Read Dasani’s Story

Dickensian Squalor in Contemporary New York

There was a lot of jokey-snark Sunday night as Twitter was trying to guess what the New York Times’ big blockbuster story was going to be on Monday morning. A Times editor had Tweeted that a game-changing story was coming, but offered no hints. 

The story itself is a heartbreaking one about a bright and energetic 11 year-old girl who lives in poverty and squalor with her family in a dilapidated, uninhabitable city shelter.  We follow her to school, we examine her home, we look at her parents and their obvious problems in such a way that eschews cheap judgment and instead gives us a window into the crushing poverty, desperate need for help, jobs, and education that families like this need. 

It also describes the insane class divide where homes within spitting distance of the shelter and adjacent projects now go for a million dollars; where a fancy new wine shop offers tastings across the street from a liquor store where the clerk sits behind bullet-proof plexiglass. 

Please read all five parts of the story, which will take you on an emotional roller coaster, and consider whether, in our zeal for austerity, we’re causing more problems than we’re solving. 

Some “richest country in the world” superpower we are. 

Russia’s Concern-Troll

Better Opinion Columnist than Donn Esmonde

Last night, a New York Times opinion piece penned by Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s D.C. based public relations and/or lobbying group hit the Times’ website. I’m not particularly concerned with his last-paragraph indictment of American exceptionalism, because frankly the Russian President would be expected to believe in Russian exceptionalism. Yet what he actually writes is that no nationality is special. Don’t believe it, given the existence of what can only be called the Putin Youth, which uses a mix of Russian nationalism and Soviet imagery to lend support to the regime. 

What Putin’s Times piece really amounts to is the most prominent concern-troll in history. Putin lecturing the US about international shit-stirring and democracy is like Kim Jong Un lecturing the world about prisoners’ rights

The United States isn’t perfect by any means. Its government isn’t perfect, either. But of the countries qualified to lecture the US on good government and democracy, Russia is in maybe the lowest third. Since 2000, Putin has been the de facto dictator of the Russian Federation. Ask Chechnya about his democratic peacekeeping. Look how he bypassed term limits by switching between the President’s office and Prime Minister. We’re led to believe that a former KGB agent is a champion of openness and liberty because he is harboring fugitive thief Edward Snowden while actually monitoring communications for political means. 

All the things the tea party right and ultra left criticize centrist Obama for being or doing, Putin is actually being or doing. But, you know, Putin hunts with his shirt off, and he’s tight with the guy who gasses his own people with Sarin, so it’s all good. How many bands critical of the President has Obama thrown into labor camps? How many businessmen has Obama exiled or killed/attempted to kill? How many state-owned industries has Obama “privatized” into the hands of his friends and supporters? Has Obama promoted the cause of LGBT rights in the last 5 years, or deliberately rendered homosexuality illegal? How come people like Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and their supporters don’t criticize the Russian surveillance state

Anyone – including my own Congressman – who has nicer things to say about Vladimir Putin than President Obama is being an idiot, pure and simple. Swallow the propaganda all you want, but don’t pretend like Putin’s Russia is the model for America unless you’re into neofascism, autocracy, tycoonism, and mass surveillance for political, rather than security, ends. 

Spitzer’s Sorry, Silver’s Moving, Food Truck Drama

1. Disgraced former Governor of the State of New York, Eliot Spitzer, famously began running for New York City Comptroller just a few days before nominating petitions were due. As one might expect, Spitzer’s attempt at a comeback is made difficult by his hypocritical whoring. Here is his “apology” commercial, which I think is rather effective. 

2. Alien wizard Nate Silver took his work analyzing baseball statistics into the political arena with his blog Five Thirty Eight, and got picked up by the New York Times. That contract expired, and former Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan – now the Times’ Public Editor – explained that Silver simply didn’t “fit in” to the Times’ “culture”, and that some of the Times’ writers simply didn’t like him. Sullivan explained that Silver was “disruptive”; i.e., he disrupted the old model of covering politics. 

In Buffalo, we’re all-too familiar with the way politics have been covered for the past few decades, and its lazy, unsubstantive focus on fundraising and the never-ending horserace. Now, admittedly, Silver’s specialty was the horserace, but the way in which he analyzed and wrote about it was based on mathematical and scientific probability informed by trends, polling, and past performance. Silver had a knack for taking some extremely complicated and convoluted data and making it digestible for average readers, and his record is really quite striking. But in Buffalo, we have political columnists who simply dismiss and ignore candidates who do not fit the 40 year-old mold of a credible machine candidate. We’re all worse off for it. 

3. The City of Tonawanda is contemplating a food truck ordinance to regulate how these mobile entrepreneurs might be able to do business within the municipal boundaries. Unlike Buffalo and Amherst, the CoT is poised to introduce fantastically restrictive regulations – so ridiculous that they effectively amount to a ban on food trucks. $1,000 for an initial license and application, and trucks are forbidden from setting up within 1,000 feet of an open kitchen – farther than three football fields away. (The Buffalo and Amherst rules require operation at least 100′ from any open kitchen). The exercise underscores how stupid it is that all these ultimately pointless municipal entities can regulate business to this extent, and how much better it would be if the trucks could just pay a single regional fee and operate throughout the county under uniform rules. Hell, that’s how the US and EU work, but we can’t (genuinely cannot) do that within Erie County. 

#FreedomofSpeech

1. CNN has been offering up wall-to-wall coverage of the Carnival Triumph, which has limped its way back to the US after suffering a crippling engine fire on Monday. They were calling it, and treating it like, a “disaster”, but was was disastrous about it? What it amounted to was 4,000+ passengers and crew being wildly inconvenienced and placed under poor conditions of sanitation and comfort. But no one died, and everyone came home last night. This wasn’t a floating boxcar of detainees – it was a cruise ship that broke down, revealing perhaps that cruise ships need fewer nightclubs and more backup systems, as WKBW reporter John Borsa pointed out on Twitter. It wasn’t a disaster – it was a mass inconvenience. 

2. Remember the “proud racist South Buffalo guy“? He made headlines some months ago for complaining about how those minorities commit crimes, cause property values to decline, and destroy neighborhoods. He’s now been arrested for robbing a West Seneca bank

3.  A West Seneca high schooler misbehaved at a hockey game and was asked to leave. He later took to Twitter and cursed out the teacher who did it. He did not threaten the teacher, he did not mock or insult the teacher – he merely vented his frustration with a Tweet that read, in relevant part, “f-ck [Teacher’s Name] #freedomofspeech”. The school found out and gave this honor student who, it is said, has no great history of behavioral problems, a five-day suspension. 

Interestingly, the student’s hashtag wasn’t frivolous. A kid doesn’t shed his constitutional rights when he enters the school building, and he especially doesn’t lose them when he uses a public platform from home, off school grounds, and outside school time. This particular student did absolutely nothing wrong. He took to a social media site and vented about a teacher with whom he had just had a negative experience. The only punishment this student should receive, if any, should come from his parents. The teacher can confront the student directly and demand an apology, I suppose, but the school has absolutely no right and no business to regulate or ban speech – even profane speech – a student uses on social media outside school time and grounds. Believe it or not, this is a case with federal, Constitutional, ramifications.

4. A big national tea party group – FreedomWorks, which was until recently led by former Congressman Dick Armey – made a video depicting former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton receiving cunnilingus from a panda. The tea party, relegated to the very deepest fringes of the right wing, has devolved from an anti-Obama movement into a group promoting some pretty base, offensive sexist stuff. I’m not surprised, either

In one segment of the film, according to a former official who saw it, Brandon is seen waking from a nap at his desk. In what appears to be a dream or a nightmare, he wanders down a hallway and spots a giant panda on its knees with its head in the lap of a seated Hillary Clinton and apparently performing oral sex on the then-secretary of state. Two female interns at FreedomWorks were recruited to play the panda and Clinton. One intern wore a Hillary Clinton mask. The other wore a giant panda suit that FreedomWorks had used at protests to denounce progressives as panderers. (See herehere, and here.) Placing the panda in the video, a former FreedomWorks staffer says, was “an inside joke.” 

Another FreedomWorks staffer who worked there at the time confirms that “Yes, this video was created.” 

Days before the FreePAC event, the video was screened for staff. “My mouth was wide open,” a former official recalls. “‘What the hell is this?'” Several FreedomWorks staffers were outraged and stunned that Brandon, the group’s second-in-command after Kibbe, had overseen the video’s production, appeared in it, and intended to show this film at the conference, which would be attended by many social-conservative activists. They raised objections to the film. 

“How was that not some form of sexual harassment?” a former FreedomWorks official asks, noting that two female interns had been requested to act out a pretend sex scene. “And there were going to be thousands of Christian conservatives at this thing. This was a terrible lack of judgment.”

Brandon, a former FreedomWorks official says, defended the film, insisting it was creative and funny. But eventually a decision was made not to show the video at FreePAC. 

Armey says he didn’t became aware of the film until months later: “I heard they had made an obscene video mocking Hillary Clinton.” He says he was told the video showed Clinton having sex with an intern. “I asked another [FreedomWorks] guy if he had seen it,” Armey recalls. “He said, ‘I heard about it. I was traveling at the time. It was shown around the office.'” Armey adds, “There was a concern that this kind of behavior could land you in court. I was shocked at the ugly and bad taste.” 

Dick Armey is the guy who called Representative Barney Frank “Barney Fag”. Dick Armey is a horrible person, and “FreedomWorks” is a horrible organization. The news that they produced a video showing Hillary Clinton engaging in some form of bestiality is unsurprising.  After all, 15 years ago these same clowns were probably referring to her as “Hitlery Klintoon” over on Free Republic. 

5. Tesla is a company that manufactures and markets a gorgeous, all-electric luxury sedan. It recently contacted the New York Times to do a story showing off, in cold weather and real-life conditions, Tesla’s new network of high-capacity chargers placed at 200-mile intervals along the Northeast Corridor. It didn’t go well

Tesla CEO Elon Musk went ballistic, calling the review a “fake” in social media. This prompted the Times’ reporter, John Broder, to refute Musk’s assertions via the Times’ Wheels blog. Let’s swing back to the point that Tesla pushed this test to the Times, and that, 

This evaluation was intended to demonstrate its practicality as a “normal use,” no-compromise car, as Tesla markets it.

A cold snap in the Northeast shouldn’t cause a state-of-the art $100,000 sedan, marketed as a regular car, to be unable to make 180 mile trip without pausing for an hour to recharge. Practically any car in America can easily make 300 miles before pausing for a 5 minute refueling stop. 

Soon, Musk took to Tesla’s corporate blog, where he challenged Broder’s assertions point by point, and uploaded what purport to be printouts of data the car recorded from Broder’s ride. Again, social media went nuts, calling out the Times for lying. Lying? 

First of all, let’s consider we have a Times reporter with no known axe to grind with Tesla or electrics in general who reported on his experiences trying to get a $100k car from Philadelphia to Boston. On the other hand, we have the CEO of a corporation and his public relations department trying to spin away the negative effects of the car’s failure to accomplish what the lowliest Honda Jazz can do. But also consider the fact that, in his blog, Musk purported to get inside Broder’s mind to ascribe motives to what he wrote. Consider, 

In Mr. Broder’s case, he simply did not accurately capture what happened and worked very hard to force our car to stop running.

Broder had once written an article bemoaning the various criticisms and chicken-and-egg problems with electrics, and Musk simply dismisses that as animus. 

As a result, we did not think to read his past articles and were unaware of his outright disdain for electric cars. We were played for a fool and as a result, let down the cause of electric vehicles. For that, I am deeply sorry.

Musk made this assertion: 

Cruise control was never set to 54 mph as claimed in the article, nor did he limp along at 45 mph. Broder in fact drove at speeds from 65 mph to 81 mph for a majority of the trip and at an average cabin temperature setting of 72 F.

Setting aside for a moment the fact that driving at speeds of 65 – 81 on national interstates is not unusual, and that setting the heat at 72 on a very cold day is perfectly normal behavior – stuff that a $100k sedan that is supposed to be a replacement car and not a superfluous frivolity for the rich should easily be able to accomplish – the statement is wholly misleading. Look at the data: 

He was driving at 0 MPH a whole lot more often than he was driving 80 MPH. Indeed, the data records exactly one momentary spike to over 80 MPH – to say that he was routinely exceeding the speed limit is simply misleading. And why bother offering up the data if you won’t bother to characterize it accurately? Broder responded at the Wheels blog, after New York Times Public Editor and former Buffalo News Editor-in-Chief Margaret Sullivan became involved. As to the speed discrepancy, Broder accurately suggests the speedometer was uncalibrated due to wheel size, 

I drove normally (at the speed limit or with prevailing traffic) when I thought it was prudent to do so. I do recall setting the cruise control to about 54 m.p.h., as I wrote. The log shows the car traveling about 60 m.p.h. for a nearly 100-mile stretch on the New Jersey Turnpike. I cannot account for the discrepancy, nor for a later stretch in Connecticut where I recall driving about 45 m.p.h., but it may be the result of the car being delivered with 19-inch wheels and all-season tires, not the specified 21-inch wheels and summer tires. That just might have affected the recorded speed, range, rate of battery depletion or any number of other parameters. Tesla’s data suggests I was doing slightly more than 50 over a stretch where the speed limit was 65. The traffic was heavy in that part of Connecticut, so cruise control was not usable, and I tried to keep the speed at 50 or below without impeding traffic.

Certainly, and as Tesla’s logs clearly show, much of my driving was at or well below the 65 m.p.h. speed limit, with only a single momentary spike above 80. Most drivers are aware that cars can speed up, even sometimes when cruise control is engaged, on downhill stretches.

Musk accused Broder of deliberately running down the battery during a stop at a Milford, CT plaza where Tesla had a supercharger located, 

When he first reached our Milford, Connecticut Supercharger, having driven the car hard and after taking an unplanned detour through downtown Manhattan to give his brother a ride, the display said “0 miles remaining.” Instead of plugging in the car, he drove in circles for over half a mile in a tiny, 100-space parking lot. When the Model S valiantly refused to die, he eventually plugged it in. On the later legs, it is clear Broder was determined not to be foiled again.

Of course, Musk is merely ascribing ill motives on Broder because he is now butthurt over the article. But here’s how Broder explains what happened, 

I drove around the Milford service plaza in the dark looking for the Supercharger, which is not prominently marked. I was not trying to drain the battery. (It was already on reserve power.) As soon as I found the Supercharger, I plugged the car in.

The stop in Manhattan was planned from the beginning and known to Tesla personnel all along. According to Google Maps, taking the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan (instead of crossing at the George Washington Bridge) and driving up the West Side Highway added only two miles to the overall distance from Newark, Del., to Milford, Conn.

Neither I nor the Model S ever visited “downtown Manhattan.”

As a lawyer, I’m trained to recognize BS when I see it, and when someone has a motive to exaggerate or mischaracterize evidence, and then does so, I’m skeptical of everything else they have to say about a matter. So it is with Mr. Musk, who goes beyond the data and labels Broder a liar who had it out for the Tesla from the get-go. Given a choice between believing the reporter and the company’s PR department, I’ll go with the Times. 

After all, Musk told Broder directly

Mr. Musk called me on Friday, before the article went up on the Web, to offer sympathy and regrets about the outcome of my test drive. He said that the East Coast charging stations should be 140 miles apart, not 200 miles, to take into account the traffic and temperature extremes in this part of the country.

Incidentally, CNN tried the same trip and had no problems whatsoever. Perhaps the temperatures had moderated, as evidenced by the snow-free photograph accompanying the article.

None of this is an indictment of the car, or even of the network of chargers. (As someone who puts lots of miles on two cars every year, I fail to see the allure of spending the equivalent of a Cheektowaga house to buy a car that has trouble making 200 miles before needing an hourlong break to charge up, but to each his own). But the tone of Musk’s response to a negative experience that Broder had, and the malicious way in which he mischaracterized what happened and ascribed to Broder a hostile state of mind, I echo what media guru Jeff Jarvis Tweeted late Thursday, 

 

Truth Vigilanteism

The New York Times’ public editor has an earnest question to ask you:

I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about…

…[for example,] on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America,” a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the “post-truth” stage.

As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?

If so, then perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the president has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less:

“The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”

To me, getting to the truth of a matter asserted is part & parcel of a journalist’s job. Anything less is nothing more than mindless transcription of spin and press releases. It’s as if the Times is asking whether doctors should treat patients, or whether lawyers should represent clients.  For years, it’s been a given that the fourth estate acts as a BS detector for a populace seeking information. Enough with the phony “some say” strawman, enough with letting people get away with repetitive lying.

Should the New York Times, the paper of record, be a “truth vigilante”? It should never have been otherwise.