Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy

Reporter

Tim Murphy is a reporter in MoJo's DC bureau. Last summer he logged 22,000 miles while blogging about his cross-country road trip for Mother Jones. His writing has been featured in Slate and the Washington Monthly. Email him with tips and insights at tmurphy [at] motherjones [dot] com.

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Residents Displaced by Massive Sinkhole Reach $48 Million Settlement With Mining Company

| Wed Apr. 9, 2014 12:22 PM EDT
The 30-acre Bayou Corne sinkhole.

Twenty months after a 30-acre sinkhole opened up in the swamp behind their community, Bayou Corne, Louisiana, residents reached a $48 million settlement with the salt-mining company Texas Brine. Geologists say the company's collapsed storage caverns likely triggered the environmental catastrophe and the series of small earthquakes that accompanied it. The class-action lawsuit, filed by the 90 homeowners who hadn't taken buyout offers from the company, was scheduled to go to trial next week. Residents of the community of 300 have been under a mandatory evacuation order since August of 2012 over fears that explosive-level gases might collect under their homes—although some residents have installed air monitors in an effort to wait it out.

Per the Baton Rouge Advocate:

"We firmly believe the $48 million is a really good settlement number," said Larry Centola, one of the attorney’s representing the owners and residents of about 90 homes and camps in the Bayou Corne area.

...

The settlement comes a few weeks after Texas Brine closed on the last of the 66 direct, out-of-court property buyouts and appears to provide a path toward conclusion for another wave of Bayou Corne residents displaced by the sinkhole disaster now more than 20 months old.

As I reported in a story for the magazine last year, the sinkhole has confounded geologists and state regulators, who previously believed that it was impossible for an underground salt cavern like the one underneath Bayou Corne—and used for natural gas storage by energy companies all over the Gulf Coast—to collapse from the side. But that's what happened. In the meantime, residents have been left to wonder if their community will meet the same fate as the town next door, Grand Bayou, which was evacuated and reduced to empty slabs after a natural gas leak a decade earlier.

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Chupacabra Spotted! News at 11! How Local News Created a Monster

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Arlen "Bubba" Parma of Ratcliffe, Texas, was minding his property last weekend when he came upon something he’d never seen before. Four-legged. Hairless. Making an otherworldly noise. Naturally, he brought it home to his wife.

"I said, 'Bubba, that looks like a baby chupacabra,'" his wife, Jackie Stock, told the local ABC affiliate.

Jackie and Bubba believed they'd stumbled upon a Latin American vampire beast that guzzles the blood of livestock. They decided to take it as a pet. The myth of the chupacabra, the ABC station reported, "has been around for decades."

On further examination, there are a lot of Bubba Parmas out there. Although the wildlife experts who invariably weigh in on alleged chupacabra sightings say there is a simple explanation—a skin disease called mange that cause quadrupeds' skin to fall off—dozens of local news outlets have reported sightings over the past three years. But this rash of reporting on chupacabras isn't just entertaining journalism—it's also bad journalism. With just a handful of exceptions, none of these news outlets ever tell it straight: The legend of the chupacabra is barely old enough to buy cigarettes. It's not mysterious. It's not a legend. It's not "decades old"—not even two.

I'm familiar with this problem because, like many Americans, I receive a daily Google News alert for the word "chupacabra." It's a wonder I ever leave the house. If there's a four-legged creature afflicted with a skin condition, chances are an Area Man and a local news crew won't be far behind. In Falfurrias, Texas, a taxidermist nearly broke down in tears when he came upon a still-fresh corpse. In Picayune, Mississippi, residents hid in their cars from a creature whose true identity they discovered after Googling "hairless coyote." A 13-year-old in Inez, Texas, dropped a suspected chupacabra with a .257 Weatherby rifle after spotting it outside his bedroom window.

The beast can apparently swim. It was spotted in Belarus, and in Ukraine, where residents claimed it killed their rabbits. Russian farmers blamed it for the slaughter of 60 sheep, prompting the government to issue a formal notice that "there are no fairytale creatures in the Lukhovitsky district." Last year, it was spotted in the savannahs of Namibia, where villagers reported a "dog-headed pig monster" terrorizing the community.

These stories would be terrific if they weren't so consistently misleading. In local news reports, chupacabra sightings are frequently presented as a handover from previous generations. "Chupacabra sightings have been rumored in North America, Mexico, and Puerto Rico for more than 50 years," an Arizona CBS affiliate explained to its viewers, after a Tucson meteorologist reported spotting one on the way to work. "The legend of 'El Chupacabra' dates back to the 1970s," reported Biloxi, Mississippi's WLOX after the sighting in Picayune. KLTV of Tyler, Texas, identified the chupacabra as "a bloodthirsty predator of Mexican lore." The Associated Press called it "folkloric legend," after another close call in Deer Creek, Oklahoma.

The real story of the chupacabra is decidedly modern. Although myths of vampire creatures are longstanding, the first known reference and eyewitness account came just 19 years ago, from a Puerto Rican woman named Madelyne Tolentino. Researcher Ben Radford laid out the details in his 2011 book, Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore. Radford, who deserves a medal or something, tracked down Tolentino and identified the inspiration for her account—she had just seen the movie Species, which came out in 1995 and features an alien almost identical to the animal Tolentino spotted. Radford offered a $250 reward for any earlier reference to the chupacabra and is still waiting.

Every once in a while, a news outlet demonstrates its ability to procure homespun commentary from locals about hairless vampire demons without sacrificing its journalistic cred. Good Morning America, for instance, cited Radford's work in a story about a retired wildlife biologist in Lake Jackson, Texas, who had whimsically reported a chupacabra sighting to the local press only to find himself the subject of a media frenzy.

But the most common strategy is to teach the controversy. "Some people think it exists, others say it's just a mangy dog," reported KENS of San Antonio, referring to a mangy coyote spotted inside the city limits. A Phoenix ABC affiliate offered that an unidentified creature might be a vampire beast or a badger. "What do you think?" the station asked readers.

In the meantime, the flood of sightings seems to be increasing, no doubt buoyed by people who have seen local news clips about previous encounters. "I actually Google Imaged 'chupacabra' and it looks just like the other images," a San Antonio woman said last June, after spotting what local biologists insisted was a coyote with mange. "They said it was one of them chupacabras or whatever," said Matthew Harrell, the Mississippi man who bagged a creature in a place called Pigtown. "That's what I'd call it because it looks just like it." The chupacabra isn't a Puerto Rican phenomenon anymore; it's a local TV one.

The vampire dog isn't real. We're all just suckers.

This GOP House Candidate Is Running for Office So His Daughter Won't Have to Learn About Evolution

| Mon Apr. 7, 2014 3:48 PM EDT
Congressional candidate Aaron Miller (R-Minn.)

Minnesota Republican congressional candidate Aaron Miller's gripe with Washington is personal. Speaking at the district convention on Saturday, Miller, an Iraq War vet who won the nomination to challenge four-term Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, explained that he was running for office in part to ensure that his daughter won't have to learn about evolution at her local public school. Per the Mankato Free Press:

He also called for more religious freedoms. He repeated his story about his daughter returning home from school because evolution was being taught in her class. He said the teacher admitted to not believing in the scientific theory to his daughter but told her that the government forced him to teach the lesson.

"We should decide what is taught in our schools, not Washington D.C.," Miller said.

Miller has declined to provide any more information to verify his story.

This isn't the first time Miller has recounted this tale—it's a staple of his stump speech. The comments were first flagged by Minnesota blogger Sally Jo Sorensen, who points out that Minnesota's biology standards are set by Minnesota, not DC. Miller has the endorsement of the district's 2012 GOP nominee Allen Quist, a longtime conservative activist in the state who wrote an educational curriculum supplement postulating that "people and stegosaurs were living at the same time."

The first district, which President Obama carried by a point in 2012, is one of just a handful of red-leaning congressional districts represented by Democrats. But Walz, who has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, remains popular in the district. It probably doesn't hurt that the local GOP keeps nominating candidates like Quist and Miller, either.

This GOP House Candidate Proposed Eliminating the Weekend

| Fri Apr. 4, 2014 11:06 AM EDT

Update, 4/11: Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) announced he wouldn't seek re-election, making state Sen. Glenn Grothman the odds-on favorite favorite to win the seat in November.

Wisconsonites tired of relaxing on weekends and staying home on federal holidays are in luck: On Thursday, GOP state Sen. Glenn Grothman announced his challenge to 18*-term moderate Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.). In a conservative district that went to Mitt Romney by seven points in 2012, Grothman hopes to channel dissatisfaction with Republicans in Congress whom he believes haven't done enough to slow down the Obama administration's policy agenda. But he comes with some baggage of his own.

In January, Grothman introduced legislation to eliminate a state requirement that workers get at least one day off per week. "Right now in Wisconsin, you're not supposed to work seven days in a row, which is a little ridiculous because all sorts of people want to work seven days a week," he told the Huffington Post. Eliminating days off is a long-running campaign from Grothman. Three years earlier, he argued that public employees should have to work on Martin Luther King Day. "Let's be honest, giving government employees off has nothing to do with honoring Martin Luther King Day and it's just about giving state employees another day off," he told the Wisconsin State Journal. It would be one thing if people were using their day off to do something productive, but Grothman said he would be "shocked if you can find anybody doing service."

MLK Day and "Saturday" aren't the only holidays Grothman opposes. At a town hall in 2013, he took on Kwanzaa, which he said "almost no black people today care about" and was being propped up by "white left-wingers who try to shove this down black people's throats in an effort to divide Americans."

When he's not advocating for people to spend more time working, Grothman has gotten in trouble for advocating that (some) people be paid less. "You could argue that money is more important for men," he told the Daily Beast's Michelle Goldberg, after pushing through a repeal of the state's equal pay bill. And he has pushed to pare back a program that provided free birth control, while floating a bill that would have labeled single parenthood, "a contributing factor to child abuse and neglect." Grothman justified the bill by contending that women choose to become single mothers and call their pregnancies "unplanned" only because it's what people want to hear. "I think people are trained to say that 'this is a surprise to me,' because there's still enough of a stigma that they're supposed to say this," he said in 2012.

Enjoy the weekend.

Correction: This post originally misstated the number of years Petri has been in Congress.

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