Backtalk May/June 2005

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Are your titles written by some lefty hack from a small former communist country? These stories are alive; they should breathe and have titles that make people want to read them. Make a title exciting, not obscure. Lighten up! Changing the world is fun.

DAVID BROWN
Spicewood, Texas

Hot and Bothered

What a wonderful coincidence! Last week I received the May/June issue of Mother Jones featuring the stupid activities of ExxonMobil concerning global warming (“Some Like It Hot”). My May issue of Forbes also arrived, featuring executive pay.

There on the list of “Bad Buys” is none other than Lee R. Raymond, CEO of ExxonMobil. Obviously, Raymond is an overpaid corporate dinosaur, out of touch with the big picture. While more progressive executives are moving ahead researching conservation and alternative energy sources, he is doing a bad job for his shareholders, his customers, and the planet.

ALEXANDER PERRY
St. Marys, Georgia

In your excellent article on ExxonMobil’s campaign of denial about global warming, you neglected one most important fact. This is the second time ExxonMobil has done this. In the 1920s, the company’s predecessor, Standard Oil of New Jersey, mounted a campaign, with the collusion of DuPont Chemical and General Motors, to convince Americans that lead in gasoline was harmless. As a result, generations of inner-city children received harmful doses of lead poisoning from breathing air and dust. This is still going on in Third World countries.

JOHN P. CONE JR.
Salem, Virginia

Raining on “Snowed”

In “Snowed,” Ross Gelbspan has mischaracterized Los Angeles Times coverage of climate change. By relying on an unnamed academician’s ludicrously outdated tally of pre-2000 newspaper stories about climate change, he ignores five years of substantially expanded coverage of science and the environment. He is also wrong in saying that the press has ignored the connection between recent extreme weather events and climate change. Had Gelbspan done his own reporting, he could have seen that just one of a dozen reporters here who cover environment and science has written close to 30,000 words on climate change since 2002. Meanwhile, a host of weather-related events including melting glaciers, insect infestations, species migration, habitat alteration, severe storms, and prolonged drought have drawn intense press scrutiny, especially in the West. In its editorials, the L.A. Times has endorsed California’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, differed sharply with the Bush administration over Kyo-to, and repeatedly criticized the administration’s heavy emphasis on fossil fuels. In our reporting, we try neither to downplay the evidence of human complicity in climate change nor hype it. For example, we wrote last year that the hurricanes pummeling Florida did not appear to be a result of warming. Our reporting indicates that the link predicted by some scientists isn’t yet clear.

To Gelbspan, apparently, such a cautionary approach is a sign that the press is under the spell of pseudoscientists doing the bidding of the energy industry. It may well be that some of the news media, lacking either the resources or the appetite for original research, have chosen to hedge their bets. No doubt, we have missed some stories and underplayed others. But if we move more cautiously than Gelbspan would like, it is usually because journalists recognize that nature has played a dramatic role in climate change over the centuries and understand that we have an obligation to try and sort out the human and nonhuman causes. Gelbspan is right in saying that there is a broad scientific consensus on global warming. All the more reason we should pay attention to the contrarians—just as a wary financial analyst does—because they are right some of the time.

Those of us who have been covering environmental issues for many years are acutely aware of the reading public’s heightened skepticism of alarmist reporting. For years, the environmental movement has cried fire while the public hasn’t smelled much smoke. Today, most people live a long way from the places directly in harm’s way—such as the remote Arctic villages that are threatened by food shortages and rising seas. For most people, global warming is still an abstraction, an unseen peril. Our best hope of combating public skepticism is to write as openly and honestly as we can. That requires a willingness to admit to uncertainties where they exist, and to acknowledge the anomalies as well as the evidence.

FRANK CLIFFORD
Editor for Environmental News
The Los Angeles Times

Messed With in Texas

I have witnessed every detail of your article (“Medicating Aliah”) about the medicating of adolescents in state mental health care. I was an RN in Texas at a private, for-profit psychiatric facility. The majority of young patients in our care were there due to broken homes and poor parenting. Many were being raised by a relative or had already entered Child Protective Services. Often, the hospital would only be furnishing room and board until long-term care was found, all on Medicaid.

If the hospital had provided adequate staff, age-appropriate activities, and something besides a VCR for babysitting, there may have been less medication needed. Most of these kids need love, attention, and the safety and stability of a good home. Too bad the pharmaceutical companies can’t figure out how to put that in a pill.

MELISSA MIRELES
Dallas, Texas

Seeing Through “Ghost Children”

I was shocked by the writer’s supposition in “Ghost Children of Big Mango”: “Is starvation worse for a child than for a grown-up?… Such a claim appeals less to reason than to sentiment.” How about this for “reason”? Early malnutrition accounts for pronounced growth failure in very young children, who remain stunted as adults. Maternal stunting increases the risk of fetal malnutrition, transmitting the problem across the generations. Additionally, malnutrition impacts lifelong intellectual performance.

Starvation in a 30-year-old is not going to impact his height in 5 or 20 years—or his teeth coming in or his brain development. In a child, however, starvation can be a life sentence. For Philip Gourevitch to dismiss the enormous consequences of starvation in childhood at the outset of this article reduces its credibility to, well, frankly, the amount of money in those kids’ pockets.

DEANNE MUSOLF CROUCH
Pleasant Hill, California

Who’s Spinning Whom?

Regarding the case of accused nuclear smuggler Asher Karni (“The Middleman”), we just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our short association with Karni’s company, Top-Cape Technologies, was an honest business inquiry about wireless telecom antennas and some parts from South Africa, to which Karni responded as a struggling African Muslim since, as he introduced himself, he had been pushed out of Israel. If you can confirm, Asher Karni is a Muslim name.

Our association with our U.S. counterparts is one of the longest-standing partnerships in Pakistan, because we never broke any laws and over the many years it became a trusted name on both sides. We had millions worth of telecom and education-sector projects in hand. Why would anyone want to jeopardize such history, and for such a small amount? To use our own name to buy such banned items? No!

What we don’t understand here is why the true direction of this transaction is being deliberately overlooked: The items actually never reached Pakistan, let alone my office. The lobby working against better U.S.-Pakistan relations did a great job to fabricate the whole story, hence a scapegoat was needed.

Speaking of breaking U.S. laws, if, for instance, I’m the culprit (don’t they wish): Did the inquiry go to a U.S. company? Did the shipment to Pakistan come from a U.S. port? Are there any documents proving myself or my office received the goods? And if we bought them, why did they sell them? Why was PerkinElmer not questioned on selling the goods outside the U.S. without proper documentations? And if Asher Karni lied that the goods were to be used in a Soweto hospital, where does my company come in being wrong? If Karni can fabricate this, then he can do everything else that has been said and written as email messages.

I would never do any business with an Israeli, if my life depended on it. This, at least, you should be able to understand.

HUMAYUN KHAN
Chief Executive Officer, Pakland
Islamabad, Pakistan

The editors respond: As Mark Schapiro reported in “The Middleman,” Asher Karni is a Hungarian-born Israeli and South African businessman. We did not investigate the etymology of his name, but we note that “Asher” means “happy” in Hebrew. Files found in Karni’s computer included emails to and from Humayun Khan, at a Pakland email address. Over the course of this email exchange, Khan specifically requested that Karni obtain triggered spark gaps for a “genuinely medical requirement.” An initial shipment of 66 disabled triggered spark gaps reached Islamabad on October 21, 2003, via DHL. PerkinElmer did not require an export license to send them to South Africa, but once they learned that the ultimate destination was Pakistan, they cooperated with the Commerce Department by disabling the spark gaps and shipping them as planned.

In April, a federal grand jury charged Humayun Khan with violating U.S. export restrictions.

The Dismal Science

James Galbraith’s contention that privatizing Social Security “condemns [families] to care for their elders” is a disconcerting phrase. I’d certainly hate to be his mother.

NICOLE DIAMENTE
Mahopac, New York