When good governments go bad

These pernicious moments brought to you by your elected leaders. PLUS: Sisterhood pyramid schemes, supermarket warfare and a man and his hooptie.

Published January 21, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The alternative press exists in part to present a fiercer side of journalism, especially when it comes to unveiling the nefarious activities of our elected officials. While their constant harping on the abuses of government at times can grow tiresome and clichid as a hippie drum circle, these lefty muckrakers still serve a purpose when it comes to exposing political rot.

Last week I was reminded of this by Salon's story about how the U.S. government paid networks to slip anti-drug messages into their scripts. As much as I'd like to see an episode of "Friends" where Joey gets addicted to crack and sodomizes all his roommates, I find abhorrent the idea that our elected officials will spare no expense and violate any law or civil right in the name of wiping out drugs -- an effort that, so far, has been 100 percent ineffective.

Here are a few more pernicious moments courtesy of the U.S. government.

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Cleveland Free Times, Jan. 19-25

"Bullied" by Sean Rapacki

It's not enough to under-fund schools, deny welfare benefits to children because their parents don't conform to society's standards, keep minimum wage below the living wage and then punish children as adults when they respond to this gross neglect with violence. In some cases, police manipulate innocent children to confess to crimes they didn't commit. In this compelling piece, Sean Rapacki demonstrates with transcripts and expert opinion that using adult interrogation methods on children can elicit false confessions. These can then be used to send innocent children to adult prisons. It's hard to imagine many greater crimes than this.

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In Pittsburgh News Weekly, Jan. 19-26

"Paraphernalia sellers banging heads with the city" by Sharmila Venkatasubban

In Pittsburgh, it's not only illegal to buy/sell/take drugs not made by large pharmaceutical companies, it's illegal to promote their use. What constitutes promotion? Apparently, selling the means to take them. Read about how police are cracking down on perfectly legitimate water-pipe selling businesses in order to prevent dreaded dope fiends from inhaling. (Hey, officer, ever hear of knife hits?) Using this same logic, I wonder if we shouldn't shut down the country's mints, which print $20 bills, the preferred drug delivery system of cocaine users.

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L.A. Weekly, Jan. 21-27

"Held Back" by Erin Aubry

"Separate but equal" may have been wiped out by the Supreme Court. Separate and unequal, however, continues to thrive in Los Angeles schools. Erin Aubry takes a hard look at "the miserable state of black education" and attempts to root out the sources of this failure. Although Aubry doesn't pin blame on any single organization, I can't help feeling that the ultimate responsibility for ensuring all children's right to public
education lies with government. And in my opinion, a failure to teach well is a failure to teach at all. Aubry, however, chooses to meditate on a variety of people and organizations, government included, that have turned a blind eye to a persistent and horrible failure.

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Philadelphia City Paper, Jan. 20-26

"Consider the Alternative" by Stephen Simmons

While it's not an exposi, I have to admit to being charmed by this simple, impassioned plea by a bartender, who wants us all to consider the following message: "And what is scandalous anyway? Obviously not drug use or sex (thank you, Mr. Clinton). Democrats vs. Republicans. Republicans vs. Democrats. Well, I've decided that I'm tired of politics as usual. I'm voting third party." I'll drink to that.

New Times Palm Beach/Broward, Jan. 20-26

"A family portrait" by Lissette Corsa, Jim DeFeded, Robert Andrew Powell

The media circus around young Elián Gonzáles continues with this tabloid gem: A little dirt-digging in Miami has uncovered that two of the pint-sized political pawn's relatives are -- da da da DA! -- criminals. Never mind that the felonious cousins aren't taking care of the boy. Never mind that officials interviewed for the story say the kin's criminal records won't have any bearing on the case. Judging by the gloating tone of this piece, the reporters don't care that the story they've broken is an irrelevant piece of "Hard Copy" trash. They're just happy to have contributed something -- anything at all -- to this headline-grabbing idiocy. Congratulations.

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Willamette Week, Jan. 19-25

"The Sisterhood Scam" by Patty Wentz

Lillith Fairs, girl power T-shirts, magazines, movies, TV shows and so on: Feminists are as much a targeted consumer demographic as sports fans and teenagers. So it was just a matter of time that a pyramid scheme would come along to take advantage of the cult of sisterhood. Patty Wentz writes an excellent piece on the disturbing popularity of the Women's Dinner Party, where knee-jerk trust based on gender is exploited for profit.

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Seattle Weekly, Jan. 20-26

"Grocery Wars" by Brian Miller

Also from the consumer front, Brian Miller looks at the changes taking place at your local supermarket and frames them in terms of warfare. "It's no exaggeration to say that formerly sterile, stodgy, unappealing grocery stores are now assaulting us with luxury and attacking us with convenience -- while battling each other for our loyalty ... The once mundane and tedious task of food shopping has been transformed into a cutting-edge economic war zone," he writes.

I hardly think that fresher produce, kinder lighting, better music, convenient take-out food and the inclusion of some franchises so you can bank, grab fresh bagels and some din-din in one fell swoop needs be described with such menacing terminology. So supermarkets make money off these improvements? Seems like a fair trade-off to me. If you don't like it, go to Pak 'N' Save. Despite this reactionary perspective, Miller's piece is a fascinating read and includes some good reporting on the market forces behind your local store's sexy new olive bar.

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Metro Times Detroit

"George's hooptie" by George Tysh

I so love the idea of this piece. Everything from the story's title, to the concept -- click on different parts of a 1982 Olds Delta 88 to read a story about each of them -- resonates with wry, mischievous humor. So it breaks my heart that its execution is so darned flat. The trunk? Won't stay open. The rear bumper? Recently replaced when the old one wore through. These are mundane observations. I want tales of illicit passion in the back seat of this here hooptie! I want to know about the time George Tysh drove all night from here to there on a giddy whim! Everyday objects can tell wonderful stories. Alas, none are told here.

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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