Backtalk

No. 1 Takes Us to Task

As strong supporters of the GOP and the principles for which that party stands, Richard and Helen DeVos do not take umbrage with their placement atop your Mother Jones 400 list. The many inaccuracies in “Tough Sell
(November/December), however, need to be set straight.

Your first error was relying on inaccurate stories that appeared more than a year ago but were later corrected by their original authors. Had you considered all the articles you discovered while doing this research, you should have been able to avoid the following errors:

The lead paragraph—and linchpin for the entire article—suggests that gifts from the DeVoses to the GOP resulted in a $19 million “tax break” for Amway’s “Asian branches” in 1997. This is blatantly untrue. False reports of this were corrected by several publications later that year. You must have missed the corrections.

The article also cites a year-old Associated Press story that incorrectly reported that former President Ronald Reagan once called Richard DeVos from the White House to seek a campaign contribution. A correction revealed that Reagan had called DeVos not to seek funds, but to ask him to serve as the Republican National Committee’s finance chairman. Again, you must have missed that one.

While these errors are unfortunate and could have been avoided through more thorough investigation, the misleading excerpt of a Roll Call column by Betsy DeVos, chair of the Michigan Republican State Committee and daughter-in-law of Richard and Helen DeVos, is blatantly unethical. By including only the first half of a quote about her family’s motivations for political giving, you deliberately misled readers to reach a flawed conclusion.

These inaccuracies—in addition to the ridiculous proclamation that the DeVoses give “marching orders” to the hundreds of thousands of independent distributors who market Amway’s products—indicate that Mother Jones is not about “independent, analytic, informed” reporting, as described by your board’s chair. Instead, it’s about biased, one-dimensional opinions, published under the guise of journalistic investigation.

Beth Dornan
Public Relations Manager
Amway Corporation
Ada, Mich.

Editors respond:
In addition to Beth Dornan’s letter, Mother Jones received a letter from Betsy DeVos’ attorneys, complaining that we unfairly took the passage from Roll Call about her family’s involvement in politics out of context. The letter stated, “In her Roll Call op-ed, [Betsy] DeVos ridiculed and rejected allegations that her family’s contributions to the Republican Party were made in exchange for personal political favors. Mother Jones mischaracterized her denial as an admission.” In the spirit of full disclosure, we have decided to excerpt the entire passage we referred to for Mother Jones readers:

I know a little something about soft money, as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party. Occasionally a wayward reporter will try to make the charge that we are giving this money to get something in return, or that we must be purchasing influence in some way.

In fact, shortly after this summer’s historic budget agreement, some on the left began shopping a rumor that President Clinton was planning to line-item veto a provision that, they hypothesized, had been somehow sneaked into the agreement to benefit my family’s company, the Amway Corporation.

For a moment, the Democrats got very excited, believing they had an opportunity to claim that we bought access. It was all hogwash, and upon being confronted with the facts, they had to scrap their plan.

I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.

We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government. Furthermore, we expect the Republican Party to use the money to promote these policies, and yes, to win elections.

People like us must surely be stopped.

(Roll Call, September 6, 1997)

Amway calls our description of the company’s $19 million tax break “blatantly untrue,” and says that similar reports “were corrected by several publications” in 1997. When we asked Amway for these corrections, it provided us with a single news story that ran in the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press, which said the tax break was not $200 million, as other news organizations were reporting, but $19 million—as we reported. We should have stated, however, that four other companies shared the tax break with Amway’s Asian affiliates.

Amway also says we relied on an AP story that “incorrectly” reported that Reagan called Richard DeVos seeking a campaign contribution, saying that a mysterious “correction” fixed the story. AP says no such correction ever ran. We reported a comparison between President Clinton, criticized for making fundraising calls from the Oval Office, and Reagan, who also made fundraising calls, including the one to DeVos we cited. According to a 1981 White House memo obtained by Mother Jones, Reagan was instructed by an aide to call DeVos and “thank him for accepting the position of RNC finance chairman, and challenge him to increase the number of Eagles ($10,000-a-year contributors).” Next to Reagan’s name was a handwritten “yes,” which would seem to indicate that Reagan did, indeed, make that call.

Outback Speaks Out


I can respect hellraising, but I can’t say the same for your journalistic standards. Your article regarding Outback’s PAC (“Rough Cuts,” November/December) was based on false premises and incorrect information.

Your false premise is that regional partners and proprietors (general managers) have an incentive to pressure lower-level management to contribute to the PAC to “look better in the eyes of senior management.” Outback is well known for its innovative regional partner and proprietor programs. Regional partners are true owners in every restaurant. Our regional partners and proprietors enjoy substantial incomes (six figures) and have the protection of a five-year employment contract that can only be terminated for cause. Regional partners and proprietors all receive the same base salary and the same percentage of cash flow from their restaurants. I am in charge of the PAC because as general counsel I do not have line authority over our restaurant management and cannot affect their careers based on PAC contributions. Where is the incentive?

Perhaps your biggest blunder is your statement that our PAC is primarily funded by our lower-level managers. Not true. If you had counted accurately, you would have found that regional partners, proprietors, and vice presidents contribute 85 percent of all dollars in our PAC.

Our lower-level managers and kitchen managers contribute because they receive, in addition to a base salary, a monthly bonus based on the profitability of their restaurants. We educate our management on the impact that government policies can have on their business. It is for this reason that we enjoy such strong support for our PAC.

Our PAC enrollment form, which each contributor signs, clearly states: (1) that contributions are voluntary, (2) that contributions may be stopped at any time, and (3) that managers will not be favored or disadvantaged by contributing or not contributing to the PAC.

Do we encourage (as allowed by law) our management to voluntarily contribute to our PAC? Absolutely and without apology.

You state that the Outback PAC received contributions of $565,600 in the first six months of 1998, of which $458,000 (81 percent) were donations of less than $200, which the Federal Election Commission does not require to be itemized. Not one of these numbers is accurate.

The contributions of $565,600 on our June 30, 1998, Florida report represent cumulative contributions for the 18 months from January 1, 1997, to June 30, 1998. The $458,000 of contributions you claim are under $200 is unfathomable.

For the first six months and nine months of 1998, our unitemized contributions were 49 percent and 37 percent, respectively, of total contributions. In 1996 and 1997, our unitemized contributions were 27 percent and 29 percent, respectively, of total contributions. As the calendar year progresses, more contributions exceed the $200 level and the percent of unitemized contributions decreases. I expect that our report for the full calendar year of 1998 will again show unitemized contributions of less than 30 percent. FEC rules do not give us the option of itemizing contributions of less than $200. As you know, our Florida reports list every contributor regardless of amount. We have nothing to hide.

Joseph J. Kadow
Vice President and General Counsel
Outback Steakhouse
Tampa, Fla.

Editors respond:
Kadow is correct in pointing out our incorrect numbers. We relied on flawed data to compute the percentage of Outback’s PAC that is funded by contributions less than $200. The passage referring to the portion of contributions to Outback’s PAC from small donors should have read: “Contributions of less than $200 accounted for $104,067 of the $356,368 the Outback PAC received in 1997. Because the FEC does not document sub-$200 PAC donations, 29 percent of the PAC’s receipts last year would be untraceable if not for Florida’s unusual full-disclosure requirements.”

However, the premise of the story is not, as Kadow suggests, that the “PAC is primarily funded by lower-level managers.” The story reported that fully one-third of the 30 current and former Outback managers we interviewed, including lower-level managers making $22,000 a year, said they felt pressured to fund the company’s PAC through deductions from their paychecks.

When Kadow asks, “Where is the incentive?” he should be directing the question not to us, but to his own management. When anyone in Outback’s senior management—regional partners or proprietors—asks lower-level staff for contributions, it’s easy to see how it can turn into pressure, which is exactly what employees, such as former kitchen manager Andrew Fitzgerald, described to Mother Jones: “Let’s face it. When the big boss asks you to do something—and not doing that may hinder reaching your ultimate goal—you’re going to do it.”

Sweet Farewell

As a charter subscriber, it’s time I wrote you. What prompted this world-class procrastinator to get off her duff and communicate was Jeffrey Klein’s announcement that he is leaving as editor.

I know things must change and people must move on, but Klein has been so special and done so much for the magazine that I hate to think of him no longer being there.

Klein is an extremely effective speaker, with a gracious manner. He is never strident (as some of us on the left tend to be). Klein demonstrates his intellect subtly and thoughtfully during debate, and he manages to devastate opponents without being devastating—a true gentle-man. Good luck to him. He will be missed.

Rhana Bazzini
Durham, Conn.

Thank you for Jeffrey Klein’s Editor’s Note (“Sweet Rewards,” November/December). Klein uses a terrific hook to define the meaning of pornography. By exploring a spring 1996 phone call to the president from sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul Jr., we learn that if there were familiar sounds in the Oval Office that day when Monica Lewinsky visited, they had nothing to do with private acts and everything to do with billions of gallons of freshwater draining from the Everglades to keep Fanjul’s sugar fields dry and his $65 million annual federal subsidy intact.

As long as the battle for billions relentlessly sucks energy from the work of government, the claim to serve the public interest is a sad charade. The money chase has turned from a preoccupation into an addiction. Like any other addiction, it has predictable consequences: denial of responsibility for behavior that threatens those who are supposed to be dearest.

Alan Farago
Conservation Chair
Sierra Club Miami Group
Miami, Fla.

Getting Testy

Brian Doherty’s article (“Those Who Can’t, Test,” November/December) does a wonderful job of questioning the validity of the SAT as part of the college admissions process. Unfortunately, the SAT is but one misused standardized test acting as a major force in education. State assessment tests administered to students in public schools are adversely affecting students, parents, and educators in a way that even the SAT has never managed.

Most states have at least one such testing program in place. Scores can ultimately determine which students progress to the next grade and which are held back. Teachers and principals may risk job security, salary, and tenure if their students’ scores do not meet state standards. Many teachers are being forced to spend literally months of class time prepping students for standardized exams. If the panic inspired by these tests goes unchecked, we will come dangerously close to creating a system of education with the primary focus of churning out good test takers.

As with the SAT, the real danger lies not so much in the test itself as in the repercussions of placing too much emphasis on the scores. If the SAT has taught us anything, it is to carefully scrutinize such tests before relying on the scores they generate.

John Katzman
President, Princeton Review
New York, N.Y.

Doherty’s cynical dissection of the SAT is a meager attempt to vilify one of the best testing systems we have in America. I will admit that the SAT isn’t perfect. However, the Educational Testing Service has shown that SAT scores are direct, quantifiable, and significant measures of success in the first year of college. The SAT is widely accepted because of said proof.

Furthermore, the comment “we’re being manipulated,” in regard to the test’s difficult questions, shows poor journalistic practice on Doherty’s part. If the answer to a difficult question were obvious, the question would cease to be difficult. We are not being manipulated; we are being tested. And if that test is of test-taking skills, so be it. A great part of college is test-taking—it would stand to reason that a good test-taker would do better in college than a poor one.

Chris St. Pierre
1,500 SAT
Lincoln, Neb.

I was very disappointed with your article on the SAT. The superior performance of students from wealthy families is taken as evidence that the SAT is biased. The higher scores of these wealthy, suburban kids could just as easily be taken as evidence that well-funded schools produce more learning. In turn, they could be used as an argument to channel resources into public education.

I was also disappointed that alternatives to the SAT, such as basing college admission on class rank, were given short shrift. I strongly support the proposed policies in Texas and California to admit all students in the top 4 or 10 percent of a high school class. However, these proposals raise interesting questions: Will wealthy parents place their children in poorer high schools, hoping that their children will rise to the top of the class due to reduced competition? If children are switched to poorer schools, will this bring an influx of resources to these schools or just displace the students currently at the top of the class? Discussing these topics would have been much more interesting than Doherty’s rehashing of old arguments.

Judith S. Shapiro
Ann Arbor, Mich.

Doherty falls for the Princeton Review promotional strategy hook, line, and sinker. Commercial test-preparation companies generate free publicity by taking excessive stances against ETS. They also get free publicity in the mainstream media with the Kaplan-Newsweek (owned by the same company) and Princeton Review-Time publishing alliances. Now, thanks to Mother Jones, they get a free ride in the “alternative” press. Doherty reproduces, without examination, their assertions about the efficacy of their courses and their crude characterizations of the SAT’s soundness. Doherty even makes the implausible analogy that Princeton Review is to SAT as doctor is to disease.

I’m always interested in investigative reports on the ETS monopoly. But when Doherty writes from the perspective of companies that earn millions by casting themselves as the elite ETS-busters, he’s being worse than disingenuous. He ridicules the SAT because student scores are correlated with household income, but he doesn’t challenge commercial test services that charge $700 for class courses (more than $1,000 for individual attention) to provide a handful of tricks and hours of rote drill. The price seems inflated to me. But it’s all easier to sell when even Mother Jones plays along. Well done. Another thoughtful effort to promote educational equity in America!

(Full disclosure: I’m a Ph.D. student at Harvard University who has received funding from ETS for research work unrelated to standardized testing. I run a free SAT tutoring program for youth in Somerville, Massachusetts.)

Eric Loken
Somerville, Mass.

Blatant Disregard

Catherine Elton’s article “The War Away From Home”
(Outfront, November/December) notes the relatively meager effort by the U.S. government to find and notify Japanese Latin American internment camp survivors of their rights. By way of update, you may also be interested to know that the latest government figures suggest that the money will run out, so that some class members who settled will fail to receive any money at all. They have given up their right to litigate for full justice, in return for a promise of partial justice, and may end up with nothing but a letter from President Clinton saying that it’s too bad the United States violated their rights.

Oh yes, and the frosting on the cake is that it appears the U.S. Attorney General’s office failed to invest the $1.6 billion Civil Liberties Act trust fund so that it could gather interest, as expressly required by the statute. That malfeasance may have resulted in the loss of millions of dollars from the fund—money that could have gone to making sure that all of the settling Japanese Latin American internees got the $5,000 they hoped for, much less the $20,000 that each U.S. Japanese internee received.

Paul L. Mills
Attorney for the plaintiffs
Los Angeles, Calif.

Baby with the Bathwater

In Doug Henwood’s quick critique of socially responsible investing (SRI), he gets a few of the details right but misses the point (The Visible Hand, November/December). In his primary thrusts, Henwood assaults the Domini Social Index for including some large corporations with questionable social or environmental records and complains that more SRI portfolios have a tobacco screen than a labor screen—concluding that the slogan “Do well by doing good” should be changed to “Do well by not doing such pure bad.”

We certainly grant that it would be a good thing for more SRI portfolios to include a labor screen, and the Domini Index might benefit from a few changes. (We disagree with Henwood on tobacco, however. Tobacco is one of America’s most pressing problems— accounting for more deaths annually than alcohol, AIDS, car accidents, homicides, and suicides combined.)

The point is that the socially responsible business and investment movement is making progress in expanding the definition of successful business beyond just the financial bottom line. A growing number of businesses avoid tobacco, nuclear power, weapons, and involvement with repressive regimes, while seeking positive performance in relation to the environment, workplace, quality of product, and community impact. SRI evaluates businesses on the basis of these criteria to help socially concerned investors invest their money wisely.

Henwood calls his column The Visible Hand. Nice image. SRI is joining with other social movements to help create that visible hand, attempting to guide the market—and the stakeholders who make it up—toward social responsibility. SRI recognizes that the point is to go beyond merely commenting on the world. The point is to change it.

James Nixon
Vice President for Social Research and Sustainable Development
Progressive Asset Management
Oakland, Calif.

Henwood’s column gets stuck criticizing the trees while he misses the forest. Although he may not like every company in a particular fund, SRI provides socially concerned investors with choices that best fit their particular social values as well as their return and risk requirements. At the same time, it has shown the broader investment community that screening can raise returns.

The imperfect capitalist market has done a surprisingly good job of providing choices and producing results. Let’s not forget that some social screens have already been dropped because they were successful: SRI contributed to the end of apartheid in South Africa.

If Henwood had looked at the actions regarding “shareholder rights” rather than theorizing about what is impossible in a capitalist system, he might have noticed shareholder actions addressing some of his biggest concerns. In the last two years, the As You Sow Foundation has undertaken a shareholder dialogue with Disney about a belief that its Simba T-shirts and Winnie-the-Pooh bears, among other products, had been made under sweatshop conditions. Shareholders launched this dialogue not as outsiders, but as owners of the company. Disney has been responsive. Talks are continuing, but Disney has agreed to audit its 15,000 subcontractors for the first time and to pay a sustainable wage. Although its ethics code may fall short of the strongest screens, Disney is moving toward a better future thanks to shareholder action.

By showing investors that they can vote for their social concerns with their dollars, we change market forces. When SRI demonstrates better performance, market forces react powerfully. Domini’s success has demonstrated the advantages of the “double bottom line” to the broader investment community. The impact on the marketplace expands when you can show that owning the “nicer oil company” like Arco, with a better record on the environment, has made more money than owning Exxon with its Valdez. Then the 10 percent of the socially responsible dollars lead the 90 percent of other dollars into doing better. The fact that more than $1 trillion is screened today speaks to the success of SRI in its educational mission.

Chris Irvin and Tom Van Dyck
Social Equity Investment Group
San Francisco, Calif.

Correction:


The Center for Responsive Politics, which supplied Mother Jones with the data for the Mother Jones 400, misidentified No. 366 on our list. John A. Williams of Post Properties is from Atlanta, Georgia. He gave $39,050, mostly to Republicans, and should have been placed at No. 356.