Mobile home story is all about inequality

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 Updated:

Our biggest domestic story of the year so far in terms of traffic has been a Dan Wagner report with the Seattle Times which exposes the crisis poor mobile homeowners face when they get in over their heads.

The story, which has surpassed 100,000 page views on the Center’s website, focused largely on Clayton Homes, a company controlled and praised by Warren Buffett. It’s a piece of work that goes to the heart of so much of what we do — tell stories about how the poor end up paying more for everything — from housing to broadband to health care.

The piece is a reflection of the Center’s mission: “To serve democracy by revealing abuses of power, corruption and betrayal of public trust by powerful public and private institutions, using the tools of investigative journalism.”

The American Dream slips further and further away from many of the people whose stories we told in Wagner’s piece.

“I’ve lost everything,” says one of the people in Dan’s story, whose mobile home was worth less than she had borrowed against it only a year later.

It’s a typical story of the poor and financially unsophisticated clients of Clayton Homes, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett’s company. Clayton’s slogan is “opening doors to a better life, one home at a time.”

Read the story here.

Clayton has since used the Berkshire Hathaway-owned Omaha World-Herald to accuse us and our partner, the Seattle Times of “misleading reporting” though the company fails to cite any specific instance that backs up its claim. See the company’s statement here.

We will be following up with Clayton, Berkshire Hathaway and with any luck the “Sage of Omaha,” Warren Buffett himself. The billionaire businessman and philanthropist did not return our calls seeking comment.

Priced out of the broadband market

The thrust Allan Holmes has taken on his coverage of the high-speed Internet industry has been about affordable access for everyone. His in-depth reporting revealed the way the lack of competition among U.S. carriers prevents us all from getting high-quality broadband at a fair price.

But again it is the poor who pay the most and are effectively denied access to government services, job sites and even school grades for their children.

Allan tackled the broadband story by pointing out that even the French have greater competition, more consumer choice and lower costs than the U.S. See his excellent coverage of this topic here.

News developer and data journalist Chris Zubak-Skees made a huge contribution to the piece with compelling visualization of how the cable companies “seem” to squeeze out competition across the nation, with many communities stuck with two providers at best. The piece raises serious questions about what life would like if the Comcast Corp.-Time Warner Cable buyout is approved.

To see Zubak-Skees’ interactives, go here.

Not like Rolling Stone

One area of coverage the Center has historically led in is the crisis of campus sexual violence. We know it happens and the Center’s Kristen Lombardi broke ground on this story in 2009 with a data analysis that resulted in a multi-part series and led to reforms.

Rolling Stone magazine issued a report on the same issue that it later retracted. The Columbia Journalism Review interviewed Lombardi and highlighted her reporting in its analysis no fewer than four times. Here is the CJR analysis: “A failure that was avoidable

Kristen’s original work on this subject can be found here.

In reporting on the errors of others I think it is important not to crow and of course “there but for the grace of God go we.” At least Rolling Stone had the guts to call in the CJR and admit it messed up badly.

All these pieces highlight the three strengths I want to reinforce at the Center: “great journalism, great technology, and committed supporters" without whom we couldn’t fulfill the mission at the top of this note.

I’d welcome your feedback.

Regards,
Peter Bale
CEO, The Center for Public Integrity

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