What Youtube and the Gibson Factory Raid Have to Teach Us About Public Communication on Environmental Issues
Associate Professor/Maître de Conférences
University of Grenoble/Université de Grenoble-Alpes, France
To say that politics has become ‘divisive’ or ‘sectarian’ in recent years is now a truism almost not worth stating any longer. News sources are replete with references to ‘tribalism’ and ‘polarization’; ‘populists’ are pitted against ‘elitists’ and accusations of ‘fake news’ fly in all directions. The result appears to be a society split into two irreconcilable camps which have neither the ability nor the desire to engage the other meaningfully. While these camps share a common interest, particularly when it comes to environmental issues, one reason for the schism are the narratives formulated, often on the same topic, by both sides of an issue. Sometimes one side’s narrative is more effective than the other, and scoring a narrative “win” (whether in line with the facts or not) helps shift public perception in a way that harms environmental goals.
Sometimes the truth driving these narratives is stranger than fiction. Even Simpsons fiction. Remember the Simpsons movie? After Homer dumps a silo full of pig excrement into Lake Springfield, the town turns into an environmental disaster zone. The administrator of the EPA then convinces the president to place a protective dome over the entire town and surround it with federal agents armed with automatic weapons. The confrontation between the American heartland and the EPA is perhaps a more pertinent political allegory than one might have imagined when the film came out in 2007 – just before the election of Barack Obama.
As it turns out, a surprising number of narrative elements from the Simpsons movie can be found in the way the federal government’s raid on the Gibson guitar factor in Nashville was portrayed in populist media outlets. Indeed, the Department of Justice and its partner agencies’ failure to sell their policy to the public created a void that eager propagandists were only too happy to fill—scoring a narrative win. In fact, looking back to 2009, it isn’t difficult to see how public mistrust of the Obama administration could be used by its opponents to foster a more toxic form of discontent that paved the way to the Trump presidency, the appointment of a climate change denier to the head of the EPA, and a mandate to undo Obama-era environmental regulation.
1. The story of the Gibson guitar factory raid.
In 2009, federal agents entered the Gibson guitar factory in Nashville, Tennessee, seizing wood used to make instruments and documents relating to the purchase and importation of that wood. The iconic American instrument maker was accused of violating the Lacey Act, a century-old conservation law originally conceived to protect native game animals and birds from the harmful effects of introducing foreign species which might upset the local ecosystem. In 2008, it was amended to include plant species, including plant products like wood. The law effectively makes illegal the importation of products from countries where the cultivation and/or exportation of those products would violate the home country’s domestic laws. The goal was to combat deforestation in places where enforcement of environmental laws was insufficient. Basically, the US government was attempting to prevent American companies from participating—even indirectly—in deforestation occurring in other parts of the world.
This policy was an interesting mix of political realism and a long-term commitment to combat global warming and loss of biodiversity. The realistic aspect can be seen in the law’s manifest mistrust of foreign governments to enforce their own laws. As the Department of Justice’s official announcement of their settlement with Gibson explains, “Since May 2008, it has been illegal under the Lacey Act to import into the United States plants and plant products (including wood) that have been harvested and exported in violation of the laws of another country.” While some have accused the United States of a kind of jurisdictional imperialism, insofar as the US has basically declared itself competent to enforce laws of other countries, the policy is actually a politically realistic acknowledgment of the fact that governments of countries where exotic tonewoods are produced have historically been prone to permit illegal logging in order to make short-term economic gains.
As it turns out, the wood seized at Gibson’s Nashville factory is a perfect example of exactly the sort of practice Congress was trying to discourage by amending the Lacey Act. The ebony used for guitar fretboards came from Madagascar, a country that has been severely impacted by overharvesting. Malagasy law attempted to limit the amount of trees that could be cut down, but after a military coup in 2009, the local economy took a nosedive and the new government, desperate for tax revenue, decided to allow the sale of ebony again, despite the fact that such practice was in clear violation of their own laws. So when Gibson claimed—correctly—that they had all the paperwork to prove that their purchase had received the blessing of Madagascar’s government, the Lacey Act’s provision for US enforcement of foreign laws kicked in and Gibson was held responsible for violating a law that the local government refused to enforce.
So why was the US Congress so eager to protect forests in other countries? In fact, the 2008 amendment’s goal is to fight global warming by denying such governments the economic incentive to pillage their own forests. Again, as the DOJ explains, “Congress extended the protections of the Lacey Act, the nation’s oldest resource protection law, to these products in an effort to address the environmental and economic impact of illegal logging around the world.” While global warming is not explicitly mentioned in the DOJ’s announcement, this is within the sphere of “environmental impact” to which they refer. Indeed, according to Scientific American, “By most accounts, deforestation in tropical rainforests adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the sum total of cars and trucks on the world’s roads.” Thus, the 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act makes the connection between irresponsible policy in Africa and instrument making in Tennessee.
This connection may seem somewhat far-fetched or at least difficult to establish and one could imagine the purchasers of wood arguing that they should not have to carry the burden of tracing the source of all their materials back through the entire chain of distribution to the actual source of the trees that produced them, but that is exactly what the law requires. At the same time, awareness of what is at stake in the logging industry is widespread among instrument makers. Gibson’s main competitors have gone so far as to undertake publicity campaigns explaining their practices in terms of responsible use of natural resources (see, for example, a statement by Taylor Guitar, or more recently, Martin Guitar’s joining up with the Rainforest Alliance). Moreover, the DOJ has documented with great detail how a representative of Gibson traveled to Madagascar, was told about the legal constraints involved with buying wood locally, was shown the ebony in question and was told specifically that it would be illegal to purchase it, went home to the United States and informed his superiors, and nevertheless that wood ended up in the Nashville factory.
It was therefore not surprising that Gibson quickly came to an agreement with the Department of Justice in order to avoid the cost of going to trial with very little prospect of winning. According to the terms of the agreement, they would pay $350,000 in fines and relinquish their claims to the wood. To put the severity of the punishment into context, despite the fact that the company has since gone into bankruptcy, their annual earnings in the years following the factory raid fluctuated around $2 billion. That is to say, the fine represented about 0.02% of their annual earnings at that time.
So from a legal point of view, the story is one of a company that sought to avoid complying with federal regulations designed to protect the environment but failed; they were given a slap on the wrist and required to host events aimed at increasing awareness of issues related to forest preservation. They continued making their iconic instruments in America and the government moved on to other cases. It would seem like a clear win for the feds and for the environment. But that is now how it played out in the conservative media.
2. The story of the story of the Gibson guitar factory raid.
At the time of this writing, in 2018, that is, nearly a decade after the events that happened in Nashville, a Google search of the Gibson factory raid will churn up a range of sources claiming to relate what happened, a clear majority of which portray the raid as an aberration of justice and a prime example of governmental overreach. Without even clicking on the links, we read expressions such as, “abuse-of-power scandal from President Obama’s first term,” “Government run amok,” or how “lumber union protectionists incited [a] SWAT raid” on the factory (about which more later). Evidently, the story of what happened has captivated the public mind, but the most popular narrative is not about how the company deliberately tried to benefit from the fragile political situation in a developing country in order to pillage its forest to obtain cheap material for producing products sold primarily in the West; on the contrary, the narrative which has grown out of the events is one of the federal government using phony claims about climate change as an excuse to punish American companies for employing American workers.
This is precisely what then Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz claimed: “It has nothing to do with conservation and it had nothing to do with how scarce or not scarce the rosewood or ebony is. It has to do with jobs.” According to Juszkiewicz’s argument, had the ebony been shaped into fingerboards in Madagascar, Gibson would not have been subject to regulation under the Lacey Act. Therefore, he reasons, the point of the DOJ’s intervention was to encourage American companies to outsource their work to foreign countries. Obama, in other words, was trying to promote employment in Africa at the expense of workers in the United States.
But spending a few hours rummaging around the internet reveals that Juszkiewicz’s position is actually one of the more reasoned and moderate ones. For example, two years after the fact, one Youtuber opined, “Gibson raided by the Feds. This is a little extreme. What happened to our liberties. I produced this video in response to our out of control tyrannic government. We are now at a all time Historical low. Police state and the disrespect to our Republic, Constitution and the will of the people.” This sort of sentiment is typical of web-based conversations on the topic. Clearly, the story has been integrated into a larger American narrative of anarchism and resistance to tyranny, which has deep historical roots going back through Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and the Declaration of Independence to religious dissidence in the 17th century. In other words, the story line of the honest little guy fighting against the big, oppressive government is always looming in the background in America, ready to be used as the interpretive prism for any events that seem to lend themselves to that sort of reading. Importantly, the emotional intensity of the meta narrative is high, as is the perceived proximity of the threat: if the feds can show up unannounced in Nashville, the argument goes, maybe your town is next. By contrast, the alternative interpretation of the same events offered by the government lacks pungency: “We target corporations and individuals who are removing protected species from the wild and making a profit by trafficking in them.”
This, at any rate, is the impression one gets from examining the sources readily available on the internet. Measuring the actual impact of this unruly mass of discourse is another matter. In order to gain a degree of control over the data available, I decided to examine only videos available on Youtube and try to see what proportion of language produced was dedicated to which narrative. The idea was to provide a quantitative basis for analyzing what John Wargo, professor of environmental law at Yale, has called “narrative advantage.” I take this to mean that various narratives are in competition to win over the public to their side.
Advantage is achieved when one narrative is more believable and in fact more believed than another. This may not, and in this case it does not, correspond to factual reality. The main point is for the listener or viewer to be able to see herself as part of the story. Therefore, the main question for the recipient of discourse is, ‘Where do I fit in?’ It is my contention that the logic-based discourse of the various governmental agencies involved in the Gibson case—the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Agriculture, in addition to the US Fish and Wildlife Service—failed to provide viable points of entry into the narrative that would have allowed the public to see the relevance of the government’s action in a positive way.
At the time of this study, there were a total of 49 videos dedicated to this case on Youtube, 46 of which support the narrative of ‘government overreach,’ the rest being relatively neutral and none actually defending the actions of the government. Looking at the actual sources of information, two in particular account for nearly half the overall number of views: Fox News and Alex Jones’ Info Wars. (See graph).
Meanwhile, Henry Juszkiewicz is interviewed on over half of the available videos (25), so that the development of the ‘Gibson as victim of government overreach’ narrative was a joint effort on the part of the company and a complicit media. (Juszkiewicz was also invited by Senator Rand Paul to testify in the US Senate.)
Running through all the partisan reporting of the case is a common story line. A typical report begins with a portrait of Gibson’s most famous guitars (the Les Paul or SG) and a quick listing of some of the most famous musicians who have played them (Paul McCartney or B.B. King). Next, the camera turns to the factory workers, a group comprised of people of different races and sexes—an idyllic image of the American workforce diligently going about its business. At this point, the company’s CEO describes how one day armed federal agents made a surprise appearance, shutting down the factory and proceeding to search the premises. The journalist then announces dramatically that the object of the investigation is neither drugs nor terrorism but (after a dramatic pause)…wood. The camera then returns to Juszkiewicz who expresses his innocent shock and the report concludes that the government has indeed gone awry, leaving the viewer with the impression that there must be some hidden motive for such a disproportionate use of force.
The sources diverge in identifying what the hidden agenda really is, though the suggestion that Juszkiewicz’s being a Republican donor is frequently evoked as a likely reason for having been targeted when other companies that use the ‘same wood’ were not. Indeed, the Gibson CEO offers three main arguments for his innocence. First, he says, Gibson has always used the same wood, so why now? Second, other companies use the same kind of wood, so why us? And third, Gibson has documents proving that the Madagasy government authorized the sale, so how can it be illegal? The point, of course, is to imply that the enforcement of the Lacey Act’s 2008 amendment was a kind of subterfuge to catch the innocent company off guard.
Juszkiewicz is careful to leave the remainder of the narrative development to the media, who then proceed to dramatize the events and imbue them with anti-tyrannical ideology. A simple survey of the titles of the reports is insightful and six thematic categories emerge: government overreach (“Government run amok—Gibson Guitar factory raid,” “Runaway Government—The Spectacle of Homeland Security’s Raid on Gibson Guitar,” “Gibson Guitars Raided by SWAT Team: Gov’t Gone Wild”), incomprehension (“Ted Nugent On Gibson Raids: “Illogical, Anti-American, and Contrary to Claims of Creating Jobs,” “Gibson Guitar Raid Unnecessary,” “Gibson Guitars raid madness”), the shocked public (“Tea Partiers Outraged by Gibson Raid,” “Public Reacts to Feds Raid on Gibson Guitars,” “The Lacey Act Declarations Form! Are you kidding me?”), violence (“FED ATTACKS GIBSON,” “Gibson Guitar Company ‘Attacked’ by FEDs,” “Stringing Up Gibson Guitar by Rand Paul”), illegality of government action (“Overcriminalization in America: Tuning out Justice,” “Judge Napolitano Slams DOJ Over Gibson Guitar Raid: ‘Unjustifiable, Use Of Force Was Criminal’,” “Gibson Guitar-Legal Extortion,” “Green Police Mafia Raid Gibson Guitars”), and finally the ‘real’ motive (“Still no charges months after armed raid on Gibson Guitars,” “Blackburn: President Obama Should Come Clean on Gibson Guitar Raid,” “Was Gibson Guitars Also Targeted by the IRS?,” “Gibson Guitar Raids—Another Case Of Unfair Targeting By Obama Admin?,” “Obama’s Gestapo Raids Gibson Guitars for Being a Republican Donor”).
To better comprehend how the ‘tyrannical government’ theme is developed linguistically, I constituted a corpus of some 55,000 words, the total content of the transcripts of all the videos. Then, using the Brown corpus as a reference and Antconc software as the analytical tool, word frequencies and their relative importance (keyness) were discerned. One of the most significant semantic fields that is revealed is that of military operations. For example, the adjective-noun-verb combination of “federal” (103 occurrences) / “raid” (92) / “target” [as verb] (26) clearly conveys the notion of a military operation being carried out in a civilian context. Here we are dealing with hyperbole, for in some sense the inspection did constitute a raid that was indeed carried out by federal agents. However, this narrative element is then reinforced by the use of “semiautomatic” or “automatic weapons” (14 occurences) and “bulletproof vests” (37)—not to mention isolated occurrences of “jackbooted,” “at the barrel of a gun,” “Nazi” and “Stalin”! At this stage, we have passed into the domain of fiction. Equally inappropriate from a strictly factual point of is the use of the term “SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) team” (37 occurrences).
One indication of degree to which viewers are predisposed to believe such a story can be found in the fact that many of the same sources that promote the SWAT team narrative also provide photographs of the actual event, in which three or four average people wearing khaki pants or jeans and polo style shirts are seen to be carrying clipboards and bubble wrap and taking photos—hardly a group of hardened soldiers advancing in formation. (See photos.)
But if the effectiveness of such narrative construction needed further proof, nothing would be more convincing than Gibson’s issuing of a commemorate instrument to immortalize the tragic events and cash in on its popularity. The “Government Series II” Les Paul guitar sells for a little over a thousand dollars and was designed to celebrate “an Infamous Moment in Gibson History.” (See photo.)
On a certain level, of course, one can hardly blame Gibson for making the best of a difficult situation, both in terms of media coverage and sales opportunities. And as far as the Department of Justice goes, one could also argue that they successfully performed their role as law enforcers and that it simply is not their vocation to inform the public of the well-founded ecological basis of the laws they are tasked to enforce. Nevertheless, the result in this case is that having won the legal battle, they seem to have lost the public opinion war. The question then arises as to whether it may be necessary for proponents of laws like the Lacey Act to address the public awareness dimension of the situation in addition to the strictly legal one.
To return to the phenomenon of populism that was referred to at the beginning, the communication gap seen here between the federal agencies and the conservative media is easy enough to recognize and write off as not the responsibility of the government to sell, but the result of this situation can no longer be said to be without consequences for the legal community. As mentioned previously, the poor image of the EPA in pro-Trump milieus has certainly lent credence to the decision to dismantle the administration from within by nominating an avowed anti-environmentalist as its head. And given the impact of linguistic practices on achieving narrative advantage, it is no coincidence that since Mr. Pruitt’s arrival, the use of fact-based expressions such as ‘climate change’ has been suppressed in official communication in favor of more vague terminology. So if the EPA under Obama failed to convince the public of the need to discourage companies from taking part in processes that lead to deforestation, for instance, what can be expected of the Trump era EPA? Obviously, someone should bridge the communication gap. Maybe it’s up to us.