Archives for May 2018

Puerto Rico’s devastation takes a backseat to Roseanne coverage

Pete Vernon writes:

For those who argue that the media has misplaced priorities when it comes to coverage choices, this week has provided a case study to support their position. While media outlets from cable news to digital publishers obsessed over the cancellation of ABC’s Roseanne, a report on the staggering death toll in Puerto Rico has, in comparison, been met with relative silence.

Researchers from Harvard University estimate that at least 4,645 deaths can be linked to Hurricane Maria and its immediate aftermath, more than 70 times the official count of 64. The Washington Post’s Arelis R. Hernández and Laurie McGinley write that “the island’s slow recovery has been marked by a persistent lack of water, a faltering power grid and a lack of essential services—all imperiling the lives of many residents, especially the infirm and those in remote areas hardest hit in September.”

The Harvard study has a wide margin of error, but even at the low end of its range, the death count from Maria would place the disaster on par with the devastation wrought by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. The news received coverage from numerous outlets, but it was swamped by the firestorm surrounding the cancellation of a sitcom. [Continue reading…]

FBI official wrote secret memo fearing Trump got a cover story for Comey firing

The New York Times reports:

The former acting F.B.I. director, Andrew G. McCabe, wrote a confidential memo last spring recounting a conversation that offered significant behind-the-scenes details on the firing of Mr. McCabe’s predecessor, James B. Comey, according to several people familiar with the discussion.

Mr. Comey’s firing is a central focus of the special counsel’s investigation into whether President Trump tried to obstruct the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia. Mr. McCabe has turned over his memo to the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.

In the document, whose contents have not been previously reported, Mr. McCabe described a conversation at the Justice Department with the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, in the chaotic days last May after Mr. Comey’s abrupt firing. Mr. Rosenstein played a key role in the dismissal, writing a memo that rebuked Mr. Comey over his handling of an investigation into Hillary Clinton.

But in the meeting at the Justice Department, Mr. Rosenstein added a new detail: He said the president had originally asked him to reference Russia in his memo, the people familiar with the conversation said. Mr. Rosenstein did not elaborate on what Mr. Trump had wanted him to say.

To Mr. McCabe, that seemed like possible evidence that Mr. Comey’s firing was actually related to the F.B.I.’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, and that Mr. Rosenstein helped provide a cover story by writing about the Clinton investigation. [Continue reading…]

Why Russia is celebrating a journalist’s fake death in Ukraine

Coda Story reports:

When the news broke that the prominent Russian journalist and Putin-foe Arkady Babchenko had been murdered in exile in Kiev, it looked like everything was following a sadly familiar script.

As tributes began pouring in, his fellow journalists across the world wrote up their obituaries about the third critic of the Russian leader to be killed in the Ukrainian capital in the last 18 months alone.

Reportedly shot in the back at home, Babchenko’s murder, as Ukraine’s Prime Minister was quick to point out, appeared to have had all the hallmarks of another Kremlin-ordered contract killing.

The Russian government and the many media outlets it controls looked like they were on script too — circling the wagons in a familiarly defensive ring against the accusations that Moscow was responsible.

But then, to the sound of ringing phones at a hastily organized news conference in Kiev, the script was ripped up. Babchenko walked into the room, very much alive. His death was fake news.

Standing next to Ukraine’s top security officials, Babchenko explained that he had just taken part in a sting operation aimed at catching real assassins who had been sent by Moscow to kill him and others.

As the Ukrainian officials revealed the very undead journalist turned special service agent, they looked pleased. But it was, arguably, the Russian government that could not believe its luck.

In the words of “Moskovsky Komsomolec,” one of Russia’s biggest tabloids, the fake death of Babchenko was “a gift for the Kremlin.” [Continue reading…]

How the resurgence of white supremacy in the U.S. sparked a war over free speech

Alex Blasdel writes:

Late last summer, the American Civil Liberties Union faced a mounting crisis over its most celebrated cause, which many consider the lifeblood of democracy: freedom of speech. For nearly a century, the ACLU has been the standard-bearer of civil liberties in the US, second only to the government in shaping Americans’ basic rights. Although the organisation has been at the vanguard of many of the country’s most hard-fought legal battles – desegregation, reproductive rights, gay marriage – the argument among its staff last summer, over whether to continue representing white supremacists in free-speech cases, was more intense than anything the organisation had seen before.

After Donald Trump was elected, the ACLU had positioned itself as a leader of what it calls “the resistance”, suing the administration over voting restrictions, illegal detentions, and the Muslim travel ban. It recruited celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Mahershala Ali and Tina Fey to raise money and reassure worried Americans. “The ACLU has had your back for almost a hundred years,” one ad declared. “We got this.” In the nine months after the election, the organisation’s paying membership quadrupled to more than 1.5 million people, and it received more than $80m in donations.

Then, on 10 August, the organisation’s Virginia chapter sued to prevent the city of Charlottesville from relocating a white-nationalist rally to a safer location outside the city centre. The ACLU claimed the move would violate the organiser’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech and public assembly. Two days later, when a white supremacist injured 19 people and killed the anti-racist protester Heather Heyer in a car attack during the rally, many people, including Virginia’s governor, blamed the ACLU. One response in particular became a symbol of the larger backlash: “I can’t facilitate Nazis murdering people,” an ACLU of Virginia board member declared, in a series of viral tweets announcing his resignation.

Since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has helped make the US home to arguably the most freewheeling, unregulated public discourse in the world. And it has done this partly by defending, in the courts of law and public opinion, the speech rights of racists and fascists. The ACLU asserts that laws guaranteeing freedom of speech must embrace everybody (think the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis) if they’re going to protect anybody (think organised labour, anti-war protesters and Black Lives Matter). “The same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you,” its website explains. [Continue reading…]

Putin’s opponents are being assassinated one by one … minus one

In February, 2017, Arkady Babchenko wrote:

I can tell you what political harassment feels like in Putin’s Russia. Like many dissidents I am used to abuse, but a recent campaign against me was so personal, so scary, that I was forced to flee.

Two months ago, a Russian plane transporting the world-famous military choir Alexandrov Ensemble crashed into the Black Sea en route to Syria. They were travelling to perform for pilots involved in Russia’s air campaign on Aleppo.

I wrote a post about this on Facebook. I didn’t call for anything or insult anyone. I just reminded my readers that Russia was indiscriminately bombing Aleppo, without recognising that dozens of children were dying in those bombs, their photographs making their way around the world. I also called Russia an aggressor.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and occupied parts of eastern Ukraine, starting a war which has left at least 10,000 people dead. Prior to that, Russia occupied part of Georgia with its bombs and tanks.

After all these wars and deaths, I felt only one thing when I heard that the representatives of Russia’s military had died: indifference. But for some, expressing this on Facebook was not patriotic enough. And so it began.

The first to speak out was Vitaly Milonov, a State Duma deputy who is famous for his homophobia and obscurantism. Milonov called on the powers that be to deprive me and Bozhena Rynska, another journalist who wrote an insufficiently patriotic post on Facebook, of Russian citizenship, to deport us and confiscate our property.

Then Senator Frants Klintsevich spoke out, calling for us to be dealt with “according to the law” and assuring us there would be a “reaction”. And the campaign began to snowball. [Continue reading…]


BBC News reports:

Ukraine staged the murder of a Russian dissident journalist in Kiev on Tuesday in what it said was a sting operation to foil a Russian assassination plot.

Arkady Babchenko sent shock waves around the world when he arrived at a news conference on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after being reported dead.

Ukrainian security chief Vasyl Hrytsak said a sting had been set up to catch hitmen paid by Russian forces. [Continue reading…]

Shaun Walker writes:

Babchenko really did flee Russia in fear, and there may well have been a genuine assassination plot. The question is whether Ukrainian authorities, in preventing a killing (if that is indeed what they have done) did more harm than good, and whether there was any less provocative way to achieve the same ends.

The next time a Kremlin critic is shot to death, or poisoned, or falls curiously from their balcony to die on the concrete below, the first question is always going to be: are they really dead?

There’s no doubt that we can expect the “Babchenko defence” to be used as Moscow’s stock response to reports or even photographs of various Russia-linked atrocities for years to come.

“Next time you show me photos from Syria by ‘White Helmets’ I will show photo of ‘dead Arkady Babchenko killed by Putin’,” wrote one pro-Russian Twitter user, in a small taste of what is surely to come in large quantities. [Continue reading…]

BuzzFeed reports:

American-born British financier Bill Browder, an outspoken Kremlin critic, was briefly detained by police in Madrid acting on what he described as a “Russian Interpol arrest warrant” on Wednesday morning.

Browder, who has led an international campaign to crack down on financial corruption by Russian officials, was eventually released amid a surge of criticism from European politicians over his detention. Spanish police insisted he had only been detained while they checked the Russian warrant which was found to be invalid.

The two hours of drama and confusion began just after 8:30 a.m. Madrid time when the former boss of Hermitage Capital tweeted that he been “arrested”. [Continue reading…]

More evidence of Trump’s efforts to obstruct the Mueller investigation

The New York Times reports:

By the time Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrived at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort for dinner one Saturday evening in March 2017, he had been receiving the presidential silent treatment for two days. Mr. Sessions had flown to Florida because Mr. Trump was refusing to take his calls about a pressing decision on his travel ban.

When they met, Mr. Trump was ready to talk — but not about the travel ban. His grievance was with Mr. Sessions: The president objected to his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Mr. Trump, who had told aides that he needed a loyalist overseeing the inquiry, berated Mr. Sessions and told him he should reverse his decision, an unusual and potentially inappropriate request.

Mr. Sessions refused.

The confrontation, which has not been previously reported, is being investigated by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, as are the president’s public and private attacks on Mr. Sessions and efforts to get him to resign. Mr. Trump dwelled on the recusal for months, according to confidants and current and former administration officials who described his behavior toward the attorney general.

The special counsel’s interest demonstrates Mr. Sessions’s overlooked role as a key witness in the investigation into whether Mr. Trump tried to obstruct the inquiry itself. It also suggests that the obstruction investigation is broader than it is widely understood to be — encompassing not only the president’s interactions with and firing of the former F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, but also his relationship with Mr. Sessions. [Continue reading…]

‘We can’t see a future’: Group takes EU to court over climate change

The Guardian reports:

Lawyers acting for a group including a French lavender farmer and members of the indigenous Sami community in Sweden have launched legal action against the EU’s institutions for failing to adequately protect them against climate change.

A case is being pursued in the Luxembourg-based general court, Europe’s second highest, against the European parliament and the council of the European Union for allowing overly high greenhouse gas emissions to continue until 2030.

The families, including young children, claim their lives have been blighted by the policy decisions in Brussels, and that the EU’s inadequate emissions targets will cause more suffering.

The legal complaint asserts that the EU’s existing climate target to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, does not protect their fundamental rights of life, health, occupation and property. [Continue reading…]

The total information awareness we feared the government acquiring, we have freely given to the tech giants

Renee DiResta writes:

“Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend—all these transactions and communications will go into … a virtual, centralized grand database,” the New York Times columnist warns.

On the heels of Mark Zuckerberg’s numerous government testimonies and sustained criticism over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the author of this Times column must be talking about Facebook—right? Or perhaps the web’s broader, ad-based business model?

Not so: The William Safire column, “You Are a Suspect,” was published in the Times in 2002—two years before Facebook was created. And Safire isn’t talking about social networks or digital advertising—he’s discussing Total Information Awareness, a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) program that proposed mining vast amounts of Americans’ data to identify potential national security threats. The virtual grand database was to belong to the Department of Defense, which would use it to identify behavior patterns that would help to predict emerging terrorist threats.

Today, we’re voluntarily participating in the dystopian scenario Safire envisioned 16 years ago, with each bit of data handed to companies like Facebook and Google. But in this system, private companies are our information repositories—leaving us to reckon with the consequences of a world that endows corporations with the kind of data once deemed too outrageous for the government. [Continue reading…]

ABC only did the right thing when it could no longer get away with ignoring Roseanne’s racism

Roxane Gay writes:

On Twitter on Tuesday, Roseanne Barr wrote that if “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby =vj.” The message referred to President Barack Obama’s former senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, and in it Ms. Barr traded on age-old racist ideas about black people and primates. Then she shared some incorrect nonsense about Chelsea Clinton marrying into the Soros family.

It was the kind of thing Roseanne Barr has been doing online for years. This time, however, the backlash was immediate and vigorous. Ms. Barr apologized for her “joke” that wasn’t really a joke and said she was leaving Twitter as if Twitter were responsible for her racist behavior. That apology was not enough. ICM Partners, her agents, stopped representing her. The comedian Wanda Sykes, who was a consulting producer on the reboot of “Roseanne,” announced that she was quitting the show. Within a matter of hours, ABC canceled the new “Roseanne” and the original show’s reruns were pulled from TV Land, CMT and the Paramount Network.

For once, a major network did the right thing. But before it did the right thing, it did the wrong thing. It is not new information that Roseanne Barr makes racist, Islamophobic and misogynistic statements and is happy to peddle all manner of dangerous conspiracy theories. ABC knew this when it greenlighted the “Roseanne” reboot. ABC knew this when it quickly renewed the reboot for a second season, buoyed, no doubt, by the show’s strong ratings.

The cast, the writers and the producers knew what Ms. Barr stood for when they agreed to work on the show. Everyone involved made a decision to support the show despite its co-creator’s racism. They decided that their career ambitions, or desire to return to network television, or financial interests would best be served by looking the other way. It was only when Ms. Barr became an immediate liability that everyone involved finally looked at her racism and dealt with it directly. [Continue reading…]

The Standard Model of particle physics: The absolutely amazing theory of almost everything

File 20180521 14978 36nv6i.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
How does our world work on a subatomic level?
Varsha Y S, CC BY-SA

By Glenn Starkman, Case Western Reserve University

The Standard Model. What dull name for the most accurate scientific theory known to human beings.

More than a quarter of the Nobel Prizes in physics of the last century are direct inputs to or direct results of the Standard Model. Yet its name suggests that if you can afford a few extra dollars a month you should buy the upgrade. As a theoretical physicist, I’d prefer The Absolutely Amazing Theory of Almost Everything. That’s what the Standard Model really is.

Many recall the excitement among scientists and media over the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson. But that much-ballyhooed event didn’t come out of the blue – it capped a five-decade undefeated streak for the Standard Model. Every fundamental force but gravity is included in it. Every attempt to overturn it to demonstrate in the laboratory that it must be substantially reworked – and there have been many over the past 50 years – has failed.

In short, the Standard Model answers this question: What is everything made of, and how does it hold together?

[Read more…]