2/26/06

Check out Don Asmussen's Bad Reporter strip



Cartoon from Bad Reporter for February 24, 2006 by Don Asmussen (email).

Just discovered "Bad Reporter" by the San Francisco Chronicle's Don Asmussen. Uclick describes Asmussen as having the

uncanny ability to mix multiple news stories... [which reads] like some bizarrre cross of Saturday Night Live and THE ONION.

Bad Reporter appeared first on September 25, 2003 with the slogan, “The lies behind the truth, and the truth behind those lies that are behind that truth." The first topic was the recall of Governor Gray Davis. The column had grown out of an earlier effort for the paper entitled “The San Francisco Comic Strip.”

There's also an archive of all his work for the paper here and he has his own website of animation here , which started with 1999 collaboration with Mondo Media CEO , John Evershed. His 1997 comic at Salon, "The Hero Santon" is archived here .

Asmussen also produced a regular strip for Time magazine from 1996-2001. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, U.S. News and World Report, Mother Jones, and various other publications. He has been profiled in the New York Times, Communication Arts Magazine, and Step By Step Graphics.

Updates:

2/27/06--Asmussen had no article at Wikipedia so I added one .

2/28/06--Don's reply when I wrote him for permission to use the above cartoon and to let him know about the wiki article:

Thanks Beth, that's really sweet of you! Any help is much appreciated in this more and more crowded cartoon universe. I appreciated the Wikipedia article. I almost feel famous in a way... don a

2/9/06

Village Voice's New Owners



The above illustration, "Doom and Dimmer" is from "Fill 'er Up with Fear" , (current link without image) Ward Harkavy's article on Bush's State of the Union address that (doh), we are "addicted to oil. Just found out that effective February 7, his Bush Beat has been cancelled by the new management at the Villiage Voice.

The venerable independent celebrated its fiftieth anniversary by announcing October 24 that it was merging with the Phoenix-based New Times Media in early 2006, pending federal regulatory approval. That approval came November 28.

While adopting the name of the Villiage Voice media, the organization kept the management of New Times CEO Jim Larkin and executive editor Michael Lacey, as well as New Times-owned national advertising sales agency Ruxton Media Group.

New Times claimed in the news release to have been born of the same

desire to create a venue for high-spirited, innovative public debate...[and to] challenge mainstream sensibilities... irreverent humor, spirited criticism, [and] magazine-style feature writing

It is telling that Lacey founded his chain with others in 1970 from Arizona State University and has catered to local coverage and the youth market. The Village Voice, on the other hand started to introduce

free-form, high-spirited and passionate journalism into the public discourse.

In announcing the end of his column, Harkavy says he will now be,

writing stories for the paper itself. I'll be focusing on New York City angles.

On its website, New Times Media says of the merger:

It'll take a while before we work out all the kinks, and we're pretty sure we'll screw up at least a few things along the way.

Harkavy was the first national journalist to break the story of Wilbur Ross and his connection to the Sago Mining disaster. He graciously granted permission to run his illustration from that article on this blog, just asking for a link and named credit.

Well, Ward, I'll miss your column, and as far as I'm concerned this is a major "screw up."

*

The Voice last changed hands in 2000, after then publisher Leonard N. Stern announced in September 28, 1999 that by the end of the year hoped to sell the paper and the six others he owned: LA Weekly, OC Weekly, City Pages, Seattle Weekly, Long Island Voice, and the Cleveland Free Times. He had purchased the Voice from Rupert Murdoch in 1985.

In addition to publishing, Stern's business ventures include real estate and Hartz Mountain pet products. of which he was the heir of the founder.

The buyers included New York-based financial firm Weiss, Peck & Greer and a private equity fund associated with the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. The new CEO, Voice veteran David Schneiderman, who reportedly bought the papers for $150 to $160 million, immediately announced that he planned to buy additional alternative papers to create an even bigger chain.

Art Howe, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and former publisher of the alternative Philadelphia City Paper, was named president. Among the executive vice presidents were Michael Sigman, publisher of the LA Weekly, and Albert Del Favero Jr., publisher of the Nashville Scene, which was purchased by the same investors previously.

At the time, Schneiderman told the San Francisco Bay Guardian that he planned to keep the staffs intact. Gabriel Roth reported in a January 12, 2000 story that Schneiderman had said,

My policy is, you keep a good editor in place and let them run things as they wish....I don't believe in giving editors orders, and I don't believe they should take orders from me.

Sigman added,

In order to make good profits you have to have great papers, and that means spending on editorial, on production, on sales, on marketing.

New Times had reportedly put in a bid at that time.

*

Flash forward six years. In Ohio, The Athens News, the town's only locally owned paper joined other independent alternative newspapers in expressing opposition to the merger, as reported on January 5, 2006 by that paper's senior writer Jim Phillips in a story, "State attorney general not much interested in fighting alt-newspaper merger."

Said its Publisher Bruce Mitchell,

It's further erosion of the diversification of media....The more chains that are formed, the less independent editorial voices there are. We're against the consolidation of media in general, and this merger specifically.

Ironically, that office had sued Villiage Voice Media and New Times Media in 2003 for eaching giving up a paper to allow the other to have a monopoly on the alternative press in Cleveland and Los Angeles.

Phillips writes that according to the Alan C. Witten of the AG's office,

In the settlement, the two chains agreed to pay a "substantial" sum of money (Witten's word) to cover the impact their deal had on the Cleveland market, and to refrain for five years from any business agreements that would impact the media market in Ohio.

"Be assured that this office has taken, and will take, actions against any transaction between these two publishers that violates either our existing judgment against them or Ohio's antitrust laws in other markets within our jurisdiction," Witten's letter to The Athens NEWS concludes.

The Bay Guardian cited this in a December 14 editorial, characterizing it as "another potential roadblock" to the merger. It cited unnamed sources who told the paper that California Attorney General Bill Lockyer had contacted Ohio AG Petro about the issue. The editorial urged Lockyer and Petro to join forces and "take on an important case that the federal government is ducking."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a story Dec. 17, reporting that Petro's office was "studying a planned merger of alternative-weekly newspaper chains for potential antitrust violations."

By that time, however, the merger was no longer "planned," but an accomplished fact, given the federasl approval. According to according to Village Voice Media spokesperson Winnie Lerner. "It's a done deal,"

Ohio AG spokesperson Kim Norris, said that Petro's office sees no basis for any such action against the merger.

Opponents of the merger cite its impact on ad sales. Ruxton Media Group will take newspapers in five markets -- New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Nashville -- away from the Alternative Weekly Network, which serves many independent papers in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. (New Times and Village Voice Media papers also belong to the trade group.)

An Ohio University emeritus journalism professor who has studied media law told said,

I don't think [the Federal regulators are]... looking at (media consolidation) issues very much at all right now," said professor Guido Stempel... And the states have never been that active.

Athens News "Be assured that this office has taken, and will take, actions against any transaction between these two publishers that violates either our existing judgment against them or Ohio's antitrust laws in other markets within our jurisdiction," Witten's letter to The Athens NEWS concludes.Bay Guardian seized on the letter as evidence that the merger had run afoul of Ohio regulators. A Dec. 14 editorial in the San Francisco paper cited the letter to Athen News Editor Smith, which the editorial characterized as "another potential roadblock" to the merger. It claimed Witten had indicated in the letter that the merger "could possibly violate" the consent decree that settled the 2003 lawsuit, and cited unnamed sources who told the paper that California Attorney General Bill Lockyer had contacted Ohio AG Petro about the issue.

The Bay Guardian seized on the letter as evidence that the merger had run afoul of Ohio regulators. A Dec. 14 editorial in the San Francisco paper cited the letter to Athen News Editor Smith, which the editorial characterized as "another potential roadblock" to the merger. It claimed Witten had indicated in the letter that the merger "could possibly violate" the consent decree that settled the 2003 lawsuit, and cited unnamed sources who told the paper that California Attorney General Bill Lockyer had contacted Ohio AG Petro about the issue.

The editorial urged Lockyer and Petro to join forces and "take on an important case that the federal government is ducking."

The issue even got some coverage in our state's mainstream press, when the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a story Dec. 17, reporting that Petro's office was "studying a planned merger of alternative-weekly newspaper chains for potential antitrust violations."

By that time, however, the merger was no longer "planned," but an accomplished fact. The U.S. Department of Justice approved it on Nov. 28, essentially finalizing the arrangement, according to Village Voice Media spokesperson Winnie Lerner. "It's a done deal," Lerner said on Wednesday.

Presumably, the state attorney generals in Ohio, California or both could still take their own actions under state law. Ohio AG spokesperson Kim Norris, however, said Wednesday that Petro's office sees no basis for any such action against the merger.

Norris noted that in Witten's letter, the attorney did not say that any business agreement between New Times and Village Voice would trigger a legal response from the state.

The state will act against the chains only if their business deal "violates either our existing judgment against them or Ohio's antitrust laws in other markets within our jurisdiction," the letter stated. And, according to Norris, the AG at this point doesn't see any Ohio media market that would be affected by the merger.

Norris said in 2003, the market swap by New Times and Village Voice clearly violated Ohio's anti-trust laws. In 2006, by contrast, she said, "we do not believe that there's any market in Ohio where these two publishers operate competing newspapers, for which there would be any impact (from the merger)." And as long as that's the case, she said, the Ohio AG has no jurisdiction to act against the merger.

so, evidently collaboration is illegal, merger is okay. Opponents cite the merger's impact on ad sales, noting due to the merger, Ruxton will take newspapers in five markets -- New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Nashville -- away from the Alternative Weekly Network, which serves many independent papers in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. (New Times and Village Voice Media papers also belong to the trade group.)

Though this might conceivably hurt alternatives in Ohio in the long run, it's apparently not enough immediate reason for the state's attorney general to get involved in the case.

An Ohio University emeritus journalism professor who has studied media law said Tuesday that federal regulators are less likely than in the past to call foul on media mergers, and state agencies tend to be less aggressive than the feds.

"I don't think they're looking at (media consolidation) issues very much at all right now," said professor Guido Stempel. "And the states have never been that active."

Athens News Editor Smith said his main concern involves what will happen if down the line

They've got some excellent alt-weeklies now...but who's to say that couldn't change under a corporate takeover? If that happened, it could cripple our trade group and the industry as a whole, adversely impacting all the papers in it.

*

So, who is this spokesperson Winnie Lerner? A managing director at the Abernathy MacGregor Group (AbMac). According to her bio on its site, she

provides investor relations, financial public relations and transactions counsel to clients , [especially] in the telecommunications and technology industries...[and] has been involved in every telecommunications transaction the firm has managed over the past six years, including Bell Atlantic’s merger with NYNEX (now Verizon), Bell Atlantic’s bid for AirTouch, WorldCom’s merger with MCI, and, more recently, Vodafone and Verizon’s joint wireless partnership and Vodafone’s acquisition of Mannesmann and Illuminet’s acquisition of NTC.

Lerner holds a B.A. in international relations from Connecticut College. In an example of the revolving door, she joined AbMac in 1996

from the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance where she served as a Legislative Assistant on telecommunications and broadcast issues.

2/5/06

Jack Spadaro's Fight Against Bush's MSHA


The above photo from OHVEC taken in March of 2001, shows the pumps on Wolf Creek, five months after the Martin County sludge spill. Here's that draft of my June 2004 article I promised on Jack Spadaro, who lost his job trying to hold Massey accountable.

Whistleblower Jack Spadaro Fights Bush Administration Retaliation

“I’m hoping that this problem I’ve had will show people how utterly corrupt the Bush administration is. I’m a perfectly law abiding citizen who was doing his job well for thirty years and they storm troop my office and lock me out of my office,” Jack Spadaro, former superintendent of the Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) National Mine Health and Safety Academy, told the NRFP in an interview June 16.

On June 4, 2003, government agents entered Spadaro's office in Beckley West Virginia, went through his files, locked him out and placed him on administrative leave. Spadaro had accused the Bush administration of whitewashing the investigation into the October 2000 Martin County, KY sludge spill. Twenty-five times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster, the Massey Energy sludge spill included hazardous chemicals, including arsenic and mercury. The failed impoundment polluted 100 miles of stream all the way to the Ohio River.

Spadaro had also complained that the new administration doled out lucrative contracts for work at the academy to friends. One contract, for a training program, was worth nearly $200,000. MSHA denied violating the law, but Spadaro told the NRFP they divided the program into 186 smaller contracts.

During their initial investigation, Spadaro and his colleagues discovered records of a 1994 spill at the same impoundment. Massey claimed it had taken corrective measures, but a company engineer said the problem had not been fixed, and that both he and Massey knew another spill was inevitable. It turned out that there was less than 20 feet of rock between the mine workings and an old flooded mine serving to hold mine, but the company had told the government there was a solid coal barrier, at least 70 to 80 feet wide.

Originally, the team wanted to cite the company for ten violations. Spadaro told the NRFP that once Bush took office “the change was dramatic.” The team members had been conducting a “clean, objective, forward-moving investigation.” After the inauguration, they received “instructions to limit the scope.” Spadaro complained on April 11 and 16. Then in October 2001, his new boss, Bush appointee Dave Lauriski called twice and and insisted he sign a watered down version of the report. “He said , ‘I'm in a hard spot and we need your name on the report.” Spadaro told Lauriski that since they weren’t allowed to complete the investigation that “your best bet is to strike my name and go on and publish it without me.”

The final report cited Massey Energy for only two violations, and the company had to pay approximately $110,000 in fines. Massey had been a generous contributor to the Republican Party. According to Public Campaign, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, "Buck" Harless, a board member of Massey Energy, was a Bush "pioneer", who pledged to raise at least $100,000 for the Bush campaign. He and his family alone have given nearly $70,000 to Bush and the Republican National Committee since 1999.

Lauriski was a former executive with Energy West Mining Company and Interwest Mining Company. Davitt McAteer, who had headed MSHA under Clinton when the disaster happened, had come from an entirely different background. He had served as executive director of the Occupational Safety and Health Law Center, a public interest law firm. He had also worked as an attorney with the Center for the Study of Responsive Law and as Solicitor of Safety for the United Mine Workers of America.

In October 2003, the government took steps to fire Spadaro, sayng he had abused his authority, failed to follow procedures, and used his government credit card without authorization. Spadaro denies all the charges.In November, investigative journalist Phillip Babich wrote an extensive article for the on-line magazine, Salon, and Spadaro received coverage on the National Public Radio program Living on Earth. Then on November 18, Representatives George Miller, D-CA, Robert Andrews, D-NJ and Major Owens, D-NY, all members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce requested that Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao provide them with information to assess whether Spadaro is being wrongly terminated.

In their letter to Chao, they wrote: “Obviously Mr. Spadaro’s status as a whistleblower—questioning the conduct of the Martin County Coal investigation and the Department’s use of no-bid contracts with friends and associates of Department officials—raisers a very serious concern about the nature of the current disciplinary investigation against him.”

On a cold Tuesday this January, 60 people rallied outside the downtown Charleston, W.Va. post office to help the Friends of the Mountains (a coalition of mountaintop removal opponents) kick off its “ Bring Back Jack Campaign,” which is still in progress. According to the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OHVEC), Spadaro is “a rare person--a coal industry regulator who actually regulates the industry and works to protect miners and coalfield residents from the industry's excesses. Over his 30-year career, which began with investigating the causes of the 1972 Buffalo Creek tragedy, Jack has earned the trust and admiration of many Appalachians.”
OHVEC wrote, “It appears to us that Jack was placed on administrative leave…because he dared to delve into the truth about the coal sludge disaster and the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) role in that disaster.”

On February 17, the West Virginia Environmental Council presented Spadaro with its public service award. After talking about the threats to the environment faced in Appalachia, Spadaro acknowledged the public support he has received. “Finally, I want to tell you that your letters, public demonstrations, e-mails, and words of support have sustained me through the past eight months as I have fought to keep my job and continue my life's work. When I was at my lowest, you took up my fight. You helped to restore my energy and determination. I am forever indebted to you for your kindness and concern.”

MSHA officials told Spadaro in late February that he's not being fired. Instead, they want to demote him, cut his pay by $35,000 and transfer him to the agency's Pittsburgh office. That transfer has been stayed while the Office of Special Counsel for Whistleblower Protection investigates at Spadaro’s request.. He told the NRFP that he is concerned that the office has let attorneys from the Department of Labor sit in on the interviews and that there is “an intimidation factor—you can’t get unfettered interviews.” No representative for Spadaro has been allowed to attend. The spokesperson for the office would provide no information to the NRFP, citing its policy to neither comment on an open case nor to confirm whether a case is open.

The Labor Department's inspector general is looking into whether or not MSHA officials broke the law in awarding government contracts. Spadaro says that the report confirms all the charges but has not been released. He speculates that Chao wants to hold up release of the report until Congress’ August recess.

If he doesn't receive satisfaction from the Department of Labor or the Office of the Special Counsel, he plans to appeal to the U. S. Merit Systems Protection Board.
Spadaro’s plight has attracted the attention of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., writing in The Nation, of the National Audubon Society’s Magazine and of Sixty Minutes, which aired a Bob Simon interview on April 6. Spadaro told Simon he has no plans to go anywhere. “I think that they thought they could simply roll over me, and I would be gone and out of their way,” he said. “But I'm gonna fight them forever if it takes it.”

”I had never seen anything so corrupt and lawless in my entire ….I've been in government since Richard Nixon. I've been through the Reagan administration, Carter and Clinton. I've never seen anything like this.”

To help with the “Bring Back Jack” campaign, readers can call or fax the Office of the Special Counsel on Spadaro’s behalf. They can write Representative Miller, West Virginia Senator Byrd and their senators and congressmen. For details and links to media coverage, see OHVEC's page on Spadaro.

MTR Film series at Virginia Tech includes Sludge featuring Jack Spadaro



The above picture is of whistleblower Jack Spadaro from Sludge, Appalshop's 2005 documentary by Robert Salyer.

*

If you come at 7:00 p.m. to Virginia Tech's 3100 Torgersen Theater on some upcoming Wednesdays, you will be able to attend a free, public showing of a series of documentaries sponsored the the student group, Mountain Justice, in conjunction with the Appalachian Studies Program. For more information email Joan Kark or call her at 540-921-4055.

Salyer will be on hand February 15. Filmed over four years, Sludge chronicles the aftermath of the October 11, 2000 Martin County Kentucky coal waste spill, Spadaro demotion for refusing to sign on to a whitewashing of the spill by MSHA and the threat of the over 235 coal sludge impoundments throughout the region.

But first, this Wednesday, February 8, see excerpts from three earlier Appalshop films and listen to a discussion by Associate Professor Sam Cook from Tech's Center for Interdisciplinary Studies:

  • Buffallo Creek Flood: An Act of Man (Mimi Pickering, 1975)
  • Buffalo Creek Revisited (Pickering, 1984)
  • To Save the Land and the People (Anne Lewis, 1999)
  • The first two films examine the 1972 Buffalo Creek flood which killed 125 people and left 4,000 homeless in in Logan County, West Virginia. The last film is a history of early efforts in Eastern Kentucky to stop stop stripmining.

    Then on February 22, filmmaker Jeff Barrie will lead a discussion after a showing of his 2004 documentary, Killowatt Ours, which explores the consequences of a coal-based economy and demonstrates practical solutions that individuals can take to create a "net zero nation". And on April 12, there will be a showing of Catherine Pancake's 2005Black Diamonds, which charts the increase in large mountaintop coal mines and their environmental and social consequences.

    By the way, Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, has her report on the effects of mountaintop removal available at the group's site. The group also has an archive on Jack Spadaro's case.

    Delayed media coverage of the Martin County sludge spill

    On October 11, 2000, the date of the Martin County spill at Inez, Kentucky, officials at Martin County Coal, a subsidiary of Richmond-based Massey energy, convinced the local sheriff to block the roads and keep the press out. In contrast to its quick coverage the Sago disaster, the New York Times' first story, Peter T. Kilborn's "A Torrent of Sludge Muddies a Town's Future" appeared on December 25. Mother Jones didn't write about it until its March/April 2002 issue. But I was at the Highlander Center for the annual Southern Appalachian Writer's Cooperative meeting and so heard about it right away. And I knew about Inez, because my friend John had left to work there and I had been online trying to find him accomodations.

    Suits fail because of cover-up

    Five years later, as the statute of limitations was running out, Attorney John Kirk filed one last lawsuit on behalf of 20 people against Martin County Coal, a subsidiary of Richmond-based Massey Energy, saying that sludge remains in the soil despite a 46 million-dollar cleanup. Another lawsuit Kirk has pending is on behalf of another 25 individuals. More than 400 people who took part in similar lawsuits have reached out-of-court settlements, in which they promised not to release the terms. The Lexington Herald-Leader editorialized on the last of those settlements in September:

    Sparks relied heavily on a whitewashed federal report in reaching his decision to disallow punitive damages for owners of property that was buried under sludge....

    U.S. attorneys were on hand at the Martin County Courthouse last week -- not to be sure all the facts came out, but to try to block testimony by Spadaro and a government-hired private engineer who discovered that only 5 feet of earth, not the 70 feet claimed by the company, buffered the impoundment in places.


    With the judge and federal lawyers against them, the property owners decided to take the confidential settlement offered by the company rather than let a jury hear their case.
    While I don't have copies of the stories I filed on Martin County on hand, there's my draft of the story I wrote on Spadaro whistleblowing on the sludge spill for the New River Free Press in June of 2004 reprinted as my next entry.