Thursday, August 31, 2006

Wake up, American media

Good news! John Mark Karr will not be charged in the JonBenet Ramsey murder case, thus guaranteeing the world another odd decade of intense suspense over the real perpetrator of the crime. I will now go throw up.

Even more depressing than the rampant media attention given this completely unimportant and meaningless case is what the media are not covering. American media are all too good at playing up a story for a set period of time — days, maybe weeks — and then completely forgetting about the issue.

Cases in point: Darfur and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Sure, there are a few random stories bumbling around — but hardly an accurate coverage of two immense tragedies. For a few days after Katrina, hopes were raised that, finally, the U.S. media would begin to cover the huge income disparities, largely based on ethnicity, in America. Of course, these hopes largely evaporated at the end of September 2005.

Katrina was in our own backyard — but Darfur is the scene of a horrific genocide, largely condoned by the Sudanese government. It seemed for a month late this spring Darfur would finally be the real “never again” scenario — a feeling proven much too naïve. The peace deal that was so heralded in May is now completely ignored — and has merely given cover for the main rebel group to attack its rivals.

Taken together, the media’s coverage (or lack thereof) of actual news is exceptionally worrisome. I find it hard to believe Americans are truly so ignorant to believe JonBenet Ramsey’s 10-year-old case is more important than hundreds of thousands of dead and displaced. Even if we merely restricted ourselves to national news, the social message so damningly displayed by Katrina and its aftereffects are all but ignored. Day by day, it appears American media have forgotten what it takes to uphold the profession of journalism.

Andrew Swift
editorial writer, columnist

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Runways not the place for guessing games

The crash of Comair 5191 Aug, 27 in Lexington, Ky. marks an end to five years of nearly perfect airline safety.  While the investigation has just begun, the basic premise of the accident has become clear.

The early-morning flight was scheduled to depart the Blue Grass Airport at 6:05 a.m. EST. It was one of the first flights of the day, and at this time of the year, six in the morning is still considered "night" by the FAA. There are two main runways at the airport, runways 26/08 and 22/04 (airport runways are named based on their magnetic heading - add a zero to each number and you get their magnetic direction). All airline flights from the airport use the 22/04 runway, which has
an adequate length of 7,000 feet. With the wind calm, the Air Traffic Controller at LEX (the airport code for Lexington) would have assigned the aircraft to depart from the closest appropriate runway, which in this case for this size of aircraft would be runway 22.

However, to get to runway 22, the aircraft would have to taxi right by the end of runway 26. The two runways intersect a thousand feet or so away from their respective ends, and it is likely at the time of the accident the pilots could only see two runways of relative length stretching out into the infinity of darkness. That is, being on the wrong runway at this time of day would not look totally off, even from a pilot's perspective in the cockpit. Obviously, much more goes into making sure an aircraft is set for takeoff then just having things "look right," but visual cues in any activity done over and over again often give the operator an idea that something is wrong. In this case, a cursory glance by the pilots outside their window most likely would not have yielded an "oh shit" reaction until much later in the take-off - like when they realized they had about as half as much of runway available than they originally thought.
Of course, until the NTSB releases it's final report, which could take years, all of this is just speculation. The weary and frequent (or infrequent) traveler can take solace after this crash, however, because you can bet for a long while in the future making sure the correct runway is being used will weigh heavily in the minds of all pilots.

Eric Kochneff
Eric is a licensed commercial pilot

Anatomy on display is entertainment, not education

Two anatomical exhibitions, “Bodies: The Exhibition,” and “Body Worlds,” are being met with stiff controversy throughout their tours of the United States and Europe this year. The sketchy provenance of the human bodies and body parts on display has, so far, been the primary point of contention, along with the obvious ethical concerns raised by exhibiting human cadavers for entertainment and profit.

Dr. Günther von Hagens, the proprietor of the exhibition "Body Worlds" and inventor of “plastination,” which uses a polymer filler to preserve individual tissues and organs, came under scrutiny when the German magazine Der Spiegel found some of the exhibition’s bodies belonged to executed Chinese prisoners. Since then, von Hagens only gets his corpses from consenting individuals in former Soviet-bloc countries — although their “consent” and origin are usually impossible to verify because of his policy of keeping the donors anonymous, ostensibly out of respect for the dead.

One has to wonder, though, how respectful it is to pose people’s earthly remains so as to make it appear that they’re scissor-kicking a soccer ball, holding their own intestines out for you to look at, or roller-skating. Von Hagens’ rationale for the displays includes a kind of democratization of the corpse-viewing that has heretofore been reserved mostly for medical professionals. It should be clear, however, that “education” in these displays is significantly blurred with entertainment. As an NPR reporter observed, many of the people attending the current exposition in Florida came to gawk at “real dead people” in similarly garish poses. Some were more reflective, however; as one observer said, “I wonder who they are, where they came from.”

Although the people on display are quite incapable of caring about what happens to their bodies after they have died, it often strikes the living as freakish and unnatural. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs or lack thereof, many people react with a basic level of disgust and even sadness to the displays. The spectator’s use of the present tense “who they are” illustrates what seems like a basic human inability to completely dissociate human bodies from their personhood — or their minds. Although modern science continues to prove more and more that the two are the same, simple, irrational human empathy seems to dictate otherwise.

Tyler Bleau
editorial writer, columnist

Monday, August 28, 2006

‘Ethnic’ tribes may spark controversy

“Survivor,” at first glance, is in the midst of producing an enormous PR no-no. The new season, slated to air at the beginning of September, will, because of the amount of ethnic pride among the show’s applicants, divide the teams by ethnicity. The teams will be the White Tribe, the African-American Tribe, the Asian-American Tribe, and the Hispanic Tribe.
The question I’m sure you’re asking is, “What the hell are they thinking?” And while at first I wasn’t sure, I think I’m beginning to catch on.

The United States likes to pretend ethnic relations are A-OK, and while things have improved and are improving, the new season of “Survivor” could serve as a wake-up call and a sociological experiment to those unwilling and unable to discuss ethnic relations. It seems, nowadays, that the basic “safe” conversation is what was on television last night, and if what was on is making people discuss and confront controversial topics; I’m all for it. However, if “Survivor” goes as far to encourage stereotypes, then we have a serious ethical problem.

Because the only job “Survivor” has to fulfill for CBS is to make money, this could be viewed as a tasteless ploy to use controversy as a springboard into the living rooms of viewers. While attracting viewers will probably not be an issue, gaining advertisers could be.

Who is going to advertise and be financially associated with a program that may fail the very people advertisers mean to serve? It could be a painful few months for CBS — or an eye-opening experience for viewers.

John LaRue

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Cable news: a waste of air space

So what the heck? JonBenet Ramsey? Are you kidding?

I was doing something or other this past week and had CNN on in the back ground when I heard the anchor utter the "breaking" news: "Authorities in Thailand have arrested a suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey murder case."

It caused a few different reactions for me. Firstly, I had to briefly refresh my memory as to what the JBR murder case actually was. Secondly, I had to make sure I had heard it was actually Thai authorities who arrested the suspect, and for a short period of time I was trying to comprehend some reason for that. Finally, a feeling of sadness washed over me as I realized the media in this country would again be covering the shit out of this story and I would unfortunately be subjected to endless speculation about the original murder and how this suspect may or may not be somehow tied to it.

That seems to be pretty much what has happened since then. The story has also, not un-expectedly, gotten even more bizarre. The suspect in custody claims to have been the one who killed JonBenet, however, he claimed it was an "accident" induced while strangling her after some sort of sexual act. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) his ex-wife's story does not match his. She claims he was in Atlanta with her on Christmas Eve of 1996. However, that is where the Ramsey's hailed from originally, and apparently they kept a house there and moved back after their daughter was killed.        

And recently, it was announced by multiple news outlets Karr had recently visited a sex change clinic in Thailand and consulted about a sex change operation.

Yeah, that sounds about right. Whatever the final conclusion, I like what blogger Nancy Nall (link: had to say about it all: "I have no clue what's going on in this Ramsey case thing, other than perhaps this: John Mark Karr is a dark angel sent from hell to prove that watching cable news is a total waste of time."

Eric Kochneff

Monday, August 21, 2006

Computing news reflects odd interests

Are the machines learning from us? (Or, to recycle a well-used Bushism, “Is our computers learning?”) In times past, it was panicky, circulation-hungry editors and vacuous TV producers who gave voluminous and unending coverage to the most meaningless news items of their day. Remember Michael Jackson, not so long ago? He’'s famous, as well as bizarre, so his second child-molestation trial somehow warranted massive amounts of column inches and airtime. Remember the OJ trial? It got so much attention the media had to invent reasons why it was significant. (I'’ll grant that it helped illustrate the racial divide in this country, but it'’s kind of pathetic that anybody still needed illustrations of that from the trial of a previously minor celebrity.)

Now, though, Google News can help us focus on celebrity tittle-tattle without the need for any human agency. The service'’s “About Google News” page says that sophisticated algorithms are used to determine the placement of stories on the site’s main page. Incredible. Technology marches on.

Unfortunately, the site also states Google News’ choice of top stories is based on the “collective judgment of online news editors,” which probably explains why the last 10 or 12 times I'’ve logged on, there’s been some story like “"JonBenet Ramsey Suspect Picks Nose!"” right at the top of the page. As of yesterday, Google News links to 3,588 JonBenet-related items. The second top story, about nascent holy war in Iraq, links to 795. Apparently, the whole affair wasn'’t embarrassing enough for American journalism the first time around.

Clearly, the machines have learned much from us.

Jonathan Gold