Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Gantz Brothers Win April Sidney for "American Winter"

Joe and Harry Gantz won the April Sidney Award for American Winter, a documentary that follows eight Portland, Oregon-area families struggling to survive the winter of 2011/2012 in the grip of the Great Recession.

At a time when 46.2 million Americans are living in poverty nationwide and the top one percent accumulate wealth at record-breaking rates, the filmmakers sought to cast a light on the fragility of the middle class and the threadbare state of our social safety net.

The families in American Winter cope with stagnant wages, the mortgage crisis, medical bills, death and disability. They suffer from budget cuts that have frayed the social safety net in the name of austerity.

American Winter follows hardworking families who, like so many Americans, are one crisis away from poverty. A woman struggles to raise her son alone after her husband’s sudden death; another loses her job because of her daughter’s chronic illness. A couple with young children must decide whether to pay their mortgage or keep their lights and heat on in the dead of winter.

“The film is heartbreakingly wonderful. Every American needs to see it,” said Hillman Executive Director Alexandra Lescaze.

Read my Backstory interview with Joe Gantz about the making of American Winter.


[Photo courtesy of American Winter.]

Report From Kansas: Re-Opening Dr. Tiller's Clinic, Under Siege

Kathryn Joyce travelled to Wichita to cover the re-opening of Dr. George Tiller’s abortion clinic for Religion Dispatches. The result is a chilling portrait of health care providers under unrelenting seige by anti-choice zealots who skillfully allude to the violence committed by the most extreme members of their movement in order to terrorize and demoralize health care providers. One murder is good for an infinite number of veiled threats.  

Tiller was assassinated in 2009 by an anti-choice extremist with close ties to local anti-abortion groups who continue to orchestrate intimidation campaigns against abortion providers and abortion-seekers. The assassin is rotting in jail, but the anti-abortion activists are capitalizing on his legacy.

One of the doctors who will work at the re-launched South Winds Clinic plans to ride to work lying on the floor of a vehicle to avoid potential snipers. 

The anti-choicers are waging all out psychological warfare on doctors who will be working at South Winds, a facility that will provide not only abortion, but full-spectrum women’s health care and family planning:

On Monday, Operation Rescue publicly released the name, photo and workplace of one of an out-of-state doctor, a woman in her early 30s, who will be working at the clinic. In audio the group posted, a man who sounds like Troy Newman posed as a reporter to speak to the young doctor, who said she’d been hoping to keep her name protected from “crazy people with guns.”

The anti-abortion siege has gripped Wichita for 22 years, ever since the so-called “Summer of Mercy,” but local women’s health advocates are determined to keep providing patients with their rightful access to health care. 

#Sidney's Picks: Fast Food Strike, Minimum Wage, and Prison Paperwork SNAFUs



[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Glue Fumes Cripple Workers in North Carolina

Sheri Farley suffers from an excruciating and debilitating condition known as “drop foot,” a form of nerve damage caused by five years of breathing glue fumes at an upholstery plant in North Carolina:

For about five years, Ms. Farley, 45, stood alongside about a dozen other workers, spray gun in hand, gluing together foam cushions for chairs and couches sold under brand names like Broyhill, Ralph Lauren and Thomasville. Fumes from the glue formed a yellowish fog inside the plant, and Ms. Farley’s doctors say that breathing them in eventually ate away at her nerve endings, resulting in what she and her co-workers call “dead foot.”

A chemical she handled — known as n-propyl bromide, or nPB — is also used by tens of thousands of workers in auto body shops, dry cleaners and high-tech electronics manufacturing plants across the nation. Medical researchers, government officials and even chemical companies that once manufactured nPB have warned for over a decade that it causes neurological damage and infertility when inhaled at low levels over long periods, but its use has grown 15-fold in the past six years. [NYT]

Some 40,000 Americans die prematurely each year from exposure to toxic substances at work, Ian Urbina reports for the New York Times, ten times as many as are killed in industrial accidents, yet the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) devotes less regulatory energy to making sure workers breathe clean air on the job. 

Backed by over 200 pages of source documents, Urbina’s feature is both heartbreaking and thought-provoking, it deserves to be widely read. 


[Photo credit: mag3737, Creative Commons.]

Indictments in School Cheating Case Exposed by Atlanta Journal Constitution

Heather Vogell, Alan Judd, and John Perry of the Atlanta Journal Constitution won the 2012 Hillman Prize for Newspaper Journalism for their expose of suspicious standardized test scores in the Atlanta public school system. They found a pattern of suspicious erasures that pointed to the biggest academic fraud in American history.

The State of Georgia has taken the AJC’s reporting very seriously. The coverage sparked an official investigation that proved wrongdoing once and for all. Thirty-five educators linked to the scandal were indicted on Friday, including ex-superintendant and alleged ringleader Beverly Hall:

In a scathing report released in July 2011 that was the blueprint for the grand jurors, state investigators uncovered what they called a decade of systemic cheating in Atlanta Public Schools and concluded that Beverly Hall knew or should have known about it. Investigators named nearly 180 educators, including more than three dozen principals, as participants in cheating on state curriculum tests.

The report’s release culminated more than two years of inquiries into Atlanta’s huge gains on the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in 2009. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis first detected statistically improbable increases in test scores at one Atlanta school in 2008. The following year, the AJC published another analysis that found suspicious score changes on the 2009 CRCT at a dozen Atlanta schools. The newspaper’s reporting ultimately led to the state investigation.

ProPublica has compiled a brief history of America’s greatest standardized test cheating scandals from 1987 to the present day, including the Atlanta scandal.

As Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post yesterday, “It is time to acknowledge that the fashionable theory of school reform — requiring that pay and job security for teachers, principals and administrators depend on their students’ standardized test scores — is at best a well-intentioned mistake, and at worst nothing but a racket.”


[Photo credit: Jasper Nance, Creative Commons.]

Past Hillman Prize and Sidney Award-Winners Nominated for National Magazine Awards

The finalists for the 2013 National Magazine Awards (ASME Awards) have been announced and we are delighted to see so many past Hillman Prize-winners and Sidney Award-winners on the shortlist:

  • Sarah Stillman, winner of a 2012 Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism, is a finalist for “The Throwaways,” a New Yorker story about how juvenile offenders-turned-informants have become canon fodder in the drug war. 
  • Mac McClelland, winner of a 2010 Sidney Award, is in the running for “Shelf Lives,” a work of participatory journalism about terrible working conditions in the warehouse industry, published in Mother Jones

Best of luck to all the finalists. 


#Sidney's Picks: Freelancers Union; Herbalife; Paid Sick Days


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Sucks to Be You, Wal-Mart...

What if there was a Wal-Mart and nobody came? That’s basically what’s happening right now. Wal-Mart stores are in disarray because the nation’s largest retailer can’t find employees to stock its cavernous new dens of commerce:

It’s not as though the merchandise isn’t there. It’s piling up in aisles and in the back of stores because Wal-Mart doesn’t have enough bodies to restock the shelves, according to interviews with store workers. In the past five years, the world’s largest retailer added 455 U.S. Wal-Mart stores, a 13 percent increase, according to filings and the company’s website. In the same period, its total U.S. workforce, which includes Sam’s Club employees, dropped by about 20,000, or 1.4 percent. Wal-Mart employs about 1.4 million U.S. workers. [Bloomberg]

I wonder why nobody wants to work at Wal-Mart? Hmmm.

Costco don’t seem to have any trouble attracting qualified employees and turning huge profits while raising its minimum wage:

“At Costco, we know that paying employees good wages makes good sense for business,” Jelinik said in a statement last week. “Instead of minimizing wages, we know it’s a lot more profitable in the long term to minimize employee turnover and maximize employee productivity, commitment and loyalty. We support efforts to increase the federal minimum wage.” [HuffPo]

[Photo credit: racineur, Creative Commons.]


Robocall Scoop Sparks Call for Sweeping Reform of Canadian Elections Law

Canada’s top election official is calling for sweeping changes to the country’s elections law to make sure that voter-suppressing robocalls, like the ones uncovered by Canadian Hillman Prize-winners Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor, never happen again:

OTTAWA — Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand wants Parliament to overhaul Canada’s elections law to prevent deceptive telephone calls by adding stiffer penalties and giving new powers to investigators.

In a recommendation aimed directly at the calls received in Guelph, Ont., on the 2011 election day, Mayrand says Parliament should close a loophole in the Criminal Code and make it illegal to impersonate an Elections Canada official. He advises maximum penalties on conviction of violators of $250,000 in fines and five years in jail.

Read the rest in the Ottawa Citizen.

Wal-Mart Sues UFCW Over Strikes

Seemingly determined to lose friends and alienate people, the nation’s largest retailer is suing the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and Our Wal-Mart over last year’s strikes in Florida: 

Wal-Mart Stores Inc has sued a major grocery workers union and others who have protested at its Florida stores, the latest salvo in its legal fight to stop “disruptive” rallies in and around its stores by groups seeking better pay and working conditions.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc has sued a major grocery workers union and others who have protested at its Florida stores, the latest salvo in its legal fight to stop “disruptive” rallies in and around its stores by groups seeking better pay and working conditions. [Reuters]

The store alleges that activists trespassed on Wal-Mart property during rallies.


[Photo credit: matteson.norman, Creative Commons.]