BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Did you hear about the train derailment that wrought havoc on the environment and rained horror on the local community?
WHITE NOISE MOVIE The cloud continues to travel west as residents are now being asked to relocate to Iron City.
WHITE NOISE MOVIE Evacuate, all places of residents. Cloud of deadly chemicals. Cloud of deadly chemicals.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's actually a clip from the new movie White Noise, based on the Don DeLillo novel. Filmed in June and July of 2021 in Ohio, the same place a real train hauling hazardous materials derailed earlier this month.
CBS PITTSBURGH A state of emergency has been declared for the village as they continue to evaluate this derailment.
NBC And emergency crews unleashed a controlled release and burn of toxic chemicals to prevent a potentially deadly explosion.
NEWS 5 Rail operator Norfolk Southern says a variety of chemicals were being carried in the train cars, but the highly flammable vinyl chloride remains the biggest concern.
CBS That explosion was expected to release hydrogen chloride and phosgene. A gas used as a weapon in World War I.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, where the real derailment took place, were actually extras in White Noise, which depicted locals complaining about the spotty media coverage of the film's toxic airborne macguffin.
WHITE NOISE MOVIE Are they telling us it was insignificant? Do they think this is just television? Don't they know it's real? Shouldn't the streets be crawling with cameras and reporters? Shouldn't we be yelling out the window, asking – leave us alone? We've been through enough already. Haven't we earned the right to despise their idiot questions? Even if there hasn't been great loss of life? Don't we deserve attention for our suffering? Our terror isn't fear news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Sean Hannity asked much the same question on his show this week.
SEAN HANNITY The media mob has largely ignored what is a growing disaster in Ohio.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tiktokers are mad too.
TIKTOK Even though the media is refusing to cover it, there is a massive environmental disaster currently unfolding in Ohio.
TIKTOK And the coverage of it has been getting – hasn't been very good.
TIKTOK There is this hazardous material specialist. His quote was we basically nuked a town with chemicals so we can get a railroad open. This should be the number one story in the country right now.
TIKTOK You have dead fish in the water. You have dead dogs on front lawns. People getting nauseous and sick. Despite all this, the media is refusing to cover it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And in some ways, they have a point. The derailment happened on February 3rd, but coverage on outlets like Fox and MSNBC really only picked up steam this week. So why?
ALLISON FISHER It's possible that some new details about the environmental and health impacts maybe drove that uptick. Or it could just have been that it started to trend on Twitter. But either way, it still told us that they were very late to the significance of the tragedy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Allison Fisher, director of the Climate and Energy program for the progressive media watchdog Media Matters for America, points to the narratives taking over the story.
ALLISON FISHER These ideas that because this is happening to a white community, the media is not paying attention to it, suggesting that if it happened in a community of color, that it would have been treated differently. And we know that that's not true because we've documented time and time again that those stories aren't covered either. We'd love those same voices to come out and say that when it happens in Flint or when it happens in Jackson, Mississippi, you know, when it happens in some of these other places that are also inflicted by corporate greed and the lack of government oversight. So do I think that there's a media blackout and there's some sort of conspiracy behind that? No, this just fits in with a long line of environmental degradation, industrial accidents that go uncovered. And as a result, those that are perpetuating them go unaccountable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And Fisher says that even now, with all eyes on the aftermath of the crisis in Palestine, mainstream coverage is still...meh.
ALLISON FISHER It's who, what, when, where without much context, without much detail or new information from hour to hour as they're reporting on the story. It was mystifying to me that TV news networks still approach these tragedies almost as acts of God or mere accidents, because eventually the information does start to come out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because the causes of the derailment are not a mystery. Late last year, rail workers were warning that something like this was bound to happen. Here's a clip from an interview a local reporter did in December.
CLYDE WHITAKER We had one derailment here in northeast Ohio where a wheel flange was very thin and it picked a switch and derailed the entire train. Luckily, it was. Full of candle wax and something highly volatile.
JULIA ROCK Train accidents are becoming more common for a number of reasons.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Julia Rock is a reporter at The Lever, an online investigative outlet. She says that workers were striking over a practice called precision scheduled railroading, which hinders the thoroughness and frequency of safety inspections.
JULIA ROCK Inspection times are getting shorter or they're not happening. Trains are getting longer, which is sort of an unusual fact, but it allows train companies to run leaner workforces because the number of people per train doesn't increase linearly as the trains get longer. So that can cause more safety problems. And crude oil and other hazardous materials being carried on trains has increased.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Still, derailments are old news.
FOX NEWS It's believed a procedural problem caused this derailment in Paulsboro, New Jersey, last Friday. The crash released vinyl chloride into the air and forced hundreds of people from their homes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That was in 2012. And that New Jersey train was carrying the same chemical that was just unleashed in Ohio. Then this happened just a few days ago.
THE HILL Train carrying at least one car's worth of hazardous materials has derailed outside of Detroit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 2015, the Obama administration issued a rule requiring stronger safety measures on trains.
JULIA ROCK One of the sort of key features of that rule, the one that the railroad industry was most fixated on repealing, was one requiring electronically controlled pneumatic brakes on trains, essentially a much safer braking system that allows trains to stop all the cars at once rather than one car at a time as they currently are stopped.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Julia Rock says those special brakes were required only on trains hauling hazardous materials. But when Trump came into office, the lobbyists prevailed. The brake requirement, limited as it was to substances like crude oil, was rolled back, increasing the likelihood of toxic crashes even worse than the one in Palestine. Rock says she's heard from former regulators, rail workers and union members who all say the same thing.
JULIA ROCK Which was like, this is a bad derailment. But what we're worried about is something far worse happening. And you know, what is surprising is not that this train derailed and released this plume of chemicals and started on fire. What's surprising is that this doesn't happen more often.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because the derailment was a preventable foreseeable disaster. The inevitable consequence of shortsighted policy and business decisions.
SCOTT KNOWLES That's often, I think, surprising to people because they think of a disaster as an apolitical event, something we should rally around each other and rally around our community and not talk about politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Scott Knowles is a historian of disaster. We spoke to him in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey slammed Texas' Gulf Coast.
SCOTT KNOWLES But disasters revealed to us whether or not we've invested enough in our civil society. Do we have the kind of health care that we need? Do we have the kind of environmental protection that we need? But because disasters are so complex, it's all sort of revealed at once.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Allison Fisher of Media Matters says that's where good reporting comes in.
ALLISON FISHER That does put pressure on public officials. It does help ensure that these companies are held accountable and more importantly, it gives voice to those that have been impacted by the disaster.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Another reason to report early and often? The absence of details early on nourishes conspiracies that bloom like algae in the void of unanswered questions.
TIKTOK I just feel like this is way worse than they are letting people know about because they don't want to cause alarm.
TIKTOK So let me get this right. Netflix released a movie last year about a train explosion in Ohio, and then this year, a train explodes in Ohio. Y'all think this was planned, or y'all think this was a coincidence?
TIKTOK This is America's Chernobyl. And right now, there are many politicians that are going to try and blow this off and say it's not as bad. You could still stay in your homes. Just don't breathe for too long. They're okay with sacrificing Americans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Such algae blooms go on to fuel factually challenged bloviators like Charlie Kirk, who says members of the Biden administration won't go to East Palestine because…
CHARLIE KIRK The war on white people continues. Why would you care for the white working-class voters in eastern Ohio? If this train derailment happened in downtown Atlanta in the densely populated black neighborhoods, this would be the number one news story. It would be Flint water crisis 2.0. There would be clamoring and activism and talk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The story in East Palestine is still unfolding. The causes may be clear, but the consequences aren't. And the EPA, which has been monitoring East Palestine's air and water to see if it's safe for humans to live there, has been steadily stripped of regulatory authority and funding. So what does that tell us?
SCOTT KNOWLES I believe that disasters reveal society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Disaster historian Scott Knowles.
SCOTT KNOWLES They are an opportunity for us to actually pull back the curtain and see what some of the deeper commitments and values of a society actually are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Disasters happen. They're caused by spasms of nature or late stage capitalism or frequently both. But the depth of the mayhem can be managed with attention and resources, research and regulation, institutions and infrastructure. Why they aren't is the theme of this hour.
Coming up, what to expect when you're not expecting an earthquake in an earthquake zone. The answer will not surprise you. This is On the Media.
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