Dan U-A's blog

A Big Win on Payday Lending, at Least for Now

Sorry to take so long for this update, but, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars of lobbying money, the payday lenders have lost a round in Pennsylvania. For now.

Consumer advocates in Pennsylvania won a hard-fought delay on Wednesday against a pending bill in the legislature that would once again permit payday lenders to charge predatory rates and victimize the state’s poor and downtrodden residents.

A bill that passed the Pennsylvania state house earlier this month that would raise the permissible annual percentage rate on small loans to 369 percent will be held in the state senate until the next legislative session in the fall, according to activists fighting against the bill.

The goal of the payday industry was to ram this through, quickly. Why? Because, the more attention legalizing loan sharking gets, the worse it is for the industry, and those who would enable it. So, while the payday lenders will be back in just a few short months, the delay into the fall is a real, substantive victory, won by a coalition of consumer advocates, religious groups and military veterans.

Of course, the battle is not over. And, in fact, the State Senators that still need the most education on the topic are largely the same ones that seemed on the verge of passing it. So, be ready in a few months, because a win is sweet, but a long term win would be a hell of a lot better.

These are the Philly State Senators who May Bring Payday Lending Back to PA

As discussed on Friday, the payday lending industry is spreading money around Harrisburg, in an attempt to return to Pennsylvania, all under the guise of a consumer protection bill… that has no support of any consumer protection groups. As I noted then, the payday lending bill barely passed the House of Representatives, depending on the support of some of Philly’s own State Reps—Keller, Taylor and Sabatina- to do so.

The bill is now in the Senate, and after talking with people in the know, here are the Philly State Senators that have, at minimum, wavered in stating their unequivocal opposition to bringing payday lenders and 300% plus interest rates back to Pennsylvania:

  • Michael Stack, (717) 787-9608
  • Anthony Williams, (717) 787-5970
  • Shirley Kitchen, (717) 787-6735
  • Leanna Washington, (717) 787-1427

None of these Senators have necessarily said that they support this bill, and Stack has basically said he is against it. But, the sense is that the four of them are wavering and that they may be looking for something— some additional pointless amendments for example— that would give them cover to vote for it. This is just wrong. There is no secret middle ground here— either you are against bringing an abusive industry back to Pennsylvania or you are not. Payday lending is built on a parasitic business model, feeding off of the struggles of someone waiting for another check, and the only way these companies would be OK with sets of amendments is if that fundamental reality was not changed.

Philly’s State Senators have to keep this simple and stand against legalizing loans at annual interest rates of 300 percent. If these Senators represent you, please contact them, and let them know that Philly does not need the loan sharks. There is still time for these Senators to be heroes in stopping this, rather than villains in letting them in the door. Contact them and let them know where you stand.

Hitting People When They Are Down: The Loan Sharks Are On Their Way Back To Pennsylvania

It has been a bad year or two for vulnerable Pennsylvanians. From school funding cuts, to the apparent elimination of very basic, humane general assistance, to slashes to higher education and the refusal to properly fund public transit, piece after piece of our state's basic social compact is methodically being cut away. The “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” has rarely sounded like a more misplaced name.

And yet, to make matters worse, in a morbid move that feels like a gilded-age pincer attack, Pennsylvania may take it one step further. Because right as the same time as Pennsylvania is producing ever more struggling people, the state is poised to invite in the private industries that profit by... ripping off struggling people. First up on the list, fresh off of passage in the State House, are everyone's favorite loan sharks: payday lenders.

And, for those us in the City of Brotherly Love, if that wasn't bad enough, a number of Philly's own legislators appear poised to be help make it happen.

The backstory is that, despite being illegal, payday lenders once operated widely in Pennsylvania. But, through private lawsuits, through the closing of loopholes and through other government action, payday lenders and their illegally high interest rates were booted out of the state. What was long illegal stayed illegal. The good guys won. The storefronts closed. Less vulnerable people were hurt.

Let there be no question: Payday lending is a horrible thing. It is nothing more than credit heroin, with loans made at annual interest rates of over 300%. It is pitched to desperate people, with the express desire to get them hooked, so that every two weeks they have to return to the well, being forced to take out a new loan just to fill the budget gap caused by the first one.

So how, in this very moment of economic calamity, austerity and publicly-inflicted misery, did payday lenders set themselves up for this return? I will give you one guess:

One fast-tracked proposal would bring back the controversial practice of payday lending to stores in neighborhoods, strip malls, even hospitals.

The measure passed the House on a 102-90 vote Wednesday, after a veritable army of lobbyists for the short-term loan industry worked Capitol offices.

Among the firms represented: Cash America, one of the nation's largest payday lenders, which in this legislative session has reported spending $125,000 on lobbying in Harrisburg.

All those who selected “because they paid for it,” please collect your prizes on the way out.

As are so many horrible bills that target consumers, this one also has the Orwellian gift of being pitched as a consumer protection bill. Of course, if your bill is supposed to protect vulnerable consumers and it is opposed by, among other groups, the AARP, Community Legal Services, United Way, Pennsylvania's National Association of Consumer Advocates, the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, The Reinvestment Fund, Regional Housing Legal Services, the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and on and on, you might have a clue that, in fact, the bill is not protecting consumers.

Instead, in order to give cover for this so-called consumer protection, and so that the bill's sponsors can pretend to blur reality, the industry funded and founded a group, named the  “Consumer Rights Coalition.” This group, however, is actually “a payday lobby group that’s donned a name intended to create the illusion that this product has grassroots consumer support when it doesn’t.” Of course it is. It was founded by the executive leadership of Cash America, the internet payday lender, and leading beneficiary of the bill. That's pretty close to the extent of who supports this: rich loan sharks, their front group, and the politicians who enable them.  

Which brings us to where we are now. The bill just barely passed the House of Representatives, with a number of Republicans crossing over to vote against it.  Sadly, helping pass this in the House were, among other people, three State Reps from Philly: Keller, Sabatina and Taylor. (Fighting the good fight, and helping lead a charge that almost defeated the bill was State Rep. Cherelle Parker.)

Now, the bill is before the Senate and it is time for our Philly-based State Senators to state clearly that they oppose legalizing loan sharking and stand with their constituents, not the army of payday lenders and their lobbyists that are currently encircling Harrisburg. Our Philly-based Senators are:

Anthony Williams
Leanna Washington
Christina Tartaglione
Mike Stack
Shirley Kitchen
Larry Farnese
Vince Hughes

Each of these Senators represents many, many constituents that would be directly hurt by this bill. Most of them will likely do the right thing. But, it is really odd that a single one would even consider supporting it. I mean, if you were, for example, planning to run for Mayor, would you really be thinking about legalizing a business that openly targets poor people, while every single consumer advocacy group tells you not to? And yet, the rumblings are that someone like Senator Williams is wavering, at best.

Luckily, nothing is yet set in stone and there is still time for every single one of our Senators to do the right thing, join the fight, and stop this thing. Contact them, let them know where you stand, and ask them to do the same. And, if you hear back from them, let us all know.

Now, right as we slash social services, forcing people to become ever more vulnerable and desperate, is not the time to invite 21st century loan sharks back into Pennsylvania.

Set off without a Paddle: Unpacking the School District’s Disaster Capitalism

Photo by Louie U-A

Last night, a few more details (and scare tactics) from the School District’s radical plan for Philadelphia schools were released. If you didn’t believe that we were in the throes of disaster capitalism, you should now. Watch how the game is played:

The Philadelphia School District's financial situation is so dire that without a $94 million cash infusion from a proposed city property-reassessment plan, schools might not be able to open in the fall, leaders said Tuesday night.

At a district budget hearing, chief recovery officer Thomas Knudsen stressed that the district might fall off "the cliff on which we now stand so precariously" if swift action is not taken.

The district's money problems, coupled with a lack of academic progress and safety issues, have prompted Knudsen to propose a total overhaul of how schools are organized and run. More students would be shifted to charter schools, and the central office would be shrunk, with district schools managed by staff or outside organizations who bid to run them.

See the connections they make? We have a massive budget hole! Ergo, we need a total overhaul of schools!

There. Is. So. Much. Wrong. With. This. Shit. Where to start?

Yes, the School District has a massive budget hole. Let’s all acknowledge that reality, while also remembering that it seems pointless to totally trust the always shifting numbers that come from a School District that still employs the same financial wizards as during the reign of Arlene Ackerman.

The School District will attempt to fill this massive, mostly state-caused, budget hole through the following ways:

  • Slashing wages and benefits from teachers, cafeteria workers and janitors.
  • Forcing charter schools to take seven percent less money, per child.
  • Scaring City Council into coughing up 94 million dollars more.
  • And, in the end, borrowing. A lot. (They will do this by issuing bonds.)

All told, the ‘true’ deficit that they are making up with the above factors is hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Where does the restructuring of the School District, the closing of 40 schools and moving tens of thousands of kids to charter schools, fit into all of this? Surely, this radical change in the district is also a huge part of the savings?

Nope. Not really. Despite needing to plug this massive, hundreds of millions of dollars big hole, this radical reorganization will save something like 33 million dollars (according to the School District’s questionable numbers). Again, compared to all the rest, borrowing included, which stretch well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, these savings— if they are true— are almost a pittance.

As a parent put it eloquently last night:

Parent Rebecca Poyourow said the district was resorting to "crazy-making" rhetoric and unfairly connecting the reorganization plan with the budget.

"It is at best foolish - and at worst devious - for you to choose this moment of fiscal crisis to foist a poorly conceived and primarily ideological reorganization scheme on Philadelphia schools," Poyourow said. "This move smacks of manipulation."

Again, and again, and again, this needs to be stated: The massive overhaul of our schools and the massive budget deficit are not connected.

So, why are the Mayor and Knudsen connecting these two things?

I can think of at least two possible conclusions. First, the radical changes are simply a long-standing ideological push, led by people who believe markets should solve the puzzle that is urban education. (In this game, the Mayor is anywhere from the person behind the scenes, pushing this along, or, alternatively, someone who is also being taken for a ride.) Maybe it really is that simple.

Or second, maybe Knudsen and Nutter are overseeing a bankrupt district, and want to ‘look good’ for Wall Street. They know they need to borrow money to keep this crippled mess hobbling along, so they are going with what they think will appeal to creditors.

Neither, of course, has anything to do with how we properly educate our children. But, this is the shock doctrine, where logic and reason are but constructs to be shouted down.

So, please, ignore the screaming threats of nuclear Armageddon that Mayor Nutter and Knudsen are making on your porch. Because while they are doing so, your television, your dining room set, and your youngest child are all being carried out the back door.

Want to understand just how horrible the voter ID law is?

Yesterday, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Public Interest Law Center, the Homeless Advocacy Project, and others, filed suit against Tom Corbett to stop Pennsylvania's voter ID law:

HARRISBURG - Wartime welder, civil-rights marcher, world traveler, voter - Viviette Applewhite of Philadelphia's Germantown section can boast of having been all those things.

On Tuesday, she added another title: plaintiff.

Applewhite, who is 93 and uses a wheelchair, became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed here in state court by the ACLU and the NAACP challenging Pennsylvania's new law requiring voters to produce a driver's license or other photo identification before they are allowed to vote.

The complaint (pdf) details in heartbreaking detail the stories of a number of people-- especially the elderly-- who, quite simply, will no longer be allowed to vote, come November.

9. Petitioner Viviette Applewhite, a registered voter in Pennsylvania, is a 92-yearold African-American woman born in 1919 in Philadelphia. A graduate of Germantown High School, Ms. Applewhite worked as a welder during World War II in the Sun Shipyard in Chester, Pennsylvania. She thereafter worked in hotels in Chicago and Philadelphia. Ms. Applewhite married and raised a daughter who for decades worked for various federal, Pennsylvania, and municipal government agencies. Now a widow, Ms. Applewhite has lived in Philadelphia for much of her life, including the past twenty years, and enjoys five grandchildren, nine great grandchildren, and four great-great grandchildren.

School Destruction Video: "If we fail, we will have to console more families who have lost their children to crime and despair."

Last night, as reported by the Notebook, the Inquirer and others, I attended the first (I think) of what will be many mass meetings about the Nutter/Knudsen plan to radically alter public education in the city.

From the Notebook:

Several hundred people gathered at historic Mother Bethel AME Church on Lombard Street Sunday night to decry plans put forward by District staff and consultants to close dozens of schools, expand charters, and reorganize the School District into “achievement networks” primarily run by private entities.

A succession of preachers roused the gathering and put public officials on notice that their voices would be heard before any such radical restructuring would be allowed to take place.

“This system is being designed to fail, and fail our children,” said the Rev. Kevin Johnson of Bright Hope Baptist Church.

The meeting was organized by POWER Philadelphia, a faith-based organizing group doing work around several issues including education. Many of the speakers invoked the language of civil rights and called the plan the new Jim Crow, destined to consign Black and Latino children to permanent second-class educations.

“The most important civil rights issue of our time, that is public education,” said Johnson.

We will have plenty on the substance of this plan, but, for now, watch two preachers lead the crowd at Mother Bethel (video from Techbook Online). The first, Dr. Kevin Johnson, leads one of the more historic churches in our city, Bright Hope Baptist Church.

The second speaker is not, in fact, ordained, but, she is our preacher, and she should look pretty familiar:

Well said.

Should a Starving Child Live Within his Means? What about a Starving School District?

Would the Daily News tell a starving child to live within his means? Would the Mayor say that a child who was facing benefit cuts in already measly food stamps to ‘grow up,’ face reality, and get used to a regular dose of rice, beans, and malnutrition?

Of course not. In fact, in the face of growing attacks on nutrition assistance, politicians across the city are taking on the “Food Stamp Challenge.” The premise of the challenge is to illustrate just how difficult it is for a poor person to feed themselves on $35 a week, and how impossible it would be to function with even less.

Allotted just $35 for a week of food, participants will learn firsthand the anxiety-driven calculus of finding nutrition with nearly no money.

"The benefit is being cut in draconian ways, and we're hoping to make people aware of how limiting the benefit already is," said Carey Morgan, executive director of the Coalition.

....

Nationwide, about $14 billion will be taken out of the food-stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That translates into up to $15 a month being excised from an individual's monthly benefits. The average monthly benefit per person in Pennsylvania is $113. In New Jersey, it's around $133.

....

[Congressman Bob] Brady said it was "ludicrous" for people to have to eat on $35 a week, adding, "I'll see what I can get for that money. You can buy a lot of rice, but it's not the healthiest thing to eat. It's pretty difficult."

It is extremely hard to live with little money for food. It is commonsense then, that cutting those benefits, and simply stating that poor people should adjust, is a little inhumane. What if adjusting, while still being able to maintain reasonable nutrition, was simply impossible to do?

Vote: Patrick Murphy and Other Important Races Out There in Philly

Today is Election Day. Please vote.

There are a couple very important races today.

1) First and foremost: The Democratic Primary for Attorney General. I strongly support Pat Murphy. Please spread the word for him. A win there would be huge.

The other big races are primaries for State Representative. There are some heated races out there.

I will just give my take on a couple.

2) If you live in West Philly, ignore the crap, and vote for Jim Roebuck. Roebuck is one of Philly's better State Reps, and he is being targeted because he does not want to destroy public schools through vouchers. His opponent, Fatimah Loren Muhammad, is being bankrolled by big money pushers of vouchers, and other far-right groups.

The money of these groups is the reason that she is able to run a credible campaign, and, when elected, she will owe them.

3) If you live in much of Center City, you have probably received a bunch of stuff in the race between Rep. Babette Josephs and Brian Sims. I know them both personally, like them both personally, and I think they will both represent the values of the district well.

Babette has been a decent representative, warts and all, for a long time. Meanwhile, Brian would give Harrisburg something that it sorely needs: an openly gay legislator.

So, if I were voting, I would go with Babette. She is far from perfect and no one gets to hold on to a seat forever. When things are close calls, as I think this is, I don't think we need to prioritize beating our allies. (Brian used to agree, since two years ago, he was her campaign treasurer.)

Truthfully, when there is not much policy-wise between two people, you start focusing on the little stuff. And so, the thing that in the end sealed the deal for me, and made me want to at least mention the race: Brian's most recent mailing attacking Babette was absolutely disgusting, basically implying that Babette supported child molesters. We could go through the logical fallacies of the ad, but, let me just say that I think it was a shameful piece of campaign literature, targeting a 70 plus year old woman who-- whatever you want to say about her-- almost always sits on the right side of issues. So, I hope Babette wins for that alone.

That is my take. Please vote!

Keeping Promises: Patrick Murphy for Attorney General!

I met Patrick Murphy in 2005, when as a new Congressional candidate, he spoke to a room of about 12 students at my law school. His resume and bio—the handsome, young, progressive, JAG officer, who sounded straight out of Northeast Philly and who was going to lead our 2006 Democratic wave—led Democrats everywhere to swoon.

In that meeting, I vividly remember that a student immediately asked him about LGBT rights, and the Defense of Marriage Act. If I recall correctly, I think it was asked in that familiar law-school assertiveness/hostility that makes us all so lovable to our friends and families. And, given the image of military men, this was a pretty interesting question.

Patrick responded to that question quickly, stating that he occasionally taught con law, and that in his opinion, DOMA was unconstitutional, and needed to go, and that he would be an ally for LGBT rights on that and other issues. In that little circle, his forceful, responsive answer really made an impression.

And what did Patrick do when he won? He followed through. He spent the next four years— right up until the moment he left office—leading the successful fight to end DADT, an outdated, bigoted piece of American policy. Patrick, a young Iraq-war veteran, used his face and voice to the issue, and gave the fight an immediate boost.

Don’t take my word for it-observe the Obama-led standing ovation that Patrick received when the policy was finally repealed (13:10 mark if the edit doesn't work):

While the slow lurches of progress would have forced an end to DADT sooner or later, it is unclear if that would have happened anytime soon without Patrick. Think about this: If Obama really wanted legislative approval for the repeal, and Patrick didn’t spearhead this process, it very well may not have happened in 2010. And if it didn't happen in 2010, it certainly would not have happened this year, as the GOP House would have kept the legislation bottled up forever.

Instead, we have change. And while progressives often have a complicated relationship with our military, there is no question that, like the Truman ordered desegregation, our armed services can be powerful tools for larger societal acceptance of change:

Patrick was not a perfect Congressman. (For example, he supported a terrible piece of immigration legislation.) But overall, he was a good Congressman from a very tough district. He fought for healthcare for all. He fought for the public option. He fought for women to be able to control their own body. And, he led that fight on a piece of the civil rights struggle of this generation, leading on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He was an ally and a doer, and despite not being totally polished, he was a leader.

That is why I was so happy to hear that Patrick was running for Attorney General. That same leadership, when applied to things like consumer issues— for which he has spoken frequently about— will be a sea change for the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. (And, by the way, the handsome, Iraq War JAG Captain, will be the perfect person to run alongside President Obama, and be the first Democrat in PA to ever win the office.)

His opponent is Kathleen Kane. She was a mostly unknown prosecutor in the Allegheny Lackawanna County DA’s office. And she is running a campaign that is largely funded by her family’s trucking business. She seems fine. However, despite the need for women in PA higher offices, I simply don’t think she compares to Patrick.

There are different reasons that you can vote for a politician. You can read the questionnaires that they submitted, see if they agree with you on the issues, and then hope that they will stick to those positions, and advocate for them. You can look at someone’s bio, and look for clues there. But, there are other times when you can look at a body of work. Where you can look at how someone’s words have been reflected in their actions. That is where we are with Patrick. When Patrick tells us that he will be a strong advocate for Pennsylvania familes targeted by predatory mortgage companies, I don’t really have to wonder. His body of work tells me that he will follow through.

This is a real opportunity here. Let’s support the people that have followed through on progressive fights, and get the word out on this race. Please, please, please: vote, and spread the word. Let’s not waste this chance.

Larry Platt's Response to Stu's Sex Tourism Column

I have been sitting on this, trying to write a response, but, Larry Platt did eventually respond to my email about Stu Bykofsky's sex-tourism column. While trying to write out a response to the email, the days rolled by, and I was busy being obnoxious with Rick Santorum. Leaving this hanging is unfair to Platt, so, I am going to just publish his response in full, with only minimial comment.

On the whole, I find the response-- while nice- dismissive and unresponsive to the real concerns the column raised.

First, again, my email to Platt:

Larry:

I (sincerely) apologize for asking this while the Daily News is taking the hit of the Bill Conlin morass, and, I find it encouraging that the paper is now also actively investigating Conlin and pursuing the story. But, I am writing mainly to follow up to Helen Gym's op-ed from this morning about Stu Bykofsky's column from last week.

While the timing might make this more painful for the paper, it seems that questions about the Bykofsky column are even more important this week than they were when the column ran. I am going to write something for our little blog, piggybacking on Helen's piece, but, I would like to ask the Daily News a few questions first (with the understanding that I will publish these in full on our blog). If there is someone more appropriate to ask, please forward this on to them.

The questions:

First, given the paper's experience over the last few days, would the Bykofsky column run if it were submitted today? If not, will the Daily News issue any statement about the efficacy of that column actually running? Obviously, running the piece by Helen is an important step, and shows some willingness to deal with this issue, but, this is not the same as the paper itself responding.

Second, Stu's column dances around whether he did or did not have sex with a Thai prostitute. In the submission process of this column, was Stu directly asked this by an editor? If this conversation did occur, was the column changed as a result of this discussion?

Third, will the Daily News issue corrections for the column? Obviously, the paper cannot run a 'correction' for the racist views of its columnist. But, the column did simply have factual errors. For example, Stu's assertion that 'there are no pimps in Thailand' is false, and refuted by any number of reports from Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and others which document that many prostitutes in Thailand are children, and in conditions resembling slavery (or, simply, slavery). It goes without saying that these children are not in slavery without someone... keeping them enslaved. Similarly, "each woman is an independent contractor" is false, for many of the same reasons, and this too could be easily refuted. If these corrections have been issued, and I missed them, please let me know.

Finally, and more fundamentally for the Daily News, is any view whatsoever appropriate for publication by its columnists? Stu's column danced around whether he did, or did not, in fact have sex with a Thai prostitute, and then referred to Asian women with bizarrely outmoded racial stereotypes. Is there any limit to what the Daily News would not publish along these lines? For example, would the Daily News run an entire column discussing how cheap Jews are?

Thanks in advance for your consideration. It goes without saying, but, one reason this kind of piece angers so many of us is that we greatly value the role of an active, vibrant local paper, generally, and of an institution like the Daily News generally specifically. So, when it publishes something this offensive and destructive, it sets off all kinds of alarms. As I said, I will put any answers in writing in full, and can wait until tomorrow if that is helpful.

Best,

Dan

He then responds:

Hey Dan,

Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you sooner — still digging out from the Conlin mess.

I take it your deadline has by now passed, but let me just respond to a couple of general points and you can do with this what you will.

First, there is no connection between Stu’s first-person observations about something he witnessed in Thailand and the Conlin tragedy. To suggest such a connection is to demean the victims who have come forward with their stories of Bill’s horrible misdeeds.

Second, I think in the aftermath of Stu’s column, both in our paper and on philly.com, there has been some really valuable back and forth. In particular, there have been, as you point out, some important reporting addendums offered by readers that would have strengthened the column. (For example, placing Stu’s slice-of-life observations in the larger context of the human trafficking issue and quoting from UN reports before zeroing in on what he witnessed would have preemptively addressed many of the concerns now being raised.)

That said, I don’t think the evidence exists on the page for some of the conclusions being drawn from the column. He doesn’t promote the sex tourist trade, for example. Instead, as a number of philly.com commenters pointed out, he has penned a column about a “sad first impression he’s gotten about what life is like for one part of the Thai population.” Certainly, this expression of sadness may not square with the moral outrage you or I might have responded with, in which case I invite you to answer upsetting speech with more speech and write a letter that I’d be happy to publish. (As we’ve done a few times in the past week). As for “corrections,” I have yet to see any factual assertions requiring correction, though I’m happy to look at specifics. (As to the two you suggest, they are not, in fact, assertions made in the piece: Stu never posits that there “are no pimps in Thailand” or that prostitutes in Thailand are independent contractors. The paragraph in question actually refers only to the women — not children — who work in bars). So far, what I’ve heard from people wouldn’t qualify as corrections so much as additional information that would have provided a context for Stu’s slice of life peek at this world.

Finally, let me say that the days when publishing occurs solely upon publication are (thankfully) over. This piece — with its ongoing discourse — strikes me as an ultimately healthy, if occasionally messy, exercise. Our pages, and philly.com, will happily continue being a forum for readers to express their reactions and, yes, for columnists to sometimes piss off said readers. My old friend Nat Hentoff once wrote a great book called “Free Speech For Me, But Not For Thee” and it touched on the all-too-human instinct to want to silence those who offend us, rather than engage the argument. I invite you, and your readers, to engage.

Best,
LP

OK, so, I expected this for the most part. Let me just say one thing that I think is really, really, really ridiculous about the last paragraph-the 'all dialogue is good dialougue' canard. Basically, Platt absolves the paper absolves itself of any responsibility whatesover, because there is back and forth. In other words, we can say whatever crazy, destructive, criminal crap we want, because we allow people to respond... I just don't buy it.

Anyway, there it is. I will write some more about it- but, please give your thoughts below.

Video: Me, Santorum and "The absolutely best twitter exchange of the day, if not ever"

Well! You should watch this!

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I haven't felt this close to Rick Santorum since 1999, when I went to the Presidential Classroom in DC. I was a 17 year old punk, and when it was time to meet with our senator, and everyone fawned, I asked him why he helped fillibuster an anti-smoking bill that would have saved the lives of kids. (He said it was a 'free speech issue.' Ya know, it is free speech to help kids form lifelong addictions to cancer causing drugs! Even then, he was a true crusader for the rights of the people that matter.)

Rick Santorum and I Finally Agree!

Rick Santorum and I don't agree on much. But, he agrees with me on one thing: His movement in the polls gives us the potential for great headlines:

Santorum2

Thanks to our former Senator Rick for putting up my tweet of this great Philly.com headline:

Santorum surges from behind in Iowa.

As of 8:00 AM, its still up on his twitter page.

(Oh, by the way, the actual story the headline comes from is worth a read.)

Ah, Santorum!

Four (Unanswered) Questions for the Daily News about Stu's Sex Tourism

(For background, see this post from me, and Helen's column from yesterday.)

Yesterday, the Daily News ran Helen's wonderful op-ed on the horrible Stu Bykofsky sex tourism column.

But, even after Helen's column, there are some unanswered questions that need to be answered by the Daily News as to how this all happened, and what they plan to do about it. Last week the paper might have been able to shrug this off, and be happy with the increased page views they probably saw due to the controversy. But, now that one of their own has been forced into retirement for alleged sexual crimes against children, I don't think this can really go unanswered.

With that in mind, I wrote to Larry Platt, and asked him the questions that I think the Daily News should answer (and, I am sure there are more). He has not responded. If he does, I will post his answers in full.

The email:

From: Dan U-A
Date: Thu, Dec 22, 2011 at 11:15 AM
Subject: Questions about Stu Bykofsky Column
To: Larry Platt
Cc: Helen Gym

Larry:

I (sincerely) apologize for asking this while the Daily News is taking the hit of the Bill Conlin morass, and, I find it encouraging that the paper is now also actively investigating Conlin and pursuing the story. But, I am writing mainly to follow up to Helen Gym's op-ed from this morning about Stu Bykofsky's column from last week.

While the timing might make this more painful for the paper, it seems that questions about the Bykofsky column are even more important this week than they were when the column ran. I am going to write something for our little blog, piggybacking on Helen's piece, but, I would like to ask the Daily News a few questions first (with the understanding that I will publish these in full on our blog). If there is someone more appropriate to ask, please forward this on to them.

The questions:

First, given the paper's experience over the last few days, would the Bykofsky column run if it were submitted today? If not, will the Daily News issue any statement about the efficacy of that column actually running? Obviously, running the piece by Helen is an important step, and shows some willingness to deal with this issue, but, this is not the same as the paper itself responding.

Second, Stu's column dances around whether he did or did not have sex with a Thai prostitute. In the submission process of this column, was Stu directly asked this by an editor? If this conversation did occur, was the column changed as a result of this discussion?

Third, will the Daily News issue corrections for the column? Obviously, the paper cannot run a 'correction' for the racist views of its columnist. But, the column did simply have factual errors. For example, Stu's assertion that 'there are no pimps in Thailand' is false, and refuted by any number of reports from Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and others which document that many prostitutes in Thailand are children, and in conditions resembling slavery (or, simply, slavery). It goes without saying that these children are not in slavery without someone... keeping them enslaved. Similarly, "each woman is an independent contractor" is false, for many of the same reasons, and this too could be easily refuted. If these corrections have been issued, and I missed them, please let me know.

Finally, and more fundamentally for the Daily News, is any view whatsoever appropriate for publication by its columnists? Stu's column danced around whether he did, or did not, in fact have sex with a Thai prostitute, and then referred to Asian women with bizarrely outmoded racial stereotypes. Is there any limit to what the Daily News would not publish along these lines? For example, would the Daily News run an entire column discussing how cheap Jews are?

Thanks in advance for your consideration. It goes without saying, but, one reason this kind of piece angers so many of us is that we greatly value the role of an active, vibrant local paper, generally, and of an institution like the Daily News generally specifically. So, when it publishes something this offensive and destructive, it sets off all kinds of alarms. As I said, I will put any answers in writing in full, and can wait until tomorrow if that is helpful.

Best,

Dan

No response so far...

In the meantime, lets remember what officials from the Daily News said in the wake of the Conlin accusations:

“I can’t even begin to express the shock, sadness and outrage I feel by what Bill Conlin is alleged to have done,” said Daily News editor Larry Platt Tuesday.

“I am sickened by these allegations,” added Gregory J. Osberg, CEO of Philadelphia Media Network, which owns both the Inquirer and the Daily News.

“We have always taken tremendous pride in the ethical and moral standards we operate from at Philadelphia Media Network.”

Moral standards? Sorry, that will continue to ring hollow when the Daily News publishes factually incorrect, racial stereotype laced, amoral columns that meander through the pros and cons of having sex with children.

A child does not magically lose her humanity because she lives in Thailand. It is time for the Daily News to start explaining how this type of thing is acceptable journalism.

If you haven't read Helen's op-ed on Bykofsky...

... do so now.

The Daily News, like many papers, has passionately decried the abuse of vulnerable children by a child predator in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. There should be no double standard when one of its own columnists witnesses, then justifies, acts of comparable magnitude and casts it as a "journey" of healing.

Federal law prohibits sex tourism. Laws in Thailand prohibit prostitution. Nothing could be more stark than the hypocrisy of a columnist known for ranting about illegal crossings into the United States simultaneously crossing national borders to leer about illegal activity - all the while ducking and weaving about whether he himself engaged in such acts.

It isn't OK in State College, Pa. It's equally sickening to crow about it in Thailand.

Meanwhile, I sent Larry Platt, Editor of DN a list of follow up questions, building on this. I will post them, along with any response, tomorrow.

Press Release Journalism: Tobacco and Pharma Group Publish Report, Local Media Jump

Ah, press release journalism.

As the proprieter of a blog-- even a tiny little one like this-- you get sent many press releases, usually from a 'new media consultant,' letting you know of a very important product announcement, or report that was issued.

I guess we know who was emailing yesterday, because it appears that a horrible Big Industry group named "The American Tort Reform Association" issued a report calling Philadelphia Courts 'hellholes.' And, our local media, including the Inquirer and Philebrity, ate it up, copied some text, and voila, Big Tobacco and co. gets what it paid for, under these ridiculous headlines:

Philebrity: "Philadelphia Is Nation’s Top “Judicial Hellhole” For 2nd Year In A Row"
Inquirer: Top ‘judicial hellhole’ is Philadelphia, study says."

The articles that follow have the same amount of critical analysis as the headlines.

The Inquirer, today:

Flames leap from the gavel on the cover of a new report that declares Philadelphia No. 1 among the nation's "Judicial Hellholes."

...

The report, released Wednesday, focuses on perceived abuses in civil courts, not criminal ones, and comes from the American Tort Reform Foundation, which represents businesses, municipalities and professional associations.

The article then details all of the problems that this mysterious professional group has found.

Amount of analysis about the group behind the report? Zero.

Amount of analysis about the conclusions behind the report. Zero.

And then there was Philebrity, yesterday, talking about the same report. I mean, you can call something press release journalism, but, uh, seriously, read the press release, and then read what Philebrity published.

Press release:

Philadelphia hosts a disproportionate share of Pennsylvania’s lawsuits and, as demonstrated by the report, forum shopping for plaintiff-friendly courts within the state is primarily a “Philly phenomenon.” Of greatest concern is the Complex Litigation Center (CLC) in Philadelphia, where judges have actively sought to attract personal injury lawyers from across the state and the country.

Philebrity:

The report said Philadelphia, “‘hosts a disproportionate share of Pennsylvania’s lawsuits’ and … forum shopping for plaintiff-friendly courts within the state is primarily a ‘Philly phenomenon.’ Of greatest concern is the Complex Litigation Center in Philadelphia, where judges have actively sought to attract personal injury lawyers from across the state and the country.” Ouch again.

Ouchie! He links to the full report, which he promises is "a big-time bummer," and ends the post. (What would you put the odds at that he read the report? I am going to guess about 1 percent. Bummer!)

The full extent of any critical analysis in either article/post is... well, there isn't any.

However, both the substance of the report and who actually published it should make anyone think twice about simply passing it off as news.

First, who published it? Well, I broke out the google, and found that this faux grassroots group has been funded by those true protectors of American society, Dow Chemical, Exxon and the like. What else could you find out about them in the interweb tubes? How about that one thing this group does is file amicus briefs in the Supreme Court on behalf of everyone's favorite little guy, Big Tobacco.

Ok, then, so clearly a source we should trust.

What about the conclusions of the report itself? Ironically, one of the things that Sweeney and the Inquirer highlight from the report as 'bad' is that Philly has a complex litigation center, which aims to handle cases in under two years. The horrors!

Could you guess why it is a 'bad' thing for these guys to have cases settle reach a conclusion in two years? Because the strategy of big companies who have done horrible things is often to simply destroy plaintiffs by fighting and fighting and fighting, for as long as possible at as much of a cost to the Plaintiffs as possible. (See, for example, how Merck fought against claims that Vioxx caused heart attacks and strokes, and that Merck knew it would happen...) In other words, Philadelphia tries- in some small way- to bring cases to a conclusion within a few years, and as a result, big industry cannot properly crush them under a sea of lawyers. Ouch, again!

"Tort reform" is a joke. Yes, there are bad plaintiff's lawyers out there, just like there are bad teachers, policemen, baseball players, crossing guards and bakers. However, this 'reform' is nothing more than a way to shift wealth from consumers to horrible companies-- including the supporters of this stupid, transparent report.

It would be really helpful if our local media stopped accepting things like this, lock, stock and barrel. Phillip Morris, Big Pharma and their friends really don't need the help.

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