Wednesday, June 4, 2008

General Motors to close four North American plants

General Motors to close four North American plants

By Jerry White

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General Motors announced Tuesday it will shut four factories in the US, Canada and Mexico by 2010, eliminating more than 8,000 jobs. The action is the latest move in the downsizing of the former American industrial icon, which has cut its hourly US workforce by 53,000—or more than half—over the last four years.

The explosion in gasoline prices, now topping $4 a gallon, has hit GM particularly hard. The company has long been dependent on highly profitable pick-up trucks and SUVs, which are among the least fuel efficient vehicles.

With year-to-year truck sales plunging by 37 percent last month, GM is sharply reducing output of these vehicles, preparing the sale of its Hummer brand and ramping up production of smaller cars at plants in Ohio and Michigan where GM has received tax abatements and massive concessions from United Auto Workers union locals.

The shutdown of the plants will have a devastating impact on GM workers and their families, but the impact will be felt even further, as companies supplying parts to GM lay off workers or close factories and communities are hit by the loss of tax revenues for schools and other critical services, home foreclosures and the ripple effects of plummeting consumer spending.

They factories to be closed are:

* Janesville, Wisconsin, which employs 2,800 workers. It will end medium-sized truck production by 2009 and cease production of the Tahoe, Suburban and Yukon by 2010.

* Moraine, Ohio, which currently has 2,500 workers. It builds the Chevy Trail Blazer, GMC Envoy and Saab 9-7x, and will be closed by 2010 or sooner.

* Oshawa, Ontario assembly, which employs 2,600 workers. It will cease production of the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra by 2009 or earlier.

* Toluca, Mexico, just west of Mexico City. It will end production of the Chevrolet Kodiak medium truck by the end of 2008. Nearly 400 workers will lose their jobs.

Prior to final closure, the plants will be reduced to a single shift of workers. GM had previously announced the elimination, by July, of second shifts at Janesville and truck plants in Pontiac and Flint, Michigan.

Speaking at the company’s annual shareholders meeting Tuesday, CEO Richard Wagoner said the shutdowns would help cut annual production capacity by 700,000 vehicles and produce structural savings of $1 billion a year.

The moves are “all in response to the rapid rise in oil prices and the resulting changes in the US, changes that we believe are more structural than cyclical,” Wagoner said.

The price of GM stock, which has fallen from $43 to $17 over the last year, shot up 4 percent on the announcement, but quickly tumbled as investors anticipated that the moves would do little to offset the continued loss of market share to Asian competitors such as Toyota, which are much less dependent on larger vehicles.

Profit margins for SUVs and other light trucks were between $10,000 and $17,000 per vehicle and the switch to producing a majority of smaller cars, although many will be built in lower-wage Mexican and Korean plants, will tend to depress GM’s profits. The company has already lost $50 billion over the last three years.

The Bush administration hailed the job-cutting announcement as a demonstration of the virtues of the “free market.” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, “It’s a sign that Detroit continues to adapt and evolve and address the change in consumer tastes and attitudes. They’re adapting well and they’ll make these changes and hopefully be able to pull themselves out of what has been a rough several years.”

For his part, Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama denounced “George Bush’s failed economic policies” and criticized the White House for not promoting fuel efficiency and “helping to make our auto companies more competitive.” He made the obligatory expression, as the Democratic candidate, of sympathy for workers losing their jobs, and then pledged that an Obama White House would provide large subsidies to help US companies re-tool for the future.

Last February, Obama addressed workers at the Janesville GM plant shortly after the company had announced the elimination of 750 second-shift workers. While seeking to tap into the social discontent among workers, he promoted the notion that workers shared the same interests as corporate executives and Wall Street investors.

“The promise of Janesville,” he said, “has been the promise of America—that our prosperity can and must be the tide that lifts every boat; that we rise or fall as one nation; that our economy is strongest when our middle class grows and opportunity is spread as widely as possible,” Obama told the workers.

It is precisely such nationalist and class collaborationist conceptions, peddled by the corporations, big business politicians from both parties and the United Auto Workers union, that have left workers disarmed in the face of the unrelenting attack on their jobs and wages. In the name of “competitiveness” and “saving American jobs,” auto workers have seen their living standards steadily erode over the last 30 years. All the promises that concessions would lead to job security have proven to be lies, with over 1 million auto industry jobs wiped out since 1979.

While auto workers in Janesville reacted with anger to Tuesday’s closure announcement, local union officials complained that they had done everything to help management cut labor costs. John Dohner Jr., UAW Local 95 shop chairman, expressed the utter prostration of the union leadership, saying, “This has absolutely nothing to do with there being an issue about union and management not getting along. We’ve worked together, and management hates to see this just as much as the union does.”

Last year, the UAW handed over historic concessions to GM, Ford and Chrysler. This included a two-tier wage agreement that allows the automakers to replace tens of thousands of higher-paid workers with new-hires making half the wage. Some 19,000 GM workers have since accepted buyouts and early retirement packages.

In exchange, the UAW bureaucracy was given control of a multibillion-dollar retiree health care trust fund. In this way—by becoming a business enterprise in its own right—the UAW plans to secure the privileges and perks of the union bureaucracy even as it facilitates the wholesale destruction of union jobs and thereby sustains further losses in dues income.

Speaking to the Associated Press, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said there was little the union could do about the latest changes at GM and Ford. Gettelfinger’s counterpart, Canadian Auto Workers President Buzz Hargrove, feigned shock and outrage over the closing of the Oshawa plant, which occurred only weeks after his union pushed through a concessions contract which supposedly promised continued production at the plant through the life of the new agreement.

The closure was a violation of the contract, he said, but he did not threaten to call a strike. Instead, he launched into a Canadian nationalist tirade, saying, “This is an American company, controlled by Americans, and they are making decisions in tough times to protect American jobs,” ignoring the thousands of US workers who are being thrown onto the street. He also denounced Mexican workers because GM had decided to build hybrid pickups there instead of in Canada.

Republicans prepare to play terror card in 2008 election

Republicans prepare to play terror card in 2008 election

By Bill Van Auken

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The Republican Party and its presidential candidate Senator John McCain are preparing to wage their 2008 campaign on the same essential issue that the Republicans have used to contest the last three national elections: terror.

This is scarcely surprising, as the so-called “global war on terrorism” and the events of September 11, 2001 have provided the essential ideological framework for virtually all of the Bush administration’s policies for nearly seven years. It is a framework that the ostensible political opposition, the Democratic Party, has accepted, voting to fund wars of aggression abroad and approve domestic spying and the curtailment of democratic rights at home.

With widespread predictions that the Republicans face a devastating defeat at the polls in November, the attempt to breathe new life into this campaign to terrorize the American public with the supposedly ubiquitous threat of terrorism is assuming an increasingly desperate character.

Vice President Dick Cheney sounded the terror theme last Thursday in a speech to 700 Republican donors attending a $1,000-a-plate dinner in midtown Manhattan.

“This election year poses one fundamental question on national security: Who is serious about fighting and winning the war on terror, on every front?” declared Cheney. “And the choice is going to be very clear. On one side is the Democratic Party—led by the likes of Senator Harry Reid, who said more than a year ago that the war is lost. A Democratic Party whose leaders in Congress permitted a vital surveillance law to expire, leaving the United States more vulnerable to terrorist attack.”

“On the other side of this divide,” said the vice president, “is the Republican Party—whose leaders have supported the war on terror, regardless of what the polls say or the pundits declare.”

Cheney continued: “Since 9/11, our administration had to make a lot of tough decisions on national security. As a result, the enemies of our country have been kept off balance. I don’t think the terrorists put up their feet after 9/11 and said, ‘Well, let’s not hit the United States again in ’01, ’02, ’03, ’04, ’05, ’06, or ’07.’ They wanted to hit us. They planned on it. They tried to do it. But they failed.”

Cheney names seven years, but not a single episode in which they “tried to hit us.” Virtually every supposed terrorist plot prosecuted by the government over the past six-and-a-half years has shared one common feature: the alleged conspiracy would never have existed without the active intervention of confidential informants.

Appearing Monday before AIPAC, the largest US pro-Israel lobby, Senator McCain managed to mention terror, terrorism or terrorists 15 times in his brief speech. He recycled the old pretexts for war against Iraq—the supposed danger posed by a regime with “weapons of mass destruction” and terrorist ties—to justify a policy of aggression against Iran.

At the same time, he invoked the threat of terror as an argument for continuing the five-year-old war and occupation of Iraq. A US withdrawal, he claimed, would create a “terrorist sanctuary” that “would profoundly affect the security of the United States.”

The drumbeat over terrorism has a very definite purpose. The 2008 elections are being held under conditions of bitter divisions within the US ruling elite itself over the future of American policy. Sharp opposition has emerged within ruling circles to a continuation of the course set by the Bush administration, particularly in the Middle East. This finds its political expression in the groundswell of support for Democrat Barack Obama both in the foreign policy establishment and on Wall Street.

The constant invocation of the threat of terrorism and the charge that the Democrats are “soft on terrorists” is aimed at intimidating the Democrats, changing the debate within influential media and policy circles and stampeding public opinion.

While this strategy has proven effective in relation to the Democrats, driving them further to the right and pushing the Iraq war to the back of their political agenda, in relation to the American people as a whole the Republicans confront a problem.

With its constant repetition, the terror refrain has lost more and more of its political impact. Now, even the former White House press secretary Scott McClellan has acknowledged that the fear-mongering utilized in the run-up to the Iraq war was phony “political propaganda.”

To have any hope of effectively playing the “terror card” as a means of intimidating the population in the run-up to the 2008 election, the Republican Party needs more than rhetoric.

One indication that they are working to line up deeds that would correspond with the scare words has come from the US prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Defense lawyers for five detainees charged with conspiracy in the planning of the September 11, 2001 attacks filed a 20-page legal brief charging that the Pentagon is rushing their clients before a military commission in order to have the proceedings coincide with the height of the upcoming presidential contest.

The brief points to an email from a civilian member of the prosecution proposing that the trial begin on September 15, the first Monday following the seventh anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington. “Not coincidentally,” the brief states, “that would force the trial of the case in mid-September, some seven weeks before the general election.”

McClatchy Newspapers notes matter-of-factly that for some time military defense lawyers have cited “internal debates by appointees about whether charges could be brought for political gain or to capture the imagination of the American people.”

This “debate,” obviously, is going on behind the backs of the American people. Its implications deserve careful consideration. Elements within the US government are discussing the potential political advantages for their party of accelerating the trial of five men on charges that could lead to their execution.

Even more disturbing are the remarks of the former Republican speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, during an appearance in New York in late April. Gingrich has issued public warnings that his party faces a “real disaster” and “decisive losses” in Congress unless it charts a “bold course” in November.

Asked by a member of the audience in New York why there had not been another attack like that of September 11, 2001, the former House speaker replied that he did not know, but indicated that it was one of the political problems he saw confronting his party.

“This is... one of the great tragedies of the Bush administration,” Gingrich declared. “The more successful they’ve been at intercepting and stopping bad guys, the less proof there is that we’re in danger. And, therefore, the better they’ve done at making sure there isn’t an attack, the easier it is to say, ‘Well, there never was going to be an attack anyway.’ And it’s almost like they should every once in a while have allowed an attack to get through just to remind us.” (Emphasis added).

Gingrich’s seemingly off-hand remark provides an unintended glimpse into the thinking and discussions within top echelons of the Bush administration and the Republican Party. Its logic is unmistakable. Another major terrorist attack on US soil would serve to “remind” the American people of the supposedly overriding threat of terrorism and thereby politically shock them into voting for the party advancing the most hard-line anti-terrorist rhetoric.

The Republican ex-speaker’s brief comment raises an obvious though chilling question: Are elements within the current administration considering an “October surprise”—or, more precisely, an October bomb—as a means of shifting the dismal prospects confronting McCain and his fellow Republicans at the polls? Are they weighing the option of either engineering or facilitating a terrorist attack and significant loss of American lives in order to swing the election?

Desperate men do desperate things. However much the American ruling elite may trust Democrat Barack Obama to defend its interests at home and abroad, for Bush, Cheney and Co., the prospect of a Democratic sweep must be profoundly unsettling.

This is an administration that has carried out war crimes—aggressive war, torture, assassinations and illegal detentions. A wholesale replacement of leading government figures raises the threat that still more revelations of the Bush administration’s criminality will emerge, leading, whatever Obama’s intention, to prosecutions. Among the most threatening potential revelations are those concerning 9/11 itself.

Gingrich’s remark that they should “have allowed an attack to get through” raises the question: Is that what they did on September 11, 2001? Did they let that one “get through” and thereby create the justification for two wars causing millions of deaths and all of the reactionary policies that followed?

With the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaching, the tragic events of that day remain shrouded in mystery. Not a single US official has been held accountable for what, ostensibly, was the greatest single failure of the military intelligence apparatus in US history. The official investigations carried out by Congress and the 9/11 Commission have produced politically-motivated cover-ups.

What evidence has emerged about those implicated in the attacks, however, strongly suggests that they enjoyed protection from within the highest levels of the US state, which believed that a terrorist attack on American soil would provide an indispensable pretext for launching military actions in pursuit of longstanding strategic objectives of US imperialism.

That a replay today of 9/11 in some form or other would further the administration’s aims is far from certain. There is the unhappy precedent—for Bush, Cheney and Co.—of Spain. The attempt by their right-wing ally, Prime Minister José María Aznar, to manipulate a 2004 terrorist attack in Madrid to swing an election backfired badly, triggering mass public outrage and defeat at the polls.

Letting an attack “get through” could serve another purpose. It should be recalled that in 2004 it was revealed that the Homeland Security Department had drawn up detailed plans for suspending the national elections in the event of a major terrorist incident.

The behind-the-scenes political manipulation of the Guantánamo military trials and Gingrich’s comments on the salutary effects of a terrorist attack are indicative of the profound crisis of bourgeois democracy in America, where elections are once again unfolding in an atmosphere of provocation and criminality—in which both major parties are implicated. These developments underscore the reality that the US government is dominated by elements who are truly prepared to do anything to maintain their hold on power.

There is not the slightest room in the present situation for political complacency or unfounded illusions in the Democratic Party and its presumptive standard bearer Barack Obama. The defense of basic democratic rights requires a fight to organize the working class as an independent political force and the creation of a genuine socialist alternative to the two parties of America’s financial and corporate oligarchy, the Democrats and Republicans.

George Soros warns that speculators could trigger stock market crash

George Soros warns that speculators could trigger stock market crash

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George Soros, the billionaire hedge fund manager, will warn later today that the oil price has become a bubble that could trigger a stock market crash.

The Financial Times reported today that Soros will tell the US Senate commerce committee that oil was pushed to its recent all-time peak of $135 a barrel by a new wave of speculators.

He believes that the doubling in the price over the last year is partly due to investment institutions, such as pension funds, who are pumping money into indexes that track the cost of crude.

According to the FT, Soros will warn that there could be very serious consequences for global stock markets if the institutions suddenly began betting on a fall in the oil price.

He compares it with the stock market crash of 1987, which was partly caused by a sudden rush of money into portfolio insurance – which institutions used to protect themselves against a fall in share prices.

"In both cases, the institutions are piling in on one side of the market and they have sufficient weight to unbalance it. If the trend were reversed and the institutions as a group headed for the exit as they did in 1987 there would be a crash," said Soros, in remarks prepared for a committee hearing later today.

Institutional investors can use index funds to bet on the future trends of a commodity such as oil, in the same way that such funds are used to track the performance of a stock market index like the FTSE.

Last week, the Senate commerce committee heard that the amount of money pumped into commodity-index investing has soared to $260bn (£132bn) this year, from $13bn in 2003.

Soros himself is no stranger to market speculation, having made a profit of around $1bn in 1992 betting that the UK government would be unable to keep sterling within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

House of Commons votes to let U.S. War Resisters stay in Canada

House of Commons votes to let U.S. War Resisters stay in Canada

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The Opposition parties in the House of Commons
joined together today to adopt a recommendation which, if implemented, would
make it possible for U.S. Iraq War resisters to obtain Permanent Resident
status in Canada.
The recommendation was adopted by a majority of Members of Parliament
from the Liberal, Bloc Québécois, and New Democratic Parties. The
Conservatives voted against the motion.
The motion, which originated in the House of Commons Standing Committee
on Citizenship and Immigration in December 2007, calls on the government to
"immediately implement a program to allow conscientious objectors and their
immediate family apply for permanent resident status and remain
in Canada; and...the government should immediately cease any removal or
deportation actions...against such individuals."
Corey Glass, 25, a war resister who came to Canada in 2006 and was
recently told to leave Canada by June 12 or face removal to the United States,
welcomed the vote. "I'm thankful that the MPs voted to let me and the other
war resisters stay in Canada. I'm also thankful to all the Canadians who urged
their MPs to support us."
"This is a great victory for the courageous men and women who have come
to Canada because they refuse to take part in the illegal, immoral Iraq War,
and for the many organizations and individuals who have supported this
campaign over the past four years," said Lee Zaslofsky, Coordinator of the War
Resisters Support Campaign and a Vietnam War deserter who came to Canada in

The War Resisters Support Campaign is calling on the Conservative
government to respect the democratic decision of the Canadian Parliament and
immediately implement the motion and cease deportation proceedings against
Corey Glass and other war resisters.
For further information: Michelle Robidoux, (416) 856-5008; Lee
Zaslofsky, (416) 598-1222 or (415) 369-0864

Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World's Food System

Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World's Food System

By Raj Patel

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The following is an excerpt from Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel, published with permission from Melville House Publishing.

Today, when we produce more food than ever before, more than one in ten people on Earth are hungry. The hunger of 800 million happens at the same time as another historical first: that they are outnumbered by the one billion people on this planet who are overweight.

Global hunger and obesity are symptoms of the same problem and, what's more, the route to eradicating world hunger is also the way to prevent global epidemics of diabetes and heart disease, and to address a host of environmental and social ills. Overweight and hungry people are linked through the chains of production that bring food from fields to our plate.

Guided by the profit motive, the corporations that sell our food shape and constrain how we eat, and how we think about food. The limitations are clearest at the fast food outlet, where the spectrum of choice runs from McMuffin to McNugget. But there are hidden and systemic constraints even when we feel we're beyond the purview of Ronald McDonald. Even when we want to buy something healthy, something to keep the doctor away, we're trapped in the very same system that has created our Fast Food Nations?

Try, for example, shopping for apples. At supermarkets in North America and Europe, the choice is restricted to half a dozen varieties: Fuji, Braeburn, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and perhaps a couple of others. Why these? Because they're pretty: we like the polished and unblemished skin. Because their taste is one that's largely unobjectionable to the majority. But also because they can stand transportation over long distances. Their skin won't tear or blemish if they're knocked about in the miles from orchard to aisle. They take well to the waxing technologies and compounds that make this transportation possible and keep the apples pretty on the shelves. They are easy to harvest. They respond well to pesticides and industrial production. These are reasons why we won't find Calville Blanc, Black Oxford, Zabergau Reinette, Kandil Sinap or the ancient and venerable Rambo on the shelves.

Our choices are not entirely our own because, even in a supermarket, the menu is crafted not by our choices, nor by the seasons, nor where we find ourselves, nor by the full range of apples available, nor by the full spectrum of available nutrition and tastes, but by the power of food corporations.

The concerns of food production companies have ramifications far beyond what appears on supermarket shelves. Their concerns are the rot at the core of the modern food system. To show the systemic ability of a few to impact the health of the many demands A global investigation, travelling from the green deserts of Brazil to the architecture of the modern city, and moving through history from the time of the first domesticated plants to the Battle of Seattle.

It's an enquiry that uncovers the real reasons for famine in Asia and Africa, why there is a worldwide epidemic of farmer suicides, why we don't know what's in our food any more, why Black people in the United States are more likely to be overweight than white, why there are cowboys in South Central Los Angeles, and how the world's largest social movement is discovering ways, large and small, for us to think about, and live differently with, food.

The alternative to eating the way we do today promises to solve hunger and diet-related disease, by offering a way of eating and growing food that is environmentally sustainable and socially just. Understanding the ills of the way food is grown and eaten also offers the key to greater freedom, and a way of reclaiming the joy of eating. The task is as urgent as the prize is great.

In every country, the contradictions of obesity, hunger, poverty and wealth are becoming more acute. India has, for example, destroyed millions of tons of grains, permitting food to rot in silos, while the quality of food eaten by India's poorest is getting worse for the first time since Independence in 1947. In 1992, in the same towns and villages where malnutrition had begun to grip the poorest families, the Indian government admitted foreign soft drinks manufacturers and food multinationals to its previously protected economy. Within a decade, India has become home to the world's largest concentration of diabetics: people -- often children -- whose bodies have fractured under the pressure of eating too much of the wrong kinds of food.

India isn't the only home to these contrasts. They're global, and they're present even in the world's richest country. In the United States in 2005, 35.1 million people didn't know where their next meal was coming from. At the same time there is more diet-related disease like diabetes, and more food, in the US than ever before.

It's easy to become inured to this contradiction; its daily version causes only mild discomfort, walking past the homeless and hungry, signs on the way to supermarkets bursting with food. There are moral emollients to balm a troubled conscience: the poor are hungry because they're lazy, or perhaps the wealthy are fat because they eat too richly.

This vein of folk wisdom has a long pedigree. Every culture has had, in some form or other, an understanding of our bodies as public ledgers on which is written the catalogue of our private vices. The language of condemnation doesn't, however, help us understand why hunger, abundance and obesity are more compatible on our planet than they've ever been. Moral condemnation only works if the condemned could have done things differently, if they had choices.

Yet the prevalence of hunger and obesity affect populations with far too much regularity, in too many different places, for it to be the result of some personal failing. Part of the reason our judgement is so out of kilter is because the way we read bodies hasn't kept up with the times. Although it may once have been true, the assumption that to be overweight is to be rich no longer holds. Obesity can no longer be explained exclusively as a curse of individual affluence. There are systemic features that make a difference.

Here's an example: many teenagers in Mexico, a developing country with an average income of US$6,000, are bloated as never before, even as the ranks of the Mexican poor swell. Individual wealth doesn't explain why the children of some families are more obese than others: the crucial factor turns out not to be income, but proximity to the US border. The closer a Mexican family lives to its northern neighbours and to their sugar- and fat-rich processed food habits, the more overweight the family's children are likely to be.

That geography matters so much rather overturns the idea that personal choice is the key to preventing obesity or, by the same token, preventing hunger. And it helps to renew the lament of Porfirio Diaz, one of Mexico's late-nineteenth-century presidents and autocrats: ¡Pobre Mexico! Tan lejos de Dios; y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos (Poor Mexico: so far from God, so close to the United States).

A perversity of the way our food comes to us is that it's now possible for people who can't afford enough to eat to be obese. Children growing up malnourished in the favelas of São Paulo, for instance, are at greater risk from obesity when they become adults. Their bodies, broken by childhood poverty, metabolize and store food poorly. As a result, they're at greater risk of storing as fat the (poor-quality) food that they can access.

Across the planet, the poor can't afford to eat well. Again, this is true even in the world's richest country; and in the US, it's children who will pay the price. One research team recently suggested that if consumption patterns stay the way they are, today's US children will live five fewer years, because of the diet-related diseases to which they will be exposed in their lifetimes.

As consumers, we're encouraged to think that an economic system based on individual choice will save us from the collective ills of hunger and obesity. Yet it is precisely "freedom of choice" that has incubated these ills. Those of us able to head to the supermarket can boggle at the possibility of choosing from fifty brands of sugared cereals, from half a dozen kinds of milk that all taste like chalk, from shelves of bread so sopped in chemicals that they will never go off, from aisles of products in which the principal ingredient is sugar.

British children are, for instance, able to select from twenty-eight branded breakfast cereals the marketing of which is aimed directly at them. The sugar content of twenty-seven of these exceeds the government's recommendations. Nine of these children's cereals are 40 per cent sugar. It's hardly surprising, then, that 8.5 per cent of six-year-olds and more than one in ten fifteen-year-olds in the UK are obese. And the levels are increasing. The breakfast cereal story is a sign of a wider systemic feature: there's every incentive for food producing corporations to sell food that has undergone processing which renders it more profitable, if less nutritious. Incidentally, this explains why there are so many more varieties of breakfast cereals on sale than varieties of apples.

There are natural limits to our choices. There are, for instance, only so many naturally occurring fruits, vegetables and animals that people are prepared to eat. But even here, a little advertising can persuade us to expand the ambit of our choices. Think of the kiwi fruit, once known as the Chinese gooseberry, but rebranded to accommodate Cold War prejudices by the New Zealand food company that marketed it to the world at the end of the 1950s.

It's a taste no-one had grown up with, but which now seems as if it has always been there. And while new natural foods are slowly added to our menus, the food industry adds tens of thousands of new products to the shelves every year, some of which become indispensable fixtures which, after a generation, make life unimaginable without them. It's a sign of how limited our gastronomic imaginations can be. And also a sign that we're not altogether sure how or where or why certain foods end up on our plate.

Excerpted from Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel. Copyright (c) 2008 by Raj Patel. Published by Melville House Publishing. All Rights Reserved. Available wherever books are sold.

How to Know if Your Water Is Safe to Drink

How to Know if Your Water Is Safe to Drink

By Tara Lohan

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When Elizabeth Royte first began following the story of the town of Fryeburg, Maine, battling the giant multinational Nestle, it seemed like an easy David and Goliath story. But it turns out that when it comes to water issues, there is a whole lot of gray. Her new book, Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, is about the backlash in a rural Maine town over Nestle's bottled water business. She writes, "Incomplete knowledge drives the town's narrative. No one can say for sure how much water lies beneath Fryeburg or what removing it will do."

The story tackles the environmental costs of sucking spring water, which are still largely unknown and further complicated by each side's geologists for hire. It also deals with the backroom deals, the politicking and the legal maze as citizens get their hands dirty with democracy.

While the main narrative is about Fryeburg, the book is really about the conundrum of what to drink. If bottled water is bad, then what about our tap? Is tap water safe? Why are kids today growing up on bottled water? Why is the federal government cutting funding for public water infrastructure?

Royte addresses these issues in our interview below; you can read more about them in Bottlemania. You can also find an excerpt on our site.

Tara Lohan: The narrative of your book follows the ongoing story in Fryeburg, Maine, where residents are battling the world's largest food and beverage company, Nestle, which produces Poland Spring water. Explain what's going on in Fryeburg.

Elizabeth Royte: Right now the town is being sued by Nestle. The company drilled a well in the town of Denmark, and they have very small dirt roads and then couldn't get the water out of the town so they built a pipeline to Fryeburg, and they wanted to build a tanker station where the trucks would fill up and then they'd haul it to the bottling plant in Hollis or Poland.

First, Nestle was given a permit to operate the tanker station, but the people who live near the tanker station fought the permit, and eventually the town's appeals board denied the permit. So Nestle sued the town, and the judge sent it back to the town to hash out whether it is a permitted business in a rural residential zone. Essentially it was a zoning issue.

The planning board looked at it again and then decided no, the tanker station is not a permitted use. So, Nestle appealed, but the planning board was upheld. That was three decisions in a row that went against Nestle, so Nestle a few months ago took the town back to court again. It is costing the town a great deal of money, and there is a citizens group that has formed to fight the tanker station, and they have spent tens of thousands of dollars. And there are people in the town who aren't talking to each other, and there are lots of hurt feelings.

TL: But that's not the only issue with Nestle in Fryeburg, right?

ER: Yes, there is a well in Fryeburg also that is already pumping 180 million gallons a year of water and delivering it to Hollis and Poland. When you drink Poland Spring and it says it came from Evergreen Spring, it came from Fryeburg. An elderly man who lives on the town's pond believes the pumping is affecting his well and the pond. That is in dispute, and I talk about that in the book.

The people who are fighting the tanker situation are fighting it on the grounds that they don't want the truck traffic in this rural community. It is a zone issue for them. Others see an environmental issue with the pumping.

TL: One of things that is so interesting in the book is that this is not really black and white. It is frustrating to think that it is so hard to figure out whether there is environmental harm or not.

ER: If you've read Robert Glennon's Water Follies, which is about groundwater pumping across the country, you can see it is a really complicated issue. There are different groundwater rules in different states. It is difficult to link cause and effect with groundwater problems. He says just because you don't harm a spring or stream doesn't mean your aren't hurting the broader environment. We see harm from groundwater over-pumping with saltwater intrusion to aquifers and with sinkholes forming and with lower water tables and with wells gone dry. There are people in Michigan who are also fighting Nestle's pumping in their communities because they think that their stream levels are being affected. But no one has been able to prove this direct cause and effect in court.

TL: Why is it so difficult? If you are taking out 180 million gallons a year, as is the case in Fryeburg, there has got to be an effect, right?

ER: Nestle says that this is sustainable, that they've done all these hydrogeologic studies that say they are taking out x amount, and x plus y are replenished. So there is no net loss. They say what they're taking is extra water, and I make the point in the book that there is no such thing as extra water. The 180 million gallons used to go somewhere, and even if it wasn't staying right there around that spring it went to a pond or into the soil -- it was feeding an ecosystem. We may not know exactly what is going to happen when that's gone, but it just doesn't make sense to me that absolutely nothing would happen when you subtract those gallons.

What was really the most frustrating was the inch-by-inch struggle of the town with Nestle, and the legal maneuverings, and the meetings and the town passing various moratoria. They were doing everything right -- they were very new at this, and Maude Barlow has talked about the fight for water and how it is a fight for democracy. And these people are reading their land use planning tables, which none of them has read before, and taking out their dictionaries and trying to see what the proposed ordinances would really mean. They were doing everything right, but they were being stymied at every turn by the company, which has a lot of money and time and experience. I still don't know what will happen. For now, they can continue to pump from that Evergreen spring.

TL: You wrote that what is happening in Fryeburg is what a modern water conflict looks like.

ER: Yeah, you might say, why go to a town that has plenty of water to write about a water war. And you think about water wars in dry parts of Africa or India, and a lot of concern about global water scarcity has focused on the developing world. But here I'm going to Maine, and there is plenty of water there. But I believe, increasingly, this is what a modern water war will look like. You have a corporation, Nestle, coming in and wanting to lay claim on more water, and then looking to more towns throughout Maine (and others states, too, like Michigan and California) to increase their market share.

They know that there is a demand out there, and they are trying to meet that demand. Maine might not be suffering from a drought now and might not be in the future, but the people are worried about what Nestle might be planning to do. They are taking water for bottles now, but someday are they going to want to pull out more of it -- and ship it not just out of state but out of the country? I'm not saying that Nestle has these plans or that it is legal, but as water becomes scarce in other places, whose hand is on the tap is going to be increasingly more important.

TL: You wrote that bottled water is one of the greatest marketing coups -- can you explain that?

ER: Bottled water has a long history. People did see the need for it hundreds of years ago as public water supplies weren't safe. There was a need then. But we haven't seen that need since the 1920s when chlorine became ubiquitous in water supplies.

The real growth in the bottled water industry started in 1977 when Perrier came to this country. It was a niche product then, and it was connected to health and wellness, and the ads talked about how Perrier would help your digestion. It was very successful, but only among a certain demographic.

There was one turning point: Perrier was in glass bottles, so people weren't lugging this stuff around. But in 1989 PET plastic was introduced, and all of a sudden you could carry around a lightweight, clear, cheap plastic bottle of water. After that, things just took off, and soon there were tens of millions of dollars spent on promoting it. You'd see models and celebrities photographed with bottles of Evian. And people were told it would make them feel better and look better. It was chic. It signified.

Things grew through the '80s, and in the '90s Coke and Pepsi introduced their waters. They were being attacked for selling high-calorie sugary drinks and for the obesity epidemic. They thought people would start moving away from soda, so they introduced Aquafina and Dasani. The figures were just out for 2007, and it was an $11.5 billion market. In the '90s when Evian hit big here, the market was only $115 million dollars.

TL: I like that you write about how kids these days are growing up thinking that water comes from bottles and not taps and that water fountains are unclean.

ER: I talk a lot about tap water. When people started drinking bottled water, no one was worried about their tap water -- it was just fashionable to drink bottled water. Marketers also played on the need for hydration. But if you were supposed to drink eight glasses a day, affordability became really important. Marketers did play a bit on fears of tap water in a backhanded way. They wouldn't come right out and say tap was unhealthy or dirty. But by emphasizing the purity of their water, it was an implication that tap water wasn't pure.

As we've neglected our infrastructure and the Bush administration has scaled back on clean water protection, tap water has declined in quality. I think a lot of people don't like to talk about this but if I can say anything in this book, it is that we can't abandon tap water and we have to protect municipal water supplies so that we can all be drinking safe water from our taps.

Tap water isn't perfect, but as I say in the book, it is the devil we know and the devil we have standing to negotiate with. We can't negotiate with private water companies over water protection or what is in their products or when it was inspected and the results of those inspections.

TL: As you know, Food & Water Watch is pushing for a federal clean water trust fund. What do you think of that?

ER: Oh yes, I know that Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) is among the Congress members to push for a study to identify sustainable funding sources and is in favor of legislation to support a trust fund. I haven't looked at the details of his plan, but it sounds like a smart idea. There is an incredible funding shortfall -- we need $277 billion to keep our water infrastructure functioning in next 20 years.

We haven't been paying attention for a really long time, and things are crumbling. Every single day there is a water main break in this country -- between 250,000 and 300,000 water main breaks a year, and people are told to boil the water. And people usually take "boil water" to mean "buy water," and they usually distrust the water a little bit more.

TL: I like that in the book you referred to it as an infrastructure disconnect -- that we don't know where our water comes from. But we have this with not just water; many people also have no idea where our food comes from, or our energy.

ER: Right, and my last book (Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash) was about where things go after they leave us and then how they come around to bite us again in our water and food. So many people, it seems, don't understand the social and environmental impacts of it all.

TL: So how do we get out of it this cycle of disconnect?

ER: Well, education. Be aware of it. Make smarter decisions about what you buy and how you use energy and water. When you realize that everything is connected, you will be more careful about how you live and I hope, lighten your impact on the planet. I just did a story for the New York Times Magazine about Orange County's toilet-to-tap program, where wastewater is being reclaimed for drinking.

At first I wondered -- if people know that they are going to be drinking this water again, it would be nice to think that people would take better care of what they put down the toilet, like would we switch to biodegradable cleaning products, would industry use nontoxic materials, would farmers cut their use of pesticides? Then I realized that is a false hope, because everyone is relying on the technology to clean it up, and it might even have the effect of letting polluters off the hook while we are spending $29 billion a year to run this very high-tech plant, and it gets everything out, so why should we bother. That's the "faith in technology" problem.

TL: Tell me a little bit more about your thoughts on reclaimed water -- you seem to find a lot of hope in it.

ER: I do, and I think when my piece comes out in the Times I'll seem even more hopeful than when I wrote the book. I do realize that in water-stressed areas, conservation on its own can go a long way, but we have to start thinking of wastewater as a resource that we can clean up to use for not-potable purposes, or for potable if it comes to that.

It comes back to the infrastructure issue. I think we need to go with lower-impact development. We need to keep rainwater out of our sewer systems, unhook gutters from storm drains, have more permeable surfaces, and let the water recharge back into the aquifers and let the earth go through the natural cleaning processes. Then we wouldn't be spending so much on cleaning up water to use on our lawns or for washing our cars. I think we need to rethink our infrastructure and use more gray water.

The idea of smaller, local plants that deal with the waste from smaller communities helps put more water back into the ground. It is part of keeping things local, knowing where water comes from and cycling it back. It is like eating local food, composting it and putting it back on the land -- small networks.

TL: You mentioned Bill McKibben's idea of hyper-individualism and countering that through local communities.

ER: Right, investing in local communities and economies. Reconnecting people with each other.

TL: In the book you mention that you tested your own drinking water. How easy is it to do that, and how much does it cost?

ER: The whole point of my book is to let people know what is going on with their water -- both bottled water and tap -- and before deciding to drink one or the other, that they know what the facts are. You should know what is in your watershed and what are the potential problems with your tap water. Know what is in your pipes, whether there is lead or copper. Know what your physical situation is -- your health -- whether you are in an at-risk group. And then if you have questions about your water after knowing what the potential problems might be, then test it. It cost me $140, and I tested it for over 70 contaminants.

In this country, 89.3 percent of public water supplies met or exceeded federal guidelines in 2006. That is a lot of people whose water is fine according to the federal government.

TL: But that is not taking into account things like pharmaceuticals, right? Because municipalities aren't required to test for them.

ER: Right -- they are not regulated, so most utilities don't test for them. I think the "drugs in tap water" story is worrisome but not alarming, and this is after talking to a lot of scientists about this. The government has fallen behind on looking at this. They were charged with investigating this many, many years ago, and they haven't. So we have to figure out what is in the water and what it is doing to us.

There are some things we should be working on now to minimize drugs in the water, including establishing take-back programs for unused pharmaceuticals so they aren't flushed; encouraging healthier lifestyles so we don't have to take so many drugs in the first place; and reducing the amount of drugs in confined animal feeding operations because those are the biggest users of antibiotics and maybe hormones. If we didn't raise animals in unhealthy conditions, we wouldn't have to be drugging them.

I think we should stop using antibacterial soap indiscriminately, and I don't know if it is possible for drug makers to reformulate drugs so they break down faster in water, but I think the drug manufacturers do have some responsibility, too.

TL: Do you think that federal guidelines may catch up with this eventually?

ER: It is going to take a long time because they don't want to regulate anything they can't tell people how to get rid of and can't supply the money to help with. It is like with perchlorate or MTBE. If they decide we need to regulate it, then utilities will have to test for it, and they won't be meeting standards because they don't have the money for the equipment.

It has to be done in stages. First, know what is out there and how fast the drugs are degrading or not. You have to know how long the drugs stay out there, what sunlight does to them, what temperature does and what happens in various mixtures.

TL: What surprised you most about what you learned working on this book?

ER: I was surprised by how complicated it was. I thought there was a clean, simple story line about these people in Fryeburg fighting a big company, and I learned there are many shades of gray in Fryeburg and elsewhere and tap water isn't always perfect all the time. I was surprised by what is allowed to be in tap water and that the issues about what you should be drinking aren't always clean-cut. Although most of the time we should all drink tap, and if there are problems, we should be filtering our water. But moving to bottled water is not answer.

TL: I appreciated that you explained a bit about Brita and other filters because I've always wondered how effective they are.

ER: Yeah, I had this Brita and I didn't really know what it was doing, so I thought I'd find out. I wondered: What does Brita do, what doesn't it do, and what other kinds of filters are there? If you do find problems with your tap water, a pour through a Brita isn't going to do it for you. So learn about the other filters or point-of-use filters and see what you need to deal with whatever your issue is.

There are lots of sources on my website if people want to learn about filters or fluoride and which groups are working on these issues.

TL: Probably one of the biggest problems with bottled water is the environmental impact. Talk about the carbon footprint of it.

ER: In 2007 there was an awakening and an enormous backlash against bottled water, and it was because of the carbon footprint. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute did some calculations, and if you figure in the energy it takes to produce, transport and dispose of each bottle, it would be the equivalent of filling each one a quarter of the way with oil. Only 14 percent of the bottles make it into recycling systems, and the rest go to landfills or incinerators, and it takes 17 million barrels a year to make water bottles for the U.S.

TL: There are a lot of reasons not to drink bottled water.

ER: There are. But if you absolutely have to drink bottled water and you cannot filter your water, then I say find the most local source and the largest container that can be reused, preferably glass.

How the Media Abandoned Iraq

How the Media Abandoned Iraq

By Sherry Ricchiardi

Go To Original

Armando Acuna, public editor of the Sacramento Bee, turned a Sunday column into a public flogging for both his editors and the nation's news media. They had allowed the third-longest war in American history to slip off the radar screen, and he had the numbers to prove it.

The public also got a scolding for its meager interest in a controversial conflict that is costing taxpayers about $12.5 billion a month, or nearly $5,000 a second, according to some calculations. In his March 30 commentary, Acuna noted: "There's enough shame … for everyone to share."

He had watched stories about Iraq move from 1A to the inside pages of his newspaper, if they ran at all. He understood the editors' frustration over how to handle the mind-numbing cycles of violence and complex issues surrounding Operation Iraqi Freedom. "People feel powerless about this war," he said in an interview in April.

Acuna knew the Sacramento Bee was not alone.

For long stretches over the past 12 months, Iraq virtually disappeared from the front pages of the nation's newspapers and from the nightly network newscasts. The American press and the American people had lost interest in the war.

The decline in coverage of Iraq has been staggering.

During the first 10 weeks of 2007, Iraq accounted for 23 percent of the newshole fornetwork TV news. In 2008, it plummeted to 3 percent during that period. On cable networks it fell from 24 percent to 1 percent, according to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The numbers also were dismal for the country's dailies. By Acuna's count, during the first three months of this year, front-page stories about Iraq in the Bee were down 70 percent from the same time last year. Articles about Iraq once topped the list for reader feedback. By mid-2007, "Their interest just dropped off; it was noticeable to me," says the public editor.

A daily tracking of 65 newspapers by the Associated Press confirms a dip in page-one play throughout the country. In September 2007, the AP found 457 Iraq-related stories (154 by the AP) on front pages, many related to a progress report delivered to Congress by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Over the succeeding months, that number fell to as low as 49. A spike in March 2008 was largely due to a rash of stories keyed to the conflict's fifth anniversary, according to AP Senior Managing Editor Mike Silverman.

During the early stages of shock and awe, Americans were glued to the news as Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in Baghdad and sweat-soaked Marines bivouacked in his luxurious palaces. It was a huge story when President Bush landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, and declared major combat operations were over.

By March 2008, a striking reversal had taken place. Only 28 percent of Americans knew that 4,000 military personnel had been killed in the conflict, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Eight months earlier, 54 percent could cite the correct casualty rate.

TV news was a vivid indicator of the declining interest. The three broadcast networks' nightly newscasts devoted more than 4,100 minutes to Iraq in 2003 and 3,000 in 2004. That leveled off to 2,000 annually. By late 2007, it was half that, according to Andrew Tyndall, who monitors the nightly news (

"In broadcast, there's a sense that the appetite for Iraq coverage has grown thin. The big issue is how many people stick with it. It is not less of a story," said Jeffrey Fager, executive producer of "60 Minutes," during the Reva and David Logan Symposium on Investigative Reporting in late April at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. The number of Iraq-related stories aired on "60 Minutes" has been consistent over the past two years. The total from April 2007 through March 2008 was 15, one fewer than during the same period the year before.

Despite the pile of evidence of waning coverage, news managers interviewed for this story consistently maintained there was no conscious decision to back off. "I wasn't hearing that in our newsroom," says Margaret Sullivan, editor of the Buffalo News. Yet numbers show that attention to the war plummeted at the Buffalo paper as it did at other news outlets.

Why the dramatic drop-off? Gatekeepers offer a variety of reasons, from the enormous danger for journalists on the ground in Iraq (see "Obstructed View," April/May 2007) to plunging newsroom budgets and shrinking news space. Competing megastories on the home front like the presidential primaries and the sagging economy figure into the equation. So does the exorbitant cost of keeping correspondents in Baghdad.

No one questioned the importance of a grueling war gone sour or the looming consequences for the United States and the Middle East. Instead, newsroom managers talked about the realities of life in a rapidly changing media market, including smaller newsholes and, for many, a laser-beam focus on local issues and events.

Los Angeles Times' foreign editor Marjorie Miller attributes the decline to three factors:

• The economic downturn and the contentious presidential primaries have sucked oxygen from Iraq. "We have a woman, an African American and a senior running for president," Miller says. "That is a very big story."

• With no solutions in sight, with no light at the end of the tunnel, war fatigue has become a factor. Over the years, a bleak sameness has settled into accounts of suicide bombings and brutal sectarian violence. Insurgents fighting counterinsurgents are hard to translate to an American audience.

• The sheer cost of keeping correspondents on the ground in Baghdad is trimming the roster of journalists. The expense is "unlike anything we've ever faced. We have shouldered the financial burden so far, but we are really squeezed," Miller says. Earlier, the L.A. Times had as many as five Western correspondents in the field. The bureau is down to two or three plus Iraqi staff.

Other media decision-makers echo Miller's analysis.

When Lara Logan, the high-profile chief senior foreign correspondent for CBS News, is rotated out of Iraq, she might not be replaced, says her boss, Senior Vice President Paul Friedman. The network is sending in fewer Westerners from European and American bureaus and depending more on local staff, a common practice for media outlets with personnel in Iraq. "We won't pull out, but we are making adjustments," Friedman says.

Friedman defends the cutbacks: "One of the definitions of news is change, and there are long periods now in Iraq when very little changes. Therefore, it's difficult for the Iraq story to fight its way on the air against other news where change is involved," such as the political campaign, he says.

John Stack, Fox News Channel's vice president for newsgathering, has no qualms about allotting more airtime to the presidential campaign than to Iraq. "This is a very big story playing out on the screen every night … The time devoted to news is finite," Stack says. "It's a matter of shifting to another story of national interest."

Despite diminished emphasis on the war, Fox has no plans to cut back its Baghdad operation. "We still have a full complement of people there, operating in a very difficult environment. That hasn't gone down at all," he says. Fox has two full reporting teams in Iraq as well as a bureau chief and some local staff, for a total of 25 to 30 people, according to Stack.

In late 2007, the networks -- CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN and Fox -- entertained the notion of pooling resources in Iraq to cut expenses. After much discussion, the idea was tabled. "It turned out not to be possible," Friedman says. "To some extent, our needs are very different." Cable TV is all about constant repetition; even during lulls it features correspondents standing in front of cameras making reports. "The networks don't do that and don't need the same kind of facilities," Friedman says.

McClatchy Newspapers maintains a presence in Baghdad -- a bureau chief, a rotating staffer generally from one of the chain's papers and six local staffers -- but the decline in violence since the U.S. troop buildup last year has resulted in fewer daily stories, says Foreign Editor Roy Gutman. "We produce according to the news. During the [Iraqi] government's offensive in Basra [in March], we produced lengthy stories every day." To add another dimension to the coverage, McClatchy tapped into its Iraqi staff for compelling first-person accounts posted on its Washington bureau's Web site ( -- see "A Blog of Heartbreak," April/May 2007).

New York Times Foreign Editor Susan Chira says she is content to run fewer stories than in the past. "But we want them to have impact. And, of course, when there are big running stories, we will stay on them every day."

Midsize dailies around the country face a different set of challenges. Many operate under mandates from their bosses to push local stories over national or international news in hope of boosting readership and advertising. In those publications, it often takes a strong community tie to propel Iraq onto page one.

Case in point: During the first week of February, the one story about Iraq that made 1A in the Buffalo News was headlined, "Close to home while far off at war." It told how the latest gadgetry helps local service members stay in touch with loved ones. During the same week a year ago, four Iraq-related stories made 1A. None appeared to have a local angle.

"There is strong local interest because we have a lot of service members over there and we have had quite a few deaths of local soldiers," Editor Sullivan says. "In my mind, there is no bigger nonlocal story. It's the expense, the lives, the policy issues, and what it means to the country's future. There is a general feeling that the media have tired of Iraq, but I have not."

At Alabama's Birmingham News, it takes a significant development to get an Iraq-related story prominent play without a local link, says Executive Editor Hunter George. During the first week in February, the Birmingham paper ran only one story related to the war. The topic: "Brownies send goodies, cards to troops in Iraq."

Editors did not sit in a news budget meeting and make a conscious decision to cut back on Iraq coverage, George says. He believes the repetitiveness of the storyline has something to do with the decline. "I see and hear it all the time. It seems like a bad dream, and the public's not interested in revisiting it unless there is a major development. If I'm outside the newsroom and Iraq comes up, I hear groans. People say, 'More bad news.' Stories about the economy are moving up the news scale."

It was big news for Pennsylvania's Reading Eagle when a wounded soldier came home from Iraq and was met by some 50 bikers at the airport. The "Patriot Guard," as they are called, provided an escort. Townspeople slapped together a carnival to help raise money for a wheelchair ramp. "For us, it comes down to the grassroots level," says Eagle reporter Dan Kelly.

Earlier that day, Kelly's editor had handed him an assignment about a Marine from nearby Exeter Township who rushed home from the war zone to visit his ailing grandfather. By the time he got there, he was facing a funeral instead. "We look for special circumstances like this," Kelly says. "We pick our battles."

The Indianapolis Star ramped up coverage in January when the 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team from the Indiana National Guard was redeployed to Iraq. The newspaper created a special Web page to help readers stay in touch with the more than 3,000 soldiers from around the state, including graphics showing their hometowns and how the combat gear they wear works in the war zone.

"I don't want to mislead you and say our coverage has been consistent over the past 12 months. It has rolled and dipped. We have had calls from people who believe we underplay events like bombings where several people are killed," says Pam Fine, the Star's managing editor until early April. Front-page coverage of Iraq was the same in the first three months of 2007 and 2008. A total of 23 stories ran in each period. Fine left the paper to become the Knight Chair in News, Leadership and Community at the University of Kansas.

The reader representative for the San Francisco Chronicle doesn't think placement of stories about Iraq makes much difference. He reasons that five years in, most readers have formed clear opinions about the war. They're not likely to change their minds one way or another if a story runs on page one or page three, says Dick Rogers. "The public has become accustomed to the steady drumbeat of violence out of Iraq. A report of 20 or 30 killed doesn't bring fresh insight for a lot of people."

Americans might care if they could witness more of the human toll. That's the approach the Washington Post's Dana Milbank took in an April 24 piece titled, "What the Family Would Let You See, the Pentagon Obstructs."

When Lt. Col. Billy Hall was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in April, his family gave the media permission to cover the ceremony -- he is among the highest-ranking officers to be killed in Iraq. But, according to Milbank, the military did everything it could to keep the journalists away, isolating them some 50 yards away behind a yellow rope.

The "de facto ban on media at Arlington funerals fits neatly" with White House efforts "to sanitize the war in Iraq," and that, in turn, has helped keep the bloodshed out of the public's mind, Milbank wrote in his Washington Sketch feature. There have been similar complaints over the years about the administration's policy that bans on-base photography of coffins returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. (See Drop Cap, June/July 2004.)

Despite the litany of reasons, some journalists still take a "shame on you" attitude toward those who have relegated the Iraq war to second-class status.

Sig Christenson, military writer for the San Antonio Express-News, has made five trips to the war zone and says he would go back in a heartbeat. "This is not a story we can afford to ignore," he says. "There are vast implications for every American, right down to how much gasoline costs when we go to the pump."

Christenson, a cofounder of the organization MRE -- Military Reporters and Editors -- believes the media have an obligation to provide context and nuance and make clear the complexities of the war so Americans better understand its seriousness. "That's our job," he says.

Along the same lines, Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher, faults newsroom leaders for shortchanging "the biggest political and moral issue of our time."

"You can forgive the American public for being shocked at the recent violence in Basra [in March]. From the lack of press coverage that's out there, they probably thought the war was over," says Mitchell, who wrote about media performance in the book So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq.

Both journalists point to cause and effect: The public tends to take cues from the media about what is important. If Iraq is pushed to a back burner, the signal is clear -- the war no longer is a top priority. It follows that news consumers lose interest and turn their attention elsewhere. The Pew study found exactly that: As news coverage of the war diminished, so too did the public interest in Iraq.

Ellen Hume, research director at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media and a former journalist, believes the decline in Iraq news could be linked to a larger issue -- profits. "The problem doesn't seem to be valuing coverage of the war; it's more about the business model of journalism today and what that market requires," Hume says.

"There is no sense that [the media] are going to be able to meet the numbers that their corporate owners require by offering news about a downer subject like Iraq. It's a terrible dilemma for news organizations."

Still, there has been some stunningly good reporting on Iraq over the past year.

Two of the Washington Post's six Pulitzer Prizes were war-related. Anne Hull and Dana Priest won the public service award for revealing the neglect of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (see Drop Cap, April/May 2007). Steve Fainaru won in the international reporting category for an examination of private security contractors in Iraq.

McClatchy's Baghdad bureau chief, Leila Fadel, collected the George R. Polk Award for outstanding foreign reporting. Judges offered high praise for her vivid depictions of the agonizing plight of families in ethnically torn neighborhoods.

CBS took two Peabody Awards, one for Scott Pelley's report on the killings of civilians in the Iraqi city of Haditha (see < ahref="">"A Matter of Time," August/September 2006) on "60 Minutes," another for Kimberly Dozier's report about two female veterans who lost limbs in Iraq on "CBS News Sunday Morning." Dozier herself was wounded in Iraq in May 2006.

ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff, who was injured in Iraq in January 2006, received a Peabody Award for "Wounds of War," a series of reports about injured veterans.

There have been a series of groundbreaking investigations over the past year. In one of the most recent, the New York Times' David Barstow documented how the Pentagon cultivated military analysts to generate favorable news for the Bush administration's wartime performance. Many of the talking heads, including former generals, were being coached on what to tell viewers on television.

The Times continues to have a dominant presence on the ground in Iraq, sinking millions into maintaining its Baghdad complex, home and office to six or seven Western correspondents and a large Iraqi staff. Foreign Editor Chira says it has been more challenging to recruit people to go to Baghdad, but "we remain completely committed to maintaining a robust presence in Iraq."

Those are notable exceptions; no doubt there are more. But overall, Iraq remains the biggest nonstory of the day unless major news is breaking.

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, points to May 24, 2007, as a major turning point in the coverage of U.S. policy toward Iraq. That's the day Congress voted to continue to fund the war without troop withdrawal timetables, giving the White House a major victory in a clash with the Democratic leadership over who would control the purse strings and thus the future of the war. Democrats felt they had a mandate from Americans to bring the troops home. President Bush stuck to a hard line and came out the victor. "The political fight was over," Jurkowitz says. "Iraq no longer was a hot story. The media began looking elsewhere."

Statistics from a report by Jurkowitz released in March 2008 support his theory. From January through May 2007, Iraq accounted for 20 percent of all news measured by PEJ's News Coverage Index. That period included the announcement of the troop "surge."

"But from the time of the May funding vote through the war's fifth anniversary on March 19, 2008, coverage plunged by about 50 percent. In that period, the media paid more than twice as much attention to the presidential campaigns than the war," according to PEJ.

"You could see the coverage of the political debate [over Iraq] shrink noticeably. The drop was dramatic," says Jurkowitz, who believes the press has an obligation to cover stories about Iraq even when the political landscape changes. "It is hard to say that the media has spurred any meaningful debate in America on this."

Is there anything to the concept of war fatigue or a psychological numbing that comes with rote reports of violence? Susan Tifft, professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, believes there is.

She reasons that humans do adapt when the abnormal gradually becomes normal, such as a bloody and seemingly endless conflict far from America's shores. Tifft explains that despite tensions of the Cold War, America's default position for many years had been peace. Now the default position -- the environment in which Americans live -- is war. "And somehow we have gotten used to it. That's why it seems like wallpaper or Muzak. It's oddly normal and just part of the atmosphere," she says.

Does an acceptance of the status quo indicate helplessness or rational resignation on the part of the public and the press? Is it a survival mechanism?

Harvard University Professor Howard Gardner, a psychologist and social scientist, has explored what it is about the way humans operate that might allow this to happen.

Gardner explains that when a news story becomes repetitive, people "habituate" -- the technical term for what happens when they no longer take in information. "You can be sure that if American deaths were going up, or if there was a draft, then there would not be acceptance of the status quo," Gardner wrote in an April 17 e-mail.

"But American deaths are pretty small, and the children of the political, business and chattering classes are not dying, and so the war no longer is on the radar screen most of the time. The bad economy has replaced it, and no one has yet succeeded in tying the trillion-dollar war to the decline in the economy."

New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof is one who has tried. In a March 23 op-ed column, he quoted Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz as saying the "present economic mess" is very much related to the Iraq war, which also "is partially responsible for soaring oil prices." Stiglitz calculated the eventual total cost to be about $3 trillion.

Kristof tossed out plenty of fodder for stories: "A congressional study by the Joint Economic Committee found that the sums spent on the Iraq war each day could enroll an additional 58,000 children in Head Start or give Pell Grants to 153,000 students to attend college … [A] day's Iraq spending would finance another 11,000 border patrol agents or 9,000 police officers."

In Denver, Jason Salzman has been thinking along the same lines. The media critic for the Rocky Mountain News suggested in a February 16 column that news organizations "treat the economic costs of the war as they've treated U.S. casualties." After the death of the 3,000th American soldier, for instance, his newspaper printed the names of all the dead on the front page. To mark economic milestones, Salzman would like to see page one filled with graphics representing dollars Colorado communities have lost to the war.

"It's hard for me to realize why more reporters don't do these stories about the impact of the cost of the war back home," he said in an interview.

Another aspect of the war that could use more scrutiny is the Iraqi oil industry: Where is the money going? Who is benefiting? Why isn't oil money paying for a fair share of reconstruction costs?

Similarly, much more attention could be paid to the ramifications of stretching America's military to the limit.

And what about the impact of the war on the lives of ordinary Iraqis (see "Out of Reach," April/May 2006)? In April, Los Angeles Times correspondent Alexandra Zavis filed a story about a ballet school in Baghdad that had become an oasis for children of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.

"Now, more than ever," Zavis wrote in an e-mail interview, it "is the responsibility of journalists to put a name and a face on the mind-numbing statistics, to take readers into the lives of ordinary Iraqis, and to find ways to convey what this unimaginable bloodshed means to the people who live it."

Jurkowitz's March 2008 report cited the "inverse relationship between war coverage and the coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign -- an early-starting, wide-open affair that has fascinated the press since it began in earnest in January 2007. As attention to Iraq steadily declined, coverage of the campaign continued to grow in 2007 and 2008, consuming more of the press' attention and resources.

"Moreover, the expectation that Iraq would dominate the campaign conversation proved to be wrong," the report said. It was the economy instead. Jurkowitz cites what he calls an eye-catching statistic: In the first three months of 2008, coverage of the campaign outstripped war coverage by a ratio of nearly 11 to 1, or 43 percent of newshole compared with 4 percent.

But all that soon could change. "The [Iraq] story, we believe, remains as important as ever, and the debate about the future conduct of the war and the level of American troop presence in Iraq during the presidential campaign makes it crucial for the American public to be well informed," says the New York Times' Chira.

Jurkowitz agrees. That's why he's predicting a renaissance in Iraq coverage in the coming months. Battle lines already have been drawn: Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican candidate, has vowed to stay the course in Iraq until victory is achieved. The Democrats favor withdrawing U.S. forces, perhaps beginning as early as six months after taking the oath of office.

"When we get in the general election mode, Iraq will be a big issue. The candidates will set the agenda for the discussion and the media will pick it up. This could reinvigorate the debate," Jurkowitz says. "The war will be back in the headlines."

Senior contributing writer Sherry Ricchiardi (, who writes frequently about international coverage for AJR, assessed reporting on Iran in the magazine's February/March issue. Editorial assistant Roxana Hadadi ( contributed research to this report.