Wednesday Edition: Al's Morning Meeting

Maybe you saw this announcement. No doubt it will be a story in every city. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) press release says:

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson will announce a significant reduction in the number of chronically homeless individuals living on the nation's streets during a news conference at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, November 7, 2007.

Is it true where you live? Who are the chronically homeless in your town? What happened to the homeless? Did they move on to another place? Find affordable housing? 

The National Coalition for the Homeless provides these links:

Why Are People Homeless? [PDF] Updated in August

How Many People Experience Homelessness? [PDF] Updated in August

Who is Homeless? [PDF] Updated in August

Other resources about homelessness are available here.

HUD also has a live Webcast of the news conference as well. Click here to listen.

Rise in Cell Phone Jamming

Pocket-sized cell phone jammers are becoming more popular. They are a quiet and illegal way to stop the loudmouth sitting near you from yacking way. Click here to see how a jammer works. You can easily find a jammer that says it will silence cell phones within a 10-meter radius for less than $200.

The New York Times reports:

The buyers include owners of cafes and hair salons, hoteliers,
public speakers, theater operators, bus drivers and, increasingly,
commuters on public transportation.

The development is creating
a battle for control of the airspace within earshot. And the damage is
collateral. Insensitive talkers impose their racket on the defenseless,
while jammers punish not just the offender, but also more discreet

“If anything characterizes the 21st century, it’s our
inability to restrain ourselves for the benefit of other people,” said
James Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University.
“The cellphone talker thinks his rights go above that of people around
him, and the jammer thinks his are the more important rights.”

jamming technology works by sending out a radio signal so powerful that
phones are overwhelmed and cannot communicate with cell towers. The
range varies from several feet to several yards, and the devices cost
from $50 to several hundred dollars. Larger models can be left on to
create a no-call zone.

Using the jammers is illegal in the United
States. The radio frequencies used by cellphone carriers are protected,
just like those used by television and radio broadcasters.

Federal Communication Commission says people who use cellphone jammers
could be fined up to $11,000 for a first offense. Its enforcement
bureau has prosecuted a handful of American companies for distributing
the gadgets — and it also pursues their users.

Investigators from the F.C.C. and Verizon
Wireless visited an upscale restaurant in Maryland over the last year,
the restaurant owner said. The owner, who declined to be named, said he
bought a powerful jammer for $1,000 because he was tired of his
employees focusing on their phones rather than customers.

“I told them: put away your phones, put away your phones, put away your phones,” he said. They ignored him.

owner said the F.C.C. investigator hung around for a week, using
special equipment designed to detect jammers. But the owner had turned
his off.

The Verizon investigator was similarly unsuccessful.
“He went to everyone in town and gave them his number and said if they
were having trouble, they should call him right away,” the owner said.
He said he has since stopped using the jammer.

Of course, it would be harder to detect the use of smaller battery-operated jammers like those used by disgruntled commuters.

The cell phone jammer makers sell the devices as legit safety devices for use in places that prohibit cell phone use. For example, in accordance with fire code regulations, mobile phones must be switched
"off" in any area that has a potentially explosive atmosphere, including
"petrol service stations" where sparks could cause an explosion or fire.
These preventable accidents occur more frequently than most people may think. Areas where mobile phone use is prohibited include:

  • Petrol/ Gas Stations
  • Oil Refineries and Storage Facilities 
  • Offshore Oil Platforms 
  • Petrol/Gas Transportation Vehicles 
  • Chemical Refineries and Storage Facilities
  • Chemical Transportation Vehicles 
  • Laboratories 
  • Fireworks Factories 
  • Liquefied Petroleum (LPG) Refineries and Storage Facilities
  • LPG Transportation Vehicles 
  • Natural Gas Refineries and Storage facilities 
  • Natural Gas Transportation Vehicles 
  • Power Plants 
  • Industrial Plants (or anywhere the air contains chemicals or particles
    such as grain, dust, or metal powders) 
  • Hospitals explains:

In the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and many other
countries, blocking cell-phone services (as well as any other
electronic transmissions) is against the law. In the United States,
cell-phone jamming is covered under the Communications Act of 1934 [PDF],
which prohibits people from "willfully or maliciously interfering with
the radio communications of any station licensed or authorized" to
operate. In fact, the "manufacture, importation, sale or offer for
sale, including advertising, of devices designed to block or jam
wireless transmissions is prohibited" as well.

Jamming is seen as property theft, because a private
company has purchased the rights to the radio spectrum, and jamming the
spectrum is akin to stealing the property the company has purchased. It
also represents a safety hazard because jamming blocks all
calls in the area, not just the annoying ones. Jamming a signal could
block the call of a babysitter frantically trying to contact a parent
or a someone trying to call for an ambulance.

The Federal Communications
Commission is charged with enforcing jamming laws; however, the agency
has not yet prosecuted anyone for cell-phone jamming. Under the U.S.
rules, fines for a first offense can range as high as $11,000 for each
violation, or imprisonment for up to one year. The device used may
also be seized and forfeited to the government.

Expiration Dates for Car Seats

Did you know that child car seats actually expire? Most car seat manufacturers put a six-year expiration on their products. Is this just a ploy to get parents to buy new seats? No. Popular belief is that car seats have expiration dates because the plastic might become dry and brittle in a hot car.

But, as The New York Times reported some time ago, that's not the reason for expiration dates at all:

It's not as if you'll hit the expiration date and the plastic will
become weak," he said. "The plastic is good for at least 10 years. But
regulations and standards are constantly changing."

For example,
in both 1999 and 2002, car seats incorporated new methods of buckling
in children and attaching the seat to the car. Although parents can
still use car seats with older mechanisms, manufacturers can't sell

[...] Also, Mr. Galambos, [compliance and safety manager for child safety systems with Graco] said, as the car seat ages, "some of the history gets lost, such as whether it was in an accident or not."

"Replacement parts get harder to find," he said. "Webbing and such start falling apart."

But, he acknowledged, the seven-year date builds in a pretty hefty buffer zone.

"We're not seeing any disintegration until a minimum of 10 years," he said.

a survey, other major manufacturers, including Cosco, EvenFlo and
Safety First, all agreed upon similar expiration dates, Mr. Galambos

Despite rumors that float around the playground and the
Web, extreme weather has no impact on the life of a car seat, Mr.
Galambos said.

One recommendation all experts agree on, however, is that if a car seat is involved in an accident.

Small Smiles: An Investigation

WJLA-TV investigative reporter Roberta Baskin aired a story Monday night
about the nation's largest chain of for-profit dental clinics. With 66 clinics nationwide, Small Smiles makes a good living off Medicaid. (Watch the story. Warning: It is hard to watch.)

WJLA said it found x-ray technicians who were not licensed to perform the work
they were doing, and the station said young children were sometimes
children-strapped to "papoose boards" that kept the kids immobile
during uncomfortable procedures that their parents were not allowed to

The station said the clinics also quoted former clinic workers who said
they were pressured to push baby root canals as treatment because such
treatments are lucrative.

I interviewed Baskin via e-mail to learn more about the investigation:

Q. How did you find this story?

A. It began with picking up the phone and listening to a random caller. She was a dental assistant who said she'd been fired for complaining about how her clinic treated Medicaid kids. She went on to describe a bonus system, with daily financial goals, which she believed provided an incentive to do unnecessary procedures for more Medicaid money. At first she complained to the Maryland inspector general's office overseeing Medicaid. But they referred her to the Better Business Bureau. That riled her enough to call WJLA.

Q. What surprised you the most?

A. It surprised me most that the small policy clinics have a policy to separate children from their parents and say it's a privacy regulation under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). It surprised me even more that they let our cameras in the back, when they wouldn't allow parents in. It also surprised us how much access we got and how much video we were allowed to shoot of questionable practices. The dental staff is so used to doing what they're doing that they didn't seem to think there was anything unusual about their treatment of Medicaid families. It's just the way those Small Smiles clinics we videotaped do business.

Q. How did you get access to patients?

A. We brought patient consent forms in English and Spanish and asked for permission. Some families said yes, others declined.

Q. How were you able to prove the story to be true, given that you are dealing with HIPAA, Medicaid and medical board oversight?

A. It's a complex system. In addition, there are managed care agencies between the clinics and the state, each with their own rules of engagement. We interviewed more than 100 people: dentists, associations, dental boards, inspectors general, Medicaid, dental assistants, on and on. There are other former employees of Small Smiles we interviewed who were afraid to go on camera, but their stories laid out the same issues.

Q. Just the topic of dentistry, little kids getting root canals and being tied up in "papoose boards" all sounds disturbing. Did you have any concerns that people wouldn't watch it?

A. Yes. It's not a pretty subject. A newsroom employee outside editing was in tears just listening to the children cry. Another production staffer was sobbing after seeing it. We had an extraordinary response in e-mails and calls from viewers. Most were angry at the practices, some were upset by what they saw. And yes, a few were angry at me. We needed to show what we saw so people would see what they otherwise couldn't. We also made an effort not to show shots in the mouth or too many faces. The photojournalist purposefully shot Miguel's feet because that told a lot of the story.

Q. What did you learn when investigating this story that other journalists should know?

A. The most important stories are always the hardest. This one was a challenge on many levels. But tenacity and patience eventually pay off. Also, you don't have to shoot on hidden camera. Going through the front door is always best. A child had died in Maryland from a brain infection caused by untreated tooth decay. It highlighted the fact that four out of five dentists refuse to take Medicaid kids. Small Smiles has a business model that exclusively handles those kids. We just asked to see how they do it.

The Perks for High School Coaches

The Birmingham News says:

A new vehicle, clothing endorsements, consulting and
speaking fees - coaches of about half of Alabama's
powerhouse high school football programs are receiving perks
once reserved for college coaches.

Four of the top-10 ranked Class 6A coaches receive
vehicles from dealerships in their community. Another
top-ranked coach received a vehicle until a short time ago.

The story continues:

Some coaches are concerned about the direction of high
school football. But others defend the practice of coaches
receiving perks, saying no one is getting rich coaching high
school sports. Perks and outside business ventures, they
say, compensate for the extreme pressure to win.

"High school football is a different world now,"
said Glenn Vickery, head coach at Daphne High School in
Baldwin County, one of the top-ranked Class 6A football
teams in the state. "Talk about changes. Twenty years
ago, who would have thought a high school game would be on
national television? Back then a high school coach
didn't get fired unless he slapped somebody. Now he
gets fired if he loses."

Vickery, who receives a new vehicle from Terry Thompson
Chevrolet every 4,500 miles and $20,000 in consulting fees
from the City of Daphne each year, said extra benefits are

"I have had guys who interviewed at small, rural
schools and part of their package is to be a member of a
hunting club or something," he said. "This is a
part of high school athletics now. I know a lot of people
who get vehicles."

We are always looking for your great ideas. Send Al a few sentences and hot links. 

Editor's Note: Al's Morning
Meeting is a compendium of ideas, edited story excerpts and other
materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as original concepts and
analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it
will be attributed and a link will be provided whenever possible. The
column is fact-checked, but depends on the accuracy and integrity of
the original sources cited. Errors and inaccuracies found will be

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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