The screaming silence of the Dakota Access Pipeline
November 7, 2016
The media has been a popular target of ire this election season, particularly from Donald Trump and his supporters alleging that the media is “rigging” the election by more favorably covering his opponent, Hillary Clinton. And the fact that, as the Columbia Journalism Review writes, “during this election season, several hundred news professionals have aligned themselves with Clinton or Trump by personally donating money” certainly doesn’t remove the bull's eye. But ignoring for a second what a cynical (and ironic) move it is to equate freedom of speech and the press with actual voter fraud -- on a mass level, no less -- and letting slide the demagogic nature of emboldening some voters’ standing biases about a candidate's opponent to deflect attention from his own ambitions and disqualifying flaws, and saying nothing of the ignorance polluting segments of the populace that allow these ploys to be effective to the degree in which they have: it's true, the media often deserves criticism.
For example, last month, news blew up over a letter sent to Congress by FBI Director James Comey indicating the bureau would be reviewing thousands of additional emails pertaining to Clinton’s time as secretary of state, after the FBI announced earlier this year that an investigation into Clinton’s use of an unsecured email account would yield no prosecution. The story ran widely. But multiple former federal prosecutors, in interviews with Media Matters, criticized the media’s handling of Comey’s communiques. Stuart M. Gerson, former acting U.S. Attorney General and a former Assistant Attorney General from 1989 to 1993, maintains that the “problem with it is we are in an age of scoop journalism...There is nothing in [Comey’s] letter that suggests there is a single culpable email, there is not even an indication of that…There should have been tougher interviews of sources…More real reporting.”
Media Matters tilts left, so it has its own objectives in covering what it views as skewed information about Clinton. But the argument made by Gerson and his colleagues is noteworthy. In a rush to cover the story, some media outlets do so insufficiently. And when that occurs, facts get silenced by the noise, loudmouth politicians manipulate the story, and voters can reach uninformed conclusions. All of which warrant legitimate criticism of the media.
That begets another problem, however, of a more general distrust of the media and atmosphere in which citizens begin to speciously criticize news outlets.
Exhibit A: Surfers travel to North Dakota to support pipeline protests
Here’s a short breakdown of the issue from the Washington Post on September 20th:
Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) which was supposed to carry 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the Dakotas to Illinois. The Standing Rock Sioux and other tribal nations claimed, with the support of environmentalist groups, that the pipeline would damage their environment and cultural sites. This decision is the result of a new kind of environmental activism that treats energy pipelines as a chokepoint for activities that contribute to global warming, and builds alliances with other groups to stop them.
Hawaiian Kamalei Alexander and California's Keegan Gibbs, with Leo Harrington, John Hildebrand, Teva Dexter and Theo Friesen, traveled to North Dakota and created a GoFundMe page to cover costs relating to joining the protests, according to surf site Stabmag.com. Surfing has a history of environmental activism, and Alexander said on an Instagram post that he was also traveling to North Dakota to show support for several Native American tribesman who visited Hawaii during their own land use battle last year. Indeed, as the group writes on its fundraising site: “this protest is about more than just standing up against a single pipeline. It is about standing up for the equal treatment of the peaceful protestors [sic], who have been illegally and unfairly treated.” These members of the surfing community formed mutual bonds around similar struggles and are taking action to strengthen them. It's exactly the kind of emerging activism the Post excerpt identifies.
But at issue here is an assertion farther down in the group’s GoFundMe statement. Gibbs started the page, titled "Our Stand with Standing Rock!", on November 1st. On it he contends:
Mainstream media has been mostly silent, so this trip is about creating content to help bring awareness to the protests, and most importantly, awareness to the mistreatment of the peaceful water protectors. Their First Ammendment [sic] Rights must be protected and respected.
The presidential election raucous has seized most of the media’s attention, no doubt. "According to data compiled by Mashable and the tracking firm Newswhip, out of 10 major news websites including WSJ.com and NYTimes.com, Trump content accounted for 38 percent of all engagement," notes Issie Lapowski for Wired. And the "media itself has become as much an entertainment channel as it is an information one," which doesn't reduce confusion.
But the news media has surely not stood “mostly silent” on the anti-pipeline uprising, its real tensions, and the broader implications the situation could have on environmental and energy policy. As the story develops, national and local outlets alike are contributing real reporting. Examples include:
Sept. 4 - National Public Radio: Dakota Access Pipeline Protests In North Dakota Turn Violent
Sept. 9 - The Atlantic: The Obama Administration Temporarily Blocks the Dakota Access Pipeline
Oct. 10 - Entertainment Weekly & People: Shailene Woodley arrested during protest against Dakota Access Pipeline
Oct. 11 - The New York Times: Ranchers Tote Guns as Tribes Dig In for Long Pipeline Fight
Oct. 12 - The New Yorker: Standing Rock: A New Moment for Native-American Rights
Nov. 5 - National Public Radio: Opposing Voices From North Dakota Pipeline Meet To Curb Clashes
That’s a small sample of the national print and online media; both the NY Times and the Washington Post are regularly publishing reports from the Associated Press wire. Grand Forks Herald and Bismarck Tribune, local papers, have been involved. Democracy Now! has a news page dedicated to the DAPL. Its executive producer Amy Goodman was issued an arrest warrant for trespassing while reporting on the conflict, and other journalists have been arrested and their equipment confiscated. (Goodman's warrant has since been dismissed.) ABC, CBS and NBC News, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Salon.com, Reuters, Al Jazeera: all feature multiple dispatches on the unfolding saga in North Dakota.
Television shows have tackled the topic. MSNBC's Lawrence O’Donnell aired a segment back on August 29th. Even the Daily Show with Trevor Noah produced a clip for its September 12th broadcast.
Media coverage is not in short supply. The Los Angeles Times -- Gibbs' city's paper -- ran a recent editorial in which it aptly described the United States government's complicated history with Native Americans as "often duplicitous" and urged the Obama administration to "withhold the permit allowing the pipeline to cross the Missouri River." Ditto the Editorial Board of the NY Times.
Perhaps Gibbs and company don’t follow these publications or listen to NPR or watch the Daily Show. Maybe their "mostly silent" charge stems from what they perceive to be inadequate coverage by 24-hour cable news networks. There’s little doubt the country has overdosed on Trump/Clinton, particularly on TV, and much to the dismissal of other newsworthy events. Of course, flaws will exist in the media's coverage, but valuable reporting has come out of North Dakota. The public's inattention isn't the media's fault.
I don’t know Gibbs or Alexander or why they think the mainstream media is ignoring the Dakota Pipeline protests. They seem genuine, and I don’t think they’re being dishonest. But claiming that the media/journalists are not applying due diligence to the subject -- as if its neglected to report on the violence and injustice the Standing Rock Sioux and its supporters have faced, or the very testing job law enforcement has in handling a volatile situation, or efforts to find a solution -- becomes problematic when, by virtue of their position as respected surfers, they impart greater influence than an average person and they're articulating an opinion that is not rooted in facts. They've received, as of November 7th, $9,167 towards their $10,000 goal, from 190 donations. How many of the 190 contributors may close their browsers thinking that the news is turning its back on the Dakota Access Pipeline issue -- also repeated by the surf sites Stab and The Inertia -- when it is so obviously not? That disserves the truth and the work of professional journalists on the ground in North Dakota. This conflict merits focus in it's own right, and guiding their supporters to the details that are out there would underpin the surfers' efforts.
My perspective, in this one instance, is as a journalist who believes these types of remarks can negatively affect people's willingness to seek accurate information on the important challenges we encounter. And as a surfer, this is a realm where I gather. Regardless of your position on the Dakota Access Pipeline -- and, to be sure, some Native Americans support it -- these six surfers should be commended for speaking up about a legitimate issue, and especially for mobilizing in defense of their cause. But suggesting that the media is culpable in keeping a lid on the DAPL story is just one small example of how a pernicious distrust of the media intensifies, how the contagion of misinformation infects, how demagogues rise to power.