Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

#Sidney's Picks: The Best of the Week's News

  • On Tuesday, Sasha Chavkin of the New York World (a publication of the Columbia Journalism School) reported that women in Brooklyn were being forced to sit at the back of the B110 bus, a public bus route operated by a private company between Williamsburg and Borough Park. The New York Times picked up the story and, disappointingly, framed it as a clash of religious and women’s rights because the bus bends the rules to accomodate the religious sensibilities of local Hasidic Jews. In fact, there are no religious rights at stake here. As Mayor Bloomberg said in a news conference, sex discrimination is “obviously not permitted” on public transit. BeckySharper of the Persuit of Harpyness puts the conflict in context with an informative post on the status of women in Hasidic Brooklyn.
  • UK Labor MP Tom Watson will travel to a NewsCorp shareholders meeting in Los Angeles to reveal previously unreported allegations about the company’s illegal surveillance program, Ed Pilkington and Dan Sabbagh report in the Guardian. Watson is a member of the House of Commons committee that investigated NewsCorp. He has the right to address the meeting because he is serving as a proxy for the AFL-CIO. [HT: Boing Boing]
  • U.S. Tom Watson, our friend and digital consultant, has some thoughts on Occupy Wall Street as a start-up. So far, the Zuccotti Park protesters have done incredibly well at drawing a crowd and spreading their message and their model across the country and the world. Now, everyone wants to tell them what to do: Issue demands, work for Democratic candidates, join organized labor. Tom, who knows a thing or two about tech ventures from his days as a journalist on the start-up beat, disagrees with the conventional wisdom: “But all this [advice] sounds exactly like the early days of Twitter to me. Do this, be that, fit into our idea of what you should be. And this is where Fred Wilson’s longstanding advice to Internet entrepreneurs is instructive: time and again, he’s urged startups to focus on building usership and serving customers. The revenue model will be there, if you do those things right.”
  • Risa L. Goluboff and Dahlia Lithwick explain why the GOP is fighting a bogus crusade on non-existent voter fraud. The short answer? Twenty-five percent of African Americans lack government-issued photo ID, vs. 12% of Americans at large. Voter ID laws surgically disenfranchise a core Democratic constituency.

Suggest a story for next week’s #Sidney’s Picks by tweeting #Sidney to @hillmanfoundation.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Ken Auletta on Jill Abramson in "The New Yorker"

The best part of Ken Auletta’s long New Yorker profile of Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of the New York Times, comes in the final paragraph:

To celebrate her return to the city, in 2003, Abramson got a small tattoo on her right shoulder that replicates an old subway token. It was intended, she says, as a tribute to the subway system, which she rides and which she associates with her home town, and as a declaration that she had “come back to New York, likely for good.” The slogan on the coin, she said, was also meant as a reflection of her philosophy that life is not a dress rehearsal for anything: “Good for one fare.”

Unfortunately, the rest of the profile is an extended rumination on whether Abramson is a bitch. Auletta is obsessed with this question. The piece is a littany of people Jill Abramson did or didn’t fight with over the course of her distinguished career. Steven Brill: only that one time; Howell Raines: oh, yes; Bill Keller: no; Dean Baquet: no.

In the very first paragraph we’re told that Abramson was “nervous” on her first day as executive editor because “many in the newsroom feared her.” Auletta takes it for granted that this is a bad thing.

In fairness, Abramson seems determined to cast herself as a repentant overbearing boss determined to mend her ways. The piece hints that this might be a strategic decision. We’re given the strong impression that Howell Raines’ imperious personality shortened his tenure as executive editor and that Abramson knows it.

Oddly, for a piece that’s explicitly about gender and power, Auletta gives scant consideration to the possibility that Abramson is being judged unfairly because she’s an assertive woman. He sets the stage by rattling off some anecdotes and statistics about the Times’ male-dominated history, but that’s about it.

The piece weighs two theories of Abramson’s psychology: incorrigible bitch and unintentional bitch capable of reform. An anonymous senior editor is quoted as saying, “Unlike Howell, she is not mean. Jill is a nice, caring person. … She doesn’t enjoy torturing people. So much of her negativity is unintended.” Abramson remarks that her children often perceived her as yelling at them, even when she wasn’t.

Auletta remarks on Abramson’s “schoolteacherlike” manner of speech and her “cackle of a laugh.” He gets a lot of people to say that Abramson was mean at meetings, but he doesn’t get around to describing what she actually said. “Abramson interrupted, without allowing them to finish the presentation, and began belittling many of their ideas,” he writes in one representative passage, adding that “even her supporters were mildly critical of her behavior” that day.

Auletta portrays Abramson’s decision to write a dog training memoir, “The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout,” as an unfathomable feminine quirk, one that Abramson herself is somewhat self-conscious about. “Say what you will about the grayer days of the Times in mid-century, but it was always hard to imagine James Reston writing a book about a beloved household pet,” he writes. It doesn’t seem to occur to him writing a book about nurturing a puppy might be a strategy to soften her image.

The piece is so focused on Abramson’s interpersonal style that it glosses over much more interesting and substantial themes, themes that Auletta identifies as important and then abandons to go back to talking about Abramson’s voice. Auletta reports that Arthur Sulzberger hired Abramson for the top job in large part because he wanted an editor who understood “the move from search to social and what that means for us.” According to Sulzberger, “Increasingly, people are learning where they want to go, what they want to consume, how they want to engage with news or games or a variety of different things from each other.” Yet, Auletta barely touches on Abramson’s new media strategy.

We’re told that Abramson’s background as an investigative reporter has informed her approach to editing the paper. She wants the paper to “get to the bottom of things” whereas Bill Keller, a former foreign correspondent, was more interested in “explaining things” (meaning, roughly, describing events as they unfolded). That’s pretty much all we learn about a purportedly profound philosophical shift at the national newspaper of record.

Imagine you’re pitching a magazine profile. Your angle is that the executive editor of the New York Times can be brusque, abrupt, and intimidating. That’s a dog bites man story, unless of course the executive editor is a woman.

[Photo credit: “Abramson to Replace Keller as The Times’s Executive Editor,” John Niedermeyer, Creative Commons.]


Small Liberal Think Tank, 1; Right Wing Huckster James O'Keefe, 0

Right wing media huckster James O’Keefe tried and failed to entrap the Economic Policy Institute, a small but distinguished liberal think tank, Sam Stein reports in the Huffington Post:

Last week, both [EPI’s President Lawrence] Mishel and Amy Hanauer, the founding executive director of the group Policy Matters Ohio, received cryptic phone calls from a person identifying himself as Luke Fowler. Fowler explained that he worked as a researcher for a hedge fund manager named Peter Harman who was interested in funding a study showing that cuts to education and collective bargaining rights would hurt students. Harman, Fowler added, was associated with the Ohio Education Association, a union that represents some 130,000 teachers and faculty members.

The implication was clear. If Mishel could produce the data, he would get the money. “He wanted me to do something to show that spending cuts were going to hurt children in schools,” Mishel said. “I told him, you know, you can’t buy results.”

The last time O’Keefe was in the news, it was for falsely claiming to have entrapped National Public Radio officials in a money-for-coverage sting. In fact, O’Keefe released heavily edited video that made it appear that NPR execs were agreeing to slant coverage for donations when the unedited footage showed that they were refusing to do so.

Hat tips to Laura Clawson of DKos and Dave Dayen of Firedoglake.

[Photo credit: Center for American Progress, Creative Commons.]

National Labor Relations Board May Lose Quorum in 2012

The National Labor Relations Board could once again be paralyzed by lack of quorum, Nick Jones reports in Labor Notes:

NLRB Chair Wilma Liebman stepped down August 28 after 14 years on the board, leaving only three of five seats filled, all by Obama appointees. The board must have at least three members to issue decisions, following a Supreme Court decision last year.

So conservative activists are calling for Obama’s one Republican appointee, Brian Hayes, to resign in order to cripple the board.

It’s a bit of a stretch to call these activists “conservative” when they are openly calling on an NLRB member to step down in order to cripple the very organization he swore to serve. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said last month she would support Hayes’ resignation or “anything that would disband the NLRB.”

Jones explains that the quorum conundrum won’t go away, even if Hayes stays on: 

It is unclear whether Hayes will do so, but in any case the term of Craig Becker, a former attorney for the AFL-CIO and SEIU, expires at the end of this year. The Senate is unlikely to approve any new nomination from Obama, and maneuvering by House Republicans could prevent him from making a recess appointment. (Since President Reagan, appointments made while the Senate is in recess have become a common way that presidents have installed their picks at the NLRB.)

Even without quorum the boad could still oversee unionization elections and investigate allegations of unfair labor practices, but it would not be allowed to rule on cases. So, employers would have no incentive to settle disputes rather than face the board.

[Photo credit: justmakeit, Creative Commons.]

How Hershey Milked a Venerable Cultural Exchange Program for Cheap Labor

Remember those cultural exchange students who paid up to $6000 for a summer job and an educational experience in the United States and found themselves heaving 60-pound boxes of chocolate on the night shift at a Hershey factory in Pennsylvania?

Julia Preston has a front-page story in the New York Times explaining how Hershey and the private contractor overseeing the exchange abused a successful 50-year-old State Department program.

The students found themselves overworked, isolated, and unable to live on their meager wages. Like many guest workers they found their paychecks docked for a myriad of “expenses” without explanation. The students tried to complain to the private contractor who oversaw the program for the State Department, the Council for Educational Travel, USA, but they were told that they would be sent home if they complained. The students finally got the State Department’s attention by going on strike.

The students were J-1 visa holders. The J-1 visa is supposed to be an opportunity for university students to experience life in the U.S. at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer. The applicants work for up to four months and travel for a month. The program has grown rapidly, 130,000 students participated in 2008, up from just 30,000 in 1998. Because this is a cultural exchange program, the students’ working conditions are not subject to the usual level of oversight.

[Photo credit: wuperruper, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: The Best of the Week's News

  • When the history of Occupy Wall Street is written, maybe we’ll find out whether the decision to set up in privately-owned Zuccotti Park was a strategic coup or a lucky accident. Ironically, as Ben Adler reports for GOOD, if the protest had been held in a public park, the city could have shut it down a long time ago. In order to protest in a public park, you need a permit. If you try to rally without one, you’ll be arrested. City parks have curfews, but Zuccotti Park must be open 24 hours a day, Lisa Foderaro reports in the New York Times. It’s actually illegal to camp in a city park without a permit, but it’s merely against the ad hoc rules to camp in Zuccotti Park.
  • Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly had threatened to clear the park for “cleaning” at 7am on Friday. This was a de facto eviction threat because the protesters were told that they wouldn’t be allowed to bring their camping gear back in again. Early this morning, as thousands of people assembled in the park to defend the occupation, it was announced that the cleaning had been postponed. The official story is that Brookfield Properties, the owners of Zuccotti Park, made the decision late last night, before two thousand protesters showed up to defend the encampment, Allison Kilkenny reports on The Nation blog. Kilkenny is rightly skeptical.
  • Adrienne Jeffries of the New York Observer debunks the insinuation that George Soros is funding Occupy Wall Street and sheds some light on how the occupation is actually funded. The protesters’ General Assembly also voted to turn down an offer by hip hop mogul Russell Simmons to pay for the cleanup of Zuccotti Park to preempt eviction. The protesters cleaned up the park themselves. I was there at 5:30 this morning and I can attest that the concrete was cleaner than the floor of the diner where I ate breakfast.

In non-Occupy-Wall-Street news…

  • “I don’t like it when people use buzz words that try to get people’s attention, and ‘cancer’ is one of those,” Republican Congressman and thoracic surgeon Larry Bucshon told OSHA chief David Micheals during a hearing last week. Michaels said OSHA was working on a tougher standard for crystaline silica in the workplace, because the stuff causes cancer and other lung diseases. Bucshon said he’d never seen a patient with silica-induced lung cancer. As public health researcher Celeste Monforton explains at The Pump Handle, there is no question that crystaline silica causes lung cancer. It’s not the leading cause of lung cancer, smoking is. But then again, a lot fewer people are exposed to silica dust than tobacco smoke. Wouldn’t it be great if nobody had to breathe silica? 
  • This week, Topeka City Council struck down the city’s law against domestic violence, Kate Sheppard reports in Mother Jones. This was not a capitulation to the wife beater lobby, but rather, a bid to force the local DA to resume prosecuting domestic violence cases, which he had stopped doing to protest budget cuts. Until recently, there was state law and city law against domestic violence. The City Council suspected that the DA wasn’t enforcing Kansas law because he was counting on the city to enforce Topeka law. So, they got rid of the city law to force his hand. Who knows if this will work? Meanwhile, if Topekan women want protection, they’re free to hire Blackwater.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

"Art Pope, Citizens United, and North Carolina Politics," an Interview with Jane Mayer

In the New Yorker, Jane Mayer describes how a rumpled dollar store magnate is quietly reshaping the politics of North Carolina, and maybe the nation. Art Pope has been dubbed “The Knight of the Right” for spending millions of dollars bankrolling conservative causes and candidates.

Mayer describes how Pope threw his money and his infrastructure behind REDMAP, a spectacularly successful 2010 bid to give Republicans control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since 1870, just in time to redraw the Congressional districts along partisan lines. The GOP is expected to pick up at least four more Congressional seats in the next election.

North Carolina is a purple state that Barack Obama carried by just 14,000 votes in 2008. Some analysts say that the president must repeat that performance to be reelected in 2012.

Mayer reports that Tar Heel Palmetto State Republicans are using their newfound dominance to restrict early voting and mandate government-issued ID at the polls. These kinds of measures can be expected to disproportionately depress voter turnout among key Democratic constituencies including minority voters, youth, and the poor.

Jane Mayer won a Hillman Prize in 2009 for her book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. I interviewed her by email.

Q: Can you say a little more about how the Citizens United Supreme Court decision created opportunities for Pope to influence politics in North Carolina?

A: The Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision held that corporations, like people, have the right to free speech, and that spending money in campaigns is a form of expression, so the result was that it struck down prohibitions against corporations spending money on advertisements directly for and against candidates.  Because of this ruling, Art Pope, who owns a private business in North Carolina, can now legally spend as much money from his company’s general treasury as he wishes on ads aimed at influencing the outcome of political elections. In reality, publicly-held corporations are somewhat restrained in their political spending by the need not to offend shareholders. But the owners of private companies, like Pope and the Koch Brothers, have no need to worry about shareholders. They can freely spend on politics as they see fit. Pope, who was linked to three-quarters of all the independent money spent on state races in North Carolina in 2010, is emblematic of how much influence a single, motivated, wealthy businessman can now wield in the post Citizens United world.

Q: You’ve reported extensively on Charles and David Koch, conservative powerbrokers who are spending their oil and chemical fortune on conservative causes. How would you compare Art Pope’s approach to politics to that of the Koch Brothers?

A: The Kochs have exponentially more money than Art Pope. He appears to have ‘merely’ $148 million in his family foundation, while Charles and David Koch are reportedly each worth upwards of $20 billion. But beyond that, there are some very interesting similarities in how they approach politics.

To begin with, both Art Pope and David Koch harbored major electoral ambitions earlier in their lives and both were defeated, suggesting that their ideas lacked popularity at the ballot box. David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian ticket against Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Art Pope ran for Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina as a Republican in 1992. When neither proved successful, they ramped up efforts to gain political power by other means – principally by the strategic expenditure of their family fortunes.

Both Pope and the Kochs funded non-profit think tanks meant to promote their arch-conservative anti-government agenda, and both also contributed to a plethora of far-right advocacy groups – in fact they have for years funded many of the same ones.

Starting in 1984, Pope and the Kochs actually worked together in setting up Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was a prototype for the kinds of corporate-funded astro-turf groups that have organized the Tea Party movement.  It was followed in 2004 by Americans for Prosperity, which David Koch founded, and for which Art Pope is a director. Both the Kochs and Pope have in many ways pioneered the art of pushing the outer legal limits (without exceeding them as far as I know) of combining non-partisan tax-exempt philanthropy with hyper-partisan advocacy.

They both pour the wealth from private companies founded by their fathers, into personally-controlled, state-of-the-art political machines pushing very similar worldviews. Finally, both the Kochs and Pope contribute heavily both to political campaigns, and to independent groups involved in electoral spending. As such, they both illustrate the enormous power that wealthy businessmen can wield, especially in the post-Citizens United era.

Q: I was surprised to read that Art Pope calls himself an admirer of John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice,” minus any implications about redistribution of wealth. What part of Rawls’ theory does he admire?

A: Pope likes Rawls’ notion that a just society is one in which all people have equal opportunity. He just thinks that private property and wealth ought to accrue to those who earn it, and that this makes a society more, not less fair.  The key question really, is whether inequality of wealth interferes with inequality of opportunity. He would argue (with some caveats) that it doesn’t.


Pope preaches that we create our own opportunities in life. So, he thinks there’s no need for the government to intervene to ensure the fair equality of opportunity that Rawls said was essential to a just society. On the contrary, he thinks the goverment should do a lot less for the worst-off among us.

After her Pope story ran, Mayer posted a follow-up on the New Yorker’s website about the scope and limits of Pope’s philosophy of rugged individualism and self-bootstrapping. He told her that he was not an heir because his father made him and his siblings buy equity stakes in the family business. I found myself wondering where he got the money to buy in and whether he paid a market price? We know he worked for the family business before he came to own a large chunk of it.

The Facing South blog noted that Pope accepted $330,000 in campaign loans from his parents, which he never paid back.

Meanwhile, as Mayer reported in her original story, the head of the Pope-funded Center for Higher Education Policy has denounced publicly-funded universities as a “boondoggle” and the Republican-controlled state legislators that Pope helped to elect have slashed the budget of North Carolina’s celebrated state-university system by 16%, which will mean layoffs, tuition hikes, and fewer scholarships–even though the state’s constitution guarantees an affordable college education to all residents.

All this talk about the Protestant work ethic, but he made his money the old-fashioned way: his mother bore a son,” David Parker, the chair of the Democratic Party in North Carolina told Mayer in the initial profile, “We are all prisoners of Art Pope’s fantasy world.”

Welcome to "Clear it With Sidney" by Lindsay Beyerstein

Welcome to Clear it With Sidney by Lindsay Beyerstein. You can watch Sidney Hillman Foundation executive director Alexandra Lescaze and me discussing the blog and its mission. This blog is showcase for the best journalism in service of the common good. We bring you exclusive interviews with the journalists who break the stories. Clear It With Sidney will be a community for journalists who have won Hillman-sponsored awards in the past. We will invite them back to talk about their latest projects and new developments in their prizewinning stories.

Clear it With Sidney got its name because of something Sidney Hillman’s critics used to whisper about him. It was said that Hillman, the leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, and a key partner in the New Deal Coalition, was so powerful that FDR told his associates to “clear it with Sidney” before making major decisions. Hillman took the taunt and turned it into a badge of honor.

Sidney Hillman believed in the power of journalism to change society for the better. In a healthy economy, strong unions square off against capital to check corporate power. In a healthy democracy, a free and vibrant press scrutinizes powerful institutions and keeps the public informed so that we are ready to participate in our own governance.

In a democracy, everyone’s perspective matters, but some stories are ignored or suppressed because of systemic biases like sexism, racism, and classism. A healthy and vibrant press challenges itself to confront its own biases and to expose inequities in society.

I don’t know where Sidney Hillman stood on epistemological issues, but I’m old fashioned. I think there’s such a thing as truth and that the very best journalism uncovers it and disseminates it fearlessly.

I am counting on you, the readers of this blog, to be my eyes and ears in the vast and fragmented media landscape. If you see outstanding journalism, tell me about it. To recommend a story, tweet the link @SidneyHillman, hashtag #Sidney. Click here to officially nominate a story for a Sidney Award. You can also send an email to the address on the sidebar, or weigh in on the Sidney Hillman facebook page.


Spencer Soper Wins October Sidney Award for Exposing Brutal Conditions in Warehouse

Spencer Soper, a senior reporter on the business beat at The Morning Call in Allentown, PA, is the winner of this month’s Sidney Award for his expose of brutal working conditions inside’s Lehigh Valley warehouse.

This summer, temperatures inside the warehouse soared to over 100 degrees and management refused to open the doors for ventilation. Amazon hired a private ambulance company to wait outside to treat workers suffering from heat-related illnesses.

Workers told Soper that they felt pressured to push themselves to the point of collapse because they could be penalized or even fired for slowing down or taking time off to seek medical attention.

Since the story ran on Sept 18, Amazon has been deluged with calls from angry customers, according to Soper’s Sep 23 follow-up story. Despite a flurry of public statements from Amazon, current warehouse employees said that nothing had changed inside the warehouse since the initial story ran.

You can read my interview with Soper about the making of the expose in The Backstory, our monthly feature on the story behind the latest Sidney Award-winning story.

[Photo courtesy of Spencer Soper.]

How Unpaid Internships Perpetuate Inequality

Anna Lekas Miller has a good piece in AlterNet about unpaid internships as a hidden cause of inequality. She notes that as the job market has tightened, internships have become more common and less beneficial to the intern:

Internships are the new entry-level job—the same duties and basic experience, only this time without compensation or benefits.

Statistics show that half of all internships are paid, but most of these positions are extraordinarily competitive, and unsurprisingly concentrated in the financial sector. Certain internships in other industries offer a small stipend, but hardly anything that is adequate to subsist on, especially in a major city. The worst offenders list positions as “paid” only to reveal that compensation is in the form of lunch or a monthly metrocard.

In some fields, a stint as an unpaid intern is practically required to land a paying job. The internship system serves as a little-discussed but significant barrier to applicants who can’t afford to work for free.

[Photo credit: banger1977, Creative Commons.]