Saturday, June 18, 2011

"You will always be a Superhero to me, Tony ..."

Sometimes, you really don't know the role you play in other people's lives ... really ... I took some time to write and think about this post before actually letting anyone else read some of my thoughts. It hasn't been the easiest thing to write but here it goes ...
Recently, I left a job I loved to try something new and different in the same field. For slightly more than four years, I was the editor of the Belmont Citizen-Herald in Belmont, Mass. I commuted between New Hampshire and Massachusetts, four to five times a week, working out of the GateHouse Media New England Lexington office. I spent anywhere from two to three hours in the car, spending thousands of dollars on gas, just to get to work. People used to shake their heads at me sometimes when I would talk about my love of journalism and how I didn't care about the commute ("There are 3,500 songs on my iPhone," I would say ...). Crazy, insane, sure, but when you love your job, you love your job (here is a link to my goodbye column, if anyone is interested in reading it: "Schinella: Goodbye to Belmont again").
I've been working in media for a long time. I kinda stumbled into it by accident after working long stints in retail, some political jobs and political efforts (mostly Dems and progressive indies), and both free and paid radio, etc.
I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I had experimented with all kinds of jobs and interests. I had done everything I ever wanted to do and journalism was one of those things on the list of things I wanted to do.
Before going back to the Citizen-Herald in 2007, I worked at WKXL radio in Concord. Before that, I was the editor of The Winchester Star, in Winchester, Mass., and was the reporter at the Citizen-Herald. I had spent 13 years doing radio at WMFO, the Tufts community FM station, and WUNR, a foreign language radio station. I hosted talk shows on both stations and also played various kinds of music. I also published my own nationally distributed music fanzine off and on for six years. I was in and out of various music groups, put out my own records and CDs, and played on a ton of other musicians' projects. And before and during all of that, I would write columns and letters wondering if anyone was really reading anything or thinking about new and different ways of doing things.
I had always loved journalism as a reader; so I was overwhelmed by it when I started doing it for work.
That is one of the reasons why I'm so excited that I have this new opportunity with AOL's Concord NH Patch site (
One of the reasons I love working in journalism is the reaction people have about what you do. For the most part, it has been positive for me. Even the "negative" stories get a positive reaction because you're exposing corruption, fraud, or whatever. That's part of the job.
Another example is this: The reaction from literally hundreds of people after announcing my departure from the Citizen-Herald in May. Like I said at the beginning of this post, you really don't know what role you play in people's lives ... until you leave. Seriously, hundreds of emails, phone calls, notes online, and personal well wishes. It was shocking, actually, and, for a few fleeting moments I wondered, "What the hell am I doing?"
Some were so surprised I was leaving, literally screaming "Noooo!!!" or "What?!" in their email messages ... Most were pretty standard "Good luck" ... "You've done a great job" ... "You'll be missed" ... "It's such a loss" ... etc., as well as a ton of thank yous ... all heartfelt and touching notes that really moved me to no end.
Most of the nasty people, thankfully, stayed silent, which was nice. I personally liked a lot of them and found them to be colorful, thoughtful, and even brilliant people, if they weren't such nasty human beings (aren't a lot of people nasty human beings these days? So sad!). Most, generalizing, had two basic problems: A complete lack of understanding about what it means to be a journalist or were simply being spoiled brats.
There is nothing you can do about the latter. I was surprised though about how little empathy some readers - many of my generation, many with supposedly "liberal" or "progressive" values or thoughts - looked at things and acted upon them. "Me, me, me, mine, mine, mine," all the time, without any forethought of how their demands harmed other people, often in the name of children.
The former was pretty shocking, especially for an over-stimulated - and, in many cases, over-educated - class of people, who have become so polarized by their own personal beliefs of what the facts are that, in many cases, they have no idea what the facts truly are (these are the nasty, crazy people I am speaking of, not everyone in Belmont). Some had deep mental health or emotional issues - which was depressing and sad. Many others were users or "fair weather friends," if you will, who would quickly turn on a dime on anything (you get used to that in this business though ...).
I could write a book about the town ... and maybe I will someday. I don't know.
But overall, what a positive, nurturing experience it was covering Belmont. And you can see that in all of the goodbye comments and notes people sent. I mean, wow ... here are a few that really hit me the hardest.
First, this one woman, a very good source and a great community asset, wrote:
"I haven't written because I've been so distraught that you are leaving. Good for you.. bad for us. You really have been a joy - your savvy, your irreverence, your sense of humor and your intelligence. Award winning doesn't begin to cover it. You are fearless. You will always be a Superhero to me, Tony, with the cape and tights. Thank you."
I started crying when I got that one. Who is this person you speak of, I thought? That's not me, is it?!? Yeah, sometimes, I would joke that I'm "Super Tony, I can do anything!" But it's just a joke, it's not, well, real ... Later, I ran into this person and together, we could barely contain the tears ... part sadness, part joy, all humanity ...
Here's another from Ruth Foster, this amazing 80-plus-year-old woman in
Belmont who wrote the newspaper's great gardening column. She ended her June 2, column by writing:
"I cannot end without a sad goodbye to my Belmont Citizen-Herald Editor, Tony Schinella. It has been a pleasure to have been a columnist for him. Over the years, I have had many editors, starting 35 years ago at the Christian Science Monitor, then the Boston Globe, and many magazines. Only a very few editors are real newspaper people. These professionals can make a story come alive. They intimately know the politics, the groups, their agendas, and the people of the town they cover. Tony is one (of) these very few. He is a true, talented and analytical professional. Belmont will greatly miss his historical knowledge and journalistic insight."
Wow. This, from a former Globe scribe, some of the nastiest human beings in the business who treated me like dirt when I was politically involved in Boston during the 1980s and 1990s. Amazing.
One of our other columnists, Tony Oberdorfer, also wrote kind things and thanked me for not ceding to pressure from some of the liberals in town to ban his column. As I always said to him and others, "I'm not in the censorship business, I'm in the freedom business."
Good journalism is about freedom, and not in the political sense but in the personal liberty sense. Everyone should learn to embrace what others feel and think so that you can learn more about the people around you. You also learn more about yourself. And the more information you take in, the more educated your own decisions and opinions are. And yes, everyone should listen to everyone else too! But we don't censor people; we don't tell them to shut up and go away; we don't tell them to move if they can't afford whatever thing you want. That defeats the entire purpose of being in the communication and information business.
For all the talk about our business "dying" one has to wonder. Not only with the new gig but the response from the old gig, people really do care about what they absorb and what they read. They want to know what is going on around them. And we - both journalists and the corporations that we work for - have a responsibility to deliver it to them in a healthy, responsible, and meaningful way. We shouldn't be cheating them or punishing them with financial tricks or some of the crap we have seen on Wall Street or in board rooms in the past decade or so. This is journalism, it's information, it's important, more important than spreadsheets, percentages, etc.
So your supposedly superhero writer moves onto a new gig with AOL's Patch. I'm very excited about it. I encourage you to join me in following the site, checking out all the political news we'll be offering there, being a primary state and all. More about that and the future of later.

Waging Another Unconstitutional War

Guest Perspective By Ralph Nader
The meticulous Harvard Law Review editors should be rolling over in their footnotes. The recidivist violations of constitutional and statutory requirements by their celebrated predecessor at that journal – Barack Obama has reached Orwellian dimensions in the war against Libya.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fighting for FOIA

In the Public Interest By Ralph Nader

The 45th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) next month should remind all who have used this wonderful citizen tool against government secrecy and cover-ups of FOIA’s towering champion Congressman John Moss (D-Calif.). Last year alone, using John Moss’s brainchild, there were 597,415 separate FOIA requests filed with federal departments and agencies.

As a legislator, John Moss was a wonder of integrity, diligence, strategic and populist follow-through. Although Moss was not a lawyer, he read more bills cover to cover than most lawyers who were members of Congress.

As a freshmen legislator in Sacramento, he took on the powerful speaker of the state’s House of Representatives for having too much concentrated power. You can count on the fingers of both hands the number of new lawmakers who have done that anywhere in the 50-state legislatures over the past century. It usually means, at the least, the end of the upstart’s political career. Talk about courage.

Moss came to Congress in 1952 and by 1955, his 12 years of relentless drive for the public’s right to know was underway. He had to take on the corporate lobbies and their cushy relationship with the secrecy-loving bureaucrats, including their president Lyndon B. Johnson. Moss successfully built support in Congress and nationwide.

Later in 1974, I worked with Chairman Moss to advance the strengthening amendments that allowed judicial review of agency denials of information requests. Toughening the best freedom of information law in the world prompted each of the states to pass their own state freedom of information laws.

Before Moss and FOIA, the Navy Department refused to divulge to environmentalists the amount of sewage dumped into bays from naval bases. Seems that the Navy brass thought the Russians or Chinese, with such data, could figure out how many sailors were stationed at a particular base.

The Postmaster General kept secret public employee salaries. Americans could not access their FBI files. Meat and poultry inspection reports were often held in closed government files. In the foreign policy/military area, the national security state behaved as if secrecy was their birthright.

Each time you see a great segment on “60 Minutes,” or read exposés in the newspapers and magazines, chances are that they were made possible in part, if not in whole, by reporters using the FOIA. Americans learned about how far up the George W. Bush chain of command the torture policy in Iraq reached from an ACLU request under FOIA.

To be sure, federal agencies are known to delay or redact far more than they should. These agencies take more advantage of the specific exemptions in the FOIA than they should. But compared to the pre-FOIA laws, our ability to find out what the government is or is not doing is almost like night and day.

Our Freedom of Information Clearing House ( has filed dozens of lawsuits against government agencies for unlawful secrecy. We have won most of them and in the process, improved agency procedures. Our cases provided the evidence showing the need for the 1974 amendments to FOIA as well.

Coming from a humble background – his mother died when he was 12 years old - John Moss is an American hero. His 25 years in the House of Representatives was marked by leadership in the areas of consumer protection and a level of Congressional oversight of federal agencies, almost unknown by today’s abdicatory Congress.

His life should be a model for high school and college students. They should want to see how his singular character and personality put reality into the saying – “information is the currency of democracy,” rather than just following the latest peccadilloes of tawdry entertainment and sports celebrities.

Now the young and adults alike have the new book that does Chairman Moss overdue justice. From Michael R. Lemov, chief of the counsel to the Congressman’s two major subcommittees, comes People’s Warrior. This 237-page book covers the personal and professional life of Moss who believed in the political accountability of politicians. More than anyone else in Congress, he gave us a unique law that is invoked only by the desire of people or institutions in the U.S., and sometimes from outside the country. We are the ones who apply this law by using it and improving it.

Of all the legislators I have worked with, John Moss was the most no-nonsense craftsman of them all. Sitting in his office, one did not have to worry about his caving to commercial interests. He took on the auto industry lobbyists in shepherding the Magnuson-Moss Warranty bill through the House (for example, if you bought a lemon car, you can remedy your situation thanks to Moss and his formidable drive for justice.

In so doing, I recommend People’s Warrior especially for young people today, beset with cynicism about Congress or simply “turned off” from politics. The book is an awakening antidote that shows, not so long ago, that there were key members of Congress who made regular, significant decisions on behalf of the people. They were not “cash and carry” politicians as is the norm today at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Contract peonage

In the Public Interest By Ralph Nader
It is time to shine the light on the big, affluent corporate lawyers who anonymously create those non-competitive fine print contracts we all have to sign to purchase goods and services.

It’s time for an open letter to these Darth Vaders of business law who have destroyed our freedom of contract and built a new road to serfdom made of corporate cement.

Dear Attorneys for Contract Incarceration:

Remember when you were at law school studying contracts? Your professor pressed you socratically to understand Hadley vs. Baxendale et al. You spent just one or two classes on what are called "contracts of adhesion"—those fine print one-sided contracts that only make up 99% of all the contracts we’ll ever sign.

There they are—page after page exuding the silent message of "take it or leave it." If you "leave it", then you must cross the street to a competitor—an insurance company, credit card firm, bank, auto dealer, hospital, realtor, airline, student loan company or cell phone company, awaiting you is the same fine-print contract designed to nail you to the mast. Then there are the shrink-wrap software contracts you can't even see before you buy.

If your contracts professor bothered to explain why so little course time is spent on these standard form contracts involving trillions of dollars in annual sales, he/she might have used the French phrase—"fait accompli." After all, the consumer signed or acquiesced in some way. That met the basic principle of a binding contract, say the courts (with a rare exception now and then) which is a meeting of the minds between the willing seller and the willing buyer.

Discussion over! As a shopper, prepare for the daily coercive harmony.

Imagine all the times you’ve "met the minds" of Bank of America, Metropolitan, Aetna, General Motors, Wal-Mart, American Express, AT&T, Sallie Mae, U.S. Air and your favorite time-sharing company for that vacation trip to Antigua. What a myth!

In this legal fiction land, the law presumes that you’ve read the fine print and understood it. Inscrutability is no defense. It doesn’t matter that law professors, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts and your partners admit to not reading the dense legalese when they shop. Why waste their time? They can’t get out of contractual prison anymore than you can. But you make zillions figuring out how to lock millions of Americans into one-side anti-consumer contracts.

You misuse your intellect to create a modern contract straitjacket that gets tighter year by year. Your innovations are enforced by status-quo judges, credit ratings, credit scores and the absence of any competition over contracts between companies in the same industry.

The straitjacket is made of figurative steel fibers composed of enforceable words. Here is a partial list of your inventions which Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren aptly calls "mice type" the equivalent of "shrubbery for muggers!"

They include (1) seller's power to unilaterally change terms or assign the contract, (2) waiver provisions of the seller's liability and payment of seller's attorney fees, (3) acceleration and delinquency clauses, (4) binding arbitration and blocking the consumer's resort to the courts and right to jury trials, (5) liquidated damage clauses. On and on go the layers of incarceration.

Pretty clever maybe, but, you aren't being fair to the powerless consumers. Remember, you've got a professional code of ethics that informs you of the obligation sometimes to say no—enough already—to your demanding corporate clients even if they can always go to another law firm that they can pay handsomely to say yes. It can be, for you, a dilemma.

Listen, I've got an exit plan for those of you pondering quitting or retiring because you can no longer stand destroying peoples' freedom of contract—one of the main pillars of our democracy—with their consequential losses of money, time, health and safety.

Come to the other side. A movement for consumer contract justice is heading your way. Don't laugh as General Motors once did in the Nineteen Sixties. Don't think that the complexity of these fine prints cannot be communicated to the buying public. ABC's Peter Jennings showed the opposite with a crisp five part TV series a few years ago. This fall, a sure best seller by David Cay Johnston titled "The Fine Print" is coming out. He has prior best sellers on tax laws that clarify the abstruse to arouse readers.

There is a huge compression of repression and resentment ready to be unleashed and converted into a widely perceived injustice. Ridding themselves of the feeling that "that's the way it is," this consumer uprising will be holding you and your companies responsible by name.

Quit and join the right side of the coming historical change breaking the chains of contract bondage. Bring your knowhow and stored archives (names redacted) of "mice type" to, directed by the relentless lawyer, Theresa Amato. Soon!

Your brother in law,
Ralph Nader, Esq.