June 4, 2018

He worked for the richest man in the world. He was an energetic hiker and lover of the outdoors — and a hard-charging science writer for The Washington Post (where we worked together).

In 2012, Brian Vastag was felled by a fever. He’s never recovered. The science reporter was stricken by what he calls “the most forlorn of orphan illnesses” — myalgic encephalomyelitis, or "painful inflammation of the brain and spine." It’s commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome, a vague and misunderstood condition.

The insurance company dropped Vastag’s short-term disability and denied his bid for long-term disability. Last week, a federal judge ordered Prudential to pay up, in a decision that offered hope to those with ME. The judge was appalled that Prudential produced “experts” who counseled “working through” the illness, which is known to make it worse. Here’s the ruling.

Vastag was relatively fortunate. He had high-powered champions. He had written an open letter to the head of the National Institutes of Health to use him to research the little-known disease and to increase research funding for the disease, which has happened.

Nonetheless, “it's a terrible way to go through life, especially so for someone who not so long ago made a good living with his brain,” he wrote in 2015.

Health journalist Miriam E. Tucker, who has written on the Vastag case, says the court ruling could have broad effects — and it could be a wake-up call for publishers and others who have faced such claims from their employees. Tucker tweeted Saturday that it is a “major recognition that the illness known as ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ isn't simply ‘fatigue.’ It's debilitating and often forces people to give up their livelihoods."

Readers, have you or do you know of anyone who has gotten ME, in or outside of journalism? Were the claims treated seriously? Has your company evolved in its view of ME? Let me know at dbeard@poynter.org. Thanks! Now here’s today’s roundup.

Quick hits

WHAT’S UP IN PITTSBURGH?: The Post-Gazette's new editorial director has refused to publish recent cartoons from the paper’s highly acclaimed cartoonist, Rob Rogers.

The new editorial director, reports wesu.fm, is the same person who wrote an editorial appearing to excuse racism that was published on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Here are two of at least five Rogers cartoons shelved recently:


A BRIGHT FUTURE: At 69, David Cay Johnston says he’s too old to try a different subject focus, but if he were an entrepreneurial journalist, he’d look at two fields where there is reader hunger and the possibility “to avoid a hand-to-mouth existence.” His picks? Animal reporting and reporting on water. In both cases, he advised a social media conference at CUNY, you should learn deeply about niches (hydrology, chemistry, climate issues for water) and be able to explain them to ordinary people. Johnston says that if you could bring the passion and focus that Martha Stewart has with home products, you could make a fortune.

THINK ABOUT THE AUDIENCE FIRST: If you do that, the metric impacts may follow, says ProPublica’s Adriana Gallardo. Speaking at the conference at CUNY on Saturday, she says ProPublica first asks itself questions like: Who is this story for? Who will be most affected? How might we reach them? ProPublica’s experience has been that if they focus on the audience first, they can succeed at the usual social media issues (hashtags, time on site, scroll depth, video views, what’s up with Facebook?) Here’s a slide:

THE POWER OF AUDIO: Michael Lewis, the best-selling author, is leaving Vanity Fair after a decade. Where to? Audible. Huh? Alexandra Alter explains.

HOW JOURNALISTS STOPPED NAZIS AND RACISTS FROM SEIZING THE AGENDA: In the past, there were ways to shut down Nazis even in a society committed to free speech, writes Joan Donovan and danah boyd. The case for “strategic silence.”

THE WAR AGAINST IMMIGRANTS: Republican candidates are falling in behind President Trump to flood the airwaves with demonizations against immigrants and "sanctuary cities," writes Sean Sullivan. In several Rust Belt cities saved by three generations of Mexican immigrants, those small businessmen, sensing they are not wanted, are throwing in the towel on the dreams they worked so long to make and leaving for Mexico. Civic leaders are concerned the hard-line rhetoric may doom their fragile return, writes Alfredo Corchado.

SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN INFOPRENEUR?: Four journalism enterprise founders describe why and how they made the leap. Says Kurt Andersen: “I was trying to not have a job.” Via Columbia Journalism Review’s Gabriel Snyder.

NEXT: Raju Narisetti, recently departed Gizmodo Media Group CEO, is joining Columbia Journalism School to direct the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economics and Business Journalism, reports Politico’s Michael Calderone. Narisetti also will be a professor of professional practice at Columbia.

What we’re reading

CIVILIAN DEATHS: The U.S. military killed 500 civilians in 2017, the Pentagon reported. The Washington Post’s Missy Ryan, citing critics, says the toll may be far higher but faulty reporting processes have reduced the number. Editors, are there departments of Veteran Affairs, vet groups or retired, reserve or active-duty members in your area would who would talk about being in these situations?

HIDDEN FIGURES: Don’t let anyone (we mean you, InfoWars guy) tell you Classicists are all white. A new exhibition shows the key (though mostly unpublicized) role that African Americans played in the teaching of this discipline. By Erica Eisen.

TIANANMEN SQUARE: Twenty-nine years ago today, hundreds if not thousands of pro-democracy protesters were ordered killed by the nation’s still-ruling Communist government — a subject Beijing has used brute force to shush and censor since then. Today, the United States asked China to finally fess up and give a number of the people it killed. Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo wrote in 2010 that “the ghosts of June 4 have not yet been laid to rest.” Liu last year became only the second Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in police custody.

RELATED: "My memories of a massacre," by Michael Li, who was 13 in Beijing at the time. "Too afraid to turn on the lights, we listened quietly to what was going on outside in the dark," he wrote. "Before long, the sound of firecrackers gradually came closer." The world remembers, 29 years later. Editors, do you have any Tiananmen survivors in your communities? 

THE BENJAMINS: She had a crisp, green way of getting a hotel concierge's attention. Beyond the big bucks? Big, ultimately unpaid bills for a young woman who wanted to "be" somebody. How did Anna Delvey trick a city that considers itself world-wise? By Jessica Pressler.

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