Monday, August 27, 2007

When News is a Crime

I promised myself some time ago that I would stop wallowing in the
journalistic mud known as the celebrity beat.

No more wasted words about the boozy escapades of what passes for talent
these days.
Au revoir, Paris. Bye, Brittany. Later, Lindsay.


It seems the California legislature is poised to prohibit me, and any
other journalist, from digging up dirt on stars gone wild.

A bill currently in play in Sacramento would make it a crime for law
enforcement of court employees to profit by releasing confidential
information gathered in criminal investigations or unauthorized photographs
of people in custody.

There's nothing like an assault on the First Amendment to make me want to
sign up for a job on the Hollywood desk.

The legislation is the brainchild of Sheriff Lee Baca who said it was
needed to preserve the integrity of the justice system at a time that a photo
of Paris Hilton in jail could fetch $500,000.

"It's like putting a bounty on her," Baca told the Los Angeles Times.

Sorry, Lee. It's more like the Mel Gibson Protection Act.

You remember, Mel. He was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving last
July and used the occasion to launch into an anti-Semitic tirade.

We know that because details of Gibson's behavior contained in the arrest
record were leaked to an entertainment blog, apparently by a deputy,
making Mel's conduct front page news for days.

The same TMZ also showed a video of a rapper known as The Game in jail
after he was arrested for allegedly making criminal threats. The video was
shot by an officer using a cell phone and showed the entertainer waving a wad
of money.

Then there were allegations made by deputies that Paris Hilton received
special treatment during her time in jail, including hand delivered mail and
access to a free cell phone while prisoners had to wait in line to use a pay

It's enough to make a sheriff spring into action.

But as the legislation is written, most of this stuff would still have
made it into the public domain.

That's because the bill would make it a misdemeanor for those entrusted
with information to received financial gain in exhange for confidential
information obtained in a criminal investigation or to solicit or offer
financial compensation for such information.

No one involved in the Gibson, Hilton or The Game incidents have been
found to have asked for or received any compensation financial or otherwise
for the information they provided.

Until someone does accept "financial gain," whether that's cash or a cup
of coffee, all this bill does is attempt to regulate news gathering and keep
the public in the dark. And to save Baca further embarassment.

I'm no advocate of checkbook journalism. If you pay for gossip, you're
going to get more gossip in exchange for more paydays, the facts be damned.
It's the law of the marketplace.

Besides, most people talk for free. Nobody got paid a nickel when
Watergate was being reported.

Finally, the bill would not prohibit a newspaper or blog from publishing
information obtained improperly. And it would not quash acts protected by
state whistle-blower laws, according to its author, Julia Brownley (D-Santa

So assuming Baca has the power to discipline any of his deputies he finds
selling information out the back door, what exactly does this bill

Nothing more than delivering a blow to press freedoms.

Want Fries With That Lawsuit?

Are you a young lawyer looking for your big break?
Do you want to be in on the action, where the lawsuits fly like so many
migrating birds?
Do you want to make big bucks suing a deep-pockets corporation, or maybe
make a hefty salary defending big business against get-rich-quick schemes?

Then go to work at McDonalds. Or go to work suing them. Either way,
there will be more business than a drive-through window at lunchtime.

I came to this realization recently when I read that that a young woman in
the Minneapolis/St. Paul area is suing McDonald's after buying a cup of
coffee with cream and sugar at a drive-thru.

After taking a sip, according to her lawsuit, she realized that something
was wrong: The cream was lumpy and rancid.

A couple of minutes later, she asserts she became violently ill. He
reaction was so extreme, her suit contends, that she wound up spending five
days in the hospital with severe bowel problems requiring surgery.

Together with her husband, who claims he's been deprived of her "society,
companionship, and consortium," she is suing for at least $100,000 in

The owner of the McDonald's in question denies anything was wrong with the
cream. He sees another explanation for the lawsuit, saying, "I have no clue
what this lady is after besides money."

Want fries with that litigation?

Look, I'm not stepping to the plate to defend McDonald's. As a
corporation, they have profited at the expense of people's health. Their
shameless pandering to children through advertising seems to follow the old
adage that "if you hook 'em young, you hook them for life" made popular by
the tobacco industry.

On the other hand, some of the suits targeting McDonald's appear to be
filed by people with quarter-pounders for brains.

Some examples:

- A man who bought lunch at a drive-thru window continued to drive after
wedging his chocolate milk shake between his legs and placing his burger and
fries on the seat next to him. When he leaned over to reach for his fries he
inadvertently squeezed his legs together, causing the cold shake to leap out
of its cup and onto his lap. Stunned, he then plowed his car into the vehicle
in front of him. The motorist who was on the receiving end of this mishap
sued the driver as well as McDonald's. The plaintiff's attorney argued that
the fast-food franchise neglected to warn customers of the dangers of eating
and driving.

- A woman claimed she suffered a second degree burn on her chin after a
scalding hot pickle fell from one of several small hamburgers which she and
her husband bought from a McDonald's restaurant in Knoxville, Tenn. Her
husband also sued for $15,000, saying that he had been deprived of the
services and companionship of his wife. The lawsuit contended that the pickle
was defective and unreasonably dangerous to the customer.

- Another couple alleging that a McBurrito was so oversaturated with black
pepper that it caused the husband to have two months of daily nosebleeds, an
infection in his mouth and possible damage to his vocal chords.

- Then there is the guy who claimed he was allergic to cheese. So he
goes to McDonald's and orders two Quarter Pounders without cheese. He gets
his food, goes home and, get this, sits in a dark room, does not check for
the absence of cheese, takes a bite, and "almost dies" because there is, in
fact, cheese. He's seeking $10 million.

- A parent, after letting his daughter eat an Egg McMuffin for breakfast
and a Big Mac meal for dinner, claimed, "I always believed McDonald's was
healthy for my children." The girl, 19, is 5-feet-6 and weighs 270 pounds.

This last suit mirrored an avalanche of litigation suits claiming
McDonald's caused obesity including a suit filed by three New York City
teenagers who claim the fast food chain's food caused them to gain as much as
200 pounds and develop serious health problems including heart disease and

One could reasonably ask, how soon was it they began to notice the extra

Perhaps the most famous McDonald's suit was filed by the 79-year-old woman
who spilled hot coffee on her lap, suffering third degree burns. And while
many point to this case as the poster child for our litigious society, the
fact is McDonald's was on the wrong end of it. They were found to be serving
coffee 30 to 50 degrees hotter than other restaurants and that the Shriner
Burn Institute had previously warned them not to serve coffee that hot. It
was also revealed that there had been 700 previous cases involving scalding
coffee at McDonald's. The victim was awarded $500,000 but settled out of
court for less.

So what does this all mean?

It means that the United States has become the most litigious nation in
the world, a place where people increasingly take little or no responsibility
for their own actions and lawyers troll for "victims."

It means the the notion of caveat emptor has been replaced by one of
"what's in it for me."

And it means that if you flip burgers to the tune of $3 billion in
profits, you can expect to have a legal bullseye on your back. It gives new
meaning to Big Mac attack.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Does Not Compute

About 10 years ago in Issaquah, Wash., a man was coaxed out of his home by
a police SWAT team after he pulled a gun and shot his personal computer.

The computer, in a home office on the second floor of a townhouse, had
four bullet holes in the hard drive and one in the monitor.

Police evacuated the complex, contacted the 43-year old man by telephone
and got him to come out. He was taken to a hospital for a mental evaluation.

I'm betting that not only was he found to be perfectly sane, but that if
he went to trial, he was judged to be not guilty.

Who among us would have convicted him?

I mention this because my home computer went ballistic recently, behaving
like some petulant child who refuses to do as he is told.

After frank and open discussions with service representatives from
Microsoft, American Online, Charter Communications and Hewlett Packard, all
of whom apparently have a hand in the seamless operation of my computer, the
damn thing still wouldn't work. Had I been armed, I might have joined my
comrade in arms in Issaquah.

But I took a less violent route. I called a computer repair person. Some
40 hours and $500 later, my machine works again. Sort of. It functions but
not quite the same as it did before, sort of like talking to someone who has
recently had a lobotomy. Or like Hal, post "2001: A Space Odyssey."

More disturbing was the fact that the repairman said he found 49 viruses
in my computer. He explained that many of these viruses are generated by
repair people themselves as a way to keep business booming.

Just another reason to love your computer.

It could have been worse. I could have been the guy sitting at the screen
when more than 20,000 international passengers were stranded for hours at Los
Angeles International Airport over the weekend.

It seems a malfunctioning computer system prevented U.S. officials from
processing the travelers' entry into the country.
The resulting chaos did two things: (1) it tied up the airport in knots
and (2) reminded us how utterly dependent we are on technology and how
helpless we are when it fails.

When my home computer was down, I lost access to e-mails and other data I
rely upon in my work and in the conduct of my personal life. I felt isolated.
I also discovered how much I use my computer for entertainment. Surfing
the net is a lot more enjoyable than watching sitcom reruns.

These are minor irritations compared to being herded like cattle at LAX
for hours on end.

But technology run amok is a migraine for all of us these days. Consider:

A computer with the job of issuing vehicular citations goofed and sent
notices to 41,000 residents of Paris, France informing them that they were
charged with murder, prostitution and illegal sale of drugs.

As the calendar changed to the year 2000, items rented from a large video
rental chain prior to January 1st, 2000 and returned after January 1st were
reportedly marked for late fees of $91,250, as though the items were 100
years overdue.

The 2003 North America blackout was triggered by a local outage that went
undetected due to a glitch in the monitoring software.

On June 3, 1980, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)
reported that the U.S. was under missile attack due to a computer glitch.

While scientists won't promise that someday they'll produce a mistake
proof, anxiety free computer, they are at least tackling the issue.

Within the next decade, computers will be able to feel anguish and adjust
to soothe the moods of irate users.

Machines with emotional intelligence will be built within the next five to
10 years, researchers told a symposium sponsored by the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology Media Lab and reported by CNN. The key to
successfully integrating affective computing into daily life is to allow
users to maintain control over their computers rather than vice versa, said
Rosalind Picard, an associate professor at the Media Lab.

Affective computing eventually will be used to make computers respond to
human interaction, making it less frustrating, and perhaps easier, to use
computers, researchers said.

More importantly, warm and caring personal computers may prevent a user
from unloading his Smith & Wesson into the hard drive.

And that's progress.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Street Wise

Good news. They've found a cure for road rage.

There's now a place where you rant, rave and expose before the world that
idiot who cut you off on the freeway last night.

A website called LA Can't Drive pulls no punches when it comes to
assessing our driving habits.

"Los Angeles drivers can't drive. Plain and simple. Basic traffic laws and
driving etiquette clearly do not apply in a town where the people seem to
operate in their own little bubble, completely unaware or dismissive of
others on the road.

"Call it what you will: self-entitlement, negligence, malaise, ignorance.
My goal? To have mandatory driving tests randomly issued where drivers are
eligible for selection after 6 years. Consider this jury duty for the road."

While a web site might not provide the raw animal satisfaction of laying
on the horn, drilling some jerk with your high beams or flashing the
one-finger salute, at least you can vent without getting involved in a
shooting war.

LA Can't Drive is the brainchild of a blogger who calls himself I-95,
U-405 and says he is "a true bicoastalite who has driven all around the
United States and has found that L.A. drivers are second only to New Jersey
as to the worst drivers in this country."

Sample post:

"So anyone who commutes west going home from work in the early evening
knows how hard it can be to see anything on the road with the sun blazing in
your face, even with sunglasses on. Everything from oncoming cars, crossing
pedestrians, etc. are often reduced to glowing dark shadows.

"So what did this blonde bimbo in this Toyota 4Runner choose to do? Speed,
tailgate, weave erratically between lanes, not signal, and yap emphatically
in her cell phone. Apparently, holding on to her cell phone was more
important than signaling, and clearly she saw nothing wrong with driving
haphazardly with one hand, speeding into the sunset. In the short drive from
Highland to Fairfax, she nearly rear-ended three other vehicles because of
her tailgating and (what I guess to be) her inability to see the brake lights
ahead of her because of the garrish setting sun.

"You would think one near miss would be a clear enough signal for her to
start concentrating on driving more carefully. But, alas, to no avail as
another oblivious driver roams our city streets. And the average IQ of Los
Angeles drops another yet another few points...."

Other posts, complete with photos, ridicule senior citizens, Mustang
drivers and lane-splitting motorcycle riders, worthy targets all.

But, alas, LA Can't Drive has got it all wrong.

Los Angeles motorists are not the worst in the U.S.

That distinction goes to the good folks of Columbia, S.C., where bad
drivers careen down 18th century streets. Columbia is followed by St. Louis,
Mo., Greensboro, N.C., Jackson, Miss., and Cheyenne, Wyo. where equestrian
mishaps must factor into the equation. Of 100 cities, according to a
well-researched survey of the nation's worst drivers, Los Angeles was only
number 39.

On a statewide level, drivers in Rhode Island, Massachusettes, New Jersey,
New York, Washington, D.C. and Maryland rank worse than their California
counterparts, according to another survey.

It must be something akin to bumper cars in Rhode Island since the entire
state could fit into West Covina.

More than 5,000 licensed drivers between the ages of 16 and 65 were
administered a 20-question written test designed to measure basic knowledge
about traffic laws and safety. They were also surveyed about their general
driving habits.

That's not to say California drivers ranked at the top. The best drivers
live in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Iowa, three places where the weather is
so bad most people would rather stay home.

And yet another survey ranked the accident rate by occupation.

Not surprisingly, students ranked first followed by doctors, lawyers and

I'm not sure what that means. But if you see a doctor cruising down a
street in Columbia, S.C., get the hell out of the way.

In Pursuit of Oblivion

It is difficult to characterize someone's death as senseless.

But when four newsmen died in Phoenix after two helicopters
collided while covering some low-grade cop chase, the conclusion was
inescapable: four good people gave their lives in an exercise that was as
meaningless as the story they were covering.

The incident occured as police chased a man who had fled a traffic stop.
An armada of five news helicopters swarmed over the pursuit, more resouces
than most TV stations devote to covering city hall in a given month.

It was a media feeding frenzy. And sometimes they can be dangerous.

That's no armchair observation. I became an unwitting participant in one
of these incidents several years back.

I had hooked up with KFWB reporter Jeff Baugh and his pilot at Van Nuys
airport while doing research for a column on traffic in L.A.

Our languid flight over the Southern California freeway network lasted
about 30 minutes before the word came over a police scanner.

The cops were in pursuit of an ex-con who refused to stop because he had a
broken taillight. Soon, we joined the chase.

"I counted 11 aircraft, including two from the police and at least one
fixed-wing plane above the chase," I wrote at the time. "All must have been
within a thousand feet of each other.

"This high wire act was complicated by the fact that the driver changed
directions and freeways at least eight times during the chase, prompting the
aeiral circus to do the same. In the late afternoon sky, visibility was often
murkey at best. This was clearly dangerous stuff.

"There's a curious protocol attached to police pursuits. The pilots
almost never watch the action. They are too busy looking out for each
other. Their position relative to the pursuit is dictated by others
on board. I observed that TV crews always fly on the left, radio and
others on the right. The reason? By flying on the left, TV cameramen
can shoot through the driver's side window and get a good look at
who's behind the wheel."

Finally, after an hour, the suspect pulled in front of a relative's
residence and quietly surrendered to police.

By the time the late evening news came on, the incident was nearly
forgotten. One station gave it a couple of minutes. Most ignored it.

The potential for disaster was great that day. The potential became
reality in Phoenix.

And now come the demands for reform, some calling for the grounding of TV

"If broadcasters won't do it voluntarily, then the Federal Aviation
Administration, acting on behalf of us innocents on the ground, ought to step
in and do it for them," wrote Alan D. Mutter, a veteran media executive.

"Apart from the lives of newsmen lost in helicopter crashes over the
years," he continued, "it cost no less that $1 million a year to operate a
modest-dsized news chopper carrying a crew of two...That's enough money to
hire 10 t0 15 journalists to develop real stories."

Another blogger wrote, "It's one thing to send journalists into a combat
zone to cover a war, with the understanding that they might be killed. It's
quite another to send pilots and cameramen out in breathless pursuit of a
highway chase, or something else that floats in over the police scanner.
Journalists should mourn the passing of their colleagues in Phoenix, but they
should also ask themselves a serious question: Was it really worth it, and
(without necessary reforms), how long will it be before it happens again?"

This is not new territory.

LAPD Chief William Bratton several years ago urged local television
stations to halt their coverage of "careless individuals" from seeking fame
in the media spotlight.

Bratton said that obsessive media coverage of car chases was dangerous
because it gave miscreants an incentive to flee from the police and become
the stars of their very own television shows.

"You know this isn't what your stations should be doing," Bratton said.
Television executives, in a curious bit of logic, responded that if
anything their coverage acted as a deterrent because televised chases
invariably ended in either the arrest or the death of the suspect.

And so the car chase remains a TV staple.

It's what TV does. Manufactured crises such as pursuits and endless
amounts of crime news drive TV ratings. If it bleeds, it leads, as they say
in the TV newsroom.

It's why you are 50 times more likely to see reports of murder, rape, or
car chases and 20 times more likely to see a story of a fire on your local
news than you are a story about education, science, marriage, or pollution,
according to media author Alan Mutter and his research of news coverage
compiled by the Local TV News Media Project at the University of Delaware.

So don't expect the EyewitnessLiveBreakingNews teams to leave the choppers
on the ground anytime soon.

In the meantime, Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris is threatening murder
charges against the suspect who was the focus of the coverage.

While that's legally dubious, massive civil awards to the families of the
victims are a real possibility.

And if that hastens the end of an empty journalistic practice, the four newsmen in Phoenix will not have died in vain.