Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "Walking the tightrope," Feb. 10, 2001

Aftermath in India: a double tragedy could end with more than 20,000 dead
'A one-two punch'
Round a corner and there is nothing worse to see, there is only more. Rubble replaces a marketplace where vendors should be laying out chiles and mothers should be buying children's shoes. Pulverized concrete stands at the corner where shopkeepers once had chats and drank tea. Tidal waves of masonry overrun a school where 300 schoolgirls were practicing a parade for India's Republic Day. A 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck western India on Jan. 26, on what is normally a national holiday and this year marked 50 years of independence. It was the country's worst earthquake in over 50 years. Many towns had no one left to mourn the dead. One week later the official death toll held at 7,000, but 125,000 people remained missing. Estimates of the final body count range from 20,000 to over 100,000-making it the worst earthquake since the 1999 quake in Turkey. The quake struck Gugarat state, a prosperous, largely middle-class region where India's busiest seaports are located. Most ports were crippled or completely shut down, making aid more difficult to ferry. Inland near the epicenter at the town of Bhuj, half a million people are homeless. They slept outdoors in temperatures just above freezing. Once army units arrived on the scene, they delivered blankets along with water and medicine. As workers pulled thousands of bodies from the rubble in Bhuj, funeral pyres were built atop the twisted girders of crumbled buildings, a scene one newspaper described as a "circle of Dante's hell." Survivors clutched handkerchiefs or saris to their faces, but that did not ward off the smell of smoldering flesh or the stench of bodies that remained in tumbled graves. Hindu custom demands that dead bodies be burned, usually with ceremony. In Ahmedabad, the state's commercial center and largest city with a population of 5 million, 11 crematoria were stoked night and day. One of them became so overworked consuming dead bodies that the hinges melted off its furnace doors. "The bodies just keep coming in," said operator Syed Zain. "Sometimes entire families, other times three or four members of a family." Closer to the epicenter, devastation eclipsed remote cities, which went days without outside aid. Before the quake, 25,000 people lived in Bhachau. Rescuers could find only 5,000 when they reached it two days afterward. They said no man-made structures-temples, mosques, hospitals, police stations, shops, or houses-survived. On Jan. 30-four days after the quake-exhausted rescue workers took fresh encouragement when a fireman pulled a mother and her 14-month-old son alive from the rubble. That same day workers rescued a 70-year-old woman and a 24-year-old student named Veeral Dalal who attends college in New Jersey. He was on vacation when the quake struck and told reporters he had spent four days lying on his bed with the ceiling just eight inches above his head. Atlanta-based Operation Mobilization had a team working in Bhuj at the time of the quake. Team members were unharmed and went immediately to work delivering relief-providing food, clothing, and water-in conjunction with World Relief. Some aid groups, including World Relief and CARE International, had teams on hand in the area because it was already experiencing a prolonged drought. "People are even more vulnerable to a natural hazard like this" because of the drought, said CARE's Tom Alcedo. "It's a one-two punch." Relief organizations feel the punch, too. Many are working two earthquakes in less than two weeks following a January quake in El Salvador that killed at least 700 people and left 200,000 homeless. -Mindy Belz confirmation delay may hurt justice department
Ashcroft arrives
Will the Senate's delay in confirming Attorney General John Ashcroft result in another Justice Department that lacks independent decision-making? While Mr. Ashcroft awaited approval throughout late January, the White House Counsel's office hired a raft of conservative legal talent, including Deputy Counsel Timothy Flanigan, who served as assistant attorney general in President George H.W. Bush's Justice Department. Political observers will measure how strong a hand Mr. Ashcroft has in hiring his own staff as a sign of his clout in the new administration. Transition spokeswoman Mindy Tucker told WORLD, "He has realized all along that this could take some time, but he will get the department up and running." The Senate finally got around to confirming Mr. Ashcroft on Feb. 1, by a vote of 58 to 42, after Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy dropped plans to filibuster the nomination. Still, liberals marched in lockstep against the choice, seeking in defeat to intimidate the president into sending less conservative judicial nominees to Capitol Hill. In a sentence that surprised conservatives with its lack of self-awareness, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton claimed of Mr. Ashcroft: "His record demonstrates a long and personal struggle to bend the rule of law to fit his views." When asked if President Bush thought the process was unfair, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said he heard no complaints, but Mr. Fleischer did underline the changed confirmation atmosphere: "While Senator Ashcroft worked to answer 400 written questions from the Judiciary Committee, Janet Reno only received 30 or 40." None of those written questions to Ms. Reno came from Republican senators. The Ashcroft fight was an early test of how well conservatives would mobilize behind President Bush's conservative nominees, with groups from the American Conservative Union to the Family Research Council organizing advertising and public relations campaigns on Mr. Ashcroft's behalf. Show won't smear Bush daughters
Comedy Conscience
Washington journalists have signaled they've heard the message: The First Daughters are off-limits to media coverage. USA Today last week quoted officials at The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Associated Press, and People magazine suggesting they'd respect the president's wishes that they keep Jenna and Barbara Bush out of the media glare. But pressure of a different sort appears to have frightened off Comedy Central from lampooning the Bush daughters in the new series That's My Bush. The series, from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, had planned to portray the two 19-year olds as "sexy babes," with one prospective script turning them into incestuous lesbians. After WORLD and groups such as the American Family Association and LoudCitizen reported plans for the series, Comedy Central was reportedly deluged by protests. The corporate owners of Comedy Central, Viacom and AOL Time Warner-both heavily dependent on federal regulators-also weighed in, leading the network to veto having the Bush twins as characters on the show. Comedy Central officials said that the Bush administration made no contact with them. Dish service fights back
Proud thieves
Hackers called it Black Sunday. Just in time for the Super Bowl, an estimated tens of thousands of satellite dish owners found their decoder boxes had quit working. What happened was perhaps the greatest counterattack in history against alleged signal stealers. Ever since satellite TV services started scrambling in the 1980s, users have tried to crack the code. The resulting cold war produced all sorts of tricks and technologies aimed at scrambling and unscrambling Showtime, MTV, and ESPN. The war carried on as little DSS dishes became prominent. Much of the market for piracy is in Canada, where a lot of U.S. programming is unavailable. This time DirecTV decided to fight back hard, sending a special signal to wipe out unauthorized smart cards, which had been set to authorize descrambling. Experts guessed that the move shut down about 200,000 users. This doesn't mean that users will capitulate en masse and sign up for a normal DirecTV account. Nothing doing. As soon as the attack came, the pirates started cooking up new ways to grab signals. The war could go on for years. Most law enforcement actions target manufacturers, dealers, and distributors instead of the end-users. DirecTV officials wouldn't confirm or deny Black Sunday. But spokesman Bob Marsocci said the company is preparing a publicity campaign against signal theft. "Most people would walk into a neighbor's home, and say, 'Hey look, I get the satellite service for free,' and they're most proud of it," he said. "But it's the same thing as saying, 'Hey, I just shoplifted this,' or 'stole a car.'" Sudan: Clinics, villages remain targets
Bombing the victims
Arab militiamen, loyal to the government of Sudan, looted a Red Cross clinic, destroyed tents, and set fire to the compound, burning a vehicle. Government forces attacked the Red Cross site last July, too, bombing a plane on the ground. No clinic workers were hurt in the latest incident, but in a nearby village the militia killed 15 people and stole 3,000 cattle. Sudanese government planes bombed civilian and humanitarian targets at least 152 times in southern and central Sudan last year, according to a detailed study by the U.S. Committee for Refugees. The agency confirmed eight bomb attacks against civilian and humanitarian sites during the first three weeks of this year. In the same raid, soldiers kidnapped 103 women and children from nearby villages, according to Christian Solidarity International. At the same time, a United Nations envoy announced that the UN will continue to sponsor Operation Lifeline, a 10-year-old cooperative agreement with the Islamic regime that allows Khartoum to advise UN agencies on aid supply to the war-torn, drought-stricken country. "What kind of people make agreements with partners that drop bombs on them?" asked Samaritan's Purse project director Ken Isaacs. The Red Cross belongs to the UN program, but Samaritan's Purse-whose relief sites were bombed by the government eight times last year-does not. The Bush administration indicated it, too, would seek warming ties to the Islamic government. Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a message to Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail, signaling a move to restart bilateral relations. U.S. trade sanctions against Sudan have been in place since 1997, and diplomatic relations broke after the United States bombed a pharmaceutical plant there in 1998. As other comics sales slide, Archie comics is a powerhouse
Comics for kids
So who would you pick, Betty or Veronica? At a time when the comic book industry is whistling past the grave, Archie Comics is making itself recognized as a pop culture powerhouse. Even though many comic buffs despise Archie Comics as sanitized fluff, it may be the only comics publisher left trying to reach the historic audience: kids. Publisher Michael Silberkliet told CNNfn that the company sells about a million comics a month, mostly through outlets like newsstands and supermarkets. Meanwhile, Marvel, DC, and others depend on a shrinking number of specialty stores that target the insular, marginalized fanboy market: a hard core of men in their mid-20s and early 30s. "In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, comics were read by everyone-children, teenagers, soldiers-because it was part of the pop culture scene," said John Miller, editor of Comics Retailer trade magazine. "But today the entertainment market is becoming more and more fragmented." Overall comic book sales are in the tank, dropping from $850 million in 1993 to $275 million last year. But Archie is trying to keep its head above water by promoting what Mr. Silberkliet calls the Archie philosophy: "good, clean, wholesome entertainment for young kids" (the target age is seven years old). Call it hokum if you will, but the gang at Riverdale survived World War II, Vietnam, and Whitewater without ever graduating from high school. -Chris Stamper NBC buckles to activists, censors law & order episode
Keeping it real?
Law & Order's dramatized spin on New York life is a television landmark, but NBC vaulted one episode over complaints of insensitivity. NBC promised it will never again air a January episode about violence during New York's Puerto Rican Day parade. The episode depicts a rampage by Puerto Rican youths who kill one woman and molest others. A real-life incident last year apparently inspired the episode, but activists claim Law & Order distorted the event. However, the show has never claimed that its stories were anything other than fictionalized riffs on headlines, not docudramas. NBC apologized for the episode, adding that "we realize we still have further improvements to make." Show creator Dick Wolf quickly criticized the move, saying his show "reflects real life." He told Variety that his "ripped from the headlines" stories are bound to offend everyone: "including, but not limited to, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, gays and lesbians, Italians, Russians, Greeks, conservatives, liberals, pro-life and pro-choice advocates." Mr. Wolf said NBC didn't consult with him before censoring the episode. Law & Order is one of NBC's crown jewels, with two versions airing every week and a third in the works. TV ratings race begins
Swept away
If it's February, it must be sweeps month. In network TV, that means the quarterly rush to attract users. From sensational news shows to sitcom cliffhangers, media outlets go to war to determine their future advertising rates. This time around, CBS is armed and ready with a new run of Survivor. Game II was filmed last fall in a remote corner of Australia and kept under wraps to build suspense. In the age of the Internet, that's quite a feat. As a counter-move, NBC is extending the length of Friends by 10 minutes on Thursday nights, and then running Saturday Night Live sketches to round out the hour. Success or failure during sweeps can determine a regular series' future. Often networks bring out the most expensive product possible to attract viewers-and don't always succeed. During Thanksgiving week, NBC ran Titanic, refusing to interrupt it even for George W. Bush's victory speech. As it turned out, the airing didn't crack the top 10 for the week and had fewer viewers than a competing broadcast of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on ABC. Even with this misfire, NBC turned out to be the only major network to gain viewers from the previous November. The slow drain of viewers to cable, VCRs, video games, and e-mail makes networks more eager to run stunt programming.

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