July 2011 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

July 2011

Under Pressure, Tobacco Giant Agrees to Meet with Farm Labor Organizing Committee

Everyone knows cigarette are dangerous to smoke, but most people don’t realize how dangerous they are to produce. Nearly a quarter of tobacco pickers suffer from nicotine poisoning every season, according to research by farm worker advocacy groups.

Green Tobacco Syndrome (GTS) occurs when workers absorb nicotine, a psychostimulant drug, through their skin while handling mature tobacco plants. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headache, muscle weakness, and dizziness. GTS is just on of many hazards faced by North Carolina’s estimated 100,000 migrant tobacco pickers (or “primers” as they are known in the industry). Primers work in remote camps where they may be exposed to improperly handled pesticides, unsanitary living conditions, and other preventable risks.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has scored a preliminary victory in its bid to hold tobacco giant Reynolds American accountable for upholding safety standards for its suppliers. Reynolds maintains that it is not responsible for how third-party suppliers treat their workers. The company has historically refused to meet with FLOC. However, after 3 years of FLOC pressure, including a high profile divestment campaign against a major Reynolds lender, the company announced in May that it would meet with FLOC and other groups to assess safety issues in its supply chain.

Read the whole story at Facing South, the blog of the Institute for Southern Studies. The post, by Joe Atkins, also appears on Atkins’ Labor South blog.


Mac McClelland and the Journalistic Ethics of Tweeting Rape

Human rights journalist and Sidney Award alumna Mac McClelland stirred up considerable controversy with a personal essay in GOOD entitled “How Violent Sex Eased My PTSD.” Therein, she described how she and her ex-boyfriend negotiated a violent simulated rape scene on the advice of her therapist. She says this encounter helped her recover from the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she had acquired over the course of several gruelling assignments for Mother Jones, including two weeks spent covering sexual violence in Haiti.

In the course of explaining how she got PTSD, McClelland recalls witnessing a rape survivor (“Sybille”) dissolve into paroxysms of terror at the sight of one of her rapists. The eminent Haitian-born author Edwidge Danticat took McClelland to task on Essence.com for mentioning Sybille’s story in her GOOD essay after Sybille (a.k.a. “K”) had already requested that McClelland refrain from writing about her:

In her essay, Ms. McClelland writes that K*’s trauma led in part to her own breakdown. Nevertheless, during Ms. McClelland’s ride along with K*, on a visit to a doctor, Ms. McClelland, as has been reported elsewhere,  live-tweeted K*’s horrific experiences. The tweets put K*’s life in danger because they identified the displacement  camp where K* was living–with details of landmarks added–her specific injury, her real name, and suggest that she is a drug user. [LB: only the victim’s real first name was used.]

Blogger Jina Moore was shortlisted for a Mirror Award for her 2010 analysis of the journalistic ethics of live tweeting the original Mother Jones assignment. Moore argued that it was unethical for a journalist to appropriate a trauma victim’s story in this way.

Moore apparently wrote her original post before Sybille and her lawyer contacted Mother Jones to ask that McClelland not write about Sybille.

The details about who consented to what kind of coverage are murky. McClelland told her editors at Mother Jones that she had consent from both Sybille and her lawyer to cover the original ride to the hospital. Sybille’s American lawyer later claimed in a comment at Essence.com that she agreed to McClelland’s request over the phone, relayed by a colleague on the ground. There’s no indication from either the lawyer’s comment, or Mother Jones editors’ comment in the same thread, that these ground rules were ever put in writing. Under the chaotic circumstances, the potential for honest misunderstanding seems huge.

The lawyer writes that she thought that McClelland had agreed to speak with her before publishing anything about Sybille. The lawyer also says she had no idea that McClelland would be live tweeting the trip to the hospital. The Mother Jones editors explain that, in light of the apparent misunderstanding, they agreed to remove all references to Sybille in McClelland’s 6000-word feature, which ran in early 2011.

Mother Jones may not have been obligated to make these changes, but it was clearly the right thing to do under the circumstances. First, the ground rules were disputed. Second, it’s clear from the feature that women who speak out about rape in Haiti may be risking their lives.

Yet, for whatever reason, McClelland decided to discuss Sybille in her GOOD essay, which Mother Jones didn’t know about until after it was published. Unlike the live tweets, the GOOD essay didn’t disclose any details about Sybille (not her real first name) that seem likely to put her at additional risk. (Addendum: McClelland apologized to Sybille in the comments at Essence.com and took full responsibility for the decision to revisit the subject.)

Some critics are angry at McClelland for what they see as an appropriation of Sybille’s story. They argue that she is using the trauma of an unwilling subject as window dressing for her own psychosexual memoir. It seems to me that the major problem here was lack of editorial oversight for sensitive live tweets, not appropriation.

What concerns me is not so much that Mac told a story that “belonged” to someone else, but rather that she might have inadvertently put a victim’s life at risk in 2010 by tweeting identifying details about a crime victim, in real time, while the woman’s assailants remained at armed and at large. Common sense suggests that this is a terrible idea. It’s easy to say that in retrospect, but I can see how McClelland might have gotten caught up in the moment, especially if she thought she had permission from the victim and her lawyer.

Ethical journalists balance public’s need to know against potential harms to innocent people. In this case, there was no compelling need to know the these details of Sybille’s rape instantaneously. There is little journalistic value in covering an event like this in unfiltered 140-character bursts and considerable risk of harm. In fairness, twitter is a relatively new news medium and standards are still evolving. 

There’s a long history of journalists phoning in field reports to rewrite artists back in the newsroom. If something can be tweeted, it can just as easily be privately relayed to an editor or reporting partner for writeup with oversight. Twitter is not the only option for fast-breaking coverage. There are any number of nearly instantaneous ways to publish reports from the field. After Sybille and her lawyer complained, Mother Jones editors had the luxury of time to weigh their options and make a reasoned decision.

The allure of twitter is that it’s instantaneous and unfiltered. That’s all very well for color commentary under controlled conditions, like press conferences and sporting events. Twitter’s great for talking about reporting, when explains why so many journalists love the medium. However, there are situations where you simply don’t want reporters blurting their immediate impressions directly into the public record. Reporters have editors for a reason. This painful episode shows why unedited tweets aren’t suitable for directly covering anything more serious or complicated than a parade.

Life at 81 Bowery

In her New York Times photo essay, “A Bed, and a Key at 81 Bowery,” Annie Ling offers a glimpse at life inside a converted fourth floor loft that is home to thirty-five Chinese immigrants. Residents range in age from infancy to old age. Some have lived here for years, others have only recently arrived.

The rent is under $200 a month, but the living conditions are spartan. Residents get a bed, a key, and very little else. The third image is captioned: “To a visitor, 81 Bowery feels like a scene from a 21st-century version of an exposé by the documentary photographer Jacob Riis. But to the restaurant workers, laborers and retirees who live there, it is home.”

My favorite image in the series shows a dinner party in progress, as seen from above. It’s an easy shot to make because the walls of the cubicles don’t extend all the way to the ceiling. The precisely arranged dishes fill every inch of the tiny dinner table and the three guests practically fill the room. Every inch of the unit is organized for maximum efficiency, like a ship’s galley.

The series captures both the material privation of life at 81 Bowery and the resourcefulness of its residents.

Tim Dickinson on Roger Ailes and Fox News

Over the past few days, Fox News has launched an all-out offensive against the tax-exempt status of the liberal think tank Media Matters, which specializes in tracking and critiquing Fox and other conservative media outlets. Over the past few days, Fox has aired more than 30 segments demanding that Media Matters lose its tax-exempt status. The Fox Nation website even allows visitors to send canned complaints to the IRS with the click of a mouse.

Fox’s central argument is that Media Matters is engaging in prohibited political activity by accusing Fox of being the voice of the Republican Party. The tax code stipulates that tax-exempt organizations must deal only in statements supported by fact. Fox and its allies maintain that Media Matters has no factual basis to claim that Fox is the voice of the Republican Party.

Last month, Rolling Stone published a fascinating and deeply-reported feature on Fox News and its bombastic, crusading chairman, Roger Ailes.

Tim Dickinson tracks Ailes career as GOP media consultant from his stint as Richard Nixon’s television guru to the campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Ailes officially retired from politics in 1991. As Dickinson tells it, Ailes’ penchant for race-baiting tactics, including the infamous Willie Horton ads, eventually tarnished his image. Ailes joined forces with Rupert Murdoch to start Fox News in 1996.

Ailes is the father of the political infomercial. As Ailes later said in an interview, he was determined to bypass the media to bring Nixon’s message directly to the public. To that end, he created a traveling televised roadshow that produced prefab “town meetings” with handpicked voters lobbing softball questions at the candidate. The campaign paid to broadcast these programs in local media markets. Ailes swears he got out of politics, but the infomercial model lives on at Fox News.

Dickinson goes on to describe how Ailes has transformed Fox News into an incredibly powerful fundraising and campaign platform for favored GOP candidates:

[…] Ailes has not simply been content to shift the nature of journalism and direct the GOP’s message war. He has also turned Fox News into a political fundraising juggernaut. During her Senate race in Delaware, Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell bragged, “I’ve got Sean Hannity in my back pocket, and I can go on his show and raise money.” Sharron Angle, the Tea Party candidate who tried to unseat Harry Reid in Nevada, praised Fox for letting her say on-air, “I need $25 from a million people – go to SharronAngle.com and send money.” Completing the Fox-GOP axis, Karl Rove has used his pulpit as a Fox News commentator to promote American Crossroads, a shadowy political group he founded, promising that the money it raised would be put “to good use to defeat Democrats who have supported the president’s agenda.”

But the clearest demonstration of how Ailes has seamlessly merged both money and message lies in the election of John Kasich, a longtime Fox News contributor who eked out a two-point victory over Democrat Ted Strickland last November to become governor of Ohio. While technically a Republican, Kasich might better be understood as the first candidate of the Fox News Party. “The question is no longer whether Fox News is an arm of the GOP,” says Burns, the network’s former media critic, “but whether it’s becoming the torso instead.”

Ailes’ genius, in Dickinson’s view, is that he’s turned propaganda into an incredibly profitable business. In an amazing bit of media alchemy, he makes a fortune by giving away free political advertising.

At a time when news organizations are struggling, Fox News broadcasts its conservative message to 100 million American households while sustaining profit margins greater than 50%.

To claim that any non-party organization is “the voice of” a political party is to speak metaphorically. However, Media Matters’ rhetoric is based on solid facts about the intimate links between Fox News and the GOP. Dickinson’s reporting suggests that the metaphor is apt.

However, given Fox’s role as kingmaker and gatekeeper for Republican electoral politics, it might be even more apt to say that the GOP is the voice of Fox News.

Exciting Changes Ahead

Greetings. I am honored and excited to be the Hillman Foundation’s new blogger. My name is Lindsay Beyerstein and I’m an investigative reporter based in Brooklyn, New York.

Exciting changes are afoot. In the days to come, we will be relaunching the site to make it bigger, better, and more informative–required reading for progressive journalism enthusiasts.

In addition to original media criticism and labor news, watch for in-depth coverage of our monthly Sidney Awards, including interviews with the winners, comments from our distinguished judges, and other exciting extra features.