Decline Watch: Disaster warning system -- kind of a disaster

The FEC and FEMA carried out an unprecedented nationwide test of the U.S. emergency alert system today, which was supposed to interrupt television and radio coverage at around 2 p.m. eastern time. Results of the test were mixed, as the New York Times's Media Decoder blog reports:

Many of the reported failures affected cable and satellite television subscribers, and some were quite head-scratching: Some DirecTV subscribers said their TV sets played the Lady Gaga song "Paparazzi" when the test was underway. Some Time Warner Cable subscribers in New York said the test never appeared on screen. Some Comcast subscribers in northern Virginia said their TV sets were switched over to QVC before the alert was shown.

In some cases the test messages were delayed, perhaps because the messages are designed to trickle down from one place to many. A viewer in Minneapolis said he saw the message about three minutes late. A viewer in Chattanooga, Tenn., said she saw it about 10 minutes late.

In Greensboro, N.C., a local reporter saw the alert on all the cable news channels but on none of the local broadcast networks. In Los Angeles, some cable customers said the alert lasted for almost half an hour.

Many other viewers and listeners reported that the alert arrived right on time at 2 p.m. Eastern. It halted digital video recorder playback in some households and surprised radio listeners in their cars.

The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were the two federal agencies in charge of the test. "We always knew that there would probably be some things that didn't work, and some things that did," a FEMA official said an hour after the test, acknowledging that some glitches had occurred. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the agencies had not publicly acknowledged the glitches yet.

Perhaps this was all according to plan, and the government thinks Americans would prefer to spend their last moments before nuclear annihilation shopping for costume jewelry and fishing equipment while listening to Lady Gaga. But assuming this wasn't a coded message from the Illuminati and the glitches were accidental, it's not that encouraging. 

Decline-o-meter: As a side note, as someone who almost never turns on the radio and does a good portion of my "TV" watching online, it occurs to me that I would likely be blissfully unaware of the impending catastrophe my government was trying to warn me about. On the other hand, the idea of FEMA commandeering Gmail, Twitter, YouTube, Pandora, Netflix, etc. feels pretty icky from a privacy point of view. 

I suppose we'll have to count on someone to be watching TV at the time to tweet at the rest of us so we tune in. 


Syria Undercover: Live chat

The defining characteristic of Syrian politics, ever since the country gained independence, has been paranoia. While its leaders have lived in fear of military coups, Islamist revolts, and Western meddling, its citizens have dreaded arbitrary arrest, indefinite imprisonment, and torture at the hands of the state.

PBS Frontline's new documentary, "Syria Undercover," provides a ground-level look at the paranoia that has seized the country during the current uprising, which has dragged on for the past eight months, at the cost of more than 3,500 lives. The two-part series tracks correspondent Ramita Navai as she travels around Syria to meet with the protest organizers and defected officers that have emerged during the revolt - at one point, she hides in a protest organizers' safe house while militiamen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad ransack an apartment next door. It also features insights into what motivates the Assad regime from New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid. "This was Syria of the Assads," he wrote, in an exclusive essay for PBS. "[R]endered in their image, haunted by their phobias and ordered by their machinations."

At 1 pm, I will help moderate an exclusive live chat with Navai and Shadid about the current state of the Syrian uprising. Please tune in using the chat module below!