One knapsack bomb, three dead. Scores wounded. No one terrorized. Lots of angst and inconvenience.
Days of great video and standup opportunities for TV stars who parachute in.
You want news of a real weapon of mass destruction? Try ammonium nitrate fertilizer stored in tanks in the tiny town of West, Texas. At least 14 dead. Hundreds wounded. High school and nursing home blitzed. Dozens of homes destroyed.
You want heroic first responders? No one photographed the West volunteer firefighters and EMTs who rushed to a fire where something went awfully, terribly wrong.
There are no images of them charging toward the blast, as there was of Boston on the Sports Illustrated cover. The ammonium nitrate blast killed them where they stood, battling the fire or trying to evacuate neighbors.
For at least a week, West has been a “meanwhile” throwaway line for the national news media endlessly agonizing and rhapsodizing about Boston.
Searching through rubble for Texans’ bodies or digging for causes of the blast in a nowhere village aren’t great video.
The West disaster inspired no Republicans to demand greater immigration restrictions or further loss of our rights in pursuit of their security fantasies.
Rarely have national media exhibited such venality as in their seemingly unending coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing/bombers and indifference to the far more lethal fertilizer explosion. News media already were in Boston for the marathon, perfect for feeding the 24/7 news cycle and debased social media.
Rural Texas? Flyover land. West is too distant to keep sending reporters, producers, videographers, sound technicians, photographers. An exception was NPR’s Wade Goodwyn. Based in Dallas, he knew what he was talking about when he reported from West.
But for Obama’s visit more than a week after the blast, would national news media have given us the names or faces of the Texans who died there? When did the news media report how badly scores of Texas survivors were injured? Lost eyes or limbs? Gashes and punctures from shattered windows and flying debris?
Journalists dwelt on the resilience of Boston-area residents and marathon runners, but what about the resilience of the West families?
Three innocent spectators died in Boston. Eleven local first responders — among the 14 reported dead — in Texas apparently were innocent of the danger they faced from tanks of stored and explosive fertilizer.
Given the remote chance of a terrorist attack, we really should fear toxic, flammable and/or explosive industrial chemicals stored near us and our ignorance of those hazards.
Then there are chemicals we know about, such as chlorine at the Cincinnati Water Works: low-risk but high-impact if something goes wrong.
Once, feds required public access to that information in local libraries. Now, in pursuit of misnamed “national security,” it’s no longer available to us, although fire departments are supposed to have current storage/manufacturing data.
Instead of responding to anxieties about terrorism nourished by news media, worry about what we’re not told about potentially explosive cargoes on interstates and Ohio River barge tows.
Similarly, don’t look to local news media for substantive reporting on the relative risks of bombers versus massive industrial negligence/accidents. Few reporters have the time or inclination to probe the failures of federal and state industrial inspections and accompanying risks of lethal explosion or chemical release.
And don’t look to state legislatures and Congress to tighten regulations or boost EPA, OSHA or other inspection staffs; not with the GOP running so many state governments and the House.
The AP says OSHA has jurisdiction over 7 million workplaces and last inspected West Chemical and Fertilizer Co. in 1985. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded 4,609 accidental industrial deaths in 2011, the latest year with complete numbers.
If we want scary, those largely unnoticed numbers are scary.
Few people die in this country from
domestic or foreign terrorism but news media lose all sense of
proportion in reporting them. It’s better than a hurricane.
• In a disturbing decision, public radio’s Radiolab (WVXU-FM 8 p.m. Sundays) gave Cincinnatian Phil Heimlich critical control over its March 5 program on Phil’s dad, Henry Heimlich.
Phil arranged the interview with the aging physician, for whom the Heimlich Maneuver is named. However, producer Pat Walters had to promise to exclude the voice of Phil’s estranged younger brother, Peter, from any subsequent broadcast.
Peter is a scathing critic of their father’s therapeutic claims for the Maneuver and more recent medical experiments.
Phil told Curmudgeon that he feared Walters would ask their father about the troubled family relationships. “Like any son, I’m somewhat protective of him,” Phil said. “He’s 93 . . . We don’t let just anybody come up and interview him.”
Peter told Curmudgeon that he was unaware of this bargain when he cooperated with Walters for the Radiolab story.
I have no trouble with Phil’s setting conditions for arranging the interview. My beef is with Radiolab. It could have refused. Similarly, I’m not going into Heimlich’s therapeutic theories and claims; I’m writing about Radiolab’s handling of the story.
I’m troubled by Radiolab’s willingness to silence an important critic and a source of its information in exchange for access to the elder Heimlich. Further, if Walters failed to tell Peter about his deal with Phil, that’s unethical, especially since Walters told Peter, “I want you to speak for yourself.”
Peter elaborated in a recent email to Curmudgeon: “I was first approached by Radiolab last August when they asked to interview me for broadcast.
I wasn't informed that, five months earlier, they'd cut the censorship deal, so they obtained my interview under false pretenses. Further, in the following months, Radiolab producer Pat Walters took up hours of my time, encouraging me to provide him with information and documents. I only learned about the censorship deal a couple weeks ago, when the program disclosed it on their website. If I'd known that Radiolab was this underhanded, I wouldn't have given them a minute of my time -- and I'd encourage other sources to keep their distance.”
Over the years, Peter has dealt with lots of reporters. I asked, "Have you encountered this kind of deal before?"
Peter responded, “I've never heard of a deal like this . . . and how many other Radiolab stories have included deals like this?”
Radiolab’s website includes a link to the 25-minute program, including the interview with Heimlich. Radiolab’s website text says:
“In the 1970s, choking became national news: thousands were choking to death, leading to more accidental deaths than guns. Nobody knew what to do. Until a man named Henry Heimlich came along with a big idea. Since then, thousands and thousands — maybe even millions — have been rescued by the Heimlich maneuver. Yet the story of the man who invented it may not have such a happy ending.
“Producer Pat Walters wouldn't be here without the Heimlich maneuver — it saved his life when he was just 11 years old. And one day he started wondering - who was Heimlich, anyway? And how did he come up with his choking remedy? Pat had always kinda assumed Heimlich died in the mid-1800s. Not so. The man is very much alive: he's 93 years old, and calls Cincinnati, Ohio, home.”
Given the conflict of interest, letting choking survivor Walters do the interview was a mistake. Here are the guts of Radiolab’s online Producer’s Note:
“We made some minor changes to this story that do not alter the substance.
“(W)e removed the audio of Peter Heimlich, Henry Heimlich’s son, from the version now on the site. When we approached Henry’s other son Phil to arrange an interview with his father, one of Phil’s conditions was that we not air audio of Peter. We thought he’d waived that provision in a subsequent conversation but he contends he did not. So we are honoring the original request.”
The version available online begins with a light-hearted exchange among Radiolab personalities in their WNYC studio of New York Public Radio. The conversation between Walters and Henry Heimlich at Heimlich’s home maintains that chummy tone.
Then Walters shifts to controversies over Heimlich’s Maneuver to resuscitate drowning victims and other medical theories. Walters also interviews experts who disagree with Heimlich. When Walters lets Heimlich speak for himself, the physician accuses critics of jealousy and self-interest.
Walters lets the American Red Cross explain why it (quietly) abandoned decades of support for the Maneuver as the first response to choking and returned common backslaps.
“Nonsense,” Heimlich responded.
The Red Cross also abandoned Heimlich’s name for its maneuver. Now, it’s “abdominal thrusts.” Heimlich says abdominal thrusts are not the same as his Maneuver and he’s offended by the whole affair.
Peter — who provided emails from which I worked — continues to press Radiolab on its decision to erase his voice from its broadcast. Its latest response refers him to the program’s original online statements.
• Stunning, avoidable reporting mistakes followed the Boston Marathon bombing. They began when the New York Post said a Saudi man was hospitalized, under guard and might be a bomber. Days later, as the hunt ended, CNN said the captured younger suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was driven away by police. CNN said Tsarnaev was not wounded or his wounds were so slight that no ambulance was required. Wrong. He left in an ambulance; his wounds were so serious that it was unclear when he would speak to interrogators or appear in court.
• Was there a gun battle after a Watertown resident saw the wounded man in his boat and called police? Some media say no gun was found or the 19-year-old didn’t shoot.
• Speaking of mistakes, Businessinsider.com described another blunder when reporters didn’t name sources or verify leaks. “According to a source at CNN, the network was the first to report that a suspect had been identified. Anchor John King sent in a report around 1 p.m. that a source ‘briefed’ on the investigation had told King a positive identification had been made. CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist approved that report, according to the source.
“According to the source, who was reviewing internal email logs, Fran Townsend was the first at the network to say that an arrest had been made. ‘As I think everyone knows, we really fucked up. No way around it,’ the source said.
“The source said that the network's email network went quiet for a 15-minute period shortly after the retraction — ‘so people [were] either being more cautious or getting yelled at.’
“Townsend's report came around the same time as other outlets, including the Associated Press and the Boston Globe, also reported an arrest, so it is not clear whether CNN was the first to make the mistake . . . Wednesday's false arrest reports also drew a scathing rebuke from the FBI, which urged the press ‘to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting’."
This is shabby journalism. CNN went with a report attributed to someone who had been briefed by someone who knew something. No names. No identifiable links to investigation. Simply assertions. We could have waited until CNN verified or debunked the report but editors fear that hesitation can drive viewers to other, less scrupulous sources. At least Businessinsider.com appeared accurate in its use of its unnamed CNN sources.
• Social media — better called anti-social media in the aftermath of the marathon bombings - spread so much misinformation and falsely accused so many young men that the FBI had to release images of its suspects: the Tsarnaev brothers. It was the only way to protect wrongly accused men from vigilante justice, even though the suspects might be following the chase on their cellphones.
• London’s Daily Mail reported some inadvertent humor among the errors:
Boston’s Fox 4 scrolled across the bottom of the screen that the suspect sought in Watertown was “19-year-old Zooey Deschanel.” Alerted to her new and unwanted celebrity, Uproxx.com said, the 33-year-old star of the Fox sitcom, New Girl, tweeted, “Whoa! Epic closed captioning FAIL!”
Gawker.com said NBC anchor Brian Williams cut to New England Cable News for an update on the Watertown chase and listeners heard an unnamed reporter, “Oh, you’re not listening? Well, I don’t know shit.”
• It’s no surprise that Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post was unmatched for sheer bloodymindedness. Here’s the HuffingtonPost.com summary:
The Post said 12 people had died, when only three had; it said a Saudi man was a “suspect” in “custody” when he wasn't; and it splashed pictures of two young “BAG MEN” on its front page even though it did not know whether they were suspects. They were innocent. One was 17 years old; he told the Associated Press that he was “scared to go outside.” And that doesn’t include Post doctoring the photo of an injured spectator to hide her leg wound.
Rather than apologize, Murdoch blamed others outside the Post.
• Murdoch’s Post wasn’t alone in falsely accusing men of being bombers. The LA Times said “Reddit is apologizing for its role in fueling the social media witch hunts for the Boston bombings suspects. The social news website . . . became a place for amateur sleuths to gather and share their conspiracy theories and other ideas on who may have committed the crimes. The online witch hunts ended up dragging in several innocent people, including Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old Brown University student who went missing last month (and has since been found dead).
“After viewing the FBI's photos of the suspects Thursday, Redditors became convinced that Tripathi was one of the bombers, with countless posts gleefully pointing out the physical similarities between Tripathi and Suspect No. 2, who ended up being 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The growing wave of suspicion surrounding Tripathi led his family to release a statement the next day saying they knew ‘unequivocally’ that their son was not involved.
“On Monday, Reddit General Manager Erik Martin posted a lengthy apology on the site, saying the crisis ‘showed the best and worst of Reddit's potential.’ He said the company, as well as several Reddit users and moderators, had apologized privately to Tripathi's family and wanted ‘to take this opportunity to apologize publicly for the pain they have had to endure. We all need to look at what happened and make sure that in the future we do everything we can to help and not hinder crisis situations,’ the post said. ‘Some of the activity on Reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties. The Reddit staff and the millions of people on Reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened’."
Reddit said it does not allow personal information on the site in order to protect innocent people from being incorrectly identified and "disrupting or ruining their lives," according to the LA Times. "We hoped that the crowdsourced search for new information would not spark exactly this type of witch hunt. We were wrong," Reddit’s Martin continued. "The search for the bombers bore less resemblance to the types of vindictive Internet witch hunts our no-personal-information rule was originally written for, but the outcome was no different."
The LA Times added valuable context to what followed the bombings: they “were the first major terrorist attack on American soil in the age of Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. But the watershed moment for social media quickly spiraled out of control as legions of Web sleuths cast suspicion on the innocent, shared bad tips and heightened the sense of panic and paranoia.” The LA Times added that Boston police asked “overeager” Twitter users to limit what they posted because that overly detailed tweets could compromise officers' position and safety.
• Detroit Free Press editors published a detailed online illustration of how to make a pressure cooker bomb, like that reportedly used by the Boston bombers. When their brain fart passed, they took down the instructions and images. Of course, now, anyone can turn to Jimromenesko.com screen shot of the Detroit Free Press illustration . . .
• Newcomers to the Tri-State puzzle over the lifelong identification with high/prep school. When a Cincinnatian was involved in the emergency surgical response to the Boston Marathon bombings, the Enquirer noted he went to St. X. Only later did Our Sole Surviving Daily tell us he was graduated from UC’s medical school before going off to Boston for his surgical residency.
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