A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Giving thanks for refugees

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Nov. 26, 27 or 28

People probably prayed over their Thanksgiving meal this week, and whether saying Grace or being grateful for blessings, the act also may have helped some realize that challenges can be chances – to do good.

A world hurting from terrorism is a challenge, as is a faith-filled response to terror and its victims. What an opportunity to show faith, hope and love.

“Thy will be done,” says the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…”

As Jesus also said (in Matthew), “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you…”

As far as church, I’m a listener, not a preacher. But as dozens of governors declare they’d accept no Syrian refugees after native-European terrorists (one of whom had a fake Syrian passport) killed 130 people in Paris, it’s comforting to read Scripture’s mandate to love even as we face hate from all sides.

Besides governors ignoring the conservative U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling that only the federal government has authority over refugees and immigration, politicians want to block Syrian refugees and target Muslims. Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump suggested closing mosques and starting a registry of all Muslims to round up and deport them, and the GOP’s Number-2, Ben Carson, called Syrian refugees “rabid dogs.”

Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz said they’d only help Christian refugees, and House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for a break in the Syrian refugee program.

CNN anchors acted like Fox hosts when they told a Muslim outreach leader that all Muslims were responsible for jihadist attacks (not suggesting all Christians are responsible for acts of violence by white right-wingers, which I wrote about in January: “Do media, government excuse homegrown terrorists?”)

Rhode Island lawmaker Elaine Morgan proposed internment camps (which President Ronald Reagan in 1988 blamed on “war hysteria” when it was used against Japanese-Americans).

All this seems less about preventing or predicting terror than quenching a short-term desire or demand for revenge – or reacting in fear to non-combatant widows and orphans seeking escape from strife bloodier than Paris or 9/11. Millions have been displaced by Syria’s conflict; half are kids and a fourth are elderly. Those seeking asylum here face up to two years of rigorous screening, and only half are accepted. Since 2012, 1,854 have reportedly relocated here.

Nevertheless, a Bloomberg poll found that half of Americans say we should block Syrian refugees. (That’s not as bad as the 1930s, when less than 5 percent of Americans believed the country should raise its immigrant quota or encourage refugees fleeing fascist Europe, and when the steamship St. Louis with 900 Jewish refugees was refused entry.)

But others are standing up and standing against intolerance. Catholic Pope Francis said, “The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need.” The Presbyterian Church (USA) pleaded for Americans to not “hide in fear” but extend “generous hospitality” to Syrians in need. And the National Association of Evangelicals called for welcoming these strangers.

“If a child is suffering, if a child, a family, has been forced out of their home, are we really going to put them through a religious test in order to protect their lives? I hope not,” NAE president Leith Anderson said on public radio.

Some elected officials are defending compassion, from Governors Jerry Brown (Calif.), Kate Brown (Ore.), Mark Dayton (Minn.), John Hickenlooper (Colo.), Jay Inslee (Wash.) and Tom Wolf (Pa.) to Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Speaking on the Senate floor on Nov. 17, Warren said, “We are not a nation that delivers children back into the hands of ISIS murderers.”

Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch said, “They’re actually fleeing from the terrorists. They have a right to asylum.”

Indeed, shunning these people could ultimately, inadvertently, create terrorists, as in desperation people are further victimized and vulnerable to ISIS propaganda that Americans are enemies.

The United States instead should welcome them, present not just a viable future but a vision of humanitarian hope in action

U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) urged Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner to lead with strength, not fear, saying, “When I was a child, I witnessed the refugee crisis borne out of people fleeing the Khmer Rouge and Pathet Lao in Southeast Asia. I am proud the U.S. took in refugees during those years, and ever motivated by the knowledge that we could have done more.”

We can do more now, and this Thanksgiving week, maybe we should give thanks for the opportunity to be Good Samaritans.

[PICTURED: Cartoon by Jack Ohman/Sacramento Bee.]

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Labor coalition achieves landmark pact with Red Cross

Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., Nov. 23, 24 or 25

The Red Cross has an image of arranging blood donations for everyday accident victims, handing out coffee to firefighters at a neighborhood blaze, or providing basics to folks affected by natural disasters.

They’ve earned that reputation.

But they also deserve less-flattering publicity stemming from a history of tense labor relations.

Now, however, that tension may be relaxing, as a coalition of eight international unions recently ratified a first-ever national collective bargaining agreement with the American Red Cross (ARC), and the terms include Illinois workers.

The unions formed the coalition to address key work-force issues while conceding the ARC faces financial challenges – no easy task in light of those often-strained relations with the nonprofit, according to Mark Richard of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the eight unions.

For the first time, a national collective bargaining agreement will cover about 4,000 workers at the ARC represented by the eight unions that formed the ARC Union Coalition: AFT; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); Communications Workers of America; International Brotherhood of Teamsters; Service Employees International Union; United Auto Workers; United Food and Commercial Workers Union; and United Steelworkers.

The three-year agreement was ratified by 41 local unions representing 90 percent of coalition employees. The pact is an addendum to the local unions’ individual agreements and continues through September 2018.

Bargaining-unit workers are getting a 2-percent, across-the-board wage increase. Also, full-time employees are receivinga $1,000 ratification bonus, and part-timers a prorated bonus based on hours worked in the first half of this year.

“Insurance costs to members were greatly reduced as Red Cross moved to the Teamsters’ health plan, Team Care M200 Plan,” said AFSCME staff rep Tim Lavelle of Illinois’ Council 31, which ratified the agreement. “It includes a standardized operation, too. Financial penalties to ARC would increase the cost to the employer for abnormal or extended work days, intended to normalize the work week.”

AFCSME Council 31, which has eight offices throughout Illinois, has struggled in bargaining with some Red Cross chapters, a pattern with ARC nationwide. But now, the national addendum supplements any local agreements and extends local contracts to September 2018, too.

“There has been a long history of acrimony between labor and management at the Red Cross, while providing essential services and in the midst of transition,” said AFT president Randi Weingarten. “The unions decided the best way for our members to have a real voice was by working together. And the agreement shows what can be done when workers and their unions, along with management, come together to find common ground. This coalition underscores the unwavering commitment of our eight unions to the long-term future of the American Red Cross and to protecting the country’s vital blood supply.”

Registered Nurse Ann Twomey, vice chair of AFT Nurses and Health Professionals, added, “This is an important step forward for health-care professionals whose work enables the American Red Cross to save lives. It’s a win for the families and communities the Red Cross serves. When frontline professionals have a voice in decisions that affect their work, they can focus on providing excellent service – and everyone wins.”

The 41 union locals are in 24 states; rejecting it were three locals (all with AFSCME, none in Illinois), according to AFT’s Richard.

Besides the gains, however, the national addendum has one concession, arguably: moving all workers accruing benefits in the Red Cross’s defined-benefit pension plan into the Red Cross’s 401(k) defined-contribution plan.

Still, overall, the development is a positive step for the iconic institution and a cooperative stand for the collaborating unions, underscoring that labor should be the lifeblood of U.S. society even as workers and ARC management help everyday Americans cope with trouble, large and small.

[PICTURED: Photo from Teamsters Local 174.]

Sunday, November 22, 2015

TPP: The 1% gets meat and gravy, everyone else gets garbage

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Nov. 19, 20 or 21

Days before Thanksgiving, it seems like the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership will serve corporations the turkey and gravy, and the rest of us bones and garbage.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is like past “free-trade” deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which sparked companies to move operations overseas, closing factories and costing hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) headquarters said, “This trade deal fails working families. It forces U.S. workers to compete with the 65-cent an hour wages of Vietnamese workers and the slave labor employed in Malaysia.”

A deal between the United States and 11 other nations (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam) representing 40 percent of the planet’s economy, the 30-chapter TPP is 1,000-plus pages of legalese. But in various searchable versions online, citizens will notice the holidays’ Grinch. For example:

* Automakers “domestic content” would be relaxed from 62.6 percent now to 45 percent for vehicles and 35 percent for parts. So more than half of a GM car, for instance, could be manufactured in a foreign plant and be treated as Made-in-the-USA.
* TPP’s Intellectual Property chapter would roll back previous protections for access to medicines.
* Its Environment chapter would eliminate most of earlier pacts’ Multilateral Environmental Agreements.
* Under Investment, the scope of policies that can be challenged would expand, including for the first time letting Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) enforcement of challenges to financial regulations.
* The E-Commerce chapter would undermine consumer privacy safeguards
* Its Sanitary and Phytosanitary chapter terms would impose new limits on imported food safety.

The ISDS panels are private tribunals that can punish governments for regulations that might cut profits – leaving taxpayers footing the bill for fines. So corporations could sue governments (of any level) if corporations claim future profits are threatened. However, the ISDS won’t hear complaints from advocates for labor, environmental or human rights.

TPP also is powerless against currency manipulation, which some nations use to lower the prices of their exports.

“If a country takes steps to depress its currency by 20 percent against the currencies of its trading partners,” economist Dean Baker explained, “it has the same impact as if it imposes a 20-percent tariff on all imports and gives a 20-percent subsidy to all exports.”

President Obama says TPP’s corporate negotiators created a document that “puts the American worker first” and claims it represents “the strongest labor standards in history” and “the strongest environmental standards in history.”

And corporations say with TPP, they’ll be able to lower production costs, which could let them invest resources into uses like expanded facilities to better wages. (Of course, that logic’s familiar from decades of claims about “trickle-down economics” and higher profits during the recovery from the Great Recession translating into more and better jobs, which never happened.)

The proposed agreement is so bad it’s having a unifying effect. A broad coalition of opponents include labor, environmental, food-safety, consumer, faith, immigrant-rights, student, civil-rights, senior and other groups, from the open-Internet group Fight for Future to Doctors Without Borders. Strange bedfellows also object to TPP, from billionaire Donald Trump and Pope Francis to presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Republican U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who said, “This deal appears to fall woefully short.”

U.S. Business and Industry Council president Kevin Kearns said TPP is “a very bad deal for America,” and both Ford and Chrysler have come out against it.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader called TPP “a global corporate coup.”

TPP is a “total disaster,” said Robert Borosage of Campaign for America’s Future. “Drug companies will be able to extend their monopoly pricing over new, life-saving drugs, often built on research paid for by taxpayers through the National Institutes of Health. Foreign banks will have the ability to challenge and even overturn our financial regulations.”

The Sierra Club’s Ilana Solomon noted, “The words ‘climate change’ don’t even appear in the text.”

CWA president Chris Shelton said there’s hope that political reality will help defeat the measure.

“Few members of Congress will want to vote in an election year on the mass giveaway of U.S. jobs that this TPP allows,” he said.

[PICTURED: Photo from]

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Wins in November vote hide popular preferences

Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., Nov. 16, 17 or 18

Most news coverage after last week’s election pronounced it as proof that Americans are increasingly Right-wing. But big money and lousy turnouts were factors – and results were a mixed bag anyway. Huge wins came in Ohio, Maine and Seattle – where voters endorsed independent commissions to avoid gerrymandering districts to favor parties in power or enacted campaign-finance reforms – and 47 unionists were elected to local offices in New Jersey alone.

More importantly, media conclusions of rampant conservatism – and the yarn that private enterprise is the best way to help “job creators” – ignore popular opinion beyond the ballot box.

True, setbacks occurred in Kentucky and in Spokane, Wash. Despite support from the AFL-CIO, a Workers Bill of Rights lost in Spokane by a 62-38 percent margin in a 29 percent turnout. The city’s Republican mayor and council opposed it, as did business. Supporters raised $26,000 for the campaign; opponents raised $244,000. And in Kentucky, Tea Party favorite Matt Bevin won the governor’s race campaigning to stop participating in the Affordable Care Act despite half a million Kentuckians who would lose coverage if Bevin pulls out. (Democratic candidate Jack Conway didn’t get half a million votes.)

Some of this is the fault of the Democratic Party, which not only didn’t get out the vote, but failed to field decent candidates in key races and fell short in expressing the economic issues that the public embraces.

“While Americans disagree on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, they’re actually pretty unified on the bread-and-butter economic issues,” said Thom Hartmann, author of “Rebooting the American Dream: 11 Ways to Rebuild Our Country.”

Indeed, Gallup polls have shown a reliable, positive response to the question, “Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?”

Also, according to Pew Research, 69 percent agree that the federal government should do something about income inequality.

Further, a 2014 Washington Post poll showed that most people favor a tax hike (also,45 percent of self-identified Republicans say upper-income citizens pay too little in taxes).

Perhaps it doesn’t fit the media narrative (or maybe newsrooms have cut back so much, a “pack mentality” is just more do-able than a deeper look).

More examples: A poll this year of likely 2016 voters by GBA Strategies for the Progressive Change Institute showed nine noteworthy – newsworthy – positions on economic issues:
* 59 percent support a national health-care plan like Medicare to compete with private insurers
* 62 percent say the rich pay too little in taxes
* 65 percent believe income inequality is a problem that needs to be addressed immediately.
* 66 percent back breaking up the ‘too big to fail” banks
* 71 percent support debt-free college at public universities
* 75 percent favor trade standards that protect workers, jobs and the environment
* 78 percent think the government should limit greenhouse-gas emissions
* 84 percent support equal pay for equal work
* 84 percent believe money has too much influence in elections

Also, Americans are supportive of organized labor, according to multiple polls from Gallup, which has polled about labor since 1936.

The highest level of support was in 1953, when 75 percent approved of labor unions. The lowest was in 2009 – and it still showed almost half of U.S. adults supported organized labor (48 percent). As of this August, it’s 58 percent.

Other Gallup findings:
* Confidence in labor as an institution: 66 percent said some, a lot or a great deal.
* Public opinion about labor’s power: 61 percent said unions should have the same or more influence.
* Americans’ attitude about labor’s value to members: 68 percent said unions mostly help.
* There’s a similar response as to unions’ effect on state and local governments where public employees are unionized: 47 percent say they mostly help (45 percent say they mostly hurt).
* Finally, people weighed in on the power of labor and other influences on government, and Americans say unions have too little or about the right amount of influence (compared to 67 percent who say major corporations and banks and financial institutions have too much and 71 percent who say lobbyists have too much).

“A poll in 2014 found almost half those asked wanted the government to provide a job to any citizen who cannot find work in the private sector,” said George Lakey, author of “Strategizing for a Living Revolution.”

“The American majority [is] considerably to the left of the Democratic Party on most issues,” Lakey continued.

There’s news that’s rarely shared in the national media.

[PICTURED: graphic from]

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The newest attack on ‘freeloading’ welfare recipients

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Nov. 12, 13 or 14

Recently, Inboxes, Facebook and other Internet chatter has featured the assertion that Americans on welfare receive more benefits than the wages of entry-level positions in 35 states – another example of “blaming the victims,” which historically has targeted minorities, the poor and, recently, immigrants.

Based on a discredited 2013 report from the libertarian Cato Institute (“The Work vs. Welfare Trade-Off”), the claim was spread by a radio host who dabbles in conspiracy theories and End Times talk, and linked to Right-wing sites.

‘Welfare” is a term describing various public assistance for low-income Americans. Cato said 126 federal programs help the needy (plus state and local efforts), and the extremist spin is that assistance is lucrative, recipients are lazy, or government wants people to be dependent.

That might be appealing to those who feel victimized and need someone (preferably powerless) to blame. It can be tempting for people to see their circumstance as the fault of others who cheat or are undeserving. Such allegations can reinforce existing attitudes, whether racist or a resentment that others have it better, unfairly. Plus, for partisan advocates, such claims can be effective wedge issues dividing people who actually have much in common and even causing some to vote against their economic interests.

Cato’s original research used a single mother with two children as a “typical welfare family,” and presumes that household’s welfare package would include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps, Medicaid, housing help and utility assistance, plus the Women, Infants and Children program. Cato also figured in federal and state tax deductions, exemptions and credits. Although government programs help millions of Americans, from Social Security and veterans benefits to farm subsidies and home owners’ mortgage-interest tax deductions, this research focused on the poor.

Cato’s study does show that in the situation described, the mom would be eligible to receive more in value (not cash) than the average, pre-tax, first-year pay for teachers in 11 states, and more than minimum-wage workers in 35 states. (The blog posting and email said “highest-paying entry-level job,” but that’s different than minimum wage, which is usually less.)

Cato’s report concedes that “most welfare recipients today are required to either work or participate in some form of job search” and that “benefits are likely to be at least partially offset by additional costs associated with going to work, such as child care, transportation and clothing.”

The resulting email misrepresents the study, which may be politically slanted and have suspect methodology. But it’s not an unreasonable premise for a good discussion. But lies can gain credence when based on facts. Misinterpretation, exaggeration and cherry-picking so conclusions are out of context all can cause falsehood to metastasize like cancer – especially via social media, talk radio or cable TV.

More than 90 percent of the benefit dollars that welfare programs spend goes to helping members of working households, the elderly or disabled people – not able-bodied, working-age Americans who decline to work, according to the Center on Budget Policy Priorities.

The Washington Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee wrote, “This [blogosphere/email claim] is an example of how the findings of a report with many caveats and structured within specific parameters got misconstrued in an article and spun out of context with a poorly written (and click-bait) headline. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that collecting welfare is easier than working in 35 states, but this report – and the issue – is much more nuanced and complicated.

“It captures the underlying conclusion the researchers arrived at through this study,” Lee continued, “For many recipients – especially long-term dependents – welfare pays more than the type of entry-level job that a typical welfare recipient can expect to find. [But] not all people eligible for welfare collect benefits. When they do, many of the benefits are contingent on some level of work-related requirement.”

Also, both the Cato study and the exaggerated interpretation in the blog neglect an obvious option: Improving wages and/or work.

Why? Welfare amounts are not enough to enable recipients to climb out of poverty. Using Cato’s example of a single parent with two children, “welfare” in Illinois would be $13,580 a year. The U.S. poverty threshold for a single parent with two kids is $20,090. Worse, a full-time employee working for minimum wage in Illinois ($8.25/hour) would earn $330/week or $17,160/year – again, below the poverty line.

Recognizing a disconnect between work and welfare, it’s just as logical to argue that the minimum wage should increase so full-time workers can get out of poverty, or that more employees should unionize to collectively bargain for better pay.

No lie.

[PICTURED: Photo from]

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Paul Ryan smiles and knifes us

Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., Nov. 9, 10 or 11

In Illinois last year Paul Ryan was promoting his book, “The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea,” and ran into demonstrators protesting his flip-flopping on immigration. In 2013 he’d appeared with Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Chicago to advocate for bipartisan immigration reform, but a year later voted to increase deportations and eliminate the program offering migrant children a two-year reprieve from expulsion to keep families together.

Now Speaker of the House, the Wisconsin Congressman currently seems to speak sanely, act polite, and exude an image of an earnest wonk, a mainstream, centrist Republican.

He’s not.

In fact, this comment comes from a solid newsman talking about a slick new anchorman in James L. Brooks’ 1987 movie “Broadcast News,” but it could be about the new Speaker.

“Please don't take it wrong when I tell you that I believe that [Ryan], while a very nice guy, is the Devil…

“What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he's around?” the reporter continues. “Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No … he will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing ... he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important.”

Throughout his career, Ryan has focused on cutting government, mostly by means of slashing help to poor people like food stamps, utility assistance, housing and jobless benefits, but also education, public transportation, health care and more. Even his comment expressing reluctance to accept the Speaker post – “I cannot and will not give up my family time” – was ironic since he opposes such opportunities for everyday Americans.

Ryan’s 2011 “Path to Prosperity” budget and his 2014 “War on Poverty: 50 Years Later” report both were partisan rationales for dismantling anti-poverty programs. The non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ response, “Ryan Report Distorts Safety Net’s Picture,” said Ryan’s 205-page report from last year was “misleading … and omits key research.”

The 45-year-old Catholic and Ayn Rand acolyte was blasted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for budget proposals that avoid “moral criteria” such as serving the poor.

Progressive U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren said, “We’re talking about someone who wants to privatize large parts of Social Security, someone who wants to make big cuts in the investments we make in education, in infrastructure, in the pieces that help us build a future together.”

In the House, Ryan’s pledged to follow the “Hastert Rule,” whereby the Speaker won’t bring to the floor any bill without a majority of Republican support. So much for debate and collaboration. He’s promised the right-wing “Freedom Caucus” he won’t negotiate or consider immigration reform until after the 2016 election. And he’s hinted that any new spending bill the House drafts before government’s Dec. 11 deadline will include conservative policy riders such as de-funding Planned Parenthood.

As extreme as the Tea Party, Ryan’s also comfy with insider machinations and corporate power, so the right-wing group behind John Boehner’s resignation eventually may notice the same cronyism they supposedly loathe, with ex-lobbyists now aides on the Speaker’s staff.

“Paul Ryan is the embodiment of the troika of money, power and politics that corrupts and controls the Capitol,” say Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, “ – the very thing the Tea Partiers detest.”

Nevertheless, his reactionary voting record may help his standing, if not the nation.
“He's definitely too extreme for America,” said Scott Foval of People for the American Way in Chicago in 2014, “and his policies just don't work."

OK: Ryan’s not Satan. But there’s something sinister in his smoothness. As British novelist Liz Williams said, “All gods were like that: the knife behind the smile, the drop of poison in the honey jar. They liked to bind you to them, make you dance on razor blades.”

Yes, Ryan can talk smoothly and put on airs of being reasonable, but the Devil’s in the details.

[PICTURED: Graphic from]

Sunday, November 8, 2015

New movies show value of investigative journalism

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Nov. 5, 6 or 7

Journalism’s mission, it’s said, is to “give voice to the voiceless and hold the powerful accountable,” and two new films based on real incidents show the promises and pitfalls of trying to fulfill that public service.

Hollywood for a century has had a love/hate relationship with the press, which I’ve studied for decades, first in a Master’s thesis, then with the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture group, and in a chapter of my book “Video Almanac.” Journalism movies have ranged from the fun-but-overblown (“His Girl Friday,” the 1930s’ “Torchy Blane” series) to the realistic-but-overwrought (“Deadline USA,” “-30-“), from recent negative depictions (“Kill the Messenger,” “Night Crawler”) to classics with positive aspects (“Call Northside 777,” “Five Star Final”).

“Spotlight,” in wide release this Friday, is both realistic and riveting in showing the relentless reporting and research required in both investigative journalism and ambitious local news coverage, both of which still have tremendous value. Featuring an ensemble cast including Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton (who starred in 1994’s “The Paper,” a wonderful newspaper movie), “Spotlight” was co-written and directed by actor/filmmaker Tom McCarthy (the unscrupulous newsman in HBO’s “The Wire”).

A cinematic tribute to journalism, “Spotlight” follows the Boston Globe’s work in 2001 to expose the Archdiocese’s cover-up of some priests’ sexual abuse of kids. However, in recounting the toil in generating about 600 stories that earned a Pulitzer Prize, the plot is less about the church than standing up and speaking truth to power. It could just as easily be about corrupt government, powerful companies, or any evil authority.

It’s a thriller despite the audience knowing the ending, like 1976’s “All The President’s Men” (ATPM: a great film), because the drama is in the process as much as the outcome. In fact, “Spotlight” has moments similar to “ATPM’s” acknowledgment of the tedium needed to discover and verify facts that should be disclosed. “Spotlight” journalists work the phones, pore through paperwork, and combine “shoe-leather” reporting with then-new computer-assisted newsgathering. They face frustrations such as dead ends and reluctant sources, plus human errors and newsroom friction. Like “ATPM,” “Spotlight” shows journalism as a vital blue-collar trade handled by driven people who care, collaborating in a grind to get it first and get it right.

The director lets the actors present quiet, resolute courage that existed there then – and now, everywhere in some way, in a changing industry. Newspapers have lost circulation and advertising to the Internet (which mostly uses content newspaper reporters produce), and the downturn has led not only to knee-jerk business reactions to cut pages and staff (Globe layoffs have trimmed its newsroom to 60 percent of its former size). It’s also led to less coverage of key institutions and the unfortunate fascination with digital stories that generate clicks instead of results.

In some contrast, the movie “Truth” came out last week and stars Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford and Dennis Quaid in a tale revealing broadcast journalism’s occasional shortcomings when dealing with corporate zeal. Based on news producer Mary Mapes’ book “Truth and Duty,” it follows CBS-TV’s 2004 piece on allegations that George W. Bush didn’t fully serve in his National Guard stint during the Vietnam War, produced by Mapes (Blanchett) and anchored by Dan Rather (Redford).

Pressured by the network, the broadcasters fail to finish their job, and the report was attacked by Bush supporters for its flaws and mistakes, causing CBS to disavow and fire Mapes and push Rather to resign.

“Truth” shows that newsroom compromises – journalistic or commercial – can damage a story, even one that’s mostly accurate, and hurt a noble vocation.

Finally, “Truth” is a tale about an explosive story that falls apart after it’s rushed to air; “Spotlight” is a valentine to a plain but passionate love: an enduring and meaningful relationship with its readers and community.

[PICTURED: Left to right, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Brian D’Arcy James in Spotlight portray a team of investigative journalists. Photo from]

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Fiery Beil stood up to Scott Walker’s union-busting

Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., Nov. 2, 3 or 4

One month ago, an organizer of the protests that drew tens of thousands of demonstrators to Madison, Wis., and led to the occupation of its state Capitol, Marty Beil, died unexpectedly at his Mazomanie, Wis., home. A celebration of life was held for the 68-year-old labor leader on Oct. 10, the day before the 79th anniversary of Mother Jones’ funeral in Mount Olive, Ill.

An Illinois native, Beil helped resist Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 collective bargaining measure known as Act 10, which virtually eliminated public-sector union rights, and Illinois workers who went on union bus trips to join rallies there undoubtedly saw Beil wielding a bullhorn, speaking from a lectern, or talking one-on-one with supporters.

“When we got the news that he’d died, I was surprised,” said AFSCME’s Bob Allen, who’d worked alongside Beil for 13 years. “He’d fought through other health struggles it seemed like through sheer will, but not this time.

“He really was a larger-than-life figure,” continued Allen, a public-affairs associate for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 32 in Wisconsin. “He understood his presence sometimes made a difference but he didn’t make it about himself. It was always about labor. He was a blessing. If a reporter needed something, I could put him in front of a camera and it was always an interesting interview. He could be … colorful.”

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, a moderate Republican, recalled Beil fondly, saying, “He loved his unions, he loved his members, he loved politics and he loved a good spread.”

Thompson said part of bargaining with Beil was getting past “the bluster” to Beil’s “fair and honest” style of negotiating.

“First off, you have to realize you have to go through the antics,” Thompson said. “He was so big, he filled the room – just with his physical size but he also had a giant personality. He would jump up and down – not physically, but mentally – making you believe he was going to come across the table at you. But once you got past the antics ... he was fun to negotiate with.”

Gravel-voiced and often gruff, Beil graduated from seminary and earned a Master’s degree from Marquette University, after which he worked for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections as a probation and parole agent. He got involved in the union, becoming a member of its bargaining team and president of the local. In 1978 he was elected president of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, a position he held until being named Director of the AFSCME Council 24 in 1985.

As the long-time face and voice for Wisconsin public employees, Beil was respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, but he stood up to anyone who he felt betrayed labor. After Democratic state Sen. Russ Decker in 2010 voted against a contract settlement with state workers – giving an opening to Walker’s assault on unions soon after – Beil publicly blasted the Democrat.

But Walker-type Republicans were Beils’ usual targets. He said Walker was “hell-bent on creating a climate of fear, intimidation and hostility.

“These guys are off the wall,” he continued. “They’re drunk with some kind of power or misconception of reality. I think the commitment from Republicans to kill unions is from top to bottom.”

Beil retired this June upon the merger of different AFSCME Councils, all hard hit by the anti-union state law.

“If Act 10 hadn’t come, Marty might’ve retired sooner and got to enjoy more of life,” Allen said. “But even after he retired he was still active. He’d walk on a picket line or go down to be with the Solidarity Singers for their vigils at the Capitol.”

The consequences of Act 10 stuck with Beil – as it has with most working people in Wisconsin – Allen added.

“Everybody was sad and mad,” Allen said. “After 40 years of working for the union, it hurt Marty to see all that torn apart.”

In June, Beil said, “In spite of Act 10, Scott Walker, Robin Vos, Scott Fitzgerald, the ‘Tea Party’ and every other nut job that is out there, I have a strong message,” referring to the governor and Republican lawmakers. “Workers will eventually prevail. Working families will once again set the agenda.

“It is unconscionable, and it is something I will hold against Scott Walker until the day I die,” he said.

Reflecting on Beil’s death and life and legacy, it’s hard not to recall the words of Mother Jones, who said, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

[PICTURED: Photo from AFSCME.]