A news truck shared by two local television stations.
Everybody knows that most local TV newscasts kind of suck. On television, if it bleeds it leads, and if it's cheesy and trite it wins the night. Local news is a reliable source for late-night comedians—and The Simpsons has been lampooning it forever. Yet despite all of the genre's shortcomings, local TV news still manages to reach 9 in 10 American adults, 46 percent of whom watch it "often." It may come as a surprise to you internet junkies, but broadcast television still serves as Americans' main source of news and information. Which is why it matters that hundreds of local TV news stations have been swept up in a massive new wave of media consolidation: It means that you, the viewer, are being fed an even more repetitive diet of dreck.
In terms of dollar value, more than 75 percent of the nearly 300 full-power local TV stations purchased last year were acquired by just three media giants. The largest, Sinclair Broadcasting, will reach almost 40 percent of the population if its latest purchases are approved by federal regulators. Sinclair's CEO has said he wants to keep snapping up stations until the company's market saturation hits 90 percent. (And that's not a typo.)
Now here's where things really get sketchy: Media conglomerates such as Sinclair have bought up multiple news stations in the same regions—in nearly half of America's 210 television markets, one company owns or manages at least two local stations, and a lot of these stations now run very similar or even completely identical newscasts, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center. One in four local stations relies entirely on shared content. (See chart at right.)
On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission finally took steps to curb the practice. The commission's rules have long prohibited companies from owning more than one of the four top-rated stations in a given market. But there was no rule preventing a single company from managing more than one station per market. Companies exploited this loophole by controlling stations through "joint sales agreements"—essentially shell companies formed just to hold the broadcast license. "Removal of the loophole helps ensure competition, localism, and diversity in local broadcast markets by preventing a practice that previously resulted in consolidation in excess of what is permitted under the Commission's rules," the FCC said in a press release.
You can bet on plenty of pushback from the industry. (More on that below.) As it stands, some local stations simply share office space or vans or helicopters, but others take the overlap much further. To offer one example, CBS and NBC affiliates in Syracuse, New York, use separate anchor teams but run nearly identical stories produced by a shared group of reporters. In some markets, partner stations run virtually identical newscasts, albeit at different times. And then there are stations like the CBS and NBC affiliates in Honolulu, which don't even bother staggering the times: They run identical newscasts simultaneously.
A news program simulcast by two Honolulu stations. Pew Research Center
The media conglomerates also share plenty of local content between markets, which is why you'll see a story on your local station about some awful crime you didn't need to know about that took place far away—or some schmaltzy puff piece. Conan O'Brien has had much fun with this sort of thing:
Proponents of the joint sales arrangements argue that they enable small-market stations to cobble together better newscasts than they could afford to deliver on their own. Yet media watchdogs say it's all just a scheme to line the pockets of big station owners at the expense of viewers. "You have these viewing choices across local stations, but you don't really have alternatives if they are presenting the same thing," media researcher Danilo Yanich of the University of Delaware told Pew. "That's what's wrong with it."
The top conglomerates are certainly raking it in: The stock value of Nexstar Broadcasting Group, which owns or services dual stations in 37 of its 56 markets, more than tripled last year. The value of Sinclair's stock more than doubled. Gannett's stock price jumped 34 percent the day that it announced that it was spending $2.2 billion to buy 17 TV news stations owned by Dallas-based Belo Corp. In addition to shaving operating costs, consolidation enables the increasingly powerful owners to negotiate much higher retransmission fees from cable providers.
Monday's FCC ruling is far from the last word on the matter. Media conglomerates can apply for waivers if "strict compliance with the rule is inconsistent with the public interest." (Historically, corporate media lawyers have been pretty adept at arguing that what's in the industry's interest is also in the public interest.) And the FCC hasn't cracked down on the overall size of local TV news conglomerates or regulated "shared service agreements," which allow stations with different owners to pool resources—including reporting teams.
Craig Aaron, CEO of the media watchdog group Free Press, nevertheless views Monday's ruling as an indication that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who was appointed late last year, will do more than his predecessors to stand up to Big Media. The vote signals that "Wheeler is willing to break with the past," Aaron said in a statement. "It's time for conglomerates to start playing by the rules."
Last week, President Barack Obama claimed to be less worried about security threats from Russia than "the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan." If that's the case, however, it isn't reflected in his latest military budget, which would boost funding for maintaining and developing atomic weapons while cutting back programs that help keep bomb-making materials out of the hands of terrorists.
"It's troubling that for the third year in a row, the President's budget proposal funds nuclear weapons programs at the expense of virtually every nonproliferation effort," Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement provided by his aides. "Maintaining our existing nuclear weapons stockpile is already unsustainable, and it makes little sense to increase investments in weapons that matter less and less for our national security."
The administration's proposed 2015 budget reduces the National Nuclear Security Administration's $790 million in spending on nuclear nonproliferation programs by 20 percent, or $152 million. The cuts apply to NNSA programs that secure buildings containing fissile material, prevent the smuggling of radioactive material across borders, and convert nuclear reactors to use low-enriched uranium, which, unlike highly enriched uranium, cannot be used in nuclear warheads.
At the same time, the Obama budget increases the NNSA's spending on nuclear weapons systems by nearly 6 percent, or $445 million. This includes a $100 million increase for the "life extension" of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb, a Cold War-era weapon stationed mostly around Europe that many arms experts call outdated and unnecessary.
"It's misplaced priorities across the board," says James Lewis, communications director for the Center For Arms Control And Non-Proliferation. The nation's nuclear weapons complex "is just such a massive behemoth that there really isn't money for anything else."
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has defended the cuts, albeit without much enthusiasm. "Nuclear nonproliferation programs, I'm afraid, is not such a great story," he told the Albuquerque Journal News last month. "It's frankly disappointing that we have such a substantial reduction this year. However, I do want to emphasize that this will continue to be a very robust program."
iDrive is touting its "NSA-proof" cloud storage in an ad campaign timed to coincide with Macworld.
For many years, Apple's Steve Jobs used the Macworld expo in San Francisco to launch the company's most innovative products. The release of gadgets such as the iPhone into the creative ferment of Silicon Valley gave rise to booming economies of accessories and apps. Yet this year, the most palpable inspiration among Macworld's product developers is coming from a very different sort of tech guru: The National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
One of the most prominent booths at Macworld, which opened on Wednesday and runs through Saturday, belongs to iDrive, a company that recently erected nine billboards around San Francisco to tout its "NSA-proof cloud backup." Unlike other cloud sites such as Google Drive or DropBox, iDrive's software helps users encrypt their data on their own mobile devices or computers using a private key known only to them. Then the encrypted data is automatically transmitted to and stored on the company's servers. In the event of a subpoena by the NSA, "we can turn over the data but we can't do anything with it because the key is not known to us," iDrive CEO Raghu Kulkarni told me. "That is what makes it NSA-proof."
In the months since the Snowden leaks, iDrive's signups have jumped 20 percent, Kulkami says.
This afternoon at Macworld, Parker Higgins of the Electronic Frontier Foundation will moderate a panel of security firms and tech journalists called "The NSA And You."
The challenges of protecting data from dragnet surveillance haven't stopped other Macworld exhibitors from working the NSA angle. Take the "personal cloud" devices Transporter and My Cloud, for example. Designed for people who don't trust anyone except themselves to back up or store their data, they replace the cloud with a two- to four-terabyte hard drive that sits on a desk. Yet this personal cloud still allows for all the convenience and functionality of the conventional cloud, including online access from any device and sharing large files with others via links.
"Our cloud is completely private. You have complete control of your files and folders, and you know where they are."
Elke Larson, an exhibitor for My Cloud, told me that protection from the NSA "is a point that people bring up a lot" when discussing the product. Unlike iDrive, which doesn't allow sharing from encrypted accounts, the personal cloud devices also enable users to more easily swap data.
"Our cloud is completely private," said Transporter exhibitor Brett Best, whose booth overflowed with interested visitors. "You have complete control of your files and folders, and you know where they are."
"Whereas DropBox," he went on, "shoot, the government goes and accesses that stuff all the time."
For what it's worth, Best went on to claim that Transporter, which got off the ground with the help of $260,000 from Kickstarter, is more NSA-proof than My Cloud because My Cloud stores some of its users' metadata, such as file names, but "we don't store any of that." (A My Cloud rep said he'd never heard that claim).
Not that any of this will matter if government investigators were to hack directly into your computer. In that event, you might wish you'd installed the app Hider 2, due to launch in few days from the company MacPaw. At the click of a button, it allows you to encrypt and hide (or decrypt and unhide) files on your computer. In a demo of the app at the company's Macworld booth, some files were cheekily tagged "NSA."
Apple's App Store would not certify Hider 2, CEO Oleksandr Kosovan told me, until it was approved by... the NSA. "If the NSA does have some super-powered quantum computer," he added, "they may get access to the data, but that is very unlikely."
But that's not the only threat for Hider 2 users. MacPaw is based in Kiev, Ukraine. So if Russian tanks roll over the border tomorrow, you may need to start worrying about protecting your Bitcoins and LOLcats from the Federal Security Service.
For American taxpayers, the biggest unheralded threat from the crisis in Ukraine may be its effect on the military budget. Foreign policy hawks already have seized upon the so-called "new Cold War" as a rationale for shelling out billions of additional dollars on nuclear weapons.
Russia's annexation of Crimea shows the need to "build up missile defenses and modernize the US nuclear force," James S. Robbins, a senior fellow for national security affairs for the American Foreign Policy Council, wrote last week in USA Today. "To live in the 21st century, the United States will need to relearn the lessons of the 20th."
Robbins' sentiment was echoed on Thursday by Loren Thompson, the CEO of the Lexington Institute, a military think tank funded by defense contractors: "Many people in Washington might have been prepared to forego spending money on a new generation of nuclear weapons before Putin made his move," Thompson wrote in Forbes, "but now he has changed the strategic calculation."
The Crimean takeover comes at the exact moment when military planners are debating how to update America's nuclear arsenal. The Defense Department plans to start procuring replacements for its aging fleets of nuclear bombers, submarines, and Trident missiles by around 2020. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this and the maintenance of our existing nuclear arsenal will cost $355 billion over the next 10 years. While most nuclear weapons experts believe that we could spend far less than that to effectively deter attacks, cuts to nuclear weapons spending no longer seem inevitable.
One of many models of vape pens that can be used to discretely smoke marijuana concentrates.
Last year, I joined some parents from my son's preschool for their semiregular "Dad's Night Out." We were at a crowded bar in Oakland, and somehow it emerged that I'd done some stories about marijuana. A dad immediately asked if I'd written about hash oil. Within a few minutes (for the sake of journalism, of course), I was trying a hit of nearly odorless vapor from what looked like a miniature flashlight. A single puff, and I was too high to order a second beer.
The concentrates used with vape pens are up to three times stronger than the most mind-bending buds.
It might be an understatement to say that marijuana concentrates smoked from so-called vape pens—the pot version of e-cigarettes—accomplish for stoners what flasks full of moonshine do for lushes: Portable, discreet, and fantastically potent, they're revolutionizing the logistics of getting high, and minimizing the risk of discovery. Stories abound of people using vape pens to blaze away undetected at baseball games, city council meetings, kids' soccer matches, and, of most concern to parents and educators, high schools. Even if pot brownies have been around forever, this is probably not what your average Colorado or Washington voter had in mind when they cast a ballot to legalize recreational marijuana.
The concentrates typically used in vape pens are made by extracting THC from pot with water ("bubble hash"), transferring it into butter ("budder"), or refining it into what's known as butane hash oil (BHO, or "errrl," since stoners need a slang term for everything pot-related). From there, it can be refined further into a wax or an amber-like solid ("shatter"). These products are up to three times stronger than the most mind-bending buds. In short, it ain't your father's schwag, and its snowballing popularity among young people is reshaping the culture of the pot scene: One customarily smokes (or "dabs") BHO from specially designed bongs known as "oil rigs," and not at the designated hour of 4:20, but rather at 7:10—which, in case you're wondering, is "OIL" upside down and backwards.