Thursday, March 31, 2011

Obama Gets Ironic Transparency Award Behind Closed Doors

Keep Out

Maybe  politicians have vestigial consciences after all.  Even as President Obama was insisting to a gullible nation that there would be no actual military boots on the ground in Libya, there have, in fact, been shiny CIA boots on the ground all along.  In retrospect, this is no big surprise, or even a small surprise. Who else could have armed and trained those rag-tag bands of rebels who conveniently popped up out of nowhere, to seize our undivided attention just as Bahrainis were being slaughtered by their oily U.S. puppet- king  and his Saudi pals?

  Maybe that's why, when the president was awarded a prize for White House "transparency" on Monday by a coalition of open government advocates, it was done in secrecy, without notifying the press.  The president was honored for his so-called honesty behind closed doors, without so much as an MSNBC stenographer-journalist to record the event.  He was probably hoping against hope that nobody would even notice the prize, given the heights of hypocrisy he was about to scale in his Libya speech the following evening.  There wasn't even a mention of it in "West Wing Week", the daily propaganda email that usually misses no opportunity to gush about every feel-good, staged PR event at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Attendees of the awards ceremony -- originally scheduled for March 16 to mark "Sunshine Week" -- were understandably miffed and no doubt suffering a bad case of awarders' remorse when they discovered the media lock-out. “It’s almost a theater of the absurd to have an award on transparency that isn’t transparent," Garry Bass of OMB, a public policy group, griped to The Washington Post. “The irony is that everything the president said was spot-on. I wish people had heard what he had to say.”

(They apparently never will. No official transcript of the sit-and-chat has been released, if in fact it even exists.  Ascribe it to the plausible deniability doctrine).
Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight was even more critical, telling The Post that the White House's failure to announce the awards ceremony or allow reporters in to cover it was "crazy stupid", and that she is not about to defend President Obama for his behavior.

Press Secretary Jay Carney actually had the chutzpah to tell the uninvited press right before the postponed meeting earlier this month: "This President has demonstrated a commitment to transparency and openness that is greater than any administration has shown in the past, and he’s been committed to that since he ran for President and he’s taken a significant number of measures to demonstrate that."

Now, the Sunshine Law advocates are kind of walking back their purpose in giving Obama the award in the first place, calling it "aspirational"   --  in other words, to give him a nudge in the right direction.  That makes more sense given that the president did his utmost to hide the little event. He really has no intention of being any more transparent than he has been - which has not been very transparent at all.  He likes to talk the honesty talk, but it's becoming evident that truthiness matters more to him than truth. It must be the opacity of hope.

For example,  according to "The Hill," Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation has called the actions of the Obama Administration a disappointment.  Emails have come to light showing it has actively sought to delay release of documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act.  The AP obtained the emails, showing that Homeland Security Department workers were accusing some senior officials in the Obama Administration of delaying the release of files.  Some emails described the president's appointees as "meddling"  -- and echoed Danielle Brian in their calling the unnamed Obama staffers stupid, though not  crazily so. 
We got our first clue about transparency and lack thereof when the president reneged on his campaign promise to broadcast healthcare reform negotiations live on CSpan. Not only didn't that happen, Obama was making backroom deals with Big Pharma to back off reimporting drugs from Canada and drug price negotiations in exchange for their backing off on his own efforts at cosmetic insurance company reforms.  At the same time he was advocating for a public option and urging his volunteers to go door to door for the DNC in the name of his cause, he'd quietly taken the public option off the table without letting us know.

Now, out-Bushing Bush as he embarks on what is variously being called a third war, or a temporary selective humanitarian effort, or a limited kinetic military exercise, we can expect even more secrecy in the name of all-important national security or protecting troop movements.  Hypocrisy in this president is now a given.  When are we going to start adding mendacity to the list?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Let Them Gum Cake

In an altruistic outreach to states feeling the burden of increasing Medicaid expenses -- on top of all the salaries they have to pay those greedy teachers and cops -- the Health and Human Services Secretary has written a letter to all 50 governors reminding them that several optional programs covered by Medicaid are.... well, optional.

Pssst.... says Kathleen Sebelius.  Just between us - you don't really have to cover people for dental work, physical therapy, all those expensive drugs, eyeglasses.  You can even drop people from coverage entirely! Or make them help pay for things themselves!  So much health care is just so darned wasteful. The letter reads, in part:

".... States have substantial flexibility to design benefits, service delivery systems, and payment strategies, without a waiver.  In 2008, roughly 40 percent of Medicaid benefits spending – $100 billion – was spent on optional benefits for all enrollees, with nearly 60 percent of this spending for long-term care services.  The enclosed paper identifies a range of State options and opportunities to more efficiently manage Medicaid, many of which are underway across the country.  Some of the key areas of potential cost savings are described briefly below:  
•Modifying Benefits. While some benefits, such as hospital and physician services, are required to be provided by State Medicaid programs, many services, such as prescription drugs, dental services, and speech therapy, are optional.  States can generally change optional benefits or limit their amount, duration or scope through an amendment to their State plan, provided that each service remains sufficient to reasonably achieve its purpose.  In addition, States may add or increase cost sharing for services within limits (see attachment for details).  Some States have opted for more basic benefit packages for higher-income enrollees (e.g., Wisconsin provides benefits equivalent to the largest commercial plan offered in the State plus mental health and substance disorder coverage for pregnant women with income between 200 and 250 percent of poverty).  A number of States charge beneficiaries $20 for non-urgent emergency room visits or use cost sharing for prescription drugs to steer individuals toward generics or preferred brand-name drugs." 
Translation: You just heard it from the top. Guvners - get out your axes and your chopping blocks, and get to work instead of asking for waivers and bitching to me!  We all need to tighten our belts, except for me and other high-ranking government officials and  rich people and multinational corporations.  Poor people don't have clout, so they shall be the first to suffer, saith the Obama Administration. 

Kathleen Antoinette

Needless to say, some people who are still considered true Democrats are stark raving livid over the Sebelius missive. 

"When you consider that – in a for-profit healthcare system, about 30 percent, and as much as 33 percent, of all spending goes for corporate profits, stock options, executive salaries, advertising, marketing, processing paperwork – it's cruel!" said Dennis Kucinich, D-OH, of the Sebelius letter. Kuninich is a longtime proponent of Single Payer Health Care, or Medicare for all.

Sebelius had written in response to an earlier letter last month from 33 governors asking her to lift a provision of the new reform law – called the maintenance of effort (MOE) requirement – preventing states from trimming Medicaid rolls ahead of the Affordable Care Act's broad 2014 expansion.

Mary Kahn, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS),  issued a denial that the letter was a barely disguised set of instructions to states on how to drop people from coverage.

Regarding dental coverage, what  is covered varies widely from state to state. In New York, Medicaid will not pay for root canals. Poor people on Medicaid who can't come up with upwards of $1000 for that procedure instead have to opt for an extraction of a tooth that could otherwise be saved. In California, Medicaid no longer pays for dentures. And since the majority of Medicaid recipients are the elderly (not the mythical Reagan Cadillac welfare queens the politicians love to rail against), there are going to be an awful lot of people walking around who literally can no longer eat.  But maybe that's the plan.  Despite the health care reform act, more people are uninsured now than when the law took effect. Benefits are decreasing and premiums are skyrocketing.  But  the insurance companies  who sell the junk policies are posting record profits, as are the drug companies. The president agreed not to negotiate lower prices with Big Pharma in exchange for their not fighting him on health care legislation - or, more accurately, private health insurance practices legislation. 

And what does Obama think about the government covering dental procedures under health care reform? During a town hall in Las Vegas last year, a dentist asked him that very question. His response, accompanied by his million-dollar smile, was "Everybody floss!"

WTF.  As far as I'm concerned, everybody's been fleeced.

Look Ma, No Cavities! (and No Principles)

This Just in from the White House....

I just received my daily email briefing from The White House, containing this announcement:

The Deapartment of Education's TEACH campaign is an initiative to encourage talented Americans to become teachers.

Those who can, teach.  Those who can't, write White House press releases without feeling the need to use SpellCheck or proofread.  Winning the Future?  Out-educating the rest of the world? Well, at least they didn't put out a blurb urging us to support pubic education. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

This Week in GOP Witch Hunts: Demonizing the Old People's Lobby

Remember the northern California congressman who made headlines at one of those anti-healthcare reform town halls by congratulating an audience member who described himself as a "proud, right-wing terrorist?"  The congressman's name is Wally Herger, in case you forgot.  He garnered a Keith Olbermann "Worst Person in the World" honor in August 2009 for responding to the Tea Partyer's outburst by enthusing "Amen!  There goes a great American!"

Wally Herger: Anti-AARP Crusader 

The audience member later amended his terrorist characterization of himself, saying what he really meant was "extremist"-- as if that is any more palatable than terrorist.  Herger, though, amended nothing and refused to apologize.  He would do anything, say anything to defeat "Obamacare" then - and it appears he'll do what it takes to repeal it now.  And destroy the biggest lobby for older Americans in the country while he's at it.

Herger is co-chair of an investigative joint House Oversight and Health  subcommittee "looking into" AARP - the American Association of Retired Persons.  According to Herger and his sidekick, Louisiana Republican Charles Boustany, the purpose of Friday's go-fish game hearing will be to see if AARP is profiting unfairly from selling Medicare supplement insurance policies to its members.

According to Herger, "AARP is known for being the largest and most well known seniors’ organization in the country.  But what Americans don’t know is that AARP was the 4th highest spending lobbying organization between 1998 and 2010 or that the AARP brand dominates the private Medicare insurance market.  This hearing is about getting to the bottom of how AARP’s financial interests affect their self-stated mission of enhancing senior’s quality of life.  It is important to better understand how AARP’s insurance business overlaps with its advocacy efforts and whether such overlap is appropriate.”

And Boustany added, “As one of the country’s most well-known non-profits, many of America’s seniors trust AARP to represent their interests.  But in light of AARP’s dependence on its income from insurance products, there is good reason to question whether AARP is primarily looking out for seniors or just its own bottom line.  Before seniors decide whether AARP is worthy of their trust, or their hard-earned dollars, they deserve all of the facts.  The purpose of this hearing is to provide a public examination of the facts so seniors can decide those questions for themselves.”

Those statements do indeed sound noble  --  but coming from these two right-wingers, they are anything but.  AARP has long been a thorn in the side of conservatives for its support of the Affordable Care Act. Although seniors as a group shifted to the right in the last election,  Republican candidates have used the law's alleged cuts to Medicare (supporters call them efficiencies) as one rationale for repeal.  AARP remains the top lobbying group defending the law. It is also the single strongest lobby defending Social Security and Medicare from planned cuts -- and therefore anathema to Republicans and their wealthy corporate puppetmasters.

It's curious that Boustany and Herger are mouthing such concern about the possible bilking of senior citizens by the AARP insurance arm, when some of the biggest contributors to each of their campaigns have been insurance companies. I wonder if these contributions from insurance companies overlap with the congressmen's stated purpose of serving their constituents, and whether these overlaps are appropriate. Let's examine the facts, as the good gentlemen suggest, and let people decide for themselves:

  The single top donor to Herger's war chest was Blue Cross/Blue Shield, which contributed $96,000 to his cause last year. His other big contributors were "health professionals," pharmaceuticals and health products and HMOs.  Boustany, a Louisiana heart surgeon, received $224,000 from health care professionals, more than $100,000 from insurance companies, and $67,132 from pharmaceuticals and health products. (source:  And Dick Cheney, probably at the top of some secret list for a government-funded heart transplant, campaigned for him.

Herger and Boustany have yet to announce their witness list for the hearing, but I am willing to bet it will include professionals  from conservative think tanks and insurance company front organizations testifying in the personae of unaffiliated geriatricians and social workers.

The subcommittee is accepting testimony and comments by internet, so drop them a line and tell them what you think. Go to, select "hearings" and follow the instructions for submissions.  I wrote them a quick message, saying if we'd gone for Single Payer/Medicare for All, they wouldn't be in this pickle, worrying about AARP having a stake in the for-profit insurance scams which have done more than anything else to drive up all our health care costs. Two-thirds of us still want a public option, Wally and Charlie!  Actually, even the Tea Party would just love government-run health care, once they had it.

 Remember - this Friday, April Fools Day, 9 a.m., Longworth Office Building. Show up or tune in to C-Span. Hope for a contingent of Gray Panthers to storm the hearing room and raise a ruckus. Herger will rue the day he joined the Republican Overreach Club and will be praying for his show trial to end.  We will not be hearing any resounding "Amens" from him this time.  He will go down in ignominy as just one more craven, self-serving politician, joining the likes of Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Peter King and Joe McCarthy in the Congressional Hall of Shame. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Obama CEO Pal's Company Guilty of Unsafe Radioactive Waste Storage

Union Memorial to Deceased Plant Workers
Honeywell International, whose CEO is a member of President Obama's Bipartisan Deficit Reduction ("Cat Food") Commission, has pleaded guilty to knowingly storing hazardous radioactive waste without a permit, and has been sentenced in federal court to pay a criminal fine of $11.8 million. 

While all eyes are on Japan's nuclear disaster, an eerily similar scenario born of corporate greed, union-busting, political influence peddling and safety shortcuts  had been playing out for years in Metropolis, IL.  Yes, that Metropolis: named after Superman's city and complete with a giant sized statue of Superman and all kinds of tourist- trappy accoutrements, including a newly-built memorial to the late actress who played Lois Lane on TV.

There's also a memorial to the workers of the Honeywell plant, where the Steelworkers' Union claims many of its members contracted cancer and died due to radiation exposure over the years.  It is particularly telling, in this age of union demonization, that it was the steelworkers' local which blew the whistle on Honeywell executives for blatantly ignoring safety laws.   The union, incidentally, was locked out of the plant by CEO David Cote last June after voicing its concerns.  The Environmental Protection Agency  finally listened, and prosecuted. (after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did nada.)  The company entered its guilty plea on March 11, the same day as Japan's earthquake --and along with the fine (a drop in the bucket in Corporate World) was sentenced to five years' probation and some community service in the way of a recycling campaign in Metropolis.  Neither Cote nor any other human was held criminally responsible.

Here are excerpts from the official Justice Department press release:

Honeywell, a Delaware corporation with corporate headquarters in Morristown, N.J., owns and operates a uranium hexafluoride (UF6) conversion facility in Massac County, Ill., near the city of Metropolis and the Ohio River. Honeywell is licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Reulatory Commission to possess and otherwise manage natural uranium, which it converts into UF6 for nuclear fuel. The Metropolis facility is the only facility in the United States to convert natural uranium into UF6.
At the Metropolis facility, air emissions from the UF6 conversion process are scrubbed with potassium hydroxide (KOH) prior to discharge. As a result of this process, KOH scrubbers and associated equipment accumulate uranium compounds that settle out of the liquid and are pumped as a slurry into 55-gallon drums. The drummed material, called "KOH mud" and consisting of uranium and KOH, has a pH greater than or equal to 12.5...
Honeywell needed, but did not have, a RCRA permit to store any drums of KOH mud at its facility longer than 90 days.
In July 2007, Honeywell requested a modification of its RCRA permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) so that they could store drums of KOH mud. IEPA issued Honeywell a modified permit in July 2008, allowing Honeywell to store drums containing KOH mud only in a KOH container storage area designed to contain any spills, leaks or precipitation that accumulates in the drum storage area.   By September 2008, Honeywell had accumulated over 7,000 drums of KOH mud.   In April 2009, EPA special agents conducted a search warrant and found nearly 7,500 illegally stored drums containing waste that was both radioactive and hazardous.   Honeywell began storing the KOH mud drums in compliance with the terms of its RCRA permit in approximately March 2010.

Workers had complained, to no avail, that the waste was corroding the drums and leaching out - possibly spreading to the nearby Ohio river.  But instead of reporting the problems to the NRC or the Environmental Protection Agency -  Honeywell covered its behind by dropping a quick line about the toxic  sludge to - get this - the Securities and Exchange Commission! This is the same SEC which can't even regulate Wall Street, let alone radioactive waste.  Disingenuous cynicism does not even begin to cover this blatant attempt at a cover-up.

Meanwhile, Honeywell is continuing to protect its ass by issuing a press release this week, claiming it always totally self-reports itself and as a matter of fact, has just closed the plant down for five weeks, for routine maintenance and to make "capital improvements".  The sludge was/is being packed in plastic and taken "elsewhere".... maybe to nearby Metropolis, or wherever Lex Luthor keeps his stash of kryptonite.
According to the union, 42 plant workers have been diagnosed with cancer, with 27 cancer deaths reported over the past 20 years.  No correlation between toxins or radioactive waste at the plant and the cancers has yet been established, although union workers say it's common knowledge that you can expect to have 10 years knocked off your life from working there.

The union, by the way, is still locked out and replaced with "scab" workers who were allegedly helped to pass their hastily-administered certification exams by plant management.  And the removal of the radioactive waste does not spell the end of the problems.  In December,  there was a leak of hydrofluoric acid at the facility, setting off its mass sprinkler system to prevent the escape of gas to the surrounding community - home to some 128,000 people.

Cote and Obama Share a Tender Moment
Oh, and back to David Cote, who has been described as one of Obama's favorite CEOs of all time.  Not only did the president tap him to serve on the Cat Food Commission to lend some corporate cred in the scrapping of Social Security, he also invited him along on that India trade junket last year. ( Cote is also a past executive of G.E., another one of Obama's favorite, corporate tax-evading companies of all time).   Obama's decision to help Cote further his business interests in India predictably infuriated the more than 200 locked-out Honeywell union members. USW Local 7-669 President Darrell Lillie, who represents them, had this to say in November on learning of Cote's inclusion by Obama:

"We've been forced out of our jobs for the past 20 weeks and watched unskilled scabs brought in by this company steal our jobs, cheating our families out of income that puts food on the dinner table and pays the mortgage. It strikes me as a poor choice for Honeywell's CEO David Cote to be accompanying President Obama on a mission to India for promoting American jobs and exports."

According to Mike Elk, a third generation union organizer and labor journalist who wrote about the Obama-Cote connection last year for The Huffington Post (when it was still the old, pre-AOL HuffPo), "It should come as no surprise to political observers that President Obama is taking Honeywell's side in the dispute. Honeywell is the number one political contributor in the United States. It has increased its political contributions by 400% since Obama took office in 2008. President Obama has routinely described Honeywell CEO David Cote as one of his closest advisers in the business community. Cote ensured an early political victory for the President when he persuaded the US Chamber of Commerce to stay on the sidelines during the stimulus fight."

"In return for their political contributions," Elk continued, "Honeywell has received $13 billion dollars' worth of federal contracts, mainly defense contracts, over the last ten years. Honeywell is also accused of using its political clout to get the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to approve allowing undertrained scabs to work with enriched uranium at the Metropolis facility. In the 60-plus years that the United Steelworkers union has represented the Metropolis uranium facility, the NRC has never allowed scabs to be hired during a lockout due to the safety issues related to enriching uranium."

In light of his disinterest in private sector unions, should it come as any surprise that the President didn't put on those comfortable shoes as he promised to do during his campaign, and join the public sector union demonstrations in Wisconsin?  Elk, who has gone on to call Cote "the most dangerous man in America" for locking out trained union workers in favor of inexperienced lower-paid employees, also bemoans the scant press coverage of Cote and Honeywell and union-busting and presidential enabling.

Scant indeed.  I must confess, I came across news of the criminal case purely by accident, via an email from the "Labor Notes" union blog.  There has been no coverage of the criminal conviction, nor of the cozy relationship between Obama and Cote, in any corporate media that I can find.  But I did happen upon this pic of Obama on the official Metropolis website, proving at least that he once set foot in that Land of Comic Book Heroes and Nuclear Sludge:

Where's a Pro-Union Toxic Avenger When You Need Him?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Arianna and Andrew: A Love Story

The Breitbart:  "Bring It On, Punks!"
  This is from an email sent out today by James Rucker of ColorofChange, regarding the new and prominent main page presence of right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart on the "progressive and liberal" Huffington Post-- recently purchased for $315 million by conservative megacorporation AOL, but still ostensibly run by Huffington:
" Andrew Breitbart is a liar and a race-baiter. His method is to pose as a journalist, and then use deceptive tactics to gin up race-based fears, protect racists, and demonize Black political leaders and institutions. This is the man caught peddling deceptively edited video of Shirley Sherrod — the Black USDA official who was dismissed as a result of Breitbart's hateful propaganda. No credible news outlet has had Breitbart on since. ABC News rescinded its invitation for him to be a part of its election night coverage (after hearing from ColorOfChange members) and even Fox has turned its back on him since the Sherrod episode.
"So why is The Huffington Post giving him a platform? Just over a week ago, editors at The Huffington Post gave Breitbart a top spot on their home page, where he again spewed widely debunked lies. Then yesterday they did it again. We reached out to Arianna Huffington and other leaders at The Huffington Post to ask why they'd give him cover. Their response? Silence.
"Join us in condemning The Huffington Post's actions and demanding that Arianna Huffington and The Huffington Post agree to not elevate Breitbart again given his unfailing race-baiting attacks on our community. This is critical and it takes only a moment. And please invite your friends and family to do the same:

"The Huffington Post understands the power of featuring someone on its home page. It gives the author credibility and helps them spread their message. To give that placement to someone who has repeatedly shown complete disregard and hostility toward the truth, and who is a serial race-baiter, is irresponsible. It shows a lack of journalistic integrity, and it's frankly an insult to our communities.
"Andrew Breitbart targets key people and institutions within our community, in particular those who have dared talk about the reality of racism and race in this country — Shirley Sherrod, the NAACP, President Obama, the Congressional Black Caucus. And he targets those that seek to increase Black political participation, like ACORN, which until Breitbart's fraud-based take-down had the strongest record of registering low-income Black voters in the country. Breitbart's approach is consistent — posing as journalists, he and his team manufacture false stories that work by preying on his viewers' race-based fears to lead them to incorrect conclusions. It's cynical and destructive.
"The Huffington Post recently announced that it will be launching 'HuffPost Global Black',a site focused on Black issues. It's especially galling that The Huffington Post would seek to attract Black audiences with this new site at the same time that it provides a prominent platform for Breitbart to continue spreading lies that have a real impact on Black people.
"The Huffington Post's decision isn't about featuring conservative voices. Many conservative reporters and opinion-makers — like others across the political spectrum — attempt to be truthful and act with integrity. That doesn't mean they're perfect, but Breitbart is cut from a different cloth. He has no regard for honest debate, and conservatives with integrity see Breitbart as an embarrassment, a con-artist.
"If The Huffington Post wants to be treated like a trusted source for news and opinion, this behavior needs to stop and we need to be assured that Breitbart will never again be prominently featured on the site. If we don't receive that assurance, then Black America and our allies should abandon The Huffington Post and get our information elsewhere.
Arianna Huffington needs to know that for our communities, this is a slap in the face. Please join us in calling on her to stop allowing her news organization to be a vehicle for Breitbart's deceptions, and demand that Breitbart not be given prominent placement on the site again."

Rucker co-founded ColorofChange with fellow activist Van Jones in the wake of the Jena Six scandal in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.  He is a former leader at  Jones was an Obama Administration staffer working on environmental issues who Glenn Beck "exposed" for having signed a 9/11 "Truther" petition, resulting in his firing by the White House.
Bonfires of the Vanity Fair Afterparty
Breitbart actually helped Huffington launch her aggregate news site in 2006, and it has turned out to be an extremely lucrative enterprise for her.  Arianna has written best-selling tomes on income and class disparity, the most recent of which is "Third World America."  The Breitbart brouhaha is only the latest episode in a spate of bad publicity for her.  She's been widely criticized for using a stable of unpaid bloggers and "borrowed" links to mainstream news organizations to make her millions. She recently got into a petty public cat fight with New York Times managing editor Bill Keller about who  copied whom over a lame one-liner.  Her own blog is chock full of name-dropping.  She posted live reports from Davos, where she schmoozed with such banksters as Larry Summers and Jamie Dimon.  She bragged about being one of the perennial invitees to the Vanity Fair Academy Awards  after-party and then tweeting how boring the whole insiders-only affair was.  Boring, as in "I'm here and you're not, peasants!"  (she has gone to these parties for years despite the boredom factor).

The British "Guardian" newspaper has enjoined the HuffPo from linking to its articles, because of "the damage to standards of quality posed by the Huffington Post's failure to allow for the slightest  distinction between serious journalism or opinion and a press release."

Just a reminder - there is a precedent for unpaid bloggers and website moderators suing under federal labor laws -  and winning.  AOL, the new owner of HuffPo, has had to settle out of court with its "volunteer" moderators who sought damages for violations of wage and hour laws. Arianna is falling all over herself in claiming that all her worker bees are now paid and that her site is finally, at long last, fully staffed with paid editors and reporters.  But she has yet to offer retroactive remuneration to people like Mayhill Fowler, who broke the "they cling to their guns and religion" Barack Obama blockbuster of a blooper story during the 2008 campaign.

Sign the petition, boycott the site, or continue to read celebrity blogs and cute kitten stories - it's a free Internet.  Just think of the ad revenue you're generating for Arianna and AOL with every visit.

** Update --  Jeff Bercovici, a blogger on Forbes, reports that 200 employees of AOL sites have been terminated in the past two weeks and that most -- if not all -- AOL sites are folding, having been subsumed through the merger and the creation of the Huffington Post Media Group.  "Politics Daily" is among the doomed. Freelancers at AOL have been "invited to apply" for paid positions at the new group, but in the meantime are living in a state of limbo.... and unemployment. Meanwhile, new hires at HuffPo are being lured from major corporate media sites, including the NYT.  One of the perks is a "nap room" for staff.  If you ask me. the MSM are already asleep at the switch, if not semi-comatose.  

*** Update II -- Readers at Daily Kos are reporting all comments critical of Breitbart's posts are being censored by HuffPo moderators.   (Rucker has written an extended article supplementing his mass email on DK).

**** Update III (3/24) -- The Huffington Post not only will not censor Breitbart, they're fighting back against Rucker and Jones.  Senior HuffPo Vice President Mario Ruiz said Breitbart will continue to be featured on the site, adding that his first post garnered more than 1600 "civil comments."
Judge for yourself whether Breitbart's response (via a phone interview with The Daily Caller) to ColorofChange was "civil":

"Bring it on, punks!... Van Jones is a commie punk!... This is what the left does, they don't believe in free speech.  They want to shut up Fox News, they want to shut up people who disagree with them. They want to shut up the Tea Party."

The rant continued: "I believe that Van Jones, and ColorofChange, and ACORN poison the black community with propaganda that divides this country. Van Jones is a human toxin, ACORN was a human toxin.  These are poisonous, venomous forces within the American experience.  I will expose them like the cockroaches that they are."

Breitbart added, ostensibly to prove that he is not a racist, that he defended Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas against attacks at an anti-Koch rally recently.  And to make us feel even better, he brags that he has spent lots of time in Arianna's house, around her children.  He is convinced Huffington is on his side.  

Methinks Arianna is performing one giant U-turn back to her original conservative roots.  We'll know for sure if and when her former buddy Newt Gingrich gets his own column on her e-rag.  Personally, I am not going to check.  Every hit on that site generates more money for the ownership.

*****  Update IV -- Ruiz has gotten wind of Breitbart's rant and made the wise decision to remove Breitbart from the main page. Here is Ruiz's statement: 

"Andrew Brietbart’s ad hominem attack on Van Jones in The Daily Caller -- right down to calling him a “commie punk” and “a cop killer-supporting, racist, demagogic freak” -- violates the tenets of debate and civil discourse we have strived for since the day we launched. As a result, we will no longer feature his posts on the front page. He is welcome to continue publishing his work on HuffPost provided it adheres to our editorial guidelines, as the two posts he published on HuffPost did -- guidelines that include a strict prohibition on ad hominem attacks." (via Dave Weigel at Slate).

Notice he is off the front page, but not off the site itself.  And Weigel calls himself disappointed that HuffPo "wimped out." I am disappointed they didn't wimp out sooner, and completely. They're giving this boor another chance and merely banishing him to below the e-fold, as if that will make them seem righteous.  I'm still boycotting that rag.

Hillary & Nick: A Love Story

There's been a lot of fun talk lately about the American part of the Libyan war being an all-girl effort, with a trio of powerful women (Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power and Susan Rice) goading a wimpy president into firing some manly-man missiles into Libya. The very name of the operation -- "Odyssey Dawn" -- is girly, not to mention Homerically rosy-fingered and goddess-like.

And since the very name "Clinton" immediately conjures up images of triangles amidst the flowers of war, this seems like a good time to bring up a uselessly speculative Eternal Triangle. I am talking about Hillary, Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Nick's gorgeous trophy wife, Carla Bruni.  (Obama is a mere fourth wheel in this guessing game). I am tired of the rants for and against this latest exercise in bellicosity, from all across the political spectrum.  It's really too early to judge whether the Libyan intervention is an opportunistic, CIA-enabled ploy to seize control of oil fields (where did rebels obtain all that weaponry for their civil war?) or an altruistic humanitarian effort to save thousands of innocents from slaughter.  So I will reserve judgment.  Meantime, how about some trash talk to fill in the vacuum of the endless video loops of twisted metal and shots of a black sky with backlit palm trees and the occasional flying missile that CNN is entertaining us with.

Is She Playing Him?

First, some background. Sarkozy's poll numbers at home are in the toilet, and the embarrassment of the Tunisian Revolution catching him totally off guard didn't help.  France has a long imperialistic history with Tunisia, where French is the second language. Sarkozy, according to "Politico", desperately needs something to help him keep hold of his office.  Since he and Britain were planning some Air Force war games this week anyway, what better time to start a real war? They were in the neighborhood.  Pure coincidence.  How serendipitous that K-Daffy would just now begin persecuting his own people!

But Nick needs cover for his grand imperialistic adventure -- and here's where une femme d'un certain age, Mme Clinton, comes in. Have you seen the pics of Nick and Hill together?  They're embarrassing and endearing at the same time.  Madame Secretary is positively aglow.  The two of them giggle, whisper, rub noses.  Sarkozy breathes French into her ear.  Now, look at Hillary and Barry together. Not exactly a testimonial to, is it?  I count zero levels of compatibility.  This is not a date that ended well, let alone a match made in heaven.

I Like You Well Enough, Hillary

  Hillary, previously opposed to any American intervention in Libya, caves like a limp Obama after the Sarkozy tryst meeting, and rushes through a multilateral UN resolution.  And Obama. ever the eager appeaser, be it with a Republican Congress or foreign leaders, caves like .... well, you know.   He knows the score, so to speak; he knows (has been led to believe/hopes) American involvement is only temporary, only to provide cover to Nick, so he's in for the short term.  Had it been otherwise, would he really have flown down to Rio on a P.R. junket with his own female entourage?

But where does Mlle Carla come in?  Ever the femme fatale, she is of course, behind the scenes in this  drama of love and war. But think back.  She did not marry Sarkozy until after he became president. There have been rumors of affairs, breakups.  Nick is becoming increasingly unpopular.  Look at her.  Look at him.  Do you really see them together if he loses power?  On the other hand, if he has his own war, if he becomes Le Cowboy and carves up a nice chunk of North Africa for himself, things would certainly change.  I hear strains of Piaf's "Mon Legionnaire" already, followed by the soundtrack to Lawrence of Arabia.  Sarkozy, king of the desert in flowing robes, racing through the sands on a camel with the lovely Carla riding pillion. History may well treat Carla as The Face That Launched a Thousand Tomahawks.

Does this make Hillary a scorned woman?  Not in the least. She has been there, done that. She has had her moment, her dawn odyssey, her liaisons dangereuses, and her memories.... even false ones like dodging sniper fire in the Balkans. Nobody can take that away from her, and nobody should try.

C'est La Guerre, Mon Amour

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spaced Odyssey

Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom were bad enough.  But who the hell came up with the moniker "Operation Odyssey Dawn" for what could either be the beginning of World War III or just a quickie multinational air raid lasting a few short days and costing the many millions of dollars we apparently have although we're broke?

Hmmm....What to Call a Temporary Humanitarian War?
Somebody from the Department of the Navy came up with it, apparently, but nobody is taking credit. Or has yet been fired. According to MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, it was chosen by a convoluted process of alphabetizing or the Dewey Decimal System or something.  It was something like a Mad-Libs game in which the words that tell the ultimate story are chosen at random, make no sense, and have a bunch of drunken partiers collapsing in laughter.  Only, there's nothing really funny about war.  Anyway, O'Donnell is running a contest to find another name, any name, to replace Operation Odyssey Dawn.  Something that doesn't sound like psychedelic dish detergent or the name a stoned New Ager would pick for a first-born daughter.

Among the  early votes are Obama's Dud, Obama's Downfall, Oddly Disingenuous, Offal Dense (check out O'Donnell's blog, The Last Word, for the full list and details on how to enter). Meantime, my suggestion is just shortening the damn thing to Operation O.D.  As in, I am overdosing on the wars, the CNN coverage of the wars, the CNN doomsday soundtrack of the wars, the CNN bursting bomb graphics of the wars, the sight of Richard Engel at the wars (who by the looks of him hasn't slept for two months), and President Obama flying down to Rio as the curtain rises on the(undeclared) wars. Hey, but something good has come out of it.  For the first time, House Speaker John Boehner has uttered the word "humanitarian." I guess when it comes to cutting funding for WIC and NPR, that's not being inhumane - it's just being fiscally responsible. But when it comes to raining down bombs and firing missiles into North Africa?  Wow!  It just doesn't get any more humane than that!

One more thing - can somebody please decide how to spell that dictator's name before he is killed, leaves, or lives to see the new dawn of another massacring day? I have read Qaddafi, Khaddafy, Gaddafi, and ad infinitum.  How about just plain K-Daffy - or Godawful? 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Virtual Gated Community

If you are a New York Times subscriber, registered user or commenter, the richest man on the planet owns a piece of you. And if you plan on forking over between $185 and $300 a year in order to scale the digital edition's upcoming paywall, you’ll be contributing even more to the vast fortune of one Carlos Slim.
The Richest Man in the Universe
The well-fed Slim is not a country singer. He is a Mexican businessman who not only has retained his number one spot on the Forbes list of billionaires, he widened the gap considerably last year, accumulating an additional $20.5 billion to bring his total fortune to $74 billion.  He has far surpassed both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in accumulated wealth. But unlike these two richest Americans, he has not given away huge chunks of his fortune. According to Forbes, his monopolistic ownership of Latin America’s biggest wireless company accounts for two-thirds of his wealth.
Slim is the single largest shareholder of the Times after the controlling Sulzberger family.  When the paper suffered near-catastrophic advertising losses after the financial meltdown of 2009, Slim came to the rescue with a $250 million loan at a near-usurious interest rate of 14 percent.
The Times announced last year that it planned to get out from under the burdensome debt three years early by paying Slim back in 2012… soon after it starts implementing its controversial new paywall. 
At the time of the loan, the NY Post had a field day. “Robber Baron Saves the Times!” the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid gloated. “He has expanded his riches in a poor country, where the minimum wage is 50 cents an hour, by charging excessively high telephone rates at his near-monopoly.”
Slate said the Slim /Times venture has transformed him from robber baron into robber patron. The billionaire, who has been accused of being the main cause of so many illegal immigrants crossing into the United States to escape his iron monopolistic fist, has repeatedly denied wanting to buy The Times outright.
His current stake in the newspaper, including his initial investment, stock options and loan interest, is estimated at about 17 percent. Tellingly, and curiously, he has no voting rights on the board or input into editorial content (or so we are told).
The Times currently earns an estimated $3 million annually in digital ad revenue from its online edition. So, combined with the compound interest on his loan, Slim’s share of that pie alone is probably close to half a million.... Chump change for somebody like Slim.
The comments sections of Times articles also contain digital advertising.  Since those of us who write frequently on these boards contribute to the paper’s bottom line by generating user clicks in the tens of thousands, it is reasonable to assume that we, individually, contribute our own small share to the bank account of Senor Slim.  Hmm… how could I be making his life more pleasant?  It’s fun to imagine that I paid for a spoonful of caviar at his latest yacht party, or maybe donated an hour’s wages for one of the army of private security guards he employs to keep his imposing hide safe in his lawless, impoverished country. And it’ll get even better once we start paying at least $15 a month to continue the privilege of writing for free in the comments sections.  It’s a double dipping win-win for Carlos, and we’ll be helping to get the Sulzbergers out of hock early too.  The least they could do is thank us. (Don’t hold your breath).
Maintaining Him in the Lifestyle to Which He is Accustomed
Details of the paywall and the pricing rationale remain confusing.  Theoretically, we will get 20 free articles a month before we are asked to pony up. However, readers can sidestep the paywall by linking to Times articles from any number of other sites. And how the Times will track its frequent  users is also a subject of debate.  It is fairly easy to bypass paywalls by clearing your internet browser of cookies every so often, so the sites have no record of your visits. But since The Times requires user registration to recommend articles and post comments, it is unknown if the newspaper will track users through log-in information.
My biggest gripe is not about the subscription plan itself (newspaper reporters and editors have to eat too), but about the amount being charged.  Fifteen bucks is a lot if you’re on a fixed income or low income or no income. Several readers and commenters have written to say they will not be able to afford the rates. I agree with others who suggest that a fee of $5 a month would not only be more affordable to readers, but would probably also generate many more subscribers and more profits for the Times… and Senor Robber Baron-Patron. 
 Perhaps most important to me is that the  pricey new paywall will effectively stifle valuable input from the increasing numbers of indigent people in our country. Reader comments will increasingly reflect the views of the more affluent or at least the financially solvent among us. And how about readers from overseas who may have even fewer assets? (I am thinking of the many readers from Egypt who contributed during the recent revolution).  Personally, I would like to continue hearing from real people who are actually going through a foreclosure, have been out of work for two years and counting, and who lie awake at night wondering how they’re going to pay their next electric bill or forestall bankruptcy because of illness. The Commentariat, as my friend Marie Burns the Constant Weader calls it, is a valuable part of journalism and should be represented by people from all walks of life.  The paywall will be an effective Wall of Silence, a closed, gated community to shut out people who are already shut out enough as it is.
Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano recently announced plans to tear down the border fence between Mexico and the USA. We have enough barriers, enough walls. We don’t need another one. Me oyos, Senor Slim?
Fences Don't Always Make Good Neighbors

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Duck and Cover

The Suburban Landscape
Back in the days before Google maps and TomTom, people were taken aback by my verbal directions when visiting me for the first time. “Come all the way to the top of the hill and make a right where you see the big nuclear warning siren,” I’d say blithely.  After about a decade, I’d gotten used to looking at the towering eyesore built just a few hundred yards from my house.  But I never did get used to the ear-splitting, seemingly endless four-minute-long wail that would literally rattle the windows and send my cats into kniption fits about once every few months or so.
Each of the 172 sirens in four New York counties is supposed to warn of impending nuclear disaster within a 50 mile radius of the Indian Point Power Plant – which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has just named the most dangerous facility in the country, due to its long history of unplanned radioactive gaseous burps and leakage problems and a transformer explosion and proximity to a fault line. It’s not so much the earthquake risk – it’s the fact that the aging facility was built with no protections against earthquakes of any magnitude.  What a shock.
The siren’s sole message is to tell us to turn on our TVs and radios for further instructions and evacuation routes.  Basically, the only evacuation instruction is to get in the car and head north. Quick.  Fallout shelters are few and far between.  Town hall basements, that sort of thing.  Nice thought, except that along with Indian Point, even the warning sirens have had a history of malfunctioning more often than not.
Indian Point’s license is due to expire in the next few years, and the plant operator. Entergy, is seeking a 20-year extension of its operating permit. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, long an opponent of the plant, is using the NRC report and Japan crisis to renew his call for shutting it down for good. The only trouble is, the state has no plan on how to replace the electricity that Indian Point now generates to an estimated 25 percent of New York City and its immediate environs.
 “Gov. Cuomo’s post-closure plans are laid out in one sentence: ‘We must find and implement alternative sources of energy generation and transmission to replace the electricity currently supplied by the Indian Point facility’ he wrote in his 170-page Cleaner Greener New York report.” (Rockland Journal News, 3/16/11).
Without replacing the energy provided by Indian Point, experts warn, the existing grids will become overloaded, and we can expect roving blackouts to prevent a full system crash.  And even with that precaution, we may experience a full system crash.
What I don’t hear being talked about during this latest nuclear power plant debate is the danger of transporting nuclear waste on our crumbling highway and bridge system.  The NRC and NTSB have strict standards, of course, for the transport of hazardous materials. Here is part of a lesson plan they provide to schools about how they keep us safe: "The spent fuel must be shipped in heavy casks, weighing from 20 to 100 tons, depending on the mode of transportation (truck, barge, or train) but all must pass a series of severe tests, such as: A collision with an immovable object, like being dropped thirty feet onto reinforced concrete; being dropped 40 inches onto a steel spike; being burned in a hot fire for 30 minutes; submersion in water for eight hours."
I'm no scientist, but what would happen if a tractor trailer carrying spent fuel ended up hundreds of feet below water for more than eight hours?  Given the abysmal state of our infrastructure, I think we should worry more about collapsing bridges than short-range impalations on spikes.
I'll never forget an interview I did with the director of my county’s Civil Defense Department in 1979 after the Three Mile Island disaster. The population was in near-panic mode, and my main assignment was to find out where to go, the location of fallout shelters in the area, symptoms of radiation poisoning, and so on.  Besides scoring the scoop that my county building had a previously unpublicized luxurious underground bunker designed to house and feed bigwig officials in the event of a nuclear disaster (complete with decontamination showers and a cafeteria with wall-length murals of peaceful outdoor scenes to stave off claustrophobia), the director told me about unregulated nuclear waste being transported over the Hudson River bridges by sleep-deprived truckers. We should be more worried about the nukes on our roadways than in our power plants, he warned.
Here is the official NRC map of where the nukes travel, by road and by rail. Nowadays, by law, the big rigs have to display warning logos prominently on their vehicles.  No doubt, seeing these graphics will keep us all safe as we careen down the interstates at a legal 65 mph.

See America First

Honk if You Like My Driving!

Mr. Atom, Cuddly Mascot of the NRC
 Meanwhile, the Republican Congress wants to deciminate the Environmental Protection Agency and its ability to monitor our air quality, and President Obama takes a quick few seconds  to tell us to help Japan as he fills out his March Madness basketball picks.  But at least we no longer have a president who talks about “nukular” crap. That would be just too much to bear.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Obama Convicts Loughner Before Trial

Somebody didn't vet President Obama's milquetoast Arizona Daily Star op-ed on gun control last weekend:

"But one clear and terrible fact remains. A man our Army rejected as unfit for service; a man one of our colleges deemed too unstable for studies; a man apparently bent on violence, was able to walk into a store and buy a gun.

He used it to murder six people and wound 13 others. And if not for the heroism of bystanders and a brilliant surgical team, it would have been far worse." -- Barack Obama, Arizona Star, March 13, 2011.

Hmm.... one of the first things I was taught in Journalism 101 is that you never, ever categorically state that someone committed a crime.  You write something to the effect of "Joe Blow was arrested on charges of public lewdness"  or "Barry allegedly passed on the right, causing the accident."

Obama just succeeded in tainting any jury pool called to consider the fate of Loughner.  This could be a gift to his defense lawyer.  How could anyone get a fair trial once the President of the United States has already declared him a murderer?

I give props to MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell for pointing out the op-ed's glaring faux pas on his show last night. I am really surprised it hasn't been picked up by any other media outlets -- at least I haven't seen it reported anywhere else in all my internet news travels.

This all leads me to believe that Obama didn't even write this plodding, talking-pointy, bullet-pointy op-ed. He may not have even read it.  As a graduate of Harvard Law, he should have caught the mistake. 

Sounds like a few heads need to roll besides that of a State Department spokesman who speaks out against the inhumane treatment of Bradley Manning.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Chasing the Devil Out of Chase

A group of ministers stormed JP MorganChase on Park Avenue in New York on Friday to both perform an exorcism and close their accounts.  Although they waved their crucifixes with aplomb, and sprinkled holy water in an attempt to cast out the devil of greed, the banking behemoth was still standing as of Monday. No credible reports of CEO Jamie Dimon suffering attacks of pea-soup projectile vomiting or head-spinning have yet been received.

Jamie Demon Dimon

Chase, the nation’s third largest mortgage servicer, has modified the loans of only six percent of the New Yorkers requesting such relief in the past year. Out of more than a thousand city homeowners seeking help from Chase under the federal government’s Home Affordability Modification Program, more than 80 percent of the applicants never even got a reply from Chase.  Lloyd Blankfein. of that other mega-bank, Goldman Sachs, once infamously said that his Wall Street house was doing the "Lord’s work." But now the people who are really doing the Lord’s work are as mad as hell, and they aren’t taking it anymore.

It’s common wisdom that not only has HAMP been a bust , but the big banks are still acting like Mafia shakedown artists in foreclosing illegally and utterly thumbing their noses at the struggling homeowners the program was designed to help. Documents released today by the hacking group “Anonymous” reveal that Bank of America has been running a scam which forces its own expensive insurance on mortgagees without their knowledge.  Emails provided by a BofA whistleblower seem to indicate an effort to cover up the scam from the prying eyes of auditors.  A nonpartisan, populist activism group called has recently morphed into a social networking site to organize anti-Wall Street demonstrations and nonviolent resistance against the oligarchy.  Protest events at several branches of the Federal Reserve are being planned for later this month.
Our government is not watching out for our interests, so somebody has to. President Obama is not about to come out on the side of the people when his White House is stuffed to the rafters with Wall Street insiders. His new chief of staff, Bill Daley, is fresh from a stint as one of the head honchos of JPMorgan Chase. So what if he temporarily divested himself of his bank stock?  That revolving door from government to the Military Industrial Complex and K Street is spinning apace, and the boundaries between private and public have become so blurred as to be nonexistent.
The small group of church people and their followers sang “We Shall Overcome” and quoted Martin Luther King before they peacefully performed their symbolic exorcism, entered the bank and closed out their accounts.  Rev. Allen Ramirez of the Brookville Reformed Church passionately shouted, “We are here to sprinkle holy water on the Evil Empire!"
The Hell That Fraud Has Created (Dore engraving from Dante's Inferno)
That there is a special place in hell reserved for banksters is not a new idea. Dante assigned the penultimate recess of his fiery pit – the Eighth Circle – to the greedy and the fraudulent. One of its denizens is Geryon, the demon of avarice. He has a smiling human face, so we don’t immediately notice his grasping claws and stinging scorpion tail. Dante knew his banking industry, all right.  It hasn’t changed in the 700 years since he lived and without regulation, it never will. This is Medievalism Redux.
The only cure for avarice is outside intervention. Exorcism, of course, has some pithy symbolic value. It’s a nice theatrical segue to the mass demonstrations, recalls, elections, public exposure and relentless drumbeat of discontent that grows ever louder with each passing day.
We. Have. Had. Enough.