Social justice isn’t news anymore

During most of my nearly three decades as a newspaper reporter, I covered social justice issues, religion and nonprofits.

I wrote stories about domestic violence, living wage campaigns, poverty issues, disabilities, and state and federal programs that weren’t doing their jobs.

That social issues/nonprofits beat is going away at the Asheville Citizen-Times as of this week, when one-third of what’s left of the newsroom staff gets the ax.

No one knows how the 30-plus remaining people will put out a newspaper every day. Functions that once required 15 people are pared down to three people now.

It isn’t the fault of anyone locally — Gannett, which owns what’s left of the paper, has made cut after cut after cut. In the last five years, half the newsroom staff has been laid off as some functions have been relegated to a central hub. The page design you see was done in Louisville, Ky., or Greenville, SC. The printing is done in Greenville. Ad design is done elsewhere; in all about one-third of the staff that was here 10 years ago remains to put out an ever-shrinking, ever more crappy excuse for a newspaper.

Craig Dubow, Gannett’s CEO makes more than $9 million in annual compensation; the corporation now is laying off fathers and mothers making under $50,000. A few months ago, they decided to lay off a non-citizen who is here legally, but who has two small children, a wife who can’t work because of visa restrictions and who was not eligible for unemployment compensation, even though he paid the same taxes as everyone else in the newsroom.

What happens now is that news just won’t get covered. What we used to call enterprise reporting — including investigative journalism — just won’t get done anymore. When Republicans in the state legislature cut $60 million from the state mental health system, which is already so bad the federal Department of Justice is investigating it, no one will know how harmful that will be to the population here in Western North Carolina because no one will be watching.

That was the function of newspapers when I got into the business: government watchdog.

But over the years, newspapers have been bought by a few huge — and conservative — coroprations. Staffs have been cut and news has become nothing more than the filler that goes between the ads. They’re not looking for an investigative piece about how the state is not caring for children with disabilities, or how people are dying because state psychiatric hospitals are releasing patients with no discharge plan. Readers won’t know if the state wants to close the places where people with disabilities work under close supervision, leaving both the people with disabilities and their caregivers in the lurch.

Newspapers don’t shame government anymore because they don’t cover government. Instead of the watchdogs of power, newspapers have become lapdogs.

Less than five years ago, I had an editor tell me public policy made his eyes glaze over. This was someone who supposedly was making editorial and coverage decisions.

This layoff is just another nail in the coffin of what used to be a good newspaper. There’s little reason to buy it anymore, yet the executives at Gannett corporate wonder why circulation keeps going down and fewer people want to buy ads. I can’t believe they’re really too stupid to figure it out; I believe it’s because they just don’t care about the people who work for them or the people who buy their papers.

A dozen capable news people will be out of work before the end of this week, and there’s no reason for it other than corporate greed.

When corporations are left to their own devices …

From Japanese television, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Finally, a week after the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi began, people are starting to question the information coming from officials at Tokyo Electric, which operates the plant. Might they be hedging just a little on the extent of the disaster?

Well, duh-huh, as my kids used to say. From today’s New York Times:

“The United States, with Japanese permission, began to put the intelligence-collection aircraft over the site, in hopes of gaining a view for Washington as well as its allies in Tokyo that did not rely on the announcements of officials from Tokyo Electric, which operates Fukushima Daiichi.

American officials say they suspect that the company has consistently underestimated the risk and moved too slowly to contain the damage.”

This is another instance where government can protect people from corporate power. If it were up to the corporations, and in this country it too often is, word of danger would never leak out, and if it were too obvious to keep secret, it always would be minimized.

A few days ago, Japan was advising people within a 10-mile radius to evacuate, and those within 20 miles of the plant to stay indoors, while US offiicials were telling people to move beyond 50 miles. The Japanese government was listening to the “experts” at Tokyo Electric; US officials were somewhat wary of the company’s assessment. Obviously, no one at Tokyo Electric had paid off US officials yet.

An article in yesterday’s San Fransisco Chronicle revealed decades of faked reports and ignorance of current science and standards.

The six rectors at Daiichi were made by three different companies: General Electric, which made reactors 1, 2 and 6; Toshiba, which made reactors 3 and 5; and Hitachi, which made reactor 4.

A spokesperson for GE said all six reactors passed inspection.

According to the article in the Chronicle, Mitsuhiko Tanaka was an engineer who worked on the $250 million steel pressure vessel that now houses the number 4 reactor. Tanaka knew about it because he helped to cover it up. Having to pay for a new container would have bankrupted the company, so documents were falsified and the faulty vessel was installed.

A decade later, Tanaka went to the government to tell them about the faulty vessel and he was ignored. 

Tokyo Electric knew about this and other problems at its plants, but covered them up.

Anti-nuclear activists say the government has routinely rubber-stamped the reports of power companies without doing its own inspections.

Sound familiar?

Last summer it was BP’s oil spill in the Gulf; this week it’s a nuclear meltdown in Japan.

Isn’t it time we stopped believing the corporations’ own assessments of the danger their operations pose and the extent of damages when the inevitable disaster happens?

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