June 22, 2018

‘Does any company want its logo on the page next to a kid in a cage?’

The worldwide outcry over the Trump administration’s division of migrant families has prompted investigative journalism on several fronts:

Which companies are profiting? Are these centers and — now — indefinite internment camps pushed by President Trump safe? Sanitary? Is there physical abuse occurring, as the Associated Press reported? Forced injections of powerful psychiatric drugs to child detainees, as Reveal reported? Are tech companies that denounced family separation behind creepier ICE enforcement that is helping fill these camps, as NBC News reported?

NBC News’ Ben Collins tells me that his story about the latter came from public records searches and digging down, through handwritten notes, to find startling examples of apparent hypocrisy among the tech companies. He took care to exclude generic contracts, like photocopiers, from, as he puts it, “the most dystopian parts of ICE.” Separately, Yahoo News's Hunter Walker used GovTribe.com to track down the companies that have made millions from these detainee camps.

“I told people we were Fahrentholding it, writing down all this money that was moving around,” says Collins, referring to Pulitzer-winner David Fahrenthold and the now-famous legal pads he used to track irregularities in Trump charities.

Collins offers a few tips for reporters seeking to localize or probe companies with ICE ties:

  1. Look through the paperwork. “A ton of the stuff is available, Find things that look weird to you” and follow up.
  2. Remember, local reporters have an advantage. In a specific community with a company contracting with ICE or other agencies, ”they know somebody who knows somebody … They also can use the world’s most original social network: They can go to a nearby bar.”
  3. Be sure to seek comment from the companies involved. Collins and reporting intern Meghan Sullivan reached out to all the companies, but only got significant contributions from one. On one level, he understands. “Does any company want its logo on the page next to a kid in a cage?”
  4. Post something, even if it covers just a few aspects of the story. “Get stories out there, and people will come to you.”

Collins urges perspective as well. Before knocking Thomson Reuters, the news and information conglomerate whose special services division is doing data work for ICE, understand that 13 big companies bid for that $6.8 million contract in March. IBM, Booz Allen Hamilton, PricewaterhouseCoopers and LexisNexis were among the bidders.

“They knew. They all knew about the expansion of ICE, the less-ethical routes,” Collins said, “and they were okay with it.”

Collins was particularly struck by immigration policy criticism from Microsoft, which has an ICE cloud computing contract, and from executives at Facebook, which counts Palantir Technology chairman Peter Thiel as one of its nine board members. NBC reported that Palantir has had a $39 million ICE contract since 2015, using a proprietary intelligence database to track immigrants’ records and relationships.

A final note from Collins: He emphasized that many government contracts are for routine items, not expanded profiling. Also: “Not every company with a government contract is supporting this, and their silence doesn’t mean it's supporting it.”

What we're seeing

New Yorker cover
New Yorker/Barry Blitt. Used with permission.

'YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE': That's the title of Barry Blitt's haunting cover in the upcoming New Yorker, out next week. Stories like the child migrant crisis break through usual partisan divides, Blitt tells the New Yorker. "The outrage and disgust is justified and real, and needs to be paid attention to."

Quick hits

LET US IN: Photojournalists should be allowed to accompany politicians inside the Trump immigration detention centers, the National Press Photographers Association argues. Immigration officials have prevented video or photographs from inside the camps, forcing America to see only one-sided images handed out by the government itself instead of independently shot photographs that document what's really going on. "This is unacceptable," the press photographers association said. 

IT'S BAD. IT'S VIRAL. WHY?: Well, people want to share higher-quality stuff, but there is the limited attention span, plus three biases: In the brain, in society and in the machine. From Nieman Lab.

WHY THE FT QUIT FB: It's Facebook's political ads policy, Jon Slade tells Digiday's Brian Morrissey. 

TRUE CONFESSIONS: Donna Minkowitz did the first story on what eventually became the film "Boys Don't Cry." She looks back on her reporting — and one huge mistake she made

LET US COMPETE: A new study shows that journalism grants have given short shrift to diversity, equality and inclusion, says the Democracy Fund. Here's a glance at grants from 2009 to 2015. You get the picture.

Inequity in journalism grants
A jarring look at journalism grant funding, via a Democracy Fund study

What we're reading

'WE LOVE YOU': They showed up by the hundreds at LaGuardia Airport last night with that simple, three-word message, seeking to combat the cruelty of the Trump administration. These well-wishers greeted the kids flying in from Texas by ICE, which is still separating them thousands of miles from their parents.

SNEAK PEEK: The National Enquirer would give Trump's camp a look at stories about him before publication and allow him to make changes, The Washington Post reports. The tabloid even gave Trump's team a story about Hillary Clinton's health before it was published.

MOVE HERE, COLLECT A BONUS: Communities in Nebraska, Michigan and Vermont are offering thousands of dollars to people to work there.

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Thanks to Ren LaForme for editing this.

And have a good Friday and weekend ahead. Catch you on Monday. 

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