Thursday, July 27, 2006

Eye on Washington

The Washington Post has been doing some great investigative work lately. Last week in "HHS Secretary's Fund Gave Little to Charity," staff writer Jonathan Weisman revealed that Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and his family have taken more than $1 million in tax write-offs since 2000 by creating a foundation that loans more money to business interests connected to Leavitt than it gives to charity.

Two days earlier Gilbert M. Gaul, Sarah Cohen and Dan Morgan shined in "Aid to Ranchers Was Diverted for Big Profits." They reported that taxpayers have shelled out at least $400 million in an emergency powdered milk program intended for drought-stricken ranchers that instead has created millions of dollars in profits and sent milk to states with no drought, Mexico and other countries.

And "It Looked Weird and Felt Wrong" by Thomas E. Ricks in Monday's Post took a hard look at the Army's 4th Infantry Division, whose tough tactics in Iraq may have backfired by alienating large parts of the population.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Sailor's Story

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been running a powerful narrative this week by Mark Johnson. "An American Hero's Fall From Grace" tells the story of Mark Samples, who in 1987 helped save the lives of 180 shipmates on the USS Stark and earned a bronze medal. Johnson describes how Samples unraveled emotionally after coming home and ended up robbing a credit union 14 years later. Johnson's eye for detail and lively writing fueled by strong verbs makes this story a page turner.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Keep Rockin'

Legendary critic Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times offers a fun and fascinating retrospective of his 37 years covering the pop music scene in Saturday's "Backstage Pass." Hilburn gives us the lowdown on his encounters with stars such as John Lennon, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, Bono and Elvis. I appreciate that he also praises the songs of younger stars such as Kanye West and Jack White of the White Stripes. Hilburn is a master at using snippets of dialogue to capture people's personalities, as he does during this description of a scene with Michael Jackson:

"Popcorn was ordered from his personal chef, then he pulled a video from one of the huge trunks he took on tour. Slipping it into the VCR, he settled on a couch and said, 'Let's watch cartoons.' Jackson was 26."

Monday, July 24, 2006

Bee Season

News Gems readers have pointed me to a couple of outstanding series in the Sacramento Bee. "A Mother's Journey" by reporter Cynthia Hubert and photographer Renée C. Byer follows single mom Cyndie French as she struggles to care for her son Derek after he is diagnosed with cancer. Hubert's rich details and crisp sentences make her writing compelling, and Byer's photos grabbed my heart. I'm impressed with the trust they must have earned in order to spend so much time with French and her family during their medical and personal odyssey. Dan Nguyen of the Bee deserves credit for letting me know about his colleagues' great work.

The Bee launched another remarkable series in November describing the plight of migrant workers, known as pineros, who toil under a U.S. government program that takes care of our forests. "The Pineros: Men of the Pines" by reporter Tom Knudson and photographer Hector Amezcua exposes these guest workers' dangerous jobs, miserable conditions and low pay. To learn about the pineros, Amezcua and Knudson read 5,000 pages of records obtained using the Freedom of Information Act and conducted more than 150 interviews across the U.S., Mexico and Guatemala. The interactive Web package includes photos by Amezcua, snapshots of guest workers who have died on the job, video interviews with pineros, and links to documents that reveal government indifference to working conditions.

This series has already won a bunch of awards, and the Bee continues to update it as legislation dealing with the forestry program moves through Congress. Thanks to loyal friend Alysia Tate, publisher of The Chicago Reporter, for suggesting this series to me.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Human Cargo

Dennis Wagner of The Arizona Republic had a strong story Sunday on how the Phoenix area has become the hub of a $2 billion-a-year human smuggling network. "Human Trafficking's Profits Spur Horrors" details how thousands of illegal immigrants are brutally kept hostage in Phoenix drophouses until their families pay ransom. Wagner's story does a terrific job explaining why this vast human smuggling network has developed and describing its impact on people. Wagner's package includes a nifty sidebar, "Lady in Charge," which profiles Julieta Franco-Beltran, the woman at the center of one of the smuggling rings. I like how Wagner uses Franco-Beltran's tale to reveal how human smuggling operations work on a daily basis.

For another compelling look at human trafficking, check out "Sold in the U.S.A." by Kimbriell Kelly of the Chicago Reporter. Kelly shares the story of Ricardo Veisaga, who was tricked by an employment agency into working as a near slave at a Chinese restaurant in Indiana. Kelly reveals that the victims of human trafficking are not just those smuggled from abroad but often are people such as Veisaga, who already live in our cities and towns.
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