12 April 2013

It's the serial-murder trial you've probably never heard of

This week, a wealthy Philadelphia doctor has been on trial for the murder of eight people. The case has numerous elements that each by itself could make the trial a big news story: infanticide, the apparent gross incompetence of government oversight officials, a clear tie-in to a hot-button political issue, unlicensed medical practices, body parts found in a refrigerator, incredible amounts of cash found in a raid on the defendant's home, accusations of prosecutorial lynching, even an undeniable gross-out factor. Yet chances are — unless you happen to pay attention to Philadelphia-area news media or read certain niche online journals such LifeNews — that you haven't heard of the trial. It's as if there were a media blackout against it.

The trial: Dr. Kermit Gosnell, operator of a women's clinic, is accused of third-degree murder for the death of a 41-year-old patient as well as murders for seven instances of infanticide, all (according to the grand jury) related to live births after induced delivery in what were supposed to be late-term abortions.

It's as sensational of a case as can be; if you want nightmares while in bed tonight, try reading the grand jury report. It is certainly more interesting than the Jodi Arias trial going on in Arizona and countless other criminal cases that are covered ad nauseam by the national media until the next one comes along. Yet a study a few days ago found that the trial hadn't even been mentioned on NBC, ABC or CBS, and that it had barely been mentioned on Fox and CNN. Coverage of major newspapers has been almost nonexistent; only in the last few days have the major news purveyors been saying much of anything — and those have been opinion pieces questioning where the coverage is rather than news coverage itself.

Partly because they see the trial has highlighting the lack of a clear moral line that separates infanticide from at least some abortions, some anti-abortion activists have been pressuring media in recent days to give the trial the coverage it deserves. But I'm not convinced that the reason for the news "blackout" has much to do with undeniable sympathy among journalism's elite for legalized abortion. After all, the politics of the trial cuts both ways: If anything, the existence of clinics such as the one Gosnell ran could be used to argue the case that he could do his dirty business only because these women didn't have ready access to earlier, safer procedures.

I'm not saying that the media aren't gun-shy about covering the trial because of the abortion connection. What I am saying is that I believe a much bigger reason for the lack of coverage is simple racism and classism: Dr. Gosnell's patients, and therefore the his purported victims, were primarily nonwhite (usually black or Asian) and/or drawn from Philly's struggling immigrant community.

I can't help but think of the woman Gosnell (through his staff) allegedly murdered: 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar, a Nepalese immigrant. To be blunt about it, pictures of Mongar show her as being not only nonwhite, but also not meeting our cultural standards of beauty. Imagine, instead, that a doctor had been accused of murdering an attractive, young white woman — say, someone who looked like Natalee Holloway or Chandra Levy or Elizabeth Smart. Would the major news media stay silent? I doubt it. It's easy to imagine seeing the woman's family and friends on TV talking about how great of a person she was. But who has there been to speak for Karnamaya Mongar?

No, Mongar was just one of those all-but-nameless immigrants that we, and the major news media, tend to look down on. And Gosnell's other alleged victims were literally nameless, and were conceived to women who were every bit as unimportant to society as Mongar was.

According to the grand jury, Gosnell provided his white patients with better facilities than those in which Mongar and the seven babies (or fetuses if you prefer the term Gosnell's attorney uses) died. By all indications, Gosnell lavished attention on his white patients but didn't give the lowly nonwhite and immigrant women who came to see him the dignity that they deserved. By ignoring this case, neither are the major news media.

28 August 2011

SendMe sends me a scam

Is is possible to sign up for a $9.99/month cell phone "Music Fan Club" simply by receiving a cryptic text message? That's what the folks at SendMe Mobile seem to be telling me.

I've heard of people getting cell phone spam, but yesterday marked the first time I've received any. Or at least that's what I thought it was.

Here's what the message from 77899 said: SendMe:Music fan Club:Ringtones & trivias@sendmemobile.com 10 credits & alerts $9.99/month+msg&data rates may apply txt help4help.txt stop2end. Download Now!

I didn't think much of it until I received a second text message today that appeared to be some sort of celebrity quiz. And then the alarm bells rang: A number of years ago when I did some contract for Google I ran across numerous attempts by companies to rip off consumers with worthless cell phone services such as celebrity quizzes.

I wasn't about to pay $9.99 per month for such garbage, and I wasn't about to send these folks a text message that would viewed as consent of some sort. So I called the company's customer service line.

To my surprise, a woman answered.

I told her I didn't want any more spam, and she looked up my "account" — and told me I would be charged $9.99 by Verizon for the service I had signed up for.

I told her I didn't sign up for such service, and she said she had confirmation from Saturday morning — at the time SendMe sent me the message I never responded to.

Once I apparently had her convinced that I hadn't confirmed any order for such a "subscription," she told me that someone who borrowed my phone must have done so. But not only did no one else have possession of my phone, but my phone also keeps track of text messages sent — and there was none to SendMe.

The woman ultimately did offer to send me a refund — a move I interpreted as an attempt to get me off the line. Not believing I'd ever see such a refund, I told her not to bill Verizon in the first place (after all, it was a weekend when I had supposedly confirmed the subscription).

But that would be against the law, she told me. Once her company bills the phone carrier, she said, it has no ability to reverse the charges.

But SendMe shouldn't be billing the phone company for services never ordered, I told her. But she said I did — probably while online. Where online? I asked her. She said she couldn't say. I've done enough research to know how this company operates — usually by getting people to take quizzes and the like and expecting that they won't read the fine print when they provide their cell phone number in order to get the results. But I always read the fine print, because I know how these scams work. In any case, it has been months since I've taken any online quiz or anything like that, and neither have I provided my cell phone number to any strangers other than prospective employers.

And so it went. Next step: I wrote to Verizon to make it clear that such charges were never authorized. I expect Verizon will do the right thing, but we'll see what happens next.

Update: As promised, Verizon responded to my e-mail within 24 hours. The person I talked to said the $9.99 charge would be removed even before the bill comes, so kudos to the phone company. And while he couldn't say anything specifically about SendMe, he did say that Verizon is investigating various "premium text" companies to make certain they're dealing in an honest manner.

I assured him that SendMe is not.

03 May 2011

Punctuation matters

What a difference a quotation mark makes!

I was one of countless thousands who were fooled yesterday by the following quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr.:

I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

Because it expresses the sentiment of many of us who found ourselves at unease over some of the celebrations of Osama bin Laden's death, the quote rapidly spread. And I do mean rapidly — although its first appearance on the Web was sometime yesterday, by today it can be found on literally thousands of web sites and probably even more tweets and Facebook posts.

As it turns out, the first sentence wasn't written or uttered by King at all. So where did it come from? Apparently — and if this turns out to be a hoax I'll admit I was fooled a second time — it came from a Facebook user who was commenting on the celebrations and then backed up her comments with an accurate quote from King:

(Image and text copyright by Martin Luther King Jr., Facebook and Jessica D.; published here under fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law.)

Notice the quote marks around the quotation (you can click on the image to make it readable). Yet when Jessica's friends reposted her comment, they apparently left off the quotes. It was Jessica who mourned the loss of thousands, not the slain civil-rights leader.

Quotes are tiny, but they make a huge difference.

24 February 2011

Why can't they do something about the "Cardholder Services" scam?

Still again today, I got a phone call from someone at "Cardholder Services," the company that wants to help me lower my interest rate on my credit card. I don't know exactly what "Cardholder Services" is offering, but there's no doubt it's a scam.

And again today, I filed a complaint with the National Do Not Call Registry, a program of the Federal Trade Commission.

Under federal law, the call was illegal, both for violating the do-not-call law and for using deception in the form of a spoofed caller ID number (this time the number was that of a condo maintenance office in Orlando). So was the call I received a month or so ago, and a month or so before that and a month or so before that. And so, likely, were the ones I have received at work, and the ones my co-workers have received. And so were the calls made to hundreds of people who have reported their misfortune to sites such as 800notes.com.

There have been times I've tried to find out who was making these rogue calls, but it isn't easy. What they want before they'll say much of anything is your credit-card number. If you start asking questions at all, they hang up. I did find out once (or at least I was told once) that the person I talked to was in Florida. I'm pretty sure, in any case, that they're based in the United States, since the operators speak with a standard Midwest U.S. accent.

Right now, though, my complaint isn't with the scammer, but with the federal authorities. Why can't they do something about this? Practically everyone in my office has been bothered by these people (a robocaller typically goes through the office numbers one by one), and I know others who have received calls at home. I had no trouble finding a dozen blog posts and newspaper articles from people who also had received calls. This isn't a small-scale, fly-by-night operation, and it has been going on for at least two years.

Pity the poor people who fall for the pitch, whatever it is (probably something that requires a hefty upfront fee for dubious services). Where is the FTC when we need it?

29 December 2010

That's a nice way of puting it

After a jetliner ended its flight more than 600 feet beyond the end of a snowy runway at the Jackson, Wyo., airport today (nobody was hurt), American Airlines spokesman explained what happened: The plane "had a long rollout," he said.

22 October 2010

Fired for sound bites

Have we become so dependent on sound bites that we're incapable of listening to anything in context? It seems like it.

The most recent example, of course, is this week's firing of Juan Williams by NPR. Out of context, yeah, his fears about riding on planes with those in "Muslim garb" are indeed offensive, and his feelings were awkwardly stated. But in context, it's clear that Williams wasn't advocating religious profiling or suggesting discriminatory public policies. The personal feelings he expressed weren't rational ones, but they were human. The appearance is that NPR was looking for an excuse to fire and Williams and found one.

Williams' sacking isn't all that much different than the U.S. administration's firing of Ag employee Shirley Sherrod last summer. Yes, she admitted to what appeared to be a discriminatory episode, but the context was one deploring just that kind of thinking.

We live in an era where leaders, celebrities and even we regular folk are encouraged to be candid and honest, yet we pounce on people based on out-of-context remarks. (Another victim: Christine O'Donnell. There's no doubt she's unqualified to become a U.S. senator. And she may be loony — just not as loony as the out-of-context clips might indicate.) If we want openness, that's counterproductive.

It's time to start listening more carefully.

15 July 2010

There's a reason we have hyphens

One of the unfortunate trends in modern written English is avoiding the use of hyphens. Why unfortunate? Used properly, especially in compound modifiers, they can eliminate ambiguity such as that present in the dominant headline on this week's cover of Time magazine.

The headline: The Only Child Myth. What is that supposed to mean? That there's only one child myth? That's the way I read it when I first saw it.

Much improved would have been this: The Only-Child Myth. That's clear, and that's what the author meant.