December 2011 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

December 2011

Sidney's Picks: Highlights of 2011

Our 2011 Sidney Award Winners, of course. But that would make for a pretty anticlimactic list, wouldn’t it? You already know we think the world of them.

  • Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer, by John Branch in the New York Times. A heartbreaking and painstakingly reported multimedia package about the life and death of 28-year-old NHL player Derek Boogaard, an “enforcer” whose history of head trauma probably contributed to his untimely death from a drug overdose.
  • Birthright: What’s Next for Planned Parenthood by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker. How did Planned Parenthood become synonymous with abortion? The answer may surprise you. This essay uses early controversies over birth control as a lens to understand the modern anti-abortion movement. 
  • The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers by Scott Carney, published by William Morrow. An anthropologist-turned-investigative journalist travels the world to document the  commodification of the human body and its functions. 
  • A Vicious Cycle in the Used Car Business, by Ken Bensinger in the LA Times. This meticulous investigation details how national chains of self-financing used car dealerships exploit the poor and repackage their bad loans as subprime securities.
  • The High Price of Looking like Woman by Laura Rena Murray in the New York Times. Local reporting at its best. Murray delves into the underworld of unlicensed silicone injectors who prey on transgender women in New York seeking feminine curves on the cheap. This story is especially powerful because it illustrates how transphobia and discrimination push vulnerable women into this potentially lethal black market.
  • Deep Intellect: Inside the Minds of Octopuses, by Sy Montgomery in Orion Magazine. The author seeks understand how octopuses can be so smart, yet so different from humans–physically and evolutionarily. His search brings him to embrace an octopus. He also interviews octopus scientists, a scuba diving philosophy professor, and an aquarium volunteer who found his post-retirement calling as an octopus whisperer.
  • The Luckiest Woman in the World: Three Ways to Win the Lottery by Nathaniel Rich in Harper’s. Wannabe grifters take note.
  • Is The SEC Covering Up Wall Street Crimes?, by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone. Ditto.

 

HBO's "Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags", Now Available On DVD

Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags, HBO’s critically acclaimed documentary is now available on DVD:

“Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags” brings to life the vibrant, unexpected history of the Garment District, which for many years was the heart and soul of Midtown Manhattan, but is now in danger of disappearing. For thousands of immigrants the garment industry was a path to their American Dream, but today most of those jobs are gone. A microcosm of the economic and social forces transforming our nation over the past one hundred years, “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags” tells the story of this vanishing industry through the voices of the people who have experienced its highs and lows.

Manhattan’s Garment District was a birthplace of organized labor, an engine of New York’s fashion industry, and a source of jobs since the 19th century. Filmmakers Mark Levinson and Daphne Pinkerson describe how automation, deregulation, and outsourcing have sapped the economic health of the Garment District and the U.S. clothing manufacturing sector at large.

[Photo credit: Laughing Squid, Creative Commons. Sculpture of a garment worker in New York’s Garment District.]

The Drone Zone: Obama's Secret War

What if the president had a secret network of killer drones he used to bump off American citizens overseas without trial and nobody cared. Well, he does.

Greg Miller of the Washington Post reports on Obama’s expanding global network of killer drones:

The Obama administration’s counterterrorism accomplishments are most apparent in what it has been able to dismantle, including CIA prisons and entire tiers of al-Qaeda’s leadership. But what the administration has assembled, hidden from public view, may be equally consequential.

In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. The apparatus involves dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force­ ­cockpits in the Southwest and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents.

Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.

The president has ordered the extrajudicial drone killings of U.S. citizens overseas. Disturbingly, he exercises this power without Congressional oversight, and without apparent concern from other members of his party.

[Art: guerric, Creative Commons.]

 

 

What Can Pro-Choicers Learn From the Gay Rights Movement?

2011 has been a banner year for the gay rights movement, and a lackluster one for the pro-choice movement. The confrontational tactics of marriage equality activists and opponents of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell have paid off while conciliatory pro-choicers have gotten the cold shoulder from their Democratic allies, including a humiliating snub by the Obama administration on Plan B OTC.

Sidney Award-winner Irin Carmon asks what reproductive rights advocates can learn from the LGBT liberation movement.

[Photo: The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village that became a crucible for the modern gay rights movement after patrons stood their ground after a 1969 police raid. The Stonewall is now a National Historic Landmark. By Skinnylawyer, Creative Commons.]

Love and Asperger Syndrome

Amy Harmon has a great feature in the New York Times about two college students with Asperger syndrome negotiating romance.

Asperger’s is a condition on the autism spectrum that confers distinctive abilities (passionate interests, intense focus) and deficits (difficulty reading emotions and interpreting social cues).

People on the autism spectrum are often unfairly stereotyped as indifferent to intimacy. As Harmon explains, Asperger’s doesn’t extinguish the need for interpersonal connection, but it does make the search for love more difficult:

Jack, Kirsten noticed, bit his lips, a habit he told her came from not knowing how he was supposed to arrange his face to show his emotions. Kirsten, Jack noticed, cracked her knuckles, which she later told him was her public version of the hand-flapping she reserved for when she was alone, a common autistic behavior thought to ease stress.

Their difficulty discerning unspoken cues might have made it harder to know if the attraction was mutual. Kirsten stalked Jack on Facebook, she later told him, but he rarely posted. In one phone conversation, Jack wondered, “Is she flirting with me?” But he could not be sure.

[Photo credit: rosipaw, Creative Commons.]

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

  • Developmentally disabled New Yorkers are being dosed with powerful psychotropic drugs with minimal medical supervision, Danny Hakim reports. [NYT]
  • Peter Goodman continues his coverage of Cape Coral, Florida, one of the foreclosure capitals of America, home to rising suburban poverty. [HuffPo]
  • Fairy shrimp under threat, public spirited British eccentrics dig ponds to protect beloved invertebrates. [BBC]
  • Dave Weigel takes Politifact to task for the “fact-checking” site’s bizarre claim that Democrats lied when they said that “Republicans voted to end Medicare” by eliminating the popular single-payer health insurance program and replacing it with vouchers for private insurance. [Slate]

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Blue Collar Blues, Warehouse Edition

Dave Jamieson of the Huffington Post explores America’s warehouse archipelago in a piece entitled The New Blue Collar: Temporary Work, Lasting Poverty, and the American Warehouse. He describes how big retailers like Wal-Mart outsource their shipping to subcontractors who hire temporary workers to move goods for piecework rates.

Warehouses could support local communities by providing non-outsourceable middle class jobs, but instead, many are miserable places to work:

As manufacturing jobs continue to head overseas, Americans need new sectors that can provide good, middle-class work for millions of people. Driven as it is by the consumer economy, the retail supply chain should be one of those sectors. But plenty of workers who are lucky enough to have jobs in the industry find themselves earning poverty wages. And while workers get squeezed in the name of lower prices, the overall benefits to consumers may be illusory. By many measures, the middle class is shrinking – and not just because of the Great Recession. There are simply fewer jobs that pay good wages. More than 46 million Americans – roughly one in six – are now living in poverty, the highest number ever recorded by the Census Bureau. Between 2001 and 2007, as the economy boomed, poverty expanded among working-age people for the first time ever during a period of growth. Workers on the whole made less at the end of the boom than they did at the beginning.

In the case of the warehouse industry, where permanent temps are now common, many workers performing the most difficult jobs don’t even enjoy the status of basic employees. They work at the pleasure of the agencies employing them. For many of them, getting hurt or slowing down means the end of their gig with no parting compensation – similar to the arrangement detailed in a devastating expose of an Amazon warehouse by the Pennsylvania Morning Call in September.

Jamieson won a Sidney Award in November of 2009 for a story about the intersection healthcare and homelessness. Spencer Soper won the October 2011 Sidney Award for his coverage of heat prostration and other indignities inflicted upon the staff of an Amazon.com warehouse complex in Pennsylvania.

[Photo credit: Roamallday, Creative Commons.]

Mystery Kidney Disease Kills Sugar Cane Workers

A mysterious form of chronic kidney disease is killing thousands of sugar cane workers each year in Central America, Sasha Chavkin and Ronnie Greene report for iWatch News. Chronic kidney disease usually develops over many years as a complication of high blood pressure and diabetes. In the sugar cane workers, the kidneys degenerate rapidly in patients who have neither hypertension nor diabetes. One patient Chavkin and Greene interviewed for the piece was just 19 years old. “Sugarcane nephropathy,” as some experts call the new syndrome, has already killed his father and his grandfather and stricken three of his brothers, all sugarcane workers.

[Photo credit: Lon&Queta, Creative Commons.]

Victoria's Secret: "Fair Trade" Cotton Harvested by Child Labor

Victoria’s Secret claims that some of its cotton lingerie is made with “fair trade” fibers from Burkina Faso. However, as Cam Simpson reports in Bloomberg Markets Magazine, some of that cotton was harvested by child labor

Made with 20 percent organic fibers from Burkina Faso,” reads a stamp on that garment, purchased in October.

Forced labor and child labor aren’t new to African farms. Clarisse’s cotton, the product of both, is supposed to be different. It’s certified as organic and fair trade, and so should be free of such practices.

Planted when Clarisse was 12, all of Burkina Faso’s organic crop from last season was bought by Victoria’s Secret (LTD), according to Georges Guebre, leader of the country’s organic and fair- trade program, and Tobias Meier, head of fair trade for Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation, a Zurich-based development organization that set up the program and has helped market the cotton to global buyers. Meier says Victoria’s Secret also was expected to get most of this season’s organic harvest, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its February issue.

[Photo credit: jensconspiracy, Creative Commons.]

Coffee Enemas, Aromatherapy, and Intercessory Prayer: Your Tax Dollars At Work

Why is the federal government spending millions on research into coffee enemas, aromatherapy, and intercessory prayer? Hint: It’s not our exit strategy from Afghanistan.

Trine Tsouderos of the Chicago Tribune has a scathing report on The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), an ideologically motivated side project within the National Institutes of Health which has received over $1.4 billion in grants to study scientifically dubious alternative remedies:

Thanks to a $374,000 taxpayer-funded grant, we now know that inhaling lemon and lavender scents doesn’t do a lot for our ability to heal a wound. With $666,000 in federal research money, scientists examined whether distant prayer could heal AIDS. It could not.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine also helped pay scientists to study whether squirting brewed coffee into someone’s intestines can help treat pancreatic cancer (a $406,000 grant) and whether massage makes people with advanced cancer feel better ($1.25 million). The coffee enemas did not help. The massage did.

NCCAM also has invested in studies of various forms of energy healing, including one based on the ideas of a self-described “healer, clairvoyant and medicine woman” who says her children inspired her to learn to read auras. The cost for that was $104,000.

The Tribune reviewed 12 years’ worth of NCCAM documents to write this story.

Tsouderos succinctly explains why the public should be outraged. NCCAM is wasting money investigating hypotheses that have little or no prior probability of being true–some of them claim mechanisms of action that are medically impossible. In real science, extreme longshot research proposals are less likely to get funded than proposals with a serious chance of getting results. Most of NCCAM research proposals couldn’t compete with real medical research for regular NIH funding. At the same time, competition for medical research dollars is fierce, and the NIH’s overall budget is projected to plateau and eventually shrink.

As regular readers may know, I’ve been active in the skeptics movement for many years. Tsouderos interviewed my old Skeptics Toolbox colleague and friend Dr. Wallace Sampson, who was characteristically acerbic in his assessment of NCCAM’s research portfolio:

“Some of these treatments were just distinctly made up out of people’s imaginations,” said Dr. Wallace Sampson, clinical professor emeritus of medicine at Stanford University. “We don’t take public money and invest it in projects that are just made up out of people’s imaginations.”

As Tsouderos notes, complementary and alternative therapies are a $34 billion industry and 40% of U.S. adults report using some kind of alternative remedy in the last year. Wouldn’t it make sense to study these remedies, given that they’re being used so widely? For all we know, some of them are dangerous. Besides, even debunking useless claims would be a service to consumers. The problem is that NCCAM exists to validate alternative medicine, not to assess it critically.

NCCAM is a political oasis for research that could not compete in mainstream science. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), one of the fathers of NCCAM, gave the game away when he lamented during a 2009 senate hearing that the center was disproving too many alternative therapies. “One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short,” Harkin said. If Harkin were interested in applying science to CAM, as opposed to confirming his bias towards complementary remedies, he would be happy that useless treatments were found to be useless.

[Photo credit: opacity, Creative Commons.]

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