How 'The Paradise Papers' tax evasion reporting relates to real lives

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After the blockbuster premiere, a great revelation is unnoticed

John Oliver was biting during his HBO season finale last night on how dissecting President Trump's words can underscore his incoherence and only prompt futility for the media and other outsiders. Knock on wood that's not quite the same with the more than 13.4 million documents constituting "The Paradise Papers," namely the latest tale of elites' tax evasion as detailed by 380 journalists from 96 organizations.

On a chilly Chicago soccer field Sunday morning, a young tech executive asked me about them and why disclosure of tax havens used by Apple, Queen Elizabeth, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Bono and others made much of a difference. It's all mostly legal, right?

For sure, they are legal, if unseemly, in the premeditated complexity and confusion by those who benefit from them. And, for sure, connections between the tax avoidance and real world concerns can be hard to understand. So it's fortunate that a fabulous story produced days after the initial, synchronized release of stories on Nov. 5 eliminates any confusion or incoherence and makes such a connection better than some of the initially wonderfully reported tales overseen by the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Indeed, "Development Dreams Stand Still While Mining Money Moves Offshore" is by the consortium's own Will Fitzgibbon, who runs its Africa desk and traveled to the tiny landlocked West African nation Burkina Faso, which is home to a zinc mine owned by Nantou Mining S.A., a subsidiary of the Swiss commodity giant Glencore PLC.

This exhibits a tie between tax avoidance and locals getting shafted, namely a zinc mine taking advantage of offshore tax havens while both its workers and neighbors suffer awful poverty and environmental degradation. In sum:

"Details from leaked Glencore records reveal a story of contrasts. As villagers struggled with hunger, poverty and other hardships, boardroom machinations in faraway Switzerland, Bermuda and other tax havens moved millions of dollars into – and then out of – the small African nation whose name means 'Land of Honest Men.'"

"The details are revealed in files – containing multimillion-dollar sales contracts, board of directors’ decisions, budgets and emails – from the blue-chip Bermuda law firm Appleby. The files document its relationship with the mining company’s parent, Glencore, one of the world’s largest metals, oil and grain traders."

The documents are among the more than 13.4 million analyzed by the consortium, Süddeutsche Zeitung and 94 media partners, including The New York Times, Guardian and Vice, which "reveal how Glencore made secret payments, battled cash-strapped countries in court, and sought to reduce its tax bill in nations around the world."

Along the way, the consortium discovered "a confidential assessment by Burkina Faso’s tax office that accuses the Glencore subsidiary of abusing tax loopholes and creating fictitious charges by shell companies to reduce taxable earnings and avoid paying tens of millions of dollars in taxes to one of the world’s poorest countries."

Glencore denies improprieties but this is a damning window into the nexus of avoidance and related injustice, in particular how it involves workers seen by some as de facto slaves (which the company denies) at the country's biggest zinc mine (where housing built for workers "lies largely empty and abandoned," while a foundation meant to distribute money for social development has fallen way short).

As Mike Hudson, senior editor of the consortium, put it Sunday, "We've struggled to do these kinds of on-the-ground impact stories throughout our offshore leaks investigations, because the harms caused by offshore secrecy and chicanery are, while real and potent, usually indirect (fewer tax dollars for governments means less money for schools and hospitals, etc.) The elaborate layering of offshore tax and secrecy structures often means there are many layers of insulation between questionable activities and their ultimate effects on real people."

New editor at Vanity Fair

The word got out that Radhika Jones, now a New York Times book editor and a former editor at Time, will succeed Graydon Carter as editor of Vanity Fair. At first blush, it sounds like a smart choice.

Michael Duffy, the longtime estimable reporter and editor at Time who recently left the magazine, worked with her daily and said, "She's gonna be great. Radhika is a curious, engaging and yet tough-minded editor with great range and skill as well as a keen sense of fun. ... VF and its readers are in for a treat."

Dean Baquet, editor of The Times, says, "She is one of the broadest editors around. She knows
books, art and politics. And she is a wonderful colleague. It was a smart hire."

Think, too, of what this says about the bench strength of the Times — and the lack of same at nearly all American newspapers. Vanity Fair plucks a talent from the book section, who's probably not especially well known among a lot of the rank and file. Oh, yeah, a real book section! Remember when even major regional papers had one?

Great reporting

The New York Times opens with an amazing anecdote of a cybersecurity consultant, Jake Williams, who looked at a tweet during an Orlando training session and realized he'd been outed as a former ace National Security Agency hacker (part of its Tailored Access Operations). Scott Shane, Nicole Perlroth and David Sanger disclose how that revelation "was part of a much broader earthquake that has shaken the N.S.A. to its core."

"Current and former agency officials say the Shadow Brokers disclosures, which began in August 2016, have been catastrophic for the N.S.A., calling into question its ability to protect potent cyberweapons and its very value to national security. The agency regarded as the world’s leader in breaking into adversaries’ computer networks failed to protect its own."

'60 Minutes' and gymnasts

The news show interviewed star U.S. Olympics gymnast Aly Raisman, who alleged sexual abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics doctor. 

The key work on this whole topic in recent years, especially in revealing the odious actions of Nassar, has been by the USA Today Network and the Indianapolis Star. As the accurate boilerplate of their stories notes:

"The abuse did not become public until two former gymnasts told The Indianapolis Star last year that they were abused by Nassar during the 1990s and early 2000s. They said he molested them during multiple treatments. The Indianapolis Star is part of the USA Today Network."

"According to the Lansing State Journal, also part of the USA Today Network, more than 140 women and girls have since said Nassar sexually abused them, with nearly all of them saying it happened during medical appointments."

Headline of the day

"Mueller Immediately Closes Investigation After Hearing Putin Proclaim His Innocence"

Thanks, Borowitz Report.

Close second (from GQ)

"Keurig Pulled Its Ads from Hannity and Now His Fans Are Trying to Boycott Bad Coffee"

Morning Babel

"Trump & Friends" heralded their guy talking trade in Manila (while co-hosts Brian Kilmeade and Ainsley Earhardt pushed their own new books, including a look at their book tour appearance in Jacksonville, Florida). As for Trump, there was his so-called "breakout " with the Australian leader, a chance "to focus on trade deals and market access for American products." And there he was with Rodrigo Duterte, the murderous, anti-drugs zealot Philippines leader.

Roy Moore? That was a favorite topic at "New Day," as it offered the problematic vision of Moore having to sit down for a deposition in a potential lawsuit (of which there is no certainty). Meanwhile, Trump's Vladimir Putin comments over the weekend were the talk of "Morning Joe" (which was without Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough but very good with substitutes Nicolle Wallace-John Heilemann) even as he walked those back in apparently now playing nice with the intelligence community "as currently constituted." And now there's word that Breitbart sent reporters to probe Moore's accusers, as Axios lays out. There's ample coverage of Moore, too, in the primary Birmingham, Alabama website, including a quiet morning at the church he's not attended the last few weeks.

CNN's fate

Bloomberg's Joe Nocera looks at the Department of Justice fumbling over the proposed AT&T-Time-Warner merger, with rumors swirling about Justice Department pressure to unload CNN. "Trump's Already Tainted U.S. Antitrust Lawyers — However the Justice Department rules on the AT&T-Time Warner deal, the reek of politics will linger."

Chris Wallace on journalism

The International Center for Journalists gave an award to Fox's Chris Wallace, with the Washington stalwart making the case, "I believe that some of our colleagues — many of our colleagues — think this president has gone so far over the line to bash the media it has given them an excuse to cross the line themselves, to push back. And as tempting as that may be, I think it's a big mistake."

"That doesn't mean we’re stenographers. If the president or anyone we're covering says something untrue or does something clearly over the line, we can and should report that," Wallace said.

"But we shouldn't be drawn into becoming players on the field, trying to match the people we cover in invective. It's not our role. We're not as good at it as they are. And we’re giving up our special place in our democracy. There's enough to report about this president that we don't need to offer opinions or put our thumb on the scale. Be as straight and accurate and dispassionate as we first learned to be as reporters."

Embattled Goodell seeks a $50 million salary

ESPN somewhat buried its own late-morning exclusive on its website (not on air) Sunday. NFL reporters Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen reported on negotiations over a new contract for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who heads one of the most profitable of antitrust-exempt nonprofits:

"The committee will address Goodell's salary and compensation package. The last written counterproposal from Goodell, which was around the first of August, was seeking about $49.5 million per year, as well as the lifetime use of a private jet and lifetime health insurance for his family, according to a source familiar with the negotiations."

Frances Fitzgerald on Ken Burns

Reviewing the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick Vietnam War series on PBS and accompanying book in The New York Review of Books, journalist-author Frances Fitzgerald writes: 

"For those under forty, for whom the Vietnam War seems as distant as World War I or II, the film will serve as an education; for those who lived through it, the film will serve as a reminder of its horrors and of the official lies that drove it forward. In many ways it is hard to watch, and its battle scenes will revive the worst nightmares of those who witnessed them firsthand."

Group think 

Sportswriters should be barred from listening to one another before making predictions. Or to local sports radio. The boosterish conventional wisdom in Chicago all week was that the truly awful Bears — their offense is only slightly superior to that of the high school, any high school, nearest you — would upend (for the first time in ages in Chicago) the injury-riddled but inherently superior Green Bay Packers.

All seven Chicago Tribune sportswriters who made predictions in Sunday's paper said the Bears would win. At the Sun-Times, four of five predicted the Bears. Only columnist Rick Morrissey went with the Packers, 17-14.

The Packers won, 23-16.

P.T Barnum's political past.

If your mother says she loves you, check it out. I reported on a Chicago appearance by Kevin Young, poetry editor of The New Yorker, who's written a book on bunk, hoaxes and fake news, in part tying the American tradition to pernicious notions of race. In comparing of P.T Barnum and Trump, he said Barnum had run unsuccessfully for office. 

Thanks to reader Ellen Sandhaus, for correcting us: Barnum was elected mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1875 and had previously served in the state legislature.

The limits of the Arab Spring

Jon Evans, a novelist-journalist-software engineer, writes in TechCrunch:

"Remember the Arab Spring? 'Revolution 2.0'? Remember how we imagined, full of triumphal optimism, that social media would become the web that knit the oppressed masses better, would empower them to join together and overthrow their oppressors and stride shoulder-to-shoulder together into a better world?"

"Yeah, those were the days. But now — 'disillusioned' hardly begins to describe it. I write to you from Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s poster child, now a secular democracy; but even here, in this lovely country full of hospitable people, whose downtown hipsters and students thronging the Carthage Film Festival could be teleported to Brooklyn or the Mission and not look one whit out of place, today’s headlines inform me that the nationwide state of emergency has been extended yet again."

A book for economics writers

"Cents and Sensibility," a book by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro of Northwestern University (the latter is the president there and an economist), got a nice Sunday review in The Washington Post that economics writers might check out. As the review notes, value investing is an approach, not a prescription, and lots of nuance is missed by economists.

The two men, who outlined their thesis at a Chicago Humanities Festival event Sunday, "do not exactly say that mathematics ruined economics, but they think it," wrote the Post. "They want economists to talk to people in the humanities. They think public policy could he improved by Tolstoy, infused with an ethical sensibility."

As Morson put it Sunday, "You can't mathematicize culture," his point being that data will only get you so far in understanding different societies. You're better off reading great literature, especially to understand the complexities of human motivation that can impact economic policies. They both noted one recent study in which the majority of economists surveyed said they had nothing to learn from other fields to assist them in their work. Of those who said there were fields that provided insight, the one they pointed to the most was "finance," which is pretty much the same thing as economics, a droll (and disbelieving) Shapiro noted.

Smaller than a footnote

As for the president's trek to Manila (with reference to his talking to reporters, or a "gaggle," on Air Force One), The New York Times' Mark Landler informed colleagues:

"Passing along an addendum from Saturday's pooler Ashley Parker, in response to some questions:"

"Air Force One took noticeably longer than scheduled to fly between Da Nang and Hanoi. Here's what happened: President Trump arrived at the airport in Da Nang ahead of schedule, meaning he was going to be early for the formal arrival ceremony in Hanoi, for which people had traveled for hours to participate in. The White House needed to delay their arrival, so Air Force One took off, but then flew about an hour due south of Da Nang, before turning around and heading back up to Hanoi, to kill time. (This led to a highly amusing, if confusing, in-flight map of our route)."

"Also, during the president's gaggle on the flight, even as Trump was making news on Russia, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was outwardly calm and never tried to cut him off/end the gaggle/change the topic."

The stoicism and patience of Sanders is hereby commended with the deepest gratitude. 

Liz Smith

Robert McFadden, 80 and now a senior writer on The New York Times obituary desk, is the byline on its Liz Smith obituary:

"Liz Smith, the longtime queen of New York’s tabloid gossip columns, who for more than three decades chronicled little triumphs and trespasses in the soap-opera lives of the rich, the famous and the merely beautiful, died on Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 94."

"From hardscrabble nights writing snippets for a Hearst newspaper in the 1950s to golden afternoons at Le Cirque with Sinatra or Hepburn and tête-à-tête dinners with Madonna to gather material for columns that ran six days a week, Ms. Smith captivated millions with her tattletale chitchat and, over time, ascended to fame and wealth that rivaled those of the celebrities she covered."

"A self-effacing, good-natured, vivacious Texan who professed to be awed by celebrities, Ms. Smith was the antithesis of the brutal columnist J.J. Hunsecker in Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s screenplay for 'Sweet Smell of Success,' which portrayed sinister power games in a seamy world of press agents and nightclubs."

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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