April 2012 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

April 2012

Sidney Winners Ganim and Kocieniewski Win Pulitzer Prizes

Congratulations to Sara Ganim and the Patriot-News on winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting; and to David Kocieniewski of the New York Times on his win for Explanatory Reporting.

Ganim won the Pulitzer and the December Sidney Award for her expose of the Penn State sex abuse scandal. David Kocieniewski won his Pulitzer for explaining how the richest people and businesses get out of paying taxes. He won the March 2011 Sidney Award for a story on how General Electric minimizes its tax bill.

Congratulations also to Danny Hakim and Russ Buettner whose investigation of abuse and neglect in New York group homes made the New York Times a Pulitzer finalist for Public Service. That investigation also garnered an honorable mention for the 2012 Hillman Prize.

Tom Morello to Receive Officers' Award from the Sidney Hillman Foundation

NEW YORK - Musician and activist Tom Morello will receive a special public service award at the annual 2012 Hillman Prizes ceremony on May 1 at The TimesCenter. The Board of Directors of the Sidney Hillman Foundation is honoring Morello with the Officers’ Award for his advocacy for and support of working people across the world.

Morello will receive the award at the ceremony and reception to honor this year’s Hillman Prize-winners for excellence in journalism in service of the common good. Previous Officers’ awards have gone to such figures as Eleanor Roosevelt, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, and others.

Morello will be performing at this year’s ceremony.

In 2011, Tom Morello sang on the capitol steps in Madison, Wisconsin to support the public employees in their fight to protect collective bargaining. He visited and performed at Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver. He donated the proceeds from his Justice Tour concerts in Madison WI, Flint MI, and Cleveland OH to the Nation Institute.

“Tom Morello’s work in pursuing social and economic justice - and in telling the stories of working men and women - is exemplary and inspiring,” said Bruce Raynor, president of the Sidney Hillman Foundation. “Tom’s music, energy and leadership brings attention to causes that matter and inspires others to become more active on the public commons. In the words of another American songwriter, there’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’ - and almost any time we look, there’s Tom Morello right out in front.”

The awards ceremony will take place at 6pm Tuesday, May 1, 212, at The TimesCenter, in New York City.

#Sidney's Picks: Foreclosure Follies; Car Wash Wars; Nasty Nail Polish

The best of the week’s news. Submit your favorite investigative and public interest stories by tweeting the link to @SidneyHillman with the hashtag #Sidney.

  • A woman and her severely disabled daughter nearly had their house foreclosed upon even though Bank of America agreed to lower the monthly payments on the home equity loan the mother took out to retrofit the dwelling to care for her daughter, Gale Holland reports for the LA Times. Dirma Rodriguez had been keeping up with her modified payments, awaiting a final renegotiation, but the bank sold the home out from under her. Holland found out about the case through Occupy Fights Foreclosure, an offshoot of the 99% Movement that defended the home in March.
  • The Public Advocate’s office is calling on New York City to stop washing its fleet at car washes owned by Lage Management Company because the owner John Lage is under investigation for stealing wages from his own employees, Erica Pearson reports for the New York Daily News. This story is part of Pearson’s ongoing coverage of a campaign to improve working conditions at New York City car washes.
  • So-called “toxin-free” nail polishes aren’t toxin free after all, according to a new report by California regulators, the announcements raise health concerns for the state’s 120,000 licensed nail technicians, four fifths of whom are Vietnamese women, Anna Gorman reports in the LA Times.
  • Is your employer quietly pocketing your state income taxes? David Cay Johnston of Reuters reports that 2700 companies, including big names like Sears and General Electric, are allowed to keep their employees’ state tax contributions without telling them under so-called tax diversion agreements with state governments.
  • Part memoir, part reportage: Gabriel Arana of the American Prospect takes an in-depth look at the fraudulent “ex-gay” movement.

The 2012 Elections: Is a Multi-Racial Working-Class Coalition Still Possible? [Event: April 20]

The Sidney Hillman Foundation invites you to a special event on Friday, April 20: Distinguished panelists Ruy Teixiara, Thomas Edsall, and Ana Avendano, and moderator Dorian Warren will discuss the pressing question: Is a multi-racial working-class coalition still possible for the 2012 elections? 

Click here to view the full-sized flier.

Trymaine Lee Wins Sidney Award for Trayvon Martin Coverage

Trymaine Lee has won the April Sidney Award for his coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting. Lee, a senior reporter at the Huffington Post, spearheaded his site’s reporting effort, which helped turn the killing of Martin into a national cause.

On Feb. 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who claims he shot the unarmed black youth in self-defense.

Lee’s March 8th story drew national attention to the killing which, until then, was only being covered by local media. As the story garnered ever greater attention, he persuaded his editors to send him on assignment to Florida.

Lee unearthed facts about George Zimmerman’s history of violence. In Florida, he obtained an interview with the youngest witness to the shooting, a 13-year-old black youth who told the reporter, “If I was like two years older, that could have happened to me.”

Lee’s work on this story demonstrates the power of a single, enterprising journalist to shape the national conversation.

Click here to read my interview with Lee.

Bangladeshi Labor Organizer Tortured and Killed

A labor organizer who helped ABC News expose brutal working conditions in Bangladeshi clothing factories was tortured and killed last week, according to authorities:

“All indications are that Aminul Islam was murdered because of his labor rights work,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, an American group working to improve conditions at factories abroad that make clothes for U.S. companies. “This depraved act signals the deterioration of an already grim labor rights situation in Bangladesh, which is now the fourth largest exporter of apparel to the U.S.” [ABC]

Islam, a senior organizer with the Bangladeshi Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), had been working to organize the Shanta Group, which makes clothes for such well-known American brands as Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, and Ralph Lauren.

When ABC News reported on a deadly factory fire, Islam helped to arrange interviews with survivors of the blaze. Death by fire remains a common occupational hazard in Bangladesh’s clothing industry. Nearly 500 Bangladeshi workers have died in factory fires over the last five years.

[Photo credit: Workers in an unnamed garment factory in Bangladesh, jankie, Creative Commons.]

Selling Blood, Going Back to Abusers: Welfare Reform in the Recession

Welfare reporm was hailed as a triumph of “tough love” during the boom years of the Clinton administration. What looked like a smashing success during good times turned out to be a bust when the economy soured, Jason DeParle reports for the New York Times. The goal was to give welfare recipients an incentive to look for work, on the assumption that they could find jobs if they wanted them. That made sense in an economy where there were jobs available, but welfare expenditures stayed low throughout the recession as unemployment soared to record levels:

Faced with flat federal financing and rising need, Arizona is one of 16 states that have cut their welfare caseloads further since the start of the recession — in its case, by half. Even as it turned away the needy, Arizona spent most of its federal welfare dollars on other programs, using permissive rules to plug state budget gaps.

The poor people who were dropped from cash assistance here, mostly single mothers, talk with surprising openness about the desperate, and sometimes illegal, ways they make ends meet. They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners — all with children in tow.

Esmeralda Murillo, a 21-year-old mother of two, lost her welfare check, landed in a shelter and then returned to a boyfriend whose violent temper had driven her away. “You don’t know who to turn to,” she said. [NYT]

Currently, many as one in four low-income single mothers, 1.5 million women, has neither a job nor cash benefits. The number of households with children living on less than $2 per person, per day has doubled since 1996. One in 50 children in the U.S. lives in such a household, even if you count foodstamps as cash.

Jason DeParle won the 1995 Hillman prize for his book, American Dream: Three Women, 10 Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare.

[Photo credit: bartmaguire, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Cop Who Shot Marine Vet is Also Being Sued for Alleged Racist Brutality


  • The police officer who shot and killed 68-year-old retired Marine Kenneth Chamberlain in his White Plains home has been identified. Officer Anthony Carelli is due to face unrelated police brutality charges in court next month. He is accused of beating two arrestees of Jordanian descent and calling them “ragheads.” [Democracy Now! exclusive.]
  • Big banks are showering Congress with cash, hoping to water down financial reform. [Bill Moyers.com/AlterNet]
  • Corporations are trying to hijack publicly-funded job training programs to provide quick fixes that are immediately profitable for industry, instead of skills that will provide long-term employability for graduates.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]


Amazon Hiding Workplace Injuries to Juice Its Safety Stats


Amazon.com is gaming the system to hide workplace injuries from federal regulators, Hal Bernton and Susan Kelleher report in the Seattle Times:

Three former workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Campbellsville told The Seattle Times there was pressure to manage injuries so they would not have to be reported to OSHA, such as attributing workplace injuries to pre-existing conditions or treating wounds in a way that did not trigger federal reports.

Pam Wethington, a former Campbellsville employee, took several months off work in 2002 because of stress fractures in both feet. She says her doctor attributed the injury to walking miles on the concrete floors of the warehouse, but Amazon disputed that the fractures were work-related.

A former warehouse safety official said in-house medical staff were asked to treat wounds, when possible, with bandages rather than refer workers to a doctor for stitches that could trigger federal reports. And warehouse officials tried to advise doctors on how to treat injured workers.

Dr. Jerome Dixon, a Campellsville physician who treated injured Amazon workers, told the Times that Amazon managers didn’t like it when he gave injured workers anti-inflammatory shots because a shot turns an injury into a reportable incident:

“If you give a shot of an anti-inflammatory, it makes the patient get better faster,” Dixon said. “Sometimes I did give that shot, and maybe they didn’t like that. I would say, ‘Sorry, I know it’s a recordable and makes you do paperwork.’ “

Bernton and Kelleher’s reporting on Amazon’s operations in Kentucky and Washington state builds on the work of Spencer Soper of the Morning Call, who won a Sidney Award for his expose of brutal working conditions at an Amazon warehouse complex in Pennsylvania.

Amazon is a non-union company that strategically positions its warehouses in economically depressed areas with low union density.

[Photo credit: Double-M, Creative Commons.]

Central Florida’s Just Gotten Over the Susan B. Anthony Thing

Dave Weigel of Slate interviews some residents of Sanford, Florida about how the Trayvon Martin shooting has affected their town of 53,000:

SANFORD, Fla.—McRobert’s Auto Center, a 54-year-old shop on the outskirts of downtown, has one of those movie-theater-style marquees with bold letters, perfect for slogans. On one side, the sign advertises tire-balancing service. On the other side—the side you see driving in from the suburbs—it reads SANFORD IS STILL A GOOD LITTLE TOWN.

It means what you think it means. Mark Carli, who’s worked here for four years, is sick of media frenzies, sick of marches, sick of race-baiting.

I’m sympathetic that there was a life taken,” he says. “Central Florida’s just gotten over the—what was it, the Susan B. Anthony thing?” He’s trying to remember the murder case that gripped Orlando last year. “Sorry, no, Casey Anthony. My understanding of the problem there was that they jumped to conclusions and it hurt the prosecution.”

It’s a good piece of reporting, understated and darkly funny. Weigel lets his subjects speak for themselves and challenges us to draw our own conclusions.

Still, I would have liked to see Weigel challenge his subjects on their reflexive belief that Sanford is being unfairly blamed. After all, nobody remembers what town Casey Anthony came from. We remember the crime, but not the town. Caylee Anthony’s death had no effect on the town’s reputation because we understand that dangerous people can crop up anywhere.

Sanford is under a cloud because the police department is suspected of mishandling the shooting. The original chief of police stepped down. The Justice Department stepped in because the local authorities didn’t seem willing or able to pursue justice.

Police surveillance video of George Zimmerman being taken into custody conflicts with the police report. The police report claims that Zimmerman was bleeding from his nose and the back of his head at the scene and that his back was covered in dew and grass. In the video, Zimmerman appears clean, dry, and completely unscathed, just half an hour after the shooting. A digitally sharpened version of the video may show some lumps on the back of Zimmerman’s shaved head, but it’s not clear that those are injuries. They may just be bumps. If all human skulls were perfectly smooth and regularly-shaped, phrenology never would have gotten off the ground. Whatever they are, they don’t look like fresh trauma. The discrepancy between the video and the police report is key because Zimmerman claims he shot in self-defense after Martin began slamming his head into the pavement.

The official municipal line is that it’s unfair to blame Sanford for what is strictly an isolated incident between two people:

Spokespeople for the city have taken up a sort of mantra, the first sentence in every media conversation: This is about the actions of two individuals in a city of 53,000 people. The victim, Trayvon Martin, was in town visiting his father’s fiancée at the Retreat at Twin Lakes. Taking this, making it about the sins of Sanford—it’s not fair.

If George Zimmerman had been charged with the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the story never would have spread beyond the local news. The criminal justice system could have heard all the evidence, weighed his claim of self-defense, and meted out punishment accordingly. Instead, the police put him back out on the street after an investigation so flawed and cursory as to raise questions about a coverup.

By insisting that the conduct of the Sanford police has no bearing on the reputation of Sanford, the city fathers are reinforcing the suspicion that the city has problems that run much deeper than a single shooting in a gated community. Of course it’s unfair to blame the average citizen of Sanford, who didn’t pick the bureaucrats or the police. But it’s outrageous for a city to preemptively exonerate itself for a scandal involving its own police department.

The residents of Sanford should be embarassed, and frightened, to live in a system with so little accountability.

[Photo credit: Dave Weigel.]