The end of the school year is always a bit hectic: meeting with students, reviewing assignments, tallying final grades and attending commencement ceremonies. Then there's all the head scratching that comes with the feckless decisions university administrators tend to make at this time of year. It all makes it difficult to keep up with the news and current events.

Now, with the semester's work behind me and a busy summer ahead, it's as good a time as any to catch up with the headlines and see what is -- and isn't -- making news of late.

From the Middle East to the Gulf to the Internet to the Tea Party.

Not bringing 'em home

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate approved funding for President Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan. In addition to the $33 billion for war spending, the Senate voted 67-28 to appropriate $4 billion for the State Department to fund the so-called "civilian surge."
"The Senate rejected (80-18) Russ Feingold's (D-Wis.) proposal that would establish a timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan."
In a related development, the Senate rejected (80-18) Russ Feingold's (D-Wis.) proposal that would establish a timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. None of this is especially welcome news for a growing number of Americans opposed to the nine-year war. Still, there are signs inside the beltway of growing unease with the war.

Several prominent Senate Democrats, including Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Patty Murray (D-WA.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), voted in favor of Feingold's proposal. In doing so, these Democrats may embolden some of their colleagues in the House of Representatives to support a similar proposal when the House takes up war funding in June.

Behind the scenes -- and well out of the media spotlight -- Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) has been organizing opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout the month of May, MFSO issued a number of "action alerts" pegged to the Mother's Day and Memorial Day holidays and the legislative agenda. These action alerts are designed to communicate MFSO's anti-war message to lawmakers, the news media and the general public.

While it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of MFSO's campaign, one thing is clear: MFSO is a leader in an otherwise-stalled anti-war movement. Equally important, MFSO's efforts remind us of the human cost of war on the troops, their families and the nation as a whole. And to their great credit, MFSO recognizes the consequences of U.S. military action on civilian populations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

BP: Beyond prosecution?

Even by recent journalistic standards, news coverage of the Senate votes on the Afghan war was remarkably thin. The lion's share of reporting in and outside of Washington, D.C., has focused on the unfolding environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Public broadcasting has been particularly accommodating to BP executives and industry spin-doctors of late."
Despite the enormity of the crisis, the U.S. press corps has followed the reporters' playbook that features the usual suspects -- government and business elites -- and rarely strays away from "he said, she said" denials, accusations and assertions.

Ever since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded some five weeks ago, BP representatives and oil industry spokespeople have been omnipresent -- and not just on the commercial broadcast and cable TV networks. Public broadcasting has been particularly accommodating to BP executives and industry spin-doctors of late. On that score, National Public Radio (NPR) hit a new low during its May 22 broadcast of Weekend Edition with Scott Simon.

In an interview that ran just under six minutes, Simon spoke with BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles about the oil giant's cleanup efforts in the Gulf. Astonishingly, NPR framed the interview as a "business story" (seems so-called public radio can't get enough business news these days). Like many of his colleagues in the U.S. press corps, Simon pressed the BP exec on the size of the spill -- and the ensuing debate over how much oil is actually being released into the Gulf. But Simon never pressed the BP spokesman on the reckless practices that killed 11 workers and wreaked havoc on the Gulf's ecosystem in the first place.

As if this PR stunt weren't insulting enough, Simon followed his soft-boiled questioning of a BP executive with a bit of show business fluff: a nearly 10-minute interview with actor Kiefer Sutherland on the occasion of Fox TV's broadcast of the final episode of its hit series 24.

In contrast to the lackluster reporting on commercial and public broadcasting, Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now! has been following the environmental calamity in the Gulf with substantive reporting and first-rate analysis.

In addition to running in-depth interviews with marine biologists and others on the ecological impact of the BP oil spill, DN! has been asking pertinent questions about corporate responsibility and the cozy relationship between federal regulatory agencies and the oil industry. Furthermore, DN! has been exploring the prospects of criminal prosecution for BP officials and other corporate executives -- like those implicated in the Massey mine explosion that took the lives of 29 miners last month -- for their complacency toward worker health and safety regulations.

In an era of unprecedented corporate control of our natural resources, our health care, our media system and, it seems clear, our government, reporting of this sort is all too rare and all the more valuable.

Annals of corporate lobbying

Speaking of the deleterious effects of corporate power on democratic processes, Save The Internet.com recently released an action alert detailing the latest machinations of Comcast, Verizon and AT&T.
"Seventy-four House Democrats and 37 Senate Republicans caved in to pressure from the phone and cable companies to undermine the principle of net neutrality."
Fresh on the heels of the Federal Communication Commission's decision to uphold net neutrality provisions, members of both the U.S. House and Senate signed on to industry-written letters that urge the FCC to put an end to its efforts to provide consumer protection for broadband customers and otherwise ensure an open Internet.

According to the Free Press outreach coordinator, Timothy Karr, the letter "warns [FCC] Chairman Genachowski against pursuing a plan that would enable the FCC to act as a watchdog and serve the public interest over the Internet, preventing phone and cable companies from blocking access to Web sites and services, while promoting policies that ensure universal and affordable access."

If you are keeping score at home, 74 House Democrats and 37 Senate Republicans caved in to pressure from the phone and cable companies to undermine the principle of net neutrality. Not surprisingly, the majority of signatories to these letters accepted sizable campaign contributions from the telephone and cable lobby.

In response, Save the Internet has launched its own letter-writing campaign: Stop the Big $ellout.

Here, as elsewhere, it is shaping up to be a classic battle between organized money and organized people. And while the Internet is no panacea for all that is wrong with our ailing democracy, an open Internet is vital to sustaining popular movements of the sort that rarely get much traction in the mainstream media.

Unless, of course, we're talking about the Tea Party. ...

Media darlings

Grassroots and independent media are the lifeblood of citizens' movements that challenge political orthodoxy and conventional wisdom. The reasons for this are plain to see: popular movements that threaten the status quo are routinely demonized or otherwise ignored by powerful institutions, like the corporate media.
"Key factions within the Tea Party movement embrace a socioeconomic conservatism that has dominated our national politics for decades."
How then do we account for the meteoric rise and growing political influence of the Tea Party movement? As I've noted in a previous column (Made for each other) the Tea Party is, if nothing else, a creature of the 24/7 news cycle. Equally important, key factions within the Tea Party movement embrace a socioeconomic conservatism that has dominated our national politics for decades.

Notwithstanding popular anger and frustration with the Wall Street bailout scheme, the Tea Party's hostility toward "big government" and anti-tax protests goes a long way toward reviving a discredited neoliberal agenda that has brought the country to the brink of economic collapse and environmental calamity.

More troubling, the Tea Party taps into altogether darker passions and biases. As Peter Hart and Steve Randall of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting : "Antipathy toward Obama as a black Democratic president goes some way in explaining why, if the Tea Partiers are really motivated by opposition to government spending, the movement didn't launch years earlier in response to George W. Bush's skyrocketing budget deficits."

Indeed, opposition to Obama -- whose economic, military and national security positions are consistent with Bush-era policies -- is the unifying principle behind disparate elements within the Tea Party.

Under the guise of a populist movement, then, the Tea Party provides cover for a resurgent conservatism that marries free market fundamentalism with a reactionary racial politics. Exhibit A: Rand Paul.

Fueled by the faux populism of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly -- and far less threatening to entrenched interests than a progressive popular movement -- is it any wonder that the Tea Party is like catnip for the US corporate media?

Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University and can be reached at khowley@depauw.edu. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.