Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

California Water District Launders Propaganda Through Google News


The Central Basin Municipal Water District of California paid $200,000 taxpayer dollars to a consulting firm to write pro-CBMWD propaganda “in the image of real news,” Sam Allen reports in the LA Times. The scheme is laid out in documents obtained by the Times and posted online. CBMWD contracted with unnamed journalists to write favorable stories about the agency’s water recycling initiative and other programs.

These stories were published on a site called News Hawks Review, which Google categorizes as a news site. A reader who searched for the right keywords on Google News would see these stories and assume that they were reading independent news coverage.

Celebrities often resort to similar tactics to burnish their online images, but according to Allen, this is the first time a public agency has gotten caught trying to launder press releases through the Google News system.

[Photo credit: Elada 1, Creative Commons.]

Recommended Reading: The American Jobs Act

President Obama outlined his plan to reduce unemployment last Thursday before a special joint session of Congress. Here’s a roundup of reactions to the American Jobs Act.

-Obama’s jobs plan calls for an infrastructure bank, but is it an infrastructure privatization scheme in disguise? As Reuters Muniland blog reports, Obama’s infrastructure bank would provide subsidized loans exclusively to public-private partnerships: “The essence of the American Infrastructure Financing Authority is to use the full faith and credit of the U.S. government to loan funds at below-market rates to public-private partnerships — in other words, to privatize the cash flows from public assets.”

-Eleanor Smeal of Ms. Magazine notes that Obama’s plan, if enacted, would prevent the layoffs of about 280,000 teachers and extend unemployment insurance benefits for 2.6 million unemployed women.

-E.J. Graff of The American Prospect wonders if preventing public sector layoffs will be enough to shore up women’s position in the economic recovery. Women have actually lost jobs since the recovery began in 2009, while men have very gradually gained ground. Public sector cuts in female-dominated professions, like teaching, have been a major conributor to women’s unemployment. Though, perhaps even more worryingly, the overwhelmingly female-dominated administrative support sector of the economy (office managers, secretaries, etc.) has been decimated. There’s no guarantee that these jobs will return when the economy recovers.

-Shani O. Hilton of Colorlines argues that Obama’s plan doesn’t have enough targeted interventions to help people of color, who are experiencing even higher rates of unemployment than whites.

-At the end of the day, debating whether the American Jobs Act has the right ratio of payroll tax credits to infrastructure spending is sort of like debating how many Keynesian angels can dance on the head of a pin. There’s no chance that the bill will pass in anything like its current form. As I argue at my new In These Times blog, Duly Noted, the real function of Obama’s speech was to shift the blame to the House Republicans for their intransigence in the face of the unemployment crisis. It’s about time.

[Photo credit: Kristin Wolff, Creative Commons.]

Dismal August Jobs Report At a Glance

The economy added zero jobs in August, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The overall unemployment rate remains at 9.1%. Minorities and youth are suffering disproportionately: 8% whites, 16.7% of blacks, 11.3% of Hispanics, and 25.4% of teenagers are unemployed, just like last month.

The 45,000 striking Verizon workers may have edged the numbers up slightly, but the fact remains that private sector job growth is the slowest it has been since last May, even if you take the strikers into account.

The private sector added about 17,000 jobs last month, but the public sector cut about the same number.

Happy Labor Day, everyone.

[Photo credit: Kieran Bennett, Creative Commons.]


Recommended Reading: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

-Bob Herbert of Demos argues for major investment in infrastructure to help put Americans back to work. He cites some striking statistics on joblessness and the state of our infrastructure: 14 million Americans are officially unemployed and nearly half of them have been out of work for more than 6 months; 75% of American schools have structural deficiencies, 15% of the nation’s bridges are structurally deficient, and another 12% are functionally obsolete. It will cost an estimated $3-$4 trillion over the next decade to make the necessary repairs.

This is money we are going to have to spend if we wish to enjoy the amenities of industrialized living, like roads, bridges, running water, and treated sewage. So, why not take advantage of record low interest rates to tackle the twin crises of unemployment and decaying infrastructure? 

-The Republicans go medieval on the NLRB. “Rarely has a federal agency been attacked with as much vitriol as the National Labor Relations Board now faces,” reports Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times. Conservative newsletters assail the board as a bunch of “socialist goons.” Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachamann has even sworn to abolish the NLRB if elected.

It makes sense that the GOP is targeting the NLRB right now. The NLRB is one of the remaining outlets for the Obama administration to make pro-labor policy with a divided congress. For example, as Greenhouse reported yesterday, the NLRB released a decision on Tuesday that will make it easier for nursing home workers to unionize. The nursing home decision was one of three pro-union decisions handed down ahead of the departure of chairwoman Wilma B. Liebman, whose term is up. 

-Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post on what Steve Jobs and Apple could do for the working class–namely, invest some of the company’s $76 billion pile of unspent cash to build state-of-the-art factories in the United States, instead of offshoring those jobs. This kind of foward thinking by American manufacturers would not be without precedent. Henry Ford was an arch capitalist, but he knew that his business couldn’t thrive without a healthy middle class of car buyers, so he cooperated with Franklin Roosevelt on the New Deal. Ford’s logic applies to iPads as well as Model Ts.

-International student strikers rallied in Harrisburg, PA on Monday to protest the guest worker program that brought them to the U.S. under the guise of a “cultural exchange” and set them up in low-paid jobs for a Hershey subcontractor. Three hundred student workers walked off the job two weeks ago. Thirty student workers were scheduled to travel to New York for a rally outside the Hershey store in Times Square, Wednesday.

[Photo credit: Washington Department of Transportation, Creative Commons.]

Stetson Kennedy, Investigator Who Infiltrated the Klan, Dead at 94

Stetson Kennedy, the folklorist, journalist, and undercover investigator who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, has died at the age of 94. According to his New York Times obituary:

As an agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Mr. Kennedy, by his own account, infiltrated the Klavern in Stone Mountain and worked as a Klavalier, or Klan strong-arm man. He leaked his findings to, among others, the Washington Post columnist Drew Pearson, the Anti-Defamation League and the producers of the radio show “Superman,” who used information about the Klan’s rituals and code words in a multi-episode story titled “Clan of the Fiery Cross.”

In a celebrated exploit, he stole financial information from a wastebasket outside the office of the Klan’s Imperial Wizard, Sam Roper, in Atlanta.

The information led the Internal Revenue Service to challenge the group’s status as a charitable organization and demand nearly $700,000 in back taxes. He helped draft the brief that Georgia used to revoke the Klan’s national corporate charter in 1947. 

No doubt, Kennedy’s sense of humor helped sustain him during his long career as a self-described “dissident at large.” He founded a rival “Ku Klux Klan” so that he could sue the real Klan for using the name.

In later years, Kennedy was criticized for failing to properly credit other undercover agents in his expose of the Klan. Kennedy was part of a team of three people who infiltrated the Klan, not the lone investigator he described in his most famous book. He admitted to creating a composite character under his own name, arguing that it made a more compelling story.

Kennedy was unrepentant about that decision. His goal was to tell people about the Ku Klux Klan; he was less concerned about the mechanics of telling what he knew. As Bill James notes in his recent book, Popular Crime, non-fiction authors of that era had a lot more leeway to use undeclared fictional devices: “Book writers of the 1940s did many things that would never be tolerated for a modern writer who wished to remain respectable.” Thankfully, the standards for narrative non-fiction are more rigorous today.

Note that exposing the Klan wasn’t an achievement prudent people clamoured to take credit for. One of Kennedy’s team members was a Klan defector turned labor organizer, a man who might have been reluctant to share the spotlight.

In any event, Kennedy produced voluminous documentation to support the claims he made about the Klan. There’s no question that he helped infiltrate the group and did great harm to the organization by holding its secretive rituals up for ridicule.

Stetson Kennedy deserves to be remembered for his bravery and his contributions to American journalism, even if his storytelling devices wouldn’t pass muster today.

[Photo credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons.]



Toy Maker for Wal-Mart, Disney, and Mattel Accused of Child Labor

A factory that cranks out cheerful plastic tchotchkes for Mattel, Wal-Mart, and Disney uses child labor and gruelling mandatory overtime, according to a new report by human rights activists. Gethin Chamberlain writes in the Guardian

Disney’s best-selling Cars toys are being made in a factory in China that uses child labour and forces staff to do three times the amount of overtime allowed by law, according to an investigation.

One worker reportedly killed herself after being repeatedly shouted at by bosses. Others cited worries over poisonous chemicals. Disney has now launched its own investigation.

It is claimed some of the 6,000 employees have to work an extra 120 hours every month to meet demand from western shops for the latest toys.

The factory, called Sturdy Products, makes toys for the giant Mattel company, which last month announced quarterly profits of £48m on the back of strong sales of Barbie dolls and Cars 2 toys. Sturdy Products, in the city of Shenzhen, also makes toys for US superstore chain Walmart. Among the brands produced are the Thomas the Tank Engine range, Matchbox cars, Cars, Toy Story, Barbie and Fisher Price products, Scrabble and the Hot Wheels sets. 

The undercover investigation of Sturdy Products was carried out with the help of Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), a Hong Kong-based non-profit that helped expose abuses at Apple’s Foxconn plant.

This isn’t the first time Sturdy Products has been cited for violating workers’ rights. A 2007 investigation found that workers were being forced to work six to seven days a week and that the company was violating local minimum wage laws.

[Photo credit: galactic_ac, Creative Commons.]

$120 Million MLK Monument Finished By Chinese Laborers, Despite Promise to Union

The dedication ceremony for the monument to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall has been postponed as the East Coast braces for Hurricane Irene. Alex Seitz-Wald of Think Progress notes that the $120 million monument to one of the greatest champions of workers’ rights in American history was assembled by Chinese laborers. The American union whose membership has helped to assemble every major monument erected in Washington since the Civil War watched from the sidelines, despite a promise to hire union labor to complete the King monument.

The foundation that built the monument promised in writing to hire members of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (BAC) to assemble the 159 blocks of granite that comprise the two sculptures at the site. However, the foundation reneged, though it apparently hired BAC members do to other work on the project.

The sculptor of record, Master Lei Yixin, who won the blinded international competition to design the monument, brought over nearly a dozen workers from China to help him finish the project on site.

It has been reported that the Chinese workers were unpaid. BAC investigator Francis Jacobberger and Washington Post reporter Annys Shin learned in the fall of 2010 that the men were working for “national honor.” In other words, they weren’t getting paid while they were in the United States, working on Dr. King. They expected to get paid at least something when they got back to China, but they didn’t know how much. It’s not clear whether they ever got paid.

Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis while preparing to lead a march of unionized sanitation workers striking for higher wages and better working conditions. Displacing union workers with cheap labor from China is a betrayal of his legacy.

[Photo credit: Black History Album, Creative Commons.]

What's Next for Hillman Award Winner Tim Noah?

The media world was shocked Wednesday to learn that had laid off four high-profile writers: Tim Noah, Jack Shafer, Juliet Lapidos, and June Thomas.

Noah won the 2011 Hillman Award for Magazine Journalism for “The Great Divergence,” a series he wrote for Slate on inequality in America. Since April, Noah has been on leave, expanding his story into a book. Noah is the first web-based writer to win a Hillman Award for magazine journalism.

I emailed Noah to find out what’s next for him. He replied, “My main focus for the moment is on finishing the book, which Bloomsbury will publish in the spring. I will remain at Slate as a contributing writer. As for my other professional plans: Stay tuned!”

[Photo credit: Lindsay Beyerstein, all rights reserved.]

Bye Bye, Bycatch?

This month’s Sidney Award winner, Tom Gogola, wrote about how dysfunctional fishing regulations force commercial fishermen to waste tons of edible bycatch and how new technology is helping to reduce bycatch.

Bycatch is any creature a fisher catches while fishing for something else, edible or not.

In other bycatch news, Cornelia Dean of the New York Times delves deeper into the burgeoning field of anti-bycatch technology.

Dean reports on the work of the Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction, a research center administered by the New England Aquarium where fishers and scientists work together to refine fishing gear to reduce bycatch:

The new efforts focus on modifications to fishing gear. They include relatively simple steps, like changes in hook design, and more complex ones: making fishing lines more visible to whales, changing noise levels on fishing boats and impregnating metal gear with substances meant to repel “bycatch species” like sharks.

Engineered bycatch reduction goes back to the 1990s in the Gulf of Maine, where harbor porpoises were turning up in fishermen’s nets. On the theory that porpoises are sensitive to noise, engineers and biologists developed beer-can-size devices that emitted pinging noises underwater. Within weeks of attaching the pingers to their nets, fishermen saw porpoise bycatch drop by 90 percent.

Historically, fishers have suspected that scientists are out of touch with the practical realities of fishing and scientists have countered that fishers are uninterested in conservation and resistant to change. Dean suggests that, in addition to saving innocent sea creatures, joint research efforts like these may ultimately help bridge the cultural gap between the two groups.


[Photo credit: Chris Vees, Creative Commons.]

Taibbi: SEC Illegally Shredded Bankster Dossiers

“Is the SEC Covering Up Wall Street Crimes?” asks Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone. Taibbi reports that the Securities and Exchange Commission has illegally destroyed thousands of preliminary investigation files, including early investigations of Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff and probes of suspected fraudsters at Lehman Brothers on the eve of the institution’s collapse.

Felix Salmon of Reuters wrote, “Matt Taibbi’s 5,000-word exposé of the SEC’s document-shredding is a magnificent piece of journalism, and is the first and last place that you should look to understand what’s going on here.” 

Here’s Taibbi’s remarkable scoop in a nutshell: From 1993 to 2010, the SEC destroyed the records of preliminary investigations as soon as they were closed, even though the agency had a deal with the National Archives and Records Administration to keep those materials for at least 25 years. These files, known as “Matters Under Inquiry” or “MUIs,” are the first step towards a full-fledged investigation. An MUI may contain newspaper clippings, brokerage reports, and interview notes. Darcy Flynn, an 13-year SEC veteran who is now suing as a whistleblower, alleges that SEC officials lied about unauthorized document destruction and tried to cover it up. 

Taibbi argues that these files could have been crucial in identifying criminals before their misdeeds cost investors and taxpayers untold trillions of dollars.

Last week, NARA stated that the SEC has no authority to destroy MUIs and that NARA has been working with the SEC for a year to put a stop it.

The SEC maintains that it wasn’t required to keep MUIs in the first place. Even if federal law allowed the SEC to dispose of these records, the larger question would by why the agency would want to do something so reckless and shortsighted. Other law enforcement agencies don’t routinely trash their closed cases. These weren’t decades-old files, either. The SEC’s policy was to destroy MUIs as soon as they were closed.

The SEC’s defenders are claiming that these records were unimportant, but as Taibbi points out in an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, SEC investigators like Darcy Flynn complained at the time that all the shredding was getting in the way of ongoing investigations.

The fact that the SEC was so determined to destroy evidence raises suspicions that the agency was more interested in coddling the financial sector than regulating it.

[Photo credit: dorena-wm, Creative Commons.]