Q&A

Q&A features interviews with writers, economists, social scientists, activists and other big thinkers with important perspectives on issues affecting our democracy.

How the New Ruling on Mental Health Coverage Affects Us All

Following the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, last December, President Obama vowed to expand access to mental health care in an effort to reduce gun violence. Earlier this month, the Obama administration released long-awaited rules to ensure that people with mental illness or addiction issues receive the same health insurance coverage as those with physical ailments. The rules represent the final implementation of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act, which was signed into law five years ago. Carol McDaid, co-founder of Capitol Decisions, a consulting firm that specializes in substance abuse policy, led a coalition that supported passage of the law. McDaid, a recovering addict herself, has been working since 1986 to get parity legislation passed.

Carol McDaid

We spoke with McDaid to find out how the new rules could affect people with mental health and addiction issues, their potential impact on gun violence and her advice for consumers fighting denied health insurance claims. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. 

Karin Kamp: Can you start by explaining what the final mental health parity rule means?

Carol McDaid: The law is intended to equalize the treatment of addiction and mental illness with other health conditions covered under a health plan. The majority of states have parity laws, but this is a federal one. It applies to the new health insurance exchanges and individual and small group plans, especially in the individual market, that have been more likely to limit or not cover addiction and mental illness at all. The federal rule is important because it expands the number of people that will get parity protections and, for the first time, it covers the medical management techniques that [insurance companies] use to limit access. This final rule says that health plans or payers cannot apply these kinds of medical management techniques in a different, more stringent way than they do on other medical conditions that they cover.

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Q&A: Meet One of the Women Fighting Texas’ Anti-Abortion Law

This post first appeared on The Nation blog.

In this July 12, 2013, file photo, abortion rights supporters rally on the floor of the State Capitol rotunda in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Tamir Kalifa, File)

In a protest this summer, abortion rights supporters rallied on the floor of the State Capitol rotunda in Austin, Texas. The restrictive new law went into effect on Friday. (AP Photo/Tamir Kalifa, File)

Last week, an appeals court lifted an injunction on Texas’ exceedingly restrictive abortion law, which forces abortion clinics to obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. This requirement — which went into effect when the injunction was lifted Friday — may close a third of the state’s clinics, according to research carried out by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project. On Monday, attorneys for providers asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the injunction. I spoke with Merritt Tierce, executive director of Texas Equal Access Fund in North Texas about the law, how Texas women are faring and what we can all do to help.

Jessica Valenti: Can you explain a bit about what TEA Fund does, for our readers who may not be familiar with abortion access funds?

Merritt Tierce: TEA Fund provides financial assistance to low-income women who want an abortion and can’t afford it. Our clients are usually referred to us by one of the clinics we work with — I used to say one of the “dozen or so” clinics we work with, but now it’s basically down to three, plus one in New Mexico and one in Louisiana. Our volunteers conduct a brief intake interview to assess the caller’s need and situation. If the caller meets our eligibility requirements, we will commit an amount between $25 and $400. We never cover more than half the cost of the procedure, and our average grant right now is about $150. The money is paid to the clinic after the procedure is performed (we’re billed just like any other vendor). We are a small 501 (c) (3) nonprofit with an annual budget of about $200,000. We are usually able to help about 1,000 women annually, but have never been able to meet the need. We could easily commit $10,000 each week, and right now we commit only $3500.

Valenti: Late last week an appeals court upheld a Texas law that widely restricts abortion access — one third of the state’s clinics could close as a result. How prepared was the TEA Fund and other reproductive justice organizations? Have you been girding yourself for this kind of loss?

Tierce: We have all been preparing for the law to go into effect since the end of July. Clinics have been working overtime to try to get [hospital admitting] privileges for their physicians. TheTexas Policy Evaluation Project has done phenomenal work compiling the data to predict the impact the closures would have on the state. NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, the Center for Reproductive RightsWhole Woman’s Health and Planned Parenthood have been coaching all of us to remember this is a long game. The fury and momentum we all felt coming out of this summer has to be sustained, and converted into concrete actions and votes.

Several new organizations have been created since the 2013 legislative session ended, and we are working with the new groups and our longtime allies the Lilith Fund [a reproductive equity group that assists women exercise their right to abortion] and Jane’s Due Process [a nonprofit that provides legal representation to pregnant minors] to ensure that we support one another’s efforts as efficiently as possible. We have also all increased our fundraising, knowing that not only would we be facing calls from more people, but that each person who needs financial assistance would need more after the law went into effect.

Valenti: What are you hearing from the women you work with? Are they already feeling the impact of the law?

Tierce: There have been a variety of responses from fear to anger. Many have had to reschedule their appointments at a different clinic. That means the people who scraped together the $100 for the sonogram will have to pay for it again, and wait 24 hours again, because of Texas’ sonogram law: The provider who performs the abortion must administer the sonogram. So if you go to a different clinic, there’s nothing the clinic can legally do to see you without starting all over. The rescheduling itself means that some women will be unable to afford the abortion because the cost will increase as the pregnancy advances.

My sense is that most of these women did not know much about what has been going on in the Texas legislature. It’s important to acknowledge that simply being able to pay attention to the news is a luxury many people don’t have, especially people who are struggling to find food, shelter, employment or healthcare, or people who are trying to escape intimate partner violence. What’s so infuriating about these laws is that the people who have the least ability to fight back are the very people the laws affect most severely.

Valenti: What can people expect to see in terms of the law’s impact over the next few months?

Tierce: More women will try to have an abortion outside of the healthcare system. The use of Cytotec (misoprostol) will increase, especially in south Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, where it is more easily available (and where there is now no access to abortion). Inevitably some women will harm themselves as a direct result of the clinic closures. Many women will continue unwanted pregnancies because they have no other options. Because of the shame and stigma that surround abortion, we may not hear these stories in detail; however we know that, historically, this is what happens when abortion access is restricted.

We can also expect to see the fight continue and intensify, as a result of the severe body blow this law has dealt. We were angry; now we are nuclear.

Valenti: Almost every anti-choice talking point I’ve read about this law mentions that restrictions on abortion are meant to “protect women.” What’s your response to that?

Tierce: Bullsh-t.

What I see in the state’s argument and the Fifth Circuit’s ruling is an obvious prejudice toward women who seek abortion for any reason, and consequent decisions that exploit the legal limits of “undue burden” to push on the meaning of “undue.” I see a really Calvinist sadism in the perspective that any woman who wants an abortion for any reason must bear whatever burden there is to be borne en route to that abortion. The burden is, in truth, her punishment from the state.

It’s insane to me — and I mean truly insane — that they have made any headway at all with the idea of “protecting women,” because abortion is safer than not only most medical procedures but a ton of other things people do every day. The only climate that could have allowed this preposterous cloak of an angle is widespread ignorance about abortion that allows the taboo to remain intact.

Valenti: What’s next for Texas reproductive justice activists in the short and long term?

Tierce: We are working to establish a statewide practical support network, to help people get to the remaining clinics by assisting with transportation and lodging costs and arrangements. Texas is an enormous state with limited public transportation, especially from the rural areas that have been hit hardest by clinic closures, so this is the key focus for all of us right now. Long-term our focus will be to elect pro-choice leaders who can begin to restore access to reproductive healthcare. Another area of primary importance is educating the public about abortion, so that everyone is on the same page about what it really is. Basic abortion realities have to be common knowledge, or we will continue to be vulnerable to these attacks.

Valenti: What can people who don’t live in Texas to do help, besides donating to groups like the TEA Fund? (Though they should certainly do that as well!)

We definitely do need the money! But we also implore people to recognize that this situation is not solely the result of extreme conservatives having their way within an extremely conservative state. It is just as much a result of political complacency and/or neutrality among an immense population of Texans who actually do support reproductive rights, just as a majority of Americans do. But silent support of justice and freedom doesn’t cut it.

If people who aren’t necessarily activists or writers or politicians had been more “out” about abortion, it could have been normalized over the past forty years. The stigma could have been broken down and abortion could have been assimilated into the mainstream practice of healthcare, where it belongs. Instead we legalized abortion but let it remain taboo, and that’s exactly what has given the religious right room to work in. The only way to make abortion acceptable and keep it legal is to learn about it and talk about it—and I specifically mean in everyday conversation.

That should include not only the tragic, compelling stories of people who were raped, or fetal anomalies, or maternal health issues, but the story that is in fact the most common abortion story: the first-trimester procedure chosen by someone who just doesn’t want to have a baby right now. The lawsuits and the media coverage always focus on the most sympathetic cases, without acknowledging that while of course those cases absolutely deserve our sympathy, most women will not experience anything like what they see and hear in the media.

Fewer than one percent of abortions occur after 20 weeks, so even if people do feel tremendous sympathy for those cases, it’s remote. It is too easy for people to shut out experiences that seem too foreign, and statistically it isn’t likely that a woman who needs an abortion will be able to identify with any of the experiences she has seen in the media.

To my mind that is itself a tragedy, because if a woman gets to a place in her own life where she needs an abortion, she should know that abortion is common. She should know that abortion is extremely safe. She should know that it won’t affect her ability to have children later. She should know that many of the women she knows have had abortions. Instead she walks into the clinic and she doesn’t know any of these basic realities and she feels very alone.

To donate to TEA Fund, click here.

Jessica Valenti, The Nation
Jessica Valenti is the author of Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth about Parenting and Happiness. She has also written three other books on feminism and is editor of the award-winning anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and the founder of Feministing.com Follow her on Twitter @JessicaValenti.

Drought Helped Spark Syria’s Civil War — Is it One of Many Climate Wars to Come?

Climate change is already hurting the world’s most vulnerable populations. Those who live in areas hit hard by drought, severe storms or rising seas and can’t relocate because of economic or social factors bear the brunt of our planet’s increasing volatility.

One way the changing climate has already made itself known is through a devastating drought — and ensuing food shortage — in Syria; it created a powder keg, and played a significant role in sparking the country’s civil war. We can expect to see similar scenarios unfold in the future.

Moyers & Company’s John Light spoke with Francesco Femia, co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security — a think tank with an advisory board consisting of retired military commanders and international affairs experts — about how climate change serves as a “threat multiplier” in volatile regions such as Syria, Egypt and Pakistan, and what America’s role should be in a world in which climate change increasingly exacerbates — and causes — international crises.


John Light: What’s been going on with Syria’s water resources over the past several years?

Francesco Femia: Essentially, a massive, five-and-a-half-year drought. From 2006 to 2011, 60 percent of Syria’s land experienced, in the words of one expert, the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago. That, on top of natural resource mismanagement by the Assad regime — subsidizing water-intensive wheat and cotton farming and unsustainable irrigation techniques — led to a large amount of devastation.
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Organizer Illai Kenney on the Generational Divide Among Civil Rights Activists

During the weeklong events commemorating the March on Washington, Moyers & Company associate producer Reniqua Allen noticed that a lot of black youth were upset that their voices weren’t being heard, not only by mainstream media, but also by some of their own leaders in the civil rights community.

To get a deeper perspective on the intergenerational divide, she spoke with Illai Kenney, a 24-year-old college student and activist with Black Youth Vote! who has been organizing and fighting for change in her community since she was nine. They talked about the burdens and benefits of being young and black in America, the role of hip hop in activism; and what black youth need to do in order to get their voices heard. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

Reniqua Allen: What’s been the role of young people during the weeklong events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington?

Illai KenneyIllai Kenney: I think the role of youth in this week of events is a very delicate thing. A lot of the leadership putting the events together isn’t necessarily youth, the way it was with the first march. No one really was over 50 and giving a speech; whereas now you’ll see the Jesse Jackson’s, the Al Sharpton’s, who are really spearheading and organizing here. MORE

Cleaning Up “This Town”

In his book This Town, journalist Mark Leibovich paints a compelling picture of corruption and greed in Washington. But as many critics — and commenters on our website — pointed out, for all its delightfully disgusting insider detail, the book is missing one important thing — solutions. For that, we turn to The Sunlight Foundation‘s Lisa Rosenberg. A registered lobbyist herself, Rosenberg advocates for greater transparency and accountability in government.

Lauren Feeney: Have you read This Town?

Lisa Rosenberg

Lisa Rosenberg: I’ve read parts of it. I have to admit, it’s a little bit like work for me [laughs]. But I’ve read some key chapters.

Feeney: And does any of it shock or surprise you?

Rosenberg: No. I’ve been working on issues involving money in politics for such a long time that there was nothing really surprising in there. It didn’t shock me in any way. But I think it’s great for the rest of the country, for people who have not been paying as close attention, to get a picture of what’s been happening. Outrage is good, and I think this might foster some outrage.

I guess what did surprise me, or maybe disappointed me, is that the book doesn’t seem to offer any solutions.

Feeney: That’s of course why I called. But before we get to solutions, can you review what’s so wrong with the picture painted in Leibovich’s book, of former politicians going on to make big bucks as lobbyists?

Rosenberg: When congressmen or staffers leave to go lobby, they cash in on the connections that they’ve made on Capitol Hill. They also cash in, very often, on the work they’ve done on the Hill, which sounds okay on the surface, but when it’s cashing in on the fact that, for example, they wrote a law so they know where all the loopholes are, and then they go lobby for somebody who can take advantage of those loopholes, then I think we have a real conflict of interest. I think that’s the real problem with the so-called “revolving door.”

Feeney: So what are some solutions to this problem?

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Inside the ‘ALEC Universe’

Representative Chris Taylor is a Democrat elected to the Wisconsin legislature in 2011. Last week, she attended the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) annual conference in Chicago. Writing about her experience at The Progressive magazine’s website, she describes her experience inside the “ALEC universe” and writes: “ALEC members have been quietly working out of the public eye to develop their agenda so that when given the opportunity, they are ready to start creating an ALEC nation. That time has come. And they are ready.”

We caught up with her by phone back in Wisconsin to talk about what she found out about the conservative policy-making machine.

Riley: Why did you want to attend the conference? What did you hope to achieve there?

Taylor: I’m very new in the legislature. I came in the middle of last term. So I missed a lot of the Act 10 [debate]. I was working on various issues when all of that was going on. But I wanted to learn more. I wanted to have a better understanding of the group, so that I could, when I needed to, fight some of these very regressive policies better.

I think it’s so incredibly important for people to understand where these [model] bills are coming from and try to understand the rationale. I was quite blown away by the extent of where [Wisconsin] policy is coming from, because so much of it is coming from this group.

Riley: ALEC conferences are known for being very security conscious. Were you incognito? Did you wear a badge with your party affiliation?

Taylor: No. I did wear a badge with my name and that I was a Wisconsin legislator. Every person there had a badge on. When you registered you had to present ID, which is really unusual. I mean I’ve been to conferences throughout my whole life, I’ve never had to present an ID. There was a big assumption that I was a Republican. Every person I talked to assumed that I was a Republican.

Riley: And were you open with the fact that you weren’t, or –

Taylor: No, if somebody asked me I was not going to lie. I really was there just to listen and to try to figure out where some of these people were coming from.

One guy I was talking to, who was from one of these right wing think tanks was saying we need to curb Obama’s reckless power with these administrative regulations, and he wanted a federal constitutional amendment saying Congress has to approve federal regulations. I said, I don’t think most people are going to want to amend the Constitution for that. I don’t think that ignites people. Maybe it does on the far right, but most people don’t really care about that. And he said, “Oh, well, you really don’t need people to do this. You just need control over the legislature and you need money, and we have both.”

That sentiment was underscored so many times to me, that they don’t want people involved in the political process, or in the policy process. And that seems to be the intent in a lot of ways: You have a think tank in every state and all they do is come up with these very, very regressive policies, you have corporations who are going to benefit so they fund it all, and then you have the legislators as your foot soldiers to carry out the tasks.

There were a couple of instances where legislators actually did challenge some of the policies, but they always lost. The legislators were admonished many times during this conference for not doing enough and for not standing up to the federal government more.

Riley: One of the think tanks that we’ve reported on, the Heartland Institute, sponsored a breakfast. They are a climate change denial think tank. Did you go to that?

Taylor: I did.

Riley: What was the presentation like?

Taylor: It was incomprehensible. I could not follow it. It was so zany and weird. He said CO2 was not that bad for us because crops grow bigger with a lot of CO2. My husband’s an environmental historian, so I asked him, “Is that true?” He said, “Yeah, but it doesn’t mean CO2’s good for you.” The whole premise was you need to challenge the left, that there’s many, many holes in global warming, and we don’t do enough to challenge them.

We also had a presentation on the Endangered Species Act at a lunch sponsored by the Texas Oil and Gas Association. The presenter said that the Endangered Species Act threatens the economy of every single state in the nation. It’s leading to high unemployment rates, threatens local economies, it doesn’t allow growth, etc. — that this is a matter of life and death, to get rid of the Endangered Species Act, because every state’s economy is going to topple if it remains in effect.

I wasn’t very impressed by the environmental presentations, frankly. I didn’t think they were very good.

Riley: What were you impressed by?

Taylor: I was really impressed by their infrastructure. I mean, we would never duplicate something like this on the left because, first of all, we would never take instructions from corporations, but the coordination that they have between these policy think tanks, the money and the legislators, in terms of just driving an agenda, it’s incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m fascinated by it because I’ve never seen anything like it from the left. I was the public policy director at Planned Parenthood, so I’m very familiar with building infrastructure. We did a lot of that in the state of Wisconsin. But we have nothing that I know of on the national front that connects all these things.

It is a well-oiled machine. They’re really organized, they’re really coordinated and they have the resources. And they’re not afraid to push it when they have the opportunities. Now they have 24 state legislatures that are Republican controlled and they have Republican governors. So they’ve had incredible success. They’ve had 71 bills introduced just this year that make it harder for most people who are injured to access the courts. We’ve certainly seen that here in Wisconsin. That was one of the first things that Walker did when he came in was push this tort reform through.

They have been waiting for 40 years to do some of the things they’re doing right now. They’ve been developing these model policies, making these connections and building these relationships, and when they had an opportunity, like right here in Wisconsin, they pushed it. They did not hesitate to push their extreme agenda, even though it hurts people. It doesn’t help the average person. It hurts people to say we’re not going to invest in public education. It hurts people to deprive the government of revenue by these massive tax cuts to mostly rich people.

ALEC’s Attempts to Thwart Obamacare

As part of our ongoing focus on the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, we checked in with health insurance executive turned industry whistleblower Wendell Potter to learn about ALEC’s efforts to influence the health care debate and undermine The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare).

Lauren Feeney: ALEC turned 40 last week. How long has the organization been involved in trying to influence the health care debate?

Wendell Potter. Credit: Robin Holland

 Wendell Potter: I don’t know whether insurance companies were part of the initial founding of the organization, but I’m sure they were involved early on. Health insurance is regulated largely at the state level, and ALEC’s strategy is to work at the state level, bringing together state legislators and industry representatives to create “model bills” for state-level legislation. Insurance companies want to try to have consistency from state to state, so they have a vested interest in trying to make sure that laws that are to their benefit in one state are passed in others as well.

Feeney: How did you first encounter ALEC?

Potter: I’ve known of the organization for as long as I was in the insurance industry, and that goes back more than 20 years. The organization works very secretively, but a few years ago I became aware that people I used to work with were playing a role in drafting some of these model bills. Someone was able to disclose what ALEC has been doing, and I was able to review a lot of the model bills. It was pretty amazing, the scope and breadth of the legislation that the organization has been working on over the years to try to preserve the status quo for health care special interests.

Feeney: ALEC has been actively involved in behind-the-scenes efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act (also known as the ACA or “Obamacare”). The organization produced a document called The State Legislators Guide to Repealing Obamacare. Can you tell us about it?

Potter: It’s a step-by-step guide that ALEC put together to tell friendly lawmakers what they can do to try to derail the ACA. Efforts to repeal it have failed, so this is an effort to try to thwart the implementation, and it’s certainly something that lawmakers in various states have used or been inspired by.

Feeney: Have they been successful? Can you give us some examples?

Potter: One of the most far-reaching successes has been lawmakers in many states blocking the expansion of the Medicaid program, which was one of the most important aspects of the ACA, one of the chief ways covering more people. The Supreme Court ruling on the ACA allowed states to opt out of Medicaid expansion. ALEC led lawmakers to believe Medicaid expansion under the ACA would create a financial burden on the states, which is of course not true. In the initial years, the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of the expansion, so refusing the expansion means leaving federal dollars on the table. By insuring more people, the expansion also removes the cost of treating uninsured patients, which taxpayers currently end up paying for. Nonetheless, ALEC is largely an ideological organization and they were able to persuade a lot of lawmakers. Many states that are controlled by either a Republican governor or Republican lawmakers (or both) have said that they do not plan to expand the Medicaid program, costing untold millions of Americans benefits that they otherwise would have.

Feeney: Some of the most extreme attempts to thwart the ACA have been in Missouri.

Potter: Yes, one of the most egregious is that the state passed legislation that prohibits any state worker from doing anything to help implement the Affordable Care Act in any way. The state also passed a bill that restricts consumer groups from helping people to understand the law and to make decisions on the best insurance options for them. This pertains to the Navigator Program, part of the ACA that provides funding for identifying and training people to help advise others on their options. Missouri established very stringent licensing requirements which make it almost impossible for anyone other than an insurance agent or broker to serve as a navigator, which is of course contrary to the intent of the law. But it protects the profits and the incomes of agents and brokers, which is what is really behind it.

Feeney: A number of states have enacted (and the vast majority of states have at least introduced) ALEC-model legislation called the Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act. What’s that, and what does it mean for states where the law has been enacted?

Potter: Boy, that’s a very Orwellian title; it’s about anything but health care freedom. But they’re very savvy; they spend considerable time coming up with titles for these model laws that are anything but what the title says. Essentially what it aims to do is thwart the implementation of Obamacare and preserve the so-called free market system of health care — in other words, let the insurance companies do exactly what they have been doing, underwriting health risks in ways that make health insurance far too expensive for people who’ve been sick in the past and for people as they get older, and in many cases enabling insurance companies to refuse to sell coverage to people at any price because of preexisting conditions.

But of course, even in states that pass this law, it’s superseded by federal law.

Ken Cook on Improving the Chemical Safety Improvement Act

Global Warming Record
Not only would the Chemical Safety Improvement Act prevent states from enacting their own, more protective, regulations of many chemicals, it would also make it harder for states to regulate climate change gases like CO2. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The Chemical Safety Improvement Act, co-sponsored by Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and David Vitter (R-LA), was introduced earlier this year, shortly before Sen. Lautenberg passed away on June 5, 2013. Initially, the bill was heralded as a long overdue bipartisan effort to strengthen the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TOSCA). As public health historians David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz explained on Moyers & Company recently, the existing legislation allowed the EPA to test chemicals only after there was cause to believe they were dangerous. Of 84,000 registered industrial chemicals in the United States, only about 200 have been tested.

Two environmental organizations — the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the National Resource Defense Council — immediately opposed the bill. Many of the health protections included in Lautenberg’s original legislation, The Safe Chemicals Act — which they had supported — were missing in the Lautenberg-Vitter compromise bill. Since then, a growing number of environmental and legal groups have joined them in opposition.

Today, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works is holding a hearing on the bill. Ken Cook, EWG’s president, is testifying (read his testimony) before the committee. We caught up with him earlier this month to ask him about the bill. MORE

Will the Immigration Bill Help Migrant Farmworkers?

A field worker empties a bucket of vidalia onions into a waiting truck in Lyons, Ga. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

Farmworkers do backbreaking work, laboring under the hot sun to provide the most essential service — harvesting the fruits and vegetables that nourish the nation. And what do they get in return? Poverty wages, deplorable working conditions and rampant abuse, exacerbated by the fact that most are undocumented immigrants with little recourse. Even as the nation debates immigration reform, little attention has been paid to the plight of migrant farmworkers. But the Senate’s proposed immigration bill does offer a glimmer of hope. We spoke to Robert Willis, a labor attorney specializing in justice for migrant workers who participated in negotiating the Senate bill’s farmworker provisions, to learn more about the problems with the current system and the compromises in the bill.

Lauren Feeney: How does our broken immigration system affect working conditions for farmworkers?

Robert Willis: The overwhelming majority of the farmworkers who harvest the food we eat and agricultural products we use are undocumented. Their status allows unscrupulous employers to obtain a competitive advantage over employers who only employ citizens, lawful permanent residents or authorized guestworkers. It also allows those same unscrupulous employers to provide illegal and substandard wages and working conditions for undocumented workers, who lack access to any legal or collective means to combat those conditions. For example, even though many federal employment laws theoretically cover undocumented workers, an undocumented worker literally cannot obtain entry into a U.S. Courthouse to testify in a federal court proceeding because that worker does not possess the type of photo identification required to enter the building.

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Why is Cable News So Obsessed with the Zimmerman Trial?

George Zimmerman arrives for his trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla. Thursday, July 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Gary W. Green, Pool)

If you have cable television in your home, you probably know more than you want to know about the trial of George Zimmerman, who is charged with second-degree murder in the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin. But you may still be wondering why this story has attracted so much attention from the media. We called Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert for a critique of the coverage.

Lauren Feeney: Why are the 24-hour news stations so obsessed with this trial?

Eric Boehlert: It’s easy, it’s summer, and it’s lazy — a simple way to be able to cover the same story over and over for two or three weeks. In the old days, unless it was the O.J. Simpson trial, news channels would never give up hour after hour of daytime or primetime to cover a courtroom event. The feeling was, “That’s not really journalism and that’s not why we’re in the news business.” But slowly but surely, the cable news channels have decided to do exactly that. Each year, they seem to pick three or four of these trials and almost randomly devote way too much time to them. Now they’ve decided to do it with the Zimmerman trial, which at its core is a much more serious and important event —- the societal and legal implications are much more important and sober than some of the other celebrity trials that they’ve embraced.

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The Impact of ‘Female Breadwinners’ and Economic Insecurity

Click on the map to expand. Download the report to find out more details about your state's grade.

You’ve probably heard that a record number of American women — 40 percent — are now the primary or sole breadwinners in their families. But two-thirds of those women are single mothers making a median yearly income of $23,000. With these women in mind, we took a look at the Economic Security Scorecard, released last week by Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW). The scorecard grades states on how well their policies strengthen the economic security of workers, families and seniors. The results were disappointing: no state did better than a B-minus, and many received C’s and D’s. 

We called Shawn McMahon, the report’s author and acting director and CEO of WOW, to talk about how policy trends, the economic recovery and the sequester are affecting the economic security of Americans.

Theresa Riley: What are some of the policy areas that you looked at in your scorecard? How do you define economic security?

Shawn McMahon

Shawn McMahon: Economic security, on the household level, is having the resources to meet basic needs — most simply stated as health, safety and basic economic participation, such as being able to work, access to banking, etc. — without public or private assistance.

We first started to measure economic security — we originally called it self-sufficiency — in the 1990s during the welfare reform movement. At that time, the only measure of wellbeing available was the official federal poverty level. That measure, created in the 1960s, is very antiquated and it doesn’t tell us anything about people living $1 or $1,000 or $10,000 above the poverty line. It’s also not aspirational. It doesn’t tell us about the targets or the goals that we as a society (or the federal government) should have for people living under the federal poverty level. MORE

Blinding Us From Science

Science is under attack. With corporations manufacturing uncertainty to undermine studies that hurt their bottom lines and the sequester cutting billions in funding for scientific research, you’d think the American science community would be hunkered down in their labs avoiding outside interference at all costs.

A new project of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the Center for Science and Democracy, is encouraging scientists to do just the opposite. The center encourages scientists to speak out and help others to better understand scientific information and to distinguish evidence from political positioning. We spoke with the Center’s director Dr. Andrew Rosenberg by phone this week. This is an edited version of our conversation.

Theresa Riley: In Bill’s conversation with public health historians David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, they talk about a “war on science” that is being waged by industries to prevent and weaken regulations. In Heads They Win, Tails We Lose, a report released last year, UCS investigators showed how widespread the practice is. What tactics do they use?

Dr. Andrew Rosenberg

Andrew Rosenberg: In the political arena, there are lots of avenues where corporate influence comes in. Sometimes it’s directly lobbying elected officials. For example, on fracking, Common Cause found that the industry has spent almost $750 million over the last decade lobbying to try to ensure that regulation isn’t increased, that the federal government stays out of fracking — even, to some extent, in the monitoring and evaluation of impacts of fracking. And that’s unfortunately a pretty common picture. On medical devices it’s a similar sum, $700 million, to lobby on behalf of medical devices and pharmaceuticals to try to keep the rules as business friendly as possible. People understand that there’s lobbying. I’m not sure they understand the magnitude. MORE

Whistleblowers: American Heroes?

The press, the public and democracy itself have always relied on people of conscience speaking out as witnesses of corruption, misconduct and the abuse of power. The whistleblower’s vital role is even protected by federal law. But the Obama administration has been waging what filmmaker Robert Greenwald calls a “war on whistleblowers,” particularly those accused of exposing information related to national security. His new film “War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State,” tells the story of four government employees who, in the post 9/11 era, spoke out against official wrongdoing and paid a heavy price. We caught up with Greenwald to learn more.

First, watch the trailer:

Lauren Feeney: Introduce us to the whistleblowers featured in your film.

Robert Greenwald: The first is Franz Gayl, an amazing American hero who spoke up, took on the military industrial complex and was responsible for saving many, many lives by forcing the institutions to introduce the MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle) in Iraq instead of what they had previously been using. By the soldiers’ admission and by quite a few others, this was literally a lifesaver of enormous importance.

The second whistleblower is Michael DeKort, who discovered that radios being put on Coast Guard boats were not waterproof, which is really hard to even believe.

The third whistleblower is Thomas Drake, who spoke out loudly about the fact that our phones were being tapped, and that there was surveillance software available that could have done a better job, a legal job, and a more inexpensive job that was not used because of a competing project. He was accused and cited under the Espionage Act.

And the fourth case is Tom Tamm, whose revelations were part of what led to the original New York Times story about the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping. He had worked for the FBI, and his father had worked there, and he lost his job and paid a tremendous price for speaking up.

Feeney: You call this a “war on whistleblowers.” Why the crackdown?

Greenwald: The national security state — the ideologies and institutions created by the 1947 National Security Act, like the CIA and the National Security Council — believes in all secrets, all the time, and is leading the charge for silence. It is important that the administration and citizens resist this pressure. The crackdown on the national security whistleblowers by the Obama administration is a cause of great concern and unhappiness for whistleblowers, reporters and transparency experts.

Feeney: What effect does this “war on whistleblowers” on our democracy?

Greenwald: The effect of silence and secrets is devastating. Think of all the important stories and issues that have been exposed only because of whistleblowers. We must fight hard to make sure that tradition is upheld. Our action guide tells you what you can do to protect whistleblowers and investigative reporters.


Robert Greenwald is an activist and filmmaker whose documentaries include Uncovered: The War on Iraq, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism and Koch Brothers Exposed.

Are Geeks the New Guardians of Our Civil Liberties?

Gabriella Coleman

Anonymous, the hacktivist collective that Fox News once called “the Internet hate machine” has undergone a dramatic rebranding in recent months. Once thought to be a public nuisance, their work seeking justice in the Steubenville rape case and other actions they’ve taken to improve society has earned them a new moniker: the “white knights of the digital realm.”

Gabriella Coleman is the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at Canada’s McGill University and one of the foremost experts on Anonymous. Trained as an anthropologist, she examines the ethics of online collaboration and the role of the law and digital media in sustaining various forms of political activism.

We caught up with Coleman earlier this month in Denver at the National Conference for Media Reform where she spoke on a panel that asked “Are Geeks the New Guardians of Our Civil Liberties?” She is the author of Coding Freedom and is currently working on a new book about Anonymous and digital activism.

Riley: Many people became more familiar with the world of hacking because of the tragic death of Aaron Swartz. How do you think his story may change, or has already changed, the perception of hackers?

Gabriella Coleman: Aaron Swartz considered himself both a hacker and an activist. He was also very involved in the free culture movement — Creative Commons — which drew inspiration from the hacker community to create licenses that could be used on other media, such as music and art software. In some ways he was the quintessential hacker, by which I mean extremely clever and bright. Folks like Tim Berners-Lee called him an ‘elder’ when he passed away. A lot of hackers are bright and precocious, but he pushed that envelope. He was a hacker who worked on technology, but he was also very committed to open access — and from a very young age, when he was 14 or 15. While hackers are often adept at programming at a young age, to be so politically inclined at that age is unusual, so he really stood out.

The reaction [to his death] from the hacker community was unlike anything I had ever seen. I remember very distinctly, because I was home on Twitter, and it was just this flood and outpouring. He wasn’t this hacker just breaking the law for the fun of it. He was very mindful as to why he did things, and he was very respected by a wide cohort of individuals. It really brought into relief the problems with the law, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, under which he was being tried. For a very long time, activists and lawyers have said the law’s too broad and vague, and this became a moment and cause by which to really make that utterly clear. There’s now a whole set of initiatives to finally reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. MORE

Lisa Graves Updates Us on ALEC

Last fall, Moyers & Company aired the United States of ALEC, a report on the most influential corporate-funded political force most of America has never heard of — ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. In statehouses around the country, hundreds of pieces of boilerplate ALEC legislation are proposed or enacted that would, among other things, dilute collective bargaining rights, make it harder for some Americans to vote, and limit corporate liability for harm caused to consumers — each accomplished without the public ever knowing who’s behind it.

The response from viewers has been amazing. We’ve received updates to our interactive map naming local legislators who are affiliated with ALEC, as well as hundreds of comments and emails about the revelations contained in the report. Lisa Graves, the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), one of the watchdog organizations keeping tabs on ALEC, recently visited our offices and updated us on what ALEC’s been up to lately.

Riley: On the PR Watch website last week, I saw that ALEC may be about to undergo a makeover, starting with its name. What happened?

Lisa Graves, Center for Media and Democracy

Lisa Graves: ALEC is urging its members to no longer use the acronym. In a note to ALEC legislators and private sector members, ALEC’s spokesman said: “You may have noticed we are limiting the use of the acronym ‘ALEC.’ Over the past year, the word ‘ALEC’ has been used to conjure up images of a distant, mysterious, Washington alphabet organization of unknown intentions,” which he says could not be further from the truth, adding that “the organization has refocused on the words ‘Exchange’ and ‘Council’ to emphasize our goal of a broad exchange of ideas to make government work better and more efficiently.” This re-branding is a classic PR technique. Big Tobacco used it to try to distance some of its brands with negative consumer users. MORE

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