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Breaking the News Cycle

Beyoncé and Jay-Z performing on the O2 in London, Nov. 15, 2009. Credit: Wikimedia.

Crazy in Love With Kansas

Brief updates on important stories that have tumbled off the front page—“Carry That Weight,” Brownbackonomics, the ice bucket challenge, homophobia in Russia, and more.

Jay-Z & Beyoncé's Marriage

Breaking Story: Tabloids have been predicting the divorce of Jay-Z and Beyoncé since this summer, due to Jay’s alleged infidelity. The rumor, mostly fueled by “anonymous sources,” seemed to be corroborated in a number of ways: the couple wasn’t wearing their wedding rings; the infamous elevator fight with Beyoncé’s sister Solange; and Beyoncé’s decision to add a rumor-feeding lyric (“She ain’t even half of me / That bitch will never be”) to a song during the couple’s joint tour.

Current Status: Consciously coupled. Last fall, at the height of the break-up rumors, the couple reportedly renewed their vows in Europe (“So romantic!“); made a relationship “bucket list” of personal goals and places to visit over the next year, in an attempt to put the “life” back into “work-life balance”; and shared a “hot kiss“ at the Grammy’s when “Drunk in Love” won Best R&B song.

If anyone asked me to speculate, I’d say Beyonce’s father and former manager Mathew Knowles wasn’t lying when he called the rumors a “Jedi mind trick to boost ticket sales for Beyonce and Jay’s ‘On the Run’ Tour.” According to gossip sites, their marriage already seems as strong as ever, despite the undoubtedly bitter disappointment of losing a Beverly Hills mansion in a bidding war with the creator of the video game Minecraft.

 

Low-cost Airlines

Breaking Story: Enterprising minds have been working to make no frills airline travel profitable since the 1960s, when the Icelandic company Loftleiðir pioneered a low-fare transatlantic service that became known as the “Hippie Airline” due to the number of young Americans using it to fly to Europe after or during college. Since then, while many carriers tried (and mostly failed) to implement air travel on the low-cost long-haul model, those focused on shorter routes—such as Ryannair, EasyJet, Jetblue, and Spirit Airlines—have thrived.

Current Status: No in-flight drinks? No problem. Low-cost carriers (LCCs) like Spirit and Allegiant are in the business of pissing their customers off: in addition to raising concerns about safety and oversight, they consistently rank lowest in customer satisfaction—charging extra for such “luxuries” as reclining seats, seat assignments, airport check-in, water, and checked luggage. Unlike legacy airlines (Delta, American, United), however, which are struggling to stay profitable, budget airlines continue to add new routes.

The success of budget airlines is forcing legacy airlines to strip down their services in order to compete in this new market. At the end of last year, Delta revealed a new four-cabin strategy, which includes a “basic economy” section nearly comparable in both price and lack of comfort to a seat on a Spirit flight. But the future of low-cost air travel isn’t entirely rosy. On March 4, a Norwegian Air pilot strike grounded all of the airline’s domestic flights, affecting 35,000 travelers and resulting in a sharp drop in the company’s shares. Through their collective action, the 650 Scandinavian pilots hope to force a deal that will prevent the airline from “importing” lower-paid pilots from Asia and Spain, pushing Scandinavian wages down in the process. The strike calls attention to the questionable and perhaps unsustainable strategies that LCCs are using to reduce the high cost of air travel. Which doesn’t mean I won’t buy the cheap flights while I still can, but, as when going for the non-organic produce, I’ll probably think twice about my actions before I do.

 

Grace Mugabe

Breaking Story: In February, rumors started circulating that Grace Mugabe, the second wife of Zimbabwe’s 91-year-old “president for life” Robert Mugabe, was in a coma in Singapore, due to an unusual, extended absence. Her husband maintained that she was resting after an appendectomy.

Current Status: Fit…to run for office. Grace Mugabe returned to Zimbabwe on February 16, immediately dispelling the rumors that she claimed exaggerated her illness, and more than ready to return to her nascent political career. Four days after her return she sat in on a politburo meeting in a seat usually reserved for one of her husband’s two vice presidents.

Mystery solved? Perhaps. In January, anonymous “medical experts” told one paper they thought it likely she had colon cancer. Whatever the cause of her long and mysterious stay in Singapore, Grace Mugabe is well enough to begin a new venture: she plans to start making chocolate and ice cream at a dairy farm, whose white owner was evicted due to her husband’s land reforms.

 

Antiwar Democratic March in St. Petersburg on May 1, 2014. Credit: Wikimedia.

Homosexuality in Russia

Breaking Story: In 2013, Russia’s Kremlin passed the controversial “gay propaganda” law, which bans displays of “non-traditional sexual behavior” in public spaces and/or in front of minors. The law, punishable mostly through fines, allows the government to detain “homosexual or sympathetic foreigners” for up to 14 days. Its ratification sparked a number of domestic and international protests, particularly in the lead up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Current Status: It might be on House of Cards, but it’s not a fiction. The third season of House of Cards, which Netflix released at the end of February, devotes a large part of its storyline to Russian-American relations—which, in the show, hinge upon the release of a gay American activist.

The show does not need to exaggerate Russia’s policies to generate drama. In February, police raided a lesbian nightclub in St. Petersburg shortly after a selfie of the owner kissing her girlfriend in front of a loudly anti-LGBT politician went viral. After seeing the photograph, the politician, Vitaly Milonov, called the woman an “animal” and threatened to “call the Cossacks…to expel all the perverts from St. Petersburg.”

According to one LGBT support group, homophobic attacks in Russia have increased by a factor of 10 since the law was passed. Worst of all, the law appears to be catching: Last month Kazakhstan’s Senate passed its own version of the law, similarly created to “protect” minors from learning about homosexuality.

Russia even appears to be expanding its anti-gay policies. A recent amendment created to lower the number of car accident states that anyone with a “sexual disorder”—including the LGBT community, as well as exhibitionists and voyeurs, among others—will be prohibited from driving cars. Putin has his eye on the international sphere as well: Russia’s currently attempting to overturn a UN ruling that offers full marital benefits to same-sex couples.

On the bright side, since the US-born Russian sitcom star Odin Biron came out earlier this year, Russian now has “one open gay in the country.”

 

Death Penalty

Breaking Story: Three botched executions in 2014 in Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma made lethal injection, originally presented as a simple and humane medical procedure, seem as “cruel and unusual” as death by electrocution or hanging.

Current Status: It might get worse before it gets better. In April, the Supreme Court will take up lethal injection in order to decided whether or not untested drug cocktails are constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. A positive ruling, however, won’t necessarily translate into a positive national outcome: legislation might instead mark a return to alternatives like the firing squad (being seriously considered in Utah, Wyoming, and Arkansas), the gas chamber (legal in Arizona, Missouri, Wyoming; on the table in Oklahoma), the electric chair (legal in eight states), or the noose (legal in Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington state).

In the meantime, Boston federal prosecutors in the Boston Marathon bombing are seeking the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

 

Ice Bucket Challenge

Breaking Story: Last summer, videos of celebrities, news anchors, and your friend’s grandmother dumping ice water over their heads as part of a campaign to raise money and awareness for ALS dominated both traditional and social media.

Current Status: Case study in successful fundraising. Approximately three million people participated in the challenge, raising $115 million for the ALS Association, or four times the amount it made in 2013. $220 million was raised worldwide. At the end of last year, the Washington Business Journal honored the CEO of the ALS Association for having one of the best marketing campaigns of 2014.

Since then, a number of charities have attempted to replicate ALS’s social media challenge model, prompting media speculation about what will be “the next” Ice Bucket Challenge. As Michael Hiltzik pointed out in the LA Times, the ALS model, while excellent for awareness campaigns, remains far from an ideal fundraising model: “The hard work of philanthropy always lies in creating a sustainable donor base. But the ice bucket challenge has all the hallmarks of something that will be regarded in 2015 as last year’s thing.”

 

#CarryThatWeight

Breaking Story: Emma Sulkowicz, a senior and an art major at Columbia University, has been carrying her twin-sized dorm room mattress around campus since September 2014 in an act that combines protest with performance art.

Sulkowicz alleges that she was raped in 2012 by a fellow student in her bed and swore to carry her mattress until Paul Nungesser, her alleged attacker, was no longer on campus. Sulkowicz, who did report the rape to college authorities, claims that Columbia botched the case (they found the Nungesser “not responsible”).

Current Status: …still carrying that weight—and then some. Since September, Sulkowicz and her project have, in that order, been the subject of hundreds of articles, opinion pieces, and news segments, many of which question the veracity of her story. Her case, like all rape cases that attract national attention, is polarizing: either you think she’s worthy of standing beside New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand at the State of the Union as a representative of discredited survivors across the country, or you think she’s “shaming [the accused] without proof.”

I’ll admit my bias: I count myself among the many who admire and support Sulkowicz. But her detractors garnered both attention and momentum when, last month, Cathy Young—a reporter many feminists see as an antagonist—published a long defense of Nungesser. The article places particular emphasis on the facts—never denied by Sulkowicz—that she and Nungesser had been close friends prior to the alleged assault, and, as shown in a transcript of Facebook messages, maintained an apparently friendly relationship after the assault.

Even Young acknowledges that “women traumatized by sexual violence…may deal with trauma in ways that don’t make sense to an observer.” As Sulkowicz said to Jezebel, ”Why would I lie about this kind of thing when just telling the truth means that I have to deal with crazy reporters like Cathy Young who team up with my rapist to dig through my personal Facebook messages in order to frame me as a hysterical bitch?” Unfortunately, as Jezebel also points out, rape denialists have secured renewed credibility in the aftermath of Rolling Stone’s discredited article on rape at UVA.

In the meantime, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights continues to add to its list of universities (currently numbering close to 100) under investigation for violating Title IX regulations. The investigation isn’t a re-investigation of any one crime, but rather an investigation into the colleges’ own investigations. If no violation of Title IX—i.e. no violation of someone’s civil rights—is found, the much publicized “federal probe“ will prove ineffective.

 

Sam Brownback speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, DC, February 26, 2015. Credit: Gage Skidmore.

Brownbackonomics

Breaking Story: In 2012, Sam Brownback, the governor of Kansas, began a social experiment: he made large tax cuts in accordance with the model of supply-side, or trickle down, economics, popularized by President Reagan. The decision, which has yet to stimulate the hoped-for economic boom, almost lost him reelection in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since 1964.

Current Status: Digging himself further into the hole. Fiscal analysts predict the state will face a deficit over $200 million by 2016—and Brownback has worked to blame the state’s alarming economic downturn on anything but his policies: holiday shopping, family values, and, first and foremost, the “failed economic policies of the Obama administration.” He has even blamed the very institution from which he has cut the most funding: the public schools. Brownback called a school’s recent purchase of a $47,000 grand piano “symptomatic of the inherent flaws in the current formula,” when the money could not legally have been used to hire teachers. Despite the fact that tax revenues were up in February, Brownback decided to go ahead with previously announced budget cuts, removing $28 million of public school funding and $16 million for state universities.

Although Brownback has refused to tone down his aggressive policies, he has accepted aid from an Obamacare drug rebate program, and is currently considering a proposal to accept funds from Medicaid. An unofficial petition on MoveOn.org asking citizens to recall Sam Brownback for “morally and financially bankrupting the state of Kansas” currently has over 37,000 signatures. As state Rep. Don Hineman, a moderate Republican, said, “It is time to quit living in fantasyland.”