As a grocery chain is dismantled, investors recover their money. Worker pensions are short millions

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Once the Marsh Supermarkets chain began to falter a few years ago, its owner, a private-equity firm, began selling off the vast retail empire, piece by piece. The company sold more than 100 convenience stores. It sold the pharmacies. It closed some of the 115 grocery stores, having previously auctioned off their real estate. Then, in May 2017, the company announced the closure of the remaining 44 stores.

Image: Washington Post

Marsh Supermarkets, founded in 1931, had at last filed for bankruptcy.

“It was a long, slow decline,” said Amy Gerken, formerly an assistant office manager at one of the stores. Sun Capital Partners, the private-equity firm that owned Marsh, “didn’t really know how grocery stores work. We’d joke about them being on a yacht without even knowing what a UPC code is. But they didn’t treat employees right, and since the bankruptcy, everyone is out for their blood.”

The anger arises because although the sell-off allowed Sun Capital and its investors to recover their money and then some, the company entered bankruptcy leaving unpaid more than $80 million in debts to workers’ severance and pensions.

For Sun Capital, this process of buying companies, seeking profits and leaving pensions unpaid is a familiar one. Over the past 10 years, it has taken five companies into bankruptcy while leaving behind debts of about $280 million owed to employee pensions.

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Without Toys R Us, 30,000 jobs, a black hole for toy makers

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The demise of Toys R Us will have a ripple effect on everything from toy makers to consumers to landlords.

The 70-year-old retailer is headed toward shuttering its U.S. operations, jeopardizing the jobs of some 30,000 employees while spelling the end for a chain known to generations of children and parents for its sprawling stores and Geoffrey the giraffe mascot.

The closing of the company’s 740 U.S. stores over the coming months will finalize the downfall of the chain that succumbed to heavy debt and relentless trends that undercut its business, from online shopping to mobile games.

And it will force toy makers and landlords who depended on the chain to scramble for alternatives.

CEO David Brandon told employees Wednesday the company’s plan is to liquidate all of its U.S. stores, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press.

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Tackling the Internet’s Central Villain: The Advertising Business

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Pretend you are the lead detective on a hit new show, “CSI: Terrible Stuff on the Internet.” In the first episode, you set up one of those crazy walls plastered with headlines and headshots, looking for hidden connections between everything awful that’s been happening online recently.

There’s a lot of dark stuff. In one corner, you have the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election with digital propaganda. In another, a rash of repugnant videos on YouTube, with children being mock-abused, cartoon characters bizarrely committing suicide on the kids’ channel, and a popular vlogger recording a body hanging from a tree.

Then there’s tech “addiction,” the rising worry that adults and kids are getting hooked on smartphones and social networks despite our best efforts to resist the constant desire for a fix. And all over the internet, general fakery abounds — there are millions of fake followers on Twitter and Facebook, fake rehab centers being touted on Google, and even fake review sites to sell you a mattress.

So who is the central villain in this story, the driving force behind much of the chaos and disrepute online?

This isn’t that hard. You don’t need a crazy wall to figure it out, because the force to blame has been quietly shaping the contours of life online since just about the beginning of life online: It’s the advertising business, stupid.

Ads are the lifeblood of the internet, the source of funding for just about everything you read, watch and hear online. The digital ad business is in many ways a miracle machine — it corrals and transforms latent attention into real money that pays for many truly useful inventions, from search to instant translation to video hosting to global mapping.

But the online ad machine is also a vast, opaque and dizzyingly complex contraption with underappreciated capacity for misuse — one that collects and constantly profiles data about our behavior, creates incentives to monetize our most private desires, and frequently unleashes loopholes that the shadiest of people are only too happy to exploit.

And for all its power, the digital ad business has long been under-regulated and under-policed, both by the companies who run it and by the world’s governments. In the United States, the industry has been almost untouched by oversight, even though it forms the primary revenue stream of two of the planet’s most valuable companies, Google and Facebook.

“In the early days of online media, the choice was essentially made — give it away for free, and advertising would produce the revenue,” said Randall Rothenberg, the chief executive of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade association that represents companies in the digital ad business. “A lot of the things we see now flow out from that decision.”

Mr. Rothenberg’s organization has long pushed for stronger standards for online advertising. In a speech last year, he implored the industry to “take civic responsibility for our effect on the world.” But he conceded the business was growing and changing too quickly for many to comprehend its excesses and externalities — let alone to fix them.

“Technology has largely been outpacing the ability of individual companies to understand what is actually going on,” he said. “There’s really an unregulated stock market effect to the whole thing.”

Facebook, which reports its earnings on Wednesday, said its advertising principles hold that ads should “be safe and civil,” and it pointed to several steps it has taken to achieve that goal. “We’ve tightened our ad policies, hired more ad reviewers, and created a new team to help detect and prevent abuses,” said Rob Goldman, the company’s vice president of advertising. “We’re also testing a tool that will bring more transparency to ads running on our platform. We know there is more work to do, but our goal is to keep people safe.”

A spokesman for Google, whose parent company, Alphabet, reports earnings on Thursday, said that it is constantly policing its ad system, pointing out recent steps it has taken to address problems arising from the ad business, including several changes to YouTube.

The role of the ad business in much of what’s terrible online was highlighted in a recent report by two think tanks, New America and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

“The central problem of disinformation corrupting American political culture is not Russian spies or a particular social media platform,” two researchers, Dipayan Ghosh and Ben Scott, wrote in the report, titled “Digital Deceit.” “The central problem is that the entire industry is built to leverage sophisticated technology to aggregate user attention and sell advertising.”

The report chronicles just how efficient the online ad business has become at profiling, targeting, and persuading people. That’s good news for the companies that want to market to you — as the online ad machine gets better, marketing gets more efficient and effective, letting companies understand and influence consumer sentiment at a huge scale for little money.

But the same cheap and effective persuasion machine is also available to anyone with nefarious ends. The Internet Research Agency, the troll group at the center of Russian efforts to influence American politics, spent $46,000 on Facebook ads before the 2016 election. That’s not very much — Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump’s campaigns spent tens of millions online. And yet the Russian campaign seems to have had enormous reach; Facebook has said the I.R.A.’s messages — both its ads and its unpaid posts — were seen by nearly 150 million Americans.

How the I.R.A. achieved this mass reach likely has something to do with the dynamics of the ad business, which lets advertisers run many experimental posts to hone their messages, and tends to reward posts that spark outrage and engagement — exactly the sort that the Russians were pushing.

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A sample of a Facebook ad that ran around the time of the 2016 presidential election that was eventually linked back to Russian agents.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Mr. Scott said. “Either you have a brilliant technology that permits microtargeting to exactly the people you want to influence at exactly the right time with exactly the right message — or you’re only reaching a small number of people and therefore it couldn’t be influential.”

The consequences of the ad business don’t end at foreign propaganda. Consider all the nutty content recently found on YouTube Kids — not just the child-exploitation clips but also videos that seem to be created in whole or in part by algorithms that are mining the system for what’s popular, then creating endless variations.

Why would anyone do such a thing? For the ad money. One producer of videos that show antics including his children being scared by clowns told BuzzFeed that he had made more than $100,000 in two months from ads on his videos.

YouTube, which is owned by Google, has since pulled down thousands of such disturbing videos; the company said late last year that it’s hiring numerous moderators to police the platform. It also tightened the rules for which producers can make money from its ad system.

Facebook, too, has made several recent fixes. The company has built a new tool — currently being tested in Canada and slated to be rolled out more widely this year — that lets people see the different ads being placed by political pages, a move meant to address I.R.A.-like influence campaigns. It has also fixed holes that allowed advertisers to target campaigns by race and religion. And it recently unveiled a new version of its News Feed that is meant to cut down on passively scrolling through posts — part of Mark Zuckerberg’s professed effort to improve the network even, he has said, at the cost of advertising revenue.

The tinkering continued on Tuesday, when Facebook also said it would ban ads promoting crypto currency schemes, some of which have fallen into scammy territory.

Yet these are all piecemeal efforts. They don’t address the underlying logic of the ad business, which produces endless incentives for gaming the system in ways that Google and Facebook often only discover after the fact. Mr. Rothenberg said this is how regulating advertising is likely to go — a lot of fixes resembling “whack-a-mole.”

Of course, there is the government. You could imagine some regulator imposing stricter standards for who has access to the online ad system, who makes money from it, how it uses private information, and how transparent tech companies must be about it all. But that also seems unlikely; the Honest Ads Act, a proposal to regulate online political ads, has gone nowhere in CongressOne final note: In 2015, Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, warned about the dangers of the online ad business, especially its inherent threat to privacy. I wrote a column in which I took Mr. Cook to task — I argued that he had not acknowledged how ad-supported services improved his own company’s devices.

I stand by that view, but now I also regret dismissing his warning so cavalierly. Socially, politically and culturally, the online ad business is far more dangerous than I appreciated. Mr. Cook was right, and we should have listened to him.

By Farhad Manjoo/NYTimes

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Business Partnerships between Fitbit and Health Insurance Companies

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Insurance companies are developing new ways to deny health coverage to customers who have preexisting medical conditions. Insurance companies are partnering with Qualcomm Life to develop a special program, which allows insurance companies to monitor customers’ activity via wearable fitness devices, such as a Fitbit. However, as Andrew Boyd reported for The Conversation in February 2017, insurance companies do not have customers’ best interests in mind. Rather, they aim to monitor customers’ data via Fitbit to deny coverage to unhealthy individuals and boost their insurance rates.

As Boyd reported, insurance companies like UnitedHealthcare now offer participants nearly $1,500 in deductibles each year for health care services, depending on how active participants are. Wellness programs like UnitedHealthcare’s offer participants motivation to become more active.

But the insurance industry has larger aims for wireless technology, too. Qualcomm has offered a $10 million prize to a team that can develop a multifunction medical device. The medical device must be able to accurately diagnose thirteen health conditions, including indicators for pneumonia and diabetes, as well as provide real time data on five vital signs, including heart rate breathing rate. As Boyd reported, this competition is in its final stages, with a winner expected to be determined later in 2017. “That could bring wearables’ insights to doctors–and insurance companies–much sooner than we might think,” he wrote.

Boyd noted that, “if used–and regulated–well, the devices can help individual patients change their daily habits to become healthier, saving insurance companies money, and passing some of those savings along to customers. Alternatively, the devices could provide justification for denying coverage to the inactive or unhealthy… Consumers should not assume their insurance companies will use their data only to improve patient care. With millions of dollars on the line, insurers will be sorely tempted. With the legal landscape around preexisting conditions in flux, people should think twice before signing up.”

As of March 27, 2017, corporate media have not fully covered this particular news report, but two major corporate newspapers have provided some coverage. In April 2015, the Los Angeles Times ran an opinion piece raising concerns about how insurance companies might use Fitbit monitors. A March 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal described UnitedHealth’s wellness programs, including its $1,460 per year credits for active participants who share their data; but it did not address the possibility that other, less active insurees might be forced to pay higher rates. Overall, corporate media fail to inform their audience of the dangers of sharing personal information with health insurance companies.

By Andrew Boyd/ProjestCensored

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Propaganda, Fake News, and Media Lies

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The Diabolical Business of Global Public Relations Firms

The expansion of  public relations and propaganda (PRP) firms inside news systems in the world today has resulted in a deliberate form of news management. Maintenance of continuous news shows requires a constant and ever-entertaining supply of stimulating events and breaking news bites. Corporate media are increasingly dependent on various government agencies and PRP firms as sources of news.

The PRP industry has experienced phenomenal growth since 2001. In 2015, three publicly traded mega PR firms—Omnicom, WPP, and Interpublic Group—together employed 214,000 people across 170 countries, collecting $35 billion in combined revenue. Not only do these firms control massive wealth, they also possess a network of connections in powerful international institutions with direct links to national governments, multi-national corporations, global policy-making bodies, and the corporate media.

In The Practice of Public Relations, Fraser P. Seitel defined public relations as “helping an organization and its public adapt mutually to each other.” Propaganda can be defined as the dissemination of ideas and information for the purpose of inducing or intensifying specific attitudes and actions. Both PR and propaganda seek to change behaviors and ideas among the masses in support of the agendas of public and private institutions. (For an early history of state propaganda, see Jacuie L’Etang, “State Propaganda and Bureaucratic Intelligence: The Creation of the Public Relations in 20th Century Britain,” Public Relations Review 24, no. 4 (1998): 413-41.)  As Douglas Kellner and other researchers have documented, since 9/11 public relations firms have contributed to increased levels of media propaganda.

Consider the Rendon Group, one of the key PR firms supporting US propaganda efforts during recent wars. In the 1980s, it produced public relations propaganda for the ousting of Panama’s president, Manuel Noriega. The Rendon Group also shaped international support for the first Gulf War, and in the 1990s created the Iraqi National Congress. The Rendon Group provided the images that mobilized public support for a permanent war on terror, including the fake news stories of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, the heroic rescue of US Army private Jessica Lynch, and dramatic tales of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. As James Bamford reported in a 2005 article in Rolling Stone, Pentagon documents show thirty-five contracts with Rendon from 2000-2004, worth a total of  between $50-100 million dollars.

PRP firms have emerged as orchestrators of global informion and news. The world today faces a military-industrial-media empire, bolstered by PRP firms, that is so powerful and complex that truth is mostly absent or reported only in disconnected segments with little historical context. In late 1999, Ben Bagdikian, the author of Media Monopoly and former Washington Post editor, told me that he estimated that two-thirds of all news stories originated with PR firms; in 2003, an article from the Guardianconservatively estimated that 50-80% of news and business stories originated from public relations firms. The result is managed news by governments, corporations, and PRP firms—often interlocked—including both the release of specific stories intended to build public support as well as the deliberate non-coverage of news stories that may undermine capitalist elites’ goals and interests.

PRP firms provide a variety of services to major corporations and institutions around the world. Brand enhancement and sales are undoubtedly among their key services. However, companies offer much more, including research and crisis management for corporations and governments, public information campaigns, web design and promotions, and corporate media placement. WPP’s Hill & Knowton proudly brags on its website that they service 50% of the Fortune Global 500 companies from their offices in forty countries. Along with Omnicom’s Fleishman and Hillard, Hill & Knowlton have been the key PRP firms working with Monsanto to protect its brand Roundup, which contains the herbicide glyphosate. Roundup is the most widely-used herbicide in the world, being sold in over 130 countries, but the World Health Organization recently declared glyphosate a human carcinogen. As countries begin to restrict its use, PRP firms gear up to protect Monsanto’s profits.

WPP’s Hill & Knowton is also well known for its early involvement with the Council for Tobacco Research (CTR), originally established in 1954 to counter the 1952 Reader’s Digest report linking cancer to tobacco smoking. In 1993, the Wall Street Journal described CTR as the “longest-running misinformation campaigns in U.S. business history” (A.M. Freedman and L.P. Cohen, “Smoke and Mirrors: How Cigarette Makers Keep Health Questions ‘Open’ Year after Year,” Wall Street Journal, February 11, 1993.)

It was WPP’s Burson-Marsteller who created the frontgroup Global Climate Coalition (GCC). From 1989-2001, the GCC helped the oil and auto industries downplay the dangers of global warming. Initial members of the coalition included Amoco, American Petroleum Institute, Chevron, Chrysler, Exxon, Ford, GM, Shell, and Texaco. In addition

from 2007-2015 the US federal government spent over $4 billion dollars for PRP services. The US employs 3,092 public relations officers in 139 agencies. An additional $2.2 billion goes to outside firms to perform PRP, polling, research, and market consulting. The world’s top PRP firms reaped millions of US dollars in 2014 including Laughlin, Marinaccio & Owens ($87.98M), WPP-Young & Rubicam Inc. ($57.5M), WPP-Ogilvy Public Relations  ($47.93M), Omnicon-FleishmanHillard ($42.4M), and Gallup ($42.0M). WPP’s Burson-Marsteller won a $4.6 million contract with the US Department of Homeland Security in 2005 to develop public awareness and education for a major emergency, disaster, or terrorist attack in Washington DC.

Before the first Gulf War, a fake news propaganda spectacle took place courtesy of WPP’s Hill & Knowlton. They were hired by Citizens for a Free Kuwait and eventually received nearly $10.8 million to conduct one of the most effective public relations campaigns in history. Hill & Knowlton helped create a national outrage against Iraq by publicizing the horrifying events supposedly caused by Iraqi soldiers during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In testimony to the House of Representative’s Human Rights Caucus, a young woman named Nayirah said that she saw “Iraqi soldiers come into the [Kuwaiti] hospital with guns, and go into the room where 15 babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.” What the public was not told was that Nayirah was the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the US, and that her performance was coordinated by the White House and choreographed by the US public relations firm Hill & Knowlton on behalf of the Kuwaiti government.

As Johan Carlisle reported, former CIA official Robert T. Crowley, who served as a liaison between the agency and PR firms, acknowledged that “Hill & Knowlton’s overseas offices…were perfect ‘cover’ for the ever-expanding CIA. Unlike other cover jobs, being a public relations specialist did not require technical training for CIA officers.” Furthermore, Crowley admitted, the CIA used its Hill & Knowlton connections to “put out press releases and make media contacts to further its positions… Hill & Knowlton employees at the small Washington office and elsewhere distributed this material through CIA assets working in the United States news media.”

A global war on terrorism requires continuous ideological justification, aimed at the mass of people who instinctively favor peace. PRP firms provide an on-going rationalization for war by servicing government propaganda activities, military contractors, pro-war Hollywood films, and the marketing of war toys, cartoons and related products. The techniques for marketing brands are essentially the same as for marketing war. PRP firms produce creative, visually-stimulating, emotional ads that spotlight families with loving children in danger of others, protected by official authorities, including homeland security, police or military personnel: “To get to you…they’d have to get past us,” touted the narrator of “America’s Navy—the Shield,” produced by the advertising firm Campbell Ewald, which first aired on CBS during the 2014 Army-Navy football game. In May 2015, the Navy Times reported that the Navy had awarded its Recruiting Command contract—“initially valued at $84.4 million for a one-year fixed-price”—to New York-based Young & Rubicam.

The big three global PRP firms are key contributors to the global hegemony of capitalism. PRP firms and their corporate media partners aid corporations, governments, and non-governmental organizations in an unrelenting ideological assault on, and pacification of the minds of the masses around the world. The overall message is the continued acquisition of material products and consumption, expanded desire for a life of luxury, fear of others—including terrorists, criminals, and threatening peoples—the support of police states, acceptance of a permanent war on terrorism, and the equation of private corporations with democratic governance. This is what Noam Chomsky called engineering opinion and parading enemies (Media Control, Seven Stories Press, 2002).

The PRP industry is highly concentrated and fully global. With $35 billion in annual revenue, the big three PRP firms are key components of the transnational capitalist class. The PRP industry’s primary goal is the promotion of capital growth through hegomonic psychological control of human desires, emotions, beliefs, and values. PRP firms do this by manipulating the thoughts and feelings of human beings worldwide. In many ways PRP firms are the ideological engine of capitalism, due to both their massive influence in world corporate media and their increasing embedded role in the propaganda of national governments, including psychological operations in support of a permanent war on terror.

Perhaps democracy movements can offer us some hope for the future. Consciousness of the dark side of PRP and its unrestricted power to warp minds is an important first step. Among some recent positive steps taken by activists to limit the power of PRP, Quebec has become one of the first regions to ban commercial advertising targeting children under the age of 13. For that matter, three generations of people in Cuba have grown up without product advertising in their lives. A group of graduate students from the Univeristy of Havana simply laughed when I asked them five years ago if they ever wanted a “Happy Meal.” It seemed absurd to them to even consider the idea. We too need to understand the absurdity of the PRP industry, and to move to eliminate its influence from our lives, our cultures, and our world.

By Peter Phillips/ProjectCensored

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Trump promised he’d make Carrier ‘pay a damn tax.’ Instead he’s doing the exact opposite

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Image: Fifth Column

On Thursday, President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence plan to hold a news conference touting the deal they struck this week with United Technology to keep fewer than 1,000 Carrier jobs in Indiana.

In exchange for not outsourcing some jobs, United Technology, which made a profit of $7.6 billion last year and owns Carrier, will reportedly receive $7 million over 10 years in state economic incentives. The company was also assured the Trump administration will lower corporations’ federal tax burden and ease regulations.

In a Wednesday press release, Carrier acknowledged both the federal and state incentives.

“Today’s announcement is possible because the incoming Trump-Pence administration has emphasized to us its commitment to support the business community and create an improved, more competitive U.S. business climate,” it says. “The incentives offered by the state were an important consideration.”

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Nikki Haley: Making Pat McCrory look foolish again on LGBT discrimination law

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It’s a sad commentary as to how far things have fallen in North Carolina over the last five years that the state continues to be taken to the cleaners by the more open and forward thinking policies of…South Carolina. But the evidence continues to pile up.

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Image: NC Policy Watch

While North Carolina can’t get get Duke Energy to even clean up its own parking lot, South Carolina has long since embarked upon an effort to move all of its coal ash to lined landfills. When the battle over Atlantic Ocean offshore drilling took place, it was South Carolina’s Mark “Appalachian Trail” Sanford who actually helped lead the opposition, in stark contrast to Pat “Drill, baby drill!” McCrory.

And now, it’s happening again. Columbia’s The State newspaper reports that both Governor Nikki Haley and the state Chamber of Commerce are making their North Carolina counterparts look like neanderthals over the issue of LGBT discrimination:

“S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley said Thursday that a proposed law to limit the bathrooms that transgender people can use is not needed.

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