On November 17, Democracy Now ran a news story about the historic Pittsburgh City Council vote in their news headlines: “Pittsburgh has become the first Pennsylvania city to pass a measure barring natural gas drilling. In a unanimous vote, the Pittsburgh City Council approved the ban within city limits. Pittsburgh sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation, which has large reserves of natural gas. Opponents say natural gas drilling has contaminated water and air in communities across the nation.”
The news story was primarily based on the much more detailed Associated Press story of the previous day, titled “Pittsburgh first Pennsylvania city to ban gas drilling.” Nowhere in the AP article did it give any indication of what made this vote nationally historic. The New York Times gave the story the briefest of coverage, based also on the AP story. As far as I can determine, NPR ignored the story entirely. Fox News, on the other hand, ran almost the entire AP article on their own news site.
What Did They All Miss?
This wasn’t a simple ban on drilling within the city of Pittsburgh. It was a direct challenge to the so-called Constitutional “rights” of corporations. It recognized legally enforceable rights for this community of residents to design their own future. And it recognized the rights of nature within the city to exist and flourish. The ordinance was drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF.org), which circulated its own press release after the vote.
Nothing like this had ever been passed into law before in a major American city, and the Pittsburgh City Council vote was unanimous, 9-0! This is truly historic, yet none of these details made it into the nation’s news coverage. Why?
I can come up with lots of reasons why the corporate media might miss the larger story, but am really fascinated as to why Democracy Now missed the story’s significance, and why it generally continues to miss this social movement’s growing list of victories. My best guess is that Amy Goodman and her outstanding crew see the world in terms of left vs. right, capitalism vs. socialism, the poor vs. the rich – all of which miss what is going on in Pittsburgh and the more than 120 rural (mostly Republican) communities across four northeastern states which have passed similar ordinances in the past few years.
Turning David vs. Goliath Upside Down
Democracy Now, and the rest of the “progressive” media frame their news stories about corporate power as David (the people) vs. Goliath (the corporations), which is exactly the same framing used by thousands of single-issue activist groups – such as environmentalists, labor rights and social justice groups, etc. Corporations are always portrayed within this framework as massively powerful institutions, while We are nearly powerless. It’s really no wonder that we see ourselves that way.
For more than a century now, we Americans have been taught a story that has destroyed our ability to see ourselves as a truly powerful force – as a people capable of governing ourselves.
In the last three decades of the 1800s, the largest democratic mass movement in U.S. history – the Populists – rose up to try to protect more than a century of culture and law – the idea that our corporate institutions were our servants, not our masters. Until then, the corporation was still an institution which we defined and controlled via our state legislatures. It was required by law to serve a public need and to cause no harm. It couldn’t participate in politics in any way – no financing of candidates, no lobbying. It was given only the privileges which were written into its charter – it hadn’t yet won most of the Constitutional “rights” which we now tend to take for granted as normal.
Tragically, the Populists lost this huge battle in the first few years of the 1900s, and the corporation started to become the dominant institution of our society. Corporate leaders joined the ranks of the new Progressive movement’s leadership, and began to be seen as our nation’s most enlightened thinkers and doers. For the first time, the corporation itself was allowed to participate in the body politic, which had previously been prohibited. American culture was turned on its head. No longer could We the People define and control our legally subordinate corporations. Now, corporations were winning Constitutional “rights,” one after another, through the Supreme Court. The Citizens United case is just the latest layer of icing on a very large corporate cake.
What would change if We awoke from our century-long slumber and started questioning corporate Constitutional “rights” again? If we began to understand that in fact there is no greater political power in this country than We the People, acting together. We are the Goliaths, if we dare to see ourselves as we truly are. And this is exactly what the good people of Pittsburgh and 120 other towns in four northeastern states are beginning to understand and to act upon. They are relearning their history and discovering that they have the legal authority to govern themselves, regardless of what state government or corporate leaders claim. They have the right to prohibit corporate engagement in whatever ways they deem necessary for the common good. That regardless of whether they are conservative or progressive, rural or urban, they’re tired of being told that there’s nothing they can do to protect their communities and natural areas from corporate harm. Pittsburgh banned corporate drilling for natural gas. Other towns have passed bans on corporate water extraction, corporate mining, corporate factory farms, etc. And all of them have reclaimed their community’s right to self-governance – to design and define their communities’ futures.
Take a Fresh Look and Then Act
Democracy Now and the New York Times and NPR and Fox all missed the larger Pittsburgh story, and have never properly reported on all the other smaller towns either. I call on Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales and all of our other heroes in the “progressive” media to take another look at this growing democratic uprising, and to rethink how they could be covering this extraordinary development. (There are a few notable exceptions, such as Huffington Post and Yes Magazine.)
It is urgent that we find a way to get this story to people of all political stripes and colors. I am calling on you to ask yourself some important questions today:
“Who do I know in the corporate and independent media, or in activist groups, who could get this story told? Will I take the time to write a letter to the editor of my local newspaper? Will I forward this story to my own email lists? How important is it to me that my friends, family, and co-workers be properly informed about what is unfolding in Pittsburgh? What are the most pressing issues in my community that seem impossible to tackle because corporate “rights” are interfering in community self-governance, and would a Pittsburgh-type ordinance make a difference here too? Can I find the time in my busy life to join with others locally to think about this possibility?”
Here’s the full text of the Pittsburgh ordinance. Here’s a link to the other ordinances that so many northeastern rural communities have already passed. You would be pleasantly surprised how easily understandable these model ordinances are. I encourage you to give them a read, and to share them widely.
This country is in one heck of a mess, with huge corporations more and more in total control, at every level of our society. And yet here’s a response to this corporate crisis which really is making a difference – in 120 towns and one big city, so far! The people of these communities are responding to corporate intrusions in a much more potent way than simply begging our elected officials to make the corporations cause a little less harm. They are taking their power back, as citizens. And it’s working! They are a role model to us all. We can help to spread this movement across our nation. Please get involved! Φ
Paul Cienfuegos lectures and gives workshops on dismantling corporate rule. He is the co-founder of Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County (California). For more information, visit PaulCienfuegos.com or contact Cienfuegos at firstname.lastname@example.org.