Monday, November 30, 2009

Huckabee and Horton

By some estimations, the handicapping of GOP contenders for the 2012 presidential derby has already started. Certain names (Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Bobby Jindal, Mitt Romney) we’ve heard before. Others (Newt Gingrich and [God help us] Dick Cheney) may be no more than stalking horses, conversation starters at the Georgetown cocktail parties where the best laid Republican plans to recapture the White House are being hatched.

One of those possible Oval Office aspirants may have more of an uphill slog than previously thought. Like an earlier presidential hopeful on the other side of the aisle, Mike Huckabee already has some ‘splainin to do.

Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and one-time Krispy Kreme enthusiast, once made full use of the gubernatorial powers of clemency in 2000 by granting a pardon to one Maurice Clemmons — commuting a 95-year prison sentence for aggravated robbery.

Clemmons has a long rap sheet, including five felony convictions in Arkansas. After Huckabee’s clemency, Clemmons broke parole and went back to prison in July 2001. Clemmons was released in March 2004, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper. He moved to Washington state later that year.

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Inexplicably, despite having at least eight felony charges in Washington state — including a third-degree assault on a police officer and a second-degree child-rape charge that ordinarily carries a possible life sentence — Clemmons was released from the Pierce County Jail last week.

He is now the suspect in the execution-style killing of four police officers from the Lakewood, Wash., police department, on Sunday morning. Clemmons is suspected of having shot the four officers as they sat in a Forza coffee shop in Parkland, Wash., before their shift.

One of the officers is believed to have wounded Clemmons before he fled the scene. At this writing, Clemmons hasn’t been found despite an exhaustive multi-agency dragnet and a $145,000 reward for information leading to his capture and conviction.

But for Huckabee, one of the more affable and telegenic Republican candidates last year, Clemmons is already something of a political liability. Those political observers with reasonably good memories know why.

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See, if he runs in 2012, Huckabee will be forced to contend with the specter of one Willie Horton, a convicted rapist who was released from prison on a furlough program in June 1986 by then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, only to return to a life of crime, raping a woman and assaulting her fiancé in Oxon Hill, Md., in April 1987.  He remains in prison in Maryland.

Horton’s weekend release by Dukakis was used early & often by his principal Republican challenger, George Herbert Walker Bush, in the 1988 presidential campaign as a way of suggesting that Dukakis was soft on crime, and lacking the judgment to be president.

The prison mug shot of Horton was used in a GOP campaign ad pillorying Dukakis for his action; the Horton debacle was widely seen as one of the reasons for Dukakis' fail in his quest for the presidency.

Fast forward 21 years: Another Mike’s doing damage control for a campaign, but this time for one that may not get off the ground.

Huckabee talked to Fox Radio today. :”If I could have known nine years ago, would I have acted favorably upon the parole board’s recommendation? Of course not.”

He said much the same thing again when he was encountered by a reporter from KLRT-TV, the Fox affiliate in Little Rock: “Well, it’s a horrible, horrible thing, what happened in Washington,” Huckabee said. “I just think that the fact that he was ever here breaks all of our hearts that he would kill four police officers in cold blood. … It was my decision based on what was in front of me, not nine years in front of me.”

If only the Republicans in 1988 had been so accommodating, so respectful of a Democratic candidate’s similar inability to predict the future.

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Huckabee isn’t getting any love from at least one of the state officials he dealt with when he was governor. Larry Jegley, the prosecutor for Pulaski County, Ark., where Clemmons was previously tried and convicted, told NBC News that “I think the clemency power was overused by our former governor, and I think this is a bitter harvest we are reaping because of it.”

The Associated Press reported Monday that a study by the Arkansas Leader newspaper found that from 1996 to 2004, Huckabee freed more Arkansas prisoners on his watch “than were freed from all of Arkansas' six neighboring states — combined.”

The AP reported that in 2004, The Democrat-Gazette determined that “9 percent of the prisoners who benefited from Huckabee's clemencies ended up in prison again.”

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It’s way early to know if Huckabee’s gubernatorial gaffe will haunt him in any future campaigns. He’s not a lock to run in 2012 anyway, and right now, polling suggests that the candidate best equipped to be the Republican standard-bearer in the ’12 contest is somebody named “Other.”

If he does throw his hat into a ring that’s sure to get crowded in the next year and a half, Huckabee can count on Clemmons keeping him company all the days of his campaign.

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner once observed in “Requiem for a Nun.”  “It’s not even past.” Mike Huckabee knows that all too well.

Image credits: Huckabee: © 2008 David Ball. Clemmons: Washington Department of Corrections. Horton screenshot: Republican Party ad.

Of Time and the latest ‘Decade From Hell’

We knew it was bad, but not this bad.

The first of the valedictories to this fast-vanishing year is in. The '00s: Goodbye (at Last) to the Decade From Hell, written by Time Magazine’s Andy Serwer and published on Nov. 24, is a categorically downbeat overview of the years of the 2000’s, one with much to recommend it, and much to dispel.

“[T]he first 10 years of this century will very likely go down as the most dispiriting and disillusioning decade Americans have lived through in the post–World War II era,” Serwer writes. We’d like to get this one in the books, too. Given the generally depressed mood loose in the nation, Andy Serwer can be forgiven for walking with his head down looking at the sidewalk. But gloom is a relative thing; there’s down and there’s … down.

Much of Serwer’s argument centers on the various aspects of the nation’s precarious financial condition — the foreclosure crisis, corporate bankruptcies and bailouts, average per-capita income, and a general sense of economic malaise. By and large, his argument in this department can’t be argued with. The American economy circled the drain last year and this one in a way unseen since the Great Depression.
Our economic narcissism was certainly the culprit in the devastation wrought by financial markets, which have subjected us to an increasingly frequent series of crashes, frauds and recessions. To a great degree, this was brought about by a lethal combination of irresponsible deregulation and accommodating monetary policies instituted by the Federal Reserve. Bankers and financial engineers had an unsupervised free-market free-for-all just as the increased complexity of financial products — e.g., derivatives — screamed out for greater regulation or at least supervision. Enron, for instance, was a bastard child of a deregulated utilities industry and a mind-bending financial alchemy.
Serwer rightly points out that a history of malign neglect is partly to blame for our current situation. By ignoring everything from the financial system to the warnings about al-Qaida’s ad hoc terrorism mechanics, from the general infrastructure of the nation’s roads and bridges to the general infrastructure of the levees that failed to protect New Orleans from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, this nation has no one to blame for many of its problems but itself.

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But elsewhere Serwer opens himself up to challenge. “Calling the 2000s ‘the worst’ may seem an overwrought label in a decade in which we fought no major wars, in historical terms,” he says.

It is overwrought, sir. We’ve been at war since 2002, when the Afghanistan incursion began in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That war was followed by the shock & awe invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Between 4,000 and 5,000 Americans have died in those wars since they began.

An estimated 60-70 million people died during World War II. In the Cold War that followed, Russia saw between 10 and 15 million people killed during Stalin’s reign of postwar terror. Between 10 million and 20 million Chinese are thought to have died during the war, and another estimated 50 million were lost during the Maoist postwar era (which included the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution).

For its part, the United States lost 418,500 forces during World War II; 36,500 forces during the Korean War; and more than 58,000 during the Vietnam War.

The 2000s are “the worst”? Not quite, Mr. Serwer. By the perfectly reasonable pain-metric of casualties, both for the United States and the world as a whole, the first years of the 21st century pale in comparison to previous decades, whose body counts outstrip those of the present day by orders of magnitude.

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Serwer’s assertion that “the idea that terrorists can attack anytime and anywhere is new and profoundly unsettling” is just not true. The terrorism that achieved its malignant fruition on Sept. 11, 2001, had its origins in the 1970s and ‘80s, when the Baader-Meinhof crew, the Red Brigades, ETA and other bad actors (state-sponsored and otherwise) hijacked planes with impunity, bombed airport terminals, and pursued the indiscriminate attacks that were a precursor to the terrorism we see today.

How far back do you want to go? There’s the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, in 1988. Or Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in New Delhi, in 1984. Or the 161 Marines killed in a bomb blast in Beirut in 1983. Or the Korean airliner shot down by the Soviets the same year. Or the bomb-blast murder of the Lebanese president-elect in 1982, or the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981. “Profoundly unsettling”? Without question. “New”? Get real.

And Serwer’s sense of the impact of American accomplishment is certainly open to debate. “Sure,” he says, “some amazingly great things happened this decade, from the stunning rise of China to Apple's dazzling array of new products to the feats of sprinter Usain Bolt to our nation rallying (at least temporarily) around its first African-American President. But all that seems more like counterpoint rather than the main act.”

The idea that this nation’s election of its first black president — and its attendant power of beginning to redress a monumental national wrong — should be nothing more than “counterpoint” is a curious assessment of one of the most transformative events in our politics.

More than a feelgood moment, the election of Barack Obama signaled a change in the nation’s self-perception, and by extension a change in the default imagery of Americans that’s communicated around the world. In everything from galvanizing our relationships with our old global partners to being the catalyst for a new baseline of relations with the Islamic world, a President Obama is hardly insignificant — maybe not “the main act” but hardly a sideshow.

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There’s still a lot to be hopeful for. After generations of immobility, the United States stands — just maybe — on the cusp of the most sweeping health-care reform since Medicare was enacted in 1966. We’ve seen quantum leaps in our technology and made breakthroughs in medicine; and we’ve seen those advances move from the laboratory to the world of applied science (read: products and medicines you can buy) with breathtaking speed.

And in the face of the current economy, Americans are increasingly animated by a DIY ethos that’s led to the launch of small businesses and grassroots civic initiatives, projects that show Americans doing what they’ve always done in good times and bad: make a way for themselves on their own terms. That’s hardly bad news.

No question, there’s a lot to be downbeat about. But let’s keep things in perspective. People thought the years of the Great Depression were the worst for America, too, and with good reason (better reason than we have to think that way domestically about the 2000’s). Hot damn it, we’re Americans. Chastened yes, fearful yes, skeptical without a doubt. When you’re used to being a high flier, you’re subject to the humbling from time to time.

But we’ve been under the gun before, and we’re still standing. Relatively speaking, we’re no closer to hitting the canvas now than we’ve been in the past —

During previous Decades from Hell.

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Oh — and not to be a party pooper, but since Andy Serwer balances his checkbook in the base 10 number system (like most everyone else) and surely doesn’t start counting from zero, maybe he’ll revisit these sobering assessments and enlarge on them at a later time — preferably closer to when the decade really ends: at 11:59:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2010.

Image credits: Time cover: © 2009 Time Inc. Survivors, Ebensee concentration camp, 1945: Lt. A.E.  Samuelson, U.S. Army (public domain). Pan Am 103, Lockerbie, Scotland: Via BBC News. Obama: Still from AP video.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

War and the economy, 2008 and now

In March 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama, even then approaching a glide path to the White House, spoke to campaign supporters in Charleston, W. Va., and began a unification of seemingly separate events — one with eerie parallels to the present day.

On March 3, noting a shift in the focus of Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war, The Washington Post's Peter Slevin reported that Obama “contend[s] that bringing the troops home would liberate cash for economic investment, infrastructure improvements and ... improved care for hundreds of thousands of war veterans and their families."

Addressing his backers, Obama made the connection between the Iraq War of Convenience and the perilous state of the economy, connecting it where people could understand it: on their everyday bottom lines.

When you're spending over $50 to fill up your car because the price of oil is four times what it was before Iraq, you're paying a price for this war," Obama said. "When Iraq is costing each household about $100 a month, you're paying a price for this war."

"For what folks in this state have been spending on the Iraq war, we could be giving health care to nearly 450,000 of your neighbors, hiring nearly 30,000 new elementary school teachers, and making college more affordable for over 300,000 students," he said, according to The Associated Press.

Speaking to The Post, Rep. Sherrod Brown of Ohio explained where his constituents were at on the issue of the Iraq war.

"They are starting to understand this economically," Brown said. "They are seeing that, because of tax cuts and because of the immense cost of the war, they aren't getting what they need locally.' "

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Fast forward 20 months later. Now-President Barack Obama is set to announce, on Tuesday at West Point, his long-awaited strategy on how to proceed with the war in Afghanistan. The expectation is that Obama will approve the Pentagon's request for more troops. How many troops we won’t know for sure until the president’s address; various media reports have said about 34,000 more troops will be sent (these in addition to the 21,000 earmarked for deployment earlier this year).

But setting aside for now the huge problem that even a modest escalation in U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would create for Obama’s relationship with his base, the president faces the risk of being hoist on his own petard vis-à-vis the domestic impact of a foreign conflict.

The same unity of foreign entanglement and domestic fiscal instability that Obama wielded on the campaign trail last year now works against him in the White House.

It’s no sleight of hand: just substitute the Afghan war for the Iraq war. One has the potential to be as financially ruinous for the American economy as the other.

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Steve Clemons, the editor of The Washington Note, a noted political blog, writing on Talking Points Memo on Nov. 23, observed that the Pentagon estimates “each new troop addition that the United States sends to Afghanistan will cost about $500,000. The White House is suggesting the price tag will be double that amount - or $1 million per new soldier per year.

“And can I add that these figures do not seem to include the long-term health costs that the U.S. commits to with our soldiers — nor other ongoing benefits.

“That means that a surge of 40,000 troops will cost approximately $40 billion on top of the $65 billion/year the U.S. is currently spending on its military deployments.”

Clemons’ back-of-the-pushed-envelope estimate may be a tad high, or not. Some military planners have been a little more thrifty, placing the extra annual cost — assuming Gen. Stanley McChrystal's troop recommendation of 40,000 forces is adopted intact — at $33 billion. White House officials have said the real amount is more like $50 billion.

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One White House official recently went off message in a way that revealed the conflicted thinking about the Afghan mission. Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, recently cabled Washington voicing his own concerns of the wisdom of sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

Eikenberry’s concern focuses on Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and its recent history of corruption and fraud — a legacy that Eikenberry (a former Army lieutenant general) thinks may have contributed to the renascence of the Taliban, which by some estimates now controls about 80 percent of Afghanistan.

“Eikenberry's last-minute interventions have highlighted the nagging undercurrent of the policy discussion: the U.S. dependence on a partnership with a Karzai government whose incompetence and corruption is a universal concern within the administration,” The Washington Post reported Nov. 12.

For his part, Karzai has expressed doubts about the tango between his country and the United States. “The West is not here primarily for the sake of Afghanistan,” Karzai told PBS's “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” earlier this month. “It is here to fight terrorism. The United States and its allies came to Afghanistan after September 11. Afghanistan was troubled like hell before that, too. Nobody bothered about us.”

This is our partner in fighting the Afghan War? Show some love, Hamid.

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President Obama is facing a daunting balancing act of priorities: weighing the impact of any American commitment there, how effective Karzai can be as a leader with so many of his own people arrayed against him; how effective Afghan security forces can be in defending their own country; the role of fractious, nuclear-capable Pakistan as a neighbor; and Obama’s assessment of what can actually be accomplished to stem an insurgency whose repulsion may be a challenge on par with turning back the tide.

And it’s a challenge that the United States faces even as the dimensions of the domestic economic crisis have become frighteningly theoretical.

To this point, the issue of the cost of maintaining our military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has been addressed in rhetorical discussions of a seemingly endless river of dollars, in calculator-freezing amounts bearing zeroes that almost run off the page — calculations that suggest the American economy is a source of funds extracted from a bottomless tranche.

A trillion here, a trillion there and pretty soon, you’re talking about real money. Money that could go to give health care to how many hundreds of thousands of Americans, to hire how many tens of thousands of elementary school teachers, and make college more affordable for hundreds of thousands of students.

When President Obama speaks on Tuesday, in an address already being touted as potentially the most important of his young presidency, he’ll hopefully explain to the American people how he plans to square this maddening circle, reconcile the prosecution of what he’s called a “war of necessity” with the equal necessities of attention to a domestic economy hanging on by its fingernails’ fingernails.

The president has repeatedly proven his ability to bring the big concepts, the irresistible national issues, down to something people can understand, and even embrace. That rhetorical gift of distilling explanation may never be more necessary than now.

Image credits: Obama top: transplanted mountaineer, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. . U.S. casualties: via NBC News. Karzai: Harald Dettenborn. Obama bottom: The White House.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Mapping the American waistline

You might have missed it a week or so ago, probably busy with the mental checklist of what to buy for today’s Thanksgiving dinner. The Huffington Post featured it recently: a world map with the continents misshapen and swollen in an array of colors, a map that tells a story of the modern world without a word.

The United Nations World Food Programme compiled and produced the map, a graphic illustration of per-capita calorie consumption on a nation-by-nation basis. For some reason, the so-called fat map (created in 2006) wasn’t released, apparently — before earlier this month, anyway.

Dovetailing with the United Nations food summit in Rome on Nov. 16, Princess Haya Bint al Hussein, UN Messenger of Peace and a former Goodwill Ambassador for the World Food Program, wrote a passionate piece in HuffPost on hunger, food losses and overconsumption — an essay illustrated with the fat map.

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Even accounting for the fact that the map is at least three years old, its mute conclusion is inescapable: there’s an imbalance in the world’s caloric consumption, one that’s especially concerning because in this country, there’s both a surplus of food (the United States is one of the more swollen continents on the fat map) and a consumption of the wrong food.

With our tendency to overeat in America, often with fast food; an aversion to physical exercise; a culture that celebrates size and excess; and demanding work schedules that help make nutrition a catch-as-catch-can affair, there’s a kind of malnourishment amid plenty, a full-bellied starvation.

“American society has become 'obesogenic,' characterized by environments that promote increased food intake, nonhealthful foods, and physical inactivity,” the federal Centers for Disease Control says at its Web site.

The CDC recently released a map with its own revelations, one that shows the prevalence of obesity on a county-by-county basis, mostly on an apparently relentless march through the southern states.

The princess, writing about the United States, observes:
”We pay dearly for this overconsumption. Recent calculations set obesity-related health spending just in the United States at $150-$200 billion -- more than all foreign aid worldwide. The cost of extra medical care for the obese runs as high as $1400 per person annually.

“Food losses are another reflection of our embrace of excess. Each year … U.S. households lose or discard 14 percent of their food.”

The World Food Programme has done us a brittle sort of favor by showing us, cartographically, what we’ve already known, and what those of us in the United States will celebrate today: we remain the masters of conspicuous consumption. To recognize that, the only maps we really need are the ones we know intimately, the cartography of those personal equators we call our waistlines.

Image credits: Fat map: World Food Programme via The Huffington Post. Obesity map: Centers for Disease Control. Thanksgiving dinner: Alcinoe (public domain, via Wikipedia)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Culchavox to Kentucky: My bad

Apologies to the people of Kentucky are apparently in order. One of the strangest and ugliest deaths in recent memory, a passing that outwardly bore the hallmarks of another example of American intolerance, is apparently nothing more than an act of cynicism perpetrated by none other than the one who died.

Bill Sparkman, a 51-year-old U.S. Census field worker and substitute teacher, was found hanged Sept. 12 in the Daniel Boone National Forest in rural southeast Kentucky. According to witnesses and authorities, Sparkman’s body was discovered naked and gagged, his hands and feet bound by duct tape with the word “Fed” scrawled across his chest with a felt-tip pen.

The weight of available evidence suggested Sparkman’s death was a homicide, one with all the vicious imagery of a hate crime. To this blogger, who rushed to judgment like a lot of people, it had all the earmarks of a classic anti-government hate crime — one I thought was all the more deeply disturbing because of presumed associations between the federal government and the African American president who now runs the government.

Every picture doesn’t always tell a story. The Associated Press reported today that Sparkman's death was an elaborately choreographed suicide. “Investigators said … what they had been hinting at for weeks, that Bill Sparkman's hanging was a ruse to mask his suicide for a big insurance payout. ...

“[I]nvestigators noticed the foot-tall letters scrawled in black felt-tip pen looked like they could have been written by the victim himself, and they soon found out that he believed he had cancer, had two insurance policies worth $600,000, and had an adult son in need of money.

“The key clue was the lack of defense wounds — the only visible marks on his body were a furrow around his neck and insect bites,” The AP reported.

"If there is ever a homicide, a healthy person would put up a good fight and you would see injury and trauma to the neck and to the arms," said Dr. Cristin Rolf, deputy state medical examiner.

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The AP provided this chronology of events:

“On Sept. 12, the Kentucky resident drove his Chevy pickup — packed with a rope, a roll of duct tape and some red rags — deep into the Kentucky woods, where outsiders are mostly treated with distrust and apprehension. He stripped down to his socks and walked to a nearby cemetery.

“He taped his ankles and wrists, but his wrists were bound so loosely that he had considerable mobility, leaving investigators to believe he could have done the taping himself, authorities said. He scrawled the word "fed" upside down on his chest, taped his Census Bureau ID to his head, stuck a red cloth into his mouth and placed another piece of tape over it.

“Sparkman then strung a rope from a tree, placed a noose around his neck, and leaned forward, using his own body weight to cut off oxygen to his brain, investigators said.

“He likely became lightheaded from lack of oxygen, then lost consciousness. ‘It would not be an excruciating death,’ said Mike Wilder, executive director of the state medical examiner's office.

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What makes my assumptions about the character of the state of Kentucky even worse was the attempt to contextualize Sparkman's death against the state’s known but relatively distant history of racialist lynchings:

"In the boom years of lynching, between 1882 and 1930, Kentucky would be the third deadliest state for blacks to die by lynching. Between 1865 and 1940, at least 353 people in the state were killed by lynch mobs; one scholar says 75 percent of them were black."

It was a character assassination by history book, and Kentuckians would be right to object.

Like most anyone in the blogosphere, I take some snarky pride in calling them like I see them. When I get it utterly, forensically wrong, I like to own the admission that I didn’t see what I thought I saw.

Culchavox to Kentucky: My bad.

Image credits: Bill Sparkman: Source unknown. Rudzinski and Wilder: AP/Brian Bohannon.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Black media’s new world re-order

The world of media is in a profound state of flux right now. Many will even say it’s in trouble. Down is up, green is red; the bloviated dynasties of old media have been forced to cope with change thrust upon them by the learned rabble, who’ve managed to do their own deals with the moneychangers outside the fortress walls. Now the great unwashed are pulling down the drawbridge. Yea, verily, all bets are off.

The New York Times, which seems to make per-copy price increases at least a semi-regular thing, has sold much of itself to a Mexican billionaire. The News Corporation empire of master of the dark arts Rupert Murdoch seems to be in a holding pattern, as it grapples with mountains of debt and grassroots protest against its very style of editorial judgment. Even the white-shoe media world of Condé Nast is shaky with the closure of two magazines, layoffs and belt-tightening turmoil (subscribers to Wired magazine know this all too well: now we’re forced to contend with no fewer than four of those annoying blow-in get-a-subscription cards that fall to the floor with every issue).

So it goes without saying that the same thing’s true for black media. Buoyed by the dawn of the Obama administration and the prospect of an elevation in the profile of African American journalists, black media has been making its own adjustments to the current economy. In the process, it seems, there’s a new order taking shape, one that’s roughly analogous to the changes in the wider mediasphere. And it’s just getting started.

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The shakeout in black media is distilled by the challenges facing Ebony Magazine, truly the granddady of ‘em all. Launched in 1942 on a shoestring by John H. Johnson, Ebony became the voice of a black America very much finding its voice. The magazine’s urbane formula of racial uplilft and celebrations of conspicuous consumption dovetailed with the emotional dictates of the civil rights movement.

Johnnie L. Roberts, in Newsweek, reported in September that Johnson Publishing Company would entertain serious offers for Ebony magazine.
“Johnson Publishing’s chairman and CEO, Linda Johnson Rice, has reached what must have been an agonizing decision: Johnson Publishing is seeking a buyer or investor for its flagship publication, Ebony, in an effort aimed at securing the survival of the nation’s oldest magazine devoted to African-American life. It’s unclear whether the company’s other properties, including Jet, would be part of a possible sale.

“According to media and investment executives familiar with the developments, Chicago-based Rice, the daughter of Ebony’s legendary founder, the late John H. Johnson, has approached, among others, Time Inc., Viacom, and private investors that include buyout firms.”

The most immediate reason is Ebony’s sad decline in advertising revenue. Newsweek’s breakdown:
"… Ebony's advertising pages and ad revenues have declined in each of the last three years, even during periods when the industry was flat to positive. Among the 243 magazines tracked by the Publishers Information Bureau, ad pages plunged an average of 28 percent, with revenues falling by 21 percent, in the first half of 2009 compared with the same period a year earlier. But Ebony's decline was sharper, as advertising dived almost 35 percent, dragging revenues down almost 32 percent, to $18.8 million from 2008's $27.7 million. And the deterioration of Jet magazine, Ebony's sister publication, was even more severe—about 40 percent in ad pages and revenues.”

For others, though, Ebony’s fall from grace has as much to do with the era in which it attempts to survive. Mark Reynolds, a writer and African American scholar and journalist, wrote of Ebony’s decline in a Nov. 23 PopMatters essay:
”For years it had been the flagship media brand of black pop culture, proving to the world (including, crucially, black folk themselves) that black was indeed beautiful. But by the turn of the new millennium, that lesson was less in need of telling, especially with newer brands like Vibe speaking to contemporary life with a style and energy Ebony never bothered to muster. In a world of designer restaurants and celebrity chefs, Ebony was the staid family diner whose tried-and-true dishes were showing their age at long last, a fact borne out by circulation figures already on the downswing…”

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Another venerable title took a hit., the Web adjunct of the celebrated black women’s magazine, suffered collateral damage in the wake of recent layoffs at Time Inc., Essence’s parent company.

The magazine lost 18 people, including (according to Gawker) the entire online editorial team, in early November. The Essence massacre was part of a broad and deep wave of cuts at other magazines owned by Time Inc., publishing arm of Time Warner. The purge is set to continue at least until the end of the month.

However much it saves on the short-term bottom line, these nonstop firings really amount to being serious deletions from the institutional hard drives of some of America’s most widely-read magazines, from Time to Sports Illustrated to People and more besides. When the cuts at Time Warner are over, what’s left but the shell of a magazine, one without the names and talents people used to pay for?

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Vibe, it seems, may have dodged a bullet. The magazine started by Quincy Jones in 1993 — once the journal that explained hiphop and rap to a wider audience, and whose early journalism on the subject had gravitas in the culture — is to resume publication next month after a retooling started in August. The new Vibe will reportedly be Web-centric.

“A group led by the private equity firm InterMedia Partners and its luxury magazine publisher, Uptown Media, has reached an agreement to acquire Vibe and its Web site,” The Wall Street Journal reported in August. “They intend to bring out the print edition only at the end of the year and then publish it quarterly rather than monthly, possibly increasing the frequency after 2010.”

Reynolds, wrote of his own experience at Vibe over a period of years in that Nov. 23 PopMatters essay, charting the decline of Vibe’s punch and authority:
”… the magazine’s editorial quality had declined precipitously. The feature articles were paint-by-numbers shovelware straight outta the entertainment-industrial complex, with little of the flair or shock of the new that characterized the first few years of Vibe’s run. The in-depth features that dove deeper into other aspects of the burgeoning urban-pop culture became fewer and farther between. In the pages of Vibe, hip-hop became hip-pop, and made for considerably less interesting reading in the process.”

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Other print magazines seem poised to fill the void, at least one coming from an unexpected place in a time when the conventional wisdom had long since sounded the death knell for print magazines. Arise, self-described on its Web site as “the first global magazine dedicated to achievements in African fashion, music, culture and polity,” is published by ThisDay Newspaper Group, a Nigerian-based company with publications there and in London and South Africa. Since launching in February, the beautiful, coffeetable-ready magazine has aroused a modicum of interest in the States (again, blame the crowded media marketplace for that).

For Reynolds, who discovered it in Chicago, there’s a lot to like. “No starving babies, no corrupt politicians here: this [is] the voice of a new African generation staking its claim in the post-modern global marketplace. Arise, indeed.”

But for all of the early success for Arise — and here’s hoping for a very long and successful run — with a reported per-copy price of $12, the publisher has set the bar way high for achieving any deep penetration at American newsstands. When titles of higher circulation are offered to the public at a fraction of that price and still aren’t selling, Arise’s contrarian strategy may face challenges not fully anticipated in the current economy. It can’t be overlooked: You undercut your ability to matter to people if they can’t afford to read you.

◊ ◊ ◊

The online space has seen a bumper crop of news and commentary Web sites in the past 20-odd months or so. The Root, launched by Dr. Henry Louis Gates and The Washington Post in January 2008, has a wide range of contributors weighing in on black news and culture. TheLoop21, launched in Los Angeles the same year, offers a West Coast perspective on life and culture for a younger black demographic. And TheGrio, launched in June 2009 by NBC News and Three Part Media LLC, takes a video-centric approach to newsgathering, and includes essays and commentary by black writers.

But it’s not all gravy in the ‘Net world. Essence bit the bullet. At almost the same time, Richard Prince’s reliable Journal-Isms column reported that Sheryl Huggins Salomon, managing editor of AOL Black Voices, was laid off Nov. 10 as AOL cut hers and about 100 other positions — getting ready, no doubt, for AOL’s debut as a freestanding (or free-falling) independent company in December.

The old saying for black people generally — when the nation as a whole catches a cold, black folks get pneumonia — is likely to be just as true for elements of black media struggling to make a way, create an original voice and develop a following in a 21st-century bazaar that’s getting mighty crowded.

Image credits: Arise covers: © 2009 ThisDay Newspaper Group. Essence cover: © 2009 Essence Communications. Ebony cover: © 2008 Johnson Publishing Company. Vibe cover: © 2009 Vibe Lifestyle Network LLC. The Root homepage: © 2009 Washingtonpost Newsweek Interactive.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Crafting the look & feel of the new GOP

Of all the ways the campaign of Barack Obama ran rings around last year’s challengers for the presidency, one of the most inescapable was the way Team Obama exploited the viral potential of the Internet for fundraising and for communicating what the campaign was all about.

Presidential hopefuls Democrat and Republican alike were caught flat-footed by the speed at which the Obama machine made its Web site a veritable ATM for campaign operations, and used that site to express the campaign platform with no danger of spin.

It was an unwritten rule of the 2008 campaign: Democrats and progressives had the online world locked up. A California web design company with unabashed conservative leanings is working hard to change that.

NetBoots, which bills itself as “the first website platform for conservative grassroots action,” clearly hopes to borrow from the success of the Obama fundraising operation. Offering conservative candidates a range of design templates and development services, NetBoots looks ready to help congressional hopefuls flood the political zone of the 2010 campaign with a polished online presence meant to rival that of progressives.

◊ ◊ ◊

The company is a part of Terra Eclipse, a political web development and new media strategy firm founded in 1999, and based near Silicon Valley. NetBoots is forthright about its claims and virtues; they begin on the home page:

“The NetBoots suite of web-based features will empower your campaign with the most cutting edge online tools giving your campaign the best chance to achieve victory on election day and beyond.”

“Put on your NetBoots and hit the ground running,” prospective candidates are admonished. And to be clear, that’s a call to certain prospective candidates. NetBoots is pitched as a one-stop shop for conservatives — “built to help conservatives get ahead online,” the site says announcing its suite of services.

NetBoots services have already been used by the 2010 campaigns of Adam Kokesh (running for Congress in the New Mexico 3rd District), Bill Hunt (running for sheriff of Orange Country, Calif.), and Mike Vasovski (seeking the congressional seat in the South Carolina 3rd District).

Much of the NetBoots site’s own typography is a nod to the clear, evocative fonts used on the Obama campaign web site. But the templates the company offers for campaign customization run a wide gamut of styles, with a variety of look-and-feel experiences, from the Republican-customary red-white-&-blue color theme to more modular, contemporary stylings.

Net Boots touts its affordability: “NetBoots packages start at $50 a month.” Powerful, professional content management systems with fundraising tools used to cost $10,000. Not anymore.”

NetBoots also says it supports embedding codes used by YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and other social networking sites, and claims to integrates with a PayPal gateway “to provide an affordable, secure and reliable method to accept all major credit cards as well as PayPal account payments.” There’s someone on the other end of a toll-free help line to hold your hand if needed.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s hard to look at this and not detect a hearty whiff of political defensiveness. Political pragmatism (if not plain old common sense) requires that the Republicans look at what went wrong last year and make efforts to correct it. So it’s laudable that the GOP and its supporters are taking the Internet, its users and its potential seriously — and doing so early enough to make a difference in getting their message across. Someone should have alerted John McCain, The Maverick®, to these possibilities two years ago.

Unfortunately, conservatives have another problem: right now, they’ve really got no message to get across, beyond the reflexive opposition that’s long since stopped looking like principle and begun to look like obstinacy for its own sake. That vacuum, that absence of a widely communicable and believable message won’t be solved by a family of professional-looking Web sites.

NetBoots gets its propers for trying to simplify the tools needed for conservative candidates to get online and have a packaged, presentable Web persona once they get there. Now, between now and 2010, let’s see if the candidates can deliver the message with the same conviction NetBoots is prepared to use to deliver the candidate.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Oprah era, era Oprah

There are few constants in the world of modern television. The primacy of the three major broadcast networks in the communications lives of Americans has given way to a 24/7 TV world as much a carnival midway as an information superhighway. The cablesphere has utterly splintered and stratified into a variety of specialized programming appealing to a broad range of tastes (watch for the launch of the 33rdº Masons Channel! Real soon!). To crib from Yeats, the center cannot hold. In the exploding universe of modern television, there never was much of a center, a constant, to begin with.

There are few constants in the world of modern television. Oprah Winfrey is one of them.

Since going on the air from Chicago on Sept. 8, 1986, Oprah has helped to redraw the face of daytime television as a conversational forum for topics from the giddily starstruck to the disturbingly pathological. With all apologies to “The Guiding Light” (the CBS daytime soap opera that ran for 57 years), for millions of loyal television viewers, mostly women, Oprah Winfrey has been the real guiding light: the simpatico spirit, the one who’ll ask questions they wouldn’t dare, the plain-spoken best friend that animated their lives and nourished hearts, souls (and astute advertisers) on a program that airs in more than 140 countries and seen by about 42 million viewers a week in the United States.

What Oprah started in 1986 continues, but not for much longer. Oprah — the show, the juggernaut, the TV phenomenon — starts its 25th season in January. It will be the last. Set your calendar functions for Sept. 9, 2011; that's the date that this televised iteration of the Oprah Era ends.

“I certainly never could have imagined the yellow brick road of blessings that have led me to this moment," she said just short of tearfully at the end of today’s program. “These years with you, our viewers, have enriched my life beyond all measure. And you all have graciously invited me into your living rooms, into your kitchens, and into your lives. …

“So here we are, halfway through the season, 24, and it still means as much to me to spend an hour every day with you as it did back in 1986. So why walk away and make next season the last?

“Here is the real reason: I love this show. This show has been my life. And I love it enough to know when it's time to say goodbye.

“Twenty-five years feels right in my bones and it feels right in my spirit. It's the perfect number — the exact right time.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Credit must be given: she knows how to bow out on top, or pretty close to it. Oprah begins her exit as her show’s ratings have dipped by about 7 percent (a problem that’s likely to be solved as advertisers sign on for her valedictory lap).

Her special project, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, a joint venture with Discovery Communications, is being developed for a debut in 2011, before Oprah’s last show. OWN is expected to debut in about 74 million homes.

And what else could the true Queen of All Media be contemplating with a current Forbes-adjusted fortune estimated at $2.7 billion? What other surprises might she be thinking of for 2011?

Oprah has parlayed a restless curiosity, a philanthropic streak, a real empathy for her guests and viewers, and a flair for the unexpected into an empire whose engine is empowerment, a billion-dollar company that had the good sense to stay put right where it was, on North Carpenter Street in Chicago. Not New York. Not L.A. Staying put in Shytown proved that, rather than head out for either coast, Oprah could permanently relate to the heartland that helped make her a success.

Or think about the time in 2005, when Oprah asked almost 300 members of the studio audience to open gift boxes previously hidden under their chairs. They did, and found the keys to new Pontiacs inside. “You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!” That little stunt reportedly cost her about $7 million. The Pontiac deal proved that, just when you thought you had her pegged, Oprah could be totally, refreshingly surprising.

She’s promising nothing less as she winds things down. “Over this holiday break, my team and I will be brainstorming new ways that we can entertain you and inform you and uplift you when we return here in January,” she said today. “And then, season 25, we are going to knock your socks off.”

And the world of politics can always use some empathy, some generosity — and some surprises. Buying votes isn’t Oprah’s style, of course, and thank God for that. But what do 2010 and 2011 look like for this fly-girl tycoon of boundless ambition and serious cash flow, a year or two before another national election?

On July 10, the Chicago Sun-Times reported, Illinois Sen. Roland Burris announced officially his intent to retire at the end of his contentious, controversial term, in January … 2011. The election to replace Burris is in November 2010.

Just sayin’.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed “There are no second acts in American lives.” since he checked out of this world at the age of 44, that was almost certainly true for him.

But Scotty didn’t know Oprah. Over the next two years, we’ll find out how well we know Oprah. And maybe how much we don’t.

Image credits: Oprah: © 2009 Harpo Inc. Burris: Public domain.

American Tsunami VI

“Monumental negligence.”

With those two words, U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr., late Wednesday opened the door, if not the floodgates, to an expected torrent of lawsuits against agencies of the federal government, lawsuits representing — quite probably, almost certainly — the first real evidence of justice for human beings needlessly displaced by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

The four individuals and one business in the hugely battered Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish were awarded $720,000 by Duval, the apparent resolution of a lawsuit brought against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Judge Duval ruled that the engineers failed to properly maintain the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), the vital arterial that connected New Orleans and Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico.

Duval’s ruling found that the Corps of Engineers, through its “negligent operation and maintenance” was implicit in creating a literal conduit for water, effectively channeling the torrents of water unleashed by Katrina into eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish, creating the near-biblical event we’re still recovering from today.

“Once the corps exercised its discretion to create a navigational channel, it was obligated to make sure that channel did not destroy the environment surrounding it thereby creating a hazard to life and property,” Duval said in his ruling. “When the corps designed the MRGO, it recognized that foreshore protection was going to be needed, yet the corps did nothing to monitor the problem in a meaningful way.”

Duval’s ruling is believed to make about 100,000 neighbors of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit eligible for their own compensation.

The precise breakdown — what that award amounts to for each resident individually — is anyone’s guess. But just for grins, let’s do a straight mathematical back-of-the-envelope calculation:

If you divide $720,000 equally among the five plaintiffs, it works out to $140,000 for each of them. Extrapolating that amount across the estimated 100,000 people in the class would yield a theoretical total award of … $14.4 billion.

And that would apparently be just for starters. Overall, 490,000 claims have been filed with the Corps seeking hurricane-related damages, The Washington Post reported.

Louisiana lawmakers are ready for an endgame to this long-playing national drama. "I will be working directly with President Obama to ensure that his administration understands the implications of this decision and the immediate need for the government to reach a final resolution," Sen. Mary Landrieu told The Post.

Rep. Charles Melancon (D-La.) told The Post he hoped for a “quick resolution” to end the legal battling.

Any time you’re dealing with lawyers and the federal government, it’s a certainty: Justice grinds exceedingly slow. But it’s good news just the same, a break for people who sorely need one, and evidence of the pursuit of what Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called for in August 1963, in another context of inequality, its aquatic imagery intact, painful though it may be: “ … we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Image credits: Hurricane Katrina: NASA. New Orleans post-Katrina graphic: BBC News. New Orleans from the air: Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi, USCG.

Universal’s tactical ‘Retreat’

It’s not so much a fact as a truism: black actresses in Hollywood have more than the usual challenges being taken seriously in Hollywood. Confronting one-dimensional characterizations and a shortage of roles, meaningful or otherwise, African American actresses are the victims of a kind of ethnic cleansing.

“Too many people are satisfied with the cardboard darkies that supposedly represent black women on film in the past,” Stanley Crouch observed in a Nov. 9 essay in The Root.

A more recent development puts an exclamation point on his observations. To judge from one studio’s recent tweak of a film’s marketing campaign, talent displayed by black actresses and actors is even subject to being ignored when it’s part of a film.

Universal’s “Couples Retreat,” a comedy about four couples who go on a vacation getaway to rekindle their romances, includes black stars Faizon Love and Kali Hawk in a cast that includes Vince Vaughn, Kristin Davis, Jason Bateman, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell and Jon Favreau.

All four couples are displayed on the poster released for American consumption. But on Nov. 15 The Mail on Sunday (UK) reported that a marketing change had been made for the film’s release in the United Kingdom; the posters promoting the film’s release in the UK five weeks earlier had only three couples. Faizon Love and Kali Hawk's images and names nowhere to be found.

Or they were nowhere to be found. Since word of this towering publicity fail first came out, the studio has since decided against the change, apparently going with the American version worldwide.

◊ ◊ ◊

At first Universal explained the gaffe in predictably businesslike terms. A spokesman told The Mail that the original change in the advertising was intended “to simplify the poster to actors who are most recognizable in international markets.”

It’s impossible not to see the wild illogic in that statement. You have to ask, how does one become “recognizable in international markets,” anyway? In a visual culture, why, it just might have something to do with people recognizing your face and your name. Which is pretty much impossible when they can’t find your face or your name on the movie poster, one of the first and most immediate interfaces a movie has with the public.

The American version of the “Couples Retreat” art is bad enough. Love and Hawk are farthest back in the distance, in another ZIP code compared to the other couples. The former UK version — omitting the black couple altogether, by face and by name — is a graphic distillation of a persistent issue: the relative absences of black and minority actors in Hollywood.

It’s made worse, or more obviously unnecessary, when the moviegoing public in the UK is factored in. Did Universal think the omission of the film’s only black couple from its promotional art would be an incentive at the box office? An estimated 1.5 million black people live in the United Kingdom; maybe Universal thinks they never go to the movies. For all its justifications for the marketing strategy Universal has now abandoned, the studio has sent a signal, however unintended, about its value of diversity — its perception of diversity — outside America.

“I think this was an ill-conceived move,” Vivienne Pattison, director of Mediawatch-UK, told The Mail. “We celebrate diversity in Britain and we could have coped with seeing the same poster used in America.”

“Couples Retreat” has gone on to do pretty respectable business: It’s grossed more than $124 million worldwide since its release date in October. And for black and minority actors, that may be the salt in the wound: for years having to do doing patient battle with an industry that marginalizes or excludes them, only to find that industry doing well on the bottom line anyway.

It’s probably enough to make 'em wanna … take a vacation.

Image credits: “Couples Retreat” one-sheets: © 2009 Universal Pictures.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The money will roll right in … won’t it?

We may be verging into “Day of the Locust” territory here: A young, handsome, ambitious but vulnerable naïf rolls into L.A., eager to start revisions to the screenplay of his own life. And as it was for the characters of Nathanael West’s 1939 novel, it remains today, 70 years later. The dream of recognition dies hard, if it dies at all. Just ask Levi Johnston.

The excommunicated son-in-law of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who impregnated daughter Bristol Palin out of wedlock, has parlayed that dubious distinction into a public recognition the word “celebrity” doesn’t describe.

After spats waged in the media with the former governor, Johnston went on do numerous TV interviews related to the Palins, a commercial promoting pistachio nuts, a profile and interview in Vanity Fair, and a photo shoot for Playgirl Magazine.

Not exactly a Schwab’s drug-store discovery, but of such humble beginnings a career is born.

Or not.

◊ ◊ ◊

Invited to GQ’s Men of the Year party in Hollywood, at the Chateau Marmont on Wednesday, Johnston caught a plane from New York to L.A. on Tuesday … but not without being noticed.

Richard Johnson, the Page Six columnist for the New York Post: “It's official -- Levi Johnston is a first-class idiot. He was spotted Tuesday at JFK wearing sunglasses and refusing to stand on line with the "regular" passengers, including "Seinfeld" star Jason Alexander.”

“A spy on his American Airlines flight told Page Six: ‘He then made a big show of getting on first. He was seated in the front row of first class, looking like he was born to be there and waiting for some recognition. Jason Alexander was quietly sitting behind him.’ We wish Levi would just zip it up and head back to the Alaskan oil fields.”

Katharine Thomson of The Huffington Post reports today on the party. Simply everyone who was anyone was there. Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Sarah Silverman, Russell Brand, Quentin Tarantino, Olivia Wilde, Rainn Wilson, January Jones, Kobe Bryant, La Lohan. Oh, and Levi Johnston.

“Levi, who had on a vest, yellow pocket square and what appeared to be pancake makeup, wandered around the party with both his manager Tank (wearing a diamond earring) and a second beefy gentleman (wearing an earpiece).

“And no one cared.

“Levi was largely ignored by other guests as he wandered to get a soda (he's underage) and he checked his Blackberry while Tank hit up the buffet. An hour later, they were gone.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Needless to say, Johnston was savaged by critics, many of them in the comment space of The Huffington Post.

Weatherwaxx on HuffPost: “Perhaps if he had done something more remarkable than what any hamster could do, to wit, fertilizing a female of his species, he would qualify as a celebrity.”

Dissanayake, HuffPost: “We live in the greatest country on earth. Fame and money for a high school dropout, just for knocking up a governor’s kid. Wow!”

Jonjon358: “Pretty sad when Lohan is at a party and YOU wind up described as the night's loser.”

Some were more charitable:

SmootyBooty “saw him on [Larry King Live] when Kathy Griffin hosted. He's funny, smart, self-aware, and very cute. I think he's handled himself well ...”

Dlvme2: “You act like it was completely his fault that Bristol got pregnant - well it was not - It takes 2. Both of them are responsible. He did not ask to be lugged into the spotlight with the Palins. But since he is there why is he being blamed for making the best of it?”

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s tempting to chalk it all up to youthful indiscretion (followed closely by youthful arrogance), a young man caught up in the swirl of politics and publicity, and just trying to negotiate the whirlwind the best he can.

But no, some of this was a storm of Levi’s creation. He was bitten by our society’s other, older and more insidious H1N1: the fame bug — bitten bad enough that he’s already started to exhibit the divaesque behavior of someone entitled to the divine right of celebrities, but without doing anything.

He’s starting to be like the person described in the punk-era song “The Money Will Roll Right In,” written and recorded by Fang and since immortalized by Nirvana at the 1992 Reading Festival:

“I'm goin' to Hollywood,
they'll see that I'm so good
I won't care how I feel,
and I'll get to fuck Brooke Shields

I'll just sit and grin,
the money will roll right in …”

You can hardly blame this former apprentice electrician and hockey player for embracing his one brief shining moment. But in a city/industry known for eating its young and its old, Johnston may be the next unwitting victim of the starmaker machinery.

Warhol’s dictum obtains again: Everyone gets to be famous for fifteen minutes. You get the feeling that Levi Johnston may be playing Beat the Clock right about now.

Image credit: Johnston: GQ? Via The Huffington Post.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

'Rogue' gain II

Newfound publishing juggernaut Sarah Palin® rolled into a mall on Grand Rapids, Mich., today, continuing the momentum already established for her new book, “Going Rogue.” Having briefly converted ABC into an all-Sarah-all-the-time network, Palin moved on to interviews with Fox News’ Sean Hannity and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh.

There’s no such thing as bad buzz, especially in the voracious publishing industry, and Sarah Palin has been the recipient of a lot of it. News videos of the Woodland Mall showed Palin’s Greyhound-class bus rolling in; people snaking through the mall five deep; and the author herself cranking out signatures in her mavericky, swirly scrawl.

Palin’s apparently moving product outside Grand Rapids. The book’s still at No. 1 on amazon’s list, and Wal-Mart’s been selling the $28.99 list-price book at a fire-sale price of $8.99. Some in the punditburo have tried to suggest that means the book’s days are numbered. Not so; Wal-Mart (2009 sales: $401 billion) is the monarch of high-volume deep discounting. When you’ve already got more than 8,100 stores in 15 countries (including 250 in China — the hottest economy on the planet right now), you could sell Lamborghinis at Ford prices and still make a profit.

But Newsmax isn’t to be outdone. The conservative magazine recently launched a splashy ad campaign offering “Going Rogue” for $4.97, a small-d democratic price point if there ever was one.

◊ ◊ ◊

Palin, the former Alaska governor and culinary champion of moose stew and caribou lasagna, also found herself serving up a little cheesecake for the holidays. The latest issue of Newsweek resurrects a picture of Palin in a wardrobe that couldn’t have possibly cost $150,000: the once-and-future politician wearing short runners’ shorts in a breezy pose.

The reuse of the shot, originally for an article on fitness in the August 2009 Runners World, aroused the ire of Team Palin; Newsweek used it as a cover photo to tease an analysis assessing her relevance to the American political debate.

"The cover photo choice for this week's issue of Newsweek is unfortunate. With Sarah Palin, this 'news' magazine has relished focusing on the irrelevant rather than the relevant," a Palin spokeswoman wrote.

Relevance is in the eye of the customer. You watch: Months from now the Newsweek cover copy will be a collector’s item long after remaindered copies of “Going Rogue” start turning up on the street vendors’ tables outside Penn Station in New York. $3.99 apiece, tops. Ya betcha.

Monday, November 16, 2009

'Rogue' gain

Bill Simmons’ voluminous “The Book of Basketball” reached No. 1 on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list last week. It’s expected to bow out of that top spot this week, yielding to “Going Rogue,” Sarah Palin’s long-awaited 432-page, five-chapter memoir of “An American Life.”

But even before Palin’s book drops officially on Tuesday, some people who were insiders with the McCain 2008 presidential campaign are stating plainly that Palin’s book belongs on the shelf for Modern Fiction instead.

The book is part of the rehabilitation of the political chameleon, lightning rod and queen of the malapropism known as Sarah Louise Palin. She appeared on “Oprah” on Monday, in an interview taped previously. And get the TiVo ready: Palin and family will be featured in a five-part series of interviews with Barbara Walters on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” starting Tuesday. Other ABC properties, from “World News” to “20/20” will also feature Palin interviews.

But it’s the book that, ideally anyway, should offer the least evanescent, most intellectually developed sense of who Sarah Palin is.

The book’s promo blurbs practically gush: “In this eagerly anticipated memoir, Palin paints an intimate portrait of growing up in the wilds of Alaska; meeting her lifelong love; her decision to enter politics; the importance of faith and family; and the unique joys and trials of life as a high-profile working mother. She also opens up for the first time about the 2008 presidential race, providing a rare, mom's-eye view of high-stakes national politics ....

“Going Rogue traces one ordinary citizen's extraordinary journey and imparts Palin's vision of a way forward for America and her unfailing hope in the greatest nation on earth.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Other parties with less invested in the public’s reaction have already been less charitable.

On Saturday, in a pre-publication review of the book, Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times calls it “part cagey spin, part earnest autobiography, part payback hit job.”

“The most sustained and vehement barbs in this book are directed not at Democrats or liberals or the news media, but at the McCain campaign," Kakutani writes. "The very campaign that plucked her out of Alaska, anointed her the Republican vice-presidential nominee and made her one of the most talked about women on the planet — someone who could command a reported $5 million advance for writing this book.”

Maybe without meaning to, Palin apparently confirms what many analysts, political observers, bloggers and others within and outside the punditburo had long suspected about the flailing McCain operation.

“Ms. Palin depicts the McCain campaign as overscripted, defeatist, disorganized and dunderheaded — slow to shift focus from the Iraq war to the cratering economy, insufficiently tough on Mr. Obama and contradictory in its media strategy.”

“[T]he McCain campaign … often feels like a desperate and cynical operation, willing to make a risky Hail Mary pass to try to score a tactical win, instead of making a considered judgment as to who might be genuinely qualified to sit a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.”

For their part, the former McCain campaign aides have responded dismissively to Palin’s assertions. Ex-McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt was quoted on saying that charges about him were “all fiction.”

John Weaver, a former McCain strategist, has issues with Palin’s recall, too.

“Sarah Palin reminds me of Jimmy Stewart in the movie 'Harvey,' complete with imaginary conversations. All books like these are revisionist and self-serving, by definition,” Weaver wrote in an email to Politico. “But the score-settling by someone who wants to be considered a serious national player is petty and pathetic.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Even without having read it, people are likely to come to some unflattering conclusions about the book and its author from the excerpts already leaked. In one chapter, Palin explains what justifies her claim of simpatico with working-class America.

“We know what it’s like to be on a tight budget and wonder how we’re going to pay for our own health care, let alone college tuition,” Palin writes. “We know what it’s like to work union jobs, to be blue-collar, white-collar, to have our kids in public schools. We felt our very normalcy, our status as ordinary Americans, could be a much-needed fresh breeze blowing into Washington, D.C.”

“Ordinary Americans” on “a tight budget”? Five million dollars’ll change that in a hurry (assuming the Palins didn’t already make ends meet handsomely on her former $125,000 annual salary as governor of Alaska, and husband Todd’s income from a commercial fishing business and his oil-field work with BP Alaska, and a variety of other interests). Joe Six-Pack never had it so good, and never will.

And then there’s the Palin prose itself. Here’s a nugget from the book’s first paragraph: “I breathed in an autumn bouquet that combined everything small-town America with rugged splashes of the Last Frontier.”

Conan, cue the speech-writing ape. Or maybe William Shatner.

Maybe the most dramatic reflection of the anticipated impact of this book comes from another one. OR Books has published “Going Rouge,” a free-wheeling collection of essays edited by two senior editors at The Nation and written by Amy Alexander, Joe Conason, Katha Pollitt, Frank Rich, Gloria Steinem, Katrina vanden Heuvel and other progressive writers.

According to OR’s publicity, the “Rouge” book “examines Palin’s quirky origins in Wasilla, Alaska, her spectacular rise to the effective leadership of the Republican Party, and the nightmarish prospect of her continuing to dominate the nation’s political scene.”

One excerpt from the introduction gives Palin’s peculiar passive-aggressive brand of right-wing politics a name, and an explanation:

Palinism “works by draping hard-right policy in a winning personal story and just-folks rhetoric, delicately masking the extremism of her true positions and broadening the audience for them. Its genius rests in its ability to magically absorb inconvenient facts and mutually contradictory realities into an unassailable personal narrative.”

At least that’s one explanation for her appeal. We’ll hear of others soon enough, now that there’s not one but two primers, two blueprints for experiencing the Palin phenomenon.

And despite differences in approaching their subject, it’s what both books have in common that’s frighteningly undeniable: a tacit admission that Sarah Palin will be with us for the foreseeable, not so much transcending politics as defining it.

Image credits: "Going Rogue" cover: HarperCollins. Palin with McCain campaign: Rachel Dickson, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license. "Going Rouge" cover: OR Books.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

It's a 'Temporary' thing

Things fall apart. The disorder of a closed system can be expected to increase. The center cannot hold.

“Temporary,” a new online artwork created by artist Zach Gage, is an up-to-the-moment, tech-savvy expression of the second law of thermodynamics and its place in every aspect of our lives. Gage’s kinetic artwork is a testament to the persistence of entropy: A Web site that deletes part of its own originating code with every successive page view.

By the time the artwork’s code is completely undone, courtesy of the people who come to the site, Gage’s work will apparently be a blank, unadorned slate of raw Web site, unadorned by HTML.

“Eventually, like tangible media, will fall apart entirely, becoming a blank white website. Its existence will be remembered only by those who saw or heard about it,” writes Gage on his archive Web site.

Gage’s idea works at different levels, more intellectual and emotional than esthetic. It’s a cheeky rejoinder to the notion of the Internet-as-forever. It’s perhaps the ultimate in environmental stewardship as an online concept, a leave-no-trace philosophy in digital action. It’s a literal validation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle — the act of observing something changes the reality of what’s being observed.

And it eloquently speaks to the very nature of human breakdown; the hour-by-hour dissolution of the “Temporary” code is a graphic stand-in for the breakdown of our own cellular structures, our own bodies, with the passing of time.

Matthew Zuras observed Friday at AOL Tech News: “While plenty of analog art is concerned with ephemerality, and most art necessarily deteriorates over time as a condition of its exhibition, 'Temporary' decomposes as a result of the user interaction that is inseparable from its exhibition. It's probably most similar to the work of Félix González Torres, who created huge piles of candies that visitors were supposed to take with them, symbolizing the decay wrought by AIDS.”

“Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you,” Paul Simon observed on “Bookends,” in 1968. Consider “Temporary” and its colorful, poignant presence as a cry to remember, to preserve what you can of what matters … before it’s gone. You can see it for yourself, but remember what you’re seeing. Do a screengrab. It won’t be there for long. Ultimately, neither will we.

Image credits: All: Zach Gage

Media virus!

There appears to be a full-on war against anything approaching diversity at News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch’s media machine, an H1N1 source of the virus of misinformation and fabrications that thoroughly infects today’s public discourse. Sadly, it may be more catching than we thought.

Murdoch was interviewed Nov. 6 by Sky News Australia (a NewsCorp tentacle) for his reactions to on-air comments by Fox News commentator Glenn Beck that President Obama was a racist.

"He [Obama] did make a very racist comment about blacks and whites and so on, which he said in his campaign he would be completely above," Murdoch said.

“That was something which perhaps should not have been said about the president but if you actually assess what he [Beck] was talking about, he was right.”

Murdoch’s statement came a few weeks after Sandra Guzman, a Latina editor at the New York Post, was fired — reportedly because the section of The Post Guzman edited was being discontinued.

Damnedest thing: Guzman was the one who, in February, blew the whistle on the crude, racist and toweringly unfunny Sean Delonas editorial cartoon depicting President Obama as a renegade chimpanzee shot to death by police officers. Coincidence is a funny thing.

Richard Prince’s excellent Journal-Isms column reported recently that Guzman isn’t going quietly, firing back at The Post “with a lawsuit against the tabloid that, if it is to be believed, validates every suspicion uttered over the years about the newspaper's racism and sexism.”

From the lawsuit:

"[D]espite the great diversity throughout New York City, only a handful of individuals of color or women have ever been allowed the serve as editors at the Post, and very few Black, Hispanic, Asian or female reporters currently work there."

"The Post's blatant acts of race and sex discrimination and/or harassment have not been directed solely at its own employees. … Rather, the Post has also repeatedly targeted people of color and women outside of the Company with its racism and sexism through racially and sexually offensive news headlines, news stories and humiliating, insulting and degrading cartoons."

◊ ◊ ◊

It would be tempting to look on this as just another case of Rupert going off the rails again, showing his true colors. But News Corporation and Fox have company in the racial insensitivity department: other news organizations that ought to know better.

In October, MSNBC's Contessa Brewer apologized for confusing civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Brewer goofed while introducing Jackson during a segment on homelessness. After the introduction using Sharpton’s name, Jackson, interviewed from Burbank, Calif., looked into the camera and said, “I'm Rev. Jesse Jackson.”

Brewer said that according to her script, she was to introduce “the Rev. Al Sharpton.”

“We all know who you are, Rev. Jackson,” Brewer said. “I'm so sorry.”

An innocent mistake? Maybe. Even probably. But this followed MSNBC newsman Peter Alexander’s more intellectually processed (and therefore more disturbing) on-air gaffe in February, on the day of the NAACP's anniversary.

Alexander was ending an interview with Benjamin Todd Jealous, the NAACP's new president. Alexander called the centennial "a huge honor today, 100 years, the anniversary of the beginning of that organization. Congratulations to you, to Muhammad Ali, who is receiving the [NAACP] President's Award today as well, as the president honors this country's … colored people. Thank you very much, we appreciate your time." Alexander was profuse with apology less than two minutes later.

This preceded the dismissal of MSNBC midday news reporter Carlos Watson, one of the two visible African Americans in the network’s daily on-air operation. Watson, a former CNN standout who anchored MSNBC’s 11 a.m. hour, was pulled from the slot in September, officially because of poor ratings (despite the lackluster performance of some other MSNBC programming). He got the position in June.

◊ ◊ ◊

Prince’s column, part of the Web site of the Maynard Institute, is a valuable resource for its scope and range on matters related to journalistic diversity. Prince frequently looks where the mainstream media generally fears to tread.

Late last month, Journal-Isms parlayed original and previously-published reporting into a dispatch exploring a story that’s largely gone under the MSM radar: an apparent pattern and practice of racial bias at National Public Radio, the private-public nonprofit populist darling of the left.

No less than the National Association of Black Journalists, a leading advocacy organization for minority journalists, publicly questioned NPR’s commitment to diversity in a letter to NPR brass. The NABJ leadership took a shot after NPR cashiered Greg Peppers, a longtime NPR employee and one of two black men in NPR’s management structure. Prince reports that Peppers was escorted from the building on his last day.

"Who are the managers of color at NPR?" NABJ President Kathy Times and Vice President/Broadcast Bob Butler asked NPR president Vivian Schiller, in the letter.

“Your organization benefits from listener support, corporate donations and tax dollars from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting and should reflect the diversity of the community you serve.”

Prince offers the necessary historicizing background:
“African American men, particularly, have had a checkered history in the NPR corporate culture. The network once had an African American chief executive, Delano Lewis, who served from 1994 to 1998, and an African American vice president of information and news, Adam Clayton Powell III, who joined in 1987 but left in 1991.

Blair Walker IV of USA Today wrote in 1993 of Powell's moves to create more diversity at NPR: "Among other things, displeasure with Powell's efforts prompted 'racist comments about new (minority) hires before they even arrived,' he says."

A number of African American men on-air, ranging from former hosts Tavis Smiley and Ed Gordon and reaching back to Sunni Khalid, the former Cairo bureau chief who in 1997 filed a $2 million discrimination suit against the network, have also had issues with NPR. Khalid and NPR reached a settlement in 2003.”

It all points to an insensitivity, deliberate or otherwise, that stems from a monochromatic view of the world by media executives. MSNBC’s gaffes wouldn’t have happened with more diversity in the control room, and the boardroom. NPR wouldn’t be under fire now if the Birkenstocked, inclusive populism of its public image dovetailed with its newsroom realities.

And the properties of News Corporation wouldn’t be such obvious targets for protest if News Corporation cared as much about its public image as its bottom line.

It’s a sad irony: that more than a year after a transformative presidential election held out the hope of putting the brakes on media’s tone-deaf aspect re race and ethnicity, black and minority media professionals are fighting many of the same battles as before.
Image credits: Murdoch: Sky News. Chimp cartoon: New York Post. MSNBC logo: © 2009 MSNBC. NPR logo: © 2009 National Public Radio.
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