May 2012 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

May 2012

Mitt Romney, Multiple Sclerosis, and Health Care Reform

The Romney campaign has released a new ad about how the Romneys’ strong marriage helps them cope with Ann Romney’s multiple sclerosis. About 400,000 Americans are living with this progressive, debilitating, and as-yet incurable neurological condition. Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic has mixed feelings about the ad because, as touching as the Romneys’ personal story may be, the fact remains that Mitt Romney’s policy platform would make life a lot worse for ordinary people with MS and other chronic diseases. Cohn explains

But if you have MS, or any other serious chronic illness, you need more than a devoted spouse. You need a way to pay your medical bills. And, historically, many people with MS have struggled with that. MS is a long-term, progressively debilitating disease, requiring ever more costly treatments and equipment. The bills are high enough that even patients with private insurance have struggled with out-of-pocket expenses or run up against annual or lifetime limits on payments. And those patients have been, in some respects, the lucky ones. People who buy coverage on their own or through small businesses frequently end up with exorbitant rates or skimpy benefits, or can’t get coverage at all. Those are just some of the reasons the MS Society has long supported reforms that would, among other things, provide “comprehensive, quality health care available to all.” [TNR]

Cohn won the Hillman Prize in 2010 for his outstanding coverage of health care policy.

Why Do You Think They Call Them Killer Whales?

A Florida judge agreed with OSHA that SeaWorld endangered its trainers by making them swim with whales. The ruling is part of the fallout from a 2010 incident in which a trainer was drowned by an orca as horrifed spectators looked on:

A judge has ruled that SeaWorld is endangering its trainers by allowing them to swim with killer whales after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau by a killer whale in 2010.

In his order released on Wednesday, Judge Kenneth Welsch sided with OSHA, which believes the best way to keep trainers safe is to keep them out of the water and behind a barrier while working with orcas.

SeaWorld is developing several new ways to keep trainers safe, including a quick-rising pool floor that would lift the trainers and the whales out of the water in an emergency. [WKMG/AP]

In retrospect, it’s amazing that trainers were ever allowed to swim with whales on the job. What part of a 120-pound human getting in a tank with a 22,000-pound creature known as a “killer whale” sounds safe? I might add that performing at SeaWorld is no dream job for the whale, either.

The head of OSHA called the judge’s ruling a victory for the trainers, but OSHA’s victory was only partial. The judge reduced SeaWorld’s fine from $75,000 to $12,000 and downgraded the most serious citation from “willful” to “serious.” 

[Photo credit: SeaWorld San Antonio, The Brit_2, Creative Commons.]


The Sunscreen Lobby Lays it On Thick

Some of the nation’s biggest chemical, cosmetic, and personal care companies are spreading money around Washington like SPF-30 at a nude beach, Russ Choma reports for the Open Secrets blog. Big Sunblock is lobbying furiously to forestall FDA changes to sunscreen labelling requirements: 
Consumers might not consider sunscreen a powerhouse industry, but many of its manufacturers, as well as makers of other products that claim to offer some degree of sun protection, are actually part of giant cosmetics or chemical companies – which are heavy-hitters here in Washington (for instance Merck, which owns the popular Coppertone sunscreen brand.) Two trade organizations closely aligned with the cosmetics industry have gone to bat on the labeling rules, demanding the FDA roll them back – the Personal Care Products Council, which has spent about $140,000 on lobbying so far this year, and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which has dropped about $210,000 so far in 2012. The Personal Care Products Association spent $890,000 in 2011, and well over $1 million the previous two years, while the Consumer Healthcare Products Association spent $835,000 last year, and $3.2 million in 2010. Both report lobbying the FDA.
Turning this into a full-blown beach brawl, a handful of senators are now promoting legislation – the Sunscreen Labeling Protection Act – to force the FDA to speed up the process. But don’t confuse that with the Skin Cancer Prevention, Education, and Consumer Right-To-Know Act, another piece of proposed legislation to begin enforcement of the new rules. Both pieces of legislation are currently stuck in place.

In the best tradition of Big Tobacco, the European chemical giant CIBA created a front group called Citizens for Sun Protection, Choma notes. CIBA is part of an even larger company that claims to manufacture half the world supply of UV-blocking chemicals.

[Photo credit: Amy McTeague, Creative Commons.]

News Corp Phone Hacking Inquiry: A Study in Cake Pops

The Leveson Inquiry is an ongoing public investigation into the News Corp phone hacking scandal. Prime Minister David Cameron convened the inquiry because staffers at some UK newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp were caught hacking the cell phones of celebrities, politicians, and crime victims; bribing police officers; and deploying other unethical and illegal reporting tactics.

Miss Insomnia Tulip, a perceptive and public-spirited confectioner, has assembled a rogue’s gallery of cake pops depicting the major figures in the inquiry including Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks-Wade, James Murdoch, and the LOL Blackberry. The pop on the top left is God.

Are cake pops eligible for major editorial cartooning awards? If not, they should be.

HTBoing Boing.

Sidney's Picks: Rape on Tribal Lands; Another Defective, Untested Medical Device; Homebirth Quackery

  • One in three American Indian women is a survivor of rape or attempted rape, according to the Department of Justice. Timothy Williams of the New York Times takes an in-depth look at sexual violence on tribal lands and the failure of politicians in Washington to address the problem.
  • The Orange County Register reports on the Axxent FlexiShield, a medical device designed to protect patients undergoing radiation. The shield can fragment inside the body, peppering tissues with tungsten particles. The FDA approved the device without clinical tests to prove its safety through a controversial approval process known as 510(k). Medical device manufacturers successfully lobbied to expand the 510(k) program, which was originally intended for low- and moderate-risk devices only but today accounts for about 90% of all devices approved for market, including high-risk implantables.
  • Dr. Amy Tuteur, a retired OB-GYN, savages the New York Timescredulous coverage of home birth midwife Ina May Gaskin: “Let’s get something straight: Ina May Gaskin has blood on her hands, and not merely the blood of her own child sacrificed on the altar of homebirth. Gaskin presides over a large multi-faceted business empire comprised of trade, propaganda and lobbying organizations, all with one purpose in mind: allowing uneducated women like herself to provide substandard medical care to pregnant women while ignoring the growing pile of tiny bodies.”

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Tom Morello and Frank Bardacke at the Hillman Prizes

Frank Bardacke, the 2012 Hillman Book Prize-winner meets Tom Morello, winner of the 2012 Hillman Officer’s Award at the Hillman Prize ceremony at the TimesCenter. See Verso Books’ website for more details.

Talkin' Union Blues: PA Truck Drivers Fired, Soper Investigates

Spencer Soper won a Sidney Award for his expose of deplorable working conditions at an Amazon warehouse complex. This week, Soper published another memorable labor story. His latest dispatch is about truck drivers who say they were fired for talking about forming a union:

Five months after it opened a new $35 million cardboard plant in Lower Macungie, Pratt Corrugated Logistics laid off most of its 18 truck drivers, telling them the company decided to contract with outside haulers instead.

But 13 drivers who lost their jobs in April allege in legal documents that their terminations came after the company found out they were talking about forming a union.

The drivers complained to the National Labor Relations Board that they were terminated due to union activities, in violation of federal laws that protect workers’ rights to form collective bargaining units.

The Morning Call interviewed eight truck drivers who were terminated, and those interviewed maintain they have reason to be suspicious of the company’s motives. [Morning Call]

Read the whole thing.

[Photo credit: visagency, Creative Commons.]

Trymaine Lee Accepts Sidney Award

Trymaine Lee of the Huffington Post accepts the April Sidney Award from Hillman executive director Alexandra Lescaze. Lee won the Sidney for his outstanding coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting, coverage that helped turn a local tragedy into a national scandal.

[Photo credit: Lindsay Beyerstein, all rights reserved.]

Kristof Hails Flame Retardant Series as "Superb Journalism"

New York Times op/ed columnist Nick Kristof admires the Chicago Tribune’s investigative series on flame retardants as much as we do:

If you want a case study of everything that is wrong with money politics, this is it.

Chances are that if you’re sitting on a couch right now, it contains flame retardants. This will probably do no good if your house catches fire — although it may release toxic smoke. There is growing concern that the chemicals are hazardous, with evidence mounting of links to cancer, fetal impairment and reproductive problems.

For years, I’ve written about this type of chemical, endocrine disruptors, but The Chicago Tribune has just published a devastating investigative series called “Playing With Fire” that breaks vast new ground. It is superb journalism.

It turns out that our furniture first became full of flame retardants because of the tobacco industry, according to internal cigarette company documents examined by The Tribune. A generation ago, tobacco companies were facing growing pressure to produce fire-safe cigarettes, because so many house fires started with smoldering cigarettes. So tobacco companies mounted a surreptitious campaign for flame retardant furniture, rather than safe cigarettes, as the best way to reduce house fires. [NYT]

It’s great to see the Tribune’s work getting the high-profile recognition it deserves.

[Photo credit: abbyladybug, Creative Commons.]

Sidney's Picks: That Inequality TED Talk; Ricketts; and More

  • Better TED than Red? In March, millionaire tech entrepreneur Nick Hanauer gave a TED Talk on a simple idea: Middle class consumers, not captains of industry, are the true job creators. Why? Because without consumer demand, entrepreneurs would have no one to buy their products. Jobs come from a positive feedback loop between consumer demand and innovation to meet that demand, Hanauer said. In an deeply unequal society, even vastly rich people can’t consume enough to sustain demand. Therefore taxing the rich and investing that money to bolster the middle class benefits everyone. Initially, TED seemed eager to distribute Hanauer’s talk, according to the National Journal, which broke the story: “I want to put this talk out into the world!” a TED official wrote to Hanauer. Yet, somehow the enthusiasm faded. TED Talk curator Chris Anderson later said that the organization decided not to post Hanauer’s talk because it was too partisan, and not special enough to merit the honor of being displayed on the main TED website. Specialness may be in the eye of the beholder, but the idea that consumer demand drives job growth is Econ 101.
  • Tim Murphy of Mother Jones has the inside scoop on Joe Ricketts, the bigtime GOP donor behind the super-PAC out to portray Obama as a “metrosexual, black Abraham Lincoln.” The PAC is looking for “extremely literate conservative African-American” to narrate the spots, or John Voight, whichever. 
  • Michelle Chen of In These Times describes how migrant domestic workers around the world are documenting their struggles and pushing for change.