August 2011 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

August 2011

Defending the Social Safety Net: Not the Democrats' Best Option, Their Only Option

Historian Rick Perlstein debunks a central myth of American politics; namely, that a vigorous defense of our social safety net is too “divisive” to be politically palatable.

Perlstein argues that U.S. presidential elections are usually decided on one of two basic sets of issues: culture war anxiety or middle class economic insecurity. Historically, Republicans are more likely to win culture war slugfests and Democrats are more likely to win elections where economic issues are front-and-center, provided they define themselves as protectors of the middle class against the vaguaries of the market and the apathy of Republicans.

President Obama is reportedly reading Perlstein’s book “Nixonland.” Perlstein offers the president a cautionary fable. George McGovern lost in 49 states because he assumed that the middle class was prosperous enough to take care of itself and that labor unions were no longer relevant. 

Here’s what LBJ knew that ­McGovern didn’t: There are few or no historical instances in which saying clearly what you are for and what you are against makes Americans less divided. But there is plenty of evidence that attacking the wealthy has not made them more divided. After all, the man who said of his own day’s plutocrats, “I welcome their hatred,” also assembled the most enduring political coalition in U.S. history.

The Republicans will call it “class warfare.” Let them. Done right, economic populism cools the political climate. Just knowing that the people in power are willing to lie down on the tracks for them can make the middle much less frantic. Which makes America a better place. And incidentally makes Democrats win. [TIME]

This is Perlstein’s first contribution to TIME and I hope it will be the first of many.

[Photo credit: “ILGWU workers meet Lyndon B. Johnson,” Kheel Center, Cornell University, Creative Commons.]

Tuna Trouble: Greenpeace Sets its Sights on Bycatch

This week, the Hillman Foundation gave the August Sidney Award to Tom Gogola for his story “Bycatch 22,” which reveals how dysfunctional fishing regulations force fishermen to throw tons of perfectly good “bycatch” fish overboard. Bycatch is anything a fisher catches while fishing for something else. Gogola explains how misguided regulations force fishermen to waste fish in the name of conservation. He also describes innovative new government-funded research to reduce bycatch of fish, turtles, and seabirds.

In other bycatch news, Greenpeace launched a major new campaign against bycatch in the tuna industry this week. The centerpiece of the campaign is a satirical video entitled, “The Tuna Industry’s Dirty Little Secret,” featuring artwork by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore. The campaign takes aim at Starkist, Chicken of the Sea, and Bumble Bee–major suppliers of supermarket tuna.

In a post about the campaign at Lawyers Guns and Money, Eric Loomis chides pescetarians (vegetarians who make exceptions for fish), arguing that eating large marine fish in this day and age is the equivalent of chowing down on passenger pigeons in 1850. That’s hyperbole. Not all marine fisheries are mismanaged.

However, as Greenpeace reveals, the fishers who supply canned tuna to supermarkets have a lot to answer for. One of the main offenders is a simple technology known as a fish aggregating device, or FAD. To you and me, an FAD is a buoy; but to sea creatures, an FAD is an irresistable marine block party. Fish are instinctively attracted to floating debris. Unfortunately, it’s not just tuna that are drawn to these floats, according to the Greenpeace website:

FADs increase bycatch in the skipjack tuna industry by between 500% and 1000% when compared to nets set on free-swimming schools (FAD-free seining.) To make matters worse, between 15 percent and 20 percent of the total catch of a FAD-associated skipjack seine is actually juvenile yellowfin and bigeye – two species of tuna that are in serious trouble and cannot afford to have their young purloined before they ever have a chance to breed. The total content of bigeye and yellowfin in FAD-free skipjack seines is less than 1 percent.

 

Sashimi-lovers take note. The canned tuna industry is strangling yellowfins and bigeyes in their infancy.

[Photo credit: John Kratz, Creative Commons.]

Mistakes in Scientific Studies Surge

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported a shocking statistic about scientific research. The number of published studies is up 44% since 2001, but the rate of retractions increased fifteen-fold during the same period.

Reporter Gautam Naik writes:

Just 22 retraction notices appeared in 2001, but 139 in 2006 and 339 last year. Through seven months of this year, there have been 210, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science, an index of 11,600 peer-reviewed journals world-wide.

In a sign of the times, a blog called “Retraction Watch” has popped up to monitor the flow.

Science is based on trust, and most researchers accept findings published in peer-reviewed journals. The studies spur others to embark on related avenues of research, so if one paper is later found to be tainted, an entire edifice of work comes into doubt. Millions of dollars’ worth of private and government funding may go to waste, and, in the case of medical science, patients can be put at risk.

A seemingly impressive study can influence how doctors treat their patients, where investors put their money, and what scientists decide to study next. Naik shows how a shoddy or fradulent study can have consequences that reverberate far beyond the ivory tower.

Citizen Journalists Capture Rage of London Riots

By Tom Watson

The violent riots in areas of London and other cities in the UK have rightly shocked observers because they are so widespread and, seemingly, sprang from nowhere. And while some news organizations have noted (and perhaps overplayed) the role of mobile technology and social media by gangs of rioters to call out their numbers and assemble in certain locations, I think the use of networks in reporting on the spread of violence and destruction is actually more interesting.

The riots are the perfect laboratory for semi-pro and citizen reporters. They spring up quickly in widely dispersed areas (including other cities like Liverpool and Manchester), offer strong images of fast-moving violence, and - quite frankly - stretch beyond the abilities of professional news organizations to cover. In some ways, following mobile pics uploaded to yfrog.com or twitpic brings you a much deeper, more accurate view of these roving gangs than, say, the coverage on the BBC.

Consider some of the excellent “riot maps” that sprung up, usually laid over Google maps and providing an up-to-minute view of where violent incidents were taking place around London. James Cridland, who runs MediaUK.com, a free media resource, put together a working riot map that quickly gained international attention.

http://maps.google.co.uk/maps/ms?msid=207192798388318292131.0004aa01af67…

Another map created tags based on tweets that carried both a UK postal code and the #londonriots hashtag.

http://londonriotsmap.appspot.com/

And social media “location” startup Cravify.com quickly created a searchable riot map of London.

At paidContent.org, Cridland wrote a thoughtful post on what he’d learned about the reliability of fast-breaking news sources as a “citizen journalist” chronicling the riots. Some lessons: news media aren’t always reliable … but neither are myriad Twitter reports. Checking sources matters, and doubling back to correct errors remains a news-gathering basic.

http://paidcontent.org/article/419-what-i-learned-mapping-the-london-riots/

To me, the smartest outlets in Britain used the knowledge they’ve gathered over the past few years about social media to take advantage of citizen reporting when the riots broke. The Guardian, for example, regularly reported via Twitter and amplified posts and pictures there. And NPR’s Andy Carvin, who has become a cyber-celebrity in the news biz for his incisive “anchorman” role on Twitter in places of conflict, again provided high-level curation and aggregation on the micro-blogging platform.

Perhaps most heartening was the lightning-quick organizing of Londoners using social media around cleaning up after the riots - using both the #riotcleanup tag, Facebook, and the @RiotCleanup Twitter page.

http://www.facebook.com/londoncleanup

http://www.riotcleanup.co.uk/

As the organizers posted: “This is not about the riots. This is about the clean up - Londoners who care, coming together to engender a sense of community.”

So Close Yet So Far: Wisconsin Democrats Shatter Recall Record But Fail to Retake the State Senate

Democratic hopes of retaking the Wisconsin State Senate were dashed in Tuesday’s recall election. The Democrats, backed by organized labor, successfully recalled two Republican senators but failed to unseat four others. In order to retake the Senate, Democrats would have had to win three recalls yesterday and save two Democratic senators from recall next week.

Historically speaking, two recalls in one day is unprecedented. Only 13 U.S. state legislators have ever been recalled and voters have never recalled more than two representatives in a single year. On Tuesday, Wisconsin voters recalled as many legislators in one day as they’d recalled in last 80 years.

Most recall races are strictly local affairs, but the recall fight in Wisconsin was a counterattack against a state-level agenda, an agenda that other governors and state legislators are trying to replicate across the country.

Scott Walker did not campaign on a promise to eliminate collective bargaining for public sector workers, but that’s what he did. Republicans control both the State Assembly and the State Senate, so, once elected, Walker had broad power to enact his previously unspoken agenda.

Yesterday’s attempt to recall Walker’s allies en masse was the latest in a series of bold and creative assaults on the Walker agenda. In February, the Democratic state senators fled the state to stop Walker from passing his anti-collective bargaining bill by denying a quorum in the Senate.

While the senators were in exile in Illinois, tens of thousands of anti-Walker, pro-union protesters converged on the state capital. One day in early March, 150,000 braved freezing temperatures to hold one of the largest pro-labor demonstrations in American history. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post won a Sidney Award for his coverage of these protests.

After a three-week standoff, Walker and his allies used procedural tricks to pass the bill without the absent senators, but the fight continued in the courts. Walker’s opponents scored some early victories in the lower court and the implementation of the law was delayed. Hoping to tip the balance of power on the State Supreme Court, which would ultimately hear challenges to Walker’s law, progressives backed challenger JoAnn Kloppenburg against incumbent David Prosser. Kloppenburg lost. In June, the deeply divided court reinstated Walker’s law.

Sargent summed up yesterday’s results as follows:

Yesterday unions and Democrats fell just short of victory in Wisconsin, winning two of six races to recall GOP state senators, in a battle that had unexpectedly emerged as ground zero in a national class war, partly over the fate of organized labor. There’s no way to sugar-coat it: Unions and Dems failed in their objective as they defined it, which was to take back the state senate, put the brakes on Scott Walker’s agenda, and let the nation know that elected officials daring to roll back public employee bargaining rights would face dire electoral consequences.

But nonetheless, what they failed to accomplish does not diminish what they did successfully accomplish. The fact that all these recall elections happened at all was itself a genuine achievement.

The struggle in Wisconsin is often portrayed as a clash of well-matched opponents–Democrats vs. Republicans or Big Labor vs. Big Business. In fact, the Democrats and their allies have been waging an irregular war against a much more powerful opponent. The Republicans control every branch of state government.

In each skirmish, the Democrats and their allies have faced long odds and achieved far more than anyone in the political establishment would have predicted. The anti-Walker forces have proven implacable, even in defeat. Their resiliance proves that public sector workers are not the easy targets that Republicans assumed they would be.

Insurgents can’t expect to rout their enemy in any single decisive battle. If they win, they win by wearing down their opponents over time. 

[Photo credit: Sue Peacock, Creative Commons. Madison, WI, March, 2011.]

Kroll Handicaps Tomorrow's Recall Elections in Wisconsin

On Tuesday, Wisconsinites will decide the political fate of six Republican state senators who backed Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union agenda. In order to regain the majority in the state senate, and check Republican power in Wisconsin, Democrats must recall three out of six GOP legislators tomorrow and successfully defend two Democratic legislators against recall votes next week.

Knock out three, hold two. Sounds manageable, right? However, as Craig Gilbert notes at the Journal Sentinel.com, U.S. voters have never recalled more than two state legislators in the same year in the entire history of recalls. Only 13 state legislators have ever been recalled, period. There are 16 legislators facing recall in Wisconsin right now. Then again, Gilbert notes, the Wisconsin race is unprecedented in many respects. This is the first time a state-level recall battle has become a national referendum. Money and media attention are pouring in from across the country. 

Andy Kroll of Mother Jones has assembled an invaluable election-eve cheat sheet, based on publicly available polling data and interviews with progressive insiders. By Kroll’s count, the Democrats have a clear lead in two races, the Republican is ahead in another, and three more are still too close to call.

This is uncharted territory. Anything could happen.

Fake News, Real Union: Onion News Network Writers Join WGAE

Writers for the Onion News Network announced this week that they had joined the Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO and negotiated their first contract with ONN management.

The agreement will cover the second season of the show, which will begin airing on the Independent Film Channel on September 30.

The agreement calls for minimum compensation increases and health and pension contributions, retroactive to the start of writing earlier this summer. The producers also agreed to hire more writers and add extra writing weeks to the schedule.

The contract is a landmark. Until this agreement was reached, the Onion News Network was the last live-action scripted comedy show to employ non-union writers.

“Writing comedy is hard and time consuming work which makes Guild membership all the more important,” WGAE Director of Communications Elana Levin told the Hillman Blog, “Having more comedy writers in the Guild is beneficial to the working standards for all comedy writers regardless of where they work.”

Over 70 WGAE members from major New York-based comedy shows signed a letter of support on behalf of the ONN writers and hundreds of Guild members emailed the ONN producers.

The ONN writers stood together and won real improvements,” WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson said in a statement.  “We welcome them into the WGAE and we look forward to a productive relationship with the company.”

 

Video: "Vilnius Mayor A. Zuokas Fights Illegally Parked Cars with Tank"

The Mayor of the City of Vilnius, Arturas Zuokas, a self-proclaimed “militant cyclist,” is sick and tired of drivers parking their luxury cars in his city’s bike lanes. So, he teamed up with a Swedish TV show to create what may be the greatest PSA in the history of media.

“In the past few days, expensive cars have been illegally parked in almost the exact same place - a Rolls Royce and a Ferrari. What should the city do about drivers who think they are above the law? It seems like a tank is the best solution,” says the mayor.

To underscore the threat, His Worship jumps into an armored vehicle and crushes an illegally parked blue Mercedes. The shocked owner emerges to find his car flattened. The mayor shakes his hand and says, “Next time, park legally.”

Whereupon the mayor sweeps up the broken glass with a push broom, gets on his bike, and carries on down the freshly cleared bike lane.

Politifact is going to deduct points because this ad features an armored personnel carrier and not a tank, but who cares?

[HT: DJA]

Ikea Workers Vote to Unionize in Viriginia

Last week, workers at an Ikea-owned furniture plant in Danville, Va voted overwhelmingly to join the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). The unionization vote passed by a margin of 221-69, despite the best efforts of an anti-union consulting company.

The organizing drive, which was fought as much in the international media as on the factory floor, successfully highlighted the contradictions between Ikea’s gleaming global brand and its treatment of workers in a remote U.S. town.

Nathaniel Popper of the Los Angeles Times won the April Sidney Award for his story about the grim working conditions and rising tensions between workers and management at the plant. Workers complained of eliminated raises, the frenzied pace of work, and punishing amounts of mandatory overtime. Six African American employees had filed discrimination complaints with the EEOC.

A majority of workers had signed cards indicating their interest in joining a union and the company hired the notorious anti-union consulting company Jackson Lewis to derail the organizing drive, Popper reported.

Popper noted that, while the tensions at the Danville plant were still a sleeper story in the United States, they were front page news in Sweden, a heavily unionized country where Ikea is regarded as a symbol of humane Swedish values. 

“It’s ironic that Ikea looks on the U.S. and Danville the way that most people in the U.S. look at Mexico,” Bill Street who was trying to organize Danville for the machinists told Popper.

Popper later explained in our Q&A Backstory that he was drawn to the story because of the study in contrasts. Ikea is a global brand that holds itself up as a good corporate citizen, yet it set up shop in the isolated community of Danville to pay lower wages to a non-union workforce.

In Sweden, workers earn $19 an hour and accrue 5 weeks of government-mandated paid vacation a year, while full-time Danville workers, who assemble similar bookshelves and tables, start at $8 an hour with 12 vacation days per year, 8 of which must be taken at a time of the company’s choosing. When the story ran, a third of Danville’s workforce were temporary workers who earned even less and received no benefits.

In a follow-up piece in June, Popper reported that Ikea had ended the Danville plant’s heavy reliance on temporary workers under pressure from the pro-union advocacy group American Rights at Work. 

Comedy Central’s The Daily Show ran with the Ikea-as-colonist meme. “Sweden is everything America used to be – dominant, arrogant and so much more beautiful – while America has become Sweden’s Mexico,” according to the segment’s tagline. I’d guess that half the Daily Show’s audience watched that segment from the relative comfort of an Ikea couch. Talk about bringing the message home.

I emailed Popper to ask how the IAM organizers won, in spite of the anti-union drive. He argued that the decisive factors were Ikea’s sensitivity to bad publicity coupled with complacency on the part of management at Swedwood, as the Ikea-owned Danville plant is known:

I got the sense that the public spotlight made Ikea nervous. They wanted to resolve the situation and were hesitant to do anything that could have caused more public embarrassment. They did not try to prolong the election battle – or do any number of other things that companies do when they want to keep unions out. That probably made it much easier for the union to get its case across to the employees.  That said, the local Swedwood management also seemed to think that workers were not interested in unionizing (as Ken Brown said in [this] NPR piece). So perhaps they thought they didn’t need to do much.

Now that the union has been recognized, the next step will be for the IAM to represent the workers at the bargaining table and, hopefully, negotiate their first contract.

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