The Lede, Issue #29: Fire Insurance in California, Filing a FOIA Request, the Evolution of the Celebrity Profile, and More

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A firefighting helicopter flies over a wildfire raging in the town of Rafina near Athens, on July 23rd, 2018. At least five people have died and more than 20 have been injured as wildfires tore through woodland and villages around Athens on Monday, while blazes caused widespread damage in Sweden and other northern European nations.

A firefighting helicopter flies over a wildfire raging in the town of Rafina near Athens, on July 23rd, 2018.

Your Five Essential Reads

A rundown of five of our most important and timely stories from the past week.

  1. Fire season just keeps getting worse for Californians. After experiencing a record-setting number of wildfires last year and appearing to be set to break more records this year, residents are rightly concerned about the safety of their loved ones, their homes, and their property. But in another cruel twist, it turns out insurance companies are paying attention to the effects of climate change on the region as well, and, as Jackie Botts reports, many of them are opting out of providing coverage for homeowners in wildfire-prone regions, leaving many Californians unclear about what to do next and how much risk is too much. Read Botts' story here.
  2. We already know that hydraulic fracking comes with a number of costs: earthquakes, contaminated groundwater, and hydrocarbon emissions, to name just a few. But research from Duke University has found yet another problem with the practice—its water requirements. As editorial fellow Emily Moon discovered in talking with the lead author of a new report, based on trends from the past five years it's safe to say that future fracking will require far more water than previously estimated, a particularly troubling bit of news for water-scarce regions that depend on the industry. Read Moon's piece here.
  3. The effects of anti-immigration policy can sometimes be difficult for people to envision. Economic and cultural arguments can be intangible for many, and the subject lends itself to the fiery anti-immigrant rhetoric that has pervaded many Western countries in recent years. But in truth, immigration policies can have devastating personal consequences. Contributing writer Arvind Dilawar spoke with a woman who was forced to remain in multiple abusive relationships as a result of opaque and antagonistic immigration policies in the United States. As Tatyana, the woman Dilawar profiled, explains, the situation can be harrowing and extremely personal: "Threats were everywhere: 'I will deport you,' 'I will make sure that you will get deported first and your son will be kept in captivity in the United States,' 'you will never see him'—many things like that." Read Dilawar's story here.
  4. Changing a person's harmful behaviors is often quite difficult. Whether it comes to food choices, health habits, or environmental practices, old habits die hard. But as Sophie Yeo reports, new research from Stanford University has uncovered a potentially powerful way to influence people to take more responsible actions. Through leveraging something called "pre-conformity," the researchers found that, if you can convince someone that going vegetarian is the growing trend among their peers, then it's more likely that the person targeted for influence will conform to that practice. Read Yeo's piece here.
  5. President Donald Trump's Council of Economic Advisors recently released a report calling for newer and stronger work requirements for food stamp and medicaid recipients. This issue of work requirements has continued to be a talking point for the current administration and various conservative leaders around the country. But, as contributing writer Dwyer Gunn notes, a new federal survey illustrates that nutritional assistance recipients already do, in fact, work, but it's job security that can be difficult for people on the lower end of the economic spectrum to maintain. This means that the new initiative would not encourage more people to work, but instead punish the working poor by removing a program that helps them feed their families. Read Gunn's report here.
Barack Obama signs the Freedom of Information Improvement Act into law in the Oval Office of the White House on June 30th, 2016, in Washington, D.C.

Barack Obama signs the Freedom of Information Improvement Act into law in the Oval Office of the White House on June 30th, 2016, in Washington, D.C.

Dispatches: Filing a FOIA Request

News and notes from Pacific Standard staff and contributors.

Freedom of Information Act requests are an essential tool in a journalist's toolbox. The act, passed in 1966, allows anyone to ask for documents from government agencies. Reporters for Pacific Standard have used FOIA to reveal that Department of the Interior officials meet with fossil fuel company representatives far more often than with environmentalists, and that the National Park Service's recent lifting of its plastic-bottle ban was contrary to its own evaluation of the program.

One underappreciated aspect of FOIA requesting is the emotional suspense. Will my request be granted? How long will it take? The law says federal agencies must respond to all requests within 20 business days, but allows for longer fulfillment times under "unusual circumstances." But who gets to decide what's unusual is an unresolved question.

And I'm not the only one having trouble: A 2017 analysis found that the typical FOIA requester waits 142 days before their query is fulfilled, and that less than 39 percent of requests are completed within the mandated 20 business days. The government censored or denied a record number of FOIA requests in 2015, under the Obama administration—then set a fresh record in 2017, under President Donald Trump.

In cases where FOIA requests take a long time, it often seems as if officials are deliberately hiding information. In 2016, a lawsuit revealed that the Department of Justice really did lobby against FOIA reforms that would have made the requesting process easier and put it under greater Congressional oversight. As a result of this pressure, a FOIA improvement bill that passed the House of Representatives unanimously, in 2014, never came up for vote in the Senate.

Sometimes, however, it seems that the problem isn't secrecy, but a large workload. The government received a record number of FOIA requests—more than 800,000—in 2017, according to government figures. If agencies made more data proactively available, it should help them reduce the number of FOIA requests they receive in the future. Indeed, even the Department of Justice's guidance on FOIA says so.

Filing FOIA requests "was much easier than I thought," staff writer Kate Wheeling writes, "and everybody should be FOIAing everybody all the time because then agencies would just put the info online because it's less work."
Francie Diep, Staff Writer

Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider star in Last Tango in Paris.

Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider star in Last Tango in Paris.

PS Picks

PS Picks is a selection of the best things that the magazine's staff and contributors are reading, watching, or otherwise paying attention to in the worlds of art, politics, and culture.

The Evolution of the Celebrity Profile: The celebrity profile has changed, man. Not to sound too wistful, but things used to be different. I recently stumbled upon a 1957 New Yorker profile of Marlon Brando and it got me thinking—about access, about hagiographies, about what it means to write a profile.

Truman Capote wrote this particular profile, almost entirely centered around some indeterminate number of hours that Capote spent in Brando's hotel room while the star pontificated on a wide variety subjects: how much he hated working on the movie that the piece was ostensibly promoting, philosophy, how God damn hard it is to get up in the morning. The profile is jarring in a modern context, first because of the extremely racially and culturally insensitive language that made it into the final copy, but also because of the blunt and cutting language that Brando uses to describe directors, co-stars, everyday people. Nothing worse than having the big star of your movie—in this case Joshua Logan's Sayonara—say that he doesn't think the movie is particularly good, or, frankly, really worth his time.

Nowadays, there's an inescapable feeling of narrative control that comes with the profiles of our biggest stars. Open up any issue of GQ and you're sure to find a story about how Gal Gadot is even more badass and beautiful than you thought—but she's still just like us—or consider a recent Esquire profile of Tom Hardy that centers entirely around how we, as a public, will never know the real Tom, just the public one. It is a product of a more reputation-driven age that even stories that are supposed to seem revealing are often nothing more than an exercise in performance—this actor does social media differently, this musician doesn't care about the hazards of smoking, and dig into what this athlete had for dinner.

It's a strange thing, but still the roots come from that bygone era of more access and less control. The Brando profile is no less hagiographic in some ways than the pieces of today. In the framing of Capote's prose it almost sounds as if Brando is, indeed, a Superman. Someone who walked off a small farm in Illinois and transformed into unassailable acting talent, whose prowess and energy would be unmatched in mortal men.

But there is room for something new, and it comes out of something that is perhaps counter-intuitive to journalistic notions. Taffy Brodesser-Akner's New York Times Magazine feature on Gwyneth Paltrow's "wellness" company Goop has it. The story deftly handles complaints about Paltrow's work and persona, but the moments where it really soars are when Brodesser-Akner turns the viewfinder inward and refracts the polish and practice of the star through an all-too-relatable lens—did I forget to say goodbye to my kids, I'm late for my flight, oh shit I've really gotta pee. While the stars may control their narratives now more than ever, it opens up room for this most personal style of writing. One that admits, yes, the stars are not just like us, and that's all right.
Ian Hurley, Assistant Editor

PS in the News

A look at where our stories and staff surface in the national conversation.

The Conversation

Bryan Stevenson on What Well-Meaning White People Need to Know About Race (February 2018)

  • Excellent article! I've admired, been impressed by, and followed Bryan's endeavors as he openly explains our history of establishing the "other" from Native Americans, to enslaving Africans, to demonizing immigrants who don't look like our nation's white founders. But beyond this he has an abundance of insight through his family history, studying U.S. history and the law leading him to discern many methods that could be used to productively address what truly has, and continues to be, our national sin. —Nancy Margaret Saleeby

Female Heart Attack Victims Are More Likely to Survive If Treated by a Woman Doctor (PSmag.com, August, 6th)

  • Probably because it has been shown that male doctors tend not to believe a woman about her symptoms or level of pain. Hopefully this is changing. —Sharon Smith

Martha Nussbaum Wants Americans to Calm Down (PSmag.com July 31st)

  • Regarding the conclusion that "the right has no monopoly on fear," and that the left has similar bias/fear/hatred of certain groups. I disagree with this comparison because there is a difference when these inclinations and resulting actions are directed toward groups that are defined by factors that don't involve choice, such as race or gender, and having a bias toward groups that are defined by behaviors. The former is not rational and the latter may very well be. —Dab Zabooty

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A weekly newsletter for Pacific Standard Premium members.

Your Five Essential Reads

A rundown of five of our most important and timely stories from the past week.

  1. Fire season just keeps getting worse for Californians. After experiencing a record-setting number of wildfires last year and appearing to be set to break more records this year, residents are rightly concerned about the safety of their loved ones, their homes, and their property. But in another cruel twist, it turns out insurance companies are paying attention to the effects of climate change on the region as well, and, as Jackie Botts reports, many of them are opting out of providing coverage for homeowners in wildfire-prone regions, leaving many Californians unclear about what to do next and how much risk is too much. Read Botts' story here.
  2. We already know that hydraulic fracking comes with a number of costs: earthquakes, contaminated groundwater, and hydrocarbon emissions, to name just a few. But research from Duke University has found yet another problem with the practice—its water requirements. As editorial fellow Emily Moon discovered in talking with the lead author of a new report, based on trends from the past five years it's safe to say that future fracking will require far more water than previously estimated, a particularly troubling bit of news for water-scarce regions that depend on the industry. Read Moon's piece here.
  3. The effects of anti-immigration policy can sometimes be difficult for people to envision. Economic and cultural arguments can be intangible for many, and the subject lends itself to the fiery anti-immigrant rhetoric that has pervaded many Western countries in recent years. But in truth, immigration policies can have devastating personal consequences. Contributing writer Arvind Dilawar spoke with a woman who was forced to remain in multiple abusive relationships as a result of opaque and antagonistic immigration policies in the United States. As Tatyana, the woman Dilawar profiled, explains, the situation can be harrowing and extremely personal: "Threats were everywhere: 'I will deport you,' 'I will make sure that you will get deported first and your son will be kept in captivity in the United States,' 'you will never see him'—many things like that." Read Dilawar's story here.
  4. Changing a person's harmful behaviors is often quite difficult. Whether it comes to food choices, health habits, or environmental practices, old habits die hard. But as Sophie Yeo reports, new research from Stanford University has uncovered a potentially powerful way to influence people to take more responsible actions. Through leveraging something called "pre-conformity," the researchers found that, if you can convince someone that going vegetarian is the growing trend among their peers, then it's more likely that the person targeted for influence will conform to that practice. Read Yeo's piece here.
  5. President Donald Trump's Council of Economic Advisors recently released a report calling for newer and stronger work requirements for food stamp and medicaid recipients. This issue of work requirements has continued to be a talking point for the current administration and various conservative leaders around the country. But, as contributing writer Dwyer Gunn notes, a new federal survey illustrates that nutritional assistance recipients already do, in fact, work, but it's job security that can be difficult for people on the lower end of the economic spectrum to maintain. This means that the new initiative would not encourage more people to work, but instead punish the working poor by removing a program that helps them feed their families. Read Gunn's report here.
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