December 2014 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

December 2014

Fracking and Contract Killing in North Dakota

Photo credit: 

Daniel Foster, Creative Commons

A gripping tale of greed, fracking, deregulation, and murder in North Dakota brought to us by Deborah Sontag and and Brent McDonald of the New York Times.


Sidney's Picks: Harry Potter & Hunger Games Fuel the Fight for $15

The Best of the Week’s News

  • Anti-union activists take “Right to Work” to the county level.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Last of the "Murrow Boys" Dies at 97

Richard C. Hottelet, a war correspondent who covered the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge for CBS, has died at the age of 97.

Hottelet was the last surviving member of the “Murrow Boys,” a team of correspondents originally assembled by Edward R. Murrow before the Second World War. Hottelet joined the team in 1944 to cover the invasion of Normandy. 


[Photo credit: Peter Willows/AP, Creative Commons via wikipedia.]

Tennessee Criminalizes Drug Use During Pregnancy, Tragedies Ensue

One of the first women arrested under Tennessee’s new law that criminalizes women who give birth to babies with drugs in their systems took her own life last month, Rosa Goldensohn and Rachael Levy report in the Nation:

At around midnight on November 13, Tonya Martin slipped out into the yard that separated her trailer from the one in which her grandparents live on a lot in the eastern hills of Tennessee. Just two months earlier, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department arrested Martin after she gave birth to a son. Her crime: delivering a child at Sweetwater Hospital with drugs—some kind of opioid—in his system.

Martin couldn’t shake her addiction or the depression that plagued her. The 34-year-old mother gave up the newborn for adoption. Not long after, Martin’s boyfriend found her dangling from the clothesline pole in her grandmother’s yard. He tried to resuscitate her, but it was too late. [The Nation]

The law was billed as an incentive for pregnant drug users to get treatment for their addictions before their babies were born, but because of Tennessee’s overcrowded, underfunded treatment system, many pregnant women who want help are being turned away. One woman who was denied drug treatment ultimately gave birth to her daughter in a car by the side of the road Goldensohn and Levy report. A doctor who works with pregnant addicts said that he knows some of his patients have fled the state to deliver and others have told him they’re going into hiding. 

A bill that was touted as an incentive for healthy behavior is turning into a public health nightmare for women, their babies, and the community. 

[Photo credit: Mahalie Stackpole, Creative Commons.]

Sidney's Picks: Black Lives Matter

The Best of the Week’s News

  • We missed this when it came out, but it’s a must read: Young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts.
  • See photos from Geoffrey Hiller’s new book, “Daybreak in Myanmar,” a work 27 years in the making.


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Greg Palast Wins December Sidney for Exposing Biased Database Threatening Millions of POC Votes

Greg Palast wins the December Sidney Award for “Jim Crow Returns,” and “Challenging Crosscheck,” a two-part Al Jazeera America exposé that shows how millions of innocent people were flagged as suspected vote fraudsters just because they have the same first and last name as someone in another state.

On the eve of the 2014 elections, officials had begun to purge voters based upon Interstate Crosscheck, voter fraud prevention software. More than 40,000 voters were dropped from the rolls in Virginia alone.

As Palast and I discuss in our Backstory interview, Crosscheck-induced purges may have already tipped the balance of power in some closely-fought senate races this election cycle, and the purging is only just beginning. Expect it to be even further along by 2016.

Tales from the Grand Jury Room

What is it like to serve on a grand jury? Lots of people are suddenly curious after grand juries in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY failed to indict police officers for killing unarmed black men.

Misha Leptic of 3QuarksDaily recalls his experiences as a grand juror in New York City:

Eventually, in the course of our daily proceedings a curiously adversarial dynamic developed. As a jury, we did our best to establish a solid understanding of what transpired for any given case. But much of it felt like being in Plato’s cave. We only saw what the prosecutors and police wanted us to see, and would further guide us, as much as possible, in how to see it. Due to the confidential nature of the proceedings, note-taking was prohibited. And without the counterbalancing presence of a defense counsel, or of the salutary effects of cross-examination, the end result was, more often than not, a shrug of the shoulders and a vote to indict. [3QD]

Leptic concludes that, “[i]f the purpose of the system is to generate indictments, then the system works really well. Hence the well-known quote from chief justice Wachtler about the indictability of ham sandwiches.”

If it’s that easy for a semi-motivated prosecutor to get an indictment at a low standard of proof in an unopposed proceeding, it really makes you wonder why the police officer who choked Eric Garner walked free and the guy who filmed the attack got indicted on an ostensibly unrelated charge. It’s all about priorities.


[Photo credit: Indict! Indict! Indict! Jeffreyw, Creative Commons.]


Sidney's Picks: Police Killings Under-Counted; ALEC Sets Sights on Cities


  • ALEC is setting its sights on city governments, reports Sidney-winner Moshe Z. Marvit.
  • Where do dictators, and money launderers get the shell companies they need to hide their crimes? From this law firm.
  • Distinguished and dedicated New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse is taking a buyout.


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Blankenship Indictment Makes History in Coal Country

The history of coal mining is full of disasters and deaths caused by management negligence, but former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is the first U.S. coal executive to face criminal charges for his role in the deaths of miners:

Legal experts call the case against Mr. Blankenship, a figure both feared and renowned for his power in West Virginia, a turning point after a century in which the power of coal barons over politicians, courts and the economy protected them.

“Those responsible for managing mines in a way that caused multiple deaths were never held responsible,” said Patrick McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University.

“It shocks the conscience.” The Charleston Gazette, a newspaper with a history of reporting on coal’s costs to the state, said simply, “This indictment is momentous.” [NYT]

This could be a watershed moment in labor history.

[Photo credit: Wendy Cooper, Creative Commons.]

Former UPS Driver to Demand Job Protections for Pregnant Women from Supreme Court

Peggy Young, an ex-driver for United Parcel Service, is suing her former employer for placing her on unpaid leave during her pregnancy after her doctor told her that she couldn’t lift anything heavy. The Supreme Court will hear her case on Wednesday. UPS has announced that it will institute light duty for pregnant workers starting in January, but this case will determine whether UPS’s old rule broke the law. Adam Liptak of the New York Times expects that Young’s case will be a much-needed victory for women’s rights advocates before the high court, who have suffered setbacks on contraception, abortion, equal pay, and medical leave in recent months. 


[Photo credit: Shameless Photography.]