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Aug. 27 2015 11:03 PM

200 Migrants Feared Dead as Europe’s Refugee Death Toll Creeps Towards 2,500 This Year 

In the latest of what seems to be an accelerating series of now-hourly tragedies, hundreds are feared dead after two small boats carrying up to 500 migrants capsized en route to Italy from Libya. The Libyan coast guard reportedly rescued hundreds and some 200 bodies were discovered on Thursday. “Some of the bodies were taken to shore, but many were left to float in the water overnight, as coastguards did not have enough light to work by,” the Guardian reports.

The migrant crisis on Europe's shores continues to spiral as the death toll approaches 2,500 this year. On Wednesday, the Italian coast guard found 50 migrants dead, probably killed by asphyxiation, in the hold of a smuggling ship and on Thursday as many as 50 more migrants were found dead in the back of a truck in Austria. This summer has been particularly deadly for those crossing the Mediterranean as Libya teeters; Syria’s political and security unraveling has pushed a new wave of migrants crossing over land through Turkey. Over the weekend, there were desperate scenes of Syrian migrants fighting off Macedonian police at the country's border with Greece.

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Aug. 27 2015 9:11 PM

That Amazeballs Scientific Study You Just Shared on Facebook Is Probably Wrong, Study Says

If it feels like you can find a study to back up any harebrained idea these days, you actually might be right, a new study says. On Thursday we, as humans, arrived at the zenith of irony when a study of studies was published and found—you guessed it—many studies were totally full of it, and overstated their findings. To be fair, the Reproducibility Project investigation, led by a University of Virginia psychologist did not set out to debunk every study in every discipline and only dealt with psychological-based studies published in three leading journals. The critique focused on social science research, so this does not necessarily disprove either of the studies you just read saying seven cups of coffee a day will, and will not, make you live longer.

From these scholarly publications, a group of researchers took 100 published studies and did the experiments again for themselves, in collaboration with the original authors, and found a whopping 60 didn’t hold up. The new findings didn’t necessarily contradict the previous findings, but in the replication, often using more subjects, the researchers found the results were not statistically significant, a measure of whether an outcome likely occurred by chance or not.

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Here are some examples of watered down findings from the New York Times:

The new analysis focused on studies published in three of psychology’s top journals... The studies included research into topics like mate preference, decision-making, word memory and willpower. Among the studies that did not hold up was one on free will. It found that participants who read a passage arguing that their behavior is predetermined were more likely than those who had not read the passage to cheat on a subsequent test. Another was on the effect of physical distance on emotional distance. Volunteers asked to plot two points that were far apart on graph paper later reported weaker emotional attachment to family members, compared with subjects who had graphed points close together. A third was on mate preference. Attached women were more likely to rate the attractiveness of single men highly when they were highly fertile, compared with when they were less so. In the reproduced studies, researchers found weaker effects for all three experiments.

“The report appears at a time when the number of retractions of published papers is rising sharply in wide variety of disciplines,” the Times notes. “Scientists have pointed to a hypercompetitive culture across science that favors novel, sexy results and provides little incentive for researchers to replicate the findings of others, or for journals to publish studies that fail to find a splashy result.”

Aug. 27 2015 6:30 PM

Obama Calls Out GOP Over Possible Government Shutdown Threat in Katrina Speech

President Barack Obama took some time at the start of his remarks to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Thursday to preemptively bash Congressional Republican rivals over another possible government shutdown fight next month.

Saying he was asserting “presidential privilege” to begin his remarks by discussing the economy, Obama threatened to veto any funding bill that threatened additional austerity or extra measures.

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“Congress needs to fund America in a way that invests in our growth and our security and not cuts us off at the knees by locking mindless austerity or shortsighted sequester cuts to our economy,” Obama said.

Citing this week’s turmoil in the financial markets and in the Chinese economy—as well as a sunnier report that showed the economy grew in the second quarter at a much faster rate than previously thought—Obama said that failing to pass a clean budget would further harm global economic stability.

“Eventually we’re going to do it anyways, so let’s just do it without too much drama,” Obama said of a potential budget showdown. “Let’s do it without another round of threats to shutdown the government. Let’s not introduce unrelated partisan issues. Nobody gets to hold the American economy hostage over their own ideological demands.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has previously said there would be no shutdown, but the New York Times reported on Monday that might be easier said than done.

With only 15 legislative days on the Senate calendar for the month, a brewing fight over whether to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and a raft of senators running for president, it could be difficult to pass even a short-term funding measure despite vows by senior Republican legislators that they will not support a shutdown.

As the Times noted, the next fight could come over the efforts of conservative backbenchers to remove federal funding for Planned Parenthood as a condition of passing a budget. Politico reported on Tuesday that Speaker John Boehner still hadn't settled on a srategy for passing a budget, and that 18 Republican lawmakers in the House have said they wouldn’t vote for any spending bill that did not cut Planned Parenthood spending.

Republican presidential candidates and senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have said they will try to pass measures to defund the group, which would not likely get past a Democratic filibuster in the Senate. The uproar over Planned Parenthood comes in the wake of secretly recorded video tapes of Planned Parenthood officials that have reignited the debate over research on fetal tissues. Obama was adamant that any delay over the issue could potentially harm the economy.

“My message to Congress is pass a budget, prevent a shutdown, don’t wait until the last minute,” Obama said. “Don’t worry our businesses or our workers by contributing unnecessarily to global uncertainty. Get it done.”

Aug. 27 2015 3:44 PM

More Evidence That the Planned Parenthood Videos Were Altered

The New York Times reports today on more evidence that there’s a meaningful gap between what the disingenuously-named Center for Medical Progress claims their Planned Parenthood “sting” videos show and what they actually reveal.

As the Times’ Jackie Calmes explains, Planned Parenthood has submitted a report to congress indicating that both the videos and transcripts provided by CMP were heavily modified. This report points to significant omissions in the longer, ostensibly unedited videos, as well as the shorter videos that have driven the controversy. In some cases, they claim, forensic video analysis suggests that as many as 30 minutes may be missing from supposedly unmodified recordings.

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According to Calmes, Planned Parenthood contracted Fusion GPS, an independent research group, to conduct this investigation. While Fusion was unable to determine how and in what ways CMP had altered the videos, they contended that the modifications were meaningful enough to ensure that they “have no evidentiary value in a legal context and cannot be relied upon for any official inquiries.”

Further elaborating on Fusion’s analysis, MSNBC’s Irin Carmon writes that CMP may have actually manufactured quotations in their transcriptions of the videos. In one particularly telling case, they may have inserted the off-camera phrase “it’s a baby” during a sequence in which they are examining fetal tissue samples. Anti-abortion sites had seized on this remark as an admission by Planned Parenthood that abortion is murder.

Fusion’s investigators are not the first to study the videos and find that they come up wanting. In mid-August, Sarah Kliff—a medical reporter for Voxwatched all 12 hours of video that were then available. At the time, Kliff reported that the videos sometimes made Planned Parenthood look bad, but that they didn’t provide any real indication of wrongdoing. CMP was, she wrote, using the videos to “split the people who are actually comfortable with abortion from those who support it uncomfortably.”

Understood in this light, Fusion’s findings may not make much of a difference. Whether or not CMP can provide more—and more plainly admissible—evidence to support their allegations, congressional Republicans will continue to try to defund Planned Parenthood. 

Aug. 27 2015 3:17 PM

Civil Rights Activist Amelia Boynton Robinson, Beaten During Selma March, Dies at 104

Voting rights pioneer Amelia Boynton Robinson, whose beating by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 became one of the iconic moments of the civil rights movement, died Wednesday in Montgomery, Alabama. Relatives said she had been hospitalized after suffering a series of strokes in July, CNN reports. She was 104.

Boynton Robinson became an early voter registration activist when she and her first husband, S.W. Boynton, moved to Selma, Alabama in the mid-1930s. She first met Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at his church in Montgomery in 1954 and ten years later, by then a widow in her early 50s, she became the first black woman to run for Congress in Alabama. She won 10 percent support in a Democratic House primary at a time when Selma had only a few hundred registered black voters.

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Soon after her run Boynton Robinson was among the organizers, along with now-Georgia congressman John Lewis, of the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 that culminated in the "Bloody Sunday" confrontation on the Edmund Pettus bridge. Protesters crossing the bridge were met by police and white posses deputized by the local sheriff:

"I saw them as we marched across the bridge, some with gas masks on, clubs and cattle prods in their hands, some on horses," Mrs. Boynton Robinson told The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, in 2005. "They came from the right, the left, the front and started beating people."
A trooper struck her on the shoulder with a billy club.
"I gave him a dirty look," she told The Crisis, "and the second time I was hit at the base of my neck. I fell unconscious. I woke up in a hospital."
A photographer captured the incident, as a fellow marcher sought to comfort Mrs. Boynton Robinson, who was 53 at the time. She was wearing a light-colored coat, gloves and heels.

Boynton Robinson, who was portrayed by Lorraine Toussaint in the 2014 film Selma, remained politically engaged and unafraid of controversy even in advanced age, making public appearances into her late 90s for Lyndon LaRouche's Schiller Institute. She attended the State of the Union address this past January with Rep. Terri Sewell, the first black woman elected to Congress from Alabama. Less than two months later, Boynton Robinson accompanied President Obama across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march.

Aug. 27 2015 2:43 PM

Vester Flanagan Apparently Planned to Disguise Self, Send Out More Messages

Much of Virginia shooter Vester Flanagan's demented justification for murdering former WDBJ7 colleagues Alison Parker and Adam Ward on live TV became clear very quickly because Flanagan had set up a Twitter account to claim he'd been discriminated against and sent a 23-page fax/manifesto to ABC News less than two hours after his attack. A tweet Thursday from NBC reporter Tom Winter indicates that Flanagan may have had plans for even more of a media blitz when he was caught by police later Wednesday and (apparently) committed suicide:

So Flanagan was carrying correspondence he seemingly intended to mail, material to disguise himself, some sort of plan for further activity when he was caught four hours away from the site of the shooting (after reportedly switching vehicles). Assuming the multiple magazines were loaded, he also had a substantial amount of ammo and was prepared to use it quickly.

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The U.K. Telegraph, meanwhile, somehow gained access to Flanagan's Roanoke-area apartment and found that it was sparsely decorated and marked by cat urine and feces. The paper also says he was "said to have been extremely aggressive to his male neighbours;" on that front, the Guardian has a story about the numerous disciplinary incidents that led up to Flanagan's firing from WDBJ7. In July 2012, internal documents show, he was ordered to seek mental help after he was found to be the common denominator of numerous disputes involving camera operators. It's not clear whether he followed through on that order, but he was fired in February 2013.

Aug. 27 2015 2:28 PM

ISIS Is Probably Using Chemical Weapons. Where Did It Get Them?

There’s been increasing evidence this month that ISIS is using the chemical weapon mustard gas. U.S. officials said about two weeks ago that they suspected mustard gas had been used in a battle in Iraq.  And last week, a senior U.S. military officer reported that preliminary tests had suggested the presence of mustard gas on mortars collected by Kurdish forces, though the tests were not conclusive. Now, doctors in the area say they suspect the gas was used in an attack on civilians near the Syrian city of Aleppo. Photos of victims show symptoms consistent with exposure to the chemical.

This raises the serious of question of where ISIS got its hand on the gas, a weapon best known for its use in World War I that causes blisters, blindness, and lung damage. The Guardian points out that ISIS controls large areas of Iraq that could contain remnants of Saddam Hussein’s old chemical weapons program, but those stockpiles would likely be significantly degraded by now. ISIS affiliates in Libya may also have smuggled in mustard-filled shells from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s old program.

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But it seems more plausible that they come from the stockpiles of the Syrian government, which were supposedly removed from the country under the terms of a U.S. and Russia-brokered deal in 2013 following the sarin gas attacks that killed hundreds of people in the city of Ghouta. Syria’s last stockpiles were supposedly handed over in in the summer of 2014, though there have been widespread reports of Bashar al-Assad’s regime using chlorine gas—a substance that also has legitimate civilian uses—against civilian targets. There have also been reports of ISIS using chlorine in roadsides bombs.

The Syrian opposition-affiliated website Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently this week accused Assad’s regime of directly shipping chemical weapons to ISIS. This should be taken with a grain of salt, though the U.S. has accused Assad of covertly aiding ISIS in other areas to undermine the internationally backed opposition. 

But however ISIS got its hands on the mustard gas, the latest reports, combined with the continued use of chlorine, makes it very hard to argue that chemical weapons have been removed from the battlefield—supposedly one of the international communities sole successes in responding to the crisis in Syria. 

Aug. 27 2015 2:16 PM

Campaign Quote of the Day: Donald Trump Wants to Make This “Company” Great Again

From Donald Trump's campaign rally in Greenville, South Carolina, via Politico:

“We are going to make this company—,” the business mogul remarked before correcting himself, “…we are going to make this country so strong and so powerful and so wonderful, and you’re going to be so proud of it.”
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Aug. 27 2015 2:03 PM

Scores of Migrants Found Dead in a Truck in Austria. Why Is Anyone Surprised? 

As many as 50 people, believed to be migrants, were found dead on Thursday in a truck on the side of a highway in Austria near the Hungarian border. Grim and tragic as the incident is, it’s a little strange to see the amount of attention it has received given how depressingly common such tragedies have become.

It’s only been three weeks since around 200 migrants were killed when their overcrowded boat capsized, deaths that got far less attention, perhaps because they were among the more than 2,000 who have died in similar incidents on the Mediterranean this year.

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I suspect that the reason media outlets have given more attention to today’s tragedy is that it took place in Central Europe, as the Mediterranean and even Turkey and the Southern Balkans have come to be viewed by citizens of developed countries as an anarchic frontier between Europe and the chaos of North Africa and the Middle East. But when this kind of tragedy happens on a roadside in the heart of Europe, we notice.

The tragedy in Austria comes as diplomats from throughout the continent are gathering in Vienna to come up with an action plan following a month, July, in which the number of migrants pouring into Europe exceeded 100,000 for the first time. Under regulations adopted in 2013, asylum seekers entering Europe must remain in the countries where they enter.  But Greece, Italy, the Balkan countries, and more recently Hungary, where most of the recent arrivals have entered,  have been calling for a continent-wide solution to the problem and accused their northern counterparts—the desired destination point for most of the migrants—of leaving them to deal with the crisis. Meanwhile, Germany, the place where the highest number of refugees hope to end up, is calling for mandatory quotas for refugees throughout the EU, something other government have fiercely resisted.

While the politicians squabble, the consequences of the crisis are getting harder for northern and central European countries to ignore. Germany has seen recent a wave of far-right attacks on refugees, including firebombing of refugee centers. While Chancellor Angela Merkel has not always distinguished herself with her sensitivity on this issue, she’s strongly condemned the attacks and the rhetoric behind them, becoming the unlikely subject of mash notes from Syrian social media users. Meanwhile, authorities in Calais, France, have been overwhelmed by a recent influx of refugees seeking to cross into Britain through the Channel tunnel. Net migration to Britain is also at an all-time high, one factor driving support for the campaign for the country to leave the EU entirely.

While the migrant crisis is driven by events outside the direct control of European governments, it’s been clear for quite some time that a continent-wide strategy is needed to respond to it—a point that shouldn’t have required today’s tragedy to drive home. 

Aug. 27 2015 12:49 PM

Why That Daily News Cover Crosses the Line

One day after a gunman in Virginia shot and killed two TV journalists in the middle of an early morning live broadcast, the media is still wrestling with how to cover the incident, with journalists asking themselves whether there is news value to showing their audiences video footage of the incident.

In the midst of that soul-searching, editors at the New York Daily News made a call that is being roundly condemned as a craven and unforgivable play for attention and sales. Having apparently decided to package the news in the most graphic and disturbing way possible, the editors of the Daily News published a front page composed of three side-by-side stills, each meticulously pulled from a first-person video of the murders that was shot and posted on Facebook yesterday by the gunman himself.

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Each of the three images is focused on a distinctly horrifying moment of the attack. In the first, Alison Parker can be seen conducting an interview, smiling brightly and plainly unaware of the gun, which we can see in the image, pointed directly at her at point blank range. The second shows the gun firing, its muzzle alight, while the shooter aims it directly at Parker’s torso. In the third and final image, we see Parker’s reaction to what is taking place, turning toward her assailant with her face contorted in abject terror and her body instinctively assuming a defensive stance.

Publishing these images—and presenting them in the form of a comic strip, no less—was a tasteless and cynical decision on the part of the Daily News. But it’s worth examining why the paper’s cover has provoked such a powerful reaction of disgust, including from those of us who were ambivalent or conflicted yesterday about whether publishing the available footage amounted to shielding readers from the gruesome reality of what happened.

Maybe the most important fact about these images is that they show the murder being committed from the murderer’s point of view, bringing to mind a screenshot from a first-person shooter video game, and forcing anyone who happens to pass a newsstand today to imagine themselves in the killer’s position. And while it’s not quite right to say that in doing so, the Daily News was inviting people to identify with Vester Flanagan, the fact is that anyone who sees this cover will have no choice but to assume his perspective. That includes children, which is one reason some readers are outraged. But perhaps more consequentially, it could also include people with revenge fantasies similar to the one that apparently motivated Flanagan—disturbed individuals who could conceivably be stimulated and catalyzed by the experience of imagining themselves in his shoes.     

By isolating the seconds before, during, and after Flanagan pulls the trigger, the Daily News is indulging in—and prompting others to indulge in—a morbid fascination with what it’s like to kill someone. It plays on the same journalistic instinct that arguably led the New York Post, in 2012, to publish an image of a doomed man who had fallen onto the subway tracks staring at the headlights of an oncoming train—a deviant and ugly spin on the widespread, and usually innocuous, practice of creating content that offers “relatability.” And while there is an argument to be made that the country would be better off if more people understood, on a visceral level, the bottomless tragedy that accompanies each and every gun death, attracting readers by offering them access to that feeling where you sneak up on an unsuspecting human being and take her life is not a bad place to draw a line.   

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