Time Warner — helping minority students or minority pols?

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A much-hyped internship program for inner-city kids created by the Time Warner media giant is a flop — and it’s because the program appears to be designed more to help local minority politicians than minority students.

Not a single Brooklynite has applied this year for the “Connect a Million Minds” internship, which couples a standard online application process with a bizarre — and politically questionable — demand that all applicants “provide a letter of recommendation from a member of the NYS Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.”

The requirement politicizes the search for talented minority kids, said two people involved with it.

“It makes me think you have to have connections,” said Lorianne Gnahoui, an engineering student who considered applying for the program before the March 1 deadline.

Similarly, a Brooklyn adult who is mentoring a Brooklyn Tech HS graduate, added his own concerns about involving his protege in the program.

“They have set up a whole lot of students for disappointment and given them a hard lesson in cronyism,” he said. “It’s a back-door effort for Time Warner to reward legislators. I guarantee you that minority kids are not hanging out with caucus members.”

The two-month paid internship, dubbed Connect a Million Minds, is supposed to be open to anyone studying math or science in higher education with above a 2.8 GPA.

But when The Brooklyn Paper called all 13 Brooklyn members of the minority caucus to inquire about obtaining a recommendation letter, we discovered a system rife with incompetence, potential corruption, ignorance — or all three.

“We don’t give letters to people we don’t know,” said Demecia Wooten-Irizarry, chief of staff for Assemblyman Darryl Towns (D–Bushwick).

Other staffers for caucus members revealed that the internship program is like a latter-day patronage mill:

• Assemblyman Nick Perry (D–Flatbush): “It helps if we know their parents.”

• Assemblywoman Annette Robinson (D-Bedford-Stuyvesant):“Well, we wouldn’t just give them to anyone walking down the street.”

• Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D–Prospect Heights): “I don’t know the criteria; that wouldn’t be something that’s easy to explain.”

• Assemblyman Felix Ortiz (D–Sunset Park): “It’s the first I’ve heard of this program.” He declined to comment further.

• State Sen. Eric Adams (D–Park Slope): “I’m not just gonna give you a letter because you come into my office and ask for one. … I want to know your biography, what church do you attend, if you are a Boy Scout — stuff like that.”

But after he had a few days to think it over, Adams called us back to admit that the program has a major flaw.

“The average person is petrified of walking into a government office,” he said.

The other seven members of the caucus — Assemblyman William Boyland, Assemblywoman Inez Barron, state Sen. John Sampson, state Sen. Kevin Parker, state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery and state Sen. Martin Dilan — did not want to talk about the program, which Time Warner said it launched “to inspire students.” (An eighth caucus member, Assemblyman Karim Camara, could not be reached for comment.)

Instead, those students end up with a solid example of realpolitik.

Just before the internship program was launched in 2009, the company aggressively lobbied Albany lawmakers, including Towns, about “cable television matters,” according to public records.

Lawmakers at the time were reviewing whether New York should ditch a contract with a competing telecommunications company called MA/COM that had won a $2-billion contract with the state.

The lobbying apparently paid off: The state cancelled the contract in January, 2009.

Time Warner honchos in charge of the program did not return several calls seeking comment, but company spokeswoman Suzanne Giuliani said that the demand for a recommendation letter was “a way of helping to spread the word.”

It hasn’t worked. No interns have been hired and only a handful has applied. None has requested letters from the Brooklyn caucus members.

“It’s definitely odd,” said Lisa Syron, a director with Student Advocacy, a New York-based education rights group that helps poor students get the best possible educational opportunities.

She’s right that the requirement is rare. Disney, Honeywell International and Google — to name a few — all have a similar internship programs, but none makes students get lawmakers to vouch for them in print.

“Employers benefit from a letter of recommendation when it is written by someone who knows the applying student intern well,” Syron said. “But how many people know an elected official?”

Updated 2:31 pm, February 25, 2011: Now includes a comment from another member of the caucus.
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Reader Feedback

Roger Clegg from Falls Church says:
This is wrong, but the whole approach of limiting the program to "minority" kids is wrong, too. Diamonds in the rough come in all colors.
Feb. 24, 2011, 9:05 am
Natalie O'Neill says:
Hi Roger,

The program is technically open to students of all races. It targets minority kids, though.

Thanks for reading!

Natalie O'Neill
The Brooklyn Paper
(718) 260-4505
Feb. 24, 2011, 10:39 am
Frank from Flatbush says:
"and it’s because the program appears to be designed more to help local minority politicians than minority students."

Natalie, how exactly is this program designed to help local pols? While you lead with that, you do nothing to expand on that.

The quotes from pols themselves seem reasonable, they aren't going to write a reference letter for someone they don't know.

While I agree it is odd that they require a letter from a minority pol, I'm sure if these pols were out to rig the system, we'd have some applicants. Now if you uncovered that the interns were all pollitically connected, well then you have something.

Plenty to hammer most pols on, but this seems like a reach.
Feb. 24, 2011, 11:50 am
Colin from Sunset Park says:
Frank, I think it's mostly a criticism of Time Warner's failures more than a specific criticism of actual Brooklyn politicians -- as you said, there's no evidence that that any influence was successfully wielded for patronage.

I wonder how the other borough's minority legislators handled this program.
Feb. 24, 2011, 12:56 pm
Joe from Gowanus says:
They should focus on fixing my cable.
Feb. 24, 2011, 2:23 pm
DeMecia wooten-Irizarry from Cypress Hills says:
As a professional social worker, I am bound by the NASW (National Association of Social Workers) code of ethics. Likewise, I understand that professional journalist have a similar code. This code was developed by the Society of Professional Journalist, and organization that has been in existence since 1909. Among other things, that code specifies the following:

"Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it."
"Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story."

I do not know what happened in other legislative offices, but in my case, approximately two weeks or more ago someone pretending to be a student requested a letter of recommendation. When asked about community references, this person could not provide a source, that is to say, an organization or individual that could attest to their community service. This reference could have been a pastor, teacher, or other student who had been tutored. Is a NYS Assembly Member who represents well over 100,00 individuals provide recommendations without any understanding of who the individual is--I think not.
Feb. 24, 2011, 2:39 pm
Michael from Ft Greene says:
I have to agree with Frank. Where is the political patronage? Is TW paying some fee to the politicians or was there some back-door contribution?

Was the money for the internships put into some sort of account for the Caucus to manage (that means use but never pay out)?
Feb. 24, 2011, 3:16 pm
J School Professor from Downtown says:
This is a bad piece of gotcha journalism. I mean where are the students who didn't get the internships, and lost out to students with politically connected families? If no students applied, how is that a patronage mill?

Sounds like Time Warner just isn't publicizing this program as much as they do free HBO for three months etc...

I'd love to see you get at the crooks in Albany, but when something sloppy like this is put out to make them look bad, it undermines a solid piece of investigative journalism.

And then not to properly attribute the quotes to specific staffers, don't let me get into that one. Ugh.
Feb. 24, 2011, 3:30 pm
Law Guy from Brooklyn Heights says:
I disagree with J School Professor. This is a good piece of journalism, but the "gotcha" is on Time Warner not the legislators.

The students who "didn't get the internships" are the ones who didn't even apply because they could not imagine asking a politician to write them a letter of recommendation. (I know I would never try such a thing.)

I didn't read the article as an attack on the legislators -- but as rightly questioning why Time Warner is rewarding politicians by getting their "people" into these internships instead of opening up the internships to anybody.

I don't expect the legislators to give a letter of recommendations to a stranger. If Time Warner thought the legislators would or should so, that just shows the pointlessness of the letter requirement.
Feb. 24, 2011, 3:43 pm
Poor Felix from Red Hook says:
How does Assemblyman Felix Ortiz feel about the Brooklyn Paper leaving him out of the caucus?
Feb. 24, 2011, 3:54 pm
Jim Vogel from Park Slope says:
I was very disappointed by this article.

In my capacity as staff to Senator Montgomery I spoke to the reporter several times and asked her exactly what the story was that she was trying to write. I am happy to see she didn't make the reckless allegations she originally proposed, although the title and tone of the piece seem intended to ooze innuendo, all of it inaccurate.

It was explained to the reporter that it is not uncommon for the Senator's office to prepare letters of recommendation, but only for individuals known to the office or who can provide other references from teachers, ministers, parents, etc., all of which are verified.

It was also explained that we had no knowledge of this scholarship program before the reporter called, and so we couldn't comment on it. She seemed to think it was professional for us to comment on information only she provided to us, without sufficient corroboration.

After 45 minutes of explanation and several emails (all of which are available) it certainly wasn't a matter of 'not wanting to talk about the program:' it was a matter of not having anything to say about a program we knew nothing about and refusing to speculate for the amusement of a fishing reporter.
Feb. 24, 2011, 6:23 pm
With all the lousy things Time Warner does, THIS is what you report on? This is the best you could do? How about an article about how Time Warner forces consumers to buy channels they don't want and find objectionable? How about an article on their lousy customer service? How about an article on how landlords sign deals with Time Warner that allows only Time Warner cable and broadband internet access to be used in the entire building? How about what they do in the state legislature? Instead we get this? Sigh
Feb. 24, 2011, 9:09 pm
Colin from Sunset Park says:
CitizenJay, doesn't this potentially has connections to "what they do in the state legislature"?
Feb. 24, 2011, 9:40 pm
Cynthia from Clinton Hill says:
Roger Clegg from Falls Church says:
This is wrong, but the whole approach of limiting the program to "minority" kids is wrong, too. Diamonds in the rough come in all colors.
Ok if it was the other way around and it targeted "white kids" and any other races. this woundnt be a issue
Feb. 25, 2011, 6:19 am
Brooklyn Boy from Prospect Heights says:
It appears that the scholarship helps neither minority students or minority elected officials.

congratulations on coming off as less credible then members of the new york state legislature.

is there an award for that?
Feb. 25, 2011, 3:47 pm
Kathy from Slope says:
Updated 02:38 pm, February, 25 2011: Now includes a comment from another member of the caucus.

Now is this a direct quote from Felix Ortiz, as the update footnote indicates? Because if so, Ortiz's quote is attributed just the same as the one's from staffers-thus leading to a lot of confusion.
Feb. 25, 2011, 4:21 pm
Abdul Jalil from BedStuy says:
The corruption of politicians is legendary, and their methods to conceal their corruptions are equally legendary. Their is an ongoing issue of at least 7 politicians convicted of stealing tax payers money, but still allowed to collect up to 6 figure pensions. Political deals with the ultra wealthy are also instances legends are made of, if the methods to reveal them or catch them are some what unsavory so be it. We must not be so naive, as to trust that they have our (the masses) interest at heart; originally cable was supposed to be free.
Feb. 27, 2011, 11:43 pm
Abdul Jalil from BedStuy says:
It maybe that, doing such an act shields Time/Warner from some unwanted scrutiny (legendary methods), and yes diamonds in the rough come in all colors; but contrast that with a system that was built to cater to one. So yeah my family didn't own slaves but they definitely benefited from the institution of slavery, and helped to create a entire race of disenfranchised race of people, all in the spirit of denial.
Feb. 28, 2011, 12:07 am
Gersh from Editor says:
Some questions have been raised throughout this debate about The Brooklyn Paper's journalistic integrity. It should be noted that the story was prepared with the help of a student intern.

The resulting article met our high standards for journalistic ethics and urgency.

March 9, 2011, 3:41 pm
Shelton from Bed-Stuy says:
This article is clearly a biased attack on the Black & Hispanic Caucus with no substance at all.

The ill-informed comments by the paper and lost souls who swallow this yellow journalism is even more astounding.

Clearly the Time Warner scholarship program is designed just as many congressional programs are structured. Do you want to get into West Point? You BETTER have a letter of support from your congressman and or Senator. The same goes for the Air Force and Naval Academy. Is that cronyism?
I guess Congress is promoting cronyism and scaring students away with these "obviously self-serving" requirements. I count over 30 fellowships and scholarships at the Federal and State level that require letters of support AND/OR sponsorship by the students local politician. WHY?

That's called a lesson in civics. The process has been with us over 150 years and strengthens rather than diminishes our participatory democracy. It elevates our elected leaders to positions of respect and responsibility.

In the case of Time Warner it guarantees that Time Warner is not accused of selecting recipients willynilly because the peoples elected representatives are at least giving letters of reference to deserving students. It might even increase student awareness of who their representatives, awareness of how the politica lprocess works and encourage participation.

Of course if its minority children we forget all that and attack the very people trying to help them.

What a disappointing and offensive article.
March 10, 2011, 1:57 am
brooklynite from red hook says:
How silly to call this a biased attack on anybody. This is an article about an irrational process that was never thought out. The internship is not funded by New York State and thus there is no parallel to the military academies, where the legislative body that created the academies has (unfortunately in my view) set it up so they have a say in who gets to go. In any case, there are no "letters of support" from a congressman to get in. One needs a "nomination" from a congressman and if you go to any congressman's webpage, they have a whole process to get it (an application form, a committee that reviews applications, etc.). Here, of course, the point is that there is no process and most members of the caucus don't know anything about it. This is not their fault. This is Time Warner's fault for creating this ridiculous requirement. Minority children are not being helped by this requirement. I'll venture to say that most are being dissuaded from applying.
March 13, 2011, 6:45 pm

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