Awesome Person in History: Nellie Bly

These days it’s not so unusual for half or so of all the news reporters at a TV station to be women. The smartly-dressed, professional woman with a microphone has become THE picture of today’s mass media in the minds of many. In my experiences as a journalism student, my male classmates were usually roughly even with, and sometimes far outnumbered by, my female classmates.

Ah, the memories….

As you have probably guessed, this was not always the case. At one time, news reporting, like many jobs, was seen as “a man’s work”, and women were only supposed to cover “women’s page” stuff like fashion, cooking, and child-rearing. Today’s media women have come a long way, and a large part of that comes from one particular woman and the craziest dare ever taken.

The woman: Nellie Bly.

The dare: Go undercover at an insane asylum.

That place doesn’t look foreboding or anything.

Let’s start at the beginning. “Nellie Bly” was the pen name used by Elizabeth Jane Cochran, who was born in 1864 to a wealthy farmer and his second wife. When she was six years old, her father died, and his will left her mother destitute. The young girl grew up in poverty, looking for work in Pittsburgh when she read a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch that  criticized women who took up factory jobs. In anger, Bly wrote a letter to the editor detailing how working-class families could not survive on a single income and women often had to work to keep their children from starving.

The Dispatch hired her.

The new job didn’t last, though, because the Dispatch‘s editors wanted Bly to write stories for the women’s pages, and Bly wanted to cover the social injustices facing industrial workers. Before long, Bly left to find work in New York, home to some of the nation’s most successful newspapers. But even in New York, it seemed nobody was interested in having a woman cover “men’s news”.

This is where the dare comes in. There were rumors running around that the insane asylum at Blackwell’s Island was mistreating its patients. When government inspectors showed up, though, everything seemed fine. Were these rumors unfounded, or was Blackwell’s just really good at hiding its mistreatment from outside inspectors?

John Cockerill, managing editor of the New York World, gave Nellie Bly a deal: he would hire her as a regular reporter, if she would be willing to commit herself as a patient at Blackwell’s and report on what she saw. Bly took the dare, and started acting incoherent and crazy in public in order to get sent to Blackwell’s for treatment.

She was only at the asylum for ten days, when the World sent for her release. But what ten days they were. Bly reported that she had been tortured, chained naked to a bed with ice-cold water poured over her. She had been fed rancid food, and locked alone in a room for hours. She watched patients beaten by the “doctors”. She found that many in the asylum were really just there because they spoke no English, not because they were actually insane. After her release, she testified before a grand jury about her experiences, and her story made headlines across the nation as insane asylums everywhere were radically reformed.

Now a full-time reporter for the World, Bly’s next famous assignment was to do a publicity stunt for the paper by trying to travel around the world in less than the fictional “80 Days” of the hit novel by Jules Verne. For the record, she made the journey in sixty-seven days, and had time along the way to try out hot-air ballooning, diving, and going undercover as a chorus girl.

Then, in 1914, Bly happened to be on vacation in Europe when World War I broke out. She would spend the rest of the war as a correspondent in the field, writing first-hand accounts of, well, this:

When she finally died of pneumonia in 1922, Bly’s obituary called her “the best reporter in America”. So much for the women’s pages.

Information from American Media History by Anthony R. Fellow.

Strange Politics: The European Union

Cartoon by Clay Bennett of the Chattanooga Times Free Press

Just when it was looking like the global economy might be improving, a new crisis is looming across the pond in Europe.

The government of Greece owes banks, governments, and other bondholders 160% of their nation’s GDP, thanks to years of unsustainable high spending and large numbers of people cheating on their taxes. Although a major breakthrough bailout deal was reached in March, it imposed such severe budget cuts that Greeks took to the streets in protest and elected a parliament full of politicians who want to scrap the deal entirely. The new parliament was unable to agree on a proper government, so new elections will be held next month, but once again polls put opponents of the bailout deal on top. And even before the elections are held, a run on the banks in Greece is already starting, as fears of Greece giving up the euro as their currency and returning to their old drachma starts to look more and more like a self-fulfilling prophecy. And while Europe’s leaders all say they want Greece to stay in the euro, the likelihood of a “Greexit” is growing by the day.

Why is this such a big deal? Well, Greece is far from the only country in Europe with a huge debt crisis, harsh and unpopular “remedies” essentially imposed on them by Germany and the European Central Bank in return for bailouts, and an economy struggling to cope. Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Ireland are just a few countries considered “at-risk”, and a Greexit could cause a chain reaction that breaks the European Union apart and sends Europe into a new economic depression. The shock waves of such a disaster would be felt in virtually every country around the world, as Europe is one of the world’s biggest economies and has trade relations with almost everyone (see: all the European cars, foods, beverages, cosmetics, video games and furniture available here in the States). As one BBC columnist put it, “The European Dream has become a nightmare”.

But all of this begs some interesting questions. How is it that an economic problem could undo the European Union? After all, when the recession hit, not very many people were predicting the imminent collapse of the United States. And why does one European country, and not exactly an economic powerhouse at that, matter so much?

To answer these questions, we must first ask a much more basic question, with a not at all basic answer: What is the European Union?

The European Union is the culmination of decades of work by idealistic and visionary leaders who wanted to ensure that, after the disasters of the first and second World Wars, a third such conflict that rips Europe apart and causes untold devastation would be impossible. It has undergone numerous incarnations and transformations since it was first founded in 1951 as the “European Coal and Steel Community”. Its goal was to tie the economies of France, Germany, Italy, and other European nations together so completely that war would not only be economic suicide, but would be “materially impossible”. This first international economic order was quickly followed by two more: the European Atomic Energy Community and the much broader European Economic Community. These three organizations were merged in 1967 as the “European Communities”, which were reorganized in 1993 into the modern European Union.

In one sense, the European Union is an international organization. Its members are sovereign nations, with their own histories, cultures, languages, constitutions, laws, militaries, embassies, Olympic teams, and seats at the United Nations. These nations agree to resolve their disputes peacefully, cooperate with each other in foreign policy, and to come to each others’ aid in case of a military attack (though that part is kind of redundant because nearly all of them are also members of NATO). The EU expands by admitting new countries as members, and countries are free to leave the Union if they wish – this only happened once, when Greenland left in 1985.

In another sense, though, The European Union is far more powerful than any other international organization in history. Indeed, in many areas it functions just like a national government, particularly when it comes to economics. The European Union alone has the power to control immigration, foreign trade, anti-monopoly and fair competition measures, and the fishing industry. The EU also has a huge hand in everything from agriculture, to the environment, to human rights, to energy and transportation infrastructure, to education, and even to the exploration of outer space. The EU has an elected Parliament that passes laws, a President, and even a supreme court that can overturn the laws of member nations. Citizens of EU member nations are also citizens of the European Union.

The EU has a common passport design…

…a common ID card…

…a common licence plate design…

…and of course, the famous euro.

And so we return to the problem. See, the euro is just as bizarrely half-and-half as the EU that spawned it. Though many nations have adopted it as their currency, not all of them have; the United Kingdom, in particular, has famously been stubborn in keeping its pound. Control over the euro and its supply is vested in the European Central Bank, an independent, international body designed to be impartial, kind of like America’s Federal Reserve. Except the ECB is not quite the same animal as the Federal Reserve. While the Federal Reserve has many objectives, such as keeping the economy steady and promoting employment, the ECB has one job and one job only: keeping inflation below 2%. This key weakness has helped the euro crisis spiral out of control.

As the debts of EU members like Greece, Italy, Spain, and others began to get worse, these governments needed quick cash (i.e., a rescue bailout) to keep from defaulting, or failing to pay their debts back. A default, in international politics and economics, is basically like a bankruptcy: people who lent money to the government (i.e., bought government bonds) lose their money, sending devastating shock waves throughout the economy. Though economies can and have recovered from a default (as happened to Argentina a few years back), it’s generally not an ideal situation. But at least Argentina only had its own economy to worry about; the way Europe’s economy has been thoroughly integrated, a default by any one member would affect everyone.

But bailing out any one nation, let alone several, would cause inflation to shoot through the roof, so the ECB was legally incapable of doing anything about it. This meant the crisis only got worse while the EU member nations had to write a whole new treaty to save themselves.

This pattern has seen itself repeated over and over throughout the euro crisis. The European Union was simply not built to withstand an economic crisis. No safeguards and backup plans were put in place to protect Europe’s economy from a recession or a panic. Only now, in an emergency, are these measures being put in place – a balanced budget agreement that seeks to keep EU members from going too deep into debt, a bailout fund to prop up weak economies and keep them from dragging the rest of Europe down – and even these rush jobs are looking very much like they will not be enough.

A large part of the problem is Germany, its voters, and its chancellor, Angela Merkel. Germany is one of the few EU members whose economy is actually doing just fine, and so it has been picking up the bill for all of these expensive bailouts. As you might imagine, this has gotten tiring, and Germans have decided to put conditions on these loans. Conditions that usually involve massive budget cuts, reduced pay and benefits for workers, and other unpopular measures that have sparked protests, riots, and resentment.

One cartoonist’s impression of Germany’s plans

Not only are these measures unpopular, but according to economic experts at The Economist magazine, they are the wrong prescription and will hurt more than help. The Economist advocates setting up some European equivalent of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation that keeps Americans’ bank deposits safe from economic collapses, reorienting public policy away from cuts and toward economic growth, and also adopting a single “Eurobond” that will put all of the bad debts in one basket and reduce the risk involved. Unfortunately, it seems Angela Merkel is dead set against Eurobonds and will try to block any attempt to create such a plan.

So, in summary, the European Union is something halfway between a country and an international organization, and this halfway-system was caught completely unprepared for an economic crisis. Now that they have been forced to act, they can’t agree on how to fix the problems. And with each passing day the crisis builds and it becomes more likely that the whole European Union will break under the strain. And you thought America’s politics was strange.

Information from The Economist, BBC News, and Wikipedia.

California governor addresses huge budget gap by begging for taxes

Gov. Jerry Brown reveals his plan to close California’s $16 billion budget gap. (Photo credit: Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

“I’m linking these serious budget reductions … with a plea to the voters: Please increase taxes temporarily,” said Jerry Brown, the Democratic governor of California, at a press conference where he revealed his plan to close the state’s $16 billion budget gap. His plan hinges on the state’s voters approving a 1/4 cent sales tax increase and raising the income taxes of those who earn more than $250,000 per year. If these taxes do not pass, he warns, the state’s public schools would face a $5.5 billion cut, and its public universities would lose $500 million.

The governor’s plan already imposes some large budget cuts to Medi-Cal, welfare, child care, and home-based services for the elderly and disabled.

The plan was announced today after the revelation that California’s budget deficit, originally projected in January to be $9.2 billion, is actually going to be $15.7 billion. The huge gap between those two figures stems from less revenue being collected than expected, slower economic recovery than expected, and court rulings that prevented the governor from implementing some of the budget cuts he wanted last year, he claimed.

So what all is included in the new budget plan? The governor proposes the following cuts:

  • Medi-Cal, California’s health care plan for low-income individuals and families, would lose $1.2 billion.
  • CalWORKS, California’s welfare program, would lose $1 billion.
  • $225 million would be cut from In-Home Supportive Services that aids the elderly and disabled. Included in this cut is a 7% reduction in aid workers’ hours.
  • State employees would all take a 5% pay cut and state government offices would only be open four days a week.
  • People convicted of minor crimes would be incarcerated in county jails instead of prisons, a plan that could save $1 billion.
  • The state court system would take a $300 million cut, and all courthouse construction projects would be delayed, saving $240 million.
  • Local redevelopment agencies would lose $1.4 billion.

If voters approve the governor’s proposed tax increases, not only will there be no further cuts this fiscal year, but state spending would actually increase by 5.6%, including $6 billion extra for public schools. If the measures are rejected, however, the budget would impose even stiffer cuts to schools and other services:

  • $5.5 billion would be cut from public K-12 schools and community colleges, essentially forcing schools to close for three extra weeks.
  • UC and CSU schools would lose $250 million each. This would force schools to raise students’ tuition once again, by as much as 9%.
  • Lifeguard services at state beaches would be eliminated.

There is some good news on California’s horizon, though. Facebook will be going public Friday, putting its stock on NASDAQ and potentially netting the state as much as $1.5 billion in taxes. And the state will get $300 million from a court settlement after the fallout from the mortgage crisis.

All of these budget proposals will need the approval of the state legislature. Some measures, such as the tax increases, will be put on the November ballot for voters, and measures regarding state employee pay will need to be negotiated with state public-sector unions.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, Fox News, Reuters, Associated Press, and Wall Street Journal.

The Avengers smashes like the Hulk!

There was an idea to bring together characters from different comic book movie franchises and put them in one movie so the studios could make a ton of money. It was an old-fashioned idea, lifted from the very comic books that the movies were based on.

But such a movie was thought impossible. For a long time, comic book movies were limited by the special effects technology available at the time, and by the public perception that comic books were “kid’s stuff”. As a result, movies based on comic book characters were really cheesy and campy.

Even when these things started to change in the 1980s and 1990s – as comic books that you would never show your children were published and as actually very good comic book movies were filmed – movie studios were still not sold on the idea of pairing characters from different movie franchises together. Although it kind of makes sense that fans of Movie Franchise A would want to see a film from Movie Franchise B if one of A’s main characters was in it, the basic fact is that movies are far, far more expensive and time-consuming to make than a bunch of drawings on laminated paper. Though, to be fair, the studios did green-light a few experiments with movie crossovers:

But when Marvel Comics decided to start making its own movies in-house instead of contracting the work out, they were not limited by generations of ageing, (perhaps wisely) skeptical studio bosses. These new kids on the block, with something to prove and no experience to tell them otherwise, thought to themselves “why not?” So, from day one they were working from the idea that they would make all of their movies within a single continuity, sharing supporting characters and themes, and even having their plots intertwine. They found success with Iron Man, and soon they turned out blockbuster after blockbuster with The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America. All of this building to their crescendo: The Avengers, a team-up movie where all of their heroes must team up to save the world.

The Avengers had a whole bunch of things going against it. It was attempting something that had never been put on live-action film before. It had to balance seven characters, each with their own baggage, and make their interactions seem realistic. It had to do that while keeping the “fun” spirit that has made Marvel’s movies work so far. And it had to do those things while also having epic actions scenes that would surpass their previous films. And it had to do all of that while living up to four-years-worth of hype.

AND THEY PULLED IT OFF!

The decision to hire Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly) as writer and director really paid off. Whedon works best with intricate, convoluted stories, and his talent shines in this movie. He makes the tension between the characters, and particularly Iron Man and Captain America, absolutely palpable. He shows us new and unexpected sides to Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Agent Coulson. And he manages to, somehow, make a team-up between a playboy billionaire, a supersoldier from World War II, a monster, an archer, a spy, and a freakin’ Norse god actually make sense.

Then again, Whedon alone isn’t to thank for this movie’s success. Tom Hiddleston eats up his villain role as Loki, at once truly menacing yet clearly acting out of a childish desperation for some sort of attention. Scarlett Johansson shows us she isn’t just there to be eye candy for the teenage boys; her Black Widow has plenty of depth and plays a huge role in moving the plot along. And Samuel L. Jackson, well, he completely “Samuel L. Jacksons” his role as Nick Fury, especially at the film’s climax. Plus, it has the best Hulk on film to date, by far (perhaps not making him stand alone as a charcter helps?).

The Avengers just does everything right. It avoids the common mistakes action movies make, and keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. Not to spoil anything, but a pretty big character from Thor is put in serious peril and you spend the movie wondering if this character will make it through the film all right. The film has so many memorable lines and moments that you will probably be talking about it for weeks.

If you are a comic book fan and haven’t seen this movie yet, DO SO! This is Marvel’s BEST movie, and that is really saying something. Heck, I’m going to go ahead and risk a flame war to say it is better than Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. I bet Christopher Nolan is sweating profusely with his third Batman movie set to be released in July.

In fact, I think the Batman comparison is appropriate. Nolan’s Batman films have all been centered around the premise of “let’s make this something that we could believe in the real world”. The Avengers goes in the exact opposite direction, embracing its comic book heritage and showing us a world filled with wild, silly, and completely unrealistic stuff that is basically in the film because it’s cool (flying aircraft carrier, anyone?). Instead of taking itself super-seriously, the movie has decided, “let’s just have some fun with this!”

Fun. Sometimes, that’s all we need out of a movie.