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Results of Our 2013 Reader Survey

October 7, 2013 - 10:45am

We’ve got the results of ProPublica’s latest reader survey, fielded last week, and we wanted to share them with you.

Before turning to the results, many thanks to the 2,274 people who took the time to respond to the survey over just six days. The results are not scientific, but we do think they provide a meaningful reflection of the views and habits of our most committed readers.

Among the findings:

  • For all the growth of social media, mobile platforms and constant access (very much evident in the results, of course), there was also an important reminder that home PC’s remain the preferred way to consume long-form online journalism for a large plurality of respondents (68%);
  • The decline of legacy print may have plateaued a bit, at least for ProPublica readers. We began taking our surveys in 2008, the year we began publishing. When we asked that year about our readers’ primary source of national news, 57% said online. By 2010, it had risen to 60%, by 2011, 68%. This year it’s 67%, not a meaningful difference, but at least a pause in the trend. On the other end of the scale, print newspapers were the primary source for 21% in 2008, 18.5% in 2010, 13% in 2011 and 15% this year. Again, not such a significant shift as to mark a reversal, but still intriguing.

You still seem to like what we do, which we deeply appreciate. Fully 90% find the length of ProPublica stories “just right” (and the rest are almost exactly evenly split between wishing them longer and shorter). Nearly 78% approve of how often we post stories, and almost all of the rest wish we’d post more. Readers are most likely to look regularly at our longer features and investigations (88%), but almost half also look regularly at MuckReads links to investigations by other news organizations, and 42% look regularly at shorter stories and blog posts.

With respect to who you are, you remain a very impressive group. Fully 82% have a college degree, and more than half of these (47% of all readers) a graduate degree. More than one in eight live outside the U.S. The median household income is just below $75,000 (and this includes a substantial component of readers who are students or retired). Nearly one-third of you have a household net worth above half a million dollars. You’re actively on social media, with more than two-thirds on Facebook, and more than a third on each of LinkedIn and Twitter. Your median age remains in the 50s, but one in eight are under 35. Fully 60% are male and 40% female, which isn’t unusual for online news, but this is some progress from 62% male in 2011 and 64% in 2008.

As we have with previous surveys, we want to report on the question of ideology, one that comes up a lot in discussion of news organizations these days. The findings were consistent with those we’ve seen before. A substantial plurality of you (46%) consider ProPublica “non-ideological”—as we do. The rest are almost evenly split between seeing us as liberal (29%) and moderate (24%); very few regard us as conservative. This is at substantial variance from how you classify yourselves, with just 13% calling themselves “non-ideological” and 60% liberal, with 21% moderate; 5% of readers call themselves conservative. Presidential election exit polls last year showed voters self-described as 41% moderate, 35% conservative and 25% liberal.

Categories: Media, Politics

Shutdown Prompts Rare Government Mix: Imagination and Laughter

October 4, 2013 - 8:38am

The taped speech sounded almost like a confession, even a hostage plea.

“My name is Chris Galvin,” the faceless voice said, blaring out over the microphones in a conference room in the basement of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Bethesda, Md., on Wednesday afternoon. “I’m an analyst with the Office of Evaluation and Inspections for the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services. If you are listening to this, I apologize that I am unable to be there in person.”

Galvin, of course, was shut down, one of almost 800,000 federal employees deemed non-essential and sent home until Congress agrees on a bill to fund the government.

He had been slated to appear at a conference sponsored by the Drug Information Association, a global nonprofit organization. The conference had been scheduled for months, and was meant to wrestle with the push for greater transparency in the world of clinical drug trials.

Almost 100 people showed up, mostly from across the United States, but also from Canada, Denmark and Germany. Most spent at least $595 to attend (except for the media, who graciously were allowed in for free). There were top officials from pharmaceutical companies, leading academics, consultants, patient advocates and two officials from the Canadian government.

What was missing: Their counterparts, the U.S. officials. Suffice it to say, it left some major holes in certain sessions.

In some ways, the conference, held on Tuesday and Wednesday in the hotel’s Haverford suite, with a small stage, inconsistent audio, a large screen backed by beige curtains, and round tables with floor-dragging white tablecloths, is a microcosm of how the country has been MacGyvering its way through the government shutdown. Most people have been finding workarounds, waiting for Congress to quit bickering, hoping that the shutdown will be lifted before something really bad happens, like poor children running out of food or, well, not getting enrolled in clinical trials for new cancer drugs.

In other ways, the conference shows how no stopgap really substitutes for the real thing, even when the real thing is the notoriously cautious and circumspect Food and Drug Administration or its parent agency, HHS.

A pharmaceutical executive and a consultant ended up reading the slides from two U.S. government officials who didn’t record their comments. PowerPoint fatigue set in. And little useful clarity emerged about where the FDA actually stood on enforcing requirements for greater and accurate disclosure of certain clinical trial results.

The determination of the conference to stay on schedule, and to hold sessions even without the government speakers, ultimately came to seem like an odd, but kind of admirable, act of defiance. Elsewhere, other meetings challenged by a distinct lack of government participants just folded. For example, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board  — better known as PCLOB —canceled its planned hearing on Friday, after being notified “by a significant number of witnesses that they are unable to testify.”

Galvin, for sure, went beyond the call of duty. He could have just skipped the clinical drug trial conference.

But he prerecorded his speech, even saying “next slide” whenever the moderator was supposed to click ahead in his PowerPoint presentation. (There was one moment when what sounded like a guitar string interrupted the recording, inexplicably. The audience laughed.)

Many of the conference’s participants had been most interested in his final session, “Clinical Trial Disclosure—FDA Enforcement Activities,” held on Wednesday afternoon, and featuring Galvin and Jarilyn Dupont, the director of regulatory policy for the Food and Drug Administration. In fact, some participants mentioned that it was the main reason they traveled to Bethesda, curious what the FDA would say, especially since FDA enforcement of clinical trial disclosure rules so far seems to be just as quiet as their offices this week.

The final session’s moderator, Robert Paarlberg, a pharmaceutical consultant who specializes in global clinical trial disclosure strategy and regulations, did his best. He launched into the enforcement session, using a picture of a kayaker landing on a whale, saying that he didn’t want anyone in the audience to be stuck in that position. Two of the three chairs for speakers, reserved for Galvin and Dupont, sat empty.

First, the lone speaker, Mark Barnes, a lawyer and medical research expert with Ropes & Gray in Boston, spoke about enforcement for about a half-hour. Then Paarlberg turned on the tape of Galvin, while clicking through Galvin’s slides.

At the end, Galvin said: “Once again, I am sorry I was unable to be there and perhaps answer questions. Should you have any questions, feel free to contact me.” Galvin then gave his email address.

There was a pause, before a bit of confused clapping.

“But he can’t answer the email until after this is over,” Paarlberg reminded everyone.

Categories: Media, Politics

How a Telecom Helped the Government Spy on Me

October 3, 2013 - 1:00pm

Over the past several months, the Obama Administration has defended the government’s far-reaching data collection efforts, arguing that only criminals and terrorists need worry. The nation’s leading internet and telecommunications companies have said they are committed to the sanctity of their customers’ privacy.

I have some very personal reasons to doubt those assurances.

In 2004, my telephone records as well as those of another New York Times reporter and two reporters from the Washington Post, were obtained by federal agents assigned to investigate a leak of classified information. What happened next says a lot about what happens when the government’s privacy protections collide with the day-to-day realities of global surveillance.

The story begins in 2003 when I wrote an article about the killing of two American teachers in West Papua, a remote region of Indonesia where Freeport-McMoRan operates one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines. The Indonesian government and Freeport blamed the killings on a separatist group, the Free Papua Movement, which had been fighting a low-level guerrilla war for several decades.

I opened my article with this sentence: “Bush Administration officials have determined that Indonesian soldiers carried out a deadly ambush that killed two American teachers.”

 I also reported that two FBI agents had travelled to Indonesia to assist in the inquiry and quoted a “senior administration official” as saying there “was no question there was a military involvement.’’

The story prompted a leak investigation. The FBI sought to obtain my  phone records and those of  Jane Perlez, the Times bureau chief in Indonesia and my wife. They also went after the records of the Washington Post reporters in Indonesia who had published the first reports about the Indonesian government’s involvement in the killings.

As part of its investigation, the FBI asked for help from what is described in a subsequent government report as an “on-site communications service” provider. The report, by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General, offers only the vaguest description of this key player, calling it “Company A.’’

“We do not identify the specific companies because the identities of the specific providers who were under contract with the FBI for specific services are classified,’’ the report explained.

Whoever they were, Company A had some impressive powers. Through some means – the report is silent on how – Company A obtained  records of calls made on Indonesian cell phones and landlines by the Times and Post reporters. The records showed whom we called, when and for how long -- what has now become famous as “metadata.”

Under DOJ rules, the FBI investigators were required to ask the Attorney General to approve a grand jury subpoena before requesting records of reporters’ calls. But that’s not what happened.

Instead, the bureau sent Company A what is known as an “exigent letter’’ asking for the metadata.

A heavily redacted version of the DOJ report, released in 2010, noted that exigent letters are supposed to be used in extreme circumstances where there is no time to ask a judge to issue a subpoena. The report found nothing “exigent’’ in an investigation of several three-year-old newspaper stories.

The need for an exigent letter suggests two things about Company A. First, that it was an American firm subject to American laws. Second, that it had come to possess my records through lawful means and needed legal justification to turn them over to the government.

The report disclosed that the agents’ use of the exigent letter was choreographed by the company and the bureau. It said the FBI agent drafting the letter received “guidance” from “a Company A analyst.’’  According to the report, lawyers for Company A and the bureau worked together to develop the approach.

Not surprisingly, “Company A” quickly responded to the letter it helped write. In fact, it was particularly generous, supplying the FBI with records covering a 22-month period, even though the bureau’s investigationwas limited to a seven-month period.Altogether, “Company A” gave the FBI metadata on 1,627 calls by me and the other  reporters.

Only three calls were within the seven-month window of phone conversations investigators had decided to review.

It doesn’t end there.

The DOJ report asserts that “the FBI made no investigative use of the reporters’ telephone records.” But I don’t believe that is accurate.

In 2007, I heard rumblings  that the leak investigation was focusing on a diplomat named Steve Mull, who was the deputy chief of mission in Indonesia at the time of the killings. I had known Mull when he was a political officer in Poland and I was posted there in the early 1990s. He is a person of great integrity and a dedicated public servant.

The DOJ asked to interview me. Of course, I would not agree to help law enforcement officials identify my anonymous sources. But I was troubled because I felt an honorable public servant had been forced to spend money on lawyers to fend off a charge that was untrue. After considerable internal debate, I decided to talk to the DOJ for the limited purpose of clearing Mull.

It was not a decision I could make unilaterally. The Times also had a stake in this. If I allowed myself to be interviewed, how could the Times say no the next time the government wanted to question a Times reporter about a leak?

The Times lawyer handling this was George Freeman, a journalist’s lawyer, a man Times reporters liked having in their corner. George and the DOJ lawyers began to negotiate over my interview. Eventually, we agreed that I would speak on two conditions: one, that they could not ask me for the name of my source; and two, if they asked me if it was ‘X,’ and I said no, they could not then start going through other names.

Freeman and I sat across a table from two DOJ lawyers. I’m a lawyer, and prided myself on being able to answer their questions with ease, never having to turn to Freeman for advice.

Until that is, one of the lawyers took a sheaf of papers that were just off to his right, and began asking me about phone calls I made to Mull. One call was for 19 minutes, the DOJ lawyer said, giving me the date and time. I asked for a break to consult with Freeman.

We came back, and answered questions about the phone calls. I said that I couldn’t remember what these calls were about – it had been more than four years earlier – but that Mull had not given me any information about the killings. Per our agreement, the DOJ lawyers did not ask further questions about my sources, and the interview ended.

I didn’t know how the DOJ had gotten my phone records, but assumed the Indonesian government had provided them. Then, about a year later, I received a letter from the FBI’s general counsel, Valerie Caproni who wrote that my phone records had been taken from “certain databases” under the authority of an “exigent letter,’’ (a term I had never heard).

Caproni sent similar letters to Perlez, to the Washington Post reporters, and to the executive editors of the Post and the Times, Leonard Downie and Bill Keller, respectively. In addition, FBI Director Robert Mueller called Downie and Keller, according to the report.

Caproni wrote that the records had not been seen by anyone other than the agent requesting them and that they had been expunged from all databases.

I’m uneasy because the DOJ report makes clear that the FBI is still concealing some aspect of this incident. After describing Caproni’s letters, the report says: “However, the FBI did not disclose to the reporters or their editors that [BLACKED OUT).”  The thick black lines obliterate what appear to be several sentences.


If you were to ask senior intelligence officials whether I should wonder about those deletions, they’d probably say no.

I’m not so sure.

The government learned extensive details about my personal and professional life. Most of those calls were about other stories I was writing. Some were undoubtedly to arrange my golf game with the Australian ambassador. Is he now under suspicion? The report says the data has been destroyed and that only two analysts ever looked at it.

But who is this 'Company A" that willing cooperated with the government?  Why was it working hand in glove with the FBI? And what did the FBI director not tell the editors of the Times and the Washington Post when he called them acknowledging the government had improperly obtained reporter's records?

Raymond Bonner, a lawyer and former New York Times reporter, is the author of "Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong."

Categories: Media, Politics

Key Reads on Government Shutdowns

October 2, 2013 - 1:36pm

We’ve been here before: The U.S. government has shut down due to lack of funding 18 times in its history. Most of those shutdowns were short-lived, usually lasting only a few days or a little over a week. The longest shutdown was also the most recent – 21 days in the winter of 1995 and 1996. We’ve compiled some of the best writing about that shutdown and the current one.

Have another great story about government shutdowns? Email me at

Absolutely everything you need to know about how the government shutdown will work, Wonkblog, September 30, 2013

If you haven’t been following the story, Wonkblog will catch you up.

Rant, Listen, Exploit, Learn, Scare, Help, Manipulate, Lead, New York Times Magazine, January 28, 1996

In the wake of the 1996 shutdown, the New York Times Magazinedelved into the thinking of the man behind the move, then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. 

Distance From Budget Crisis No Comfort to Illinois Town, Los Angeles Times, January 7, 1996

Two Los Angeles Timesreporters trekked out to the small, conservative town of Sycamore, Ill. during the 1996 shutdown, where citizens fed up with politics were beginning to experience the effects of cuts in government services.

National Zoo reopens, but it's far from business as usual, Washington Post, January 7, 1996

If the government shuts down, who ships the elephant, rhino, hippo and giraffe manure out of the National Zoo? The Washington Post reported on the surprising and fascinating ways the 1996 shutdown hampered zoo operations.

Last Shutdown a Lesson Lost on Capitol Hill, New York Times, September 28, 2013

The last shutdown was actually quite different from the current one. For instance, in 1995, Congress had passed several appropriations bills, which funded parts of the government. Today, Congress hasn’t passed any.

The Odd Story of the Law That Dictates How Government Shutdowns Work, The Atlantic, September 28, 2013

No other government in the world shuts down the way the American government does, and it’s all because of an obscure law passed in the late 1800s. The Antideficiency Act was originally meant to prevent the president from entering into contracts before Congress approved the spending. Now it means that Congress can shut down the Executive Branch’s “non-essential” operations.

Australia had a government shutdown once. In the end, the queen fired everyone in Parliament, Wonkblog, October 1, 2013

In 1975, Australia’s parliament shut down the government during a budgetary battle. But over the course of one afternoon, Queen Elizabeth II’s official representative dissolved the whole Parliament. A month later, Australians elected a whole new government, and it has never had a shutdown since.

Categories: Media, Politics

#ProjectIntern Hits the Road to Capture College Intern Stories

October 2, 2013 - 10:06am

Three months ago, ProPublica launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to hire an intern to travel the country and document stories of the emerging intern economy.

Well, they succeeded – and now #ProjectIntern is hitting the road.

I’m Casey McDermott, and this week I am setting off on that cross-country trip to collect interns’ stories. (Meta, I know.)

Our goal here is pretty simple: We want to make the conversation about internships (more) personal.

The national dialogue about internships often focuses on the big picture: important discussions of ethics and lawsuits. What’s missing, though, is a sense of the intern experience from the people who actually take on these positions. By some estimates, that’s anywhere from half a million to one million interns every year. What do interns really do? When are they being paid for their work? What’s the financial or educational payoff? What kinds of sacrifices do interns make, if any, to take on these positions?

Over the next three months, I’ll travel to college campuses around the country to bring a firsthand perspective to the internship issue (check out our itinerary here).

You’ll be able to find stories from the interns I meet on our new Tumblr — The Intern Economy — along with perspectives from college internship coordinators, academic experts and employers.

We’re especially interested in exploring how unpaid internships have proliferated in some industries.

It’s worth noting that this issue is personal for me, too. I just graduated with journalism and sociology degrees from Penn State in May, and I’ve held four internships including this one. Some paid well, and others provided no more than a transportation stipend. Most of my friends have also been interns — paid, for academic credit, unpaid or some combination of the three. Some of my peers view internships as a valuable investment that can lead to future job opportunities — even if they’re not paid much at the time. And some have made unpaid or stipend-based positions work by living at home, or working part-time jobs.

Help Us Calculate the Cost of Unpaid Internships Sign Up

The internship issue affects students differently depending on their major, their financial situation, their career goals and more. According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, students who completed an unpaid internship were only slightly better situated for future employment than those who had no internship: 37 percent of unpaid interns received at least one job offer, compared to 35.2 percent for non-interns. (Paid interns fared the best, with about 63 percent receiving at least one job offer.) The same survey also showed that paid interns often earned more as new employees, with median starting salaries of $51,930 versus $35,721 for those with unpaid internships, and $37,087 for those with no internship experience at all. 

An internship is a critical entry point into the workforce, and access, or lack thereof, to such opportunities can have lasting consequences for students. That’s one reason we’re focusing on college campuses — an important intersection between prospective interns and the larger intern economy — trying to document the implications of the “experiential learning” students are doing, or aren’t able to do, while they’re in college.

Check our itinerary to see if we’re coming to your school, and be sure to say hello or share your own intern story by tagging #ProjectIntern on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Stay tuned for more dispatches soon!

For more from our internships investigation, see our latest report on Northwestern's journalism program offering students internships without paychecks, or sign up to help us calculate the cost of college internships

Categories: Media, Politics

Help Us Calculate the Cost of Unpaid Internships for Academic Credit

October 2, 2013 - 9:59am

As part of our investigation into the U.S. intern economy, ProPublica is taking a closer look at the role colleges and universities play in promoting unpaid internships. And we want your help calculating the academic cost of these positions.

With proper supervision, off-campus internships can be invaluable. Employers prefer to hire grads with relevant work experience, according to one recent survey. Many who’ve shared their stories with us so far have said the connections and skills they gained at their internships were far more valuable than reading a textbook.

However, as Kara Brandeisky reports, getting academic credit for an internship doesn’t necessarily make it legal. Some colleges have promised to “take great pains” to ensure students aren’t exploited. But ultimately, students have no way to compare the cost and relative quality of schools’ internship programs – and some colleges are collecting tuition for unpaid internships that don’t meet federal guidelines.

To open the door on the murky world of college internship programs, we want to create a tool that lets people compare the cost and relative quality of schools’ internship programs: How much tuition does it cost to be an unpaid intern? How much would students have made if they’d been paid? What do students say about the quality of the program – and how does it compare to similar programs at other schools?

But to do this, we need your help. We're crowd-sourcing the tuition cost of internship programs at journalism departments across the country. Our College Internships Cost Calculator will compare the cost details, and let students rate and review their experiences.

Sign up: Adopt a School

We’re looking for college newspapers, student journalists or other volunteers to help us verify intern program cost details. We will publish results, along with any stories you report as a result, in our College Internships Cost Calculator.

To sign up, click "Adopt a School" below. We'll add you to our list, and send you further instructions on the research and reporting. 

If you have any questions, email


Adopt a School Report Your Results  

For more from our internships investigation, see our latest report on Northwestern's journalism program offering students internships without paychecks, or follow our new Tumblr on the Intern Economy.

Categories: Media, Politics

Ex-Guatemalan Commando Guilty of Concealing Role in Massacre

October 1, 2013 - 4:25pm

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — A federal jury convicted a former Guatemalan army lieutenant Tuesday of immigration fraud, finding that he obtained U.S. citizenship in 2008 by concealing his role in the massacre of 250 men, women and children during Guatemala’s civil war three decades ago.

Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, who for a time had operated three karate schools in Southern California, became the highest-ranking former soldier convicted on charges related to the slaughter that wiped out the jungle hamlet of Dos Erres in 1982. Investigations in the United States and Guatemala have achieved unusual progress in the case, the only mass killing among hundreds in the 30-year Guatemalan civil war for which soldiers have been held accountable.

Sosa, 55, will be sentenced Dec. 9. He faces a prison term of at least 10 years, loss of U.S. citizenship and then deportation to Guatemala, where he is charged with murder. U.S. authorities also have jailed two other former members of Sosa’s commando squad on immigration charges, while Guatemalan courts have convicted five Army veterans for the Dos Erres massacre itself.

Seven suspects, including two commanders, remain at large in a nation where war criminals are often protected by the security forces and criminal mafias.

Sosa, a second lieutenant during the war, was the junior officer among four lieutenants in the 20-man elite unit of commandos known as “Kaibiles.”  Jurors heard grim testimony from two participants and a survivor during the five-day trial. Sosa played a key role as a leader of the squad’s “assault team” specialized in interrogations and hands-on killing, according to testimony of two former soldiers.

The compactly-built martial arts expert oversaw the systematic extermination of villagers in the center of the hamlet, ordering his men to throw victims — including babies — into a well. Sosa fired his gun and threw a grenade into the pile of living and dead bodies in the well, according to testimony.

The spectators in the courtroom for the verdict included a survivor of the massacre: Oscar RamírezCastañeda, a 34-year-old restaurant worker and father of four who came from Boston to this city on the inland edge of Southern California’s urban sprawl.

It was another remarkable moment in a unique odyssey. Ramírez was 3 years old in 1982 and has no memory of the massacre. The commandos killed his mother and eight siblings, but a lieutenant — Oscar Ramírez Ramos — spared the boy and brought him home to his family. The lieutenant died months later in an accident; his family raised Oscar as one of their own.

Ramírez immigrated to the United States as a young man and did not find out his true identity until 2011, when Guatemalan prosecutors tracked him down. A DNA test proved that Ramírez came from Dos Erres and reunited him with his father, who survived because he was in another village on the day of the military attack. The U.S. government gave Ramírez political asylum last year.

“Justice is being done for all the victims,” Ramírez said after the verdict. Although he said he condemns Sosa and the other commandos for their savagery, he walks an emotional tightrope because he feels gratitude for being spared. Seeing Sosa a few feet away stirred a mix of feelings, he said.

“I felt a little bit of everything,” Ramírez said. “Bitterness, hate, sympathy, because all of us are human beings.”

Ramírez had been prepared to testify for the prosecution, but the judge upheld a defense motion excluding him as a witness because he lacked memory of the events. Nonetheless, his attorney, R. Scott Greathead, said it is likely that Ramírez, as a victim of the massacre, could testify at Sosa’s sentencing.

Greathead called the verdict “an important validation” of efforts by human rights advocates and Guatemalan prosecutors who have long pursued cases against former Kaibiles. “What we have to look for now and press for now is for investigations and prosecutions of those who were in higher command, who were responsible for Dos Erres and other massacres,” he said.

Earlier this year, a Guatemalan court found the country’s former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide for masterminding a military campaign that resulted in hundreds of similar mass killings in rural areas. His conviction was thrown out on procedural grounds, however, and a retrial is uncertain.

Because Sosa could not be tried for war crimes in U.S. courts, federal prosecutors pursued a strategy that has been effective in cases involving human rights abusers from around the world.

Prosecutors charged Sosa with unlawful procurement of naturalization and making false statements on U.S. immigration forms for omitting his membership in the Guatemalan military and lying when he indicated he had never committed a crime for which he had not been arrested.

Sosa’s lawyer asserted that his client did not think he committed a crime because he was an obedient soldier who followed orders. The lawyer also argued that the questions on the forms were vague.

Sosa’s ability to elude prosecution for three decades revealed lapses in both the U.S. and Canadian immigration systems. Three years after the 1982 massacre, Sosa deserted the Guatemalan army and fled to San Francisco for reasons that remain murky. He claimed that guerrillas were gunning for him, but his brother told ProPublica in an interview last year that Sosa also feared government intelligence agents because of an internecine military feud.

Sosa sought political asylum in the United States in an application that detailed his combat exploits. When U.S. authorities ruled that he did not have a well-founded fear of prosecution, Sosa went to Canada and gained political asylum and citizenship there. That decision showed a startling lack of scrutiny by Canadian officials, according to U.S. and Canadian human rights experts.

In 1998, Sosa divorced his wife and came to New York, where he married a U.S. citizen and obtained permanent residency, this time concealing his military service. During that process and his naturalization 10 years later in California, U.S. immigration officers failed to notice in his file that his 1985 asylum application had made clear that he was a veteran of the Guatemalan Army.

Although Sosa was convicted of a relatively minor crime, the role of the U.S. government in prosecuting the Dos Erres case reinforces the quest for justice in Guatemala, according to Fredy Peccerelli, a Guatemalan human rights activist and forensic anthropologist who investigates the crimes of the civil war. Peccerelli’s lab conducted the DNA tests that identified Oscar and another survivor as victims of Dos Erres.

“This strengthens the case in Guatemala because, although it’s for immigration, you have a U.S. jury that has heard the evidence and ruled that there was a massacre,” said Peccerelli, who attended the announcement of the verdict along with Ramírez and Greathead.

“This adds to an accumulation of evidence in both countries,” Peccerelli said.

The judicial and media attention in the United States is also important because powerful sectors in the economic and political elite of Guatemala are resisting efforts to pursue the atrocities of the past, Peccerelli said.

Categories: Media, Politics

Northwestern’s Journalism Program Offers Students Internships with Prestige, But No Paycheck

October 1, 2013 - 10:05am

Northwestern University’s journalism school boasts of its prowess in preparing students for prestigious careers — but it also serves as a pipeline for unpaid internships.

At Medill, students pay $15,040 in quarterly tuition for the privilege of working full-time jobs as unpaid interns. During their mandatory quarter in Journalism Residency, as it is known, students work full time at news organizations such as CNN Documentaries, Self and WGN Chicago. But instead of paying interns, employers pay Medill $1,250 for every student placed. In turn, students receive academic credit and a small stipend from the university for relocation expenses, ranging from $600 to $1,200. The most generous stipend amounts to just $2.72 an hour — far below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.  

It’s an arrangement that even Medill is second-guessing. According to a July 30 email obtained by ProPublica, Medill has begun asking news organizations whether they would consider paying students minimum wage.

“As always, Medill and the University are careful to make sure that the program is an academic experience that meets U.S. Department of Labor regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act,” program coordinator Desiree Hanford wrote in an email to editors and internship coordinators at partner media companies.

“Some sites … have told Medill that their legal counsel require them to pay a student either in addition to the $1,250 or in lieu of the $1,250 to reflect the company’s own hiring policies that address this law,” Hanford wrote. (see full document)

“With this backdrop, Medill would like to know whether you would be willing to pay a student who is doing a residency at your site and, if so, how much you would be willing to pay?” Hanford asked. “Would you be willing to pay your state’s minimum wage?”

Jack Doppelt, Medill’s interim associate dean for journalism, said the program complies with Labor Department guidelines, but that the school is still considering whether to require employers to pay its students.

“For the purposes of the law, we’re comfortable,” Doppelt said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re comfortable with students not getting paid money.”

Alice Truong, a 2010 Medill graduate, wasn’t comfortable going unpaid, either. Truong said she didn’t have the finances to move to another city for three months on Medill’s internship stipend (which is usually $900). As a result, while some of her classmates had a list of 20 journalism residency options around the country, Truong’s financial constraints narrowed her choices to “two or three okay options” in the Chicago area.

“That alone was very frustrating, and I remember being very upset about this,” Truong said. “For most students at Northwestern, everything was within reach to them. I only had a handful of options.”

When Truong was in school, Medill also prohibited students from working other jobs during Journalism Residency, forcing Truong to give up her work-study job that quarter. Medill has repealed that policy as of this academic year.

Truong ended up interning at her first choice site, the RedEye, a Chicago-based daily tabloid. There, she wrote short pop culture articles and a few cover stories. She says her internship was a valuable experience that ultimately got her a paid internship and then a job at the Wall Street Journal. But she was still frustrated by the way the program was structured.

“I was close to graduating, and there are so many money stressors around that period of time,” Truong said. “So having to go to a very expensive school to start with, and having to do an internship where I essentially provided free labor for credit, while the school was paid — that was hard to stomach.”

Medill’s program has existed in some form since at least 1973, when it was known as  “Teaching Newspaper.” Roger Boye, an associate professor who has taught at Medill since 1971, said Medill initially gave students a choice between reporting on campus and reporting from a professional newsroom. The internship placements were so successful that Medill made the program a requirement in 1989.

“In the early days – and this is still true – we considered the [newsroom] editors basically part-time faculty members,” Boye said. “These were people that had an educational mission to their own work and wanted to be part of an educational process.”

Medill says its intern sites – more than 100 in all – are chosen carefully to ensure that supervisors will provide “substantive editorial experience” and “good mentoring.” Hanford, the program coordinator, said students must send weekly logs to their adviser and receive midterm and final evaluations from their employers. Medill advisers also visit their students midway through the quarter.

“When I have students go on [Journalism Residency], not one of them leaves without being given my cell phone number because I want to know if something is happening, if there’s an emergency,” Hanford said. “I don’t care what that emergency is.”


Is Academic Credit Enough?

Medill is reevaluating its program at a time when employers and students nationwide are questioning the legality of unpaid internships. In recent years, unpaid interns have brought several high-profile lawsuits seeking back pay, though most have resulted in settlements or findings that favor employers. Only one ruling addressed the issue of internships for academic credit.

According to Labor Department guidelines, an unpaid internship is more likely to be legal if a college grants academic credit and provides oversight. But oversight alone isn’t a guarantee — unpaid internships still must meet six key criteria. For example, the internship must be educational, benefit the intern more than the employer, and not displace paid employees. 

In the last three years, federal investigators have cited at least four employers for violating federal guidelines, even though their unpaid interns received academic credit. One of those cases faulted Rome Snowboards Corp. in Waterbury, Vt.  

Matthew Wolfe interned for free at Rome Snowboards during his senior year at Saint Michael’s College, doing data entry for 10 hours a week. Wolfe received four hours of academic credit for his time. He was surprised when, the summer after graduation, he received a letter from the government and a check for about $1,000.

“Of course I’d love to be compensated for the work, but as a college student – from all of our perspectives – that wasn’t a norm,” Wolfe said. “There weren’t many students who expected to be paid and get credit.”

The Labor Department concurred, finding that “unpaid internships at for-profit establishments appear to be prevalent in the area” and that Rome Snowboards seemed unaware that interns at “for-profit firms almost always have to be paid.”

Rome Snowboards co-founder Josh Reid, who declined to comment for this story, told the investigator that he was frustrated “with the interns’ colleges, whom he believed were complicit in the firm’s noncompliance involving the interns.”

Colleges clearly play a key role. Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute, surveyed college officials last year and found that 75 percent thought academic credit was “an appropriate substitute” for wages in some or all cases.

Joanne LaBrake-Muehlberger, internship director at Saint Michael’s College, said she works with employers to ensure students receive educational training.

“Just because the student is earning the credit doesn’t mean that lets the site off the hook with their responsibility,” LaBrake-Muehlberger said. “We make that clear. I send out a letter, and I include the information from the Department of Labor, so they are made very much aware of the guidelines.”

But the federal investigator in the Rome Snowboards case reported that area schools were “either unaware of or turning a blind-eye to the requirements of the [Fair Labor Standards Act].”

Regardless, the department placed ultimate responsibility with the employer and ordered Rome Snowboards to pay $37,673 in back wages to 38 interns, ruling that because they provided an “immediate advantage” to the company, they should have been paid.

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The courts have also begun to weigh in on academic-based internships. In his June ruling against Fox Searchlight Pictures, federal Judge William H. Pauley III wrote, “A university’s decision to grant academic credit is not a determination that an unpaid internship complies with [New York labor law].”

“Universities may add additional requirements or coursework for students receiving internship credit, but the focus of the [New York labor law] is on the requirements and training provided by the alleged employer,” Pauley ruled.

The ruling could put a damper on unpaid internships for academic credit, according to David Yamada, a labor rights advocate and law professor at Suffolk University.

“If the judge’s observations in the Fox Searchlight case are affirmed and become law, then obviously those private sector internship placements at least are open for liability against that internship employer,” Yamada said. “And then the school might have to incur the wrath of that employer, who’s saying, ‘Oh gosh, you sent us this student, and they turned around and sued us.’”


Shrinking Newsrooms, Shrinking Wages

While unpaid internship postings are rampant on public job boards at journalism schools at New York University and the University of California, Berkeley, some media interns are starting to push back. Gawker Media, Condé Nast, NBCUniversal, Inc. and News Corp. are all facing lawsuits from former interns who say they should have been paid minimum wage.

The Nation Institute, a nonprofit, agreed to begin paying its interns minimum wage after an embarrassing public campaign by a group of former interns who had been paid only $150 a week.

But as newsrooms revisit internships, it’s clear that for some, even minimum wage can strain the budget. Newspaper staffs have shrunk by 30 percent since 2000, with newspapers employing fewer full-time staffers than they did in 1978, according to Pew’s 2013 State of the Media report.

The Charlotte Observer ended its paid summer internship program and stopped accepting Medill interns about four or five years ago to save money.

“This is strictly just a budget thing with us,” said Jim Walser, the Observer’s projects editor and intern coordinator. “We had to cut out everything that was extraneous to try to save as many permanent staffers as we could. We loved the kids coming in from Northwestern. We never had a bad one.”

Chicago Public Media stopped participating in Medill’s journalism residency in 2008.

“Medill charges news organizations a fee, and being that we’re a nonprofit, that’s not something we necessarily could absorb,” internship director George Lara said. He said the station continues to offer some unpaid and some grant-based internships.

Journalism graduates are feeling newsroom cutbacks, too. Only 60 percent of journalism majors reported holding a job related to their field of study six to eight months after graduation, according to a 2012 study at the University of Georgia. On average, journalism grads in 2012 made barely more than those who graduated in 1987, the study found.

Faced with such a tight job market, journalism students are hungry for the type of internships that will give them an edge, said Gina Neff, associate professor of communication at the University of Washington. But while Neff found that virtually all journalism schools offer internship programs, she estimates only about 10 percent of them provide students deep academic engagement.

“We’ve held up a class of jobs that are ‘the internship,’ that are typically unpaid or underpaid,” Neff said. “I would call on more professors to stand up and take notice that we’re in effect complicit in a system that is underpaying student labor.”

Medill’s dean says the school hopes to ensure students are compensated for their work, without limiting their options in a struggling industry.

“It’s a very delicate balance,” Doppelt said. “We’re trying to have that happen, and it’s a set of moving negotiations, and we have to be sensitive to what the field – that is hurting right now, financially – might be able to do.”

As Medill reevaluates its prestigious internship program, 15 news organizations have started to pay their Medill interns and at least 18 more said they would consider doing so, according to Hanford, the internship coordinator.

WGEM, a television station in Western Illinois, started paying them state minimum wage last year when the station’s owner, Quincy Broadcast Print Interactive, launched a paid internship program for the whole company.

Jena Schulz, director of human resources for Quincy, said each Medill student works as “a typical member of the news department team,” shooting video and going on air. From a legal standpoint, only paid interns can do that kind of work, Schulz said.

“We believe it is necessary for us to treat the interns as actual employees — and pay them — in order for them to receive the full benefit of the experience,” Schulz said. “Our company has operated by the letter of the law and said, if the interns are anything other than in your way, they probably don’t qualify as unpaid.”

The Kitsap Sun, a mid-sized newspaper in Bremerton, Wash., also started paying its Medill interns the state minimum wage of $9.19 per hour a few years ago.

“They should get paid for their time,” said editor David Nelson. “They’re here. They need to pay rent. They’re learning, but it’s not free to live.”

[View the story "Northwestern students and alums respond" on Storify]


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Categories: Media, Politics

Would You Take Our Reader Survey?

October 1, 2013 - 9:47am

This summer, ProPublica celebrated its fifth year of publishing. As we continue to strive for hard-hitting journalism that generates impact, we’d like to ask you to fill out our quick reader survey so we can better assess what’s worked, what hasn’t and how we can improve in the months and years to come.

The survey is anonymous and will take about 5-10 minutes to complete. You can fill it out here.

Thank you for your time and support. We value your feedback.

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Categories: Media, Politics

‘Nos Ordenaron que Matáramos a Toda la Gente’

September 30, 2013 - 3:30pm

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Sacudido por sollozos, con la cabeza bajada, un excomando guatemalteco testificó la semana pasada que había llorado mientras tiraba a un niño pequeño a su muerte en el pozo de un pueblo hace 31 años mientras un oficial al mando, el Teniente Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, espetaba: “¡Esto es un trabajo de hombres!”

Sosa, quien hoy es un ciudadano estadounidense de 55 años de edad, observó este testimonio sombrio desde la mesa de la defensa vigilado por alguaciles federales en una sala de juicio aquí. Su excamarada en armas, Gilberto Jordán, acusó a Sosa de haber jugado un papel central en uno de los peores crímenes de guerra en la historia reciente del hemisferio: la masacre de 250 personas en la aldea guatemalteca de Dos Erres en 1982. Sosa está siendo procesado por cargos de haber obtenido su ciudadanía estadounidense de manera fraudulenta años más tarde, ocultando su participación en la masacre, según los fiscales.

El juicio empezó la semana pasada y es el primer juicio en Estados Unidos relacionado con una atrocidad de la guerra civil guatemalteca, que duró treinta años. También es la primera vez que el caso de Dos Erres es examinado en profundidad en una corte estadounidense. Sosa se convierte en el sospechoso de más alto rango en ser juzgado. Las autoridades estadounidenses habían previamente encarcelado a Jordán, quien se declaró culpable de cargos de fraude migratorio en 2010, y a otro exsoldado que había emigrado a Estados Unidos. Las cortes guatemaltecas han condenado a cinco exsoldados. Siete más permanecen fugitivos en un caso que ha desafiado la capacidad de la justicia en Guatemala de perseguir a criminales de guerra que son protegidos por fuerzas de seguridad corruptas y mafias poderosas.

Durante los primeros cuatro días del juicio, fiscales federales se enfrentaron a un reto poco común: intentar probar que Sosa participó en la matanza para condenarlo por el crimen relativamente menor de fraude al sistema de inmigración. Cuando Sosa obtuvo la ciudadanía en 2008 y una tarjeta verde en 1998, hizo declaraciones falsas en formularios de inmigración, según los fiscales, porque no reveló que había sido militar y dijo que nunca había cometido un crimen por el cual hubiera sido arrestado.

La defensa argumenta que Sosa no pensaba que había cometido un crimen porque era un soldado obedeciendo órdenes. El abogado de Sosa también aseveró que las preguntas en los formularios de inmigración eran vagas y que oficiales del servicio de inmigración estadounidense deberían haberse fijado que en el archivo de Sosa  él había descrito su servicio militar guatemalteco en una solicitud que presentó, sin éxito, para asilo político en 1985.

“Este caso se trata pura y sencillamente de las respuestas de un exsoldado en un formulario de inmigración,” dijo el abogado, H.H. (Shashi) Kewalramani durante los argumentos de apertura del juicio. “Por mucho que el gobierno de Estados Unidos quiera convertir esto en un caso de crímenes de guerra, no lo es.”

Sin embargo, sí parece mucho un caso de crímenes de guerra. Los testimonios de los testigos en esta ciudad ubicada a una hora de Los Ángeles sumergieron al jurado en el horror en una aldea de la selva guatemalteca de hace tres décadas. Dos excomandos contaron como el ataque fue un torbellino de violaciones y asesinatos que borró a Dos Erres del mapa. Un sobreviviente que era un niño en 1982 describió  como se agarró a la pierna de su madre mientras soldados la arrastraron a su muerte. Y la exmujer de Sosa y el investigador encargado del caso testificaron que hace tres años Sosa huyó a México y posteriormente a Canadá  después de que agentes federales ejecutaron una orden de registro en su casa de Riverside County.

La policía canadiense detuvo a Sosa, quien tiene ciudadanía canadiense además de estadounidense, en 2011 y lo extraditaron a los Estados Unidos el año pasado.

Los testimonios empezaron con una reunión dramática entre Sosa y Jordán, quien está cumpliendo una sentencia de prisión de diez años en Florida. En 1982, ambos  trabajaron como instructores en una escuela que entrenaba a “Kaibiles,” el nombre por cual son conocidos los comandos notoriamente brutales de Guatemala.

Sosa es un experto en artes marciales, bajo y fuerte con bigote negro. Durante la década antes de ser acusado en 2010, manejó escuelas de karate en el sur de California. Vestido con un traje negro y portando lentes, observó el martes pasado como los alguaciles federales escoltaban a la corte a Jordán, quien vestía un overol naranja de reo y tenía las piernas encadenadas. Ninguno de los dos veteranos de guerra dio señal alguna de reconocer la presencia del otro.

Jordán parecía mayor que sus 57 años: con lentes, el pelo gris, de aspecto atormentado. En 2010, confesó su involucramiento en la masacre cuando agentes federales fueron a su casa a entrevistarle. Dijo a los agentes que había sabido que vendría el día en que tendría que pagar por sus acciones.  Se enfrenta a ser deportado a Guatemala para ser juzgado por asesinato en masa cuando cumpla su sentencia.

Jordán testificó en español a través de un intérprete.  Dijo que no ha hecho ningún acuerdo con el gobierno norteamericano aparte de una promesa de que los fiscales estadounidenses escribirán una carta a la fiscal general de Guatemala diciendo que ha cooperado.

El objetivo inicial de la misión el 6 de diciembre de 1982 era recuperar  21 fusiles que unos guerrilleros se habían llevado después de una emboscada a soldados, según el testimonio de Jordán. Datos de inteligencia indicaban que los fusiles estaban en Dos Erres, pero Jordán dijo que la unidad no encontró ni fusiles ni guerrilleros y no hubo resistencia por parte de los ciudadanos pacíficos de la aldea. Los comandos separaron a los hombres de las mujeres y niños y arrearon a los dos grupos dentro de una iglesia y una escuela. La pesadilla empezó cuando un teniente violó a una de las mujeres, dijo Jordán. Después de una reunión entre los tenientes, se dieron nuevas órdenes, según el testimonio de Jordán.

“La misión cambió,” dijo. “Nos ordenaron que matáramos a toda la gente.”

Jordán era un paracaidista curtido en esa época, pero todavía no se había convertido en Kaibil. Se retrató como un participe reticente en la matanza. Testificó que recibió la orden de traer a un niño y tirarlo al pozo en el centro del pueblo, que se convirtió en el epicentro de la masacre.

Tenía como tres años, la edad de mi hijo,” testificó Jordán.

Jordán se inclinó hacia adelante en el estrado y lloró mientras continuaba su relato, mirando fijamente hacia abajo. Dijo: “Mientras estábamos en camino, yo estaba llorando. El me miraba y estaba llorando también. Un sargento me dijo que no llorara o terminaría en el pozo…Llegué y  fue cuando escuché al Señor Sosa, y dijo que esto era trabajo de hombres, y tiré el niño al pozo.”

El fiscal federal Brian D. Skaret preguntó cómo se había sentido Jordán en aquel momento. Jordán levantó la cabeza y espetó: “¡Mal!”

El testimonio de Jordán y de otro excomando, César Franco Ibañez, ubicó a Sosa al lado del pozo supervisando el exterminio metódico de los aldeanos. Los comandos vendaron los ojos de las víctimas, les interrogaron, les pegaron en la cabeza con una almádena de metal y los tiraron dentro del pozo, según los testimonios. Ambos testigos declararon que un hombre que se había caído encima del montón de victimas  insultó a Sosa, y que el enfurecido teniente disparó dentro del pozo. Jordán testificó que Sosa también tiró una granada dentro del pozo.

Creo que perdió la cabeza y empezó a disparar,” declaró Franco. “Les contestó con su fusil…Dijo: ‘Pues mueran, hijos de puta’.”

Franco permaneció impávido cuando dio testimonio de como él mismo mató a gente y violó a una mujer. El exsargento robusto y pequeño fue uno de los dos miembros de la unidad que rompieron el código de silencio militar en la mitad de los noventa y dieron testimonios de primera mano sin precedentes. Fiscales guatemaltecos concedieron a Franco el estatus de testigo protegido y lo mudaron a otro país, donde vive hoy con su familia. El gobierno guatemalteco le paga un estipendio de $550 al mes, dijo. Ha declarado en investigaciones anteriores hechas por autoridades guatemaltecas y norteamericanas y ha dado entrevistas a organizaciones periodísticas, entre ellas ProPublica.

Durante su interrogatorio, el abogado defensor intentó poner en duda la declaración de Franco, aseverando que su relato ha cambiado a través de los años acerca de detalles como si Sosa utilizó una escopeta o un fusil. Citando un informe de la fiscalía sobre una entrevista de Franco hecha por investigadores de Estados Unidos, Kewalramani dijo que durante aquella entrevista en la embajada estadounidense en el país donde vive Franco no había mencionado a Sosa en una lista de comandos que estaban al lado del pozo del pueblo.

Franco insistió en que el informe estaba equivocado.

También mencioné a Sosa,” testificó Franco. “…Le nombré desde el mero principio.”

Otro ataque a la declaración de Franco surgió de una fuente inesperada el viernes por la mañana. El fiscal Skaret reveló en el juzgado que el jefe de la unidad de crímenes de guerra del Departamento de Justicia había recibido un correo electrónico de un fiscal que está de baja. El fiscal, George Ferko, escribió en el correo electrónico que había estado leyendo noticias periodísticas sobre el testimonio de Franco y sintió la obligación de alertar a sus colegas de que pensaba que el testigo no era creíble, según Skaret. Ferko había entrevistado al excomando como parte de una investigación en 2009, dijo Skaret.

César es un mentiroso,” escribió Ferko, según el relato de Skaret en el juzgado.  “César ha cambiado su historia una vez más.”

Como resultado, el abogado de Sosa dijo que quería una oportunidad para hablar con Ferko para decidir si llamarlo como testigo. El episodio fue notable: es muy poco usual que un fiscal del Departamento de Justicia cuestione en pleno juicio la fiabilidad de un testigo que está siendo presentado por sus colegas.

Sin embargo, puede que el acontecimiento no tenga mucho impacto. La defensa no ha intentado refutar el punto central de las declaraciones de los dos exKaibiles: que Sosa participó en la masacre de Dos Erres.

Durante una entrevista telefónica con ProPublica el año pasado desde una cárcel canadiense, Sosa insistió en que no estuvo presente en Dos Erres el día del crimen. Durante la entrevista y por medio de cartas entregadas a ProPublica por su hermano, Sosa alegó que estaba trabajando a una distancia de cien millas de los hechos en un proyecto de asuntos civiles en un pueblo llamado Melchor de Mencos, donde dijo que ayudó a los residentes a obtener equipamiento escolar y deportivo.

La defensa no ha repetido esta versión durante el juicio. Sin reconocer explícitamente la participación de Sosa en la masacre, el argumento de apertura de Kewalramani subrayó la idea de que la guerra civil guatemalteca fue un conflicto brutal y que Sosa era parte de una unidad de elite que estaba entrenada para cumplir órdenes. Sosa no va a declarar, dijo su abogado el viernes.

La fiscalía terminó su presentación con el testimonio de Ramiro Osorio Cristales. Osorio es el mayor de dos niños que los comandos no mataron, sino raptaron y se los llevaron a sus casas para ser criados en las familias de dos de los soldados. El otro niño, Oscar Ramírez Castañeda, solo tenía tres años y no recuerda nada de Dos Erres. Ramírez vive ahora en Boston y ProPublica contó su historia el año pasado.

Osorio vive en Canadá. Tenía cinco años cuando perdió a sus padres y seis hermanos en la masacre. Describió sus memorias en un inglés con acento español pero claro, su voz quebrándose por momentos, tomando pausas para recobrar su compostura.

Osorio recordó como hombres armados irrumpieron en su casa durante la noche y arrastraron fuera a la familia. Los hombres ataron con cuerdas las manos y cuellos de su padre y hermano mayor y los llevaron a la escuela con los demás hombres de la aldea, declaró. Los asaltantes arrearon a los otros niños y su madre dentro de la iglesia con las aterrorizadas mujeres y niños de Dos Erres, según su testimonio.

Empezaron a sacar a las mujeres de la iglesia,” testificó Osorio. “Agarraron a una mujer por su pelo y la arrastraron afuera, algunas niñas jóvenes, adolescentes. Su madre decía, “Por favor no lleven a mis hijos’.”

Osorio miró a través de los resquicios de los listones de madera de las paredes de la iglesia como los soldados violaban a mujeres y mataban a niños, golpeándoles contra un árbol, según su declaración.

Los trataron como animales,” dijo.

Entonces los soldados vinieron a por la madre de Osorio, según su declaración.

Recuerdo agarrando a mi madre por la pierna,” testificó. “Estábamos peleando con los tipos…’No lleven a mi madre.’ Corrí a la parte de atrás de la iglesia para ver que le estaba pasando a mi madre. Estaba gritando, pidiendo auxilio: ‘Por favor no nos maten. No nos maten. No maten a mis niños, no saben nada’.”

Osorio dijo que finalmente se quedó dormido debajo de un banco de la iglesia. Cuando despertó, según su testimonio, solo quedaban otros cuatro niños. Tres eran niñas que los comandos violaron y asesinaron al día siguiente. Los otros dos, Osorio y Ramírez, sobrevivieron. Cuando Osorio terminó su declaración, algunos miembros del jurado y espectadores se secaron las lágrimas.

Es probable que el juicio termine el lunes porque la fiscalía ha reducido su lista inicial de testigos, optando por no llamar a dos excomandos más. La jueza dijo también que ha intentado apurar el juicio porque hay la inminente posibilidad de que el gobierno federal deje de funcionar. Si la defensa decide llamar al exfiscal que ha cuestionado la veracidad de Franco, el testimonio tendria lugar el lunes antes de los argumentos finales.

Categories: Media, Politics

California Poised to Broaden Access to Abortions

September 30, 2013 - 1:49pm

Oct. 9: On Wednesday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed two bills dramatically broadening access to early abortions in the state. Last week, we wrote about how researchers and lawmakers joined forces to pass the bills and how the legislation could influence abortion politics and access in other states.

When you read about abortion these days, the news is mostly about restrictions—new state laws, regulations, and court challenges that aim (depending on your point of view) either to make the procedure safer for women or to put providers out of business. But California is going in the opposite direction, with two bills that could lead to the one of the biggest expansions of access to abortion in the United States since the FDA approved mifepristone, aka the abortion pill, in 2000.

AB 154 would allow specially trained nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and physician assistants to perform first-trimester abortions without a doctor’s supervision. AB 980 would hold abortion clinics to the same building standards as other primary care facilities, instead of the stricter rules that some cities and counties would like to impose. Both are aimed at making the procedure more widely available in rural, largely conservative parts of the state where incomes are low, teen pregnancies are rampant, and finding an abortion provider often means taking the day off from work or school, getting on a bus, and traveling for hours or days.

Reaction has been predictably split. Margaret Crosby, the ACLU’s lead voice on reproductive issues in California, says one of the most significant things about the bills is that they “treat abortion like any other medical procedure. The fact that abortion is singled out for special consideration is a relic of the days when it was a felony,” she says. “It’s a reflection of where this country is politically rather than medically.”

That dismays Brian Johnston, director of the California Pro-Life Council, who sees what he calls the “minimization” and “casualization” of abortion as a terrible thing for women and girls. If the bills are signed, he says, “animals will have more dignity under the laws of California than human beings.”

Both sides do agree on one thing: The central role played by researchers in persuading lawmakers to pass the bills could change the terms of the whole debate.

Indeed, AB 154 would have gone nowhere but for a recent study out of the University of California–San Francisco that ranks as one of the largest examinations of abortion complication rates ever conducted. After monitoring more than 11,000 procedures over five years, researchers found very little difference in the rate of complications between first-trimester vacuum aspirations performed by experienced doctors and those done by skilled non-physicians.

“Other states that are adding restrictions and barriers are doing so purely out of politics,” says Kathy Kneer, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. “It’s not based on any medical evidence. The California study gives people a way to push back. It’s like a factual slap in the face.”

But first, some back story.

California’s support for abortion rights goes back to at least 1967, when Governor Ronald Reagan signed a law legalizing the procedure, six years before Roe v Wade. The state is also one of only a handful to have the right to privacy written into its Constitution. Courts have cited that right many times over the years to reject attempts by abortion opponents to impose restrictions.

As a result, unlike the vast majority of other states, California pays for abortions for low-income women and lets teenage girls end their pregnancies without having to tell their parents first. It has about 500 providers scattered throughout the state. These providers accounted for 18 percent of all the abortions performed in the U.S. in 2008, the Guttmacher Institute says. California “does not have” an access problem, insists Carol Hogan, director of pastoral projects and communications for the California Catholic Conference.

But abortion advocates look at the same picture and see many glaring gaps. Some 52 percent of counties—mainly in conservative areas like the vast agricultural Central Valley—either don’t have any providers or lack accessible providers, defined as clinics that perform abortions routinely for a fee that women can afford. Medi-Cal (the state’s version of Medicaid) may pay for the procedure, but it does so at 1985 levels—as much of a disincentive for many doctors and hospitals as noisy protesters and bomb threats.

Plus, California is enormous. Kern County, for example, at the southern end of the Central Valley, has one abortion clinic to serve an area larger than New Jersey.

 “Maybe there’s a clinic in their area but it only offers the [abortion] pill and that’s only good through the eighth week of pregnancy,” says Sierra Harris, associate director of ACCESS: Women’s Health Justice, a nonprofit organization in Oakland that helps women make arrangements and sometimes pays for their trips. “They have to arrange childcare, transportation.” The more onerous the logistics, the longer it takes to obtain care, and many women miss the first-trimester cutoff that most clinics impose, making it even harder to find a provider. “The delays lead to more delays. It becomes a cycle,” Harris says.

Then there’s the chronic nationwide shortage of doctors trained to perform abortions. New Hampshire, Vermont, Oregon and Montana have long permitted physician assistants and nurse practitioners to pick up the slack.

Abortion advocates have been trying for years to revamp the California statutes. A turning point came in 2002, when lawmakers enacted a new law that enshrined Roe. The law also gave the go-ahead for non-physicians to perform “medical” (pill) abortions.

Yet even pro-choice lawmakers remained reluctant to let non-doctors do “surgical” (vacuum aspiration) abortions—as of 2008, about 83 percent of first-trimester procedures in the U.S., Guttmacher says. They wanted proof that patients would not be harmed (and assurances that the medical establishment wouldn’t be hurt, either).

But the same political forces that have made it difficult to build new clinics and train doctors have also made it nearly impossible for researchers to study abortion the way they do other medical procedures.

Enter Tracy Weitz, an associate professor in the ob/gyn department at UCSF. A social scientist by training, she heads the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health project at the school’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, one of the very few programs in the U.S. doing clinical research on abortion and contraception.

Weitz and her team discovered a little-known mechanism in California law that lets health care professionals conduct pilot projects—for example, studying whether dental hygienists can be trained to safely fill cavities. After a two-year approval process, the researchers quietly embarked on a study the likes of which has never been done in this country.

First, non-physicians around the state—nurse practitioners, certified midwives, and physician assistants who specialized in women’s health and were already doing procedures like inserting IUDs and taking Pap smears—received training in how to perform vacuum aspirations. After they could show they were competent, they were allowed to do first-trimester procedures at some 22 sites run by Planned Parenthood or Kaiser Permanente, the state’s largest HMO.

Eventually Weitz and her team gathered data comparing 5,675 abortions performed by non-physicians to 5,812 performed by doctors with years of experience. Given that the non-physicians were such novices, Weitz was expecting their complication rate to be as high as 5 or 6 percent. But problems like incomplete abortions and infections were so infrequent that the study had to be extended a year to capture more patients, she says. In the end, the complication rate was .9 percent for doctors and 1.8 percent for non-doctors—figures that Weitz calls “enormously, incredibly safe.”

She credits the same kinds of improvements in technology that have made many other medical procedures easier and safer since the 1970s. The instruments used in vacuum aspirations are less apt to puncture tissue, ultrasounds make it possible to tell the age of the fetus, and antibiotics given before the procedure reduce the risk of infection. Abortion opponents point out the non-physicians still had twice as many complications as the doctors, but Weitz dismisses this as “disingenuous,” given that some critics have been claiming complication rates of 10 percent or higher.

The UCSF study, published on the American Journal of Public Health’s website, didn’t just sway Democrats to pass the non-physicians bill. AB 980, the bill dealing with building codes, also benefited from the fresh information. Governor Jerry Brown, apro-choice former Jesuit with a long history of supporting women’s issues, could sign the two bills any day, although his slowness is causing jitters in some camps and hope in others.(Also on his desk is a narrower abortion-related bill that would protect the privacy rights of young adults who receive insurance through their parents; earlier this month, Brown signed a fourth bill buttressing the rights of foster kids to reproductive health information and services.)

No one seems to expect that the California bills will have any domino effect in conservative regions of the country. Even in California, Johnston says, there could be pushback in the form of court challenges or voter initiatives. Indeed, while a brand-new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 61 percent of those surveyed don’t want the government to interfere with abortion access, that figure is 10 points lower than in 2000. [PDF here]

But Kneer says the UCSF study could have a major impact in liberal states concerned about abortion access for low-income and rural women. “Places that have a progressive political environment now have a large study to back them up so they can also expand,” she says,

Meanwhile, Weitz predicts, the effects of any new law could also be felt border states like Arizona that have more restrictive abortion rules. “I do think it’s likely that some women will come to California for services,” she says. “It happened in the 1970s. There’s no reason to think… that the same thing wouldn’t happen now.”

Categories: Media, Politics

U.S. Is Arming Syrian Rebels, But Refugees Who’ve Aided Them Are Considered Terrorists

September 30, 2013 - 11:13am

Authorized by Congress, the CIA has started sending weapons to Syrian rebels. But under a legal definition of terrorism adopted by the U.S. government after the Sept. 11 attacks, those same rebel groups are considered terrorist organizations.

The designation could prevent some of the more than 2 million refugees who have fled Syria from coming to the United States, even if they haven’t actually taken up arms against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Groups that appear on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations have long been banned from entering the U.S. But two antiterrorism laws, the Patriot Act and the Real ID Act, also bar members of armed rebel groups that aren’t specifically designated as terrorist organizations.

The provisions, sometimes known as terrorism bars, apply to all armed rebel groups — even ones the U.S. is actively supporting.

The bars also deny entry to anyone who has given any kind of “material support” — transportation, shelter, money — to such groups.

The U.S. has accepted only 64 Syrian refugees in the last two years, according to a State Department spokeswoman. But it’s unclear how many, if any, Syrians have run afoul of the terrorism bars to date.

Few Syrians have been resettled overall since the conflict began there in 2011. Instead, the United Nations — which refers refugees for resettlement — has focused on aiding the refugees who are still flowing out of Syria into Lebanon, Turkey and other bordering countries.

But the U.N. is preparing to resettle up to 2,000 Syrians in the coming months, said Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Washington, and the terrorism bars could be a hurdle to resettling them in the U.S.

“We do foresee that there could be issues with some of these cases,” Yungk said.

David Garfield, a Washington lawyer who has represented immigrants caught up by the terrorism bars, was more blunt.

“For Syrians, I think it’s going to be a major problem,” Garfield said. “The thing about this law that’s so bizarre is that it doesn’t matter who you’re trying to overthrow.”

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman, Christopher Bentley, said in a statement to ProPublica that “any Syrians who do apply for refugee or asylum status could be subject” to the bars.

The Citizenship and Immigration website makes clear just how sweeping the laws are: “Significantly, there is no exception under the law for ‘freedom fighters,’ so most rebel groups would be considered to be engaging in terrorist activity even if fighting against an authoritarian regime.” The website also states that refugees can be barred for “providing food, helping to set up tents, distributing literature, or making a small monetary contribution” to rebel groups.

“Material support” is defined so broadly that immigrants can be turned away for giving members of rebel groups “a bowl of rice or a few dollars,” said Melanie Nezer, senior director for policy and advocacy with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

More than 3,500 applications from those around the world seeking to come to or remain in the U.S. are currently on hold because of the terrorism bars, according to the government.  And that likely doesn’t capture the full effect of the bars. The U.N. often doesn’t try to resettle refugees in the U.S. if officials think they might be turned away because of the terrorism bars.

In 2007, Congress gave the secretary of homeland security more authority to grant exemptions to rebel groups that don’t pose a threat to the U.S. But putting the exemptions in place has proved to be a slow process that often takes years.

A proposed exemption “has to circulate through the whole alphabet soup of agencies in Washington,” said Thomas K. Ragland, a former Justice Department lawyer who has represented immigrants caught up by the terrorism bars.

Exemptions typically must be reviewed by, among others, the Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Department of Homeland Security’s general counsel and Office of Policy. If no objections are raised, exemptions eventually get sent to the secretary of homeland security, who must consult the secretary of state and the attorney general before they’re made official. “It moves at a glacial pace,” Ragland said.

Eighteen groups have received exemptions to date, including seven Burmese groups, three Iraqi groups and two Vietnamese groups. The Department of Homeland Security has also issued several broader exemptions, including for individuals who supported rebel groups “under duress.”

Citizenship and Immigration would not say whether any exemptions for Syrian groups were in the pipeline.

Granting exemptions for certain Syrian groups wouldn’t mean that refugees affiliated with them could automatically enter the U.S. — it would simply remove the legal barrier to letting Syrians who have aided the rebels into the country.

The government reviews the case of each refugee, and it would still have the authority to reject applicants with ties to groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a rebel group with ties to Al Qaeda. (The State Department has already designated the Al Nusra Front, another group with Qaeda ties, as a terrorist organization, preventing anyone affiliated with it from entering the country.)

The government can also exempt individuals from the terrorism bars.

In 2008, the Washington Post ran a front-page story on Saman Kareem Ahmad, a client of Ragland’s who had worked as a translator for the Marines in Iraq but had been turned down when he applied for U.S. permanent residency. The reason: He had served in the militant arm of the Kurdish Democratic Party, which was considered a terrorist group because it had tried to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Ahmad was granted an individual exemption after the story ran, Ragland said. (Homeland Security later issued a group exemption for refugees affiliated with the Kurdish Democratic Party.) But Ragland said such exemptions are rare.

“They’re really, really the exception to the rule,” Ragland said. Citizenship and Immigration declined to say how many individual exemptions have been granted.

The Department of Homeland Security could issue a general exemption for all Syrians who provided nonviolent support to Syrian rebels, said Anwen Hughes, the deputy director of the refugee protection program at Human Rights First.

“There’s an opportunity right now for DHS to fix this and process an exemption that would resolve it,” she said, “before it becomes a crisis.”

Categories: Media, Politics

‘They Ordered Us To Kill All The People’

September 30, 2013 - 8:00am

Sept. 30, 4:23 p.m.: This story has been clarified.

Editor's Note: This story has also been published in Spanish.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Shaken by sobs, his head bowed, a former Guatemalan commando testified last week that he wept as he hurled a little boy to his death in a village well 31 years ago while a commanding officer, Lt. Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, snarled: “This is a job for men!”

Sosa, now a 55-year-old U.S. citizen, watched that grim testimony from a defense table guarded by U.S. marshals in a federal courtroom here. His former comrade-in-arms, Gilberto Jordán, accused Sosa of playing a lead role in one of the worst war crimes in the recent history of the hemisphere: the massacre of 250 people in the Guatemalan hamlet of Dos Erres in 1982. Sosa is charged with fraudulently obtaining U.S. citizenship years later by concealing his participation in the massacre.

The trial began last week and is the first trial in the United States involving an atrocity from Guatemala’s 30-year civil war. It is also the first full airing of the Dos Erres case in a U.S. court. Sosa has become the highest-ranking suspect to be prosecuted. U.S. authorities had previously jailed Jordán, who pleaded guilty to immigration fraud charges in 2010, and another ex-soldier who had migrated to the United States. Guatemalan courts have convicted five former commandos. Seven others remain fugitives in an ongoing case that has tested Guatemala’s ability to pursue justice against war criminals shielded by corrupt security forces and powerful mafias.

During the first four days of the trial, federal prosecutors undertook an unusual challenge: attempting to prove Sosa participated in the slaughter to convict him of the relatively minor crime of immigration fraud. When Sosa obtained citizenship in 2008 and a green card in 1998, he allegedly made false statements on immigration forms by failing to disclose his military service and saying he had never committed a crime for which he had not been arrested, according to prosecutors.

The defense argues that Sosa did not think he had committed a crime because he had been a soldier following orders. Sosa’s lawyer also asserted that the questions on the immigration forms were vague and that U.S. immigration officials should have seen in Sosa’s file that he had disclosed his Guatemalan military service in a failed application for political asylum in 1985.

“This case is about an ex-soldier’s answers on an immigration form, pure and simple,” said the lawyer, H.H. (Shashi) Kewalramani, during opening arguments. “As much as the U.S. government wants to make this a war crimes case, it’s not.”

It certainly resembles a war crimes case, however. The testimony in this city an hour east of Los Angeles plunged the jury into the horror in a Guatemalan jungle village three decades ago. Two former commandos recounted a rampage of rape and murder that wiped Dos Erres off the map. A survivor who was a boy in 1982 described clinging to his mother’s leg as soldiers dragged her to her death. And Sosa’s ex-wife and the lead investigator testified that Sosa fled to Mexico and then Canada three years ago after federal agents served a search warrant on his Riverside County home.

Canadian police arrested Sosa, who holds Canadian as well as U.S. citizenship, in 2011 and extradited him to the United States last year.

The testimony began with a dramatic reunion between Sosa and Jordán, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence in Florida. In 1982, both worked as instructors at a school that trained “Kaibiles,” as Guatemala’s notoriously brutal commandos are known. As the civil war intensified, the regime of dictator Efraín Ríos Montt reassigned the instructors to a 20-man rapid reaction squad.  Four were lieutenants—Sosa had the least seniority among them—and the rest were sergeants.

Sosa is a compact, black-mustached martial arts expert. He spent the decade before his 2010 indictment operating karate schools in Southern California. Wearing a dark suit and glasses, he watched last Tuesday as federal marshals brought in Jordán, who wore orange prison overalls and leg chains. The two veterans did not acknowledge each other.

Jordán looked older than his 57 years: bespectacled, gray-haired, tormented. In 2010, he confessed his involvement in the massacre when federal agents went to his home to question him. He told the agents he had known the day would come when he would have to pay for his actions. He faces deportation to stand trial for mass murder in Guatemala upon his release.

Jordán testified in Spanish through an interpreter. He said he has received no deal other than a promise that U.S. prosecutors will write a letter to Guatemala’s attorney general saying he has cooperated.

The initial goal of the mission on Dec. 6, 1982, was to recover 21 rifles that guerillas had taken during an ambush on soldiers, Jordán testified. Intelligence indicated that the rifles were in Dos Erres, but Jordán said the squad found no rifles or guerrillas and encountered no resistance from the peaceable citizens of the hamlet. The commandos separated the men from the women and children and herded the two groups into a church and a school. The nightmare began when a lieutenant raped one of the women, Jordán said. After a meeting among the lieutenants, new orders were given, Jordán testified.

“The mission changed,” he said. “They ordered us to kill all the people.”

Jordán was a seasoned paratrooper at the time, but he had not yet become a Kaibil. He portrayed himself as an unwilling participant in the slaughter. He testified that he was ordered to bring a child and throw him into a well in the center of the village that became the epicenter of the massacre.

“He was about 3 years old, the age of my son,” Jordán testified.

Jordán bent forward in the witness stand and wept as he continued, staring straight down. He said: “As we were on our way, I was crying. He was staring at me and crying as well. A sergeant told me not to cry or I would end up in the well … I arrived and that’s when I heard Mr. Sosa, and he said this was a job for men and I threw the child in the well.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian D. Skaret asked how Jordán felt at that moment. Jordán lifted his head and snapped: “Bad!”

The testimony of Jordán and another ex-commando, César Franco Ibañez, placed Sosa at the edge of the well supervising the methodical extermination of the villagers. The commandos blindfolded their victims, questioned them, slammed them on the head with a metal sledgehammer and dumped them into the well, according to the testimony. Both witnesses testified that a man who had fallen onto the pile of victims insulted Sosa, and the enraged lieutenant fired his gun into the well. Jordán testified that Sosa also tossed a grenade in the well.

“I think he lost his head and started firing,” Franco testified. “He answered them with his rifle … He said: ‘Well die, you sons-of-bitches.’ ”

Franco remained impassive when he testified about killing people and raping a woman. The short, stocky former sergeant is one of two members of the squad who broke the military’s code of silence in the mid-1990s   and gave unprecedented first-hand testimony. Guatemalan prosecutors made Franco a protected witness and relocated him another country, where he lives today with his family. The Guatemalan government pays him a $550 monthly stipend, he said. He has testified in previous U.S. and Guatemalan prosecutions and given interviews to news organizations, including ProPublica.

During cross-examination, the defense attorney tried to cast doubt on Franco’s testimony, asserting that his story has changed over the years about details such as whether Sosa used a rifle or a shotgun. Kewalramani cited a prosecution report about an interview of Franco by U.S. investigators, saying Franco had not mentioned Sosa in a list of commandos at the village well during that interview in a U.S. embassy in the country where he lives.

Franco insisted that the report was wrong.

“I also mentioned Sosa,” Franco testified. “… I named him since the very beginning.”

Another challenge to Franco’s testimony arose from an unexpected source Friday morning. Prosecutor Skaret disclosed in court that the section chief of the Justice Department’s war crimes unit had received an email from a prosecutor who is on leave. The prosecutor, George Ferko, wrote in the email that he had read about Franco’s testimony in news reports and was compelled to alert his colleagues that he felt the witness was not credible, according to Skaret. Ferko had interviewed the ex-commando as part of an investigation in 2009, Skaret said.

“César is a liar,” Ferko wrote, according to Skaret’s statement in court. “César has changed his story once again.”

As a result, Sosa’s attorney said he wanted an opportunity to talk to Ferko to decide whether to call him as a witness. The episode was remarkable: It is highly unusual for a Justice Department prosecutor to raise questions about a witness being used by his colleagues in the middle of a trial.

Nonetheless, the development may not have much impact. The defense has not challenged the central point of the testimony by the two former Kaibiles: that Sosa took part in the Dos Erres massacre.

During a phone interview from a Canadian jail last year with ProPublica, Sosa insisted he was not present at Dos Erres on the day of the crime. During the interview and in letters provided to ProPublica by his brother, Sosa claimed that he was working 100 miles away on a civil affairs project in a town called Melchor de Mencos, where he said he helped residents obtain school and sports supplies.

The defense has not repeated that claim during the trial. Without explicitly admitting Sosa’s involvement, Kewalramani’s opening argument emphasized the idea that the Guatemalan civil war was a brutal conflict and that Sosa was part of an elite unit that was trained to carry out orders. Sosa will not testify, his lawyer said Friday.

The prosecution ended its case with testimony from Ramiro Osorio Cristales. Osorio is the eldest of two boys who were spared, abducted by commandos and brought up in the soldiers’ families. The other boy, Oscar Ramírez Castañeda, was only three and does not remember anything about Dos Erres. Ramírez now lives in Boston and his story was told by ProPublica last year.

Osorio lives in Canada. He was 5 years old when he lost his parents and six siblings in the massacre. He described his memories in accented but clear English, his voice breaking, pausing to regain his composure.

Osorio recalled that armed men burst into his house at night and dragged out the family. The men tied up his father and older brother with ropes around their hands and necks and brought them to the school with the rest of the men of the hamlet, he testified. The assailants herded the other children and their mother into the church with the terrified women and children of Dos Erres, according to his testimony.

“They started taking out women from the church,” Osorio testified. “They grabbed a woman by her hair and pulled her out, some young girls, teenagers. Their mom was saying ‘Please don’t take my kids.’”

Osorio watched between the wooden slats of the church walls as soldiers raped women and killed children by smashing them against a tree, according to his testimony.

“They treated them like animals,” he said.

Then the soldiers came for Osorio’s mother, he testified.

“I remember grabbing my mom by her leg,” he testified. “We was fighting with the guys … ‘Don’t take my mom.’ I ran to the back of the church to see what was happening to my mom. She was screaming for help: ‘Please don’t kill us. Don’t kill us. Don’t kill my kids, they don’t know nothing.’ ”

Osorio said he eventually fell asleep under a bench in the church. When he awoke, he testified, only four other children remained. Three of them were girls whom the commandos raped and murdered the next day. Only Osorio and Ramírez survived.  When Osorio finished his testimony, jurors and spectators wiped away tears.

The trial is likely to end Monday because the prosecution pared down its initial list of witnesses, choosing not to call two more former commandos. The judge also said she has tried to speed up the trial because of the imminent possibility of a shutdown of the federal government. If the defense decides to call the former prosecutor who has questioned Franco’s truthfulness, that testimony will take place Monday before closing arguments.

Clarification: This story has been revised to clarify Osorio’s testimony that he was one of five children still alive after the soldiers’ initial assault on Dos Erres.

Categories: Media, Politics

Discussion: What Gender and Sexuality Issues Deserve More Coverage?

September 27, 2013 - 9:32am

I’m Nina Martin, ProPublica’s new reporter covering gender and sexuality issues. (You can read my first story, on the impact of the Walmart discrimination case, here.) It’s a topic I’m passionate about, and it’s been a major theme in my work as a writer and editor for many years. My background spans newspapers (The Baltimore SunThe Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune), legal journals, health and parenting magazines, and most recently, San Francisco magazine, where I wrote and edited pieces about everything from wrongful convictions to same-sex marriage.

My wide-ranging experience informs how I view this new beat for ProPublica. I am interested in how gender and sexuality issues intersect with the legal system, the health care system, the education system, the political system, the economy, the military, and everything in between. I also want to hear from you. What topics in gender and sexuality do you think deserve more coverage? Head over to ProPublica’s Reddit page, InvestigateThisNews, and let me know what issues you care about.

P.S. I’m based in Berkeley, CA, but I’m interested in stories in every part of the country.

I’m excited to get started—please send ideas and feedback! 

Categories: Media, Politics

Key Reads on Gender and Sexuality Discrimination

September 27, 2013 - 9:20am

Today, ProPublica's Nina Martin reports how the landmark Walmart vs. Dukes ruling in 2011 has changed the face of discrimination law. “The Dukes decision had been cited more than 1,200 times in rulings by federal and state courts,” Martin reports. “Jury verdicts have been overturned, settlements thrown out, and class actions rejected or decertified."

We've rounded up some other key reads on a wide range of workplace discrimination, from the rape of undocumented farm workers to sexism in Silicon Valley. What stories did we miss? Let us know in the comments below, or tweet them to #MuckReads.

Note: We know discrimination is intersectional. We’ve focused our picks on those dealing primarily with gender and sexuality, but we welcome your suggestions for important reporting on discrimination of any kind.

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Categories: Media, Politics

The Impact and Echoes of the Wal-Mart Discrimination Case

September 27, 2013 - 8:53am
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When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 5-4 decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes in June 2011, no one needed a Richter scale to know it was a Big One. In throwing out a mammoth lawsuit by women employees who claimed that they’d been systematically underpaid and underpromoted by the world’s biggest corporation, the ruling upended decades of employment discrimination law and raised serious barriers to future large-scale discrimination cases of every kind.

Employers rejoiced. Others predicted serious setbacks for women and minorities, especially in employment discrimination cases brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That landmark law had opened the way to the use of the class-action lawsuit as a potent weapon for people who could not stand up for their rights on their own.

Two years later, it’s becoming clear just how much the ruling has reshaped the American legal landscape.

The Dukes decision has already been cited more than 1,200 times in rulings by federal and state courts, a figure seen by experts as remarkable. Jury verdicts have been overturned, settlements thrown out, and class actions rejected or decertified, in many instances undoing years of litigation. The rulings have come in every part of the country, in lawsuits involving all types of companies, including retailers (Family Dollar Stores), government contractors (Lockheed Martin Corp.), business-services providers (Cintas Corp.), and magazines (Hearst Corp.). The aftershocks have been felt in many kinds of lawsuits beyond the employment field, as well.

Many of the rulings since 2011 have not been surprising. Some have been relatively narrow. But others have tread into unexpected territory.

This past August, for example, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia upheld the dismissal of a $7 million settlement between the former National City Bank and 153,000 black and Hispanic borrowers who claimed that the bank had discriminated against them in how it charged mortgage points and fees during the housing bubble. Neither side had sought to revisit the 2010 accord, but the courts did so anyway, ruling that because the class action probably wouldn’t have been certified under Dukes, the settlement was suspect, too

“That is pretty extraordinary,” said Gerald Maatman Jr. of Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago, one of the leading law firms in the country defending businesses and employers against class actions. “It shows how much the standards have changed.”

Courts in prior decades had typically rubber-stamped such settlements, he said.

“It’s a whole new world,” Maatman said.

One measure of that change is the difference in the size of employee discrimination settlements as reported in Maatman’s widely read Workplace Class Action Blog. In 2010, the year before the Dukes decision, the top 10 settlements totaled $346 million; in 2012, the first year after Dukes, that total plummeted 87 percent, to $45 million.

Another measure, lawyers representing women and minorities say, is the drop-off in new employment discrimination class-action lawsuits being filed. Before Dukes, it was normal to see 25 or 30 such cases every year, said Jocelyn Larkin, executive director of the Impact Fund, a law firm/national litigation resource center based in Berkeley, Calif., which helped bring the Wal-Mart suit in 2001. Now, Larkin said, the number of new cases is closer to 10 or 12 a year.

Even in this new world, there have been some class-action victories. On Sept. 6, Bank of America and its Merrill Lynch unit settled a sex discrimination class action with female brokers for $39 million. The week before, Merrill agreed to pay another $160 million for discriminating against African-American brokers, the largest class-action settlement ever in a race-bias case. Merrill and Bank of America had tried to argue that the Wal-Mart ruling meant that the lawsuits should not be allowed to proceed as class actions — an argument that, in these instances, a federal court didn’t buy.

But for advocates for women and minority workers, the mood is mostly dispirited. Economic disparities — between people of color and whites and between men and women — have been widening and complaints of mistreatment in the workplace are common. San Francisco’s Equal Rights Advocates, another firm involved in the Dukes case, has seen a tripling of calls to its nationwide hotline, said executive director Noreen Farrell. Many of the calls are from low-wage women facing discrimination on the job and elsewhere.

Even before Dukes, “they already had many obstacles,” Farrell said. To fight these battles individually, “it’s often impossible.”


Edith Arana, now in her early 50s, was a mother of five with 10 years of retail experience when she started working at a Duarte, Calif., Wal-Mart store in the 1990s for $7 an hour. In six years, she received excellent performance reviews but never rose beyond a low-level “support manager.” When she began pressing for a promotion, her supervisors cut her hours, she claimed, finally forcing her out of her job.

“I thought to myself, no one’s going to believe you — you’re just one person,” Arana said.

Eventually, though, Arana found her way to Equal Rights Advocates. The firm had heard many similar stories. Their lawsuit was filed in San Francisco in 2001.

Wal-Mart had a written anti-discrimination policy and insisted that it “does not condone discrimination of any kind.” It also noted that “women hold positions of significant responsibility” at the company. But it left most employment decisions to the discretion of local managers at thousands of stores across the country. That led to systemic discrimination, the women and their lawyers claimed. Wal-Mart’s own wage and promotion data seemed to show pronounced, persistent wage disparities between male and female employees at every level, from hourly workers to senior managers.

“Wal-Mart has had a strong policy against discrimination in place for many years and we continue to be a great place for women to work and advance,” the company said in a statement to ProPublica.

“The opportunities left a lot of discretion to managers to make decisions based on their own personal views and predilections and idiosyncrasies and biases,” said Joseph M. Sellers, a partner at the Washington, D.C., firm Cohen Milstein who eventually helped argue the case before the Supreme Court.

It was a theory that had underpinned many successful employment discrimination cases over the last 50 years. In 2004, the federal judge overseeing the case certified it as the largest sex and employment discrimination class action in U.S. history. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals twice affirmed that ruling.

The Supreme Court ultimately thought otherwise. In his opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia rejected the notion that such a vast company should be held responsible for the workplace decisions of thousands of local managers exercising their own discretion, even if those actions ended up having a disparate impact on female employees.

“What the Supreme Court said is that you can’t group dozens and dozens of different classes into one class action and say, ‘Oh everyone’s an employee and everyone’s fighting gender discrimination, so they belong together,’” said Ted Frank, an adjunct fellow with the Manhattan Institute's Center for Legal Policy.

Other experts blamed the plaintiffs for overreaching, and in the process inviting a more conservative Supreme Court to register one of its most significant pro-business rulings.

“When plaintiffs seek to maximize their leverage by suing on a companywide, ‘mega’ basis, they invite judicial reversal,” Columbia law professor John Coffee wrote soon after the decision. “Hubris leads to disaster, and Wal-Mart presents the paradigmatic case of such a train wreck.”

Other aspects of the ruling were also far-reaching. In particular, the court rejected a 35-year-old framework for calculating monetary damages in employment discrimination class actions. Instead of using a statistical formula that assessed damages for the whole class, plaintiffs now had to have individual trials. Many lawyers didn’t see this coming, especially when liberal justices joined conservatives to make that part of the ruling unanimous.

One predictable casualty was the Dukes case itself. This August, the San Francisco federal judge overseeing the lawsuit concluded that even a scaled-back version of the lawsuit, covering only Wal-Mart workers in California, could not move forward. A Texas judge said the same thing last fall about a version of the suit filed there.

Arana, one of the original plaintiffs, lamented the clear implications for female workers like her.

“It can’t just be you out there,” Arana said. “No one person, no one attorney, no one support system is enough.”

Wal-Mart, in its statement, said: “The allegations from these five plaintiffs are not representative of the positive experiences that hundreds of thousands of women have had working at Wal-Mart.”


Beyond Dukes, the greatest disruption has been to what are sometimes called “legacy cases” — the sizable and often significant class-action lawsuits that began before Dukes was decided. The fate of a race discrimination lawsuit against a South Carolina steel factory owned by Nucor Corp. is one example of the ripple effects of the Dukes decision.

The lawsuit, brought by seven black Nucor employees in 2004 on behalf of more than 100 coworkers, alleged a widespread pattern of racist acts and promotion practices at the factory. White supervisors and employees reportedly referred to their black colleagues as “yard apes” and “porch monkeys.” Racial epithets were supposedly broadcast over the plantwide radio system, along with “Dixie,” “High Cotton” and monkey noises in response to the communications of black workers. The lawsuit said the Confederate flag was displayed throughout the plant and even emblazoned next to Nucor’s logo on items sold in the plant’s gift shop. Yet another allegation was that whites circulated emails showing black people with nooses around their necks.

In court documents, Nucor denied the allegations and said that all employment decisions were made for “legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons.”

In nine years, courts have weighed in at least seven times on whether the case should be certified as a class action, with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond — not known for being particularly sympathetic to workers — finally deciding that there was ample evidence to let the case proceed as a class action. Then, after Dukes, the class was again decertified for all claims except hostile work environment; earlier this month, Nucor’s lawyers were once again in court arguing that even that limited class action should be thrown out because most of the alleged racist acts were limited to one department.

“The problem with the length of this case is that as the case goes on, the Supreme Court keeps drilling more nails into the coffin of effective civil rights law,” said Armand Derfner, a Charleston, S.C., lawyer representing the workers. “The practical effect of decertification is that even if we win, there will not be the kind of change that Title VII was designed to create. A handful of people will win,” but the company “won’t have to make fundamental changes that they don’t want to make.”


For all of its force, the Dukes decision contained some ambiguity as well. For instance, the decision said that for a class-action lawsuit to proceed, plaintiffs would now have to show “significant proof of a general policy of discrimination” on the part of the employer. What exactly constituted “a general policy” was left unclear.

“The ruling used some new language which nobody quite knew what it meant,” said Joseph Sellers, the Washington lawyer who had helped argue the Dukes case. “This has injected a new level of uncertainty into cases that were already challenging and expensive and time-consuming to bring.”

The uncertainty spawned by the Dukes decision has been compounded by other Supreme Court decisions. All of it has left plaintiffs trying to “reboot” their various cases with new arguments, and defense lawyers responding with “novel” theories of their own, said Maatman, the Chicago lawyer who represents employers. And many lawyers on both sides are watching to see if the Dukes decision gets invoked in major pending cases, including a class-action lawsuit brought against BP for the 2010 Deep Water Horizon drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The explicit and enduring ramifications of Dukes, then, are still to be determined.

“We’re still seeing employee class actions — those haven’t died,” said Ted Frank of the Manhattan Institute. “We’re seeing consumer class actions and securities class actions — those haven’t died. Certainly some bad class actions were slapped down, but the legitimate class actions are going forward.”

Indeed, in perhaps the biggest victory for workers in the post-Dukes era, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago last year refused to throw out the 2005 lawsuit brought by George McReynolds and other black brokers against Merrill Lynch — the case that led to the record $160 million settlement. Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Richard Posner, a conservative who has displayed a fierce independent streak as well as a willingness to clash with Justice Scalia in a number of recent writings, said Merrill Lynch’s pay and promotion policies were fundamentally different from Wal-Mart’s in how they encouraged systematic bias.

The McReynolds ruling, then, shows one possible way forward for employees and their lawyers, Maatman said.

“You’re seeing plaintiffs’ lawyers recalibrate, making classes much smaller, focusing on an issue that might be doable on a classwide basis, not trying to certify, as they did in Dukes, the whole enchilada,” he said.

Perhaps the next high-profile test of this strategy will come in March 2014 in San Francisco, where Obama appointee Edward Chen — formerly an ACLU attorney specializing in discrimination cases, and now, after a two-year confirmation battle, a U.S. district judge — is set to preside in a trial against Costco and its promotion policies. Citing McReynolds, Chen ruled in 2012 that the sex discrimination suit, brought by 700 of the retailer’s female workers, could move forward as a class.

In the post-Dukes world, “there’s trepidation,” acknowledged Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel for the National Women’s Law Center, which has been closely monitoring the case and its aftermath. “But it’s not as though everyone is rolling up their tents and going home.”


See our roundup of other great reads on gender and sexuality discrimination in the workplace. And let us know what gender and sexuality issues you think deserve more coverage.

Categories: Media, Politics

Five Consumer Resources From Our Acetaminophen Investigation

September 26, 2013 - 12:07pm

Last week, ProPublica and This American Life published a blockbuster report revealing the inherit risks of acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. Each year, acetaminophen overdose sends as many as 78,000 Americans to the emergency room and 150 people die from accidentally overdosing on the pain reliever “hospitals use most.”

As part of our investigation, we created five consumer resources to help you become more aware of acetaminophen toxicity, which the FDA now calls a “persistent, important public health problem.”


1. Drug Lookup

Many common over-the-counter medicines contain acetaminophen, including Theraflu and Nyquil. This tool allows you to easily search for the drugs in your medicine cabinet and see just how much acetaminophen you’re taking.


2. Dose-o-Meter

Mixing Tylenol and other medications can quickly put you over the recommended daily dose, and in danger of damaging your liver. Select a group of medicines to see whether you’re still within a safe dosage of acetaminophen. 


3. Symptoms of Acetaminophen Poisoning

Overdosing on painkillers can begin with nausea and, in extreme cases, end in death. Use our chart to see the phases of acetaminophen poisoning and its impact on your body.


4. Discussion: Acetaminophen Risks, Safety Measures

Still have questions? Join our live discussion on our investigation this Thursday at 1 pm ET. Our reporter T. Christian Miller will be joined by liver disease specialist Dr. William Lee and pharmaceutical marketing expert PeterMax Miller, to discuss how the FDA and drug company McNeil fought or delayed measures to protect consumers. Weigh in to the chat on our site, or tweet your questions with the hashtag #AcetaChat.


5. Share Your Story

Have you or someone you know suffered from acetaminophen poisoning? Help continue our reporting, and share your story here. And to tell the FDA about your experience, you can fill out a consumer report form.

Categories: Media, Politics

Where Did Syria’s Chemical Weapons Come From?

September 25, 2013 - 11:41am

In the wake of a recent Russian-U.S. deal averting American airstrikes, Syria has begun to answer questions about its chemical weapons stockpile. One thing inspectors don’t have the mandate to ask is where those weapons came from in the first place. But evidence already out there suggests Syria got crucial help from Moscow and Western European companies.

When Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was asked recently about the origins of Syria’s chemical weapons, he said, “Well, the Russians supply them.“ Hagel’s spokesman George Little quickly walked back that statement, saying Hagel was simply referring to Syria’s conventional weapons. Syria’s  chemical weapons program, Little explained, is “largely indigenous."

But declassified intelligence documents suggest Hagel, while mistakenly suggesting the support was ongoing, was at least pointing his finger in the right direction.

A Special National Intelligence Estimate dated Sept. 15, 1983, lists Syria as a “major recipient of Soviet CW [Chemical Weapons] assistance.” Both “Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union provided the chemical agents, delivery systems, and training that flowed to Syria.” “As long as this support is forthcoming,” the 1983 document continues,” there is no need for Syria to develop an indigenous capability to produce CW agents or materiel, and none has been identified.”

Soviet support was also mentioned, though with less details, in another intelligence estimate dated Feb. 2, 1982. That report muses about the U.S.S.R.’s motivation for exporting chemical weapons to Syria and other countries. The Kremlin saw gas as useful for allies fighting against insurgencies: For the countries that had actually used it in combat – Kampuchea, Laos, Afghanistan and Yemen - the authors conclude that the Soviet Union saw it as a way of “breaking the will and resistance of stubborn guerrilla forces operating from relatively inaccessible protected sanctuaries.”

The 1982 report goes on to say: “The Soviets probably reasoned that attainment of these objectives – as quickly and cheap as possible – justified use of chemical weapons and outweighed a small risk of exposure and international condemnation.” Last week, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that intelligence sources in the country are convinced blueprints for four of the five Syrian poison gas plants came from Moscow.

Evidence gathered from what we now know was a sarin attack last month is also suggestive. According to an investigation by Human Rights Watch, one of the weapons used in the attack was “a Soviet-produced 140mm rocket.” Meanwhile, the UN’s own report shows a picture of Cyrillic letters on the remnants of the rocket.

It’s impossible to know the exact extent of Soviet and Russian help. U.S. intelligence was not particularly focused on the Syrian program, says Gary Crocker, a proliferation specialist at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the 1970s and 1980s. Most analysts did not know much about its program: “Detailed information on the Syrian program was only accessible to very high level intelligence officials,” Crocker said.

There are also indications that the Soviets grew increasingly uneasy with Syria’s ability to deliver the deadly gas by long-range missile. Concerned about Syria’s buildup, the head of the Soviet chemical warfare corps, General Vladimir Pikalov,flew to Syria in 1988. According to reports from the time, he decided against supplying the country with SS-23 missiles, which would have been able to deliver poison gas deep into Israel.

But the Soviets don’t appear to be the only ones who provided some help.

“Soviets provided the initial setup, then the Syrians became quite proficient at it. Later, German companies came in,” Crocker said.

As then- CIA director William Webster said in Senate testimony back in 1989: “West European firms were instrumental in supplying the required precursor chemicals and equipment.” Asked why the companies did it, Webster answered: “Some, of course, are unwitting of the ultimate destination of the products they supply, others are not. In the latter case, I can only surmise that greed is the explanation.”

Indeed, Syria received precursor chemicals from the West until well into the last decade. Last week, the German government acknowledged that between 2002 and 2006, it had approved  the export to Syria of more than 100 tons of so-called dual-use chemicals. Among the substances were hydrogen fluoride, which can be used to make Teflon,  and also sarin. The exports were allowed under the condition that Syria would only use them for civilian purposes. The British government also recently acknowledged exports of dual-use chemicals to Syria.

Both the British and German governments said there’s no evidence the chemicals were used to make weapons.

It’s not the first time Germany may have turned a blind eye to potentially dangerous trade. In the 1980s, for instance, German and French companies were crucial in building poison gas plants in Iraq and Libya . Stricter export controls in Europe were only installed after a web of companies that supplied the chemical weapons programs in the Middle East was exposed in the late 1980s. The New York Times embarrassed the German government by revealing the connection between German company Imhausen-Chemie and a Libyan poison gas plant in Rabta. (Times columnist William Safire German later called the plant “ Auschwitz-in-the-sand.”)

In the following years, German authorities indicted more than 150 managers of companies involved in Saddam Hussein’s program, which he had used to kill thousands of Kurds. According to one report, from the late ‘90s, more than half of the proceedings were stopped. Most of those that went to trial were acquitted or paid fines, a handful received jail time.

Just how deeply were German companies involved in Syria’s program? We may never know.  A long-ago proposal by the German Green party to install a fact-finding commission to comprehensively investigate the web of German companies supplying Middle Eastern states – and government knowledge of these exports - was voted down by all other parties in parliament.

Categories: Media, Politics

Nine Ideas to Make Tylenol and Other Acetaminophen Drugs Safer

September 25, 2013 - 10:47am
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Over the past several days, we’ve highlighted the deaths and injuries caused by overdosing on acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. We’ve pointed out that the toll does not have to be so high.

Today, we share some of the more prominent proposals to reduce the harm from one of America’s most widely used pain relievers.

The ideas come from a variety of sources, including scientists, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, regulators in other countries, industry officials and McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the Johnson & Johnson unit that makes Tylenol, the best-selling acetaminophen brand.

From 2001 to 2010, more than 1,500 Americans died from accidentally taking too much acetaminophen, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An additional 1,400 people intentionally overdosed to commit suicide or died under circumstances in which their intent was unclear.

1. Drop the Daily Total

FDA advisors — prominent doctors, researchers and safety advocates — suggested in 2009 that the agency lower the total maximum daily dose of acetaminophen from its current limit of 4 grams per day, equal to eight extra strength acetaminophen pills. McNeil itself adopted the suggestion for its Extra Strength Tylenol product and now recommends a maximum of 3 grams, or six pills, per day unless otherwise directed by a doctor. (The company hasn’t applied this to all its products, nor to Extra Strength Tylenol worldwide.)

WHO COULD DO THIS?  Either the FDA or the companies that manufacture acetaminophen could change dosing instructions.

2.One Concentration and Dosing Instructions for Kids’ Products

After confusion between different concentrations of pediatric acetaminophen led to child deaths, the drug industry in 2011 voluntarily agreed to market only a single concentration in the United States. For years, most recently in August 2013, the industry has also asked the FDA to allow dosing instructions on acetaminophen labels for kids under 2 to help prevent the lethal confusion. FDA advisory panels have told the FDA to do the same thing, most recently in 2011. So far, the FDA has not required a single concentration, nor has the agency ruled on whether to require the dosing instructions.


3.Take Acetaminophen out of Prescription Pain Killers

Vicodin and Percocet are a mixture of powerful pain killing opioids and less potent acetaminophen. Just why these medications are combined is controversial – some people argue that adding acetaminophen to an addictive drug only increases the risk of liver poisoning, with little additional pain-relief benefit. But, because of a quirk in how opioid drugs are regulated, removing acetaminophen might result in drugs such as Vicodin and Percocet becoming more restricted medicines – harder to prescribe and harder to get. By a small margin, FDA advisors recommended removing acetaminophen from prescription opioids in 2009. The agency has declined to take that step, but in 2011 limited the amount of acetaminophen that a single pill can contain to 325 mg. It also put a so-called black box warning on the label stating that an overdose can cause death.

WHO COULD DO THIS? The FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which plays a large role in regulating addictive medicines, would have to sign off.

4.Restrict Pill Quantities

Regulators in the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and elsewhere all restrict the purchase of acetaminophen in some way. They limit how many pills consumers can buy at one time, where they can buy them, how many pills can be put in one package, or a combination of such measures. A recent U.K. study found that restricting purchases resulted in a significant drop in suicides with acetaminophen. In 2009, however, FDA advisors recommended against such restrictions, and it is unclear whether the agency has the legal authority to impose them.

WHO COULD DO THIS? Both the FDA and Congress might need to act.

5.Dose Up Slowly

In 2009, McNeil proposed adding language to its Extra Strength Tylenol packages to instruct consumers to take only one pill at a time and increase to two only if they don’t get pain relief – a common medical practice known as taking the lowest effective dose. McNeil itself features such instructions on bottles of Motrin, its brand for the pain reliever ibuprofen. The FDA has not required it for acetaminophen.

WHO COULD DO THIS? Either the manufacturers or the FDA could make this change.

6.Limit Pill Strength

The FDA has required that prescription medicines contain no more than 325 mg of acetaminophen per pill to limit the risk of liver damage; drug companies must implement this change by January 2014. The agency has not, however, mandated that over-the-counter medications have the same limit, even though most acetaminophen is sold over the counter. The result? Without a prescription you can buy pills that contain double the amount of acetaminophen than those you could purchase under a doctor’s supervision.

WHO COULD DO THIS? The FDA or the drug manufacturers.

7.Require Side Effect Warnings in Advertisements for OTC Drugs

As far back as 1977, a panel of experts warned that the government needed to crack down on marketing that extolled the benefits of over-the-counter pain relievers without revealing the risks. By a twist of bureaucratic history, the Federal Trade Commission regulates advertising for over-the-counter drugs, not the FDA. That’s why you see those long announcements after prescription drug ads but not after commercials for, say, Tylenol or Alleve, another non-prescription pain killer.

WHO CAN DO THIS?  Congress could pass a law to require ads for over-the-counter drugs to disclose risks, or drug companies could take this step voluntarily.

8.Acetaminophen Icon

Acetaminophen is in more than 600 medicines, by the FDA’s count. Regulators and drug makers worry that consumers can unwittingly overdose by taking two medicines with acetaminophen – for example, Tylenol and NyQuil. Thirty-five percent of Americans wrongly think that combination is safe, according to a nationwide poll commissioned by ProPublica and This American Life and conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. One proposal aimed at reducing double-dipping is to create a universal icon to slap on the front of every product with acetaminophen, a bit like a “caution” sign.

WHO COULD DO THIS?  McNeil, other acetaminophen makers and the FDA have been considering this idea for more than a decade without taking action. Last month McNeil announced it would take a step in this direction: adding a red-letter warning to its bottle caps reading, “Contains Acetaminophen” and “Always Read the Label.”

9.Grab Consumers’ Attention by Warning Them an Overdose Can Kill

In almost all overdose cases, patients are at least partly responsible. After all, they took too much of the drug – and one reason may be that people often don’t pay much attention to drug labels. But maybe they would if the label warned, prominently, that an overdose could kill. In fact, Canadian regulators require over-the-counter acetaminophen to warn about its lethal potential.  And the FDA already requires prescription medicines that contain acetaminophen to warn that taking too much can lead to “death.” But it requires no fatality warning on over-the-counter acetaminophen, even though most of the drug is sold that way.

WHO COULD DO THIS? The FDA or the manufacturers.

Categories: Media, Politics

Support Our Commitment to Investigative Journalism

September 24, 2013 - 1:04pm

In the last three weeks, ProPublica has published what I hope you'll agree are two extraordinary pieces of investigative journalism -- revelations (in partnership with the New York Times and the Guardian) about extensive secret decryption efforts by the NSA and others, and the disturbing tale (in partnership with This American Life) on the dangers of Tylenol and related drugs, including killing more than 150 Americans a year, and how the FDA has bungled and the manufacturer has slowed important warnings about drug safety.

I'm writing now to ask that you join in supporting this kind of critical work.

These projects are emblematic of the sort of journalism that distinguishes ProPublica. It makes a difference in the world, and it illuminates diverse corners of that world -- from assisted living to prosecutorial misconduct, from the abuse of temporary workers to the exploitation of installment loans.

This kind of work is expensive. Our Tylenol stories involved two years of reporting. The NSA decryption story took months to flesh out.

We are committed to more stories like these, but we need your help. Almost all of the money to make them possible comes from donations. If you value this kind of journalism, please donate today.

Thank you.

Categories: Media, Politics