Monday, August 18, 2003

The Spinning of a Story: How La Vanguardia Covered the Blackout

Friday, August 15: The blackout is a breaking story for La Vangua's staff and they obviously can't tear down their whole paper. Their front page headline, in a one-column box to the left above the fold, is "Giant Blackout Leaves New York, Other US and Canadian Cities in the Dark". The full story is on page five, and it is credited to "Agencies", which means, I guess, EFE, AFP, AP, and Reuters. The story reports that rumors of a terrorist attack were quickly quashed, that various American and Canadian authorities were blaming one another for what had happened, that the nuke plants were shut down and there was no danger, that hundreds of thousands of people got stuck because of transport problems and had to walk home or spend the night in their offices or whatever, that there were no civil disorders, that seven major airports were closed down, and that President Bush, Governor Pataki, and Mayor Bloomberg were up on the situation and had announced that it was under control and the power would be back on soon.

The "human interest" details were that a lot of people, as long as they had nothing better to do, went to bars and restaurants to finish off the cold drinks and fresh food and that restaurants were offering free food because it would just spoil without registration.

Fair enough. That's pretty good. It looks to me a lot like what I saw in other sources.

Saturday, August 16: Front-page lead headline: "Giant Blackout Affects 50 Million Americans; Power Returns Slowly to New York and Other US, Canadian Cities; Thousands of Citizens Sleep in Streets, Unable to Reach Home; Washington and Ottawa Blame One Another for Biggest Blackout in History". Further stories are on pages 2-6 and on the editorial page.

From Alberto Abian's signed page 2 editorial: ...No matter how surprising it might seem, the first world power controls, even militarily, the principal energy-producing zones, but it is incapable of delivering this transformed energy to its citizens, who for one night must have felt the same sensations of fear and impotence that the Iraqis of Basra must suffer: they live above an immense lake of petroleum and they have to use candles for light. Bush himself admitted yesterday that his country's electrical grid had become obsolete. A euphemism which hides the lack of investment and the chaos which the deregulation of the sector, whose costly investments in infrastructures are incompatible with the immediate profitability that some Wall Street sharks want. The Californians, for example, have suffered from blackouts caused by the companies themselves in order to raise their prices and gain more official subsidies. In the light of this dark experience, the American neoliberals (=free-marketeers) will be able to see in their own retinas that the privatization of this sector should not be incompatible with the maintenance of some type of intervention on the part of the State.

Great. First sign of the spin: Reducing the powers of the government through deregulation and privatization is bad and it caused this blackout mess. Problem: Most Spaniards seem to believe that there is no government regulation whatsoever in the United States. In fact, there is plenty, especially in the energy sector.

(Technical Stuff I Really Don't Understand): My understanding, from what I can figure out, is that there are three phases of getting electricity to your house: the production of the power in a coal or hydro or nuke or whatever plant, the transmission of large quantities of power from the power station to the local power companies, and the distribution of small amounts of power from your local power company to your house and everybody else's. The power plant is the factory, the transmission company is the wholesaler, and the local power company is the retailer.

The current problem is not so much in production or distribution but in transmission, it seems. Apparently the problem is due to TOO MUCH government regulation of the prices transmitters of power can charge, and they're not making a profit and so have no money to invest in their infrastructure. There are other problems, like the effective monopolies that local power systems have--it's like the Seventies, when you got your phone service from Ma Bell or nobody. Well, in KC, you get your power from KCPL or from nobody. The consumer has no choice. Also, our friends the Greens and our tinfoil-hat wackos about the dangers of radiation from transmission lines haven't been any help in getting new connections built.

Second, notice the Yankee-bashing beginning right here, with the reference to "now the damn Yankees know what it feels like to be an Iraqi in Basra". Also note the continuing emphasis on fear in all reports from the United States. The Vanguardia has been pushing this line for years, that the Yanks are panic-stricken cowards crapping in their pants at the slightest pretext. I guess it makes them feel better to think the Americans are richer and their country is more powerful, but they're forced to live in a society that keeps them in terror.

Sunday, August 17: "Light Returns to New York" is the full-page head, with a huge color photo of the New York skyline with the lights on again. And here's Andy Robinson on page four:

...a young woman was caught in a human wave trying desperately to get on the ferry to New Jersey: "There was a real riot to get on and I was pretty scared," she said.

No matter what, luck always respects money, and more so in New York than anywhere else. There were those in the opulent downtown having a sushi dinner by candlelight before the fish could spoil. They even celebrated "warm champagne" parties. But for the masses of service workers who walked sweating down the great avenues of Manhattan, the closing down of public transport meant long walks to the workers' neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx. "I had to walk five hours," said a young Polish waitress.

Almost all New Yorkers of a certain economic level followed the advice of the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and took Friday off--though his advice to go to the beach became less attractive when it was announced that thousands of tons of excrement had been dumped into the sea after the shutdown of the water treatment plants. The silent immigrant working class, however, walked back to Manhattan on Friday to clean empty offices or wait in the kitchen for the return of the electricity.

In the luxurious neighborhood of Soho small generators with cables were connected to the sumptuous lofts. In the cafes they were charging fifteen dollars for a sandwich, charging the blackout tax. But in any case the electricity would return soon to neighborhoods like Soho or the Upper East Side, next to Central Park. The Wall Street brokers had electricity at the regular opening time thanks to a generator in the stock market. But three blocks away in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, the neighborhoods with the lowest incomes in South Manhattan--there was no light until nine PM.

Hoo boy. According to Yank-hating Brit Andy, this whole blackout was a lesson in class consciousness and about how in supposedly egalitarian America the rich party and the poor suffer.

So let's see. There was a blackout in New York. It was reported neutrally by the international news agencies. As soon as the Vanguardia got a chance to opine, though, they immediately spun as negatively as possible. The blackout means something profound, you see. This means that American-style deregulation, privatization, and market liberalization are bad. This also means that Americans should reflect on the terrible suffering they are causing the Iraqis. It is a symbol of the panic in which Americans live. And it is proof of the abysmal difference between rich and poor in the United States.

That's quite a spin job, that is. But what did you expect?

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