Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Sept. 30 2014 10:31 PM

FCC Drops NFL Blackout Rules

If you’ve ever tried to turn on your hometown NFL team, only to have the game blacked out because the stadium wasn’t full, you don’t have the Federal Communications Commission to blame anymore. The FCC voted unanimously on Tuesday to eliminate the decades old blackout rule that prohibited the airing of NFL games on cable and satellite that were not sold out, and therefore not being shown on local stations.

“The action removes Commission protection of the NFL’s current private blackout policy, which requires local broadcast stations to black out a game if a team does not sell a certain percentage of tickets to the game at least 72 hours prior to the game,” the FCC said Tuesday in a statement. The change should be barely noticeable for most NFL fans, as the league has virtually eliminated blackouts in recent years. Last year, the league sold out 99 percent of its games and only two of 256 games went unaired, according to ESPN. That’s in stark contrast to decades past; in the 1970s half of all NFL games were blacked out.

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The FCC addressed these changes in the economics of the league:

The Order finds that the Commission’s sports blackout rules are no longer justified in light of the significant changes in the sports industry since these rules were first adopted nearly forty years ago. At that time, ticket sales were the primary source of revenue for the NFL and most NFL games failed to sell out. Today, television revenues have replaced ticket sales as the NFL’s main source of revenue, and blackouts of NFL games are increasingly rare. The NFL is the most profitable sports league in the country, with $6 billion in television revenue per year, and only two games were blacked out last season.

The NFL, however, strongly opposed the change. “While the N.F.L. and its supporters argued that eliminating the blackout rule would endanger the availability of games on free over-the-air television, members of the F.C.C. staff and commissioners said they believed that was unlikely, in part because the current N.F.L. broadcast contract extends through 2022,” the New York Times reports. “The N.F.L., under its agreement with broadcast networks, will still be able to black out a game on broadcast TV. But because of the F.C.C. vote, a cable provider could show a blacked-out game in a market where the broadcast version is blocked.”

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Sept. 30 2014 9:35 PM

Israel’s List of Year’s Most Popular Baby Names Leaves Out Number One—Muhammad

The Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah—came and went last week. The New Year being a time of reflection in the form of top ten lists of the year’s greatest hits, Israel published a list of the year’s ten most popular baby names in the country. The only problem is—it omitted number one. “According to this list, Yosef was the most popular boy’s name, followed by Daniel, Ori, Itai, Omer, Adam, Noam, Ariel, Eitan and David,” Haaretz reported last week. That's not quite accurate however, as the New York Times pointed out on Tuesday, “Muhammad was by far the most popular name for babies born in Israel last year: 1,986 boys shared the name of the Muslim prophet.”

Sabine Haddad, spokeswoman for Israel’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority— the department that published the list—told the Times “the missing Muhammads [were] something between a mistake and a misunderstanding."

The list, she said, was simply a response to requests "for Hebrew names" in conjunction with the start of "the Hebrew New Year." It would have been better, she acknowledged, to put an asterisk noting that what she called "obviously Arabic names" were left off. "There was no intention, no political intention," Ms. Haddad said in an interview.
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Haaretz notes: “The authority put out a similar list last year, also without citing the fact that it included only Hebrew names, and nor did it issue a separate list relating to the Arab population.” And in that omission Haaretz sees a larger issue at play. Here’s more:

No distinctly-Arab baby name made it to the top 10 of popular baby names in Israel (Yosef and Adam are common among both Jews and Arab-Israelis), although Arabs account for 20% of Israel’s population. On the face of it, the omission smacks of a deliberate attempt to exclude the Arab population of Israel from yet another thing Israeli. Yet this isn’t a matter of simple, blatant racism. It’s worse. It’s denial. Denial of what? First of all of Arabs, of course. Failing to acknowledge the existence of its big Arab population is a much subtler of exclusion, and in a way worse than outright racism: at least when we discriminate, we acknowledge the other.

Sept. 30 2014 7:34 PM

Watch Two Massive Ships Collide in Suez Canal

Two container ships passing through Egypt’s Suez Canal collided near the northern opening of the waterway, officials said on Monday. The two vessels—the German-flagged MV Colombo Express (right) and the Singaporean-flagged MV Maersk Tanjong (left)—collided when the Colombo Express appears to veer left suddenly during an apparent attempt to overtake the Maersk Tanjong.

The slow-motion collision did not result in any casualties, but knocked four of the Colombo Express’ containers into the canal. The crash shut down traffic on the heavily travelled canal for three hours. “The Suez Canal is one of the world's most strategic waterways, facilitating much of the maritime trade between Europe and Asia," Reuters notes.

Sept. 30 2014 5:23 PM

Ebola Diagnosed in Dallas

This post is being updated as new information becomes available.

A man in Dallas has been diagnosed with Ebola after traveling from West Africa, the Centers for Disease Control says. It's the first case of a patient being diagnosed with the illness on American soil. CDC director Tom Frieden, speaking at a press conference at the organization's Atlanta headquarters, said the man left Liberia—he is not believed to have been involved with disease-fighting efforts there—on Sept. 19 and arrived in the United States on Sept. 20 to visit family. He did not develop symptoms until Sept. 24 and was admitted to a hospital on Sept. 28. He is currently being treated at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. A "handful" of individuals who may have been exposed to the disease are being monitored, Frieden says.

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The Ebola virus is transmitted through bodily fluids and not through the air, a point that was emphasized by Frieden today. All three Americans who had previously contracted the disease (and were diagnosed while still in Africa) were treated successfully and released. Two (Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol) were given an experimental drug called ZMapp and the third (Rick Sacra) received a transfusion of Brantly's blood.

Some human trials of an Ebola vaccine have already begun and others are expected to begin early next year. Tests of drugs for patients who are already infected may begin as soon as November.

More than 3,000 people have died during the disease's West African outbreak, which is centered in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

Here's video of today's press conference:

Correction, September 30, 2014: This post originally misstated that the patient had "returned" to the United States from Liberia. The patient's country of residence has not been disclosed.

Sept. 30 2014 2:38 PM

Venezuela Is in a Fight With the Clorox Corporation

The Oakland-based Clorox Company has shut down two factories in Venezuela because it says the country's price controls are too onerous, among other problems—and Venezuela has responded by seizing the facilities with plans to reopen them. From Reuters:

In the latest sign of dissatisfaction from private businesses with [President Nicolas] Maduro's running of the South American OPEC nation's economy, Clorox announced its exit on Monday, saying its business was not viable and that it would sell its assets. ...
The company said operating restrictions imposed by the government, economic uncertainty and supply disruptions would have led to considerable operating losses.
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Other multinationals, including Colgate-Palmolive and Avon, have made similar complaints about the Venezeulan economy. Maduro, a close ally of late socialist strongman Hugo Chavez, was elected president by a narrow margin in April of last year.

The United States and Venezuela have not had ambassadors in each others' countries since a 2010 tiff over one American diplomat's critical comments. (Venezuela still sells the United States a great deal of oil.)

Sept. 30 2014 2:18 PM

ISIS’s Latest Weapon: Wheat

While a senior Pentagon official claimed Tuesday that the majority of oil refineries in ISIS-controlled territory in Syria have been destroyed by missile strikes, Reuters reports on another resource that helps the group maintain its foothold in the region: wheat.

The group now controls a large chunk of Iraq’s wheat supplies. The United Nations estimates land under IS control accounts for as much as 40 percent of Iraq’s annual production of wheat, one of the country’s most important food staples alongside barley and rice. ...
The group has begun using the grain to fill its pockets, to deprive opponents – especially members of the Christian and Yazidi minorities – of vital food supplies, and to win over fellow Sunni Muslims as it tightens its grip on captured territory. In Iraq’s northern breadbasket, much as it did in neighboring Syria, IS has kept state employees and wheat silo operators in place to help run its empire.
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Because of the logistics of the harvest in Iraq, many farmers who began delivering wheat to Mosul before the area was taken by militants remain unpaid for deliveries. And almost all of Iraq's water comes from sources that run through ISIS-controlled areas, like the Euphrates and the Tigris, giving the group further control over farming. 

Along with crops and oil, ISIS revenue sources include taxes and donations from wealthy supporters in the Gulf states. The latter source is the target of crackdowns, but some counterterrorism experts say such measures are of limited use against the rest of the ISIS economy.

Sept. 30 2014 1:00 PM

California Eliminates Crack/Cocaine Sentencing Disparities

California has eliminated the legal distinction between cocaine and crack for purposes of criminal sentencing. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Fair Sentencing Act on Sunday; the bill alters the state's laws such that identical weights of "cocaine" and "cocaine base" (the legal term that often refers to crack) are treated the same. Previously, for example, individuals convicted of possessing at least 14.25 grams of cocaine base were subject to the same property forfeiture laws as those who possessed 28.5 grams of cocaine, while the law now applies only to those convicted of possessing at least 28.5 grams of either substance.

President Obama signed a similar revision to federal law in 2010, though that bill merely reduced and did not eliminate the cocaine/crack disparity.

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The subtext of thse reforms, of course, is that while white Americans are much more likely to have used cocaine than black Americans, black Americans are much more often imprisoned for cocaine-related crimes—in part because blacks seem to use crack more often than whites and crack is more heavily criminalized than powder cocaine.

Sept. 30 2014 11:24 AM

Hamas Drops Back to Nearly Even With Fatah in Poll of Palestinians

After surging during a 50-day war with Israel, Hamas' popularity among Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank has fallen back and is now nearly even with support for the more moderate Fatah party, a new poll shows. From Haaretz:

Some 39 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for Hamas if parliamentary elections were held today, compared to 46 percent one month ago. In contrast, those who would vote in favor of Fatah has risen to 36 percent from 31 percent one month ago, the poll showed.
Before the Gaza war, Fatah led against Hamas in the poll, 40 to 32 percent.
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The poll was conducted by the West Bank–based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Despite the result above, Hamas' Ismail Haniyeh would still defeat Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas 55 percent to 38 percent in a hypothetical presidential election, the center found.

When Hamas and Fatah announced a Palestinian unity government in June (before Gaza hostilities), they said national elections would be held within six months, but none are currently scheduled.

Also of note: The poll found that only 42 percent of Gaza residents oppose the disarmament of Gaza militant groups. And that 80 percent of Palestinians think the Palestinian Authority is corrupt and that most Palestinians are afraid of criticizing their own leaders. Actually, you know what? Just go read the entire poll.

Sept. 30 2014 10:03 AM

Michigan Admits in 1 a.m. News Release That Quarterback Likely Played With Concussion

Over the weekend and into Monday, a college sports story turned into national news as Michigan's football team repeatedly insisted it had not reinserted quarterback Shane Morris in a game with a concussion despite what seemed like clear evidence that Morris was, at the least, never fully checked for concussion symptoms. Coach Brady Hoke released two statements asserting that he had not played Morris without medical clearance and said as much again in a press conference on Monday. But at sometime around 1 a.m. this morning, Michigan's athletic director released a statement confirming that Morris had likely been concussed during the game:

Following the game, a comprehensive concussion evaluation was completed and Shane has been evaluated twice since the game. As of Sunday, Shane was diagnosed with a probable, mild concussion, and a high ankle sprain. That probable concussion diagnosis was not at all clear on the field on Saturday or in the examination that was conducted post-game.
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The statement blamed the in-game failure on poor communication between coaches and medical staff, asserting that trainers did not realize Morris had taken a hit to the head area and were instead checking his ankle. But it's still unclear why, on Monday, no one had yet told Michigan's football coach that Morris had been diagnosed with a likely concussion on Sunday.

Here's video from the game in question.

Sept. 29 2014 10:23 PM

New York City to End Use of Solitary Confinement on Juveniles

Soon New York City prisons will no longer be allowed to send juvenile inmates to solitary confinement. News of the policy change in the nation’s second largest prison system came from an internal memo from city correction commissioner Joseph Ponte to Mayor Bill de Blasio obtained the New York Times. The policy change will be implemented by the end of the year and will prohibit inmates under the age of 18 to be held in solitary.

The policy change comes as criticism of the New York City Correction Department mounted following a scathing report on the department’s handling of inmates, particularly juveniles, at Rikers Island prison. “Although experts have spoken for years about the devastating effects of solitary confinement on the mental health of adolescent prisoners, such seclusion has long been the primary form of punishment at the Rikers Island jail complex, where inmates as young as 16 can spend days, weeks and sometimes months locked in a cell for over 23 hours a day,” the Times reports.

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“In one 21-month period, that review found, an average of 150 young inmates received solitary time each month, resulting in a total of 143,823 days in isolation,” the Associated Press reports. “About 300 of the 11,500 daily inmates in city jails are 16 and 17 years old, according to the Department of Correction. Of the roughly 530 inmates in solitary on any given day, around 50 of them are teens.”

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