Cowboys and Patriots: Messy thoughts on the journalistic coverage

 According to yesterday’s USA Today staff editorial, 

“Investigators still haven’t said what caused last week’s horrific explosion at a Texas fertilizer distributor, but they seem to have ruled out a deliberate attack. The fire and bomb-like blast are looking more like an industrial accident made worse by haphazard oversight and the state’s notoriously lax zoning laws.”

Let’s pull out some of the key words in the passage above. 
Deliberate: Important as a means of contrast. Two brothers did not Al-Qaeda YouTube propaganda and rig homemade bombs through the plant. 
Accident: Some variation of “we can’t blame anyone” meets “it’s sad” meets “This could have been prevented.” 
Made worse: What the writers will list next did not actively or aggressively pursue malicious or nefarious outcomes for the people of West Texas.
Haphazard oversight: What oversight? 
Notoriously lax: EVERYONE knows that Texas sucks at zoning. 

“Over a half-century, the town of West crept up around the fertilizer facility until the plant sat near a middle school, a nursing home, an apartment complex and numerous houses that were destroyed or damaged by the explosion, which dug a crater 90 feet wide and killed 14 people.”

Crept up: People we aren’t allowed to blame for disaster because it emerged spontaneously: real estate developers, past mayors and city councils, people that wanted to be close to their jobs, people that didn’t think about where they were moving, owners of the plant, people that made money off the plant, Texas state officials, Hill county officials.

Last chunk:
“To the extent regulators paid attention to the plant, they seemed to have worried about lesser dangers. Texas regulators monitored air quality and truth-in-labeling. On the federal side, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration hadn’t inspected the business for worker safety problems since 1985, and the Department of Homeland Security didn’t know it housed the fertilizer that apparently triggered the explosion.”

Blah blah blah blah. The editorial concludes with recommendations about preventing the next type of fertilizer meltdown. I’m not sure of the compliance folks, Texan lawmakers and federal bureaucrats read USA Today staff editorials but sure, maybe if all three of those coordinate then the next time there’s a chance that a fertilizer plant will combust—it won’t! 

What drives me crazy about this story and so many other stories about the fertilizer plant in general and stories like oil spills and other environmental disasters is the extent to which journalists and editorialists categorize these events as accidents; that is, where there is passivity or inaction such as here with regards to state regulations that seem to have been loosely enforced (at best) writers dub them accidents.


Rarely is anything an accident. Especially when emulated by an entire agency, organization, or team, complacency enables.


Yes. Malicious is doing nothing. A sign of an individual’s character is not just what s/he accomplished but was not done, ignored, passed over, declared unnecessary. (Edmund Burke has some thoughts on this!)  


All of this is fascinating because the media is treating the Boston bombings from a completely different angle. In fact, while they’re not willing to step out a la Lindsay Graham and Peter King, they are willing to suggest that the FBI’s lack of actions caused the Boston bombings, they assert that the agency needs to lick the plate on the job a little better?


Here’s the USA Today Staff Editorial. I’m starting immediately several paragraphs lauding civilian and police efforts.


“But for all the reasons to be impressed with the response, some troubling questions are arising about whether more could have been done beforehand to thwart the attacks. Most notably, should the older suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, have been under closer scrutiny by authorities?”


Should: Something should have been done and it wasn’t.


Closer scrutiny: Yeah, what are we paying the FBI for these days?   


What follows recaps that the FBI had awareness of Tamerlan, heck Russian intelligence had awareness of him, which is why after the FBI interviewed, he was eventually passed on receiving citizenship.


“Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., both strongly criticized the FBI on Sunday for failing to track Tamerlan after he returned, suggesting that he might have been stopped before last Monday’s bomb attacks in Boston.”


USA Today does go onto admit that it’s a bit early to claim that it’s the FBI fault per se.

“Before concluding that authorities fumbled, it will be important to answer many questions: How often does Russian intelligence ask the FBI to investigate someone? How many people like Tamerlan Tsarnaev are under scrutiny? How much does U.S. law constrain officials from keeping tabs on such individuals? And how much should it?”


There’s 15 people dead from West Texas from a fertilizer explosion and thousands of others whose lives will bear scars, attesting to this impact. USA Today has every right to exhort the FBI to pursue excellence, perfection even, at every turn. But stop calling chemical blasts accidental. Put the blame on the people that caused it, the very people who themselves are change agents in preventing something like this from happening.


There’s even a chance that these people are reading USA Today. (Maybe that’s the reason they’re not named!) So we’re looking at you real estate developers, past mayors and city councils, people that wanted to be close to their jobs, people that didn’t think about where they were moving, owners of the plant, people that made money off the plant, state officials, county officials. Wherever you are, whatever America you inhabit, this should never occur again. 


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