Screaming Bedlam

Bad, icky, horrible stuff! Human tragedy! Ecological mayhem! Glaring proof that our capacity for reason is silently slipping away! All this and "Garfield," too!

There is still a pile of news in most newspapers. Despite the concentration of media sources over the past several years—like the LA Times being bought up by the organization that owns the Chicago Tribune and a merger allowed last month by the Justice Department that resulted in a single company owning some 900 radio stations—and despite all the interlocking interests between big business and big media, there is still more news in a newspaper than one knows what to do with.

News about which we should be apoplectic just washes over us like so much spit at a Germs show. Blame the world because it's such a big world that one can't even catalog all the wrongs done each day. Blame us for being a nation of citizens so unshockable and so uninvolved that most of us don't even get off our sorry asses to vote. But also blame the news media for often just letting the news sit there without giving it the context and advocacy to make it matter to readers.

Things that should be reported as news are often relegated to the opinion page. For example, the Times recently ran a good piece on how the worst fire season in memory might just be related to global warming. That piece appeared in the Sunday Opinion section. Wack-ass predictions about how big the national surplus might be in 20 years get reported as news—why not the sober consensus of scientists addressing a matter that is of direct importance to what, every living organism on the planet? Does the Times think it betrays a bias to assume that we all have a healthy interest in whether we survive? Or do they simply care more what Amoco and Shell Oil think?

Sometimes, news stories fail to ask the questions that might make the stories more pertinent to our lives. An Aug. 25 Times story, for example, reported that a poll of former prison inmates found that 88 percent of them said it was easy to obtain drugs in prison. Even prison officials are admitting that that is the case. Any of us who watch Oz on HBO already assumed convicts spent their days shooting smack and biting one another's dicks off, but it's nice to see that factually established.

The story, however, missed a question that was begging to be asked, since it affects the rest of us. It is this:

Hey, Mr. Drug Czar, if our government is committed to winning the war on drugs, and you can't even win in situations where you can lock everybody up and give them cavity searches, how many more rights and civil liberties will the rest of us have to lose for you to win?

That's a valid question, isn't it? If our government can't even keep drugs out of a goddamned prison, how are they going to keep them out of the good-time-lovin' US of A?

If the government can't keep drugs out of the hands of hardened criminals, at least maybe they can stop the sick and suffering from laying hands on them. Aug. 30 was a scary news day for weed, with three front-section stories in the Times. On the same day it was reported that the University of California was launching a study of the medicinal value of marijuana, another story reported how the Supreme Court issued an emergency order blocking California's voter-approved law allowing the distribution of pot to the sick and dying, which means the court—conservatives who otherwise support states' rights—will likely overturn the law in the days ahead.

The creepiest story of the day, though, was the article reporting how microscopic fungi are the latest weapons being recruited in the drug war. Three specific fungi have been identified as able to strangle the respective vascular systems of marijuana, opium and coca plants. They'd be widely in use already, if it weren't for more of those annoying scientists raising their picky questions like, "Won't these fungi mutate and kill other plants crucial to us or the ecosystem?" Close relatives of the fungi in question have already devastated cotton, bean, banana, melon and other crops. One Colombian government biologist speculated that field tests of the coca-eradicating fungi would pose a threat to the entire Amazon basin. I think he was trying to say that this would be a bad thing.

This was a good, well-reported story, but one I fear might not get the follow-up it deserves—not when most newspapers devoted far more space to covering Survivor than they did to a story that might actually affect our survival. If our country is willing to train and fund a repressive government's secret force in Colombia—as reported on 60 Minutes II on Sept. 5—that operates entirely outside due process or the rules of war, do you think they are going to be slowed down by some boring scientists' concerns?

We need follow-up on stories like this because we are a forgetful species, particularly where human hubris is involved. We are like a child who because he has just learned how to say "car" thinks he is qualified to drive. We come up with atomic energy, use it for everything from war to irradiating kids' lymph nodes, and then get to live with the consequences for a few hundred thousand years. We spray bugs with DDT and decades later are still trying to seal a poisonous heap of it off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. You'd think we'd learn a bit of humility before plunging off to play god with genetic engineering and fungi and what have you.

Back when The Orange County Register was a goofy hometown newspaper instead of USA Today with Alzheimer's, it used to editorialize a bit in its news stories. Sometimes it was overt, with headlines like "Commie Dupe Negroes Invade Park," but usually it was just to give some factual reminders to readers, like that public schools were "tax-supported" schools or including the price tag attached to otherwise popular programs. Maybe it's time to bring that back, to question the assumptions that cumulatively are making us a nation of dolts.

While we're waiting for that day, has anyone noticed that the Register has its own Bill of Rights now? I guess we don't need to worry so much now about the other Bill of Rights slipping away. Introduced on Aug. 13, its chief promise to customers is "we'll deliver a newspaper that satisfies you or your money back." I personally haven't been satisfied with the Register since they dropped that cute, wide-eyed Dondi kid from the comic pages, so they already owe me a heap of quarters.

Register publisher and CEO Chris Anderson wrote that the customer's Bill of Rights is aimed at making the Register a more perfect newspaper and that "all of us here at the Register—almost 2,000 of us—are changing how we work together to provide you a different and more satisfying experience when you deal with us."

How different an experience? Well, you may just have to deal with all 2,000 employees now to get any satisfaction. Several readers, for example, called the Register to tell them that they must have reversed the numbers on a poll they'd conducted on whether Laguna's Festival of the Arts should move to San Clemente. On Aug. 17, the Reg reported that 92 percent of the 608 respondents favored the move and 8 percent didn't, when in actuality 92 percent were opposed to the move. But the paper didn't agree to print a correction until the head of the festival board recall committee had complained to some five different editors. Is it any wonder that their Bill of Rights doesn't have a First Amendment?


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