During Record Heatwave NYT, WaPo, Atlantic Run 28 Stories on “Cancel Culture,” Zero on Over Heating Crisis in US Prisons
A lesson in how elite media registers harm.
Which harms our media focuses on and which it ignores is a window into the class interests of not just who makes up a publication, but who the publication serves and what ideological ends it works towards. The atomic unit of propaganda, as we’ve said on Citations Needed dozens of times, isn’t lies but emphasis—what we are told matters and why.
Every now then, therefore, it’s useful to do a comparative analysis of those priorities. As North America saw record temperatures over the past few weeks, climate change increasingly becomes an acute and urgent human rights disaster in the U.S. carceral state, which imprisons more than 2 million people. How rising temperatures affect our most vulnerable populations, including those behind bars, is objectively an important news story.
Activists have been sounding the alarm on the unfolding humanitarian crisis for some time, with cries to do something to solve the cruel and unusual form of punishment ramping up in prisons and jails. In Texas, where summer heat indexes grow more staggering as climate change progresses, the department of criminal justice told Truthout reporter Victoria Law that it does not provide air conditioning to female segregation units. Diana, who is being held in one of the woman's prisons, wrote to Truthout, "I am melting!" Alleen Brown reported for The Intercept in February that nine out of 10 of carceral facilities in Texas alone are “in places with more than 50 days a year of 90-plus-degree heat indexes.”
The problem extends beyond Texas. The Prison Policy Initiative warned in 2019:
“The lack of air conditioning in Southern prisons creates unsafe—even lethal—conditions. Prolonged exposure to extreme heat can cause dehydration and heat stroke, both of which can be fatal. It can also affect people’s kidneys, liver, heart, brain, and lungs, which can lead to renal failure, heart attack, and stroke.
Many people in prison are especially susceptible to heat-related illness, as they have certain health conditions or medications that make them especially vulnerable to the heat. Conditions such as diabetes and obesity can limit people’s ability to regulate their body heat, as can high blood pressure medications and most psychotropic medications (including Zoloft, Lexapro, Prozac, Cymbalta, and more but excluding the benzodiazepines). Old age also increases risk of heat-related illness, and respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, such as asthma, are exacerbated by heat.
According to The Marshall Project, 85 percent of Florida prisons have no air conditioning. A new report by the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center at Texas A&M notes that 70 percent of Texas prisons do not have sufficient air conditioning, and “temperatures inside units have been shown to regularly reach 110 degrees and in at least one unit have topped 149 degrees.” Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia have no law requiring air conditioning in their prisons.
Given the massive human suffering and high moral stakes, clearly this issue has been a priority to our most influential center-left media?
Alas, it has not. Since the heatwave—indeed, since the beginning of summer starting on May 1—The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Atlantic have all ignored the topic entirely, not dedicating a single op-ed, column or report to the subject.
By comparison, during this time frame, these three outlets have published 28 op-ed, columns, or reports lamenting or detailing the harms of so-called “cancel culture” in the media and academia. Our count, which can be seen here, includes straight reporting on high-profile campus firings and “free speech” stories and opinion pieces deemed sympathetic to those subject to “cancel culture,” but does not include opinion pieces critical of the concept. Our search found 8 articles or columns we indexed as covering “cancel culture” in The Atlantic, 13 in The Washington Post and 7 in The New York Times.
The resignation of Georgetown Law professor Ilya Shapiro after he posted a racist tweet aimed at Ketanji Brown Jackson (the University did not fire him; it ultimately ruled in his favor) solicited the plurality of “cancel culture” coverage. The Atlantic ran an 1,800-word column by David Frum defending Shapiro. It also ran a 2,400-word piece by columnist Conor Friedersdorf lamenting the “inquisition” against Shapiro. The Washington Post published two columns defending him, and The New York Times ran a sympathetic 1,500 word profile of Shaprio, including the obligatory longingly staring out the window photo spread. In total, The Atlantic and Washington Post dedicated over 6,000 words in their opinion pages explicitly to defending Ilya Shapiro.
Needless to say, no such glossy profiles of suffering prisoners or high-profile debates about how Congress or state lawmakers can fight for their basic humanity took place in the pages of elite liberal outlets.
To be fair to these liberal publications, it’s not totally clear which is a greater moral crime: a high status law professor unilaterally resigning over people being mean to him, or hundreds of thousands of people being forced to live in scorching degree heat 24 hours a day for weeks at a time.
These same publications also failed to publish a single piece during this time period discussing the total lack of free speech those inside our prisons suffer from. Their outcoming and incoming mail, writing, and reading is routinely censored, thrown away, or put on a blacklist. For journalists, communicating with those inside our jails and prisons is notoriously difficult, involving—in addition to routine censorship—weeks in delays, and retaliation for whistleblowers. This assault on free speech never registers in any of the debates around “cancel culture.”
The Atlantic magazine received $300,000 form The Charles Koch Foundation in 2018 to start a so-called “Speech Wars” vertical that was set up to “understand where free speech is in danger and where it has been abused.” It ran from March 2018 to October 2019 and, in that time, over 100 articles, the muzzling of incarcerated people’s “free speech” was never covered. So one can assume, institutionally, this isn’t really a working definition editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg cares much about. The Atlantic did find space this month to give a column to “Broken Windows” architect and former NYPD commissioner William Bratton to try and convince liberals cities need more police and longer sentences to “fight crime”.
But such are the editorial priorities of elite center-left media in the United States. Issues of “academic freedom” and vague mores around what can and can’t be said by professional word writers are central to their personal social networks and the class interests of who owns and funds them. The physical, real, manifest torture of hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people—and our carceral state more broadly—is more often than not factored in, seen as a cost of doing business, Simply The Way Things Are, and thus not something that ought to elicit outrage, much less media scrutiny..