Waiting for a Dead Kid

March 29, 2016

Illustration by Roundhex


The dairy had been selling dangerously dirty milk for months, at premium prices too, because it was a small local operation marketing under its own quaint name. People imagined that the milk must be superior to what the big corporate dairies offered. Now, the regulators at the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets were worried they might have a scandal on their hands. Not a scandal involving tainted milk but a scandal because they were preparing to shut down a popular local dairy and they were afraid of blowback from loyal patrons and opportunistic politicians. “Regulatory overreach”, “more government interference with business” were just some of the many charges the regulators feared.

Internal Ag & Market reports on the dairy were damning. Manure from the cattle was badly managed. The water supply in the barns was inadequate. The sanitary separation between milk and the cows producing it was not maintained. It was a health disaster waiting to happen.

Certain forms of E.coli, a bacteria commonly present in cow manure, can be deadly. One of the nastier forms is described in Wikipedia as “E.coli #0157:H7, that produces a toxin called the Shiga toxin (classified as a bioterrorist agent).” In 2000, a manure-contaminated well at the Washington County Fair in Upstate New York killed two people and hospitalize 71, while dozens of other people were sickened by E. coli #0157:H7. And this is just one of the health hazards associated with a dirty dairy operation.

As the Public Information Officer for the Department, I was called into the situation at the last minute. The regulators wanted my advice as to how to announce the closing of the dairy so that it would result in the least possible news coverage. The dairy was run by a nice man, a man who had actually taught dairy science at a major agricultural school. He was not driven by greed to market dangerous milk, he was simply overwhelmed by an operation he could not adequately manage and which he hoped every week to bring under control. The inspectors had bent way over to help him get his operation up to standards, until the day they understood it had gone on too long and might never be right. Closing his dairy would probably put him out of business and they wanted to spare him any embarrassment. They also wanted to avoid public criticism for doing their job.

I read the reports going back nearly a year that documented dozens of dangerous sanitary violations. A sense of alarm grew as I looked at the dates and the descriptions.

“The scandal here gentlemen is not that you are going to shut this place down,” I said. “The scandal is why it took you so long. What were you waiting for, a dead kid?”

Middle-aged, white, professional men do not take kindly to being addressed in this way. I looked around the table and saw a lot of grim faces.

“Seriously, you have every reason in the world to close his place. I can defend you to the press easily on that score. The question of timing, if that comes up, it will be more difficult.”

The following day, I prepared a press release to announce the closing. Had I been writing for a newspaper, I would have written: “Delmar dairy closed after inspectors find filthy conditions persist for months.” Instead, I wrote, “Local dairy closed after inspectors find violations.”

The event passed with little notice. Several papers printed the basic facts from my release, but no one called wanting more information. The next week, the head of the department responsible for keeping dairies clean, stopped me in the hall. “I’m relieved,” he said. “I won’t let that happen again. I realized after our meeting in what a bad place we had put ourselves, mostly just because we were trying to cut the guy some slack.”

“I know, but at the expense of the public.”

“Well, yes, I suppose,” he said. “The main thing is the press didn’t notice. You did a good job.”

And I had done a good job, not because I bored the local press corps into inattention, but because I had scared an important bureaucrat into doing his job better. Without an attentive and aggressive press corps that would not have happened. We might have waited for a dead kid.

So where do we stand now that Magazines like LIFE, where I worked, and newspapers like the Albuquerque Tribune, where I worked, are gone; along with dozens of other major papers that have either folded or been completely changed, shrunk, depopulated. I am concerned that without the institutions that are newspapers there will be no more revelations like those that produced “Spotlight” or “All the President’s Men.” There are hundreds of other important public interest stories every year that are the result of newspapers funding and defending reporters while they dig out information that officials are making every effort to hide. Is it significant that Flint Michigan, where a terrible water scandal has been allowed to continue, had no daily newspaper. The Michigan ACLU apparently hired an investigative reporter to dig out the mess involving poison water touted as practically the elixir of life by local and state officials.

Forty percent of Americans now consider Facebook a source of news, according to a Google survey. Twitter Moments, Google news and even Huff Post account for a large part of the flow of information to our citizens. The phenomenon is growing daily. Pew Research recently reported that 35% of 18-29 year olds find social media the most helpful in learning about the 2016 presidential election. Another 18% of that age group get their news from websites and apps. Oh, and 1% get this information from national printed media.

Yes, only a fool stands before the tide of history shouting “Stop!” But without the large, prestigious, well-lawyered, deep-pockets print institutions like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, among others, who will protect the public interest? The New York Times has done a good job of moving information to a digital platform, but it is an exception and its strength rests finally on a deep bench of first class reporters, maintained at considerable expense. Even so, it does not begin to cover all the important local and regional stories that only local papers can address. (Remember Flint?) Without strong local and regional papers to dig out the necessary information to keep our government on track, who will assume the job? So far, we have not seen Facebook or Google or Huff Post fielding investigative reporters. The algorithms these sites apply to choose what you see are not the same standards an editor would apply if he or she were determined to tell you things you need to know, not necessarily things you want to know.

I don’t have the answer, and this space is too short to speculate in depth about solutions, but we had better start thinking about it soon. Allowing the sources and flow of good, vetted, documented, checkable information to atrophy is exactly the same as restricting the oxygen supply: it will lead to brain damage.


 Comments: 2

  1. And, just a bit further down the chain, investigative reporters are not cutting their teeth at the local newspapers, most of which are have either disappeared or have been reduced to reporting minor non-controversial local events.

  2. This is so true. Corruption of all kinds depends on silence. There is nothing like reading a great newspaper with news and not opinions to start your day.

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