Lies, “dam” lies, parasites and JournoLists

San Francisco has long been known for its exquisite tap water.  Yup, I know that sounds silly, but it’s true.  Back in 1923, San Francisco got the right to build a dam in what was once known as Hetch Hetchy Valley, near Yosemite.  That clear Sierra water has been flowing into San Francisco ever since.  It’s so pure that it doesn’t even need to be filtered.  All that’s required to make it potable is to treat it with lime and chlorine.

An environmental group, however, is still mourning the long-lost Hetch Hetchy Valley, and is agitating for the dam to be removed, with a new water supply built somewhere else:

Restore Hetch Hetchy, as its name suggests, aims to return that valley to its natural state by demolishing the dam and releasing the billions of gallons of water that lie behind it. Since San Francisco receives about 85 percent of its water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir system, the group argues for storing water in another spot downstream, such as Don Pedro Reservoir.

Aside from disrupting a perfectly sound water supply, this is a very, very expensive idea.  First, there’s the cost of the new dam:

Storing the river water at another location would mean building a large-scale filtration system, a project estimated to cost $310 million to $515 million, according to a 2006 Hetch Hetchy restoration study by the state.

Second, there’s the cost of restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley, buried under water for almost 90 years:

Whereas Restore Hetch Hetchy figures the restoration would cost about $1 billion, the state report by the Department of Water Resources said it would cost between $3 billion and $10 billion.

I don’t know about you, but during a deep budget crisis, it seems insanely stupid to me to interfere with a perfectly good water system, at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, so that billions of dollars can be spent to re-create a long forgotten Valley.

The Restore Hetch Hetchy (“RHH”) people apparently recognize this same stupidity, because they’ve decided to re-cast the whole argument as a public health issue.  They claim that Hetch Hetchy’s water isn’t pure at all, but is the source of a San Francisco-sized epidemic of giardia and cryptosporidium.  If you’re not familiar with those words, giardia and cryptosporidium are two nasty little parasites that leave people with diarrhea and other abdominal symptoms. The RHH squad, to advance this argument, points out (correctly) that San Francisco has unusually high (although scarcely epidemic) rates of giardia and cryptosporidium.

I actually know a little, a very little about giardia, because a dear friend of mine had it. But he wasn’t any dear friend. This was back in the early 1990s, and he was a dear friend who was also a gay man dying of AIDS. In addition to the Karposi’s sarcoma that plagued him, and the horrible pedunculated lesions that painfully decorated the soles of his feet, he also almost died from giardia. What would have been an unpleasant case of diarrhea for other people (assuming it had even taken hold in their immunity-rich guts) was a near fatal problem for him. He told me he probably got the giardia up in Tahoe, where the once clean Sierra waters, as a result of over-population and less than hygienic hikers, were rife with the bacteria.  I accepted that story as true back then.  Being a little more sophisticated now, I suspect that some of his sexual practices might also have been a source of his illness.

My friend’s tragic story actually ties in with the whole expensive environmental boondoggle the RHH is now proposing.  You see, the City argues, convincingly to me, that the problem in San Francisco lies not with the clear Sierra water, but with an unusually vulnerable population that also happens to engage in practices even more unsafe than drinking tap water:

Three factors are behind the elevated rates, city health experts say: San Francisco’s strong disease-surveillance program, broad access to health care, and a relatively high population of people with suppressed immune systems – specifically, gay men with HIV/AIDS.

“This is not a drinking water problem,” said June Weintraub, senior epidemiologist with the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “San Francisco is off the charts” with other sexually transmitted diseases and those common among people with compromised immune systems.

Rod Adam, a giardia expert at the infectious disease department at the University of Arizona, concurs. Adam said the prevalence of the disease in men between the ages of 25 and 54, according to the city’s 2008 annual report on communicable diseases, hints that giardiasis is being passed from partner to partner in the gay community.

“It really does suggest a lot of this could be sexual transmission,” he said.

Mark Cloutier, former executive director of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, isn’t convinced the problem lies in San Francisco’s water supply, either. But he believes the issue needs more scrutiny.

“If the rates are higher in San Francisco, we have to look at what makes San Francisco different,” he said. “There needs to be more analysis.”

This Hetch Hetchy story is a perfect example of the dishonesty that so often permeates modern advocacy.  I hate that.  As a long-time lawyer, I’ve spent my career advocating my client’s positions.  But I’ve always done so honestly.  I’ve never perverted either the facts or the law.  Aside from my being an inherently honest person (my parents raised me right), our adversary legal system also ensures that I don’t cheat.  If I do decide to lie or conceal, my opponent, if he’s any good at all, will be all over me for having done so.   My job, as an advocate, is to take the facts and the law and work them into the best argument possible.

In the case of this Hetch Hetchy story, the San Francisco Chronicle did a decent job of pointing out the opposing arguments.  Assuming as I do that the story is reported correctly (and I’m helped by knowing about Hetch Hetchy, and by knowing about gay man, AIDS, and giardia), the Chron allowed one side to tell its story, and then allowed the other side, the opposition, to take it to task for its dishonesty.  This was a good “fact” story, one that fell pretty neatly into the traditional journalism category.

What happens, though, when the journalists cease reporting and start advocating — and, worse, when they use dishonest arguments to advance their position?  It’s a recipe for disinformation on Pravda-esque levels.  That’s why this JournoList story is so deeply upsetting.  A group of people who advertised themselves as fact purveyors were, in fact, engaging, not only in advocacy, but in dishonest advocacy.  They were lying about who they were, they were engaging in myriad falsehoods through omission, and they were actively contemplating affirmative lies to advance an agenda they publicly denied having.

Further, because these covert advocates controlled the primary instruments of communication during an election, no opposing point of view made its way through to their audience.  Sure, we in the blogosphere knew what was going on.  The problem is that we’re still a minority.  People who are not internet news junkies, but who actually thought the the New York Times reported, not just “all the news that’s fit to print,” but also all the honest, non-advocacy news that’s fit to print, accepted these ostensibly factual “news” stories as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

What’s just as disturbing is that, two years out from a year in which the media ran one of the most dishonest election campaigns ever, nothing has changed.  A media that advertises itself to America as reporting “just the facts,” ignored the New Black Panther story, lied about alleged racism in the Tea Parties and, amusingly, to date has still not managed to report about the JournoList story.

All of which proves, I guess, that there are lies, “dam” lies, and JournoLists.