There's one thing that underpaid McDonald's workers and underpaid editorial interns at Mother Jones have in common: their employers told them to apply for food stamps. "During our first meeting with HR at Mother Jones, we were advised to sign up for food stamps," an anonymous former MoJo intern told Vice. That intern horror story appears in a bigger story titled, "The Exploited Laborers of the Liberal Media" by Charles Davis. Interns are paid a $1,000 a month stipend, which works out to about $6 an hour in a 40-hour week.
Update 1:54 p.m.: Mother Jones' public affairs director, Elizabeth Gettelman, writes in an email that the company never explicitly encouraged interns or fellows to sign up for food stamps, but that the HR department does explain to its fellows that they qualify for food stamps because they are paid so little. Gettelman emailed The Wire in regards to Vice's reporting:
That's actually not true, we've never advised interns or fellows to sign up for food stamps. It is true that the stipend level qualifies them for food stamps, as do most internships, and our HR director has, in the context of explaining their stipend, said as much, but we've never encouraged anyone to sign up.
Davis's piece raises a mirror onto left-leaning publications like Mother Jones, The Nation (interns make minimum wage), Salon (unpaid), and The New Republic (unpaid) ,and their practices of not-paying or underpaying their interns — the gist here being that these publications promote things like a living wage and drop hammers on corporations like Walmart and McDonald's for not paying their employees enough don't practice what they preach.
The inevitable question is if these publications should be held to a different standard. In the last few months, a spool of stories on unpaid internships has been unraveling thanks to the announcement that Conde Nast, one of the biggest media companies in the world, was going to do away with the practice (a practice is still widespread throughout the media world). Is it somehow more reprehensible that barely-paid internships and food stamp tips (which actually might be practical, but still insulting) at a liberal-leaning publication that rails against companies that don't pay a living wage?
Back in June, MoJo ran an article pointing out that many Walmart employees have to turn to government aid because they aren't paid enough. "Walmart's wages and benefits are so low that many of its employees are forced to turn to the government for aid, costing taxpayers between $900,000 and $1.75 million per store," Thomas Stackpole reported. Is a money-making machine with execs raking in dough while its employees can't buy dinner so different from a MoJo HR person telling interns to go on food stamps while its editors reportedly make more than $167,000 per year? The only difference is the scale. And there's something deeply symbolic about it, because Mother Jones is the publication that won awards for uncovering Mitt Romney's stipulation that 47 percent of the country was just waiting for government handouts.
People are taking this opportunity to shame the left-leaning publications Davis mentions. Some of it is petty partisanship, yes. But some of the anger directed at those sites and magazines is because some, like Davis, believe that the change in the way media companies treats interns should come from them. "If the bleeding hearts aren’t ashamed enough to pay their workers, why should anyone?" Davis asks. We all know the answer to that.
Update 5:19 p.m. Gettelman emailed me another statement from Mother Jones and their internship/fellowship program. Gettelman explained that Mother Jones has tried to improve the stipend it pays interns. She explains that come January 1st, the amount paid to fellows/interns will be above the minimum wage in California (currently $8 per hour, and $9 beginning July 2014). The Mother Jones statement reads:
As a nonprofit investigative news organization, this is an issue that Mother Jones has always felt strongly about, which is why we have been paying our interns a substantive stipend longer than many the industry. It's also why, as of January 1, our 2014 budget increases the base fellowship stipend to $1,500—an amount equivalent to slightly more than California minimum wage. We last heard from Charlie Davis a couple of months ago; had he touched base with us closer to publication, he would have learned of this increase. And another important note: These are not "low-level employees." Our fellows are in an investigative journalism training program. Many fellows have gone on to be hired by Mother Jones (currently, one in five staffers were once fellows), and many others have gone to positions at other leading national publications. We feel we have one of the best programs in the country and we continue to strive to support these journalists-in-training in every way.
And regarding food stamps, from time to time incoming fellows have asked about food stamps. We've shared information about what services might be available to them. As I said earlier, we do not "encourage" or "advise" our fellows to sign up for food stamps. The Vice article included several other inaccuracies, which we'll be discussing with the editors there.