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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

DETROIT — It has been six weeks since the city turned off Nicole Hill’s water.

Dirty dishes are piled in the sink of her crowded kitchen, where the yellow-and-green linoleum floor is soiled and sticky. A small garbage can is filled with water from a neighbor, while a bigger one sits outside in the yard, where she hopes it will collect some rain. She’s developed an intricate recycling system of washing the dishes, cleaning the floor and flushing the toilet with the same water.

“It’s frightening, because you think this is something that only happens somewhere like Africa,” said Hill, a single mother who is studying homeland security at a local college. “But now I know what they’re going through– when I get somewhere there’s a water faucet, I drink until my stomach hurts.”

Hill is one of thousands of residents in Detroit who have had their water and sewer services turned off as part of a crackdown on customers who are behind on their bills. In April, the city set a target of cutting service to 3,000 customers a week who were more than $150 behind on their bills. In May, the water department sent out 46,000 warnings and cut off service to 4,531. The city says that cutting off water is the only way to get people to pay their bills as Detroit tries to emerge from bankruptcy — the utility is currently owed $90 million from customers, and nearly half the city’s 300,000 or so accounts are past due.

But cutting off water to people already living in poverty came under criticism last week from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose experts said that Detroit is violating international standards by cutting off access to water. “When there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections,” Catarina de Albuquerque, the office’s expert on the human right to water and sanitation, said in the communique.

“Are we the kind of people that resort to shutting water off when there are disabled people and seniors?” said Maureen Taylor, chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. “We live near the Great Lakes, we have the greatest source of fresh water on Earth, and we still can’t get water here.”

The issue of utility affordability is acute in Detroit, with its high proportion of low-income residents and an infrastructure whose costs were once borne by a much larger population. But municipal analysts say the problem is becoming more prevalent everywhere as extreme weather and its unusual range of high and low temperatures force utility bills ever upward.

In Iowa, for instance, there were nearly 10,000 electricity and gas disconnections in April, a state record, as the weather warmed and utilities could shut off power without breaking the law. (Many states have laws prohibiting the disconnection of gas or electricity during the cold winter or hot summer months.)

But the price of water and sewer services has far outpaced other utilities and the rate of inflation, according to Jan Beecher with the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University. The reason is that much of the nation is in a construction and renovation cycle, with cities now spending billions on renovations after long neglecting them.

Whereas federal programs have been developed to help people pay for the rising cost of fuel and electricity, no such program exists for water, Beecher said.

“We’ve never really developed a clear public policy toward universal service and water,” Beecher said. “International organizations are concerned with a basic level of service, but with water, the tricky thing is that drinking water would fall into that, but watering the lawn would not be considered a basic human right.”

“The real issue is the obligation of the utility to bill affordably so that people will be able to avoid disconnections of service,” said Roger Colton, a consultant with Fisher Sheehan and Colton who specializes in the economics of utilities. “That’s the issue that is quickly coming to the forefront.”

The last time Detroit began shutting off water for unpaid bills a decade ago, Colton worked with the Michigan Poverty Law Program to develop a program that would help the water department collect money while still keeping water affordable. He found that whereas the federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends that families spend no more than 2.5 percent of their pretax income on water and sewer service, some Detroit residents were paying more than 20 percent.

Colton argues that cities won’t get the money they want by simply shutting off services. Instead, he says, utilities should require residents to pay a percentage of their income to the water department for service.

“If you give someone a more affordable bill, you end up collecting more of the bills,” he said.

Taking Colton’s advice into account, Detroit’s water department implemented a program that allowed residents to start making payments on their bills even if they were thousands of dollars behind. But that program was cut during the city’s bankruptcy, said Lorray Brown, with the Michigan Poverty Law Program. The city, still in bankruptcy, is probably not in a position to pay for a similar program now, she said.

AFP Photo / Bill Pugliano

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Rep. Bennie Thompson

Photo by Customs and Border Protection (Public domain)

Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) Friday afternoon announced the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack has issued subpoenas to 14 Republicans from seven states who submitted the forged and "bogus" Electoral College certificates falsely claiming Donald Trump and not Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election in their states.

The Chairman appeared to suggest the existence of a conspiracy as well, noting the "the planning and coordination of efforts," saying "these so-called alternate electors met," and may know "who was behind that scheme."

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Chris Cuomo

News Literacy Week 2022, an annual awareness event started by the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to making everyone “smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy” has closed out. From January 24 to 28, classes, webinars, and Twitter chats taught students and adults how to root out misinformation when consuming news media.
There’s no downplaying the importance of understanding what is accurate in the media. These days, news literacy is a survival tactic. One study estimated that at least 800 people died because they embraced a COVID falsehood — and that inquiry was conducted in the earliest months of the pandemic. About 67 percent of the unvaccinated believe at least one COVID-19 myth, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
It’s not that accurate information isn’t available; people are rejecting reports of vaccine efficacy and safety because they distrust the news media. A third of Americans polled by Gallup said they have no trust at all in mass media; another 27 percent don’t have much at all.
Getting people to believe information presented to them depends more on trust than it does on the actual data being shared. That is, improving trust isn’t an issue of improving reporting. It’s an issue of improving relationships with one’s audience.
And that’s the real news problem right now; some celebrity anchors at cable news outlets are doing little to strengthen their relationships with their audiences and a lot to strengthen their relationships with government officials.
The most obvious example is how CNN terminated Prime Time anchor Chris Cuomo last month for his failure to disclose the entirety of his role in advising his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on the sexual harassment accusation that unfolded in Albany, a scandal that eventually led to Andrew Cuomo’s resignation.
But there are others. Just this month, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol revealed that another anchor on another cable news network, Laura Ingraham of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, texted then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows last January, advising Meadows how Trump should react to reports of possible armed protests at state capitols around the country. This revelation followed the story that Sean Hannity, host of the eponymous news hour at Fox News, also texted Meadows with advice last year.
And while he didn't advise a government official, CNN anchor Don Lemon revealed information not available to the public when he texted embattled Empire actor Jussie Smollett to tip him off about the Chicago Police Department’s wavering faith in his story about an assault. That’s from Smollett’s own sworn testimony.
When English philosopher Edmund Burke joked about the press being the Fourth Estate — in addition to the First, Second and Third (the clergy, nobility and commoners, respectively) — his point was that, despite their influence on each other, these “estates” — bastions of power — are supposed to be separate.
The Fourth Estate will always be an essential counterweight to government. But, since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, we’ve been so focused on stopping an executive branch from pressing the press to support an administration's agenda — either by belittling journalists or threatening to arrest them for doing their jobs — that we’ve ignored the ways that it affects and influences other Estates, and not necessarily through its reporting.
That is, we have news personalities-cum-reporters who are influencing government policy — and not telling us about it until it’s too late.
The United States has fostered an incredible closeness between the Second Estate — which in 2021 and 2022 would be political leaders — and the Fourth Estate. About a year ago, an Axios reporter had to be reassigned because she was dating one of President Biden’s press secretaries. Last year, James Bennet, the former editorial page editor of the New York Times and brother of Colorado Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Michael Bennet, had to recuse himself publicly from the Gray Lady’s endorsement process. In 2013, the Washington Post reported at least eight marriages between Obama officials and established journalists.
To be clear, there aren’t any accusations that anyone just mentioned engaged in anything other than ethical behavior. But I, for one, don’t believe that James and Michael Bennet didn’t discuss Michael’s campaign. I don’t think the Axios reporter and her West Wing-employed boyfriend — or any journalists and their federally employed spouses, for that matter — didn’t share facts that the public will never know. Such is the nature of family and intimacy.
And as long as those conversations don’t affect the coverage of any news events, there’s nothing specifically, technically wrong with them. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t damaging.
As these stories show, when we don’t know about these advisor roles, at least not until someone other than the journalist in question exposes them, it causes a further erosion of trust in news media.
What’s foolish about the Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon improprieties is that they don't necessarily need to be the problem they’ve become. Cuomo’s show contained opinion content like 46 percent of CNN’s programming. An active debate rages on as to whether Fox News is all opinion and whether or not it can rightly even be called opinion journalism since its shows are so studded with inaccuracies and lies.
What that means is that Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon are allowed to take a stand as opinion journalists; Cuomo and Lemon never really worked under a mandate of objectivity and Ingraham and Hannity likely wouldn’t honor it if they did. Indeed, a certain subjectivity — and explaining how it developed for the journalist — is part of an opinion journalist’s craft. To me, little of these consulting roles would be problematic if any of these anchors had just disclosed them and the ways they advised the people they cover.
But they didn’t. Instead, the advice they dispensed to government employees and celebrities was disclosed by a third party and news of it contributes to the public’s distrust in the media. While personal PR advisory connections between journalists and politicians haven’t been pinpointed as a source of distrust, they may have an effect. Almost two-thirds of respondents in a Pew Research poll said they attributed what they deemed unfair coverage to a political agenda on the part of the news organization. No one has rigorously examined the ways in which individual journalists can swing institutional opinion so it may be part of the reason why consumers are suspicious of news.
Cleaning up ex post facto is both a violation of journalistic ethics and ineffective. Apologies and corrections after the fact don't always improve media trust. In other credibility contests, like courtroom battles, statements against one’s interests enhance a person’s believability. But that’s not necessarily true of news; a 2015 study found that corrections don’t automatically enhance a news outlet’s credibility.
It’s a new adage for the 21st century: It’s not the consulting; it’s the cover-up. Journalists need to disclose their connections to government officials — up front — to help maintain trust in news media. Lives depend on it.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.


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