2012 - %3, February

Alabama Revives Transvaginal Ultrasound Debate

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 4:13 PM EST

Over at Think Progress, Amanda Peterson Beadle reports that Alabama has taken up its own version of the Virginia bill that would have required women—even victims of rape or incest—to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound before getting an abortion:

When a woman in Alabama seeks an abortion procedure, she already has to sign that her doctor has performed an ultrasound and that she either viewed the ultrasound image or rejected seeing it. But state Sen. Clay Scofield (R) is pushing SB 12, a bill in the Alabama legislature that would mandate the physician "to perform an ultrasound, provide verbal explanation of the ultrasound, and display the images to the pregnant woman before performing an abortion.” The physician could also require the woman to submit to a transvaginal ultrasound—"in which a probe is inserted into the vagina, and then moved around until an ultrasound image is produced"—if she or he determines it necessary.

The Alabama bill advanced out of committee on Friday. State Sen. Greg Reed told the local news that voted for the bill because it would help "a mother to understand that a live baby is inside her body." By forcing her to undergo unwanted vaginal penetration, that is.

The original Virginia law was scrapped last week after public outcry, but that doesn't appear to have stopped Alabama from taking up the cause.

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Obama Shuts Down NSA Cybersecurity Proposal

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 4:01 PM EST

Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post reports that the NSA and the White House are at odds over a proposal to increase surveillance of "critical infrastructure systems" in order to prevent cyberattacks:

The most contentious issue was a legislative proposal last year that would have required hundreds of companies that provide critical services such as electricity generation to allow their Internet traffic be continuously scanned using computer threat data provided by the spy agency. The companies would have been expected to turn over evidence of potential cyberattacks to the government.

....The NSA proposal, called Tranche 2, sparked fierce debate within the administration. It would have required an estimated 300 to 500 firms with a role in critical infrastructure systems to allow their Internet carrier or some other private company to scan their computer networks for malicious software using government threat data....NSA officials say this process would have been automated, preventing intrusion into the personal privacy of ordinary users visiting Web sites or exchanging electronic messages with friends.

....But the White House and other agencies, including the departments of Justice and Commerce, said the proposal left open the possibility that the large Internet carriers themselves could be designated critical entities. This, they said, could have allowed scanning of virtually all Internet traffic for cyberthreats on behalf of the government, opening a newly extensive window into American behavior online.

The story leaves it unclear whether Tranche 2 is dead for good, or merely needs to be retooled to place clear limits on who's required to take part. Either way, given the intense interest in cybersecurity these days, I don't expect this proposal to go away.

On a political note, it's unclear how this will break down on party lines. Obviously the GOP base is inclined to think that anything Obama opposes must be good, and they certainly supported the increased surveillance powers that George Bush gave to NSA. On the other hand, tea partiers tend to be suspcious of this kind of Big Brotherish monitoring. So it's hard to say which way they'll jump. Probably against Obama is my guess.

Iran War Watch: Oscar Night Edition

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 3:57 PM EST

Are the United States and Iran on a collision course over the Middle Eastern country's controversial nuclear program? We'll be regularly posting the latest news on Iran-war fever—the intel, the media frenzy, and the rhetoric.

The last few days have been a bit tense: The International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran is beefing up its production of higher-grade enriched uranium. The Pentagon recently strengthened sea and land defenses in the Persian Gulf. And the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just aided the Iranian regime in dealing a death blow to Zionist warmongering.

At least that's how Iran's state media is spinning Oscar night. After the highly acclaimed Iranian film A Separation scored the Best Foreign-Language Film award for 2011 (beating out Israeli art film Footnote), state-run TV touted the win as a victory over the "Zionist regime" and the Israel lobby. Similarly, Javad Shamaghdari, head of Iran's Cinematic Agency, declared the moment the "beginning of the collapse" of a pro-Israel movement in the United States that "beats the drum of war." (This did not, however, change the fact that hardliners in the Iranian government are still actually rather pissed at the film's "liberal" slant.)

During his acceptance speech on Sunday night, director Asghar Farhadi spoke of Iran's "glorious culture" that has been "hidden under the heavy dust of politics." He dedicated the award to the Iranian people—a people who "respect all cultures and civilizations, and despise hostility and resentment."

The vagueness of his words (Is the referenced "hostility and resentment" that of American, Israeli, or Iranian aggression?) was likely a careful hedge on Farhadi's part. In September 2010, as Farhadi was putting the finishing touches on A Separation, Iranian authorities revoked the director's industry permits due to comments he made that were perceived as supportive of dissident filmmakers and the Green Movement. A week later, he submitted an apology to the country's Culture Ministry, and his license was reissued. (Iran's culture minister Mohammad Hosseini later commented that he felt that Farhadi "had realized his mistakes.")

Karger: Did the Mormons Shut Down My Website?

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 3:41 PM EST

As a gay republican, Fred Karger knew he was a bit of a longshot in the GOP presidential primary. He's been openly threatened by party officials and denied slots and speaking opportunities in debates and political confabs that included candidates as fringe as he is. But Karger managed to get on the ballot for the New Hampshire primary, and decided to invest most of his resources in faring well in the state that tends to lean libertarian. Karger was the first candidate to run ads there, and he spent months campaigning on the ground, handing out his signature "Fred Who?" frisbees to surprised voters. But five days before the primary, Karger got word that the company hosting his campaign website, Terra Eclipse, was shutting him down.

Terra Eclipse works with Republican candidates to do web tech and new media campaigns. Clients have included former Minnesota governor and GOP presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), and the tea-party affiliated group FreedomWorks. But apparently Karger's campaign rubbed the firm the wrong way. Two days before Terra Eclipse informed Karger that it was dropping him as a client, Karger helped launch an interactive website subtly aimed at Mitt Romney called Top10CraziestMormonBeliefs.com to which readers submitted such entries as "Mormons believe a con artist is a prophet who found golden plates in NY." It was intended as a jab at Rommey, and it was hosted on another platform, but Terra Eclipse informed Karger:

While your campaign has every right to express views using tactics of your own choosing, our company also has the right to freely associate with our clients. In light of these actions, which not only appear to be completely irrelevant to a campaign for President of the United States, but also constitute an insult to and mockery of individuals of particular faiths, we are exercising our right to terminate your NetBoots account and disassociate with your campaign, as reserved in our Terms of Service (attached).

I invite you to contact our attorneys should you wish to pursue the matter further.

Karger immediately suspected that the Mormon Church was involved in the move. He sent out an email to supporters suggesting as much, noting that one of Terra Eclipse's clients was Sen. Mike Lee, a Mormon Republican from Utah. He noted in the email that the church has good reason to be unhappy with him. Terra Eclipse founder Martin Avila calls the notion that the church was involved in the decision "kind of preposterous" and said, "That's kind of nuts, but whatever." He declined further comment.

Karger has been battling the Mormon Church since 2008 when he got involved fighting California's Proposition 8, the ballot measure that banned gay marriage in the state. Karger discovered and helped publicize the fact that the church was secretly dumping tens of thousands of dollars worth of man-hours and in-kind donations to the effort, running phone banks, busing in volunteers from Utah, producing ads, and raising millions of dollars in coordinated contributions from its members. Yet in state-required campaign spending reports, the church only reported spending about $2,000. After a complaint by Karger, state elections officials investigated and ended up finding the church guilty of 13 counts of late campaign reporting and fined it about $5,000 for failing to include the full extent of its spending on the initiative. 

Karger has found new life for his criticism of the Mormon Church in the campaign of Mitt Romney, whom he has said publicly may be more loyal to his church than to the citizens he could be elected to serve. He told the Salt Lake Tribune in January, "How can a President Romney turn down a call from the First Presidency?" Karger asked. "He has been an obedient, faithful Mormon his whole life; he won't just disregard it. I think the separation of church and state is designed to prevent exactly that." Karger has been pressing Romney to encourage the church to end its financial support for campaigns to ban gay marriage, even showing up to protest his appearances during a 2010 book tour.

But Karger's more recent attacks on the church, like the "10 Crazy Beliefs" website, have come in a different context, a presidential campaign that has featured some pretty nasty anti-Mormon bigotry aimed at Romney. While Karger was on solid ground exposing the Mormon role in supporting Prop 8, "10 Crazy Beliefs" threatened to put him in the same camp as the Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, who in October called Mormonism a non-Christian "cult" and suggested that voting for Romney would give credibility to said cult. It's probably not much of a surprise that Karger's hosting company decided to pull the plug on him, Mormon Church involvement or not.

Still, Karger is making the most of the incident, using it in a recent fundraising appeal in which he fumes:

Candidates for political office should not be subject to this type of destructive treatment by a vendor because of content not even on the web site that it is hosting. I want the world to know it.

Journalism's Unhealthy Obsession With Creditmongering

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 2:20 PM EST

A few days ago, MG Siegler unleashed an epic rant about the Wall Street Journal failing to give him proper credit for a piece he wrote. Here's a taste:

I broke the news that Apple acquired the app search/discovery platform Chomp at 4:01 PM today. At 6:06 PM — over two hours later — WSJ reported the story as well. But oddly, with no mention of my original story.

This was odd both because, again, I reported the same information two hours earlier. And because it was at the top of Techmeme, which everyone in the industry reads. And every single other publication linked to my story.

[Blah blah blah]

Spare me. If you report out a big story that no one else was working on, then credit is due when others follow up your trail. But guess what? If you report a simple fact and happen to get it two hours before the rest of the world, no one cares. Journalists continue to be unhealthily obsessed by whether they reported a piece of news 15 minutes before every other news outlet in the world, but no one else is. And that's doubly true when it's a minor piece of commodity news. Does Siegler seriously think that everyone who reports on the Chomp acquisition for the next month should give him mad props for being the first by a couple of hours? Get over yourself.

I didn't bother ranting back about this at the time, but Felix Salmon reminded me of it today, and he comes to roughly the same conclusion in much more measured tones and a couple thousand more words:

As for crediting the news organization which broke some piece of news, that’s more of a journalistic convention than a necessary service to readers. It’s important enough within the journalism world, at least in the US, that it’s probably a good idea to do it when you can. But most of the time it’s pretty inside-baseball stuff. And in the pantheon of journalistic sins, failing to do it is not a particularly big deal. What’s much more important is that your reader get as much information as possible, as efficiently as possible. Which means that if you’re writing about a document or report, you link to that document or report. Failure to do that is a much greater sin than failure to link to some other journalist.

So while sometimes the failure to link is unavoidable, I look forward to a time when journalists face much more criticism for not linking to primary documents than they do for not linking to some other news organization which got the news first.

Yep. Always link to primary sources if you can. Give credit for major stories. But commodity news? I guess Felix is right to say that it's "friendly and polite" to link to whoever put it up first, but I think that's about it. If you don't do it, it's no big deal.

POSTSCRIPT: I should mention that I'm probably an outlier on this issue at Mother Jones. Writers at smallish publications routinely get annoyed when big news outlets follow up on something they wrote but don't give any credit. I understand the annoyance if the big pub basically does nothing more than rewrite the original story, but not so much if they add their own original reporting. Ideas don't belong to anyone, and readers don't much care where the inspiration for a story came from. Once it's out there, it's out there.

It's Polar Bear Day. How Much Do You Care?

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 1:34 PM EST

Happy International Polar Bear Day! In case you haven't heard, polar bears could be gone by 2050, we're losing enough Arctic ice each year to blanket Alaska, Texas, and Washington state, and a host of oil companies are straining at the leash to get at receding Arctic ice shelves—estimated to contain some 25 percent of the world's untapped oil reserves—despite the inherent dangers of arctic oil exploration (imagine cleaning up a BP-sized oil spill in subzero conditions).

A lot of this is probably old news by now. Indeed, recent General Social Surveys have shown that Americans today know quite a bit more about polar regions than they did in 2006. But knowing more doesn't necessarily mean caring more, as seen in a recent analysis of public perceptions about polar regions (PDF). So exactly how much do you care, compared with the rest of the country? Take this survey and find out.

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Santorum Brings the Working Class into Campaign 2012

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 12:47 PM EST

Rick Santorum has been on a populist tear lately, a job made easier by running against the endlessly awkward Mitt Romney. But President Obama is his main target, and as we all know by now, he said this on Saturday:

Not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands. Some people have incredible gifts and ... want to work out there making things. President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.

Set aside for a moment the fact that this isn't true. Obama, in fact, wants everyone to go to a university, a community college, a technical school, or a trade school. But the audience listening to Santorum didn't know that, and Dave Weigel reports that they're totally on Santorum's side:

Here in northern Michigan, I've found that Republican voters are 1) aware of the "controversy" and 2) totally sympatico. "I totally agree with Santorum," said Larry Copley, a retired state cop waiting for the candidate at the Streeter Center here. "College isn't for everyone."

"We see a lot of jobs going unfilled because people [aren't] being trained for them," chimed in Larry's wife, Margo. "Plumbing, construction, jobs like that."

I don't think it's hard to understand the sentiment here. Half a century ago, it's true that the working class didn't have a widespread disdain for college. In fact, it was common to hope for a better life for your kids, with college as the ticket out of the factory/coal mines/construction site. But it's also true that no one felt it was mandatory. It was something to aspire to, but if your kids weren't college material, there were plenty of other good jobs available to them. No one suggested that a kid without a degree was a loser.

But things are different today. If you're in the working class, college isn't something to aspire to because your kids probably aren't going to college. Universities are mostly the preserve of the middle class and above, and everyone in the lower half of the income spectrum knows it. And those good jobs available to high school grads? There's not so many of those anymore. And to top it all off, these days there really is a steady drumbeat from the Tom Friedmans of the world suggesting that America is doomed to be a global loser unless we all start upping our game and cranking out a lot more PhDs and college graduates. Obama himself may not be saying that explicitly, but he's part of an elite consensus that sure is. It's hardly any wonder that the working class feels besieged on all fronts lately.

The fact that Santorum is turning this into an attack on Obama is just campaign politics. No big deal, really. But the sentiment he's expressing here is real, and it's one we've heard more often from the left than the right in the past. Needless to say, I could do without Santorum's loopy stuff about Obama supporting college because it destroys religious faith (also not true, by the way), but the alienation and stagnation of the working class is real, and frankly, it's nice to hear someone on the right acknowledge this in an economic sense, not just the usual culture war sense. We could use more of this.

Document: What One Witness Would Have Said at GOP's "Sausage Fest" Birth Control Hearing

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 12:45 PM EST

When Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the House GOP's designated White House watchdog, held a hearing earlier this month on the Obama administration's requirement that employers provide health insurance that covers birth control, Democrats and women's groups complained that the first panel of witnesses to testify was composed entirely of men. My colleague Stephanie Mencimer dubbed it a "religious freedom sausage fest." A second, later panel featured two women, neither of whom supported the birth control rule. So it was no surprise that the general message of the hearing was that requiring employers to provide insurance plans that cover birth control infringed on religious freedom. (Following outcry from religious groups, the Obama administration modified the rule.)

Later, Democrats held their own, unofficial hearing featuring Sandra Fluke, who would have been their witness at the Issa hearing if he had permitted it. "My testimony would have been about women who have been affected by their policy, who have medical needs and have suffered dire consequences," Fluke told the Washington Post's Sarah Kliff. Last week, Mother Jones caught up with Yonit Lax, a medical student at George Washington University who the Democrats also considered as a potential witness. She agreed to provide her draft testimony, which you can read below. Here's a short intro she sent me:

Early last week, I had a conversation with the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. They were looking for a medical student to testify at an upcoming hearing on contraception—would I be that student?

Ultimately, the Committee chose to invite a student at Georgetown Law Center as their witness—but neither of [us] was given a chance to address the Committee. Chairman Darrell Issa refused to seat Sandra Fluke because, in his view, the hearing was "not about reproductive rights but instead about the administration's actions." The hearing was quite clearly a reaction to the Obama Administration’s decision to require church-affiliated organizations to provide insurance coverage for contraception. Ms. Fluke would have been the only woman on the panel.

I suspect that, even if I had been invited, I would not have had the opportunity to address Congress. But if I had, here is what I would have said:

 

Scott Walker's New Defense: Recalling Me Hurts Children and Old People

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 12:22 PM EST
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

On MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Monday morning, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker trotted out a new talking point as he defends himself from a well-organized recall campaign hoping to oust him from office. In a nutshell, Walker said: Think of the children! Think of the seniors!

Walker told MSNBC's Willie Geist that the recall effort is "a huge distraction" for himself and Wisconsin state lawmakers. Grassroots organizers turned in more than a million signatures in November to trigger the recall election, which is expected to take place this spring. "I mean, it's $9 million of taxpayers' money just to run this," he said. "Think about the number of kids we could help, think of the number of seniors we could help in our state with $9 million that we didn't have to waste on this—this frivolous recall election."

How ironic. In his first budget, Walker slashed public education funding by $800 million to $900 million. Walker and his administration have also sought to cut Medicaid funding, in effect booting more than 50,000 low-income families from the program, better known as BadgerCare Plus. The $9 million price tag for his recall election pales in comparison to the cost-cutting now pinching some of Wisconsin's students and some of its most vulnerable citizens.

Walker went on to say that he's encouraged by statewide polls showing in the lead over a handful of prospective Democratic challengers. A January poll by Marquette University showed Walker leading former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk, a union favorite, 49 percent to 42 percent. Walker also led Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who narrowly lost in the 2010 gubernatorial race, 50 percent to 44 percent. That said, Walker remains a divisive figure in Wisconsin. The same Marquette poll said 46 percent of those polled supported Walker while 48 percent did not.

Wisconsin Democrats, meanwhile, have unveiled their first ad of the recall fight, linking Walker to President Richard Nixon. The ad takes aim at the secretive "John Doe" probe targeting former Walker aides and compares the investigation to the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon's resignation, the first for a sitting president. Here's the ad:

Rick Santorum Playing the Class Warfare Card

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 11:31 AM EST

Check out this campaign dispatch from LA Times reporter Paul West:

"I don't come from the elite. My grandfather was a coal miner. I grew up in public housing on a VA grounds. I worked my way to the success that I had, and I'm proud of it," Santorum said Saturday in Troy, before a working-class audience gathered in the county where Romney enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Santorum didn't elaborate, but his family wasn't poor; his father, a psychologist, and his mother, a nurse, worked for the Veterans Administration — now the Department of Veterans Affairs — which provided them with an apartment.

....Santorum's latest campaign ad attacks Romney for "turning his back on Michigan workers" without mentioning that Santorum also opposed the auto industry bailout.

How about that? A campaign story that actually fact checks a candidate's statements in real time. Good work!

The rest of the story is mainly about the gobsmacking way in which a Republican primary race has pretty much turned into the class warfare they all claim to loathe so much when Democrats do it. My grandfather was a coal miner! The other guy makes a lot of money! College is for snobs! And of course, Romney is helping Santorum's cause by pandering for the NASCAR vote and then admitting he doesn't really care much about the sport but "I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners." It's an edifying spectacle.