Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

#Sidney's Picks: Black Market Boner Pills; Bloomberg; and the Upper Big Branch Mine

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Walmart Promises to Buy More American Goods (Where's the Catch?)

Eager for positive publicity in the wake of the Bangladeshi factory fire that killed over a hundred workers, Walmart pledged Tuesday to source more of its goods in the United States.

How much more? Well, Walmart promised to buy an additional $50 billion worth of American goods over the next decade. The New York Times crunched the numbers and found that $5 billion per year would be about 1.5% of what Walmart spends to buy and transport merchandise annually.

So, while a few American manufacturers will welcome the extra business, Walmart isn’t exactly pledging to change its business model.

[Photo credit: brandonevano, Creative Commons.]


Death Scream: A Criminal History of Cyanide

Deborah Blum, the thinking woman’s crime writer, tackles the mystery of the Chicago dry cleaner who won a $450,000 lotto jackpot and died in his bed the next day with bloody froth on his lips and a lethal dose of cyanide in his bloodstream:

According to news reports, Kahn’s wife first realized he was ill when he emitted a loud scream. Interestingly enough, that tends to be a classic symptom of cyanide poisoning, an almost involuntary response to the internal collapse. Gettler once described this as a “death scream.” The description of Kahn’s death has him screaming, staggering to a chair, and dying as he sat there.  In other words, cyanide killings tend to set a very specific range for actual time of death.

Kahn’s death is still a mystery, but the killer is likely to be caught when toxicologists determine exactly what kind of cyanide poisoned him. Cyanide is so tightly controlled, and available through so few channels, that toxicology can dramatically winnow the suspect pool, often down to just one person.

[Photo credit: Michael Till, Creative Commons.]

Oh, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy... Why Has Obama Pardoned So Few People?

Sasha Abramsky of The Nation asks why President Obama has pardoned so few people:

While in the White House, Bill Clinton pardoned well over 100 people. So did President Bush. To date, Obama has pardoned less than two dozen and commuted even fewer sentences. His first commutation wasn’t until late November 2011, when, according to CBS News, he ordered the release of a woman who had served ten years of a twenty-two-year sentence for cocaine distribution. CBS reported that “the latest numbers from the US Pardon Attorney show that since taking office Obama has denied 872 applications for pardons and 3,104 for commutations of sentence.” A year later, ThinkProgress reported that the only presidential pardon granted in 2012 was for the lucky turkey, as part of the Thanksgiving tradition.

A president who talks the talk about more sensible, nuanced drug policy, and whose oratory frequently invokes what is best in the American political imagination, has shown himself remarkably reluctant to use one of the most important of presidential prerogatives—the power to right judicial wrongs. “This president,” says Anderson, “has been unbelievably timid and disinclined to do justice in cases that scream out for commutation. There’s not a lot of moral or political fortitude in play.”

[Photo credit: Scott Beale, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: IRE Prizes & Paid Sick Days

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]


Junior Seau Suffered from Concussion-Linked Brain Disease


Former NFL linebacker Junior Seau was suffering from the concussion-linked brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) when he took his own life last spring, according to the National Institutes of Health:

In July the N.I.H. began its study and invited several nationally recognized neuropathologists to consult in the analysis of Seau’s brain tissue. They found “abnormal, small clusters called neurofibrillary tangles of a protein known as tau within multiple regions of Mr. Seau’s brain,” according to the statement. Tau has been found in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s disease and other progressive neurological disorders.

“I think it’s important for everyone to know that Junior did indeed suffer from C.T.E.,” Seau’s ex-wife, Gina, said in an interview with ABC News and ESPN. “It’s important that we take steps to help these players. We certainly don’t want to see anything like this happen again to any of our athletes.”

These findings are an important step towards scientific consensus on the reality of CTE in professional sports. Football is notorious for medical and legal concussion controversies, but CTE isn’t just a problem for football.

John Branch of the New York Times won a January 2012 Sidney Award for his profile of Derek Boogaard, an NHL player with a history of concussions who showed many of the symptoms of CTE during the two years before he died of an accidental drug overdose.

[Photo credit: patriotworld, Creative Commons.]

Bloomberg News Wins January Sidney for a Tale of Two McDonald's

Leslie Patton of Bloomberg News has won the January Sidney Award for her eye-opening joint profile of a McDonald’s fry cook and the CEO of the company. The fry cook, Tyree Johnson, would have to work over 1 million hours a year in order to earn as much as the former CEO of McDonald’s, but in fact, he’s lucky to get 40 hours a week because neither of the two McDonald’s restaurants he works for will give him full-time hours.

Patton shows how the fast food industry is typical of our increasingly unequal economy that generates historic profits for executives and investors while leaving ordinary workers behind.

"Wilderness of Error" or Wilderness of Errol?

In 1979, Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green beret doctor, was convicted of the murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters. MacDonald has steadfastly maintained his innocence, claiming that a band of intruders wandered into his house and slaughtered his family. In his new book, Wilderness of Error, filmmaker Errol Morris argues that MacDonald was wronged by the criminal justice system and might even be an innocent man. In his a new e-book, Joe McGinnis, author of the bestselling book on the MacDonald case, Fatal Vision, recaps MacDonald’s post-conviction history and argues that justice was served in 1979 and MacDonald has been grasping at straws ever since. I review both books for the Columbia Journalism Review. Side-by-side, these two volumes amount to a journalistic sumo match where two heavyweights square off for control of the MacDonald narrative.

[Photo credit:, Creative Commons.]

Chinese Journo Strike!

They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. Reporters at Southern Weekend, a relatively liberal paper in Guangzhou, are on strike against excessive censorship by their provincial government.

On Monday, hundreds of people turned out to support the strikers at the newspaper’s headquarters and celebrities are championing the journalists’ cause online:

“Hoping for a spring in this harsh winter,” Li Bingbing, an actress, said to her 19 million followers on a microblog account. Yao Chen, an actress with more than 31 million followers, cited a quotation by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian Nobel laureate and dissident: “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.”

Many of the people who showed up Monday at the newspaper offices in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, carried banners with slogans and white and yellow chrysanthemums, a flower that symbolizes mourning. One banner read: “Get rid of censorship. The Chinese people want freedom.” Police officers watched the protesters without immediately taking any harsh actions. [NYT]

Some political analysts see the strike as a test of the Chinese central government’s commitment to press freedom. If the new party cheif, Xi Jinping, sides with the reporters, that could be a sign that he’s prepared to loosen state controls on media.

[Photo credit: White and yellow chrysanthemums, like the blossoms carried by the strike supporters to symbolize mourning for press freedom. NTLam, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Top Labor Stories of 2012

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]