“I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.”
As I watched the earliest news reports of the train derailment and controlled release of vinyl chloride in East Palestine, Ohio, an hour away from my home off I-76, I felt the obvious connection to Don DeLillo’s novel, perhaps my favorite book of all time. The imagery from the small village of 4,700 was astonishing. I thought of the word “Anthropocene,” and the brutal relationship between capitalism and the natural environment. Like so many other people lately, I simply couldn’t wrap my head around the scope and violence of this disaster.
I also felt the gravity of the event itself. On Monday, realizing the local council would be meeting that night for the first time since the derailment, I decided to go there, to see the place. I made sure my wife was all right with the idea of me traveling into a recently evacuated zone replete with unknown chemical dispersions and certain antipathies toward the news media—and she quickly said yes, but please stop describing this situation in so much detail… Just go.
When I arrived in town on Feb. 13, it was nearly dark. A train rolled across Market Street, in the heart of the village, a clear reminder that the railway operator, Norfolk Southern, had no intention of slowing down its business in the wake of this disaster. As library director Tamra Hess told me later in the week, village residents often said that the trains came through town about every 20 minutes. Since the disaster, it was more like every 10 minutes.
But there were no reporters in town that night, on Monday. I attended the City Council meeting, took notes on local news items (the odd everyday business set alongside emergency response), met a few people and then drove home.
By Wednesday, the entire universe of the village had shifted.
I had a few meetings planned with folks in the area, and when I arrived in East Palestine proper I decided to drop into various small businesses along Market Street. To a person, each business owner was beset by media fatigue, unwilling to talk to yet another reporter and interested simply in just getting back to work. I congenially understood. I bought a few candles for my wife at 1820 Candle Co. and recalibrated my plan for the day.
…And the day grew very eventful very fast, thanks, in part, to the spectacle of the news media. You can read my feature for Grid right here.
But that spectacle was jarring. I’ve covered national news phenomena before, including the 2013 Seymour Avenue rescues in Cleveland and the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. There’s a certain journalistic thrill to these events. As a reporter, you feel swept along in the current of the day, threading the delicate balance between your work and the plight of those involved directly in the situation. (I guess the RNC was kind of different in that way.) But the centripetal force of these events is fascinating.
What is happening in East Palestine is unique to this decade, I think. There was little in the way of conventional national media in the village this week; rather, I saw a lot of local TV news teams, a scattering of print folks and a tsunami of independent TikTok-types, most of whom were seen aiming their phones or high-tech camera rigs at—anything. The livestream generation of citizen journalism. I’m not inherently opposed to this contingent, mind you, but there’s very little in the way of organizing principles at work (or even basic ethics). This makes me sound like a stern father interrupting a sleepover, but it’s true: This new form of journalism (and I would certainly define it under that broad umbrella) presents its own forms of hazard for communities like East Palestine. After all, that’s where these livestreamers go: to places under the national spotlight, places vulnerable to political mistranslation and abuse, places wracked with intrigue and endlessly unanswerable questions. You won’t see these people at your local zoning board meeting, is what I’m saying.
And I’m not expecting them to be there! But with the ongoing collapse of more traditional news media outlets in places like East Palestine, Ohio, the pivotal goals of journalism (e.g., to grasp an understanding of broad social concerns, to distill meaning from the complexities of daily life in a community) are not being met. Kelly Mitchell, “analyst,” according to her Twitter profile, so go figure, put it well: “The East Palestine disaster reveals the fundamental asymmetry in our media environment – very easy/quick/cheap to start monologuing about a toxic white genocide coverup. Reporting on actual health risks and the history of deregulation takes time.”
There’s an immediacy to news reporting, sure. But the act of journalism demands deeper time horizons in most cases. The questions being asked by East Palestine residents are important, and there’s even value in livestreamers broadcasting those questions to a global audience. In the absence of meaningful context from public officials, however, East Palestine residents are left with little more than their raw feelings of anxiety, paranoia, belittlement. And in the absence of meaningful context delivered by a journalist with an audience in mind, the vast world of livestream content consumers grows just that much hungrier for intellectual nourishment, even if they wouldn’t say as much.
Setting all that aside, there is a mountain of public health information to first obtain and then understand in this story. Authorities in Ohio have been either tight-lipped or overly vague/confused in their language. Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, in an MSNBC op-ed wrote, “In any crisis, whether a pandemic, a hurricane or an economic crash, there are a few hard and fast rules emergency managers live by: communication, coordination, leadership and trust. If you don’t have these, your response won’t be effective.” Those tenets are missing from the East Palestine situation. That much is obvious. And who can say how long it will take for answers to emerge, for clarity to issue forth into this village-under-the-microscope? Acts of journalism can help us get there, but the ascendant nature of the 21st century—segmenting public officials from the public, segmenting corporate power from consumer demand, segmenting individuals from other individuals, all while at the same time it feels like we’re more connected than ever—is hard at work itself, changing the very rules of the game and pushing us further from the truth each day.
This is probably why I read a lot of novels.