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Alternative media versus the exterminist economy

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Image: Jason Woodhead/Flickr

Welcome to Greening the Media, Robert Hackett's new blog on rabble.ca! The basic premise of Greening the Media is simple: if we want a greener planet and a sustainable future, we need better media. This blog is concerned with the intersection (collision?) of environment/energy/climate issues with the structures and practices of journalism and media. The blog also offers relevant political and personal reflections, and perhaps the occasional rant -- the corporate media sometimes deserve no less.

Canadians are being bombarded through conventional and social media with propaganda for the Trans Mountain pipeline. The Alberta government alone spent a reported $23 million to promote this project, one that will help expand the Athabasca bitumen sands and greenhouse gas emissions. Even our public television network, CBC, repeatedly runs Alberta's promos -- a simplistic narrative, appropriately in cartoon format. (See a critique of their contestable claims by energy analyst David Hughes.)

But we can do better. Stronger support for independent, progressive, "alternative" media would facilitate a more balanced debate about Canada's climate policies and energy future.

A recent study I co-authored for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) indicates that promotion of export-oriented oil pipelines doesn't stop with paid ads or Facebook campaigns -- it's embedded in corporate media's regular reporting.

Sampling 300 articles on Canadian pipeline controversies, in corporate and alternative media, the study found that news outlets like the Vancouver Sun, Province, Edmonton Journal, 24 Hours, and Globe and Mail emphasized themes and voices in favour of pipeline construction. While these papers could hardly ignore protests and dissident messages, they typically emphasized extractivist themes: job creation, other economic benefits, pipeline safety, legitimacy of the approval process, pipelines as in the public interest, the continued need for fossil fuels, the illegitimacy of opposition.

In opinion articles, pipeline advocates constructed an ideologically selective version of reality, often rendering oil corporations and state agencies invisible as political actors -- they are dissolved into general categories (like "resource development"), depicted as merely reactive to market or political pressures, or simply not mentioned.

By contrast, pipeline opponents were portrayed as an illegitimate special interest group. The anti-pipeline mayors of Vancouver and Montreal were labelled a "stumbling block," "slinging mud," practising "canny politics" and speaking "parochially." Protesters are "well meaning" but "ignorant" and consist of a "vast coalition of environmental groups" that make demands -- an inversion of actual power relations, considering the petroleum industry's deep pockets and army of lobbyists. Could any citizens' group match the 826 meetings by just one company -- Kinder Morgan, the original proponent of Trans Mountain expansion -- with senior BC and federal officials between 2011 and 2016? (See research from the Corporate Mapping Project).

There's a bigger picture here. Canada's corporate media are components of what Simon Fraser University researcher Bob Neubauer labels the petrobloc. (One example: in 2014, Canada's biggest newspaper chain, PostMedia, reportedly agreed to produce advertorials for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.) Not to be confused with a conspiracy, Neubauer explains, the petrobloc is "an informal alliance between actors -- oil companies, banks which finance them, particular political parties, industry-backed think tanks and advocacy groups, etc. -- which disproportionately benefit from the industry's highly inequitable structure." Meanwhile, Canadian workers and taxpayers "gain a relatively tiny share of sector revenue while absorbing vast amounts of ecological and economic risk."

The petrobloc arguably includes industry-captured government regulatory agencies. Take the National Energy Board -- please! Back in 2014, I was one of the relatively few "directly affected" homeowners granted intervenor status in the NEB's review of the TransMountain proposal -- a process patently designed to minimize public participation and reach a predetermined approval. Is anybody surprised that the NEB's "reconsideration report" of February 22 repeated its green light?

In opposition, Trudeau promised to replace and redo the NEB review process. Then he got elected, and didn't. The petrobloc's influence over Canadian economy and policy leads some observers to fear Canada is devolving into "oil's deep state" (in the words of Albertan author Kevin Taft).

And what the petrobloc is defending is extractivism -- in Naomi Klein's definition, an economic model based on the appropriation and removal, without renewal, of natural resources from the earth, usually for export to dominant players in world markets.

"Extractivism" describes Canada's historic role as a hewer of wood and drawer of water. But Canada's apparent addiction to fossil fuel exports adds a new dimension. If business-as-usual for the fossil fuel industry has entailed the conscious acceleration of global warming; the suppression of research and the deliberate sowing of public doubt about its links to fossil fuels; the dismissal of climate scientists' warnings to keep 80 per cent of fossil fuel reserves in the ground; the use of political and economic power to postpone a post-carbon economy; the overriding of Indigenous rights and cultures; and disproportionate complicity in the planet's Sixth Mass Extinction of species, including potentially our own -- is "extractivism" still a sufficiently strong term?

After all, defining the terms of a policy debate is halfway to winning it. A growing UK-based pro-climate movement cleverly calls itself "Extinction Rebellion." Extinction indicates what is at stake, but it implies a Darwinian process of natural selection. When extinction results from conscious choices to which there are alternatives, it's fair to describe fossil fuel extractivism as an economy of extermination.

As if to confirm the point, the NEB's February report admits that greenhouse gas emissions, and adverse environmental impacts on the resident killer whale population, would both be "significant," yet finds the project nevertheless "justified."

Fortunately, the CCPA study finds that non-corporate independent daily outlets (like The Tyee, National Observer, and rabble.ca) provide important elements of a counter-narrative to extractivist exterminism, giving more attention than do corporate media to pipeline-critical themes: the power of Big Oil threatens democracy; the approval process was flawed; the pipeline itself threatens to accelerate climate change; it brings other environmental risks (tanker spills, pipeline ruptures, tank farm fires); it actually threatens or exports potential Canadian jobs; it tramples First Nations' rights.

Alternative media were also more likely to give access to First Nations spokespeople, environmental groups, experts and protesters.

Sure, there's room for improvement. In pipeline coverage, alternative media did little to challenge the paralyzing stereotype that jobs and environmental protection are mutually exclusive. Nor did they give much voice to fossil fuel workers and unions. Their inclusion is important not only to offset the pro-business tendencies of a commercial press, but also, because the labour movement has generated a potent concept for building a low-carbon economy – a just transition from fossil fuels. That includes workers' participation in decision-making, job retraining (in renewable energy and other relevant, growing sectors), and other measures to minimize economic insecurity in resource communities. If media muffle labour's voices, that allows fossil capital to shape public debate by constructing a skewed picture of workers' interests.

Including labour's voices and exploring just transition options? That's a big journalistic mission more suited to alternative than corporate media culture.

Yet the playing field is far from level. Even though corporate media face declining revenues and newsroom cutbacks, alternative media don't have comparable investment capital, newsgathering resources, audience reach, corporate alliances, or access to distribution networks (particularly the giant tech platforms like Facebook, that function as publishing gatekeepers to so much content).

There is a democratic case for public funding of independent non-profit journalism. An investment no larger than Notley's $23 million pipeline cartoons would go a long way to supporting a more pluralist media system. Just two per cent of that amount would nearly double the revenues that The Tyee, the award-winning Vancouver-based online news magazine, reported for 2010.

Interestingly, last November, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced $595 million in tax incentives over five years to support Canadian journalism, including charitable status for non-profit news organizations, and tax credits for news outlets that hire to expand local news coverage.

This new policy initiative implies a welcome recognition that journalism is a public good, that is, a needed civic service that can't be easily produced through market mechanisms, one that serves democracy best through independence from both state and corporate power. We need a stable financial basis for professional journalism in the for-profit sector, as well as the largely volunteer- and freelance-based alternative media.

But don't forget, Morneau paid Kinder Morgan $4.5 billion of Canadians' taxes for its leaky 66 year old pipeline. Can we trust his media initiative to help redress the imbalance between corporate and independent media? How much support will go to journalism rather than to media companies' CEOs and hedge fund creditors?

Keep careful watch, because genuinely democratic media reform is integral to struggles for a sustainable economy, climate action, and democratic counterweights to the excessive power of the petrobloc and its exterminist economic model.


Robert Hackett is professor emeritus of communication at Simon Fraser University. He has published eight (mostly collaborative) academic books on media and politics, most recently Journalism and Climate Crisis in 2017. This article originally appeared on Common Ground.

Image: Jason Woodhead/Flickr

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