See Something, Say Something #11

Regular Media Criticism from The Shoestring

In a media column, The Shoestring will reflect on recent local news.


South Hadley dumps unfiltered waste into the Connecticut – and? 

A MassLive article from August 30th, which is most effectively recapped by its own title – “Hose that ‘completely broke apart’ led South Hadley to discharge 284,193 gallons of raw sewage into Connecticut River” – leaves a lot of open questions regarding the incident. Citing only a town administrator’s memo and South Hadley’s mandatory report to the state Department of Environmental Protections, the article effectively outlines the logistics of the municipal maintenance accident (exclusively from the perspective of the town) but doesn’t address any of the obvious environmental or public health concerns. While the article does highlight the incident for public record, readers—especially readers downriver—are left in the dark about the impact nearly 300,000 gallons of raw sewage will have on local human and ecosystem health. Nor are they filled in on what, if any, actions need to be taken to repair the situation, if they will be taken, by whom, or if the town or contractor will face any penalties. MassLive’s commenters noticed both the limited scope of the article and the putrid smell of the river; for now, the only solution is to hold our breath till the smell passes. — Charlotte Murtishaw

Remembering David Koch, swimming pool patron

The Greenfield Recorder started its name-droppy August 24th obituary for David Koch on a tasteless and tenuous note, bizarrely comparing the 79-year old’s death to the sudden passing of 22-year Saoirse Kennedy Hill earlier this year, and managed to only get more tasteless and tenuous from there. Koch’s glowing local obituary dwells on his philanthropy to alma mater Deerfield Academy while painting a gloss over the billionaire’s role in American political and cultural life over the past few decades. While it may be true, as Deerfield brass David Thiel says, that “the positive impact [Koch] had on our community will be felt for many years” due to the natatorium and other sports facilities named in his honor, anyone with even a remote sense of recent American politics could also probably summon up some other ways his legacy will be felt even outside the cozy Deerfield community. At a glance, this includes (but is hardly limited to) the Koch brothers’ contributions to: the fossil fuel industry, climate change denial, and, by extension, the grim outlook of rapidly ongoing ecological collapse; racist and xenophobic anti-immigration legislation via their pet organization, ALEC; racist and xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric in Republican campaign ads via their voter data analytics company, i360; a general far-right surge in American politics driven by a network of billionaires and ultraconservative PACs, as well as calculated voter disenfranchisement; efforts to stop healthcare reform in a system that’s obviously performing well; the invention of numerous creative ways to profit off the sprawling and inhumane US prison system; and anti-bargaining campaigns, union sabotage, and other anti-worker pushes.

Additionally, why stop with David Koch’s contributions to the rich intellectual life of Deerfield Academy students when his money, via the Bill of Rights Institute, has actually touched the lives of millions of students across the country? The free BRI curriculum and materials offer a Koch-ified version of history combating dangerously progressive notions such as gun control, abortion, accessible healthcare, and gay marriage. (Not to be outdone, brother and business partner Charles is enthusiastic about supporting schools as well, though he primarily funnels money to higher education and in particular neo-confederate scholars who will lend gravitas to white supremacist talking points.)

Regardless of disagreements with his politics, it would be ungrateful to ignore the fact that David Koch didn’t have to give any of his money away, and his philanthropy does speak to the high quality of his citizenship and character. Koch should be applauded for giving to Deerfield Academy and other institutions; like all good philanthropy, his generosity (along with a complicated network of tax havens) helped him evade paying taxes on his massive, ill-begotten fortune to the country which owes him so much. — Charlotte Murtishaw

Jail Yoga 

For posterity’s sake, and since not everyone is on Twitter, I wanted to go back and make sure our readers saw an old one. On June 19th, both the Shoestring and Valley Advocate ran stories about the Hampden County Jail in Ludlow.

The Advocate offered the glib headline for a tawdry story, “Yoga in Jail: Hampden County program offers release in pre-release center.” The total puff piece oozed earnestness, with lines like “Bill Brown, executive director of the national Prison Yoga Project, said he believes a key component of teaching in incarcerated settings is establishing a relationship of trust with the students, which includes keeping one’s privilege in mind.” As the participants of the class attest in the piece, doing yoga is better than not doing it, and it helps them with breathing, stress reduction, and so on. But the Advocate professes to be an alternative news source, and, as I have noted before, when it comes to police and prisons, the Advocate seldom has anything unsavory to say. It should surprise no one that the most recent piece the Advocate ran on the Ludlow jail was a feel good story about “Project Good Dog,” a program that helps prisoners adopt dogs and train them before release.

Our story, on the other hand, was an in-depth investigation on hundreds of pages of ‘use of force’ reports from inside the jail. Reporter Seth Kershner showed that Hampden County uses pepper spray disproportionately against people with psychiatric disabilities, often for minor rule infractions, and more than any other jail in the state. (We are extremely proud of the story and think you should read it, if you missed it!)

Later in June, the Hampden County Sheriff floated to the press that they were interested in collaborating with ICE — renting them beds through a 287g agreement. — Will Meyer

Amazon and the case of the very invisible hand of the market

In a brief article published on August 22nd, MassLive amplified Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse’s announcement of an incoming Amazon distribution center as well as his claims of the incoming tech behemoth’s arrival bringing “hundreds of living wage jobs” to the city. The claims were completely unchecked and more than slightly dubious. According to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute “When Amazon opens a new fulfillment center, the host county gains roughly 30 percent more warehousing and storage jobs but no new net jobs overall, as the jobs created in warehousing and storage are likely offset by job losses in other industries.” Additionally, though calling $15 an hour a living wage in 2019 is a well-worn talking point, it is still patently false. Upon Amazon raising its minimum hourly wage to $15 nationwide in 2018, even CBS News noted that on average this wage doesn’t allow renters across the country to afford rent. It is especially troubling that MassLive ran with the Mayor’s narrative of living wage job-creation when considering Amazon’s well-documented habit of exploiting labor in the most economically impoverished places in the country. Holyoke has the highest per capita rate of SNAP recipients in the state with 37% of individuals and a whopping 54% of Holyoke’s households receiving said benefits. The poverty rate is 28.6% or one in every 3.5 people. Northampton and Holyoke are separated by less than a half mile.

Unlike the previous lapses, perhaps the most egregious omission in the article seemed to happen not as a simple oversight or as the product of corporate editorial hand-wringing, but rather as a matter of actual speechlessness on the part of the writer. Wedged between the claim that up to 700 vehicles could soon be clogging the city’s roads (also polluting the city’s air, contributing to environmental racism) and the extended unchecked quotes by Mayor (and aspiring congressman) Morse, lies what could have been the crux of a much more useful investigative story: the curious fact that BL Companies Inc.— “an architecture and engineering firm”— didn’t disclose to Holyoke’s Planning Board what business would be moving into the building formerly occupied by the Paulo Freire School of Social Justice. That’s correct: the Amazon distribution center was brought to Holyoke with little transparency, ostensibly secretly, with close to zero input from, or accountability to, the public.

But to expect a hard-hitting news piece from the same outlet that had just a few months prior, during global strikes at Amazon no less, ran a listicle of the dazzling deals on offer during Prime Day (through which they “may earn a commission”), may just be too much to ask. — Harrison Greene


Will Meyer and Harrison Greene are co-editors of The Shoestring. Charlotte Muritshaw is a regular contributor to The Shoestring, who recently interviewed filmmaker Liz Walber.

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