Mojo - April 2010

Colbert and Wikileaks' Julian Assange

| Tue Apr. 13, 2010 11:06 AM EDT

Wikileaks editor Julian Assange was on The Colbert Report to talk about the organization's controversial "collateral murder" video. The interview was only occcasionally funny, but Colbert doesn't pull his punches, so it's definitely worth your time:

Last week, we published a profile of Assange by David Kushner. Check it out. The site also has plans to release more disturbing war footage. The Telegraph reports:

The [new] video apparently shows previously classified footage from US warplanes called in to bomb Taliban fighters during a fire fight in Farah province last year.

The Afghan government said at the time that the strikes by F-18 and B1 planes near Granai killed 147 civilians. An independent Afghan inquiry later put the toll at 86.

Video footage of the strike could prove highly damaging to the Nato-led coalition if it showed pilots failing to safeguard civilian lives.

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WaMu's Gruesome Autopsy

| Tue Apr. 13, 2010 10:33 AM EDT

After a year-and-a-half long financial autopsy, the Senate investigations subcommittee today is exploring the demise of the Washington Mutual, once among the US' largest thrift banks with more than $330 billion in assets and the largest bank failure in American history. The hearing will include testimony from former WaMu executives like CEO Kerry Killinger, president Stephen Rotella, past risk officers, and the former president of the Home Loans division at the heart of WaMu's stunning meltdown.

The beginning of the end, as the Senate's investigation suggests, came in 1999, when WaMu snapped up a subprime lender named Long Beach Mortgage Company. Long Beach was a major player in the booming securitization business—the origination of loans to be bundled into bonds backed by those pools of loans. These mortgage-backed securities were then sold to Wall Street banks and the two government-sponsored housing corporations, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In 2006, Long Beach injected a staggering $30 billion in subprime loans into the securitization machine, a sixfold increase from only three years before. And by churning out subprime loans to less qualified homeowners, Long Beach fit perfectly into WaMu CEO Killinger's goal, echoing that of executives like Citigroup's Sandy Weill, of making WaMu into a supermarket bank, a one-stop shop for customers of all stripes.

Another key date, as the Senate investigation shows, was 2005, when WaMu and Long Beach, as shown in an internal WaMu PowerPoint presentation, settled on a strategy called "gain on sale." That strategy essentially stressed how much more profit could be made on riskier loans as opposed to government-backed, fixed interest-rate loans, and that these riskier, more profitable products—home equity, subprime, and option adjustable-rate mortgages—could be a cash cow for WaMu.

This cutthroat, purely profit-driven philosophy meant WaMu and Long Beach increasingly pushed their employees, in the early 2000s, to focus more on volume than quality—selling more and more loans with little regard for the underwriting or potential success of those loans. "WaMu built its conveyor belt of toxic mortgages to feed Wall Street's appetite for mortgage backed securities," Levin said. "To keep the conveyor belt running and feed the securitization machine on Wall Street, Washington Mutual engaged in lending practices that created a mortgage time bomb."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 13, 2010

Tue Apr. 13, 2010 10:28 AM EDT

 

US Army Soldiers walk with Afghan children through the village of HeydarKheyl in Sayed-Abad district in Afghanistan's Wardak province, on March 25, 2010. Photo via the US Army by Sgt. Russell Gilchrest.

Fiji Water's Giant Parent Co. Tells David What's What

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 8:04 PM EDT

The billionaire owners of Fiji Water, whose greenwashing we covered last year, are in the courts again, but not for resisting Fijian taxes. This time, they're busy trying to squash a David who's making trouble for their Goliath pistachio business. As the Associated Press reports, Persian immigrant Ali Amin is suing Fiji Water's CEOs, Lynda and Stuart Resnick, for illegally making money off of their taxpayer-funded water reservoir:

As drought has hammered the region, leading farmers to abandon their dry fields, the Resnicks' 48% stake in the Kern Water Bank, and underground pool that stores billions of gallons of freshwater, has become increasingly valuable... Amin's lawsuit alleges he lost $22 million in revenue when growers lured by water supplies sold their nuts to the Resnicks' plant, which processes almost two-thirds of the nation's pistachios. Amin controls about 5 percent of the market.

After Amin's suit was filed, two of Resnick's companies filed a federal suit in Los Angeles against Amin, his processing plant and his agricultural consultant, alleging Amin's plant engaged in false advertising that Resnick's companies to suffer up to $15 million in damages. 'There are very jealous people out there,' Lynda Resnick said. 'But we usually win because we have such good in-house counsel.'

That's Lynda Resnick for you, always direct. Although I'm surprised she has such "good in-house" counsel as she's tweeted our groundbreaking 2009 investigation (which I fact-checked) was "a load of lies and misconceptions" and a "total fabrication": both statements could easily be considered slander. Another priceless quote, from the article excerpted above: "We've done more for the pistachio than anyone ever since it was planted in the Garden of Eden... My husband should be canonized for all the work he's done." Yes, canonized, for processing nuts. Oy. The Resnicks may not mind making extravagant statements, but they do seem to notice some bad publicity. Their latest ad for POM Wonderful pomegranate juice is being quickly pulled after Chicago residents expressed concern. The "concern" being that the bottle has a noose around its neck, reminding many residents of, well, nooses which were used for things other than tying bottles of juice. With their pomegranates, pistachios, and mandarin oranges, the Resnicks may be agribusiness giants, but their trees certainly bear some strange fruit.

 

 

Bob McDonnell's Next Target: Felon Voting Rights

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 5:30 PM EDT

You can learn a lot about a political culture by how it approaches problems that don’t actually exist. For instance, while there's little evidence to suggest that rehabilitated felons exert an undue influence on our political process, many states have made registering to vote into the rough equivalent of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. If you're a former felon living in Mississippi, for example, you have to convince both houses of the state legislature to pass a bill specifically granting you the right to vote in state and local elections. Or, more likely, you won't even try—which is kind of the point. In Virginia, felons can vote only with the approval of the governor.

But don't worry, Virginia, because new Gov. Bob McDonnell is on the case. From the Washington Post:

McDonnell (R) will require the offenders to submit an essay outlining their contributions to society since their release, turning a nearly automatic process into a subjective one that some say may prevent poor, less-educated or minority residents from being allowed to vote.

Dem Rep. Perriello: Health Care Lawsuits Are "Appropriate"

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 3:30 PM EDT

Democratic leaders have slammed the effort by 14 states to bring lawsuits against health care reform as "frivolous," a waste of taxpayer money, and a political gambit by media-hungry state officials. But some vulnerable Dems who supported health care reform can't afford to be so scathing. Take Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), who describes these legal efforts as "an appropriate gesture," even while maintaining his own support for the health care law.

In a telephone town hall meeting with constituents last Wednesday, Perriello tried to assure irate callers that he didn't dispute Virginia's right to challenge the Affordable Care Act in court. "I support [the state's] right to bring it," Perriello told incensed constituents, referring to the lawsuit led by state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. "I know some think it's a waste of taxpayer money, but…it's why it's appropriate to have an independent judicial branch."

Perriello never backed off his own defense of the health care law: he explained why he thought the mandate was constitutional and spent the rest of the call explaining reform's benefits to constituents. But as a prime Republican target in a swing district—and with eight GOP candidates vying to oppose him, backed by an upsurge in Tea Party activism—Perriello needs to defuse the opposition without alienating independent voters. Likewise, Sen. Ben Nelson—another Democrat under attack in his home state of Nebraska for supporting health reform—has also welcomed the challenges to the law, according to a state paper.

Both Democrats are trying to take the edge off the Tea Party hysteria without ceding any ground on the merits of reform. That's a delicate balancing act—one that suggests that Dems defending conservative-leaning seats see their health care vote as a serious cause for concern as the elections approach.

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Mark Fiore Picks Up a Pulitzer

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 3:00 PM EDT

Big congratulations are in order for Mark Fiore on just winning a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. Mark started doing his sly, jam-packed animated cartoons back when online poltical cartooning was just kicking off and way before Flash movies became cool. We're proud that Mark's work has appeared weekly on the MoJo website for years. (We can't claim him all to ourselves, however; his work also runs on newspaper websites like the San Francisco Chronicle's, which officially gets Pulitzer bragging rights, being a newspaper and all. If you haven't watched Mark's stuff, you're in for a treat. Browse his past work here, or watch his recent takes on the Vatican sex scandal, how to talk like a Teabagger, and closeted homophobic pols. Congrats again, Mark!

UPDATE: Extra props to Mark for being a self-syndicated cartoonist and for nominating himself for the Pulitzer.

Conan O'Brien to TBS: Is It the Internets?

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 2:23 PM EDT

Conan O'Brien going to TBS—that is, basic cable? What's next? AM radio? As news spread that O'Brien was not going to hook up with Fox, as expected, and had signed a five-year deal with TBS to host a daily show at 11:00 pm, observers wondered why he had opted for off-off Broadway. Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz tweeted, "TBS seems like a small stage for Conan, but maybe he'll have a lot more freedom than at a broadcast net." But The Los Angeles Times reported that O'Brien's deal with TBS will give him ownership of the show—and "give him the potential to make a lot more money then if he were just a hired hand hosting a show owned by a network."

Mo' money is usually a good incentive. I wonder, though, if O'Brien also had another reason. I'm not intimately familiar with all his thinking on these matters. But I did once bump into him (literally) at ABC Carpet in New York City. So I think I may have some insight to share: O'Brien has seen the future, and it's—brace yourself!—the Internets.

These days, a big launching pad—say, a network television show—is not as necessary as it once was for anyone looking to grab hold of the nation's imagination, or funny bone. A joke, a funny bit, a video—all of this can now be seen by as many people on-line as on-couch. (SNL got its groove back once its jabs became easily shared via email links and were no longer confined to an audience of late-night hipsters, slackers, and Boomer insomniacs.) O'Brien only requires that some outfit give him a decent stage for the TV version of his laff-fest; then he'll be able to reach plenty of Cocoheads via websites, Twitter, and whatever comes next. And while porn has long produced profits on the web, there's a good chance that in-demand funny people will figure out how to do that before, say, newspapers do.

On the web, the name on the marquee is all that counts. If you have a brand—or are a brand—you can transcend the entity that hosts you. O'Brien doesn't need the reach of one of the dinosaur networks. TBS will provide the booster rocket, but O'Brien has the juice, thanks to the opportunity provided by all those connected computers across the planet, to take his show (think of it as an enterprise) into orbit.

So TBS can thank DARPA for making this possible. (Yes, more evidence of your tax dollars at work.) Then again, maybe it was the money. You should have seen the stuff that O'Brien was eying at ABC Carpet.

Ethics Award for MoJo Scribe

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 2:00 PM EDT

Mother Jones contributor Scott Carney took top honors in this year's Payne Awards for Ethics in Journalism, established in 1999 by the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication "to honor the journalist of integrity and character who reports with insight and clarity in the face of political or economic pressures and to reward performance that inspires public trust in the media."

In "Meet the Parents," which appeared in our March/April 2009 issue, Carney followed the paper trail of a child who was kidnapped from his parents in the slums of Chennai, India, and sold by the kidnappers to a corrupt orphanage—which then worked with an American agency to adopt the child to an unwitting Midwestern family.

Although more than a decade had passed since the kidnapping, the glacial pace of India's bureaucracy, along with a tangle of confidentiality laws, left the impoverished Indian parents with little hope of ever contacting their son. After months of research involving hundreds of such cases, Carney travelled to the United States, and was the first person to make contact with the adoptive family. According to the press release anouncing the award: 

The Payne Awards judges applauded not only Carney's exhaustive research but his willingness to engage in the story in a personal way and to reveal that in his writing. "He consciously recognized that he was part of the story—in fact, his participation was part of the story," the judges' statement reads. "The story included a number of ethical crossroads—and it is clear that these decisions were carefully considered."

The only other award went to Wall Street Journal bureau chief Farnaz Fassihi, for "thorough, fair, honest and courageous reporting in producing a body of work that puts a human face on the crisis in Iran." From the announcement:

"Although the stories are different, both of these journalists immersed themselves in complex, difficult situations in order to find the truth and serve the public interest," Tim Gleason, Edwin L. Artzt Dean and chair of the Payne Awards judging panel, said on behalf of the judges. "One of the core elements of great journalism is the reporter’s willingness to struggle with complex stories to make sense of them for their readers. Sometimes that includes putting oneself at risk—physically or emotionally. In either case, you do this because you know that is the right thing to do. That is the definition of an ethical journalist. In these particular cases, the work demonstrates care, not just about getting the story, but about the people in those stories."

Carney, a contributing editor at Wired, also has a pair of must-read features in our current issue: "Inside India's Rent-a Womb Business" brings the writer to Anand, Mumbai, and Delhi as he looks into the growing business—and moral ambiguities—of surrogacy tourism. For "The Temple of Do," Carney sacrifices his hair at a Hindu temple as part of his exploration into the humble origins of a lucrative beauty product. Clearly, for Carney, the story comes before his own personal comfort.

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Your Taxes and War

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 1:50 PM EDT

If you're an average American taxpayer, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have, since 2001, cost you personally $7,334, according to the "cost of war" counter created by the National Priorities Project (NPP). They have cost all Americans collectively more than $980,000,000,000. As a country, we'll pass the trillion dollar mark soon. These are staggering figures and, despite the $72.3 billion that Congress has already ponied up for the Afghan War in 2010 ($136.8 billion if you add in Iraq), the administration is about to go back to Congress for more than $35 billion in outside-the-budget supplemental funds to cover the president's military and civilian Afghan surges. When that passes, as it surely will, the cumulative cost of the Afghan War alone will hit $300 billion, and we'll be heading for two trillion-dollar wars.

In the meantime, just so you know, that $300 billion, according to the NPP, could have paid for healthcare for 131,780,734 American children for a year, or for 53,872,201 students to receive Pell Grants of $5,550, or for the salaries and benefits of 4,911,552 elementary school teachers for that same year.