Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

#Sidney's Picks: The Best of the Week's News

  • “Power lists” glorifying the rich, successful, and influential are all the rage these days. Meanwhile, The Village Voice comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable with its list of the 100 Most Powerless New Yorkers by Steven Thrasher.
  • Tobin van Ostern of Campus Progress on how right wing performance artist James O’Keefe inadvertently proved the impossibility of large-scale voter fraud with an elaborate and well-financed bid to show how easy it is.
  • New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane took the extraordinary step of asking his own readers whether the paper should get into the “truth vigilante” business, i.e., calling out falsehoods from public figures in news stories instead of relegating the debunking to a special truthiness sidebar, as the paper currently does. This kind of bold questioning inspired Juli Weiner of Vanity Fair to ask: “Should Vanity Fair be a Spelling Vigilante” and get all uptight about the correct spellings of “words,” or should the magazine just go with the orthographical flow?

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Event: Preview Screening of PBS' New Documentary "Slavery By Another Name"

The Sidney Hillman Foundation invites you to an exclusive preview screening and discussion of PBS’s new documentary, Slavery By Another Name, on Thursday, Feb 2 at 6:00pm at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism (219 W. 40th St, New York, NY).

Based on the award-winning book by Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas A. Blackmon, the film challenges the cherished assumption that slavery in the United States ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. Join Blackmon and the film’s Hillman-award winning producer/director Sam Pollard for a panel discussion moderated by Gerry Hudson, executive vice president of SEIU.

Click here to view the full-sized event flier.

Space is limited, please RSVP by January 30. Phone: 646-448-6413; email:

For those of you who can’t join us in person, I’ll be blogging about the screening here at Clear it With Sidney.

Foxconn Workers Threatened Mass Suicide

Electronics giant Foxconn has confirmed reports from Chinese anti-government websites that workers in the southern city of Wuhan threatened mass suicide earlier this month over a labor dispute:

Jan. 12 (Bloomberg) – Foxconn Technology Group, maker of parts for Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox, said some members of its 1 million-person workforce threatened to jump from a factory building earlier this month to protest an internal transfer of employees.

About 150 workers at Foxconn’s plant in Wuhan, southern China, demonstrated on Jan. 2 in opposition to the company’s plan to move them to a new production line, the Taiwanese company said in an e-mailed statement today. Foxconn didn’t say how many threatened to leap from the three-story building.

The incident was resolved the same day, after talks between the workers, executives and government officials, Foxconn said. Microsoft said in a separate statement that it investigated the issue.

Foxconn, the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer, makes products coveted worldwide, including Apple iPhones and components for Microsoft Xboxes.

In 2010, at least 14 Foxconn workers committed suicide to protest brutal working conditions. The company reportedly increased wages and installed safety nets in response. According to some reports workers were asked to sign contracts not to commit suicide.

[Photo credit: Shenzhen High Tech Fair, by Bert van Dijk, Creative Commons.]

NFL Players Protest Indiana "Right To Work" Law

As Indianapolis prepares to host the Superbowl, the state’s Republican legislators and governor are pushing to make Indiana the twenty-third “right to work” state in the nation. On Tuesday, right-to-work legislation advanced to the full state house, despite efforts of Democratic legislators to slow passage of the bill.

Six NFL players from Indiana have spoken out against the bill:

INDIANAPOLIS — Quarterbacks Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears and Rex Grossman of the Washington Redskins are among six NFL players urging Indiana lawmakers to oppose right-to-work legislation.

Cutler, from Santa Claus, Ind., and Grossman, from Bloomington, joined New Orleans’ Courtney Roby, Pittsburgh’s Trai Essex, St. Louis’ Mark Clayton and San Diego’s Kris Dielman in sending letters to Indiana House members Monday. Days earlier, the NFL Players Association came out against the measure that would ban private contracts that require workers to pay union fees for representation.

Cutler called it a “political ploy” against workers. [AP]

Last year, Democratic lawmakers thwarted the GOP’s attempt to pass right-to-work legislation by fleeing the state. This time around, Republicans have clipped the opposition’s wings by passing anti-bolting legislation that could impose fines of $1000 per day after 3 days of unexcused absence.

[Photo credit: Indywriter, Creative Commons.]

ALEC Doesn't Want Your Kind Here

The American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative group profiled by our September Sidney Award Winners at the Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation, really doesn’t like unembedded journalists. Beau Hodai, a reporter for In These Times got kicked out of the hotel bar where ALEC was holding its conference, by uniformed police officers, even though he had registered as a guest:

At around 10:30 on the evening of December 1, I was sitting in the Waltz & Weiser Saloon, a high-end sports bar tucked into a cove below the sub-lobby of the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa in Scottsdale, Ariz.

I had been swapping newspaper stories with Olivia Ward of the Toronto Star on one of the saloon’s overstuffed leather couches as the bar filled with attendees of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) 2011 States and Nation Policy Summit (SNPS).

ALEC had repeatedly refused to grant me media credentials. Nevertheless, I was a paying guest at the resort and thought I’d catch some liquor-loose-lipped lawmakers and lobbyists at the bar.

I was about to turn in for the night when I saw Phil Black, director of Kierland’s security team, talking with a group of Phoenix police officers outside the entrance to the bar. The cops–moonlighting (in uniform) for ALEC–had arrived close to an hour prior, glanced in at Ward and me, and stationed themselves just to the side of the door.

Black entered the bar and came up to me. “Would you mind coming with me, sir?”

Outside Waltz & Weiser, we were joined by the cops.

What’s this all about?” I asked.

The ALEC people don’t want you here,” said Black, “and we understand that your reservations were made under false pretenses.”

I asked Black, given the fact that I had not been accused of any crime, why I was surrounded by armed, uniformed cops. False pretenses? I had given the front desk my valid photo driver’s license and my credit card.

Black said that he and the police officers would escort me to my room and help me pack. I was told if I returned, or refused to leave, I would be arrested and charged with criminal trespassing.

Hodai’s story is a collaboration with the Center for Media and Democracy.

[Photo credit: r3v || cis, Creative Commons.]

John Branch Wins Sidney Award for "Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer"

New York Times sports reporter John Branch wins the January Sidney Award for his outstanding three-part series on the life and death of Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, who died last spring of a drug overdose at age 28 after a two-year struggle with congitive decline, depression, and addiction. At autopsy, his brain was found to be riddled with the signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s, caused by repeated blows to the head.

Branch’s series has ignited a fierce debate over the role of enforcers, professional fighters, in the National Hockey League. Officially, fighting is against the rules, but since the only consequence is a 5-minute penalty for combattants, fighting isn’t effectively banned at all. Like many enforcers, Boogaard could barely skate or pass, so taking him off the ice for 5 minutes wasn’t much of a deterrent.

In fact, fighting provides a “back door” into the NHL for big kids who are willing to take a lot of punishment, but who lack the skills to play pro hockey. As Branch reveals, these players can pay a terrible price for their shot at “The Show,” as the NHL is known.

Read my Backstory interview with Branch here.

[Matthew D. Britt, Creative Commons.]

The Red and the Black: Liquorice Workers on Strike

Workers at American Liquorice Company, the makers of those beloved strips of Americana known as Red Vines, have been out on strike for a month over health care and pension benefits, Rose Arrieta reports for In These Times.

[Photo credit: 2moose-mac, Creative Commons.]

Will Indiana be the Next "Right To Work" State?

Indiana is poised to become the next front on the Republican war on organized labor, reports Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times:

INDIANAPOLIS — Nearly a year after legislatures in Wisconsin and several other Republican-dominated states curbed the power of public sector unions, lawmakers are now turning their sights toward private sector unions, setting up what is sure to be another political storm.

The thunderclouds are gathering first here in Indiana. The leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature say that when the legislative session opens on Wednesday, their No. 1 priority will be to push through a business-friendly piece of legislation known as a right-to-work law.

If Indiana enacts such a law — and its sponsors say they have the votes — it will give new momentum to those who have previously pushed such legislation in Maine, Michigan, Missouri and other states. New Hampshire’s Republican-controlled Legislature was the last to pass a right-to-work bill in 2011, but it narrowly failed to muster the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto by the Democratic governor; an Indiana law would re-energize that effort.

Right-to-work laws prohibit union contracts at private sector workplaces from requiring employees to pay any dues or other fees to the union. In states without such laws, workers at unionized workplaces generally have to pay such dues or fees.

Unions have vowed to fight the plan to turn Indiana into what they call the “Mississippi of the Midwest,” that is, a sparsely unionized, low wage economy.

Crushing unions would also help ensure permanent Republican dominance in state politics. Unions are not only advocates for their members, they are major political players who usually align themselves with Democrats.

[Image credit: Cuksis, Creative Commons.]

Sidney's Picks: Highlights of 2011

Our 2011 Sidney Award Winners, of course. But that would make for a pretty anticlimactic list, wouldn’t it? You already know we think the world of them.

  • Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer, by John Branch in the New York Times. A heartbreaking and painstakingly reported multimedia package about the life and death of 28-year-old NHL player Derek Boogaard, an “enforcer” whose history of head trauma probably contributed to his untimely death from a drug overdose.
  • Birthright: What’s Next for Planned Parenthood by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker. How did Planned Parenthood become synonymous with abortion? The answer may surprise you. This essay uses early controversies over birth control as a lens to understand the modern anti-abortion movement. 
  • The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers by Scott Carney, published by William Morrow. An anthropologist-turned-investigative journalist travels the world to document the  commodification of the human body and its functions. 
  • A Vicious Cycle in the Used Car Business, by Ken Bensinger in the LA Times. This meticulous investigation details how national chains of self-financing used car dealerships exploit the poor and repackage their bad loans as subprime securities.
  • The High Price of Looking like Woman by Laura Rena Murray in the New York Times. Local reporting at its best. Murray delves into the underworld of unlicensed silicone injectors who prey on transgender women in New York seeking feminine curves on the cheap. This story is especially powerful because it illustrates how transphobia and discrimination push vulnerable women into this potentially lethal black market.
  • Deep Intellect: Inside the Minds of Octopuses, by Sy Montgomery in Orion Magazine. The author seeks understand how octopuses can be so smart, yet so different from humans–physically and evolutionarily. His search brings him to embrace an octopus. He also interviews octopus scientists, a scuba diving philosophy professor, and an aquarium volunteer who found his post-retirement calling as an octopus whisperer.
  • The Luckiest Woman in the World: Three Ways to Win the Lottery by Nathaniel Rich in Harper’s. Wannabe grifters take note.
  • Is The SEC Covering Up Wall Street Crimes?, by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone. Ditto.


HBO's "Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags", Now Available On DVD

Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags, HBO’s critically acclaimed documentary is now available on DVD:

“Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags” brings to life the vibrant, unexpected history of the Garment District, which for many years was the heart and soul of Midtown Manhattan, but is now in danger of disappearing. For thousands of immigrants the garment industry was a path to their American Dream, but today most of those jobs are gone. A microcosm of the economic and social forces transforming our nation over the past one hundred years, “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags” tells the story of this vanishing industry through the voices of the people who have experienced its highs and lows.

Manhattan’s Garment District was a birthplace of organized labor, an engine of New York’s fashion industry, and a source of jobs since the 19th century. Filmmakers Mark Levinson and Daphne Pinkerson describe how automation, deregulation, and outsourcing have sapped the economic health of the Garment District and the U.S. clothing manufacturing sector at large.

[Photo credit: Laughing Squid, Creative Commons. Sculpture of a garment worker in New York’s Garment District.]