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BROKEN MEDIA, BROKEN POLITICS

Charlie Baker

 

If Mass journalists were doing their jobs, Baker would not be so popular

 

It’s always funny to hear that Charlie Baker is a very popular governor… The most popular governor in the country at the moment, according to polls. Because he doesn’t do anything very differently than his predecessor Deval Patrick did. Or than Mass House speaker Robert DeLeo does. Or than most any state Democratic leader when it comes down to core economic issues—with the exception of the leaders with little actual power.

 

Baker, Patrick, DeLeo, and all their ilk in both major parties essentially follow the same game plan. They work to lower taxes for those most able to afford them, cut desperately needed social programs to the bone, and give away as much money as possible to giant corporations.

 

Much of the rest of what they do is posturing for the various constituencies that make up their particular electorates. And that’s the stuff that gets the most media coverage. Which is not to say they’re necessarily insincere about such activity. But they’re elected to represent the wealthy interests that run the Commonwealth, and the work they do for that most important constituency is always their top priority.

 

So when Patrick and Baker, for example, shovel over $1.5 billion in free public money at the biotech industry or arrange millions in tax breaks and direct state aid for huge companies that don’t need them on an ongoing basis—with DeLeo’s blessing in both administrations—to the extent those acts get coverage, they’re presented as done deals that are “good for the economy.” Then it’s on to the next press spectacle of the day. Events where they can “show leadership” and the like. As when there’s a snowstorm. In Massachusetts, a northern state noted for its frequent snowstorms. And the current governor gets on TV and says “stay indoors during the snowstorm.” That is apparently showing leadership.

 

Which explains Baker’s high numbers, I think. Simple public relations. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and all that. With most of the major news outlets gamely playing along. And his numbers are higher than Patrick’s were because he’s a white guy in a super racist state that likes to think it’s super anti-racist.

 

That’s what results in people that don’t pay attention to politics—including the vast majority of white voters—going, “Oh, Baker’s such a nice man” when pollsters ask their opinion of him. More than they did with Patrick. No doubt Baker is a nice man in person or whatever. Lots of people who do bad things when they have power are personally “nice.” Like, I’m sure when some buddy of his from childhood needs money, he’ll give it to him. Or at least loan it to him. But when all the legions of people he doesn’t know personally need good jobs with benefits, need free higher education, need major improvement to infrastructure like the MBTA—because of entrenched structural inequality—that’s a different story.

 

A story whose narrative you can hear if you listen to Baker’s remarks to the 2018 Mass Republican Convention in Worcester last weekend.

 

Stripping away obligatory pleasantries and nods to major supporters, the speech was aimed at the same white middle-class suburbanites who remain the base of the state Republican Party. Baker addressed them directly at one point while enumerating the “successes” of his administration: “We offered early college programs, our Commonwealth Commitment program, which dramatically reduces the cost of a college education. And increases in state scholarships to make the price of college more affordable for moderate- and middle-income families.”

 

See, he thinks they’re so important he mentioned them twice in a row: “moderate- and middle-income families.” No word about low-income families, though. At all. Not even a nod. Sure, working families are discussed. But in Republican-speak, “working families” isn’t code for “working class” as it often is for Democrats. It means “those who work.” As opposed to “those who do not work.” Like all those “lazy shiftless” folks that used to be called working class in more honest times. And those totally nonindustrious [ha!] immigrants. And the “undeserving” poor in general. Everyone who supposedly lives off the bounty of “our”––the good “moderate- and middle-income” people’s, the “taxpayers’”—labor.

 

But no mention of his most important constituency, the one he actually works for, either. “Small business” is mentioned a number of times. But not major corporations and the rich people that own them.

 

Still, they’re there. Lurking behind all of Baker’s remarks. Especially when he said several things that are completely and obviously false to anyone who follows politics reasonably closely. Like taking credit for “dramatically” reducing the cost of a college education. When public higher education is an absolute disaster in Massachusetts. When both the working-class families he seemingly deplores and the middle class he purports to represent—immigrant and nonimmigrant alike—are forced to run up ruinous amounts of debt just to put kids through schools that were once so cheap as to nearly be free. While tuition and fees keep getting raised year after year. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

 

The rich and the corporations are there because public higher ed, like virtually every other beneficial government program, is being starved for operating funds. To fatten that 1 percent’s coffers. Because politicians like Baker make a virtue out of cutting taxes. Slashing budgets. Laying off public workers. Privatizing anything they can get away with. As Baker himself has certainly been doing at the much-beleaguered MBTA. Another public service he addressed in Worcester, saying: “We took on the special interests at the MBTA. Created a Fiscal Management and Control Board. And saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and we’re rebuilding its core infrastructure.” While, in the real world, that same public transportation infrastructure continues to fall apart for lack of the needed direct infusion of state funds.

 

Is everything Baker does bad? No. Is he as dangerous as federal counterparts like President Donald Trump? Or the feral reactionary theocrat Scott Lively that fully 28 percent of Mass Republican delegates just chose to run against Baker in a primary this fall? No. Not yet at least.

 

But that’s not the point.

 

The point is that a polity where a Charlie Baker can be incredibly popular is a broken polity. And a news media that enables him is a broken news media. Baker does not represent even the interest of the white middle class that keeps voting him into office, let alone the working class as a whole. A media that was doing its job would make that patently clear. Every hour of every day. Yet it does the opposite. Because it too is controlled by the same rich and powerful interests that control politics and ensure pols like Baker keep getting elected. Whether those pols call themselves Republicans or Democrats.

 

So to fix politics, we have to fix the media. And I can’t address how that might be done in a single column. But my colleagues and I are trying our damndest to do it in practice at DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. And the fix starts with journalists who are independent and strive to tell the truth about problems in media and the political system. Every hour of every day. Beyond that, there’s much more to say. So, I’ll plan to talk about specific potential fixes in future columns and editorials.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

THE YEAR IN DIGBOSTON

THE YEAR IN DIGBOSTON

 

Let them call us rebels, and welcome…

 

December 27, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

If you had asked me 14 months ago if I thought that I’d have a shot at taking over the management of DigBoston with my partners Chris Faraone, John Loftus, and Marc Sneider, I would have said “nah.” Yet six months ago we did just that, after effectively running the paper for the previous six months. We now have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to publish the only remaining alt newsweekly in a major American city. In a difficult period when the fate of our democracy is at stake.


So my year in review piece has to be a look at what we’ve done with that chance—aside from completing the obvious task of producing 52 issues of hard-hitting locally focused journalism this year.


For starters, we know that DigBoston can only succeed as a collective effort. And as a first order of business, we set about contacting dozens of folks who had already worked with the paper in the past to tell them that we were ready to set Dig to rights, stabilize our operation, and begin expanding. These things we have done.


Second, we carried on the tradition we had from working on the nonprofit Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism of building alliances with other publications. Which is why you’ll note we’re running articles simultaneously with those allies on a regular basis. Journalism in the 21st century is not going to succeed with news outlets that view themselves as isolated islands. We believe the only way to move forward is to stop being territorial, build bridges of mutual aid and solidarity between like-minded media enterprises, and figure out ways to work more closely together over the long haul. The better to expand all of our reach and scope.


Third, we began recruiting new talent. We even put out a call for interested native working-class Bostonians to join our reporter pool—whether they are trained journalists or not—and will shortly begin training up untrained applicants who answered that first of what will be an ongoing series of calls. Because we do not think it’s possible to cover local news properly without fielding a solid number of journalists who were born and raised in and around Boston. And if there aren’t enough trained journalists that meet those criteria, then it’s our responsibility to teach them.


Fourth, we are not interested in the recent fad of “engagement” in journalism circles. It’s artificial and doomed to fail like all the other initiatives coming out of what some correctly dub the “foundation-industrial complex” and the academic centers it lavishes money on apropos of nothing. We are part of the communities we cover and believe that we cannot be good journalists if we’re not in constant communication with those communities. So you’ll see us at more and more public events, and notice us cooking up different schemes to be helpful to our audience in more concrete ways with every passing month. Such practices also have the salutary effect of helping us meet more talented folks from all over the city. Ensuring that our organization becomes more and more diverse by every metric—a specific goal of ours—organically over time, rather than in some forced, scripted, and ultimately ineffective fashion cribbed from the pages of some disingenuous HR manual somewhere. As with certain governments and corporations we could (and often do) name.


Fifth, we are pioneering a hybrid news model linking our nonprofit and for-profit wings that is helping us solve the difficult problem of how smaller community news outlets like DigBoston can afford to produce expensive but vitally important investigative news reporting. With more punch and élan than the remaining major news outlets are generally capable of in this era. Our concept is straightforward. We simply continue to run the aforementioned Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism that we launched two years prior to taking over this newspaper—raising donations to pay directly to our growing army of highly experienced talent to produce long-form investigative features and series. And publish them in DigBoston, which couldn’t pay for as much journalism without that arrangement. BINJ syndicates those stories free of charge to other news outlets in our network. We’re also working to spread this hybrid model around the country. In the interest of doing our bit to stop and ultimately reverse the rolling collapse of the American news industry… due in part to lack of ready money for news production.

 

Sixth, we remain fiercely independent. We are not beholden to the powerful interests that appear to be doing their best to run American democracy into the ground. And we don’t think it’s possible for honest journalists to approach our work in any other way.

 

Seventh, we continue the alternative journalism tradition of seeking to be fair and accurate in all our reporting. But we join other American alt weeklies in criticizing “objectivity”—the idea that journalists can somehow remove our opinions, and therefore ourselves, from our articles. Because we don’t believe that it’s possible or desirable to do so.

 

Finally, I think we’re doing our best to run DigBoston like a big, riotous, but deeply caring family. My partners and I certainly wouldn’t have it any other way, but neither would the incredibly talented staff we’re assembling from all walks of Boston area life. And it is they who make this whole mad, yet utterly necessary enterprise in the service of a democratic society possible. So here’s to them! And here’s to DigBoston! And here’s wishing all of our growing crew—and all of you—a very happy new year! Up the rebels!

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

PRESS FAIL: AS GE CEO STEPS DOWN, BOSTON JOURNALISTS MUST DO THEIR JOB

AH-GE-TOP

 

June 14, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

recent column by the Boston Globe‘s Shirley Leung perfectly encapsulates the problem with local media cheerleading for General Electric’s decision to move its headquarters to Boston. The title alone says it all: “Will GE’s new CEO remain committed to Boston?” Because, like so many pieces on the subject by Leung and company, it fails to ask the key question: why did state and local government shovel huge amounts of public money to a private enterprise, and put it in a position to potentially cause grievous harm to a major city’s economy, to begin with? And why did the region’s newspaper of record — and much of the Boston press corps — back the scheme so uncritically?

But now, after all the prattle by fawning journalists about the days of wine and roses to come, it turns out that the various moves GE CEO Jeff Immelt made to reinvent the conglomerate as an “innovation” company came at the expense of a significant drop in profits. And it looks like the GE board balked and forced Immelt out — although the official line is that he “stepped down.” Doubtless after noting a rise in share prices in March after activist investors told Fox News that he might be pushed into retirement. He’s been replaced with a new CEO from within GE’s own ranks, John Flannery. Who hails from Chicago, and may not have the same warm fuzzies for the Hub that Immelt at least pretended to have. If Flannery doesn’t back the Boston deal as strongly as Immelt that could mean disaster for everyone who shilled for it. And if GE’s stock prices continue to tank, fuggedaboutit!

In that spirit, it’s worth recalling that the whole boondoggle was dumped on the public by Mayor Marty Walsh and Gov. Charlie Baker as a done deal in January 2016. There were no public forums on the plan, no deliberation by the state legislature or the Boston City Council, and certainly no referendums. The whole thing was cooked up on the quiet by high level politicians, their aides, and top GE brass. In the end, over $145 million in state and city tax breaks and direct aid was promised to GE — together with another $25 million in state money to fix up the area around the site of the company’s new Fort Point HQ, and up to $100 million in repairs to the Old Northern Ave. bridge. Up to $270 million in public money in total. Although the bridge project is now up in the air; so the final total — as with all final totals in public spending — remains to be seen. Still, a huge amount of money to spend on a vast multinational any way you slice it. Especially when GE is not yet being asked to pay rent for the 20 year lease on the public property its new headquarters is using.

As my own series of columns on the deal showed last year, GE has a decades-long track record of screwing government at all levels, communities it operates in, and its own workers six ways from Sunday. Which is why unearthing corporate crime after corporate crime by way of demonstrating why the people of Massachusetts have absolutely no reason to trust the company did not require much new reporting on my part. It was a relatively simple matter of looking at major investigative stories on GE by several news outlets — including the Globe itself. What I found was disturbing in the extreme. Yet the largest Boston news outlets were virtually silent about the very obvious downsides to championing the payoff of a corporate behemoth to relocate its HQ to our fair city. And now the most prominent of them is clearly getting worried about its violation of the public trust.

To review, General Electric has done a lot of bad stuff over the last forty years — much of it in Massachusetts. It slashed tens of thousands of good unionized jobs here. Destroying the economies of Bay State cities like Lynn, Pittsfield, and Fitchburg in the process. GE played highly illegal games with municipal bond investment funds nationwide — and got away with it. It wreaked havoc with the environment in many of the places it did business. Notably in Pittsfield and the Housatonic River valley south to Long Island Sound. Which it polluted with carcinogenic PCBs. A horrendous mess that it partially cleaned up after a protracted struggle with the EPA and local activists. Yet it continues to try to weasel out of finishing the job to save some small fraction of its annual profits. Like it did in a similar Hudson River cleanup. GE also played a major role in creating the toxic housing debt that led to the 2008 financial crash, and was then bailed out by the federal government with boatloads of practically free public money. In exchange for ruining the lives of thousands of poor mortgage holders. And it did all this while paying hardly any taxes at all relative to its huge size.

Ultimately, far too many area journalists dropped bags of balls with the GE Boston Deal story. If they had been doing their job — instead of engaging in a particularly crass form of unthinking civic boosterism that one would expect of low rent PR consultants for a down-on-the-heels rust belt city — Boston might not be in the position it’s now in. Stuck with a bad deal and light a bunch of money that the city and state desperately need during our ongoing fiscal crisis. Which was created by the very neoliberal playbook that still guides both government policy and kid glove news coverage of same.

But that’s what passes for thinking on economic development in the American press of today. My colleagues in major news media generally don’t push for regional planning controlled by democratically elected politicians and overseen by the public in real ways. They don’t support a grassroots process directly involving local communities that start by asking “what do working families need, and how might those needs be best served?” No, they just figure “let’s encourage the pols to throw public money at big corporations, and then they’ll come to Boston, and we’ll have a great economy.”

Well an economy that’s not great for working people is not a great economy. It’s a bad, unequal economy. And that’s the root of most of our major societal woes in this era.

Whatever happens going forward, I hope that next time top politicians cook up another backroom deal with corporate titans that the rest of the Boston news media will join my teammates and I at DigBoston in calling it what it is: corruption. Those who won’t should just go ahead and get jobs in the sleaziest PR operations they can find. Because they’re not fit to be journalists.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

PLAY TO WIN: UK LABOUR PARTY LEADER SHOWS THE AMERICAN LEFT HOW TO MOVE BEYOND SYMBOLIC POLITICS

jeremy-corbyn-labour-can-win-a-snap-general-election-video-interview-politics-the-guardian

September 29, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Last week—as is the case many weeks every fall and spring in Boston—notices of small scripted protests by an array of area progressive nonprofits, unions, and student groups got me thinking about the rut the anti-corporate American left has been stuck in for decades. Most especially about the damage done by the habit of ineffectual symbolic political action on a host of important issues. Combined with tailing after a corporate-dominated Democratic Party establishment. Which, time and time again, ignores or actively betrays its base on key issues like jobs, education, healthcare, global warming, and military spending. As it’s done during the current presidential race.

But what if there was a way to change the whole political game for the oppositional left? After all, we almost saw such a tectonic shift happen this year with the Bernie Sanders campaign. There have also been glimpses of a more vibrant, creative, and successful progressive politics from the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements over the last five years. What if left activists could get back to a mass politics that can really win solid victories for working families?

The way forward, it seems, is not yet to be found on our shores. However, it might be on view in the United Kingdom … where Jeremy Corbyn just won yet another vote to remain the leader of the Labour Party.

Who is Jeremy Corbyn?  Think of him as the Bernie Sanders of the UK. But one who has gotten a good deal farther politically than the original Sanders has to date. In his context, being the leader of the Labour Party is kind of like being the head of the Democratic National Committee. Except that the levers of actual power are more built into the Labour Party structure than the Democratic Party structure. And the party sits within a parliamentary political system where its leaders have a lot more control over what their elected officials do than their American counterparts. At the same time, Labour members get to vote directly for their party leaders—unlike Democrats. So when a socialist like Corbyn wins leadership elections twice in under a year and a half, it means that he has the power to help spark changes in his party of the type that Sanders can only dream of presently.

Since Corbyn first ran for Labour Party leader last year—on a platform well to the left of Sanders that calls for an end to austerity policies that hurt working people, renationalizing the once-public UK rail system, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and refusal to support Clinton-style “bomb diplomacy” (sorry, “humanitarian intervention”) in the Syrian war—he has increased the number of voting party members and supporters from 200,000 to over 600,000. Even while fighting a running battle with the corporate-backed acolytes of the neoliberal warmonger Tony Blair for full control of the party. Many of those new members are disenfranchised young voters of the same type that supported Sanders.

What Corbyn is doing with those young folks is fascinating. Upon winning his second leadership election by 61 percent last week, he didn’t talk about beating the ruling Conservative Party in the next general election. Instead he’s planning to deploy the growing militant grassroots of his party to win political victories in advance of the next election. Which looks like a completely different strategy than the one Sanders is taking post-primary—so far focusing his new Our Revolution organization on electing more progressive Democrats to office. Even as that party remains in full control of its Clintonite corporate wing. [Although in recent days, Our Revolution is starting to sound more like Corbyn’s similar Momentum organization—which is all to the good, and perhaps unsurprising given that the two insurgencies have long been in touch.]

And what issue is Corbyn focusing on? Public education. Namely stopping the Conservatives from increasing the fairly small number of UK public exam high schools known as “grammar schools.” He is calling for the large socialist camp coalescing around Labour to defend the egalitarian tradition of quality public education for all in Britain. Rather than allow the grammar schools to continue cherry-picking middle and upper class students, and helping them get into elite universities over the heads of working class students. Thus attempting to perpetuate the ancient British system of class privilege in education long after it was formally constrained. The Labour left is also likely to push to end the charter school-like “academy” (or “free school”) system that is allowing corporations to run many public secondary schools in Britain. Lining their pockets, threatening unionized teachers, and further limiting opportunity for working class students in the process. The Conservatives, for their part, plan to expand the academy system to 100 percent of secondary schools and many primary schools besides. If allowed to proceed unchallenged.

Street protests are absolutely part of what the reviving Labour Party and its allies are doing to challenge the corporate wing of their own party and the Conservative Party. Plus, Corbyn supporters have the possibility of leading their party to victory in a future general election, and starting to implement significant democratic socialist reforms thereafter. Echoing their predecessors in Labour leadership at the conclusion of World War II. Reforms like massive public jobs programs, building lots of good public housing, expanding government-funded lifelong educational opportunities for all, deprivatizing the still-impressive UK national health system, rolling back the assault on unions—while cutting the military budget and raising taxes on the rich and the corporations to pay for it all.

So their protest campaigns against conservative policy initiatives are not limited to small numbers of people waving signs and chanting slogans at the wealthy and their minions in business and government like latter-day Don Quixotes. Corbyn and his supporters are taking control of the Labour Party away from its discredited neoliberal leadership and using it to build a democratic socialist movement in the UK. That very project has been attempted in the Democratic Party before by movements like the Rainbow Coalition – and has been crushed every time. Based on that kind of experience, some American leftists feel that the structure of the party precludes such maneuvers from succeeding. A position potentially strengthened by Sanders’ dispiriting loss in the primary—after what was arguably the strongest attempt to take over the Democrats from the left in history.

Positioning the left—the actual left—for political victory in the US will therefore be extremely difficult. No two ways about it. And it’s not clear whether trying to commandeer the Democrats like Corbyn’s movement is doing with the UK Labour Party or building up small left-wing formations like the Green Party into a national powerhouse or some combination of the two strategies will lead to the desired outcome.

But one thing’s for sure. Corbyn’s success is built on grassroots activism. If we’re going to see similar successes for the American left at the national level, progressive nonprofits, unions, and student groups in cities like Boston will have to do better than calling sporadic underattended rallies, marches, and teach-ins—coupled with desultory lobby days where their peonage to the Democratic establishment is generally on display to their detriment. And start winning real political battles instead of scoring points on phantom targets.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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CABLE JEOPARDY

BEYOND BOSTON COLLAGE

August 22, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Now that broadband internet is a public utility, both cable companies and telephone companies need to pay for public access television — not try to defund it

Last week, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) was pleased to welcome the Alliance for Community Media (ACM) 2016 Annual Conference to our mini metropolis. Staff, board members, and volunteers from public access television stations from the around the nation were camped at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel — sharing skills, networking, and, unfortunately, discussing the best way to survive in a hostile political climate. Because despite being one of America’s greatest remaining democratic communications resources, public access TV is perennially fighting to preserve its funding. In honor of the ACM conference, I wrote the following commentary for the pilot episode of Beyond Boston — a video news digest that BINJ just launched this month in partnership with several area public access TV stations, including: Brookline Interactive Group (BIG), Cambridge Community Television (CCTV), Malden Access TV (MATV), and Somerville Community Access Television (SCAT). Our aim is to feature news produced at local public access TV stations and link it to news we produce at BINJ. Expanding the reach of all our work by effectively merging our audiences. Check out the show on participating stations and on the new Beyond Boston YouTube channel. And read on to get some perspective on the crisis facing a vital community media resource.

Public access television is one of greatest innovations of the grassroots movement for media democracy in the last half century. Also known as community television,  it has helped cities and towns nationwide to have their very own cable TV channels. Allowing residents to keep up with local news and views while enjoying a wide variety of arts and entertainment programming — most of which is produced by their family, friends and neighbors. Filling the gap in local nonprofit media options left by PBS and NPR.

One of the best things about public access television is the way it’s funded. Community media pioneers like noted filmmaker George Stoney helped craft regulations back in the late 1960s that made everything go. They were based on the principle that cable companies should pay an annual franchise fee to cities and towns in exchange for being able to build out their systems on municipal rights-of-way. In other words, companies like Comcast have to pay local governments for stringing their cables along public streets. That money can then be used to equip and sometimes staff public access stations. And those stations get used by the local population to celebrate their culture. Expanding free speech in the process.

That funding mechanism worked pretty well — despite a bunch of political speed bumps there’s no time to discuss today — until the telephone companies joined cable companies in offering broadband internet service about a decade back. Soon people in many places were getting all the content carried over the old cable systems and much much more from both telephone companies like Verizon and cable companies like Comcast. This created a problem for funding public access stations because cable companies offering broadband still had to pay the franchise fee to local governments that is used to finance those stations. But telephone companies that now also provide broadband don’t have to pay that franchise fee.

This has potentially provided the cable companies an opening to get rid of the franchise fee by stating that it’s unfair that they have to pay when the telephone companies don’t. Putting public access funding in extreme jeopardy. However, last year, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that broadband internet service is a public utility. Raising the possibility that both cable companies and telephone companies could be mandated to pay a franchise fee to cities and towns in exchange for stringing their broadband wires on public land.

The FCC is still figuring out how to proceed on that front, and they are under intense pressure from cable companies and telephone companies to free them from all responsibility for funding public access stations. So it is critical that everyone who supports public access media gets together with other interested folks in your community and starts building a new grassroots movement to demand the FCC apply the franchise fee to both cable companies and telephone companies. A win on this issue will keep public access stations funded for decades to come. And that’s a big win for democracy.

HORIZON LOGO TRIMMED

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

A WORSE FATE THAN GLOBAL WARMING

AH CLOUD

August 9, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The return of the nuclear arms race requires the revival of the disarmament movement

“It is three minutes to midnight.” Young people reading those words probably won’t know what they mean. Folks who were adults when the Cold War ended with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union are more likely to understand. And to be very, very afraid.

The statement refers to the current setting of the Doomsday Clock—announced every year since 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Reaching midnight means nuclear war. The clock was first set at seven minutes to midnight when the United States was the only nation possessing nuclear weapons. In 1991, humanity rejoiced as the clock was set to 17 minutes to midnight when the US and USSR signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty resulting in deep cuts in their nuclear weapons arsenals.

Now, a quarter-century later, nuclear weapons are still very much with us, and the Doomsday Clock has been pushed up to three minutes to midnight for two years running. As close to midnight as the clock has been set since 1984—during the nadir of relations between America and the Soviet Union.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board—consisting of “scientists and other experts with deep knowledge of nuclear technology and climate science, who often provide expert advice to governments and international agencies”—made the decision based on a number of dangerous portents last year that show no signs of abating this year.

Their January 26 announcement stated that in 2015 “ … tensions between the United States and Russia rose to levels reminiscent of the worst periods of the Cold War. Conflict in Ukraine and Syria continued, accompanied by dangerous bluster and brinkmanship, with … the director of a state-run Russian news agency making statements about turning the United States to radioactive ash, and NATO and Russia re-positioning military assets and conducting significant exercises with them. Washington and Moscow continue to adhere to most existing nuclear arms control agreements, but the United States, Russia, and other nuclear weapons countries are engaged in programs to modernize their nuclear arsenals … despite their pledges, codified in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to pursue nuclear disarmament.”

The modernization referred to in the announcement translates to an estimated US investment of nearly  $1 trillion over the next 30 years. Money to be essentially stolen from much-needed social programs. The Obama administration made this commitment even as the President asked nations with nuclear weapons to “have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them” during a historic visit to Hiroshima, Japan—the first of two cities destroyed by atomic bombs dropped by the US in the closing days of WWII. On July 20, eight progressive senators—including Mass Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey (plus Bernie Sanders)—called on Obama to “restrain nuclear weapons spending and reduce the risk of nuclear war by scaling back excessive nuclear modernization plans, adopting a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons and canceling launch-on-warning plans.”

A fine statement. But a display of not even a fraction of the political muscle that will be necessary to successfully challenge the military-industrial complex to change American nuclear weapons policy for the better. And not a sufficiently strong demand given that the only safe number of nuclear weapons is zero. With the US, Russia, and China all planning to build smaller nuclear warheads that are more likely to be used than traditional larger warheads, and developing hypersonic glide vehicles that are harder to intercept than conventional ballistic missiles, the road from a single “surgical” nuclear strike to an all-out nuclear war will soon become much shorter than it has ever been before.

That’s why it’s imperative for everyone to follow the lead of antiwar organizations like Mass Peace Action—who have just organized a series of local protests for Hiroshima and Nagasaki Week—and international disarmament campaigns like Global Zero in demanding the abolition of all nuclear weapons. Failure to do so will at best consign another generation to the lifetime of fear that earlier generations suffered under, and at worst doom the entire biosphere to death by fire. So, get informed and get involved. We’ve got our work cut out for us. There are currently more than 15,000 nuclear weapons on the planet Earth.

For a better understanding of the terrible destructive power of nuclear weapons, check out the classic 1982 BBC documentary “Q.E.D.: A Guide to Armageddon” on YouTube.

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Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

PARTY POOPERS: BLUE AND RED STALWARTS SHOULD STOP ATTACKING MINOR PARTY SUPPORTERS

AH IMAGE STEIN

July 30, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS 

Blue and Red stalwarts should stop attacking minor party supporters for remaining independent—and start debating ideas

The quadrennial whinefest has already begun.

The RNC and DNC pageants are barely over, the presidential election is still over three months off, and yet major party stalwarts are already trying to police the growing margins of their parties and guilt trip them into voting against their consciences. Sadly, this behavior has become a ritual of American politics. One that needs to end if we’re ever going to have a system that offers voters more choices than “Column A or Column B.” Or, as comedian Barry Crimmins once put it: “Do you want to get hit over the head with a hammer or a mallet?”

In the last few days, I have read at least a dozen impassioned pleas from people on the broad political left in my social network begging anyone who will listen to not be “stupid” and “throw their votes away” by backing the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, or any party other than the Democrats this fall. When begging fails, they turn to hectoring—usually based on the Reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy: 2016 is 1933. Trump is Hitler. If you don’t vote Democrat, you’re letting the Nazis win.

When hectoring tanks, they start the insults. Which soon devolve into digital shouting matches. Convincing no one who wasn’t already convinced. But solidifying their belief that they’re the only ones possessing the relevant facts and the “maturity” to take “rational” action. That their political equation is the only political equation. That their choice is the only “sane” one. But that’s incorrect.

People can share some of the Democrats’ stated “progressive” views and still vote for minor party candidates, or for Trump, or for “None of the Above”—an option that many Americans choose on a regular basis.  Because they understand that, in practice, Democratic presidents often back reactionary policies in the interest of multinational corporations and the rich. And they prefer to vote for the best candidate possible, or simply lodge a protest vote. Which they have every right to do.

I’ve also seen similar arguments being made from the political right—if not as vociferously—mostly concerned about the Libertarian Party “stealing” votes from Republicans. (Although, at the moment, it’s looking like Libertarians will woo voters away from both the Democrats and the Republicans. Providing the potential for umbrage from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump supporters alike, one supposes).

So just a reminder to all major party supporters—including the Boston Globe’s Yvonne Abraham, whose hatchet job on Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein this week is a textbook example of the behavior in question: people in minor political parties are not in your political parties. They are Greens. They are Libertarians. They are Socialist Party (yes, they’re running national candidates, too), et cetera. And while they certainly have to figure out their relationship to other parties as part of their political strategy, they are not required to do what you want them to do. They are also not “idiots” for hewing to their own political course. Or for failing to fall into line behind the current duopoly.

Even though so-called “third” parties haven’t had a chance at winning major national elections for a longlong time, and even though we don’t have a parliamentary system in the US, that doesn’t mean their efforts are wasted. Or that their votes are “thrown away.”

Small parties run national elections for any number of reasons, but two big ones are to qualify for federal election funding and to earn a slot in the presidential debates. Others include: support for lower level candidates, demonstrating that their party has a national presence, the possibility of forcing one of the major parties to cut a deal on a key policy issue, and gaining visibility for their ideas. Whatever the reason, they are not stealing votes from anybody. They are vying for constituencies like any other party and trying to win them over and gain their support.

That’s politics, folks. It’s real life. The more power that’s at stake, the uglier it gets. As we just saw (and perhaps are still seeing courtesy of Wikileaks) with the highly questionable Clinton victory over Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Therefore I suggest that major party backers remember that fact in the coming months and beyond. You all can try to convince minor party members and independents to join your party based on the strength of your ideas. But, given the degeneration of the Democrats and the Republicans into caricatures of their past politics—the social democracy of the former morphing into neoliberalism, and the conservatism of the latter descending into a chaotic stew of faux-populism, racism and nativism—and given that both parties have long stood for militarism, imperialism, and state capitalism, it should be no surprise at all that more and more people are looking for political alternatives.

I certainly am.

EXTRA! EXTRA!

Also, a quick shout-out to Black Lives Matter Cambridge and Somerville allies for organizing this week’s “Setting the Record Straight” counter-demonstration in Union Square. That in response to the protest rally called by the Somerville Police Employee’s Association (SPEA) and the Mass Municipal Police Coalition (MMPC) in support of removing the “Black Lives Matter” banner that Mayor Joe Curtatone—in a welcome turn from his more problematic political stancesrefuses to take down from Somerville City Hall. And replacing it with an “All Lives Matter” banner. A position based on the myth of “seemingly daily protest assassinations of innocent police officers around the country,” according to the original SPEA letter to Curtatone.

Yes, cops are people, too. But the city’s support for Black people’s humanity—and their demands for justice in an unjust and structurally racist political economic system that has historically been defended by police (and their often virulently racist unions)—takes nothing away from that.

More to the point, as the current excellent BLM slogan puts it: “If All Lives Matter, #Prove It!” Let’s see SPEA and MMPC support punishing killer cops and admit that there is literally no comparison between police deaths in the line of duty—which are actually in decline—and the ongoing execution of Black people by cops. Then there will be grounds for some genuine dialogue between area police and Black Lives Matter.

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Apparent Horizon is syndicated by theBoston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

MEDICINE FOR A MENDICANT MEDIA: Government support can revive American journalism

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July 25, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

[Note: This is the full version of this article. A shorter version ran in the print edition of DigBoston— also dated July 25, 2016.]

Journalism is in a tough spot. There are tens of thousands of trained journalists in the United States, but a dearth of funding and the rolling collapse of major news outlets prevents many of us from making a living plying our trade. Even as journalism schools continue pumping out thousands of new journalists every year. According to the annual newsroom census by the American Society of News Editors, we’ve dropped from a high of 56,900 jobs in journalism in 1990 to a low of 32,900 jobs in 2015–3,800 jobs lost in the last year counted alone. That’s just in print journalism. The picture for broadcast journalism is somewhat better, but no broadcast news sector is adding lots of new jobs. And there have actually been layoffs at large digital news companies that are supposed to represent the “future of news.” All this as the population served rose from 249 million to 321 million over the quarter century in question. Meaning that more and more Americans live in “news deserts.” Ignored and abandoned by the dwindling number of robust professional news operations. A very dangerous state of affairs for a democracy that requires an informed citizenry to function properly.

New entrants struggle to replace the old news industry

Two developments helped cause the sharp contraction of the news media over the last few decades. First, the absorption of many news outlets by multinational corporations — which then squeezed them mercilessly for profit. Second, the Internet’s near destruction of the old, flawed, advertising-based commercial model that used to fund the production of the majority of American reporting.

Fortunately, there is another significant media sector that produces news. Government-backed public media. Although woefully underfunded by Congress, it has done a good job of staying afloat for almost 50 years. However, its outlook is far from certain, and its commitment to news is mixed. PBS has never produced much news — especially local news — although it is justifiably famous for its documentaries. NPR and its affiliate stations, on the other hand, are now producing more than ever and are fairly stable economically due in part to popular local news shows and the donations they attract. But they have an aging audience — and only small numbers of young people, urban dwellers using public transit, Blacks, and Latinos tune in. Which doesn’t bode well for the future, despite the inroads the network has made with podcasts and other online content.

Neither service is sizable enough to keep enough journalists in the field to make up for ongoing news industry losses. So, neither can produce the amount of solid coverage that our society requires to remain democratic. And that’s unlikely to change with the federal government providing less than 20 percent of PBS and NPR revenue through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other sources. Which annually amounts to only a few dollars per capita while countries like Denmark spend over 100 dollars per capita on public media. Another 20 percent more comes from state and local governments. A figure that has been dropping due to budget cuts since the Great Recession. The rest comes from corporations, foundations, and individual donors that tend to over represent the white, college-educated, suburban, middle and upper classes. Groups that expect certain kinds of programming: garden shows, light opera, and folksy commentary from white guys in overalls. And don’t expect other kinds of programming. Like journalism focusing on the needs of younger, working-class, urban populations of color that live in news deserts.

As the situation has worsened, these factors have led to a wave of new journalism outfits that are attempting to fill the growing holes in local, state and national news coverage. Some are nonprofit, some are for profit, and most are having a hard time making ends meet … let alone flourishing.

Much of my career as a journalist has been spent running such projects. Last year, I co-founded the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) with Chris Faraone and John Loftus — merging my seven year old, community newspaper-sized, online nonprofit Open Media Boston into the new regional investigative reporting incubator. It’s done quite well so far, producing 20 features and over 100 columns, running several community events, and paying good money for work by a couple of dozen area reporters.

But compared to the surviving corporate news outlets — or even alternative metro news publications like the late lamented Boston Phoenix — we’re operating on a shoestring budget. We raised and spent $70,000 in our first year, and just brought in another $25,000 as we enter our second year. Ironically making us incredibly efficient by the standards of the industry. Legions of news startups have tried to make a go of it — mainly online — on even smaller budgets in recent years. Very few of the new entrants started with stable funding. And even fewer have survived to grow into substantial organizations that come anywhere near replacing lost news organizations in their communities.

A study by veteran news executive Alan Mutter said that of 141 digital journalism startups listed by Columbia Journalism Review in 2010 one-quarter had gone under within five years (and he just missed counting Open Media Boston, which I shut down right after his report was released). These were the more established of a universe of hundreds of such startups, but many were still one and two-person operations. I helped launch a network for those online news organizations that same year — now called Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers. Some of those startups have thrived since then by dint of much hard work, experimentation, and willingness to share ideas with other outlets. Of the success stories, both inside and outside LION, only a fraction of the new online publications have been able to build up a larger staff and become forces in their regional news markets.

The largest of those successes — which are nowhere near the size of traditional newsrooms, but are at least moving in the right direction — have usually managed to find some kind of major donor to bankroll their operations. Often a wealthy person or small group of them.

And that’s a problem. There’s no perfect funding system for news production out there. All have their good and bad points. All affect news content. It’s just a question of degree. Ultimately, it’s always up to ethical journalists to resist pressure from any funding source to censor ourselves. Yet the essentially feudal funding system that’s becoming “The Dream” for many American news organizations, large and small, nonprofit and for profit, is seriously problematic.

When journalists go begging, journalism suffers

Going hat-in-hand to get a rich person to dump money on your news outlet — be it the Boston Globe, the Intercept, or the Texas Tribune — means that one more vital institution in our democratic society, the free press, increasingly exists at the sufferance of private wealth. The caprices of the rich can then more closely dictate what kind of news coverage the various American publics will see. Or not see (as we were just reminded when PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel took down Gawker). With no meaningful public oversight.

There are a number of alternatives to that model. BINJ, like many other news organizations, is trying most of them. Memberships and subscriptions (never an easy option in an era when people expect to get their news for free), crowdfunding, benefits, merchandise sales, sponsorships, and newer forms of (mostly digital) advertising are all in play. Foundation grants are also in the mix. However, fortunately or unfortunately, very few foundations give money for news production. And as BINJ’s Chris Faraone has pointed out, the foundations that fund journalism-related projects prefer to give their money to what they consider to be safe bets like university institutes (or the money pit that is the Newseum). Plus, grant funding is often just another form of feudal giving. If, to paraphrase Balzac, “behind every great fortune there is a great crime,” then the same may undoubtedly be said of the many foundations built on such fortunes.

Will BINJ join other news outlets in seeking money from rich people and foundations? Absolutely. We have to. Even though we aspire to pull in most of our budget from smaller donations by large numbers of people to avoid having to deal with editorial pressure from any one funding source, we would have a very hard time getting to that point without dedicated specialist staff that we can only pay if we can get larger chunks of startup money. As a nonprofit, we can’t go for venture capital, and wouldn’t get much if we could — since we’re an investigative reporting group that is frequently critical of giant corporations. So we do our best to find the coolest funders we can, and to pull in enough money to grow strong enough to chart a more independent growth course.

Even if we succeed and manage to hire 10, 20, or even 50 full-time journalists, and even if 100 other newer entrants to the news market — nonprofit and for profit alike — do the same nationwide, we’re still not going to replace the news ecology that once existed. And most jobs in the industry will remain low-paid, short-term, contract gigs — forcing talented journalists to scrape by as freelancers for a few months or years until inevitably throwing in the towel. So, begging rich people and foundations for our proverbial supper is clearly not a viable economic long-term economic strategy for the news industry. The much-vaunted “citizen journalists” are not going to fill the gap either — winking in and out of existence like so many untrained, unpaid, unaccountable fireflies as they do.

The alternative to mendicant journalism

Is there a better alternative to today’s busted model of mendicant journalism? I think so. The one least discussed in this country in this era, but perhaps the most important. Public funding. Real public funding. Not the anemic version conservatives have stuck us with thanks to ceaseless attacks against PBS and NPR since their formation in 1969 and 1970 respectively. This is the road mostly not travelled in the US. We need a big public fund like the National Endowment for the Arts or National Endowment for the Humanities — a National Endowment for Journalism, as has been periodically proposed — that would dole out grants to organizations like BINJ to produce a broad array of news in the public interest. And allow us to build the large grassroots member base that would make us truly independent. Given the long experience that many democratic nations (including our own) have with such arrangements, there’s every reason to believe that more public support would spark a flowering of journalism akin to the one that resulted from the postal subsidies granted to newspapers at the dawn of the republic. Not create the kind of a censorious Soviet-style news regime invoked by the hard right every time the issue of public funding for news production is brought up.

One key to avoiding such a regime will be running any public funding institution for news production as democratically as possible. Diverse regional boards that are elected by the public-at-large for limited terms could be put in charge of disbursing grants on a regular cycle. Staff could be hired to support the boards and housed in existing public facilities. To qualify for funding, news organizations would have to meet certain professional standards, demonstrate some ability to raise money, and produce content for a reasonable period of time (say, a year). Priority could be given to news organizations set up to cover underserved communities and run by journalists from those communities.

That’s just one possible public approach. There are many others worth considering. Foremost among them, fully funding PBS and NPR — after cutting the ties that bind them to oligarchs like the Koch brothers — and opening their doors to the diverse range of views called for in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Which will allow them to significantly increase the size, reach, and relevance of their news operations.

Where will the money come from for such innovations? A wealthy society like ours can figure it out. Eliminate funding for nuclear weapons. Tax the rich and corporations. And we’ll have a whole new journalism ballgame.

 

 

Looking for a good book on the idea of government funding for journalism? Check out “The Death and Life of American Journalism” by John Nichols and Robert McChesney.

 

 

This article replaces the July 21, 2016 Apparent Horizon column.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GE BOSTON DEAL: THE MISSING MANUAL, PART 8

 Photo by Jason Pramas. Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas.

Photo by Jason Pramas. Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas.

June 21, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Problems with GE Fort Point arrangement show need for democratic economic development planning

A new wrinkle surfaced earlier this month in the plan to use a big chunk of the $270 million in public aid and tax breaks being shoveled at General Electric to buy two of the three buildings that are slated to make up its new headquarters in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood.

In part 5 of this ongoing series of columns on the GE Boston deal, I mentioned that said scheme called for the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) to purchase the two former Necco company buildings from Procter & Gamble—along with part of the big parking lot outside its Gillette plant—and lease the buildings back to General Electric. Soon after, it emerged that while GE would pay up to an estimated $100 million to refurbish the buildings and build a new third structure on the site, it would not be paying rent. At all. For the entire 20 years of the lease. And that the terms of the agreement struck with the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts only put the vast multinational on the hook for “annual operating expenses, property taxes not abated or subject to a PILOT [Payment In Lieu of Taxes] agreement, and interior renovations costs.”

John Barros, Boston’s chief of economic development, subsequently insisted that despite the agreement making no mention of rent payments for the former Necco buildings, by gum there would be some kind of payments! Yet there has been no further news on what those payments might look like. Or if the company will, in fact, ever be asked to make any payments in exchange for using the buildings at all.

Key to the plan was BRA ownership of the buildings—because that allowed GE, a corporate behemoth infamous for making huge profits and paying very little in taxes, to use the part of the promised $120 million in state grants that wasn’t used by the BRA to purchase the buildings to rehab them and make other site improvements. Since the state money in question cannot be used on private property.

Now it turns out that the BRA won’t be involved in the deal at all. Instead, according to the Boston Business Journal (BBJ), the state’s economic development arm MassDevelopment will own the Necco buildings and the $120 million in state funds “would be used in [its] acquisition of the Necco buildings as well as to improve utilities at the site, create a public park and improve the existing Harborwalk.”

As regards the lack of rent, a rather uncritical April 1 BBJ piece, “Of course GE won’t pay rent in Boston, so stop bellyaching,” noted that “the revitalized site could generate roughly $1.75 million in annual gross tax revenues to the city.” An estimated $35 million over 20 years. The next day, the Boston Globe quoted a higher estimate using “City Hall” figures indicating that a “comparably sized office property in that part of the city” would pay $48 million in taxes over 20 years—which a later Boston.com piece interpreted as the city pocketing $23 million over its $25 million in tax abatements to GE.

But when WGBH’s Jim Braude had interviewed Boston Mayor Marty Walsh a few days prior, hizzoner agreed there had been no discussion of GE paying taxes to the city to that point. After first putting it as an evasive double negative, “There’s been no discussion of not paying taxes.”

All that said, it comes down to this: The City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are giving millions of public dollars to a mind-blowingly wealthy conglomerate that doesn’t need it. To engineer the public purchase of two out of three headquarters buildings on which it will likely not pay much, if any, rent. Nor will GE likely pay significant taxes on the parts of the complex it is to own outright—if its past record as one of the biggest tax scofflaws in history is any guide.

The terms of the essentially secret deal that led to this situation—brokered by high public officials and GE leadership with no public oversight whatsoever—are already being violated. The place of the BRA in the complicated and highly questionable real estate transaction at the heart of the accord has now been taken by MassDevelopment. Once again with no opportunity for public comment or oversight.

Things just happen. Politicians and CEOs cut backroom deals. Much of the press lays down on the job. And the public gets shafted.

But what if the public didn’t have to bow down to private interests? What if we didn’t have to get shafted on deals like this? Imagine a Boston and a Massachusetts in which the public good—rather than short term gain for a few privileged actors—was the guiding political economic motivation.

Let’s say that the same city and state money being lavished on General Electric was put into something that many people have said was important—like strengthening and expanding the arts sector in Fort Point in ways that go much further than anything proposed in the city’s new arts plan. A sector that, after all, was largely responsible for making what the BRA likes to call the “Seaport District” attractive to big developers and corporate interests to begin with.

In that alternate Boston, the city and state would pull out of the GE deal. The state would buy the Necco buildings directly from P&G. Perhaps it would pick up the adjacent 253 Summer Street building as well. And it could even buy some of the available P&G parking lot and build desperately needed public housing—following the mixed-use zoning ideas for the area in the 2006 BRA “100 Acres Plan” a good deal more closely than that agency is at the moment. City and state money would refurbish the space as a creative industries incubator with an emphasis on new businesses run as worker-owned co-operatives. The focus of the project would be twofold. Create good arts jobs, and help Fort Point remain a major arts hub. That would be a much better use of public money than dumping it on GE. Especially because the entire development process would be transparent and subject to democratic oversight.

A robust popular movement will be required to make this kind of vision a reality. And such movements rarely appear on cue. But it sure would be nice if one did this time around.

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Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

 

GE BOSTON DEAL: THE MISSING MANUAL, PART 7

GE Housatonic graphic

May 11, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

General Electric tries to cheap out on cleaning up its PCB apocalypse on the Housatonic River

In 1929, Swann Chemical Company began commercially producing polychlorinated biphenyls for industrial use as an electrical insulator and as a coolant. PCBs were immediately a huge success, and Monsanto bought Swann six years later. From 1932 to 1977, the big General Electric plant in Pittsfield, Mass used large quantities of the chemical in manufacturing electrical transformers and other products. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, as much as 600,000 pounds of PCBs was dumped into the adjacent Housatonic River and the surrounding soil over that time. In 1979, the EPA banned PCBs as a definite animal carcinogen and a probable human carcinogen. One which can take hundreds of years to naturally degrade to nontoxic levels.

As GE finished winding down its Pittsfield operation over the next couple of decades—ultimately eliminating 13,000 mostly unionized jobs, and driving a spike through the economic heart of the Berkshires—state agencies and the EPA initiated a number of regulatory actions culminating in a 1997 proposal by the EPA to add the Housatonic site to the Superfund National Priorities List. After long negotiations, the company managed to stop the site from being tarred with the Superfund designation and in 1999 agreed to what the EPA called a “Consent Decree” to cleanup PCBs in the Housatonic from the former site of GE’s Pittsfield plant to a couple of miles downriver in a first phase that has since been completed. And then to cleanup what was termed “Rest of River” in a second phase.

Having spent $100 million on the first phase (as part of the initial Consent Decree settlement), GE is now fighting to be able to cheap out on cleaning up the rest of the river. Mainly by trying to save the estimated $250 million cost of shipping PCB-contaminated river sediment and surrounding soil by rail to a huge toxic waste storage facility in Texas, as demanded by the EPA’s current “Rest of River” plan, via an alternative proposal for three new dumps in Western Mass. Two of which are right near the Housatonic. Yet are somehow expected to store a chemical infamous for its ability to leech out of dumps, spread miles underground—possibly right back to the river it was dredged from—and also evaporate and travel long distances in the air. GE appealed the EPA’s plan last October. A move that could land the whole affair in the US Court of Appeals in Boston, and drag a process that will take at least 13 years to complete out even longer.

Local communities are understandably furious, and river advocates have started holding protests at the proposed GE dump sites. It should be understood that the effects of PCBs on the environment are dire. And that so-called Rest of River cleanup is meant to fix some (but nowhere near all) of the damage done up to 140 miles downstream through Western Mass and Connecticut into Long Island Sound. PCBs—found in the Housatonic at levels far above the EPA safety threshold—not only raise cancer risks in humans and animals alike, but also cause direct immune, reproductive, endocrine, and neurological effects. With children being the most vulnerable human population.

But even the planned EPA approach to Rest of River cleanup on the Housatonic—which activists think is woefully insufficient—is still too expensive for GE’s taste at an estimated $613 million. The corporation won’t rest until it knocks at least $250 million off the top. And damn the environmental consequences.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether—given the buzz coming from Western Mass—there might be a connection between the Housatonic situation and the $270 million in public funds, services, and tax breaks that Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh have agreed to lavish on GE to induce them to move their headquarters to the Hub. But one has to wonder—in light of the recent investigation by the International Business Times showing that GE employees and the employees of GE’s lobbying firms donated nearly $1 million to the NY Congressional delegation over last three election cycles—why so many Empire State pols just happened to stand down from the fight to stop EPA approval of GE’s halting its dredging of PCBs in the Hudson River Valley last year? And if a scheme like that could happen one state over, why couldn’t it happen here?

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Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.