Sunday, June 3, 2018

Treating A Press Release As News: Building Nuclear Weapons Of Mass Destruction Reported As A Win-Win

Attending investigative reporter Alex Nunes' talk in Portland last night was well worth being up past my bedtime. Nunes (who pronounces his name Noonz) reports from the Providence area on federal contracts and state and local subsidies for weapons manufacturer General Dynamics. GD does business in Rhode Island and Connecticut as Electric Boat and in Maine as Bath Iron Works. Nunes' investigative reporting for the Providence Journal is worth a read for anyone tracking the influence of money in politics.

Much of the data he shared wasn't new to me as I've been following the reporting on his website, Nunes' Weekly, which he created to share stories that editors delay or avoid publishing altogether. Reflective of a sociology major who went on to earn a masters degree in journalism, Nunes has a tendency to look at the connected big picture when reporting a story. For instance, how Maine taxpayers vigorously pushed back against the most recent tax giveaways to GD, which at the state level took the form of bill LD1781. By contrast, job training grants to GD in the millions were suddenly announced and drew minimal resistance in Connecticut and Rhode Island (a legislative bait-and-switch maneuver preceded the Connecticut announcement).

Since state and local officials in New England always claim to support tax giveaways for wealthy corporations like GD because they create jobs, Nunes decided to report on them from a business angle. (Talk of patriotism is left to congressional delegations.)

Nunes noted that most media take press releases with vague claims about GD creating "good jobs" or "middle class jobs" as gospel and don't bother to look below the surface at the realities underpinning the public relations hype.

His investigations found that many Electric Boat workers, who start at salaries around $35,000, have low enough incomes to qualify for Medicaid and public housing.

It was last night's lively discussion around why journalists ignore truth in favor of regurgitating corporate press releases that interested me most. Once trained as a journalist, now working as an educator in the public schools, I monitor the control of information as a key element in our downslide toward kleptocracy.

One audience member asked Nunes, who is also an adjunct professor, what journalism schools today are teaching when their graduates seem content to "regurgitate talking points" e.g. Rhode Island's governor calling an Electric Boat contract a win-win being reported widely as if the announcement in itself were news. His reply: "Communications degrees have become more cookie cutter, merging public relations and journalism" also noting that it's likely that "the general corporate brainwashing that has gone on in this country has seeped into news rooms."

"Pack journalism" also manifests; the competition is to be the first to print a story that other media outlets will also report, but "no one wants to be out on a limb with a story no one else is covering."

Nunes discussed his own experiences with editors responding to his investigative pieces. 
He observed that if a reporter writes a piece saying how great a senator is doing, that's seen as commentary and it's okay. But reporters are "controversialized if you write a piece that's critical of what your senator is doing. That's not seen as news, that you being an activist.

Challenging the status quo or challenging authority I guess is something you're not supposed to do."

Not if you want to work for corporate media anyway. Nunes was fired as a stringer for one news outlet who cited reporting published on his website as making editors uncomfortable, and offered a job by another if he would "tone it down" on criticizing corporate entities in his state; he declined.

Noting that it was an ironic thing to say to a roomful of peace activists at USM last night he described the situation with a metaphor: "It's like journalists have gotten themselves into a position where they're in a fight with both hands tied behind their back."

The disconnect between treating a press release as news rather than digging into the facts concealed by the public relations is starkly evidenced by bland corporate reporting on Electric Boat's new contract to build nuclear weaponized submarines. Local news outlets gush over the great jobs created without appearing to notice that the workers will be engaged in building weapons of mass destruction.

Nunes commented, "I wanted to cover that story because I believe if a community is building nuclear weapons, there ought to be a discussion on it."

Amen to that.

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