Unpaid internships- A court victory that asks “How do you filter them?”

unpaid-internshipsA court victory for unpaid interns today and possibly a wake-up call for corporate America. Yesterday, New York federal judge William Pauley ruled in favor of  two interns suing Fox Searchlight over the internship programs of Fox Entertainment Group. The Hollywood Reporter says the court’s summary judgment was also certified as a class action  The lawsuit was filed two years ago by interns Alex Footman and Eric Glatt who worked on Fox Searchlight’s Black Swan and claimed the company’s unpaid internship program violated minimum wage and overtime laws.

Fox issued this statement to The Hollywood Reporter on the ruling: “We are very disappointed with the court’s rulings.  We believe they are erroneous, and will seek to have them reversed by the 2nd Circuit as quickly as possible.”

Meanwhile, an opinion article from the Guardian newspaper on unpaid internships prompted an interesting discussion among colleagues in our college this past month.

In the article author David Dennis notes that media companies that rely on unpaid interns marginalize the voices of low-income communities and minorities. A graduate from Northwestern University, David writes: “And therein lies the issue with unpaid internships. The practice of asking recent graduates to spend their days working for free while paying rent and living in a city like New York is a barrier for entry to students from mid- to lower-class backgrounds.”   

Specifically, Dennis wrote that unpaid internships become barriers for low-income and minority candidates access to their professional fields because they can’t afford to work for free without incurring debt. This, argues Dennis means we have less diversity in the media.

Dennis writes: “Recently, I wrote about how stories of crime in New Orleans or Chicago’s Southside are under-reported on the national level, and one of the reasons is the fact that voices from these areas aren’t making it to the national conversation to influence the direction of national discourse. Media workplaces are becoming populated by those who can afford the jobs. Those who can’t are being shut out.  How many journalists can say they have firsthand knowledge of the mentality of someone from the inner-city? Many of these voices have been muted just because they simply can’t navigate the landscape of privilege that most modern journalism encourages.”  

I agree with Dennis’ opinion on unpaid interns. The International Business Times recently mentioned a well-known 2010 report by the Economic Policy Institute whose authors argued  persuasively, that “the choice to take an internship is not only contingent on a student’s qualifications, but also his or her economic means, thus institutionalizing socioeconomic disparities beyond college.”

unpaid-intern-2I also believe some for-profit companies use unpaid interns to save labor costs. There are recent legal cases to back this observation and to disprove it.  I believe this is, in part,  due to poor Fair Labor Standards Act enforcement by the U.S. Department of Labor regarding unpaid internships. I also believe this hurts those businesses who try to compete while providing paid internship opportunities.

Something else is hidden in the unpaid intern debate. My belief is that unpaid internships are a double whammy for some college graduates. They struggle to get jobs because the services they’re qualified to provide employers are already being provided by unpaid interns.

I said I agreed with Dennis’ views against the inequity of unpaid internships. Not everyone sees it that way.  Click here to see  how Denver Fox affiliate KDVR “Everyday Show” co-hosts Chris Parente and Melody Mendez put their spin on the topic of unpaid interns.

My response to KDVR:

 “I watched your treatment of this issue from your morning show. If you think a part of an unpaid intern’s job is to fetch coffee and dry cleaning for employees at Fox31 I would advise my students from interning at your TV station. That’s an exploitative mindset. An internship should provide students the opportunity to gain real world observations, experience and contacts in a professional workplace that ties directly to their future professional interests. They’re not unpaid personal assistants. So, please keep the focus on providing interns opportunities that will make them better potential future employees and managers for Fox31 and get your own coffee and dry cleaning.”

KDVR host Parente appeared to struggle in his understanding of the Dennis article. Parente incorrectly referred to Dennis as a woman and a “journalism ethics expert. Dennis is actually creative director at The Smoking Section website and a freelance writer.

Mendez commented that she once had an unpaid internship in college AND worked a part-time job. “It is possible to do both,” said Mendez.

To opinions such as Mendez’, Dennis wrote: “All of my classmates were qualified to work in any newsroom or publication in the city, but those who could afford the lifestyle got their feet in the door with internships. Sure, it’s possible for someone to work 40 hours a week without pay while also waiting tables at night, but it sure is easier when you don’t have to worry about earning a living – or paying student loans.”      

I’ll go one step more on unpaid internships- 

According to the Department of Labor internships in the “for-profit” private sector are most often viewed as employment. This means interns in the “for-profit” private sector who qualify as employees rather than trainees typically must be paid at least the  minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over forty in a work week.

Here’s the U.S. Department of Labor’s six criteria for-profit companies must meet in order to legally use unpaid interns:

1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to
training which would be given in an educational environment;
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern;
and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the

If all of the factors listed above are met, an employment relationship does not exist says the U.S. Department of Labor and the for-profit company may use unpaid interns. Otherwise, minimum wage and overtime provisions do apply to the intern. Or as Judge Pauley wrote in his opionion which sides with the unpaid interns in the “Black Swan” case:

After going through the experiences of Footman and Glatt on Black Swan, here’s what Judge Pauley concludes:

“Considering the totality of the circumstances, Glatt and Footman were classified improperly as unpaid interns and are ’employees’ covered by the FLSA and NYLL. They worked as paid employees work, providing an immediate advantage to their employer and perfomed low-level tasks not requiring specialized training. The benefits they may have received — such as the knowledge of how a production or accounting office functions or references for future jobs — are the results of simply having worked as any other employee works, not of internships designed to be uniquely educational to the interns and of little utility to the employer. They received nothing approximating the education they would receive in an academic setting or vocational school. This is a far cry from [the Supreme Court’s decision in]Walling, where trainees impeded the regular business of the employer, worked only in their own interest and provided no advantage to the employer. Glatt and Footman do not fall within the narrow ‘trainee’ exception to the FLSA’s broad coverage.”

The latest court ruling means a victory for those who argue against unpaid internships, particularly when they may involve doing work that other employees are paid for performing in other work settings. It may also signal the court’s willingness to limit, even end unpaid internships used as a guise by some employers to limit their labor costs as well as employment opportunities for students and other qualified workers.There will be more legal battles on this case and victory for the plaintiffs is far from certain at this point.

I’ll sum it up with the ending of the International Business Times article on unpaid internships because it captures the “anecdotal reality” many recent college grads may be living. It uses HBO’s hit drama “Girls,” character Hannah who works as an unpaid publishing intern, despite having graduated college two years earlier. After she’s told by her parents that they will no longer fund her post-collegiate escapades, Hannah explains to her boss that she can no longer afford to work for free. His reply? “I’m really going to miss your energy.”


Digging out

The snow-covered view out my Andersen Hall window at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Photo: Barney McCoy

The snow-covered view out my Andersen Hall window at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Photo: Barney McCoy

In Lincoln, Neb., the snow that pummeled this stretch of the Midwest yesterday has given way to sunshine.

UNL classes have resumed. Despite the usual weather related accidents, traffic has returned to near normal. Businesses are open. Life is good again for most of us.

Snowmageddon” was the term some used to describe the weather event dubbed “Q” by the Weather Channel.

To be sure, it was a significant snowfall, but not as bad as some meteorologists claimed it would be. We received about 6 inches of snow. Other parts of the region received up to 20 inches of snow.

Nor was the storm, as nasty locally as some gleamy-eyed TV news anchors and reporters made it sound on Wednesday and Thursday.

Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t hear much about the benefits of this storm; The badly needed moisture it brings farmers, ranchers, gardeners, and municipalities that have been locked in a serious drought for almost a year. The latest reports say more than 75 percent of Nebraska is in an “exceptional drought” which is worse than an “extreme drought.”

The insulated coating of snow that protects the seeds planted for the coming year from direct exposure to freezing conditions. A chance for corn farmers to have moist soils this spring to get their crops planted and off to a healthy start. That’s a good thing too.

We need these benefits of a big snow more right now than the temporary transportation inconveniences and ever present dangers associated with navigating snow-covered streets and roads.

Last season, Nebraska’s corn crop took a quarter billion dollar loss due to the drought.  Ranchers were forced to sell cattle because the drought dried up the grass they feed on. Cities like Lincoln are talking stricter water conservation measures and higher costs for water users. Other places worry there may not be enough water available at any price if the drought persists.

This moisture, from this snow, may help keep the drought-driven crop and livestock losses we had last year from happening this year.

The region still needs four to eight inches of new moisture to free us from the drought. Keep in mind that experts say it takes roughly a 10 inches of snow to equal an inch of moisture; More if the snow is powdery and dry, less if the snow is wet and heavy.

Let’s hope more moisture, in any form, arrives soon. Meanwhile, let us tolerate, even enjoy, what nature has delivered to our doorstep.

ABC News strikes out on live coverage of Obama “fiscal cliff” remarks

President Barack Obama's "fiscal cliff" update announcement on Dec. 31, 2012 was covered by every major cable and TV news operation with the exception of ABC News.

President Barack Obama’s “fiscal cliff” update announcement on Dec. 31, 2012 was covered by every major cable and TV news operation with the exception of ABC News.

NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox?  They were all there Monday providing live coverage when President Barack Obama delivered remarks saying it looked like an agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff was “in sight.”  One exception: ABC News. The network was missing in action in covering the first tangible sign that an agreement might be hammered out between Democratic and Republican party leaders in the U.S. Senate. This has been a story that has dominated national news headlines.

“I realize,” said Mr. Obama, “that the last thing you want to hear on New Year’s Eve is another speech from me, but I do need to talk about the progress that’s being made in Congress today.” The president added that any deal is not yet complete and work continues.

President Barack Obama's "fiscal cliff" update announcement on Dec. 31, 2012 was covered by every major cable and TV news operation with the exception of ABC News.

Even Chicago super station WGN interrupted regular programming to keep viewers updated on the very real political drama. (Transcript of President Obama’s remarks)

Visibly absent: ABC News.

While every other TV and cable news operation devoted live, breaking coverage to the president’s remarks, ABC stuck with “The Chew,” a cooking show that’s part of the network’s regular daytime program schedule.

I tweeted several ABC News staffers to ask why the ntwork didn’t provide live coverage for the president’s remarks. Jonathan Karl, ABC News’ senior political correspondent tweeted this reply: “Not a lot of news … we would have taken the remarks if he was announcing a deal.”

 U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) leaves the Senate Chamber early Tuesday. Photo: New York Times

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) leaves the Senate Chamber early Tuesday. Photo: New York Times

Early Tuesday, the Senate approved a bipartisan agreement on a 89 to 8 vote. The House gave final approval Tuesday night to a bill blocking income tax hikes for about 99 percent of U.S. households, but allowed rates to rise for those with incomes above $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples.

Senate and House Republicans, in a notable move, were forced to abandon their party’s opposition to higher taxes.

So, what was happening at ABC on Monday when the other TV and cable news operations broke from regular programming to televise the president’s remarks? ABC audience members were treated to The Chew’s tour of soap star Julie Marie Berman’s (Lulu Spencer on General Hospital) home and her chicken pizza recipe. The Chew, an ABC program, was busy promoting another ABC program (General Hospital) at the time of Obama’s remarks.

ABC broadcast a segment   of The Chew featuring "General Hospital" soap opera star Julie Marie Berman's chicken pizza recipe while President Barack Obama told American's on the other TV networks that an agreement on the "fiscal cliff" budget negotiations was within sight.

ABC broadcast a segment of The Chew featuring “General Hospital” soap opera star Julie Marie Berman’s chicken pizza recipe while President Barack Obama told American’s on the other TV networks that an agreement on the “fiscal cliff” budget negotiations was within sight.

Not withstanding Karl’s reply, I wonder why ABC News stayed on the sidelines here? Who made the decision? Was ABC afraid of losing ad revenue by cutting away to Mr. Obama’s announcement? Why didn’t ABC run a crawl telling viewers they could watch the president’s remarks on the ABC News website?

If the president’s remarks on fiscal cliff developments didn’t warrant live coverage by ABC, what does? Isn’t staying on top of a major news story important enough to justify breaking in with live coverage.

Fair questions to ask. These are critical budget negotiations. They are a measure of how effectively elected members of Congress represent their constituents,,and special interests.  The negotiations also had a direct affect on the finances of all Americans. If no deal was reached, taxes would jump by $3,400 on average for American households, according to a study by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

The overall budget deal by members of Congress also impacted milk prices, unemployment benefits, and Medicare patient fees.  A political impasse, or going over the so-called “fiscal cliff” might also have re-triggered a national recession.

The Chicago Tribune put it this way:

“Unless an agreement is reached and approved by Congress by the start of New Year’s Day, more than $500 billion in 2013 tax increases will begin to take effect and $109 billion will be carved from defense and domestic programs

Though the tax hikes and budget cuts would be felt gradually, economists warn that if allowed to fully take hold, their combined impact — the so-called fiscal cliff — would rekindle a recession.”

In other words, this was a newsworthy and timely event. From the president’s remarks came important information regarding progress of the Senate negotiations that the American people should know about. A great strength of television is its ability to inform viewers about news events such as these when they take place. Many, perhaps most TV viewers depend on news operations to provide them with timely, breaking news as it’s happening, not after it’s happened.

In this case, news trumps entertainment. ABC should have covered the president’s press conference. I believe ABC let its viewers down by not providing live TV coverage of the president’s press conference.

Former President Harry Truman said “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” The implication of Truman’s words were that if you can’t cope, leave the work to someone who can.

I do wish that ABC had gotten out of “The Chew” kitchen to cover the breaking news on Monday.  If it can’t, perhaps ABC viewers will look elsewhere for a news operation that can cover breaking news live when the need arises.

Engineer raises concerns over Keystone XL pipeline

Dust hangs in the sunset sky above the Fort McMurray, Alberta Suncor Millennium mine. The open-pit oil sand project would feed the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Photo: Peter Essick, National Geographic

An interesting commentary by civil engineer Mike Klink in our local paper today. It’s about TransCanada, the company proposing to build the Keystone XL pipeline across Nebraska.

Klink shared his concerns from his days working on the first Keystone pipeline project. Klink, who lives in Auburn, Ind., is now seeking whistleblower protection from the U.S. Department of Labor. Said Klink:

“Despite its boosters’ advertising, this project is not about jobs or energy security. It is about money. And whenever my former employer Bechtel, working on behalf of TransCanada, had to choose between safety and saving money, they chose to save money.”

Mike Klink, a civil engineer who worked on the first Keystone pipeline, testifies at an Oct. 2011 U.S. State Department hearing on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Klink says the Keystone XL pipeline is not about jobs or energy security. It's about money. Photo: C-SPAN.

Klink explained that as an inspector, his job was to monitor construction of the first Keystone pipeline. He oversaw construction at the problematic pump stations on the original pipeline, that have already spilled more than a dozen times.

Tell the truth

Klink said he is speaking out because his children encouraged him to tell the truth about what was done and what covered up.

“When I last raised concerns about corners being cut, I lost my job,” said Klink. “What did I see? Cheap foreign steel that cracked when workers tried to weld it, foundations for pump stations that you would never consider using in your own home, fudged safety tests, Bechtel staffers explaining away leaks during pressure tests as “not too bad,” shortcuts on the steel and rebar that are essential for safe pipeline operation and siting of facilities on completely inappropriate spots like wetlands.”

Oil in standing water outside Ludden, ND pump station, TransCanada Keystone pipeline system, May 9, 2011. Photo: Pete Carrels

Sharing concerns

Klink said he shared his concerns with his bosses, who communicated them to officials with TransCanada, but nothing changed.

“TransCanada didn’t appear to care. That is why I was not surprised to hear about the big spill in Ludden, N.D., where a 60-foot plume of crude spewed tens of thousands of gallons of toxic tar sands oil and fouled neighboring fields,” Klink said.

Construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in South Dakota.

If Klink’s experiences are  true, it’s disconcerting to read about the reaction Klink  got when he reported to Bechtel and TransCanada his concerns about poor materials, faulty workmanship, and “fudged” safety tests on the first Keystone pipeline.

Questions raised
  The reaction Klink claims he received from Bechtel and TransCanada may also raise fair questions about both company’s business and ethical practices.
Regarding safety, last October TransCanada promised Nebraska state legislators it would take additional steps to protect environmental safety if the project was approved by the federal government. The Canadian pipeline company said it would back a $100 million bond to ensure adequate funds to clean up after any oil spills.
That bond may not be enough to clean-up a major pipeline oil spill. In July, 2010 more than 800,000 gallons of tar sands crude spilled into Michigan’s  Kalamazoo River system through a rupture in the Enbridge pipeline.  The clean-up cost for that spill is now estimated at about $700 million — 20 percent more than Enbridge’s previous estimate of $585 million.
A pipeline now?
Interestingly, Klink’s comments come on the heels of an Associated Press report this week that said America is on pace to ship more gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel this year than any other single export. The last time the U.S. was a net exporter of fuels was 1949, when Harry Truman was president.

The Associated Press reports that the United States is on pace to ship more gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel this year than any other single export. Photo: Texas Comptroller

Motives for the XL pipeline? The article said the volume of fuel exports is rising as the U.S. uses less fuel because of a weak economy and more efficient cars and trucks. That allows refiners to sell more fuel to rapidly growing economies in Latin America, for example.

The domestic downside to America’s growing role as a fuel exporter?- Experts say the trend helps explain why U.S. motorists are paying more for gasoline. The more fuel that’s sent overseas, the less of a supply cushion there is at home.

Gasoline supplies are being exported to the highest bidder, says Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service. "It's a world market," he says. Photo: Wall Street Journal

Gasoline supplies are being exported to the highest bidder, says Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service. “It’s a world market,” he says.
Refining companies won’t say how much they make by selling fuel overseas.

According to the A.P. article, analysts say those sales are likely generating higher profits per gallon than they would have generated in the U.S. Otherwise, they wouldn’t occur.

Unless the oil companies, refiners and Keystone can promise that every drop of the tar sands oil piped from Alberta to Texas is dedicated for domestic use, to give America energy security and keep consumer gas prices low, isn’t it fair to ask why the pipeline should exist at all?

XL pipeline- Getting the facts straight

Pieces of the Keystone XL pipeline await construction in South Dakota. Photo:North Platte Post

Every big controversy seems to generate its own information fog.  Facts may be  incomplete or missing altogether. Reporting can get fuzzy.

The debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is no different. Rhetoric abounds. Facts may be iffy.

The question is whether the fact omission is deliberate or accidental.  Both happen. Either may detract from what should be an informed, vigorous public discussion.

Take Darrin Goode’s Politico article this week entitled “On Keystone XL Pipeline, Democrats slow to probe.”  Goode writes:

“Labor unions — an important constituency for Obama and a lot of other Democrats — are backing the pipeline and the jobs it could bring.”

Goode’s statement is inaccurate. Early today, I wrote the following to Mr. Goode and requested a correction in his Politico article.

“You did not note that large labor unions also oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. They include the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU). The two unions represent more than 300,000 workers in the U.S.
These unions are calling for “New Deal” type public investments in infrastructure modernization and repair, energy conservation and climate protection as a means of putting people to work and laying the foundations of a green and sustainable economic future for the United States.”
I ask that you add this correction to your story for the sake of fair and balanced journalism.”

I will let you know if Mr. Goode agrees with my clarification and makes a correction. I should note that the Politico article is not the first to make the false assumption that labor stands unified in favor of the proposed pipeline.

TransCanada's Keystone pipeline, shown here under construction. Photo: The Globe and Mail

Meanwhile, in the comment section for Goode’s Politico article I received this reply to my clarification from a reader.

While the ATU & TWU represents a measly 300,000 workers opposing the pipeline, they are trumped by the AFL-CIO (11,000,000 members), Teamsters (1,400,000 members) and LIUNA (630,000 members).

Last time I checked, 13,000,000 is more than 300,000.

Need more proof? Here:
“It’s the vision and competence of TransCanada in the U.S. that provides our skilled local workforce with the means to perform the trade they have been taught while contributing to their communities.” – William Hite, General President, AFL-CIO.

“TransCanada has a solid reputation for its responsible construction practices, and Canada is our largest and most responsible oil supplier. Allowing the project approval process to move forward was the right decision to make.” – Jim Hoffa, General President, Teamsters

In a protest, debate or fist-fight between a group of Environmentalists and Union workers, I will place my money on the Union workers everytime!”

To which I replied:

“Hello Van-

Yes, some unions and union members support the XL pipeline. BUT- The ATU and TWU are in fact AFL/CIO member unions who oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. Many other unions and union members in the U.S and Canada have also stepped forward opposing the pipeline.

Examples: The Alberta Federation of Labor and the CEP (Communications , Energy and Paperworkers Union), the Canadian union that represents the tar sands and refinery workers who would work on the project oppose the pipeline claiming it is “unsustainable and cuts off the possibility of creating a democratic energy policy that benefits workers in Canada for the long haul.”

The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) is opposed to Keystone XL. “The pipeline will create environmental destruction, take potential upgrading and refining jobs away from Canadians, and put our country’s energy security at risk,” says CEP President Dave Coles.

The president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), Alberta’s largest labor organization, thinks the pipeline shouldn’t go ahead. “Members of the Alberta and federal governments have been acting like sales executives for pipeline company TransCanada, travelling to the U.S. to persuade Americans what a great idea the raw bitumen pipeline will be, but they are ignoring what’s best for Alberta and Canada,” said Gil McGowan, AFL president.

These examples disprove your contention that this debate is strictly between labor and environmentalists.  In fact, hundreds of thousands of union members on both sides of the border are against the XL pipeline. They’re joined by nine Nobel laureates, ranchers, farmers, first nations members, students, NASA climatologist James Hansen, politicians, clergy and others.

In short, you made a poor bet backed more by rhetoric and less by fact when you assumed all labor unions and all union members (of which I’m one) support the XL pipeline.”

Pieces of the Keystone XL pipeline await transport. Photo: National Radio Canada

Let there be a fair, factual and informed debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. Likewise, let there be fair, factual and informed reporting on the topic.  It’s in the best interest of our democracy and the credible journalism citizens rely.  It’s also how society can best demand transparency, accountability and clarity on an important issue.

The Keystone XL pipeline: Missing the point

Alaura Luebbe was overcome with emotion as she described her concerns that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would threaten her family's Nebraska ranch. Luebbe's comments came during a U.S. State Department hearing last Friday. Photo: Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg News

The controversy surrounding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline reached new heights Friday when the U.S. State Department hosted the last in a series of public hearings on the 1,700 mile pipeline. It would carry tar sand crude oil from Canada to Texas.

Graphic: New York Times

The Washington, D.C.  hearing drew the national news media’s attention.  In turn, the news reports that followed missed the most important point behind the controversial project.

They suggest the proposed pipeline is a trade-off pitting environmentalists against new jobs, lower oil prices and a dependable foreign oil supply.

 NPR reports: This one pits potential job growth versus environmental concerns.

The Washington Post reports: Hundreds of members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America filled the auditorium at Friday’s hearing; Brent Booker, who directs the union’s construction department, said the project will provide “thousands of jobs” to his members….Shortly afterward, two Nebraska women broke down in tears as they testified. Alaura Luebbe, a rancher’s daughter, sobbed as she spoke of her ranch being threatened by the project, while activist Jane Kleeb declared, “We are the Sand Hills lovers. We are the Ogallala Aquifer lovers. And we are begging you — not asking, we are begging you — to deny this pipeline permit.”

The real story: The Keystone XL pipeline is a litmus test of President Obama and our political leadership’s resolve to make a true commitment to alternative energy in America and ween ourselves from foreign energy reliance? It’s also a test of the American consumers’ ability to consume less energy and create less waste.

It won’t be easy. If our leaders, as well as and you and I are sincere about America’s  security, energy independence and guiding our own national destiny we can do this. A sustained move to alternative energy sources is a commitment we’re better off making today, before we deplete traditional energy sources, cause more pollution and burden future generations of Americans.

Dust hangs in the sunset sky above the Suncor Millennium mine, an open-pit north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Canada's oil sands are layers of sticky, tarlike bitumen mixed with sand, clay, and water. Around a hundred feet of soil must be stripped off to reach many deposits. Photo: Peter Essick, National Geographic

To be sure, other concerns have been expressed by opponents and supporters of the project. Supporters say the Keystone XL project could create 20,000 pipeline equipment and construction jobs, and give us lower oil prices courtesy of a more dependable foreign importer. Opponents say the costs will be  the pipeline’s “dirty” extraction process, human health problems, permanent damage to Canada’s forests and a pollution threat to places like Nebraska’s Sand Hills country and the Ogallala fresh water aquifer.

The mowed strip across Nebraska's Sand Hills counrtry is what plaintiff groups claim is evidence of Keystone XL pipeline construction before federal approval is granted for the project. Photo: Bruce McIntosh, Center for Biological Diversity

Conflicting jobs message: If the pipeline is approved, most or all of those 20,000 jobs will end when the construction’s complete. It should be noted that according to TransCanada data supplied to the State Department, the project will only create between 2,500 and 4,560 construction jobs in the U.S. A recent Cornell University report says “[the pipeline] will not be a major source of US jobs, nor will it play any substantial role at all in putting Americans back to work.”

Instead, lets get back to Barack Obama’s economic recovery plan of two years ago. It envisioned creating about 500,000 jobs by making new investments in clean energy, doubling the production of alternative energy over three years and improving the energy efficiency of government buildings and homes.

Lower oil prices? Maybe not. Here’s another reason Mr. Obama, the State Department and politicians from  both parties might be better off denying a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline-  Many pipeline supporters suggest it would lead to more stable or lower oil prices due to the new influx of up to 700,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Canada.

CNN reports: “For the Obama administration, having an answer to high prices will be much more important in 2012 than it is today,” said Kevin Book. managing director at the research firm ClearView Energy Partners. “We think it will get approved.”

According to a CTV report, the Keystone XL pipeline might actually increase oil prices. It would do so by reducing the crude oil over-supply problem in Cushing, Okla., one of the largest crude storage facilities in the world. Industry analysts say this has driven prices down.

Via CTV:  “We have a unique problem now with North American supply,” said Mike Ming, Secretary of Energy for the State of Oklahoma. “We’ve brought on more oil supply than we really have outlets to get it to market and it’s tended to bottle up at Cushing.”  Cushing is the prime delivery point for New York oil futures contracts and helps set the value of West Texas Intermediate, North America’s benchmark oil price.”The problem is, we’ve got too much oil in Cushing relative to our pipeline capacity to get it out to the Gulf Coast mainly, because that’s where the majority of the United States refining capacity is,” said Mike McDonald, the former Chair of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association… If it is approved, the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline would link Cushing to refineries on the Gulf Coast with a 500,000 barrel-a-day spur line, helping to relieve the glut and the pressure on West Texas Intermediate.

Conflict of interest? Finally, the proposed pipeline permit should be denied because of the real or perceived conflicts of interest involved in this project.

On October 7th, The New York times reported: The State Department assigned an important environmental impact study of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to a company with financial ties to the pipeline operator, flouting the intent of a federal law meant to ensure an impartial environmental analysis of major projects…The E.P.A. has criticized two prior draft environmental impact statements prepared by Cardno Entrix on Keystone XL as “inadequate” and providing “insufficient information,”

A few days earlier-

The New York Times reports: The State Department has also faced charges of political conflict of interest over its handling of the Keystone XL application because TransCanada’s chief Washington lobbyist, Paul Elliott, was a top official in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Beneath a green sweep of fen and forest in northern Alberta lies a promise of wealth—vast layers of hydrocarbons that can be refined into petroleum products like gasoline. Undisturbed until now, these trees may soon fall: This land has already been staked out by prospectors. Photo: Peter Essick, National Geographic

What is the state of our nation’s political accountability and transparency? Can we create sustainable energy policies that support our economy and democracy while, at the same time, provide America greater control of its destiny? These are real questions. The decision on the Keystone XL pipeline project will tell us if the Obama administration is truly willing to act in the best interests of our country and set us on a new course of self-reliance and energy sustainability.

What are your thoughts on the Keystone XL pipeline proposal? I’d like to know.

Social Security: Fixing the class gap

I have an idea that would keep Social Security from becoming insolvent in 2036. That’s when the Social Security trustees estimate Baby Boomers will tap the fund so heavily, that without fixes, Social Security will cover only about 75 percent of the benefits it’s supposed to pay retirees.

What is Social Security? It’s the federal retirement program Americans have relied on since the Great Depression some 76 years ago.

My solution to mend Social Security and keep it viable for future generations of Americans? Remove the Social Security payroll tax earnings cap and impose a flat Social Security payroll tax on all Americans.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act into law in 1935. Photo: Library of Congress

This year, the Social Security earnings cap is set at $106,800. U.S. taxpayers who earn more than that pay no Social Security payroll tax above $106,800.

According to a 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report, roughly 13% of Americans earn more than $115,997 annually. They pay no Social Security taxes past $106,800 of their annual income. This means the more income wealthier Americans earn above the Social Security payroll cap, the lower their Social Security tax rate.

Last year (2010), If I had an employer, we each paid a 6.2% payroll tax rate up to $106,800.
If I was self-employed, I paid a 12.4% payroll tax rate up to $106,800.


  • If I earned $213,600 my SS tax rate would have been 3.1% (employed) and 6.2% (self-employed).
  • If I earned $427,200 my SS tax rate would have been 1.55% (employed) and 3.1% (self-employed).
  • If I earned $854,400 my SS tax rate would have been .7525% (employed) and 1.55% (self-employed).

This 2011 tax year the law reduced the employee’s share of the Social Security payroll tax by 2 percent. Employers still contribute the same tax rate as in 2011. If I had an employer, I pay a 4.2% payroll tax rate up to $106,800. If I’m self-employed, I pay a 10.4% payroll tax rate up to $106,800.


  • If I earned $213,600 my SS tax rate would have been 2.1% (employed) and 5.2% (self-employed).
  • If I earned $427,200 my SS tax rate would have been 1.05% (employed) and 2.6% (self-employed).
  • If I earned $854,400 my SS tax rate would have been .5025% (employed) and 1.3% (self-employed).

The concept of a flat rate Social Security payroll tax for all Americans hardly represents class warfare against wealthier Americans. When you consider that  American taxpayers with lower incomes must spend disproportionately more of their annual income on basic living expenses (food, clothing, transportation, medical care, etc.), a Social Security flat tax still gives the edge to Americans with greater incomes.

Mr. President: What’s going on?

Mom, wife, CFO and military veteran Velma Hart asked President Obama a powerful question at a CNBC town hall meeting Monday.

“I’ve been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people and I’m waiting sir and I don’t feel it yet…..Is this my new reality?”

In The Daily Beast, John Cox, a longtime friend of Hart’s said: “Hart’s attitude is not new; her question fit right in line with their own conversations about the president. “I understood it completely and broke out laughing when I heard [her question] because I knew exactly what she was saying,” Cox said. The two had talked together about how “we care for [Obama], we want him to succeed, we voted for him, but we’re running out of patience.””

What do you think? Is Velma Hart right? What does President Obama need to do to help improve the lives of America’s middle class?

University of Nebraska students tackle 2010 USA National Games

This may be the most fun I’ve had as a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It’s exhausting, mostly fun and a fascinating experiment that combines journalism and advertising students, faculty and staff.

This class of 55 journalism and advertising students have been training 10 hours a day this week to document the Special Olympics 2010 USA National Games. Planning and coordination for the class began last year. Now, we’re off and running, sometimes even flying by the seat of our pants, as we do our darnedest to cover this amazing event.

About 3,000 Special Olympics athletes will compete in 13 different sports across the city of Lincoln. The games, which will be the largest multi-sport event in the state’s history, is expected to attract 15,000 family members and friends, 1,000 coaches, 8,000 volunteers and 30,000 fans.

University of Nebraska journalism and advertising students cover a 2010 USA National Games press conference.

When the USA National Games begin on Sunday our students will shift into high gear.

  • Journalism students will cover the USA National Games for the national news media.
  • Advertising students will provide sponsor documentation and exposure during the week long event.
  • Students will support the USA National Games Media Center which is operating 20 hours a day from Andersen Hall in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
  • Students will write, photograph and videotape the Special Olympics athletes competing in the 2010 USA National Games July 18-23rd in Lincoln, Neb.
  • Their content is being published on a 2010 USA National Games website for the news media and public to use.
  • Students will also produce and front reporting content for a nightly 5 CITY TV program about the 2010 USA National Games.

Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman (right) and 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games CEO Charles Cooper (left) don the official 2010 USA National Games sunglasses. Photo: Marcus Scheer

Today, students covered a press conference with Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman, 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games CEO Charles Cooper and other dignitaries talking about the upcoming event.

Besides the Special Olympic athletes, our students will be covering each one of the 13 competition venues; basketball, aquatics, tennis, power lifting, flag football, bocce, soccer, bowling, golf, track and field, rhythmic gymnastics, volleyball and softball.

Lincoln will play host to the athletes, their coaches, families and an estimated 30,000 spectators next week.

The athletes begin arriving Saturday in a massive airlift that will turn Lincoln Airport into one of the world’s busiest airports, according to Special Olympics officials. Our students will be there to document the event.

The economic impact of the 2010 USA National Games on Nebraska is estimated at $5-million. This is also part of the back story to the Games that our students are following.

This has been fun for me because it’s clearly fun for the students. They’re training and applying what they have learned as they cover this national event. They have enjoyed the challenge and are taking the initiative as they plan stories, work with each other and produce content.

The Special Olympics 2010 USA National Games is also an event involving some of America’s most inspiring athletes. They’re all coming to Lincoln later this week. Each has a story to tell. Our students will have the privilege of sharing many of those athlete’s stories with you. They will involve perseverance, character and an unrelenting can-do attitude.

So: Let the the Games begin.

*Special Olympics is an international organization that changes lives by encouraging and empowering people with intellectual disabilities, promoting acceptance for all, and fostering communities of understanding and respect worldwide.

FCC’s wireless mic ban imposes unfair burden

I’m thinking out loud here.

Five or six wireless microphones. It doesn’t sound like a lot.

Multiply that by thousands of wireless mics rendered useless by the federal government and it adds up.  It may place an unfair burden worth potentially millions of dollars on the owners of the mics.

The five wireless mics used by the  College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln operate on the 700 MHz frequency.  We use them for classroom and field student training.

The wireless mics work well.  We are throwing them away and will have to spend more money in a very tight budget year to buy new wireless mics because of a new Federal Communications Commission rule.

Last month, the FCC banned the use of the 700 MHz wireless mics for anyone but public safety workers and emergency first responders.

According to PC World, that FCC ban covers 300 models of wireless microphone and related components from 12 major manufacturers. All were  banned from operating in the 700MHz band after June 12. Here’s the list of outlawed wireless mics.

The back story:

The FCC’s action is a direct result of  the government’s auctioning off of lucrative parts of the broadcast spectrum for billions of dollars to commercial bidders.  It did this in 2008 as part of the digital TV transition and reallocated part of the 700 MHz spectrum for uses such as public safety and emergency response.

As PC World reports:

“The portion of the spectrum dedicated for police and fire departments failed to sell in an early 2008 auction that raised $19.6 billion for the U.S. treasury.”

Engadget.com reported that Verizon alone plunked down $4.7 billion to buy wireless turf in the 700 MHz spectrum.

Published reports quote one FCC official who estimated 10 to 12 percent of all wireless mics used the 700 MHz spectrum.  These are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of wireless mics used by colleges, churches, musicians, theater groups, theme parks, TV and radio stations, conference centers, even folks who bought karaoke machines for their homes.

Interesting note: You could still buy the 700 MHz mics from some retailers as recently as late last December.

The FCC’s new mandate renders all those mics and the money spent to buy them as obsolete.

  • The Columbus Dispatch says the Columbus Children’s Theatre used four of the wireless mics for musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar or The Wizard of Oz. The  four microphones that the theater used cost about $1,000 to $2,000 each.  “Now we have very expensive equipment that’s worthless,” said William Goldsmith, the theater’s artistic director. “There are thousands of these microphones around the country that are now worthless.”
  • The CBS station in Odessa, Texas says the First Baptist Church in Odessa had to spend $14,000 replacing 13 or 14 of the FCC banned wireless mics.  Across town, the Permian High School choir found out in May that it would have to buy an all new wireless mic system for its choir ensemble. All of their mics broadcast on the 700 MHz band, and they have until August to raise $15,000 for new microphones.
  • In a Bloomberg article this year, a spokesman for the Broadway League estimated that some New York City theaters would spend $100,000 to replace their mics.

The FCC offers no compensation for the inconvenience or monetary expense of replacing the banned 700 MHz wireless mics.   The FCC says those caught using 700 MHz equipment face fines, confiscation of their banned mics and potential criminal liability.

Here’s the FCC’s explanation:

Interference from wireless microphones can affect the ability of public safety groups to receive information over the air and respond to emergencies. Harmful interference to these communications could put you or public safety personnel in grave danger.

OK, but perhaps a bit of compassion by the FCC is in order here for the thousands of owners of these 700 MHz mics. Especially since the federal government made billions of dollars by selling portions of the broadcast frequencies.

One might argue that the FCC’s move is a form of eminent domain where the government uses its power to appropriate property (the broadcast spectrum and wireless mic equipment that goes with using it) for public use.

In the United States, owners of such appropriated property are entitled to reasonable compensation, usually defined as the fair market value of the property.

Here’s my proposal: The FCC should use a small portion of that $19.6 billion raised from the U.S. government’s commercial auction of the broadcast spectrum. Create a fund to reimburse schools, churches, theater groups, musicians, theme parks, TV and radio stations, conference centers and karaoke fans who bought the 700 MHz mics. Through no fault of their own, they have been ordered by the FCC to trash their mics. The FCC can even set depreciated reimbursement values on the used mics based on the age of the equipment.

That’s just my own suggestion. I believe it would make the FCC look less capricious and more sympathetic to owners (they pay taxes too) who got stuck holding the bag,  I mean wireless mics, when the 700 MHz ban hit in June.

One more note: Some mic manufacturers have offered rebates to purchasers of 700 MHz wireless mic equipment. Shure and Sennheiser are two of them.