DAVID KARPF If you want to know who's going to win, who's going to lose, what matters isn't what advertising is going on the air. What matters is how many ballots are going to get invalidated.
BOB GARFIELD Business as usual campaign coverage papers over this election's defining crisis. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. Also on the show, there's no missing the hysteria in the news and on social media about the epidemic in child sex trafficking. But there is no such epidemic.
Almost always, in the actual details of these stories, you can find clues that this is not the international sex trafficking ring that you have been promised in the headline.
BOB GARFIELD And the GamerGate playbook is the template for a coordinated attack on Netflix and an independent film on its platform.
KATE KNIBBS Opponents of Cuties have framed the conversation so that you either have to be pro child pornography, which no one reasonable is, or anti-Cuties. That was a master stroke.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week, I'm Bob Garfield. With six weeks till Election Day - let's do the numbers.
NEWS REPORT This new poll out today shows Trump and Biden tied in the battleground state of Florida. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Since March. Joe Biden has held at least 83 virtual fundraisers. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT The Trump campaign tells Politico it knocked on over one million doors in the past week alone. Joe Biden's campaign says it knocked on zero doors. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT A new CBS News battleground tracker poll shows the president trailing Biden in Minnesota: 50 percent to 41 percent. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Between Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris. They hosted four virtual fundraisers on Monday, bringing in around ten and a half million dollars combined. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD It all sounds so normal - to a fault. The latest manifestation of the media's normalizing of Donald Trump. Till now, that meant bending over backwards in deference to the stature of his office and the voters will to depict, for example, his most mundane acts in the soft light of presidential grandeur.
TRUMP Ryan died as he lived a warrior and a hero, battling against terrorism and securing our nation. [END CLIP]
VAN JONES He became president of the United States. In that moment,.
REPORTER What changed last night?
VAN JONES I think Donald Trump became president of the United States. I think this was actually a big moment. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Worse still, discussing his most aberrant acts and statements as if they were legitimate policy issues. And then there's editing out distractingly outrageous or dishonest or inarticulate rhetoric lest they drown out the supposed real news. But what if the very process of covering the 2020 election were creating a Potemkin village of normalcy in which the very nuts and bolts of political reporting have the effect of diluting the most crucial truth at the most crucial time? George Washington University media and public affairs professor Dave Karpf is watching ruefully as the press engages in business as usual.
DAVID KARPF There's a way that you cover elections in September and October. It assumes that the campaign is happening in normal times, and it's a focus on what the latest polls tell us. It's a focus on what states are the candidates visiting. How is their doorknocking going? What are the campaigns telling us based on their internals? What's the latest thing that happened at a rally?
BOB GARFIELD Those kinds of stories you mentioned, they're not unilluminating necessarily. I mean, if you're interested in the ebb and flow of political fortunes, they do matter. Do they not?
DAVID KARPF They matter, but they matter less in 2020 than they do in a 2016 or 2012. There was a moment from 2012 a reporter shouting out to Mitt Romney.
REPORTER Governor Romney, do you feel that your gaffes have overshadowed your foreign trip? [END CLIP]
DAVID KARPF Was the news of the day? Today, we have those similar stories. You know, there can be a story about whether or not Joe Biden, like, flubbed some line in a recent speech. But again, at issue here is those things only matter if they are being transmitted to an electorate that is all going to be able to vote. And since we also have this storyline about how not just the Trump campaign, but the entire administrative state, it seems, is being leveraged in order to make our elections less free and less fair.
SENATOR Do you believe, as the attorney general, the United States, that mail in voting will lead to massive voter fraud?
BARR I think there's a high risk that it will. [END CLIP]
PRESIDENT OBAMA Those in power who are doing there done this to discourage people from voting by closing polling locations and targeting minorities and students with restrictive I.D. laws. [END CLIP]
DAVID KARPF That seems like a much more central story. What matters isn't what advertising is going on the air. What matters is how many ballots are going to get invalidated.
BOB GARFIELD We're living in bizarro world and treating it as ordinary world and therefore abdicating our journalistic responsibility. Is that a fair characterization of your schpilkas?
DAVID KARPF That's pretty fair. I mean, back in 2016, the journalists, Salena Zito, coined the phrase that Donald Trump's voters take him seriously, but not literally. And reporters take him literally, but not seriously. And then over the past four years, we all learned that you have to take him both seriously and literally. And the challenge for reporters now and for their assignment editors is Trump is going out and giving speeches where he says.
TRUMP The only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged. Remember that. It's the only way we're going to lose this election. [END CLIP]
DAVID KARPF Roger Stone saying that they should just seize all of the ballots from the state of Nevada.
ROGER STONE We can prove voter fraud in the absentees right now. Send federal marshals to the Clark County Board of Elections, Mr. President. It's all there.
DAVID KARPF It's hard to take that literally because it's so out of the boundaries of how we're used to covering campaigns. And it doesn't line up well with the latest story that we also want to hear about. You know, what does Gallup or Rasmussen and say about who's leading in Florida or in Pennsylvania or another swing state? So that means that if you're talking about the latest polling numbers out of Florida, you also need to note the recent court case that is going to strip something like 700000 Florida citizens of their right to vote.
BOB GARFIELD You're referring to the case where the former felons who had been stripped of the right to vote had the voters restore it, but then the Republicans stayed. Officials created a de facto poll tax. They had to pay back fees and fines and so forth in order to be eligible. A court upheld that administrative ruling.
DAVID KARPF Yeah, that's pretty crucial there. You also need to talk about how there are active questions about whether or not all ballots will be counted. While we're gonna cover some fundraising numbers, we're undercover cover some polling changes, you also need to be covering things like foreign election interference. You know, news is covering it they're just not incorporating that into their normal election coverage. So they need to cover that. They need to cover the postal service. They need to cover the legal challenges that are happening in swing state after swing state, where Republican elected officials mostly are trying to make it harder for people to vote amidst COVID. The state of Texas, which isn't usually a swing state but is looking swingier, they've decided that if you're older than 65, you can vote by mail and if you're younger than 65, since younger people tend to vote Democrat, that you can't vote by mail without much stronger excuses. That's an extraordinary and odd decision. And the outcome of the election in Texas is going to hinge more on whether or not everyone is able to equally cast a ballot than on what the latest ad strategy from either the candidates is.
BOB GARFIELD There is this logic trap that the media have been ensnared in for decades. The political right has claimed a left-wing bias in the press and now comes Trump and by merely reporting the facts. The press is accused of "Aha!" providing the smoking gun of their bias. Not only of bias, but of being an enemy of the people. How much of this routine coverage do you attribute to the media just trying to seem like a neutral observer of political events by sticking to business as usual.
DAVID KARPF Marty Baron from The Washington Post said early in the Trump administration that Trump says that he's at war with us. We're not at war, we're at work. On one level, I get it and that's a clever phrasing. At another level, if someone declares war on you, then you are at war with them. Trump has been actively at war with the media for four years now, probably five. And I don't think the American media has been equipped because we have no context for reporters and media organizations being actively at war with the administration because the administration has decided to be at war with them. Because the administration has decided that they're such good villains for it. The toolbox of responding to that, you know, they've had to develop it as they go because we don't really have a toolbox. But I think it does require understanding that Trump is going to cast CNN as the villain no matter what CNN does. So CNN can try to do their job well, but CNN also needs to focus on, OK. If he's going to treat us as villains, we need to also defend ourselves as CNN.
BOB GARFIELD What about the electorate? What about the news consumers? What responsibility is in our hands?
DAVID KARPF I don't really center a lot of responsibility on news consumers. I think people should be careful about their information sources. Misinformation is only growing and Facebook and others have not been doing a great job of handling it. So, you should be careful about what information you're consuming and what information you're sharing. But beyond that, I really would center agency on news organizations and their editorial decisions. I understand the impulse to say, hey, there's a new raft of pulls out - tell me about the polls. There's something almost heartwarming and comforting about following the horse race in 2020, as though it was 2018 or 2016 or any normal-er times. I don't want to blame any news consumer who would like an ounce of normalcy in 2020. That means that the responsibility is, in fact, on the media. It's on journalists. It's on their editors to make sure that they are contextualizing the normal reporting campaign beat with all of the other things that are going on in this election that are abnormal and probably have a much larger impact on the outcome.
BOB GARFIELD Dave, thank you.
DAVID KARPF Thanks a lot.
BOB GARFIELD Dave Karpf is a professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
Coming up, the Netflix movie Cuties is denounced as child pornography,.
LAURA INGRAHAM But what's also shocking was the media's just blatant defense of the film. Of course, they always protect anything bordering on pornography. [END CIP]
BOB GARFIELD Nope. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. The Netflix movie Cuties is a small French coming of age film about a tween girl from a religiously conservative French Senegalese household steeped in piety and modesty, but also in turmoil over the father taking a second wife. The protagonist, Amy, is transfixed by a group of mean girls who are preparing for a dance competition with clothing and dance moves that flaunt their sexuality, even though, as we learn, they don't even really know what sex is.
BOB GARFIELD This is them not quite getting the function of a condom. The Cuties, as they call themselves, are asserting their fledgling maturity, showing off for older boys and craving popularity. The film is punctuated with dance scenes that get increasingly sexual, including the butt undulation move called twerking.
BOB GARFIELD That's disturbing to watch. Indeed, the film is about how hard it is to witness young girls sexualize themselves to feel relevant in the culture. That's what it's about anyway if you're not swept up in the Cuties Panic, which has ridden a wave of mainly right wing accusations that the film is child pornography and a threat to our society and our children.
NEWS REPORT Senator Ted Cruz wants the Department of Justice to investigate Netflix over the film Cuties. He wants the DOJ to examine whether Netflix or the filmmakers broke federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD To Kate Knibbs, a senior writer at Wired. The brouhaha isn't a debate about art. It has all the earmarks of an incendiary and violent political harassment campaign such as we have seen before. Kate, welcome to the show.
KATE KNIBBS Thank you so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD First of all, what do you think of the movie?
KATE KNIBBS I saw Cuties as part of an established genre. I call it the troubled girl canon. This is movies like 13, which came out in 2003. It's a really fantastic film that stars Evan Rachel Wood as a 13 year old girl who's really going through something and acting out. There's a wonderful movie by the British filmmaker Andrea Arnold called Fish Tank, which also features a young girl growing up in public housing who is obsessed with a kind of risque dance competition. So this movie didn't come out of nowhere. It's definitely in conversation with other films, but there's only a handful of them. Preteens burgeoning sexuality is not a topic that people are rushing out to make movies about necessarily because it's so delicate. And if you get it wrong, you get accused of creating child pornography. And if you get it right, you can be accused of creating child pornography depending on the circumstances, which is what we're seeing here. This is a very tricky subject, but it's also a really important subject to making art about. One of the things Cuties did so well was that it showed that someone as young as 11 is consuming really explicit content and putting the pieces together that society encourages women to be hypersexual.
BOB GARFIELD I watched the film, and it's sweet because, you know, kids trying to be adult. And it's upsetting for the very same reason. It is, as you say, just hard to watch preteens dance so explicitly and to flirt in an overtly sexual way with much older boys. And thank God in the movie being laughed off for that. None of this is titillating or designed to be titillating. It's about the scary combination of pubescence and sexual culture. Some critics, including those presumed to be on the left, questioned whether the director, my Maïmouna Doucouré a little too close to the sun.
KATE KNIBBS Some critics have brought up the cinematography and the way that it really lingers on the girls bodies and whether that was really necessary. I think that's a very legitimate conversation that we should be having. Doucouré did make the choice to make these scenes basically as upsetting as possible. You just want to run over to these girls and throw a blanket over them and hug them and tell them to go home and jump rope.
BOB GARFIELD These shots were tough, but they weren't leering. Unless you consider Netflix's as marketing. Holy hell!
KATE KNIBBS Yes. So Netflix is marketing did an enormous disservice to this film because it took shots of these girls that in context were meant to provoke disgust and alarm and made it look like a leering, exploitative film about sexy child dancers. And what on earth is worse than that?
BOB GARFIELD However, you believe that the controversy has ultimately little to do with twerking and everything to do with political opportunism torn right out of the old right playbook. How so?
KATE KNIBBS I was really reminded of GamerGate, and GamerGate was an online movement that started in 2014, and GamerGate supporters would tell you that it's about ethics and gaming journalism. The spark that lit the match that became GamerGate was a sort of very small scale controversy about a game journalist who had been in a relationship with a videogame creator. And it sort of exploded into this situation where a wide swath of women in the gaming world were getting harassed online and they were getting death threats. The Playbook's at GamerGate established for contemporary grievance politics has three main prongs.
So first is death threats, general harassment, having a wide variety of people online, swarm another person and threaten them. The second main tactic is calling for boycotts. And, you know, we've seen them use the hashtag #cancelNetflix. They would get so many people to call for a boycott that sometimes it was effective, like they would convince advertisers to pull their advertising from outlets. And then the third prong is review bombing, inundating IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes with negative reviews to taint the reputation. With Cuties, we've seen all three of those tactics used.
BOB GARFIELD And we should remember that GamerGate is what spawned the alt right. Which began with misogynist gamers, but within a couple of years had coalesced with white supremacists, Christian nationalists, violent incels. Now these days, we're in the midst of this QAnon insanity with its bizarre claims of pedophile Democrats and deep state operatives pulling the strings for all the evil befalling the country in the world. And they have latched onto this SavetheChildren hashtag, which imagines a non-existent marketplace for countless child sex slaves. How much has the QAnon cohort said this cuties panic?
KATE KNIBBS I think that QAnon acted as an accelerant here. I think there probably would have still been a scandal because of how horrible the Netflix marketing materials were, but QAnon has been very savvy in the way that it's used hashtags like SavetheChildren to amplify the message that this is a horrible film that needs to be banned.
BOB GARFIELD I want to talk about Ted Cruz, that noted critic of cancel culture, who is demanding that we all cancel Netflix. And this is because, as he bravely asserts, child porn is wrong. Quite a rebuke, I guess, for these sprawling pro-child porn community. You kind of wonder what weaponizing the obvious and the Save the Children hashtag and this panic itself is trying to accomplish. Getting back to GamerGate. You think that that nightmare offers the answer of what's really afoot here?
KATE KNIBBS Yes. So the people who were really pushing the narrative that GamerGate was about ethics in gaming journalism did something very smart. They framed the conversation so that GamerGate was the brave truth teller who was letting the world know that the media was biased. They framed the conversation so that they were on the side of the people. The biased media was the opponent. And that framework was very successful because there is a lack of trust in the media right now. They chose a target that was easy to hate. The conversation around Cuties is echoing GamerGate in the way that opponents of cuties have framed the conversation so that you either have to be pro child pornography, which no one reasonable is, or anti-Cuties, because that was a master stroke. The fact that this GamerGate self-framing has taken hold is one of the reasons why this has really blown up. It's so disingenuous and it's so unfair to the filmmaker. And it really reiterates how degraded the discourse has become that instead of having nuanced conversations about the actual contents of a movie, the conversation is just this trap for people to fall into. Like after I wrote this piece, I spent the next 24 hours getting called a pedophile by like hundreds of people online. Which I expected, but it never feels good.
BOB GARFIELD One way of looking at GamerGate is that a bunch of women resenting gamers found that secret sauce. They learned how to weaponize a hateful grievance into a powerful and sometimes violent movement. Is there any hope for an antidote for online cultural and political warfare?
KATE KNIBBS I'm a pretty optimistic person. I don't see these conversations going away unless the whole dynamics of the Internet change. However, with Cuties, I have been heartened by the way the conversation seems to be mellowing out once people have seen the movie. While I was writing about it, I was looking at Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB and reading through the really negative reviews that people have laughed as part of the review bombing tactic that I was talking about earlier. And when I started writing, the audience approval rating was three percent. And then once more people had started watching the movie. The audience approval rating went up. It made me hopeful that if people see this film, they will see that it's not child pornography. Maybe they can take that lesson with them. Remember it the next time there's a controversy like this. Like, if there's anything good that comes out of the Cuties scandal, it's that it's sort of like a crash course in media literacy. And a reminder to step back for a second and look at the thing that's being discussed rather than the voices doing the discussing.
BOB GARFIELD Kate, thank you very, very much.
KATE KNIBBS Thank you so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Kate Knibbs is a senior writer covering culture at Wired.com. Outrage over Cuties was just one outlet for a general swell of panic over child safety and specifically child sex trafficking. In July, the furniture company Wayfair was accused of selling missing children.
NEWS REPORT These storage cabinets on the Wayfair website have girls names. A well-known QAnon known activist noticed this and tweeted, "My spidey senses are tingling. What's with these storage cabinets? Extremely high prices, all listed with girls names and identical units selling for different amounts." The suggestion being that, actually, this was about trafficking young girls. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD In August, Save the Children rallies were held across the country. Driven by such QAnon conspiracy theorists who allege that the Democratic Party is behind a slew of sex trafficking rings.
PROTESTORS Save our children! Save our children! Save our children! [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But let's not put the onus solely on the paranoid fantasies of QAnon Kool-Aid drinkers. Last month, a shocking story was all over the mainstream media.
NEWS REPORT In Georgia, U.S. Marshals busted a child sex trafficking ring, saving thirty nine children. It was called Operation Not Forgotten. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD NBC, Cable News, The Associated Press, The New York Times. By the time the story caught the attention of Huffington Post reporter Michael Hobbes, it recounted thirty-nine kids rescued from a trailer and nine adults arrested for sex trafficking. Such a frightful narrative got one Twitter user to exclaim, quote, "How is finding 39 missing children in a double wide trailer here in Georgia? Not the biggest news story in America." A tweet which shared one hundred fifty-nine thousand times. The answer, as Michael Hobbes figured out in no time flat, was because the story wasn't true.
MICHAEL HOBBES The U.S. Marshal Service doesn't actually investigate trafficking cases. They just look for missing children. And so, this wasn't even an operation that took place on the same day. The e-mail that I got from the U.S. Marshal Service, they said this was not a raid or a sting. And they highlighted and underlined and all caps the word not. Thirty-nine kids were found, but only two of them were found in the same location. The other operations were completely separate. They took place across 15 different counties in Georgia, six additional states and over two weeks. So, this was basically a knocking on doors and making phone calls type of situation. This was not a like drop from the ceiling and rescue a bunch of kids who are chained to radiators.
BOB GARFIELD They weren't sex slaves. Who were they?
[00:25:45] MICHAEL HOBBES Well, what we often find in cases like this is most of the kids who go missing in America, unfortunately, are teen runaways. And the U.S. Marshal Service confirmed this to me. So oftentimes these cases are looking for kids who have run away from abusive homes or they have been pushed out of their homes by their parents because they're queer or trans or in some other way not acceptable to their parents. And they get pushed out onto the streets and then somebody calls the cops and the cops go looking for them. So it is a tragic story, but it's a tragic story in this sort of everyday American way that we don't bring into the headlines as much as we do,,you know, giant international sex trafficking rings.
BOB GARFIELD And sex trafficking, by the way, being defined not as the wholesale gathering of victims in a large, shadowy marketplace, but it technically, legally means what?
MICHAEL HOBBES For children, for underage kids, child sex trafficking means anyone who trades sex for anything. So, in the actual statistics, the actual decent studies that have been done on this, we believe that a huge percentage of the kids who are engaging in commercial sex are not necessarily forced by a pimp to do it. They are not recruited. They are not taken across state lines. They are doing it because they are runaways and they are homeless. And they need a place to stay or they are addicted to drugs and they sleep with their dealer. It's called survival sex. It's exactly what it sounds like. And because any commercial sex act by a child under 18 counts as trafficking, that trafficker in that case is the person who buys sex from them, which is indefensible. I'm not going to say that like that doesn't matter. But the charge of trafficking when it comes to somebody under 18 does not require a pimp. It does not require a recruiter. It does not require them to be transported across state lines. It's not this sort of shadowy, dark, underground network thing that most Americans think that it is.
BOB GARFIELD Again, you're not suggesting that we should not be concerned about them. It's just that these are pathologies within pathologies.
MICHAEL HOBBES My central argument is that we should be concerned about them because they are runaways, because they're in foster care, because they are abused. Because when you look at the actual services that are available to that population, they are bad. For a story, two years ago, I volunteered at a youth homeless shelter for three months and it's 42 mattresses on the ground of a church basement, right. It's not a great system, right. So if we're actually concerned about this problem, the real version of the problem, not the sort of shadowy version of the problem. We need places for kids to sleep. We need safe places for kids to go. Getting rid of the desperation would cut down on this problem far more than any number of trafficking raids. Trailers or not.
BOB GARFIELD So, you know, not to belabor the point, but this headline from the Associated Press. Missing children rescued in Georgia, sex trafficking bust. What should it actually have said?
MICHAEL HOBBES So really, all of these headlines should say something about. We found a bunch of endangered runaway kids or we rounded up a bunch of sex workers. Most of these sex trafficking busts. It's a way for local prosecutors and also local news organizations, frankly, to make it look like they're busting up something much larger and more exotic and more difficult to track down than they are. A lot of these, quote unquote, sex trafficking busts, they don't actually find any real sex trafficking or what most people would understand as sex trafficking. Oftentimes, these are just dressed up vice raids where they round up a bunch of sex workers and a couple of johns. And then it turns out one of the sex workers is, you know, 17 and, hey, she's underage. That means any commercial sex of an underage person counts as trafficking. So, presto, you've got yourself a trafficking raid. And so a lot of this comes from the fact that the population is not as happy with cops going after sex workers anymore. That's something that's become slightly unpalatable. And so prosecutors have changed their marketing. And so now they're calling all of the vice raids, trafficking busts.
BOB GARFIELD So you're a reporter at your desk and you get a press release from a police agency. What does the cautious reporter do to judge what is actually taking place?
MICHAEL HOBBES I've been feeling somewhat guilty all week because after my story debunking the Georgia raid came out, people were talking about like, oh, Michael Hobbs did such diligent reporting, you know, all this on the ground footwear kind of thing that he did. It took me two e-mails. I saw the press release. I e-mailed two agencies and I said, look, can you just provide me with basic numbers on this bust? And they provided me with them. And the first thing that you see in the numbers is that it's mostly foster care kids. And that of the nine people who were arrested, only one was arrested for sex trafficking. So I wasn't doing anything particularly fancy. I was just asking for basic clarification of the terms. And that's really what we don't have reporters doing, is what do you mean by trafficking? What were the circumstances under which you found these kids? Was it a raid or not? How did you find these kids? That's what people need to be doing, is just asking basic questions.
BOB GARFIELD So an action news runs out is the lead. And you're watching the show. What would you as a news consumer think about?
MICHAEL HOBBES I mean, almost always in the actual details of these stories, you can find clues that this is not the international sex trafficking ring that you have been promised in the headline. Oftentimes you have these stories - I just saw one the other day. There was like cops bust up a sex trafficking ring in I think it was Ohio. And then, you know, seventeenth paragraph of the story. They say they arrested five dudes. None of them knew each other. All of them were arrested on existing warrants. And one of the guys was picked up for possession of marijuana. This is your trafficking ring?
BOB GARFIELD OK, so let's talk about you. This is your beat. You were totally immersed in issues of missing and exploited children. Have you ever encountered the classic case about which the political right is now in a panic?
MICHAEL HOBBES You know, we have these posters in every single airport, right? These are the signs of trafficking. This is the hotline number to call. I spoke to a number of human trafficking organizations and they could not give me a single case of a child being trafficked by a stranger through an airport. Has this happened in the history of the United States? Probably. But it's not something that is happening on the scale that we all need to keep our eyes open for it. It's just totally baffling to me that we have this widespread panic about this. And yet they cannot tell me one time that this has actually happened.
BOB GARFIELD And kids do get abducted. But overwhelmingly not by strangers with nefarious intentions. Who does take children when children are taken?
MICHAEL HOBBES Well, the vast majority of children who go missing, it turns out that it's one of their parents who has kidnaped them or taken them for a short period of time as part of a custody dispute. So it's something like dad takes the kids on Friday and Sunday night, rolls around and he hasn't returned them and mom doesn't know what to do. So she calls the cops. She reports the kids missing. The cops go looking for the kids. Either dad has absconded with them completely or dad is doing it as sort of a front in a war, like to get back at her for something. This is, unfortunately, something that happens a lot in America. And it's the vast, vast, vast majority of kidnapings of children. The most recent number that we have is that sort of stereotypical, you know, taken style child abductions. There's about 115 of those a year, not one hundred fifteen thousand one hundred and fifteen. It is extremely rare for children to be abducted by strangers as almost always somebody that is already in their life.
BOB GARFIELD You pin some of the blame on police agencies who, you know, look heroic for, I would say, exaggerated headlines about who they've saved from what. You blame the media for being careless and you blame the do gooder NGO's, who you believe have exaggerated the threat in order to secure their own, let's say, funding.
MICHAEL HOBBES Yes. I mean, I have spoken to people at the human trafficking organizations. What they have told me is that they need to use this sort of stranger danger version of human trafficking to get attention to the more real versions of trafficking that are happening in the world, the more sort of prevalent sexual exploitation that children suffer. And I think that that is totally immoral. I think that it's totally cynical. And I think that there's all kinds of unintended consequences of that approach they're not taking into account. You can't just throw poison into the public consciousness willy nilly because what you end up with is QAnon. I mean, this QAnon on stuff, it's fascinating to me that, you know, it's only sort of 20 percent exaggeration on the kinds of myths that we've been getting about trafficking for 20 years now. Right. There's not actually that much of a difference between the QAnon version and the version that you can find on very mainstream anti trafficking organization websites. So I think you once you've poisoned the well for that long, then you have people that are going to come along and poison it a little bit further. And this is the escalation that we've had in anti trafficking since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act passed in 2000. It's been 20 years of this panic.
BOB GARFIELD Which gets to my final point. One of the reasons that these myths take hold is that they tie into our fears. Another is that they're just kind of a meme. They are archetypes.
MICHAEL HOBBES We love to separate things into perfect victims and perfect villains. And trafficking is perfect for that. Right, because we've got these terrible human beings who are literally buying and selling kids. There's these networks that cross state lines and country borders, et cetera. And then when you look at the actual problems that kids are facing, the kids that are actually getting into commercial sex, the way that we solve that isn't by locking up a million people. The way that we solve that isn't by, you know, cracking down and harshening sentences and getting cops do raids. It's really, really boring stuff like ending homelessness. Once you end homelessness, that reduces the need for kids that are underage to engage in commercial sex, to survive. It requires fixing the foster care system. It requires taking abuse claims seriously when it's the soccer coach. It's these things that we've known that we need to do for literally decades. We know that there's problems with homelessness. We know that there's problems of foster care. But it's kind of boring to fix those. And it costs money and it doesn't give you that sort of sense of retribution. Right, that things like, you know, cocking your shotgun and walking out on your porch and being like, I'm going to hunt down some pedophiles. It's like we're just going to prevent kids from being vulnerable to this sort of thing in the first place. So it's really the difference between the sort of retributive understanding of justice versus this equitable version of justice, which is like, well, kids shouldn't have to run away and sleep on the streets if their parents are terrible.
BOB GARFIELD Michael, thank you.
MICHAEL HOBBES Yeah, that deep sigh, that deep sigh is like exactly, exactly what my entire career has been for the last year.
BOB GARFIELD Well, I feel your pain. Michael Hobbs is a senior enterprise reporter at The Huffington Post and co-host of the podcast, You're Wrong About. Mike, thanks again.
MICHAEL HOBBES Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, pouring misinformation, gasoline on a real fire. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. You may have noticed that till now in the show, we've said not a word about the biggest story of the week. The West Coast wildfires that have left wide swaths of destruction, pollution and death in their wake.
NEWS REPORT Large wildfires burning in Arizona, Montana, Nebraska, Texas, Wyoming. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Since July 1st California has spent more than a half a billion dollars fighting wildfires. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT In northwest Oregon. Half a million people were told to evacuate as wildfires grow, nearly 30 massive and fast moving blazes are burning across the state. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Colorado firefighters there are battling the state's biggest fire on record in inclement weather is not helping. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But like everything else in American society at the moment, fire coverage has dwelled less on future peril than on present fears, real or imagined. It's a story like others we've been talking about in this hour, about how basic facts and core truths are themselves set ablaze by political messaging targeted at suspicious minds. Amy Westervelt is a climate journalist and the host of the podcast Drilled. We've asked her to steer us back in the direction of plain reality. Amy, welcome to On the Media.
AMY WESTERVELT Hi, thanks. Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD For starters, how does this fire season compare with previous ones?
AMY WESTERVELT So I'm a lifelong Californian. And so, you know, I've grown up with fire, but this is just unbelievable. We've sped right past three million acres, which is nearly double the last record on acres burned in a California fire season. That was in 2018 and it was about one point nine million. So, we're at like three point five million now. And the fire season is not over. You know, we've gotten used to seeing fires in November and December.
BOB GARFIELD How did these fires start and spread so quickly?
AMY WESTERVELT So these particular fires, it was a combination of some lightning strikes, a gender reveal party where apparently a firecracker was set off, which just seems ridiculous. You have years worth of, I won't even say bad forest management practices, it's mostly sort of underfunded forest management, in part because the guys that are supposed to be doing the forest management are often the ones that are spending all their money dealing with fire. We have heatwaves and drought and some changes in wind pattern. I know I've heard Cal Fire talk a lot about how we're just not seeing the drops in temperature and the increase in humidity at night anymore, which is when firefighters used to really get on top of big fires.
BOB GARFIELD We as humans, reflexively, especially in a fraught political moment such as we're enduring, look for who or what to blame. Now, one of them. And you alluded to it is the toll of a warming planet, and we'll get to more of that presently. But so much other noise and worse than just noise.
NEWS REPORT Reports and sightings of people armed with chainsaws. It's not confirmed Antifa, but suspected Antifa. And the goal was to fall telephone poles in hopes of starting further fires. [END REPORT]
NEWS REPORT The FBI and multiple law enforcement agencies have said that is untrue. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT We've got fires started 30 miles out in the woods. And you want to blame Boogaloo and Antifa. [END CLIP]
AMY WESTERVELT I was just reading this morning that there are self-appointed citizen militias setting up roadblocks to stop people who are trying to evacuate in many cases. And like quiz them about whether they're actually arsonists and looters, because these rumors have taken on a life of their own and spread like wildfire.
BOB GARFIELD I'll ignore that,
BOB GARFIELD I understand the necessity.
AMY WESTERVELT Yes, yes.
BOB GARFIELD But all these competing narratives, apart from giving us something to be anxious about, what are the consequences when the truth is in play?
AMY WESTERVELT There's two things. One, there's a very immediate consequence of people not knowing if they should or shouldn't evacuate and not knowing if they really are, you know, under attack from Antifa terrorists or not. That's never good. And disinformation tends to spread in natural disasters, anyway. This is just an extra layer of it on top. So there's that. And then kind of the longer term impact of, you know, folks like the president saying, oh, forget about all these other things. It's really just forest management.
TRUMP When trees fall down after a short period of time, about 18 months, it becomes very dry. They become really like a matchstick and they get up, you know, there's no more water pouring through. And they become very, very. They just explode. [END CLIP]
AMY WESTERVELT It just tends to kind of load people into this idea that there is kind of one silver bullet. Solution that it's just about opening a forest to logging or funding the Forest Service better when in reality to solve these really complicated problems, we are going to need multipronged solutions.
You mentioned the president. It's clear that severe weather and drought and warming temperatures, as you say, contributed to the ecologically normal incidents of forest fires. But Trump says.
TRUMP It'll start getting cooler. You just watch.
WADE CROWFOOT I wish science agreed with you.
TRUMP I don't think science knows, actually. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD We know from COVID that science denialism is alive and well. But these days, does that sort of climate denialism really resonate with anyone?
AMY WESTERVELT It is not resonating as much as it once did. There's always kind of this one segment that is really dug in their heels. And that said, they're never going to buy this climate hoax. But the vast majority of people across the political spectrum see that this is happening and are even starting to get behind not only the need for policy fixes, but also the desire for the media to cover it appropriately. There was a new poll out just last week. I think it was a collaboration of climate science and data for progress that put out this survey. And they found that 72 percent of Americans want their like local news or cable news networks to give them information about the climate drivers of extreme weather. That included 59 or 60 percent of Republicans. So it was not something that just broke down over party lines. I think, too, like you're not seeing the fossil fuel companies push that anymore either. And that's a big indicator that it's not working.
BOB GARFIELD Well on the subject of party lines, you've also expressed worry that folks from you know, I'm pretty sure your camp are so quick to point fingers at climate change and say this explains the West Coast conflagration. End of story as being dangerous in and of itself.
AMY WESTERVELT I do. I think it's just kind of the other side of the same coin. You know, it's ignorant. It's not just climate change. It is climate change as a threat multiplier, which is the case across the board for a lot of things. It's like, you know, the reason that we're seeing so much more damage from hurricanes is both that the hurricanes are more intense and that sea level rise has happened and that we've built in zones that we know that are not going to handle this stuff. So I think there is space to have conversations about how should humans be adapting to the changing climate? What kinds of forest management policies should we be enacting? How do we start to have the conversation about managed retreat, which is like terrifying and yet completely boring term? That means basically moving people out of harm's way. All of those things are factors. And I really think anyone who talks about it as just climate change or just forest management just runs the risk of misinforming people and more importantly, kind of taken our eyes off the prize here. You know, if the goal is to minimize the impact of extreme weather on humans and minimize the impact that humans are having on those patterns, then we need to kind of tackle all these things at once.
BOB GARFIELD When people do attribute this only to global warming or ignore global warming altogether, what is the damage to the information ecosystem and the political ecosystem?
AMY WESTERVELT It just obliterates any kind of capacity for nuance. The folks that say, "oh, it's only climate," it just gives people who want to say it's nothing to do with climate talking points, you know, that, oh, these climate people are so religiously obsessed with climate policy that they are just ignoring everything else, blah, blah, blah. And then in the reverse, folks who are saying it's nothing to do with that, don't worry. I don't know. For me, the problem there is that it's quite an appealing tale. You know, I think a lot of people would like to believe that climate change is not that urgent, that it's not a crisis, that there is this very straightforward solution to these fires and that it doesn't have to do with tackling the economic system and the political system and power structures and all these other things.
BOB GARFIELD Is there a chance that this catastrophe manages somehow and excuse the expression to "Trump" the politics and let the threat be abundantly clear to everyone?
AMY WESTERVELT I think there is, although, you know, I was saying that recently and someone made the point that it didn't seem to in Australia after the horrendous bushfire season there. Although I would say to that that I don't think that the book has been written on that yet. I think that we have yet to see what the lingering political consequences of that are. And here, too, I think. I don't know. I do think that it's just a lot more difficult. And I would say especially because you've got the fires happening at the same time that you've got five hurricanes brewing off the Atlantic coast. And then the fact that all that's happening at once on top of a global pandemic, I don't know, like if I have to, as I did today, decide between the, like, pandemic mask or the smoke mask. There's something very, very wrong here. And it's not a Chinese hoax or a liberal fever dream or any of these other things that, you know, it is it's here and we're seeing it.
BOB GARFIELD Amy, thank you very much.
AMY WESTERVELT Thank you. Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Amy Westervelt is a climate journalist and host of the wonderful podcast Drilled. One final thought, as we've been hearing, human outrage is easily triggered by gothic horrors, existing mostly in our fears. Nobody wants to see children, especially our own children, come to harm. And yet our social services for homelessness and domestic abuse are scandalously underfunded. In some states, our kids are herded into classrooms and crowded hallways in the midst of a pandemic. On the border, the children of immigrants are being separated from their parents and caged. And if we're to believe a whistleblower filing from this week, some of their mothers are forced into sterilization. Meanwhile, Republican right to life politicians’ fiddle while the very world we are leaving to the next generation burns and burns and burns. Panic is altogether the right reaction. Provided you're not tricked into panicking about the wrong thing.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Xandra Ellin and Eloise Blandiau. We had more help from Ava Sasani. Our technical director, is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Josh Hahn On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I'm Bob Garfield.
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