Putting a stop to the death penalty

Eight prisoners were scheduled to be put to death this week in Arkansas, in what would have amounted to the largest mass execution in America in half a century. Of these eight, at the time of writing, three have already been killed, four have been given temporary stays beyond the end of the month, and one further execution is scheduled to go ahead Thursday night.

Why the rush? Arkansas’s primary method of execution, like the other 30 states which have capital punishment on their statute books, is the three-drug lethal injection protocol. Securing these drugs has proved increasingly difficult in recent years, due to shortages caused by political and regulatory pressure making pharmaceutical companies reluctant to provide the drugs for the purposes of capital punishment.

Arkansan governor Asa Hutchinson sprung into action this month, scheduling the eight executions mere days before the expiry date on the state’s only available sedative, midazolam, elapses at the end of April. The third execution, of convicted murderer Marcel Williams, only took place after a last-minute legal scramble to halt it failed on Monday evening. The reason? That evening’s first scheduled execution, of Jack Jones, may have been botched, after correctional facility officers tried and failed to insert an IV line into the obese prisoner’s neck.

This most recent episode only serves to underline the increasingly farcical nature of capital punishment in the US. Lawyers for Williams argued that his execution might be unconstitutional on the grounds of “cruel and unusual punishment” – but it is increasingly obvious that the whole system of capital punishment has elements of unusual cruelty. Jones’s execution reportedly saw him moving his lips and gulping for air after the sedative was applied, amounting to what Williams’ lawyers claimed was “torturous and inhumane.”

What action can you take against this inhumane system of state-sponsored murder? Several organizations are fighting to abolish the death penalty across the nation. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty works to mobilize the 90 million Americans who say the death penalty is wrong. You can add your name to the growing movement by taking the coalition’s pledge. The group also offers resources for contacting your elected officials, and engage with community organizations like faith groups.

Amnesty International is also working to put an end to the death penalty around the world. One current campaign seeks to halt the return of the death penalty in the Philippines, an issue currently in front of the country’s Senate. The International Commission Against the Death Penalty is similarly working to put an end to the practice around the world, and provides useful resources on its website, albeit with fewer calls to direct action.

Yet as with so many other issues, from climate change to nuclear non-proliferation, preventing the death penalty around the world – and especially in China, which with over 1,000 executions a year may account for half the global total – would be much easier were it prohibited in the US.

Change starts at home – and if you live in one of the thirty one with capital punishment on the statute, consider contacting your local representative. No politician wants to be seen as “weak on crime”, and murderers and rapists are one of the more problematic constituencies to advocate for. But this is all the more reason why demonstrating your support for prohibition is important. Almost 3,000 people languish on death row in the United States, and fully 158 death row inmates have been exonerated since capital punishment was reintroduced in 1973. Ultimately, it comes down to this: only by putting an end to capital punishment can you be sure that no person will ever be put to death for a crime they didn’t commit.

It’s the French presidential election this weekend. Expect the unexpected.

A lot of people went to bed on the night of November 8, 2016, confident that they would wake up to news of President-elect Hillary Clinton’s election victory. This is not, of course, what happened. Donald Trump’s stunning win confounded pollsters and pundits alike, much as had the UK’s decision to Brexit months earlier.

Political unpredictability has continued apace in 2017, and France’s presidential election represents an early test of whether the nationalistic tremors of 2016 will continue to haunt liberal democracy in its heartlands. One thing’s for sure: no-one can confidently predict the results of this contest. But to borrow a phrase, there are some known unknowns to brush up on ahead of time.

How does France elect a president?

Presidential elections in France are a two-step process, with the top two candidates from this Sunday’s first round progressing to a head-to-head run-off a fortnight later – which means that, whatever happens, we won’t know who’ll become France’s next president on Sunday, but we know who won’t. The two-stage system aside, the process is quite straightforward – the candidates with the largest vote totals progress.

So who’s in the running?

In recent years, two main parties have dominated French politics: the left-wing Socialists, and the center-right Republicans. The current president is Socialist François Hollande, who announced last year that he would not seek re-election, in large part due to staggeringly low approval ratings, which hit an eye-popping low of 4% (not a typo!) late last year.

As in any election without the incumbent running, the field is wide open this year – albeit to an extent unprecedented in French politics, for several reasons. First, with or without Hollande, France’s Socialist party is in disarray: similar to Democrats in the US and the UK’s Labour Party, it is riven by in-fighting between left wing forces and more centrist impulses.

This has served to fragment the electorate. The official Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, is struggling under the weight of his predecessor’s unpopularity. Meanwhile, two former Socialist ministers, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Emmanuel Macron, have each seized chunks of the party’s traditional vote from the left and the right with their own new movements, Unsubmissive France and En Marche!, respectively.

The right wing has also splintered. The National Front, led by Marine Le Pen – the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who scored a place in the run-off election in 2002 – has seized on antipathy towards Muslim immigrants to lead many first-round polls this year. Meanwhile François Fillon, the Republican candidate, is riven by allegations of financial impropriety relating to salaries given to members of his family, which have threatened to upend his candidacy.

OK, so it’s a broad field. But who’s going to win?

It’s very hard to predict who will make it through to the run-off – let alone win – but right now there are four viable candidates who, polls suggest, each clustered at between 18% and 23% of the vote. Mélenchon, with a radically leftist agenda, has been gaining recently at the expense of Hamon, and is running at around 18%, for what would be a close-fought fourth. Fillon has resisted calls – even from among his own party – to drop out, and his support seems to have stabilized, as he is currently running in a close third. Macron and Le Pen, meanwhile, have been trading the lead for the last few weeks, with each averaging around 23% of the vote.

The state of the French presidential polls at the time of writing. (Wikipedia)

The results of the run-off will depend, of course, on who makes it through. As things stand, one candidate – Macron – would win his head-to-head with each of the other three viable candidates, while another – Le Pen – would lose all of hers. (Mélenchon beats Fillon in the least-likely match-up.) But polling the run-off accurately is difficult while other candidates remain in the race, particularly when three out of the four leading candidates represent parties who have never won the presidency. In particular, if Fillon continues his comeback and makes it through to the run-off against Le Pen, the achingly familiar prospect of an experienced but scandal-plagued establishment candidate losing to a xenophobic outsider seems plausible.

How important is this election?

In a word, very. In constitutional terms, the French presidency represents something of a middle way between a mostly-symbolic head of state like the German presidency, and the powerful executive in the American system. Compared with America, periods of “cohabitation” – where one party controls parliament while another occupies the presidency – have been relatively rare, and in these instances, the president tends to take a back seat.

But one area in which French presidents have the most control is in foreign affairs, and France’s election this year represents, in a certain sense, another referendum on the European Union. Only the far-right Le Pen has vowed to leave the Euro currency, but both she and Mélenchon have adopted the fateful promise made by Britain’s David Cameron to renegotiate France’s relationship with the EU and put the resulting settlement to a formal referendum vote.

Meanwhile, Le Pen and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been open about their mutual respect, and Fillon is also notably more comfortable with Russia than other Republican figures – while Macron, the only avowedly pro-European candidate has been hit with a barrage of cyberattacks and fake news. Again all this sounds familiar, perhaps that’s because it is.

Both politically and geographically, France is much more central to the European project than Britain ever was, so a rebuke by voters would represent a much more existential threat to the Union – creating precisely the kind of instability that Russia’s Putin is said to want.

What else is there to know?

The polls are changing daily, and the election is now too close to call, according per multiple outlets. While this uncertainty creates volatility, in everything from markets to geopolitics, at least pundits and the public alike are more prepared for multiple outcomes than they were on the mornings of June 24 and November 9, 2016, when British and American voters created political earthquakes. It’s always useful to know what you don’t know.

Where are Pulitzers Won?

Yesterday saw the announcement of the 2017 Pulitzer Prizes. Awarded in some form or another for one hundred years, the Pulitzers represent the peak of journalistic recognition as well as literary and musical accomplishment.

Though the categories celebrating journalism have shifted somewhat over the years, the Pulitzers have long recognized quality reporting at all levels, from the local to the international. So what can analysis of who won the awards tell us about the geographic spread of successful journalism?

For this assignment I analyzed where four different categories of Pulitzers were awarded over the course of the last century. First, I looked at the Pulitzer for Local Investigative Specialized Reporting, a category awarded since 1964. Scraping the data from a list on Wikipedia, I calculated the number of awards given to titles in each U.S. state, and used the visualization tool Datawrapper to display the results:

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23 out of 50 states have seen a title win a Pulitzer for local reporting – a decent geographic spread. Next I looked at the prizes for National and International Reporting respectively:

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As these charts show, larger states have tended to dominate the National and International categories, which makes sense given the consolidation of resources in large bureaus, particularly in New York and Washington. For international reporting especially, New York dwarfs all other states, accounting for well more than half of all International Pulitzers.

Yet the Public Interest category, displayed below, shows much more geographic diversity. Though New York and California, as large states, still lead the way with 10 prizes each, Putlizers for work in the public interest have been awarded to fully 31 states plus DC, and states like North Carolina (6 awards) and Missiouri (4) have been frequently recognized.

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This analysis suggests that while major titles like the New York Times and Washington Post have long lead the way with their hard-hitting reporting at the national and international levels, for a century now, newspapers at every level and in a majority of states have performed award-winning journalism in the public interest. These local titles, exposing municipal corruption and state-level scandal, are the backbone of American journalism and – facing the most danger from the loss of advertising revenue and corporate consolidation – are most in need ongoing financial support.

#SnowDay on Twitter, or, how everything is political now

Twitter has always been one of the more politically conscious social networks. But in the age of the Trump administration, politics seems to pervade even the most seemingly neutral subjects. The snowstorm which hit the Eastern Seaboard today – giving students and workers an unexpected day at home – yielded a wide range of conversation on the #SnowDay hashtag,

First, there was food, and lots of it:

https://twitter.com/Katelynvanpeltt/status/841770516360921089

And there were carefully dressed toddlers:

But pretty soon, folks realized that the blizzard was not as boisterous as promised. The Weather Channel caught some of the flak:

… as did the entire notion of global warming:

… and some even thought that weather reports smelt like fake news.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this was not the only time that Donald Trump made an appearance on the hashtag. His supporters were out in force:

… as were several of his detractors.

https://twitter.com/copywronger/status/841633138862374912

https://twitter.com/Blurred_Trees/status/829747456095186945

Twitter has always been one of the more politically conscious social networks. But in the age of the Trump administration, politics seems to pervade even the most seemingly neutral subjects.

It seems that politics is never far from tweeters’ minds – whatever the weather.

Jamelle Bouie on race and racism in American politics

Slate’s chief political correspondent, Jamelle Bouie, sat down with MIT’s Seth Mnookin this evening for a conversation about race and racism in the 2016 presidential election. The wide-ranging discussion approached the issue of race and racism from several angles — including both Bouie’s personal experience as an African-American journalist to a broader focus on the shifting ideological coalitions in the American political landscape.

Every political discussion since November 9th has probably started with the same question: how did this happen? Bouie deserves credit for pointing to the possibility of Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination earlier than other observers, citing the intensity of support at his early rallies, and how easily Trump survived the criticism leveled at John McCain shortly after announcing his candidacy. Trump also benefited, Bouie argued, from a crowded Republican field and the “zombie candidacy” of cash-rich but vote-poor Jeb Bush.

But Bouie, along with so many others, gave Trump scant chance of winning the general election against Hillary Clinton, pointing to the seemingly durable ‘Obama coalition’ of voters. Bouie admitted that he wished he’d more taken seriously Trump’s chances. The media in general, Bouie argued, were confident enough in a Clinton win to subject her to severe scrutiny and merely focus on the “spectacle” of Trump — it was “Trump saying crazy things, versus emails.”

Another reason Trump succeeded — and one which might have serious implications going forward — is that so-called ‘Never Trumpers’ stayed reasonably quiet. Bouie pointed to the several crises that the US two-party system has suffered through yet survived, and suggested that the Republican party is more likely to morph than collapse, with ethno-nationalism emerging at its core.

Bouie and Mnookin also discussed the challenges discussing race and dealing with racial inequality — even between those who might agree. Bouie highlighted the differing forms of interaction that take place between people of different races in the south as compared to the north — the liberal northeast of the country experiences its own perhaps more subtle form of segregation and separation which can color attempts at crossing racial divides.

Bouie, at a mere 29 years old, has already emerged as one of the leading observers of American politics in our current volatile era. Both Bouie’s firm sense of American history and his own experience undergird both his articulate prose and the important, impactful perspective on display this evening.

Josh’s Media Diary: A Tale of Three Devices

The timing of this assignment was a little fortuitous, because the past few months have forced me to reflect on exactly what I read, when, and why. During the 2016 election I became a true Twitter junkie (the communication proclivities of one of the candidates didn’t help) and seldom made it away from the platform towards longer-form content or into a slower-paced environment.

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Politwoops: tracking politicians’ social media stumbles

Deleting tweets is something we’ve probably all done from time to time – whether it’s just to fix a typo or to tone down our reaction to the latest aggravating news story. As private citizens, erasing an earlier post is a reasonable expectation. Yet it might be argued that for politicians in public office, what is said (and read) should stay said, much as a hot-mic gaffe, for example, can’t be taken back.

Twitter has become an important medium for politicians, whether campaigning for office or serving constituents. But sometimes, politicians (and their staffers) can get a bit carried away – and become just as susceptible as the rest of us to some post-tweet regret. Fortunately, the website Politwoops, now hosted for U.S. politicians by ProPublica, preserves these deleted tweets. Their archive makes for an interesting insight into the tweets that politicians wish they could (and perhaps believe they have) taken back. Given the Tweeter-in-Chief’s no-holds-barred nocturnal musings, for example, it’s a tool that may well prove useful for journalists in the coming years.

Several journalists have already noted, for example, the chronological coincidence that President-elect Trump praised Russia’s nonchalant response to Russian sanctions at exactly the time his recently fired National Security Adviser Mike Flynn was holding sensitive discussions with the Russian ambassador. That wasn’t a tweet Trump ever deleted – but it’s certainly reassuring to know that if he had, it would still be on record.