Americans Stranded at North Afghanistan Airport, Five Geriatrics Die in Sweltering High Rises in New Orleans, Rolling Stone & the AP Commit Grave Reporting Errors (The Five for 09/06/21)

Hey, Welcome to The Five.

Vacation was great, and I’m glad I paused publication of The Five to get some open mental space and time with my family.

With that being said, it’s great to be back. The time away made me appreciate that much more how much this community trusts The Five for vital news and cultural insights, and I can’t thank you enough for reading and engaging.

Let’s dive in.

[one]

An undetermined number of Americans are apparently stuck in North Afghanistan, booked to leave the country on charter flights that are currently not being allowed to exit the country.

Reuters reports:

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken denied on Tuesday reports that the Taliban had blocked Americans attempting to fly out of of a northern Afghan city, but said the group had not allowed charter flights to depart because some people lacked valid travel documents.

Reports have emerged over the past few days that 1,000 people, including Americans, had been stuck at Mazar-i-Sharif airport for days awaiting clearance for their charter flights to leave.

One organizer blamed the delay on the State Department, a criticism echoed by some Republicans who have called on the Department to do more to facilitate the charter flights. 

Blinken was speaking at a news conference in Qatar, a U.S. ally that has emerged as a key interlocutor to the Taliban, which seized power in Kabul on Aug. 15 after the Western-backed government collapsed.

Blinken said Washington had identified a "relatively" small number of Americans seeking to depart from Mazar-i-Sharif.

But one of the main challenges around the charter flights attempting to depart was that some people lacked the valid travel documents which effectively blocked the departure of the entire group, he said.

"And it's my understanding is that the Taliban has not denied exit to anyone holding a valid document, but they have said those without valid documents, at this point, can't leave," Blinken said.

"Because all of these people are grouped together, that's meant that flights have not been allowed to go," he said.

Although Reuters points to Republican criticism of Blinken’s handling of the stranded Americans, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut), issued a statement via Twitter that seems to indirectly point the finger at the Biden Administration’s handling of the withdrawal of Americans and allies from Afghanistan.

“My staff & I have worked night & day to secure the safe passage of two planes waiting in Mazar-e Sharif to take American citizens, at-risk Afghan allies, & their families to safety. My office joined forces in this humanitarian mission with an incredible coalition of advocates—NGOs, former servicemembers, & journalists—to try & evacuate our fellow citizens & Afghan allies.

I haven’t yet spoken publicly about these efforts because we worried that heightened attention would only escalate tensions & put these people at even greater risk of being targeted. I have been deeply frustrated, even furious, at our government’s delay & inaction. There will be plenty of time to seek accountability for the inexcusable bureaucratic red tape that stranded so many of our Afghan allies.”

[two]

As federal spending reaches unprecedented levels, fewer households than ever are paying into the federal budget.

CNBC reports:

More than 100 million U.S. households, or 61% of all taxpayers, paid no federal income taxes last year, according to a new report.

The pandemic and federal stimulus led to a huge spike in the number of Americans who either owed no federal income tax or received tax credits from the government. According to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, 107 million households owed no income taxes in 2020, up from 76 million — or 44% of all taxpayers — in 2019.

“It’s a really big number,” said Howard Gleckman, senior fellow in the Tax Policy Center. “It’s also really transitory.”

Gleckman said the main reasons for the spike — high unemployment, large stimulus checks and generous tax credit programs — will largely expire after 2022, so the share of nontaxpayers will fall again starting next year.

The share of Americans who pay zero income taxes is expected to stay high, at around 57% this year, according to the Tax Policy Center. It’s expected to fall back down to 42% in 2022 and remain at around 41% or 42% through 2025, “assuming the economy continues to rebound and several temporary tax benefits expire as scheduled,” Gleckman said.

This may seem like a “boring” story, but the fact that the federal government is spending like crazy while taking in tax revenue from less and less households is a story that deserves more attention than it’s getting.

[three]

In one of the worst cases of fake news I've ever seen, Rolling Stone ran an article about gunshot wound patients in Oklahoma had to wait for care due to COVID patients self-prescribing (and then overdosing) on the drug Ivermectin.

The only problem?

Nothing close to this even happened.

This is not a case of the story being “exaggerated.”

Soup to nuts, the whole thing was made up. Rolling Stone interviewed a doctor who hasn't worked at the hospital with the alleged overdoses for two months, and was never a full time employee of the organization.

It’s tough to pin down exactly what makes a fake news story go truly “viral,” but a co-sign from an MSNBC producer appears to be one of the early tweets that started the avalanche of coverage on this.


In my opinion, a new producer/hard news reporter/editor has a different burden of responsibility for accuracy than a TV commentator/opinion host/podcaster etc. That list is are more in the business of personality than news.

TV producers and print editors don’t get the fame of the folks out front, aren’t as highly paid and are increasingly overworked as traditional TV and print subscription revenue dips and fact-checking jobs are left on the cutting room floor.

In general, I sympathize with the plight of these unsung professionals. They’re highly underappreciated, and their roles are essential for a free and functioning society.

However, if you sign up to be a reporter or news producer, you’re raising your hand and stating that you’re putting your career on the line daily for accuracy, just as the military and police put their lives on the line for safety and freedom.

The bottom line is that the editor at Rolling Stone who cleared the Oklahoma hospital story should be fired for not fact-checking the primary source, and Lauren Peikoff at MSNBC should at least get a strong talking to for being a super-spreader of fake news as a news producer.

For the vast majority of my life, major inaccuracies at legacy media outlets meant major shakeups in the newsroom. Heck, when I was working as a reporter in the Chicago market, I would have been fired (and blackballed from news) if I had done something similar to Rolling Stone’s fumbling of the the events in Oklahoma.

I haven’t put my finger on exactly why…but news organizations no longer seem to worry about being wrong, and don’t often remove offenders from their payrolls, even when said offenders have committed offenses that would traditionally end in termination.

However it is we got here, I have no prescription on how to get a culture that no longer cares about facts to return to an objective standard.

As a society, we will pay a heavy price for this.

Update: The Associated Press was also duped by Ivermectin fake news this week, and issued a correction that their previous reporting that 70% of calls to the Mississippi poison control hotline were for overdoses on the drug. Like the Rolling Stone story on Ivermectin, this had no basis whatsoever in fact, and I’m baffled as to how such a reputable news organization made such a glaring error.

[four]

Seniors in “independent living” facilities in New Orleans were trapped for days without power in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, which caused at least five deaths.

Wheelchair users were essentially imprisoned in these high rises that lost power, as they had no way to escape the sweltering heat and life-threatening conditions.

NPR reports:

Officials in New Orleans will thoroughly inspect senior living apartments in the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida after finding people living in buildings without working generators, which left residents trapped in wheelchairs on dark, sweltering upper floors, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said Monday.

Hundreds were evacuated Saturday and the city later said five people had died in the privately run buildings in the days after the storm. The coroner's office is investigating whether the deaths will be attributed to the hurricane, which struck land nine days before.

The managers of some of the homes for seniors evacuated out of state without making sure the residents would be safe after the storm, New Orleans City Council member Kristin Palmer said at a news conference.

"They're hiding under the loophole of 'independent living,'" Palmer said. "It's not independent living if there's no power and you're in a wheelchair on the fourth floor."

The city is creating teams of workers from the health, safety and permits, code enforcement and other departments. Their first focus is to make sure the senior homes are safe and evacuate people if necessary, Cantrell said.

But after that, management will be held accountable, and the city will likely add requirements that include facilities having emergency agreements in place with contractors who will make sure generator power is available at the sites, the mayor said.

Like the tax story (#1 in this issue), local regulations around building codes (like mandatory backup generators) are “boring” stories that are largely ignored by the general public…but are very important.

This is the kind of news that’s covered by an underpaid reporter on state house news or local politics beat, who attempts to call out the important moments in otherweise insufferably dull legislative sessions.

Local regulations around backups generators aren’t inherently partisan. Or tied to celebrities. Local regulations around backup generators don’t spawn dozens of think pieces about where our society is headed.

So the story gets ignored.

That is, until the elderly suffer horrific deaths in the wake of a natural disaster.

I hate the constant hyperbole around “lives being on the line” that’s favored by countless Chicken Little’s on Twitter.

In this case, lives really were on the line, and five of those lives ended due to poor city and building planning.

The only solution…is for people to care more about the local politics of the places they live. And unlike the rage-bait of national political stories…there’s no instant dopamine hit for engaging.

Engaging in local politics is slow, unexciting mental work. It’s a civic necessity in a world that’s (mostly) abandoned civic responsibility.

You’re probably not reading this from New Orleans…but wherever you’re at, there are likely life-or-death issues bubbling just below the surface.

Go to your city council meeting and/or your county board legislative session. See what’s happening. Ask tough questions. Stand up and speak during the public comments time.

The framework of modern society is fragile, and cracks first at the local level.

You and I don’t have the influence to sway national politics…but we can patch the small cracks where we live.

[five]

A student attending Rutgers University exclusively online has been functionally kicked out of school.

The New York Post reports:

A New Jersey student has said he is barred from taking classes at Rutgers University because he has not been vaccinated — even though he is only studying virtually from home.

Logan Hollar, 22, told NJ.com that he largely ignored the school’s COVID mandate “because all my classes were remote” from his Sandyston home, some 70 miles from Rutgers’ campus in New Brunswick.

But he was locked out of his Rutgers email and related accounts when he went to pay his tuition at the end of last month — and was told that he needed to be vaccinated even though he has no plans to attend in person.

Hollar has now been forced to miss classes that started Sept. 1 — and has been warned it could be weeks before a decision is reached on his application for an exemption to the vaccine mandate, he said.

If Hollar is re-instated, how is realistic is it that he can catch up on “several weeks” of missed work to complete his credits this semester?

At this point, it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that Hollar can enroll in another college, which means he may be delayed in completing his degree.

[epilogue]

California has been the target of hundreds of proposals to split the Golden State into one or more pieces ever since it’s founding in 1850, including the "Six Californias” movement in 2013 to chop the state six ways to give residents more local control of their lives.

In 1941, Gilbert Cable, Mayor of Port Oregon joined with California state senator Randolph Collier to form the “State of Jefferson” to give rural residents of Northern California and Southern Oregon a state government that wouldn’t ignore them.

It might have just worked, as the groundswell for Jefferson built quickly.

However, Cable died of a heart attack (he was a heavy drinker) on December 2nd, 1941. Five days later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, diverting all attention to the war effort.

While Jefferson has never become the 51st state, the flag and emblem are still popular in NorCal and Southern Oregon, as a way of residents to express their disgust at being “forgotten” by their state governments.

As far as legal precedent goes, Jefferson is unlikely in the future…but not impossible, considering:

  • Vermont split from both New York and New Hampshire (too long to get into here…both states claimed that territory) in 1790.

  • Kentucky split from Virginia in 1792.

  • Tennessee began as the “western territory” of North Carolina.

  • West Virginia was admitted to the Union in 1863 after breaking away from Virginia, which had seceded and joined the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Until the next one,

-sth