A New York Times‘s (NYT) journalist’s abhorrent tweet on Hawaii’s devastating wildfires is exactly what you should expect from an elite corporate outlet that has shilled for the fossil fuel industry.
Since Tuesday 8 August, a deadly wildfire has ripped through a Hawaiian town. So far, the blaze has killed nearly a hundred people in Lahaina on the island of Maui. According to official estimates, the fire damaged or destroyed more than 2,200 structures. The Hawaii wildfire has wreaked $5.5bn in damage and left thousands homeless.
Naturally, then, NYT journalist Kellen Browning tweeted about a white settler’s reunion with her Rolex watch:
On Friday, Elicia Stratton searched desperately through the wreckage of her Lahaina home for the Rolex watch her parents gave her when she graduated college.
Suddenly, her fiancé pulled it from the ashes. “You found it!” she said, choking up. It was damaged but still legible. pic.twitter.com/cM5hnzKD8Y
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— Kellen Browning (@Kellen_Browning) August 12, 2023
Contempt for the lost lives of Indigenous in Hawaii wildfires
Just as sickening was the NYT roundup article which described a condo resident’s:
“unreal” discovery of her diamond earrings among the twisted wreck of her Peloton bike and other belongings
The coverage exposed the corporate media’s contempt for the lives of occupied Indigenous communities. Needless to say, the good folks of Twitter rightly called out Browning and the outlet’s tasteless reporting.
National director of the Green New Deal Network and former member of the Hawaii House of Representatives, Kaniela Ing, had strong words for the tweet. He expressed his fury that Browning had platformed this story, while Hawaiian Indigenous bodies were in the rubble:
There are Kānaka Maoli bodies in that wreckage. How dare you post this https://t.co/qtRUStVw3O
— Kaniela Ing (@KanielaIng) August 12, 2023
Educator Dr Tee Kay also highlighted the horrific juxtaposition of the Rolex and the current death toll and the displacement of Indigenous Hawaiians. She sarcastically suggested that the NYT was staging a shameful photo op:
They say in the harshest of times we get to see people's true colors.@nytimes 80 confirmed dead, 1000s of Native Hawaiians displaced & an obviously staged photo to promote ROLEX is what's important? #MauiFires
— Dr. Tee Kay (@bey_category) August 12, 2023
Kay has a point when the NYT regularly prints ‘paid for’ content for Rolex. The outlet has also opined on everything from the non-story that is a vintage Rolex collector’s hoard to US president Joe Biden’s sporting a Rolex in what it described as a “prevailing presidential tradition”.
Given that the NYT is dominated by graduates from elite universities, its obsession with a symbol of capitalist wealth and power should come as no surprise.
Barbie-model Rolex-wearing elite
countless promotions for different liquor brands
Apparently, she has even featured as a “barbie-look-a-like” for Mattel. Given that Rolex watches retail for many thousands of dollars, her ‘graduation gift’ puts Stratton’s privileged background on full display.
PhD behavioral scientist Caroline orr Bueno shrewdly pointed out that the coverage of Stratton underscored how disasters exposed and exarcerbated inequality:
People always want to frame disasters like the Hawaii fires as some sort of great equalizer — ie, that the richest residents are affected just the same as everyone else — but they’re the opposite. They actually lay bare the stark inequalities that we try so hard not to see. https://t.co/BJQyDIitLU
— Caroline Orr Bueno, Ph.D (@RVAwonk) August 13, 2023
In other words, the Rolex-wearing Barbie model elite can bounce back from disasters. Meanwhile, marginalised Indigenous Hawaiians will suffer the worst long-term impacts of Lahaina’s destruction of their irreplaceable cultural community heritage.
Industry of colonial and environmental destruction
Co-chair of anti-imperialist coalition the National Network on Cuba, Calla Walsh, also pointed out that Elicia Stratton works for an industry that has itself caused environmental damage to the islands:
It’s great the NYT is covering the most important stories about the Maui fires, like the story of this settler tragically lost her Rolex watch!
Really important we center stories of ppl like her who work for luxury resorts responsible for the environmental destruction of Hawaii! https://t.co/rHAJIuCL5x
— Calla (@CallaWalsh) August 12, 2023
Moreover, the tourism industry is also a modern vehicle of Indigenous dispossession and white settler colonialism. In 2010, Hawaiian Indigenous activist Haunani-Kay Trask penned an article for Indigenous rights organisation Cultural Survival. Trask called out colonisation of the island for tourism, stating that:
In Hawai’i, the destruction of our land and the prostitution of our culture is planned and executed by multi-national corporations, by huge landowners, and by collaborationist state and county governments.
Former Rhode Island senator Cynthia Mendes hammered home how the reporting illustrated the ties between colonisation and capitalism:
Colonization is saturated in every aspect of capitalism. And when a crisis happens it is revealed who and what matters.
Indigenous people, land, ecology, community, and history have been devastated in #Maui.
And this is the @nytimes story. https://t.co/KS1LJCt8e2
— Cynthia Mendes (@Cynthia_Mendes_) August 12, 2023
Ing has also argued that recognising the role of colonialism in the current disaster is crucial. Speaking to climate journalist Emily Atkin, he highlighted how prior to colonisation and the impacts of the climate crisis, Lahaina was in fact a wetland.
He noted how in the 18th century European, “sugar barons” destroyed the “wet and lush” region. Moreover, he told Atkin that the two largest landowners on Maui are descendants of these 18th-century plantation owners. Past and present colonial occupation of the island has therefore played a considerable role in these devastating fires.
A climate-fueled disaster
Others highlighted the connection between the wildfires and climate crisis. For example, former Democrat presidential candidate and senator Bernie Sanders amplified Hawaii’s governor Josh Green’s statement. Green said that the Hawaii wildfires showed how the climate crisis had arrived:
Hawaii Governor Green is right; “Climate change is here, and it’s affecting the islands.” Together, we must fight for bold action to combat this global crisis.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) August 11, 2023
The wildfires were worsened by the 45 mph winds of Hurricane Dora in the Pacific Ocean.
As the Canary has previously reported, the climate crisis is exacerbating the intensity and frequency of deadly extreme weather events. In June, the climate crisis “supercharged” heatwaves and wildfires across the US and Canada. As the Canary’s Glen Black reported in July, Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis stated that the climate crisis was responsible for the recent similarly devastating wildfires in Greece.
Fossil fuel-funded media shills
Of course, the NYT article’s one reference to the climate crisis drew no connection between it and the deadly blaze. Unsurprising then that it also failed to mention the fossil fuel industry’s role in fanning the flames of the climate crisis.
However, this should come as no surprise given that the NYT has long been a fossil fuel industry media lapdog. As US journalist Amy Westervelt has detailed, big US news organisations including the NYT have:
pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, and organizations such as the American Petroleum Institute to create the companies’ advertorials.
“Advertorials” refer to articles that companies have paid for journalists to write and publish. Scholars Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes have documented the long-term advertorial campaign of oil majors to delay meaningful action on the climate crisis. Crucially, the NYT played a central role in the fossil fuel companies’ muddying of science.
advertising helps support our newsroom, which covers the issue and impacts of climate change more than any other in the U.S.
Yet it’s hard not to note this conflict of interest in the context of its reporting on the climate-fueled wildfires in Hawaii.
In the wake of a climate-fueled disaster, is it any wonder that the NYT centred the stories of rich white settlers and their expensive possessions? The erasure of Indigenous lives is par for the course for an outlet that continues to shill for fossil capital, a system rooted in and remains at the forefront of colonialism. Nonetheless, corporate media has long been complicit. And if its latest reporting is anything to go by, nothing’s changing.
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse.
Feature image via Master Sgt. Andrew Jackson/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, image in the public domainSupport us and go ad-free
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