by Celia Burke, Howard University, Washington, DC
Pancakes and Propaganda
I was getting ready to go to work and simultaneously watching “Good Morning, America” when a commercial caught my eye. As summertime approaches, naturally tourism advertisements are more frequent, beckoning you to travel all over the country and all over the world. But when I heard the words “gulf coast,” for some reason I paid close attention.
I had seen this commercial before. But at that moment my eyes were glued to the screen. Maybe because I had recently heard news about how the Gulf Coast was having major issues after the BP oil spill in 2010 (surprise, surprise). I had specifically heard about how sea creatures like shrimp, a major source of income for Gulf fishermen, were showing increased deformities (which sounds very appetizing of course). Based on this disturbing knowledge, I was interested in what the commercial was trying to convey.
Something was being conveyed, but it wasn't the truth. The screen bounced between people representing different Gulf Coast cities and states. They were basically glorified cheerleaders for their different hometowns encouraging everyone to come down and experience the fun and food; hopefully seafood is not included. I also noticed that these were business owners and other prominent people in the cities, not regular locals who may have had a completely different message to the masses. On top of that, the end of the commercial flashed “BP” as its corporate sponsor and well, we all know what’s wrong with that.
The Origin of Apathy
For every smiling face in this commercial, I know there are thousands more that are angry. Millions of dollars that should be going towards Gulf Coast restoration are being used for useless commercials. BP is sugarcoating the real problem at hand. They’re blatantly trying to deviate American minds from the oil spill crisis. People and wildlife are still suffering two years later, and the repercussions will most likely be felt for decades. The recent deformed shrimp news is an indication that the effects of the oil spill are still being felt. Consider the Exxon Valdez oil spill, America’s second largest spill; that oil spill happened in 1989, the year I was born. And even 23 years later Prince William Sound, Alaska has not fully recovered, as wildlife including various birds and mammals are still exposed to lingering oil. The BP oil spill was significantly larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. So how can the problems have just gone away? We know that they haven’t. Furthermore, why are we seeing commercials promoting tourism instead of commercials demanding further cleanup aid and assistance from BP?
The power that the media has is unmatched. Unfortunately, there are far too many television shows, commercials, and news articles that serve only to bring attention to issues that they are paid to cover, or that they believe people want to hear. Commercials that do address important issues are campaign ads that will disappear abruptly after November 6th. Stories regarding issues abroad are more prevalent than stories that discuss the problems that low-income families and people of color face in America. The mainstream media spends a lot of time deflecting attention to our everyday issues and pointing to the flaws of everyone else.
Escaping a False Reality
Those of us who are working in the Frontlines certainly don’t have the funds to launch massive campaigns to bring attention to environmental justice. Environmental issues in general get a good amount of media play, especially with celebrity involvement. Everyone has heard about the plight of polar bears and other endangered species. Everyone has heard about the hole in the ozone layer and the polar ice caps melting. But those who know about the increased cases of cancer and birth defects in communities surrounded by landfills and refineries are few and far between.
What makes this so sad is that the communities are down the street; the polar bears and the ice caps are thousands of miles away. More and more it seems that the typical person is interested in what happened on last night’s episode of The Bachelor instead of what’s going on in their neighborhood or the neighborhood next to them. Individualism and a culture of hearty indulgence has permeated every aspect of our lives.
It’s frustrating and disheartening. But it’s up to the Frontline to continue telling their stories, spreading the news, and educating others in any way that we can. I know that we are often so immersed in our struggle that we sometimes forget to tell others about it. We need to find ways to engage those outside of our network in a conversation about environmental justice. If it were up to the major news networks, no one would ever know about Gulf Coast residents continuing to find tar balls on the beaches or the recent Congressional attack on the Clean Air Act. If we continue to spread the truth, we’ll continue to gain more interest and more people to spread the truth. Everyone’s story is essential to the environmental justice movement. I don’t know if our stories will ever reach the headlines but we can certainly fight to get them there. This is the perfect time to do it! Frontline communities have been disillusioned for a long time but we are now at a point where most Americans are disillusioned with the authoritative aspects of our society. Look at the Occupy Movement; we have a broader reach and no time to waste. Take this opportunity to continue pushing the media that covers our stories, and decolonize the mainstream media so that we’re not forced to listen or watch crap that says our health, our families, and our ways of life don’t matter.