November 2011 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

November 2011

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

  • Sidney’s a 124-year-old guy who knows better than to take sides in the breast-vs.-bottle battle royale, but he’s dismayed to see formula companies marketing like drug dealers. Four words you don’t want to hear around babies: “The first hit’s free.” Formula companies offer their product to the WIC program for low-income women and children at a deep discount. The U.S. taxpayer pays about $627 million a year for formula that would retail for $2 billion. According to a new report by Molly M. Ginty of Women’s eNews, reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute, this is a shrewd marketing ploy for the formula makers. WIC formula vouchers don’t last the entire month. So, the vouchers establish brand loyalty, and then low-income moms have to make up the difference with retail-priced formula.
  • The Department of Justice has abandoned its proposal to allow federal agencies to lie and say that FOIA‘d records don’t exist, when they do. Kudos to Jennifer LaFleur of ProPublica for sounding the alarm and spearheading the opposition.
  • The War on Drugs is getting more warlike than ever, James Poulos notes in Foreign Policy. He points to an article from last week’s New York Times about DEA paramilitary squads exchanging fire with drug traffickers in Latin America. These squads are known as Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams (FAST), the fruit of a George W. Bush-era program to “investigate” drug traffickers linked to the Taliban. The Obama administration has since deployed these teams well beyond Afghanistan.
  • Three NYPD officers will be disciplined for violently and baselessly arresting two black officials–City Councilman Jumaane Williams and Kirsten John Foy of the Public Advocates Office–at the West Indian Day Parade, John Del Signore reports in Gothamist. 

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]


High and Tight: Did Bad Barbering Beset Undercover Operation?

William K. Rashbaum reports in the New York Times:

The men came in one by one, sat down in the chair in front of the shop’s newest barber, and got their hair cut. They looked like customers at pretty much any other barber shop around the city. They paid, and went on their way.

But they were not like other customers. They were all undercover police officers.

And so was the man cutting their hair.

They were all in the shop, Who’s First Barber Shop II, on East 149th Street in the Hub section of the Bronx, trying to collect evidence during the early stages of what would become a sweeping ticket-fixing investigation, according to court documents, police records and people briefed on the case. The owner, a police officer named Jose Ramos, was believed to be aiding drug dealers.

But few of the undercover officers, it turns out, came back after their haircuts, according to one person with knowledge of the matter, and ended up contributing little to the eventual success of the investigation.

The reason they did not return had nothing to do with crime or criminals. It was simply because they did not like the way their colleague, the undercover barber, cut their hair, according to the person briefed on the case. And that is despite the fact that the Police Department was picking up the tab.

The NYPD paid for an officer to recertify himself as a barber and rent a chair in a barber owned by a fellow officer who was suspected of aiding drug dealers. Fellow officers from the Department of Internal Affairs were supposed to come in for haircuts and buy drugs. No drugs were purchased.

Part of the problem, according to anonymous sources, was that few of the undercover officers were willing to come back for a second haircut.  “The consensus was just that he gave bad haircuts,” one of the people briefed on the matter told the Times, “They just didn’t like his haircuts.”

Somewhere, Frank Serpico is shaking his head in disgust. You’d think undercover officers would be resigned to bad hair in the line of duty, mullets, even.

Or, maybe this is NYPD face-saving and nobody was dealing drugs out of the barber shop. According to the story, the undercover barber didn’t witness any significant criminal activity in the few days he worked in the shop during the summer of 2009.

[Photo credit: Diamondduste, Creative Commons.]

Mississippi Decisively Rejects "Personhood" for Fertilized Eggs

Last night, Mississippi voters decisively rejected a ballot initiative to redefine fertilized eggs as people. As of Wednesday morning, the measure stood defeated by a margin of 58% to 42% with nearly all precincts reporting. This is a surprising result. On the eve of the vote, most observers expected the measure to pass.

November Sidney Award winner Irin Carmon takes a closer look at how Mississippi beat Initiative 26 in Salon. Grassroots activists, including rape survivors, doctors, parents by in vitro fertilization, and members of the clergy joined forces with national organizations like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. It probably helped that a PersonhoodUSA spokesman predicted on national radio that Initiative 26 would ban the birth control pill.

As underwhelming as their performance was last night, this is a high water mark for the egg-as-person movement. If you can’t declare a fertilized ovum a full-fledged human being in Mississippi, you can’t do it anywhere in America. Similar proposals were defeated by 40-point margins in Colorado in 2008 and 2010. Undeterred by the overwhelming evidence, PersonhoodUSA has vowed to introduce similar measures in Florida, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Nevada and California in 2012.


Irin Carmon Wins November Sidney Award for Coverage of Mississippi "Personhood" Vote

I’m very pleased to announce that Irin Carmon of Salon has won the November Sidney Award for her coverage of a proposed amendment to the Mississippi constitution that would redefine a fertilized egg as a person. Carmon reported that the measure, billed as an anti-abortion initiative, would also ban some forms of birth control, and chart a course to challenge Roe v. Wade.

Mississippians vote today, Tuesday the 8th, on Initiative 26. Other states have voted on so-called “personhood” initiatives, but this is the first time such a measure stands a chance of passing. Both the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor have endorsed the measure. Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney said last month that he’d support a hypothetical personhood amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Carmon’s in-depth reporting from Mississippi shaped the national conversation on the Mississippi “personhood” vote. She was one of the first journalists to state plainly that the measure would ban not only abortion but also any form of birth control that destroys a fertilized egg.

Carmon exposed ambivalence and basic factual confusion among leading proponents of Initiative 26. Would the personhood amendment ban the Pill? Nobody would give Carmon a straight answer. The pro-personhood contingent has good reason to equivocate. The birth control pill is, after all, very popular. Then again, for many prospective supporters of ovum “personhood,” banning birth control is a feature, not a bug.

Medical science says that birth control pills work by suppressing ovulation, as evidenced by the fact that women who skip doses, and therefore ovulate on the Pill, can still get pregnant. High-dose birth control for emergency contraception (“the morning after pill”) works exclusively by suppressing ovulation. But there’s no guarantee that legislators interpreting a sweeping “personhood” amendment would be guided by the best science.

Read my interview with Carmon on the making of her prizewinning feature at The Backstory.

[Photo credit: brains the head, Creative Commons.]

A Rabbi and a Reverend Talk Personhood

Anti-choicers often claim that their opposition to abortion is based on Judeo-Christian teachings. They stake their claim to religious authority so loudly, so confidently, and so often that it’s easy to forget that their interpretations of scripture aren’t the only ones.

Elissa Strauss interviewed Rabbi Jill Jacobs and Reverend Chloe Breyer to find out what the Bible says about when life begins.

The anti-choice argument from Judeo-Christian texts rests on surprisingly shaky theological foundations.

Elissa correctly stresses that no one’s religious beliefs should dictate the law. And the Judeo-Christian tradition is just one among many. But there’s no question that a lot of people’s views on reproductive rights are influenced by what they assume their religion teaches on the subject.

As an atheist, I’m continually impressed by the marketing triumph of religious anti-choicers. They’ve managed to make their tenuous interpretation of scripture synonymous with “the religious perspective” on abortion.

[Photo credit: Zyada, Creative Commons.]

Inside the Mind of an Octopus

Sy Montgomery explores the minds of octopuses in a fascinating and beautifully written piece of science journalism for Orion Magazine:

I had always longed to meet an octopus. Now was my chance: senior aquarist Scott Dowd arranged an introduction. In a back room, he would open the top of Athena’s tank. If she consented, I could touch her. The heavy lid covering her tank separated our two worlds. One world was mine and yours, the reality of air and land, where we lumber through life governed by a backbone and constrained by jointed limbs and gravity. The other world was hers, the reality of a nearly gelatinous being breathing water and moving weightlessly through it. We think of our world as the “real” one, but Athena’s is realer still: after all, most of the world is ocean, and most animals live there. Regardless of whether they live on land or water, more than 95 percent of all animals are invertebrates, like Athena.

Montgomery interviews octopus scientists, a scuba diving philosophy professor, and an aquarium volunteer who found his post-retirement calling as an octopus whisperer.

[Photo credit: hankplank, Creative Commons.]

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


  • “I am the Koch brothers’ brother from another mother!” Herman Cain proclaimed during an appearance at Americans for Prosperity, Friday. This delicious scoop comes from Dave Weigel of Slate.
  • Cain’s campaign accepted tens of thousands of dollars of legally dubious in-kind contributions from Prosperity USA, a non-profit headed by Cain’s chief of staff, Mark Block, Mark Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed late last week. Block is also the former head of the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a non-profit co-founded by the arch conservative Koch Brothers.
  • Nick Confessore of the New York Times reported that an outside lawyer would be looking into the Cain campaign’s finances to determine whether the tax-exempt Prosperity USA violated campaign finance laws by paying for a variety of expenses for the Cain campaign including iPads and a trip for Mark Block to meet David Koch.
  • In other campaign finance news, the downfall of New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine and his bankrupt brokerage firm MF Global may prove embarassing for President Obama, considering that Corzine raised at least $500,000 as an Obama bundler, according to Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam of the Washington Post. They note that MF Global recently wrote a clause into a bond issue promising to raise interest rates by 1% if Corzine was appointed to a post in the Obama administration. As MF Global went into the eighth-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, it was revealed that the firm had “lost track” of an estimated $633 million in client funds. The FEC is investigating whether MF Global gambled and lost other people’s money.

[Photo credit: Wandermule, Creative Commons.]



More on "Buy Here Pay Here" Used Car Dealerships

The third and final installment of Ken Bensinger’s investigation of so-called “Buy Here Pay Here” used car dealerships ran today in the Los Angeles Times. Therein, Bensinger examines what alternatives there are for the clientele of BHPH dealerships, low-income buyers with bad credit who need a car to keep a job. Clear it With Sidney blogged about Parts 1 and 2 of this remarkable series yesterday.

[Photo credit: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons.]

Occupy the Lot?: Used Car Industry Hits New Moral Low as New Subprime Bubble Swells

These aren’t used cars so much as usury cars….

In a special three-part series, Ken Bensinger of the L.A. Times investigates the wildly profitable but little known world of “Buy Here Pay Here” used car dealerships. These lots cater to a very specific clientele: People with terrible credit who need a car to hold a job.

In part 1, Bensinger explains the Buy Here Pay Here business model: sign, drive, default, repossess, and resell.

Faced with the choice between getting hosed buy a used car dealer and sleeping on the street, buyers will pay any price and accept financing on any terms. The dealers know it. Cars are priced above their Blue Book value and financed at an average interest rate of 20.7%, triple the national average.

Buy Here Pay Here dealerships are only nominally selling cars. Their real business is financing. And because they write their own loans, they are exempt from most forms of regulation. The “Pay Here” part of the name indicates that the buyer delivers payments in cash to the dealership.

You’d think that selling cars on credit to the country’s least reliable borrowers would be an unprofitable business. Not so. The average BHPH dealership turns a 38% profit.

The thing is, these dealers don’t care if customers make their payments. In fact, it’s better if they don’t. These cars come standard with hidden GPS trackers and remote ignition locks for easy repo. If a customer falls behind, the car is seized an resold. Bensinger found that cars were often resold at higher prices the second and third times around. 

In part II, Bensinger reveals that Wall Street is in on the racket. (At this point the reader may experience a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach and an unshakeable sense of deja vu. That’s a common side effect of devastating investigative reporting. Do not be alarmed. Be enraged.)

Financial chopshops have sprung up on Wall Street to cash in on the BHPH boom. Loans originated by BHPH dealers are being securitized, meaning that financial wizards are chopping up these ultra-subprime auto loans and packaging them into securities for investors to buy. Some of these products are rated AAA.

This is the exact scam that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. Bad loans are being repackaged as securities backed by what are surely inflated ratings and pawned off on hapless investors.

These securities will turn into so much worthless paper if the BHPH industry can’t keep all the balls in the air. But neither the securitizers nor the used car dealers care because, they’ll have already made their money.

The third part of the series will run tomorrow. Sidney can hardly wait.

If the word gets out, Occupy the Lot could be the next phase of the Occupy Movement.

[Photo credit:, Creative Commons; visit on the web.]