404: Information Missing From Your Daily News
Summaries of under-reported news, short updates on previous Monitor stories
Monitor readers know that there's far more to the food shortages than that. In March, a report by Andreas Harsono described how he was unable to find essentials such as baby milk, cooking oil, and sugar, even searching in an urban area with plenty of stores. A more recent Monitor story describes child malnutrion and widespread hunger because few can afford to buy enough to eat, even though rice sells for only about 7 cents per pound. Now from the Asian press -- and completely unreported in the U.S. media -- comes news of hijackings of food trucks and raids on farms that strip them of food, presumably for resale on the black market.
According to Jakarta's Kompas, a mob of 2.000 men plundered a shrimp fishery for two days in mid-July, even though it contained only immature shrimp less than half grown. Kompas and other papers report that hijackers are targeting trucks with agricultural products like rice, shallots, and coconuts. A market official in Jakarta estimated that almost two-thirds of one week's shallot crop -- an important export for Central Java -- was stolen in transit.
The hunger will have long-reaching and unexpected effects. Coffee plantations also have been plundered, with 30 tons stolen on a single day in mid-July. Because thieves inexpertly ripped the beans from the plants, next year's crop is expected to be half of normal size, which means thousands of their workers will be jobless. (August 1, 1998)
Why your foreign news coverage is lousy The Indonesian story above is just another example of shoddy coverage of foreign news by the American press -- a familiar theme in these 404 reports; the entire report in the May issue was dedicated just to describing important details about Indonesia's revolt against Suharto that didn't appear in any U.S. media. But the big question is...why? Who's to blame for the terrible coverage of foreign news in the American press? The fault lies squarely with the "new" corporate media.
Some important background: At one time, owning a newspaper was like having a license to print money. Continuing through most of the 1970s, papers typically had 30 to 40 percent profits, all during a severe recession. Wanting to keep those obscene profits and impress Wall Street, publishers slashed the editorial payroll. Some newsrooms found their staff cut by half, and expensive veteran reporters were replaced with low-salary journalism school grads. (You can find more of this history in Ben Bagdikian's Media Monopoly and Doug Underwood's When MBAs Rule The Newsroom, by the way.)
Also changing journalism in the 1970s was the advent of USA TODAY, which introduced a "lite" style and slick look that publishers rushed to imitate. Now text illustrated photos and graphics (instead of the reverse) and there was a new emphasis on pleasing readers above all -- if marketing revealed that more papers sold when there was a prominent story about (say) the popular Dallas TV show, then that's what made the front page. Soon global events -- those hard- to- understand stories from strange places with hard- to- pronounce names -- were pushed to the back pages. News magazines followed newspapers in this sad devolution. In 1977, about 1 out of 5 Time magazine covers featured an international story. Last year it was 1 out of 20.
These upheavals in the news business, which continued through the 1980's, also saw most newspapers and broadcast media drop original international coverage. Overseas bureaus were dumped as a cost-cutting measure. (Today there are probably more stringers in more countries reporting for the tiny Albion Monitor than any but the largest American newspapers.) Newspapers first conceded breaking foreign news to TV, but by the end of the decade, the television networks were slowly withdrawing from doing their own overseas reporting as well. If there was important news they could always buy videotape from Worldwide Television News (WTN) or Visnews, companies that repackage regional TV footage for global sale.
The Gulf War shocked many media professionals, who suddenly found that recycled film from the BBC or Saudi TV wasn't good enough, particularly with CNN broadcasting live from Baghdad. Since then, CNN has had a near monopoly on the presentation of breaking international news. What's the result? International news coverage is usually limited to big news that plays well on TV: warfare, famines, terrorist violence.
While newspapers could fill in some of the missing gaps, they usually can't -- most of those overseas bureaus were shut down, remember. Our 404 report on Indonesia again serves as an example of the kind of news that results. Virtually all papers used reports from just three sources: the LA Times, Washington Post, and New York Times. And as we described in our analysis, those three sources often missed the boat. Even The NY Times -- traditionally the best newspaper for international coverage -- relied on outside help; their best photos came from the French news agency. And although the NY Times devoted entire pages to daily coverage, they still overlooked the most important parts of the story, which were routinely described in the Asian press. (August 12, 1998)
Britain's growing risk of Mad Cow disease Concluding this topic of international news coverage: At worst, the type of world news found in the U.S. press has terrible gaps. Important events suddenly grab the headlines, then just as quickly disappear. Lost are all those complex details that explore why most of these events happened in the first place. Is it any wonder that most Americans see the world outside its borders as puzzling and often dangerous?
But it could be argued that this kind of limited coverage is adequate. The tangled roots of events in places like Rwanda, Bosnia, or Northern Ireland can't easily be explained in newspaper or magazine articles -- better to read a book on the topic. As long as media sketches the basic who / what / when / where, we can always find the "why" somewhere else, if we want.
The biggest problem is that we often simply don't know that important news has happened: Nothing appears in the U.S. press. Our last 404 report described astonishing events in Russia, where a leading critic of Yeltsin was suspiciously murdered. Was this a story that should have appeared in our news? Yes, considering that the U.S. is loaning billions of dollars to Russia in support of Yeltsin's tenuous leadership. But unless you read the European press (or the Monitor), you probably don't know about this.
Now from Britian comes health news so alarming that it not only deserved mention in the U.S., but maybe even a few headlines. Although English authorities still maintain that only 27 people have died of CJD (Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease), and all from eating contaminated beef in the 1980s, the National Health Service is so concerned about a mutation of "Mad Cow" disease being spread through their blood supply that it is importing all plasma, plus filtering every drop from 2.5 million annual U.K. blood donations to remove white blood cells, which may -- or may not -- transmit CJD.
Although the unprecedented move will almost double the cost of each unit of blood, the Health Secretary insisted that the measures were merely precautionary because it was "better to be safe than sorry." The expensive process will "reduce the theoretical risk" of infection through transfusions, he was quoted in the July 18 London Guardian.
Critics disagreed. The director of a hemophilia center said that filtering wouldn't work because white cells start breaking down as soon as the blood is drawn, releasing the infection. Microbiologist Stephen Dealler, who has sharply criticized England's handling of the crisis, flatly denounced the risks as "unacceptable." Dealler told the Guardian that 80,000 may be already infected with CJD, given its incubation period of 25 years. That means as many as 1 in 250 might be infected, and raises the risk of catching the incurable CJD through blood transfusion to 1 in 125, since the average patient received two units of blood from different donors.
If those statistics were translated to the United States, it would mean we currently have about 350,000 cases of undiagnosed CJD -- equal to about half the number of Americans infected with HIV. But we Yanks have nothing to worry about... right? Don't be too confident. Monitor has published several articles on CJD that indicate the disease is already here, and even may be a greater health threat in this country, where pork is the infected meat instead of beef. More worrisome, two studies found up to 13 percent of Alzheimer's patients actually had CJD.
The only mention in this country of Britian's blood crisis appeared as a passing, toned-down reference by ABC News. The network deserves credit for being the only U.S. press touching the story, and also for producing reports showing that CJD may be purposely ignored to avoid panic. But as we've noted, the network has also pulled its punches to underplay the link to Alzheimer's and association with CJD and pork products. (August 17, 1998)
Verb Endangers Wildlife The Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) warns that the protection of fish and wildlife may hinge on an intransitive verb.
Current law requires Forest Service managers to maintain "viable" populations of vertebrate species, but under new draft regulations, they must only "strive to ensure the viability." The FSEEE claims that "strive" regulates the amount of effort and not results.
"It's like telling a ditch digger to 'strive to dig a ditch.' At the end of the day with little progress, the digger replies to your protests by saying "Hey, I worked really hard!" FSEEE warns that the new language will hamper meaningful enforcement and will allow Forest Service managers to only pay lip service to protecting fish and wildlife species. The group asks for letters in protest sent to the White House, the Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service, addressed to: Dr. K. Norman Johnson, Chairman, Committee of Scientists, P. O. Box 2140, Corvallis, Oregon 97339. (July 27, 1998)
Logging the National Forests After years of saying it just ain't so, the federal government finally admits that timber sales in National Forests cost taxpayers a bundle -- more than $88 million last year alone.
For more than two decades, enviros have insisted that there was little economic benefit from plundering the public-owned woodlands and parks. Timber companies and their supporters said that was hogwash -- after all, they wrote checks to the U.S. Treasury for more than $1 billion every year.
The argument appeared settled in 1995, when the GAO produced a study supporting the environmentalists. According to that report, logging cost the public more than it brought in, once you consider the millions of dollars paid to Forest Service employees for construction and maintaining 380,000 miles of logging roads, cleanup after cutting, erosion control, reforestation, and other jobs in support of the timber industry. At the time, the Monitor was one of the few media outlets reporting that timber sales were a net loss.
For every dollar paid by timber companies to log in the national forests, more than 60 cents was spent by the government to build logging roads, repair damage, or other activities in support of further logging by the industry (Albion Monitor 1995 Graphic)
The next year the Forest Service began adding in these other costs, and admitted for the first time that there was a loss. But still in dispute was the size: The GAO estimated public losses of $1 billion during 1992-1994, yet as recently as last fall the Forest Service still claimed they were merely $15 million in the red. Legally, they were correct; until now, the true expenses could be hidden in amortization tax schedules, dispersed over the next 99 years. (August 8, 1998)
Fortuna Alliance What's the most controversial story published in our first three years? No, it wasn't our extensive reporting of the Bear Lincoln trial or in-depth coverage of the Judi Bari case, although those stories are still read today. The most heat came from a 1996 series on Fortuna Alliance, which had been just closed down as an illegal pyramid scam by the Federal Trade Commission. Author Paul deArmond produced a first-rate investigative series on this new age scheme, which pulled in as much as $15 million in a few short months. Reaction from their membership was emotional. Letters accused us of being pawns of the FTC (!) and demanded retraction; others suggested that we do things that would be either physically impossible or downright painful.
Although the Fortuna leaders fled the country before the bust, their lawyers reached an agreement with the FTC in February 1997. Under the settlement any members could request a full refund, drawn from the approximately $3 million seized by the FTC; should those funds run dry, Fortuna agreed to fork over the difference. Hard-core believers claimed they were (somehow) vindicated by this agreement, and renewed demands for a Monitor retraction, or at least for us to tell "the good news" about Fortuna.
For thousands of ex-members, there was only bad news. Fortuna stalled in turning over membership rolls to the FTC, then challenged about 4,000 claims (the FTC says Fortuna actually only tried to substantiate about one hundred of those). There was also the problem that the refund trust fund was now short; to give all the money back to the 15,625 people who filed claims with the FTC, Fortuna would have to pay an additional $2 million. Fortuna paid nothing, and in June, Federal Judge Walter T. McGovern declared Fortuna founder Augie Delgado and Fortuna Alliance in civil contempt. The government mailed final refund checks on July 22, with most ex-members getting only a portion of their money back.
What does Fortuna have to say about this? They're uncharacteristically quiet; their web site (www.fa2.com), which was full of bluster last year, promising more grand things from their new digs in New Zealand. But now their pages are "temporary shut down... for major renovations." Maybe that's because the court also ruled, "Any person who promotes a Fortuna or Delgado scheme with knowledge of this prohibition may be subject to contempt proceedings as well." (August 1, 1998)
Albion Monitor Issue 50 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)
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