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.

Get my RSS |

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.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

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.

This Is Bigger News Than Bobby Jindal's Health Care Plan

| Thu Apr. 3, 2014 1:14 PM EDT

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal made another effort to jump back into the upper tier of 2016 Republican presidential wannabes on Wednesday, releasing a 26-page plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with...something else. Jindal's plan includes things like block grants for Medicaid, an elimination of the employer subsidy for insurance, and the ability to purchase insurance across state lines—basically the same things conservatives have been pushing for years. (Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's 2015 budget, unveiled one day earlier, also calls for block grants.) As I reported in the most recent issue of Mother Jones, it's only the most recent in a string of efforts by Jindal to elevate his sagging national profile to its previous heights.

But while he was pushing a hypothetical agenda for his hypothetical presidency, things weren't going so well in Louisiana:

Louisiana's House Education Committee voted down legislation that sought to scrap the Common Core education standards and replace them with a not-yet-developed set of academic benchmarks and assessments. The committee's vote was 12-7.

Gov. Bobby Jindal submitted a green card—indicating support—for [State Rep. Brett] Geymann's legislation to the House Education Committee, after several weeks of being circumspect about the his views on Common Core. But no one from Jindal's staff testified on the bill and his spokesmen did not respond to media requests for information about why he backed Geymann's legislation.

Jindal originally supported the implementation of the Common Core standards, a set of defacto national math and English standards approved by 46 states in 2009. But the standards became a lightning rod for conservative activists, who considered it a government takeover of local schools (or worse). So when the backlash came to Louisiana last year, he changed his tune. Sort of. Jindal argued that Louisiana shouldn't take orders from Washington, and after a long period of indecision, quietly signaled his support for Geymann's bill, which would have put the state's tests on hold and form a 32-person committee for further study. It's not quite hitting control-z on the entire program, but it would certainly be a step away from the original plan. But that attempt at damage control is dead for now, and so instead of being able to tell voters about how he reined in Common Core, Jindal is stuck with it.

That might not be on the 2016 radar yet, but given how despised the Core is among grassroots voters in Iowa, Florida, and South Carolina, it's potentially a much bigger deal than a boilerplate white paper.

Thu Mar. 31, 2011 12:08 PM EDT
Wed Mar. 30, 2011 10:43 AM EDT
Tue Mar. 29, 2011 10:54 AM EDT
Sat Mar. 26, 2011 7:30 PM EDT
Fri Mar. 25, 2011 3:20 PM EDT
Fri Mar. 25, 2011 3:01 AM EDT
Tue Mar. 22, 2011 12:59 PM EDT
Thu Mar. 17, 2011 4:28 PM EDT
Thu Mar. 17, 2011 10:00 AM EDT
Wed Mar. 16, 2011 10:49 AM EDT
Tue Mar. 15, 2011 10:51 AM EDT
Sun Mar. 13, 2011 10:18 AM EDT
Fri Mar. 11, 2011 5:04 PM EST
Thu Mar. 10, 2011 6:00 PM EST
Wed Mar. 9, 2011 10:33 AM EST
Tue Mar. 8, 2011 3:05 PM EST
Tue Mar. 8, 2011 10:31 AM EST
Mon Mar. 7, 2011 11:31 AM EST
Sat Mar. 5, 2011 3:08 PM EST
Fri Mar. 4, 2011 2:37 PM EST
Fri Mar. 4, 2011 10:48 AM EST
Wed Mar. 2, 2011 5:43 PM EST
Wed Mar. 2, 2011 2:28 PM EST
Tue Mar. 1, 2011 3:46 PM EST
Sun Feb. 27, 2011 1:26 PM EST
Mon Feb. 21, 2011 7:56 AM EST
Wed Feb. 16, 2011 6:12 PM EST
Wed Feb. 16, 2011 2:00 PM EST
Mon Feb. 14, 2011 2:04 PM EST
Sat Feb. 12, 2011 7:57 PM EST