Thursday, October 11, 2007

Stupid Question(s) of the week

On the Painfully Obvious front: How many more times? English does not form questions by slapping question marks on the end of declarative sentences. "Congress considers Concord hazardous?" is not a question. Stop it at once.

On a slightly more alarming note: No, and there's nothing in the story that remotely suggests that any such idea had occurred to any functioning adults. Not that you could tell from the first two grafs:

WASHINGTON --NASCAR fans might seem rabid, but are they actually contagious?

Getting a hepatitis shot is standard procedure for travelers to parts of Africa and Asia, but some congressional aides were instructed to get immunized before going to Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord and the racetrack in Talladega, Ala.

Loaden up your gun and whistle up your dawg, the Yankees are after us again! Nemmind that the story's about visiting the speedway, which when loaded is several times the size of Concord, we got us a Gummint Pinheads on the Loose story here!

The House Homeland Security Committee planned a fact-finding trip about public health preparedness at mass gatherings and decided to conduct the research at two of the nation's most heavily attended sporting events, NASCAR's Bank of America 500 event this weekend and the UAW-Ford 500 last weekend.

Oops. Secure from general quarters.

Staff who organized the trips advised the NASCAR-bound aides to get a range of vaccines before attending -- hepatitis A, hepatitis B, tetanus, diphtheria and influenza. ("Advised," you may have noticed, is somewhat less exciting than "instructed," as the second graf had it. So the N&O's "House aides told" hed is -- gosh, should we call it a lie, or just an exaggeration caused by reading only the parts of the story that support the hed?)

Rep. Robin Hayes, a Republican from Concord, took umbrage when he heard about it.

"I have never heard of immunizations for domestic travel, and as the representative for Concord, N.C., I feel compelled to ask why the heck the committee feels that immunizations are needed to travel to my hometown," Hayes said in an Oct. 5 letter to Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who chairs the Homeland Security panel.

Aha! Enter stage left an annoying gasbag who sees a chance to get some free publicity while wasting the committee's time.

"I have been to numerous NASCAR races, and the folks who attend these events certainly do not pose any health hazard to congressional staffers or anyone else," Hayes added.

Which, again, there's no evidence that the committee suggested. But our reporter has to have a little more fun first:

Lauri Wilks, vice president of communications for Speedway Motorsports, which owns Lowe's Motor Speedway and other tracks, said Wednesday that immunizations aren't needed for the race.

"There's no health risk that we know of," she said, laughing.


The four aides were asked to explore public health issues at events involving large gatherings, such as how law enforcement and medical personnel would respond to an act of terrorism or other emergency. Lawmakers weren't part of the trip.

Time out for a brief commercial for FramingĀ®. The "frame" through which a story is told is a way of helping you, the reader, organize what's going on inside the story: specifically, things like who are the good guys and the bad guys, what kind of story is being told, what sorts of solutions are appropriate, and the like.* Two potential frames spring to mind as convenient and available ones for this story. In one, ivory-tower committee orders Third World-scale vaccinations for innocent young liberals on their first overseas assignment, and Brave Sir Robin is putting his foot down to halt this outrage. That's the one we have: Congress thinks Concord is contagious! Question mark or no, how dare they?

Or you could try telling it through a different frame. Summon the next two grafs:

Thompson said the immunizations are commonly recommended for people working in hospitals, holding centers and similar locations.

"Since committee staff members are visiting hospital and other health-care facilities available at or near these venues, including areas where groups of people are detained before being transferred to other off-site facilities, I believe that the recommendation (not requirement) that our congressional staff receive these same immunizations was sound," Thompson said in a letter responding to Hayes issued Wednesday.

What if we put the flu vaccine ahead of the HepA and HepB on the list of shots? And what if we put Talledega before Concord, which makes a certain -- you know, chronological sense? And what if, when Brave Sir Robin fired off copies of his memo to a few dozen close media friends, the organizing theme was more like: Gee, flu shots recommended for people who will be traveling to a couple gatherings of 140,000-plus people a week apart in October? If they were talking about people who hung around with Our Kids, you'd almost think they were making sense. (The answer to the lede's Stupid Question -- are NASCAR fans really contagious? -- is: When they have the flu, of course they are.)

And the visitors will be seeing what else? Hospitals, on-site first aid centers, and "areas where groups of people are being detained before being transferred to other off-site facilities." (I'm guessing Andy and Barney would call that the drunk tank, but Rep. Thompson is being polite.) One is tempted to think the committee was being nice to the public at large, as well as simply decent to its staff, when it suggested keeping the old vaccines up to date.

To the extent there is a "war on terrorism," all the cliches of war apply-- in this case, specifically: "History buffs" study tactics. Professionals study logistics. Getting 140,000-plus people in and out of a speedway -- keeping the tame drunks moving, the belligerent drunks confined, and the sick and injured under watch -- doesn't sound like fun under normal circumstances. Imagine if the terrorism panic button** is hit at night in the rain in a power failure. Kind of makes sense to give the matter more than a passing thought in advance, doesn't it? By people who you can count on to show up healthy enough to write a report?

Stories by themselves don't tend to make people stupid (go read the comments at the end of the story; these people had their stupidometers reset to 11 at the factory anyway). But they sometimes miss a chance to make people mildly smart. And if they don't really do anything but let the local congressperson do some preening, and feed a few stereotypes about Those Bureaucrats, they really shouldn't be written at all. The problem with legislative coverage, after all, is not a shortage of articles about congressional self-gratification. It's a shortage of substance,signaled in this case by a shortage of thinking.

Papers that ran this ought to be embarrassed. And those that made it worse with annoying or dishonest heds can out-and-out hang their heads.

* Some of y'all will see this as another heavy condensation of Bob Entman's latest, which it more or less is.
** Think like a terrorist for a second: What's more productive,the explosion or the panic?

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Anonymous Amy F. said...

I would just like to state that I have lived here three years and am still immune to being a NASCAR fan. My fingers are crossed.

5:55 PM, October 11, 2007  
Blogger Dan said...

My favorite gasbag quote from the version we ran:

"Democrats should know that there is no preventive measure yet designed to ward off the blue-collar values and patriotism that NASCAR fans represent," said Linda Daves, chairwoman of the North Carolina Republican Party. "If they aren't careful, they just might catch some of it."

9:32 AM, October 12, 2007  
Blogger fev said...

Yep. Ms. Daves apparently knows a batting-practice fastball down the middle when she sees one.

I'm still waiting for those MCT rags to wake up to the annoying concept that -- wow! They're setting the pace for Fox News!

8:07 PM, October 12, 2007  

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