August 2012 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

August 2012

#Sidney's Picks: Labor Day Edition

  • Most of the jobs created during the economic recovery are low-wage positions, whereas most of the jobs lost during the recession paid middle class wages, Catherine Rampell reports for the New York Times. This “hollowing out” of the workforce is linked to government layoffs.
  • A Fair Labor Association audit of Apple’s Chinese manufacturing facilities reveals that the company has pushed its leading manufacturer, Foxconn, to clean up some of the worst abuses without altering its exploitative labor model, Michelle Chen reports for In These Times.
  • 200 members of the AFL-CIO braved the heat in Tampa on Wednesday to protest the Republican Party’s anti-union agenda outside the Republican National Convention.
  • New York City is poised to overhaul its housing authority based on the recommendations contained in a damning report that paints the New York City Housing Authority as inefficient and top-heavy with highly paid appointees. Two of the five members of the restructured board will be residents of NYCHA housing, up from one member out of four today. (via Sidney’s Picks reader Elizabeth W.)

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons]

Taibbi on Mitt Romney and Bain Capital

The cover story we’ve all been waiting for, snarky muckraker Matt Taibbi tells the true story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital for Rolling Stone.

Interview with a Farmworker

Javier Mondar-Flores Lopez is an indigenous Mixtec farmworker in Southern California, he started working in the fields at the age of seven. He told his story of hardship, resilience, and activism to David Bacon of New America Media:

“Growing up in a farmworking family – well, it’s everything I ever knew.  Whenever I got out of school, it was straight to the fields to get a little bit of money and help the family out. That’s pretty much the only job I ever knew. In general we would work on the weekends and in the summers. When I was younger it would be right after school, and then during vacations.

My sister Teresa slept in the living room, and one night, when I was doing my homework at the table, I could hear her crying because she had so much pain in her hands. My mother and my other sister complained about how much their backs hurt.  My brother talked about his back pain as well. It’s pretty sad. I always hear my family talk about how much they’re in pain and how’s it’s impossible for me to help them.”

There are three bills working their way through the legislative system in California that would improve the lives of farmworkers like Javier, including one that would require overtime pay after 8 hours of work.

[Photo credit: Lettuce field, by Tom_Focus, Creative Commons.]



Young Informants are Pawns in the Drug War

2012 Hillman Award-winner Sarah Stillman has an eye-opening story in this week’s New Yorker about how police departments routinely enlist untrained youths as pawns in the drug war. Teens arrested for minor drug offenses are recruited to participate in dangerous sting operations involving weapons and hard drugs. Some, like 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman are murdered on the job. In the wake of multiple fatalities, a movement is afoot to reform the confidential informant system to protect the rights of young people, particularly those whose judgement may be clouded by addiction.

[Photo credit, Bodgan Suditu, Creative Commons.]

Myths About Failing Schools

Kristina Rizga spent 18 months reporting inside a school reputed to be among the most troubled in San Francisco, as measured by standardized test scores. She was surprised to discover that the instution seemed to be doing much better than its test scores suggested:

If you wonder why you haven’t read many accounts of how these questions are playing out in real life, there’s a reason: It’s easier for a journalist to embed with the Army or the Marines than to go behind the scenes at a public school. It took months to find one that would let me play fly on the wall. Once Guthertz opened the door at Mission, it took months more for some teachers, wary of distortion and stereotyping, to warm to me. In the end, I’d spend more than 18 months in Mission’s classrooms, cafeterias, and administrative offices, finally watching the Class of 2012—including a beaming Maria—show off their diplomas.

The surprises began almost right away. Judging from what I’d read about “troubled” schools, I’d expected noisy classrooms, hallway fights, and disgruntled staff. Instead I found a welcoming place that many students and staff called “family.” After a few weeks of talking to students, I failed to find a single one who didn’t like the school, and most of the parents I met were happy too. Mission’s student and parent satisfaction surveys rank among the highest in San Francisco.

Read the rest at Mother Jones.

[Photo credit: MrCharly, Creative Commons.]

May You Be Reunited With Your Socialist Garment Worker Ancestors

“May you be reunited in the world to come with your ancestors, who were all socialist garment workers.” 

From Yiddish curses for Republican Jews. Get more curses.

[Photo credit: ILGWU Local 415 picket in Miami, FL, Kheel Center, Cornell University, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Deadly Tin in Your Smart Phone

Welcome to our weekly recap of the best of the week’s news. Submit your story by tweeting @SidneyHillman, #Sidney.

  • Much of the tin solder that binds the components of the world’s tablets and smart phones originates in open pit mines in Indonesia where it is extracted at enormous human cost, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.
  • About a third of women impregnated by their rapists choose to keep their babies and, horrifyingly, some rapists come back to assert their paternal rights. Shauna Prewitt is a lawyer from Chicago who survived rape and her rapist’s attempt to get custody of her daughter, she is campaigning for legal reform to protect women in similar circumstances.
  • Who watches the watchers? Republican-allied groups are training thousands of citizen “poll watchers” to document alleged voting irregularities in November, Brentin Mock reports for Colorlines. Is it civic engagement, or voter suppression?
  • Here’s some good news: 80% of New York voters want the minimum wage raised from $7.25 to $8.50, according to a recent poll by Siena College. That’s an increase of 3 percentage points since June.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Hostess's Final Offer is Anything But Sweet

Bruce Vail of In These Times reports on the latest developments in the standoff between Hostess Brands, the makers of Twinkies, and the Teamsters. Rank-and-file members are set to vote next week on a brutal last, best, and final offer from the company:

The vote is the latest development in a seven-month standoff between the Teamsters and Hostess, which filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in January and demanded sweeping concessions from its unionized workforce. Failure by the Teamsters and several other unions to agree to the concessions will mean the final collapse of Hostess and the loss of all 17,000 jobs at the company, Hostess officials have said.

That the cuts will be painful is clear, although the Teamsters are withholding the full details pending the vote. Hostess CEO Gregory Rayburn sent out a letter to employees August 20 estimating that–for all workers, including management–wages would be cut by 8 percent next year and givebacks in health care insurance would further reduce overall income. The proposal would also erase millions in pensions owed to workers and relieve the company of any requirement to make pension fund contributions for the next three years.

[Photo credit: Jenn Durfey, Creative Commons.]

Debunking Todd Akin on Rape and Pregnancy

Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) opined that women don’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape” because the female body has mysterious ways of shutting down rape-induced pregnancies. This claim is so far-fetched that most people assumed it was Akin’s pet theory, but it turns out other anti-choicers believe it too. It’s a surprisingly common myth used to explain why rape exceptions to abortion laws are unnecessary: If “legitimate rapes” don’t cause pregnancies, then a woman who says she was impregnanted by rape must be lying. The leading exponent of this view, Dr. John Willke, endorsed Mitt Romney in 2007.

Pam Belluck of the New York Times applies her science journalism chops to sort fact from fiction on rape and reproduction:

There are no words for this — it is just nuts,” said Dr. Michael Greene, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. David Grimes, a clinical professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina, said, that “to suggest that there’s some biological reason why women couldn’t get pregnant during a rape is absurd.”

Laura Helmuth, the science editor for Slate, points out that the term “legitimate rape” is coded language used to separate supposedly deserving rape victims from other victims of sexual violence. She adds that Akin’s mythmaking betrays a stunning rejection of science in the service of misogynist ideology:

The sexism is outrageous, but it’s the stupidity that really burns. It takes a lot of work for a member of the House science committee to cultivate an ignorance of science as profound as Todd Akin’s. It’s not accidental and it’s not incidental to his worldview—his belief system requires a rejection of science.

The thing about science, as Neil DeGrasse-Tyson says, is that it’s true whether you believe it or not. And the truth is that biology does not give a goddamn how sperm meets egg, whether it’s within the bounds of a sanctified marriage, in a test tube, or after a rape.

Amazingly, Akin sits on the House science committee.

[Photo credit: Todd Akin, by DonkeyHote, Creative Commons.]

Tropical Diseases Strike Poor Americans

Peter J. Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, describes how diseases normally associated with developing countries are afflicting increasing numbers of poor people in the United States:

Poverty takes many tolls, but in the United States, one of the most tragic has been its tight link with a group of infections known as the neglected tropical diseases, which we ordinarily think of as confined to developing countries.

Outbreaks of dengue fever, a mosquito-transmitted viral infection that is endemic to Mexico and Central America, have been reported in South Texas. Then there is cysticercosis, a parasitic infection caused by a larval pork tapeworm that leads to seizures and epilepsy; toxocariasis, another parasitic infection that causes asthma and neurological problems; cutaneous leishmaniasis, a disfiguring skin infection transmitted by sand flies; and murine typhus, a bacterial infection transmitted by fleas and often linked to rodent infestations. [NYT]

Hotez shares some startling statistics: Some 300,000 Americans have Chagas disease, an insect-borne pathogen, which is already a leading cause of heart failure and sudden death in Latin America. Up to 2.8 million African Americans may be infected with toxocariasis. Accurate statistics are hard to come by because the people at the greatest risk are the least likely to seek treatment.

Tropical infections contribute to intergenerational poverty by stunting the cognitive development of children and sapping the health and vitality of adults.

We can beat tropical disease in the U.S., Hotez believes, but only with increased epidemiological monitoring and stepped up development of vaccines and drugs. Now is not the time to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and other public health agencies, as some politicians have urged. It may seem like a money-saver in the short term, but the savings pale beside the long term economic and human cost of neglecting public health.

[Photo credit: The “kissing bug” that spreads Chagas disease, AJC1, Creative Commons.]