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The Consortium of Investigative Journalists strikes again
The Guardian underscores an unceasing reality of 21st century life: "Most people do not understand the complexities of offshore tax. They have no need to — because they do not have enough money to consider the schemes and arrangements that are on offer in tax havens. The 'ordinary' world and the 'offshore' world have coexisted for decades, separated by the secrecy that remains one of the important attractions of the sector."
For the sixth time in five years, The Guardian is now part of a media army worldwide that's shedding light on the secrecy, this time via "The Paradise Papers." It follows "The Panama Papers" from last year. No surprise, it was the No. 1 trending item worldwide on Twitter for much of the day. The whole project is again led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, this time involving 13.4 million records and 380 journalists from 96 news organizations working on six continents in 30 languages.
Here's a synopsis and all the relevant links via Quartz.
It got big play in many places, ranging from splashy play (you can find Germany and English versions after clicking) in Suddeutsche Zeitung, the German paper that was the central recipient of the leaks of both the Panama Papers and the new Paradise Papers), to an hour-long Vice HBO special today at 7 p.m. And, no surprise, The New York Times.
The consortium's own summary heralds how the effort "exposes ties between Russia and U.S. President Donald Trump’s billionaire commerce secretary, the secret dealings of the chief fundraiser for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the offshore interests of the queen of England and more than 120 politicians around the world."
"The leaked documents … show how deeply the offshore financial system is entangled with the overlapping worlds of political players, private wealth and corporate giants, including Apple, Nike, Uber and other global companies that avoid taxes through increasingly imaginative bookkeeping maneuvers."
"One offshore web leads to Trump’s commerce secretary, private equity tycoon Wilbur Ross, who has a stake in a shipping company that has received more than $68 million in revenue since 2014 from a Russian energy company co-owned by the son-in-law of Russian President Vladimir Putin."
But though the Ross connection led The Times story, and much American coverage, there are names far better known worldwide who surfaced in the investigation of offshore funds, including Queen Elizabeth, Madonna and Bono. Here's a decent Guardian summary of the reaction; a BBC tale of a former prominent British Conservative Party official running to hide in the john when confronted by a reporter; and how the business manager of the late INXS singer Michael Hutchence set up a company in the tax haven of Mauritius to exploit his image and records.
Mike Hudson, senior editor for the consortium, shed light on the substance and methods of the latest project during halftime of an epic (not) soccer game I was attending between teams of 8-year-olds (though it did have an array of rather vocal parents from around the globe).
How does this flow from your last major effort on tax havens?
This is the sixth "offshore leak" project that we have released since 2013 — following Offshore Leaks, China Leaks, Luxembourg Leaks, Swiss Leaks and Panama Papers. So ICIJ and our partners have established ourselves as the journalistic experts on investigating giant leaks of records about offshore bank accounts, shell companies, trusts, etc.
This project seemed like a natural next-place-to-go from the Panama Papers, because the leaks differed in that they were more global — from more than 20 offshore jurisdictions. More than half of the documents (almost 7 million out of the 13.4 million total) came from a [Bermuda] law firm, Appleby Global, that is a more mainstream, more prestigious firm than the law firm that was the source of the Panama Papers.
Other factors that helped make the new project something that advanced us beyond what we learned from the previous project:
— The new trove of documents had lots of details about complex tax gyrations involving multinational companies (Apple, Uber, Nike etc.), which were largely absent from the Panama Papers.
— There were a lot more Americans in these new documents than in the Panama Papers.
Were there any key leaks like the last time when, if I recall, a German paper found itself in possession of a treasure trove of leaked data?
Our long-time partner, the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, got the big leak that produced the Panama Papers effort. SZ also got the series of leaks that make up the new Paradise Papers documents.
For an American audience, what are the most relevant facts or individuals involved? Whom might they know?
At least 31,000 of the individual and corporate clients included in Appleby’s records are U.S. citizens or have U.S. addresses, more than from any other country. Appleby also counted clients from the United Kingdom, China and Canada among its biggest sources of business. There are a number of Trump-related folks in the data — big donors, a couple of cabinet members and other appointees. Also of interest is our story about the chief fundraiser for a politician of a decidedly different cast than Trump: Justin Trudeau.
Offshore use isn't limited by political ideology. Another lesson I take away from this investigation is that offshore isn't just a collection of tiny island havens — it's a global system that relies on not just out-of-the-way financial secrecy jurisdictions but also major banks, onshore law firms and accounting firms who play a crucial role in the shadow economy.
Expand on the involvement of journalists worldwide.
More than 380 journalists from 96 news organizations working in 67 countries on six continents in 30 languages. The New York Times was our U.S. partner (this is the first time the NYT has worked with us from the beginning to end on a project. We brought them into the Panama Papers investigation a few weeks AFTER the first wave of stories came out in April 2016. For the Paradise Papers, the NYT was there from the start, including having folks at a big organizing meeting in Munich early this year — a few months into the project — that brought together more than 100 journalists from around the world.)
What's really illegal? Or what would you guys argue is most debatable? What's the difference here between lawful, if aggressive skirting of paying taxes and illegality?
Owning an offshore bank account or an offshore company isn't necessarily illegal. People often use offshore entities in ways that are entirely legal and even innocuous. But creating shell companies that often are difficult, or impossible, to trace back to their owners provides refuge and deniability for money launderers, drug traffickers, kleptocrats and others who want to operate in the shadows. Big companies often use byzantine offshore tax-avoidance structures that drain billions from national treasuries. These structures are usually legal — at least until governments get around to closing loopholes and declaring certain structures illegal. (Of course the companies and their quick-witted advisers are almost always able to find new loopholes and new structures that do the trick for them.)
Finally, who got the final say on the final edit of the latest batch of stories? How the hell did that work?
Each media partner maintains independence in terms of what they publish or broadcast. We all agree to share information and agree to all come out with our stories at the same time. But each news organization — including ICIJ — chooses, writes and edits stories in the way that best serves its own audience.
And then there's Twitter and Facebook …
As Recode notes, "Facebook and Twitter received major investments from a firm with ties to Kremlin-owned corporations."
"The documents reveal for the first time that Kremlin-owned corporations VTB Bank and Gazprom helped fund DST Global’s investment in Facebook and Twitter. DST Global, helmed by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, received $191 million from VTB Bank — part of which was used to obtain a large stake in Twitter, ICIJ reported."
"For its investment in Facebook, DST Global partnered with an offshore company heavily funded by Russian-owned energy corporation, Gazprom."
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The Texas church shooting
There were so many correspondents in Sutherland Springs, Texas, including CNN "New Day" co-host Chris Cuomo, that Fox reporter Todd Piro said in the morning dark, "The only sounds you hear are other reporters on the scene, and generators."
There were also the in-house studio sounds back in New York of conservatives already getting defensive on the guns issue. It included bashing President Obama for suggesting the need to reduce "the weaponry in our midst." In other words, said "Fox and Friends" co-host Steve Doocy, "gun control." Boo-hoo, they don't like that since, of course, it's got to be a "mental health issue," as Trump said in Japan
Cuomo and CNN put up a simple graphic: "Las Vegas, 58 Killed; New York City, 8 Killed; Texas Church: 26 Killed." And, it was on a well-practiced post-tragedy auto-pilot as it dragged in relatives and friends of victims to ask what they were going through. No rest for the weary and shocked.
On "Morning Joe," Joe Scarborough said "We've got to stop as members of the media revealing the names of these mass shooters. I want to know their background, why they do it but it makes no sense in this era of copy-cat mass shootings for the media to give somebody's name … Does the cable media culture, talk radio culture, online culture, don't they just create more mass shooters in the future?"
There's not a vast academic literature on the point but what there is doesn't necessarily convince that censorship is the way to go, as opposed to judicious editing. As Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina psychologist and New York Times columnist, put it to New York magazine after the Las Vegas shootings: "It means not putting the killer’s face on loop. It means minimizing or not using the killers’ names, as I have done here. It means not airing snuff films, or making them easily accessible on popular sites. It means holding back reporting of details such as the type of gun, ammunition, angle of attack and the protective gear the killer might have worn. Such detailed reporting can give the next killer a concrete road map."
Larry David's SNL concentration camp jokes
There were many who were not happy campers with host David's Holocaust jokes on "Saturday Night Live," as Variety made clear. And they also weren't very funny. The Washington Post wondered whether it was bad taste or bad comedy. It was both
CNBC on the NFL's bigger problem
Here's a good CNBC piece on the status of science in figuring out and dealing with a problem a lot more onerous to the NFL than bad ratings, namely brain injuries.
Michael Lewis on his modus operandi
C-Span's Steve Scully did a fine three-hour interview with Michael Lewis, who maintains that aspiring journalists should use his modus operandi as a road map, other than making sure to do something beyond journalism. In his case, it was two and a half years on Wall Street. "That attached engines to my ambition, to have that actual experience to write about."
And what topic has him jazzed right now? Lewis (who doesn't do social media) tells Scully it is "righting the federal government," in light of voluminous volumes of briefing books the Obama administration passed along to its successors that have apparently not generally been heeded. He did a good piece in September Vanity Fair on the Energy Department. Now comes a Vanity Fair opus on the Department of Agriculture. There's more to come, he says.
And, yes, that's not a mistake. It's a thoroughly enjoyable three hours. It includes his talking baseball, football, Nobel Prize economics, high frequency stock trading and about what author he'd love to write about him, though he does think he'd be a boring subject (as he believes is the case with most journalists). But, come to think of it, he says, maybe a journalist with the ability to entertain, namely the late George Plimpton.
A terrific Joan Didion biography on Netflix, "Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold," is ultimately about love and grief but it should also be a spur for viewers not really familiar with some of her work to check out her great journalism. It's journalism with the novelist's eye, including on the ugly war in El Salvador and on American politics, including Dick Cheney. Check it out.
On the road with the president
From Tokyo, pool reporter Mike Bender of The Wall Street Journal was on duty when Trump went to dinner: "For the foodies out there: dinner tonight included Hokkaido scallop & white truffle salad; sautéed shizuoka’s ise ebi bisque; tajima beef steak, according to a Japanese official."
Donna Brazile, petty pundit
For sure, The Washington Post clarification is embarrassing amid its reporting of political operative-pundit Donna Brazile's new book bashing (in part) the Hillary Clinton campaign. "Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the process that Donna Brazile considered initiating to have Hillary Clinton replaced as the Democratic presidential nominee. As interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, Brazile was not empowered to replace her unilaterally. Reactions from former Clinton campaign officials have also been added."
That said, the ultimate embarrassment is largely possessed by Brazile. The un-rebutted excerpts out so far are evidence of petty and angry score-settling with Clinton and of a wayward self-image as victim. Brazile, whose predictable articulation of the liberal Democratic establishment has made her a longtime TV pundit fixture, might find it a bit difficult to land another such gig, and certainly one in Democratic politics.
Even if sales are robust, including among Clinton-hating Republicans, this might just be a tale of professional self-immolation — unless, of course, some cable network (Fox?) throws her a lifeline.
The decline of alternative weeklies
As a former alternative weekly publisher, I thought I knew a bit about the species' rise and fall. Nope, not close. Check out "The Death of the Alt-Weekly As Told By An Industry Lifer" in libertarian Reason. It's a long, detailed and provocative (namely harsh) saga by Gustavo Arellano, who split last month as editor of OC Weekly, not long after the Village Voice published its final print edition. The death of the Voice print version fits with his general thrust.
"More damning was the stream of hosannas put forth by alt-week alumni about the supposed glory days — so many, that the Columbia Journalism Review ridiculed such nostalgia as 'hoary remembrances.'"
"Such cynicism was right. The fact is, alt-weeklies long ago condemned themselves to a slow, pitiful death. They had an amazing advantage to conquer the digital age, because they were historically younger, ostensibly hipper, and seemingly more open to evolve than the media dinosaurs they so gleefully mocked. Their legacy defines a modern-day media landscape dominated by Vice, Buzzfeed, podcasts, Instagrammers, and other outlets that inherited the alt-weekly emphasis on point of view, individualism, and creating a self-contained universe for consumers."
"But the alts blew it. They're even more imperiled now than the dailies, which can at least count on big-ticket advertisers too afraid to buy space in papers that drop f-bombs. Alt-weeklies find themselves in a position much like the baby boomers who launched most of them: stuck in the past, oblivious to the present, and increasingly obsolete."
Amid the Texas tragedy
The San Antonio Express-News did a solid job in covering Sunday's church tragedy. But somebody might have thought to drop a bunch of adjacent tales on its website. They included: "Mexican revolutionaries honored in San Antonio," "Annual haute cuisine gala at the Witte got S.A. dancing." "Diwali festival delights downtown with parade, fireworks," "Rappers and pop stars photographed with the Spurs" and "Wurstfest has begun — here's the festival over the years."
Trump's latest official photographic portrait
In PetaPixel, Florida photographer Doug Jackson analyzes (in very intimate professional detail) the recently released second Trump official portrait.
"I would agree that Trump’s new portrait is an improvement upon the one previously distributed. But as a photographer and someone involved with policy work, my take is that President Trump’s newly released official portrait is terrible (especially when viewed next to Pence’s). And most curious about both of Trump’s portraits is this intentional, hard light source placed below the subject (sinister lighting technique.) This just strikes me as odd. I cannot help but wonder if Trump himself is insisting that he be photographed this way?"