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Recaps of West, Texas


A few key pieces as the West, Texas disaster settles down.

Mike Elk has an editorial at the Post really getting after the media for its nonexistent coverage of the disaster. Asking the fundamental question of why the media focused almost exclusively on Boston and completely ignored West, despite the fact that far more people died in West, Elk writes:

So why is it that the media choose to cover around the clock a terrorist bombing that killed fewer people and is extremely rare, while all but ignoring an industrial explosion that killed more people, is far more common and is far easier to prevent? Aaron Albright, who worked on failed mine safety legislation in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine as an aide to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), joked on Twitter that the media opted to focus almost exclusively on the Boston bombings because the two stories were like “CSI/Mission Impossible vs.[a] PBS documentary.” The story of alleged terrorists with Chechen links seems far more exotic and threatening than the story of a workplace disaster that would have been preventable if the company followed the rules.

Also very much worth noting is this:

Yet, death in the workplace is a much more real possibility for almost all Americans than death at the hands of a terrorist. In 2011, 4,609 Americans were killed in workplace accidents while only 17 Americans died at the hands of terrorists — about the same number as were crushed to death by their televisions or furniture. One could argue that terrorists get more attention because they intentionally aim to kill people, but disasters like at Upper Big Branch are also the result of companies violating workplace safety laws.

Again, when workers die because of massive negligence by owners, those owners need to be charged with some form of a murder crime, perhaps equivalent to a fatal drunk-driving charge. Instead, the owners themselves are often seen as victims, including at West.

John Protevi has a piece along the same lines as Elk, thinking about the deeper cultural and economic reasons behind the disparity in coverage. A few of his points:

1. The affective charge of “random murder” trumps that of bad luck. The Boston bombings were deliberate, while the Texas explosion and the roadway deaths were accidents.

1a. It increases the horror of Boston to know that the victims weren’t chosen. They had a kind of bad luck, but the cause of the death was deliberate, not accidental. So they were victims of “random murder.” When this is called “terrorism,” it is ripe for political exploitation.

2a. The victims of Boston were of the right type — middle class spectators of an athletic event — as opposed to the multiple everyday murder victims who never make the national news. Why not? Well, for one thing, some of the victims can be dismissed as gang bangers. Secondly, there’s just nothing new any more about an everday dispute, domestic or neighborhood, that escalates to murder.
3. To return to the Texas explosion, of course there are factors that influence the probability of accidents; the explosion was an event that crystallized a network of multi-scale factors. But the complexities of multiple and dispersed decisions concerning zoning, right-to-work, and regulatory capture / weakening made over decades that increased the probability — and bad effects — of the Texas explosion doesn’t fit a simple narrative, nor does it have the affective charge of random murder. So there’s an effect of normalization here, such that shoulders are shrugged and we mutter “industrial accidents happen.”

3a. We also can’t overlook the geography of wealth factors here. Poor folks live next to fertilizer plants in West, Texas but middle-class folk go watch the finish of the Boston Marathon. So there’s class identification at work here, both in the news producers of the cable networks, and in their target viewerships.

I think this gets at some pretty important issues behind how we as a society rationalize and think about violence.

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