Boston Marathon Bombing Was Plagued By Media Irresponsibility

Published: mic (April 20, 2013)

Now that the world knows that the Boston Marathon bombers were Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, let’s take a moment to reflect on who was NOT responsible.

It wasn’t that Saudi Arabian guy who was blamed on the first day. It wasn’t the tall skinny guy in the blue shirt whose picture was plastered all over the New York Post, nor was it his friend. Most important of all, it wasn’t every single Muslim in America.

I make the first two observations because, in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist act, media organizations irresponsibly jumped on any fragment of a hint they could find as to the perpetrator’s identity. As a result, several innocent men were pre-emptively identified as possible suspects by the media before full information had been provided.

Since these men have suffered enough by having their names and/or faces dragged through the mud, I’m not going to continue their sufferng by citing their personal information here. Likewise, in order to avoid rewarding the news organizations which libelled them, I refuse to include links to the websites which pointed the finger at these men, since I don’t want to increase their hits. Instead I’m going to share this quote from Richard Jewell, a security guard at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta who was likewise wrongly blamed by the media for an instance of sporting event terrorism:

“The heroes are soon forgotten. The villains last a lifetime. I dare say more people know I was called a suspect than know I was the one who found the package and know I was cleared.”

One would think that, after ruining an innocent man’s life 17 years ago, the media would be especially diligent in practicing morally responsibility today. Unfortunately, that notion would be based on two erroneous assumptions: That the media is morally responsible in the first place and that the media is willing to learn from its mistakes.

Assuming that there is any faint hope of the latter occurring, however and I am just quixotic enough to swing at the windmills on this one I will arrive at the final point made in my earlier paragraph:

If the media wants to walk away from this ordeal with even a semblance of its ethical character intact, it will emphasize as often as possible that the vast majority of Muslims had absolutely nothing to do with, and have no sympathy for, this terrorist act.

Already message board comments are popping up everywhere that revert to the hoary old Islamophobic claims that have become especially prevalent since September 11. Ignoring how each of the last three national mass murders were perpetrated by white males (a white supremacist shooting up the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin and two lone nuts doing so at the movie theater in Colorado and the elementary school in Connecticut), these individuals risk creating a climate in which discriminatory attitudes toward Muslims endanger our society’s pluralistic fabric, one that is absolutely vital to the maintenance of American ideals.

While it is unlikely that the media will be able to persuade outright bigots, it does have the opportunity to dispel anti-Muslim attitudes that may be brewing among those who have not yet made up their minds. This is the last opportunity they have to do something right during a situation that has cast members of their vocation in a distinctly unflattering light. Until then, the world will have to look back wistfully at the time when a man like Thomas Jefferson could honestly say, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Pennsylvania Desperately Needs Rick Santorum Right Now

Published: mic (April 15, 2013)

Here are eight words that I doubt have ever come from the pen of a liberal columnist:

“Where is Rick Santorum when we need him?”

This thought comes to mind as soon as one looks at PA HB683, a new bill introduced in Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania that would outlaw whistleblowing on factory farm cruelty. Sponsored by Representative Gary Haluska (D-Cambria) as a companion to a similar measure proposed by Senator Michael Brubaker (R-Lancaster), the potential new law is careful to include every conceivable scenario in which a concerned citizen, journalist, or employee could record and publicize animal abuse on agricultural operations — and then criminalizes such actions, placing them under the same title of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes that covers “arson, criminal mischief, and other property destruction.”

The Keystone State is hardly alone in the movement to clamp down on free speech. As Big Agribusiness becomes increasingly concerned that public backlash against its inhumane treatment of livestock will ultimately result in government regulations, it has thrown its immense clout behind so-called “ag-gag” bills all over the nation. Anti-whistleblower laws have already been codified in Iowa and Utah, while similar statutes have been introduced in Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Vermont. While the particulars of these measures vary from state to state, all of them make it illegal to take a photograph or video of a factory farm without permission, obtain work on a factory farm for the purpose of investigating malpractice, or report potential abuses without abiding by unrealistically short timelines.The ultimate goal is clear — to make it practically impossible for the profits of Big Agribusiness to be compromised by unflattering public exposure. Had laws like these already been in place, the Tennessee horse breeding company Whittier Stables would never have faced legal trouble for burning the ankles of its show horses to “improve” their gait; Sparboe Farms, one of America’s largest egg suppliers (including to McDonald’s), wouldn’t have had the world discover its practice of leaving rotting bird corpses in the same cages as its live hens and snapping off the beaks of chicks; and Wyoming Premium Farms, a meat supplier to Tyson Foods, would have avoided the firestorm that erupted when its employees were taped punching and kicking pigs and flinging piglets into the air. Needless to say, businesses that are capable of allowing and/or encouraging such conduct have an undeniable interest in clamping down on efforts to shed light on these types of incidents.

That said, even people who are indifferent to the cause of animal rights should be concerned about these bills. The past few decades have seen an unprecedented growth in the power of Big Agribusiness, with corporations like Monsanto flouting antitrust laws (to say nothing of Jeffersonian ideals) in ways that push family farms out of business and endangering public health through their use of genetically modified organisms and dangerous chemicals and pesticides. Indeed, President Obama himself continued this trend last month when he signed into law HR 933, a bill that protects large biotech agricultural corporations from litigation. With the new “ag-gag” bills, however, Big Agribusiness is finding ways to inure itself even to the stipulations of the Constitution, which — for those who need reminding — declares in the First Amendment that government shall in no way abridge “freedom of speech, or of the press.” These laws are symptomatic of the ominous national trend of Big Agribusiness gaining too much power in this country, to the point that seemingly common sense approaches toward controlling them suddenly become front-and-center political issues.

This brings us back to Rick Santorum. As Republican voters learned to their surprise during last year’s presidential election, Santorum developed a reputation in the Senate as a staunch proponent of animal rights, from fighting to end (and, when that failed, regulate) puppy mills and working to establish a “three strikes” system for violators of the Animal Welfare Act to voting for the defunding of inspections of facilities that butchered horses, de facto eliminating horse slaughtering altogether. As he explained when confronted about his views, “I am a pet owner who believes they (animals) should be treated humanely, not someone who ties them to the top of a car.” After dispensing with his obligatory swipe at Mitt Romney, Santorum then elaborated that he had “always believed that a commitment to the humane treatment of animals must be balanced with strong protections for licensed small animal breeders and large animal agriculture operators who function ethically to do so without onerous and unreasonable government regulations.”

The key phrase in that sentence is “who function ethically.” After all, one doesn’t need to support large-scale regulation of our farming sector (to say nothing of the excesses of outright state control) in order to believe that stronger protections for animal rights should be implemented. If these companies were willing to behave ethically, there wouldn’t be any need for journalists and whistleblowers to shame them for engaging in animal cruelty. Unfortunately, the very fact that Big Agribusiness wishes to suppress public information about their activities is proof that unethical practices are rampant within the industry today. This is all the more reason why we need to stand behind the First Amendment rights of those who have fought to spread truth so far — and why animal rights supporters everywhere can lament, perhaps to their surprise, that Rick Santorum isn’t here when we need him.

Justin Bieber’s Anne Frank House Controversy: In Defense of Stupidity

Published: mic (April 15, 2013)

Let me get three things off my chest before I start this article:

1. I have absolutely no opinion whatsoever on Justin Bieber.

2. I find it a tad creepy that so many people above the age of sixteen actually DO have an opinion on Justin Bieber.

3. I think society needs to find better ways of using its time than tormenting celebrities over their personal foibles.

That last point is particularly important because, whenever I scroll through the news, I constantly encounter various genres of celebrity news. Note that I didn’t write “celebrity news” — I wrote various GENRES of celebrity news. After all, what is our national gossip circuit if not a series of ongoing narratives which, like all stories, can be “characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” In this case, they include:

1. The Art of Pop Culture Genre. This includes any news about movies, television shows, literature, comic books, video games, or music that focuses on learning more about and appreciating aspects of our pop culture as works of art. It usually involves thoughtful and layered commentary that, while at times overzealous (see fans of the Star Wars or Tolkien universes), is nevertheless rooted in a perfectly valid desire to have one’s life enriched by “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination.” Naturally, this is the type of pop culture news that receives by far the least attention from the mainstream media, as it is viewed as “highbrow” and “boring.” Examples include anything that is followed by people who are labeled “fans,” “fanboys,” “nerds,” “geeks,” etc.

2. The Sex Scandal Genre. This one involves turning the personal life of a celebrity into a public soap opera, one in which millions of people feel a strong personal investment despite having no actual connection to the famous individual(s) in question. The lure seems to be based partly in schadenfreude, partly in the need to fill a vacuum of melodrama and significance in one’s own life, and partly in the wish to feel superior to individuals who are have achieved meaningful success or are otherwise socially prominent. To the extent that the moral outrage professed on these occasions is genuine, it is usually based less in a sincere concern for the “victims” of said sex scandals (cuckolded men, spurned women, scarred children) than on a desire to hold famous figures to a quasi-Puritanical ethical code. Could it be that the Calvinist ethos identified by Max Weber as the key to understanding American capitalist culture also applies to our sexual culture? Examples include Tiger Woods, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Kristen Stewart.

3. The Weight Gain Genre. This entails picking on a celebrity (usually female) who has committed the unpardonable sin of putting on a few pounds. Sometimes she has merely gone from “thin” to “normal” (but has to deal with “normal” being deemed “fat”), sometimes she actually has become fat, and sometimes she’s just pregnant. Regardless, however, the underlying message is that (a) a woman’s social status is primarily determined by her physical attractiveness, (b) once a woman receives the designation of being “fat,” she is no longer physically attractive, and consequently (c) celebrities who have been deemed “fat” are tragic figures who have lost their social desirability. Anyone who claims America doesn’t desperately need a feminist revival need only look here to understand why they are wrong. Examples include Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian.

4. The Meltdown Genre. This is when a celebrity is perceived as screwing up his or her life and has the tailspin closely observed by a disturbingly gleeful public. Like the Sex Scandal Genre, there is a great deal of schadenfreude and moralizing involved here, although the salacious element is usually replaced by (or at least subordinated to) the larger interest in watching spectacular acts of professional and/or personal self-destruction. Every imaginable form of downfall is covered by this genre – severe drug and alcohol addictions, psychological illnesses (as distinguished from addictions), burgeoning small-time criminal records, and (the media’s personal favorite) actual major crimes (usually murder or rape). Examples include Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen, O.J. Simpson.

5. The “I Can’t Believe He/She Said That” Genre (Sub-category: Hateful Prejudices). This encompasses all of those bigotries that remain hot button topics, including racism against African Americans, racism against Latinos, racism against non-whites in general (as opposed to against a specific group of non-whites), sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia… you name it. Sometimes the prejudice is implied (such as a rape or similarly insensitive joke) and sometimes it is overt (such as the use of a slur), but on all occasions it is roundly condemned by the pundits and defended by online message board commenters, in no small part because the former are accountable for what they say and the latter have the advantage of cowardice — <cough cough> woops, I’m sorry, anonymity. Examples include Rush Limbaugh (who I count as a celebrity, not a political pundit), Michael Richards (i.e., “the guy who played Kramer”), Mel Gibson.

6. The “I Can’t Believe He/She Said That” Genre (Sub-category: General Stupidity). This is the category for celebrities who are being criticized for saying something that “shouldn’t be said” but just so happened to not be bigoted. More often than not, these are comments that are either (a) ridiculed for being unintelligent or (b) denounced as revealing a negative personal trait, such as being an egomaniac, elitist,  or “not a nice person in real life.” Sometimes this is covered because of the legitimate comic value of the comments in question – and when the remarks come from politicians, a strong case can be made that they should be covered (see George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Joe Biden, and the greatest gaffe master of them all, Dan Quayle) – but more often they draw attention because it happens to be a slow news day. Examples include Paris Hilton, the cast of Honey Boo-Boo, and…

… well, and now Justin Bieber.

As you may have noticed, I haven’t actually discussed the details of the new Justin Bieber-Anne Frank controversy. That’s because I can say with a great deal of confidence that most of you probably already know about it (and if you aren’t, 30 seconds on Google will solve that). Indeed, I am equally confident that – despite having listed more than a dozen random celebrity gossip stories throughout this article – the vast majority of you will instantly recognize most or all of the scandals to which I am referring.

Why is this? It’s because America — the same country which can’t identify Iraq on a map and is startlingly uneducated about the histories and beliefs of major world religions (including their own) — is glutted with celebrity gossip. Even people like me, who try their  damndest to avoid these stories, become aware of them against their through sheer osmosis. After all, they pop up no matter where you turn. Even if you aren’t a news junkie like me (it’s a safe bet that every single one of the celebrity gossip stories mentioned in this article was introduced to me by the headlines of CNN, MSNBC, or Google News), they are constantly referenced in movies and television shows, in the monologues of late-night talk show hosts, on the glossy magazines we see when we buy our food at the supermarkets, and in the conversations of people we pass on the street. They are so prevalent, so all-pervading, that they have become fixtures of our cultural zeitgeist in their own right, no less prominent than actual works of art themselves. Indeed, they are so ingrained into our collective psyche that they have become veritable mythologies, the sort of thing that one could see being meticulously chronicled by some Thomas Bulfinch-esque figure three centuries hence… and which, tellingly, can be broken down by their elements and analyzed with taxonomic precision in an article like this one.

And that is my defense of Justin Bieber. To dismiss celebrity gossip stories as stupid wastes of time, which is undeniably true, is in a sense to miss the point. Just because something is pointless doesn’t mean that it can’t be understood, assuming you place it in the right context. These celebrity gossip stories may embody some of our culture’s most petty, mean-spirited, empty-headed and unjustifiably sanctimonious attributes, but clearly we crave them too – if we didn’t, they wouldn’t be so impossible to avoid. We are indeed a fast food nation, connoisseurs of empty calories be they in the food we consume or the news we choose to follow. Since we don’t get outraged when Dunkin Donuts decides to release a glazed donut breakfast sandwich, why bother when Justin Bieber provides us with the cultural equivalent of a new type of Big Mac?

Right-Wing Terrorism Was Enabled and Ignored By Conservative Pundits, GOP

Published: The Morning Call (April 15, 2013)mic (April 16, 2013)

Editor’s note: This article was written before the Boston Marathon bombings, and is not intended to be a response to that incident. All commentary in this article is on pre-Boston incidents alone and is not intended to indicate anything concerning the ongoing Boston Marathon investigation.

How much longer is America willing to suffer at the hands of violent fools?

The mind wanders back to 2009. It was roughly four years ago that the Obama administration was blasted by many conservatives for issuing a report that identified right-wing extremism as a potential national security threat.

Pointing out that extreme rightists were already working to attract new recruits “by playing on their fears about several emergent issues” like immigration, gun control and economic policy, the Department of Homeland Security found that post-2008 “the economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing [sic] radicalization and recruitment.” Its final conclusion was that “lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing [sic] extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.”

At the time, conservatives were tripping over each other in their eagerness to denounce the new findings. Blogger Michelle Malkin decried the report as “a hit job on conservatives,” despite the fact that it specifically focused on organizations associated solely with the outermost fringe of the right. Newt Gingrich accused it of “smearing veterans,” even though it pointedly specified that its reason for mentioning former military personnel was that extremist groups had successfully lured a “small percentage of military personnel” during the 1990s “to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat.” Meanwhile U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, then the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, called for an investigation of the report’s “unsubstantiated conclusions and political bias.”

Forty-eight months later, the so-called “unsubstantiated conclusions and political bias” in that document seem disturbingly prophetic. There was the white supremacist whose rants against an imaginary conspiracy between President Obama and the Jews caused him to open fire in the U.S. Holocaust Museum in June 2009, fatally wounding a security guard in the process. By 2011 a white supremacist who had been planning to bomb a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Washington state was foiled. Around the same time a plan by Georgia militiamen to release biological toxins on government employees in federal buildings was similarly thwarted by the FBI. Then last year a white supremacist managed to murder seven people before killing himself during a mass shooting at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin. And that’s just a short list.

Now — fresh on the heels of a recent Southern Poverty Law Center report that discovered the number of right-wing extremist groups has risen by 813 percent since Obama took office, from 149 in 2008 to 1,360 in 2012 — authorities are examing the connection between members of a white supremacist group and the shooting of a Colorado prisons chief.

Any honest attempt to address this problem must begin by unequivocally acknowledging one of its primary sources — namely, the trend among far too many mainstream conservatives to place their antipathy against this president specifically, and liberalism in general, over larger ethical considerations.

Instead of trying to quell the shrill hysteria that led some right-wingers to make preposterous claims about Obama (ranging from death panels in his health care reform bill to a slippery slope toward authoritarianism in his new gun control measures), these conservatives have tolerated and sometimes directly participated in such rhetorical excesses.

Even worse, instead of preserving the intellectual integrity of their movement’s ideas by outspokenly debunking and marginalizing reactionary hatemongering (from the coded racism used by birthers to the McCarthyesque red-baiting of those insisting that Obama is a secret socialist), these conservatives have often remained silent on or humored their ideas.

Hence why Malkin, Gingrich, Hoekstra and other right-wing pundits had no second thoughts about distorting the findings of the Homeland Security report. One could debate whether they were motivated by a hyperpartisan desire to attack Obama at every opportunity, an inability to distinguish between the extreme right-wingers in that report and the bulk of American conservatives, or some combination of those two factors, but in the end it doesn’t really matter.

The final result of their polemical bloviating was that our nation failed to take adequate account of what was, and is, a growing domestic terrorism threat. While the repercussions of acquiescence to fringe right-wing demagoguery are usually limited to the quality of our national political debate, on this occasion it has had much graver consequences.

I close with an observation from my personal political hero, two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson: “Those who corrupt the public mind are just as evil as those who steal from the public purse.”