Archive for the ‘economy’ Tag

How USA Today tiptoed away from the GE tax hoax

Last Wednesday, USA Today editor Doug Stanglin reported about the Associated Press’s hugely embarrassing misfire-of-a-story on General Electric. In a blog post headlined “AP falls for prank report that GE is giving back a $3.2B tax refund,” Stanglin quoted from AP’s correction, included the full text of the retracted AP story on GE, and cited a report from Reuters about the activists behind the hoax.

It was a thorough rundown except for one thing: USA Today had also fallen for the prank report. The fact that it ran the bogus story from AP, and later removed it from USAToday.com, did not make it into Stanglin’s blog post. Why not?

Many news outlets run wire stories using an automated feed of some kind. Given the speed and volume of the content it’s easy to see how mistakes or problems could be missed — and whether news sites should be responsible for corrections to erroneous wire stories they’ve run has been an open question, as we noted in this recent error report at MediaBugs.

But when a news outlet makes the effort to report on another outlet’s high-profile bungle — and fails to mention its own participation — readers are bound to wonder why.

If you searched for the bogus GE tax story on Google News on Wednesday, you would have seen that USA Today ran with it:

Or, if you were one of USA Today Money’s more than 200,000 followers on Twitter, you might’ve seen it there (or via one of the many people who retweeted it):

Many people quickly took notice of USA Today’s publication of the story, including the pranksters themselves. But later on Wednesday if you clicked on the link to that story, you arrived on a USA Today page simply telling you that it had been removed:

In other words, between the link to the retracted story (later on filled in with AP’s correction) and Stanglin’s blog post, USA Today essentially provided no record on its site that it played a part in spreading some majorly wrong “news.” Nor was there any mention on USA Today’s corrections page, despite the high-profile nature of the mistake, which had real consequences. (GE’s stock price dropped significantly on the fake news.)

If the AP’s blunder had been headed for USA Today’s print pages, it would have been caught and not published — but even in the unlikely event that it had been published, you can be sure the paper would have run a correction notice in a subsequent edition. Online publishing makes it easier to cause embarrassing errors to disappear, but it doesn’t remove any of a publisher’s responsibility to own up to and correct them.

MediaBugs reached out by email to both Stanglin and standards editor Brent Jones to find out why USA Today handled things the way they did. Both responded quickly and cordially, with a definitive explanation on Friday morning from Jones:

USA TODAY’s newsroom practice is to be forthright and transparent when setting the record straight. We responded to reader inquiries and published a correction on Twitter, but we should have included that we published the AP’s story when reporting on the GE tax hoax. To clarify with our readers, website editors have since updated our blog posting, posted a note on our corrections/clarifications blog and the AP’s corrected report.

It’s good that USA Today had put the word out on Twitter, and we applaud them for addressing the problem thoroughly on their site pages in response to our inquiry. (You can now see those updates here, here, and here.) Also worth noting is that USA Today’s accessibility and corrections practices put them at the front of the pack of U.S. media. Even so, in this case they needed external prodding to do the right thing.

Perhaps the online medium makes it easier to stumble in this way. It’s simple enough to unpublish something and just move on — and far too many news sites still lack a clear process for tracking and rectifying their mistakes. There may also be an increasing tendency, navigating today’s ephemeral sea of news, to shrug off responsibility for nonproprietary content. Wire stories, blog posts and tweets seem at once to come from everywhere and nowhere. That’s precisely why this case is instructive.

It’s simply not possible to walk away from the kind of goof USA Today indirectly made. Social media, search engines and other tools will capture it. As more and more content is syndicated, aggregated or borrowed (with or without permission), newsrooms may feel they are less responsible for its accuracy. But in an era of deep distrust of the media, the opposite has to be true. When a news site chooses to repeat someone else’s report it shoulders new accountability along with it — including a duty to correct errors, thoroughly and forthrightly, before they get compounded further.

[Cross-posted from the MediaBugs blog.]

Juan Williams, Fox News and how to fix a flagrant error

Back in late February, Fox News columnist Juan Williams wrote a scathing piece about racial prejudice in the media. Exhibit A was the Washington Post’s coverage of a poll showing that African Americans and Latinos are optimistic about the economy. The Post, Williams charged, had “buried” this good news because it didn’t fit with the bleak racial stereotypes typically found on the front pages of “the big, white press.”

Since it turns out that the Post actually had splashed the upbeat poll story all over its Sunday front page and its website, the “entire premise” of Williams’ column, as a reader reported at MediaBugs, was flat-out wrong.

At MediaBugs we did what we do in this situation, which is to try to get a response from the media outlet behind the piece in question. Yet, despite multiple attempts on our part to alert Williams and Fox News to the problem, they failed to respond or correct the blunder for weeks.

On Tuesday, Fox finally posted an editor’s note on the piece:

EDITOR’S NOTE: The results of the poll referred to in this article were in fact reported on the front page of the Feb. 20 editions of the Washington Post. Mr. Williams regrets the oversight to the Post, and maintains the study’s findings deserved more prominent coverage in other media outlets.

The good news here is that Williams and Fox finally took responsibility for the mistake. Bravo! We mean it.

Nonetheless, it’s just possible that Williams and Fox might someday make another mistake. And since MediaBugs has published a set of best practices for error reporting and corrections, we thought we would offer a few suggestions should they ever find themselves in this position again:

  • Don’t wait a month and a half to fix an error, especially when it’s a flagrant one. If you can’t respond in short order, at least acknowledge inquiries on the matter and let folks know you’re looking into it.
  • Try not to mince words. Call an error an “error” and a correction a “correction.” Readers can probably surmise the meaning of “Mr. Williams regrets the oversight to the Post.” But it’s classier not to downplay a mistake while you’re in mid-regret.
  • Don’t use a correction to reiterate an argument. Williams certainly is free to wish that other outlets such as the New York Times had covered the Post poll — though, veteran that he is, he must know that most media companies rarely give big play to their competitor’s surveys. But when you’ve reported as fact something that hundreds of thousands of newspaper and online readers know to be false, your mea culpa is not the right place to declare “I was right anyway!” Write another column if you must.
  • Give your audience a clear and easy way to alert you when you’ve gone astray. If your “Email Newsroom” link leads the public into a brick wall, and they’ll have to spend weeks chasing down other ways to try getting your attention, you can safely conclude that your status quo is ineffective.

A really good start, in fact, would be to publish any kind of corrections page and policy on your website.

[Cross-posted from the PBS MediaShift blog.]

Lake Mead’s dwindling waters

The future is looking parched for the roughly 30 million Americans who rely on the Colorado River, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Denizens of Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, this especially means you:

Water managers warn that Lake Mead, the West’s largest and most important reservoir, remains perilously near the level of 1,075 feet at which the U.S. Secretary of the Interior would likely declare a water shortage, for the first time in the nearly century-old history of the Colorado River system. Such a shortage would parch Nevada, Arizona and California with severe water-use restrictions. There alone, some 20 million people depend on Lake Mead’s supplies.

Despite this year’s rain-soaked winter and a modest rise in the lake, the region still faces a deep deficit from a 12-year drought: “Lake Mead’s water level now stands at 1,096 feet, near its lowest point since the reservoir began filling in the 1930s and 110 feet below when the drought began in 1999, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The lake last rose in 2005.”

Statistics can be elusive. One of the best ways to realize the change is from directly on the lake itself. Last August I took a houseboat trip with some friends on Lake Mead, where I snapped some photos showing the drop in the water line. The lake is enormous — but so is the space no longer filled with water:



In the west we’ve peered into the future, which is now. It is conservation.

(According to the water footprint “calculator” linked above, which uses criteria ranging from shower times to car washing to meat consumption, my household of two rates at approximately 12 percent below the daily average for water consumption across American households. Not bad, though as I suspected there’s still room for improvement. The site suggests specific areas for potential progress based on your questionnaire answers.)

Wisconsin Gov. Walker’s war on labor

The showdown continues in Wisconsin pitting public-sector labor unions against Republican governor Scott Walker, who aims to eviscerate collective bargaining rights. As of this writing the state’s Democratic lawmakers apparently are still MIA. Days of large protests in Madison and even the involvement of the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers have indicated the high stakes. Recently on Talking Points Memo, which was ahead of most national media on the Wisconsin story, Josh Marshall made a persuasive case that Walker’s anti-labor offensive could have a big impact on national politics:

Whichever side of the policy issue you’re on, I think the outcome of this situation is going to have ramifications across the country. Republicans came out of the 2010 election pumped up and feeling that they had a huge mandate to fundamentally change government in this country. I don’t think the elections really told us that at all. But these things are decided by results post-election not by analysis of the election returns. And that’s what’s being determined right now.

If Gov. Walker (R) is able to push through big, big changes to collective bargaining rights and makes it stick, that will be picked up in many other states and it will shape perceptions of the public mood going into the 2012 election — from the top of the ticket all the way down to the bottom. On the other hand, if he gets shut down and the idea takes hold that he overreached, that will have similarly widespread effects in other states as well as in shaping the political terrain going into 2012.

As TPM’s Brian Beutler has pointed out, similar fights already are brewing in Tennessee and Ohio. (Also instructive is Beutler’s rundown of how Walker ginned up the budget shortfall in Wisconsin per his partisan agenda.)

It’s important not to romanticize organized labor in this battle; its history is peppered with abuses and cronyism on par with those of the most cunning politicos, leaving the American public skeptical of unions with reason. But Paul Krugman today crystallizes what’s important about the Wisconsin showdown as well as anyone I’ve read to date:

You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.

And now Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to get rid of public-sector unions, too.

There’s a bitter irony here. The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. After all, it was superwealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-9, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch. And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.

A great place to follow continuing events on the ground in Wisconsin is Mother Jones’ handy blog-explainer, led by reporter Andy Kroll.

The deep dark shades of BP’s Gulf oil spill

[Updates from Sat, Sun, Mon (2x) are below.]

The oil-drenched marine life preparing to testify on Barry Blitt’s June 7 New Yorker cover did not make me smile in the slightest. (I doubt humor, even the dark kind, was Blitt’s core intent.) It’s an effectively painful riff on the slow-motion horror story continuing to seep from the Gulf region. Like so many others over the last few weeks, I’ve been unable to look away from the gush of media coverage on BP’s oil spill calamity; what follows below is a roundup of things I’ve found to be the most illuminating or compelling along the way. As I suggested a week ago, I think this disaster — which will go from terrible to far worse before it’s over — will likely be a paradigm-changing event, one that will force a fundamental shift in U.S. energy policy. That is if, god willing, U.S. leaders and a great many of the people who elect them realize that such a shift must be the necessary outcome of this god-awful historic event.

*

Blitt’s characters say it one way; these terribly vivid, awfully real pictures of moribund wildlife, from the AP’s Charlie Riedel, say it all.

ABC reported yesterday that, not long after the disaster began, BP and the Feds conspired to withhold footage indicating a much more massive oil spill than initially conveyed to the public.

There have been multiple reports this week that BP has tried to prevent the media from documenting animal deaths in the Gulf region.

The NOAA has been tracking the scope and movement of the devastation, including views of the spill from space. It’s huge.




The astonishingly tone-deaf CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, used Facebook to issue an apology, as if BP’s tapping into social media gives it or its inept leader any prayer of scrubbing clean their blackened names.

A guy who does damage control for Blackwater (since whitewashed as “Xe Services”) offered some “advice” to BP about dealing with a public relations disaster: “There are times when you have to man up and take your lumps, and this seems to be one of those times.”

Susan D. Shaw, a marine toxicologist, suited up in some protective gear and swam directly into the spill. “What I witnessed,” she later wrote, “was a surreal, sickening scene beyond anything I could have imagined.”

MoJo’s industrious Mac McClelland has been reporting from the front lines and continues tweeting about it here.

Some imaginative work by “DIY mappers” has helped document the spreading fallout and build an independent data set of oil spill imagery.

And if the reality of this nightmare hasn’t yet sunk in… Boston.com’s “The Big Picture” has plenty of additional heartbreaking images.

UPDATE 6/5/10: Although for obvious reasons they’re unhappy about it, members of Wyoming’s Casper Petroleum Club recognize that the energy paradigm shift is coming.

The fallout has reached Florida, darkening the mood in the Tampa Tribune: “Forget ‘drill baby drill’ and realize it’s time we start shifting our fuel needs to safer alternatives. … This sickening slick will do more damage than we can imagine. It’ll affect us in ways we can’t consider. But the images now are burning deep in people’s minds. It’s going to be a long summer.”

UPDATE 6/6/10: Ian Urbina pulls together documentation and testimonials in the Sunday Times showing that nobody in the private sector was effectively in charge of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, either before the disaster or in its aftermath. The federal government also failed: “a hodgepodge of oversight agencies granted exceptions to rules, allowed risks to accumulate and made a disaster more likely on the rig, particularly with a mix of different companies operating on the Deepwater whose interests were not always in sync.” It appears nobody took the prospect of a blowout seriously: “The rig’s ‘spill response plan,’ provided to The Times, includes a Web link for a contractor that goes to an Asian shopping Web site and also mentions the importance of protecting walruses, seals and sea lions, none of which inhabit the area of drilling. The agency approved the plan.”

UPDATE 6/7/10: The New Yorker’s June 7 cover notwithstanding, even the blackest crisis needs its dark satirists; the most compelling stuff has been flowing from @BPGlobalPR since mid May. Here’s a semi-toxic sampling:

Try our cap operation at home! Hold a funnel over a firehose, sell what you catch and proclaim victory! #bpwins about 13 hours ago via TweetDeck

Words can not express how sorry we are. So we are going to stop apologizing and just give our investors 10 billion dollars. 7:48 AM Jun 5th via TweetDeck

Found driftwood that looks like Jesus crying oil. Not sure what it means but we’re charging 20 bucks to see it. #bpcares 9:27 AM Jun 4th via web

ANNOUNCEMENT: No one is allowed to look at our oil. All Gulf residents are required to close their eyes until this is over. 7:16 PM Jun 3rd via web

We’ve hired Dick Cheney’s former publicist to head up our PR dept. Hopefully she can make us as lovable as Dick Cheney. 12:18 PM Jun 1st via Twitterrific

OMG This isss ridciulsus. playing a drinking gamee where we drink a shot everytme we seeee an oily birdddd!!! LOL! so wasted!!11 #pbcares 5:03 PM May 31st via web

Flying Rand Paul in to consult. Evidently he’s an expert at keeping black out of places. #bpcares 8:06 PM May 27th via web

Of course, bp cares about the fishing industry as well. Now, all tuna from the gulf coast comes pre-packaged in oil. #you’rewelcome #yum 1:58 PM May 27th via web

UPDATE II – 6/7/10: Oh yeah, in case you’re wondering: A few days back the guy behind @BPGlobalPR, Leroy Stick, explained his schtick:

I started @BPGlobalPR, because the oil spill had been going on for almost a month and all BP had to offer were bullshit PR statements. No solutions, no urgency, no sincerity, no nothing. That’s why I decided to relate to the public for them. I started off just making jokes at their expense with a few friends, but now it has turned into something of a movement. As I write this, we have 100,000 followers and counting. People are sharing billboards, music, graphic art, videos and most importantly information.

Why has this caught on? I think it’s because people can smell the bullshit and sometimes laughing at it feels better than getting angry or depressed over it. At the very least, it’s a welcome break from that routine. The reason @BPGlobalPR continues to grow is because BP continues to spew their bullshit.

I’ve read a bunch of articles and blogs about this whole situation by publicists and marketing folk wondering what BP should do to save their brand from @BPGlobalPR. First of all, who cares? Second of all, what kind of business are you in? I’m trashing a company that is literally trashing the ocean, and these idiots are trying to figure out how to protect that company? One pickledick actually suggested that BP approach me and try to incorporate me into their actual PR outreach. That has got to be the dumbest, most head-up-the-ass solution anyone could possibly offer.

Do you want to know what BP should do about me? Do you want to know what their PR strategy should be? They should fire everyone in their joke of a PR department, starting with all-star Anne Womack-Kolto and focus on actually fixing the problems at hand. Honestly, Cheney’s publicist? That’s too easy.

Also dig Mr. Stick’s closing call to arms: “In the meantime, if you are angry, speak up. Don’t let people forget what has happened here. Don’t let the prolonged nature of this tragedy numb you to its severity. Re-branding doesn’t work if we don’t let it, so let’s hold BP’s feet to the fire. Let’s make them own up to and fix their mistakes NOW and most importantly, let’s make sure we don’t let them do this again.”

In the shadowy trenches of the Tea Party

America’s so-called Tea Party movement has been a fixation of pundits both left and right for many months now. It got considerable credit for one of the biggest electoral turnabouts in a long time. But elusive, it seems, is who or what exactly constitutes this gathering storm of grassroots rage. And is it worthy of serious attention?

If a recent spate of coverage digging deeper is an indication, the answer is yes, although nobody has quite been able to say what the movement portends. Angry populism is an age-old theme in American politics. What is intriguing about the contemporary manifestation is that it seems to be as incoherent as it is alarming.

A Tea Party rally in Washington in September. (Photo: Amanda Lucidon/New York Times.)

In a lightning rod of an Op-Ed this week, Robert Wright pondered whether Joseph Stack, the anti-tax crusader who piloted a suicide mission into a Texas office building, could be considered “the first Tea Party terrorist.” He also wondered about how “purely conservative” the Tea Party movement actually may be. “Yes, it mobilized against a liberal health care bill and the stimulus package, but it also opposes corporate bailouts,” Wright noted. “Sure, Tea Partiers hate taxes, but that alone doesn’t distinguish them from many Americans. On social issues the Tea Partiers include some libertarians along with a larger number of family-values conservatives. And when you move to foreign policy, things don’t get more coherent. Though some Tea Partiers are hawks, many follow Ron Paul’s lead, combining a left-wing critique of military engagement with a right-wing aversion to the United Nations and other multilateral entanglements.”

A lengthy dispatch from New York Times investigative reporter David Barstow earlier this month cast light on the rising fringe of the movement: “Urged on by conservative commentators, waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists, interviews conducted across the country over several months show. In this view, [President] Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.”

Maybe it’s just that tough times in America call for a tough kind of paranoia. As Barstow further considered:

A popular T-shirt at Tea Party rallies reads, “Proud Right-Wing Extremist.”

It is a defiant and mocking rejoinder to last April’s intelligence assessment from the Department of Homeland Security warning that recession and the election of the nation’s first black president “present unique drivers for right wing radicalization.”

“Historically,” the assessment said, “domestic right wing extremists have feared, predicted and anticipated a cataclysmic economic collapse in the United States.” Those predictions, it noted, are typically rooted in “antigovernment conspiracy theories” featuring impending martial law. The assessment said extremist groups were already preparing for this scenario by stockpiling weapons and food and by resuming paramilitary exercises.

(Photo: Lucian Read/MoJo.)

Enter the Oath Keepers faction of the movement, a loose-knit group of military and law enforcement officials who vow to disobey orders they deem unconstitutional — and to mount violent resistance to the U.S. government if necessary. Reporting for the latest issue of Mother Jones, Justine Sharrock trailed the Oath Keepers for months, also encountering a murky organization and ideology. “Oath Keepers is officially nonpartisan, in part to make it easier for active-duty soldiers to participate,” Sharrock explains, “but its rightward bent is undeniable, and liberals are viewed with suspicion.” Yet, some of the group’s objections to federal power would seem to align them directly with the fiercest critics of the George W. Bush government. Oath Keepers keep a list of orders that they should refuse to obey, according to Sharrock — including conducting warrantless searches and holding American citizens as enemy combatants (e.g. José Padilla) or subjecting them to military tribunals.


“In the months I’ve spent getting to know the Oath Keepers,” she reports, “I’ve toggled between viewing them either as potentially dangerous conspiracy theorists or as crafty intellectuals with the savvy to rally politicians to their side. The answer, I came to realize, is that they cover the whole spectrum.”

Buried by the Haiti disaster

Haiti’s devastation, now almost a week since the big quake, continues to saturate the media. It’s a lot to sift through and absorb; here’s where I’ve posted a handful of the most compelling links I’ve come across in recent days. For more, see Robert Mackey’s skillful curation over at The Lede blog.

One consequence of the historic disaster has been the burial of other developments that normally would’ve (and should’ve) been bigger front-page news:

Blackwater still gets away with mass murder in Iraq, despite that three of its security personnel present at the notorious events three years ago testified to what they saw as wanton killing and cover-up. “All three were horrified by what they thought was an unprovoked attack in 2007 that left 14 Iraqi civilians dead,” according to previously sealed court documents described by the Washington Post. Their testimony further confirms the war zone “horror movie” reported by others long ago. Five Blackwater guards on trial for the attack walked at the beginning of this month, acquitted on procedural grounds.

Wall Street’s top moguls sell Congress some shameless rationale for America’s historic financial meltdown. Testified Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase: “My daughter called me from school one day and said, ‘Dad, what’s a financial crisis?’ And, without trying to be funny, I said, ‘This type of thing happens every five to seven years.’ And she said, ‘Why is everyone so surprised?’” (Without trying to be funny: Who the f—k is he kidding?) Testified Lloyd C. Blankfein of Goldman Sachs: “Whatever we did, it didn’t work out well. We regret the consequence that people have lost money.” (Hear them in their own words, here.) Meanwhile, pretty much everyone working for their bailed out firms is making out like a bandit.

Vancouver wins a key battle in its progressive war on drugs, with a top court preventing the Canadian federal government from shutting down the city’s officially sanctioned injection site for heroin and cocaine addicts. Probably not top story material, but a development of great interest to me personally; I reported extensively on the cutting-edge project from the streets of Vancouver — first in 2003, when the Bush administration angrily declared the policy “state-sponsored personal suicide,” and again three years later, when they were proven dead wrong by Insite’s indisputable success.

Also don’t forget that today is Martin Luther King Day; here’s a video clip of Robert F. Kennedy announcing King’s death by assassination in 1968. And always worth rereading, MLK’s landmark “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” from 1963. It continues to resonate in new ways with Barack Obama presiding in the White House.

Obama defines the war that will define him

Another major wave of U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan. A Detroit-bound airliner imperiled by a terrorist on Christmas Day. A stunning blow to CIA operations targeting the Taliban and al Qaeda. A surge of political attacks against President Obama led by an aggressively partisan former vice president.

In recent weeks America’s current era of war has escalated to a next level. Obama didn’t preside over its inception, of course, but it is ever his to handle. Although the nation’s economic reckoning is far from over, what happens on the national security front is probably more likely to define Obama’s presidency than anything else.

His speech Thursday night addressing the U.S. intelligence debacle at Christmas reflected this. In his closing remarks, Obama made a point of disarming recent partisan attacks; although he didn’t name Dick Cheney specifically, some of his comments clearly were a retort to the former vice president’s assertion that Obama doesn’t take the terrorist threat seriously:

Over the past two weeks, we’ve been reminded again of the challenge we face in protecting our country against a foe that is bent on our destruction. And while passions and politics can often obscure the hard work before us, let’s be clear about what this moment demands. We are at war. We are at war against al Qaeda, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again. And we will do whatever it takes to defeat them.

In the New York Post, Rich Lowry beamed that Obama’s rhetoric could’ve been written by Dick Cheney himself.

Most striking was the president’s reiteration of the principles by which he will prosecute America’s long war:

Here at home, we will strengthen our defenses, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans, because great and proud nations don’t hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. That is exactly what our adversaries want, and so long as I am President, we will never hand them that victory. We will define the character of our country, not some band of small men intent on killing innocent men, women and children. And in this cause, every one of us — every American, every elected official — can do our part.

On MSNBC Thursday night, veteran Washington columnist Howard Fineman pointed out how anxious George W. Bush had been to get through his final weeks in office without another terrorist attack taking place inside the U.S. Apparently Bush was plenty eager to get out of town with what he viewed as a clean post-9/11 record.

The equation Obama faces is not a matter of if, but when. American society would do well to accept that reality, as even David Brooks has now said. Fortunately, the current commander in chief appears driven to move ahead with a markedly different approach than his predecessor. “Instead of giving into cynicism and division, let’s move forward with the confidence and optimism and unity that defines us as a people,” Obama concluded on Thursday. “For now is not a time for partisanship, it’s a time for citizenship — a time to come together and work together with the seriousness of purpose that our national security demands. That’s what it means to be strong in the face of violent extremism. That’s how we will prevail in this fight.”

Bay Bridge boondoggle

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge has been “closed indefinitely” after a rod installed during last month’s emergency repairs snapped during rush hour on Tuesday evening, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. I’m extra thankful this morning that in 15 years of living and working in this city I’ve been able to commute almost exclusively by public transportation or bicycle. Compared with the 280,000 daily car commuters suffering today’s fallout (not to mention all the train riders getting further jammed in by them), that probably makes it too easy for me to say this: There are at least a couple of reasons to be thankful (relatively speaking) for this latest meltdown.

First, it’s a live exercise in what could happen when the most important transportation artery in the region gets knocked out under more perilous circumstances — a terrorist attack, another catastrophic earthquake, etc. Nobody can say there wasn’t an opportunity to prepare. Second, it again puts a glaring light on key questions about the boondoggle that is the new eastern span of the bridge — namely, why is it billions of dollars over budget, beset with quality-control problems and years behind schedule?

Bay Bridge

Aerial view of an empty Bay Bridge on Wednesday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

It’s an understatement to say that the project has long been ripe for serious journalistic investigation. If the beleaguered Chronicle can’t get it together, perhaps others will rise to the task. According to Baynewser, an interesting collaboration is underway from SF Public Press and McSweeney’s. “Our reporters have been digging up documents for close to two months on the massive construction project, one of the most challenging, costly and complex bridge projects in U.S. history, and have found some surprising new facts about how and why the costs, currently projected at $6.3 billion, continue to rise,” says Public Press chief Michael Stoll. With this latest setback, perhaps the new Berkeley-based California Watch will get interested as well.

“Preparing for a tough day with Bay Bridge closure,” tweeted Mayor Gavin Newsom this morning. He recommended following @BayBridgeInfo to stay informed. As of about 6:30am, the prognosis there was not good: “Repairs are now under way, still unknown how long repairs will take or when bridge will reopen.”

UPDATE: Given the rapidly changing media landscape here, how did initial coverage of the Bay Bridge crisis flow?

The “Mcfarthest” spot, mass air traffic and a Minnesota-size memory

I’ve always loved maps. They reward the longer gaze. Especially in these digitally frenetic times. Whether depicting authentic truths or questionable claims, or one of many shades in between, they tend to provoke expansive thinking about the world. Or they zoom you in on something unexpected and compelling. Their borders inherently are porous to the imagination. And they can be just plain cool to look at — hand me a copy of Oxford’s Atlas of the World and I’ll be entertained for a healthy chunk of time flipping through those oversized pages. No iPhone necessary.

Of course, digital media allow mapmakers and collectors to take things to a next level. The Strange Maps blog is one great place to browse. A recent post featured the work of blogger Stephen Von Worley, who decided to chart America as fast-food dystopia by depicting McDonald’s ubiquity from coast to coast. The nagging question that was his point of departure: What’s the “McFarthest” one can possibly get from a Big Mac? Unsurprisingly, not very far at all, even in the relatively unpopulated West:

mapping-McDonalds

According to Von Worley’s calculations (per the summary at Strange Maps):

There are over 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S., or about 1 for every 23,000 Americans. But even market penetration this advanced doesn’t mean that McDonald’s is everywhere. Somewhere in South Dakota is the McFarthest Spot, the place in the [continental] U.S. geographically most removed from the nearest McD’s. If you started out from this location, a few miles north of State Highway 20 (which runs latitudinally between Highways 73 in the west and 65 in the east), you’d have to drive 145 miles to get your Big Mac. (If you could fly, however, it’d be only 107 miles).

If you did decide to fly, you’d be contributing to some incredibly congested air traffic, especially if it’s during daylight. See this nifty depiction of 24 hours worth of planes flying the global skies:

Also worth watching is this feat of mapmaking by Senator Al Franken, who from memory composed one of the United States (while taking questions, no less) at the Minnesota State Fair:

Now if he and his comrades could only draw up a health care plan with such facility…

Sharp turn on Wall Street

My cover story for the July/August issue of Arrive is now riding the northeastern rails, a look at the nation’s economic crisis and the role of the financial media. CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, the Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel and others ponder the end of days on Wall Street and what the American economy will look like on the other side of its most vicious hangover in decades.

CNBC has taken some big lumps this year for the behavior of some of its on-air personalities, perhaps deservedly so. But during a lengthy chat for the story earlier this year, after pushing past a bit of canned stuff, I found Bartiromo to be quite knowledgeable, engaging and forthright. And I happen to agree with her take on Jon Stewart’s big beatdown of Jim Cramer and CNBC back in March.

wall_street_signWill America’s investment banking sector soon be a miniature of its turn-of-millennium self? (And would that be a good thing?) Who are the most deserving villains in the blame game? Read on… Meanwhile, during a quick ATM stop at a Chase bank branch yesterday I witnessed an exchange that seemed in some small way encouraging — perhaps an indication that America has started to move beyond the denial/anger stage, and into the acceptance/change stage.

A bank employee was walking out just as a long-time customer was walking in. The customer asked the bank employee if in the past few weeks it had gotten any easier to get a loan. (The specific type wasn’t clear, though it was obviously either a home mortgage or small business loan.) “No, it hasn’t gotten any easier,” the bank employee said, with a cheery smile. “As you know, they’re asking a lot more questions now.” The customer smiled back, unfazed, and headed into the bank, paperwork in hand.

A Titanic for these times

The June issue of the Atlantic has a look at the mind-blowing Oasis of the Seas, a gargantuan ocean liner forthcoming from cruise company Royal Caribbean International. Its unprecedented scale of apparent luxury surely required feats of engineering. But any awe that inspires would seem to wash away with apprehension of the ship’s untold economic and ecological hubris.

A decade ago, a large cruise ship typically carried in the neighborhood of 2,000 passengers and 1,000 crew members. But in an industry intently focused on swelling its profits no matter the non-fiscal costs, bigger is always better. Ordered in 2006 for $1.4 billion (on the crest ahead of the economic meltdown), the Oasis leaves those old numbers far in its wake. “In November,” writes Rory Nugent, “Royal Caribbean will take delivery of a true sea monster. Now in its final phase of construction, the Oasis of the Seas will be the biggest (longest, tallest, widest, heaviest) passenger ship ever built — and the most expensive. It will dwarf Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and cast shadows dockside atop 20-story buildings. A crew of 2,165 will tend the expectations of up to 6,296 passengers.” (Photos from the official Oasis site.)

Oasis2-Nov08 Oasisfloatout-Nov08

According to the Atlantic, the ship has 21 swimming pools onboard, circulating more than 600,000 gallons of water. Passengers are expected to consume another 560,000 gallons per day, including daily production of 110,230 pounds of ice cubes — more than the weight of nine adult male elephants. The Oasis will also function as “its own utility company” with a 100-megawatt electrical grid — which will consume 12 tons of diesel fuel per hour and generate enough juice to power 105,000 homes.

There is a 1,380-seat playhouse onboard, though it’s not even the main attraction. That would be the outdoor “AquaTheater,” which apparently is “wrapped in its own wind-shielded microclimate” and uses nearly 2,000 nozzles to spray water in concert with a Las Vegas-style light show.

Oasis-Atlanticmap

A good many people enjoy this kind of thing, the decadent vacation cruise. (Enough of them to support an industry with annual revenues in the tens of billions of dollars.) Based on the intuition that the experience might feel a bit like feasting on a nine-course meal in the middle of an Ethiopian refugee camp, I’ve never had any intention of trying it. David Foster Wallace famously once did. It’s a safe bet that the Oasis of the Seas would have left him royally retching. (His great essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” originally published in Harper’s in 1996 as “Shipping Out,” was made available online by the magazine after his tragic death last fall.)

From Florida to Alaska, the consumptive ships of Royal Caribbean have been in the news before. Seven years ago federal investigators determined that the cruise company had covered up massive environmental malfeasance, despite a case focusing on one of its ships, the Norway, that resolved with a $1 million slap on the wrist. As USA Today reported in November 2002:

Now, some of the federal agents who investigated the case say the company’s pollution went on for much longer and was much worse than the light fine suggests. Environmental Protection Agency agents say — and court records support — that the Norway not only poured hundreds of thousands of gallons of oily bilge water into the ocean. It also dumped raw sewage mixed with hazardous, even cancer-causing, chemicals from dry cleaning and photo development into the waters near Miami for many years.

In the late 1990s, according to that USA Today report, Royal Caribbean had eventually pleaded guilty to 30 criminal charges in Miami, New York, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles, the Virgin Islands and Alaska, and had paid $27 million in fines in 1998 and ’99. By the 2002 news report, it had “implemented a companywide environmental compliance program.”

About to embark with its new mega-ship (click on the first link in this post to zoom in on the above graphic), has it since cleaned up its act? A year ago this week, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship dumped 20,000 gallons of contaminated water just off the coast of Southeast Alaska.

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