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Breaking the News Cycle

Grand Grocery Co., Lincoln, Neb.; John Vachon, 1941. Courtesy the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Sarah, You Can Drive My Car

Updates to news stories that have slipped off the front page. This week: male birth control, Sarah Palin, hydraulic fracking, the Beatles, and more.

Violence Against Women in India

Breaking Story: Since the 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a public bus in New Delhi triggered nation-wide protests, both national and international media have turned their attention to violence against women in India. In 2014, international anger surrounding the issue stemmed largely from the gang rape and hanging of two teenage girls in Badaun. 

Current Status: In flux. Please don’t Google “rape in India.” The resulting stream of recent headlines (“Minor dalit girl gang-raped, dead”; “Minor girl burnt alive for resisting rape”; “Rajasthan man’s genitals chopped off with meat cleaver for rape attempt”) alongside cartoonish drawings that resemble stills from a camp horror film (silhouette of a woman in flames; the face of a terrified woman with a shadowy hand before it) are viscerally disturbing. Together, they paint a portrait of a hurt and angry country, whose media still sensationalizes and packages this hurt into fodder.

What these results don’t immediately reveal is the way in which the national conversation seems to be changing for the better. This August, in his first major of address as prime minister of India (a speech equivalent to the U.S.’s State of the Union), Narendra Modi broke the government’s silence regarding the rate of violence against women. Modi’s speech, which also touched upon female infanticide/foeticide and the lack of toilets in girls’ schools, was a call to action not only for the government, but also for corporations and individuals. Although his speech seems to reflect a greater shift from the angry protests of 2012 to a more sophisticated national conversation about causality and change, it remains difficult to determine whether the talk has yet translated into action. In June, one of Modi’s ministers, Nihal Chand, was asked to respond to court regarding a previously dismissed rape case. Modi has never publicly addressed the case, and his government backed Chand “unconditionally.”

 

Self-Driving Cars

Breaking Story: Earlier this year, Google released a two-seater prototype of a self-driving car, with no steering wheel, mirrors, or an accelerator or brake pedal, and drove it around the streets of Mountain View, Calif.

Current Status: Experimental. Although the media has focused heavily on Google’s role in the self-driving car movement, Google plans to partner with established car companies, rather than manufacture their own vehicles. They will, however, have plenty competition: Audi, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Ford, and General Motors have all been testing their own autonomous technologies in the four states (California, Michigan, Florida, and Nevada) that currently permit it. The first fully autonomous vehicles could hit the road by 2020, while a recent study estimates the total number could reach 11.8 million by 2035.

A few months ago, I was jaywalking across a wide and largely empty road in San Francisco, when a car with a camera stuck to its roof like a periscope on a cartoon submarine slid to a smooth stop before me. It was a Google car. I smiled at the man inside, comforted by the fact that he couldn’t run me over if he wanted to.

 

The Beatles

Breaking Story: The Beatles have been an evergreen news item since the release of their debut album Please Please Me in March 1963. But the two living Beatles, Ringo Starr and Sir Paul McCartney, have been particularly present this year, since 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and the release of their film A Hard Day’s Night.

Current Status: Public interest kept alive through nostalgia. I love the Beatles as much as I love most of their solo work, and yet it seems clear to me that we only continue to register their movements (McCartney with his daughter at a Hunter fashion show; Starr announcing he’s become the face of John Varvatos’s fall 2014 campaign) because of the Beatlemania aura that still clings to them.

By now, both McCartney and Starr have endured decades of clever headlines playing on Beatles song titles as well as thousands of encores for songs they have sung thousands of times—and yet they continue to smile, thank their fans, and channel their wealth and fame toward charitable causes. This support mostly means a humbling of talent: McCartney most recently encouraged British citizens to support the Meat Free Mondays campaign with a music video and a personal message resembling a rap. None of these more commercial endeavors have altered any long-standing perceptions of the Beatles. The Houston Chronicle wrote that Starr, who is currently on tour, is “like Paul McCartney—but with less commercial success.”

 

Male Birth Control 

Breaking Story: The quest for effective male birth control other than the condom has been ongoing since the first century CE, when the Greek physician Dioscorides wrote that hemp seeds “extinguished [the seed of] conception.” In the past couple of decades, scientists have moved closer to uncovering a safe and effective pharmaceutical option for men.

Current Status: Coming soon…we think. Headlines have been claiming that male birth control is in the offing for a few years. This time, however, the claims do appear to hold genuine promise: The Parsemus Foundation, an organization working to develop a male contraceptive, recently announced that Vasalgel, a polymer hydrogel injected into the vas deferens to block sperm, is proving effective in an ongoing study with baboons. After being injected with Vasalgel, three male baboons were given unfettered sexual access to 10 to 15 female baboons each. Six months into the study, the pregnancy rate is still zero. Assuming the continued success of the study, Parseums plans to start human trials next year—which means Vasalgel could be available in 2017. It might take several more years to convince men to take it. As one male student at the University of Montana is quoted as saying in local paper, “I would use it if it wasn’t a shot into my dick. I feel like that would turn away a lot of guys.”

 

Sarah Palin

Breaking Story: In 2008, Palin, the former governor of Alaska, became the first Republican woman nominated for vice president when Sen. John McCain chose her as his running mate. In 2008, Palin also became, in the words of the Sportsman Channel, “a dynamic figure in the media.”

Current Status: Still amazing America. Palin has had a busy year: She launched her own subscription-based web channel; starred in a TV show (Amazing America With Sarah Palin: “the First Lady of the Outdoors tell[ing] the stories of…what makes America amazing”) that got picked up for a second season; and had the opportunity to publicly reassert her love for and loyalty to her daughter Bristol (“my straight-shooter”) after reports surfaced about a violent drunken brawl in Anchorage. What’s next? The unofficial “Sarah Palin for President 2016” Facebook page has 17,051 likes.

 

Hydraulic Fracking

Breaking Story: Hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), a technique used to harvest oil and natural gas trapped in rock, has been in use since 1949. The process, however, only attracted media attention and controversy in recent years, when companies began to drill horizontal wells. The horizontal wells provided greater access to the underground than vertical wells, and so necessitated the use of more water and chemicals—which, in turn, increased the risk of aquifer contamination.

Current Status: Exonerated? In September, the Dept. of Energy released a report concluding that water contamination in areas where fracking is present likely occurs as a result of leaky wells, rather than the process of fracturing shale to release natural gas. Why do wells leak? Because the materials—e.g., the cement sealing the outer walls of the well or the steel tubing lining them—are inferior. The bad news is: These companies chose the materials. “The good news,” in the words of the study’s lead researcher Thomas H. Darrah, “is, improvements in well integrity can probably eliminate most of the environmental problems with gas leaks.” Now the industry can focus on reclaiming the word “fracking.”

 

Chilean Miners

Breaking Story: In 2010, 33 miners were trapped in a mine in Chile, where they survived for 69 days underground on meager rations. The world watched from television screens around the world at the extended rescue. When the men finally emerged, they were famous.

Current Status: Old news. In the four years since their rescue, the men have ridden a rollercoaster of fame: Their minecarts took them to fame’s peak, where they garnered international media attention, a cruise, a trip to the US, cash. But now they have returned to the ground. Most of them have since spent their cash, and struggle to make a living. Some have even returned to the mines. In August 2013, a prosecutor closed his investigation into the collapse of the mine, asserting there were no grounds to charge the owners. What’s more, only 14 of the 33 miners, all of whom were promised a pension, received one, in the end.

Although they have become national mascots of sorts, appearing this past year in a touching World Cup advertisement; although they are the subject of The 33, a forthcoming feature film starring Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche; although Héctor Tobar, a writer with exclusive access to the men, has just published Deep Down Dark, a book of their stories; although, although, although…the ride is over. The fair is closing. Tickets can’t be bought again.

 

Arab Spring

Breaking Story: In December 2010, a Tunisian street vendor self-immolated himself after the police cracked down on him harshly for conducting some business without a license. His action sparked a domino effect: Inspired by his courage, youth across the Arab world revolted against their regimes, generating optimism and hope for democratic change across the region.

Current Status: Flickered out. The UN and the New York Times, among other organizations, have officially recognized Tunisia as the one place where the Arab Spring might be said to have succeeded. In other words, it is, according to them, the one nation that is still working to find a balance between Islam and democracy. In January of this year, Tunisia voted in a new constitution, which expanded civil and political liberties as well as the rights of women. However, like its neighbors, Tunisia continues to struggle to reform state institutions and questions of security.

The results of the movement in other countries present little reason for hope: In Egypt, members of the old regime won back their power; Libya is in the midst of a civil war; a Shiite rebellion in Yemen has prompted a US-led drone war; and, in Syria, violent civil war created the space for ISIS to emerge. It is hard to end on a positive note, and yet, in a recent talk, the political science professor Sean Yom observed, “[The Arab Spring] has been an extraordinary psychological shift in activists. They’re realizing change is possible.”