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Published:November 12th, 2007 11:24 EST
The Story Behind Those Fires

The Story Behind Those Fires

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

(This is the transcript of Hot Copy No. 35, Del Marbrook’s podcasts for The Student Operated Press)

If you imagine any subject as a puzzle with a thousand pieces you can begin to visualize how the press covers the news. It reports this piece and that piece, or this group of pieces and that group, but the entire picture remains fragmented. You may see a face, but not a crowd. A country but not a continent. An issue but not its context.

Take the disastrous California fires, which are becoming an annual event. We get the firefighting. We get the usual photo opportunities—you know, the governor or the president flying to the scene and saying  something all too predictable. We get the evacuations. The dislocation and human misery. And finally, like icing on the cake, we get the insurance story—how State Farm, for example, is no longer insuring California homes. All this passes for the big picture. But it isn’t the big picture. It’s merely a handful of pieces, as if they had been chucked into the air in the hope that they would come down intelligibly.

What is missing? What is missing from the California fires story is pretty much what was missing from the run-up to the catastrophic Iraq war. It’s called context. What are the consequences to our society of an unregulated insurance industry making all it can in a region or a state and then picking up its marbles and saying it won’t insure anyone anymore? What are the consequences of a state failing to conserve enough water or enough land to create firebreaks? Once the fires are out, once the death and destruction are reported, the press moves on, but the underlying problem remains and will come back to haunt us again. Is this responsible journalism or is it news as entertainment? What is the difference between this kind of reporting and a televised football game?

For years and years, state hydrographers have been conducting studies and warning various towns, cities, and counties across the nation that the available water supply will not withstand the stress of unrestrained development. Have they been heard? The press will tell you, Sure, we reported that story on November 23, 1994. And sure enough, the story was reported. The trouble is that it’s not a one-day story. It’s an everyday story. It’s a story every time a developer brings a new project to a town or county or city board. It’s a story every time taxes are discussed. Why? Because if you overdevelop and then run out of water, you will have to raise everybody’s taxes in order to bring in water somehow. But all those boards and reporters heard only the developer, saying that he would create new jobs and broaden the tax base. Well, he did create new jobs for a year or two. And he did broaden the tax base for a year or two, until it was discovered that the cost of providing services to all these new developments would far outweigh the new jobs and the new taxes. But that eventuality was never raised when all those stories were written about the zoning board approving the project, and the town board approving it, and the politicians raving about the new economy while they lined their own pockets with bribes from the developers. And nobody ever mentioned the state hydrographer again. A lot was written about the property owner’s right to develop his own land. Nobody is going to tell me how many houses I can build on my land, we heard. But we didn’t hear an ongoing discussion about what would happen when modest homeowners were no longer able to hold on to their homes in old age because unrestrained development had pushed taxes through the roof. We didn’t hear about the consequences of the state not buying enough land for conservation in order to create firebreaks, which is what happened in California.

Why didn’t we have this discussion? Well, the hydrographer doesn’t advertise in your local newspaper, but the developers do. The scientists at the state university don’t advertise, but the developers do, and so do all the building supply wholesalers, and all the realtors. In other words, the people who have everything to gain from having no discussion--they all advertise in news outlets, and that’s why the context of these so-called breaking stories is never provided. They are not breaking stories. Not at all. That’s just hype. Once a state in its penny-wise and pound-foolish folly decides not to set aside enough land for firebreaks, that’s a breaking story, because you can bet your retirement there will be disastrous fires. Once a community foolishly opens the door to unrestrained development, in spite of what hydrographers and other scientists have told it, that’s your breaking story. The rest is just the inevitable follow-up. There will be higher taxes. There will be costly droughts. There will be huge municipal bond issues for sewer and water treatment when the wells become polluted or run dry and the septic systems stop working. There will be people on fixed incomes giving up their homes and there will be children and grandchildren unable to inherit those homes because of taxes, and nobody will pin the blame on the original fools who gave away the store for a song: The siren song of unlimited development.

Just as we never raise the issue in labor-management disputes of how to define an ethical profit margin, so we never question whether all development is good.

Everything is connected to everything else. But the press reports the news as if the thigh bone were not connected to the shin bone.

This is a buy now/pay later society, and the press serves it, which means the press does not serve the common good, because in a society that truly cares about its grandchildren what the state hydrographer had to say would be heard, again and again. The developers paint him as an outsider trying to tell you how to handle your own land, but the truth is that he is paid by your taxes, and the developers don’t give a damn about your taxes.

I’ve said that in our society everything is a business story. It sounds too cynical to warrant credibility. But when you think about it, the California fires story is a monumental business story. There will be waffling and cheating and obfuscating by the insurance companies. There will be class-action suits. There will be prosecutions. There will be higher taxes. There will be mudslides in the spring because the chaparral has been burned off, and so in the spring we will see houses sliding down hills or buried in mud instead of burning. Underlying all this is money. And even further under this mountain of individual stories is a monstrous contempt for the environment. The rich want to live on hills and shores with broad vistas, so everybody else must pay the price.

It isn’t easy to regulate developers. Most jurisdictions don’t have the stomach for it. They are already strapped for taxes and the developer drives up in his Lexus and promises them jobs. He takes the local establishment out to lunch. He finds ways to do them favors. He always knows somebody who can help their sons or daughters land a job or get into a school. He is their new best friend. And he’s the press’s new best friend, because he is either already advertising or promises to advertise soon. He is the community’s new shining knight, and the devil takes the hindmost. Well, guess what, the devil is watching that hindmost, and the between the servile press and the gullible local government, the community doesn’t stand a chance. Where is the long-term discussion about whether it is good for all communities to become suburbs? Where is the discussion about whether relentless urbanization is good for the region or the state or the nation? Nobody has a vested interest in this discussion, and that is why it falls by the wayside. There are people more than capable of carrying out this discussion, but they have been marginalized by an irresponsible press, businessmen who make no distinction between salesmanship and lying, and local residents who don’t trust anyone they didn’t grow up with, .

The press is in ill repute these days because it should be, not because it has been maligned. The press will always be maligned, because that is how big shots worm out of responsibility for their actions. They blame it on the press. The press is not trusted because it shouldn’t be trusted. It’s more concerned with its bottom line than with its special responsibility to inform the republic. Sometimes it gets away with irresponsibility because of its institutional aura. For example, it has come down to us as history that Prohibition, in the form of the Volstead Act of 1919, was a resounding failure. By whose standards did it fail? The press was an interested and prejudiced party, because it derived huge amounts of advertising revenue from alcohol. The party line was invented that Prohibition gave rise to unprecedented criminal activity and gang warfare. But the truth is that the Volstead Act was never fully embraced by the major cities, and therefore it wasn’t enforced aggressively. The even more startling truth is that from a medical and psychiatric viewpoint Prohibition was a smashing success. Deaths by liver disease and other alcohol-related problems dropped dramatically,  for example, and to this day there are plenty of statistics to show it. So we have a thoroughly skewed picture of what happened between 1919 and 1933, when the act was declared unconstitutional and Prohibition ended. The press did not do its job because it was an interested party. And to this day the press is not doing its job when it comes to informing our society about the role alcohol plays.

I’ll give you some examples. First, did you know that alcohol kills more Americans than all the other controlled substances combined? Did you know that alcoholism drives up insurance costs because many of the symptoms that are being treated are actually alcohol-related, and neither the doctor nor the patient wishes to face up to that particular truth? What would be the consequences if the press began to report on the problem of addiction as if alcohol were an addictive substance that is statistically more dangerous than the other substances we are spending billions of dollars--unsuccessfully--to control? Do you get the picture? No, you probably don’t, because it has been tinkered deliberately by a press that does not choose to present the whole picture in its proper context. Alcohol is legal. The alcohol industry advertises. End of story. If cocaine dealers advertised as much as the alcohol industry, you would get a different story. Is this a free press? No, it is a commercially censored press. Censoring means not only leaving something out of the picture, it can also mean distorting the picture. Here’s another aspect to the alcohol scandal. We can never get a true picture of mental disease in our country because alcohol is the medication of choice and it disguises the symptoms. Still trust the press to tell you what’s going on? It tells you what it wants you to think is going on. Not because the reporters and editors are bad or dishonest people, but simply because they would have no jobs if they did not read the corporate mind and consent to serve it.  That is why we must keep our eyes on the Internet, because it is already providing an alternative to this corporate stranglehold on the news, and that of course is one reason the telecommunications corporations are trying to literally buy it from a docile Congress.

Let me tell you another aspect to the alcohol story. If you could become a fly on the walls on Congress and witness the role alcohol plays in the lifestyle of the people passing our laws you would never again believe any of them when they start fulminating about the so-called war on drugs. The so-called war on drugs is a billion-dollar scam, bigger even than the Iraq war scam.

 You have been listening to Hot Copy. I’m Del Marbrook, and if you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at

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