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A MISTAKE, NOT A CONSPIRACY



Published: Fri, June 1, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Anchorage Daily News: Let's count the overreactions -- so far -- to the matter of an obscure cartographer who posted on a federal Web site an inaccurate, out-of-date map of caribou calving zones near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge:

First there were his immediate superiors at the U.S. Geological Survey, who fired the man, Ian Thomas, a longtime contractor, rather than simply take the offending map off the Web and put up a better one. This was one of perhaps 20,000 maps posted by Mr. Thomas over three years of service to USGS. Does anyone believe all 20,000 of them were fully up-to-date, based on fresh data and subtle science?

Not likely in the real world of incomplete and changing science. In fact, not one of those 20,000 maps was peer reviewed. Web sites are good at presenting a lot of data. They're not so good at guaranteeing accuracy, because the premium is on speed. The scientists in the agency were naturally, and properly, unhappy that old data on a sensitive subject went up on the Web too quickly. But that shouldn't be much of a shock on the Internet.

Supercharged atmosphere: The bigger issue was the sensitivity of the subject and its prominence with the new Bush administration. Here, the bureaucrats, nonpolitical civil servants, were smart enough to know you can't be too careful but not smart enough to avoid creating a cause celebre in the supercharged atmosphere of Washington, D.C.

Then there were environmentalists who just assumed Mr. Thomas was being silenced for his views and pumped the story all over the world in the propaganda war over ANWR. That assumption turned out to be false, but it caught on with people who already wanted to believe it -- much the same way that a bogus story about Clinton White House staffers trashing the West Wing before leaving swept the conservative press early this year.

That, of course, recalls the next overreaction to the cartographer's tale -- among the media, most famously the Doonesbury comic strip, which bought the Bush-oil conspiracy line and peddled it worldwide. The wires carried the first wave of the story, and successive waves now include the Los Angeles Times, French television, the Guardian of London, and even the Chinese version of Elle magazine. This story had legs.

Agency flacks: Then there were the public employees, the environmental lobbies, the members of Congress and the agency flacks who've gone a little over the top in this essentially needless ruckus. Remember, all this started with a Web site map based on obsolete information that, if anything, would have tilted the debate in the Bush administration's favor. The map was a flyspeck of information in an ocean of data -- a mistake, but not much of a cause celebre. It's probably best to leave it at that.

STRAIGHT DRIVE BY THE COURT

Los Angeles Times: Will anorexics be allowed into the ring with sumo wrestlers? Will swimmers be allowed to compete wearing floaties? No, despite wild talk among some sports nuts, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision allowing a disabled professional golfer to ride in a cart between holes is a limited one and a good one -- not the end of sporting competition as we know it.

By a 7-2 vote, the court ruled Tuesday that golfer Casey Martin be exempted from a PGA Tour Inc. rule requiring competitors to walk 18-hole courses. Walking is required in most professional golf tournaments.

Circulatory disorder: Martin suffers from a circulatory disorder in one leg that has left his bones brittle and his muscles weak, making it difficult for him to walk long distances. He invoked the Americans With Disabilities Act and asked to be allowed to ride between holes. The PGA Tour refused, arguing that overcoming the fatigue that results from hiking the 20 to 25 miles covered in a four-day tournament is an essential aspect of pro golf. Bending the rules for one player's physical condition, tour officials argued, would fundamentally alter the competition -- presumably diminishing its rigor.

But Martin, 28, didn't ask for a shorter course or a wider hole. He asked for what the court correctly labeled "reasonable modifications" in response to his disability. The walking-only rule says nothing about how accurately a golfer can lob the ball into a distant hole. What it has done is exclude an otherwise talented athlete from the tour.

What Casey Martin wants is what many others with disabilities want: the chance to compete in a field in which he is fully qualified. The Supreme Court gave him that opportunity. It's up to him to prove he's up to par.

SO THAT'S WHY THEY TASTE SO GOOD

San Francisco Chronicle: McDonald's french fries, of all things, are at the center of an international culinary scandal, a multimillion-dollar lawsuit and a perceived insult to dietary practices of Hindus and vegetarians.

Revelations that the burger chain uses beef flavoring in processing its popular fries -- at least in the United States -- has sent shock waves through the fast-food-eating community from Seattle to Bombay.

Lawsuit: In Seattle, two observant Hindus, who regard cows as sacred, and a vegetarian have filed a $100 million class-action lawsuit accusing the fast-food giant of fraud for including the beef flavoring in the fries the plaintiffs believed were vegetarian.

In India, 500 outraged Hindus smashed windows in a McDonald's franchise in Bombay and smeared dung on Ronald McDonald, the chain's clown mascot.

Faced with worldwide outrage, McDonald's issued an apology to U.S. customers for failing to explain the "natural" flavoring in its fries contains beef fat.

McDonald's also assured french fry fanciers in 120 countries that it adheres to local religious dietary customs and uses no beef or pork flavorings in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and India.




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