Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

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.]

Grifterology: 6 Ways to Avoid the Broken Bottle Scam

At the Hillman Foundation, we’re all about shedding light on society’s ills. Usually we hail journalists exposing white collar criminals. But today we bring you a fun piece by Justin Peters of Slate exposing a more down-market racket known as the “broken bottle scam.” In this con game, the conman bumps into the mark and starts yelling about how the mark broke his expensive bottle, or his glasses, or something else. The mark is intimidated and shamed into coughing up cash on the spot.

My favorite tip for avoiding the mark’s fate:

Extend the encounter. Here’s an interesting example of how to deal with a scammer: “Nair (Naim) Jabbar had two pairs of broken eyeglasses in a bag when cops arrested him last month. The ex-con bumped into his latest victim on W. 53rd St. and Fifth Ave., court records show. ‘You broke my glasses! You own me $125!’ Jabbar, 41, yelled. But when his victim asked him to come back to his office to figure out a solution, Jabbar slunk off, court papers said.” This strategy makes sense, and is perhaps something to consider. Who doesn’t hate going up to offices?

[Photo credit: Funkyeah, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Trans Issues; Iraq War Anniversary; Ta-Nehisi's Close Call

  • “Born This Way?”: Beth Schwartzapfel explores the most controversial issue in transgender medicine today for the American Prospect.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

2013 Canadian Hillman Prize Photos

More photos of the 2013 Canadian Hillman Prize ceremony at the Steam Whistle Brewery in Toronto, Ontario.

Photos by James Yigitoz.

2013 Canadian Hillman Prize Recap

Toronto, Ontario.

The Sidney Hillman Foundation honored excellence in Canadian journalism in service of the common good at its annual Canadian Hillman Prize ceremony, Tuesday.

Glen McGregor of the Ottawa Citizen and Stephen Maher of Postmedia News shared the 2013 prize for their expose of vote-suppressing robocalls by Conservative Party operatives during the 2011 Canadian federal election.

Katie DeRosa of the Times Colonist and Elizabeth Stolte of the Edmonton Journal received honorable mentions. DeRosa was recognized for an investigation of Canadian refugee policy. Stolte was recognized for a data-driven investigation that found that over 10,000 First Nations children on reservations in Alberta were not registered or attending school.

Click here to learn more about our winners, read their prize-winning stories, and peruse the shortlist for this year’s prize.

Many thanks to our distinguished Canadian judges: Jim Stanford, Bronwyn Drainie, and Brian Topp.

[Photo credit: Left to right, Stephen Maher, Jim Stanford, Glen McGregor.]

Fear in the Fields: Farm Workers Face Sexual Harassment


Carolina Martínez came to the United States to work in the fields, hoping to earn enough to build a house in her native Mexico. The crossing was harrowing and the work was hard, to add to her burden, Martínez faced continual sexual harrassment with no recourse:

The work was hard. During planting and harvest seasons she might work 10 hours a day, six or seven days a week. But she had expected that. What she hadn’t expected was the near-constant sexual harassment on the job. The crew leader would, she says, “touch women in a sexual way… touch women on their asses.” When Martínez threatened to report him, he’d warn, “They’ll get rid of you. And if you do go to the boss, I’ll call Immigration.”

So she didn’t tell the boss. And she didn’t tell her husband either, afraid he’d be so angry that he’d pick a fight and they’d both get fired—or worse, deported. “Women have to tolerate this in silence,” she says. “Because if you talk to the owners and you lose your job, then what? Many times during lunch, I cried. I felt I was alone.” The harassment continued every day for seven months. [In These Times]

Farm workers aren’t the only female migrants who face harrassment on the job. Women who work in meat and poultry processing plants also report high rates of harassment, Joseph Sorrentino reports.

To would-be abusers, undocumented migrant women may seem like the perfect victims, targets they can mistreat without fear of repercussions. The women may not speak English, they are far from their support systems, and they are reluctant to go to the police because they are out of status.

Sorrentino’s reporting was supported by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.



#Sidney's Picks: Safari Junkets, Sketchy Science, and the Triangle Fire

  • What do hate groups think of Jennifer Lawrence? Vice investigates.
  • On March 25, 1911, a fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village, killing 146 people in 18 minutes. The fire galvanized a movement for workers’ rights and workplace safety that continues today. Join Workers United, the New York Fire Department and New York public school children to commemorate the 102nd anniversary of the Triangle Fire: Wednesday, March 20, 12:00-1:00 at the corner of Washington Place & Greene St.


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Kidnapping Rings Strong-arm Eritrean Immigrants

Imagine getting a voicemail from a teenage cousin you’ve never met telling you that you must pay a $25,000 ransom or her kidnappers will torture her to death and sell her organs on the black market. You know she’s telling the truth because you can hear another victim screaming in agony in the background as his captors pour molten plastic on his back.

Refugees have been streaming out of Eritrea since the country gained independence from Ethiopia two decades ago. Highly organized gangs capture the refugees as they try to cross the border and extort their relatives who have already established themselves in the United States. Thousands of Eritrean refugees have been kidnapped by these syndicates.

Joel Millman reports on the operations of the gangs in the lawless Sinai Peninsula and the desperate attempts of Eritrean Americans to raise money to free their relatives.

Steven Brill Wins March Sidney for Explaining the High Cost of Medical Bills

Steven Brill has won the March Sidney Award for his explanatory reporting on the high cost of medical bills. Brill’s prize-winning story, entitled “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us” was published as a special feature in Timethe longest in the magazine’s history.

Many of Brill’s core concepts, like the bargaining power of Medicare to secure low rates, and the higher prices charged to uninsured patients, will be familiar to health care policy wonks. What makes Brill’s piece stand out is they way he weaves the stories of real patients into a multi-faceted, systemic analysis of the high cost of medical care.

Brill spent seven months combing through medical bills in an attempt to discover what Americans will get for the estimated $2.8 trillion we will spend this year on health care. What he found blew away his preconceptions about why hospital bills cost so much. The culprits weren’t greedy health care unions or overly-entitled patients. The problem turned out to be the structure of the marketplace itself.

Brill describes the medical marketplace as a kind of Through the Looking Glass parody of the free market where uninsured patients are charged whatever the hospital sees fit, for whatever services they are deemed to need. Unlike public and private insurers, who negotiate fees for services in advance, and use their bargaining power to secure lower prices, the average uninsured patient is completely at the mercy of the system. If a hospital wants to charge $1.50 for a single generic Tylenol, or $6 for a paper cup, the patient has no way of knowing in advance and little standing to complain after the fact.

One 64-year-old woman was charged over $20,000 for a single ER visit. She thought she was having a heart attack, but it turned out to be indigestion. If the woman had been a year older, and enrolled in Medicare, the same care would have cost a fraction of what the woman was forced to pay.

Many investigative journalists have documented how non-profit hospitals are raking in even larger profits than their for-profit counterparts. Brill extends that analysis to see what non-profit insurers do with all this money, given that they can’t redistribute it to shareholders, like for-profit hospitals do. Instead of devoting the surplus to charity care, as one might expect from non-profit hospital, these institutions reinvest in ever larger buildings and ever more elaborate testing machines. Many also pay their top administrators exorbitant salaries.

Studies show that the more machines there are, the more tests doctors tend to order. Brill notes that there’s an even bigger conflict of interest when the hospital or the doctor owns the machine and sets the price for using it. Hospitals that own their own diagnostic machines and testing facilities have a vested interest in charging high fees for these tests, and testing a lot of people who may or may not need them. The end result is a vicious cycle of overcharging and over-treatment.

Brill shies away from sweeping policy recommendations, and he has said in interviews that he thinks single-payer health care is not a realistic option of the United States, but the implications of his argument are difficult to escape. Lone patients are the worst off when it comes to medical gouging. Private insurers fare significantly better, but their bargaining power pales compares to that of Medicare. If Medicare can secure such dramatically lower rates because of its immense bargaining power, why not put everybody on Medicare?

The depth and scope of Brill’s reporting makes Bitter Pill an important contribution to the national debate on health care costs and its prominent placement in Time will familiarize a broad cross-section of the public with critical concepts that policy wonks have been laboring to disseminate for years.