Category Archives: journalism

It’s our Independence Day, too

 

 

I know it’s been too long since I actually blogged here – even though my book is finally done! But this crosspost is kind of time-specific.

Today, politicians both active and aspiring are pressing the flesh at Fourth of July gatherings. Many, perhaps especially on the Tea Party end of things, have been claiming the mantle of that week in July pretty hard for the past few years. And now, just in time, Harvard University tells us that Fourth of July parades inherently turn kids into Republicans, claiming that “there is a political congruence between the patriotism promoted on the  Fourth of July and the values associated with the Republican Party. Fourth of July celebrations in Republican-dominated counties may thus be more politically biased events that socialize children into Republicans.”

But like Jonathan Turley, who teaches at Harvard, I refuse to concede the Fourth of July, or the idea of America, to any one political faction. Today belongs to me, too.

It belongs to women too, from Abigail Adams to Sally Hemings, mother of some of Thomas Jefferson’s children; from Maj. Alice Davey Sheldon to Dolores Huerta (left), co-founder of the United Farm Workers.

The best of those Fourth of July parades are the small-town ones, like the one I saw 20 years ago in Saugerties, N.Y., where moms cheered the local Junior ROTC contingent and everyone sang the town song, “Oh Saugerties,” before the Star-Spangled Banner. Or they’re the raucous multicultural festivals we see in Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and Philadelphia, where tonight I’ll stand and watch fireworks not far from where the Declaration of Independence was brewed.

I don’t claim to know whether that document was a simple declaration of war, with all that “general welfare” stuff thrown in for fun, as pundits have claimed. But I do know that those words have been cited by men and women around the world, from hundreds of countries and a thousand political perspectives. And today is about celebrating the sense of infinite possibility that America at its  best can represent. And yes, we could all list what America at its worst might mean. But that’s not what today is about.

I’ve watched fireworks on the Fourth when I was 13 and called myself a “democratic socialist”; when I was 16 and a fan of Atlas Shrugged, like Ron Paul; when I was 35 in San Francisco and newly realizing I was a lesbian. None of those times came with a partisan agenda, though my determination to preserve that sense of possibility has only increased. So has the range of fighters for freedom worth applauding. Yesterday, it included the kids, from 3 to 19 years old, dancing at a block party nearby. They deserve the Fourth, too.

Thank you, crazy 18th-century men who gave us this day. Before I go out tonight, I’ll make sure to watch a little of that movie.

Advertisements

Supreme Court Preview: Women and ‘The Wal-Mart Way’

Doris Dukes was a cashier at WalMart when she realized that “The Wal-Mart Way” did not include clear, consistent rules for who gets promotions in the stores. She called a lawyer — and became, more than ten years ago, the lead plaintiff in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, a class action sex-discrimination lawsuit against one of the world’s largest corporations. As the New York Times pointed out in December, “The suit now speaks for more women than the combined total of active-duty personnel in the U.S. Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard.”

Tomorrow, March 29, the Court will hear oral arguments in the case. In many ways, the stakes could hardly be higher.

WalMart is asking the Court to strike down two major decisions by the Court of Appeals, last year, in California. The Ninth Circuit found that Dukes, the 62 other named plaintiffs, and reams of statistical and anecdotal data had demonstrated that Wal-Mart’s well-known diversity policies had not overcome a corporate culture and associated practices that have systematically made it harder for women and people of color to advance in the company.

Ledbetter redux?

Among those practices are company-wide rules against discussing compensation, which can lead to an employee never even knowing that her pay is significantly lower than her white/male peers. A similar rule was at the heart of the infamous 2007 Supreme Court decision Lilly Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (550 U.S. 618), which in effect told Lilly Ledbetter that she had no redress when she learned too late that she and other women had been discriminated against. As WVFC’s Faith Childs observed in early 2009, after the decision “lower courts around the country have been busy deepening its effect, turning away suits charging discrimination based on sex, race and disability.” While that decision was reversed in part by the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed in 2009 by President Obama, that bill didn’t really fix the problem. More systemic redress for women was contained in the still-stalled Paycheck Fairness Act, which has been blocked in the Senate partly due to provisions that would make it easier for women to obtain legal damages from corporations. Barring such legislative relief, Wal-Mart v. Dukes may set the tone for the next few decades.

The attorneys who joined Doris Dukes’ case to hundreds of others spent ten years assembling their case. They found women at multiple levels of the hierarchy in hundreds of Wal-Mart stores who talked of being told women should stay home with their kids, that men “needed” management jobs more, and that if women were paid less it was simply that they weren’t aggressive in asking for raises. Counsel also secured salary and promotion data that demonstrated that whatever one thinks of this or that practice, its result is unmistakable:

Too big to sue?

This week, the Court will not be asked to evaluate the specific antidiscrimination claims of Dukes and her co-plaintiffs, but whether the case itself is legitimate. Wal-Mart’s briefs state that the class’s incredible diversity means that it’s not a true class, since all they share is gender; they also claim that the case violates specifics of the laws governing class action, which have been significantly narrowed since landmark cases such as Brown v. Board of Education. And the sheer size of the class, they maintain, makes crafting any remedy near-impossible and damages that would threaten to bankrupt the defendants. The company maintains that the large number of its stores, managers, and employees means that pay and promotion decisions “turn[ed] on decisions made by individual store managers,” without the commonality among class members required for class certification. Hundreds of companies and organizations filed briefs in support of Wal-Mart’s challenge, including Intel, Costco, the Equal Employment Advisory Council, Pacific Legal Foundation, Altria Group, Inc., Bank of America Corporation, Cigna Corporation, Del Monte Foods Company, Dole Food Company, Inc., Dollar General Corporation, Dupont Company, Fedex Corporation, General Electric Company, Hewlett-Packard Company, Kimberly-Clark Corporation, McKesson Corporation, Microsoft Corporation, NYSE Euronext, Pepsico, Inc., Tyson Foods, Inc., United Health Group Incorporated, United Parcel Service, Inc., Walgreen Co.and Washington Legal Foundation.

Dukes and her co-plaintiffs counter that the class’ diversity is its strength, and that they can show that “sex discrimination at Wal-Mart was the inevitable byproduct of a strong and centralized corporate system that originated in the company’s Home Office in Bentonville, Arkansas, and permeated each of the company’s stores in the United States.” In support of Dukes for the Court were the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, the National Partnership for Women & Families, National Women’s Law Center, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, AARP, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Inc., Latino Justice PRLDEF, Asian American Justice Center, Asian Law Caucus, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Public Citizen, among others.

If the Court agrees with Wal-Mart that there’s no legitimate class action, Dukes supporters say, this will make it much harder to take on employment discrimination. Marcia Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center (above left) told an American Constitution Society briefing on the case last week that the impact would not be limited to women: “Older workers, workers with disabilities, workers of color — all would find it harder to make their employers accountable,” she said.

And justice for all?

No one’s placing bets yet on the Court’s decision in June. Tomorrow’s oral arguments promise to be fascinating, given that most of the current court decided Ledbetter in 2007 and ruled for corporations’ rights in Citizens United in 2010 — including Antonin Scalia, whose recent comments declaring that women aren’t included in the Civil Rights Act have caused some to ask Scalia to recuse himself from Dukes.

However, the New York Times‘ Linda Greenhouse, looking at the current Court term, found some perhaps surprising stats: “Employees suing companies for civil rights violations have won all three cases decided so far… By wide margins, the court has rejected arguments put forward by corporate defendants in several cases. It refused to permit corporations to claim a personal-privacy exemption from disclosure of law-enforcement records under the Freedom of Information Act. It permitted a liability suit to proceed against an automobile manufacturer for not installing the safest kind of back-seat passenger restraint. And in a unanimous opinion on Tuesday, the court refused to throw out a lawsuit by investors alleging that a drug manufacturer’s failure to disclose reports that some patients using its cold remedy had lost their sense of smell amounted to securities fraud.” And no one is overlooking the fact that this is the very first such case to be decided by a Court that is, for the first time, one-third female — including, noted the Times‘ Adam Liptak, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who voted to certify an even larger class action in an antitrust case involving eight million merchants, including Wal-Mart, when she was a judge on the United States Court of Appeals.

We’ll have a full popcorn bowl handy while we read the live blogs of the arguments. By all means, let’s comment on them together below — and then place our bets on the outcome in June.

(Originally posted at Women’s Voices for Change.)

missing cairo

Like everyone else, I’ve been mesmerized this whole month by events in Cairo : by the stirring scenes from Egypt, careening from the January 25 Facebook-organized protests, with hundreds of thousands converging in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere to demand that their leader relinquish power after 30 years; to the harsh, government-inspired “Days of Rage” of February 2; to Friday’s “Day of Departure,”with redoubled protests and open negotiations for the future.

It’s 21 years since my only visit (sob!) to that part of the world. My Cairo memories are mostly blurred (nowhere near as vivid as those of the masseuse who befriended me at Sharm-el-Shaikh, or what I still call “the Pyramids of New Jersey”). I do remember its insane traffic and brutal smog, and like everyone else felt the reports of the smog clearing this week (due to cars being replaced by bodies) a harbinger of something good.

Of course, I went off to find the women in this story, to post them at my other shop.

The names most often associated with these world-changing events were, of course, those of prominent Egyptian men, such as President Hosni Mubarak, nuclear scientist and popular opposition figure Mohammed el-Baradei, Army strongman and vice president Omar Suleiman and Mohamed Beltagui of the Muslim Brotherhood. On today’s chat shows, you’ll likely see those names tossed around as Middle East experts try to predict the future.

But what we’ll most remember is the women’s leadership that has evolved right alongside these protests —including human rights activist Nawal al-Saadawi, who speaks above about her return to Egypt years after being imprisoned and exiled by successive Egyptian regimes. Hundreds of images like these adorn the Women Of Egypt Facebook page. “The country’s sisterhood,” notes the Los Angeles Times, “has sparked a movement within a movement.”

Much more here,, including tons of video and Mona Eltahawy laughing in Bill Maher’s face.

A national crisis, now hyper-local

Notice: I am neither dead nor AWOL. Just busier than ever, with a suddenly-really-pending deadline, new blogging at Guernica, and reporting for Newsworks.org – the web portal of WHYY, my local PBS/NPR station.

Here is the very first story I ever pitched to WHYY’s Alan Tu, back in September, Given my background in sussing out tenant stories in Manhattan, I knew quickly that there had to be a story in our slice of the national foreclosure crisis. It’s a story about predatory lending, about neighborhoods, and about a pioneering legislator who figured out 30 years ago what to do about all this.

The story’s also a phoenix: it sat in the pending pile, right behind breaking news, until the city suspended all foreclosures AND I happened upon the perfect interview subject. I hope it absorbs and amuses some folks.

Now to my follow-up story, and to cutting my book manuscript by two-thirds.

Wolf in the Heart: Why journos love war

If I’d been nattering here as much as on Facebook, you’d have heard more than you care to about my interview with former Newsweek editor Evan Thomas. But I’m pretty happy with how it came out. At the bottom, click to read it at Guernica Magazine, and maybe throw in your two cents?

Wolf in the Heart

Chris Lombardi interviews Evan Thomas, September 2010

The historian and departing Newsweek editor on how he (like Remnick and Keller) caught war fever after 9/11, the obsession with being a man, and how his dad glowed in Navy whites.

In the October, 2001 “Talk of the Town,” New Yorker editor David Remnick called George Bush’s post-9/11 speech “reassuring.” Despite the fears of some, he explained, “taken as a policy pronouncement of sorts, it pointed in the right direction.” Even as it became clearer that the “policy pronouncement” was signaling war in two countries, many, if not most, writers and editors were as much participants in the preparations as observers. By April 2002, the New York Times’s now-notorious Judith Miller was deep in her dance with Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, reporting enthusiastically on the “important new discoveries” of weapons of mass destruction. The New Yorker again chimed in with similar reporting by then-staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg, whose 2002 stories led with graphic details of the gas poisoning of Kurds in 1988. “In five years,” Goldberg wrote in October, 2002, “I believe that the coming invasion of Iraq will be remembered as an act of profound morality.” So adamant was The New Republic’s plumping for war that editor Peter Beinart recently felt the need to write an entire book, The Icarus Syndrome, bemoaning American war hubris. Also caught in the fervor was Newsweek’s Evan Thomas.

TR Pose-Body.jpg
Newsweek, which emblazoned “God Bless America” on its post-9/11 cover and followed that issue with articles in the coming weeks entitled “A Fight Over the Next Front” and “Blame America at Your Peril,” became perhaps the most visible of the Ernie Pyle-wannabes. By December of 2001, Thomas, an editor-at-large who announced last month he will be leaving the magazine he joined nearly twenty-five years ago, was on CBS calling Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “a great war leader,” and by March 2002 his byline was on a story about a “growing consensus” in the Bush administration that “the next target” in the war on terror was Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. All this less than twelve months before the magazine’s “Shock and Awe” cover breathlessly reported the devastation that resulted.

Seven years later, all of the media outlets above have recanted some of what they published back then, even as the buzz for a new war with Iran threatens to repeat the cycle (with participation of some of the same personnel, such as Jeffrey Goldberg, now with The Atlantic). Beyond a few journalism-ethics seminars, few have tried to examine why they did it. Thomas, who now admits that he and the others were in the grip of “war fever,” has turned to history to help himself understand what that means.
Continue reading

Judy Shepard: the true “mama grizzly”

When you hear the phrase “mama grizzly” thrown around as a Republican buzzword, it’s useful to think of heroic women who live up to that phrase. I had the privilege of meeting one last week, at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I was just a mom, who cared about her boys,” said the lovely 5’4″ woman to the 50 people crowding in to hear her, in a campus bookstore at the University of Pennsylvania.  “I was not a public person.”

Yet today, Judy Shepard’s life is entirely public, so much so that she said good-naturedly of her life: “I spend a lot of time on airplanes.” And on, June 27  she was one of three grand marshals in one of New York City’s largest parades: the 41st annual NYC Pride march, urging full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

Not that Shepard herself is among them. But ever since her son, Matthew Shepard,  died nearly 12 years ago at the hands of two men who’d been looking for  a gay man to assault, Shepard and her family have worked every day to end such hate crimes.
Continue reading

any pre-1980 Hunter High alums in Philadelphia?

I’m sitting here listening to WHYY and Talk of the Nation’s report on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. I’m as obsessed with the nomination as many women in America — especially those who, like me, attended Hunter College High School around the same time she did. When I called my best friend, who I met in 1974 during the first week of school there, she didn’t need to ask why: “Is the press conference starting?” were her words upon answering the phone.

But I was calling instead to tell her that the New York Times had run perhaps the first published mention of our reality back then:

The school, which then occupied two floors of an office building at 46th Street and Lexington Avenue, was and remains one of New York’s elite public high schools. It drew girls from across the city and an array of backgrounds — all admitted on the strength of their performance on an entrance exam, rather than money or family connections.

“We were really exposed to tremendous diversity there — whether it was a Jewish girl from the Upper West Side or a cop’s kid from the Bronx or the daughter of a C.E.O. from the Upper East Side or kids whose parents worked in sweatshops in Chinatown,” said Ellen M. Purtell, a high school classmate of Ms. Kagan’s. “It was never about what you were wearing. It was: Did you bring your best game academically with you today and could you contribute to the discussion?”

I wish I knew the exact day in September that I first got into the elevator of that office building — to me, my exact crossover from the east Bronx into a bigger world. And its all-girl status was part of its magic, one that has been lost for awhile. (I was in the first class that admitted boys, but they were too a test case, and too few to change that magic.)
Continue reading