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Best of Coachella Valley

Best of Coachella Valley 2019-2020: Readers' Picks

Best of Coachella Valley 2019-2020: Readers' Picks

Nov 25, 2019 09:00  |  Staff

Every year, when late August rolls around, and we start the first round of Best of Coachella Valley voting, the results announcement seems so far away.

Yet … the next three months fly by—and while the ...

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Best of Coachella Valley 2019-2020: Staff Picks

Best of Coachella Valley 2019-2020: Staff Picks

Nov 25, 2019 08:59  |  Staff

Best Band to Help You Learn Spanish

Ocho Ojos

In all honesty, the only Spanish words I—a decidedly white guy—know are lyrics to Ocho Ojos songs.

Following a last-minute booking at Coachella in 2017, and ...

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Love and Fun Energy: DJ Galaxy, a Regular at the Valley's LGBT Venues, Is Voted Best Local DJ

Love and Fun Energy: DJ Galaxy, a Regular at the Valley's LGBT Venues, Is Voted Best Local DJ

Nov 25, 2019 08:59  |  Matt King

DJ Galaxy—aka Vincent Corrales—is a ubiquitous name at clubs and events all over the Coachella Valley, and he has performed at pride events all over the United States.

How ubiquitous? He doesn’t just h...

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Best of Coachella Valley 2018-2019: Readers' Picks

Best of Coachella Valley 2018-2019: Readers' Picks

Nov 26, 2018 09:00  |  Staff

This whole process started back in August, when voting began in the first round of the fifth annual Best of Coachella Valley readers’ poll.

Now, after three months, two rounds of voting and ballots fro...

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Best of Coachella Valley 2018-2019: Staff Picks

Best of Coachella Valley 2018-2019: Staff Picks

Nov 26, 2018 08:59  |  Staff

Best Auto Service for Honesty’s Sake

Cam Stone’s Automotive

Cam Stone’s Automotive in Palm Desert is the kind of auto-service shop every woman dreams of—at least women (and men) like me who know little ...

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Building Kids Now: The Boys and Girls Clubs of Coachella Valley Make The Lives of 6,000 Children in La Quinta, Indio, Coachella and Mecca Better Every Year

Building Kids Now: The Boys and Girls Clubs of Coachella Valley Make The Lives of 6,000 Children in La Quinta, Indio, Coachella and Mecca Better Every Year

Nov 26, 2018 08:59  |  Kevin Fitzgerald

On a recent sunny but cool weekday afternoon, more than 200 children and teens, ages 7 to 18, were busy inside the President Gerald R. Ford Clubhouse at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Coachella Valley in...

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A Family Matter: Avenida Music's Success Has Been Part of the Plan Since Before Most of the Members Were Even Born

A Family Matter: Avenida Music's Success Has Been Part of the Plan Since Before Most of the Members Were Even Born

Nov 26, 2018 08:59  |  Brian Blueskye

For Avenida Music—voted as the Best Local Band by readers of the Independent in the annual Best of Coachella Valley poll—music revolves around family.

The band includes three brothers—and may be the only...

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The Kids Are Alright: Frank Eats the Floor's Matt King, 17, Is Pleasantly Surprised to Be the Readers' Choice as the Best Local Musician

The Kids Are Alright: Frank Eats the Floor's Matt King, 17, Is Pleasantly Surprised to Be the Readers' Choice as the Best Local Musician

Nov 26, 2018 08:59  |  Brian Blueskye

Matt King of Frank Eats the Floor was shocked when he learned he was voted Best Local Musician by the readers of the Coachella Valley Independent —beating out local greats including Giselle Woo and last...

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If being on social media weren’t an important part of my job, I’d be taking a break from Facebook right now.

Why? Frankly … I could use a break from all of the hysterics.

Let me make one thing clear: Now is a time when hysterics are understandable. Many of us are hurting. We’re broke. Or we’re tired. Or we’re watching our dreams die. Or we’re freaked the heck out. However … seeing this all play out, in contradictory fashion, within consecutive Facebook posts, is exhausting.

First post: A friend of mine owns a nail salon. He’s freaking out because his business, his dream, is dying. He thinks he should be allowed to reopen, because he took all the appropriate safety measures when his salon was allowed to reopen, and all went well. Nobody got sick. He made things safe, he says. He’s hurting. His employees are hurting. He’s in hysterics.

Next post: A local acquaintance is beside herself with anger and frustration because of all the people she sees roaming around downtown Palm Springs without masks. She calls not only for a shutdown of the hotels and vacation rentals; she also calls for a shutdown of all non-essential businesses, period. She’s tired of people she knows getting sick. She’s afraid. She’s in hysterics.

The gut-wrenching thing about these posts is that they’re completely contradictory … and they’re both entirely valid. I could give a half-dozen similar examples of this dichotomy each day from Facebook—but I probably don’t need to, because you’ve seen them yourselves.

Ugh, this goddamned pandemic.

Today’s news links:

• The Los Angeles Times looks at the myriad reasons that COVID-19 patients are now dying at a lower rate. One encouraging reason: Doctors and hospitals have learned a lot about treating the disease over the last five-plus months.

The director of the California Department of Public Health, Dr. Sonia Angell, stepped down yesterday. Interestingly, nobody is saying why she resigned—although it happened after the state’s embarrassing COVID-19 reporting-system problems were revealed last week.

• Related: Gov. Newsom said today California’s COVID-19 case numbers are indeed trending in the right direction, after the state worked over the weekend to resolve that aforementioned data mess.

• I debated whether or not I should even share this, given 1) the still-being-resolved state data mess, and 2) the fact I have yet to get a proper explanation from the county on how the weekly positivity rate is calculated … but anyway, here’s this week’s county District 4 report. (District 4 is the Coachella Valley and points eastward.) The good news: Hospitalizations are way down. The awful news: Another 14 of our neighbors have died from COVID-19. Also, that weekly positivity rate is as high as I can ever remember it being, even though Eisenhower Health says its positivity rate has been moving downward. So, I am a bit confused.

• From our partners at CalMatters: How are unemployed Californians getting by after the expiration of benefits from the federal government?Without an expired federal $600 weekly boost, unemployed Californians are living on the brink by making candy and emptying out their 401(k)s.

• How is it possible to make indoor spaces safer from the spread of SARS-CoV-2? A professor of mechanical engineering, writing for The Conversation, says the keys are ventilation with outside air, and air filtration.

• MedPage Today covered a talk given Friday by the president of the American Medical Association—and among other key takeaways, Dr. Susan Bailey bemoaned the dismissal of science in many of the policy decisions surrounding the coronavirus. Key quote: “Politics should have no place in a public health crisis, but I think we all understand that, sadly, that’s not the world we're living in today,” she said. “As physicians, we have to stand up for science and make sure it's at the center of our policy decisions.”

In opinion piece for The New York Times, a medical expert and an economic expert—the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, respectivelycalled for a six-week nationwide lockdown, to both save lives and cause as little ongoing harm as possible to the economy. Key quote: “The United States recorded its lowest seven-day average since March 31 on May 28, when it was 21,000 cases, or 6.4 new cases per 100,000 people per day. This rate was seven to 10 times higher than the rates in countries that successfully contained their new infections. While many countries are now experiencing modest flare-ups of the virus, their case loads are in the hundreds or low thousands of infections per day, not tens of thousands, and small enough that public health officials can largely control the spread.”

A columnist for the Los Angeles Times offers a warning: “Payroll tax cut” means the same thing as “cutting funding to Social Security.” Well, if he gets a second term, Trump has said he wants to “terminate” the payroll tax … which, therefore, means terminating Social Security.

This lead from the Riverside Press-Enterprise made me despair for the future of humanity: “More than a dozen Southern California parents, from the Inland Empire to the Los Angeles County coast, have joined forces in a lawsuit against several California officials—arguing that barring in-person classes this fall will hurt students, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”

Adding to this despair comes this headline from the Los Angeles Times: “Coronavirus surging among children, teenagers in California.”

More despair, with a side of alarm, is created by this headline, from CNBC: “TSA: July air travel down 75 percent from 2019, but gun confiscation rates triple.” Key quote: “Eighty percent of the guns were loaded, TSA said.” What?!

• The federal residential eviction moratorium expired in July and has not yet been extended. That means evictions in some parts of the country are under way. NBC News looks at the mess with evictions taking place in South Carolina. Horrifying key quote: “In South Carolina alone, 52 percent of renter households can't pay their rent and are at risk of eviction, according to an analysis of census data by the consulting firm Stout Risius Ross. About 185,000 evictions could be filed in the state over the next four months.”

• This is sort of ironic: Amazon is talking to a large, national mall company about turning some shuttered J.C. Penney and Sears locations into fulfillment centers. It’s sort of like the start of the WALL-E story coming to life, no?

If you are a student within or employee of the University of California system, and you don’t have an approved medical exemption, you’re going to need to get a flu shot by Nov. 1.

• There’s currently a moratorium on executions in the state of California. However, as the San Francisco Chronicle is pointing out, the coronavirus is serving as an executioner by killing death-row inmates at San Quentin.

• Related, and much less morally vexing: The virus is also killing people who work at prisons. And case counts are spiking at youth prisons.

• The college football season is in jeopardy. According to ESPN, the five largest college football conferences are seriously considering cancelling college sports this fall, because of a serious medical condition linked to COVID-19. Key quote: “Myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, has been found in at least five Big Ten Conference athletes and among several other athletes in other conferences, according to two sources with knowledge of athletes’ medical care. Two Football Bowl Subdivision conferences have already postponed or cancelled fall sports.

• Meanwhile, Disney World is cutting back its hours because of disappointing attendance figures. Maybe there’s hope for humanity after all

• The New York Times reports that the Trump administration is getting ready to roll back yet more environmental protectionsthis time, controls on the release of methane.

• Oh, look, some happy local news! From the Independent: The Palm Springs Public Arts Commission just finished funding the painting of another 10 downtown benches by local artists—and has a call out to artists to do another 16 benches. We talked to a couple of locals involved with the project.

That’s enough for the day. Hey, you: This Daily Digest and all of our journalism, in both print and pixels, costs money to produce—yet we make it free to everyone, without paywalls or fees. If you can spare it (and ONLY if you can spare it), and you appreciate what we do, please consider throwing us a few bucks by becoming a Supporter of the Independent. OK? Thank you, and be safe.

Published in Daily Digest

It’s now the law: Californians must wear face coverings while they’re in public.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the mandate—something this newspaper called on the governor to do two days ago—earlier today, as confirmed COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise.

More people are hospitalized in Riverside County—which rescinded a mask order on May 9—and the Coachella Valley with COVID-19 than ever before. The number of hospitalizations in Riverside County rose by almost 11 percent in one day, to 285, as of yesterday. In the Coachella Valley, also as of yesterday, the three hospitals reported 108 COVID-19 patients, up from a previous all-time high of 103 the day before.

The statewide order replaces a patchwork mess of local orders—some cities and counties required masks, while others didn’t, leading to a lot of confusion. It also takes the pressure off of beleaguered county health officials—at least seven of which have quit their jobs in recent weeks, in part because of angry reactions from the public.

The importance of the order is bolstered by an increasing amount of science indicating that the use of masks can make a huge difference in slowing the spread of COVID-19.

While some people’s minds won’t be changed by the new state law, others’ minds will be changed. Our partners at CalMatters, reporting on the news of the day, talked to a Sacramento woman, Wendy Valdez, who was not wearing a mask while she shopped at a grocery store. “Her reasoning: It wasn’t required at the time,” CalMatters reported. “But if it were, she said, she’d wear it. ‘I just got my hair done and they required it, so I wore one,’ she said.”

This face-covering order is a big deal. It’ll decrease the amount of time overwhelmed local business owners need to spend acting as the “mask police”—and it’ll save lives. To repeat what we said two days ago: California’s reopening process has a much better chance of succeeding now.

Thank you, Gov. Newsom.

Just a few more items from the day:

• I was on the I Love Gay Palm Springs Podcast today—you can hear me rant about the need for a statewide mask order before Newsom’s announcement—along with hosts John Taylor and Shann Carr, and guests Bryan Gallo, of NBC Palm Springs; Will Dean, of the Desert Healthcare District; LaShawn McGhee, co-founder of Revry TV; and actress Allie McCarthy, who stars in a Palm Springs International ShortFest film.

Airlines are beginning to crack down on the need for face coverings during flights. This has led, alas, to some drama.

• Speaking of face masks: While scientists virtually all agree that they’re effective, they’re arguing about how effective they are. Buzzfeed News looks at a letter more than 40 scientists sent to a journal, asking them to retract a paper written by Nobel Prize-winning chemist regarding their effectiveness.

Facebook today removed advertisements placed by the Trump campaign that, according to The New York Times, “prominently featured a symbol used by Nazis to classify political prisoners during World War II, saying the imagery violated company policy.” Wow.

We’ll be back tomorrow with an expanded Daily Digest. In the meantime, wash your hands; fight injustice; and wear a mask, because it’s the law. Please consider becoming a Supporter of the Independent if you have the means, and you value the quality local journalism that we do. Thank you.

Published in Daily Digest

In yesterday’s Daily Digest, I mentioned that I’d ask Riverside County officials about the alarmingly high COVID-19 positivity rate, as reported on the county’s latest weekly District 4 report. (District 4 consists of the Coachella Valley and extends over to Blythe.)

To repeat what I wrote yesterday: “The positivity rate is up to a disturbing 16 percent. However … if you divide the number of positives (345) by the number of tests (4,840), you get the positivity rate—and while the report explains that there’s a lag because tests results can take 3-5 days to come in, the difference between 345 divided by 4,840, or 7.1 percent, and 16 percent is so massive that it doesn’t seem possible for all these numbers to be correct; it’s also entirely possible I am misunderstanding something.”

Today, Jose Arballo Jr., the Riverside University Health System-Public Health’s information officer, responded to my query—and he confirmed that I am misunderstanding something: Arballo said he checked with the county’s epidemiologists, and they confirmed the 16 percent positivity rate was correct.

“They take their information based on the dates the tests are actually performed,” Arballo said.

Arballo asked if that made sense; I said it sort of did, but not really. He then kindly offered to have one of the experts call me; I thanked him, but said that wasn’t necessary.

The reason it wasn’t necessary: While I may be confused about how the positivity-rate number came to be, the larger point is crystal clear—the virus is here, and it’s spreading, and we all need to do what we can to slow the damn thing down.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have reached a new high in Riverside County. So, too, have Coachella Valley hospitalizations—up to 103, as of the latest numbers reported to the state.

Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Write the county Board of Supervisors and Gov. Newsom’s office to encourage them to make masks mandatory. Things are heading in the wrong direction—and lives are at stake. 

Today’s news:

• Well, Riverside County is officially on the state’s watch list due to “elevated disease transmission.” Read about what that means here.

• The big Coachella Valley news of the day: The downtown Palm Springs arena is officially on hold, thanks to the pandemic. The plan, apparently, is to get past COVID-19, and then figure things out from there.

• About 1,000 restaurants in Los Angeles County—or half of the restaurants the county health department visited last weekend—were not complying with rules aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, according to NBC4 Los Angeles.

Riverside County has created a mobile testing team. “The team, made up of nurses, emergency medical technicians and paramedics, set(s) up testing locations for one or two days as needed then quickly move(s) on to another site, said Kim Saruwatari, director of Riverside County Public Health.” Read more in the press release

• Tenet—the parent company of the Desert Care Network (aka Desert Regional, JFK Memorial and the Hi Desert Medical Center)—is being sued by four emergency-room nurses who were fired from a Detroit hospital. They claim they were fired because they spoke out about patient-safety matters during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Wall Street Journal yesterday did an interesting roundup of the latest science regarding COVID-19 transmission. Key quote: “The major culprit is close-up, person-to-person interactions for extended periods. Crowded events, poorly ventilated areas and places where people are talking loudly—or singing, in one famous case—maximize the risk.”

• If/when a vaccine does come, “vaccine nationalism”—a fight over which countries get the doses first and fastest—could be a real problem. A doctor, writing for The Conversation, explains.

This lede, from a CNN story, just made me sigh and want an adult beverage: “The federal government is stuck with 63 million doses of hydroxychloroquine now that the US Food and Drug Administration has revoked permission for the drug to be distributed to treat coronavirus patients.”

• There was talk at one point of moving the U.S. Open tennis tourney to Indian Wells. Well, that’s not gonna happen; instead, the plan for it is to stay in New Yorkand be played sans fans.

• ProPublica yesterday published an extensive piece on the death of Phillip Garcia, a 51-year-old in Riverside County Sheriff’s Department custody. The subheadline “Phillip Garcia was in psychiatric crisis. In jail and in the hospital, guards responded with force and restrained the 51-year-old inmate for almost 20 hours, until he died.” It’s a tough but important read.

• The CNBC headline: “Millions of Health Workers Are Exempt From Coronavirus Paid Sick Leave Law, Study Finds.” The problems: Not only does this create an enormous burden on workers; it means they’re more likely to come to work sick.

• From the Independent: We’re talking to three local protest organizers about their motivations; for the third piece, we talked to Areli Galvez, a member of the Young Justice Advocates who wowed the crowd with her speech at the group’s “Enough Is Enough” protest in Palm Springs. Key quote: “We go through the issues of racism and being racially profiled all the time. We got together, and we were like, ‘We’re tired of this; we need to change. We need to come together. We need to show that we are equal and deserve all the same rights as everyone else.’”

• Donald Trump and other conservative leaders keep talking about the dangers of ANTIFA causing problems during otherwise-peaceful protest. However, authorities say it’s actually a right-wing, white-supremacist movement that’s a threat, sometimes called the “boogaloo bois.” 

• Let’s end with a few tidbits of good news: The Boy Scouts of America are creating a “diversity and inclusion” badge that will be a requirement to reach Eagle Scout status.

• And finally, Facebook head honcho Mark Zuckerberg said users will be able to soon turn off political ads. Can we turn off the Russian bots, too?

That’s enough for today. If you value independent local journalism, and have the means to do so, please consider becoming a Supporter of the Independent. We’re on print deadline here at Independent World Headquarters, so the Daily Digest may or may not be back tomorrow—but we’ll be back Friday for sure.

Published in Daily Digest

Hey, everybody. How was your long weekend?

I slept in. I made some pork chops with some amazing fruit I picked up Saturday at the Palm Springs Certified Farmers’ Market. I took a lovely, mask-on walk through downtown Palm Springs. I had drinks—socially distanced—with friends in a backyard. So, all in all, it was pretty good.

Well, except for the parts when I watched members of our community pointlessly tear each other to shreds on Facebook.

Look … I get it: We’re all facing down a series of interconnected threats that are truly life or death matters: The virus, the effects of the lockdown, livelihoods, etc. This is serious shit.

But … does going on social media and attacking each other really do anyone any good?

I personally find the reopening process to be scary and exciting and disturbing and wonderful all at once. I am scared that it may be happening too soon. I am excited to see out-of-work friends getting their jobs back. I find it disturbing to see pictures of throngs of people in close proximity without masks. I find it wonderful to drive through parts of our valley and see life again.

I’ve never had such mixed feelings before about anything. Really. I suspect a lot of you feel the same way.

Regardless: It would behoove us all to remember that, save a few psychopaths and ne’er-do-wells, all of us are on the same team. We all want to be able to get together again. We all want jobs and stores and concerts and gatherings back. All of us want the same things.

When we forget that we are on the same team and want the same things … well, not only are the resulting attacks causing angst and doing nobody any good; they’re playing right into the hands of the people who want to see us fail. According to Business Insider:

As parts of the U.S. have lifted shutdown orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, there's been a fierce argument online about the risks and benefits of reopening. New research suggests that bots have been dominating that debate.

Carnegie Mellon University researchers analyzed over 200 million tweets discussing COVID-19 and related issues since January and found that roughly half the accounts — including 62% of the 1,000 most influential retweeters—appeared to be bots, they said in a report published this week.

Wash your hands. Wear a mask. And be kind. Please. We really are on the same team here.

Today’s news:

• The big state headline: California will allow churches to reopen—with extreme restrictions, including a 25 percent cap on capacity for at least the first three weeks.

The Washington Post today published a major story on the U.S. meat industry … and it’s not pretty: More workers are getting sick, and shortages may get worse.

• From the Independent: Matt King talked to the Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert, the Coachella Valley History Museum and the Palm Springs Art Museum for an in-depth piece on what people can expect when they’re finally allowed to reopen. Two take-aways: Two of the three likely won’t reopen until the fall—and things will be quite different at all of them when their doors are open again.

• Protests demanding that the state reopen are, in some cases, getting larger—with a large dose of white supremacy thrown in, according to the Los Angeles Times.

• OK, let’s see here … the CDC has issued a new warning, and it’s says … holy crap, now we have to be on the lookout for hungry, aggressive rodents?!

The New York Times analyzed where people were dying of COVID-19, and how those places voted in the last presidential election. The results may surprise you—and they may help explain the political divide developing over the reopening processes around the country.

• I am just going to type this headline, shake my head, sigh and then go make myself a cocktail: “More than 40% of Republicans think Bill Gates will use COVID-19 vaccine to implant tracking chips, survey says.

• What will be in that cocktail, you ask? A mixture of Bulleit rye, a delightful shrub I made out of fresh strawberries, and a little bit of club soda. If you don’t know what a shrub is, Independent cocktail expert Kevin Carlow explains in this informative column from our archives.

• The Trump administration has announced its big testing plan: Leave it up to the states, pretty much!

• Fear of the virus is causing some people to skip needed medical procedures—up to and including forgoing needed organ transplants. The New York Times explains.

• NBC News reveals that the Trump administration is often awarding government contracts not based on merit, and with little to no oversight.

• Man, this pandemic is hurting sooo many businesses … including the drug cartels!

That’s enough for today. Join me, please, in a toast to the brave men and women who have died fighting for this country. Be safe. Wear a mask. If you can spare a buck or two to support fine local journalism like Matt’s museums piece, Kevin’s cocktail-shrub primer and this Daily Digest, please consider becoming a Supporter of the Independent. Oh, and one last thing: Please be kind! We’ll be back tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

I speak for the vast majority of local small-business owners when I say the last month has been pretty terrible.

(Yeah, I know I speak for the vast majority of everyone when I say that. But bear with me here.)

First, seemingly overnight, a good chunk (or, in some cases, all) of our business just evaporated. Then we went into survival mode—looking for new revenue opportunities if possible, researching grants, applying for grants, feverishly reading news on the stimulus bill and the aid it might provide, and then getting deeply confused and frustrated at the conflicting information we received after the bill passed, and then getting even MORE confused and frustrated when we started to actually apply for the PPP and/or the SBA Disaster Loan, or is it a grant, and should we apply for one, or both, and WHY IS THE BANK NOT TAKING APPLICATIONS YET, and what does “cost of goods sold” EVEN mean, and when will I hear back, and what in the holy bloody frick is happening, and I haven’t gotten any REAL work done between all the applications and Zoom meetings with well-meaning organizations, and AAAAAAAARRRGH?

Yeah. It’s been like that.

Anyway … I am proud to announce that, in our case, all of this lead to something very good: The Coachella Valley Independent is one of 400 local newsrooms around North America that has received a $5,000 grant from the Facebook Journalism Project, in partnership with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and Local Media Association, to help us continue our reporting on the coronavirus crisis. You can read the complete list of recipients here.

We’re honored to be one of the recipients of this grant—and not only is it evidence of the quality work we're doing at the Independent; it’s a testament to all of the support and feedback we have received from you, our readers. I can’t thank all of you who have reached out and offered a kind thought, or words of encouragement, or constructive criticism, in the last month or so. I also want to again thank the dozens of you who have become Supporters of the Independent in recent weeks. This grant and your support will help us continue to do what we do—honest, local, ethical journalism, available to all.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean I get to stop the survival-mode scramble. I’ll still be applying for other grants, and inquiring about the status of the Independent’s SBA Disaster Loan, and wondering if I should apply for the PPP thing, too—because the grant from Facebook, plus the reader support we’ve received (while fantastic and much-appreciated), will only make up for a small fraction of the business we’re going to lose in the months ahead.

And not only are we trying to tread water and keep doing what we’re doing here at the Independent; we want to do more. Our community needs good, local coverage more than ever, because … well, where else can people get it? The Desert Sun’s staff is going through what amounts to a 25 percent staffing decrease due to a loss in revenue, and other local media is suffering as well.

So far, none of my staffers or contributors here at the Independent have been furloughed or asked to take cuts. The goal is not to make any cuts—and, in fact, I have asked my contributors to do more pieces, for pay, if they can. (Hey, that reminds me: If you have writing and reporting skills, and want to help tell the Coachella Valley’s stories, drop me a line. The pay’s not great—but we do pay.)

Again, thank you to Facebook Journalism Project, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the Local Media Association and—most of all—you, our readers. It’s just going to take a while, so hang in there—but we’re gonna get through this, as long as we keep supporting each other.

Now, today’s links:

• The Independent’s Kevin Fitzgerald talked to the heads of three local senior centers about the challenges they’re facing while trying to provide services to the population that’s most at-risk during the pandemic. At a time when they can’t actually offer services in person. And with a sudden, unexpected loss in revenue. This isn’t always an easy read—but it’s a must-read, and it’s also, at times, an inspiring read.

• Yesterday, we painted a fairly positive picture about how we’re #flatteningthecurve locally. Therefore, I wanted to point out the numbers and projections that Riverside County issued today, which are, frankly, much more grim—starting with the projection that the county will run out of ICU beds in just six days. It’s important to note that the Coachella Valley has less than a fifth of Riverside County’s population, and what we’re hearing on the ground here is much less dire. The takeaway: Regardless, we need to keep staying at home, wearing masks when we do go out, and generally behaving like civic-minded adults.

• Oh, and we really need to stop flushing wipes! Even the ones that say they’re “flushable”! Just TP!

• This story is developing: After all but one employee didn’t show up to work, the 84 patients at Riverside’s Magnolia Rehabilitation and Nursing Center were moved to various locations, including a couple in the Coachella Valley. Just awful.

• If you were curious how national treasure Carol Burnett was handling the stay-at-home order, The Hollywood Reporter has this article for you.

• Have you been having weird dreams during this semi-quarantined existence? You’re certainly not alone.

Is it possible that COVID-19 came to California in the fall? Stanford researchers are looking into that definite possibility.

• Workers at supermarkets and other retail businesses that remain open are literally risking their lives to keep society up and running. God bless you.

• Well, the Independent made another list, of media organizations where “US journalists working across more than 1,000 local newspapers and other publications are facing cuts due to the economic hit their employers have taken on coronavirus.” Thankfully, the Independent has thus far avoided this list of newsroom layoffs, furloughs and closures.

• If you’re using beer, wine or spirits to cope with this mess … well, again, you’re not alone—and scientists worry all this extra drinking could have significant health costs down the line.

Will warm weather help calm the spread of COVID-19? We still don’t know for sure, but don’t count on it.

• Good news: For some diabetics, one drug-maker is capping the co-pay costs of insulin during the crisis.

• Journalism teachable moment: Always read past the headline. This Wall Street Journal headline is downright horrifying: “Nearly a Third of U.S. Apartment Renters Didn’t Pay April Rent.” First … these stats only take into account rents paid through April 5. Second, here’s the story’s third graph: “Only 69% of tenants paid any of their rent between April 1 and 5, compared with 81% in the first week of March and 82% in April 2019, the data show.” So … while 31 percent didn’t pay any of their rent before the April 5, that number represents a 12 percent difference from last year—which is still very revealing, but nowhere near as WTF?! as the headline implies. If I were the editor of The Wall Street Journal, the headline-writer for this piece would be in some deep shit right now.

• Former Independent contributor (and a friend) Baynard Woods writes this piece for The Washington Post about his bout with what he thinks was COVID-19. It shows how important it is to have a true quarantine plan, just in case.

That’s enough for today. Wash your hands. Only flush TP and … well, you know—BUT NOT ANY WIPES. If you’re an artist, you have not-quite two days left to get us your art for our very-cool coloring book projectIf you’re able, please support us so we can continue to cover the Coachella Valley—and even do more—during this unprecedented time. Now, wash your hands again. More tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

On this week's multicolored-light-strewn weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World again puts on MAGA-vision; Jen Sorensen ponders all the retro trends; (Th)ink looks inside the mind of Mr. Zuckerberg; Red Meat needs to revise a history paper; and Apoca Clips posits that Rudy's goose may be cooked.

Published in Comics

On this week's cornbread-stuffing-filled weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World wonders what the deal is with all this impeachment stuff; Jen Sorensen looks at Facebook going all the way to 1984; The K Chronicles isn't very impressed by Hollywood; Red Meat suffers the consequences of some unwise diet choices; and Apoca Clips "learns" something at a convention.

Published in Comics

Every year, Project Censored scours the landscape for the most important stories that the mainstream corporate media somehow missed—and every year, the task seems to get a bit stranger. Or “curiouser and curiouser,” as suggested in the subtitle of this year’s volume of their work, Censored 2020: Through The Looking Glass, which includes their full list of the top 25 censored stories—and much, much more about the never-ending struggle to bring vitally important hidden truths to light.

In the foreword, “Down the Rabbit Hole of ‘Media Literacy’ by Decree,” Sharyl Attkisson, an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, highlights the absurdity of “so many well-organized, well-funded efforts to root out so-called ‘fake news,’” which—as we’ll see below—have significantly impacted the kinds of journalists and outlets who have historically produced the stories that make Project Censored’s list in the first place.

“The self-appointed curators, often wielding proprietary algorithms, summarily dispense with facts and ideas that they determine to be false—or maybe just dangerous to their agendas,” Attkisson notes. “Thanks to them, we will hardly have to do any of our own thinking. They’ll take care of it for us.”

In the beginning, Project Censored’s founder, Carl Jensen, was partly motivated by the way in which the early reporting on the Watergate scandal never crossed over from being a crime story to a political story—until after the 1972 election coverage. It wasn’t censorship in the classic sense, but it was an example of something even more insidious, because no clear-cut act of censorship or all-powerful censor was needed to produce the same result of a public left in the dark. Jensen defined censorship as “the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method—including bias, omission, underreporting or self-censorship—that prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in its society.” The most obvious way to start fighting it was to highlight the suppressed information in the form of the stories that didn’t get widely told. Thus, Project Censored and its annual list of censored stories was born.

1. Justice Department’s Secret FISA Rules for Targeting Journalists

The federal government can secretly monitor American journalists under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which allows invasive spying and operates outside the traditional court system, according two 2015 memos from then-Attorney General Eric Holder.

The memos were obtained by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Freedom of the Press Foundation through an ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, which was reported on by The Intercept, whose parent company provides funding for both organizations. However, the memos were virtually ignored by the corporate media.

The secret rules “apply to media entities or journalists who are thought to be agents of a foreign government, or, in some cases, are of interest under the broader standard that they possess foreign intelligence information,” The Intercept reported.

Project Censored cited three “concerning” questions the memos raise. First: How many times have FISA court orders been used to target journalists, and are any currently under investigation? Second: Why did the Justice Department keep these rules secret when it updated its “media guidelines” in 2015? And, third: Is the Justice Department using FISA court orders—along with the FBI’s similar rules for targeting journalists with National Security Letters (NSLs)—to “get around the stricter ‘media guidelines’”?

The corporate media virtually ignored these revelations when they occurred. The subsequent media interest in FISA warrants targeting Trump campaign adviser Carter Page “has done nothing at all to raise awareness of the threats posed by FISA warrants that target journalists and news organizations,” Project Censored observed.

Project Censored ended with a quote from Ramya Krishnan, a staff attorney with the Knight Institute, summarizing the stakes: “National security surveillance authorities confer extraordinary powers. The government’s failure to share more information about them damages journalists’ ability to protect their sources, and jeopardizes the news gathering process.”

2. Think Tank Partnerships Establish Facebook as a Tool of U.S. Foreign Policy

In the name of fighting “fake news” to protect American democracy from “foreign influences,” Facebook formed a set of partnerships with three expert foreign influencers in 2018, augmenting its bias toward censorship of left/progressive voices.

In May 2018, Facebook announced its partnership with the Atlantic Council, a NATO-sponsored Washington, D.C., think tank to “monitor for misinformation and foreign interference.”

“It’s funded by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Navy, Army and Air Force, along with NATO, various foreign powers and major Western corporations, including weapons contractors and oil companies, (including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell),” noted Adam Johnson, writing for the media watch group FAIR.

FAIR went on to note that the major news outlets covering the story said nothing about any of the above conflicts of interest.

In September, Facebook announced it would also partner with two Cold War-era U.S. government-funded propaganda organizations: the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

In October 2018, Jonathan Sigrist, writing for Global Research, described one of the greatest Facebook account and page purges in its troubled history: “559 pages and 251 personal accounts were instantly removed from the platform. … This is but one of similar yet smaller purges that have been unfolding in front of our eyes over the last year, all in the name of fighting ‘fake news’ and so called ‘Russian propaganda.’”

3. Indigenous Groups From the Amazon Propose Creation of Largest Protected Area on Earth

When news of unprecedented wildfires in the Amazon grabbed headlines in late August, most Americans were ill-prepared to understand the story, in part because of systemic exclusion of indigenous voices and viewpoints, as highlighted in Project Censored’s No. 3 story—the proposed creation of an Amazonian protected zone the size of Mexico, presented to the UN Conference on Biodiversity in November 2018.

The proposal, which Jonathan Watts, writing for The Guardian, described as “a 200m-hectare sanctuary for people, wildlife and climate stability that would stretch across borders from the Andes to the Atlantic,” was advanced by an alliance of some 500 indigenous groups from nine countries, known as COICA—the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, who called it “a sacred corridor of life and culture.”

“We have come from the forest and we worry about what is happening,” declared Tuntiak Katan, vice president of COICA, as quoted in The Guardian. “This space is the world’s last great sanctuary for biodiversity. It is there because we are there. Other places have been destroyed.”

The Guardian went on to note: “The organization does not recognize national boundaries, which were put in place by colonial settlers and their descendants without the consent of indigenous people who have lived in the Amazon for millennia. Katan said the group was willing to talk to anyone who was ready to protect not just biodiversity but the territorial rights of forest communities.”

In contrast, The Guardian explained: “Colombia previously outlined a similar triple-A (Andes, Amazon and Atlantic) protection project that it planned to put forward with the support of Ecuador at next month’s climate talks. But the election of new rightwing leaders in Colombia and Brazil has thrown into doubt what would have been a major contribution by South American nations to reduce emissions.”

4. U.S. Oil and Gas Industry Set to Unleash 120 Billion Tons of New Carbon Emissions

Three months after the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we have just 12 years to limit catastrophic climate change, Oil Change International released a report that went virtually ignored, warning that the United States was headed in the wrong direction.

The report, Drilling Towards Disaster, warned that rather than cutting down carbon emissions, as required to avert catastrophe, the United States under Donald Trump was dramatically increasing fossil fuel production, with the United States on target to account for 60 percent of increased carbon emissions worldwide by 2030—expanding extraction at least four times more than any other country.

References to the report “have been limited to independent media outlets,” Project Censored noted: “Corporate news outlets have not reported on the report’s release or its findings, including its prediction of 120 billion tons of new carbon pollution or its five-point checklist to overhaul fossil fuel production in the US.”

5. Modern Slavery in the United States and Around the World

An estimated 403,000 people in the United States were living in conditions of “modern slavery” in 2016, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, or GSI—about 1 percent of the global total. The GSI defines “modern slavery” broadly to include forced labor and forced marriage.

Because forced marriage accounts for 15 million people, more than a third of the global total, it’s not surprising that females form a majority of the victims (71 percent). The highest levels were found in North Korea, where an estimated 2.6 million people—10 percent of the population—are victims of modern slavery.

The GSI is produced by the Walk Free Foundation, whose founder, Andrew Forrest, called the U.S. figure, “a truly staggering statistic, (which) is only possible through a tolerance of exploitation.”

“Walk Free’s methodology includes extrapolation using national surveys, databases of information of those who were assisted in trafficking cases, and reports from other agencies like the UN’s International Labour Organization” to compile its figures, explained The Guardian.

There are problems with this methodology, according to others working in the field, The Guardian noted. There’s no universal legal definition, and tabulation difficulties abound. But the GSI addresses this as an issue for governments to work on and offers specific proposals.

“The GSI noted that forced labor occurred ‘in many contexts’ in the U.S., including in agriculture, among traveling sales crews, and—as recent legal cases against GEO Group, Inc. have revealed—as the result of compulsory prison labor in privately owned and operated detention facilities contracted by the Department of Homeland Security,” Project Censored noted.

Newly restrictive immigration policies have further increased the vulnerability of undocumented persons and migrants to modern slavery.

6. Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Sex Trafficking Criminalized for Self-Defense

On Jan. 7, outgoing Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, who had been sentenced to life in prison in 2004, at age 16, for killing a man who bought her for sex and raped her. Brown’s case gained prominence via the support of A-list celebrities, and Haslam cited “the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life.” But despite public impressions, Brown’s case was far from unique.

“There are thousands of Cyntoia Browns in prison,” organizer Mariame Kaba, co-founder of Survived and Punished, told Democracy Now! the next day.

“We should really pay attention to the fact that we should be fighting for all of those to be free,” Kaba said. “When you look at women’s prisons, the overwhelming majority, up to 90 percent of the people in there, have had histories of sexual and physical violence prior to ending up in prison.”

Project Censored wrote: “In contrast to the spate of news coverage from establishment outlets, which focused on Brown’s biography and the details of her case, independent news organizations, including The Guardian, Democracy Now!, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones, stood out for reporting that cases like Brown’s are all too common.”

Later in January, Kellie Murphy’s Rolling Stone story quoted Alisa Bierria, another Survived and Punished co-founder, and highlighted several other cases prominent in alternative-media coverage. In May, Mother Jones reported on the legislative progress that Survived and Punished and its allies had achieved in advancing state and federal legislation.

“Corporate news organizations provided considerable coverage of Cyntoia Brown’s clemency,” Project Censored noted. “However, many of these reports treated Brown’s case in isolation, emphasizing her biography or the advocacy on her behalf by celebrities such as Rihanna, Drake, LeBron James and Kim Kardashian West.”

It went on to cite examples from the New York Times and NBC News that did take a broader view, but failed to focus on sex trafficking or sexual violence.

7. Flawed Investigations of Sexual Assaults in Children’s Immigrant Shelters

“Over the past six months, ProPublica has gathered hundreds of police reports detailing allegations of sexual assaults in immigrant children’s shelters,” ProPublica reported in November 2018. “(The shelters) have received $4.5 billion for housing and other services since the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America in 2014, (and the reports reveal that) both staff and other residents sometimes acted as predators.”

“Again and again, the reports show, the police were quickly—and with little investigation—closing the cases, often within days, or even hours,” ProPublica stated.

In the case of Alex, a 13-year-old from Honduras, used to highlight systemic problems, the police investigation lasted 72 minutes, and resulted in a three-sentence report. There was surveillance video showing two older teenagers grabbing him, throwing him to the floor and dragging him into a bedroom. But ProPublica reported, “An examination of Alex’s case shows that almost every agency charged with helping Alex—with finding out the full extent of what happened in that room—had instead failed him.”

“Because immigrant children in detention are frequently moved, even when an investigator wanted to pursue a case, the child could be moved out of the investigating agency’s jurisdiction in a just few weeks, often without warning,” Project Censored noted. “When children are released, parents or relatives may be reluctant to seek justice, avoiding contact with law enforcement because they are undocumented or living with someone who is.”

8. U.S. Women Face Prison Sentences for Miscarriages

“There has to be some form of punishment” for women who have abortions, candidate Donald Trump said in early 2016, which led to a wave of denials from anti-abortion activists and politicians, who claimed it was not their position. These women were victims, too, they argued—that had always been their position.

But that wasn’t true, as Rewire News reported at the time. Women were already in prison, not for abortions, but for miscarriages alleged to be covert abortions. And that could become much more widespread due to actions taken by Trump Administration, according to a 2019 Ms. Magazine blog post by Naomi Randolph on the 46th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, especially if the decision is overturned.

“Pregnant women could face a higher risk of criminal charges for miscarriages or stillbirths, due to lawmakers in numerous states enacting laws that recognize fetuses as people, separate from the mother,” Project Censored explained, adding:

One example that Randolph provided is in Alabama, where voters recently passed a measure that “endows fetuses with ‘personhood’ rights for the first time, potentially making any action that impacts a fetus a criminal behavior with potential for prosecution.” Collectively, these laws have resulted in hundreds of American women facing prosecution for the outcome of their pregnancies.

In fact, a 2015 joint ProPublica/AL.com investigation, found that “at least 479 new and expecting mothers have been prosecuted across Alabama since 2006,” under an earlier child-endangerment law, passed with methamphetamine-lab explosions in mind, which the “personhood movement” got repurposed to target stillbirths, miscarriages and suspected self-abortions.

9. Developing Countries’ Medical Needs Unfulfilled by Big Pharma

“The world’s biggest pharmaceutical firms have failed to develop two-thirds of the 139 urgently needed treatments in developing countries,” Julia Kollewe reported for The Guardian in November 2018, according to a report by Access to Medicine Foundation, which “found that most firms focus on infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, but had failed to focus on other serious ailments. … In particular, the foundation called for an infants’ vaccine for cholera and a single-dose oral cure for syphilis.”

It’s not all bad news. “The foundation’s report also highlighted 45 best and innovative practices that could ‘help raise the level of standard practice’ and ‘achieve greater access to medicine,’” Project Censored noted. “The report highlights examples such as the development of a child-friendly chewable tablet for roundworm and whipworm, which infect an estimated 795 million people,” The Guardian reported. “Johnson and Johnson has pledged to donate 200 million doses a year until 2020.”

The possibilities underscore why attention is vital. Attention makes a difference, Project Censored pointed out: “In an effort to mobilize investors to pressure pharmaceutical companies to make more medicines available to developing countries, the foundation presented the findings of its reports to 81 global investors at events in London, New York, and Tokyo. As of April 2019, Access to Medicine reported that, since the release of the 2018 Access to Medicine Index in November 2018, 90 major investors had pledged support of its research and signed its investor statement.”

But attention has been sorely lacking in the corporate media. “With the exception of a November 2018 article by Reuters, news of the Access to Medicine Index’s findings appear to have gone unreported in the corporate press,” Project Censored concluded.

10. Pentagon Aims to Surveil Social Media to Predict Domestic Protests

“The United States government is accelerating efforts to monitor social media to preempt major anti-government protests in the U.S.,” Nafeez Ahmed reported for Motherboard in October 2018, drawing on “scientific research, official government documents, and patent filings.” Specifically, “The social media posts of American citizens who don’t like President Donald Trump are the focus of the latest U.S. military-funded research,” which in turn “is part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to consolidate the U.S. military’s role and influence on domestic intelligence.”

The Pentagon had previously funded Big Data research into predicting mass population behavior, “specifically the outbreak of conflict, terrorism, and civil unrest,” especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, via a program known as “Embers.” But such attention wasn’t solely focused abroad, Ahmed noted, calling attention to a U.S. Army-backed study on civil unrest within the U.S. homeland, titled “Social Network Structure as a Predictor of Social Behavior: The Case of Protest in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.”

Ahmed discussed two specific patents which contribute to “a sophisticated technology suite capable of locating the ‘home’ position of users to within 10 kilometers for millions of Twitter accounts, and predicting thousands of incidents of civil unrest from micro-blogging streams on Tumblr.”

Project Censored made no mention of any coverage of this story by the corporate media.

Published in Features

On this week's sanitized-for-your-protection weekly Independent comics page: Jen Sorenson places the refusal of Facebook to remove that Nancy Pelosi video in historical context; (Th)ink looks at Robert Mueller's warning; This Modern World predicts what will happen after the 2020 election; Red Meat seeks some extra work; and Apoca Clips ponders at the end of Jon Voight's legacy.

Published in Comics

The cause of government transparency finally broke through to the popular zeitgeist this year.

It wasn’t an investigative journalism exposé or a civil rights lawsuit that did it, but a light-hearted sitcom about a Taiwanese-American family set in Orlando, Fla., in the late 1990s.

In a January episode of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, the Huang family’s two youngest children—overachievers Evan and Emery—decide if they sprint on all their homework, they’ll have time to plan their father’s birthday party.

“Like the time we knocked out two English papers, a science experiment, and built the White House out of sugar cubes,” Evan said. “It opened up our Sunday for filing Freedom of Information requests.”

“They may not have figured out who shot JFK,” Emery added. “But we will.”

The eldest child, teenage-slacker Eddie, concluded with a sage nod, “You know, once in a while, it’s good to know nerds.”

Amen to that. Around the world, nerds of all ages are using laws like the United States’ Freedom of Information Act (and state-level equivalent laws) to pry free secrets and expose the inner workings of our democracy. Each year, open government advocates celebrate these heroes this time of year during Sunshine Week, an annual advocacy campaign on transparency.

But the journalists and researchers who rely on these important measures every day can’t help but smirk at the boys’ scripted innocence. Too often, government officials will devise novel and outrageous ways to reject requests for information or otherwise stymie the public’s right to know. Even today—20 years after the events set in the episode—the White House continues to withhold key documents from the Kennedy assassination files.

Since 2015, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (a nonprofit that advocates for free speech, privacy and government transparency in the digital age) has published The Foilies to recognize the bad actors who attempted to thwart the quests for truth of today’s Evans and Emerys. With these tongue-in-cheek awards, we call out attempts to block transparency, retaliation against those who exercise their rights to information, and the most ridiculous examples of incompetence by government officials who handle these public records.


The Corporate Eclipse Award: Google, Amazon, and Facebook

Sunshine laws? Tech giants think they can just blot those out with secretive contracts. But two nonprofit groups—Working Partnerships and the First Amendment Coalition—are fighting this practice in California by suing the city of San Jose over an agreement with Google that prevents city officials from sharing the public impacts of development deals, circumventing the California Public Records Act.

Google’s proposed San Jose campus is poised to have a major effect on the city’s infrastructure, Bloomberg reported. Yet, according to the organization’s lawsuit, records analyzing issues of public importance such as traffic impacts and environmental compliance were among the sorts of discussions Google demanded be made private under their nondisclosure agreements.

It’s not just Google using these tactics. An agreement between Amazon and Virginia includes a provision that the state will give the corporate giant—which is placing a major campus in the state—a heads-up when anyone files a public-records request asking for information about them. The Columbia Journalism Review reported that Facebook has also used this increasingly common strategy for companies to keep cities quiet and the public in the dark about major construction projects.


The Unnecessary Box Set Award: Central Intelligence Agency

After suing the CIA to get access to information about Trump’s classified briefings, Kel McClanahan of National Security Counselors was expecting the agency to send over eight agreed-upon documents.

What he was not expecting was for the files—each between three and nine pages each—-to be spread out across six separate CD-ROMs, each burned within minutes of each other, making for perhaps the most unnecessary box set in the history of the compact disc.

What makes this “extra silly,” McClanahan said, is that the CIA has previously complained about how burdensome and costly fulfilling requests can be. Yet the CIA could have easily combined several requests onto the same disc and saved themselves some time and resources. After all, a standard CD-ROM can hold 700 MB, and all of the files took only 304 KB of space.


The (Harlem) Shaky Grounds for Redaction Award: Federal Communications Commission

After repealing the Open Internet Order and ending net neutrality, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai doubled down on his efforts to ruin online culture. He released a cringe-inducing YouTube video titled “7 Things You Can Still Do on the Internet After Net Neutrality“ that featured his own rendition of the infamous “Harlem Shake” meme. (For the uninitiated, the meme is characterized by one person subtly dancing in a room of people to Baauer’s track “Harlem Shake.” Then the bass drops, and the crowd goes nuts, often with many people in costumes.)

Muckrock editor JPat Brown filed a Freedom of Information Act request for emails related to the video, but the FCC rejected the request, claiming the communications were protected “deliberative” records.

Brown appealed the decision, and the FCC responded by releasing all the email headers, while redacting the contents, claiming that anything more would cause “foreseeable harm.” Brown did not relent, and a year later, the FCC capitulated and released the unredacted emails.

“So, what did these emails contain that was so potentially damaging that it was worth risking a potential FOIA lawsuit over?” Brown writes. “Pai was curious when it was going live, and the FCC wanted to maintain a veto power over the video if they didn’t like it.” The most ridiculous redaction of all was a tiny black box in an email from the FCC media director. Once removed, all that was revealed was a single word: “OK.”


The Unreliable Narrator Award: President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. District Court Judges

When President Trump tweets attacks about the intelligence community, transparency groups and journalists often file FOIA requests (and subsequently lawsuits) seeking the documents that underpin his claims. The question that often comes up: Do Trump’s smartphone rants break the seal of secrecy on confidential programs?

The answer seems to be no. Multiple judges have sided with Justice Department lawyers, concluding that his Twitter disclosures do not mean that the government has to confirm or deny whether records about those activities exist.

In a FOIA case seeking documents that would show whether Trump is under investigation, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said that the President’s tweets to that effect are “speculation.” Similarly, in a FOIA suit to get more information about the widely publicized dossier of potential ties between Trump and Russia, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said that the president’s statements are political rather than “assertions of pure fact.”

And so, whether Trump actually knows what he’s talking about remains an open question.


The Cross-Contamination Award: Stanford Law Professor Daniel Ho

One of the benefits of public records laws is they allow almost anyone—regardless of legal acumen—to force government agencies to be more transparent, usually without having to file a lawsuit.

But in Washington state, filing a public-records request can put the requester at legal risk of being named in a lawsuit should someone else not want the records to be made public.

This is what happened to Sarah Schacht, a Seattle-based open-government advocate and consultant. For years, Schacht has used public records to advocate for better food-safety rules in King County, an effort that led to the adoption of food-safety placards found in restaurants in the region.

After Schacht filed another round of requests with the county health department, she received a legal threat in November 2018 from Stanford Law School professor Daniel Ho’s attorney threatening to sue her unless she abandoned her request. Apparently, Ho has been working with the health department to study the new food-safety and placard regulations. He had written draft studies that he shared with the health department, making them public records.

Ho’s threat amounted to an effort to intimidate Schacht from receiving public records, probably because he had not formally published his studies first. Regardless of motive, the threat was an awful look. But even when faced with the threat, Schacht refused to abandon her request.

Fortunately, the lawsuit never materialized, and Schacht was able to receive the records. Although Ho’s threats made him look like a bully, the real bad actor in this scenario is Washington State’s public-records law. The state’s top court has interpreted the law to require parties seeking to stop agencies from releasing records (sometimes called reverse-FOIA suits) to also sue the original requester along with the government agency.


The Scanner Darkly Award: St. Joseph County Superior Court

ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman has been digging deep into the child-welfare system and what happens when child abuse results in death. While following up on a series of strangulations, she requested a copy of a case file from the St. Joseph County Superior Court in Indiana. Apparently, the clerk on the other end simply took the entire file and ran everything through a scanner. The problem was that the file contained a CD-ROM, and that’s not how CD-ROMs work. “Well, this is the first time this had happened,” Huseman posted to Twitter, along with the blotchy black-and-white image of the top of the disc. “They scanned a CD as part of my FOI and didn’t give me its contents. Cool cool.”


The Cash for Crash Award: Michigan State Police

As tech companies experiment with autonomous vehicles on public roadways, reporters are keeping tabs on how often these cars are involved in collisions. That’s why The Information’s Matt Drange has been filing records requests for the crash data held by state agencies. Some government departments have started claiming that every line of the dataset is its own individual record—subject to a copy fee. Our winner, the Michigan State Police, proposed to charge Drange a 25-cent fee for each of a 1.9 million-line dataset, plus $20 for a thumb drive, for a grand total of $485,645.24, with half of it due up front. Runners-up that quoted similar line-by-line charges include the Indiana State Police ($346,000) and the North Carolina Department of Transportation ($82,000).

Meanwhile, Florida’s government released its detailed dataset at no charge at all.


The Bartering With Extremists Award: California Highway Patrol

In 2016, the Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP), an infamous neo-Nazi group, staged a demonstration at the California State Capitol. Counter-protesters fiercely opposed the demonstration, and the scene soon descended into chaos, leaving multiple people injured. When the dust settled, a member of the public (who, we should disclose, is a co-author of this piece) filed a California Public Records Act request to obtain a copy of the permit the white nationalist group filed for its rally. The California Highway Patrol rejected the request for this normally available document, claiming it was related to a criminal investigation.

Two years later, evidence emerged during criminal proceedings that a CHP detective used the public-records request as a bargaining chip in a phone call with the TWP protest leader, who was initially reluctant to provide information. The officer told him how the request might reveal his name. “We don’t have a reason to … uh … deny (the request),” the officer said, according a transcript of the call. But once the organizer decided to cooperate, the officer responded, “I’m gonna suggest that we hold that or redact your name or something … uh … until this thing gets resolved.”

In light of these new facts, the First Amendment Coalition filed a new request for the same document. It, too, was denied.


The Pre-emptive Shredding Award: Inglewood Police Department

In defiance of the law-enforcement lobby, California legislators passed a law (SB 1421) requiring police and sheriffs to disclose officer-misconduct records in response to California Public Records Act requests. These documents, often contained in personnel files, had historically been untouchable by members of the public and the press.

Almost immediately, police unions across the Golden State began to launch lawsuits to undermine these new transparency measures. But the Inglewood Police Department takes the prize for its efforts to evade scrutiny. Mere weeks before the law took effect on Jan. 1, 2019, the agency began destroying records that were set to become publicly available.

“This premise that there was an intent to beat the clock is ridiculous,” Inglewood Mayor James T Butts Jr. told the Los Angeles Times in defending the purge. We imagine Butts would find it equally ridiculous to suggest that the fact he had also been a cop for more than 30 years, including serving in Inglewood and later as police chief of Santa Monica, may have factored into his support for the destruction of records.


The What the Swat? Award: Nova Scotia and Halifax Law Enforcement

One Wednesday morning in April, 15 Halifax police officers raided the home of a teenage boy and his family. “They read us our rights and told us not to talk,” his mother would later tell the CBC. “They rifled through everything. They turned over mattresses; they took drawers and emptied out drawers; they went through personal papers, pictures. It was totally devastating and traumatic.”

You might well wonder: What was the Jack Bauer-class threat to geo-political stability? Nothing at all: The Canadian teen had just downloaded a host of public records from openly available URLs on a government website.

At the heart of the ordeal was some seriously terrible security practices by Nova Scotia officials. The website created to host the province’s public records was designed in such a way that every request and response had a nearly identical URL and placed no technical restrictions on the public’s ability to access any of the requests. This meant that regular public-records requests and individuals’ requests to access government files about them, which included private information, were all stored together and available on the internet for anyone, including Google’s webcrawler, to access. All that was necessary was changing a number identifying the request at the end of the URL.

What Nova Scotian officials should have done upon learning about leaks in their own public-records website’s problems was apologize to the public, thank the teen who found these gaping holes in their digital security practices, and implement proper restrictions to protect people’s private information. They didn’t do any of that, and instead sought to improperly bring the force of Canada’s criminal hacking law down on the very person who brought the problem to light.

The whole episode—which thankfully ended with the government dropping the charges—was a chilling example of how officials will often overreact and blame innocent third parties when trying to cover up their own failings. This horror show just happened to involve public records. Do better, Canada.


The Outrageous Fee Request of the Year: City of Seattle

When self-described transparency advocate and civic hacker Matt Chapman sent his request to Seattle seeking the email metadata from all city email addresses (from/to/BCC addresses, time, date, etc.), he expected some pushback, because it does sound like an incredible amount of data to wrangle.

Seattle’s response: All the data can be yours for a measly $33 million. Officials estimated that it would take 320 years’ worth of staff time to review the roughly 32 million emails responsive to Chapman’s request. Oh, and they estimated charging an additional $21,600 for storage costs associated with the records. The fee request is the second highest in the history of The Foilies. (The Department of Defense won in 2016 for estimating it would take $660 million to produce records on a particular computer forensic tool.)

Then the city did something entirely unexpected: It revisited the fee estimate and determined that the first batch of records would cost only $1.25 to process. We get it; math is hard.

But wait—that’s not all. After paying for the batches of records with a series of $1.25 checks, Chapman received more than he ever bargained for: Rather than disclosing just the metadata for all 32 million emails, Seattle had given him the first 256 characters of every email. Those snippets included passwords, credit card numbers and other personally identifying information.

What followed was a series of conversations between Chapman, Seattle’s lawyers and the city’s IT folks to ensure he’d deleted the records and that the city hadn’t just breached its own data protections via a public-records request.

Ultimately, Seattle officials in January 2018 began sending the data to Chapman once more, this time without the actual content of email messages. The whole episode doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in Seattle officials’ ability to do basic math, comply with the public records law or protect sensitive information.


The Intern Art Project Award: Vermont Gov. Phil Scott

Seattle isn’t the only city to stumble in response to Matt Chapman’s public-records requests for email metadata. The Vermont governor’s office also wins for its scissor-and-glue approach to releasing electronic information.

Rather than export the email information as a spreadsheet, the Vermont governor’s office told Chapman it had five interns (three of whom were unpaid) working six hours each, literally “cutting and pasting the emails from paper copies.” The next thing Chapman knew, he had a 43-page hodgepodge collage of email headers correlating with one day’s worth of messages. The governor’s attorney told Chapman it would cost $1,200 to process three more days’ worth of emails.

Chapman pushed back and provided his own instructions on exporting the data using a computer and not, you know, scissors and glue. Sure enough, he received a 5,500-line spreadsheet a couple of weeks later at no charge.


The Least-Transparent Employer Award: U.S. Department of Justice

In the last few years, we’ve seen some great resignation letters from public servants, ranging from Defense Secretary James Mattis telling President Trump, “It’s not me; it’s you,” to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘ forced resignation.

But the Trump DOJ seems to have had enough of the tradition and has now determined that U.S. Attorney resignation letters are private in their entirety and cannot be released under the Freedom of Information Act. Of course, civil servants should have their private information protected by their employer, but that’s precisely what redactions should be used to protect.

Past administrations have released resignation letters that are critical of executive branch leaders. The change in policy raises the question: What are departing U.S. Attorneys now saying that the government wants to hide?


The Clawback Award: The Broward County School Board

After the tragic Parkland shooting, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel went to court to force the Broward County School Board to hand over documents detailing the shooter’s education and disciplinary record. A judge agreed and ordered the release, as long as sensitive information was redacted.

But when reporters copied and pasted the file into another document, they found that the content under the redactions was still there and readable. They broke the story of how the school denied the shooter therapeutic services and alternative education accommodations, but then uploaded the school board’s report with working redactions.

Rather than simply do better with double-checking their redactions next time, the school board struck back at the newspaper. They petitioned the court to hold the newspaper in contempt and to prevent anyone from reporting on the legally obtained information. Although the local judge didn’t issue a fine, she lambasted the paper and threatened to dictate exactly what the paper could report about the case in the future (which is itself an unconstitutional prior restraint).


The Wrong Way to Plug a Leak Award: City of Greenfield, Calif.

The Monterey County Weekly unexpectedly found itself in court after the city of Greenfield, Calif., sued to keep the newspaper from publishing documents about the surprising termination of its city manager.

When editor Sara Rubin asked the interim city manager for the complaint the outgoing city manager filed after his termination, she got nothing but crickets. But then an envelope containing details of a potential city political scandal appeared on the doorstep of one of the paper’s columnists.

The weekly reached out to the city for comment and began preparing for its normal Wednesday print deadline. Then, the morning of publication, the paper got a call saying that they were due in court: The city sued to block publication of the documents, to have the documents returned and to have the paper reveal the identity of the leaker.

Attorney Kelly Aviles of the First Amendment Coalition gave everyone a fast lesson in the First Amendment, pointing out that the paper had every right to publish. The judge ruled in the paper’s favor, and the city ended up paying all of the Monterey County Weekly’s attorney fees.


If it Looks like a Duck Award: Brigham Young University Police

Brigham Young University’s Police Department is certified by the state,* and has the powers of the state, but says that they’re not actually a part of government for purposes of the Utah transparency law.

After the Salt Lake Tribune exposed that the university punished survivors of sexual assault for coming forward and reporting, the paper tried to get records of communications between the police department and the school’s federally required sexual assault coordinator. BYU pushed back, saying that the police department is not subject to Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act because the police department is privately funded.

This turns out to be a trickier legal question than you’d expect. Brigham Young University itself isn’t covered by the state law because it is a private school. But the university police force was created by an act of the Utah Legislature, and the law covers entities “established by the government to carry out the public’s business.” Investigating crime and arresting people seems like the public’s business.

Last summer, a judge ruled that the police department is clearly a state agency, but the issue is now on appeal at the Utah Supreme Court. Sometime this year, we should learn if the police are a part of the government or not.

*Because BYU police failed to comply with state law, and was not responsive to an internal investigation, the Utah Office of Public Safety notified the department on Feb 20 that the BYU police department will be stripped of its certification on Sept. 1, 2019. The university police also plan to appeal this decision.


The Insecure Security Check Award: U.S. Postal Service

Congressional elections can turn ugly, but the opponent of newly elected U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger got a boost when the U.S. Postal Service released Spanberger’s entire personnel file, including her security-clearance application, without redaction of highly sensitive personal information.

When a third party requests a person’s federal employment file without the employee’s permission, the government agency normally releases only a bare-bones record of employment dates, according to a Postal Service spokesperson. But somehow Rep. Spanberger wasn’t afforded these protections, and the Postal Service has potentially made this mistake in a “small number” of other cases this year. Security-clearance applications (Form SF-86) are supposed to be analyzed and investigated by the FBI, raising questions about how the FOIA officer got the information in the first place. The Postal Service has apologized for the mistake, which they say is human error, but maybe security-clearance applications should be kept just as secure as the state secrets the clearance is meant to protect.

The Foilies were compiled by Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Investigative Researcher Dave Maass, Staff Attorney Aaron Mackey, Frank Stanton Fellow Camille Fischer, and Activist Hayley Tsukayama. Illustrations by EFF Art Director Hugh D’Andrade. For more on our work, visit eff.org.

Published in Features

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