Smokescreening The News
If you were anywhere near the Northeast Corridor on June 7th, 2023, you likely experienced firsthand the American AQI Apocalypse peak that day. It was quite scary. The skies were unnatural; the smells unnerving; and the air unhealthy.
A lot of stories have already been written about it. This one is going to be a little different.
I want to be 100% clear before we get started. I readily admit that a virtual megaton of Canadian wildfire smoke was pushed south by prevailing winds. This isn't some sort of science denier piece.
With that out of the way, I want to focus on how the other fires that occurred in the region were covered. For those that might have missed it, both New Jersey and Virginia were beset by fires on June 6th. That's right... the day before Code Red conditions stretched from New England to the Tidewater region, major smoke-producing events took place within the area.
There were plenty of reporters assigned to those less publicized scenes on Tuesday. But, by Wednesday, it was as if a thick haze of amnesia had poured into newsrooms. Nobody wanted to connect those arguably pertinent dots to the larger picture... not even as a secondary factor.
Why does this matter? It is my contention that the media omitted this rather important information because it was inconvenient to the narrative they wanted to put forth. Said another way, they intentionally left out any references to things they themselves reported fewer than 24 hours earlier.
If scores of news outlets can cast aside supremely relevant things related to a nonpartisan topic (that would be impossible to forget given their recency), what do you think they do when the articles involve things far more crucial to their worldview?
Allow me to show you scorching hot proof of how mass media smokescreens the public.
I was in the Pentagon City neighborhood of Arlington around dinnertime when I received a notification on my phone that an overnight landfill blaze less than 25 miles from DC was still belching smoke more than twelve hours later. I didn't think much of it in the moment. While the sun was partially obscured, there was no smell in the air and breathing was not noticeably harder. When I went to bed around midnight, everything still seemed normal to me.
Because it wasn't on my mental radar, I was unaware of just how many local publications and TV stations had dedicated resources to this Lorton, VA mulch burn situation. I am going to list a few of them here, in alphabetical order: CBS, Fox, NBC, Patch, Washington Times. Feel free to read the text if you want; but the real value lies in recognizing what these same professionals did with this knowledge when writing about the high AQIs on Wednesday. We'll address that soon.
But first, you also need to know what was happening in New Jersey on June 6th. Two wildfires of note were either ravaging or had very recently ravaged the central portion of the state. Trees were smoldering approximately fifty miles from New York City and Philadelphia, as the crow flies. By my count, even more digital ink was spilled discussing these wildfires than the one in Lorton. Here's another (not even close to exhaustive) list of content created: ABC, CBS, Fox, Gothamist, NJ.com.
In a contextual vacuum, these Mid-Atlantic fires weren't out of the ordinary. But everything that transpired a day later should have catapulted them from historically mundane to germane...
Upon opening my front door to bring my kids to school on the morning of June 7th, I had no idea what was waiting for me outside. I immediately suffered flashbacks to some of the worst air quality I could remember... reminiscent of family trips to California, Colorado, and Utah during natural emergencies. My mind then jumped to thoughts about Lorton and a feeling of incredulousness that a fully-contained landfill fire could be so detrimental to the quality of life for millions of folks.
Once I returned home, I quickly got up to speed. For the first time, I saw a mention of how Canadian forests were responsible for the surreal situation 500 miles away. I didn't question it. As someone who spends a good deal of time in the western third of the country, I am well aware of the great distances smoke can travel. Nonetheless, something was weird. Why wasn't the media talking about Lorton as a possible contributing factor? By extension, regarding the Bass River and Jackson fires, why were major NJ/NY/PA columnists and meteorologists mimicking this behavior?
Using a search engine, I began to compare the details shared by anyone who reported on the Virginia smoke with what they published the next day. In some cases, journalists did their landfill writeups/updates on Wednesday morning, equating to a difference in coverage of mere hours.
[I must stress that I didn't make the New Jersey connection for a while. Only when I began hunting for further evidence to prove my hypothesis that the Lorton blaze was being ignored for some reason, did I stumble across what Bruce Springsteen's home state was enduring.]
Check out what the outlets I cited earlier disseminated about the air quality on Wednesday:
Even the Daily Voice, a source I believed to be impartial and where I first learned of the Lorton fire, was guilty of this error. How is it that Cincinnati.com could do the right thing by reporting that "a forest fire in New Jersey add(ed) to the air quality issues" while so many networks and regional papers of record couldn't be bothered to do so about drama in their own backyards? It's odd, no?
If only some of them left out the localized fire component, I suppose it could be forgiven. But for this many of them to make the same mistake/decision seems awful squirrely to me. I am not going to try and guess their motives. Perhaps, it was as simple as everyone copycatting the first movers... or any of the reasons listed here.
[And, sure, one could accuse The DC Equalizer of bias in the topics and angles it selects. Trust me, it's happened. But the difference is our choices are adversarial; they are not eerily in line (and in timing) with the industry. Society benefits when more than one summary is allowed to flourish. The alternative, where talking heads all start parroting each other, signals the death of press freedom.]
Regardless, it is clear they omitted it. Now I need to prove the omitted facts were consequential.
The Next Week
I'm not clairvoyant, but I bet, if challenged, the media's first retort would center around the assertion that the local fires had a negligible effect on June 7th's AQI. And who knows? Maybe the Lorton and New Jersey smoke only amounted to 1%/5%/10%/25% of the particles floating around that day. But that would still be the second largest factor. Ergo, that would make it newsworthy.
Unless the local infernos had near-zero influence, they matter. To me, accuracy in reporting is a real thing. Thus, I decided to confer with a few experts to determine if near-zero was a possibility.
Interviewing meteorologists seemed out of the question after everything I witnessed on June 7th. [NBC4 took the cake for running a segment on June 1st about how New Jersey smoke was affecting the Washington MSA... before eschewing the slightest citation of NJ or VA a week later.]
I would have loved to pick their brains about the role the "Omega Block" played on the generally southeasterly jet stream winds that carried all the smoke (Canadian and American). Specifically, did the low-pressure system sitting in the Atlantic Ocean, with its counterclockwise cyclonic flow, push a bunch of the smoke from the Northeast back from whence it came? And does such a phenomenon weaken potential debate regarding initial wind directions out of NJ and VA?
I opted to ask firemen instead. In face-to-face conversations with members of the Fairfax County and Fort Belvoir fire departments (two of the agencies that responded to the Lorton landfill), the consensus was that the Virginia fire probably had minor "residual" effects but that "there's no doubt" that there was "definitely going to (be) some smoke throughout the area" from it. Interestingly, when I inquired if the New Jersey fires had negatively impacted Metro Washington's air quality, one senior fireman I spoke with exclaimed, "Oh yeah... big time!"
The Next Time
So, what did we learn and what does it mean for the future?
I'll start. For the first time in my life, I realized that one of my favorite proverbs isn't quite as precise as its rarely used inverse. "Where there's smoke, there's fire," despite being metaphorically vivid, was so off base in this case that it required a passport. Meanwhile, "where there's fire, there's smoke" seemed to hit the nail on the head in more ways than one. Food for thought going forward.
You might not care that mass media left out subordinate facts in this story. It's entirely possible that you think I'm a crackpot for arguing that the Canadian wildfires weren't 100% responsible for the hellish images we saw on June 7th. It might be much ado about nothing in your book.
But what if broadcasters decide to pick and choose what to report during the next military skirmish or the next pandemic? What if they unilaterally conclude that the #2 contender for either party's Presidential nomination isn't worth covering anymore?
Shouldn't we always strive to keep them accountable? I would say so.
If we don't, media smokescreens will become an increasingly large part of daily life.
Note: the post above may contain commentary reflecting the author's opinion.