Author Archives: Isaiah McKenna

New study: Antarctica’s tipping point is closer than we thought.

Antarctic ice sheets have been melting rapidly for hundreds of years, much longer than scientists previously thought, according to a study out Thursday. The findings suggest that estimates for global sea-level rise need to be reworked and that we’re even closer to the day that fish start chasing each other through New York City’s subway tunnels.

The scientists behind the new study in Scientific Reports were able to reconstruct a 6,250-year record of how fast Antarctic glaciers slipped into the sea. They did this by drilling the bottom of the Southern Ocean between Antarctica and Tierra del Fuego and analyzing the layers of mud they pulled up.

The story this mud tells between 4300 B.C. and 300 A.D. is uneventful. But around 1400, the skeletons of diatoms — ubiquitous, jewel-like sea creatures often used for dating ocean sediments — suggest that the weather became warmer. More oxygen isotopes that come from fresh (as opposed to saltwater) started showing up, meaning the glaciers were melting. Then around 1706, the ice began to melt even faster than before.

So natural climate change had cued up the massive Antarctic ice shelves to collapse before human-caused climate change turned up the heat. A random shift in wind patterns has been melting the ice caps for the last 300 years, the scientists wrote, “potentially predisposing them to collapse under intensified anthropogenic warming.”

The more glaciers melt, the more quickly they slide into the ocean. The more quickly ice that was previously suspended above the ocean slips into the water, the more quickly oceans rise and eels get into subway tunnels. This new paper didn’t lay out any new estimates for future sea level rise. But the implication is obvious. A previous study suggested that Antarctic melting alone would raise sea levels by the end of the century as much as 2.25 feet if temperatures increase by 4.5 degrees Celsius. Add that to ice melt from the northern ice caps and high tides are on track to be at least 3 feet higher worldwide by the end of the century, and maybe higher. This new finding suggests that might all happen sooner than later.

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New study: Antarctica’s tipping point is closer than we thought.

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Jeb Bush Slams Trump’s Proposal to Ban Muslims

Mother Jones

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Of all of Jeb Bush’s frustrations in his disappointing presidential run, his inability to get a line over on Donald Trump has to rank near the top. In debate after debate, the real estate mogul has shut down the former Florida governor and derided him for being weak and boring. But in Thursday night’s debate, Bush finally got the better of Trump in his most successful put-down.

The subject was Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from coming to the US. “This policy is a policy that makes it impossible to build the coalition necessary to take out ISIS,” Bush said. “The Kurds are our strongest allies. They’re Muslim. You’re not going to even allow them to come to our country? The other Arab countries have a role to play in this.”

Bush suggested that instead of a blanket ban, there should be more stringent screening of refugees. “We don’t have to have refugees come to our country, but all Muslims?” he said. “Seriously?”

The exchange might not be enough to pull Bush out of the campaign doldrums, but it drew thunderous applause that the crowd had previously reserved for the likes of Trump and Ted Cruz. For Bush, that’s worth something.


Jeb Bush Slams Trump’s Proposal to Ban Muslims

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At least there’s one positive thing happening because of climate change

At least there’s one positive thing happening because of climate change

Nilanjan Sasmal

The dangers of climate change are particularly acute in the Himalayan foothills. Glaciers in the region act like water tanks that slowly release flow into rivers used by more than a billion people downstream; as glaciers recede, that flow is in jeopardy. Receding glaciers are also leaving giant pools of water in their wake and those pools are prone to burst and flood downhill villages. 

But it’s not all for the worse up there.

The high-altitude Indian region of Ladakh, a chunk of the state of Kashmir that is home to many refugees from neighboring Tibet, is experiencing an agricultural boom as warmer weather sweeps up the mountainsides. From Al Jazeera:

“Earlier vegetables and fruits had to be brought from areas lower in altitude but now they are available in the higher altitudes,” said Nisa Khatoon, a researcher and environmental activist at Leh [in Ladakh].

According to farmers in the region, this has lowered the price of vegetables, and boosted the income of farmers.

“Some locally produced vegetables are used by the families of the farmers while the rest come into the local markets,” said Khatoon. There are two types of vegetables in the market — locally produced and those brought from areas of lower altitude.

Until about two decades back, farmers at Leh could only grow barley, beet and turnips. But now we grow brinjals [eggplants], capsicums and tomatoes.

Now let’s just hope the newly productive farming areas don’t get flooded away.

Climate change works wonders in Leh, Al Jazeera

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants:

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Grover Norquist Gives Pot Taxes a High Five

Mother Jones

Grover Norquist must be really, really eager for marijuana to be legalized. So eager that he’s willing to throw his anti-tax pledge under the bus in order to help the cause:

Norquist tells National Journal that lawmakers who signed the pledge and want to legalize and tax cannabis are in the clear. “That’s not a tax increase. It’s legalizing an activity and having the traditional tax applied to it,” he says.

He compares legalization to changes in alcohol regulation, as when a state legalizes the sale of liquor on Sundays or allows grocery stores to sell beer and wine where they previously couldn’t. “When you legalize something and more people do more of it, and the government gets more revenue because there’s more of it … that’s not a tax increase,” he explains. “The tax goes from 100 percent, meaning it’s illegal, to whatever the tax is.”

This is sophistry, of course. If the only tax on legalized marijuana was the traditional sales tax that most states already have, Norquist would be right. But that’s not the plan in most places. Instead, there are special excise taxes just for pot, and those taxes are pretty high.

Of course, marijuana taxes have a few characteristics Norquist doesn’t mention that might explain the real reason he’s OK with them. First, they don’t hit rich people very heavily. Second, they target an activity that social conservatives disapprove of. Third, the taxes primarily hit the young, not the oldsters who hold the whip hand in the conservative coalition.

Still, any port in a storm. Thanks, Grover!

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Grover Norquist Gives Pot Taxes a High Five

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Climate-denier politicians under attack by new ad campaign

Climate-denier politicians under attack by new ad campaign

Sen. Ron Johnson will be the target of a new ad from LCV.

Here comes more bad PR for climate change–denying politicians.

Barack Obama’s advocacy group, Organizing for Action, began trying to embarrass denier Republicans earlier this year. Now the League of Conservation Voters is piling on, spending nearly $2 million on TV advertisements aimed at four GOP flat earthers.

Ads unveiled Monday ridicule the voting records and anti-scientific statements of Reps. Dan Benishek (Mich.), Mike Coffman (Colo.), and Rodney Davis (Ill.), and a fourth ad will soon target Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.). From a League of Conservation Voters press release:

This ad campaign follows the release of bipartisan polling [PDF] by LCV showing that young voters across the country are particularly concerned about climate change and support federal action to address it. A solid majority in the poll said they are willing to hold accountable those who ignore the problem, going so far as to describe climate change deniers as “ignorant” and “out-of-touch.”

The Hill points out that LCV has run a similar campaign before:

Last election cycle, the group launched a $1.5 million effort to defeat what they called the “Flat Earth Five,” five lawmakers who were skeptical of climate change science. All but one were defeated.

The new ad targeting Davis quotes him saying “global warming stopped” 16 years ago:

In the Benishek ad, the rep is quoted describing climate change as “baloney”:

And the ad targeting Coffman likens him to an ostrich:

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants:

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More Wildfires = More Warming = More Wildfires


Why scientists are scared of the link between bigger wildfires and rapid thawing of northern permafrost. USFWS/Southeast/Flickr To step into the US Army Corp of Engineers’ Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility in Fox, Alaska—just north of Fairbanks—is to step back in time. Burrowed into the silt layers of an unassuming hillside, the tunnel is like a scene out of a sub-Arctic Indiana Jones adventure. Shivering, you walk the length of an underground football field, past protruding bones of Ice Age animals (including mammoths) and huge ice wedges, which were frozen in place long before Hebrew scribes compiled the Old Testament. The smell is overpowering: Dead plants and other organic materials are suspended in the frozen soil walls, decomposing and reverting back into the carbon dioxide and water from which they were originally formed. But because of the cold, that process is extremely slow: Deep in the cave, a 32,000-year-old frozen plant sticks out of a wall. It’s still green. The leaves still contain chlorophyll. That plant, like the permafrost cave as a whole, is in a state of frozen suspension. But walking through the tunnel, you’re acutely aware of how quickly that suspension might end. The facility is maintained through a cooling system at 25 degrees Fahrenheit, without which the cave would collapse, and the ancient geological history lesson would be abruptly over. And the carbon that had slowly accumulated in the soils of the cave over tens of thousands of years? Much of it would be released into the air. A view inside Alaska’s unique permafrost research tunnel. US Army Corps of Engineers Throughout Alaska and similar northern or “boreal” environments across the world (from Canada to Russia), huge volumes of permafrost hang in a similar balance. In much of this region, ground temperatures are just below freezing, leaving their frozen soils right on the cusp of thawing. “It’s kind of at the thermal tipping point” for permafrost, explains Rich Boone, an ecologist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. What might tip it over? Climate change, which is currently proceeding twice as fast in Alaska and the Arctic as it is in the mid-latitudes. And the warming releases a pulse of carbon from these frozen soils, as microorganisms break down the organic matter they contain and give off carbon dioxide (and, sometimes, methane). How much? Well, it is estimated that global permafrost contains twice as much total carbon as the planet’s atmosphere currently does. In other words, a lot. Scientists have known for some time about the risk of large-scale carbon emissions from thawing permafrost. But in recent years, they’ve become increasingly attuned to an additional—and very worrisome—aspect of this threat. As climate change proceeds, larger and more intense wildfires are increasingly scorching and charring the forests of the north. While these fires have always been a natural and recurring aspect of forest ecosystems, they now appear to be undergoing a major amplification. And that, in turn, may further increase the threat of permafrost thawing and carbon releases—releases that would, in turn, greatly amplify global warming itself (and potentially spur still more fire activity). “You have this climate and fire interaction, and all of a sudden permafrost can thaw really rapidly,” explains Jon O’Donnell, an ecologist with the National Parks Service’s Arctic Network. Scientists call it a “positive feedback,” and it’s one of the scariest aspects of global warming because, in essence, it means a bad situation is making itself worse. When it comes to understanding the wildfire-permafrost feedback and just how bad it could be, one factor is clear: Wildfires are definitely getting worse. “The area burned by wildfires has been increased quite a bit over the last couple of decades,” says Terry Chapin, a biologist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Indeed, a new study just out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that recent fire activity in these “boreal” regions of the globe is higher than anything seen in the last 10,000 years. Fires are also becoming more severe, says O’Donnell. Finally, the seasonality of fires appears to be changing, with burns extending later into the summer, when permafrost has thawed more completely—once again, amplifying the overall impact of burning on frozen soils and the carbon they contain. And here’s where the feedback kicks in: Large northern fires don’t just burn huge swaths of forest. They can also burn off the upper layer of lichen and mosses on the forest floor. When intact, this forest surface layer insulates the underlying permafrost and protects it from thawing—but getting rid of it takes away that protection, even as it also exposes the area to the heating of direct sunlight. Plus, there’s an added effect: After a fire burns through a region, O’Donnell notes, it leaves behind an area of the earth’s surface that is blackened in color. And these dark areas absorb more heat from the sun, thus further upping temperatures and thawing permafrost. As the soil thaws, meanwhile, microbes have a much easier time decomposing its organic matter. “The microbes can start to crank on that carbon,” says O’Donnell, adding that the process results in the release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. How quickly could the wildfire-permafrost feedback work to amplify global warming? That’s what researchers are currently trying to determine. “The main uncertainty is not whether it’s going to happen, but how quickly,” explains Terry Chapin of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. One key factor is how severely northern forests continue to burn. Another is whether there are any offsetting effects that might slow down the feedback. For instance, after northern forests burn, new vegetation gradually moves back in. And sometimes it isn’t the same type of tree: Often, black spruce forests will be replaced by aspens or birch. These trees actually store more carbon, so that’s a potentially offsetting effect. It’s important to note that overall, northern boreal forest regions have been taking carbon dioxide from fossil fuel emissions out of the atmosphere or, as scientists put it, serving as a net carbon “sink.” But that’s changing. David McGuire, an ecologist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks who runs models to try to determine how wildfires affect permafrost, estimates that about 5 percent of global carbon emissions have been sequestered by boreal forests; but his simulations suggest that because of the combination of global warming and increased wildfire activity, that number is decreasing greatly. “Fire increase in the boreal regions is potentially shutting down that sink activity,” says McGuire. The overall impact may be so large that it could undermine the effectiveness of policies to mitigate carbon emissions. Deep in the permafrost cave in Fox, you walk through a section of tunnel that is, in effect, an ice cathedral. The entire ceiling is covered by a huge wedge of ice, and the formation stretches down through the cave walls to the floor on either side of you. You’re surrounded by ice, encircled. But as soon as you reach out your hand and touch the ceiling, ice that hasn’t melted in thousands of years undergoes a phase change, becoming drops of water on your finger. It just takes a touch of heat. That’s essentially what we’re doing to the earth’s permafrost regions as a whole—and hoping the cave doesn’t collapse above our heads.

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More Wildfires = More Warming = More Wildfires

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More Wildfires = More Warming = More Wildfires

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House Will Hold Vote to Defund NSA Phone Records Program

Mother Jones

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None of the American newspapers I read seem to think this is worth putting on the front page, but the Guardian reports that there’s serious movement afoot to restrict the NSA’s ability to collect domestic phone records:

Congressional opposition to the NSA’s bulk surveillance on Americans swelled on Tuesday as the US House prepared to vote on restricting the collection of US phone records and a leading Senate critic blasted a “culture of misinformation” around government surveillance.

Republican congressman Justin Amash prevailed in securing a vote for his amendment to a crucial funding bill for the Department of Defense that “ends authority for the blanket collection of records under the Patriot Act.” The vote could take place as early as Wednesday evening.

….The amendment would prevent the NSA, the FBI and other agencies from relying on Section 215 of the Patriot Act “to collect records, including telephone call records, that pertain to persons who are not subject to an investigation under Section 215.”….Its outcome is difficult to predict. The vote by itself will not restrict the surveillance, it would simply include Amash’s amendment in the annual Defense appropriations bill, which the House is considering this week; the Senate must also approve the bill before it goes to President Obama’s desk.

Amash’s amendment allows the NSA to spend money executing a FISA court order only if the court order includes the following sentence:

This Order limits the collection of any tangible things….to those tangible things that pertain to a person who is the subject of an investigation described in section 501 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that no warrant was necessary to collect phone records, and the NSA phone record program originally operated without a warrant under George Bush. However, that changed in 2006, and presumably phone companies would be unwilling to provide bulk metadata in the future without a warrant. So if this amendment passes, it would most likely put an end to the sweeping collection of domestic phone records.

It’s not clear yet whether passage is likely, or whether it would survive the Senate if it does. But this is a genuine bipartisan effort, not just a symbolic vote that’s doomed to failure. Regardless of what happens, it’s worthwhile holding this vote just to find out where everyone stands on this.

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"Fruitvale Station" and The Weinstein Company’s Push for Social Justice

Mother Jones

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The tears had not yet dried, but immediately upon exiting theater 15 at San Francisco’s AMC Metreon for a screening of Fruitvale Station, each of us was handed a business card. On one side: an image of Michael B. Jordan (playing Oscar Grant) embraced by Ariana Neal (playing Grant’s daughter Tatiana). On the other side: a message encouraging us to channel our newfound rage, confusion, and sadness to fix the injustice we just witnessed on screen.

Call it insensitive, or call it smart marketing, but The Weinstein Company is hard at work making Fruitvale Station more than just something to watch while munching on popcorn. They’re engaged in a campaign to raise awareness about social injustice.

Photos by Brett Brownell

Just after midnight on January 1, 2009, Oakland resident Oscar Grant was riding home from San Francisco on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), when he became involved in an altercation. The train stopped at Fruitvale Station and transit officers responded to the scene. While attempting to restrain Grant, officer Johannes Mehserle shot him in the back. A few hours later, Grant, the 22-year-old father of a 4-year-old girl, died at Highland Hospital.

Numerous cell phone users captured the scene and uploaded their videos. Bay Area residents were incensed and protests erupted. Officer Mehserle later testified that instead of grabbing a Taser, he mistakenly grabbed his gun. Mehserle was charged with murder, but a jury only found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He was releases after 11 months in prison.

The story of Oscar Grant left a painful scar on the Bay Area, and a literal one on the floor tile where he was killed. During filming of Fruitvale Station, actor Michael B. Jordon, who plays Grant, found a bullet hole where Grant was shot. “I remember putting my chest to the hole and being scared while I was shooting that scene,” he told the L.A. Times. The hole was later filled by BART officials, but Jordan told the paper, “There’s energy at that spot—people know it and what happened there. And oftentimes, people won’t stand at that end of the platform.”

Director Ryan Coogler helms this story of Grant’s final day, and included in his retelling is a brutally visceral recreation of what happened that New Year’s morning on the platform.

Coogler grew up near Oakland, and at the time of the shooting he was home on break from film school. He recently told the New York Times, “When we saw that happen to Oscar, and we saw it on video, it was like the wind getting knocked out of us. I was questioning who we were as a community.” Soon after the shooting, Coogler decided to make the film.

It’s beautifully and subtly acted by Jordon, Melonie Diaz (playing Grant’s girlfriend and mother of his daughter), and Octavia Spencer (playing Grant’s mother). Meanwhile, the other cast members come across so natural and real it’s as if we’re peeping through a key hole at a real family in the kitchen. This level of comfort makes Grant’s death feel personal, leaving you rooting for his survival in the midst of a painful awareness that history had other plans.

But after years of anger and tension in the Bay Area, The Weinstein Company, which purchased Fruitvale Station for $2.5 million at Sundance earlier this year, is using it as an opportunity.

As stated in big bold letters at the top of the post-screening business cards, they’re inviting everyone to “Commit to end social injustice in the name of Oscar Grant.” (A fitting sentiment, although the enticement of winning a gift card is jarring in this context.) The film’s website encourages visitors to share stories of overcoming prejudice, bullying, social injustice or mistreatment with their “I AM __” campaign. And of course they’re taking to social networking, such as this recent Instagram photo. Wish them luck. They’ll need it.

Fruitvale Station opened in limited release Friday July 12, and wide release on July 19.

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"Fruitvale Station" and The Weinstein Company’s Push for Social Justice

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One Ambitious Electric Car Venture Just Tanked, But Zero-Emissions Vehicles Aren’t Dead

A Better Place electric car. Photo: Rosenfeld Media

Better Place, an electric car startup backed by $850 million in private funding, has filed for bankruptcy. The company aimed to have 100,000 electric vehicles on the road in Israel and Denmark by 2010, but had deployed fewer than 1,000 of the Renault Fluence Z.E. cars in Israel and just 200 in Denmark to date. IEEE Spectrum reports:

Better Place’s bankruptcy filing this last weekend is a blow not merely to the company itself and its influential backers, but to the vision of an electrified automotive future. This is because Better Place had what seemed an extremely persuasive business model and a sensible plan for developing the plan in the marketplace.

Israel and Denmark were the first testing grounds, and Better Place had already built 21 battery swapping stations in Israel, which is about the size of New Jersey. With Israel’s small size, high gas prices and start-up friendly atmosphere, the country seemed like the perfect testing grounds for introducing Better Place, the New York Times writes. But while Better Place did contend with some delays, ultimately it seems that people simply were not interested in buying the cars.

The company filed for liquidation on Sunday, citing financial difficulties. Better Place’s chief executive, Dan Cohen, spoke with the Times

Mr. Cohen said on Sunday that the vision and the model had been right, but that the pace of market penetration had not lived up to expectations. Without a large injection of cash, he said, Better Place was unable to continue its operations.

Meanwhile, Fisker Automotive, another significant player in electric car ventures that received significant U.S. federal backing, appears to be on the edge of collapse. The Times reports, in a separate story:

On the surface, Fisker had all the trappings of a potential player in the emerging electric car industry.

Serious problems emerged almost as soon as the car hit the market.

Fisker, with its technical problems, management turmoil and mounting losses, offers a cautionary tale in the fiercely competitive arena of alternative-fuel vehicles and of government subsidies for start-up businesses.

Bankruptcy now appears unavoidable, and a political reckoning is coming.

Not every electric car is crashing, however. Tesla, whose Model S won MotorTrend’s 2013 Car of the Year award, continues to shine. The company recently paid off its Department of Energy loans nearly 10 years early, had its first profitable quarter and is enjoying skyrocketing stock prices.

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One Ambitious Electric Car Venture Just Tanked, But Zero-Emissions Vehicles Aren’t Dead

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The Media’s "Tinsel Age" and Subsequent Failure

Mother Jones

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This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Everyone knows this story, though fewer and fewer read it on paper. There are barely enough pages left to wrap fish. The second paper in town has shut down. Sometimes the daily delivers only three days a week. Advertising long ago started fleeing to Craigslist and Internet points south. Subscriptions are dwindling. Online versions don’t bring in much ad revenue. Who can avoid the obvious, if little covered question: Is the press too big to fail? Or was it failing long before it began to falter financially?

In the previous century, there was a brief Golden Age of American journalism, though what glittered like gold leaf sometimes turned out to be tinsel. Then came regression to the mean. Since 2000, we have seen the titans of the news presuming that Bush was the victor over Gore, hustling us into war with Iraq, obscuring climate change, and turning blind eyes to derivatives, mortgage-based securities, collateralized debt obligations, and the other flimsy creations with which a vast, showy, ramshackle international financial house of cards was built. When you think about the crisis of journalism, including the loss of advertising and the shriveled newsrooms—there were fewer newsroom employees in 2010 than in 1978, when records were first kept—also think of anesthetized watchdogs snoring on Wall Street while the Arctic ice cap melts.

Deserting readers mean broken business models. Per household circulation of daily American newspapers has been declining steadily for 60 years, since long before the Internet arrived. It’s gone from 1.24 papers per household in 1950 to 0.37 per household in 2010. To get the sports scores, your horoscope, or the crossword puzzle, the casual reader no longer needs even to glance at a whole paper, and so is less likely to brush up against actual—even superficial— news. Never mind that the small-r republican model on which the United States was founded presupposed that some critical mass of citizens would spend a critical mass of their time figuring out what’s what and forming judgments accordingly.

Don’t be fooled, though, by any inflated talk about the early days of American journalism. In the beginning, there was no Golden Age. To be sure, a remark Thomas Jefferson made in 1787 is often quoted admiringly (especially in newspapers): “If it were left to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”

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The Media’s "Tinsel Age" and Subsequent Failure

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