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Breaking the News Cycle

Christopher Churchill, Hudderite Classroom, 2005. Courtesy the artist and ClampArt, New York, via Artsy.

Kiss From a Mall Cop

Your party-conversation brief on the most important stories that no one’s talking about anymore—the plight of the Segway, internet child exchanges, Ebola, the current fortunes of Seal, and more.

Ebola

Breaking Story: The Ebola outbreak that began in March 2014 with an 18-month-old boy in a Guinean village escalated, over the course of several months, into the worst outbreak of the disease in world history. As of Jan. 18, there were 21,724 reported cases and 8,641 deaths.

Current Status: On the decline? [Knock wood]. On Jan. 15, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a 14-part report on Ebola tracing the spread of the epidemic and assessing both the national and international responses. Whether or not the effect was intended, the report serves as a sort of summing up at a time when the end of the epidemic appears to be in sight: In the second week of January, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the three West African countries that bore the brunt of the epidemic, reported their lowest weekly totals of new Ebola cases since the summer. The government of Liberia was sanguine enough about their recent numbers—only 10 confirmed cases as of Jan. 12—they announced the country could be free of the virus by the end of February. A recent US study sets June as a possible end date for Ebola in Liberia.

But don’t celebrate yet: As NPR points out, past predictions about the outbreak, which ranged from a few hundred cases (WHO) to 1.4 million (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), have thus far proved entirely unreliable. We can only hope the declining numbers won’t produce a sense of safety and confidence before the disease is truly eradicated.

 

Paris Hilton

Breaking Story: The Hilton heiress, whom the Daily Mail still frequently identifies as “the blonde beauty,” was the New York It Girl of the early ’00s: She dated Leonardo DiCaprio, starred in a reality show with her best friend, introduced her own brand of handbags and accessories, and co-wrote a bestselling autobiography.

Current Status: #KillingIt. I never thought I would write this, but Paris Hilton, now 33, actually seems to have grown up. While her lifestyle remains generally incomprehensible—she recently spent $25,000 on two teacup Pomeranian puppies in addition to buying a $3.9 million penthouse in New York—in many outward ways she’s the image of a confident, independent career woman. Not only is she single and apparently happy about it, she’s become a sought-after DJ, who—in the face of criticism inside and outside the DJ community—recently won the “Women’s Newcomer of the Year” award at the 2014 NRJ DJ Awards. In addition to her DJ’ing gigs, Hilton also oversees 44 Paris Hilton stores worldwide. I’m impressed, even if she did just name a six-ounce puppy after herself.

 

Vaccinations

Breaking Story: Andrew Wakefield, a controversial leader in gastroenterology research in the UK, became “one of the most reviled doctors of his generation” when, in 1998, he announced that he was concerned about a possible link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) and autism. Among anxious parents, his concerns, though unsubstantiated by medical evidence, spread as quickly as the recent measles outbreak at Disneyland.

Current Status: “We’re falling off a cliff in slow motion,” according to Paul Offit, a physician specializing in Infectious Diseases at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Offit sees the Disneyland measles outbreak, which has been connected to 52 new measles cases since mid-December, as a harbinger of things to come if Wakefield’s false beliefs continue to spread. Indeed, 2014 saw the most new measles cases since the disease was eliminated in the US in 2000. As of 2012, 108 countries, including low-income states like Cambodia, Rwanda, and Kenya, had a higher vaccination rate against measles than the US.

Some specialists, however, like Dr. Melinda Wharton, the acting director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, don’t see the autism myth, but rather poverty, as the main obstacle to vaccination. Poor children are less likely to get booster shots, and, depending on insurance coverage within their state, may not get certain vaccines at all.

 

Seal, May 2008. Credit: Vinne Oliveira.

Seal

Breaking Story: The British R&B singer/songwriter received accolades for his work in both the US and the UK in the ’90s, but in more recent years became better known as Heidi Klum’s husband. Although the couple seemed to have a fairytale marriage—they renewed their vows every year and were raising four children together—they divorced in 2012 after seven years of marriage.

Current Status: Not forgotten, but ignored1It’s difficult to track down any recent articles about Seal that are not photo-heavy tabloid pieces related to his relationship with Heidi Klum: their Christmas plans with the children and Klum’s new boyfriend; whether or not they might get back together; the finalization of their divorce this past fall; how they’ve chosen to divide custody and child support; etc.

Although one wouldn’t know it from reading the tabloids, between being Klum’s ex-husband and a father of four with part-time custody, Seal has continued to carve out a career of his own. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a coach for the Voice Australia, establishing himself as a mentor to a few aspiring singers, and he’s currently working on his ninth studio album—if released this year, it would be his first in four years.

 

School Security in America

Breaking Story: School security has been an ongoing concern since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., with each new incident—the most shocking in recent memory being the shooting at Newtown, Conn.’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012—prompting renewed vigilance and spending.

After Columbine, schools began to renovate their buildings to comply with new safety standards: They cut back on landscaping so potential intruders would have fewer places to hide, installed announcement systems that would allow police to talk exclusively with each room in the building, and built single, conspicuous entrances.

Sandy Hook, with evacuation and lockdown drills and strict procedures for unaffiliated visitors, was itself a paradigm of safety—and yet, Adam Lanza easily breached it.

Segway fleets have begun to revolutionize life for certain mobile employees—police officers, airport staff, mall security, tour guides.

Current Status: Winning the battle, losing the war. Since Sandy Hook, nearly 90 percent of school systems in the US have updated their facilities or security policies, and annual spending on school security systems is expected to increase from $2.7 billion in 2012 to $4.9 billion in 2017. What’s more, families of two Sandy Hook victims recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Newton and its board of education, in the hope of improving school security for future students in the district.

Experts, however, like Katherine Newman, co-author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, point to the futility of quick security upgrades. Most threats are internal; bulletproof glass and cameras won’t protect students from a student who walked in with them that morning. Case in point: On Jan. 14, a six-year-old boy carried a loaded gun at school for at least three hours. The boy, a first grader, had mistaken the gun for a toy weapon. As Newman observes, “The only real hope for preventing rampage shootings is to increase the likelihood that kids who are witness to these hints of [possible violence] are able to come forward and tell someone.”

 

The Segway

Breaking Story: When the Segway debuted on Good Morning America in 2001, everyone was talking about it. The self-balancing scooter was supposed to revolutionize transportation and urban planning. Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos endorsed it. Jeff Kamen, its inventor, expected to sell 10,000 units a week.

Instead, he averaged 5,000 sales a year for six years.

Current Status: Revolutionizing the lives of police officers everywhere. The Segway was dead on arrival: Not only did it look nerdy, it was too heavy to carry up and down stairs, made the user appear lazy (why didn’t they just bike?), and widely stumbled into regulatory problems (in the UK it was banned by virtue of the fact that it was deemed illegal to drive on either the pavement or the road).

Although it failed to catch with the general public, Segway fleets have begun to revolutionize life for certain mobile employees—police officers, airport staff, mall security, tour guides—whose jobs require them to be on their feet for most of the day.

For the rest of us, the Segway might soon prove to be a somewhat comical stepping stone for devices we actually want to use, like the IO Hawk, recently introduced at a Consumer Electronics Show. The IO Hawk resembles a skateboard, but moves like a Segway—which means it’s smaller, cooler, and less likely to end up in regulatory limbo.

I for one am looking forward to the day when I can pretend I know how to skateboard.

 

Child Exchanges

Breaking Story: Until 2014, there were no federal or state laws to prevent an adoptive parent from giving their child away to a stranger. As Reuters investigative reporter Megan Twohey revealed, parents used online forums to get rid of their child in a process they called “private rehoming.” In one Yahoo group, a child was offered to strangers once a week during a five-year period.

Current Status: Illegal in four states. In April, Wisconsin became the first state to pass legislation making it illegal for anyone without a state license to advertise a child older than age one for an adoption or custody transfer. Those seeking to transfer custody are thus forced to go through the state court system. Since then, Louisiana, Colorado, and Florida have followed suit with similar restrictions.

As Barbara Babb, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who specializes in family law, observes, “children and families are at the bottom of the totem pole in policymaking [for state legislatures].” For this reason, she argues, the federal government needs to lead the effort for change. In July of 2014, lawmakers in the US Senate met for a hearing prompted by the Reuters article. Although the issue might seem more than clear-cut enough from a civilian perspective, other lawmakers argue that new legislation could restrict families passing custody onto grandparents or other trusted parties.

In the meantime, children are being traded, and of these, many are abused. How complicated can it be?

 

Amazon v. Books

Breaking Story: Amazon and the “Big Five” publishing houses—Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Hachette, and HarperCollins—have been at war over book and e-book pricing since 2010, when the publishers made a backroom deal with Apple to counter Amazon’s $9.99 e-book price.

Current Status: Temporary truce. 2014 was the year of boring book industry headlines. Even though, as a writer, I had a vested interest in the Hachette/Amazon skirmish over e-book pricing—and, as a former cog in the New York publishing machine, I possess a more than basic knowledge of the players and their stakes—I found my eyes consistently glazing over and my mind wandering, whenever I attempted to grasp the latest details of the fight.

I can, however, understand and appreciate the outcome: Toward the end of 2014, Hachette won back control over e-book pricing, meaning it, as the publisher, not Amazon, the supplier, was now able to set prices for e-books published under its imprints. So far so good for traditional publishing houses.

The Big Five have also benefitted—at least in terms of public perception—from Amazon’s decision to roll out Kindle Unlimited (KU), a subscription-based book-selling model. KU, which has been described as a kind of Spotify for books, offers subscribers access to 700,000 (mostly self-published) titles for $9.99 a month. Self-published authors who choose to participate in KU will have their work more actively promoted on the site; however, although they will be earning less of a profit (as of November, $1.39 per book acquired via subscription versus 70 percent of the selling price per book bought), they’re forbidden to market their work elsewhere. With this service, Amazon appears to be alienating its main literary allies: the writers who, through self-publishing with Amazon, were finally able to realize their dreams, quit their day jobs, and find readers. Perhaps, as the author Aaron Shephard posits, “[T]hese authors were rooting for the wrong side.”

Nine hundred authors, most if not all published by traditional houses, were, however, rooting for the right side. Together, they constitute Authors United (AU), a group formed by the bestselling thriller writer Douglas Preston. Preston established the group when he realized that, in order to put pressure on Hachette, Amazon had stopped stocking books by Hachette authors. For the affected authors, Amazon’s actions caused a significant drop in royalty checks and potential readers. It wasn’t just a point of pride: In the case of debut and midlist authors, these numbers could affect the rest of their career.

Since Amazon and Hachette settled their dispute, both Preston and his organization have been mostly silent as their lawyers prepare an information packet on Amazon to send to the Department of Justice. The charge? Violation of the antitrust act. Amazon controls over 50 percent of the US book market.

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