The Raid Sounded Like a Freight Train
I fairly regularly listen to National Public Radio’s news programs on my way to and from work. I really don’t know why I do it. It is either some sort of strange impulse of masochism or else it’s simply because other morning talk shows on regular formats drive me nuts. Possibly it is because NPR employs some very talented writers and I have a real weakness for a well turned phrase, especially in the spoken word. Whether the cause is boredom or a dangerous curiosity, the pleasure I recieve from listening is somewhat akin to plunging my head in a pot of boiling water. Halfway to work I’m screaming invectives at the radio and must change the station to something more soothing – like the local heavy metal station – in order to calm down.
The problem with NPR is that for all their talent with well cut words, they aren’t actually the news agency that they might at first blush seem to be. Nor are they in my opinion actually old media, though their biases totter in the same direction. Ultimately, NPR is not designed to have me as an audience. This is because NPR is in fact new media in old media garb, and like many political bloggers with the same basic economics, their coinage isn’t news or reporting so much as affirmation of their audiences already held views together with passionate stirring language denouncing the evils of their political foes. In this, they are no more news agency than Rush Limbaugh or the 700 Club. Or perhaps, more flatteringly and more aptly, with their familiarly irritating pledge drives, they are the secular equivalent of KLOVE. The point is that Rush Limbaugh, irritating though he may be when talking about the environment with a naivety akin to Herman Melville’s pronouncements about whale, at least knows he isn’t a journalist, understands he’s an entertainer, and sells advertising spots that don’t pretend to be anything but advertising. NPR doesn’t even have introspection enough to know what they are or what they actually do.
But they can really turn a phrase.
I could devote an entire daily blog just to responding to NPR’s interminable biases and shallow propaganda. Other than the effort involved, the two things holding me back from such a blogging frenzy are first, as Schiller coined and Asimov reminds us: ‘Against stupidity, even the gods themselves contend in vain.’ The second is that I can’t generally stand to listen to NPR for more than a few minutes at a time, and they don’t post full transcripts on line.
Today, as on many occasions, while subjecting my brain to its twice daily abuse, I heard a story that I felt someone ought to respond to. This time, I will.
Immigration is a complex topic. It has far reaching economic and social consequence, not only in this country but in the home countries of the immigrants. Immigration is deeply wedded to our history and our national myths, and the role of immigration in the fabric of our society has changed as our nation’s circumstances have changed. The story of immigration is in many ways the story of our country – good and bad. So naturally, NPR’s take on it is neither complex nor nuanced nor particularly thoughtful.
NPR’s take on it can generally be summed up as: “Illegal immigrants good.” If there is anything to add to that, it is generally, “Opponents of illegal immigration are cruel racists.” Naturally, NPR isn’t even honest enough with the audience to present thier view in those blunt terms.
This story is typical in its attempt to push all the regular buttons while circling completely around anything like facts or journalistic balance.
The tone of the story is the one you would adopt if you were covering a disaster. From the coverage, you might expect that the town had been hit by a tornado. And it has the sort of depth of coverage you would expect on covering a simple tragedy like a natural disaster. After all, there aren’t really two sides of the story when it comes to covering a tornado. You interview the mothers. You interview the local priest. You talk about the deep wounds in the town. That’s about all there is to say, and the only thing missing is some local trying to explain how it sounded like a freight train.
NPR would have you believe that there really aren’t two sides of the story when it comes to covering immigration.
But listen to the story a second time. Did you notice that the word ‘illegal’ was not once used in the entire story? Dangerously honest words like that can’t be used less the tone of the story depart from grieving for a tragedy. There is only a single mention of the fact that law-breaking was involved, either by the immigrants or by the company that hired them, when it is admitted that 300 immigrants pled guilty to violating US immigration and labor laws.
We are left no doubt where the writer stands on the issues. The magnitude of the discomfort of this community is truly brought home in stirring languages. All words of blame are heaped on ‘the raid’ has the sort of faceless character of ‘the storm’ or the ‘the quake’. We know where the villain is, or rather, where the writer thinks we should find it. But that is just one side of the story.
If this story had two sides, what would it say?
No members of law enforcement get even thier five second sound bite. The prosecuting attorney is not allowed to present his case. There are no spokespersons on behalf of law and order. We are not told that that Agriprocessors knowingly recruited illegal immigrants and induced them to work in substandard unsafe conditions for very little pay. I think we probably should have that context.
We probably should also be informed that the raid on Agriprocessors was hardly random. It came in the wake of a disturbing series of ethical violations by the company. First there was the documentation of animal cruelty so severe it appalled not just the usual suspects at PETA, but pretty much everyone including happy hamburger eaters like myself. Then there was the company’s refusal to bargain for higher wages or better working conditions when the company’s workers refused United Food and Commercial Workers union United Food and Commercial Workers union. Then there was the admission that Agriprocessors had been regularly dumping untreated waste in to nearby rivers. There was no comment in the story on the fact that some of the evidence that led to the raid included the physical abuse of the laborers by their supervisors, or that the immigrants for their part had been attempting to cook up methamphetamine. What could go wrong mixing narcotics and an abattoir?
None of the competitors of Agriprocessors are interviewed. No former owners of family run kosher meat packing companies put out of business by a giant like Agriprocessors are interviewed. No one is allowed to say that Agriprocessors low wages garnered it an unfair economic advantage against its rivals. There is allusion to the benefit of the plant to the local economy, but very little mention of the damaging impact and loss of jobs it might have caused elsewhere. For once in a case of corruption by a corporate giant, NPR is strangely silent.
Local school officials are interviewed complaining that they will now, because of reduced attendance, receive less money from the state and federal government. No mention is made of the fact that the American tax payer had been forced to subsidize the education of illegal immigrants. No mention is made of the fact that for the money to go to Postville, it had to be taken from school districts trying to teach your kids. Nor is there any statements by the local school board on the children, some as young as 13, found at the meat packing facility at the time of the raid. No attempt to track how much of your money went to welfare to support immigrants who didn’t have fair wages. No complaints are made about how illegal immigration drives down working wages in the social classes least able to afford it, nor the damaging social impact that this has to our country in creating unemployment, vagrancy, mendicancy, and crime. Is it that illegal immigrants do the jobs that Americans won’t do, or do they do the jobs that Americans won’t do under the conditions and pay that companies can get away with when employing illegal immigrants?
No, the sole expression of this journalist is shock and disbelief that immigration officials, agents of the US government, would perpetrate such a tragedy by deciding to do their duty and enforcing the law. No thought whatsoever is given to the seemingly novel idea that perhaps enforcing the law is best for everyone, and what really created this particular tragedy wasn’t the enforcement of the law but the fact that the law went unenforced for so long.
Animal rights, clean water, living wages, and worker’s rights are some of the causes you’d think liberals would be strongly on the side of, especially when against the usual liberal bugaboo – ‘Big Business’. But in this case, all those values are tossed out into the swill pond because the town supposedly served as a ‘multicultural model’.
It is not possible to have a functional democracy if there isn’t a functional conversation. It isn’t really possible to have a conversation when everyone involved is only speaking to themselves and has no interest in addressing the complexity of the issue or the difficult facts on either side. I am very much in favor of there being a Rush Limbaugh and an NPR. I think on the whole both are good for America. But, I am very much not in favor of the extent of the national debate being two sides doing nothing but validating the biases of their primary audience.
It is enough to make you wonder whether the ability to write stirringly is even an important qualification in a journalist. Perhaps if someone wishes to style themselves journalists, perhaps they shouldn’t judge themselves by the same standards as poets or entertainers.
Even though, I admit I’d miss the poetry.