by Lindsay Beyerstein
How our blog got its name
Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”
Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.
It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.
Clear It With Sidney
Flame-retardant foam is found in couch cushions, breastfeeding pillows, TVs, and countless other household items. After a sweeping investigation, reporters from the Chicago Tribune conclude that these chemicals are not only ineffective but potentially dangerous to people and the environment. The flame-retardant industry and its allies have used deceptive tactics to convince the public that these chemicals are necessary, the Tribune found.
In today's installment of this important multi-media series, we learn that the tobacco industry pushed for flame-retardant furniture to divert attention from its inability to design a viable "fire-safe" cigarette. Cigarettes are the leading cause of furniture fires. Firefighters and burn victims were pushing for cigarettes that would extinguish themselves when not being smoked. Under pressure, big tobacco spent millions of dollars courting fire marshalls, aka, "our fire safety friends" in tobacco industry parlance. Big tobacco even had a mole in the National Association of State Fire Marshals--a former Tobacco Institute VP who volunteered as legislative director for the NASFM while working as a lobbyist for the Institute. The industry tried to divert attention from cigarettes to flame-retardants.
Some background on flame-retardants, from the Tribune's investigation: Chances are, the foam seat of your chair is laced with flame-retardants. As the cushions age, the chemicals leech out and mix with house dust. Most American babies are born with traces of these compounds in their blood. Flame retardants are polluting the environment and may even be making people sick.
This might be a small price to pay if flame retardant foam saved lives or prevented horrific burns, but according to the latest tests, flame retardants don't even work. In one experiment, a chair made with flame-retardant foam burned just as fast as an otherwise identical chair without the chemical--both were engulfed in flames in 4 minutes flat:
"We did not find flame retardants in foam to provide any significant protection," said Dale Ray, a top official with the Consumer Product Safety Commission who oversaw the 2009 tests at a laboratory outside Washington.
Moreover, the amount of smoke from both chair fires was similar, Ray said, noting that most fire victims die of smoke inhalation, not the flames.
The previously undisclosed test results call into question the widespread use of flame retardants in household furniture. Some of those chemicals have been linked to cancer, neurological disorders and developmental problems. [ChiTrib]
The flame retardants may not even be necessary. Experts say that smoldering cigarettes are responsible for the majority of furniture fires. Most furniture coverings are already smolder-resistant. If the furniture industry wanted to save lives during fires, it would put a flame-resistant barrier layer between the covering and the core. These barriers are far more effective than flame-retardants and they can be made without chemicals, or with less toxic chemicals. The industry is balking, claiming that these barriers would make furniture uncomfortable. This excuse is hard to believe given that barriers are already standard on mattresses.
The Tribune investigation is an important piece of public service journalism that sounds the alarm about a major threat to safety, health, and the environment while holding powerful interests to account.
[Photo credit: eighteen1, Creative Commons.]
John Branch of the New York Times has won the 2012 Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for his series "Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer," which chronicles rise and fall of Derek Boogaard, an enforcer who fought his way to the heights of the National Hockey League, but died of an overdose before his 30th birthday, after a prolonged struggle with cognitive decline, substance abuse, and depression.
Branch won the January 2012 Sidney Award for this series, which cast a critical eye on NHL-sanctioned fighting and post-concussion syndrome in hockey.
[Photo credit: John Branch accepting the Sidney Award from Hillman Executive Director Alexandra Lescaze. By Lindsay Beyerstein, all rights reserved.]
The Hillman Prize bloggers outdid themselves. Here's a roundup of their longer pieces:
- Jamil Smith of MSNBC, "The Struggle for Social Justice is Not Rated PG-13," at the Melissa Harris-Perry Blog.
- Adele Stan reports on Tom Morello, Occupy, and the Guitarmy, for AlterNet.
- Anna North of Buzzfeed Shift interviewed Hillman judge Katrina vanden Huevel about how great journalism can subvert women's magazines.
- Howard Greenstein shot the video, above, of Tom Morello talking Wisconsin with the bloggers in the green room. Howard also compiled what may be the first ever Hillman-related Storify.
- Lance Mannion has an essay about the Hillman Prize-winners and the importance of storytelling in journalism.
Check out the photos from last night's Hillman Prizes.
A full house gathered to honor excellence in journalism in service of the common good. Click here for full details on this year's outstanding group of winners.
Some highlights from the program:
- Opinion and Analysis winner Ta-Nehisi Coates wowed everyone with his acceptance speech, dedicating his award to his father, a veteran of Vietnam and the Black Panthers, who taught his son that "writing is fighting" in the struggle for social justice.
- Tom "The Nightwatchman" Morello accepted a special Hillman Officers' Award for his advocacy for workers' rights, presented by past Officers' Award-winner Harry Belafonte.
For a complete liveblog of last night's event, see Jenn Pozner at Women in Media and News.
Thanks to our all-star team of bloggers for lending their social media accumen. Stay tuned for more of their images and video in the days ahead.
The 2012 Hillman Prizes will be awarded tonight at the TimesCenter. Watch the blog and follow @sidneyhillman on twitter for updates.
[Photo credit: byasaa, Creative Commons.]
- Why would a woman let her breast cancer grow for years without seeing a doctor, until her breast literally fell off? Dr. Otis Brawley, a distinguished oncologist and public policymaker, describes the constellation of racial, historical, cultural, and economic factors that sent a 53-year-old woman to Brawley's Atlanta ER carrying her breast in a plastic bag. The answers say a lot about what's wrong with our health care system and our society at large. [Atlanta Magazine]
- Maia Szalavitz builds on the New York Times' scoop about debt collectors stalking the halls of hospitals shaking down patients with the hospital's blessing. [TIME]
- Sara Kliff interviews the woman who runs the Massachusetts health insurance assistance line. Kate Bicego may not have a fancy title or a prestigious academic appointment, but she may know more than anyone else about how to implement Obamacare. [WaPo]
[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]
Yoav Potash, the winner of a 2012 Hillman Award for his documentary, Crime After Crime, writes in the Wall Street Journal about the making of the film and its impact.
At first, Potash wasn't sure if Debbie Peagler's story would make a good movie. She Peagler wasn't most people's idea of an sympathetic victim railroaded by the system. In 1982, she lured the father of one of her daughters into an alley where gang members murdered him. She was sentenced to life in prison for helping to kill a man who had savagely abused her and forced her into prostitution. In 2002, two lawyers began a campaign to get Peagler released from prison under a novel California law that allows women convicted of murdering their abusers to present evidence of the abuse they suffered as a mitigating factor.
A face-to-face meeting with Peagler convinced Potash he had a compelling documentary subject after all:
By the time I wheeled my camera gear out of the prison gates, I knew I would indeed make a film about Debbie Peagler. She, her lawyers, and I had no idea that her saga would soon take an unpredictable course, eventually making it the most contentious test of California’s unique law and the reasoning behind it.
As news of her legal battle and my film about it spread, Peagler came to represent many victims of domestic violence who have suffered in silence for years, if not decades. Now, as funding for domestic violence shelters is being slashed and legislation like the Violence Against Women Act comes under attack, her story has more resonance than ever. [WSJ]
Potash is proud Debbie's story has fuelled efforts to enact similar laws in other states.
"Embedded" debt collectors prowl the corridors of hospitals, shaking down patients, and even discouraging perceived deadbeats from seeking emergency care, Jessica Silver-Greenberg reports for the New York Times:
Hospital patients waiting in an emergency room or convalescing after surgery are being confronted by an unexpected visitor: a debt collector at bedside.
This and other aggressive tactics by one of the nation’s largest collectors of medical debts, Accretive Health, were revealed on Tuesday by the Minnesota attorney general, raising concerns that such practices have become common at hospitals across the country.
The tactics, like embedding debt collectors as employees in emergency rooms and demanding that patients pay before receiving treatment, were outlined in hundreds of company documents released by the attorney general. And they cast a spotlight on the increasingly desperate strategies among hospitals to recoup payments as their unpaid debts mount.
To patients, the debt collectors may look indistinguishable from hospital employees, may demand they pay outstanding bills and may discourage them from seeking emergency care at all, even using scripts like those in collection boiler rooms, according to the documents and employees interviewed by The New York Times.
By law, hospitals must provide emergency care, even to the destitute. If a hospital "embeds" a debt collector to deter a patient from seeking care and that patient dies because she went untreated, are the hospital and the debt collector liable?
Silver-Greenberg notes that the Accretive Health's aggressive tactics are part of a larger trend of hospitals signing over core functions to debt collection agencies in an attempt to recoup more money. Critics worry that giving debt collectors this kind of access could compromise patient safety and privacy. Hospitals claim they have no choice because they are hemorrhaging billions of dollars a year in uncompensated care.
If you need an argument for universal health insurance, Silver-Greenberg has supplied one.
[Photo credit: Which one is the debt collector? For illustration only. By Agência de Notícias do Acre, Creative Commons.]
Your feelgood story of the day: Michael Berens and Ken Armstrong shared a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The two journos have donated their $10,000 prize to Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) to train their colleagues in investigative reporting.
Berens and Armstrong are longtime members of IRE, the leading professional association for investigative journalists in North America. They are both scheduled to speak at IRE's annual convention in Boston in June.
Selena Ross digs deep to expose the sordid subculture of Montreal snow removal for Maisonneuve magazine. A handful of established snow removal companies divide the borough contracts between them. Bid-rigging is the norm and upstart competitors are kept in check by sabotage and even violence:
Over the course of a year-long investigation, Maisonneuve analyzed about 250 snow-removal contracts and interviewed more than a dozen private contractors, their employees and the municipal bureaucrats who administer their work. (All sources requested anonymity for their own safety; identifying details have also been omitted.) These sources described bid-rigging as a fact of life in the industry. More crucially, they said, Montrealers don’t understand how fiercely the system is maintained through violence and coercion. Those who obey are rewarded with extra, ill-gotten profits. Those who don’t play along are punished. A former employee of one of Montreal’s snowplow giants put it succinctly. “Snow removal,” he said, “is one of the biggest rackets there is.”
[Photo credit: Robbie1, Creative Commons.]