Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Welcome to "Clear it With Sidney" by Lindsay Beyerstein

Welcome to Clear it With Sidney by Lindsay Beyerstein. You can watch Sidney Hillman Foundation executive director Alexandra Lescaze and me discussing the blog and its mission. This blog is showcase for the best journalism in service of the common good. We bring you exclusive interviews with the journalists who break the stories. Clear It With Sidney will be a community for journalists who have won Hillman-sponsored awards in the past. We will invite them back to talk about their latest projects and new developments in their prizewinning stories.

Clear it With Sidney got its name because of something Sidney Hillman’s critics used to whisper about him. It was said that Hillman, the leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, and a key partner in the New Deal Coalition, was so powerful that FDR told his associates to “clear it with Sidney” before making major decisions. Hillman took the taunt and turned it into a badge of honor.

Sidney Hillman believed in the power of journalism to change society for the better. In a healthy economy, strong unions square off against capital to check corporate power. In a healthy democracy, a free and vibrant press scrutinizes powerful institutions and keeps the public informed so that we are ready to participate in our own governance.

In a democracy, everyone’s perspective matters, but some stories are ignored or suppressed because of systemic biases like sexism, racism, and classism. A healthy and vibrant press challenges itself to confront its own biases and to expose inequities in society.

I don’t know where Sidney Hillman stood on epistemological issues, but I’m old fashioned. I think there’s such a thing as truth and that the very best journalism uncovers it and disseminates it fearlessly.

I am counting on you, the readers of this blog, to be my eyes and ears in the vast and fragmented media landscape. If you see outstanding journalism, tell me about it. To recommend a story, tweet the link @SidneyHillman, hashtag #Sidney. Click here to officially nominate a story for a Sidney Award. You can also send an email to the address on the sidebar, or weigh in on the Sidney Hillman facebook page.


Spencer Soper Wins October Sidney Award for Exposing Brutal Conditions in Warehouse

Spencer Soper, a senior reporter on the business beat at The Morning Call in Allentown, PA, is the winner of this month’s Sidney Award for his expose of brutal working conditions inside’s Lehigh Valley warehouse.

This summer, temperatures inside the warehouse soared to over 100 degrees and management refused to open the doors for ventilation. Amazon hired a private ambulance company to wait outside to treat workers suffering from heat-related illnesses.

Workers told Soper that they felt pressured to push themselves to the point of collapse because they could be penalized or even fired for slowing down or taking time off to seek medical attention.

Since the story ran on Sept 18, Amazon has been deluged with calls from angry customers, according to Soper’s Sep 23 follow-up story. Despite a flurry of public statements from Amazon, current warehouse employees said that nothing had changed inside the warehouse since the initial story ran.

You can read my interview with Soper about the making of the expose in The Backstory, our monthly feature on the story behind the latest Sidney Award-winning story.

[Photo courtesy of Spencer Soper.]

How Unpaid Internships Perpetuate Inequality

Anna Lekas Miller has a good piece in AlterNet about unpaid internships as a hidden cause of inequality. She notes that as the job market has tightened, internships have become more common and less beneficial to the intern:

Internships are the new entry-level job—the same duties and basic experience, only this time without compensation or benefits.

Statistics show that half of all internships are paid, but most of these positions are extraordinarily competitive, and unsurprisingly concentrated in the financial sector. Certain internships in other industries offer a small stipend, but hardly anything that is adequate to subsist on, especially in a major city. The worst offenders list positions as “paid” only to reveal that compensation is in the form of lunch or a monthly metrocard.

In some fields, a stint as an unpaid intern is practically required to land a paying job. The internship system serves as a little-discussed but significant barrier to applicants who can’t afford to work for free.

[Photo credit: banger1977, Creative Commons.]

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

-Asjylyn Loder and David Evans of Bloomberg delve into decades of dirt on Koch Industries. This one is so packed with damning details you’ll probably have to read it twice. It’s worth it.

-Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a judge, weighing the fates of the people who appear in your courtroom? Benjamin Weiser of the New York Times has a compelling human interest story about Denny Chin, a federal judge in Manhattan. “It is just not a natural or everyday thing to do,” Judge Chin told the Times, “to pass judgment on people, to send them to prison or not.”

-After years of complacency, federal regulators are taking notice of erionite, a highly carcinogenic mineral which has been detected in soils throughout the American West. The headline for Myron Levin’s erionite investigation, “Peril in the West”, co-published by MSNBC, is probably too strong, since it’s still an open question whether the mineral is sickening Americans, but the piece does a good job explaining why the question bears further study.

-In the Washington Post, Rich Yeselson, a historian and researcher for Change to Win on how the Occupy protests breaking out around the country might mature into an enduring, self-sustaining movement.





The Voice of C. Montgomery Burns Suggests New Business Model for "The Simpsons"

Harry Shearer, the voice of Mr. Burns on The Simpsons, argues persuasively in The Daily Beast that Fox should keep the show on the air for another season and preserve its profit margin by offering the cast of the 23-year, multi-billion dollar cultural juggernaut a small fraction of the show’s profits in exchange for salary cuts. 

Fox claims the “business model” of The Simpsons is no longer viable. The network has demanded that the cast take a 45% pay cut if the show is to return for a twenty-fourth season.

Shearer says that’s fine by him. He’d be willing to take a 45% pay cut, or even a 70% pay cut in exchange for a small share of future profits from the show.

Sounds reasonable to me.

[Photo credit: the_mi, Creative Commons.]

Organized Labor Rallies to Occupy Wall Street

Thousands of union workers rallied in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street protesters in Manhattan on Wednesday. Clear it With Sidney was on hand with Hillman Foundation executive director Alexandra Lescaze and consultant Tom Watson. Photos of the march, here.

Unions March with Occupy Wall Street today in New York City

In about an hour, several major unions will join the Occupy Wall Street protesters for a mass rally and march in New York City and Clear it with Sidney will be there. Here’s a map of the route. Stay tuned for a report this evening.

Koch Industries Bribed For Contracts & Sold to Iran

Koch Industries won contracts with bribes and sold millions of dollars worth of petrochemical equipment to Iran, according to a new expose by Asjylyn Loder and David Evans of Bloomberg.

The politicking of oil baron brothers Charles and David has made the Koch name (pronounced “Coke”) a household word. Koch Industries has spent over $50 million on federal lobbying since 2006. Koch charities have spent millions more on infrastructure for the conservative movement. Koch-funded academies have trained a generation of Tea Party activists.

Loder and Evans reveal that Koch Industries bribed company officials overseas to secure contracts with their firms. The illegal payments were made through the French-owned subsidiary, Koch-Glistch, but when the nefarious activity came to light in French labor courts, whistleblowers convinced the courts that the wrongdoing reached far up the chain of command. Koch Industries also used foreign subsidiaries to circumvent the U.S. ban on trading with Iran, an officially recognized state sponsor of terrorism.

Those are just the new allegations of wrongdoing by Koch Industries. Bloomberg also summarizes a littany of misdeeds that the company has already been caught and fined for or settled with victims over the past several decades. The story documents how regulations and torts have cost Koch Industries millions of dollars.

Loder and Evans flesh out a rapsheet decades in the making. Offenses include leaking 91 metric tons of the carcinogen benzene into the air and lying about it, bilking Native Americans out of oil royalties, negligently allowing a pipeline to corrode until leaking gas burned two teenagers to death, and much more.

Loder and Evans write:

For six decades around the world, Koch Industries has blazed a path to riches – in part, by making illicit payments to win contracts, trading with a terrorist state, fixing prices, neglecting safety and ignoring environmental regulations. At the same time, Charles and David Koch have promoted a form of government that interferes less with company actions.

This story is a courageous and damning indictment of Koch Industries. What’s more, the authors explicitly link the Koch Brothers’ philosophy of unfettered capitalism and their unethical business practices.

There’s no point in speculating about whether the Koch’s investment in the anti-government, anti-regulation, anti-tort activism is fuelled by greed or sincere conviction. From a citizen’s perspective, it makes no difference whether they are driven by pure profit, or whether they sincerely believe that their property entitles them to i) swindle other companies by bribing their employees to make contracts that never would have survived in the free market, ii) to trade with an enemy of the United States, iii) to pollute our environment, and iv) to steal natural resources from their rightful owners. The only question is whether we, the people, think they’re so entitled, and if not, what we are going to do about it?

[Photo credit: Sue Peacock, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Highlights of the Week

Every Friday on Clear it With Sidney, we publish a list of the best socially conscious journalism we’ve seen in the past week. To suggest a story for Sidney’s Picks, tweet @sidneyhillman and use the hashtag #Sidney.

-“Veteran Agitators Flock to Occupy Wall Street,” by Daniel Massey in Crain’s Business Daily, Sep. 29. A sea change for the #OccupyWallSt movement as major New York unions pledge their support.

-“A Spray Like a Punch in the Face,” by Jim Dwyer in the New York Times, Sep. 27. Dwyer notes that all pepper spray cannisters in New York bear the following message, “The use of this substance or device for any purpose other than self-defense is a criminal offense under the law.” Deputy inspector Anthony Bologna was caught on video spraying protesters who had already been trapped with crowd control mesh.

-“Big Business: Undo the Damage of ‘Citizens United’,” by George Zornick in The Nation, Sep. 28. A real man-bites-dog story.

-“Outsize Severance Continues for Executives, Even After Failed Tenures,” by Eric Dash in the New York Times, Sep. 29. Lousy CEOs are still getting hefty severance packages.

-“Companies Use Immigration Crackdown to Turn a Profit,” by Nina Bernstein (past Hillman Prize winner), in the New York Times, Sep. 28. Private immigration detention companies are making big bucks at the expense of human rights.

-“Why the Kochs Want to Make Chris Christie President,” by Adele Stan in AlterNet, Sep. 27. Short answer: union-busting.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Private Prisons Make Big Bucks on Immigration Crackdown

Private companies are reaping huge profits from immigration crackdowns worldwide, Hillman Prize winner Nina Bernstein reports for the New York Times. Bernstein documents how the detention of asylum-seekers and people awaiting deportation has become big business in the United States, the United Kingdom, and especially in Australia:

In the United States — with almost 400,000 annual detentions in 2010, up from 280,000 in 2005 — private companies now control nearly half of all detention beds, compared with only 8 percent in state and federal prisons, according to government figures. In Britain, 7 of 11 detention centers and most short-term holding places for immigrants are run by for-profit contractors.

No country has more completely outsourced immigration enforcement, with more troubled results, than Australia. Under unusually severe mandatory detention laws, the system has been run by a succession of three publicly traded companies since 1998. All three are now major players in the international business of locking up and transporting unwanted foreigners.

Bernstein doesn’t shy away from the detention industry’s appalling health and safety record. She notes that private immigration prisons have been plagued by riots, epidemics of self-harm by inmates, and even child abuse. You’ll be shocked to learn that not everyone who hangs out a shingle as a for-profit detention facility is qualified to do so:

But the ballooning of privatized detention has been accompanied by scathing inspection reports, lawsuits and the documentation of widespread abuse and neglect, sometimes lethal. Human rights groups say detention has neither worked as a deterrent nor speeded deportation, as governments contend, and some worry about the creation of a “detention-industrial complex” with a momentum of its own.

Matthew J. Gibney of Oxford University offers an incisive quote to explain what’s gone wrong with the immigration detention service over the last 15 years: “When something goes wrong — a death, an escape — the government can blame it on a kind of market failure instead of an accountability failure.” In other words, part of what the government is paying for when it privatizes detention is plausible deniability.

[Photo credit: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons]