Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Watching the swine flu circus from Mexico

ARROYO SECO, Jalisco, Mexico - The day the story broke about the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico City, news media immediately began using the word 'pandemic.'

It is a powerful word, laden with frightening implications, especially as it is usually pronounced in television broadcasts with the same gravity as saying 'nuclear war.' In this case, certainly four days ago, it was also a wild overstatement. I trust it is still an overstatement as you read this. But it did keep people glued to television sets - and advertisers smiling.

Here on the west coast of Mexico, in the very southern portion of the subtropical state of Jalisco, children are out of school and playing in the streets (part of the nationwide alert and school closures). People who have coughs are seeking doctors, when they might not have otherwise. Pigs are eyed somewhat suspiciously, though not avoided. But because there are very few televisions in the village, life simply continues without CNN's Wolf Blitzer's bulletins reporting, well, not that much.

Whaddya you lookin' at
I'm innocent, I tell you! I'm innocent!

This is not to diminish the genuine concerns people have about their health, and the health of their families and friends. But the hammering away on 24-hour news channels by hyperventilating newscasters (with non-news flu updates) isn't helping.

Washing your hands more often might, especially after handling money.

The swine flu presents a health threat, certainly. So do a plethora of other communicable diseases all over the globe, currently dormant. Read Richard Preston's book The Hot Zone for a terrifying look at how close the world came to have a major outbreak of ebola nearly 30 years ago. (You can watch the movie based on his book titled Outbreak, though the film is not as compelling.)

  • The Hot Zone excerpt

  • But there is another threat to be aware of in all this, the threat posed by fearful people. How many cases of swine flu will it take before some zealots carrying highpowered rifles on the U.S. Mexico border decide that anyone trying to cross in the U.S. poses a clear and present danger to them - and their families?

    In Sacramento, Calif., three school-aged children have been diagnosed with the flu, though their cases appear to be, well, simply a flu and not in any way life threatening. But there is likely a lot of free-floating anxiety around St. Mel's school and it's hard to say whether the first child diagnosed will become a pariah to his classmates when he recovers and school reopens.

    Let's hope not.

    Let's also hope that this swine flu burns itself out quickly - as many viruses do - and that we don't have hear the word pandemic mispronounced again for a long time.

    Now please go wash you hands. Who knows who might have been using your computer keyboard?

    Tuesday, April 14, 2009

    Asking tough questions is part of journalism

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - The shooting in Folsom, Calif a few days ago - the shooting in which a 23-year-old man with a knife was shot and killed by three Folsom police officers - is a good example of a kind of journalism to which readers should object.
  • Shooting story

  • While The Sacramento Bee is congratulating itself on its investigative work on a Child Protective Services' story - and the resignation of the CPS chief - it is letting lesser stories slip through without forcing issues, asking the tough questions.

    What's wrong with the shooting story?

    From the outset, the story takes on a clearly subservient tone to the Folsom Police.
    "Folsom police have released few details..." And later, " Beattie did not name the three officers involved in the shooting."

    Well, that may be so. Police departments are usually quite secretive about their actions and inner workings.

    But please! Three police officers apparently blasted a 23-year-old man with a knife, after unsuccessfully using a taser on him. Is it too much to know who the three officers are?

    Credit should be given to The Bee for following up on the sketchy story that was originally published.

    But now it's time to turn up the heat on the Folsom Police and let readers know what happened. Perhaps instead of saying, "Folsom police have released few details..." The Bee could say that the Folsom Police are REFUSING to release details, REFUSING to say what police were involved in the shooting.

    And maybe the reporters and editors who did the tough work on the CPS story can put those investigative skills back to work before the three unnamed Folsom Police officers have trouble getting their tasers to work properly again - and shoot another resident with their service weapons.

    Thursday, April 02, 2009

    Another Sacramento Bee column bites the dust

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - Although I kicked my television addiction some years back, thanks to a 12-step program I found out about by watching late-night TV, I have always enjoyed Rick Kushman's sometimes annoying, but always interesting, columns on television shows, trends in television, and entertainment.

    His coverage of what was coming up was the closest thing to must-read stuff in The Sacramento Bee, right after the editorials of course. The editorials were/are must read because...well, let's make this a nice column, ok?

    Rick speaking at a convention

    I used Rick's columns as a way to keep track of things, to see if new programs were, well, worth watching. I trusted/trust his judgment on a lot of such matters.

    Most of all, I observed over the years that in his writing he was always brutally honest, even at times when maybe it wasn't easy to be. That's hard when you get paid to write for a living - and have corporate bosses who are worried about advertisers and advertising dollars.

    Now Rick Kushman has been quantum shifted, like many Bee staff members who have survived the latest round of layoffs and cutbacks. I'm sure there is some logic in cutting out the TV column, but I don't understand it. A local take on television, from a local guy who was/is well-known in the community, was a draw for many readers.

    This one, for sure.

    And The Good Life column? Well, it may have its devotees, but it doesn't hold my attention the same way Rick's analysis of The Sopranos did.

    The Sopranos

    I have invited Rick to speak in my classes at CSU, Sacramento on many occasions. And he has almost always been able to squeeze my students in, despite a schedule that defies description. He has an open invite for this fall to tell us about The Good Life - and maybe all those insider tidbits about television he doesn't get to write about anymore.