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Detroit, Gaza, and the Continuing Erosion of Traditional Media

The story of the Detroit water crisis is getting a familiar treatment in the media. Once again a major story of mass activism at home is getting relatively short shrift while international stories get saturation coverage. In the same way that protests abroad dominated American headlines while those in Madison were largely ignored, efforts to stop the water shutoffs are barely recognized in favor of news from Ukraine and Gaza.

Those stories are important as well, but it seems that big media outlets have an almost institutional reluctance to report on major events if they don’t affect the right people. While cultural flash points like abortion and marriage equality get at least some coverage, economic ones struggle to make it on the radar – barring a dramatic moment like Anthony Bologna’s pepper spraying of kettled protesters. (For as big a story as Occupy Wall Street became, it was largely ignored by mainstream outlets until that footage went viral.)

Part of the reason is probably that even large news organizations are not equipped to cover certain stories. Newspapers have business sections, but not labor or worker sections, so a story like the union uprising in Madison didn’t have a natural home. Sometimes a story might be too depressing, and the water shutoffs in Detroit sure as hell clear that bar. Why bring your readers down by telling them about low income people being forced into unlivable conditions, right?

But I think outlets are tempted to ignore these stories for perhaps an even more powerful reason: they make too fundamental a critique of our contemporary capitalist narrative. For the last several decades we have been told that capital is mobile; unions are archaic; free trade and globalization are inevitable; government is sclerotic, bureaucratic and ineffective; and privatization is efficient.

The Detroit water crisis cuts against much of that. As Rose Hackman points out in a terrific piece, the shutoffs are being done as part of an effort to privatize the municipal water supply. It is being rammed through by an autocrat who has replaced the city’s democratically elected leaders. It is being overseen (and outsourced, naturally) by a department stocked with business executives – the kind of people we are routinely assured have the management experience to whip things into shape. These are all supposed to be best practices, yet they add up to the unconscionable infliction of misery on a mass scale. How can this be reported without calling into question the very way we are told the world works these days?

Detroit papers have by turns reported it using tortured attempts at balance (“Critics have portrayed water service as an essential human right”) (via), while Hackman writes of The Detroit News jeering at “water scofflaws.” (She also notes the stigmatizing: painting blue lines in front of houses that have had water turned off. This, along with Poor Doors, are the latest examples of the hardy perennial favorite You Should Be Ashamed For Not Having Enough Money.) Meanwhile, throwing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars at sports team owners is business as usual, impossibly crowded classrooms are an experiment, and curious anomalies escape notice.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. The international community has taken notice, and at least some highly placed citizens are aware of that. Visibility and shame from outside might compensate for the lack of reporting here. The community has been actively resisting the shutoffs and getting the word out, with or without mass media coverage. Here might be the most interesting twist: The war in Gaza is one of the stories crowding out coverage of Detroit, and many have begun to realize how social media is allowing the kind of on-the-ground eyewitness reporting that was previously almost impossible.

That kind of coverage has, for the first time, outflanked Israel’s ability to shape narratives to its liking. Yet the same thing is happening in Detroit as citizens protest, risk arrest in blockades and otherwise try to put themselves in the way of this great injustice. Their efforts from the scene can now be viewed by the whole world, and have the same potential to route around traditional gatekeepers’ attempts to frame the story. It would be quite a shock if, while those gatekeepers marvel from thousands of miles away as one seemingly unshakable pillar falls, their own begins to crack at the foundation.

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