by Maria Tomchick & Geov Parrish

Welcome to our 13th annual selection of the year’s most over-hyped and underreported stories, separated into local and global categories. With the news business, especially newspapers, undergoing a not-very-slow collapse, and hard news coverage usually the first victim of tightening budgets, there was more underreported news than ever this year. Fear not, however. America’s addiction to trivial distractions can withstand any assault from economic hardship–or from reality.

2008’s Most Over-Hyped Stories

Global

The Great Black Hope. Reality check, please? Obama is a corporate centrist–not a progressive. Always has been, never sold himself as anything but. His actions thus far as President-Elect are exactly what he promised. But after eight long, desperate years, far too many progressives believed what they wanted to be true, not what actually was true. Wasn’t that the approach that got George W. in trouble?

Sarah Palin. Sure, it was beyond stupefying that John McCain would pick such a massively unqualified running mate to be a heartbeat (or lack thereof) away from the most powerful job in the world–and a searing indictment of the ignorance of many Americans that she then developed a cult-like following (not unlike Obama’s). But how many times can one make that point? There’s only so much ridicule to go around, and a world full of deserving targets.

Obama v. Clinton. It’s a given that commercial media have a financial interest in making the outcome of a political race (or any other event) seem unclear when it’s not. They want you to keep watching, listening, reading, and buying. But for three torturous months after Hillary Clinton’s nomination became mathematically all but impossible in early March, Americans were flagellated with ubiquitous coverage that lurched from week to week and primary to primary as though a Clinton miracle was imminent and the outcome was in doubt. It never was, a shocking instance of journalists putting institutional self-interest (or personal bias) ahead of reality-based reporting.

Beijing Olympics. What has happened in China in the past 30 years is one of the modern world’s most amazing stories. But it has a nasty, ugly underside of mass displacement, extreme poverty, and brutal human rights abuses. Hey, how ’bout that Michael Phelps!!

Celebrity Gossip. Britney has custody of her kid again. The fact that I even know this fills me with an indescribable self-loathing.

Local

The tunnel that refused to be buried. Seattle residents voted down a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, but the city and state transportation planners are still considering a tunnel alternative. It’s like Frankenstein’s monster. We’re going to keep hearing about it for the next hundred years.

A streetcar system for Seattle. Just repeat the mantra over and over until everyone’s on board. Never ask the important questions: “Why?” “Who will actually ride this thing?” and “Where the hell are we going to get $600 million to build this thing?”

The arena that wouldn’t die. The Sonics are long gone (and their inevitable departure was another over-hyped story), but Key Arena keeps resurfacing as a potential home for another NBA team and a vacuum cleaner for stray public tax money.

Gun bans in public parks. One shooting by a mentally ill guy at Folklife sparked a long and tedious drumbeat about the danger of guns in public parks and major public events. Duh. We have yet to hear Commandante Nickels’ plan for enforcing the ban. Or how he’ll pay to defend the city from the inevitable, successful lawsuits.

Mayor’s music Mecca. After doing his best to shut down the city’s music clubs, Commandante Nickels announced a “Seattle City of Music” initiative that had the music community scoffing. And did he allocate any money for it? Are you kidding?

Boeing machinists’ strike hurt the Dreamliner schedule. This was not only over-hyped, it was downright wrong. Notably, no such claims were made when SPEEA, the engineers’ union, threatened to go on strike. Boeing didn’t want to bash the engineers too much because that would give them the license to trash-talk the company and let out the big secret: design flaws and problems with foreign subcontractors are primarily to blame for the repeated Dreamliner delays. Instead, Boeing gave its engineers a 20 percent pay raise over the life of their new contract. Can you say “hush money?”

A Futile Sports Year for the Ages: The Sonics had their worst year ever, then left town. The Mariners and Seahawks were both supposed to win their divisions, and instead were among the worst teams in their leagues. And the WSU Cougars were being suggested as the worst team in college football history–until they were handed a victory at season’s end by the winless UW Huskies. You would have thought the world had just ended. It was hilarious.

Car crashes, fires, violent crimes, big (and not-so-big) weather “events,” heartwarming stories of photogenic, plucky survivors (preferably kids) overcoming adversity, and every other staple of Chuckle-Buddy News.

2008’s Most Underreported Stories

Global

The methane time-bomb is exploding right now. Climate researchers warned in September that preliminary data show methane sinks in the Arctic seabed are beginning to release their gases into the air. If true (and there’s every indication it is), this could bring on a massive increase in global warming in a very short time. Methane is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, world leaders dithered, and George Bush wanted us to all go out and buy SUVs.

Economics Lesson #1. Capitalism doesn’t work without regulations to keep it in check.

Economics Lesson #2. Globalization has a downside, like we activists have been saying since the early 1990s. Huh.

Final Economics Lesson. Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke are trying to roll back the clock to 2005, when the stock market was flying high, bank profits were soaring, and housing prices were through the roof. But guess what? Only idiots think it’s smart to live in the past. (Or people who made piles of money back “when times were better.”)

The criminal Bush Gang’s final looting spree. In 2001, there was much Republican wailing that the Clintons were taking the White House silverware. Eight years later, as you read this, the Bush cabal is looting the US treasury, gutting regulations for their buddies, and stealing everything not welded in place on the way out the door, and our media could not care less.

All the Bush Gang’s other criminal acts–the missing e-mails, the fired US attorneys, the corrupt administrators, ad nauseam–that mostly went unreported and ignored, and whose perpetrators will now almost all move on, unpunished, to opulent lives as lobbyists or consultants.

There’s still a war in Iraq. At what point does a war, or the million-plus Iraqi civilians now believed dead because of it, cease to become important simply because the media covering it get bored? Not only that, but…

Iraq is on the verge of civil war. Now. A new National Intelligence Estimate leaked to the press in October said all 16 US intelligence agencies agreed that Iraq is on the verge of exploding into interethnic and sectarian fighting over unresolved political issues, including the status of Kirkuk and the allocation of oil resources. And the US policy of creating Sunni paramilitary groups to fight the insurgency has only exacerbated the problem.

We’re in an all-out war in Pakistan, too. Our media have been very careful–and dishonest–in reporting endless bombings and attacks in northwest Pakistan, in which the US is both target and perpetrator, without bothering to draw the obvious conclusion. Meanwhile…

Somalia is a failed state, and the US is keeping it that way. We’re hearing tons about Somali pirates, but almost nothing about the desperate chaos in Somalia that drove them to such extreme measures–and less than nothing about the fact that the Islamist groups that were bringing stability to Somalia in 2006 were driven out of power by the US and its Ethiopian surrogates, which continue to work overtime to keep the Islamists from regaining control of the country. And then there’s…

The worst war in the world. No, it’s not Iraq. Not Afghanistan or Pakistan. Nor even Darfur. It’s the decade-old conflict in the Congo that’s killed more than five million people. Alas, there are no Westerners getting shot–they’re just sponsoring the war from their corporate offices in London, Antwerp, and New York–so we hear nothing about it.

Anti-depressant drugs no better than a placebo. A study published in the journal Public Library of Science Medicine analyzed 47 clinical trials of the most popular anti-depressant drugs on the market, including Prozac, Effexor, Serzone, and Paxil, and concluded that they’re no better than taking a sugar pill. In fact, a half-hour of exercise every day had a more positive effect on mood than taking antidepressants. They do, however, provoke serious side-effects, including millions in profits for Glaxo Smith Kline, Wyeth, and other drug companies.

Average emergency room waiting times have doubled in a decade. There are now fewer emergency rooms than in 1996, but 32 percent more patients trying to use them. Only 40 percent of those patients are covered by private insurance. The rest are covered by the state and federal government or are completely uninsured (which amounts to the same thing). (Time to get rid of that 40 percent.) In a poll in May, 82 percent of Americans said that the health care system either needed complete rebuilding or fundamental change.

Pure food activists win against Monsanto. Major retailers (Safeway, Kroger & others) banned milk containing recombinant bovine growth hormone (r-BGH) from their store brands, and Kraft Foods and Dean Foods both announced they would offer cheese marked as BGH-free. BGH was banned in the European Union, Japan, and Australia. In August, Monsanto finally gave in to the inevitable and announced they would sell off their last r-BGH production plant, marking a major victory for pure food activists.

FDA not concerned about pure food. After a salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 1500 people in 40 states and led to losses of over $200 million to the tomato industry (chili peppers were eventually blamed for the outbreak), AP reporters got hold of documents from the Food & Drug Administration showing that the FDA only inspects about one percent of all foreign food shipments entering the US. The documents also showed that about 76 million Americans get sick from food-borne illnesses every year, and 5,000 die. The FDA’s solution? Irradiate everything, but not enough to kill the germs, because that would make your food taste bad. Yum. Would you like some salmonella with that Cesium salad?

Military tribunal system exposed as a farce. With the first verdict in the military tribunals set up to prosecute Guantano detainees, Salim Hamdan, accused of being Osama bin Laden’s driver, was found not guilty of nearly all the charges against him. Found guilty of a single charge of driving bin Laden’s car, he was sentenced to 5-1/2 years in prison, with credit for most of the seven years he’d already spent in US custody. He’ll be free by Christmas. Since that ruling, various courts have ordered the release of at least 22 other Guantanamo detainees.

Fear and Favor, Part II. The New York Times sued the Defense Department to get access to records relating to the Pentagon’s domestic propaganda operation. It found that major pundits on TV news shows at FOX, CNN, NBC, ABC and other networks were given talking points by the Pentagon and rewarded for parroting the Pentagon line. The rewards? Access to Pentagon contracts for the military contractors these pundits represented in their spare time, when they weren’t brainwashing the American public.

Underreported Story Emeritus [Retired]: Say, where is Osama bin Laden, anyway?

Local

State Republicans Ignore Campaign Finance Laws. First came the lawsuit by retired state Supreme Court justices exposing Dino Rossi’s illegal coordination of huge “independent” fundraising with the Building Industry Association of Washington. Later, we found out the state’s realtors were in on it, too. And Rossi, Rep. Dave Reichert, and state Attorney General Rob McKenna all got massive TV buys on credit, an illegal corporate loan. That mostly unreported (and thus far unpunished) sleaziness, in a tight race, probably won another term for Reichert–along with…

HarvardGate. Harvard describes its studies as “concentrations,” not majors or minors. Why should anyone care? Because a manufactured controversy two weeks before the election, launched by Reichert’s staff and fanned by the Seattle Times and conservative talk radio, accused challenger Darcy Burner of lying about her Harvard degree because she described herself as having a “degree in economics” rather than a “degree with a concentration in economics.” In a Democratic year, Burner was five points up in the polls when the “story” broke. She lost by 20,000 votes.

The Top-Secret Police Accountability Report. The Seattle city council’s report on police accountability was finished on May 23, 2008, but the public and press have yet to see a copy of it. If we only had the money for a lawsuit…

City raids neighborhood transportation funds. When Prop. 1 failed last year, the city lost most of its funding source for the Mercer Corridor Beautification Project. So Mayor Nickels and council member Jan Drago have diverted about $30 million from neighborhood transportation funds to spiff up Paul Allen’s backyard.

The city is watching you. The city council voted in June to release $850,000 for surveillance cameras in three city parks: Hing Hay, Occidental Park, and Victor Steinbrueck Park. This came after Mayor Nickels unilaterally stole $144,000 from the city budget and spent it on cameras for Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill.

City flunks the public service pop quiz. State auditor Brian Sonntag released an audit of 30 public agencies and their responsiveness to public information requests. At the bottom of the list: the City of Seattle, which was completely nonresponsive 80 percent of the time. Time to call the undertaker!

Port scandals: first there is a mountain… Speaking of audits, Sonntag’s December 2007 report of potential fraud by the Port of Seattle surrounding the construction of the third runway sparked an internal audit at the port by its accounting firm, Moss Adams. Their highly publicized conclusion: “no deficiencies.” Then they admitted quietly that they didn’t review the construction of the third runway. In August, a State Supreme Court ruled that the recall petition against commissioner Pat Davis could go forward; Davis is accused of malfeasance by colluding with former port CEO Mic Dinsmore to award him a $339,000 golden parachute payment. Then, in December, an independent audit commissioned by the port and conducted by former US attorney Mike McKay found that the port did indeed engage in fraud in construction of the third runway. Expect indictments in, oh, 20 years or so.

City sweeps the homeless under the rug. Mayor Nickels wants the homeless to just go away, hence the city’s stepped-up clearing of homeless encampments. While millions are being wasted on the Mercer Corridor Beautification Project, nothing is being spent on providing more shelter space and services to the homeless. And, in a massive give-away to developers, the city council voted in July to subsidize market-rate housing, but not spend a dime for low-income housing.

Plastic grocery bag tax is defeated by national organization of grocery store owners and chemical companies. Heil hydrocarbons.

Half-time update: Employees 2, Starbucks 0. A California Superior Court awarded Starbucks baristas $100 million in back pay for tips they were forced to share with their supervisors. Meanwhile, in Texas Starbucks settled a federal lawsuit and agreed to pay an undisclosed amount of money to 350 assistant managers who were forced to work unpaid overtime. Do we see a pattern here?

Boeing forced to redesign the Dreamliner. Already 6 months behind on the new Dreamliner 787, Boeing quietly told one of its major customers that it would have to redesign the entire wing box of the 787, which would delay the project for another 6 to 9 months. In trying to lighten the weight of the airplane, the support beams for the wing box–where the wings and fuel tanks are attached to the plane–were made too thin and they buckled under testing. Incidentally, that part of the plane was manufactured by a subcontractor in Japan.

Premera rate increases. From 2004 to 2007 Premera transferred $49 million in surplus revenue from its Washington State operations to its unprofitable Arizona subsidiary to prop up its failing Arizona division. During the same years Washington ratepayers saw double-digit increases in their insurance premiums, proving that insurance companies are evil bloodsuckers. This led to the state legislature passing a bill that reinstated the state insurance commissioner’s power to oversee insurance rate increases in our state. Hurray for regulation!

Big victories for local farmers and farmers’ markets. The state legislature passed a bill in March to allow public schools and state institutions to buy fresh produce from Washington farmers, even if it costs more than the imported stuff. The bill also allowed food banks to accept local produce and farmers markets to accept food stamps. In May, the city council approved the Food Action Initiative (mostly a policy statement, but every little bit helps), and the city announced a cut in fees charged for farmers markets.

Big new tax break for businesses. Sucking up to Boeing isn’t enough. The state legislature passed $6.1 million in new tax breaks for business by extending tax breaks formerly reserved just for Boeing to the entire aerospace industry, including Boeing’s subcontractors. Hint for the incoming legislature: balance the budget by closing these business tax loopholes!

There’s more, of course. There always is. Send us your nominations (editorial@eatthestate.org) and we’ll run a follow-up addendum next month! Meantime, read carefully in 2009, and rely on multiple sources. You’ll come away knowing a lot more about how our city and world work–and what you can do to bring genuine change in 2009.