Wednesday, August 10, 2016
By Kathleen Parker, Washington Post, 09 August 2016)
John Oliver in 2014. (Eric Liebowitz/HBO)
Every couple of years or so, I feel the need to whine about the plight of newspapers. It’s August. I’m Trumped out. So today’s the day. Except that HBO’s John Oliver beat me to it with the best defense of newspapers — ever. His recent “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” monologue about the suffering newspaper industry has gone viral in journalism circles but deserves a broader audience. Besides, it’s funny.
Leavening his important message with enough levity to keep the dopamine flowing, Oliver points out that most news outlets, faux, Fox and otherwise, essentially rely on newspapers for their material. This includes, he says, pulsing with self-awareness, Oliver himself. He’s sort of part of the problem, in other words, but at least he knows it, which makes it okay, sort of.
The problem: People want news but they don’t want to pay for it. Consequently, newspapers are failing while consumers get their information from comedy shows, talk shows and websites that essentially lift material for their own purposes.
But somewhere, somebody is sitting through a boring meeting, poring over data or interviewing someone who isn’t nearly as important as he thinks he is in order to produce a story that will become news. As Oliver points out, news is a food chain, yet with rare exceptions, the most important members of the chain are at the bottom, turning off the lights in newsrooms where gladiators, scholars and characters once roamed.
Some still do, though most are becoming rather long-ish in the tooth. (You can actually get that fixed, you know.) That any newspapers are surviving, if not for much longer in any recognizable form, can be attributed at least in some part to the dedication of people who really believe in the mission of a free press and are willing to work harder for less — tweeting, blogging, filming and whatnot in addition to trying to write worthy copy. Most of the poor slobs who fell in love with the printed word go unnoticed by any but their peers.
An exception is Marty Baron, the unassuming executive editor of The Post, recently featured in the film “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s stories under Baron’s leadership uncovering sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. It’s a good movie, not just because of great casting and acting but because it’s a great tale about a massive investigative effort that led to church reform and the beginning of healing for victims. (Not to worry, my pay comes as a percentage of the money I make for the company. This won’t make a dime of difference.)
My point — shared by Oliver — is that only newspapers are the brick and mortar of the Fourth Estate’s edifice. Only they have the wherewithal to do the kind of reporting that leads to stories such as “Spotlight.” What happens to the “news” when there are no newspapers left? We seem doomed to find out as people increasingly give up their newspaper subscriptions and seek information from free-content sources. And though newspapers have an online presence, it’s hard to get readers to pay for content. As Oliver says, now is a very good time to be a corrupt politician. Between buyouts, layoffs and news-space reductions, there’s hardly anyone paying attention.
Except, perhaps, to kitties. In a hilarious spinoff of “Spotlight” called “Stoplight,” Oliver shows a short film of a news meeting where the old-school reporter is pitching a story about city hall corruption. The rest of the staff, cheerful human topiaries to the reporter’s kudzu-draped mangrove — are more interested in a cat that looks like a raccoon. And then there’s Sam Zell, erstwhile owner of the Tribune Co., who summed up the sad trajectory of the nation’s interests and, perhaps, our future while speaking to Orlando Sentinel staffers in 2008. When he said he wanted to increase revenues by giving readers what they want, a female voice objected, “What readers want are puppy dogs.”
Zell exploded, calling her comment the sort of “journalistic arrogance of deciding that puppies don’t count. . . . Hopefully we get to the point where our revenue is so significant that we can do puppies and Iraq, okay? [Expletive] you.” Yes, he said that. Moral of the story: If you don’t subscribe to a newspaper, you don’t get to complain about the sorry state of journalism — and puppies you shall have.
(By Sheldon Whitehouse and Elizabeth Warren, Washington Post, 09 August 2016)
The writers, both Democrats, represent Rhode Island and Massachusetts, respectively, in the U.S. Senate.
For years, ExxonMobil actively advanced the notion that its products had little or no impact on the Earth’s environment. As recently as last year, it continued to fund organizations that play down the risks of carbon pollution. So what did ExxonMobil actually know about climate change? And when did it know it? Reasonable questions — particularly if ExxonMobil misled its investors about the long-term prospects of its business model or if the company fooled consumers into buying its products based on false claims.
So now the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York are investigating whether ExxonMobil violated state laws by knowingly misleading their residents and shareholders about climate change. Those investigations may be making ExxonMobil executives nervous, and their Republican friends in Congress are riding to the rescue. House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and his fellow committee Republicans have issued subpoenas demanding that the state officials fork over all materials relating to their investigations. They also targeted eight organizations, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Rockefeller Family Fund and Greenpeace, with similar subpoenas, demanding that they turn over internal communications related to what Smith describes as part of “coordinated efforts” to deprive ExxonMobil of its First Amendment rights.
Take a breath to absorb that: State attorneys general are investigating whether a fraud had been committed — something state AGs do every day. Sometimes AGs uncover fraud and sometimes they don’t, but if the evidence warrants it, the question of fraud will be resolved in open court, with all the evidence on public display. But instead of applauding the AGs for doing their jobs, this particular investigation against this particular oil company has brought down the wrath of congressional Republicans — and a swift effort to shut down the investigation before any evidence becomes public. So far, both AGs and all eight organizations have refused to comply. We say, good for them.
Let’s call this what it is: a master class in how big corporations rig the system. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Smith has received nearly $685,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry during his career. Now he is using his committee to harass the investigators and bully those who dare bring facts of possible corporate malfeasance to their attention. Undoubtedly, the oil industry wants no further attention, much less court-supervised discovery, into whether it has spent decades deliberately deceiving the public about the harms associated with its product. So here come Smith and his Republican colleagues with threats of legal action designed to sidetrack state investigations and silence groups petitioning the government to address potential wrongdoing.
There’s plenty for the AGs to investigate. The Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, issued a 2015 report, “Climate Deception Dossiers: Internal Fossil Fuel Industry Memos Reveal Decades of Corporate Disinformation,” and a 2007 report, “Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science.” Both reports document how the industry has protected its bottom line by funding front organizations and scientists to put out junk science contradicting what peer-reviewed scientists, and even the industry’s own experts, were saying about how its products affected the environment.
Union of Concerned Scientists President Ken Kimmell rightly dismissed the committee’s request, saying, “Mr. Smith makes no allegation that UCS violated any laws or regulations, and his claim, that providing information to attorneys general infringes on ExxonMobil’s rights, is nonsense.” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman are also fighting back. In separate letters, they told Smith that they have no intention of complying with the committee’s request. “The Subpoena brings us one step closer to a protracted, unnecessary legal confrontation which will only distract and detract from the work of our respective offices,” Schneiderman wrote.
Smith is not the first fossil-fuel-backed Republican in Congress to come to the industry’s defense. In May, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), recipient of $1.8 million in oil and gas industry contributions since 1989, called the state AGs’ investigation a “misuse of power” and “politics at its worst.” The greater abuse comes when congressional committees appear to operate at the behest of the industries they are meant to oversee.
Congressional investigations and hearings have a unique ability to focus a nation’s attention and bring facts of public importance to light. As committee chairmen, Smith and Inhofe can direct their committees’ authority as they see fit, but using that power to stifle lawful state investigations doesn’t advance the First Amendment, it tramples on it. So we have an alternative suggestion. If Chairmen Smith and Inhofe are concerned about the First Amendment rights of ExxonMobil, they should each call a hearing, ask ExxonMobil executives to testify, and give them the opportunity to set the record straight. A committee chairman could do little more to protect any person’s right to speak freely than to give that person the chance to testify before Congress. We would love to hear what they have to say.