Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Assuming the Worst: How the Rikers Island Hurricane Irene Story Went From Innuendo to Absurdity

You can't say it wasn't a provocative headline: "Locked Up and Left Behind: Hurricane Irene and the Prisoners on New York’s Rikers Island." The story, by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, co-editors of Solitary Watch, went up on Friday, and was also posted on Mother Jones on Saturday.

It took off quickly. New York Magazine conjured up the possibility of "letting prisoners wallow in half-flooded cinder-block cell buildings." TIME reported that "Bloomberg has been frequently echoing his call for people to get away from Hurricane Irene's path as soon as possible. But if you find yourself among the 12,000 incarcerated inmates at Riker's Island, you'll be waiting the storm out, despite the fact its 400 acres are built on landfill." The irreplaceable Center for Constitutional Rights issued a statement Saturday saying it was "extremely concerned" that there were no plans to evacuate the island for the hurricane, and that the Mayor "evacuated hundreds of thousands of people from vulnerable neighborhoods in low-lying areas just like Rikers Island yet seems prepared to leave the roughly 12,000 men and women jailed there to their fate."

Days later, most (though not all) of the contentions in the original article have been debunked. What's left is an embarrassing tale of bloggers, reporters, tweeters and advocates making broad statements based on limited information, assuming the worst and hurting their own credibility for taking on the real injustice next time.


At Mayor Bloomberg's press conference on Friday afternoon, a reporter asked, "Rikers Island - is there any evacuation for that?" The mayor replied, "We are not evacuating Rikers Island," and moved on to answering another part of the question. Bloomberg was terse (40:10 in the video) -- just as he was with many of the questions in the press conference.

In their article, Casella and Ridgeway charged that "in response to a reporter's question, the mayor stated in no uncertain terms (and with a hint of annoyance) that one group of New Yorkers on vulnerable ground will be staying put." And then without much further information, they plowed ahead and started the saga:
New York City is surrounded by small islands and barrier beaches, and a glance at the city's evacuation map reveals all of them to be in Zone A (already under a mandatory evacuation order) or Zone B–all, that is, save one. Rikers Island, which lies in the waters between Queens and the Bronx, is not highlighted at all, meaning it is not to be evacuated under any circumstances.

According to the New York City Department of Correction's website, more than three-quarters of Rikers Island's 400 acres are built on landfill–which is generally thought to be more vulnerable to natural disasters.
The city's flood evacuation map indeed showed Rikers not to be in flood zones A, B or C. It seemed surprising, certainly, and a ripe subject for further inquiry. But many chose to jump beyond inquiry and assume the worst: that Rikers inmates were being left behind to risk disaster.

The Mayor's Office tried to put the matter to rest. A spokeswoman emailed reporters:
We carefully reviewed Rikers Island, as we have done with the entire city, and no section of Rikers Island facilities are in Zone A.

Rikers Island facilies are not in low-lying areas, it's not a coastal location and, like nearby small islands Roosevelt Island and City Island, it does not need to be evacuated. We focused on the areas where real dangers exist.

A full Corrections Department staff will remain on Rikers Island and the facility is a fully self-sustaining entity, prepared to operate and care for inmates in extended emergency conditions."
Mayor Bloomberg made similar statements in response to a question at a press conference on Saturday. The story had lost most of its legs.

Yet it kept running. On Monday's Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman noted that "even though Hurricane Irene prompted a series of extraordinary measures in New York City ... officials did not take any steps to evacuate some 12,000 prisoners held in the city jail on Rikers Island." Casella and Ridgeway added updates to their original story, but rather than admitting error, simply re-emphasized the parts of the story that hadn't been debunked.

Many of the propagators of the story had mentioned the landfill angle -- that Rikers was particularly vulnerable because landfills, in the words of Casella and Ridgeway, are "generally thought to be more vulnerable to natural disasters." If the city was saying Rikers was above Zone A, maybe the island was still at risk because it is a landfill.

That notion was unceremoniously trounced on Monday by none other than James Ridgeway himself. In response to Amy Goodman's broad introduction, Ridgeway chose to start here:
Well, in the first place, Amy, I don’t really see what whether it’s built on landfill or not has to do with this.
Ouch. Not only did he not admit he was the one who had propagated the landfill argument, he admonished Goodman for bringing it up.


Is the whole island indeed high enough to be above not just Zone A, but zones B and C, as the map shows? Almost, but not quite. When I called the Mayor's press office on Monday, they directed me to the Department of Corrections. The DOC spokeswoman, Sharman Stein, said in an email that the vast majority of the island is higher, in no flood zone. Some outer parts of the island, including one jail, are in Zone C, which means areas that could be flooded in a category 3 or 4 hurricane. "The first floor of that one facility may be vulnerable to flooding and in that case, those inmates would be relocated from the first floor to higher floors in the jail or moved temporarily to other facilities on Rikers Island," says Stein.

(For the record, Stein adds that there were no storm-related incidents. Any damage was confined to trees and possibly trailers).

It's not clear why the city's map doesn't show part of Rikers as being in Zone C, and that merits follow-up. It doesn't seem like the worst offense, though.


There is one area of the saga where the critics have a grievance that remains unresolved. Casella and Ridgeway pointed to a NYT City Room Q&A (with answers provided by Times staff, un-signed) which said:
According to the city’s Department of Correction, no hypothetical evacuation plan for the roughly 12,000 inmates that the facility may house on a given day even exists. Contingencies do exist for smaller-scale relocations from one facility to another.
These words were cited over and over again in the past several days; no one had any other information. This hadn't been the original focus of the critics, but it was becoming it, and rightly so. Was the Times getting this right?

This was as specific as Stein would go:
The DOC maintains plans and periodically updates its plans to respond to a variety of disasters. ... Any emergency impacting the whole of Rikers Island would also be affecting the region. It is the position of this administration that the personal safety of its staff and the inmate population be preserved and as such, evacuation to the extent it may be warranted would occur. The DOC response to a disaster of this magnitude would be integrated of course, into a city or region-wide strategy.
It's not a satisfying answer, though it's better than what we had before. Certainly it merits follow-up from bigger fish than myself.

Remember that there is no evacuation plan, at least not one publicized, for the entire island of Manhattan. It would be rather hard to do. Rikers is a different matter; if a disaster were to strike that impacted the entire island, but not the rest of the region, there ought to be a plan for that. And DOC's not saying there is one.

Evacuating all of New York City quickly is impossible. In such a case, lots of people, be it at Rikers or anywhere, might be left behind. Public officials understandably don't want to discuss such scenarios publicly. Pressing them to make claims that everyone will get out alive can be unhelpful.

But the matter of a disaster that struck Rikers specifically, beyond a single jail but not beyond the island, needs to be addressed more directly by DOC. This saga has illuminated that. We don't know the whole story yet, and we need to.


Throwing a bunch of darts at a board and seeing what sticks is not a good practice for journalists or advocates. Yet that's what happened here. Many darts were thrown (publicly), most fell, and one is sticking with question marks.

The city -- in this case the Mayor's Office and the Department of Corrections -- should be more transparent than they are. But you can't erase the reality that these are overworked civil servants, busy responding to an unusual weekend storm.

The practice of throwing a question at them and then assuming the worst when they don't get back to you within 24 hours is not a fair one. That's not what transparency is. You could leave a message with the White House asking if Obama is Muslim, and then when your call isn't returned, you could post "White House Refuses to Deny Rumors That President is Muslim!" But you don't do that.

If a deputy mayor of a city of more than 8 million people responds to your tweets about Rikers with a pretty good answer for 140 characters, but doesn't fully answer all of your question, you can still complain if you want. But that's not news.

The critics don't come out of this well. The usually-sharp Colorlines objected that "Major publications in New York city avoided the story." London's Daily Mail said: "The city's official evacuation map and you'll see that pretty much every island and coastal zone is classified as either a Zone A, B, or C. ... While Irene may give New York a heavy soaking, the possibility of flooded prison cells remain, reports." An Indymedia post by Steven Argue declared: "Prisoners abandoned to die."

Some of the responsibility goes to the original storymakers, though certainly a lot of this is a lesson in how a wrong story goes wildly wrong after it starts. It was like a game of telephone.


I asked Casella and Ridgeway what criteria evacuation decisions should be based on, if Rikers being above zone A wasn't good enough. Casella says by email:
We are not geologists or emergency planners. We are journalists, and reported what seemed to us some notable facts: first, that Rikers is the only small island that is not in ANY evacuation zone, second, that there is NO evacuation plan for the island, third, that there is no transparency regarding these matters on the part of city government, which initially dismissed the question without any kind of explanation.
But they had gone so much further. They insinuated the similarity to prisoners left behind during Katrina. That story was an important lesson, and one that hasn't been learned in all parts of the country. But it wasn't relevant here.

Most importantly, they started the thrust of the story, that inmates on Rikers were being "left behind" for this storm, and that that put them in danger. They weren't in danger. There are other injustices out there -- right at Rikers Island, in fact, not to mention in many other places.

This saga proved mostly a distraction, one that could have been avoided if everyone had not assumed the worst. Next time.

Update 9/2: On the same day that I posted this, Casella and Ridgeway posted a follow-up story with similar response from the DOC as I got.

Boarding planes the wrong way

Empirical experiment shows that, sure enough, boarding planes back to front is the worst idea.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Nine Weeks Later, NY Times Corrects Eat'n Park Error

I wrote in June about how a NYT food section article about hometown snacks provided in DC congressional offices incorrectly said that Eat'n Park's headquarters in Homestead, PA, were within the district of Jason Altmire. Homestead is actually in Mike Doyle's district, I pointed out. The article was by Jennifer Steinhauer.

The Times was informed of the error the day the article ran, but the paper did nothing. Only after the office of the Public Editor became involved in the matter did the Times do anything. The correction ran earlier this month, on August 10th, nine weeks after the error:
An article on June 8 about local foods that members of Congress give out in their Washington offices misidentified the Congressional district that includes Homestead, Pa., the home of Eat ’n Park, which makes a cookie given out by Representative Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania. It is the 10th District, not the 4th, Mr. Altmire’s district. A reader pointed out the error in an e-mail the day the article was published and again on July 20. This correction was delayed because the e-mail went astray at The Times.

Friday, August 26, 2011

New Yorker cartoons

In Slate, James Sturn describes the process of trying to get a cartoon in the New Yorker.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Arne Duncan tries to co-opt Matt Damon; Matt says no

Last month I mentioned Matt Damon's speech against high-stakes testing at the teachers rally in DC.

Now the Post's Valerie Strauss reports that US DOE tried hard and failed to woo Damon:
According to two people familiar with the efforts, the administration tried to arrange a meeting with Damon and government officials, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, before the July 30 march.
There was no meeting. Go Matt.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Train runs over Thai vegetable market

In a good way, not a bad one. (h/t Grist)

Joe Nocera has no idea what he's talking about, part #256

Laura Clawson at Kos responds to Nocera's NLRB/Boeing column.

Update: much much more here on Nocera getting the basics wrong on this.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Poor Detroit

Alas: "CU-Boulder study: Dog-poop bacteria found in air over Detroit, Cleveland"

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Credit cards

Visa Exposed As Massive Credit Card Scam

O probably will want to have some union people for the reelection thing

Obama, in Iowa, on Monday, doing much better:
There are a whole range of things that people take for granted, even if they’re not in a union, that they wouldn’t have had if it had not been for collective bargaining. (Applause.) So I think it is very important, whether you are in a union or not -- and I speak particularly to young people, because you’ve grown up at a time when in a lot of circles “union” somehow is a dirty word -- to understand all this is is people joining together so they’ve got a little more leverage; so they’ve got better working conditions, better wages; they can better support their family.

And a lot of us entered into the middle class because our parent or a grandparent was in a union. Remember that. (Applause.) When I hear this kind of anti-union rhetoric and anti-union assaults, I’m thinking these folks have amnesia. They don’t remember that that helped build our middle class and strengthen our economy.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Bryant Park Dash

There are tons of great videos on youtube showing the Bryant Park Dash, where everyone runs in with their blankets to grab a good spot for the Monday night movie. I like this aerial view (jump to :40) which makes it seem less chaotic than all of the ground-level shots.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Where the White House goes next

I recommend "White House Debates Fight On Economy" from the front page of Sunday's NYT. It's hard to know what to believe about what's actually going on in the White House, so I think it should all be taken with a grain of salt. But it's interesting and scary.

Binyamin Appelbaum and Helene Cooper describe competing factions in the White House, with the political team (favoring small economic measures) probably set to win, and report that:
Administration officials, frustrated by the intransigence of House Republicans, have increasingly concluded that the best thing Mr. Obama can do for the economy may be winning a second term, with a mandate to advance his ideas on deficit reduction, entitlement changes, housing policy and other issues.
Republicans contend that the Obama administration has mismanaged the nation’s recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. Mr. Obama’s political advisers are struggling to define a response, aware that their prospects may rest on persuading voters that the results of the first term matter less than the contrast between their vision for the next four years and the alternative economic ideas offered by Republicans.
This "Just wait, we'll do better in 2013" doesn't sound like a winning political message to me. Obviously this will suffice for some life-long Democrats. But to a campaign so obsessed with winning "independents" this seems a rather stunningly bad message. They're not saying this message publicly yet, but someone's letting it out to a reporter here. If they actually take the next step and say it publicly, the Republican candidates will go after it fiercely.

Are unemployed people going to vote for a candidates who says "just wait a year and then we'll get on this economy thing" or the candidates who says "I'm running against the guy who told you to just wait a year"?

The articles goes on:
Mr. Obama and his aides are skeptical that voters will reward bold proposals if those ideas do not pass Congress. It is their judgment that moderate voters want tangible results rather than speeches.
I think there's some truth to this. But if this were fully true -- that having votes on things you aren't going to win isn't politically worth it -- you wouldn't see Republicans doing this all the time over the last many years. They know what they're doing.

And of course in the bigger picture, once you've publicly said "we're not actually going to win this vote" then you've lost much of the purpose to it. It would be one thing if this administration had tried to push Republicans into hard votes -- if it had actually tried what should have been one of the top strategies. But it didn't. And remember, a significant number of House Republicans are actually in moderate districts with close contests likely for 2012. The White House shouldn't try to negotiate with them; instead it should design bills that would create jobs and be politically difficult for these members to vote against. And then take the next step of working their districts.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Joe Nocera, Aug 2011: We Should Totally Focus on Jobs Now!! With Bipartisanship!

Coming off his recent gaffes, Joe Nocera gives over his column in Saturday's Times to Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, who has an exciting new idea! Boycott campaign contributions! Like this:

The contribution boycott, as Schultz envisions it, would be completely bipartisan; indeed, it would have to be for it to work. Schultz isn’t calling on Washington to come up with solutions that are aligned with his political leanings (which are Democratic). Rather, he wants solutions, agreed to by both parties, that will help get the country back on its feet.

He believes Congress needs to come back from the August recess now, instead of waiting until September. Then, he says, the president and Congress should hammer out a debt deal, which will restore confidence. And finally, and most importantly, they should start focusing “maniacally” on the nation’s most pressing concern: job creation. Once they’ve done that, the boycott would be lifted.

Yes, solutions agreed to by both parties to get the country back on his feet. Not making this up. It's almost as if Schultz and Nocera have not had their eyes open for the last several years. Of course, they have had their eyes open, which makes it all the more scary.

Oh, and we need to push congress and the president to focus more intensely on jobs! Great, where were brave campaigners like Schultz in 2009 again? Not exactly on the barricades pushing for more economic stimulus.

The Times op-ed page has long differentiated itself from so many others by not filling itself with "we just all need to get along" pundits. It's particularly sad that they picked this particular era as a time to hire one.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Panda FOIA

The Washington Times fronts a story on the behind-the-scenes discussions among US diplomats about trying to convince China to allow Tai Shan to stay here.
Taken together, dozens of pages of State Department correspondence concerning the famous zoo resident provide an inside look at “panda diplomacy” at work.
The story doesn't come up with that much; we still don't know what discussions did or didn't happen between the U.S. and China. We just know high-up people in the U.S. were involved in discussing the possibilities. Which doesn't seem that surprising. Still, foia-ing the panda case. Only in DC.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The American Drought

TIME has an incredible gallery of photos by George Steinmetz showing the current drought affecting swaths of the country.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A380 Porn

This is better than any other gallery I've seen -- from LATimes, photos of the interiors of the A380s from each of the six airlines that have them.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The new Rent

The NYT looks at the new off-broadway Rent. The original Rent ended just three years ago. Apparently the new one sticks relatively close to the original.

I'm conflicted.


Saturday, August 06, 2011

WaPo Alternate Universe: Obama "Held Firm to His Initial Bottom Line" in Debt Ceiling Talks

The Washington Post -- faster than ever! -- has a front pager Saturday about congressional Democrats being upset with President Obama for his negotiating tactics over the debt ceiling ("Obama's friends unsettled by debt talks; Some Democrats fault willingness to compromise with GOP"). Toward the end, writer Peter Wallsten throws in this stunner:
By the final weekend of talks, as an agreement came into view, Obama held firm to his initial bottom line. No default, no second debt-limit vote.
Back in the real world, the President's initial bottom line was something rather different.

The White House had long called for a clean debt ceiling raise. As late as April 11 Jay Carney said: "we do not need to play chicken with our economy by linking the raising of the debt ceiling to anything. We should do that right away." And the following day: "we don’t believe, going back to questions I had yesterday, that there should be a link between efforts to address our long-term deficit problem and debt problem and the imperative of raising the debt ceiling." It was on April 15 that the President changed the line on including spending cuts at all, saying "I think it's absolutely right that it's not going to happen without some spending cuts." White House officials immediately insisted the administration still wanted a clean bill, though it was too late.

With that bottom line dropped, the White House moved to another big one: that if a bill was not "clean" it should include new revenues. The Administration pushed multiple plans to this effect, with substantial new revenues. The Washington Post, and pretty much every outlet, covered this rather extensively. On July 21, the White House was still insisting it wanted new revenue: "Anyone reporting a $3 trillion deal without revenues is incorrect. POTUS believes we need a balanced approach that includes revenue" tweeted Dan Pfeiffer, WH Communications Director. I think I even remember Obama giving a decent prime-time address on July 25th: "How can we ask a student to pay more for college before we ask hedge fund managers to stop paying taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries? How can we slash funding for education and clean energy before we ask people like me to give up tax breaks we don’t need and didn’t ask for? That’s not right. It’s not fair."

But it was becoming clear the White House was losing yet again, and it eventually agreed to a deal with no new revenues.

Only in the Post's alternate universe was the President's initial bottom line "No default, no second debt-limit vote."


Friday, August 05, 2011

Gmail catching up to the competition on basic feature, years later

From TechCrunch: Gmail Gets A Preview Pane (Hooray!), Needs Work (Aww)

Hey didn't Eudora and Outlook (ick) have this feature like, more than a decade ago? Also, Thunderbird (2003).

Alright, 95% of you readers who swear by gmail.. Bring on your snarky comments in defense of your beloved email system.

Six years later, a batch of justice in New Orleans

From the Times-Picayune:
A jury this morning convicted all five New Orleans police officers accused in the Danziger Bridge shootings, which took place amid the chaos after Hurricane Katrina and claimed the lives of two civilians, and a cover-up of startling scope that lasted almost five years.

The verdicts were a huge victory for federal prosecutors, who won on virtually every point, save for their contention that the shootings amounted to murder. The jury rejected that notion, finding that the officers violated the victims' civil rights, but that their actions did not constitute murder.

How the polls show GOP won debt ceiling battle

From the NYTimes poll this morning:
The Republicans compromised too little, a majority of those polled said. All told, 72 percent disapproved of the way Republicans in Congress handled the negotiations, while 66 percent disapproved of the way Democrats in Congress handled negotiations.
72 and 66, that's really not much difference. Especially considering one party held the U.S. economy hostage and the other didn't. Sure, Obama did better -- only 47 disapproved of his handling of the negotiations -- but that's to be expected. The fair comparison is between congressional Ds and Rs.

Huge win for the GOP.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

If we say it, it will be!

From NYT today:

But Jim Messina, the manager of the president’s re-election bid, said the discord among Democrats in Washington did not reflect what campaign officials were hearing from rank-and-file supporters of the president through nightly telephone calls and door-knocking.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm, and I don’t see anything as contentious as this coming down the pike in terms of an intraparty situation,” said David Plouffe, a senior adviser to the president. “There will be a unified, motivated and very aggressive Democratic Party supporting the president next year.”


Monday, August 01, 2011

The details

See Brian Beutler and Nate Silver on the details of the debt limit thing, including a few better than expected things -- mainly how much of the cuts are military, and how there's not that much cutting in the first year. These are very important. They still don't make the events of the last week anything less than terrible, but they're important.