December 9, 2022

The Morning Meeting with Al Tompkins is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas worth considering and other timely context for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

One of the must-do tasks for Congress in the coming days is to get a new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed to keep the U.S. military funded. House Republicans demanded, and got, a concession from Democrats to drop the mandate that all members of the military get vaccinations against COVID-19.  At this point, the Defense Department says, 95% of the U.S. military is vaccinated, and that thousands of men and women were ousted from the service. The White House and Democrats have opposed using the NDAA to repeal the vaccine mandate but it seems as if they have lost this fight in order to get the $847 billion defense bill passed. 

Republicans say the mandates have made it more difficult for the military to sign recruits, but that’s also more difficult when there are plenty of open civilian jobs. 

Vox provides some other details:

The reasons for recruitment shortfalls are nuanced: As the Associated Press reported, the Army did miss its recruitment target by 25 percent in the last year, with military leaders attributing the gap to a number of factors, including inability to do in-person recruiting because of the pandemic as well as vaccine hesitancy. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, a top military leader, has said vaccine mandates pose some obstacles in recruiting due to misinformation about the Covid-19 shots.

Along with the rescinding of the mandate, Republicans have called for a provision that would reinstate service members who’ve been discharged in the past because of the vaccine mandate, though that has not made it into the bill.

The push against the military vaccine mandate marks the latest effort by the GOP to make vaccine mandates an issue of contention in different must-pass bills. Republicans have repeatedly threatened to hold up government funding unless they could vote on amendments that would defund vaccine mandates the Biden administration has put in place for federal employees and medical workers. Since those mandates were established, GOP lawmakers have frequently tapped into the issue as a way to show their base that they’re protecting people’s liberties.

Walmart warns that some stores may close because of shoplifting

How bad is the shoplifting problem in America today? This week, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said it is so bad that it will lead to higher prices and that it could even lead to some stores closing. 

This is the second recent big retailer’s mention of mega-bucks shoplifting causing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. As CNBC reported recently:

Last month, Target Chief Financial Officer Michael Fiddelke said shoplifting has jumped about 50% year over year, leading to more than $400 million in losses in this fiscal year alone. 

Most of the shoplifting is organized retail theft, rather than petty theft, Fiddelke said.

Even though self-checkout stations tend to have higher theft rates, stores keep adding them to save on hiring clerks.

Here is how brazen things have gotten. One guy in Florida was collared for shoplifting in a store where at the same moment 40 police officers were in the store for a “shop with a cop” event in which officers shop with little kids. And in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, police say a couple of women used a magnet to remove security tags, walked out of Macy’s with $6,000 in merchandise and packed pepper spray in case somebody confronted them. 

401(k) hardship withdrawals are at a record high

The number of people who withdrew money from their 401(k)-retirement accounts early is still one-half of 1% of such investors. A tiny number. But still, we have never seen a number that large. The question is whether this is a signal that people are getting increasingly desperate for money. Hardship withdrawals are different from early cash-outs or taking a loan against your own account. CNBC explained:

More than half of plans let workers tap funds to “alleviate major financial pressures,” according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America, a trade group. But they more frequently allow withdrawals to cover medical expenses, housing (to buy a primary residence or prevent eviction or foreclosure), funeral costs or loss due to natural disasters, for example.

Participants can also access 401(k) savings via loans or nonhardship withdrawals. The latter are for workers over age 59½, and sometimes for workers in other circumstances not related to financial hardship (for instance, rolling over assets to an individual retirement account while working).

Put another way, roughly 25,000 workers took one of these distributions, which allow workers to tap their 401(k) plans before retirement for an “immediate and heavy” financial need.

Meanwhile, savers have been dipping into their nest eggs via other means — loans and “nonhardship” distributions — in higher numbers throughout 2022, according to Vanguard data.

Financial advisors warn that raiding your 401(k) is a really bad idea unless you have no alternative. If you are under age 59½ and take money out of your 401(k), you will get hit with a typically owe a 10% tax penalty on the withdrawal plus income tax on pretax savings. That applies to nonhardship withdrawals and loans too if you do not repay the withdrawal from your account. 

FDA approves COVID variant vaccines for children as young as 6 months

Children down to age 6 months are now eligible for updated COVID-19 vaccinations that target the omicron variants that are moving quickly across the globe again. The FDA’s new guidelines say:

• Children 6 months through 5 years of age who received the original (monovalent) Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine are now eligible to receive a single booster of the updated (bivalent) Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine two months after completing a primary series with the monovalent Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine.

• Children 6 months through 4 years of age who have not yet begun their three-dose primary series of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine or have not yet received the third dose of their primary series will now receive the updated (bivalent) Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as the third dose in their primary series following two doses of the original (monovalent) Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine.

• Children 6 months through 4 years of age who have already completed their three-dose primary series with the original (monovalent) Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine will not be eligible for a booster dose of an updated bivalent vaccine at this time. Children in this age group who already completed their primary series would still be expected to have protection against the most serious outcomes from the currently circulating omicron variant. The data to support giving an updated bivalent booster dose for these children are expected in January. The agency is committed to evaluating those data as quickly as possible.

The FDA already approved omicron-targeted booster vaccines for children over age 5. Parents have been hypercautious about the vaccines so far. About 5% of children under age 5 have gotten the full series of shots they could have taken before now. 

Celine Dionn is suffering from ‘stiff person syndrome.’ What is it?

What an unfortunate name for a serious neurological disorder that is sidelining one of the great headliner entertainers. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says SPS is a rare neurological disorder that causes severe muscle stiffness and spasms, which Dion says she has suffered for some time. Experts say it affects posture and affects certain muscles that the singer says keep her from performing. Dion said her doctors tell her that maybe one in a million people have this disorder. Some patients find relief using muscle relaxers but there is no known cure for the condition. The spasms can be touched off by loud noises or other stimuli. The Washington Post talked with some doctors who explained the severity of the condition:

“Just imagine having the worst Charley Horse you can have but it’s affecting a ton of muscles in your lower back and legs — and it’s constant. It’s very painful,” said Kunal Desai, assistant professor of neurology at Yale University.

Chi-Ying (Roy) Lin, a neurology professor specializing in movement disorders at Baylor College of Medicine, said in the cases he has seen, patients “were very, extremely uncomfortable, and it’s usually very painful.”

“And when the pain occurs it’s very debilitating no matter what position, he added. “There’s basically no comfortable position for them to stay, either sitting or laying.”

The condition is detectable through blood tests, but the symptoms often are similar to other more common conditions. 

Are Army football players more likely to become generals?

Army Times started their investigation with a simple question: Are West Point football players more likely to become generals than their peers, and are they more likely to ascend into key three- and four-star roles?” And the answer they came up with is “yes.” Army Times journalists searched data from the West Point Association of Graduates, the Army’s General Officer Management Office, the Defense Manpower Data Center, official Army histories and legislative archives and found:

• West Point football players have been 3.41 times more likely to make it to at least brigadier general than the entire population of officers (165,909) who didn’t play football there.

• The disparity between the two groups is even greater for senior general roles, with West Point football players being 6.02 times more likely to earn a third or fourth star.

• The football players even outpace their West Point peers, attaining general officer rank at a 1.4 times greater rate than members of the Long Gray Line who aren’t gridiron vets.

• For senior roles, football alumni have reached the three- and four-star ranks at a 1.89 times higher rate than West Point grads who weren’t on the team.

Col. Todd Woodruff, a West Point sociologist and director of the West Point Leadership Center explained the results, telling Army Times that the link isn’t due to any “nefarious thing … like nepotism,” but rather because of “a combination of the special qualities and characteristics that are built” through a football player’s experience at the academy. 

Coming next week: The PolitiFact ‘Lie of the Year’

One thing is for sure, lots of liars worked hard to get to the top of the manure pile this year, but only one can wear the crown of Lie of the Year, which PolitiFact is scheduled to announce on Tuesday.

Here are some of the contenders and the PolitiFact rulings that got them to this hallowed status:

  1. Nevada secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant: “President Trump and I lost an election in 2020 because of a rigged election.” Pants on Fire!
  2. Restoration PAC: Democratic Wisconsin Senate candidate Mandela Barnes supports killing “preemies” — “infants born prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy.” Pants on Fire!
  3. Vladimir Putin: Ethnic Russians face “genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime.” False
  4. Joe Biden: “On my watch, for the first time in 10 years, seniors are getting an increase in their Social Security checks.” Pants on Fire!
  5. Donald Trump: At the Pelosi house, “the glass it seems was broken from the inside to the out, so it wasn’t a break-in, it was a breakout.” Pants on Fire!
  6. Donald Trump: “President Barack Hussein Obama kept 33 million pages of documents, much of them classified. How many of them pertained to nuclear? Word is, lots!” Pants on Fire!
  7. Stacey Abrams: “(Georgia Gov.) Brian Kemp wants to investigate and punish women for having miscarriages.” False
  8. Facebook posts: Schools are putting litter boxes in bathrooms to accommodate kids who identify as furries. Pants on Fire!

Previous winners include lies about the January 6th attack and about COVID-19.  Trump is a repeat winner of the Lie of the Year award, but President Obama and Sarah Palin also were recipients. Biden is nominated this year, but I think that Putin has an edge, even though it is hard to beat the cat little boxes in the classroom rumor that got repeated by so many politicians. 

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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