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Obama Just Officially Decided White House Emails Aren't Subject to the Freedom of Information Act

| Tue Mar. 17, 2015 1:14 PM EDT

Civil liberties advocates are adding another strike to the Obama administration's record on transparency: on Monday, the White House announced that it is officially ending the Freedom of Information Act obligations of its Office of Administration. That office provides broad administrative support to the White House—including the archiving of emails—and had been subject to FOIA for much of its nearly four-decade history.

In 2007, the George W. Bush administration decided that its OA would reject any FOIA requests, freeing it from the burden to release emails regarding any number of Bush-era scandals. When President Obama took office in 2009, transparency advocates were hopeful that he'd strike down the Bush policy—especially after he claimed transparency would be a "touchstone" of his presidency. In a letter that year, advocates from dozens of organizations urged Obama to restore transparency to the OA.

He never did, and Monday's move from the White House makes the long-standing policy official. Coincidentally, March 16th was Freedom of Information Day, and this week marks the annual Sunshine Week, which focuses on open government. 

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Your Cellphone Might Be Making You Fat

| Tue Mar. 17, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Like most things you love in life, your cellphone might be contributing to your growing waistline—along with your tablet, videogame console, computer, and television. Electronic devices with chips contain flame retardants to cool those chips so they don't catch fire while you are using them. Researchers at the University of Houston are now finding that these commonly used chemicals may be connected to weight gain.

The compounds in question, Tetrabromobisphoneol A (TBBPA) and tetrachlorobisphenol A (TCBPA) can leach out of the devices and often end up settling on dust particles in the air we breathe, the study found. The compounds are a form of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical ubiquitously used in food containers and plastic water battles that has already already been linked to obesity and increases in metabolic disorders

After previous studies showed that these chemicals could activate stem cells to grow fat cells, the scientists set out to study their effect on living organisms.

Using sibling pairs of zebrafish, the researchers administered low doses of the chemicals to only one group for 11 days. Though both groups ate the same diet, after a month the zebrafish in the chemical group were heavier and showed signs of increased fat cell build up (zebrafish are transparent so scientists could see fat build up around vital organs as well as around the fish's sides).

The team was hopeful that the findings will lead to more in depth research on chemicals that can cause weight gain, said researcher Maria Bondesson in a University of Houston press release. "Our goal is to find the worst ones and then replace them with safer alternatives."

5 Must-See True-Crime Documentaries to Catch After "The Jinx"

| Mon Mar. 16, 2015 10:56 PM EDT

Sunday's finale of the HBO documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst ended with the eccentric protagonist muttering a seeming confession to three murders over the last 30 years.

"What the hell did I do?" Durst said. "Killed them all, of course."

The revelation culminated an eight-year investigation into the life and trials of Durst, the estranged son of a New York real estate dynasty. He has maintained his innocence in the 1982 disappearance of his first wife and was acquitted in the 2001 slaying of Morris Black in Galveston, Texas. But Durst was arrested on Saturday, a day before the finale aired, in a New Orleans hotel after new evidence emerged that law enforcement officials allege linked him to the 2000 murder of confidante Susan Berman. On Monday, Los Angeles prosecutors charged Durst with first-degree murder in California, in addition to weapons charges in Louisiana. 

All eyes will surely stay glued to Durst's case as it unfolds, but The Jinx, a well-paced journalistic masterpiece, is over. The inevitable question for today's budding Sherlock Holmes becomes: What to watch next?

Since True Detective reportedly won't return until this summer, and the second season of Serial isn't out yet, here are a few true-crime documentaries to check out now:

Central Park Five

The 2012 Ken Burns documentary looks into the 1989 case of five black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. The film, which is on Netflix, takes a look at the case and its aftermath from the perspectives of the accused, whose convictions were later tossed out after a convicted rapist confessed to the crime.

 

Into The Abyss

Acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog dives into the aftermath of a triple homicide in the small city of Conroe, Texas as part of a larger examination into capital punishment in the United States. This 2011 doc is still on Netflix.

 

The Imposter

A 13-year-old boy in Texas disappears in 1994, then reportedly resurfaces three years later in Spain. But that's not the whole story. A French con artist tells all in this gripping 2012 documentary, which can be seen on Netflix.

 

The Paradise Lost trilogy

In this three-part series, renowned filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky focus on the infamous case of the "West Memphis Three," a trio of teenagers who were convicted of the brutal triple homicide in 1993 of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The three men were later freed after 18 years in prison. You can find this one on Amazon Prime.

 

The Thin Blue Line

A throwback from 1988, Errol Morris investigates the questionable conviction of Randall Dale Adams, who was wrongly sentenced to life in prison for killing a Dallas police officer in 1976. The film, which is on Netflix, played a role in exonerating Adams a year later.

Meet the New Endocrine-Disrupting Plastic Chemical, Same as the Old One

| Mon Mar. 16, 2015 6:13 PM EDT

By now, most people know about the common plastic additive bisphenol A (BPA), which behaves like estrogen in our bodies and has been linked to a range of health problems, including cancerbirth defects, and irregular brain development in kids. Like other endocrine-disrupting chemicals, BPA seems to cause hormonal damage at extremely low levels. In a 2014 story, my colleague Mariah Blake brought home an unsettling point: The chemical compounds that manufacturers have been scrambling to use in place of BPA might be just as bad.

And now a new paper, published on the peer-reviewed Environmental Health Perspectives, examines the science around two common chemicals used in "BPA-Free" packaging: BPS and BPF. The authors looked at 32 studies and concluded that "based on the current literature, BPS and BPF are as hormonally active as BPA, and have endocrine-disrupting effects." In other words, the cure may be just as bad as the disease.

It's not clear how widely these substitutes are being used, because manufacturers aren't required to disclose what they put in packaging. But there's evidence that BPS is quite common. BPA, for example, is widely used in paper receipts to make them more durable; and in a 2014 study, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency tested paper receipts from 19 facilities, and found that nine contained BPA and nine contained BPS. The researchers concluded that BPS is "being used as a common alternative to BPA in thermal paper applications, and in comparable concentrations."

Because "BPS has also been found to be an endocrine active chemical," the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency urges the state's businesses to shift to electronic receipts. I've taken on a similar strategy—I'm even phasing out my beloved canned craft beer, because cans used by the food and beverage industries tend to be lined with BPA. Unlike the businessman in The Graduate, I've got two words, not one—at least until the chemical industry can prove it can create a genuinely safe BPA substitute: Avoid plastics.

If You Own a Pitchfork, You Will Grab It When You See This Chart

| Mon Mar. 16, 2015 3:50 PM EDT

This statistic provides a pretty compelling snapshot of the severity of our income gap: In 2014, Wall Street's bonus pool was roughly double the combined earnings of all Americans working full-time jobs at minimum wage. 

That sobering tidbit came from a new Institute for Policy Studies report by Sarah Anderson, who looked at new figures from the New York State Comptroller and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average bonus for one of New York City's 167,800 employees in the securities industry came out to $172,860—on top of an average salary of nearly $200,000. On the other side of the equation were about one million people working full time at the federal minimum wage of $7.25. 

In a recent New York Times article, Justin Wolfers, a senior fellow for the Peterson Institute for International Economics, picked apart some of the uncertainties that go into creating such a calculation, and ultimately came up with a similar result:

The count of workers at federal minimum wage includes only those who are paid hourly, and so omits those paid weekly or monthly. On the flip side, the B.L.S. count is based on income before tips and commissions, and so may overstate the number of people with low hourly earnings. And while my calculation assumed that all minimum wage workers earn $7.25 per hour, in fact many earn less than this, including wait staff and others who rely on tips, some students and young workers, certain farmworkers, and those whose bosses simply flout the minimum wage law.

For all of these uncertainties, the broad picture doesn’t change. My judgment is that we can be pretty confident that Ms. Anderson's estimate that the sum of Wall Street bonuses is roughly twice the total amount paid to all full-time workers paid minimum wage seems like a fair characterization.

This Man Is Missing a Chunk of His Brain. The Missouri Supreme Court Says It's Okay to Execute Him.

| Mon Mar. 16, 2015 2:26 PM EDT

Update: Cecil Clayton was executed at 9:21 p.m. Central time on Tuesday, March 17.

Cecil Clayton, a mentally ill Missouri man facing execution on Tuesday, was denied a crucial avenue to clemency this weekend: The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that Clayton is competent to be executed. But he's missing one-fifth of his frontal lobe.

Clayton, 74, was sentenced to death in 1997 for murdering a police officer. Twenty-five years before that, he suffered a horrific accident that caused the removal of significant parts of his brain, transforming his brain chemistry and personality. His lawyers are aiming to secure him a stay of execution and a hearing to evaluate his competency to be executed, but Missouri law makes it highly difficult to do so after the trial.

In a 4-3 decision, the state's highest court found that Clayton's lawyers had not presented a sufficiently compelling case for the state to delay his execution and hold a hearing to evaluate his competency. The majority argued that though Clayton suffers from debilitating dementia, paranoia, schizophrenia, and a host of other conditions, "there is no evidence that he is not capable of understanding 'matters in extenuation, arguments for executive clemency, or reasons why the sentence should not be carried out.'"

In their dissent, the three judges in the minority wrote that Clayton's lawyers presented reasonable grounds that his "mental condition has deteriorated and he is intellectually disabled." They noted that he is "incompetent to be executed and…is entitled to a hearing at which his competence will be determined." And they contended that the "majority's decision to proceed with the execution at this time and in these circumstances violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment." 

A few options remain for Clayton. On Monday, Clayton's lawyers filed a petition to the US Supreme Court to stay the execution. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon (D) also can stay the execution and order a competency hearing. Clayton is scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection—a method his attorneys claim could cause him a "prolonged and excruciating" death—at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday.

 

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My Day

| Mon Mar. 16, 2015 1:25 PM EDT

Heart test. Check. EKG. Check. Chest X-ray. Check. Complete spinal X-ray. Check. 20 vials of blood drawn. Check. All that's left is a lung test tomorrow and dropping off a stool sample. Then I get a week off before I visit City of Hope for an orientation and further instructions in preparation for the stem cell transplant in April. Progress!

Republicans Are Making Obama Popular Again

| Mon Mar. 16, 2015 10:38 AM EDT

This isn't exactly Oprah levels of adulation or anything, but President Obama's Gallup approval ratings have been rising steadily ever since Republicans won the midterm elections last year. He's been bouncing around positive territory ever since the start of 2015, and today he clocks in at 48-47 percent approval.

Is this because the economy is picking up and people are just generally happier? Is it because his executive actions have made a favorable impression on the public? Is it because Republican incompetence makes him look good by comparison? Hard to say, but it certainly suggests that Democrats are pretty happy with him. As Ed Kilgore says:

Among Democrats, who are supposedly on the brink of a "struggle for the soul of the party," and ideologically riven between Elizabeth Warren "populists" and Obama/Clinton "centrists," Obama's approval rating stands at 81%. And looking deeper, he's at 86% among self-identified "liberal Democrats," 78% among "moderate Democrats," and yes, 67% among "conservative Democrats," such as they are....This is another example of isolated data being somewhat limited in value, but worth a couple of dozen Politico columns.

Yep. And I'll bet that once things get going, Hillary Clinton will poll about the same way.

Watch John Oliver Explain Why the NCAA Should Stop Exploiting Student Athletes and Pay Up

| Mon Mar. 16, 2015 9:15 AM EDT

The National Collegiate Athletic Association reaps in nearly $1 billion a year in revenue, thanks to an annual onslaught of glitzy advertising campaigns and television deals. Coaches and top executives are paid in the millions, but student athletes return to their dorm rooms with nothing but an education for compensation, "the only currency more difficult to spent than Bitcoin," John Oliver noted last night.

With the start of March Madness on Tuesday, "Last Week Tonight" takes on this very issue, slamming the "illegal sweatshop" nature of the NCAA's non-pay scale. "There is nothing inherently wrong with a sporting tournament making huge amounts of money," Oliver said. "But there is something slightly troubling about a billion-dollar sports enterprise where the athletes are not paid a penny, because they aren't."

Nutritionist Group: Feed Your Kid Kraft "Cheese Product"

| Mon Mar. 16, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Kraft can't call its individually wrapped, orange-colored slices "cheese," at least not precisely. Hell, it can't even use the phrase "pasteurized process cheese food," because the Food and Drug Administration requires products with that designation be made up of at least 51 percent real cheese. Instead, Kraft's American singles bear the appetizing appellation "pasteurized process cheese product," because in addition to cheese, they contain stuff like milk protein concentrate and whey protein concentrate.

Kraft Singles are the first product to earn the Kids Eat Right endorsement from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

But the processed-food giant can proudly display the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' "Kids Eat Right" seal on the label of its iconic American Singles, reports the New York Times' Stephanie Strom. In fact, the plastic-wrapped slices are the first product to earn the Kids Eat Right endorsement, Strom adds.

That a bunch of professional nutritionists would hail imitation cheese as ideal kid food might seem weird—but not if you read this 2014 piece by my colleague Kiera Butler, who attended the annual meeting of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' California chapter. McDonald's catered the lunch, and the Corn Refiners Association—trade group of high-fructose corn syrup manufactures—ran a panel on the benefits of "Sweeteners in Schools," Butler reported. 

Then there's this 2013 report from the food industry lawyer and researcher Michele Simon, which documented the strong and ever-growing financial ties between the Academy and Big Food companies, including Kraft.

Marketing the singles directly to parents through the Kids Eat Right label may be part of the company's effort to revive the fortunes of its legacy brands. Last month, the company's new CEO, John Cahill, declared that 2014 was a "difficult and disappointing year," and announced the departure of the company's top execs for finance, marketing, and R&D.

In the end, though, slapping a kid's health label on such a highly processed food may do more to damage the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' brand than bolster Kraft's.