March 2011 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

March 2011

The War on Labor: Required Reading (II)

While the media’s attention has pivoted toward the civil war in Libya and the multiple catastrophes in Japan, the war against labor goes on across America.  Here are some of the best places to keep up with it:

Professor William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin provides crucial historical context in The New York Times: “Republicans in Wisconsin are seeking to reverse civic traditions that for more than a century have been among the most celebrated achievements not just of their state, but of their own party as well. “

Abe Sauer has done excellent coverage of Wisconsin since the beginning of the crisis.   His latest, today,  is about the extreme partisanship on display in the run-up to the Wisconsin election coming on April 5

Chris Dykstra’s The Uptake has been another source of consistently first rate, comprehensive coverage.

Wisconsin State Senator Randy Harper, his wife, his mistress, and the governor who loves (two of) them: Keith Olbermann’s take is here.
The Daily Kos and Politicusa have addtional details here and here.

 Nation Washington correspondent John Nichols reports that Governor Walker loved one story in The New York Times–because it was largely wrong.  FCP has also dissected the failings of the same Times piece.

Sarah van Gelder and Brooke Jarvis run down the national reaction  to events in Wisconsin: “From Indiana to Ohio and Tennessee to Texas, workers are demanding to know why corporations and the wealthy get bailouts and tax breaks while teachers and steel workers bear the burdens of budget crises they didn’t cause.”

War On Unions Goes Viral, Wisconsin is Patient Zero:
an overview of anti-union actions in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, as well as Wisconsin; plus the growing number of commentators discussing the need for a general strike.

Columnist Harold Meyerson reminds us of what hasn’t changed in the one hundred years since the Triangle Shirt Factory fire: ” A century after Triangle, greed encased in libertarianism remains a fixture of — and danger to — American life.”



Winners & Sinners: from Remnick to Gupta


David Remnick, Benjamin Netanyahu, Bill Keller

Winners: The Security Council of the United Nations. The news that the UN has authorized military force against the Gaddafi regime is the best thing that has happened this year.

FCP first wrote about Libyan terrorism and the assassination of Libyan dissidents  abroad by Qadafi’s thugs more than thirty years ago.  From the downing of the Pan AM jetliner over Scotland, to the fomenting of civil wars all over Africa,  there has been no tyrant worse that Gaddafi for many decades.

For all of my enormous reluctance to see the United States involved in any way in another foreign war (FCP thinks the “Vietnam Syndrome” was the best thing that ever happened to us) it was unthinkable to sit by and do nothing, as Qadafi gradually rolled up the valiant rebellion against him–especially after the Arab League came to the same conclusion.

Winner: David Remnick, for an exceptionally sane and courageous “Comment”  in this week’s New Yorker about Israel’s four-decade long occupation of the West Bank.  The essentials:

*This waiting game is a delusion.

* In the midst of a revolution in the Arab world, Netanyahu seems lost, defensive, and unable or unwilling to recognize the changing circumstances in which he finds himself.

*The occupation—illegal, inhumane, and inconsistent with Jewish values—has lasted forty-four years. Netanyahu thinks that he can keep on going, secure behind a wall. Late last month, he called the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to register his displeasure that Germany had voted for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Jewish settlements. According to an account in the Israeli daily Haaretz, a German source said that Merkel could hardly contain her outrage. “How dare you?” she said. “You are the one who has disappointed us. You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.”

*It is time for President Obama to speak clearly and firmly. Concentrating solely on the settlements, as he has done in the past, is not enough;

*The importance of an Obama plan is not that Netanyahu accept it right away; the Palestinian leadership, which is weak and suffers from its own issues of legitimacy, might not embrace it immediately, either, particularly the limits on refugees. Rather, it is important as a way for the United States to assert that it stands not with the supporters of Greater Israel but with what the writer Bernard Avishai calls “Global Israel,” the constituencies that accept the moral necessity of a Palestinian state and understand the dire cost of Israeli isolation.

*If America is to be a useful friend, it owes clarity to Israel, no less than Israel and the world owe justice—and a nation—to the Palestinian people.

Many readers were shocked by what some mistakenly perceived as an anti-Israeli tone in the piece.   In fact, Remnick’s Comment is the most pro-Israeli article imaginable.   He believes deeply and viscerally in the need for a healthy Jewish state in the Middle East–and he understands better than many of Israel’s most fervent supporters what will be necessary to make that possible.

And there is nothing new at all about his attitude toward the current Israeli prime minister: His profile of Netanyahu way back in 1998 was one of the toughest pieces Remnick has ever written.

Sinner: New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, for a perfectly ridiculous piece in the Times magazine.  Keller began  by celebrating his supreme importance according to others: 50th most imortant person in the world (Forbes); 26th most influential (Vanity Fair) and 15th most powerful (The New York Observer “Power 150.”)

 Then he pretended to be offended by all this: “By turning news executives into celebrities, we devalue the institutions that support them, the basics of craft and the authority of editorial judgment.”

 This is a journalistic classic of saying exactly what you want to say–and then feigning embarrassment over what you’ve done.  Keller’s unsuccessful legerdemain reminds FCP of nothing so much as Time magazine’s legendary solution to the Polish joke problem in the 1960’s.   Polish jokes were suddenly sweeping America–and Time was desperate to print all of them.  But the magazine was also terrified of alienating Polish Americans.   The solution was a Warsaw dateline:   Poles are appalled by the Polish jokes now sweeping the United States, the magazine reported.  Among the jokes that are upsetting them the most are…..

Keller then concluded with an entirely gratuitous assault on The Huffington Post:
“Arianna Huffington..has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come.”

This in turn earned him an unusually well-deserved rebuke from Arianna, who rightly pointed out that her site actually has much more original content than any of the other aggregators Keller finds so loathsome.

Winners: 60 Minutes producers Robert Anderson, Daniel Ruetenik and Nicole Young and correpondent Scott Pelley for a heartbreaking piece  from Florida about the budget motels which have become the permanent homes for hundreds of children made homeless by the foreclosure crisis.   The piece generated a huge response from viewers asking how they could help  the helpless children portrayed in the report.

Sinners:  60 Minutes Producers  Kyra Darnton, Sam Hornblower and Michael Radutzky and “special” correspondent Sanjay Gupta for one of the worst pieces FCP has ever watched: “a new front in the war on drugs.”  Presented as an expose of the supposedly dangerous drugs flooding America from abroad, this was nothing but an extended advertizement for CBS advertizer Pfizer, designed to scare consumers away from purchasing any of the hundreds of generic drugs which are now available by mail–usually costing 10 percent (or less) than their Pfizer equivalents.  By focusing exclusively on the handful of dangerous counterfeit drugs seized by regulators, the piece completely ignored the real reason these drugs have become so popular: Most of them work very well.   And in every developed country in the world, when a new drug is introduced, the drug company has to negotiate the price with the government.  Every developed country in the world, except one: The United States of America.



Labor's Last Stand

Here is a sampling of some of the best recent coverage of the ongoing war against unions all over America.

At, John Nichols has an excellent primer explaining why the only constitutional crisis in Wisconsin is the one created by Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.  The state’s constitution clearly prohibits Fitzgerald from issuing last week’s order to arrest absent Democratic state senators.

Also in The Nation, former labor organizer Jane McAlevey gives a clear-eyed description   of why so many progressives lack compassion for labor unions–“progressives in academia and journalism, and the staff of most nonprofits from all movements, think tanks and foundations, are from a class that has little to no contact with unions.”  She also explains the divisions between public and private sector unions.

NPR’s Liz Halloran explains why efforts to recall 16 Wisconsin state senators–eight Democrats and eight Republicans–are likely to fail.

Politico has an excellent account of all of the allies of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, which have been pushing for years to eviscerate the benefits and salaries of public employees, “including the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC), Wisconsin’s MacIver Institute and Ohio’s Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions.”

Michael Moore
gives a powerful stemwinder about of the real causes of the current crisis: “Contrary to what those in power would like you to believe so that you’ll give up your pension, cut your wages, and settle for the life your great-grandparents had, America is not broke. Not by a long shot. The country is awash in wealth and cash. It’s just that it’s not in your hands. It has been transferred, in the greatest heist in history, from the workers and consumers to the banks and the portfolios of the uber-rich.”
Read the rest here.

Bob McChesney joins John Nichols (The Nation), Frank Emspak (Workers Independent News), Molly Stentz (WORT-FM Community Radio), Matt Rothschild (The Progressive), and Lisa Graves (Center for Media and Democracy) in a discussion of how the newsmedia have reported on and influenced the American labor movement historically, and in the context of the recent Wisconsin Labor Struggle.



Winners & Sinners: On Wisconsin

Hendrick Hertzberg, Steve Greenhouse

Governor Scott Walker’s attack on the public employee unions of Wisconsin is the most vicious assault on labor since Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controller’s union in 1981.  In an effort to score points with his most extreme right-wing supporters, the governor wants to strip the unions of their 50-year-old right to collective bargaining—“except over base pay, which can never be increased above inflation without a public referendum. It makes union dues purely voluntary and prohibits their collection via paycheck deduction. It requires the unions to face a certification vote every year—and, to get recertified, a union must win a majority of all employees, not just a majority of those voting.”

These facts are all from Winner Rick Hertzberg’s characteristically lucid and authoritative
Comment” in last week’s New Yorker.  In a subsequent online chat, Hertzberg exploded a number of myths about the controversy perpetuated by other reporters much less competent than the dean of American political reporters.

Hertzberg’s New Yorker colleague, Winner Dan Kaufman, also contributed a lovely blog post—“Notes on the Cheddar Revolution”—about how the current the protest was informed by Wisconsin’s (mostly) liberal past.

Sinners Arthur Gregg Sulzberger and Monica Davey attracted plenty of unwanted attention with a seriously sloppy hatchet job on the labor movement which ran on page 1 of The New York Times.  Demonstrating once again that journalists can prove almost any premise, if they’re careful to skew their interviews so that at 80 percent of the people you quote agree with you, Sulzberger and Davey tried hard to prove that union bonds were fraying in Wisconsin.

Workers themselves, being pitted against one another, are finding it hard to feel sympathy or offer solidarity, with their own jobs lost and their benefits and pensions cut back or cut off,” the Times reporters wrote, and “away from Madison” [a notorious left-wing stronghold, of course] “many people said that public workers needed to share in the sacrifice that their own families have been forced to make.”

Katrina vanden Heuvel, David Cay Johnston, Harold Myerson

Just how far the reporters had been forced to been over backwards to make their point quickly became apparent after

1) “Union guy” Richard “Hahan,” who had worked for GM, and was described in the lead of their story as a strong supporter of the governor’s “sweeping proposal to cut the benefits and collective-bargaining rights of public workers in Wisconsin”–turned out to be a lifelong scab, who according to a subsequent correction, had “worked at unionized factories,” but never actually belonged to a union himself (also, his name was really “Hahn,” not “Hahan”).

2) Winners Richard Simon and Abby Sewell reported a couple of days later in The Los Angeles Times that the dispute had actually ignited a profound new solidarity between public sector workers and private sector union members–not only in Wisconsin, but across the country.

3) A new poll conducted by their own newspaper, The New York Times poll released a couple of days ago,  showed that most Americans supported public employee unions in their battles against newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio.  In what was perhaps the most heartening news of the week, despite the widespread Republican perception that unions are politically useful whipping boys, The Times reported that

* Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one: 60 percent to 33 percent.
* Those surveyed said they opposed, 56 percent to 37 percent, cutting the pay or benefits of public employees to reduce deficits.
* Sixty-one percent of those polled—including just over half of Republicans—said they thought the salaries and benefits of most public employees were either “about right” or “too low” for the work they do.

Winner David Cay Johnston of accused Sulzberger and Davey of being among the legions of reporters who were reporting “economic nonsense” as “fact”–“the product of a breakdown of skepticism among journalists multiplied by their lack of understanding of basic economic principles.”

Johnston is incensed because he believes that every time a reporter says the Wisconsin governor is asking public employees to increase their contributions to their pensions, they are repeating an outright lie. Here’s why:

Out of every dollar that funds Wisconsin’ s pension and health insurance plans for state workers, 100 cents comes from the state workers.

How can that be? Because the “contributions” consist of money that employees chose to take as deferred wages – as pensions when they retire – rather than take immediately in cash. The same is true with the health care plan. If this were not so a serious crime would be taking place, the gift of public funds rather than payment for services.

Thus, state workers are not being asked to simply “contribute more” to Wisconsin’ s retirement system (or as the argument goes, “pay their fair share” of retirement costs as do employees in Wisconsin’ s private sector who still have pensions and health insurance). They are being asked to accept a cut in their salaries so that the state of Wisconsin can use the money to fill the hole left by tax cuts and reduced audits of corporations in Wisconsin.

(Sulzberger and Davey wrote that the Governor “would raise the amount government workers pay into their pension to 5.8 percent of their pay, from less than 1 percent now.” Sulzberger is the son of the current Times publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., who is perpetually at odds with the unions at the Times, the Boston Globe, and the rest of his newspaper properties, so it’s unlikely that the son grew up in a household where people like former U.A.W. president Walter Reuther were portrayed as revered figures by his parents.)

    On the other hand, the Sulzbergers are the last newspaper family in America that still employs a fulltime labor reporter…

Winner  Steve Greenhouse, whose reporting on Wisconsin has been characteristically fair and thororough–from a feature about the pizza parlor which delivered hundreds of pies a day to fuel protesters inside the Wisconsin state capitol building to a profile of Marty Bell, the executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, whose bare-knuckled styled helped to “transform Madison into a national battle ground over labor rights.”

Winner:  Katrina vanden Heuvel gets to the heart of the matter   in The Washington Post:  “unions…have been central to the rise and fall of the American middle class.  There is a strong corrleation between states with right-to-work laws that outlaw majority rule onunionization, a worse quality of life for workers and a more hostile climate to any progressive cause. The average worker in a right-to-work state earns $5,333 less than his or her counterpart in a pro-worker state.”

Winner: Madison’s venerable Capitol Times, now online only, has been a reliable source of hard hitting editorials like this one, and articles explaining exactly what is at stake for the Koch brothers, like this one.

Sinner USA Today gave big play to a piece comparing public and private sector wages and benefits, without adjusting for specific jobs, age, education or experience–which basically rendered all of the comparisons in the piece completely meaningless.  (Surprise! College professors and nurses make more than burger flippers at McDonald’s) while the Economic Policy institute showed how these comparisons should actually be done.
(h/t GK.)

Winner: Columnist Harold Meyerson, whose extensive coverage included this eye opening column about the GOP’s much broader efforts to undermine unions everywhere, way beyond Ohio and Wisconsin.


The Frank Rich Bombshell

    Frank Rich is the best newspaper columnist in the business.  Period.  And that has been true for a long time.  Week after week, he has provided facts and insights and connections and a very special kind of intelligence which simply aren’t available anywhere else in The New York Times.

    I hope that Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Andy Rosenthal moved heaven and earth to try to hang on to him.  If they didn’t, they have gravely underestimated Rich’s importance to their readers.   Very few journalists ever manage to make themselves indispensable, but that is exactly what Rich did, starting with his very first year as the newspaper’s drama critic–when FCP wrote him the first of many, many herograms.

    When he switched from drama to politics, it took him a while to find his voice.  Eight-hundred-word columns were not his metier.  But when he followed Arthur Gelb’s suggestion to write once a week at twice that length, he gradually became what he is today: the single most important progressive voice in America.

    His decision to join Adam Moss is not as surprising as it seems.  The two of them have been close collaborators for almost a quarter of a century, ever since Moss commissioned Rich to write a landmark feature about gay culture in Esquire magazine.   This is a triumphant day for Moss, and he deserves gigantic credit for the coup of bringing Rich to New York Magazine.

    Already, media pundits like Jack Shafer are suggesting that Frank Rich without the Times will not be Frank Rich.   That would be true of anyone else on the paper except Frank.  But in a world where the Web is already king, Rich’s move is merely the latest evidence of the long, slow, steady and irreversible decline of print.   His legions of fans will simply bookmark his new location at, and Rich will remain just as important as he has been, for more than three decades at the Times.