Category Archives: Public service

UN blasts Trump for his war on the press


Donald Trump’s war on the press comes at a time when American journalism is dying, its ranks radically thinned as giant chains, many of them owned by investment banks interested only in profit rather than community service.

He ramped up his attacks Thursday night [2 August], devoting most of the evening’s rally to a relentless attack on the Fourth Estate, as the Associated Press reports:

“Whatever happened to the free press? Whatever happened to honest reporting?” Trump asked, pointing to the media in the back of the hall. “They don’t report it. They only make up stories.”

Time and time again, Trump denounced the press for underselling his accomplishments and doubting his political rise.

>snip<

“Only negative stories from the fakers back there,” the president declared.

With each denunciation, the crowd jeered and screamed at the press in the holding pen at the back of the arena.

His assault on journalism came on the same day that two leading United Nations officials spoke out against his escalating assault on the free press.

From the United Nations:

Human rights experts denounce Trump’s attacks against media

The United Nations expert on free expression has condemned President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the press, warning that the US leader’s rhetoric is eroding public trust in the media and could spark violence against journalists.

“His attacks are strategic, designed to undermine confidence in reporting and raise doubts about verifiable facts,” David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and Edison Lanza, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said in a joint statement on Thursday.

Mr. Trump has labelled the media as being the “enemy of the American people,” “very dishonest” and “fake news,” the statement said. Moreover, he has accused the press of distorting democracy and spreading conspiracy theories and blind hatred.

“These attacks run counter to the country’s obligations to respect press freedom and international human rights law,” the experts said, expressing concern that the attacks risk increasing targeted violence against journalists.

The experts stressed that over the course of his presidency, Mr. Trump and his administration have sought to undermine reporting that had uncovered fraud, abuse, potential illegal conduct and disinformation.

“Each time the President calls the media ‘the enemy of the people’ or fails to allow questions from reporters from disfavoured outlets,” the experts continued, “he suggests nefarious motivations or animus.” However, they pointed out that not even one time was he able to show any specific reporting that was driven by untoward motivations.

“It is critical that the US administration promote the role of a vibrant press and counter rampant disinformation,” they underscored.

To this end, they urged President Trump to not only “stop using his platform to denigrate the media” but to condemn the attacks, including press threats at his own rallies.

Affirming that media attacks go beyond Mr. Trump’s language, they encouraged his administration, including the Justice Department, to “avoid pursuing legal cases against journalists in an effort to identify confidential sources,” saying that it undermines the media’s independence and blocks the public from accessing information.

The experts also appealed to the Government to “stop pursuing whistle-blowers through the tool of the Espionage Act.”

“We stand with the independent media in the United States, a community of journalists and publishers and broadcasters long among the strongest examples of professional journalism worldwide,” they asserted. “We especially urge the press to continue, where it does so, its efforts to hold all public officials accountable.”

The experts encouraged all media to act in solidarity against the efforts of President Trump to favour some outlets over others.

“Two years is two years too much, and we strongly urge that President Trump and his administration and his supporters end these attacks,” they concluded.

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

As someone who’s devoted his working life to practicing the craft of journalism, we are deeply alarmed at the state of the American press.

Trump wants what any tyrant wants: A silencing of opposing voices.

And with the press now own by those seeking profit over principle, the prognosis is bleak,

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The decline and fall of American journalism


Community newspapers across the U.S. are dying, slain by a combination of greed, changing public media habits, and indifference.

We begin with a story from Monday’s BBC News:

The New York Daily News, one of the city’s two tabloid papers, is halving its editorial staff, the latest sign of trouble in the local news business. The cuts will leave the newsroom with about 40 people, according to former employees.

They come less than a year after the paper was bought by Tronc, which has a reputation for low newsroom investment.

The New York Daily News started in 1919 and has won 11 Pulitzer Prizes, one of them last year.

Tronc faced backlash from staff at the Los Angeles Times, who formed a union and cast a spotlight on the cuts at Tronc-owned publications, despite high compensation going to top executives and other insiders.

Tronc is paying Merrick Ventures, a private equity firm led by Tronc’s biggest shareholder, $5m (£3.8m) a year for “management expertise and technical services”. The newspaper company, which also owns the Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun, subsequently sold the Los Angeles Times.

And it’s not just the Big Apple tabloid’s newsroom on the chopping block. Heads are rolling  today at the chain’s other papers,across the country, as reported by CNNMoney:

The newspaper publisher is laying off staffers at some of its other papers “today and tomorrow,” according to a Monday afternoon memo from Tronc CEO Justin Dearborn.

The announcement immediately spooked staffers at papers like The Baltimore Sun and The Chicago Tribune.

Dearborn said the cuts will not be as severe as in New York.

“The Daily News is unique in that local leadership determined a complete redesign of its structure was needed post-acquisition,” he wrote. “We do not expect reductions of this scale in any of our other newsrooms.”

“With that said, several newsrooms and business units are implementing much smaller reductions today and tomorrow to reduce expenses and contain costs,” he wrote.

But it’s not the gutting of papers that should concern a citizen in a deomiocrayc; it’s also the closing of papers by the giant chains that now control most of the nation’s community journalism.

From PBS’s Independent Lens:

In 1983, 50 corporations controlled most of the American media, including magazines, books, music, news feeds, newspapers, movies, radio and television. By 1992 that number had dropped by half. By 2000, six corporations had ownership of most media, and today five dominate the industry: Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany and Viacom. With markets branching rapidly into international territories, these few companies are increasingly responsible for deciding what information is shared around the world.

There are also major news organizations not owned by the “big five.” The New York Times is owned by the publicly-held New York Times Corporation, The Washington Post is owned by the publicly-held Washington Post Company and The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times are both owned by the Tribune Company. Hearst Publications owns 12 newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as magazines, television stations and cable and interactive media.

But even those publications are subject to the conglomerate machine, and many see the “corporatizing” of media as an alarming trend. Ben Bagdikian, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and author of The New Media Monopoly, describes the five media giants as a “cartel” that wields enough influence to change U.S. politics and define social values.

Newspocalypse Now! in three easy graphics. . .

Three images capture the sad story of the decline and fall of community journalism.

First up is a graph by Clinton Mullins, a Twitter exec who formerly held a senior position at old school media legend Conde Nast, showing the steady decline in American newspapers:

Next, from a January Bureau of Labor Statistics report on the state of journalistic employment across all platforms:

And from the Pew Research Center, a global look at the percentages of folks who believe their media are doing very/somewhat well at reporting the news:

One could argue that new media journalists are filling some of the decline seen in print newsrooms, but we would argue that in one very critical respect they are not.

Once newspapers were mostly locally owned, and their journalists and their publishers live in the communities they served.

And most significantly , community newspapers served as platforms for democracy, since providing information for a broad range of the public reflecting wide diversity of activities and opinion and thus constituting m modern version of the ancient Greek agora, the marketplace where both business and democracy took place.

And that’s why the changing nature of media ownership is of such vital importance,

The worst of the  predators stake out their prey

There’s an increasing probability that if you’re reading a U.S. newspaper. It’s owned by that most rapacious of predators, an investment bank. One such outfit, New Media Investment Group, was created as a shell to control the assets of Gatehouse media, with 144 daily newspapers and 333 weekly newspapers in 27 states, with the New Media itself being, according to its website, “externally managed and advised by an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group LLC, a global investment management firm.” Fortress, in turn, owns everything from casinos and retirement homes to other investment firms, a mortgage company, and a railroad.

From The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts, a two-year study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media:

Much attention has been focused in recent years on the country’s largest and most revered national newspapers as they struggle to adapt to the digital age. This report focuses, instead, on the thousands of other papers in this country that cover the news of its small towns, city neighborhoods, booming suburbs and large metropolitan areas. The journalists on these papers often toil without recognition outside their own communities. But the stories their papers publish can have an outsized impact on the decisions made by residents in those communities, and, ultimately, on the quality of their lives. By some estimates, community newspapers provide as much as 85 percent of “the news that feeds democracy” at the state and local levels.

This means the fates of newspapers and communities are inherently linked. If one fails, the other suffers. Therefore, it matters who owns the local newspaper because the decisions owners make affect the health and vitality of the community

>snip<

Over the past decade, a new media baron has emerged in the United States. Private equity funds, hedge funds and other newly formed investment partnerships have swooped in to buy — and actively manage — newspapers all over the country. These new owners are very different from the newspaper publishers that preceded them. For the most part they lack journalism experience or the sense of civic mission traditionally embraced by publishers and editors. Newspapers represent only a fraction of their vast business portfolios — ranging from golf courses to subprime lenders — worth hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars. Their mission is to make money for their investors, so they operate with a short-term, earnings-first focus and are prepared to get rid of any holdings — including newspapers — that fail to produce what they judge to be an adequate profit.

Here in California, Alden Global Capital — another vulture — owns the great majority of Golden State newspapers [38], accounting for an equally large majority of the readership.

Alden runs them through a shell, Digital First Media, which in turn has no less that three other shells to run their California papers. And Digital First President Joe Fuchs has his priorities, as he told a recent press conference: “Alden or any of their peers, doesn’t get involved in something to lose money.”

Alden’s capture of the California Fourth Estate and the ensuing ruthless and repeated downsizings play a leading role in the decline of California print employment reflected in this stunning graphic from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis:

Alden and its principal are so vicious in their attacks on the newsrooms that a 26 March Bloomberg News report on the company carried this headline:

Imagine If Gordon Gekko Bought News Empires

The reality is even worse: This raider sinks decimated newsrooms’ revenue into bad investments.

In an 17 October 2016 report, the Poynter Foundation charted the ownership types of the top 25 newspaper companies. Those gray malignancies dramatically illustrate the metastatic grasp of investment banks in the dramatically downsized dead-tree trade where we spent the most fulfilling years of our life:

The accompanying text reveals one of many things that happens when the hedge-funders seize control:

Because they own so many newspapers, they can absorb the loss if an individual newspaper fails. If investment firms cannot sell an underperforming newspaper, they close it, leaving communities without a newspaper or any other reliable source of local news and information.

As newspapers die, large areas of the country are transformed into news deserts, counties with few or no paid reporters covering the local communities in black and white.

From Columbia Journalism Review, a look at the news deserts in the contiguous 48 states, with the palest areas representing counties with no remaining papers:

One map reminded us of another, this county-by-county reflection [Wikipedia] of the relative proportion of the winning votes for Hillary Clinton [blue] and Donald Trump [red]. The reason for the blue in the news deserts of Atizona and New Mexico is accounted for by the presence of tribal reservations:

More from an 8 April Politico report:

President Donald Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media may be rooted in statistical reality: An extensive review of subscription data and election results shows that Trump outperformed the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in counties with the lowest numbers of news subscribers, but didn’t do nearly as well in areas with heavier circulation.

POLITICO’s findings — which put Trump’s escalating attacks on the media in a new context — were drawn from a comparison of election results and subscription information from the Alliance for Audited Media, an industry group that verifies print and digital circulation for advertisers. The findings cover more than 1,000 mainstream news publications in more than 2,900 counties out of 3,100 nationwide from every state except Alaska, which does not hold elections at the county level.

The results show a clear correlation between low subscription rates and Trump’s success in the 2016 election, both against Hillary Clinton and when compared to Romney in 2012. Those links were statistically significant even when accounting for other factors that likely influenced voter choices, such as college education and employment, suggesting that the decline of local media sources by itself may have played a role in the election results.

That gives new force to the widely voiced concerns of news-industry professionals and academicians about Trump’s ability to make bold assertions about crime rates, unemployment and other verifiable facts without any independent checks. Those concerns, which initially were raised during the campaign, were largely based on anecdotes and observations. POLITICO’s analysis suggests that Trump did, indeed, do worse overall in places where independent media could check his claims.

The White House declined to comment for this story, but Trump and his campaign officials have made no secret of their preference for partisan national outlets and social media to mainstream outlets of all types.

Newspaper closings lead to higher taxes

Close of local newspapers carries another cost for the impacted communities.

From “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance,” by three finance professors, Pengjie Gao of the University of Notre Dame, and Chang Lee and Dermot Murphy of the University of Illinois at Chicago:

Newspapers play an important monitoring role for local governments. Other papers have shown that the loss of a local newspaper leads to worsened political outcomes in the region, and we illustrate that there are worsened financial outcomes as well. In particular, we show that long-run municipal borrowing costs increase by as much as 11 basis points following a newspaper closure, and we utilize several identification tests to show that these results are not being driven by underlying economic conditions in the region. We also show that government efficiency outcomes are substantially affected by newspaper closures. In particular, we find that government wage rates, government employees per capita, tax dollars per capita, and the likelihoods of costly advance refundings and negotiated sales all increase following a newspaper closure. From a finance perspective, our results suggest that local newspapers are important for the health of local capital markets.

For counties that have experienced local newspaper closures, we do not expect these newspapers to return, nor do we think that they should, per se. Online news outlets are fundamentally changing the way that people consume news, and they are very likely to remain the dominant source for news consumption. However, these paradigm-shifting news outlets do not necessarily provide a good substitute for high-quality, locally-sourced, investigative journalism. In the long-run, perhaps an equilibrium will be reached in which these online-based organizations contract out work to local reporters and tailor their news to the local areas. In 2009, former Baltimore Sun reporter and famous television producer David Simon stated the following: “The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore Zoning Board hearing is the day that I will be confident that we’ve actually reached some sort of equilibrium.” We concur, and our evidence suggests that economic growth at the county level will be better off in that equilibrium.

Just how much a paper’s closure costs local taxpayers whe n their government seeks bond funding is summed up in a graphic from co-author Murphy:

BLOG News bonds

The Trumpster delivers a coup de grâce

And now the biggest beneficiary of the decline of community journalism is dealing Ameirca’s newspapers another deadly blow, forcing papers to cut back even more, writes veteran press-watcher Ken Doctor noted in a March report for the Nieman Lab:

Now the battle is heating up on Capitol Hill over tariffs that the Trump administration imposed on Canadian groundwood paper earlier this year.

The tariffs increase the cost of newsprint by as much as 30 to 35 percent, though the impact on publishers is highly uneven, with some chains in better shape and the dwindling independents most at risk. The predictable impacts already in motion: more newsroom layoffs, thinner (and reshaped) print products, fewer Sunday preprints, and an overall further diminishing of the value proposition newspapers are offering their readers.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will reduce its printing days from seven to five next month. The Nevada Appeal in Carson City, Nevada, moves from seven to just two days, while its parent cuts frequency on three adjacent papers.

Within the industry, there’s talk of “dropping Mondays” and replacing print editions with e-editions on other days as well. It looks as if newsprint tariffs will force more publishers to take the path Advance Publications first took six years ago, swapping daily print for digital.

And so it goes. . .

We started in print journalism doing volunteer reporting for a Colorado mountain daily, beginning with a byline and photo on the front page banner story of the 9 November 1964 San Luis Valley Courier, heading next to Arizona for a $50-a-week gig in Arizona at the weekly Winslow Mail, moving next to Nevada and hitch as crime, civil rights, poverty, and radical politics reporter [the last three beats by our own devising and the first such beat assignments in the history of Silver State journalism] on the staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal — then as now the state’s dominant newspaper.

Our next job was back in Arizona, where we’d spent 30 days covering schools and general for the Tucson Daily American, a newspaper with the temerity to close before we got our second paycheck.

After starting our journalism addiction at 7600 feet above sea level, our first California gig put us om the Pacific Coast, two blocks from the beach at the Oceanside Blade-Tribune. The town’s main industry was the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, where Vietnam War-bound jarheads got their field training before they headed out to combat.

The next newspaper gig was in another coastal town at the superb family owned Santa Monica Evening Outlook, the finest job we ever held. Then it was on to the Sacramento Bee, the dominant and then only newspaper covering the capital city of the nation’s most populous state.

Our final newspaper job was at the Berkeley Daily Planet, the California city that gave rise to the legendary Free Speech Movement.

Of those newspapers, the Winslow Mail, Tucson Daily American, Oceanside Blade-Tribune, Santa Monica Evening Outlook, and the Berkeley Daily Planet were owned by families or individuals and have folded, vanishing from front porches and newsstands, their communities left without local news produced by committed journalists who, despite by their own inevitable personal biases, work hard to fairly and accurately report differing views.

Each of the communities they once served has become a news desert.

Obama administration’s private prison payoff


The whole notion of letting private corporations run American prisons is abominable, going back to 1852 when California opened the first such institution, the now state-run San Quentin Prison.

Privatization failed to gain traction, and governments ran prisons, which, after all, are extensions of the governments’ judicial systems, until Ronald Reagan took over the White House.

Reagan, an avid proponent of turning public institutions into centers for private profits, inaugurated a building boom, with privately owned and operated prisons proliferating like noxious weeds across the country.

The prison contractors have emerged as the nation’s most potent lobbying force, reported the Washington Post in April, 2o15:

The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States – GEO and Corrections Corporation of America – and their associates have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, these private companies have seen their revenue and market share soar. They now rake in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue and the private federal prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute. Private companies house nearly half of the nation’s immigrant detainees, compared to about 25 percent a decade ago, a Huffington Post report found. In total, there are now about 130 private prisons in the country with about 157,000 beds.

>snip<

The Justice Policy Institute identified the private-prison industry’s three-pronged approach to increase profits through political influence: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and building relationships and networks.

One current presidential candidate, Libertarian Gary Johnson, won the New Mexico governorship on a platform which included the promise to privatize all prisons in his state.

From the Sentencing Project:

Gary Johnson’s platform during his initial 1994 run for governor of New Mexico included a pledge to privatize every prison in the state. By the time he left office in 2003 44.2 percent of the state’s prisoners were in privately run facilities.

And the Obama administration jumped on the bandwagon, no doubt with the prompting of his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who since decamping to win the job of mayor of Chicago has ruthlessly privatized public housing, schools, parking meters, nursing services, and more.

It’s no wonder that private prisons are an American corporate success story: With only five percent of the planet’s population, the U.S. accounts for 25 percent of the global incarceration population.

Mapping the Prison/Industrial Complex

This map, from the federal Bureau of Prisons, shows the locations of prisons currently run by private corporations on behalf of the notional government:

BLOG Prisons

Another map, this time from The Private Prison Project, shows the locations of state and federal prisons run by the three largest private prison corporations:

BLOG Prisons all

Federal prisons mushroom, violence reigns

So how effective are private contractors at running their prisons?

A just-released review of private federal prisons by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General concluded:

We found that in a majority of the categories we examined, contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP [Bureau of Prisons — esnl] institutions. We analyzed data from the 14 contract prisons that were operational during the period of our review and from a select group of 14 BOP institutions with comparable inmate populations to evaluate how the contract prisons performed relative to the selected BOP institutions.  Our analysis included data from FYs [fiscal years — esnl] 2011 through 2014 in eight key categories: (1) contraband, (2) reports of incidents, (3) lockdowns, (4) inmate discipline, (5) telephone monitoring, (6) selected grievances, (7) urinalysis drug testing, and (8) sexual misconduct. With the exception of fewer incidents of positive drug tests and sexual misconduct, the contract prisons had more incidents per capita than the BOP institutions in all of the other categories of data we examined.

And just how much more violent are private prisons compared to prisons run by Uncle Sam?

One chart from the Inspector General’s report says it all:

BLOG Prisons assaults

A massive release of documents acquired by The Nation revealed a stunning lack of concern:

[N]ew records show that BOP monitors documented, between January 2007 and June 2015, the deaths of 34 inmates who were provided substandard medical care. Fourteen of these deaths occurred in prisons run by CCA. Fifteen were in prisons operated by the GEO Group. The BOP didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment or to written questions before deadline.

The records and interviews with former BOP officials reveal a pattern: Despite dire reports from dozens of field monitors, top bureau officials repeatedly failed to enforce the correction of dangerous deficiencies and routinely extended contracts for prisons that failed to provide adequate medical care.

The Obama administration greases the skids

And that brings us to the latest boondoggle, reported by the Washington Post:

As Central Americans surged across the U.S. border two years ago, the Obama administration skipped the standard public bidding process and agreed to a deal that offered generous terms to Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest prison company, to build a massive detention facility for women and children seeking asylum.

The four-year, $1 billion contract — details of which have not been previously disclosed — has been a boon for CCA, which, in an unusual arrangement, gets the money regardless of how many people are detained at the facility. Critics say the government’s policy has been expensive but ineffective. Arrivals of Central American families at the border have continued unabated while court rulings have forced the administration to step back from its original approach to the border surge.

In hundreds of other detention contracts given out by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, federal payouts rise and fall in step with the percentage of beds being occupied. But in this case, CCA is paid for 100 percent capacity even if the facility is, say, half full, as it has been in recent months. An ICE spokeswoman, Jennifer Elzea, said that the contracts for the 2,400-bed facility in Dilley and one for a 532-bed family detention center in Karnes City, Tex., given to another company, are “unique” in their payment structures because they provide “a fixed monthly fee for use of the entire facility regardless of the number of residents.”

The rewards for CCA have been enormous: In 2015, the first full year in which the South Texas Family Residential Center was operating, CCA — which operates 74 facilities — made 14 percent of its revenue from that one center while recording record profit. CCA declined to specify the costs of operating the center.

Prisons and presidential politics

Marco Rubio was the private prison industry’s favorite son, the source of both their largess and of legislation that gained them even greater profits, as the Washington Post reported last year:

Marco Rubio is one of the best examples of the private prison industry’s growing political influence, a connection that deserves far more attention now that he’s officially launched a presidential bid. The U.S. senator has a history of close ties to the nation’s second-largest for-profit prison company, GEO Group, stretching back to his days as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. While Rubio was leading the House, GEO was awarded a state government contract for a $110 million prison soon after Rubio hired an economic consultant who had been a trustee for a GEO real estate trust. Over his career, Rubio has received nearly $40,000 in campaign donations from GEO, making him the Senate’s top career recipient of contributions from the company. (Rubio’s office did not respond to requests for comment.).

And while Hillary Clinton has made some statements about reining in the trend, as with so many things, her promises may well prove a facade, and the Intercept reported in June:

The chief executive of the largest private prison company in America reassured investors earlier this month that with either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in the White House, his firm will be “just fine.” Damon Hininger, the chief executive of Corrections Corporation of America, was speaking at the REITWeek investor forum.

Private prisons have received a great deal of criticism this election cycle, first with Bernie Sanders campaigning to end for-profit incarceration, followed by Clinton taking up a similar pledge.

After The Intercept revealed that the Clinton campaign had received campaign donations from private prison lobbyists, a number of activist groups confronted Clinton, leading her to announce that she would no longer accept the money and later declaring that “we should end private prisons and private detention centers.”

But Corrections Corporation is apparently not concerned. Asked about prospects under Trump or Clinton, Hininger argued that his company has prospered through political turnover by taking advantage of the government’s quest for lower costs.

A call to action: Children prey to chemical mayhem


BLOG Kids

As folks who’ve read this modest little blog know by now, one of our most passionate concerns is the vulnerability of children to chemicals that we spew almost unchecked into their environments.

Only now are we discovering that many everyday compounds, from plastics to fire retardants and soaps powerful alter the development of growing bodies, and especially nervous systems.

As you will read in the following statement by some of the nation’s leading healthcare providers:

The vast majority of chemicals in industrial and consumer products undergo almost no testing for developmental neurotoxicity or other health effects.

First, the announcement of the statement from the University of Maryland:

An unprecedented alliance of leading scientists, medical experts, and children’s health advocates, including Devon Payne-Sturges, assistant professor in the University of Maryland School of Public Health, agree for the first time that today’s scientific evidence supports a link between exposures to toxic chemicals in food and everyday products and children’s risks for neurodevelopmental disorders.  The alliance, known as Project TENDR, is calling for immediate action to significantly reduce exposures to toxic chemicals to protect brain development for today’s and tomorrow’s children.

Neurodevelopmental disorders include intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficits, hyperactivity, and other maladaptive behaviors, and learning disabilities.

Prime examples of the chemicals and pollutants that are contributing to children’s learning, intellectual and behavioral impairment include:

  • Organophosphate (OP) pesticides
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants
  • Combustion-related air pollutants, which generally include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)

“The public health disaster in Flint, Michigan has reminded the American people and our leaders the importance of preventing children’s exposures to neurotoxicants in our environment. But lead is not the only neurotoxicant to which we are routinely exposing our children,” says Payne-Sturges, one of the authors of the consensus statement. “We must address the cumulative exposures to multiple chemicals in our air, water, food and consumer products that harm brain development. We are all exposed to multiple chemicals and we know now that these have synergistic effects and our children are the most sensitive to those effects.”

Dr. Payne-Sturges, who is part of the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health in the UMD School of Public Health, helped draft the Project TENDR statement on air pollution risks and contributed expertise on cumulative risk assessment to the scientific consensus.

“This is truly an historic agreement. It’s the first time so many leaders in public health, science, and medicine agree on the message from the scientific evidence: that toxic chemicals are harming our children’s brain development,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, TENDR Co-Director and environmental epidemiologist at UC Davis. “Ten years ago, this consensus wouldn’t have been possible, but the research is now abundantly clear.”

“This national problem is so pressing that the TENDR scientists and medical experts will continue their collaboration to develop and issue recommendations aimed at significantly reducing exposures to toxic chemicals that are harming children’s brain development,” says Maureen Swanson, TENDR Co-Director and director of the Healthy Children Project for the Learning Disabilities Association of America. “Calling for further study is no longer a sufficient response to this threat.”

Project TENDR is a joint endeavor of the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) and the University of California Davis MIND Institute (Medical Investigations of Neurodevelopmental Disorders).

And the statement itself, as published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a scientific journal supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences , National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

Read the full statement, with links, after the jump. . . Continue reading

Recession kills, and the victims are mostly male


Today we’ll consider research on suicides and the Great recession.

Our first and newest study comes from the Research Society on Alcoholism [via Newswise] and reveals a noticeable increase in the correlation between higher alcohol consumption and male suicides during tough economic times. There was no change for women:

Prior research has shown a link between the impact of contracting economies, especially as reflected by the unemployment rate, and suicide mortality risk. This study assesses changes in the rate of heavy alcohol use among suicide decedents, for both genders, during the 2008-2009 economic crisis.

Researchers obtained data for suicide decedents ages 20 years and older from the National Violent Death Reporting System, a surveillance system that records detailed accounts of violent deaths. Individuals participating in the 2006-2011 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which surveys alcohol use, comprised the comparison group. The data were examined to see whether changes in acute intoxication – a blood alcohol content equal to or greater than 0.08 grams per deciliter – in the deceased group before (2005-2007), during (2008-2009), and after (2010-2011) mirrored changes in heavy alcohol use in the living sample.

Results indicate that acute alcohol use contributed to suicide, particularly among men, during the economic downturn. Male suicide decedents experienced a significantly greater increase (+8%) in heavy alcohol use at the onset of the recession than men in the non-suicide comparison group (-2%). Among women who died by suicide, the rate of heavy alcohol use was very similar to that of the general population. The authors suggest that women may show resilience – or men show vulnerability – to the dangerous interaction of alcohol with financial distress.

In an June 2014 report published in Social Science & Medicine, Rutgers sociologist  Julie Anne Phillips discovered another fascinating correlation — men committed suicide at higher states in states with higher levels of women in the workforce:

BLOG Suicides

In yet another study, researchers found another interesting change in Great Recession suicides in the U.S., as reported in the May 2015 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine [emphasis added]:

Suicide circumstances varied considerably by age, with those related to job, financial, and legal problems most common among individuals aged 40–64 years. Between 2005 and 2010, the proportion of suicides where these circumstances were present increased among this age group, from 32.9% to 37.5% of completed suicides (p o0.05). Further, suffocation is a method more likely to be used in suicides related to job, economic, or legal factors, and its use increased disproportionately among the middle-aged. The number of suicides using suffocation increased 59.5% among those aged 40–64 years between 2005 and 2010, compared with 18.0% for those aged 15–39 years and 27.2% for those aged >65 years (p<0.05).

In yet another study, sociologists from Rutgers and the University of Wisconsin found a clear correlation between suicides and home foreclosures. In other words, the banksters who made all those dirty loans were killing people. As Jason N. Houle and Michael T. Light conclude in their report published in the June 2014 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, “Rising home foreclosure rates explained 18% of the variance in the middle-aged suicide rate between 2005 and 2010.”

Changes in suicide and foreclosure rates: all 50 US states plus Washington, DC, 2004–2010.

Changes in suicide and foreclosure rates: all 50 US states plus Washington, DC, 2004–2010.

And on to Europe, first with a Greek exception

All studies of suicides during the Great Recession reveal that the greatest increases have been among middle aged males, with the notable exception of Greece, where cuts in aid to the elderly, both in terms of direct payments and in medical care assistance, have led to a dramatic increase in suicides among the oldest male cohort, as revealed in this graph from a report published 25 March 2015 in the open access edition of the British Medical Journal:

Suicide rates by sex and age group in Greece [2003–2012].

Suicide rates by sex and age group in Greece [2003–2012].

Perhaps the most fascinating piece of research comes from a 6 October 2014 article [open access] in the European Journal of Public Health, looking at changes in suicide rates in 20 EU countries from 1981–2011.

Researchers found that two factors accounted for much of the increase in male suicide rates: Unemployment and debt. Two factors had no impact on the suicide rates: Unemployment benefits and antidepressant pharmaceuticals.

Another decisive variable was whether or not a country has an active labor market program [ALMP] and, if so, whether the program was well funded or not.

ALMPs consists of state-run employment offices, job training programs, and subsidies either to private sector employers or through work programs operated by the state.

All in all, much like the programs implement by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the U.S. during the Great Depression.

So what kind of impact does an ALMP have?

Consider these two charts from the report:

Trends in male suicide and the unemployment rate, by ALMP, 2006–10. Notes: Luxembourg, Malta, and Cyprus are excluded due to small sample size. High/Low is measured as above or below the median level between countries of the within-country means (i.e., US$135 per person per annum) of spending on active labour market programmes. Source: WHO Health for All European Mortality database 2013 edition; OECD 2013 edition

Trends in male suicide and the unemployment rate, by ALMP, 2006–10. Notes: Luxembourg, Malta, and Cyprus are excluded due to small sample size. High/Low is measured as above or below the median level between countries of the within-country means (i.e., US$135 per person per annum) of spending on active labour market programmes. Source: WHO Health for All European Mortality database 2013 edition; OECD 2013 edition

The authors summarize their findings at the end of their report:

  • Suicide increases in Europe during the great recession have been concentrated in men, but large variations exist across nations and over time.

  • Unaffordable housing was not significantly associated with suicides; in contrast, additional job losses and household indebtedness were stronger determinants of population suicide rises.

  • Economic risk factors significantly increase suicide rates among men of working age but not among those >65 years of age.

  • Where active labour market programmes (ALMP) and social capital were relatively high, there was no elevated risk of suicide during the recent recession.

Headline of the day: Good boy, now go to jail


From United Press International:

Holder: Snowden’s actions a public service, but he must be punished

Edward Snowden’s surveillance program revelations were a public service but he must still face punishment, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said.

Quote of the day: Corporatizing the university


From Avery J. Wiscomb’s “The Entrepreneurship Racket” in the latest Jacobin, a fascinating dissection of the American university’s turn towards the entrepreneurial doctrine and the exploitation of research and students for the private rather than the common good:

Today, the culture of entrepreneurialism in higher education claims both students and faculty’s creative energy and ideas at their source, and when challenged insists this is what students and faculty really want, or what they really need.

This is a perversion of the values of education, especially when students are paying for the privilege of having their labor appropriated while at university, and many are going deep into debt to do it. Entrepreneurship in higher education masks increasingly exploitative and super-exploitative types of institutional practices.

As Jeffrey J. Williams asked in the Winter 2016 issue of Dissent: What is innovation for? And for whose interests? Similarly, we should ask what good is the entrepreneurial spirit in higher education, if it brings us exploitation? Innovation has become a buzzword that points to a corporate ethos and co-opts the positive rhetoric of change for its own ends; while entrepreneurialism indicates a deeper and more intractable installation of business values, remaking our universities through its physical places as well as policies.

More and more universities are turning to the creative labor of students and faculty as a source of funding, transforming higher education into a research service for the tech industry. We need to foster a different spirit of innovation in the university — one that serves the shared social welfare of students and faculty and recaptures the ideals of education.