Copyrighted material 404: Information Missing From Your Daily News

Summaries of under-reported news, short updates on previous Monitor stories

By coincidence, the first three 404 items all concern children and the Internet:

+ Child Privacy For Sale Eyebrows raised on June 4, when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a report on Internet privacy, revealing that 89 percent of children's web sites collect personal information on kids who visit. Nor were kids singled out; the FTC found that almost all of the most popular Internet sites gather some sort of information on people who visit.

While some sites aimed at kids asked predictable questions about favored breakfast cereals or toys, other compainies demanded more personal details. To send a Bugs Bunny electronic postcard, Warner Brothers -- actually, Time Warner Inc. -- required children to provide their real names and e-mail addresses (although the company insisted to The New York Times that this information wasn't saved). A company called Liberty Financial offered a contest to win a digital video camera, but kids had to first complete a survey asking if anyone had ever given them savings bonds, stocks, mutual funds, or gold coins. And Sunkist Growers promoted a "smoothie contest" that required completing a form listing your name, address, and food preferences. (They also offered a video game where "Scurvyboy" fights evil space aliens determined to steal Earth's oranges.)

Reactions to the report were predictable: An industry group quickly formed calling for more self-policing, an advocacy group called for new restrictive laws, and the producers of the worst offending sites scrambled to hide their tracks.

The Monitor, by the way, collects no personal info at all on its readers -- though its editor lies awake nights worrying why so few readers send letters to the editor. (July 8, 1998)

+ Child Labor Censored As mentioned in a December editorial, Disney was planning its own entry point to the Internet, promising to "point families to thousands of kid-appropriate Web sites." Our editorial then posed a question: Would Disney provide links to sites critical of its involvement with sweatshop labor?

Now that its search page is available (, we discover Disney's even more censorous than that. A search for "sweatshop" yields no results whatsoever -- they don't exist. Searching for "child labor" and Disney reports almost 50 web pages, about evenly divided between historical references (WWII is the most recent) and sites where "child" and "labor" appear coincidentally on the same page, such as a page on water safety tips. The only contemporary reference for child labor is a link from The Malibu Times newspaper web site, with an arts section profile about a photojournalism project. (July 8, 1998)

+ Christian Hate Speech A growing number of parents are relying upon computer software to protect their children from offensive Internet content, and religious conservatives use the programs enthusiastically to block out naughty words like "abortion" from appearing at all (see "Internet Filters Censor More Than Smut" in an earlier edition). But now one of the more popular programs, Cyber Patrol, has placed the web pages of an outspoken Christian group off-limits because of its intolerant views.

The offending group, American Family Association ( headed by Donald E. Wildmon, protested that they present only "biblical views on homosexuality." AFA Executive Assistant Buddy Smith wrote in response that "'intolerant' is a code word for politically incorrect. Cyber Patrol is blocking because we oppose the political and cultural agenda of the homosexual rights movement. The AFA has never condoned violence, persecution or harassment; nor do we advocate that homosexuals be denied the same rights of all citizens. However, we do oppose and expose efforts to equate race, ethnic origin and religion with the practice of same-sex sexual behaviors for purposes of special civil rights laws," he said.

Unfortunately, the material distributed by the AFA isn't so moderate. They aggressively push an ugly screed titled, "Homosexuality in America: Exposing the Myths" that's filled with demonizing claims. ("...In one study, two homosexual researchers found that 73% of adult male homosexuals had had sex with boys age 19 or younger... 15% report sex with animals...") Yet despite such hateful content, AFA blamed the banning of their website on the "clout of homosexual advocacy groups."

If Wildmon and others in the Tupelo, Mississippi group think that gays are lusting after their children and pets, they're probably having fits about the Disney web page described above. Enter the word "gay" in Disney's search engine and results include an elementary school in Minnesota, a Kennel Club description of a dog breed, and the lyrics to that beloved southern anthem, "Dixie." (July 8, 1998)

+ The Biggest China Story Ignored Quick, now: Name one thing that was accomplished by Bill Clinton's nine-day trip to China. Drawing a blank? Don't feel bad; truth is, there's rarely front page news when a President travels abroad -- a notable exception being Bush's 1992 trip to Japan, when he vomited on their Prime Minister at a state dinner.

Staffers at the White House work hard to whip up public interest in these boring trade and diplomatic missions, often by exaggerating the importance of some petty concession won. During this recent trip, for example, the newsworthy topic was China's routine abuse of human rights. Would Clinton dare speak out? To build drama, speculation began in the press even before the trip started. Clinton did rebuke the Chinese, of course -- with tepid criticism -- and China released a handful of dissidents that were arrested just days before.

But did the Administration and the Chinese government stage-manage this "confrontation?" Likely they did; note that no mention whatsoever was made of Chinese sweatshop and prison labor -- a topic sure to embarrass both governments. The U.S. press played a role in this little sham, too. Not a single newspaper covering the trip raised questions about sweatshops or forced labor, although as Joel D. Joseph points out in a Monitor commentary, it's China's growth industry.

An important sweatshop story did appear while Clinton was in China; a July 3 New York Times article reported that a Presidential task force on the problem was failing. The White House Apparel Industry Partnership, an 18-member group established in the spring of 1997, was "teetering on the edge of collapse," according to one participant. The Times said that corporate members, including Liz Claiborne, Nike and Reebok, were fighting several proposals put forward by human rights organizations and labor unions. The corporations opposed more stringent monitoring and the requirement that they pay a living wage instead of the local minimum wage.

You might think that the Times article would be widely reprinted; after all, it was timely news about a significant problem with Chinese trade relations -- the mission of Clinton's trip. Yet not one newspaper picked the story up. Were there more important stories that squeezed it out? You decide: If you scanned all major U.S. papers that day, you would have read 29 stories about Kenneth Starr, 26 articles about viagra, and -- in keeping the tradition began in the Monitor Counting Lewinskys editorial -- 19 stories that mentioned Monica Lewinsky, although she did nothing newsworthy that day at all. (July 11, 1998)

+ Gulf War Uranium Bullets In January 1996, Monitor reported that armor-piercing bullets made of radioactive depleted uranium (DU) may be one of the causes of "Gulf War Syndrome." Besides being denser and faster -- thus ideal for penetrating tanks and fortified structures, the DU bullets had the additional benefit of often bursting into flames upon impact, thus turning those low-level radioactive particles into a mist that can be inhaled. But was it deadly? A 1994 GAO report and 1995 Army study -- which the Pentagon tried to supress -- were both unclear.

Then in March, a coalition of veterans' groups issued a thorough report and case study alleging that there was "widespread exposure of hundreds of thousands of United States and coalition servicemen and women to more than 630,000 pounds of depleted uranium released by U.S. tanks and aircraft during the Persian Gulf War." But there was a glaring hole in their argument: Why weren't the Iraqis finding illnesses, since they were presumably exposed to more DU than most American soldiers?

The Iraqis have plenty to report, as it turns out; the West just wasn't listening. "Since 1991 the number of cancer cases has increased five to six times over what it was," Jawad Kudhim Ali, an oncologist from a city close to the main battlefields, told the Washington Post. "And we have seen some unusual tumors. There has to be a cause." In the July 5 Post article Ali described a marked increase in leukemia and lymphatic cancer. Also, he told the Post, rare cancers such as pancreatic cancer are increasing, as are cancers affecting the young. "We were exposed to eight years of war [with Iran], and we didn't have an increase in cancer. In my 30 years of oncology, I have never seen such high numbers," he told the Post. "We don't have modern equipment to test for this," Jassim Zboon, director of an Iraqui research center also told the Post. "It was a new weapon, and cheap," he said. "They used a lot of uranium on us." (July 18, 1998)

+ Is a Russian Coup Imminent? As described in a Monitor commentary last month, many fear some sort of economic apocalypse is approaching for Russia. That view still holds despite recent good news; the IMF released a $4.8 billion loan on July 20, and Russia refinanced another $4.4 billion in bonds. But those billions are only small change, considering it's believed that the Russian Central Bank has been spending up to $500 million per day to prop up the value of the ruble. The daily volume on their stock market is as little as $10 million; on July 10, the Russian prime minister told Parliment that their financial markets have "practically ceased to exist." Add in recent widespread labor and industrial disputes that have closed the Trans-Siberian Railway and shut off gas for the entire city of St. Petersburg and there's reason for worry.

A lack of faith in Yeltsin is often mentioned; liberal Yabloko party leader, Grigory Yavlinsky told Reuters, "No one is in control of the country." An outspoken critic, Yavlinsky compares Russia's current situation to the summer of 1991, when an unsuccessful Communist coup tried to oust Gorbachev.

Anti-Yeltsin sentiment is also fed by widespread belief that he was somehow connected to the murder of a popular political leader. Retired general Lev Rokhlin, an outspoken foe of Yeltsin, was killed suspiciously on July 3, and his wife supposedly confessed to his shooting. Unnamed spokesmen were quoted in the Russian press saying that he was drinking heavily that night and that his wife had emotional problems. Political allies of the general in the Russian Duma quickly claimed he was assassinated by government agents, a charge that the FSB (successor to the KGB) called absurd.

Within days, the general's daughter gave a tearful interview to the state- controlled TV network, where she claimed that her mother and 14 year- old brother saw the general murdered execution style, with a single shot to the head. The killers then supposedly threatened them that the entire family would be killed unless the widow confessed. Other questions of evidence were raised, and NTV Television stated bluntly, "Nobody any longer believes the official version of the inquiry."

Rokhlin has the makings of a martyr; he had openly opposed Yeltsin's war in Chechnya, and as an important leader in Russia's Duma, attacked corruption and lax standards in the military. His successor, Viktor Ilyukhin, quickly took an even stronger position. He told a press conference: "Our patience is running out, and Boris Nikolayevich (Yeltsin) must take this in... we have to throw out all that scum from the Kremlin."

Coup rumors even now appear in respected newspapers, with one article predicting a coup during Yeltsin's annual vacation, which began July 18. Yeltsin's press service denounced the idea as nonsense, but the paper countered by noting that Yeltsin has been reluctant to leave Moscow in recent weeks, abruptly cancelling long- planned trips. (July 21, 1998)

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