Posts Tagged Boston

The outrage cycle

Rolling Stone cover August 2013I was originally going to use this post to continue the debate over the now infamous Rolling Stone cover photo (as an aside, I encourage everyone to read the article, which was very well written) of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

I was going to talk about how people who think Rolling Stone made an unethical decision are wrong, about how Tsarnaev looks nothing like Jim Morrison.

I don’t think that is going to resolve anything, though.

The day Rolling Stone released the cover and story, I was arguing with people on Facebook about the article’s content, the decision to put Tzarnaev on the cover, and the quality of the photography. I got up for a break, and walked past people arguing about something else on TV in the next room.

Public discourse seems to have become a never-ending cycle of outrage. People get outraged at things like this, then other people get outraged at the first group’s outrage. Meanwhile, nothing gets resolved.

People have every right to be upset when they see Tsarnaev’s photo in such a prominent place. They have gotten upset, and it hasn’t stopped there.

What’s amazing is how quickly a visceral reaction to something like this gets cloaked in logic. It’s as if people know that they are overreacting to something and feel they have to cover up that blatantly emotional response with reasons.

So the debate shifts from pure anger over having to look at Tsarnaev’s face every time one walks into Barnes & Noble to concerns over how the image is disrespectful to the people of Boston, or how its “glamorization of terrorism” could inspire copycats.

Consequently, the opposition fires back with reasons of its own: freedom of the press, the importance of knowing something, anything, about this unprecedented act of terror, and the acknowledged difficulty in predicting how potential copycats will respond to specific media images.

It won’t work, though, because the people boycotting Rolling Stone aren’t interested in a rational debate; they’re still just upset over seeing Tsarnaev on the cover. They won’t respond to rational arguments because they aren’t being sincerely rational.

In America, logic and emotion are confused way too easily. We use terms like “belief” and “morality” to bridge the gap between these two polar opposites. We have an initial reaction to something and cling to it tenaciously until Judgment Day.

Instead of being resolved, the issues of the day gradually fade away as people get sick of talking about them. Soon, Willie Nelson will be on the cover of Rolling Stone again, Tsarnaev will be on trial, and we’ll all have something new to be outraged over.

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Boston is bombed, one tweet at a time

Since I got a Twitter account recently, I haven’t been sure of what to do with it. On Monday, I found a very good, but very unpleasant, use for it.

As with so many things these days, I found out about the Boston Marathon bombings through a reference on someone’s Facebook profile. Scrolling through the newsfeed, I saw a status from a college classmate:

“Slowly finding out more about what happened during the Boston Marathon,” it read.

I jumped over to Twitter and, sure enough, a photo of the scene of the first explosion had already been retweeted by a friend. Reports of a series of explosions were starting to come in, intermixed with Pulitzer prize winners and the announcement that Chris Hardwick will be in Baltimore on May 24.

“Two men had bombs strapped to themselves and they both went off,” a tweet posted 32 minutes before I logged on read, “everyone is scrambling.”

Switching over to the New York Times’ website, there were only a few short lines confirming that explosions had occurred, not even using the word “bomb.”

Facebook and the news sites stayed quiet a bit longer, but Twitter was shot through with  reports, mostly from the Associated Press and journalists who were already on site. The Boston Globe posted a video of the first explosion, and soon it was possible see it from nearly every angle by scanning the tweets.

Not everything tweeted that day was accurate (the report of suicide bombers doesn’t jibe with what investigators are learning about the bombs) but the most necessary information was imparted as quickly as possible.

So that, it seems, is what Twitter is for.

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Anyone want to buy a newspaper?

Today the New York Times Company announced that it is putting its New England Media Group, which includes the Boston Globe, Worcester (MA) Telegram & Gazette, and other related properties, up for sale.

Since the Internet became a thing, it seems like everything something bad or unusual happens to a newspaper prophecies of doom fill the air. While this definitely puts the fate of the Globe and Telegram & Gazette up in the air, it’s not like a newspaper has never been sold before.

The sale is definitely news but, it’s easy to forget that speculation is not news. These papers’ fates are obviously less stable than they were yesterday, but that doesn’t mean they, or print journalism in general, are finished.

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Mass transit: Profits and public good

CDOT MUAmerica’s interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and its dependence on foreign oil, is so apparent that it requires no witty opening sentence. Most attention is concentrated on transportation; a mixture of hybrid and fully-electric vehicles are supposed to solve the problem eventually. Developing new technologies is a good idea, but I am also an advocate of expanding mass transit. The only problem is money.

Everything costs something, but people need to get over that. Restoring an old railroad right of way for commuter service, or building a new light rail system in an urban center costs millions of dollars per project, plus millions more in yearly operating costs. Naysayers like to point out that affordable mass transit will have a hard time recouping these costs, which makes it economically dubious.

The idea that a transportation system should pay for all of its infrastructure, and be financially lucrative, to be successful seems peculiar to rails. Bus companies do not own the highways their vehicles travel on, and do not pay for their maintenance. The same is true of airlines and their massive, publicly-funded airports.

Historically, anything involving rails has been the exception to this rule. First, private railroad companies built tracks and ran passenger trains, with only fares as compensation. When the private companies had had enough of losing money, they turned their passenger operations over to Amtrak and various regional commuter agencies, like New York’s MTA and Boston’s MBTA. From then on, the government footed the bill.

The same is true of urban transportation systems, like streetcars and subways. New York’s subway system was built by three private companies, who ran the trains and maintained the tracks. When these companies went bust, the MTA took over operations.

Government agencies have been able to maintain acceptable levels of service, but expansion has been an uphill battle because of the money issue. It’s not just a lack of funds, it is an irrational unwillingness to support mass transit just because individual services cannot break even. Here’s an example: during the Bush Administration, the Republican-controlled Congress refused to approve Amtrak’s budget because the government-owned passenger train operator was not turning a profit.

The frank truth is that mass transit is not a money-making proposition. That’s why private companies abandoned their passenger-carrying operations decades ago, and why we don’t have a national airline or bus operator. It is important to remember that the government does not exist to make profits, it exists to serve the people. Yes, investing in mass transit will probably result in a loss, but there are other things to gain besides money.

Losing money sucks, but sometimes the public good is more important. Expanded rail services could reduce emissions and oil consumption by getting people out of their cars, not to mention alleviating traffic. Even if ticket sales don’t cover the costs of a given service, that seems like a worthwhile benefit.

Some people understand that. In Michigan and Illinois, upgrades to existing rail lines will increase intercity trains speeds and reduce travel times. In Wisconsin, the state is testing high speed Talgo trains for a new service linking major cities. It’s time for the rest of the country to get on board (no pun intended).

Mass transit services should try to recoup as much of the public’s investment as possible, but they should not be abandoned if they lose money. Commuter trains and light rail will probably never be profitable, but they will always be a benefit to the public. We may live in a capitalist society, but money is not the only thing that matters.

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