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Beyond vérité

Kevin Knoblock spent three days looking for a photograph of a Doberman Pinscher drowning in an icy pond or falling through a sheet of ice. The closest thing he could find was video footage of a Doberman Pinscher playing in the snow.

“Newt called me after he watched the documentary,” said Knoblock, the director and writer of the web biopic “Rebuilding the America We Love” about and commissioned by Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. “His first comment was, ‘How come you didn’t get the Doberman Pinscher part right?’ We laughed when I told him how impossible it was to find the right picture.”

Young Newt Gingrich, as seen in his campaign video featured at at

Knoblock dedicated a solid three minutes of the 16-minute video exploring Gingrich’s love for animals. ”I wanted to do a get-to-know-the-candidate video,” said Knoblock, about how “softer” personal details are often sidelined by weightier topics on the campaign trail. “We wanted to load it up with emotions and feelings.”

On March 9, this video was released on YouTube, available to stream on the campaign website under the “Meet Newt” page. The premiere was announced to the virtual world through Google+ posts, tweets and Facebook likes. In a week, it received more than 14,000 views on YouTube.

“YouTube is free,” said Knoblock. “Traditionally all the money goes to buying television airtime but now campaigns have the option getting millions of eyeballs for free online.”
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The politics of punishment: Q&A with prison-reform advocate Marc Mauer

This week, we look at Texas and the bipartisan efforts that have spurred widely admired prison reforms. I spoke to Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project and one of the country’s leading prison-reform advocates, to get his take on the impact of prison growth and reform in the U.S.

Tamy Cozier: During the 1990s, the nation’s crime rate dipped by 30 percent to its lowest levels in 35 years. During that tine, we also saw growing police forces, stricter drug laws and harsher sentencing. Don’t the numbers prove that a tough-on-crime approach works?

Marc Mauer

Marc Mauer: No. There were many developments that came around the 1990s that collectively contributed to reduction in crime. Part of that was the waning of the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and the violence that was associated with that.

Some of that [decline in crime] was due to more strategic policing, a better economy in the 1990s and better job opportunities for people who might have otherwise gotten involved in crime. And yes, some of that had to do with more people in prison, although research on that suggests that only about something in the range of 10 to 25 percent of the decline in crime was due to more incarceration. But, to the extent that prison had some impact on crime, that doesn’t tell us that [increased incarceration] is the most cost effective, let alone humane, way to address the problem.
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Craig Newmark on voting rights

Just this morning, Craig Newmark came out swinging on his latest cause: drawing attention to the wave of new “voting rights” laws that could impact millions of voters come November.

Supporters argue these new laws are needed to crack down on voter fraud – where a vote is illegally cast by someone pretending to be who they’re not.  While cases of this kind of fraud have been very rare, states across the country have been passing laws to address it. These new laws tighten the types of I.D. a voter can use on election day, limit the use of early-voting, and beef-up the restrictions and penalties on voter-registration groups.

(Need to Know has examined the impact of these laws in a report from Ohio about its strict new voter-id legislation, and in an essay by civil-rights and voting-rights pioneer Bernard Lafayette.)
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The connections

Photo: Stephanie Canciello, unali artists

Craig Newmark was one of the first programmers to demonstrate how connecting people over the Internet could fundamentally change entire industries. When he started Craigslist out of his apartment in 1995, it was intended as a simple listings of local happenings in San Francisco — posting everything from garage sales to gallery openings. In just a few years, Craigslist blossomed into one of the most popular online marketplaces in the country, radically remaking the classified marketplace (and dealing a serious blow to the revenues of countless newspapers). Seventeen years later, Craigslist is one of the most visited destinations on the Internet, with online marketplaces in cities all over the world.

Newmark has now stepped away from day-to-day operations of Craigslist, and instead is devoting much of his time to a new venture called CraigConnects: It’s Newmark’s effort to use the power of technology and social media to drive social change. The effort combines grant-making, research, and a good dose of evangelizing on a wide array of issues: consumer protection, good government, journalism, and veterans affairs.

Yesterday, I talked with Newmark about this new venture, which he describes as “using technology for the common good.”

Here’s a condensed, lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I’m struck by the logo — the mission statement — you have at the very top of your webpage which says, “Using technology to give the voiceless a real voice and the powerless real power.” In your mind, what is a “real voice” and what is “real power”?

How do you give small, genuine grassroots the ability to work with other small, four-wheeled, grassroots groups to combine for real power?

CRAIG NEWMARK: Well, if you’re talking about a real voice, the idea is that the net allows anyone to say what they wanna say. It’s not filtered. Someone else isn’t talking for them. And that represents quite a change, because in the past, other people — say, politicians, would pretend to represent a group, but the politician would not be acting in the interests of that group. Real power has to do with the groups who are coming together – spontaneously, online, to exert power in numbers, and power through effective communications.

Now, it’s a two-edged sword. For example, the Occupy people are managing to get together and do seem to be representing a genuine voice. On the other hand, within the Tea Party movements, and that plural is deliberate, there are some Tea Party groups who have stayed genuine and grassroots, but other alleged Tea Party groups are just really lobbyists pretending to represent a bunch of real people.

My focus has been on how do you give small, genuine grassroots the ability to work with other small, four-wheeled, grassroots groups to combine for real power?
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‘I am Trayvon Martin’

In the wake of the tragic shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and with growing calls to stop what critics contend are racially-motivated police actions, I saw this powerful post on Facebook written by my friend Dawn Porter. Dawn and her husband Dave are black, and the parents of two boys not that much younger than Trayvon Martin. I asked Dawn if we could post her note, and she was happy to share it.
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Occupy Wall Street, the 2012 election and the problem of income inequality in America

Photo: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Who’s to blame for inequality?

Assigning blame isn’t something we do so easily, especially in a political context. We point fingers, but real accountability can be elusive.

However, the question of who’s to blame for the unprecedented levels of income inequality we’re currently seeing in America is an important one for Occupy Wall Street. For one thing, the simmering anger toward greedy banks and the do-nothing political class is what animates the Occupy movement. That’s what allows Americans across demographic lines to connect with the protesters camping out — and getting arrested — in lower Manhattan.

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Spotlight on California

Last week, I ventured out west to California to produce two powerful stories of democracy in action.

Over a year ago, the citizens of California decided to take redistricting into their own hands. They appointed a 14-person panel of citizens, comprised of five Democrats, five Republicans and four decline-to-states, to redraw district lines. Last summer, Need to Know reported on redistricting in other states, and let me tell you, what’s happening in California is a radically different experiment in redistricting.

Photo: Rawan Jabaji

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Occupy Wall Street: Unemployment is not going away, and neither are we

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators stand and cheer in front of the George Washington statue on Wall Street as they celebrate the protest's sixth month this past weekend in New York. Photo: AP Photo/John Minchillo

The Occupy Wall Street protesters, in what has by now become a familiar routine, were routed from their makeshift home in Union Square early Wednesday morning. The protesters, about 300 of them, had set up a new encampment there after being swiftly evicted from their original home in Zuccotti Park on Saturday, during a day of action designed to mark the movement’s six-month anniversary.

The latest eviction raises the same questions that the movement’s many previous evictions raised: What next? Cold temperatures forced Occupy’s rank-and-file into hibernation over the winter, and many were hoping for a resurgence in the spring. Indeed, the protesters showed some signs of life over the weekend, in their clashes with police and in the 73 arrests that ensued, both of which are crucial to generating media attention.

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As furor over reproductive rights grows louder, number of states that are ‘hostile’ to abortion doubles, study finds

Women in the House gallery show their displeasure as New Hampshire’s Republican-controlled House votes Wednesday to allow employers with religious objections to exclude contraceptive coverage from their health plans, Wednesday, March 7, 2012 in Concord, N.H. The House voted 196-150 to send the bill to the Senate. Photo: AP Photo/Jim Cole

It can seem, at times, as though the Republican Party’s vocal opposition to reproductive rights has come out of nowhere this year. The 2012 election, after all, was supposed to be about the economy. The GOP seemed destined to nominate a candidate who had, in the past, pledged his support for abortion rights, even going so far as to label himself a “progressive.” President Obama, meanwhile, was seen as cautious on social issues, doing just enough to please his base without alienating the white, working-class voters he will need to win re-election.

After the Obama administration issued its ruling requiring religious institutions to provide insurance coverage for birth control, the right erupted in anger. The furor coincided with the rise of Rick Santorum as the standard-bearer of the religious right and those who describe themselves as “very conservative.” Suddenly, it seemed, social issues had hijacked the election.

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