Saturday, January 26, 2008

Why newspapers suck

This quote-of-the-day sums it up:
Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock. - Ben Hecht (1893 - 1964)
Dose is the best daily newspaper I've seen, and the only free daily I had ever encountered when it appeared in Calgary two or three years ago. Sadly, they quit publishing here after just more than a year. A few months ago, my eyes bugged out upon noticing not one but three new free daily newspapers had appeared on our sidewalks: "24 Hours", "Metro" and "Rush Hour". Guess what, they all suck. Besides having much less content than Dose (you can read all their "real" news in 10 minutes, leaving you only with entertainment/celebrity crap), they don't have the personality of Dose and, like the paid-for papers, they follow the Ben Hecht model above.

I think the best thing about Dose was that they didn't follow that mold. They didn't tell you just the latest tiny piece of data about an ongoing story, but summarized the whole thing. They would have one or two full pages on a single topic (with no ads, and not huge pages, but not small either). It wouldn't be one article, but several on related issues, typically with one article giving a concise, useful overview of the topic dating way, way back. Traditional newspapers will tell you, day after day after day, how many people of what race were killed in Israel that day, and even their mode of death (gunfire? rocket attack? suicide bomb!!), but only Dose would tell you that Israel invaded and occupied Sinai and Gaza in 1967. Traditional newspapers will tell you that the homicide yesterday was the 14th of the year; Dose would give you long-term crime trends.

Yeah, Dose had their celebrity gossip too. They had "sex advice from strangers". But they had enough interesting material to keep me reading for a good half hour.

It's remarkable how little I learn from the news I read, because the media doesn't tie things together. It's also remarkable how useless newspapers are for forming an opinion, not just because they give facts without context, but because, in their obsession with seeming impartial they make no judgements or evaluations. Regarding their chosen topic, the paper tells you what officials X and Y say, what witnesses and experts (selected by the newspaper) say, and if you're lucky you may get an report from an unidentified source. But in case of conflicting reports, they do not attempt to determine who is telling the truth--at least until you get to the opinion section, if the paper has one, in which highly partisan pundits try to tell you what to believe, backed up only by some speculation and emotion-soaked logic.

Dose couldn't fit all pertinent details into their one-page reports, but it's remarkable that I could learn more from one page of Dose than from years of traditional news reports. Come back, Dose. I'll even pay for you.


I've been hearing about a lot of taser-related deaths lately, as well as various stories of police officers using tasers when victims are already on the ground or when they simply have no need to. Which may not sound like a big deal compared to Iraq, but it's hard not to be horrified by some of these stories. Why do you need to give people a 50,000-volt shock when they are on the ground? Why would they even consider using it when four or five officers are trying to arrest a single individual? Why would they use it repeatedly?

Like the story of mentally handicapped woman in a wheelchair who, suffering from schizophrenia, called 911 claiming to be in danger. Soon after police arrived, she was tasered ten times for two minutes and forty seconds, and died as a result. Good heavens, doesn't the battery ever run out on these things?

Let's see, what else... Now comes the most disgusting taser death story yet, not so much because of the excessive taser use (it was used just twice, reportedly) but because of bad behavior from all officials involved.

I wanted to quote a helpful summary of what happened to Robert Dziekanski, but I couldn't find a news article that told the entire story. Most news stories start when the RCMP (Canadian federal police) arrived, but one should really start at least 11 hours earlier, when Mr. Dziekanski got off the plane at the Vancouver Airport. I let this post gather dust for over two months, thinking I would write it when I got a more detailed news article, but I never found one.

In short, when Mr. Dziekanski (how can you pronounce that?), who spoke only Polish, came to Canada, he had agreed with his mother to meet her in the baggage claim area. The problem: the baggage claim area is a secure area that his mother was not allowed to enter. His plane touched down at 3:12 P.M., and 11 hours later, at 2 A.M., he was dead. During that time his mother made numerous attempts to get help from airport staff, which fail.

There's this timeline but it doesn't explain all the things that I've heard. It says "he would not have been able to leave the secure zone", but not why (the Calgary baggage claim area is also secure, but of course passengers can leave--I've done so myself). It says that a customer service agent pages Mr. Dziekanski, without telling his mother that the announcements don't reach the secure area--but not whether his parents mentioned that she thought her son was there, which to me seems like an important point. It says that Ms. Cisowski and her husband leave the airport and return home to Kamloops (355 kilometres away), but not that they left because they were told that their son wasn't there. Finally, though observers thought he spoke Russian and the RCMP were told that he speaks only Russian, a translator who spoke Russian and Polish wonders why he wasn't notified (and may have been fired for talking to the press).

Meanwhile, the rest of us wonder why the airport's official translators weren't summoned and why these RCMP would use a taser on him for failing to obey their English instructions. I think it's for the same reason this Utah Highway Patrolman tasers a guy after he takes more than a few seconds to find his license and registration: they were just really eager to use their toys. Paul Pritchard, a passenger who took a video of the incident, say the RCMP mentioned taser use to one another before meeting him; I guess when they arrived, their groupthink stupor led them to carry out their unjustified idea.

You can see the whole damn thing on youtube if you like. By my stopwatch, it was just 25 seconds from the time that the first two (of four) RCMP officers reached Mr. Dziekanski, to when (judging by the convulsions) they zapped him with a taser. And why the hell is that RCMP officer ramming his baton into the ground? It is the ground, and not Mr. Dziekanski, right? No wonder the mounties took away the memory card with Pritchard's video on it, and refused to give it back until he went to court.

And all I can do is stand by and blog about it.

It's such a sad story because it seems like there were so many opportunities for officials and airport staff to help, and they didn't. A little compassion is that was needed! Although Mr. Dziekanski was acting badly near the end, throwing two large objects to the ground, I would keep in mind that this man had been cooped up in there for ten hours after a flight halfway around the world. He can't communicate a single word to anyone and he can't even get anything to eat. He must have been exhausted, otherwise two taser zaps wouldn't have been enough to kill him. Perhaps he thought by breaking something he would finally get some helpful attention. In the aftermath of the incident, my home province of Alberta issued new taser use guidelines. Did they tighten them up to discourage unnecessary zappage? Hell no! Police in Alberta can taser people just for threatening to resist arrest! Hello? Tasers are clearly more dangerous than traditional methods of arrest. Why would it ever be the first choice? It seems like an emergency measure to me, something a policeman should use only if he or she is alone, and lacks any other means to arrest someone. And once the suspect is on the ground, you don't just continue to zap them until they lose consciousness. If the suspect is on the ground, the cop should be too! Put on those handcuffs, don't just stand there squeezing your trigger. If they continue to resist arrest after you zap them, well, duh! You just gave them a blast of searing pain... of course they want to get away from you. Gah.