RETROREPORT - The truth now about the big stories then
September 10, 2013 10:21 AM   Subscribe

How often does a great story dominate the headlines, only to be dropped from the news cycle? How often do journalists tell us of a looming danger or important discovery – only to move quickly to the next new thing? What really happened? How did these events change us? And what are the lingering consequences that may affect our society to this day? These are the questions we are answering at Retro Report, an innovative documentary news organization launched in 2013 as a timely online counterweight to today’s 24/7 news cycle. Combining documentary techniques with shoe-leather reporting, we peel back the layers of some of the most perplexing news stories of our past with the goal of encouraging the public to think more critically about current events and the media in ~10 minute segments.

The Battle For Busing (10:19)
A story of America’s school integration and what happened when the buses stopped rolling.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, busing became a dirty word to parents of many school age children around the country, especially in the South. And no place attracted more attention than Charlotte, North Carolina, whose long fight over mandatory busing landed it in a closely-watched test case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The landmark 1971 ruling mandated that federal courts could impose a host of remedies, including busing, to force school integration in Charlotte, and opened the floodgates for busing students in hundreds of school districts across the country over the next decade. On the face of it, busing seemed a logical solution to implementing the long overdue school desegregation promised by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education more than 15 years earlier. But implementation turned out to be anything but easy. Some whites feared racial integration; others wondered what might happen to their kids when they were bused far from home. But blacks also were uncomfortable with the prospect. For many, their fight had always been more about long-denied education resources — money, teachers, books and facilities — than a desire to sit next to white children in schools way across town. All of these fears played out in Charlotte as the nation watched. The nightly news and the newspapers led with stories of “race riots” where white and non-white students, mostly blacks back then, had suddenly been thrust together. There were bomb threats and vandalism at schools on opening day. The parents of many kids, mostly white students, chose to keep their children home. Then something curious happened. Over time, by fits and starts, mandatory busing began to succeed in Charlotte. Young whites and young blacks worked things out, both in the classroom and out on the playing fields. Charlotte became a national darling in the drive to integrate, and a symbol of what was possible when people gave forced busing a chance. But that’s not where the story of busing ends. Retro Report took a look back at Charlotte’s busing struggle, along with the nation’s struggle at large, digging through research and interviewing some of those whose lives were shaped by this historic effort to make good on the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. What we found is both reassuring and disturbing at turns, and proof that the struggle for school equality is far from over.
Summer of Fire (11:20)
The lessons learned from the summer of 1988 when fires burned nearly one third of Yellowstone National Park continue to shape the way we fight wildfires raging across the West today.
“Part of our national heritage is under threat and on fire tonight.” That was how CBS’s Dan Rather described the fires raging through Yellowstone National Park in 1988 but it was only part of the story. The continuing narrative that summer was that park officials had negligently let the fires burn out of control and destroyed the legendary national park, which had supplied generations of visitors with fond memories and colorful snapshots. But the story that played out on national television was incomplete. Until the 1970s, fire policy had called for putting out every forest fire as soon as it started, creating tons of underbrush in Yellowstone — and in parks across the nation. And that underbrush had set the stage for raging wildfires. When federal officials shifted fire policy in 1972 to allow for naturally-caused fires to burn themselves out, and, hopefully, reduce potentially deadly build up of underbrush, it turned out to be too little too late. It failed to make a dent in the thousands of acres of dry underbrush that ignited in Yellowstone during the summer of 1988, the summer that gave everyone an education in fire.
Test Tube Tomato (10:52)
In the 1990s, a bunch of gene jockeys brought the first genetically engineered food to market. The business crashed but biotech science has flourished far beyond the produce aisle.
In May 1994, a tomato appeared on supermarket shelves across the country that was unlike anything Americans had eaten before. Grown from so-called “Flavr Savr” seeds, it was the first genetically engineered food approved for sale, dreamed up by a group of scientists in a California lab. The new tomato promised a clear benefit: a longer-lasting, better-tasting fruit. And as biotech pioneers looked on, its approval from the Food & Drug Administration ushered in a multi-billion dollar industry with the potential to rethink how we grow crops. But today, the tomato is nowhere to be found, and a growing segment of the population is wary of technology that once fascinated. What happened to the Flavr Savr, and what does it tell us about the industry it birthed?
Wild Horse Wars (9:55)
The decades-long quest to save wild horses has run amok, creating a problem that even swooping helicopters, aging cowboys, camera-savvy activists, and millions of dollars can’t solve.
America has been fighting a war over wild horses since 1971, when Congress passed a landmark law protecting animals it called “living symbols of the historic and pioneer sprit of the West.” The measure promised to end the widespread harassment and slaughter of mustangs and assure them a secure place on America’s public lands. But that’s not how things turned out. What’s happened to the horses it saved? “I think this whole thing is a train wreck that is maybe months away from coming off the rails,” said David Philipps, a reporter at the Colorado Springs Gazette, who has covered the subject extensively. Wild horses descended from animals brought to North America by Spanish conquistadors. At the turn of the century, vast herds roamed the West—as many as a million by one estimate. But by 1970, that population had fallen to less than 18,000 — victim of a pet food industry hungry for cheap meat. And that outraged the public. “The mustang, maybe more than any other animal in America, is a symbol,” said Philipps. “It means freedom, it means defiance. It means scrappy but noble. In a sense, it means us, right? It is the American. And to have something that we hold in such esteem, at the same time – not only abused, but turned into dog food – it was just something people could not deal with in their minds.”
Biosphere 2: An American Space Odyssey (9:44)
With dreams of one day colonizing space, eight people sealed themselves inside a giant glass biosphere in the Arizona desert in 1991. By the time they emerged two years later, they had “suffocated, starved and went mad.”
In 1991, eight men and women sealed themselves inside Biosphere 2, a vast, greenhouse-like structure that replicated the ecosystems of “Biosphere 1” –- Earth. They called themselves “Biospherians,” dressed in Star Trek-like uniforms, and promised not to emerge for two years. The $150 million experiment aimed to collect data with an eye to building structures to colonize space. But it quickly went awry, and led to many questions. Was this really science? Or just science fiction? Twenty years later, the dreams that gave rise to Biosphere 2 continue. Mars One, a non-profit venture, is seeking to colonize Mars –- then market it as a reality TV show.
The Tawana Brawley Story (14:00)
In 1988, the nation learned the truth about the alleged crimes against Tawana Brawley, but the shocking story was far from over.
In the late 1980s, Tawana Brawley became a household name as her horrifying story spread across the country, igniting outrage and setting off a fierce debate about race in America. Brawley, after all, was a 15-year old African American teenager, who had been allegedly assaulted by six white men — including a police officer — from her upstate New York community. But as her tale played out on the nightly news, another story unfolded, one that raised serious questions about Brawley’s claims and her advisers, including the Rev. Al Sharpton. In the end, the Brawley case ensnared the innocent, damaged reputations and ruined lives. And as Retro Report found, through interviews with state investigator John Ryan, journalist Wayne Barrett and Rev. Sharpton, the Tawana Brawley story has come to define a particular moment in New York history ripe for just such a deception and, twenty-five years later, continues to leave its stamp on how we think about race in America.
Y2K: Much Ado About Nothing? (9:34)
The Y2K bug threatened to wipe out computers and disrupt modern society at the end of the 20th century. We all remember the doomsday hype, but what really happened?
It’s hard to imagine in these days of smartphones, iPads, and Google Glass that something called the Y2K bug threatened to topple technology, upset the economy and wreak general havoc at the close of the 20th century. But it did. Survivalists bunkered down. Preachers predicted the apocalypse. And ordinary folks wondered if any of it was real. Was it? Was the Y2K bug a genuine threat – or just a hoax? And what did it all mean? To get some answers, Retro Report tracked down key players in this millennium drama — like Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster, author and consultant who first alerted his clients to the Y2K issue in the mid-1980s; and John Koskinen, the government’s Y2K czar, who directed the battle against the bug. They provide a riveting look at the problems then — and the implications now.
Crack Babies: A Tale from the Drug Wars (10:10)
In the 1980s, many government officials, scientists, and journalists warned that the country would be plagued by a generation of “crack babies.” They were wrong.
Easy to transport, highly addictive and sometimes deadly, crack cocaine ripped through the 1980s like a bullet, a headline-maker that seemed to destroy lives at every turn. But the symbol of that destruction was not the tiny crack vials littering the streets or the addicts crouching in corners. The poster child for America’s drug epidemic was a jittery infant whom commentators said was destined to a lifetime of pain and suffering through no fault of its own. More than basketball superstar Len Bias’s fatal cocaine overdose in 1986 or Nancy Reagan’s pleas to “just say no,” the “crack baby” represented the Pandora’s box that cocaine had become. But how did these tiny infants gain such status and was it justified? Retro Report has gone back to look at the story of these children from the perspective of those in the eye of the storm — tracing the trajectory from the small 1985 study by Dr. Ira Chasnoff that first raised the alarm, through the drumbeat of media coverage that kept the story alive, to the present where a cocaine-exposed research subject tells her own surprising life story. Looking back, Crack Babies: A Tale from the Drug Wars shows the danger of prediction and the unexpected outcomes that result when closely-held convictions turn out to be wrong.
The Legacy of Tailhook (12:42)
Military sexual assault is not a new phenomenon. A second look at the Tailhook scandal in 1991 reveals what happened then. And what it all means now.
“Tailhook.” It was called the worst case of sexual harassment in the U.S. Navy’s history and led to promises of culture change. But 20 years later, how much has really changed? To answer that, Retro Report looks at what really happened at the 35th Annual Tailhook convention, where investigators later determined that 83 women and 7 men had been sexually assaulted. With interviews with some of those involved – like former Navy lieutenant Paula Coughlin, who stepped into the national spotlight when she said she had been sexually assaulted at Tailhook — the story provides new context for the current crisis over sexual assault in the military. The Pentagon recently estimated that 26,000 troops were sexually assaulted last year, an increase from 19,000 in 2010. And yet only 3,374 were reported. Only days before the Pentagon report was released, the officer in charge of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention programs was arrested and charged with sexual battery. As The Legacy of Tailhook explores and President Obama aptly noted, “This is not a new phenomenon.”
Voyage of the Mobro 4000 (12:08)
The 1987 voyage of a barge loaded with New York garbage became a sensational fiasco, but it ended up fueling the modern recycling movement.
Dan Rather dubbed it “the most watched load of garbage in the memory of Man.” Johnny Carson joked about it in his nightly comedy routine. It grabbed headlines around the world. But for all the attention, Americans have never heard the full story of the Mobro garbage barge (a.k.a., “the gar-barge,” “the Flying Dutchman of Trash,” “the barge to nowhere,” “the floating hot potato.”) If you weren’t around in 1987 — or just need a reminder — the Mobro carried six million pounds of New York garbage, got turned away from its destination in North Carolina, and spent the next five months adrift – rejected by six states and three foreign countries. A quarter century later, Retro Report has tracked down the colorful characters most deeply involved in the debacle: Lowell Harrelson, the Alabama entrepreneur (and poet), who, though mocked at the time, turned out to be something of a visionary; Tommy Gesuale, the garbage hauler whose connections made the whole venture possible; Brendan Sexton, then New York City’s Sanitation Commissioner, who faced public fears that ranged from AIDS-infected flies to tropical vermin. The pundits of the day portrayed the Mobro as a symbol of our nation’s growing garbage crisis, stoked by fears of declining landfill space. But the real reason the Mobro stayed at sea so long had more to do with the growing pains of the garbage industry, new environmental laws, and a textbook public freak-out. It’s a classic tale with a twist: a get-rich-quick scheme that changed the way Americans take out the trash.
posted by Blasdelb (15 comments total) 100 users marked this as a favorite
I am never going to get anything done, now. This looks wonderfully chewy, thank you!
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 10:30 AM on September 10, 2013

Docs. I love em. I need all the docs.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:41 AM on September 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

This reminds me of the criminally short-lived 60 Minutes More, which was a retrospective of old 60 Minutes reports, each usually followed by Mike Wallace saying something to the effect of, "Ugh -- Can you believe we actually said that garbage?"
posted by Sys Rq at 10:44 AM on September 10, 2013 [7 favorites]

How often does a great story dominate the headlines, only to be dropped from the news cycle? How often do journalists tell us of a looming danger or important discovery – only to move quickly to the next new thing? What really happened?
A new post appears in the maelstrom, a small green orb announcing itself on the Glamour Report, Scandal Monkey blog, and Marty’s byline feeds. As we watch, the post absorbs pings from software clients around the world, notifying the millions of people who follow his byline that he has launched a new story.

I flick my tablet open, check the tags:

Double DP,

Redneck HipHop,

Music News,



pedophilia . . .

According to Mackley’s story, Double DP the Russian mafia cowboy rapper—who, in my opinion, is not as good as the Asian pop sensation Kulaap, but whom half the planet likes very much—is accused of impregnating the fourteen-year-old daughter of his face sculptor. Readers are starting to notice, and with their attention Marty’s green-glowing news story begins to muscle for space in the maelstrom. The content star pulses, expands, and then, as though someone has thrown gasoline on it, it explodes. Double DP hits the social sites, starts getting recommended, sucks in more readers, more links, more clicks . . . and more ad dollars.
Fast Forward 2: Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Gambler", a near-future look at the news media landscape's flicker-fast focus on breaking trends, ignoring old stories that are dull and don't catch readers, don't get links, don't get ad dollars.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:59 AM on September 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

Are you donating that story to someone to FPP it FLT? That's awesome.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:06 AM on September 10, 2013

Oh how I so dearly wish there were transcripts available. Love the subjects; strongly dislike video.
posted by Dashy at 11:07 AM on September 10, 2013 [11 favorites]

I watched a couple, and they are very very well done. Real news.

And, I can't imagine trying to turn one into a transcript, there is so much nuance in the clothing and the backgrounds--you instantly get a sense for the context of events that are being skimmed over very quickly. These are very dense videos, not at all like somebody talking at a podium at a TED conference or some other public lecture. I'm not sure we really want to make this about that topic though..
posted by Chuckles at 11:37 AM on September 10, 2013

Are you donating that story to someone to FPP it FLT?

It's been covered previously, but Paolo Bacigalupi could get more attention. The Windup Girl was great, and I see from his Wikipedia list of works, I have more to read.

Anyway, this is an interesting list of forgotten topics. Some are still very much alive, and are receiving news coverage again. As laid out in the Wild Horse Wars piece, the system set up to save the horses never seemed to get beyond "don't kill horses on public land" (recent NPR coverage). From the RetroReport piece, "Today, more American mustangs live in government pens or pastures than are estimated to live in the wild." And there are two proposed horse slaughter houses that have been stopped from opening, one in Iowa, the other in New Mexico. The New Mexico plant touts itself as a humane way for dealing with unwanted horses and those left to starve by owners who can't afford to feed them.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:38 AM on September 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I watched a couple, and they are very very well done. Real news.

Because the people behind it are real journalists and producers who have experience from 60 Minutes, CBS News, New York and LA Times, and other news organizations.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:42 AM on September 10, 2013

Ooh, I heard about this on this week's On The Media! Great idea, well executed. I can't wait to sink my teeth in.
posted by arcticwoman at 11:45 AM on September 10, 2013

This is the kind of FPP that, to me, really says Metafilter.
posted by JHarris at 12:06 PM on September 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

yes, that's pretty interesting. Thank you !
posted by nicolin at 1:45 PM on September 10, 2013

Wow, just got through the Brawley and Y2K pieces. Really solid reporting.
It's always a little odd for me, when re-watching Spike Lee's great Do The Right Thing, to see that prominent "Tawana told the truth!" sticker.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 1:55 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Old news can be very interesting sometimes, sort of showing how news starts to turn into history, and reminds you the difference in perspective looking back vs. how things looked at the time.

For a 100 year perspective, I also liked Sunday Magazine (unfortunately on a long hiatus)

This is probably only of interest to Manitobans, particularly the Nor'Wester which has an article titled Insurrection of the French Half-Breeds.
posted by RobotHero at 2:09 PM on September 10, 2013

It's Yesterday's News!

Hail Sagan.
posted by Monochrome at 6:40 PM on September 10, 2013

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