in North Carolina. Lisa Evans, a lawyer with the environmental group Earthjustice, told the Times, “Coal ash ponds are in rural areas, particularly in the Southeast. Those communities have less power and less of a voice.”

    The Trump administration recently loosened rules on coal ash disposal

    The first major rule finalized by Andrew Wheeler, acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), loosened Obama-era requirements for coal-ash disposal. The change, which will save the power industry millions of dollars a year, could lead to more dangerous pollution. The Washington Post reported on Wheeler’s move in July:

    Avner Vengosh, a Duke University expert on the environmental impacts of coal ash, said that scaling back monitoring requirements, in particular, could leave communities vulnerable to potential pollution.

    “We have very clear evidence that coal ash ponds are leaking into groundwater sources,” Vengosh said. “The question is, has it reached areas where people use it for drinking water? We just don’t know. That’s the problem.”

    The Trump administration is also going easy on factory farms like the industrial hog operations in North Carolina. Civil Eats reported in February that there's “been a decline in the number of inspections and enforcement actions by the [EPA] against concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) since the final years of the Obama administration.” Last year, more than 30 advocacy groups filed a legal petition calling on Trump's EPA to tighten rules to protect communities from factory farms.

    North Carolina Republicans aren't helping things either -- they've gone easy on coal plants and hog operations. And in 2012, the GOP-controlled state legislature actually passed a law banning state officials from considering the latest science regarding sea level rise when doing coastal planning. ABC reported on the development at the time:

    The law was drafted in response to an estimate by the state's Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) that the sea level will rise by 39 inches in the next century, prompting fears of costlier home insurance and accusations of anti-development alarmism among residents and developers in the state's coastal Outer Banks region.

    ...

    The bill's passage in June triggered nationwide scorn by those who argued that the state was deliberately blinding itself to the effects of climate change. In a segment on the "Colbert Report," comedian Stephen Colbert mocked North Carolina lawmakers' efforts as an attempt to outlaw science.

    "If your science gives you a result you don't like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved," he joked.

    As Hurricane Florence bears down on North Carolina, journalists should make sure that their stories include the people who'll be hurt the most by waste spills and other impacts, as well as the businesses and lawmakers who have been making such environmental disasters much more likely to occur.

  • Voter Fraud Myths Pushed By Trump Have Long Been Propagated By Right-Wing Media

    ››› ››› NICK FERNANDEZ & CAT DUFFY

    Throughout his campaign, and continuing now as President, Donald Trump has made a series of baseless claims alleging mass voter fraud in order to either preemptively cast doubt on the election results, or to dispute the fact he didn’t win the popular vote. Trump’s allegations, which ranged from “people are going to walk in” and “vote ten times,” to claiming “he would have won the popular vote had it not been for millions of illegal votes,” and most recently his decision to ask for “a major investigation into voter fraud” are based on a series of myths that right-wing media have pushed for years -- including the arguments that strict voter ID laws are needed to prevent voter fraud, that dead people are voting, and that there is widespread noncitizen voting.

  • Media Slam Trump For Invoking A Deadly, "Unabashedly Racist" Deportation Program As A Model For His Immigration Plans

    ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G. & BRENNAN SUEN

    Media outlets slammed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for invoking President Dwight Eisenhower's "inhumane" and "unabashedly racist" deportation program as a blueprint for his own immigration plans, explaining that the program -- derogatorily called "Operation Wetback" -- resulted in dozens of immigrant deaths and used methods described as "indescribable scenes of human misery and tragedy."

  • Fox News Seizes On Rubio's Debate Comments To Push Falsehood About Clinton And Benghazi

    ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    Following the October 28 CNBC Republican presidential debate, Fox News repeatedly championed the performance of Sen. Marco Rubio and his claim that Hillary Clinton "got exposed as a liar" during her Benghazi testimony for supposedly misleading the public about the cause of the Benghazi attacks. That allegation has been repeatedly debunked by journalists at numerous media outlets for disregarding the fact that intelligence was rapidly evolving in the immediate aftermath of the attacks and ignoring the possibility that "the attacks could be both an example of terrorism and influenced by outrage over the video."

  • Media Dismantle Rep. Jim Jordan's "Smoking Gun" Evidence That Clinton Deliberately Misinformed About Benghazi

    ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY

    Media outlets refuted Rep. Jim Jordan's (R-OH) baseless claim that Hillary Clinton deliberately misled the public about the cause of the Benghazi, explaining that his allegations disregarded how intelligence evolved in the immediate aftermath of the attacks and ignored the possibility that "the attacks could be both an example of terrorism and influenced by outrage over the video."

  • How The Rolling Stone Rape Story Failure Has -- And Hasn't -- Changed Media Coverage

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Three months after a Columbia University investigation found major journalistic errors in a Rolling Stone report on campus sexual assault at the University of Virginia, major news outlets say they have not adjusted their approach to covering similar stories. But rape survivor advocates say they have seen less coverage of the issue since the failures of the Rolling Stone report came to light, and, in some cases, an increased hesitancy in trusting survivors' accounts.

    The November 2014 Rolling Stone article "A Rape on Campus" prominently featured the story of "Jackie," a pseudonymous University of Virginia student who told the outlet she was gang-raped in 2012 at a fraternity party.

    After initially receiving praise, the article came under fire for an apparent failure to seek comment from the alleged suspects. Other factual questions arose, prompting Rolling Stone to commission an investigation with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and its dean, Steve Coll.

    That investigation, released in early April, found the Rolling Stone story was a "journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine's editors to reconsider publishing Jackie's narrative so prominently, if at all."

    Though the report outlined specific failures in the Rolling Stone editorial process (while declining to adjudicate exactly what happened to "Jackie"), it also pointed to broader problems in how all outlets cover sexual assault, and offered some suggestions on "how journalists might begin to define best practices when reporting about rape cases on campus or elsewhere." It recommended, for example, that journalists spend time further deliberating how best to balance sensitivity to victims with the demands of verification, and how best to corroborate survivor accounts.

    In interviews with Media Matters, editors from The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and other outlets said they have not adjusted their approach to covering the stories of rape survivors in light of the Rolling Stone mess and the resulting Columbia report.

    Several editors said that the Rolling Stone saga would not cause them to believe survivors less or hesitate to publicize their stories.

    "I don't think that story holds any larger lessons about rape coverage, or whether one should believe alleged assault victims," New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet told Media Matters via email. "It was a poorly-done story ... It doesn't make me any more or less likely to believe a source. We always verify, get the other side, and report the heck out of a story, no matter the subject."

    Other editors who spoke with Media Matters maintain their coverage will be unaffected.

    "It hasn't, or won't change how we view these stories," said David Callaway, editor of USA Today. "I always thought the idea that news organizations would cut back on their coverage because of one poor example seemed a bit far-fetched. We still get people coming to us with stories or requests for coverage many times a day, and the ones we choose to go after we only pursue if we can verify. We have detailed guidelines on sourcing and fairness in coverage and we have no plans to change those in the wake of the Rolling Stone debacle."

  • Rolling Stone And The Debate Over Sexual Assault Reporting Standards

    Blog ››› ››› HANNAH GROCH-BEGLEY

    UVA Rape report in Rolling Stone

    A Rolling Stone article about campus rape and how universities respond to sexual assault has raised an important debate about what the proper standards for reporting on sexual assault should be -- but it's crucial that whatever standards are ultimately chosen, they don't make it impossible to tell these stories.

    A University of Virginia student named Jackie told Rolling Stone that she was gang raped in 2012 by members of a campus fraternity, and that campus administrators failed to investigate her story when she reported it. Jackie was one of several students in the piece who criticized UVA's response to sexual assaults, and the school is currently under federal investigation for its handling of such cases.

    The Rolling Stone article initially received widespread acclaim and triggered swift action from UVA. But it has since come under fire from critics who say that the magazine violated journalism best practices, particularly with regard to its handling of the alleged assailants. Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the article, and Rolling Stone, have since explained that they corroborated Jackie's story by talking to dozens of her friends, in part to ensure that she had consistently told the same story for years, but were unable to reach the accused rapists (one of whom is identified with the pseudonym "Drew" and others who are not identified at all) for comment -- a fact which was omitted in the article. (UPDATE: After the publication of this post NPR's David Folkenflik brought to our attention that in an interview with him, Erdely said she had not contacted the alleged assailant at the request of Jackie. Her editor Sean Woods made similar statements to The New Republic. These comments appear to contradict other statements Erdely gave to Slate and Woods gave to The Washington Post, on which the criticisms referenced in this post were based.)

    A number of journalists have criticized Erdely for this omission. Slate's Hanna Rosin and Allison Benedikt wrote that the "basic rules of reporting a story like this" include doing everything possible to reach the alleged assailant, and, if one is unable to do so, including a sentence "explaining that you tried -- and explaining how you tried." They criticize Rolling Stone for failing to include such a sentence, writing that this is "absolutely necessary, because it tells readers you tried your best to get the other side of the story."

    The Washington Post's Erik Wemple took this critique a step further, saying that Rolling Stone had "whiff[ed]" with the article and suggesting they should have held the piece until they were able to name the accused in print (Erdely says she had agreed to Jackie's request "not to name the individuals because she's so fearful of them"), or find some other "solid" evidence:

    The publication says it didn't name the perpetrators because Jackie is "so fearful of them. That was something we agreed on," Erdely commented. That's a compelling reason -- to hold the story until Jackie felt comfortable naming them; or until she filed a complaint; or until something more solid on the case emerged.

    In voicing these concerns about Erdely's journalistic practices, these reporters are proposing that there is a standard these types of stories should meet -- perhaps before they can even be published -- which includes a high bar for finding of proof, including doing everything in the reporter's power to identify and contact the accused, informing the reader of those attempts, and possibly going as far as to include their name and perspective in the piece.

    Reporters may find such standards appropriate. Sexual assault, and particularly gang rape, is a terrible crime, and it is logical that journalists would want to tread carefully when assessing the validity of accusations. Rosin's and Benedikt's argument that it would at the very least have been simple for Erdely to include a sentence noting she had attempted to reach out seems reasonable.

    However, previous reports on sexual assaults -- including from the Post and Slate -- have not met these standards, and have not come under similar scrutiny or criticism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson, who has said he was not involved in the editing of this particular piece, tweeted several examples of reporting on sexual assault in which publications did not include any mention of ever attempting to contact the accused for comment and did not name the alleged perpetrator.

  • More On Roger Ailes And His "Bomb-Proof" Windows

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    In Tim Dickinson's Rolling Stone profile of paranoid Fox News chief Roger Ailes, one of the strangest revelations was that when he first moved into the cable channel's headquarters on Sixth Avenue in New York City, Ailes had concerns about his safety. Specifically, he was nervous the gays would firebomb his office.

    Or something. (Question: If Ailes planned on running a "fair and balanced" news operation, why would gays object?)

    In Rolling Stone, the odd Ailes tale was relayed by Dan Cooper, one of Ailes' earliest lieutenants during Fox News' 1990's launch. Cooper though, soon had a falling out and was banished from Ailes' orbit.

    Several years ago, Cooper turned to the Internet to write about his Fox News experiences and began posting chapters to his memoir, Naked Lunch, online. ("The best thing that ever happened to Roger Ailes was 9/11… It gave him the opportunity to throw gasoline on the bonfire he had already set to scorch and destroy traditional liberal values.")

    According to Cooper, here's his telling of Ailes' weird obsession with bomb-proof windows:

    This unlikely building was the United States headquarters of News Corporation. On the building's second floor, clearly visible through the London Planes, through the row of massive windows, was The Crystal Palace. From the street, looking at the building, and also from the 48th Street side, passersby could see directly into The Crystal Palace, and once settled in, to Roger Ailes at work. Roger liked the vast dimensions of The Crystal Palace, the glass Diller table, and the ocean liner desk he ordered for himself. But Roger feared the fragility, the potential danger, of the glass windows. And so it came to pass that Roger Ailes summoned me to The Crystal Palace, and told me "I want all these windows replaced with bomb-proof glass".

    "Of course", I said, and promptly called Rudy Nazath, the architect who was my collaborator on the design of the entire Fox News editorial and production facility in the building.

    Rudy told me "There is no such thing as bomb-proof glass. I don't even think there's protective plastic or glass that can prevent an assault rifle if it's fired up close. We can get the heaviest grade bullet-proof glass available, but what do you need it for?" I didn't know.

    So I asked Roger. "Roger, do you mind if I ask why the glass should be bomb-proof?"

    Roger said "Because as soon as we're on the air, homosexual activists are going to be down there every day protesting". He chuckled "And who knows what the hell they'll do". Roger was worried that gays might bomb him.