Archive for the ‘health’ Tag

Vancouver’s bold war on drugs

For many years Vancouver has had a serious heroin addiction. So it’s heartening to see that one of the city’s boldest strategies for confronting the problem, launched eight years ago, is continuing to meet with serious success: Vancouver’s government-backed “supervised injection site” — the first of its kind in North America — has helped reduce the number of fatal drug overdoses in the city by 35 percent, according to a new scientific report detailed in the Vancouver Sun.

The news is gratifying for me personally, having invested deeply in the issue with a reporting project I did for Salon beginning in 2003. (My initial story from Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside — a neighborhood much changed these days, particularly since the 2010 Winter Games — is linked above.) Reporting another piece in 2006, one of the most striking things I found was that early results from Insite, as it’s called, had already converted some hardcore conservatives. Then city councilor George Chow — who had campaigned vigorously against the injection site when running for office — told me in fall 2006 that conservatives’ ideological fears had been misguided. They had declared that a government-sponsored facility for helping drug users shoot up would only breed more chaos.

“After three years that has not happened, even with an increase in the homeless,” Chow told me then. “Without this facility the drug problem would have been far more out of control. There would be an even bigger problem with HIV transmission and other issues.”

As I wrote at the time, research showed that Insite had also helped sharply reduce the sharing of dirty needles among street addicts and increased their entry into detox and addiction treatment programs. Supporters of Insite believed that the facility’s success would prove a beachhead for a less punitive and more humane war on drugs extending across Canada, and perhaps even to drug-troubled cities south of the Canadian border. Chow himself suggested that Toronto and Montreal, as well as U.S. cities with similar problems, should consider the policy already working so effectively in his own neighborhood.

Now, he and Insite’s other supporters can point not only to a reduction in fatal overdoses but also to a rigorous research report making that same recommendation. The report was published Sunday, as the Vancouver Sun noted, in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet:

The report, compiled by Canadian scientists from the Urban Health Research Initiative, the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and St. Paul’s Hospital, goes on to argue that Vancouver’s Insite — the country’s first safe-injection facility — should be replicated in other North American cities where drug use is a common problem. …

In a column accompanying the report, Dr. Chris Beyrer, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, commended the facility’s work in helping drug abusers. “Supervised injection facilities clearly have an important part to play in communities affected by drug use. They should be expanded to other affected sites in Canada, on the basis of the life-saving effects identified in Vancouver,” he wrote.

Maybe city leaders in Baltimore, San Francisco and New York City will finally take notice, too. For a deeper dive into Vancouver’s acute hard-drug crisis, and Insite’s role in helping contend with it, read this piece.

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.”

Big bake sale for Cary Tennis and King Kaufman

Around the turn of the year, two friends and former colleagues of mine at Salon, Cary Tennis and King Kaufman, were hit with serious health emergencies. In November, Cary announced in his beloved advice column that he was diagnosed with a rare cancer, sacral chordoma, and would have to undergo surgery, which took place on December 17th. Vividly and eloquently, he has been keeping friends and fans apprised of his situation on his Open Salon blog.

In early January, King was suddenly taken ill and hospitalized for a rare, devastating ailment, Guillain-Barré syndrome, the cause of which is essentially unknown. Fortunately, after three weeks in the hospital and a physical rehabilitation center, he is now back home with his wife and young kids, on his way to what his doctors say is likely to be a full recovery.

For most people nowadays, a serious health crisis inevitably brings with it some financial strain. Friends of Cary and King have rallied to put together a terrific auction on eBay, the proceeds of which will go toward supporting these two great guys through their difficult times. A throng of talented and accomplished Salon alumni have contributed: Dave Eggers, Zach Trenholm, Heather Havrilesky, Keith Knight, David Talbot, Scott Rosenberg, Kate Moses, Larry Smith and Laura Miller, to name a few. The array of items up for bid include signed first editions of books, photographs, paintings and other original artwork. More details about the project on this Web site set up by the talented and generous Mignon Khargie.

The auction begins on Tuesday, February 9, and runs through the rest of the week; please check it out here and bid on any of this great stuff in support of Cary and King.

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.

Untold damage of Iraq and Afghanistan

In recent months the war in Iraq had mostly retreated from the national headlines. It took the disturbing news of an American soldier apparently gunning down five of his fellow servicemen in a Baghdad “combat stress clinic” to jump-start any major media coverage. The killings provided the kind of sensational firepower the cable news networks seem to require for any sustained coverage — but the incident also highlighted a grave problem, one that America increasingly will have to confront as two long wars go on.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert says that he “couldn’t have been less surprised” by the fratricide in Baghdad. “The fact that this occurred at a mental health counseling center in the war zone just served to add an extra layer of poignancy and a chilling ironic element to the fundamental tragedy,” he wrote on Tuesday. “The psychic toll of this foolish and apparently endless war has been profound since day one. And the nation’s willful denial of that toll has been just as profound.”

ptsd header - The Veterans Health Research Institute

A Washington Post report on Sunday laid out the bleak metrics for anyone who might care to look:

Since 2001, nearly 1 million soldiers have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 300,000 of them have served multiple combat rotations, most lasting 12 to 15 months. Currently there are 160,000 soldiers in those war zones, and of those, nearly 30,000 are on at least their third or fourth tour, Pentagon data show.

An estimated 20 percent of service members return from the wars psychologically damaged, with depression or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as nightmares, hyper-vigilance and emotional numbing, according to a Rand Corp. study last year.

That’s tens of thousands of combat veterans with psychological damage.

And there is no end in sight for the predicament — for the near-term at least, the total number of troops in the war zones is going up, with President Obama deploying another 20,000 to Afghanistan.

That escalation sparked debate in a conversation I had with a couple of friends over the weekend regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan. The question we grappled with: Now under Obama’s leadership, what exactly is the U.S. trying to accomplish in the region? None of us could come up with a clear answer.

Steve Coll suggests that Obama’s aid-driven approach is focused on hearts and minds, that it “seeks to alter the daily experiences and thus the political outlooks of Afghan and Pakistani civilians” and thereby drain recruiting pools for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But as I wrote about here recently, the concurrent heavy use of air power is exacting a counterproductive cost. As Coll also notes: “Four years ago, polls showed that eighty-three per cent of Afghans held a favorable view of the United States; today, only half do, and the trajectory is downward. Persistent civilian casualties caused by air strikes in rural Afghanistan are a major cause of this deterioration.”

That may help explain why a top U.S. military commander would try to mislead the public about U.S. air strikes gone wrong. The foolish thing about that tactic, of course, is that the illusion can’t last for long.

Daphne Merkin’s literary depression

There is a peculiar quality to “A Journey Through Darkness,” Daphne Merkin’s memoir of chronic depression published this week in the Times Magazine. Her intimate account of lifelong struggle with the disease, centered on her latest stint in a Manhattan psychiatric facility in 2008, evokes the perspective of a highly intelligent, sensitive, deeply troubled soul. Even if the trappings are familiar from numerous other written explorations of the subject, her story seems to shed light on the dark terrain of mental illness by way of an intense personal account.

But an intriguing question sits at the margins: Who, exactly, is telling this story?

merkinmemoir

Merkin is a skilled writer with a clear command of technique. Memory has been and always will be a writer’s imperfect tool. But something about her in-depth reflection feels a little too… artful. It begins and ends with the bright imagery of ocean beaches, neatly bookending the tale of her latest debilitating episode. There is elevated language and metaphor all over the place. “Soggy as my brain is from being wrenched off a slew of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications in the last 10 days, I reach for a Coleridgian suspension of disbelief, ignoring the roar of traffic and summoning up the sound of breaking waves,” she writes of an attempt at mental escape from the hospital grounds.

And: “Depression — the thick black paste of it, the muck of bleakness — was nothing new to me.”

And: “When I was awake (the few hours that I was), I felt a kind of lethal fatigue, as if I were swimming through tar.”

And: “I felt as if I were being wished bon voyage over and over again, perennially about to leave on a trip that never happened.”

And: “In truth there was more uncharted time than not, especially for the depressives — great swaths of white space that wrapped themselves around the day, creating an undertow of lassitude.”

As with that last flourish, there are other assertions of truth telling. Which is not to say her story is untruthful.

Merkin has in the past written publicly about her experience with depression, and to her credit here she points at a vexing problem of distinction — it’s almost as if she’s questioning her own reliability as narrator:

Whatever fantasies I once harbored about the haven-like possibilities of a psychiatric facility or the promise of a definitive, once-and-for-all cure were shattered by my last stay 15 years earlier. I had written about the experience, musing on the gap between the alternately idealized and diabolical image of mental hospitals versus the more banal bureaucratic reality. I discussed the continued stigma attached to going public with the experience of depression, but all this had been expressed by the writer in me rather than the patient, and it seemed to me that part of the appeal of the article was the impression it gave that my hospital days were behind me. It would be a betrayal of my literary persona, if nothing else, to go back into a psychiatric unit.

Certainly a writer aims to convey an experience as vividly as possible. Merkin’s work gives the sense she is deeply invested in sorting out her experience, both for herself and for her audience. (Having that audience, as she seems to know, could be a particularly complicating factor.) Yet as carefully constructed as it is, something about her story feels distinctly blurred.

Maybe it’s of a piece with a vexing question about the treatment of mental illness, one I’ve often puzzled over when concerned for people I know who are afflicted: Where, exactly, is the line between the physical and the psychological?

In that respect Merkin’s deliberate prose does little to help us out of the dark.

Sick with swine flu racism

The threat of a deadly swine flu pandemic appears to be fading, despite an outbreak of hype that one former CNN reporter says stemmed from the media’s “economic vested interest in promoting the fear.”

But fear may well be lingering — fueled by animosity toward Mexicans — thanks to a rash of comments from some of America’s nastiest right-wing broadcast personalities.

Ignoring news reports that some swine flu victims inside the U.S. likely contracted the virus during recent trips to Mexico, Fox News regular Michelle Malkin asserted: “I’ve blogged for years about the spread of contagious diseases from around the world into the U.S. as a result of uncontrolled immigration.”

“No contact anywhere with an illegal alien!” radio host Michael Savage warned listeners about the contagion threat. “And that starts in the restaurants,” he said, where you “don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands.”

As Media Matters for America reported, radio host Neil Boortz stoked fears of a “bioterrorist” plot, asking, “What better way to sneak a virus into this country than to give it to Mexicans?”

Savage also ran with that idea: “There is certainly the possibility that our dear friends in the Middle East cooked this up in a laboratory somewhere in a cave and brought it to Mexico knowing that our incompetent government would not protect us from this epidemic because of our open-border policies.” He suggested terrorists may realize that Mexicans “are the perfect mules for bringing this virus into America.”

limbaugh-studioRush Limbaugh ranted about an Obama administration conspiracy to use both the swine flu scare and the renewed debate over torture “to cover up the mess that is the United States of America right now.” (One wonders if he’s including Dick Cheney’s prominent role in the latter.)

While such ugliness from this bunch is predictable, it’s worth remembering that these folks have sizeable to large audiences. Moreover, the rank xenophobia underscores an uneasy truth: America has yet to contend in a serious way with its enormous immigration problem.

Obama continues promising to do so, as when he campaigned for president. The task, like many others since last fall, has been swallowed up in the nation’s economic maelstrom — but it’s inextricable. (So is overhauling health care in Obama’s view.) As Colin Powell emphasized when I interviewed him back in 2007 — not long after immigration had commanded headlines in a national election cycle — dealing with the issue is at once a moral and economic imperative. In an hour-long conversation covering much political ground, Powell’s comments on the matter stood out. We should do everything we can, he said, to admit people legally, dry up the flow of illegals and defend our borders. “But let’s recognize that these folks, whether legal or illegal, are making an enormous contribution to America’s well-being. They do the jobs that others don’t want to do.”

He continued: “It’s outrageous for us to take advantage of this population of 12 million people, to use them to cut our grass and build our houses and repair our streets, but keep them illegal and subject to deportation. That’s not equitable — that’s not America. We have to find a dignified way to work through with this population.”

With the swine flu scare, the unpleasant opportunism of the far right reflects how incredibly far we still have to go.

A fevered case of swine flu hype

Will the outbreak of the H1N1 virus get historically serious? According to global health experts, the answer is that nobody really knows. Pandemics tend to hit in waves, and the biggest danger could come this winter.

pigFor now the news media is maintaining its fever pitch as long as possible, of course, hungry to feast at the ratings trough. As one analyst told Howard Kurtz yesterday, “Cable news has 24 hours to fill, and there isn’t 24 hours of exciting news going on. If you scare people, they’ll tune in more.” Still, when flipping past CNBC on Monday afternoon I was a bit shocked to encounter the blaring graphic “Pandemic Pandemonium” accompanying a discussion about reaction on Wall Street. (In fact, the market barely budged early this week.)

Naturally, some news consumers are caught up in the hallucinatory chatter. From an inquiry to Bay Area physician and blogger Doc Gurley — posted, I kid you not, under the headline Swine Flu Sex? — on SFGate today:

Dear Doc,

My husband and I are trying to get pregnant. We’ve just recently “put the pedal to the floor” and are undergoing fertility treatment. Now I’m concerned that I may be putting myself and an unborn fetus at extra risk for the Swine Flu that is wending its way down the pipeline. Included in this concern is the fact that I’ve heard that anti-virus medications can adversely affect a developing fetus, which means it would be a lose/lose case scenario if I had the opportunity to prevent an imminent case in the future. Should we shelve this project for a few months or what?

Gurley replies that pregnant women do have “very mildly” suppressed immune systems. However, she continues, “The fact is, given the way the world (and media coverage) works, there will, undoubtedly, never be a time when the world looks rosy, all-welcoming, and risk-free. Yesterday’s potential nuclear annihilation is today’s swine flu. It’s a wonder, in fact, that any baby ever sticks its head out.”

If they only knew about the likes of AC360 or Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

Mexico, meanwhile, now suffers from a confluence of maladies. As GlobalPost’s Ioan Grillo reports from Tijuana: “Amid a U.S. recession, a fever pitch fear of the Mexican drug war and now an epidemic of swine flu sweeping across Mexico, Humberto Beltran says business at his border city store has nosedived 85 percent this April compared to the same time last year.”

From North America to the Far East, another pressing question has arisen amid the swine flu scare: Is it still OK to love bacon?

UPDATE: As of Wednesday afternoon the World Health Organization has raised its alert level, determining that a “pandemic is imminent.” So too is plenty more cable news yammer.

America loves doga! (Or, a brief meditation on the dubious trend story)

It’s a kind of yoga. You do it with your dog. No, seriously. Together with your pooch you stretch, you meditate, you pose. The New York Times reported on this recently. Maybe you’d already heard about it, but probably not. (More on that in a minute.) For an hour or so on the evening of April 8 the story was featured, replete with large photo, atop the leading news site. It was number one on the Times’ list of most e-mailed stories for a couple days thereafter. Apparently doga is a rising trend in America, worthy of much attention.

Or is it? Indeed, there’s a bit of a journalism issue here, but first things first: Sure, the pictures of the dogs were pretty cute and/or pretty funny, and who doesn’t love cute-funny dogs, and who wouldn’t click gleefully on a slide show with additional pictures of cute-funny dogs, thereby contributing to what certainly must’ve been a big spike in page views for nytimes.com.

There’s probably not much reason to add that partner yoga with your dog may sound like one of the more inane things you’ve ever heard of, because others are likely to say that (yogis among them), as well as to suggest that the dogs involved may well be feeling less than enlightened by the activity, and anyway, the photos (by Michael Nagle) from the Times’ slide show really do speak for themselves:

upwarddog1
dogwarriors enlightenment

There is good reason to add, however, that claims about doga’s growing popularity across the land seem howlingly suspect. Behold the all too common trend story that offers no real evidence of a trend.

After a brief opening anecdote about a few people in Chicago, New York and Seattle variously contorting with their Jack Russell terriers and Shih Tzus, the Times report says this of doga (emphasis mine):

Ludicrous? Possibly. Grist for anyone who thinks that dog-owners have taken yoga too far? Perhaps. But nationwide, classes of doga — yoga with dogs, as it is called — are increasing in number and popularity. Since Ms. Caliendo, a certified yoga instructor in Chicago, began to teach doga less than one year ago, her classes have doubled in size.

That’s it, folks. The rest of the article contains no further quantitative information about the purported legions of spiritually enlightened pet owners caught up in the craze.

Perhaps the Times reporter spotted some sort of trend in other stories about the alleged trend: The Associated Press covered it back in 2007, and ABC News published a story on April 1 (whose date apparently was a coincidence, although you could be forgiven for thinking the story was fake.) ABC included San Francisco and Jacksonville, Fla., on the list of locales and described a few doga accessories being sold. But no hard numbers there, either. Instead, the story leaned on “pet trend expert” Maggie Gallant to claim that doga “has the potential to be a very widespread trend.” As Gallant panted, “There are 75 million homes in America that have dogs and about 13 million people practicing yoga.”

Kudos to Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich for sniffing out the truth. With a little follow-up reporting, she discovered that the Chicago locale cited in the Times article — the one where classes “have doubled in size” — now offers one doga class a week, with three to 12 students in each.

Aside from whatever benefits may lie in store for dog owners who team up with their beloved furry ones for stretching and meditation, it seems that America’s big embrace of doga turns out to be, well, a particular kind of scoop indeed.

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