Truthout Stories Sun, 01 Feb 2015 11:40:28 -0500 en-gb GOP Obamacare Replacement Plan Calls for Higher Costs and Poor People Dying

Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Along with Senators Richard Burr and Tom Coburn, Hatch unveiled a replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act as part of the latest GOP attempt to repeal the act.Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, DC. Along with Senators Richard Burr and Tom Coburn, Hatch unveiled a replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act as part of the latest GOP attempt to repeal the act. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

The House of Representatives are planning to vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. This will be the first time the new Congress has taken up the measure, and the 60th time the Republican-led House has attempted to do so over the last four years. Even if it gets to a vote in the Republican majority Senate, it will inevitably be vetoed.

The same day it was announced that the House planned another repeal vote, Senators Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-Okla.), and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) unveiled the Patient Choice, Affordability, Responsibility, and Empowerment (CARE) Act. The press release from the Senate Committee on Finance, of which Senator Hatch is the chairman, describes the CARE Act as “a legislative plan that repeals Obamacare and then replaces it with common-sense, patient-centered reforms that reduce health care costs and increases access to affordable, high-quality care.”

If that sounds a lot like the Affordable Care Act, well, you’re paying attention.

As with all things, it’s the details that matter – and the details are scarce. The two page proposal is filled with talking points. First step, of course, is to repeal the ACA. Yet, they include a lot of the popular aspects of the ACA, such as not being denied coverage for preexisting conditions, continuing health coverage for dependents up to age 26, and prohibiting lifetime limits on coverage. However, if you read further you will see that the plan is nothing more than a return to the days before the ACA.

The proposal allows states to opt out of the continuous coverage for dependents, as well as other provisions that limit how much more insurance companies can charge older individuals. It has replaced the tax subsidy currently available with a refundable tax credit, meaning that people would have to pay full price for their premium and get a refund on their tax return. They are increasing the income level to qualify for this tax credit, which means that fewer people would qualify for Medicaid coverage. As for the Medicaid coverage, they would lower the income rate of eligibility and have a capped amount as to how much each state could spend on the program.

The CARE Act will not allow people to be denied coverage for preexisting conditions but it does not say these individuals cannot be charged more. In fact, the act would reestablish high risk pools for “catastrophic coverage” and health savings accounts. Under the ACA, both of these no longer exist because all plans must have basic coverage and no one can be denied or charged more for a preexisting condition.

Most importantly, under the CARE Act, no employer or individual will be required to purchase insurance if they don’t want to.

In short, the CARE Act is a return to the days of higher insurance premiums and less coverage. Without the employer and individual mandates, people who cannot afford insurance will once again be without options. They admit that their plan has not yet been scored by the Congressional Budget Office, but a think tank called the Center for Health Economy has issued a report that says it will make health insurance more affordable. The Center for Health Economy is a think tank that was started last year and is headed by Republican policy analyst Douglas Holtz-Eakin. It is funded by the American Action Network. The AAN is a political action committee that advocates for “center-right politics”. It has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on “anti-Obamacare” political messages during campaigns.

These factors should be considered when hearing any “analyses” done about the Republican proposal.

Republicans have already begun their PR campaign for the plan. Last week, an op-ed was published in the Washington Post by a “resident scholar” at another conservative think tank. He set the stage by arguing that less money should be spent by government on health care and that the market should provide options for those who could afford it. He admits that by repealing the ACA, more people would go without coverage and many, very likely, will die. However, as Michael Strain argues, this is an acceptable risk because, quite frankly, we are all going to die anyway and when there are limited resources, tough choices have to be made.

“As with speed limits, gun laws, agency regulations and many other policies, including Obamacare, the shape of future health-care policy will require trade-offs. There are only so many resources, so choices between directing them to health care and allowing them to flow to other uses are inevitable,” Strain glibly points out.

In other words, when Republicans vote for the 60th time to repeal the ACA, they will be saying to America that the poor and the very sick will die and that is perfectly okay because that’s how the free market works.

News Sun, 01 Feb 2015 10:51:40 -0500
Monsanto's Roundup: Enough to Make You Sick

Monsanto protest(Photo: Light Brigading)

Monsanto invented the herbicide glyphosate and brought it to market under the trade name Roundup in 1974, after DDT was banned. But it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the use of Roundup surged, thanks to Monsanto's ingenious marketing strategy. The strategy? Genetically engineer seeds to grow food crops that could tolerate high doses of Roundup. With the introduction of these new GE seeds, farmers could now easily control weeds on their corn, soy, cotton, canola, sugar beets and alfalfa crops--crops that thrived while the weeds around them were wiped out by Roundup.

Eager to sell more of its flagship herbicide, Monsanto also encouraged farmers to use Roundup as a dessicant, to dry out all of their crops so they could harvest them faster. So Roundup is now routinely sprayed directly on a host of non-GMO crops, including wheat, barley, oats, canola, flax, peas, lentils, soybeans, dry beans and sugar cane.

Between 1996 - 2011, the widespread use of Roundup Ready GMO crops increased herbicide use in the U.S. by 527 million pounds - even though Monsanto claimed its GMO crops would reduce pesticide and herbicide use.

Monsanto has falsified data on Roundup’s safety, and marketed it to parks departments and consumers as “environmentally friendly” and “biodegradable," to encourage its use it on roadsides, playgrounds, golf courses, schoolyards, lawns and home gardens. A French court ruled those marketing claims amounted to false advertising.

In the nearly 20 years of intensifying exposure, scientists have been documenting the health consequences of Roundup and glyphosate in our food, in the water we drink, in the air we breathe and where our children play.

They've found that people who are sick have higher levels of glyphosate in their bodies than healthy people.

They've also found the following health problems which they attribute to exposure to Roundup and/or glyphosate:

ADHD: In farming communities, there’s a strong correlation between Roundup exposure and attention deficit disorder (ADHD), likely due to glyphosate’s capacity to disrupt thyroid hormone functions.

Alzheimer’s disease: In the lab, Roundup causes the same type of oxidative stress and neural cell death observed in Alzheimer’s disease. And it affects CaMKII, an enzyme whose dysregulation has also been linked to the disease.

Anencephaly (birth defect): An investigation into neural tube defects among babies born to women living within 1,000 meters of pesticide applications showed an association for glyphosate with anencephaly, the absence of a major portion of the brain, skull and scalp that forms during embryonic development.

Autism: Glyphosate has a number of known biological effects that align with the known pathologies associated with autism. One of these parallels is the gut dysbiosis observed in autistic children and the toxicity of glyphosate to beneficial bacteria that suppress pathogenic bacteria, along with pathogenic bacteria’s high resistance to glyphosate. In addition, glyphosate’s capacity to promote aluminum accumulation in the brain may make it the principal cause of autism in the U.S.

Birth defects: Roundup and glyphosate can disrupt the Vitamin A (retinoic acid) signaling pathway, which is crucial for normal fetal development. The babies of women living within one kilometer of fields sprayed with glyphosate were more than twice as likely to have birth defects according to a study from Paraguay. Congenital defects quadrupled in the decade after Roundup Ready crops arrived in Chaco, a province in Argentina where glyphosate is used roughly eight to ten times more per acre than in the U.S. A study of one farming family in the U.S. documented elevated levels of glyphosate and birth defects in the children, including an imperforate anus, growth hormone deficiency, hypospadias (an abnormally placed urinary hole), a heart defect and a micro penis.

Brain cancer: In a study of children with brain cancer compared with healthy children, researchers found that if either parent had been exposed to Roundup during the two years before the child's birth, the chances of the child developing brain cancer doubled.

Breast cancer: Glyphosate induces human breast cancer cells growth via estrogen receptors. The only long-term animal study of glyphosate exposure produced rats with mammary tumors and shortened life-spans.

Cancer: House-to-house surveys of 65,000 people in farming communities in Argentina where Roundup is used, known there as the fumigated towns, found cancer rates two to four times higher than the national average, with increases in breast, prostate and lung cancers. In a comparison of two villages, in the one where Roundup was sprayed, 31 percent of residents had a family member with cancer, while only 3 percent of residents in a ranching village without spraying had one. The high cancer rates among people exposed to Roundup likely stem from glyphosate’s known capacity to induce DNA damage, which has been demonstrated in numerous lab tests.

Celiac disease and gluten intolerance: Fish exposed to glyphosate develop digestive problems that are reminiscent of celiac disease. There are parallels between the characteristics of celiac disease and the known effects of glyphosate. These include imbalances in gut bacteria, impairment in enzymes involved with detoxifying environmental toxins, mineral deficiencies and amino acid depletion.

Chronic kidney disease: Increases in the use of glyphosate may explain the recent surge in kidney failure among agricultural workers in Central America, Sri Lanka and India. Scientists have concluded, “Although glyphosate alone does not cause an epidemic of chronic kidney disease, it seems to have acquired the ability to destroy the renal tissues of thousands of farmers when it forms complexes with [hard water] and nephrotoxic metals.”

Colitis: The toxicity of glyphosate to beneficial bacteria that suppress clostridia, along with clostridia’s high resistance to glyphosate, could be a significant predisposing factor in the overgrowth of clostridia. Overgrowth of clostridia, specifically C. difficile, is a well-established causal factor in colitis.

Depression: Glyphosate disrupts chemical processes that impact the production of serotonin, an important neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite and sleep. Serotonin impairment has been linked to depression.

Diabetes: Low levels of testosterone are a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. Rats fed environmentally relevant doses of Roundup over a period of 30 days spanning the onset of puberty had reduced testosterone production sufficient to alter testicular cell morphology and to delay the onset of puberty.

Heart disease: Glyphosate can disrupt the body’s enzymes, causing lysosomal dysfunction, a major factor in cardiovascular disease and heart failure.

Hypothyroidism: House-to-house surveys of 65,000 people in farming communities in Argentina where Roundup is used, known there as the fumigated towns, found higher rates of hypothyroidism.

Inflammatory Bowl Disease (“Leaky Gut Syndrome”): Glyphosate can induce severe tryptophan deficiency, which can lead to an extreme inflammatory bowel disease that severely impairs the ability to absorb nutrients through the gut, due to inflammation, bleeding and diarrhea.

Liver disease: Very low doses of Roundup can disrupt human liver cell function, according to a 2009 study published in Toxicology.

Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS): Sulfate deficiency in the brain has been associated with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Glyphosate disrupts sulfate transport from the gut to the liver, and may lead over time to severe sulfate deficiency throughout all the tissues, including the brain.

Multiple Sclerosis (MS): An increased incidence of inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) has been found in association with MS. Glyphosate may be a causal factor. The hypothesis is that glyphosate-induced IBS causes gut bacteria to leak into the vasculature, triggering an immune reaction and consequently an autoimmune disorder resulting in destruction of the myelin sheath.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma: A systematic review and a series of meta-analyses of nearly three decades worth of epidemiologic research on the relationship between non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and occupational exposure to agricultural pesticides found that B cell lymphoma was positively associated with glyphosate.

Parkinson’s disease: The brain-damaging effects of herbicides have been recognized as the main environmental factor associated with neurodegenerative disorders, including Parkinson's disease. The onset of Parkinson’s following exposure to glyphosate has been well documented and lab studies show that glyphosate induces the cell death characteristic of the disease.

Pregnancy problems (infertility, miscarriages, stillbirths): Glyphosate is toxic to human placental cells, which, scientists say, explains the pregnancy problems of agricultural workers exposed to the herbicide.

Obesity: An experiment involving the transfer of a strain of endotoxin-producing bacteria from the gut of an obese human to the guts of mice caused the mice to become obese. Since glyphosate induces a shift in gut bacteria towards endotoxin-producers, glyphosate exposure may contribute to obesity in this way.

Reproductive problemsStudies of laboratory animals have found that male rats exposed to high levels of glyphosate, either during prenatal or pubertal development, suffer from reproductive problems, including delayed puberty, decreased sperm production, and decreased testosterone production.

Respiratory illnesses: House-to-house surveys of 65,000 people in farming communities in Argentina where Roundup is used, known there as the fumigated towns, found higher rates of chronic respiratory illnesses.

News Sun, 01 Feb 2015 10:06:25 -0500
Who Needs Lobbyists? See What Big Business Spends to Win American Minds

Washington's biggest trade groups often put far more money into advertising and public relations than into lobbying. We know how much industry spends to lobby the government, but spending on public relations faces far less disclosure. Industries relying most on PR campaigns are usually those facing the heaviest regulation and public contempt.

Screenshot from an ad, paid for by the American Petroleum Institute, which was part of a 'Vote 4 Energy' campaign from 2012.Screenshot from an ad, paid for by the American Petroleum Institute, which was part of a "Vote 4 Energy" campaign from 2012. (Image: Energy Tomorrow/YouTube)

Forget lobbying. When Washington, D.C.’s biggest trade associations want to wield influence, they often put far more of their money into advertising and public relations, according to a new Center for Public Integrity investigation.

Take, for example, the American Petroleum Institute. The oil and gas industry trade group spent more than $7 million lobbying federal officials in 2012. But that sum was dwarfed by the $85.5 million it paid to four public relations and advertising firms to, in effect, lobby the American public — including $51.9 million just to global PR giant Edelman.

From 2008 through 2012, annual tax filings show, the API paid Edelman a staggering $327.4 million for advertising and public relations services, more than any other contractor. 

It’s been well-publicized how much industry spends on lobbying the government, but little is known about how much money goes toward influencing the public. In an effort to find out more, Center for Public Integrity reporters examined the tax returns for trade associations that spent more than $1 million on lobbying in 2012. The IRS requires the groups to report their top five contractors.

Of $3.4 billion in contracts reported by the 144 trade groups from 2008 through 2012, more than $1.2 billion, or 37 percent, went toward advertising, public relations and marketing services, more than any other category. The second-highest total, $682.2 million, or 20 percent of the total, was directed toward legal, lobbying and government affairs.

By industry sector, the biggest clients of PR, marketing and ad services were energy and natural resources associations.

Where money does the real talking

Trade associations hire outside contractors to provide a wide range of services, including everything from research to legal counsel. From 2008 through 2012, the most politically active trade groups spent a total of $3.4 billion on their top contractors, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of annual tax filings. This graph shows where their money went.

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The public relations industry is on a growth tear while the number of federally registered lobbyists is actually shrinking. Public relations work, unlike lobbying, is not subject to federal disclosure rules, and PR and advertising campaigns can potentially influence a broader group of people. In addition to Edelman, among the other major players are President Barack Obama’s go-to ad agency GMMB, “issue-advocacy” firm Goddard Gunster and government policy specialists Apco Worldwide.

While not a complete accounting of spending, the analysis provides a glimpse into just how important the public relations industry is to groups seeking to influence public policy.

Big energy leads spending

Boosted by the $327.4 million-worth of contracts Edelman inked with the American Petroleum Institute — consistently the largest contracts the Center found in five years of collected data — the energy and natural resources industry outspent every other sector on advertising and public relations.

The API, Growth Energy — which represents ethanol producers — and other energy and natural resources trade groups collectively spent more than $430.5 million on PR and advertising to help burnish their image between 2008 and 2012.

It’s not clear how much of the total went into the bank accounts of the PR and advertising firms and how much was passed on to media companies. Edelman declined to comment with Center reporters for this story. Edelman likely left some of the work for the API to its Blue Advertising subsidiary, which offers media planning and placement in its services and discloses work for the oil giant on its website.     

Other top energy and natural resources interests included the National Fisheries Institute, which represents seafood harvesters, wholesalers and retailers, and the National Biodiesel Board, whose members take recycled cooking oil and animal fats and turn them into fuel.

Business associations — led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — represented the second largest industry category, together paying PR and advertising firms at least $214.9 million from 2008 through 2012. The U.S. Chamber, the nation’s biggest lobby and a prolific spender on political ads, paid $173.5 million to its top advertising firms during the five-year period.

In 2010 and 2012, all five of the trade group’s top contractors were advertising agencies.

The U.S. Chamber paid Republican media-buying firm National Media Research, Planning & Placement more than $60.8 million for advertising services in 2009 alone. National Media, based in Northern Virginia, researches voter demographics and behaviors and places ads in key media markets.

Another top advertising contractor for the U.S. Chamber was Revolution Agency, which the trade group paid more than $38.2 million from 2010 through 2012.

Revolution is a Northern Virginia-based advocacy firm that possesses the “Creativity of Madison Avenue” and the “Strategic Discipline of a Political Campaign,” according to its website. Its partners all formerly worked as staffers or consultants for Republican lawmakers, and the firm’s clients have included business groups and the telecommunications industry.

The agency was behind a public affairs campaign targeting the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency birthed out of the 2008 financial crisis. The campaign on behalf of the U.S. Chamber included a TV ad that attacked the proposed bureau as a “massive new federal agency that will create more layers of regulation and bureaucracy.”

The finance, insurance and real estate sector ranked third in contracts with advertising and PR agencies, paying $184.5 million to contractors, including favorites the Most Organization, a West Coast advertising agency, and Locust Street Group, a “grassroots” advocacy firm. The sector was led by the National Association of Realtors and America’s Health Insurance Plans.

The Most Organization, based in Orange County, California, earned more than $116.7 million from 2010 through 2012 for its work to promote the National Association of Realtors in a national advertising campaign.

Fourth in PR spending based on top contracts was the food and beverage industry, which paid out $104.5 million from 2008-2012. Big spenders included the American Beverage Association, which has been shelling out millions to try and keep cities and states from taxing sugary drinks.

Rounding out the top five industries for PR and advertising spending was communications and electronics, led by CTIA — The Wireless Association, which represents telecommunications companies like AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Co. Also in that category: the Software Alliance.

Steve Barrett, editor-in-chief of trade magazine PR Week, says it’s clear why trade associations rely so heavily on PR and advertising.

“They certainly want to influence the general public,” he says, “because the general public will then influence the politicians, the lawmakers or the regulators in that particular industry.”

What industries spend for your attention

Of the $3.4 billion trade associations paid their top contractors from 2008-2012, most of the money went toward public relations, advertising and marketing services, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of tax filings. See which industries spent the most trying to influence public opinion.

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Edelman leads PR firms

The Center for Public Integrity’s analysis includes the top five contractors for each trade association. Annual totals need to be at least $100,000 to be reported. The Center for Public Integrity looked only at trade associations that spent more than $1 million on lobbying in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. [See Methodology.]

Edelman’s lucrative contracts with the American Petroleum Institute helped the PR giant earn $346.8 million, significantly more money from top trade associations than any other advertising or public relations firm, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis. But the oil industry trade group wasn’t the firm’s only client.

Others included the Business Roundtable ($9.9 million), a group of CEOs who advocate for business-friendly policies, the Software Alliance ($2.5 million) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association ($1.8 million).

The food-industry trade group paid Edelman more than $1 million in 2011 for work related to its campaign to put select nutrition facts on labels — a move that some health experts criticized as a way to head off the Food and Drug Administration’s effort to require more comprehensive labeling.

Edelman is the country’s largest independent public relations firm. It employs more than 5,000 workers and maintains subsidiaries that specialize in grassroots communications and advertising.

The firm’s Washington office has a staff of 225, which includes “former journalists, campaign veterans, political speechwriters, White House staffers and legislative aides,” according to the firm’s website. Among them: Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign; former White House deputy press secretary Jamie Smith; and former Sens. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

Edelman is known for its at-times controversial tactics. In 2006, the firm was forced to apologize for creating a misleading grassroots campaign for Wal-Mart. To polish the company’s reputation, the agency had created “Working Families for Wal-Mart,” for which a couple drove across the country blogging positive accounts of the retail giant’s employees and customers — initially without disclosing that they were compensated. The campaign, which launched amid bad press about the company’s employment practices, sought to portray Wal-Mart workers as happy middle-class families.

More recently, leaked documents revealed Edelman’s aggressive plans to attack opponents of a pipeline being developed by TransCanada Corp. Within days of the leak, TransCanada announced that it was severing ties with Edelman. 

In both cases, according to reports and leaked documents, Edelman maintained the same three-step approach: promote positive messages, respond to criticism and pressure opposition groups.

Michael Bush, a spokesman for the firm, declined to comment for this story. In an email, he wrote, “We do not talk about the work we do for clients.”

Public relations and advertising agencies boast of their communications savvy, but firms contacted for this story were mum. Some, like Edelman, declined to comment, while others did not return repeated phone calls and emails seeking comment.

Most trade associations also did not respond to the Center for Public Integrity’s inquiries.

Lisa Graves, executive director of liberal watchdog group the Center for Media and Democracy, which operates the website, says trade associations are designed to be a “shield and a sword” for their corporate members.

“It’s important for people to know more about how the trade associations operate and which PR operations they’re funding,” she says, “because those nonprofit entities are extremely powerful special interests in Washington, D.C.”

Industry’s top message peddlers

Politically active trade groups rely heavily on advertising and PR firms to spin the public. A review of top contractors for the groups shows the heaviest hitters from 2008 through 2012. See our methodology for more information.

1. Edelman (including Blue Advertising and Zeno Group)

The world's largest independent public relations firm, Edelman specializes in managing the reputations of clients with image problems, including the American Legislative Exchange Council. To polish Wal-Mart's reputation in 2006, the agency created the fake grass roots organization "Working Families for Wal-Mart," for which a couple drove across the country blogging positive accounts of the retail giant's employees and customers. More recently, Edelman came under fire after leaked documents revealed the firm's aggressive plans to attack opponents of a pipeline being developed by TransCanada Corp. Within days of the leak, TransCanada announced that it was severing ties with the PR giant.

Top clients:

  • American Petroleum Institute: $327,392,709
  • Business Roundtable: $9,898,317
  • Business Software Alliance: $2,533,014
  • Grocery Manufacturers Association: $1,816,581
  • National Association of Chain Drug Stores: $1,515,580
  • National Association of Manufacturers: $1,080,878
  • Edison Electric Institute: $683,183
  • American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers: $638,494
  • National Association for Home Care & Hospice: $478,275
  • Solar Energy Industries Association: $410,790
  • Distilled Spirits Council: $185,146
  • National Association of Health Underwriters: $142,513


GMMB is perhaps best known for its political work on behalf of Democratic candidates, most notably President Barack Obama. The Washington, D.C.-based strategic communications firm was behind both positive and negative campaign ads for the presidential candidate, including one ad that attacked Republican nominee Mitt Romney's controversial "47 percent" comments. Outside of its political work, GMMB's clients have also included nonprofits like the Save Darfur Coalition and trade associations, including CTIA — The Wireless Association.

Top clients:

  • American Beverage Association: $55,243,724
  • Cellular Telecom & Internet Association: $40,460,725
  • Society for Human Resource Management: $15,460,652
  • American Public Transportation Association: $7,199,108
  • National Cable & Telecommunications Association: $5,142,401

3. The Most Organization

The brand development and advertising agency has worked with more than a dozen clients in the real estate industry, along with members of the automotive industry and major beverage retailers. Based in Orange County, California, The Most Organization is best known for its advocacy and promotional work on behalf of Realtors following the economic recession and housing market decline.

Top clients:

  • National Association of Realtors: $116,717,554

4. National Media Research, Planning & Placement

The Republican political media agency researches voter demographics and behaviors, and places ads in key media markets. The Northern Virginia-based firm, which placed ads for George W. Bush's presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004, has won contracts with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America.

Top clients:

  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce: $69,867,787
  • Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America: $12,110,025
  • America's Health Insurance Plans: $5,052,459

5. Goddard Gunster

Goddard Gunster (formerly Goddard Claussen) is a Washington, D.C.-based communications firm16 that bills itself as "the go-to guys in issue advocacy." The agency has teamed up with the American Beverage Association during the trade group's nationwide fight against soda-tax ballot measures over the past few years. Goddard has produced anti-tax ads and created front groups in cities considering taxes on sugary drinks. Most recently, the firm was active in the high-profile soda-tax battles in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. Voters in San Francisco rejected a tax on sugary drinks, tallying another win for Goddard and the American Beverage Association. But voters approved a similar ballot measure in Berkeley.

Top clients:

  • American Beverage Association: $43,447,204
  • Edison Electric Institute: $1,644,537

6. Revolution Agency

Revolution Agency is a Northern Virginia-based public affairs firm behind advocacy campaigns on behalf of business groups and the telecommunications industry. The firm helped the Florida chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses rally Floridians against Medicaid expansion and it led a U.S. Chamber of Commerce advertising campaign attacking the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Revolution Agency has also fought taxes and regulations for CTIA by creating a faux consumer group, CTIA called it a consumer advocacy organization, even though it was staffed by executives from the trade association.

Top clients:

  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce $38,239,281
  • American Council of Life Insurers $3,640,696
  • American Wind Energy Association $2,768,847

7. Apco Worldwide

The second-largest independent PR firm in the United States, APCO is known for its controversial use of front groups. APCO created front groups for Philip Morris to promote "tort reform" and downplay the science behind second-hand smoke. The firm later lent its expertise to protect the health insurance industry's reputation — America's Health Insurance Plans reportedly hired APCO to attack filmmaker Michael Moore's 2007 documentary "Sicko" — and defend Kazakhstan's president against allegations of abusive power.

Top clients:

  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce: $17,370,239
  • Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America: $15,718,780
  • America's Health Insurance Plans: $6,875,032
  • National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts: $1,293,070
  • American Chemistry Council: $903,841
  • U.S. Travel Association: $594,142
  • American Public Transportation Association: $157,915

8. Ogilvy & Mather

Ogilvy & Mather, which provides PR, advertising and government relations services, has a long list of high-profile clients, including BP, Coca-Cola and Pfizer. The agency has also done extensive work for the American Chemistry Council, which paid the firm more than $15 million in 2008 alone. That year, Ogilvy led a PR campaign that discouraged Americans from supporting a ban on products containing phthalates, a group of chemicals found in plastics and suspected of being a health hazard. The firm earned awards for the phthalates campaign, which it dubbed "From Toxic to Truthful: Turning the Tide on Phthalates."

Top clients:

  • American Chemistry Council: $37,667,178
  • American Bar Association: $2,012,395
  • College of American Pathologists: $1,021,458
  • National Retail Federation: $288,750

9. FleishmanHillard

FleishmanHillard has clients in a variety of industries, including government, health care and energy. The firm, which describes itself as being driven by "the power of true," has consistently ranked within the top three of the world's highest-paid public relations companies for the past five years, according to the World PR Report. In addition to its work for the American Petroleum Institute, FleishmanHillard has advanced the agendas of ConocoPhillips, the Rockies Express Pipeline — a 1,700-mile natural gas pipeline from Colorado to Ohio — and the Canadian government to promote development of its oil sands.

Top clients:

  • American Petroleum Institute: $27,628,076
  • CropLife America: $1,524,823
  • Airports Council International (North American Region of the Airports Council International): $1,090,310
  • National Business Aviation Association: $1,288,696

10. Locust Street Group

Locust Street Group is a Washington, D.C.-based "grassroots" advocacy firm that specializes in "boots on the ground" organizing and social media campaigns. "DC may have K Street with tons of lobbyists," the firm's slogan says, "but small towns all over America have a Locust Street." At the height of the national debate over health care reform in 2009, America's Health Insurance Plans paid Locust Street Group $15.5 million for advocacy services, representing the firm's largest single trade group contract during the five-year period reviewed by the Center.

Top clients:

  • America's Health Insurance Plans: $22,884,189
  • U.S. Travel Association: $746,640


‘Turning the tide’

Communications firm GMMB ranked second behind Edelman. The agency, which has offices in Washington, D.C., and Seattle, brought in $123.5 million from contracts with five different associations in the beverage, communications, transportation and business industries from 2008 through 2012.

Known most prominently for its political work on behalf of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns — GMMB’s leadership team includes Obama’s campaign advisor Jim Margolis — the firm has created ad blitzes for trade groups including CTIA and the American Beverage Association, whose members include Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

From 2009 through 2012, the wireless association paid GMMB $40.5 million to produce ads, including one TV spot with the message that “wireless is freedom.” The beverage association, which teamed up with GMMB on a 2012 ad campaign to promote new prominently displayed calorie labels, paid the firm more than $55.2 million.

The Most Organization and National Media Research, Planning and Placement were the third- and fourth-highest paid contractors for advertising and public relations services. Goddard Claussen (now Goddard Gunster) came in fifth, followed by Revolution Agency, which was sixth, thanks mostly to its work for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s data analysis.

Apco Worldwide, which ranked seventh, earned $42.9 million from trade associations. The Washington, D.C.-based firm is known for its work for the tobacco and health care industries. Mike Tuffin, a managing director in the firm’s Washington office, joined Apco in 2012 after serving as executive vice president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group that represents health insurers.

On behalf of AHIP, the agency created front group Health Care America to attack filmmaker Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary Sicko, which demonized American health insurers, according to Wendell Potter, a former industry-executive-turned-whistleblower. (Disclosure: Potter is a regular columnist for the Center for Public Integrity.)

In the two years before Congress passed health care reform in 2010, Apco won at least two contracts with AHIP, totaling more than $5 million.

Among former government officials at Apco are ex-Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., and ex-Reps. Don Bonker, D-Wash., and Tim Roemer, D-Ind.

Ogilvy & Mather came in just behind Apco, earning nearly $41 million from four trade associations during the five-year period reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity. But the firm, a subsidiary of communications giant WPP, earned almost all of its money from the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical companies.

The American Chemistry Council paid Ogilvy more than $15 million in 2008 alone. That year, the firm led a couple of PR and advertising campaigns on behalf of the trade group, including one that discouraged Americans from supporting a ban on products containing phthalates, a group of chemicals found in plastics and suspected of causing changes in hormone levels, birth defects and other health effects.

The firm earned awards for the phthalates campaign, which it dubbed “From Toxic to Truthful: Turning the Tide on Phthalates.” Even though Congress eventually banned the use of certain types of phthalates in children’s toys, the firm patted itself on the back for helping to “neutralize negative coverage” and bring “a noticeable shift in the public mood.”

FleishmanHillard ranked ninth, according to the Center’s analysis. Its public relations and advertising clients included the American Petroleum Institute ($27.6 million) and CropLife America ($1.5 million), which represents the manufacturers of pesticides and agricultural chemicals.

The firm, which describes itself as being driven by “the power of true,” has consistently ranked within the top three of the world’s highest-paid public relations companies for the past five years, according to the World PR Report published by the Holmes Report. Its D.C. office is led by Kris Balderston, a former State Department official and deputy assistant to former President Bill Clinton.

Keeping the players straight in the advertising and public relations game is no easy task due to a series of massive mergers that have taken place over the past decade or so. GMMB, for example, is actually a subsidiary of FleishmanHillard, which is owned by the giant advertising and communications holding company Omnicom Media Group, based in New York City.

But most of the subsidiaries function under their own names.

Locust Street Group rounds out the top 10 firms for PR and advertising services. The Washington, D.C.-based agency earned $23.6 million in trade group money from 2008 through 2012, almost all of which came from America’s Health Insurance Plans. It’s unclear what exactly the agency did on the insurance group’s behalf — the firm’s founder, David Barnhart, declined to answer questions for this story — but Locust Street Group’s website says it builds “boots on the ground” coalitions and creates social media campaigns to help influence lawmakers.

“D.C. may have K Street with tons of lobbyists,” the firm’s slogan says, “but small towns all over America have a Locust Street.”

High stakes, big reward

For public relations agencies, landing a contract with a large trade association is a big deal.

“The stakes are high, and the competition is intense,” says Larry Parnell, director of George Washington University’s master’s program in strategic public relations. “But as you can see, winning one of these things is very lucrative.”

It’s difficult to draw sweeping conclusions from the data analyzed by the Center. Trade groups often vaguely describe the services their top contractors provide as “professional fees” or “consulting.” Many firms offer a wide range of services, at times making it unclear exactly what kind of work was done on the industry associations’ behalf.

Because the Center for Public Integrity only reviewed the most politically active trade associations, the data didn’t include some industry groups that fell below the $1 million lobbying threshold but still spent heavily on public relations and advertising.

But the contractor information provides an inside look at the way trade associations use PR and advertising to ply the American mind. Trade groups determined to fight regulations and boost profits of their members have spent heavily to influence how the public perceives policies that affect everything from the air we breathe to the beverages we drink.

The strategy, public relations experts say, is not designed to replace lobbying so much as it is to enhance it.

“You can leverage [public relations work] so your lobbying is to a finer point,” says Parnell, noting that lobbyists can better influence lawmakers by showing them polling gathered by “grassroots” PR campaigns. “It provides air cover.”

“People and organizations are getting increasingly sophisticated with their communications strategies. They are more multi-dimensional,” adds Anne Kolton, vice president of communications for the American Chemistry Council. “With any advocacy [effort], the key is to create an echo chamber so people hear your message in numerous venues.”

There are some advantages to putting millions into PR rather than lobbying. For example, a trade association may be pushing a particular policy that is not so popular with the public. As long as it doesn’t directly contact a government official, it need not report who it has hired to do the PR work. Lobbying firms generally must report how much they are paid, who their clients are and what subject areas they are working on.

Misleading tactics

PR agencies may further obfuscate their role by creating so-called “front groups” that appear to be grassroots organizations, in an effort to push their clients’ messages. It is often difficult to discern who is behind these manufactured entities, though sometimes information can trickle through.

For example, the tax form for the National Mining Association showed that it paid $4 million to Weber Merritt, a Northern Virginia public affairs firm, as an independent contractor. The services were listed as “Count on Coal” in 2012, according to IRS filings.

Count on Coal calls itself a "grassroots organization" that educates people on coal-powered electricity. Its social media and online petitions, which criticize government proposals to cut carbon emissions, all omit ties to the mining association.

While this type of “grassroots” mobilization is increasingly driven by an industry or paid consultants, it is only one piece of the growing demand for communications professionals, who specialize in everything from crisis management to social media advocacy.

In 2013, the global public relations industry grew 11 percent over the previous year to $12.5 billion, according to trade journal The Holmes Report.

The steady rise in public relations worldwide spending has been accompanied by an overall drop in lobbying spending, beyond the trade group sector.

Lobbying expenditures peaked in 2010, when special interests spent $3.6 billion on lobbying federal lawmakers. Since then, they have declined steadily, falling to $3.2 billion in 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The total number of registered lobbyists has also dropped.

Some say the change indicates a shift toward so-called “soft lobbying,” a strategy that enables industry groups and unions to influence public policy not only with public relations, but through think tanks, nonprofit organizations and grassroots groups that aren’t subject to federal disclosure rules.

Journalists overwhelmed

The golden age for PR has coincided with the decline of mainstream journalism, especially newspapers, which have suffered from plummeting ad revenue that has necessitated layoffs in newsrooms across the country.

Today, not only are PR professionals outnumbering journalists by a ratio of 4.6 to 1, but the salary gap between the two occupations has grown to almost $20,000 per year, according to the Pew Research Center. The widening employment and income disparities have left journalists underpaid, overworked and increasingly unable to undertake independent, in-depth reporting.

Rick Edmonds, a writer for the Poynter Institute who covers the business of journalism, says the shift has been particularly evident in the coverage of science and health news. Many news organizations that once reported extensively on those issues no longer have the resources to cover them adequately, and special interests have filled the void.

“A great deal of science and health news is coming from the PR side,” Edmonds says.

For trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute, that’s part of the larger public relations strategy that makes lobbying federal lawmakers a lot easier.

“If we’re concerned about a particular member [of Congress], we will educate that constituency and encourage people to weigh in with their elected official,” Jack Gerard, the American Petroleum Institute’s president and CEO, told The Washington Post in a 2012 interview explaining the mentality behind the trade group’s PR offensive. “Congress is a lagging indicator. Congress is responsive to the American people. That’s why a well-educated electorate is a key to sound policy.”

The gradual shift from a focus on traditional lobbying toward greater use of the “outside game of politics,” or communications like PR, has been going on for at least a decade, close observers say, but is now accelerating with advances in technology, social media and digital strategies, says Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, an association of public affairs professionals who specialize in corporate PR, lobbying and grassroots advocacy.

Not all of the trade associations reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity spent more money on top contracts for public relations and advertising than on those for lobbying and legal services. But the data appear to support broader trends in the so-called “influence industry.”

“In the world we live in now,” says Pinkham, “if you have an issue that is visual and has a compelling narrative, we’re better off spending more resources on trying to educate the public” than relying on traditional lobbying.

Troubled industries turn to PR

The trade associations that rely most on PR and advertising campaigns are usually those representing industries facing the heaviest regulation and the most public contempt, says Edward Walker, a sociology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the book Grassroots for Hire.

And the campaigns are often tied to specific public policy crises. As Walker says, they usually launch “when industries really feel threatened that they might actually lose a policy battle.”

Over the last few years, both the American Petroleum Institute and the American Beverage Association have used PR campaigns to defend their respective industries during heated debates over issues like the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and proposed taxes on sugary drinks.

At the outset of 2012, the American Petroleum Institute announced a “Vote4Energy” campaign to promote the industry in a contentious election year. Its social media endorsed the idea that domestic oil production would bring jobs, revenue and national security.

With Edelman’s help, the American Petroleum Institute also organized a speech and panel discussion targeting “key influencers” in attendance, including think tanks, government officials and the media. Online groups also emerged, like “Energy Tomorrow,” which hosts a blog by Mark Green, a journalist-turned-industry-blogger.

In addition to Edelman’s work, the petroleum group paid FleishmanHillard $22.8 million in 2012 for advertising to promote hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to skeptical citizens. TV advertisements targeted a half-dozen shale gas-producing states, including Pennsylvania, Texas and North Dakota, emphasizing small-town reliance on energy and downplaying environmental impacts, as part of its Energy from Shale campaign.

Big soda

Few industries have felt more threatened in recent years than soda makers.

Since 2009, the makers of sugary beverages have found themselves under attack from government officials and public health advocates who have blamed soft drinks for the nation’s expanding waistlines and have favored taxing popular sweetened beverages.

The American Beverage Association has fought back — vigorously — with the help of Goddard Gunster, a Washington, D.C.-based firm famous for creating the “Harry and Louise” ad campaign that helped bury President Clinton’s health care reform proposal in 1993 and 1994.

Goddard has produced anti-tax ads and created front groups in cities and states considering soda taxes. In 2012, the firm helped the association defeat two soda-tax ballot measures in Richmond and El Monte, California — campaigns that preceded its 2014 ballot-box battles in San Francisco, where voters rejected a soda-tax measure, and Berkeley, where a sugary-drink tax passed.

Jenny Wang, a public health worker and mother of two girls, recalls how the beverage industry flooded Richmond with anti-tax ads, buying up the town’s billboards and hiring residents to deliver mailers door-to-door.

“We didn’t have the manpower to fight against all of that messaging,” says Wang, a former Richmond resident who supported the soda tax. “They were so pervasive and so persuasive.”

John Dunbar contributed to this report.

News Sun, 01 Feb 2015 09:20:30 -0500
You've Heard of Hip-Hop, but What About Krip-Hop?

You've heard of hip-hop, but what about krip-hop? That's the name for the international movement of disabled artists, poets, musicians and MCs.

On this edition of Making Contact, we hear the story of krip-hop from hate mail to worldwide phenomenon.

Leroy Moore, co-founder of Krip Hop Nation, poet, activist, journalist;
Joy Elan, poet

Opinion Sat, 31 Jan 2015 14:07:13 -0500
Pentagon Finally Identifies the Remains of a POW Lost Since 1942

Missing overseas for 73 years, an American POW who perished in World War II is finally going home.

Last week, the Pentagon officially identified the remains of Pvt. Arthur "Bud" Kelder, who died as a Japanese prisoner in the Philippines in 1942. After the war, the U.S. government buried him and thousands of others as "unknown" soldiers in a war memorial cemetery there.

The identification is vindication for Kelder's family, who had discovered evidence of which gravesite contained Kelder's remains and then spent years trying to persuade the Pentagon to investigate. John Eakin, Kelder's cousin, finally sued in late 2012.

ProPublica and NPR wrote about Eakin's struggle last year as part of an investigation into the Pentagon's failing efforts to find and identify long-lost MIAs like Kelder. Our investigation found that the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command was mired in problems, failing to embrace the latest science and paralyzed by poor management. Infighting, overlapping bureaucracy, and excessively risk-averse policies also contributed to meager results. On average the Pentagon has identified just 72 men a year out of the tens of thousands missing from Vietnam, Korea and World War II—despite spending about $100 million a year to do the job.

After our investigation last March, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced sweeping changes. Advocates are watching closely to ensure that those changes are more than superficial bureaucratic shuffling.

In August, the Pentagon also reversed course on Kelder's case, finally agreeing to exhume the grave that the family believed contained his remains of Kelder and those of nine other soldiers to identify with DNA. Eakin had used historical and medical documents to track down the location of Kelder's remains after he died at the Cabanatuan prisoner camp.

Meticulous records kept by the POWs themselves show that Kelder's body had initially been buried at the POW camp in common grave 717. After the war, the U.S. military dug up the common graves. The government identified four of the 14 men from grave 717 and sent them home to their families for burial. But it was unsuccessful in identifying Kelder's remains as well those of more than 900 others from the camp. They were all re-buried as "unknowns." Eakin figured out that Kelder was likely in a grave labeled as unknown "X-816."

Eakin said it's been an emotional rollercoaster since he got word about the official identification.

"It's relief and anger that it has taken this long, and at the same time we know that we have to start planning a funeral," Eakin told ProPublica. "Maybe the worst part is knowing that the government doesn't care and isn't doing this for the right reasons. They simply want the lawsuit to go away."

The Army casualty office plans to formally present the family next month with the evidence that led to the identification. However, at this point, Eakin is unsatisfied with the government's work. He doesn't dispute the identification but rather how much of Kelder's remains will be returned to the family.

The Pentagon has identified pieces of Kelder's skull, his left humerus, right fibula, and left tibia. Eakin is concerned that more of Kelder's skeleton could be identified but the Pentagon is avoiding doing so because it would reveal that past identifications from grave 717 were incorrect.

Last summer, when the government exhumed Kelder and the other nine remains associated with grave 717, they found bones from at least 11 people, not just the 10 they expected.

The Pentagon has not said yet whether any of the other men exhumed this summer have been identified.

Kelder won't be formally checked off the MIA list until the family accepts the identification, said Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Should the family accept the identification, Kelder will be buried in the family plot outside Chicago.

News Sat, 31 Jan 2015 13:53:36 -0500
Progressive Policies Are Popular - So Why Should Democrats Be Afraid of Them?

CNN's post-speech discussion of Barack Obama's State of the Union address included anchor Wolf Blitzer's reaction to colleague Jake Tapper's view that the president had outlined a liberal economic agenda. Blitzer's analysis illustrates the logic behind corporate media's longstanding efforts to dissuade politicians from advocating for progressive policies:

TAPPER: Of course, most of the speech, the body of the speech, was a very progressive, very liberal economic message about trying to help the middle class.... [It] was about new tax cuts, about the $3,000 per child per year, paid sick leave or paid maternity leave, raising the minimum wage, lowering the cost of community college to zero.

BLITZER: I think it's fair to say, had he put forward all these new initiatives before the midterm elections–was afraid to do so, because he feared it could hurt Democrats who were up in a tough reelection or election season. As a result, he didn't do any of those things before the midterms, but now after the midterms, [with] two years to go, he feels emboldened, almost liberated, ready to move on with these new very progressive or very liberal initiatives.

According to Blitzer, policy proposals such as paid sick leave and maternity leave, an increased minimum wage and free community college are all liabilities to pragmatic Democrats concerned with winning elections–which explains Obama's reticence prior to November's midterm elections. However, public opinion polls show widespread support for those measures, including, in many cases, from Republican voters.

A CNN poll (6/9/14) found 71 percent of the public supporting an increase in the minimum wage, including a majority of Republicans and conservatives. In November, voters in the Republican-leaning states of Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Alaska passed ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage by large margins (Huffington Post, 11/4/14).

A HuffPost/YouGov poll (6/20/13) found that 74 percent of the US public supports requiring companies to offer paid sick leave to their employees; paid maternity leave garnered 61 percent approval. In a number of recent polls, the idea of free community college received majority support (The Hill, 1/20/15)–one poll found that more Republicans favored the measure than opposed it, rather remarkable given that the idea was only recently popularized by President Obama himself.

So it's not voters' preferences that, in Blitzer's words, "could hurt Democrats" facing elections. A likelier reason is election funding. Political scientists Walter Dean Burnham and Thomas Ferguson observed that politicians largely depended on financing from economic elites (AlterNet, 12/18/14) in what were probably the most expensive midterms in history (Washington Post, 10/22/14)

The president and the Democratic Party are almost as dependent on big money–defined, for example, in terms of the percentage of contributions (over $500 or $1,000) from the 1 percent–as the Republicans. To expect top-down, money-driven political parties to make strong economic appeals to voters is idle.

In the context of low-turnout elections largely financed by economic elites, policies such as minimum wage increases and paid sick leave, which force financial concessions from the wealthy, do indeed "hurt Democrats." It is in part this conflict that explains high-profile Democrats' lack of advocacy on those measures. As The Atlantic reported (6/18/14), "Hillary Clinton isn't against federally mandated family leave–she just doesn't think it's politically feasible":

"I think, eventually, it should be [implemented]," Clinton said at CNN's town-hall meeting Tuesday to promote her new book, Hard Choices. But she immediately qualified her position: "I don't think, politically, we could get it now."...

A bipartisan poll conducted on behalf of the National Partnership for Women and Families, a pro-leave group, just after the 2012 election, found that 86 percent of Americans supported leave–including 96 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans. The poll inspired new hope that President Obama might take up leave in his second term.

Instead–vindicating Clinton's opinion that leave is politically impossible right now–the issue has all but disappeared.

Although congressional Democrats had crafted the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which provided employees with 12 weeks of paid leave, President Obama did not endorse the bill (The Week, 6/27/14). The Washington Post (6/23/14) found that "five and a half years after taking office, Obama has no proposal on the table for paid family leave."

Now that Barack Obama faces Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, Blitzer characterizes the president as "liberated" and "emboldened" to stake out a policy agenda that is now safely off the table. Policies that promote economic justice, which are broadly popular, are considered divisive within the corporate media until they're rendered impossible. Then media pundits can wink at one other about how politicians are shrewdly courting voters with agendas they cannot possibly fulfill.

And what does it look like when politicians heed the corporate media's call for bipartisanship? Obama's full-throated advocacy for the Trans-Pacific Partnership in his State of the Union is one example. The highly secretive, pro-corporate trade agreement threatens to exacerbate the very inequality that the president sought to highlight in his speech, and is opposed by leading economists and many top legislators of own party (Huffington Post, 1/20/15, 1/21/15).

In an article headlined "Poll Finds Agenda Gap Between Leaders, American People," the Wall Street Journal (1/21/15) noted President Obama's priority of signing the trade deal was met by a public "virtually yawning at the prospect." Only 20 percent considered it an "urgent priority," the paper noted.

Thomas Ferguson offered a simple commentary on this agenda gap (Real News Network, 12/27/14): "You've been running these sort of big money-driven elections for quite some time, and it's policy disappointment that's driving down the voter turnout." A far better strategy, he suggested, would be "to do something for the population instead of the 1 percent."

If politicians were to ignore corporate pundits and instead energized otherwise-apathetic voters with an actual commitment to popular policies, they would offer a solution to voters' yawns.

Opinion Sat, 31 Jan 2015 13:27:24 -0500
Young Navajos Stage 200-Mile Journey for Existence

At dawn on January 6, 2015, a group of young Diné (Navajo) women and their supporters gathered at sunrise near the fire department at the base of Dził Na'oodiłii (Huerfano Mountain). From there the group embarked on a 200-mile trek through eastern New Mexico—a tribute to the 150th anniversary of the tragic "Long Walk." Throughout this journey they have been raising awareness about the historical and present day challenges faced by Diné people and inspiring hopeful solutions to address these issues.

Idle No More Communications volunteers have been in contact with some of the walkers and will feature images and reflections from their powerful walk in the next grassroots newsletter. Keep reading to learn more about the beginning of their journey.

Organizers are calling out for community support in the form of walking, hosting or helping to garner basic materials. This first journey will end at Tsoodził (Mount Taylor), their southern sacred mountain. Three more walks are scheduled for spring, summer and fall so that each of their four sacred mountains is visited. The walkers intend to cover more than 1,000 miles in 2015.

The commemorated event occurred in 1864 that Colonel Christopher "Kit" Carson – under the command of General James Carleton – enforced a merciless, scorched earth policy to bring Diné people into submission. During this time nearly 9,000 Diné and 500 Mescalero Apache men, women, children, and elderlies were marched at gunpoint for 300 miles to a small patch of arid land known as Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. Many perished along the way.

During their four-year internment at this reservation "experiment"—known in Diné as Hwééldi or "the place of suffering"—hundreds died due to starvation, illness and physical violence. In 1868, high costs of rations and soldier commissions caused the federal government to disband the experiment and release them back to Diné Tah, the Navajo homeland.

"We are walking to honor the resiliency of our ancestors who 150 years ago were forced to march hundreds of miles in the dead of winter on a genocidal death march," says Dana Eldridge, one of several female organizers of the walk. "They sacrificed and suffered so much so that we could live within these four sacred mountains. So we're walking to honor them."

According to the organizers, the walk is not simply a re-enactment of The Long Walk, but their return to a traditional lifestyle.

"It's something that people don't do anymore. We have the convenience of vehicles. But walking an entire journey is something that's revolutionary in a way," says young organizer Nick Ashley of Gallup, New Mexico.

"Our ancestors walked so that we could be here on our homeland singing, dancing and praying the songs they did. But now everyone is chasing the American Dream and neglecting our homeland, our language and way of life," says Kimberly Smith of St. Michaels, Arizona.

Several Diné elders, including Larry W. Emerson, think present day problems might be due to an abandonment of self: "One purpose of the walk might be for us to come back into ourselves via our traditional knowledge—into our homes, families, relations, communities and earth-sky knowing. Ké and k'é hwiindzin—to be conscious of our interdependent relationships based on compassion, love, and nurturing—are vital to our survival and we cannot come home to ourselves without these vital teachings. [We] offered several teachings [to the walkers] that might address the practice of coming home to ourselves, including some prayer songs."

According to organizers, land-based prayer is an important part of their journey. "Everything we do is a prayer to return to our original selves," says Laura Red Elk of Pueblo Pintado, New Mexico. "The mountains were our original naat'áanii [leaders] before IRA governments or the tribal council. Since our government is failing to protect us, we are returning to our original leadership by letting the mountains determine how we walk on the land."

Organizers and their elders have chosen to name their movement as "Nihígaal Bee Iiná" or "Our Journey for Existence." Due to the widespread presence of uranium, coal and gas extraction throughout Diné Tah, organizers feel that their environmental situation has reached a boiling point.

"One hundred and fifty years ago our ancestors stared their extinction in the face. And today, we young people are staring our extinction in the face. Our home will become an unlivable toxic wasteland if nothing is done," Eldridge said.

According to the EPA, nearly 4 million tons of uranium have been extracted from Diné Tah since 1944. With over 500 abandoned uranium mines throughout the region, both homes and water sources are contaminated with high levels of radiation.

Additionally, over 20,000 tons of coal are strip-mined from Diné and Hopi lands every day by Peabody Coal Company alone. This coal feeds Navajo Generating Station, rated by the EPA as the highest emitter of toxic nitrous oxide in the country.

Organizers forecast that the next major threat is the onset of a boom in natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing—a process now banned in the state of New York.

Navajo Generating Station, one of three major power plants in the area (Wikimedia)
Navajo Generating Station, one of three major power plants in the area (Wikimedia)

Erin Konsmo of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network in Alberta, Canada, says that resource extraction is not only a threat to the environment: "Some of the highest rates of missing and murdered women are in the tar-sands extraction areas. This is related to worker's camps and the lack of jurisdictional protection for women on tribal lands." Organizers state that the heavy presence of extractive industries is having a similar effect on Diné women.

"We give life and we nurture life just like the land does. Our traditional leadership structure is matrilineal because we are the spinal chord of society, the first teachers of the children. We are journeying back to our original selves including our responsibility as women to protect the land and take care of it," says Red Elk.

"It's all the more reason for this walk to be led by majority women. As traditional caretakers of the land, their physical presence is in and of itself a resistance to resource extraction," comments Konsmo.

Weekly paychecks for Diné miners and generator operators are a constant reminder of their economic dependence on the fossil fuel industry. Walkers hope to raise awareness about self-sufficiency as an alternative to the extraction economy. They will disperse heirloom corn seeds to communities along the way and speak on the importance of food sovereignty and self-reliance.

"We are being told to invest in our own destruction in the name of the economy," says Eldridge. "People say we need these jobs, but we don't. To take care of ourselves it will take a tremendous amount of work, but it is a beautiful dream and it is so possible."

Organizers are urging others to join them, especially Diné people, for all or part of the walk.

Smith encapsulates the spirit of the walk by saying, "We have to go back to where the wisdom is embedded. We have to reintroduce ourselves to those places. It is our inherent right and responsibility. The uplifting that our people need is there. We want to bring it back for our people, we want to honor our elders, our children and most importantly, we want to honor the earth."

For more information on "Our Journey for Existence," contact

News Sat, 31 Jan 2015 13:10:24 -0500
Mourners for Black Queer and Trans Lives Attacked by Castro Bar

"We are here because the gay community has been silent. We need you in the streets with us. We honor the lives of murdered black trans women and queers."

These were the words that Toad Hall, a bar in San Francisco's Castro District, chose to silence this Saturday. These were the words that provoked a white bar patron to hurl a trashcan at a group of queer and trans people of color.

This group of queer and trans people of color, supported by white allies, had taken to the bars and the streets to challenge mainstream gay communities and organizations to take action against anti-Black racism. The Castro, specifically, is known for being hostile to queer and trans people of color, perpetuating anti-black racism through its cultural norms and practices. Similarly, mainstream gay organizations continue to align themselves with white, middle-class experiences at the expense of their most marginalized community members. And despite having radical roots in the struggles of queer and trans people of color, such as Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera, mainstream gay organizations continue to de-center race and racism from their work. Except when it is convenient and profitable, that is.

We entered Toad Hall and the SF Badlands Bar to invite the mostly white clientele of these bars to join us in affirming that Black Lives Matter. Instead, we were met with unabashed hostility. We chose Toad Hall because of its history of displacing Black gay community from the Castro. Wearing red for blood—red for STOP—we held photos of murdered Black trans women and queers next to flameless candles and led a ritual of mourning. Forming a circle in the middle of the dance floor, we looked outward to face the bar patrons whom we wanted to challenge, speak to, and move. In the faces of the crowd, we saw a sea of mixed responses— ambivalence, rage, compassion, confusion, and discomfort.

"Toad Hall, which side are you on? Whose lives matter? Black lives matter!"

We began to chant the message we came to share. The DJ gave us the middle finger and cranked up the music to an ear-splitting level. The energy shifted. It became tense. Our bodies and voices were taking up necessary space. Our presence was threatening the bar management's complicity with histories of racism in the Castro. Our words were unsettling the leisure of Toad Hall patrons who have through inaction been complicit with a society that condones state-sponsored violence against Black lives.

As we called out the mainstream gay community's complicity with white supremacy and transphobia, we experienced violence and aggression. Things escalated over the course of the ten minutes we were on the dance floor. What began as micro-aggressions, such as turning up the music, turned into physical violence and verbal attacks. Bar patrons yelled derogatory names. Someone threw a glass. Doors slammed. Finally, a white bar patron hurled a large trashcan into the center of our circle, hitting two of us in the back and on the head.

We wanted to mourn. We wanted to draw connections between the radical history of the Castro and current struggles for Black liberation. We wanted to reveal how silence and complicity align with state-sanctioned violence against Black queer and trans people. And it was clear Toad Hall was not on the freedom side. Our presence revealed the deep rifts between the movement for queer and trans people of color liberation—which is intimately entwined with the broader struggle for Black liberation—and white mainstream gay communities.

The hostility we faced has not deterred us. We will continue to make space for our mourning and resistance. And we will continue to challenge white-dominated LGBT institutions to recognize their role in this movement along the way.

Whether or not you are able to join actions in the streets, join us in this effort by signing our open letter to LGBT organizations nationwide. Our letter stands next to other nation-wide efforts to put pressure on mainstream LGBT organizations to take concrete action against anti-black racism. And while some mainstream LGBT organizations have publically offered their condolences and support for Michael Brown and his family, these gestures are not enough. We need LGBT organizations to be committed to challenging anti-black racism and violence in every aspect of their work; we need LGBT organizations to be invested in a movement in which all Black lives matter.

News Sat, 31 Jan 2015 12:09:59 -0500
Dispatch From Sundance: "How to Change the World"

A ragged band of Canadians took a fishing boat into the frigid waters of the North Pacific Ocean in 1971 to try to stop a nuclear weapons test on the island of Amchitka. With that action, they started the environmental group Greenpeace and, in addition to saving many a whale, revolutionized political activism and advocacy journalism.

Greenpeace crew aboard the Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace boat. (Photo: crew aboard the Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace boat. (Image:

Long before Twitter's Arab Spring images helped topple governments or Al Gore's laser pointer alerted us to the earth's spiraling temperatures, a ragged band of Canadians took a fishing boat into the frigid waters of the North Pacific Ocean in 1971 to try to stop a nuclear weapons test on the island of Amchitka. With that action, they started the environmental group Greenpeace and, in addition to saving many a whale, revolutionized political activism and advocacy journalism.

How to Change the World, a new documentary directed by Jerry Rothwell, tells that history with reams of archival footage, first-person interviews, and narration using the words of the deceased activist/journalist Robert Hunter, a guiding force of the organization. The film, like the subject it covers, is not candy-coated; it includes the foibles of these pioneers who erred along the way, especially when they succeeded. This past week, the documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where Rothwell discussed How to Change the World over email.

Tom Roston: Why did you get involved in this subject?

Jerry Rothwell: A project I was doing involved me doing research in the Greenpeace archives and I realized there were multiple old cans of 16mm shot on the original campaign boats that had pretty much not been opened for 40 years. I'm really interested in the way groups and movements grow, and Greenpeace went from a few people in a boat in 1971 to a global organization by 1978. So I started wondering how much that footage could tell the story of the group; a few individuals who had a massive impact on defining the modern environmental movement and methods of protest. That took me to the books of Robert Hunter about that period in Greenpeace's history. Hunter's books are a searingly honest, and often comic, take on events, and they provided me with a narrative shape for the film.

Roston: Have you ever been politically active?

Rothwell: Yes, in my youth I was involved in nuclear disarmament and other activist groups and I guess I see all my filmmaking as political, in the broadest sense of the word.

Roston: You co-directed the superb Deep Water, which follows a man's misadventures at sea. Are you drawn to maritime tales or is this just a coincidence?

Rothwell: I think it's a coincidence. Both films were made without really getting wet. But the sea is obviously a great space for cinematic stories — a boat is a hothouse for drama between people or between an individual and nature.

Roston: The dynamic between activism and journalism is embodied by the life of Bob Hunter. Which do you think is more effective at changing the world? Have you had to reconcile the two in your career? How?

Rothwell: Hunter went from being a journalist to becoming an activist and the leader of a movement. I think by that time, for him, journalism was secondary to the larger purpose of the environmental movement. For me, I don't set out for my films to have a campaign message or a call to action, which I think diminishes their meaning and relevance. I'm interested in the kind of filmmaking that draws an audience into a complex story, where they have to make their own judgments about what forces are at work in the story (and in the world), and how to respond to them when they leave the cinema. You have to analyze, empathize with and understand a situation before you can act, and I think that's the role of cinema. Films on their own don't change things, until people take action as a consequence of them.

Roston: Could you describe what you consider to be one of the greatest accomplishments of Greenpeace? And one of its greatest failures?

Rothwell: I think without Greenpeace's work in the 1970s many species of whale would be extinct. The moratorium against whaling in 1982 was achieved directly because of the way the early whale campaigns had changed global consciousness about whales. It drastically reduced the number of whales being killed from the 7000 a year quotas of the time, which were pushing species towards extinction.

I guess a failure is that it has created a model of protest that superficially seems over-biased towards capturing images. In fact, Greenpeace has always campaigned upon many fronts — through political lobbying, mass media and direct action. But in the public mind, the power of the images it created in the '70s might leave us to believe that 'bearing witness' is enough.

Roston: I am no fan of spoilers but it may be better for viewers to know before they see the film that you don't refer to the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior. Why?

Rothwell: The Rainbow Warrior bombing by the French secret service happened in 1985. My film takes place between 1971-78 (with an epilogue about what some of the individuals involved have done since) — so, as historians say, the bombing, though great drama, was 'not my period.'

Roston: Your inclusion of interstitial titles ("Fear success"), along with the title of the film, suggest you are giving directions to today's activists, whether they're Occupy Wall Street types or climate change activists. Is this film a how-to guide for today's activists?

Rothwell: No. The title is a little tongue in cheek, as are the interstitials, drawn from Bob's writings, which act as chapter headings. I think there's a lot to learn from the early Greenpeace experience but the film isn't intended to be a how-to guide. It's an exploration of one attempt to effect change by a small group of people and of the impact of their success on the people in that group and their relationships.

Roston: Could you compare how today's media landscape has either amplified or minimized grassroots activism since the birth of Greenpeace?

Rothwell: Whereas Greenpeace in the '70s was focused on capturing single images (for example, of people risking their lives to save a whale from a harpoon) which would be networked around the world on television, I don't think it's possible for an image to have the same impact in today's media landscape, because of the sheer quantity of images we are subjected to. Our tool today has to be the network rather than the image and our ability to create and share ideas, data, opinions and images across those networks to mobilize them is more where the power lies.

Roston: Is the Greenpeace organization involved in any way in the film? What is its take on it?

Rothwell: Greenpeace was hugely helpful in allowing us to access its archive from the 1970s. But part of our agreement with them was that they had no editorial control over the film (or funding of it). We couldn't have financed the documentary if funders had thought it was a Greenpeace promotional piece. It's critical of Greenpeace in parts, though I think overall audiences are inspired by what the founders of Greenpeace achieved.

Roston: Are you optimistic about the current state of climate change and our hopes of curtailing it?

Rothwell: It's hard to be optimistic, because of the political inertia in dealing with the problem, and the set of interests aligned against changing the way we do things in order to protect the climate. In the end, we won't have any choice but to act, but the later we leave it, the more chaos and human suffering will be caused.

Roston: If you have any of the activists who are in the film nearby with you at Sundance, would you mind having them answer the following: what's one of the biggest misperceptions of the birth of Greenpeace and does this film help correct that?

Emily Hunter (Daughter of Robert Hunter): That it was male dominated; there were a lot of women behind the scenes... The film shows the crucial roles of Carlie Truman and Bobbi Hunter, two of the early women activists in the group.

Bobbi Hunter: I think we were looked upon as hippie rabble-rousers, but the reality was that we were all accomplished people in out own right — doctors, lawyers, scientists, journalists, etc.

Here's a clip from the film that shows how the crew consulted the I Ching before going out to sea in search of the Russian whalers.

Opinion Sat, 31 Jan 2015 11:58:26 -0500
Say It Ain't So

What should sports fans do when our heroes turn out to be frauds?

Maybe you grew up watching Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire breaking home run records, as I did, only to find out that they (and just about everyone else in professional baseball) had been using performance-enhancing drugs.

Perhaps you also remember the 2000 Spanish Paralympics basketball team. Ten of the 12 members of the team feigned mental disabilities to win gold medals in a sports scandal that will likely go down as one of the most depraved and insidious in history.

Further back, maybe you even watched the point-shaving scandal of the 1978-'79 Boston College basketball team unfold.

Even if you don't like sports, you've probably heard about "Deflategate."

NFL officials recently found that the New England Patriots' game footballs were inflated to levels below the league's required minimum during a 45-7 rout of the Indianapolis Colts. That win sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl.

Under-inflated footballs are easier for quarterbacks and running backs to grip and for wide receivers to catch, especially in cold weather. By letting a little air out of the balls that only they used, someone in the Patriots' organization (yet to be determined) gave them a little boost.

Given the score, that maneuver almost certainly didn't impact the final outcome of the game.

But this scandal raises an even more troubling question than if the cheating had been more flagrant: Is there any length to which certain players, coaches, and administrators won't go to gain an unfair advantage?

This isn't even the first major Patriots' scandal of the decade, after all.

Whether it's George Brett violating regulations for smearing pine tar on baseball bats, or Rosie Ruiz jumping out of the crowd to "win" the 1980 Boston Marathon, it seems like there's no corner that can't be cut.

Fans and players alike tout "love of the game" as the primary motivator for athletes. But playing fair and square has become an exception rather than the rule.

So, league officials and regulators in all sports must tackle this quandary: Will they crack down on cheating once and for all in the name of fair play?

The sports community is standing at a fork in the road. Which path they choose will speak volumes about their priorities.

One is a system that works tirelessly to enforce rules and create accountability so that everyone has a fair shot and nice guys don't always finish last.

The other looks more like professional wrestling, where fans understand that the game is rigged from the get-go. It's entertainment, not sports.

As a lifelong sports fan, I want to believe that championships are rewarded to those who played the best, not who cheated the best.

Opinion Sat, 31 Jan 2015 11:47:21 -0500