Weekend Reading: The Life and Death of Colin Powell, Ransomware Attacks, School Board Unrest, and More

The best reporting and writing from the past week, and context to understand it.

There’s a lot of great journalism out there. Every week, in a format short enough that it won’t be clipped by your inbox, we aim to share some of the best, with additional context for understanding the biggest news of the day. This is a weekly digest of stories you can savor and reporting you can rely on.

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Colin Powell, Who Shaped U.S. National Security, Dies at 84, Eric Schmitt, The New York Times

If you listened to Tuesday’s episode of The Daily from The New York Times, you would have heard this anecdote: Colin Powell knew that his role in promoting the invasion of Iraq — and how thoroughly he’d been misled and subsequently misled the American people — would one day be the first line of his obituary. And sure enough, it was.

  • 📖 Colin Powell, the Humble American — Robin Wright, The New Yorker: “He was a White House fellow during the Nixon administration and later broke centuries-old racial barriers in three of America’s most powerful jobs: as national-security adviser, in the Reagan administration; chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations; and Secretary of State, in the George W. Bush administration. Until Barack Obama took office, he was the most powerful African American in U.S. history.” But this piece, like so many of the best obituaries and eulogies, is stronger for its brief glimpses of the man, not the breaker of racial barriers.

  • 📖 What Working for Colin Powell Taught Me — Kori Schake, The Atlantic: To begin to truly see a man who is rightly both lionized and vilified, it’s nice to peer behind the curtain at what it was like to share an office with him. Turns out, he was a thoughtful boss. For example: “Even though he rose early and worked ceaselessly, he rarely came in the office before 7 a.m. as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, because he knew that if he did, we’d be in at 6:30; when he slept in his office during the 1991 Gulf War, his closest aides kept it tightly secret so the rest of us wouldn’t follow his lead.”

  • 🎧 Colin Powell’s Pivotal Moment That Wasn’t — On the Media/WNYC Studios: A reflection on the tragic moment of Colin Powell’s 2003 address to the United Nations that paved the way for America’s invasion of Iraq. “He had a wonderful life, but there was one moment when he could have had a decisive life and he didn’t go there,” said Fred Kaplan in conversation with On the Media’s Brooke Gladstone.

  • 📖 Colin Powell: The Man Who Might Have Been America’s First Black President — David Smith, The Guardian: Colin Powell was a principled man, and it truly is one of the great what-ifs in American political history to wonder what the country, and, more specifically, the Republican Party might look like today if he’d chosen to run for president. In 2008, despite his respect for John McCain, Powell endorsed Barack Obama.

He told the NBC politics show Meet the Press: “I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, ‘Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president?'“

When Ransomware Hits Rural America — Andrea Peterson, Slate

A small county in Kansas proved what we all probably intuitively could have guessed all along: A ransomware attack on a rural target could be more damaging than a similar attack to a bigger target. That is the case for all the reasons you would expect, namely that the entities in rural settings often have less security safeguards in place, and fewer resources and personnel dedicated to cybersecurity. There’s also the reality that large sums of money are simply less likely to be on hand in these places than in a big city’s budget. All this leads to a very bad outcome when they are hit with an attack, and from the looks of things, more attacks on rural targets can only be expected.

  • 📖 Ransomware Rises as a National Security Threat as Bigger Targets Fall — Bree Fowler, CNET: The United States recently hosted a summit to address the problem of ransomware at which more than 30 countries were in attendance. The U.S. hosted the summit presumably because ransomware has grown into such a pronounced problem in this country and will only continue to be one.

According to a report issued October 15th by the Department of the Treasury, suspected ransomware payments reported by banks and other financial institutions totaled $590 million for the first six months of this year, easily surpassing the $416 million in suspicious payments reported for all of 2020.

  • 🖥️ The Anatomy of a Ransomware Attack — Gerrit De Vynck, Rachel Lerman, Ellen Nakashima & Chris Alcantara, The Washington Post: If you’ve ever wondered exactly what happens during a ransomware attack, this thorough breakdown is a good introduction to all of the moving parts.

Energizing Conservative Voters, One School Board Election at a Time — Stephanie Saul, The New York Times

The issue of school boards becoming the targets of conservative parents and community members hits close to home for me, as so much of my time as a reporter has been spent covering the local school board. Normally, it’s a painfully dull ordeal. That’s not my personal viewpoint, but rather it’s an assumption borne from anecdotal observations about how little interest anyone in the community has in the goings-on of their school district. Occasionally parents will have a niche concern, but, on the whole, it’s a relatively mild beat to cover. Until it isn’t. Critical race theory, masks, vaccine incentive programs (not even mandates, simply bonus payments) and more have become hot-button issues that draw numerous community members (some not parents or grandparents of students at all) into an increasingly political discourse.

  • 🎧 What It’s Like to Be on the Front Lines of the School Board Culture War — Anya Kamenetz, All Things Considered/NPR: A woman simply wants to run for her local school board. It’s a dedicated act, for sure, but one that would be considered dull in normal times. Not so much right now, though. An ad opposing her candidacy cropped up: “‘Here in Gwinnett County our kids face a grave threat. A ticket of radical liberals is running for school board,’ says the voiceover. The ad connects Watkins and two other school board candidates to teen pregnancy, Marxism and the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida — that last because of the candidates’ support for reducing the use of police officers in schools.” Like those memes that identify the three genders, it’s hard not to get worked up about those three classic pillars of liberalism: (presumably support for) teen pregnancy, Marxism, and the 2018 Parkland school shooting.

  • 📖 Critical Race Fury: The School Board Wars Are Getting Nasty in Texas— Christopher Hooks, Texas Monthly: If you haven’t sat through one of these school board meetings, perhaps you’re saying to yourself, “How bad can it really be?” Read this dispatch from Texas Monthly and try to keep your blood from boiling. “Why, the parents want to know, does Eanes need a diversity program at all? ‘I was raised as a minority in school,’ one parent says. ‘I’m a Jew, OK? I was the only one in my school most of the time. I’m just fine, by the way.’ A father says that when he was young, he was told to ‘suck it up’ when he was bullied. The kids in Eanes who have complained of being taunted with racial slurs, he says, should toughen up a bit. Expressing the idea that the diversity program is intended to make white people feel ashamed of being white, one woman reminds the school board members, ‘You guys are all white,’ and demands to know, ‘Are you feeling guilty?’” If these examples of rock-solid logic don’t convince you how ugly such meetings can be, read on to the part where the (nominal) adults in the room heckle a teenager for having the gall to suggest a high school needs to promote diversity. It’s inspiring stuff.

After a school board meeting in Williamson County, Tennessee, a group of protesters surrounded a doctor who had testified in favor of students wearing masks, shouting, “You’re a child abuser,” “We know who you are,” and “You’ll never be allowed in public again.” In San Diego County, California, in September, anti-mask protesters forced their way into a school board meeting and tried to swear themselves in as the new, unelected members. At a chaotic meeting in Buncombe, North Carolina, parents opposed to a mask mandate announced that they, too, had “overthrown” the school board. Members of the far-right Proud Boys showed up twice, faces covered, at school board meetings in Nashua, New Hampshire; in Vancouver, Oregon, Proud Boys gained access to school grounds during anti-mask protests, leading to a lockdown of the schools. At a Loudoun County, Virginia, school board meeting, which was considering the district’s policies for transgender students and racial equity, riled-up conservatives got so out of hand that the board chair halted the proceedings while the police cleared the room.

More of Our Favorites From the Past Week

‘More Immediate, More Visceral’ and a Lot Tougher on Eric Clapton: A Plan for Reviving Rolling Stone — Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post

Raya and the Promise of Private Social Media — Kyle Chayka, The New Yorker

The Inside Story of Tom Brady’s Departure From New England — Seth Wickersham, Sports Illustrated

The New Lost Cause — David Graham, The Atlantic

The Follow-Up

The news doesn’t stop. If you checked out last week’s edition and found the topics interesting, here’s a collection of stories published since.

Juvenile Justice

Hollywood Goes on Strike

Profiles of the Powerful

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The Postscript

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