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Truth in Advertising/Liar! Liar!/News Bites

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Truth in Advertising

A small ad that's been running in the Reader in recent weeks has a message for anyone with a big heart, a venturesome spirit, and an underdeveloped sense of skepticism. "Volunteer in Africa....Work with HIV/AIDS orphans/outreach," it says. "No experience necessary." There's mention of an upcoming informational meeting, and the curious are provided with a Massachusetts phone number, an e-mail address, and a URL. Intrigued, I e-mailed Humana People to People, the organization that placed the ad, asking what I could expect if I applied.

Humana's contact, Else Marie Pedersen, soon sent a long, informative reply. Six months of training and then 6 to 12 months in the field as a "development instructor," she wrote. "Anyone can be a Development Instructor. The most important qualification is a willingness to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people in the poorest parts of the world, and act in solidarity with them to improve the situation." She mentioned a Humana program called TCE--for Total Control of the Epidemic--"not a project, but a gigantic action, mobilizing every person and all possible resources in getting the worst epidemic in human history under control."

I'd receive a "stipend" once in Africa. The "program fee" was $3,300, but if this was too steep something could be worked out. "Many volunteers have fundraised the money."

I wasn't asking questions because the ad tempted me, though if I were younger it might. I was asking because a suspicious reader had conducted a Web search and then written us, "It seems this organization is a secular cult whose leader is on trial in Denmark."

That leader turns out to be a Dane named Mogens Amdi Pedersen (often spelled Petersen) who, according to a 33-page "case summary" from the public prosecutor in Holstebro, Denmark, heads a many-tentacled organization known as Tvind--or the Teachers Group--after a village in Denmark where during the 1970s a group of young, radical teachers launched a movement to live collectively and create an alternative educational system. "From this beginning a worldwide organisation developed," says the case summary. Humana is named as a part of this organization and Pedersen as its leader.

Michael Durham, a London-based freelance reporter, tells me he's been covering Tvind since the mid-90s. Three years ago he did a long piece for the London Times, interviewing students from around the world who'd gone to a Tvind school in northern England. One was Gita, a New Zealander, "who enrolled after seeing an ad in a free newspaper." Puzzled that other students were so uncurious, she told Durham after quitting, "I wondered why no one questioned anything about this mystery organisation that was supposed to send us to Africa to do volunteer work." Durham described her concerns. "One niggle was that [the school] always seemed short of money, even though most students had paid thousands of pounds upfront and were constantly sent to collect more money on the streets of Hull, Manchester and Liverpool. In fact, the college appeared so poor that it was falling apart, and students were told to carry out repairs. Yet when Gita met senior staff from Denmark they seemed to represent a wealthy organisation."

Tvind raises millions of dollars, says Durham, but little of it reaches the programs volunteers are working on. According to various newspaper accounts, when Pedersen was arrested two years ago while changing planes in Los Angeles, he was living in a multimillion-dollar penthouse on a private island off Miami Beach and enjoying a $5 million yacht.

Durham launched a Web site, tvindalert.com, to help him collect more information on the organization, and it's become as labyrinthine as Tvind itself--a place to wander around in, reading old news stories and uncorroborated anecdotes and trying to make sense of an organization Durham says encompasses some 140 interlocking companies. One of the companies he lists, based in Chicago, is Gaia USA, which collects used clothing in drop boxes and sells it. In a 2001 Reader article, Gaia's general manager identified herself as a member of the Teachers Group but said Gaia had nothing to do with it.

Tvindalert.com tries to stay abreast of the trial of Pedersen and other Tvind leaders, which began months ago in Denmark, proceeds in fits and starts, and could drag on, Durham predicts, into 2005. He's posted an English-language version of the "case summary" accusing the defendants of embezzlement and tax fraud. Pedersen and the others are accused of "misappropriating funds earmarked for public utility (humanitarian) purposes" that instead have gone "to commercial enterprises...which are controlled by the defendants and where the profit...accrued to the defendants."

This summary focuses on Tvind's so-called research and environmental programs rather than its humanitarian work, but it does mention that the investigation showed that at least $270,000 "has been paid from the Foundation to the defendants Amdi Pedersen's and Kirsten Larsen's entire disposal under the pretext that it involved support to the fight against AIDS etc. in Africa."

Tvindalert.com states that Humana People to People is headquartered in Zimbabwe and "operates in 50 countries under several different names." Else Marie Pedersen is based at Humana's Institute for International Cooperation and Development in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where, according to tvindalert.comâ "there have been numerous rebellions and defections among dissatisfied students." When I reached her there she was pleasant until she established that I was a reporter. Then she hung up. My call to a Humana office in Denmark was not returned.

Humana has a Web site of its own, www.humana.org, and so does Tvind, www.tvind.dk. Since tvindalert throws everything at Tvind but the kitchen sink, you could check out these sites too.

Liar! Liar!

The Kane County Chronicle does a little bragging on its front page. Alongside the nameplate each day there's the announcement: "Kane County's only 2003 General Excellence winner." Depending on how you look at it, this notice either misrepresents the Chronicle's opposition or dismisses it. Either way, the opposition's irritated.

"They're lying to their readers every day," says John Lampinen, executive editor of the far larger Daily Herald, which expanded into Kane County in 1997. Last August, when the Illinois Associated Press Editors Association released its annual list of award winners, three small dailies were honored for general excellence--the Chronicle among them. Three large dailies were honored for the same thing, and the Daily Herald was one of those.

Lampinen calls the competition in Kane County a "bloody war." Chronicle publisher Mark Sweetwood calls it "a good old-fashioned newspaper slobber-knocker," and he says, "These guys have been amazingly aggressive since they tried to move here. That one side can cry foul seems amazing to me. There's enough going on on both sides.

"It's nice they got an award. I don't begrudge them. But a tiny rented office with a great big sign doesn't make them a Kane County paper. They're a mass-distributed Cook County paper. I'll put up our hundred employees to their 15 or 16."

Lampinen replies, "I would argue the readers make us a Kane County paper. We have a local edition in Geneva, Saint Charles, and Batavia that's very successful with readers."

Sweetwood points out that despite the Herald's office in Saint Charles, the Herald doesn't include the tri-cities in its NDM--or "newspaper designated market"--the area a newspaper identifies to the Audit Bureau of Circulations as its core market. "It's absurd for the DH to claim itself as a Kane County newspaper," Sweetwood e-mails me, "when it excludes 64 percent of Kane County from its designated market." He faxes me his paper's breakdown of 2003 Audit Bureau of Circulations figures. According to this breakdown, the Chronicle was selling 10,564 papers a day in the tri-cities (and a little more than 14,000 overall), the Herald 8,527 in the tri-cities (and a little more than 150,000 throughout its far wider circulation area). Sweetwood adds in a note that the Herald sells a lot of papers in the tri-cities "at special rates like 99 cents a week--which they can do by claiming this as outside their designated market."

To which the Herald responds that the Chronicle discounts too. "Their retail price is two bucks a week home delivery. Ours is $1.80 a week," says Jim Galetano, the Herald's vice president for circulation. "They're selling introductory subscriptions for $1.37. We're selling ours for $1.60." He calls the 99-cent-a-week subscription ancient history and leans hard on his point that the arcana of NDMs and ONDMs (for "outside newspaper designated market") notwithstanding, any paper that sells thousands of copies in Kane County deserves to be considered a Kane County paper.

The Chronicle, Sweetwood allows, was "fat, happy, and a little lazy" when the Herald moved in. Eventually the owners, Shaw Newspapers, snapped to, letting some department heads roll and bringing Sweetwood in from McHenry County's Northwest Herald, where he'd been the editor.

"Sweetwood's in no position to call anyone a carpetbagger," says Lampi-nen. "He's been in Kane a year and a half, two years at the most. The locals used to run that paper, and they got rid of all the locals.

He goes on, "Sweetwood and Shaw--they throw stones at us from time to time, and I let those things go. They're within the bounds of promotional zeal. But this isn't about hyperbole. This is about being honest with readers. This is promotional, competitive overzealousness. I understand the fire that burns in Sweetwood's heart. I'm impressed with it and I respect it. But this is pressing past the bounds. Mark needs to step back and consider what he's doing in this case. He needs to ask himself, is this honest? And it's not."

If Sweetwood takes Lampinen's complaint seriously, he doesn't let on. "They are bullies," he e-mails me, "and the worst example of that is their attempt to go to you to embarrass us with some outlandish claim that by zoning their metro with a couple of pages every day and by opening a tiny rented office with a great big sign, that they are somehow a local newspaper in an area they themselves designated as outside their market. They are the ones who should be embarrassed."

News Bites

The greatest of Chicago crime reporters become legends in their lifetimes. One of these was the Tribune's John O'Brien, who died of cancer on October 18, at the age of 66. In his last days he was honored twice. The Chicago Press Veterans Association named O'Brien its veteran of the year, and the Chicago Headline Club gave him its lifetime achievement award.

But both dinners were held the same evening. The Press Veterans had scheduled their event on September 12, but CNN's Wolf Blitzer, chosen to receive the group's two-year-old Daniel Pearl Award for foreign coverage, couldn't make it then. October 3 was the only night both Blitzer and the Embassy Suites banquet room were available, and despite members in common, nobody in either press group noticed the conflict until it was too late to do anything about it.

O'Brien wanted to hit both dinners and really make a night of it, but he barely had the energy to stand up. He chose the Press Veterans, where he'd served two terms as president. His son Tim, a police detective, introduced him, and O'Brien, dressed in a tux, spoke sitting down for about five minutes, reminiscing about one of his first big stories, the 1966 Richard Speck murders. O'Brien knew his way around the eight victims' nursing school better than any other reporter because his wife, Patricia, was a graduate.

Susan Stevens, secretary of the Headline Club and a Press Veterans board member, arrived from the Chicago Athletic Association with the lifetime achievement award, a crystal paperweight inscribed "For improving and protecting journalism."

"He just glowed," says Patricia O'Brien. "I have been to many of these dinners, and I have never seen anybody get a standing ovation."

Tom Frederick, a Reader circulation driver, was dropping off papers at an Italian beef stand in the 1000 block of West Taylor last Thursday night when someone in a car parked in the lot there started shooting at another car in the same lot. Frederick couldn't duck fast enough. He was hit just above the left knee, and though the bullet's still there, he was able to lean on a cane and walk out of Cook County Hospital a few hours later. The ambulance came at once, and an arrest was made within hours. Another nice part of the story is that someone who lives by the beef stand and saw what happened called the Reader to say that he and his neighbors wanted to take up a collection. They figured that our drivers are part-timers and might not have health insurance. Frederick's covered, but the gesture's deeply appreciated.

A clarification. Writing two weeks ago about the late Ted Shen, a long-time Reader contributor, I reported that he and his family came to the U.S. "from China." Let me be more precise. Shen was born in Taipei and came here from Taiwan. Both his 1971 certificate of naturalization and his 1994 American passport identify his country of origin as China, but these documents reflect this country's one-China policy. When Shen was growing up, that China was the Republic of China, commonly known as Taiwan. In 1971 the United Nations ousted the Chinese delegation from Taipei in favor of one from Beijing, and in 1979 the United States formally recognized the People's Republic of China.

A correction: the soccer game between Uruguay and Mexico in Soldier Field I mentioned last week was won by Uruguay.

Blackest night and deepest sorrow

Crush a city come unstrung.

But next spring they might start 4-0.

The century is young.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ole Mortenson--Tilsted.com.

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