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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GOP Senate Candidate: "I Have Big Boy Pants on Every Day”

| Thu Apr. 10, 2014 3:12 PM EDT
 

At a closed-door meeting last year at the North Carolina General Assembly building, Thom Tillis, the state speaker of the house and frontrunner in the GOP primary to take on Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in November, clashed with Republican activists and legislators who claimed that Tillis was blocking conservative legislation to bolster his chances in the Senate race. In a contentious exchange that was caught on tape, Tillis and a fellow Republican tried to put their disagreements behind them before stumbling into an argument over whether Tillis was wearing "big boy pants":

Unidentified speaker: Sometimes in the heat of the moments things are said that maybe could be better stated had we had time to think about what we’re gonna say. But sir, I think it’s time now for us to put this behind us, put our big boy pants on and say okay we—

Tillis: I understand that, I understand that, but I have big boy pants on every day, with all due respect. That's why I'm sitting in this room trying to solve this problem. That was fine up to this point, I think that kind of comment’s not really showing respect.

This is funny, because who says "big boy pants"? (Besides Florida Dem Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who used the term to diss Mitt Romney.) But the context is significant. At one point, according Chuck Suter, a North Carolina conservative activist who was in the meeting and posted the clip, Tillis slammed his chair into the table and began to walk out of the room before returning to finish a point. The chair-slam can be heard on the tape.

Tillis, whose campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment, held the meeting to clear the air after Republican state Rep. Larry Pittman, who was also in attendance, criticized Tillis in a speech. The question of whether Tillis is conservative enough hasn't gone away. Heavyweights including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Americans for Prosperity have endorsed one of Tillis' rivals, Greg Brannon, an OBGYN who runs a chain of crisis-pregnancy clinics. The most recent survey of the primary from Public Policy Polling showed Tillis well short of the 40-percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

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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.

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.

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