Breaking the News Cycle

Ben Horowitz, June 2012. Credit: Kenneth Yeung, www.snapfoc.us.

White Guys (Friendship Never Ends)

An alphabetical update to important stories that have fallen off the front page, from the existence of Atlantis to the Spice Girls’ decline.

Atlantis

Breaking Story: People have been searching for Atlantis for centuries—the maybe-mythical utopian city that Plato claimed was submerged in the Atlantic Ocean after it angered the Greek Gods. About every year, a new underwater discovery is made that prompts tabloids to ask: “Has Atlantis been found in [Country Name Here]?”

Current Status: Found (again)? Using 51 details culled from Plato’s description of the lost city, the German computer programmer Michael Hubner attempted to calculate its exact GPS coordinates. The site Hubner found is a desert basin in Morocco with geographical features—like a central mound surrounded by (now dry) riverbeds—that coincide with Plato’s account. Hubner, who tried unsuccessfully to get scientists to excavate, said, “I think I made a mistake by mentioning Atlantis.”

What You Need to Know: Atlantis is probably just an allegory. 

 

Brothers, Koch

Breaking Story: Since David Koch ran for vice president on a libertarian ticket in 1980, he and his brother Charles, both multibillionaires, have played an active role—though sometimes a purposefully invisible one—in promoting libertarian and Republican political candidates.

Current Status: Playing the long game. The Koch brothers actually seem to have done some good lately. Koch Industries announced that it will “ban the box”—that is, get rid of a check box on job applications that inquires about convictions—as part of a movement to level the playing field for prospective employees. The brothers are also funding the LIBRE Initiative, a “non-partisan” non-profit founded “to empower the US Hispanic community so it can thrive” while informing that same community “about the benefits of a constitutionally limited government, property rights, rule of law, sound money supply and free enterprise.”

In Nevada, at least, this mission statement translates into Spanish-language test prep sessions for Latinos studying for their driver’s tests, community service events, and informational talks on topics such as finding affordable health insurance outside of Obamacare or the benefits of a lower minimum wage.

Both “ban the box” and the LIBRE Initiative seem clearly calculated to curry favor for the Republican Party among minorities.

What you need to know: The brothers plan to devote $900 million to the 2016 campaign, but will be spending even more money, on initiatives like LIBRE, to sway the outcome.

 

Cleveland Kidnapping Victims

Breaking Story: Three young women—Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus—were held captive in the basement of school bus driver Ariel Castro’s Cleveland home for a decade, during which they endured constant physical and verbal abuse. In May 2013, the first day Castro had forgotten to lock the women in when leaving the house, Berry ran to freedom with her daughter (who was born in captivity) and called the police.

Current Status: Lifetime movie women. Captivity-to-freedom narratives, as a combination of torture porn and the “happy ending,” appeal to two extremes of human nature, and the Cleveland story is no exception. The American public can’t get enough of it. Knight, who is estranged from Berry and DeJesus—Castro apparently manipulated the women, forcing them to compete—published a memoir in 2014. Berry and DeJesus’s account of those years was just released at the end of April. All three have been touring the talk show circuit, and Lifetime recently released Cleveland Abduction, a graphic account of their time in captivity (and one of three kidnapping movies the network will air this month).

The Cleveland story also seems to be part of the inspiration for Tina Fey’s new sitcom The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the story of a young woman who’s trying to make it New York after spending 15 years underground as an involuntary member of a doomsday cult. The show simultaneously exploits and mocks America’s morbid fascination with the kidnapping narrative—all while turning the “victim” into someone to admire, rather than pity.

What you need to know: Nothing. They are now just three women trying to lead normal lives after trauma.

 

Credit: Ben Folley, February 15, 2015.

Economy, Greek

Breaking Story: After six years and two bailouts, Greece had finally, and barely, emerged in 2014 from the worst recession in the developed world since the Great Depression, even briefly becoming the Eurozone’s fastest growing economy.

Current Status: Back in recession. It took only a contraction of 0.2 percent in the first three months of 2015 to push Greece back into an official recession. The timing is bad: the Greek government is in the midst of drawn-out negotiations with European creditors over the terms of a final $7.2 billion euro bailout. The Eurozone and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are both demanding economic reform and budget cuts with which the new leadership, elected on an anti-austerity platform, does not want to comply.

Although no one seems to know exactly how much money Greece has left, the situation seems dire. In April, the government ordered local municipalities to transfer their inactive cash reserves to the Greek central bank, and is deliberating whether to triple the hotel tax for tourists.

What you need to know: If the bailout doesn’t come through, Greece would likely default on its debt and leave the Eurozone in what’s been dubbed a “Grexit”—rupturing the dream of European unity.

 

Gender Equity in Silicon Valley

Breaking Story: Gender inequity, along with a general lack of ethnic diversity in Silicon Valley and the “frat culture” of many firms, has been an open secret—and much discussed problem—since before the release of David Fincher’s Social Network. In the past few years public discourse on the matter has intensified, thanks to the publication of Lean In, the dissemination of data on women’s roles in tech, and the gender discrimination lawsuit between the storied venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and former junior partner Ellen Pao.

Islamophobic acts in France have increased by 500% in the first quarter of 2015.

Current Status: Battle of attrition. Despite research that shows ethnic and gender diversity translates into increased creativity and profit, Silicon Valley boasts the country’s largest pay gap and women still constitute less than 32 percent of the workforce at the majority of tech firms (with fewer in leadership and technical jobs). Although a number of tech firms say they are working to hire more women, they also need to focus on retaining them: many are leaving the industry, because of what is usually called a “hostile work environment.”

The pressures of the start-up economy—i.e. putting your money and time on the line for a venture that isn’t likely to succeed—seem to bring out a primitive aspect of human psychology: trust those who resemble you. As Ben Horowitz, cofounder of the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, said, “When you’re building a startup, you’re fighting for your life. You aren’t going to do anything for corporate responsibility.”

What you need to know: White guys hire white guys.

 

(Group), Anonymous

Breaking Story: Anonymous, an international network of “hacktivists” founded in 2003, attracted renewed attention last year when they Tweeted what turned out to be the wrong name for the officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The group was subsequently suspended from Twitter.

Current Status: Attempting their “largest endeavor” yet. In the wake of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, Anonymous launched “Operation Isis” or #OpIsis, an offensive against sympathizers of the Islamic State, which relies heavily on social media to recruit young people to the jihadist cause. Anonymous has named OpIsis “the largest endeavor in the history of Anonymous.”

Since the campaign began, they have published a list of over 25,000 accounts believed to belong to ISIS members or sympathizers. Although this particular campaign prompted one research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations to suggest the U.S. government team up with the group, intelligence experts have expressed concern that, rather than shut down ISIS online activity, Anonymous’s endeavor will drive terrorist into the “dark web,” where their actions will be near-impossible to trace.

What you need to know: Anonymous to ISIS: “We will hunt you, take down your sites, accounts, emails and expose you. From now on there is no safe place for you online.”

 

Hebdo, Charlie

Breaking Story: Seven days into 2015, two Muslim brothers forced their way into the office of the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people, including eight staff members. The motive? The magazine had published numerous caricatures of the prophet Mohammed.

A controversial issue published the week after the attack featured an image of Mohammed holding a sign that read, “I am Charlie”—a catchphrase for the magazine’s supporters.

Current Status: Provocation of the year. Although the Quran does not explicitly forbid visual representations of the prophet, most Muslims consider any depictions of him to be offensive, and Hebdo’s actions in the wake of the attack continue to polarize.

In March, the Islamic Human Rights Commission awarded the magazine their 2015 “Islamophobe of the Year” prize, while the National Secular Society gave it their “Secularist of the Year” award. In the US, six prominent writers publicly boycotted the PEN American Center’s annual gala because of its decision to give Charlie Hebdo its “Freedom of Expression Courage Award.”

In the first week of May, France passed a new surveillance bill that some have compared to the Patriot Act passed in the U.S. after 9/11—which means that an organization held up as a symbol of free speech inadvertently became the catalyst for a bill that has been called “a serious threat to public liberties.”

What you need to know: Islamophobic acts in France have increased by 500% in the first quarter of 2015.

 

Spice Girls performing in Toronto, February 26th, 2008.

Spice Girls, The Other

Breaking Story: In 1996, two years after a casting call brought together five ambitious “girls,” their debut single “Wannabe” was released. It quickly rose to number one in 37 countries in addition to playing continuously on my Discman for at least two months.

Current Status: B-list. From this side of the pond, I imagined Victoria Beckham was the only Spice Girl who had managed to shake off her association with the ‘90s girl group that is now more lampooned than loved, and go on to lead a separate career. I was wrong.

All four of the “other” former Spice Girls—Melanie Brown (Scary Spice), Melanie Chisholm (Sporty Spice), Emma Bunton (Baby Spice), Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice)—have co-hosted, judged, coached for, and/or competed in a number of competition shows (Dancing with the StarsAmerica’s Got TalentAsia’s Got TalentThe Voice Kids Australia). All of them have released solo albums, and all of them have seen their sales decline in inverse relation to the number of years since the Spice Girls split up. All have become mothers.

What you need to know: The Spice Girls are not, as individuals, entirely irrelevant. Also, they were said to have each received $20 million for their 2007 reunion tour.