November 2011 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

November 2011

A Unemployed Seattleite's Journey to Occupy Wall Street

In this week’s New Yorker, George Packer tells the story of Ray Kachel, a 53-year-old Seattle man who crossed the country to occupy Zuccotti Park.

Kachel’s arc of downward social mobility will sound depressingly familiar to 99% of readers. It could happen to anyone who works for a living in a country with a minimal social safety net. Kachel eked out a living as a self-taught tech worker. Like most Americans, he had few assets and modest savings. After he got laid off, he went freelance. Then, his main client died and gigs dried up. His savings ran out. Over the summer, he was forced to sell off his possessions, even the digital tools he needed to work again.

Like a lot of people, Kachel found out about Occupy Wall Street on twitter: 

Kachel had four hundred and fifty dollars from the sale of his copy of Final Cut Pro. For two hundred and fifty, you could travel to New York City on a Greyhound bus. He had never been farther east than Dallas, but New York City was so dense and diverse, and so full of ideas and ways to make money, that if he could learn to exist there he could surely find a place to exist. On the last night of September, he went to bed telling himself, “Oh, this is just absolutely nuts, you can’t do that.” He woke up in the morning with a clear thought: This is exactly what I’m going to do.

Kachel’s journey is an effective foil for Packer to talk about the intellectual and social scene in Zuccotti, the tensions between “ordinary” occupiers and more sophisticated “activists,” and the galvanizing frame of “the 99%.” Highly recommended reading.

[Photo credit: David Shankbone, Creative Commons.]

My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable: White House Moves To Digitize Records

Good news for proponents of transparency and open government, from Richard Wolf of USA Today; the White House has a plan to digitize the Republic’s filing cabinets:

President Obama is ordering that government records be modernized, with an increased emphasis on digital documents.

The White House claims it’s the most significant step to improve the management of public records since the Truman administration 60 years ago.

“The current federal records management system is based on an outdated approach involving paper and filing cabinets,” Obama said in a statement. “Today’s action will move the process into the digital age so the American public can have access to clear and accurate information about the decisions and actions of the federal government.

The White House predicts that the switch will also save money.

[Photo credit: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons.]

Catch-22: Airport Workers Forced to Work For Tips, Forbidden to Mention Tipping

Attendants who escort disabled passengers at O’Hare International Airport often earn less than minimum wage based on mangement’s extremely dubious assumption that the passengers will make up the difference in tips, Dave Jamieson reports for the Huffington Post:

CHICAGO, Ill. – Every day she goes to work at O’Hare International Airport, Elda Burke faces the same dilemma.

Burke, 30, works as a passenger attendant at the airport, escorting the elderly and disabled to and from their gates by wheelchair. Even though the airlines describe this as a free service, Burke’s employer has her working partly for tips, which is why her base pay is a low $6.50 an hour, somewhat like a restaurant server’s, rather than the typical Illinois minimum wage of $8.25.

But unlike diners at a restaurant, many of the passengers Burke will be escorting on their holiday travels this week won’t realize she’s working for tips – and by federal law, she won’t be allowed to tell them.

“We cannot say anything,” Burke says. “If we do that, they can fire us.”

Did you know that tipping airport attendants is customary? I didn’t. Maybe we don’t know because the attendants are forbidden to tell anyone that they work for tips. Talk about a Catch-22.

[Photo credit: Dan Shouse, Creative Commons.]

Pepper Spray, Police Brutality, and the Press

Pepper spray has been in the news since police officers were caught on tape spraying non-violent UC Davis protesters at point blank range, Friday, as the students huddled on their own quad to protest tuition hikes: 

  • Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly tried to downplay the incident by claiming that pepper spray is “a food product, essentially.”
  • In fact “pepper spray” is a deceptively benign-sounding nickname for an excruciating and potentially lethal weapon, according to Pulitzer prize winning-science writer Deborah Blum, who reviews the medical research on the product properly known as Oleoresin Capsicum- or OC Spray.

In other law enforcement/media news:

  • Organizations representing journalists in New York have formed a watchdog group to monitor relations between the NYPD and the press. The Coalition for the First Amendment was founded in response to last week’s media blackout and police violence against journalists during the raid that evicted Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park.

[Image credit: JoeinSouthCA, Creative Commons.]

Newt Gingrich Says Child Labor Laws Are "Truly Stupid"

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has a modest proposal: Put poor children to work cleaning their own schools and fire the unionized janitors who currently clean them.

“This is something that no liberal wants to deal with,” Gingrich said. “Core policies of protecting unionization and bureaucratization against children in the poorest neighborhoods, crippling them by putting them in schools that fail has done more to create income inequality in the United States than any other single policy. It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid.

“You say to somebody, you shouldn’t go to work before you’re what, 14, 16 years of age, fine. You’re totally poor. You’re in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I’ve tried for years to have a very simple model,” he said. “Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.” [POLITICO]

On Friday, Gingrich described child labor laws as “truly stupid,” which seems to imply that he wants to change them. Yet he later told Amy Gardner of the Washington Post that he doesn’t want to repeal child labor laws, he just wants to put poor kids to work as cut-rate janitors for 20 hours a week. There’s no indication that Gardner challenged Gingrich on this apparent reversal.

Newt also wants to abolish food stamps and public housing. His solution for changing the “culture of poverty” is to enlist poor kids as scullery maids while their more prosperous classmates enjoy free time. Newt predicts that enforced servitude will make the poor kids proud of themselves and their schools.

Rachel Weiner of the Washington Post describes Gingrich’s idea to replace janitors with poor kids as “unconventional,” which is an awfully generous way of putting it. She notes that, while other Republicans have flirted with relaxing wage and hour laws for teenagers, “Gingrich’s suggestion that children start working as early as age nine goes far beyond what most other Republicans are proposing.” Indeed.

Newt Gingrich is not a serious candidate. He is a buffoon and a meanspirited crank. He currently commands a bare plurality of support in the crowded race for the GOP nomination. He’s not the first fringe candidate to hog the spotlight while the Republicans work through their issues and crown Mitt Romney.

If Newt’s medieval policy proposals weren’t enough to discredit him, his checkered ethics record should count him out. His entire campaign staff already quit once. He’s just clawing his way back into the public eye to capitalize briefly on Hermain Cain’s slide in the polls.

As MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow famously explained, Gingrich has been flirting with running for president for decades. His “presidential ambitions” are just a marketing ploy to keep him relevant in the eyes of his lobbying clients and direct mail donors. After all, Newt can’t dine out on being the disgraced former Speaker of the House forever.

Why do the media insist on treating Gingrich’s campaign more seriously than he does?

[Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons.]

How Online Education Companies Bought America's Schools

Lobbyists for online education companies took the American public school system by storm last year, according to Lee Fang in a special report in The Nation. Education technology companies are playing hardball against teachers’ unions in a bid to cash in on voucher funding for computer-based instruction, especially in Florida:

If [adivsor to former Gov. Jeb Bush, Patricia] Levesque’s blunt advice sounds like that of a veteran lobbyist, that’s because she is one. Levesque runs a Tallahassee-based firm called Meridian Strategies LLC, which lobbies on behalf of a number of education-technology companies. She is a leader of a coalition of government officials, academics and virtual school sector companies pushing new education laws that could benefit them.

But Levesque wasn’t delivering her hardball advice to her lobbying clients. She was giving it to a group of education philanthropists at a conference sponsored by notable charities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. Indeed, Levesque serves at the helm of two education charities, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national organization, and the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a state-specific nonprofit, both of which are chaired by Jeb Bush. A press release from her national group says that it fights to “advance policies that will create a high quality digital learning environment.”

Across the country, education entrepreneurs are seeking to replace public school teachers with computer programs, despite the research that shows that virtual education is inferior to traditional teaching. They are getting lots of help from Tea Party politicians on a mission to privatize schools and bust unions.

This eye-opening story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

[Photo credit: nebarnix, Creative Commons.]

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

  • A terrorism expert, an ex-CIA agent, a Republican operative, and a Kansas City lawyer tried to land a >$10 million consulting gig with Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi during the waning days of his rule, according to documents discovered after Qaddafi’s fall and published online, Scott Shane and Penn Bullock report in the New York Times.
  • Peter Aldhous of the New Scientist compares the twitter networks of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party.
  • 99 Portraits for the 99%, photos by Steven Greaves in GOOD.
  • Senators grilling the FTC commissioner on proposed childhood obesity prevention guidelines took big bucks from the Big Food, writes Nancy Watzman of the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Congress Gutted Financial Reform While Bloomberg Cleared Zuccotti Park

While Mayor Bloomberg was clearing Zuccotti Park with tear gas and riot police, Congress was sabotaging financial reform by slashing the budget of a key regulator, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Sidney Award-winner Mary Bottari of PR Watch reports:

On Capitol Hill, a similar rout was taking place in the dead of night. In a fast move that deals a serious blow to a key regulator in charge of Wall Street derivatives trading, Obama’s budget request for CFTC was cut by more than a third by GOP legislators eager to kill any oversight of Wall Street.

According to Politico, the administration had sought $308 million for the new fiscal year, but the amount is expected to come in closer to $205 million. [Truthout]

With a smaller budget, the CFTC will be hard pressed to reign in the super-banks that control most of the $600 billion derivatives market, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs. The agency will struggle to keep up with Wall Street, let alone to prevent another financial crisis.

[Photo credit: Leo Reynolds, Creative Commons.]

James Downie of the WaPo Speaks Out Against Bloomberg's Raid On Occupy Wall Street

The NYPD cleared Zuccotti Park in a surprise raid early Tuesday morning on the orders of Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Subway stations near the occupation site were closed prior to the raid in an apparent attempt to prevent protesters from mobilizing their allies to defend the occupation, as they did last month.

The authorities did their best to ensure that the raid took place in a news blackout. The city even closed the air space over Lower Manhattan to keep news helicopters away. Journalists from AP and the Daily News were arrested as they tried to cover the eviction.

James Downie of the Washington Post writes:

Bloomberg’s brazenness has only increased during the morning. At 6:30 a.m., Judge Lucy Billings issued an injunction “requiring the protesters to be readmitted to Zuccotti Park with their tents,” but Bloomberg has ignored the court order and kept the park closed. Protesters have marched to Zucotti Park, but are being barred from entrance despite displaying that court order to the police on site. At this time, the mayor’s office has not explained why it is ignoring the court order.

Most disturbingly, the NYPD sought to block any and all press from covering this eviction. On the ground, reporters were stopped at the barricades and refused entrance. Numerous journalists reported that cops refused to let them in, even pushing reporters away; reporters even Tweeted about getting arrested. In the air, NYPD helicopters refused to allow CBS News helicopters to film the eviction from above. As for the camera already in the park-OWS’s livestream-the police simply blocked it with a pile of torn-up tents.

Later in his post, Downie zeros in on the seemingly contradictory rationales for this morning’s action. Did Bloomberg decide to clear the park because the owner, Brookfield Properties, asked him to? Or was it because the occupation was a health hazard? Or, because some protesters were breaking the law? The mayor’s scattershot statement touched on all of these themes without making a convincing case for any of them.

Zuccotti Park is open to the public 24 hours a day, but Brookfield rules forbid camping or sleeping there.

As Downie notes, the occupiers have been cleaning the park throughout their stay. The mayor cited no evidence of any health or safety hazard posed by the tents themselves. Note that Zuccotti Park is a concrete plaza, so the fire hazard seems minimal.

Bloomberg did not explain why the press were kept away from Zuccotti Park this time. Nor did he attempt to justify the NYPD’s decision to discard Zuccotti Park’s >5500-volume People’s Library.

Update: At least some of the books are safe in City custody on 57th Street.

[Photo credit: Amanda Farrah, Creative Commons.]

The Hillman Prizes: Now Accepting Entries/New Categories for 2012

The categories for the 2012 Hillman Prizes have been revised and updated to fit our rapidly changing media landscape. We have reorganized the categories to recognize new and emerging media.

The Hillman Prizes honor outstanding journalism in service of the common good, as they have done since 1950.

This year’s categories are as follows:

1. Book (bound volumes and ebooks) 

2. Newspaper Journalism (story or series/in print or online) 

3. Magazine Journalism (story or series/in print or online) 

4. Broadcast Journalism (story or series/at least 40 minutes in total length) Open to television, web TV, radio, podcast, and documentary film.

5. Web Journalism (publication/story or series/multimedia media project) Open to blogs, computer-assisted reporting, new investigative tools, mapping, crowd sourcing, and other multimedia media projects. Entries should feature a substantial text component.

6. Photojournalism (for a series of still photos, no single images) Entries in this category must include still photos, either alone, or as part of a multimedia package. For example, the winning entry of the 2011 Hillman Prize for Photojournalism featured still photos and web video.

7. Opinion Journalism (any medium) Includes all types of advocacy, opinion, and analysis, normally short-form and/or frequent, regardless of medium. Open to newspaper and magazine columnists, TV and radio presenters, podcasters, blogs, and bloggers.

Click here for more detailed submission guidelines and our online nomination form

If you have any questions about the new categories or the submission proccess, please contact me at the email address on the sidebar. Postmark deadline is January 31, 2012. Winners will be announced in April.