June 2012 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

June 2012

#IRE12: Sidney Winner Susan Greene

Freelance journalist Susan Greene speaking about her Sidney Award-winning story and video, “The Gray Box: An Investigative Look at Solitary Confinement,” at the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference (IRE) in Boston. The Gray Box appeared in the Dart Society Reports, the journal of the Dart Center, a non-profit that provides training and support for journalists covering trauma and violence.

IRE is the nation’s premiere professional organization for investigative journalists. The Sidney Hillman Foundation is proud to see so many of our past winners speaking at this prestigious event.

[Photo credit: Lindsay Beyerstein.]

#IRE12: Sidney Winner Cindy Chang

Cindy Chang, winner of the June Sidney Award for “Louisiana INCarcerated,” speaking on a panel about covering abuse in prisons at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Boston. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation. Chang and her colleagues at the Times-Picayune set out to understand why.

They found that Louisiana’s unique system of private prisons run by local sheriffs creates systemic pressures to keep incarceration rates sky-high. The sheriffs depend on the profits to finance law enforcement in their parishes and provide jobs for their constituents, but the prisons must be kept near 100% occupancy in order to make a profit. So, the sheriffs team up with “law and order” prosecutors to lobby for harsh sentencing guidlines and against prison reforms.

Investigative Reporters and Editors is the premiere professional conference for investigative journalists. We at Hillman were delighted to see so many Sidney winners speaking on panels.

"Louisiana INCarcerated" wins June Sidney Award

Louisiana locks up more people than any other state, nearly twice the national average. If it were a country, it would have the highest incarceration rate in the world. One in 86 Louisianans is behind bars, and one in every 14 black men from New Orleans is serving time.

Cindy Chang, Jan Moller, Jonathan Tilove, and John Simerman of the New Orleans Times-Picayune set out to explain why their state locks up so many people. Their Sidney-Award-winning series, Louisiana INCarcerated, explores the powerful institutional forces that interact to keep incarceration levels sky high. Louisiana is the only state where local sheriffs build and run prisons for profit.

The state pays the sheriffs a per diem of $24.39 per prisoner, a fraction of what it spends to house prisoners in state facilities. The prisons provide jobs for the sheriffs’ constituents and their revenues fund local law enforcement. Not surprisingly, the sheriffs lobby fiercely for longer sentences. Without a steady influx of prisoners, their prisons will lose money.

This series paints an unflinching portrait of a justice system corrupted by the pursuit of profit.

Louisiana INCarcerated may be a swan song for The Times-Picayune, which announced yesterday that it wll be laying off a third of its workforce. The paper will soon cut back to three print editions a week, making New Orleans the largest U.S. city without a daily newspaper.

“The prison series was only possible because the newspaper invested tremendous time and resources,” special projects reporter Cindy Chang said, “Of course, we’re concerned that with major staff cuts and an emphasis on constant blogging, this may be our last project.”

[Photo credit: Editor B, Creative Commons.]


Jaron Lanier vs. Cyberplutocracy

x-posted from In These Times

Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist credited with popularizing the term “virutal reality,” spoke at Personal Democracy Forum on Monday about how to avoid a cyberplutocracy. These are some ideas from his talk.

Democracy requires openness, fluidity, and freedom of speech but these are not enough. Democracy also needs a strong middle class. Without a bell-curve-like distribution of clout, the nominal right to petition our government is of limited use.

So, where does middle class clout come from? The pre-high-tech economy was marked by Gilded Ages and races to the bottom. There were huge social struggles in which middle class people fought to achieve some measure of material stability. In each case, they created some small barrier to the flow of money: academic tenure, taxi medallions, unions, and copyright. Lanier calls these barries “levees.”

These levees are concessions to biological realism–aging, illness, the need for time off to raise a family, and so on. In order to have dignity we have to have some constancy. These levees provided a modicum of weath as opposed to income for middle class people. “So you don’t have to earn every single day anew, you don’t have to gig live every day,” Lanier, a former professional musician, explained. 

The wealthy build wealth easily in our system through capital gains, dividends, interest, and so on.

Levees used to maintain the balance of power. In the modern, high-tech, networked economy, the wealth side suddenly got more fluid. Companies could suddenly network all this information from all over the world to put themselves in a much better information position relative to everyone else. The concentration of wealth accelerated. The 1% used their increased power to dismantle as many levees as possible.

Some people think we can use the power of petition, which is enhanced by networking, to restore the balance of power in the networked age. The problem, according to Lanier, is that you can’t fight wealth concentration with petition alone.

Lanier sketched an alternative vision for building up middle class wealth, based on the work of Ted Nelson. Nelson envisioned a system for mashups and remixes that would keep track of all the source material and deliver micropayments to the creators. Lanier envisions this system as a way to create robust long-term middle class without levees. Google translator stated with examples of good translation by translators. Under a Nelsonian system, all original provders of good translation would get micropayments. Any internet user who is living a good life, or skilled at something (mixing drinks, curing diseases, making hotel reservations) is being watched online by many cloud algorithms that use her behavior as an example. We are being studied, but we aren’t getting compensated for our creative efforts. Lanier is arguing, in effect, that we should all get royalties.

It was a fascinating talk, even though Lanier didn’t explain how a Nelsonian royalty system could come about in a world ruled by the 1%. He’s working on a book about these ideas. I look forward to reading it.

Live from Personal Democracy Forum 2012

Today and tomorrow, I will be blogging from the ninth annual Personal Democracy Forum in New York City. The event bills itself as the world’s premiere forum on the nexus of democracy, politics, social advocay and public life. The theme of this year’s forum is “The Internet’s New Political Power.” Panels will grapple with issues ranging from internet freedom in China to online consumer organizing to political fundraising in the digital age. Stay tuned.

Sidney's Picks: Labor and Wisconsin

  • Rich Yeselson takes a hard look at what Scott Walker’s recall victory means for the labor movement.
  • Jin Zhao of AlterNet on New York workers’ battle for paid sick leave.
  • Unemployed jobseekers were bussed to London to work for free at the Queen’s diamond jubliee celebration and told to camp under London Bridge the night before, the Guardian reports.
  • Food trucks are all the rage in New York City, but a broken permitting system is driving vendors onto the black market, Ilya Marritz reports for WNYC.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Government Labels Hedge the Truth: Morning After Pill is Not Abortion

Pam Belluck’s outstanding story on the science of the morning after pill and the politics of its labelling sits at the nexus of investigative and science reporting and embodies the best of both traditions:

But an examination by The New York Times has found that the federally approved labels and medical Web sites do not reflect what the science shows. Studies have not established that emergency contraceptive pills prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the womb, leading scientists say. Rather, the pills delay ovulation, the release of eggs from ovaries that occurs before eggs are fertilized, and some pills also thicken cervical mucus so sperm have trouble swimming.

It turns out that the politically charged debate over morning-after pills and abortion, a divisive issue in this election year, is probably rooted in outdated or incorrect scientific guesses about how the pills work. Because they block creation of fertilized eggs, they would not meet abortion opponents’ definition of abortion-inducing drugs. In contrast, RU-486, a medication prescribed for terminating pregnancies, destroys implanted embryos. [NYT]

Back in October, I reviewed the research on the workings of the morning after pill to settle an argument with some friends. I came to the same conclusions as Belluck. A body of elegant in vitro and in vivo experiments in tissues, animals, and humans show that the morning after pill (aka high-dose birth control) works like birth control, namely, by preventing ovulation.

One minor quibble: Belluck frames the story as part of the abortion debate, which is certainly how the anti-choice faction is approaching the issue. But even if emergency contraception did prevent implantation, EC would be no more an abortifacient than an IUD, a popular form of birth control that does prevent implantation. According to medicine, and common sense, abortion presupposes pregnancy, and pregnancy presupposes implantation. If you’re not pregnant, it’s not an abortion. But once again, anti-choicers are trying to redefine medical terminology for partisan ends.

At a time when science journalists are pressured to hedge, defer to authority, and give equal time to opposing sides regardless of their intellectual merit, Belluck bucked the trend, assessed the evidence, and stated her conclusion for the record.

Then Belluck went on to hold powerful institutions accountable by asking pointed questions. If the science says that the morning after pill is birth control, why do government-approved labels and health information resources raise the specter that the emergency contraception is an abortifacient? As you might expect, conservative pressure groups like the anti-choice Family Research Council are very interested in FDA labelling because these descriptors shape medical and policy conversations. Belluck reviewed the records on FDA approval for emergency contraception and found that the caveat about preventing implantation was grandfathered in from earlier labelling discussions about birth control pills. There is some question about whether daily birth control pills might discourage implantation by thinning the lining of the uterus. This conjecture remains unproven for regular birth control, but follow-up studies have shown the question to be a moot point for emergency contraception. One large dose of hormones doesn’t have time to alter the lining of the uterus the way daily birth control pills do.

The labels were written in a period of genuine uncertainty. Today, the scientific consensus is clear, but anti-choice groups are campaigning to keep the misleading labels intact. With any luck Belluck’s outstanding reporting will spur citizens to demand that scientific accuracy prevail over ideology.

[Photo credit: Grasshopperkm, Creative Commons.]

On the Ground in Wisconsin with Tom Morello

Historian and Rolling Stone contributor Rick Perlstein travelled to Wisconsin last weekend to report on the final days of the historic campaign to recall Gov. Scott Walker. Perlstein met up with musician, and 2012 Hillman Officers’ Award-winner Tom Morello on the campaign trail:

Then I reached my destination, Madison’s Labor Temple, and saw another Wisconsin on full display – a lucky thing or I would have just about jumped into Lake Mendota.

I saw police officers there, too — relaxing in the sun getting ready to enjoy a Friday get-out-the-vote concert put on by the independent group We Are Wisconsin and starring Jackson Browne, Mike McColgan of the Dropkick Murpheys, Tim McIlrath of Rise Against, rapper Brother Ali, and mighty Tom Morello, who put it all together and MC‘ed. These officers wore T-shirts reading “COPS FOR LABOR.” There were little old ladies, too, sporting “PROUD TO BE A UNION THUG” T-shirts. There were young people, and middle aged people, and people of color, yuppies and blue-collars — just like the congregations of 100,000 and more who descended upon Madison’s state capitol day after frigid day the moment Governor Walker introduced his union-busting bill. That, back in February of 2011, Tom Morello told me backstage before the show, was the first thing he noticed about the Madison Uprising: “not just the usual suspects of young anarchists and old hippies, but, you know, firefighters, policemen, Green Bay Packers, longshoremen.”

“And vets, and farmers,” Jackson Browne chimed in. “It almost sort of presaged Occupy.” [Rolling Stone]

[Photo credit: Tom Morello in Wisconsin in February, 2011. By Dave Hoefler, Creative Commons.]

Watch HBO's "The Weight of the Nation" for Free

HBO joined forces with the Institute of Medicine, the CDC, the NIH, and Kaiser Permanente to create “The Weight of the Nation,” a four-part documentary about obesity in America. All four full-length films can be viewed online for free. The first episode, “Consequences,” examines the health impact of obesity in America. The second installment, “Choices,” attempts to explain why lasting weight loss is so difficult and what the average person can do to take control of his or her weight. “Children in Crisis,” documents the effects of childhood obesity. The final episode, “Challenges,” explores the economic, cultural, and political factors that make it so difficult, even for highly motivated people, to eat well and maintain a healthy weight in the U.S. today.

After watching the first two episodes, I’m impressed. Experts present the mainstream consensus on overweight and health in accessible language. They explain the connection between obesity and diabetes, the link between excess fat and cardiovascular disease, the distinctive health risks of abdominal adiposity, the role of a fatty liver in producing the metabolic abormalities associated with obesity, and how stress hormones predispose us to overeating and weight gain.

The documentary pulls no punches about the dangers of overweight, but it presents fat people as compelling and relatable subjects, not as objects of repulsion or pity. We don’t see any clicheed “headless fatties” shuffling along. The fat subjects are charismatic, funny, and self-aware. They come from all walks of life, some are call center employees, one is a judge. The message is clear: Their predicament is our predicament.

#Sidney's Picks: Trans Kids; Survivor; Transparency; WalMart

  • Your average kid forms a very strong opinion at a very early age about whether s/he’s a girl or a boy. Most kids find their sense of self aligns with their anatomy, but some youngsters quickly become aware of an acute and troubling disconnect. In New York Magazine, Jesse Green explores how the parents of trans kids navigate the years between the time their children figure out who they are and the time they’re old enough to consent to permanent gender reassignment surgery. Puberty-delaying drugs can keep secondary sex characteristics at bay until a young adult is old enough to decide. These drugs are a godsend for some families, but other parents are reticent.
  • At the age of 31, after settling into a stable family life in the U.S., Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda learned that he was one of two boys who survived a 1982 massacre in his native Guatemala. ProPublica has the story.
  • Today in transparency, Bill Hooker of 3QuarksDaily is circulating a petition asking the federal government to make publicly-funded research accessible to the public. This is an issue of special interest to journalists, but it affects everyone. Research paid for with our tax dollars is being published in private journals with the copyright going to the publisher and citizens having to pay upwards of $40 to read the research they already paid for. Does that sound fair to you?
  • More than 200 events are taking place nationwide to coincide with Walmart’s June 1 shareholders meeting. The events will highlight how Walmart needs to change in order to do right by its employees and their communities.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]